There is already someone sitting at the opposite end of the table, but there are books and slides and petri dishes spread out across the length of it, in all directions. There is an unlaced man's shoe sitting on the edge. There does not appear to be a foot attached to it.
John dreams about the lights.
"Be good," she says. He can feel her hand on his face, the wet palm against his cheek. It's so warm. It's then and it's before, the way she used to rest it against his forehead when he was sick or almost sleeping. Everything is bright and cold, freezing, except for her; there are lights, soft in the puddles and blinding in his eyes. "John," she says, and he wakes up, face-down in the mattress, clenched and knotted in the sheets, in the stillness of his room. He's sweaty and fuzzy-headed and he can hear the television from downstairs, the high sound of audience laughter and the melodic whine of commercial tunes. He puts his cheek back to the pillow and breathes through his nose.
He doesn't go back to sleep: not yet.
There is only one seat left in biology lab. John shifts his bag off his shoulder and stands at the front of the class, staring back into the empty seat, the last one in the row. There is already someone sitting at the opposite end of the table, but there are books and slides and petri dishes spread out across the length of it, in all directions. There is an unlaced man's shoe sitting on the edge. There does not appear to be a foot attached to it.
"You can sit with us," says Mike. He gestures at the already crowded bench; Mike and Mike's girlfriend and Mike's girlfriend's friends. John looks back again at the empty seat. There is a crooked stool tucked under the table, and it already has someone else's tattered schoolbag balanced on top of it. "No, really," adds Mike, under his breath. "No need to go sit- in the back."
"It's alright," says John, mildly. "There's one open."
He is halfway there when he notices the boy at the end of the last bench is staring at him, from around the eyepiece of the microscope, as if he is trying to look busy and serious and not at all interested. There is a thick shock of curly black hair sticking out from his skull in all directions, fleeing the scene of the crime. He looks at John and then looks away, peering down at a slide. John stops in front of the stool and gives the tattered bag a meaningful look. "Hello," he says. "Do you mind if I-"
"No, I don't mind." The dark-haired boy looks up, considering him; he is very pale and angular and wild-looking. His eyes go up and down John, and then past him, and then away again. There is something in his manner that John thinks is held-in curiosity, and a simmering aggravation at being interrupted. But John suspects he hasn't caused it. No, it's more of a general aggravation at the universe, the kind of broad resentment older people hold against iPhones. John watches him grab his bag and dump it unceremoniously on the floor behind him. "Don't disturb the samples. You'll ruin weeks of growth."
"Can I disturb the shoe?" John asks. He gets another long, awkward stare. "This shoe. The shoe that's sitting where I'd like my elbows to go."
The shoe gets put back on the foot it belongs to, and John sits down, pulling out his single flimsy notebook and solitary pen. He arranges them perfectly side-by side. There is a brief silence, and when John turns his head, the unkempt alien beside him is still looking at him with a bemused expression. "Sherlock," he says, suddenly. It seems like an introduction, so John extends a hand.
"John," he says. They shake on it, solemnly; Sherlock's hands are cold but firm. He lets go a little too soon, and John is left in midair for a second. He ducks for verbal cover, dropping his hands into his lap. "So," he says. "Nice ornamental fungus. Formerly a tuna sandwich?" Sherlock nods his assent. "What are you growing it for?" It's fairly disturbing, the way Sherlock's eyes light up. It must be the right question. He gestures wildly in front of him and holds the mold samples terrifyingly close to John's face and rattles off a series of conclusions that seem pulled from midair, but that somehow have John nodding at the sense of it all. Sherlock stops for breath, eventually, and asks that fatal question, but what do you think? "I think-" John says, and frowns. Sherlock frowns, too, obviously assuming that he's stalling for time. "Hang on," he says. "Did you just call that patch aspergillus fumiwhatsis?"
"Aspergillus fumigatus," Sherlock corrects. "It's a species of toxic mold, commonly found on starchy-"
"What are you doing in here?" John asks. "I mean, in this class." He points to the board. "We're supposed to be working on mitosis, that ought to be plenty interesting for you." The corner of Sherlock's mouth twitches up, slightly. It's a thin, self-conscious sort of smile. John gets the feeling he's out of practice.
"I'm hardly in this class," he says. He looks at the clock. It's two minutes to the bell. "Are you hungry?"
"Starving," John sighs.
Sherlock stands up, slinging his threadbare bag over one shoulder. The shift in perspective is startling; he really is ridiculously tall. "Oh," says John. "The class thing. That wasn't a joke about your superiority."
"There's a deli on the south corner, outside the school gates. Their tuna salad has green olives in it, which some people find off-putting. You're not one of them." He nods at the samples getting fuzzier by the minute. "And you already have a more than competent grasp of mitosis."
"All true," says John. "But skiving on the first day-"
"No better time. Tell them you were lost," Sherlock says, imperiously, and sweeps out, past the row of desks, shoving the door open and letting it clatter shut behind him. The other students watch him go out of the corner of their eyes. John sits for a long minute and then, very calmly, puts his notebook and his pen back in his satchel. Sherlock is waiting in the hall, leaning against the bank of lockers and looking at the announcement board with bleak disinterest. He turns around abruptly to look at John. There's something pleased and open in his face. It looks almost like surprise, but then, it couldn't be. "Good man," he says. Then a beat. "Do you have any cash on you?"
The eat their lunch ("On the house," Mr. Papaioannou insists, sliding a stuffed plastic bag across the counter at Sherlock, God knows why) in the park, sitting on top of a bench covered in half-hearted graffiti about somebody named Sherri. John throws his crusts to the pigeons, and Sherlock talks nonstop. First it's a lecture on the nervous tics and various peccadilloes of the teachers John's going to meet, and then it's about his latest project to determine the source of the smell in the locker next to his (hence the decomposing sandwiches) and then, finally, it's about the people passing by. It ought to be weird but it isn't.
"That woman," he says. "Freshly applied makeup, new and uncomfortable shoes in an eye-catching color. A plain bag, large, soft-sided, obviously carrying a change of clothes."
"Job interview?" John guesses. "Headed to the gym?"
"There's a tag sticking out of the zipper," Sherlock says, directing John's gaze. "From the color and logo placement, it's a very high-priced lingerie brand."
"I'm going to pretend like it's perfectly normal that you know that," he grins. "Midday shag, then?"
"Notice how she's glancing around. Skittish, preoccupied, looking too long at every middle-aged suit that passes by. Her husband works in the city. She knows consciously that she's not going to run into him en route to her lover's, but fear is never so logical." He grins, really pleased with himself. "So," he agrees. "Midday shag."
"Me next," says John, half-joking. "Only it's cheating, you know a bit too much already. Male, student, skiver, fan of green olives." Sherlock goes very still beside him, looking straight ahead. He doesn't speak. "What?" asks John. "Come on, what?"
"That man in the squashed hat," Sherlock muses. "Recently developed eczema, or a more persistent problem?"
"No, but really," John says. "What?"
"Transfer student," he begins, haltingly, still staring at the sidewalk. "No mystery there; we're five weeks into the semester and you've just appeared. You've changed schools before. But you're not a delinquent. I don't have to explain my observations about your clothes, your belongings. For financial reasons your family's resettled closer to your extended relatives. You're not the only Watson in class; Mike is your cousin, perhaps second cousin." John stares down at his hands, folded in his lap. Sherlock's voice is neutral, almost soft. "You flinched, barely noticeably, at the smell of alcohol on the cashier's breath when I bought cigarettes. Your parents'- probably your father's- drinking has gotten more serious. You've taken on responsibilities. You have a younger brother, judging from the field trip permission form stuffed inside your wallet. Harry Watson, though reading the name was secondary. You'd hardly be granting yourself permission to visit the zoo."
"Only emotionally," John says. He's light-headed. He twists the end of his sleeve between his thumb and forefinger. He ought to be telling Sherlock to shut up. He ought to feel something. He doesn't. "Is that it?"
"Yes," says Sherlock. He stands up and crumples his sandwich wrapper in one hand. "That's usually it." He reaches down and fiddles with the strap of his bag, as if he's about to turn and walk away. John lets out a short, embarrassed laugh, and Sherlock glances at him sharply. John thinks he must look ridiculous, giggling like a maniac about his dad's drinking, the shabby ends of his trousers, whatever. All of it. Sherlock is still staring at him. There's something strained and unhappy in Sherlock's eyes, though his face is impassive. "There's no need-"
"I thought for sure," John interrupts, still chuckling unsteadily, "that you were going to say something like, wanks solely with left hand, Jesus!" Sherlock gapes at him. "I mean, not that I- with the lingerie thing, before- there are some things I just hope you can't tell from looking at me."
"You're not angry."
"No," John says, honestly. He should be. He thinks about that for a moment. Having all of it laid bare like that, the sordid, stupid details. It's almost a relief. Someone else, knowing. Someone who doesn't seem to give a rat's arse one way or the other. "I'd prefer you didn't repeat it to everyone, but- no. I'm not angry. Everything you said was true. Mostly true. And basically, amazing."
"Amazing," Sherlock repeats, slowly. That gawky, startled smile is budging up the corner of his mouth again, like it's shoving the frown right off the edge of his face. Violently. "Wait- mostly true?"
"Harry," says John. "It's short for Harriet."
"Of course," Sherlock breathes, delighted. "Harriet."
"Just try and call her that," John adds. "She'll kick you in the bollocks. She's only eleven, and her legs are almost as long as mine."
"That's not an accomplishment," Sherlock says. John nods serenely and climbs off the bench and then chases Sherlock around it, trying to kick him in the bollocks on a matter of principle. He misses, but he wasn't really trying. "You're a midget," Sherlock coughs, after a few laps. John almost reminds him about the five cigarettes he chain-smoked half an hour ago, but settles for pushing him backwards onto the bench. "The Lilliputians would keep you in a jar."
"But what a jar," he says, amiably. He looks up at the sun. "Time to head back?"
"I suppose." Sherlock scowls, but drags himself up and shoulders his bag. "I'm dying to hear all about the thematically vital suffering of Jude Fawley." He rolls his eyes heavenward.
"Lit next?" John asks. He checks the schedule wrinkling in his back pocket. "Same for me."
"Well," says Sherlock. "In that case, I'll try to stay awake." He does. They both stay awake, since he ends up poking John with a pencil through the back of his seat, repeatedly, supposedly to test his ability to recite classic passages under mental and physical duress.
"Nobody's ever going to torture me while I read from Jude the Obscure," John complains, later. "It's not a useful skill."
"You'd be surprised."
"I already am," says John.
It all happens ridiculously fast.
The first day is skipping class and tuna salad and uncomfortable revelations, and suddenly Sherlock is waiting outside the back door when the last bell rings, falling into step beside John and rambling about decay rates and the school's lack of support for intellectual curiosity. "Threw them out, did they?" asks John. Sherlock scowls harder, if that's even possible. John tells him that he's got to pick up Harry and Sherlock just nods and keeps walking. They stand together outside the primary school gates and Sherlock does an uncanny impression of their lit teacher, dissects the way he stands (a slipped disc in the past and a lot of sleeping in armchairs at the present, Sherlock's assumption), and the strange stains on his tie and the pinched way he says everyone's names, and John is still laughing like a maniac when Harry walks up and tugs on his sleeve.
"Who's this?" she asks, immediately. She and Sherlock stare at each other suspiciously from either side of John, like a stork and a ferret having some kind of tense face-off. Maybe he shouldn't think so, but it is basically hilarious.
"This is my friend," John says, before he knows he's even going to say it. Sherlock doesn't disagree; in fact he doesn't say anything at all. Well, it doesn't seem wildly incorrect. "Sherlock."
"That's a weird name."
"My sister," says John, with an embarrassed little frown. "The soul of courtesy. Just say hello, Harry."
"Hello, Harry," she sing-songs, and ducks out of his reach. She skips away, laughing, and John looks up at Sherlock; Sherlock's face has a strangely crooked expression on it, like two thoughts collided and stuck, and now he's got no idea which is which. John smiles at him without thinking, and then Sherlock smiles, too.
"Come on," says John. "I've still got unpacking to do. You can analyse my footy gear and my stamp collection, if you like."
"You don't have a stamp collection."
"Right again," John sighs.
Did you finish your lab writeup?
Hours ago. I've done yours as well. Child's play. But your textbook is tedious and inaccurate. Did you know there are eleven typographical errors in this chapter alone? Someone received a paycheck for inserting an extra vowel into pneumoniae. I am trying very hard not to be personally insulted.
Cheers for that! Yeah, the book is awful. I bet they did it with you in mind. 'What would make Sherlock angriest' they asked each other. Oh I know spelling bacteriophage with a y.
You're doing that on purpose.
On the Tuesday after next, John is rounding the landing of the stairs, thinking about the shitty pseudo-Bolognese that was on offer at the cafeteria, and idly wondering if Sherlock had ever tried to determine which ingredient it was exactly that gave everybody stomach cramps halfway through the afternoon. Probably. Seems like he's investigated everything that happens in this place. Just yesterday, Sherlock had been trying to determine if color-treated hair burned differently. They'd gotten the fire put out before it spread past the kitchen bins. Mostly. John ambles along, books tucked under his arm, grinning at the memory of Sherlock beating the floor with a fire blanket. He's not really paying attention to the ebb and flow of people around him, and so almost getting pushed over the banister comes as a surprise.
"Sorry, sorry," says the kid who'd elbowed him. He's out of breath. "Fight, downstairs," he pants, and John watches him leap the rest of the stairs and entangle himself in a gathering crowd. The hallway is backed up now, a push of kids coming up from the basement and down from the upper stories, meeting a circle of bodies already stopped, watching in stunned delight. John can't really see what's happening, and doesn't try to get closer. A couple of idiots working out their frustration is hardly-
-a pale face with a familiar shock of dark hair bobs up, taller than the crowd, and gets knocked back down again, and then John is shoving his way through the bodies in front of him, wading in with both arms. He ignores the people that shove back; he only has one concern right now, and that concern seems to be getting his teeth kicked in. Sherlock is on the floor and there's a burly kid in an expensive coat trying to grab him by the shirtfront. The kid's sleeve is torn and there's a smear of blood on his face; Sherlock is doing pretty well, but not well enough. The kid leans down and smashes him in the face and John jumps onto his back, pins his arms behind him and tells him to calm the fuck down. There's a flailing pause, and the thick sound of Sherlock choking around a flattened nose, and then the kid backs John into the lockers, trying to shake him off. Everyone around them seems to be shrieking unhelpfully. John hangs on, twists his foot around the kid's knee, unbalances him until they're tumbling on the floor. And from there it's all over- diminutive or not, John rolls and wedges the kid's arms up behind his back, pins him in the spine with one knee and puts the kid's bloody face into the floor with his free hand, almost gently.
"Breathe," he says. The kid doesn't even move, just coughs out curses into the tile, and then someone else is pulling John up, separating them. It's the assistant principal and the track coach, hauling them up by their elbows and demanding to know what the hell they're thinking, are they thinking, no obviously they weren't thinking. John looks down at the spot where Sherlock just was. But he's gone, except for a couple of drops of blood. John sighs and puts his hands up and lets himself be carted away.
He ends up in Lestrade's office, facing the principal's even stare with a degree of calm he didn't know he possessed. I'm losing my mind, he thinks. Right over the edge. It's definitely come sooner than expected.
"Bit of a rough start, John." Lestrade says. John nods. "This is- what, your third week?"
"You were at the Moulton School before this, weren't you?" There's a file folder on top of the desk, and John can only assume it's his own. "You've an interest in biology and medicine, it says in here." Lestrade taps the folder. And then he grins. "It doesn't mention wrestling club, but after your little demonstration in the hall, it doesn't have to." John stares at him, not really seeing the humor, and Lestrade leans back, still smiling. "It's alright, John. I'm not ignorant of the circumstances. You'll serve your detentions, and that'll be the end of it. Sherlock, on the other hand-"
"Sherlock?" John says. His voice sounds high and thin and obviously false in his ears. "Was Sherlock there? I didn't see him."
There's a silence.
"Well," says Lestrade.
"I don't remember seeing him," John continues, awkwardly. "Today." Oh God, he really is digging this hole and falling into it, isn't he? He stares at the name plate on the principal's desk and tries not to feel transparent. Sherlock is going to owe him a ridiculously large favor, if this even works.
"This is new." John glances up at Lestrade, who is sitting back with his arms folded. He doesn't look angry. Not at all. "You know, I've watched a lot of people sit in that seat and lie about Sherlock Holmes," he says. John's face must go blank, because Lestrade lets out a grim little chuckle. "Oh, if you don't understand yet, you will soon. Like I said. I've heard a lot of things about Sherlock. Some of them true, some not. But I don't think I've ever watched anyone sit there and lie for him."
"And so badly," he adds, and John puts his face in his hands. "Cheer up. Sherlock's not my problem at the moment. Go back to class. You'll report for detention after the last bell, and tomorrow if we're lucky, there won't be a fight or a mysterious hair fire in the kitchens or anything at all. I'd like a nice, boring week," he says pointedly, though John is beginning to doubt that particular warning is aimed at him. "Go on." John stands and shoulders his bag and turns back, before he opens the door.
"Thank you, sir."
"Oh, don't thank me yet," says Lestrade.