Three weeks after Sherlock’s death, John found himself doing the last thing he felt like doing. Well, he didn’t particularly feel like doing anything, so maybe that wasn’t exactly true.
But Tommy, one of Sherlock’s homeless network, had come to the door of his bedsit practically begging for help. He had been very apologetic about it and hadn’t wanted to disturb John, but he’d had no one else to turn to. John had felt touched by the loyalty Tommy had expressed for Sherlock, and he felt that the least he could do for the homeless network was to do what Sherlock would have done.
That’s how he’d found himself gathering up his gun, a tranquilliser gun, his standard knife, and numerous flares and following Tommy to the hidden entrance of an abandoned Tube tunnel, which John then entered alone.
There was something living down this particular tunnel, Tommy said, something that had moved in recently. John’s first guess was either a hydra or a black dog, both of which had a tendency to move into the subterranean layers beneath cities. Of course, it could have been a host of other things, but he’d taken care of worse when he was in the Army. Most things could be taken down with tranquillisers and then disposed of with either fire or knife work. If he could find it and take care of it, fine; if he couldn’t take care of it, he could at least identify it and alert Lestrade that there was something for one of the special squads to dispatch.
John’s torch shone bleakly in the darkness. Every so often along the ceiling of the tunnel, a single low-wattage bulb burned. The slight curve of the tunnel was such that he could never see two bulbs at the same time. John idly wondered who in the homeless network had installed them and how they were connected to the electric grid.
After over an hour of walking, he hadn’t seen or heard anything out of the ordinary, but he was aware that he was about to come across what had once been a proper platform. Around the next curve, the tracks neared a disused Tube station, and John could see the flicker of half-dead fluorescent lights against the opening of the tunnel.
He cautiously continued on his way, ready to have a brief look around the platform and any hallways that weren’t blocked up and then continue on down the tracks. It seemed unlikely that anything that was hiding down here would choose the most illuminated and open spot to reside in.
When John came within view of the platform, his breath stopped.
Lying across the floor of the station was a dragon.
The dim light allowed by the three or four sputtering bulbs cast an eerie glow on the scene, and John momentarily wondered if he was hallucinating.
There were no dragons in London. There were no dragons anywhere except for the regions that dragons had established as their own, places either too remote for humans to care about or too fiercely guarded for humans to interfere with. Dragons were practically a nation unto themselves, even though they were scattered all across the globe, and they owned some very choice real estate. The few times in history when someone had thought it would be a bright idea to claim those particular bits of land for their country had ended very, very badly.
But a dragon in a city was unheard of. This dragon was as long as a train car, and even though it looked just small enough in bulk to be able to pass through the tunnels, John had no idea how it could have gotten down here to begin with. The entrance he’d come through had barely been man-sized.
John abruptly realised that instead of staring, what he should be doing was leaving. His gun was completely useless against a dragon, and the idea of using fire against a dragon was laughable. Actually, using most anything against a dragon was laughable. Well, he could tell Tommy that he’d found what was making the noise in the tunnels and that the best thing to do was simply never go down that way again. Ever. Let the dragon have the damned tunnel.
Out of all the species on the planet, dragons were the only ones that had a human level of intelligence. They were far from the multitude of dumb beasts that preyed on people in the night. And that’s why they were the most dangerous.
The dragon looked like it was asleep—though dragons nearly always looked like they were asleep, whether they were or not—and maybe if John simply left the way he came, the dragon wouldn’t pay him any mind. John was still standing a few feet from the edge of the tunnel arch, and he turned to go back into the darkness.
John froze in his tracks.
So the dragon was definitely awake. That meant he was going to have to talk his way out of here. If you ran from a dragon, you were as good as dead.
John wasn’t surprised at the dragon knowing his name, as dragons were incredibly telepathic. But something about the way the name had been said gave him a gut-wrenching sense of déjà vu. John slammed that mental door shut; he had to keep his head on straight if he wanted to get out of this. Taking a deep breath, he turned around again and stepped out of the tunnel.
The dragon’s eyes were open now, and they slowly raked over him. “You brought flares. Obviously you were expecting something else. Hydra, I’m guessing.”
The abruptness and randomness of the statement threw John for a mental loop. Dragons were nothing if not formal, and they tended to speak in circles, never coming quickly to a point.
Despite the unusual beginning to the conversation, John still answered as politely and properly as he could manage. “It’s true that I was expecting something else. Had I but known, I never would have intruded on your solitude.”
The dragon smiled, showing a hint of teeth. “Are you sure? You usually come running at the barest mention of danger.”
John’s heart was thundering in his ears. The cadence and accent of the voice was all Sherlock. Even the tone was familiar, though it was lower, with a deep reverberation.
“I was halfway expecting you to turn up,” the dragon continued. “You weren’t at Baker Street, of course, but Tommy found you nonetheless. How many days was it before you moved out?”
John’s jaw clenched; he was suddenly fuming. He might have walked into his death coming here, but he didn’t have to stand for a dragon using Sherlock’s memory to play some vicious game with him.
That was the problem with dragons, of course. They could pull your thoughts right out of your head, see through your lies like glass, take one look at you and know your whole life story—
That was actually a spot on description of Sherlock himself.
“As ever, John, you saw, but you didn’t observe.”
“You absolute wanker.”
Not the wisest thing to say to a dragon by far, but the words escaped from John’s brain to his mouth before he could stop them. The fact that the dragon merely smirked at his outburst, instead of roasting him alive, lent excellent support to the theory that the dragon was in fact Sherlock.
But Sherlock couldn’t be a dragon. It wasn’t possible; dragons were dragons, and humans were humans. Still, John wasn’t coming up with any other explanation about why this encounter was going the way it was going if the dragon wasn’t Sherlock.
“Tell me something that only Sherlock would know,” John said. “Something that I don’t know.”
The dragon smiled without showing any teeth. “Very good, John.”
Anything that John knew, a dragon could know. That was only one of the reasons they were so dangerous to have dealings with.
“What would you have me tell you?” he asked, amused and approving all at the same time. “The chemical formula for what destroyed our kitchen table last month? The notes to the composition I play when I know you can’t sleep?” Then he raised his head, tilting it. “Or I could tell you that the reason I jumped was because Moriarty had snipers on you, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade. If I hadn’t died to complete his story, he would have killed you.”
The tension left John like it had been drained out of him. All that was left was the shock—and surprisingly, the anger.
Sherlock was alive. Sherlock was a dragon.
“You’re a dragon.” He had to say it out loud, at least once.
“As you see.”
John climbed up onto the platform with some effort. Once level with Sherlock, he advanced a few steps, his fists clenched tight. “Was that a laugh? Getting one over on the humans? Jesus, Sherlock, I lived with you for nearly two years and—” John broke off, waving his hands in the air. “I know exactly who you are, and at the same time, I don’t have a damn clue.”
“Ah. You feel betrayed.”
“You’re bloody right I feel betrayed!” John’s voice echoed off the cavernous walls.
Sherlock arched a brow. It was disturbingly alien on the reptilian face, yet incredibly familiar. “You did hear the part where I saved your life? I would assume that would balance out any resentment over my apparent duplicity.”
“I…” John felt himself deflate. “It’s a lot to take in,” he finally said. “Sixty seconds might be enough time for you to fully process two pieces of life-altering news, but I’m not quite there yet. You were dead, Sherlock. To me, you were dead. You were dead and I couldn’t— I’m thrilled you’re not dead, but I’m going to need more than a minute to deal with… this.” He gestured broadly at Sherlock. “Can you understand that?”
“I suppose,” Sherlock said, grudgingly. “Though it’s interesting.”
Sherlock pointedly eyed the distance between them, part of which John had already closed. “You’re uncertain how you feel about my being a dragon. But you’re not afraid of me.”
“You’re my best friend; of course I’m not afraid of you.” John crossed his arms. “I’m just thoroughly ticked off at you.”
“I didn’t set out to deceive you, John.”
“My life here was not an act. It was no less valid than any other thing I’ve done. It was immaterial that you knew I had an alternate species, because you knew me. There was nothing false in our relationship. A relationship, I might add, that never would have occurred had you first encountered me like this, if you encountered me at all.” Sherlock paused. “More practically, the only release back to this form is death. Living a human life means just that—becoming human. There is only one transformation, John—no going back and forth, no physical characteristics that would show me to be something other than human. Had I told you, I would have had no proof, nothing I could present you with to validate a claim that would have seemed mad at best and a cruel experiment at worst. Would you have believed me?”
John was silent a long moment. “No,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t have. Because this shouldn’t even be possible, Sherlock. Dragons can’t do this. Well—obviously you can, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. I’m willing to bet it’s the first anyone has heard of it. Unless it’s some secret dragon thing you’ve managed to keep from the world at large?”
“No. It was a spell lost to even my kind, lost very long ago, even as we reckon things. But Mycroft and I are intelligent even by our race’s standards. Between the two of us, we pieced it together.”
There was something John hadn’t considered yet, though he probably should have. “Mycroft.”
Sherlock grinned, which should have been terrifying, except it wasn’t. “I told you he was the most dangerous man you’ll ever meet.”
John huffed, a distressed half-laugh. Mycroft being a dragon made even more sense than Sherlock being one did. Mycroft was uncannily perceptive and effortlessly manipulative, was fixated on propriety and tradition, and was exceedingly civil even while being incredibly threatening.
“Remind me never to be rude to your brother again.” John was mentally flashing back to every snarky thing he’d ever said to Mycroft and was paling at the thought of it. His previous evaluation of Mycroft as ‘not frightening’ had just flown out the window.
“I shouldn’t worry about it.”
“Easy for you to say,” John muttered.
He drifted closer, taking a good moment to really look at Sherlock. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but his scales seemed to be a dark metallic gray tinged with blue, and not black as they had first seemed. His wings were tucked closely to his sides, and he was stretched in one sleek line along the platform.
Sherlock was watching John watching him. His eyes were the same pale colour, though slitted.
“You know, I’ve never touched a dragon before,” John said.
“No, I imagine not.” An amused, almost arch look crossed his features. “I expect few have.”
“Mm.” That was permission plus a challenge if John had ever heard one. He reached out without further ado and placed a hand against Sherlock’s neck. The scales were smooth but hard as metal, and more than a few degrees warmer than human skin.
John found himself grinning.
But it was hard not to feel dwarfed by Sherlock when he was standing this close. Even though Sherlock didn’t seem to be near the top end of dragon size, his head was nearly as long as John was tall, and the ridges of his spine rose well above John’s head. John walked partway down the length of Sherlock’s body, before he doubled back and came to a stop in front of Sherlock.
He stood a good distance away and casually crossed his arms. “Well, let’s see some fire.”
“Because I want to see. And because you’re a show-off.”
Sherlock smirked again before raising his head and turning it directly to the left. He spread his wings as much as the station would allow and shot an impressive column of flame against the wall directly opposite the platform. The blaze was steady for the space of several seconds, before Sherlock closed his mouth and the last bits of fire died in the air.
John knew he was grinning like an idiot. But that had been breathtaking. “Incredible. Just incredible.”
“Do you know you do that out loud?” Sherlock asked, echoing a conversation that seemed a world away.
“Sorry, don’t think I can stop.”
Sherlock’s wings fluttered as they slowly came to rest at his sides. He brought his head low to the ground again. John abruptly realised that this was for his benefit; otherwise, he would have had to constantly crane his neck to look up at Sherlock.
Figuring he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, John sat down, leaning against the tiles of the station wall. The platform seemed much darker than it had before it was lit up with fire. One of the fluorescents overhead buzzed weakly.
“What do you collect?” John blurted.
All dragons collected or hoarded something. It might be valuable or it might not be—it might not even be physical—but every dragon did it. John would bet anything that Sherlock’s hoard wasn’t physical.
“Interesting puzzles,” Sherlock said. “Currently, crime offers me puzzles to solve, but it’s been many different things in the past. Riddles, mathematics, word games, codes—any sort of interesting problem is likely to catch my attention.”
“And you remember all of them.”
Dragons had phenomenal memories—it was one of the reasons they had no written language of their own—and John had seen Sherlock’s own memory in action, but the idea of Sherlock mentally collecting every single puzzle he’d encountered in his life was still boggling somehow.
“So what now?” John asked. “I can’t imagine that you’re down here for no particular reason.”
“There was nowhere else to go. After my death, Mycroft brought my body here and released the charm, the spell we used. There is a risk we take in assuming your form. If the charm isn’t released, then there is no release. If my body were destroyed or lost, my life-force would be forever trapped, neither alive nor dead. That, by the way, is why my brother is so meddlesome. He doesn’t fear my death, only my disappearance, as the charm will stay in place until it’s released by the one who performed the spell. I knew Moriarty was planning to kill me, and Mycroft and I prepared for the worst-case scenario. I made Mycroft swear that he would keep me in London until the spell could be redone, that he wouldn’t cart my body off to one of our territories and release me there, and so here we are.”
John digested all of that. “So you’re… going to come back.”
“Of course.” He said it like there was no question of his doing otherwise.
“And you were, what, just going to turn up on the doorstep one day? And tell me what?”
“Anything but the truth,” Sherlock said easily. “I’m sorry if that disappoints you, but it was a necessity. No one can know about this, John. No one. Not the homeless network, not Mrs. Hudson, not Lestrade, no one. Mycroft is going to be furious that even you have found out. This is not known to be possible to your kind and has passed into legend for mine. As those who had the knowledge died, it became little more than myth—but a myth that we were able to reconstruct. Mycroft surmises that the spell became purposely lost, forbidden because it was too dangerous.”
“Dangerous how?” John asked, frowning. “Just because you could die?”
“Imagine you’re a dragon who has a problem with another dragon. Now, imagine that you could remove that problem by making it human and very killable. It’s not so simple as that, of course, as the object of the spell does need to be willing, but as threats and coercion are always a factor, the potential is there.” Sherlock paused. “And that’s why no one can ever know, John. I’m sure that if this were known to be possible, your people would have similar ideas.”
John couldn’t deny that. Every few decades, some politician or other got it in their heads to start talking about ‘doing something about the dragons’. It had all started around World War I, when human artillery had finally surpassed the cannon. But the general consensus today was that the type of weaponry that would have to be deployed to achieve any results would render the surrounding land uninhabitable. And it was also a sort of mutually assured destruction, as it were. One dragon could decimate a town quickly—not to mention what they could do to aircraft or how easily they could destroy highways or train tracks—and any attack made by humans was guaranteed to result in swift retribution. Humanity in general might come out on top in the end, but the casualties would be enormous.
John wasn’t sure why the topic of a potential dragon war kept coming up, honestly, except that certain personality types were always itching to go to war against something. Humans and dragons hadn’t had any real problems for centuries. Dragons kept to themselves as long as humans weren’t stupid enough to bother them.
Sherlock was still watching him. John met his gaze. “I won’t tell a soul.”
Something occurred to John. “Did Moriarty know?”
“Yes, but not like you think. He wasn’t one of us wearing human form. Mycroft believes he was of our kind, the blood remnants from some dragon who used the spell eons ago and knowingly or unknowingly created a mixed bloodline.”
“But that could have been… hundreds of human generations ago,” John said. “Any dragon blood that was there should have been diluted down to nothing.”
“Magic is not always so precise or logical. At any rate, it’s irrelevant now, as Moriarty is definitely dead and Mycroft had his body destroyed. Even though Moriarty realised what Mycroft and I had done, there was no way for him to know that the death of my human body was not actual death. I survived, and so here we are.”
“Here we are,” John said. “Me and a dragon in an abandoned Tube station.”
John laughed. “Just not the day I was expecting to have. But this is definitely an improvement.” Really, he hadn’t had a day that had done this much for him since Sherlock had invited him to a crime scene and then dragged him all over London on the hunt for a serial killer.
John ran his eyes over Sherlock again. It was still surreal, knowing that that was his flatmate. It was even more surreal knowing that that was his friend. Dragons didn’t tend to have much to do with humans. They certainly didn’t value humans. John wondered if Sherlock had surprised himself the day he realised John was more than just a fixture in his life.
He felt strangely honoured.
“What?” Sherlock asked.
John kept any sentimental thoughts to himself. “Why are you here? I mean, in general. Why would you want to be human?”
“I’m very old, and I was very bored.”
“Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you’re an idiot,” Sherlock said, amusement colouring his voice. “I confess I never had much interest in humans until recently. While you would say you’re all different, you’re remarkably similar; a town here was no different than a town there, no matter how far afield I ventured. Your world was as static as ours was. All that started to change around a century ago, and change rapidly. You were doing things, making things that had never been dreamt of. It was at the advent of the digital age that I couldn’t bear it any longer, and began searching for a way to walk among you. Mycroft figured out what I was about fairly quickly, and when it became obvious to him that I wouldn’t be dissuaded, he agreed to help me, lest I do something in my haste and irreparably damage myself. We pieced together the necessary preparations and conditions, and he performed the spell on me. Then I did it to him.”
John could completely buy Sherlock risking his life because he was bored. But not Mycroft. Nor could he imagine Mycroft desiring to be human, given that he acted like the rest of the population was beneath him. “And your brother?”
“Mycroft was frankly aghast at the idea that I could be forever lost if things went wrong. I would have preferred to come on my own, but if the only way I could get him to perform the spell was to accompany me, then so be it. Even then, he was still reluctant to do such a thing and was in opposition to the scheme as a whole. But once he considered the benefits that could be gained from knowing the inner workings of a powerful country’s government, he saw the advantages immediately. After that, becoming human became incredibly agreeable to him.”
John shook his head, smiling without humour. “He’s here as a spy.”
“Mycroft is here for his own enlightenment. He could hardly report back his findings, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. But yes, keeping an eye on the topic of ‘the dragons’ is something he’s rather keen on. Mycroft insinuated himself into the lower branches of government years ago, and is now at a level where he’s in the position to not only to be aware of the current thinking, but to influence it.”
“So there’s a dragon running the British government.”
“More or less.”
John laughed. The situation with Mycroft was probably more worrying than hilarious, but laughter seemed to be his standard reaction when confronted with something insane. And since he’d met Sherlock, he’d run into quite a bit of insanity.
Not that he wasn’t enjoying it.
“Our mother knows the truth of what we’ve done,” Sherlock said. “We could hardly hide it from her. But as for any others of our kind, they won’t find our disappearance remarkable. What are fifty or so years to us?”
John knew this, of course. It was old superstition that dragons were loners who never left their territory. Family groups lived in overlapping lands and as long as some member remained in the area, it wasn’t uncommon for dragons to roam other lands for decades. They were actually sociable to each other wherever they went, as long as the visiting dragon remained firmly in the role of guest.
Sherlock must have hated dragon formality, given that he could barely tolerate saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. From what John had read, dragon etiquette for the everyday was only slightly less involved than meeting the Queen, and that wasn’t even touching their formal situations. Those in the government who had official contact with dragons had to study for years before they had a hope of negotiating the nuances of dragon speak.
John had the mad thought that Mycroft wouldn’t have that problem. But no, Mycroft was much too smart to engage in that particular branch of diplomacy. It would be too close to showing his hand, and anyway, he was probably too busy running MI6.
“How much longer?” John said.
Sherlock automatically knew what he was asking. “A month, perhaps. It depends on when the astrological alignment is correct.”
A month. A month and Sherlock would be back like he’d never left. Except for the whole ‘dragon’ revelation, which, John reflected, bizarrely changed nothing. Sherlock would be Sherlock. The fact that he was a dragon wasn’t going to make John yell at him less when he contaminated John’s food or hacked his laptop or incessantly texted him from the next room. They would take cases and see clients and snicker about inappropriate things in the backs of cabs. Sherlock would still watch crap telly and play the violin and take John out to dinner even though he himself never ate anything.
“I suppose I should move back to Baker Street, then,” John said.
“You could.” Sherlock tilted his head slightly. “Or you could stay here with me.”
John was caught off guard by the open entreaty. Sherlock never asked for someone, even when he needed them. John realised he must be incredibly lonely to bring himself to say it. Still. “Sherlock, I can’t live in the Tube.”
“Lots of people do it,” Sherlock said, dismissive.
“Not by choice. And I was done with sleeping on the ground when I left Afghanistan.” But John couldn’t deny that waiting a month to see Sherlock again suddenly seemed unbearable. Not when he was so close and so gloriously alive. John also couldn’t deny that he wanted to see Sherlock like this as much as possible, because he knew he’d probably never see it again. “You’re daft if you think there’s any way I won’t be back tomorrow, but I’m not sleeping here.”
“Then you should stay at your bedsit,” Sherlock said. “If you move back to Baker Street, you’ll have to explain to Mrs. Hudson where you go everyday. In your present situation, there’s no one to whom you need to make accounts.”
John smiled. “All right.” He shifted against the wall, readjusting his position. He was definitely going to have to bring a cushion or something if he was going to be spending any time here. “Look, is there anything I can bring you? Like food?” he asked. “I’m not sure how exactly I’d get a side of beef down here, but surely you need something.”
“It’s remarkable how long we can go without eating.” Something like annoyance passed over Sherlock’s features. “One of the disadvantages of being human is how your bodies need sustenance every few days.”
“Or more often,” John said under his breath.
“I do have excellent hearing, you know.”
John snorted. Then, “What am I supposed to tell Tommy?”
“Tell him that he came to you with a problem as he would have come to me, and so therefore he should follow your instructions as closely and without question as he would have mine. Tell him that this tunnel is not to be entered until you say otherwise, and that you’re taking care of it. He’s not one to ask questions, and he’ll make sure the others know.” Sherlock made a noise that John assumed was an irritated sigh, though in his current form, it sounded more like a growl. “It’s unfortunate he became aware of me at all. Mycroft and I selected this tunnel based on the CCTV blind spots surrounding its entrance and my knowledge of the homeless’ movements. I heard him coming, of course, and made enough noise to discourage him from venturing farther. He wouldn’t be able to go to the police; it’s possible he would report the problem anonymously, though Mycroft would have taken care of the incident report. I realised that Tommy going to you for assistance was the most likely scenario, since in any other circumstance, he would have come to me. As I said, I halfway expected you turn up after that.”
John nodded thoughtfully.
Really, he was surprised at Sherlock’s acceptance of his current situation. A confined Sherlock was never a happy Sherlock, and John would have expected him to be bouncing off the walls, destroying things, and loudly complaining about boredom. The fact that Sherlock was doing none of these things, and had been lying here silent and still for almost three weeks, never making a sound except to deter someone from finding him, drove home the gravity of this particular secret.
The fact that Sherlock had risked ending up here to protect him drove home something else, something that John had always left carefully unexamined.
John realised that even if he couldn’t provide any proper distractions, his company alone would be more than enough for Sherlock.
“You didn’t do anything when I came down the tunnel,” John said.
Sherlock heard the unspoken question. “I could smell you, of course.”
“Right.” He cleared his throat. “So how many of the… dragon senses do you have when you’re human?”
“Remarkably few. The five senses are, or course, subject to the limitations of a human body. If you’re wondering about the telepathy, it’s merely a shadow of what I could discern were I in this form. My deductions are all based on observable details. I do sometimes receive stray impressions or feelings that I use to focus my investigations, but I can’t delve into someone’s mind or hear their thoughts. Mycroft is the exception to this, though I don’t know whether that’s because we’re both dragons or because we’re brothers.”
John licked his lips. But you could hear me now if I thought at you?
“Careful, John. I might take that as permission to indulge my curiosity.”
John was surprised that Sherlock hadn’t already had a good rummage around his brain if he was curious, but perhaps Sherlock knew that was a line he shouldn’t cross. It was oddly flattering, both that Sherlock thought him interesting enough to want to look and that he esteemed John enough not to look.
“I’m not that interesting,” John said aloud.
This was probably the most honest conversation they’d ever had about whatever it was that was between them, and of course they were having it when they were further apart than ever. But whether it was friendship or something more, or something that hovered just between the two, Sherlock’s focus had always settled differently on him than it did on others. It was a bit of a mystery to John why someone so fascinating thought him remarkable. He’d always felt incredibly lucky that he’d found Sherlock at all, much less that Sherlock had taken to him in return.
“Is it true,” he asked, “that no one’s ever flown with a dragon?”
“It’s impossible to prove a negative. But if it was ever done, it hasn’t been done in living memory. It’s seen as lowering oneself. To give that much consequence to a human is unfathomable.”
Sherlock was still watching him closely. “But I would take you. If I could.”
John tried to imagine the exhilaration of flying free like that. Nothing between him and the ground but Sherlock, nothing to keep him from falling but trust in Sherlock. He swallowed. “I’d let you.”