Actions

Work Header

In the Deep, Where Dark Things Sleep

Chapter Text

  “My brother’s gone to the mainland.”

  The man behind the desk eyes Sherlock, his quill paused in the air, dripping black, black ink onto cheap parchment.

  “Has he, now?”

  “You know he has, Anderson. You’ve worked here all your life. You know when the locals leave, and you know where they go when they do.”

  The notary’s stubbled cheeks twitch. The messily smeared ink over his collar and neck says Donovan’s in the other room, and Sherlock had burst in at a very inconvenient time. He doesn’t care.

  “I don't know where they've gone once they're on the mainland,” Anderson growls.

  “You could find out. Just how I can find out that Miss Donovan’s in the other room, just like I found out that your wife--

  “I could find out where he’s gone, Mister Holmes,” Anderson cuts him off, sneers and leans forward. His breath is sour, has always been sour. “With the right incentive.”

  Sherlock scowls. “Money.”

  “Isn't it always?”

 

-/-

 

  “You can't expect him to find Mycroft for you, dear. If you can’t, no one can.”

  The kind-faced old woman pats him on the upper arm as Sherlock lifts a wooden crate for her onto the edge of the stall door. The horse within snorts. Mrs Hudson titters and the greying bay mare snorts again.

  “He has the resources. He said he wanted money in exchange for finding my idiotic brother. I can get money.” Sherlock reaches into the crate, withdrawing the small flakes of hay.

  Pieces of it fall onto the stone flooring. He’ll need to run back to the other end of the stable for more. This weak Thisby grass has stuffed but not fed the mare.

  “You get all your money from your brother, love, and he hasn't been sending anything lately - that's why you’re all worked up over him,” Sherlock opens his mouth to argue, but Mrs Hudson goes on, “And the people on Thisby, well, we aren't the most wealthy…”

  “There are some wealthy people. You are wealthy.”

  Mrs Hudson frowns. The low light catches on her thin lips. She looks down, “I paint teapots for the tourists, it hardly counts. I’d help, Sherlock, but I don't have the kind of money Mister Anderson wants. The rich people are all involved with the Races.”

  The barn cat, a scruffy black thing that Mrs Hudson calls Musgrave, winds itself around Sherlock’s legs. He doesn't pay attention to the cat, even when she butts her head against his ankles.

  While digging into the crate for some loose hay, Sherlock nonchalantly says, “So I’ll work at the Stockyard.”

  “Sherlock Holmes, don't you even think of it!”

   Surprised beyond belief, Sherlock snaps his head to Mrs Hudson. Her eyes are teary. He hasn't looked at her, not really, all morning.

  Flour on her dress. Trying to talk to the baker in the next town over again, Tholla, the one beyond Skarmouth - what's his name? - despite the fact he's married to someone on the mainland, oh, except Sherlock's the only one who knows that, and actually it’s two wives…

  “The Stockyard doesn't hire just anyone. They’ve that rider, oh, what's he called? Well, that young man’s won five years in a row, now, despite getting nearly trampled last year, and with the prize so big, the Yard can afford to hire whoever they want. And they don't have just ordinary horses, either,” warns Mrs Hudson. The woman reaches into the stall to pat Josephine’s soft nose. “They aren't like old Josey, here.”

  Sherlock straightens his back, and turns away from her. He throws another flake of hay into Josephine's stall. He moves down to the next one.

  Redbeard, the tall stallion within, does not make a sound as he tosses flakes of hay into it. He merely rocks in place. Asleep, then, Sherlock thinks with a touch of fondness.

  Redbeard has never been a racer.

  No ordinary horse has ever been.

-/-

 

  Sherlock first thought of the Races when he was ten. It had never been a possibility before then, and it never would, afterwards.

  With both parents drowned after several capaill uisce tore down the ferry they were on board, Sherlock was put off of ever being near the water horses.

  His parents were idiots.

  Everyone knows not to be on the frigid waters in October. But on the tiny, craggy island of Thisby, the cold ocean is hard to ignore.

  Mycroft had further discouraged Sherlock in the most peculiar of ways.

  He took Sherlock to the shore.

  On the first of November, someone will die.

  Always.

  It won't matter how many flowers and tassels one drapes over their steed’s bridle, how hard one tries to hide their ride from the call of the sea; they will die. Charms will not save the riders. Mystical leather polish on a saddle will not, either. Nothing will. Nothing ever will.

  Horses clacked their teeth at one another by the starting line. Their ears were all pressed forward, eager, long lines against the streamlined head. It was a shivering day - where the wind blew off hats and threw the scent of the sea towards the cliffs. Five minutes, eighteen furlongs, and the Races would be over.

  The riders stayed as far away from each other’s mounts as they could without being far from the starting line. Their brightly colored armbands, cloth tied on their upper arms and draped between blankets and saddles to allow the spectators to see their bets better, stood out among the whites, browns, beiges, blacks and whites of the water horses.

  Far below, the Races began, and beating hooves tore up the always-changing sand. They ran the horses on the beach, a pale line between the churning sea and the chalk cliffs.

  The huge water horses veered towards the sea while they ran, as they always did. Blunt fangs glistened beneath the sea foam frothing around their mouths.

  A blonde mare, huge ears pinned back, lunged at the rider of her neighbor, snapping at his arm, then jerking her head.

  The sea pounded and the the man screamed as everything below his elbow was ripped from his body.  

  While running, the mare heaved him from his mount and fell him in the turbulent surf.

  For one moment, the world slowed. The ocean's thrusts, so far below, no longer slugged entire foul-smelling kelp forests onto the shore, the fulmars did not flex their wings and did not cry overhead, and the island held its breath.

  The injured rider’s own uisce shrieked, breaking the ubiquitous spell that had fallen and shaking the world into action once more - the horses ran, the birds flew, the gamblers shook their fist. It swung back around to rip apart and devour its fallen rider, the ocean spraying at the bony tendons in its prancing legs.

  The tourists in the audience atop the cliff gasped. The locals didn't seem to react.

  Sherlock looked to Mycroft.

  “This is what happens, brother mine,” Mycroft had said, a line between his brows, eyes fixed on the Races far below. “The Races will be the end of Thisby.”

  “The Races are all Thisby has,” Sherlock had pointed out, looking back down at the carnage on the beach far below the cliff. “How could it be the end?”

  More water horses, the colors of all the pebbles on the seashore, had slowed in their running and were ripping at one another around the dead man, bleeding out into the waves, creating cries from the younger audience as they tore at him. (What did these visitors expect?) Others raced on, fighting as they went, but they were few in number.

  Their riders were all frantically trying to get them back on track. It was no use. The horses were lost to the madness of the sea. It was a bad year.

  An ivory stallion adorned in flared, pale blue petals began to jerk its elongated head, snapping with crystal teeth at its rider's leg, turning in a circle like a mutt trying to catch its tail.

  “That’s exactly it, Sherlock,” Mycroft had sighed, “The Races are all Thisby has.”

  Among the chaos, one iron red stallion charged into the ocean, its mane shifting until it shimmered as if made of pearl, head already lengthening. The reddened sea swallowed it up, bubbles bursting white at the top of the churning water.

  All with a rider still tethered to its back.

 

-/-

 

  Mycroft left for the mainland six years ago, when Sherlock was twenty four. Mycroft was thirty one.

  He always paid Sherlock’s rent and Redbeard’s board to Mrs Hudson. It came in the monthly post.

  Four months ago, the payments stopped.

  Two weeks ago, Sherlock Holmes began to worry.

  It was gradual. And worsening. He fumbled with the postcards and letters Mycroft had since been sending to him. All speaking of mainland government affairs.

  He searched for a code, something that might explain why Mycroft had stopped writing. There was nothing.   

  He remembers the first letter he sent to Mycroft, addressed to a government building on the mainland.

   Why did you leave?

  SH

   And he remembers the answer he got back two months later. It meant Mycroft had hesitated to put pen to paper, and missed not one, but two monthly deadlines.

   I can't stay. It’s been driving me mad.

MH

   Sherlock wrote back;

What has?

SH

   It seemed stupid to spend a ridiculous amount of money just to send a piece of parchment with two words and a feeble form of a signature on it. But that was the Holmes brothers, that was them all over.

  His response came on time the next month, with a few month’s rent along with it. Mycroft was paying Sherlock’s rent forward, like he expected to be gone a very long time somewhere in the future. This should've been the first clue. But Sherlock was upset, and, though he wouldn't admit it, betrayed that Mycroft had left him.

   Thisby has.

The ordinary people and the docks and the sea and the wind and the fish. The fish, Sherlock.

And the damn horses.

MH

  Lestrade, the chief of the very small police force on the island, told him there was nothing to worry about when the letters stopped and Sherlock went to him.

  “People who go to the mainland don't often contact their family…” The greying man said, dusting off his waistcoat. He then reached up to scratch at his cheek. “We get missing persons reports from the family members all the time. In reality, they just go to the mainland and fall out of contact. It happens all the time. Nothing to be worried about; I'm sure your brother is fine.”

  “You’re only saying that because your cheating wife ran off there to be married to the Skarmouth gym teacher and you still hold out hope she’ll return…”

  Lestrade didn't speak to him for a week.

 

-/-

 

  It is October.

  And the Thisby men are beginning to spend their days by the shore, watching the waves for the crests that appear before a capall uisce will rise, strutting from the ocean with seaweed as its coat.

  It is October.

  And Sherlock spends his days on the grassy cliffs. He watches the beaches from sunup until sunset, breathes the salty air, and languishes in the overhead sun. But it's worth it, to sit beside the scant trees that harbor seabirds and to scan the ocean. When the whitecaps beak and roll over, crashing back into the blue mass of the endless plains of water, there may be the twitch of an ear, the spot of a nose, the beginning of a shoulder. But the parts are always gone by the time the waves settle.

  Tourists begin to spill into Thisby. Their ferries will arrive and they will bustle away from the ocean as quickly as their fat legs could carry them to their inn. Their golden pocket watches will undeniably rust here, under the influence of the magic of the sea.

  Sherlock doesn’t know why they bother bringing them in the pockets of their waistcoats.

  Gold chains hang from them, and diamonds shine as bright as the sun on water on their wrists. It is always easy to find a tourist.

  For one, they come in like the water horses - in October. The closer time crawls to November, the more tourists arrive, seeking to spectate and, some, even, to race.

  For another, they are irregulars, and everyone knows of everyone on Thisby.

  Sherlock knows more. He can see things others can’t, can tell people’s life stories. The saddest thing in the world is an obvious fact, missed and ignored by the masses. He can tell what people ate for breakfast, their pets, left alone on the mainland, and all of it is useless, because nothing extraordinary happens on Thisby.

  Lestrade had once offered him a job, after Sherlock had had Mrs Hudson’s drug dealing husband executed out on the continent. The job Lestrade offered was to find out who’d been stealing money from the gift shop in town. It was too easy - it was the wife of the owner, who was promptly divorced. Sherlock doesn’t know whether or not she still lives on the island. Doesn’t care.

  And nothing else happens on Thisby.

  Nothing besides the Races.

  (And the November cakes that make the whole island smell of sweet honey glaze for the month of October. Sherlock finds those particularly interesting.)

 

-/-

 

  Mrs Hudson’s house (and subsequently, Sherlock’s, for the next year, when Mycroft’s forward payments catch up with Sherlock) is very far away from town. It’s on the windward side of the island, and strong breezes always rip through the screen doors when they come through.

  When people ask each other where on Thisby they’re from, most say oh, round the main road, just past Skarmouth , or the other side of the island - the hard side, or a stone’s throw from Tholla .

  Four thousand people, all crammed onto a rocky crag jutting from the sea, and you’d think someone would be clever enough to set up an address system, like how it is on the mainland.

  Sherlock sometimes gets to Skarmouth, the nearest town on the island, by taking the rusting, very old Ford out along the dirt road that leads through miles and miles of sparsely grassy, cracked earth.

  More often, he’ll ride Redbeard. It's always good to feel his stallion under him. He only takes the Ford when he’ll need the room in the backseat for something. And then he has to chase out the barn cat Musgrave, who makes it her business to get black fur all over the seats, or scratch gauges into them when she's bored.

  He passes Mrs Turner’s, their closest neighbor, sheep farms, the low stone wall, topped with frail loops of barbed wire, is all that will protect the eternally petrified flocks. Her border collies bark at anyone who comes near, any car that shudders past. Once they recognize the car, they yip and whine for Sherlock to come out and feed them leftover tidbits. Today, however, he's busy.

  The Ford rambles past houses that look like they’ve grown out of rock, colourless possessions spilling out backdoors and into shoddy fenced-in gardens.

  Sometimes the car doesn't start right, and Sherlock has to delve into the supplies kept in the stable loft to find the right size wrench to bang on the engine with until it'll start up properly. He could figure out how the horrid machine actually worked, if he was motivated enough. He's not.

  Then he drives, cheap gas gurgling and popping and sputtering.

  Then there's the town, near the cliffs by the sea. Far enough away so that chunks of rock that litter the sand far below won't take any buildings with them.

  It gets warm the summer, but now it's starting to cool down. It's still not very cold. That will change as the capaill uisce come ashore. They bring dark magic with them, the kind of magic that can change an entire island.

  After half an afternoon spent bent over the hood of the Ford, Sherlock has grease striped over his forehead and cheeks. He's not happy about it.

  He picks up the shopping from the locally owned shop. Of course it's locally owned, everything is locally owned because no one in their right minds will willingly move to Thisby, where they're poor and where they have carnivorous horses that maim and kill and they have locals that will willingly ride them. The only inhabitants here are people born here. That's it.

  (That’s not it. There are some mainlanders that have moved here, some return annually just to participate in the Races. Sherlock ignores them, because they're all boring. Of course they're boring. They moved here. They wanted adventure and life teetering on the edge of death, and they get it, when they come here.)

  It’s dark outside when Sherlock shoves the paper bags into the backseat of the Ford, trying to arrange everything on the floor so nothing will fall over.

  Damn Mrs Hudson, and damn her love for oranges. Those are expensive to get on Thisby. Even more so this time of year, when all the rich tourists are around and about and local shops rack everything up high. It's not Sherlock's money, but he's trying to be conscientious about it all the same.

  It's dark tonight. The shine of streetlamps reflect off the bakery windows, hit his eyes. The wind breathes softly over his shoulders, throwing discarded pieces of paper across the stone street. As he slides into the front seat and reaches for the key still in the ignition, he hears the eerie moans of a capall uisce on the air.

  The hair on the back of his neck sticks up.

  It's cold, but a sweat appears on his brow, beneath his curly fringe. He dares not move.

  Men yell. Men yell, down on the beach, their voices almost eroded by the wind.

  Sherlock swallows his rising panic. But he can feel the crumpled edges curling around the corners of his eyes, like a fog that won’t settle.

  The cliffs will protect them, but there are ways down and up them. Ways stable enough for a water horse to clamber onto Thisby’s flat and dunes top. It happens in October.

  Sherlock’s head runs through all possible routes in approximately four and a half seconds. The nearest one is just on the other side of the buildings hanging onto the cliff behind him.

  Another eerie call, this time louder. More enraged.

  Hungrier.

  More men shout and scream. Tourists ambling around the streets (stupidly, stupidly, they know not to be out after sunset, that’s when the capaill uisce could wander into town unseen) begin to quicken their pace, slip indoors, and Sherlock is stuck, his hands frozen to the steering wheel.

  Every year. Every year, as far back as time went, the horses had pulled themselves from the sea. And every year, the people of Thisby had gone after them.

  It's in human nature to be curious. Many scholars have commented on it, studied, hypothesized, theorized. Why is so much time devoted, by humans, for the acquisition of knowledge? Especially when the people of the island and tourists already know exactly what these beasts are capable of?

  Sherlock, personally, finds it appalling.

  So he isn't sure why he climbs out of the car, slams the door, and is briskly making his way through town towards the pull of the water. His hands in his coat pockets, shoulders hunched up against the bite of the wind that tosses his curls, Sherlock walks.

  “Sherlock!”

  He stops. Doesn't turn.

  “Sherlock, where are you going?

  Ah. That’ll be Miss Hooper. Right in time to ruin his recklessness.

  Sherlock turns round, purposely letting his face fall to a neutral expression upon seeing her. If he shows even the slightest emotion, she gets far too excited for his liking.

  Her brown hair is tied back, and her black apron hanging above her dark dress is stained with white and brown. Making November cakes, then. She's looking at him, scrutinizing. Her face is illuminated by the streetlamps and the light pouring from inside the Hooper Bakery, just to their side.  

  “Where are you going? ” She repeats, as though she is in charge of whatever he does. She wipes her hands on her apron. “It's dark out-- it’s October -- where are you going?”

  “Do stop repeating yourself, Miss Hooper. I'm merely headed to the beaches.”

  She widens her eyes, blinks. Her mouth pops open in surprise. She glances left, right, as though someone will overhear them, will know she's talking to a man that will soon be dead.

  “You can't go down there, Sherlock. The horses are coming up. Don't you hear that? There's… there's a water horse down there. They’re trying to get it.”

  Sherlock knits his brows together. “Who is?”

  “The men from the Stockyard!” Hooper exclaims, then bites down so sharply her teeth audibly clack together. She looks frustrated for a moment, then focuses back on Sherlock, who does not cower. “You know as well as I do, they’re always getting the first water horses.”

  “Because everyone else wants to see how violent they'll be this year, and no one wants to test it out first for themselves, I know, Miss Hooper.”

  “They're always violent.”

  “They're the capaill uisce, of course they're always violent.”

  

-/-

 

  Sherlock returns home, and does not go to the beach.

  That night, he dreams of Redbeard under him, the sand flying behind them. He licks his teeth and tastes salt. Water horses snap at him from the sea, confined to only the reaches of the waves.

  They call to him. And they drive him mad. Mad enough to ride into the sea and drown.

Chapter Text

“I'm heading out, Mrs Hudson!” Sherlock calls through the open door, his ear cocked for a reply.

  He waits a moment. There's the scramble and a clatter. She must have dropped her package of hair curlers.

  “Pick up some oranges while you're out! There's coins on the counter! I’ll make a meringue pie!”

  Ugh. That means he has to go inside. And he's already got his shoes on, and Mrs Hudson loathes when he goes inside with his shoes on. He wipes them off on the doormat and streaks downstairs, to the cellar, and snags the money off the counter, sliding the coins into his pocket with the jingle of change.

  Sherlock does not get the Ford out from under the tarp. He wades through the tall, dry grasses that sway in the wind towards the small barn. The barn cat, the ugly thing, follows at his heels. He begins to wonder if the thing has fleas.

  Redbeard is restless in his stall. He hasn't been ridden in so long. He’s knocking his velvety nose up against the stall door when Sherlock comes in. Sherlock unlatches it and Redbeard knocks it open with the broad of his chest. His ordinary hooves clap on the stone, and Musgrave is nearly crushed. She hisses, and Sherlock frowns at her. “Shush up,” He says, and she sits.

  Collecting the saddle from its peg on the opposite wall, Sherlock holds it over one forearm, side tight to his chest, while he clicks the leadrope into place on Redbeard’s harness.

  The windy air sings around them, carrying the salty smell of fish from the docks way down past Skarmouth. Sherlock’s heart is beating in his chest while he leads the stallion out of the stables. In the grass, Redbeard leans his head down to tear at it, Musgrave padding over to wind around his legs. The stallion munches noisily as Sherlock throws the saddle blanket over his back.

  He can ride bareback - he loves it, powerful muscles beneath him, flexing and mirroring his own exhilaration - but a trip to the town requires a saddle, it's long, and Sherlock doesn't want Redbeard’s back to ache.

  Next comes the smooth leather, and Sherlock secures the straps under Redbeard’s belly, patting his unbranded flank to make the horse cooperate. He exhales as the strap tightens, and twists it, fixing it in place.

  Sherlock doesn't have to worry about Redbeard trotting off when he returns to the damp mildew of the stables to retrieve the reins and bit. There's a little hardened grass pasted to the metal bit with old spit from Redbeard.

  “Have you been eating with this in?” Sherlock accuses as he steps in front of the stallion. Naturally, Redbeard doesn't answer, his ears only prick forward at the sound of Sherlock’s voice, which startles the flighty barn cat.

  “Bastard,” Sherlock mutters, and Redbeard snorts in the grass, also making Musgrave flinch.

  The Thisby grass is so dry, Redbeard couldn't possibly find it good. He has hay, Sherlock has no clue as to why he insists on eating this stuff. But even the bales are composed of weak Thisby grasses. It's not good food, it's not the sort of food the horses at the Stockyard eat.

  Sherlock bends to pick up the leadrope and drags Redbeard’s head up. He fits the bit into his mouth with little resistance, just the token amount he expects from him, and fixes the rest of the bridle in place over top of Redbeard’s harness. He unclips the lead rope and tosses it onto the ground. It'll be dark when he comes back, and it'll be hard to find, but Sherlock doesn't care.

  This is one of the times (all of the time, he always thinks this) that Sherlock is immeasurably grateful that Redbeard is not one of the maneaters that rise from the sea each year.

  Sherlock can see himself in Redbeard’s eyes. He can see behind them, as if the horse’s mind is just as his is.

  If he ever got close enough to a capall uisce to see into its eyes, he knows what he would see behind them.

  Square pupils. He would see, reflected in them, torment and intelligence.

  He would see a predator, looking back at him.

  Not to mention the teeth that would be pushed up against his chest, as Redbeard’s nose is now. Sherlock smiles to himself, and runs a fond hand through the copper horse’s black tuft of hair between his ears. The rest of his mane and tail is rust red, like his coat, but there's little wisps of black up here.

  The ride into town is nice. Just. Nice. The border collie's at Mrs Turner's bark and whine at him. The open plains and few hills offer nowhere to hide. At this time of the year, so early in October, a water horse would not be found this far inland.

  Would it?

  Sometimes, around this time of year, Sherlock will wake in the night, and every creak of the shutters will alarm him, make him find the pistol, nicked off Lestrade when he was being exceptionally boring, tucked in his dresser.

  Nothing but poison berries, silver, iron knives and bells, and flower petals ever did any good against a water horse. Even those barely do any good; last year, a horse covered in shining bells and flowers knitted into its mane dragged a man kicking and screaming into the ocean.

  But the pistol is a comfort, heavy and potent in his hands.

  He’ll sit in the kitchen table, down in the cellar, with a candle lit for company, and try to imagine there isn't a growling horse in the corner, frothing at the mouth for his flesh and blood.

  Sherlock digs his heels into Redbeard’s side, and he begins to lengthen his steps, streaking along the dirt roads.

  Redbeard is panting heavily through his nose by the time Sherlock trots into town, passing first by the tall glass buildings that are owned by the Stockyard and serve as hotels for the wealthy tourists. The Skarmouth Inn. Nicest place to sleep, be, stay, or exist on the island, Sherlock hears. A man is sweeping the stone steps as Sherlock passes.

  Next is the tourist shop, Murray & Sons (which is funny, because Bill Murray has no sons). They sell Mrs Hudson’s teapots there.

  The roads here are made of cobblestone instead of dirt and are more like paths than anything else. The town curves into something small, and tight-knit. Clothing stores, shopping, and the Hooper Bakery. The mill is somewhere near the north side of the island, just past the Stockyard, the place where they keep the most dangerous of animals.

  He pulls into a stop just outside the bakery, where Hooper is always happy to supply him with water for his ride. He takes a moment to breathe, himself, and gently pats Redbeard’s neck, starting to remove his feet from the stirrups.

  Someone shrieks.

  Redbeard flinches violently and startles, his ears swiveling wildly. Sherlock leans forward and murmurs soothing words into them.

  “A water horse!”

  Sherlock sits straight up. No, no there isn't one here, who yelled, danger, where is it-- He snaps his head around, inhales, but there is no smell of salt and vinegar or brine, no red tide, and there is no sound of galloping.

  No painful or unearthly screams.

  A young tourist is pointing right at Redbeard. Other tourists are staring, backing away. Hooper, just emerging from the bakery with a metal pail to refill the trough outside her shop, doesn't even look concerned. She only glances up at Sherlock.

  The stallion jerks its head, as if affronted, pulling on the reins in Sherlock’s iron grip.

  Sherlock frowns.

  The tourist (American, approximately seventeen, though tall - lives with his stepmother and father, came here with the latter-- paranoid) shivers as Sherlock stares at him. This claim makes no sense. Redbeard isn't even a large horse, his ears aren't elongated, his pelt is clearly dry, his ribs aren't showing (not by a long shot).

  Sherlock raises his chin, and speaks loudly.

  “This is not a capall. A capall would've torn you apart by now. Look at his eyes,” Sherlock pulls on one side of the reins, pulling Redbeard’s head that way. It puts his round

cheek on display, his strong profile.

  “Look in them. He does not hunger. Not like the capaill.

  Not like the devils of the sea.

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock needs money.

  He needs money.

  He needs money to pay Anderson to track down Mycroft. He needs money to charter the ferry that will take him to the mainland, because he could do the first to-do item, finding Mycroft, by himself, but he needs a place to start.

  He just needs money for the boat.

  Even if he took every odd job in the town, every steady one, and every part time one, he wouldn't make enough money to do even one of those things. Not in five years.

  And he doesn't have that time. In less than a year, his paid rent will be up.

  Mrs Hudson will have to turn him out - she's family, but even she cannot afford to keep another mouth around for so long while getting nothing in return. Sherlock would not ask that of her. She has her debts - like nearly everyone on the island, she borrowed from the Stockyard to buy her property.

  The house will be seized if she fails to make her payments.

  Sherlock will have to sell Redbeard, and his mainland-imported violin, and everything he owns. He’ll have to work at the mill. The mill has worker housing. But he doesn’t want a life at the mill.

  There is. Only one thing on Thisby that would get him that kind of money.

  The thing he has sworn to forego, sworn never to even attend.

  And now, he must be a participant if he is to find his brother and get off this bloody island.

  The Races.

 

-/-

 

  To race is a death wish.

  To clamber onto the back of a capall , to run alongside dozens more of them.

  Riders will cut at each other's horses. And at each other. It's a foul, technically, grounds for disqualification, but when the cut man usually falls and dies and is a red smear on the sand, who is going to know?

  People on Thisby don't like Sherlock. He thinks he may get more cut up them all of them. They say he pries.

  He wouldn't be surprised if the capaill had an innate hatred of him, too.

 

-/-

 

  To not race is a death wish.

  He cannot wait here, hoping for Mycroft to reappear out of nowhere. He could live homeless in the sea caves on the leeward side of the island. But come November and October, and he will be ripped apart by incoming capaill.

 If he had to leave Mrs Hudson's house, Redbeard would be the first thing he'd have to sell. He will not. He'd rather die.

  And, besides. To wait and linger; it is not in his blood.

 

-/-

 

  Over a dinner of roast duck, dining at the kitchen table in the cellar, Sherlock is silent.

  Usually, he doesn't indulge Mrs Hudson like this. She likes to pester and insist, though. The meringue pie afterwards is delicious. Mrs Hudson really knows how to stretch just one orange. A lifetime of living on Thisby will give you that skill.

  Sherlock flattens a piece of the crust under his fork, his tongue tied, and there is a sickly sweet taste in the back of his mouth.

  “I'm going to race this year.”

  The sound of Mrs Hudson’s fork clinking against her plate stops. Sherlock risks a glance up. The woman is staring at him, wide eyed, her hands frozen.

  Time slows. Mrs Hudson drops her fork, and it clatters to the wooden floor, and Sherlock shoves back his chair, standing and going to collect it from the ground. He whips around to drop it into the sink. Metal clings and pings against aluminum.

  “Oh, Sherlock…”

  “It’s the only way,” Sherlock rushes, closing the distance between the sink and her chair in only a stride in the cramped space, “I need the prize money to get Anderston to find Mycroft, and get to-- get to the mainland, and, and to pay off the rest of your debt from the Stockyard--” He lays an hesitant, gentle hand on her shoulder.

  “You know you don’t have to do this, Sherlock. I wouldn't turn you out.”

  Oh, there's that voice. The little wobble in it. Sherlock’s upset her. She places her wrinkled hand on his. His throat tightens inexplicably. Must be the uncomfortable warmth of the room.

  Taking a very gentle tone, Sherlock says, quietly, “I do, I have... I want… I need to do it.”

  “I don't want you to get hurt. Those things-- they're so nasty, and there's dozens of them in the Races, so close together…”

  “I won't get hurt. I promise.”

  Mrs Hudson locks her teary eyes with his.

  “You can't promise me that.”

 

-/-

 

   She's right. He can't promise he won't get hurt.

  When dealing with the capaill, one must always be alert.

  You cannot turn your back. You cannot let your guard down, even for a second. If you do, there will be teeth in your neck and blood running down your chest.

 

-/-

 

  To participate in the Races, one must signup at the Hawkins Tavern by the night of the Scorpio Festival, two weeks before the first of November, and one must name their mount by the same date. The cementing of the riders is done at the rider's parade at the festival. The giving of blood. There's no backing out after that, it's seen as cowardice, and the inhabitants of Thisby have never taken well to that.

  Sherlock doesn't not have one. He doesn't have a water horse, he doesn't have anything to race.

  How is this going to work? How will he even get one? Never mind winning, what he has to do to get the money, because there's barely anything in second place, how's he going to afford a capall to race with? He has savings, but nothing enough to buy one of those overpriced mounts.

  He could capture one.

  He could wait on the beach at night, with a harness of bells and mind of wit.

  What's cleverness going to do, when he's facing the devil, in the form of a man eating horse, twice as tall and large as a Clydesdale, or any island pony?

  The men from the Stockyard work in teams of four to ten to capture their rides, fresh and dripping from the sea and crazed from being in the water. Sherlock is just one man.

  Yes, he's far more clever than anyone else on the island, now that his brother’s gone, but he's still only one man.

  He could devise a flawless plan in seconds, but he lacks the strength to capture anything as big and powerful and hungry as the capaill.

 

-/-

 

  Redbeard obediently allows Sherlock to fix the bridle and bit into place over his head and in his mouth. Sherlock keeps waiting for something bad to happen to the stallion, because he loves him too much.

  The Ford is out of gas, somewhere a mile down the road. He should've checked it before driving into town. Idiot.

  Sherlock fits the saddle in place, and shoves his left foot in the stirrup, pushes up, and swings a leg over the rise. Skarmouth is much too far away for his liking. But Redbeard really should be more fit - he's skinny, but not overly so.

  The ride is quiet, and the evening sky is overcast, clouds hanging grey and withholding high above. The ocean must be a mess tonight; the wind won’t leave Sherlock’s hair or Redbeard’s mane alone. It’s a live, starving thing, making shutters flap and slap against house walls, and throwing leaves and twigs across the road.

  He’ll get the Ford back. And then. The beach.

  It isn’t yet the time for training to begin on the sand. It isn’t the time for a nose to be sheared off in a moment of distraction whilst training on the beach.

  It’s early October, and it is the time for capturing the capaill.

  The closer to November it becomes, the more water horses the sea spits out, and the more antsy and restless the existing stock of water horses, captured in years gone by, become. The colder the sea is, preparing for winter in its own twisted way, the more the magic calls beneath the horse’s shimmering pelts.

  Sherlock cannot hold down one of those creatures. He cannot. It’s not a matter of whether or not he’ll be trying hard enough. Those things are predators, they call to each other beneath the water and sound like whale songs, gentle and soothing.

  On shore, they sound like kittens screaming, or babies crying.

  Besides during the Races, Sherlock has never seen a capall uisce up close . One will occasionally become loose from the holds of the Stockyard, which makes its money by selling sport horses to the mainland, or one will climb from the sea in the middle of May or June, but never for long.

  The summer horses emerge in daylight hours, then bubble and foam and slip back under the waves.

  It is the horses that linger around the autumn Scorpio sea that are dangerous.

  No, that’s not right.

  All of the horses from the sea are dangerous, deadly. Their heads cocked back, raptor-like, ready to strike. They’re alive, always, and always ready and poised for hunting, for finding their next meal.

  When Sherlock was young, when he was driven to the small school in Skarmouth, the car would swerve to avoid a carcass, draped over the low stone walls on either sides of the road. The evidence of a water horse meeting an island pony, still bleeding out on the packed earth.

  Sheep show up slaughtered, and barn cats, too. Smears of red on the ground, inconsequential and common, like the blood on the sand the day after the Races, high up on the shore where the ocean has yet to reach and lap away.

  Redbeard ambles along, and Sherlock, on his tired back, scans the horizon for anything.

  Ten minutes later, they clear off the cracked dirt road to make way for a shiny red, newly modeled car ripping by. It throws up dust behind it. Sherlock pulls on the reins to halt Redbeard, who tucks his chin against his long red neck and snorts unhappily. Sherlock pats his neck, turning the stallion to watch the car whiz on. He wonders what someone with that kind of money (evident, wealthy - the model’s new from the mainland, whoever owns that is rich enough to have it shipped in - new tires, no dents) is doing on this side of the island.

  Redbeard’s wispy tail flicks against Sherlock’s clothed calf, and Sherlock takes the hint, facing forward and forcing his heels back into Redbeard’s side to make him trot on.

  Skarmouth already smells of November cakes when Sherlock ties the end of Redbeard’s reins to the post in front of the Hooper Bakery. The stallion dips his head to drink the stale water in the trough just under the post.

  Sherlock pats his neck, belatedly noticing the mud caked into the short copper fur. He’ll need a rough brush when they get back. For now, however, Sherlock needs gas for the Ford and to check what’s going on down at the beaches. The latter now and the former afterwards.

  He takes in the town of Skarmouth with an ease he’s never known in the crowd. Moments before walking into a dangerous situation always seem calm - like this - so this must be one of them. Which, by that logic, means he’s walking into a dangerous situation.

  Tourists with fat wallets in their pockets (careful with those, visitors, there are less noble ways that the residents of Thisby can make money) walk around, laughing with wives or husbands or children. Men in prim waistcoats ignore the smaller shops for minuscule iron parts, or those that sell charms to tie into a water horse’s mane.

  They have no need for these shops. Thisby does. Riders do.

  Sherlock will.

  He shoves his hands into his pockets and walks, shoes clapping on the cobblestone pathways. It’s insubstantial, doesn’t matter, he is lost to the tourists.

  On the corner, the flower shop’s bouquets are not for decoration or for gifting to a sweetheart. They are to ward a home from the capaill that roam the island in October. And those silver bells strung on twine above that doorway - to keep the water horses away. They don’t often come into Skarmouth. But it’s not impossible.

  Shops crowd close to each other, ivy crawling up their stone sides. A myriad of bicycles are leaning against stone walls, and more cars than Sherlock knew existed are parked along the streets, streetlights caught in their windshields. Streetlamps make brilliant halos against the paling stars; paper lights crawl along wires tied to telephone poles.

  One could drive a car down the sandy slopes of the cliffs in some spots of the island. It’s easy for the horses to come up and putter around like dead among the living.

  Sherlock spends a very brief moment standing on the cliff, the last faded light sliding behind the endless plane of the sea. By his side, a conifer is leaning over the edge, almost parallel with the ground, its exposed roots clinging to the rock. Sherlock must move, or he will lose his courage.

  Courage. What courage has he ever had?

  He stumbles and trips down the sandy dunes, angled back to not fall flat on his arse, his arms out to keep his balance, until he can make the awkward jump at the end that brings him sea level.

 There are men around, chatting with one another. Locals, people born of Thisby.

  They are waiting for water horses. It's so early in October, though, will there be any?

  Sherlock settles on the pebbles beneath the overhang of the chalk cliffs, and watches the people from a gravel hill, safe from the tide’s reach. Least until the very early, very dark hours of the morning, where the water will reach above his head, up to the portion of the cliff that's lighter to mark how high the water will rise.

  And Sherlock doesn't plan to be out that long. He can only cheat death so much.

  A man who’s cheating on his wife with the man walking next to him - a dangerous game - laughs, and says something about it being too early. Both of them leave the beach the way Sherlock came down, stumbling on the grassy dunes.

  The evening wanes into night. Redbeard will be fine in Miss Hooper’s care.

  Sandpipers pick at the receding waves in the blue wash.

  Men come and go, watching the Scorpio sea before heading back up after a quarter of an hour or so.

  In a week, the beaches will be flooded with commotion. People will be selling fresh water horses or their catches from years past. Stray dogs will run between the crowds, tempting fate. Men will lose fingers, noses, hands, and pride.

 Past dusk, the tide has crept up to reach Sherlock’s booted toes. He lets them get wet. The water does not creep any further. It’s caught in the middle of high tide and the usual tide, a strange thing that happens on Thisby at this time of day. He watches the ocean for the slice of a body through the water.

  They say that capaill caught at night are stronger than those in the day. They say that ones caught in a storm are flighty, but fast.

  There is something enchanting about the sea at night.

  The black waves, the shhhh, shhhh of the water lapping at the shore. The careful sounds of birds roosting in the cliffs above, soft shutters of wings against chips of chalk and feather.

  The waxing moon glints off something in the water.

  Sherlock freezes. He holds his breath.

  A nose breaches from the foam of a cresting wave, breaking the surface before submerging again.

  The seabirds above do not make any noise.

  The nose emerges again, and this time, a head follows. Nostrils flare wide in a battle for air, red, and then the rest of the face. A neck, and a wet mane pasted to the side of it.

  Sherlock needs to leave.

  There comes a ascending wail, the sound of a scream underwater, a whale song, a baby crying. It’s meant to carry for miles.

  Sherlock grapples at the pebbles beneath him, and gets his footing, eyes never leaving the water.

  He presses his back to the cliff wall, and slowly, slowly, wades across the now knee-high water between his little hill of gravel and the dunes.

  This is a dangerous place to be.

  Moonlight sparkles in the capall’s eye. Wet. There is a flash of blunt teeth as it screams, the sound piquing. It’s seen him.

  It goes under the black.

  Sherlock, snapped from his daze, struggles through the water and the sand to the dunes. He needs to get out. He’ll be a midnight snack for a water horse. An easy meal, easy prey, something caught in the tide and being dragged out by it, a fragment of a shell torn by the water.

  Especially easy to catch in its natural habitat, the tumultuous sea in the dark.

  He makes it to the sand, and digs his hands in for purchase, the sand shifting under his fingers, and he struggles up the hill.

  A splash below him, the sound a body makes when hitting water. A loud wail.

  Sherlock makes it up the cliffs, where he collapses to his knees, panting and soaked up to the knee. There is sweat along his forehead, and his curls are frizzy with brine thrown at him by the wind. Shaking.

  When he’s caught his breath, he circles back round to a steeper part of the cliffs, a part where he can overlook the place where the beach is when the tide goes down without fear of a horse climbing up after him. This is where people sit to watch the Races; this is where the starting line is drawn in sand.

  Sherlock's heart beats more quickly than it has ever before. It is the only sound, the only feeling in the world. The salt and the wind assault him at this vantage point.

  Far below, the water laps at the cliffs, already having overtaken his gravel hill.

  The waves are unbroken.

  It’s as if nothing was ever down there.

Chapter Text

  “I was starting to worry about you!”

  “Mrs Hudson, you always worry about me.”

  “Only because you always run off.”

  Sherlock smiles fondly, shutting the door to the rusty old Ford. After his brush with the water horse, he’d picked up petrol for the car, and collected Redbeard, who’d trotted alongside the car with the reins mashed in the window on the way back to Mrs Hudson’s house.

  With the Ford parked, Sherlock pulls on Redbeard’s reins, leading him into the stable. Mrs Hudson retreats inside, tutting. There’s something nervous about her demeanor.

  He untacks the stallion, and shuts the stall door. Redbeard nickers softly, worn out. Sherlock throws in a few flakes of dry Thisby hay into the stall, and, when Josephine next door snorts in jealousy, he throws a few into hers, as well.

  He brushes off his hands on his ruined, wet trousers, and walks inside.

  He heads to his room to change, and remove his waistcoat. And then it's down to the cellar kitchen, where Mrs Hudson is washing a trio of mugs.

  Sherlock narrows his eyes.

  “You had Mrs Turner over.”

  “For tea, yes. I always do! It’s that time of the week, you know...”

  “Someone else was here.”

  Mrs Hudson keeps drying her mug. The third one in a set; the other two are upside down on the counter, already cleaned.

  She’s so used to him picking up on everything that she doesn't say anything. Which means that Sherlock’s right.

  He thinks of the bright, cherry red car coming down the road out of Skarmouth while he was headed into town.

  He furrows his brow. “It wasn't Father Stamford.”

  “Oh, no, dear. Jim rode up in Father’s car. Such a nice new thing, don't you think? Father had it shipped up from the mainland this past summer.”

  She’s avoiding the subject. She’s avoiding it, and she’s just mentioned James Moriarty. Sherlock feels something sour curdle low in his gut.

  “Why was James here?”

  What could the rich owner of the Stockyard want with two old ladies chatting about bridge and drinking tea?

  “We were just chatting.”

  “People don't just chat with James Moriarty. Why was he here?”

  Mrs Hudson sets the mug down. She turns on him, lips pursed together, “Sherlock Holmes, you’re always sticking your nose in other people’s business.”

  Oh, that's why.

  “He was here about the house, wasn't he? About the mortgage.”

  “Sherlock--”

  “I’m right, aren't I? He's not afraid to take back the house once--”

  “ Sherlock--”

  “--Once the forward payments Mycroft made to you run out next year, and you don't make enough on your teapots to make your own payments, so he’s going to take the house unless you find a way of making more money--”

  “Oh, please.” Mrs Hudson scoffs, and picks up the skirts of her dress as she stomps up the stairs.

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock rides the next misty morning, just for the thrill of Redbeard beneath him and the unending cold wind blasting in his face. He wishes that he’d always found a ride so mind-clearing. Maybe then, he wouldn’t have turned to other methods, those found in the tip of a needle.

  There's a fork in the road, and Sherlock stalls. One side, the less worn side, heads off to Tholla, a cliffside town on the far south side of Thisby, and the other is Skarmouth, forwards. Both are covered in a fine fog that lies low to the ground.

  Redbeard pants, and stamps his foot. He doesn't like how Sherlock has stopped. His ears swivel wildly.

  Sherlock pulls him to the right, to the south, and to the fog.

  The weak Thisby grass grows thick on and on the side of the road, which makes it really more of a path than anything else. It brushes up to Redbeard’s knobby knees.

  The grass is bent on the road, where very few cars have run over, but directly beside it, it grows thick. Southern Thisby is like one giant field.  

  It and the dense white mist makes it hard to see the corpse strewn out in the road.

  The smell hits Sherlock first, something left out to rot in the damp and the cold.

  It’s a bloody smear on the beaten path, entrails and insides dragged all the way across the road, littering it with chunks of meat and thick streaks of crimson red.

  Redbeard pulls into a stop. Sherlock looks down at it. He removes a small torch from the saddlebag behind him. Redbeard shifts uneasily as he flicks it on. The light does not go far in the thick white. There is a patch of matted dark wool, and half a head a few feet away, crushed. Lethargic insects buzz around where the bottom of the jaw would've been.

  There’s the wet gleam of an eyeball down by the edge of the path.

  Something clucks in the fog.

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock has savings. Meager, meager savings. Not enough to go to the mainland. Not enough for Anderson. Not enough to buy a water horse to race.

  Not enough to pay off the house.

  He's infuriated by Moriarty. Infuriated the man would take the priest’s car up to Mrs Hudson’s home and sit down in the cellar with her and Mrs Turner. Infuriated by the nerve. If he thinks back to the event, he’s sure he caught some of the man’s lingering cologne in the air.

  He has enough money to enter the Races. The fee is fifty, to be paid when he signs up at the Hawkins Tavern.

  For a week, he checks between the couch cushions and beneath floorboards, in the tin where he keeps his coins.

  He even does Miss Hooper’s errands for her, with a little coaxing.

  “You want to go to the mill for me?” She asks him when he shows up at the bakery. She’s just put a metal pan of cinnamon twists into the oven, and replaced the few stale rolls in the window with a bundle of fresh ones.

  “Yes,” Sherlock bites out. Ugh. Now is not the time to be coarse. He needs to be polite if he's going to come out well in the conversation. “I’d, um,” He throws the stutter in there for good measure, “I’d like to work for you. For a short while. Just until the Scorpio Festival.”

  “The Races festival? What’s happening when the Races come around?” Hooper asks. She takes the basket of stale rolls into the back. Sherlock follows, like he usually does when talking to her. The whole place smells tantalizingly of honey.

  “I'm racing this year.”

  She whirls on him, her mouth popped open in an o.

  There are three seconds of silence, and then--

  “Why on earth would you do that? You’ll get yourself killed!” Something clatters in the front room (it must be Archie, surprised at hearing Molly shout). “There- there are people who love you, Sherlock, you can't, can't just--”

  “There are only a few deaths a year.” Sherlock shrugs, failing to see her point.

  “That’s, that's not what I mean! You can get yourself hurt, you can be drowned or have your arm torn off-- Why are you like this? Why are you doing this?”

  “Just. Miss Hooper. May I work for you?”

  “It’s Molly . Are you trying to buy a water horse?”

  “Yes.”

  “Then no.”

  “No? Why not?”

  “You can’t race one of those things.”

  “It’s a race for water horses, I'm going to need to procure a water horse. ” He tries not to think about the dead sheep in the road.

  “It’ll eat you.”

  “That risk is there for everyone on Thisby.”

  Molly shakes her head. There’s flour on her floral dress, over her hips, where she must've put her hands when she got annoyed at her apprentice, a small boy named Archie, who is now peering out at them from the back corner of the shop.

  Sherlock bites his tongue to keep from groaning in frustration. Then, he adds, quietly, eyes purposefully downcast, “Please.”

  His mum did always say that being polite was the key to everything and anything a person could want. Mycroft liked to scoff at that.

  And so Sherlock takes Redbeard to the mill with the pony cart hooked up to him the following morning, dragging along the cobblestone Skarmouth roads and into the north.

  Each morning, at sunrise, for the week, he does this.

  Each morning, at sunrise, they pass the Stockyard.

  Not directly, but it's there. A great set of barns and stables not too far from the road, fencing that keeps in ordinary sport horses that get auctioned off to the mainlanders in the weeks leading up to the Races surrounding the property. The stone walls by the road mark the beginning of Moriarty’s property. Thisby is divided by things that Moriarty has a hand in, and things he does not.

  The white of the fence posts, red of the stables, and green of the healthy grass is a very pleasing color scheme.

  Each morning, at sunrise, Sherlock sees a single man. Short, choppy light hair. The man limps from fence to fence, turning in or out the sport horses and island ponies. Yearlings or stallions or broodmares.

  Each morning, past sunrise, when Sherlock is riding back from the mill and headed towards Skarmouth once more, he sees the man.

  He's no longer alone, at this time of day. There are a few more men working in the stables or grooming the horses, waiting for mainland buyers to arrive for appointments to judge the newly born island ponies.

  But what sets him apart is the giant, black horse that he rides.

  A capall uisce, its neck cocked back and mouth open, teeth parted when it stands, or head tipped forwards when it’s ripping through the trail that leads more northward, away from Sherlock. It’s never close enough for Sherlock to look at properly. Neither is the man.

  Redbeard sways uneasily when Sherlock stops and stares, compelled by the water horse’s magic to get away from it. Sherlock knows, he feels it, too. The lust that the black horse has for the sea.  

  It's striking white mane and tail are bare, not braided with iron rivets weaved in. No bells jangle on its harness or bridle or saddle. There is nothing standing between the rider and the magic of the water horse, and nothing between the water horse and the magic of the sea.

  The ordinary stallion below Sherlock is tiny compared to any water horse. Sherlock feels like he could stack Redbeard on top of Redbeard and still be unable to look the black horse in the predatory eye.

  The first time Sherlock saw the rider atop the black horse, he didn't. It was raining, and there was a tarp over the pony cart.

  He only saw the water horse and cowered, yanking on the wet reins and nearly tipping over the pony cart filled with grain bags trailing behind Redbeard.

  Then the rider’s light hair caught the weak light of the grey sun, and Sherlock didn't relax.

  The water horse tipped its head back, and screamed to the clouds.

  The rider pulled on its mane, leaning forward, his lips near the horse’s ear, fingers drawing runes and patterns on the horse’s shoulder. The horse’s screech cut off.

  The rider had tamed the sea.

  And the sea was spitting water from the sky, resenting him for it.

 

-/-

 

  For a week, the island grows colder. The air begins to sizzle with magic, until it has sewn itself around everyone’s bones, like red string pulling on puppet limbs. It coaxes femurs into making people walk, holds skulls tight and squeezes them until people are nothing but a mindless sack of saltwater. The sea relinquishes more water horses to the island.

  A man down on the beach is torn apart by a capall mare. Not eaten, just killed.

  “The horses are up, don’t you know.” Anderson sneers at him when Sherlock goes into the notary’s office to check and see if the monthly post has dredged up anything for him.

  “What a brilliant deduction.” Sherlock responds, in a monotone voice. He has no mail. Once, he suspected Anderson was just taking Mycroft’s letters from him, taking the money and hiding it, so Sherlock broke into the office, discovered Anderson wasn’t, and was arrested for his troubles. Lestrade let him go with a warning.

  “Wouldn’t it be a shame if one came inland?”

  “They always come inland. You know this. Don’t be a moron. Oh, wait,” Sherlock smiles tightly as he reaches for the door handle, a smile that does not reach his eyes in the least. “You already are one.”

  Anderson scowls. His eyes are dark, and his mouth is a downwards curve beneath the brown beard. “I’d watch myself, if I were you.”

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock has some money. Not enough. Not enough to buy a water horse. Not one of those.

  But he has enough to be a glutton and purchase a November cake on his way to the beaches through Skarmouth. The bakery is mostly empty. There's a pair of tourists sitting at the round table by the door, a map of Thisby between them. They're talking quietly and pointing out locations they'd like to visit. Sherlock resists a roll of his eyes, because everything they're thinking of doing is boring and stupid. The only exciting thing on Thisby are the Races.

  Archie hands him the paper bag, because Sherlock buys the cakes from him, for Molly will just give them to him. Molly is somewhere in the back room, and Archie stares at Sherlock with wide eyes. “Are you really going to ride in the Races?”

  “Yes.”

  “Can I watch?”

  Sherlock pauses to parse this, handing over the two coins. “Sure. But Molly’s got to agree.” Archie’s father, formerly a fisherman, had been swallowed by the sea, and his mother had gone to the mainland. Sherlock had deduced that when he first met the little boy. Molly was as good as he could get.

  “She’s never let me watch the Races before.” Archie says, a touch of sadness in his voice. Ah, then, Molly is being a good guardian.

  “There’s good reason for it.”

  “Are you going to the beach today?”

  “Yes. But don't tell Molly.”

  Archie nods, in that overly enthusiastic way that boys his age have. Sherlock smiles in return.

  He exits the shop, the bell tinkles above his head, and Redbeard snorts at him from the post. He must feel betrayed Sherlock’s spent money but not bought anything for him.

  Sherlock checks that his reins are fixed properly on the post above the trough, and pats the red stallion’s shoulder. Redbeard stomps that hoof, as if Sherlock were an annoying fly.

  Sherlock reaches up and pulls on his ear, and the stallion swings his head, hindered by the confines of the reins, to shove his nose against Sherlock’s chest, huffing warm breath out over Sherlock’s waistcoat.

  Then Sherlock walks through the crowds of tourists in town. He sits on the cliffs for a bit, by a spot he will never admit to being his favorite. The leaning conifer by his side, he sits and eats the November cake, watching the people and horses below. The wind steals their voices, and makes it all seem less real. It's all shifting ground, like quicksand, no one on the beach stays still.

  And then it’s down the dunes.

  The beach is chaos.

  Much more real than sitting high above it.

  Over the last week, the sea has spit up more horses than all of summer combined. Some were caught. Some worked their way slightly inland and slaughtered sheep. Mrs Turner’s are still safe. Mrs Hudson’s house is far inland.

   Inland , Sherlock thinks, inland. I’m fine.

   He does not think of Anderson’s words.

  In the sky, grey clouds are rolling over each other, mimicking the waves shunting onto shore. Sherlock hears whispers of a storm on the wind.

  Sellers and buyers and owners are all down at the sand, which gets somehow in Sherlock's curly hair despite how he hasn't touched the stuff.

  For some reason, Sherlock is reminded of how Musgrave sounds when she's hissing, because that is the noise the men’s jackets make as they shift and move in the crowd, shoulder to shoulder.

  Water horses are close; so close he can smell them, that ugly scent. They jerk and pull on the long leadropes clipped to charmed halters, momentarily tied to the land, thin heads on long necks towering over the heights of the men.

  The beach is a dangerous place to be.

  No man with a horse stands within ten yards of the sea. For good reason. A capall could emerge from any time - but the more obvious threat is the ones that the already caught capaill possess. They could steal a man away and disappear beneath the tumbling waves.

  Sherlock feels out of place. The men here shout and wear their caps and comfortable trousers and cheap, ugly-coloured waistcoats. Sherlock has flat-pressed black trousers (that won't stay pressed in the damp weather for long), and dress shoes on. He would've slicked his hair back, but with Thisby’s climate, it would be frizzy and untamed well before noon.

  To try and look the part, he rolls his white sleeves up to his elbows, which reveals little pockmark scars in the crooks of his arm and makes him uncomfortable, and unbuttons the first button on his grey waistcoat as he makes his way close to the cliffs.

  He can feel it not working. He feels like he's dressed too posh for a place like this. His limbs feel like seaweed, wobbly. He's going to lose his nerve. Still, his face does not waver, and he tries desperately not to show his anxiety to the masses.

  “Mind your damned feet!” Someone holding a roan horse yells at him. Sherlock startles, and looks down, to where he's scuffed the outline of a circle in the sand. When he tries to bend and redraw it, the man shouts, brisk, “Nevermind!” The roan horse tugs toward the break in the circle as Sherlock leaves.

  Men press close, laugh and talk, and water horses rear far above anyone’s head several times over, screaming occasionally.

  When this happens, there's a group-wide freeze, a fear that permeates the humid air.

  Then everyone eases when it shuts up.

  The capaill uisce , all so close, smell like salt and the sea and waste and fish.

  Thisby is no stranger to bad smells - that the tide brings in, dead fish, sour brine. The smell of a sheep corpse long dead and baking in the summer sun wherever a stray capall has dragged it to.

  But this is different - it's all fresh, like death itself has been dredged straight from the depths of the Scorpio sea.

  “Sherlock Holmes, what's a boy like you doing out here?” Someone shouts at him. Someone else laughs with as much gusto as a sea lion. Sherlock hunches his shoulders up to his red ears, and he walks faster.

  Men are hawking to riders about insurance and prices, and dogs are still careening around ankle-height, looking for loose meat someone dropped while feeding a water horse.

  A blonding mare lifts her head and shrieks, a haunting scream that fills the air.

  The keening cuts through the wind, through the sound of the surf and the bustle of activity. It's the wail of an ancient predator. It's one thousand miles away from any sound a normal horse would make, and Sherlock knows it's made because she's hungry.  

  And it's horrible.

  Was this the last sound Sherlock’s parents heard?

  Stray dogs whine and scuttle under the cliffs and underfoot. Bells rattle on her saddle and her breastplate as she shifts her weight, preparing to rear.

  The man in the bowler hat, her handler, yanks down on her braided rope, and the mare’s song is abruptly cut off.

  She snorts, nostrils flaring wide. He can see red in them, the tired sun catching on her wet eyes.

  She’s restless, Sherlock notices, as he keeps close to the cliff sides where others shelter. She never stays still. Her opalescent hooves dance in the sand, her white and yellow mane flings from side to side when she shakes or tosses her head.

  The square pupils in her frightful eyes track the movement of everyone on the beach. She drools sea foam, the same that washes onto the shore. He can almost hear her grinding her teeth. The island is her prison.

  Sherlock knows something dangerous when he sees it. He crosses his arms, and leans back into the chalk cliffs, ignoring the way it will get fragments into his dark hair.

  The man in the bowler hat, the mark of a seller (there are many in the crowd, but this one is closest and this one has the blonde mare), is holding out the leadrope and crowing to passer-bys.

  One man stops. Doctor Fletcher. Sherlock has always liked him, even if the doctor is indifferent to him. He's handsome, levelheaded, and generally calm with everyone, even those insane patients of his. Sherlock wanted to marry him when he was six.

  “Ho, Doctor, what a pleasure to see you on this fine morning! Have a look at her, see…”

  Fletcher looks at the mare. The mare is looking at something by everyone's feet, her mouth parted and her breath visible in the frigid October air. Sherlock’s skin prickles.

  “This what Watson looked at?”

  The name sounds vaguely familiar. But so does every name on Thisby.

  The bowler hat’s face twists into something ugly, “Don't know what you've heard from that Watson . His head’s half-full of saltwater. But he admitted she was fast - faster than that black stallion of his…”

  The bowler hat is deflecting someone’s opinion from the mare, and heading right back into his sale’s pitch. Sherlock squints. His cheeks are red and raw from the wind hurling sand at them. He’s been out here all morning, trying the same lines. And, obviously, he's been getting the same words spat back at him.

  “What’s that Watson saying about my horse?” Ah, the bowler hat’s fed up, now.

  “Watson says she’ll kill someone.”

  “Well, Doctor , they’ll all kill someone! ‘S the mark of the capaill! Try her out, get on her back, she’s faster than the Thisby winds.”

  Fletcher shakes his head, backing away and already disappearing into the crowds. “Not today, sorry.”

  The bowler hat tries to lure in a few more men that are skeptically eyeing the rocking blonde mare, but fails when they all mention a Watson name.

  At one point, the bowler hat yells at a young man, maybe eighteen, “Is that Watson here today? Hm? Yes? Tell him to see me, we’ll discuss her price and how dangerous she is, again!”

  Then he mutters something about people of Thisby worshipping this Watson, and is back to his luring lines.

  Sherlock finally lifts his weight away from the cliff walls and approaches him.

  “Do you do fifths?” He asks.

  The bowler hat turns to him. His large eyebrows sink down further over his dark eyes.

  Then. He simply. Looks away.

  The blonde mare’s head swings towards him. Her lips are curled back, mule-like.

  Sherlock doesn't like the way she never unpins her ears from the back of her head.

  “Not for you.”

  Sherlock's clipped, natural response to that is, “Your oldest daughter is shagging your brother.”

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock gets a stinging punch to his mouth, and it splits his lip.

  He retreats, and sits atop the cliffs, next to the leaning conifer and its orange carpet of fallen pine needles (he thinks about the acid, acid, acid, that the needles release into the soil, but only the green ones, and the ones on the ground are orange, yellow, orange …)

  He watches the activities from above instead.

 

-/-

 

  The bowler hat is beginning to grow desperate.

  Sherlock can see it from where he's gone back down to the cliff walls, once he's mustered up enough courage.

  He could look for more bowler hats. The other grimy horse mongers, there are plenty of them, someone should be willing to do fifths with him. But there's a mean, stubborn thing in his gut. And he stays.

  The mare rocks back and forth, a low growl on her breath.

  “You, there!”

  Sherlock looks up. The bowler hat, with his face like a troll, is pointing at him. He beckons Sherlock closer with a curling finger. How polite.

  Sherlock approaches, sand and pebbles crunching under his shoes, slightly wary and with an aching lip. He avoids stepping on a small stray dog as he walks. It yipes and the blonde mare huffs out a hungry breath through her nose. It curls in the cold air, but is gone nearly immediately, the thickening wind sweeping it away, blowing the foul smell towards Sherlock.

  “Sorry about that… misunderstanding, earlier,” The man says, and Sherlock can already guess what this is going to end as, “But it seems like no one wants to win the Races this year. Fifths, you said?”

  Sherlock nods. Fifths will get him the blonde mare for free upfront, but four-fifths of the prize money will go to the bowler hat standing before him now. There's not much money anywhere but first place. Still, even a fifth of that could pay off Mrs Hudson’s house and get Sherlock to the mainland, several times over.

  “She’s the fastest thing on the island at the moment,” The bowler hat says, stepping back so Sherlock can look at her. A gold chain is worn around her nose, fed through her halter. Sherlock has to admit that she looks amazing, and absolutely giant. Sherlock doesn't like tipping his head back to look up at her, because it exposes her throat. The mare is eyeing a dog scurrying around the monger's feet. It's deeply disquieting.

     ...The stiffer a horse's leg is restricts how quickly it can transmit force to the ground and bounce back up again and also increases the chances of injury. Fast horses can bring their legs forward quickly in preparation for the next stride but that this is more difficult and therefore slower for large and long-legged horses...

  The bells on her breastplate rattle almost inaudibly. She is shuddering with power.

  “Then you wouldn't mind taking a gamble on her.” Sherlock watches the mare, every twitch of her laid-back ears is a tell in the misty day.

  “I'm not trying to come back and collect .” The bowler hat tugs on her leadrope when she jerks her head back, eyes wide and teeth bared.

  “If she's the fastest thing on land, don't you trust her to win you more than she's worth?” Sherlock crosses his arms. He’s trying to sound business-like, like Mycroft.

  “It's not her I don't trust.”

  “I was thinking the same thing.”

  The bowler hat grins suddenly.

  “Hop on,” The bowler hat says, “See how fast she is.”

  They walk together until Sherlock can stand on a rock, slippery with algae that flourishes when the tide comes in, and is tall enough to reach the crest and horn of the saddle.

  She’s still moving, rocking, and Sherlock realizes that's as still as she's going to get. The mare is eyeing the small scruffy dog with sand in its fur, sniffing at someone's rejected breakfast down by her hooves.

  The bowler hat urges, “Go on, hop on.”

  “Stop! Stop !”

  Sherlock turns to find out who’s shouting, one foot in a stirrup and the other on the rock, and so does the bowler hat, and that’s when it happens.

  The mare’s neck flashes down, a blur of sharp white and yellow, so fast it's nearly impossible, and something shoves Sherlock from the boulder.

  He gasps as his back hits the ground, hard, and something spatters across his face, warm and wet. His back aches as he watches the mare rear up, ripping at something mangy in her mouth. She comes back down, and Sherlock rolls out of the way of her hooves just in time as they slam into the sand, spraying grains - he's stuck on his back in shock, and realizing that it's blood on his face, and it's coming from above, not him.

  Blood pools in the sand.

  The mare tosses part of her victim at Sherlock, and the mangled flesh lands before him, matted with fur and sand and blood. Something stringy comes from the joint, waving as if it were an anemone in the crevices in the rocks at low tide.

  The lump is nearly unrecognizable. It’s a ruin. Sherlock is in danger of throwing up - he clasps a sore, sandy hand over his mouth to prevent this - blood drips down the side of his face.

  It's the dog.

  A short, blond man is grappling with the giant mare, pulling on her leadrope and her mane, shouting strange words at her amongst the rest of the plainly panicked yelling from other people. The bells rattle loudly, and it's the only sound in the world.

  Someone screams - the mare has bitten off someone’s fingers in her hungry prancing. A young man’s fingers, Sherlock believes, but then he is being touched.

  “Move, man, move!” Someone is reaching down, pulling at Sherlock's frozen arm and forcing him to stand, guiding him backwards and away from the leaping horse and the shrill sound of the bells. Away from the cliffside and the kelp-covered rocks, back to the sea.

  Sherlock can't look away from the dance between the short man and the blonde mare. There is blood on the white skin round her mouth. The gold chain that had held her to the earth and to the sand and to sanity has fallen to the beach.

  The bells shriek.

  Sherlock can barely breathe.

  The short man is nearly pulled off his feet when the blonde mare tosses her head back, wailing like a dead man, and Sherlock can see both sets of teeth, hers and the man’s, are bared. But only one set is bloody and frothing.

  People are growing closer, trying to help, and the mare’s hooves are pounding against the sand, prancing and charging and galloping without moving an inch.

  “Give me space! ” The blond man yells, his voice deep and throaty, “Back off! Now! ” His eyes never leave the capall’s .

  The commands make even Sherlock jerk back, still held up by a man, the one who pulled him from the ground, with the black hair and a grin on his face.

  How can someone be grinning right now? A dog’s dead, a man’s lost his fingers, and another one is dancing with lightly-coloured death.

  In the middle of a circle of men and riled horses, Sherlock is amazed by the man’s apparent calm. There is strength in the cords of muscle prominent in his bare arms, but he is not panicked.

  It's a mistake, to be unafraid like this.

  No. It's not fearlessness. It's respect, and it's knowledge - knowledge that this horse could rip anyone's throat wide open.

  Sand flies from the horse’s hooves, and her mane shimmers like seaweed caught in the dull light, just for a moment, and then it's hair again. Her pelt gleams like glowing coral.

  The dim sunlight catches on the man’s hair, elicits a memory of the clank, clank of the high wheels of Redbeard’s pony cart when they bump over rough patches of gravel, and Sherlock is suddenly very, very stupid.

  Away from the fight (and feels like he's betraying the man, like he's started the fight and left it for him to finish), Sherlock looks towards the crowd he's in, gathered to watch the fight. The fight that can only end badly.

  “ But he admitted she was fast - faster than that black stallion of his…” The sound of the bowler hat’s voice.

  He cranes his neck and-- there.

  Held by a thick man with dark, straight hair and unending patience in his gaze, is a giant black stallion with a striking white mane and tail.

  It stands out among the dun and bay and roan coats scattered round the beach, still while the other capaill are steadily being pulled from the scuffle as they become too excited at the smell of blood and flesh, the sounds of a fight.

  Somewhere else, two horses rear up to fight, their handlers desperately trying to pull them apart. Sherlock doesn't care.

   He’s fixated on staring at the black stallion. Its long, gaunt face and haunting dark eyes stare right back. Sherlock feels a primal fear slide down his spine.

  The stallion’s nostrils are long and thin, to keep the sea out. Its eyes are black and slick; like a fish’s. This is what he's been seeing when he carts Redbeard past the Stockyard each morning.

  There is an overly loud oof! and Sherlock snaps back to the fight.

  The short man - the black stallion’s rider - has the mare’s face pressed up against his chest, and Sherlock panics, expecting blood and carnage and organs to spill from the man's ribs. It's for naught, the rider hasn't been ripped open. The water horse's long neck is stooped low at an odd angle to do so, and her back hooves continually pound the sand, but her forelegs are still. She is huffing and puffing, her lips drawn back by the man’s stomach to show her teeth.

  He holds her cheekbones, her skin slippery wet there, and his lips are moving. He's saying something. Sherlock doesn't know what.

  “Someone give me iron. Something iron.” The man says. His raised voice is calmer now, less frantic than it had been when he'd been shouting for room.

  He slowly lifts a hand away from one side of her face for his request to be filled.

  The mare snorts and struggles, like the spell has been broken. The man winds his arm under her jaw and hugs her massive head tighter to his abdomen, a grim look upon his face. “Now, if you don't mind.”

  His eyes are glued to hers.

  Hers, that speak of a death at the bottom of the sea and corpses caught in rocks, and his, that speak of light blue skies and the land.

  The crowd is quiet.

  Then, the black-haired, freckled man who had since been holding Sherlock’s elbow (and Sherlock was sure this was the only thing keeping him standing), breaks away from him.

  He digs into his ratty olive green waistcoat pocket and pulls out something that looks like a necklace, then steps forward to hand it off to the light-haired man.

  He takes it and presses it against her cheekbone.

  The effect is immediate.

  The blonde mare stops prancing where she stands. Her lips slide back over her bloodied teeth. Her ears droop forward.

  “Thought you didn't do charms, John.” Says the black-haired man, loudly. He's still smiling. He hasn't stopped. He must've known the short man was going to be expert at handling the deadly blonde mare.

  ‘John’ doesn't look away from the mare.

  Except, when he does. He grips the top of the leather braided leadrope in one hand and uses the other to wind the iron necklace around the blonde’s halter.

  This is the kind of magic Thisby holds, wound tight round local throats.

  The sort that is folktale by day, but, in the dark, is as real as Sherlock Holmes or any man or woman on the island.

  Sherlock can see the muscles in the man’s cheek jumping as he clenches his jaw, stalking towards Sherlock, leading the mare next to him (one rule of Thisby is to never turn your back on a capall, any local would rather jump from the cliffs and into the November sea than do so). He has one hand on the charmed halter and another on midsection of the leadrope.

  John is limping. Faintly. Left leg. Something jumps in Sherlock's throat - he caused this fight, he did, somehow, he was distracted and the mare took advantage and snapped at the stray, and, with the taste of blood, was impossible to calm, she hurt John and it’s his fault.

  Except.

  This is an old limp. And John’s face, hard, is not registering new pain. There's nothing on his trousers, no blood, and neither is there any on his shoes.

  And he's still walking towards Sherlock, hauling that blonde mare.

  Sherlock is momentarily afraid and ashamed, both at once, but John’s eyes aren't on him.

  They’re on the troll-faced, bowler-hatted man, quivering slightly next to him.

  John stops before him. He stands like he's forgotten about the limp.

  Sherlock can see his face now, heavy bags that speak of stress and sleepless nights are underneath pale, washed out blue eyes. The colour of tidepools on cloudy days. Like today.

  There's a pause.

  It's obvious the gathered men are only staying to see what will happen between the bowler hat and John.

  And then John thrusts the leadrope towards the bowler hat, keeping his hold on her halter.

  “I told you yesterday. Put her back. Let her go.”

  The bowler hat abruptly stops quaking. He doesn't take the leadrope. “And I told you, Watson,” he spits the name like it’s something foul, “ You don't have any right to go around talking about my horses like you ‘ave been! You walk around this island as if it exists only to have you on it!”

  Sherlock stares at the blue-eyed man. Then glances at the bowler hat, then back to John. This is Watson?

  The man who was apparently bad-mouthing the mare has just calmed her?

  Of course! When the bowler hat said ‘ faster than that black stallion of his ’, he’d been talking about Watson, the rider from the Stockyard! The black stallion with the white mane and tail, the positively enormous one, just over there! Sherlock is an absolute --

  “You wanted to talk about prices? What do you value your life at?”

  “You--!”

  “Throw her back.”

  “How dare you --” The bowler hat begins, but John is shoving the leadrope into his chest now, no questions asked.

  The bells quake, the mare’s haunches and chest are twitching. Her ears are pinned back again, and her breath is coming in faster.

  The man since holding the great black capall uisce stallion stumbles forward, the massive horse wading in the crowds, which parts before it. Its powerful gaze urges the stragglers of the crowd to disperse, to go back to hawking food at the riders and buyers or haggling over insurance and prices, and to be more well spread over the tract of useable beach instead of condensed here. The dramatics are finished.

  The black-haired man that helped Sherlock stand, mouth still grinning, walks to the stallion.

  The beach smells of dead fish and hot blood. Sherlock wipes at his face, smearing the dog blood across his cheek, and the sand that has stuck to it into the crease of his lips. The salt burns the cut on his lower one. Bells jangle as the bowler hat yanks the blonde mare away, his face purple and angry.

  When John Watson turns, and their eyes meet for a split second, Sherlock can see the lines in his face, carved out during a life by the ocean cliffs and the struggling Thisby grass and the Scorpio winds.

  Those eyes dart down to Sherlock's mouth, no doubt looking at the split, which has ripped open. They flicker back up.

  “Are you all right?”

  The wind is so strong, Sherlock thinks he imagines the words John Watson directs at him. John Watson frowns.

  Desperate for him to get the look off his face, Sherlock nods vigorously. He's all right. There's blood on his face and his back aches and he's talking to this man, this man who’s calmed perhaps the most dangerous beast on this island.

  Then Watson’s face is gone as he nods, just once, turns away, and Sherlock is stuck staring at the back of his head as he makes his way towards the black stallion and the two other men, the grinner and the handler.

  “All set?” The grinning one says.

  John Watson nods, uninviting. “I saw what we came here for.”

Chapter Text

The walk up the dunes is long. There's a scratchy feeling under his skin, like the dog blood has infected him with mites or fleas. He feels stares at his back, and his throat and eyes burn.

  He's never felt so isolated.

  Redbeard flattens his ears when he sees Sherlock. Sherlock’s heart splinters at the image.

  He knows he smells like blood and the capaill, like rider’s sweat and disappointed, fearful nerves. He knows there's sand in his hair, clothes, and all over his skin, rubbing him raw in all the wrong ways. He knows he smells like the enemy.

  The ride back to the house is longer.

  The sun dips behind the cliffs, behind the sea, and Sherlock shoves his heels into Redbeard’s side. The red stallion trots, and then canters. Sherlock leans down close to his free mane, hands knotted in the hair both for grip and to keep it from whipping at his face.

  When Redbeard picks up speed, the ride is smoother.

  Sherlock untacks and puts Redbeard away in the second of the two-stall barn. Josephine snorts, like always, but it's more forced this time - a ragged attempt at normality.

  Sherlock still smells like fish and sand and blood when he goes to bed.

 

-/-

 

  He can’t ride one of those things. He can’t do it.

 

-/-

 

  The butcher shop is the cleanest place on Thisby.

  And the Hawkins Tavern is the dirtiest.

  It’s filled with empty bar stools and tables during the day, and when the sun dips beneath the horizon, it fills with seedy people that stay long into the night.

  The floorboards look old and washed out; too many people have been sick on them, and too many times a mop has been scrubbed rigorously over them. It smells and feels disgusting, and the atmosphere always presses unkindly onto irregulars heads. Sherlock never goes there.

  Tonight, however, he does.

  It is, after all, where he's to sign up for the Races.

  His mum used to say that every man on the island was in love with Janine Hawkins - she was beautiful, and she could make any man as drunk as a water horse on the November tide.

  Sherlock’s never been swayed. It isn't really his area, this whole, feelings , business.

  And he wouldn't fall in love with her, in any event. A game like the one Sherlock plays is nearly as dangerous as the Races themselves. He will never fall in love. The people of Thisby seem to have demented ideas of that concept, anyways.

  It hasn't been a long time since Sherlock was in Skarmouth after dark. The ghost of his memory plays tricks on him, of that night, merely a week ago, when he was soaked up to the knees and covered in salt and brine and fear and fleeing a water horse.

  He instinctively looks towards the sea. He can't see past all the shops, but he knows just beyond them, in the dark, like this, the black sky will drop over the cliffs like a veil and will match the sea colours. It will be impossible to tell them apart.

  Skarmouth in the dark is entirely different than the one during the day, where weak light can reach even the deepest of alleyway corners.

  Night has washed the whole town in blue - the paper lanterns waver and clink in the wind. All of the buildings press against each other, and, clinging to the cliffs, peer into the endless cobblestone beneath them.

  Bicycles are covering every wall Sherlock can see, the car's windshields on the side of the road gleam under the streetlights, and there are many people out. There would be. Tonight’s the first night the blackboard will be out in the tavern, the first night people will sign up for the Races.

  He knows it has to be tonight, or he’ll lose his nerve. He may still.

  Others have the same idea. The ones that sign up tonight will be like Sherlock, or they will be those brave enough to flaunt their involvement with loud voices and mugs of beer.

  Sherlock hasn't ever seen this many people about, except on nice days. And there are few of those on Thisby. It’s a clear night, but the streetlamps on the walk distort the autumn sky and don't let the light of any stars through.

  Redbeard, below him, doesn't like the atmosphere.

  The sea calls to him. But as an island pony, his instinct is to steer away from it. How terrible for this to be an island, and for him to be perpetually frightened.

 Sherlock dismounts, and pulls Redbeard by the reins to the metal grate by the cliffs, as close as he can get. Skarmouth has the smell of fish and strange smoke to it tonight, and Sherlock carefully peers over the edge of the grate, put just around the cliffside towns to keep people from walking off the edge of the island, to see if there are any boats down in the ocean to account for the scent. There's nothing but black water and the reflection of the sliver of moon in the sky..

  A pair of men with dark eyes linger by the streetlamps across the cobblestone street. Sherlock sniffs, shoving his hands into his coat pockets and hurrying towards the tavern.

  “Ho, the beast’s come out of his castle!”

  “Ho, pretty boy…!”

  He doesn't have time to deal with idiots. But. The annoying names have the opposite affect on him that they're meant to have. They calm him, instead of unsettle him. Because they're such a staple of his life on Thisby. And what he's about to do is not.

  For a moment, he worries for Redbeard, but the stallion is perfectly capable of biting a man’s hand should someone try and touch him. He couldn't bite it off, he's not bloodthirsty like the capaill, but he could do damage. The thought makes Sherlock smirk as he shoves into the tavern door and past the people spilling out onto the walk.

  The tavern is a riot of noise and smells, and Sherlock feels overcrowded and exposed at once. He hunches his shoulders, looks up. Lights swing overhead, close to the low, exposed timber ceiling. Snippets of loud conversation whirl around the barrel-like tables and in the heavy, foggy air.

"Would really be more clever to sign up in the butcher's, wouldn't it?"

"--d'you mean?"

"It's where the riders get their meat, ain't it?"

"Sure," Answers a new voice, "But all this will be feeding the horses, won't it?" Barking laughter from three men.

  Sherlock edges his way into the single line of people leading up to where Janine is writing down names on her blackboard with a neat line of chalk. Her script is elegant, and Sherlock knows she hasn't had one thing to drink all evening. He doesn't think she's ever touched the stuff to her red mouth.

  There is a gap beneath the labels on the blackboard, before the names start. The board already has a dozen names and horses on it.

  There are other names, below the gap, names Sherlock recognizes only vaguely.

   Joseph Bucher - Uylessus

  Charles Augustus Magnussen - Mary

  Jefferson Hope - Hydria

  Maybe this is a bad idea.

  Scratch that, it is a bad idea. A very bad idea. But Sherlock's in a room full of people who have the same idea. Perhaps it isn't terrible...

  Maybe they won't even let him sign up. Like yesterday, at the beach, where the bowler hat with the low eyebrows and the blonde mare took one look at him, and denied him fifths.

  At least he isn't dressed up this time. He’s in clothing as casual as everyone else. He feels as though he's trying too hard to look the part, like anyone who looks at him will be able to tell that he doesn't belong here.

  And he doesn't.

  He truly, truly doesn't.

  Sherlock crosses his arms over his chest, and tilts his head up, defiantly trying to look not so out of place.

  And that's when Sherlock spots him.

  The man from the beach.

  John Watson.

  Sans his giant black stallion, but they're in a crowded tavern, and Sherlock doubts a water horse would be welcome here.

  Watson’s up by the front of the long line, next up, after the beefy man who might be the butcher’s son, who is speaking to Janine with a drunk, lazy smile. A younger woman in a dress is pressed near to the butcher's side.

  Watson's black coat collar is turned up against the back of his neck, hiding his musical hairline. He's not looking at anyone, he's staring at the ground, minding his own business. Everyone is being jostled or pushed by the crowd, but no one is jostling or pushing Watson.

  His hair is windblown from the beach, and in the strong artificial light, Sherlock can see that his hair isn't just blond, it's grey, too. Equally light. There’s three-day stubble crawling over his cheeks, beneath his lips and nose, tapering out down his neck.

  Sherlock is taking a moment to look at him, really look at him, to find the faults in his appearance and see his life, when a voice calls to him.

  “Oh? Holmes! Sherlock Holmes, what’re you doing in a place like this?”

  Sherlock turns. Behind him, not in line, is Father Stamford. Seeing him in a place like this is strange. Even stranger on a night like this, where men are actively taking the Lord’s name in vain and threatening death and gambling on rider's lives. It's the opposite of the sort of place where Stamford should be.

  The clean white dog’s collar stands out among his dark robes. Sherlock doesn’t like the way Stamford’s called him out of place. He’d hoped it wasn’t that obvious. Evidently, he’s not that wonderful at disguising himself.

  “Hello, Father,” Sherlock greets, with a respectful nod of his head.

  Father Stamford picks his way closer. The shine from the lights above catch on his glasses. The man behind Sherlock seems momentarily angry about cutting in line, but when he seems to realize that this is a priest, someone who will not be racing, his face smooths out.

  Sherlock risks a glance to the front of the line. He's steadily moving closer. John Watson is in the front now, handing over coins to Janine.

  There’s a little cleft in his chin, just a dimple, Sherlock sees when Watson turns his head, small, insignificant and barely there, but Sherlock doesn’t think he has the willpower to look away.

  “Oh, Sherlock, don't be looking at him like that.”

  Sherlock's snaps his face back to Stamford, alarm flaring in his head more loudly than all the yelling in the tavern, than the jangle of the bells on the blonde mare’s breastplate, more potently than the stink of beer and stale sweat. Stamford pushes his glasses back up onto his face.

  “I wasn't looking at anyone.”

  Stamford chuckles a small, homely chuckle. “Don’t you know who that is?”

  “John Watson. Isn’t it.” He's admitting to looking. Damn.

  “Five time winner of the Scorpio Races, he is.”

  Sherlock blinks. He looks back to Watson, who's idling by the varnished counter as Janine writes his name on the blackboard behind her. She writes John H. Watson under Jockeys and the name Gladstone under Capaill Uisce.

  Someone who no doubt thinks they're hilarious has written meat in tiny block letters beneath Jockeys .

  She puts his name right at the top, filling in the gap she was evidently saving for him.

  Men crow out whoops and hollers in the tavern, excited by the champion’s participation.

  Sherlock wonders what the H. stands for.

  He wonders why he didn't pick up that Watson was a winner of the Races before.

  It must be the limp. Watson limps, badly, as he walks towards the door, but he doesn't have a cane. It’s not as bad as it was at the beach. Sherlock’s mouth flattens into a line. Psychosomatic. Interesting. It lessened to near nothing when he was handling the blonde mare.

  He looks sharp, like a man who could race, but his face is also soft around the corners. Like he wouldn't have the heart.

  Perhaps that's what makes him a winner.

  Perhaps Sherlock didn't realize because everyone on Thisby is so unendingly boring, he didn't think to look past the surface. Mistake .

  Sherlock hums, so Stamford knows he heard him. He uncrosses his arms.

  “Five times,” Stamford whistles.

  Such a statement is too tantalizing to ignore.

  “Why?”

  “Some reckon it's that black stallion. Fastest thing alive.”

  “And what do you think?” Sherlock asks Stamford, his eyes trailing Watson as he leaves. No one touches him. It's not like they ignore him, it's just as if Watson is not in the same place as them. The incoming group by the door swallows him up, and he’s gone.

  “I think it's just him. He's got one foot in the ocean and one on the land. No one knows the water horses better than him. He's the one to beat.”

  Stamford speaks with a touch of fondness, and something a little too knowledgeable.

  “You know him.” Sherlock says.

  “Everyone does,” Stamford smiles the warm thing that stretches his pudgy cheeks, “Everyone knows everyone on Thisby.”

  “You know him.”

  “Very old friend of mine.”

  “Do you say that because you're a priest?”

  “I say that because we’re very old friends.”

  “But you’re not close.”

  “With John? Ha, no, sorry, I’ve known him for a very long time, but I don’t think anyone’s close with that man.”

  Sherlock is suddenly aware of the large space in front of him. He takes a few long steps forward. There's only three men in front of him. He closes his eyes, sees the imprint of the lights suspended above him, and takes a deep breath and tries to ignore all the noise.

  He steps up. Another step. Another. He fists the coins in his pocket. The clink of mugs being batted together. Someone’s fist slams into a table - lost an arm wrestling competition.

  Father Stamford is back next to him.

  “Why are you here, Father?” Sherlock asks, his voice a low rumble. It's strange a priest should be here. In the center where men sign up for the bloodiest, oldest sport in the world. With drunkards and evil men, and women who can get anyone drunk.

  Stamford is looking at the blackboard with intent. He hums when Sherlock speaks, turning to look back to him.

  “So that I know who to pray for.”

  Sherlock’s next.

  Janine folds her arms on the counter, looking at him, and then to Stamford.

  “Hello, boys, what can I do for you? You sure picked a helluva night to come out…”

  Sherlock is aware she thinks he's here for a drink. His face warms, and he tries to sound firm. “I’m here to sign up for the Races.”

  “You sure you're up for that?”

  It feels insane to be questioned where other men have not. Sherlock's ears burn. Why must everyone be questioning him tonight? There must be some conspiracy.

  He nods.

  Janine’s smile never falters, “It’s fifty, love.”

  Sherlock hands over the coins, his savings. His stomach is an ocean of trouble. He shifts his feet on the worn floorboards.

  Janine turns around, the shifts of her dress glaring white around her hips. At the space beneath Bill Murray, the last man in line and the owner of the tourist trap of a shop, who’d left just before Sherlock stepped up, she poises her chalk.

  Janine writes Sherlock Holmes.

   She pauses beneath the Capaill Uisce column. Then she looks over her shoulder at him, pinned up dark hair contrasting her shining white teeth while she smiles.

  “What’s your ride’s name, Sherl?”

  Sherlock blinks.

  He thinks.

  He asks, “Are there rules about the horses, um…?”

  Janine quirks a cleverly plucked eyebrow. “You want a rule sheet.”

  “Please.”

  “Sure.” She has to look for it, crouch and shuffle through papers under the counter, and Sherlock feels like everyone is looking at him while she is. Stamford is of little comfort.

  Sherlock scans the sheet when she hands it over, front and back. "You can keep that," Janine notes, tapping her fingers lightly on the counter.

  There are only two lines about the horses.

   Riders must declare their mounts at the end of the Scorpio festival rider’s parade. Swapping of mounts after that date is not permitted.

  Sherlock breathes. He closes his eyes.

  He thinks of the blonde mare and the dog’s blood on his face. The offer for fifths.

  He thinks of Watson and his uncanny ability to calm and to tame sea.

  Sherlock swallows.

  “Name, Sherl?” Janine asks, and Sherlock thinks he hates that name she swirls round her tongue. He wants to wipe it from his hands.

  “Redbeard.”

 

-/-

 

  He can’t ride a capall. The blonde mare has put him off too much.

  No. It’s not her.

  It’s everything. The way the water horses smell, the way they move, the way the bells tinkle on their halters and bridles, the way their long necks are always cocked back, ready to snap forward and strike like a cobra’s.

  He remembers Mycroft’s letter.

  ‘ And the damn horses .’

  Sherlock needs… He doesn’t know. He can’t say he needs to get off this island, because he doesn’t, because Thisby is his home. Though, he’s sure the island wouldn’t care whether he lived or he died. He can’t tell whether he loves Thisby despite that, or because of it.

  Mainlanders move here, and island-born people leave. It’s swapping one life for another.

  Once, long ago, when Redbeard was a foal and Sherlock’s curly hair was matted and so long it had to be tied back, he stood with Mycroft, watching the young red foal bound around on new legs.

  “Why do you think it is, brother dear, that Thisby has the water horses, and no one else does?”

  “Because we love them,” Sherlock had answered, truthfully, honestly.

  Sherlock knew, and knows, that he loves the water horses. He loves their unfathomable power, their magic ability, their tremendous, shuddering speed, but he loves it as he loves myths and pirates. As something far away, and detached from him. He loves Redbeard as he loves Thisby, held close to his heart and sheltered from the cricketing winds.

  Redbeard could die.

  They could race, and Sherlock could be snatched off the island pony, and Redbeard could be torn apart, and Sherlock could be a red smear on the sand. Food for the gulls.

  Or, Sherlock could win the Races and buy Mrs Hudson twenty new homes from James Moriarty himself, get to the mainland and drag Mycroft back, and settle happily back at home, with plenty of oranges to eat and Redbeard adorned in a winning garland of green carnations and him in a bouquet of indigo and lilac.

  Fanciful thinking. Both ways. How could he possibly hope to win?

  How could he possibly hope to live, even to the day of the Races?

 

-/-

 

  At Saint Columba’s, the massive church just outside Skarmouth, Sherlock sits in the front pews.

  The church is very old, maybe the oldest building on the island. There are some stables at the Stockyard that are around as old, evidence that people of Thisby had kept the water horses and the island ponies as long as they had worshipped a god under the sun.

  It's a weekday, and there isn't mass, but the church’s doors are open, as always. Coloured sunlight streams through the large stained glass window far above the altar before him. It’s a fair day outside.

  He's not a religious man. He doesn't believe the answers are gifted from above, or that they can be found in a building.

  He does, however, believe in a quiet place to think.

 

-/-

 

  “I know. You don't have to do it.”

  Redbeard munches noisily on the hay between his equine teeth. His ears merely flick towards the sound of Sherlock’s voice.

  “You can't understand me, anyways,” Sherlock says, sitting on a firm bale of hay outside the two-stall stable. One of the walls is the outside wall of Mrs Hudson’s house. On the other side are two shoddily-built stalls, and a dangerous hay loft creaks above.

  Josephine is old, but she loved to kick when she was younger. Redbeard is too poised to be kicking out the doors and the fence that winds completely around Mrs Hudson’s property. Sherlock can see the rickety, aged wood in the grey day, maybe twenty yards from the front door. The metal gate is round the back of the house, and the Ford is parked just outside it.

  He hunches over, setting his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands as he regards the red stallion, picking at the flake of hay Sherlock gave him, only moments ago. Musgrave has yet to make an appearance, as the barn cat often does. She might be ripping apart the seats in the Ford. Josephine is meandering slowly inside the fences. She doesn’t get out very often.

  “You don't know what I'm talking about. You don't know what any of this means.

  Sherlock fiddles with the rule sheet, wishing, like always, Redbeard could answer him.

  “We have to train within one hundred and fifty yards of the shore. Or else we’ll get disqualified.”

  Redbeard’s ears flick forwards again, and his neck lifts up, head turning into the dusk to listen to something. Then his tail flicks and he bends, and goes back to eating.

  Sherlock doesn't even worry about whatever Redbeard thought he heard. He trusts the horse.  

  “That means the beaches.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock is at the beach.

  With Redbeard.

  The horse is nervous. It's obvious in every step he takes, every flick of his ear or twitch of a muscle. The capaill for sale or practicing here on the beach can look at him and can smell his fear.

  They can smell Sherlock’s, too, through the mist and the wind that’s ripped it to bits, throwing all the men and horses on the beach into sharp detail.

  Hell, Sherlock can smell his own damn fear.

  It's rich and potent as he wades Redbeard into the sea, after a pointed but otherwise uneventful walk to where the waves lap at the shore. Redbeard quivers below him. He can see the buckles on every bridle, the tassels on every saddle, and the nervous shake of every palm. The air smells like red, raw meat.

  They stand for a long time.

 No one else is near or in the salt water, the reason why Sherlock is up to Redbeard’s knees in the first place. No one else would dare. It is an impossible risk on a capall.

  To stand with them in the sea is to wish for your own death, because the magic will take them, and they will take you.

  The men on the beach are confused, Sherlock can feel their idiocy saturating the damp air.

  There's a knot of fighting horses somewhere. It's a petty disagreement between two killer horses, but they're all sharp hooves and teeth.

  He can also feel the attention of every capall on the beach. He'd like it better if they weren't paying any attention at all to him. Their ears pressed forward, serpentine necks arched, lips curled back.

  Sherlock knows the blonde mare is somewhere among them when he hears her scream. His head pounds at the noise, the memory of the beach tumbling close. Redbeard’s ears pin back, and Sherlock leans forward to pat his neck, soothing.

  They don't share the same memory, but Redbeard can feel Sherlock's anxiety, as if it were seeping directly through the saddle.

  He watches the ragged sea, because he knows the bargaining men on the beach will watch the capaill with them . They will watch their every move - and hear it, too, the capaill on the beach are all littered and draped in bells, tassels, and flower petals.

  Wind lifts Sherlock's dark fringe from his forehead, and it pulls all sound away from his ears, so the activities and the haggling behind him are nothing more than bird cries.

  He squints against the glare of the sun on the water.

   A flock of white gulls catch the air currents in wide wings and ride the wind along the edges of the cliffs.

  The ocean laps at Redbeard’s knees, shhhh, shhhh…

   It’s hypnotic, and it's no wonder Sherlock doesn’t see the capall uisce until it's upon them.   

  Because suddenly it's there, hauling itself out of the sea and shaking the Scorpio from its hooves and the froth from its mane, giant grey head shoving close as it breaks the surface of the water.

  Sherlock can't breathe-- he yanks the reins back and Redbeard rears and squeals, forelegs kicking out and flailing to get away, but the high point throws Sherlock off, letting him topple into the ocean.  

  Which is exactly what the capall wanted.

  Sherlock's back hits the shallow water, then the sand, a shock, and he's spitting salt and blinking it out of his eyes, scrabbling at the water and desperate to see.

  Blunt teeth tear at the front collar of his shirt, barely scraping his chest, dragging him along the sandy bottom of the beach and deeper into the surf. He can only see the wet grey of a fresh capall. Sherlock’s hands fly forwards, trying to gouge at the water horse's t hin nostrils, but they are closed against the water, prepared to go under.

  Sherlock feels a strong pull, the shirt almost cutting into the back of his neck, and gasps, just as the capall submerges, and takes him with it.

  The capall is screaming through its teeth underwater, but it sounds like an orchestra, all clashing symbols and high vocals from an opera, a sound that ricochets around Sherlock and winds around his head - the message is clear. Come with me, to the bottom of the sea. Come with me.

  A siren song.

  Abruptly, there is a set of hands on him - no, no, his shirt, and the glint - Sherlock sees, his eyes burning against the saltwater in his failing attempts to claw to the surface - the glint of a knife. He squeezes his eyes shut, and feels the tension on the other end of his collar release.

  Sherlock's head breaks the surface of the water, and he gasps for air. He feels abruptly like a flounder - and then he's finding the sand beneath his ruined shoes, sinking when he tries to sit back, it's too deep, he’s waist deep in the Scorpio sea.

  He wipes the sand and the seawater from his eyes, mouth wide open, and shoves his wretched hair back from where it hangs into his eyes to see his death before it hits him.

  But just before him is not one massive body-- an electric shock shivers down his back and he jerks his head back. Two bodies.

  The grey capall.

  And the short man, John Watson, chest-deep in the water, with his hands pressed flush against the capall’s nostrils, smears of red up to his wrist. There is a glistening wet knife held between his bared teeth.

  The capall is not flailing, it's still. Still, but its eyes are wavering, looking around wildly, like the rest of its body is paralyzed, and it is trapped. Its ears are pinned back, and its whole body is drenched in the saltwater and shivering with power. John Watson is still, as well, but his exposed arms, dark jacket sleeves shoved past his elbows, are shaking as he pushes against the capall’s giant muzzle, shaking with the force it takes to keep the water horse still.

  Watson jumped in after him.

  Sherlock brings his hands up, and tries to move back.

  “ Don't-- !” Watson begins around the knife in his mouth, but it's too late.

  The capall surges out of Watson’s magic hold with an eldritch screech, spraying droplets of the ocean as it tries to bound toward Sherlock, but not before Watson can yank on its black mane and get the horse’s attention.

  It snaps open its mouth and wails, and Watson stabs through its pinned ear. The wailing doesn't falter - the gouge didn't hurt at all. The blade wasn't iron.

  Sherlock is sucking in breaths through his teeth, shallower and shallower, spraying salt on the forced exhale, and the capall is shaking more and more and more, water sliding down and off its grey dappled pelt as it creaks forward, groaning lowly and hungrily--

  There's a flash of red in Watson’s hand, before he shoves his hand back up to the horse’s muzzle.  

  The horse snaps its neck back and screams, piercing and agonizing, and it jumps.

   Its knees crumple as seaweed spills out its nose, and it dives, and disappears beneath the surface of the water. A second later, it reemerges, and rears, shrieking and somewhere, distantly, people are yelling.

  It leaps, and a wayward hoof knocks into John Watson, and when it shoves down, the rider is under the water.

  Sherlock’s chest heaves, he wants to spur himself into action, but he's frozen.

  Did Watson just die for him?

   Is he dead?

  The capall is trying to wade deeper into the water, it's half-leaping, half-swimming, the water frothing white beneath it, and Sherlock moves.

  He takes a deep breath, tries not to think of the dozens of capaill that could be swimming parallel to the breakers and hunting him, and goes under the tumbling surf.

  He opens his eyes; they sting horribly, but he can see the blurry form of Watson, and his hands, still red, like the water hasn't done a thing to the blood (blood?) on them.

  Sherlock's hands find John Watson's shirt collar, and then his jacket’s, and he pulls, bubbles escaping from his mouth and nose.

  Sherlock breaks the surface again, and his feet find the sand, and he pulls Watson up with him.

  The man coughs, sputters, spraying Sherlock with more water than he knew was in the sea.

  “Shore- shore!” Watson commands, eyes not even fully open, and something within Sherlock responds immediately to that tone.

  Watson’s hands find Sherlock's wrists, and shove them off his collar. His eyes are dark, red-rimmed, and stormy. Sherlock swallows and chokes on salt as he tries his hardest to reach the land.

  On the sand, Sherlock collapses onto his hands and knees, hacking and spitting saltwater with the yellow and white grains digging into his palms. His arms are shaking as they hold him up. Almost as weak-kneed is Watson, behind him, head up, already scanning for a threat while Sherlock’s weak breakfast threatens to make a reappearance.

  Sherlock sinks down, and turns into his back. He's supported by his quivering elbows, and the sea is whispering shhhhh, shhhhh as it sucks and laps at his feet and calves, still in the water. The damp and the wind is already chilling him to the bone, and Sherlock coughs again.

  Beyond him stretches the ocean, far over the horizon, and behind him are the shouts and bouts of yelling from the men, and the high, keening calls of the capaill uisce, excited by the sight and the sound and the smell of an attack.

  Redbeard has retreated to the beach, Sherlock can hear him squealing in panic and frenzy - Sherlock needs to get to him, he can hear and feel the savage water horses nearby, hungry.

  But he can't move.

  He feels like a gelid winter morning, staring at Watson, now crouched just before Sherlock, and panting, looking dangerously at him.

  Sherlock had been charmed the first time he met John, back with the blonde mare and the way she’d torn apart the dog. Most importantly, the way Watson had calmed her. He'd bullied her into cooperating, whispered words of the sea and the sand into her demon-like ears. And then he’d used the iron to keep her grounded.

  He’d been in awe, watching his practiced way of moving through the tavern. The cleft of his chin.

  But now, with Watson’s hair slicked back and his clothes soaked and clinging to his bones, there is something swirling in his blue eyes; they hold as much underlying terror as the surface of the November sea.

  There's red blood on his steady hands, dripping from his wet lips.

  He can't believe he ever thought John Watson may not have the heart to race.

  The rider stands, leaving Sherlock sat in the wet sand, the surf shoving at his feet and calves rhythmically.

  Watson wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, smearing capaill blood across his face. His hands drop to his sides, and curl into tight fists.

  He looks down at Sherlock, and Sherlock suddenly feels very, very small.

  “Get your pony off this beach.”

 

-/-

 

  Redbeard is a horse. He's seventeen hands.

  A horse. Not a pony.

  There's no reason Watson’s words should bother him so much.

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock is far inland.

   Far inland.

  There's no reason he should be sitting in his cellar, pistol in his shaking hands, shivering over the kitchen table in the pitch black.

  There's no reason he should be so terrified.

  There is nothing wrong with him.

Chapter Text

The next day, Sherlock spends an inane amount of time cleaning off Redbeard, who is still shaking lightly in his stall, his faded charcoal muzzle turning every which way with the slightest sound or peep of a seabird.

  Sherlock puts him in between the crossropes, and soaps away the salt and mud caked onto his red coat, and then rinses and dries him by hand, brushing him down afterwards. Sherlock picks the clotted sand and dirt and grass out from Redbeard’s hooves. And he brushes out the knots in his mane and tail. He braids and unbraids them, not caring in the slightest when Redbeard purposely knocks his nose against his shoulder or stomach and gets snot on him.

  He’s determined to calm at least one of them down.

 

-/-

 

  Redbeard has his moods. He doesn't like standing in water, which is very wise on an island like Thisby, and he hates thunderstorms and fog. The storms, because they make his knees ache, despite his youth, and the fog, because there's always something to be concealed in it. An uncertain, new water horse, stepping onto land for the first time in a year, or perhaps, ever.

  Sherlock reads and rereads the rules.

  Within 150 yards of the shore, they have to train.

  Sherlock is the biggest idiot on the island. In the universe. Bigger than Bill Murray and his tourist trap of a shop, than Janine Hawkins’ stinking tavern, than John Watson and his stupid black-furred and white-maned stallion.

  At anything other than the lowest points of low tide during the recede of the full moon, the cliffs are well within the shoreline boundaries set up by those people who wrote the rules of the Races, all those hundreds of years ago.

  Sherlock never even had to leave them.

  And so he kicks at Redbeard’s side, the great horse sighing and panting and wheezing underneath him as he runs, frantic because of the smell of the ocean, meters and meters, far, far below them. The water horses can be heard on the winds from the opposite side of the island, their wailing and loud grunting are what Sherlock hears all morning and afternoon. It’s more irritating and distracting than Mrs Hudson’s continual playing of the fuzzy mainland radio at home.

  This puts Redbeard into a strop the morning after Sherlock first takes him out. Sherlock can tell Redbeard knows exactly what they’ll be doing - running. And running fast. This feeble, Thisby-grown hay isn’t enough to sustain a racing horse. It certainly isn’t what the sport horses and the water horses at the Stockyard eat.

  It isn’t what John Watson’s water horse eats.

  There are differences - the water horses need dripping red meat and cold blood. Sport horses and island ponies and broodmares need good hay and grains. Better hay and grains come imported from the mainland. Sherlock’s never been able to afford that sort of stuff. Mycroft’s money used to cover the rent and Redbeard’s board, and that was all, because Mycroft apparently expected Sherlock to get a job. Pedestrian.

  (That’s not why Mycroft didn't send extra money, and Sherlock knows it. Mycroft didn't want Sherlock to fall under the prick of a needle again, the habits of old. He used to have his solution shipped from very powerful dealers on the mainland.)

  As a result, Sherlock has little money. Most of his savings went into him entering the Races, at the Hawkin’s Tavern merely nights ago. There is very little leftover. The stuff he earned by riding to the mill for Molly Hooper was far too meager, but it was also far too much for the job Sherlock’d been doing.

  He figures he can use the rest to treat Redbeard. To get him to go faster.

  And this is how Sherlock finds himself pulling on Redbeard’s leadrope, clipped to his halter, to no avail. The horse is not moving. His neck extends when Sherlock pulls, but his shoed hooves are rooted to the stall flooring, which needs to be mucked.

  “Come on, ” Sherlock groans in effort. Redbeard jerks his head up in that equine fashion the capaill can never posses. “We’re going to Tholla to get you proper food-- good food-- the kind for racehorses-- so-- just- -”

  Redbeard stays put.

  Sherlock throws the leadrope onto the flooring, crossing his arms and tilting his chin up at the stallion. Redbeard snorts, and rocks forward. His hooves shift, his stance steadies.

  Sherlock picks up the leadrope and pulls again, clucking. Redbeard lets out a low whine that keels up into another snort at the end. “You’re being ridiculous,” Sherlock says, and clucks his tongue again, trying to urge the stallion forward and out of the stall. Josephine whinnies in the stall over. He’ll put her out later - could she stay put and content for a moment while he figures this Redbeard business out?

  Sherlock swears - no horse puts on more theatrics than Redbeard.

  He groans in relief when Redbeard acquiesces, finally allowing himself to move out of the stall. Sherlock is letting out a litany of thank you’s to whatever god the people of Thisby believe in. Epona, or someone else.

  Sherlock turns Josephine out and into the pasture encircling Mrs Hudson’s property, and saddles up Redbeard after currying off his coat.

  Then it’s a smooth, if not tense ride to Tholla, on the south side of Thisby, with the pony cart rattling on the dirt and grass road. Sherlock is reminded of the last time they were down this way, the mangled sheep’s corpse spread all across the path, but the incident is not repeated.

  The last of Sherlock’s savings are in his pocket.

  He exchanges the coins for three large bags of oats and a multitude of bales of hay. Expensive. More expensive than oranges. He leaves the hay in Tholla with his name on it, and carts the grain bags back to Mrs Hudson’s, feeling guilty he’s gotten nothing for Josephine.

  He’ll get the bales tomorrow. People in Tholla know him, ever since that interesting case last summer with the homicide-turned-suicide, but the town's divided in two ever since some age-old quarrel between two patriarchs, and so Sherlock isn't exactly sure of where he stands. Skarmouth still has his heart, it's his town. Redbeard will eat his expensive food, and win the Races for Sherlock.

 

-/-

 

  “No, shut up.”

  Sherlock points his violin bow at Redbeard, right at his face, between his eyes. Redbeard squeals, jerking his head up and getting a light tap of the bow just above his muzzle. Sherlock’s violin is tucked under his chin, and if the bow wasn’t being weaponized against Redbeard, he’d be playing.

  He’d been playing, that was, until Redbeard had picked his head up from his expensive flakes of hay on the poor grass down by his hooves and pricked his short ears, glaring into the distance. They're just outside the stables, lounging around after a cold day of sprints and breaks on the green cliff pastures. Since they've come back, a thin haze has settled over Thisby in the evening light. Usually, the wind on this side of the island would chase it away and send it to Skarmouth, the mill, and the Stockyard, but now, it is oddly hushed, and the land is still.

  Sherlock untucks the violin, standing from his seat, a cheap hay bale that he won’t allow Redbeard to eat anymore, and looks in the direction Redbeard is.

  The is a low, low yowl from beyond the fence, in the mist that so often gathers here.

  Sherlock’s heart stammers, and then quickens. His own ears strain towards any other sight, any sight besides the blurry fence and the mist crawling over it.

  They’d been out there all day, it’s early evening, and they’d just been out there. Getting the bales from Tholla. Riding. Feeling the wind hum and sing beneath their skin and their pelt.

  What else had been out there, with them, haunting the mist?

  But it’s just Musgrave, her little feline form, tail high, crawling from between the creaking fence posts and then stalking towards them, in the front of the two-stable barn.

  Sherlock scowls, and sits back down on the bale.

  Violin back in its proper place, and bow poised above it, Sherlock listens to the wind, waiting, waiting. He does not hear anything else. He closes his eyes, and plays a Scorpio rhythm.

 

-/-

 

  In the Hawkin’s Tavern, the once-empty blackboard is filling out quite nicely. There must be fifty names on it.

  Sherlock wonders how he’s ever going to make it to the first of November, racing day.

  There is talk of bets.

  Someone discovers Sherlock’s riding an island pony.

  No one comes to warn him or beg him not to race. Molly tries the latter, when Sherlock shows up at the bakery to talk to Archie and show him a new catalog from the mainland, one of the ones the boy always likes to look at, but there’s that look behind Molly’s eyes when she speaks, the look that means she knows that he can do what he is doing.

  The insults and insinuations hurled at him in the streets multiply ten fold. There’s explosive talk of him being disqualified, and his stomach curdles, but Sherlock always snaps back, “If it’s not in the rules, I can do what I'd like .”

  The fat man who threw that at him ‘ oooh’ s, as if he’s impressed Sherlock’s taken the time to spit at him.

  There’s still talk.

  Sherlock watches the blackboard, stops in the tavern on the nights he’s in Skarmouth after an exhilarating ride on Redbeard around the clifftops.

  There are the odds next to the names now.

  At the very top is the lowest:

   John H. Watson - Gladstone - 5 to 1

  And a third of the way down the list is the highest betting odds:
   Sherlock Holmes - Redbeard - 43 to 1

 

-/-

 

  The festival comes.

  Sherlock stops by the tavern, wading through the tight knot of tourists’ bodies, all pressed close together and reeking of beer the nearer and nearer they are packed. His racing odds are now 47 to 1. No one is betting on him. The smart men are putting their money on John Watson, and the returning champion horse of five years.

  Outside again, the mare goddess is dancing in the streets, a woman in a taxonomic horse head waving to and fro, side to side on the cobblestone, sprinkling pebbles where she goes with human hands. Smaller children are following her, looking for the one shell she will drop tonight, the shell that will grant them a wish. Traditionally, her feet are bare. Sherlock deduces that it’s Adler under that mask tonight.

  The deep beat of the Scorpio drums, echoing all over Skarmouth, sets up a background noise, thumping out a Scorpio rhythm for the whole town to hear. The sound slices through the cold air in a million and one places, driving like sewing needles into hardened skin. This Skarmouth is dark and distant, shaking and powerful. Skarmouth is both a water horse and the sea tonight - horses are painted in vibrant colors on wooden boards and nailed up over the edges of buildings, wards to keep their namesake's away, the wind sounds like waves as it beats through narrow alleys. The potency of the Races is bleeding through all the cracks in the windows, the splinters in the walls, the seams of the streets.

  Islanders' faces are mostly streaked with charcoal and black chalk, dark demons with flashing wide white grins. Someone nearby screams like a water horse. Sherlock's heart pounds like a rabbit's as he weaves between the tourists that are busy looking at the bright paper lanterns hung in lines above the streets. Other people are clutching bits of paper in their hands, a much more dangerous form of magic than the shell from the mare goddess. Sea wishes. Written backwards on scraps of paper and hurled over the cliffs to be caught in the wind and fulfilled by the surging ocean.

  “ They’re curses ,” Sherlock remembers his father telling him once, on the single occasion Sherlock had been brought down to Skarmouth to watch the festivities and get almost swallowed by the rivers of tourists, “ Never write a sea wish, Sherlock. You must never do that to someone .”

  Sherlock never had. He’d threatened the younger boys in school with sea wishes, if he was feeling as though he was under attack. It came to a point where over half of the school believed Sherlock was a witch, because he could tell who’s parents were getting a divorce and whose were eaten by a water horse last autumn by only looking at their shoes.

  His parents had never been fans of the Scorpio festival.

  Sherlock wasn’t, either, but he had to be here tonight. Tonight would be when he proclaimed Redbeard as the horse he was true and really riding. The noise and the press of drunk tourists, loud with drink and excitement, and stone-faced locals shoving through the masses are far too much. 

  The drums throb in Sherlock’s ears as he shoves his hands into the pockets of his long, dark coat. He’s trying not to be seen. He only needs to wait until the rider’s parade. Bicycles lie up propped up against the walls like a pack of coyotes, shoved into and over each other as room had run out. Firelight and yellow hazing circles from the streetlamps cast high shadows against the stone walls. Around the throats of girls that sweep through the streets are necklaces made of punctured shells, and there are jingling bells tied around their wrists and ankles. The noise reminds him of the blonde mare on the beach, the one Watson had wrestled. 

  It seems as though this festival was invented just to overwhelm him.

  He hides in the back of the Hooper Bakery, since the front is packed with fat tourists sucking honey glaze and butter from their thumbs and talking about race odds. He hears his name once or twice, along with ‘that ordinary pony’.

 Sitting on the grain-sprinkled floor between great big bags of sifted, unbleached flour, with his knees pulled up to his chest, he watches the half-dozen working ovens built into the wall across the small room, as per Molly’s request. ‘ If you’re going to be in here, you may as well be useful. Make sure the cinnamon twists don’t burn .’ God of horses, Epona, knew he wasn’t useful anywhere else.

  The scent of honey and sugar and flour and baking powder is so dense in this room, Sherlock wants to gag. Yeast is scattered over the floorboards. The flowing conversations drift in from the front, like the lull of the ocean on a warm, still night. The drums are quieter here, though Sherlock can still hear the distinctive rhythms that the men pound out of goatskin basins, as wide as Redbeard's chest is. The bakery smells heavenly, and not at all like the sea.

  The sound of quick footsteps makes Sherlock snap his head towards the swinging door that bars him from seeing the business going on at the counter. Archie bursts in, a grin lighting up his young face.

  “Mister Sherlock, it’s the parade! The rider’s parade!”

  Sherlock bolts upright. He brushes down his coat that has dusty white patches from the flour in some spots. He’s not afraid of Archie seeing him a little messy and worse for wear from time to time, partly because Archie isn't aware that it's not his usual state. He's always somehow a mess in front of the young boy. But the rest of the island cannot view him like that. To them, he is as cold as the deep waters of the ocean.

  “Thank you, Archie, and make sure the cinnamon twists don’t burn,” Sherlock makes a vague gesture towards the ovens, and then is shoving out the swinging white door, the paint chipped on this side, but not on the other. Appearances, appearances.

  There must be a dangerous glare in his eyes, because no one is shoving him anymore. Sherlock learned long ago that if you look and hold yourself a certain way, the crowds, even drunk, will part for you. He keeps his eyes wide open, scanning the people. It's better to see than to be seen. 

  “‘E must be one ah those riders…” Someone whispers near him as the bakery door swings closed with the tinkle of a bell. A flare of pride flourishes in Sherlock’s chest, and his chin tilts up.

  That is, until he hears that someone’s companion say back, “That’s the one with the island pony.”

  “Forty- nine to one!” Someone else shouts, and the people in-the-know snicker as Sherlock passes, hunching his shoulders up to his ears. Everywhere, people are laughing and singing, drums are pounding, and elsewhere, a motorbike roars, and shrill fiddles are playing. There is no doubt that this is a festival.

  He focuses on ahead, searching for the riders and their parade. He spots Jefferson Hope, in his cap, meanly withered old face just one of many in the crowd. Sherlock begins to step towards Hope, who is making his way through the wailing of the singers and the thrumming beat of the drums and the fantastical costumes.

  “It’s a good night to be on land,” Someone mumbles, hard to hear around the shouted bouts of conversation all around. It's so close to his ear that Sherlock almost mistakes the words as being meant for him. On one of the side streets, some boys are gathered around a small tire that is on fire.

  Someone else answers, “That Watson says--” And Sherlock immediately tunes the voice out.

  He can feel the Scorpio drums in his chest, a rapid, fluttering, deep thing. With every pound against the blood-spattered leather, a baseline makes itself known in Sherlock's lungs.

  The small amount of light pollution cuts out the black behind the clouds, lets the red of the bonfires all around Skarmouth be seen in the sky. His mother used to tell him that the island was dangerous, especially at this time of night, because this time is when all the colors known to mankind blended together into a blue-black. A man could walk off a cliff, thinking he was just taking another step onto the grasses. Only the shhhh, shhhh of the sea far below would ever tell him otherwise.

   In the center of the streets, gold and red in the light of streetlights and paper lanterns along the telephone wires, the horse-headed woman holds out her hand and one thousand tiny pebbles rain out across the street. Then she flings sand onto the ground, and quashes it into the grout between the stones with her bare toes.

  The air smells delicious. Perhaps better than the bakery.

  Down beneath the cliffs, in the quay with the drummers, there are booths with locals hawking things and foods to tourists from beneath canvas tents. Introverted locals are hiding in the tavern, their own private place, one that seems singularly separate from the tourists. There’s people filling every inch of space by the pier below the cliffs. Charcoal from the enormous bonfire just outside Skarmouth is taken to be scribed on paper and made into a sea wish, or streaked along cheekbones to disguise someone from the wild of Thisby. It serves the same purpose as the charms on the water horses - hide the people from the heartless ocean.

  What on earth is he looking for? What is following Hope going to do? There isn't really a formal parade going on. He sets his jaw in irritation when a man going the opposite way as him bumps against his shoulder. Maybe Sherlock should be following him.

An entire paper could be written on what the island smells like during racing season. He's always raised a bitter lip to it, the scent of Claire de la Lune, the popular perfume that the mainland women wear, the scent of burning rubber and hot garbage, the alcohol of various contents that gets vomited onto the street corners. The seasonal food. The drummers throb and Sherlock snakes up against the side of a building to let them pass as they gone on through their clubbing on stretched spattered-skin. A few tourists get caught up in the procession, and laugh and go along with it, clapping. The locals sneer and push their way out.

  There’s a man calling from a rooftop - a rooftop! “Riders? Riders! To the rock!”

  His voice is raw - he’s been shouting for awhile. Archie must’ve heard him from an open window or the door. That, or he was standing outside the bakery during the busiest night of the year and waiting, just for Sherlock.

  The riders and Sherlock head towards the clifftops away from the epicenter of Skarmouth's craze and hum. Or, rather, Sherlock follows a few people who are obviously seasoned riders to the cliff edges. Again, not a parade. It’s only some people ambling towards the… the whatever. The rock. Yes. That. Away from the outskirts of town, there is an orange glow past the gathered men and women. Some of the men who are tourists about to ride laugh amongst themselves, as if the Races are all in good fun, and it's a story they'll have to tell back on the mainland. Sherlock spies a number of men with fingers missing. One man has an primitive metal prosthetic from the elbow down, and his other fist is tightly clenched, holding a medallion for luck or magic.

  The dark black crouching over the island is fended away by two bonfires, one burning high and bright, the other low, hissing out orange sparks into the ground. Sherlock is unsure of where he belongs, and his hands nervously flit back into his pockets. Drummers around the crowds are beating out long tempos and shouting musically in local words - they're more happy to be here than they are good singers. Here, Sherlock can see the very edge of the island, and the sea is black and so is the sky and he cannot see where they meet on the horizon thanks to the dark, but there are thankfully several meters of distance between the fires, the rock, the people, and the edge of the world.

  Sherlock follows in the wake of some riders, glad that the crowd parts before them, and their height hides him.

  He wretches past people that refuse to move, closer to the bonfires and away from spectators who won't be pledging themselves to the island. He will get this over with quickly, and he will go home. No matter who decides to fight him about Redbeard, tonight he will fight back, tooth and nail.

But then there's that point of stillness, darker than the black, a man with an expression as dim as the light. John Watson, just past a pair of men that Sherlock had been trying to get past. He's separated from the crowd, looking towards the cliff edge, merely steps away from falling off or standing where the ground could crumble, letting the wind blow back his fringe. He's looking out to the ocean, clearly waiting. There’s a mainland watch on his wrist.

  Sherlock leans towards him, takes a few steps without quite realizing what he’s doing. Then he stops, furrowing his brow at the ground.

  The Races are dangerous enough without that. And besides, was it not Watson who spat at him to get Redbeard off the beaches, after he was hauled from the waves?

  There are faces that Sherlock recognizes in the massive crowd. Lestrade, Watson, Murray, Hope. Within his own circle, Lestrade is laughing and saying something, the shadows jumping over the indents in his face and spattering firelight. There's a game of familiarity to all of this, to all of the riders. Sherlock's stomach is uneasy as he comes to a third bonfire, managing his way in the writhing mass of people and avoiding the champion rider. Before the third bonfire is a great, flat rock, splattered and streaked with brown. It takes a second before Sherlock realizes what he’s looking at - just as Doctor Fletcher is pulling himself up onto the rock - it’s blood. Old, old blood. And a lot of it.

  “This falls to me… I speak for the man that will not race!” Fletcher shouts, his hands up and gestured towards the black sky. The bonfire behind him tinges the edges of his corduroy trousers, waistcoat, and hair orange. It casts his face into shadow.

  He’s shouting something else now, something about the history of the island, and Sherlock is mostly not listening. He’s changed his attentions to the crowd, picking up life stories from the way the men - and they are all men, the racers - hold themselves, tilt their heads, or part their hair. And he’s trying to tell himself that he’s not at all looking for that one point of stillness in the crowd. Because he’s not. He sees someone make a cross over their head and shoulders, then do it again, backwards this time. Most gazes are locked on Fletcher. 

  “...many years ago, we used to slaughter the man that would not race!” Fletcher is shouting. A shape, dark in firey shadow, moves behind him - the head of a horse. Sherlock’s heart leaps to his throat.

  It's the mare goddess. The woman, Adler, is in a bright red tunic and wearing the horse head on her shoulders, dwarfing her human body. A tail sweeps the ground behind her as she drops more pebbles. It’s impossible to tell whether or not it’s real horse hair, or frayed rope and string. She hands Fletcher a wooden bowl with a flourish. The bonfire pops behind them, sending sparks high into the dark.

  “They’re all cross, over in Hawkins. Saying she didn’t drop a shell this year,” A man beside Sherlock whispers. It’s not directed at Sherlock.

  “Pssht,” Snorts another man, with dark skin and a darker coat over his body, “She prob’ly dropped it up in Skarmouth, and everyone missed it.”

  “Right,” Is the reply, “‘S’not like it-sah real wish, anyway.”

  All these island accents, mashed up together. Old ones, new ones. Sherlock used to mimic the old island accent in the hours before he slept, when he was young, when he still had the lingers of a lisp. It’s something rumbling around the ‘r’ sounds that he could never get right, until he spent literal weeks stalking Skarmouth and listening to conversations. He's very fluid with any island accent, now, as well as multiple languages.

  Fletcher’s shouting ceases, and the crowd goes abruptly quiet.

  Sherlock looks back up to the rock. Fletcher has a serious look on his face, pinched. It’s closer to a grimace than a neutral facial expression. He tips the bowl in his hand, and blood splashes down onto the rock. Since he doesn’t step back, it hits his shoes and the ankles of his trousers.

  “Rider without a name,” He says, “Horse without a name. By his blood.”

  Sherlock hopes that’s not real man’s blood. He’d be able to tell if he was closer, if he had time to tell if the blood patterns slipped back together or congealed in a certain way - proteins give it away. But he doesn’t have time. He assumes it’s sheep’s blood. Fifty years ago, it was a man who the riders slaughtered, as Fletcher recounted. It’s not the case anymore. Good. The island would run out of men.

  The man who was whispering about the shell pipes up, directing to his companion, “Who is it in the horse’s head, this year?”

  “Epona. Soul of Thisby and the cliffs. The mother of all horses.”

  “No, no, you daft sod, the woman!” He hisses.

  “Jus’ someone with more up front to look at than you ‘ave...”

  Sherlock’s mouth quirks down, listening to the speculation of the two men for a moment. The woman with the horse head, Adler, is now gone, though Sherlock didn’t see her go.

  Irene Adler, without the outfit and the tail and the head, has replaced the mare goddess. She’s an intimidating person, made meek only by necessity tonight. She must act. Still, she looks like someone who’s never spilled a drop of tea on herself, even if on horseback. Sherlock didn't think it was possible to have gotten his deduction wrong, of who was beneath the horse head, because there's no way Irene could change so quickly...

  A dozen or so men are gathered around one end of the rock, waiting to go up, and still more are moving restlessly towards the group. Sherlock is a small, motionless animal.

  The first rider steps naturally up onto the rock. He’s got greying hair, and the silver spikes and dances in the firelight. It’s Lestrade. Sherlock had known he was riding this year. Down at the beach, he'd been wandering around. Sherlock had glanced him just moments ago. Neglecting his judicial duties - but that’s fair, because there aren't many criminals to catch on Thisby. Well. Not that many that have done something so bad as to deserve being caught.

  He’s ridden in years past, but not last year or the one previous. He'd gotten a large slice over his bicep when he was thrown from a grey mare the last time he raced. Sherlock had seen it in the reports.

  “I will ride,” Lestrade tells Adler formally. Then, he thrusts his hand forward, and Adler’s delicate fingers snake around his wrist, jerking it closer to herself. She brandishes a tiny blade, and slices his finger in an expertly fast motion. The blood must fall to the rock, because he relaxes, but Sherlock is too far away to see it.

  “Greg Lestrade. Comfort. By my blood.”

  Adler answers, in a voice deep and gruff, and not her own but that of the island, “Thank you.”

  Lestrade steps down on the other side of the rock, greeted by a smaller man with a clap on his back, holding his sliced hand against his abdomen. The next rider steps up onto the mounting rock.

  His blood drips onto the rock. And the man after him.

  “Isaac Whitney, Altum. By my blood.”

  And the next. Another.

  One more after that. “Charles Augustus Magnussen,” Says a voice dripping in poisoned honey glaze, “Mary. By my blood…”

  Sherlock is jostled ever closer to the mounting side of the blood-stained rock. At first, he fights his way back to his old spot to keep watching, but as the minutes drag by, he lets himself be swept away by the current of racers.

  Last chance to back out. Last chance to turn his tail. He won’t get the entering fee back, but it’s better than losing his life. He just needs to get out of here. Like the horrible blonde mare, Sherlock’s breath starts coming in faster. But this isn’t about being trapped on land and on the earth, it’s about feeling trapped in this thin spiderweb of commitment.

  There must be close to fifty riders here, of the ones Sherlock can see and deduce. There’s a six to one tourist to rider ratio, with the riders as the minority. A great many people are here to watch. Sherlock may lose his head in all the noise. Heavens know he’s already lost his mind.

  Race reports, yes, he’s read those in the past. He knows there’s never been close to fifty riders in the past. Sherlock frowns. What happens to all of them?

  “I will ride.”

  Sherlock jerks his head up, breath evening out. That voice told him to keep Redbeard off the racing beach, mere days ago.

  John Watson is on the rock, his hand cupped by Adler’s smaller ones. Sherlock feels a spark of something, watching the three hands together. It’s a familiar thing, that touch. It must be because John Watson has ridden at least five times before this year. Maybe more, but maybe he didn’t win before the start of those five years ago. Sherlock isn’t sure if Adler has always been the mare goddess or not. He doesn’t come to the Scorpio festival.

  The firelight, and Sherlock’s angle, makes a quarter of Watson’s face light up from the bonfire, but the rest of his clothes are dark. The bonfire has spread to near the back of the rock, licking at the base of it.  

  Adler slices Watson’s finger. Sherlock has drifted closer, and can see the drops of blood, with a small spark of light caught by the bonfire, fall to the surface of the rock and meet the sheep’s blood, pooled in a shallow dip in the rock.

  Far away, the Scorpio drummers have moved on and are crashing through the Skarmouth streets, or along the coastline. But Sherlock can hear nothing but silence and faint fiddles, and then:

  “John Watson. Gladstone. By my blood.”

  “Thank you…” Adler whispers back.

  There are whoops and hollers from the crowd of riders and spectators, unlike the feedback from any other pledged rider. Just as there were in the tavern, when Watson had first signed up, men are celebrating their returning champion.

  But Sherlock looks into the crowd, sifting through smug smiles and slightly discouraged frowns, to find the expressions that are guarded. The ones that hold behind them some malicious intent. The gilded smiles. Plotting brows. Perhaps there are some that wish him terrible harm. Mm. No. There are definitely some.

  John Watson came from the mainland, many years ago. Sherlock can read it in his watch.

 Watson believes in Thisby’s charms, but not in using them on his giant black stallion. His hand shakes sometimes, but not others, and Sherlock theorizes it’s the adrenaline kicking through Watson’s system that steadies his hand. Now it is still. He’s survived five years of racing. Maybe more. How will this year be for him?

  How will Sherlock’s first?

  Someone juts an elbow into Sherlock’s lower back. He grimaces.

  An accompanying hiss, “Go!”

  Sherlock whirls back around to the rock. It’s his turn, and he hasn’t stepped up yet. His ears burn. He feels less qualified for this than he has ever felt in his entire life, for anything.

  Many, many pairs of eyes are on him. Watson’s are, too, from the other side of the rock. He doesn’t look as tall as Sherlock thought he was.

  He steps onto the rock, lacking grace.

  His heart is hammering a Scorpio drumbeat in his throat. His pulse skips and flutters as he holds out his hand.

  “I will ride.”

  Adler looks at him, her red lips curved in a dangerous smile. Sherlock doesn’t want to be looked at like this. Not by anyone. But especially not by her, not right now. He doesn’t need to be questioned. His countenance stays neutral, and he is determined for Adler to cut his finger.

  She does, wrapping her cold fingers around his wrist. There is a wink of pain, though the blade is sharp. The bonfire roars, one side of his face is hot.

  “Sherlock Holmes,” He says, in a voice like everyone else’s, “Redbeard. By my blood.”

  The drop falls to the rock, mingling with the sheep’s and the other riders.

  Here he stands, letting his blood sink into the stone, and into Thisby.

  It's exhilarating.

  It's terrifying.

  “ Hang on! ” Calls someone from the crowd.

  His blood runs cold.

   He’s said it wrong - he’s extended his hand the wrong way, stuttered, messed up the order of the words, he’s done something wrong, but Irene would tell him, wouldn't she? Wouldn't she correct him? Wouldn't--

  It’s Jefferson Hope. “Sherlock Holmes cannot race!”

  There’s never been anything more sickening than what he’s hearing now. The way eyes stare and heads turn.

  This is it. They’re going to kick him out of the Races. Sherlock’s face sears with heat, both from the bonfire and not. His skin feels three sizes too tight. Fault lines like tectonic plates crack in his skin, he can feel embarrassment seeping out.

  Despite this, Sherlock knows there is reason that Hope shouted ‘ Sherlock Holmes cannot race!’ instead of just yelling at Sherlock, ‘ You cannot race!’

  It is because, like most of the lesser men on this wicked island, Hope is seeking support from the masses, not addressing Sherlock like a person, because he will not be strong enough on his own, and in the masses, Sherlock will be felled.

  Redbeard. It must be Redbeard. All the things that the horse has done for him, and vice versa, feel as though they are nothing.

  Still, Sherlock finds his voice even, “And why not?”

  Hope is wading through the crowds, coming closer to the rock, until he stands before it. He’s got a couple of men that Sherlock recognizes as mill workers with him, flanking him. Hope’s cap is tipped back on his head, and his spectacles, shiny as the water and resting on his nose, gleam so white from the light of the fire that Sherlock cannot see his eyes.

  “The Races have always been about the capaill. Not about the blood, not about the people. If they were just about horses, we may as well have never bothered with them in the first place…”

  “It’s not in the rules,” Sherlock says through his teeth. When he was young, he used to be so black-hearted that he’d spit on people’s shoes when he didn’t like what they were saying. Mycroft had broken him out of that. He may have to take up that habit again, “I can ride what I’d like.”

  Hope’s smile is sickening, and he is climbing onto the rock. There’s a little discourse in the crowd at this. It has always been one rider on the rock at a time. Adler doesn’t move for him, she stays as still as Watson on the other side. She’s unwavering. This is her place, and not Hope’s. He shouldn’t be up here.

  Should Sherlock be?

  Sherlock draws in a deep, shuddering breath through his nose. He doesn’t like the way everyone is looking at him, looking at Hope, or the way some people are nodding their heads, like they understand what Hope’s saying, and they support him. It’s uncannily like the attention of the capaill on the beach. He could be eaten by either population.

  Sherlock wants to get off the rock, because the heat is burning him, as close as it is now. However, he doesn’t want to step down or away, because that means something entirely else than wanting the bonfire’s heat off his face. Sherlock tries to stand as straight as he can. The fault lines crack further open over his skin, exposing magma boiling below. He can't step down.

  It means he’s giving up, and Sherlock is most certainly not doing that.

  One of the mill workers below extends a hand up for Sherlock to take. He’s wearing a traditional scarf, like a lot of women and men on Thisby tonight. Sherlock crinkles his nose, and goes on, feeling the need to justify himself. “It’s not in the rules. There’s nothing saying I can’t race my horse in the rules. I’ve read them all.” A few chuckles break out. There are a lot of rules. Sherlock can’t bear to look at Adler, or at Watson.

  The expanse of the rock isn’t small, but Hope sidles close anyways. He turns to the crowd, seeking appeal and attempting to look reasonable, “Some rules are just too big for paper.” He holds his hands out, like there’s nothing he can do about it.

  Rules too big for paper. Impossible. You will write something down, or you will not have that rule.

  “Then why have rules on paper at all?”

  “Some things,” Says the mill worker in the scarf with the extended hand, “Are too obvious to have to write down.”

  Sherlock swallows. He doesn't know what to say.

  Hope rumbles, a chuckle, and the locals who get the poke of fun (Sherlock Holmes, speechless) laugh, some too loudly for the deadly quiet of the scene.

  Shame burns hot in Sherlock’s throat. He’s already given his blood. It isn’t like he can take it back.

  And just like that, anger is shoving through Sherlock’s veins, crackling wildly like the Thisby winds, racing through his lungs and his heart. “Well, then the rules , are wrong ! I’ll follow the rules I was given,” Sherlock snarls, leaning closer to Hope out of fear, rather than bravery. “I’m not following something unwritten.”

  “Holmes, there’s never been an island pony running on that beach, unless it was running away from a water horse.” The mill worker on the ground says. Sherlock can see his arm’s getting tired. Maybe he’ll drop it, walk away, and go home. Yes. Sherlock quite likes that idea.

  It's over. He barely had the wisps of a chance, and it's over.

  Hope is close. He smells like fish, and it’s sickening. Sherlock feels too confined, and he feels as though he may fall backwards into the leaping bonfire, the same that throws unnerving shadows across him and Hope and the dark crowd, standing by, watching like a school of fish, waiting to be fed remains off the back of a boat. He’s cornered. He leans away, but Hope follows, edging ever closer.

  “You’re asking us to change all Thisby’s ever been, just for you? How can you ask that of us…? Isn't our answer obvious ?” Hope asks, and slides closer, and Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut. Hope’s figure is nearly up against Sherlock’s entirety, smelling like fish, fish, fish , and unfamiliar, horrible warmth--

  Then it’s gone. There’s the scrape of rock, rustle of cloth and an exclamation, more thuds and gasps and shouts, and Sherlock feels smaller than he’s ever felt, smaller than he was on the beach, smaller than he was walking up to the rock, and to the blackboard, and--

  “It’s not obvious to me.”

  When Sherlock opens his eyes, it’s no longer Hope on the rock with him.

  It’s Watson, his dark jacket sleeves rolled up past his elbows, exposing his tanned forearms like at the beach, hands curled into tight fists. They’re not shaking. The firelight is dancing orange over his face and his clothes and his whole body, glinting off the watch on his right wrist. When he looks like this, his lips are a thin line, and there is something to behold in his dark eyes, no longer the colour of the clear sea.

  They’re coal-black, nothing but dark, the same shade as the night and as the ocean tonight.

  He makes as powerful a figure as his black stallion does.

  He’s staring down (down!) at Hope, who’s being hauled up from the ground by the mill workers in traditional garb.

  Oh. Watson shoved Hope. Off the rock.

  Sherlock looks down, too, even as Watson opens his mouth, “I’ll speak for him,” He bites out. His voice is pitched low, curling around like the smoke in Sherlock’s eyes. Locals are murmuring to each other in the crowd. Tourists are looking for confirmation that this is the returning champion.

  “This island runs on courage. Not on the capaill alone. Let the sea decide what’s right and what’s wrong.” Watson’s looking at Hope as the mill workers struggle to get him standing, but he’s speaking to the crowd, to the hundreds of people gathered around the rock and assessing the riders and talking of race odds.

  There’s a cut on Hope’s face, the skin split on his cheek, already purple blooming dark around it, smudge of red. Watson didn’t just shove him. He punched him. Watson punched Hope.

  Sherlock blinks.

  Why?

  Hope smears the trickle of blood across his face with the back of his hand, towards his hairline and the edge of his cap. He’s staring daggers up at Watson, who is as unbent as ever.

  There’s a terse silence, then, as a testament of how much this island lives off of Watson’s opinion, the mill worker says, “So, then. He races.”

  The rest of the riders give themselves to Thisby. Sherlock has his head down, hiding at the edges of the crowds, ready to make his escape.

  “They will ride,” Fletcher shouts, and the bonfire surges and snaps at the air, threatening to consume him, “By their blood, let the Races begin!”

  As he slips away from the masses, Sherlock sees Watson, once more that point of stillness, slip a small shell into his pocket.

 

-/-

 

  “You've given me this. Please, take it back.”

  Sherlock hears the timorous voice of a fearful man as he's skulking around the edges of town, the sharp and dark corners that most tourists are too afraid to come near.

  He stops.

  Around him walk townspeople and riders hold bleeding fingers against their mouths, with apparent disregard for bloodborne pathogens, laughing and headed towards Skarmouth for a pint or for betting at Hawkins. There are advertisements on posters for the Moriarty Stockyard auctions, posted to the outside of stone brick buildings.

   The M Stocky ard - Five Time Winner of the Scorpio Races!

  Own a Piece of the Races - Youngstock Auction at 7AM Thursday.

   It isn't really the Yard that has won the Races five times. But Watson's name is nowhere on it.

  “You must make a wish. It’s the will of the island...”

  Another voice, deep and guttural. Sherlock presses his back against the wall and the poster as the Scorpio drummers, driven again by drink rather than skill, crash through his narrow alleyway.

  His curiosity and nosiness peaks, and after the deafening drums have gone by, cymbals screaming and beats thudding, he slips towards the corner of the building he's pressed against. The streetlights cast orange spheres on the walk and street below, but he is encased in black and shadow.

  “You don't understand. I can't take this. You handed it to me. You've given it to me before.”

  Attempting to look nonchalant, Sherlock takes a peek around the corner, seeing something so startling he's got to sharply inhale, the scent of ale clouding his nose.

  It's John Watson, standing across from the mare goddess, adorned in full costume.

  He squints.

  It's not Adler in the costume. He's unsure of who it is, it's impossible to tell in this dimness . It's… unnerving. The person is holding themselves strangely, and their tail looks more realistic than it ever has before. Their feet are bare, but they are dirty, sand and grit caked beneath their nails and between their toes. Bells seem to spring directly from the skin around her ankles, shivering with tremors that are minutely working their way through the goddess' frame. Sherlock can feel heavy magic on the air.

  Watson’s hand is outstretched toward the goddess, or, rather, who’s wearing the goddess’ costume. There's a spiraling shell in his palm, the same shell that Sherlock saw him tuck into his pocket after the rider’s parade.

  “I've already made a wish. Years ago.” Watson seems to be trying to convince her to take back the shell. The goddess’ hands are hidden in her robes.

  “It's time to make another wish.”

  “I’ve… I’ve got what I need.”

  “The ocean knows your name, John Watson,” She murmurs, Sherlock has to strain to hear it, “It's time to make another wish.”

  The goddess’ eye of shale winks in the light. Sherlock can hear the distant roar of the sea.

  Watson looks down, an indecipherable expression upon his face. And then, slowly, he retracts the hand and tucks the spiraling shell into his pocket again. He looks at the mare goddess, and seems to draw a deep breath.

  He doesn't do his terse little nod, like Sherlock’s used to seeing him doing. He merely fidgets his left hand, thumb rubbing over his knuckles, and walks past the goddess, across the street, and into the next darkened alleyway, pavement scuffing beneath his boots.

  It seems louder than the crash of the drums, thrumming loudly a few corners over. It seems louder than anything else in the world. When he is out of sight, Sherlock turns back to the corner where the conversation took place, but the mare goddess is gone, off to scatter sand and pebbles somewhere else on the island.

  Sherlock turns away from the scene, and picks another route into the deeper parts of town.

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock’s picking his way back across to cliffs and towards the bulk of Skarmouth, where he's parked the Ford, when he hears a high, short whistle, coming from the direction of the bonfires he’s just passed.

  He ignores it, and presses on. The wind is throwing damp sand at his face, his cheeks feel raw. There’s still a slow burn in his mouth and a pinch in his finger, remnants of the rider’s parade. There's also a twinge, niggling scramble of thoughts about what he just witnessed, the interaction between Watson and the mare goddess...

  The whistle comes again, followed by a bark of laughter, and a, “Ho, Sherlock Holmes!”

  Sherlock turns, an irritated look upon his face.

  It’s Anderson, the notary, with his feeble brown beard caked in scraggly shadow and firelight. He whistles again. Sherlock doesn’t like his expression or the fantastical bright red and yellow costume he’s wearing. Or the way the wind plays with all the bright layers as he prowls closer to Sherlock. There are other people around. Surely Anderson wouldn’t be so stupid as to do something with witnesses around.

  There’s paper crumpled in his dirty, blackened hand. Sherlock looks at him, “I really don’t have time to deal with idiots.”

  Anderson scowls, and that’s a familiar sight, indeed.

  The notary uncrinkles the piece of paper, and Sherlock widens his eyes. The wind from the cliffs tosses Anderson’s parted hair, and Sherlock’s curls. It rips through Anderson’s costume, threatens to dislodge his great cape.

  “Have a look, Holmes,” Anderson smirks, starting forwards. Sherlock resists the urge to lean back. He’s had far too many men far too close to him tonight, “Have a look.”

  “Yes, Anderson, I can read.”

  “D’you even know what this is?”

  On the paper, written backwards in charcoal, is Sherlock Holmes . A sea wish.

  Sherlock shrugs.

  Anderson crumples the paper up again, and stalks to the edge of the cliff, his hands in fists. Sherlock watches him.

  The paper is thrown, over Anderson’s shoulder, and over the cliffside. The wind takes it into the black and into the sea.

 

-/-

 

  “How was the festival, Sherlock?”

  “Fine, Mrs Hudson.”

  “I've just put the kettle on the stove, would you like a cuppa?”

  “That'll be fine, thank you, Mrs Hudson.”

 

-/-

 

That night, as Sherlock lays awake and stares at the hardwood ceiling, he thinks, to the gentle patter of rain. The festival is over, officially, and not many people will be out in the cold rain. It'll put out the bonfires and dampen the rubbish that is littering the Skarmouth streets. It'll fill the ocean and dredge up water horses that would rather face the land than the tides by the rocks.

  He wonders what would've happened if Darwin had come to Thisby, after, or instead of the Galápagos Islands.

  There aren't many differences between the water horses, like the finch beaks and the tortoise shells. None that Sherlock can catalog, and he's tried. Just the coat colour. Size. When they leap into the sea after a premature rising, their heads begin to lengthen as they dip under, a scream cut off halfway.

  They aren't that simple to study. Sherlock’s tried. It's irritating and frustrating, to live on an island where magic flourishes but science refuses to.

  The capaill are smart predators. Corpses don't wash up on the beaches, the only places bones are found is in the sea caves carved by the ocean years and years ago. No theories would've been born.

  If Darwin had come here, he wouldn't have made it back to the mainland, and his findings would've been just specimens in glass, and nothing consequential at all.

Chapter Text

 The earth is still, the roads silent. Sherlock is happy for it. Down by Skarmouth, the rubbish from the festival remains. Paper lanterns blown by the wind out to the green pastures, remnants from dinners, plastic pieces around the houses on the outskirts of the town.

  The sun hits the cliffs perfectly, at this time of day. That is. If the sun has decided to make an appearance. Today, it has. The island is clear, though there are clouds in the sky. It is not overcast. The air still has a sharp, cold bite to it.

  Sherlock doesn't take Redbeard out to the the spot outside of Skarmouth today, with the tract of beach will be used for the Races. It’s not at all because of Anderson’s sea wish, or the threat of meeting any of the tourists or riders on that side of the island.

  He pulls Redbeard northwards, past Skarmouth and towards the mill and the Stockyard. The winds mainly come from the south, so it will be an easy practice, if unrealistic of how the Races will be.

  Redbeard is fast below him, a red streak on the fields of light green and fading yellow autumn grass. Sherlock keeps low, low to his neck as he makes the island pony (--no, horse, John Watson's insult makes Sherlock petulant about this matter) canter far up the island. The better feed is already making his belly shrink, making his legs work faster.

  Clucking, Sherlock’s shoves his heels further against Redbeard’s sides, asking him for another burst of speed. He has to squint against the rush of air, breaking the smooth lines of his trousers. The stallion pulls up when Sherlock takes back some rein, slowing to a trot, and then a walk.

  Redbeard’s stamina needs work, he's panting. But that’s why they’re running in the first place. Not wanting the horse’s muscles to get sore and cramped, Sherlock makes him walk instead of halt altogether. Redbeard is heaving in gasps below him, but Sherlock knows Redbeard, knows what he can take and how far he can really go. He daresay, he knows this horse better than he knows himself, what he can take, and how far he can go.

  They walk to the side of the cliffs, as close as they dare. The last thing Sherlock needs is for the chalk to crumble below their combined weight and deposit them on the sharp rocks and high tide below them.

  Huffing and puffing, Redbeard turns and walks a few feet away from the edge, tracking with it. His neck bobs up and down as he goes.

  With the low bump of Redbeard’s gait, Sherlock faces forwards and sits up on his heels, not looking to his left and to the whispers and the lull of the ocean. When he was very young, and Redbeard was, too, Mycroft had told him to always look where he wanted Redbeard to go. If he looked forward, Redbeard would go forward. If he spent too much time staring into space, Redbeard would, too, and he’d be a terrible horse to ride.

  Good thing Sherlock has never believed a word Mycroft said.

  He looks out to the sea now, and takes special care in holding the right side of the reins, the side away from where he’s facing, just in case Redbeard trusts him too much and they go walking off the side of the cliff.

  The land is here is made up of high cliffs and perilous drops, low grass with a perpetual white crust from the salt winds coming in from the ocean. Below is the sea, whitecaps beating around the ragged stones like a wolf's tooth. The seabirds are tucked away in nests on the cliffsides, and they dive out into the air or swoop back into the holes in the cliffs every so often.

  He doesn’t see anything besides the crests and falls of the waves. The dark blue black, and the occasional tumble of foam. The waters conceal anything that may be swimming below.

  In two weeks, Sherlock will be on the other side of the island, right beside this saltwater, on Redbeard. Racing alongside the giant capaill . It doesn’t seem fair to Redbeard. It’s not. It’s not fair.

  Redbeard flicks his tail, and the wispy hairs thwap against Sherlock’s trousers. The horse dips his head, pulling on the reins good-heartedly.

  Sherlock breathes in the salt and the fishy smell that Thisby has always been tinged with. He can’t back out now. He won’t. Not unless he dies. He won’t have this island thinking him a coward. Thisby is not kind to cowards.

  He remembers the festival. He's always been an outcast, someone not worth a second glance on this island, someone to snicker at or throw a punch at. Now, with Redbeard formally entered in the Races, he's become a laughingstock. Not that he wasn't before. He sniffs haughtily. Is a little respect so much to ask for?

   You’re asking us to change all Thisby’s ever been, just for you? How can you ask that of us…? Isn't our answer obvious ?

  A sudden, loud wail pierces the thin air.

  Sherlock freezes, and Redbeard squeals in fright, stomping as Sherlock hauls the reins back, sitting back down on the seat of the saddle. Redbeard’s ears swivel wildly, and Sherlock knows he must be remembering the beach, because Sherlock is, too.

  He strains all of his senses towards the cliffs beyond them, because that is where the wail came from.

  Sometimes, the island’s atmosphere will throw sound back and forth, playing and tossing it as the wind does hair or children do stuffed animals.

  Redbeard’s breath is quickening. Sherlock hums softly, reaching down a hand to pat at the stallion’s neck. It won’t do to have them both incapacitated with fear. Not that he's afraid. Sherlock swallows, staring off and into the clear day and to the sea.

  Surely, he would be able to see something were it coming for them. He’s unsure of where they would go, but he would see it, at the very least. The wind, lightening up now, as if in anticipation, pushes the scent of brine towards Sherlock. He licks his cracked lips, mouth parted, listening.

  The cry comes again. Closer.

  But not from in front of them, from behind.

  Redbeard reacts immediately, his hooves stomping as he prances in place, getting ever closer to the cliff edge.

  A howl of strengthening wind sends him skittering dangerously close to the cliff edge. For a moment, Sherlock sees the hump of the cliff grass where it falls over the edge of the rock, toward the froth of the surging ocean far below. He feels the timeless, swimming sensation of possibility.

  Sherlock grits his teeth and digs his heels into Redbeard’s side, unwilling to topple off Thisby like this. Mistaking it for the command of a run, Redbeard leaps into action, bursting away from the cliff edges and splattering gravel as he bolts inland.

  Sherlock is bouncing with the speed and the suddenness of it, and trying fervently to rein in the terrified stallion. He yanks powerfully, and Redbeard jolts to a stop, turning in circles and throwing his head up and back erratically.

  Another cry, ever closer. He’s breathing hard - where, where is it? It’s a water horse, that much is obvious, but where is it ?

  Something wails again.

  It gets cut off in the middle, and there’s a loud, familiar demand of, “Will you shut up? ” To go along with it.

  Sherlock blinks.

  Oh. This must be someone’s capall , screaming and wailing. Strange, that they would be by the cliffs over here… No, it’s not. They must just be doing what Sherlock is; training. Only. Now that Redbeard’s under a saddle and much more than 150 yards away from shore, what Sherlock’s doing now is grounds for disqualification. Anyone who sees him will report it without fail. He needs to get down.

  He listens for the voice, or for the wailing again. Nothing. Where has he heard that voice before? It can’t be anyone he’s too familiar with (though, there’s not many of those), or he’d place it immediately. It was too far away, and too diluted by the wind.

  Sherlock leans forward and swings a leg behind him, then dismounts, remaining on Redbeard’s shaky left side. Of course. Redbeard doesn’t know the capall they’ve been hearing is less of a threat, now that it’s got its owner with it. All the red stallion hears is a predator. An old, old predator.

  Perhaps Sherlock should not relax, either. Perhaps it is Jefferson Hope, come to drive him and Redbeard out of the Races for good.

  “Shhhh,” Sherlock pats the stallion’s shoulder, hushing him like the sea. He holds tight to the reins, pulling them over the equine’s head and using them as a lead to guide Redbeard back to the cliffs. They’ve gone pretty far from them. Redbeard’s ears flick towards him, seeking his voice as a comfort.

  If only Redbeard could run that fast in the Races.

  There’s a low grunt nearby, something Sherlock can feel in his feet rather than hear in the air.

  Sherlock stops, not as alarmed as before, and shoves his hand into the broad of Redbeard’s chest, making him stop. He bends his head to peer out beneath Redbeard’s neck, and spots a great black shape, speeding towards them.

  Its hooves devour prodigious amounts of soil and high grasses, it barely leaves the ground for more than a millisecond, and it seems to be miles closer.

  It’s so fast.

  His heart stutters, and he is climbing briskly back onto Redbeard before he can properly think. Get away, get away, get away

  Sherlock kicks at Redbeard, but the horse is squealing and rearing, and threatening to throw Sherlock off. He hangs on, tightly, and jolts with the landing, the landing so hard that it makes his teeth clack together. Then he’s sitting up, and pulling back the reins so Redbeard won’t go running off again, because he doesn't need to see grassgrassgrassskynothing . He draws the reins back so far that Redbeard begins to back up, tripping over his own back legs and gangly rear ankles.

  The black shape grows bigger, and bigger, and Sherlock can see the rider on its back, but it could be anyone, it could be someone who hates him, who agrees with the islanders--

  The weak sun catches on the black horse’s striking white mane, where a rider’s hands are currently clutching onto, weaving braids in threes and sevens, threes and sevens. Then the clouds part and more light streaks over a head of light hair, mounted on the water horse’s back.

  This is Watson.

  John ‘get-your-pony-off-this-beach’ Watson.

  John ‘It’s-not-obvious-to-me’ Watson.

  Sherlock tightens his hold on his reins, but does not move. He’s more confident, now that he knows who this is. He’s spoken to Mrs Hudson of him (complained, really, right after he got back from the beach with Redbeard - she’d seen him and asked what on earth was wrong, and Sherlock had snapped back, ‘John Watson!’ and then gone to bed, not to sleep, to think), so at least she’ll figure out something if Watson’s come to murder him.

  Redbeard rocks and shifts under him as Watson rides near on his lightning fast water horse, sitting up straighter in the saddle and finally slowing the horse.

  Redbeard is twisting, afraid. To make up for this, Sherlock stares up at the blond rider, as the water horse is pulled to Redbeard’s side.

  His horse isn’t even panting, despite galloping and devouring lengths of the island. And Watson is looking down at him quizzically. The water horse is too close for Redbeard’s comfort. Sherlock tilts his face up, squints against the light that the clouds have relinquished.

  The great black stallion moves, and circles around to Redbeard’s shivering side, leaving only a few feet between the two horses.

  “What are you doing here?” Watson asks. It is a question, not a demand. Sherlock’s spine goes rigid all the same.

  Having been staring resolutely straight ahead, towards the cliffs, so far away, Sherlock’s head snaps back to watch Watson on the water horse, which passes right behind Redbeard’s hind legs. Sherlock can see the white all the way around Redbeard’s eyes, when he looks back, feel him panting and shaking with fear below him. The scent of brine is strong.

  But the capall uisce never even bares its teeth. It never looks anything more than bored. If Redbeard is acting like this now, frozen with terror, his ears pinned back at the nearness of a tamed water horse, how will he act during the Races?

  Sherlock bites out, “This isn’t your property.”

  It’s the first thing Sherlock’s actually said to Watson. Before this, their interactions were strictly Watson’s commanding tone to keep Redbeard away from the beaches, and him asking Sherlock if he was alright after the altercation with the mad blonde mare.

  That, and the events at the Scorpio festival, and the rider’s parade. He’s begun to form a profile on Watson, both of his history, his present, and most importantly, his personality, as barracuda-like as it may be. There’s a high moral code ingrained in Watson’s heart and face, along with a protective streak.

  Seeing him with the mare goddess, however… that interaction was more than cryptic.

  Watson looks surprised at the sound of his voice, and pulls his water horse to a full stop in front of Sherlock. It pulls sidelong in front of Redbeard’s face. It’s so tall and gigantic, that Watson’s feet in the metal (not iron, how strange) stirrups could boot up against Redbeard’s muzzle, if there had been any less space between them.

  Sherlock can see the entirety of the stallion. With sloping shoulders and a powerful set of legs, a long, streamlined neck, and that rider, it’s no wonder this beast is a five time champion of the Races. Watson’s legs are bent, clothed in dark trousers cinched at the ankles. His boots (scuffed with slight parallel lines - caused by someone who scraped around the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud, but was distracted) are in the stirrups. Sherlock cannot see a charm on the whole damn saddle array or bridle.

  The watch is on Watson’s wrist again, just like at the festival. It hadn’t been there at the beach, or in the tavern. Must not be waterproof, like almost everything made on Thisby is. It has to be, with Thisby’s weather. It does not tick, does not reveal the passage of time. It's broken.

  Sherlock can read a lifetime off of that wristwatch, and on the faded H. W. engraved on the face, beneath the glass. He smirks. And then he wonders if Watson’s still got the shell in his pocket, from yesterday. He wonders what it means. It won’t do well to ask. He was eavesdropping, and he wasn’t a part of that conversation...

  “What’s the look for?” Watson asks.

  “Your watch.” Sherlock answers swiftly. It occurs to him that Watson really doesn’t have any right to ask after his expression, but he’ll humour the man, all the same.

  Watson holds it up, and looks at his wrist. He takes the reins in hand again, as the water horse rumbles lowly, again the sound Sherlock can feel in the stirrups tucked under his feet. Redbeard quivers. “What about it?”

  “May I see it?”

  Watson furrows his brow, the corners of his mouth turning down and carving lines into his face. This contradicts the stormy blue of his eyes, framed by pale lashes. His hair is blown back a little in the front, evidence of his speeding run towards Sherlock, just minutes before.

  He doesn’t stare at Sherlock for long, appearing to gauge whether or not Sherlock is going to take the thing and run with it. Sherlock can't exactly go anywhere on an island pony (horse!) with a well-trained, five time Scorpio Races champion capall on Redbeard’s tail.

  This seems to register with Watson, who extends one arm towards Sherlock, staying straight up in the saddle. It’s a practiced thing. Sherlock crinkles the bridge of his nose. “Why not just take it off?” Sherlock asks.

  “Because, my friend,” Watson says, with a sly smile, “I'd have to let go of the reins.”

  The capall is shaking. So is Redbeard. The difference is the capall’s muscles shudder with restrained power, while Redbeard’s ears are laying flat, and twitching, in fear.

  The water horse jerks its head back, pressing it's chin into its long neck, accompanied by the sound of jangling metal buckles on its halter, and the quick thrash of metal against leather - Watson jolting his heels against the horse’s side to keep it in check.

  Sherlock leans forward, with half his attention on the watch, and the other on the capall, whose pupils are drawn back to stare at him. The nostrils twitch and flutter. Sherlock knows they are breathing in his and Redbeard’s scent. He can smell the water horse, too, all fish and high ocean tide.

  It doesn’t smell anything like the blonde mare, who was rotting flesh incarnate. Something wrong, wrong, wrong.

  And it doesn’t smell anything like Redbeard, who smells like hay and grain and home.

  There are scratches over the glass and dents over the side of the watch face. The band is leather, and recently mended by the buckle, to be shortened.

  Alarmed, though satisfied, Sherlock sits back, giving more rein to Redbeard to let the stallion relax. It doesn't work. Redbeard whines, and seems to regret it when the capall whines back, higher pitched, and deadly. A mockery - a blue jay crying danger.

  “You’ve come from the mainland, I presume.” Sherlock says, by way of diffusing the tension. Watson returns his hand to the reins, pulling them tight. The capall stops shuddering and whining. Its ears are pricked, and alert. It’s still facing forward, feigning disinterest. “You were a veterinarian there. Can't much do that now, not with that shaking.”

  Watson’s gaze doesn’t flicker, doesn’t glimmer away, he's unbothered by Sherlock’s deduction. It must be common knowledge that Watson doesn’t hail from Thisby. Sherlock’s getting slow, he can almost hear Mycroft’s tauntings in his ear while he watches the water horse arch its neck back, like a rattlesnake.

  He imagines grand crystal chandeliers plummeting to the ground of a mansion’s tiled flooring. Mycroft, somewhere, sits behind a mahogany desk, prim and proper. He smirks, and his hands are folded on the wood before him. We both thought you were stupid. Before we met the others .

  Fine. He’ll just have to go deeper.

  “I’d say… twenty years ago? Judging by the model and the wear that the salt’s had on it,” Sherlock begins to speak quickly, reaching down to rub soothing circles in Redbeard’s quivering shoulder, “The watch was gifted from your elder brother, which was given to him by your late father. It was originally a pocket watch, but your brother had the face removed and the band attached, very common, an adaption of generational gifts across said generations. Your brother was a man of untidy habits - very untidy, and careless. He was left with good prospects, but threw away his chances, lived for sometime in poverty, and finally, taking the drink, he died. With nothing, you moved here.”

  Watson’s eyebrows climb. “How on earth did you know that?” He asks in astonishment. The water horse makes a slow clucking sound. It’s exactly like Sherlock heard in the fog, that day they found the sheep’s corpse, just slightly quieter. He wouldn’t say tame , because no water horse is. Perhaps… perhaps more docile , is the word. But that can’t be right, either.

  Smothered. Quelled. Subdued, only by the man upon its high back.

   "I began by stating that your brother was careless. When you observe the lower part of that watch face, you notice that it is not only dented in two places but it is cut and marked all over from the habit of keeping other hard objects, such as coins or keys, in the same pocket, when it was only a pocket watch. Surely it is no great feat to assume that a man who treats an expensive watch so cavalierly must be a careless man. Neither is it a very far-fetched inference that a man who inherits one article of such value is pretty well provided for in other respects.” Sherlock pops the last syllable.

  The water horse raises its head, opening its mouth to reveal long harrowed teeth, and Sherlock thinks it’s going to scream, but, without even looking, Watson lashes the reins against its slick neck, and the water hose tips its neck back again, quelled. Watson is focused on Sherlock. With him holding something so powerful so easily, Sherlock resolves not to lose the rider’s attentions. The wind sings around them, playing up the capall’s fishy scent.

  “The next bit’s easy, you know it already,” Sherlock raises a hand, slowly, to not draw the water horse’s attention like he has Wat son’s. He points at the watch face.

  “The engraving?” Watson ventures, glancing down and then up again.

  Sherlock smiles, “The model is fifty years old, a mainland model, the engraving as old as that. So, it was made for the last generation. Jewellery usually descends to the eldest son, even here, and he is most likely to have the same name as the father. Your father has been dead for many years. It has, therefore, been in the hands of your eldest brother, whose death was the reason you relocated here.

  “There’s a multitude of scratches around the side of the watch, and I couldn’t see because of the wristband, but I assume that’s where your brother would’ve used the key to turn the pocket watch when the time went wrong, but he couldn’t fit it in - his hands were shaking. Drunk. You’ve no need for the key because the watch is broken, water damage, no doubt, and the hands are forever stuck at seven-thirty-five. You still wear it. Sentiment. Further evidence it’s an heirloom.”

  Watson blinks.

  And then he scowls.

  “You’ve asked around about me, haven’t you?”

  It’s Sherlock’s turn to look surprised. “No. I observed.”

  “You got all of that from my watch?”

  Sherlock shrugs.

  “That's brilliant.”

  Sherlock blinks, so shocked he can't speak for the next five seconds. When he does, he mutters, “That’s not what people usually say.”

  Watson laughs. Laughs! At him! How strange! It's powerful and strangely enchanting, like November magic. “What do they normally say?”

  “Piss off.”

  Watson’s shoulders bunch up and shudder with laughter, hidden under his breath. Sherlock purses his lips, and continues his work at scratching Redbeard’s shoulder to calm his stallion down.

  He looks up, and his eyes are caught on the capall’s . Square pupils peer back at him, not centered on Redbeard. He draws in a breath, “I’d appreciate if you could move your horse.”

  Watson looks at the horse’s long, thin ears, and then reaches forward with his almighty grin, and twists one back, so hard it must hurt. Sherlock nearly winces in phantom pain. The water horse does nothing, doesn’t even make a noise.

  “He’s not going to hurt you.”

  “That may be the case,” Sherlock rebuffs, “But my horse thinks otherwise. Move him, please.”

  Watson nods. It’s the same terse thing that Sherlock saw him do back at the beach, with the blonde mare, to the man with the black hair that had pulled Sherlock away from the danger.

  The water horse jerks forward, barely lifting a knee before it’s ten feet away. Redbeard is still as a statue, only his ears twitch at the increased distance.

  With no more wind to steal the sound on the island, Sherlock looks back over to Watson, who is regarding him, half of him hidden by the long snake-like neck of the water horse.

  Sherlock can see its face now, truly and clearly, with no shredded mist or fog or wind. Its long nostrils contract, and it twists its head one way, rubbing its black muzzle its dark chest, some kind of a scratch. It looks less like a champion when it does this.

  “I’m John Watson.”

  “I’m aware,” Sherlock says.

  Watson looks down. The capall looks down as well, suddenly studying its own crystalline hooves. Sherlock has a feeling this is merely a diversion, a distraction before the water horse would strike, if it didn’t have a rider controlling it. It may still lunge, even with Watson on its back.

  “And you’re Sherlock Holmes.”

  Sherlock is twisting his fingers in Redbeard’s rust-red mane, “Yes.”

  “I asked about you , you know.”

  “Did you, now?”

  “Yeah,” Now Watson’s smiling, squinting against the light. It almost looks fake, “After the beaches. Heard Philip Anderson scribed your name on a sea wish last night,” His voice hardens, then softens again, “Saw your articles in the catalogs that used to go to the mainland.”

  Sherlock fiddles with an imaginary speck of dust in Redbeard’s mane, then steals a look at Watson again. He smiles proudly, his mind explicitly ignoring Anderson’s name. “And… what did you think?”

  When he looks up, John-- Watson’s got a certain look to his face that makes Sherlock want to pull Redbeard away immediately. He considers it. It would do Redbeard good, wouldn’t it? And it’d get Sherlock away from the man who keeps somehow insulting him.

  “You said you could tell a mainland horse monger by his tie, and an airline pilot by his left thumb.” The water horse’s neck arches back again, once more the proud, champion stallion. It looks like he’s showing off. But for who, or what?

  “Yes.” That’s a particularly old issue, one of the first Sherlock wrote. His personal favorite was categorizing over 240 types of tobacco ash. How far back did Watson look into him? Did he see the tobacco one?

  “How?”

  Sherlock smirks, “The same way I can read your life off your leg, and your brother’s drinking habits off of your watch…”

  “My leg?”

  “Last year you had an injury in the Races, and you limp, but not when you're in immediate danger,” The correlation between limping at not-limping is only fully realized when Sherlock says this, “And the way in which you stand, and sit up in the saddle, like you have forgotten about it. It's psychosomatic.”

  He turns away, just for a moment, and towards the direction Watson had originally approached from. He pulls up a mental map of the island. Hm.

  The mill’s that way. So’s the Stockyard. Watson must’ve come from there. This must be where he rides his water horse in preparation for the Races. It isn’t a bad spot. There’s light right now and less wind than on the side Sherlock is most often on.

  “Why are you training?” Watson’s voice hits him, and Sherlock turns his head to stare back at him.

  Again, again with the questions! Apparently, his participation in the Races has triggered the let’s-question-Sherlock-till-we-faint disease across Thisby! Molly, and, and, and Janine Hawkins at her bloody tavern, and Irene's stupid lipsticked face at the rider’s parade last night! And now Watson!

  Sherlock sets his jaw. “I'm racing.”

  “You haven’t a horse to race with.”

  All forms of relaxation born when Watson laughed are gone. Sherlock is nearly trembling with anger. His hands, white-knuckled and clutching the leather reins so hard that the folds cut into his palms, are shaking. He purposefully lowers them to the horn of the saddle so Watson won't see.

  But the capall does. It turns its head to one side to regard him with one eye, like a bird.

  “I’ve Redbeard,” Sherlock says, staring right back at the wet eye. “I can’t switch mounts.”

  Watson is thinking over the validity of this answer, Sherlock can see it on his face. It's stupid, Sherlock thinks, how the sun catches in the sandy and silver streaks in Watson’s hair.

  It's terrifying, Sherlock thinks, how the same sun showcases the permanent layer of salt and grease over the black capall’s white mane.

  “Ah, Holmes,” He says, “You tempt fate. An island pony won't last a second in the Races.”

  “He's seventeen hands.”

  “Your little pony?”

  “Horse,” Sherlock says, clipped, to Watson’s lopsided grin, “He's seventeen hands.”

  “And,” Watson says, pulling the water horse aside so Sherlock can see the whole of him, every toned muscle and ebony hair on him, “Gladstone here is thirty four. Your Redbeard’s a pony to him and I.”

  “My Redbeard’s a meal to your Gladstone.”

  Watson tips his head to the side, an imitation of a nod. “I believe he's actually showing off, today. He must like your Redbeard.”

   “Quaint.”

  There's a sort of indiffusible tension, sparking and crackling in the air between the pair of them. It’s born of short answers and unasked questions, curiosity. Gladstone, the great black water horse Watson sits on, is still looking at Sherlock, wispy white forelock twitching as his long ears do. It - he , Sherlock supposes - doesn't even glance to Redbeard. Redbeard, who is still shaking like he's under threat. He may very well be.

   “Allow me to show you a real horse.”

  Sherlock jerks his chin towards where Watson is. “I can see one.”

  “No,” Watson says, with a shake of his head that Gladstone mimicks, mane tossing, “Not him. You need to see what you're actually up against.”

  Sherlock scoffs. “You've won the Races the last five years. You're the one to beat, as Father Stamford’s told me.”

  “Ah, Mike. That’s kind of him to say. He helped me quite a lot, when I came here,” Watson looks away, into the wind, which throws his hair. Gladstone continues to stare. Watson’s eyes search and find Sherlock’s again. “The others aren't like Gladstone.”

  “Obviously,” Sherlock says, and then feels embarrassed, because this is the line Hope went after him for, at the festival. He goes on without much pause, “Or some other idiot would've won.” Sherlock gestures vaguely with one hand. Gladstone’s eyes snap to the movement, the stallion stills instantly, his long ears whip back. Sherlock's breath catches, and he slowly lowers the hand to hold the reins again.

  He forgets, sometimes, just how predatory these things are. How they're attracted to movement, how they will chase something, but only if it runs, only if they're made to work for it, to feel the thrill of tearing something apart.

  Sherlock can relate to the capaill, this way. The thrum of the chase flooding through his veins and muscles. The symbolic tearing apart of people’s lives. But he'd prefer not to be on the other side of either assault.

  “I trust Gladstone more than the rest of them. I shouldn't trust him at all.”

  “For god’s sake…” Sherlock rolls his eyes.

  Watson looks pressed. Gladstone’s eyes twitch. “No, Holmes, you don't understand.”

  “Given how I was nearly killed by the mare on the beach, I think I do.”

  Watson is silent. Until he isn't. “Lestrade’s got that wicked grey. Comfort. Unconquerable.”

  “You've managed.”

  “Only because Comfort’s sea-mad. He lost her three years ago, she's just come up this autumn again.”

  “Alright…”

  “Bill - Bill Murray, that is - he’s racing Bascombe. She always goes towards the shoreline. Isaac Whitney’s got Altum. He’s slower, but he runs mostly straight.”

  Sherlock squints against the returning wind. He hums thoughtfully.

  He could use this edge, that Watson is giving him. But that leaves more questions in its wake.

  Sherlock goes with the most obvious one. “Why are you telling me this?” He asks, now tasting the salt in the strengthening wind. He wonders if, perhaps, a storm is on its way.

  “Because Comfort’s going to be the one to kill you.”

  “Not you?”

  Watson laughs again. It's less impressed amusement, and more of a grim thing. “No, not me. Not on purpose, at the very least.”

  Sherlock sighs. “What about that blonde mare? The one from the beach?”

   “Moriarty’s looking into buying her, from that Magnussen. Magnussen’s already calling her Mary, after the Virgin Mary. Isn't it funny?”

  “Hilarious.”

  “If he does buy her,” Watson goes on, sitting back on Gladstone, broadening his shoulders, and looking like all the world is there for his taking, “I’m making sure she won't ever be waterfront after this year. She's already killed two men down there.”

  “Magnussen is racing her,” Sherlock points out, remembering Magnussen’s voice at the rider’s parade.

  “This year, yes. Moriarty will be trying to buy her after the Races. That is,” Watson drops his voice, “If she hasn't killed everyone and gone into the sea again.” A pause. Sherlock watches a seabird fly near the cliffs over past Watson's shoulder. "I could show you a real horse. Gladstone doesn't do them justice."

  Sherlock’s interest spikes. Gladstone isn't a good representation? And does Watson truly believe Mary capable of that? He pulls on Redbeard’s reins, to remind the stallion that he's remained here. Redbeard, evidently more comfortable, jerks his head back and then swings his face to shove his nose against Sherlock’s boot.

  Sherlock nudges him back, because he doesn't look anything like a racer when he's doing this. He lifts his foot a bit away from Redbeard's side, anyways, just in case it was uncomfortable for the horse.

  Gladstone doesn't react. He's still staring at Sherlock. Apparently, Sherlock’s more interesting. He doesn't know if he likes being interesting in a situation like this.

  “Fine,” Sherlock says, “Show me a real horse.”

 

Chapter Text

Some come from the water’s edge, helped along by high tide. Some from the undersea caverns, all wide eyes and fright. Some come from the deep sea, with strings of green kelp dangling from their glowing manes.

  Some are light, like the chalk and the grey gravel. White, unearthly, like they should be floating somewhere high above the earth and the cliffs. Some are dark like wet sand, with heavily lidded eyes. Others are black as the night, dredged up in storms and in the dark.

  But they all want blood.

  Sherlock wonders where Gladstone has come from. He knows where Redbeard is from. Some old owner on the west side of Thisby sold him to Sherlock’s family years ago, when Sherlock was little.

  Gladstone is a mystery. Gladstone isn't giving up his secrets. No water horse does.

  “Did I get anything wrong?” Sherlock asks. His voice is loud, meant to carry across the ten meters between him and Watson. They are side by side, but far apart. Redbeard is tense under the saddle. He ambles along, nonetheless. Evidently more relaxed, less stressed. Gladstone seems happy to move, to not be idle. He keeps veering closer to the cliffsides, to the sea. Watson keeps him in constant check.

 “Harry was a drunk, and the reason I moved here. I'm from the mainland, where I used to be a veterinarian...” Watson answers.

  “Hm,” Sherlock hums, and doubts Watson can hear that, so he instead raises his voice to call back, “Spot on, then. I didn't expect to get everything right.” Harry Watson. H.W. It fits the letters on the watch.

  “And Harry’s short for Harriet.”

  Sherlock pulls on Redbeard’s reins. The horse throws his head back, but stops in his tracks. “Harry’s your sister. H. W. The engraving…”

  “Still fits, doesn't it? Hamish was my father’s name. ‘Harriet’ worked for the watch face. She got it fit to be a wristwatch, instead of a pocket one.”

  Sherlock grimaces, kicking Redbeard into movement again. The horse trots to cover the ground Sherlock’s lost to Watson. Furiously, through gritted teeth, he hisses, “ Sister! ” To himself.

  Watson evidently sees the anger on his face, because he laughs.

  It throws them both into the quiet again.

  Harriet. Harriet. Harriet!

  Once Sherlock’s calmed some, he clears his throat. One of Redbeard’s ears swivels back to catch the sound.

  “Mary will be there?”  

  Watson looks over, squints against the autumn sun, and then shakes his head. “No. Moriarty’s not bought her. Yet. I'm fairly certain he will. You mustn't tell him this,” Watson adds, kicking Gladstone’s sides with his heels when the stallion starts to lift his knees high, “But I don't believe he should.”

  Sherlock smirks, “I've no intention of speaking to him.”

  “That might be for the best. He's very... changeable.”

  “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

  He blinks. Did he just joke?

  Watson laughs.

  Sherlock doesn't think about it anymore. It wasn't a mistake, not if Watson laughed.

  “No,” Watson grins, and the sun is suddenly much too hot on the back of Sherlock’s ears, “It isn't a bad thing, all on it’s own. After all, the ocean changes. And that's a good thing.”

  “The ocean doesn't change.”

  “Yeah? The tides and the currents and the waves. Those things change.”

  Sherlock rolls his eyes, “Not on their own. There's-- there's the pull of gravity of the moon for the tides, the wind and currents for the waves, and--”

  “Alright, alright, genius!” Watson laughs again, and Gladstone snorts along with him, spraying seawater from his thin nostrils. “Ta, yeah. I understand. The ocean doesn't change on its own. But it does change. Can we agree?”

  Sherlock nods. He's not satisfied, no, but, he will reluctantly surrender. This time. The next debate, Watson won't get off this lucky. It's just… the sun. The sun is putting him in a mood, as fair as the day.

  Sherlock casts a quick glance to the sky; a dimpled quilt of clouds hides the sun, and below it, smaller clouds race by, hurrying to get on their way. The day is no longer clear. Watson is looking at the sky, as well. Gladstone clucks.

  On the crest of the horizon, the roofs of barns and stables emerge. The smell of good manure is pushed to him by the wind. Gladstone’s ears prick up, and even Redbeard’s do, in interest.

  Watson drops off into silence, and Sherlock happily follows suit. He’s glad Mary won’t be at the stables. He doesn’t think he could look the mare into the eye. And that would be taken as submission, and his throat would be ripped open.

  He has no doubt she’d kill him.

  The rest of the ride is not punctuated by anything more than the breeze, stronger here, and the thwaps of Redbeard’s shoed hooves striking the ground. What’s unnerving, however, is that Gladstone’s make no noise. They fall as soft as a feather, but are twice as big as dinner plates.

 

-/-

  

They turn out Redbeard into an empty corral, still tacked up. Watson says they won’t be here very long, but Sherlock removes his bridle and bit nevertheless. He closes the gate. The stallion seems to despise this. He knocks his head against the panels. Sherlock’s heart aches. He does not show it.

  Another thing he does not show, are his nerves. He feels flayed bare, and unfamiliar in this place. It’s uncharted, to him. He’s ridden past the far fences, which they passed a quarter of an hour ago, but never come in here. Never needed to, or wanted to.

  He reads small stories off of chunks taken out of the grass he walks on - a stubborn horse who wouldn’t move, and an inexperienced stable hand trying to pull on the lead very hard - and on the white fence posts. There are well-defined, hard-packed paths that look almost like game trails. The wind blows faintly, merely a breeze. It’s a very good location for such a large Stockyard, perhaps the best place for it on the island.

  Watson, dismounted, leads the great black horse into the biggest stable Sherlock can see. It’s one of four, they’re all spread out as far as Sherlock can see on Thisby’s flatlands and plains, with many square acres of fencing between them. Sport horses are ambling around inside paddocks. Near the stable they walk towards, Sherlock spies a pair of bay mares quizzically trot up to the sturdy, white-painted fence posts (the paint here isn’t chipping).

  They’re close, but not too close. Sherlock can see their arcadian eyes tracking him and Watson and Gladstone.

  “They’re only curious,” Watson says, “You’re a new face.”

  Sherlock hums, and though he wants to, he doesn’t branch away from Watson’s side to greet the mares and let them push their velvety muzzles into his palms. They’re not his horses, not his responsibility, and this isn’t his job.

  He does spot a few stable hands at their posts, some riding horses to get them into shape for the auction, or others leaning against fences and chatting, gesturing occasionally to inside the fencing or laughing when one is bombarded by the breezes.

  Outside the main sliding door, when the clouds part for a moment yet again, Sherlock spies a dark stain. A handprint, brown as the dried blood on the rock at the rider’s parade, and unable to be covered by paint, seen only in the right light, just near the door handle.

  It wasn’t always racing, that the capaill uisce were used for.

  They enter the stables, and Gladstone’s hoofbeats become far more pronounced on the unswept cement. Walking to the end of the stable (which must be twenty long on either side, every stall full, how grand), Sherlock’s eyes peer between the bars and the half-open doors. Some sport horses stick their heads out and regard him and Watson’s passage.

  Others, much larger, and much more like the water horse in Watson’s hold, do not look at him, do not see him, do nothing but rumble lowly from the corner of their stalls, something that vibrates the flooring, and rub their manes off on the side of the iron bars of their door. Their door, which is never open, always locked.

  One does this, and shrieks as Sherlock walks by, making Sherlock leap away as it viciously clacks and rattles its teeth together.

  “That’s Beryl... She’s a screamer,” Watson laughs, and Sherlock snaps his head to glare at the blond rider in time to catch an overly enthusiastic wink.

  Sherlock looks away, and attributes the warmth in his face to feeling like there’s a capall breathing down his neck. There’s not. Gladstone and Watson are in front of him, he lingers to the side and behind, taking it all in. Sherlock shoots a glare towards Beryl’s stall. There aren’t many water horses.

   After all, the Stockyard makes its money from the annual auctions. And water horses are not to be sold anywhere but on Thisby, not to be kept anywhere but here.

   “Why?” Sherlock asks, looking to Mycroft. His brother, fourteen, has the low-hung shoulders of someone under heavy burdens.

  “It’s illegal.”

  “But why?”

  “They are killers, brother mine. It’s illegal.”

  “There’s got to be another reason.”

  Mycroft looks at him. Then he tips his head back, pushing out a long sigh. “You’ve always been one for folklore, and not for the law.”

  Sherlock only looks at him, and soon enough, Mycroft fades away.

  “Holmes?”

  Startled, Sherlock blinks, finally seeing instead of disassociating himself from the current world. There’s a pair of small foals in the stall before him, one lying in the straw bedding and the other peering up at him through the grill. It’s too short to poke its narrow head up through the bars properly. They are both roan.

  He clears his throat, looking to the voice that spoke. Watson is staring at him. He hopes, suddenly, he didn’t seem too stupid, or stupid at all. He pinches his lips together.

  Watson glances away from him, and Sherlock then does believe that he looked stupid. He grits his teeth, feels his molars press together in irritation, directed at only himself.

  Watson’s putting Gladstone into the last stall. Sherlock catches up with the pair of them, ignoring the confused stare of a low-ranking (obviously) stable boy mucking out an island pony’s stall. It’s a potent reminder that he’s not actually supposed to be here. The aroma of decay strengthens and weakens in some spots, corresponding to what sort of horse, island or water, is in any given stall.

  Sherlock sniffs, pausing several feet away from Gladstone and Watson. Watson spits to his hooves, suddenly, and Gladstone’s abnormal ears drop back. He shies away from Watson as the man goads Gladstone into the wood stalling. Sherlock takes in the vague patterning of rust on the grill bars.

  “Those aren’t iron?” He wonders aloud, clasping his hands behind his back.

  Gladstone turns in the stall, pressing his nose against the little open window. It’s a plain view of another stable, and the wind is blocked by the broad of the other barn. Must be useful, to keep the majority of the scent of the sea away from this horse.

  Watson slides the door closed, and then latches it in the two places required for keeping water horses. The stable is filled with the soft sounds that ordinary horses make. The crunch of good hay, the wisping brush of tail on hind leg to nudge away flies.

  It’s also filled with the spine-tingling sounds that the water horses make. The constant grate of rocky hooves on cement, pawing at the flooring. The sinister huff of breaths, combined with low growls that keen upward at the end.

  “Nope,” Watson says, patting the stall door and then taking a step back to make sure it’s all fixed in place. “Not iron.”

  “The rest of the bars are. Even the ones for sport horses.”

  “Gladstone’s not fond of iron.”

  Sherlock recalls what the black-haired man said on the beach. ‘Thought you didn’t do charms, John.’

   “I am sure none of them like it. But. It’s. Doesn’t it… help? Keeps them from tearing your throat out. Or charging into the ocean.”

  “You don't know much about the water horses, do you?”

  Sherlock frowns.

  “Each one is different. If I used charms on Gladstone, he'd only fight. If I didn't use them on a horse like, say, Beryl, the dun back there, she'd kill me.”

  Watson presses his face close to the bars, and spits again. Gladstone makes an unnatural sound, something strained, yet… broken. Broken-in, that is. Tamed. Almost. But not quite… Sherlock’s frown becomes a grimace.

  “Why are you doing that?” He demands.

  Watson grins. Even in the strange not-light of the stables, from the suspended lights up above and the small amount of light that the clouds covering the sun allow, it’s otherworldly. In the stall, Gladstone bares his teeth, and scrapes them on the wood by the window, splintering it. It’s littered with older teeth marks and dark smears. “Doing what?”

  “The spitting!” Sherlock exclaims.

  “Ah, that.”

  Yes, that . Now, Watson has to answer the question!

  “You ask a lot of questions.”

  “And you don't answer any of them well.”

  “Well,” Watson begins, and then there’s a long pause. He leans close to the grill bars, though he’s cleverly keeping his fingers away from gaps between them. “Spit. Salt. It’s a part of me, it’s a way for me to be somewhere. When the rest of me can’t be.”

  Sherlock remembers Watson calming Mary, the blonde mare who killed a dog a ripped off someone’s fingers down on the beach. What makes his saliva so special that this massive, tremendous beast of a horse is quelled, just by it being near him? What makes Watson so special?

  Why has Thisby taken such a liking to him?

  Sherlock is petulant about this. Everything about Watson makes him this way - fuzzy, confused. Some underlying emotion that he can’t name, and blegh. It’s fascinating, and terrible, both at once. The island will buck off anyone, won’t care if people born to its soil live or if they die. But Watson seems… gifted. And he’s from the mainland.

   ‘He’s got one foot in the ocean and one on the land. No one knows the water horses better than him,’ Comes Father Stamford’s voice. Stamford had seemed so sure that the only living thing that knew more about the capaill than the capaill themselves, was Watson. Yet. He doesn’t use charms. Perhaps… it’s because of that?

  No. That’s stupid. Islands don’t have feelings, don’t have thoughts or preferences.

  (That’s his objective opinion. Subjectively, there has always been something offbeat about Thisby, a vibration under his feet, the wind cajoling him into doing things his mother would never, to run to the cliffs, to the beach, to the water.)

  Watson fiddles with the second latch. Gladstone pushes his face up against the grill bars. Sherlock discovers he needs a shark’s nerve to remain standing still.

  “Tell me why you’re racing…?” Watson ventures, finally looking at Sherlock again.

  For some ungodly reason, this question slides beneath Sherlock’s skin, combining and mixing in with his jealously about Thisby liking Watson. It heats his face and makes him cross. He reins in the urge to bare his teeth like Gladstone is currently doing (the difference is that the water horse can sense the tension rattling off Sherlock, and is breathing heavily in his lust for it, whereas Sherlock is only vexed).

  “Do you think I just go turning out my secrets for everyone?” Sherlock demands, incredulous.

  Watson blinks, unfazed. It grates upon Sherlock. “I didn’t know they were secrets,” Watson says, “Or I wouldn’t have asked.”

 The honesty in the answer both disturbs and annoys Sherlock. He frowns further, ever more perturbed when Watson smiles at that.

  “Tell me why you’re racing,” He says, because if Watson’s going to intrude, then he can, too.

  Watson looks at him. Somewhere behind Sherlock, the stable hand who’d been mucking stalls is wheeling a squeaking wheelbarrow out of the stables. They are alone. Save for around forty horses, still creating the juxtaposition between the predator and prey sounds.

  “Why don’t you tell me?” Watson smiles.

  “For eleven months of the year, you work for Moriarty, make yourself valuable, and for one month a year, you make yourself invaluable, ” Sherlock observes. He glances over his shoulder to watch the stable hand with the wheelbarrow leave through the open sliding door.

  Sherlock looks back, and watches Watson spit into the stall again. He does not grasp the idea of the spitting, still, even if Watson’s explained it to him. Gladstone bobs his head, making a low sound that reminds Sherlock of a sickly kitten.

  Sherlock narrows his eyes. “He's not… That stallion isn't yours.”

  “Course not,” Watson says. His tone does not leave room for a reply, and he goes on, “I work for the Stockyard. Moriarty’s Stockyard. And… Gladstone belongs to the Stockyard.”

  “You've tried to buy him. You want to. Moriarty doesn’t want to sell.”

  When Watson laughs, Sherlock shies away. It's no longer brilliant and sunny. It's bitter. His irritation disappears. He wants Watson’s voice to return to normal.

  “Five time winner of the great, world-renowned Scorpio Races, of course he doesn't want to sell him to me.”

  “Gladstone isn't the five time winner. You are,” Sherlock points out. He doesn't comment on the ‘world renowned’ part.

  Somewhere, in the stables, a capall is knocking its head against the wall, a soft, yet eerie beat. An island mare whinnies nervously nearby. Sherlock’s unsure of how the island ponies can handle being surrounded with water horses.

  “I'm not the one who’s running.” Watson pauses, and then spits into the stall. Gladstone grunts, then keens lowly, ducking his head in submission. It bobs back up, and then back down again.

  “You ride him in the Races, don't you?”

  “I receive eight percent of the first place purse, every time I win. I get paid to work here. I'm a consultant for the mainlanders who want to buy sport horses at the annual auction. I’m not cheap to keep,” Watson says. He spits again. Gladstone bobs his great head again in return. “I've offered Moriarty five times more than he's worth. But, ultimately, it's not my decision whether or not I can buy him.”

  Five times what a five-time-champion of the Races is worth? That could buy Mrs Hudson’s house. That could pay Anderson. That could get Sherlock to the mainland.

  Footsteps echo in the stables. Expensive shoes on hay-strewn cement.

  Sherlock looks over his shoulder.

  A man in a pressed suit, dark, slicked back hair and a strange something in his deep eyes is walking alongside some bumbling but content tourist, with a small cleft to his chin (not as appealing - no, not appealing… not as nice as Watson’s) and hooded eyes. Sherlock sniffs. Hm. Nope. Not a tourist, Sherlock can tell from his tie, the bit he can see before it’s tucked into his waistcoat. Horse monger. Wealthy, from the mainland. It’s rather early for someone like this to be on Thisby. These are separate from the ones that watch the Races, or even participate. They are here for Moriarty, and Moriarty only.

  Moriarty is the man beside him. His hands are tucked into his trouser pockets, and his body language says he’s easy-going, and accessible. Someone that someone else would like to talk to. Sherlock sees the line of his underwear peeking out from his trousers. Smells his overbearing cologne. Makes his deductions. Scowls.

  Watson tenses somewhat beside him. Sherlock hears him spit, hears Gladstone grunt.

  “Ah, John,” Drawls a nearly unfamiliar accent. It’s a northern mainland one. Of course. Moriarty lived on the mainland, once upon a time.

  It’s very peculiar, how Sherlock knows about Moriarty but he doesn’t know him. He knows he used to ride horses and own them on the mainland, but he doesn’t know why he doesn’t ride them anymore. He knows he owns half the island, but not which half.

  The pair of them grow closer. The monger has a light peppering of stubble over his face. From his breast pocket, Sherlock spies a stained handkerchief, with a familiar address half-obscured from liquid upon it. He looks back up to the monger’s face. He has small lips, light eyes, and something smeared on the side of his mouth. A few old, tiny pockmarked scars on his forehead. Nicotine stains lining his fingernails.

  “Mister Moriarty,” Watson greets back. His voice has a slightly different tinge than a moment ago. He’s slipped into a professional voice, a customer voice. Naturally. Watson is the product most horse mongers are here to buy. He’s the one whose advice is sought, the one whose opinion is held to impossible standards. “What can I do for you today?”

  “I’ve a good man named Henry Knight, looking at my horses. Mister Knight, this is John Watson, our resident champion. And,” Moriarty’s eyes fall upon Sherlock, and then flick back up to Knight, “One of his stable boys.”

  A nerve is struck..

  He’s very clearly not a stable hand, from the way he’s dressed to nearly everything else about him.

  (He pays no mind about what that last bit reveals, his stable boys, meaning Watson is very much at the top of the food chain, here at the Stockyard.)

  “Mister Knight,” Sherlock smiles sickeningly, sticking out his hand. Knight smiles, takes it, shakes, as if he were someone important enough to seriously be introducing himself to this wealthy monger. “I see you’ve only come in this morning. Ferry ride breakfasts are always so disappointing, aren’t they? And it really is a pity they don’t allow you to smoke, I know I’ve been inconvenienced dozens of times, and you’re just dying for a cigarette, aren’t you?” Sherlock drops Knight’s hands and reaches into his own pocket, removing a half-empty, smushed carton, then offering a smoke to Knight, who since has lost his smile, but, with a perplexed look, takes the cigarette anyways. “Sherlock Holmes.”

  Watson shifts, nearly imperceptibly, behind him. It’s not his place to speak, not his property, not even his job that has him here. He is, quite literally, something Watson dragged in. Knight sticks the cigarette between thin lips, and manages a nearly empty package of matches from his waistcoat breast pocket. Sherlock catches the imprint of a pocket watch as he replaces the package again, taking a drag.

  Moriarty grins over at Knight and then at Sherlock, false memory and realization suddenly in his eyes. “Of course! Mister Holmes. I’m quite a big fan of yours! All those articles, so clever, so fun…” The tip of Knight’s cigarette glows. Heavenly smoke fills the air.

  Sherlock blinks. He hadn’t… he hadn’t known Moriarty was aware of his articles. Clearly, it’s a cover, he doesn’t want to seem rude or harsh in front of Knight, someone who will be buying horses. By the look of him, he’s quite rich.  

  Watson is at his side, and then in front of him, crossing the scant distance between him and the two men, and simultaneously forcing Sherlock back, lest Sherlock end up flush behind him. He takes a step back.

  “Mister Knight, it’s a grand pleasure to meet you.” Watson flashes him such a big smile, something that appears so sincere, that Sherlock has to hold himself still.

  Knight has big ears, Sherlock notes with a tinge of irritation, ears that stick out from his short hair. No doubt Watson’s noticed.

  “And you, John,” Knight pulls the smoke out from between his teeth, “I-- that is to say, Mister Watson…” Knight begins.

  Watson laughs. A slight tilt of Moriarty’s head says it’s all planned. “Oh, no, please, call me John.”

  Knight extends his free hand. Watson takes it. “Henry,” Knight says. With. A polite smile.

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock excuses himself.

  He feels three kinds of gazes on him when he goes.

  One. The confusion of Henry Knight.

  Two. The fire of Moriarty, burning twin holes in his back. It’s something wicked, something that he can feel through his clothing, a little too like the stare of his brother. Moriarty, he realizes, may be properly clever.

  Three. The disappointment of Watson.

  It’s only after Sherlock arrives home, that he realizes he didn’t even see what Watson wanted to show him - a real horse.

 

-/-

 

  “ No, you aren't listening! ” Sherlock shouts into the dull quiet. He reclines so far back on his flour-caked stool that it may tip, that is, until his shoulders hit the wall and he can lean properly. He crosses his arms and tucks his chin against his neck.

  “I am listening, Sherlock,” Molly snaps back, up to the elbow in dough. Archie is sprinkling flour into the large mixing bowl every few kneads, “You just aren't making proper sense!”

  “I am!”

  “You're not!”

  The sound of a bell. The front door’s been opened.

  Molly sighs. “Archie, could you get that?” She asks. Archie nods and exits the back of the bakery through the swinging doors. Molly goes on kneading. “You're telling me that John Watson brought you to the Yard? As a way of preparing for the Races?”

  “I don't know what it was for, ” Sherlock clarifies, “I only know that it happened. He brought Redbeard and I to the Stockyard, and I witnessed Moriarty in the middle of showing a mainland monger around. The event was altogether quite unremarkable.”

  “Sherlock,” Molly sighs, the sound as quiet as the folds of sugar dough, “If it was unremarkable, you wouldn't be here trying to talk to me about it, would you?”

  Sherlock scrunches up his nose. The front door bell chimes again, and a few heartbeats later, Archie comes back through the doors. He picks up his paper bag of flour and continues spotting Molly’s work with it, so the sticky dough will be easier to work with. Sherlock knows it gets difficult because he's done that job for Molly before.

  He does that when the rest of the island gets too boring. Which is very often. He's mainly taken over the back of the bakery. He's managed to make Molly believe he needs the space. It was easy, because the woman likes him much more than she likes to admit.

  “Is John Watson the winner from last year?” Archie asks to the silence. He sprinkles more flour.

  Molly answers, “Yes. He's the one who got knocked off at the end.”

  Sherlock perks up. He stops leaning on the wall, sits up straight instead. He brushes off his shoulders, because there's no doubt there's white marks on them. “Knocked off…?” He ventures.

  “I thought you read the race reports,” Molly says. The front door bell chimes. Archie sets the bag down and goes to answer it. Molly only looks over her shoulder after him before going back to work. Her ponytail slips over her neck.

 Sherlock returns them to the topic, “Only when I hear that they are interesting.”

  “So, you don't know what happened?”

  “Mrs Hudson told me someone was hurt after the conclusion of the Races last year. And that that person was a five-time champion.”

  “It was Watson. You know, the man you spent the evening with?”

  That makes it sound far less innocent. Sherlock crosses his arms again, eyes the red ovens across the room. Molly should take them out a few minutes earlier than the timer says to, to maximize the cooling time before the after-dinner rush by the tourists to the shops. Sherlock can practically taste the gritty sugar dough from the sweet bread Molly’s working, that's how powerful the scent is.

  “You remember it,” Sherlock states.

  “Yes,” Molly says, finally removing her arms from the cast-iron bowl. She takes a step back and wipes her forehead, slightly sweaty from the work and the heat that the ovens bring to the shop, smearing flour. “I was there.”

  “On the cliffs.”

  “Yeah.”

  “So you didn't really see it.”

  “Oh, for--” Molly crosses to the large aluminum sink beside Sherlock. She flicks flour into his trousers, Sherlock scoffs, and she turns on the tap and sticks her hands under the stream. “Do you want to know what happened, or not?” She works up to the elbows with the hand soap.

  Sherlock works his jaw as he brushes off the flour, “I do.”

  “Then how about you stop being difficult?”

  Sherlock scoffs again. Molly turns off the tap.

  “It was the end of the Races, and Watson finished first. He was bringing that big horse of his around to the side to get out of the way, and someone just--” Molly glances to the swinging door. Archie is busy up front, she shouldn't be worried about him overhearing, “Someone’s water horse barreled right into his. I can't recall whose.”

  The front bell chimes. More people came in. Molly apparently decides that Archie needs help behind the counter out front. She picks up the basket of freshly baked loaves and sweets.

  Sherlock scoots off the stool, a thump when his shoed feet meet the floorboards, and follows her as she leaves the back, slides out behind her and behind the counter. Since he's eager to hear the rest, he helps her load the glass display case and ignores the presence of the man whose mouth is watering, who is paying Archie and holding a greasy paper bag. November cakes. They're hardly warm, Sherlock can't see the appeal,..

  “Watson was knocked off to the sand,” Molly suddenly continues as she crouches beside him and removes the few stale rolls, replaces them with cinnamon swirls, “And he was almost trampled as the rest of the racing horses crossed the finish line. Might've taken a hit or two, I can't remember. Got nipped a bit, but those capaill are always biting anything that moves. He's got a limp now, you know.”

  “I know, ” Sherlock quips. He stands as Molly does. She squeezes past him to put the basket by the back room door.

  “But he's still racing. He's a bit mad, isn't he?”

  Sherlock glances out the front windows as he pulls on his gloves, to the dark. He can see his reflection in the light of the bakery, and the faint outline of Redbeard just outside the door by the riding post and the trough. Tourists pass by on the walk outside the shop, occasionally pointing to something. The smell of bread and cinnamon is in the air.

  “He may be.”

Chapter Text

 

  Sherlock rises early and drags Redbeard from his stall. The stallion puts up a fit. He’s not had a good time of going out lately. Sherlock’s never really brought him outside during November and October before, never had to, never wanted to. He was always scared for the horse’s life, and for his own, because, surely, if Redbeard encountered a water horse, he’d be horrified and leap away from Sherlock.

  The concern has always mostly rested on Redbeard’s life.

  But Sherlock drags him out all the same. The air is chaste and crisp, striking against his face and pinkening his ears. God. How the cold bothers him. It dives beneath his skin and wedges and wiggles there, like bugs.

  Sometimes, he’d feel like that if he were high, scratch at the crook of his arms until they bled. He still has needle-marked scars, and broad scratches, just there. It’s one of the reasons he prefers long sleeves to short ones or rolling them up, why doing so makes him so uncomfortable.

  He could feel when cocaine was dirty, or when a morphine solution was dangerously diluted. The way it raced through his veins too quickly, or chafed just beneath the first layer of his skin.

  Redbeard snorts, and, in his turn, drags Sherlock out of his thoughts.

  They’re ambling alongside the cliff edges. He hadn’t realized that. He wonders if they ran.

  Redbeard isn’t panting. Sherlock dismounts, pulls Redbeard by the reins along the cliffside, and watches the push and pull of the ocean down far below. He imagines what the coastline will be like in two hundred years, when the rocks here crumble and, instead of steep chalk cliffs, Thisby will be made into something entirely flat.

  He screws up his nose as his boots hit the earth, because he doesn’t like the idea.

  There are twelve days until the Races, after today.

  Later, the earth holds a strange power to it. The cracks in the dry ground seem wider, the grasses higher. There is no fog, but the air is as heavy as if there was. Sherlock knows when a water horse is near. He’s known all his life, everyone born to Thisby soil does.

  His heartbeat feels askew, just half a beat off, all day. The wind cuts straight and low across turf made deep, dark green by the clouds pressing overhead. When the gusts blast across Redbeard’s face, strong enough to check his speed, he spooks and shivers. The air stinks of the capaill uisce. Neither of them wants to be here in this night-dark afternoon.

  But he knows they ought to stay. If there is wind or rain on the day of the race, he needs Redbeard to be solid. Not the slippery, jerky animal that he is right now.

  It’s the first time in many years that he’s feared for his own, as well as the stallion’s. Perhaps somewhere, deep and locked and chained down in his mind, his brain has found something interesting, something Sherlock has not yet had a chance to study.

  It doesn’t take all of his genius to figure it out. He hates the answer. The answer thrills him.

  (Why does he miss every warning sign?)

 

-/-

 

  Redbeard’s blood fizzles under the saddle. Sherlock touches his neck, and the horse jumps and whinnies nervously. Sherlock is reminded of the mares and the young fillies and colts at the Stockyard, which reminds him of John Watson, which irks him. He wretches the reins left and pushes his heels into Redbeard’s side, a touch too harshly.

  Redbeard runs, and Sherlock feels him leap and bound with as much energy as a new colt. He may be just as good as one. Horses on Thisby live longer, can run within minutes after birth instead of hours, but tire quicker. Sherlock has always figured it’s the magic, wearing them thin.

  From a scientific point of view, he can't discern what it is, and it constantly makes him cross.

  He kicks Redbeard’s side, and the horse’s stride lengthens, until he is devouring great lengths of the island, and Sherlock must squint against the frigid air.

  He returns in the early evening. His biceps ache, and Redbeard’s legs tremble as if they were made of flimsy seaweed. Josephine snorts in the next stall over. Her stall has been mucked, it’s clear even in the blue wash of dusk. Sherlock scrunches up his nose, because Mrs Hudson really should let him do those things, she’ll throw out her hip again.

  Resolving to clean out Redbeard’s stall tomorrow, to line it with the cheap hay, now useless, Sherlock proceeds into the house.

  Mrs Hudson is downstairs in the kitchen cellar, fumbling around several verdant oranges by the sink. The strings of dried herb bundles dangle precariously over her head, and along all the tops of the walls. There’s too much stuff, and too much tidying. Sherlock sniffs, and makes sure to step on the creaky steps to alert her of his presence. He’s fairly certain she knows he’s here anyway, she’s got that sort of sixth sense all elderly ladies seem to have.

  Mrs Hudson looks at him. She looks upset. Sherlock wonders if she’d found out about the baker from Tholla’s two wives on the mainland. Mm. She’d be more upset at that, wouldn’t she? Of course she would. Sherlock’s eyes dart around the room - paper on the table. Training reports, they’re like the newspapers here. Someone’s died. She couldn’t be troubled over just that, could she? Someone she knew had to die.

  Sherlock takes stock of when he last saw Mrs Turner, and, no, she’s fine, too, because she waved to him just twenty minutes ago, when he passed her sheep farm on Redbeard. He waved back.

  “Training reports…” Sherlock mumbles as he drops off the last wooden step. It creaks after his weight’s left it.

  “Could you believe how bad it is this year, Sherlock? Seven men, dead since the festival…”

  Sherlock says, “Is that counting the man at the festival?”

  “The one who went over the cliffs? Yes, it is, don’t you think it’s horrible?”

  “They're not all riders.”

  “That doesn't make it any less horrid.”

  Sherlock settles at the kitchen table, inhaling the scent of cooked mutton. Really, he wonders how people get by without Mrs Hudson’s cooking in their lives. Not that he’s hungry. “Absolutely appalling,” Sherlock agrees.

  Mrs Hudson whirls on him, and for but a moment, Sherlock fears she’s going to throw something at him, because that’s the sort of look on her face. He leans back in the iron-backed chair.

  “You’re the one who should be concerned with all of this rubbish,” Mrs Hudson announces after a lengthy pause, then turns to smash some plate in the sink and turn on the tap. Her arms work furiously as she washes something with frustrated resolve. “You’re the one who’s-- who’s racing.”

  Ah. No one she knows has died. At least, not anyone majorly important to her. She’s merely fretting over Sherlock’s wellbeing.

  “Precisely,” Sherlock pushes back the chair as he stands, “I’m the one who’s racing,” He rounds the table to stand beside the determined woman, “And you’re not. So,” He leans forward to brush a fleeting, fond kiss to the side of her face, “It’d do your kind heart well to stop worrying.”

 

-/-

  Today, there is a high note in the wind as it hurls sand and salt and reddens Sherlock’s cheeks. It makes Sherlock’s skin itchy and raw. He spends the tired, pale orange morning up and running by the cliffs, the ones where he met Watson and has resolved to train at, then rides to Skarmouth in the afternoon to bother Molly and Archie for a bit, snacking on a light lunch of gifted November cakes before retreating back out to the empty cliffs.

  He stays up on them, racing over the grass and tiring out Redbeard until late afternoon leaves the island colder than usual. Sherlock expects frost to be present in the early morning, soon. Then, he looks down, watching the old ocean pound the beads of gravel below.

  The cliffs here are lower, more grey than the racing beach. The shore is made up of uneven plates of rocks and gravel, with teeth-like rocks sticking out of the shallows that could sink a fishing boat were it being pushed against them. This terrain is no good for riding on, and even with the low tide, there's hardly any room for them to stand. Sherlock watches the water, eyes the breakers for an ear or a head. A beach like this, in local folklore, is said to be haunted by the old water horses that charged into the sea during the Races and never returned, because of how closely the cliffs and the ocean are together. It's supposed to represent how land turns to water and water turns to land, and how the water horses are always caught on the middle ground.

  Sherlock compares this with the racing beach. The other is far longer, sandier, and wider, and the cliffs are more chalk than crumbling grey. Pain lives in the sand, like fiddler crabs. Blood spills soaked into the billions of grains in a single handful. On both sides, the ocean is turbulent, and here, it noisily smacks against the rocks and makes fragments of stone crush together as each wave recedes, another taking its place half a second after eaach.

  Clouds pass overhead. Two days ago, when Watson was up on the cliffs with him, when Sherlock was at the Stockyard and the gigantic Gladstone was an arm’s length away from him, the sun was out. Sherlock was stupid to think the weather would last. Wind tucks under his jacket sleeves, lifting them away from his arms.

  Sherlock risks lifting his eyes from the sea towards the sky, where gulls screech questions from above, gliding on the air that funnels, cut by the cliffs. The guillemots in the rocks of the shore make as raucous cries as the terns nesting in the cliff face. Sherlock smells seaweed and fish and the dusky smell of bird feathers and mites.

  Redbeard snorts, dips his head to the stones.

  Climbing up the narrow, steep path is somewhat easier than trudging down it, as gravity is no longer working against them and trying to tear Redbeard down and fall. Sherlock licks the salt from his lips as he goes. It’s crusted his mouth and eyelashes. The cold presses up against him, like another body. Redbeard’s hooves slip and skitter on the loose pebbles a hundred times in the climb. Sherlock leans forward, towards the stallion’s neck, to ease some of his weight.

  Finally, Redbeard, huffing irritated and gasping breaths through his nostrils, which contract and flare erratically, steps onto the hump of cliff grass that rests over the cliff edge, and pulls the rest of his body up. Sherlock whispers nothings and scratches and rubs the red horse’s neck and shoulders in praise.

  The wind is assaulting them again. Grey clouds roll over high above, like obedient dogs searching for treats. They go quickly, urged along by the rough gusts. There are some hills here, and thinning bushes made meek by the Thisby weather, and scraggly trees, hanging onto the bare edges of the cliffs and feeding off the poor soil. All the fully grown trees were culled off when the first people of Thisby set foot here. It’s why the wood on houses is peeling and splintering and old.

  There’s a large outcropping of rocks a few furlongs away, and smaller mounds scattered around, hazardous, half-hidden by hillocks. It always smells more like fish up here.

  “That can’t possibly be Sherlock Holmes, can it?”

  The voice strikes Sherlock through the blurs of wind rushing past his ears, past his focus on the clouds above, and past his general spacial awareness.

  He turns, finding that Redbeard has already done so, ears pricked and alert, neck high and tense as he watches Watson approach. Redbeard must’ve known they weren’t alone immediately.

  By the edges of the land, where the grass begins to thicken and clot, against the grey and white skies, heavy and hanging with the weight of water, is that great big black capall and its champion rider.

  Gladstone, the black uisce, is inspired by their appearance, it seems; instead of slowing to a walk as Watson approaches, he trots nearly in place, hooves trampling several distinct spots on the island grass, skin shivering with excitement. Watson has a dancing black horse underneath him. Only when the wind from the cliffs tangles through Sherlock’s hair does Gladstone pause to smell. Then he’s back to twisting, ten feet or so away, the distance that politeness demands.

  Sherlock can read the last two days off of him, as if Watson was holding up a neon blinking sign. Spent all of yesterday riding, some bucking horse, because his legs are pressed tight to the side of the water horse to stretch a pulled muscle in the inner thigh. Sherlock knows for a fact more buyers were poking around in the barns yesterday, heard it from Molly. So, Watson spent yesterday showing off horses and being the general entertainment.

  Gladstone’s hind leg lifts up, high, knee rubbing belly. It appears this horse got exercise yesterday, too.

  Sherlock blinks, eyes raising to the rider. “You’re here again.”

  “This isn’t your property,” Watson says, and he grins. It takes Sherlock a moment to remember that those were the words he spat at Watson, merely days ago. It feels like centuries, time is crawling so slowly. Diffidently, Sherlock casts his eyes downward to hide a smaller smile.

  “Not yours, either,” Sherlock notes after a moment, with a tilt to his head.

  “Means it’s free rein, which means I can be here,” Watson flicks the reins of his great water horse, which jolts its head to one side, showing off a powerful profile. “You know, I never did get to say a proper goodbye to you, two days ago.”

  “Had to run.”

  “So does everyone.”

  Sherlock regards Watson for a moment, and then lets his mouth twist into a smile. Watson follows suit. Redbeard snorts again, as if fed up, and Gladstone’s long, thin ears twist unnaturally to catch the sound.

  Watson laughs, “I’m sorry if I dragged you to the Yard. I really didn’t mean to. I… I just know that you’re going to have your fair share of trouble by the time of the Races.”

  “Will I?”

  Nodding, Watson glances up at the sky, and Gladstone picks that opportune moment to wring his serpentine neck forwards again, following the swivel of his ears, to regard Sherlock. The movement is so quick that Sherlock only registers it after it’s happened. Sherlock stares right back at the horse, and soon enough, Gladstone seems more interested in Watson’s foot than Sherlock, contorting his face back to nudge at Watson’s boot in the stirrup, high up on the horse’s belly. Sherlock sees Redbeard’s mannerisms in that move.

   “They’ll still try and keep you off that beach,” Watson says, “It won’t have ended at the festival.” Watson quips the reins and Gladstone’s ears push forward, head swinging back to follow them.

  “It’s their own fault. The rules should’ve been more specific. Has no one ever tried what I’m doing? If so, I find that hard to believe.” Mm. No, Sherlock doesn’t. This island is full of many morons and few exceptions. Still - having Sherlock on the beach should be a balm to the seasoned racers, he'll be an easy one to beat. He rolls his shoulders back and preens. No, he won't.

  “No one’s as clever as you. No one’s thought to look past the rules on paper,” Watson smiles, and Sherlock thinks, crossly, that he looks devilishly stunning and robust. Watson’s dark riding trousers and rolled-up white sleeves and his posture, upright and purposeful, make him look like he’s meant to be on Gladstone. Sherlock feels impoverished in an outfit just like that across from him. Perhaps it’s because Redbeard doesn’t make as imposing a figure. Both horse and rider are aware of it. That horse is absolutely enormous, even to one as tall as Redbeard. Thisby is a land of giants.

  Sherlock is suddenly quite cross that his curls tend to tangle and hang limply in his face after an attack by the wind, because Watson looks put together, short hair scrappy from the rushes of air. Sherlock shoves his hair back, only to have it fall back again when he replaces his hands on the reins.

   Again follows that immeasurable silence, and Watson is again that point of frightening stillness. Then, “Holmes, when the Races are about proving something about yourself to others, the people you beat are as important as the horse you ride.”

  Sherlock says, “But that’s not why you race. You don't care about who you beat.” He furrows his brow, squinting against the air. Truly, it doesn't matter who Watson beats, because he'll beat everyone, anyways.

  “Not one bit,” Watson says, and before Sherlock can slide in some prying question and gloat over his, albeit small, victory, Watson goes on, “But it means that people don’t want you on that beach, because if they don’t beat you, then it means that they lost to Sherlock Holmes and his island pony.”

   If they don’t beat you… That sounds like Watson is expecting Sherlock to win. Or. Maybe not. But he’s expecting him to have some kind of chance. Perhaps a better chance than his 49 to 1 odds in Hawkins' have given him. Watson expects Sherlock to not lose, to beat at least someone. Or maybe the right word isn’t ‘expect’, maybe it’s ‘assume’. Sherlock isn’t sure how he feels about that.

  “He’s not a pony.”

  Watson tries to remedy, “Holmes and his island horse...?”

  “Sherlock.”

  “Why do you have to contradict-- oh?”

  Sherlock’s cheeks are on fire again. It’s that little surprised ‘oh?’, somewhere between a tut and a hum, that Watson says that lights him up like the cresting waves at night, under a full moon. He’s pale, it’s going to stick out and make him look stupid, especially in this light, and, christ, why does he even bother talking? He swallows. “Sherlock. It’s my name . You might as well use it.” Sherlock waves a hand dismissively.

  Watson smiles, and Sherlock hopes against hope that he’ll-- “Sherlock. And my name’s John. Some people call me that.”

  He doesn’t invite Sherlock to be one of them.

  To make up for the disappointment that that completely did not cause, Sherlock decides to tackle the comment from moments ago, drawing back the reins so Redbeard’s head doesn’t slouch like it’s doing now. Sherlock opens his mouth, but, beating him to the punch, Redbeard blows out through his nose with his mouth shut. A greeting sound, staring up and over at Gladstone.

  Stopping, Sherlock glances up at the black capall .

  Gladstone is focusing on Redbeard now. Those predatory eyes, more towards the front than the side of its head like a normal horse (evolution at work, meant to focus, meant to see completely, to concentrate, to hunt), stare accusingly, incredulously. But Redbeard is no longer squealing, though he does tuck his head shyly.

  Gladstone blows back, deeper and longer. Then he jerks his chin back against his long neck, as if sheepish at his introduction.

  Watson looks between the two horses, and lets out a bark of laughter.

  It isn’t difficult for Sherlock to follow - it seems easier to laugh when Watson’s already doing it. Redbeard shifts his weight, stagnant too long, and nickers, soft and quiet, like a mare to her foal, only Sherlock and Redbeard are neither one of those. Sherlock, letting his laughter dissolve into breathless giggles, pats Redbeard’s neck. It was nice of the horse to check up on him.

  “As I was saying, before I was so rudely --” He tugs on Redbeard’s ear lightly, making the horse turn his head back, then releases, “-- interrupted .”

  “We were having a conversation--” Watson’s heels dig into Gladstone’s sides, and the massive horse crow hops as if he’s been burned, but it seems to be all in good fun, “--Weren’t we?” Watson tries, fending off endearing giggles as he looks back up to Sherlock.

  He tries to keep his expression as serene as a tidepool on one of Thisby's clear days, but it doesn't work, just twists up his face. The little kick and Watson's giggles has warmed him up to the other man.

  The wind gasps, long and low around their feet, flattening the grass and tangling up the horse’s manes. Redbeard’s tail flicks, already forgiving Sherlock for the ear pulling. Sherlock rubs the spot that Redbeard loves, near the horn of the saddle, a late apology.

  “Earlier, you said that someone would be angry to lose to me.”

  Watson is getting Gladstone back under control. Sherlock remembers his father once telling him that no water horse was ever meant to trot, let alone keep still. “I did,” Watson says after a moment of thought. “And I believe my own words,” He finished, voice soaked in strawberries.

  “Why would you think anyone would lose to me?” It’s a question that’s been plaguing Sherlock himself ever since he decided to race.

  “Because they’re all in love with the ocean.” Gladstone hasn’t stopped moving since the crow hop. His neck is arched, too. He looks ridiculous as he preens for Sherlock and Redbeard. "They only want to get back to it. And they're hard to catch, and they're fast."

  “Then,” Sherlock goes on, “You think Redbeard would be faster.”

  John’s face twists. He hesitates. He hesitates, before answering, “The capaill are always faster. I don't know what sort of training you're doing, running on the firm sand by the shore, wading through the shallows, running on the rocks or the gravel, chasing the sun, charging back and forth or all over the island. Racing dogs. The capaill uisce are always faster. Period.”

  There are many things that Sherlock can take a decisive answer on. Formulas, the laws of nature, time, and space.

  This is not one of those things. John Watson, renowned champion of the infamous Scorpio Races, said without thought that someone would lose to Sherlock. He only disagreed with his former statement after thought and hesitation. This revelation makes Sherlock’s heart sing and flutter in his chest, a leaf shaken by the devastating gales. He tries desperately to drown it.

  “Then you wouldn’t mind racing me.”

  The phrasing is what makes this statement a killer. Watson would have to argue with him, because Sherlock will mostdefinitely insist upon it, just to keep the conversation going. This conversation, said from the backs of a predator and a prey animal, with such extreme highs and lows, awkward silences, and things that Sherlock can’t understand.

  Watson’s eyebrows raise, his forehead crinkles, hairline deforming. Sherlock sees him grip the reins tighter, as if Gladstone will comprehend what’s happening and leap into action because of it. Gladstone is already quivering, never quite still.

  “Race? Me on Gladstone, you on Redbeard?”

  Sherlock nods.

  The wind buffets them again, finally stilling Gladstone, as he stops to scent it. A few bushes on a craggly edge of the cliffs shudder one way as it blows inland. Sherlock can smell rain on it, far away. A storm has been building up for days, and he wonders when it will finally come. It's sure to be wrecking when it does.

  Watson looks thoughtful.

  Sherlock rushes to accommodate, “It’s not much time. If you say no,” He looks out towards the cliff edge, to the ocean far below, and waits for a lapse in the wind before finishing, “It’s just because we've insulted you.”

  Which is how they end up racing.

  Watson leads Gladstone a ways away on the turf, and Sherlock removes one of his feet from its stirrup. His heart pounds in his throat. Redbeard’s skin is hot to touch. Gladstone is a water horse - he will fight to run towards the ocean. If the race is even close… Perhaps there’s a chance to be had, after all.

  Sherlock adjusts his stirrup from Redbeard’s back, one leg crossed over the saddle as he does. He's too lazy to get down. Sherlock would never do it on anyone but Redbeard. Fitting his boot back into place and sitting up, Sherlock rolls his shoulders to fix any crick in his back, then leans forward to check the security of Redbeard's halter, and sits back in the saddle. It's old, handed down from his father, with the Holmes family crest carved on the underside of the leather - a lion and a unicorn.

He looks over to Watson. Gladstone is twisting and anxious below him, hard to hold. Sherlock again imagines that Gladstone can understand what’s about to happen, wishes he'd seen him in the Races before. When he starts picturing how striking John must look when he's putting immense effort into a race, he has to stop and push the cold back of his hand against his cheek to cool it off.

  “Are you ready?” Sherlock asks Watson, voice raised over the wind.

  Watson laughs, “I feel as though I should be the one asking that.”

  “To the big outcropping, over there?” Sherlock points. They have a ghost of a chance.

  Watson nods.

  Sherlock bolts, springing off across the field. Joyfully, Redbeard is pushed immediately into a gallop, tail snapping in his thrill. He hops over a small mound of grass, a largely unnecessary movement.

  Now, Sherlock cannot hear the ocean’s ceaseless hushing, it’s a grey blue blur somewhere off to Sherlock’s left, and the cliff edges transform into a colorless rush of contrast against the sea.

  Behind them is the hard pounding of sea-hooves turned into something solid, so Sherlock takes a big handful of Redbeard’s mane to keep the iron lengths from whipping and distracting him. Leaning low, Sherlock pushes his heels into the horse’s side - hard . The hoofbeats pound closer.

  The two horses gallop through the cliff grass, both of them nimble over the uneven surface.

  Watson overtakes him a split-second later, hardly a hair between the two horses and his and Watson's feet, and Gladstone is all powerful, rippling muscle, knees lifting high and landing ten feet from where they kicked off. Sherlock catches Watson’s eye, and Redbeard does another odd kick and hop, dragging them back forwards. Sherlock's cheeks hurt from the cold and his grin. Watson whips forward, the giant horse drawing further and further up and away from them as Redbeard tracks, steady and straight and true.

  Gladstone doesn’t even seem to be trying.

  But Watson pushes his luck by asking him for more speed - Sherlock sees a heel shove into the black mass, and instead of curving away from his leg, Gladstone curves toward and around, veering across Sherlock’s path and dangerously near to the cliffs. Redbeard pulls ahead with great force as Gladstone tugs closer to the edge, wanting that saltwater.

  Redbeard is not concentrating, his ears are pricked and pressed forward, something that irks Sherlock to no end, because Gladstone is all streamlined muscle just behind them, although he is still fighting for the sea. Redbeard bucks playfully in excitement, jolting Sherlock in the saddle and, after each time, taking a long few seconds to regain control - not time that they have to spare.

  Watson and his horse have righted themselves again, moving fast, overtaking and then already twenty lengths ahead within a handful of quick seconds. Sherlock growls for speed in Redbeard’s ear, and his legs pump fasterr as he begins to listen. Sherlock reaches behind them, cracking his hand down on Redbeard’s haunches, hard. Redbeard squeals and his foreleg kicks out as Sherlock lets loose more rein, but it does the trick, getting his attention.

  With no more bucking, Sherlock surges forward, and Redbeard gives it everything, head lowering. Sherlock crouches on his back. Curse his long legs, and he presses them ever further into Redbeard's rusted coat, both pressuring the horse to run faster and trying to make himself ass small as possible.

   It’s no good, though, the capall has more speed than an island horse can ever dream of. Every one does. Watson leans forward, and they gain more ground, fast. Sherlock can see no more than a black blur ahead of them, the white on Watson’s shirt ruffling and sticking out.

  They’ll have fifty lengths on Redbeard before they make it to the outcropping, no matter how something as big as Gladstone shouldn't be able to run this swiftly.

  Determined, Sherlock whips the reins against Redbeard’s neck. Sherlock jerks his heels so hard his muscles hurt. It’s barely of any use - Watson is still far, far ahead. They’re going to be annihilated in this run. A strain of hopelessness pumps through Sherlock's arms that ache with holding the weight of Redbeard's speed.

  That’s when the wind throws the scent of the sea against the island.

  The reaction, Sherlock can see from way back, is immediate. Gladstone twists, clearly not used to being assaulted with the wind during his training, loses his footing, stumbles, but doesn’t fall. It gives Redbeard precious time to sprint forward, spraying Sherlock’s sleeves and face with bits and flecks of mud and spit that's flying back from Redbeard's open mouth. They’re only ten lengths behind, with Gladstone gaining more ground.

  It occurs to Sherlock that the capall is trying. Not hard, but still trying. In the evening light, or, lack of it, Sherlock can see the determination and surprise written over the horse’s body, from his long pinned ears to his massive feet. The horse gains more head.

  It’s something that holds Sherlock over as they lose, racing past the outcropping after Watson.

  Redbeard takes more than twenty lengths to slow to a trot, and a few more to a walk. Sherlock tries to turn him back, but the stallion is gasping through his nose, and so Sherlock lets him twist and turn in his grip. It was a very rigorous workout. Vigorously, Redbeard shakes his head, jostling the reins.

  Hard thumps on soil and grass.

  Redbeard’s breath puffs out, hot and heavy. Sherlock swings a leg back and dismounts, looking for Watson, who emerges from behind the outcropping a moment later, still on Gladstone, who looks even more restless than before, were that possible. With a highly arched neck, Gladstone prances forwards. Watson’s back is straight, never more a champion. His chin tilted, eyes and hair catching the last light of day.

 The horse and rider slow their trot as they come close. Gladstone’s head bobs.

  Watson is breathless. Sherlock holds tight to Redbeard’s reins as Watson dismounts, dropping from that incredibly high saddle and onto the packed earth. His hair is more windblown than Sherlock’s ever seen it, and he resists the urge to reach up and touch his own to judge the damage the race had on it.

  Watson, breathing heavy but not panting like Sherlock is trying not to, slaps Gladstone’s wet neck. Sherlock isn’t sure how it got wet. The champion horse isn’t even breathing hard, and yet, has it broken into a sweat? It smells stunningly like salt. This is sea water, dripping from the horse's own pores.

  Watson’s grin pulls Sherlock back to reality. He shakes his head, stupefied. He looks at the ground, then back up, sighing contentedly. “I look at your face, and I wonder, Sherlock Holmes.”

  This, said in such a quiet, but reverent tone, pulls at Sherlock’s mouth. He turns his head slightly to pat Redbeard’s smooth muzzle away when the horse starts nosing at his hair, desperate for attention. He puffs warm air over the back of Sherlock's neck.

  “It seems as though I've lost,” Sherlock says, facing Redbeard. He smells like hay. It’s comforting, near all this stink of fish and bad salt, sour sweat and bird droppings.

  “It was closer than I thought it was going to be. Much closer. And,” Watson says, drawing Sherlock in with his gaze again, “It’s John.”

  “Ah,” Sherlock nods, secretly pleased, “Yes, of course.”

  “I believe I have more to say to you. But, it’s late.”

  Sherlock couldn’t give a wit about the time. The sun is red, somewhere way below the horizon, and the rest of the sky is purpling and darkening.

  “Can I see you again tomorrow?” John asks. God, doesn’t that sound like something out of a bad romance novel? John looks to him, scratching awkwardly at his cheek, which has a shadow of stubble over it. Sherlock can hear the scrape of fingernails over skin, now that the wind has done its damage, twisted Gladstone and allowed Sherlock to have a sense of faith. “Can I trust that you’ll be here?”

  Sherlock says, “The racing beach is hardly safe for me.”

  Watson-- John laughs. Sounds like it's back to being sunny, and John is suddenly someone that is not aloof and far away, but more grounded than anyone else on the island, “Do me a favor. Don’t let anyone shine your saddle, and don't let anyone else feed your horse.”

  “And you?” The words tumble from Sherlock’s lips before his head can stop them. Unable to draw them back or sink into the earth, he watches John for a reaction.

  John’s smile is small, a small, and a secretive smile. It’s as masked as the mare goddess. Sherlock wonders if he still has the spiraled shell in his pocket, or if he's already made his wish. His blue eyes are alight. So are Gladstone's, which glow in the purple wash of light. “You don’t like to do anything the easy way, do you?” John says, and Sherlock doesn’t have a clue to the meaning of it.

   Sherlock smirks against embarrassment, and replies, “I didn’t know it was the hard way when I started on it.”

Chapter Text

 

  “You seem cheery, Sherlock! A good day of practicing? You didn’t go down to those beaches again, did you?”

  “Never so, Mrs Hudson. I was a fool to do it the once.”

  “Then it was a good day? It was so windy - the side door screen blew in.”

  “Mm.”

 

-/-

 

  It isn’t the sun that finds Sherlock in the morning, streaming through the window as it often does in his cramped little room.

  It’s a knock at the bedroom door.

  Sherlock manages to crawl from the burrow of duvets, pulling a deep purple one over his shoulders as he shuffles to the door. Hair a tousled mess, tired and limp from the briny wind and a missing bath, Lestrade is the one to greet him.

  Sherlock nearly shuts the door in his face. He frowns instead.

  “Who let you into the house? Or did you take it upon yourself to barge in, ever the good officer?” Sherlock is pleased that his voice is as low as usual, though it is a tad rough from sleep. He collapsed into it merely a few hours ago, having been working on a capall uiscebone. Exposure to seawater versus freshwater. Results have been.. Naught. His theories on the bones themselves shifting versus just the flesh and skin of the horses when they are fresh from the sea or return to it have not been proven one way or the other. And to think that this is how he spends his free time.

  Lestrade opens his mouth to counter Sherlock’s snark, but there’s a call from downstairs, “I let him in, Sherlock! Said he wanted to speak with you!”

  Sherlock glares over Lestrade’s shoulder, as if he can see Mrs Hudson through the wooden walls. Then he glares at Lestrade. At least he came in with permission.

   Lestrade grins, “You know, that look isn’t half as intimidating when you’ve only just gotten up.”

  “I’ve been up for hours,” Sherlock retorts.

  Mrs Hudson shouts again, “Surprised anyone would want to talk you, this early! You’re always in such a mood!”

  “ Thank you, Mrs Hudson!” Sherlock snaps, and then lets his eyes travel back to Lestrade. His grey hair contrasts the dark sack overcoat with its gleaming rows of buttons, and the breeches. His cap is in his fist, like it always is when Lestrade is inside a building. The man is well-dressed, for so early. It’s still dark outside. Well, blue.

  An awkward silence.

  Then, Lestrade clears his throat, “Look, I--”

  “If you’re here to attempt talking me out of the Races, I would advise you spend your valuable time elsewhere.”

  “I’m not--”

  “Maybe protecting the good people from those nasty pickpockets in Skarmouth? The square’s always filled with them--”

  “Sherlock--”

  “I know it’s hardly employment, what with how you all conduct yourselves, but--”

  “ Sherlock --”

  “Don’t you have a job to get to?”

  “I do, actually!” Lestrade shouts. Sherlock sniffs. Embarrassed by his outburst, since he’d obviously been expecting Sherlock to interrupt again, Lestrade sighs. His hands wring his cap. “We know--”

   “ We ? If Donovan is anywhere near whatever you want me to take a look at, because you clearly do need me to look at something, don’t do that drooling, moronic face in my--”

  “Could you! Could you maybe stop interrupting, yeah?”

 

-/-

 

  It’s a delightful murder.

  And, shockingly, it’s not motivated by the rush of the Races, like absolutely everything is this time of year.

  Moreover, it’s not quite a torrid affair. Neither is it a crime of passion. It’s premeditated, and Sherlock adores it.

  Janine does not adore it, because the young girl’s body was found out back in the alley of Hawkins’ tavern, near the bins. Bloodied, a rip at the side of the throat. She lays face down on the disgusting brickwork of the alleyway. She’s a tourist - obviously. Bright yellow sundress, stained dark red. Sherlock grimaces at her wardrobe choices. Really, on windy Thisby, with all the gamblers and lechers, and she was going around in that?

  It looks like a messy rip in the side of her neck, but Sherlock, dressed in his long woolen coat and dress shoes to combat the wind that’s funneling through all the alleyways in Skarmouth today, sees it for the neat handiwork it actually is when he pushes her short hair aside. Clouds rush along overhead, and Donovan glares and folds her arms across her chest while Lestrade notes something about the wind and how he has better ways to spend today than leaning over a bloody corpse.

  Anyone who knows their way around cutting edges and knives knows that it’s not the stab, but the ‘twist and rip’ that will bleed someone out the quickest. And they’d have to make sure that a main artery was hit, so the carotid in the neck, or the femoral in the groin are the usual places of attack… An arterial stab wound is nearly impossible stem, and would require immediate medical attention, if the victim wasn’t to bleed out  

  Lestrade says some other inconsequential things. Donovan snarks. Sherlock scowls, holding his magnifying glass over the incision, and wondering if he should announce her business with Anderson to the small crowd of officers nearby.

  (They do have to shield the sensitive tourists from this area. Who knows? Some of them may not return, if they see that Thisby has as much of an issue with violence as anywhere else in the world does.)

  “Don’t touch it!” Lestrade says, appalled. Sherlock continues to stick his gloved fingers into the wound, anyways.

  Sherlock glances to the ground. He frowns, stands up, and removes his bloodied gloves, slipping his magnifier into his coat pocket.

  “Stab wound. Sharp knife, victim bled out. She’s a tourist, here with her… brother? No, father, going by her heels,” Sherlock points out the purple color on her ankles, “Stab wound here…” Sherlock touches his middle and forefinger to his pulse on the left hand side, “Carotid artery. Slashing both sides of it will result in immediate unconsciousness, as blood flow to the brain will be cut off, death will be short thereafter. Slashing just one would result in a slower death, and she would’ve bled out. Lestrade,” Sherlock clips, and the silver-haired man looks up, “Flip her over.”

  “You can’t move her, yet,” Lestrade says, “Photographs haven’t been processed. We don’t know whether they turned out or not.”

  “So you’re just going to leave a body behind the tavern, hoping no one will notice, until your photographs turn out? ” Sherlock looks over Lestrade’s face, but nothing in it says he’s joking. Angry, Sherlock flattens out his mouth. “Fine. Then, gather around, look at her, I know you’re all unbelievably slow, but she’s pale.”

  “We know she bled to death,” Donovan bites in, “We’re not stupid.”

  “I disagree.”

  “Holmes,” Lestrade huffs.

  Sherlock rolls his eyes. “She didn’t die here.”

  “What?” Donovan says, “Yes, she did, look at all the blood. It’s everywhere.”

  “Look at her dress!” Sherlock shouts, disbelieving. When Sally gives him a strange look, one that says she both thinks him insane and annoying, Sherlock pushes his filthy gloves into one of his pockets, fixing her with a look that could kill. He hopes it does.

  Crouching, Sherlock purposefully glares at Lestrade, before pulling out the yellow of her dress where it was pressed up underneath her hip.

  “I told you not to move anything--!”

  “If I’m going to walk you through how I solved this murder, you’re not going to need pictures.”

  “There’s paperwork--”

  “Then draw her.”

  “Epona above,” Lestrade curses, looking to the sky before running a hand over his face. Sherlock scowls again. “You said you’ve solved it?”

  Sherlock clears his throat, pulling the fabric of the dress out gently so he can see the bloodstains. “Yes, it was horrifyingly obvious. I only agree to explain it to you simpletons because I don’t feel as though anyone on the island should purchase their meat from a murderer… Quite a hazard. The dress , if you please.”

   After a moment and the exchange of a look with Donovan, Lestrade sighs and waves a hand for Sherlock to continue.

  “If you observe, difficult for you lot to do, I know, but if you manage it, you’ll see that she died on her front.”

  “Freak, if you’re just going to sit there and tell us what we already know--”

  “But she didn’t just die on her front. The bloodstains don’t go below her waist - her legs were propped up when she was stabbed, like a slaughtered cow. She was purposefully bled out. facedown, as she died, then was dumped here, where she continued to bleed onto the ground. But, as you can clearly see from said staining and said blood on the ground, the new pool of blood doesn’t reach the old stain, marking at what angle she was propped up, by six point seven centimeters. Big difference, big enough of a difference for the spread of the stain not to be just capillary action - I’ve done a whole set of experiments on the way blood adheres to itself and to varying textures and brands of fabric... Therefor, she wasn’t murdered here,” Sherlock finishes, finally drawing breath again.

  “You haven’t said who the murderer is, Holmes,” Lestrade says.

  “I’m getting to it . If I am trying to educate you slobs on how to actually do your own work along the way, then arrest me. For now,” Sherlock says, standing once more, because he’s done with this now. How is it that the officers on this island are so blind? “Where on this island could you bleed someone out, drain them of all but a liter or so of their blood, and clean it up easily?”

  Donovan snorts. Sherlock looks at her.

  “Do you have something to say?”

  “You could do that anywhere in the island.”

  “But then you’d have to be seen dragging a girl’s dead, bloody body around, wouldn’t you? Hm?”

  Donovan shuts her mouth.

  “So? Where? Near here?” Sherlock assesses the officers. His expectations were never high in the first place, but they fall lower with each passing second. He groans. “No one? Really?”

   Lestrade puffs, working with his tongue. “The, the, the… the beaches…?”

  “No, you idiot, there would be sand stuck to the blood on her, in her hair, everywhere!”

  “What about the gravel ones? The rocky ones? On the other side of the island?”

  Sherlock takes in a breath to spit something back, but his mind stutters to a halt.

  The other side of the island.

  ‘ Can I see you again tomorrow? Can I trust that you’ll be here?’

  Sherlock blinks. Evidently, John could not trust that Sherlock would be there. Oh.

  Sherlock spins on his heel and begins to walk away. It’s barely noon, the sun is weak and feeble and maybe Lestrade could drive him back to Mrs Hudson’s property in that ugly cruiser of his like he did on their way here, Sherlock could get Redbeard and he could go to the rocky cliffs, and John would be there, and Sherlock could apologize and--

  “Holmes! Where’re you going?”

  “The-- the butcher’s! It’s the butcher’s, where the riders get their meat, it’s their- their son, he was seeing the--” Sherlock gestures to the body, a little further away than he was before, “The girl, she wanted to break it off, he killed her two days after she mentioned it to him.”

  “Two days? How do you know that?”

  “For two days every rider on the island has been complaining how horribly cut their beef hearts are for their capaill , the son’s been angry, slashing things, practicing. It was premeditated. He knew what he was doing-- arrest him, and do it quickly. He may still be cleaning the blood off the floor. Her blood, not cow’s blood.”

  Lestrade ropes him into coming. Sherlock says he would rather slit his own throat. Donovan shouts at him for making such an ill-timed comment. Sherlock is cross.

  By the time Sherlock tackles the butcher’s son and they go sliding into the wall of a Tholla alley, crashing into rubbish skips and spooking loose chickens as they go, it’s evening, and Sherlock has friction burns on both of his forearms. They burn and sting and swell up as Lestrade shoves the son into Sally’s cruiser and Sherlock into the back of his, saying something about ‘getting you home, so Mrs H can have a look at you.’

  Like Sherlock noted before. This murder was delightful .

  Obvious, but utterly groundshaking in its deviation from the lowy, boring standard of crime on Thisby. Gambling isn’t even illegal, like it just became on the mainland. There’s too much of an economic angle on the riders of the Races. Besides, even if it was outlawed, it would continue, and everyone would keep doing it.

 

-/-

 

  In his anger that night, Sherlock shoves expensive hay into Redbeard’s stall and crossly runs the hose to refill the water bucket without emptying out the stale rest of it from this morning. He also feed Josephine a handful of expensive oats, because she’s old and deserves kindness even when Sherlock is angry.

  He was ready to walk away from a murder scene, just to get to John on the cliffs. Granted, it was a very boring murder, more boring than the last one, three years ago, and easily solved, but he was still ready to walk away from it. Horrendous, that his life has come to this, Sherlock thinks, as he catalogs the texture of the capall femur bone.

   He takes care of his arms, winding gauze around the burning patches of skin. He flexes his fingers and frowns at the sting that he feels as the skin pulls taunt over his muscles. 

 

-/-

 

  It’s a very bad day, the next morning. The clouds are high and thick enough that light can’t make it through the water droplets, giving them a deep grey sheen. They look heavy and waterlogged, and even Redbeard, under his saddle, eyes them warily. What’s that saying about animals and storms?

  Perhaps John isn’t coming. After all, Sherlock can honestly think of several hundred chores or things that the Stockyard would need to get done before the coming rain. Horses need to be turned out, that damned monger , Henry Knight, needs to be sold his thoroughbreds, and stalls must be mucked. Hay must be distributed from the dusty lofts, and water refilled. Maybe veterinarians need to be phoned in, if some mare has a twisted ankle or an overstretched tendon in her neck. Then Sherlock remembers that that last one is one of John Watson’s many jobs.

  And probably, the rest of them are his jobs, too.

  Sherlock recalls Moriarty’s voice, his stable boys . Clearly, John is in charge over there. And everywhere, down on the beach, in town, at the festival...

  If John doesn’t come, it will be entirely Sherlock’s fault. He spent yesterday racing around Skarmouth and Tholla, and, God, that was a bad idea of his. This is also a bad idea.

  He wonders if John waited for him, even if it was only for a few moments. Perhaps John never showed up at all, and he’ll come gallivanting into the scene today to apologize, and he won’t ever know that Sherlock wasn’t there, either.

  Sherlock’s mind recoils from the thought. He allows Redbeard, puffing from his run here, but not as badly as last week, to walk a few meters away from the cliff edges. Sherlock looks over at the sea, grey and dark blue, capped with white as waves tumble over to eat at the island.

   Sherlock is just wondering how bad the storm will be, if it will strike today, when Jefferson Hope arrives.

  On his giant water horse, Hydria, Hope wishes he made an imposing figure. He doesn't. Hydria is a smooth grey beneath him, with flanks tinted with darker browns and flecked with white, not unlike all the whitecaps that beat the rocks below the steep drop of the cliffs. Hope looks like hot iron, with deep bags beneath his eyes. Just over his cheek is a spot of purple, painted on by John's fist at the festival (this is thought with an inappropriate amount of thrill). Even from here, Sherlock can see yellow skin healing the edges. There is a man with a lean, hard frame, and squinting blue eyes riding up alongside him on a chestnut water horse, with half of its mane rubbed off and the tail mangled and knotted. Over both of the water horses, there are draping red and white tassels, and flowers razing what little hair they have.

  Sherlock can’t imagine why they’d be coming up here, looking full of purpose and of themselves. Sherlock looks beyond Hope, but there is no one else. He pulls the reins, and Redbeard halts. Sherlock doesn’t like the way Redbeard shivers at the sight of the grey capall, nor the way that the water horse hones in on him.

  The chestnut leads the way towards Sherlock. They cross the twenty meter line with no greeting, and then the ten, and then, they are so close, that Sherlock has to resist the petty urge to strike out with a bare hand to shove the horses back, they're in reaching distance and not backing away, because Redbeard is sitting on the edge of panic, hooves shifting nearer to the cliff edges. Redbeard trusts Sherlock too much. Sherlock barely trusts himself to stay still and seated on the iron horse.

  “And how's the Holmes sister doing today?” The unidentified man calls out, jolly. "Obviously well, isn't she?"

  It's a few moments before Sherlock recognizes that he means him, Sherlock. His lip wants to curl up in a sneer against the shunting wind. And it's another moment before he is affected by the mention of siblings, for his own is long gone.

  The man’s chestnut snaps at Hydria, and the sound of those teeth snapping together make Redbeard flinch while the water horses move back several feet, displaying themselves to each other and to Redbeard. Sherlock tries to hide the fact that he can't keep Redbeard still by rocking him into motion, pacing him back and forth, dangerously close to the cliff edges. Both of the predators are affected by the wind, clearly not used to being assaulted with all these scents while they have riders on their backs. The chestnut clacks its teeth near Hydria's ear, who retaliated by stomping her foreleg down hard, and making a hissing sound high in her throat.

  Sherlock jerks the reins back until Redbeard quivers into something of a halt again. Sherlock can see the white in his eyes, see the puffs of breath from the capaill. "It's almost sad, how simply your mind works."

  “It's a bit right,” The man on the writhing chestnut says, “Down on the beach, they say you could look like a girl from behind. All that hair.”

  What a stupid thing to do. Sherlock is ashamed of how much it distresses him, nevertheless, and the heat of that threat washes over him. He sets his shoulders, tilts his chin up, and the chestnut's gaunt face stretches up to watch him.

  “Ha, ha,” Sherlock says dryly, with no hint of amusement. “Does your wife know about that tourist that you and the butcher's son shared?” Sherlock asks, tilting his head as the wind ruffles his hair from behind, giving him a crown of sea-twisted curls. It's unclear whether or not the man is aware of the girl's death, and even if he does, extremely unlikely that he assisted in the murder in anyway, because the butcher's son said nothing of it when put into custody. Sherlock will report this to Lestrade when he gets back to town. No murder, but there's still a good amount of criminal activity that law enforcement can be made aware of.

  The man frowns and turns to Hope, like he's just realized who he's insulting and what Sherlock is capable of dredging up from his past. Hope’s grey mare makes a hissing sound high in her throat as the chestnut regards Redbeard, legs cramping and feet leaving the ground for half a second before they return, shaking as they ever did at the scent of the sea.

  Redbeard snaps his head one way, swinging his neck out of instinct, and the grey beneath Jefferson Hope sticks it's face out and up, neck lengthening. Redbeard’s ears pin back, his rear hooves dance perilously close to the cliff. Sherlock wants to pop the reins and make him run, but it would be no use. Even in the gathering fog and the night-black of this afternoon, the capaill would catch them.  And he wouldn't want to give Hope an excuse to chase them. He can imagine the excuses. ‘ Hydria just bolted after him - couldn’t stop her! Shame about how the roads got all bloodied, again…

  This is, truly, the man who loathed his presence in the Races so much, that he broke tradition and stood up atop the rider’s rock to try and bring Sherlock down. Sherlock looks to Hope’s company - this is the mill worker. He’s lacking his traditional scarf and garb that he wore to the festival, and he is no longer extending a hand to help Sherlock down from the rock. He looks more like he wants to shove him from the edge of the island, see him flayed out on the sharp rocks down below.

  “This is your wake-up call, Mister Holmes…”

  “I don't recall asking for one.”

  “Doesn't mean you don't need one,” Hope’s grin never leaves his face. The light’s not right, however, so Sherlock can't tell if the expression is born out of sadism or genuine amusement. He stares at the bruise. “A little birdie told me you fancied having a trip to the mainland. Looking for your big brother, then, eh?”

  Redbeard happens to save him, then, by suddenly bucking his head down from Sherlock’s hold, leaving him scrambling to gain the reins back. The stallion squeals as Hydria and the chestnut prowl close.

  There is no sound of hooves on long cliff grasses. The capaill don't make sounds as they near and leer.

  The wind carries the foreboding scent of heavy thunder, making the horses all restless. Not a sound is heard. Not until the first few drops of water drip from the dark, dampened clouds above. Sherlock half-turns his face, checking to see if there's room for Redbeard to move, in case the other men make a move and the red horse is alarmed and moves suddenly backwards. There's a few scant inches between Redbeard and the edges. Sherlock pulls the reins, and Redbeard, nearly petrified, forcibly leans away from the cliff.

  “Everyone’s got a capall, Holmes,” Hope smiles that sickening smile, only half his teeth showing. The horse mimicks the countenance, mouth pulling up too far, too close to its wet eyes, too many teeth, “Except you. You thought you could change all of Thisby…”

   Thought, echoes Sherlock's head, past tense, thought, thought, past tense, thought, thought thought thoughtthoughtthought--

   “And you must've believed no one in the world would stop you…” Hope goes on. The man beside him grins devilishly. There's only Hope and that man next to him, he's not even sure who it is, but Sherlock knows he's not good news, and he's not going to help. He's here with Hope. He's here with Hope.

  Sherlock's never been teased from the back of a giant capall before, let alone from two of them. Yet, even if all three of them were set on foot on the earth, Sherlock would still be at odds, would still be threatened.

  In this moment, he regrets everything. He regrets signing up for the Races. He regrets buying expensive hay, and interacting with- with John, and attending the festival, and--

  Hope drawls, “Let me take you for a ride. Let's race…”

  “So you can kill me? Get me out of your precious Races for good?”

  Hope’s lips twitch. The sky sprays rainwater on Sherlock’s face.

  “They're not really my Races, Holmes. They're his… And he warned me about you, little while after I saw those articles in the paper. He even set up that little warm up for you, yesterday. Brilliant stuff, might I say.”

   “Whose Races? Who warned you about me?”

  Sherlock leans back, and Redbeard tucks his head against his neck. “Who would notice me?” Sherlock snarls. No. That's not the right question. Plenty of people would notice him, doing what he's doing and riding Redbeard, but who would warn Hope about him? What would be the point of that? He's hardly a threat, on an ordinary horse.

  “Riding an island pony in a race for the water horses. Everyone’s noticed you,” The man on the chestnut rumbles. It sounds too much like the thunder Sherlock knows is coming - like the grumble of sound clapping somewhere distant.

  “You're too modest, Holmes.” Hope goes on. The capall clacks its blunt teeth together.

  The line of its mouth pulls up towards its ears, far back.

  “I'm really not,” Sherlock snaps right back at him.

  The man in the bowler hat jerks his chin in Sherlock’s direction. “Come on, Sherida," The man says, laughing and giving him a feminine name for his earlier comment-made-threat, "Let's see what you’ve got.”

  “I'm not racing now,” Sherlock grits his teeth into a barren smile. The wind festers and slits his throat. It sings through the sharp blades of grass. More raindrops begin to spatter on Sherlock’s face.

  “Of course you're not racing! We’ll be making good and sure of that.”

  Hope laughs. So does the man in the bowler hat. His isn't a mean laugh, per se, but it isn't a thoughtful one, either.

  “Where are your balls?” He sputters. “Let’s have a go, before the rest of the fun.”

  But all of a sudden, where racing day had haunted his every thought, dictated his every move, that's a faraway concern. The immediate one is that Redbeard is shaking and ready to crumble like the cliffs on this side of the island. Racing day won't ever come for him, if he doesn't manage to walk away from this encounter. Redbeard's going to have to settle through much worse behavior from the water horses than a little snapping and hissing.

  Again, Sherlock glances behind himself, wondering if there's room for him to back Redbeard away. There was, last time he checked. Now, however, they're crowded so close that it isn't possible, and he gets an eyeful of the tumultuous sea beyond the thin strip of rocky shore, and belatedly wonders if any capaill are lurking like sharks just beneath the uneven surface of the water. He faces Hope and the man again with a sour expression.

  The bone-chilling faces of the horses swing down and up, side to side, predatory eyes focused forward, darting to Sherlock’s neck, as if assessing weak points. Sherlock tucks his chin, and Hope reins in Hydria, drawing the horse’s long mouth and wet teeth back as the bit moves up, up, up. The rein plays tricks with Sherlock's grip on the reins and slicks his hair against his forehead.

  But the chestnut horse sidles up alongside Redbeard as the man rounds off, its entire wet body gliding harshly against Sherlock’s leg and shoving Redbeard to the side, making him have to gather his footing again, so precariously balanced on the very edge of the island.

  Sherlock’s breath is coming in faster. He tries not to remind himself of Mary, and Mary’s shrieking, or the way she moves, the way they all move, and the way they always smell like something has curled up inside them and died, and they are breathing it out.

  God, the stench is horrible, and with the sky spitting water, wetting down Sherlock’s grip on Redbeard’s reins and his hair and everything in the world--

  Redbeard throws back his head and whinnies - high and scared. It looks as though his legs will collapse underneath him. Hydria’s throat makes a sound, a horrible sound, a shrill cry that keens upwards at the end, and it evokes fear in the place in Sherlock’s chest that is reserved for instinct.

    Keeeaaaawwwwww .

  “Your pony is frightened, Sherida,” The man on the chestnut says, and presses his horse close again, hard and knocking against Redbeard, so close Sherlock can taste the stench of sun-bloated seals and baked kelp on rocks after high tide.

  Suddenly, Redbeard lurches one way, as if stung, and Sherlock gasps, tasting rain, reining Redbeard in before the stallion can barrel into a baleful Hydria, which the horse clearly would like. The chestnut horse snaps its teeth, shakes its head, making them clack together like a rattlesnake. Sherlock leans away from it, but is alarmingly sandwiched between him and Hope.

  He begins to wonder which he would rather die at the hands of.

  Sherlock’s eyes plummet to a spot behind Redbeard’s ear.

 Redbeard has never been so shaken - he’s like a newborn foal. His legs quiver - the front are splayed, and he’s leaning back, ready to seize and bolt, his ears are swiveling rapidly, slashing through the air in response to too much stimuli, and Sherlock can see the air puffing out, cold and fast, from his tensed mouth.

  There are drops of blood welling up in a gashed line, and the red begins to fall, seeping down easily as it is aided by the rainwater. It’s incredibly dark against the iron color of Redbeard’s fur.

  Sherlock’s mind aflame, his face snaps up to the man in the bowler hat. He sneers, “Every drop of his blood spilt will be ten of yours.” It’s not a bad cut, shallow, barely a scratch. But it’s there. It’s the mark of this man’s horse on Sherlock’s, on Redbeard, it’s a testament and a challenge to who is in control of the situation. Sherlock’s ready to make everyone around him bleed.

  He has nothing to fight with, but he’s angry, god, there’s red crawling through the edges of his eyes and he knows he’s baring his teeth like a water horse and his hands are shaking and cold on the reins.

  This may very well be the strategy. To rile Sherlock up, hurt his horse, the only real constant in his life, and that will be excuse enough.

  ‘ It was self protection .’

  The man’s dark blue eyes widen.

  Then he smiles, clandestine. Even in the low lighting, with the clouds rushing by overhead and the rain sprinkling down, Sherlock can see the crow’s feet at the corner of the man’s eyes, the wrinkles next to his nose, and Sherlock hates it all.

  The chestnut capall bares its blunted teeth. Hydria creeps closer, a gruesome smile befalls Hope’s countenance. Hydria snakes her head. Christ. How do these fiends always know when to become all the more frightening? Do they have an extra sense, for deciding when their rider has malicious intent, and then act upon it? They all know that this is working Redbeard up into a frenzy.

  Redbeard has no chance with these massive predators. The instinct is there, fight or flight. Neither is an option, and it’s weighing as heavily on the horse as it is on Sherlock.

  Redbeard takes a step back, and his whole rump jerks, because he’s stepped onto empty air. Redbeard is crowded against the very edge. Sherlock’s hands shake harder.

  The fire of a gunshot reports through the air, crackling like lightning, booming like thunder, and Sherlock’s sure he’s just had several heart attacks simultaneously. At once, the chestnut horse rears, forelegs flailing and neck curving and it’s screaming, Hope jerks, and so Sherlock bolts.

  Redbeard has been keyed up, waiting, restraining. To let loose like this, his speed is shuddersome.

  As is the whining cry that follows; sinister.

  But then he’s stumbling, tripping over his own hooves, his own ankles and desideratum, the urge to flee. Selfishly, Sherlock does not care that Redbeard may strike a half-hidden rock that the grass growing high and brown may conceal. What matters is that he gets away from the mess, away from the questions that have been seeded and sewed like strangling ivy--

  Another gunshot. Redbeard’s legs continue their difficult rush forwards after a near-trip. The rain rips at Sherlock’s cheeks, turning them redder and more raw, until they feel like pricks of ice, stabbing at his face.

  And this is where John Watson appears, out of nowhere. There is no fog - Sherlock didn’t see him approach, all he knows is that Redbeard curves away from the heel Sherlock presses into his side, and that this move runs him towards John Watson, mounted on the back of his giant black horse. He's a shape and then he's John. Sherlock slows as he approaches, unsure of what to say, maybe to open his mouth and apologize for not being here yesterday, because that’s the only thing that is currently coming to his angry and twisted mind.

  And then Sherlock sees the revolver. He pulls Redbeard, unhappy he is near yet another water horse, even familiar, into a stop.

  It’s small, maybe capable of holding six bullets, a model from the mainland that’s at least twenty years old, and John is wielding it expertly, pointed forwards and into the distance. His arm is extended, his hair is damp and pressed down, the front sticking up in a ridiculous way that makes Sherlock think he ran Gladstone, fast, just to get here.

  “John,” Sherlock manages, as soon as he’s close enough to actually say something. John’s eyes are focused forward, his mouth set in a grim line, brows drawn together in a way that Sherlock can only describe as dangerous. And... alluring. The pistol gleams in the barely existent light.

  Sherlock follows his line of sight, the rain making it difficult. There’s a streak of brown, far away by the edges of the cliffs, which are the horizon in Sherlock’s eyes, but it’s gone too soon. Sherlock frowns, identifying it as the chestnut water horse, belonging to the mill worker. But where was its rider?

  Then there is grey.

  And there is Hope.

  And there is red.

  Riding up on his horse, through the rain, Hope is grasping the reins with only one hand. The other is curled up on his lap, like he is on a growling Hydria. His shoulder is bleeding profusely through the wet, white cotton, and his face betrays a world of pain. Redbeard cowers, taking a few nervous steps backwards. Gladstone’s heavy breaths deepen, and the predatory stance widens. Incredulous, Sherlock watches John.

  The revolver is pointed towards Hope. The grey’s eyes are rolling as it shakes and shivers with restrained power. The bells over its reins rattle and quiver.

  Vague, surely temporary veil of safety falling over him, the chill begins to set into Sherlock’s skin, raising the flesh. He can feel it in the marrow of his bones.

  “I will not merely graze you again,” John says. There’s a deadly smile over his face, now, between a smirk and something joyful, like this will be pleasurable. “I will not hesitate in using this in Sherlock’s defense.”

  Surely, there is something wrong with his hearing, his ears, something is wrong with him. Because those words did not come from John’s mouth. The rain falls.

  Sherlock next glowers up at Hope. He almost wants to stick out his tongue - but the situation is too dire for that, so early. He almost wants to laugh. He almost wants to cry.

  He wants to crush Jefferson Hope. To shove him from the water horse that dwarfs Redbeard, that stirred him up into madness, that pushed Sherlock nearly over the cusp of sanity and fear. Step and crush his bleeding wound underfoot.

  Sherlock sniffs.

  John doesn’t glance over. He hasn’t, this whole time. Sherlock would feel almost neglected, if it wasn’t for the fact that John just offered to shoot Hope, again, should he harm Sherlock.

  John’s arm is perfectly extended forwards, revolver aimed high at the man, the other hand holding Gladstone’s reins, keeping the connection between them. Gladstone is a statue. They’re both statues. Carved in marble, flawlessly exquisite, down to the last hair on Gladstone’s mane and tight line between John’s concentrated brow. His skin looks like wet gold.

  “Watson, you of all people should know, the Races are sacred,” Hope manages with that sick smile, and his uisce tries to stare down Gladstone. It’s a horrendous mistake, because the mountainous black champion wrinkles back his rotting lips, flashing yellowed teeth. A low, guttural sound made in Gladstone’s throat splinters the fizzling air.

  The grey-spattered horse’s ears flay back, flicking rainwater.

  “Nothing on Thisby is sacred,” John replies smoothly. His voice is as steady as the way Gladstone is leaning forwards, almost swaying. Gladstone’s head slants downwards, another petrifying noise ripping from behind his teeth, hissing out through his long nostrils. If Sherlock wasn’t on John’s good side, he’d be shaking more than he is now, with the cold nestled up against him and the rain permeating every thread of fabric on his body.

  “You don’t mess with the Races. You know he’s already angry--”

  “I think you’d better leave,” John interrupts. His thumb leaves the side of the gun to audibly cock the hammer, drawing it straight back.

   Clackclick , as it releases.

  The thumb returns. John’s finger is pushed tight against the modeled line of the trigger. Sherlock stares at John’s hands, shivering.

  “I won’t only graze you again. I promise,” John repeats. His voice is brilliantly even.

  Hope looks at Sherlock. Sherlock does his best to stare back, but his hair is wet and in his face, so he’s sure he ends up looking more like a petulant child who fell into a pond than a threatening adult man who could murder Hope in over three hundred and twenty ways. Hope groans as he forces both hands onto the reins. Good. Sherlock wishes Hope hurts in the worst of ways.

  “You’re not bored now, are you?”

  John snarls, “Go.”

  Hope beats him down with one more stare. Then he jerks Hydria, almost mad with the water and the wind, and walks her away. Gladstone snaps his tail delightfully as she retreats. John follows Hope’s progress with his gun.

  Sherlock closes his eyes, taking deep breaths, and leans forwards until his head is against the line of Redbeard’s neck and mane. The shudders, he feels, are strong.

  “Are you alright?”

  John looks to him while Sherlock sits up. The revolver has been tucked up, probably put against the small of John’s back, in the waistband. Safety on, naturally, though it must poke into John’s skin, seeing as how he is on a giant water horse. “Sherlock, are you alright?”

  Sherlock nods, looking away in the direction Hope rode in from, expecting to see the chestnut brown again.

  “No, come on. Honestly,” John pleads, and Sherlock suddenly wants to be anywhere but here. He doesn’t want to be in the rain anymore. “What happened?”

  “Jefferson Hope happened,” Sherlock snaps, and he yanks on one side of the reins until Redbeard gets the message and pulls away from Gladstone’s side, where he appears to have been stuck. It’s cold, wet, and he just wants to get home. Perhaps he’ll catch influenza, or a cold, and he’ll have a legitimate excuse to not get out of bed on the day of the Races--

  “Sherlock!” John calls, and Sherlock pushes his heels into Redbeard’s side, who begins to trot. There is the sound of a sigh, lost to the drizzling of rain, and then John has silently caught up. Gladstone is as meek as a sheep, walking silently with huge steps as Redbeard trundles along, still spooked. “What happened? Did they do anything to you?”

  “Just tried to get me out of the Races,” Sherlock informs John, “Nothing new. You can see the cliff edges from where you shot, you saw what happened.”

  “Yeah,” John clears his throat. Awkward. Sherlock pulls Redbeard into a stop, and John follows suit. Gladstone shifts and rocks in place. Sherlock squints at John.

  And then pieces click into place. “You shot him.”

  “What? Well, you did see Hope’s arm, he was bleeding, nothing bad, but it may be a little sore on racing day--”

  “And you shot the mill worker. The one on the brown capall . Then it went over the cliffs, most likely taking the body with it.”

  John is quiet. He glances away from Sherlock.

  Sherlock can scarcely believe it.

  John barely knows him, yet he shot and killed a man for Sherlock, and injured another. He’s… unsure of what to make of this.

  “He wasn’t really a great mill worker.”

  “Oh, no. Terrible.” Sherlock agrees. He didn’t know the man.

  And, suddenly, John is giggling, and so is Sherlock, ducking his head and trying to turn away so that John won’t see his face, his pleased expression and the way he can feel the skin scrunching up at his eyes in some sort of wicked glee.

  “Stop, stop it. We can’t laugh, someone died,” John calms, before breaking back into a ring of chuckles.

  “It’s hardly my fault.”

  John grins at him, “You can’t imagine how much it is.”

Chapter Text

A roll of thunder passes overhead. John looks up, squinting against the slowing drizzle. It’s a contradiction - thunder means the storm can become heavier, yet the rain is steadily thinning into a greying mist. Sherlock’s hair has not forgiven him, he’s unsure if it ever will. While his clothes and curls and skin aren’t soaked, he’s certainly rumpled, more than a bit disheveled.

  The long grasses are weighed down with clinging drops of clear water. It’s all bent, as far as Sherlock can see. Gladstone doesn’t make noise, and Redbeard’s hooves plunk down on the hardened dirt road rhythmically. The iron horse is walking lazily. Sherlock doesn’t push him.

  Gladstone is shivering, his knees are lifting far up and it's obvious that Gladstone wants to run. John is keeping him tightly in check, reins pulled up close to his stomach. (The stomach that Sherlock imagines can look a number of different ways - hard and sculpted and flat, which fits John’s work routine, or perhaps softer, which fits his age and frame, and Sherlock really must look forwards again before his face catches aflame.)

  “Aha,” Sherlock announces suddenly, just for something to say. He’s a lover of silence, but John is a curious companion for the trip home. Which… What? John’s plodding Gladstone along beside a shaken Redbeard, and Sherlock. He doesn’t look as if he’s going to turn around. Sherlock must make conversation in order to keep him from realizing his mistake and looping back. “I’ve got it, John.”

  One of Gladstone’s devilishly long ears swivels to catch the sound of his voice. “Got what?” John asks, sparing a glance down at him before focusing on the wet road ahead of them.

  “We’ll rig it.”

  “You can’t rig the Races, Sherlock,” Says John, and Sherlock is pleased with this answer for a multitude of reasons. For one, John knew immediately what Sherlock was referencing (not that big a leap, yes, alright, fine), and for another… Sherlock delights in hearing his name slide out from John’s mouth. It’s so easy for John to say. Like he’s been saying it forever. One more, John said nothing about the implication that they would both be doing the rigging. Both of them. Together.

  “Why not?” Sherlock snaps back anyways.

  “There’s too much to lose, for everyone. Everyone’s racing for a reason - would you take a bribe?”

  Sherlock’s shoulders slump. He wasn’t invested in the idea, but he’s got to keep up appearances. “No.” He pouts.

  John licks his lip. His eyes dart away.

  “There. See. Neither would I. You live by the sheep farm, up there, don’t you?”

  “Missus Turner’s. I am her neighbor.” Sherlock has no idea why he’s revealing that. It doesn’t matter. But apparently it does, because John’s… walking him home? Escorting him? Maybe John doesn’t trust Sherlock not to get into trouble for the few miles it takes to get to Mrs Hudson’s.

  “A bit far out, isn’t it? How do you get to Skarmouth so often? It’s windy.”

  “It’s always windy.”

  “But especially windy out here. No wonder your hair’s always… curly.”

  Cheeks heating up impossibly against the cold bite of the aforementioned wind, Sherlock defends, “That’s merely how it is!” He reaches up a hand to pat his fringe, which is no longer all pasted to his head. Parts of it are obscenely fluffy with the heavy humidity and the no-longer-existent rain. Instead of any falling, the rest has gathered up and the clouds have dropped, covering this side of the island in white. He then holds the reins up to his chest in order to appear defensive, making Redbeard squeal lightly in distaste as the bit pulls his head back, forcefully arching his neck. Sherlock loosens his embarrassed grip, now more embarrassed for his troubles, and pats Redbeard’s neck in apology. He gets a whip with the tail for reprimand, a fair punishment.

  John laughs.

  “Ha! Yeah, right, I’ve never seen anyone’s hair curl like that naturally! How much product do you really use?”   

  “None!” Sherlock lies. John looks at him. “The effects are always gone by noon.”

  “So now you’re lying to me?” John puts a hand to his chest, still holding the reins and faking an astounded face. “And I thought we’d already moved past that stage in our relationship.”

  Gladstone’s ears squash suddenly against the side of his skull, long pistons of flesh melting into puddles of contrast against the white mane. His nostrils flare - Redbeard’s gait shifts to a four-beat rhythm instead of the hearty three he’d been since managing. He’s slowing down into a walk to keep pace with the massive capall that is halting.

  John looks down, to the other side of Gladstone’s great haunches. The horses reel to a stop.

  “Oh, that’s… oh.”

  It takes Sherlock a moment to see. Gladstone’s mass is in the way.

  Hanging over the stone wall, mossy and low to the ground, the one which lines the road and the fields, is a body.

  Sherlock tries pulling Redbeard into a stop, and instead of slowing to a walk like he normally does, Redbeard stiffens immediately. The horse’s head swings up, and his ears prick forwards. His tail stops whipping at the back of Sherlock’s legs in search of pesky biting flies.

  But Redbeard isn't looking towards the road. Ears swiveling, his head is elevated to focus on the distant hillocks in the green pastures, facing the rolling white mist, which has settled low to the ground in a wispy fog. Some continues to drizzle down, giving everything a shiny wet sheen.

  Recognizing that Redbeard isn’t paying attention to him, Sherlock keeps his hands on the reins, in case the iron horse decides to spook or bolt. Allowing Redbeard to handle the situation, Sherlock studies the body draped over the stones. He doesn’t see the wool that indicates it would be a ram or ewe from Mrs Turner’s farm. In its place is sleek fur, black and white. It would’ve been lustrous and smooth if it wasn’t sticking up in cloistered clumps. It doesn’t smell yet, and Sherlock fleetingly wonders how long it’s been there.

  Blood drips from mangled chunks of flesh and torn fur, staining the coarse grass.

  John sits up in the saddle, slowly. Sherlock watches his eyes scan the surrounding moor, stopping at each rocky outcropping to study the land. These outcroppings are just distant shadows in the fog. “It’s still bleeding.”

  Sherlock watches the heather bushes and sparse gorse. Some rocks are scattered over the terrain, only shapes, and Sherlock stares at each of them in turn, as if any could conceal the culprit. He highly doubts a capall uisce would hide behind something so small. He highly doubts a capall would hide at all.

  Gladstone takes an interest in the mist past Sherlock. His wet, fish eyes are pinpointing something that Sherlock cannot see in the white. Sherlock wants to ask about it. Speaking will break the settled, heavy silence. Sherlock can’t decide whether or not he wants to do just that. Perhaps breaking it will be the end of this horrible, dreading wait. Perhaps it will be the catalyst, and a hungry water horse will come charging from the rolling fog.

  “Let’s keep going. Almost home?”

  Sherlock stares at John. He almost forgets to nod.

  He sends one last sorrowful glance to the dead border collie.

  They find a crushed jaw, sticky with torn ligaments and curdled blood, down the road. The chipped teeth are shiny, wet in the drizzling water. The tongue is missing, though part of the gleaming trachea is attached. Sherlock presses his calves harder into Redbeard’s sides, the horse spooks - and moves on, fast. John has Gladstone lengthen his strides.

  “Not to worry,” John hushes in his direction. Redbeard quickens through the fog. Sherlock bounces in the seat with the rushed trot. “Gladstone thinks all of Thisby belongs to him. There isn’t a horse ashore that would challenge him.” John pats the night-black neck, fingers twisted in the white mane. Gladstone clacks his teeth against the bit in his mouth.

  Sherlock remembers the low sound that Gladstone had made, when Hope was still a threat, a long sigh with punctuated whines, quiet, with tough forces of air behind them. With the champion capall on alert as he is, head high, neck elongated, ears hot and pressed forwards, Sherlock wonders what other noises he would make in defense. Gladstone’s eyes are wild, searching. Sherlock would say they were frantic, but they’re not. They’re patient. Looking for a weaker enemy.  

  Slits have emerged on Gladstone’s neck, contracting and fluttering. Sherlock stares at them. John notices and looks down. He pats them, cooing, “None of that, now,” into Gladstone’s ears. When he lifts his hand, all the remains is a black pelt, gleaming in the bleak, wet day.

  Sherlock says, over the three-beat bump of Redbeard’s gait, “And what if one has only just come ashore? They couldn’t know not to.”
  “Then they’ll learn the hard way.”

  Sherlock is worried that Gladstone will lash out and snap Sherlock in half, just for something to bite, for something to be between those crushing teeth.

  “I don’t believe you’d want to be on his back for that, would you?” Sherlock points out.

  Somewhere far away, something is lurking in the floating white mist. Sherlock just doesn’t know where it is. Gladstone makes a chuffing, snorting noise though his nostrils. It doesn’t make him sound like a champion at all, it makes him sound like a foal, ready for a skirmish and bounding on new legs. Sherlock keeps Redbeard at a trot, but has never been so grateful to be so close to a capall.

  They reach the fence that borders Mrs Hudson’s property, and Sherlock pulls Redbeard to a halt, the black water horse following. He can see the house, a great hulking, dark shape in the white.

  He eyes Gladstone. Just because he has John on his back, a man Sherlock is ready to admit that he trusts, just to himself, does not mean that the horse is ready to be left unsupervised. Gladstone looks at Redbeard.

  “Er- thank you.” Sherlock finally manages to step down from Redbeard’s saddle. He stands next to the iron stallion’s head. Redbeard knocks his face against Sherlock’s arm, getting snot on his coat. Sherlock scowls. Gladstone watches Redbeard.

  Redbeard no longer seems to mind.

  John smiles kindly, “It’s not a problem. Was rather nice, actually.”

  “What, you shooting a man for me?”

  “The walking part!” John exclaims. His mouth makes a war on his face, fighting several competing expressions at once. Sherlock adores it, then abhors that he adores it. “Well, yes, the, the shooting part. I’d go back and do it again. Not because I enjoyed it. Just. I’d do the same thing, in the same situation. For you.”

  Sherlock blinks at him.

  Then Sherlock asks, “Are you alright?”

  “Yes, of course I’m alright.”

  “Well, you have just killed a man.”

  John grins heartily. He looks around, as if nervous. “Yes, well… That’s true, isn’t it?”

  Satisfied that John is okay, Sherlock turns to undo the metal gate. He’s immediately quite embarrassed that there’s rust on the hinges, and that the gate squeaks. Josephine whinnies from faraway at the noise, evidently hearing his return. Gladstone’s ears shoot up to capture the sound, his head lifts. Looking for an excuse to step out of the conversation, Sherlock pulls Redbeard inside the gate by the bottom ring of his halter, and closes it behind him.

  He looks up and John is still there.

  His eyes seem to snap John out of a daze, because the man suddenly jerks, like he’s just woken up and realized he’s got somewhere to be. The connection makes Sherlock think about what John looks like when he’s only just gotten out of bed and that route of thinking isn’t going to bode well, so he smiles up at the rider. John smiles back. The moment would be awkward, to someone standing outside of it, but since Sherlock isn’t, so he rather likes the stupid smiling.

  John waves, “I’ll be seeing you.”

  He starts to turn Gladstone, and Sherlock sputters out, “I apologize.”

  Gladstone shivers with the anticipation of movement. He’s obviously not liking that Sherlock is making John wait up for him. “What for?” Asks John.

  “For not. Being there. Yesterday. I was in Skarmouth - there was, a murder, you see, and I just…” He stops. Breathes. Looks around in the mist, sees no shapes, relaxes. “I lost track of time. I apologize for not coming.”

  John’s smile does not fade. “And here I thought you didn’t like me.”

  “Why would you ever think that?”

  “Anderson’s got in his head that you don’t like anyone.”

  “Anderson’s a moron.”

  “Yes, well,” John sighs, and Sherlock’s heart flutters, “We can all be, sometimes.”  

-/-

 

  “I’m telling you, the man was a complete stranger - walked right up to me and gave me the bag.”

  “Big ears?”

  “Yes - how did you--?”

  “Henry Knight. Mainland monger, here for the Stockyard auction. Most likely thinks you work for Moriarty. Why else would he give you a paper bag of - what was it?”

  “A flower! Like, like those bluebells in the pastures. Only it was purple, more open. Very pretty.”

  “What’s the point in that?”

  “The bag said ‘London’, but I could barely make that out.”

  “Oh, souvenir, then. From the mainland.”

  “Am I supposed to give it to Moriarty? I can’t exactly walk right up to him!”

  “No, Molly. Just keep it. It hardly matters. It’s a flower. Can’t be that expensive.”

  The bell tinks above Sherlock’s head. Molly sighs, melting into the countertop. “I don’t see the point,” She confesses, rubbing a streak of flour into her hair.

  Sherlock shrugs. He nods to Archie, blankly wiping down empty tables, and leaves the sweet-smelling bakery with hands sticky in honey glaze. He really does not see reason for the flowers to function as a gift from Knight to Moriarty, but perhaps Knight comes from a family or farm that likes botany… no, that’s not it. His hands aren’t nearly grubby enough for that. He’s wealthy, and he doesn’t bother with dirt…

  His mind inevitably performs the shift to thinking of John. Of that chestnut streak against the sky - the water horse flying over the cliff to return to the ocean instead of remain tied to the land. Of the two reports of gunfire. The whole event is unbelievable. Sherlock would’ve loved to stay home and in bed thinking about it all, but Skarmouth had called to him, and so had the rest of his expensive oats for Redbeard, finally ready for pickup. He’d waited a few hours after John left and the heavy mist had lessened before returning to the town. He’d had no encounters.

  Well, perhaps the border collie’s body that was missing from the stone wall counts as an encounter. What had come to claim it?

  He’s thinking, walking down the darkening streets of Skarmouth when it happens.

  Sherlock can catalog every weakness in both of his attackers, but he can do nothing about it when he’s pinned against brick.

  This is true in every situation. Seeing all is not the same as being able to do all. Sherlock is gifted in being able to devise roundabout ways to getting what he wants, or getting his experiments to yield conclusive results. But this isn’t an experiment. It’s happening, and it happens fast, and he sees nothing but a blur of motion, and--

  The stinking rot of burning rubbish, hot pitch, like the night of the festival, hits his nose, before his head hits the wall, bouncing off with a repulsive shot of bright pain.

  He’s spun around, head spinning as well, suddenly weak and sick to his stomach, wanting to double up and keel over, but he’s held upright and shoved deeper into the Skarmouth alley, away from the waning evening light and storefront lamps, stumbling and pushed, hands rucking up his jacket, the sharp side of a blade held to his throat from behind.

  “Nothing,” Spits a gruff voice behind Sherlock. His head spins. He assumes they mean weapons, and the hands linger on his waist for a moment too long to be innocent. He shivers, violently, and thinks he may wretch, right here.

  Two pairs of hands (only three hands, really… one hand is… something. Busy. holding the knife. Against his neck.) shove him again, and he collapses back into the brickwork of the alley wall. His knees wobble. This place smells vile. His eyes aren’t focusing.

  A man demands, “Now, what do you want from Thisby’s champion?”

  The woman holding the knife presses it into his bare throat. He's vaguely aware they've torn away his scarf and can see the tail end on the ground across the stone alleyway.

   The man beside her says, “Nothing good, I imagine.” He grips Sherlock's wrists tightly, scraping the bumps of his ulna against each other in fat hands, pushing them against his churning stomach. Sherlock sneers, but his mouth won't work correctly.

  He tries blinking, but it only makes him look dazed. He tries again. His vision won't clear.

  “I bet he wants to cut him up,” The woman remarks. Her voice is scratchy. The knife bites at Sherlock's left carotid artery.

  It brings up a groggy memory.

  He gasps out, “Butcher.”

  The man steals a confused look at the woman. Sherlock doesn't understand - and his eyes are trying to roll back up into his head. Not butchers, then, not the murderous son’s parents. The parents of the boy who killed the tourist girl with the yellow dress. The dress was so soft, where it hadn’t been hardened in a crumpled position with blood… He shakes his head, even if it has the effect of making the woman more alert, ready to slash his skin open.

  These are gamblers, he finally notices. It was so obvious. But he couldn’t, he can’t… think .

  Sherlock’s head aches, deep inside.

  “Cut him up,” Repeats the woman, “See what's moving around inside…”

  “How it all works…”

  Sherlock’s very familiar with the workings of human anatomy. He’s studiously dedicated to physiology. He doesn’t need a subject to ‘cut up’. He doesn’t want one. He struggles suddenly, the broad side of the knife threatens to crush his trachea. He wheezes.

  “Flay Watson open, hm?” The man snorts back a mouthful of snot and spits it somewhere, “Is that your goal?”

  Sherlock tries twisting out of the hands, but they're everywhere, and his eyes are closed. “No,” He says, quiet. He doesn’t want to see how John looks on the inside. He doesn’t want John’s beating, bloody heart in his hands (or some other organ that doesn’t have the ridiculous connotation of love, none of them, they should all stay where they are, keeping John working in that mysterious way he does). Picturing the scene, scalpels and crimson droplets on a shining metal autopsy table, makes him sick. His banged-up head may make him cry, just thinking about it. He’s already tearing up, and horrified to hear a scratchy break in his voice as he shouts, “No!”

   One of the man’s beefy hands clamps over his lips, squeezing harshly at his cheeks, digging half-moons with scraggly fingernails. Sherlock squirms, trying to push himself back into the alley wall, but his hands and face are held firm.

  They want him to be quiet - why? Who is near enough that they would be able to hear him?

  “See? Look at him, he looks like he’s going ‘na cry.”

  “He looks more like he’s going to piss his knickers.” The woman laughs.

  Sherlock would put more money on the former.

  Mind coming back, slowly but surely emerging from the black, Sherlock’s eyes widen, flashing wildly side to side. They’re too deep in the tangled corners of Thisby back alleys for anyone just passing by to see him. His ears struggle to hear anything beyond the taunts of the man and woman before him, shoving him so far into the stone walling that he is certain he hears something in his back pop by force.

  People. There must be people. The sky is hardly dark, Skarmouth will be filled with people.

  Sherlock struggles to open his mouth, and when the grimy scent is too much to bear, he snaps his teeth down on a finger.

 ( How much pressure does it take to bite off a finger?

  Unlike meat, flesh, skin is very elastic - it's like trying to bite through rubber, because it gives under force, sinks. But doesn't break.)

  Sherlock bites harder.

  (It wouldn't even be his fault if he truly did bite it off, the man shouldn't have his hands on Sherlock's face in the first place.)

  The man rips his hand away from Sherlock's mouth, shouting something. Sherlock wants to grin, but he’s focused on wheezing breaths, ramming his knee into the woman’s low-hanging gut, and dashing to make his escape.

  

-/-

 

  He doesn’t even fit the odds.

  Sherlock stumbles, hits the wall of Hawkins’ Tavern. His head swims, images float by without real semblance. He sinks to the stone ground, holding his head in his hands. To anyone, he’ll look like a drunk. It’s a good cover as his brain works quickly to reassemble itself.

  Gamblers.

  They would want him out of the Races for one reason - so he wouldn’t ruin their game. So he wouldn’t magically pull up from behind and race ahead, and win, make them lose money.

  Why would the gambling man and woman waste energy on him? He isn’t a threat. He can’t win the Races.

  He can’t do it.

 

-/-

 

  In the evening, Sherlock breaks open one of the cheap bales of hay, sitting against the shared wall of the stable and Mrs Hudson’s house, and drawing the hay over his legs to fight the chill. His violin sits next to him in its case, and Redbeard’s head pokes out of the half-door across the narrow way from him. Josephine is making soft sounds in her stall.

  Sherlock’s lips are dry, he picks fitfully at the skin until a twinge of pain stops him, then laves over the spot, irritated he’s done that to himself. He rolls a piece of hay between his thumb and forefinger, watching the bent tip spin.

  Redbeard repeals his head when he realizes that Sherlock isn’t going to pay him any attention, ducking his nose into the bucket of oats held there by wire. He can't have too much, or else he’ll get ill on them. They’re still good for him to have - levels of protein in stocks of oats have a large range, due to different cultivation and management methods. Where there’s protein, there’s better muscle.

  Little over a week until the Races. There are still riders prancing around and flinging their horses through mock gallops on the beach down by the racing tract of sand. It’s still light enough for them to be practicing, conditioning their capaill and trying to hold them away from the sea, weighing them down in bright tassels and shrill bells.

  Were they planning to kill him? If so, they did a terrible job. Sherlock’s not even half dead. His head hurts, but he'd looked at himself in the mirror and his pupils seem fine, his eyes are focusing and muscles all working to his command.

  Discouraged, yes.

  Shaken, yes.

  Knows that he doesn’t belong on the beach, yes.

  But not dead. And he swore to himself that he wouldn’t give up until he was.

  They want him to stop. Thisby itself is against him, even now the wind is throwing his hair through the slit of the open stable door. He can see the white mist, piling in from all sides. Water drips from a crack in the ceiling, one that makes a hole in both the actual roof, and the ceiling, which is the floor of the hayloft, directly below it.

  It puddles on the concrete, rhythmically sending tiny droplets flying as drops drip down. Sherlock wonders how long it will take for it to erode a dip in the floor, a dip like in the rock at the rider’s parade.

  So, he’ll keep running. All of these encounters, the rider’s parade fiasco, Jefferson Hope and his companion on the cliffside (Sherlock goes back to thinking - should he be worried that John killed someone? For Sherlock’s safety? Sherlock may have very well died without his welcome intrusion. Should Sherlock really be associating with someone that is so ready to kill for him?), the gamblers - man and the woman. None of them will stop him, not until one of them kills him. Who will feed and keep Redbeard in shape and happy? Mrs Hudson can probably do the later.

  And Redbeard’s not too young, he doesn’t need to run around all day to not be morbidly obese. Perhaps Sherlock can write a will and guilt John Watson into riding him every so often.

  Sherlock busies himself flaying a few pieces of straw, imagining a myriad of messy death scenes that await him. He somehow gets the image of the Catherine wheel into his head, a medieval torture and execution machine. He smiles crudely at the thought of it.

  More likely, what will happen is that he’ll line up for the Races on the day of, and Redbeard will run forwards, Sherlock will turn his head and there will be a horse. He’ll get ripped off and be a pulpy streak on the sand for the gulls to eat, and Redbeard will be forcefully drowned in the tide, swept out to sea. He imagines bubbles spilling from Redbeard’s tensed, submerged mouth, eyes white all the way around, red and stinging in the salt water, and swallows.

  He decides not to imagine anymore. Redbeard is alive and well, and Sherlock looks at him while leaning more heavily against the wall and shifting hay onto his lap. It’s getting colder. He wonders where the sun has gone, reaches forwards to turn up the brightness of his electric lantern. Outside, it’s grey and white, and he can’t see the sky. He can’t see more than ten lengths away from the slitted door.

  Distantly, there’s a sound.

  Sherlock stops.

  He listens, staring out the stable door. He can’t see the bordering wooden fence from here, but knows it’s there. The noise comes again - the faraway pop of old nails, and, faintly, wood splintering. Something crackling, something thumping to the hard earth. Thunder rumbles overhead, and the rest of the noise is lost to it. 

  There’s not enough wind for something like that to happen - for the ancient fence to fall on its own, to crack by itself.

  He breathes, slowly. Minutes pass. Maybe it’s nothing, after all, Redbeard hasn’t even looked up. His stance is relaxed, from what Sherlock can see of it. He munches noisily.

  Now, Sherlock hears an odd creak.

  It’s an old house. Everything on the island is old. Wind blows in screen doors and shifts the groaning ceilings, throws tufts of grass across open pasture.

  There are lots of creaks in the stalls. The fence that surrounds the property creaks in the wind, nails come loose often. Musgrave will pad through the dusty hayloft above and step on the wrong floorboard, and the wood will whine. Josephine butts her head against the walls of her stall, making the door hinges complain. Redbeard likes to push his hindquarters against his walls, too, when he has a scratch.

  But this isn't the cat, a horse, or the wind.

  It hasn’t exactly made a noise like a squeak of a hinge, or the joint of a fence. It’s soft, more like a pat. An experimental tap against wood.

  It comes again, a tender knock. The stable door rasps against its bottom track.

  Redbeard’s head has emerged from the bucket. There are oats in his mouth, stuck to his nose, but he is not chewing. He arches his neck up to his full height, and freezes. His ears are pricked, eager and listening, neck stiff. Sherlock remains still. He can’t see Josephine from where he’s sitting on the cement in the hay, but since there are no sounds from her stall, he assumes she’s also frozen.

  Everything is held in limbo. Suspended in the air - like micro sediments in water. It will settle so slowly that it will never touch the ocean bed, held forever by turbulence in the ocean. This moment feels like the eerie rise of screeching violins. He wonders when the rest of the instruments will join in, when he’ll be released from this horrible wait.

  He listens for another noise, something that would explain why Redbeard’s gone so still, something that would explain the quiet noise. Redbeard’s ear twists to catch a noise on the other side of the wall. Sherlock doesn't breathe, as long as Redbeard remains high and alarmed like this, so will he.

  Silence.

  Then,

    Whuff

  A sighing puff of air. Unlike the sounds of the hushing ocean. More like the mist gusting softly over the roof. Sherlock swallows.

  More soft sounds follow, barely above the reverberation of the mist. Soft, soft, soft.

  The sound of feet.

  Footsteps.

  No.

  Hooves.

  Slow hoofbeats, falling gently outside the open door.

  Redbeard’s ear flicks to the sound of another creak-pat, and remains trained on that spot. The rest of his body is a statue, carved from heavy limestone, never to be moved. More hoofbeats, the sound of the foggy mist outside, the electric lantern casting a yellow circle of light in the dark stable.

Chapter Text

The hoofbeats are unfamiliar.

  Gladstone makes no noise or nearly no noise when he steps. Redbeard’s hooves happily clap down on roads, be them brick or packed dirt or loose gravel. Josephine’s ankles tend to tremble and pop when she does anything more than amble slowly around the paddock.

  Mary, the blonde mare, with the shivering harness of bells and iron nails that dug into her hide, the saddle blankets draped in Thisby’s colors to keep her tied to land… He can’t remember what sounds she made as she moved. Everything was so quick. She was in one place until she wasn’t. He can only remember the quaking bells, rattling inaudibly as she quivered with restrained force, and he was faster than a whip.

  Sherlock can’t hear any bells.

  He can’t hear the gentle rasp of a backside in a leather saddle. There is no sound of buckles on a bridle, being fixed or tightened or mended. No brush of iron stirrups on hard riding shoes. No whisper of flaps against thighs. Nothing.  

  There is only a throbbing heartbeat in Sherlock’s ears. It may be his, it may be Redbeard’s thundering muscle, but it is there, rushing with the white noise.

   Creak-pat.

  The stable door shifts.

   Creak-pat comes again, and then the sound of a sigh gushing over wood. Whuff, again. Redbeard’s eyes strain to see the source of the noise, but he gives no other tells of being a living, breathing animal.

  Sherlock’s own gaze darts back to the door. He sinks back against the wall, as quickly and silently as he can without knocking the lantern over or rustling the pieces of hay that are piled over his lap.

  He melts against the wood, thanks the heavens for the bales of straw that block the capall’s view of him, but still allow him to stare, wide-eyed with his mouth popped open, through the space between the wall and the bales. His view is partially obstructed by wayward hay pieces sticking out of the shape they are meant to conform in, but the sight is enough to steal all the air from his lungs in one foul move.

  Here is the thing that comes awake in the night. It is horror and fear embodied, and is as black as the bottom of the ocean. In the dark, it is only an incomplete jigsaw of white - a piebald. The black patches of its body are lost to the gloomy world outside, and it looks like a phantom.

  It pushes its face through the stable door, knocking it open wider with the squeal of ancient wood.

  Its eyes long and wide, gazing into the stable. Like Gladstone, earlier that day, there are thin slits in the side of its neck. Remnants of gills. This has recently come ashore, perhaps in the rain. They shudder as it slowly breathes.

  It’s hungry.

  Nothing else resembles what Sherlock would say belongs at the Stockyard, or in the Races. It has nostrils on the front of its face, running up its muzzle and stopping just past the forward-facing eyes. This does not look like a horse. Unlike Mary, the mouth is not narrow, but it is frothing red sea foam lightly. It drips from the twitching, fat lip. Deep in its throat emerges a sound, like a whispered, squealing scrape.

  There is nothing separating Sherlock, Redbeard, and Josephine from this night-black horse. It has its head through the crack in the stable door. This door isn’t like the one for the stalls - there is no opening the top and having the bottom remain closed. It is pulled on a track - there runs a narrow strip of outside darkness from the ceiling to the cement flooring.

  Halfway up, higher than any ordinary horse would be able to stretch their neck to, is the massive horse’s nose, snuffling with reeking sniffs at the big wooden panels. The capall next investigates where Sherlock’s hands had been last - the door handle. It breathes hotly on the metal.

  The door is open, and the horse is now feeding its neck through the slit, peering into the stable and hooking its head around the side of the door. Another soft hoofbeat as it shifts its significant weight from one hind leg to the other. It looks at the electric lantern down by the toes of Sherlock’s boots. There are tiny, reflecting orbs of light in its eyes, harsh on the gleam of the wet eyeball. It blinks, and twists an unnatural ear.

  If it wanted to, the capall could step into the stable. It could bully its shoulders through the crack and it would be in here, mere feet from Sherlock, under the roof where Sherlock has spent his days feeling safe. He’s covered from toe to waist in hay, blending into the bales that are hiding him from the horse’s view. This makes no difference. The capall knows that he is here.

  The water horse looks at Redbeard. Redbeard makes no move.

  Exactly how many times have they been told, how many times has it been proven, that to move is to die? That the capaill are hunters more than they are scavengers.

  The capall opens its mouth and Sherlock half-expects to hear hinges squeaking, see a jaw popping, because opening an equine mouth that wide should not be possible. It emits a low whine, with pulsing clucks behind it, horrifyingly keening upwards at the end.

   Keeeawawawwww

  It is almost, almost like Hope’s horse (or was it the escaped chestnut? Sherlock cannot think), and that is enough to have Sherlock nearly biting through his bottom lip in an attempt to quiet himself. Directly in front of him, Redbeard’s ears lay flat against his skull, the only movement he makes.

  All that protects Sherlock and his beloved horse is the width of the crack in the stable door. The horse has no more neck to push through into the stable, its shoulders are preventing it from stepping inside but this can change in an instant.

  Sherlock can’t think about this.

  Gently, he leans his head back against the wall, staring up at the inky ceiling. Only the nearest corners are illuminated by the light. If the light were out the darkness would cover him more than the hay is. He can’t move to turn it off. The only thing worse than facing a capall is facing a capall with no light to see by. They can see in the dark, he cannot. His eyes flick back to stare at the capall through the hay bales and wall--

  And it’s looking at him.

  Both wet eyes are trained on Sherlock, seeing him through the little window of straw he’d been using. The heartbeat in his ears vanishes.

  He can’t look away.

  The gleaming gaze stares at him. Ever so slowly, the piebald peels back its lips, revealing crushing flat teeth and rotten-green gums in order to scent him better. This horse’s gaunt face is no more than black-and-white canvas stretched over delicate bone. Both ears are cupped forwards to catch every sound he makes. The door creaks and complains loudly as strong shoulders test its strength. It is not pushing hard yet the door threatens to fall.

  He can’t breathe.

  He knows that the piebald will kill him if he runs but if it crashes into the stable he knows he will try to run anyway. There's nowhere to go.

   Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move.

  Outside, there’s a yowl.

  A wailing noise.

  Often times, these things sound like babies crying out in pain, or kittens mewling. The piebald presses forwards, focused on Sherlock.

  The wail comes again.

   Oh, god, there’s another one . There’s another one outside in the fog and it’s coming to get him, to help the first, and--

 The piebald shifts its weight away from the door with a long creak. Its lip lays back over its menacing teeth and its devilish ears twitch and flick to listen to the sound from outside. Its head tips back and neck arches up, face tilted to the side in order to hear better. It puts the monstrous profile on display - sloping nose, neck slits fluttering and its strange long ears swivel again.

 Again, the yowl, and now it is recognizable. It comes from the body that claws open the car seats and sleeps in the hayloft, that twists around his ankles and hobbles him.

  Musgrave. The barn cat.

  Redbeard’s ears flick to the noise, and the piebald’s long, long neck begins to retract through the slit in the door.

  These things are not pack hunters. They are alone from the moment they slide from the sea to the one where they slip back into it.

  He can’t move. His lungs are unable to draw breath, he gasps like a fish, but it’s impossible to get any oxygen into his body. He’s underwater, he must be, all he can smell is salt and all he can taste on his tongue is the dead things in the ocean.

  No one he knows has gone swimming in the Scorpio sea. No one has been between the sharp fanged rocks and in the white-bracketed blue. This moment is the one before you realize the water is sucking at the sand beneath your feet and toes and trying to drag you into the ocean.

  The piebald gives him a steadying look as the last of its head slips from the crack in the stable door, though it remains just outside, a threat in the dark beyond the reach of the electric lantern. It feels like the way twilight does - the end of his days.

  From the dark-white fog past the water horse, emerges a little feline form, Sherlock can see between the gaps in the piebald’s long legs.

  The capall crooks its head and Musgrave does not see it until it moves. Its knees slap against the wooden panels of the stable door as it whips around and bolts towards the barn cat, splintering the wood.

  Distantly, he can hear Musgrave yowling, and the continuous thunder of hooves.

  Sherlock raises his hands up to hide his face in them, fingers clutching at his unwashed hair. He shivers.

  It saw him. It’s seen him - it knows he’s in here. He can move and may risk being seen in the dark and killed. But he cannot stay here.

  He allows a moment to collect himself, shivering in the black. Pressing into the sticking hay bales, his mind reformats itself. He draws a deep breath, smelling the ocean, even this far inland.

  Sherlock imagines the capall coming back and eating Redbeard and Josephine and he is snatching the lantern off the floor and sliding it onto the empty metal hook meant for a saddle outside Josephine’s stall. From what he can see, the mare is shivering. He glances to Redbeard - how can he take them both? Mrs Hudson is on the sheep farm with Mrs Turner for bridge tonight - but wouldn’t a paddock full of slow wooly prey be the best place on the island for a hungry water horse to stalk about?

  In the end, he closes the sliding stable door. He throws the latch into place as quietly as possible. The night is too noisy, filled with Josephine’s soft, distressed whinnies, and Redbeard’s quiet grunting. Outside, he can’t make out more sounds. It's silent beyond the fog and this and the capall are the reasons why he closes the door.

  When Redbeard’s girth is tightened, Sherlock flicks off the lantern, submerging the stable and Josephine in darkness, and pulls Redbeard from the stables and into the scarcely lit mist. Above, the sky is darkening ever further, and all around, there is white murk.

  He steps carefully. Every footfall seems to make far too much noise. Redbeard spooks at every shift in the fog. He is a scared, twisting thing. Sherlock takes one last glance around, before he turns his back and closes the stable door again. He closes the latch, and after a moment, pulls off Redbeard’s lead and loops it around the handles, lashing it closed further.

  As long as Josephine is quiet, she will live. She wouldn’t have a chance if she ran. He cannot bring her.

  Sherlock throws a leg up into a stirrup on the  near side, then settles his other foot into place on the right. He grips the reins. Redbeard’s ears are turning every direction to catch sound. His eyes show white, all the way around. His tensed mouth is opened, Sherlock can see his breath in the cold. Sherlock’s fingers flex over the leather, wishing for gloves. No time to spare.

  He pushes his calves against Redbeard’s sides.

  There’s a break in the fence, somewhere. The capall could be inside the paddock with them at this very moment. Sherlock straightens in the saddle. He is more than his fear, which is nonexistent. An encounter like this won’t hurt him. He’s been banged up in alleyways and threatened within an inch of his life, he’s been harassed and doubted. A water horse won’t scare him.

  But it seems like it might, in the bleak white and the twilight.

  It’s hard to see far out at all - the sky is progressively getting darker and darker.

  He kicks Redbeard, the horse’s stride lengthens.

  They come to the broken fence. There are boards of old wood on the ground, broken nails, sticking half out of the fallen ones and half in the ones still attached to the rest of the fence, snapped right in half like nothing. Redbeard stalls for a moment, only having ever exited through the gate, and after a hesitation, Redbeard steps over the broken boards. Sherlock lets out a breath.

  Not unlike the day so long ago, when the two of them strayed from the Skarmouth road, something clucks in the shadows.

  Redbeard’s face jerks one way, supposedly towards the sound.

  The clucks repeat. Louder - closer. There’s no way to place the sound in the ghostly dark, the soft breeze throws it. This air current is not enough to shift the dense fog.

  Sherlock wretches the reins and has him facing forwards again. They find the dirt road and start down it.

  Outcroppings are discoloured monsters in the mist. The sky is dark now. It makes the mist a wall of shade.

  They pass the sheep paddocks, empty as far as he can see, which is not far.

  The road is long and he works Redbeard up into a trot, opting to remain sitting instead of posting. It’s a difficult pace to maintain, because going for this long is going to take a toll on the horse eventually, and Redbeard wants to go faster. With a capall in the dark, Sherlock does not disagree.

  There comes another sound, somewhere far behind them - the tumble of stones onto hard ground. The click of bone over rock. Something’s knocked over the mossy stone wall. Sherlock looks over his shoulder, but he cannot see what made the noise.

   To run is to die, to run is to die.

  Sherlock squeezes his legs into Redbeard’s soft sides, pushes hard, shoves his heels down, toes up. The horse throws back his head and his rhythm abruptly changes, hooves hitting the ground. Sherlock follows the movement with his arms to lessen the strain against Redbeard’s mouth.

  The back of his neck feels cold as the air hits it, and his hands are clammy. His mind is clouded and he can’t feel the tips of his fingers. He tangles them in Redbeard’s unfeeling mane and pulls a bit, trying to get feeling back into them.

  Tense moments pass with Redbeard streaking down the road.

  Sherlock thinks of all the pastures and open fields that they are running alongside. He thinks of all the capaill that could be loitering in them, seeing them canter swiftly across the island. It’s not just the one they’ve left behind, perhaps Thisby has become infested.

  Sherlock wonders whether Thisby would be better off as an island of forests and trees, rather than made of field and open pasture. It would give things more places to hide, things for the fog to curl around, but maybe it would be easier to get away from the beasts that annually come to gorge themselves on the population of Thisby.

  At the first town houses, Sherlock pulls Redbeard back into a quick walk. There’s a while to go until they’re properly in Skarmouth, but the road is evening out, becoming not so ragged on the edges. He’s not sure what his goal was, coming here. It’s dark, and the houses are just stone mounds with small glass windows that reflect nothing but the shadows.

  This shade is oppressive. Wandering into Skarmouth feels like walking into a ghost town. There are no people out - the streetlamps that are on have their light caught up in the immediate fog and no further. At least it is easier to see.  

  It can’t be that late. Where is everyone?

  He doesn’t miss their company, he despises most everyone, but having not a single person here is… uncanny. Skarmouth is a lively place after dark, with teenagers knocking down paper lanterns from the telephone wires, Hawkins’ Tavern alight in customers, the bakery serving late-night sweets, the burning of bonfires. All of this is amplified during racing season. And all of this is absent tonight.

  Redbeard’s hoofbeats turn from soft pats against the dirt road into soft clicks on the stone walk. Sherlock eyes the alleyways that have mist spilling out of them. The darkened haze has settled against the ground here, against the buildings and the closed shops.

  The days are getting shorter here, the sun set not long ago, only on the way here. There should be tourists, or fishermen skulking around corners or crossing the street. The stars are hidden behind a cloaking of heavy clouds. Skarmouth is shrouded in mist and silence. The space is eerie and atmospheric.

  Where has everyone gone?

  When Sherlock hears the telltale whuff of loud breath, it’s obvious.

  The piebald.

  It stands in the middle of the road, frozen for a moment, then leaning forwards to amble towards them. The slits broadside its neck spit hot air into the mist, it rolls over before it dissipates. Its head is lowered, square-pupiled eyes gazing up at Sherlock from below, reflecting the light from the glowing lanterns. There is plenty of space between them and Sherlock feels as though none of it exists at all. There are no obstacles. Those teeth will rip through him like paper.

  Fear prickles his skin, raw and undiluted.

  It steers closer and closer. Sherlock chooses to prolong his life, if only few a handful of seconds. Its knee lifts for another step, light glistening off the sea-slick patterned pelt.

  With an expert twist, Redbeard gets purchase on the familiar stonework and leaps away, tearing down the street in a matter of seconds. In the same amount of time the capall has vaulted into movement.

  The shops are sharp blurs, as is the thinning mist, the streetlamps and windowpanes are flying streaks as they tear past them. A pure strain of terror spikes down his back, echoing through his limbs and neck as he hears the continuous, smooth pound of menacing hooves clapping down on the ground behind them, gaining land.

  The mist drops off suddenly, betraying the location of the cliffs. Grunting with effort, Sherlock jerks Redbeard to one side, having him run parallel to the perilous fall.

  Like the water horses, he has veered to the sea, compelled by magic.

  Behind him, trying to outrun the wind, is the piebald.

  The piebald isn’t afraid of slipping, it’s concentrated completely on the gallop, strange knobby legs working at a preternatural speed. Sherlock rushes Redbeard and the horse stutters and trips and glances off of the pebbles on the slope to the sand but he quickens nevertheless.

  They hit the racing beach littered with half-eaten November cakes squashed into sediment and bloodstains that the water has yet to reach, trampling through the surf and soft sand and past a few late-night riders trying to get in extra time before the Races. At the chase, these led capaill hawk at them and wrench and twist in their jockey’s grips and try to tear away from leads made of scarlet cord and brass, jingling bells. The man who was playing a Scorpio rhythm on pipes sees them and the melody freezes, uncompleted in the middle. All of this is nonsense as Redbeard flies down the tract of useable sand.

  Redbeard’s hooves kick up seawater and the spray soaks through Sherlock’s socks.

  They leap over sand dunes beaten to submission by the dozens of hooves that have smothered it into flatness, only to have the tide build them up again. It’s perfectly floored and clean before they thunder over it, rippled firm and hard by the waves. Caged against the ocean and the high cliffs, there is nowhere to go but forwards, and that space is running out. Ahead, the line of water has crept closer to the bottom of the great chalk walls.

  The tide is coming back up like that night so long ago, with Sherlock scrabbling up a gravel hill and a water horse swimming below, but now there is a beast streaking after him and he is asking Redbeard for more and more speed, shoving his calves into the iron horse’s side and is pushing him harder and faster--

  --when a great long neck slaps into the side of his saddle, delivering a hard blow to Sherlock’s right leg and grinding bone against stirrup. Sherlock hauls the reins to the left, to the ocean - exactly where the capall is trying to steer him.

  It is this thought, and this thought only, that has Sherlock yanking back on the reins and listening to the commands of the sea, the everlasting shhhh, shhhh as the waves grip at Redbeard’s ankles, trying to tug them further into the water.

  Redbeard grinds haltingly into a stop, and the capall weaves its black and white body in front of the space before them, ensuring Redbeard will not run forward. He would have to turn tail to run and the water horse would snap him in half before he tried. The carnivore is twisted in a strange way, a way that a spinal cord could not contort. Its neck arches back between its shoulder blades, like a spitting cobra. Its mouth is open, Sherlock can see something that looks like kelp stuck between the long molars.

  Its sinister mouth is covered in red. The white by its lips is dyed pink from it. The hairs on its muzzle quiver.

  Men are shouting by the cliffside.

  The capall’s splotchy hide wavers.

  Sherlock looks down. The saltwater is lapping at its hooves.

  It is within rights to eat him. The piebald catches the scent of the ocean brine and jerks its great long face towards the shimmering water. The moment is silent. The water horse is distracted. On the ocean surface, peaks of waves gleam white in the dark and then vanish into the black again.

  That's when it comes to him - this horse would rather eat him than drown him. But the ocean is too close for it to focus. Already the strange long head is lengthening, its sides are shaking nonstop. The twisted ears atop its head twitch and shake towards the water, the slitted neck contracts and flutters as it breathes in the grainy air. Sherlock shakes.

  The horse pries open its wide mouth again, breathing ghastly smells towards him. Redbeard tucks his nose, and the capall clacks its flat teeth, ever the malevolent prison guard.

  Once, when he was very small and his parents feet had never left the island, Sherlock broke his elbow on the hard rocks down by the shore. This was in early summer, before the sea was malicious and the water horses swam just off the beaches. All he did was stare at the limp mess that had become of his arm on the drive to hospital, and he remembers Mycroft and Mummy being uncharacteristically unsettled by that.

  Another time, he’d poked his head into the sheep pastures through the loops of barbed wire and nearly gotten his nose snapped off by an elderly collie that was too protective of the flock. Then, all he’d done was stare at the dog until the yellow canines had been centimeters away from his face, and it was only Mycroft yanking his ankles back at the last second that has saved his skin.

  Sherlock has always wanted to look his death in the face. And now he has, and does not turn his head away for fear of making it easier for the piebald to sink its teeth into the flesh of his neck. Redbeard makes a high, small noise in his throat. The piebald stares at him, but its legs wobble. Sherlock has not seen them swim well and he does not know if the change goes all the way down to their bones, but its legs wobble like it does, like bones are breaking and shifting. The piebald’s nostrils flare.

  It snaps into action -

  Sand hits his face - so does salt, and he has to squeeze his eyes shut at the sting. Then, nothing. He stays still. His fingers dig shallowly into Redbeard’s quivering pelt, pads against skin and wiry red hair near the horn of the saddle as his eyes burn.

  Something crashes into the water. It’s a noise and the moon catching on droplets of water in the night. Redbeard lurches violently one way - something heavy slams into him from the waterside - his boots miss their footing - free fall - the back of Sherlock’s head hits the sand with a solid bounce. Sherlock curls immediately when he hits the beach, holding his pounding head in his hands.

  He feels like krill stuck in a hurricane, for the saltwater rushes over him in unfailing waves, he holds his breath as it heaves, and when it sucks back into the ocean to rejoin the masses again, he coughs and spits without really taking in any air at all. Salt’s gone far up his nose, been forced there, making his head swim.

  The ocean swells again, but it only drags at his feet, instead of his whole body. His clothes are waterlogged. As stuck with sand as they are, he manages to lift a hand to wrench his sodden hair from sticking flat to his forehead, and he gets sand spread all over his face in the process, but he can see.

  There is no piebald capall leering over him, rattling its teeth at him. There is no piebald tearing leather and flesh from Redbeard’s back. The air and the surface of the water are empty.

  Instead, there is the open ocean before him, and sand beneath his backside, under his hands, his legs, and he can feel the cool roughness of it under his thighs, through his soaked clothing that clings to him in the wind. He thinks he sees a long black and white face disappear below the turbulent surface. He turns wildly, and his horse is hunched, trembling under the overhanging cliffs. Redbeard is only a shape in the shadows and the wind, surrounded by smaller figures of men. More capaill, these ones held by braided iron and leather, wilted petals and charms, linger higher up by the gravel hill. There is a tall black capall among them. White hair lifts away from an elegiac face.

  Drained completely, Sherlock’s arms give out, and he collapses back onto the beach.

  “You should’ve seen it,” says a voice, sounding far away, “It was like the sea was reaching for that capall, I saw it, with the moonlight shining all through her. Like it was made of water.”

  Sherlock stares up at the sky. Its cloudy. The clouds are lighter than the ocean, hiding the moon behind them. The ocean is black before him. The ocean is black and out there, somewhere, are the capaill, swimming parallel to the breakers and hunting, hunting, and his feet are in the water. He closes his eyes and breathes.

  “ Move! ” Commands a dominating voice. “Move out of my way!

Chapter Text

 

  He wasn’t worth his weight in meat, not to a water horse who took the ocean as a lover.

  It’s only biology, he thinks, hair matting with moist sand, it’s only biology that they love the water so much. Misunderstood   and secretive and savage biology.

 

-/-

 

  He's distantly aware of a jacket draped over his shoulders, leaving his arms uncovered. He's shivering. His wet hair drips potent saltwater down the back of his sodden collar.

  Strong hands guide him away from the beach. The hands belong to someone who is also leading Redbeard (he's okay, he's fine, Sherlock would rather die than have Redbeard do the same) up from the beaches. The lights in Skarmouth are too bright.

  The mist is gone. The air is heavy with unshed rain.

  The hands push him up into Redbeard’s sea-slicked saddle. Sherlock trembles, and Redbeard does the same when he collapses forward to hug and clutch the stallion’s mane and neck. The muscles jump and twitch harshly under his touch.

  Clucking, and then Redbeard is moving. Sherlock holds on.

  Sherlock holds on.

  “There's a storm coming,” Someone says. Sherlock doesn't open his eyes. Doesn't register they’ve fallen closed. “Will you come back to my flat?”

  A water horse could ask him if he wanted to go to the bottom of the ocean, and Sherlock would probably nod. He does so.

  Redbeard squeals, his shoulders jumping as he stomps his forelegs, jolting Sherlock's teeth. Thunder rumbles, more of a distant growl than a clap or a roar.

  Sherlock opens his eyes, though he doesn't move.

  A massive black stallion is motionless beside him and the small, red one. It stares at him. If Sherlock could discern between his scent and the one of the capall, he'd be more frightened. But he can't. He and the capall both smell like fish and low tide and something left in the rocks to rot.

  Redbeard’s reins are tethered to the capall’s bridle. Sherlock’s never seen something so close. He's going to die. He knows it. Just knows it.

  He closes his eyes. There's a puff of breath, and the huge body rocks forward, pulling a reluctant Redbeard with sheer force of strength.

 

-/-

 

  The hands become arms, become powerful shoulders, become the man Sherlock knows is John Watson. This man helps him down from Redbeard when rain begins to fall, and Sherlock leans heavily into him, too exhausted to argue. Too exhausted to catalogue the safe feelings in the ivory box, locked in his mind.

  John’s flat is very small. He could roll over in bed and burn his face on the stove - there’s that, and a sink, so Sherlock could hardly even call it a kitchenette. On the other side, he could slam his face against the dresser, or the tiny metal hearth that must serve as a heater beside it.

  The ceilings are low, the bed is made, but piled with a myriad of color-clashing duvets too big for it. There is a narrow door just beside the sink, closed. Sherlock assumes it’s the bathroom. It’s dark.

  The place is not meant for two people. It’s barely meant for one.

  Sherlock shivers.

  John’s hand is on him, pressing lightly at his lower back.

  “It’s… not much. Certainly not the Skarmouth Inn,” John chuckles. Sherlock does not. Awkwardly, John clears his throat. “But, yours is on the other side of the island, and I figured--”

  “No,” Sherlock interrupts, moving forwards as John’s hand presses him into the doorway. “It’s. Fine. It’s fine. I wouldn’t…” He leads himself to a stop, voice dropping into something that is steadily quiet. He wouldn’t want to go back to Mrs Hudson’s. He knows she’s safe. He knew there was a devil in the fog and that it was coming after him.

  Him and Redbeard. The latter of which is shaking somewhere, alone in some stall in some stable. Sherlock can’t remember which. He grows angry, which in turn only saddens him. His shoulders slump. What if he made a mistake? What if Mrs Hudson isn’t alright after all?

  “You wouldn’t…?” John prompts. Sherlock shakes his head, wet curls flopping on his forehead and making him more upset at their condition. He does not want to answer. “Okay,” John breathes out, “Okay. That’s fine, Sherlock. Let’s… can you walk in the doorway, please?”

  He hadn’t realized he’d been idling. He obeys, and then John is removing his hand from his back, shifting away from him and Sherlock wonders if his knees will actually give out. John crosses the room in barely two strides.

  There are two oil-lamps on the stove that are not lit, and a few light bulbs carefully strung from the low ceiling by wire. John pulls chords and the room brightens slightly. The small window over the sink shows a few paddocks around the back of the main stable, and the pane is now beaten with rain. Sherlock can hear it on the roof, pattering away. John crouches, and pulls open the bottom drawer of the dresser, which knocks against the bottom of the bedframe.

  “Shut the door, could you?” He asks gently. Sherlock feels the wind as he latches the lock into place.

  He leans against the door, and shuts his eyes, breathing deeply.

  He imagines he can still smell the capall uisce. He begins to breathe quickly. He pictures the capall that chased him, and then he pictures Mary. Mary is a long face and narrow mouth in his head, with slick shoulders and a breath that stinks with the sweetness of dead things.

  Why does she unnerve him more than the thing that was readily and actively trying to devour him?

  “Here.”

  When Sherlock opens his eyes, John’s there again, in front of him, and that alone is what brings his heart rate back to something that can be nearly called normal. John’s removing his own jacket from Sherlock’s shoulders. Stupid. Stupid.

  And then he’s replacing it with a dry, big towel. Sherlock instinctively pulls it tight around his chest, ducking his chin. John seems to produce another from thin air. The ceiling rattles when thunder quakes.

  Sherlock looks up.

  “Don't act like the room’s going to cave in. It's fairly sturdy.”

  John reaches up, and Sherlock’s hair is tousled beneath the towel John throws over his head. Sherlock scoffs, and when John gives up his assault, glares.

  John smiles, “Think you can change your clothes?”

  “I don't have any.”

  “I’ll give you some of mine.”

  “You're short.”

  John rolls his eyes, “I have bigger clothes, you know. Baggy stuff on me’ll fit you. Maybe you won’t like it, because you're always wearing those tight shirts…”

  Sherlock’s face heats, “My shirts are not tight.”

  “Bet you also think that your trousers aren’t fitted.”

  Sherlock humph! ’s and while John returns to his dresser after tossing the smaller towel onto his bed, Sherlock sticks the corner of the towel to remove the water in his ears. And then he swipes the edge along his face and forehead. He feels immeasurably better. He only wishes he knew how Redbeard is doing.

  It can't be well. After all the work that went into training him to not be afraid of the capaill uisce! What a waste of time. It’s all been undone in a single cloudy evening.

  “How did… Redbeard seem?” Sherlock ventures as John hands him a saggy old jumper. At least it looks warm, because the beige is certainly not pretty.

  “You don't remember?” John questions, laying a pair of short, loose… Sherlock’s face heats again. He’ll be wearing John’s pants, apparently, and it makes the center of his mouth quirk down. He doesn't want to seem lecherous, however, so he purposefully quells his expression. “No, well. You were in a right state… Alright, well, he seemed spooked, and the rest of the Yard is, as well. It’s a big storm. We’ve had it coming for weeks.”

  “You don't think any capaill will come up?” Sherlock asks quietly. He's not afraid. He's not.  

  John eyes him. “Some will come up. It's a matter of where on the island they’ll come up.”

  “Do they… often? Here?”

  “No,” John pats the pants and jumper in Sherlock's arms, then reaches forward the snake the towel off of Sherlock’s shoulders. It leaves him cold. “Gladstone’s manure keeps them away.”

  Sherlock scoffs. “Gladstone’s manure could keep anything away.”

  “But with all this rain…” John puffs out a breath, and in the small space, it seems to heat the room, to send the light bulbs swinging and Sherlock's heart a-fluttering, like a swarm of locusts after a prospering field. “I put it down by the cliff edges to keep the capaill from coming up closest to the Yard. I want any horse that comes ashore to think they’re going to meet Gladstone. With the gales and the--”

  “It's practically a monsoon,” Sherlock groans. John’s mouth turns into a wobbly upwards line. He casts his eyes down and the line becomes a shy smile.

  Sherlock has never seen anything more beautiful in his life.

  Then, there is a flash of bright light outside the window, followed immediately by a shaking, quaking, monstrous roar of thunder, and Sherlock flinches with the severity of it. He shivers afterwards, because water is sliding its way down the back of his neck from his hair. He should've let John dry it more thoroughly.

  John whistles, low. It's reminiscent of Stamford’s, back in Hawkin’s Tavern, the night Sherlock signed up for the Races. He wonders who took up the habit from whom.

  “Sherlock, just get changed, get into the bed.”

  Get into John’s bed. Sherlock hesitates, and it must be obvious, because John’s mouth flattens out from the beautiful smile with a surprised cough. “I’m not trying to pull anything,” John manages, “I'm making sure you won't get hypothermia, influenza, a cold. You're covered in the ocean, and you're shaking like a leaf.”

  “How gracious.”

  “Change, you prick. I’ll see if I can get the heater going.”

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock emerges from the cramped loo (a toilet too close to a countertop too close to a standing bathtub on rusted, iron-clawed brass feet) feeling a world better. He left his sopping clothes and the towel over the edge of the tub, hoping they’ll dry over the night.

  The tiny flat is warm, and John is crouched by the minuscule fireplace. Sherlock blinks and watches the rounded metal vent that runs from the hearth to the ceiling as it pings and dings, the clunky metal warping with the newfound heat.

  A fire is burning, squat logs tossed with care into the metal grate.

  John turns to look at him when Sherlock shuts the bathroom door. The gaze makes Sherlock’s hands antsy, and he keeps them religiously still by his sides to not portray his anxiety. His legs feel too long, exposed, but at least his torso is covered. The baggy jumper bunches at his wrists, and the stretched neckline almost drapes off of one shoulder, and the pants are too tight around the back. He has never been more comfortable in clothes.

  The fireplace snaps, and John stands, dusting off his hands like a carpenter. He smiles crookedly, Sherlock’s favorite kind of smile, “Better?”

  Sherlock nods, resolutely calm. “I should, um,” Wonderful, he can already tell this is going to be wonderful, “I should thank you. For what you're doing for me.”

  “You don’t have to thank me. I wanted to do this. I wasn’t going to leave you on the beach. It’s nearly November, your feet were in the water, it was dark.”
  “You were not obligated to help me. However, you did. And that is why I’m thanking you.”

  John says, “It’s no trouble.”

  “It’s a little trouble.”

  “You’re impossible.”

  “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

  How is it that Sherlock’s always pulling old lines, repeated lines, out of his mouth? John seems to catch the familiar sentence, because he smiles. And then he asks, “D’you want something to eat?” John gestures to the bed.

  “I had something this morning.” Sherlock carefully sits on the edge of the mattress after retrieving the towel John used to attack his hair earlier - it’s a little difficult, sitting, what with the messy pile of folded duvets under his bum. They make for a very lumpy bed.

  John laughs, and Sherlock’s shoulders droop, relaxed, as he pats the towel against the side of his hair, trying to see if he can get some of his curls back. It’s full of brine and ocean salt.

  John says, “Liar. I was with you this morning. Some of it, anyway. Mike’s going to have a field day, when he figures that out.”

  “That I’m a liar? Or that you were with me this morning?”

  “Hm,” John hums, reaching above Sherlock’s head to open a cabinet next to the two-burner stove. “Well, he is a priest. So, both, I suppose.”

  “He’s never attempted to get me to go to ceremony. Or make me repent.”

  “Thank Epona for that, huh?” John removes a flat pan from the cabinets, shuts the wooden door with a click that is consumed by the wash of rain, beating at the roof and at the window. At least now the room is warming up, the skin on Sherlock’s bare legs wouldn’t stand the cold. “Gas burner,” John comments absently, putting the pan over such thing. Sherlock listens to the crack-crack-crack-boomf as the burner ignites. He listens to the rain; looks out the low window over the sink. He can barely see anything, and the stables are vaguely lit by a few bulbs, far away, where the sliding door is slightly cracked open. No stable hands are in sight.

  “How long do you think this storm will last?”

  Sherlock glances to John. John says, focused on rifling through another cabinet, “Just tonight and tomorrow.” John moves the shiny old kettle from the countertop and under the tap where he fills it, then cracks another burner grate and puts it overtop.

  “Not that long, then.”

  “Long enough. You’ve no idea how I’ve got to bend over backwards to get this place in order after a storm like this. Broken fence posts, spooked horses,” John slicks something he’s retrieved from the cabinet into the pan - it bubbles, “Those doors on the stables? Always coming off their tracks. We need to invest in a round-the-clock repairman.”

  “Do it yourself,” Sherlock suggests, “There’s a saying about that. Yes? I’m sure that there is.”

   John looks at him over his shoulder. It’s a weird way to look at someone, because Sherlock is sitting almost directly behind him, and John wouldn’t be able to turn around without bumping into him. Sherlock draws his legs up and lets his bare feet stay on the bed to get them out of John’s way. With the small flat smelling like whatever concoction John has on the stove and something masculine underlining it, Sherlock’s muscles unwind further from their tensed arcs.

  “I’m a veterinarian,” John finally says. As if Sherlock didn’t already know. “Not a repairman.”

  “Don’t you fix the fence posts?”

  “That’s not the same as--”

  “The same. It’s the same.”

  John says, “There’s no getting through to you, is there?” Sherlock shakes his head, a negative. John laughs and Sherlock focuses on the storm and the thunder and the piebald a little less.

  “I’ll cut you a deal. You promise eat something in the morning, and I won’t make you eat anything now.”

  “That does not sound appealing.”

  “Then you can eat now.”

  “That doesn’t sound appealing, either.” Actually, it does, he is liking what he has witnessed of John cooking so far. John has rolled his sleeves up to the elbow to cook. His forearms are exposed, golden tan and muscled. It’s very appealing. Very. Sherlock would like to imagine those gold arms caging him in. Against whatever surface. He’d be fine with anything.

  John says, “It’s one or the other. I’ll pick one for you. I pick both.”

  “I pick the morning.” Still, he must be difficult.

  “Then you have to promise. You really do.” John opens another cupboard, removing a box of tea. From another, a teacup and saucer. And then an unfashionable mug.

  Sherlock sighs, as if it were a very big, very exhausting thing to agree to. “Fine.”

  “Aha, victory…” John mutters, and turns his attention to the steaming kettle. Sherlock allows a trembling smile to crawl over his face.

  There is silence while John pours the tea, punctuated just by ‘sugar?’ and ‘two, please,’ and the offhand growl of thunder from outside.

  John sits on the edge of the bed beside him, handing him the cup and saucer.

  Sherlock's fingers dance in their twitching around the circumference of the small porcelain plate. It feels strange, sitting here in John’s tiny flat, in John’s pants and jumper. On his bed. Just half this situation would feel strange. He’s never really been in someone else’s place of living, save for Lestrade’s on the scant nights when his old habits would get the better of him, and much less someone’s bedroom. His whole heart is offbeat, pumping out an unusual rhythm throughout his chest and whole body.

  He takes his time to observe the room. There is too much clutter and not enough organization. Mrs Hudson would be appalled. Sherlock identifies with it; his own room is much the same, only, skeletons take up quite a lot of space and they do not here. There are a number of equestrian health novels and textbooks stacked on a scraggly wooden chair with thin legs in the corner of the room near the heater. It gives the impression that both the chair and the books are meant for firewood, as they are so near the supply of logs in a basket.

  It’s a treasure trove of things that are purely John. His watch is on the counter, stuck forever. Sherlock wonders if he could fix it for him. Possibly, maybe. Water damage can be fixed by substituting pieces inside, it the hands aren’t rusted still. The gears would not be the same, but it would tell the proper time, it would tick and work and function. It would get broken again, with this climate. Sherlock wouldn’t be opposed to fixing it indefinitely.

  This is when the screaming starts.

  It is sudden and shocking and instantly, the sky cracks with light for a flashing moment and then is dark again - thunder growls, nearing. But even the rumble cannot cover the piercing noise.

  It’s a capall, and it is close.

  Sherlock begins to shake. It starts in his fingertips, and it clatters the porcelain cup in its saucer.

  The worst part is that John doesn’t notice. Sherlock doesn’t know why he would want John to see him, scared and weakened, but each time John’s witnessed Sherlock’s meltdowns, Sherlock has been left for the better - even after John told him to stay off the beaches. He had settled. He cannot settle now.

  John is looking out the window. Abruptly, he stands, pushing his mug onto the slim countertop. His hands fumble for the loo’s door handle, snagging his jacket off of it, before his head jerks down, eyes frantically searching for something on the floor.

  Shoes.

  John’s getting ready to leave.

  John looks down at Sherlock. Sherlock doesn’t like what he sees in those eyes. Not one bit.

  “I have to go and help,” John says, leaning close, “I know what to do. They need me.”

  Sherlock’s breath catches. A roll of thunder is lost to the sound of the screaming, muted by these thin walls.

  Is he meant to stay in this cluttered, tiny room, listening to this horrible noise and the rain and the thunder by himself? Not knowing what’s going on, how John’s about to deal with this issue - lock up the horses and barricade all the grooms in the stables? What of the pastures, what if--

  He pushes the saucer and cup onto the counter - his hands find John’s.

  He clutches them, as if they were prayer beads and he a religious man. They’re warm. Solid. Real. He shouldn’t be doing this.

  “Let me come with you.”

  “Sherlock…” John’s eyes are sad.

  His grip shifts in Sherlock’s hand, and for a heart-stopping moment, Sherlock is afraid, very, very afraid. More afraid than he’d been with the blonde mare, Mary, that first day, or Redbeard on the beach and the grey water horse, or Hope, cornering him on the edge of the earth, more afraid than an hour before, running away with the devil on his heels.

  But John only threads his fingers through Sherlock’s. He brings up his other hand, encasing Sherlock’s, and pulls it up to his mouth. Sherlock has to bite back a sob as John’s lips press lightly over the knuckle of his thumb.

  He’s not afraid. He’s not. But if he were looking at the water horse right this moment, he would know nothing but fear.

  Imagining the piebald capall, Sherlock makes a clicking swallow.

  “Please,” Sherlock manages, his voice only slightly louder than a rush of breath that comes with it, sweeping away the words like the winds on the beach. The don’t leave me is unsaid but the air hangs heavy and wet as if it were shouted.

  It’s as if the screaming is the only sound in the world.

  John looks at him for an impossibly long time. Many things are said, in that lonesome blue gaze. Things- things that Sherlock can't identify, that he can't chart, or grid, that he can t pin down--

  “Okay,” John says, “Come with me.”

  “Oh, John--” Sherlock begins, but John gently tugs on his hand with both of his. Sherlock takes the hint, and stands up.

  John doesn't let go of his hand. He squeezes Sherlock’s, and then tightens the grip, the pads of his fingers pressing hard between Sherlock's knuckles. It's grounding. It keeps Sherlock here.

  And then it pulls, and takes Sherlock outside.

 

-/-

 

  John allows them both a moment to pull on their shoes, Sherlock’s sopping and John’s damp from when he had dragged Sherlock out of the surf.

  Sherlock does not get the opportunity to pull on his trousers - his legs would get stuck in them, anyway. John pulls a towel from the bottom drawer of his dresser and hands it off to Sherlock. Sherlock wraps it around his waist and tucks the corner into the top so that it will stay.

  In the dark, the stable seems closer than it did out the flat’s small window. No longer are there no shadows, every light in the Stockyard is on. Further down, past the large arrangement of stables and fences, Sherlock can see Skarmouth, far down the road. It is lit up and just a mound roofs on the lighter horizon, an eerie yellow glow in the sky betraying its placement.

  John pulls him aside, crowding him back against the door.

  Sherlock blinks - partially in an attempt to get the water out of his eyes and partially in surprise. They’re in a hurry, aren’t they?

  The champion dissolves any doubts Sherlock had had thus far. John’s fingers slide down Sherlock’s woolen arm until they arrive at his hand. Sherlock cautiously pushes his fingers between John’s, then bends them until he is locked in place.

  They step out from beneath the shingles that hang over the door, blocking the water. The rain is heavy and assaults them both immediately and without forgiveness. John’s jumper over Sherlock’s figure is instantly drenched, and though he is once more wet, Sherlock is glad it is with freshwater and not salt this time.

  The screaming becomes louder. It has not paused, not once.

  John leads them down the slippery wooden stairs and onto the grass. Wind tears at them, and Sherlock squints against it. Thunder growls distantly.

  “If you’re away from me for a moment, I will know. And you will be very sorry,” John commands suddenly, capturing Sherlock’s attention. His eyes are a dark, cobalt blue. He glares at Sherlock from under his brow. In this moment, he is as unsettling as Mary. Sherlock tightens his grip on John’s hand. He is holding on so tightly that water has yet to slip between their wrists and wet their palms. John is grasping just as fiercely.

  Sherlock responds, water filling his mouth and soaking him to the skin, “If I’m away from you for a moment, I’ll be dead.”

  He can’t see the entirety of John’s mouth, but the rise in his cheeks suggest he’s smiling dangerously. It reminds Sherlock of that morning, with Hope and the chestnut water horse and the revolver.

  “You’re a very clever man,” John says finally. He tugs on their hands, and they go.

 

-/-

 

  The stables are alive.

  The horses all throwing themselves against the door of their stalls, or actively attempting to kick out their legs. There are panicked grunts and panting breaths - the stall that Sherlock knows belong to Beryl is filled with mournful wailing, a noise that no island pony could ever replicate, winding up the mare in the next stall over. Not one horse is quiet or calm or still.

  “Second one to the end, and the last one, let’s go -- Klemp, get that out of here! You don't have time for that!” John interjects to shout at an exceptionally short man who is squeaking his way down the walk with a wheelbarrow. A thoroughbred whinnies.

  The man yells, “We can't get them quiet! You get one calmed and the others work it up again!”

  “They're never going to relax with that capall out there!” John snaps back. His grip on Sherlock’s hand tightens, and Sherlock can sense how the situation is grating on him. He shoots a look to the short man. The unnamed man promptly drops the handles and sprints off to do some undetermined task.  

  There rises a high whinny, one that Sherlock had heard many times. Redbeard dislikes the weather. Sherlock is very familiar with this sound.

  Though water is glazed over the cement and he runs the risk of slipping, Sherlock tears his hand out of John’s grasp without a second thought to rush to the second to last stall. `

  There is a wild thing caged within it.

  Redbeard’s leg kicks out, slamming against the panels of the stall. His head is thrown back and he whinnies highly again, panicked eyes jerking wildly, with his ears flicking around to pinpoint the source of his anxiety. He doesn't have his saddle or reins in, not even a halter on, very unusual for him - it must be adding to his fear.

  Sherlock can't recall a time he was so spooked. He tries cooing to the iron-red horse, but the wail outside rises in pitch and the ponies somewhere down in the stable work themselves up into a frenzy again, dragging Redbeard with them. He kicks out again. Sherlock’s terrified he's going to hurt himself, pull a muscle, chip a hoof against a broken nail or snap an ankle.

   He jerks at the hand on his shoulder.

  “You can calm him down when I get that noise to stop. He won't be able to stop with this racket!”

  Sherlock looks over his shoulder. John said when I get that noise to stop. Does he plan on Sherlock helping? John’s eyes are black in the shadows and sharp swaths of light from the bulbs above. Over his shoulder, across the aisle, Sherlock can see more horses all beating themselves against the walls.

  It wouldn't do any good to worry over a horse he can't calm. With a sorrowful glance to Redbeard, Sherlock shifts over a stall, the one that John is now opening. He remains near the door.

  Inside, an enormous shape is rocking, wet fish eyes gleaming against the light in the stable. The iron locks make a faint squealing noise as John undoes them.

  The massive black capall charges forwards and towards the aisle and in that moment Sherlock is certain that death can only be sudden.

  John shoves his hand against Gladstone’s chest, slapping it once - the capall stops instantly, stepping backwards, ears pistoning back and forth, listening to each noise in the stable. Curiously, Gladstone tilts his head towards Redbeard’s stall.

  What’s the point of having Gladstone out?

  Sherlock tries to ask John what his plan is, because he clearly has one, but he doesn’t get the chance - outside, a gun fires. The screaming does not stop. John clips a braided lead onto the ring of Gladstone’s uncharmed halter, twists the rope around his hand, and pulls. Gladstone throws his head back, yanking John up and off the ground for half a second, then drops it again, moving forwards as soon as John has his footing back. Gladstone is already wet. He has not yet been outside.

  His white mane shivers against his hide, trembling for a moment, then it freezes, caught in the middle of a shivering transformation. It is sea-slick and glossy-wet, like kelp washed ashore. Gladstone opens his mouth and Sherlock can see something that almost resembles a tongue inside and at the same time does not, but John hits him on the nose, hard. Gladstone’s teeth snap shut.

  John looks at him, one hand tracing patterns along Gladstone’s rapidly sharpening jawline.

  He says, “I’ve seen them swim, and the change goes all the way to their bones.”

  With one sentence, every experiment in Sherlock’s haphazardous bedroom has been proven or disproven based on the thesis.

  He cannot spend the time thinking on this right now.

  All he can hear is the throbbing scream, the piercing whinnies of the thoroughbreds in the stalls. The panicked, rhythmic clapping of powerful hooves on strong wood. “Stay with me,” John demands, and Sherlock creeps closer to his side. Inside of him, something rank and curling is rebelling at the thought of being so near a capall while another is shrieking somewhere in the dark.

  The short man from before, Klemp, has returned, near the door. The rain is pounding on the roof and the outside walls. Gladstone’s breathing grows harsher. “Not out there,” Klemp says, “Moriarty’s out there.”

  Why would this man need to tell John that? It’s a given that the owner of the Stockyard would protect his priceless horses, as mad as he is.

  But John clenches his fists over the lead. “Keep out of my way. Keep everyone out of my way.” Klemp hauls open the door and Gladstone jerks at John’s arm, dragging him towards the rain. John drops the hand from his head, which had been tracing veins, in favor of clutching the lead. Brute force does nothing against Gladstone, he pulls John outside.

  The rain hits Sherlock again, wetting him to the bone. The towel around his waist threatens to slip, and he tucks in the edge once more. How can he help? With the scream as loud as it is, he cannot hear the thoughts in his own head. John keeps walking, though, John must have a plan. Has something like this happened before? The comment about Gladstone’s manure - is this some tactic based around that theory? What good will this do now?

  “John--”

  The scream is getting closer. Sherlock presses as close to John as he dares - John responds, wonderfully, by sliding one of his arms around Sherlock’s waist, pulling him tighter against him. Sherlock thinks this is for his own benefit before he feels that John’s arm is shaking slightly, and his other is strained against the lead as Gladstone drags them further into the black, veins on the back of his hand prominent even in the low light.

  The wind is soughing through the trees, the ones planted for decoration around the edges of the fencing, and shingles from all over the Stockyard are flung over the slippery wet grass. All over, there are squares of light, betraying the locations of buildings that can’t be picked out in the mist and the dark and the rain.

  Ahead is Moriarty and an unidentified man. Moriarty raises a shotgun to something Sherlock can’t see, past a line of broken fences. The scream pounds in his head. John has to give up his hold on Sherlock in favor of pulling Gladstone into a stop. This is not easy, the water horse is ready to charge away, over cliffs, and into the sea.

  John leans away from him, pushing his own face close to Gladstone’s. Rapt, Sherlock watches him wrench the water horse’s great head down, and there is a blur of flat teeth. Gladstone’s lips are wrinkled back far past the reach of his mouth. He is a monster.

  No longer is there the calm horse that first captured Sherlock’s attention at the beaches and on the road by the mill. In its place is a beast that has crawled out of the darkest trenches of the oceans, complete with pearly teeth and drooling mouth.

  Abrasively, John tugs on Gladstone’s ear, twisting it and dragging their faces closer together. With his other hand, he shoves the water horse’s mouth away from him. Clearly, John can see what Gladstone has become in the wake of the screaming.

  John is humming to Gladstone. There are no words, it’s a small sound and lower than the scream, and Sherlock can only hear because of how close he is to the source.

  Rain pounds, the towel becomes impossibly heavier.

  Gladstone is standing stiffly, and has a glazed look in his eye and a tilt of his head and ears that means focus on a horse. When he’s not looking at Sherlock, he seems mild, but Sherlock is not fooled and Sherlock cannot trust him. Gladstone is looking into the rain and into the distance but has not forgotten about Sherlock, not for one second.

  Moriarty fires his shotgun into the dark, but the scream does not falter. It rises in pitch - it cannot get any louder. Moriarty fires again. It’s out there.

  Sherlock knows he saw John tuck his revolver beneath his jacket that he now wears, but John does not remove it. Gladstone rocks, the ear attuned to the sound of John’s humming flicks once. He shifts his weight from side to side, bothered by the noise.

  It is this small action that makes him realize that John has a much more dangerous weapon in his hands than a gun.

  Finally, Gladstone starts responding to John’s prompts. He starts with a cluck, something like the piebald, and then groans, deep in his throat. Sherlock can hear this noise in his feet, from the back of his heels to the front of his toes - the way a wave is sucked back into the water. His keening slowly rises in pitch, unbroken, and the horses in the stable, unheard until now, begin whinnying loudly. Men are shouting, but the higher Gladstone’s roar rises, the less perceptible the shouts and whinnies become.

  Gladstone drops his jaw and his shrieking erupts  - Sherlock has to cover his ears, but John does no such thing, continuing to whisper to Gladstone. He can see Moriarty turn to look at them. He can see Moriarty’s eyes, that brown fire. Sherlock meets his gaze, and looks back to John, holding tight to Gladstone’s mane and braiding in sevens and threes, then to Moriarty.

  The Stockyard owner stares holes in John.

  The two screams fade into one, Gladstone.

  His cry rises to fill the space vacated by his contender, a clear territorial marker. I am here. This is my land. It’s no different than the wild capall’s.

  Except this one, John stops.

  It is slow-going, but Sherlock watches his mouth form Gladstone’s name, watches Gladstone’s withers shake in response, like a rattlesnake’s tail, noiseless. Soon, Gladstone tucks his chin, and the scream fades into a groaning, grunting sound. Next, it ceases entirely. Lowering his hands, Sherlock can feel his ears ringing. He shakes his head, but that does not help.

  The night is quiet, save for the rain and the wind. It’s a very large improvement. Thunder growls passively, unaccompanied by lightning.

  John meets Sherlock’s gaze. He’s panting, and looks a little dazed. Is he surprised that worked? Sherlock almost calls him amazing, but catches his tongue. Instead, he blinks away the water in his eyes and pushes his hair from its plastered place against his forehead.

  Moriarty waves them over.

  John holds the lead up high, to where it is clipped against the halter, and seizes Sherlock’s arm. “Not a word,” He murmurs, barely moving his lips, and he releases Sherlock. How are John’s eardrums still functioning? Perhaps he whispered because they aren’t.

  They meet in the light near the stable. There are severe shadows cut over all their faces, thrown straight beneath them to the grass and cobbles.

  There is a sharp glare exchanged between Moriarty and John. Sherlock blinks in the storm - this isn’t something new or angry, they’ve had an argument.

  “Have you changed your mind?” Moriarty asks. His greasy gaze slides to Sherlock, taking in his appearance. Sherlock purposefully presses his side more into John’s wet shoulder, refusing to be embarrassed about being caught in a sopping towel and jumper, on property that is not his own, nor his companion’s. He belatedly hopes that John has more dry clothes he could borrow.  

  “No.”

  Moriarty grins, “Neither have I. This changes nothing.” He directs his smile to Sherlock, looking at him up and down.

  He hands off the shotgun to the yet unnamed man and stalks away towards the stables.

   Moriarty’s words always unnerve him.

  John watches him stride away, all confidence in that soaking wet suit. He says to Sherlock, without clarification, “I’m not sure if I believe him.”

Chapter Text

 

  Inside the stables, Beryl is loose from her stall. The iron lock has been kicked through - there are steaming burns made on the cooling wrap twining over her forelegs.

  Her eyes are wide, catching all the light from the swinging bulbs. She sees one from her peripheral and snaps frantically at it, sea foam choking back in her throat. She screams and hacks and sneezes, dripping more foam from her seizing nostrils. She madly shakes her head like a wet dog, spewing snot and ocean at the stable hands that are trying to contain her, to herd her back to her prison cell.

  All she wants to do is escape.

  Gladstone is the barrier between her and the outside world. One stable hand outstretches his arm towards her as to grab her bell-strung halter, and she crushes her flat teeth down on it, tearing a divot away from his forearm and dropping the bleeding lump onto the cement. The man screams and Gladstone clucks.

  Beryl’s face whips strangely over to them - her shoulders move and then the rest of her long neck swings to follow the motion, wide eyes focused entirely on the much larger water horse. Sherlock melts against John, who has become as sturdy as rock.

  Beryl is mad, but not as mad as Mary. She realizes what she is in for, much before John has to intervene. She throws her head back, looking for all the world like she will snap out again, then ducks her face low to the ground. She’s growling. It sounds like she’s whispering.

  Moriarty, along with his shotgun, disappear out the other end of the stable, and Klemp pulls the door closed behind him.

  Instead of retreating to her own cage, she hushes closer, swaying wildly, making even Gladstone subtly even his weight back. Through John, raw power slips against ropey muscle, through Gladstone’s quivering wet hide and way down deep to Sherlock’s bones. Real power, something magic and wicked.

  The grooms down the aisle watch, and John moves from Sherlock, subtly pulling Gladstone’s lead. The capall uisce tilts his great head down, heavily breathing out rot, hot from his screaming match.

  Beryl turns her face towards the open doors beyond John and Sherlock, then the tiny window in Gladstone’s stall, the one closest to the stable doors, almost curiously. It's a facade, all her attention is on John, because while her neck and head are turned, her eyes are clearly locked on the champion rider and his horse. It's a tactic that may have worked on sheep or fish, but not on people. It's eerie to see a clever predator up close like this, to not see a blank stare behind hungry eyes. With a wolf, it’s simple. It wants to eat you, wants you dead. Beryl wants to get her way, wants you to get out of it.

  Shuddering, Beryl dips her head down again, strange long legs shivering as she steps closer - then quaking harder as she walks into Gladstone’s stall.

  She is shorter than Gladstone, and has to stretch her neck to stick her muzzle out the tiny window in the wood. Her wide nostrils flare, becoming slitted up her face as she tastes the ocean brine carried here by the storm winds. Next door, Redbeard snuffles at the bedding in his temporary stall, unbothered.

  John locks the stall, all three metal bolts.

  Beryl eyes them as they leave. She’s drooling again. There are pearly teeth hidden in that sea foam.

She turns her head, a profile to Sherlock, and her eyes are already settling back to high up on her face, staring him down. She’s stopped moving, and there is the ambiguous intensity of staring something straight in the eye, knowing it’s looking back at him. Invasive and vulnerable.

  

-/-

 

  They return to the flat and Sherlock unthinkingly pulls off the towel - heavy and dripping and with the pants clinging to him so much that he wishes he had not. John laughs at how they both look and when Sherlock pouts, he takes the towel and leans into the bathroom, tossing it into the bathtub.

  Sherlock may almost believe in magic now. They are stuck in the early hours of the morning when John hands Sherlock a dry jumper, even smaller than the last, but Sherlock insists on not changing the pants. John hands him a towel after making a suspicious move that looked like he was going to wrap it around Sherlock’s waist for him.

  “You did promise me you would eat something,” John reminds him when the first crest of weak autumn sunlight is shading through the kitchen’s window. The feeble light catches on the suspended water. It’s still raining, but the drops are less massive and more like a fine mist coming down from the clouds in sheets. There isn't any thunder.

  John sets up the burner on the stove with the kettle and a pan, slopping some buttery substance (it actually is just butter, but Sherlock didn’t quite catch it, because he was listening to John say that he was going to get changed, and Sherlock’s mind was reasonably sidetracked) into the heating pan, and then disappearing into the loo after handing Sherlock a spatula and giving him the instruction of just let it brown, okay? Then we’ll have a proper fry-up .

  Several long minutes went by.

 At some point, the kettle started screaming, and John reappeared.

  Sherlock scowls down at the frying pan. The cooking utensil is in his hand, and the splotch of butter bubbles in the pan, slowly blackening. He stares at it, frowning.

  John sees the look. He grins that stupid grin of his. The one. That one. The one that says he knows that Sherlock’s mucked up.

  “What's wrong?” He asks, infuriatingly.

  “I…” Sherlock begins. He clears his throat, deciding to not be embarrassed about this, “I don't know how to brown butter.”

  John laughs at him. The nerve.

  “You can't-- you can't cook? ” The champion racer laughs.

  “I didn't say that!” Sherlock leaps to his own defense, because God knows no one else will! He brandishes the rubber spatula at John, like a dagger. “I said I couldn't brown butter.

  “The- the butter is browning! Right now! That's- that's why it's turning brown? Well, uh--” John breaks off. Sherlock looks at the pan, “Well, black, okay, but still. What an excellent cook you are.”

  Through his anguish, Sherlock scrutinizes the black butter.

  John pushes the pan off the hot burner, and then clicks that off. He seems to have given up on the notion of a proper fry-up. Good, Sherlock wasn’t… hungry, anyways.

  “Eight days until the Races,” John abruptly says, back to Sherlock as he pours the hot water into two teacups, “How are we feeling about that?”

  Sherlock is sure John is feeling elated at having the Races so close. Then, the biggest season for the Stockyard will have passed, and John can go back to handling the horses, not the people. But that was only half the question. The flat smells like burnt butter, and wet wood. John hands him a cup of tea, and as he spies the contents of the cupboard while John puts the box of tea in its place again, he's pleased to see that John doesn't drink coffee.

  “Fine,” Sherlock answers. And it’s true - he does feel fine. Terrified, and nervous, thrilled and excited and enthralled by all the traditions, goings-on, and happenings, but. Fine. So much hinges on him racing, there is no logical reason to not be fine. Not being fine would make things that much harder.

  Sherlock swirls a spoon around in his tea, purposefully looking away. “You didn't limp last night. You always limp.” John stiffens, and Sherlock goes on, “I told you it was psychosomatic. Even now, you aren't in pain while you walk, are you?”

  Silence.

  John laughs, “No - no, I’m not.”

  Sherlock smiles, and hides the expression in his teacup. For having such a messy, cluttered flat, John has some very nicely painted cups - and Sherlock rarely considers any cup but Mrs Hudson’s to be well-decorated.

  John has his face focused on the floor, endearing extra chin making an appearance momentarily, before he looks up again. Sherlock’s fingers dance around the rim of the saucer again. “Do you…” John’s left hand flexes, and Sherlock’s heart leaps, “That, is, I mean, would you--”

  A rapping at the door.

  John frowns.

  No one should be bothering him this early, then?

  It’s Klemp, the man from last night, with a mixture of sweat and drizzled rainwater over his brow - panting from a run and leaning on the flat’s door frame, unbothered by Sherlock’s presence, sat on John’s bed. “Watson,” He heaves, “We’re in need of vet.”

 

-/-

 

  Beryl is keening high, scared and in pain. Her spine is sloped and tilted down, highest at her shoulders and lowest at her hindquarters, unable to gain support or purchase. Her back legs are splayed out, one light inner thigh turning black with free-running blood. She tries to shift a hoof and stand up straight when her door is opened, but the leg crumples and she fixes it back against the wood with a loud, clipped scream.

  She’s lame.

  Sherlock can see her pulse, thumping wildly under her skin just beneath her jawbone. It patters so severely and quickly that he’s momentarily afraid it’s not a pulse, and rather some parasitic organism that is about to burst out from her flesh. But it’s just a pulse, and it doesn’t slow.

  She clucks, somewhere panicked and sharp in her throat, then a long, staccato grunt punctuated by heaving breaths out a pale, open mouth. Teeth are visible, as well as beach-white gums. There isn't any trace of the foam from last night, she is displaying new symptoms entirely.

Leeching away from John for but a moment, Sherlock slips his arms through the bars of the next stall over, where Redbeard is. The horse pushes his dark grey nose into Sherlock's hands, scenting him and where he's been. Other than being alarmed at the screaming fit that Beryl's been throwing, there's no harm done to him. Still, Sherlock fixes his forelock where it's knotted up by his ears, and then removes his arms. Don't be clingy. You're not scared. Redbeard is merely apprehensive, and a little alarmed at the smell of oily blood.

  “What is all of this?” Someone trills from across the cement. John inhales harshly, ragged. Sherlock can hear the anger in just the one breath.

  Moriarty is there, suddenly, looking disdainfully into the stall and affixing leather gardening gloves onto his hand. He doesn’t seem surprised, and his eyes drop to the collected pool of blood on the messy lining of poor Beryl’s stall. So much has been shed that it no longer soaks into the sand, she’s pitifully standing in her own blood, and her entire left hind leg is red. Her hair has lost its luster, and her eyes are bloodshot.  

Sherlock is too busy staring at the horrific scene in Beryl's stall that he does not acknowledge Moriarty until he speaks again.

  “Find Klemp a new mount for the Races,” He demands of John. Then, “Put that horse out of its misery.” Moriarty stares at Sherlock’s profile, who potently ignores him until the man has turned away. He addresses Sherlock without looking at him, as if he’s a higher power, “And you, well, I’ll see you later.” Then he’s down the aisle of the stables, accompanied by his ever-present stable hands.

  A vile little man.

  Sherlock and John are alone.

  Outside, the wind rushes against the panels of the barns and fences.

  Beryl sticks her face against the stall door, scraping her flat teeth on the metal bars.

  “You won’t find Klemp a new horse, it’s against the rules,” Sherlock says. Though there are plenty more horses in the Yard, many fit for riding, it is an unarguable rule (wrong, they could argue anything, but Sherlock has no heart for that).

  John watches Beryl knock her nose softly against Gladstone’s little window. She’s lifting her muzzle just enough to raise it above the pane and scent the weak winds coming from the ocean, her home.

John utters his first words since they arrived in the stable.

  “Your whole racing is against the rules.”

  “Not explicitly. It’s explicit that you cannot change your horse after the rider’s parade.” Perhaps this argument will take John’s mind off of Beryl’s condition. John swallows, adam’s apple bobbing, and Sherlock realizes that it has not done that at all. He might’ve even added more stress to John’s stockpile. He can’t do anything right.

   Put that horse out of its misery . To Moriarty, the horses are not alive. They are things, objects to be owned. Sherlock turns his head to the other stalls, glancing around at the lights and the pieces of hay discarded over the cement aisle. There is reason to suspect that Moriarty believes even people to be objects.

  They lead Beryl down to the ocean.

  John fears she may never walk again. But they manage it. Through the aisle, the other horses are quiet, so used to Beryl’s screams that they seem perplexed in the near-absence of it. The dun capall mare only whines fitfully, a whine that sharpens to a pitched screech when she steps wrong off the cement aisle and onto the ground outside the stable.

  The thoroughbreds already in the pasture shy as far from her as they can, pressed close to the fence. One adolescent colt looks like he is considering jumping over it.

  Sherlock’s shoes are soaked through with the rain left in the grazing sweet grass.

  Beryl doesn’t even have enough strength in her fatally injured leg to fully hold her hind hoof up from the ground, the muscle has been severed and cannot contract - the toe drags in the grass. Blood spews from the indentation under her belly. It’s dripping from her mouth with saltwater, though Sherlock can’t be certain if this and the wound entirely related - capaill uisce have funny ways of messing with minds, the blood may not be in her mouth at all, it may be a mere illusion.

  Sherlock isn’t sure whether or not she’ll make it down the slopes to the beach. He waits for her to break away all throughout the arduous walk. As much as he wants to be of support, though he doesn’t know how, he trails behind John and Beryl. Wouldn't want to distract John.

  (He must stay away from those chipping yellow teeth.)

  The closer they come to the cliffs, where she can feel the wind and see the expanding sky but not yet the steep drop of the sea, she shrieks, long and loud.

  Just last night, Sherlock was so very afraid of her. Although she is a carnivorous animal, with the ability to crush his throat in one swing of her snake’s neck, Sherlock feels pity - sympathy, almost. Such a great animal, strong and powerful and smooth, reduced to tremors and bone and shivers with one cut slice of a muscle.

  Beryl trips and wheezes down the slopes, breathing very heavily as the ocean comes into sight. She becomes snappish, then, clacking her teeth lethargically at John’s head - John only slaps her away, getting a smear of greenish blood and the faint imprint of a bell from her halter on his palm.

  As they hit the flattened sand and gravel, a group of sandpipers take flight as a single unit, landing down the shore. The sun shines wearily from behind the grey clouds.

  John whispers to her.

  Watching from several paces away as John reaches to unclip her halter, to free her from the iron and the bells and the charms that ground her and keep her tied to the earth and the island, Sherlock lets the seafaring wind lift his dampened hair from his face and shake it around over his head. The sound of the clip is heard, and with his eyes never leaving Beryl, John backs away.

  Again, she clacks her frightening teeth at John, her keeper for all this time. Apparently, the sea is too much of a distraction for her to be malcontent for very long, as, with several very slow, quaking steps, she is reunited with her ocean.

  John returns to Sherlock, watching from mere meters away. Sherlock digs the toe of his boot into the sand anxiously. John sees right through this, and offers his arm, which Sherlock takes immediately. John’s jacket is salt-crusted, old, and extremely comforting under Sherlock's palms. Though taller, Sherlock winds his hands around John’s upper arm, and leans into him.

  Beryl has waded past the rocks and the aquamarine tidepools that are common on this end of the island’s shore. She is up to her ankles in the water when her legs begin to shake, all of them, not with the weight displaced with her injury, but with change.

Her ankles crack and shift, bones breaking to reshape themselves, her hide turns with the light, becoming nearly iridescent as a raven’s wing mid-flight, and it shudders, like there’s a shivering carpet moving itself around over Beryl’s weakened muscles and tissues. It is reminiscent of a fish’s scales shimmering in underwater sunlight.

  Her neck arches lower, flattening and streamlining itself--

  And it stops. She has grown long slits by the back of her ears, like the piebald, and like Gladstone, but they are not where they should be. Her eyes are wildly tacking back and forth, to the cliffs, and to Sherlock and John, and to the great expanse of the sea - she’s confused and hurting. Terns peep in alarm up in the nests, and Beryl throws her head back, screaming loudly to her mother, her sister, her lover.

  The capall struggles forward, a stray wave swiping at the sand under her feet and making her sink lower, her ribs audibly cracking. She's stuck in the middle of a shivering transformation. She still looks like a horse, and she still looks like she's going to fall. Against the sky, the lines of her body look opaque, flickering in and out of view, like faltering notes of an unfinished sea shanty.

  The water offshore changes.

  Near the sand, the waves have been sucked back, leaving Beryl on land again, and drawing her deeper, closer, to get back into the brine. She hisses shortly, eel-like.

  Clutching John’s shoulder very tightly, Sherlock watches, rapt. Nothing makes sense, and nothing else matters in this moment.

  The water level rises directly around the capall mare, sloshing around Beryl’s knees and tugging her into the ocean.

  John murmurs, at the risk of drawing attention back to them, “It’s what happened with the piebald last night.”

   ‘It was like the sea was reaching for that capall,’ comes a voice in Sherlock’s mind, clear as day and dressed in tweed, ‘ I saw it, with the moonlight shining all through her .’

  Up to her neck, Sherlock finally catches a glimpse of the gills by her ears sliding further down, and they are growing. Her ears are pinned back, Sherlock sees one last red of the bleak sun through Beryl’s pinned brown ears, before she is gone forever, and her eyes are focused on the sides of her face when she disappears.

  Beryl slides beneath throwing waves. She will never walk on land again.

  The wind throws salty water and sand at Sherlock's face, pinkening his cheeks. The striped sandpipers return in Beryl's wake, somewhere down the tract of sand, pecking at the receding waterline.

  Above, the gulls are squawking harshly to one another.  

  “I don’t know what it is about you.”

  Sherlock stiffens.

  John knows it's his fault. Sherlock didn't even know it was, but-- if John sounds so melancholy, it must've been his fault. Perhaps he knocked a latch loose on Beryl’s stall as he passed her last night, and she ambled out into the aisle and was cut. But that makes no sense. He opens his mouth to apologize, beg for forgiveness, maybe cry, but John bests him.

  “I killed one of them for you.”

  Sherlock closes his mouth.

  John risks a glance at him, then turns towards the water again. Perhaps, he’s watching for Beryl, looking to see if she’ll reemerge somewhere offshore. “I love them. They’re-- horrible, they’re horrible, and scary, and--” John’s voice breaks, “--beautiful, and I didn’t know you. I love them. On the beach. When you were with Redbeard, standing in the water and that horse came out of nowhere. I had nightshade, I always have it on the beaches. I didn’t even hesitate. I don’t know why.”

  Sherlock knows why he went back into the surf to pull John from the water. It’s… disheartening to think John doesn't know the motivations behind his own actions. Sherlock would like to know, see if their interests aligned. For all the prickliness of a lionfish that John exudes, he is very easy to grow accustomed to. Sherlock wouldn’t like to be excommunicated from him now, later, ever.

  The wind lifts John’s hair from his brow, a quivering line against the rest of his serious profile. John toes the sand, “It felt like a regular holiday by the sea when I first sat here.” His left hand curls against his thigh, like he was thinking of saying a few words, but then thought better of it.

  At the mention of sitting, Sherlock wonders if John is about to, because he looks fairly sick. Perhaps it’s more of a sickness of the heart, come this time.

  “My sister died years before I ever decided to come.” Sherlock knows this. Why is John telling him this? “Her... live-in left her. It was the drinking that drove her off. My father had the same habit in his days. When Harry, Harriet, got worse, she just… stopped. My sister wasn't in her anymore.”

  John is trying to open up to him. Sherlock swallows. In the back of his nose, he can still smell burning butter. He sniffs against the body-like press of the cold all around him, and subsequently draws attention back to himself. John falls silent.

  Sherlock fills in the gap.

  “This wasn't something she could've done to herself. It’s the inside of her thigh,” Sherlock says, shifting nearer to John. “She was in Gladstone’s stall.” The subtext of the sentence is something Sherlock hopes that John picks up. A moment passes and Sherlock concludes that John is just bad at reading into things. “Someone mistook her for Gladstone. In the dark, they could look the same.” To someone incredibly moronic.

   This is not something that a horse could’ve done to herself, not on the sharpest nail sticking from the wooden walls - she’s wounded across the inside of her leg, a muscle cleanly sliced apart. This is sabotage. Butchery. And now, as they are scaling the rocky slopes back up to the tops of the cliffs, Sherlock can spot congealing puddles and drips of brackish blood.

  Not even the scavenger crabs dare touch it. It’s almost as if it were poison.    

  John looks at him. His eyes are cobalt again, his tanned face reflecting the yellow of the sand below the cliffs and on the slopes.

   Elaborating with a sigh, Sherlock goes on, “Someone doesn't want you in the Races this year.”

  “No one ever wants me in the Races because I win them.” The statement is very confident, said with an upward twist of John’s lips. Sherlock has to ignore and hide the way the pride makes him quiver.

  “But especially this year,” Sherlock rumbles. Why would that be? What is different about this year than the last hundreds of years? Or, five, if they are going off of how long John has been a champion racer. Sabotage is common. But the Stockyard doesn't let just anyone on their property. Yet, Sherlock is here, and briefly, it occurs to him that John may often bring strains of riffraff home. To himself, Sherlock mutters, “What’s different about this year?”

  John laughs without humor, and Sherlock crinkles his nose.

  “Oh, come on, really-- really? What’s different?” John is smiling again, but now it looks real. “It’s your first year.”

  “It’s plenty of people’s first year,” Says Sherlock. “Who would notice me?”

  “It’s the first year an island horse is racing.” A pause, Sherlock scoffs. John answers, “Moriarty’s taken an interest in you,” John finally says.

  “He would take an interest in anyone who rode an island horse in the Races.”

  “Nope. He thinks you’re clever,” John insists as they pass a few large branches that have been knocked down in the storm.

  Sherlock preens while they enter the stables, “I am clever.”

  The sand of Gladstone’s stall is fresh and overturned, and the signs of the stable hands who are responsible are all over the stable, turning over muck and grime in the ordinary horses’ stalls. Any blood and manure that were present are now gone.

  “You were right, what you said. About me not owning Gladstone. I don’t. But I don’t think Moriarty really does, either, for as much as it may say so on paper. He’s always belonged to the ocean.” John nods to Gladstone's empty stall, where Beryl had spent her last night on land, “They all do.”

  Sherlock purses his lips. “Breakfast?” Real breakfast, this time, where they actually eat something. He did promise John, after all.

  John’s teeth shine through his grin, “Starving.”

 

-/-

 

  Though Sherlock will never tell Molly, he adores the smell of the bakery, especially in the morning.

Light is filling the seating room from the entire front wall of display windows, and because of the color the bakery is painted, it casts a lightly pink aura over all the pastries behind the glass. There's something baking in the back room, November cakes like the one Sherlock just finished, is his guess, but it fills the entire front room, overflowing out the door and onto the streets, tantalizing newcomers into walking inside. Several tourists and a few less regulars are coming and going. They're all irrelevant.

  John, John Watson , born on the mainland and five-year champion of the Scorpio Races, sits across from Sherlock, on one of the small tables. Never mind that they are wasting precious training time, and that Redbeard and Gladstone are both outside (the latter with a piece of John's shirt tied around his nose - not a charm, something to ground him), because they're busy.

  They talk of the Races, strategies that John has used in the past, and training exercises. John complains about the beef hearts that he spoils Gladstone with, and even advises Sherlock on what to do with Redbeard to tone him up before the first of November. All the while, John continuously throws glances outside, as if to check up on Gladstone. He loves him, after all, but he doesn't trust him. After an unexpected laugh from John when Sherlock snidely remarks upon the nutritional content of the island grass, a comfortable quiet falls.

  Abruptly, John coughs and leans back in the chair, seemingly tucking his undershirt into the waistband of his trousers, casting his gaze out the window to watch Redbeard snuffle at the feet of Gladstone. He can hardly reach.

  “That’s what they say, though.”

  “What?”

  “About the ocean.”

  “We weren’t talking about the ocean.”

  “Well, we should be. You’ve grown up here, you know the folklore,” John leans forwards again, hands clasped together and elbows on the surface of the table. Offset but not uninterested, Sherlock remains as he is, his own arms already set on the table. “The ocean is love, and the capaill are those that have been consumed by it.”

  Why is John talking about love after having been staring at Sherlock in silence for a long several moments? He flushes. Sherlock loses himself in picking at the packaging of his November cake, his bravery abandoning him, and looking away. “They are sea creatures, symbolism doesn’t exist in reality. Humans are the ones that attach meaning to meaningless things.” After the conclusion of his reply, Sherlock ticks his eyes back up to watch John’s reaction.

  John is fixing his waistcoat, tucking his thumbs into the edges (nervous tick?), and averting his eyes. “Of course, I wasn't saying… Yes, well. Of course, I wasn't saying anything.”

  An island man in a red hat with red smudges of lipstick on the corner of his mouth comes through the bakery, and leaves a few moments later with a box of tarts. The lipstick isn't his - not because he's been kissed and it’s rubbed off, but because he puts it on himself. Mouth quirking, Sherlock identifies this habit.

  The man's exit, however, seems to have broken the small spell that had been cast over the pair of them. No longer are they alone in the world anymore. People walking by the bakery have come back into focus for Sherlock. And duty calls to John.

  With a weary gaze, he says, “I should be getting back.”

  You should be staying.

  Sherlock nods. He smiles, looking down at the cake packaging for nothing else to do. Somewhere by the counter, he hears Molly loudly mixing a bowl of pastry mix. She wants them to remember that she’s there - yes, of course, Molly, nothing would ever happen, anyways. I hear you.

  “You should be, yes.” Nothing more.

  John smiles back at him. He stands, brushing crumbs off his lap. “Meet me tomorrow. The cliffs by the racing beach. And do me a favor,” John readjusts his jacket one more time, “Come this time.”

  Sherlock laughs. He does still feel bad about that incident.

  The bell above the door tinkles much too joyfully as John leaves the shop. That bell has no reason to sound so nice when John is leaving. His back looks so nice in that jacket, and yes, it's the only jacket Sherlock has really seen him wear, salt-hardened and usual, but it just looks so nice, especially when he pats Redbeard kindly before mounting Gladstone's enormous figure. Water horses are seldom welcome in the part of Skarmouth where people are, but John handles the bits in Gladstone's mouth expertly, and Sherlock assumes that he is off to the racing beaches, or the cliffs where they met formally for the first time.

  Sherlock folds his hands under his chin, occupying himself with watching the common islanders and the tourists walk by on the cobblestone outside the shops. There is no need to deduce anyone, he’s so engaged with thinking of John.

  For. Whatever reason. That could be.

  So, Molly’s voice comes out of nowhere.

  “Father Stamford’s the only reason I hired you.”

  Sherlock frowns, “What?” He turns his face to regard her.

  “When you asked me about the mill, to earn money for the Races,” Molly clarifies, and with a gloved hand, she gently taps the plant with hanging purple flowers on her counter. It’s such a familiar moment, she must’ve been doing it all morning. Sherlock doesn’t pay attention to it. “I said yes, I know, but before you came back the next morning, Stamford came in. He was chatting on and on about you racing, and then onto Watson.”

  Sherlock listens raptly now. “What was he talking about?”

  “Oh, I can hardly remember.”

  “You must.”

  Molly waves her gloved hand, “Whenever someone talks of the Races, of course Watson’s going to be mentioned.”

  “Molly…”

  “I was having second thoughts about the mill thing,” Molly admits, barely looking at him, “I didn't want to enable you - I don't. I don't like you racing. Father Stamford was going on about Watson’s fall last year, trampled by one of the Yard’s horses.”

   Sherlock frowns. He dislikes having this conversation from two opposite ends of a room, more so since people are coming and going in the middle of it. He stands and wanders over to Molly. “He works for the Yard. They wouldn't trample him.”

  “He didn’t say it was on purpose,” Molly answers, her small mouth tweaking down as she fiddles with the display case.

  She’s not saying something that she wants to. “No, he didn’t. That’s what you believe.”

  “Watson was so far ahead, Sherlock!” She suddenly gushes, leaning far over the counter to talk to him even though she doesn’t need to. Like all the air has been punched from her chest, she goes on, words tripping over one another, “There’s no way those Yard riders wouldn’t have seen him, he had practically finished by the time the rest of them got their eyes off the ocean. The horses are hard to control, I know-- we all know they are, but it doesn’t explain it, Watson was off his horse, that next capall wasn’t trying to bite him, it just ran him over.”

  Sherlock narrows his eyes. “I’m going to sit for a bit,” He says quickly, and vaults the low door between the seats in the bakery and the back, where his hiding place is.

  Hearing Molly sigh, he pushes past the swinging door, half-heartedly glancing around for Archie. The apprentice isn’t present.

 There can’t be anything suspicious about John’s injuries. Why would anyone be angry after John had already won the Races?

  Sherlock thinks about Beryl, and is suddenly awash in doubts.

  Wishing desperately he attended last year’s Races, he tries to recreate the finish line in his mind.

  Closing his eyes, Sherlock sits back on a tall stool, and leans against the peeling wallpaper.

  Filtered out are the delightful scents and sounds of the bakery. The whoosh of the wind outside and chatter of customers on the other side of the swinging door disappear. The feeling of the stool under his bum is gone. He stands on rocky soil, the breeze tugging his hair astray and out of neat curls. One circle, and the scene is transformed.

  He can see the beach, birds and soft sand and all. It’s a calm day, and his mind supplies the grey clouds that are ever-present over Thisby. Weakly, the sun beams out from behind them, giving the beach the hazy atmosphere that always surrounds it.

  Accurate, but not what he wants. Sherlock steps over a fiddler crab darting into its hiding place, and closes his eyes again.

  Now he replaces it all with the scene from when he was a child, from when Mycroft took him to the Races. He isn't perched on the cliffs this time with his brother, but up to his waist in the water, and alone, watching, like the sailboats watch the wrecking stones by the shore. He is too close to the sand for the water to logically be this high, but for now, he makes no question of it.

  Water horses are griping loudly and snapping at their neighbors’ hindquarters. Riders are pulling up their ankles to keep them from getting bitten before the Races even begin.

  A mantra repeats itself in Sherlock’s mind.

   Five minutes, eighteen furlongs, and this will all be over .

  The scenery switches to the devastating madness of the Races, and the weather does, as well, as Sherlock recalls the race reports from that day, almost exactly a year ago, while the newspaper clipping of the report passes over his head, folding itself into an origami gull, and then sailing away on the strengthening wind. Bleak, windy, with clouds pregnant with unfallen rain. The grey clouds that his mind had since created for him vanish, and are replaced by those of storm.  

  Around Sherlock’s hips, the ocean sloshes chaotically. The golden azure has changed to a shockingly dark teal, tinged heavily with foam.

  John appears, strapping and proud and with his shoulders thrown back, and the water level rises.

Chapter Text

Around Sherlock’s hips, the ocean sloshes chaotically. The golden azure has changed to a shockingly dark teal, tinged heavily with legions of foam.

  John appears, strapping and proud and with his shoulders thrown back, and the water level rises.

 

  To Sherlock’s midriff, it almost impedes his ability to watch.

  The starting line is not so much a line as it is a cluster of strong necks and high-riders. Gladstone is very tall, more than any other capall, and he strides like a champion. Long flexing legs, raised head, peering out at the competition like a fish through aquarium glass. John is mirroring this.

  He gazes out to the ocean, like a competitor will rise from the wild sea, his hair lifting away from his face and light blue eyes shaded with color against the white-chalk background. He doesn’t see Sherlock, even though it would be impossible to miss a man standing just offshore on the first of November. John’s only a length away from where the waves are rippling the sand hard and firm, the only man daring to be so close to the sea.

  The water shouldn't be this high. John's eyes sweep over him again, never focusing, and it rises imperceptibly higher.

  A water horse on the beach snaps at the adjacent rider, flicking back hot ears and ocean brine. For a split second, as Sherlock looks up to the cliffsides, watching people’s hats blow off in the strong wind,  he can see himself, very small and frizzy-haired, high up on the edges among the yellow of raincoats and the mud-green of traditional Thisby scarves and coats. He shakes his head. No. These are not those Races. Mycroft and his own younger self disappear.

  ‘ The weather was anything but fair - Islanders and tourists alike expected rain to fall during the 1961 very-anticipated Races…’

  Above him, the stormclouds are gathering and darkening. In the distance, thunder rumbles, very much like last night in John’s flat. On the wind, he can smell pine from the island and fish from the quay by Skarmouth. A dark shape moves in the water by the shore. Must be shading from the clouds overhead.

  A gull cries at him. Sherlock looks up, and sees the headline on the underside of its paper belly outlined against the dark grey sky --

  ‘CHAMPION JOCKEY THROWN AT RACES’ END!’

   Scoffing to himself, Sherlock casts his eyes away. What else had been in those reports? Something else to complete the scene before the Races commence? The weather, the ocean, John, the riders. Yes, that - who were the other racers? A white horse - that's all the gulls say to him. Nothing in his mind supplies any names, no saddle colors that were involved in the accident.

  A gun fires, drawing Sherlock back to the beach, and the horses at the starting line leap into the air, throwing sand and scattering - there are tight blurs of colors as the racers speed along the beach, hot gasps from the horses and the crowd. All ears are pinned, all hooves are pounding, all tails are whipping fast against hind legs. On the other side of the island, he knows the tide is hugging the cliffs closely, bursting to reclaim the horses.

  The water surges against Sherlock’s abdomen, and he holds up his arms to avoid getting the sleeves of his coat wet as if it matters. The origami gulls have gathered in number, all crying out the famed headlines, fluttering like the paper they are in the wind.

 For the first minute of the Races, Sherlock loses sight of John, and is plagued with increasing anxiety. Although these events have already transpired, and he knows John lives, even wins these Races, he’s trying to move closer to the island.

  Only to find that his feet have sunk into the sand.

  He’s trapped in place. Perhaps the high waves have made the sand too firm around his ankles and he fell victim to it in his idle state, but something tells him that his mind has made it so he cannot move.

  The underwater rocks hug his ankles and the clumps of seaweed kiss his shoes.

  A panic closes Sherlock’s throat. The ambience of the scene before him clogs his nose and mouth, the miasmic feel of heavy clouds and of the churning black water. All of it is chilling, and the horses pounding down the sand are now haunting instead of informative.

  A gull flies ahead, detailing a rider’s gorey end. He can see closely, now, more so than if he had been on the cliffs, watching, and more than he should be able to by standing offshore. A creamy stallion tacked in blue flower petals screams a high, surprised shriek -- his rider slaps him and the horse presses onward. An abrupt second later, the same stallion receives another slap, but this time, the rider’s hand hits too close to long teeth, and with a snap of the stallion’s neck, his fingers are gone.

  Suddenly, there is a black blur against the reds, duns, whites, and greys, its legs moving faster, flank shifting quicker than the other horses. With a lump of a rider on his back, Gladstone is a pulsing heart, beating his way between other squabbling horses and hot teeth. His neck isn't tucked like that of a practiced island pony, but stretched out far ahead like a striking cobra, head jerking up and down as he flies at a full gallop.

  Flowing like water, the giant capaill sweep down the tract of sand, screaming to each other. From Sherlock’s perspective, he can see the glints of sharp weapons in racer’s hands. Another gull swiftly darts just over Sherlock’s head, and allows him to catch a glance of the deaths from these Races - nine, out of thirty-four riders.

  A capall the color of wet boulders throws its head back and hits the shoulder of its rider -- just as John passes it. The capall shrieks and leaps to following John, tail snapping, all open mouth and pale gums, but it’s too slow and falls too far behind, and gets caught up in a fight with the horse that attempts to drag the injured rider off its back.

  Incredibly, Gladstone perseveres, John is keeping him focused. The night-black water horse tears ahead through a gap between two bay mares who seem to be trotting in comparison.

  In doing this, John has dragged himself very close to the reaching waterline, and the effects are written all over Gladstone’s figure. Where once his hooves slapped down without flinching, his legs begin to tremble slightly, and he leans closer to the ocean than he does the cliffs. He’s so far ahead that it doesn’t matter, but the danger of hitting the water and drowning John is present. Was present.

  Sherlock is suddenly by the finish line, feet stuck in the sand again, a taunt strip of ribbon drawn from the cliffs to a pole sticking up in the shallows. Barreling forwards is Gladstone. John is tucked low behind the serpentine neck to minimize resistance to the air. There are gathered clumps of mane in his hand, wound neatly into charming braids. John’s lips are moving, asking Gladstone for more and more, even as all the other racers are far, far behind. The Races aren’t a close win for John at all.

  Gladstone’s great chest breaks the ribbon, and John’s joyous fist is in the air, pumping out a victory as onlookers shout and clap on the cliffs. Gladstone takes another quarter of a furlong to slow down - John’s hand glides over Gladstone’s white forelock, and he gently twists one of his long ears, pulling it back and whispering into it. John dips his face lower, Gladstone’s long head dropping to keep listening to him.

  There’s a problem. Down the shore on the sand, where the other racers are still battling and racing for second, the water horses have kept coming. But John is a good distance from the finish line -- two hundred feet , a paper gull cries at him, the distance displayed on its wing, a clipping from the racing reports -- more than enough distance for the other horses to slow, even if they were running full speed at the actual finish line.

  The water rises to Sherlock’s pectorals, and now it’s far too high for the shallows. He lifts his arms higher, wondering if he can drown in this pseudo-reality. The cold nudges around his body and raises the hair on the back of his neck.

  John is pulling Gladstone off to the side to make way for the other riders, coming in fast, pushing his heels into Gladstone’s lean belly and asking for a quick movement. Sweat and saltwater make Gladstone’s mane cling to his neck, and his tail to his flanks and hind legs. Even from the sea, Sherlock can tell just how much this race has affected the water horse, his head is snapping every which way, teeth bared around the metal bit in his mouth, lips wrinkled back to hiss like an eel at the pole in the water, searching for something to fight with. His eyes are white all the way around square black pupils, and John’s heels are doing nothing.

  He isn’t listening to John.

  And so, when the giant white mare barrels straight into him, Gladstone shrieks and throws himself back at her.

  The mare has no more rider, but there is a saddle draped in bells over her back, streaks of brown-red on her pale coat and a halter covered in iron chainmail over her hallowed face -- John wretches his leg from where it’s been crushed by the heavy muscles in the mare’s neck and Gladstone’s side, face of panic, while she screams and snaps at Gladstone -- Gladstone is swinging and screeching and baying right back, clacking his teeth as she rears, a foreleg striking out, long ears pinned against her skull, John is instantly on the sand, and--

  -- and everything freezes in place.

  On the beach, there are horses posed as if they are still charging onwards, but they aren’t moving. Several of them only have one hoof on the earth, or are in full suspension, their jockeys poised hunching on their shoulders. Overhead, the paper gulls are paralyzed, the wind has stopped its push-pull, and the sea’s waves have stopped their relentless shunting against the shore.

  Further down, there is a man up to his calves in the foamy water, stopped in the middle of falling backwards as a capall with an alarmed rider poses before him, mouth wide open, a string of bells wound around both of its forelegs. In another place, a horse is snaking its head low to the beach at another felled rider, and yet another is escaping into the ocean, saltwater spraying around it.

  The overly dramatic sound of suction.

  Sherlock’s feet come free of the sand, and he wades, pushing hard against the weight of the water. It feels like he’s being pushed back. Still, he gives up on keeping his arms dry and instead uses them to push himself further to the shore. Beneath his feet, the sand shifts and the water he touches tries to drag him to the depths of the shallows.

  What’s that on the mare’s flesh-- there's something there - the weak sun glares on something that is wet. All the blood on her coat. Why is Gladstone acting so ferociously?

  Even next to Hope’s horse, when John shot at the man for Sherlock, the champion capall has never not listened to John. Not last night when he was screaming in the rain, either. The Races wind him up more than anything.

  Sherlock shivers in the water. What do the Races do to the horses that are always wild, and who always desire the sea, when men can race anything that they can fit under them?

  The sand tilts under his shoed feet, and the land begins a subtle, rumbling shake.

  At once, the seabed turns over, shivering sand and dredging his feet under the sediment. Up, get up! Leaning forwards gets his freed feet into the cracks of the coral rocks where the abalone live, dislodging shells and reef-bits tucked into the crags of the stones. A breaker melts into the saltwater when he sloshes through it on his way to the shore.

  The land shifts again.

  Sherlock is soaking wet and standing on the beach, running his palm over Gladstone’s long face. Upon realizing what he is doing, he wrenches his hand away from the ghostly mane and nostrils that should be blowing out hot air. Right. Gladstone is yet unmoved. Sherlock’s never been able to take the time to observe every individual hair on his nose before. Nor has he ever been brave enough.

  The tendons in his twisted neck are prominent and the braided reins are pulled away from his side, thrown up into the open air where John must’ve tossed them. There are tinges of pink and dusky grey to Gladstone’s black mouth. The wisps of wet hair call back to mind the night Sherlock spent running from the piebald. Or, that's in the future, now. Strange to think about it. He wonders briefly if the very water horse was out in the ocean at this time, or if it came to eat something on land before.

  Rubbing his fingers together, bits of sand and a glaze of sweat come away from Gladstone’s pelt. Considering touching Gladstone’s withers is pointless, they're too high up for him to reach, even standing on his toes.

  Sherlock turns, swallowing worry for the man on the sand. If he looks at John, he knows he’ll shatter the illusion of stillness. Trusting his own mind to keep the water horses where they are, he observes the mare.

  She is stunning and absolutely giant reared back like this. The flare of that splayed foreleg would be close to Sherlock’s head were he twice as tall. For now it remains high above him, like the mare’s great long head, face veiled in chainmail.

  Her hooves are plated in iron horseshoes.

  Sherlock's fingers fidget by his side. Her every step was pain.

  He would never dare to do this if there was any chance of danger, but… Sherlock ducks beneath Gladstone’s powerful neck, held high and tight, to scan the entirety of the scene.

  Gladstone and the white mare are fixed together, the mare risen up on her back legs, neck twisted like a renaissance sculpture - beautiful movement, full color, but completely immobile. Not even breath shifts her great rib cage. Because of her color, it is difficult to distinguish between her coat and the white chalk of the cliff faces beyond her, where she begins and the island ends.

  There is a glint of something shiny covering the pelt on her flank, beneath the burnt emblem of the Moriarty Stockyard brand.

  Sherlock is fixed on John again. He can't keep him off of his treacherous mind for more than a moment. On the ground, hands up in front of his handsome face, sand sticking on one side of his sweaty cheeks. All questions as to what happened at the conclusion of last year’s Races have been swept out of his mind, and just for a second, he’s too concerned for this figment of his imagination.  

  Somewhere in his head, he understands that he should be observing, letting the finale come to a close and watching what happens, replaying it to puzzle out what Molly thought was so suspicious (her intuition is surprisingly good). But that would include watching John get trampled.

   John threads his fingers through Sherlock’s - he brings up his other hand - and pulls it up to his mouth - John’s lips press lightly over the knuckle of his thumb--

  Nothing, nothing, nothing.

  God, just think.

  Cause of death for the mare - anything done to her - something, something, something! He’d read those reports without a care, he should've paid attention, but they were so minute that he hasn't disposed of their content to make room, there must be something.

  Sherlock turns.

  Everything is wet, here, the entire world. Horse sweat and saltwater, John's brow is covered with it - but this is much darker. Something sinister is smeared on that mare. She's white, and it stands out against her pelt. Weak light again gleams off the shiny-wet patch on her hide as he turns.

  All at once, Sherlock blinks, and it comes into focus.

  In island ponies, it's a sedative, a painting used to chill their hearts and relax them as the Thisby winds moan and kick up startlers. But there's no record of it ever being used on capaill uisce.

  Struck onto the hind leg of the white mare is a mark - one written in blood. It's unclear whether it’s man or beast blood, like the sheep’s at the rider’s parade. It's messy and the edges are wavering and unorderly, all tells that whoever did this, they did it quickly.

  The beach begins to shake again - he grasps Gladstone’s mane hard for support, coming face to face with the enormous beast once again. He stares at the yellow teeth that can be seen just underneath a heavy lip.

   Sediment from the cliffs crumbles down like broken brick onto the grains of yellow-brown sand… Sherlock whips around, then back, eyes wide, staring at the charmed painting.

  No. Not in the Races, not in the middle of them, who would’ve reached over to charm another horse? Who would’ve risked losing an arm, just to hurt another capall ? Who would risk something like this, to try out an effect of a charm never seen on capaill before? How would this happen?

  A deep, disembodied voice penetrates the surroundings, vibrating inside Sherlock’s shoulders and chest, words indecipherable. Then, thunder. The ground shakes harder.

  The paper gulls are starting to dislodge their paralysis. Thin feathers twitching, filaments made from the news of last year.

  Beyond the champion water horse, John’s fingers are slowly curling in the sand.

  Centimeters from his nose, Gladstone’s mouth begins to creak shut, and his great round eye abruptly shifts its square pupil to regard him.

  Sherlock jerks.

 

-/-

 

  “... Holmes? Sherlock...? Earth to Sherlock Holmes?”

  Sherlock slaps Lestrade’s hand out of his face. Too close!

  The officer’s grin broadens. Sherlock had only just registered that he had one. “Having a nap?”

  He scowls, but secretly wonders if his mind had created such a sequence in sleep, or if it were truly fact from the racing reports last year. Perhaps the lines had blurred a bit, since his body is sore and exhausted, stiff with fatigue and dried saltwater.

  The stool is very hard under his backside, and all at once the want for his bed hits him.

  He gets up but groans, his clothes caked with salt. Serves him right, putting his trousers from last night back on. Beneath his buttoned coat, however, he's wearing John's small jumper, it's warmer that way. That's all. His shoes are still damp. He's been in the bakery for several hours.

  Lestrade looks like he's enjoying this. Sherlock plays with the collar of his coat to shake off some of his own paralysis, to stretch.

  “A murder?” He prompts.

  This makes the officer’s smile drop, although his tone remains broad and almost upbeat about the whole thing. As Sherlock has long suspected, Lestrade liked the mysteries that his job occasionally provided. Thisby was full of mysteries, but so many of them had been in existence for so long that people forgot to solve them.

  “That's what it looks like. The man’s still got what he ate all over his face. Haven't checked for external markings under the clothes, we’re waiting for photographs. Looks like something chemical, allergic reaction, maybe.” Lestrade gives him the rundown as they leave the back of the bakery. The door swings closed behind them with a quiet squeak of old hinges.

  Lestrade smiles and lifts a worn hand to wave at Molly.

  Sherlock fixes the front of his coat. It bulges too much in the belly, where the jumper beneath has ridden up. Hardly noticeable, it still makes him uncomfortable. Maybe it would be best not to show that. He pockets his hands. Needs to go home and shower.

  “Hi, Greg. I'll see you tomorrow, Sherlock…?”

  Sherlock fixes his hair to dodge the question. Product would benefit it at this moment. It doesn't look good at all - how could John stand to sit in the bakery and eat breakfast with him while he looked like this? “I'm training tomorrow. I'm supposed to be today, as well, but,” he glares at Lestrade with purpose and long enough that the man catches him, “it must wait.”

  “You think I'm not supposed to be training--?” Lestrade begins.

  Molly surprises Sherlock by cutting off Lestrade and asking, “Are you going with Watson?”

  Sherlock hides his unease with a shrug. He shifts the length of his coat again, purposely giving a pause that suggests he doesn't care. “I suppose. If I see him.”

  “He’ll seek you out, you know,” Molly smiles. Just behind her, Archie is handing a paper bag to a tourist at the counter. “Oh, that man’s so gone on you. Ever since you met him, you know. I don't think-- I don't think I know of anyone more obsessed with you.”

  Sherlock will cry about that later on. His heart hurts and his fingers hurt. For now, he waves his hands as a gesture of hearing her but not caring about anything she’s saying, and leaves with Lestrade on his tail.

  The bakery door’s bell tinkles as they go.

 

-/-

 

  Down to the quay with the tavern, Lestrade leads him. Somewhere ahead in the damp alleys is a crime scene. The wind funnels through the side streets and gathers cold from stones to bring back to the ocean on the other side of the island while some seabirds trill in the cliffsides.

  In a red hat, dead, lays the man that purchased the box of tarts from Hooper’s this morning. There's still some lipstick on him.

  Besame Red, Carmine.

   Beside the body is the paper box of pastries, half-crushed. He must've fallen on them as he collapsed here. And here, he definitely died. The signs all over the man, and the lack of others, indicate so. If there was another texture or color of mud or bits of grass on him, it would've been discernible that he hadn't died here. And, Lestrade was right. Some crumbs and the red jam of a tart are stuck in the hairs of his unwaxed moustache.

  He’s sprawled out on his back behind the Hawkins’ Tavern, no blood, just bubbly spit pooling on the stone by his skinny cheeks on the floor and at the corners of his mouth. His clothes are rumpled, and he smells strongly of vomit when Sherlock crouches down to sniff at him. He folds down the collar of his coat to keep it from coming into full contact with the man.

  Somehow, the vomit stink is the worst thing about all of this.

  The man’s fingers are curled in agony. Lestrade also has noted this down on his small leather pad of paper that he holds in gloved hands. Always insisting on gloves. The texture of everything is lost with gloves but can reveal great things, sometimes.

  Why is this place familiar? Where was that girl in the yellow dress found again? Ah, yes, the same location, almost. Sherlock glances onto the stone street, but there is no trace of the yellow-dress-girl’s blood anywhere. Rainy Thisby has washed it away more than the clean-up team could've, it beat out the blood from the rocks and the gravel.

  Although this is the same location, there is no possibility of the butcher’s son having done this. For one, he’s in the police station, held in prison. For another, he would've killed this man the same way - stab wound to the carotid artery. The man’s an idiot and a brute, for Epona’s sake, he wouldn't be able to use… poison.

  But the fact that both bodies are in the same place remains. There is no such thing as coincidence.

  Sherlock looks but can ultimately see nothing that would connect this man to the girl in the yellow dress. Not likely that the two were connected, then, even if the butcher's son would commission someone outside of prison to kill the man for him.

  For some reason, Moriarty's venomous visage comes to Sherlock’s mind. He shakes his head, waving a hand to shove the image away.

  “Chemical…”

  What sort of things can someone slip a man that would result in this frothy spit, can cause the clearly agonizing signs of his last moments, and the crust and salt of sweat all over his face?

  Arsenic, mustard gas, cyanide, ricin, strychnine… Clearly it was ingested, which rules out the mustard gas and the gaseous form of cyanide - since there was no bitter-almond smell around the man’s face, or the area, no bleeding nostrils. No castor oil plants grow wildly on the island, no way for ricin to be developed from the seeds unless they were imported. That would leave records. Arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine seem to be the most obvious - but just picking one by that assumption could have disastrous results.

  The idea that he can't solve this one immediately and without issue bothers him.

  A moron would suspect the tarts. It could be true. The wind gusts down the narrow alleyway, cold and biting at Sherlock’s exposed ears. He tucks some curly hair behind one.

  Lestrade is quiet for a long moment, everyone is. Even Donovan. Good, that last one.

  Lestrade pushes out a long sigh, “I didn’t want to be the one to say this…”

  “Mm. Not the baker. No motive.”

  “I wasn’t--”

  “You were. Molly has no motive to kill, none at all. Check his wallet if you think that’s what she wanted, nothing’s missing. Even his pocket’s still got his watch in it.”

  “She has an apprentice,” Lestrade goes on, “It could’ve been a, a mistake with the baking and--”

  “What, do you think there’s a lethal amount of flour that he could’ve eaten in a single tart?” Utterly disgusting, Lestrade’s thought process is today. Sherlock tells him so and Lestrade frowns, scrubbing a hand through his silver hair, leaving it sticking out all over his head. “Draw blood, look for somewhere around… twenty or thirty milligrams of strychnine.”

  But... Sherlock frowns. Doesn’t quite add up with the image of the man before them all.

  “Nevermind, nope. Death by strychnine poisoning comes from asphyxiation after the constriction of neural pathways that control breathing, or from exhaustion from seizures and convulsions, so…” There weren’t any signs of the man having seized, so, cyanide was out, too. He waves his hand to clear away the symptoms that someone with arsenic poisoning might’ve gone through.

  Donovan says, “So?”

  “I want to see a full toxicology report,” Sherlock says, standing curtly. He wrinkles his nose, wishing for a bath now that he’s spent time around a dead body. “It was poison, clearly, but no external marks, no seizing… Tourist. Again with the tourists,” This last bit is murmured softly to himself. Overhead, grey clouds are rushing by, streaked with white. No storm coming, Thisby got rid of that this morning and last night. He thinks of John while he twists off a single leather glove and puts it in his pocket.

  “Toxicology?”

  “Yes. It’ll be simple to discern who did this, and someone did do it purposefully, not the baker, you idiot, when the specific type of poison is revealed. Importation records and all of that.”

  Tourists’ belongings aren’t recorded, though.

  No matter. Who would bring poison with them here?

  If one were going to murder another tourist, at least it should be done by water horse.

 

-/-

 

  Sherlock has never loved a bath so much. Neither has he loved clean clothes. John’s jumper works its way beneath his duvet and into his arms instead of covering his body. He’ll return it when he needs to return it.

  When he sleeps scantily that night, he dreams of the piebald and himself in an open field of marigold, and of John Watson, leaning into his ear so that their hair may brush.

   Keep still, John whispers, it sees you.

   The piebald turns into Mary, the blonde mare. Her legs shake like Beryl’s and her mane becomes silky smooth, unlike the piebald’s greasy kelp. It becomes a staredown between her and Sherlock, a dying sun alighting the golden plain. He looks to John for advice, but the man’s gone from his side.

  Mary’s mouth quivers around new blood.

 

-/-

 

  The whispery hairs of Redbeard’s tail flicks against Sherlock’s side as he fixes the curve of the saddle over the horse’s withers.

  Musgrave reappeared sometime during the night. She lays in the expensive hay by the loft, missing half her tail and looking significantly less excited to explore the island as she usually does. She hisses at Sherlock and at Mrs Hudson for coming near her, but seems overall fine and usual.

  Morning is brisk, and the island is uneasy. It feels as though Thisby has curled up into herself to shield from the all-encompassing wind, and Sherlock almost instantly, the moment he steps outside, clean and ready to meet John at the cliffs, has snot running out of his nose, so he makes sure to tuck a handkerchief into his breast pocket.

  Across the road, sheep wander loose over the mossy stone walls, the ones where the dead collie once was, when Sherlock had ridden up this path only days ago. He can still see the gleam of the wet eyeball in his mind. But he chases the image away, staring out at the fields he and Redbeard pass. There is no sign of the piebald that came out of the storm, and he wonders if it’s returned in the wake, or if an unlucky man has gone and caught her. Surely, no one would try racing that giant. She’s no Mary, but she’s no Redbeard. She was horrifying, stinking like the rot of the seabeds, and taken again by the ocean.

  Mary enters his mind again. The horse inexplicably is tied, in his head, to Moriarty’s face, even if it is Magnussen who rides her this year. He can picture Moriarty standing beside her, with the winning kelp and rose garland over her high twitching withers, but he can’t see the man ever climbing onto her. Moriarty doesn’t ride the horses. He only plays their sports.

  Sherlock is starting to think he knows more about Moriarty than he previously thought. Richest man on the island, neck-deep in the most dangerous game.

  It’s only around twenty minutes later, when he has reached the high cliffs by the racing beaches, that he starts to wonder this, John not immediately being present, is retribution for his absence several days ago.

  The occurrence makes him instantly anxious and removes all vague thoughts of Hope possibly making an encore, or Moriarty buying Mary.

  When he scoffs, Redbeard turns his ear back to catch the noise. Sherlock looks out at the ocean far out past the cliffs. He used to fancy he could see the mainland from this spot. Downwards are the racing beaches, with water horses shivering for the water in the wind. He watches the thrall below for several minutes, before pulling one side of the rein and turning Redbeard away from the edge of the world.

  He casts a glance towards the conifer that clings to the island. By far the spot that makes him feel most lonely. Again, his favorite tree, and one of the few that grow naturally. The ones by the Stockyard are all planted for decoration.

  And he’s just done a roundabout to thinking about John again.

  Redbeard sighs.

  Inexplicably, it's the way the island feels today - lonely and wide and flat, cold and salt-smelling - that brings about his revelation.

  Oh.

  So. That's what this feeling is.

  Grief begins to clog his throat - he shouldn't be like this. John is only late.

  This is nothing, because Sherlock felt, and continues to feel, the crushing weight of romantic attraction. He is miserable thinking about it.

  “And there he is,” John’s voice is carried to Sherlock by the wind - it smoothes over the nerves on his arms and back, and seems to lie flat his hair. Away from the edges of the cliffs, Sherlock turns to watch him approach. Redbeard spots them a moment later, jerking away. For a prey animal, it must be unsettling to have the senses fail at detecting a predator that now lies within striking distance. “Thought you might’ve been pulling another fast one over me.”

   Didn't hear him come up on that big horse at all. It's terrifying how silent they are. The only thing that gives the pair away, sound wise, as John rides him closer, is John’s hearty giggling. His biceps flex briefly under his shirt, straining the jacket he wears while he dismounts, and suddenly Sherlock's mouth feels wetter than it had a moment ago. He digs into the saddlebag on Gladstone’s haunches and removes a small blue notebook that was in his flat the night Sherlock stayed over.

  “You've got quite a shout,” Sherlock finally says when John stops close by, although John didn’t shout at all. Redbeard huffs to Gladstone, who tucks his muzzle, jerking John’s grip, and clucks back, fish eyes peering over his long nose.

  “Poor Redbeard,” John says, pulling on the corded reins, “I only meant to frighten you .”

  At once, Sherlock adores him.

 

-/-

 

  They're sitting by the cliffs that overlook the racing beach, sans both of their horses. John has his blue notebook out, and his stopwatch. Written inside the stained yellow pages are various times, dates, horse names and small paragraphs about each one, notes on how they move, how their riders think, how much they long for the ocean. Sherlock has the quilt wrapped over his shoulders and a thermos in his chilly grip. John hadn't thought his coat was enough, and so this silly thermos had been pushed into his hands out of the blue.

  Behind them, a little ways away, Redbeard is happily grazing on the stuffy, weak Thisby grass. A lead rope keeps his halter connected to the conifer Sherlock so loves, the draping one that hangs almost over the edge of the cliff. Although the sounds of the capaill training below on the shore occasionally startle Redbeard, there's no fear of him spooking himself and running off.

  Gladstone, the massive beast, remains in the circle John has drawn for him, out of reach, but watching them. John has taken part of a piece of olive cloth and fashioned it around Gladstone’s big nostrils, so the capall may only breath John’s scent.

 Silence is not a problem. Still, Sherlock finds himself longing to talk with John. “What are you writing?” He asks, although he knows it's John’s helpful hints and reminders to himself about the competition.

  As John finishes writing something, which Sherlock spots the words ‘ black, curly ’ from tracing his script, the light from behind the grey clouds shifts, bright enough to be casting shadows on the grass for a second, and then gone again. The salt grass is almost flattened in the wind - Sherlock grips the warm thermos tighter.

  “I've been watching the horses on land for years, Moriarty's horses, and the other ones,” John says. “These Races are going to be different, and not just because an island horse and his master are riding.”

  He was just wondering how the fiddler crabs fared when the horses were wild in the autumn, if they were ever crushed by dinner-plate hooves or if they stayed in their burrows all day. Attention drawn back to John, Sherlock frowns. “What makes you think so?”

  John broadens his shoulders, just stretching his upper back a little bit, but the simple movement has Sherlock’s head spinning. Beginning to grow more irritated, the stranger and more acute his fascination and infatuation becomes, Sherlock purposefully looks away, thinking of meringue pie and the sandpipers on the other side of the beach while taking deep breaths.

  John is looking at him. His cobalt eyes reflect the muddy yellow of the grass they sit upon as the wind lifts his hair back. It suddenly doesn't feel so overwhelmingly cold. It almost feels like the island has warmed, just in this spot.

  Ruining the illusion, John clears his throat. “The horses that have been on land longer, they're more… complicated. You'd think they would become more placid,” John watches the ocean, “more calm. It's the opposite, really. They miss the water more.” Sherlock fingers dance around the edge of the thermos, which has begun to lose its warmth.

  “Miss it,” Sherlock repeats, hungry for John’s thoughts on the water horses.

  Is it hunger, or jealousy? Envy that Thisby has favored John in so many more ways than it ever had Sherlock? A mainlander, over an islander?

  “Homesick,” John goes on, “their want for the ocean, they're sick with it. I've had a water horse as big as Beryl get so sick he couldn't move. Only saltwater baths and seaweed wraps on his legs could get him out to the pasture. Even then, he would stand in place and watch the sky.”

  When John says I, he means Moriarty.

   Watching the sky, on flat, cold Thisby, only wanting to go home, captured by strange monsters whose beliefs are unknown. Seems lonely.”

  He finally takes the time to inspect what's in the thermos. It's a strong-smelling herbal tea, he discovers when he opens the top just to close it again. He feels John's eyes on him for a short while.

  “So. Thisby. Weird name for an island,” John says in the weak afternoon sun.

  “Is it?” He sniffs. He can't get used to the cold today.

  “ The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe .”

  Sherlock looks at him strangely. He furrows his brow. “What are you talking about?”

  John grins and looks down as if bashful. Sherlock’s heart goes heavy, and he sharply inhales the smarting air, so much so that the back of his nose aches and he can almost feel his lips crack. He licks them, and glances away to the beach. A dun mare is running back and forth along the tract of useable beach. After making a note on his paper about it, John looks back up.

  “ A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Shakespeare? Forbidden lovers, who must speak through a wall in secrecy? Christ, what do they teach you in these schools?”

  “Can't recall.” Sherlock answers absently, “I've deleted it.”

  John sputters and Sherlock smiles, letting loose a deep chuckle down in his ribs.

  They catch each other’s eyes, and the laugh slips from Sherlock’s mouth.

  After a few moments, and Sherlock sipping from the thermos of tea (because he wants his chest to feel warm, and not strangely fuzzy and cold as it does now), John clears his throat. Sherlock watches the horses.

  “All these… they're wild. They're all new,” John nods his chin forwards, then points with his pencil down off the cliffs. “See the bay mare? And the one next to her? They’ve circles around them, but they're restless. They don't stop moving,” John’s mouth flattens, “They shouldn’t be down on the beach. The water’s too strong for them.” He returns the lead point to the notebook, scribbling something.

  “Do all water horses truthfully run to the water?” Sherlock traces the movement of his script.

  “Yeah. Can't help it. Keep Redbeard straight,” John thrusts his pencil at the air, making a straight line in nothing, “and you may actually have a chance.”

  “No water horse would do this?”

  “They all have the sea in them. None of them are tamed.”

  “Then how did you tame Gladstone?” Sherlock asks, watching two men carrying another one between them by his arms and legs. He imagines the man must be groaning between the two about his head, for his hair is mussed and he's missing the hat he clearly once had, but the beach is too far down below for him to actually hear anything. “He ran forwards while we raced. Mostly.”

  When they had raced, the wind had thrown the smell of the ocean at them, and Gladstone had veered to the edge of the land and the grass. Sherlock scrunches his nose, thinking over the delicious power of the champion horse that had tried to overcome him, even as he sat on Redbeard, lengths behind.

  John’s eyes track the journey to where the cliff overhangs below them, where the rest of the day’s casualties lie, and then, Sherlock notices, dart to the capall nearby. It’s a white mare whose gossamer coat seems to be no more pelt than nearly-translucent skin, not unlike many deep-sea fishes.

  Sherlock looks away, because he thinks he can see something gurgle in her belly. Pale eyes sit high on a long head.

  She is almost more fish than water horse. There is a wide circle around her, men dare not approach, to the disdain of the monger, who must be trying to sell for next year with no luck. The capaill nearby do not look at the old mare for very long. Their ears are all back as hers are pricked lazily forward.

  “I didn’t tame Gladstone,” John clips, watching the scrambles and mock gallops on the beach. There's barely room to walk, and the screams of horses conquer all airspace, reducing the men on the beach to mutters or shouts. A capall charges through the wet sand, soft ocean spraying around her hooves. Sherlock looks, but he can’t spot Mary.

  She could be further up the beach.

  Sherlock shifts his eyes to fixate on one spot, watching the opaque mare. She wheezes drooling bubbles on every breath, like an overheated island pony. But the day is cold and the sand is thrown by the wind.

  “Didn't tame him?” Sherlock prompts, looking into the fray. Deductions and observations jump at him in such number that he has to peer down at the cliff grass to gather his bearings.

  “No water horse will ever be tamed,” John says. The wind blows his fringe back, showing off the array of colours in his hair, silver and brown and blond and grey, and he's squinting against it.

  “Surely, yours is.”

  “No. And if you believe he is, you’re a fool.”

  Sherlock scrunches up his nose. John turns in time to catch the countenance, and laughs breezily.

  “I'm not-- I'm not calling you a fool. I am sorry, I am! Only, you've lived here all your life, you should know they can't be controlled. They're wild animals.”

  “They're villains,” Sherlock scoffs, facing the wind again. None of the force is broken like it might be down below, and hits in full his entire body, chilling him again. The same wind churns the waves far out at sea.

   John laughs again, lower and without a tinge of malice. “They're only animals. They're not monsters.”

  Sherlock doesn’t grace him with a response. John holds up his stopwatch and points out a man down on the beaches, asking, “How fast d’you think his horse is?” And it sounds like a challenge.

 

-/-

 

  It's unclear why John Watson loves the water horses. Sherlock can't be sure why.

  He can understand the how, the where, when, and who of anything in the world. But not this.

  Can he let it be?

-/-

 

  “What was wrong with that mare?” Sherlock asks that evening, after they spent the remainder of the day on top of the high chalk cliffs, making observations and notes.

  He sees better from the left side, his eye is damaged beyond repair, so, you should come up from behind on the right when you make your move in the Races, about a white stallion, and That's a bit of a strange colour to wear on the beach, isn't it? When a man in a bright blue and gold waistcoat, a tourist come to race, made his appearance before them, asking after someone he'd lost track of. He learnt how unfriendly true people of Thisby were when Sherlock didn't even look at him (he had a gambling addiction, how pedestrian was that?).

  John had been very impressed which Sherlock’s deductions about old injuries, both men’s and horse’s, which had definitely warmed the island. Sherlock, in turn, was impressed with John's knowledge of the behavior of the capaill.

  On the cliffs, Sherlock has no clue how John trusted Gladstone to be so close to the sea. Then again, Sherlock has no clue as to why he himself trusted Redbeard to remain with Gladstone and not be frightened, but the horse was happily grinding weak grass between his molars when they came to fetch him.

  Sherlock should've kept the bit in his mouth to prevent him from eating the bad, scrubby grass - but he's not that cruel. Redbeard was enjoying himself.

  John, fixing the petite saddlebags on Gladstone’s back, looks over his shoulder at Sherlock, mirroring him on Redbeard. Gladstone is facing resolutely forward, cloth tied around his nose. As he breathes, the thin cotton is pulled into shadows in the shape of long, thin nostrils, and pushed back out on the exhale.

  “Which mare?” John asks, before moving to the girth strap. Sherlock has always found it funny, how long the girth strap has to be for it to loop around the big bellies of the massive horses. The saddles looks like toys atop the beasts, but they are as big and real as Redbeard’s.

  Sherlock scratches Redbeard’s shoulder in a spot where some mud is caked. The stallion whirls his head around and bats at his arm with his soft muzzle. “The white one. It was nearly translucent, I know you saw her. What was wrong with her?”

  Sherlock pushes Redbeard’s nose away, and stuffs a foot into a stirrup, hauling himself expertly up and onto Redbeard’s back. Redbeard puffs, and Gladstone mimics it.

  “Nothing,” John says, “She was old.”

  “I've seen old capaill before. They don't look like that.”

  John steps into the elongated stirrup, and hefts himself up with effort, swinging his leg over to fit into the stirrup of appropriate length, then leans over to fix the long one. It works wonders in place of a mounting block, even if John has short legs. He has muscular thighs, Sherlock muses.

  “She was old, like I said. If you don't think she was old because you've seen old ones before, you've never seen one that's that old,” He says, sitting back up and taking the reins in hand. Gladstone snaps his chin against his neck, frozen. John shifts forward to drag the cloth off of Gladstone’s nose, and the horse stretches his horribly long, serpentine neck out again, as if he had been contained this entire length of time.

  “She was very old, and she missed the ocean.”

  “That’s not a very good answer.”

  “Hang on, I'm trying to make an analogy, here…”

  “Do hurry. We’ve not got all night.”

  “It's… it's like…” John huffs an irritated breath, tucking the thin cloth into his saddlebag. Gladstone sucks in heavy breaths. Redbeard snorts, ducking his head to nose at the weak Thisby grasses again. Gladstone watches him, blatantly interested. “Hm. Well, um. Huh. Analogies are harder than I thought.”

  “And yet you can quote William Shakespeare off the top of your head?”

  “I like Shakespeare, and- hey! I never mentioned his first name--”

  “What a hopeless romantic.”

  “--I never said his first name, Sherlock!”

  The wind has its mortal fingers buried deep in Sherlock's hair, tussling and confusing it. Sherlock turns away. “So?”

  “So!” John kicks Gladstone into walking nearer, “So, you do know who he is, and you were having me on.”

  “No!” Sherlock coughs.

  “You’ve gone all croaky,” John says, “Have you got yourself a cold?”

  Sherlock sniffs and turns away. “Here's your thermos.”

  John leans off Gladstone’s side, grinning ridiculously. The water horse turns his face just slightly, regarding his rider. “ The strong-neck'd steed, being tied unto a tree, breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he…

  “What?”

  “That's some Shakespeare for you. Ta, for the thermos.”