No masters or kings, when the ritual begins.
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.
In the madness and soil of that sad, earthly scene,
Only then I am human.
Only then I am clean.
— Take Me to Church, Hozier
John does not believe.
Has not believed since his mother died. Not because 'how could this happen' and not because 'there's no meaning to life' but because she was the one who drove the car to church and she was the one who taught him the Rosary and because, if he's honest with himself, he's not sure he ever really did believe but she was always so happy to see him participate so he did it. And then she was gone. And then he stopped. There was no one to do it for, no one to please, he found himself thinking as he genuflected before sitting in the pew in front of her casket. He'd looked up at the crucifix and at the carving of Jesus' blood dripping from the thorns and his heart hurt when he knew:
He didn't believe.
It comes back to him, the ritual of the thing. Years of Catechism classes and Catholic school and our Father, who art in heaven were naturally bound to. The muscle memory of crossing himself has never truly been shaken, arm jerking at inopportune times. He’s never, never crossed himself in front of Sherlock but he knows, the detective, of course, knows, sees, has deduced the way John sometimes has to stop his arm from reaching to his face. It isn’t mentioned more than through a hard, deductive glint in his eyes, John’s answering looks have always seen to that. Not a topic for discussion, for probing, not information he is willing to share.
Sometimes he prays. Offhand, really. No weight to it, no presence, no formalities or formulas. “Please, God, let me live,” and “Jesus, don’t let him jump,” and “I swear to God if you bring him back I’ll go to Mass again” is mostly how it went.
Of course, he did come back and, of course, John goes to Mass. It isn’t real. John doesn’t look at it as true cause and effect, doesn’t feel anything about it, but he said he would go. So he does.
It’s a small church in Ely Place off Charterhouse Street, named for a saint who married but remained a virgin. It makes John think of Sherlock, and really, what doesn’t? He is engrossed, immersed in Sherlock. Always has been. It was worse when Sherlock was gone. No. It got worse while Sherlock was gone. Sherlock is the reason for everything, the reason he’s still alive, the reason he almost wasn’t, the reason he’s in London, the reason he can get out of bed every day, and the reason he finds himself walking an hour to and from the church once a week. He spends the entire way there and the entire service and the entire way back thinking of Sherlock and, actually, almost every waking thought of his has some relation to Sherlock. It’s infuriating.
Hungry. He’s hungry for Sherlock. There’s no other word for it. He wants to devour, be devoured, kneel and be kneeled for, pray and be prayed to. He goes to church and takes communion and crosses himself and recites the liturgy but he doesn’t believe in any of it. He believes in Sherlock. He’d sacrifice everything for him, to him — he wants to see everything that has kept them apart burning on an altar before him, Sherlock just visible through the flames, holding the matches. This is what he thinks about on his walk, during Mass, at meals, in the night when he should be sleeping. He is consumed.
It’s after a poorly attended Friday Mass that Sherlock finally makes himself known. John is sitting in his pew, contemplating, the sanctuary already emptied. He hears the flapping of the Belstaff and the creak of the bench seat directly behind. He doesn’t turn.
“Lord be with you.”
“And also with you … how long have you been following me?”
“Since I found the Rosary beads in the bottom of your dresser.”
Creaking. Sherlock is fidgety, uncomfortable. John smiles, feels like he has the upper hand. It is such a rare feeling. To be savored.
“How long have you been … attending Mass?”
John doesn’t hesitate. “Since you came back.”
“Not for a long time, no.”
“So why …?”
“I made a deal.”
A beat. John can hear the deduction.
“... me for mass?”
“You don’t believe in this.”
“Please, John. I can tell.”
“You found Rosary beads in my things, you know I own a Bible, which you’ve even seen me reading, and here I am in church. What makes you think I don’t believe?”
Sherlock sighs, irritated, exasperated. It’s odd. Usually he’s bursting at his impractical seams to itemize deductions. But he doesn’t want to go into it. Odd. Interesting. John thinks he might actually be nervous.
“It’s around the eyes.”
John half turns, nods, takes Sherlock in his peripheral. His cheeks and lips are flushed from the winter air, lovely, candy apple on his otherwise snowy skin and his hair is wild and windblown. He’s unbearably lovely.
“Then … why?”
John shrugs, entirely unable to explain. “I grew up around it. It’s ... comforting, I suppose. The rituals. And I told myself I would go, if you weren’t … so. Here I am. But you’re right. I don’t believe in this.”
It’s quiet for a very, very long time. The cathedral is empty and the priests are in their offices and nothing moves except the candle flames flickering around the altar and there are no eyes on them except the statues that line the vaulted ceilings.
“If not this … do you believe in anything?”
John turns full around for the first time, sees Sherlock’s apprehensive face, wonders how he can have the incongruous traits of a small, naive boy and a weary, weathered man at the same time
He takes him in the sacristy. They don’t discuss it, no one suggests it, but when John is sucking on Sherlock’s neck, he starts mumbling the Hail Mary and John is nearly undone. It’s wrong, it’s so completely wrong, but it makes John as hard as iron and when he kneels and takes Sherlock in his mouth, Sherlock doesn’t miss a beat. His voice, low, gravely, rumbles through John and Sherlock scrabbles at his hair, fucking into his throat, coming at ‘the hour of our death’ on the second time through. Fitting.
John kisses him until he wants to cry because he has no idea why Sherlock has these recitations memorized and he doesn’t care and he’s not going to ask but it’s perfect and sinful and exquisite.
John continues going to Mass. Sometimes Sherlock follows him and sometimes he doesn’t. John pretends not to notice either way. Sometimes when he gets home and his skin is still cold, Sherlock slowly undresses him and asks questions about the homily, mouthing over the coldest parts. It heats John slowly, from the inside out.
They haven’t defiled the church again, but when they’re alone in bed and dripping sweat and John is buried inside him, Sherlock will egg him on horribly, whispering. "Strap me down on the altar and fuck me there, John. Fuck me while I pray. Fuck me until I see stained glass windows behind my eyes, John. Please." He begs him: "Cut me and take communion with my blood." John comes violently, his hands around Sherlock's throat, and Sherlock comes on John’s face, John knelt before him, antique rosary in hand.
It’s madness murmured between sheets, high on sex and love hormones, but John thinks about. Can’t stop thinking about it. Sherlock doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean. John starts to inquire about the hours St. Etheldreda’s Church is open and peeks at the locks on the back doors, pondering how easily he could pick them.
They don’t talk about it. They never talk about it when it’s working, between the two of them. There was no “Are we a couple now?” discussion because they already were, undeniably, a couple, almost from the moment they met, if not from that moment exactly. John thinks of it that way. From “Here, use mine,” there were no other options, they fell into each other’s lives and were immediately fused. Now it’s only a matter of “Your bed or mine?” and often the answer is the living room floor.
Their hands and mouths find each other like they’re magnetized. It’s the kind of thing John would have wrinkled his nose at had he seen it on telly, or on the street, the kind of gross, incessant affection. It’s obscene. But he’s finding obscene is suiting him just fine. The more reprehensible, the better, for both of them, it seems and John relishes the way it doesn’t need to be hashed out. Sherlock whispers it all while John worships his body, or vice versa, and then John finds a way to make it happen.
It is a worship, really, every time John gets his hands on Sherlock. Every time either one of them is kneeling, it’s in supplication; when the Rosary beads cut into John’s neck while Sherlock slides in and out of him, wetly, and John chokes out rough words of encouragement, it’s in consecration, in praise. It’s a devotional, a rite, their own dirty, greasy construction of religion and belief.
It’s sacred. It’s profane. It’s immaculate.
John wants more. He wants terrible things that frighten him when he thinks too deeply about the psychology behind them — things with blood and knots and confessions and burnt offerings. But Sherlock wants them too and that’s John's lifeline. It doesn't matter if it's normal or sane. If it exists on the plane Sherlock and he share then it’s theirs, it’s them, and it’s fine. All fine
He works it out, carefully, methodically, and it makes him feel crazy, giddy with want. He’s dizzy and desperate when arrives home from stealing the key to the church and as he crests the stairs, Sherlock appears, silhouetted by the late afternoon sun in the doorway of their flat in only his untied blue dressing gown. John fucks him on the top step.
Sherlock's chest is marked and red from John's mouth biting every bit of available white skin. He wants it pink, wants it red, wants to drink from Sherlock and not ask for forgiveness. He says as much, buried palm deep inside of him, spreading, extending him, teeth gritted around one of his abused nipples. And Sherlock, jesus christ, John thinks, Sherlock with his perfect skin mottled, his lips raw and wet and swollen, his wild hair sweat slicked to his face, framing his head like a blackened halo. He’s unholy. And he begs, begs and begs for more, for anything. Pleads for it. Like he’s praying. John pushes deeply into Sherlock and demands he recite Psalm 145 and Sherlock groans, from the pressure, from the challenge, from the implications.
It’s a psalm of veneration, of exaltation and Sherlock is saying these things to John. It’s irreverant at best and closer to blasphemous, but they both know, although it is unspoken, that they are each other’s god. There is nothing the other holds higher, believes in more deeply, honors more. Nothing.
“I will extol thee, my God, o king, and I will bless thy name forever and ever.” Sherlock is moaning and John is floating. He’s reached that shimmery place, everything feels brilliant and he can stay there for ages, pushing Sherlock higher and higher — his recitations increasingly breathless and ragged and high pitched — until he makes a mistake. He is above reproach until verse 16.
“Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of … of every … oh, god,” Sherlock comes in John’s fist and John presses Sherlock’s knees back and pounds into him, hard, quick, ferocious and relentless, growling out the rest of the Psalm, finishing and whispering “amen” into Sherlock’s gaping mouth.
It’s dark and cool and quiet in Sherlock’s bedroom. They have not, as of yet, decided “Your room or my room?” and John doubts that they will, short of one day finding Sherlock moving John’s clothes and effects down the stairs and when John will smirk at him, he’ll blush and shrug.
Sherlock stretches and John pets him. He is a cat. A panther. Lithe, strong, stand-offish until he’s not.
John begins, quietly, to discuss an idea, a plan, breaking their unspoken rule, and Sherlock resists, pushes back, insists a negotiation or itemization will rob them of something, will ruin, will desecrate. John says, simply, “I love you,” and Sherlock pauses, mewls, and acquiesces.
Code words and safeties are decided upon and John has Sherlock repeat, rote, after him — liturgical. When they’re done, Sherlock actually crosses himself and, involuntarily, John groans, It tears from him, low, guttural, laced with heavy desire, as he rolls his head back and forth on his pillow, disbelieving he could want this much, this intensely. Sherlock climbs atop him and murmurs disgusting, poetic blasphemies.
Sherlock rarely sleeps. Or rather, he sleeps frequently, but in short bursts. Three hours in the morning, twenty minutes between 3 and 4 a.m., an hour just after the lunch he wouldn’t eat and always exactly 45 minutes after sex. Which is why John is certain he will be followed when he slips from their flat at 1:30 on a Sunday morning.
He walks to St. Etheldreda’s. It takes 53 minutes, at a clipped pace, and he can hear Sherlock’s steps 10 meters behind him then entire way. It starts to snow and the world around them is turning white, unblemished and pure — except for the places they touch.
Inside the church, John leaves the door unlocked and walks to the front, opening the knee-high gate separating the sanctuary from the rest of the room and standing on the top step of the bema. He is looking up at the darkened stained glass, at the form of Jesus and “Christus Rex” inscribed beneath him, thinking nothing, when he hears the doors open and shut and the click of Sherlock’s heels on the hatched wooden floors. John turns so he and Sherlock are facing one another, all the way across the nave. They say nothing. Neither moves.
John feels like an offering, standing there at the front of the chapel, the small altar at his back. He holds his hands out, palms flat, toward Sherlock, at his sides, and Sherlock begins a very slow march toward him. He can’t quite make out his expression, but if John had to guess, it looks haughty, self-important, arrogant, especially as he begins to disrobe.
Sherlock unravels his scarf and drops it behind him, slowly undoes the buttons of his Belstaff in time with his steps. At the midpoint of his journey to John, he lets it slip from his shoulders and pool on the floor. John can see his face now, the mischievousness — he is impish incarnate as he takes his leather gloves off with his teeth, one at a time, by the time the second one drops, it’s at John’s feet. He’s taller than Sherlock from his vantagepoint atop the steps and he stops Sherlock’s hands from undoing his black button down on the third button. The question on his face, the wrinkle between his eyebrows, and John can see the crows feet beginning to form from this close, and it’s all perfect. Every line, freckle, sun spot, it only makes him more beautiful and John’s chest tightens.
“You’re too beautiful.” Sherlock doesn’t answer, but when John runs his fingers over his cheekbones, he sighs and leans into John’s hand, eyes closed. “Beautiful.”
John pulls him into a fierce kiss with his other hand, tongues and teeth and intensity and Sherlock growls into it when John bites down, hard, on Sherlock’s bottom lip. He tastes copper, pulls back. Sherlock touches his lip, fingers coming away red — it’s not a deep cut, but it’s not shallow either. A small amount of blood pools and Sherlock’s tongue swipes at it. John hisses and Sherlock raises his eyebrows, in pleasant surprise, but also in challenge.
“Kneel.” John bites out. Sherlocks smiles, and it’s red smeared and wicked. Once on his knees, John demands Sherlock’s hands, presses them flat together and binds them around the wrist with a bit rope he pulls from his pocket. Sherlock’s lip is still bleeding, it’s dripping down his chin, now, and John is mesmerized by it, frozen, staring.
“What next, John?” Sherlock’s voice is so low, not quite whispering, both reverent and explicit at the same time.
John shivers. “Have you ever taken Communion?”
Sherlock smirks, salaciously eyes the outline of John’s erection. “Do you believe in transubstantiation?”
“The body and blood, Sherlock,” John murmurs, dragging his first two fingers through the cut on Sherlock’s lip, smearing blood down his chin, scarlet on white, and then back over his lips and into Sherlock’s mouth. Sherlock suckles and gnaws on John’s fingers.
“Amen,” Sherlock says, swallowing, when John pulls his hand back. John watches his adam’s apple bob and his own throat tightens.
“You were made to have blood on your lips.”
Sherlock laps again at the cut, where blood is beading afresh and John nearly loses control. He falls to his knees in front of Sherlock, hard, and it hurts, but he doesn’t care because he’s, licking into Sherlock’s bloody mouth, sucking it down like his own sacramental wine and he wants more, more. Sherlock’s hands still look like they’re praying, like he’s praying to John as they kiss and it’s too much. John breaks the kiss and puts his forehead against Sherlock’s, eyes closed.
Adrenaline is spiking through John’s veins, and he rips opens Sherlock’s shirt, buttons flying. He’s light headed, dizzy, panting.
“I want … I want to, to mark you.” John bites at every part of Sherlock’s skin his mouth can reach.
“Yes, oh god, fuck, yes, please.”
It’s the please that does it. Control is gone. John hauls Sherlock up by his wrists and leads him over to the altar. It is, of course, covered in white lace. More bits of rope sit there. Sherlock’s breath is heaving, loud in the silent chapel, and it’s ringing in John’s ears, along with the pounding of his own heart, the rushing of his blood. Roughly, he tugs at Sherlock’s belt and starts to work his trousers and pants off. Sherlock toes off his shoes — stupid, unnamed, unshined, utilitarian black lace-ups. It makes John angry, for some reason. Everything else Sherlock wears is high fashion, high end, Dolce and Gabana, Prada, Westwood etc., etc. But not his shoes. It makes him irrationally angry and John kicks them off the platform and with too much force. He’d buy him new shoes. Bright, expensive. John wants Sherlock to shine, head to toe, adorned in gold and purple, immediately recognized as worthy of worshipped by anyone who lays eyes on him.
He comes back to himself, sees Sherlock face open, trusting, offering himself to John and John wants to cry. He licks his lips, breathes deep and helps him onto the altar, face up.
“Hands above your head."
John attaches more rope to the piece linking Sherlock’s wrists and pulls until Sherlock is stretched taut, wrapping the rope around the foot of the altar. He ties each of his ankles individually and anchors them as well, steps back to admire his work. He can’t breathe from the sight of it.
Sherlock’s arms and legs pulled out and strapped down, his white skin nearly glowing in the dark, hardly more colored than the lace beneath him, every muscle tight, his cock curling up toward his stomach, steadily dripping from the head. An offering, a human sacrifice. John breathes and clenches his fists. He feels heady, powerful.
He feels like a god.
He steps to Sherlock, whose face is calm, serene, unlined, eyes closed, lips moving as he silently mouths something to himself. John touches his cheek — it’s hot — and Sherlock’s eyes fly open, his mouth stops moving.
"I want to give you everything,” Sherlock whispers.
John pulls the surgical grade scalpel from his coat pocket and puts it between his teeth as he shucks the jacket and tosses it aside. It’s all part of the plan, of course, it’s all been agreed upon and discussed at length and John thought it might dull the thing, but here, now, in the reality of it, it’s just as sharp as the knife he holds in his mouth.
John climbs up and straddles Sherlock over his hips. They’re both breathing hard, chests rising and falling rapidly, breath puffing in the air around them. It’s much colder than John had expected but Sherlock’s bare skin is on fire under his fingers. He pulls a betadine wipe from his pants pocket and rips it open, swiping it over Sherlock’s chest, the area just above Sherlock’s xiphoid process, and tosses it aside. Taking the scalpel from his teeth, he removes the plastic cap and tosses that as well, looks up at Sherlock’s expectant face with raised eyebrows, his face a question. Last chance — are you sure?
“Take it,” Sherlock spits out through gritted teeth.
When John realized he wanted to mark Sherlock he knew immediately what he would carve into the milky, pristine flesh if he were ever given the opportunity. The Thieve’s Cross, resembling an English letter Y, symbolizes the two paths of life: virtue and vice, converging at a fork. Which one will you take? John looks over Sherlock’s beauty, indecent and divine, and thinks to himself, This is both.
He starts slowly, the left arm of the cross about two inches long, and it’s not until he begins the second arm that Sherlock cries out.
“Ahhh, John!” The long drawn out wail echos off the vaulted ceilings and lasts until John finishes the right arm. The cuts aren’t dangerously deep, not even close, but the blood is already starting to run down Sherlock’s sides and John’s prick is throbbing. Sherlock’s has started a mindless litany of please please please, pulling on the rope around his wrists, clearly battling with himself to keep the rest of his body still. It’s gorgeous, profane and glorious and dirty. Deftly, John pulls the blade down, connecting the other lines and stopping a few inches above Sherlock’s belly button. Sitting up and throwing the scalpel down to the floor, he pauses to watch Sherlock bleed. How is this amazing creature mine to worship? he wonders silently, dragging his fingers through Sherlock’s wounds. Now the blade is out of the way, Sherlock starts to buck up against John, still repeating pleases and John obliges him, rutting his covered cock over the bareness of Sherlock’s, making him hiss.
He bends down and runs his tongue over one of the cuts and a sob tears from Sherlock. He thinks Are we angels or demons or gods, are we sinners fighting our own ruin? It doesn’t matter, really, these answers, these questions. What matters is Sherlock’s blood in John’s mouth, his cock in his hand, his heart in his throat, the both of them existing more potently simply by virtue of being near one another, on top of each other, inside each other.
“Jesus, John, fuck me, it hurts, yes, jesus.”
John can’t hold out any longer, he is desperate to meld himself to Sherlock again, to enter and press and seek the only absolution he’s ever found. He clambers off the end of the altar, quickly unties Sherlock’s ankles and pushes his legs up. Back on the altar, John kneels between Sherlock’s open thighs, freeing his prick and running the wet head along the cleft of Sherlock’s arse. Sherlock moans, hasn’t stopped moaning, and John makes short work of stretching him open. Soon, John is buried inside Sherlock to the hilt.
Sherlock’s skin is smeared red, although the cuts have already clotted sufficiently and are only feebly dripping in places. His chin covered in dried blood and he’s begging and mewling and whining, eyes bulging, he looks crazed, intense, fearsome. Some horrifying but beautiful angel from Revelation. John knows he will give this man anything he asks for the rest of their lives and farther, so when his litany has moved from a nebulous please please to fuck me fuck me, John drops forward and looks straight into Sherlock’s eyes.
“Pray for me,” he whispers raggedly.
Sherlock groans and begins reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, sotto voce, but as John presses in and out of him, faster and faster, he gets louder. John hooks Sherlock’s legs over his shoulders, one hand pumping Sherlock’s cock, the other pressing at Sherlock’s cuts and dragging through the blood there. Sherlock keens, high and needy, at the pleasure of the stinging pain, and spills over John's fist, shouting loudly enough to wake the dead in the crypt beneath them.
John puts his fingers in his mouth, covered in Sherlock's blood and come, licking at them while his hips cant forward once, twice, three times. His vision blurs when his orgasm crests and all he knows is blood and sacrifice and worship as he’s coming inside Sherlock, shouting fucking christ but meaning Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock.
It’s nearly dawn by the time they’ve cleaned each other up, tidied and left. The Sunday Mass will start soon, and the congregants will take Communion from the same altar that John did. Outside in the snow, they walk for a bit, waiting for a cab to pass they can hail. Everything around them has been dusted in a fine, fine layer of white powder, and their footprints from the journey there have been erased. As they meander up the street, leaning on each other, drunk with hormones, the steps they take now barely make a dent, are hardly visible. It’s as if they’re floating.
They flag down a cab and on the short ride home, Sherlock dozes on John’s shoulder.
“Is there something wrong with us?” He muses. It’s a simple curiosity, he doesn’t seemed fussed by the answer.
“Probably.” John isn’t fussed either.
“Jesus, Jesus he says, but he’s not praying to Jesus, he’s praying to you, not to your body or your face but to that space you hold at the centre, which is the shape of the universe … How does it feel to be a god …?”
— Margaret Atwood, From “Worship,” Murder in the Dark.