The hours at sea are long and lonely.
Sherlock is bored; bored beyond belief, bored down to the very core of his being in a way that surpasses all the tedious hours spent in Sunday services, through long family dinners, under the droning tutelage of insipid schoolmasters. Boredom at sea gives new meaning to the word tedium.
He’s tired of the flat grey line of the horizon—never changing, the relentless pitch and heave of the ship, the creak of the hull, the groan of the rigging above him, even the dull glitter of the sun on cloudless days feels harsh and monotonous—seems to grate on him.
But worse than the boredom is the loneliness.
Sherlock is used to being lonely of course, used to feeling unwanted. That’s why he’s here after all, the youngest son, troublesome, useless, incalculably bright but unsuited for any worthwhile profession by dint of his temper, his sullenness, and his absolute refusal to follow any of the normal rules of etiquette in proper society. It was determined that ‘nothing could be done’ for the time being, so he’s been cast off, sent on a three-month-long sea voyage to some god-forsaken part of the world in the hopes that all the qualities that have made him such an intolerable nobleman’s son will be shaken out of him by trial and tedium.
Sherlock could have spared them all the trouble by assuring them that no change will come of it. A year away from civilization isn’t going to cure him of any of his bad manners because it isn’t going to change the fact that he knows he doesn’t belong in the world, that he can’t stand any part of it.
The other passengers treat him just as everyone has treated him his whole life—like some strange aberration that might do them harm if they get too near to him. They avoid him, and in his turn, Sherlock keeps out of their way. He doesn’t want their company. They’re the same as the society his family keeps—and they bore and enrage him simultaneously. The group is largely made up of petty aristocrats, the lot of them so busy scrambling to win one another’s favor that they don’t give a second glance to the sullen, dark-haired young man brooding by himself in a corner of the deck. Sherlock is glad of it. He’d rather pull off his own fingernails than talk to any of them.
The crew is another matter. They are fascinating to him, but for a different reason entirely they also keep well out of his way. To them, he might as well be another species—a strange dark bird hovering around them as they do their work, harmless, but not to be engaged with.
When the weather is fine, Sherlock spends the monotonous hours up on deck, watching the crew at work, the rhythm of their movements as they wind the rope, the dexterity of their sea-limbered bodies as they climb the rigging remarkable to him. Watching them, he feels overly aware of his own long awkward limbs, his thinness, ashamed of the memory of how profoundly he lost control over his body in the first few weeks at sea, how ill he was, how helpless.
However, if Sherlock is honest with himself, then he must admit that the real reason he spends all his time watching the crew is because of one sailor in particular, a man who stands out from all the rest like the glimmer of sunlight on the crest of the wave, the pearl lying in the mouth of the oyster.
The man is short, neither stocky nor lean, but his body is compact and capable, wiry with muscle from years of hard work. His hair is a shock of gold—bright from hours spent in the sun. He has a care-worn, expressive face that often turns up in a smile at the least prompting. However there is a hardness to him, a darkness in the corners of his face that speaks of hidden depths, of wars won and battles lost, a thirst for danger glittering just out of sight.
He is a curious mixture of both youth and age—at times Sherlock looks at him and thinks the man must be close to his own age, no more than a boy really, but other times, at the look in his storm-blue eyes, Sherlock can see fathoms there, and years of sorrow, ungrieved.
Sherlock spends hours watching his gentle, work-worn hands as he twists together lengths of rope, his bare torso as he climbs the rigging, the muscles in his arms shining gold under the noon sun, the muscles in his back as hard, as smooth as marble.
One day, he is sitting and watching the young sailor braiding knots into a length of rope. Sherlock can’t take his eyes off the speed, the dexterity of the man’s small fingers as he works. He’s trying to sort out the pattern with his eyes, to follow the rhythm of the complex movements when the young sailor looks up with a sunburned smile, blue eyes crinkling at the corners, and asks, “Would you like to know how to do it?”
Sherlock looks up, shocked; unaware his focus on the young sailor’s hands had been so obvious.
He is so flabbergasted it takes him a moment to reply. “What?”
His own voice comes out harsh and rusty, and Sherlock realizes in that moment just how many days it’s been since he’s spoken.
The young sailor continues to smile up at him, his eyes creasing against the glare of the sun. “I said, would you like me to show you how I do it?”
Sherlock drops his eyes, shame making the color rise in his cheeks. “No, it’s…fine. I’m sure you’re busy.”
He starts to rise to his feet, embarrassed that he’s been caught out, sure that the young man is making fun of him.
“I’m not teasing you. I really mean it. I’ve seen you watching me work. And I know that look, like your skull might crack if someone doesn’t give you something to keep your hands busy with. I can show you if you like, help you keep yourself occupied.”
Sherlock risks a look down and is stunned to see the man still looking up at him, now evidently trying to keep the smile off his face. “It would be my pleasure.”
Sherlock nods, speechless, still shocked that another human would not only take an interest in him, but show him kindness.
He moves to sit where he had been but the sailor gestures with his elbow. “Come sit by me so you can see better.”
Sherlock does so, moving as though in a trance.
Very cheerily and with incredible patience, the sailor begins to show Sherlock how to twist the strands of fiber together to make the rope.
Sherlock watches quietly, with rapt attention, his eyes focused with hawk-like scrutiny as the sailor explains to him how to emulate his movements.
When he finishes speaking, he hands Sherlock a length of the fibrous material to try himself.
After several false starts, and several gentle corrections, Sherlock slowly, stumblingly begins to copy the sailor’s movements.
They work together in silence for a time, and Sherlock is concentrating so hard, that when the sailor speaks again, Sherlock doesn’t hear what he says. He’s forgotten entirely he isn’t by himself.
“What?” Sherlock says, looking up, feeling foolish in the man’s presence for the second time that day.
“John,” he repeats cheerfully. “My name. John Watson.”
John, Sherlock thinks to himself, silently delighted. John, John, John.
“And whose company do I have the pleasure of keeping?”
“Sherlock,” Sherlock mumbles, careful to keep his eyes on the frayed tangle of cords between his fingers.
“Well, you’re quite good at that you know,” John says. “I’m amazed you’ve gotten the hang of it so quickly. That’s a skillful pair of hands you have there.”
Sherlock says nothing in response to this, but he can feel the pleasure uncoiling within him from the compliment, and it is as warm as the sun on his sallow cheeks.
That night, at dinner, flushed with his triumphant afternoon of companionship with the young sailor, still warm from the compliment and the man’s steady company, Sherlock is perhaps slightly less cautious than usual. Without realizing he has done it, he lets his guard down, doesn’t hunch his shoulders quite so tightly around his ears as he eats his soup.
It is a foolish mistake to think that any measure of happiness can be his for long. He should know better by now—know not to let his guard down.
One of the lower-ranking officers, who seems to yearn the hardest for the approval of the others, and often picks on Sherlock when he wants to show off—Anderson is his name—notices Sherlock’s buoyant mood, immediately starts in on him.
He leans across the table at Sherlock, his mouth curling into a mocking smile.
“I saw you with that blue-eyed sailor today, Holmes. What were you doing with him?” Anderson leers closer. Sherlock can smell the stink of whiskey on his breath. “Trying to learn a useful profession since your family’s cast you off? You going to join the crew?”
A chorus of laughter erupts at this remark. One of the men pounds Anderson on the back in triumph.
Sherlock drops his soup spoon, his cheeks on fire.
“Maybe you’d like to come and clean out my cabin after dinner? Put your new skills to good use.”
Another roar of raucous laughter greets this remark.
Sherlock, never very good at holding his temper on the best of days, immediately snaps back. “I thought that was the job of your good-for-nothing wife. Oh no, that’s right, you didn’t dare bring her with you, did you? You had to leave her behind in Liverpool thanks to her tendency to open her legs for any sailor who bats an eyelash her way. She’d have bedded half the crew by now—”
Anderson is out of his chair and across the table before Sherlock has even finished speaking.
The first blow catches him square in the mouth, the second blow knocks him from his chair. By the time another passenger rushes forward to pull Anderson off of him, Sherlock is on his hands and knees with Anderson’s boot in his stomach.
“That’s enough, Anderson! He’s an obnoxious brat, that’s certain, but you’ve had too much drink. Come on now.”
They drag Anderson off, and Sherlock staggers blindly to his feet and out the door, angry tears burning at the corners of his eyes as he races up the stairs to the upper deck.
It isn’t so much the sting of his cut lip, or the ache of his bruised ribs that makes him upset, but the shame that a greasy, weasely good-for-nothing of a man like Anderson can bring him to his knees in a fight.
The cool night air feels good on Sherlock’s face and it is a relief to get the stink of overdone-stew, the smell of warm whiskey, and the closeness of the other passengers out of his lungs. Sherlock drinks it in, in large grateful gulps.
He sits on a coil of rope, and stares up at the night sky, blinking angry tears out of his eyes, trying to calm the storm of impotent fury battering itself against his ribs.
A soft voice from behind Sherlock startles him out of his reverie.
Sherlock jumps like a spooked rabbit, immediately hurries to wipe the tears off his cheeks. It’s the young sailor—John, Sherlock thinks with a swooping feeling, half-delight, half-terror.
Fear curdles unpleasantly in his gut—fear that this man will see him looking stupid, looking weak, because Sherlock is both of those things and he cannot live with himself if this man sees, if he decides that Sherlock isn’t worth speaking to anymore. He hunches his shoulders against John’s gentle, worried voice. All of a sudden, he can’t stand the thought of another human being, especially this man who is so fascinating to Sherlock—so filled with kindness and strength.
Sherlock doesn’t answer. He draws his arms around himself, silently willing the other man to leave.
When John speaks again, his voice is so quiet Sherlock almost doesn’t hear him. “I see the way they treat you.”
“And what of it?” Sherlock rounds on him, forgetting to hide his tear-stained face in his fury. “Have you come to have a good laugh as well? To marvel at the freak on board? Go on then, do it if that’s what you came for. Have your laugh.”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
The gentleness in John’s voice cuts through Sherlock like a blade.
He turns away, hunches in tighter against himself as though he can block out the stars, the moon, the wind, even John’s kind voice if it means not having to feel so deeply all the time. More than anything most of the time, Sherlock just wishes he could shut it out, make himself completely numb to all the noise, the chaos of the world.
His voice is vicious. “I don’t need your pity.”
“I haven’t come for that either.” John sits quietly beside him. “Just came to say, if you’d ever like lessons in how to dodge a blow, and how to give as good as you get, well…” John shrugs. “I know a thing or two about fighting.”
Sherlock cannot help himself, he looks up, fascinated, speechless for the second time that day that this man would not only willingly seek out Sherlock’s company, but offer to teach him something useful.
Sherlock turns slightly to face him. “That would be…” He licks the blood off his bottom lip, and nods, in his eagerness. “I’d like that.”
The words fail utterly to convey his true feelings.
“Good.” John says, and then stands up. “We’ll start tomorrow. Go on and get a good night’s sleep.”
Sherlock nods again, his rage almost completely forgotten in his amazement over John’s proposition.
“Oh, and Sherlock? One more thing.”
Sherlock turns to look up at John. His worn face is soft with some emotion Sherlock cannot place. “Don’t let them get to you, alright? You’re better than the lot of them combined.”
Sherlock watches John retreat into the shadows.
Long after he can no longer make out the shape of the other man’s silhouette, Sherlock sits in the darkness, listening to the creak of the ship, remembering over and over again the sound of John’s voice saying his name.