Bartholomew’s Crossing is not impenetrable.
An island of cliffs situated in a wide river, the settlement here has traded hands in recent years, or so he’s been told. Originally held by Lord Bryant in the east, it is currently held by Mayhew, Lord in the west. There are two bridges, one on either side, so much wood turning the island into a stepping stone. The river is the current boundary between their territories and, as such, there are measures in place to keep out those considered dangerous. Approaching the settlement, a traveller knocks at the gatehouse, undergoes a trial, and is escorted barefoot across the bridge to the island gate.
As he understands them, the obstacles to the bridge are these:
First, without the outer gatekeeper present, the inner guards refuse passage. If pressed, they open fire.
Second, all travellers must walk their designated path, a surface coated with holly lacquer. If an individual were to experience a fierce burning sensation under his feet, the gatekeeper would cut him down without a second thought.
Problematic, but not insurmountable.
The matter of the river isn’t quite so simple. In fact, it’s absolutely out of the question.
On this side of the river, there is no such thing as a shore, only fierce, steep bluffs above deep water. Even were he able to climb down the bluffs with some sort of vessel, the risk of manoeuvring on the current is not one for him to make. The combination of inexperience, a swift current, and submerged rocks would mean immediate death. Of course, appearing on an island unannounced would draw unwanted attention in the extreme.
Theoretically, he could retrace his steps and return upriver. Theoretically, he could convince a boat to make the journey down. He does have ample skills in the art of persuasion, even with the potential language barriers. Just as theoretically, he could allow himself to be dashed against the rocks of the craggy island, his palms scraped and burning as he drowns. That would be the faster death, the better one. Simply standing upon a riverboat, the slow numbing of the spray would creep through his skin and into his bones. He has no intentions of dying that way, shivering to the core.
The bridge. Definitely the bridge.
His hand draws the letter from his inner pocket almost of its own accord. His eyes flick over the diagram absently as he walks.
He’s long since memorized the letter in its entirety: the challenge, instructions, hints and all. He’s suffered the condescension and he’s admired the sheer nerve. It would be audacity, had he not walked leagues and ridden miles for the privilege of learning from the man. By all reports, there is no one more skilled at the finely crafted hypnotism of glamour than James Moriarty.
Lessons from Moriarty are precisely what he needs. If it requires the most extreme of hazing Sherlock Holmes has ever known, then so be it. He will pass the trial, cross the bridge, and glamour the human doctor out of the town without anyone recognizing him for what he is. He’s no child. He can do this.
Typically, Sherlock has no opinion about humans. For the boy- for the man who has thought of everything, it seems a drastic oversight that’s he’s never considered the issue. His concept of humanity is a categorized list of political and cultural deviations. His concept of humans is a crowd about a table, putting things in their mouths and chewing. His concept of a human is Angelo. Or Molly. Or the Lestrades, father and son, or Mrs. Hudson.
Here in the north, matters are quite different indeed. Angelo is across the gulf to the south and everyone else he knows is farther away still, unreachable beyond water and mountains besides. Sherlock has already braved a coastal journey to reach north-eastern Moriarty’s territory from Belgravia. The belly of the transport ship had been warmer than the eastern mountain passages, if only in that he had been confident of surviving the journey. Irene’s protection over her messengers is exceptionally well-known among southern-born sailors. He’d hoped it would extend further than the port.
It’s been made more than clear to Sherlock that, whatever he thinks of humans, the humans here have very specific thoughts about People like him. These thoughts involve setting the burn of holly against his flesh and the tips of arrows into his heart.
Regardless of his deal with Irene, this business with Moriarty isn’t something he has to go through with. It’s possible, still possible, for him to return across the water to Angelo and resume life as usual. They could carry on as they always have, not-quite-father and not-quite-son. Once, that would have even been enough.
It’s time to grow up now.
The gatehouse is an unimpressive cabin perched at the edge of a cliff. That there’s a walled gate and bridge attached in no way adds an impression of stability. He likes the fence, though. The thought of falling to his death has never been a particularly appealing one.
“Courier!” Sherlock calls in Anglic, knocking on the gatehouse door. He’s dressed for his role with a long travelling coat, functional boots, and the working garb of a well-off servant. He makes no effort to disguise his accent. It explains the foreign cut of his clothing.
The answering call comes through the door, through a small square window. “Show me your hand, please.” A native speaker, of course.
The height of the window is too low for a grown man to gaze through. With more confidence than he feels, Sherlock inserts his hand, palm up and bare.
“Hold this, please,” the gatekeeper says, setting a sprig of leaves into his hand.
Sherlock holds it. Immediately, he can tell that the holly isn’t fresh. There isn’t so much as a tickle against his palm.
“Name and business,” the gatekeeper requests, the “please” implied.
“Sherlock Holmes, courier. Picking up, not dropping off. Package for the name of ‘Anderson’.” He can never be bothered to remember false names. Keeping the new language separate and correct in his mind is work enough.
“I have a few here. Not sure of that name, though. Can you read or will I have to fetch someone?”
“I can read,” he answers. He keeps his hand relaxed without overplaying it. There ought to be some tension from sticking his hand through a hole toward a man with a blade. There’s a crossbow in there too, he’d wager.
Finally, the gatekeeper takes the holly back. Two hands take his one and there’s a quick inspection of his palm. These are dry, steady hands. Very rough, distinct sword calluses. A professional man, good nerves. Not overly long in this position or else in possession of achingly good manners.
“That’s you, then,” the gatekeeper announces, releasing Sherlock’s unblemished hand. “Let me open the door and you can take a look.”
They rearrange themselves, withdrawing limbs and closing windows before the door opens. It opens inward and can be bolted in three locations, one by wood, two by metal. The man behind the door is shorter than Sherlock, his tawny hair approximately eyelevel. Some grey at the temples, some lines on his features, but they look premature. Stress and past illness, a former soldier.
What matters is that this man is clearly strong, has years of experience at the sword, possesses ample patience, and is dedicated to protocol. The way through him will be to discover the ways around him.
The gatekeeper looks up at Sherlock as if he’s something unexpected. Which will it be this time, the dark hair or pale skin? His height, the accent? Or perhaps the softness of his hands. His palms are more obvious in this rural land of the north than they ever were in the southern cities.
Instead, the man simply gestures to the side of his gatehouse. “We keep the parcels on that shelf.”
“That” shelf is a bit vague. The wall to Sherlock’s right is made of shelves, stores of this and that. Boxes and jars and small barrels that are dwarfed by their cousin in the corner. Sherlock has no idea what any of the unlabelled containers are for – solid food, perhaps – and so he immediately experiences a niggling sense of fascination.
“Sorry,” the man says with a bit of a laugh. “That one there.” He points properly this time.
Sherlock nods to him and enters the gatehouse. The door is closed behind him. He hears the bar lowered. Neither of the bolts. Obviously no bolts if he’s to be let out in a minute. And he is to be let out.
What he smells first is human. A distinctly masculine variation, the specific scent of the man stationed here, as well as that of another. Sweat, musk, skin oil. Beneath that, wood. The building itself, then more. Newer wood, as if something has been recently constructed or carved. Varnish as well. Also traces of a fire in the hearth, the smoke. Freshly cut wood for the fire, perhaps. No, peat for the fire. A myriad of scents surrounding these: cloth, straw, leather, human foodstuffs.
There are two rooms in the gatehouse, provided the loft overhead counts. He catches a peek of a straw mattress through the slats above. At the far side, on the right, a door opens onto the ground before the bridge, behind the gate. It sports a lock with a devastatingly practical appearance. It might be of some quality.
The contents of the main room include a hearth at the back, a rough table in the middle and two chairs of varying quality. Opposite the far door, across the thresh-strewn floor, the hearth is cold. A heavy piece of black cookware hangs in the space. Between hearth and door, a thick wooden chest serves as a bench beneath the main window, the cushion upon it worn and threadbare.
The number of personal items is frankly dismal and, as far as Sherlock can see, uniformly sharp. The remains of whittling at the table hint at a combination of boredom and artistic talent. A sword in its scabbard leans against the gate-side wall, its hilt matching that of the knife at the man’s belt.
The belt was a good one, once. It’s held up well and the condition of the metal buckle displays either pride or orderliness. Probably both. Trousers and shirt are equally rough spun and have been patched up with some semblance of skill on no less than three occasions. His boots, like his belt, are well cared for and, like his clothing, have been repaired multiple times.
There must be something here he can exploit. Preferably not the love of sharp objects.
He scans the parcels as quickly as he’s scanned the room. “Not here yet,” he announces.
“What does it look like?” the gatekeeper asks. “I’ll keep an eye out.”
“I don’t know,” Sherlock says. “It will be labelled.”
“Those are labelled.”
Sherlock looks at the man oddly. “With the names ‘Miller,’ ‘Brown,’ and ‘Davison’.”
The man’s blue eyes widen. “O-oh.” A two part exhale. “Sorry, I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”
Sherlock’s hackles rise immediately.
“When you read,” the man clarifies. “Your lips don’t move at all. Are you some sort of wandering scholar?” A search for sarcasm in his face or tone reveals nothing.
It’s honest admiration for the simplest of tasks. Idiotic and mystifying.
“What gave me away?” he asks, his grin as playful as he can convincingly make it.
“With hands like yours, what else could you be?” the man replies. A smile remains around the edges of his mouth, advancing and retreating. “Well, besides some lord running errands.”
Sherlock plucks at the lapel of his coat. “Oddly enough, no one ever seems to guess that one.”
The man laughs.
Sherlock laughs as well.
The man goes on smiling. “Do you want to wait for it in town?”
“Might be a few days,” Sherlock replies. “I’ll drum up some business this side of the river in the interim, if it’s all the same to you. There are only so many travel expenses I can reasonably charge for.” More to the point, he doesn’t fancy a barefoot walk across holly. What his palms can endure, his feet cannot. Not presently. He’s working on it.
The man laughs again. A very cheerful attitude for a guard. Perhaps that’s how he stays polite. Sherlock can’t imagine such cramped quarters being conducive to a pleasant mood. Simply the two of them inside together compresses the limited space to an absurd degree. It must be like living in a shed. He can’t imagine the man lives here full-time. He ought to, if this set up is truly intended to ward against glamour. Curious.
“Will you still be on duty?” Sherlock asks. “Two, three days from now?”
“I’m pretty sure,” the man replies, amused and confident. “I do most days, Bill does most nights.”
Sherlock lets his lips quirk. “If I came back next year?”
“Probably still me or Bill.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long.”
“Doubt that would look very professional on you.”
“Not at all,” Sherlock agrees. “Then again, it’s hardly as bad as whoever designed this gatehouse. You’re defending in this direction: why an eastward facing door in the gatehouse? That’s unsound.”
“God, I know,” the gatekeeper agrees, curiously not offended. “It’s a holdover from when Bart’s was westward facing. The gatehouse opposite, that one makes perfect sense. Bit of a change to have granted, though, getting rid of the door.”
“And yet you still open it to strangers,” Sherlock challenges.
The gatekeeper’s stance shifts, the slightest change, and the man changes from short to merely compact. Sherlock is abruptly aware, very aware, of who would win a physical confrontation between them. The gatekeeper’s body informs him of this, a declarative rather than a threat. “To couriers who can read,” the human replies.
Sherlock’s mouth goes dry. There’s a small pause where he’s not sure how to excuse himself. He has no true reason to stay, yet he wants to. There’s more information to be gleaned.
Ah, of course.
“Sherlock Holmes,” he says, offering his hand and his name for the second time. The human way, palm and fingers perpendicular to the floor.
The gatekeeper takes it. As before, his touch is a steady, professional pressure. “John Watson.”
“Charmed,” Sherlock replies. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I ought to be able to return to my inn before nightfall.”
“Right, yes,” John says, releasing his hand to open the door. He takes his time lifting the bar. “Are you-” He looks outside and frowns. “You’re travelling alone.”
“But you’re unarmed.” John’s eyes quickly rake over his form to confirm. Odd that he needed to check. The gatekeeper hasn’t taken his eyes off Sherlock since opening the door.
“...You’re not from around here, are you?”
“The accent didn’t give me away?”
“Actually, yes,” John replies, his words abruptly thicker, slightly hesitant. It takes Sherlock a moment to realize why.
“You speak Franc?” Sherlock asks, joining the man in the language, Sherlock’s mother tongue.
“My father’s father speaks,” John says. He has the tentative tones of a child. “Only the words he have, I have them also.”
Sherlock doesn’t keep his thoughts from his face.
“Oh shut up,” John tells him, switching back to Anglic. “I’m out of practice. Anyway, hold on a minute.”
The gatekeeper fetches something from his shelves. Unsurprisingly, it is yet another knife. Plain, leather sheath and wooden handle.
“Hold it like this,” John demonstrates. “This is bluff only, mind you, but bluff works.”
Sherlock almost laughs again. The man is so earnest, telling Sherlock what he must think Sherlock doesn’t know. Lies are the truest weapon in the world.
Only once Sherlock has repeated John’s demonstration and endured corrections to his grip and posture does John see fit to release him. “You can bring that back next time,” John tells him. “Don’t get yourself killed out there.”
“I’m aware of the danger,” Sherlock replies. The irony of this moment is excruciating and mounting. “Lord Bryant has blocked off most of it in the east.” Unless, like Sherlock, that “danger” possesses any shred of motivation.
“People are dangerous too,” John tells him, and isn’t it strange, the way they both refer to their own species? “Just because someone doesn’t want to drink your blood doesn’t mean they don’t want to spill it. Be careful.”
“I will,” he promises.
John licks his lips, a motion Sherlock can’t read. “All right,” he says.
The walk back is long and dull, but even as he stops to feed, he can’t help but note an unreasonable sense of accomplishment.
It begins to rain during the night. After slow hours of near-dozing, oddly restless, it comes. The low drizzle hits at the roof and sends him twitching into his blanket.
He can’t sleep for fear there might be a leak.
By morning, the storm is raging. The thatch proves itself, the stone weights holding it down clattering against the walls from the wind.
The innkeeper comes looking for him by midday. He opens the door and his fear must show on his face.
“Oh, look at you,” the woman says, a monolingual Anglic-speaker. “You must have caught a chill last night. There’s still some broth from supper, can I bring you some up?”
“I couldn’t stomach a bite,” he replies, more honest than she knows. He gorged on that deer last night and feels no desire to vomit up the scarlet evidence while trapped in this building.
“Fluids, dear, that’s what you need,” she insists.
“No,” he says, his voice filling with too much force. It spills out, spills over.
She frowns in confusion. Her mind refuses his flat refusal even as her eyes glaze at his glamour.
“You’ve taken lovely care of me,” he continues, unable to turn back now. Unauthorized hypnosis isn’t illegal when there aren’t laws for his kind, only against them. It’s still odd, the ease with which he can do this. The frequency with which he must. He keeps expecting Lestrade’s son to come and cuff his ear. “You’re right to insist that I rest. I’ll do so now.”
There’s a moment before she responds, a moment wherein Sherlock doubts his word choice, questions his fluency. The wrong word or phrasing can lead to disaster. Mere connotation or idiom can be just as crucial, or brutal.
“...Yes,” she says slowly. Then, more firmly, accepting the idea as her own: “Yes, you really ought to lie down, dear.”
When Mrs. Turner lets him be, he returns to his room, planning, digesting, not at all cowering beneath this flimsy roof. Once there, he doesn’t seek to feed. It would be a simple matter to bring Mrs. Turner back to him, but he doesn’t so much as consider it. Too much mess, too many marks. Besides, the side effects would be... problematic, to say the least.
With no other options, he goes to bed.
He climbs out two days later, once the rain stops.
He leaves much earlier than he must. This proves fortunate as the road proves treacherous. There’s mud, everywhere, and puddles. Trees drip on him.
All the care he takes in picking a safe path is thwarted far too easily by a breeze. The wind shakes branches and whips cold droplets against his neck and face. With a cry and a shiver, he wipes himself dry with his sleeve. Too late: the chill has already sunk under his skin. Exertion will warm him, but only if he can keep dry. With that in mind, he turns up the neck of his coat and remains exceptionally vigilant.
There’s little he can accomplish, returning after doing so little, but he’s spent far too long trapped indoors. Three nights and two full days inside. No, today, he walks. Perhaps by the time he sets back toward the village, the foliage will have dried enough to permit him into the forest. He hasn’t hunted since before the storm, but to lure out prey onto the road would be to risk detection. To feed in plain sight this far north would be suicide. The road remains aggravatingly occupied for hours. He chats but does not truly socialize, more irritable than homesick.
He arrives in the early afternoon. Ahead of him are an ox-drawn cart and two men. They approach the gatehouse and he hangs back. The bend in the road is a fair distance from the bridge but he hides himself there nonetheless.
John opens the gate quickly. The pair must be known to him. No, the older man. The younger walks to one side, his boots and socks in his hands. The older man walks at the head of his cart, leading the ox, and John closes the gate behind them.
Vehicles and transport animals to the right. Newcomers to the left. Wheels and hooves must wear down the holly lacquer too quickly to keep the entire surface effectively covered. Therefore, the right side of the bridge is safe to walk upon. Permissible to walk upon with footwear, no less.
Unless he’s to waste months building up the resistance in his feet, Sherlock will have to arrange to be allowed on the right. Is the familiarity of the gatekeeper all that matters or must he also be known to the inner guards as well? If the former, this will be only too simple. Though not as uninteresting as it could be, the prospect of making small talk with John is hardly the challenge he’s dreamed of.
If the inner guards must know him as well, however....
Several hours of waiting are required for anyone to come out. Each minute which passes is a minute which could be spent walking toward shelter and the rain may very well return tonight. It is not a wait he enjoys. The woods are damp and dripping, mocking his empty stomach. The strong breeze makes the prospect of venturing under the trees patently unsafe. He’s cold enough without the trouble of water.
At last, the gate opens a second time. All those who return are situated on the right.
The holly path must be the initiation ordeal. Once and once only, to prevent excess wear. The lacquer is expensive and Bart’s Crossing is merely modest. Is it from Lord Mayhew’s strained funds or a trust that Lord Bryant will keep Moriarty and his followers confined in the east? Either way, the frugality will see him out safely once he’s finished his business.
Before the travellers can approach, he finally resumes his walk. As he draws level, a man calls to him, “Just missed it, mate!” Anglic, always Anglic here.
He responds with a vague smile and a raised palm. He’s sure the gesture is a friendly one even this far north.
Knocking on the door, he’s once again treated to the protocol of offering his hand. This time, however, polite protocol gives way to a warm exclamation of his name. Sherlock extracts his hand and John opens the door. “Good to see you,” the human says, a quick Franc greeting before he switches to Anglic. “I see no one’s killed you yet, well done.”
Sherlock’s smile is born of a quick reflex. A joke, of course. Merely that.
“Of course not, I had this,” he replies, offering John the return of his sheathed knife.
John reaches for it, then pauses. His hand hovers over the hilt the same way his eyes hover over Sherlock’s face. There’s something odd about this man. “Do you have one of your own yet?”
“Not as such, no.”
“Well, there’s no package today either, so you might want to hold onto that a bit longer.” John’s fingers wrap around the hilt, fingertips touching Sherlock’s hand, and the man pushes in a gentle guiding movement. It must be for emphasis: take this, keep it, stay safe. “Do you not eat meat?”
Sherlock’s face remains in its usual expression. “Why do you ask?”
“You don’t carry a knife,” John replies, as if this is an obvious connection. Of course it would be, for a human. Sherlock had thought to carry a drinking skin, but eating utensils are foreign in the extreme.
“We have different habits in the south. Tell me, are you this protective of everyone you’ve just met?” Sherlock asks. He watches the way John’s expression freezes slightly with a great deal of interest. It’s such a quick moment of... not uncertainty. Curious.
“Most people don’t need it,” John remarks dryly. “What happens when you get into fights?”
“I don’t get into fights.” Not unless he wants to.
“Something about the way you say that reminds me of my sister.”
“Meaning you can talk your way out of anything, can’t you?”
Sherlock’s heart pounds in a strange way.
It’s not fear of discovery. As John has just stated, Sherlock can talk his way out, especially here with only the two of them. It’s not any sort of thrill of physical danger, but it is something. A diluted version of standing in Moriarty’s parlour and being seen.
It barely compares but perhaps the categories aren’t dissimilar. They each have that same look, the one Sherlock can only assume is sexual. There’s little he can do with that, but it makes him want to preen.
“Most things,” Sherlock says. His eyes linger on John’s face longer than is socially appropriate among humans, but John doesn’t appear to mind.
In fact, John does the same. His eyes flick away from Sherlock’s for short moments before returning. He no longer displays his teeth but his lips perform minute movements at their corners. His feet are both pointed toward Sherlock, ditto his pelvis, and his upper body leans forward slightly, as a plant does toward the sun. It’s not quite an aggressive posture. John wants something from him. He wants it in an aesthetically pleasing way.
“Are you any good at talking your way into things as well?” John asks.
“I can talk my way anywhere.” It’s not bragging if it’s true.
“Is that how you travel, then? You about to talk yourself all the way back to... where was it?” John prompts.
John blinks, his demeanour shifting towards the serious. “That’s four hours away.”
“Sunset’s in three. Might be significant.”
Sherlock attempts what he believes to be a reassuring smile. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.” His eyes are excellent in the dark.
John looks at him dubiously. “Do you have a lantern?”
“I won’t need one,” he answers. “The moon is waxing quite full. That’s enough light to see by.”
“Yes, I’m sure that won’t be ruined by the rain and cloud cover.”
His gaze jerks skyward. “It doesn’t look so bad,” he says. “Bit of an eastward breeze.”
“You can’t see the western sky from here, can you?” John asks. “Grey as a goose and just as angry.”
“Are you certain?” Or, better yet: “Can I see?”
“Mm.” John nods and moves farther back into his cabin of a gatehouse. Two steps, around the table, and two steps to the chest beneath the window. He opens the shutters and points out.
Sherlock ventures inside after him. The familiar scents grow stronger with each step. He joins John at the window and, setting one knee atop the cushions on the chest, he looks out.
The bridge is to the right, visible. The island is straight ahead, providing Sherlock with his first look at the inner gate. Tall, strong, and yes, those would be arrow loops. Unlike the landside gate, the island gate is stone around its wooden doors. Thick doors, thicker than the preliminary planks on this side. The island itself has its share of buildings but its most striking feature is, by far, the cliffs, rough and drastic.
What are more immediately worrying, however, are those clouds.
“All right,” he agrees. “That looks like rain.”
“A bit,” John replies, looking out the window with him. It puts their faces close. The proximity reminds Sherlock that he hasn’t eaten in days.
He could make an attempt. If he braves the woods and finds a spot of shelter before the rain lets loose, he would have ample time to turn his glamour upon any creature in earshot. If he doesn’t find that shelter, he would have ample time to let the cold water sink through his clothing. While his coat is excellent, it would do nothing to prevent sensation sapping from his feet, his legs. Water would leach its chill into his skin until he died the way his father did. More quickly, if lucky.
In light of those options, he’ll endure the empty stomach. There are some acts of stupidity he should count himself lucky to have survived the first time.
“How quickly would I have to walk, do you think?” he asks the gatekeeper. “You know the weather here better than I do.”
“Don’t think you could avoid that downpour on foot,” John replies, licking his lips as he draws his head back inside. He closes and latches the shutters. “Euston’s close, though. An hour southeast, I’d say. You’d get a bit wet on the way, but you could hole up there well enough until morning.”
Freeze in the rain or burn on the holly. Unacceptable. “Won’t work.”
“Hm? Why not?”
“No money for it,” he lies. “That’s the problem of being paid to deliver a package that won’t come. I haven’t funds for anywhere but Montague – I paid up front.”
“Bit not good,” John reflects. “Um. Well.”
Another man might turn to his glamour at a moment like this. Life or death, the outcome dependent upon his ability to remain inside this tiny building. Mycroft would have commanded the gatekeeper into an agreeable doll by this point. He thinks it’s likely Moriarty would have done something as well by now, something subtler and sharper and highly convoluted for the entertainment value.
If there is one thing to be said for Sherlock, he is more naturally persuasive than anyone else he has ever met.
This is why he looks at John with hope and no assumptions. Sherlock is a man capable of fending for himself. He can be helped but he is not a burden. He employs a dozen human social cues he’s observed, all subtle, all likeable. “Hm?” he asks.
“Well,” John says, “if you’d like, there’s the loft mattress. I mean, normally, I lock up here and head home to Bart’s, but I don’t think Harry would like the unexpected company. Can’t exactly leave you alone in the gatehouse – sort of thing the mayor frowns upon, really, leaving strangers in the gatehouse – but if you don’t mind sharing the loft....”
“Really? Are you sure?” He attempts to show the indecision he absolutely does not feel. The hope, however, is sincere. And then, the compliment that means John cannot back out: “That’s exceptionally kind.”
“No, it’s, it’s fine,” John says.
“If you have someone waiting for you, I could nip outside while you tell them,” he offers. It wouldn’t do to raise suspicion about a missing guard. “Harry, you said?”
“Harriet,” John is quick to correct. “My sister. She’s not- We ignore each other anyway. And Bill just got married, so I’ve been taking night shifts lately and, um.” He stops himself and smiles, polite and nervous and something else Sherlock can’t quite put his finger on. “I mean, no. No one waiting for me.”
“Oh,” Sherlock says, because he knows he must say something. “I’ve always found that the advantage of living alone.” It’s a short always, but an always nonetheless. However grating strange humans can be, he still prefers them over being treated like a child. Even so, he misses Angelo.
John’s tongue appears to have become trapped between his lips. It freezes there before disappearing back into his mouth, remaining stuck only until John notices Sherlock watching.
There’s a moment of eye contact and Sherlock knows this is some sort of social cue. Finding it foreign and indecipherable, he can only hope John will tell him if it’s truly necessary.
Again, the darting motion of a pink tongue.
Again, Sherlock watches.
John looks at him with a question in his eyes.
“Oh, I’ve left the door open,” Sherlock announces. “Sorry, didn’t mean to let the heat out like that.”
He crosses the room and closes it, turning the dim room dimmer still. There’s no latch, only the bolts, and so the bolts and wooden bar go into place. Locking himself into a room with a man employed to kill people like him: Sherlock’s new reality.
When he turns back, the fire in the hearth is the room’s sole source of light. Lit from one side, half in shadow, John is caught between blond and brunet. The fire flickers him between youth and age. The red of his shirt is darker, fuller, less worn. Then John adjusts the shutters, permitting in vague sunlight, and normalcy returns.
Sherlock moves to sit at the table, taking the one chair on his side, and John sits opposite. The interest in those blue eyes has dimmed slightly. It’s curious.
They sit in silence for a few slow breaths. After, they sit in the sound of a straining silence.
“Would you like to hear a history?” Sherlock asks.
“Of what?” John replies.
“Of whatever you’d like.”
John asks first about writing.
What is impressive is that he listens to the answer.
Sherlock begins with Franc and slowly moves on to Anglic. Roots of languages, the slow exchange around the gulf; the newer, quicker change across the water. The cultural overlap and influence time and time again between People and humans. Down south, that is, back in the lands Sherlock once thought of as north. Sherlock is sure to phrase this information in a way John will accept.
“Did they have the same sounds?” John asks.
“Not necessarily,” Sherlock answers.
John frowns. “But they’re meant to be the same letters.”
Sherlock sits up a bit straighter in his chair as he explains.
John listens, rapt.
When the rain hits, John closes the shutters and lights a candle on the table. The warm gatehouse turns private.
“Your turn,” Sherlock tells him.
John ducks his chin, firelight against the right side of his face. “I can’t think of anything I know that could hold your interest.”
“A story, then.”
“I know a few soldiering ones,” John replies. “Most are a bit vulgar, though.” He takes in Sherlock’s expression and has the grace to be amused at his own expense. “No, then.”
“Something else.” Sherlock has absolutely no interest in that absurdity. He cannot have any interest in that absurdity, not yet. If he could, he would have plied John into submission and fed hours ago, but until he still needs to keep to a child’s diet. Rather inconveniently, the odds of a deer wandering in through the bolted door are rather slim.
“What about fables? The raven and the owl, do you know that one?”
Sherlock shakes his head, John speaks in stumbling Franc, and the evening turns to true night.
When John’s throat begins to wear, he offers Sherlock water. “We’re not allowed anything else in here,” John explains. “It’s safe. They do this thing. Filtering, something like that.”
“If it’s all the same, I’ll not take my chances,” Sherlock replies and feigns drinking from the empty skin he carries. He counteroffers with skill born of habit and true night finds them sitting before the hearth, one drinking from a cup, one blowing smoke rings. There’s something extravagant in the burning fuel and continuing warmth, as if John intends to impress. Or perhaps he’s simply one of the many who notice Sherlock always seems cold.
Without either of them talking, there’s little to distract him. The sound of the fire can’t overpower the pounding of the rain. The damp quality of the air brings him to the edge of an itch. Or perhaps that’s simply John.
John, as calm and placid as any prey ensnared by glamour.
Not even the tobacco of his pipe can take the edge from his hunger. Never a good sign. The scent does help obfuscate his nose.
He blows his smoke rings, one after another, and watches John watch him.
Cursing his needful condition, he reminds himself of the risks of this human as a source of sustenance. The last thing he needs is the gatekeeper to sport visible signs of his feeding. He endures his hunger and the night stretches on.
The plan, when it develops, is devastatingly simple. A likely scenario to get him to John’s femoral artery, a mask of glamour, and all consequences taken care of. Famished though he is, he won’t drink enough to compromise himself. The transition into true adulthood requires quarts. A mere half pint or so ought to cause little more than stirrings.
He doesn’t mean to think of the plan. He hardly wants to enact it. If John’s hand weren’t upon his own thigh, the human’s thumb rubbing slow circles above his femoral artery, Sherlock’s mind would have never made the leap. If there were space between them, if John were not so close with skin as warm as his smile, Sherlock might have entertained some internal debate.
As he lets his pipe cool, they talk. John has questions, so many questions, and the more Sherlock answers, the more entranced the gatekeeper becomes. For something so easy, it’s immensely satisfying. This is nothing special, only the result of books and time, nothing close to any of Sherlock’s true skills.
It doesn’t make the way John looks at him any less... distinctive.
People have looked at Sherlock this way before, humans as well. Sherlock has learned to ignore it lest it rile his guardian, but Angelo isn’t here. In his snug gatehouse, John is too close not to notice, just as he’s too responsive not to study. John looks at his hands and his mouth the way Sherlock looks at exquisite paintings.
The fire settles and they watch one another.
Sherlock cleans his pipe and John watches this as well.
His pipe returns to its place in his satchel, next to the tobacco pouch.
“Sleep?” John asks, standing.
The human is on alert in the near-dark. The unsteady light reveals the tension in his frame. A guard, a soldier, and all the instincts that come with that training: does he suspect?
“If you like,” Sherlock replies. He doesn’t stand. Instead, he performs an action he’s seen in tavern after tavern, inn after inn.
He lowers his gaze.
Down the shadowed hollow of throat, down the coarse shirt, down past the burnished belt buckle and no farther.
He lifts his gaze along the same line.
Another glimpse of tongue. More interesting by far is John’s chest, the slight yet rapid movements of shallow breathing. He’s like a bird summoned to the wrist.
Sherlock smiles, slow and smooth, and he stands in much the same way. John’s eyes widen and he reaches, his touch light through thick fabric. Even so, it’s warm in a way Sherlock couldn’t have predicted. Warmth up the spine, down into the toes, but shivers as well. It makes him shuffle toward the smaller man, brings him to bend. Head at a delicate tilt, John fits their mouths together.
Sherlock nearly bites him then and there. A lip between his, skin flooding with increased circulation: the temptation is immense. He drags John close, securing him, and John’s scent changes with a burst, with a groan, thicker, heavier, edible. Livestock don’t do that.
He slides his lips across tanned skin, desperate from scent alone. Too rushed, too forceful as he guides them, pushing John’s hips against the wall. He’s famished.
“I’m about to go to my knees. While I’m there, tell me exactly what you want,” he whispers, slipping from truth into glamour. Speaking in Anglic, he’s sure to keep his words simple. He can’t risk a misunderstanding, not with this. “I’ll do it. Exactly what you want.”
He knows the theory of procreation, if not the practice, and he’s heard of the things humans do to each other. It’s all variations upon the theme. The details have never much interested him, but he hardly needs to know them as long as John does. As long as John can convince himself, Sherlock needn’t do anything at all.
Thresh crackles beneath his knees. John’s hand slips around his nape to pull him forward, face against his navel. Hunger forces him from any thought of intimacy. Coarse fabric separates him from skin and the organs beneath. The vulnerable underbelly: not his target.
“Tell me what to do,” he commands.
“Trousers. My trousers, open them.”
It’s so simple. Once he works his way through the belt and buttons, he has the garment around John’s ankles. Ample access to his femoral artery.
“Smallclothes,” John adds. He sounds dizzy. Putting him against the wall proves excellent foresight.
Sherlock complies with this as well. Underneath, John’s penis is hard, pointing toward Sherlock as if at a chamber pot. John’s hips twitch as Sherlock breathes on him.
“Your mouth.” The hand on the back of his head urges him closer. For some reason, John is almost as impatient as Sherlock. “Your mouth on me.”
“Lips or tongue? Tell me exactly what you want to feel.”
Hands petting through his hair, angling his face toward the one place he can be certain a bite could go unnoticed. The human’s touches upon his head unnerve him, much too intimate. “I- fuck. Lips first. Light. Tongue flicking out. Then more tongue, until- No, god, Sherlock, whatever you like.”
This won’t do at all. John is too polite, too considerate. “I like to be told,” Sherlock instructs, rewriting consideration. “I want to hear you say it.”
“Skip to the licking,” John decides.
“You can’t be serious.”
“I can be. Be exact.”
“Flat, broad strokes. Going up. Hold me in your hand and then that.”
Sherlock wraps his hand around absurdly heated flesh and, the true test, brings his mouth to John’s thigh. He touches his tongue to skin and drags it upward through a plethora of strange tastes. Wool and sweat and skin.
“Yes,” John hisses, hand buried in his hair, unaware of the chaos he inflicts through the touch. Much too intimate, that touch. “Just like that. No, harder. More.” And, so polite, almost apologetic for having forgotten: “Please.”
He uses his mouth as directed, dallying until he’s certain John is entirely convinced of his own fantasy. Only then does he permit a scrape of teeth.
“Careful.” Breathy, not even a true chastisement. John’s instructions have long since turned to praise.
“I won’t bite,” he lies.
“I know. I know you won’t, god, you’re so good. Sherlock, I- fuck, the way you look like that. Your mouth around my cock. You’re gorgeous.”
Is John watching him? Sherlock looks up, chin digging in lightly against saliva-prepared thigh.
John stares down, eyes blown black. The expression across his blunt features is utterly foreign. The whimper caught in John’s throat vocalizes it perfectly. Sherlock hears need beneath the want. It’s honest, this praise, entirely sincere. Whatever John has convinced himself of, it must be remarkable.
A smile takes his mouth by surprise and John groans, throwing his head back. It’s a rare compliment, that conviction in Sherlock’s abilities, albeit from a human under glamour.
It makes him willing to risk it, this final step. He sinks his teeth into John’s thigh, extending them, piercing skin and hot, trembling muscle, and John’s hand urges him closer still.
“Sherlock,” John gasps as the first sharp tang meets an impatient, lapping tongue. The taste isn’t so different from livestock, only the scent. He’s not certain why he expected it to be. “More, please, I need, please....”
He swallows thick warmth, permitting himself an appreciative sound as the burn travels down his throat. The beginnings of relief spread through him slowly, oddly heavy, urgently incomplete. John settles down deep inside him, a low pool of twisting heat. He drinks with as much restraint as he can muster, listening to John beg him not to stop. It’s such a marked contrast from draining a deer that it doesn’t support comparison.
Forcing himself to stop is almost as difficult as forcing himself not to bite John’s lips had been, but he stops nonetheless. He’s had enough to take the edge off his hunger, but that’s clearly too much. He can feel the reaction settling in already, even as he licks the punctures shut. It’s unsettling, though not as repellent as he’d feared.
Except for the way it builds.
John’s warmth trickles down his front. It pools and it presses. For one enraging moment, he’s certain John must be diseased and has given him the runs. That’s wrong, he knows that isn’t it, but there’s a pressure in his groin. He’s not sure, but he might need to piss. Warm and heavy and his trousers constrict him in a way they shouldn’t.
He groans, eyes closed against John’s thigh, and John groans with him.
“More,” John urges and something in the word tightens Sherlock’s hand around the base of his prick. The next sound John makes is a choked off gasp and Sherlock’s left hand finds itself at his own crotch. The pressure is, what is- the pressure is good. He doesn’t spill out.
Both hands now, both hands opening his trousers and darting past his smallclothes. He’s touched himself a thousand times, a lifetime of relieving himself into a pot or behind a hedge, and his hands have never felt like this. He’s never been thick with hot, fresh blood, never had a man’s musk filling his head. The fingers in his hair somehow enhance the fingers on his prick. He fumbles, learning to pull at himself, and the clumsy sensations are nothing sort of glorious.
A push at the crown of his head and Sherlock rocks back onto his haunches, tugging desperately at his own prick. He watches John do the same to himself, once, twice, and then whitish liquid spills from him in earnest. John shifts his body, aims away from him, and catches it in his hand. But those eyes, his eyes stay on Sherlock’s face.
Sherlock’s mouth twists open at the way John’s mouth twists open. He strains forward, needing something more, something else, entirely uncertain as to what. Is he going to piss himself? Is he going to, no, not that, something else, like John, he needs, John, he needs, help him.
“Got you,” John murmurs. Unsteady, John kneels and reaches toward him and just the thought, just the thought of being touched. John’s hand closes over his. Sherlock shudders in one long shaking moment and once it’s over, he wants it again.
He crowds forward, his forehead against John’s shoulder. John’s cheek is rough against his. They kneel together, bowed toward one another. Sherlock pants as if he were dying whereas John’s breaths are light sighs that border on laughter. The sound curls his toes. Acute disbelief twines through his pleasure, and more than a hint of anger: he can’t believe he was denied for over a decade.
After a rough wipe on a handkerchief, John’s fingers touch his face. A delicate manoeuvre of fingertips followed by a hand firmly in his hair. It sets his body tingling, or perhaps it hasn’t stopped yet.
Sherlock wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, doing what he can to obscure any remaining traces of blood. Fortunately, he’s always been a fastidious drinker. He lifts his head once John does, marshalling manipulation and generating glamour, but he’s sluggish with satisfaction and begins to speak too slowly.
“Sorry,” John says, terrifyingly sincere. Mild embarrassment among the visible pleasure. And there, is that regret under the humour? Then: “I was going to get to you.”
Sherlock isn’t certain what that means.
“I’d assumed,” he replies without inflection. It’s a good, neutral tone.
“Give me a quick rest and I’ll make it up to you,” John tells him.
When Sherlock understands, it must show on his face. There’s no other reason for John to grin like that and fit their lips together. The urge to bite him is vastly reduced, replaced by an urge to taste, but he keeps his mouth closed all the same. The last thing he needs is for John to notice a certain coppery aftertaste.
Those complications aside, he’s taken entirely by surprise when John pulls back to ask, “Do you not like kissing?”
Sherlock can only conclude his behaviour is in some way incorrect. “I like it,” he replies.
“Perhaps we both need that quick rest.”
John presses their brows together. His is a heavy lean. Sherlock likes this as well, which is somewhat alarming until he realizes how horrified Mycroft would be to learn of it. A drinking partner is for drinking from, not for having sex with. Sod that, Sherlock can have both.
“Someone looks smug,” John teases.
This time, Sherlock kisses him.
The gesture is light, chaste. He’s only learning, only now.
John’s fingers twine in his hair, coating the human hand with Sherlock’s scent. This is strangely acceptable.
“The loft mattress, you said,” Sherlock prompts. His body is strange and fresh. He thinks he might want to roll around in something. He’s almost certain that something is John’s bed.
“Did I?” John asks.
“You were about to.”
They stand with care, with kisses. John wobbles, drained of perhaps half a pint and favouring his leg. The punctures are red, the surrounding skin purple, but the active bleeding has stopped with the help of Sherlock’s careful licks.
“You’re stiff from the floor,” Sherlock tells him. “Beyond something of a love bite, there is nothing amiss with your leg.”
“You’re making me feel old.” John brushes the straw from Sherlock’s trousers before doing the same for his own.
“Is that what I’m making you feel?” Innuendo. That’s new.
These reactions will fade, Sherlock is certain. Once John is out of his system, digested and expelled, Sherlock will return to his typical, untroubled condition. The physical manifestations of adulthood must wait. He has more important matters to dedicate himself to. Sherlock still needs his lessons from Moriarty if this is to ever progress. In the morning, he’ll resume his work.
Until then, he learns about kissing.