John was not in the top of his class when he was selected for his specialization. He wasn't sure what his instructors saw in him. Maybe a steadiness or an unflappability or a resilience, something that would keep him afloat while others might drown. John didn't know.
What John did know was that he had to take special classes in anatomy that his friends didn't. The Old Ones were not built like humans and they were not built very much like each other, and that meant whole new systems of organs, whole new sets of limbs. John had to do an autopsy at one point. It happened in one of the lesser-used rooms, one that seemed colder and darker and danker than the other examination rooms, smelling of mold and decay. The body was of a young one, not so very large yet, and he was very dead. Even then, with his green skin ashen and his eyes cold and unseeing, John could feel the touch of dread that lingered in the presence of one of them. It made the autopsy even more unpleasant than normal, an uneasy prickle at the back of John's neck.
"I'm impressed," Professor Howitzer said as she watched John separate out and count the number of tentacles. "You're the first one who hasn't started sobbing right about now. Most students recover in time to graduate, of course, but I've never seen anyone do this so calmly on their first go."
It was said that simply being in the presence of an Old One could drive one mad, and John could feel something dark and cold seeping into his head as he prepared his instruments.
But he hadn't known what to say, so he had gone back to work, selecting his largest scalpel so that he could make his first incision. The prickle at the back of his neck didn't fade until John had left the room, and for a few minutes, he placed his forehead against the cool stone of the hallway, trying to regain his bearings.
"You're a doctor," Sherlock says. He is pulling on a pair of leather gloves, and his eyes are bright with something that John hasn't really seen before. There weren't any rules against enthusiasm, but too much of it amongst the humans made the royalty suspicious and more likely to intervene. For humanity's own good, of course. Before the Old Ones came, if too many enthusiastic humans were allowed near each other, a war would usually break out. If the Old Ones let such things go on, the humans might get ideas. Sherlock says, "An army doctor. Oh, that's good. That's very good."
"And what exactly is so very good?" John asks. He has been trying to wrap his head around his new friend, but Sherlock defies analysis, defies understanding. He is a bright flash of color in a dull world, and John has never met anything in his life like him. He's not sure he ever will again.
"Your injury in Afghanistan. It was one of them, I take it?" Sherlock says. His head is tilted ever so slightly to the side. There's something in the way Sherlock says 'them' that makes John's blood run cold, the way he spits it from his mouth without any trace of respect. John's been trained too well to ever attempt anything like that.
John clenches his teeth, tries to keep his breath from coming out too fast. It had been dark, that he remembers, and filled with a stifling heat. He had been grateful for the dark, later, because he was sure that being able to see would be worse. His leg still aches to this day, though no traces of the wound remain. The damage to his body goes deeper than human minds can comprehend. "Yes," he says.
"You'll be amenable to working for our cause, then?" Sherlock says, though John's sure he already knows the answer. Sherlock seems to have all the answers.
John has a to take a deep breath before responding. This is the maddest thing he's ever done, the maddest thing he's ever thought of doing. "Yes," he says, looking straight into Sherlock's eyes.
John was about to graduate from medical school when Professor Howitzer approached him with a job opportunity. "I've arranged an audience with the Queen. She is searching for a new court physician, and she's heard about your skill. It's quite an honor for one so young."
John had been surprised, flattered even. He was eager to curry favor with the Queen, and it was an excellent opportunity to prove his worth. As human, being part of the court was a rare privilege, one few would ever receive. He wasn't sure what to expect inside the castle, but what he wasn't expecting was the cold, creeping terror as soon as he stepped inside. It wasn't the same sort of terror as going to an exam you haven't studied for or right before you're about to break it off with a significant other. It was something deeper than that, something that seemed to reach inside him and rattle John's very soul, leaving him shaky and unsteady. John understood, just then, that the dread he'd felt while dissecting the corpse was nothing close to the real thing.
The man who greeted John at the door made mindless smalltalk as they walked through the hallways together. "She's just had her evening meal, a few homeless people we found for her, so she is in rather a good mood. She says that their despair tastes finer than the sweetest of our wines. They make such pleasant screaming noises as she drives them mad and tastes their broken souls."
John hadn't known what to say to that, though his stomach turned in disgust. He had known, of course, about the appetites of the royalty, but it was different hearing it tossed off so casually. "I am glad she enjoyed it," he said, careful to keep his emotions in check.
It was dark inside the throne room. John could only see the Queen in outline, in a suggestion of her true majesty. She was a black, writhing shape on an elaborate wooden throne that smelled of rotting flesh. Isz to be our new phyzszion? she asked. John couldn't see her eyes or her expression, not that he imagined that he could understand either one. So this was the thing that ruled Albion. A squid-like tentacle reached out into the light to pluck a glass of water from a table, the green limb still covered with red blood and human skin.
"Yes," he said. "Professor Howitzer recommended me for this position." The words tasted bitter in his mouth, and there was an anger in him now, crowding out the fear.
She studied him for a long moment, and it felt almost like a physical weight, a pressure against his skull as if it were trying to pry him open to peer inside. A shiver ran through John's body, and he thought his mind would shatter under the feeling of it. Unaszzeptable, she said eventually, buzzing lingering in John's mind even after her words had stopped, giving no further explanation for the dismissal.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he walked back outside, grateful to be spared.
After he graduated, he took a commission in the army instead.
Sherlock is the one who gives him the knives, and while they are in waiting, John takes it upon himself to sharpen them in order to pass the time. The knives have beautiful, curved blades, and along the side, letters of the ancient Romans are written, Sic semper tyrannis.
"What does it mean?" John asks one night while he and Sherlock are scouring the message boards for new movements or new information. The sites are well-hidden, and no one accesses them through anything less than five proxies. John holds the knife up to his face, tilting his head so that he can follow the words down the curve of steel. No one can read Latin anymore. They don't teach it in schools, because their rulers have decided that it is a waste of resources. Students learn practical things, like science and history and maths. There are still traces of Latin left behind, though, carved deep into old buildings and on hidden books. John has always wondered about them, though he has always known better than to ask.
Sherlock waves a pale hand from where he's curled up on his chair, his knees pulled up to his chin as his eyes flick over the laptop's screen. "Thus always to tyrants," he says, and a ghostly smile flashes over his face. "My brother gave those to me. I suppose he thinks himself funny." His breath leaves white trails in the air. In an abandoned warehouse like this, their space heater can only do so much. Not that John minds. The cold dampness of Albion reminds him that he is no longer in the desert, and he much prefers freezing to death to thinking back on what he saw there.
"I don't understand," John says. There's an extra layer here that he doesn't understand. A reference he's missing. He never used knives while in the army, only ever killed using his gun. But guns don't work on the hides of the Old Ones, and so he has a pair of knives. John is becoming rather fond of them, much in the way he's becoming rather fond of Sherlock.
"In the days of old, when humans used to rule over each other, they'd kill each other for power," Sherlock says, frowning at something on his computer and then tapping away at his keyboard. "Mycroft refuses to tell me the rest of it."
"Thus always to tyrants, then?" John says, inspecting the polished metal. Just yesterday, it had been smeared with blood and entrails, dripping a putrid, ugly green onto the floor. "I like it."
John didn't really understand the exact sequence of events that led to his life working with Sherlock. It had something to do with coming back from Afghanistan, running into Mike Stamford, and the understanding they'd come to about their shared beliefs regarding the royalty. Stamford had known someone who was planning for big things, someone who was looking for another someone who might be interested in being an assistant.
The first thing John thought about Sherlock was that he was mad. John had met plenty of mad blokes before. As a doctor, you would see them go by, and you would feel a moment of pity for what they must have felt or seen to get them there. They would speak in the languages of the Old Ones, their eyes open and glazed, mouths hanging open in remembered terror. Sherlock wasn't anything like that, though there was that glint in his eyes that made him look as though he might have been touched in the head as a child.
In the basement of St. Bart's, Sherlock guessed John's history and John's family life and John's reason for being here without even bothering to take a breath, and John had been impressed. Sherlock had gray eyes that look almost translucent underneath fluorescents and sharp cheekbones and thick, unkempt hair, and when he smiled, it almost seemed wrong, because people never smiled like that, like they would be happy to tear you open given half a chance.
"So what do you do?" John asked, leaning heavily on his cane. Bart's was not the best place for this conversation. His old professors might still be around. They could overhear things they shouldn't. John liked them well enough, but he didn't trust them in the least.
"I'm an actor," Sherlock said with a neat little bow. "A very good one." He had a flair for the dramatic, John had to admit, an ability to project himself so that he was larger than life. That must have served him well in his chosen profession. Everyone was willing to forgive a little eccentricity amongst actors. The best of them were driven mad by the time they were forty, after all. Too much time in the presence of the royalty could do that to a man. The actresses were lucky to be eaten by the time they reached thirty.
"That sounds useful," John said.
Sherlock smiled, the unsettling one, the one that worked its way underneath John's skin. "You're a doctor," he said, pulling on his leather gloves. "An army doctor. Oh, that's good. That's very good."
The first time John kills one of them, Sherlock is there.
Sherlock picks the victim, a minor prince related to the Queen, and he brings said prince back to the rooms in Shoreditch. Sherlock watches as John demonstrates exactly what he learned at St. Bart's, all those years ago.
On a purely theoretical level, it's all very interesting. Living bodies bleed in ways that dead ones do not, and moving muscle is really quite fascinating as you peel the skin away from it. The prince doesn't scream out in pain as John slowly cuts him to pieces. John is almost disappointed by that. It had all seemed so very dramatic when Sherlock told him about it earlier, full of running and close-calls and almost-dying. This is almost clinical, detached. John is even wearing his latex gloves to make clean-up easier later. The rooms are small and dusty, old and empty. The wooden floorboards creak underneath John's feet. The single bare light bulb over their heads casts dark shadows on the floor.
The terror is still there, as John does his work, curling cold and dark in his chest, but it lessens with each cut John makes, with each moment that passes. Some of it still lingers, though, a steady presence at the base of his mind.
"I'll have to remove the hearts," John says, out loud to Sherlock. "They regenerate very quickly, and it's the best way to make sure that this one stays dead." He slices through the ribs, which are softer and more malleable than the human variety, prying open the chest cavity so that he can get a better look at the organs inside. John has prepared his whole life for this moment, every day of every year. He feels, with an utter certainty, that this is what he was meant to do. He recognizes the lung, the two hearts, the stomach. There's even that organ that the human mouth can't pronounce. John takes a deep breath, and then he cuts out the hearts. They pulse once in his hands before they die, oozing a golden yellow slime over his wrists.
And then it's over. There's a dead body on the floor, and there's blood on John's gloves. The blood looks almost human under the cold pale moonlight. John feels sick in the way he did in the hospitals during the war. Too much blood everywhere, too much red. Sherlock says, "Good work." He is smiling, no teeth. His eyes are bright, and he is very still, like a statue. He stares at John as if there is something inside John's skull that Sherlock wants to see.
"Thank you," John says, and a sick twisting feeling takes up residence in his chest.
One thing that John had always found odd about Sherlock was that he didn't do any of this out of the same disgust, revulsion, anger and frustration that the other Restorationists did. Mostly, he seemed bored when John talked of the atrocities the Old Ones had committed and he didn't seem to care about any of the victims they came across.
No, Sherlock lived for the hunt. His eyes would light up when they had a new lead, a new target, and his eyes would get brighter with every step that brought them closer.
"You really don't care, do you?" John asked one night while they were hiding in a sympathetic household. They had a sofa for one night. Well, Sherlock had a sofa, and John had a piece of floor next to a sofa. Sherlock's "Sherry Vernet" alias had been well and truly buggered and so they needed a new plan of attack.
"Don't make me out to be some sort of hero," Sherlock said, his lips curled into a sneer. He was sprawled out on the sofa, his long legs hooked over one arm. "And don't pretend that you're in this for altruistic reasons yourself." He looked at John with those unsettling colorless eyes of his, and John couldn't decide between staring back and turning away. Sherlock grinned, cold and hard and strangely beautiful. "You love it as much as I do," he drawled, his tongue lingering on the word 'love' like it was a caramel, and John couldn't disagree.
Sherlock liked it even more these days, what with that detective coming after them. Sherlock couldn't leave it alone, like a scab he insisted on scratching, no matter how many times John liked to remind him that this Moriarty fellow probably had connections to the Queen herself. "If you keep going on like this, someone is going to get hurt," John said, rubbing his forehead and flopping back onto the hard, carpeted floor. They had too much to do without Sherlock getting distracted.
"Isn't that the point?" Sherlock asked, and John covered his face with his hands in disgust.
"I couldn't believe my luck when I found you," the detective says with a laugh. "The perfect bait, handed to me on a platter."
He pats John's hair, and John doesn't flinch. His mouth has been duct-taped shut, and there's a bomb strapped to his chest, and he can smell is the sick, chlorine taste of the pool. John doesn't move, doesn't blink. His breath is steady and even through his nose.
"He'll be coming for you, won't he?" Moriarty says, caressing John's cheek. "You are such a lovely and loyal pet. And this game between us is becoming so very tedious. I would like to end it once and for all."
John wants to smile, taste the sticky glue against his lips. Sherlock won't stop playing, even if Moriarty shoots John right in front of him. Sherlock hasn't thought about anything else for weeks, only paying any attention to John when he needs food or water or a text message. When Moriarty caught wind of them, Sherlock decided to try to throw the detective off their scent through an elaborate series of ruses. John has been running from one end of London to the other, and to be honest, he's almost glad for the kidnapping so that he can have the break. The buzzing in his mind has grown stronger of late, and to be trapped by someone so purely human lessens the ache in his mind. John can appreciate that.
Moriarty says, "Rache will be quite pleased to see that I've been taking such good care of you." He tilts his head as he listens to his earpiece, a broad grin spreading across his face. "Oh, your friend is approaching. It looks like our fun is about to begin." He claps his hands and tears the tape from John's mouth. It stings. "Be a good boy and greet him for us." He shoves John forward, towards the pool, where Sherlock will be waiting for them.
John laughs, and the sound echoes against the far walls of the room.
"Deep down, they're just animals," Sherlock said. He pressed his lips against John's collarbone, his hands warm against John's ribs. John closed his eyes and shivered, heat chasing itself down his body. "They need to feed, and they need to kill."
John tightened his fingers into the curls of Sherlock's hair, yanking his head back so that John could kiss his mouth. Ages ago, John had half-expected Sherlock to kiss the same way he did everything else that didn't directly involve hunting, lazy and unconcerned and expecting John to do all the work. But Sherlock put everything of himself into his kisses, as if he wanted to take as much of John as he could into his mouth. "Why are we even talking about this?" John asked. There were so much better things to be thinking about, and he was having problems focusing with Sherlock's naked body pressed against his own.
Sherlock laughed, and John bit down on the curve of Sherlock's jaw, wanting to leave behind a mark that Sherlock would have to cover up alter, a claim on Sherlock's skin. Sherlock said, "We're not so different from them, are we?" He pressed his thumbs against the curves of John's hips, his eyes bright and clear. "Not under the surface."
John rolled them both over so that he was on top. It was true that they were bound together by what they did and who they fought, but John was determined to stake out this space between them, where the outside world couldn't interfere. He liked Sherlock, almost despite himself, liked Sherlock's fickle moods and sharp mind, Sherlock's fingers and Sherlock's lips and Sherlock's knees. "Shut it," John said, kissing Sherlock again, which he was certain was a much better use for Sherlock's mouth.
The body on the floor shudders out one last dying breath, and John drops his knives. They clatter against the tile underneath his feet, still dripping with blood. He feels a rush of endorphins, singing through his arteries and veins, making his head spin along with the adrenaline.
"John," Sherlock says, his breathing coming fast and short. He lowers the gun. His pupils are huge, crowding out the pale irises. John wants him, the desire spicy and sweet on his tongue. He's become used to wanting Sherlock, but it's always worse like this, because he's almost certain that Sherlock wants him back.
John kisses him, still humming with the rush of a fresh kill. This is the first time he's risked it, and their mouths are awkward with teeth bumping against teeth, so very new. Sherlock's lips taste like salt and the faint tang of chemicals. There isn't a drop of blood on him, and John wants to press his fingers against Sherlock's pale neck, wants to leave bloody trails along the sharp jut of his cheekbones. Sherlock doesn't experience the violence the way John does, visceral and too much and all the time. John wants to drag Sherlock down with him. "Fuck," John says against Sherlock's lips, because he's wanted Sherlock for ages, and it's even better than he could have imagined.
"I was beginning to wonder if you would ever realize the effect killing has on you," Sherlock says, as John leaves sticky fingerprints on the collar of his shirt.
"You love it too," John says with the undeniable proof of this fact pressed against John's stomach. John thinks he should have noticed sooner, should have known since that first time in Shoreditch, should have realized from the look in Sherlock's eyes. But Sherlock was a mystery then in a way he isn't now, and John doesn't regret any of it.
"Not here," Sherlock grits out as John presses the heel of his hand against the bulge in Sherlock's trousers. "They'll come looking."
It's entirely mad that Sherlock has become the voice of reason for once, but John finds he doesn't care. He still wants to do this right here, right now, with the smell of death still fresh in the air, with dark blood still pooling at their feet. "All right," John says, dragging his hands away from Sherlock's body. Sherlock is right, after all. Sherlock is usually right.
John didn't like to talk about the war.
Sherlock never asked about it beyond a few tossed off deductions. He was always more concerned about their future plans than John's past. He sometimes claimed that John's limp was psychosomatic, but John ignored him. Sherlock hadn't seen first-hand what had been done to John, and for all Sherlock's knowledge, he wasn't a doctor. John was inclined to pretend that none of it had ever happened, but at night, the dreams still came, and he would would wake up out of breath, his whole body tensed and ready for the sounds of explosions, of bullets flying overhead, of humans dying in agony.
John had killed people during the war, his gun steady in his hands as he pulled the trigger. John didn't regret it at all, especially after he discovered what lurked beneath, in the caves that lay underneath the surface. Killing was by far the more merciful option. But he still found it difficult to watch blood spray from bullet holes, to see bodies crumple onto the ground beneath them, to catch a glimpse of empty, unseeing eyes. Some nights, he dreamed every one of them behind his eyelids, an endless loop of all the deaths he'd caused.
On those nights, John curled in closer to Sherlock, pressed his nose against Sherlock's neck, where he always seemed to smell of soap and sweat and the barest hint of formaldehyde. It was warm there, and comforting, and John found it easier to forget with Sherlock's body nestled close in to his own.
When he first came back from Afghanistan, John didn't dream of the caves, of the darkness and the terror and the pain. Or, if he did, his mind never let him remember those dreams in the mornings.
These days, he dreamed of the endless deep of the sea, the shivery chill of the stars, and the hissing language of the Old Ones. He dreamed of eyes, wide and unblinking, of cities covered in slime and mud, and of piles of bodies, fetid and foul and decaying, all echoing with the same ghostly horror and dread. He dreamed of sticky green blood on his hands, dripping through his fingers onto the floor, of terror that could not be described, could not be named, of cold, oozing creatures creeping through his body, down his spine and up his throat and into his fingers.
On those nights, John woke up screaming.
"I love you," John says. They're hiding in a shack, pressed against each other to conserve heat and space. The local coppers were out in force looking for them, searching the nearby area. It was too windy to stay outside for very long, more dangerous than staying in one place for a while. John's hands are cold, and he rubs them together, blowing on them from time to time.
Sherlock snorts, his expression still serene in the scarlet light of the moon. "As if that wasn't obvious," he says. His steady breaths look pink in the frigid air.
"I know," John says, "but I thought I'd like to say it at least once." John's never been a big fan of endings. He's a writer, yes, and he understands the necessity of them, the need to create order out of chaos. Stories need particular shapes, particular hills and valleys. One thing leads to another right up until you get to the end. Real life doesn't work like that. Real life doesn't stop or slow down and not everything has meaning. Not everything is a plot point. Neither of them believe that they'll ever achieve their goals in their lifetimes, that humanity will ever learn to fend for themselves while they're alive to see it. The royalty are too many, scattered too far around the globe. But John has learned that life is meant to be lived one day at a time, each moment right after the next. He and Sherlock won't ever get their resolution, their neat and tidy ending, but John finds that he doesn't care. Not if he can have moments like this, feeling cautious and terrified and completely alive.
Sherlock smiles, faint but honest on his pale face. John doesn't find it so very strange anymore. Outside the doors, they can hear the sound of retreating footsteps, the police shouting that they haven't found anyone. "We should go," Sherlock says, his eyes clear and colorless. "The game is on."
And so they go.
The pool was quiet and empty except for Sherlock, who was standing at the far end, waiting with a bag slung over his shoulder.
Moriarty had fit John with an earpiece earlier, and he was currently trying to give John proper direction, but there were no red dots fixed on John's chest. John ignored him. Instead, John raised an eyebrow at Sherlock in an unspoken question. They'd become adept at communicating without words over the months, the years. It was the only reason they were both still alive, after all, especially after that incident in Edinburgh a month or two back.
Sherlock just grinned, smug in that way he always was when he managed to get through a spot of violence without John's assistance. Moran was dead then, along with the other two snipers John had seen. John pulled off the coat and vest, tossing both into the water. Moriarty said something threatening, but John pulled the earpiece out mid-sentence, interrupting whatever insults were being hurled his way. It was just as well that Moriarty hadn't realized how well Sherlock knew his methods, how many hours Sherlock had spent watching him work.
Sherlock tossed the bag at John, and John caught it, opening it as Sherlock pulled John's gun from the waistband of his trousers.
"Tsk, tsk," Moriarty said, his voice coming from somewhere behind John's back. "You two aren't sticking to the script."
"How terrible for you," Sherlock said, raising the pistol to point at Moriarty's face. "I'm sorry to spoil all your fun." John flinched, because he didn't entirely trust Sherlock's aim, no matter how many smiley-faces Sherlock could put into walls.
"Oh, this is just a minor setback. I'm sure we'll have loads of fun later." Moriarty seemed far more interested in baiting Sherlock than he was in what John was doing, especially now that they could speak face to face. John pulled his knives from the bag, still clean and sharp. They were as comfortable in his hands as his gun.
"I look forward to it," Sherlock said, and his glee at the prospect was written all over his face. It was in that moment that John realized that Sherlock wouldn't ever want to just end it. Sherlock couldn't, as far as John knew. And like so many other things, this had become something that John had to do for the both of them.
"I'm sure--" Moriarty said, right before John stabbed him through his stomach.
When John killed members of the royal family, he liked to start with a quick, painful move, so that his victims weren't so resistant later, when he started performing the surgery. Moriarty's mouth hung open, red blood soaking through his shirt. John pulled the knife back out so that Moriarty collapsed onto the floor. John had expected this to be harder, but the habits he'd developed hunting the Old Ones were reasserting themselves. He knelt next to Moriarity's body, slicing the shirt and suit jacket away from his skin. John had been a human surgeon before he became a Restorationist.
It wouldn't be possible to cut out Moriarty's heart, because the knives wouldn't cut through human ribs and sternum. John would have to settle for the next best thing. He slid his knife between the top two ribs and pulled, severing the aorta. He felt the blood vessel catch for a moment before it separated under the blade. The body jerked as John did so, spasming with the last vestiges of life. For a moment, John's vision swam, and he could see the last New World princeling he had encountered, could hear its dying screams echoing in the dark alleyway where they'd killed him. John stood up and took one step back, clearing the image from his mind. He watched and waited.
The body on the floor shuddered out one last dying breath, and John dropped his knives. They clattered against the tile underneath his feet, still dripping with blood. He felt a rush of endorphins, singing through his arteries and veins, making his head spin along with the adrenaline.
"John," Sherlock said, his breathing coming fast and short. He lowered the gun. His pupils were huge, crowding out the pale irises. John wanted him, the desire spicy and sweet on his tongue. He'd become used to wanting Sherlock, but it was always worse like this, because he was almost certain that Sherlock wanted him back.
John kissed him, still humming with the rush of a fresh kill. This was the first time he's risked it, and their mouths were awkward with teeth bumping against teeth, so very new.
When they got back to safety, Sherlock cleaned the blood from John's fingers with his tongue, and John took Sherlock's cock into his mouth. It was all so fucking brilliant. John wanted to break out into helpless giggles, wanted to take something apart with his hands, wanted to feel the Earth and the stars and the red blood-moon behind his eyelids. He settled for fucking Sherlock instead, leaving bite marks along Sherlock's hips, dark fingerprint bruises on Sherlock's thighs.
"You killed a man," Sherlock mumbled later as they were drifting off to sleep, the sleeping bag pulled tight around their bodies, "with your knives. You've never done that before."
John mulled that thought over in his head, and all it brought back is the chlorine taste of Sherlock's lips, the beautiful feel of Moriarty's body coming apart under his knives. "And now I have," he said.