On John Watson’s sixth birthday, his mum gave him a flat wooden box to hold his wish stones. It was a thing of beauty, with intricate curlicues carved into its surface, shiny hinges and layer after layer of tiered compartments lined with soft cotton cloth. He spent all afternoon in his room sorting his stones: onyx and turquoise, agate and amber; the tiger’s eye filled one section, the quartz, another, and the moonstone (he did have rather a lot of moonstone) took up two entire sections all on its own.
Best of all, the touchstone his mum gave him when he was four fit perfectly in the small compartment right at the centre. Red Jasper, she said it was called. It had so many shades of red, more than John had ever seen, all swirled together with veins of black winding through it. He stroked it with the tips of his fingers and couldn’t help closing his eyes at the steady hum of the stone through his skin.
“Do you like it?” his mum asked.
He hadn’t heard her open his door. She was smiling, and his heart swelled.
“I love it,” he said, leaping to his feet and flinging his arms around her. “There’s room for so many,” he added, looking up at her.
“You’ll fill it up, darling. Before you know it,” she murmured into his ear as she hugged him close.
If he focused on this moment, John thought, his mother’s arms wrapped securely around him, he reckoned he could make enough wish stones to fill his box all the way to the top.
Sherlock was almost four when he asked Mummy why the other children had so many wish stones and he did not. It had taken him a rather long time to ask, and his mother’s eyebrows rose sharply, surprised in a way rare for her, even with Sherlock.
Normally, he wasn’t fussed about being different, but wish stones were a commodity he was beginning to understand, and it was unthinkable that he shouldn’t have any of his own. None that he could use, anyway.
The bright stones Mummy and Father gave him on birthdays and holidays sat in the polished wood box next to his bed, except for when he went to sleep. Then, he was allowed to choose one to hold tight in his hand or lay on his pillow right next to his cheek (sometimes, he liked to stick out his tongue and taste the stone, but that was a secret) all night, if he wanted.
He loved those stones, even though he would never say so out loud any more. But he wanted some that he’d made, himself, wanted more than just the one that had fallen from his finger the very first day of school.
It had been bubbling up for days, that topaz, streaks of magenta pigment rising to his chest before spreading across his shoulders until it flowed down his arms in waves. For Sherlock, wish pigment was a rarity, and he was enthralled. When he stroked the lines of colour with his fingertips, he could feel all his hopes thrumming beneath his skin: that school wouldn’t be boring; that there would be someone interested in the periodic table and in discussing the best methods for mummifying dead animals; that he would make a friend. Just one would do.
And so, that morning, he’d shivered as the pigment spread in synchrony with his building excitement. In the car, right before giving Mummy one last hug and walking himself through the front door (alone--he was big, after all), his fingers had begun to tingle. Before he could even shout, a small, sparkling topaz had fallen from his left forefinger onto the palm of his right hand.
His stone (his very first wish stone) was, Sherlock thought, breathtaking. He couldn’t decide whether to hold it tight in his hand or to examine it from every angle. But after a few minutes, Mummy made him unclench the fingers he’d folded tight around it (It was his, after all, wasn’t it?), and give it to her for safekeeping. He still remembered how cold he’d been after he’d tipped the stone, warm from the heat of his skin, into her hand, but perhaps that was just his imagination.
“There aren’t even any getting ready to be made,” he complained now, months later, showing Mummy his pale arms and legs, even pulling up his shirt to show her his belly, only the faintest smattering of pigment appearing even there.
Other children’s skin was always splattered with colour, waves of pigment undulating along their slender limbs, across bellies and backs, sometimes creeping up long necks and over chubby cheeks. Every day their patterns changed: yesterday’s aqua streaks gone, tumbled off the skin to become a small, turquoise stone; last week’s purple sphere now a shiny garnet rock; vivid green swirls now smooth, solid malachite. Each stone joining their ever-growing collections.
There were so many types of wish stones, so many shapes and colours, and Sherlock was fascinated by them all.
His classmates mostly manifested small, irregular stones, like pebbles, or rounded and cool like marbles. Occasionally, a semi-precious stone, worn smooth with need and warm with hope, would fall from a shaking finger, and children and teachers alike would gather around and make admiring noises. He wanted to get closer, too, to examine them and the people who made them. But even Sherlock knew it was rude to touch someone else’s wish stones—especially if you hadn’t any of your own to share.
When John was ten, he slept with his box of wishes under the bed.
Mum was always after him to clean them up—to take the stones that somehow managed to collect on the kitchen counter and in heaps on the carpet where he and Harry played and return them to his box.
“How many times have I told you not leave those lying about?” she asked him. “They’re part of you, John. They’re important.”
But it was already all he could do to keep his motley collection of wish stones from spilling over the edge of his box and onto the floor.
Besides, he preferred to have them out.
Each night after he brushed his teeth and turned out the light, he lit the torch his father had given him when they’d gone camping last summer (that time Harry got sick and they had to leave early), dragged his box out from under the bed and poured his stones into a pile on top of the covers. He loved how many he had, and especially that he had all different types. It was his nightly ritual, taking his time to pick out the special ones, rolling each of them over and over in his hand until he was ready to slip them, one by one, back into the compartments that housed them.
It wasn’t the biggest or the smoothest or even the most brightly coloured stones that mattered most to John. Harry tended to favour those and crowed when she produced one that sparkled: sapphire, or amethyst, even amber, or jade, rough, but powerful. John loved all types of stones. The way they pulsed in his hands grounded him, and he especially counted on the warmth of his touchstone to envelop him as he fell asleep.
Today, though, he’d come home from school all out of sorts. His Red Jasper touchstone didn’t help at all, and it usually did, even when Mum came and talked with him until he felt better, like she had tonight. At bedtime, his body still felt sort of funny, but before he could call Mum or Dad to come see, the deep red pigment that had been swirling around on his skin for the last week sort of surged, and a new stone had fallen from his fingertip.
It was medium sized and sharply cut. A smooth, orange and red garnet. Small, but beautiful. He stared at it for a long time, hardly blinking at all. It didn’t look like any of the stones he usually made, but it still felt like part of him.
It couldn’t go in the box, he decided. And so, it stayed the night, nestled in the palm of his hand.
“It’s your very own touchstone,” Mum told him the next morning when he just couldn’t seem to let it go, didn’t want to put it back in his box and let the warmth he’d infused into it escape in the cool air. “You can bring it to school with you. Just keep it safe.” She smiled and John felt a little leap in his chest when she handed him a brown velvet pouch and dropped the polished gem into it. He slipped it into his pocket where he’d be able to find it quickly if he needed to.
He’d always known that one day he’d make touchstones, everybody did, but this was his first, and he was surprised at how big it made him feel. How special.
All the kids had a collection of regular stones, too, of course. Mostly unpolished ones that accumulated during the ups and downs of a regular day. They kept them in their desks or their cubbyholes or in pouches in their rucksacks. At recess, the girls lined them up on the windowsills and admired the colours, comparing them for smoothness and shine. The boys liked to play marbles with the rounded stones (and if they weren’t round when they started, they were once they were done) against the wall in the back of the classroom, shouting until their teacher told them to settle down.
He used to worry about using wish stones this way; it seemed wrong to treat them so roughly. But his teacher told them that those stones were borne of childish wishes, so John reckoned it was all right to use them to play childish games.
More and more, though, he noticed, his classmates (and he, too) had started tucking certain wish stones away instead of displaying them or using them for games. He had a handful that had collected over the last few months and, one day, he showed them to his mum.
She held them in her hands and examined them, one by one. His father stood nearby, watching, and John felt sort of warm. Sort of big, and a little bit small all at once.
“These are made from the sorts of wishes children your age don’t share with other people,” she said. “Not yet, at least.”
“Sharing them with others?” He was horrified. He glanced at his father, and he was smiling just a bit. “I can’t give these to anybody.” He couldn’t explain it. It was one thing to play marbles with the smooth rounded turquoise and lapis with the lads, but the amethyst and opal weren’t for games, and the thought of anybody else touching them made him shudder.
“You don’t have to give them to anybody now, John,” his father said, and his voice was strangely gruff. “But one day, you might want to.”
He couldn’t even imagine it, but he nodded anyway. In the meantime, he tucked his brilliantly coloured stones into the softly lined compartments in his box and thought of them at night, when dreams ran free.
Sherlock was eleven, and he was sitting in the Head Teacher’s office waiting for Mummy to come pick him up and take him home. Again.
The Head Teacher was telling him (for the eighth time) that it was simply unacceptable to talk about other children’s wish stones and demanded (for the fifth time) that he explain what he did to make Miranda cry (as if it wasn’t completely obvious). The Head Teacher was, unsurprisingly, uninterested in the fact that Sherlock hadn’t meant to make Miranda cry. He’d only told her the truth, after all.
It was, in Sherlock’s opinion, beside the point that the Head Teacher neglected to ask Sherlock what provoked him and didn’t seem to know (or care) about the mean things other children said to him all the time. On purpose, too. Sherlock didn’t tell, and it had been years since anybody had noticed that he was left out of the group every single time the other children gathered around to compare stones or play.
Sherlock didn’t care, though. Their wish stones were boring, just like them. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t anybody who wanted to show Sherlock their special stones. Little kids’ stones were ugly, anyway, and he didn’t want any.
Besides, if he acted interested, he would have to answer their stupid questions, and he was so tired of those. He didn’t know why he didn’t make wish pigment or make loads and loads of stupid wish stones. Mummy and Father didn’t know, either, and neither did any of the idiot doctors they took Sherlock to see.
The worst part of today was making Mummy upset. Second worst was that Mycroft spent all afternoon explaining to Sherlock why it was imprudent to make deductions using other people’s wish stones as evidence or to call their wishes puerile. Sherlock told him that none of the children even knew what puerile meant, so it shouldn’t count. Mycroft said that even idiots know when they’re being insulted.
In fact, now that he thought about it, Mycroft’s lecture would have been the worst part, but Sherlock had stopped listening halfway.
The next day at school, everything was the same, except, this time, when his classmates got involved in one of their senseless games and their teacher was distracted again because she was flirting with the new maths instructor across the corridor (he was about to be married next month; Sherlock didn’t know why she was even bothering), Sherlock slipped away. He skulked about in the gymnasium and watched the older pupils as they huddled together, their stones spread in sparkling arrays on velvet or silk or cotton. They were trading, he knew, transactions laden with an intensity absent in his classroom and strangely compelling.
The bigger kids’ wish stones were much larger than any he’d ever seen, apart from Mycroft’s or his parents’. Every once in a while, one caught the light with a sheen that reminded Sherlock of the stone that had fallen from his fingertip that bright morning years ago.
Not every wish stone was a dull rock or even a brilliantly coloured pebble.
Some of them, it would seem, might even be gems.
John’s days are long and lonely during his first weeks home from Afghanistan. Life stretches in front of him like an endless, empty road to which he has no map. He hasn’t got a lot, in truth; didn’t bring much back with him apart from his dog tags and his wish box.
John shoves both in his closet and tries to pretend they aren’t there.
Sometimes, when he can’t sleep, he thinks about pulling out the box and taking out his very first touchstone, the one Mum gave him when he was small. He closes his eyes and imagines its weight in his hand, fancies he can feel its hum—safety—grounding him.
There are two other touchstones in the box, apart from the one he’d made in childhood. One made in the flush of his first love (and, alas, never shared), and another exchanged with his partner in the delirium of his second. But it’s always been that first touchstone, the one from his mum, that he goes back to when he is alone or afraid.
But not now.
No, the box is shut and that is how it will stay. He imagines them, though, remnants of his own collection, many of the stones that lay there created in the crucible of war, too many given to him by men dying, or in pain, or afraid. Stones whose small hum of magic he used to heal others, or to soothe them as best he could. But so many of those men are still out there, facing endless uncertainty and unexpected moments of terror, or they are dead, and he is here, facing a life that feels more dead than the soldiers he has buried.
He isn’t sure which is worse: the guilt or the loneliness.
Night after night, he resists the urge to reach inside the box and run his fingers along the smooth surface of each stone resting there, remembering when he made it, or when another hand had cradled it until it grew bright, before giving it over to him. Part of him would prefer to keep the stones close even now, but he’s had enough years of discipline to resist the urge.
Adults don’t use their wish stones as security blankets. At least John doesn’t. Not any more.
He’s not producing new ones these days, either. His colourless skin mocks him, reflecting the emptiness he feels inside. It is only when the sight of his gun becomes more compelling than the idea of finally opening his box, that he thinks better of it.
The stones are cool to the touch. Most are polished rock, but there are a few scattered gemstones as well. Altogether, there are only a handful left, just as he’d expected. Still, he has no regrets—every single one was well-spent.
His hand brushes against the sharp edge of a glass shard and he winces. Of course. The prayers are in here, too. He’d nearly forgotten.
He chooses one and runs his finger along the slick surface; the vibration of the glass makes his hand shake.
These, he knows, are what he’d been avoiding all along.
Most prayers are smooth, their glass surfaces clear and faintly warm the way simple prayers and repeated ones tend to be. Others burst through the skin in desperation. An eruption of need, exploding into awareness and stopping at nothing to be heard. Most of the prayers in John’s box are smooth. Simple prayers bound to him by a slender, gossamer thread.
But one is like ice under his fingertips. Wrought of thick glass, it is sharp-edged and still stained with his blood (cut right through his hip muscle, this one did). It’s the weightiest prayer he’s ever known (not that he prays much, these days, mind you).
Its heft brings him back to that night. The deathly stillness of the air, and the sound of gunfire that still rings in his ears. If he closes his eyes now, he can still feel the bullet tearing into his shoulder and then, seconds later, the prayer, vicious with need, ripping through his body.
“Please, God. Let me live.”
His hand shakes, holding the spent prayer too tightly, and it cuts him again, just a little bit. John loosens his grip and lets it fall back into the box where it strikes against a bit of unpolished kunzite, producing a high ringing sound. It’s left over from wartime, the kunzite. He’d made quite a bit of it in those days along with piles and piles of quartz. Spent nearly all of it, too.
His hopes had been simple then, he thought.
“Please, God. Let me (them, all of us) live. Just let us live.”
Sherlock looks around the flat on Baker Street, bursting with everything he could salvage from the old place on Montague.
“Are you sure you can afford it, Sherlock?” Mrs Hudson asks again.
“I’ll make do,” he reassures her as he sweeps from pile to pile, moving a book here, a box, there. “Perhaps I’ll find a flatmate.” He winks, and she laughs.
“Well, best tidy up, then,” she says, eying the jumble of equipment on the coffee table. I’ll leave you to it. Not your housekeeper, you know. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.”
Sherlock nods, but he’s distracted by the newspaper she’s left on the table next to the Welcome stone. He moves the stone to the mantel and looks back at the paper.
A third death, identical to the first two, and the police are still calling it serial suicides. He shakes his head in disgust but the room is empty. Mrs Hudson has already gone.
He’s due at Bart’s within the hour, but he thinks he’s got just enough time to put away some essentials. Lab equipment in the kitchen, papers to stack on the desk, and his wish box. He looks around. In the bedroom, he supposes.
The room is small and the curtains are closed. A narrow stream of light threads its way inside, falling in a long, translucent line on the bed. Sherlock sits on the edge of the mattress and opens the box.
Only for a moment, he tells himself.
The hinges creak.
The box is nearly empty. In the corners, lie all the touchstones his parents had given him over the years. They look so small now, though he remembers the feeling of each one filling his closed hand. A middle section holds a tiger’s eye given to him by his first grateful client. They don’t always give him stones. Only sometimes. And only sometimes does he keep them.
Sherlock hesitates, and then reaches his fingers beneath a fold in the fabric. Ah. There it is.
The pouch is velvet. Its black nap is uneven in spots, areas worn smooth from frequent handling. He pulls the knot free and tips the single stone onto his hand.
Topaz. So small, he thinks. Just as he had been. Still bright. Hopeful.
Sherlock snorts and puts the gem back into its pouch, tucking it back into the box.
Finally, he traces his fingertip along the edges of an empty narrow square. It had once (briefly) held the touchstone Mycroft gave him right before leaving for Uni. Sapphire, rough, but coloured a deep blue, the stone had popped with energy. Sherlock would never, ever tell him (wouldn’t give him the pleasure, the self-satisfied git), but he used to keep it with him at school. It reminded him that he was smart and that someone would one day value his point of view.
That, Sherlock thinks, was a long time ago.
Mycroft doesn’t know that his touchstone bought Sherlock his first month’s supply of cocaine one week after completing uni. He feels a pang of regret, thinking about it now, even though Mycroft had been insufferable and Sherlock really had seen no other way—he’d had to do something to drown out all the noise.
Besides, Mycroft probably already knows. He must have certainly deduced it, given how Sherlock acts towards him, these days.
It’s hard to remember how he used to feel when he held that brilliant stone in his hand, but he reckons he doesn’t need it any more.
He closes the box with a snap.
He knows he’s smart. He knows he’s necessary.
After all, he is the world’s only consulting detective.
John’s first thought when Sherlock Holmes looks up to thank him for the offer of his phone is that his eyes look precisely like a wish in flux.
Colours shimmer alongside one another, creating the illusion of transformation. One minute, it’s the aquamarine you notice, and then, the facets of emerald. And then, with the twitch of an eyebrow, the man’s eyes seem nearly silver, as if diamond-faceted wishes might sharpen his thinking just that much more. By the look of it, John thinks, they just might.
John is vaguely surprised he can’t see even a hint of the hopes and wishes that must be swirling on the other man’s skin. He can’t even see any peeking out from the edges of his cuffs or beneath his collar. Then again, at this age, most people have learned to conceal their vulnerability on bits of the body best kept covered.
By the time Sherlock finally sweeps from the room, his name and an address the sum of what John knows about the man (oh, and that he plays the violin and can go days without talking and that those eyes do something far more than look like hope), every beat of John’s heart feels like fire flowing beneath his skin.
He squares his shoulders and breathes deeply.
Only children allow wish stones to rain from their fingertips.
John’s wish box grows fuller, living with Sherlock.
These days, the stones that drop from his fingertips have changed from the tiger’s eye and moonstone of childhood and the quartz and kunzite of war. Instead, burgundy and crimson, ochre and aqua swirl beneath his skin, long sleeves now a necessity to shield himself from Sherlock’s prying eyes.
John knows it’s probably a lost cause, but perhaps Sherlock is preoccupied enough when they’re on a case not to notice the traces of colour leaching onto John’s hands with each passing hour. Maybe he doesn’t pay attention to John’s desperate need to retreat late at night when they’re alone; hasn’t noticed him flexing his fingers to distract himself from their tingling.
Surely Sherlock doesn’t know that, night after night, rubies drop from his fingertips like beads of blood. And there is no way he could know that twice, in the early hours of each morning after he (and then, Sherlock) held life and death in his grip, a single diamond had fallen from John’s fingertip to rest in the palm of his hand.
Working at the surgery only adds to the ebb and flow of John’s supply.
Everybody has stones made by another, traded for one of your own. Usually, stones are shared only with those closest to you—best friends, lovers, children—but doctors are different. Gratitude and relief produces some of the most beautiful stones John has ever seen. Grief creates some of the most intricate.
He has learned from experience that wish stones given to him by someone sick, someone suffering, can be powerful healing agents, so John is careful to sort those well and use them wisely.
It’s the end of a twelve-hour shift, and at the moment, instead of packing up to go, he’s holding a stone given to him by a child.
He’d seen little girl the previous week and diagnosed her with a particularly awful stomach virus. He’d played with her a bit before examining her, pulling coins from her ears and a stuffed rabbit from her shoe. Miraculously, she’d only giggled when he prodded her belly.
Today, in for a follow-up, she’s in fine shape, if a bit pale.
“Thank you, Doctor Watson,” she says in a voice far too serious for a five-year-old, all earnestness and big blue eyes.
And then, before they go, she holds out her hand. A small, rose-coloured stone sits in her open palm.
Startled, John glances at her mother, who nods and smiles.
“When the fever broke, this manifested,” she explains. “Amelia said right away that it’s meant for you. So, here it is.”
John is flabbergasted.
Dying soldiers have given him stones with their last bit of energy. He’d used them to heal others, and honoured their deaths along the way. Recovered soldiers have given him stones—for protection, generally—when they were invalided home, reluctantly leaving the rest of the soldiers, doctors and comrades alike, to continue on when they could not.
But this? A child’s innocent wish for him, borne of gratitude. Why this should leave him speechless, he can’t say. And yet, it does.
He’s still holding the stone when Sherlock pushes his way past reception and barrels down the hall and into his office.
“John, we have a case! Hurry!”
“A case, John. What could be more important than a case?”
“Hm?” John tears his eyes away from the stone. “Oh, nothing, Sherlock. Sorry.”
But Sherlock’s eyes are wide, and for an instant, John can see him as he might have been as a little boy. Eager to gobble up the world before it got away. Hurt when the world let him down and left him all alone.
“Here,” John says, pressing the stone into Sherlock’s hand. “This is for you.”
He doesn’t stick around to see Sherlock’s response.
Later, after Lestrade is satisfied with their report of the evening’s chase and has stopped grumbling about how much easier things would be if Sherlock would just use his wish pigment and stones just like regular detectives do when they’re on a case, and after they’ve cleaned up from the Chinese takeaway, John pretends not to watch as Sherlock examines the stone from every angle and tucks it into the pocket of his robe without saying a single word.
If living with John gives Sherlock more than his usual opportunity to observe, he is also keenly aware that it gives John unprecedented access to observe him.
It’s mostly fine (but not “all fine”, no matter what John says. When will people realise that saying something doesn’t make it so?). Fortunately, most adults have learned not to remark on the absence of wish stones here and there about the flat, or of the lack of precursor colour staining the skin. Most of the time, he gets by with people assuming he’s just particularly reserved.
During his Uni days, Sherlock had taken perverse pleasure in noting all those little details, regaling his college-mates with every discrepancy between their wish pigment and the personas they had chosen to display. He had paid for it in their hostility, but, to be honest, they’d never really taken to him anyway.
In theory, he understands their discomfort; he’d grown used to it long since. The fact is that Sherlock produces only the rare wish stain or stone and, as a result, exhibits a startling absence of the sorts of signals everybody else on the planet uses to gauge one another.
He finds it amusing to let people think he does it on purpose.
That age inevitably brings more duplicity (wish pigment, or not) is apparently irrelevant to everybody except Sherlock. As if the presence of wish pigment and stones convey any assurance of integrity.
Honestly, how naïve, Sherlock thinks.
Certainly, children parade around, uninhibited, with their skin uncovered; play openly with their wish stones in games of luck and chance. But even adolescents with their bare torsos and exposed limbs are no longer innocent. Flashing signals proclaiming their need, they expose their skin not in play (not any more), but in desperation and misguided hope.
See me. Want me. Need me.
It’s all part of the dance Sherlock abandoned long ago. Nobody wants to peel back the clothing covering a lover’s skin only to find it blank. He knows; he’s tried. The few times he’d rushed in to explain, (“I’ve always been like this. It’s not you. Please…”) had been disastrous.
This must be what it’s like to have a disability, Sherlock had thought, alone in his dorm room. Perhaps it is a disability, and though he knows there must be others, he’s never met anyone else so afflicted.
Perhaps this is what they’ve meant by ‘sociopath’ all this time.
So, he learns to stay covered. Formal suits give him a sort of armour, and for the times when there’s no work (and he can’t bear wearing the uniform he doesn’t need), he keeps his long legs covered and wraps his silk dressing gown around him, tight.
John keeps his skin mostly covered, too. Sherlock deduced long ago that John does this out of a misguided sense of compassion for Sherlock. As if hiding his own pigment will spare Sherlock—what?—discomfort? Embarrassment? Pain? It’s not as if he can hide it completely; Sherlock can see the traces of wish stain on his skin anyway.
He doesn’t feel anything when he sees it—a flash when John is buttoning his shirt or searching for socks. Of course John would be regular in this, just as he is in every other way, apart from the way he (inexplicably) doesn’t bore Sherlock.
He feels it, a pang in his chest (more than a pang, be honest, Sherlock), when he imagines Sarah, one day soon (it hasn’t happened yet, he knows this, though he can’t say for sure when it will), peeling layers of clothes from John’s body, uncovering the truth that is John, beneath.
Such intimacy, he thinks, his stomach clenching as he watches John leave for Sarah’s again. He tries to imagine it. Skin to skin, their deepest hopes and fears, exposed. John letting fingers trace the lines and contours of his skin, his muscles and bones and wish pigment… making the pigment leap and deepen with hope and pleasure. Exposing his heart, but not to Sherlock.
Sherlock lifts his shirt and examines the rich yellow stain that has come to rest against his ribs. It is only deepening; it’s been there for weeks. Late at night, when John is already asleep in his room upstairs, Sherlock watches it flow, spreading across his shoulders, and along his arms, nearly to his fingertips.
Soon, it will emerge, he thinks. He won’t be able to stop it.
And then (oh, God) what will he do?
“John!” Sherlock calls one night just as John is preparing for bed. “I need you. Quickly.”
Sherlock’s needs are always urgent, John thinks. Which makes it doubly strange that he’s never seen—
“I’m coming, Sherlock. Unless you’re actually on fire, there’s no reason to shout.”
There is a short pause.
“Oh, hell,” John mutters.
Sherlock isn’t actually on fire, but it would seem his shirt had been, if the singed remnants thrown over the chair back are any indication. He’s standing with his back to John, water running over his hands. His head is bent and he’s uncharacteristically silent.
“Sherlock, are you all right?”
John is behind him, about to grab his arms and check for burns, but Sherlock grunts and twists away.
“Never mind. You took too long to get here. I’m fine.” But his body is stiffer than John’s ever seen and there’s something wrong but he can’t put his finger on what.
“Sherlock, let me check you for injuries.”
“I told you, John. I’m fine. I could have used some help putting out a small fire, but the shirt is already a total loss, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Why are you speaking to the wall, Sherlock? I’m over here.”
“I’m rinsing my hands, John. It was a chemical fire.”
“All the more reason to let me examine you.”
“Just bring me a shirt from my room, please.” Sherlock’s voice sounds choked.
Sherlock’s back is bare, but instead of strips and swirls of colour across his skin, there is nothing. Just… skin.
“Bring me a shirt, John.” He hesitates and John can see him draw a deep breath. “Please.”
“You don’t need a shirt, Sherlock. It’s okay.”
In fact, it’s far more than okay. The sight of Sherlock’s long, smooth back, free of pigment, sets John’s heart racing. He isn’t sure if it’s because of how shocking all that pale skin looks, bare of the colour that he has grown accustomed to seeing decorating the human body, or because of how hard he has to work to resist wrapping his arms around the other man.
As it is, John let himself look, and Sherlock let himself be seen before letting out an exasperated huff and stamping off to shower. When he returns, he sits down right next to John on the couch, so close that their shoulders press together. They sit there like that for hours, not speaking, crap telly blaring, none of it more interesting to John than the warmth leaching from Sherlock.
John doesn’t have the courage that day to reach over and take Sherlock’s hand, though he wants to more than he can remember wanting anything. It is enough for now, he tells himself, that Sherlock has let himself be seen (by John!) and offered himself for the barest touch.
And if he finds himself seated shoulder to shoulder with Sherlock the following night (and the night after that, and the one that follows), he doesn’t say a word.
Sherlock is fascinated by the pigment staining John’s skin.
Sherlock’s fingertips trace the winding path of a particularly vibrant strand of blue along John’s forearm, as if by touching it, he might understand all of life’s great mysteries.
“You act as if you’ve never seen pigment before,” says John. They sit shoulder to shoulder on the couch, exhausted from chasing an inept counterfeiter across London. John wishes he had the courage to press his leg against Sherlock’s, too, making the line from shoulder to foot unbroken.
But this ritual between them is still new and delicate in the way of all first steps. And this is the first time that Sherlock’s fingertips and not just his eyes stroke John’s skin.
“From a distance, obviously,” Sherlock says softly, and John has to think a moment to remember what he means, distracted as he is by Sherlock’s touch.
John knows how it feels to look at an expanse of his own skin and find it blank—neutral. An untouched canvas. Sometimes, he’d thought he could feel the echo of the hopes that had once rushed along the surface of his body, manifesting, or not manifesting, but no matter what, reminding him that he was alive.
Lying awake night after night, alone in his little room, he’d wondered if this might be how it felt to lose a limb.
Tonight, he takes Sherlock’s hand in his and tries to imagine what it must be like to never see the evidence of your hopes and fears and dreams reflected in your body.
“Does it disgust you?” Sherlock’s voice startles him.
He forces himself to look the other man in the eye. John knows what it must have cost him to ask. Sherlock, whose indifference to the world’s judgment is practically legendary.
Before he can even think, the words are out of his mouth.
“I could never be disgusted by you.”
Sherlock’s eyes drop shut and John runs his fingertips along the long lines of Sherlock’s hands. He imagines that he could pour his own pigment into Sherlock’s skin. Sherlock’s eyes are still closed when John brings his palm to his lips. The kiss is ethereal—more a breath of air than anything tangible.
John thinks that the flush staining Sherlock’s cheeks is better than any wish pigment could ever be.
Sherlock feels the blood rush to his face at the same time as the yellow pigment begins, once again, to rise. He can feel it flowing across his shoulders and down his arms, and he wonders if John will taste it when it reaches his hands.
“John,” he whispers, but he has no other words. Only, John.
“Sherlock,” he says, as if he’s answered the one question Sherlock has always left unspoken.
“Please.” Sherlock’s voice doesn’t sound like his own, but he doesn’t care. All he knows is that he will die if John stops touching him.
John’s hands shake as they cup his face, and Sherlock is shaking, too. He grasps John’s shoulders and holds his breath.
“Breathe, Sherlock.” John’s voice is laughing, but not at him. His eyes are warm and before Sherlock can do more than obey (breathe), John’s mouth is on his and it’s fantastic. Soft and sweet and hot and wet, and his body is on fire.
John, John, John. It’s all he can think. Hell, it’s all he can say as John strips them both until they’re lying, skin to skin on the narrow sofa, bodies flush against one another. Moving against each other. John’s hands are everywhere and so are Sherlock’s, moving of their own volition as the tempo rises. They move faster. Sherlock’s fingers trace the streaks of colour that rise to the surface of John’s skin. Tongue and lips and teeth tasting every contour of his skin.
He’s flying. His body is singing. The sound of John’s voice when Sherlock rubs his hands against him is like flames, and Sherlock can’t imagine how this can get any better.
For a moment, he can’t remember where his body ends and John’s begins. His voice is hoarse from shouting, and John’s joins his, and then they are still.
When he can move again, he opens his eyes and looks at John’s body, lying on his, his head resting on Sherlock’s chest, a small smile on his face.
“Stop thinking so hard,” John mutters.
“Who says I’m thinking?”
Sherlock huffs a laugh.
“What are you worrying about?”
“Who says I’m worried?” His stomach clenches.
“Your heart is pounding,” says John.
“Ever the doctor.” Of course.
John lifts his head and drops a kiss on Sherlock’s lips. Maybe if he slips away quickly, John won’t notice how little colour Sherlock has on his skin. He glances down at his arms. The yellow has intensified, but it’s nothing compared to the brilliance that is splayed across John’s body.
“I don’t care, Sherlock,” he says. Sherlock wrinkles his brow. “About the pigment or the stones. I don’t care.”
“Everybody cares, John.”
“Everybody doesn’t know you. Not like I do.”
Sherlock blinks and turns his head away. “You’ll find that the absence of wish pigment becomes quite the impediment in a relationship,” he says, but he won’t meet John’s eye.
Sherlock turns back. “For you!”
“I’ll thank you to leave my decisions to me.”
He looks fierce, and Sherlock cannot turn away. The colour has risen to his cheeks and brow, and as John brings his fingers to Sherlock’s lips, he can see that they, too, are saturated with pigment.
And when John kisses him, it feels almost as if he’s infused their shared wish (share… it is shared, isn’t it?) directly into Sherlock’s skin.
Neither comments on the swirls of vibrant yellow pigment that have spread across Sherlock’s skin. John maps it with his lips and tongue and just whispers, “yes, yes, yes” until they fall asleep.
In the morning, Sherlock is gone; his side of the bed has already grown cold. John can hear him banging around the kitchen, probably off to microwave a human kidney, he thinks.
He stretches and smiles to himself. An intricately faceted greenish-yellow stone has been pressed into his hand.
He turns on to his belly and opens his hand to look at the stone. The gem.
It is inexpressibly beautiful.
If their nights have changed, their days have not.
Sherlock is still a whirling dervish, spinning words out faster than most people’s thoughts. His need for activity, for challenge, seemingly unending. John spends his days at the surgery or with Sherlock, hunting down criminals (some clever, some not so, according to Sherlock), until they all seem to take a holiday at the same time.
Sherlock is restless. Irritable. Nothing John does to engage him or distract him or soothe him makes the slightest bit of difference. And John is at his wits’ end.
The night John returns from work to find Sherlock emptying the contents of John’s revolver into the wall, he just can’t take it any more. Dealing with a tetchy Sherlock is one thing. Dealing with a snippy Sherlock who’s trying to get a rise out of anyone who will bite is miserable, but tolerable.
Sherlock using a firearm (John’s firearm) on their wall… and on top of it, being tetchy and snippy (and hurtful to John), well, that goes so far beyond the pale that John isn’t even sure how to categorise it. He has to get some air, get away from all that is Sherlock and think. At the very least, it reduces the likelihood he’ll actually kill the man.
It’s the first night in a fortnight he and Sherlock don’t spend together. It hurts his chest to walk out the door, but it would hurt more to stay. Still, as angry as he is, he knows he’ll miss Sherlock’s long body, curled up against him. His long limbs twining around him as if to stake his claim.
He goes to Sarah’s, anyway, his half-hearted flirtation with her something he’d all but given up, but tonight, his frustration fuels him.
So does the guilt coiling up inside him the next morning when he sees news of the explosion.
The next few days are a whirlwind.
He can’t find his Sherlock. Not now. Not when he’s entrapped by the game some madman is playing. Not when Sherlock can’t seem to see the human beings who are strapped to those bombs.
Don’t make people into heroes, John.
He’s not, but my God, can’t Sherlock see that it matters whether or not you care? Even if it doesn’t help you save people, it means that it makes a difference whether they live or die. It means you’re one of them, part of something much larger than yourself.
For how long has Sherlock lived like this, sure he is the only one of his kind? An anomaly? Unconnected to the rest of the human race.
John reaches into his pocket for the touchstone Sherlock left in his hand after their first night together. It is as familiar to him as his own skin; he knows the grooves and contours of the stone by heart. It is his heart.
Sherlock is distracted by some atrocious show on the telly, and John needs some time to breathe. First, though, he slips into his room and opens his box.
The stone sits in the central compartment, waiting. It’s a near match for the one Sherlock gave him, and John isn’t sure why he hasn’t given it to him yet. Maybe his fear that Sherlock would think him gloating—that John would consider the making of a touchstone something regular, something he does all the time. He wanted to make Sherlock’s gift stand out—be singular, at least for a while.
But, it’s time. He lifts the stone from its compartment and cradles it in his hand. He can feel the surge of love and contentment that flowed through him the night he made it. He knows it no longer belongs to him.
Sherlock is still preoccupied, shouting at the telly now, and so John slips the stone into the pocket of Sherlock’s jacket. It’s better this way, he tells himself. Sherlock will find it on his own and have time to take in its meaning without being under John’s watchful eye.
“I’m going to Sarah’s,” he says. “Milk. We need milk,” he mutters.
“I’ll get some,” says Sherlock.
“And some beans, then?”
That’s the last John sees of Sherlock until he’s standing, strapped to a bomb with sniper sights dancing on his chest.
The blood is rushing in Sherlock’s ears and it’s a wonder he can think at all.
Moriarty took him, took John, and strapped him to a bomb. Took him and tried to make Sherlock think, if only for a split second, that John was the madman behind the games.
But Sherlock has John’s touchstone in his hand. Found it nestled next to the memory stick in the pocket of his jacket. Sherlock could get lost in it (nearly did—he’d lost track of the time, examining it from every angle), could drown in the craggy surface and melt into the warmth that is John’s touchstone.
Sherlock looks at John where he’s crouching on the hard tile floor. John could never, ever play the sorts of games he and Moriarty have been playing. He squeezes the stone tightly and breathes in rhythm with its vibration.
And then Moriarty is standing opposite them again and the sniper sights dance and dance.
It doesn’t matter.
John’s hand is clenched, and Sherlock knows, he just knows that he’s got Sherlock’s stone with him, too.
Why now? Sherlock thinks. Why now, when I’ve only just found him?
John nods and Sherlock understands.
It’s an instant and it’s an eternity.
They have each other, and that is far more than this sorry little man ever has had or ever will. And they will die, they will die to keep him from hurting anybody else. They will, if they have to. And if they have to, they will die together.
Sherlock pulls the trigger and the world is enveloped in flame.
He has only a split second to think, to feel, to reach inside to find his deepest wish, his most fervent hope.
Sherlock has never understood. Not until now. It has always been so messy. A foreign language filled with impossible phrases and unattainable nuance.
Entangled, always entangled: needs, hopes, wishes, dreams.
Now, though, now he understands.
Prayers are the first language.
The sound is nothing more than a whisper of air, this desperate outpouring of need, but it seems as powerful (more powerful… far more powerful) to Sherlock as the explosion that has reduced this room to rubble.
Please, God. Let him live. Just let John live.
He can still see John’s face through blurred eyes, his lips moving, too, and Sherlock just knows. John’s prayer. It’s for him.
Even as the sound of the bomb reverberates in the tiled room, thick glass, a prayer, two prayers, melded together as one, tinted the faintest yellow, erupts in the space between them, encircling them.
Still raging, the fire sears his skin even from behind the barrier, burning his lungs until he can barely draw breath. The air is filled with dust and debris and the crackle and crash of tile and wood and metal as it strains, burns, breaks. Falls.
They reach for each other through smoke too thick to breathe—
“Sherlock! Oh, God, Sherlock, where are you?”
John’s voice is hoarse from dust and weak from fear. Sherlock follows it until he finds him, at last, beneath rubble that buried him an instant before the barrier rose to shield them.
“John! John, I’m here.”
At every point of contact (lips on skin and hands searching for the reassuring drum of beating hearts), fire burns between them, rising, uncontrollable, inside them.
Sherlock hears John sigh his name at the same moment his body goes limp.
John has gone down. Down, down, down. No more words. No more nods and small smiles that remind Sherlock that he is no longer alone. No deep blue eyes that see right through Sherlock and find his soul. His heart.
Too much blood is flowing from John’s head (He’s not moving. He’s too still. Is he still breathing?), and Sherlock howls in agony.
John. No. Hold on.
He clasps John tight against his body, and that’s when he feels it. It’s like a whoosh of air and a forest fire all at once, rushing through him. To Sherlock, it feels as if every unspoken wish, ever need, unasked for, has risen to claim its reward.
Now. I need help now.
It rises inside him and fills him. Every ounce of his power, (Our power; it belongs to John, too… John made it.) flows to his fingertips. He brushes his hand across John’s forehead, and then clasps John’s hand in his.
Sherlock’s hand brims with pigment. Vibrant. Brilliant colour flowing across his skin. Love and need and hope bursting from him, fully formed.
The Earth beneath him shakes.
Sherlock holds John (for minutes, for hours, for an eternity), and sends love and light and life into him through his skin, with every whispered word, with each laboured breath, until he, too, is spent.
And when the ambulances arrive, all sirens and bustle and noise, their hands are still clasped.
A single stone, swirling with colour, is clutched between their palms.
John opens his eyes and immediately wishes he hadn’t.
There are words here, right there at the tip of his tongue, but all that emerges is a groan.
“John?” Sherlock’s voice is hoarse, but he sounds far more alert than John.
“Mmm.” He closes his eyes again. It’s too bright.
“John, are you awake?” Sherlock’s mouth is right up against his ear, and that’s about the best part of waking up with every bone and muscle shrieking in agony.
“’m awake.” He cracks his eyelids open again and can’t help but smile. Sherlock’s face is right up against his. His eyes are wide and John is pretty sure he’s already examined every bit of him.
“You have a broken collarbone and forty-three cuts. Only one needed stitches. Just five. Not too bad,” he says and John laughs even though it hurts his ribs.
Sherlock waves his hand as if brushing away a fly. “Bumps and bruises.”
John leans over and raises his eyebrows.
“They don’t usually allocate hospital beds for bumps and bruises, Sherlock.”
Sherlock huffs. “Fine. Contusions.”
John tilts his head and waits.
“And a mild concussion. Or so they say.”
He looks offended at the very thought of it.
John looks around properly now. They’re in A&E. He glances at the drips attached to his arm. Must be pain medication and antibiotics. No wonder he’d been woozy. He flexes his arms and legs and catalogues the damage. Not too bad. They’ll probably get discharged in a few hours. He smiles at the gurneys pushed together. Sherlock must have insisted they be put in the same bed space. He wishes he’d been awake to see it.
Their hands are still clasped, and John can feel the stone they are holding between them. Sherlock’s skin is filthy, as is his own, but he can still make out the swirls and stripes of pigment flowing there now, beneath the grime. It’s as if a tap has opened, releasing years of unexpressed need.
John traces his fingers along the colours. Deep amber. Vivid aqua. Brilliant crimson.
It’s as if Sherlock has opened himself to elements he’d never before had access to, and, they, in turn, have embraced him.
“Extraordinary,” says John.
He can feel Sherlock stiffen.
“It’s regular. Everybody has pigment.”
John brings Sherlock’s hand to his cheek.
“It’s yours. Only you have this particular pattern, these particular colours in this combination. Only you, Sherlock.”
Sherlock gazes down at his skin. His forehead is furrowed and John holds his breath and waits.
Sherlock draws a deep breath and looks at John once more. His eyes are soft, and John’s heart melts. Sherlock takes his fingertip and traces a line along John’s cheekbone and along his jaw.
“Amazing,” he echoes.
It doesn’t matter that they are matted with mud and blood and antiseptic. It doesn’t matter that Sherlock has a concussion and John’s skin is abraded and raw. John reaches around and cups Sherlock’s head so that he can bring him close enough to kiss.
He tastes of the earth and of chlorine and of ash. Beneath it all, he tastes like Sherlock. Hungry and thrumming with energy (how could he still have energy?) and always, always the question, unasked.
“I do,” John answers. “Sherlock, I do. Just look.”
He pulls his hand away from Sherlock’s, just enough to see the stone they’ve been holding on to together, as if losing it might mean their destruction. And well it might.
It’s Jasper, John thinks, but he’s never seen one with so much colour, never with so many layers. It’s oblong and smooth, but the more he looks at it, the more intricate patterns he finds. Reds and browns and greens, a sprinkling of lavender and rich, deep yellow dance around each other. John imagines he can see the desert in this stone, and the sea, and the sky soaring above it all.
“I’ve never seen one like it,” says Sherlock.
“Nor have I.”
“It’s a touchstone.”
Its vibration means it can be nothing less.
“There’s only one.”
John hesitates. “I suppose we’ll have to share, then, won’t we?”
Sherlock doesn’t just smile. He absolutely beams, and then John is swept into another kiss.
“Ah, dear. This is not what I need to see at five a.m. after I’ve been woken from a sound sleep because my brother has decided to get himself blown up.”
John has the feeling that he might burst into maniacal laughter if given the chance.
“Go away, Mycroft,” says Sherlock. His head is resting on John’s shoulder and his eyes are closed. “You never sleep, so spare me your theatrics.”
“I thought you might want to go home, Sherlock,” Mycroft says. “If I am mistaken, I shall gladly return to my bed and leave you two here on your… trolleys.”
Sherlock sighs and gives John one more kiss.
“Moriarty?” asks Sherlock, reluctantly turning away from John.
“Home, then?” asks John.
Sherlock sits up and takes his hand again. His eyes are aqua and emerald and they sparkle like diamonds.
Very long author’s notes: Endless thanks to my awesome alpha/beta reading team (to be named after the reveal). My stories are always tremendously improved because of your input.
The rose coloured stone produced by the little girl in John’s surgery is Rose Quartz. The child gave the stone to John in the spirit of healing, and loving gratitude. John’s wish for Sherlock was a bit more complex when he passed it along to him.
From the Crystal-cure website: “Prehnite is a stone of unconditional love. It is said to connect to the archangel Raphael. Prehnite enhances inner knowledge, showing the path forward to spiritual growth through attunement to divine energy.
Prehnite connects the will and the heart. In so doing one's actions attain the highest good.”
The touchstone Sherlock and John created together is Mookite Jasper.
From the Crystal-cure website: “It [mookite] encourages the desire for new experiences and helps to keep a balance between external activities and the internal response to these. It imparts a deep calm while encouraging versatility.
Mookaite is a stone of strength, and decision making.
In Australia, mookaite was and still is considered to be a healing stone that bestows strength. It is said to shield the wearer from difficult situations and to connect us to loved ones who have passed away. It is believed to bring us into the "here and now," aiding with problem assessment and decision making.”
For those who are interested, here are photos of the gemstones described in the story (roughly in order of appearance):