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.
He crosses the stone corridor unescorted. This is how he recognizes the dream, so unlike the reality. In this twisted memory, no footsteps swallow his with combative echoes. There is no steel to his left or right, waiting to be bared. The room ahead contains only one man.
When he approaches, the heavy doors open on their own.
When he enters, they are alone.
The air is thick from a single man’s pipe. The layered fragrance fills his head even now, rich and smooth with a hint of ash, as precious as a painting about to burn.
“Stop where you are,” drawls a bored voice so much like his own. The accent is different, the language the same. This liquid sound raises gooseflesh as it drips down his body, across his skin. It pools low in his gut, promising all things desirable. It gathers high in his head, at the crown of his skull, and whispers to him of his own burning flesh, holly seared and fire ravaged both.
Sherlock takes a step farther.
A leather sole on thick carpet rings out as if upon flagstone.
The man at the window turns his head.
He is smaller than Sherlock, which is of no importance. It’s merely surprising, continually surprising. His short hair is dark, a brown so deep as to be almost black. His scent is obscured beneath the smoke.
When he looks at Sherlock, his eyes are broken glass, sharper by far than the careful cuts of the stained window beside him. The light, filtered, casts colour into his pale shirt, pristine white transformed.
“Come to me,” the man decides after all.
The force of his own refusal nearly sends Sherlock to his knees, the tear of indecision not wholly his own.
The man laughs, a sound fit to shatter him. His smile falls from his face, fit to break upon the floor, and he commands, “Come.”
Sherlock sits heavily rather than comply, half upon thick cloth, half on lush fur. He sets his hands upon the dual textures, assigning meanings, groping toward balance. The cloth is Moriarty. The fur is Sherlock. He touches the one but he grips the other. He centres himself.
His body leans forward all the same.
Slow, his hand trailing down the window, Moriarty sinks to his haunches. Below the stained light, below the flavourful fog, his face becomes clear.
His interest becomes clear.
He holds his hand out to Sherlock, palm downwards.
He says, sweetly, “Please.”
His palm is soft. His fingers curl around Sherlock’s as they stand. His opposite hand rises to stroke down the back of Sherlock’s, down his wrist to dip below the cuffs. Sherlock allows himself to be reeled in, as if he were the prize.
“What would you like me to fix, my dear?”
He curls into the endearment, the motion as inevitable as the smoke furling across his skin. He thinks then, as he thinks in every reiteration, that he will remember this a thousand times before it fades. Before the praise within sharp eyes burns less brightly.
“I’m offering an exchange,” Sherlock murmurs, low and deep. This time, his volume is deliberate. Asleep, he is more in control of himself than he ever was waking.
Moriarty’s smile plays as his gaze strokes up Sherlock’s chest. “It’s always an exchange.”
“In exchange for information, I’m willing to give you an impossibility.”
Smile smears into smirk. “And what would this impossibility be?”
In a world with but the two of them, there is no one to threaten him as he opens his satchel. There is no one to check the wrapped parcel before he offers it to Moriarty.
Moriarty takes it as carefully as he always has, always knowing what it contains. In this lapsed narrative, the knowing becomes impressive, becomes something he wasn’t merely told through another man’s screams.
Moriarty unwinds the cloth from the fresh sprig of holly, holding it though bunched layers of linen. “I’ve seen gardens like it.” So sure. So dismissive.
Sherlock reaches out and closes his hand around stem, leaves and berries all.
The silence is profound.
Sherlock’s hand fails to shake.
His breathing is calm.
His eyes are free of pain.
Delicately, Moriarty places one fingertip against a leaf. He withstands the burning for perhaps a full second, far longer than most ever attempt.
“Your palm,” Moriarty instructs.
He releases crushed leaves. His palm shows the pricks, small dots of red which will slowly fade. He submits to a manual inspection for the sake of the response, for the smallest twitch as it becomes clear Sherlock’s skin is contaminated. When Moriarty gazes up at him with gracefully concealed awe, the moment stretches. This is a good dream.
The sprig traces down his cheek, down the other. He closes his eyes for the slow drag of leaf and wood across his brow. He sees the red trails of irritation as if from outside himself. He remembers the itch.
Moriarty watches the marks fade, his warm gaze as dark and heavy as arterial blood against the tongue.
Sherlock has never felt more magnificent.
Fold by fold, Moriarty conceals the sprig in its wrappings. It returns to Sherlock’s satchel without transition and they are in the corridor alone, always alone together.
Because they are alone, there’s no cause for the whisper. There is no hand on his shoulder, no caressing breath across his ear. The false intimacy and unnecessary seduction are noticeably absent.
Present in their stead is the delusion of dreams. Fingers in his hair with a firm, constant pull that secures them together, brow against brow. His father had held his mother this way, before he died. This moment is calm and steady. This moment is endless.
Moriarty’s abrupt withdrawal is put away forever. There is no questioning of Sherlock’s scent, untempered and childlike. Inexperience and virginity are of no importance, only his mind, only ever his abilities. Here, there is so much that will never happen.
It is, after all, such a lovely dream.
Awareness comes slowly.
First is the ache. His back, his hip. An odd position to sleep in.
Next is the heat. Another body beside his and he thinks, blearily, that he is home and a child and has triumphantly stolen Mycroft’s blankets yet again. He remembers his own age within a heartbeat and thinks, slowly, that he is travelling, that the inn is crowded, and that he has a strange bedmate yet again.
John shifts under his arm and Sherlock’s eyes snap open.
There’s an itch, strange and low, pressing up inside him. The need to move is strong, is desperate, is everything. The rain has stopped. He can hear it. The rain has stopped.
He tries to pull away. His front goes cold, too long pressed against John’s back, and John rolls toward his heat with a soft grunt of discomfort. The pressure pushes Sherlock down against the straw mattress. John reaches for him and the blankets without discrimination, soft and seeking. Ultimately, John rolls over onto his stomach, chest overlapping his, head nestling into the crook of his neck. Sherlock’s hands settle slowly onto his back.
It is dim up in the loft. Predawn birdsong has only just begun, a scattering of sound warning of the cacophony to come. They are warm and dry and John’s breaths across his skin are arresting in a way he struggles to understand.
The feeling of it, the warm rush of the smaller man’s blood through his body, this has largely faded. There are hints of it still, around his edges, creeping into his corners, and he wants to throw himself out under the sunlight and inspect every inch of who he is becoming. He wants to stay here and drink John down until there is nothing else left. He wants to press their skin together in every combination his not inconsiderable intellect can conceive of.
The process isn’t beyond stopping. He knows this from experience, if only just. A month or two feeding exclusively on wildlife and Sherlock’s fingertips will lose this newfound fascination with skin. This irksome way his body seeks to shift and sprawl will never bother him again. His heart won’t pound and his nerves won’t tremble at warm breaths against his collarbone.
He considers it. Angelo isn’t here to insist he’s too young, still a child, always a child. It was accurate then, but not now. Molly isn’t crying, bandage pressed to her neck. Sherlock is fine, not a bruise from shoving hands, not an ache in his mouth from a friend’s unexpected change of heart. There is no panic here. There’s no shame to make him run.
John is simple, that way. Even asleep, the human man is full of praise. Wandering touches across John’s shoulders call a low hum from his throat. The inspection of his body is quick, a matter of tracing cheekbone and ear and neck, all Sherlock can comfortably reach. Time and ill-use have scattered scars across his skin, the left shoulder in particular. For long minutes, his fingers dwell in the indent cast into John’s flesh.
Sherlock leaves his hair alone. The thought of such intimacy seems inappropriate.
Beneath his hands, John shifts yet again. His lips discover Sherlock’s clavicle and he mouths there, vague yet purposeful, as if he has forgotten some specific use for tongue and teeth upon Sherlock’s person. With luck, he’ll never remember and so be forced to continue. That, there, that is lovely. Stay there.
“You’re awake,” Sherlock attempts to say. Rough with sleep, his voice turns strange. His inane words ride a low rumble, practically a purr. He doesn’t recognize the sound in the slightest.
John hums, adjusting himself atop of Sherlock. He noses up Sherlock’s neck, his breath spilling, warm and wet. Sherlock has all of a moment to worry about this sort of damp before there are lips and tongue and a hint of teeth. The taste is foul and irrelevant.
If his own speech had been strange, the noise he makes now is absolutely foreign.
When he can spare a thought, he thinks of hands. His own on John: secure behind his neck, stroking along his side. John touching him: the palm on his shoulder, the fingertips circling his pectoral. The shock of a quick swipe across his nipple. Pieces of his body which have always existed but now which are.
He can’t stop the noises. Some are low and long and languid. Some tear from his throat, some pop and others escape with such desperate bids for freedom.
Is this normal?
“John?” he faintly asks, torn between his curiosities. Bidding the man to speak would interrupt John’s titillating trail up his neck.
John hums against his skin, directly against his skin, and Sherlock clutches at him. Heat stretches his groin. It is of vital importance that something be done about this.
His hands slip down the body partially atop his, insufficiently atop his. His palms cup firm muscle through cloth. He pulls.
Another groan, this time from John. The man draws back – no, don’t stop – only to push down his own smallclothes, blue eyes locked upon Sherlock’s face. There’s a terrible amount of movement, all lost beneath the blankets, and so little of it involves Sherlock being touched.
“Look at you,” John breathes. He drags his thumb around Sherlock’s nipple, skirting it and skirting it and Sherlock’s body strains for a thousand unknown wants. “You’re gorgeous, god, look at you.” John’s thigh presses between his own, warm, thick, heavy.
His legs tense, his hips strain. There’s motion to this, there must be some sort of motion to this, and Sherlock loses himself finding it.
John mouths at his ear, pushing an easy rhythm against Sherlock’s body, into it. The boards of the loft creak in low agreement. “Fuck, your voice.” The vulgar praise presses into his skin. “God, yes. Tell me what you want, what you want this time.”
“John,” he answers, concise.
John understands, or else he guesses well. That mouth against his and the gentle art of kissing roughens. Sherlock follows as best he can only to have his focus shatter. Hands surprise his thighs, the backs of his knees. His legs part themselves. His hips thrust upward, are met. Are pressed down, the motion fluid. Heat, heat, so much heat, lying alongside his cock.
That’s John, isn’t it? That touch, that’s John. John who knows things, good things, things like this, like two pricks in one rough hand. John breaks the kiss, John rears up, John guides him. His legs wrap around John, twitch and skid off John. His hands pull at John, grip his edges.
Only when John kisses him again does Sherlock realize he’s been panting the name.
John moves, somehow deeper, on top of him yet deeper, and everything spills with a startled shout. The mounting pressure in his groin jolts, then presses no more.
But that jolt.
Glorious and not shameful at all, not when John groans as loudly as he does. John works himself, watching Sherlock watch him. John says things, beautiful words that make no sense, and spills across Sherlock’s stomach. Though his head attempts to fall forward, John fights his neck steady. His eyes, half-hooded, match the slack relief of his mouth.
What follows is a slow collapse. John angles himself. He lies beside Sherlock. Sherlock’s hands won’t leave his skin.
Outside, the symphony of birdsong meanders through its opening movement. The sun is rising.
Sherlock thinks of the walk back to Montague.
When tugged closer, John wastes no time becoming wrapped up in his arms.
They breathe, relief as well as satisfaction.
John cleans them up. His handkerchief is quite soiled by this point. After, he resumes his role as a human bundle. This lasts for perhaps two minutes.
“So,” says John.
“Mm,” hums Sherlock.
“Morning rush will be leaving soon. Need to get up for that. But... I for one am glad it rained.” It’s not quite a confession, but John’s eyes are closed. Shy? Can John be shy?
The thought makes him want to touch. Touch more, more than he has already. Truth be told, everything makes him want to touch. His fingertips play with John’s spine. Each slow stroke down that hard line returns to trace his scapula. “You’ve shown remarkable hospitality.”
John chuckles, a surprised sound. “You’ve been a lovely guest.” He kisses Sherlock on the shoulder, as if to prove this.
“Yes.” Another kiss. The warm touch unfolds through his skin, down into his bones, and it aches so gently, bidding him to stretch into it, to grow.
Sherlock decides, then and there, that this is a process worth completing. When he returns to fix Angelo, Sherlock will be an adult in every way. With Angelo fixed, the change won’t matter.
“Is this a particularly rainy month?” he asks.
“More than some,” John answers. He shifts a little. Folds his arm beneath his head, careful not to strike Sherlock’s face with his elbow. It’s a lovely elbow, which is strange as those words make little sense in conjunction.
When Sherlock touches, investigating more closely, John doesn’t protest. His lips quirk instead, which is, for some reason, important.
This is, for some reason, very important.
John’s smile grows. Wider, truer. His eyes close, possibly unintentionally. When they open, they’re steady on Sherlock’s face. By now, John is grinning.
“All right,” John says, as if something has been decided. It certainly seems to be something wonderful. He looks exceedingly pleased with himself, an expression Sherlock hadn’t realized John was capable of. He’s not certain what John believes he’s accomplished, but he’ll sort that out later.
For now, Sherlock props himself up on one arm, leans over that fraction of a distance, and kisses him.
John is full of happy hums this morning. The sound mixes well with the growing roughness of his cheeks. He has more stubble than Sherlock does but it’s far less apparent due to the light shade.
“Breakfast?” John asks, pulling away unforgivably soon. He reaches for his clothes. “We’ve basic supplies in here, nothing fancy.”
“I never eat breakfast,” Sherlock answers, sitting up as well. “Never have.”
John looks at him, eyes tracing Sherlock’s ribs where the blanket has fallen away. “Yeah, I can see that. But even if you head back now-”
“I’ll be just in time for lunch,” he replies. He pulls on his shirts more quickly than is perhaps necessary.
They dress in the crammed space of the loft before climbing down. Sherlock gathers up his satchel and John tends to the small remains of the fire. Sherlock’s hands feel absurdly empty.
“I should,” he says and stops. Some sort of gesture here would be appropriate but his hands are empty even of motion.
“You should,” John agrees. The gatehouse is so small that only a few steps bring the man before him. Sherlock’s hands find his waist immediately, which is evidently all the world needs in order to resume making sense. This should be alarming. Likely, it would be, were John not so warm.
He’s not sure how those two thoughts are connected.
“I’ll be off,” he says.
“I’m sure you will be,” John says, and even his mockery is praise. “You’re doing an excellent job of it.” He licks his bottom lip. “When do you think you’ll...?”
“In a minute.”
John shakes his head. He looks embarrassed. Almost small, rather than compact. The idea of releasing him becomes vastly absurd. “Come back, I meant.”
“Tomorrow night?” Sherlock tries to say, but it comes out a question.
“All right,” John says.
“All right.” He feels oddly breathless. Perhaps he caught a disease from John after all. They do appear to be exhibiting the same symptoms.
They kiss again, just for a moment or two, and John manoeuvres him out the door with a bit of a laugh. “Go,” John urges. “Before the skies open or someone realizes you’re an unarmed idiot.”
“I still have your knife,” Sherlock reminds him.
“I know,” John says. His smile is all in his eyes. “Go.”
The walk to Montague takes four hours. Longer, as he stops to properly feed.
When he arrives, he’s still grinning.
As his internal chemistry eases back toward normalcy, sanity returns.
That night, tossing and turning and twisting fruitlessly beneath his sheets, he realizes what he’s done to himself. His body strains for a goal it will never reach unassisted. This unscratchable itch refuses to fade regardless of the actions he takes. However he handles it, his member remains flaccid. He draws the line at humping the mattress, humiliated.
The reason is clear: John is almost out of his system. There’s enough of him left for Sherlock to want, these traces of human blood diluted by that of rabbit. A full day after drinking from the gatekeeper, there isn’t enough to do anything with.
Sherlock writhes with it.
He hates this, he hates this, he hates this.
It had been good, yes. It had been extraordinary, but extraordinary isn’t worth this. His body doesn’t understand this, doesn’t want this no matter how it now hungers.
He hopes, ten miles away, that John is suffering as he is. John should be restless beneath his sheets, at a loss of what to do with himself. He wants John cursing and frustrated. He hopes that John, with his human blood so easily filling a human cock, he hopes John comes in his smallclothes, sticky and mortified.
Lying on his side with his pillow in a chokehold, Sherlock considers this. He mentally rephrases.
John can come outside of his smallclothes. Something else embarrassing, though. Noises, that’s it. Small, helpless noises, worse than Sherlock’s had been. Smothered by fist or pillow? Which fist? He’d used his left when touching them both. He would use his right to quiet himself, palm over his lips. No, fisted, the knuckle of his forefinger between his teeth.
Or, no. Shameless. No embarrassment whatsoever, too busy sinking his fingers into Sherlock’s hair. He’s breathless at the thought. That praise. He’s never been praised like that, never. Or kissed. It’s surprisingly nice, the kissing, the way John curls into his mouth, unaware of how retracted fangs beg to extend in one sharp puncture. He tries to imagine what that would be like, drinking John down while kissing him. Utterly indulgent.
Sherlock flops angrily onto his stomach and groans into his pillow. This isn’t helping. He’s twenty-four, he’s an adult, physical technicalities and Angelo’s insistence be damned, and his mind shouldn’t be full of such idiotic whinging. The more he tries to calm his mind, he more he can hear his thoughts shouting. It’s annoying.
Finally, he exhausts himself into a twitching sleep.
He dreams of Moriarty again, he’s almost certain. It slips away from him in the morning, the details too varied from memory for him to recall for long. He has an impression of intrigued brown eyes. Intrigued by what, he can’t say, but the memory of them is true.
Sherlock’s resistance to holly, perhaps. A simple, acquired characteristic, remarkable only when viewing Sherlock as a stranger would. He has a particularly strong memory of being six and picking the plant one searing leaf at a time. He’d taken the sickly looking ones and, slowly, fighting down screams, had rubbed them across his cheeks and nose. After waiting for the stinging to subside, for the red marks to fade, he’d returned home, right into the arms of his worried brother, and nuzzled his face directly into Mycroft’s neck.
The mere thought still makes him smile.
But no: the intrigue is not due to the holly. The intrigue is something else.
Not Sherlock’s request. He’s certain of that. How many people in this hostile region must wish to manipulate their glamour the way James Moriarty is capable of? Moriarty hadn’t so much as blinked an eye, let alone asked for Sherlock’s motives.
Perhaps it’s Sherlock’s response to his challenge. How many would dare Bartholomew’s Crossing? The bridge is the issue. If Sherlock could walk across on his hands, he would have nothing to be concerned about. He has to build up his resistance in his feet, a project to which he has already dedicated himself. The pain will be worth the payoff. The soles of his feet have already worn thick with travel these past two years.
Leaving Whitehall had been the correct thing. Everything he has done has been, at that time, the correct decision. Removing himself and Angelo from Mycroft’s territory had been best for all involved. He’s taken a distinct pride in living without affiliation to his brother, his ring removed.
Travelling east along the mountains, studying glamour at every hospital and prison: these ought to have been sufficient steps. He can glamour away pain. He can impose restraint upon addicts and abusers. Useful knowledge, but far from what he needs.
From there began the journey north. Through the mountains, through human lands, and into the siren territory of the southern gulf. Belgravia. Irene was willing enough to help him in exchange for solving her puzzles and the work had been better than that of a hospital courier. For a time, he’d felt he was making progress. Sirens have their own calls, their own ways. Their kinds aren’t so different in that regard, but ultimately, even siren methods aren’t enough for him to overwrite a forceful, pre-existing glamour.
There was no one in his civilized world capable of teaching him that. Until Irene received a missive from a man across the gulf, a leader of the People forced into the north-eastern mountains by human barbarians, until then, Sherlock had nearly lost hope.
He knows he’s here on Irene’s behalf as much as he is on his own, but sometimes, he forgets. The end is too close. All that remains is to cross the bridge, locate the human named Michael Stamford, and glamour him into leaving Bart’s. From here, it’s only a matter of time until Angelo recognizes him as a man.
Sherlock will soon have to return to work as a courier. If his coin is to hold out, there are few other options, now that he’s left his violin with Angelo and the horses. He has no qualms in talking a drunkard out of his remaining funds – better for the human’s health, better for everyone – but Mummy would have disapproved. And Angelo. And the Lestrades. Mycroft would sneer something about social obligation to one’s inferiors.
He’ll have to find some sort of clientele. It won’t be the same as southern hospitals, but he can travel the surrounding towns, avoid suspicion, and build up his immunity with a small powder of grated holly bark in his socks. There exists nothing in this world he cannot learn to endure.
Really, he shouldn’t return to the bridge until he’s ready. There’s no true point in returning before then. When John asks where he’s been, Sherlock will simply answer that the package came through up north instead. He could show the illiterate man any rolled up slip of paper he pleased and claim a message had arrived by wing. No business remaining at Bart’s Crossing and a four hour walk was a four hour walk.
John would understand. John would begrudge him it, but he would certainly understand. He would be professional and show Sherlock into the town. As quickly as possible, Sherlock imagines. And so achingly polite.
“Please,” John would say. Please remove your shoes and walk the holly path. Please wait a minute, thank you. Mind your head on the way through, good-bye.
Sherlock would locate Stamford and spend several days in his company, learning his mind and habits. He would steal into the human’s mannerisms with one prodding of glamour at a time until the man was quite willing to leave Bart’s with him.
Between those days, during those nights, John would return to his sister’s home. Or stay in the gatehouse. By that point, it wouldn’t matter. After that length of time, Sherlock’s body would no longer want him. John would recognize that. Despite his curiosity, John would stay away from Sherlock on his own.
There would be the complication of how to feed while in Bart’s. Even within the town, even while cut off from any safe food source, Sherlock would never slip again, never lower his mouth to John’s skin and drink his warmth with rough fingers twined in his hair. Instead, he would slip out day by day, perhaps using the other bridge toward the west. Run an errand, or claim to, and feed in the forest. He would call wildlife with his glamour the way he always has, pick out the healthiest creature of the lot. He would drink, ignoring the matting of fur against his tongue and the futile jerking of small limbs beneath his hands.
After, he would return and continue to learn Stamford before laying the manipulation into place, subtle and strong and unnoticeable. When he and Stamford left together, it would seem half a coincidence of timing, half a result of a budding friendship. Sherlock has never had a problem portraying a convincing friendship. He prides himself on his ability to mimic and emulate. The polite society Mycroft insists on requires nothing less.
The hazing ritual overcome, Sherlock would see whether Moriarty was as good as his word. For the sake of Moriarty’s reputation, there was ample pressure on the mesmerist to follow through with the promised lessons. Sherlock would learn rapidly and well. Before the winter, he would be able to cast glamour in interlocking layers. With practice, he should be capable of building around a pre-existing glamour and thereby overcome it.
He’ll be twenty-five or perhaps twenty-six before he’s ready, but he’ll cross the river and return to Angelo. He will fix Angelo and then they will go home and if Mycroft says anything else about little boys and their belief in solving the impossible, Sherlock may do something dire. That will be the worst problem in Sherlock’s life, the risk of his brother speaking.
It will be marvellous.
Sherlock finds work that very afternoon, the afternoon John is fruitlessly waiting for him. It takes some convincing but no glamour and he has an exchange to make at Euston. This walk is approximately three and a half hours. The road is remarkably dry. His load is light and the process could almost be called pleasant. John’s sheathed knife rides at his hip.
At Euston, Sherlock makes the exchange with sunset two hours away. This new package is heavier but nevertheless fits with ease within his satchel. He sets it away immediately.
“In a rush?” the woman asks him. Her first name is Violet, her surname something equally generic. Anglic is simple that way.
He nods without thinking, without any thought at all. He’s spent too much of his life playing up to expectation to resist the habit when distracted. Not that he is. Distracted, he means.
“Are you off to Bart’s?” she asks.
He actually startles.
The woman laughs at him. The sound is as cloying as the scent of her namesake. “That’s the only place you could get to from here by sundown,” she explains.
He could kick himself, because, yes, of course it really is that simple. He hasn’t given himself away after all. Obviously.
“Oh,” the woman adds. “Would you wait here a moment?”
She darts away into her house before Sherlock can rally a proper response. He waits less from the request and more from a need to be directed to a place to stay.
The woman returns with a cloth-wrapped bundle in her arms. Judging by the way she carries it, he assumes a wooden object, rectangular. The contents of the box, he cannot yet guess at. “My uncle was going to carry this over later in the week,” she tells him. “But if you’re staying there tonight....”
Sherlock could say no.
He could say no so very easily.
He’ll correct her and ask for directions to the inn. He will. He won’t even have to refuse to carry the package, only to carry it tonight. Tomorrow, in the morning, he could drop off the woman’s box at the gatehouse and simply walk away. Or he could pass the item onto an individual crossing the bridge.
Or he could recognize that those plans are cowardly and imbecilic. He could acknowledge that he has allowed himself to be cowed by a courteous man who could never force Sherlock to do anything even should he make the attempt. Which he obviously would not, due to the aforementioned courtesy.
In the unlikely instance John did press him sexually, the human would hardly desire Sherlock to drink of him. Thinking Sherlock human, John would never make the connection. When Sherlock fails to display his arousal, John will be put off and the matter will end itself. With that settled, they can spend the remainder of the evening talking at the table. John knows a surprising number of allegorical stories and he laughs so easily when Sherlock shifts their meanings. Tonight, they will fall asleep with the respectful distance of unexpected bedfellows at a crowded inn. Or they’ll sleep back-to-back, as brothers would.
As Sherlock considers these things, his hands accept the box the woman hands him and his voice negotiates for his wages.
That settled, he walks.
Across the river and its cliffs, behind the town and over the bridges, the sun steals one last peek above the trees. The sky is red, the clouds orange. A smear of grey tarnishes the night, curling from the gatehouse chimney.
The gatehouse door is closed, as it should be.
This ought to be a calming sight. Nothing the matter. No suspicions aroused. Nothing but a door and a man behind that door and the sound of Sherlock’s knuckles against wood.
The little window opens. He inserts his hand to the sound of John’s familiar directions only to hear them cut off.
“Hello,” John says instead. His fingertips touch Sherlock’s upturned palm, so light, so steady.
Sherlock’s fingers curl in reply, reaching, seeking. They draw across John’s palm before capturing human digits.
“Hello,” Sherlock replies, speaking to the door. “Are you the new holly test?”
“Thinking about changing standard policy,” John rejoins. His, yes, his thumb strokes Sherlock’s wrist with small, repetitive motions. It makes Sherlock twitch towards a firmer touch.
“It doesn’t seem terribly effective.”
“You don’t know that,” John says, muffled through the wood. “It could be.”
It isn’t. Not at all. Not unless the goal is to trap him this way, unable to enter and unable to leave.
“This is quite rude,” Sherlock tells him. “Leaving a guest out in the cold, John, I expected much better of you.”
“I’m sorry. Should I let you in and warm you up?”
“Yes.” The word slips out in the split second before the innuendo registers. “I-”
John releases his hand and Sherlock withdraws it hurriedly.
Sherlock tries again. “I-”
The door opens and there is no more trying.
Firelight transforms John. Backlit, his face is shadow, his hair gold. The man is steady beneath the flickering light, granite infused with glinting mica. Sherlock has seen this before. The night before last, Sherlock saw this for hours, John sitting before the hearth. By all rights, the sight should retain no power over him.
John says, almost softly, “Come in, then.”
Sherlock obeys, closing the door behind him.
Inside, below the fragrance of wood smoke, traces of Sherlock’s pipe tobacco no longer hover in the air. When he’d left the morning before, it had still twined through the scents of wood and wool, masking the stale odour of the chamber pot. None of these scents can conceal John from his nose, sweat and musk strong enough to taste on the tongue. He smells vaguely of apples.
Standing within reach, John is unduly close. John is much too far away.
Sherlock’s uncertain hands go to his satchel instead.
“This is for Abigail Thompson.” A jewellery box he assumes. Empty between the cloth wrapping and twine but with intricate carving. “Should I put it on the shelf?”
“You could carry it in come morning,” John replies.
No he could not. Not yet. “What an atrocious waste of my time here.”
John’s eyes darken. His tongue makes its reappearance, if only for a moment. This is so unlike the typical reactions to Sherlock’s glamour that he has no frame of reference.
“You agree, don’t you?” Sherlock presses. He needs John convinced, utterly.
“Yes,” John answers, a very alert yes. The sort of yes meant for another sort of question. This is the problem of glamour: the message sent isn’t always the message received. Just look at Angelo.
This is a dissimilar problem. John has hardly been overwhelmed by a frantic command. Sherlock doubts John could be overwhelmed by anything. John is filling in the blanks, fashioning an explanation on Sherlock’s behalf, and has begun to operate according to his own assumptions.
John assumes his way closer. He nods at Sherlock’s satchel. “You can put that down, you know.”
Sherlock swings it down from his shoulder and sets it at the base of the shelves. He removes his travelling coat, too warm in the snug gatehouse.
John takes the garment from him, crosses the small room, and hangs it on a peg beside the gate-side door. Set next to John’s, the discrepancy in quality is as obvious as the differences in length.
John looks at him over his shoulder and asks, “Tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“Think I will, though.” The lid is removed from the large barrel by the hearth. John ladles careful amount water into the kettle, then hangs the iron over the fire. The metal reminds Sherlock of John’s hands, so worn and practical and sturdy. The item fits the man.
John smiles faintly. “Are you going to stand there all night?”
He moves to the table. He sits down in what he’s begun to think of as his chair, his back to the door.
When John joins him, their legs touch under the table. The man’s mouth is a soft line, his eyes even softer.
“How old are you?” John asks. “Twenty-six?”
The guess warms him almost as much as the question unnerves him. It’s jarring to be treated so easily as an adult. “Twenty-four. Is that important?”
Surprise flickers through John’s eyes but quickly leaves. “Not really,” he says. “I’m twenty-nine, by the way. Is that important?”
“No,” Sherlock replies.
“Good,” John says.
So it is.
The thought must show on Sherlock’s face because John’s smile must be in response to something. His lips look pleased. All his features do, the tilt of his face and the line of his neck. The gentle slope of his hard shoulders invites the touch of a palm and a stroking, circling thumb.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” Sherlock asks abruptly.
“Not if you blow smoke rings again.”
Head bowed over his work, Sherlock packs his pipe. John offers him matches. Sherlock accepts one despite having his own. He lights his pipe and takes a long, soothing draw. The heat and comfort it brings is much like John’s leg against his, steady and warm.
He blows ring after ring, some breaking apart, some lacing together with their siblings. John watches, his expression many parts delight.
“Remarkable,” John says.
“Well I think it is,” John counters, less like a compliment and more like a challenge. Civil, yes, always so civil, his John, but unmistakably ready to defend his opinion.
“You’re very easily impressed,” Sherlock replies, willing him to do it again.
Instead, John’s expression twitches in something like amusement. Darker, dryer, older than amusement, some distant cousin.
“Conscripted,” John says. “That’s what I was thinking. You’re impressed into the navy, conscripted into the army.”
“When was this?” There hasn’t been war in the north since before Bart’s Crossing was treated with holly. The defences against Sherlock’s people had been standardized four years ago, once the human lords had fought themselves low. By the end, there were only two factions worth asking after: east and west. “Which army: Bryant or Mayhew?”
“Lord Mayhew, from the beginning,” John replies. He shrugs with his right shoulder. “Not that I picked the winning side, mind you. More a coincidence of location.”
Sherlock mentally reviews his history and geography. He’s learned a great deal since coming here, had learned even more in preparation for the journey. “Then you’re from the gulf coast. The western delta lands.” He frowns, biting lightly on the pipe stem. “After the conflict, you were willingly relocated to this position with your remaining family. More than that, you were rewarded. You took a crossbow quarrel through the shoulder, which would entitle you to compensation were Mayhew known for his fairness. As he is decidedly not, your service before the wound was either exemplary or the exact circumstances of your injury are significant. Possibly both.
“You’re from farmland but not a farming family. Not a merchant family either. Your sword and dagger are an old set of reasonable quality and particularly well cared for. Moreover, the style of engraving on the scabbard is very typical in the south, across the gulf – where your grandfather was from, you said. So, kept in the family. You’re a tidy man, keep your gear in order, but the weapons are obviously special. Sentimental value, then, belonged to someone you were close to. I’d say father or uncle, provided it was an uncle without a son of his own, or a son old enough to teach before he died.
“You said Mayhew from the beginning, which means twelve or so years ago. You were seventeen. The former owner of the sword was already deceased but had taught you its use. Certainly from a young age. He was right-handed and taught you accordingly, but you would shift to your left out of preference. You fight with the right hand at present because of the shoulder wound.
“An ambidextrous young fighter, loyal and easily trained despite your conscription, but nevertheless common. The injury is the important piece here. The bolt didn’t go through you and it was unlikely you were armoured particularly well. Not that it would matter, a bolt like that. A long-range shot would have that result and could also explain why immediate medical treatment was at hand. You were not in the thick of battle. You were doing something else, what were you doing?” He stops gesturing with his pipe long enough to take a draw from it. Eyes wide, John doesn’t interrupt.
Sherlock breathes out grey frustration and realizes: “It wasn’t long-range. You were shot from the front, exactly from the front. The angle is wrong for long distance. Short range, in front of you, you saw it coming. Yet you didn’t move. That close, yet to not move and to not be pierced through, you-
“Oh,” Sherlock says. “You’re the second man. The assassination attempt on Mayhew’s son. This would be, oh, seven years ago? Bryant was desperate to gain an upper hand before the winter mud and cold made fighting in the field impossible. The autumn of the assassin, you were, what, twenty-two? Five years through the ranks. Meeting with young Mayhew, you were either a captain or a bodyguard. That’s the story, that the bolt aimed at young Mayhew went through a captain and bodyguard first. But a bodyguard isn’t patched up nearly so well and given a replacement post for his service, no, so captain it is.
“You were provided for while you healed, which I would imagine took the remaining three years of the conflict. Once fit for duty, Mayhew sets his son in charge of interspecies defence. Young Mayhew offers you this post, possibly providing for at least one of your remaining family members, specifically your sister Harry. With the new measures in place, Bartholomew’s Crossing is quite simple to defend, ideal for a swordsman who can no longer use his dominant hand in combat. Two gates and an incredibly defendable dock down below. Did you request the post or did he specifically offer it to you?”
In the long moments before John replies, Sherlock can hear the crackle of the fireplace and the burbling whispers of the kettle. Outside, he can hear the river and two species of owl.
He keeps his eyes on the bowl of his pipe, taking another breath through it, and thinks: There. That’s finished. His observations have never failed to repel their subjects. Not even Molly likes them very much.
Finally, John finds his voice.
“I observed,” Sherlock answers bluntly.
He’s aware of John staring but he doesn’t have to look back at him.
“That,” John says, “was amazing.”
They stare at each other. John’s eyes are dark, very, in a blue way. They are also sincere.
The kettle begins to whistle, then to shriek.
“Are you going to...?” Sherlock prompts.
“Yes,” John says. Then “yes” again, strongly, as if in a sudden realization. His leg pulls away from Sherlock’s, leaving a strip of cold down his shin. John’s chair scrapes against the floor.
While John putters through the lengthy process leading toward tea, Sherlock breathes. It’s absurdly difficult, as if Mycroft has told him not to.
When John returns to him, he says, just as he had before, “That was amazing.”
“Do you honestly think so?” he asks. It’s an entirely inappropriate use of glamour, but he needs very much to know.
“Yes,” John says. Just that, just yes, as simple as yes.
“Oh,” says Sherlock.
“How did you- I mean, I haven’t told-” John bites his lip. “How did you do that?”
“I observed,” Sherlock repeats.
“And you made connections,” John corrects. “I just can’t see how.”
A flick of that tongue, nervous and impressed. “How did you know my father died before the war?”
Sherlock shrugs. “If alive, he would have been conscripted as well and would have taken his equipment with him. Mayhew is well-known for the organization of his army, splitting up friends and family to force new bonds within his troops. So, if alive at the beginning and killed in action, it’s incredibly unlikely you would be able to retrieve his effects. Battlefield plunder is all too common.”
“But he could have been too old to be conscripted. Or lame or injured.”
“Then you’d have the sword only, not the knife,” Sherlock supplies. “That, he would have kept.”
So many glimpses of that tongue. Was John aware he did this? “That’s.... That’s probably right,” John says, as if just realizing it. “Sherlock, that’s incredible.”
“This isn’t how people normally react.” People and humans both.
“Why, what do they normally think?” John grins a bit. “Do they think you cheated, call you a wizard...?”
“They think I’m airing personal secrets I have no business knowing,” Sherlock answers flatly.
John considers this.
“Do you mind?” Sherlock asks. “I don’t spread my conclusions, I simply make them.”
“No,” John says. He shakes his head. “I don’t mind, I... yeah. Why, um. Why am I not a farmer, then?”
“Your hands,” Sherlock replies instantly. “You don’t have the calluses for a plough or hoe. Nor do you have a picker’s stoop and- You’re smiling.”
“So I am,” John says.
“Because I said ‘picker’s stoop’,” he observes.
“Yes.” John smiles all the wider, hands wrapped around a thick brown mug. The steam curls toward his tan face before it’s blown away by his breath into thin, fading spirals.
Sherlock pieces together everything he knows of solid human foods and how they are grown and raised. When that fails, he thinks of possible innuendo and again comes up empty-handed. He smokes his pipe as John drinks his tea. A luxury here, as he understands the beverage. Another gift from Young Mayhew?
“What makes a picker’s stoop amusing?” he asks at last.
“Because that’s the last thing you’ll get, working in an apple orchard.”
Sherlock scowls at John’s grin. John’s knee nudges at his until Sherlock stops.
“I hadn’t considered an orchard,” Sherlock admitted.
“Less bending down, more carrying ladders,” John replies. “Did you really notice everything from my hands?”
Sherlock lays his own hand on the table palm up, feigning submission. “You try. You must see a fair number, checking that door.”
“I have.” John puts his mug aside and takes Sherlock’s hand in both of his. “You’ve never worked with your hands. And you’re pale where you’re not burnt, so, studying indoors. Some freckles, so you did get out sometime? Um.” He inspects Sherlock’s fingers, the touch light. It’s the same professional touch that Sherlock remembers from the door and he finds he wants it gone.
“You used to wear a ring.”
“I did,” Sherlock confirms.
John looks inordinately pleased with himself. It sits exceptionally well on his features.
“What else?” Sherlock urges. “You know the pieces. Put them together.”
“You’re, uh. I want to say a wealthy background but that’s obvious and, well, not quite right, because then what are you doing as a courier? So... sponsored? Aristocrats take a clever, comely lad and study him up?” John supposes, baring his thoughts word by word.
“That’s right,” he lies. “But what am I doing as a courier?”
John bites his lip again, as if offering Sherlock a suggestion. “No more sponsor. You’re travelling to learn, that’s pretty obvious with the way you go about, so you’re a courier to help with the travelling,” he says, jarringly spot-on.
“How long, would you say?”
“Maybe a year?”
“Two,” Sherlock answers. “I keep good care of my clothing.” With the foundation John has handed him, he already has a convincing lie, specifically tailored for John’s expectations. It’s truthful enough that Sherlock will have no trouble remembering the details.
“She- She died,” he says, surprised at how it catches in his throat. Two years and four months after the fact and in this story, she isn’t his mother. Except of course she is. In every story, she’s his mother. “It was.... After she passed, I had a falling out with her older son.”
John nods, petting Sherlock’s hand. Perhaps he’ll continue as long as Sherlock speaks.
“I hate him,” Sherlock says. “He’s a fat, controlling despot in love with the sound of his own voice. He tutored me when I was small and he’s held it over me ever since. He wants me trapped on his estate for the rest of my life. Don’t tell me that’s my end of the bargain – you have no idea how he is.”
The fingertips on the back of his hand are oddly soothing. From knuckle to wrist, knuckle to wrist, tracing bones and veins.
“I’m not going back,” Sherlock adds.
“Good,” John says.
John nods. “I’ve known enough bean-counters to know you’d be wasted on it. Any merchant’s child can keep tally.” His fingertips pause, then resume. “Are you a merchant’s son?”
“A baker’s,” Sherlock says without thinking, without the need for thought. “My father’s name is Angelo.”
“Angelo and Sherlock Holmes?”
“My family believes in unusual names.”
“Could be worse,” John says. “My family believes in apples. And avoiding sirens, but that’s a long story. My mum’s side, it’s all apples. Some came into market last week, in town, and Harry bought half a bushel. The house reeks of apples now.”
“That sickly rotting smell?” Sherlock asks. “The scent where, when you look, there are bees inside the hollowed fruit?”
“No, but- How do you- I mean, no it’s not that smell yet. She’s drying some, so it won’t get like that, but how do you know that smell?”
“I like bees,” Sherlock says. “But I always loathed that smell.”
“It’s awful, isn’t it?” John says. “It sits right in your nose and you can never get it out.”
“But you’re never actually sick from it. Every year, it ruined autumn. You’d spend weeks picking and celebrate with a harvest festival, but it was still all apples.”
“Angelo bakes for ours,” Sherlock says. “He adores it. Pies and tarts until the tables creak.”
“Do you hate pie?” John asks, a question that must surely be rhetorical.
“Can’t stomach it,” Sherlock understates.
Upon the table, their hands curl loosely together. They look each other in the eyes rather than glance down and see. John’s skin is dry, supple heat.
“I like your tobacco,” John tells him, and he can’t possibly realize the way he’s smiling. No one smiles like that. Holding vulnerability out as a gift, confident of its reception. “My shirt smells like it, a little. I used it as a pillow last night to keep the apple smell out.”
Sherlock pictures this.
He thinks of his own hopes last night in regards to John’s condition. Innocent image combines with depraved hope and his grip on John’s hand tightens. John matches the pressure. It’s lovely. He’s lovely.
John is leaning forward. They both are. They have been for some time. Sherlock’s ankle is hooked around the back of John’s. He’s not certain when he did that.
Possibly, more than possibly, he should stop this.
Instead, he watches John’s fingertips. They mark a tingling, invisible path across the tiny bones of his wrist. They nudge beneath his cuffs, seeking more, seeking him. Sherlock could shiver out of his skin, simply watching, and yet he’s the very opposite of cold. Everything, in fact, is much too warm.
Except for John’s eyes. They’re warmer than blue has any right to be, but he wishes them warmer still.
He flexes his arm beneath John’s touch, nerves twitching from this too-light treatment.
John’s eyes lift from Sherlock’s forearm to his face.
Are there words for this? Situations like these, do they happen often enough to merit their own vocabulary? He needs words.
“You should finish your tea,” Sherlock says. It must be getting cold, he means to add, but his voice has left him. All that remains is a low murmur.
“Once you finish your pipe,” John replies.
“Whatever you’d like,” John says.
“Whatever I’d like,” Sherlock repeats.
John nods. The movement changes the colouring of his hair, gold and straw and wheat mingling with no regard for order, or propriety, or desperate, wanting hands. “As much or as little,” John says.
“As much,” Sherlock replies. “I’d rather the....”
“I’d rather, too,” John admits. His voice is a low, relieved laugh, entirely without shame.
“I’ll finish my pipe,” Sherlock says.
John smiles. His fingertips grant long, slow kisses to the bones of Sherlock’s hand.
“I’ll finish my tea,” he replies.
The taste of tea is bitter and thin in John’s warm mouth. It mingles oddly with the sour remnants of tobacco and the fullness of smoke, but beneath these tastes, there is John. His flesh, not his blood, and compelling regardless.
John has lips and a tongue and a nuzzling nose. He has fingers and palms and sturdy arms. He has shoulders and spine. He has hips pressed between Sherlock’s thighs and a body concealed by malicious cloth barriers.
There’s not enough to touch and it’s clear John agrees. Aggravatingly, John has the poor sense to open Sherlock’s shirt rather than his own. Sherlock had already lost one layer before being backed against this wall. John is still so excessively bundled. The motions of the small man’s body drag wool against Sherlock’s bare skin.
“John,” he whines. He tugs.
John giggles against his lips, his cheek, his ear. “Give me a minute.”
This time, John laughs aloud. His hands trail down Sherlock’s ribs, fingers folding until knuckles trace the path.
Sherlock squirms, oddly breathless, unimaginably dizzy, and he shifts his feet farther apart for balance. John presses closer, securing him to the wall with his hips.
“Your jumper is scratching me,” Sherlock complains.
John shucks it accordingly. The movement ruffles his hair upward, calling fingers to touch and tidy. With careful control over his hands, Sherlock tugs John back to him by his rear. The worn linen of his shirt is so much softer, even with the wooden buttons.
“Am I forgiven?” John asks. His palms stroke up Sherlock’s chest, seeking his shoulders. If the motion is meant to soothe, it fails utterly. Sherlock is roused, agitated, helpless. Though John presses hard and hot against his hip, Sherlock lies flaccid in his smallclothes, the force of his desire bottled beneath his skin.
“No,” Sherlock answers honestly. His voice is as small and petulant as the child he swears he isn’t.
“I’m very sorry,” John says, voice professional, cheeks flushed. He tugs his shirttails from his trousers as Sherlock fumbles at his buttons. The angle is strange, too new. Not so for John. The gatekeeper’s hand makes an easy slide down Sherlock’s stomach. He makes short work of Sherlock’s belt, a deft single-handed flick, before his fingers slip down farther. “How can I make it up to-”
“Ignore that,” Sherlock tells him, too breathless for glamour.
The delicate touch is removed. “Am I doing something wrong?” Blue eyes show vague concern and dwindling lust. Beneath them, the wounded confusion is the worst.
“Poor circulation. Unfortunate family trait.”
“Perhaps.” He hasn’t decided yet. He doesn’t have to have it. He can choose to do without. He can stop this whenever he wants to.
“I’ll take you in my mouth,” John promises. His hand returns, the back of his hand, rubbing lightly through cloth. “I can’t compare with you – god, that was brilliant – but I can suck you off.”
He understands the attraction of receiving such attention. A day removed from touch, he understands the attraction of any attention. As for performing, John is a giving person. All the same: “Do you like that? Do you want to?”
John immediately begins to push at Sherlock’s smallclothes.
Sherlock catches his hands. “That, um.” His tongue is thick.
At once, John stops reaching. “Sorry,” he says. This time, he means it.
“That isn’t what works,” Sherlock explains.
“What works?” His eyes gaze past their joined hands, lie on the greying white of Sherlock’s smallclothes where his loose trousers hang low. His tongue flicks across his lips.
Sherlock kisses him rather than answer.
This suffices, for a time.
When John is shirtless, and their chests press together, and John’s body strains into his, it isn’t enough. The deepest kiss is but a pittance against the thought of release. He wants to spill and hear John praise him. He wants the lambent glow between a quilt and straw mattress, but his body refuses to move, to quicken and harden and find release for all his wanting.
John’s hands cross his skin. They dip into his trousers and skirt the edges of his smallclothes. John rocks into him, against him, and Sherlock widens his stance to set them closer. John is flushed, his face and chest so very red. His breaths are shallow and lost against Sherlock’s skin.
“John, I need-”
“Yes.” Immediate, a moment’s interruption in the nips and licks at his throat. Tawny blond hair caresses his chin, his cheek. If Sherlock could come, he would have.
“Please,” Sherlock asks. His hands want. He keeps them on John’s skin, he means to keep them, but his fingertips succumb to the intimacy of a warm nape, the delicate blond strands.
“Tell me,” John presses into his skin.
“Last time,” Sherlock says. “When I....”
“Okay. Okay, yes, that’s- All right.”
Half-kneeling already, he hesitates. His voice. He can barely speak, barely think to speak. He settles to his knees between John and the wall where the thresh is thin. Fumbling on John’s belt, he can’t calm himself.
Hands stroke over his, rough in form and smooth in motion. They overcome the buckle. They unfasten buttons. They part fabric.
The touch so light, John brushes the curls from Sherlock’s brow.
His body jolts alive, no closer to release and all the more desperate for it. He presses up, up against, up into John’s palms, and then John, his fingers, his touch, carding through, massaging scalp, touching and touching and Sherlock groans against his thigh, blind with it. How he survived the first time, he’ll never know.
John is speaking. Praise and encouragement, prayers and half-playful curses.
“Picture it,” Sherlock commands. “I need-” He swallows, pushing down fears and morals alike. “I need to hear you describe it. Detailed, as much as possible.”
“Fuck,” John swears. “Fuck, is that what-? All right, yes, um. I can- yes.” He begins. Awkward at the first, then surer, more certain, more aroused. He’s quick to skip ahead to what he wants.
This time, what John describes brings an ache to Sherlock’s body, a deeper, lower craving. The skin beneath his lips is bruised from the first feeding and if he can only convince John of a fantasy once more, he can have it all again.
“Sherlock, please. Stop teasing, stop it, c’mon-”
“Yes, all right,” Sherlock agrees and John’s head snaps upward with a muffled shout. John lets loose high, brilliant noises, so breathy, and he keeps one hand in Sherlock’s hair. The other slaps against the wall.
“Yes,” John gasps. Next to Sherlock’s cheek, his erect cock twitches against air. “Oh god.”
Sherlock grips him by the hips in an attempt to hold him still. The movement against his palms is small, nudging. He has to adjust his position to properly bring his mouth to John’s thigh. He licks him soft and clean. He scrapes, ever careful, with his teeth. John doesn’t so much as pause in his rapid, panted monologue, something pertaining to Sherlock’s mouth and the heat therein.
The puncture is quick and clean. Sherlock licks him up, tonguing at the holes. He closes his mouth over the leak, around it, and feels John’s pulse in the flow. He feels John’s pulse in his own body, entirely psychosomatic and entirely seductive. His mouth fills slowly, his cock more slowly still, but by the third mouthful, he’s half hard.
He swallows and licks the area until the bleeding stops. The bruise is purple and wide and his.
John’s hand rides on his hair, torn between tugs and caresses, shockwaves and bliss.
All too soon, not soon enough, Sherlock removes his lips from skin, licks them clean, and reports, “John, I’m hard now.”
John’s voice is rough and low as he says, “You’re hard from sucking me.”
“I am,” Sherlock agrees, nuzzling the bruise, the claim. He’ll rub his scent all across John’s body, every inch he can reach. “I am, it’s good, I want- Can I?” His hand moves from John’s hip to his member, hard bone to hard flesh. John’s hand closes over his and teaches easy lessons. Not touching himself is almost more than he can stand but if he can last, if he can last longer than John can this time, please.
He can. John spills. The scent of it, that pungent scent. John’s handkerchief is filthy from his treatment of it. Sherlock might possibly want to steal it.
“Stand up,” John urges. “C’mon, let me have you.”
Somehow, Sherlock obeys.
Kneeling, John draws him out of his smallclothes right-handed, the other a steady presence against his stomach. Sherlock doesn’t know what to do with his own hands. The wall gives him nothing to grip. He can’t touch John’s hair. He hasn’t asked. He can’t-
Tongue. John’s. Wet and-
Pulling. No, sucking. Hand and mouth both. Suction.
Sherlock manages, just barely, to reopen his eyes.
His hips buck.
John slams Sherlock’s hips against the wall.
Pressure spills out from beneath his skin, desperate relief.
Around him still. A mouth. Vibration.
He’s not sure what he’s saying but it might be John’s name.
Cold absence, after. He hears John spit.
His eyes are closed again.
When he forces them open a second time, he stares down at his hand upon John’s head. His nerves spark and flare, unconnected fuses still striving toward flame. His breathing is too quick, his skin too hot, flushed and painted with sweat.
John breathes against his navel, his hands so gentle. He strokes Sherlock’s sides as he would a spirited, exhausted horse, as he would any animal capable of bolting from pride alone. The odour of their semen rests in the back of Sherlock’s nose, pungent yet compelling.
“My legs are shaking,” Sherlock observes.
A smug hum vibrates against his stomach.
Absently, Sherlock pets his hair. “That was, um.” He has no words. Such a frequent occurrence, around John. It’s unnerving.
“Good?” John suggests. He pulls back slightly to look up, his hair stroking against Sherlock’s palm, and Sherlock snatches his hand away from the stolen intimacy.
“Sorry,” he says, the apology immediate. He knows he’s crossed a boundary, no permission granted. “I didn’t mean to, um. I didn’t mean to.”
A slow smile spreads across John’s face. It grows as a hanging vine, taking root in his eyes, flowering at his lips. New and almost delicate, the expression inspires the need to nurture, the compulsion. More, more, look at him like that more.
“It’s fine,” John says, as if Sherlock’s apology is endearing instead of necessary. “You didn’t pull.”
And, taking his hand, John guides him back. John positions him with palm loosely curled, fingertips against John’s scalp.
The world tilts, too light, too heavy. The balance shifts.
Are they lovers, then? Does John mean it? Does John even know what he’s saying, what he’s doing, what havoc he’s slipping through Sherlock’s skin?
Kneeling at his feet, John might. He might not. Yet there’s something about his eyes. There’s something about his murmur, the awestruck way he says “God, look at you” and how the words mirror Sherlock’s mind.
John climbs up his body, his movements slow. His right leg is stiff, his balance impaired. He grows paler as the sex flush fades and Sherlock knows enough not to be alarmed at the shade. He knows enough to avoid kisses, knows it in theory, but he fails utterly at the practice. John is much too quick, much too orally fixated. Attempting to verbally deter him only provides an opening. An unfortunate one.
With a startled noise into his mouth, John jerks his head back. “Are you bleeding?”
“Bit my tongue,” he lies. “I did try to tell you.”
John’s lips purse in sympathy.
“Shall we retire?” Sherlock asks.
John’s brow furrows.
“To bed?” Sherlock prompts.
“No one talks like you,” John says. Fingers curled in Sherlock’s nape, his thumb strokes waiting skin.
“No one.” John guides him down for a light brush of the lips. “But bed does sound lovely. You up first, I need to tidy. Do you want anything?”
“Yes.” An answering kiss.
A few answers more.
A silent conversation later, when he’s hazy and thrumming and so very warm, John sets a hand on his chest and eases him back.
“I meant to drink,” John says. “Wash the taste out.”
“It’s fine.” Pressing against that hand.
“You said bed,” John reminds him.
“This is more interesting,” he counters, leaning back in.
John’s distancing hand doesn’t quite hold firm. “Sherlock, I need to lie down,” he whispers, lips against lips. The stubble-sporting cheek beneath Sherlock’s hand grows warmer still. Lovely, so lovely.
“Can you make it up the ladder?” How much is the sex and how much is the blood loss? A half pint or so, twice taken. Roughly a pint lost in three days. It takes only a day or two to replace lost plasma, but the remaining fifth part of blood is weeks in the making.
“I could sleep on that ladder,” John tells him flatly. “You’d best get up it before I do.”
“With or without my clothing?” For all his chest is bare, his open trousers rest around his hips and he stands in his boots.
“Without.” John pulls back to look at him only to become visibly dizzy.
Sherlock gathers him up immediately. “Don’t tell me I’ve exhausted you.”
“Oh, shut up,” John says, more affection than command. His breath spills against Sherlock’s neck. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Don’t worry, John. The terrible apples are gone now.”
John laughs. His hand slaps lightly against Sherlock’s shoulder. “You be quiet.”
“Never,” Sherlock promises and, for no reason he can name, John kisses his neck. Sherlock sighs.
“Bed,” John orders.
Sherlock huffs. “Fine.”
He removes his boots and his trousers, leaving them on his chair, then climbs up the ladder to where the air is made of heat and tantalizing smoke. He crawls onto the mattress, shifting the sheet and quilt, and spends a short while attempting to shift the straw beneath him into a more comfortable cushion. When he hears John laugh below, he stops. When he hears John folding his things, their things, he doesn’t know what to do. It is the better cousin of panic, warm as well as paralyzing.
When John comes to him, he comes without reservation, reaching and reached for. They lie brow pressed to brow, their heads upon the single pillow. Their knees bump, unimportant.
“Still dizzy?” Sherlock whispers into the dark.
The answer is a puff of breath against his lips. A laugh?
John shifts closer, sinking into Sherlock’s skin. His lips buzz against Sherlock’s collarbone as he murmurs, “You don’t need to fish for compliments.”
“I don’t?” he asks, content to follow John’s lead. He adjusts the arm under him to better tuck it over John’s shoulders. His hands are fond of the broad back, the muscles and bone beneath skin.
John hums a negative.
Slowly, Sherlock’s fingers steal higher. They touch ribs and side. They navigate the barrier of John’s sturdy arm. They creep, so cautious, into the man’s hair.
The motions of his hand are new, unpractised, and yet John relaxes further against him, into him, a wild creature tamed.
Sherlock begins to plan.
Calculating while dozing always brings him to dream of Victor.
In this dream, Victor peels his pencil like an apple. The long curls decorate the desk of his father’s study.
“Have you spoken with Irene?” Victor asks. He is a creature without scent, his voice is light and high. His features don’t quite make sense, the visage of a well-known boy transformed into an unknown man. “Irene would know. Irene knows about men.”
“We’re men,” Sherlock counters. “Could I use your pencil?”
Victor hands it to him, retaining his penknife. “Irene knows about fucking men.”
“She sings about it. That’s different.” He looks down and his paper is gone.
“She’s good at keeping blokes,” Victor points out.
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “At getting them. She’s dreadful at keeping them alive. Penknife.”
Victor hands him the penknife, handle first. “To be fair, it’s not her fault they keep drowning.”
Sherlock carves the numbers into the table.
“Humans are twelve pints,” Victor corrects, looking over his shoulder. “You’re thinking in deer. Deer are ten pints. The two-thirds death rule still applies.”
“With only nine pints, he dies,” Sherlock translates.
“No more than five fucks in the first five weeks,” Victor calculates. “Then maybe three for the next month before settling into once a fortnight. Less, if you want him active.”
“Of course I want him active!”
Victor laughs, the way he always does when Sherlock is endearing. “Good luck with that. You do realize this is why a bloodmate isn’t meant to be actual mate? And you’re meant to be taking swallows, not half-pints. At this rate, he’ll be dead before your body settles.”
Sherlock stabs the penknife through the mocking words, the mocking letters, pinning the envelopes to the mantel. “I’ll do it!” he yells at Victor’s correspondence. “I’ll have him!”
He tugs the knife free from the wood with a hard jerk before searching the letters for a reply. Envelope after envelope, he searches for a feasible plan.
Every page is blank.
He wakes mid-kiss, his body tight and needful beneath John’s welcome weight, his mind racing from sleep to awareness. His legs spread of their own accord and John nestles between, soothing even as he excites. As the sun rises and the birds cry, John brings them to their full.
He shoulders his satchel, the motion familiar and grounding. “I’ll be back in a week.”
John looks at him with an abrupt turn of the head. It’s a moment before he straightens from the fire, swinging the kettle back over the flame. “Oh?”
“Duties farther east,” he says.
“Oh,” John repeats. “All right.”
Sherlock readjusts the strap of his satchel.
“What about that parcel for, who was it, Anderson?” John asks.
It doesn’t exist. “I’ve sent a letter to enquire. All manner of delay are possible in the west.”
John nods. “I’ve heard.... Well, I’ve heard lots of things. Most are probably just stories, but I listen.”
Of course he does. John must be so bored here, dying for a shred of entertainment. It’s the only reason Sherlock can think of to explain John’s need for communication being greater than his longing for sex. With the ability to orgasm on demand, it’s incredible that humans get anything done. All the humans up at the crack of dawn, interrupting his afterglow with John in order to leave Bart’s, none of them make a shred of sense.
“What have you heard recently?” Sherlock asks.
“Just your basic summary. Bandits a bit of an issue out west,” John says. “It could be worse. There are more draughtsmen about than usual in the east.”
“Draughtsmen?” Sherlock repeats. He keeps hearing that term, usually from parents chiding their children. He’d assumed it was some sort of fabricated bogeyman, not an actual threat. “Are you saying game pieces are on the move?”
“Not draughts the game. Draughts like a draught of ale, a measurement?”
Sherlock pieces it together with a lurch in his stomach. “And a draughtsman’s draught is of blood.”
John nods. “Think it used to be a pun about pulling a pint, but it stuck, at least down by the coast. What do you call them back home?”
“Lots of names,” he says. Such as Mycroft, or Victor. And Mummy, of course. Even, once, Father. For groups, it’s leeches or fleas, most commonly. A leech is like Sherlock, a product of southern civilization and sharing the slang for a doctor. Fleas are Moriarty and his kind, traditional in their drinking habits. Sherlock has always been told that fleas are dangerous, but the more he sees of where they live, the more he finds them justified. He offers some of the other slang instead, the derogatory words John might like better.
“Have you ever seen one?” John asks.
Somehow, Sherlock doesn’t laugh. “With my circulation, what would one want with me?”
“I don’t mean attacked,” John says. “It’s a bit obvious you’re still alive.”
Rather than truly answer, he counters, “Have you seen one yourself?”
“I’ve seen men under glamour. Accused of it, at least,” he amends. “Back in the army, standing orders were not to risk it. Otherwise, you could see people claiming it as an excuse to get away with anything. Same as nowadays, really, seeing as Lord Mayhew sets the policy.”
Low in his gut, the remnants of John still inside him have turned to ice. “Which policy?” Sherlock asks. “I’ve noticed the town walls and gates with holly – somewhat difficult to miss – but I’m not familiar with all.”
“The beheading one,” John answers.
“Oh,” Sherlock says. He can hear himself say this. “That one.”
“There are proper trials nowadays, thankfully.”
“Nowadays,” Sherlock echoes.
“Things are better now,” John says, but that is clearly all he’ll say.
Sherlock’s body forgets how to move. It stands there, simply stands there.
“Are you all right?” John asks. He draws closer. “Sherlock?”
“Is Mayhew aware that glamour can be broken?” This senseless, stupid- “If the- the draughtsman controlling the glamour releases it or dies, no lasting delusion or command can remain.” There are other techniques, complicated and expensive, but those are experimental and new.
“Yeah, but killing them is a bit problematic,” John says, as if this were remotely what Sherlock was talking about.
“Is that the sound of firsthand experience?” Sherlock finds himself asking.
John raises an eyebrow. “Do I look dead to you?”
“No,” Sherlock says. He summons his own natural charisma, needing to go, needing to get out. “However, the lighting is very poor in here.” He reaches behind him and opens the door, opens it wide. In sudden daylight, John is a dim, unremarkable creature.
John follows him to the door, torso angled toward Sherlock as if a sapling toward the sun. “And now?”
Sherlock makes an indifferent noise.
John laughs. “Fine,” he says. He catches Sherlock’s hand and brings unresisting fingers to his mouth. “Be safe.”
“I will,” Sherlock answers.
True to his word, Sherlock puts as much distance between them as soon as he possibly can.
Snug back in his room in Montague, Sherlock belatedly realizes what would have happened to Angelo here, had Sherlock relented and allowed the older man to accompany him across the river. As Sherlock ages, Angelo’s glamour-wrought delusions of his boyish charge grow ever more obviously wrong.
He thinks of the scent of flour mingling with yeast; the fragrance of hair oil lingering against the backs of chairs; the fierce dry heat of an oven against his cheeks, a blast of honey-scented air; an ever-enthusiastic voice telling him to taste and never swallow. He thinks of lockpicks and pickpocketing Mycroft and the proud clap of a hand on his shoulder. He thinks of honeycomb on his birthdays and that patient, unending embrace the day his mother died.
He thinks of Angelo dead. Not gone, but dead.
He thinks of someone chopping off Angelo’s head.
That night, he longs to pen another letter, never mind that it’s Angelo’s turn to write. He can’t justify the waste of paper, and neither can he justify sending any message of distress. Angelo would rush to his side. There’s no question of it. Angelo would fly to him and hold him tight and call him his precious child.
Sherlock wants that with an intensity he will forever deny.
Angelo is too obvious to risk. This hasn’t changed. Until Sherlock can acquire Moriarty’s technique and overwrite his mother’s glamour, Angelo will always be too obvious to risk. His brother’s glamour, Sherlock mentally rephrases. Inherited control.
Sherlock wonders, vaguely, if he’ll ever be able to tell Angelo about John. Tell him properly. If Sherlock tried to ask him about this issue with the sex and the kissing, the shouts of child molester would likely be the last sounds John ever heard. Angelo can’t cope with the concept of Sherlock beginning the first portion of puberty, let alone the voluntary second half. When Sherlock returns across the gulf, he’ll have to be careful about shaving. For that matter, he’ll have to learn to shave.
On the bright side, Mycroft would throw a fit if he knew Sherlock was currently intimate with a barbarian.
With a wry smile, Sherlock blows out the candle and puts himself to bed. His dreams are rough and strange, his body reaching through restless sleep for something no longer there.
A week is a long time.
In a week, his body no longer feels as if it might rip itself apart from the need to be against a soldier’s skin.
In a week, Sherlock has almost come to understand why John might prioritize conversation over sex.
In a week, walking unfamiliar roads and keeping ever vigilant control over his own voice, Sherlock is desperate for company he can trust.
He can’t expect an answering letter from Angelo for weeks. The last letter was simple, poorly spelled, and, presently, more well-worn than the missive and diagrams in Moriarty’s precise hand. This is, in part, because he can no longer look at the missive without thinking of John.
He can’t think of John without the need to confront, to challenge. Things don’t have to be this way. Surely John can see that. The world is, as Mummy had always said, a mutual place. Speakers and listeners, rulers and ruled. Understanding is all-important. Comprehension is more than mere power.
He can’t imagine a world more unlike his own than this. Wary respect is outright fear. Politicized dislike is irrational hatred. The recipient of an unsanctioned glamour is killed out of hand. There is no such thing as a sanctioned glamour, no man like Lestrade bringing thieves and ruffians to the doors of his lord with a writ from the mayor, requesting the criminals to be bound to the law. There are no doctors come to ask for assistance, no amputees who have had their pain blocked. This is a world where Anderson and his flea-themed insults are so small, so insignificant as to be lost against the background of daily life.
When he considers it, he finds he finally understands why Moriarty has developed his glamour to such an extent. Their people aren’t fighters. They never have been. They are liars and seducers. They are mesmerists.
When he had first heard of the man, Moriarty had been as inexplicable as he had been inspiring. Having come here, having passed trial by holly after trial by holly, having prompted stories of draughtsmen and listened to the inflated horrors, he understands.
The week passes. His mind and feet turn in circles, ever-moving, advancing nowhere.
A day late, he knocks upon the door and offers his hand. He is made to hold the holly. The voice and the touch from within are unknown, the scent not unfamiliar.
“Are you Bill?” Sherlock asks.
“That would be me, yeah,” the guard replies. There’s a pause as he inspects Sherlock’s palm for marks from the holly. Then: “You wouldn’t happen to be Sherlock, would you?”
“Right then. Hold on a mo’, shouldn’t take long.”
Bill releases him and shuts the window. His footsteps audibly travel to the bridge-side door, that door opens and instead of trying to bid Sherlock across the bridge, Bill simply stands there. The human is entirely out of sight but clearly signalling something.
Has the glamour worn off? Has John noticed the bite marks and told his fellow guards? The sun is setting, but it’s not too late to return to Euston, not if he runs. And he may have to run.
Over the distant rush of the water below, Sherlock hears brisk footsteps crossing the bridge, crossing toward him. He knows their sound. He hears words exchanged, Bill instructing John to retrieve some unspecified “it” and John responding in cheerful profanity. There is a hard slap of contact, possibly a hug – “you’re the best, mate, the absolute best” – and the sound of one man entering the gatehouse while the other walks back across the bridge.
This time when the window opens, the hand on the other side is familiar. There’s a quick, warm squeeze around his fingers before he withdraws, before the door opens.
John takes one look at him and says, “Oh hell.”
Sherlock says nothing, tacitly permitting John to take him by the arms and guide him in. He stands still, memorizing the trail of John’s hands as the human checks him for injuries.
“I’m fine,” Sherlock manages.
“Something scared you,” John corrects. “Were you robbed? Did someone threaten you?”
Sherlock shakes his head and shakes his head.
John takes his satchel and coat. “I’ll make tea.”
“I don’t want tea. It’s expensive – don’t waste it.”
“You might want tea later,” John insists. “Stranger things have been known to happen.”
Sherlock sits in his chair, watching John perform the smooth motions of hanging coat and satchel, of locking the door, of ladling water from barrel to kettle. The soldier’s movements have the grace of efficiency and repetition. The same steps on the same floor, each footfall so often fallen that mere practice transforms a brisk walk half into dance.
Sherlock folds his arms on the table and drops his chin on them, watching.
John sits across from him, every line of his body speaking of controlled concern, the need and the ability to help.
Gradually, Sherlock’s shoulders unbind from their hunch.
John’s body language quiets.
The kettle boils, John fixes tea, and Sherlock’s eyes follow the path of white steam from the mug set before him.
John tells him, utterly certain and wholly honest, “If anyone threatened you on the road, I can take care of it. There should be more patrols than this. There used to be. Bryant’s concentrated in his eastern territory, these days.”
To fend off draughtsmen, no doubt. “No one threatened me.” A society isn’t a Person. A society isn’t even a human.
The second mug rattles against the table, ceramic fused to wood by water only to be pushed free by John’s idle fingers. John secures his mug with a quick touch. He wraps his hands around it. “Is it everything, then?”
Sherlock lifts his head from his arms, too curious.
“Everything,” John repeats, as if this were clarification. “You don’t know where it starts from, but once fear catches one person, it spreads through everyone else. You know you’re probably safe, but ‘probably safe’ starts to look like bad odds.”
Is that the human dread of People here? Or perhaps John is referring to something else.
“Is that what the army was like?” Sherlock ventures.
“Sometimes,” John says, his gaze on his tea. The cradling touch turns his eyes affectionate to the beverage rather than distant to Sherlock.
“It doesn’t seem to touch you.”
John’s lips quirk. “Most people say that.”
“Most?” Sherlock repeats.
John ducks his head slightly, then levels his gaze. “The ones who haven’t heard me having screaming nightmares.”
Sherlock sits up straighter. “Do you often? Have them.”
“Mostly when sleeping alone,” John admits. The quirk of his lips becomes something so subtly different, so infinitely better. “Or when I can’t hear Harry snoring through the wall at home. Thought I should warn you anyway.”
“Somewhat belatedly,” John agrees. “But if you’re going to keep coming, I thought....” He shrugs lightly, the right shoulder.
“I don’t want to have sex tonight,” Sherlock warns him, mental truth and physical lie.
There’s a slight pause before John says, “Not the kind of coming I meant.”
There’s a slightly longer pause before both of them are giggling.
When they can breathe again, they waste precious moments grinning at one another.
“But I do want to sleep in your bed and I would like to kiss you,” Sherlock amends. Let it not be said he can’t compromise.
“Good,” says John. “You could try sleeping on the floor but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“I’ll stay in your bed, then.”
“Probably for the best,” John agrees.
It probably isn’t, but Sherlock will never say.
Later, after John tells him stories of apples and armour, after two mugs of tea go cold, Sherlock dares to touch his hand. Later, pressing his lips to John’s hair, his chest aligned with the curve of the smaller man’s spine, a feeling far too akin to terror finally begins to fade. The worst of it abated days ago, its force exhausted, and yet the insecurity had lingered all the same.
John hums his approval. Of Sherlock’s relaxing body, of the light kiss, there’s little means by which to tell.
“I think I know what’s wrong,” Sherlock whispers. He’s thought of it now, only just, thinking of John listening to his sister’s snores.
“This is the longest I’ve been on my own,” he says.
“How long?” John asks.
“Four months, two weeks, five days.”
John shifts slightly, adjusting his arm against the mattress. “That was... precise.”
“I have a good memory.” He strokes his hand down John’s other arm and catches his fingers. John lets him touch and play. “For example, thirteen days ago, you were whittling a figurine of a cat. It was on the table to the left of the candle.”
John rolls over in his arms, brow furrowed in the dark. He rubs at his left shoulder. “Thirteen days, really? That’s all?”
“Mm,” Sherlock agrees.
“Seems like....” John trails off into a yawn. His jaw cracks then closes. He makes a sleepy sound and nuzzles his face into the crook of Sherlock’s neck. John is heat and hardness. These positions are new, the intimacy beyond comprehension, and when Sherlock wants John, he is no longer certain for what part.
Sherlock dares a hand into his hair.
John wraps his leg around Sherlock’s, thigh over thigh.
They tug each other closer and whisper into the night.
The following week, they do the very same.
The week after, John asks for it. He asks so gently, as if Sherlock might not want him, as if Sherlock hasn’t been driven to distraction by distance and want and an eternity of celibacy. The tightness of his skin eases as he swallows John down. He spills into John’s hands, warm and loose, and John tells him he did so well, he was so good, please don’t be shy. Late that night, John touches him and touches him until he spills a second time. Come morning, John reaches for him anew, whispering praise all the while.
The next week, John still looks a bit pale and his sister has come to see him. The three of them speak in Franc, their degrees of fluency varying in the extreme. It turns the conversation rough and limping, but the relief of speaking his own language is immense and must show on his face.
The siblings reminisce about their grandfather, about the orchard. When they ask about Sherlock’s past, he tells them, as always, of Angelo. When he and John hold hands under the table, Harry does them the courtesy of only mocking them slightly.
Ostensibly, it’s for the best that Sherlock leaves that afternoon with only the barest kiss goodbye, but the pique and longing behind John’s eyes disagree.
The instance following this, Sherlock wakes to the sounds of John below the loft and rain above the roof.
This, he thinks, is a bit not good.
He lies still as long as he can, bidding the rain to pour itself out. The sound against the thatch is light and steady, a cold tapping that speaks of endurance. All he needs is an hour, just one hour to reach Euston.
The morning drags on as he feigns unconsciousness. The whistle of the kettle drowns the regular scratch of John’s whittling. Chair legs scrape against the floor. A soft, vaguely lyrical murmur rises up, John singing to himself. The tune is half-familiar.
When John finally returns to wake him, Sherlock has lost track of time. He’s long since begun to sleep through the calls of travellers.
“Hey.” A cold hand slips below the quilt and closes around his ankle. When Sherlock tries to jerk away, the reaction involuntary, John holds him firm despite his position on the ladder. “What kind of baker’s son are you? Morning’s half gone.” He switches between their languages where he can, his vocabulary growing with each visit Sherlock makes.
“It’s raining,” he answers, training his voice into laziness. “I’m not travelling in this.”
“Who says I’m asking you to leave?”
Something curls low in his stomach. It’s warm and lovely.
“Not getting up,” he plainly states.
“Not moving.” Every word is a bid for time.
John pats his ankle once before removing his hand. “I’ll just sit down below and not snog anyone, shall I?”
Sherlock pretends to consider this. “That would be a waste.”
“Do you have another option?”
“Come back to bed.” They haven’t had sex yet and he’s already gone two weeks without release.
“Sherlock.” Half-chiding, only half.
Hands against the mattress, he sits up, letting the quilt fall from his chest. By the light of John’s little lamp, he catches the other man’s eyes. His voice turns low and liquid. “Please come back to bed.”
John sighs before climbing onto the loft, before crawling up Sherlock’s body, containing him between hands and knees. His kisses this morning are slow, unending licks into his mouth. A wet temptation between the lips, just for a moment, just for another.
With such incentive, his mouth opens quite willingly. His elbows unlock, fold, and he lies back, coaxing John to pursue. John’s lips trail down his jaw, his neck, his chest. The touch of a tongue in his navel sets him gasping, grasping, hand in John’s hair and legs around his torso. Beneath the lumped quilt and his own smallclothes, his cock wants John’s touch, wants to harden and spill. Two weeks since his last release and John has yet to notice a single bite. The glamour has held beyond expectations.
John hums as he sucks at his skin, thrilling him with vibration. More. More. John knows how to do these things. John knows how to suck and lick and bite – and isn’t that last a shock – and the motions of his mouth are superior to Sherlock’s best imaginings.
It’s all too apparent that John’s imaginings remain another level entirely. He brings Sherlock to squirm and twist, to press up beneath his mouth. His arm slips beneath Sherlock as his back arches. All motion becomes involuntary, becomes response and reaction. He sucks in his stomach at a lick and a breath of cool air. He twitches and shakes and the idea of going without is absurd.
“That’s it,” John urges. His voice is heat and air and chill against Sherlock’s exposed abdomen. “God, look at you. I’ll take you in my mouth, Sherlock. I’ll hold you until you’re ready. Do you want that? To get hard on my tongue?”
“Do you need me to keep talking instead? Should I talk about your cock in my mouth? Or mine in yours? Oh, look at you. I can see your heart pounding. God, you’re thin.”
He buries his hand in John’s hair, forces that mouth to return to his skin. John’s chuckles set him to immediate squirming and they wrestle the quilt out from between them. With the barrier cast aside, Sherlock’s legs wrap about his torso, tug him and hold him closer. Anything to hold onto him. “More,” Sherlock gasps.
“Do you want me to sod you?” John asks. He presses down into the tight clutch of Sherlock’s thighs. “Is that it? Me inside you, do you want that?”
Sherlock nods, head rolling against the mattress, flush with the memory of thick heat easing down his throat. “Inside me,” he repeats, half-insensible, more than half.
“Next time,” John promises. “I haven’t got any- Next time. Have to leave you able to walk.”
“Want you,” he protests.
John kisses his stomach, stubble rough and lips firm. “What else? What are you craving?”
The noise Sherlock makes is high-pitched and confused.
“Do you want me in your mouth?” John asks. Already reaching down, around Sherlock’s legs, struggling with his own belt, equally desperate.
“Yes.” Without hesitation, yes. “Let me- I need to-”
“You’re going to suck me,” John says. “I’m going to spill inside your mouth and you’re going to drink me down. Is that it?” It’s innuendo, merely that, only that, but oh. John’s nothing short of glorious when he asks, aggressive and playful in his own need, “Is that what you need?”
“Let me,” Sherlock begs. “Please, John.”
“Yeah, we can, yes,” John promises, shoving at Sherlock’s legs. “Let me into position, just let me- Yeah.”
Trousers unfastened, shirts untucked, John swings his body around, lying on his side with his head at Sherlock’s crotch, his own exposed cock straining toward Sherlock’s shoulder. His hands seize Sherlock’s rear beneath his smallclothes and pull him free, drag him closer. His tongue dampens Sherlock’s flaccid length, a true torture. “Go on, then,” John urges, then takes him into his mouth.
He bites and sucks and keeps his mouth pressed to John’s thigh regardless of the other man’s shout, words muffled into blunt vibration around his cock. John takes no preparation now, absolutely none, his mind translating pain flawlessly into bliss. Sherlock suckles and licks and soothes until John is twisting in his hands. Fire hot and oddly endearing, the side of John’s cock strikes against his cheek.
Inside John’s mouth, he feels himself grow hard. It’s more than he can stand, it’s already more, it’s been more this entire time, this entire week, and he comes with the inevitable snap of a frayed rope. John chokes and gags, the perfect accompaniment to Sherlock’s moans.
The cock against Sherlock’s face twitches. It’s not as hard as it was only moments ago, but is still quite firm, blood loss aside. This is interesting and pleasant in the way that everything about John is interesting and pleasant. Lovely, but viewed through an increasing haze of satisfaction. He’s certain there’s more.
He’s less certain when more entails the damn head of John’s prick smearing against his lips. He grips nudging hips and turns his face away.
“Stop being a tease!” John orders. “Sherlock, you can’t just-”
“Wouldn’t you rather something else?”
John very noticeably stops breathing.
“I want it too, John,” he continues, voice low against skin. He’ll accept anything involving minimal skill, simple to convincingly fake. The sexual prowess John attributes to him is a heady thing. He craves true talent. His hands on John’s hips learn to move, brushing touches and curling fingers, the caresses of knuckles as well as palms. “Please, John....”
“I haven’t-” John swallows audibly beneath the pattering of rain upon thatch. “I haven’t anything.”
Careful in his ministrations, he brings his lips to the member so close to his face. “Don’t be so modest,” he murmurs.
The response is a curse and a flurry of movement. John scrambles, then sways. He rolls Sherlock onto his stomach before commanding him to his knees. Kneeling behind him, wrapping arms around his front, John hauls him up. Sherlock sags against him, into his chest, a half-limp bundle from so much warmth and attention. His head lolls onto John’s clothed shoulder. Rough spun fabric scrapes against his back and sets him trembling within that secure embrace.
“Thighs together,” John instructs, his knees framing Sherlock’s. One of his hands leaves Sherlock’s chest, Sherlock hears him spitting, hears him slicking, and John presses himself closer. Below his arse, against his balls, John’s hot prick rubs. “That’s it,” John praises. He mouths at Sherlock’s neck. “That’s it. Tighter, can you, tighter? Fuck.”
Every breath presses John against his back. John’s arms pin Sherlock closer still, one about his waist, the other across his chest where fingertips pinch an unsuspecting nipple. Sherlock’s head lolls. He twitches for more in too many directions. Words fall from his mouth, such stupid, embarrassing words.
John fucks his thighs, his hips snapping, cock sliding, breath puffing. John holds him up, pins him close, and all Sherlock need do is tremble. He presses John’s hands harder against his skin, shaking, whining as his cock decides to come alive a second time.
His fingers fall from John’s wrist to his own member. He fumbles with himself, John’s thrusts pushing him into his own hand. Sensitive, too sensitive, can’t stop. Blunt teeth scrape against his neck. John’s hand finding him, John touching him. The stumble in flawless rhythm. John’s hips stutter. They stall. Viscous fluid strikes the side of Sherlock’s hand. John bites his shoulder.
Sherlock’s eyes forget how to see.
When they remember, they focus on the angle of the roof. The knots in the beams make interesting patterns from this angle. Sherlock is horizontal, strewn on his side. His upper body is not on the mattress.
John’s front is against his back. John’s hand is on his chest. John’s breathing is slow against his neck.
“John,” Sherlock says. It’s easily said, a word for a mouth agape, for slack lips and a stumbling mind. A fine word.
John kisses his shoulder where it hurts. The bite. The sound of it is wet.
“John,” he repeats.
“I think you’ve killed me.”
A few long, slowing breaths before John answers, “Oops.”
The laugh from Sherlock’s throat startles them both. John giggles, curling around him, and Sherlock subsides into compliance.
“I will never mean to kill you,” John confides once he calms. “Exhaust you, maybe. Which wasn’t the best way to get you out of bed, come to think of it.” A pause. “...I think I can hear you grinning.”
“Oh, now I definitely can.”
“I can hear you too,” Sherlock replies.
A few moments longer and John begins to move.
“Stop that,” Sherlock protests.
“I’m on duty.” As if this in any way rationalizes fucking with his clothes on.
Sherlock twists around to better secure him, heedless of his skin scraping against the floor of the loft. “It’s raining. No one wants to travel today.”
Somehow, John manages to lift Sherlock the inches it takes to thump his sweetly aching body back on the mattress. “Oh, is that why you’re still here?”
They lean their brows together, the proximity like a kiss.
John pulls away, shaking his head. “Behave,” he chides.
This time, he can see John grinning.
“Fine,” John says. “You do that. I’m going to get cleaned up and sit by a warm fire all by myself. You can stay up here and shiver in the altogether.”
Sherlock waves a dismissive hand. “You’ll be back.”
“You’ll be cold,” John replies, tucking away his shirts and buttoning up his trousers. He finds where Sherlock’s smallclothes have gone and returns them.
“These won’t be much help.”
“That’s really too bad,” John says.
“Stay up here.”
“On duty.” All the same, he settles down beside Sherlock, sitting cross-legged. Very slightly, he sags, but he nevertheless holds himself in check against the fatigue of blood loss. He touches Sherlock in the dim light, explorative contact intended to satisfy rather than excite. His chest, his arm, his neck and face; wherever can be touched from where John sits.
“I was beginning to wonder if you ever had stubble,” John tells him.
Before John? Never. “That’s a new smile,” Sherlock notes.
“Yes. It’s in your eyes and forehead. You were tense, before.”
“So were you,” John replies, simple words turning his eyes deeper, darker, as sweet with promise as freshly tilled earth. “You always are, a bit.”
The urge to squirm and fidget returns. To be the best of his ability, he retains his composure. Except, perhaps, in the eyes. With John’s fingers sneaking into his hair, it simply can’t be helped.
“Do you feel safer now?” John asks, stroking dark curls. “Now that you’ve begun to settle in.”
Sherlock scoffs, nuzzling into the touch. “I always feel safe with you.”
“I’m glad,” says John, voice soft beneath the murmur of rain. His fingers tighten in Sherlock’s hair. “You should, you know.”
“I know,” Sherlock echoes, an absolute lie, and John kisses him, so slow, so sweet, as if Sherlock were a treat to be savoured, honey from the comb.
It’s far from the first time John has kissed him like this, but is the first time he shows no intention of stopping. Such tiny motions of the lips and yet Sherlock squirms beneath the touch, desperate for more, more, always more. Not his exhausted prick, merely his mouth, merely his hands in John’s short hair. Something writhes inside his chest, shaking like a child stripped of its blankets and thrown into a pond. It cries for suffusing warmth and seeks it in human skin.
“John?” he asks, abrupt, scared.
“Yeah,” John answers. “I’m- Yeah. Me, too.”
Through relearning how, he realizes he’d forgotten how to breathe. “Frightened?” he challenges.
“Terrified,” John tells him dryly, fingertips steady on his cheek. Terror is the last thing in his tone. He sounds much too fond for that. “But you keep coming back, so that’s all right.”
“Because the sex is excellent.”
John laughs. His fingers dip into Sherlock’s curls. He’s long-since discovered how stupidly this can make Sherlock smile. “Tell me again.”
“Your mouth on my cock is particularly delightful,” Sherlock adds.
“I should be saying that,” John disagrees, “but no, that’s not what I meant.” He says this without clarifying, his head pulled slightly to the side. He looks as young as Sherlock sometimes acts.
Sherlock’s lips curl indulgently. “Hm?”
“The part where I make you feel safe,” John tells him quietly.
“Always make me feel safe,” Sherlock corrects. “If you’re going to be sentimental, get it right.”
Ducking his head, John grins slow and wide. The sight of it wreaks havoc inside Sherlock’s chest yet again.
“Stop that,” he orders. The fear is back and he’s not certain why. He feels as prickly as a holly leaf. “You’re a trained swordsman with a vested interest in my well-being. You’re protective by nature, determinedly loyal and reasonably compassionate. Obviously, you’re- You’re still grinning, stop it.”
“Nope,” says John, grinning wider than before. “Don’t think I will.”
Sherlock huffs and squirms onto his side, utterly failing to put distance between them. John’s thigh is a solid presence against the small of his back. “Go back to your stupid post.”
“In a minute,” John murmurs into his nape, gathering him closer still. “No one’s travelling today.”
“You ought to eat something,” John tells him, and not for the first time.
Distraction tactics have kept John’s good intentions at bay for perhaps an hour, each more creative than the last. Asking after the tune John had been humming that morning led to a spot of singing, followed by an impromptu dancing lesson.
With John’s willingness to be led about the cramped gatehouse exhausted, there’s no deterring him. Sherlock’s stomach makes needful noises that increase John’s concern. It is hardly the first time John has taken issue with his eating habits or with the prominence of his ribs, but it is by far the worst. Glamour doesn’t stick here, not when John is presented with audible evidence of Sherlock’s hunger. Once John actually sets out a plate for him, there is no room to deceive him.
Sherlock does the best he can, nibbling and nibbling. He refuses the salted beef and the accompanying mug of water by virtue of not eating meat. While true, this aversion is hardly as relevant as the ill effects of cool water.
John makes the typical jokes about Sherlock living on the edge of starvation. Sherlock grinds a hard substance similar to bread crust between his teeth. A wheat cake, John calls it, though Sherlock has always been informed that cake possesses positive qualities. His mouth feels vile, filled with grit and lumps. The addition of cheese only worsens the sensation.
“That’s enough,” he says twice, forcing John to relent upon the second telling.
It’s only a matter of time until he vomits.
From an early age, Sherlock detested vomiting. He has few significant memories of his father, fewer still of his father unaccompanied by Mummy, but the most important of these occurred when he was four and vomiting cat blood.
His father had wiped his trembling mouth, ruining a handkerchief, and scented the cloth. “Fleas” had been the pronouncement. Boots had an infection, his father explained. She was very sick. Sherlock should have fed on one of the calicos, not his tabby.
Though of course he remembers everything, what Sherlock remembers best is not his father’s steady hand or his careful instructions. The mortification overpowers them both, and the shame covers over the three entirely.
When Boots died, Sherlock refused to feed for a week.
At the end of the week, Angelo had gathered him up from his second-best hiding spot and sat him on his knee. Drained from hunger, Sherlock had sagged into the side of the one adult he knew would never glamour him into behaving.
“I know,” Angelo had told him. “I know how sad it is.”
Sherlock had looked up at him with the mournful eyes of a child. “You do?”
“Unless he begins eating again, I will also lose my kitten. He’s dark and curly, and he’s always hiding in places he doesn’t belong.”
“Kittens aren’t curly.”
Angelo, tapping him on the nose: “This one is.”
Sherlock had giggled, saying something about feeding on mice, and Angelo had sternly put his foot down. Several times. Ultimately, he fed from one of Mycroft’s goats.
In the end, the recollection is more about Angelo than it is about his father, or vomiting, or even about Boots.
Most recollections are.
This is what Sherlock typically thinks of after vomiting. This time, he thinks don’t look don’t look don’t look.
Bent over the chamber pot, its removed lid under his hand, Sherlock retches up wheat and dairy, the sludge accompanied by his own stomach acid and John’s blood. For now, John’s hand is steady on his back, a firm presence meant to reassure.
It does anything but.
“I’m fine,” Sherlock rasps. “Ignore it, I’m fine.” His command is in Anglic to be better sure John understands it.
“Liar,” John chastises lightly, unmoved by Sherlock’s redirection. “Hold on, I’ll get you some water-”
“No,” Sherlock negates sharply. He catches himself. “Could I have tea instead?”
John kisses the back of his head before going through his tea making business. He returns, kneeling at Sherlock’s side. The positioning of his sturdy legs is half embrace, half enclosure. His hand rubs circles into Sherlock’s back. “What brought that on?”
“It’s not catching. You’re perfectly safe.” The reassurance is difficult to muster when another wave of nausea threatens to overcome his control. His throat burns.
John squeezes his shoulder. “Good to know, but what is it?”
“I have difficulty keeping most food down,” Sherlock replies, entirely honest.
The arm about his shoulders is warm, its weight as steady as the thumb pressing patterns through his shirt and into his skin. “The more I learn about you,” John says, “the more I’m amazed you haven’t died yet.”
“Luck and Angelo,” he attempts to reply. His body interrupts him with a painful, foul-tasting belch. He groans. It’s vile in his mouth and he spits into the pot. He spits again, and again, and retches once more.
The light must be low for a human in the gatehouse, but it does seem to be enough.
“You’re vomiting blood,” John announces. “This can’t be normal, even for you.”
With that, John’s hand leaves his back. He hears John rise, hears his footsteps and the sound of fabric against fabric. John has put on his coat. Why?
John returns to him. Sherlock feels the man’s presence at his side before he feels the weight of his own coat draped over his shoulders.
The effort strenuous, Sherlock turns his face enough to see John, to look at him. He furrows his brow into a question.
“When you’re ready,” John tells him, “we’re going into town. Mike’s a good doctor. He knows what he’s doing.” Kneeling at Sherlock’s side, John’s hand rests upon his own thigh. The touch sends a twitch of pain across John’s features.
Sherlock shakes his head. It’s still raining outside. His feet can’t yet endure the holly path, let alone stand upon wet wood. He’ll freeze as he burns.
“Sherlock,” John chastises, so much like Angelo, so much like Mrs. Hudson and every member of the Lestrade family. “You’re not eating, you’re vomiting blood. I know for a fact you haven’t had anything to drink in a day. Nothing about this is good.” Sherlock wonders, vaguely, if all humans of quality perfect this exact tone of voice.
While he ponders this, the touch on his shoulder becomes inordinately still. The contact isn’t removed, it doesn’t break or waver, but it abruptly becomes deliberate. It’s a touch designed to neither alert nor alarm, not to comfort.
This is the full extent of warning he receives.
A slap of motion pins him to the floor, arms twisted behind his back and secured by a rough grip and a blunt knee. Winded, Sherlock makes the mistake of struggling. It isn’t a mistake he makes for long.
“You bit me,” says a voice from above him, a voice so terribly like John’s and yet utterly incongruous. This is the sound of controlled rage and absolute conviction. “I’m not worn out, this is blood loss, and you’re not in enough pain to be vomiting that much blood. It was my leg, that’s why it turns. It’s not acting up again – you bit me.”
“John,” he tries to respond.
He is interrupted by the cold press of a blade against his neck.
“Not one word,” John orders. “Not one. I won’t be bewitched.”
Cheek against the matted thresh, his breathing quick and shallow, Sherlock knows better than to nod.
Instead, he cries.
Pinned as he is, he can feel the hesitation slip into John’s limbs. The hand with the knife remains steady all the same.
Sherlock continues to cry. He’s good at it, letting his expression twist into fear before snapping it back into a controlled panic. It’s all in the breathing and the expression, entirely without tears. He blinks a great deal, as if bent on maintaining his pride even while terrified.
“Stop that,” John tells him. “Don’t....”
Sherlock takes a shaking gulp of air and lets it shudder out. He closes his eyes and forces his limbs to tremor.
The blade at his throat neither cuts nor pulls away.
After an eternity of their harsh breathing, Sherlock risks a look upward.
For all it travels his face, John’s gaze is steadier than his knife. Remarkable. The signs of a mind rebelling against glamour are clear in the light of the hearth. John’s pupils dilate and contract rapidly, as if facing into lightning. If John were like Angelo, he would be shaking. Or, perhaps, if Sherlock’s glamour were anything like his mother’s, John would be shaking.
Instead of trembling, John bites his lip. He bites it hard while breathing tight, controlled breaths through his nose. The pain must focus him. The pain in his leg must have focused him. His grip on Sherlock’s pinned limbs unrelenting, he removes the blade in order to... what?
Sherlock hears pressure against fabric and sees a flicker of pain across John’s face. Testing the tenderness of his thigh. Confirmation of reality, the fatal blow to any glamour.
John curses, the word a stunned rasp. “I can feel you in my head. Get out. Now.” His voice is the voice of a soldier.
A soldier. A soldier can believe in pain. A soldier once shot by crossbow must believe in pain, just as he must know the sensation of blood loss.
But that’s only the body. What of the mind? What does John believe in?
John is – Sherlock jerks as the blade returns to this throat – John is a good man by his own standards. Sherlock is in no position to alter those standards. John is, John is loyal. Sherlock is in no position to convince him he hasn’t been betrayed.
John’s behaviour, what is the cause? No fear in those eyes. Betrayal is kept at bay by professional detachment. Despite their dalliance, John is professional. He behaves accordingly. He follows protocol. Protocol. Yes.
Sherlock mouths one word, a calculated risk.
The blade digs against his skin, not quite enough to cut. It’s not the pressure that will wound him but sideways motion. If John slips. If John twitches.
Sherlock forces himself to stop considering it.
He mouths the word again.
“Holly?” John repeats.
Sherlock gives the tiniest nod, a careful scrape of his cheek against the floor. He notes, distantly, the speed of his heart. He can feel it hitting the floorboards, its pounding against wood muffled by cloth and straw. This is absurd. This is ridiculous. John won’t kill him. John wouldn’t kill him.
Once Sherlock reminds him of this, the human had best ready his apologies.
If only Sherlock could control his own breathing.
“You want the holly test?” John asks.
John’s breathing is steady. As are his voice and hands. His tone is controlled and professional. This must be what being restrained by a golem is like.
“There’s a problem with that,” John tells him. “Whatever you did to pass the test the first time, you could do again. If it’s a lasting glamour, I can’t trust anything.”
Sherlock’s sound of distress is unplanned, yet effective. John’s hold doesn’t relent but there’s a pause in his breathing.
“All right,” John says. “All right, I can- Look. Don’t move. Don’t speak. I’m going to be fair about this, but if you do anything, you forfeit your life. That’s how this works. Do you understand?”
Sherlock remains very, very still.
“All right.” That eternal refrain. “All right.” John’s grip loosens.
The knife remains in place.
John climbs off his back. Each motion is steady. Each shift of his body leads to a stable stance.
The knife is removed.
Sherlock remains in place.
He closes his eyes tightly.
John’s footsteps on the floorboards. The rain on the roof. The kettle coming close to screeching. The scrape of leaves on wood as the sprig is taken from its shelf.
John returns. John kneels over him, drives the sprig against his palms and forces his fingers into desperate fists.
Sherlock clings to pricking leaves and thin twig. He’s crushing them. His heart continues to rattle between the floor and his spine. John’s hands are closed over his, verifying the reality of Sherlock’s grip.
The longer it lasts, the slower his breaths become.
When John’s fingers tremble, Sherlock shakes as well, exhausted from tension. It’s acceptable for Sherlock to tremble when John does it first. When John manually unfurls Sherlock’s fists, the touch is hesitant. His thumbs inspect Sherlock’s palms as the kettle screams.
John releases him entirely.
Sherlock doesn’t move. He doesn’t adjust his arms or open his eyes. If he doesn’t maintain this position, he isn’t certain what he’ll do.
The shriek of the kettle mercifully dies. John abandons it the moment he silences it. “I am so- God, I don’t.... I thought....” John verbally flounders, unmoored. His struggles are evidenced in the broken pattern of his breathing.
The sound is oddly comforting. It pushes back the rain.
“I’m so sorry,” John tells him. “God, I- Talk, move, you can- It’s fine, I won’t, oh god, I’m sorry.”
Sherlock adjusts his arms. They ache. The muscles between skin and bone seem to vibrate. Unsettling.
“I was convinced,” John tries to explain. “You know I would never, unless I thought- unless I was sure that....”
The vibration seems to have spread into his head, a low, inaudible hum. Something inside him won’t stop shaking.
“Does-” Sherlock’s voice breaks on the word. He swallows. “Does this happen often?”
“No,” John promises. “I’ve never- No.”
Sherlock’s lower lip is trembling. What is wrong with him? He squeezes his eyes shut tighter, bidding John not to see. “Why now?” he manages to ask.
“Blood in the chamber pot. You not eating. I thought- I don’t know what I thought. I’ve been feeling off and my leg- It’s been better for years, I thought....” John sighs. “I’m sorry.”
The time it takes to devise a suitable reply is spent ostensibly recovering his composure. Gingerly, his arms aching, he turns himself over. The thresh comes with him, stuck to his clothing with damp and mildew. He pulls up his legs, feet flat on the floor, setting his high knees between them like a mountain range.
John gazes across that fabricated, inconsequential boundary. His tongue dampens his lips, the playful quirk turned nervous. His mouth itself is a tight line, sterner than even his eyes. The force of this man has turned inward, self-directed and self-damning.
“Do you often have waking nightmares?” Sherlock asks. “It’s not uncommon with soldiers exposed to carnage.”
“I used to,” John says, giving a jerk of surprise. Sherlock has correctly guessed his thoughts. That’s good. Useful. The start of a plausible story.
To continue, Sherlock looks at the chamber pot. “That isn’t particularly bad,” he remarks. Where this lie will go, Sherlock has yet to determine, but he needs something to keep John with him, something simple. Whatever Sherlock accepts as normalcy, John will as well.
“‘Not particularly bad’,” John echoes.
“It’s certainly been worse,” Sherlock allows, speaking to his own knees. “I’m fine. I told you, my circulation is poor.”
“How does that....”
Sherlock shakes his head, a tremor of sideways motion. “I bleed into my stomach. Not that much,” he hastens to add, exasperated rather than reassuring. “It sounds much worse than it is. I’m fine.” Justification, he needs justification for not telling John sooner. “Don’t you dare start coddling me for this. My mother made it well into her sixties and no one coddled her. It barely hurts.”
Sitting on the floor before him, John is guilt personified. He presses his palm to his brow as if to a wound. He needs forgiveness to bandage this hurt. Without it, he is oddly small and wholly ashamed.
Sherlock draws up his knees further, hugging the barrier to his chest. “John,” he says.
“Tea,” John answers abruptly. “I was making you tea. I’ll- Yes.”
Curled into the smallest shape he knows, Sherlock remains as he is while John jerks his body into motion. When John at last offers him the cup, Sherlock’s hands won’t move to take it. The cup is set by his foot.
John gathers himself back, leaving a respectable distance between them.
Handling cups makes his fingers feel conspicuous. He knows how to handle cutlery, how to arrange the contents of a plate for a lessened appearance, but cups are forever strange. He takes scalding liquid into his mouth. The clumsy act leaks tea between the lip of the cup and his own pair. He spits the mouthful into the chamber pot before it can cool and harm him. Finally, he wipes at his mouth with his sleeve, the way he’s seen men do in bars. It’s strange to think the cloth won’t stain.
“That’s the taste gone,” he says quietly. “I’d rather not risk any digestion for some time, however.”
John nods. “Do you want a doctor?”
“No. It’s a poorly lined stomach, not an illness. My mother was the same way.” He won’t go outside in the rain. He won’t have anyone brought in to touch him with water-wet hands. He can’t have anyone convincing John to attack him.
“All right,” John says.
Neither quite dares to move.
“You said something about your leg,” Sherlock prompts.
“Forget it,” John replies. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any of it.”
“Yes you did,” Sherlock counters. He doesn’t intend the accusation it becomes. “What about your leg made you decide to kill me?”
“It’s a reasonable question,” he insists.
“It is,” John agrees. “And it’s a stupid answer.”
John sags with a sigh. “The marks. They’re a bit-” He turns his head to the side. He turns his growing frustration inward. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” Sherlock replies. “It’s....”
“It isn’t. It’s not close to fine.”
Sherlock bites his lip, unable to contradict. He wasn’t about to say it was. Even so, he wants to hold his hand out. He wants to touch and forgive and go back to before.
His heart won’t stop shaking and John looks miserable.
“I feel very poorly,” Sherlock announces, hugging his knees. “I propose we delay this conversation until all danger of vomiting has passed.”
“Yes, right,” John says. “Of course.”
Sherlock rests his cheek upon his knee. His head is light. His stomach murmurs vaguely of further rebellion.
“When you feel steady enough, I can show you into town,” John tells him. “I’ll explain to Harry and you can stay in the backroom.”
Sherlock feels his brow furrowing, confusion ploughing his mind and turning over unwanted thoughts. Anglic is difficult to understand. Did he mishear? Mistranslate?
“There’s a bed there,” John adds as if this will lend credence to his plan.
“I don’t follow,” Sherlock tells him.
“Somewhere for you to wait out the rain,” John says.
“But it’s still raining.” He can hear it.
“Somewhere else,” John clarifies.
“No.” He hugs his legs tighter, chin in the gap between his knees.
“All right,” John assures him. “All right, whatever you want to do.”
“I don’t know,” Sherlock realizes, as startling and terrible as the sudden press of sharpened steel. He wants... he wants to be safe. He wants John. He wants to complete the task at hand and get his lessons and fix Angelo, but all of this is so far removed when his new friend is duty-bound to kill him. He’d thought John would have at least hesitated.
“Are we still friends?” Sherlock asks abruptly.
“What?” John asks.
“Do you want to still be friends?” he rephrases.
John hesitates, mouth open, breath in-drawn.
“Oh,” says Sherlock. “Um.”
“That’s not- No,” John corrects. “We’re friends. I mean, of course you don’t want to keep- We can be friends.”
“All right,” Sherlock replies.
“We’ll do that,” John assures him. Apologies cloud his eyes as tears might for a lesser man. Only the urgency of them reaches his voice. “Whatever you want is fine.”
“Yes.” The response is instant.
Sherlock considers his earnest face, then nods.
The awkwardness which follows excruciates, unrelenting in the slow slide of minutes. They pick themselves up from the floor. Sherlock packs his pipe at the table with nervous hands. Seated on the chest beneath the window, John watches the fire. He drinks Sherlock’s abandoned tea and keeps touching his leg with concern.
They do a very bad job of not looking at one another.
Twice over the course of the afternoon, John is called outside for gate duty. He returns shivering and sodden from the first excursion, and Sherlock can only watch his cold, dripping form.
The second time John is called outside, Sherlock pilfers what he marks as a reasonably small portion from John’s so-called edible supplies. He hides this in his satchel wrapped in a handkerchief and scatters crumbs across the table’s surface. A small, systematic spread.
When John returns the second time, he is drenched yet again. How fortuitous they are no longer touching.
John assumes he ate a meal. Sherlock asks belatedly for permission, which John hurriedly grants. John makes further inquiries after Sherlock’s health. Compared to the past few hours, this is almost pleasant.
Unwilling to relinquish conversation entirely, Sherlock chooses a topic at random and begins to elaborate upon it. By the time John finishes his own evening meal, the atmosphere is almost companionable. They pretend they won’t soon need to sleep.
Instead, they talk. Soon, talking, they laugh. The strain hurts. It’s as if they’re walking upon a sprained limb, simply trying to cover the distance back to normalcy before they collapse. Sherlock hopes they make it. They begin to draw close.
Sherlock tells him a history, the formation of societies around the gulf. For all John’s family originates from the southern coast, John knows so little of it. He makes Sherlock want to explain the world and teach more than language. John has never heard of the divide in Sherlock’s people, of the difference between southern leech and eastern flea, between reformed and traditionalist. All he knows are the traditionalists from the east, occupying the lower mountain paths and raiding into human territory.
Only the fleas are called draughtsmen, in this history. The leeches are land-sirens, which is vaguely fact.
“I don’t think that’s true,” John responds to the thought of sirens inland. “I think you’re making that up.”
“I’m not,” Sherlock promises. “I’ve met a few.”
John only grins. “And you haven’t drowned?”
That old stereotype. “Obviously not. Irene’s tastes run more towards women.” Ship captains, in general, as tradition dictates. The rest of it is mere bad luck. Storms and pirates on top of politics: a poor combination.
John shakes his head, still grinning. “Go on, then,” he says. “Have you heard her sing?”
“It’s possible to beg a song from her,” he admits. “Personally, I’ve only known her to give in when skilled accompaniment is available. They love instruments, but she more than most. I was fortunate to have my violin with me at the time.”
“You’re a bit mad,” John remarks, as if commenting upon the weather or a new hole in his shirt. It’s far from the first time he’s said this. “It’s sort of brilliant.”
“You mean I’m brilliant.”
“Sort of brilliant, I said.”
Their knees bump beneath the table and they both freeze.
John must not realize the way his tongue touches his lips. It isn’t like him to be so cruel.
Sherlock adjusts his legs, tucking them under his chair. “What does your family believe about sirens, then?”
“Um,” John says, eyes momentarily gazing through Sherlock’s chest. “Well, my dad’s side of the family – the Watson side – they’re from down on the coast. Down south across the water, originally, near the lip of the gulf.”
That is approximately where Irene lives, yes. “All the way west?” he asks, baiting John into correcting him.
John nods. “At least, to hear my grandda tell it.” Not Irene’s family, then, but a neighbouring power. “He was the one to sail out here. Even in those days, land travel to the east was dangerous at best, even before you got to the mountains.”
“Dangerous?” Sherlock echoes. He thinks of the safety of home and knows John has the facts wrong.
“You haven’t heard the stories?”
“I’ve heard lots of stories,” he replies. “Being from the south, I believe few of them.”
“Well,” John says, “one of the stories I’ve heard the most is that some of the nobs over there aren’t human.”
Once the words are out, John obviously realizes the misstep. It’s painful to watch him in pain.
“I believe that accusation is levelled against most of the nobility,” Sherlock replies calmly, not defensively. His voice is remarkably steady. Commendable, he applauds himself. Commendable enough not to be stabbed over. “But that’s right. Some of them are leeches. The political system is rather interesting for the mix, particularly across the southern mountains.”
“Oh,” John says.
“Anyway,” Sherlock says.
“Anyway,” John agrees and clears his throat. It’s almost reassuring, the way he so easily follows Sherlock’s lead. He’s a skilled follower, capable of anticipating where he’ll be led, and he complies so well. Sherlock has no idea what to do with him.
That night, as they edge around the subject of sleep, John forfeits his mattress. Sherlock declares him an idiot. There is a debate about the probability of John attacking him in his sleep. Sherlock wins. All sharp objects are left downstairs and they share the loft. It’s cold and Sherlock needs the heat. And, as Sherlock now knows well, lying on the thresh is disgusting.
They barely remove more than their footwear. John grants him the pillow, brooking no discussion. They lie apart, head to toe as strangers sleep, listening to the rain.
In the small hours of the morning, silence registers in his ear.
His mind jerks awake while his body holds stock still. No more rain.
He extricates himself from the blankets as smoothly and silently as he can. John is on his side, facing Sherlock. His eyes are closed. Beneath their lids, there is no movement. The air is cold.
Sherlock climbs down the ladder. He ties on his boots and puts on his coat. He pauses at a sound from above. There are no further sounds. He picks up his satchel.
He opens the door.
He closes it behind him.
Dawn approaches through a grey sky and he does his best not to run.
He takes a risk on the return to Montague. His hunger is a dull hurt and his limbs turn cold in the passing fog. Standing at the edge of the empty road, doing his utmost to keep his feet out of the worst puddles, he sings. His voice is low and deep with glamour and he is afraid of how far the sound might carry. The song is Irene’s, as much as any song can be said to belong to a single person.
The rabbits are first, as rabbits always are. Next come the birds. Useless squirrels follow. At last, a doe emerges. Then more, three deer in all. He beckons the largest closer, dropping into a private murmur, and the animal comes to nose at his hand. The other wildlife begins to stir, no longer frozen in mesmerized ranks. Some flee. Others remain, venturing closer as he inspects the doe for signs of illness.
Finding the animal in reasonable heath, no ticks or wounds visible, no discolouration around the eyes, he soothes her into absolute compliance. She butts her head against his side, pressing for contact, choosing the position. He permits it. Lowering his glamour to a mere hum, he places his mouth against short fur, high on the neck and just below the jaw. She permits it.
The puncture is smooth. His teeth extend and retract with a motion as fluid as any stroke of the bow upon his violin, as piercing and commanding. But not, without John, as sweet.
He drinks his fill and releases her.
For the next quarter mile, she follows alongside him as he walks. When he rests his hand upon her back, she presses close. Until he shouts at her to leave him, the animal believes herself tame. Even then, the doe slinks away with slow, unwilling steps. Irene was nothing if not an excellent teacher.
Dear Angelo, he writes.
I was particularly glad to receive your letter this week. Upon recent reconsideration, my ability to establish friendship is notably subpar.
The ink dries upon his pen twice before he determines how to continue.
John and I have experienced cultural differences. It was unsettling. Despite his other merits, he is unfairly biased against my way of life and I can see no way to strip him of these delusions. I’ve obfuscated around the subject as you instructed me to, but that has led to increasing obfuscation.
I find hiding who I am loathsome, but his disapproval is very forceful. All the same, I don’t want to lie to John. John is very honest. When he thought I’d lied to him, he responded very negatively. I didn’t obfuscate the facts to avoid the topic or convince him otherwise, but I did lie. He dropped the matter because he trusts me.
Written down, even parsed for Angelo and coded for any unwanted readers, it looks a bit worse than Sherlock remembers it being at the time. With John’s attempt on his life excluded, Sherlock’s behaviour is what appears unsavoury. This is markedly unfair. How was he meant to get through that first night without feeding? How, when John’s response to the softest growl of Sherlock’s stomach is to make an attempt only slightly removed from force-feeding?
The obfuscation began out of necessity, he concludes. It had to continue when John wanted to be friends. John is a very good friend. He is also an engaging storyteller. I would write his stories for you, but they lose all their vitality upon the retelling without John to support them. It seems unlikely that a boy with his background would laugh as often as he does, but John has a way of taking good humour and focusing it, as mirrors do the light of a candle. He laughs at me on occasion, but not the way the Anderson boy does.
I would describe him better for you, but my vocabulary is proving frustratingly inadequate and inaccurate. We don’t appear to have the necessary words in Franc and no one in the area has had the decency to write an Anglic dictionary. The oversight is egregious. You would have to meet him to understand fully.
I warn you, however, such an instance would be doomed to failure. When he asked after my family, I mentioned you. He believes you to be my father in more than the metaphorical sense. I hope you don’t mind. It was the better truth. I didn’t want to discuss Mummy or Father.
He stops for long minutes to watch his candle gutter.
There may be no point to any of it. After today, I’m uncertain as to whether John and I remain friends. He claims we do. It’s possible he merely feels too guilty after his outburst yesterday to say otherwise. And it was an outburst worse than even my sense of the word. (At least, I believe it was. Have you ever been frightened by my outbursts? Not for me, but for your own sake?)
Even if we are no longer friends, I have to keep seeing him. It is literally impossible to avoid him and if we are not to be friends, I would rather not see him at all. He lives in the town where Jim (he has invited me to call him Jim) has asked me to perform an errand. I should be able to complete it soon, at which point my lessons will begin.
I know it sounds as if I have become distracted through my association with John, but I have been as quick as feasibly possible in accomplishing my task. I haven’t forgotten, nor have I forgotten you. I am responding to your letters promptly and will date this example to prove it. The fault belongs with the post.
In regards to your concerns:
1. I am eating regularly enough.
2. I am staying as dry as possible and as warm as expected.
3. I still have my own room at the inn, though a small one.
4. I am not technically unarmed as John has given me one of his knives to bluff with. You know how effective my bluffs are.
5. Jim and I have agreed that the lessons will be exchanged for this errand. After the first lesson, I’ll know whether it will be worth pursuing in full. Presently, I am hopeful.
6. I don’t mind the work. It’s hardly as stimulating as picking up after Lestrade’s mistakes (never tell him this – in fact, burn this page) but at least the Anderson boy is nowhere in sight. I am meeting new, not terribly boring people and having valuable experiences.
In short, I’m fine. Everything is normal. Please stop worrying.
Unrelated: writing to Mrs. Hudson is the same as writing to Mycroft. She saves all of her letters and will show them to him before he asks. We’re still not speaking with him. I’m quite fond of my current lifestyle and wouldn’t mind continuing it in a safer area. You could find work at a bakery and I could continue on as a courier. We don’t have to go back. At least consider it.
Ever your dear boy,
The wax seal of the letter bears the imprint of Irene’s signet rather than his own. Where this letter is going, her mark is far more influential than his. He hands the postman the letter and a coin in the morning.
Envying the human his horse, he only feels marginally better.
Walking with dried, ground holly leaves in his socks has done wonders for the resistance in his feet. Irksomely, the progress has been slower than it ought to have been by approximately two weeks. There’s a chance Victor is right after all and resistance is more difficult to gain as a full adult. Rather, impossible to gain as a full adult.
Fortunately, that is something Sherlock decidedly isn’t. It takes months of fulfilling these cravings for them to settle. Even at home, humans have been known to die from the process when those involved are left unsupervised. Though Mycroft’s laws are more civilized than to allow it, there are other southern lords who have been known to give over their criminals to youths coming of age. It isn’t the typical method of executing a murderer or a horse-thief, he’s been led to believe, but it is as effective a crime deterrent as it is distasteful.
It’s been weeks, growing into months. Writhing each night and struggling each day, knowing that release waits beneath the skin of every passerby. He’ll drink eventually, he knows. He’ll plan it out, nice and neat. He’ll drain his prey, come to his full, and feel as empty and humiliated as he did the first time.
Unless it were John.
Except it can’t be John.
But it has to be John.
And yet it can’t be, not for months on end, not enough to satisfy him, not so little as to leave John alive.
John has to live. The thought of anything else is absurd.
The thought of drinking from any other is anathema.
Supposing, theoretically, if he should he do the unthinkable and surrender to temptation, then what? Masturbate in front of a stranger?
Does that count as cheating on John?
It might. It would. It certainly would when the reverse is cheating. The mere concept of someone else watching John come is horrendous beyond description. Someone else touching John. John wanting someone else to touch him, or to kiss, or to tell his stupid, marvellous stories to.
Idiocy. Of course John can. Of course John will. If Sherlock doesn’t secure John permanently, of course John will.
What would that take? Sherlock must first stabilize his own condition. Once stable, Sherlock would need so very little from John’s veins. Small nips, now and then, quickly made and soon forgotten. They could have each other, regularly, and John would suffer nothing more than minor anaemia. This is nothing more than a fantasy when he knows he’s far from a full transition. He has but the slightest trace of stubble, and only on one side of his face.
Supposing he did cheat on John enough to stabilize, what then? What of living with him? Arriving in the evening is well and good, as is leaving early or midmorning, but how long could he manage the illusion of consuming solid meals? Humans use their food as a social bonding device. John is always offering tea and water, always seems disappointed or even concerned when Sherlock abstains.
Being tied down to the area within a half-day’s walk of Bart’s Crossing would have dire results on his hunting as well. Time and time again, the same weakened deer, allowing in illness and infection he refuses to risk into his own body. And what when the marks on the deer are seen? A partially drained animal is an easy target for any hunter, even a human one. Someone is bound to notice eventually. They’ll suspect his presence and begin to hunt for him as well.
With his acquired resistance, he could pass over the bridge and live in the town. That would alleviate some suspicion but limit hunting even further. There would be more humans offering him solid sustenance and wondering when he never partook.
No, he would have to convince John to come away with him. Somehow. Say it would only be for a short while and then convince him to stay through piecemeal efforts. Which would end terribly over the solid food issue and the little matter of John’s sister remaining in Bart’s.
Possibly, very carefully, Sherlock could convince John to come away and teach him that this species war is pure idiocy. The humans back home may grumble now and again, but none of them have ever tried to kill him. In fact, Mrs. Hudson and Molly adore him. A pity how difficult it would be for John to meet them, the pair situated months away by ship and horse.
There’s also the matter of Angelo. Dear, sweet Angelo who hasn’t noticed Sherlock aging for the past decade. Seeing the former soldier as twice Sherlock’s age, Angelo will not approve of John. John will not understand Angelo’s objections. Attempting to explain the unexpected ramifications of his mother’s poor wording – no harm will come to my child – will reveal Mummy’s ability to use glamour and, in conjunction, the family dietary requirements.
Supposing Sherlock masters Moriarty’s glamour techniques and successfully creates layers of self-monitoring and command in Angelo’s mind beneath Mycroft’s influence. Supposing Angelo recognizes Sherlock as an adult, realizes the past twenty-two years as the farce they were and yet sees how Sherlock knew nothing of it for all too long. Supposing Angelo chooses to remain with Sherlock, Angelo would approve of John but never accept Sherlock’s deceit.
Deceit, not glamour. Though an unclaimed human such as John has no legal protection against glamour, Sherlock has only used it sparingly. He’s not enough of a hypocrite to fight for Angelo’s freedom while enthralling another man.
In any case, the situations are entirely different. Angelo’s mind has been warped with imposed parental concerns; the veracity of his love has yet to be proven, but will be soon. John is deceived on one fact. His attack on Sherlock’s life was professional, not personal, and taking the action clearly devastated him. The issue with John is not whether or not Sherlock is cared for, but whether John will choose duty or Sherlock.
Duty, obviously. Just look at the man’s shoulder. Therefore, Sherlock cannot conflict with it.
Therefore, Sherlock cannot compete with it.
John would never come away with him. There’s no way to continue.
The entire matter is unfeasible.
He has a bedfellow in Brixton, a stout man who smells of tallow. The trundle in the room is occupied by the man’s brother and two nieces. Their scents suffuse the cramped quarters. The inn is packed with humanity and humanity filled with the warmth he needs.
Lying very still, ignoring the body beside his, he suffers through the night.
Each lapse into sleep is a lapse into dreaming. He startles awake anew enough times to lose count. Certainly enough times for the man to jab an elbow into his side.
“Will you stop twitching? What’s wrong with you?” the man eventually demands in a whisper.
“How do you know if you’re in love?” He’s never bothered to ask before.
“By going the fuck to sleep.”
John opens the door. He smiles, then restrains himself. He squares his shoulders and says, “Hello. Passing through or coming in?”
“Can I- Both?”
Inside, John keeps his distance until Sherlock crosses it. Words are exchanged, are lost between desperate eyes and open, pressed mouths. John trips over a chair leg and Sherlock pursues him back, presses him down to the floor. John tugs him closer, lower. His heels dig against the small of Sherlock’s back.
John takes him inside his body, tight and deep, and he moves. His face flickers in the firelight, a creature dark of eyes and gold of hair. “More,” John pants.
“There is no more,” Sherlock tries to explain.
John bites him across the throat, as a wolf does, and Sherlock jerks awake. His cock is soft, his body boiling, and his heart fights the restraints of his ribs. His mind drips down, returning to traces of restless dreaming.
He’s elbowed in the side, hard, and reality resumes.
He slips back into sleep before he can retaliate. “He hit me, John,” he complains. “You should hit him back.”
“All right,” John replies amiably. “Later, though.”
“Obviously.” He’s not at all in the mood to lift his head from John’s lap, let alone permit the soldier to move.
“Will you cut your hair?” John asks, running his fingers through the same. “You’re an adult. You should cut it.”
“Do you dislike it?”
John twines a curl between his fingers and slowly, gently tugs. It separates smoothly from his scalp. “I’ll put it in a locket. What sort of ribbon should I tie it with?”
“This,” Sherlock replies, slipping thin twine into John’s hand. Their textures are the same, coarse twine and rough fingers.
John ties twine and hair into a necklace. He slips it over his head and black curls hang next to the bleeding mess of his shoulder. Thick red drops leak down his skin, trailing towards Sherlock’s upturned face. John smiles down at him contentedly, never noticing the slow chill of his own ashen face.
“You’re going to die,” Sherlock warns him mildly.
“Hm?” John smiles on, eyes blank.
“Your shoulder,” Sherlock prompts, sitting up. “You’re bleeding.”
John glances to his broken skin, to the pulsing red path staining his chest and trousers. “Oh that. That’s just a kiss.” His fingers curl beneath Sherlock’s chin, drawing him in. “I wouldn’t mind another.”
Sherlock pulls away and forces his eyes open. Unmoving, he stares into the dark until it gives way to light.
Since meeting John, he has worn the knife on his hip. The hilt is blunt, the blade sharp, the effect plain and the result oddly soothing. The style of the sheath is simple enough to fit the foreign cut of his jacket and familiar enough to the area to make him appear almost local of origin.
He wears it to blend in, to normalize himself. Knives are practicality-turned-fashion in this barbaric place. He seldom sees them used: when the locals aren’t elbowing him in the side, they’re tolerable enough. He’s begun to acquire consistent clients. Some of them are even likeable in a limited way. All the same, every man wears a warning at his hip. Sherlock hasn’t investigated the folds of any skirt, but he imagines there to be little difference between implied and blatant threat.
While he walks, he tries not to touch the hilt. He tries not to think of how the weight has grown familiar and comforting.
While he walks, he tries not to think about a lot of things.
John opens the door without touching his hand. He opens the door, wide. More widely than he typically does and certainly more than any guard should.
His eyes are blue. Alert, clear, pupils expanded and whites on display. His eyebrows pull downward together. His hands are confused, fingers tapping against door and doorframe. His lips are particularly chapped and red. He’s been biting the bottom one, perhaps chewing on it.
“Afternoon,” Sherlock says.
“Sherlock,” John says, as if startled. Which he shouldn’t be, as he recognized Sherlock’s voice before opening the door. His left hand leaves the doorframe. “You’re back.”
John’s smile devastates and Sherlock comprehends nuance a moment too late.
“Ah,” he says. “Not that I- Deliveries. In Bart’s, per usual.”
“Oh,” John says. “Right. I can....” He offers his hands.
“In person today,” he corrects. “I’ll be crossing.”
“All right,” John says, but doesn’t move.
Sherlock still wants to bite him. It’s there, the want, demanding his mouth against the soft vulnerability of neck. He’s never had John there, never properly made him his. Two weeks away, and Sherlock’s body demands that he reclaim what is his. Sherlock drops his gaze instead.
“I talked to Mike,” John says, as if this is intended to mean something.
Sherlock looks at the gate door, the one John ought to be opening. It is much easier to look at than John is. The wood and metal display little warmth in the waning sunlight. They are forbidding, obstacles to recognize and overcome and forget.
“About the nightmares,” John continues. “And the- Well, the relapse. I hadn’t had a spell like that in over three years. I thought.... It doesn’t matter what I thought. But it doesn’t seem likely to happen again soon and Mike has a few ideas what to do if it does.”
“What happened three years ago?” Sherlock asks.
John’s stance straightens. The man grows from having Sherlock’s gaze upon him. “Nervous fever. Relapses happen sometimes. That was the first time I had the delusions without the fever, but I- Sherlock?”
“What is that? Nervous fever, how does it spread?” Stupid, stupid not to ask first. All manner of mayhem could hide in a soldier’s blood. He should have known his reactions to John weren’t normal.
“You’re fine,” John says quickly. “You can’t catch it, it’s fine.”
“Are you sure?” he demands.
“It’s not the clap, Sherlock!”
“Oh yes, forgive my asking,” Sherlock snaps. “I’m sure no one would mind if I started trying to stab them.”
“I-!” John forces his face away, reining in his temper as sharply as he might an unruly horse. His jaw sets. “It’s day terrors.” he says, voice tight. “There’s this kind of... not a real fever, but it can feel like it. I asked Mike because I never want that to happen again. You know I didn’t mean what I did.”
“Of course you meant it,” Sherlock disparages. “You thought I wasn’t human and decided to kill me. You obviously meant it. If you’re going to lie, you’d best do it better.”
John doesn’t flinch. What he does is lower his voice and say, “It’s more complicated than that.”
More than you know, Sherlock can’t reply.
“Will you talk to him?” John asks. “I’m not asking you to- Well, yes, I am, but. Will you?”
“Fine,” Sherlock replies. It won’t matter either way and he lets his tone show it. “Who is this Mike?”
“Mike Stamford, he’s the doctor,” John tells him. “A good one, used to work out further west.”
“Farther,” Sherlock corrects very much automatically, his mind entirely elsewhere. The target. John has handed him the target. A few talks with this man, a simple command of follow where I lead and Sherlock is finished here. “Where could I find him?”
“His place is by the meetinghouse,” John supplies. “That’s the big brick one. He’s the house with the brick front wall and the rest wood. Black shutters, and there’s a sign out front.”
“Is he expecting me?”
“More like he’s hoping to see you, but yes.” John makes no attempt to hide the double-applicability of that description.
“Yes.” Before John can carry on in his echoing, Sherlock turns to the side and kneels to work on the laces of his boots. It’s time to walk the holly path and he’d be a fool to let this opportunity at Stamford pass by. “Do you have to open the gate from the other side, or...?” he prompts.
“Hm? Oh, yeah.” Staring at him. Sherlock doesn’t need to look to know it.
Sherlock is barefoot before John moves. He straightens with both boots in one hand, his socks with their powdered holly tucked into the footwear. Dirt feels strange beneath the skin of his feet, a childhood sensation long since turned foreign.
The expression across John’s features ought to be just as strange, yet is readily recognized although Sherlock has never before seen it. For all John wears it well, pain doesn’t suit him. Neither does guilt.
“Stop that,” Sherlock tells him without thinking. John shouldn’t look like this. John isn’t a man awaiting his fate or meeting his doom. That he should appear to be for Sherlock’s sake is absurd, reality made unrealistic.
“Sorry,” John says. The word is so terribly serious on his lips. His tongue nudges out to taste it. “I’ll get the gate, only be a moment.”
The gatekeeper disappears inside, shutting and bolting the door. He opens the gate to the bridge and beckons Sherlock onto the wood. The soles of his feet prickle but do not burn as John closes the way behind them. The holly path is deliberately marked by wooden edging, as if the sheen were not enough to prove the difference between the main bridge and the defensive portion.
The rail on the right side is thick and sturdy. On the left, by his side, the rail is noticeably newer, slightly thinner and less weatherworn. Replaced in the last five years. Sherlock’s eyes are trapped on the edge of the bridge as he walks, John at his right. The water below rushes white over grey rock.
Too many years of playing the child bid his hand to reach, to take John’s sleeve and hold tight against his fear. His hand brushes over the hilt of the knife instead, a poor decision in his current situation.
“You still have it,” John notes quietly, much too quietly. The river attempts to drown his voice.
“Do you want it back?”
John says, “No. I want you to keep it.”
At the other side, John calls up to Bill. Bill opens the door, a small one, not the one for livestock and carts.
“Thank you,” Sherlock says to Bill, stepping through, leaving John on the other side. He stops to put his boots on. Bill utterly fails to close the door.
“You’ll talk to Mike?” John checks, speaking in Franc. Such an obvious bid for privacy.
Having been standing a bit between them, Bill awkwardly moves out of the way.
“I won’t leave without speaking to him,” Sherlock confirms in like tongue, kneeling to tie his laces.
Bill looks between him and John. He wears a question on his face and it’s obvious he already knows the answer.
“Not now, Bill,” says John with Anglic words, sounding positively harassed.
Footwear restored, Sherlock stands. And John is... John is more John. Just for an instant, just for the remnants of an irritated grin. His eyes on Sherlock’s face are warm before they remember to be apologetic. They haven’t seen each other in a fortnight and John thinks he knows why.
“Will I see you later?” John asks.
“Eventually,” Sherlock answers. He walks away without a kiss, without a touch, without anything more than a knife at his hip and lies behind his teeth.
An obviously busy man, Michael Stamford smiles at him in an encouraging yet apologetic sort of way. The man smells of sharp vinegar and cloying turpentine. Beneath that, linen and faint, fresh sweat. He has washed recently, possibly regularly. He has short stature, wide girth and the squint of a man who truly needs the glass spectacles strung around his neck.
The doctor bids him to sit in his parlour and so Sherlock sits. He scans the wooden floor and furniture for patterns of wear. The amount of business Stamford does is fairly high, unsurprising considering Bart’s central location. Against the far wall is a cabinet with glass in its doors, displaying shelves adorned with bottles and jars. It’s the most glass Sherlock has seen in a single human household on this side of the gulf.
Steepling his fingers, Sherlock chews his lip. He can hear speech from elsewhere in the house. That’s a poor sign for the success of his glamour. Words are a tricky business where they might be overheard. A wordless glamour can compel only urges or sensation, not impart instruction. Calling a deer from the woods to follow at his heel is one thing. A human is much more noticeable, not to mention outright disturbing.
This will take some time.
As he plans, two women enter the parlour. One is brunette, the other a familiar tawny blonde.
Sherlock stands immediately. “Harry. And Clara, I presume.” He has a good memory for scents and Clara’s is one he knows well already, her distinct mix of sweat and musk worn against Harry’s skin like a perfume. The reverse is also true, as it is always true with lovers. It smells as if Harry may share her brother’s proclivity for leisurely sex in the morning.
He offers his hand in the human fashion, and Harry counters by walking directly into his arms. Though the top of her head is well below his chin, she manages to tug him close. The list of people who hug Sherlock is four names long and does not include Harry Watson.
Surprised and uncomfortable in front of Clara and Stamford, he intends to tell her this. He intends to, but beneath the scents of Clara and wood varnish and dried apples, there is something basic and Watson. It slips through his nose and stoppers up his brain. She isn’t John, not acrid enough, too blatantly female, but she is so terribly close. She smells like John without desire, like warm comfort away from the rain. Affection wells up inside him like blood from a bite.
He realizes that he is hugging her back very tightly. Which is fine. She’s small but solid. Strong.
“I know it’s frightening,” Harry is saying, “but it’s not something he can help and he’s getting better.”
It takes Sherlock an unforgivably long moment to determine that she’s speaking of her brother.
“You would be Dr. Stamford’s assistant,” Sherlock says over her, addressing Clara. He holds out his hand once again, over Harry’s shoulder.
“I would be,” Clara answers. Her words are thick, full of eastern traces, but perfectly understandable. The grip of her hand is polite rather than firm. “You’d be the scholar-turned-courier.”
“I would be,” he agrees, and Harry takes it into her head at last to stop holding him. This proves to be good timing. Stamford’s patient exits through the adjoining hall and Stamford himself pokes his head into the parlour.
“If we could relocate...?” the doctor suggests.
“I want to you talk later,” Harry tells him in the privacy of her limping Franc. If she’d practice more with her brother the way John asks her to, she wouldn’t make such simple mistakes.
Sherlock nods. Harry nods back and shares a kiss with Clara on the way out. There’s something perfunctory about the women’s exchange, as if habit has rendered them barely aware of their own behaviour, or as if behaving otherwise has become foreign. Before he can wonder what that must feel like, he directs himself toward the task at hand.
Over the course of two hours, Sherlock learns more about John’s past than he thought there was left to learn. Hours spent sharing secrets in the night and there’d been no mention of this, not once.
Clara tells him the story. Stamford prompts her with dates or details when she searches for them, but it’s clearly a tale she knows well.
At first, the story is familiar. Seven years ago and miles to the west, John took a crossbow bolt almost entirely through his shoulder. The bolt first passed through the body of the man standing in front of him, a bodyguard of John’s direct superior. Taller than John, the bodyguard was pierced through the left lung. He fell backwards against John. The pair fell and the bodyguard perished, still on top.
This last detail is new to Sherlock’s ears. He visualizes: John on his back, stunned, air knocked from him by the weight pinning him to the ground. The struggle for air as a man drowned atop him in his own blood. Unpleasant.
The assassin behind the crossbow was quickly killed by the officers in the tent. Young Mayhew escaped unscathed and sent for one of his father’s physicians. Lord Mayhew dispatched Stamford. Late into the damp autumn, travel was slow and by the time Stamford arrived, John had been hovering on the brink of death for several weeks.
The recovery was nothing short of miraculous – as Clara tells it. Stamford shakes his head and makes modest protestations, but is nevertheless clearly a capable man. The ruler of the west and now the unofficial king of the northern lands, Lord Mayhew is not the sort of man to keep an unskilled physician.
The injury occurred when John was twenty-two years old. With but five years of service in Mayhew’s army, he had been Captain Watson for a year and a half. “He’s always been great with tactics, Harry tells me,” Clara explains. “He would command the other boys on the orchard when they were little – rotten apple fights, that sort of thing. Some of those manoeuvres-” She smiles, shakes her head “-absolutely ridiculous.”
“He’s told me,” Sherlock responds, slapping his own stupid mind into working. Of course John was modest, playing it off as childhood games and never mentioning the implications come conscription. “I imagine it helps in the army, the capacity to plan and execute a good ambush.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Stamford replies. “He’s more remarkable than he lets on, our John.”
Though John survived the blood loss and infection, it took him the better part of nine months to recover his health. That summer, John returned to young Mayhew’s side as a tactical advisor. He’d fought tooth and nail for the move, defying day terrors, an inexplicable limp, and his sister.
Upon reaching the front, he improved. The day terrors stopped. The nightmares stopped. Defending from a surprise attack, John lost his limp beside the supply wagons. He was fine and remained fine until the end of the conflict. A fortnight after the final battle of the war, John deteriorated. The nightmares first, then a day terror. Within a month, his limp was as bad as it had ever been.
He remained that way until Bart’s.
In the beginning, John had worked the inner west gate. There was no safer guard duty on Bart’s than this. It was steady work, if not quite stabilizing.
“Then he took the eastern gatehouse,” Sherlock concludes for them. “How long did his recovery take?”
Clara and Stamford exchange glances, clearly weighing how much to tell him.
Sherlock waits, impatient with concern. That is the image they expect and the image he projects.
“You need to understand,” Stamford begins carefully, “that John was in a bad way.”
“John apparently cannot function without perpetual stress and exposure to danger,” Sherlock counters. “He’s actively chosen to man the most vulnerable point of Bart’s defence. John is in a bad way.”
“John was in a worse way,” Stamford tells him.
Sherlock nearly yells at him.
It catches him off-guard, sudden and irrational. Stamford is lying. There are no signs that he is, but he must be. John’s health is dependent on a position highly susceptible to the species he’s meant to keep out. Glamour can be cast through any door a voice can penetrate; the first holly test is absurdly simple to bypass. It’s the second that counts, the bridge crossing. The rush of water below is too loud, the length of the holly path too long, and one of the guards behind the inner gate is deaf. Bart’s is safe. John is not.
Sherlock nearly rages, but he can see. He observes.
“I know,” Stamford says. “Scares me too, sometimes.”
“He’s doing better,” Clara adds. “The past three years, they’ve been really good.”
“But before that,” Sherlock prompts.
The humans exchange their glances yet again.
“John’s limp cleared up after he jumped off the bridge,” Clara states.
She goes on to say something more, but Sherlock can’t hear it. He’s much too busy shouting at her, loud statements of the obvious. “It’s a seventy foot drop! Onto rocks!” He shouts and would keep on shouting, but his throat resists and closes. His heart does something too rapid and weak to be called pounding.
Clara catches his shaking hands and brings them together. “Not like that,” she tells him, talking over him, voice firm and smooth. “He’s never tried to kill himself, he’s never done that-”
“Are you certain?”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes,” Clara promises. “John wants to live more, not less.”
“So he jumped off the bridge?” Sherlock demands. Tries to demand. He doesn’t seem to have enough air for it.
She squeezes his hands, hard. “Can you listen for more than one sentence?”
Sherlock takes a deep, resentful breath.
“Bill Murray – one of the guards, the loud one? He was showing John how the eastern gate operates. There used to be no railing by the holly path. Thought that threats could be shoved off into the river, I suppose,” Clara explains, far too slowly. “John told him that was ineffective and when Bill laughed, John dropped his cane and jumped. Came back three hours later still damp and told Bill they were installing a railing.”
She isn’t joking.
“You aren’t joking,” he asks her all the same.
“I’m not,” she confirms. With one last squeeze to Sherlock’s hands, she releases him.
“John’s not your usual fellow,” Stamford adds.
Sherlock looks at him so sharply, so incredulous at the understatement that Stamford laughs.
“You might have worked that out for yourself,” Stamford acknowledges. “John said you were the clever, analytical sort.” There’s a trace of doubt around Stamford’s rounded edges. Sherlock’s outbursts do tend to cast a poor light on his intellectual capabilities.
For an instant, Sherlock considers showing off, proving his brilliance. The plethora of details he has gleaned from Stamford’s clothing alone would be sufficient. He reminds himself where he is, of how important the human definition of normalcy is at this moment.
“Before two weeks ago,” Sherlock says instead, “when was John’s last day terror?”
Stamford looks to Clara and Clara’s eyes flick to the side. Her head tilts slightly, seeking a recollection of conversation. “Last year, I think. After second planting but before summer solstice. Just for a moment. He wasn’t violent then. He’s never been violent before, that was new.”
“Also the first day terror about Bart’s rather than the war,” Stamford adds. “That’s why we think his condition is changing.”
“He was very reasonable despite it,” Sherlock insists. “He ran through the holly procedure, remained immensely practical – he’s not a danger to Bart’s. Removing him from his position would be detrimental to everyone.”
“That’s not what we’re considering,” Stamford is quick to tell him, holding up a cautioning palm.
Sherlock nods. He settles further into his chair, inexplicably relieved. If John were relocated within Bart’s defences, it would be so much simpler for both of them, temptation safely removed. He should want John relocated, why doesn’t he want that?
“Truth be told,” Stamford begins, “I’ve wanted to speak with you for some time.”
Having just slumped, Sherlock fights the urge to sit upright. His posture has no bearing on how attentive he is to a conversation. “Have you?”
“Mm,” Stamford hums, expression between pursed lips and a closemouthed smile. “Do you know how often John has had nightmares over the past year?”
Sherlock shakes his head. John has never said. Beyond the one warning, John has never mentioned nightmares, certainly never mentioned them as such an issue that a doctor would need know of them.
“Often,” Stamford tells him. “To the extent that his sister would notice? Perhaps once per fortnight. Are you aware how often John has had nightmares over the past two months?”
“Presumably, four times.”
“Twice,” Stamford replies.
“Only half, yes, so?”
“So there was a five week period where they stopped entirely,” Stamford states. His weak eyes rest lightly on Sherlock’s face, but they look deeply all the same. “I imagine you’re aware of which five weeks,” Stamford adds, lips quirked.
Sherlock is aware. His entire body is aware, skin and blood. Inside his chest, there is a desperate sense of reaching for those five weeks, little more than a month of foolish time when Sherlock could have everything he wanted.
“To you, it might seem that John’s condition is deteriorating,” Stamford continues, “but that’s not the case. Furthest thing from it. You’ve been excellent for him, Mr. Holmes.”
“Have I?” There’s no voice behind his words.
“This isn’t to force you,” Clara assures him. “I’d never ask anyone to go back to someone they didn’t think they were safe with. But we do want you to realize how significant you are to him.”
They’ve barely known each other two months. Days without him are weary, nights without him torturous. The physical want is worse than compulsion. Sherlock knows compulsion, knows what it is to rage as his limbs move to the commanding glamour of another. This is stronger and stranger, a new paradigm. This is the difference between irresistible and unresisting. He wants to be unresisting and it’s terrifying.
“I can’t stay,” Sherlock protests, prickling, abruptly cornered. “I have family across the gulf. My father, he’s not well, I-”
“I’m not asking you to marry into the family,” Clara retorts, at once calm and condescending. The level focus it incites in him is steadying. If this woman had glamour, she’d be a force to be reckoned with. Possibly even without it, if she can handle Harry Watson. “All right?”
He does his best to be calm.
There is a long moment of breathing, of slowing breath and tense shoulders and clenched hands.
It wasn’t meant to be this serious.
It wasn’t meant to happen at all.
“I’d like to talk with Harry,” he says stiffly, reaching for any way out of this house. “If that’s all, doctor.”
“It is,” Stamford replies. His eyes are much too kind. “Be sure to come back if you need anything.”
“I will,” Sherlock promises, and it’s the first piece of luck he’s had all day. “Afternoon.”
He grabs up his coat and satchel and escapes the room, the hall, the door, escapes into sunlight and air. He stands there, shoving his arms through thick sleeves and shivering in the breeze. The siren-woven cloth is usually better at keeping back the wind. It occurs to him that he doesn’t know where Harry lives.
The door behind him opens and Sherlock doesn’t startle. That was a shiver from the cold, not a flinch.
“Thought I’d show you the way over,” Clara says.
“Thank you,” Sherlock answers automatically.
“Here it is,” Clara says, two short streets and one long silence later.
“Thank you,” Sherlock repeats.
She walks away without a backward glance.
Knocking on the door, Sherlock decides that Clara is an excellent human being.
Harry is much less so. Without her slow blunders in Sherlock’s language, Harry is sharp, abrupt and grating. Having remembered her as pleasant and not entirely dull, having hugged her in relief only a few hours ago, the difference is jarring in the extreme.
She won’t shut up about her brother and nothing she says is remotely helpful. Sherlock knows that John is sorry. He knows that John cares about him. He knows about the day terrors now, those incidents John calls nervous fever from the sweats that accompany them.
Worse yet is the house. Carpentry tools everywhere that isn’t the kitchen and the kitchen naturally has knives and prongs. Are Watsons incapable of going without sharp objects? It’s absurd.
Worse still, worse than the sneeze-inducing sawdust from Harry’s work, the so-called backroom John said he slept in is, in actuality, Harry’s workshop. Saws and drills and all manner of harmful tools are arranged on the walls, hung on pegs. The space is large and well-used, well-worn, but nevertheless obviously a place for working rather than living.
John’s scent is everywhere.
It’s against the doorjamb where he leans. It’s across the floor where he walks. It absolutely saturates the lump of a mattress on a frame in the corner. It’s there, everywhere, in his nose and in his head. It turns his skin tight and taut. Had he seams, they would burst.
Has that stupid human ever slept somewhere that wasn’t out of the way? Has he ever not been tucked neatly into a corner or relegated to a creaking loft? Sherlock has a bed – had, possibly past tense – across the gulf and mountains away. When last he saw it, it was a bed worthy of the name. With its four posts and warm curtains, it was central, the focus of the room, of an actual bedroom. The room was a sanctuary, a bolt inside the handsome door and shutters on the glass windows. It had seemed simple and had been often cold, but it was Sherlock’s, had been Sherlock’s in a way that nothing else had been.
John’s bed is a bare wooden frame. The knots are fully visible on the side, so many ropes crossing beneath the mattress. There are blankets neatly across it, a folded quilt at the foot, and it smells of sweat and straw, of nothing so fine as feathers.
There’s another scent there, just barely, and Sherlock exercises more restraint than one man ought to have in keeping away from it. At least one of John’s soiled handkerchiefs is in the room. It smells of them. Not merely of John, but them, of them both. His body burns without release, it’s been burning, but now he feels it. He can’t stop feeling it.
Biting Harry and having done with it is a jarringly appealing thought. Stop the talking, stop the whinging, and feed. He could force her silent and numb, take the few swallows he needs, and come with his face against John’s sheets. There’s no one here to see or overhear. All it would take is a few words and the closing of the shutters. He could do it. It would be so easily done.
His teeth itch to descend. His mouth wants skin. His tongue yearns to lap at puncture marks and his throat dreams of swallowing. His skin is tight, so very tight, all pressure and no release and it would be so, so easily done.
Then he registers what Harry’s saying, registers the rhetorical question of “You’ve never been in love before, have you?”
“No,” he retorts. Intends to retort. Except that isn’t how Anglic syntax works, that isn’t what he’s said. He has agreed, not denied, agreed, and there is too much sawdust in the air.
“Thought so!” Harry crows, triumphant. She’s about to say something more, something obnoxious or, worse, kind.
“Shut up!” he yells. Cuts her off. “Would you shut up, would you all just shut up!”
Harry loudly takes offence.
They both loudly take offence until they go half-hoarse and there are neighbours peering in through the open windows.
Finally, winding down, Harry gripes, “Fuck this, I need a drink.”
Once Sherlock begins laughing, it’s very difficult to stop. Particularly as Harry joins in for absolutely no reason. She’s like John that way.
Harry closes up her workshop and her home and Sherlock, again for no reason he can properly name, finds himself following her to the pub. Harry moves with such purpose and intent. She seems to have some sort of an answer and has the body language of one who knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s very much like John.
He could still leave Bart’s tonight, he reasons. There’s sunlight for another two hours yet. An hour of walking will get him safely away to Euston. Leaving within half an hour will get him there come dusk. As leaving requires seeing John and seeing John requires more restraint than he can possibly have left, waiting that half an hour is merely exercising good sense.
Bringing his satchel to the pub means bringing his pipe and he smokes while Harry drinks. She mellows out nicely. Beneath the haze of Sherlock’s smoke and several other brands of tobacco, the Watson scent is much less noticeable.
“He used to be one hell of a flirt,” Harry announces apropos of nothing.
Sherlock frowns at her.
“John,” she needlessly clarifies.
“When?” he prompts.
“Before the war,” she says. “Back home. Used to catch him kissing the girls I liked.”
Sherlock frowns at her a great deal.
Harry blithely waves her hand at his concern. “That’s stopped.”
“One would hope.”
“No, I mean,” Harry says, “I mean it stopped. When we got him back, he was just... nothing.”
“Are you drunk already?”
“No, shut up.”
Sherlock blows smoke in her face.
Harry kicks him under the table. “Really, shut up. What I’m saying is important.”
He complies because she clearly means it.
“I know Mike and Clara were going to tell you how good Bart’s has been for him. They did, didn’t they? Well, it’s more than that. You know you’re the first person he’s seriously gone after since we got here?”
“The first,” Sherlock repeats. “And you arrived....” He knows the number, but it doesn’t make sense.
“Three years ago,” she confirms.
Harry smiles a slow, knowing smile.
Instantaneously, Sherlock hates her again.
“I mean,” Harry says, “that when you didn’t show up last week, everyone knew it.”
Sherlock bristles. “He put a knife to my throat.”
“I got that out of him eventually, yeah. But you’re missing the point.”
“Is that a pun?”
“What? Oh, no. Sorry. You’re missing the, um, issue.”
“Meaning what?” Sherlock demands.
Harry rolls her eyes. “Meaning my brother doesn’t complain. About anything. Ever. Mike wouldn’t know half of what goes on with John if I didn’t tell him. Sometimes, I think he could walk around with a stab wound and not tell anyone. Drives me round the bend, but there you are.”
“And last week was the exception?”
“No,” Harry tells him bluntly. “Last week, he was just that miserable.”
Sherlock breathes in deeply through his pipe, letting the embers blaze, letting Harry look at his eyes through smoke and light. He’s been told it’s intimidating. “You certainly have a way with guilt,” he applauds her.
“You’re head over fucking heels,” she says. Based on the fact that this makes no sense at all, it must be some sort of idiom. “Let him apologize and you can go back to holding hands under the table.”
“Knife,” Sherlock states. “To my throat.”
Harry pauses. Sighs. Drinks. “Fair enough.”
After that, she’s surprisingly good company.
Contrary to one of Sherlock’s long-held beliefs, it’s possible for a pub to be an enjoyable location. Specifically, this pub. There’s a relaxed feeling here that takes him off-guard. It’s not something he’s felt lacking elsewhere, not at the time, but the difference is extraordinary.
These people have a sense of safety, of camaraderie. They look at Sherlock and assume he belongs. There is no hesitation, no wondering. At first, he attempts to keep to himself. Friendly questions are asked. Intrusive questions are asked. Connections are made between him and Harry and, through her, to John.
Sherlock answers along a fine line, turning conversations this way and that. He begins to speak, then to argue, then debate, then discuss, then debate again. He would stop, but he’s winning.
For that reason, Sherlock idles here much too long.
Outside, the sky dims, then turns dark. Which is fine. Sherlock ate earlier today, preparing for such a possibility. John is in the gatehouse and will remain there, meaning that Harry will take Sherlock back to the house and give him use of John’s bed. Sherlock will have an extremely restless night and in the morning, he will steal John’s soiled handkerchief and exit Bart’s at his leisure.
He separates from Harry to better listen to recent events. The lay of the land can always be seen in the complaints and focuses of the locals. Sherlock knows very well how to listen. News of Mayhew in the west, warped snippets of events from the east. He shares what he knows from the eastern towns, then from along the coast. Those around him lose interest at that point. He begins to shoot smoke rings with an older woman sitting nearby, blowing target practice for each other without exchanging a word.
Given far too much time to drink, Harry makes her painstaking way to his side before leaning on him. Arms around his shoulders from behind, hands clasped beneath his chin, she announces to his spine that it is now time to go to sleep. She’s a warm, fumbling weight that he has no idea what to do with. Drunk, she is unlike John. Similarly, she isn’t at all like Molly. Nor is she like Mummy or Mrs. Hudson or Mrs. Lestrade. A comparison to Angelo doesn’t bear consideration. There ends Sherlock’s frame of reference for people who would ever possibly touch him.
Mindful that she is his means toward a sleeping place, he helps her home. This involves some propping up and some staggering, as well as some amount of convincing her that, no, he will not carry her.
“Do you have any idea how pathetic you are?” he asks. “Like this,” he adds in a vague attempt not to be rude.
“Yeah,” Harry answers, a sliding stretch of a syllable.
“You don’t know what you responded to, do you?”
“’m pathetic,” she tells him. Though lethargic, she sounds quite cheery about it as her head lolls against his upper arm. If the scents of smoke and alcohol weren’t already infused in the fabric, she would have left quite the mark. “’m pathetic an’ Clara won’ marry me. Says ‘m too much of a drunk.”
She hums. Not agreement, but part of what might be a song. It might be one he’s heard John sing every so often, always under his breath, always without thinking about it. “You can keep goin’,” she tells him once she finishes the song. Pure nonsense, both musically and physically. He’s still walking them home.
“With what, dare I ask.”
“Talkin’ me out o’ it,” she slurs. “S’what John does.”
“I’m not John,” he answers.
She says something incoherent. It begins with giggles and ends with unmistakable griping.
“I don’t blame you for it,” he says. “No one should.”
“Wanting to drink,” he clarifies. Her mind is slower than his and slowed yet further. Or diluted, possibly. “It’s not wrong to want.”
A bitter, wobbling laugh. “S’ wrong to do.” That has the sound of repetition to it.
They walk a bit more. Rather, he walks and she leans. She’s quite warm, tucked against his side like a child. It’s odd to think she’s a year his elder.
After their careful journey lit by stars and flicks of firelight waving through windows, Harry tries to open the door for him. He assists and they enter. He closes the door and Harry holds onto him. The top of her head against his chest, she seems content to merely stand and waver.
Sherlock believes this until her shoulders shake and he hears the sounds of crying. He pushes her back immediately to hold her at arm length, unwilling to risk her tears through his shirt. She isn’t truly crying, not the way Molly used to. This is more like leaking.
She looks at him with wet eyes, cloudy and wondering. She asks, with such focus on her articulation: “John tell you I have a problem?”
He shakes his head.
“Huh,” she says and tries to fall asleep under his hands. He gathers her up again rather than let her fall. His sense of curiosity has grown, as if Harry Watson is a fresh experiment. He knows to stagger her to her bed and he knows that shoes are meant to come off at this point. It’s difficult in the dark but he manages it once he takes off his gloves.
“You be my brother now,” she mumbles. “That’d be nice. John can go hang.”
Never, he almost says. John cannot go hang. John cannot go jumping off bridges or risking his life or any number of terrifying things.
“I’m going to sing you a lullaby,” he tells her instead. He knows very little about drunks and he knows very little about children, but he knows what his mother used to do. For children, at least, but a drunk seems much like a child. “You’ll go right to sleep.”
He sits and he sings. Not with glamour, not with intent. Merely a song, merely his voice, and for one sentimental moment, he misses his violin. He misses music.
Harry’s breaths grow steady and deep. He considers her in the dark. Alcohol in her bloodstream, yes, and him with no tolerance. He has no idea how he might react to her now.
His father taught him few things before he died, but the first among those few is paramount: that is not wrong to want, nor to do, provided that one needs.
His skin is tight. His body burns. He wants with everything that he is, but when he looks at her, he does not need.
He secures the blankets around his lover’s sister and retires to the adjoining workshop. For long hours, he fails to sleep.
The first dream looks like reality but isn’t, shocking him awake and tense. The second dream is slow and needful. The fifth is achingly pleasant, or would be if he could only remember it.
He tosses and turns, feeling the ropes through the mattress. Each movement lets in cold air, forces him to bundle himself up anew with each shift of position. He shivers. He aches.
Eventually, he sleeps.
He crosses the stone corridor with an escort. There is steel to his left and right, waiting to be bared, and heavy footsteps swallow his with combative echoes. He keeps his head high, keeps his motions as steady as those of the human men flanking him. He’s never seen thralls before, not in the traditional sense of the word, and he doesn’t know what they might be conditioned to respond to.
When he approaches, heavy doors are dragged open. Women, this time, their faces bland. He wonders what they’ve done to deserve this. In southern cities, only murderers and rapists receive this kind of fate, but one appears to be a horse thief.
He enters the chamber. Beyond the guards following him, he is among his own kind. The air is thick from pipes and full of low chatter. Silence spreads slowly as those gathered deign to notice him.
“Stop where you are,” drawls a bored voice so much like his own. The accent is different, the language the same.
Sherlock takes a step farther.
A leather sole on thick carpet rings out as if upon flagstone.
The man at the window turns his head.
“Come to me,” the man decides after all.
The force of his own refusal nearly sends Sherlock to his knees, the tear of indecision not wholly his own.
The man laughs and the room laughs with him. When he stops, sound itself seems to shatter. All others fall silent. The man commands, “Come.”
Sherlock succeeds in stillness. He cannot do when he does not need.
Moriarty holds his hand out to Sherlock, palm downwards.
He says, so sweetly, so cloying, “Please.”
His palm is soft. His fingers curl around Sherlock’s as if daring him to pull free.
Moriarty laughs. “What would you like me to fix, my dear?”
“I’m offering an exchange,” Sherlock states.
Moriarty’s smile twitches across his mouth as his gaze strokes up Sherlock’s chest. “It’s always an exchange.”
Without looking, without needing to look, Sherlock reaches to the guard beside him. He fits his hand against a rough, unresisting palm. His thin fingers thread through strong digits that fail to grip. “Him for Stamford,” he says.
“Hmm.... No,” Moriarty pretends to decide. “My territory, my human.”
“Your territory ends miles east of Bart’s,” Sherlock argues, logic asserting itself. “John is in no way yours. I laid my glamour over him first.”
“Says the child without land of his own,” Moriarty mocks. “He certainly isn’t yours. Isn’t that right, Captain?”
“Right,” John echoes dully, eyes blank, voice dead.
“You don’t even know this man, do you?”
“No,” John confirms. He looks at Sherlock after. There is no trace of recognition across his features. “I don’t know him.”
“Oh wait,” Moriarty singsongs. “Yes you do.”
“You’re in love with him.”
“I am.” His hand grips Sherlock’s, the motion perfunctory.
“Stop it,” Sherlock whispers. “Stop it, just stop it.”
“Why don’t you show Sherlock how much you love him, John?”
John reaches for him and it’s too much. This shouldn’t be happening, this cannot be happening, dream logic is unsound, and Lestrade comes shoving in through the door with a warrant in one hand and a crossbow in the other. He shoots Moriarty through the face and shouts at the rest of the room, which means they’ve been arrested.
But John, John is still reaching for him, except it’s different now, except Moriarty is dead now and John is so very alive, properly alert and focused. “Think it’s about time we get out of here, don’t you?” John asks, tugging at him, one arm protectively around him, one hand on the hilt of his sword.
Sherlock nods and takes them outside and they walk away, so very far away and into Mrs. Hudson’s kitchen and John asks “Will you play me your violin?” and Sherlock does and John’s smile never does go away, soft as a good morning kiss at the corners of his mouth.
He wakes slowly, tense yet warm. His muscles ache as if from exertion. He’s exhausted and vaguely content. He doesn’t mind lying here, smelling linen and sawdust and John. Sound filters in, sound from outside, movement and speech. Very little in the way of birdsong.
His eyes snap open in dim light, in too much light. He stares at the wall. He’s overslept. The jolt the knowledge brings is difficult to hold onto, however, and he begins to drift. It smells too much like John in here for him to be bothered.
Gradually, it occurs to him that the scent is fresh.
Limbs languid, heart pounding, Sherlock rolls over.
John hesitates in the doorway. He hasn’t been hesitating there for long, minutes at the most. He appears lost on the other side of the room, work bench between them and three half-assembled chairs. Outside of the crammed gatehouse, he takes up a disproportionately small space. “Sorry,” he says, voice lowered. “I didn’t mean to- Well, I did mean to wake you. Bill’s taking the outer gate today, and I.... Well, I live here.”
“It’s fine,” Sherlock answers, a pair of sleep-broken words. He sits up, shrugging out of the blanket cocoon he’d wrapped round himself in the night. It takes some unravelling. He knows that John’s eyes are on him and he resists looking as long as he can.
He looks, eventually. Of course he looks.
John is looking back.
It’s more than his eyes, more than the curving turn of his mouth. It’s the gap between the awkwardness of his hands and the longing in his arms. John won’t budge, won’t speak, won’t come to him unless given leave, given permission, given approval.
Mouth pressed into a thin line, Sherlock lifts the blankets and swings his legs to the door. He reaches down and draws his boots over.
“You spoke to Mike?” John half asks as Sherlock ties his laces.
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “You’ve already spoken with Clara. You know that.”
John huffs a laugh. It’s quick and self-depreciating, forced to be quiet. Sherlock doesn’t think he likes it. “How do you do that?” John asks. His lowered volume grates, causes him to appear timid and unlike himself.
“You were just asleep.”
Sherlock looks up from his boots. “And?”
“Nothing,” John says. His mouth is lovely, his eyes marvellous. In the literal sense, marvellous: they marvel at him.
Fumbling with his laces, Sherlock drops his gaze.
Through the far wall, through the doorway, there comes a loud snore. Harry. John makes a face, steps inside, and closes the door gently behind him. “Thanks,” John says. “For hauling her home. I know she’s heavy.”
Retying his left boot, Sherlock says nothing.
“Should I go?” John asks.
“It’s your house.”
“Harry’s, actually. Should I go?”
“I’m the one who’s about to leave,” Sherlock pointedly reminds him. He finishes with his laces and sits with his elbows on his knees, his back a hunching curve. With poor sleep and a largely empty stomach, the thought of movement is repellent. The reality of remaining could easily prove worse.
“I know,” John says. “I mean.” He pauses. Looks to the side, his tongue between his lips. “All right, yeah. Just going to say it. Do you want to talk?”
“All right. That’s fine.”
It is clearly not fine.
Sherlock nods curtly. He forces himself to stand. He pulls on his coat.
John doesn’t move, arms crossed, tongue still trapped between chapped lips.
Sherlock forces himself not to notice. Not to care. He turns his mind to coming moments, present courses of action, and he needs to leave Bart’s before someone expects him to eat a solid meal. He needs to cross to shore. He’ll return in a week, keeping to schedule, and he’ll speak to Stamford again. Perhaps see if a messenger bird can be sent from Montague to bait the doctor out and avoid using glamour all together. With luck, he’ll be finished with this nonsense within a month.
As he picks up his satchel, he realizes he hadn’t secreted the handkerchief away last night. It’s somewhere in the bed, lost among blankets and John’s scent. He experiences a fierce pang even as he tells himself it doesn’t matter.
He has to move around the workbench now, around the incomplete chairs with their clamps and drying glue. He has to insist John vacate the doorway and then he has to leave and then he-
“Why did you jump off the bridge?” he demands.
John blinks at him stupidly. “What?”
“The bridge. You jumped off it. Why?”
The switch is immediate. John visibly summons old arguments, old anger. He becomes himself, strong and blunt, carefully forceful. “To prove the fall wasn’t deadly. Which I did.”
“Not necessarily deadly,” Sherlock shoots back. “I’ve seen the rocks.”
“I know where they are.”
“Oh, so that makes it sane, does it.”
“No,” John answers. “It doesn’t. That’s always going to be something stupid I did once, but it’s something stupid I did once, Sherlock. Ages ago and I’m not going to do it again. You can leave me without me trying to off myself. Trust me, that will not be an issue.”
“I’m not leaving you!” Sherlock yells. John is his.
Harry’s groan travels through the wall even before she pounds on it. Curses and what passes for a request for silence.
The two men stare at one another in the workshop, midmorning light filtering in through the shutters. Sherlock can feel his own pulse throughout his body, his heart pounding against the cage of his ribs.
He needs a reason to keep coming to Bart’s, onto the island. A reason to keep speaking with Stamford. He needs his cover. John is a good reason. John is a reason he can use. That’s why he shouted. That’s why it’s important John believes him.
Eye contact is terribly difficult.
He accomplishes it nonetheless.
John begins to move. Around the worktable. Around the chairs. His footsteps are soft on sawdust and thresh. His expression is complex. He stops in front of Sherlock, just out of reach.
“Okay,” John says. “Not leaving is good. I like that.” He is devastatingly, unreasonably calm.
“I mean, I am leaving today. Obviously. But I’m not... that.”
John nods, small motions of the head as Sherlock shifts into his space. “You’ve your deliveries.”
“I do. I should... those.”
“That would be responsible. Good for business and all that. Then you’ll be back in a week? Same as usual.”
“Yes,” Sherlock agrees. His body gives a small tremble at the first touch, the light pressure of fingers curling against his side. He ought to pull away, but John’s hand is warm in the cold morning air. Sherlock shifts forward, crowding John against the table. Sherlock could bite him so easily. A murmur in the ear, a smooth drop to his knees. John would enjoy it. John would bury his fingers in Sherlock’s hair and praise him for every swallow.
“You’re tense,” John murmurs.
“Knife,” Sherlock reminds them both.
John lowers his hand but holds his gaze. “I’d never have forgiven myself, if that helps.”
It doesn’t. Does. He doesn’t know.
Sherlock takes a moment to glare at the wall. It’s simple, the typical construction for the area, and looking at it requires absolutely zero effort. “You’re immensely frustrating,” he informs John.
“You’ve been listening to Harry, then.”
“As little as possible,” he assures him, backing away, forcing distance. He takes a sudden interest in the chairs, checking the clamps and inspecting the dried glue. He lifts his chin and speaks with arrogance. “I’m unaccustomed to thinking with my cock and I don’t think I like it.”
He knows John well enough to know his expression, see his reaction across the inside of his eyes. He doesn’t need to look. Thumbs hooked into his belt, feet planted wide, head cocked toward confrontation.
What he doesn’t expect is the touch on his hand. He doesn’t foresee the way John’s fingers scrape against his palm, nor the way his mind stutters and, after two decades of vague wondering, at last discovers a suitable definition for delicious.
“I don’t think so,” John states. “That isn’t what we’re doing here.” He draws Sherlock’s unresisting fingers to his mouth, white knuckles to warm lips. Sherlock makes the mistake of looking at him. John is patient and calm and waiting, which are lies. Beneath this, John is furious and his and needful, which might be true. He doesn’t hide, simply permits Sherlock to view him layer by layer until surely there must be nothing else left to the man. Surely there can be nothing more to this man. Yet there is, consistently, always, every instance they speak or make love, and it terrifies. Sherlock will never be finished with him.
At the thought, he does something not unlike recoiling. It’s a flinch, a twitch, a spasm of the arm, and when John strokes gentle paths across the back of his hand, Sherlock knows he is being tamed. As if he’s something John intends to keep.
He snatches his hand away. This time, he manages it. “Stop it,” he orders. “Just stop it. I can see how it’s difficult but don’t be an idiot.”
“For what?” John demands quietly. “Where am I being the idiot here?”
Sherlock groans in aggravation. “I can’t stay here!”
“Not asking you to. Keep your voice down before Harry kills us.”
“You’re not listening.”
“Go on, then. Use simple words, let’s make sure it gets through my thick skull.”
“I’m leaving the area. I’m going home. I’m crossing the entire sodding gulf-”
“When?” John interrupts. “When are you jumping on a boat?”
“Within a year.”
John’s response is immediate relief and absolute dismissal. “All right,” John says. “A lot can happen in a year.”
“You’re not listening!” he snaps. Harry groans at them through the wall but he pays her no mind, not when he needs to focus on the lie. “The work is moving east, John. I have to follow it, it’s that simple.”
John’s face darkens. “That’s more dangerous.”
“That’s why it’s better pay.”
“You don’t even know how to fight.”
“I know how to avoid it.”
“Sherlock, you can’t waste yourself like that.”
“Oh, now you’re making decisions for me?” Sherlock demands. “You don’t think I-”
“No, I’m calling you an idiot,” John counters. “You’re-”
“Now I’m the idiot? You’re-”
“-the most brilliant man I’ve ever met-”
“-an illiterate apple-picker!”
“-and you’re going to get yourself killed for no reason!” John shouts over him.
Harry bangs on the wall, loud as thunderclaps into their sudden silence.
Sherlock is uncertain when they began shouting into each other’s faces, but they’re standing much too closely now. He takes a step back and another, and John follows. John pursues him, a torment of single-mindedness, and when the back of his legs hit the bed, John bullies him down. No space to lie across the narrow bed, he slides toward the centre, toward where sagging ropes need tightening. John is on him in an instant, straddling him, kneeling. Strong hands tug him close, press his face against a stronger chest, and this is bliss, it is bliss. All he can smell is John, his clothes, where he’s been, what he’s done. His head fills up with John, his lungs, his not inconsiderable mental faculty. He wraps his arms around John, around the small of his back, over the curve of his arse.
John’s fingers card through his hair, clutch the back of his neck. “I don’t want you to die, all right? I’ve had a fortnight to think that over.” John’s weight is warm across his thighs, the insides of his knees a firm pressure against Sherlock’s hips.
Sherlock needs closer, needs more. He presses his mouth against John’s jumper, thirsting for skin and terrified of his own lack of control. Fear slowly fades as John pets him quiet and limp.
“Not fair,” he complains, little more than a light rumble into John’s chest. He’d protest more, did not that entail the risk of John stopping. He likes the humidity his breath causes between his mouth and John’s jumper. It’s damp in a warm way, like kissing and blood.
“Serves you right,” John answers. He shouldn’t sound like that, fond and exasperated and indulgent. His fingertips massage tense scalp and Sherlock groans into him. “Master tactician of the bedroom, that’s me.”
It takes Sherlock much too long to respond. “And out of it, I hear.”
“Not bad for an illiterate apple-picker.”
Sherlock groans, this sound rife with aggravation. “You can’t tell me it’s not an issue. How am I meant to write to you once I’m gone?”
John tugs at his hair, fisted fingers that mean a smile, that mean Sherlock is meant to look up and smile back, but he can’t. He doesn’t know what John might see in his face, or worse, what he might see in John’s. The ache of the pull is lovely in its way.
“Clara can read,” John tells him.
“Limiting,” he dismisses.
“You don’t write in Anglic?”
“I won’t write anything I want your future sister-in-law reading.”
It’s a cue Sherlock hadn’t realized he was waiting for. He twines his arms tightly around John’s back, hand slipping between jumper and shirt. He doesn’t dare skin, can’t dare it. Nuzzling, rubbing his face against John’s front, he smears his scent in unmistakable claim. John’s hands shift through his hair, remaining steady as Sherlock turns his head. It’s a pointless, fruitless act he’s performing but he’d continue until the repetition cracks his neck.
“You’re the strangest person I’ve ever met,” John tells him fondly. “Not that I mind, but this is a bit odd.”
“Lunacy and brilliance, John.”
“You have both of them?”
“They’re related. It’s an expression.”
John goes on petting him for a time. It’s almost better. It’s almost very much worse. Balance giving way to strain, John sits back on Sherlock’s thighs. When John nudges their faces close, Sherlock is sure to catch him forehead to forehead. He does not, cannot trust his mouth on John.
“I should go,” he sighs. If he tried to speak with Stamford now, the pressure to stay for a solid meal would mount. Convincing a man who trusts him is one thing but deceiving an entire town is impossible. “I overslept, I’m running hours late.”
“Going to the pub with Harry can have that effect,” John answers.
“I’ll not make that mistake in the future.”
“You’re holding up well for it.” Nuzzling in, the brush and slide of noses.
“I need to go. Work.” His hand on John’s chest, pushing back.
John on his lap, dark-eyed and undecided. “Are you coming back next week?”
“And the next?”
“Three weeks from now?”
“No idea,” Sherlock admits. The words begin as fact and end as apology.
John’s eyes are terribly serious. “Can we talk about it? Before you leave.”
“Finding you better work in a safer place,” John answers.
“All right,” Sherlock agrees, easily recognizing the path of least resistance when he sees it. “Now get off my legs, I need them for walking.”
John kisses him.
Their mouths are closed but the pressure is very firm, as if John believes the touch to be some sort of argument. Not a fight, but a debate carefully calculated to win Sherlock over to his side.
Behind his lips, his teeth ache to descend. One sharp puncture, that’s all he needs.
He jerks his head away the moment he thinks it. “John, I mean it, I need to go. Get off.”
With a sound that might be an apology or mumbled frustration, John stands. “Can I walk you out?”
Sherlock stands and straightens his coat. He’s not sure how they both avoided sitting on his satchel, but they did. “You might as well,” he answers.
He has a way out, after all. A plausible way out and success in sight. Until then, why not keep John? Why not walk through town with him, holding his hand before human eyes? People smile at them as they walk, smile and approve, these people John lives with, people Sherlock knows from a night in a pub. It’s the most welcome he’s felt on this side of the gulf.
He kisses his lover goodbye at the gate and if Sherlock is restrained, so is John, if for very different reasons.
“Come back safe,” John bids him.
“Only if you miss me terribly.”
He crosses the bridge, exits the gate, and walks on. Putting Bart’s at his back brings no comfort and only slight relief. What from, he can no longer say.
“Could we, erm,” Sherlock begins as awkwardly as he can. It’s not very difficult. “Could we ease into the topic?”
Stamford’s expression is exceptionally professional and the exactly correct shade of compassionate. “Of course.”
Sherlock sits stiffly, hands between his knees. He bites his lip the way John does, distractedly, momentarily, hoping that Stamford will see the similarity. “Thank you, doctor,” he says. “So, erm, um. What sort of things do you usually, ah, see to?”
“All sorts,” Stamford replies. “I’ve always been something of a general practitioner, though I met John during my stint as a field surgeon. Nowadays, things are much calmer, thank god.” His tone is very much designed to put Sherlock at his ease. He’s quite good. Sherlock is reminded of Molly’s late father.
“So you see to patients on Bart’s and on either side of the river? That must be quite the variety.”
“The west side, yes,” Stamford replies, which is what Sherlock has heard. He’s done his share of research and questioning in the east and there is no one from Euston to Montague who has ever known Stamford to make a house call. “Clara takes the east. It’s enough to know that some troubles aren’t so rare as you’d think.”
Sherlock clams up. He becomes excruciatingly awkward. It is a performance he has taken time and effort to perfect over the years.
“Of course,” Stamford continues, “there’s always some kind of illness going around. Accidents, too.”
Sherlock nods a bit, a bobbing of the head while he hunches his shoulders.
“Not much in the way of surgery now. It’s remarkable, the things that can clear up without poking holes in people or leeching them.”
“Is that why doctors aren’t called leeches over here?” Sherlock asks.
Stamford wrinkles his nose at the term of respect. “I wasn’t aware we were called that anywhere.”
“Oh,” says Sherlock. He proceeds to shut down into awkwardness yet again, worse than before. He can always escalate. There, now he also happens to be vaguely apologetic.
“At any rate,” Stamford attempts to resume, clearly intending to approach Sherlock’s stated – well, mumbled – cause for complaint.
“Are you certain Clara can’t hear us?” Sherlock interrupts.
Stamford’s reassuring smile is both practiced and somewhat strained. “Entirely.”
“Does she, um, ever. No, I mean.” He gives himself an ample moment to rephrase. “Does she ever encounter, out east, that, or do men come here and ask, or...?”
“Most choose to stop by while on other business,” Stamford tells him. “That’s very much the usual way of it.”
“You don’t ever, I don’t know, go out on request...? If someone specifically needs to talk to a man. Or does no one actually specify that?”
“I don’t go east,” Stamford says, as if this explains everything. “Now let’s focus on you for a moment, shall we?”
Sherlock is once again nervous with his hands between his knees.
“There are three major categories,” Stamford tells him. “All you need tell me is which category fits you best. You may refer to them by number if that helps.”
“There is rapidity, difficulty, and irritation.”
“To clarify: you don’t mean irritation as in anger.”
“Ah,” Sherlock replies. “No, not number three.”
Stamford merely sits there with his squinting eyes, calmly waiting. It’s quite reassuring, the fact that the human can’t fully scrutinize him.
“One and a half,” Sherlock confesses.
“One and two?” Stamford asks.
“Two followed by one.”
Stamford nods at him reassuringly. “Is this a recent development?”
“The, um. Yes.”
“Cut back. Drinking as well. That will help with number two.”
It won’t. Even as a settled adult, a modicum of human blood will be called for. No amount of neglecting his pipe will ever change that. As far as Sherlock knows. Which, in this topic, is admittedly not very far. “Is there anything else?”
There are a few other things. Most of them involve digesting solid foods. The remainder involve relaxing and keeping a positive attitude. Hardly about to work.
“And, ah. Number one?”
This information is actually rather interesting. Sherlock very much hopes it’s cross-species applicable. If it is, this is potentially the most Sherlock has ever learned about his own body in one sitting.
When Stamford finishes speaking, Sherlock thanks him. Soon after, he exits with the remains of his dignity and more valuable information than Stamford realizes he was imparting.
He never goes east? Ever?
“This is strange,” Sherlock announces.
John gives a vague hum. “You mean streets don’t end in cliffs where you’re from?”
“Hardly,” he replies, unable to keep himself from looking over the fence, from looking down the steep and rocky slope toward rock and racing water. The soil at the base of the fence has begun to crumple away, leaving small gaps under the wooden planks. Sherlock can work the toe of his boot under. He can see it on the other side of the fence, looking over. Incredible, how much vertigo one small motion can cause.
“You all right?” John’s hand is warm on his back. Which is impossible with the number of layers Sherlock wears.
It’s true all the same. Warmth blooms where John touches. It unfurls and stretches with an ache.
“I’m fine,” he answers.
They watch the water roar on seventy feet below.
“But that wasn’t what I meant,” Sherlock adds.
“Sorry, what you meant when?”
Sherlock rolls his eyes impatiently. “Being strange.”
John glances up at him, hand sliding from the small of Sherlock’s back to his hip. “Me not being a little man trapped in a gatehouse? That’s not strange, that’s normal.”
“It’s very strange.” Sherlock wraps his arm around firm shoulders. “You’re very strange.”
“Explain to me how I’m the stranger one of this pair.”
“You have a more civilian set of behaviours in town. You’re less alert, but also less distracted. You don’t seem to know which way to stand and attempt to orient yourself in a grid pattern, facing west or east.” He wants to set John in a circular room merely to see how he responds. “You’re easily bored despite the fact that there is even less to do in the gatehouse and you occupy yourself perfectly well in there. On average, you’re more demonstrative here, largely with your hands, though oral contact has noticeably decreased. You like it when people look at us and talk.” As the lighting has changed, his skin tone, hair and eye colour have also shifted slightly.
John considers this. He looks out across the river, perhaps thinking of the man burning beneath his arm, perhaps simply regarding the sunset. At last, John says, “You mind, don’t you?”
“No, I like differences.” He likes John. “Differences are interesting.”
“You don’t like people talking about us.”
“John, I don’t like people, full stop.”
“Sherlock,” John warns lightly.
“I don’t. I don’t like groups. Membership in a crowd changes the behaviours of the individual members. It’s unsettling. You can’t truly know anyone you only know in a group.” Social pressure and expectation are their own kinds of glamour.
“You’ve read things about this, haven’t you?” John asks. “Books and those little pamphlets.”
John does that thing with his mouth, that thing where he doesn’t move it, but his eyes change every meaning within its gentle curves. John is saddened and determined, neither fiercely but still enough to provoke action. “Did you like the pub last week?”
“It wasn’t terrible.”
“Then come with me tonight.”
“Stamford told me I shouldn’t drink,” he answers, pre-emptively cutting off that avenue toward disaster. “Also not to smoke, but dropping both at once is ridiculous.”
“Why was this?” John asks, watching the side of Sherlock’s face rather than the sunset. His motion more protective than motivated by the creeping chill, John presses a bit closer. “I thought your follow-up chat was about me.”
“Not everything is about you, John.”
John’s eyes widen. “Your stomach?” he asks, body turning to face Sherlock entirely. His free hand brushes across Sherlock’s front to rest lightly over his abdomen. The gesture is one of the utmost care, jarringly reminiscent of a father and his unborn child. John’s thumb circles there on his coat, every motion meant to soothe, subtle movement performed without conscious thought. “Is it getting worse?”
“No, that’s not- No. That’s all diet, I have that well in hand. We spoke about the other problem.”
“The other- oh.”
The intent behind John’s position shifts. Already wrapped in John’s arms, already standing with a deliberate hand hidden against his front, Sherlock feels it instantly. What’s more, he scents it on John. “Stop it,” Sherlock hisses. “We’re in public.”
“You still want to, then?” John asks, voice low. “With me.”
“Not in public.”
“This isn’t inappropriate.” John, terrible John, drops his mouth to Sherlock’s thoroughly clothed shoulder. “If it was inappropriate-”
“Were. If it were inappropriate. Honestly, John, your native tongue-”
“If it were inappropriate,” John continues on, “I would be doing it under your coat-”
“You really ought to stop talking, you have no idea how to do it-”
“Maybe with my hand, maybe on my knees. Probably on my knees-”
“People can hear you speaking poorly, you ought to stop-”
“Could take you in my mouth, I’d stop talking then. Or do you want me to keep talking, I can never remember. I could do either, might be dark enough to hide if we duck behind the woodpile. Can’t pick, though. I love the way you wake up on my tongue, but if I have that, I can’t tell you how much I love the way you tug on my arm when I’m touching you. So should I talk or stop talking? You’re the clever one, I’m sure you can tell me what to do.” He presses against Sherlock’s side, growing hard against his hip, delicious heat.
Sherlock pushes him back. Pushes him directly to the side, one hand firm against John’s chest, wavering on John’s chest. “You should stop. Right now.”
John holds up his hands and takes a step away and folds his hands behind his back and straightens his jacket and folds his hands behind his back a second time.
“Too much,” John says. “That was too much. That was wildly inappropriate, I’m sorry.”
“Three weeks,” Sherlock replies. He buries his hands deep in his pockets.
“Since I nearly killed you, I know, too soon. I am so sorry.”
“I want to kick your legs out from under you, pin you to the ground and fuck you until you’re hoarse,” Sherlock tells him flatly, cheeks blazing. “And you would go hoarse. Begging, praising, shouting my name; I’m not picky. Not as long as it involves you on your back.”
It takes him a moment, but John does manage to close his mouth.
“All right,” John says as Sherlock tries to duck his head and hide in the folds of his own scarf. “Yes. We can, yes, we can do that. That is a fantastic plan, and I approve of it. Once Harry finishes in her workshop, we can lock her out of there for the night.”
“Three weeks,” Sherlock restates.
“You mean since we’ve had each other,” John reasons. “Because I don’t think Harry would like being locked out for three weeks.”
“I mean,” Sherlock says, dropping his voice low, practically a growl, “it’s been three weeks. Since anything.”
John’s brow furrows. “You mean... at all?”
Facing the fence, his shoulders hunched and his fists pocketed, Sherlock nods.
It’s grown darker as they’ve spoken. Where their shadows once fell, firelight now reaches. The wind is ever colder and the water below continues to roar.
“Oh god,” John realizes.
Sherlock looks at him sharply.
“After the war,” John explains, more concerned than uncomfortable, “for the first while, I, well. Nothing happened. I didn’t want much to happen then, but it wasn’t happening.”
“Meaning that, sometimes, if you’re frightened enough, it just... goes away. I don’t know if that’s what’s happened here, but- You’re smiling.”
Sherlock is, quite widely.
He can’t seem to stop.
“John,” he says, nearly laughing the name, “that is far from the issue. This nuisance I have would greatly prefer to bother you instead.”
John nearly laughs as well. “Don’t call him a nuisance, it’s rude. I’m very fond. And he can bother me whenever he decides to get around to it.”
“‘He’? John, we’ve been over this.”
“Well, he’s definitely not a ‘she’,” John tells him, absolutely serious.
“It’s an ‘it’.”
John purses his lips for a moment, eying him. Finally, he concludes, “I don’t think you’re quite normal, sometimes.”
A noise not unlike a giggle escapes Sherlock’s mouth.
And another, this from John.
Sherlock controls himself, is entirely in control, and then John has the poor sense to take a pointed glance at Sherlock’s crotch. All dissolves into laughter.
They settle into sighs and chuckling after a time. It could be a short time, but his stomach hurts and his grin aches. John grins back at him, so inexplicably essential. They each hold the other’s arm in the attempt to remain upright and steady.
“People are staring at us,” Sherlock informs him. It’s true. The few on the lamp-lit street, a few more from windows; there is no such thing as true privacy here. It’s all that keeps Sherlock’s need in check and John’s neck unbloodied.
“I know,” John says, jubilant, and waves at his neighbours with his free hand. “I know what they’re saying too.”
“Mm, yeah. ‘That John Watson and his gorgeous bloke, what happy lunatics.’”
Sherlock can’t breathe. He can’t do anything but smile helplessly, consciously holding his teeth in.
John stands close. His mouth is soft and fond. His eyes are bright in the growing dark. His hand on Sherlock’s arm is not a tether to hold him or pull him near, but the warm assumption that the distance between their bodies could never be relevant.
“I still say your language is idiotic,” Sherlock tells him. Only argument can stand in the way of kisses when John looks like that.
“This from the man who calls his cock a nuisance,” John counters.
“It is a nuisance.”
John shakes his head disbelievingly. “Trust whatever Mike tells you and you’ll soon say differently.”
“Why, is that his area of expertise?”
“No, but he’s a good doctor,” John tells him. “Practically brought me back from the dead.” He wears his little smile, the one that indicates truth and understatement has been made into a joke. It’s possibly the expression of John’s that Sherlock watches for the most. The words it accompanies are unfailingly important, yet imparted as if meaningless.
“He’s really that good?”
“Then what’s he doing this close to the edge of Mayhew’s territory?” Sherlock asks, certain to look confused rather than inquisitive. “He said he used to work for the man. A lord like Mayhew doesn’t let a useful tool escape without a fight.”
“Ah,” John says. “That’s one of the local pickles.”
Sherlock frowns. “Is that a food-based idiom?”
“What? Oh, sorry. It’s political manoeuvring on both sides.”
“On Mayhew’s or Stamford’s?”
“Lord Bryant’s,” John answers. “The river’s their border. Still fighting over it, but it’s political now. I mostly ignore it, these days. Not so exciting without anyone getting cut up over it. C’mon, it’s getting cold out. Let’s head in.”
“You mean there are treaties in progress?” Sherlock asks, slipping his gloved hand down into John’s. He follows where John leads him. “I thought those were decided four, five years ago.”
“They were, but it’s still politics with Mike and Clara.”
“Clara services the east and Stamford the west, I know that, but why the divide?”
“Clara’s just got a bit caught up in it, but Mike’s been stationed here deliberately,” John tells him. “And you can call him ‘Mike,’ you realize, that is allowed. The man who saved my life and my, well. You. You two ought to be on a first-name basis.”
“He’s a doctor. It’s respectful,” Sherlock assures him. “But why here? Putting a doctor at a border – why announce his expectations of further bloodshed that way?”
“That’s not it, actually,” John says, sounding surprised. “It’s more like posturing. I mean, Clara’s good, don’t get me wrong, but she’s still learning. The Stamford family has been producing doctors for generations and apparently, the Mayhews have always had one on hand.”
“One of those Stamfords?” Sherlock asks. “Out here?”
“It’s a bit lunatic,” John agrees. “Common enough name, I can see how you missed it.”
Sherlock flaps his free hand at him. “Let me work the rest of it out.”
John’s reply is in the squeeze of his fingers, the circling of a thumb.
“Stamford’s on the edge of Mayhew’s territory to demonstrate Mayhew’s superiority to Bryant’s followers,” Sherlock determines. “He’s better than their own physicians, they come to him, and they see how Mayhew is providing for his own people. A seed of civil unrest for Bryant and no great loss for Mayhew. And that’s why Michael Stamford in particular: send the one with the poorest eyesight, much less a waste of a surgeon.”
“I don’t know about that last part,” John says, “but that’s most of it.” Regarding Sherlock out of the corner of his eye, he looks proud.
Sherlock loves John’s pride in him. He absolutely adores it.
“Shall I tell you the rest of it, then?” Sherlock asks.
“Stamford and Clara see to the sides of the river from which they were born, which is ostensibly the reason for the divide. The official reason that everyone knows,” he says, speaking quickly and working it out as he does. “The unofficial but nevertheless real reason is that Stamford is too well-associated with Mayhew, or would be if people trust their urge toward name recognition. For Stamford to venture regularly into Bryant’s territory would smack of infiltration, if not espionage. Mayhew giving protection to those outside his own territory, at any rate.”
It will have to be a quick journey when Sherlock gets the doctor out of Bart’s. The doctor is a good man and Sherlock would rather not force that level of ramification upon him. Besides, it would probably upset John. Which would be quite terrible as John presently looks very pleased indeed.
“I love watching you do that,” John tells him.
“Good. What did I miss?”
John grins a little. “Just the one thing.”
“Oh?” He’s ready for another laugh. The laughing helps diffuse the urge toward public indecency.
John’s grin fades. “It’s not actually very funny.” There it is, the understatement.
Sherlock has no trouble appearing concerned. “How not funny?”
“All that mess you just described? Actually happened about three... three and a half years ago, yeah, it was in the spring,” John says. “Bryant took poorly to it. It was settled fairly quietly. I only know about it because of Clara. She says most people don’t realize how serious it was.”
“Stamford’s been banished from the east,” Sherlock realizes.
“On pain of death,” John confirms. “It’s a bit ridiculous.”
Sherlock stops walking. John’s hand slides out of his before John stops as well and tries to catch at him. Sherlock doesn’t let him.
“A bit,” Sherlock repeats.
“How is ‘on pain of death’ a ‘bit ridiculous’?” he demands. “How can that- How can that be normal to you?”
“Well, no, it’s not like it happens often-”
“Who banishes that way? John, there are better ways. Not simply less beheading but no beheading at all. Can you imagine that way of life or is that too foreign a concept?”
“What the hell are you on about?” John asks, staring at him, quizzical and injured around the edges.
“Nothing,” Sherlock snaps. He knows quite well they’re being stared at. He’s always being stared at, a curiosity in front of so many humans who all realize he’s different from them without understanding why. “Nothing, ignore me. My nuisance is making me irritable.”
The lie is bald and plain enough to make the very attempt offensive. John clearly takes it as such. Watching the human force down his anger and frustration is very much a remarkable sight.
“Is that no to the pub, then?” John asks, expression bland. He looks tired enough that it couldn’t be worth fighting him.
Sherlock sighs. “You go.”
John shakes his head. “I see them every day. I see you once a week.” He says the words so simply, so logically.
“Yes.” Snippy. Unable to hide it.
John nods, then walks away in a new direction. The way back to Harry’s house.
Sherlock keeps close.
On the next street, he takes John’s arm and holds onto him tightly.
John nods once, just the once, and tucks their hands into his jacket pocket.
When they reach it, the house is empty but still warm, the fire banked. John tends to it.
John watches the fire.
Sherlock stands. Crosses into the backroom and finds his way about by feel. He may nearly stab himself in the dark. He finds his satchel by scent and removes the missive by feel. He can’t take the second page into the other room. John will recognize the diagrams. The gatehouse and the bridge are too plain.
He returns to the front room. John doesn’t look up. He is seated before the fire. He has not moved.
Sherlock crosses to the ring of firelight and stands on the edge. He holds the missive in plain sight. He reads it. The challenge. The dare.
The phrasing and the tone are all correct. A game, the letter tells him. Solve this puzzle and play an even greater one. Go to the town which cannot be entered. Fetch this man. How far can he be brought east? Success will be counted in miles.
This isn’t innocent. This is no joke, no prank. He’d been blinded with eagerness to believe so.
He rereads the letter, as if the meaning could have shifted, as if words on paper are the contents of a jostled bag.
It remains the same, exactly as he has memorized it.
He folds the paper into thirds and looks into the fire. He waits for John to ask him what is wrong. He formulates several passable lies.
Rather than ask, John quietly tells him, “I’ve never seen paper burn. I’m almost certain of it.”
Sherlock closes his eyes. Light shines red and flickering against them all the same. He opens them.
He takes two steps forward and runs his hand through John’s hair. It shines in firelight: straw and wheat and gold, mingled and woven. No regard for order, not order as Sherlock sees it, but nevertheless neatly cut.
“Shall I indulge you?” he asks.
“Please,” John requests, calm and soft beneath the crackling of fire.
Sherlock steps forward and stoops. The corner of the folded paper catches. Withdrawing it from the fire, he cups his hand around the small flame. He returns to John. Small red flame shrivels the paper, shrivels itself into a blue burning edge. Words vanish letter by letter in small blazes of green, precise flourishes of penmanship and ink truly erased.
The fire fails halfway through and he returns to the hearth to finish it. Again, he holds it before John, showing him the glowing black curves of paper, the thin trail of smoke from its edges. The glow is so very slight. He breathes the scent deep into his lungs. He singes his fingers.
With the ashes gathered in his hands, he returns to the fire and tosses them in. His fingers are sooty. He rubs them together. The soot merely smears.
He sits down where he is and leans back until his shoulders touch John’s knees. He closes his eyes to heat and wavering light.
Steady, ever-steady, rough hands thread through his hair. Strong palms cradle his head. John, leaning forward, slowly crushes curls beneath his lips. A solitary kiss presses true.
“That was very nice,” John thanks him, ordinary words shaped by breath. “Almost like leaves.”
There is no reply that is not false, or inadequate, or entirely too true.
He settles against John’s shins, every inch of him a fool.
“You still haven’t asked.” His words are a quiet utterance into the dark, quiet enough not to wake John should he be sleeping.
A motion as slow as his sigh, John’s arm tightens about his waist. Short legs shift beneath the blankets, not quite fitting behind his. “D’you want me to ask?” John mumbles against the back of his neck. His breath sends a shiver through Sherlock’s skin that is quick to fade. That new piece of Sherlock, that unthinking, needful nuisance of desire, it seems to have died, or vanished. He has no appetite for John’s blood or flesh, merely for his voice and solidity.
Sherlock shakes his head, hair scraping against the pillow, brushing against John’s face.
John presses a kiss to his nape. “Then sleep.”
In the cramped space of the bed, Sherlock rolls over. He’s careful, aware of his elbows and John’s injured shoulder. Though John has never said, the muscle and bone ache when cold. John’s face is little more than a shape in the dark. The curve of the mattress and confident arms keep Sherlock close.
“How are you not curious?” Their noses brush. Breath between their mouths.
“I’m always curious about you. I don’t mind wondering.”
“How can you not mind?” Sherlock demands in a whisper. “That isn’t possible.”
John sighs. “No one sleeps until you stop wondering, is that it?”
He listens to John thinking in the dark. If he could draw the thoughts from his mind, he would. If he could open John up and catalogue the innumerable contents, the hidden and the plain, he would.
John’s left hand leaves his back, shifting instead to his shoulder. That palm trails down his arm until fingers thread through his. John brings their hands into the small space between their chests, between their breath.
“The first part of you I saw was your hand,” John tells him. “No one has hands like yours, Sherlock. Not even Andrew – Young Mayhew – he has a swordsman’s hands. They’re a bit like Mike’s, but not much. I see a lot of hands in my job. Yours are different.”
“I told you,” Sherlock insists. “Our second night together.”
“You’re running from some southern lord,” John summarizes. “Or banished. I’d say banished, after tonight.”
They’re quiet for a time.
“What else?” Sherlock asks.
“If I had to run from Mayhew, I know I’d be frightened too,” John answers. “If I had to learn another language while I was at it, I’d be useless. If I ended up unarmed somewhere violent, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Sherlock says nothing. He brushes his thumb across John’s fingers, the motion small yet continuous.
“I’m sure I’d look a bit odd. Doubt I could control my temper. I try, but sometimes it.... I don’t think I’d do it as well as you do. Half the time, you’re the most ridiculously sheltered man I’ve ever come across. You’re constantly living in your head, you have no idea what’s reasonable or safe, and you’re probably going to wind up bleeding out in a ditch somewhere, the way you go on.”
John presses impossibly closer as he speaks, eyes shut tight, brow against brow.
“And the other half of the time,” John whispers.
He says no more. There is no more to say, everything in those few hoarse words.
Their hands clench, fingers locked. It aches well.
“Four-fifths,” Sherlock replies.
“You’re four-fifths of the time.”
John’s lips are no different than they were for their last kiss. Nevertheless, it feels as if they ought to be. When they breathe into each other, it feels as if they are.
“I wanted to take you to the pub tonight,” John murmurs. “You-”
“I hate being shown off,” Sherlock snaps immediately, recoiling involuntarily. “I loathe it, don’t you ever-”
“Quiet,” John says, not a command but a statement of what John wants, and Sherlock becomes it instantly. “That’s not- It is a little, but that’s not the point. I’ve done some asking. It’s not much on Bart’s, but there are other things in the west. There are universities in the capital. And moneylenders, those always need a scribe and a sword hand. There’s all sorts of bookwork, I hear, not only arithmetic. Translation. Travel-writing, that’s always popular, everyone loves those.
“There’s always a merchant or two on their way through town. They’d do better telling you what there is,” John continues, speaking more quickly each time Sherlock comes close to interrupting. He presses their joined hands into Sherlock’s stomach, a restraining near-tickle that stops his breath. “But there are possibilities, all sorts, and they’re safer than going out east. I know you’re worried about being pinned down, but you could manage it somehow. You could invent your own job if you had to. You could be a wandering scholar, make people pay to listen to you.
“You wouldn’t have to worry about your southern lord. There’s that, too. Lord Mayhew knows my face, he approves of my bolt-catching abilities. That’s enough of a connection to have some pull. We could go to Young Mayhew for a spot of patronage if that doesn’t make you too leery. Andrew’s a better man than most and the life-debt doesn’t hurt.
“It would still be strange for you, I can’t say it won’t be. But it could be safe and steady work. You could be doing something that deserves you,” John tells him. “Less boredom, you’d like to be less bored.”
“You’re asking me to run away with you,” Sherlock summarizes. His voice is as flat as his body is tense.
“No,” John says, a comforting word. “I’m saying there’s good work in the west for someone like you, there’s decent work for someone like me, and sharing a bed does wonders for the rent.”
“John, that’s not feasible.”
“They’re possibilities, not a plan.”
“They’re still not feasible,” Sherlock groans, eyes tight shut, brow pressed to John’s. “We can’t live together. We can’t be around each other all the time, it would be terrible.”
“Worse than none of the time?” John asks.
“I’ve known you nine weeks. We’ve never been together for more than two days at a time.”
John presses closer, the warmth and strength of his body a compelling, flawless argument. “And you don’t want to change that?”
Sherlock kisses him, a hard, silencing press. “Stop talking. You need to stop talking.”
John threads a hand into his hair and kisses him back, slow and soft and calming. “I’m not asking for forever,” he states. “I’m asking for longer than nine weeks. I want to know you better.”
“You don’t,” Sherlock stresses. “Trust me, you don’t. John, that would end terribly.”
“Or you could get bored of me,” John counters. “I know there are risks.”
“That’s not the issue. We can’t just go off and live together. I know it’s difficult for you, but you could at least try not to be an idiot.”
“You could try not to be a prat, but I don’t see that happening either,” John counters. “Which is fine, by the way. I’m from a family of shouters, I know how to live that way.”
“John, I cannot live with you.”
“That’s fine. Could you live near me?”
“You could,” John reasons from his silence. “More expensive, not splitting the rent, but that’s fine.”
“It’s not,” Sherlock tells him. “You think you want more, but you don’t. You need to believe that.”
The glamour spills from his mouth, too much force and belief to be restrained. The words ring in the air. They twist against John’s mind.
“I know I want more,” John says, and that is terrible, that is terrifying. John’s conviction is ironclad. His will is incredible, his certainty magnificent. “If you want more, we should have more.”
“You tried to slit my throat.”
Though true, it feels a weak excuse. How these words fail as a line of defence is a mystery. Perhaps it’s his sulking tone. Perhaps it’s the way his hands tether John close.
Or, perhaps, it’s the sincerity of John’s apologies, the helplessness the human feels. John believes himself at the mercy of his own damaged mind and this too is Sherlock’s fault. Telling him the truth is otherwise could get Sherlock killed, and John as well now that all of Bart’s knows they’re together. Everything is Sherlock’s fault and John is carrying his guilt.
“Can’t believe you still trust me,” John admits. “I barely still trust me.”
“You’re predictable. You do what’s right, you-”
“Hurting you isn’t right.”
“-have your duty and you do it.”
John shakes his head against the pillow. “Some of my duties haven’t been right. A lot of them, Sherlock. My best skill is killing people.”
“You’re still fundamentally a good man.”
“You were frightened of me,” John tells him and all Sherlock need do is agree. Yes, Sherlock was frightened and yes, that is why he cannot run away with him.
“Yes,” Sherlock says.
The moment was vulnerable and harsh, but Sherlock had handled him. Sherlock knew him so well, played him so expertly that John still believes Sherlock’s unglamorous words over his own senses. It’s a triumph and Sherlock hates that he can only feel failure.
John sits up. The blankets shift further as John draws his legs beneath him, but the human remains in the narrow bed rather than climb out of it over Sherlock. Cold seeps between their bodies. Peering through the dark, Sherlock can determine the hunching curve of his back. John sits with his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. Sherlock watches him, uncertain of where to touch or what to say.
“I was going to be better than him,” John tells him quietly. “I meant to be. I’m sorry.” It’s matter-of-fact, no begging in the dark. The words are as steady and sincere as they are mystifying.
“Better than whom?”
John looks at him, which is worth something. Even so, his face is lost to shadow.
Sherlock sits up to shiver in the cold. His hands hover before his arms wrap around John, binding the man against his chest with bone and sinew. John is still and stiff, as if the air has frozen him. “Better than whom?” Sherlock repeats. Rage kindles and grows closer to a blaze with each moment of silence. Who else has hurt his soldier?
“The man who had you,” John answers. He’s tense and almost tentative and it makes no sense.
“John, I don’t know what you’re talking about-”
“We don’t have to talk about it. It’s fine, I sorted it out on my own-”
“What do you think you know?” Sherlock demands.
“You can suck a cock like that but you didn’t know how to kiss,” John tells him. “You don’t know what to do when I tell you you’re brilliant or gorgeous. God, Sherlock, when you come, you look surprised. Even an idiot can put that together.”
“An idiot can put it together incorrectly, yes,” Sherlock agrees. “I like cock, I like to be spoken to, and with my condition, yes, achieving release is surprising. It’s fine. I’m fine. Stop being upset, we were meant to be sleeping hours ago.”
John is silent within his arms. Though easily infolded, he sits somehow unclaimed.
“We’ll talk about this in the morning,” Sherlock tells him. “If we truly must, which we don’t.”
They sit in silence. John lifts his hand and his fingers thread through Sherlock’s.
“You could go west without me,” John says at last. “It’s a better place, Sherlock. Less dangerous.”
“If I wanted less dangerous, I wouldn’t be in your bed. If you wanted less dangerous, you wouldn’t man the eastern gatehouse. You’re keeping your post. I’m going east. And south, once I can afford it.” He still has Irene’s ring. If he finds the right ship, the right captain, that will have sufficient clout.
John turns his face, searching for him in the dark. “You’re right,” John says, words without any sense of agreement. “We should be sleeping.”
Sherlock nods. He lies back and nudges forward, and John holds him with exquisite, painstaking gentleness until Sherlock huffs against his shoulder. Then the grip tightens, changes into the steady ownership they ought to have over each other.
Slowly, out of nothing more than fading endurance, John does not hold so tightly, nor Sherlock clutch. John pets his hair, his last resort of calming. Sherlock hums, a gentle thrum of glamour, and John drifts down. His hand remains curled at Sherlock’s nape.
Sherlock closes his eyes and breathes deep the scents of the room before he moves, carefully extricating himself from sleep-heavy arms. Even with John present, the soiled handkerchief is easily found within the blankets, and John does not stir as he searches. Success is a relief when there can be no other attempts. Sherlock rises from the bed to tuck his prize away into his satchel. There have been stranger mementoes.
Cold alone, he’s quick to return beneath the blankets. Knowing well his touch, John’s body reaches for him. Steady, seeking hands welcome him home.
They fight in the morning.
They fight a great deal in the morning.
By mid-afternoon, Sherlock has locked himself into a cramped inn room in Montague.
By evening, he regrets it.
Now beta read by arcsupport as well as Seiji.
By the time you receive this letter, I will be but a few weeks from you. Though my time here has been very educational, I have found that I cannot gain admittance into Jim’s circle. Without that contact, I fear there is little more that can be gained here. The climate is very unsavoury and will only turn worse as winter approaches.
I plan to set sail within two weeks upon another ship transporting livestock. I am doing so unaccompanied and by now it is much too late for you to forbid it. I am also doing so with the greatest complaints and reluctance, so you needn’t chastise me: I will regret the decision soon enough of my own doing. Still, I will be of use and will not go hungry during the journey.
As of yet, I am uncertain where next to go. Irene Norton may have further suggestions, though I do hope they prove more fruitful than Jim Moriarty has proven. We may wish to see her before forming other plans. Failing that, we might winter at the Trevor estate. I have not seen Victor in a great while and would be appreciative of his friendship. The guidance of his father has also proven invaluable in the past.
Regarding the contents of my last letter, John and I have since reconciled over the incident. At present, we each believe ourselves to be in the wrong. This is particularly unfortunate as the blame lies squarely on my shoulders.
It will not surprise you to learn we resumed quarrelling almost immediately following our reconciliation. He has expressed concern at my leave-taking. I have expressed certain other sentiments. Perhaps I should not have. He has made me welcome in his sister’s home on several occasions. Further hospitality was put forward. I rejected it. I may have been firmer than necessary.
Since then, I have put my remaining affairs here in order. I run errands for a variety of people here and have been responsible in notifying them of my impending departure. In that, at least, I believe you would be proud.
Provided the weather permits it, I intend to make my goodbyes to John tomorrow afternoon before journeying south to Euston. I have stayed in that town before and know a place where I will be welcome.
Reviewing what I have written, I realize this is a very stiff letter. Please do not worry. I am nervous about the voyage, though I know it will be fine.
When next you hear from me, it will be in person. I look forward to it greatly. I hope you recall all you wrote in your response to my last letter, as it is unlikely I will ever receive it. Moreover, I hope you are well.
Ever your dear boy,
The next day, the weather does permit it. Sherlock spends the morning debating the issue with himself before the clouds break. With overcast skies giving way to blue, Sherlock leaves Montague for the last time.
The walk, already long, grows longer as his thoughts race ahead. He knows what is wise to say, knows what he wants to say, but is uncertain of what he ought to say. He’s uncertain of what to ask for or to offer. He walks with his hand checking the weight at his hip, the borrowed blade.
Though his stride is steady and unfaltering, his mind wanders, lost among dreams. The thought of the dreaded ship voyage turns into a trap of possibility, of John holding him against the rocking of the waves.
“We’ll go to the south,” he could tell John. Instruct him to pack up and follow, and perhaps John would. And if John followed, Sherlock could say to him, “There’s something about me you ought to know.” And if John followed him still, they could cross the gulf together. They could travel together, protected by John’s sword and Sherlock’s glamour. They could tell stories and answer riddles and stand much too closely. They could find a way to fix Angelo.
Until that cure, it would be difficult to explain John to Angelo, but Sherlock has roughly two months to think of something, possibly longer. It’s only the nature of the relationship they’d have to hide, not Sherlock himself. For all Sherlock’s body has learned to crave, it has yet to give overt signs of his newfound maturity. The fuzz on his cheeks has been mistaken for dirt more than once. As much as he hates it, Sherlock can remain in his in-between state some time longer. He’s already gone without release for nearly four weeks – resisting temptation now is almost easy, at times.
“Come with me,” he murmurs to himself, practicing. What way to phrase it best, what way to begin?
He thinks, and he thinks, and the longer he does, the more his ideas fall apart. In the end, there is only one feasible direction to take. Goodbye is a simple word, though not easily said.
He knocks on the door and offers his hand.
John takes it and holds it.
Sherlock’s throat closes as the door opens.
“So this is goodbye, then,” John says. There is no question in his voice, or in his eyes. Neither is there pleading. There is a firm counteroffer, one John already knows will not be accepted.
John nods as well.
They look at the boots of the other, one pair dusty, the other scuffed.
“I’m away to the coast,” Sherlock tells him. “I’m going home. My father isn’t well – he needs me.”
“Will you make it in time?”
“It isn’t life threatening. Merely... difficult.”
They watch each other’s eyes.
“Are you leaving from Waterloo?” John asks. “Taking a boat down the river is faster than walking to the gulf.” The obvious words fall flat.
“Yes. It’s a two-day walk from Euston, if I leave there early tomorrow morning.”
“Do you have enough for the fare?”
“If I don’t, I’ll manage something.” He always does.
“Tomorrow morning from Euston?”
“Early. With dawn, yes.”
John’s hands are deliberate in their lack of motion. They do not hang at his sides. They are placed there. They are kept there.
“It’s early afternoon yet,” John remarks.
“It is,” Sherlock agrees.
“I imagine you’ve been walking for hours already.”
“Would you like to sit down?”
John steps back, permitting him entrance, demanding his entrance. Sherlock steps through expecting securing hands and hard kisses. John gives him nothing of the sort. After bolting the door, John takes his satchel and his coat. John sits at the table and Sherlock sits at the table, the piece of furniture between them. Their feet do not touch beneath it.
“How’s Harry?” Sherlock asks.
“Harry’s fine.” John folds his hands on the table.
Sherlock watches him do this.
“She and Clara had another fight.”
“No,” John agrees. “Bit sad how two people can spend so much time shouting.”
“Some people are meant for shouting.”
“No one’s meant for only shouting. Other things are good too.”
Sherlock concurs quietly.
“I’ve had a long time,” John continues, “watching them do that. Told myself I wouldn’t make those mistakes.”
Sherlock says nothing.
“More difficult than I thought it would be.”
“John,” Sherlock warns. There are other words which ought to follow the first. John’s matter-of-fact tone has scattered them away. Sherlock will find them nonetheless.
He finds them, considers them, and discards them.
Instead, he says, “I have paper in my satchel.”
John blinks at him, his first uncontrolled motion.
“I brought it with me for correspondence, but as that is no longer particularly relevant, I can spare some for alternative uses.”
“Are you going to set more of it on fire?” John asks.
“No.” He’s already burned the other page of Moriarty’s missive, the potentially incriminating diagram of Bart’s eastern bridge. It is currently no more than meaningless ash. “I have a pencil and I thought-” here he hesitates, too consumed in refusing to hesitate “-I thought I might draw you.”
“You want to draw me?”
“Unless you object.”
“I don’t,” John says. His words are quick. “I don’t object.”
Sherlock’s mouth imitates a smile. His body rises and fetches the pencil and paper from his satchel. His legs return him to his chair. The pencil tip has broken. Sherlock draws the knife to correct this.
John watches him, all eyes.
With the pencil sharpened and shavings on the table, Sherlock pauses. He returns the knife to the sheath at his waist, seeking John’s permission. It’s there, present in John’s face although Sherlock could not name the shape of it.
“How should I sit? Or stand?” John asks. “I’ve never done this before.”
“How would you like me to best remember you?”
The words are thought and spoken in an instant. They fall for slow seconds, then crash to the floor as John’s chair scrapes back.
The gatehouse is too small. The space between them is nonexistent and John rids them of even that. Tugged close and tight, his face pressed into worn cloth and hard buttons, Sherlock reacts without thought, too well-trained by his lover’s scent. His arms wrap around John’s waist, enclose him, bind him, seize him.
“Like this,” John answers, breath forced from his chest.
“I meant visually,” Sherlock manages to say. “I’m staring at your buttons. Not a very good drawing, John.”
“Are you insulting my buttons? Don’t insult my buttons, Sherlock, that’s rude.”
One of them makes a sound like a laugh. One of them makes a sound that is very different.
“Sit down,” Sherlock tells him. “I want you in my lap.”
“I know, it doesn’t matter.”
The legs of the chair scrape against the floor. John sits, arm around his shoulders, thighs across his thighs, their legs perpendicular. They hold one another at an angle.
Sherlock buries his face against John’s neck, enough thought left in his head to marvel at their proximity, at himself. His body still wants skin and touch. He still yearns, desperately so. This need for John and the warmth of his hands and breath and eyes, this need consumes utterly. This need is different and separate from desire, a tragedy rather than a nuisance. He does not think to bite.
“I know,” John is saying. His hand cups Sherlock’s nape. “I know.”
“I want,” Sherlock says, and stops.
“No. I’ll sound like a child.”
“Tell me anyway,” John insists, cradling his head against a once-bloody shoulder. In Sherlock’s nightmares, it bleeds forever more and Sherlock begs crimson back into open veins. The difference between nourishment and hurt terrifies.
“I want to take you with me,” Sherlock confesses. He lapses into his first tongue, too distraught for foreign words. “I want to stay, and I want to run away west, and I want to go east, just to see if you’d follow me. I want to wake up with you and fall asleep with you, and in between, I want to forget you for the joy of remembering you. I want you to smell of my tobacco and I want your scent in my clothing. I want everything I cannot possibly have and it makes me want to destroy everything else.” He finishes breathing hard, looking up into John’s eyes, pressing into the hand on his cheek. “It’s all idiotic whinging and it doesn’t change anything.”
John stoppers up his words with a press of lips nothing like a kiss. “I think I followed that,” John tells him in slow, careful Anglic. “Most of that. Please don’t run away east: I don’t want to tackle you. I’m not allowed out that way.”
Sherlock answers with a strange sound. Giggles aren’t sad and Sherlock doesn’t giggle, not in any mood.
John’s forehead nudges at his. “Are you going to draw me on your lap?”
“No. Not a very dignified position for a soldier.”
“I think you’re underestimating your lap.”
He doesn’t want to smile but he can’t seem to stop. “Will you keep talking like this?” he asks and his voice makes itself quiet, as if he were shy. Complete nonsense.
“Flirting with you, you mean?”
“Of course I will, you gorgeous idiot,” John promises him. “I’d never stop flirting with you, but then I wouldn’t get to hear the staggeringly intelligent things you say in your amazing voice. I’ve been thinking of a clever way to describe it for months, Sherlock, months, and I still don’t have anything good enough. Literally as long as I’ve known you.”
Sherlock’s face feels very warm. He likes it very much.
“The moment you walked in here, I don’t know what it was. I’ve told you about your hands but it wasn’t just them. You walked in and you took up all the space in the room. You’re always doing that. I remember thinking I had to watch you, because if I didn’t, I would miss something. Didn’t even know what it was, but I knew I had to see it.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Sherlock tells him. He’s not lying.
“I know,” John says, as if this were the most brilliant star in all the corners of the sky. “And you were magnificent not doing it.”
Sherlock isn’t the man John thinks he is. He opens his mouth and says, “I still want to draw you.”
“Do I need to get off your lap for it?”
“All right,” John replies, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “As long as you see the waste of a perfectly good lap.”
Drawing John requires no less than four breaks for gate duty. They call themselves fortunate for the timing all the same, mindful that the interruptions could have come earlier. They usually time themselves much better, Sherlock arriving closer to nightfall than mid-afternoon.
“There’s the afternoon rush gone,” John concludes after the fourth. “Don’t think there’s anyone off to Euston today. Probably no more interruptions, but we’ll have to mind the time.”
“Yes, yes, I’m crushingly aware.”
John flashes him a rueful flinch of a smile. “Right, sorry. Still a few hours of sunlight left, go on.”
Sherlock doesn’t want to rush this keepsake but neither does he wish to render John still and silent. The pencil shifts awkwardly between his fingers, too long unused. After half an hour’s scribbling on one side of the paper, the lines he draws approximate the lines he sees, and he turns it over to begin. He sketches the man first, then faint guidelines hinting at corners and furniture. The room can be filled in later, its details allowed to blur. For John, he is meticulous and exacting and immensely unsatisfied at his handiwork. The image is proportionally correct and artfully rendered in grey, but John is most present in his colour, in the tan of his face and the blend of his hair. He wishes for a bit of white chalk for the shine of his eyes and the smooth hilt of his knife. He could wish for many things, but this will have to do.
“Now will you let me see it?” John asks.
“It isn’t what it should be,” Sherlock warns, sliding it toward him.
John picks it up and turns it over. His eyes catch on the image and his mouth does something odd. He looks at the depiction of a soldier seated before a fireplace, before a shuttered window, a man of shadow and light and muted strength. John looks at this as if having never seen it before. Harry doesn’t own a mirror; perhaps John is unaware of his appearance. Certainly, John would never look at a mirror the way the man in Sherlock’s drawing looks, humour lurking behind the patience in his eyes. It is less John as he is today and more John as he was that first night, a near stranger in the near dark, one man offering shelter to another.
John closes his eyes. The shape of his mouth grows strange and his nostrils flare. He looks shaken. He is shaken.
Sherlock stands, not understanding what he’s done wrong. “John?”
John hands the drawing to him, eyes still closed.
Sherlock sets it on the table, already moving around the barrier. “John, it’s hardly that bad. I can do it over.” He reaches for John’s hand. He touches John’s face. Two hands, ten fingers, one body is too limited for holding John Watson. “There’s more paper, it isn’t an issue.”
John shakes his head and lifts his face. His eyes are bright and dark, noon sky and midnight blended. He pulls Sherlock close with a fist in his shirt. He kisses as if this is his last breath, his dying hour. John kisses his lips and cheeks and jaw. His kisses are quick, so very quick, so finite in number, and they make Sherlock slow and clumsy. Chasing John’s mouth, his lips stumble across stubble. Then the capture. Then the claiming.
They force their bodies together, twisting, twining, tethering. They stagger, hips striking table, pain now, bruises to follow, and it doesn’t matter, can’t matter, John, don’t let go, don’t ever let go.
“I won’t, I won’t, come here,” John answers, gasp to gasp, kiss to kiss. “I have you, come here.” He suckles at Sherlock’s neck, pulls of lips and teeth, and his fingers fumble lower, fighting at buttons.
“You’re marking me,” Sherlock gasps, drunk on the obvious. Surely this is intoxication. His hips stutter against John’s, his soft cock against a firebrand. “John, you’re marking me.”
“You’re mine,” John insists, as if the explanation is needed, as if Sherlock has somehow never realized blatant truth. His breath blazes over the damp ache of Sherlock’s neck.
“Don’t stop.” His hand clutches the back of John’s head, forces his mouth to skin. “Harder, John, I need-!” Sharp teeth, surprisingly sharp. Tooth marks, bite marks, they’re on his skin, in his skin, as unique as any signature. “John.”
“Gonna make you come,” John promises, voice a low growl against his bruising skin. “Don’t care how long it takes, I’ll make you come. God, your face. Need to see you come. God, I need to see that again.” His fingers pull at Sherlock’s belt, draw him to the wall crotch-first, and that is the limit of Sherlock’s comprehension. He recognizes the wall as right and good – they will never make it up the ladder – and he stares at the hand around his belt buckle, the guiding, proprietary grip.
He learns by example. He shoves and presses and John goes willingly, drawing Sherlock to him as he lies against the wall as if upon a feather mattress. John lifts his reddened mouth for kisses, his unmarked neck bared, and Sherlock’s mind collapses into fantasy. He lunges in, panting against vulnerable skin, licking a patch clean with his tongue. Here, here, he’ll bite John here.
Strong fingers thread through his hair. He groans and bucks, rutting against John’s other hand, the insistent temptation against his flaccid member. “John,” he praises, keeps praising. That neck, look at it. He tongues at the pulse, seeking a spot safe for a nip. Below, he fumbles with belt and buttons and there, feel that. John blazes in his palm, within the circle of his fingers. He strokes John, pumps him, and his other hand is already prepared with an item from his own pocket, a certain handkerchief.
John’s head hits the wall, but the subsequent groan is more desire than pain. John’s head lolls to the side, to the wrong side, Sherlock has to switch sides and start anew, the angles entirely wrong.
“Let me,” Sherlock pants. “John, please, let me, John.”
John catches his mouth, kisses him. His motions are deep and ardent and everything Sherlock could wish, did he not need something wholly else. He loses himself and finds himself, moment after moment, and strives for focus. He wants kisses, but he needs to bite, requires action. He tries to break away, to return his mouth to that tender spot, but John catches him, anticipates.
Sherlock groans into his mouth, frustrated, desperate, and John stiffens with a huff of breath, relaxes with a sigh. The scent of John’s seed saturates the air. Handkerchief well-used, Sherlock drops it to the floor. He eases John’s head to the side, nuzzling and proud. A pleasant torture, John continues to work at him through his trousers. His skin feels hot and tight, exactly as his smallclothes do not.
Infinitely close to relief, he presses his open mouth to John’s skin. Slowing from its racing pace, John’s pulse greets his lips.
In the final moment between intent and mistake, he remembers himself.
Teeth bared, he stops, panting. Everything in his nature cries out to pierce, to claim, to drink thick heat and spill across his lover in turn. He can smell human release, must taste human blood. His body seeks to reject his mind. His descended fangs refuse to retract. He is tense and tight, frozen not into indecision but inability.
John freezes with him. The fingers fisted in tawny hair force his head into an awkward angle. His position is obvious. His vulnerability and Sherlock’s intent are clear.
John’s breathing is steady. His hand on Sherlock’s front is likewise. Slowly, in instinctual caution against any dangerous animal, John gradually drops his hand. His grip on Sherlock’s back is likewise relinquished, hand deliberately lowered, touching nothing in its descent toward Sherlock’s hip and the sheathed knife which hangs there, hooked to his belt.
Sherlock’s body startles away, the necessity of flight understood at last. He covers his mouth and bolts for the door, the door he can’t open quickly at the best of times. Two metal bolts and the wooden bar, he fumbles with shaking, panicked hands. He can feel every line of his back, every exposed hair on the back of his neck, every defenceless inch of himself, and John behind him.
John behind him, John cursing, John’s hand on the bar, John holding it down and saying nothing. John trapping him and saying nothing, no touch of sharp metal against his back but what’s in his hand, don’t look, don’t look, don’t breathe, don’t move, don’t threaten, John, John please.
“Open the door, let me open the door and I’ll be gone. I won’t return, I’m leaving, you know I’m leaving,” his mouth runs on without him. His forehead presses against the door, his body crowds against it, tries to fall through it. “Open the door and this never happened. You don’t need to do this, I’m not a threat to you, I’m not a threat to anyone, I only want to go home-”
“Slow down, I can hardly understand you,” John instructs.
“Please let me go,” Sherlock enunciates, conscious of his language.
“You were about to bite me.” There is no emotion left in John’s voice, absolutely none.
“A lapse of self-control. Which I regained. Let me go. It’s the only option. Think it through.”
Behind him, John says nothing. There is the faint sound of cloth and buttons, followed by the fastening of a belt. The one-handed motions take time. John does not relinquish his grip on the wooden beam. The door remains bolted shut.
Not the sword, Sherlock analyzes. That weapon is designed to slash more than it is to stab and the reach is long. The gatehouse is too crammed. The knife instead. The family knife John wears at his hip.
“Draughtsmen have glamour,” John says slowly. “Their words take over your head.”
There is no reply to this. Sherlock remembers very well the pressure of John on his back, the blade at his throat. He knows not to speak.
A touch at his back and Sherlock flinches. His entire body tenses and trembles as John lays his hand over Sherlock’s spine. Controlled breathing is beyond his capabilities.
John’s hand doesn’t move, don’t press, merely holds without gripping. Beneath it, Sherlock fights for composure.
“If you can do that,” John continues, “then why are you frightened of me?”
Sherlock closes his eyes against the door.
“I’m not immune, am I? You’ve done it before. The first time I- That day you were rained in, I realized it and you changed my mind.”
“I lied,” Sherlock corrects. “Nothing more. You wanted to believe me.”
“I did,” John agrees, voice blank. “I suppose I want to go on believing it, but that would be a bit pointless now. Are you going to turn around?”
Sherlock dares a glance over his shoulder.
John has turned himself to stone, strong though crumbling. His eyes check Sherlock’s mouth the way they scan strangers for hidden knives.
Sherlock returns his forehead against the door. He can still undo this. Tell John to back away. Tell John to open the door. Tell John to sit and sleep and wake, and tell him he dozed off while Sherlock was drawing him, tell him he had a nightmare and kiss him goodbye.
“You made me think I was going mad again, Sherlock. My sister, my friends, they all think I’m relapsing!” John shouts. His subsequent silence is just as long in its demands for explanation and answer. “You- fuck, I let you into town! What the hell did you do in there?”
“I’m a courier,” Sherlock states evenly. He can feel his voice sliding towards ire. “Mrs. Chandler had a package from her nephew. I didn’t want to talk to you after the attempted murder fiasco, so I went into town instead.”
“And last week?” John demands.
“Your idea,” Sherlock reminds him.
Another loud, harsh silence resounds. John swallows. “And with Mike? You went to talk with Mike, what was that about?”
“What I told you,” Sherlock answers.
“Sherlock, you didn’t break through security designed to kill you to talk about your cock with a doctor.”
“It’s not very good security.”
“Thanks, I hadn’t noticed the you-shaped holes in it.” John’s hand presses harder on his back, almost a shove. “If anyone else notices, I’m dead, do you realize that?”
“Then let me go,” Sherlock answers. “I vanish, never to return, and it’s a non-issue.”
“Of course it’s an issue! I’ve no idea what you’ve done, and I can’t trust a thing you say.”
“Then kill me,” Sherlock counters. “It would take a particularly thorough autopsy to prove you hadn’t murdered a human, and even then, you would face the fallout for permitting me entrance, but you would likely be allowed to live.”
“Or,” John begins and cannot continue. That quick to notice the flaw in the third option.
“Or I try to convince someone else of what you are,” John says in the voice of a man who knows a plan is doomed, “and they’ll believe you over me when you pass the holly test. Food and drink is no good when they already know you can’t handle it. If you vomit blood, that’s a result of cruelty, not proof. I’ve gone mad, you go free.” John is silent for a moment. “Damn you. Did you think of everything?”
“It came together well, but I didn’t plan it.”
They breathe in silence, barely moving.
“That feeling in my head,” John says. “The one pitching a fit about how bad a joke this is. Is that me or you?”
“It isn’t me.”
“I don’t....” John’s hand drops from his back. “You don’t fit. I don’t know what you are, but you’re something else. Not human, but.... The day I- The day you vomited, you told me about those people in the south. The land-sirens, the leeches. Is that what you are?”
Eyes closed, Sherlock tramples down relief before it can ruin him. “Yes.”
“Then you’re not a draughtsman.”
“Wrong. Same species, different culture.”
“But you’re not burning from the holly and you’re not cold – I mean, you are cold, your feet are freezing – but you’re not bloodless.”
Sherlock looks over his shoulder in confusion. “Why would I be bloodless?”
“Why drink blood if you already have it?” John asks, looking equally confused.
“Why would a nursing woman drink cow milk?” Sherlock counters.
John’s tongue catches between his lips. Slowly, it pulls back inside his mouth.
Very carefully, Sherlock fully turns around. He sets his back against the door.
“Okay,” John says. “That makes sense. What about sleeping?”
“What about it? ‘Oh, no, you snore, you must be human’?”
“You don’t snore,” John tells him. “But that’s not-” He looks away, turns his head to the side. “I mean, there’s a distinct lack of sleeping in coffins.”
Sherlock stares at him. “Why would anyone- John, we don’t even inhume our dead, we cremate.” When John blinks, Sherlock clarifies, “We burn the bodies instead of burying them.”
“You mean, they don’t turn to ash by themselves?”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“No. That was an honest question.”
“John, that was a stupid question. Do you think before you speak?”
John doesn’t reply immediately. His eyes are too busy in the strange way they fix on Sherlock’s face.
“Do you?” Sherlock demands, unnerved.
“Do you?” John counters. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Any idea at all? There isn’t a person you’ve spoken to who isn’t in danger. Me, Bill, my sister. If you’re found-”
“I’ll be killed,” Sherlock finishes for him. “On the theory that it would break any and all glamour I could have lain, I will be murdered on the spot and everyone else will be fine.”
“‘Murdered’,” John repeats.
“That’s typically what killing someone is called, particularly when they’ve done you no harm. There’s also ‘slaughtered’ and ‘butchered,’ though those have animal connotations. Those terms were coined by humans, if you weren’t aware.”
“What the hell are you here for?” John demands. “If you know how dangerous this is. You’re not an idiot.”
“There’s something here Angelo needs,” Sherlock explains, his words a rush of practicality. “I thought I could get it for him, I can’t, and now I’m going home.”
“Something in Bart’s?”
“No, in Bryant’s territory. It’s irrelevant now. I’ll find another way around it, it’s fine.”
“What is it? This thing you’re risking our lives for.”
“That’s a very long story,” Sherlock replies, “and there is very little daylight left. You can let me leave for Euston or you can throw my body into the river: choose.”
“No,” John says, his grip on the wooden bar unwavering. “I don’t have to. You’re not going anywhere. You owe me one hell of an explanation.”
“I thought you couldn’t trust anything I say.”
“I can doubt everything you say,” John tells him. “Which means you’re not making me believe you, so I still have my mind. You haven’t made me back off or fall asleep, even though you could leave then. You want to talk to me, not control me. Why?”
Sherlock can’t look at him. He closes his eyes, turns his face away. “Why are you asking that?”
“Think it’s a valid question, under the circumstances.”
“No,” Sherlock says. His voice doesn’t do him the disservice of shaking. “I mean,” he continues, his hands deliberate as they button his half-opened shirt at last, “why are you asking that?”
John’s eyes grow very wide.
Sherlock holds his ground. He tucks his shirt back into his trousers.
John gives him space. They stand facing each other, the line between their bodies parallel to the door.
“You’ve bitten me,” John says.
“You used glamour to make me forget.”
“Then why don’t I remember?” John asks. “I know it must have happened, but I can’t sort out when. While I was sleeping?”
“No. I set up a substitute experience.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
Sherlock sighs impatiently. “I told you to describe what you wanted. You believed yourself.”
“You mean the blowjobs?”
John’s eyes widen once more. Then narrow, sliding off to the side as he thinks. “Have I ever been in your mouth?”
“That’s... bit of a relief, actually. Not that it wasn’t, um.” John pauses. “You’ve quite the teeth, I mean. But I can see it. When I think about it, I can remember what it looks like. Not the biting, the....”
“You’ve an exceptional imagination,” Sherlock allows.
The kind words turn John furious. “And you’re an exceptional liar,” he retorts. “Is that how you do it, then? Go around telling people you’re sleeping with them, then have a snack?”
“I never. I did sleep with you, John, but it’s more complicated than that.”
John laughs in his face.
“You know, I remember thinking how lucky I was,” John tells him. There is nothing soft in him, his face hard and vicious. “You couldn’t get off without sucking my cock. That was all you wanted, sucking my cock, couldn’t get on your knees fast enough. I’d catch you, sometimes, staring at my crotch like you were hungry. Thought you were the best thing I’d ever seen. Remember hating myself for that, loving the way someone trained you to need it so badly. God, that’s a laugh now, isn’t it?”
“It’s biology,” Sherlock explains to his stupid, irrational lover. “You wanted to sleep with me, I wanted to sleep with you. That meant drinking.”
“That meant warping my mind and changing my memories! Very romantic, well done.”
“I stopped!” Sherlock yells. “It upset you, so I stopped!”
“I caught on and you stopped!” John accuses. His hand lands on Sherlock’s chest and shoves him back one staggering step. “I won’t thank you for that courtesy! What happens when we don’t? If we don’t notice we’re tired or that our legs have started hurting again, what then?”
“Why are you talking in a hypothetical first person plural?” His volume has dropped, low and dangerous, a tone he cannot afford and cannot prevent.
“What the fuck does that mean?” John demands.
“Why do you assume there are others? I’m not human, therefore I must be disloyal? I’ve not cheated on you, I never have.”
The declaration unsteadies John but does not stop him. “Before me, then. What about them? Did you even care what you were doing to them?”
“Before you, I was home,” Sherlock answers. “Where it does not matter.”
“How can that not matter? Biting people,” John disparages.
Sherlock points at his own neck, at where the marks of John’s lips and teeth must remain upon his skin.
“Drinking their blood.” Amending his words makes them no less of a challenge.
“Because we know what we are and we don’t kill each other for it,” Sherlock tells him. “It isn’t that difficult. There’s none of this beheading nonsense.”
“The last person you bit,” John demands. “What happened to him?”
“Her,” Sherlock corrects. “Dr. Molly Hooper. Beyond possessing an inordinate fondness for cats, I daresay she’s fine.”
“And she knew what she was in for?”
“Of course she knew, her father was my parents’ physician. The first words she said to me were ‘Can I play with your cat or will you drink him for lunch?’ We were four. Our parents decided she would be my bloodmate by the time we were seven.”
John stares at him, momentum undercut by confusion. “What does that even mean?”
“Social symbiosis. No one else is allowed to touch her, by blood or by glamour. It’s far from an unusual arrangement. The Lestrade family has been linked to mine for generations this way, eldest children together.”
“I thought you said her name was Hooper.”
“It is. Greg’s with my brother.” He doesn’t mention Erik, the political human minion. “They’ve been together for over seventeen years. No ill effects, John. Greg is a police inspector, one of the best we have. He’s far from a victim, whatever you’d like to believe. If anything, he’s a restraining influence.
“It’s fine in the south,” Sherlock continues. “I don’t know what to do when it isn’t fine. I worked around the issue to the best of my ability, but obviously that wasn’t enough.”
“‘Not enough’,” John echoes faintly. “Sherlock, you....” He rubs at his face. “God.”
“I realized that,” Sherlock admits. “Perhaps you’d consider it a belated realization, but it did occur to me.”
“People are killed here for that,” John tells him. “If you’re under glamour and the draughtsman can’t be found-”
“Can’t be killed.”
“-then they kill you instead,” John continues over him. “You put a death sentence on me for a shag and don’t tell me I asked for that.”
“I didn’t know,” Sherlock answers. “No one mentioned that until you told me.”
John frowns. “When did I tell you?”
“After our second night together. Too late to go back.”
“Early enough to stop.”
Sherlock simply looks at him.
For a long, silent moment, John matches his gaze. He is challenge and defiance. In the end, he clears his throat and looks away. “If I let you go and anyone ever finds out about you,” John says.
“I’m aware now,” Sherlock says quietly. “I can remove the glamour.”
“That won’t help.”
“All the same.”
John considers this, head tilted to the side so slightly. Unaware of his own unmarked neck. “Is the only glamour about the biting?”
“Suppose I’ll have to take your word on that.”
“If I controlled your behaviour, what would be the point of interacting with you?” Sherlock asks. “You’d be boring.”
John considers this as well. He sighs. “The things in your head, Sherlock.”
“In my head?” Sherlock repeats.
“What you think is obvious,” John says. “Bloody strange.”
Sherlock finds himself smiling faintly. “You’ve never complained before.”
“I never knew how absolutely mental you were before.” John shakes his head. “Not now, then. Don’t remove the glamour yet, do it when you leave. Hard enough talking to you reasonably without remembering the rest of it.”
Sherlock nods, sobering. “John. Um. Unless your plan is to have me walk to Euston in the dark, I don’t....”
“You’re staying for the night,” John tells him.
“It can hardly make anything worse at this point, can it?” John asks.
“No, but that wasn’t my question,” Sherlock replies. “You intend to sleep with me in this room?”
“Actually, I intend to lightly doze with me in a chair, you in the loft, and the ladder on the floor,” John answers. John is a light enough sleeper to hear Sherlock jump down onto the thresh: the gatekeeper won’t be caught unaware. “Provided you can explain yourself before dawn, that is.”
“It’s still approaching dusk.”
Sherlock’s mouth twitches. “It won’t take so long.”
Judging from John’s expression, the human thoroughly doubts that. “What happened to your long story, then? This mysterious thing you’re after for your father.”
Sherlock’s mouth twitches in another way entirely. “That has nothing to do with you.”
“And there we have it,” John concludes. “Secrecy again, lovely.”
“It has nothing to do with you,” Sherlock repeats.
“Let me think about that: the reason why you’re on this side of the continent, risking both our lives. Seems to have something to do with me.”
“I don’t have to answer you.”
“I’m aware of that, thanks. From what I understand, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, ever,” John reasons. Erroneously, very, but it’s good to see him thinking. “This entire conversation is you indulging me, I’m aware of that.”
“Don’t edge around the catch, John,” Sherlock chastises.
“You want me to not hate you,” John tells him bluntly. “You’re not going to glamour me into it. That would be cheating, or boring, or whatever the hell your qualms are. If you’re going to talk your way out of this, well. Any chance of that happening means you answer my questions.”
“And if I don’t?” he demands. “What then, you stab me and throw me in the river?”
Standing before him, John sets his jaw. He looks at his hand on the bar, at the shadow they cast on the door. Their shapes are framed in the red-hued light from the west-facing window. Their shapes are very still.
John lifts his hand. He fists and unfurls his fingers, tendons obviously tensed past simple releasing. “We both know that’s not going to happen,” John says.
“Because you wouldn’t, or because I wouldn’t let you?”
“Whatever you want to tell yourself is fine. I can hardly stop you.”
“I can’t,” John interrupts. “I don’t know what you’re so frightened of. I’m the one who’s helpless here.”
He doesn’t seem it. Even to Sherlock’s eyes, John appears anything but helpless. It’s more than the knife at his hip or the sword leaning against the wall, more than sturdy shoulders and an unwavering gaze. John hasn’t paused or slipped or stumbled. He hasn’t attacked or threatened. He rides his rage rather than grapple with it and that makes him powerful.
“Stay or go,” John tells him. “Your choice, not mine.”
Before Sherlock can tell him this, John moves. He walks away. He goes to the hearth, takes up the poker, and stirs the fire. Embers flare. His right hand buries itself deeply in his trouser pocket. The poker remains in his left, heavy iron handled as if it were a twig. John’s back is shadow. Light fades against his edges.
“You want me to leave,” Sherlock states.
John’s fingers tighten on the poker.
“You want to be left alone to process events and lick your wounds. Simultaneously, you want further information. Which would you prefer?”
John turns his head, forbidding him even a profile of his expression.
John waits longer.
“Fine,” Sherlock snaps. “There you have it, a choice of your own at last.”
The poker is remarkably steady. The tip barely wavers.
He takes the first step from the door. When John fails to react, Sherlock crosses to his coat. He takes it from its customary peg. He pulls it on, then loops his scarf around his neck. He watches John adjust his stance, keeping his back to Sherlock. The tension in his shoulders indicates a readiness for action. His head is slightly tilted, indicating intent listening. If Sherlock approaches now, John will swing at him.
Sherlock’s satchel is still open on the table. The drawing is where they set it. The pencil has rolled onto the floor. That, Sherlock abandons. The drawing, he takes care of. Another piece of paper on top, then the pair gently eased into his satchel.
“What are you doing?”
He looks up.
John holds the poker between them in a low guarding position. Unconscious, possibly. His stance is far from defensive. His face is a stranger’s.
“Leaving,” Sherlock answers. He sorts the remaining contents of his satchel to prevent folding or crunching.
“No,” John says. “What are you doing with that?”
“Keeping it.” He closes the flap and ties it shut.
“Because I dislike the thought of you burning it.” He shoulders his burden. He turns toward the door. “Goodbye, John.”
The metal bolts first, then the wooden bar. Unrushed, the process is simple once more. He lifts the bar.
“Wait. Sherlock, stop.”
“You, um.” John pauses, tongue between his lips. His eyes search the room, seeking the words he’d meant to say.
“You said you’d lift the glamour.”
“Oh.” He sets down the bar, bolts the door. The motions are habit now, etched through memory and into muscle. “You’ll want to sit down.”
For the first time, John hesitates. He looks at the table, at their chairs, and visibly refuses. He sits on the chest below the window instead. The poker balances across his knees.
Sherlock crosses to him, moving John’s chair from the table and bringing it to face him. He sits as well, watching John’s hands on the iron. John does not lean back, but he sits very tall.
“Do you need to be that close for this?” John asks.
“It helps.” Though their feet are next to each other, he’s careful not to touch John’s knees with his. “You need to listen very closely.”
John’s spine straightens, his shoulders square. He doesn’t shy away, anything but. “I could hear you fine across the room.”
Sherlock shakes his head. “Words, yes. This, no. This will require focus and concentration.”
“Focus on what?”
“I’m about to make a noise. If you can’t pick up on it, this won’t work.”
“Oh good. No pressure, then. You can’t just, I don’t know, stop it?”
“An experience is not a belief,” Sherlock instructs. “An experience begins, occurs, concludes. I can’t stop what’s already finished. This will restore your memory and alert you to every glamour I’ve lain on you. We’ll go through, one by one. It shouldn’t take long.” Perhaps if he ran to Euston, he might make it before true dark and the town gates are closed. Perhaps not.
John’s eyes track his, weighing, dismissing, wondering. His tongue peeks, vanishes. “All right,” John says. “Sure, why not. Let’s get this over with. Make that sound of yours.”
John frowns. “I don’t....”
Sherlock holds a finger before his lips and begins to hum. The resonance of glamour mounts beneath the constant tone. Slowly, frowning, John leans toward him. When Sherlock drops the glamour from the hum, John startles backward.
“Did you hear it?” Sherlock asks.
“No, but I felt it,” John accuses. “God, you can do that by humming?”
“It’s not on the hum, it’s underneath. Try again.”
They do, John swaying toward him and springing free with each attempt. At last, when Sherlock is silent, John nods. “You’re making the sound.”
Sherlock stops at once. “You hear it?”
“Not really, but I know I’m feeling it,” John replies.
“What does it feel like?” The only person who’s ever told him what his glamour feels like is Molly. There are obvious biases. Sherlock is not a purring kitten.
John shakes his head. “Just keep going.”
“Fine.” He resents the refusal and takes no pain to hide this. “Can you remember the sensation occurring before?”
“Have you even tried?”
“I’m not the one who knows what he’s doing!” A glare rather than an apology follows this outburst. “Look, I told you, just keep going.”
“Can you hear this?” Sherlock asks, cheating and not caring.
John stares at his mouth abruptly. Uncertain, Sherlock lightly bites his lower lip simply to check and, no, his teeth are still retracted.
“Did you hear it?”
“Yes,” John says immediately. This time, he doesn’t lean back. He seems to have forgotten his grip on the poker across his thighs. “Your voice, it was.... I don’t know. More? It wasn’t just your voice.”
“It was my glamour,” Sherlock confirms.
“Can you, I don’t know. Do it again without speaking?”
Sherlock does, not quite silent. It is nothing close to a noise.
Slowly, a motion as slow as the moment before a fall, John reaches. His fingertips hang in the air before Sherlock’s lips. Blue eyes question beneath a furrowed brow. His fingers dip from mouth to neck and slip beneath his scarf, a careful touch seeking vibration. Sherlock keeps breathing, his hands carefully upon his own knees. Glamour is difficult to sustain on an inhale, but he manages it.
Biting his lip, John unwinds Sherlock’s scarf. He sets it aside with the poker and returns his touch to Sherlock’s neck. He seeks. The sustained emanation of glamour begins to strain low in the throat, high in the chest, and this is where John’s hands go, his curious gaze.
“There,” John says, smiling widely. “I found it.”
Palm solid against Sherlock’s chest, the fingers of his other hand warm against Sherlock’s throat, John comes back to himself. He blinks once, then lowers his hands. He folds them in his lap. “I was concentrating,” John apologizes. His gaze rests on Sherlock’s clavicle and his tongue slowly licks his lips.
“No, it’s... fine.” Sherlock swallows, ignoring the fresh chill against his skin. “If you can identify it, then you can remember it.”
John visibly tries. “When, um. When did you begin? That first time.”
“I was about to go on my knees,” Sherlock prompts.
“Well, it’s, ah.” He looks to the side and coughs. “All a bit of a blur, after that.”
This will take much longer than he’d thought it would. Sherlock sighs and takes John’s head in his hands. He nearly has both wrists broken for his trouble.
“It’s fine,” Sherlock stresses. “This will help. Close your eyes.”
When John only stares at him, his back ramrod straight, Sherlock closes his eyes in demonstration. He can feel the moment John complies, an increase rather than a decrease of tension.
“You’re remembering. Before I knelt, I spoke. You heard me. What did I say?”
The change in John is instantaneous. He presses against Sherlock’s hands, seeking. “You....”
“That’s good, John. Think. You can find it.”
John’s eyes dart beneath closed lids. He mouths words, nearly, torn between his natural resilience and the temptation of complying.
“That’s it. Keep going, it’s all right.”
“You said,” John begins.
Sherlock waits for him, unmoving as John’s hands return to his chest and throat. John’s colour heightens.
“You said, ‘tell me exactly what you want. I’ll do it. Exactly what you want. Tell me what to do. Tell me exactly what you want to feel.’” John turns his head, mouth brushing Sherlock’s wrist before Sherlock can adjust. “And... ‘I want to hear you say it. Be exact.’”
“John, that’s excellent,” he praises. “You’re doing very well. What next?”
John presses closer. “You said you won’t bite.”
Sherlock frowns at the tense shift. “That was the past. What did I say?”
“You said you wouldn’t bite.”
Better. “Did I?”
“You said it.”
“Did I bite you?”
“You said you wouldn’t.” John’s voice lolls with his head, relaxing between Sherlock’s hands. He almost seems asleep, every inch of him warm and trusting.
“What were my actions?”
“Exactly what I wanted,” John praises. “You were perfect.”
“That is what you felt.”
“While you felt that, what did I do? Where was my mouth?”
“On me. ‘s nice.”
“When I tell you to, I want you to point to where my mouth was. Where it was, not where you felt it. Do you understand?”
“I’d like you to point now.”
John does, his hand circling around his crotch and his right thigh. His fingers circle lower, lower, then touch at the top of his thigh.
“Is that where my mouth was?”
“Mmhm.” The little hum accompanies a little giggle.
Of all the things to take away. “Is that what you told me to do?”
John hesitates. He crowds closer. Leaning forward, sliding forward on the trunk, he reaches for Sherlock’s wrists and holds on as if for balance.
“If that was where my mouth was, was I doing exactly as you told me?”
“...No,” John says slowly. “You weren’t. You- fuck!” He jerks against Sherlock’s hands, body tensing in an instant. Despite his panic, John fails to open his eyes. “Stop it! You’re biting me, stop it!”
“Am I biting you now?” Sherlock interrupts, his grip on John fluid, firm. “If I am talking, can I be biting you?”
“N-no. You’re- you’re not.” John slumps, sighs. “Fuck, you’re not. That’s better.”
“What happened then? Between us two months ago.”
“We had each other,” John answers. He hums and then he grins a bit. “Thought you were a lovely prat.”
“That’s not what I-” Stop, start over. Ignore those words, ignore the smile, drunk and giddy. Ignore the thumbs on his wrists and their light circles. Everything that is John: ignore. “What happened after I bit you?”
The smile fades away, John’s mouth falling open. His smooth breaths slow, then catch.
“John, what happened?”
“This is very strange,” John murmurs. His chest rises and falls. Beneath their lids, his eyes flick side to side, seeking, searching. His breathing grows shallow. “Can’t move. I should, I should stop you, but it.... Can’t feel it. I’m just standing here. I can see you,” he adds, the last words oddly high. “Which way are you? There was one before but now there are two.”
“Which version bit you?” Sherlock prompts.
“That one,” John says. He doesn’t gesture or indicate, simply speaks. “I like the other one better. Can I have the other one back?” Here John reaches, hand on his coat.
Ignore. “You imagined the other one.”
John shakes his head between Sherlock’s hands. Tawny hair ruffles between pale fingers.
“Did I bite you, John?”
“Did I do exactly what you wanted?”
“You said you would.”
“But did I?”
John attempts to pull away and worm closer at once. “I don’t like this. Sherlock, I don’t like this.”
“Answer the questions and it will stop.”
“Yes. Did I do exactly what you wanted?”
“Was there ‘the other one’? Was there ever a human man here named Sherlock Holmes?”
John hesitates, barely breathing.
Sherlock waits, perched at the very edge of his chair.
“There is in my head,” John whispers. “I can see him, I can feel-”
“No you can’t.”
“Yes I bloody well can!” John bellows at him, eyes open and flashing. He drags Sherlock closer, onto him, leverage be damned. The coat becomes more handle than garment where enraged human strength seizes. Sherlock’s hands catch against the windowsill. John presses his head to Sherlock’s chest, presses his ear against the thrum of glamour, presses and presses until the force of him has rid Sherlock of air. “You don’t get to take that away, give him back.”
Seized by harsh arms, forced off-balance, Sherlock stops. He stops his thrum, he stops his instinctual response to struggle. He stops.
Soon after, panting heavily, John stops too.
John lets him go.
Sherlock eases himself back. He sits. He watches, uncomprehending, as John wipes at his face. John dries his damp fingers on his trousers, looking away. His cheek shines in the firelight.
“That’s enough,” John cuts him off. His voice is thick but not thick enough to keep from breaking. “I can remember enough, you can stop now.” Still short of breath, he sags back against cold wall and dark window. He’s very small. Not naturally, not from his own doing. Exhausted. Diminished.
“You should be able to pick apart the rest on your own now,” Sherlock promises him. He doesn’t know what else to say.
John lifts his hand, one finger raised. Be quiet, his tired eyes command.
Softly, Sherlock nods. He hesitates, then reaches for the poker and stands with it. He stirs the fire. Adds fuel. He takes the kettle to the water barrel and fills it carefully with the ladle. Sherlock returns the lid to the barrel, the ladle to its peg, and the kettle to the iron hook above the hearth. With the poker, he nudges it over the flame. This last is a clumsy effort.
He returns to his chair, John’s chair, and sits.
Face turned to the side, John watches the fire.
They sit apart in the flickering light, captor and captive, waiting for the kettle to scream.
John drinks his tea.
Therein ends the scene of comfort and familiarity.
“My head itches,” John remarks. “On the inside.”
“Your memories are correcting themselves,” Sherlock assures him. They should be, certainly.
“Oh,” says John. He does his thinking with his gaze inside his tea. “I think they’re getting about halfway.”
John frowns. “Not exactly.”
John doesn’t explain.
“Put some more wood on the fire.”
“You do it.”
They argue the few moments they have the energy for.
“I think the itching stopped,” John says.
“Did you only bite me on the first rounds?” John’s eyes dare him to answer.
“Yes,” he says.
“Then I think I remember all of that.”
“You don’t look certain.”
John wets his lips. “After the vomiting day,” he asks, “did you glamour me again? Feels like.... I have no idea what it feels like. Did you?”
Sherlock mentally reviews his life of late. “I tried once, but it didn’t work.”
John looks at him sharply. “It what?”
“The sentiment I attempted to convey proved incompatible with your thick head.”
“When was this?”
“Last week, when I told you I couldn’t live with you.”
John shifts his gaze to the fire. “Huh.”
“Makes more sense now,” John muses. “Well, that’s one advantage, I suppose.”
Sherlock looks at him with interest. “Oh?”
“Mm. That apology you wanted? You’re never getting it. Ever. As long as I live.”
“Oh dear,” Sherlock deadpans.
They lapse back into silence, neither laughing, and John’s flicker of a grin is surely an illusion of firelight.
“Angelo’s a baker, right?”
“Hm? Yes.” Sherlock considers refilling his pipe. The air inside is getting thick but John has yet to complain. As stoic as the man is, Sherlock can’t imagine he’d hold back at present. Another pipe, then.
“But you lot can’t eat solid food?”
Sherlock scoffs. “I believe you’ve observed that firsthand.”
“Well, yes,” John says. “Which is why I’m confused about your father’s cooking habits.”
“Oh,” Sherlock says, packing his pipe. “That’s simple, really. Angelo’s human.”
There is a resounding silence beside him.
Sherlock looks up.
John’s eyes are wide, his mouth soft. “You’re half human?”
“What? No, don’t be stupid,” Sherlock dismisses, irrationally affronted at the hope in John’s voice. “There’s a species barrier.”
“Then... he’s your step-father?”
John’s face crumples into confusion, then quickly hardens. “Ah. So you lied about your family too.”
“No,” Sherlock bites. “I suffered a linguistic limitation.”
“You mean you stretched the truth,” John counters, clearly doubting even this.
“I mean there is no simple term for the man who taught me how to tie my shoes,” he retorts, speaking harshly to his pipe. “He’s not a nanny, he’s hardly a tutor, and the honorific ‘uncle’ hardly seems to cover it. He calls me his child and cares for me as such. That’s what matters.”
“What about the rest of it?”
“Every story I’ve told you about him is essentially true. Everyone leaves certain details out, I’m no exception.”
“Species is something you leave out?”
“You’ve never mentioned the species of anyone you’ve mentioned,” Sherlock counters.
“Everyone I know is human.”
Sherlock looks at him pointedly.
“That I know of,” John amends. “I’ll be paranoid forever, thanks to you.”
Sherlock waves a dismissive hand in the guise of blowing out a match. “You already were. Everyone over here is.” He takes the first slow pull of his relit pipe and blows a smoke ring up to the ceiling.
John watches rather than argue. “Do you do that to hide how you never eat or drink?”
Sherlock grins. “Two months and he catches on.”
John feigns some degree of annoyance. Surprisingly little of it is sincere, though that’s still a poor bar to judge by. “So what about your family, then? You’re not the sponsored scholar after all.”
“According to Mycroft, I am. That’s close enough.”
“Who’s this?” John asks, sounding dubious. “The southern lord?”
“Lord Whitehall, yes,” he answers tersely.
They sit in silence a few minutes longer.
“I mean, really,” John says. “Who the hell are you?”
“I daresay you know me better than most, John.”
John nearly laughs before he realizes Sherlock is serious. It’s plain on his face, the transition from derision to consideration.
“Go on, then,” John prompts. “Tell me more.”
“You do realize I live on a trade route. In a town with a very good doctor.”
Sherlock frowns at him.
“Whatever you’re after for Angelo,” John says. “There are ways of checking.”
Sherlock outright stares. “Are you actually offering to help?”
“You’re risking your life for it. And mine, don’t forget that,” John adds, as if Sherlock could. As if Sherlock has failed to remember it every day since John first told him. “Doing that for nothing is too pointless.”
“Won’t work,” Sherlock answers dismissively.
John opens his mouth, anger visibly flaring.
“But thank you,” Sherlock pre-empts.
A small nod there, acceptance or forgiveness. Regardless of which, it’s something Sherlock wants. John asks, “What’s wrong with him? Some rare disease?”
“No, he’s not dying, he’s....” Pipe clenched in his teeth, Sherlock ruffles his hair violently with one hand. “He’s unwell, Mycroft refuses to lift a finger and I’m doing something about it. Just... not as effectively as I’d hoped.”
“I see.” John settles back against the wall, shifting on the trunk. He’s ready for a long, stubborn wait.
It makes Sherlock want to smile. He doesn’t, of course.
“Why do you want to know?” he asks instead.
“Why didn’t you leave?” John counters.
Sherlock doesn’t answer, the only truth far worse than a fond smile.
Instead, he says, “My first memory is from three days after the winter solstice when I was two years old, nearly three. It’s on a staircase, a large one, stone. If we were in Whitehall, I could show you the exact spot I gained the power of permanent recollection. It was late afternoon. I was exhausted but determined to climb the entirety of the staircase – two hundred eighty-four steps. I made it to one hundred and six and nearly fell four times. The first three times, there was a hand at my back. I was aware there was someone with me, but at the time, it didn’t seem terribly important. The fourth time, I was picked up and carried the remaining hundred seventy-eight steps.
“Every day, Angelo did this with me at a literal crawl. I never fell once. I have no better way of explaining the basic assumptions of my universe than that. I can no more recall meeting Mummy than I can Angelo.”
“You’re very close,” John summarizes quietly. “I do believe you on that.”
He shakes his head. “It’s more than that, John.”
“I’m listening,” John promises.
“When I was four, my father took ill. His physician moved into the household, his husband and daughter with him. Molly was the first person I tried to explain Angelo to. She thought I had two fathers, whereas I thought everyone had a mother, a father and an Angelo.” He had never asked after his parents’ bloodmates and had merely assumed Angelo was yet another one. “Not the case, as it proved. I began asking questions. Father was in no condition to talk, Mummy was distraught and Mycroft was impatient with me by that point.
“When I asked Angelo, he couldn’t answer. That’s never been very unusual. It was the way he couldn’t answer that stood out. He admits ignorance and he’s never bothered with that ‘life isn’t fair’ claptrap. This was much more circuitous. It fixated around one central answer: I was his boy and he took care of me.” He watches John’s face as he speaks, awaiting his reaction. A product of John’s paranoid culture would surely see it.
“Your parents put him under glamour?” It’s not a question the way John asks it.
Sherlock nods. “It took me years to notice.”
“How could take years to notice?”
“I told you. It’s more than being close: Angelo was my definition of normality. And no one answers you properly when you’re a child anyway.” How well he knows this.
John rolls his empty cup between his palms. Forward, back. Forward, back. “Do you see that as a terrible thing?” he asks, a judge seeking evidence.
“You don’t see the full complications.”
“So you don’t see it as a terrible thing.”
“If you want to listen, shut up,” Sherlock snaps.
Forward and back goes the cup. Forward, back. Perhaps John’s head lowers. Perhaps he nods.
“The problem first became apparent when I was twelve,” Sherlock states. “That’s typically when a child begins to develop glamour. It’s the first stage of puberty and enables independent feeding.”
“Properly trained livestock will sit still for anything,” Sherlock explains dismissively. “Beyond that, it gets unpleasant.”
“Please tell me livestock means cows.”
“Sheep and horses,” Sherlock replies, looking at him oddly. “What did you think I meant?”
“I’d prefer not to answer that question.”
It takes only a moment to realize what John must mean. “No need, I already know you’re an utter moron.” He shakes his head. “Consumption of human blood only begins at puberty, after glamour is developed, and then sparingly, for sexual relations only.”
“‘Only’,” John echoes, unreasonably stunned. By what, Sherlock doesn’t want to know.
“Shall I tell you the point of this story or would you rather keep interrupting?”
A hesitating pause, a nod, and with John’s gracious permission, he continues.
“The glamour develops first. It is the step from child to adolescent,” Sherlock stresses. “If you ask Angelo, I have no glamour.”
“But-” John catches himself, closes his mouth. His mouth flicks an apology of a smile.
“Angelo has no idea what my present age is. He thinks I’m at the far end of a growth spurt and has thought so for a decade. According to Angelo, I’m a child and he has to take care of me. As he cannot accept that I possess glamour, I cannot counteract the glamour already present. Mummy tried to alter it before she died, but that failed rather spectacularly.”
Frowning, John clearly has a question.
“She transferred the glamour to Mycroft rather than permitting it to dissipate,” Sherlock clarifies. “It’s still in place.”
“Why keep it? Sorry, but that doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s what I thought,” Sherlock agrees. “Naturally, there is the risk that lifting the glamour will result in Angelo no longer caring for me. However, a twenty-two year old being treated as if he were ten years younger is also problematic, to say the least. If that were the full extent of the matter, I’m certain Mummy wouldn’t have passed it to Mycroft.”
“What else was there?” Brow furrowed in the dark, John’s face is rock at sunset. The softness of it must be illusion.
“The reason behind the initial glamour. They never told me. My parents.” He exhales a grey cloud, studying the well-known surface of his pipe. “I gathered all the information I could find, put it together, and when I gave Mummy my wrong answer, she told me I was right. I thought it was a clumsy accident, nothing more.” He hates to be wrong. He loathes it passionately.
The fire is burning low. “Should we build that up?” Sherlock asks.
John shakes his head. “I’ll light a candle when we need one.” He’s stopped rolling the cup. His hands are very steady. Sherlock watches them until John sets the cup on the floor, until he folds those hands, elbows on his knees. John appears firm, fixed where he sits. He’s secure in a way few people are.
“It was a break-in,” Sherlock says. “Twenty-two years ago. Angelo was hired by a man he never saw on behalf of a noble house he never identified. There had recently been a particularly vicious triple homicide in a minor house. The killer entered the residence in the same manner Angelo was instructed to enter ours. He believed he was attempting a robbery – he’d already pulled a successful job in the area. He was told that he would be retrieving a family weapon and replacing it with a decoy. We still don’t know if he had orders beneath these to kill me, but Angelo’s memories of where he had been at the time of the murders were erased by glamour.
“The room he was sent to was mine. It was likely assumed that he’d be caught on the way. He wasn’t.
“I’m told I screamed for my mother. Mycroft remembers it, but I don’t. Father was away, but Mummy came running. She reacted the way anyone would, I imagine. Glamour and blanket statements of safety are a staple of the extremely distressed. The words she said, the exact words, were ‘no harm will come to my child’.” These last, he speaks in Franc.
“In hindsight, it could have been immediately disastrous. Phrasing like that is too vague. That permits mercy killing. Alternatively, it could have the implication that the child in question is invincible.
“Emotion and glamour mix oddly, John. What Angelo heard my mother shout, he internalized. No harm would come to his child. In an instant, it became his life’s work. It still is, you should read his letters. Are you warm, are you behaving yourself, are you keeping dry, you’re a growing boy so don’t forget to feed, are you playing well with the other children?”
He cuts himself off before he can go on. His eyes burn. The tobacco smoke. Without looking, he sets his pipe down on the table behind him. He closes his eyes until the burning stops. Given time, he opens them.
Seen through red dimness, John is silent at last, mouth closed, eyes serious. If he stretched, Sherlock could touch his foot to John’s boot. They’ve sat like this for hours and yet it’s the first time since tea that John has appeared close.
“I’ve asked him what he remembers about that night,” he continues. “It took extreme badgering – he’s far from proud. As far as he’s concerned, he found my mother terribly imposing. And inspiring. He’s always spoken well of her. An unarmed woman shouting down an intruder. She snatches up her crying toddler and all is well. He knows he was under glamour not to move but doesn’t seem to realize there was any other command involved.
“He went quietly after that. It quickly became clear he’d been set up to appear connected to the triple homicide. Same entry, same weapon, and a gap in his memory that will never be restored. For some time, there was no way to prove he wasn’t the triple killer. There seemed to be a pattern to it: the younger child or children are killed off, leaving the parents with their heir apparent and the knowledge that the child is still at risk. Very much a threat but not remotely as disruptive as killing the heir apparent.
“Of course, it was later determined to have been a man acting on behalf of that first surviving heir apparent. So much for that theory. A fine way to kill your siblings without being noticed: make everyone else too worried about their own offspring to suspect the ‘grieving’ family member.
“That left us with Angelo. Still a criminal, to be certain, but a burglar scapegoat is far from a killer. During the legal proceedings, he’d asked after me. Hoped he hadn’t frightened me too much, that sort of remark. Apparently, he had. I have no recollection of it, but I spent several weeks sitting up, waiting in the dark for someone to come kill me. Eventually, it reached the point where Mummy permitted Angelo back into the house and properly introduced us. She simply wanted me to face my fear, but we took to each other right away. Even Mycroft says so.
“I imagine it must have become clear to my mother what her glamour had done. A petty criminal, reformed by some paternal instinct. At the time, it seemed perfectly viable to leave him that way.”
“‘Viable’?” John echoes.
“I know what it means,” John interrupts. “I just don’t see how rewriting a man’s mind is ‘viable’.”
“It’s actually very common,” Sherlock replies. “No, don’t argue, listen. Consider an abuser. Someone who beats their child or spouse. What do you do? Here, what do you do?”
“Chase them out of town,” John answers. “Sometimes there’s a hanging, but not so often these days.”
“What if you could tell the abuser to stop, and they would?” Sherlock counters. “Limit the behaviour, certainly. In some cases, alter the path from cause to effect.”
“If you force that much change, how is that not killing them?”
“They’re alive, obviously.”
“But as someone else,” John argues. “Burglar into a father, and you think that’s the same man?”
Sherlock’s spine straightens. “That’s different.”
“How? Go on, how is that different?”
“The way stabbing someone is different from surgery,” he spits. “Corrective glamour is a procedure. It’s a monitored piece of the legal system and medical practices.”
“Yes, medical. How else perform surgery? You lot are still sawing off the limbs of the conscious. Tell me, did you enjoy being able to feel that bolt being pulled from your shoulder? These things are avoidable.”
“Maybe that makes sense,” John allows. “Maybe. But stopping pain isn’t changing someone.”
“If your father had given up the bottle before it did him in,” Sherlock begins and gets no further, John instantly on his feet. John towers, magnificently furious.
“Fuck you,” John curses, a breath above silence. “Fuck you and damn you to hell. Risk my life, warp my head, but you do not talk about my family. Do you understand me?”
“I could cure Harry-”
Pain bursts across his face. Sound: hard impact of fist to cheek. Image: John, rage. Left hand, back of fist. Implication: striking a dog. Motion: falling out of chair.
Sherlock catches himself, left hand on table. Right hand on face.
Silence is compressed noise.
Sherlock looks up.
“You do not go near my sister,” John tells him. “You don’t speak to her and you do not change her. Leave her alone.”
“I don’t hurt people.”
The second blow is much like the first. Possibly harder.
The scent of blood: his own.
He touches his cheek. Finds the split. Looks at the red damp on his fingers.
He takes a thick and heavy breath through his nose. He works his jaw. All intact. The swelling may impede his vision in the left eye, given time.
He looks up at John.
John stares down at him. Rage. Hurt and bewilderment. Shame, concern buried beneath. He touches his left knuckles with his right hand. Flexes his fist. Absent motions. Feet set, shoulders squared. Ready for further confrontation.
“Harry is safe from me,” Sherlock states. He resents the words more than the blows. Intellectually, he understands where John sees the danger. Why that understanding is insufficient within his mind is a mystery.
“Are your promises good?” John questions. Commands are not as deliberate as this man’s speech.
Sherlock sits tall and speaks firmly. His words are Franc and true. There is weight in ceremony. “I will never take action to bring harm to your sister. Where my presence is deemed harmful, I will not be present. Where my speech is deemed harmful, I will be silent. As long as you would have these words hold me, this I swear.”
John’s eyes are steady on his face.
“Is that sufficient?” Sherlock asks.
“Yes,” John says.
“You want more. Regarding Bart’s, but not yourself. You won’t ask.”
“Never a good idea, asking for favours when you don’t know what will be asked in exchange.”
“I wouldn’t mind your handkerchief,” Sherlock suggests. “The one in your front pocket.”
John fishes it out and hands it to him. Their hands do not touch.
Carefully, Sherlock rises. John steps back. Sherlock crosses to the water barrel and dampens the cloth. He holds it to his cheek, flinching at the sudden chill of water suffusing his skin.
“Why let me do it?” John asks. “You’re giving in on everything. It isn’t like you. This isn’t giving me a false sense of security – it’s making me paranoid.”
“You make yourself paranoid,” Sherlock disparages. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but the only threat you face from me is minor blood loss.”
“And being killed.”
“By people who are not me, following laws I had no part in.”
“Still going to get me killed.”
Sherlock adjusts the handkerchief against his face. Even tepid water is extraordinarily cold. “Glamour has an element of protection, John. I’m not lying when I say harming you was never my intent.”
“No, just your result.”
“You mean like this?” Sherlock asks, indicating his swelling cheek.
John’s jaw sets. “Yes,” he says. “I mean like that.”
“It’s different, actually,” Sherlock corrects. “Backhanding isn’t a protective gesture.”
“And distorting someone’s mind is?” John demands.
“It can be. It’s why my mother didn’t permit Angelo’s glamour to fade. At present, he’s our responsibility. If the glamour dissipated, he would be the responsibility of those who sought to use him as a scapegoat.”
“That doesn’t come close to making sense.”
“He was hired for a job and willingly submitted to the conditions. That included the initial glamour – legally speaking, that made him their responsibility and theirs to chastise if caught. For a thief who wouldn’t face rebuke at his employers’ hands, it’s perfectly fine. For a scapegoat, much less so. Needless to say, that would have ended very badly.
“Instead, my mother put him under her glamour in defence of her family. With the exception of defensive situations, that kind of behaviour is strictly forbidden. The first glamour is a claim not to be stepped on. Had the my mother’s glamour been specifically intended to reform him, the claim wouldn’t have been permitted. As the changes were a side effect, it stood. As both sets of glamour stood, Angelo was given a choice of where to align himself. He chose us. Or me, rather.
“If my mother had allowed the glamour to dissipate with her death, there would no longer be a contest of claim and the claim would revert to his old employers. Effectively, it would have been the same as handing them a hostage. It’s no secret that I value his well-being.” As Mycroft would be the first to tell him: caring is not an advantage.
“That is a god awful situation, Sherlock,” John says, as if this is Sherlock’s fault. “That’s not how allegiance works.”
“Oh, so you had a choice with Mayhew?” Sherlock counters rhetorically. “He would have cared had Bryant taken you? Before you saved his son’s life, I mean.”
“What’s that meant to mean?” John demands. “You’re liable to run off and stab whatever draughtsman comes along next to glamour me?”
“Yes!” How long can it take to understand such a simple concept?
“You’re not serious.”
A very long time, apparently. “I am,” Sherlock replies. He says this very seriously, as he means it.
The only way out is through. John might as well know.
“You’re not serious,” John repeats. “You’re really not. How can you possibly be serious?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Ignoring the bruise on his cheek for the moment.
“Looking past how you obviously have no idea how to fight,” John begins: “Who goes up to a stranger they barely know and gives them a blanket statement of protection?”
Sherlock drops the handkerchief onto the lid of the water barrel. With a sardonic expression and quick hands, he unbuckles his belt and removes knife and sheath from it. “You know, I honestly have no idea,” he replies. “I imagine you want this back.”
“I do, thanks,” John answers without moving.
Sherlock holds it out to him, hilt first.
After a careful pause, John takes it. He places it on the trunk where it lies in shadow.
They both look at it, then avoid looking.
John goes to light a candle but does not sit at the table.
Sherlock dries his cheek, face numb with watery cold. Turning his face to the side, he licks his thumb and soothes the cut into closing.
“You were saying,” John prompts. “About Angelo. If you break the glamour on him, that puts him back in the power of his old employers? Heartless thing to do, just to stop being treated like a child.”
“So now you think keeping him under glamour is a good idea.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you meant it.”
John nearly argues, then considers. “You were right about it being complicated. Why not just... fix it? Make him realize you’ve grown up.”
“Mummy tried that. It failed.” Sherlock prefers not to think about it.
Naturally, John asks, “Failed how?”
Sherlock shakes his head. “Think of your own experience, John. You had an acute sensation of loss, enough to provoke movement and physical confrontation.”
“So Angelo... thinks he’s losing the child he has to protect.”
“It breaks his concentration and the ‘fix’ doesn’t hold,” Sherlock confirms. It also causes screaming. Fear and shouting, a panicked man shouting for him, hugging him tight, checking him for injury. In those moments, Sherlock has never been better loved, nor more afraid.
“What if you did it?”
“You aren’t listening. He can’t understand I have glamour.”
“Okay, so... someone else, but with you nearby.”
“Rights of protection, John. Beyond Mycroft, there is no one else.” The mere thought of it is rage-inducing. Angelo is theirs and no one else is to be trusted with him.
“And Mycroft won’t do it,” John concludes.
“Politics. We risk losing him to those who would harm us, this while exposing weakness. Too many ramifications and I can’t make it worth his while.”
John frowns. “But he wants you working for him.”
“Yes, but why buy a shack when you have coin enough for a mansion? He knows he can extort me for all I’m worth. I’m simply not worth enough. Eventually, there may be something he desperately needs doing, but not yet. With Greg keeping an ear to the ground for him, there’s very little Mycroft can’t settle from his armchair.”
“But he’s your brother,” John says, as if this is meant to signify something.
He waits for the human to continue.
“I mean, he is, isn’t he?” John asks. “You haven’t actually said, but he is, isn’t he?”
“And if he were?” Sherlock prompts.
John doesn’t answer.
Sherlock refuses to lift his gaze until John does. He watches as John looks away. As John banks the fire and returns the poker to its proper place. As John sits with a sigh at the table. His side is to Sherlock, not his back, but it’s his left side, the weakened side. John shifts the candle on the table.
“Come here,” John says. “Let’s take a look at that face.”
“It’s fine, thank you.”
All the same, Sherlock fetches his chair from the other side of the table and joins him.
Gingerly, John reaches for his jaw. He guides Sherlock’s face to the side and holds up the candle. John hums, a discontented sound. Very ironic.
“You’ve stopped bleeding, at least,” John tells him. “Won’t need stitches.”
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “How marvellous.” He flinches despite his best efforts, John’s fingertips brushing over bruised cheekbone.
“It is, actually. Nothing broken. I didn’t have to pull that punch.”
“You didn’t pull the second one.”
“No,” John admits, and lets him go. He glances at the table. He picks up Sherlock’s pipe and hands it to him. It’s burnt itself out.
“You’re not frightened this time,” John says. “Were you only pretending, last month?”
“When you had your knife to my throat?”
“You could have stopped me.”
“You’re fixated on that,” Sherlock informs him.
“For good reason. A punch or two is one thing. Would you have let me kill you?”
“I might not have had a choice,” Sherlock replies. “You’re very quick. The tactics you used were perfectly applicable to the situation.”
“Except for the holly,” John says. “How do you keep getting past that? You’re meant to break out into a rash. Or is that like the sleeping in coffins bit?”
“I’ve built up an immunity,” Sherlock replies. “I wouldn’t worry about any of your local threats doing the same. It takes years and possibly requires starting as a child. I don’t think that’s common knowledge.”
“You started as a child.”
Sherlock almost smiles, remembering. “It annoyed Mycroft. And it annoyed me that Molly could pick up a twig and I couldn’t.”
“Are there better reasons?”
His mouth an odd line, John looks to the candle. His profile reminds Sherlock’s palms of how cold they are alone, of the warmth of human skin. His teeth remain retracted.
“I need time to think,” John says slowly, “but I’m not sure what about.”
“All right,” Sherlock responds and begins to clean his pipe. After, he stores it away in its case. He returns this to his satchel. He realizes, quite belatedly, that there are two of John’s handkerchiefs lying about the room, one damp with water, one soiled with John’s seed. The second is on the floor by their favourite patch of wall. That will be awkward in the morning. Perhaps he ought to do something about it. He merely sits instead, watching John watch dripping wax.
“You never actually said,” John realizes. “What you’re here for, trying to get for Angelo. You never said.”
Sherlock turns his gaze to the wax. It’s vaguely yellow, a liquid pool around the wick.
John waits for him in turn.
They yawn, John first, him following. It hurts Sherlock’s face to do so and John watches his mouth, looking for fangs.
They watch the candle a while longer.
“John, there’s something you ought to keep in mind,” Sherlock tells him.
John’s eyes flick to him through the dark.
“It’s not that I can’t get it, it’s that I won’t. I- Don’t interrupt, John. I’ve made the conscious decision to walk away.
“I’ve studied glamour everywhere in the south worth studying,” Sherlock continues. “That was the first year. There’s no psychomancer or surgeon capable of teaching me what I need. Every technique they utilize to revoke or change glamour requires a participating subject. Which Angelo will never be, not with me.
“That begs the question of where to learn glamour intended for an unaware subject. Criminals, for the most part, and all of them were too stupid. That was the second year.
“Towards the end of it, a contact alerted me to possibilities here in the north. A land where a species war rages means morality is no barrier to progress. She’d even found me a teacher. Or perhaps he found her. Irene was never very clear on that point.
“However it began, there was a price for being permitted into his society. It’s not terribly unusual. Admittance is screened and depends upon your ability to impress. Dares are commonplace, ranging from the useful to the ridiculous.
“That’s what I thought, John,” he tells the candle. “What he dared me to do was immensely dangerous, but it didn’t seem as if it could accomplish anything. I know better now. I’m not about to do it.”
Beads of wax trail down the candle’s side, one at a time, then two at once.
Sherlock covers his mouth when he yawns. “Time to find something else,” he says. It’s a familiar process by now.
“How dangerous?” John asks. “More than risking your life being here in the first place?”
“It’s not the danger, John, it’s the consequence,” Sherlock dismisses. “I refuse to go home and tell Angelo his little boy grew up to be a murderer.”
John looks at him sharply.
Sherlock doesn’t look back.
When next the wax drips, he puts his finger in it.
“Have you never killed anyone, then?” John asks.
Sherlock shakes his head.
“Is it not a nice person?”
Peeling the wax from his fingertip, Sherlock asks, “My would-be instructor?”
“The person he wants you to kill,” John clarifies.
“He’s a good man.” As John knows all too well. “As far as I can tell, he’s a better man than Angelo considers himself. Regardless of any other consequence, Angelo wouldn’t forgive me it.”
“Who is it? Someone along your route?”
“John, please. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
John is silent in the near-dark, his compressed cacophony faded into weariness. “I suppose it doesn’t,” he agrees.
Something inside Sherlock’s chest tightens. He has no word for what it is.
Their yawns return. Their silence holds. Sherlock could nearly curl into it.
“You should climb up top,” John says. “Chuck me down the blankets – you can sleep under your coat.”
Sherlock studies John. Certainly, he tries. It’s difficult to see in the dim light, particularly with a swollen eye. There must be more for John to ask. There have to be more questions, more accusations. Confusion. Anything. They cannot be finished here.
“Well,” John prompts, and apparently they are.
Taking his satchel as well as his coat, Sherlock climbs into the loft. He tosses the blankets down one by one and John doesn’t shout at him when he keeps one for himself. John lowers the ladder. It clatters against the floor. John is tired to the point of clumsiness; Sherlock’s relocation is yet another tactical movement.
He watches the edge of the loft, the faint traces of light coming over the uneven line of boards. Below, John positions blankets and draws his sword near. There is sound and light, little of them and little else. The gatekeeper blows out the candle and these too end.
“Good night,” Sherlock bids into the dark.
John never replies.
He wakes to birdsong, distantly aware that he has slept terrified. Cold, he corrects himself. He’s merely cold, which he hates. Sitting up, he asks, “John?”
There’s no reply.
Crawling on hands and knees, Sherlock goes to the edge of the loft. As always, he brings his satchel with him. He peers below with his body lying against the boards, head hanging.
John sits with his back to the trunk, blankets over his legs, one around his shoulders. His sword slumbers next to him, a metal interloper. His eyes are closed, his face drawn.
The human stirs, chin lifting from his chest. “Fuck,” he curses quietly, the word cracking into a yawn. He looks like a different man, upside-down. This man is drained, exhausted, and resents movement. Remarkable, how he is still so recognizably John.
“You haven’t slept, have you?” Rhetorical. John’s motions are slow but not fumbling, nothing like the grogginess of too little sleep. The way his eyes strain indicates no sleep at all.
With excessive care, John rises, shaking free of the blankets. He leaves the sword upon the floor but checks the knife at his hip. His steps scrape once but do not drag.
Sherlock pushes himself up and sits with folded legs, awaiting the ladder.
John leans against the door and looks blearily up at him.
“You have more questions,” Sherlock concludes.
“The glamour still hasn’t worn off.”
That brings him pause. “It should have.”
“Except for how you took it off by putting more on.”
“Yes, but now you’re aware of it. That’s the best I can do.” Glamour removal is nothing if not a misnomer.
John’s gaze drops below the loft. Watching him think is a painful prospect.
“Do you want me to try again?” Sherlock interrupts.
John’s tongue ventures between his lips and is caught there, trapped in indecision.
Sherlock edges forward, lowering his legs over the side of the loft. The gatekeeper’s face is level with his shin, eyes now watching his trouser leg. “John, I need you to tell me what’s wrong if you want me to fix it.”
“You just said it was the best you could do.”
“That’s not what I- What is the problem?”
He expects a range of responses. None of those involve John blushing. For that’s what it is, that flush to his cheeks, the way he looks anywhere but at Sherlock. Fortunate, that aversion. It gives Sherlock precious moments to school his face. He knocks aside an adoring grin and forces competent seriousness. The bloom of warmth in his chest, hot and tight and lighter than blood, about this he can do nothing.
“The first way I remember it,” John says. “That’s still... there.”
Unable to read the top of John’s head, Sherlock leans forward. He’s aware this makes him a skulking shape in the shadows above, but there’s little else for it. “Can you not remember the way it actually happened?”
“I can remember that too,” John answers quickly, voice low. “They’re both vivid, they’re very.... They’re vivid, and my mind keeps trying to put one before the other. Two separate things happening at the same time.” Even now, his words are descriptors, not complaints.
“That ought to settle.”
“And if it doesn’t?” John demands, glaring upward. He steps backward for a better angle. His sagging shoulders square. “What if I’m stuck like this, Sherlock? Has that crossed your mind?”
“Take a few days. Think. It will settle.”
“Not good enough,” John says. He leans slightly, elbow on the bar across the door, and it is anything but a motion of lethargy. “You don’t get to muck up my head and run away from it.”
“Your plan is to keep me in here?” Sherlock derides. “Are you that tired or just that stupid?”
“Shut up,” John tells him. “You told me what you’re willing to do for Angelo – you’re not going to be the problem you’re trying to fix. You’re going to go down to Waterloo, make arrangements for your boat, and come back. You do not leave without making sure I’m all right, do you hear me?”
“If I say ‘yes,’ will you put up the ladder?”
John crosses his arms, leans back against the door, and says nothing. He says nothing with exceptional force.
“Yes,” Sherlock says.
John doesn’t move.
“I will not leave these shores until you know your mind to be whole. As long as you would have these words hold me, this I swear.”
John puts up the ladder.
Sherlock climbs down.
When his feet touch the floor, he and John stand close. With the face of a soldier, John doesn’t relinquish his ground. Though not from sleep, his hair is mussed.
“Leaving from here, it will be two and a half days to Waterloo,” Sherlock states. “From there, it will depend on what I can find. If it does settle, have Clara send some sort of message by wing. Otherwise, expect me in a week, possibly slightly longer.”
“Same as usual, then.”
“Then I’ll see you in a week,” John says, and this is the moment they pause.
Neither moves, but the instinct is there. Instinct or habit, whatever it is that makes a body lean toward a goodbye kiss.
“Until then,” Sherlock confirms.
John opens the door for him. The metal bolts slide with force.
Sherlock steps outside and John says, “Wait. Wait, you’re unarmed. If you die on me-”
“Then it would neatly solve your problems, wouldn’t it?” Sherlock replies, his smile thin and breaking around the edges.
“Oh,” John says. “Yeah, it would.”
He closes the door and Sherlock walks away.
He’s never been to Waterloo before. It’s a fair-sized port town. He imagines John might call it a city. It calls itself a city, which is more than Sherlock will ever say for it.
He walks through its streets, avoids its alleys, and sleeps only lightly in its inns. Over the past months, he’d avoided robbery with such skill and dexterity that the attempts had begun to make him laugh. That confidence falls away in Waterloo. The scents of humanity overwhelm, sweat and perfume mingling over rot and faeces. The worn faces of statues stare down on whores and merchants alike from high stone walls, streaked with the shit of countless pigeons. As waterproof as his siren-given coat is, the spray of the river city’s docks freezes his hands and face. His aching face gives him an unwelcome splash of the local colour, but even so, he could never be thought to belong. Though he practices, he can’t quite achieve the correct accent.
His nose useless, mind cluttered, he’s dependent upon sight and sound alone for defence. It terrifies. He nearly has his throat cut, once, twice, and the deed would have been quickly done had he merely a voice behind his words. Each time, he parts from his new friends before they realize they share no friendship at all. One, almost apologetic behind vicious blue eyes, reminds him fiercely of John.
In truth, everything reminds him of John and will continue to remind him of John. Though Sherlock’s mind cannot submit to glamour, only his body, he almost wishes it were otherwise. He can’t focus here. His skin feels tight to the point of splitting open. He craves to the point of shaking. Desperate, he smiles at a man in a bar, enjoying rough human skin as fingertips graze his upturned palm. When rough fingers lead to rough hands, a few whispers in his admirer’s ear have the man spilling in his trousers and retreating from the bar in humiliation. When he tries elsewhere, he discovers that the whores, men and women alike, mask their scents with musk and perfume. Though he spies a glimmer of intellect, he can smell nothing he wants and no one he would risk drinking. He doesn’t try again.
It takes days of prowling, searching, approaching strangers in pubs and sailors on docks, verbal haranguing to find a ship set for King’s Crossing. A week on board from Waterloo, hiding his nature as they hug the northern coast, and then he can make his way from King’s to Belgravia on a ship that will at least tolerate his kind. The main challenge is to find a boat transporting livestock. Then the main challenge is timing, then payment. His coin in this land is running low, but he has a few precautionary trinkets hidden in his satchel. It’s hardly something he can reveal here, not without having his throat cut regardless of glamour, but it is something.
In a week and a half, it’s decided. They sail for King’s Crossing in eleven days. No coin is exchanged for now, but half will be expected upon boarding, half upon landing. And it had best be fully present upon landing. Sherlock confirms his understanding and turns back toward Bart’s.
His feet are strange creatures to him after these months of walking, unreasonably sturdy, yet not sturdy enough. They bear him on all the same.
In the end, he dawdles. He frets and he hesitates and he hates it. His life is bent toward John, warped around the man, and this is worth resenting. He has learned pleasure only to know agony. It’s not what adulthood was meant to be.
At last, he leaves Euston. He walks slowly, turning down a freely offered ride. When the cart is out of view and the road empty behind him, he ducks into the woods to feed. He stays there longer than necessary, a young buck sluggishly butting at his hip. He pets the once-wary creature that now believes it adores him, strokes its neck and scratches its ears. The deer believes itself happy. When Sherlock leaves it, it begins to follow. When Sherlock takes a step toward it, it startles and vanishes into the brush.
He laughs without meaning to, then continues to walk.
The final approach to Bart’s is a wary business. All it would take is one quick crossbow quarrel to solve John’s problems, and Sherlock can’t permit himself not to consider this possibility. John will have thought of it. If John has confided in his sister, Harry might perform the task on his behalf.
“It’s me,” he says quickly, lifting his voice and knocking. He hears stillness from within and knows John is the gatekeeper inside, not Bill.
John opens the door, eyes alert on Sherlock’s face. He has the look of a guard dog on the edge of giving in to glamour, a hair’s breadth away from a snap and a howl, a moment’s wait to perked ears and wagging tail.
“Better yet?” Sherlock asks.
John opens his mouth and closes it. What he says is, “Will you come inside?”
Not better, then. “Will you let me out this time?”
“Yes,” John says.
Sherlock follows him inside and permits the door to be secured behind him.
John’s sword is in the usual spot, leaning sheathed against the wall. John’s knife is in the usual spot, hanging at his hip. Even John is in the usual spot, moving to sit at the table.
Sherlock follows here as well.
“Have you got a ship?” John asks.
“When’s it leaving?”
“I have enough time,” he replies, folding his hands and leaning on the table. “How long do you believe this will take?”
“I don’t know,” John lies, eyes slipping to the side.
“No, you have some idea. You simply dislike it.”
John doesn’t reply. He turns his face to the side. His eyes flick back to Sherlock. Sherlock is right.
“John, I have just walked two and a half days over some of the worst roads I’ve ever seen and will shortly have to do it again. Don’t tell me you’ve wasted my time.”
Now he has John’s attention.
“I can’t make you do anything,” John reminds him. His voice is cold and mild, a mist that freezes from within the lungs. “You’re here because you chose to be – stop complaining.”
“Then you start,” Sherlock demands. “You asked for privacy, something is obviously wrong.”
Once again, John’s mouth stoppers up.
Fine. Sherlock can play this game. “Are you still remembering both versions of events?”
Eyes on the table, John nods.
“Is it-” not distressing, John would never admit to that “-distracting? In your daily life.”
Hesitation, then the nod.
“I can take that away,” Sherlock promises. “If you can be sure we won’t be interrupted-”
“The noon rush, I understand-”
“No,” John repeats. He lifts his gaze to Sherlock’s face. “You don’t have to- We don’t have to go through that again.”
“You can have it out, or you can have it fester,” Sherlock responds. “That is the complete list of your options. Pick one.”
“Fester.” Eyes clear, no hesitation. John is resolute.
Sherlock is flummoxed.
After a blinking moment of unresponsiveness, he asks, “Why?”
John merely looks at him. There’s something important in that gaze. If Sherlock stares back long enough, hard enough, he’ll know what it is.
Before he succeeds – and he would have succeeded, he would have – John sighs and looks away.
“You’re very tired,” Sherlock begins, because he can at least see that. “Not from nightmares, but an inability to fall asleep. You’re on edge in a way that makes you feel defenceless, which is likely the cause of your sudden insomnia. The way you keep glancing to the door, I’d almost think you were waiting for someone, but that’s not an expression of expectation. No, recollection.”
“Can you not do that please?”
“Something involving the door that makes you feel helpless. Presumably involving me. Just last week, then? Our... fight.”
“I don’t want my memories taken,” John tells him in a rush. He slows as he adds, “They’re mine. I’ll keep them.”
“You don’t have to.”
John shakes his head. “Do you still have that drawing?”
“Good,” John says. “Then I don’t need to explain.”
Sentiment swallows him, then falls away with his first clear thought: “You want to remember me as human.”
“And you want to remember me as what?” John asks. “Some bloke whose life you didn’t put at risk?”
“I remember everything that’s happened to me since I was a toddler on a staircase.” Unless deliberately forgotten. Unless forced to be forgotten. “While my decision process was very vague at the time, I do possess excellent hindsight.”
“So you regret it,” John says. “Is that the closest you’ll get to an apology?”
“John, that wasn’t even near an apology.”
“Excellent hindsight,” Sherlock stresses. “Regret would imply a different set of consequences were possible. As I’ve proven chronically incapable of making rational decisions involving you, that seems highly unlikely.”
“That’s no excuse, Sherlock. I’m not that good of a shag.”
“Of course not, you’re a terrible shag.”
The reflexive insult fires and John kicks him beneath the table just as quickly. Sherlock attempts a counterattack but is almost immediately outmatched. His ankle caught between John’s legs, those sturdy shins like a vice, he tugs to no avail. Ultimately, he unleashes his best glare.
Sherlock glares all the harder, John laughs on, and giggles take them both.
“Stop it,” John gasps. “I’m still- I’m still furious. Oh, god, my stomach.”
But Sherlock’s laughing, still tugging for his foot back, they’re both still laughing, and the pain of it is good. Strain of the body rather than the mind.
When the laughter runs out, John is tired and flushed, eyelids heavy and face relaxed. His legs keep Sherlock’s foot trapped beneath his chair.
After so long without, even the slightest contact is enough to silence Sherlock’s thoughts. Impossible and true, this new reality ought to frighten, should frighten, yet all he can feel is a vague, humming satisfaction and a fierce, gnawing hunger. He wants and needs and cannot do.
“Liar,” John murmurs. He hasn’t the breath for more. This is why his voice is so soft. There isn’t breath for more.
“Oh, what now?”
“That’s not how you look at a terrible shag.”
“Of course it is,” Sherlock counters, mouth dry. “It’s how I look at you and you’re the worst I’ve ever had.”
“Two months of lying, how did you manage? You’re rubbish at it.” John looks, John looks almost fond, which is wrong. Which is Sherlock seeing things incorrectly. He’s missing something, must be missing something, but he looks and looks and keeps on looking. John is pained and John is irked and John is saddened, but John is also very fond. Which is wrong, this is wrong, how is this happening?
He feels dizzy.
“John,” he warns.
“Sherlock,” John counters. Beneath the table, his legs are very warm.
Scent directs memory. The familiar odours of the gatehouse attempt to redirect his mind, an effect only worsened by the touch. Confrontation and amusement shouldn’t be paired on John’s face. Together, they turn his name into a flirt, and Sherlock is surprised by how thoroughly it devastates.
He extracts his foot. “If you’re fine, there’s no reason for me to stay-”
“I’ve a question. About Angelo. An idea, actually.”
Sherlock stops. “Yes?”
“Do you know what he sees when he looks at you?” John asks. “I mean, does he actually see a child?”
“He thinks he sees a child.”
“Have you ever asked him to draw you?”
“Once,” Sherlock replies. “He began noticing discrepancies and took to it poorly.”
“Bit not good, then?”
“Bit not good.”
“What if he doesn’t, I don’t know.” There it is, the unconscious display of tongue. Sherlock has missed it. “If he doesn’t recognize you from behind, does he see a man?”
“Yes,” he confirms. “It panics him.”
“Because you’re older?”
“Because I’ve vanished.”
John’s mouth opens, a circle of surprise. “That’s... complicated. Have you ever spoken to him as someone else? Disguised yourself?”
“Yes.” Undisguised and unintentionally, the first time. “It solves nothing.”
“But he’d believe you have glamour then,” John points out.
“And thoroughly resist whatever this strange man was trying to do to him,” Sherlock adds. “It doesn’t work.” Not with Sherlock’s current skill set.
“Oh,” John says.
“Is that all?”
“Ye- No.” John shakes his head. “No. I mean.”
“It’s, well. It’s something I want cleared up.”
“John, you want everything explained to you.”
“And?” John prompts. “You’ve never complained before.”
True, but irrelevant. The last thing he needs is for John to be attentive and thoughtful. “Last question, then I leave.”
“Oh,” John says, and says nothing more.
“What?” he demands. “Out with it.”
John will not have out with it. He turns his face away as if slapped, his eyes closed and jaw set. Beneath the table, his legs pull away, are tucked beneath his chair.
John shakes his head. Still without looking at Sherlock, he says, “Never mind. Forget it, it’s not important.”
His chair scraping against the floor, Sherlock stands. “Then why bring it up in the first place? Are you trying to waste my time?”
John’s shoulders are hunched, hands folded and clenched about each other. For all he appears small, he is visibly defiant. He visibly teeters on the edge of speech.
“And why,” Sherlock slowly questions, “would you try to do that?” If John wanted to lay an ambush, there were simpler, quicker ways. He could have watched for Sherlock’s approach from the ladder behind the gate, crossbow in hand.
“Because once I stop, you’ll leave.”
John spits the words and immediately winces at their sound.
“I should be telling you to go,” the soldier continues. “God, I should be shouting it. I should be shoving you out the fucking door, but I can’t and I hate it.” He squeezes shut his eyes, a man holding tight to his own desperation, warring to keep it contained. “I need to stop talking, I can’t stop talking.”
“It’s- It’s fine,” Sherlock replies. Syllables turn unsteady. “I can see myself out.”
“Don’t,” John orders. The word breaks under its wielder’s strain. “I shouldn’t ask you to- I don’t- Sherlock, please.” He reaches. His upturned palm supplicates.
Sherlock navigates the table, taking that hand. Again the scrape of chair on floorboards and John, still seated, perched, pulling Sherlock into his arms, hiding his face in the folds of Sherlock’s coat. Standing between his legs, Sherlock clutches him closer still. As if physical contact were a convincing argument, Sherlock secures him with grasping hands and a reciprocal lean.
Barely a mumble: “I need to stop talking.”
“I really do.”
They hold until it hurts. Longer.
“Are you forgiving me?” Sherlock asks.
John laughs something low and broken. “God, no. Not hating you doesn’t mean I haven’t tried.”
With no attempt at subtlety, Sherlock slips his fingers into John’s hair.
“You’re an arse,” John tells him. “I need to invent new insults for you.”
“Difficult. I’ve already heard most of them.”
Another laugh, very small and yet infinitely improved. John shifts his face. His arms encircle Sherlock’s waist like a tangle of climbing vines too precious to tear. “I’d like to hate you,” John remarks, conversational though muffled. “That would be so simple.”
“Simple is boring.” Complicated is standing between the legs of a man honour-bound to kill him, simply standing there and stroking blond strands. Complicated is a thirst for skin as well as blood, is an unending fog of need. “I like a challenge.”
“Is that why? Go for the gatekeeper, that seems difficult?”
It was raining. Even so, he could have waited. Was it more than the rain? He looks at the top of John’s head, pressed hard against him. “I wanted to be near you.”
“That’s a shit reason.”
John pulls back. He pulls back and rubs at his eyes. Sherlock’s hand trails out of his hair, hovers between them.
“I’m not crying, I’m just tired.” As he says this, he bristles, then sags a bit. “Keep dreaming about....” He shakes his head, but it doesn’t matter. This close, Sherlock can smell him. He recognizes the scent immediately. For anyone else, it would be nothing close to fear. For John, it is fear’s sweeter cousin. Heavy rather than sharp, a musk rather than a stink.
“About me,” Sherlock finishes, voice low. The scent spikes.
“Never said you couldn’t be both,” John replies.
Sherlock touches his face, fingertips across stubble.
John closes his eyes. “I should tell you to go,” he reminds them both.
John nods, his warm cheek scratching Sherlock’s skin. “It’s not safe here.”
Sherlock bends down, contorting himself, and takes a kiss.
John freezes. Exhales.
Breath between lips. Their noses brush.
Sherlock eases back.
John presses close.
The scent of him.
Delicate touches. The slow winding of arms about necks. John’s tongue, ever tempting. Light grows hard, shallow turns deep, and Sherlock jerks away, covering his mouth with his hand. He leans heavily against the table.
Without blanching, without flinching, John watches. “You can’t help it, can you?” he asks. So calm, his soldier.
Retracting his teeth requires a moment of struggle, but he manages it all the same. “I can help it just fine, thank you. Thirty-six days in is simply not a good time.” Over a month without release: he’s been told that’s a long time. It certainly feels it.
John blinks up at him, eyes dark. “I mean,” John says, “you need it.”
“Want isn’t need,” he corrects. “I don’t-”
“You can do it.”
“-have to- What did you say?”
A swallow: nervous motion turned unknowingly seductive. John holds his gaze all the same. “I said, you can do it.”
Why, he nearly asks. What could change any mind so quickly? How far beyond mere tolerance will this be taken?
What he asks instead is, “Yes, but do you want it?”
“I’ve thought about it,” John admits. “The biting.”
First is numb disbelief.
Second is everything else.
They’re kissing in an instant. No, Sherlock is kissing in an instant and John in a moment. Surprise, not hesitation, therefore irrelevant. Pulling at him, John stands, a surge of motion into his arms, against his chest. Sherlock longs to kneel, to fall to his knees and take, but John forces his head back, a hard, steady tug at his hair. It’s John who bites, the first graze of teeth better than any kiss.
Sherlock twists in his grip, a feigned struggle. John shoves him against the table, onto the table, shoves hips between thighs. John presses. Tongue against pulse. Cock to the joining of thighs.
Sherlock swears, words borrowed from a soldier. His legs lock around John, seize him. His body knows what to do, how to hold, how to beg and demand without a single, breathless word. He’s gasping, flushed, tortured. John is hot and hard, and Sherlock needs to drink him down.
Each time he tries, John yanks back his head and mouths at his throat.
“Tactician,” Sherlock curses. He tries.
John’s pleased hum rumbles against his jugular.
Sherlock needs a rebuttal. Can’t find one. Can barely breathe.
When John stops, he stops entirely. He freezes, body tense and alert. His hand keeps Sherlock in check.
A moment later, there’s a knock at the door.
Sherlock is undeterred.
“No,” John whispers, sounding for all the world as if he’s chastising a young dog. “I have to take this.”
“Thirty-six days, John.”
“I know,” he replies. A press of lips to jaw. “You’ll want to wait for me in the loft, then.”
Sherlock closes his eyes very tightly, which does nothing to help with his sudden dizziness.
John presses at his knee, bidding legs to release as the knocking resumes.
“Oi!” John yells. “Can’t a bloke take a piss? Hold on!” He looks pointedly at Sherlock, then shoves him a bit, then glares at the bulge in his own trousers.
Somehow, they manage it. Relocated off to a corner, out of sight of the small window, Sherlock dumbly watches as John reverts into a polite and efficient guard. Whoever it is outside is well-known, which makes it quick. When John heads to the door to the bridge, he locks eyes with Sherlock and nods at the ladder.
John exits, and Sherlock is left inside alone.
He climbs the ladder. He sits beside the mattress. It smells more like Bill than John.
He removes his boots.
He fumbles around the edges of his mind, searching for coherent thought.
Time fails to pass.
Then the door, and John.
John alone. There’s a fear assuaged.
John hurried. There’s another.
Footfalls on the floor below, rapid to the ladder, then stopped, then reversed. Gone to the window. The chest, opened, closed. An item retrieved but not searched for. Footsteps to the ladder, faster than before.
Feet on the ladder and the click of a jar set on wood, John setting it onto the boards before hauling himself up. His crawl toward Sherlock is nothing close to clumsy. John knows how to be on his hands and knees. “We’ll have to time this,” he warns.
“Yes, yes, I know, I’m not stupid.” He reaches and John thwarts him, a steady push of a palm on his chest. In the slowest collapse he’s ever known, he falls onto his back.
John rises above him and presses him onto the mattress. His hands are familiar guests, and welcome. “That’s not the last interruption. And it’s been awhile, hasn’t it? You’ll be tight.”
“I am.” The pressure beneath his skin, the need forcing him taut, that’s normal? “I’m tight, John, I’m positively aching.”
The burst of John’s arousal spills through the air, a scent thick enough to coat the tongue. “You need me inside you that much.” John’s eyes are dark, shadowed in the depth of his voice.
“Yes.” Confirmation, not begging. Let him drink. Stop fussing with Sherlock’s buttons and belt and see to his own. Even through cloth, his touches torture. Sherlock catches at his wrists. “I’ll do it myself. I’m faster. Take off your trousers.”
John smirks in the dim light of the loft but does as told. He sits on the mattress in his smallclothes and shirt, but Sherlock’s eyes are on his leg, on the faint marks on his right thigh.
“God, those teeth.” John stares without recoiling. He must be staring. Sherlock doesn’t look to see, too focused on his return to John’s femoral.
He leans in and John lets him. He mouths at warm flesh and John lets him. He hums a low glamour and John tugs at his hair.
“No,” John tells him. “Let me feel it.”
“It will hurt,” Sherlock articulates. He’s done this once before, only the once, twelve and without glamour: two children believing themselves older, Molly believing herself invulnerable and Sherlock believing himself ready. Her response to the pain had been so immediate. This time, he knows the mistake for what it is. Even so, teeth descended, body curled over John’s legs, he can’t stop for more than that moment.
John seizes his hand and forces it over tented smallclothes. “Bite,” John orders.
His teeth pierce tense flesh. The push and the give, fine hairs and elasticity. Blood welling up, leaking around the stoppers of his teeth. John’s cock jerks in his hand, within their hands, as Sherlock begins to suck and lick. Through the bliss of scent and taste, Sherlock braces for the panic, for the pain of a blow to his head and his teeth ripped from flesh.
“Oh fuck,” John says as if from a distance. “Oh fuck,” he says again, coming closer.
Sherlock retracts, so gently, and thick liquid begins its spill into his mouth. He swallows and swallows, the sound of it obscene. Blood begins to escape his mouth, pulsing out from John’s skin, across John’s skin, and he traps it with his cupped hand.
“Your fault,” John gasps. “Kept wanking off to this, god, your fault. Don’t know if I’m bleeding or fucking anymore. Both in my head, fuck, look at you.” John’s hand is warm and heavy, riding the back of his head. “Still sounds like you’re sucking my cock.”
Sherlock can feel it, inside. So quickly now, from his mouth to his cock, his body nearly trained. He grows heavy, then hard, so very painfully hard. He groans into John’s skin, licking the puncture clean, licking it closed. He needs nothing more, nothing more than this and his own hand.
He touches himself. Fruitless nights and wasted effort: gone. Erased. Nothing but this. Sobbing, shattering relief.
He shakes and twitches in the aftermath. Blood, arousal, spilt seed, John. All heady scents. His mouth is against bloodied skin. He licks. Slow. Languid. John’s hand eases through his hair.
“Don’t stop.” Sherlock doesn’t mean to murmur. He doesn’t mean anything at all. He has no priorities, none. His body sprawled over John’s legs. His seed on the floorboards. Warm blood indulgent in his cock. There can be nothing more than this.
“Clean it up,” John instructs. His fingers stroke. “If I’m going to bleed, make it count.”
He hums his compliance, tonguing his way over John’s thigh. His hand leaves his cock, half-hard, half-spent, and returns to John’s flagging erection. His other hand, he licks clean.
“Are you done?”
John rolls him off, puts him in a loose-limbed sprawl on his back. Sherlock hears himself giggle. He gazes up at John, serious John with his shirt and his pitying eyes. John touches his face, so careful to touch his blood-smeared cheek.
“You’re usually cleaner,” John says, his voice matching his furrowed brow.
“Usually have to be.” He feels himself smile, lips curling over hidden teeth. “That was lovely.”
John stares down at him. His touch does not waver. He looks very sad.
Naked and yet so very warm, Sherlock closes his eyes and basks in the thrumming of his senses. Thoughts resurface, seek to categorize. This too is fine.
“It’s really the same to you, isn’t it?” John asks. His fingers follow bone structure, cheekbone, nose, and jaw.
“Eating and release.”
“Mm.” His body presses up, seeking John’s wandering palm. “Drinking. I don’t chew.”
“Yeah, well.” John’s fingers circle across his skin, drawing closer to what must be pleasure. His body has no other reason to squirm into the touch. “It’s not what I thought. Glad to be wrong. Don’t much fancy myself as prey.”
Sherlock laughs. He smiles up at John and at last remembers that he too has hands for reaching, for touching and holding. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
John licks his own thumb, then smudges the blood away from Sherlock’s mouth. “That’s really disturbing.” This is presumably the reason why no kisses follow. “Not actually the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s up there.”
“Then why are you still half hard?”
“Because,” John replies, “I am not a very sane man and you’ve made me worse.”
“Yes. Now you stay here while I check if anyone’s on their way.” John touches his bitten thigh where saliva has clotted the bleeding, giving it an odd look as he goes for his trousers. “Don’t want to be interrupted for the next bit.”
Whatever the “next bit” is, Sherlock waits for it beneath familiar blankets. John’s right about the timing. Gate duty takes him far too long. Sherlock nearly dozes before John is finished.
“Think that’s it.” John climbs back into the loft, onto the mattress, snagging that jar on his way. “Should be a few more later in the afternoon, but that’s plenty of time. Roll over, love, on your front.”
If only to hide his smile, Sherlock complies. The coarse fabric feels decadent against his skin. Everything feels decadent.
John peels away the blankets, mouthing at the back of his neck. His hands stray down Sherlock’s spine, stray lower still, and Sherlock groans. John’s hands on his arse. How did he forget how much he adores this? That bit they did before, John’s cock between his thighs, hot and sliding, colliding with his sac; can they do that again?
The scent of arousal begins to fill up his head once more. John. John squeezing, teasing. John John John. “Whatever you’re thinking, yes,” Sherlock attempts to say. His voice is a low, half-broken croak.
John’s circling thumb presses against his hole.
Sherlock stops breathing.
He nods into the pillow, nods and nods and nods, frantic for what he hadn’t known he wanted. John inside him in every way.
The loss of warm hands. He cries out. John curses, praises. A cold, slick touch, so startling. He cries out a second time, protest into desperation. He’s heard of this, of course he’s heard of this. Without John’s touch, the concept always seemed ridiculous and undignified. With John, there is nothing he does not want. John won’t let it hurt.
“God, you’re tight.” Fingertip between his clenching cheeks, solid body draped awkwardly across his longer form. The cool touch warms. “Are you going to cooperate or not?”
“Tell me,” Sherlock urges.
John chuckles against his shoulder. “Oh, so you do like to be told. It wasn’t just for the glamour, then? You need my voice before I fuck you.” With that, he begins to speak. Commanding and filthy, more demand and sweet threat than instruction. “With me. With me now.”
The first breach.
No breath. None.
Stasis breaks. Pushes.
Warmth and pressure. In his arse, not his crotch. No, crotch as well. Both. Can barely think of his prick, heavy against the mattress. John inside him. Burning. Flesh within his body. Feels wrong. In a good way, he assures himself. He’ll like this. In a moment, he’ll like this.
“Up,” John orders. John shifts behind him, focuses there. “On your knees. Let’s have you do the work.”
He rises. Struggles. He can’t. John’s finger, hand, held there. He pushes back, hands and knees, the stretch terrible, exquisite. Skewered.
“First knuckle,” John reports. “You can do better than that.”
He tries. He does his best, his very best, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He keens when John begins to twist, begins to work the digit. He feels the hot drag where nothing moves, where nothing is meant to move, John has filled him, John is filling him. Sherlock twitches and twitches around him. Endless.
More from the jar, cool against the burn, coolness pressed slick inside. The wet sounds of his own arse and John’s low, predatory words. John’s cock, rocking against his hip.
“Open for me, Sherlock. Open before I fuck you open.”
John’s cock against his hip yet it happens all the same, fucked open, forced open, too much, please more, it hurts not enough. Pressure through his arse, thicker than before, what is, is that, yes, John, two fingers.
“Breathe. I have you.”
Sherlock breathes. John has him.
There’s a difference here, a depth where Sherlock’s body understands John as John, knows to clutch and clench and draw him deeper still. John peppers the small of his back with pretty curses. His soldier moves, reaches for something. Sherlock’s belt lands near his hanging head.
“Bite that if you’re going to scream.”
With that, John moves his fingers. Opposite directions.
Screaming is not the word.
Moaning is not the word. Nor shouting. Nor begging.
There is no word.
John doesn’t stop.
Cock against his flank. Rubbing, leaking. He can smell it. So hot. Then removed, then gone, then cold, then John’s mouth on him, John’s teeth, John biting so sharp shining.
Nothing else. Not ever.
His arms give out. Face against the mattress, hot air between mouth and tooth-marked leather. Everything trembles.
John’s fingers twist, movement, intrusion. They drag against his pull. They leave. Empty – normalcy turned foreign, turned strange and unwanted.
Sherlock sobs before he gasps.
Thick, thick at his hole.
He sobs again, nodding at John’s voice.
Slow, slow. Burning tight. Hand on his hip. Fingertips into flesh.
There’s no more. There’s no space left inside. Not an inch, not a breath. Slick heat stretches. Pulse pounding inside him, human heartbeat. Hot breath on his back, on cooling sweat. Slow.
Head on folded arms. Fingers fisted into mattress.
John across him, against him, over him, inside. Mouth at the trembling curve of his spine. Hips a slow press into his arse. More space left. How? Too much of them both, not enough, John, more. Cold air fails against his skin. John blazes through them both. Sherlock’s cock jumps against his stomach.
His hand on John’s, his hand pleading John’s, begging a touch to his ache.
“God, that’s lovely,” John praises. “Are you going to fuck my hand? You are. You’re going to fuck my hand while I fuck your arse. How does that sound?”
He bites the belt and whimpers.
“Gorgeous.” John’s teeth scrape his skin. “When I pull your hair, come for me.”
His hole clenches. Seizes.
His soldier swears. His hand slaps down, open and percussive. Tight flesh burns bright. John squeezes pain into agony and it splinters into sharp, biting shards.
He’s sucking air through his nose, body shaking. He clenches and clenches, straining, squirming backward, a clumsy impaling, and John hits him again, harder. He spits out his belt before he bites through it.
“Don’t come yet,” John orders. “Not. Yet.”
“Then fuck me,” he gasps.
Hard, painful slaps, harder than his hand, better. Again. Again. Harsh hand turned gentle, loose around his cock. Not enough, not enough, not even the dragging burn, not the extraordinary press of too much. The gasping void between each thrust. Knees between his feet. He crumples in half. A stranger’s voice sobs for John.
Fingers fist, in hair, around cock. Hands pull. John grows bigger, how is he, no, Sherlock clenches, he’s clenching, he shatters and shakes, gasping into damp cloth. John’s hips stutter stutter press. John’s cock jerks inside him, pulses wet warm. John’s hand moves, stroking sensitive until the end.
After, when there is an after, they huddle beneath blankets. John curls behind him, flaccid against the small of his back. Fingers rough in texture but smooth in touch, they trace him, set him twitching with hitching sighs. He hurts. Nearly all of him. He aches so empty.
“Run away with me,” he whispers.
John kisses the back of his neck. “No.”
“Please.” He rolls over, his body protesting every inch. Their foreheads together, their breath mingling, their legs instantly entwined. His fingertips trace the scrape of John’s cheek. Their heat and combined scent fills the loft. This is how they fit. Surely John must see that. “You could come, I have the means.”
John gazes back, quiet and steady. “No.”
“If I were human,” he begins.
John kisses shut his mouth. He kisses it shut as if to seal it. “If you were,” John replies, “you would be a very different man.”
Sherlock closes his eyes.
“You could make me.” John’s hand curls around his nape. “Or you could make me keep you here. Bugger you every day until you couldn’t walk away. But that would take a different man, too, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sherlock agrees, and hopes he’s not lying. He can’t stand the thought of letting go, can only hope not to think.
“Yes,” John echoes. “I’d like to keep you, though. I doubt I’d take much convincing. Barely any.”
Sherlock kisses him quiet. “Stop tempting me.”
“I wouldn’t, though,” John insists and proves it, bundling Sherlock in the circle of his arms. “Stay until morning? I know it’s barely afternoon, but- Stay until morning?”
He nods, sheltered in human warmth. The peace of it nearly lasts. Given slow moments to think, to want for something more than John’s steady breath upon his temple, Sherlock sulks against John’s chest. His petulance isn’t enough to stand against reality, but he can try. Until John stops petting the ache of his back, he can try.
“Are you certain you won’t come with me?”
“Sherlock, the only way I could go is west. You’d be killed.” John forestalls argument with a firm massage to the scalp. Only once Sherlock is thoroughly beyond speech does John pull away with a sigh. “I need to put my clothes back on. You know now’s a bad time of day.”
“I hate your job.”
John twitches his mouth away from amusement, already pulling on his shirt. “That’s fair, considering. Go on, button me up.”
Sherlock does. This is a slow, tactile goodbye. They have far too many of these.
“You too,” John urges. “Can’t have you shitting my seed into the pot stark naked.” He pauses, obviously considering it. “Unless you’d rather do that. You could, I wouldn’t stop you.”
Sherlock rolls his eyes.
“You might want to dress, though.” He kisses the corner of Sherlock’s mouth and disappears down the ladder.
Given time for light dozing and a great deal of pained hissing, Sherlock follows. On the ground, the pain is far less endearing. As are his expulsions into the chamber pot. The numbing cold of water from the barrel helps only somewhat.
John watches him with a troubled, guilty expression. He helps with the water and damp cloth. He touches Sherlock as if he’s become fragile in the short time since their lovemaking. It only worsens as Sherlock’s muscles stiffen, as he tries to sit and gasps into pain.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” John says. By now, he’s given up his attempts to air out the room. Their combined scent remains heavy around them.
“Don’t,” Sherlock snaps. “You don’t get to take that back.”
John shakes his head. “I just meant, you’ll have a hard time walking to Euston.”
Sherlock is far from mollified but is interrupted by the sound of horses from outside. Two, by the sound of it. Rare for the area. “Go mind your precious gate.”
John slides their palms together, links their fingers. “And if it’s another draughtsman?” Soothing circles from a thumb, urging him calm. Sherlock refuses. John simply slips in closer, brushing their noses together. Sherlock can taste his grin as he says, “I mean it. It could happen out here. I’m the first line of defence, not the last. What if a different man puts me under glamour?” The playful edge to John’s tone soon wears thin. It fails to flirt, not like him at all.
Outside, a door opens, closes. A carriage?
“John, I told you a week ago. Why-”
“Tell me again,” John interrupts. His grip on Sherlock’s fingers turns tight, close to grinding his bones. His gaze is even harder. “You said if another draughtsman took me, you’d stab him. You said that.”
Footsteps outside. Someone whistling a cheerful tune.
“Swear this time,” John adds. “Right now, swear it.”
The whistling trills to a finish directly outside the door.
A complicated knock on the wood, a rapid rhythm.
John drops his hand. “Oh,” he says, looking over his shoulder. “I should get that.”
“John, I swear,” Sherlock tells him. Too late, too late.
“You swear what?” John asks, already pulling away. “Look, you don’t have to hide, but I have to get that.”
“Don’t.” He follows with limping steps. “Don’t open the door. You need to go across the bridge – you need to stay there. John, stop.”
John doesn’t stop.
“John, come here, I need you,” Sherlock urges. He catches John’s arm and tugs.
John turns and shoves him, hard, his palm striking just below the sternum. Sherlock doubles over, winded, his lungs as empty as John’s eyes.
He hears the rasp of naked steel. Crouched at the side of the table, straining for air, he looks up at the casual weight of a sword in John’s hand, the glint of it as John unbolts the door.
“He’s still here, sir,” John reports to the figure outside, drawing open the barrier one-handed. He steps back, stands aside, and points to Sherlock with the tip of his blade. “Didn’t take much to stall him. What now?”
Jim Moriarty steps into the gatehouse with a wide smile. He claps his hands together, gleeful as John shuts the door behind him. “Stand down, Johnny,” he answers, flashing Sherlock a grin. “It’s time your plaything and I had a talk about Michael Stamford.”
VERY SERIOUS WARNING: ahead is a very sadistic Moriarty with mind control powers. Warnings include blood, knives, threats of immense physical harm, sexualized creepiness, implications of sexual creepiness, humiliation, and general mindfuckery. Pretty sure that covers it.
Doubled over, a panicked haze between him and breathing, Sherlock tries to think.
Moriarty is incongruous. He doesn’t fit in the gatehouse, doesn’t fit against the backdrop of rushing water. Too pristine, his clothing too fine. The slightest rumple of travel by carriage, travelling for some days, but not on end. From where, where did he come from?
Behind him, a second man. Human by the scent, alert in the eyes, and very clearly armed. Controlled, but not quite a thrall. There’s insufficient space in the gatehouse for four men, much less four men with multiple drawn swords. Moriarty waggles his fingers at his bodyguard. “Make sure we aren’t interrupted, won’t you?”
The bodyguard nods and steps outside. The bar is down on the door as he closes it, keeping the door ajar. The thin line of daylight is an obvious threat.
Tsking, Moriarty wrinkles his nose. “Whatever have you kept me waiting for, Sherlock?” One hand in his pocket, he waves the other before his face in the faux attempt to fan away the heavy scent of coupling. “Oh dear.”
Sherlock pushes himself up, leaning heavily on the table. Straightening puts new strain on his back, his legs. His arse aches and burns. He strives for air, for anything, and his attempted speech is nothing more than broken syllables and coughing.
John isn’t even looking at him. His eyes rest on Moriarty’s face with the expectancy of a soldier toward a favoured commander.
“Careful,” Moriarty warns Sherlock. “Take your time. It’s nothing you haven’t taken already. Feel free to sit. If you can.”
Sherlock does not sit down, not simply because he can’t. His hands on the table, his arms shaking. “What are you doing here?”
“I was invited,” Moriarty declares, voice lilting. He withdraws his hand from his pocket and waves a slim slip of paper at Sherlock. It curls, clearly a note carried by wing. A prearranged summons, it must be. “Even the stupidest thrall can send a signal. The question is, what are you doing here?” He bounces on the balls of his feet. “Besides being fucked in the arse, I can see that.”
John’s mouth quirks.
There is no more breathing.
Moriarty laughs and laughs. Then he cuts his laughing short. “But honestly, Sherlock.” His eyes are as serious, as sharp as the sword in John’s hand. “What’s this I hear about you running off? Darling, we had a deal.”
“A dare,” Sherlock corrects.
“Don’t be such a child. Not that you can help it, can you, poor thing.” Moriarty pulls out Sherlock’s chair and sits, the door at his back and John at his shoulder. “Let’s try to talk like adults, shall we?”
“In front of the gatekeeper?” Sherlock counters. “Let’s not talk like idiots. He may not be fluent, but does understand what we’re saying.”
Moriarty smiles on. “You say that as if it matters.” He twists in the chair, lifting his hand. His knuckles rest over John’s stomach as he gazes up at the soldier. “Do you remember me when I’m gone?” he asks in Anglic.
“No, sir,” John answers.
“Do you try to?”
“Of late, yes, sir.”
“Aww,” Moriarty coos. “How sweet.” His fingertips slip through the buttons of John’s shirt, hooking there. He smiles at Sherlock. “Isn’t he sweet? And so obedient. Does everything I tell him to – including you, as it turns out.” He looks up at John. “Was it good?”
“Had better, wasn’t bad.”
“Did he beg for it?”
“Well, he always does, doesn’t he.”
Moriarty laughs his delight. John ducks his chin, his smile but half-hidden.
“Stop it,” Sherlock snaps. “This is juvenile.”
“So is being sidetracked by a piece of flesh.” Moriarty tugs at John’s shirt. “And a damaged one at that. No offense, Johnny.”
“I know how I am,” John answers with a vague shrug. The left, wounded shoulder, rising and falling, the sword still in his right hand.
“But you are very good at taking orders. Do you remember those while I’m gone?”
“But you do follow them.”
For the first time, John registers complaint. “Of course I do, sir.”
“How long has he been under your glamour?” Sherlock demands. He leans forward across the table, his hands on the wood, his locked arms like columns. He stands in a frozen lunge, heart pounding. “You didn’t come out here before I did, not personally.” Moriarty wouldn’t have. Surely he couldn’t have. “You can’t take what’s mine. My claim has seniority.”
Sherlock’s eyes snap up to John. “What?”
“What claim?” John repeats. “You gave yours up. Last week. You took your glamour off me.”
“John, you don’t understand what’s happening.”
“No, I think I do,” John counters. “You told me last week, the way it’d work with Angelo. I’m smarter than you think I am, Sherlock. I know who I belong to.”
“He wants Mike Stamford dead,” Sherlock snaps. “The doctor who saved you, dead. Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” John answers. “It’s a very clever ploy, actually. Mike’s one hell of a lynchpin, when you think about it. And we’ve still got Clara for a doctor, so that’s all right.”
“John, you’re still-” Sherlock turns on Moriarty. “John is still my bloodmate. That supersedes glamour rights.”
Moriarty rolls his eyes. “You sentimental southern weakling. Feeding on an animal doesn’t make it special. You even believe in interspecies marriage, don’t you?”
“That’s different from ‘bloodmates,’ right?” John asks.
“Do you still have to, I don’t know, propose?” John continues, half-asking. “I’m sure that never happened. You’ve never even called me a bloodmate before, not once.”
Sherlock pulls back. Pulls away. Movement hurts but, standing, Sherlock is the tallest man in the room. The height is almost comforting, if anything could be comforting. “There’s no point in talking to him like this,” he acknowledges. He’s known that since Moriarty walked in through the door, but he can’t seem to stop.
“You’ve never minded before,” John counters. “I don’t see what the fuss is about.”
Moriarty touches him yet again, soothing motions through his shirt. He draws John nearer, hand slipping around his back, arm around his waist. “Some of us get so sentimental about our pets, Johnny boy.”
“I’ve noticed,” John remarks dryly. His stance over Moriarty is protective, his expression fond.
“Stop it.” Sherlock’s throat has gone tight. “You want me to get Stamford for you. I understand that.”
“I don’t think you do,” Moriarty replies. “I think you’ve become confused about your little priorities.”
“They’re very clear now. We can move on.”
“I hope you’re not still running away.” Moriarty leans into John, shoulder against his side, and rests his head against John’s ribs. Pouting, he shakes his head, smearing his scent over John’s shirt. He singsongs, voice high and sharp: “Because there would be consequences...!”
“I’d rather not be killed on your behalf, thanks,” John adds.
“John for Stamford, then.” John won’t forgive him, not if John is anything like the man Sherlock thinks he is, but that’s better than John deceased.
“Oh, Sherlock,” Moriarty laments. “You make this sound like a hostage situation.”
“This is a hostage situation.”
“He’s got a point,” John says agreeably.
Moriarty waves the hand not on John. “Yes, but you’re very cooperative.”
John smiles back. “Thank you, sir.”
“The stakes are higher than you realize, Sherlock, my dear,” Moriarty continues. “It’s always been their blood for ours. Why should this be any different?”
Because it is different. Because symbiosis is more logical than parasitism. Because John’s hand is on the back of Moriarty’s chair – Sherlock’s chair – and John is standing guard over the man who would kill him.
Sherlock’s reply sticks in his throat, trapped by John’s neutral gaze.
“Shall I walk you through it?” Moriarty offers. “Or Johnny here? There’s not much in his head, but he does know his way around a battlefield.”
“You want to rekindle the war,” Sherlock responds. “The truce is young and both sides are posturing. If Mayhew’s doctor dies in Bryant’s territory, both sides have complaint. But how do you profit?”
“How do we profit,” Moriarty corrects. “You and I, our kind.”
“I don’t play politics,” Sherlock dismisses.
“I’m not playing. Am I, Johnny? Am I playing?”
“This isn’t a game, darling.” Moriarty ends his lean against John but his arm remains in place, hooked over hips. “It’s about providing for the children.”
Though an obvious piece of mockery, that should be hint enough. That should be an answer. If he could think it would be. If he could think. If Moriarty weren’t touching John. If Moriarty weren’t controlling him. If Sherlock knew when John was turned into a tool.
Was it from the beginning? Was John’s interest never more than a mocking prank? It’s plausible. The possibility cannot be dismissed: he’s never scented a trace of Moriarty during his time here. Either he came well before Sherlock did or his scent was washed away by the rain.
“No?” Moriarty asks. “Still not following? Explain it for him, Johnny boy.”
“Killing Mike in Bryant’s territory would only bring war if Bryant doesn’t back down when Mayhew threatens him – which he probably will.”
“He will,” Moriarty adds.
“Concessions will have to be made,” John continues. “The first to go would be Lord Mayhew’s forces in the east, along the mountains. Bryant would never admit it, but Lord Mayhew is the main protector of his people from you lot. Lord Mayhew withdraws his troops, Bryant takes the blame, and draughtsman raiding returns in the east. Diminished morale and confidence would make defence tricky.”
“And it all comes down to hunting territory,” Sherlock concludes.
“The children have to drink to grow up, Sherlock,” Moriarty singsongs. “You should know that better than anyone.”
“I know it’s hardly as civilized as that,” he retorts. “Humans will die.”
“That’s what humans do!” Moriarty shouts and slams his fist on the table.
John watches blandly on.
Moriarty follows Sherlock’s gaze. “Some humans,” he amends. “As for which ones, well. That’s your choice, isn’t it?”
Sherlock forces himself to breathe, to think, to function. “You’re already able to breach the eastern patrols. Why do this?”
“Oh, I can breach the patrols,” Moriarty agrees. “But it’s so tedious, doing it all the time. That’s the problem with being in charge, my dear. You give and you give and everyone always wants something more.”
“That’s how much you need this.”
“That’s how much everyone needs this. Cooperate, and parents will name their newborns after you. Refuse and, hm.” Moriarty pauses. “There are so many options, I just don’t know how to choose.” He nudges John’s side. “What do you think, Johnny? What does Sherlock Holmes fear most? Should I fuck you while he watches? I’ll call in my guards and we can all have a time of it.”
John takes a moment before replying, head tilted, tongue caught between his lips.
“He panicked when he thought I was going to kill him,” John says. “Put on one hell of an act, but I think there was some real fear there. Bit leery of knives, this one.”
Moriarty lifts his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Mm. He was still flinching two weeks later. He’s already let me punch him a few times – can’t imagine what I could do if someone held him down.”
“Have you ever flayed someone?” Moriarty asks.
“I’ve skinned a few rabbits,” John answers, eyeing Sherlock thoughtfully. “I don’t think it would be too difficult. Plenty of room on him for practicing.”
Sherlock sits down.
He doesn’t mean to. He doesn’t want to. But he’s much too dizzy to stand. A gasp of pain as he sits, nearly too dizzy for consciousness. White bursts of light fizzle before his eyes, turning red and orange. When they fade, Moriarty is still there, still grinning at him, and John’s indifferent eyes know nothing of mercy.
“John, stop,” he pleads.
“Stop what?” John asks. “We’re only talking, Sherlock.”
“You know you’re being controlled,” he insists. His glamour is as strong as he can make it, anything to bring John back to him. “You can hear it.”
“You can fight it. You-”
“Why would I?” John interrupts, stopping Sherlock entirely. No one interrupts glamour.
Sherlock can’t breathe.
“I don’t mind it,” John continues. “I don’t even remember what’s happening most of the time. When I do, it doesn’t bother me.”
“Because he’s told you it doesn’t.” No more attempt at glamour. No point. The level of complexity Moriarty has worked into John’s psyche is far beyond Sherlock’s skill to unravel.
“Well, yeah,” John says. “It makes things simple. You’re not the only one who likes to be told, love.” He frowns and looks at Moriarty. “Do I still have to be in love with him?”
“No,” Moriarty answers. “Not until he delivers Stamford.”
“Good job on him being a courier, then.”
Moriarty rolls his eyes. “Johnny can be so terribly literal,” he complains. “Can’t you, Johnny?”
John nods, eyes flicking blandly to Sherlock’s face.
“‘Until I deliver Stamford’,” Sherlock repeats. “You’ll trade John, then.” Angelo. Angelo all over again, and worse than any deal Mycroft has ever offered him. Worse than anything he and Mycroft have worked to avoid.
“The way I see it,” Moriarty drawls, “he can love you or he can skin you alive. One or the other, whichever you want. Johnny here doesn’t care one way or another, do you, Johnny?”
“No,” John agrees.
“What was that?”
“No, sir. Sorry, sir.”
Moriarty looks between them both and laughs.
“What’s the deal?” Sherlock demands. “How much of John do I get if I get you Stamford?”
“You can have him back to normal,” Moriarty allows. “What you think of as ‘normal,’ anyway.”
“I want control over the glamour.”
“Obviously.” Moriarty screws up his face. “I’m not stupid, Sherlock. That would be you. I’m not averse to letting you earn him. Do well enough and I’ll transfer the glamour to you.”
Well enough at what? How many jobs? For how long? He’s already been in the north for half a year, been at his current task for months. Angelo will panic. Angelo will try to follow him and Moriarty will snatch him up too. Then Mycroft would involve himself. He’d have no choice but to involve himself.
This can only escalate. Regardless of what Sherlock does, it cannot come to good.
“Will he ever be himself?” Sherlock asks.
“Of course he will,” Moriarty replies. “If he’s told to be.”
“Prove it.” Sherlock leans forward, doing his utmost to hold every wince from his face, every flinch inside his body.
“Bit of a strain for him, isn’t it?” Moriarty remarks, pouting up at John. “Little human mind, switching back and forth. Not everyone is equipped to appreciate genius. It’s very sad. Nightmares and day terrors, poor thing. What else is wrong with you, Johnny?”
“I had a limp that was all in my head,” John says. “Jumped off the bridge headfirst, that got rid of it.”
Moriarty laughs. “Oh, you were broken before I got here.”
“I know,” John says.
“Stop it.” It’s all he can do to keep from shouting. “Can you put him back or can’t you?”
“I can,” Moriarty allows. “Give me a reason.”
“He-” Time to choose.
There’s no choice about it.
“He needs to be normal if I’m to cross into Bart’s.”
Moriarty’s smile sparks across his face and ignites his eyes. “‘Normal’ as you understand it.” Moriarty keeps saying that. “I can put him back.”
“As I....” He looks up at John without intending to, his gaze inexorably drawn.
John quirks his mouth.
Sherlock manages to keep breathing. The dizziness, he can do nothing for. He sinks against the wooden back of the chair, so unforgiving. If he flinches in the process, it’s only from the lack of a cushion. “Normally,” he says. He looks at Moriarty, his vision oddly hazy about the edges. “Who is he normally? As himself.” Moriarty has rewritten so much of the man; it’s impossible for him to be ignorant of the original draft.
“Give me Stamford and you’ll have your chance to see,” Moriarty replies.
Sherlock doesn’t doubt his word. It will be a chance, just that. Enough to keep Sherlock forever moving.
“Fine,” Sherlock answers.
Being able to see the trap hardly prevents him from falling into it.
Moriarty smiles, possibly without affectation. It doesn’t suit him. “You’ll let him across the bridge, Johnny boy,” Moriarty instructs without looking at the man at his shoulder. “No fuss, no muss, no doubting of intentions.”
“Yes, sir.” Eyes on the top of Moriarty’s head, less like a guard dog and entirely like a protector.
“Back to work, Captain Watson. Time to play the lover.”
John nods. He crosses the room, returns his sword to its sheath, and leans the weapon back in its customary place on the wall. That done, he straightens to his full height, cracking his back in a motion Sherlock finds stupidly endearing, even now.
When John turns around, his eyes seek Sherlock’s. His smile is effortless. Reflexive, Sherlock would have once thought. Sherlock’s insides begin to rotate slowly yet firmly to the left. Toward John. Of course toward him.
John’s brow furrows. The man takes one, two, three steps to stand close at his side. He takes no notice of the third man in the room, not so much as a glance. All of his focus is on Sherlock, bent on him in what was once normalcy. He stands close, very close, warming Sherlock’s elbow.
Across the table, Moriarty folds his hands and leans forward, features contorted with amusement.
“Hey,” John murmurs softly. His hand breaks Sherlock’s staring contest with Moriarty. It alights on his cheek and turns his face, tilts his head.
Stiff enough to snap, Sherlock can’t quite comply.
“Someone’s tense.” The off-hand remark is all the warning John gives before strong fingers thread through his hair and begin a gentle massaging of his scalp.
Sherlock bites down on his lip. That prevents his groan. He’ll say it does. He’ll swear it, even as John pulls Sherlock’s traitorous body close, cheek to his shirt. As it always does, John’s scent carries traces of Harry’s, of Clara’s, of wood varnish and sawdust. And now, over those, overriding those, Moriarty.
His body reacts in a way it shouldn’t. It wants John on his knees, John on his back, John with his mouth full of filth and praise and cock. It wants to kill Moriarty. To maim. To torture. It wants to kill Moriarty by fucking John and does not understand that this is entirely nonsensical.
Logic. He needs logic. Still within him, John’s blood retains the power to stir him. He can feel the warm weight of arousal seeping into his crotch. He feels aggression. Jealousy and rage. Biology, nothing more, and yet unconquerable.
Moriarty crows with laughter.
“You all right?” John asks. “You flinched – what’s wrong?”
Sherlock pulls firmly away. He leans in the chair, leans away, looking up. Moriarty’s eyes press against the marks on his bared throat, his eyes and laughter both. Sherlock tells John, “I need to cross.”
“Now?” John asks, brow furrowing. He doesn’t stop reaching for Sherlock. He doesn’t seem to be able to.
Of course he can’t. Moriarty wouldn’t find restraint half so comical.
“Now,” Sherlock confirms. He pushes back the chair and stands.
As he rises, John’s face falls. “You are coming back this way?” John half-asks. His hand seizes Sherlock’s sleeve with a level of force that isn’t reflected in the rest of his body. The motion of his arm: casual. The positioning of his feet: aimed exclusively at Sherlock. And yet the gripping hand is on Sherlock’s right side, hidden by his torso from Moriarty. How unaware is he?
From wary instinct, Sherlock’s body is half-turned toward Moriarty. Never mind that the only true physical threat in the room is John, it’s Moriarty they’re both protecting themselves from.
Sherlock looks at him, at the grinning spider sitting in his web, and John looks too.
“What is it?” John asks. His voice is even, his shoulders relaxed. His hand is shaking.
“What is it, Sherlock?” Moriarty echoes.
John gives no indication of hearing a single word.
“Why wouldn’t I come back this way?” Sherlock asks, careful and slow. As if John’s merely being an idiot.
“You can get to Waterloo from the other side of the river, too,” John points out.
“Can I?” Rhetorical. Aim for rhetorical.
“I won’t stop you,” Moriarty singsongs as John answers, “Please don’t.”
Sherlock only nods, not trusting his voice.
John frowns up at him all the same, ever concerned, ever reaching. “Are you sure you’re all right? I was too rough, wasn’t I?”
Sherlock shakes him off. “It’s fine. I’m fine.” He snatches up his coat, his satchel. “Out the side door, or do you still have to let me in through the gate?”
“We can use the side door,” John answers. He’d be heartbreak incarnate were it not for his hands. Without Sherlock to hold onto, they move without purpose. Checking pockets, touching his knife. His hand fists repeatedly around the hilt only to spasm and fall away.
“None of that now, Johnny,” Moriarty calls. He unfurls from Sherlock’s chair, shrugging his way to his feet. “Be a good boy and you don’t have to kill your baby sister.”
John’s entire body goes still. His hands fall to his sides. His fingers twitch, then remain unclenched. “We can use the side door,” John repeats. He turns, the sharp movement of a soldier at attention, and strides to the egress. He looks to Sherlock expectantly.
They step outside into fresh air. John closes the door behind them, between them and the still-grinning man.
John leads the way and Sherlock follows, neither walking upon the holly path. They know Sherlock now. They trust him.
Halfway across the bridge, John reaches for his hand.
Sherlock gives it to him.
“Please,” John says softly, a Franc word their watchers from the gate won’t understand.
“What is it?” Sherlock answers in like. Another implanted command? Layers of glamour interacting poorly? Or John?
“The drawing,” John continues. His words are broken with disuse and thick with his accent. “You have it in your bag.”
“Do you want me to get rid of it?”
John’s hand clenches around his. “I want you to look. Before you go to Waterloo.”
How would you like me to best remember you? Sherlock’s exact words before sketching him.
“You want me to go to Waterloo.”
“I want you to look,” John repeats, dropping his hand to wave up at Bill.
Sherlock does the same.
The gate opens.
“Afternoon, Sherlock,” Bill greets.
“Hello, Bill,” he replies, already striding past the human.
“Oi,” John calls after him. “No kiss?”
Sherlock’s body moves without thought or permission. It turns and returns and Sherlock catches himself only just in time, John’s breath stroking his lips.
John breaches the remaining distance.
The kiss is dry and light. A press of lips. Hands on his shoulders. A touch of John’s nose.
Sherlock pulls away.
“I’ll look,” he promises in Franc.
“Come back soon,” John answers in kind, voice warm. “I don’t like it in there without you.”
Bill clears his throat.
Sherlock squeezes John’s hand and walks away.
John watches him go, looking for all the world like a love-stricken fool.
The wait in Stamford’s parlour is a long one today. Sherlock sits next to a pair of women, the soothing scent of pregnancy attempting to confuse his mind. He sits with his satchel at his feet and his scarf in his hands. All is slow. Leisurely.
It gives him time to plan. The words, they must be exact. Purposeful. What could convince Stamford to walk to his own death? Could he obscure the destination? Confuse the human into mistaking one gate for the other? And what of Bill? Surely the guard won’t let Stamford pass.
Has Moriarty set his glamour over Bill as well? The man is still a newlywed. Plenty of leverage there.
Sherlock closes his eyes against his own mind. He achieves nothing.
Humans pray, he knows. Some humans. People like Molly, holding the limp fingers of a father’s hand. Angelo, named for some supernatural creature. Not Sherlock, not Victor, none of his family. They have lore, not religion. They are of the earth, their mother of whom they shall not drink. She is dirt and water, and soil does not answer prayers.
He needs words. Words for Stamford, stages of planning. Nothing obvious, something effective.
The women beside him rise and follow Clara out of the room. Belatedly, Sherlock attempts to smile back at Clara. He remembers thinking they were alike, himself and Clara. Those who would have a Watson.
Stop thinking that. Think better. Think of something.
Moriarty has John. Moriarty has him.
Moriarty’s scent on him. Hands on him.
This isn’t helping.
He ignores the pounding of his own heart. Ignores John in the gatehouse, Moriarty at his side, in his ear, in his mind. Ignores the ship at Waterloo, Angelo waiting across the gulf. He can fix this.
“Ah, Sherlock,” Stamford greets. “Afternoon.”
Sherlock’s eyes snap open once more. “Mike.”
Stamford smiles. “I’ll be with you in just a minute.” He gestures to the other human in the room, a man with little hair and a large rash. “Your turn, Alex.”
And then Sherlock is alone.
He waits a minute longer.
When no one else comes, he sets his scarf to the side and opens his satchel between his feet. As promised, he looks.
John. A soldier in the dark. Their first night together. Hours made of misunderstood wanting. The confusion of a kiss. Praise and promises.
He remembers. John, as John wishes to be remembered. Perhaps.
The night Sherlock had drawn this, John had forced promises. The first: no harm will come to Harry. A reaction to Moriarty, to his threats? Sherlock is sworn to Harry’s safety and John is under compulsion to obey or murder. Sherlock is bound to stay. More importantly, Moriarty’s glamour is clearly fragmenting. It’s too much against John’s nature. And yet securing Harry’s safety from him could be exactly what it seemed: a reaction to the threat Sherlock represents.
The second promise is much more troubling.
I will not leave these shores until you know your mind to be whole. As long as you would have these words hold me, this I swear.
He’s no longer certain who the man is. He has an exceptionally poor idea of who he is. But John would hold him to that promise. Anyone would hold him to it. Is this what John wanted him to think? Was that really John asking him to look, or was it Moriarty through him? And if it were John, was it only a version of John, a man turned to honey in Moriarty’s trap?
Slowly, anguish by anguish, Sherlock recognizes that he may never know.
Carefully, carefully, he folds the paper away and returns it to its place. He smoothes it down gently, ascertaining that the corners are unbent.
His hand touches more than paper.
It’s not his coin purse. It isn’t his meagre supply of ink, nor his pipe case. It certainly isn’t his pouch with his signet ring and Irene’s.
He draws it out.
He sniffs it. Wood, leather, metal. John. Not a trace of Moriarty’s scent.
John’s action, then, if not necessarily John’s doing. After taking Sherlock, before Sherlock had dressed. The window of opportunity with Sherlock dazed in the loft and Moriarty yet to arrive.
John did this. Before pressing for a third promise, John did this.
John can still plan.
With that realization, Sherlock can as well.
He speaks with Stamford.
After, he goes to Harry’s workshop. She’s finished the chairs. Today, she’s smoothing the pieces of a cradle, nattering about the expectant mother he’d met in Stamford’s parlour.
“About that brother of yours,” he says once she’s finished.
“He’s devastated about you leaving and if you make it any worse, I’ll kill you,” Harry answers without missing a beat.
“Not actually my question.”
“No. I already know that.”
She looks up from her work. Her hands move still, scraping up one long curl of wood. Is there a word for sawdust when it isn’t dust? He doesn’t know. A shaving, possibly.
“You all right?” she asks.
“Does John ever talk about me?” he asks, which is also not his question.
She laughs a little. “Yeah. I’d say so.”
“What does he say?”
“That you’re vain,” she answers. “Don’t see any reason to encourage you.”
“Then he says good things?”
Harry shakes her head, not a denial but amusement. It’s not enough.
Sherlock clenches his fists and forces the words. They stick in his throat and clash against one another. They’re good words, effective words, and the veracity of them doesn’t matter as long as Harry gives him what he needs.
“I’m in love with your brother,” he tells her, “and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I can leave.”
Harry doesn’t do him the favour of feigning surprise. “Did you just tell me before you told him?”
Harry swears. She menaces him with the scraper, a block of wood with a blade inside. Before he can stop himself, he wonders if it could be used for flaying. “We never spoke.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t,” he answers. “But I need- I need context, Harry. What’s normal for John? Is he attached, is he infatuated, I don’t....” He turns his face into a mask of confusion and helplessness. He is, abruptly, utterly in control of himself. The perfect actor.
“He loves you,” Harry tells him. “For some reason, he thinks you’re observant, but I’m not seeing it.”
“But you know what he looks like when- when in love. I don’t. I wouldn’t even know if he were behaving oddly. If day terrors are normal-”
“They’re not,” Harry corrects. “Not anymore.”
“But I didn’t know that,” Sherlock whinges, as annoying as he thinks Harry can stand. He casts himself as anxious, overly emotional, entirely insecure, and Harry responds by bludgeoning him with common sense.
The only strange point in John’s behaviour is the one Sherlock already knows. It’s the one Sherlock caused himself. The so-called day terror. It had taken John days to tell Harry, then Stamford. But was that days to believe Sherlock’s lie, or days until Moriarty came to glamour him and cover Sherlock’s slip? But how would he have known of it? A third, more plausible option: days until Moriarty’s glamour, already in place, permitted John to speak. Moriarty could have been here before. By virtue of explaining Moriarty’s knowledge of detailed local politics, that scenario is jarringly plausible. Moriarty could have had John under glamour the entire time.
“Y’know,” Harry tells him, “if you really wanted to stay, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
Sherlock shakes his head. “My family,” he says. The catchall excuse.
Harry gives him the stink eye. “You’re not secretly married, are you?”
He laughs. It hurts, a broken bone forcibly set. “No. Not in the slightest.”
They hug goodbye. Moriarty may pick up on her scent. He may not. It’s close enough to John’s and Sherlock is already covered in the human man’s scent. Either way, it hardly matters.
He crosses the bridge with Bill beside him. New information is gleaned in those moments, however much he wishes he were deaf to Bill’s words. He doesn’t particularly want Bill to be supportive of their farce of a relationship. He doesn’t at all want to know Bill is the source of the mysterious jar of slickness, not when some of it is still up his arse.
They say goodbye, Bill lets him out through the gate, and the human laughs when Sherlock promptly knocks on the door of the gatehouse. There could be no good in involving him, provided Moriarty hasn’t involved Bill already.
John lets him in without hesitation.
Sitting before the window, one leg stretched along the length of the trunk, Moriarty arches an eyebrow. “Still no Stamford.”
“I tried,” Sherlock answers.
Moriarty sighs. “Johnny, carve his name into your arm. I don’t care which one, just make it legible.”
John’s knife is immediately in his hand but moves no farther. “Sir, I can’t write.”
Beyond patience, Moriarty glares sullenly at both of them. “Lines, then, eight of them. Forearm, not the wrist. Make it both arms.”
John nods as he pushes up his sleeve. The knife is steady in his hand. Sherlock strikes at the blade with his satchel, then grabs John to the best of his ability.
“I tried!” Sherlock insists. “Don’t hurt him, I tried.”
“And failed,” Moriarty counters.
“Let go, Sherlock,” John snaps, breaking Sherlock’s tenuous grip on his arms. He starts for the knife immediately, the blade lying on the floor. Sherlock lunges for it and John strikes him down. Bright lights fizzling at the edges of his vision, Sherlock grabs at John’s legs instead.
What ensues is a one-man brawl and more pain than a body can comprehend. Sherlock’s hold is broken and renewed, severed and re-established. Sherlock clings to him with tense arms and a limp body, a dead weight, and John falls at last to the floor. On his back, Sherlock knows the game. He knows how to roll and flip John, how to pin. He knows, thanks to John, where to hit. A solid strike downward but John puffs out his breath before impact. Not winded in the slightest, John flips them over with a grunt, shoving Sherlock’s face against wood and thresh. Sherlock tries to roll away, can’t, can only gasp against matted straw as Moriarty slowly claps at the show.
Sherlock stops fighting, goes limp. Surely John will stop, will lunge for the knife.
John forces him onto his stomach, wrenches his arm behind his back.
“Try that again and I will break your fingers,” John informs him.
His knee digs into Sherlock’s back. His hands torque Sherlock’s wrist, his left wrist, and the first absurd thought though Sherlock’s head is, no, stop, I play the violin.
John shifts his grip. He selects the first casualty. Stops before breaking. The leverage is unthinkable. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Sherlock gasps.
“Do I have to break you?”
John releases him. Stands. Retrieves his knife. John leans back against the wall and begins to casually slice open his arm. His jaw is set, his motions steady.
Cradling his aching wrist, Sherlock manages to sit up on the floor. It’s the pressure as much as the twisting. Thresh sticks to his clothing. The increased sunlight and human scent in the room only register when the bodyguard once again pulls the door nearly shut. Sherlock’s stomach sinks as he realizes it had very nearly been two-on-one.
“It’s easier, isn’t it,” Moriarty drawls. “Just letting it happen.”
“I can still get you Stamford.” His voice shakes. He swallows. “I need more time.”
“I’ve been waiting for months, Sherlock,” Moriarty replies. “Months of my people growing ever thirstier. It’s not very nice, making people wait.”
A wet patter falls. John’s blood on the floor. It trails down to the underside of his forearm and drips from his elbow. John’s lips move, shaping numbers rather than pain as he counts.
“No one in the south knows how to control the way you do!” Sherlock rages. “Why come to learn if I already knew? I need more time! More practice! What do you think John was for?”
Moriarty smirks at him. “For growing up, little boy.”
John counts the lines, pointing at each with the crimson-smeared knife. He rolls up his other sleeve.
“Stop this. I can still get you Stamford!”
“But I don’t need Stamford.” Moriarty shakes his head. “Oh, no no no no. I need one of Mayhew’s pawns. One he favours. Stamford was just a challenge. And, oh look, you’ve failed. How lucky we are to have Johnny here instead.”
“No.” He has no other words. This was not the plan.
This was not the plan.
“Of course, Old Mayhew isn’t as fond of Johnny boy as much as he is of Stamford. Shame. A quick death was all it would have taken with Stamford. Oh well!” He grins at John. “You’ll hold still for it, too, won’t you?”
John nods, eyes upon his work. He leans forward, careful to avoid staining his clothing. “Yes, sir. Almost done, sir.”
“I gave you your chance, Sherlock,” Moriarty tells him, mouth twisting into a mournful pout. “You can’t say I wasn’t fair.”
“I can get you into Bart’s,” Sherlock blurts.
Moriarty rolls his eyes. “You can’t even glamour a human out of it.”
“I don’t need glamour,” Sherlock insists. He stands, still cradling his wrist, and retreats to where John keeps the holly. He picks it up in his good hand. He holds it out. “Remember? We have other ways in the south. I can show you.”
“He can’t,” John contradicts. He holds his arms out to the sides, red lines scored and red trails trickling. He drips, drips, drips onto the floor, hurt and wasted. His blanched face grows paler. “He told me. It’s an immunity built up during childhood. Your lot can’t get it, sir.”
“Mm, yes,” Sherlock feigns agreement. “John was so marvellously reassured to hear that.”
Moriarty laughs. “I was starting to wonder if you could lie.”
Sherlock pulls his mouth into a smirk. “Just ask John.”
Moriarty arches an eyebrow in the human’s direction.
“He does, sir,” John answers. “A great deal.”
“I can teach anyone you’d like,” Sherlock continues. “It’s simple once you know how. It would have to be someone loyal. Anyone turning on you with holly in hand stands a good chance of killing you. That man of yours, what was it, Moran. He could fetch Stamford for you. That’s all I ask.” That, and for Moriarty to show him how many of his followers he can smuggle past the eastern border. Moran might not be with him. How many guards will Sherlock have to take into consideration? “I take John, you get Stamford and never worry over holly again.”
Moriarty folds his arms. “I’m listening.”
“A holly shield,” Sherlock answers, groping for the first explanation he can find. A barrier, a barrier no one will notice. Something clear. “There are ways, dried glue over the skin.” He needs to lie. He needs to keep lying until he finds a way out.
“That’s been tried before,” Moriarty dismisses. “Paste crumbles, paint flakes, and varnish only holds the burn.”
“Mine works,” Sherlock promises blindly, lifting his chin in arrogant bluff. “We aren’t without means in the south.”
“I didn’t say paste, I said glue. It peels off rather than flaking. It’s watertight. It doesn’t let contamination through.”
“Show me,” Moriarty instructs. “Johnny, bring me his bag.”
“It’s not in there,” Sherlock interrupts. “I don’t-” He closes his eyes, takes a breath, opens them. “Beyond the traces still on my hands, it’s gone. I used it up crossing – but I can make more. Get me to any apothecary’s lab and I can do that for you. Was there one where you were staying?”
There, there, that’s the way out. Get Moriarty out of the gatehouse, get all of them away from John. Make a plausible holly shield, endure the holly through his own natural resistance to gain Moriarty’s confidence. When Moriarty tests the shield, when the shield fails, the pain ought to immobilize him. If in an apothecary’s lab, Sherlock will have any number of weapons at his disposal. He’ll shatter a bottle and use the glass if he needs to, but Moriarty’s throat will be cut. The bodyguard will be close at hand, at least one bodyguard, but Sherlock has to try. It will be easier without John at hand, dripping blood into the thresh. Everything will be easier.
“What will you need for this?” Moriarty asks.
“I told you, the lab.”
Moriarty rolls his eyes. “To make it, Sherlock dear. The lab won’t be an issue.”
There’s no telling how much of chemistry or alchemy Moriarty knows. There is no practical way for Sherlock to make an effective barrier quickly from scratch. There is no practical way for him to do it at all, but there doesn’t need to be. All it needs to be is plausible, plausible with waterproof qualities, plausibly waterproof, what is waterproof, what does he have-
“My coat,” Sherlock answers.
“In your coat?”
“Literally,” Sherlock confirms. “It’s siren-made. Meaning, waterproof.” And there it is. There’s the lie.
There. In Moriarty’s eyes. The hook. Sherlock has words Moriarty wants to believe. Words enough to get them away from here, away from John and Bart’s.
“There’s a reason why the Lady of Belgravia sent an emissary before opening trade,” Sherlock continues. “She’s very aware of the need for rainwear among our kind. She knows precisely how many lives could be saved from the cold and would adore the opportunity to take your coin. Sadly, sirens are, as a rule, dependent upon their popularity among the human classes. Her supporters wouldn’t react terribly well to their Lady providing holly shields to those who would hunt them.”
“And yet you have this in your coat.”
“She sent me by ship. Of course I have it in my coat. There’s an adhesive barrier between the layers of cloth.” This, so far, is true. “If removed and melted, it will adhere to skin. Put it on the bottom of your foot and no one will ever notice.” This, for all he knows, is pure fabrication. “Given refinement, it’s unnoticeable on a soft palm, but we need hardly go that far.” The embellishment and the dismissal: let Moriarty be stuck upon the dismissal, upon Sherlock withholding a service.
“For now,” Moriarty corrects.
“For now?” Sherlock echoes, biting, indignant. “I’m giving you a holly shield – that has to be worth John.” John who is bleeding, who is dripping dark red from sliced skin; unfeeling John who cannot be looked at.
“For now,” Moriarty confirms. “You’re in no position to bargain, my dear. For the holly shield, I let him live.”
“And for Stamford?” He protests for the sake of protest, for the appearance of it. To become what Moriarty won’t expect, he must first be what Moriarty must expect. “When Stamford is dead, what more use will you have for John?”
Moriarty is slow in replying, a gradual unfurling of the lips. He crosses his legs. Folds his hands atop his knee. He smiles.
“If you want him so much,” Moriarty muses, “you’ll clean him up. He’s such a terribly messy pet.”
Sherlock doesn’t move. “Is that a yes?”
“Clean him up.”
“Is that a yes?”
“That’s a maybe,” Moriarty allows. He smiles, a slow extension of teeth. “Clean him up. You know how.”
Knife in hand, John waits for him expectantly.
Sherlock puts down the holly. He goes to John. John with clear, alert eyes and a dare across his face.
“Kneel,” John instructs.
Sherlock kneels. The movement is not without difficulty.
Looking to Moriarty first for approval, John offers Sherlock his arm as if showing his hand to a dog. “Lick.”
Sherlock touches his tongue to blood and skin. He licks. Across the palm, lapping at the wrist. He tongues at the cuts until the bleeding stops, one slice after another.
“That’s nice,” John praises. He turns his arm for Sherlock’s mouth. “Just like that, carry on. You like it, don’t you. My blood filling up your cock.”
“That’s not how it works,” Sherlock corrects in a mumble, face burning. His voice is deep, a betrayer. He’s hot below his stomach, along his leg. His body understands John’s scent and skin to the exclusion of all else. John’s blood, already deep inside him, awakens once more.
John chuckles, a sound as low and dark as his hooded eyes. It contrasts poorly with his wan features. “Doesn’t seem to matter, does it? Lick me up, Sherlock.”
He barely needs the command. Even like this, even with Moriarty watching, he’s beyond the point of stopping. Blood on his tongue, its scent in his nose. And his own scent, his across John, overpowering Moriarty’s false malodorous claim. He licks John up, and when John smears his blood across Sherlock’s lips, Sherlock sucks his thumb without a thought. John slides one foot forward, between Sherlock’s knees, farther. John’s shin presses at the apex of his thighs, at his physical ache.
“Are you getting hard, love? Do you want me, darling? Do you want your little prick inside my mouth, sweetheart? Should I drink you down too, dearest?”
His cock, his entire body, it throbs.
“Would you like that, sweetness? Here. Lick my knife.”
Sherlock licks the knife.
“Will you beg for me, pet?”
“Please.” His voice is broken. He turns his head. Looks to Moriarty, those rapt features. Moriarty who wants him to beg, who expects it. Sherlock must be what Moriarty expects. There is power in that, not surrender. There must be. “Please give him back to me.”
Moriarty smiles, so slow, so soft. He answers, “You missed a spot.”
Sherlock eases the knife from John’s hand. He licks the hilt clean and tongues between John’s fingers, doing his utmost to keep from riding John’s leg. He doesn’t think to resist when John retrieves the knife. Again, Sherlock looks to Moriarty.
“You missed a spot,” Moriarty repeats.
Sherlock turns John’s hand over. He inspects one arm and the other. He soothes two of the cuts closed which have reopened. He rocks against John, unable to stop.
“No....” Moriarty drawls. “Not there. Get it right.”
“He’s doing his best, sir.” The press against his ache draws away, and John’s hand settles over the top of his head, crushing his curls, pushing him downward, face toward the floorboards.
Sherlock looks and understands.
“He gave a twitch there,” John comments. “I think he’s got it.”
Sherlock lays his hands upon the thresh. The scratch of it is damp against his palms. “Will you give him back to me? Stamford, the holly and- and this.”
“And this,” Moriarty confirms.
“I want a promise.”
Moriarty smiles with eyes of broken glass. “So I swear.”
Sherlock closes his eyes, bows his head, and scrapes his tongue across dirtied wood and bloody straw.
Traces of mud, of animal dung and human urine. Foliage. The dry straw itself. Mould. John’s drying blood, cooling and stale.
His arms shake, muscles fighting to spasm. His back aches. His arousal sickens. His mouth is disgusting, beyond disgusting. Gritty. His stomach threatens to heave. An acidic belch burns his throat.
“Careful,” Moriarty warns. “Or you’ll be cleaning that up too.”
With stiff movements, John kneels. He rubs Sherlock’s back as he struggles on. “That’s it. That’s it. You’re doing well, Sherlock. Really well. Get the rest. That bit there. No, where I’m pointing, there. Don’t spit it out. Swallow. All of it, keep trying. Don’t stop, I’ll be yours again soon. We’ll go south. We’ll be safe and happy. Now swallow it.”
Sherlock swallows. He coughs and nearly vomits. He does vomit. A small amount, into his mouth. He forces it down anew rather than lick it off the floor.
John draws him close with steady hands and soft words of praise. “I’m yours,” he whispers, pressing one kiss and another against Sherlock’s eyelids. “You did it. Give him the rest and you can keep me.”
This isn’t you, Sherlock refuses to sob. This will never be you.
“You ought to know,” John murmurs, “as a warning. If you’ve lied to him, you’ll watch as I let his men kill me.” He kisses Sherlock’s nose, a brush of smile-shaped lips. “And we don’t want that, do we?”
This will work. He’ll pull it off.
He has to.
The carriage ride is not kind. The cushion has been taken from his seat and the road is far from smooth. Light filters in through the curtain, casting woven shadows over his legs. Across from him, Moriarty curls in the forward-facing seat.
For once in his life, Sherlock keeps his mouth shut. It doesn’t matter. No one could mistake his silence for deference. He’s resisting rising vomit, nothing more. The nausea helps in a way, his body still confused and capable of release.
Occasionally, despite his best efforts, a moment of mistimed flatulence takes him. An after-effect of buggery, it seems. Or possibly the digestion of thresh. Each time, it hurts around his hole slightly less. Each time, Moriarty laughs like a toddler. The guard next to him doesn’t seem to notice.
Sherlock doesn’t care. The odour is a surprising relief. The carriage stinks of Moriarty, of wealth and travel. It will reek of Sherlock as well, marked. A small invasion of territory, but the closest to satisfaction he can foresee coming for some time. In many ways.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asks, setting his hand on his satchel beside him.
“Not at all,” Moriarty replies.
“Oh.” He looks through the window curtain, disinterested. “Pity.”
He leaves his hand where it lies, palm over leather and the gift of a knife.
The town they take him to is one Sherlock barely knows. He’s been to Camden several times before, but never like this. This will not be a night spent in mouldy straw, the cheap accommodation of a stable’s loft. Tonight he will have a door, a closed one. There may even be a lock upon it. The lock won’t be what keeps him. Angelo taught him well where locks are concerned.
They take his satchel from him, these glamour-laden thugs. They take his things, they rifle through them, and they bare every one for Moriarty’s inspection. Without the parcels of a courier, there’s very little, all important. He wears the entirety of his Anglic clothing. Everything else remains across the gulf, hidden away in a trunk beneath Molly’s bed.
All the same, there is a pouch beside his writing kit. Small and velvet, it clashes with all else Sherlock has grown to consider his. Inside hide two silver rings. Moriarty has already seen the more delicate of the pair. A woman’s ring. The woman’s ring. Moriarty knows Sherlock as the Lady’s offering, more supplicant than emissary.
Until the second ring.
Moriarty inspects the signet with a steady, critical eye. “Answer me honestly: is this yours?”
Kneeling before him, a position not of his own choosing, Sherlock answers, “I possess it.”
Moriarty rolls his eyes. “Were you born to Whitehall?”
“No.” The current Lord Whitehall is his brother.
Honesty is a measurement of truth and Moriarty is not the kind to forget subjective truths. “Were you born into Whitehall?” The house, not the individual.
Sherlock can stop his mouth by refusing to breathe, but that in itself is an answer.
“Tell me,” Moriarty commands.
Sherlock continues to not breathe.
Moriarty rises from the sofa, eyes flicking over the contents of Sherlock’s satchel where they have been laid out for his perusal. He plucks up an unfolded leaf of paper. “You know, this isn’t bad,” he remarks, shaking it out as he walks toward the fireplace. “Dull subject, though. Quite the obsession you have, my dear.”
The paper burns.
As the charred remains curl, he runs out of air.
He inhales and one word rushes out. “Yes.”
Moriarty nods slowly, repeatedly. The rest of it changes. Confrontation to consideration. Sherlock knows himself now as hostage as well as tool. Perhaps this is how John feels.
“Good boy,” Moriarty applauds. There are plans behind his eyes, a multitude of unfolding machinations, and Sherlock wants to see none of them. Moriarty drops the signets into their bag and tosses it to him.
Sherlock doesn’t catch it.
“Put them on. Appropriately.”
Vaguely, he considers resisting. He thinks of forcing his movements to a halt, of not picking up the bag, of not pouring the contents into his palm. He has the ability, the potential. He doesn’t have to slide his signet onto the middle finger of his left hand. He doesn’t have to mark himself as Irene’s emissary with the index finger of his right. It’s a small demand, as these situations can go.
He doesn’t fight. There will be other, worse commands worth resisting.
“Whitehall’s heir,” Moriarty muses. His sharp smile threatens to cut as he sinks back into the couch.
Only until his brother marries, Sherlock could tell him. He could, but it wouldn’t matter. Mycroft will ransom or rescue him regardless of any situation. No matter what transpires, they’ll pay for it dearly.
Moriarty continues his investigation of Sherlock’s belongings. When he reaches for the sheathed knife, he does so with hands which have clearly never known a blade. He scents it. He takes his time. The knife is as much Sherlock’s now as it is John’s, and Moriarty begins to smirk as he deduces the sentiment.
“Fitting in with the local fashion, are we?” Moriarty goads him. “It’s very human.”
“They expect it,” Sherlock answers. “It unnerves them when they think you don’t eat meat.”
Moriarty makes a face at that, then tosses the knife on top of Sherlock’s satchel. “You can play human later.”
Next, Moriarty takes his letters from Angelo. He sniffs them. He reads them aloud, laughing at choice bits, and Sherlock pretends to feel pained. Once read, these too go into the fire. Again, Sherlock watches. He’s already memorized them. That the paper shows marks of rereading is mere sentiment.
Once Moriarty has gone through everything, he swings his legs onto the table, nearly kicking Sherlock in the head as he does so. Sherlock’s knees hurt, but he does not move.
“And here I thought you had so much potential,” Moriarty laments.
“Don’t be so heavy handed. It’s unbecoming.”
“Mm, yet still effective.”
Sherlock shifts on the rug. His body aches against it, tells him such movement is impossible, but the body is transport: it is meant to move. He has to fight for it. Under Moriarty’s gaze, under Moriarty’s glamour, Sherlock forces his body to stand.
Delight blooms across Moriarty’s features. Then he says, “Sit,” and Sherlock’s legs crumple.
When he falls, Moriarty doesn’t need to laugh. He simply leans back, a king upon his plush throne, secure in his reign and oblivious to his own vulnerability.
Sprawled on his side, tense and aching, Sherlock isn’t sitting.
As day turns to dusk, Sherlock is nearly given a moment of respite, a moment nearly alone. Mind frantic and useless, he tries and fails to take refuge in the distraction of physicality.
It’s a very strange state he’s been forced into. John’s blood in his stomach and humiliation lingering on the tongue. In a vague and remarkably distant way, he knows he could find release. With time, privacy, and the slightest inclination, he could. He has none of these things, wishes only the moment alone without a guard at his door. An hour alone. Two. For thinking. He refuses to call it mourning.
No, no. Focus on the physical. There can be no more planning tonight: tomorrow has already been plotted to its fullest. Think of something else. Not the ache, not the taste still lingering in his mouth. Think of something else. Take inventory.
His skin is no longer tight. Tension aside, his limbs seem looser at the joints. He dwells on this as long as he can. He thinks about typical procedure with a first bloodmate and substitutes Molly into his imaginings. She is, technically, his first. There is no reason to think of John.
The potential of his body disturbs him. The lack. The simple concept that he could find release without John with him. Pleasure without John being normal rather than a farce of the act. John’s absence becoming normal.
John should be here, his body insists. It can’t be this way without John. It literally, biologically, cannot be this way without John.
He needs to stop thinking.
When Moriarty comes to interrupt his thoughts, it’s almost a relief.
“You’ll make the holly shield tomorrow,” Moriarty instructs, ever testing. When Sherlock doesn’t flinch or confess an inability to comply, Moriarty nods, close to pleased. A matter of oversight: he didn’t say it had to be an effective shield. He reaches to ruffle Sherlock’s hair. “Now, time for bed, little one.”
He doesn’t use a chain, which is the best Sherlock can hope for. His arms are tied behind his back. They are tied well. If they were not, he could remove the gag. He has glamour without articulation and cannot hope to sway Moriarty’s guards. They’re human, all, to get past the border. Some of them are viciously alert. He sees loyalty. Born of glamour or not, it hardly matters.
One is instructed to make sure he doesn’t suffocate in the night. How terribly kind.
His sleep is light and threaded with thought.
His closed eyes see Bart’s. They see the bridge, its width and its thick railings. They see the holly path. They flick to John, seeking him out, and John is asleep and walking.
John who rolls over on a straw mattress and whispers, “I should tell you to go. I should tell you a lot of things, but I can’t.”
“I have your knife,” Sherlock whispers back.
“I have your promise. Fat lot of good it’s doing me.”
Sherlock catches his elbow. “I need to catch him alone. Without the guards.”
“He’ll never be without them. Sherlock, he isn’t an idiot. He’ll never be unguarded. There will always be someone trying to stab you back.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter, you arse,” John insists. “Look, we don’t know if I care whether you live or die, but I do care that you kill him first.”
They stand side-by-side, watching the river from behind the fence. Down the road, Angelo and Harry shout at each other about something irrelevant.
John leans his head against Sherlock’s shoulder. “God, that was a terrible thing to say.”
“It’s true. We don’t know. I don’t know,” he corrects. “You’re not really here.”
John shrugs, slipping his hand into Sherlock’s. “I’ve always been a fantasy. Don’t see why this is any different.”
“You weren’t always a fantasy.”
“Depends on when Moriarty came,” John reminds him. “You never thought it was odd, how immediately I took to you?”
“Love at first sight,” Sherlock answers.
They both laugh.
Sighing to a stop, John pulls on his hand and they step back into the gatehouse. “If I was always a fantasy,” John warns, settling into his lap, “you should run. From me, I mean. After you kill Moriarty. Even if it was real at the start, you should run. If you don’t, I’ll kill you too. You know I will.”
“You said you wouldn’t. Before I went to Waterloo, you distinctly said-”
“He made me say that, you idiot,” John interrupts, cupping his cheeks with rough palms. His fingertips curl into Sherlock’s hair. “He wouldn’t let me kill you. Sherlock, he made me call you back. You can’t trust anything I’ve done, promise me you won’t.”
“I won’t,” Sherlock replies. Even so, John is warm across his lap. “If all else fails, I could go through with it.”
“Kill Mike and take me as reward? You’d have to keep me from hating you.”
“It wouldn’t be difficult.”
“Fantasy,” John tells him. “I’ll love you false or kill you true.”
“Shut up. Shut up, shut up,” he orders. He shoves John down in the small cot, sawdust heavy in the air. His hands over a biting mouth. “Be quiet, John.”
John bucks up against him. No, say his eyes. Never, say his hands. He bites Sherlock’s fingers, marks silver rings with his teeth. He rolls them over and the fucking resumes, face-to-face and improbably painless. It feels like nothing. They collapse into each other, Sherlock chokes awake, and he closes his eyes to the watching guard.
He slides down once more, touches the edge of sleep, but John is gone. Curls of paper glow in the fireplace. Words and images have burned away. He calls for John with an aching jaw, with a stoppered tongue and the man who answers is a stranger in his lover’s skin.
He wakes and remains awake.
In the morning, he is given his supplies. He is shown to a poor excuse for a lab, a pitiful combination of forge and kitchen. He doesn’t ask how Moriarty has come into these but he knows all the same.
Under Moriarty’s watchful gaze, he lays out his coat and picks up the knife. When he cuts open the hem, there is no need to feign an unpractised hand. Carefully, he peels cloth away from the waterproof layer inside. The coat will be shorter by the time he has what he needs from it, falling perhaps mid-thigh, but it’s a small sacrifice, particularly with a borrowed garment. The waterproofing peels away from the inner lining with a satisfying sound. It’s very convincing.
A significant portion of time is dedicated to removing dark threads and fibres from the otherwise transparent material. The remainder of the morning is spent carefully stoking the fire and melting the waterproofing into a viscous glue-like substance. If he is overly cautious in this process, a prickly insistence that he won’t have the shield burnt is explanation enough for his behaviour. As he works, his coat is taken. Someone will hem it, turning the suspiciously ragged cut into an innocuous moment of fashion. His knife is taken as well.
Working the fire, stirring the would-be shield, he looks at the lab as John would see it. A bottle taken from that shelf, struck on the table, then a smooth upward thrust to the throat. What John once taught him as a bluff can still be effective as a reality. There will be a guard on hand of course. In a moment of vulnerability, Moriarty will obviously keep at least one close. Sherlock will have to be quick. If the holly sticks to Moriarty through the ineffective shield, so much the better.
Come evening, he has a passable imitation of a holly shield. The paste dries clear. It pulls off in long, stretching strips.
He spreads it on the hardened soles of his feet, waits for it to dry, and sets his foot down on a holly sprig. Until this moment, he handles the sprig warily with gloves. He is sure to stand by the table, near the bottle.
Moriarty watches his face for pain. When he sees none, he nods. The application of the waterproofing – now with assorted other plausible components – is a simple one. For all their kind cannot endure cold liquids, they have the advantage with heat. Moriarty waits patiently for it to dry, bare feet held carefully above the floor. After an agonizing wait, it happens. He sets his foot down with caution, then with confidence.
Tensed for action, Sherlock watches Moriarty’s growing smile. His growing, unabating smile.
A cold prickling climbs Sherlock’s neck and slowly pierces his scalp with its chill.
Moriarty lifts his right foot and repeats the test with the left. Standing upon the holly, he begins to laugh, giggles of true delight. He beams at Sherlock, eyes shining sharp and bright. “Ohhh,” he breathes out. “Well done, my dear.”
“Thank you,” he responds, the answer automatic, his mind so terribly numb.
Stamford, he tells himself. Stamford will die, not John. He’ll still have John. Something of him. That has to count for something.
They’ll leave for Bart’s in the morning.
The second night, he sleeps unbound. His pipe and tobacco have been returned. He isn’t permitted matches, but the guard assists him.
He’s being tamed and knows it.
He wakes weak with thirst and is permitted to drink from one of the horses. Moriarty regards him with amusement and disdain.
After, what remains of Sherlock’s belongings is returned to him. The knife is a small comfort on his hip. He circles his thumb over the hilt, looking out the carriage window as they ride. He lets his features soften.
When Moriarty coos at him for the sentiment, Sherlock is sure to stop himself. He folds his hands in his lap and keeps them there.
“You’ll have your pet back soon, my dear,” Moriarty assures him. “You’ve done well.”
Sherlock nods without looking at him. “Thank you,” he says.
They ride in silence some time longer.
“You won’t need me to cross the bridge,” Sherlock points out.
He can feel Moriarty’s gaze settle on him. “You’re coming,” Moriarty drawls.
“You want me close at hand if anything goes wrong,” Sherlock surmises. “Your fall man.”
Sherlock looks down at his knife, then catches himself at it.
Moriarty sighs and regards Sherlock with a sympathetic pout. “If you hate watching your pet follow orders, you’ll simply have to see this through.”
Sherlock feigns hesitation, then nods. “I will,” he swears.
There is a faint whistling, a thunk, the cries of upset horses.
“What was that?” Moriarty demands as the carriage stops.
“Crossbow fire, sir!” calls back the driver. “It only hit the frame.”
Moriarty tsks. “Then what are you stopping for?”
A whip crack, the horses urged on.
“But he’ll fire again,” Sherlock reasons.
Moriarty shakes his head, smirking. The guard doesn’t explain either.
When they cover the remaining distance to the gatehouse, Sherlock can smell why. Outside of the carriage, outside with the scents of horses and a respectable breeze, he can barely make it out, and only from over-sensitivity. His nose wants John’s scent, yearns to recognize it.
“Not much,” Moriarty responds, whistling before knocking out his rhythm on the door. “Just enough so he learns to behave, stupid thing.” One of his henchmen follows behind him, the one to watch Sherlock twitch through the first night. “Open up, Johnny.”
John opens the door. The scent of blood heightens, but Moriarty is right: it isn’t much.
“I’m sorry for trying to shoot you, sir.” The words are delivered as if by rote. For all John’s jaw is tense and set with pain, there’s a recognizable trace of sullenness to his features. It’s Moriarty’s, not John’s, a glamour-imbued trait. “Fortunately, I do seem to have missed.”
Sherlock can see more than sullen resistance. He can see restless nights and days of eating lightly. He can see the nicks at the edge of John’s throat where he cut himself shaving this morning. Light cuts with the tip of a razor, all on the right side, the razor in his left hand. The stubble on his cheeks strikes a sharp contrast with the smooth shave of his neck. The only place John’s razor touched today was his own throat.
“Show me the crossbow,” Moriarty instructs.
John turns and points to where the crossbow has been thrown against the far wall. His right arm is bloody, his sleeve rolled up. He’s teased open the flesh with his knife. “It’s there, sir.” There’s a trace of shaving foam behind his ear. He shaved in the gatehouse, not at Harry’s. Harry would have pointed it out. Harry would have stopped the attempt. John’s counter-ploy against Moriarty. The gatekeeper needs to cross the bridge to permit visitors entry. A dead gatekeeper can do no such thing. The hesitation marks on his neck say the rest. Moriarty had stopped it, had known in advance to stop it.
“That’s enough, Johnny,” Moriarty disparages. “No more weapons.” Behind him, his thug shows no sign of surprise at these proceedings. Amusement, yes, but no surprise.
John’s hand goes to his knife. His eyes go to the second blade, the one once again upon Sherlock’s hip.
“Do you understand?” Moriarty prompts, his patience like paper held before firelight.
“Yes, sir,” John answers. As if to clear it, he shakes his head. “Sorry, sir. Don’t know what came over me, sir.” He unsheathes his knife and tosses it onto the table, blood trickling down his arm. Droplets fly with the motion and fall onto thresh. Sherlock’s stomach tenses itself against further abuse.
Moriarty adjusts his cuffs. “Are you finished?”
“No, sir.” John gestures at Sherlock, at his hip. His fingers half point, unfurling from a demanding palm. “That’s mine as well.”
“Mine now,” Sherlock counters.
John’s hand doesn’t waver. Nor do his eyes. They betray the intent behind the gesture: even in this state, John must know exactly what he’s sworn Sherlock to do, knows Sherlock would make the attempt. “No more weapons. I’ll have that back.”
“Argue with your pet later,” Moriarty instructs. “Don’t be tedious.”
The knife is rather small, as weapons go. It isn’t particularly sharp and Sherlock has very little in the way of experience with material weapons of any sort. Behind him stands a fellow of substantial size and capability. There are a number of weapons on him, ranging from dagger to sword. With Moriarty on hand, this is not a man whom Sherlock can successfully glamour.
Sherlock hands over the knife, holding it by the blade.
John takes it and tosses it onto the table to join its brother. After, he very nearly looks sad.
“Your arm,” Sherlock prompts.
John looks for permission first. Then he offers bloody skin to Sherlock’s mouth.
It’s not the worst way Sherlock has ever stalled for time, but it is remarkably close. He needs to think, needs time for it. He should have stabbed Moriarty in the carriage and risked the henchmen killing him before their master died. He should have, he should have.
“Really, boys,” Moriarty disparages. “Plenty of time for that after.”
“Sorry, sir.” John reclaims his arm from Sherlock’s grip.
“A bleeding guard is rather noticeable,” Sherlock counters, wiping at the edges of his mouth and licking his fingers clean.
Moriarty sighs. “Just get the gate, Johnny.”
The door closes and gate shortly opens. “Sir, you and your friend here will need to take off your boots,” John informs them. “If that’s a problem, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Not a problem,” Moriarty replies smoothly. Off with his shoes, off with the socks, and a careful touch confirms the elastic glue is still in place across the bottom of his foot. “Walk with me, Johnny. Sherlock, pet, you’re behind him.”
They walk two-by-two, which isn’t unusual for a crossing. The unknown visitor is always upon the holly path. Moriarty takes the first step onto it without hesitation and continues without surprise. John walks beside him, their steps synced. Moriarty’s guard is on Sherlock’s left, behind Moriarty. Across the bridge, Bill waves.
There are two options.
There is compliance. It’s fairly straightforward and is unlikely to result in his death, or in John’s. Stamford will die, one human before the multitude to come. This is the first option.
Sherlock chooses the second.
He lengthens his stride, bringing himself close to John’s shoulder, and catches his hand. John doesn’t return his grip. “Bill,” Sherlock says by way of explanation. Edging into the space between John and Moriarty, it’s explanation for them both. Enough for Moriarty’s guard to release the back of his coat. “You’re meant to wave back, John.”
John waves, Moriarty nods in approval, and Sherlock lunges for Moriarty’s knees.
They hit the bridge.
Instantaneous, Moriarty’s scream is high and agonized, exactly the way it should be. Unprotected hands on the holly lacquer, unprotected, and Sherlock forces him down, body across his as Moriarty tries to crawl away. He hears Bill shouting from the gate. He hears a sword drawn behind him.
“Stop!” Moriarty commands him, an unthinking order screamed to all, and that’s John and the guard frozen. Moriarty twists and grabs at him, at his face, pressing a contaminated hand against the vulnerable skin of Sherlock’s face. The position puts Moriarty on his back, on the smooth slide of his jacket. Moriarty’s palm rises, strikes at his eye, at his eyelid, at the tender, sensitive skin. Sherlock screams.
He screams and he shoves. Feet pressing against the bridge, he shoves Moriarty, shoves him the way he’s already trying to push himself, heels skittering against wood. The force knocks Moriarty’s hand from his burning cheek. The railing is much too high over their heads, useless. Sherlock hears Bill curse and shout his name. He hears the shout for crossbows. Eyes wide, head well past the edge, Moriarty grips Sherlock’s jacket, fists his hands into it as water roars below. It is both or none.
With a shout and a shove, over they go.
For a shocked moment of descent, they fall.
Into the terrified eyes of the other, they stare.
One last gasp.
And then, the water.
Sherlock breaches the surface like an arrow, arms stretched in desperate, untried mimicry of childhood summers. He dives like Molly, red-faced, and is submerged. The shock of it. The gasping shock of it, of water rather than rock. Of rock beneath water, his hands striking, arms caging over his head. The fluid force of it. Moriarty is ripped away, is pulled away, is torn.
Through rock and water, Sherlock thrashes. He kicks and pulls with the coordination of a man who has never known water deeper or cooler than a hot bath. His eyes open to the freezing murk, to tumbling bubbles and an irresistible current.
Too late, much too late, he tries to cast away his coat, his satchel. His boots threaten to drag him down. Freezing fingers shake through numbing water. No time, keep kicking, don’t breathe. His lungs begin to burn in his chest, the only heat left within him. His mouth clenches shut, his jaw aching, then startles open as he’s snagged.
Air, gone. Water rushes in, floods his mouth, and don’t, don’t swallow. It presses in, presses down, a cold vice, a solid vice clamping around him, around him like arms. Solid against his back, solid and straining until he smacks into rock and is dragged higher, toward light.
He breaks the surface with a coughing gasp, with matching gasps, with panting, choking words at his ear: “I have you, come on, stop fighting – Sherlock, I have you.”
He’s drowned. Hallucinations of a drowning man. He’s cold. Please, he’s so cold. Numbness crowds his skin.
He shakes and shudders, thrashing, gulping air, and the solidity behind him peels away. Replaced by rock, by gravel, his body dragged from water onto stone. Dragged and dragged, pulled by the shoulders of his coat. His hands scrape rock until they burn. He lets them. Warmth, please, warmth. He coughs and keeps coughing. There is water inside him. There is vomit. He is turned over and permitted to vomit. He vomits. Horse blood and water.
When it all stops, the world spins. His head drops against soil. Damp. Possibly mud. Silt. Sand? He digs his fingers into it. Cold damp burns shallow scrapes. He’s gasping, still gasping, cannot stop. He turns his face toward the shape against the light. Damp below, roots above, light and river beyond.
Before him, bent, soaked and panting, is John on his knees.
His face pale, John assesses him with a gaze as calm as his hands. His hand on Sherlock’s chest, his pressure deliberate, and slowing, exaggerated breaths.
Sherlock follows him through his shivering, trying to breathe, just to breathe, when all is so cold.
John nods, slowly at first, then rapidly. Leaning over Sherlock, he turns his face away without warning and makes a sound much like a sob. One sound only, no sooner heard than gone. Water drips from him, every inch, from cloth and hair and skin.
Speech is difficult. Sherlock’s teeth chatter and his tongue slips. Sounds slur.
“He’s dead,” John answers. “I- God, I felt it. Hit the rocks and died.”
Sherlock nods. Possibly, he simply shakes. His breathing ratchets, shudders, trembles his ribs.
John begins to unbutton Sherlock’s coat. “Help me with this, you arse,” he instructs when Sherlock only stares. “Unless you want a sopping cold blanket.”
He complies as much as he’s able, sitting up and falling back, then letting John roll him one way and the other. His coat falls away. His satchel. John rifles through both and removes the small purse of coin and matches. These, he tucks into his jacket pocket. The coat is dropped into Sherlock’s lap. His pipe case and tobacco case as well. The satchel, next to empty, is thrown back in the river.
“Can you walk?” John asks. “We need to move.”
“When?” Sherlock rasps.
“Right fucking now,” John answers, all practicality and little heat. He kneels at Sherlock’s side, crouching beneath the overhang of roots and soil. “Arms around my neck, come on. You’re too tall, but it’ll have to do.”
Sherlock reaches. “No,” he tries to say, then John hauls him up.
“Fuck you. Walk, damn it.”
Sherlock does. He shakes and slips, but he’s mobile. Crouched beneath the dirt overhang, they skid alongside the river, the water on their left. They’re on the west side, not the east. “Not what I asked,” he manages to clarify.
“When what, then?”
“Moriarty,” Sherlock stresses. His clothing clings as he moves. His boots freeze his feet.
“Dead on impact, I told you. He must’ve hit the rocks – I didn’t have to wait for him to drown. Good thing, too. Didn’t like my chances with that bastard upon the bridge. Brute tried to take my head off. Turned into a crazed idiot.”
Sherlock shakes his head. “The glamour.”
“Broke when he died,” John insists. “God, don’t tell me you hit your head.”
“Not off. On. When did he first come?”
“After you left a chamber pot full of blood, when do you think? He was monitoring your post, you idiot. He had a good laugh reading out your letter.”
“Yes, ‘oh’. Shift here, like this, good.” John’s arm around his waist, one hand pulling at his belt. His other hand around Sherlock’s wrist, and he’s still never been so cold. “If we can make it to your boat in Waterloo, we should be able to get away with our heads on.”
“Bill saw me,” Sherlock realizes, remembers. “Holly burn on my eye, John, he saw me.”
“And that’s you hunted down and me killed as a traitor,” John confirms. He skids on loose rocks then catches himself, holding Sherlock steady. “Or just as a failure, don’t suppose it matters much to the block. The river’s quick, that’s given us a bit of a head start. We can try the road, if we can manage to get up to it. There’s risk in that, but we could dry out more. They’ll be searching the river first for our bodies.”
“I’m freezing.” He clutches at his coat and John. He looks at his trembling fingers and they’re blue. The coat will dry quickly but not quickly enough.
“I know,” John replies. “I can feel you shaking, I’ve noticed. You and your fragile health. You’ll have to dry as we walk.” A light curse, a crude jibe about chafing. The closest he’s heard to true affection in well over a month and it isn’t close at all. “Can’t be helped. We’ll risk the road.”
“If we can get up to it.”
“We’ll find something. Hitch a ride on an oxcart. I know more merchants than most, it might work if we move faster than word can. Or we’ll walk the whole way to Waterloo down here, I don’t really care as long as you move.”
Sherlock does what he can, shivering into human warmth. His feet are stumbling pieces of ice. “If we see any, I can steal us horses.”
“Oh good,” John replies, tightening his grip around Sherlock’s waist. “Finally, something to look forward to.”
Quick in their uncertain steps, they stagger on down the river.
So ends Stranger at the Gate. Much thanks to Fogbutton for egging me on and much gratitude to Vyc for listening to the entire original outline despite a fierce dislike of vamps. Seiji, your enthusiasm is more helpful than you know. You made the setting internally consistent, and then you went and drew rocking fanart (everybody go stare at it!). Also, everyone who liked the drawing scene? Yeah, that one's on her. A big thank you to the cavalry, otherwise known as Arcsupport, who likes to edit the fiddly little details as much as I do. Thank you two for helping me put in all the disco.
For all of you who are currently about to kill me, don't worry, there is a sequel in the planning stages. It's even John POV: questions will be answered. I've said this elsewhere (on Elsewhere, actually), but the upcoming month is going to be crazy busy for me. Once I come out the other side, the writing shall resume. Until then, I'll be posting some behind the scenes stuff showing the progression of this story from a vague idea on a bridge into a mindfuck with its own world. That'll be on my livejournal. As always, thanks for reading.
See you in April.
EDIT: By which I mean I'll have time in April to resume writing. In order to present you with elaborate plots with foreshadowing and mindfuckery, I write the entirety of a story before posting it. So, no, I will not be writing the entirety of the sequel in April - I will be getting back into gear in April. Just so everyone doesn't get their hopes that incredibly far up.