"Honestly John, could you be any more desperate?"
Sherlock's pitying drawl cut effortlessly through the Friday night pub chatter. John's head snapped around, eyes twitching slightly as he tried to ascertain whether they were unobserved. They weren't.
"What?" he growled, keeping his voice low. Sherlock did not return the favour.
"The redhead, John? Seriously? She's 45 if she's a day. That colour's not natural, by the way, she's trying to cover the fact that she's almost entirely grey, which is futile, given she can't be bothered to maintain the dye job. And she's got at least three children, including one over the age of 20 who still lives at home."
The woman in question, though within hearing distance, didn't turn around. John thought, thankfully, that she didn't seem to realise that Sherlock's description applied to her.
"So basically what you're saying is that she's close to my age, still making some effort to look attractive, and may be up for some casual sex with no strings attached?"
"She's a chain smoker!"
"You're a chain smoker."
"She watches daytime TV."
"I watch daytime TV."
There was silence for awhile, as Sherlock ran through possibilities in his brain, working out how best to construct his next line of attack. While he waited, John took a pull of his beer, and eyed the woman's curvaceous hips appreciatively.
An evening spent together in the cheery, beery warmth of the Sprig and Fern was not, it must needs be said, a common event in the lives of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. The last time they had attempted something similar, in point of fact, had been John's stag party; an occasion that had resulted in an overnight stay at Her Majesty's pleasure, a rather large amount of bail money (Lestrade's), an even larger fine (Mycroft's), and a number of fuzzy, vaguely awkward memories swiftly relegated to the if-we-don't-talk-about-it-it-never-happened school of interpersonal relationships.
This particular Friday night, however, was the occasion of what Lestrade persisted in referring to as his fucking divorce party, and thus, an occasion of some significance (at least for Lestrade). Under normal circumstances, they probably still wouldn't have bothered to attend (or at least, Sherlock wouldn't have, and would have taken a very dim view of John going without him), but Sherlock's recreational activities had been somewhat curtailed of late by the half-healed bullet hole in his chest. The origin of said bullet hole rivalled even the stag night in the hierarchy of events-we-do-not-talk-about-ever.
Three large tables and one of the pub's cosy, blue-upholstered booths had been commandeered for the purpose of sending Greg's marriage off in style. They had then been liberally supplied with alcohol and stocked with assorted neighbours, half the local rugby club, and the best and finest foot soldiers of Lady Justice. Anderson was there as well.
Amongst the assorted coppers on display were several of Sherlock's personal favourites – though whether this partiality was returned or not was open to debate. Detective Inspector Ian Dimmock was sharing a jug with two endearingly wet-behind-the-ears young constables by the names of Lockwood and Kamal; Detective Sergeant Jamie Holland (rather drunk) was making advances towards an alarmed-looking Detective Inspector Stephen Chan (rather less so); and Detective Sergeant Sally Donovan was in slightly awed conversation with the intimidating figure of Detective Inspector Liz Mitchell – a sharp-voiced, crop-haired 67 year old, who made a firm practice of demolishing younger and more masculine contenders in the Met's annual fundraising marathon.
One table over, Molly and Mrs Hudson were exchanging rapid, giggly, and poorly-filtered chatter; the subject matter veered wildly from puppies to corpses, incorporating along its circituitous route such fascinating topics as knitting, babies, the colour scheme of sex toys ("why must there be so much pink?") and the price of digestive biscuits. Opposite the two women was a rather pained-looking Mycroft, who was drinking a pint of excellent craft beer with an expression of extreme martyrdom, and casting wistful glances at the phone beneath his assistant's rapidly-moving fingers.
Thought processes apparently restored by their short sabbatical, Sherlock rallied; he cocked an eyebrow in a superior fashion and delivered his next salvo against John's red-headed amour:
"She's got syphilis."
"Now I know you're lying."
"Even if I believed you, it's not like that's exactly her choice though, is it?"
Sherlock stared at him incredulously.
"Seriously, John? Seriously? A chain-smoking syphilitic who couldn't pass for 42 in the dusk with the light behind her?"
"Yeah, this may surprise you Sherlock, but I'm not exactly overwhelmed with offers right at this moment."
"Last time I checked, you still had a wife."
"We are not talking about my wife."
"Oi!" a jovial voice interjected. "It's my fucking divorce party, thanks. If we're not talking about anyone's wife, it'll be mine."
Lestrade pushed his way through the crowd, a tray of pints in-hand, and settled himself at their table.
"Ah, come on Greg, can't we just agree that both our wives are rubbish? Share a little."
"You know you still haven't told me what's going on with you and Mary."
"Yeah, and I'm not going to. Call it practice for my own divorce party."
"Not allowed, sorry John. You haven't put in your time yet. I was married seventeen years. I've earned it. You're not even at six months."
"So I decided to cut the crap and get the inevitable over with now. Just 'cause you took seventeen years to work it out…"
"Seriously John, what's going on? You were mad about each other 'till summer. What in God's name can have changed that much?"
"Yeah, not having this conversation. What were we talking about?"
"Your abysmal taste in women, actually." Sherlock arched an elegant brow.
"Christ, Sherlock, she's not that bad. She may even be somewhat in my league, for a change. And if I'm really lucky, not a psychopath."
"You are joking, John. Her league is so far beneath your notice that it's practically subterranean. Which brings me back to my initial hypothesis: you're desperate. Now stop it, it's annoying."
"We can't all live like bloody 16th century monks," John snapped. "Some of us, oddly enough, actually enjoy getting off now and again, which you might have a better chance of understanding if you ever bloody –"
There was a nasty pause.
"Yes?" said Sherlock, glacially. John sighed.
"Look, you know what I mean. You have to accept that in this field you're… well, you're a bit… atypical."
Sherlock's eyes narrowed.
"In fact, John, it may interest you to know that in purely numeric terms it is you who is the statistical outlier, not I."
"Come off it, Sherlock. Look…" he lowered his voice. "You've never actually had sex, yeah? And that's fine, it's not a big deal or whatever, if you're happy like that, but it's not exactly – normal."
There was another pause, of almost equivalent nastiness. Greg put a warning hand on John's arm.
Sherlock surveyed John very intently over the top of his steepled hands. His mouth curled unpleasantly. Belatedly, John began to realise that he had just let himself in for a fit of Sherlock-pique on a massive scale.
"What do you think is the average number of sexual partners per lifetime, John?"
"What? Look, that's not really the point, Sherlock…"
"No, I'm curious; you're supposed to be a doctor. What do you consider 'normal' to be?"
"I don't know, it's about a dozen or something isn't it? But that's just the average. It's skewed by all the people who get married young and that."
"And you believe that marriage precludes promiscuity? How quaint."
"Look, I just meant that you don't really…"
"See that man over there?" Sherlock asked, not lowering his voice in the slightest. He indicated a greasy, overweight man in his late 20s, who had the indefinable air of paleness and isolation that told John quite plainly that he was looking at a computer gamer.
"He's never had sex." Sherlock continued, implacably.
"Jesus, Sherlock, keep your voice down!"
But Sherlock was not to be deterred.
"That boy over there," he continued, waving a lanky arm. "Shy, studious, currently undergoing his first co-educational experience at the age of nineteen; never had sex. The elderly women playing backgammon? Sisters, spent their twenties and thirties caring for an invalid father, never married; never had sex. The woman watching the football? Nothing wrong with her equipment, but she's been in that wheelchair since the age of fourteen; she's never yet met a man who can see past it, and she's got too much self-respect to pay for it; never had sex. The old man at the bar? Fiancé died tragically in her early twenties, and he hasn't looked at a woman since; never had sex. Lestrade's youngest constable? Steady girlfriend for the past four years, but his family's traditional and want him to wait until he's married, and before he can do that he has to bring his mother around to the idea of a white daughter-in-law; never had sex."
The constable in question, an exceptionally attractive young man of 23, flushed darkly, and became intensely interested in the contents of his glass. The men he was drinking with looked momentarily stunned. They glanced at one another, then looked hastily away. Dimmock glanced down, fiddling with the condensation on his mug. Lockwood shuffled his feet and studiously avoided eye contact. But Sherlock was barely getting started:
"For your edification, John, estimates regarding the modal number of sexual partners per lifetime for British citizens are around three to four for women and seven to nine for men; bit of discrepancy there, one can't help but feel, though of course the validity of statistics acquired using opt-in surveys is extremely questionable; how many people do you know who would answer that question honestly? The mean is a little higher, obviously, but as you so rightly pointed out, that is skewed by a number of statistical outliers, of whom you are most certainly one. How many notches on your bedpost, Doctor 'Three Continents'? Very masculine, John. You should be proud. Of course it doesn't look quite so impressive once you realise that the number of partners is only marginally lower than the number of sexual encounters in total, but I'm sure you did your best to retain them."
By the time Sherlock had concluded this little diatribe, John was flushed an angry red, his fists bunched so hard against the tabletop that the knuckles showed white.
"You finished?" he asked, curtly.
"For the time being."
John launched himself across the table in a swing that, had it connected, would have knocked Sherlock flying. Sherlock ducked, and a flailing elbow caught a passing constable in the gut. Three newly-poured pints gave up the unequal contest with gravity, and glass and beer skittered wildly across the varnished floor. Sherlock emerged, intact, from beneath the table in time to see Greg wrestling John back into his seat.
"Sherlock!" Mrs Hudson chided. "That wasn't nice."
Sherlock rolled his eyes.
"Oh, nice," he said. "I wasn't insulting him, merely trying to point out that he's not the paragon of normality he claims to be."
"Jesus, take a break for once," Greg muttered.
"Ah yes… Lestrade," Sherlock mused, a malicious glint in his eye. "You admire Lestrade, don't you John? You think he's tough and masculine; one of the lads. Would it change your opinion of him, I wonder, to know that he's only slept with two women in his life?"
An uncomfortable silence greeted this pronouncement. Sherlock seemed not to notice.
"Yes… there was a first girlfriend when he was – what, nineteen? – didn't last long, anyway; and then his wife. And we're all aware of how well that worked out. There's been no sex at all for, oh about four years now, isn't it George?"
Greg's eyes flickered over his assembled colleagues, his drinking buddies, and his rugby team. He let out a short breath.
"Yeah, thanks for that Sherlock."
The silence resumed. No one seemed quite sure what to say. John cast an awkward, sideways glance at Greg, as if half-expecting a denial; Greg thrust out his jaw and looked back at him mulishly, while the assembled crowd looked on in mute, unblinking fascination. Sally Donovan was glaring daggers at Sherlock.
"Leave him alone," she said abruptly, and her voice was harsh in the silence. "He doesn't deserve it. Not from you."
Sherlock rolled his eyes.
"I'm not trying to embarrass him. Even if there were censure implied, it's perfectly within the limits of the statistical norm. There's nothing to be ashamed of."
Greg's eyes flickered towards Sally again.
"Oh…" Sherlock breathed softly. "But I'm wrong, aren't I? There was a third. When…? Ah! When the two of you were so embarrassingly held hostage in that cellar last winter. Of course… Perfect excuse. Imminent risk of death; emotions running high; could even have made the old 'conservation of body heat' argument if you'd had to…"
Sally's mouth shut with an audible snap. Greg's face was blanched white; he looked, for the first time since John had known him, as though he would quite like to hit Sherlock.
"But no… you didn't go through with it, did you?" Sherlock continued. "You wanted to, both of you, so why didn't you…?" He sounded genuinely puzzled. Sally looked close to tears.
"Ah… I see. A question of morality. Despite the fact that everyone knew your marriage was over – How terribly faithful of you, Lestrade. And now you're embarrassed about it. I shouldn't worry, if I were you. The majority of women find fidelity to be an attractive quality in a mate."
The assembled company did not seem to feel that this was adequate compensation. Their eyes moved rapidly between Greg (stoic), Sally (furious) and Sherlock (smug). Molly reached between the tables to touch Greg timidly on the arm. He did not appear to notice.
"I still think you're being very rude, Sherlock," Mrs Hudson said, frowning at him, "I think it's perfectly lovely of the Inspector to stay faithful, given the way Annie was carrying on. All those men! Gosh, she was quite busy for a few months there, wasn't she? And then when she met that blessed P.E. teacher…"
"Yeah, not actually helping, Mrs. H."
"Oh, sorry love…"
"And of course, the whole thing's made your relationship with dear Sally very tenuous indeed, hasn't it?" Sherlock cut in, gleefully. Clearly, his attention had been redirected towards a new target. The company looked on in growing horror.
"You don't like being rejected, do you Sally?" Sherlock continued, an iniquitous gleam in his eye. "It makes you feel cheap. And usually you don't encounter that particular feeling, because usually you're not all that interested in the good opinion of your sexual partners. You tell yourself that it's because you're a feminist, and thus entitled to enjoy sex with no strings attached, so you go for weak men who aren't a threat to you. In truth, you want a dominant partner, but you're a proud modern woman, so you're not going to admit that, are you? So now you're angry with Lestrade, because you finally made an overture to a man you genuinely like, and he shot you down. My, my, that must have made for some very awkward conversations beside the water cooler."
"Enough." Lestrade's voice was like steel. "Tear into me if you have to, but you leave my people alone."
"But I haven't finished,' Sherlock smiled, quite pleasantly. He was practically bouncing in his seat with enjoyment. "I'm still in the process of demonstrating to John quite how fallacious his assumptions are. How many sexual partners do you think Sally's had, John? You think she's quite promiscuous, don't you? And all because she once wore Anderson's deodorant to a crime scene."
Sally looked momentarily startled. Her mouth half-opened, then shut again awkwardly. She looked at John in surprise, eyes raking over him as though to assess the truth of Sherlock's claim; John flushed. Sherlock grinned.
"Shall I tell you, John? Six. Six, total, since she was eighteen years old. Quite modest really, compared with your efforts, wouldn't you say?"
John's ears were flaming.
"Christ, can't somebody shut him up?" he muttered.
"Sherlock…" Sally growled.
"And that brings us to Anderson," said Sherlock, still smiling broadly.
A frisson ran through the assembled police officers. The rivalry between Sherlock and Anderson was legendary, and the stories had not been tempered in the slightest by Anderson's recent descent into grovelling hero-worship.
Sherlock eyed the lanky, bearded figure for a moment, as if assessing the state of the tan lines on his ring finger or mentally cataloguing the number of times he'd buttoned his shirt in the dark. Anderson shivered with what seemed to be awe, his eyes gleaming with barely-suppressed anticipation.
"Nine," Sherlock said decisively.
"Yes! He's right. He's right!"
Sherlock scowled at the interruption, and shot him a disdainful look. Anderson subsided quickly.
"Nine," Sherlock continued, musingly. "All dissatisfying, all but two of them overlapping in some way. Poor Phillip… they always seem to follow a trend, don't they? They're lovely when you first meet them, and they pay attention to you, and tell you that you're clever. But then, sooner or later – sooner, unless they're very thick – they all work out how basically boring you really are, and they start bullying you, and trying to push you around, or just lose interest entirely. You've thought a couple of times of just giving up and resorting to a brothel – the thought of having someone who's paid to do what you want for a change is quite alluring, I imagine. But you'll never have the balls to actually try it, so instead you're stuck with whatever scraps of affection you can glean from busy women with far more interesting things to worry about than a crackpot conspiracy theorist. And it's never your fault, is it? You've never stopped to consider that you might get on better if you only grew a spine. Then again, most women don't take all that kindly to being treated as 'a bit on the side'; you might have more luck if you were a little more interested in them personally, rather than just as an opportunity to get a leg over whilst whingeing about the state of your marriage."
Sherlock leaned back in his chair, eyebrows raised superciliously. If the aim of this little speech had been to perturb Anderson, he had miscalculated. Anderson was grinning as widely as if he'd just won the lottery. Plainly, being the direct focus of his hero's attention for such an unprecedented length of time was honour enough to render a few slights on his person immaterial. Greg caught John's eye, and they buried their faces hastily in their beer to hide their laughter.
"He's a genius," Anderson was saying. "Did you hear that? Amazing."
"Yes," John said. "Though I note that, for all his showing off, he hasn't managed to deliver a single argument as to why I shouldn't buy the nice lady over there a drink."
"Because you're obsessed, John!' Sherlock rounded on him. "You behave as though sex is a staple of life, yet you treat women like a disposable commodity."
John's face was a study in indignation. His mouth opened and closed foolishly.
"I do not!"
"Oh, you treat them well enough, as long as you're interested, but they're all the same to you. You're so focused on obtaining sex that you don't particularly seem to care what happens afterwards."
"Oh, I know what this is about. This is about the Mary thing, isn't it? I can't believe you're still trying to convince me to go back to her."
"I'm just saying, John, that if you cared to put in a little effort…"
"I can't believe you! I cannot believe you. Mrs H., back me up here."
"Well, it's only… you do run through them a little, dear."
Greg chuckled. John looked hopelessly nonplussed.
"This whole question arose because you made the frankly ridiculous pronouncement that my own sexual behaviour or lack thereof was not, and I quote, 'normal'. As anyone with a fundamental grasp of statistics will tell you, the distribution curve for sexual activity in adults is necessarily curtailed by the impossibility of having a negative number of partners, meaning that there is, in fact, no 'normal' distribution in this case; this makes the use of median statistics more than a little erroneous, so our best measures of what you term 'normality' are the mean or mode. So, from the sample currently under consideration, we have derived following numbers: myself, none; Kamal, none; Lestrade, two; Donovan, six; Anderson, nine. In the interests of fair play, I'll omit the other individuals I pointed out. Even so, this sample still, shockingly, gives us 'none' as the most common number of sexual partners. Even the mean is only 3.4."
He caught John's objection before it could be voiced and intercepted it.
"You're about to argue that this is hardly a representative sample; it's certainly a limited one in many ways, so I shall widen the field. Let me see…"
For a moment, he paused to draw breath, and surveyed his new victims with a fanatical gleam in his eye.
"Dimmock: four – dull. Holland: six – dull. Chan: twelve – dull. Lockwood: seven – all short-term and unsatisfying; they might last longer if he stopped trying to convince himself he was gay – it's an affectation left over from high school, where his peer group seemed to think that homosexuality made them attractively misunderstood and tragic. It doesn't; stop trying."
(Lockwood looked rather startled at this news, as though the truth of his sexual orientation had honestly never occurred to him).
"Mitchell: two – dull. Mrs Hudson: five – bit racy; there are probably clips on YouTube, for anyone who's interested. Molly: eighteen; my, my! Always the quiet ones, isn't it? And all because you were a silly little teenager who panicked and thought that all the other girls were ahead of you and you had to race to catch up. You must've felt foolish when you worked that one out."
(Judging by Molly's startled and rapidly-pinkening face, the revelation was a rather more recent one than Sherlock had implied).
"And since then you've jumped into bed with anybody who expresses the slightest degree of interest, because you think it might make them like you. Pathetic."
Molly's eyes were swimming with mortified tears by this point, and her lower lip was trembling.
"I don't see that it's any business of yours," she managed, defiantly. Mrs Hudson put a comforting arm around her shoulder, and looked askance at Sherlock. Sherlock rolled his eyes.
"Take my advice, Molly, date someone dull for a change; someone nice and considerate and dull. I'd recommend Dimmock, or possibly Anderson, though I'd advise you to get him to shave first. I would suggest Lestrade, but I suspect that he reminds you far too much of your father for that to be entirely healthy."
"I remind everyone of their father," Greg grumbled. "Why do I always remind everyone of their father?"
"You and me both, mate," John agreed.
"Oh, for God's sake Lestrade, don't be ridiculous. I realise you're an idiot, but even you have to be aware that you're the most attractive male in this room."
"Wait, Greg is?"
"Come on, Lestrade. How can you not notice this? Eighty-two percent of the people in this room would willingly shag you, and that includes everybody from your sergeant to my brother."
Mycroft made a small noise of protest – though whether he was disputing the point or merely objecting to its means of delivery remained unclear. Sherlock shot him a quick, sideways look; it was plain that he was amused.
"Of that eighty-two percent," he informed Greg, "at least half have contemplated buying you a drink, and at least a third are actively making some plan to approach you before the night is out. Even John thinks you look good in your football shorts, don't you John? And as we've all of us heard ad infinitum for the past five years, John Watson is most very definitely, doggedly, and determinedly heterosexual."
"You missed out 'defensively'," Mycroft said, dryly, and the amused glance passed back from him to Sherlock again.
"Oi! I don't know what you two are insinuating, but I am not gay!"
There was a general surge of laughter. They had all heard it so often by now that it had become almost a catch-phrase.
How can you be this oblivious, Lestrade?" Sherlock moaned, returning to his theme. "How? You're supposed to be a detective."
Lestrade made no reply. He seemed completely baffled by the assertion that most of the pub thought him attractive; his expression of sheer befuddlement made him look as though he had been recently clubbed over the head with a heavy object. The utter naivety with which he had greeted Sherlock's observations on the subject of his personal charms made him look, if possible, even more endearing.
"Now, who's up next?" Sherlock asked, rhetorically, eyes scanning the crowd for his next victim. "Ah yes, Anthea. Four, isn't it Anthea? No, five. Three long-term attempts at serious relationships cut short by career obligations blah blah – dull. Two others work-related: one night stands as the most expedient means of acquiring information; utterly predictable. Frankly, I'm disappointed. None at all for the past five years though, because you've set your sights on someone completely unattainable. You're wasting your time. He's congenitally incapable of affection and hasn't had a shag in his life that wasn't a power play of some kind."
Anthea sputtered into her drink. It was the only time John had ever seen her less than immaculately poised.
"Which brings us to Mycroft." Sherlock's nose wrinkled distastefully. "I'd rather not think about this at all really, but in the interests of a complete data set…" he scanned his brother briefly, sneer still firmly in place. Mycroft, demonstrating his complete unconcern, rolled his eyes, and made a show of inspecting his fingernails
Sherlock's eyes narrowed.
"Thirteen then. It's subjective. Depends on your definition of 'sex'."
Mycroft said nothing, which was as close to a concession as he'd ever come.
"Thirteen," Sherlock continued, decisively. "None more than once, and every single one of them was somebody who hated him."
Mycroft sighed. He straightened an already-impeccable cuff and steepled his fingers in front of his face.
"Sex is merely a tool, Sherlock," he said, repressively. "One which, whilst it may be distasteful, it is nonetheless expedient to employ upon occasion. There is a certain type of person who believes, however erroneously, that they can learn all they need to know about a person through the mutual exchange of bodily fluids. I – unhampered as I am by your childish fear of sexual intimacy – have on rare occasions taken advantage of this belief in order to reveal to others what I wish them to know."
"Yes… and that worked very well for you, didn't it, right up until –" Sherlock broke off, looking genuinely alarmed. "Good lord, Mycroft. The things you do for England."
Mycroft gave a thin, sardonic smile.
"Wait, what?" John asked. "What 'things'?"
"I believe that my brother is referring to my regrettable misalliance with dear Vladimir." Mycroft informed them, with delicate shudder. "Regrettable both in political terms and as regards his rather lacklustre personal performance. I rather fear that the Ukraine situation may have arisen directly as a result of his ah... over-compensation."
"Wait, you shagged Putin?"
Mycroft sighed regretfully. "With individuals of limited intelligence it often is the swiftest way."
Sherlock frowned. "Who's Putin?"
Now Mycroft frowned. "Ah… so that wasn't to whom you were alluding." And then, as realisation struck: "Oh, I see. It was a reference to the rather astonishing range of proclivities favoured by Ms. Adler."
John's eyes boggled.
"Irene, 'The Woman', Adler?"
"Of course, John. Who else?"
"And ah… How was… How was that then?"
Mycroft smiled, looking suddenly shark-like.
"Immensely entertaining, as you can no doubt imagine. Not least because it made Sherlock horribly jealous."
"I could've had her if I'd wanted her," Sherlock scowled.
"No doubt," Mycroft said, looking almost offensively smug. "But you didn't, did you? And now it's too late. Tragic, isn't it? What a shame about Karachi."
Sherlock's eyes narrowed as he tried to determine exactly what Mycroft was implying. Some of those who had suffered worst over the course of the evening began to perk up at this turn in the conversation.
"At any rate," Sherlock continued loudly. "With my dear brother's contribution, that gives us a mean of 6.4 for the party. Multi-modal, so the mean will have to stand. And even that is probably higher than the population average, given the thrill-seeking nature and high-risk professions of the individuals sampled."
He turned to John with a smug look of fait accompli. John frowned.
"Right," he said. "And this proves what, exactly?"
Sherlock rolled his eyes.
"It proves, John, that you are a statistical outlier." He said, giving John his patented look of barely-held-in-check-impatience-with-the-stupidity-of-mankind.
"Right," John said again, frowning. "Just one question, Sherlock –"
And then, when Sherlock tempered his smug look with a nod of gracious condescension:
"How many sexual partners do you think I've had, exactly?"
Sherlock's features fell instantly into a scowl of ferocious irritation.
"I can't tell," he admitted, ungraciously. "My observations of your character and apparent success rate are in complete contradiction to your reputation and habits. You are the most exasperating conundrum in existence."
"Yeah," John grinned. "I figured it was something like that."
He chuckled deeply, and took a long pull of his beer. When it was apparent that no more was forthcoming, Sherlock actually snarled in annoyance.
"What, John? There's something. There's always something. What is it?"
John laughed out loud.
"I confess I've never kept score," he said, still grinning. "But I'm pretty sure my total's still under twenty."
Sherlock stared at him.
"But you were in the army!" He said. "You've got a nickname. You're famous for it. How can you get a sobriquet like 'Three Continents Watson' with fewer than twenty conquests to your name?"
John laughed again.
"It was a joke, Sherlock. I made the mistake once of mentioning that I'd known women across three continents, and it grew from there. Technically, it's true. In fact I think it's four by now. Still doesn't mean that I shagged every female I met though."
Greg began to chuckle, and a low ripple of laughter spread gradually across the tables.
"Dear, dear," Sally said, wryly. "Impaled on your own sword this time, Holmes."
Mycroft was actually wiping his eyes in mirth.
"A beautiful argument, brother mine! Succinct, well-reasoned, and beautifully extrapolated. What a shame that your initial supposition was so flawed." He made a noise that, in a lesser man, would have been described as a giggle. "I have always told you, have I not, that it was foolish to hypothesise without knowing the facts?"
At this, the amusement of the assembled party swelled from a ripple to a wave. Their corner of the pub rang with ribald laughter. Greg was chortling immoderately, face buried in his hands. Molly and Mrs Hudson, cackling with undisguised glee, raised their glasses to John and downed them in one. Anderson was slapping him on the back as though he'd just pulled off the coup of the century. Even Anthea looked up from her mobile and gave him a small smile.
John couldn't help it. He grinned too.
Sherlock rose abruptly to his feet. Haughtily, he met John's gaze, his face a study in affronted dignity. He donned his coat with stately poise, and, with one last, offended glare at the lot of them, he swept gracefully from the pub. The howls of laughter followed him out the door.
Gradually, the gales of mirth subsided. Slowly, conversations resumed, and the peaceful chatter of the pub was restored.
John drained the last of his pint, smiling a little into the dregs.
"Fancy another?" he asked Greg.
Greg smiled shyly.
"Not for me," he said. "If I'm not mistaken, I've got a sergeant over there who I owe a bit of an apology."
John watched, bemused, as Greg drained his glass and made his way over to Sally. He held out his hand a little self-consciously.
"Dance with me?" he said.
Sally looked at him in surprise for a moment; then a broad grin spread slowly across her face. She rose graciously from her chair, taking the proffered hand.
"Can't refuse an offer like that," she said. "You are the sexiest man in the room, after all."
Greg chuckled. "I'm pretty sure he was lying about that one."
Sally's denial was lost as they moved away, manoeuvring deftly through the crowd. Greg's hand rested at the small of Sally's back.
John watched, with a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, as Greg and Sally reached the small cluster of dancers gathered about the old-fashioned jukebox. The song was one that John vaguely recognised: something by David Bowie. Even as he watched, Sally's hands came up to rest on Greg's shoulders, and Greg's head bent down until it was leaning against hers.
"Would you look at that?" John asked softly, turning to Molly.
But Molly was gone.
Casting his eyes around the bar, John was surprised to find himself the sole inhabitant of an island.
Molly was sitting with Ian Dimmock at a small table in the corner; they were talking quietly together, and there was a gentle light in her eyes. Mitchell had wandered over in the direction of the elderly, backgammon-playing sisters, and was already deep in conversation with them. Mycroft was helping Anthea into her coat, stooping to speak softly into her ear, and she was smiling up at him. Stephen Chan was offering serious, fatherly-sounding advice to Ahsan Kamal, who was nodding solemnly in reply. Jamie Holland, having abandoned his efforts with Chan, was messily entwined with young Hugh Lockwood.
John's mouth twitched with amusement. They were going to regret that little display come Monday morning, if he knew anything about the Yard's gossip-mill.
Lockwood, encouraged by Holland's apparent enthusiasm, attempted to insert his tongue into the sergeant's ear.
John swirled the dregs of his beer thoughtfully, a bit of a grin on his face. Sometimes, he supposed, even Sherlock's lessons took awhile to sink in.
Glancing around him once more, he was quietly astonished to realise that Anderson had approached the young woman in the wheelchair, and was listening intently to something she was saying. Even as John watched, a bartender passed them a pair of pint glasses and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. Anderson opened the crisps and offered them to the woman, who smiled, showing a pair of perfect dimples.
Greg and Sally; Ian and Molly; Anthea and Mycroft….
Only Mrs Hudson was left, watching John with a knowing twinkle in her eye. Her mouth curled into a mischievous smile as he met her gaze. Her eyes flicked towards the door that Sherlock had so-dramatically stormed out of mere minutes ago.
"He's not a bad lad, really," she said.
"Well, what do you think?" he asked her, after one last glance around at their erstwhile drinking companions. "Home time?"
He rose from the table and offered her his arm in an exaggerated display of courtesy. "May I escort you back to Baker Street, my dear Mrs H?"
"You go on ahead dear," Mrs Hudson told him. Her eyes twinkled. "There's a gentleman over at the bar who I think I'd like to get to know."
She winked. John watched in amazement as she rose, patted her hair down, and smiled in the direction of the elderly gentleman Sherlock had pointed out earlier. John stared after her.
"But what am I supposed to do now?" he called, plaintively.
Mrs Hudson laughed.
"Go home, dear," she told him kindly. "I think it's time you showed that silly friend of yours exactly what he's missing out on."