How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

-W.H. Auden


It was fresh spring day in London. Light morning showers had saturated the city and then dissipated, leaving the clear blue sky to reflect its vivid colours. In Regent's Park the trees were blooming, tufts of white and pink amidst the pale green of new leaves. A pair of fat ducks waddled across the path where John and Sherlock walked side by side.

John had a strut in his step, pleased with the sun on his face. "Ahh! Smell that air. Good to get out of the flat on a day like this, isn't it? Glad you decided to join me after all?"

"It is beautiful," Sherlock concurred, gesturing at a patch of wildflowers near a graceful willow tree. A light breeze ruffled his dark chocolate curls. It was warm enough in the afternoon sun that he was wearing only a light shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He looked uncharacteristically casual and relaxed, which was made especially unusual by the fact that they hadn't had a case for almost a week now. It seemed that the criminals were also occupied with enjoying the recent run of nice weather. Criminals' Lawn Dart League, perhaps?

They continued in companionable silence for a while, Sherlock gesturing occasionally at an eye-catching plant specimen, John nodding and grunting his appreciation, even if he had no idea what he was looking at. The sounds of nearby conversations, children laughing, and distant music mixed with the gentle rustling of leaves.

The music of the day was interrupted when a tinny text alert tone chimed from the pocket of John's light jacket. He pulled out his phone, glanced at it, sighed, and stepped to the side of the path. "Harry."

"So much for our afternoon walk," Sherlock said reproachfully.

John's eyebrows raised as he read the text. "She says call as soon as possible, she may have a case."

"A case of what?"

"Funny." John used his warning voice. "I suppose I should call her back."

Sherlock wandered over to examine a nearby fountain as John dialled his sister's number. He held his long fingers under one of the streams of cool water that ran down from concrete bowls, watching the droplets that splashed off sparkle in the sunlight. It really was a beautiful day.

John paced as he spoke with his sister, head down, frowning slightly in concentration. It wasn't a long conversation. He hung up the phone and jogged over to join Sherlock. "Harry says she has a friend who wants our help. She recommended us to her. Asked if we could take on her case as a favour. Her friend thinks that her girlfriend is in some kind of trouble and she's worried about her."

"And?" Sherlock widened his fingers so the water from the fountain could stream through them, forming five new mini-fountains.

"That's really all she said. She said her friend could give us the details if we'd be willing to meet with her." John put his hand in the fountain, too. The water made his fingers tingle a little.

"How enticingly vague. And most likely highly uninteresting. Did she give any indication at all this is worth my time?"

John withdrew his hand from the fountain and flicked the water from his fingers in Sherlock's face. Sherlock gave him a petulant look and rubbed his face with his shirt sleeve. "It's worth your time because she's my sister and she asked for a little help. "

"You don't get on."

"Still my sister. And still offering us a client. Something to pass the time?" John's tone went persuasive. "We haven't had a case in a bit, as you're well aware. I thought you'd be climbing the walls by now. Or shooting them."

"I'm enjoying a lovely and relaxing day in the park, remember?" Sherlock waved his hands at the lovely and relaxing park, shaking off water droplets in the process.

"Well, I already agreed we'd help her, so…."


"We can at least listen. You know you want to."

"I know nothing of the sort," Sherlock said stubbornly.

"Oh, come on." John nodded once and checked his watch. "You'll agree eventually and she'll be at the flat in…about twenty minutes. So we may as start back now."

Sherlock sighed and stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets sullenly, following John home.

- xxx -

"Ms. Grant, is it? Come in. I'm John Watson." John held open the door for a slender dark-haired woman. She was well-dressed in a plain but sharp-looking fitted grey suit, but her short hair was dishevelled and she had dark circles under her eyes.

"Thank you. Yes, I'm Monica." She shook John's outstretched hand with a firm grip.

They climbed the stairs and John gestured toward Sherlock, who was reclining languidly in his leather chair, long legs crossed, elbows on this armrests, drumming his fingers and inspecting the new arrival. "And this is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, Monica Grant."

Sherlock nodded toward John's upholstered chair. "Do sit down, Ms. Grant."

She nodded and perched tensely on the edge of the chair. "Thank you for seeing me. Harry…Harry said you would be able to help me." She looked at Sherlock earnestly, lines of tension creasing her brow. Sherlock looked back and waited.

John took his seat behind Sherlock at the desk chair, notepad and pen at the ready. "All Harry told us is that you think your…girlfriend, is it, may be in some kind of trouble?" he prompted.

Her glance bounced back and forth between the two of them. "Yes. Maybe. I don't know." She ran her hands through her hair, clearly reluctant and uncomfortable.

"Excellent summary of the issue." She fortunately missed Sherlock's dramatic eye roll. "Do you have any actual facts to add?"

John poked him in the back of the head with his pen. Sherlock waved a shooing hand behind his head.

Monica moved her hands from her hair to her face, inhaled, and then made a decisive gesture with her hands as if throwing something into the air. "All right. I'm not sure I should be here or be doing this. Behind her back. Behind her back." She laughed once without humour. "But I have to do something." She put her hands on her knees, closed her eyes and began. "Emily. My partner. We've been together almost seven years now. Happily together, blissfully happy. But something's happened. Something happened early last month." She re-opened her eyes and stared up at the corner of the room as she spoke. "She got a phone call one evening. She just said it was an old friend, and took the phone into the study to talk, so I didn't hear any of the conversation. But she looked… wrong afterward, even though she tried to brush it off when I asked if she was all right. I didn't think much more about it, though, maybe just a conversation she hadn't enjoyed. But two weeks ago I found out about the money. She…unexpectedly…and without asking me…withdrew fifteen thousand pounds from our joint savings."

John whistled. "That's quite a lot of money."

Monica shrugged. "I might not have even noticed. She usually handles our finances on her own, even though we always discuss major expenses. But I was…" She looked at the floor now and balled her hands into fists. "I was thinking of going away for our anniversary. Somewhere special. As a surprise. I wanted to check our funds."

"Did you confront her about it?" John asked. "Maybe she had a similar idea?"

"No." Monica shook her head. "I asked her, and she… she looked panicked. She said she couldn't tell me what it was for. And please not to ask again and could I just trust her for now." The humourless laugh again. "And there's more. She's been going out more often. All the time. Staying away for hours and not telling me where she's been. If I ask, she just says she can't tell me. And every time I ask, she… she looks more miserable, and withdraws from me even further. We're hardly speaking now. We're not even… any more… " She paused uncomfortably clenched and unclenched her fists.

Sherlock nodded decisively. "Yep. Affair."

John cleared his throat loudly. "Sherlock!"

"What?" Monica looked up.

"Affair. Seems fairly obvious." Sherlock shrugged at her nonchalantly.

"Sherlock, you can't possibly know that—" John began.

Monica leaned forward, her dark eyes snapping with a sudden fierce intensity. "Mr. Holmes, there's one more fact you need to know, and that is that Emily loves me. She is completely faithful to me. She loves me with all of her heart and I do trust her. Make no mistake about that."

"Oh yes, they're always so certain," Sherlock spoke to the air with a tone of exasperation. "This could never happen to me! Obviously you trust her, that's why you're here now," he mocked.

"Sherlock," John growled again, but what was the point, really? He'd said Sherlock's name in every tone of disapproval he could think of since he'd known him and it never stopped the man from talking. John thought about starting to carry a handkerchief he could quickly stuff in his friend's mouth when the need arose.

Monica raised her chin challengingly. "Yes, of that I am certain. I love her and she loves me. And I'm guessing you've never been in love. Because those are the people who are so certain it doesn't exist. My Emily loves me. Especially now. I can see it in her face every day. She would not have an affair and would never do anything to hurt me." She wavered slightly. "Not intentionally. Not if she could help it. I trust in that. Something is wrong. She must be in some kind of trouble. I can't even imagine what. But I want to help her. She needs me. And I need you."

John stood up, feeling an unexpected affinity with this stubborn stranger and her sense of conviction. "I'm sure we can help you, Monica."

"John—" Sherlock started to protest, but John quickly stepped directly in front of him. Sherlock huffed and looked at the ceiling, as his direct view was now mostly of John's backside.

"Why don't you give us a few minutes to… discuss the case first," John suggested.

Monica frowned deeply through John at Sherlock and stood up, looking at her watch. "I do need to get back. I didn't really have a lot of time. Emily will be getting home soon. So by all means discuss it. And assuming you're willing to help me, perhaps we can meet again tomorrow first thing? At my flat this time? Emily leaves for work in the morning an hour before I do, so could you come at eight? "

"Of course, that's fine. Why don't you write down your address, number…?" John handed her the notepad and pen. She scribbled down her details.

Sherlock sat silently, closing his eyes and steepling his fingers.

"I'll see you out," he told Monica, and escorted her down the stairs. At the door to the street, he tried to reassure her, "It will be fine. Whatever else Sherlock may be, he is a genius and an amazing detective. If anyone can help you, it's him."

"Well, thank you… John. I hope you're right."

- xxx -

"Sherlock, what was that? Did you have to be so bloody… you?" Returning to the living room, John confronted his friend, who was now lackadaisically flipping through some sort of trashy-looking magazine.

"What?" Sherlock demanded. "Why waste her time and ours? The truth is obvious, not to mention boring. Guilty phone calls, late nights out, spending money she can't explain. Affair."

"There could be other explanations. Maybe she's…I don't know, being blackmailed?"

"Maybe. But she's not. She's bored with her partner and she's cheating. It's the most likely and almost inevitable scenario. It's what people do."

"It's not what all people do." John protested. "Monica seemed awfully convinced that was not the case. She seemed very sure of their relationship, that her girlfriend does love her. You can't even take that into consideration?"

"Um…no!" Sherlock mocked. "True love? Really? John, are you a romantic? That sort of blind faith in another person, despite clear evidence to the contrary, is just foolish. Sentiment."

John took a seat in his chair, folding his arms and considering Sherlock for a long moment. His eyes widened with insight. "She was right about you."

"What about me?"

"She said that it's only the people haven't experienced love who don't believe it exists." John recalled. He meant his words to be light, teasing, but they left a sour taste in his mouth.

"Oh, please. I understand the mechanics of love and attraction perfectly well." Sherlock dismissed.

"It's not about mechanics," John protested.

"It is. People like to fool themselves there is more to it, but it's really just basic chemistry. There's no mystery to it."

"What makes you so sure?"

"Is this just another inept attempt at inquiry into my personal history?" Sherlock quirked an eyebrow at John. "Very well, answer this: How many failed marriages and relationships have you witnessed? How many crimes have we seen committed in the name of love? How many times have we seen the promise of love or sex used to manipulate others?"

"Quite a few, " John conceded, "But Sherlock..."

"And if it will help lay the subject to rest, yes, I do have first-hand knowledge confirming the useless and damaging nature of sentiment. In all forms of its expression."

John stilled. Sherlock looked at him directly. Uncomfortably so. John swallowed. His hands felt cold and he crossed his arms so he could tuck them in. "Do you mean…Irene Adler?"

Sherlock's gaze slid away. "An excellent example. But I was referring to previous circumstances."

John's brow furrowed as he tried to interpret Sherlock's exact meaning. "So you have…experimented?" His fingers felt like ice and his chin felt a little numb. It must be getting colder outside.

Sherlock's face took on a subtle tension, and his eyes took on a distant look. "At university. And it would be more accurate to say I was experimented on. But I learned the lesson well enough."

John spoke quietly through teeth that felt like chattering. "What do you mean experimented on?"

Sherlock didn't reply. He looked at John again but now his face was a cold mask. John had a sudden vision of a younger Sherlock, trying to fit in with his peers at university. Thinking he'd at last found acceptance. Affection. Friends? Lovers? And then there was laughter. Ridicule. Did you think someone actually wanted you? Look at him. Freak. Shame. John's vision went red-tinged, his hands in tight fists. He would fucking kill anyone who— He blinked it away, breathed out his surprising rage in a slow controlled exhale.

John felt a pang of regret at the turn the tone of the day had taken, after their earlier peaceful camaraderie, but he also felt that there was something very important in this, scratching frantically at the door of his awareness. At the pool. You thought it was me. "Sherlock, I was going to say. You know it's not always… like that? It doesn't have to be like that. It can be… better. A lot better." John struggled to find words, to make his voice mild.

"You're an expert in that area, are you?" Sherlock said nastily.

John raised his eyebrows. "I know a thing or two." Or twenty or thirty.

Sherlock frowned at him for a moment, then pulled his knees into his chest and picked up the television remote, turning his attention pointedly away from John. "John, just leave it. This is becoming tedious. If I agree to see Ms. Grant tomorrow, proceeding on the assumption that it is possible her partner may not in fact be having an affair, can we drop this subject now?"

John agreed but remained pensive for the rest of the evening. In bed that night, it wouldn't let him leave him alone to rest. Downstairs, Sherlock was playing a slow, mournful melody on his violin, the type that normally soothed John to sleep. Tonight he lay awake listening, staring at the play of street light and shadow on his ceiling. God, no wonder Sherlock had sworn off sex, relationships, all of it, if that was his only basis for judgment of the whole area. Failed marriages and crimes of passion and… bad experiences in his personal life. It made him deeply sad for his friend as he remembered the pleasure, the comfort of warm words and touches from his own past.

A fluttery knot was forming in John's low belly. He rubbed it absently. His bed sheets felt cool against his bare feet. Sherlock. His strange, sensitive, contradictory friend. So enthusiastic, yet so controlled. So full of life, yet so closed off from it. So sensual, yet so ascetic. So physically graceful, yet so socially clumsy. So beautiful, yet so… beautiful. Brilliant. Amazing. The violin played softly, gently. Sherlock would be swaying in front of the window as he played. John's fingers massaged warm circles on his lower abdomen.

Sherlock deserved to know, no—to feel what real affection was. The problem was that the only person who really cared that much for Sherlock…was John. How could he help Sherlock? How could he even begin to try? What could he do? What was he willing to do? Ready to do? John pictured Sherlock standing in the sun, reaching out to hold his hand in a fountain, and he swallowed and closed his eyes. The hand rubbing his belly beneath the cool sheet slid into his pyjama bottoms. The answer was: anything.

Next chapter: Breaking the Rules