Sherlock and his dæmon moved through the darkening room, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. His mother was in there, and his brother, and he did not want to be seen. The alethiometer was in a safe in the third cabinet to the right, and if he could get it out before dinner undetected he'd have the whole evening with it. Some scholars were coming to dinner, and his mother would be occupied with them, and his brother too. He refused dinner so often that refusing it tonight would be unremarkable.
His dæmon, in his most boisterous ferret form, ran between the chair legs, banging his nose on one and making chirruping sounds to himself as he did so.
“You're not taking this seriously,” Sherlock said. “Behave yourself.”
“Listen to them in the kitchen,” Cassius, his dæmon, said. “They're making too much noise to hear us.” And it was true: glasses clinked loudly in the kitchen, and the radio was on. But Cassius quietened slightly, and then turned into a bat and fluttered over to the cupboard, almost imperceptible in the darkening room.
The alethiometer was in the safe. The alethiometer wanted to be read. No one seemed to know this but Sherlock, just as no one could understand what the alethiometer was saying but Sherlock. They talked about Dust and about dark matter in hushed voices, but they didn't know the first thing about the alethiometer, and they didn't like Sherlock to touch it. Luckily Sherlock was good with safes and locks. He had not known he would be, but he discovered he was good at most things when he tried them.
“Let's go: I've got it,” Sherlock said once the box was in his hands, but Cassius, a mouse, was wandering around inside the safe, paws and teeth examining the papers that were there. Sherlock grabbed him by the tail, which Cassius hated, and deposited him on his shoulder.
The alethiometer was in a wooden box, and the box was padded with thick sheets of the processed palm, a lot like the stuff that was used to store the parts of computers and anbaric communicators. It was too big too fit in his pocket, so Sherlock took the alethiometer out and put it directly in there instead. It was a comforting weight against his thigh. Then he shut the box and the safe.
He locked his bedroom door; Mummy sometimes complained when he did that, but it was for her own good. His heart was racing, not from fear of being caught, but with excitement about what was coming next. That was no good. The alethiometer would not be read when he was not calm. He sat on the bed, composing himself, and Cassius, a squirrel monkey, reached into his pocket and took the it out. He tried it in his hands, turning the dials slowly, but he could make nothing of it. It was Sherlock to whom it spoke.
Only clever people, like the scholars who came to talk to Mummy, knew that the alethiometer was not a myth. They had studied Dust and read books and knew the alethiometer could tell the truth, and had told the truth before, but they did not believe it would again. They were so stupid it made Sherlock's head hurt if he thought about it too much, so he didn't think about it. He turned his mind to the alethiometer instead, because it was lonely.
No, it was not lonely: that was not possible. It simply wanted to be read, because it had been made to be read, and it had not been read for a long time. It came from Dust and it wanted to speak to Dust again, because Dust was all around but it could have no meaningful conversation with it if someone did not direct it. Sherlock directed it; Sherock asked the right questions. When he looked at its face, his mind cleared, and understanding came at once. He sat with it, only moving his hands, the rest of him still and intent, watching the needle spin, the layers of meaning rise around him in the silent room. When it was too dark to read Cassius turned the anbaric light on for him, and then resumed tearing up photographs on the rug. Cassius liked the way photographic paper tore.
The scholars had not come to talk about dark matter, they were not experimental theologians; they ate roast beef and gooseberry pie, and talked to Mummy and Mycroft about the politics of the Tartars and New Denmark, and Mycroft was bored because these were not powerful men, but he would not have said so, and so the dinner ran late and no one noticed the alethiometer was gone until the next evening, and by then it had told Sherlock how he could keep it.
John woke, his breath harsh in his throat, his dæmon batting at his face with sharp claws. He opened his eyes, closed them, sat up, put his head in his hands, wept, and let his dæmon nuzzle his face and nip at his ears, because it soothed her. He did not want to lie down again, he did not want to sleep again, but it was too early to get up, so he said to Stella, “If you were not settled, what would you be now?”
It had become their game since they had returned from the war: John was not the kind of person who was unhappy with what his dæmon had become, he had not longed for a lion and ended up with a poodle, though sometimes it was strange to him, in a way it did not seem to be strange to others, that part of him was female, and so beautiful; but asking Stella what she might be was in its own way calming, and a welcome distraction.
Stella was not particularly given to great displays of affection, thought she could be demonstrative when necessary, and she leapt lightly from the bed to the windowsill. “I want to fly,” she said.
“A bat?” John said.
“Oh no, too ungainly,” she said. “And I couldn't be an owl. A nighthawk. If I could be anything now, I would be a nighthawk. Thought flying is so tedious when you can't follow me.”
“I could feel it,” John said, slowly stretching his leg. “I could feel it, when you flew.”
“Of course you could,” Stella said, “But I couldn't go far.” She brought one paw to her mouth, and washed it. She was not much bigger than a domestic cat, but her shape was different. Her ears were too low down, and her body too sleek. Her colour was wrong for a tabby, too, because she was a leopard cat, and she could not make herself blend in with other cat dæmons, of which there were many in John's family. Harry had a Siamese. He supposed it was why none of them were very social, or fond of large crowds.
Stella sat on the back of his chair when he spoke to his therapist, very erect and poised. She was the most beautiful thing in the office, John thought, the thing most worth looking at, though the therapist, whether it was with studied politeness or due to indifference, scarcely looked at her at all. She had a linnet; it sat calmly on her shoulder and looked down at her notes, not at John. The therapist read the notes as she was writing, and so did John, so all the eyes in the room where on her handwriting, except Stella's. Stella looked into the middle distance and seemed not to care at all about what was going on, and John mainly felt her indifference when they were in that room together. It helped.
When you were an adult, you weren't supposed to treat your dæmon with affection in front of other people any more, or even talk to them more than necessary. You were supposed to remain as politely indifferent to your dæmon as you were to other people's. Any thing else was considered childish. Sherlock thought that in a world stuffed impossibly full of stupid ideas, this was one of the most stupid. If a part of yourself, a vital, important part of yourself, lived outside you, and spoke to you and touched you, how could you ignore it? And when everyone around you displayed these vital parts of themselves, showed just what they were, how could you ignore that? Dæmons were a very important detail and Sherlock had no intention of leaving them out. Besides, Cassius was useful, having settled in the shape of a capuchin monkey, and could complete tasks for Sherlock when necessary, and was, being part of Sherlock, less stupid than anyone else, and thus a much better companion.
So Sherlock spoke to Cassius whenever he pleased, and absently stroked the fur at the back of his head, or smoothed his tail, because doing that felt nice, and that was only one of the reasons why they called him a freak. Cassius was good at examining other people. He liked it, he liked looking at them and learning from the way they held themselves and the skin on their thumbs who they were and what they thought of themselves. It was fun. Sherlock could do it too, but it wasn't as interesting as reading the alethiometer, so he didn't do it much. When the alethiometer spoke it was never dull, though there were times when it did not speak, when it grew tired of Sherlock and ignored his questions, and then the boredom set in, a feeling so unpleasant it almost made him frantic.
Stella wasn't very keen on monkey dæmons, although she disliked so many dæmons that this was hardly novel. When Cassius came to speak to her she sidestepped him neatly and stood between John's leg and the crutch. Her eyes were half closed and she seemed to have no interest in the room or its occupants.
“A leopard cat,” Cassius said, coming back and sitting on the desk next to Sherlock's experiment. He sometimes sat on Sherlock's shoulder, but he was too large for this to be comfortable for long periods of time. “Unusual.”
He might have said something else, but it was too quiet for John to hear. Sherlock looked up at him for the first time and said, “Afghanistan or Iraq?”
You did not read an alethiometer; they were the stuff of fairy tales. If you had one you did not keep it in your pocket like it was a phone or a handful of coins for the bus, and you did not pull it out and tell the truth over tea like it was nothing. But Sherlock did, and he tired to talk to Stella, and his own dæmon spoke to John with no qualms or shame. And John got used to it; it was certainly easier to get used to than living in London again.
There was a certain reverence in Sherlock's tone when he spoke about the alethiometer. Or, perhaps not reverence, but affection. He spoke about it as if they had been friends for a long time, and this made up for its shortcomings, which he listed frequently to John.
“A better one could be made,” he said, often; and John asked him if he could make it.
“No,” Sherlock said. His face clouded. “Not by myself. But the alethiometer has limitations that could be corrected.”
But despite those limitations, he spent most of his time with it. It bored his dæmon, who climbed over the mantelpiece and read papers and books and then dropped them anywhere, who texted people on John's phone, who put his face close to Stella's and allowed himself to be snarled at. John watched Sherlock's face changed as he read the alethiometer, and made he made them both tea.
The police came sometimes, and they went with them. Members of the police force often had dogs as dæmons, which Stella hated, or birds of prey, which she pretended to ignore, but John thought she had some regard for them.
“You're wasting your time,” Mycroft said to Sherlock when they had finished a particularly complex case. “You're wasting your talents on this.”
Sherlock knew what he meant and what he wanted, but the powerful men whose company Mycroft so enjoyed bored Sherlock, and anyway Mycroft was more powerful than any of them now.
“You could read it you tried,” Sherlock said, and Mycroft thought he was taunting him by saying it, because Sherlock could do something Mycroft couldn't, but Sherlock meant it. Mycroft could. It wasn't as hard as all that.
John woke in the room upstairs, in his new flat, his feet cold, and his face damp. Stella picked her way delicately across the bed to him, and pressed her face against his. He was crying, and she hated getting wet, but she put up with it. John stroked her fur, stroked the soft place between her shoulder blades, and the velvety hairs above the pads of her feet. It was very comforting.
When he could breath normally again, he said, “What would you be now, if you hadn't settled?”
“Nothing but myself,” she said, arching her spine. Then she said, “But if I were a dog and had no self control I would bite Cassius. I would like that.”
John laughed and rubbed his cheek against the soft dome of her head. Her long whiskers tickled his neck.
He got up when the sky was light enough, was glad that it was winter now and it was perfectly reasonable to get up with the first light. He ate an apple, enjoying the fresh taste, the juice spilling down his fingers and settling between them. He set the fire so Stella could stretch out in front of it. The alethiometer was sitting on the mantelpiece beside the skull, a spouse who had been banished to the sofa for the night.
He didn't have to work today, and it was too early, yet, to settle down with Mrs Hudson for some TV, so he looked through the books on the table. They were mostly non-fiction, because they were Sherlock's, or more accurately Cassius's, and he didn't have time for fiction, and some of them were old and full of diagrams and hushed talk of other worlds, and some of them were new and clean and without pictures but full of swipes at the idea that there could be other worlds. There were histories of witches, and of countries, of Muscovites and Texans. John thought he should be interested in the wealth of information, but found himself bored.
Sherlock came in and picked up the alethiometer with an air of apology. John's head ached from lack of sleep, and when Cassius went gleefully over to Stella, she growled at him, her fur bristling. Cassius stopped, and bared his own teeth: they were very white and surprisingly impressive.
“Can't you control your dæmon?” Stella snapped, and John was struck by how deep her voice was, and how threatening she could be. Her small body seemed barely to contain her strength.
She had not spoke to Sherlock before, but Sherlock made no comment on this. He only said, “I tried once.” He was wearing his blue silk dressing-gown, and he closed his eyes, the alethiometer resting in the hollow of his throat.
“Try harder,” Stella said, and batted at Cassius with one big paw. It sent him sprawling, and Sherlock's feet twitched as if he felt it. John didn't move. The book he was holding had a map of flight paths of witches. He looked at it, at the lines drawn in gold.
Cassius righted himself, and then leapt at Stella. It was swift and sudden, and John was immediately livid. To attack his dæmon...! The two dæmons tumbled together, a quick and silent motion of fur and paws and teeth. Then Stella had Cassius pinned beneath her, her haunches on his stomach, her teeth bared at his throat. Cassius gasped, squirming, and Sherlock opened his eyes.
“Enough,” Sherlock said, though to whom John was not sure. Cassius immediately went still, and Stella closed her mouth. She let him go, and in a moment was sitting neatly by the fire, delicately washing one foot.
John didn't know what to feel: he was angry with all of them; but later he felt strangely soothed, and he looked over at the fireplace and Cassius was tentatively stroking the rich fur on Stella's neck, and she was letting him.
The rooms were quiet, the TV too loud; Sherlock filtered it out. Stella was lying on her side, a sign she was bored. She suited running swiftly through streets in the dark, she never stopped being attentive if they were waiting for violence to begin, but when she was bored she stopped looking elegant and became merely haughty. Cassius was looking at her, apparently unsure whether to approach her or not, which was unusual for him. He opened a book, flicked through it without reading it. It was too big for him too hold easily. Most people's dæmons did not read books.
Mycroft had asked him to learn what he could about the Skraelings' movements from the alethiometer. He picked it up, looked at it, and asked it other questions. It was in a strange, unsettled mood, though it seemed to be telling him that it was in fact he who was in the strange, unsettled mood.
“John, want to go out?” Sherlock said.
“Hmm?” John said, mind far away.
“Out,” Sherlock said.
Later, when they were in the restaurant, John said, “Where did you get an alethiometer anyway? Normal people don't have alethiometers.”
Sherlock remembered seeing it in the scholar's hands, seeing it passed from person to person: a valuable curiosity. More than that, for those who still studied Dust. He remembered picking it up, being disinterested. The weight of it in his hand. And then the symbols, and the way the needle made him feel. He didn't realise what it was saying at first, but it didn't take him long; it was difficult, but it wasn't boring.
“Scholars left it with my mother,” Sherlock said at last, “And I wanted it.”
“And they just gave it to you?” John said.
“Of course not,” Sherlock said, “But they couldn't read it, and I could.”
“Why are you the only one who can read it?” John said. Cassius was sitting on Sherlock's lap, taking pieces of chicken from his plate and licking the sauce off and putting them back. He looked up when John said this.
“Because,” Cassius said, “Sherlock is the only one who tries. Other people have been able to in the past. We read about a girl once who could read it straight away, like Sherlock. But no one believes it now, that's the problem.”
“Yes, it's stupid. They could have made better ones if they'd kept trying,” Sherlock said.
A little later, over the coffee, John said, “Do people bother you, about your dæmon being male?”
“No, they're too busy bothering us about other things,” Cassius answered.
John smiled. He had a sudden, scandalous desire to reach over and touch Cassius's pale cheek. “Of course they are.”
When he held guns his hands were perfectly steady. They had trembled around newspapers, TV remotes and train stations: abnormal situations were easy; normal ones were hard. When Moriarty's men laced the explosive around him, he did not tremble either, and his heart did not race. Stella had been leashed and tied to him, but she lost none of her dignity. She did not flinch and she sat very straight at his side. John thought about swimming pools, about Stella turning into a harbour porpoise beside him in the water went they went for lessons on Saturdays. All the other dæmons changed from form to form in the water, trying out new shapes they could not be on land. Tropical fish, frog, shark, crab, nymph, sea turtle. Stella was always a porpoise. He thought about the feeling of her moving through water, and his voice was steady. Mostly steady. (Abnormal was easy; normal was hard.)
He thought about surgery, about the colour of the skin when it was first opened, the silvery blue lines before the blood welled. He thought about the impossible thinness of the pleura, the darkness of the spleen. He thought about taking everything out and putting it all back together again.
Later they put blankets around Sherlock and himself to ward off the shock. “I didn't read it,” Sherlock said, furtively, sounding almost ashamed. Cassius had been keeping particularly close to Sherlock, and now he wound his arms around Sherlock's neck. “I didn't read it before I went out.”
“Good,” John said, thinking of Sherlock's expression as he read the alethiometer. “You spend too much time with it. You should talk to someone else for a change.” His breath was coming easily. He was waiting to feel shaken, but he did not feel shaken at all. Stella cleaned the tip of the tail and the place where the leash had been put on her. She half closed her golden eyes, as if she was bored by the whole thing.
Sherlock sighed, and rolled the blanket into a ball. He stood up, and for a moment looked very young, his dæmon clinging to his throat. John felt, again, the desire to touch Cassius's thick black fur, to trace the shape of his face. He tried to dismiss it.
They got a taxi home; the were offered lifts, and John was tired enough to take them, but Sherlock didn't want to. Stella sat on the floor by his feet, her chin resting on his knee. John idly stroked her golden hair, and became aware Cassius, sitting on Sherlock's lap, was watching him.
“It feels nice, doesn't it?” Cassius said, flexing his small black hands.
John thought he had never heard anything so intimate in his life. He felt his blood grow hot. He took his hand away and glanced at Sherlock. But Sherlock was looking out the window, at houses, at cars, and his face was inscrutable. John thought of Cassius's hands in Stella's thick fur.
The silence stretched, and in the end Stella spoke, “Yes,” she said, “John likes it too. He's always touching me.”
John wished he could stop himself from flushing. Then Cassius slid off Sherlock's lap, and reached out to Stella. She let him stroke her in just the same place John had. John watched him, his little black hands moving through Stella's fur. Then he stroked his dæmon too, behind her ears, because she was his dæmon, and he could. She relaxed in response to their ministrations, perhaps more in need of comfort than she had seemed. And, in her fur, John's hands and Cassius's were so close they could have touched, though they never quite did. John's body was tense with the strangeness of it, and he felt elated. There was no tremor in his fingers.
Sherlock did not look at them; he remained staring out the window, and his expression was unreadable.