Author's note: Thank you lovely people so much for all the wonderful feedback! If anyone spots any Americanisms, feel free to drop me a line and I'll get rid of them straightaway. (I try to be wary of them, but they slip by me all too frequently.) First few chapters are now rewritten in present tense to match the last three. Quick warning: Language and violence!
How We Navigate
Navigating high school hallways is a lot scarier when you're on crutches.
John stands to the side of the classroom door, watching the traffic jam of students that always worsens after the bell. He squints. Two options.
He could duck into the flow and hope no overeager first-years would plow into him, which would result in an inevitably embarrassing situation. Or he could loiter for a while, try and look cool while the flow turned to a trickle, and then take off in the hopes that he wouldn't miss the bus.
He grins obligingly as a few rugby players pass. They whack each other's shoulders with a swagger that John remembers well. Only a few weeks ago, he had been doing his best to imitate it. Then a stray fall, a broken ankle, and he was off the team. His old friends would nod in the hallway, but they didn't understand how friendship worked outside the rugby team, and John hasn't learned yet either.
He is the worst thing you can be in high school—lonely.
He had liked it, the rugby. It was something he knew how to do, and though he wouldn't have admitted it to his team, he'd liked the other aspects as well. Taking care of teammates after they'd been knocked down, for instance. He's entertained thoughts of being a doctor someday. It's nice to help lessen people's pain. He hadn't been able to do it when his mother—
But John checks himself. There's no use letting his mind go down that road.
He leans against the door frame, trying to look unperturbed, until even his professor passes him with a smile. Then he pushes off into the now-emptied hall, flushing at the thought of how stupid his swinging, stilted gait must look. He shoulders open the door, blinking in the sudden rush of bright light. Then his heart falls. The buses are gone. The last long vehicle is drawing away in the distance.
He swallows. Back to the options. He could call Harry. He checks his watch. Already three. Which means she's already sloshed. And anyway, she wouldn't want to drive all the way here from university. That would be a whole hour. And his dad is at work. So…
It's at times like this that he fees the sudden loss of his teammates as friends. Any other student would have been able to phone a mate. He hitches his crutches higher under his arms, feeling slightly abandoned.
And then he spots him—Mark Belham, the rugby team's captain, and a few other guys, all rushing around the corner of the building. Mark has a car, and John can't walk the forty minutes home on sticks. He steels himself, straightening his shoulders as best he can, and rounds the brick building after them.
They've stopped in front of someone, and as Mark moves forward slightly, John gets a glimpse of who it is.
Sherlock Holmes. John winces. This won't end well.
He's never spoken to Sherlock, but he's noticed him. Everyone notices him, but what interests John about Sherlock is that he is alone too—and apparently by choice. Nobody is alone by choice in high school.
It doesn't make sense. Sherlock is good-looking, really good-looking, albeit in a somewhat strange way—almost painfully thin, those impossibly high cheekbones, that ivory skin. He looks like one of the vampires in those books all the girls like now. And he's clearly wealthy enough to dress just as well, if not better, than the rich kids everyone loves to hate. The immaculate uniform, the expensive tailored trousers...
And yet Sherlock has no one.
Nobody hangs around to chat when he opens his locker. Nobody pulls up a seat next to him at lunch. Not even the detention crowd likes him, even though he's in the detention room after class most days, staring distantly out the window. John has never even had a class with Sherlock, much less spoken to him, so whatever it is about the other boy that repels everyone is a mystery to him.
He dawdles, wondering whether to keep on his way and pretend he hasn't seen anything, but then Mark's loud voice floats over.
"Say that again!"
John sees Sherlock give a steady shrug and open his mouth, though his voice is too quiet for John to hear what he's saying.
John could have predicted it, but it's still a shock, Mark's thick fist slamming into the side of that porcelain face. Sherlock hits the ground rather hard. John sees the other two guys crack their knuckles. John knows what happened next, and maybe later Sherlock will be together enough to stagger home alone, if he's lucky.
John couldn't have explained what made him do it. Maybe it's the fact that he has no obligation to pretend he's one of the guys anymore. Or maybe it's just that Sherlock is friendless, like him. Birds of a feather.
He swings forward—you can move surprisingly fast on crutches if you feel like it—and is by the group in a second.
Mark has Sherlock by the shirt collar. Sherlock's lip is split, and blood paints a broad streak down his white chin. He glances at John, but there's no fear in his eyes—only a slight amusement.
"'Sup, J," says Mark briefly, before turning back to his victim.
"Not much," John grunts as he lets his weight fall onto one crutch, bringing the other up in an arc and cracking it across Mark's shoulders.
Mark lets out a yelp and releases Sherlock, who staggers back. He makes as if to lunge at John, who is suddenly very aware of the fact that he's outnumbered. He backs up, holding his crutch in front of him like a sword.
"What the fuck," spits Mark, rubbing his injured shoulder. "You this freak's new boyfriend or something?"
John says nothing. There's nothing to say, really. He wonders what Harry'll do when she sees her little brother's face all messed up. That's definitely not something to look forward to.
Mark moves forward, jabbing a thumb into John's chest so hard he nearly falls over. "You were on the team, so I'll let you off this once. But if you screw with me again, I don't care if you've got a broken ankle or a broken back, I'll give you a broken everything."
"How thorough of you," John mumbles, and he thinks he sees Sherlock's face twitch into a smile.
"What was that?" Mark snarls.
With a scowl, the rugby captain turns, motioning to his teammates to follow. They do, shaking their heads in bewilderment at John. One of them gives Sherlock a hard shove before rounding the corner after Mark. John clears his throat. Apparently he's out of a ride home.
Sherlock straightens his shirt, which is torn where Mark has grabbed it. He wipes his mouth, which does nothing more than to smear the blood across his face, and looks intently at John. It's the first time John has met the other boy's eyes. They're bright and hard and clear, just like crystal, and John feels himself wondering if they light up in the darkness. Like a cat's.
He finds he's staring, and clears his throat again, looking down at his crutch. There's a crack near the base. Speaking as if to the crutch, he asks, "So what'd you say to offend them?"
"I merely pointed out that the girl's lacrosse captain, with whom all three of them made out in succession within a period of three days last week, does in fact have a form of contagious herpes and they should get themselves checked."
John looks up in surprise at the deadly serious tone of the deep voice, but there's a hint of a smirk on Sherlock's face.
"How'd you know that?" John asks.
"Three times last week she left our gym class to retrieve sports equipment, and returned with her lip gloss wrong. Not wiped off, but rubbed off clumsily by someone else, for there were traces off it about the skin around her mouth. She left only at the time when rugby practice was ending, but returned each time with her hair mussed and shirt disarranged a different way, indicating engagement with various people of different…styles of interaction. There is also an excess of concealer at the corner of her mouth, indicating a hidden sore. She wears no makeup on the rest of her face, other than the gloss, so it has to be a type of sore she doesn't want other people to know about it."
"And how'd you know it was those three specifically?" asks John, astonished.
Sherlock grins, stretching the cut on his lip. John sees that there's a rapidly-bruising scrape across his cheekbone as well. "I heard them bragging about it in the hall."
"Can't say I'm surprised they decked you, then," says John, shaking his head.
If this was how Sherlock Holmes talks to people, his alienation makes sense. He shows no sign of pain or embarrassment at having just been punched. In fact, that marble face has yet to betray any other emotion other than the vague interest and amusement. Not a trait that garners a lot of friends, John guesses.
He smiles. "That's amazing, though. Really amazing. I can't believe you notice all that."
"Is that what you think?" says Sherlock, and the change in his tone catches John's attention. There's something new in his eyes—happiness, maybe, though it's hard to tell. And hopefulness.
"Well, yeah," says John, slightly taken aback. "It's really smart. You must get all A's."
Sherlock snorts, pushing his thick, dark hair away from his forehead. "For some reason, professors don't seem to appreciate it when I tell them their husbands are cheating on them. And who with."
"Is that why you're always in detention?"
"One of the reasons."
They're talking quite naturally, John realizes—not something he had ever pictured himself doing with Sherlock Holmes. He's suddenly aware that if anyone sees them, it might push him over the edge from having-no-friends-but-being-friendly-enough-with-everyone to the realm of nobody-speaks-to-you.
But when he catches Sherlock's eye again, it seems like a stupid thing to worry about.
Sherlock hesitates. He seems to have remembered something, and for the first time, John sees his composure slip slightly. "I suppose I should thank you. For…that."
John shoves his bag higher on his shoulder, feeling his face heat up. "Don't mention it."
"No one's ever done that before," he says, almost to himself, and John spots a brief hint of the possibility that maybe Sherlock doesn't like being alone, either.
But then the other boy's eyes narrow. "So, if you don't mind my asking, why? I can see you're not someone who regularly likes to draw attention to himself. You're not a troubleseeker, though you like a thrill well enough. You're not exceptional in any one area, but adequate in most of them. You recently dropped off the rugby team due to an injury, and you're on the lookout for a new set of friends, so I can't imagine why you'd do something as socially problematic as protecting someone like me."
"Wow" was all that John can say. With every second, it's becoming clearer why everyone hates this boy. He's rude, tactless, and invasive—but for some reason, John doesn't mind. For one thing, it's nice to have an actual conversation with someone beyond perfunctory greetings in the hallway.
Also, it's nice to think that someone, albeit someone he's just met, knows him well.
"I don't like to watch people get hurt," says John, surprising himself. It isn't something he would have said to anyone else—it's a weird thing to say—but something about Sherlock prompts absolute honesty.
"And why would a rugby player not like seeing people get hurt?" says Sherlock, again with the tone of talking mostly to himself. "That is one of the points of the game, after all. Oh, I see. Your father wanted you to join the team, didn't he? He doesn't trust you, he wants to keep the teenager out of the house after school while he's at work…but why…oh. Your mother is dead—likely a painful death, and you bore witness to some part of it."
John pulls his crutches up from where they've sunk into the lawn, and moves back. There's a dull ringing in his ears. "I need to go."
For a moment, Sherlock looks bewildered—and then his eyes widen. "Ah," he says softly. "Not good?"
"A bit not good." Without a backward glance at the boy with the bloody face, John turns and hobbles toward the sidewalk, something hurting in his chest.
He'll phone Harry. It won't be hard. Or maybe he'll walk. He'll walk, and damn any doctor who tells him he can't.