Sherlock Holmes takes a deep breath.
Smell is the first human sense to develop.
Even in the womb humans recognise different odors.
Sherlock takes another chest-filling breath.
Our ability to discern odors is higher at night than in the morning.
The small, humid room in which he stands alone smells like a clean, straw-filled stable.
With six million scent receptors, a human being remembers scents more accurately than sights.
As his brain frantically retrieves olfactory facts for which he has no use, Sherlock Holmes presses a fist to his chest and for a long moment he does not breathe.
“—I was very young, but I remember the smoke always smelled like cherries.”
John Watson bends over the glass-topped counter, gazes at the display of gleaming pipes. The sales clerk lingers a polite while, then just a little longer. Finally she turns toward a less nostalgic, more well-heeled customer.
John smiles to himself. If he’d been fractious, very gloomy with his important four-year-old problems, the scent of his grandfather’s pipe smoke always soothed him.
It was years before John realised that grandad Ideal would come seek him out on those childish, ill-tempered days. Then he’d light his pipe, John would cuddle close, and surrounded by the smoky-sweet scent of cherries, together they’d grow calm.
Standing in the tobacconist’s glass-walled humidor, Sherlock opens his mouth wider, takes a ragged breath, then does it again, again, againagainagainagain until he’s woozy with the scent of pipe tobacco and cigars. But it still isn’t helping. This time it doesn’t calm.
Because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how much he tells them about how much he sees, they still don’t believe him, they still refuse to see.
Sherlock fists at his shirt, and moaning he thinks I could do it, who would care? I could buy a thousand pounds worth of cigars and I could breathe and breathe and breathe until I couldn’t breathe.
No one stops John from roaming, grinning reminiscent, touching pricey lighters, deep-bowled pipes, shiny wooden boxes.
Drawn to an earthy scent and the amber and russet glow of open cigar boxes, John enters the tobacconist’s humidor and—
One stride across the tiny room and John’s got his hand on the gasping man’s belly, whispering in his ear. “Breathe here, right here. Breathe deep until you feel it here.”
Bent double, sweaty hands sliding slick on his knees, Sherlock tries, he tries to breathe but he—
John pushes him to his knees, then his back, lays his other hand on the man’s chest. “Look. Look at my hand. Do you see it? Make it go up. Do that for me, make my hand go up. Slow. Slow.”
Sherlock grunts, he can’t, he—
John grabs Sherlock’s chin, turns him so they look right in each other’s eyes. He makes a hissing sound through pursed lips and nods like this, like this.
Sherlock presses at the small hand on his chest, mimics with his mouth, pushes out a long, wheezy…slow…slower…slowest breath.
“That’s it, just like that. Can you get it down here?” John rubs at a suit coat-covered belly. “Right on down, deep and slow and…”
“…yesssss.” Sherlock’s eyes drift closed on the exhale and he counts the heartbeats thrumming away beneath their hands. OneTwoOneTwoOneTwo…
Long minutes later the small man shifts, sits back on his heels. “Good job,” he murmurs. “Good. Thank you. Thank you, that’s good. I’m John.”
Sherlock breathes deep, lets it out sibilant and slow, “Shhhhherlock.”
Another long minute, two. Sherlock releases the hand on his chest. The one on his belly withdraws. Sherlock sits up, looks around.
“I know where I am.”
John nods, pulls into himself in a way no one ever sees because no one sees the doctor who saves them, not really. And it’s fine, it’s all fine, John understands that people need plausible deniability of their own fragility.
“Good. Good. Well, I’m going to call—”
“No.” Sherlock frowns at the open boxes of Nicaraguan cigars, then at the Cubans, too. He stands slowly, looks at the wall.
After several silent seconds John nods again, rises. “Right. Good. You should—” He stops. Starts again. “I'd—” No. Never mind. He knows when people will hear.
Another nod at nothing and John takes hold of the humidor’s brushed silver door handle, tugs, feels the soft whoosh of cool shop air.
John turns. The door whispers closed again. Sherlock’s still looking at the wood paneled wall and it’s to it he speaks. “Why did you thank me?”
John knows when people will hear. Yet even when he knows they won’t, sometimes he talks anyway because sometimes it’s he who needs to hear what he has to say.
“Because you let me help. It’s good you know, helping.”
Sherlock wants to say things right now. A dozen things about helping, about trying to help and how they don’t let him they don’t want him and Sherlock wants to talk about the stupid spot on his stupid lung, the one they thought for months was cancer, the one that made him finally stop smoking but sometimes he can’t stand it, sometimes, sometimes he just can’t breathe unless there’s smoke and fire and—
Sherlock puts a hand on his belly, another on his chest, and he says small and soft between small, soft breaths, “Help me.”
John steps close, his hand settling over one with long fingers. And gently, gently they tell one another…
Previous: Pardon My French | Forgettable
This was inspired by a wee line about tobacco shops in chapter two of MyCapeIsPlaid’s marvelous Corpus Hominis, and then later by an hour-long visit to a London tobacconist where a lovely young man told me all about cigars. Note: All The Day They Met, are on AO3, too.