Clever Man: A series of mostly disconnected stories concerning how John and Sherlock deal with one another. Some slash, some not.
Substitution: John wonders at Sherlock's physical nature, and receives approximately zero help from Mycroft. (Rating: K+. Slash if you squint really hard.)
Sherlock never touched anyone. It was a peculiarity that John had noticed relatively early on in their acquaintance. He reciprocated if someone happened to touch him, shook hands where it was appropriate or otherwise necessary, but he never initiated contact if he could help it. Except with John.
John, he touched at ever opportunity: a guiding hand at his back as they dashed out the door, a leading grab of the wrist while they navigated the back allies of London, a friendly pat as they shambled about the flat, an almost-too-friendly caress as they passed each other on the stairs. And of course John noticed, how could he not? Sherlock was the epitome of a self-contained man, a foreign and dangerous planet locked within a six-foot-something frame of whipcord lean muscles and viciously focused intent. Yet here was this one crack in the armor, this one strange compulsion that John couldn't explain about the other man.
Dr. Watson didn't fancy himself a genius, but it didn't take a genius to figure Sherlock out, patience certainly, and a willingness to accept that he would never fully understand how that frightfully clever mind wrapped itself around crime scenes. He understood the man, though, understood his mood swings, his blunt and tactless social skills, even, to a certain extent, understood how Sherlock's mild sociopathy sometimes made him struggle to make sense of his own emotions, but he didn't understand the touching.
And it drove him mad sometimes because, much like his flatmate latching on to the most insignificant detail, John found he couldn't let it lie. He spent days, weeks even, assessing and reassessing ever touch, trying to figure it out, wishing that he had even a tenth of Sherlock's cleverness so that he could make sense of everything. He might have even carried on that way, ad infinitum, if it hadn't been for Mycroft.
Mycroft was a conundrum himself, his inappropriately facetious tone often obscuring the fact that he was dead serious about whatever he was saying, and John idly wondered if it was just a quirk of the Holmes family that they couldn't outright express what they were really feeling. But Mycroft was easier to deal with by far, and had insights into Sherlock that no other man could, so John was not the least bit disturbed when he found himself in the back of the unremarkable black car once more, heading god-knows-where with Demeter, formerly Anthea.
It was another abandoned paper mill, and John silently wondered at the predictability of that before he was greeted by an unsettlingly banal, "Ah, Doctor Watson, how good of you to come."
He considered Mycroft for a moment. "I wasn't aware I had a choice," he returned blandly. And for all its flippancy, that statement was true: only a fool would think that the impeccably dressed, unassuming man before him was anything but dangerous.
"There is always a choice," was the lofty reply. Mycroft never threatened, but then, he never had to, for the implied consequences were always painfully clear. He could ruin a man just as easily as he could save one.
John gave a short, humorless laugh, and waited for the other man to get on with whatever the subject at hand was to be.
Mycroft eyed him for an uncomfortably long moment but whatever conclusions he reached he kept to himself. "He has had friends before, no matter what Sergeant Donavan has said to you."
John didn't bother asking how the other man had heard that conversation—Mycroft was wired into the whole of London, perhaps even the whole of England. "But?" he supplied, knowing there had to be a but, otherwise he wouldn't be standing in an empty paper mill at three in the morning.
"Outside of a few, fleeting, intimate relations, Sherlock has rarely been so physical," the elder Holmes mused.
"Rarely?" John grabbed onto the word, knowing whatever followed could solve the questions that had been hounding him. "So it has happened before?"
Mycroft flashed a brief, blinding amused smile, and told John something that really shouldn't have surprised him.
221B Baker Street was silent when John got back, and it left him unsettled. Silences where dangerous in this flat— silences only happened when Sherlock was at his most unpredictable. The acrid smells of burning and decay or the persistent sounds of bubbling and hissing would have been welcome, for at least then he would have known Sherlock was keeping himself occupied. But the silence was relentless and worrying.
John took the stairs carefully, quietly, hoping without merit that the occupants of the sub-sectioned house were so noiseless because they were sleeping.
Sherlock was waiting for him, sitting in the darkened living area with his eyes fixed on the stairway, the skull he had managed to reclaim from Mrs. Hudson resting upside-down in one open palm.
"I suppose he wants a trade," the detective said in place of a greeting.
John stumbled a bit as he sat down in his favorite chair. "Excuse me?" he asked, genuinely confused.
"Mycroft," Sherlock hissed with impatience. "He wants the skull back."
"Not that he said," John frowned, puzzling out how this episode fit in with what he'd been told not an hour ago.
The younger man's eyes narrowed. "But it was implied."
"Too much of what your brother really wants is implied; I've stopped bothering to work it out," John sighed.
Sherlock leaned forward in his chair, carefully setting the skull on the floor as he assessed his flatmate once more. "What did he tell you?" he demanded.
The doctor's lips quirked in puzzled amusement. "That I've been upgraded from replacing a skull to replacing a stuffed toy from your childhood."
Slowly, Sherlock leaned back, idly flicking the nearest lamp on as he considered the man opposite him. "The skull was Mycroft's," he said at length, "part of an anatomy set that mother had gotten him before he began to express an interest in politics." His lips quirked into the half-smile that he usually reserved for the moments when John managed to surprise him. "I don't know what it was about the skull that fascinated me, but it held my attention so well that I decided to take it. Mycroft, of course, took exception to this and decided to retaliate."
John could see where this was going. "He took something of yours."
"A stuffed rabbit that I was alarmingly attached to," the detective nodded. "If the stories are to be believed, I took it absolutely everywhere with me. In some ways, I suppose I ought to thank Mycroft for curing me of that compulsion." He paused, taking in his flatmate's expression. "What?"
And suddenly, John realized that he'd been frowning, his brow furrowed as he stared at the younger man. "It's just hard to picture you carrying around a stuffed rabbit, is all," he shrugged. Which was true, in the sense that John couldn't picture Sherlock ever being any younger than the moment they had first met; thinking of Sherlock as a teenager was impossible and as a child was outright laughable. Of course, he knew that the man had to have gone through those stages of development, but he also knew that the process couldn't have resembled anything approaching normal, as Sherlock simply didn't do normal.
"I was five," the younger man flashed an all too brief frown of confusion. "In any case, it seems as though the behavior was not so gone as I had thought."
"So Mycroft was right?" the doctor pressed—it was so rare for him to get any insight into his eccentric flatmate; the opportunity to press and pry could not be wasted. "You're admitting to it?"
Sherlock raised a dark brow, his lips curled in fond mockery. "There's no sense in denying what's plain for everyone to see, John." He shrugged carefully, his eyes narrowing as he pondered out loud. "I've remained emotionally and physically aloof for most of my life, aside from a short period in my childhood when such behavior would have been developmentally expected. Based on the assumption that I focused all of my desire for acceptance and physical contact on that one toy, Mycroft could have interrupted the natural dissipation of that phase by taking my rabbit, cutting my outlet for that behavior off abruptly while still leaving behind the dormant desire to resume said behavior." His gaze had turned inward by now, speculation dancing through his pale eyes, but after only a moment or two he refocused on John. "Does it bother you?" he asked lowly.
"That you touch me?" John shook his head. "No."
Sherlock's eyes narrowed once more. "But you are bothered," he concluded.
"I crave physical contact as I've had precious little of it since returning from the war, so it suits me just fine if you want to touch," the smaller man explained levelly. "What bothers me, Sherlock, is that I'm a substitute."
"I don't understand," the detective replied in quiet frustration.
John laughed in a tone of resignation that was becoming increasingly familiar. "And the hell of it is that you really don't, do you? All that cleverness, and yet this basic little thing eludes you."
The younger man frowned, fidgeting in his seat as though he was restraining himself from shaking the answers out of his flatmate. "John?"
John shook his head. There was a lot about the subtleties of human interaction and emotional desires that Sherlock simply didn't understand, but desperately needed to learn. "You'll get no help from me this time, Sherlock," he said, standing to leave. "You could figure this one out on your own if you really wanted to."
The detective grabbed him before he could go, herding him back into his chair. "You can't leave it there," Sherlock snapped, anger tinging his voice. "I have to know!"
Silence reigned for several minutes as the doctor decided whether attempting to leave again had any merit, but the idea was quickly discarded by the look in Sherlock's eyes. That pale gaze was cutting through John, fixing him with a stare that was usually reserved for only the most maddening riddles. It was strange really, to see such an observant man so utterly confused by a matter that most people understood instinctively. "You can tell me a person's sexuality in an instant, as well who they're most likely to hook up with, but when it comes to emotion, you're truly blind, aren't you?" John sighed, wondering, not for the first time, how his flatmate's world could be so black and white.
Sherlock's long legs folded up onto his chair, until he was sitting like an anxious child, bunched and jittering. "Emotions are illogical and fleeting, they change from instant to instant and you have no way of definitively verifying them," he explained carefully. "You can't touch an emotion, you can't taste it and, though you can witness the effects of a mood, you certainly can't see it." He shrugged, his pale eyes darting over the doctor's seated figure. "Why should I waste my time on such ephemera?"
"The same could be said of music, yet you indulge in that at every opportunity," John reminded him. "Besides, you guess at my mood all the time. What makes this different?"
Sherlock's jaw tensed, and a rebuttal clearly flitted through his eyes, but he merely shook his head.
The smaller man sighed. How was he meant to explain this? How was he supposed to convey emotions to someone who considered them foreign and unnecessary? "Take my hand," he instructed, holding his whole arm forward as his flatmate leaned closer. Hesitantly, Sherlock's spidery fingers curled around his wrist, the pale thumb and index finger wrapping around his own thumb. "Now tell me what I'm feeling," he demanded.
"Frustration," was the immediate answer.
John nodded, but pressed, "How do you know?"
"The pulse at the base of your thumb is quickened, but not enough to be anger or desire," Sherlock analyzed in his typically quick fashion. His gaze lowered to their hands, then met John's eyes, something calculating creeping over the pale face. "Why does it bother you to be a substitute?" he asked suddenly, his grip tightening to prevent escape. "Your pulse just stuttered—you don't want to answer."
John laughed, despite himself. "In your own strange way, you understand emotion better than you think, Sherlock," he remarked. "You just need someone to help you translate all your raw data into something human."
"And?" the detective pressed, pulling himself closer.
If there was one thing John truly hated about living with such a clever man, it was that it was always noticed when questions were left unanswered. "And it bothers me because you're my friend—maybe my only friend at the moment—and I'm just a substitute." He studied the other man and decided to swallow his pride. "I want you to touch me because it's really me you want to touch, not some long lost stuffed toy."
Sherlock cocked his head to the side. "You're jealous?"
"In a sense," the doctor shrugged. "Mostly, though, I'm just a little bruised and very unsure of myself socially."
"Ridiculous," Sherlock snorted, and maybe it was considering that John had always been the more personable of the two.
But John merely shook his head again. "The war hurt me in more ways than one, Sherlock. When I came back I felt like I couldn't talk to anyone, didn't know how to communicate with normal people in normal ways; then I met you, and you blasted through all of that because you didn't really know how to communicate either." His eyes searched Sherlock's, unsure if the other man understood him. "We're a pair, you and I; dysfunctional by ourselves, but able to work together in a mutually beneficial way."
Sherlock considered him for so long that it made John nervous. "I find it difficult to express myself beyond general disdain and mockery," he finally said, "so think about this, John: why would I bother to touch you at all if I didn't think of you as somehow apart from others?" He got out of his chair and crouched over the smaller man, pulling on the John's hand until they were practically chest-to-chest. "The rabbit was a substitution," he bent his head low and whispered into the other man's ear. "You're the real thing."
Disclaimer: I do not own Sherlock and I am not making any money off this story.