"That Ice Is Slowly Melting"
by Street Howitzer
John took a sip of bitter, unsullied coffee, and wondered how goddamned fast everything changed in no time. Four days ago, he'd almost gotten Sherlock into bed. Twelve hours ago (no, thirteen, he glanced at the antique clock on the wall), he'd resisted the urge to murder yet another man for Sherlock Holmes, and, jacked up on adrenaline, screamed at his flatmate. Three hours ago, the plumber arrived to fix John's shower, and the doctor, faced with the prospect of a pouting, silent detective in the sitting-room, went for a walk.
So far as he could deduce, which wasn't very, Lestrade visited 221b on Yard business forty minutes ago. Sherlock showed him the door. Something the consulting detective said set off a side of Lestrade John hadn't yet seen. Their unofficial boss texted him, practically ordering John to meet him for a cuppa.
They'd arrived at the coffee house ten minutes ago, and, other than the initial pleasantries, said nothing. The Detective-Inspector had the air of a man on his third week of nicotine withdrawal—a touch jittery, withdrawn, too obsessed with the thought of sneaking a smoke to pay attention to much else. Which made John question, not for the first time, why Lestrade bothered to text him in the first place.
"I could've had a cuppa on my own," he said, pausing for another burning mouthful of coffee, "if I wanted to sit around and say nothing. Go on, Detective-Inspector. I'm all ears."
"What?" Lestrade scratched the side of his neck. Nervous tic. He wasn't listening.
Lucky for him, John was used to being ignored, and didn't take it personal. "We're not friends. We don't talk unless you hand Sherlock a case and he brings me along. You tried handing off something to him today, and he told you where you could cram your case. You're all nowty over it. And you thought I'd be happy to listen. Go on, then. Whatever grudge you've got against Sherlock, I can't say I blame you."
The Detective-Inspector cocked his eyebrows, then shook his head, a slow grin passing over his darkly-handsome features. "Half a moment," he said. "Your aim's off, Doctor. Right, I did want to talk about your flatmate, but it wasn't to talk shit about him."
"Aren't you a saint."
"It's easier when you don't live with him," Lestrade said. At least he admitted it. "Sherlock's enough to get on anyone's nerves."
"Sorry, I thought you said we weren't talking shit." John picked up his mug, drinking quickly, as though the mild dose of pain was a wall blocking him off from this entire conversation.
"I'm not. It's just a fact, John. He's a difficult sort."
"'Difficult' isn't the word for it."
Had John continued drinking, he'd have choked, or sprayed coffee all over the table, when Lestrade replied: "Even so, you're too hard on him."
The doctor nearly said Sorry a third time, in a tone more appropriate for phrases such as Fuck yourself sideways. "Easier to say when you don't live with him," he grumbled. "Maybe I should get a glimpse of how the other half lives. I barely remember how it feels to not live with an overgrown kid."
"He's not a child," said the biggest bloody hypocrite in London. "He's autistic."
John stared at Lestrade, his head tilted at a "You must be joking" angle, a slight, bemused smile cutting across his face. It didn't last, given Lestrade's utter severity. The Detective-Inspector plucked a shredded sugar-packet from the small pile of empties he'd sacrificed into his coffee, carefully shredded it into a mass of curling paper. This wasn't some badly-timed joke. "No, he's not," John finally said. "He's the smartest man we've ever met, and you know it. He's not ret—"
"'Autistic' and 'retarded' aren't the same," Lestrade said, his voice clipped.
"Fine, all right," John said, "but it's, right, 'autistic' has a medical meaning. I'm no psychiatrist, but I know a bit. Sherlock doesn't rock, he doesn't hit himself, and he talks just fine. He's not—how do you know? Did he tell you?"
The graying officer laughed, shook his head, had a swig of his over-sugared coffee. "He wouldn't tell me even if he'd been diagnosed, and I doubt he has. They might've caught it at school if he was a little younger. I don't think he knows. And it's not my place to tell him."
"But this…" He gestured vaguely, his left hand shimmying through the air, and immediately withdrew it under the table. "That's a big label to stick on someone without them knowing. You're not a psychiatrist, either. What makes you so sure?"
"I've learned a few things in my day." Lestrade took another drink, this one longer, like he was stealing a few seconds to debate the merits of sharing some key piece of information. He swallowed, and went on: "I've got kids, see. Two girls. When Abby turned two, the doctors started worrying. She wasn't hitting her milestones. They brought up a few possibilities. Autism was one of 'em. Cynthia and I, we read up on everything the doctors suggested. A couple of months later, Abby started talking, and her pigeon-toed walk went away. They decided she'd had a mental hiccup. She was fine."
"So a bit of reading means you're an expert." John sounded as bitter as his coffee tasted.
"No, but it does mean I know more than you," Lestrade said. John didn't have a ready answer. He watched his table-mate as Lestrade's gaze made love to the doorway, as though he'd dash through and fall into the embrace of a cloud of cigarette-smoke the moment he finished his coffee. "How many autistics have you treated?"
"… none. That I knew of."
The Detective-Inspector nodded. "Nine years back—not long after what happened with Abby—I was still an Inspector. My partner brought in a bloke. Drunk and disorderly in public, that was the charge. And by all appearances, the bloke—William something—was a total pisshead. Lurching through the station, glazed eyes, mumbling nonsense when he was questioned, swaying, red-faced."
John's arms crossed over his chest. He thought he could see the target Lestrade aimed for.
"Me, I'd just read two books on people with autism, and for the first time, I thought 'Well, maybe he's a drunk, and maybe he's in overload'. On the off chance, I treated him like an overloaded autistic. Me and my partner took him to an interrogation-room and turned off the overheads. It was cold, so I offered him my coat. He sat there shivering for ten minutes, rocking in the chair, blinking like the sunlight through the window hurt his eyes. Eventually, he looked towards us, and asked why we weren't asking him any questions.
"'We can wait 'til you're ready,' I said. And he started crying. He said something I've never forgotten: 'No one's ever waited for me before.' When William collected himself, he had a lot to say. He'd gone to the shop for his wife. She normally ran the errands, but she was resting a sprained ankle. He didn't know that some shops have telly-screens set up along the aisles nowadays. It drove him bonkers. He started humming and rocking to block out the racket. He couldn't walk in a straight line. Knocked over a display. One of the managers called the police, and said William was either a drunk or a junkie. William tried to tell them he doesn't drink. Nobody listened. They brought him in to sober up. Didn't even bother to test him, since he was obviously intoxicated."
"Obviously." He thought of how often he begged Sherlock to go to the shop. His sarcastic, resentful suggestions of Sherlock's petulant childishness. His assumption that Sherlock's refusal to run any errands was out of selfishness, the consulting detective refusing to waste his beautiful mind on something so mundane as shopping. He thought of all this in the context of Lestrade's diagnosis, and a heavy fist of pure guilt socked him in the gut.
"If you don't know what to look for," Lestrade said. He slowed down his words, dark, wide eyes focused entirely on John. "As it happens, I did. Can't recall his last name, but I remember William. Taught me the sort of lesson every officer should take to heart. It can't all be guns blazing and handcuffs clicking, you know. Sometimes it's ten minutes' silence in a darkened room. Then, well. There's Sherlock."
"Yes." On the whole, John would rather chat about William Something 'til this strange little meeting ended. Couldn't be avoided. He was the entire reason Lestrade sat here chugging coffee with the funny doctor he couldn't quite bring himself to like. "You met him, thought he was, ah, autistic, and…"
"I treated him that way. And he got better." The Inspector grinned. "You wouldn't believe what he was like when we first met. Had to have everything his way—"
"Not much has changed."
"You'd be surprised. The drugs-bust—you think he threw a tantrum, yeah? If I'd tried that five years ago, Sherlock would've lost his mind. He really would've let that bloody cabbie go on serial-killing through London to teach me a lesson about his privacy. Now, though, he got through it without so much as a death-threat. And he only screamed the once."
John doubted Lestrade would be so dismissive of Sherlock's screaming fit if he'd had the full benefit of it… but, now that he mentioned it, their unofficial boss got off lightly. Lestrade deliberately invaded Sherlock's home, his one safe place, filled it with people who despised and distrusted Sherlock. He didn't call Sherlock a freak, nor did he debate whether Sherlock was properly termed a sociopath or a psychopath—but he let it all happen. Their landlady, and John, reaped the rewards of Sherlock's frustration. He regarded Lestrade with an unkind glitter in his blue eyes. "I suppose you could call that a result. Dunno why you're telling me all of this."
"You're hacked off at him, and you're thinking about leaving, that's why," Lestrade said. He tilted his head. "Even if you hadn't said as much, Sherlock did."
John blinked. That was a surprise: the consulting detective confiding in the Detective-Inspector. "What'd he say?"
"He told me where I can cram my case. I should know better, but I asked him why. Told him he'd get first crack at the crime-scene, no hassling—him or his assistant. He clammed up. Acted like I wasn't there. Shutdown, you know. I let him alone. Made a cuppa. When it was ready, he said" Here, his voice deepened considerably, in an operatic parody of Sherlock's flat, rich tones "'Two sugars'—"
John snickered, shoulders rolling, and finished off his coffee.
"'—and I haven't got an assistant.'"
The conversation ceased to amuse him.
"I said, 'What, Dr. Watson? He's not in now, but later—'. He cut me off, like he does. 'He'll find somewhere else tomorrow. A hotel that lets rooms on a monthly basis, probably. I need an assistant.' And that was the end of it."
Again, Lestrade leaned in, hands spread over the table, and John found himself mimicking the smiling man he couldn't think of as a mate. He sat forward in his chair as though Lestrade wanted to whisper a few lines from a classified document.
"You may not like this, Doctor, and I don't blame you if you don't. Whatever you get out of living with Sherlock Holmes, that's not my business; but, you know, when he gets used to someone, he needs 'em around. He'll never admit it, but he needs to work with me—he's not any happier over working with someone new than a rookie is over working with Sherlock. He doesn't have what I'd call friends. It's like he's aware of what he doesn't have, even if 'autism' isn't what he'd call whatever he lacks, and he chooses people based on how well they compensate for him. He needs me 'cause I'm familiar, he knows how to push my buttons, he knows what I expect out of a conversation with him, and he knows I respect how bloodydamned sharp he is. When he doesn't live entirely alone, he lives with people who owe him favors. In all the time I've known him, and with how little I get of his life, I've never seen him move in with a total stranger. You were the first."
John couldn't break eye contact—he couldn't move. He felt, well, like how his flatmate must feel most of the time. He'd no idea how to respond to Lestrade's blunt earnestness. The Inspector thought his monologue so vital that he'd shed the signs of his nic-fit. His hands rested steady on the tabletop, his nervousness vanished, and his gaze did not waver. "I don't understand," John said.
"Search me," Lestrade said. "I dunno why, but he fancied he needed you from the get-go. He trusted you more in two days than he's trusted me in five years. I used to hate you for that. I've worked so hard, and everything came easy for you. But, well, hating's a lot of hard work, too. No point hating you for something you didn't even notice. You can't help but notice now. You're part of his routine."
"What does that even mean?" John snapped, cradling himself in defensive anger. "I'm supposed to live with him forever, so his routine isn't put out? He—he doesn't need people, he needs to learn how to cope. And, and, right. You hated me. Fine. Why do this, then?"
"'cause you're part of his routine. Which means he needs you to work. I shouldn't have to say this, but until you came along, Sherlock lived on sugar pills, air, and caffeine when he was working. Now, he lives on sugar pills, air, caffeine, and you. When you're not there, he won't work. And when he won't work, that's when you threatening to leave becomes my business."
"So it's not just keeping his routine in order. You don't want to lose your miracle-worker."
"No. I don't." Not a trace of regret. "No one's saying you've got to stay. But, you see, if you do, you're about the only person on Earth who's got a shot at teaching him how to be a good man. And knowing he's autistic makes it easier. You can't know how he thinks, but you can sort out how he reacts."
You can teach him how to be a good man, and, this time, he caught Lestrade's barely-even-subtext: You're a good man.
John glanced outside the restaurant's window, observed a dark blue four-door roll up and park next to the sidewalk. Dim March sunlight caught on the car's rims, a glitter of fire on chrome. Lestrade had only just admitted to disliking John as much as John disliked him, but when the car rolled forward and the reflection disappeared, he realized something odd. This conversation made them friends. He was, furthermore, happy with the change. "Right. Okay. I don't, uh. I don't know if I agree with you. I'll have to do a lot of reading before I could."
"Good place to start," Lestrade said. He followed John's glance out the window. His eyes widened when he saw the car. He hastily swallowed the rest of his coffee, thumped down the mug, and stood. "That's Cynthia," he said.
"Is your wife all right with you spending all your time with Sherlock and me?"
"I tell her you're informants," the Detective-Inspector said, "and she doesn't ask any further." He counted out precise change for his cuppa, stacked the coins near the graveyard of sugar-packets. He nervously scratched the side of his neck. "I'll, uh, text him when he's—"
"Let him text you," John said, pulling out his wallet.
In a fog of thought, John saw the woman behind the steering-wheel of Lestrade's family car, couldn't guess why she looked familiar, and didn't give a toss either way. He'd a few bills in his wallet, and as he withdrew one, it hit him. He gawked as the gray-haired officer hopped into the shotgun seat, leaned over, and kissed the driver on the cheek. His wife. His auburn-haired, smiling, tastefully-navy-suited wife. His wife who, in the half a minute between parking outside the coffee house and Lestrade joining her, whipped out her Blackberry.
Cynthia. Anthea to her kidnapping victims.
He dropped the fiver. He'd made a pass at Lestrade's wife.
"Oh, my god," he said, chortling over how bizarrely small London was. The hipsters and coffee-house-rats stared at him through thick glasses and the steam coming off their mugs, and mused over why he was so goddamned happy.
John went back to Baker Street. He surfed the Internet on his phone for over an hour, starting with psychiatric papers, moving on to blogs by autistics and their relatives. Finally, vacillating through guilt, empathy, and admiration, he stuck his phone in his jeans-pocket. He found his laptop where he'd left it, for once. He sat in his usual chair in the sitting-room, not ten feet from Sherlock's (shutdown? insecure?) slumped frame draped over half the sofa, and wrote for forty minutes. He got up without closing the screen, or shutting down the document, and went to his bedroom for the charger. He found it in three minutes. He stood with his back against the bedroom door, and stared at his alarm clock as it counted off another seven.
He hated waiting.
No one's ever waited for me before.
William Something had said it, but John could imagine the same words in Sherlock's voice.
Sherlock was nosey. He undoubtedly picked up John's laptop the moment he started upstairs. He'd read the draft of an email addressed to Mike. John had been meaning to write him for weeks. Sherlock happened to be the perfect inspiration. John forewent the usual search for pity. Told Mike they'd had their bad moments, but all flatmates did, at some point. And he told Mike he'd thought of leaving, but had changed his mind.
Sherlock would sit, thinking that over, fingers arched under his weak excuse for a chin, gray eyes dreamy with a possible explanation. He'd flip through every conversation he'd had with John, reviewing the doctor's vocabulary, inflections, minor facial expressions, words expressed entirely through gestures of the hand, or the position of his body. And when he finished, he'd conclude in favor of John's honesty. Sure, he'd know John intended him to read the email, but that hardly counted as duplicity compared to, say, listening in on John through the pipes in the walls. And, reassured of his routine, he'd—
"Inspector," Sherlock said, accidentally (perhaps) projecting up the stairwell. "My schedule's freed up. Yes. Yes. Good. We'll be along in fifteen minutes."
John looked up at the ceiling, and grinned at nothing.