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The First Lesson

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‘They had forgotten the first lesson, that we are to be powerful, beautiful, and without regret.’

-Excerpt from Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

 

 

When John was seven, his father called him into the study.

 

‘Remember the book I showed you once?’ he said.

 

John nodded seriously, for he was (for the time being) a solemn child.  ‘Dhampir, right?’

 

His father smiled.  ‘Good, you can pronounce it now!  Been practising, I see.’  He steepled his fingers, staring into the fire.  ‘There are some things you need to know about what you are.’

 

So John sat on the hearthrug and listened as his father detailed the finer points of his species.  He was only half-human, which meant he could survive for short periods on regular food if the need arose, and could go about in the sun; none of the things that could kill vampires, in legend, could kill him.  He would continue to live, so long as he drank of others, unless someone severed his head with a scythe.

 

‘Okay,’ said John, wiggling his toes into the plush of the rug.  ‘Anything else?’

 

‘Someday, John,’ his father told him, leaning forward in his chair to look at him more closely in the firelight, ‘you’ll fall in love with someone.’

 

‘No, I won’t,’ said John determinedly.  ‘Harry says it’s awful and you have to lick people inside of their mouths.’

 

His father laughed.  ‘Harry’s only teasing, son.’  His face grew serious once more.  ‘But someday, when you find someone you want to be with, you have to remember that they’re not like you.’

 

John stared down at his hands.  ‘Like Mum wasn’t like you?’

 

‘Precisely.  You have to realise that they’re going to grow old, while you mostly stay the same.  They’ll get sick, and sometimes they won’t get well again; they’ll hang onto things you’ve long forgotten, simply because their lives are so short.’

 

‘I don’t want to find a someone, Dad,’ John told him, picking at the rug beneath him.  ‘Sounds like it hurts.’

 

‘It does hurt,’ said his father quietly, leaning back in his armchair, ‘but it’s worth it.’

 

 

Sherlock set a shopping bag down onto the counter with a thump and began to unload from it an assortment of plastic containers.

 

‘I thought you went to Barts?’ said John curiously from the sitting room.

 

‘I did,’ Sherlock told him with a smile that was almost shy.  ‘I brought you some leftovers.’

 

John got up and went to stand in the kitchen doorway, watching.  ‘Leftovers?’

 

‘Well,’ Sherlock hedged, ‘not precisely.  But there’s some of every type; I didn’t know if you preferred a certain kind.  Do they have different flavours?’

 

John shrugged.  ‘Blood’s blood, Sherlock.  It doesn’t matter.’

 

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘that’s how I feel about food, too.’

 

As Sherlock put the containers into the fridge, John hovered in the doorway, not knowing if he ought to say something, not knowing if he wanted to.

 

His voice decided for him.  ‘Sherlock—’

 

Sherlock looked up eagerly, eyes hopeful.  ‘Yes?’

 

But in that moment he had looked so whole and alive, the hint of throat peeking from beneath his scarf so smooth and without fault, as if fangs had never pierced it, as if John didn’t leave any lasting impression, that John swallowed hard, turning away.  ‘Nothing, never mind.’

 

 

John listened to the tone as the call went through.  He didn’t wait for a greeting when it connected, saying at once, ‘Harry, I need your advice.’

 

Harry made a groggy sound into the phone.  ‘John, it’s three in the morning.’  But in a flash she sounded more awake.  ‘Hold on, you never need my advice.  At least, if you do, you don’t ask for it anymore.  Why aren’t you just deciding things and then consulting me later?  What’s wrong?’

 

John sighed.  ‘You know more about these things than I do, all right?’

 

‘It’s about Sherlock, isn’t it.’  It wasn’t a question.

 

Instead of confirming her suspicion, John asked, ‘Remember that bloke I hung about with at uni?’

 

‘The one with the horrible moustache?’

 

'Dark hair, used to play rugger?’

 

‘Oh!’  Harry laughed.  ‘That one.  You two had a bit of a thing, didn’t you?’

 

‘We still have a bit of a thing,’ John confessed.  ‘Look, Harry, I don’t know what to do about this.  Mike and I are... we’re comfortable.  What we have’s familiar and nice, and he’s a great person.’

 

Harry hummed consideringly.  ‘Whereas Sherlock’s a twisted, callous, gorgeous bastard with no regard for other people’s emotions, am I right?’

 

John paused for a long moment before replying.  ‘Basically, yeah.’

 

‘Don’t tell me you’re trying to choose between them.’  When John didn’t answer Harry gasped theatrically.  ‘John!  Honestly?’

 

‘I don’t know if I could turn either of them away, even if I tried,’ John said, feeling miserable.

 

Harry huffed irritably at him.  ‘So don’t, idiot.’

 

John groaned.  ‘Not what I wanted to hear, Harry.’

 

‘What, because it’s complicated?’  She made a derisive noise.  ‘Because it’s going to be hard?  God, John, grow up.  It’s time to stop running away into the woods and face your problems.’

 

John, though stung, knew that she was right.

 

 

The club was practically empty, as it was Monday.  John leaned against the bar, taking a small foil packet from his coat and sliding it across to Charisma, who that evening had painted on an unsettlingly cheerful Glasgow smile.

 

‘Can you make me a cocktail with this?’

 

Charisma eyed the packet with suspicion for a moment.  ‘It’s not drugs, is it?’

 

John huffed briefly with laugher.  ‘It’s got a label.’

 

Charisma peered at it in the dark, even taking out a pen-light and examining it further.  ‘Oh,’ she said, having ascertained its contents.  ‘Well, damn, this is the first time I’ve made you anything.  What sort of cocktail do you want?’

 

‘Doesn’t matter,’ said John, pulling up one of the barstools and sitting down.  ‘What’s your favourite?’

 

‘A Screaming Orgasm, but I don’t think Bailey’s and blood-powder would taste well together.  By the way, where do you get this stuff?’

 

‘My sister,’ said John, and his tone spoke for him: he wouldn’t elaborate further.

 

‘I’ll make you a Lenore, how’s that?’

 

John shrugged.  ‘All right.’

 

Once the fluted glass was in front of him, all chocolatey and sweet with just a hint of someone else’s life, John made his confession.

 

‘Charisma,’ he said, ‘I’m ... seeing some people.’

 

‘Ooer!’ she noised excitedly, coming around the bar to sit beside him.  ‘Anyone I know?’  She gave him a serious look.  ‘Damian’s not got his claws in you, has he?  That old whore.’

 

John laughed.  ‘No, you don’t know them.  That’s part of the point.’  He felt strange saying it, but it was fitting: ‘They’re Muns.’

 

Charisma gave him a facetious, withering look.  ‘You are converting them, right?’

 

‘One was halfway there before I got to him,’ said John, thinking of Mike.  ‘Thing is, they don’t entirely know about each other.  It’s complicated.’

 

Classy.  I feel like the supporting female in a gay romance novel,’ Charisma mused, smirking.  ‘The sympathetic hag, bearing motherly advice and booze.  So which one’s the villain?  The hero always has to decide between the innocent farm boy and the cold, cruel aristocrat who ravishes him every other chapter.’

 

John rolled his eyes at her, but he saw her point.  ‘I live with the cold, cruel aristocrat.’

 

Charisma gaped at him.  ‘Oh my Goddess, John, you’re being ravished by Sherlock?’

 

John had forgotten she read his blog.  ‘Er, not being ravished, precisely.’  He took a drink of his cocktail, stalling; the combination of chocolate and amaretto nicely masked the tang of the blood, making him feel almost like a normal man, drinking a normal drink in a perfectly ordinary life.  ‘More like I’m doing the ravishing.’

 

Charisma smirked.  ‘Good man!  Always knew you had it in you!  You may look like the strong, silent type, but underneath your jumper sleeps a kinky beast.’

 

John elbowed her.  ‘Oh, hush.’

 

‘You know it’s true.’

 

‘Well,’ he said, ‘all right, so it is.  But seriously,’ John stared into his glass, ‘I feel terrible about it.  I mean, Mike’s—’

 

‘The winsome farm boy, whose pleasant face and easy charm could win the affection of even the most passionless gentleman,’ Charisma added.

 

‘—been in a sort of relationship with me off and on since uni, and I told him about Sherlock—’

 

‘Whose cold, clear eyes stare down at you with a condescension that makes your proud blood surge in your veins,’ Charisma noted.

 

‘God,’ John interrupted himself, ‘you really know your stuff, don’t you?’

 

She grinned, the painted stitches on her face curling into her dimples.  ‘And Sherlock knows about Mike?’

 

John nodded.  ‘Tacitly, at least.  He knows I...’ he hesitated, ‘that Mike and I do blood-things together.’

 

Charisma fiddled with the packet the blood-powder had come in.  ‘And he’s okay with that?’

 

‘I don’t know,’ said John, frustrated.  ‘He’s so bloody uncommunicative.’

 

Charisma nodded wisely.  ‘Lordly villains are like that.’

 

‘I don’t think he’s a villain,’ John insisted.  ‘Not really.  If anything, I am, stringing two perfectly good people along—’

 

‘Are you?’

 

He frowned.  ‘Am I what?’

 

‘Stringing them along.’

 

John took a sip of his cocktail.  ‘No.  I mean, God, I don’t know.  I don’t think I am.’

 

Charisma stared him down.  ‘Are you in love with either of them?’

 

John sighed.  ‘I think I could be.  I mean, I really care about them—I love them that way—but I’m not head-over heels for either.’

 

But he was dwelling on it again, caressing the memories in his mind: Sherlock clawing his back, screaming inarticulately into the night; I’m not hungry, except for more of you; that warm, tense feeling that wrenched through John’s chest when he looked at him, making his breath catch; it hurts, it’s beautiful, please don’t stop; how unfazed Sherlock had been when John explained what he was, that he wasn’t human; John, concentrate, I need you to concentrate, close your eyes; the intense flare of affection he felt when he saw Sherlock sprawled out, limp and sated, across his bed like a dropped rag-doll; no, I want you, I want it, please—!  Sherlock sitting up, still naked, in John’s bed, eating a biscuit and drinking orange juice, saying Thank you for looking out for me, but only with his eyes.  Running through the streets, don’t make people into heroes, John, up fire escapes, down alleys, could be dangerous.

 

And he thought of Mike: hunting about in the rumpled sheets for his lighter; handing John a paperback that changed his opinion of himself; you’re the second person to say that to me today; how his fingers curled and stuttered against the shelves of the bookcase as John drank from him for the first time in over ten years; when your heart decides where it’s going, you’ll notice; the way Mike introduced himself that day in the park, after John had come home, as if John wouldn’t remember him, wouldn’t know every inch of him and ache for it; Mike laughing, Mike stroking John’s hair as he clung to him in the morning light that cut through the gap in the curtains, Mike sighing, begging, yes, yes, of course, I’d like that, without a second thought.

 

 ‘Wait,’ said John.

 

You’re going to fight, and track down murderers, and bicker and fuck and make up and do it over again before you realise you’ve done it at all.

 

He frowned, staring at his hands as they curled into fists, uncurled again, relaxing into the dawn of an idea.

 

If you give up, where’s the adventure?

 

‘I think...’

 

Every Louis needs his Lestat.

 

‘I think I am, actually.’

 

Charisma clapped him on the back.  ‘Good!  Now all you’ve got to do is figure out which one.’

 

John groaned, knocking back the last of his drink.  ‘You’re not helping.’

 

‘Well,’ she said apologetically, ‘let’s look at this from the romance novel angle.  What does the sad-eyed gay hero do when he needs advice and the sympathetic hag is out of suggestions?’

 

John stared at her.  ‘I haven’t the foggiest idea, you’re the expert.’

 

Charisma got up from the stool, stretching, he bracelets clinking in the dark.  ‘He consults the reluctant, somewhat judgemental replacement-father-figure because really, when it comes down to it, he knows best.’

 

‘You’re mad,’ said John.

 

She shrugged.  ‘The hag usually is.  Oh, and there’s another archetype to consult—I almost forgot.’

 

John looked up from the bar.  ‘Hmm?’

 

‘The girl who’s betrothed to the haughty aristocrat.’

 

‘Sherlock’s not betrothed to anyone, though.’

 

Charisma hugged his back, patting him on the head in a way that was more comforting than condescending.  ‘You’ll think of something.’

 

 

‘I truly don’t see how I’m meant to help you with the situation.’

 

They were standing under a lamp at the end of a deserted road, the sleek black car idling nearby.  John rubbed his temples.  ‘Please.  Just this once, answer my questions, all right?’

 

Mycroft tapped his umbrella against the pavement, looking thoughtful.  ‘I don’t believe he would take the matter lightly, if that’s what you’re asking.  He may, in fact, be terribly displeased.’

 

‘I’m aware of that.’

 

‘I think,’ Mycroft said, ‘that no matter what I advise, you’re going to do what you feel is right.’  He smiled.  ‘That seems to be the general trend in your behaviour.’

 

John shoved his hands into his coat pockets, rocking back on his heels.  ‘I’ll do that as soon as I figure out what the right thing is, then, shall I?’

 

‘You know,’ Mycroft turned back before opening the door of the car, ‘when Sherlock was young, he was very possessive of his toys.’

 

John gave him a hard look.  ‘I’m not his toy.’

 

‘No,’ said Mycroft, his tone almost appraising, ‘you’re not, are you?’

 

 

Molly dropped the scalpel back onto the tray, peeling off her gloves.  ‘Ooh, really?’

 

‘Yes,’ John sighed.  ‘Really.’

 

‘Gosh!’

 

‘Quite.  Now, what do you think?  Be honest.’

 

Molly looked up and off to one side, thinking.  ‘Professor Stamford’s very sensible.’

 

John had to agree with this.  ‘Probably the most sensible person I know.’

 

‘He’s got such great principles as a person.’

 

‘He’s practically bursting with them.  What do you think he would say?’

 

‘I think,’ said Molly as she began the post-autopsy clean-up, ‘that whatever you decide, he’ll be all right.  I mean, he’s very calm.  When things go differently than he thinks they will, he just rides it out.’  She turned on the taps to wash her hands.  ‘He’s kind of unshakeable, have you noticed?’

 

‘Yeah,’ John nodded, biting his lip.  ‘I’ve noticed.’

 

 

When John was twelve, one of the corgis had to stay the night at the vet’s after an extensive operation.  John knocked on his sister’s bedroom door, knowing she was awake, despite the light not being on.

 

‘I’m worried about him,’ he said as he sat at the foot of Harry’s bed, leaning up against the footboard.  ‘What if he doesn’t make it through?’

 

Harry, who was lying on the bed and doodling in a notebook, unheeding of the dark, gave him a somewhat disparaging look.  ‘Of course he’s going to make it, he’s a tough old bastard.’

 

‘I don’t know if I could bear it,’ John told her, fretting with a string that dangled from the edge of her duvet, ‘only having one of them about.  I’d look at one and only see how the other wasn’t there.’

 

‘So stop believing so hard that you’re going to lose him!’ Harry said firmly.  ‘Nothing bad’s happened yet.’

 

‘You’re right,’ John sighed.  ‘I still worry.’

 

‘That’s because you’re stupid,’ Harry told him fondly, rumpling his hair.  ‘But it’s okay, you’ve always got me around to make you see reason.’

 

 

Sherlock reclined across John’s bed, all gangling limbs and a tangle of curls.  He felt the place on his neck where John had drunk from him: whole and unmarred as if it had never happened.

 

‘But what’s the science of it?’ he asked.  ‘How does it work?’

 

John handed him another biscuit; he’d started keeping some handy for these occasions.  ‘I don’t know.’

 

Sherlock frowned at him, but took the biscuit as if it were an apology.  ‘Haven’t you done research?’

 

John laughed.  ‘There’s not a lot of reliable information out there, you know.’

 

Sherlock was getting that curious glint in his eye, a look that spoke volumes, all of them saying Experiments.

 

‘John,’ he said, oppressively casual even as he clearly brimmed with the desire to demand, ‘what if we were to—’

 

‘No, Sherlock.’

 

‘Simply for the sake of—’

 

‘The answer’s no.’

 

‘But what if I only took—’

 

John whirled on him, pinning his arms above his head; a position so common in their intimacy, but now it was differently charged, prickling with threat.  ‘You are not going to experiment on me.’

 

Sherlock looked away, going limp in John’s grasp, conceding defeat.  ‘Fine,’ he grumbled, petulant.  ‘Sorry I asked.’

 

 

Mike yawned, stretching languidly, settling against John as they lay in the curtain-dimmed bedroom.  ‘When we used to have drinks together,’ Mike asked, ‘was it terrible?’

 

John laughed.  ‘What?  No, why?’

 

‘Only now that I know you’re technically not meant to consume things other than blood, I worry that it was a trial for you.’

 

‘I usually didn’t drink all that much,’ John noted.  ‘Most times, not even half a pint.’

 

‘Oh,’ said Mike, smiling into John’s shoulder, gently pressing his lips to the scar there, ‘good.  I don’t want you to go through any discomfort for my sake.’

 

John turned in his arms to look at him, to search his face, and it almost hurt, how honest he was.

 

 

Before returning to London, the letter from his mother safely tucked into the inside pocket of his coat, John visited the village graveyard.

 

He hadn’t frequented it much in his youth, though Harry had liked to hang about there when they were teenagers, thinking it was clever, smoking cigarettes and musing about the dead, being half-dead herself.  Now John, unfamiliar with the positions of the stones, walked along the rows, reading the inscriptions, trying to find his mother.

 

Three plots from the end of a row that was interrupted mid-way by an oak, John found her, Anastasia Watson, 1949-1971, Wife of Dragomir Ruthven, Loving Mother to Harriet and John Watson.  He stood respectfully back, not wanting to step over the grave, and read the fading epitaph, the final stanza of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Requiescat’:

 

Peace, peace, she cannot hear

Lyre or sonnet,

All my life's buried here,

Heap earth upon it.

 

‘Hi, Mum,’ John murmured, feeling silly for a moment but deciding immediately that he didn’t care.  ‘Got your letter, finally.  It made me cry a bit, but only Dad was there, so it’s all right.’  John wrung his hands a little, then let them fall at his sides.  ‘I wish I’d brought you flowers or... or something.  But you wouldn’t see them, would you?  Harry always says that leaving flowers on graves is for living people’s benefit.’  John laughed a little, blinking hard.  ‘I don’t know if I’m a living person, not properly, anyway.  I’m alive, but I don’t know if I’m living.’

 

He was silent for a long moment, as if listening to a constructive reply, though all he heard was the wind rustling the oak, and the birds, and the cars in the road at the bottom of the hill.

 

‘I’m going to try to follow my heart, like you told me.’  John sighed.  ‘I don’t know where it’s going, do you?’

 

There was no answer.