John looked beyond her. Outside the firmly closed windows, bare tree branches scratched at the pale grey page of the sky.
"Anymore," he added silently.
There was a note atop the biscuit tin on the mantelpiece in the hallway. It bore his name in violet ink. John hung his cane on the edge of the mantel and inhaled: ginger and nutmeg and something he could not place. She was inventive in her cooking, was Mrs Hudson. He unfolded the note. See what you think of the biscuits. They’re from an old recipe book I haven’t used in ages, but I thought they might suit you. And tell me if you’re finding it too cold at night. I usually put the heat on in November, but it seems cooler this year than last. It hasn’t bothered my hip yet, but with your injury being more recent, I thought it might be troubling your leg.
“Damn my leg,” John shouted, slamming his hand down on the wood. The tin bounced. He glanced about. The hall was quiet, Mrs Hudson’s door shut, its glass dark. He turned the note over. I made that stew you like for lunch today. Why don’t you come down this evening and help me finish it off? I should be back from the cinema by 8:00.
John crammed the note into his pocket, wedged the tin under his arm, and grabbed his cane. It was a long way up to his room, but it was a world better than the anonymous bedsit lined like a casket that he had endured for two months, even if its building had had a lift.
“Thank you, Mike,” John said as he thumped up the stairs, “and your cherubic bedside manner.” John doubted there were many doctors who had patients dropping off fairy cakes months after their last appointment.
He switched on the lights and the kettle, put the tin on the sideboard in the corner by the right back window and gazed around his flat. In truth, it was another bedsit, since there was just the one room with a miniature bathroom off of it, but it was a very large room, the folding doors that must have once divided it having disappeared long ago, and nearly every inch of its wall space, much of the ceiling and part of the floor had been embellished by the many art students who had called it home over the years. Eccentric was the mildest word he could use to describe it.
His eyes stopped at his laptop and narrowed. Maybe this is what I’ll write about on that bloody blog you keep banging on about, Ella. There was a half smile on John’s face when he turned to the boiling kettle. One more box ticked off of your therapeutic checklist. John’s hand hovered an instant by the shelf before seizing the small teapot instead of his mug. I’ll give you hundreds of words... John considered the carvings along the edges of the sideboard. No thousands, without giving you a single glimpse into the heart of John Watson. John’s smile was broad as he pried the lid off the tin. He bent down to inhale the aroma he had released and the lamplight turned the silver in his hair gold.
“Bored,” Sherlock growled from a branch high above Mycroft’s head.
Mycroft drew a thorn across a flattened rose petal. He pressed a fresh leaf over the fine design left behind, and rolled the two into a scroll.
“Bored,” Sherlock repeated, dropping down a branch. It swayed as he landed, glossy leaves rustling. He reached for a cluster of berries.
Mycroft tied a strand of bark around the scroll and held it up. From under a root, a beetle scuttled. It stood on its hind legs, clasped the roll to its abdomen and buzzed away.
“So soon after the uproar in the theatre?” Mycroft asked. He sucked the rose flesh off the tip of the thorn. “You might try to be a little more discreet.”
Sherlock chuckled. “What’s more discreet than one more fairy among the fairies?” He slipped down several branches, disturbing not a leaf.
“One that doesn’t fly about a theatre that has no roof,” Mycroft replied. “’Inexplicable stagecraft wizardry’, ‘Midsummer magic stronger in the autumn’, ‘An evening of enchantment’, or words to that effect headlined the media coverage, which was far more extensive than a post-season charity performance should have garnered. You will note a certain trend in their word choices.”
“Their pallid imaginations do so yearn after us,” Sherlock said, walking to the tip of a leaf. “And with all that desire gathered in one place, I thought they deserved a glimpse of the real thing. Don’t you?” He waved at the stem. It snapped and he drifted to the next branch.
“No,” Mycroft replied, “it arouses their curiosity.
“They held their breath while I flew, their eyes fixed upon me,” Sherlock said, spreading his gaudy orange and black wings and bowing in Mycroft’s direction. “And when I alit on the stage and bowed, they leapt up with wild applause, so I did it again.” Sherlock folded his dark-banded wings and re-opened ones of white and yellow. “They were definitely aroused.”
“I doubt the actors were equally delighted or did you charm them?”
Sherlock considered the berries in his hand. “They didn’t need much,” he said, picking one.
“No, they wouldn’t. The spell of the play would have been upon them, so many true names in it.” Mycroft tapped the thorn against the root. “I warned Father that playwright was not a fellow with whom to dally.” Mycroft placed the thorn in a groove in the bark and sighed. “But good King Oberon has never cared to deny himself the pursuit of a fancy. ‘It will be forgotten in a few years, names and all,’ was his astute analysis. Four centuries on and I’m still managing the consequences.”
“For a human, the author has a fair stock of wit. I like his play about the sorcerer more though. The power dynamics are amusingly transparent,” Sherlock said, bringing his wings together. “Didn’t that embarrass Father?”
“He doesn’t believe in the emotion, nor Mummy either, as far as I can tell. But Father understood the plea being directed at him in the sorcerer’s rhymes, and, against my counsel, granted it,” Mycroft said. “You saw some of the later plays at court. You must recall.”
Sherlock squeezed the berry and licked the juice off his fingers. “You know I delete as much about court as possible.” He dropped the pulp of the berry. “Still bored.”
Mycroft batted it away before it landed on him. “There’s something you could do for me that you might find entertaining,” he said.
“It will be tedious. Your tasks always are,” Sherlock complained.
“It’s something of a puzzle, at least as interesting as those you like to help the mortals solve, all unaware as they usually are,” Mycroft said and reached under the gnarled root. He held up an acorn cup. The shaft of a gold key protruded from its bowl.
Sherlock crushed another berry and dropped it into the cup. “A puzzle where you hand me the key,” he sneered, “is hardly a challenge.”
Mycroft held the cup higher. The berry pulp was sizzling in the bowl.
Sherlock hopped from the branch, the wings that opened as he fell had grown green and translucent. He stopped, hovering over the acorn cap. He sniffed. “The key’s been dipped in poison. One of Puck’s by the scent of it,” he said. “Does he know the key's missing?”
“No,” Mycroft said, “he gave the key to Father and told him it would open a pretty little box in which he had locked something that would be of great interest to him.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow.
“They are recordings of Mummy with the object of her latest infatuation, who happens to be a recent favourite of Father’s as well,” Mycroft said. “I relieved Father of the key without his knowledge and left a facsimile in its place. The substitution won’t be detected until Puck delivers the box.”
“Puck embraces human inventions as much as his royal mentor,” Sherlock smirked.
Mycroft stroked one of his long antennae with his free hand. “All their secrets floating through the air for anyone to hear,” he mused, his antennae waving gently above his head. “It is sometimes useful to know them.”
“You have prevented several idiocies from being committed by listening to their prattle,” Sherlock said, “but Puck is fonder of mischief than statecraft. He meddles for different reasons.” Sherlock took the acorn cup and flew beneath a cluster of glow worms nestled in a crevice of the tree trunk.
“Puck remains dazzled by the glamour of the court. It’s why I didn’t keep him on for the final stage of his apprenticeship,” Mycroft said. “I wouldn’t have tutored him in the first place if Father had not insisted. Wrong temperment. Eventually, Father saw the error of his decision.”
“There are several layers of enchantment on this,” Sherlock said, turning the cup slowly in the worms' glow.
“Sufficiently interesting?” Mycroft asked.
Sherlock looked up, eyes green with reflected wormlight. “I thought you had fixed it so human mechanisms couldn’t detect our kind after that fuss with the photographs.”
Mycroft took a deep breath. “Puck seems to have come up with a way round my modifications.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “He might be bluffing.”
“I prefer to be sure,” Mycroft replied.
“He didn’t tell Father what was in the box,” Sherlock deduced, flitting from the trunk to the low branches that swept to the ground behind Mycroft then back again. He gazed at his brother. “Puck didn’t tell you directly. He wouldn’t be that brazen,” Sherlock buzzed through another circuit, his wings those of a bumblebee. “So how have you learned of the box’s alleged contents.” He hovered in front of Mycroft on the wings of a hummingbird hawk-moth. “Ah. Mummy. Puck told his Queen and you ‘overheard’.”
Mycroft inclined his head.
“He’s not a very dutiful subject, trying to play them both. To what end?” Sherlock darted from one branch to the next, his wings whining like a mosquito’s. “Why would he want them to quarrel? Mummy gets positively monstrous when she’s crossed.”
Mycroft shook his head. “He wants a title.”
Sherlock lit on the root and set the acorn cup down. “The King has never bestowed one on him because...”
“It’s the one thing he knows Puck covets,” Mycroft said.
Sherlock tapped his wings together. “Father implies the honour is imminent, but it never happens, so he still has Puck under control,” Sherlock finished.
Mycroft smiled. “Thus, if you could locate the box as expeditiously as possible, we will learn what further steps to take.”
Sherlock turned on the branch. Velvety black wings tipped in white hid most of his form when he faced his brother again.
“Odezia atrata,” Mycroft murmured, “the chimney sweeper. You saw the speck of soot in the key’s ornamentation.”
Sherlock spread dark wings. “Not only saw, but recognised. I know what wood produces that type of soot and I can smell which hearths have burned it. Puck won’t have gone far, he’s always worried he’ll miss something if he’s away too long.” Sherlock rose above the roots. “You’re going to owe me for this one, Mycroft.”
Mycroft looked up. “I’m helping alleviate your boredom, brother dear.”
“You’ll owe me,” Sherlock repeated.
“Fine,” Mycroft said and waved his hands and his antennae at Sherlock.
“Have you ever seen it?” John asked.
“No,” Mike admitted, setting down his pint. “Is it awful?” He spread his hands on the table. “The location’s great, the rent sounded like it could work with your budget and Mrs Hudson told me about it a couple hours before I saw you in the park. It seemed like serendipity.”
John finished his pint and grinned. “Another round?”
“You’re not going to pour it on me, are you?” Mike asked, sliding his glass slowly towards John.
“No,” John replied, closing his hand around Mike’s glass. “Maybe it was serendipity.” He glanced at the throng at the bar and turned back to Mike. “It’s like living in an artist’s sketchbook. I’m half tempted to pick up a pencil and add to it.”
Mike’s eyebrows went up. “You? Really?”
“Hey, I was pretty good in anatomy class,” John replied.
Mike chuckled. “I used to hear how good you were with anatomy.”
John looked down at the table and shook his head. “People say all sorts of things when they’ve had one too many.” He wiped away a circle of condensation from the wood. “Anyway, I can see why the estate agent told her she’d have to paint the whole place magnolia before putting it on the market and I can see why she showed him the door. I’m surprised she didn’t shove him out a window.” John crumpled the wet serviette. “A lot of it’s Gabriel’s work, her sister’s grandson, if I’ve got the family tree straight, the rest was done by his classmates and friends. She clearly doted on the lot of them.”
“You like it, then?” Mike asked.
“I’ve got murals on my ceiling, stained glass and mosiacs in my bathroom,” John said and held up a finger. “Mind, I have to sit on the toilet to shower because it’s a WC that was turned into a wet room in lieu of a couple months' rent one summer and the ‘kitchen’ is a corner sideboard with a kettle, a microwave, a two-burner hob and a mini-fridge underneath.”
“And...” Mike prompted.
“Mrs Hudson invites me down for a meal once or twice a week and leaves samples of her baking in the front hall for me to collect with my post nearly as often. It’s a good thing there are so many stairs to climb.”
“How’s that going? All the stairs,” Mike asked, eyes drifting to the cane hooked over the back of John’s chair.
“Better than I thought it would when I realised the flat was two floors up rather than one,” John replied. “Mrs Hudson plied me with tea and scones before she even showed me the flat and I think I would’ve tackled three floors to have a regular supply of those.”
Mike patted his stomach. “I know what you mean.”
John looked over his shoulder to check the crowd at the bar. “I think I see our chance,” he said and grabbed their glasses.
The sky darkened. Lights flickered to life and London sent its warmth into the air. Sherlock glided on its currents, black wings outstretched, antennae tasting the breeze. He looked down. A tall row of ornate chimney pots exuded the scent of recently burned poplar. He landed, rubbed the terracotta with a finger and touched it to his tongue. It was almost right.
The wind gusted. Sherlock grumbled as his wings caught and he was dragged upwards. He grew; his wings folding into a thick, dark coat. His feet regained the roof. From above, the smell had been a perfect match. The correct chimney was near. As he peered from side to side across the rooftops, the moon rose behind him.
Despite his leg being sore, John hummed as he made his way up the stairs, thumping his cane in time with the tune. Four days’ locum work in a row was going to put a useful sum in his current account. The clouds had finally parted, making for a pleasant walk home right past his favourite curry shop. He began to sing as he surmounted the last few steps and opened his door: “Wee folk,” thump, “good folk,” thump, “trooping all,” thump, “together,” thump, “green jack,” thump, “-et, red cap,” thump, “and white,” thump, “owl’s”, thump, “feather,” thump. John was sure he had not sung that refrain since leaving school.
The door swung wide. The last of the sun was pouring in the rear windows, gilding the furniture and reflecting off the lighter colours in the parts of the murals it reached. John set the warm bag on the side table by the arm chair he favoured and opened one of the front windows. The air was fresh from the day’s rain and milder than it had been in a week. He hung up his green jacket, slipped off his shoes and retrieved a beer from the sideboard. His domain might be small, but in it, all was well.
The leaves along the walls rustled.
John sank further down in the chair, hands folded over his full belly, elbows on the armrests, legs akimbo.
The stream cascaded over the windowsill, frothing around the large rocks, swirling into the pond by the hearth. The water looked deep there, in the shade, where the willow branches hung over the bank and only the occasional glimmer of sunlight played across the water.
“Swim,” John mumbled, his sleepy fingers plucking at his clothes.
Flowers bowed their heads along the water’s edge at his utterance. He sat forward on a flat rock, eased his bare legs into the rushing water. He felt pebbles, smooth and slick under the tips of his toes. Small fish flashed over his feet. The afternoon sun was hot on his back, the stone warm beneath his thighs and palms. He leaned further over the stream, slipped into the cool water.
John shuddered, his foot twitched. The empty beer bottle rolled over the wooden floor until it clanked against the hearthstone. His eyes flew open. Shadow-draped shapes surrounded him, faint lights strobed across the ceiling. The curtains flapped.
He shivered again and rose, rubbing his arms. Silent-footed, he limped to the open window, steadied himself on the windowsill. He lifted the sash higher and leaned out into the bracing air. A light blinked green and the halted traffic growled to life below him. On the opposite footpath, pedestrians winked in and out of existence as they passed lighted shops or the dark facades of more diurnal enterprises. John shook his head and drew in a breath. Sylvan dreams fell away. The moon crested the housetops, bright and full. John ran a hand over his face. Roofs and chimneys cast shadows on his shirtsleeves.
John peered across the road. By a row of ornate chimney stacks, a huge wing flapped across the moon’s face. He leaned further past the windowsill and squinted at the wavy line. The moon cleared another wall, illuminating a pale oval at the apex of the rippling shadow near the corner of the chimneys. Something silvery glittered in the oval. John focussed his gaze as though he was aiming at the eyes of an enemy.
The form glided further into the moonlight.
John inhaled sharply. The outline of dark hair above gleaming eyes became more distinct, the undulating shape below them resolved into the movement of a garment in the wind.
Thoughts of burglars and murderers pushed to the front of John’s thoughts, pursued by the notion of informing the police. Of what? John shook his head again, scanned the road for one of the film crews that often re-route traffic on London streets. He saw nothing that fit the description. “They’d need lights to photograph someone up there,” John murmured. He checked the rooftop again.
The figure was closer. There were dark brows over the silvery eyes, gloves over the hands at the end of the outstretched arms. The man was at the edge of the roof. He looked straight at John, leaned forward and fell.
The scream caught in John’s throat, came out as a hoarse croak. His muscles tensed, ready to run down the stairs and over the road. His wide-eyed stare swivelled to the pavement. There was no broken body, no swarm of passers-by drawn to tragedy, no shouts for assistance. Pedestrians strode along the footpath, unimpeded.
John backed away from the window, the moonlight full upon him. More than his hand was shaking. “New nightmares,” he groaned, eyes darting around his room. “Don’t infect this place. Leave the blood on the sand.” His leg buckled. He stumbled, reached out for the casement and sagged against the wall next to it, panting.
“Breathe,” he said to himself and tried to follow his instructions. “Breathe, John.”
Sable wings opened and closed. Six feet clung to the edge of the brick. Two antennae felt the vibrations upon the breeze.
“Keep breathing, John,” Sherlock murmured. He walked down the bricks and onto the frame of the window, releasing minute quantities of chemical into the air as he went. “Sleep now.” He peeked around the corner of the casement.
John was limping towards his bed, undoing the buckle of his belt.
Sherlock walked to the edge of the windowsill then flew past John, black wings blending into the shadows. Sherlock alit on one of the branches plastered into the wall above the bed, a trail of chemicals swirling behind him.
John shucked his trousers. They caught on the corner of the wooden chest that was his coffee table, coins tumbling from the pockets unheeded. He unbuttoned his shirt without removing it and slipped under the covers.
“Sleep deeply,” Sherlock whispered from his perch above John. It came out as a series of faint clicks like the ticking of an erratic clock. “And dream of what you wish.”
John curled onto his side, facing the wall, his respiration calming.
Sherlock flitted towards the hearth on leathery wings, heard what he wanted half a metre up the flue. He fluttered out, crouched, coat dragging along the floor, and reached up the chimney with a prudently gloved hand.
The box glowed faintly in his palm as he scrutinised it. He sniffed and wrinkled his nose. Puck always overdid the floral scents. Behind him, the curtains snapped in the wind.
Sherlock set the box on the hearthstone. He strode to the window, shut it and glanced over his shoulder at the bed.
John sighed and burrowed deeper into the folds of his duvet. He looked smaller, huddled as he was against the cold and other things.
Sherlock glided closer to John, removed his gloves and lifted the trousers, studied the items left in their pockets, closed his hand about the mobile. He murmured, set it down on the chest and circled the room, fingers smoothing over surfaces, eyes unaffected by the dark. He wriggled into crevices, buzzed as he soared to the topmost shelves, stood still when he found the gun. “Dangerous,” he whispered and smiled. He stroked the gun, rubbed his forefinger around the curve of the trigger, crawled down the barrel. “Angry and able to see more than you should. No wonder you have bad dreams.”
He hung by a thread in a corner and studied the room. The blue-green luminescence lighting most of the flat belonged to him, but the bricks above the grate were tinged with Puck’s rosy hue. Puck had come down from the roof to find his hiding place, not up from the room, and for some reason that conclusion pleased Sherlock.
John called out in his sleep.
Sherlock flew, landed on John’s shoulder. It was cool. He walked across John’s cheek. It was salty beneath his feet. He felt John’s breath against the scales of his nearest wing. It was warm. He meandered through John’s hair. It was silky. He drew blood from the lobe of John’s ear. It was sweet.
“Take another deep breath, John,” Sherlock whispered. He fluttered above John’s face, glistening scales falling from his beating wings.
He lingered by John’s bed. “You led me to the right spot, like a beacon.” He pulled the duvet over John’s shoulder, drew on his gloves and turned away.
He snatched the box from the hearth, tucked it in his pocket and left through the door. The stairs did not creak as he descended. He filched a pastry from Mrs Hudson’s kitchen, saw the milk by the pots of herbs outside the kitchen door. “You live in a good house, John,” he said. He strolled back to the park, a mist obscuring him from the artificial eyes the humans had mounted on poles. He smiled as he leapt over the fence, skimming the points of the pales. “Different from the old days,” he said. “Those eyes saw nothing, but it was interesting to watch them rot.”
Mycroft’s silvery glow lit up the bandstand by the lake. Night-blooming jasmine and honeysuckle grew up its pillars and snaked across its roof, the scent of their flowers radiating into the darkness. The hum of thousands of moth wings filled the air, pierced by the occasional note of a sleepy bird.
“Who’s not being discreet now?” Sherlock asked as he mounted the steps to the platform.
“The gates are locked, we’re far enough from the streets here and our flying friends won’t tell,” Mycroft replied. A score of nearby moths swooped towards him at the reference, circling his head like a halo. Mycroft smiled beatifically.
Sherlock rolled his eyes and took a seat in the only chair available. “I haven’t even told you I have the box yet.” He looked askance at the chair's silver gilt armrests before he planted his elbows upon them. “Where did you conjure these from and why are you so happy?”
“From over there,” Mycroft replied, waving behind him at the dim outline of a villa further along the shore. “Its occupants have gone off to warmer climes and so has the court.”
Sherlock’s eyebrows went up. “Since I left?”
“Indeed,” Mycroft answered. “Mummy had the urge to dance in the fields so they’ve whisked themselves away to the Isles of Scilly. In their absence, I am regent of the city. Perfect time to get a few things done and it suits the park, don’t you think?”
Sherlock ignored the question. “Lost interest in the contents of the box, then?” Sherlock said, taking it from his pocket and juggling it between his hands. “I could toss it in the lake.” He twisted in his seat and took aim.
“She’s distracting Father while she thinks,” Mycroft said, rapping on the table in front of him. “Let’s test your box with the key. Perhaps you’ve not found the correct one.”
Sherlock’s back stiffened as he turned to face Mycroft and held out his other hand. “The key, if you please, assuming you were able to counteract Puck’s noxious potions.”
Mycroft opened a drawer beneath the table and took out a heavy silver tray which he placed in the table’s centre. Beside it he set a vial of rock crystal with a silver-clad stopper and lastly the acorn cap with the key. He inclined his head at Sherlock.
“You may not require a large one, but you do enjoy an audience, Mycroft.”
Mycroft smiled and tipped the key into the dish. The key increased in size and the metal beneath it turned black.
Sherlock leaned slightly forward.
Mycroft set the acorn aside, uncapped the vial above the dish and tipped it until one viscous drop fell onto the shaft of the key. Like a dew drop, the liquid clung to the metal a moment then spread over its surface. The gold took on a silvern hue. Mycroft’s wrist rotated, another drop fell. The key shone like copper. A third drop brought a brassy tinge to the metal. A fourth turned it leaden. A final drop wrought no further change. “There,” Mycroft said, closing the vial. He lifted up the salver.
Sherlock turned his head away and looked at the key from the corner of his eye. “Not yet,” he said and spit on the key. It turned to wood. “There.”
“Very good,” Mycroft said.
“You knew.” Sherlock glared. “I’m not a child to be tested, Mycroft.”
“No,” Mycroft agreed, “but the last step had to be performed by someone else and their aid could not be solicited.”
Sherlock leaned back in his chair. “He thought we’d never cooperate.”
“Or whosoever else might gain possession of the key,” Mycroft said.
“Like Mummy,” Sherlock suggested.
“Whosoever,” Mycroft reiterated.
“Mrs Hudson?” John called through the half-open door. “I got the milk you needed.”
“Can you bring it back here, dear? I’m up to my elbows in flour.”
“’Course, sure,” John replied, easing the other bags off his arm to leave in the hall. “It smells great, whatever you’re doing,” he added as he made his way to the kitchen.
It was hot there, nearly every surface covered with a plate or tray of biscuits or cakes adding their fragrant heat to the air.
“Wow,” John said, looking for somewhere to set the bag. “What’s the occasion?” He opted for a chair.
Mrs Hudson looked over her shoulder. “Could you pour me a half cup? The dough’s just ready for it.” She lifted her chin at the counter and John spotted the purple cup with the floury handle.
“That’s a mug,” John observed.
“Oh, it’s the one I always use,” she said.
John measured a half of it as best he could.
“Just dribble it in,” Mrs Hudson said and John obeyed.
“They’re all Gabriel’s favourites,” she added as she kneaded. “His first trip back from New York and I get to have him here for lunch. It is an occasion!”
“With a troop of his friends, I’m guessing,” John said, trickling a bit more milk into the dough.
“No, no, just him and he can’t even stay the night, has to catch the evening train for Edinburgh. He’s got an exhibition,” she announced. “I’m going to pack these up so he can take them along. Some of his friends are meeting him there.”
She squeezed the dough. “A little more milk, John.” She worked the liquid in. “These won’t last long. They eat like wolves after a hard winter.” She rolled the dough along the inside of the bowl. “I used to enjoy feeding them when they lived here with Gabriel. Anji’s going up to Edinburgh, too. You know, the one who did the tiles in your bathroom. Poor boy has missed her. She’s studying in Rome now.” Mrs Hudson patted the dough. “I think that’s enough milk.”
John drank the rest and put the mug in the basin. “They do have a Greco-Roman vibe to them,” he said, without meeting her eye.
“They are saucy,” Mrs Hudson said, “but I lived through the ‘60s. Very little shocks me.”
John had to laugh.
“All the boys modelled for her sketches for that one.”
“Right,” John said. “I’ve got used to them, though I did warn Mike the first time he visited.”
Mrs Hudson sprinkled flour on her counter. “That was a lovely piece you did about the mosaics and the stained glass on your blog,” she said.
“You read that?” John asked.
“Mrs Turner found it and showed it to me and then, of course, I told Gabriel and Anji,” Mrs Hudson replied. “They both look for your updates now. I had wondered why you wanted to know Anji’s last name.”
“Ah,” John said.
“And each of them got a commission out of it.”
“Really!” John exclaimed.
“Gabriel’s doing the front doors for some restaurant in Manhattan, I think he said it was. I don’t have the details for Anji’s, except that it’s in Italy. Anyway, Gabriel’s looking forward to meeting you tomorrow. You can join us for lunch, I hope?” Mrs Hudson finished.
“I am sorry. I picked up more hours at the surgery for tomorrow and Friday,” John said. “I would very much have liked to have met him.”
“Oh, that’s a pity,” Mrs Hudson said, shoulders slumping. “Not that you’ve got more work, of course,” she added hastily, “but he wanted to thank you in person.” She sighed. “I suppose he can leave a comment on your blog,” she said, “me, too, now that I’ve revealed I’m one of your readers. I liked when you said you lived at the most artistic address in London.”
“I didn’t think anybody would actually read my blog,” John said, looking away.
“You have a nice way with words, John,” Mrs Hudson said, “and, if I’m not mistaken, there are a few figures in among the branches on your walls that weren’t there before.”
John’s head snapped back. “You noticed? They’re so small,” he said. “Ah, you don’t mind?”
Mrs Hudson shook her head. “Not at all,” she said, patting John’s arm and leaving a flour print behind. “Sorry, dear. I needed one of my plates the other day. It was on the floor by the hearth, and so was one of your little people, mostly hidden by the leaves and rocks at the edge of the stream,” she said and tapped the side of her nose. She left flour behind there, too. “I’ve always put milk out for them with a bit of honey in it. My nan did, too. Brings luck, you know.”
John glanced towards the kitchen door and back to Mrs Hudson. “I thought you were feeding a stray cat,” John said.
“It would be a brave cat that drank the fairy’s milk,” Mrs Hudson said and started cutting star shapes from the dough.
Sherlock lay, nearly prone, along the mossy ground. He narrowed his eyes at the stars shining through the evergreen branches above him; they appeared to wink in derision at him. He flung an arm over his eyes. Music from the nearby clearing reached a crescendo. Applause and laughter like the tinkling of bells followed hard upon it. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Sherlock said.
“A change of scene, a little sea air,” Mycroft began, "a quick check on the state of affairs.
The music resumed. Sherlock groaned. “With all eternity in which to practice, they can’t produce something better than that!” He turned his head towards the sound. “I could show them how it’s supposed to be done. They’d dance then until I let them stop.”
“I brought your violin,” Mycroft said, holding it out. “I was sure you hadn’t meant to leave it behind.”
Sherlock rose to his feet and grabbed it. “You may be sorry you did that,” he said as he stomped away.
The sun and the clouds had vied for control all day. John's step was brisk, as was the wind at his back. It drove the fallen leaves along with him. He had taken a circuitous route returning from the bank, discovered a closer drycleaner’s shop and a small nursery tucked away in a mews. He had bought Mrs Hudson a pot of sage. A purple ribbon, tied under the rim with a bow, kept the wrapper in place. It was the purple that had caught his eye. She seemed to favour the colour. He carried the pot in the crook of his arm.
The bell of a shop door tinkled. John glanced towards the sound, saw a woman leaving a small shop with a large package, the shopkeeper behind her, his arm along the door, holding it open for her. John caught his reflection in the shop window. He smiled at what was missing from the picture.
It had been days and the pain in his leg had not returned. The first morning it had not hurt, he had been afraid to leave home without his cane, but the second morning he had overslept and forgotten it in his haste. He had not taken it with him since.
“What do you see that you like?” the man in the doorway asked.
John flushed and turned towards him. “Sorry,” he said.
“Come inside,” the man suggested. “Take a closer look.”
John’s gaze flickered to the sign above the door. I don’t have the spare cash for antiques. He went in.
Sherlock lifted his bow from the strings.
The dancers collapsed, sweating and gasping, wherever they stood, except for Mycroft, who had finally come close enough to be drawn in. He selected a tree stump, sat down and crossed his legs, smiling.
Puck dragged himself along the ground until he reached Sherlock’s feet. “Neither of your parents have that power, do they?”
“It takes practice,” Sherlock replied, lowering his violin from his shoulder.
Puck reached up with a hand. “It’s not in the instrument?” he asked.
Sherlock snatched the violin away.
The antique shop was lit mainly by the light from the display window shining through the dusty air. Far in the back, a green-shaded lamp shed a yellow rectangle on a desk piled high with books and boxes. Between the daylight and the lamplight stretched shadowy shelves that rose to a panelled ceiling through which a spiral staircase rose. John tightened his hold on the pot of sage.
“I can keep that on my desk, if you’d like to check upstairs,” the shopkeeper said, reaching for the plant.
John glanced up again. The circle at the top of the stairs was bright. “What’s there?” John asked.
“A bit of everything,” the shopkeeper replied. “Down here we have most of the books and prints and the furniture. Up there, everything else.”
John looked back at the man. Somewhere over their heads, a clock chimed. Another joined in, slightly out of sync, and then a third. “Just a quick look, I don’t have much time,” he said and handed over the plant.
The shopkeeper turned towards the back of the shop with the pot. “Give a shout if you need help reaching anything,” he said, looking back over his shoulder.
John nodded and started up the tightly-coiled steps.
“He almost succeeded,” Sherlock remarked. “He only needed a way for the images to be viewed without being exposed to the air.”
“Yes,” Mycroft replied, rolling the blackened film tight and slipping it into the glass tube. “Hopefully, he won't realise that." Mycroft snapped the cap into place and nestled the vial amidst the webbing inside the box. "I shall have to keep an even closer eye on him than I have been and to inform Mummy that she has nothing to worry about at the moment.” Mycroft picked up a long, thin implement.
“Puck had best beware. She’s unlikely to forget this incident quickly,” Sherlock said.
Mycroft closed the lid, inserted the tool into the keyhole and leaned over the box. “Locked,” he said after the first click. “There,” he said after the ninth. “It will open with my substitute key now.” Mycroft withdrew the device and held the box out to Sherlock.
He did not take it. “I can write down the directions to the house on Baker Street,” Sherlock said.
“You know I don’t like that kind of work,” Mycroft replied.
“You’ll owe me another favour,” Sherlock said.
Mycroft sighed, resting his hands and the box on the table. “Why do you need favours, Sherlock? You rarely ask for my help and when you do, I accede to most of your requests willingly.”
“For the times when you don’t wish to accede,” Sherlock replied.
“Very well,” Mycroft said. “I owe you two for this affair.”
Sherlock took the box.
John set the package wrapped with newspaper and string on the desk. “Never walking down that street with money in my pocket again,” he said as he slipped off his jacket, draped it over the back of a desk chair and tugged on the end of the bow. The string loosened. He pushed the paper away.
John rubbed his fingertips over the embossed butterfly on the green leather. The design was so like the one his grandfather’s album had had. He lifted the cover. The gilt on the butterfly glimmered with the movement. The edges of the paper inside had yellowed, but the etchings on the first page were the ones he remembered, their colours unfaded. Carefully, he turned the brittle page. All the recesses in the heavy card beneath it were filled, the common and Latin names of the specimens of Lepidoptera neatly inscribed and dated below them. The style of writing was a relic from an era when people prided themselves on their penmanship. The dates were ones from his grandfather’s boyhood.
It was more than a decade since his grandparents had died, one winter after the other, the news coming both times over a bad telephone connection when he was too far away to return for the funerals. John supposed his mother had given most of their things away long ago, and that those she had not would have been dispersed when she died. Harry had kept very little. But that any of them could have made their way to the particular antique shop into which he had wandered was hard to imagine.
He turned another page, and another. There was the butterfly he had caught, his handwriting beneath it. He had not dared look that far at the shop, had determined he would buy the album after lifting the cover. John sat.
That summer had been strange. They had gone down early to visit their grandparents. Father had not come with them. Mother had been quiet on the train. He and Harry had squabbled. Mother had stood up and moved to another seat without saying a word. That had got their attention. She had not even looked at them. He and Harry had fallen silent and the grey-green countryside had rolled past.
But when they arrived, the sun had come out and the sun had changed everything. Their grandmother had been waiting at the door when the taxi reached the end of the lane. She had kissed and fussed over him and Harry as their cases were put down and the driver paid, then she had hugged their Mother for a long time. Grandfather had come round from the garden and spirited them away. It must have rained at night, because the flowers did not wilt, but the days had been sunnier than any other summer he could remember and there had been clouds of butterflies. He and Harry had chased them, with their grandfather’s net sometimes, sometimes with their bare hands waving above their heads as though they would take to the air as well. There had been blue ones and yellow ones, white ones and orange, like flying flowers flitting over the garden, out into the fields and across the stream, always eluding them. Except for the velvety black one that had seemed to wait for him atop the hedge.
That summer he had caught a fine example of Odezia atrata, his first and last specimen for Grandfather’s album, and come to understand how permanent death was.
The night he thought he had seen a man fall from a roof and not hit the ground, he had dreamt of the butterflies.
Sherlock sauntered into the pub on the corner of Baker Street. Several pairs of eyes looked him up and down speculatively.
The barman took his order, set the drink in front of Sherlock. Sherlock paid with large, gleaming coins. The barman scooped them up eagerly. He did not comment on there being far too many.
Sherlock sat by the steps leading down to the toilets and up to the roof. He touched the mead to his lips and grimaced. It was never sweet enough. He spilled some on the table, left a two-pound coin in the puddle and went up the stairs.
The barman collected the glass from the empty table, picked up the sticky coin. He turned to the remaining patrons. “Last round on the house,” he shouted and snapped his mouth closed. His feet took him to the bar and his hands poured.
Sherlock heard the cheer as he stepped out onto the roof.
In the till, his coins melted away.
John had gone back to the shop.
He set the case on the coffee table, sat on his bed and ran his hands over the scuffed wood, the chrome fittings at the corners, the worn leather around the handle. It looked remarkably like the case he had had as a child, right down to the uneven “W” scratched into the side of the handle. He unlatched a clasp. The second one resisted. Needs oil.
On his first leave home, his mother asked whether he wanted to take the clarinet abroad with him. John told her to sell it or give it away. He had brought it to university his first year and only touched it once. First heartbreak. He had barely been able to breathe into the instrument. He had brought the clarinet home after that and left it there. His mother said the neighbour’s son was going to start lessons. The clarinet moved next door.
With a creak, the latch yielded.
There she lay, in silver and black pieces, clasped by the black velvet. He traced the threadbare edges of the indentations where the white backing was showing through the nap, eased the bell out of its niche.
When he had played at school, he had enjoyed assembling and disassembling the instrument, could do it quickly when he was late to practice, would linger over cleaning it and putting it away when he had time. Just like with his gun.
Behind the flap in the cover, there was a packet with one reed left in it and a soiled flannel. John went to get a glass of water for the reed and an old vest to polish the wood. He dropped the green flannel in the bin.
The grass was incredibly green. He was sat cross-legged on it in his grandparents’ garden, playing a melody that brought the butterflies swarming round.
John huffed at the image, shook his head at yet another fragment of dream surfacing from what he had come to call ‘the night of dreams’.
“I’ll be lucky if I can coax a note out of you,” he said and found the can of gun oil for the rusty latch.
Sherlock descended from the roof to the hallway, wincing at the squawks emerging from the other side of the door. He folded his scarf around Puck’s box, slipped it behind a few books on the bottom shelf of the bookcase on the landing and crawled under the door.
His antennae waved, sipping the salt and blood in the air. The pleasure of it ran through him. He crawled higher, careful to remain in the shadow of the doorframe, resisting the urge to fly even on nearly invisible gnat wings. John had unusually good eyes. The thought created a tremor of pleasure, too. He scaled the rugged terrain of the plaster of paris bust above the door, settled on the head of the sphinx-like countenance and let his wings grow large and opaque. He felt the hook-like tongue of Calyptra thalictri forming in his mouth. Must be the scent of the blood, he thought.
John touched his tongue to the reed, closed his lips about the mouthpiece and exhaled. The note sounded true. He managed not to smile and tried the note again. It was perfect, just a middle C, but a perfect one. He went up the scale slowly and then down again. There were no more squeaks. He set the clarinet across its case and grinned.
“Bless the internet,” he said, closing his laptop. He repacked his medical kit and the tool box he had borrowed from Mrs Hudson. He stood, held out his hands. “Just a nick,” he murmured. He did not remark aloud on the absence of the tremor, barely acknowledged it silently. It would probably be back in the morning. He clenched his fingers and released them a couple times, pressed his lips together at what he still observed and turned towards the bathroom.
Sherlock fluttered to the coffee table when he heard the water pelting the walls, unbuttoned his coat as he regarded the items there. “Such modest wishes, John,” he said. It had been satisfying granting them unasked, not even formulated, simply plucked from John’s dreams. Sherlock glanced at the bathroom door. “What made you give up on wishes, John?”
Sherlock retrieved Puck’s box from the hall and returned it to its nook up the flue. Mission accomplished.
He wound his scarf about his neck. Time to go.
John emerged from the bathroom rubbing a towel across his chest. It was not easy to dry off in a wet room that tiny. He held the ends of the towel with both hands and dried his back. He opened the wardrobe, bent down to pull a vest out of a drawer with one hand, running the towel over his damp hair with the other.
The light flickered.
He turned and peered from underneath the towel. A huge moth was circling the globe of the ceiling light.
“Where the hell did you come from?” he shouted. He banged the drawer and the wardrobe door shut. “No dining on my jumpers, you!” he said, snapping the towel at the ceiling.
The creature evaded him easily, seeming to float on the air rather than fly. The line of its wing silhouetted against the frosted glass made John stand still.
Sherlock watched from atop the bust. He liked John’s form, liked seeing the muscles move beneath the smooth skin. Unfortunately, it would taste like soap now.
Sherlock sailed across the room, wings far larger than Calyptra thalictri would ever be.
“Showing off?” an inner voice that sounded remarkably like Mycroft asked.
Sherlock dismissed it. The strength of the instinct to display held his attention though. His wings grew dark; he added snowy edges and expanded their span even more. He dipped and swirled about the light. It showed the swallowtail shape of his wings to good advantage.
John’s eyes were wide. They were a fine shade of blue.
John spoke of jumpers.
“Oh, John,” Sherlock thought. “Your jumpers are safe.”
Sherlock turned his wings blue, trimmed them with black, scalloped borders and a series of increasingly large, white spots. He angled his wings so that his colours shimmered.
John’s lips grew red as a poppy.
Sherlock’s spots mimicked the shade. His circuits around the light grew wider and wider. He wanted to brush against John’s lips, drink from them.
John stopped waving his towel. He held out his hand.
“You don’t fly like a moth,” John said as the insect landed on the tip of his middle finger. He studied the lustrous wings that matched no shape he had ever seen.
The butterfly opened and closed them, turned slightly to the left, then the right. Their blue gained a greenish cast with a hint of gold.
“Like a peacock,” John observed.
The moth’s antennae brushed against John’s skin as though it had bowed. It paraded down John’s finger, halted in his palm, lifted each of its front legs to its mouth in turn.
“Are you tasting me?” John asked. The vest began to slip off his arm. He let it fall. “Shouldn’t I introduce myself first?”
He wondered about the glue he had used on the key pads. The odour had been mild; he could still smell it a bit. Was it a hallucinogen? Am I really passed out on the floor?
The insect clicked, brushed its antennae over the base of John’s thumb.
“Or do you already know my name?” John asked, deciding to see where his mind took him. His recent dreams had been so much nicer than the ones that had plagued him for months.
The moth walked to John’s wrist and swept his antennae across the skin there. It tickled.
“I don’t know yours though,” John said, the corners of his lips lifting.
The insect’s wings faded to a translucent film. It dipped its head once more.
John felt the sting. It brought no urge to brush the moth away. He watched as the creature flushed, saw the veins in its wings begin to fill with red. It withdrew its stinger and flew to the ceiling.
Anger rushed through him. “Is that it?” John rapped out. What was I expecting?
The butterfly drifted downwards, landed on the mouthpiece of the clarinet.
John’s eyes narrowed. Could the man on the roof have sprouted wings and landed like that? Should I go back to the therapist?
The moth flew up and wafted down onto the clarinet again.
“Would you like me to play for you?” John asked. Surely I am a virtuoso by now. “Will you stay if I do?”
Possibly the insect lowered its head. John was not close enough to see. He moved nearer, reached for the instrument.
The insect hovered among the branches above the bed, settled on John’s shoulder when he sat and moistened the reed.
John’s muscles remembered old motions, seemed eager to practice them again. Here comes a concerto.
He played a scale twice then let his fingers wander. He did not recall a single song, but his fingers liked the feel of the keys beneath their tips and fragments of melody came back to him. He pulled a pillow behind his back and leaned against the wall, the branches only a little way above his head. He could not see the moth, but he felt the brush of its wings as it moved down his body, stinging.
John imagined the wings throbbing with scarlet. He closed his eyes and continued to play.
The room spun when Sherlock stood. He stumbled and fell to his knees, rested his head on the mattress. That was much better.
John turned on his side, curling about Sherlock’s head, his hand finding its way across Sherlock’s shoulder.
The weight of John’s arm was pleasant. Sherlock tried lifting his head after a while. His vision swam. John’s blood was remarkably sweet. He closed one eye and waved his hand at the light. Perhaps darkness would help.
The area around the bed pulsed a soft blue-green, John most brightly, a constellation of turquoise bites. Sherlock flattened a palm against John’s chest. The skin was warm, heart beating below it, each bite a pinprick of heat on its surface. He wanted to draw out more of the sweetness, taste it again, on his lips this time.
Sherlock climbed back into the bed, swaying above John, unsteady even on all fours. His head drooped. He aimed for John’s mouth, collided with his shoulder instead.
John turned his face, brushed Sherlock’s hair from his forehead. With a slight upwards push, Sherlock’s lips reached John’s mouth. It opened sweetly.
Sherlock changed, into what he was not certain, he could not feel its shape. He followed his desire to know every inch of John, starting with more of that soft mouth. He flooded forward and all around him John moaned.
There was a buzzing not far from his head. John did not want to let go of sleep, but he smiled at the sound.
There was a knocking on wood. John opened his eyes and looked around, his arm reaching out behind him. He seemed to be alone. His body seemed to think someone should be with him.
“John,” Mrs Hudson called through the door, “that pretty lady doctor called twice. She wants to know if you can work this afternoon. Someone’s sick. She said who, but I didn’t catch the name. Could you call her back?”
John opened his eyes wider and tried working his mouth. “Yeah,” he said on the second try. “Thank, thank you. I’ll do it now.”
“I have some scones you can take with you. I’ll leave them on the mantel,” Mrs Hudson said. “Don’t fall back to sleep.”
“No, no I won’t,” John said. “Thanks for coming up.”
“No worries, dear.”
John ran a hand over his face and down his neck. It was supposed to help him wake up and get up, but everywhere he touched tingled pleasantly. He glanced at his watch. It was only ten; he had a little time. His hand wandered lower.
Mycroft perched on the branch above Sherlock. “Box safely in place?” he enquired.
Sherlock buzzed and peered in multiple directions simultaneously. “Yes,” he said, waving a leg and staring at the blur that sounded like Mycroft. “What am I?”
“At the moment, you are, for the most part, a female honey bee laden with so much pollen I’m surprised you managed to fly at all,” Mycroft replied. “Had Puck been there before you?”
Sherlock had a memory of barely clearing the tops of the hissing streetlamps he was using as a guide home and of gratefully crawling into a hollow knot in the first tree he encountered inside the park. He held a five-fingered hand near his head. He saw multiple images of it. “There were no fresh traces of his light,” Sherlock said.
“Good,” Mycroft said. “It would be useful for me to know when he goes to fetch it and what else he does while he’s there.”
Sherlock tried to close his eyes and found he could. He discovered he had an elbow. He pushed himself up upon it and re-opened his eyes, focussed on Mycroft’s pale grey wings. “Feeling more subtle this morning, are we?” Sherlock remarked and decided to resume a prone position. “What do you suspect?” he asked.
“John Watson’s light is gold,” Mycroft stated. “It’s an unusual colour for a human, doubly unusual for it to be so strong.”
“And delicious,” Sherlock said and covered his mouth. He had lips. It was a good sign. Mycroft’s interest in John was not.
“I suspect that Puck’s choice of hiding place might not have been based purely on proximity,” Mycroft said.
“What would he want with a human?” Sherlock asked. “Even a tasty one,” he added silently.
“Someone to put in the path of one of our parents, perhaps. They do so love to collect interesting humans,” Mycroft offered.
“No one else can have him. I found him,” Sherlock said. It was not good to talk to Mycroft in his current condition.
“But did you?” Mycroft asked.
“You’re trying to get me to lurk around Baker Street to watch for Puck without owing me another favour,” Sherlock said. He had his legs back; he supposed he could try sitting up again.
“I thought I was doing you one to call your attention to this possibility,” Mycroft said. “You seem to have formed an attachment to the doctor.”
“Doctor. I thought you didn’t want to do any legwork on this?” Sherlock said. He looked over the side of the branch. The pollen was drifting away, dusting the leaves as it fell. He was fairly sure he had not stopped at any flowers to gather it.
“I didn’t. He happened to walk through the park after you had retrieved the box, your glow bright on his phone. So I did some investigative listening,” Mycroft replied. “You know he writes, don’t you? Has a little following on the internet.” Mycroft ruffled his feathers. “Far from the magnitude of Father’s darling, but writers are dangerous, and the internet makes them even more so than the printing press did.”
Sherlock half smiled, another cutting edge to John and another name. Perhaps he should find out all his names.
“You could bring him here,” Mycroft said, “if you wished to keep him.”
Sherlock was not sure John would wish to be kept. He seemed too volatile to be confined. And yet, he had held out his hand, turned his mouth to be kissed. Sherlock rubbed his hand along the pollen-covered bark of the branch, held up his hand and licked the palm. There was no mistaking John's taste.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll go back to Baker Street.”
Mycroft waited for the bargaining. When none came he raised his eyebrows, bid Sherlock good-day and spread his wings. The wind wafted him away.
Sherlock brushed as much of the pollen as he could from the branch into the knot hole, then he burrowed into it and went back to sleep.
“How long have those branches been plastered into the walls?” John asked.
“More?” Mrs Hudson asked, holding the sauce boat aloft. John nodded and she poured. “Let me think.” She put the dish down. “It was a dreadfully wet winter, Gabriel’s second year at uni, I believe. Everyone had leaks and damp. The student in 221C stuck it out until the summer, poor thing, but I haven’t been able to let it since. The damage was worst on the side wall in your room, but the wallpaper was spoiled all the way around to the hearth. Mrs Turner had an awful mess, too, but at the back of her building. The water came down from the roofs, inside the walls. The gutters just couldn’t drain fast enough. Cost her a fortune to have her rooms redecorated. I couldn’t afford it, not after putting the roof to rights.”
John finished his mashed potatoes. Mrs Hudson had used the sage in the gravy.
“So Gabriel and Anji said they would decorate it for me once the wall dried out, and since the wallpaper had had leaves and branches on it, you know, like the pattern in the hallway upstairs, they went with that idea.”
John nodded and began on his peas.
Mrs Hudson held up her hand. “After Gabriel graduated, Lia moved in with Anji.” Mrs Hudson pushed two fingers down. “Then Anji graduated and Keiko moved in with Lia.” Down went another finger. “They were all younger brothers or sisters of Gabriel’s or Anji’s friends, so I knew them a bit before they moved in.” She took a breath. “Then Lia graduated and Isobel took her place, Keiko finished and Fiona moved in with Isobel – I went to their wedding – it was lovely - then the flat was empty for a while and then you came.” She looked at her hands. “I may have lost count. Seven or eight years seems about right.”
“And they’re cherry branches, right?” John asked, carving another slice from the leg of lamb on the platter in the middle of the table and adding it to the gravy on his plate.
“I think so, but some other sorts might be mixed in. I’m better with plants than with trees. I’d have to ask Anji to be sure.” Mrs Hudson tapped her lip. “Gabriel might remember. I know they got them from the park for the most part. They sketched there and knew some of the gardeners, but we were all collecting. I couldn’t pass a fallen branch on the pavement without lugging it home to see if Anji thought it good enough. Why, dear?”
John took out his mobile and passed it across the table. “The first photo is from this morning. I took another just before I came down to dinner.”
Mrs Hudson scowled at the first photograph of the bark of one of the branches. There were several reddish bumps along its length. “They haven’t got an infestation of some sort, have they? Anji didn’t want to varnish them and they’ve been fine all this time.”
John walked around the table and leaned over her shoulder to swipe at the screen.
“Oh,” Mrs Hudson said as the second picture came into view. Two of the red bumps had opened into pale pink blossoms, while the other buds had hints of colour showing between their sepals. She looked up at John. “But it’s October,” she said.
Sherlock sat with his back against the narrow side of the row of chimneys and his feet pressed up against the low wall around the edge of the roof across the road from 221B Baker Street. The brick at his back was warm. His feet were getting cold. He had been there most of the night.
It had been twilight when he had finally awoken feeling rested. He had breakfasted on pollen, rolled about in it then stuffed his pockets with as much as he could gather, in handfuls or on gold-coated leaves. He took one out and munched on it. They had helped get him through the night and this far into the grey morning.
John had been absent when Sherlock first arrived. He had made a cursory inspection, took note of the dwindling rose light emanating from the flue, sampled the blooming flowers on the boughs above John’s bed with satisfaction and decamped to the rooftop over the road. John’s nest without John in it was unsettling.
John was out again. He liked to come and go. Certainly not suited to captivity.
Sherlock ate another leaf, thought of wrapping John in a cocoon.
John would not like it.
Sherlock pictured spinning the silk, anchoring John to the bed. The boughs weren’t strong enough to hang him there. He would not wrap him up completely though.
Sherlock ate another leaf.
He could leave John’s head uncovered, so he could taste that red mouth, sting about its edges, drink a tear if John cried. He would shout, Sherlock supposed.
Sherlock licked pollen off his fingers.
He could leave another part uncovered, sting it only a little, drink from it when it swelled. John might still shout, but that shouting had a different timbre and there was so much more to drink. Perhaps John would lie quietly in his silken bonds if Sherlock made him shout like that frequently enough.
Sherlock felt in his pockets. There were only a few leaves left.
John had curled about him, held him in his arms. It was probably best not to bind John up, no matter how safe and delicious he would be. His embraces were sweeter, warmer; savoury, too.
Sherlock sat up. Was that when John had covered him with pollen? Sherlock could not remember. Could John turn into a flower? A bed of flowers? A meadow’s worth of flowers, growing from the seemingly dead wood that covered the floors?
The curtains had remained open all night, one window cracked at the top. They were still open. The bower above John’s bed was in full bloom. John should come sleep in it, without clothes, without covers, so the petals could fall directly on his skin and turn him into a flower.
Sherlock heard a sound, recognised the cadence of the footfalls. He leaned over the edge of the roof. The bites on John’s face and hands retained a hint of aqua light. It was sad to see them fade.
John entered the house.
Sherlock sat back, eyes trained on John’s windows.
John appeared there, disappeared into his bathroom.
Sherlock crammed the last leaves into his mouth.
John dropped his clothes into the basket outside the bathroom, turned towards his bed, dressing gown loose. He did not tie it.
He stood by his bed a moment. All the buds had bloomed. He buried his face in the blossoms, some of the petals fell. John sat himself beneath them, opened the case and assembled the instrument within.
Sherlock pressed his fingertips together, tried not to blink.
John approached the window, lifted the sash a little. The sill blocked the view below his hips, the clarinet obscured much of his chest that showed between the sides of his dressing gown.
Sherlock fluttered above the roof ledge.
At first, John played soft, low sounds, a few notes up, a couple down, then up again. A modified scale.
Sherlock’s wings trembled.
John’s fingers wavered between keys. He was looking up.
Sherlock wondered if John could see him. He had such good eyes.
The notes went higher.
Sherlock stretched his wings and fell from the ledge.
John’s notes went higher still, his fingers fluttering over the keys.
Sherlock beat his wings against the glass. There was space between the frame and the sill, but he couldn’t seem to quiet his wings to walk under it.
John stopped playing.
Sherlock dropped to the sill.
John took a step away and played a very low note.
Sherlock followed it under the window and took a long breath, antennae waving. John’s nest smelt so much better when he was in it.
John played a little higher, took another step backwards, then another until he was by his bed. He set aside the clarinet and stretched out a hand, palm up.
Sherlock swooped towards him, landed on the palm and bored deep.
John watched the creature drink.
“You’ve injured your wings on the window,” he said and placed his other hand next to the first.
Sherlock wove his way to the valley of the other palm and stung the mound below John’s thumb.
He grew larger, to drink more. John’s blood seemed even sweeter today. It was difficult to think of anything else even though John was speaking and Sherlock wished to mark the meaning.
“You’re growing red,” John whispered.
The moth moved, its legs tickling across his skin. It bored into the flesh between John’s fingers. Each sting sent a tingling sensation into his muscles, up to his fingertips and down to his arm.
John shrugged his left shoulder until his dressing gown fell down the arm. He twisted and bent it until it was free of the cloth. He stretched the bare forearm next to the hand where the butterfly lay, wings flattened, antennae drooped.
John bared more of his skin. Sherlock stretched his wings and his legs, dragged his swollen abdomen over the edge of the palm and onto the wrist, stung directly into the pale blue vein waiting for him. He was loath to withdraw, but the soft slope of John’s forearm beckoned.
Sherlock stung his way along the path of the vein and nestled in the crook of John’s elbow.
His wings had grown even larger. Crimson swirls blossomed on them as he drank.
John placed a fingertip by Sherlock’s head. Sherlock rested his front legs on it and stung shallowly. John lifted his finger, Sherlock clung to it.
There was a rush of breath.
“Show me your true shape,” John said, sitting and leaning back until he was flat on the bed. He set his finger on his cheek.
Slowly, the butterfly progressed towards John's mouth, began stinging around his lips. They seemed to swell.
The thought of anaphylactic shock crossed John’s mind. Some remembrance of the danger of asking mythic beings to appear in their true form was in there, too.
He wet his lower lip, left the tip of his tongue there. The butterfly stung it repeatedly, close together. Sensation darted from each piercing, one not subsiding before the next one began, down his throat, along his cheeks into his ears and on into his brain.
He wondered if he was dying. He had always thought it would be a gun.
Sherlock barely heard the words. He felt the vibrations of sound, but then John’s tongue was against his stinger. He drank from its surface before stinging it and then he found a place so tender on its underside that when he withdrew the stinger, he could not bring himself to move away, so he bored into it again, a little deeper, and yet a third time.
Somewhere in his mind, the words had registered. He felt himself changing. Only his parents and Mycroft had ever been able to make him do that and they had lost the power when he was fully fledged. Alarm flowed hot upon the thought and his wings fluttered, but he was pressed to John's side, his tongue deep in John’s mouth and it was difficult to focus on anything else.
John felt the muscles of a lower back then the firm curve of a buttock beneath his hand. He grasped it and growled. His fingers throbbed where they had been bitten and he sensed every hair upon the warm skin he held, every nuance of texture and heat. His hand slid lower. The thigh he found was hard with tensed muscles. He dug his fingers in.
“You cannot leave me,” he said, "whatever you really are.
A broad hand cradled his head, a tongue entered his mouth. When it withdrew, lips moved across his cheek, below his ear and onto his neck. And then there was a voice, like the lowest note of his clarinet.
He had completely transformed. His limbs stretched over John; wings with a greater span than a swan’s and feathers jewelled like a peacock’s tail curved around him. Sherlock lifted his head.
“You can feel that your first wish has been granted. But be warned, sweet John, if you open your eyes and look upon me, your second wish will be realised in a manner that may not please you, because you will never be able to leave me.”
Sherlock slipped down John’s chest and applied his tongue to the rose-hued skin there. His words had kept him from John's flesh for too long.
John inhaled sharply.
“As tightly as a moth in its cocoon, you will be bound,” Sherlock whispered above the moist skin. He nipped and suckled and yet there were more words that insisted on being said. “But unlike a moth’s threads, yours will never break and you will never emerge.”
Sherlock moved across John's chest. His tongue was not as delicate an instrument as a moth’s sting, but he applied it with intensity. The waver in John’s respiration was a fine reward.
“I would come and drink from you in your silken bonds,” Sherlock continued. He held John tight against him. “Or I would squeeze inside with you, so there would be no other space, just you, and me pressed into every nook and cranny of you.”
John’s hands were in Sherlock’s hair.
“Keep your eyes closed and you may enjoy my form with your other senses, without being bound to me.”
Sherlock knew he was distracting John from making a decision, but could not refrain from speaking and kissing in turn. If he could sting around the delicate skin he kissed, make it swell and grow even more tender, the words would stop, but John’s wish was holding him in his true shape and that shape had a tongue that formed words.
John’s hands had found the feathers of his wings.
Sherlock lost track of what he said.
John stroked the feathers, imagined their colours. “Are you as beautiful as you feel?” he asked.
“More,” Sherlock replied.
“A modest being,” John managed to reply. The muscular weight shifting above him demanded his attention, the soft lips brushing over the tiny wounds in his skin made him stutter.
“If you want to know about more than my appearance, it will take time,” Sherlock said.
“Do I have time?” John succeeded in asking.
Sherlock’s fingers trailed over John’s cheek. “I cannot see the future,” he said, “but I suppose you will have as much as is usual for a human.”
“You would give me that much time?” John asked, the import of the words wresting his concentration away from his physical senses.
“More,” Sherlock breathed. “I would give you more.”
John’s hands stilled in Sherlock’s feathers, the otherness of Sherlock’s words more arresting than the feel of wings beneath John’s fingers. He slid his hands back onto skin, reached around Sherlock and pulled him closer.
“You would not grow impatient, if I took so long to choose?” John asked. It seemed an enormous request.
“That amount of time would not be long for me,” Sherlock replied, licking the moisture from John’s skin. “You are interesting and in other forms, I can drink your blood.”
“Will you drink it all?” John asked.
“No!” Sherlock replied, “I would have you no more, which would be stupid, and I am not inclined to stupidity.”
“Brilliant, are you?” John asked.
“Yes,” Sherlock replied.
“Change into something else, so I can look at you while you speak,” John said. He felt the weight lessen, but he did not open his eyes.
“I’m thirsty,” Sherlock said.
“Drink first, then,” John said.
The weight vanished. There was a brush of wings on his chest and the stinging began again.
Sherlock hovered above John’s chest, started to bite while in the air. The pink flesh was fine, easier to pierce. He took small sips all the way around and then a long drink from the middle. He had gone dry even while they spoke and John’s blood was better than nectar.
John glanced at the translucent wings opening and closing, groaned and flung his arm over his eyes.
Sherlock waved his antennae across John’s skin. It was growing hotter and flushed. He bit gently at the other nipple’s edge, more fiercely at the centre and more than once.
John’s chest heaved.
Sherlock followed John’s breath up to his mouth, stung the middle of each lip a dozen times or more. They were scarlet when he fluttered away.
He was so full and he did not want to stop. He doubled in size while resting on John’s elbow and watching John’s tongue probe at the tenderness of each lip. He looked down John’s body, swooped towards the pink skin to which he had not yet ministered.
John’s breath quickened. It made a beautiful sound, almost whistling over his teeth. Sherlock stung once below the navel, once on the inside of a thigh, then flew up into the branches above the bed. He clung there, dislodging the cherry blossom petals and catching the fragrance of John as it rose from his overheated skin.
“Where have you gone?” John asked and it was nearly a wail.
In the dark behind his closed lids, John followed the progress of the small stings. He thought they had a colour that spread out around the point of penetration like the radiance of a light. And he tasted them, too, especially on his lips and his tongue, like a spice, only not one he knew. He thought he might be able to taste them with his fingertips as well, but he dare not move his hand for fear of breaking a leg or crushing a wing. He wanted to trace the line of bites around his nipples, follow the path being taken to his cock. Cautiously, he shifted his legs farther apart.
The bites stopped. No wings or fragile legs stepped over his skin.
The fear he felt was sudden and cold. He cried out.
Sherlock sensed the drop in temperature, smelled it.
He grabbed John’s arm, held it down over his eyes. “Don’t look,” he warned and kissed John’s stung lips.
John’s other arm reached out blindly and gripped so hard it hurt.
The pressure brought back the warmth and still John held on.
In synchronicity, the hand between his legs and the tongue in his mouth stroked him.
He let a leg slip off the bed, pushed up into that firm hand when he had a foot on the floor. The pressure increased, his back bowed and his wail told of a different feeling.
Sherlock swallowed the sound, pushed against that arch and spilled more liquid heat between their bodies.
John’s hold finally slackened.
Sherlock’s did not. He had John fast against his chest. “Can you continue not to look?” he asked when he had the breath.
John nodded, the movement easy along the slick skin.
“I want to hold you a while longer,” Sherlock said.
John nodded again, the motion slower than before. “Would you tell me your true name?” he whispered, sleep dragging at his words.
Sherlock wrapped his legs around John. “Sherlock is one,” he said. His wings vanished, a blue tail curled around John’s foot. “That’s more than enough to be going on with.” Long claws sunk into the mattress beside John and Sherlock slept.
John did not care to know how the long, strong legs twined with his looked nor even that there seemed to be three of them.
Mycroft looked Sherlock up and down, bedraggled wings duly noted. “That was a more adventurous evening than I would have predicted.”
“I’ll be going back,” Sherlock said as he tucked some rosin into his violin case. “Puck hasn’t been yet and you were right.”
Only the talons digging into the bark of the branch, kept Mycroft from falling off.
“Dr Watson does bear watching,” Sherlock concluded and clicked the case shut.
A taxi stopped at the kerb while John was pulling his keys out of his pocket. Mrs Hudson was in the hall when he opened the door.
“Oh, John, I’m so glad you’ve come,” she said, and held out a note. “The most marvellous thing has happened.”
John took the note, noticed the suitcase by Mrs Hudson’s side. “Right,” he said, “off to your sister’s this week.” He reached for the case. “Let me get that for you. I think your cab’s already outside.”
The taxi tooted.
Mrs Hudson jumped. “Why are they always early when you don’t need them to be?” she said. She patted the handbag hanging from her shoulder, looked at the suitcase John had picked up and pointed at the note in his other hand. “My sister’s number's there, just in case and the name...”
The cab tooted again.
John opened the door and Mrs Hudson hurried after.
“...of the new tenant.”
John stopped with the cab door half open. “What?”
Mrs Hudson ducked inside. “That was the marvellous thing. I let the flat today and he took it ‘as is’. I can hardly believe it.”
“You want that up front or back with you?” the cabby asked.
Mrs Hudson pointed to the floor next to her.
“I’ll put it in back,” John said to the cabby and slid the case in past Mrs Hudson.
“I was going to write more in the note, but...” Mrs Hudson waved her hand about. “Anyway, I got his name down, so go up and introduce yourself. He’s a musician. I told him you’re a doctor. He seems nice and...” She dropped her voice, “...he’s very handsome.” She winked at John.
“Yes, okay,” John said, shutting the door and giving the metal a pat. “Have a good trip,” he called through the glass.
Mrs Hudson smiled and waved as the taxi pulled away.
He looked up at the first floor windows. The shutters were still closed. He unfolded the note, glanced at the name written there and ran into the house, the glass in the fanlight rattling as he slammed the front door behind him.
The sunlight stopped at the glass. Night ruled inside, even the moon and stars were not allowed.
The outside of the windows glittered with reflected sunshine.
Half-way up the stairs, John heard a violin, plaintive and seemingly far away. His feet slowed; he rose on tip-toe, hesitated outside the door. It was ajar.
Long, low notes snaked through the opening. A shard of light from the hallway illuminated a wooden floor in need of varnishing, the corner of a frayed red carpet. Everything above the floor was dark.
John tilted his head, narrowed his eyes at it.
He rapped at the door. It opened further. The hall light lit nothing more. The violin skipped nimbly up the melody, trembled on its highest notes.
John threw his shoulders back and marched inside, closed the door and leaned against it. The heavy weave of an outer garment, redolent of tobacco, brushed the side of his face. The bright rectangles above the shutters shed no light on the room. By his feet, the arrow of wood and red carpet faded slowly. Any chance that a different Sherlock had taken up residence in his house, faded with it.
John’s eyes were not adjusting to the darkness. He closed them and listened. There was running water ahead, like a bath overflowing...or a brook. A faint draft bore the scent of mouldering leaves and moss. John crouched, removed his shoes and socks, stood them in the dim triangle of wood and wool. He eased forward, a slippery surface of wet leaves cushioning his footfall. He paused, extended an arm in front, the other to the side and finding no obstacle, took another pace, and another. There was a splash ahead, as of a dropped cake of soap, or of a frog or small fish jumping. He proceeded towards it, feeling ahead with his toes, counting his steps. The ground sloped. He no longer thought of it as a floor.
Cold mud squelched between his toes. He followed the edge of the stream cautiously. Twigs bent beneath his soles, rounded pebbles pressed up against them. He bruised his shins on rocks, some jagged, others mossy and slick under his groping fingers. He regained his balance each time, inched forward, clasped the broad trunk of a tree overhanging the bank, edged his way around the landward side of it, feeling for the roots with his feet. When the number of steps he had taken would have brought him beyond the Marylebone Road if he had been outside, he paused again.
The music slowed.
John faced the water. The music came from the other side.
He was half naked, wet and cold.
He had stumbled in the middle of the stream, banged his knees and an elbow on the submerged tree trunk over which he had fallen. Sputtering and shivering, he had followed the music to the farther bank, slipping down its steep side twice before scaling it by clinging to the exposed roots his scrabbling hands had found. At its top, he had peeled off his soggy jacket and trousers, used the inside of the jacket to dry himself then tied it about his waist.
The forest was dense on this side of the water, the trunks of the trees massive, their roots reaching across the spaces between them. John’s pace slowed even further. There were brambles in the undergrowth. They scored his legs. He tore his hand trying to push them away, tasted raspberry juice as well as blood when he sucked on the cut between his thumb and forefinger.
The music was clearer than before, its patterns intricate.
Hours seemed to have passed. The twisted roots of the wood gave way to grass. He hastened towards the music, stepped on a nettle and cried out.
The music stopped.
John swore and limped forwards, arms extended. They met only open air.
“Don’t you disappear,” he said, panting. “I’ve tracked you down.”
“Not yet, you haven't,” a voice taunted him from his left.
It had only ever spoken to him in the dark. John ran towards the voice and leapt into the air. His outstretched fingers touched a feather, others, a shoulder. His body slammed into a back and his legs clamped around a waist. “I have now,” he said, clutching as tightly as he could and pressing his cheek against silky curls. To either side, Sherlock’s wings unfolded, stirring the frangrance of the grass and the woods as they slowly beat the air.
John closed his eyes against the wind raised by the motion of what had to be enormous wings.
“Jump now, John. We aren’t far from the ground.”
John held on more tightly. Bands of muscle flexed and contracted under him.
“You’ll be able to find your way back to the door, the light, your ordinary world,” Sherlock said, “only slightly the worse for wear.”
“I’m going wherever you’re going,” John said through clenched teeth.
“Are you sure?” Sherlock asked.
The air around him grew cooler as they rose. John hunched closer to the warm body beneath him.
“Yes, I’m sure and so are you. Why else did you move Neverland downstairs?” John asked.
Sherlock tilted his body and glided.
The air whistled past the wings. John felt his heart thumping against the warm back. He tightened the hold of his legs and his arms, lowered his head and brushed his lips along the straining sinews of Sherlock’s neck.
“I wanted to give you a chance to know my bad sides, to grow familiar and become contemptuous,” Sherlock answered. “I hid the light, so you could come here and not worry about being trapped by seeing me accidentally.”
John kissed at the base of Sherlock's neck, beneath the hair. With each touch, his muscles relaxed a little more. "I think we leapt right over that stage," John said. He kissed behind Sherlock's ear. "I'm not worried about being trapped." He licked lightly along the edge of Sherlock's ear. "There is no need to bind me with spells or silk,” he whispered, “I want to be with you." John rubbed his cheek against Sherlock's hair. "Didn't I offer my hand to you? Serenade you from my window to call you back to me?" John curved his hand under Sherlock's jaw, stroked along it with his thumb. "Maybe I have ensnared you.”
Sherlock soared and swooped, wheeled in some vast arc. “With your delicious blood,” Sherlock said.
“There you are,” John replied. “Find somewhere to land, drink deep and show me your true colours. I give you my promise now to stay with you for the rest of my life because a life without you in it wouldn't be worth living.”
Sherlock no longer swooped or flapped his wings. He glided slowly downwards. “There is something else you need to know first,” he said.
All John’s muscles clenched. “Please, don't be ill."
Sherlock was quiet.
John smoothed his fingers over the long neck. “Is an enemy hunting you?” His brow furrowed. “Are you cursed?”
The air smelled of salt. John heard the susurration of waves.
“I am well. No curse could touch me. I am, in fact, indestructible,” Sherlock replied.
John breathed more easily. He rubbed his face against Sherlock's hair and sighed. “You aren't mortal,” he concluded.
“I am not,” Sherlock said.
The waves boomed, briny drops fell on John’s back.
“Now, I understand the music,” John said. “My span will be brief, you feel the sadness of my leaving you already.”
“It would wound me deeply,” Sherlock admitted.
“Deeper than any curse,” John said.
“Far more,” Sherlock agreed.
“And you might never have any release from the pain of it,” John said.
“Would never,” Sherlock said.
“I am a curse, then. I shouldn’t have tempted you,” John said. He rubbed his brow back and forth over the ridge of Sherlock's spine.
“You couldn’t have known,” Sherlock replied.
“But I did.” John said. “Long ago, I wanted to hold something that was not meant to be held by human hands. I took all its magic away. It couldn’t fly anymore. I tried to feed it, but it died.”
“The chimney sweeper moth in your album,” Sherlock said.
“But you wished to have the specimen again,” Sherlock said.
“Maybe I needed to remember its warning.” John pressed his lips to Sherlock’s neck, drew the skin up between his teeth, released it slowly. “Even with it before me, I reached for the impossible again.” His mouth returned to Sherlock’s skin, tasted the sea water on it with his tongue. “Is there no miracle you can work so you won't grieve when I die?”
“You could stay with me and not die,” Sherlock said.
John laughed a bitter laugh. “Easy as that, is it?”
“How hard or easy it would be, is for you to decide,” Sherlock said.
“I don't follow,” John complained.
“Ahead is a barren islet, the last land before the sea tumbles over the edge of the world. If, instead of turning back to the night now, we fly on and land there, the dawn will come upon us soon after. If you choose to look upon my true form in that place, you will be bound to me as inextricably as I to you, and from that bond there will be no release for either of us.”
John considered the words, felt the warmth of Sherlock's skin against one cheek, the chill of the salt spray against the other. “I would not die?” he asked.
“Death could no longer find you nor the passage of years touch you,” Sherlock replied.
John squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. There were colours behind the lids. “On those terms you think you want me?”
“Yes,” Sherlock replied.
"Surely, you would weary of me," John said and wished it was not such a reasonable assessment of such a future.
"I don't think it is a sure thing for me at all," Sherlock said. "Perhaps it would be for you." He sighed and banked into a turn.
John shook his head and held on more firmly. “I accept your terms,” John said and the weight that lifted off him with that utterance made him wonder if he, too, might fly. "I accept, Sherlock." It felt better to repeat it. "I accept."
Sherlock changed the angle of his body, gliding in an increasingly tight circle. Over his shoulder, John saw a distant line of faint grey light.
“Will I be able to fly?” John asked.
“Unaided, no,” Sherlock answered. “Want to change your mind?”
“No,” John said.
They landed on a rocky plateau. John slid off Sherlock's back. The stone was cold beneath his feet, the warmth along his chest quickly dispelled by the damp air. He shivered. Feathers swirled past his face in a cool rush of air, tickled his nose, drifted over his shoulders.
“Step here,” Sherlock said.
John stepped on a pile of feathers. Fleshy wings closed about him. “Will it be long?” John asked, leaning forward, finding Sherlock’s shoulder. He felt Sherlock turn.
“An hour or so. You have good eyes, you may discern me well before that,” Sherlock replied.
John pressed his mouth to the base of Sherlock’s throat.
Sherlock murmured, closed his wings more tightly around John.
“Drink from me now,” John said.
Sherlock’s warmth disappeared. There was a whirr of wings, many small wings. Moths or butterflies, John could not tell from their touch as they settled upon him.
“Are they all you?” John asked.
There was no answer, but an increased flutter of wings. Delicate legs walked along his shoulders, crept up his neck. There was a bite, another, and another, twenty more. John inhaled and held out his arms, palms up. There were so many, he felt their weight upon his arms. They were on his face, his lips. He parted them and sunk to his knees. Wings brushed against his chest. He spread his legs. Tiny legs and wingtips swarmed over him. They stung everywhere. His flesh swelled. He groaned.
Sherlock’s head fell against John’s shoulder. John panted into Sherlock's hair.
“Can’t stay upright,” Sherlock said.
John’s hand ran through the dark curls. “My blood makes you drunk,” he murmured, his hand stroking along Sherlock’s arm. “Lie down, put your head down.”
“So sweet,” Sherlock said.
John guided Sherlock down, smoothed his hand along the long back, up and out over the wings. Down was sprouting on the bumpy flesh. John kissed the base of the wings, along the back to the swell of the buttocks that were still swaying in the air. He rubbed his cheek against them and sighed, licked his fingers and explored further.
“John,” Sherlock called.
“Soon,” John said and his fingers advanced and retreated.
“More, soon,” John assured, “more.”
Sherlock pushed back against John.
“Patience, a little more patience,” he said, withdrawing his fingers.
“Soon,” John reassured as he pushed gently. “Very soon,” John repeated and grasped Sherlock’s hips.
From the east, a breeze blew cool across his back. John lifted his head. Above the horizon, there was stripe of white. A band of deep blue separated it from the jet black sky above. He could not keep his head up. He shifted his hips forward and moaned, every bite tingling at the contact. He lowered his head to the slick skin between Sherlock’s wings.
A faint sound issued from Sherlock’s lips. John wrapped his arms further around Sherlock, strummed the fingers of one hand over a firm nipple. Sherlock murmured again.
John took a deep breath and summoned some reserve of strength. He sat back on his heels, pulling Sherlock onto his knees with him. Sherlock took a gulp of air, head lolling forward, hands falling loosely by his thighs. John drew Sherlock’s head towards him, rested it against the side of his face. The breeze blew tangled curls into his eyes. Sherlock exhaled, collapsing onto John’s lap and they both gasped. John tightened one arm, rubbed his other hand along Sherlock’s chest then closed it around Sherlock’s cock. Sherlock’s wings curled forward. John could not see the horizon any longer. He closed his eyes and tensed his buttocks. Sherlock’s chest expanded. John relaxed, then tightened the hand around Sherlock’s cock and tensed his muscles once more.
"John." Sherlock drew out the syllable, lost his breath by the end of it.
John tensed, relaxed, tensed again, falling into a rhythm despite the burn in his muscles and the lightness in his head.
One of Sherlock’s hands clasped John’s arm, the other reached back and gripped John’s hip.
John’s rhythm quickened.
Sherlock’s nails dug into John’s hip. Sherlock shouted.
John’s arm tightened. He crushed Sherlock against him and screamed into his feathers.
Sherlock’s head fell forward.
John loosed his grip, slipped his hand between Sherlock’s thighs and cradled his testicles.
They sat, hunched together and breathed.
The darkness behind John’s eyelids lessened. “Sherlock,” he whispered.
Sherlock stirred. “Sun's almost up,” he said.
John pressed one more kiss between Sherlock’s wings and opened his eyes. Pale light caught the sheen on Sherlock’s flushed skin, tendrils of dark curls clinging to it. John leaned back. The light shimmered blue and green and gold over the iridescent feathers that fanned out from the base of Sherlock’s wings, curving over the shoulders and covering the shafts of the first of the rows of long, dark blue feathers. John could not see their tips nor Sherlock’s legs as the wings curved forward, brushing the stones.
Sherlock shrugged a shoulder. Muscles John did not recognise rippled beneath Sherlock’s skin. John traced one with a fingertip.
“Look at me,” John said.
Sherlock arched backwards and turned his face towards John. The light was growing brighter and more golden, outlining Sherlock’s profile and casting deep shadows on the nearer side of his face. John pulled his gaze from the hectic pink of Sherlock’s lips and met his eyes, blue and green and gold on the morning side, a silver gleam on the near side. They both held his gaze, looked him through.
“I can see why anyone who sees you in your true form would be bound to you,” John said.
“Only the first one,” Sherlock said. “Any others will simply have to suffer.”
John reached up to the long throat and stroked it. “I have no sympathy for them.”
“Good,” Sherlock said and glanced upwards.
John did the same. Overhead, the sky was navy blue and the stars were visible. In the east, the aura of pale blue was spreading, the bands of white and gold intensifying, their light doubled in the water.
Mrs Hudson brought the empty dish by her kitchen door in to be washed and re-filled. She smiled at the four-leaf clover in the bottom of the bowl.
The music of a violin and a clarinet floated down from the floor above.
King Oberon looked up from the scrolls Mycroft was showing him when Puck skipped into the clearing. He set a box Mycroft recognised down in the middle of the document he and his father had been discussing.
“There is the interesting box of which I spoke,” Puck said and sat at the king’s feet.
Oberon opened the purse at his waist and drew forth a golden key. Puck rose to his knees, resting his chin on the table to watch.
Mycroft gazed in his inimitable, imperturbable manner and the key turned and the lock clicked.
“What matter of interest have we here?” Queen Titania enquired as she swept out from between the trees, her retinue fluttering about her.
Oberon waited to raise the lid of the box until she was near. He and Mycroft stood as she approached. Oberon kissed her hand and Mycroft her cheek. Puck turned a backward somersault and handed her a clover he had plucked from the grass. He returned his chin to the table. Titania passed the clover to her lady-in-waiting and waved her attendants away.
Oberon opened the box, lifted out the vial with the thin, dark roll within. “That does not look very interesting,” Oberon remarked, “but appearances can be deceiving.”
“Oh, that is a failed experiment of mine. It would have been fascinating, but it didn’t work,” Puck said and reached for the glass.
Titania closed her hand around it. “I shall dispose of its contents for you. I like the vial.”
Puck withdrew his hand.
“And what is this?” Oberon said, extracting a gold-tipped white feather from the cobwebs in the box and holding it up.
Puck leapt to his feet and bowed. “That is a new feather that I collected myself.”
“It fell out,” Mycroft translated.
“Yes, it did,” Puck conceded, “but I was there to snap it up and bring it hence.”
The king turned it in the light and it shimmered. “It is a pleasing bauble,” he proclaimed and tucked it in the band of his velvet cap. “Unless you would like it, my dear,” he said to his Queen.
Titania shook her head, her golden hair glinting in the sun. “No, thank you, dear heart. It looks well in your cap.” She swirled about, her skirts billowing about her and drifted away.
“You may take your box, Puck, if you wish to use it again,” Oberon said as he and Mycroft resumed their seats.
Puck bowed and gathered it up. He did not skip as he moved towards the trees.
“Oh, Puck, I nearly forgot,” Oberon said.
Puck turned back and the king crooked a finger. Puck cart-wheeled closer.
“We have just been going over documents with the Crown Prince, pertaining to a title for you,” Oberon said, tapping the scroll on the table with a be-jewelled finger.
Puck’s eyes grew very wide and his gaze darted back and forth between his king and his prince.
“We were considering making you a count,” Oberon explained, “because you like to collect things and count them.”
Puck bounced onto his toes.
“But Puck,” Oberon said, raising his forefinger, “a count must be decorous and neither caper nor cavort.”
“Ever?” Puck enquired.
“Not at court anyway,” Oberon said.
Puck’s eyebrows went up and then down. “But I am usually at court, unless I am on an errand,” he said.
“Exactly so, as we enjoy your company,” Oberon continued.
Puck looked at the magnificent curlicues of the writing on the document and the green seal with ribbons of silver and gold affixed to it. He re-focussed his gaze on the pointed toes of his slippers and his lip quivered.
“We also considered making you a knight,” Oberon said.
Puck looked up, his eyes shining.
“But a knight must go forth with lance and sword to fight any wild beast that threatens our realm,” Oberon said.
Puck fingered the leather pouch at his belt, filled with potent flowers. “I am better at magic than swordplay,” he said in a low voice.
“Truer words you have never spoken,” said the king.
Puck glanced with furrowed brow at the glowing border of leaves and birds and flowers on the scroll.
“And so it was with all the usual titles,” Oberon said, “not a single one suited.”
Puck flopped onto the grass.
Puck dragged himself up again.
“Therefore, with the counsel of Crown Prince Mycroft, we have created a title for you that no one has ever had before and instead of your carrying a sword and maintaining a staid appearance at court, it requires that you wear this as a mark of your station,” Oberon explained and held out his hand to Mycroft.
Mycroft covered the king’s hand and set something in his palm that Puck could not see. He leaned forward.
“Come here,” the king said and gestured at his side.
Puck walked around the table, eyes fixed on the king’s hand.
“You wear a ring in your ear at times, do you not?” the king asked.
Puck’s hand flew to his ear. He pinched his lobe. “I do, sire, but I forgot today.”
“Well, this you mustn’t forget,” the king said pinning Puck with his gaze.
Puck swallowed. “Yes, sire.”
The king held up a large pearl, shaped like a teardrop.
Puck’s eyes moved to it and stuck there.
It was a lustrous pearl of silvery grey.
“Turn your head,” the king said and when Puck obeyed, slipped the long wire of white gold through the hole he found there. “There,” he said, taking a small mirror from his pocket. “You may admire it.”
Puck accepted the glass and stared at the gleaming gem weighing down his ear. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” he said and tore his gaze away to look at the king.
Oberon extended his arm towards Mycroft.
“Thank you, Your Royal Highness,” Puck said with sincerity.
Mycroft inclined his head.
“You are henceforth The King’s Pearl. It is your title and your badge,” Oberon said and motioned to Mycroft. “A fine conclusion to the matter. We will announce it at court the next time we have a large assembly.” He raised a forefinger at Puck. “Mind you don’t lose it.”
Mycroft rolled the document and tied a green ribbon around it.
Puck watched eagerly.
From somewhere about his person, Mycroft produced a small vial. Between his fingers, the scroll shrunk until he could fit it into the vial. Mycroft capped it with a silver-encased glass cap. He held out the tiny bottle.
Puck’s hand shook as he accepted the vial that was, in every detail, a duplicate of the one that Titania had carried away. “Thank you,” he said, glancing up and back down again quickly.
Music sounded from the wood. Oberon flitted up from the table and flew towards it.
Puck shifted his weight from one foot to another.
“You understand what you need to continue to do to retain that,” Mycroft said and fluttered his fingers at the pearl.
The gold wire grew hot for an instant in Puck’s ear. He nodded at Mycroft and refrained from pinching the edge of his ear lobe to relieve the pain.
“The feather is a reasonable start,” Mycroft said. “When did they begin coming in?”
“Last week,” Puck said. “His light is an even brighter gold now.”
“Good,” Mycroft said. “Reports at regular intervals, nothing indiscreet.” Mycroft narrowed his eyes at Puck and lowered his brows for an instant. “And mind you are not caught or...” Mycroft flicked his own earlobe.
Puck nodded and clasped his hands so he would not touch his ear.
Mycroft dismissed Puck with an upward swept of his fingers.
Puck did three back flips, checked his pearl was in place, then ran towards the lake and when the moon set he was still gazing at his reflection in its waters.
"Sherlock," John called as he came down the stairs, "did you want anything to eat, I was thinking to order some Chinese." John poked his head around the door. "Sherlock?"
He could hear waves slapping against wooden piers, sails snapping, the creak of rigging. Far along a dock, a lantern glowed. John closed the door and walked towards the light. Sherlock stepped out onto the deck and John's gaze took in every detail of his uniform, looked up at the mast and noted the flag.
"Permission to come aboard, sir," John said.
Sherlock let down the gangway.