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And all my pirates share the grave

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“Aye. Maybe it’s the black plague,” the Captain whispers at last and he no longer sounds obstinate. He sounds very small and very scared. His hand slides along the tabletop and takes the First Mate’s hand. The First Mate takes it and squeezes it, hard. “Maybe.”

The First Mate doesn’t reply, because in all honesty he doesn’t know, and it very well might be something just like that.

 

//

 

Fear blows wind into your sails.
~Sailing Proverb

Where there is a sea, there are pirates.
~Pirate Proverb

X marks the spot.
~Holmes Brothers Proverb

 

//

 

It’s the spots that finally get his attention.

It’s an unusually warm morning in late spring, bright, almost painful sunlight, and a sweet stillness to the air, but also unusually busy with coughs and colds and prescription renewals and aches and pains and “It hurts when I do this,” followed by, “Try not to do that, for a few days at least,” and, “I sneezed 13 times on the way here,” followed by, “Well, it’s allergy season. Have you tried something like Clarityn? I’ve had several patients recommend it.” But woven amidst the mundane there’s a thread of oddities that John can’t quite put his finger on until nearly 4 p.m., when he’s starting to pack up. There’s something pricking at him, a niggling thought he can’t quite bring into focus, but it’s right there. He sets his satchel down and pulls the files from the day and goes over them, lips pursed, fingers of his right hand drumming on the desktop.

9:15 a.m.: Kate McClelland, 43, presenting with fatigue and joint aches, mild headache, three spots on her forearms. Not itchy, not painful, no known allergies. Took paracetamol for the aches, maybe a small reaction to the medication?

11:45 a.m.: Meggie James, 5, presenting with headache and nausea, two spots on her wrists.

2:14 p.m.: Jasper Wolfe, 64, fatigue, aches, headache, four spots on his inner arm, clustered by the elbow.

John hadn’t even noticed at first.

And finally:

3:30 p.m.: Richard Nagaraja, 22, nausea, fatigue. And a spot.

All of them round, about two centimetres in diameter with slightly raised edges, small purplish spot in the centre. So many reasons for them to appear. Hives? Environmental chemicals?

John frowns at the paper, at his own familiar scrawl, at words he remembers writing earlier that day without worry. Surely they weren’t serious, these marks. None of the other doctors working the shifts had said anything, and some of them must have seen similar symptoms. Surely. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. There’s a headache building there, between his eyes, has been building for hours he realizes.

It’s Monday, he thinks then. It’s Monday afternoon. I’m at work, but I’m done, and now I’m going home. Sherlock will be there, creating something or destroying something, like always. There will be no dinner waiting, like always, and I’ll have to search the cupboards, or order takeaway. The cup of tea I made him this morning before I left will be sitting where I placed it, perhaps a few sips lower, but more likely not. It’s Monday. Just an ordinary Monday. Nothing more. He’s not sure why he thinks that thought, but he does. Later, he’ll remember thinking it and laugh a little, and then cry, too. A boring, uneventful Monday, nothing more.

He puts the files back. He goes home.

 

//

 

Sherlock sits hunched over the kitchen table that is littered with its usual detritus, empty bottles and crusted pipettes, plus a few new contraptions sporting numerous tubes and funnels. The alchemist is turning a clear liquid bright purple for no discernible reason that John can deduce: They have no case at the moment. The telly is on, muted, heavily made-up actors gesturing wildly and shedding copious tears. A soap, then. John stares at it dumbly, wondering what has made the buxom blonde so very furious and if what Sherlock is doing is in any way dangerous and also why four patients would have the same type of rash and also what’s for dinner because he’s ravenous. He missed lunch, he thinks. Ah, yes. Headache.

Why were the spots bothering him so?

“What?”

Sherlock looks up, frowning, annoyed that he’s been distracted and John realizes he’s spoken aloud. He shakes his head.

“You mind if I put the news on?”

Sherlock flaps an impatient hand in his direction and bends his dark head again. John watches him for a moment, mesmerized, long, pale hands moving rapidly but nimbly between beakers and vials and mysterious liquids until Sherlock glances up and snaps:

“What, have I grown horns?”

John looks away and turns the channel.

 

//

 

An hour after the news ends Sherlock puts his book down and stares at John, who’s still staring at the telly, unseeing.

“A rash,” Sherlock says. John glances over at him.

“What?”

“You mentioned a rash when you got home.”

“Did I?”

“Spots. Yes.”

“Hmm.”

“And then it was on the news.”

“Was it?”

Sherlock leans forward, interested. “You did. And, it was.”

John takes in a deep breath, holds it. He doesn’t know what to say.
“I saw something, today. Didn’t clue in at the time. I don’t know. It’s probably nothing.”

Sherlock steeples his fingers. “It didn’t sound like nothing when you said it. Didn’t sound like nothing on the news.”

“Time will tell.” John smiles at him weakly and shrugs and says, “Tea, then?”

 

//

 

There’s a queue at the door when John arrives to open the surgery in the morning. He’s still bleary-eyed, unsteady and befuddled with lack of restful sleep. His dreams were hazy and unformed but similar in one overwhelming emotion: Terror.

He realizes when he sees his patients’ frantic expressions, sees their pinched faces and hollow, questioning eyes that this, whatever it is, whatever has brought them here, is more than nothing.

Overnight, he thinks. Overnight it has, whatever it is, multiplied, worsened, created panic.

Only one other colleague, Marcus, has shown up for work, and he looks pale-faced and shaky at what he sees.

“I don’t know what to do for it,” Johns says repeatedly through the day, the words sounding cracked and useless in his mouth. He doesn’t know. Along with the spots there’s now a deep, hacking cough, one that rattles in their chests and throats. High, thready pulse. One girl he’d seen the day previous is covered in the rash, many of which have started to turn a deep purple.

“She says they hurt,” her hysterical mother says. “They hurt on the inside. The paracetamol isn’t helping. Nothing’s helping.”

John prescribes antibiotics (“When will they start to work? She says they hurt,”) but three patients collapse in the waiting room before they can even be seen. John sends them to hospital because he doesn’t know what else to do. There are just too many of them, and more every hour, filling the waiting room, forming a crooked, ghastly queue down the street.

At 3:11 he receives a text from Mycroft. He reads it with sirens ringing in his ears:

Go home. Now. Stay inside. Await further instruction.

John stares at the words, trying to make sense of the senseless. He sends his angry, frightened patients away, locks the doors. He stands on the pavement, undecided, something very close to pure panic fluttering behind his ribs.

Stay inside.

He texts Sherlock with shaking fingers: Where are you?

221b. Where is the sugar? The bowl is filled with baking powder. Tea tastes ghastly.

I’ll get some. Stay there. I’m coming home. Don’t leave.

After a moment he adds:

Stay inside. Promise me.

Sherlock replies almost instantly:

Out out damn spots?

 

//

 

John picks up groceries at Tesco on his way, as many bags as he can carry, non-perishables, a case of water, then staggers home, too paranoid to share air with any stranger in the confines of a cab. Everyone he passes on the street shares the same look: wide-eyed, frantic, disbelieving, frightened.

His fingers quickly go numb. The walk to the flat is endless.

 

//

 

Mrs. Hudson’s door is closed. John kicks at it, fingers straining with the weight of the groceries. When she answers he tells her to come upstairs immediately, stay with them for a few days. Nothing to worry about, he says, trying to smile, but she takes one look at his eyes and doesn’t argue.

“You better be here,” he yells into the flat as he enters.

“What’s all the fuss about? Mycroft being mysterious again. How he loves to flaunt his so-called authority.”

John doesn’t answer. His voice seems jammed in his throat. His chest hurts. He takes his pulse, forces his breathing to slow. Nothing, nothing. Probably nothing. Everyone knows how the media like to blow things out of proportion. Just a virulent virus. Food poisoning.

“You took your time getting home for someone who ordered me to stay put.”

Sherlock dumps the bags’ contents on the counter. A tin of beans rolls onto the floor. He turns to John with a scowl.

“And you forgot the sugar.”

 

//

 

By evening it’s all over the telly. Mass infection of some sort, pathology unknown for the time being, top heads of state working on the issue, all flights in or out cancelled, quarantine, curfew, etc, etc. The endless barrage of words fills the tiny flat.

Mrs. Hudson clutches a handkerchief to her mouth, eyes wide. “I can’t get hold of my sister. I’ve been trying all afternoon.”

“Rubbish,” says Sherlock, rolling his eyes. “It’s H1N1 all over again. Mass hysteria.”

“I’m sure she’s fine, Mrs. Hudson. Try not to worry.”

John’s phone pings.

Investigating possible medical infraction at highest level. Can say no more at the moment. Under no circumstances do any of you leave the flat. That goes for Sherlock, too — MH

John laughs, short and sharp. Sherlock grabs the phone from him, barely glancing at the screen before tapping furiously:

Oh big brother, what have you done now?

 

//

 

“This is utterly ridiculous,” Sherlock declares for the sixth or seventh time by Wednesday afternoon. “We’re not hearing anything new. We’re not hearing anything useful at all.” He pauses, whirls towards John. “If I could just get to Bart’s—”

“No!” John’s voice is very loud. Sherlock stops. “No.” John clears his throat. “We can’t go…anywhere. We can’t.”

Sherlock just watches him, waits.

“You didn’t see them. You didn’t…hear them.” John takes a deep breath. “For once Mycroft is right. Absolutely right, ok? We don’t know if this is airborne or carried by food or water. It appears to be highly contagious, but—”

“If it is contagious then you’ve most likely brought it home with you,” Sherlock says with a small, smug smile.

John nods. “It’s possible. It seems to develop very rapidly. It’s advisable we do our best to avoid sharing cutlery or cups and we’ll have to figure out sleeping arrangements as I’m giving Mrs. Hudson your room—”

He’s cut off as Sherlock leaps across the room, places a hand on each of John’s arms and kisses him softly, soundly and deliberately on the mouth.

“What—”

“If you think you’re getting sick and buggering off somewhere, abandoning me here in this deadly boring flat you’re grossly misinformed.”

John can only stare. His mouth still tingles. He’s suddenly grateful Mrs. Hudson is having a lie down.

“I—”

The overhead light flickers.

 

//

 

They leave the telly on the news station but realize fairly quickly there’s nothing new to be learned except for the increase in deaths. Mrs. Hudson keeps crying, but John’s afraid they’ll miss something if they turn it off.

“My sister,” she sniffles as John pats her back ineffectually.

They play all the board games, even haul Cluedo out from its hiding place and John ignores Sherlock’s grumbling for an hour. Mrs. Hudson wins.

John calls the hospital, the police, emergency, again and again. All numbers go to voicemail, or go nowhere at all.

He leans his head in his hands. His mind goes blank.

He texts Harry.

You okay?

A moment later:

Stay safe.

And finally he adds, Love you.

She replies, just once, several hours later.

It’s enough to make someone start drinking again, isn’t it?

 

//

 

At night there’s looting. They hear glass smashing outside the flat, somewhere below them. Speedy’s? They’re not sure and John does not allow Sherlock to “run down quickly to check.” Voices raised in desperate anger and panic. Mrs. Hudson sleeps through it, thank goodness. John makes sure the door is locked, puts his gun on the coffee table.

He lies down on the couch, stares up at the shadowed ceiling. He doesn’t know what to think or what to feel. He crosses his arms, then uncrosses them. There are bugs crawling under his skin.

“I can’t sleep.” It’s Sherlock, of course, disheveled in bathrobe and pajamas, standing in the semi-darkness.

“Here,” John says, sitting up. “Take the couch. I can’t sleep either.”

“It’s fine. I just.” Sherlock pauses and sighs. “I just don’t want to be.” He sighs again, softer.

John nods. He knows. He moves over. Sherlock sits beside him. They stare at the shadows and listen to the glass breaking outside and the voices yelling and pretend it’s some kind of celebration they weren’t invited to.

 

//

 

In the middle of the night he receives a text from Molly.

Autopsy complete. Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Inconclusive but total organ failure. I have no

And that’s all. The phone slides between John’s sweaty palms.

He types: Was this meant for me? Or Sherlock? Has he been in contact with you? What’s going on? Is everything all right?

But of course it’s not and she never replies.

 

//

 

She’s slow to answer the door in the morning and when she opens it John knows immediately.

“Didn’t sleep well, dear,” she says by way of explanation. She’s pale and feverish, achy. She pushes up one sleeve of her burgundy dressing gown to reveal what John knew was there. He closes his eyes, sways.

“Don’t come too close, dear. I may be contagious.”

“Go lie down, Mrs. Hudson. Rest. I’ll get you some water.”

She nods, reaches out to pat his cheek, but pulls back, hesitant. “You’re a good boy, John. Don’t forget that.” She pauses. “A good boy.”

 

//

 

John fetches water and makes meals and washes dishes and tidies up the flat while Mrs. Hudson sleeps and Sherlock reads and mutters to himself and stares at the telly and stares out the window and taps on his phone and avoids talking to John as much as possible. They sit at the table to eat as they always have and Sherlock picks at his food with a petulant grimace, as he always has. They drink tea, sugarless, and milkless, once that’s gone, but it’s just one more thing they don’t talk about.

Mrs. Hudson sleeps most of the day. John brings her tea and leaves it on the bedside table. She doesn’t stir. Sherlock inquires about her regularly in a subdued voice but won’t go near her for which John is almost grateful.

When they’re getting ready for sleep the lights flicker briefly, then again, longer. John looks at Sherlock, who looks back steadily but says nothing. Neither of them says a thing. Sherlock helps John rinse their dishes and then they brush their teeth with boiled water and go about the nightly rituals of their lives against the droning backdrop of death and destruction and no help in sight.

John stands in the doorway with his phone. He wonders why it’s so very quiet outside tonight.

Still inside. Still awaiting instruction.

He sends the text and then checks on Mrs. Hudson and then covers Sherlock with a blanket and then he locks their door against the rest of the world.

 

//

 

He’s just managed to nod off in the chair when he hears it: pounding, sobbing, pleading outside the flat.

“Someone’s at the door,” Sherlock hisses from the couch. “Unfamiliar knock, hysterical demeanor. Male, approximately six foot one, sick, perhaps hallucinatory.”

John grabs his gun and swallows with difficulty.

“Hello! Hello? Carla it’s me. Let me in!”

John licks numb lips. “Carla doesn’t live here,” he calls. “This is our flat.”

More pounding. John peers through the peephole.

“No no. Carla lives here. I know she does. Where is she?” The man’s eyes are bulging almost comically, his spots have melted together in a blotchy dark purple maze. Some are oozing.

“You have the wrong flat. I’m very sorry. You’ll have to leave. Carla isn’t here.”

Another pound.

“Please. Please go away.”

One more half-hearted thud.

Then the sobs, the heartbroken, heartbreaking sobs.

 

//

 

On Thursday, two things happen.

The power goes out.

Sherlock starts to lose his mind.

 

//

 

Perhaps it’s the relentless coverage on the telly hour after hour, the rapidly rising death toll, the new outbreaks, the barely contained panic in the newscaster’s voice. Perhaps it’s when everything suddenly, finally goes dark at 1 a.m. They’ve turned on every light in the flat after Sobbing Man finally stumbles away and Sherlock throws his book across the room with a cry of disgust. Perhaps it’s the quarantine, the lack of cases to keep him otherwise occupied. Or perhaps it’s the discovery of Mrs. Hudson, mottled and bloated on the bedroom hallway, one thin arm outstretched towards the door, mouth hanging open, eyes rolled back. John can hardly blame him. It is, after all, Sherlock who finds her. Perhaps John would have gone a bit mad himself had he been the one.

 

//

 

He awakes after a restive sleep filled with distant screams to find the couch empty, bedroom door ajar. He leaps to his feet, heavy panic blooming in his chest.

“Sherlock,” he calls, but the sound emerges as a thin whisper, barely loud enough to fill the small room. He bolts.

“Don’t touch her!” he bellows from the doorway. It’s a pointless order, though: Sherlock stands ramrod straight, arms at his sides. John doubts he could move if he wanted.

Shadows and angles and red jagged light from the window.

John stumbles into the room on rubber legs. Sherlock hasn’t moved an inch. He’s frozen, eyes staring, mouth slightly gaping. It’s difficult to tell how long she’s been dead, and John is not going to find out. Not right now.

So fast, then, John thinks, standing by Sherlock’s side. He’d checked on her after the Sobbing Man incident and she’d been sleeping, breathing hoarse and dry, but breathing. Alive.

So fast.

“We can’t touch her,” John says quietly, as much to himself as to his silent companions.

Sherlock still hasn’t moved, his muscles tight and clenched beneath John’s hand. It should hurt him, how hard I’m squeezing him right now, John thinks, but he’s not saying a word.

“Let’s go sit down, ok?” he says quietly. He propels Sherlock out, shuts the door firmly behind them, guides him back to the living room, back to the couch. Sherlock sits without complaint, his gaze fixed on an undetermined point across the room.

John makes them tea. He places a cup for Sherlock in front of him. He sits across from him. He blows gently across the surface of the tea. They sit together and listen to the noises outside the windows. They don’t cry. Because he’s a good boy, John only lets himself cry later, when he’s alone, when he’s sure he won’t be heard.

 

//

 

Sincere condolences. Help on the way — MH

When? — JW

Soon.

When?

There’s no reply.

He checks his phone before he tucks it into his shirt pocket: 75 percent.

Seventy-four.

Seventy-three.

 

//

 

The first fires are visible that morning, off in the distance. Black smoke plumes above the buildings. Then a second, miles away, then a third. John watches with a kind of childlike marvel at this window-shaped view of the end of the world, wonders idly if it’s simply more vandalism but as he watches he knows better. He can smell it, even from here, even behind glass. They’re burning the dead, burning them to kill the sickness, burning them to kill the evidence, perhaps. He says nothing to Sherlock, who sits still and silent on the couch, staring, still, at nothing. He thinks of Mrs. Hudson and wonders how many others are dead, how many others’ bones are turning to ash on a bright, sunny morning in late Spring.

 

//

 

John dozes on the couch and dreams of smoke, of dancing corpses, of Mycroft Holmes’ head on a stick.

When he opens his eyes, Sherlock is dressed as a pirate. John blinks slowly several times, then rubs his eyes, which feel, gritty and sore, then opens his eyes again, but the image doesn’t change. Sherlock has cut his pants at the knees, jaggedly, wrapped a red tie (John’s) around his waist, rolled up the sleeves of his soiled white shirt, tied another black tie (also John’s) around his forehead. He’s barefoot. He’s also brandishing a very large knife. He’s also grinning.

“What’s this, then?” John asks, hoping it’s not what it appears.

“Come now, lad,” says Sherlock. “We have seas to sail, treasures to find.”

It is, then, exactly what it appears.

“Surely you recognize a buccaneer when you lay eyes on one?”

“I’m not your lad,” says John. “I’m older than you are. Knock it off, Sherlock. This is hard enough as it is.”

“Don’t hang the jib, bucko,” Sherlock says as he steps back, raising his knife. “I need a First Mate and you don’t look like a landlubber to me.”

“Look,” John says. “I know you’re…upset. I am, too, but—”

“We need to go,” Sherlock announces.

“Right.” John sighs. “Go where?”

“There’s only one thing missing,” Sherlock says.

Your mind? thinks John.

“A ship, lad.” Sherlock’s eyes burn too bright. “What’s a pirate without a ship?”

 

//

 

John locks himself in the bathroom.

Need your help. Urgent.

He rests his cheek against the cool porcelain of the tub and listens to Sherlock pacing and muttering in the next room while he waits.

Are you ill? Is Sherlock?

Not sure.

Tell him to keep himself busy, keep that mind of his occupied. Vital. — MH

John types before he thinks.

Sherlock isn’t here.

The reply is swift, almost instantaneous.

What do you mean? Where is he? — MH

John can almost hear the voice, strident and sharp and accusatory. Can almost feel the beady predator eyes piercing him from a windowless room or underground laboratory or wherever the hell he’s hidden away.

I mean. He’s not here. Entirely.

This time the wait is much longer, heavy with meaning. Finally:

Look after him, John. Be kind.

John barks a laugh at that.

When have I ever not been kind? Or not looked after him for that matter?

I mean humour him. Play along, whatever it is. It’s more important than you know.

John stares at the screen.

Please.

It’s the please that does him in. John closes his eyes briefly, blinks furiously, blinks back tears. He swallows three times, hard, swipes an unsteady arm across his face. Checks his phone.

Sixty-eight.

 

//

 

That night they stand side by side and watch the fires from the window. There are many now, spread over the horizon like burning ships at sea. Bright, angry shadows dance on the walls around them.

“Pillaged,” says Sherlock in a low, dark voice. “This is the handiwork of the scourge of the seven seas, mark my words.”

He places the tips of his fingers against the glass, leans forward a little. His pale, pale, angular face is bathed in the light of the fires. John tears his gaze away with effort.

How many bodies, thinks John. How many bodies for the fires to be so big?

“Red sky at night,” Sherlock whispers. His head falls forward, thump, against the glass.

John waits, but he doesn’t finish.

 

//

 

“Have you heard from that rapscallion?” Sherlock asks on Friday.

“Mycroft?”

“That picaroon will be made to walk the plank when I lay my hands on him. Our battles are long and hard fought and decades old, but I’ll emerge victorious. I always do.”

“No. I haven’t heard from him,” John says to the back of Sherlock’s riotous curls, held askew by the black tie that has slipped to almost obscure his right eye. He doesn’t appear to notice. He checks his phone obsessively, but there’s been no contact for hours and hours. Outside the sirens have stopped wailing almost completely but the people have not stopped screaming. He can see people staggering along the pavement, disoriented, some of them crying, some looting garbage bins, some carrying limp bodies in their arms.

He checks his phone again.

Sixty.

Fifty-nine.

 

//

 

“It’s scurvy,” the Captain announces that afternoon.

“It’s not,” says the First Mate.

“It might be,” says the Captain. He has the obstinate tone in his voice, one the First Mate is all too familiar with. “Have you dissected a dead body yourself? Have you seen with your own eyes? No. So, you don’t know.”

“I know it’s not bloody scurvy for christ’s sake. It’s nothing like scurvy. Nothing. Jesus.”

Silence. John stares down at his piece of dry toast. Angrily.

“Aye. Maybe it’s the black plague,” the Captain whispers at last and he no longer sounds obstinate. He sounds very small and very scared. His hand slides along the tabletop and takes the First Mate’s hand. The First Mate takes it and squeezes it, hard. “Maybe.”

The First Mate doesn’t reply, because in all honesty he doesn’t know, and it very well might be something just like that.

 

//

 

Sherlock leaps nimbly from couch to chair to table to couch to avoid touching the crocodile infested waters below. He stabs John’s chair repeatedly until the stuffing escapes, tufts of white clouds unfurling through the fabric. He sings songs John doesn’t recognize in a lovely baritone, but sometimes in a sweet falsetto. He eats with his hands. He refuses to bathe. He smells sour and sweaty. His eyes look everywhere but at John. When he finally falls into a ragged, exhausted sleep beneath the bookcase which doubles as the Crow’s Nest, John kneels down behind him, folds himself around the long frame, pushes his face into the back of the slightly sticky skin and lets himself cry a little.

Please come back, he whispers into the dark matted hair. Come back, please. I need you.

 

//

 

Forty-five percent.

Forty-four.

Forty-three.

 

//

 

“Captain,” John calls from his bedroom. “A word with you, please.”

“Anything for my first-rate First Mate,” Sherlock says, striding in. His feet are filthy, his eyes wild. “I—” He stops short. “What’s this?”

“I believe you mentioned,” John says, “that a Captain needs a ship.”

Sherlock can only stare. “It’s a true beauty for sure. Once we get our sea legs it will be smooth sailing.” He looks at John. “Thank you.”

It’s a truly magnificent vessel made from sheets and a canoe paddle John wrestled from the front closet, and two hooks in the ceiling and several feet of twine. John takes Sherlock’s hand and leads him inside, lets the sheets fall closed behind them. It’s close and dim. They huddle beneath the high white sails, sheets that smell of sweat and fear, sour and damp. If Sherlock notices, he doesn’t say. He seems genuinely pleased with the result. They sit cross-legged on the bed. It’s quieter in John’s room and they both like that.

“A rest, I think,” Sherlock says, “before we set sail.” He lies down. John lies beside him. They are alone on the sea, the two of them, sailing for destinations unknown, the unhinged Captain and his stalwart First Mate, clinging to each other for dear life and placing all their hope in the makeshift vessel fashioned by an inexperienced scallywag. If they are very quiet indeed, and wait patiently, they will almost feel the waves beneath them, rocking and cradling them. So, they wait.

The world gets smaller and smaller and smaller.

 

//

 

Thirty.

Twenty-nine.

 

//

 

John sees the corpses in his dreams.

He forces his eyes open to face the darkness of the flat. It’s so very dark now, except for the fires outside, of course. He stands at the bedroom window, watching, until he hears Sherlock rouse behind him. Without looking he knows Sherlock is resting up on his elbows, watching him.

“Are we still under siege?” he asks.

“Yes, Captain.”

“Aye,” says Sherlock. He sighs. “Come back, then.”

John slips beneath the soiled sheet-sail, lets it fall closed behind him. The air in the cabin is heavy with sleep and the tail end of unspoken nightmares. Sherlock is lying on his side, watching. John expels a breath. He lies flat on his back, stares up, up, up past the sheets to the ceiling and roof and sky beyond. Sherlock follows his gaze.

“So many stars tonight,” he says. John nods.

“So beautiful.”

“Maybe we’ll reach land tomorrow.”

John nods and the sudden, hot sting of tears surprises him.

For one brief moment it’s the happiest John can ever remember being. Stars in the sky and a sturdy ship beneath him and a sharp, clean wind to guide them and Sherlock beside him and clear sailing ahead, clear sailing for days.

 

//

 

Eleven.

Ten.

 

//

 

Sherlock’s tears wake John hours later. His long limbs are wrapped around John, fingers twisted in John’s shirt.

“Marooned,” he says into John’s neck. “Marooned without a piece of hardtack or some spirits to ease us.”

“We need to have hope, Captain.”

Sherlock makes a sound between a laugh and a sob. “Some Captain I am. I wouldn’t be surprised if mutiny was afoot.”

“There’s no mutiny, I promise. And no one I trust more to guide us to safety.”

“I’m food for the fishes, that’s all.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t think I’m long for this world.”

He bares his arms to John, and John sees everything.

“Dead men tell no tales, John,” Sherlock whispers.

 

//

 

He takes a marker, draws two intersecting black lines on the fine, pale skin of his forearm. A map. A Pirate map. With buried treasure. Sherlock giggles. John looks at him, uncomprehending. Sherlock holds up his arm.

“X marks the spot,” he says. John takes hold of the arm, holds it in his unsteady hands.

“Black plague,” Sherlock says, his voice hoarse.

John shakes his head. It’s a slow and sad movement, very deliberate. He takes Sherlock’s face in his hands, forces him to look right at him. “Not black plague.”

While Sherlock sobs against John’s shoulder, he finds three more spots, makes X marks over them, too.

 

//

 

“Maybe,” John the Doctor says later, “it’s not 100 percent fatal. I’m still here. You’re still here.” He pauses. “You’re still here, yes?”

Sherlock nods against his chest. “I am.”

“Right.” John wraps his arms around Sherlock’s skinny frame. He feels him breathe in. And out. In. Out. Every breath seems to hurt him, but he’s alive. He’s alive.

He’s alive.

 

//

The Captain has fallen ill. Request immediate assistance.

Inform the Captain that passage has been secured — MH

Five.

Four.

Three.

 

//

 

“Rough seas ahead,” Sherlock says, then kisses him, hard. His skin is hot under John’s fingers. John scrapes his ragged nails along Sherlock’s spine. He kisses Sherlock’s neck, his exposed, sharp collarbone, licks at the salt there. They find one another through their clothing, rub against one another with desperate jerks and spasms, skin against skin. John can see the spots on Sherlock’s pale, thin stomach and chest, tries to kiss each one even as Sherlock tries to push him away.

“Doesn’t matter now, don’t you see?” John says, mouth moving against his ribs. “Doesn’t matter. You can’t. I won’t. You can’t—

Sherlock bites John’s shoulder hard enough to break skin and John squeezes Sherlock’s hipbones until he bucks and cries out, neck arched. Sherlock’s dry, hot hand finds John’s cock and it doesn’t take much, it hardly takes anything at all.

He comes with a grinding sob, his face against Sherlock’s sweaty, sour neck. Sherlock holds onto him while he cries and cries for a long time.

 

//

 

John is dreaming. He wonders, as he dreams, if it will be his last dream. If so, it’s fine, because it’s a good dream. It’s a clear, calm day, wind from the east, fresh and clean.

He turns to Sherlock, who is sitting straight and calm beside him, the wind in his hair, his face turned to the sun. He looks so beautiful for a moment John can’t catch his breath.

“What did you say?” John says. Sherlock’s mouth is moving but no words are coming out. There’s a sound above them, getting louder. A beating in the air whipping their clothing and hair and the water around them.

“What is that?” John says. “Interlopers? Do we need to raise the red flag?”

Sherlock smiles and shakes his head no.

The sound grows louder and louder, ruffling the water around them, blowing their hair.

“What is it?” John says, looking up, shielding his eyes.

“Mercy,” says Sherlock.

 

//

 

It takes four burly men to load Sherlock and John onto boards to be hoisted up into the helicopter. John can’t stop smiling. A helicopter hovering in the sky above 221b. What a glorious sight. If only he was coherent enough to enjoy it. He wonders if he’s dreaming again, but then it’s Mycroft’s stupid face peering down into his. He looks pale and thinner, but not by much. Wherever he’s been, he’s been eating well enough.

“Welcome aboard, mateys,” he says. “Good to see you alive and well, Captain.”

“Salvation in the form of a bilge rat,” Sherlock slurs from somewhere beside John.

“That’s Quartermaster to you.”

“Like hell it is.”

“Do hold still, Sherlock.”

“Ow! What—”

“I said to hold still, Captain.

“The antidote, I presume?”

“Oh course. And for you, too, John, as a precaution. You look decidedly unwell.” He sniffs, holds the syringe between his fingers. “It took some time, but we managed finally, as I knew we would.”

The helicopter sways and jerks and starts to move. Fast, John thinks, so very fast, after days and days of moving nowhere at all. His stomach turns. He feels sick. He looks down. They’re flying over the ruins of the plundered land, over dead bodies and smoking ruins, over and away. The grounds blurs, becomes trees and rivers. Cars lining drives, abandoned, the sick, the dead lying where they fell. John closes his eyes. It’s all too much.

He takes Sherlock’s hand in his, feels the rough skin and long, skinny fingers tangle with his own. He turns his head and opens his eyes, looks ahead at the horizon, red and burned and clear, clear sailing til morning.

 

//

 

Title and Summary from “To the Hesitating Purchaser,” and “Pirate Story,” by Robert Louis Stevenson.