Sherlock landed hard on a wooden surface, John's anguished cry echoing behind him. He just managed to catch himself as shouts rang up around him. He sprang to his feet at the sound of a rolling drum, blinking against the grey twilight, staring around in amazement at the largest ship he had ever seen. In moments, he was surrounded by wide-eyed men in red coats, bayonets pointed uncharitably at his face and body.
There was a strange sucking sound, and John suddenly appeared next to him, staggering across the deck a half-pace. Sherlock's heart dropped as he reached out to grip John's arm, steadying him. John blinked, his face growing pale. Sailors were tumbling up from below deck, their voices an untidy clamour.
“Steady now, lads,” a man said, his voice carrying easily over the commotion. “Keep calm.” He presently appeared on the outside edge of the circle, a cocked hat on his head, an expression of quiet confidence on his face.
“You called the beat to quarters, Mr. Pullings?” The speaker appeared at the edge of Sherlock's peripheral vision. He didn't dare shift his gaze to get a closer look, but he noted the way Mr. Pullings stood up even straighter when the man spoke.
“Yes, sir,” Mr. Pullings replied. “As a precaution. I don't know how to explain the presence of these men. I didn't see them arrive myself. Captain Howard, have you a clearer view of the matter?”
“No, sir,” replied the redcoat who faced Sherlock.
A strange silhouette rose above the very large foredeck, obscuring the dawn. Sherlock felt his heart burst into a panicked gallop, and next to him, John staggered sideways. The line of bayonets shuddered, the men behind them barely steady themselves.
“Don't shoot!” Sherlock said, just managing to get the words out. “We've never seen a- never seen a dra-” He swallowed. “A dragon. Before.”
That was the only explanation for the face that was staring down at them, partially visible in the twilight. A semi-translucent ruff flared out all around a black, arrow-shaped head, bright, inquisitive eyes staring down at them. Sherlock felt his knees crumpling, a wave of darkness crashing around him. The last thing he remembered was the coarse texture of John's jumper sliding underneath his fingertips.
When he awoke, it was to the most extraordinarily awful smell he had ever encountered. They were below-decks, it seemed, in a lamp-lit cabin. His stomach churned with the slow rocking of the ship. He sat up, hand pressed to his mouth, fighting against a wave of nausea. A bucket appeared in his line of sight, and just the suggestion of it overcame the last remaining tatters of his self-restraint. He snatched at it, vomiting into it with what little privacy he could glean by turning half away.
“I'm afraid it will be like this until you get used to the movement.” The speaker was tall, with short auburn hair and sideburns accentuating his rather attractive jawline.
Sherlock wiped his mouth on his sleeve, shaking. Behind the red-haired man, two blond men were arguing quietly, one he recognized as the commander who had spoken to Mr. Pullings, the other in a green jacket which may have been formal at one point in time, but was now threadbare at best. This did nothing to diminish the sense of command exuding from him, however. Sherlock noted his handsome face as he glanced over a moment, his expression kind but stern.
“They are arguing your fate,” the red-haired man said.
Sherlock dragged his attention back, categorically overwhelmed.
“Must all the men on this ship be handsome?” he asked, before retching into the bucket again.
The man chuckled. “I would be careful of speaking so candidly. There may be some of us who can relate, but most will not take kindly to such blatant insinuations.” He winked. “Besides, your companion is right over there.”
Indeed, John was hovering nearby, arms crossed, a worried line between his brows, half his attention on Sherlock, the other half on the heated conversation in the corner. Sherlock turned, fighting the wave of nausea triggered by the sudden movement, relaxing as he met John's eyes.
“He needs to go above-deck,” John said, speaking to the red-haired man. “Fresh air and a clear view of the horizon will help. He's already been through a lot. Hasn't been eating well, either. Seeing what barbaric medical instruments you have to work with, I would rather not risk his health any more than necessary.”
“Barbaric?” the red-haired man asked.
“Oh, well, you're doing you're best, I'm sure,” John replied.
The ship gave a steady roll, and Sherlock heaved uselessly into the bucket, shuddering as a string of acidic bile trailed out of his mouth. A thousand witty remarks filed uselessly through his mind as he tried to focus on maintaining as much dignity as possible. It was unpleasant enough to be sick without the presence of four men that he found agonizingly attractive all in the same room, witnessing his private torment.
“Practising medicine can be barbaric, I'll be the first to admit,” the red-haired man was saying. “Though I would argue the war is most responsible for the barbarism that the medicine is forced to commit.” He turned to wipe Sherlock's face with a cloth. “I'm Doctor Stephen Maturin. Currently serving as ship's surgeon, though there's not much more I can do for you at the moment. Other than recommend that you lie back down.”
“And close your eyes,” John added, hands gently pushing Sherlock back down against the wooden cot. “It will help.”
Sherlock resisted at first, imagining the vertigo, but it really did help. He closed his eyes, fingers fumbling for a steadying grip on John's jumper.
“He can rest aboard the dragon-deck, Stephen,” a deep voice said, presumably the man in the green coat. “Temeraire will be glad for the company.”
“Absolutely not.” That was the commander. “My men are close enough to breaking as it is, being pressed to a dragon transport. We cannot risk any further-”
“They are close to breaking because you forced a chase of the Acheron, Jack,” Stephen interrupted.
There was a long, tense silence.
“You're not to talk to me like that, Stephen,” the commander said. “Not here.”
“Well, then,” Stephen said. “Let us go converse elsewhere.”
A moment later, there was the sound of the door opening and slamming shut. Sherlock fluttered his eyes open to see John leaning over to brush the sweat-matted hair back from his forehead.
“John, I have to explain...”
“Damn right you do.” John met his eyes. “But not this very second.”
It was all Sherlock could do to keep his eyes focused on John's face. He dimly noted the man in the green coat issuing orders in his deep voice.
“You won't leave?” Sherlock asked, realizing the stupidity of the question as it left his mouth.
“You know I can't.” He heard John huff out a quiet breath. “We're lucky they didn't just throw us in the brig.”
John was looking down at him with a mixture of fondness and irritation. As much as Sherlock hated to admit it, he was glad John had followed him. Glad, even though it meant so many complicated things. Glad, even though he had no idea how either of them were going to get home.
Sherlock had no idea how much time passed before he began to feel better. The ship rocked endlessly, and he slept as much as he could to escape the unpleasantness. Every so often, John coaxed him to take small sips of water, to nibble rock-hard wafers that Sherlock had spied him surreptitiously picking clean of weevils. The bell clanged the hours, the guards in their green coats always standing by the doors, until the moment they disappeared altogether, and the blond man with the deep voice reappeared.
“How are you feeling?” the man asked, his face shadowed as he blocked the lamp light. He still wore the same threadbare green coat.
“Fine,” Sherlock said, already sitting up, glad to have regained some of his dignity. He had managed to rinse out his mouth and splash water on his face after waking a few minutes ago.
“He'd still do better to get some sunlight and fresh air,” John said.
The man nodded. “Mr. Maturin and I have secured a place for both of you on the dragon-deck-”
Sherlock blinked. He'd forgotten about the dragon. The very large dragon.
“-anyone asks, send them to me,” the man was saying. “Captain William Laurence, of His Majesty's Aerial Corps.”
“Doctor John Watson,” John replied. “I take it Captain Aubrey isn't in on this plan?”
“Not for the time being.” Captain Laurence cleared his throat. “If the matter were to come to a head, I assure you that I will take full responsibility for the consequences.”
“Yes, yes, of course you will,” Sherlock said, noting the square set of Laurence's shoulders, the determined line of his jaw. He and John nearly made a matched pair, complete with the same damnable sense of duty and honour. Ridiculous sentiments, though Sherlock had to grudgingly admit that in John's case, he mostly appreciated them.
“Right then,” John said. “When, exactly?”
“Now would be the best time,” Laurence said. “Mr. Maturin has occupied Captain Aubrey with a violin-cello duet.”
Sherlock perked up at that. “Violin?”
“Yes,” Laurence replied. “It is the captain's favourite way to annoy the steward.”
“No.” Sherlock said. “He can't possibly play the violin.”
“You would like him better if you got to know him,” Laurence said, a knowing look in his eyes. “He's a fine gentleman, and a gifted commander, if not the most judicious of captains.” The bell clanged above them. “I'm afraid we are running out of time, gentlemen. We must make our move.”
Between John and Laurence, Sherlock managed to get up to the dragon deck. No one paid them any attention, except for the young Naval officer on duty, who merely grinned. The sharp coolness of the sea breeze slapping Sherlock's face did much to ease the rest of his trepidation.
“Oh good, we are to have guests?” the great black dragon asked in a stage whisper, the long tendrils around his snout lifting slightly, like whiskers.
Laurence smiled. “Yes, my dear.”
“Roland, ask the cook to prepare us some tea,” the dragon said, with practised ease.
“Yes, sir,” a voice sang back, the sound carrying over on the wind.
The dragon turned back to them. “I am Temeraire.” He lowered his head so that one blue, slit-pupiled eye met Sherlock's gaze. “It is a great pleasure to meet you. Laurence has told me much about you.”
Sherlock resisted the urge to step back, to gape at the shining teeth he could glimpse as the dragon spoke.
“Sherlock Holmes,” he replied. “And this is Doctor John Watson.” He caught the sound of sniggers from a group of sailors loitering nearby.
“Don't you have anything better to be doing?” The voice belonged to the same young officer in charge of arranging the tea. She appeared shortly from behind Temeraire's forearm, favouring the sailors with a glare as she pushed past them to go find the cook.
Sherlock glanced between John and Laurence, noting the tension in John's jaw, the stiff formality of Laurence's posture. Adding in the leering sailors and the indignant officer, it made an all-too-complete picture of their situation. He straightened, flipping the collar of his coat up against his face, wrapping it firmly about his person.
Temeraire had noted the exchange, a low growl emanating from his chest and vibrating the boards underneath Sherlock's feet.
“I cannot see how it matters at all who spends time with whom,” he boomed. “What is it anyone's business but their own?”
“Hush, my dear,” Laurence said, laying a hand on his neck.
Temeraire snorted. “I don't mind at all if the Captain hears me, for he is a scrub, anyway, and the hands naturally follow his example.”
“You are being quite harsh,” Laurence said, casting an appraising glance at the sailors. “Pray remember that we must do everything we can to preserve the peace between our aviators and the Captain's men.”
“I imagine I must make quite the picture in their eyes.” Sherlock motioned to his hair, his long coat. Everything that made him feel at home in his own time was turning against him, whispering his secrets to the wind.
Laurence shook his head. “I don't like to admit it, but it can be quite dangerous to even be suspected as an-” he lowered his voice,“-an invert.”
“I understand,” Sherlock said, noting the flush under Laurence's tan.
“I will be sure to speak to Aubrey about his men,” Laurence continued. “And I will do all I can to shield both of you from any unpleasantness, as will the Captain and Mr. Maturin.”
“Right,” John said, sounding a trifle panicked. “Perhaps we should make some attempt to blend in a bit?”
“That is a very good idea,” Temeraire said. “And then you must return to have some tea. And tell me how you managed to appear aboard a dragon transport in the middle of the ocean. You are not spies, for I know the look of them, and you and Mr. Holmes are obviously very honourable men. But pray tell me, Mr. Holmes, where did you find your coat? I would quite like to know where to find such fabric, as it would make a fine coat for Laurence. He does need a new coat.”
“Gentlemen, if you permit me,” Laurence interrupted, a harried look on his face. “I will see about securing you some spare uniforms.”
Within the next hour, Sherlock was stooping in Laurence's cabin, awkwardly wrestling into the highly uncomfortable clothing of the time while John did the same just paces away. The high-collared shirt and neck cloth nearly choked Sherlock to death. All of it had been modified hastily to fit his considerably taller frame, and no one had any boots that were serviceable, so he was forced to wear his Oxfords with the ensemble. To complete the picture, he slicked his hair back severely, and shaved as best he could with a straight razor and a broken piece of mirror.
“Bloody hell, would you help me with this?” John asked.
Sherlock could barely keep from staring as he helped John struggle into his green coat.
“Ta,” John said, stepping back. “How do I look?” He put his hands behind his back and rocked forward on his toes.
He cut a fine figure in the uniform of an Aerial Corps officer, as if he had always belonged in this place. Sherlock flushed, unable to keep his gaze from travelling down, past the rather alluring bulge in John's breeches that was absolutely impossible to ignore, down to the tips of his very shiny boots.
“Fine,” Sherlock managed. “Convincing. Fine.”
“Laurence is waiting for us on the dragon deck,” John said, an amused glint in his eye.
“And Temeraire,” Sherlock added, eager for a distraction. The dragon was clearly highly intelligent, and he was hoping to have a chance to discuss their situation with him.
“But first,” John said. “I think you owe me an explanation.”
“Right.” Sherlock felt a flush of warmth crawl up his neck and into his face. “Of course.” He sat down on Laurence's sea chest, wincing as he stretched his back.
John pursed his lips. “First, explain why you intended to let me think you were dead.”
Sherlock covered his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes, mussing up his slicked hair as he tried to run his fingers through his curls. He smoothed his hair back into place and let his hands fall into his lap.
“Molly and I had a plan-”
“Yes,” Sherlock said. “Are you going to let me explain or keep interrupting every ten seconds?”
John crossed his arms. “Go on.”
Sherlock sighed. “Moriarty was closing in on me. He had assassins poised to kill you. And Mrs. Hudson. He wanted me to give up. To play into his hands. Then he forced me to do it.”
“How?” John asked.
“He shot himself in the head.”
John blinked, his mouth dropping open.
Sherlock nodded. “Yes. That happened. However, Molly had helped me come up with a contingency plan. The idea was to stop Moriarty before he even got started. I was only supposed to go back in time a few years. The portal was...um, it was at the foot of St. Barts. That was the best she could manage with the short notice.”
“Right.” John was clenching his fists now, hands hanging by his sides. “So just a bit of time travel to fix things. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Why the charade?” John interrupted. “Why pretend you were suicidal?”
“To protect you!” Sherlock said, throwing up his hands. “I had to assure Moriarty's team that he had finally won. Besides, you weren't even supposed to be there. I made arrangements to prevent it.”
John grimaced. “The hypnotist I took care of with a fist to the jaw. The bloody cyclist almost had me. Was that your idea, too? Run me over so I couldn't get in the way?”
“That was Mycroft's.”
“Oh, that would be his idea,” John flared.
Sherlock frowned. “Why did you follow me?”
“All I did was run toward where I thought I would find you...next thing I know, I'm looking at a forest of bayonets.” He met Sherlock's eyes, lowering his voice. “But even if I had known, I would have followed you, anyway.”
“Is that so?” Sherlock asked, struggling to maintain his composure.
“Sherlock,” John said. “I would follow you anywhere. You should know that by now.”
The cabin grew stuffy, and Sherlock pulled off his neck cloth, tossing it aside. He heard John take a startled breath.
“What are you saying?” Sherlock asked, needing the certainty. “Speak clearly, John.”
“Do I really have to say it?” John asked, stepping closer, boots loud on the wooden floor.
Sherlock managed a weak scoff. “Come, John, don't be so cryptic. It's tedious.”
John closed the distance between them, tilting Sherlock's chin up with cool fingers. Sherlock met his eyes, his heart beating so loud it could have been the crew beating to quarters.
“Forgive me, John,” he found himself murmuring. “It was hard to think. There was so much pressure. He made the world dissolve right out from underneath my feet.”
John stroked his cheek gently. “That's why you have to let me in, Sherlock. Let me actually help you. Let me actually be in your life. If that's what you want.”
“Yes,” Sherlock said. He gripped John by the lapels and pulled him down, pressing his lips hard against John's mouth, leaving unrelenting kisses, until John parted his lips and kissed him back, stealing his breath.
It sounded like Molly's voice. Sherlock opened his eyes as John twisted to look over his shoulder. Sure enough, Molly, or rather, just her head, appeared floating on the other side of a small opening lined with blue light, the fluorescent lighting from her lab at St. Barts spilling into the cabin.
“For God's sake!” Sherlock said, breathing hard. “Couldn't you come back in half-an-hour?”
“Sorry,” Molly said, flushing. “It was hard enough to figure out the calculation without knowing if John was with you or not. I'm afraid it's now or never.”
“Now or- But we've only just arrived!”
“Sherlock,” John said, shaking him. “Are you insane?”
“I didn't even get to talk to Temeraire! What will Laurence think of us, just disappearing without a word?”
John squinted. “I've never known you to care about what people think.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Stop being jealous, John.” He stood, nearly banging his head on the low ceiling. “We should leave them a note. Something to say thank you. To all of them.”
“Right,” John said, flashing an embarrassed glance at Molly. “I saw a writing box over here somewhere.”
“Hurry,” Molly said. “I'll work on getting the portal to widen.”
Sherlock hovered impatiently as John struggled to write a note with a quill and ink.
“Can you add that I'm leaving my Belstaff as a gift for Temeraire?” he asked, slipping a blank piece of paper from the writing box. He turned toward the portal. “Molly, would you throw me a pen?”
“I'm not sure that's a good idea,” Molly said. “Mycroft specifically said-”
Sherlock waved a hand in her direction. “Molly. Please.”
A moment later, a pen clattered to the wooden floor. Sherlock scooped it up, scrawling a hasty note, then folded it into the pocket of the Belstaff. By the time John finished his own note, Molly had managed to create a large enough gap in the fabric of space and time to admit them, one at a time. Sherlock pushed John unceremoniously toward the portal.
“You first this time.”
“Absolutely-” John's voice wavered a moment. “-not.” He turned to glare at Sherlock from the other side. “Well, come on, then. Before you give me a heart attack.”
Sherlock popped into the lab a moment later, the portal closing behind him. Molly collapsed against the lab table, the temporal rift machine humming away by her out-stretched arms.
“Thank God!” she said, lifting her head to press two fingers to her temple. “You can't imagine the things Mycroft said would happen if you didn't make it back. Especially since the plan backfired.”
“Oh, did it?” Sherlock asked. “I hadn't noticed.”
“What do you mean?” Molly asked, her brows furrowing. “What did you do?”
“I left a note for Temeraire,” Sherlock said. “Dragons live for a long time.”
“Sherlock.” John was giving him an odd look. “You do realize we don't have dragons here?”
Sherlock chuckled. “Of course, John. I simply explained the basic mechanics of our machine. Temeraire will find a way to warn me. That is, to warn the past version of me.”
“But-” Molly began, as Sherlock grabbed John's hand, making a beeline for the door.
“Thanks for the rescue, Molly,” John called, as Sherlock dragged him out into the hall. “We'll have to make it up to you. Take you out to dinner. Or something.”
Molly crossed her arms. “It's a thankless job, being friends with the two of you.”
“Yes, all right,” Sherlock said, smiling at the affectionate look in her eyes. “We really will make it up to you...after.”
“After?” John asked, when the lab door had closed.
“Of course, John.” Sherlock crowded him against the wall. “After we get back to the flat and finish what we started.”
“Oh,” John said, his eyebrows lifting in mock surprise. He licked his lips slowly.
Sherlock blinked, the world resolving down to the details of John's mouth. He realized that when John had that look on his face, he would do anything for him. Absolutely anything.
“Actually,” Sherlock said, drinking in the subtle shifts in John's expression. “There's that utility closet by the elevator.”
John grinned. “Brilliant, as always.”
It was only later, after Sherlock started tearing at the buttons on John's breeches, that they realized they had forgotten to change, inadvertently stealing from the generous Aerial Corps officers who had doubtlessly expected to get their uniforms back rather soon.