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The Prince and the Soldier

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John sprawls exhausted among the bedclothes, the air of the bedchamber icy against his damp skin, and watches the firelight flicker on the stone and tapestry walls. It cuts shadowed wells into the ceiling and glitters in the snow piling up outside the casement window, and turns the man stretched like a cat against John’s flank into a beautiful demon sculpted from fire and darkness.

Maybe it only reveals him for what he is. Devil. Man. Prince. Temptation taken mortal form. Self-recrimination is a constant, almost comfortable companion for John now.

Sherlock’s touch is hot, and soothes the chilled ache from John’s back. Is it worse that a man’s intimate touch melts him with pleasure? Or that he’s a serf, polluting the royal flesh and soul of a prince? Compline passed hours ago in the fog of Sherlock’s amorousness, and right now John is too tired to care. He lets the self-loathing squirm as it likes inside him, and nestles into the Heaven-sent warmth of feather mattress and bed companion.

Sherlock’s hand continues to stroke possessively over John’s back. When at last it sweeps lower to cup his buttocks, John shivers and twists a hand into the sheets. “Nnnn, no more.” His arse smarts from the night’s bouts of coupling, and his wrung out muscles threaten to turn to rock in the cold. He’s already doomed to live out the day with the ghost of Sherlock’s cock throbbing inside him.

The prince’s quiet laugh vibrates through John’s rib cage, but he relents, reaching instead to gently untangle John’s fingers from the linens. “Careful, John. The bedclothes cost more than you do.”

John allows it, and allows Sherlock to twine their fingers together, and lets himself be snugged close as though they were real lovers seeking tenderness and comfort. Sherlock tugs a few blankets loose from the snarl of brocades and woolens and tucks them up around them both.

Wrapped in luxury and warm velvet skin, John wonders again whether he’s risen high or fallen low.

***

The prince is infamously cold. He has a reputation as passionless save for his intellectual pursuits, and is known to draw blood, not always metaphorical, from those who cross him.

John knows better. The spark in Sherlock’s eyes is anything but passionless when he waves John into his fire-lit rooms and bids him to strip. John stretches out on his belly on the skins before the fire, its ruddy heat beating into his muscles, and moans in time with the movement of Sherlock’s fingers inside him. Sherlock licks drops of sweat from the well of his spine, and John is nearly unmanned, his fingers clawing through dense bear fur in his fight to keep frustrated tears from falling.

Crescents bitten across his shoulders, red weals raked down his sides, John lies spread obediently and shakes in his prince’s pitiless embrace.

How characteristic, John had thought the first time the prince bedded him, that Sherlock would choose the most forbidden of passions to pursue.

He should stop this, he knows, if Sherlock won’t. But he’s only a serf. His oaths are to protect and obey his masters. The only person Sherlock has to obey is the king, and John can imagine all too well how Sherlock’s father would respond to John’s request that Sherlock stop requiring him to commit sodomy.

Whenever he watches Sherlock curl his lip at someone, John can’t help but wonder whether there were others before him. Others who look at him and know what sort of marks he wears beneath his clothes, and how Sherlock touches him at night, and makes him beg despite his best intentions to stay unmoved.

But worse than the idea of being one of the prince’s many conquests is the idea that Sherlock has had none. That something in John alone drove Sherlock to this. Most of all, John flinches away from the thought of what it implies if he is the only one.

***

The castle is settling to bed. John slinks back to Sherlock’s rooms through cold halls, grateful for the dark left in the wake of the snuffing of lamps and candles. He’s in the mood to be invisible; he’s just spent the evening in the great hall, trying to ignore two of the maids telling two of the guards all about how John indentured himself to cover his parents’ debt and exactly why he’s so old, unmarried, childless and always to be found tagging after the prince like his favourite hound.

He has little left but his pride. He began his life a free man; he won’t beget children into a life of servitude, or insult a woman with an offer of his portion of nothing. He loathes being noticed; detests standing out; hated having questions asked about him even before the truth was ‘because I’m the prince’s fucktoy.’

At least nobody is misguided enough to believe that being Sherlock’s favourite is a privilege. The grooms who serve the King and his eldest son are men of rank, noble sons and knights honoured for their service with access to a royal ear. John thanks God that all he earns is pity for being the lone sot left to deal with the younger prince if he rises in a temper in the night.

That doesn’t make it any less humiliating, or keep the curious glances from feeling any less like daggers at his back. Sherlock’s well-known eccentricity is the only thing that keeps those questions from turning threatening.

It’s a relief when he reaches Sherlock’s door, and he hates that, too; the feeling of gratitude for someone to hide behind. The door is ajar, just enough to send a spear of light into the hall. John steps in and closes it, dropping the latch behind him. Inside, the fire is roaring, built up as large as the hearth can safely take. The room is sweat-inducingly hot, or it will be once John warms up. After a day of traipsing after Sherlock around the half-frozen muck of the stableyards in layers of wool and his heaviest cloak, it feels spectacular.

He pulls at his outerwear, crossing to the mantel to hang cloak, scarf and surcoat on hooks for the smoke to deodorize. It’s an oven by the hearth, baking him like a hot cooking stone after the last three hours of wondering if anything would ever drive the cold from his bones again. It’s not meant for him, of course--why should Sherlock do him any kindnesses?--but gratitude fills him anyway.

He only realizes that Sherlock is in the room when a shadow moves the wrong way, turning in John’s direction. His eyes flicker wolflike in the firelight where he watches from his chair in a shaded nook.

“Everything,” Sherlock murmurs when John halts under his regard. His fingers twitch in a gesture that should be vague, but John knows exactly what he means. He looks down to his own hand, resting on the laces of his tunic.

After a moment, he hooks fingers into them and begins pulling. His clothes fall away from him an inch at a time. Sherlock sets down a large folio book, pushing it with one foot under his chair, and stands to drift towards him, as though drawn by the slow revelation of John’s body. John looks resolutely down. He doesn’t want to know the look on Sherlock’s face, whether he regards the baring of John’s skin for him with avarice or cold scorn.

Fingertips brush at his eyebrow, his cheek, trail down his throat to his sternum. They don’t interfere or assist with his disrobing, but they examine each inch of skin he bares.

For a long time after he’s entirely nude, Sherlock keeps him there, hands tracing lazily over his body. They glide and mould to him hypnotically, and he sneaks glances into Sherlock’s face to watch the tiny, near-invisible shifts in his expression. The fur rugs are soft under the soles of John’s feet, and he fancies he can feel Sherlock’s gaze sizzling against him.

At last Sherlock’s hands settle heavy on John’s shoulders, pushing him down into the piled rugs. There, he retraces the paths of his fingers with lips that taste at the most intimate places on John’s body, the inner crook of his elbow and the hollows between his abdominal muscles and the points of his pelvis.

He is slow and thorough, and John feels coveted. Discovered. This reverence paid to his body passes his understanding; he’s nothing compared to the ones Sherlock has turned away. He’s just a servant, tanned and battered from his work, but Sherlock’s smooth palms scrape over his calluses as though he were unearthing a treasure.

The heat of a royal mouth wraps around his cock, and John lolls his head back. It’s too much to watch, though he desperately wants to. Those full, lush gripping lips, stroking and kneading him. It’s a defilement of a mouth that doesn’t belong on him, of a tongue coating itself with sin where it laves and laps at him. It’s too much to hold still. When he thrashes, Sherlock catches his hands and pins them at his sides. He relishes John’s prick the way he did the fine Burgundy gifted by the Marquis d’Ancre on his visit last year, sucking gently and rolling the weight of it on his tongue.

He drank that wine very slowly, savouring it drop by drop.

***

John lies stretched out before the hearth. The fire and the furs are soft against his bare skin. The prince hasn’t touched him tonight; he just sits there, observing John with eyes that graze over his body with a heavy, leisurely stroke.

It should at least be better than a man’s touch, but it isn’t. It’s breathtakingly intimate. The slow weight of the prince’s regard leaves John exquisitely aware of every inch of his body. He stretches and resettles under the pressure of it, unable to dispel the sensation of shifting under a lover’s hands.

He wants desperately to know what the prince is thinking, but no force on earth could make John meet his eyes right now. He already feels more exposed than he ever has in his life. The idea of Sherlock looking even deeper into him fills him with something akin to dread.

His breath hitches on a shiver at the thought. He tells himself it’s a shiver of revulsion.

***

Downstairs, noble men and women from all over the kingdom are gathering to dance and eat. In a little while, the royal party will enter and their host’s betrothal will be acknowledged by the crown.

Sherlock unfolds the stiff bundle of cloth he brought in with him: a corset. John looks at him with some puzzlement, and only then does the wicked glint in Sherlock’s eyes register.

John backs away and nearly topples over a bench, feeling suddenly cornered. “You are not putting that on me.”

“Every woman downstairs is wearing one,” Sherlock says as if he’s being perfectly reasonable. “I’m curious to know how it limits mobility; if it handicaps one’s strength. And,” his voice drops, turns into something made of heated midnight touches, “I like to see you struggle.”

John’s cheeks and belly both burn. He jerks his face away, determined to deny Sherlock at least something he wants.

He hovers in a trance, halfway between obedience and shock, while Sherlock approaches. The touch of the cloth around his midriff breaks his fugue, but it’s too late; Sherlock pulls him back with it when he tries to jerk away.

His breath gasps out with every tug of the laces, the stays tightening on him an increment at a time. He can’t move. From hips to breastbone, the thing locks him into place, pulling his back into a fine arch that tips his rump up, and preventing him from assuming any posture but ramrod straight.

Sherlock’s touch thrums through the laces to surround John, reducing his world to the inexorably tightening confinement of the device, the struggling flutter of his lungs in his rib cage, the disciplinary pressure when he stiffens in resistance. John’s body fights automatically, futilely, against Sherlock’s control, and like always, a sensual thrill runs through him at Sherlock’s power over him.

He jolts and sways, a puppet to Sherlock’s rhythm, and closes his eyes to listen to the stir of his blood in the tides of a losing battle, suspended somewhere between panic and surrender.

Sherlock’s breath comes in huffs behind him, to the same tempo John is rocked to. Does he like binding John? Dressing him like a woman? Does the deviancy of it simply arouse him? If ever John has known a man who delighted in defying the natural order, it's Sherlock. His vulnerability to those ungovernable whims sends a throb through John’s groin.

The Church is clearly right about deviancy being a contagion.

Finally the tugging stops. Sherlock’s hands bump at the small of his back, tying the laces off, sealing him in. His breast heaves like a woman’s, constricted to shallow sips of air.

Sherlock’s hands run down the garment to squeeze John’s tipped-up arse, stroke over the exaggerated curve of his hips, slide across the flat of his stomach…and then John finds himself tilted forward.

“Nuh, no.” It’s stolen his leverage; he can’t work his body properly to twist away. He’s too shaky to stand even if he could. He’s pushed onto his hands and knees, the curve of his back held in stone. “Sherlock—”

Sherlock purrs against his shoulder blades. The head of his cock nuzzles at John’s entrance, rubbing and pressing until John feels himself penetrated, unable to pull away with Sherlock’s hands anchoring him in place with an uncannily good grip on John’s artificially small waist. John can’t even rock his hips as Sherlock conquers him, in a slow tease at first but then with increasing force.

He’s lost as Sherlock plunders him, caught pinned under the pleasure of Sherlock’s member opening and filling him again and again, lungs straining for air to fuel his body’s exertions. His little cries as he labours for breath drive Sherlock mad with desire, taking John with a rough ferocity that drives the air back out of him before he can ever catch his breath.

It seems to go on forever, immobilized in helpless pleasure while his orgasm slowly swells, pulled back and forth between vying tides of sensation.

He climaxes awkwardly, whining out the tiny amounts of breath he can capture and feeling off balance and stretched thin. Sherlock doesn’t stop. Each thrust shoots up deep into John’s body and up his spine with the jolt of a brush against hot iron, and no matter how he wriggles, Sherlock’s sure grip keeps him in place. It’s moments before Sherlock finally shudders heavily, with a moan that he buries in John’s shoulder, and John feels the hot liquid sensation of his spilling.

When his climax is finished, Sherlock falls to the side and runs his hand from John’s neck down to the backs of his thighs. “Captive, weakened, unable to breathe… I think I’m going to keep you in this. You’re so ravishing in it. I’ll be ready to have you again by the time you’ve caught your breath.”

John whimpers.

***

The first time, when it started, John was sat with Sherlock in his chambers, keeping the prince company while he caught up on what he called the ‘boring task’ of answering correspondence.

How it could be boring, John couldn’t fathom. He sat by the diamond-paned window and listened to Sherlock mutter as he worked, little epiphanies and observations on the texts and the people behind them. Sometimes he read passages aloud, his low voice thrumming in the shadowed corners of the room, and John held his breath at the sound of another man’s words being spilled out leagues away from the place they’d been composed.

Though others in the castle and court pronounced Sherlock intolerable, John found it a contented life. His needs were met, and his work engaged him; if he’d had freedom to choose, he might’ve chosen this for himself anyway.

The pen scritched across the pages, quill bobbing gently and leaving elegant loops and lines in its wake. Sherlock had let John try a pen, once, on a scrap of paper he’d spoiled with a spill of wine. It had felt clumsy and harsh, strangely unnatural in fingers strong enough to make a sword do his bidding, and John was fairly sure he’d ruined the nib.

Sherlock’s fingers commanded a pen with thoughtless, arcane expertise. John sat in the fading afternoon light and watched those fingers grow slowly stained with ink, as though the magic of the art were seeping onto his skin. Though he could remember looking at nothing else for hours, he somehow found himself caught completely off guard when Sherlock reached over, took John by the chin with one spattered hand, and kissed him.

His lips were full and creamy soft as a maid’s, yet moved against John’s with masculine demand. The fusion was so perfect that for a long moment, John fell into the extravagance of that hot mouth, all sense of judgment fled.

He came back to himself with the nudge of a tongue against his lips. A man’s tongue, and suddenly he was hyper-aware of where they were and who was touching him.

Fear ripped at the pit of his stomach. Breath already coming short, he made to push away. Before panic could fully establish itself, Sherlock caught him by the back of his head and kissed him again, nipping at his lower lip.

John shuddered at the sweet rake of teeth and subsided. Sherlock watched him, keenly assessing, and under that gaze John found himself ashamed to give in to fear.

This was wrong, what they’d just done. Wrong, and a violation of every oath he’d sworn: to the king who’d bought John’s family out of debt in return for his servitude, and to Sherlock himself. How could John claim to be protecting him when he was allowing him to endanger his immortal soul?

But then, how could John claim to be protecting him if he told anyone of this? Perhaps his position would shield him from a death sentence, but it would mean his destruction nevertheless.

“You’re not surprised,” Sherlock whispered when he finally released him.

It was true. He should have been shocked--horrified--but it was so very fitting for Sherlock, who seemed to take delight in defying every law of God and Man. Of course, he thought distantly. It made such perfect sense, when seen from Sherlock’s perspective. Of course, it’s about discretion. You’re safe with me. I’m powerless. If I speak, my end will be even more bitter than yours.

Sherlock, unfazed by the enormity of what he’d done, seemed to read acquiescence in John’s silence. “You’ve thought of this before.” His long fingers dipped beneath John’s collar.

It was late spring, then, and Sherlock’s hands were warm. They stroked and gentled him till John found his words. “Exile. Castration. Excommunication. Burning. I have, yes.”

“And yet you’re not running away.”

John felt the brush of Sherlock’s fingers against his throat when he swallowed. Those lips bowed into a smirk, and he couldn’t forget how they had felt against his, what he had permitted them to do.

No, he wasn’t running away. Even then, he knew that no matter how they deserved it, he didn’t want this to be the end of either of them. And where could he go that he wouldn’t be dragged back?

Unable to either encourage or withdraw, he sat still as a statue as Sherlock leaned in, tongue emerging for a long lick up John’s now-exposed neck. John pressed his lips together to keep them from trembling at the sensation; Sherlock’s eyes glittered.

“Kneel, John.” John knelt, shivering under the weight of Sherlock’s power over him. His breathing unravelled under the rich nap of that purr. “Show reverence for your prince.”

***

So here he is, personal guard for the king’s most antagonistic son, valuable for the mix of his martial skill and his perfect and impartial loyalty. After all, what do politics and rewards matter when he faces death if he fails to protect his charge?

They’re on the hunt—but as usual, Sherlock pursues different quarry than the rest of the court. He believes a traitor rides with the hunting party, and so they’ve separated themselves from the ride to set a trap.

John follows him through the forest south of the castle. They move quietly, but still the crackling red-gold leaf litter of the oaks rustles about their booted feet, till finally Sherlock stops John with a hand on his shoulder. “Here.”

This copse looks no different than any other to John’s eyes, but Sherlock is so seldom wrong about these things that questioning him is a waste of air. If he believes the encounter will take place here, then here it will be.

Silence takes over their surroundings, with no sound but the winter birds while Sherlock stands tall and still, surveying their surroundings. For a moment, John can see him as a deer, head high on a graceful neck and pricked to alertness; but then his eyes shift and the illusion fails. His stillness belongs to a predator, proud and hungry.

Satisfied, he turns back to begin pushing at John. John backs obediently where Sherlock directs him, assuming he’s being guided into a hiding spot in Sherlock’s usual imperious fashion, only to find his back hitting a tree and Sherlock’s hands on the ties of his clothing.

John catches his wrists before he recalls the folly of saying ‘no’ to the prince. “What are you doing?”

Sherlock grins, sharp and feral. “I want to see you bare and pale out here.” He shoves John back into place, tree bark rough through his clothes, and bites at his throat.

John wants to complain that Sherlock is talking nonsense, but chill hands are undoing his laces and slithering into the warm, sensitive crevices of his body. He squirms at the jarring sensation as Sherlock pushes down John’s hose with a stroke down the inside of his thigh.

“A wild thing I’ve caught.” Sherlock lifts him off his feet, hands cupped under John’s arse so that his legs have nowhere to go but around the taller man’s hips. He knows what’s coming, resigns himself as he’s lowered onto Sherlock’s cock. The weight of his own body completes the deed, and he’s caught, held for his own despoilment between Sherlock and the tree.

Sherlock’s thrusts shove him against the tree, driving his breath from him. The rough edges of the bark scrape at him; only his cloak keeps the bark from gouging his back. The discomfort is an afterthought, though, next to the depths at which he can feel Sherlock inside him, and the way John’s every movement only tugs him down harder; his own body complicit in his undoing.

Sherlock tries to pull John’s legs up further around him, but John can only bend so far in this position. With a growl, Sherlock lifts him away from the tree and topples them both into a basin of leaves on the lee side of a fallen log. John lies on his back and looks up at Sherlock, stunned.

Sherlock grins. “Laid out among the leaves.” He traces a finger from John’s temple to chin. “The colours suit you well.”

Shivering naked in the brisk air and aching with desire and prior invasion, John pulls him down. “Warm me.”

He groans as Sherlock claims him again.

Their bodies move together in the old dance, John’s hands pinned over his head by Sherlock’s because he loves John’s torso stretched out for his delectation as much as he loves to feel John flex and struggle for him. For long minutes, the lush conquest of his body continues, a rising tide of pleasure breaking over and over him, building, cracking him open in glorious, terrible vulnerability—

And then Sherlock roots himself in John’s body and stays there. For an instant, John thinks he’s spending himself, but then he hears the voices that made Sherlock freeze.

John tilts his head back, looking past their clasped hands to ensure that their gear is out of sight. Sherlock’s foresight again, tucking it carefully into a stand of scrub while he was stripping John. Sherlock squirms and rustles enthusiastically atop him, covering them both in the camouflage of leaves, and then, with one last thrust of his hips to seat himself fully inside John, falls still.

It’s three men, by the sounds of their feet. Hard riding boots clump freely through the underbrush. Obviously they don’t expect to encounter anyone in this isolated thicket, and why should they?

They talk in subdued but casual tones, and John understands barely a word through the maddening haze of sensation Sherlock’s cock is inflicting on him. He can feel the flare of the knob, deep inside, and can’t prevent himself from tightening on it, his body begging for more. Oh God, he wants Sherlock to move in him; it takes every scrap of his will to control his breathing and lie still.

One of the mercenaries sits on the log on the upper edge of the basin while they discuss logistics that Sherlock, by the cant of his head, is drinking in. Shaking with the effort to maintain his own silent breaths, he resumes his movement. Agonizingly slowly, so as not to rustle the leaves, he fucks John deep under the leaves in the yellowing forest while killers conspire not ten feet away.

“...don’t shoot the man in the stag’s-head mantle if you want to get paid.”

“Derby,” Sherlock breathes, and lunges up out of the leaves. John gasps at the sudden withdrawal, bereft and stinging. “The Earl of Derby is our traitor.”

The assassins stumble to their feet, shock tangling their feet as they confront a naked prince shedding leaves like a forest spirit. John throws himself for their weapons and, with sword in one hand and his cloak swaddled around the other as a makeshift shield, closes with the first attacker. He’s still wearing nothing, but it won’t matter. These men won’t live to tell what they saw.

***

Wrapped around Sherlock in the dark, John dwells beyond language. He can feel himself thinking in some deep part of his mind, but chasing it feels like too much effort. The heaviness of his body consumes him; he lets himself be dragged down into the warmth of the shoulder pillowing his head, and the mesmerizing black on black shape of the window. If carpets were sentient, this is what their minds would be like.

His hip has a kink in it; he’s been lying on it too long. He stretches lethargically along Sherlock’s long body, trying to work it out.

Sherlock’s head turns towards him. “John?” John doesn’t feel like answering, but Sherlock isn’t fooled. Fingers stroke over the back of John’s shoulder, that luxurious voice thick with sleepiness. “Why are you awake?”

Even asleep, he always knows. John doesn’t want to answer, but when Sherlock asks, it means he already knows the answer. “Thinking. About this,” he adds at Sherlock’s interrogative noise, and strokes a hand over the curve of Sherlock’s chest.

“About my chest?” Amusement. Baiting.

John’s too tired to be toyed with. “About us,” he sighs. “About how this goes and what happens to us eventually.” To that, Sherlock has nothing to say. “Sooner or later, Sherlock, we’ll get unlucky. We’ll be hanged. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Hmmm. Does it bother you?”

“Yes!” John twists to look up at him, trying to catch his expression in the dark. “Of course it does! I don’t want to die.”

“No?”

John glares, shocked. “Are you accusing me of suicide now?” It feels like being slapped. Sherlock is the one who’s brought them to this and now he’s blaming John for being concerned by it? He pushes away and says through his teeth, “I can hardly afford to die, can I? You’ve seen to that.”

The sleepy amusement clears from Sherlock’s face. For a long moment he says nothing; assessment flickers like heat lightning in his eyes. “You’re afraid.”

John feels his jaw creak, but he holds his tongue. Sherlock wants him to hang his thoughts out like laundry on a line, and if pride is the only thing John has left, then he’ll cling to it.

At last Sherlock sighs, admitting defeat in the silent battle of wills. “John. Will you do one thing for me?”

One thing? After all he’s asked of John already? John narrows his eyes skeptically. “What’s that?”

“Will you trust me?” The audacity is stunning. John opens his mouth, not even sure what to say in the face of that, but Sherlock rushes ahead. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I swear it. Just trust that I know more than you, that you’ll come to understand yourself in time. Trust that I’ll keep you safe.” John watches, still astonished, as a white hand reaches out to brush against his forearm. “That’s my job, isn’t it? As your liege lord? I know I’m not very good at it, but I swore you that oath, and I’ll keep it.”

It had never occurred to him. He’d never imagined there might be a bond between them beyond Sherlock’s selfish power over him. He meets Sherlock’s eyes in wonder. “I didn’t think you cared for oaths.”

Sherlock shrugs. “Only when I mean them.”

When he reaches out to pull John back down into his embrace, John doesn’t resist. He lies there, curled in Sherlock’s warmth, until finally he drifts to sleep.

***

Sherlock waves an imperious, blood-stained hand through the steam rising around him. “Get out.”

His groom takes a step back. “My lord...”

“John will tend me. I wish to speak to him alone. Out.”

John grimaces apologetically at the man on his way out, and gets an exasperated eyeroll in response. Attention from Sherlock’s manservants always leaves him feeling as though he’s reaching above his station, and now after an afternoon of keeping Sherlock’s swordplay up to snuff, he’s filthy as a beggar and frankly in need of a bath himself. When the door shuts behind the groom, he turns to Sherlock. “This isn’t my job, you know. I don’t know how to do this.”

Sherlock tips his head back lazily. “It’s a bath, John. You can hardly get it wrong. Come here.”

With a deep sigh, John starts stripping down to his breeches. He’s likely to get pulled in. At least then he’d be clean.

Sherlock seems disinclined to do any work for himself. He presents his arms for cleaning, allows himself to be tilted this way and that, and drapes his legs obligingly over the sides of the tub, long toes fanning out so John can wash between them. John’s fairly certain that the bather is supposed to be doing some of the work, even if he is royalty, but those spectacular eyes go half-hooded with contentment as John scrubs and rinses him, and John finds himself loathe to complain lest he risk disrupting that morning-mist expression.

Sherlock rolls his head to and fro with occasional rumbles of satisfaction and watches through his eyelashes as John gets increasingly wet in the process of washing him, but he says nary a word and makes not one gesture of impropriety toward John. John pours a jug of lavender-scented water over the fluffy princely head and then works handfuls of suds through the sopping locks with increasing vehemence, wondering if there was any point to this enterprise beyond humiliating him in front of Sherlock’s attendants, when Sherlock murmurs in appreciation and curls forward for better access.

His dripping head bows forward and a gleaming, muscular curve of pale shoulders unrolls before John’s eyes. John must make a noise, because Sherlock tilts his head just enough to reveal a curious flash of sky-coloured eye and a sleepy, contented curl at the corner of his full lips.

John can’t breathe for his beauty.

Has he ever seen Sherlock like this before? Soft and human, with the armour of his soul laid aside. That sleepy, happy curve of mouth deepens a little, and then Sherlock droops his head again, lazy as a hound in the sun. His long white neck stretches into a smooth, strong arc.

With an odd coil of resignation in his heart, John reaches up to feel that beautiful line, stroking soapy foam down along it. And then follows with his other hand, because the slope of it feels like the sound of Sherlock’s vielle in his palms. Sherlock purrs like a satisfied cat, and John finds his fingers, quite without his intention, sliding downward to dig into the slabs of muscle wrapping around either shoulder blade.

The physicality of it is addictive. The physicality of Sherlock, because though John has imagined his hands on others, God forgive him, he never touched before Sherlock; never suffered this starved urge to touch. The muscles of his back are firm and solid just under that elegant sweep of skin, broad and deep enough to fill John’s hands when he kneads into them. Sherlock groans with pleasure, the rich sound vibrating through his torso, and John’s eyes flutter closed at the beautiful tangibility of Sherlock’s body.

Sherlock hums another low, beautiful note as John draws his fingers down the long ropes of muscle on either side of his spine, admiring the rises and hollows they form in counterpoint to it. The knobs of his spine crest under the skin like the fins of a fish just beneath the water. They’re so broad and well-defined that John can fit his thumbs between them, and fan his hands out across his sides to feel his ribs, thrumming like a fading drum on either side as he breathes.

White, white, white smooth aristocratic skin under John’s tan, callused hands. John aches with the contrast, because there are so many reasons he shouldn’t touch and yet he knows the contours of Sherlock’s body so well. John stands, his hands splayed over Sherlock’s sides, feeling as though he’s been caught and hooked between those ribs, woven into his prince’s bones.

A puddle of lather breaks the spell, slipping slowly down the smooth planes of Sherlock’s back; John hasn’t completed his task yet. The jug is close enough to hand that he can pretend to ignore the physical sensation of tearing as he pulls away from Sherlock, and scoops water out of the bath to rinse the suds off Sherlock’s head and back.

Another jug, and one more to wash the last of the suds away, and Sherlock sits for a moment longer, head down, watching water stream off the ends of his drenched curls. It’s a breathtaking sight, his wet head gleaming ruddy in the firelight, long licks of hair spattered to his face and nape.

The idea of leaning over to press his lips to that nape hurts somewhere under John’s breastbone.

God--or whatever power John is beholden to these days--offers small mercies. Before he has time to reflect on his own emotions, Sherlock pushes himself to his feet. Water crashes off him to splash everywhere as he steps out of the bath. John snatches up the broad piece of flannel that’s been laid out before Sherlock can manage to defeat the point of its existence, and reaches out to run it over Sherlock’s chest and hips.

Sherlock catches his eyes. There is, for once, no mockery in them. Sherlock’s face is too open, with an honesty that makes John feel like window glass, all his broken razor edges glittering exposed in Sherlock’s sight.

It’s indecent. John jerks his gaze away, in dread of what he might see if he keeps looking. He doesn’t want to know what Sherlock thinks of him, or why Sherlock suddenly wants him to see.

He can feel Sherlock still watching him as he works his way down with the flannel, over the generous curves of buttocks and beautifully-cut legs. He kneels to tend to the tendon-bracketed hollows at Sherlock’s inner thighs and the delicate contours of his knees, and finally his feet, long toes kneading into John’s thigh where Sherlock rests them for John’s attentions.

When he stands, task complete, his chest is tight like it is after confession. Everything in him feels frothed to the surface, threatening to split him open and spill everywhere.

Sherlock takes the cloth from him and lays it aside. His cock is more than half erect, but he reaches for John’s shoulders. “You’re shaking. Sit. It’s your turn.”

John wants to touch him, to melt into him, two pieces of ice thawed into a single puddle in the spring. He wants...the scent of Sherlock’s hair, the lightning tang of his mind, the hot slippery-wet velvet of his unconcealed arousal, shameless and strong before John. Everything John understands says that this is wrong, to want a man so badly, and yet Sherlock isn’t afraid. Trust that I know more than you. Trust that I’ll keep you safe.

John lets himself be lowered into the tub, and lets Sherlock warm him with another jug of hot water from the fireplace. Though he keeps his head down, face turned toward the water, Sherlock shows him what he wants John to know. With tender hands, he lathers soap into John’s hair, pours lavender water over him to wash away his filth, and plucks apart John’s carefully woven defenses, strand by strand.

***

“What do you want to become of you, John?” Sherlock asks in the dark many hours later, his arm draped warm and heavy around John’s waist. “Would you like to be released from your service? Sent on your way, never to have me darken your threshold again? Or would you stay at my side?”

John coils tighter against Sherlock’s side, his instincts revolting at the question. Him, choose? But he knows. He has known for a long while now, if only he’d let himself.

If he were freed… He could be a soldier, paid well for his service. He could have all the things he should want: he could afford to keep a wife, to have children who would be born to own their own land, like all his family before him. He would be a man freed for his good service, rather than a man who sold himself into bondage for debt.

In that other life, released from his service, there would be no Sherlock, or any of the things that follow him: mattresses and furs, dark nights with chill air and heated skin; fleeing naked in the rain from angry swordsmen; the constant muted fear of discovery and punishment; the touch of someone who cares for nothing but John’s body, mind, and the pleasure between them. The emptiness gapes cold and barren before him.

And yet giving it voice still feels like weakness. He buries his face in Sherlock’s shoulder, struggling with himself.

Strong fingers massage into the tired muscles of John’s lower back. “Sooner or later,” Sherlock says quietly against the side of his head, “I’ll be required to marry.”

John makes a sound of protest. Sherlock detests women. He has complained to John more than once that they’re a distraction, and not of the pleasant sort. No bared breast or smooth expanse of feminine shoulders has ever turned his head, except so he could deliver a scathing remark. John lies there quietly, head pillowed on his arms, and thinks on that. Sherlock will be matched with some woman. He’ll be required to consummate the marriage with her. He’ll hold to the expectations of wedlock, or else risk political disaster with his wife’s house.

Will he still be there, Sherlock’s faithful shadow? Will Sherlock’s wife have anything to say? Will she care, or even notice?

How lonely Sherlock must be. John has seen, but not observed, as Sherlock would say: the way he chafes under the weight of obligations he can’t escape; this private world he has carved out as his sanctuary. Why Sherlock has always chosen solitude, with John himself as the one exception. Both of them are bound tight in their places, with no one to understand why their futures feel so empty of promise.

“Will you have a place for me then?” John asks.

Sherlock’s fingertips glide over the curve of his rump and curl around to tuck him closer. “I’ll make a place, if you want one. Will you stay with me, John?”

John leans up to kiss him.