Spoilers: for ACD's Scandal in Bohemia. It's his Irene Adler, not the Series 2 version
Irene Adler had defeated him and Sherlock felt wretched. Yesterday, when the king had come to congratulate him, he'd managed calm, with a hint of sarcasm. Asking for the photo of Irene rather than the king's ring had shown style, he thought. And even after the singularly dim monarch had left, he'd still kept up a vague kind of magnanimity, the thin illusion that he could be a good loser. For John's benefit, of course.
But now, twenty-four hours later, all that had run out, and he was down to the bitter dregs. John had gone off to the surgery, hurriedly fitting in an extra shift – if Sherlock had taken the ring, they could have paid this month's bills easily, he needed to think more carefully next time. Sherlock had spent the day on his couch, brooding, barely able to move, simply ignoring Mrs Hudson when she popped in. It was the usual post-case lethargy, but multiplied tenfold because he'd been beaten. He couldn't look at the new cases piling up in his inbox yet. Not till he could regain his own genius.
His work, after all, required the sustaining of illusion – not just the pretending to be someone else that was a normal part of his trade, but the illusion of infallibility. To himself, above all. He'd had a client recently who throughout their interview had repeatedly removed and replaced a ring on her finger, some kind of nervous tic. And Sherlock had abruptly found his mind racing back to the case of the Pink Lady – Jennifer Wilson – and the sudden realisation that maybe she hadn't had a string of lovers after all. You could never think of all the possibilities. If you tried you'd end up paralysed, unable to function at the speed required. He used logic, but he also sometimes had to guess, and he had to trust that he would guess right. Because if he didn't, people might die. No – if he didn't guess right, John might die.
But he was the great Sherlock Holmes, wasn't he? He was cleverer than almost everyone else; there was no-one else like him in the world. He had to re-find that man, re-inhabit that glorious confidence. Tonight, though, the weariness of his own fallibility weighed him down.
John had eventually come home and made them supper, and Sherlock had eaten it, because if he was eating there was an excuse for him not talking that wasn't simply sulkiness. And then he'd gone up and lain on his bed, still fully clothed, and John, after a while, had come and lain beside him. John had talked for a bit about his day at the surgery, and Sherlock had thought about showing interest, and decided it wasn't worth it. At last John had fallen silent, just lying there, ruffling Sherlock's curls. Because John was tired as well; he'd been rushing halfway across London on the case, and he hadn't a day off to recover.
Maybe sex was the answer, Sherlock thought, but he knew it wasn't. Neither of them had the energy for what he needed, the mad explosion of physical sensation, the frenzy that would blot out the pain in his mind, stop him caring for a moment about his own failure. Maybe if John was younger, sexier? But it wasn't John's fault that he looked how he looked. On the good days, his body seemed just right to Sherlock, fitting snugly together with his. But tonight, all he could see were John's imperfections: the poorly-defined bone structure, the lines, the wrinkles. The signs of an ordinary man.
Irene's photo had been Photoshopped a little, obviously, but she was still remarkably beautiful in real life. What would it be like to have her beside him now, not John? Not to sleep with – he had no sexual interest in her – but to talk to. That alert, active mind brought to confront his once again: that would be a worthy challenge for them both. The chance to dissect her character, confirm his analysis of the secrets of her success.
He'd tell her that analysis, but she wouldn't be alarmed. Nothing he could say would disconcert her: that was part of her allure to men, he felt sure. She was always ready to pretend so that that her lovers did not have to, could rest content in their own delusions of adequacy. Like that crowned idiot she'd recently been toying with.
No, he told himself, as John's hand reached across and stroked his side. He didn't need Irene Adler. He had everything he needed; it just required recapturing the desire for them. But not tonight. Tonight would just have to be got through. He sighed.
"I'm sorry it's bad," said John. "Anything I can do to help?"
"No," he replied, and then forced himself to say. "I'm tired, I'll have a bath, go to sleep, see if dreaming can unscramble my brain."
Even that much of an explanation was hard, but he felt it was necessary. It was part of what being with someone involved, he'd come to realise, responding to them.
"OK," said John. "I'll go and watch telly for a bit, but let me know if you need me." He sat up, smiling – the lines round his eyes even more visible – and said: "Sleep well. I love you."
Something else that being with someone involved: responding to their affection. "I love you, too," he said, closing his eyes. Just at the moment, it was a lie, of course, but it wasn't the worst lie he'd ever told. And tomorrow, maybe he would be able to be the man John wanted him to be. Stranger things had happened.