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Emperor Tales of the Frozen South

Chapter Text

Early August

It’s cramped. It used to be cosy, but now it’s cramped, and everything in him is waking up and screaming to get out. He works at it, randomly at first, and then with determination and vigour, and when the first crack allows dim, cool, air to drift in, he is shocked, then curious, then hell bent.

The noises outside are getting louder, soft murmurs becoming distinct sources. He will never again experience the silence of the last sixty-four days. He doesn’t know it yet, but what he hears now – wet lulling, dry sweeping, slick sliding, will be the sounds of the rest of his life.

There is a small hole now, and the sounds are louder, his focus more acute. It is easier to get the work done, to dismantle his prison. He has complete disregard for the protection it has provided. He knows not what awaits. It doesn’t matter. He can’t stay here.

Now, he is free, and for the first time he becomes aware of the self that exists outside his mind. It is weak, unsteady, clumsy. He finds this objectionable, but then his annoyance is replaced with indignation, because something is touching him now, and why?

The it, he comes to understand, is another like him. Of course, he realizes: he is begotten. This is his father, who grooms him now, bending low, tucking a slick black head under his scrawny wing to right him, prop him, test him. He must move a bit now, he must learn to hold himself, because unmoving is unsafe. It is too cold to go far, so he stays tucked under his father, and he watches.

His wet feathers dry against the pouch flap's warmth, until he is light silver grey all over, puffed up with dense down. He has a white mask that covers his face, chin, neck and ears, and his black eyes are centred near his short, black bill.

It is dark and cold, but he has no concept that it could be anything but. He shakes, fluffs, preens, stretches. Body organized, he makes moves to see beyond his keeper, but his father will not allow them to be separated. He must brood at the elder's feet for the next one and one half lunar cycles. He protests, a squawk with little bite but plenty of attitude, and then he is nuzzled. He is not bothered by this.

He peers around his father’s hip, under a wing extended, and he experiences something peculiar, a sensation that the world is filling in around him, becoming whole, instead of the other way around, instead of him arriving, in it. His reflections are of a collective nature.

There are many like him, and more still coming, working their way out, joining this place. Each scene is identical. One tall, coveting one small, both surrounded by fragments of something previously essential. The larger scene surrounding these dyads is a little more varied, but not by much. He inventories concepts yet unnamed:

White, grey, black, blue
Cold, ice, snow, water
Clan, united
Gender, divided
Young, cherished

He is called Sherlock, and he is an emperor.

 

...

 

September Equinox

Hundreds hatch and the colony grows. Some of the fathers take great pains to come with their hatchlings on their feet and pay their respects. His father, Siger, Sherlock learns, is important, and his favour is sought even when none is necessary. They praise Sherlock, compliment his fine markings, the crispness of his white neck band and his fine black head cap. They note the nobility in the slant of his bill, the graceful length of his wings. Siger thanks them and extends his best wishes for their own offspring, none of whom Sherlock finds interesting in any way.

The mothers come back from the sea and save the hatchlings from imminent starvation by regurgitating krill and cephalopod down their eager necks, and when those first needs are met the mothers create a second, new need, to be touched and rubbed and fawned over. Sherlock allows just a bit of the cooing and snuggling, as even his feigned indifference isn't that thick, and Olive wraps her beautiful black neck around his short stubby one and promises him magnificence, blesses him with strength of heart.

Sherlock presses the side of his face to her breast and gestures toward brother Mycroft with the tip of his wing. She nods. At seven winters old, his brother already has a place on the council. Brother's life will be significant in other ways, he understands. Political, understated power. His own, Olive impresses upon him, will be another matter altogether; loud, influential, the evolving heart of the colony.

His brow furrows above his pursed bill. How could she know that? In turn, she kicks at the shards of the shell under her feet, flips the larger pieces over, glances at him to see if he is following her gaze. The shell is run through on the underside, marked with veins and spots of the most subtle colour variations. She interprets them now, for they tell the story of his future. She speaks of a long path, and of trust, and love.

In time, he will be able to read these stories about others, too, but he will not need shards of eggshell to do so. He will know them in the actions of his clan, in the stance they take at the edge of a floe, the depth of their dives, the height of their leaps. For now, though, he repeats his mother's words in his head, over and over, until he is sleepy from the exertion and the warmth of her pouch. When he sleeps that night he dreams of the long path, but does not see where it starts or ends.

Soon after his mother's return the colony gathers in front of the council for the first night of the spring equinox conference. The chicks gather at the front, a bubbly sea of grey and black, their parents behind them, one eye on offspring, the other on order. Sherlock avoids the rambunctiousness of his peers to study the assembled elders. Seven adults: four male and three female, standing at attention, a shared wingspan between each of them. They make for a handsome arrangement with their height, and broad whiteness, the vibrant orange of their chest puffs, mandible markings, and crowns. He knows only a few of them by name now. By the end of the three night conference he will know their names and roles, and, if he is lucky, their stories.

Lyra, the peacekeeper
Erebus, the hunter
Cetus, the healer
Mycroft, the planner
Pavo, the teacher
Vela, the storyteller
Siger, the leader

They stand in silent formation and wait for the colony to settle. In less than a minute one thousand pairs of eyes face forward, and the meeting begins. This first evening is for the chicks, and they learn what to expect the next few months as their parents take turns foraging and feeding. They are told to stay close to the adults until it is time to form the crèche, and they are given only one rule: to never leave the colony for any reason whatsoever until after the summer fledge.

Housekeeping taken care of, Pavo moves forward and gives them a brief geography lesson. They reside on Pobeda Island in the Mawson Sea, on the eastern side of the Shackleton Ice Shelf, on the eastern edge of the land mass known now as Antarctica, in the South Indian Ocean, at the bottom of the world.

She tells them who they are, and who they are not. They are Aptenodytes forsteri, emperor penguins. They are not, it is made clear, king, chinstrap, gentoo, or Adelie. They are the largest penguins in the world, the fastest swimmers, the deepest divers, and the only ones able to mate and hatch on the ice in the depths of winter.

They are survivors.

Chapter Text

The next night the colony assembles again to hear Vela recount the legend of Kororā and the Heartstone. Sherlock is ready to be bored, because at this point in his arctic experience, that's what life is. Boring. He is soon captivated, though, by Vela's countenance and storytelling, and later that night, snug between his parents, he dreams of the legend and its implications.

Kororā, Vela explains, was the Mother of Flight, Goddess of all winged creatures. Daughter of Atutahi, of the constellation Carina, and Kapua, Mother of the Skies, she was the protector of all penguins, everywhere. At one time she walked among them, but now, Vela says, sorrow heavy on her tongue, she dwells only in the stars above them.

Loving and kind, Kororā ensured her progeny by selecting an unbound adult as a mate every winter. In her offspring, Kororā instilled mauri, the life essence. She would descend from the skies and live among them, invisible, so that she could observe. Kororā was unbiased and fair in her selection of mate, choosing with her heart an individual who was that rare combination of loving, generous, honest, and kind. She did not concern herself with outward appearances, bloodlines, or status. There were no contests, no battles, no eliminations. When her heart found its match she would call to it in song, and her chosen, the only one to hear it, would respond in kind.

Kororā would transform herself before her intended and ask three simple questions.

Are you willing? Are you ready? Are you mine?

One word sufficed for all three questions: āe. After hearing that response, Kororā would ceremonially present her match to the colony, bless them and their hatchlings, and return to the sky with her mate. The courtship lasted through the course of one full moon, after which they returned to the colony for the passing of the egg. Sixty-four days later, the heir would hatch.

This is the way it had been for all the ages. Proof of her existence, protection, and love, was personified in her heirs, who boasted a small red mark on their otherwise unblemished chests. These sons and daughters were named in accordance with Kororā's wishes, but otherwise lived among their peers as equals, no more highly revered than any other individual. Their presence served to remind them all to love and be kind, to give freely of themselves, and to value each other.

Each and every one was named Aumārire: peaceful, harmonious. In this way, each heir became synonymous with the last, a single thread in the collective fabric of their tale. The stories passed down from crèche to crèche were never about a particular individual saying or doing something extraordinary, but about achieving greatness through harmony. Lessons of sharing, generosity, kindness, and respect spoke to ensuing peace for the whole.

Aumārire inspired courage, bravery, and determination. It overcame jealousy, spite, and insecurity. Aumārire was accessible and commonplace, easy to touch and see and hold. It was an integral part of their lives.

This was their way until the Reckoning. No one knows any longer in which colony it happened, on what part of the continent, or during which age, but all are sure that it did happen, and that they still collectively bear the consequences.

It happened like this. Kororā came, and she selected a female to accompany her to the heavens. Pono, a small, quiet bird with a crippled wing, was surprised when she heard the goddess’ song, but she answered the three questions with one sincere āe, matched Kororā's deep and respectful courtship bow, and pledged her life to care for and protect the hatchling they would create together.

Sometime during the blessing of the colony, Apo, an elder of the council, came forward and interrupted, questioning why Kororā had not selected a male, as had always been her way.

Kororā was patient, and reminded Apo that whereas he was eighteen winters old, which was indeed a long life for his kind, she was as old as the stars, and had selected male and female mates for longer than he could possibly imagine. That he had not witnessed this himself did not make it untrue.

That may be, Apo persisted, but how will you and Pono create an egg without the male gift?

Sherlock paused in his listening to the legend, unsure of what this male gift was or why it was necessary for the creation of an egg, but let the thought slip away for another time.

Kororā stood flush against Pono's side and gently reminded the elder that he could not hope to know all the mysteries of the heavens and the gods that ruled them. Her own father, Atutahi, she reminded them, had lain with the male god, Terra, to create her brother, Ika, Father of Oceans, and then with the female god Kapua, a union that had produced herself.

It was not theirs to question. The hatchling would be Aumārire.

Apo did not desist, choosing instead to push forward other candidates he found more deserving, those who were taller, broader, stronger; those with stunning markings and tremendous wingspans. All male. Each one made Pono look small, weak, insignificant in comparison.

Pono cannot even ascend to the heavens with you, he exclaimed. Have you not seen her deformity?

Kororā praised each of the presented males in turn for their strengths, but defended Pono for her kindness and grace. Pono, Kororā pointed out, had helped feed the elderly members of the colony before they were greeted and carried beyond by Death. She had cared for chicks who had lost a parent, shared her food, helped incubate abandoned eggs. She had given selflessly of herself, putting herself last in order to serve others.

Pono's spirit, concluded Kororā, was one of the most beautiful she had seen in countless cycles of darkness to light. Pono was her choice, and that choice was final.

Apo stood down, unappeased, and the couple took flight, swooping and gliding in a dance of joyful pursuit until they were no longer visible. With Kororā at her side, Pono flew.

Many of Sherlock's peers have lost interest at this point in Vela's telling of the story, tired and distracted by the stars, the wind, the shuffling around them. Sherlock looks around, annoyed by the lack of attention being paid. Several dozen steps away, under the overhang of a small ice cave, is another chick straining to listen, bristling his down and leaning forward on his toes to catch the sound of Vela's words. He is glaring with impatience at the restless chicks around him, and there is an expression of fierce focus on his brow. Interesting. The winds pick up the storyteller's voice and carry it closer, and both Sherlock and the other emperor turn their full attention to her story.

As promised, Kororā and Pono returned one lunar cycle later, so that Pono could stand the incubation with her peers. Kororā stayed to fuss over, feed, and groom her mate. She would not go with the other females to hunt for their chicks’ nourishment, as one of her gifts to her mate was the ability to feed their child from her own reserves. She was generous with her time, visiting with anyone who wished to meet with her. She conferred with the young and elderly alike, shared news from her ancestors, and informed the colony about the happenings on the rest of the continent and in the oceans beyond. Her counsel was eagerly sought on all matters of penguin life, and she gave it willingly.

On the third morning, assured that Pono was settled and her work with the colony satisfied, Kororā took her leave. Pono would not see her again, but this was the sacrifice she and all the others before her had made for being selected by the goddess. Her memories of courtship with Kororā could last several lifetimes. She would never speak of them with her peers, and she would never mate again. Pono’s descendants, however, would be plentiful, and her place of honour well-secured.

All was fine until the seventh evening. Agitated by Kororā's choice and Pono's presence, Apo lobbied privately with a wingful of his council friends, and then called for an adjunct tribunal. He presented the case that Pono would be too small and weak to protect the heir from the dangers of their world. The minority argued that their colony would guard and care for the chick as a community, as they cared for all of the offspring. Several offered to stay with Pono and the hatchling through the summer, to personally oversee the safety of them both. Apo insisted that each of them had their own families to care for, and important responsibilities to the council and its members. No, he said. The real danger was inside Pono herself, in her compromised anatomy. How could she stand the fast for sixty-four days? How could her crippled body retain enough warmth for the egg? What if she tripped, or fell ill, or lost her way at night? No. The safekeeping of this egg was far too important to the colony. He resolved to take it as his own and finish the incubation himself.

There is a hush over the assembly now. Sherlock is not surprised to see that the other chick is standing as straight as he can, his eyes forward, his bill slightly parted in concentration.

That Apo was not stopped remains the greatest regret of penguin civilization everywhere, Vela explains now. What happened next is their heaviest burden.

Apo approached Pono and told her what the tribunal had decided, then moved to retrieve the egg from where it rested on her small feet. They scuffled, but even at his advanced age, the elder was able to overtake tiny Pono with her weak wing, and had soon wrested the egg from her. The elder then stood his ground while Pono battered herself against the bodies, claws, and bills of his cohorts, who had arranged themselves in a circle around him.

Crying out for help, weakened from her fight, and devastated by her inability to uphold her vow to protect the sacred egg, Pono collapsed on the ice. Kororā, hearing the call of distress, raced from the stars, but arrived too late. Pono was gone, her last heartbeat fading into the thrashing of Kororā's wings.

Distraught, enraged, Kororā flung Apo aside and tucked the egg safely against her own legs, then gathered Pono's beautiful, still body to her chest. While the stunned community watched, she plucked Pono's perfect heart from her breast and laid it atop Apo’s feet, where it quickly turned to ice. Forever carry this relic of my love, she told Apo, and may the burden of finding another Aumārire be yours.

Kororā took Pono's lifeless body and their unhatched heir back to the skies. Apo took the heartstone, as if to obey Kororā, but soon after threw it far into the icy tundra, never to be seen again. He himself disappeared before the vernal solstice.

To this day, Vela says, Kororā stays in the sky with their egg, Pono's corpse for a cape, waiting for her heir to hatch.

Penguins have not flown since.

Chapter Text

Early October

The obligatory brooding period is over, but the introductions and pleasantries continue. Sherlock watches the other chicks, observes their movements, their calls and mannerisms. Most stay pressed to the sides of their parents, peering out to answer banal questions about their favourite crustaceans, or the view of the ice shelf this time of year. He meets no one of interest.

In time, Sherlock ventures away from Siger and Olive to make the rounds on his own. There are no suburb colonies, per se, but there are groupings among them, some as large as a few hundred individuals, some as small as a dozen. He has not yet made it beyond his own clan, which is the largest and most powerful of the colony. He travels now, testing his slides and leaps as he goes, learning the aerodynamics of his body. He heads to a nearby gathering of adults and youngsters, then another, then another, all more of the same.

They are all delighted to receive a visit from Siger and Olive's newest family member, but he's looking for more than superficial aggrandizing. He wants intelligent interaction, someone with whom he can undertake daring exploration, important observation, and relevant work. He's not sure what the work might be, or how it will be relevant, but he knows he's meant for more than ice slide racing and Mother's cuddles.

It takes him two long weeks to find just one who is not an idiot. Sherlock recognizes him from the second council meeting, when Vela recounted the legend of Kororā and Pono. The other emperor chick is standing apart from his family, kicking stones and ice chips into the sea. He is trying to send the tiny missiles skipping across the water's surface as many times as he can, and has only fallen on his tail once in the time Sherlock has been watching.

The other chick doesn't startle when Sherlock slips up behind him and says, "A flatter stone and a more parallel throw will increase the number of bounces upon the surface."

Instead of turning he adjusts his stance and the arc of his foot, sends the stone flying, and grins as he adds two jumps to his record. He looks at Sherlock then and says, "How'd you know that?"

"Physics."

"And what's physics?"

"Aren't they teaching you anything over here in the northwest quadrant?" Sherlock winces to himself and hopes that the other chick won’t think that was rude of him. He could not care less if others find him rude, but not this one. Sherlock wants this one to like him.

The chick laughs and says, “Do we know each other? You look familiar,” and Sherlock feels himself relax into a smile and says, “I saw you at the equinox conference, the night Vela told the story about Pono’s heartstone.”

“Right. I remember now. You were the only other one there paying attention.”

A little buzz moves up Sherlock’s spine at the thought of him being noticed. “Everyone else is an idiot.”

The emperor chick smiles and moves a step closer. "Come on," he says, "Let's get out of here."

His name is John and he is perfect. He is smaller and rounder, lighter coloured than Sherlock, and he is beautiful. When that word, beautiful, comes to his mind, Sherlock stops and reconsiders. The constellations, after which so many of them are named, are beautiful. The curve of his mother's upper mandible is beautiful. Ice crystal clouds are beautiful. Can a bright silver emperor chick with indeterminate markings and smaller than usual wings be beautiful? Yes. More so than the constellations, because John likes beautiful things: knowledge, and action, and risk.

They are attached at the hip immediately, Sherlock addicted to the timbre of John's call, his sense of humour, his penchant for exploration. Much to Sherlock's delight, John doesn't seem to care about his nobility, parentage, or councilpeng brother. Better yet, John appreciates Sherlock’s intelligence and deductions, and even laughs at his jokes.

They spend their time collecting the best skipping stones, and making small piles of them where others won’t find and disturb their work. Sherlock coaches John on his kicking technique, and soon John is breaking not only his records, but those of other pengs, too. Sherlock didn’t think he would find kicking stones particularly interesting, but it doesn’t take him long to figure out that it isn’t so much the activity, as who he is doing it with.

They compare the scariest seal stories they’ve heard so far and question whether or not they’re true, or penglore. Sherlock's stories are scarier, but he likes John's better, because John huddles close and whispers and makes his eyes go enormous when he tells them.

They spy on the other chicks, and on their parents, and on the councilpengs, and then use Sherlock’s deductions to make up stories about them, too. Sherlock tries to teach John some simple observational techniques so that he doesn’t have to rely on Sherlock’s, but John’s deductions seem to be more flights of fantasy than walks through reality.

“That one there, John. Tell me what you see.”

“That one? Walking toward us? Okay. Let’s see. Female. Four winters old. Several older siblings, none of whom she likes. Her father died in an ice storm, hail the size of silverfish ...”

Sherlock is about to praise John for getting at least her gender and age right, but John isn’t done yet.

“Planning her escape. Has a tahu on a nearby island … but … oh! Her tahu isn’t an emperor! Noooo, he’s a macaroni!”

“A what?”

“You know, those penguins with the stuff sticking out of their heads.”

Sherlock looks at the ice and shakes his head. “Eudyptes chrysolophus?”

“Mmhm. And her mother threatened to disown her if she didn’t end it, they had a huge row, but she’s going to leave anyway, she has an ice raft ready to go, and she’s going to raise little emp-aroni chicks!”

Sherlock stares, completely befuddled. “You are totally making that up.”

“Am I wrong?”

“You aren’t even trying. She can't have a macaroni tahu, John, as they reside on the other side of the continent from us, a distance untraversable by any type of penguin in a single lifetime."

“I don’t know, it sounds a lot better than you telling me what she ate for breakfast.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

John smiles and nods, and Sherlock wonders how it is that John considers ridiculous such high praise, and then decides it doesn't matter as long as John is grinning like that.

The fourth day of their acquaintance finds them farther from the heart of the colony than either has gone before.They are high up on an ice formation, one that takes a long time to ascend for such young penguins, with much sideway shuffling and belly crawling to traverse. From this vantage point they can see the colony below them, small dots of black and white moving about in lines and clusters; they see the ocean beyond, speckled with white caps, floes, and icebergs; they see the glow of the moon behind her blankets of dense skycloud. She is low, but rising. They have a few more hours until curfew.

John lies on his stomach at Sherlock's side, his bill tapping against the slick surface of ice. Sherlock picks up on the pattern right away, and feels a flood of affection at John's need to do. He's up to something. It doesn't matter what, it's John's something, so it's good.

Sherlock leans down and repeats the sequence, hunching his shoulders in question, and John gets up and smiles at him.

"Let's have our own language, Sherlock, a code no one else will understand. We can use clicks and taps, instead of our regular sounds."

"A non-peng language? Yes. Maybe scraping, too?"

"Clicking, tapping, scraping, yes! Here, watch." John uses his bill to tap at the ice, once, a pause, then three in quick succession. "This will mean come quickly. You try."

Sherlock repeats it, then creates one of his own. Three rapid taps, then one, then three. "This one means help," he explains.

"Okay, but what's the difference between come quickly and help?"

Sherlock considers. "Want, and need."

John nods. "But sometimes those are the same."

"Sometimes, yes. Help is always paired with come quickly, but come quickly needn't be about needing help."

"Right. Come quickly could be about having a good secret to tell, or finding a treasure, or an extra snack!"

"We definitely need a sign for found treasure, John."

If John suspects Sherlock is teasing, he doesn't say. "Yeah, definitely." He thinks about it, then stomps one foot down hard, and slips on the ice. Sherlock watches as John spins on his belly, coming to rest at his feet.

"That looks about right."

"Shut up, you. It'll be stomp, stomp, tap-tap, tap-tap."

"Got it."

They spend the rest of the afternoon adding to their vocabulary, building words and phrases, instructions and place names, until they cannot absorb one more sequence of sounds. The wind has picked up and the moonlight is growing long shadows behind them. Sherlock is in no rush, but knows they shouldn't break curfew.

"One more, John, for today. Watch." Sherlock scrapes his bill in the ice from left to right, then stabs it hard between his feet.

"What's that, then?"

"It means we've lost track of time, our parents will surely send a rescue team for us, and you need to feed before you get all grumpy."

"You put all of that into two moves, penggit?" John shakes with laughter.

"We could just call it, run !"

"Penguins can't really run, Sherlock."

Sherlock rubs his head under John's chin in affection, and John rubs back. It doesn’t occur to either of them that they've learned this loving stroke by watching their parents.

"No, but we can glide!" Sherlock quips, pushing John onto the sloping path at their side. John squawks in surprise, then reaches out a wing and knocks Sherlock's feet out from under him. They tumble back down the incline, rolling and skidding and sliding for the exact amount of time it takes Sherlock to fall desperately in love, which is not very long at all, considering the height from which they started.

Back on flat ground Sherlock is dragging out his goodbye, sure that life will cease and desist until they are together again. He is dawdling in circles around John, who is scanning the crowded plain for his family. Sherlock knows exactly in which direction John needs to move, but doesn't let on, enjoying the confused look on his friend's face.

"Find midline of glacier, turn to the east, take ten steps to the south … Harry said look for Andromeda's peak if I get confused."

Sherlock stands next to John and taps out a clue with one foot until John stops muttering and turns to Sherlock.

"Follow you? That was for follow me, wasn't it?"

"Good! You remembered!"

"I have been standing here, lost, for at least fifty heartbeats, and you knew exactly where I needed to go."

"Maybe. Do you? Need to go?"

"We both do. We need to eat and groom before the council meeting starts."

Sherlock heads in the direction of John's family, sighing as he goes. "Boring. It's going to be all about the fledge, the crèche, courtship, all of that. We're ages from that anyway, so it seems quite untimely to review it now."

"How do you know the topic? It's just the regular half-moon meeting, I thought. Might be short. Seal patrol schedules, or shifting of the shelf, things like that."

They bump sides as they shuffle through the crowd, eyes on the darkening ice under them. "No. It's Mycroft's first presentation on the council, so he’s picked a topic that's already been done, information that a pod of plankton could grasp, at a time that is not urgent. Therefore, the fledge stage."

"He told you?"

"No. It's obvious, isn't it?"

John stops and looks up at Sherlock with bright eyes. Sherlock wants to rub his auricular patch against John's, but holds still. "Obvious to you, Sherlpeng, you're brilliant, not like the rest of us mere forsteri."

Sherlock doesn't answer right away. John used a diminutive form of his name, just now, just then, just two counts ago, three, four, five, six… Too long ago. He needs to hear it again.

"You said..."

"Brilliant? Well, yes, you are."

"Noooo. You called me...?"

John dips his head down, suddenly, urgently, needing to groom the fluff around his thigh. "Um, yeah, just kind of slipped out. Sorry."

"No, I mean, I. It's. Good, what you said. It's good."

John stops his pretend grooming and pokes at Sherlock with his wing. "Okay. Yeah. Good. You could, you know, if you wanted –"

"Yes. Okay. Thank you."

John blinks and flaps his left wing just a bit. "Right. So, does Mycroft have a mate?"

"No, yet he thinks himself an expert on the matter."

"Doesn't he want one?"

"He thinks his energies are better spent on the council than on incubating and feeding hatchlings."

"What if Kororā came for him?"

Sherlock considers both the question and the sincerity with which John has asked. He has spent long hours reflecting on the legend of Kororā, but in the end his need for logic and adherence to the principles of nature have won out over mythology. He is not a believer.  

"Father says we are descendants of Kororā, hatched Aumārire many millennia ago. But Mother says there's no way to know that for certain, and even if it were true, everyone on the continent must be descended of Kororā by now. She also said it doesn't matter, because the point is to strive to be selfless and kind, like Pono.

"I don’t think Mycroft appreciates those traits very much, so if Kororā came for him, he'd probably apologize profusely but rush off to an important meeting with his sardine counter."

John laughs, and Sherlock is relieved. Maybe he shouldn't have mentioned Siger's ideas about lineage. Maybe John will think Sherlock is stuck up, or too prissy. Sherlock tries to scowl really hard, to prove that he's not prissy.

"Are you okay? You look like you have to poop or something."

"What? No! Of course I'm okay. Completely fine." Sherlock makes a mental note to never make that face again.

From across the ice a young female adult comes hurtling toward them, trilling and hissing with impatience.

"Here comes Harriet. I have to go. Look for me at the meeting later?"

Sherlock stretches up as tall as his fluffy downy ball of a body will allow, out as far as his wingtips go, and ruffles. "Okay, see you tonight … Johnling."

Chapter Text

The meeting is more heavily attended than usual, because everyone wants to hear Siger’s son’s first speech. It is no secret that the penguin is a genius, smarter than almost any other forsteri the elders can recall. He has been groomed to sit on the council since he was hatched, and shows signs of becoming a strong leader for the colony.

Sherlock is not nearly as impressed with Mycroft as everyone else. His opinion of his elder brother is very much influenced by the amount of time the rotund bird spends eating and glaring over his bloated belly at everyone else.

He's distracted now, anyway, searching for John in the crowd while trying to look blasé in front of his mother. If all of these blasted penguins would simply shut up already, maybe he'd be able to hear John's call. He cranes his neck higher right in time to see several of his neighbours startle, lose their balance, and fall, complaining as they scatter. John appears in their wake, flustered and dishevelled, but beaming up at him.

"Oh good, I found you, I figured you'd be near the front. Oh, hello ma'am, my mom said to say hello, so, yeah, hello."

Olive looks at John, then at Sherlock, then back at John. Her eyes blink closed in happy acknowledgment, and she bows low, the graceful curve of her neck elongated in greeting. "Hello, young John. I've heard so much about you, and such very impressive things, indeed. I've never seen my Sherlock so excited, to be honest. Ever since he met you, it's been 'John this and John that.'"

Sherlock is sure that the skin under his down is bright orangey-red. He gawks up at his mother, flabbergasted that she would embarrass him this way. He can't look at John, doesn't want to see whatever expression must be on his face now. It's hard to avoid seeing him, though, because John is like the sun, glorious and precious, and you can't help but bask in it, can't help but let your entire body turn toward it of its own volition.

"Yeah, well, he's pretty spectacular himself, ma'am. Do you mind if Sherlock and I go stand a little closer? We wouldn't want to miss a single word of Councilpeng Mycroft's speech."

Olive beams. John is brilliant.

Sherlock lets John nudge him forward and to the edge of the crowd. They are close to a huddle of chicks, most of whom look dozy and stupefied with bellies full of fish, and the late time of evening.

Now, nestled between the other chicks and a tall ice pillar, John presses up against Sherlock and leans in tight. "C'mon, get closer. Haven't you learned about body heat yet?"

Sherlock doesn't need to be asked twice. John snugs his head under Sherlock's chin and wrestles his shoulder under the taller bird's wing. Sherlock knows everything there is to know about heat conduction, but feigns ignorance now, luxuriating in John's warmth. No one is as warm as John. Not his mother or father or, well, that's pretty much the extent of Sherlock's experience with snuggling, but John is positively thermic perfection.

He's about to ask John how the rest of his evening was when Elder Erebus lets out a screeching honk and calls the meeting to order. He is the eldest councilpeng, indeed, the eldest member of their entire colony, but his yellow is only slightly faded, his chest only a bit less broad. Erebus, it is said, was a warrior, one of the fiercest hunters of his time. Rumour has it he once fought, killed, and dragged back to the island a squid three times his size. He can still dive over eighteen Orca depths and stay underwater for the count of four thousand, a record on Pobeda Island. He is imposing, but kind, and Sherlock suspects it is the recent loss of his lifetime mate that has softened his demeanour. He whispers these thoughts to John, and John lifts his head to Sherlock's and asks who told him about Erebus' mate.

Sherlock doesn't understand why anyone would need to tell him. "No one told me, John. Can't you see what I see?"

John shakes his head, confused, so Sherlock continues. "His feathers have only been groomed in the front, where he can reach. He has a small injury on his left leg that is not being tended to properly. Look, there, at the side of his neck. Those feathers should be slick and shining from where a mate would rub hugs, but his are dull and ruffled. It's been at least two full moons. See?"

John steps away to look Sherlock square in the eye, the tip of his tongue visible at the end of his bill. "You really see all of that, don't you?"

"Body warmth, John, body warmth," Sherlock says, tugging John back against him. In front of them, Erebus is finishing his introduction and Mycroft is waddling to the front of the council. The audience hushes and Mycroft clears his throat.

Two minutes in and Sherlock reiterates that Mycroft should've picked another topic. He should've picked something erudite about the calving of icebergs or the decreasing krill populations. Instead, he is stumbling over himself in his attempt to educate the chicks about their fledge and the subsequent courting rituals that will lead them onto the path of parenthood. That the chicks will not mate or become parents for several years seems lost on him.

"He doesn't seem very comfortable, does he?" John murmurs.

"He's an idiot. No wonder he doesn't have a mate."

"It’s kind of sad, don't you think?"

Sherlock looks over the top of John's head at his brother and tries to see him objectively. "I don't know. Would you want him?"

John starts giggling and can't stop. It is the singular most delightful sound Sherlock has heard in his admittedly short life. The sound gets higher and higher, dancing above their heads, and when it reaches Mycroft he stops speaking and glares in their direction. John pulls himself together enough to take a deep breath and look up toward the Hydra constellation, but the expression on his face as he fake studies the celestial snake is so absurd, Sherlock can’t help but break out in his own fit of snickering.

They flap at each other as those around them look on, curious, then fall onto the ice and shake until they hear Mycroft’s uptight trill calling for Sherlock.

“Pray tell, dear brother, do share with the rest of us what you find so humorous. Or perhaps you have a question about your upcoming transition to a more mature state of being?”

John wriggles under Sherlock’s back to help him stand, and when they’re both relatively composed Sherlock calls back, “No, brother mine, I’ve nothing to share, and no questions to ask. Do carry on.”

Mycroft is not about to have his baby brother upstage his very first council presentation. “Perhaps, then, you can answer one of mine. Can you please detail the life stages of an Aptenodytes forsteri for all of us gathered here?”

"Absolutely, brother Mycroft. I had no idea you were still unclear on the topic. After hatching, the Aptenodytes forsteri brood on alternating parents for approximately two full moons until they are grown enough to join the crèche. At that time, the adults leave en masse to hunt and bring back food; soon after the forsteri chicks will moult and acquire their juvenile plumage, which will signal readiness for their first swim. At that point they will be considered fledged. At approximately three winters of age the forsteri reaches reproductive maturity, but it will take another one to three winters before most take a mate. The cycle then repeats with a new generation. Is there anything else you were uncertain about?"

There's a hiss throughout the crowd as the adults register Sherlock's insult, and several of the chicks around him and John waddle backwards, out of reach of association.

John, however, steps closer, and Sherlock can feel him at his side, stretching up to his full height. The wing pressed into his side is clenching, too, as if John is waiting for a fight. Delightful Johnling.

Mycroft is about to topple backward with rage, and is glaring at them over his large, hooked bill.

"Who do you have there with you, Sherlock? Might we expect a happy announcement any time soon?"

“I’m too young for such an announcement, dear brother, but wouldn't it be nice for Mother if one of us finally gave her that honour?"

John lifts his foot and taps out the code for fat enemy.

Lyra steps forward now, assuming her role as peacekeeper on the council.

"Siger-sons, come now. You are both so bright, with so much to offer. Let's direct that intelligence toward a common goal, instead of tearing each other down. Sherlock, perhaps you and young John would like to volunteer to scout out a suitable crèche location in the next few weeks? And Mycroft, your contribution to Rockhopper Relations Council was unparalleled. Might we see you rededicate yourself to that programme again?"

The brothers share a begrudging nod without looking at each other. Next to him, Sherlock feels John relax.

Calm restored, civic-minded tasks assigned, Lyra steps back and consults with Pavo and Vela, the other two females on the council. Quickly reaching agreement, Vela steps forward and announces that they will now take questions. The look on Mycroft's face is priceless, which leads Sherlock to deduce that the council has never spontaneously announced a question and answer session before.

John rubs his bill along the underside of Sherlock's ear and whispers, "Good on you!"

"You're proud of my ability to bring public humiliation upon my family?"

"I'm proud of your ability to get us on site exploration duty. That's a free pass to go just about anywhere we want on the island, yeah?"

Sherlock will realize later that this was the moment he learned to quirk an eyebrow.

Chapter Text

John and Sherlock stay huddled in their spot, standing on their toes to see who is asking which question. Most come from the more mature juveniles who will be ready to select partners soon. The chicks listen attentively, more because they know this material is hardly meant for their young ears than because they’re interested. Some of the adults are ushering their children home now, which frees space for those more interested to move forward.

Vela points toward the back of the crowd, and a hesitant voice asks what a penguin should do if no one answers their mating call.

Vela nods sympathetically, as this is an insecurity shared by young penguins everywhere. “Well, first, I want you to know that this rarely ever happens, especially for first time courtships. It does sometimes happen that we have more females than males, or vice versa, but most of the time the eligible population is evenly matched. Some penguins may choose not to mate, which could also alter the potential pool of mates, but again, this is rare. If a call goes unanswered, we encourage you to consider that it simply was not your time yet, or not your mate's time, and to wait patiently for the next season. I, personally, have never known of a situation where a desirous penguin was not bonded within two seasons.”

She looks over at Pavo now, who nods in agreement, then adds, “And please keep in mind that you are never required to participate in the calling. Some of you may not feel the urgency to pair when others do, and that’s completely fine. Some of you may feel the calling sooner than your peers. Some males, for example, do not mate until their eighth winter.”

Vela points to a young female in the middle of the pack, and her high, light voice drifts to the front. “What if we don’t like the one who responds to our call?”

Vela smiles. “That’s not possible, my dear. By design of nature, your call will most likely not even be heard by an individual who is not well-suited for you. Pairing only happens when two songs are perfectly harmonious. Yours will resonate with theirs, and theirs will resonate with yours, or it won’t happen at all.”

John leans into Sherlock and whispers, “Maybe that’s why Mycroft hasn’t mated. Maybe no one likes his song.”

“No, he’s never even participated in the calling,” Sherlock responds. “Although can you imagine the type of tone deaf squawking we’d be subject to if he did find his one-and-only?”

He shudders and John chuckles and leans in closer. Sherlock begins to catalogue ways that he can make John laugh again.

A voice from near the front asks, “Why do we parade around the colony once we’ve found our mate?”

Vela looks over to Pavo, who steps forward and answers. “The courtship parade is a rite of passage, and one that we encourage you to uphold, as it is unique to us emperors. It is a signal to the entire colony that you are spoken for and no longer available, as well as an indication that you will be mating soon, and should be given every respect from the rest of us. It may seem odd now, but your parade will most likely be one of the most cherished memories from your first courtship.”

Now another voice pipes up without waiting to be called on. “Why do you keep talking about our first mate, and our first courtship? Aren’t we encouraged to mate for life?”

Pavo is quiet for a moment before answering. Sherlock takes note, because her body language indicates a very delicate response will be forthcoming.

“Ah, yes. Well, my dear child, we certainly do hope that you each find your match and that you enjoy each other for the rest of your time here on earth. It could happen, however, that one of you will survive the other by many years. We live in a very harsh environment, as you will have realized by now. We endure the coldest temperatures known to penguinkind, we swim in the most hostile waters, and we risk all manner of threat and hardship to feed our young. Unfortunately, every year, some of us do not return home from the winter feeds. Some of us will not make the migration after the summer hunts, either.

“Sadly, most penguins do not know that they have lost their mate until the next mating season, when they call, and there is no answer. At that point, you will hear another call in response to yours, and will then take a new mate.”

John’s bill drops open. “That’s horrible!” he murmurs to Sherlock. “Why would we want a new mate after losing the one we thought we’d have forever? We’re just supposed to call out, hear nothing back, and pick someone else?”

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say to this. He has already decided that he must be with John, forever, no matter what, but he hasn’t thought ahead to the calling, and doesn't know if it’s possible to choose a mate without the calling, or if it’s possible for two male emperors to be together.

He thinks back to what Apo said to Kororā when she picked Pono as her mate, that bit about the male gift. What is this gift, and how is it necessary for producing an egg? Can the gift of two males create an egg? Does a couple even need an egg to be bonded? Questions flood through his mind now, but it isn’t until he feels John nudging his wing that all these thoughts settle into just one.

“You all right? You went a bit vacant for a second there.”

“I’m fine, John. Thank you.” He then raises his wing and extends his neck as high as he can, hoping that Pavo will notice him. She does, and he is briefly aware that his mother, brother, and best friend are going to hear his question.

“I am given to understand that the purpose of the calling is to find a partner, the purpose of finding a partner is to mate, and the purpose of mating is to produce an egg. How, exactly, does a couple mate?”

There is much eye-blinking from the council, except for Mycroft, who is rolling his eyes so hard Sherlock hopes he'll strain his face. After some shuffling and throat clearing, Vela opens and closes her bill a few times, and then says, “Is that you, young Sherlock? Perhaps this is the type of question you’d rather ask your mother, later?”

Sherlock is about to say no, thank you, that he’s completely fine with Vela answering right now, when he hears his mother’s voice. “Councilpeng Vela, I am sure that my Sherlock is not the only young one here tonight who is wondering the exact same thing. The nature of the question is not something to be embarrassed about, and our chicks and juveniles deserve an open, honest answer.”

Vela considers, then says, “You are quite right, Olive. Thank you for your perspective. Before I explain, I would like to say that while this information is perhaps interesting, it is not entirely necessary. When the time comes, your body will know exactly what to do, just as it has for all the ages of emperors. That said, mating happens when the male mounts the female from behind and releases a special fluid, what we refer to as the 'male gift', from ... down below ... into her body. When the gift enters the female, the egg starts to grow. Shortly after, the female will lay the egg and pass it to her mate, who will hold it on his feet for the duration of the incubation.”

A small voice pipes up from the front. "Does it hurt?"

"Laying the egg is slightly uncomfortable, but not especially painful."

"No," the little voice says. "The, um, you said, mounting?"

"Ah. I see." Vela clears her throat while the weight of the colony's stare settles over her. "Well, let's see. No, I wouldn't say that it hurts. It's very difficult for one penguin to balance on the back of another, no matter what the circumstances. The female must be very, very still, and sometimes the male will bite her neck, gently, mind you, to help keep his balance. It really only lasts a few seconds before he hops off.

"Of course," she continues, losing herself a bit now in her reflections, "the process must be repeated several times to ensure that the, um, male gift has actually, well, made it inside the female, but if both birds are cooperating and take their time, it really shouldn't hurt in the slightest."

There is complete silence.

Vela takes a deep breath, shakes out her feathers, and says, “Any more questions? No. Very well. Please feel free to continue this discussion amongst yourselves, and have a safe, peaceful evening.”

Sherlock and John stand next to each other, not moving, not talking, not looking. When John does speak, it’s to say, “All right then. Good stuff. Good stuff. See you tomorrow?”

Sherlock nods and feels John move away from him. He can think of nothing to say except the one thing he cannot say. He will never be able to make an egg with John.

Chapter Text

Late October

John is gathering stones at the edge of the shore and Sherlock is pretending not to stare. He could help gather stones, but that would interfere with his ability to really, properly, stare at John. He is simultaneously watching for leopard seals, because he told John that he couldn’t help him because someone had to watch for the enemy, but he knows that no seals have been reported in this area since before the hatching season.

John is beginning to moult, and Sherlock isn't sure what to think about this. His lovely silver down is not as full, and there are several bare patches where real feathers have appeared. He is taller, leaner, and the grey fuzz of his hatchling days is now highlighted by a crisp, white belly. His lower mandible is marked on each side with a thick, lilac stripe.

This may be the most captivating element of John's impending fledge. It's not unusual for an emperor's lower mandible stripes to turn orange, or even pink, but this light lavender colour is rare, and Sherlock is fascinated by it.

He devises ways to get John to look in his direction, so he can see it again.

"Oh! Is that a – no, nevermind."
"Hey, look at the striations in this rock."
"Do I have something on my bill?"

John's responses are nothing more than quick glances and huffs, so Sherlock turns sulky and tries to investigate his own body for signs of maturity. He has yet to start his moult, which means there isn't much to see. He supposes he should accept his fate as the only emperor in history to never develop beyond that of a stupid chick. He will be forever puffy. Cute.

As if reading his mind, John glances over and says, "Don't worry. You'll start any day now. Lots of us haven't started yet."

Sherlock sighs and looks up to the bright blue of the skies above them. A flock of terns is passing overhead, twisting and turning in sharp, precise formation, and he calls it out to John. John spares a breath from his rocks to watch them pass, and Sherlock stares at his lilac underbill markings again. Gorgeous.

When the terns are no longer visible, John steps over to Sherlock and says, "Hey, Sh'ling?"

Sherlock pretends to stare out at the sea. "Mm?"

Next thing he knows, he's belly to belly with a highly amused looking John.

"Here, get a good look."

...

Spring melts into summer. The sun is dominant in the sky now, allowing almost no darkness. Night is marked by a brief showing of twilight and dusk, and dawn is ever present. The ice at water's edge breaks and melts, and the newly created floes drift out to sea and disappear.

The colony is invigorated under the clear and brilliant sky. The adults renew their efforts toward hunting and plan for life on the open seas, while the chicks turn themselves into juveniles. There is more opportunity for exploration now, and a later curfew. The chicks spend hours propelling themselves, belly-side down, all over the island, play-racing and imitating the adults in their more acrobatic manoeuvres.

John calls for Sherlock first thing each new day. Sherlock knows that he could call for John, too, but that would rob him of the chance to hear his name trilling through the air, that perfect song finding him over and over. He tries to look disinterested as they waddle into sight of each other, but suspects the involuntary puff of his chest and jut of his head gives him away, just as it does John.

The island holds untold delights for them now, as the extended daylight and melting ice reveals new places to discover and investigate. Ice caves reveal ancient fossils and shelves upon which to climb; a fresh dusting of wind-swept snow gives them traction up and down small hills; and, best of all, there are all sorts of previously inaccessible, lofty vantage points for them to spy from.

They approach their favourite now, winding their way over craggy terrain until they arrive at a set of natural, shallow steps in the ice. They have to hop and slide to make progress, but at the top they have an uninterrupted view of the plain at the centre of the island, where most of the colony dwells.

They lie low, not wanting to be spotted. Even if they were, they know they aren't doing anything wrong. Mostly, they want to keep this secret spot for themselves.

John scans the clusters of penguins below them, looking for something interesting or unusual.

"Look, in the centre, it's Cetus. I wonder what he's looking for?"

"Based on his proclivity for healing I'd say he's looking for something he requires for a poultice or balm."

"We live on a hunk of ice, Sherlpeng. What can he possibly find here?"

Sherlock leans forward and pulls a bit of loose fluff off of John's head. "You'd be surprised, actually. Even this, a bit of your down, may be of use to Cetus. There isn't much here on our hunk of ice, as you call it, but on the continent there is lichen during the warm season, and algae in the tidal pools. On the far side, on the peninsula, there is grass and moss, as well. Those are sometimes carried here on the winds, and are bound to be rich in medicinal properties."

John looks at him now as if there is a walrus tusk growing out of the top of his head. "Seriously. How do you know all that? More observations?"

"Not this time. I've asked Cetus about his healing practices, John. Our elders are our only source of unobservable data. If we don't absorb what they know, Death will rob us of it when he comes for them."

"Do you believe all that stuff, then, about Death and his iceboat and oars made of Mount Erebus' lava?"

"Lava oars seem highly improbable to me. But, we do die, don't we? And if we haven't passed on our knowledge, it dies with us. So, I talk to the elders."

Sherlock doesn't tell John that he simply must have some way to pass the time when they are not together, or that he's been systematically creating an ice palace in his mind to store the information he's gathering. Sometimes he fears that John, who is so much a part of the earth, will not understand him, who is so much a part of the stars. Sherlock has catalogued several of the elders' stories at this point. Some of them are true, having happened recently enough to be verified, but some are likely to be tall tales, legends that could not possibly have happened.

John asks, "So what else have you been chatting to the old birds about?"

"Flying."

"Flying? For real? With these?" John flaps his wings as if he expects to take flight.

"Well, yes, but not the possibility of it, John. The history of it. I asked Vela about it, because according to the legend about Pono, we haven't flown since Apo's betrayal, when Kororā took the unhatched egg back to the stars with her.” While Sherlock doesn't believe in the legend, he is fascinated by the possibility penguins might have once soared in the skies above. "I wanted to know more about what we may have been like before then."

John settles down on his haunches and shuffles to make himself comfortable. Sherlock wants to sit right on top of him. "So? What did she say?"

"She said that back then, ages and ages ago, we had longer, broader wings. When we were first grounded many of us died, because we couldn't fly away when winter came. And not just emperors. Vela and the other knowledge keepers think that there were types of penguins then that don't even exist now, because they couldn't adapt to the change."

John is staring at him, listening intently to every word, and Sherlock warms under the attention.

"What types of penguins?"

"Well, there are six kinds on the continent and surrounding islands now, right?"

"Right, yeah, six. Us, macaroni, Adelie, chinstrap, rockhopper, and gentoo."

"Correct. Based on fossils found on the continent, it seems probable that there were at least four other types of peng species that no longer exist. One of them was even bigger than us, and we're the biggest penguins there are. Something catastrophic must have happened to completely wipe them out. Something like losing their primary means of locomotion, which is essential to fleeing danger, and hunting, and, well, everything."

John's bill is hanging open. Sherlock reaches over and pushes it shut, but John opens it again to speak. "That's incredible. So how did the rest of us survive?"

"We learned to swim."

John holds his wings out in front of him and moves them up and down and from side to side, as if he’s never seen them before, then he budges closer to investigate Sherlock's wings, too. He stands behind him, rotating one of his wings in small circles, and Sherlock hears him murmur, "That's why we call them wings, still, instead of what they really are. Really, they're flappers."

John's belly is tickling Sherlock's back, and Sherlock wants him to never move. John lets Sherlock's wing down and lifts up the other. "They move just like a skybird’s wings, though, the exact same movements."

John moves around to face Sherlock again, and although Sherlock misses the warmth of him against his back, he is distracted by the sad look on John's face.

"What's wrong?"

"Do you ever feel bad that we can't fly anymore? I mean, can you imagine what that would be like? To move that fast, and be that free?"

Sherlock steps closer. He wants to comfort John, but doesn't know how. Besides, John is being silly.

"John, think about it."

"About what?"

"About us, and our wings. We can still fly. We fly in the water. We move just as fast as a skybird, and dive and leap and spin, and do everything they can do. The water is our sky, John."

John is grinning at him now and rocking back and forth on his webbed feet. "You're brilliant. You really are. You're fabulous."

"You think I'm ... fabulous?"

"Yeah, and you know I do. What about me?"

"You are the most fabulous creature under the skies, Johnling."

"But not brilliant?"

"In your own way."

"Diplomacy must run in your family, you penggit." John rubs the side of his neck against Sherlock's when he says it, so he can't really be angry.

"John, all the brilliance in our world couldn't outshine you. Not ever."

The tip of John's tongue is peeking out again. Sherlock stares at it.

“Thank you, Sherlock.”

“You don’t have to thank me, John. It’s the truth.”

“No, not about me being fabulous, but thanks for that, too. No, I mean thanks for making me feel better about the flying thing. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, and it’s kind of a relief, to know that I’ll never feel bad about not flying again.”

Sherlock feels his chest swelling and his heart squeezing and his belly fluttering. He did it. He gave John comfort, and he didn’t even know he was doing it.

Chapter Text

Sherlock is still experiencing what feels like the sun rising in his body when John says, "We should get back to the crèche soon."

"No, we should most definitely not do that, John."

John sighs and shakes his head, and Sherlock wants to kick himself for ruining that glorious moment of brilliant-fabulous-comforting-sun-rising.

John and Sherlock had been successful in selecting a new site for the crèche. This one has excellent protection from the winds, and is not a far walk from where the adults will depart for the summer feeding. The council was impressed, and Sherlock and John enjoyed a brief polishing to their scuffed reputation before all the fledglings were called to huddle.

They spend less and less time there as the sun stays longer and longer, but must still return to sleep each night. They sleep standing up, squeezed in tight with all the other fledglings, and if it weren’t for the whole sleeping thing, it would be the most favourite part of Sherlock’s entire life: passing a considerable amount of time pressed up against John, heads curled on each other’s shoulders, wings tucked around each other. 

There are others, of course, but Sherlock ignores them as much as he possibly can. He insists on turning John into the circle so that his own back is to the cold, not only to keep John as warm as possible, but because he really doesn’t want anyone else touching him.

John has made several new friends in the crèche. Sherlock has made several new enemies.

He doesn't understand John's eagerness to make other friends. In fact, he doesn't understand John's willingness to do so. Sherlock needs no one other than John, and he resents any peer who tries to claim John's time, for it means less time for them to have together. He and John have discussed this several times, but have not found middle ground.

"Give them a chance, Sh'lockling, they aren't half bad."

"Idiots, each and every one of them."

"What's wrong with Stamfjord? He's really smart. In fact, I bet he's going to be a healer, like Cetus. Lestra and Molling are great fun, and Maryle is absolutely lovely."

"Great. I hope you'll all be very happy together."

"Why can't we all be very happy together?"

Sherlock shoots him a look of complete disgust.

"Fine. You don't want to go back yet. Wanna come watch me dive, or do you want to stay here and sulk some more?"

Sherlock gives his sulk another determined count to ten, then follows John to where he likes to practice his dives. He may not be able to swim like John yet, since his juvenile plumage hasn't filled in yet, but he could bask in the sun and watch water bead off John's chest for the rest of time.

John dives and Sherlock looks for rocks for them to skip. Every time John jumps off the ledge, Sherlock stops and watches. John is a natural diver, knowing intuitively how to best tuck his feet, flatten his tail, and elongate his neck. As he reaches top speed John looks like a white and grey blur, piercing the water without disturbing a single drop, then breaking the surface a few heartbeats later to look up at Sherlock and yell, “How was that one?”

Sherlock wants to tell him that it was just as beautiful as the last, that John’s body is graceful and strong and that Sherlock would jump off this very spot into seal infested water for John, even though he can’t swim yet, because Sherlock would do anything for John. Instead, he waves back and says, “I think you gained a bit of speed on that one!”

John huffs and puffs back up to the top of the bluff and flops down and rolls onto his back. He's about to tell John that penguins do not lie on their backs, that he looks silly and undignified, when John says, "This is a very interesting perspective. You should try it."

"I'll take your word for it."

"You know that we can swim upside down, right? I hadn't thought of it that way before, but you're absolutely right. It's like flying, so fast and free. You barely feel your body at all."

Sherlock tries not to stare at John's body now, at his exposed underbelly, so smooth and slick with most of his chick fuzz gone. He tries not to think about what Pavo said about how eggs are made. Male gift, indeed.

“Are you going to dive again?”

“Nah, I’m tired. Come here and help me dry off.

“And how do you propose I do that?”

“You've got wings, don't you?”

“Do I look like your mother?"

“You look a lot better than my mother, Sherlock.”

One of these days Sherlock’s down is going to singe right off his body.

He leaves the small pile of rocks he’s gathered and stands by John’s side, then leans down close. He starts at John’s crown, gliding the tip of his wing over his ear patches and under his bill. He sweeps down John's neck, watching beads of water collect and run in rivulets over John’s chest, belly, and under his wings. As he moves lower those little streams of water change direction and disappear between John’s legs. He can see clearly what Pavo referred to as 'down below', and can't help but stare, but only for a moment, so John doesn't see. Sherlock moves his wing to the underside of John’s tail, and brushes off the water that has pooled there. 

John has gone silent, and when Sherlock looks up at his face he’s surprised to see that John’s eyes are closed, and the tip of his tongue is peeking out.

“John?” 

“Mm?”

“I think you’re dry.”

“Oh. Okay. Hey, Sherlock?”

“Yeah?”

“That felt really good. Thanks.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Come down here.”

Sherlock flops down on his stomach and John rolls to face him, and they lie like that, wings touching. After a moment John leans over and rubs their bills together. It's a slow movement, far more intimate than he's used to.

They look at each other and smile, and Sherlock, feeling just a bit out of his depth, says, "Did you know that despite the frigid air of our environment, our bodies can, and do, overheat, and that panting is one of the ways we regulate our internal temperature?"

John grins at him and says, "Are you breathless, Sherlock?"

"What? No! I just ...I'm not...I don't know what..."

"Ssh, relax." John says. He feels John's wing smoothing down his back a few times before coming to rest on his shoulder.

He can hear the sound of the water sloshing against the ice below them, lulling and hypnotic. The last thing he thinks before nodding off is that he needs to get really wet sometime soon, so that John can dry him off.

They wake some time later to the sound of Harriet yelling at them. Sherlock jumps to standing before he's fully aware of what's happening, but John stays down, yawning and blinking. "What in Poseidon's name are you screeching about now, Harriet?"

"You'd be screeching too if you had to wander around parts unknown searching for an idiot younger sibling, let me tell you!"

"Okay. You've told me. Now go away."

"Listen, little brother, curfew was two whole dinners ago, and you and your ipo here are late, very very very late. This is the third time this week, and Mother said to tell you that if you aren't back to the crèche in the shake of a tuna's tail, you'll be grounded from all slalom racing, herring bobbing, and story time, until the migration."

She turns and flips onto her stomach, pushes off with her feet and wings, and shoots out of sight before John can stand up.

Sherlock is staring right at him with shock written all over his face.

"Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm a bit old for story time. Don't tell anyone, okay?"

But Sherlock has no idea what he's talking about, because Sherlock hasn't heard a single word since Harriet said ipo ... sweetheart.

Chapter Text

January

Three full moons have crossed the sky since John and Sherlock joined the créche. Shortly after, the adults had left for the first summer hunt, leaving the young behind without food until they returned, bellies full with enough for all.

Siger and Mycroft had been busy with the council in the days leading to their departure, instructing others and assigning responsibilities. Sherlock's goodbye with them had been brief, as if just another order of business. Siger had patted him on the back and told him to behave well, reminding him that he was a very visible reflection on the entire family. Mycroft had merely nodded in his direction and suggested he not bring ruin upon the entire colony with his ridiculous notions and antics. Sherlock, in turn, had suggested that Mycroft not bring ruin upon the entire colony by eating all of the fish.

Olive had hovered for days, compulsively grooming and feeding Sherlock until he thought he’d explode with either annoyance or food. She had been patient with him, though, taking any opportunity she could to impart as much information as possible. An unease grew inside him when he registered her anxiety, concrete like the ice below them. She was telling him everything she could, everything she knew, just in case she didn’t come back. It was a possibility that he refused to acknowledge, but in the end he had let her pull him close and pet him, telling him how much she loved him and how proud she was, not only of who he was, but of who he was yet to be.

It wasn’t until she left that he allowed himself to unpack and sort her lessons into the appropriate rooms of his ice palace. Of most import, she had impressed upon him, were some of the first words she spoke when he was a newly hatched chick.

“Do you remember, Sherlock, your shell, and the predictions held within?”

He did remember, but only vaguely. “You said I would change the heart of the colony, and that there would be a long journey.”

She had held him tight and cooed soft, gentle praises for his memory of that moment. “That’s right, tahu,” she said. “Taerenga, a long journey, and not always an easy one. But you have gifts, Sherlock, many gifts, to ease your way.

Whakatohe, just like your father and brother. Tenacious, you will not back down from what is right. Only, make sure it is right, love, before you set your will to stone.

Piripono, too, like me. You will stand by those you love, to a fault, loyal. This is good, but do not let it blind you.

Atamai, of course. I could see that in the sharpness of your eyes, little one, the moment I saw you. You will unlock all the mysteries of the earth and skies with that clever head of yours, won't you?

“The shell held a message, too, tahu, an important message." She had held his face between the tips of her glossy black wings, securing his gaze. "You are old enough to hear it now, but you must be careful in how you respond. Sherlock, child, your future is what you make of it, but the shell predicted a tumultuous current along the way. Remember these words and you will succeed. You will love, you will suffer, you will prevail. Always remember, Sherlock, all right? Listen to me carefully now. You will prevail.”

“I’ll remember, māmā, but you can tell me again when you come back.”

When, when, when, Sherlock thought, not if.

Sherlock had pondered the significance of the shell's predictions as he stored them away, but did not dwell on detailed possibilities. He was sure he already loved, and did not want to focus on how he might suffer. He only hoped, whatever it was, that it wouldn’t affect John.

When the time came, he hugged her close in a rare show of affection and rubbed his bill against her soft chest feathers, then called out good luck messages until she was too far to hear. He and John stood by as hundreds of their clan lined up and plunged into the icy water, not leaving until long after their own families were gone. They stayed, John bouncing around with the excitement of the day, Sherlock observing parents saying goodbye to their penglings, noting who looked nervous, who lingered, who was eager, who delayed.

Much of their island exploration stopped when the adults left, having been warned again and again not to venture far from the safety and warmth of the group. Instead, they spent their time closer to their peers, John chatting with anyone and everyone, Sherlock hanging back in the periphery, not wanting to be away from John, but not wanting to mingle much with others. John's friends were inclusive of Sherlock at first, but grew less eager as time went on and he proved unlikely to engage with them.

During the day the crèche expanded to allow the group to stretch and play, but at night it shrunk down tight, everyone standing close wing to wing, belly to belly. No matter what, when it was time to sleep, John and Sherlock would find each other and head to the edge of the circle, where they could whisper the day's secrets into each other's ears long after their peers fell asleep. Inevitably, John would tire first, his head resting on Sherlock's shoulder, his words slurring, his eyes blinking, then dragging shut. Sherlock would wrap his wings around his sleeping friend and turn him into the warmth of the huddled pengs. Some nights sleep came early for him, but other nights he would remain awake, staring up at the constellations and telling himself their stories.

Each morning he would nudge John awake, his body warming with fondness at John's sleep-mussed feathers and sleepy expression. John would stay close, leaning into Sherlock as he yawned and rubbed his eyes, then would wobble his weight to his own two feet, fluffing and preening himself alert.

Now, one full moon after their departure, the adults have returned from the hunt, Olive, Siger, and Mycroft included. Sherlock lets relief wash over him at the sight of his family, even his elder brother, then deletes that he was ever nervous. He pretends he’s too old for Olive’s hugs and kisses, but does not move away as she fusses over him, commenting on how much he’s grown in her absence, how handsome he is, how happy she is to see him.

Parents feed and groom their young, and prepare them for their upcoming trek to the sea. They will spend the rest of the summer season in the water, and not return to Pobeda until it is time for those who are ready to mate. Young ones practice dives and escape manoeuvres, speed swimming and breaching. They are lectured on safety in the water, what they should and should not eat, and the importance of not sleeping until they reach a floe.

The council holds a last meeting to impart instructions and blessings, as the elders know that some of the group will not be reunited in the winter. They share reports of seal sightings, krill populations, and the movements of floes and bergs for resting and recreation.

Lastly, they are organized into swimming groups. The fastest juveniles and their families will go first to find the most favourable currents and best feeding spots, circling back to help guide the others. The rest will follow in the upcoming days, stopping at predetermined stops to feed and confirm their trajectory. Once united, they will remain together for as long as possible in order to defend against predators, but the ocean is large, and fragmentation of the colony is expected.

John is leaving without Sherlock. 

This would be such a better adventure if they could stay together, Sherlock thinks, but he doesn't have the same amount of experience swimming, and John will have to stay with his family in the first pack. He silently curses his slower development while John tries to console him. He’s sure he could keep up, with John by his side.

"Don't,” John says, breaking into his thoughts. “It'll only be a few days, tops. We'll meet up on the shelf of the Cassiopeia berg, like we talked about, right?"

"I'll be eaten by a Ross seal long before then, maybe an Orca. I guess an Orca would be better, just one giant, enormous bite. Not too much carnage."

John slaps Sherlock on the side of the head with his wing. "Shut. Your. Bill. Do you understand me? I will wait for you on that iceberg. I will get there, and I will wait there, and then you will get there, and we’ll stay together. Have I been clear enough for you, you stupid genius penggit of a bird?" 

"Perfectly clear, Johnling."

Sherlock leans in and presses his head to John's full, white chest. John will never be as tall as Sherlock, but he is already broader, stronger. They are both about half the size of a full grown emperor now, and getting bigger all the time. He rubs his bill under John's sleek chin and teases along the underside of John's lilac stripe. He hates this, hates saying goodbye, hates their separation. He knows John will only be a short while ahead of him, but the anticipation of not seeing him for a few days is making him so much more sentimental and affectionate than he would usually dare. John is responding in kind, standing close and returning each stroke and pet with his wings, neck, and bill.

John looks over his shoulder at where the first departing group is lining up at the edge of the ice, ready to fly, one by one, into the sea. They only have a few moments left. When he turns back he nudges Sherlock’s bill up from its dejected, downward angle so he can look him in the eye.

"Look at you, Sherlock. I wish you could see yourself. You're so ... regal looking. You'll definitely be one of the tallest in the colony. The stretch of you makes your coat look really sophisticated, not like mine. And your yellow is starting to show. It’s going to be so bright, like fire." 

"We've never actually seen fire, John."

"I’m using my imagination, Sh’peng.” He looks at Sherlock appraisingly and says, “Maybe Siger was right after all. Maybe you are descendant of Kororā."

"He is rarely wrong, but being right about that would have nothing to do with how I look."

"I don't know, I mean, descendant of the gods? Yeah, can't hurt." John takes a step closer and reaches up on his toes toward Sherlock’s ear. “You’re stunning, yeah? Don't think I don't notice.”

Sherlock is dangerously close to overheating. Please, don’t let him start panting in front of John.

Then, John does something truly spectacular. He leans down low and presses the back of his head toward Sherlock's chest. He stays like that for a dozen beats of Sherlock's heart, waiting to see if Sherlock will imitate his pose. Sherlock stares down at him, momentarily immobilized, then leans down into the gesture. They stand, belly to belly, bowed head to bowed head, in perfect reflection of each other. It is a sign of love. He thinks his heart might evacuate his body and follow John on his maiden sea voyage. John slowly raises his head, and Sherlock can hear him tutting and clucking above him, can feel John's chest swell against his cheek.

“I have to go.”

Sherlock raises his head and rubs their bills together before taking a step back. “Be careful, John, all right? This is all new to us, spending so much time in the open water. Keep your wits about you, stay with the group, don’t dive too deep or stay under too long, and --”

“Sherlock, stop. It’s fine. I’ll be fine."

John rubs their bills together one more time, then turns and glides over to where the others wait. The group lines up, and one by one, they dive into the water, a blur of black and white into grey and blue. When it’s John’s turn he glances back over his shoulder and winks at Sherlock, then pushes off the ice into the sea.

Sherlock is still until John and the rest of his pack are out of sight, then he shakes himself and taps the signs for happy, pain, and then a third that Sherlock made up ages ago, one that John doesn’t know about. He touches his bill to his chest and makes a circle over his heart.

John love.

Chapter Text

January

Swimming is boring.

Then again, everything is boring without John. Sherlock spends his first day at sea, lost in thought and sulking, vaguely aware of the pack around him, until Mycroft circles him several times and then bumps him closer to the surface. Up for air, Sherlock is about to ask him what's got his tail feathers in a twist, but Mycroft cuts him off, berating him from word one.

"You are endangering the entire pack, little brother. Your nonchalance and lack of attention is a burden and an accident waiting to happen. We do not benefit from the safety of our perch on the ice now. We are surrounded by potential threats. If you are not watching for your safety, someone else must do it. If you are not watching for the safety of those around you, there is yet one more chance that they will be harmed."

Sherlock wants to defend himself, but Mycroft's logic is sound. He tucks his head down in a gesture of acquiescence, and senses his brother relax from furious, to cautious. Sherlock is embarrassed, and that is not an emotion he wishes to experience on a regular basis. He vows not to let it happen again. He tells Mycroft that he will be vigilant. It is as close to an apology as he can muster.

He is true to his word. They dive below again, and now Sherlock observes how others in the pack behave. The older birds stay at the perimeter, and take turns at the front, flank, and rear positions. This leaves the juveniles at the centre, swimming in a virtual bubble of protection. Even the juveniles, however, are alert to their surroundings. They dive and surface in formation, but several pengs stay under when the rest of the pack is up, and several stay up when the others are under. There is never a time when every angle of visibility is not scrutinized.

Swimming is much less boring now. It does not take long for Sherlock to become fascinated with minute aspects of the sea environment around them. Barely perceptible movements in marine life, tiny shifts in the current, the change of temperature by half a degree. Above them the wind shifts, or dies. The sun is bright, or in shadow. The waves swell, or crest. All of these variables interact and ripple outward to affect everything for as far as he can see. It all means something. He does not know what that something is in each variant situation, not yet, but he knows the patterns will show themselves in time.

By the morning of the third day he is ready to put a theory to the test, but he cannot do it alone. He lets himself miss John for as long as it takes to scan the pack and find a familiar face. He thinks about how John acts with his other tai, pushing down the jealousy he feels towards those lucky birds, and tries to mimic him as he approaches the other peng.

"Hello! Lestra?" The bird he thinks is Lestra looks at him a bit oddly, so he dials down the intensity of his grin - no use looking like a maniac - and adjusts his pace so they can swim together.

"Um, Sherlock, right?"

"Right. Sorry I haven't introduced myself before now."

“You're John's friend, aren't you? He said you're a little shy."

Sherlock resists the urge to set Lestra straight on this ridiculous lie. Sherlock is not shy, he's selective, and so far he's only selected John. Instead, what comes out is an unexpected, gushing proclamation. "John is amazing."

"Well, yeah, I guess. He's a nice guy. Fun, too."

Sherlock wants to know what John has been doing with Lestra that is fun. Do they partake in experimental rock skipping? Do they ice race? Do they hide out in ice forts? Do they ... snuggle? Has John asked this inferior specimen to dry him? By the time Sherlock has completely lost himself in these very disturbing thoughts, two other pengs have swum over and appear to have joined the conversation.

"Hi Sherlock, I'm Molling!"

Sherlock blinks at her and the peng swimming next to her. "Yes, I know. And you're Stamfjord. I've seen you in the crèche. Both of your families are from the southwest quadrant, near the council's meeting grounds. Molling, your mother is on her fourth mate and has her eyes set on "

He stops. He hears John say, A bit not good, Sherlock. Deducing and declaring private peng matters of a negative nature to individuals, or in a group, is mean.

"Has her eyes set on what?" Molling's face is a bit scrunched up now. It is not pleasant.

"On a ... on a new feeding spot. Excellent shrimp. Relatively unknown location. But safe! Yes. Yes, shrimp. I think you'll like it."

Molling is smiling, but Lestra is looking at him suspiciously.

"Well, okay, that sounds quite nice, I think. Don't you think so, Stamfjord? I don't think I've had shrimp before. She hasn't mentioned shrimp before, at least I don't think she has. Hm. Shrimp."

Sherlock can't take much more of Molling's blathering, or the goofy way she's looking at him now.

"John said you could do that, you know? Figure things out about pengs just by looking at them? Is that how you know about my mum? He says you're super smart, like the smartest emperor ever. John says he could listen to you talk about random things forever, well, I mean, not random in a bad way, just, you know, things maybe he wouldn't have thought of before."

Sherlock thinks maybe he can listen to Molling blather just a little bit more. "He said all that?"

"He kind of never stops talking about you," she giggles.

Sherlock is swelling up like a puffer fish.

"Oh. Well, he's the great one, if you ask me."

“Shame you couldn’t go ahead with him, but we should be to the berg tomorrow. And I guess Maryle is keeping him good company now.”

Sherlock completely deflates.

“Who?”

“Maryle. You know her, right? Small, cute, kind of bouncy?”

“Bouncy?” Sherlock is as close to flabbergasted as he’s ever been.

Molling dips below, then pops back up with a small herring in her bill. She swallows it down, whole, and Sherlock wants to throttle her. Why is she eating when she should be debriefing him on this Maryle catastrophe?

"Listen, Sherlock," Lestra interrupts, "Did you want something? It's just, you looked like you had something specific in mind when you came over."

Molling starts porpoising around them, twisting her wings experimentally to see how much lift she can get.

"Yes, actually I did. I'm on the verge of conducting a very important experiment that involves thermal currents, eddies at the Antarctic Convergence, and alternate locations for foraging. I can't acquire samples from every position on my own, however, and was wondering if you, Lestra, or all of you, would care to participate."

"So, you need help?" Stamfjord asks.

"Help?"

He wants to deny that he needs anything from these so-called friends of John's, but once again he can hear John in his head, saying, No peng is an iceberg unto himself, Sherlock. It's okay to admit that you can't do something, or that you need help.

"Yes. I need help."

Imaginary John forces him to say, “Thank you,” too.

Sherlock explains his theory, which leaves everyone looking befuddled, but curious. He tells them that he'll let them know when the conditions are right, and they swim on, together, within the pack.

Molling stays close, chattering about this and that, and Sherlock nods now and then, so she thinks he’s listening. He can’t listen though, because he’s too busy obsessing about Maryle, the interloper peng with John. She’s bouncy? Is it good that she’s bouncy? Why is it good? Did John ask her to keep him company? Or did she offer? Why did she offer? What are they doing?

It isn’t until he hears Molling say something about dissecting a dead albatross, that he fully turns his attention to her.

“Wait, what was that last thing you said, about the albatross?”

“Oh, well, it was just lying there, near the edge of the island, you know, around the place we tobogganed from? It looked to be freshly dead, like maybe it crash landed or something, and I was just so curious. I mean, are they like us inside? What are we even like inside? So, I thought, if I could slice it open, maybe with my beak, or my claws, I could learn something about anatomy, or what killed it.”

“So, did you?” Molling glances at him, perhaps looking for a sign of judgment in his expression, but Sherlock is so very curious, and not at all judgmental about her interest in the bird.

“Well, no. I couldn’t. We were leaving shortly after I found it. Do you think that’s wrong, to want to examine it?”

“No, not at all. You’re right to assume we could learn more about ourselves, and perhaps about what killed the albatross.” He is thoughtful for a moment, then continues. “Have you ever chatted with Cetus? He has a vast knowledge about health and healing. I wonder if he’s ever used other birds, or marine life, in his ministrations. We should talk to him.”

Molling looks pleasantly surprised at his suggestion, and swims alongside him with a big grin on her face.

Maybe, Sherlock muses, these tai of John's aren't such idiots after all.

Chapter Text

Sherlock can see the Cassiopeia iceberg in the near distance. It is enormous, hulking up out of the sea like a jagged, second moon, anchored to the water by its massive, underwater keel. 

He has never seen a pinnacle berg this big. It makes him feel very, very small. He wonders if John is there now, and if so, what he's doing. Is he swimming? Diving? Exploring? That iceberg must have hideouts and slides and ledges galore. Maybe he's way up high, looking out for Sherlock. Maybe he's at the shore of the berg, that flat, sloping bank where they will reverse dive their way out of the sea, up into the air, and back onto solid ground. 

The leaders of his pack estimate it will take half the day to reach their destination. Sherlock's excitement to see John again spurs him on, the previous three days of exertion falling away as if nothing but a quick dip in a swimming hole.

He remains in close proximity to Molling, Stamfjord, and Lestra, unless called upon by his family to attend to something else. He finds Molling rather silly, but intelligent enough to occasionally pique his interest. Stamfjord appears to get on with everyone he meets, and has a kind word for Sherlock no matter how surly he gets. Lestra still seems suspicious of his motivations, and Sherlock finds himself annoyed that the peng hasn't recognized his brilliance after knowing him for a full day. 

The necessary conditions for his observational needs present themselves soon after breakfast. He calls the group of ragtag assistants together and explains, as simply as he can, about currents and mesoscale eddies at the Antarctic Convergence, about the abundance of marine life within them, and how subtle changes in light and temperature could help direct them to the best foraging spots. The three other birds stare at him with their bills hanging open, and if it didn’t remind him so much of how adorable John is with his tongue peeking out, he would declare them all brain-dead and carry on by himself.

Instead, he channels John and speaks using smaller words. "Have you noticed that sometimes the water seems to move faster around us? That's a current. When we catch that current, we can swim faster, too. Those currents lead us to eddies - that's a three-dimensional, um, like a pouch of water, within the water, that has its own temperature and salinity system, and has the highest levels of biomass ... Never mind. Basically, we can do a better job of observing the water around us. It's telling us where the best concentration of food is. We just have to be better listeners, and then we won't have to work so hard, and we'll eat more, and better."

"I am kind of hungry," Stamfjord muses to no one in particular.

"Listen to the water?" Lestra repeats, looking rather constipated.

"Not literally."

Molling jumps in then. "Boys, pay attention. What Sherlock is saying is that the currents can help us to arrive super fast at the eddies, where lots and lots of the yummiest food is likely to be found. Is that it, Sherlock?"

Sherlock stares at her. Who is this chick?

"Precisely, Molling. We're already in a good current, and approaching a large eddy. I predict that the best prey stays at the edge of the eddy, in order to take advantage of the brighter light and warmer temperatures, which in turn promotes faster growth. We’ll eat better at the edge, instead of at the centre, where we usually forage. We’ll save time, too.

"Here's what I need you to do. When I say "now," you are each to dive to a specific place and take a sample of prey, preferably krill, from that location. Then, bring it back to the surface, so that I can analyse your samples."

"We can't eat it?" Stamfjord looks devastated. Sherlock has to bite his tongue.

"You'll be able to eat it as soon as I've looked at it. Will that suffice?"

From there, everything goes quite smoothly. He gives them detailed directions, based on the position of the sun relative to the horizon, and exact diving depths, and sends them on their way. Soon after, Sherlock has his four samples and has proven his theory. They are underutilizing the currents, misusing the eddies, and spending too much time diving to the wrong places.

Not satisfied to report his findings to the pod at large until he's recreated the experiment, he approaches Councilpeng Erebus, the colony's most experienced hunter, and explains his work thus far. The older bird graciously gives Sherlock all of his attention and listens respectfully. When he finishes, Erebus nods and clucks approvingly.

"Sherlock, my boy, Siger said we would see great things from you, but I had no idea how soon, or how impactful they would be. I’ve been hunting these waters for the better part of eighteen years, and what you say makes sense, and deserves a closer look, indeed.

"I wonder, though, have you factored in the possibility that those who hunt us may be doing the same thing? Would we be sacrificing safety by staying at the edges of the eddies?"

Sherlock has not considered this, and is reluctant to admit any potential hole in his theory. He knows, though, that Erebus is giving him a tremendous amount of latitude, and could have refused to listen to him at all. He owes Erebus the same respect.

"No, Elder Erebus, it had not occurred to me. I apologize for wasting your time."

"Hold on there, young sir. You have neither wasted my time, nor made a mistake. Together, we will further explore your theory and make some decisions, yes? This is how we shall learn, by moving forward and expanding upon your fine foundational results."

They swim onward, discussing other factors to include when retesting the theory, and before Sherlock knows it, they have reached a recently calved floe of the great iceberg ahead of them. The pack members take turns propelling out of the water onto the slick ice, and when everyone is safely landed, small groups form to groom, rest, and play. Sherlock has lost track of his family and new acquaintances, but Erebus invites him to sit and continue their chat. They settle near the brink, away from the larger clusters of pengs.

Sherlock leans back onto his tail, mirroring the older bird’s posture, and pulls up his toes to conserve heat. His adult feathers are much stiffer than his hatchling fluff, and his tail, almost completely moulted, is unbending, serving well as a rudder, prop, or defensive weapon.

Erebus smiles at Sherlock's adult pose, but says nothing to embarrass him, for which Sherlock is grateful. Instead, Erebus changes the topic of conversation from hunting to something completely unexpected.

"You must be looking forward to seeing John, again."

Sherlock looks up at Erebus and scans his expression for some sign of intent, but sees nothing untoward there. "Yes, very much so."

"He's a fine peng, your John, from a fine family."

"Yes. I ... He's ... Yes."

"Sherlock, son," Erebus continues, shifting away from a couple sunning themselves nearby, "Have you given any thought to what you might do when you come of age?"

"Of age?"

"Courtship, bonding?"

Sherlock decides he can stand to cool off a bit, and sets his feet back down on the ice with a sharp click.

"Not as of yet, Elder Erebus. I'm not even one winter old, as you well know, and therefore won't --"

"I know, Sherlock, I do. What I'm wondering, however, is if the traditional courting process, and its usual outcome, will be the right path for you."

Loathe as he is to admit it, Sherlock has no idea what Erebus is talking about.

“Sir?”

The elder raises his wings and ruffles his feathers, then settles down again and rocks on his feet. “Sherlock, perhaps you have heard that I lost my mate this past winter?”

Sherlock wishes he had remembered to offer Erebus his condolences before the elder brought this up himself. He can just imagine Olive shuddering and squeezing her eyes shut at his social gaffe. Well, he thinks, in for a herring, in for a whale.

“I did not hear, Elder Erebus, but I had deduced as much. I noticed at Mycroft’s inaugural council presentation,” - and here he thinks he sees Erebus wince - “that, well, I noticed certain things that led me to believe you had lost her recently. I am very sorry for your loss, sir.” He glances down at the ice in deference to Erebus’ grief.

“Him.”

Sherlock snaps his head back up so fast he feels dizzy.

“Excuse me?”

“My mate was male, not female, Sherlock.”

Sherlock swallows, then swallows again, and then one more time. “Your partner was …  a male … peng?”

Stupid, stupid, of course he was a peng, he thinks to himself. No, penggit, he was a male octopus, for Poseidon’s sake.

“Indeed.”

“You courted each other? He called for you? Or you called for him, or you called for each other, and you … did you … that is …”

Erebus looks visibly amused by Sherlock’s inarticulate attempts to put thought to word, and seems to understand that Sherlock isn’t even sure of his thoughts, swirling around incoherently as they are.

“Sherlock, I will answer anything you want to know. It’s rare, being called to one of your own. It’s not well understood in our world, and not necessarily embraced. If I can help you in any way, I would consider it my honour, and Selvic’s honour, to do so.”

“His name was Selvic?”

“It was.”

They remain silent for a little bit, each one lost in his own reflections, one looking forward, one looking back.

“I want to know everything, sir. I’m not sure what to ask first. Maybe you could start at the beginning, and tell me about him?”

Erebus lets out a deep sigh, and nods. “Of course. Of course I’ll tell you about him. And I thank you, young sir, for wanting to know about him. Very few ever think to remember Selvic to me.”

And so, Erebus begins.

Chapter Text

Sherlock focuses only on Erebus, unaware of the pack around him. He and Erebus stay near the edge of the floe, removed from the others, as Erebus shares the details of the life he had with Selvic. They stay there for a considerable arc of the sun across the sky, but will have to leave soon to finish the rest of the journey to the floe’s mother, the Cassiopeia iceberg.

Erebus speaks soft and low, and Sherlock’s ears strain wide open. He leans forward, too far, needing to correct himself as he threatens to topple over into the respected leader. It is not only the elder’s private tone that captivates Sherlock, but the very words themselves, this offering of precious secrets. He tips toward Erebus over and over until the elder bird settles a wing tip on Sherlock’s shoulder to hold him steady.

Erebus’ story began much as Sherlock’s had, hatched to the elite, his father a councilpeng. He was a second son, like Sherlock, raised on Pobeda Island, like Sherlock.

From an early age, he had shown signs of being an excellent sportsbird and hunter, and his parents had fostered his education and skill in every way possible. During his first summer dive Erebus had gained further recognition for his adept foraging, and had earned a seat at the Young Emperor Council, an initiative designed to prepare bright, promising pengs for future leadership roles. It was there he had met Selvic. The two emperors had hit it off immediately, and within a short period were spending all of their free time together.

Erebus knew, he tells Sherlock, as soon as he met Selvic, that he had met his life partner. He does not go into detail, but much of Erebus’ story rings true to Sherlock. He recognizes their exploits, their affection, their private world of touches and words and glances, in the one he shares with John. There are moments when Erebus resonates with such fondness and nostalgia while speaking of Selvic, that Sherlock thinks he, or the elder, or both of them, may melt into tears.

Selvic, Erebus reminisces, was smart and funny and kind and caring. "He was handsome, so very handsome," he whispers into the air above Sherlock’s head, a faraway look in his eyes.

"He was strong, and fast, and brave. He would fling himself into the face of danger to keep another peng safe, and loved a good race, a hunt, any type of challenge. He wasn't overly competitive, though. It took me ages to figure out he was letting me win most of our races because it made him happy to see me happy. He didn't mind losing. He was good natured, easy going.

"He had such a wonderful sense of humour, Sherlock. Never underestimate the power of a good, long laugh, especially during difficult times. And there will be difficult times. But even at the end, when we knew he was dying, he would try to make me laugh."

Sherlock has never seen an adult peng look so heartbroken. He does not consider himself a compassionate sort, or one possessing a particularly caring nature, but something deep inside him aches to make Erebus smile again, to remember happier times.

"He sounds like a wonderful partner, sir. I wish I could have met him. Can you tell me about your courtship, perhaps?"

Erebus chirps softly at the back of his throat, and tosses his head back, as if to dislodge heavier thoughts. "Ah, it's a long story, young one. Are you sure you want to hear these ancient tales?"

Sherlock assures him that he does, so Erebus continues.

Erebus reached adult maturity before Selvic, but vowed to wait until the next season to call and bond in courtship. The couple had talked openly about their future. Neither of them were moved to have chicks, both preferring to spend as much time as possible in the open water, or trekking and exploring the ice that surrounded them. They both agreed, though, to uphold the tradition of calling for each other, mirroring each other in a show of unity, and finally, parading as a newly bonded couple in front of the colony.

It wasn’t until Erebus’ parents began to question his lack of participation in the courtship rituals that he began to suspect obstacles in his future with Selvic. His parents, he explains to Sherlock, had assumed he would transition from his juvenile friendship with Selvic to an adult, bonded relationship with a female.

Erebus thought that everyone knew about, and accepted, his relationship with Selvic. They had never hid the nature of their love, never made a secret of their affection for each other. His parents, he soon came to understand, saw friendship, and nothing more. No, they explained to him, a friendship with a male was fine, but it was time to court, to bond, to mate. It did not matter to them that he was not the least bit interested in females, or that he didn’t feel the need to reproduce, or that he was resolutely, irrefutably, in love with Selvic, and Selvic with him.

The mating season came and went, and his parents had no choice but to stop badgering Erebus to find a mate. They continued, however, to fight about the eventuality through the winter and into the next summer. Erebus found some relief from the weight of their displeasure during his months at sea, but knew that the next mating season, after migrating back to the island, would be difficult, if not impossible, to bear.

That next winter Selvic was ready to bond, and the two made plans to elope to a different colony before the migration back to Pobeda, to a place where they hoped they would be accepted. Though his parents had kept a close eye on him during their time at sea, the pair thought it would be fairly easy to slip away under cover of night; by morning, they’d have put a vast expanse of sea between them and their parents, and it would be too late for anyone to intervene.

They arranged to meet at a specific place on the ice floe the group had been using as a diving spot, and counted down the days. From there, they would swim to the Shackleton Shelf, that massive formation of ice clinging to the easternmost edge of the continent.

Erebus stops now, and sighs. He looks out over the rippling water and scans the neverending sky. “We’ll be leaving soon, young Sherlock. Perhaps I should save the rest for another time?”

Sherlock shakes his head, and his whole body follows the movement, his fluff and feathers rustling, his wings fluttering. He trills in impatience, and says, “Elder Erebus, please! Just tell me, now, before we need to leave, did you make it? Did you and Selvic make it to the Shelf?”

Erebus smiles down at him, a resigned set to his bill.

“No, son. No, we did not. Selvic’s parents had discovered our plan, probably from a peer sent to spy on us. They took him before the time we were to meet, and left. I waited. I waited until dawn. I watched as the water changed from black to purple to grey to blue, and when he didn’t come, I knew.”

Sherlock’s distress is palpable, his trill is anxious, and other pengs nearby look over in curiosity. If he thought he knew sadness before, if he thought he knew separation, he knew nothing. He will see John later today, if all goes well. But Erebus and Selvic …

He moves closer to the elder, close enough to touch, and cranes his head back to whisper, not out of privacy, but sorrow.

“How long? How long until you saw each other again?”

“Six winters, Sherlock. Six very long winters.”

Sherlock slumps down onto his haunches and closes his eyes. Six winters? He hasn’t even seen his second winter. Sherlock, who can see the age of a peng in the length of his gait, who can predict the movement of krill pods by the direction of the clouds, who can tell you what you ate for breakfast by the residue on your bill, cannot fathom six winters without John.

“Sherlock, son. Listen. I do not tell you our story to upset you, though it certainly was a very difficult time for both of us. I tell you the tale so that you can prepare. Times are different now, and you and John may not face the same adversity that Selvic and I did. Your parents are loving, open, intelligent pengs. They have not pushed Mycroft to mate; they are letting him take his own path. But there are others, on the council and beyond, who are very set in their ways, and who may cause trouble for you when it is your time. They may not do so, of course. I cannot say definitively, but you need to look into your future, and be ready.”

Sherlock nods. He has been naïve to think that he and John could stay together, forever, with no resistance, no questions, no conflict. Not even Kororā, beloved goddess, was able to overcome the ignorance of small minds and hard hearts.

“Thank you, Elder Erebus. Your story has a happy ending, I know it does, because you said Selvic was your mate. You found each other again after those six winters, and you were able to stay together. That’s not the point of your story, though, is it? The point is to know what I may come up against in the future.

“Tell me, though, how did you know about my feelings for John? Does everyone know?”

Erebus laughs and shakes his head.

“Look around you, Sherlock. We are a self-centred bunch, interested in ourselves, our mates, our next meal. We tend to see that which we know, that which has marked us in some way. Another bird wouldn’t think twice about your friendship with John. I noticed because it put me in mind of myself and Selvic, when we were young. Love isn't invisible, Sherlock, not if you look for it.”

“Do you think John loves me?”

“Do you?”

Sherlock feels his heart jump around in his chest. John does, doesn’t he? Hasn’t he said as much? Have any of those touches and gestures been misunderstood? No. It’s not possible. Sherlock would know. Wouldn’t he?

“I think so. I think he does.”

“Have you asked him?”

“I … well … no, but, that’s … I’m not sure …”

“It’s okay, it’s all right, young sir. I wasn’t implying that you should have done. You can, though. You can speak directly to him. In fact, it’s best that you do. Maybe not now, when you still have these winters of youth ahead of you. But, in time, when decisions must be made, do not be afraid to speak your mind.”

Sherlock hears Olive call for him then, and in a rush of spontaneous affection, he leans into Erebus and rubs the top of his head under the taller bird’s chin. Erebus wraps his wings around Sherlock, and gives him a brief, but strong, embrace, and says, “Let me know how I can help you. And don’t forget about our foraging experiment. We have work to do!”

“I won’t forget,” Sherlock calls back over his shoulder, moving toward his mother’s call. “I won’t forget anything.”

He takes his place in the line forming near the edge of the floe, between his mother and father, and they inch their way toward the water, ready to resume this leg of their trip. As he splashes into the deep blue, he looks back, and sees Erebus dive into the water behind them, graceful despite his age. Graceful, but alone.

Chapter Text

The iceberg appears as a barely discernible fog in the underwater distance. Its keel reaches deeper than its vast width, giving Sherlock the impression of an upside down mountain. Above the surface, subtle variations in colour begin to form on the pale blue-white bulk of it.

Almost there. John. 

Sherlock moves to the edge of the cluster of swimmers surrounding him, eager to get a better view. He tucks his feet tighter against his tail and pumps his wings as hard as he can, the muscles across his chest burning with the strain. He soon catches up to Mycroft, and uses his older brother’s wake to lessen his own effort. Feeling the drag, Mycroft turns his head, rolls his eyes, and pops to the surface, indicating that Sherlock should do the same. Sherlock shoots straight up, nearly stabbing Mycroft’s tail with his beak, then splashes down next to him.

“What are you –” they screech at each other, not dropping their speed one iota.

“I need to get to the iceberg!” Sherlock gasps, splashing water into Mycroft’s face.

“We all need to get to the iceberg, Sherlock! What is your particular hurry?”

Sherlock doesn’t answer that question, choosing instead to ask his own. “How much longer? Are we almost there? Are we? How much longer?”

“Do the math, little brother. Or can you not figure it out?”

He shouts the numbers of his equation over his shoulder as he swims on the surface, twisting and turning circles around Mycroft, who has slowed his pace to catch his breath.

“Come on, slowpoke! Five point seven over a distance of one hundred twenty two … swimming approximately four … covering almost … another … another … SIX DEGREES OF THE SUN, MYCROFT, ONLY SIX DEGREES!”

“Six point two, if you care to be precise, which it appears you do not,” Mycroft retorts.

Sherlock’s burst of speed is bringing him dangerously far out in front of the pack. Mycroft groans, but spurs himself on, diving below Sherlock and porpoising back up at the last moment, glancing off Sherlock’s wingtip to throw him off balance. He hits the water again, and pivots, coming bill to bill with his impulsive sibling.

“Sherlock, slow down. You will get there, we will all get there. You must stay with the pack.”

Sherlock tosses his head up in a dismissive gesture and tries to dive under Mycroft, but Mycroft anticipates his move and intercepts him, again.

“You can stay in the front if you want, with me, but you may not pass me. Are we clear? Sherlock, are we clear? I am not interested in explaining to Mummy and Daddy that you were more excited about becoming seal food than you were about safety.”

Sherlock slows and honks rudely in response. He’ll listen, but he doesn’t like it. They settle into a pace that is both reasonable and efficient, and Sherlock feels the logic of Mycroft’s words settle over his spontaneous, hasty rush to just go.  He won’t admit it, but there is something comforting, in a now-get-the-hades-away-from-me kind of way, about his family’s protective nature. Mycroft maintains a steady pace, slightly behind and to the side of Sherlock, who stays at the very front, the prow of the pack.

The iceberg is growing larger, taking on spectacular proportions as the late afternoon sunlight hits its peaks and valleys, creating a kaleidoscope of colour across its surface. What was previously a dozen shades of white is now yellow, violet, orange, and all the hues of blue Sherlock ever could have imagined.

They reach the outer waters of Cassiopeia in exactly six point two degrees of the sun, as predicted, although Sherlock wagers he could have done it faster without Mycroft’s interference. They ascend for a sip of air, and he can just make out figures at the base of the berg. They break under and regain speed, and now he can see pengs flitting here and there, flashing in visibility as they turn the whites of their bellies toward him, then away. There’s something frenetic about their movements, he observes, something not as smooth as their usual, graceful dance.

He feels Mycroft jerk back next to him before he senses the danger himself. In the blink of an eye, Mycroft is several lengths ahead of him, plunging down down down, angling the pack parallel to the iceberg, instead of toward it. Sherlock intuitively reads his brother’s body language and follows him without hesitation. Behind him, the rest of the pack swoops down in unified pursuit, a single body conforming to unspoken commands.

They dive lower than Sherlock has ever dived before, at least twenty blue whales and counting. He is aware of a new world of sea life around him, of shapes and sizes and movements unknown, but he does not stop to catalogue. He knows, in the same innate place he knows he loves John, that he cannot pause, cannot look away from Mycroft’s trajectory.

One by one, the fastest adults pull forward, taking their places along the flanks of the pack. They hedge the rest in, bumping the youngest as far into the centre as possible, and then the elders. He sees Erebus fly past to relieve Mycroft, who drops to the back for a well-deserved break before moving forward in rotation again, each adult along the perimeter taking a turn at the front.

Sherlock’s lungs burn. His wings throb. His chest constricts with the effort of maintaining his dive. He will need air, and soon. Finally, he sees the first bubbles whiz by, and his relief registers in the next instant. The pack rises, en masse, all of them releasing the air trapped between the filaments of their feathers, creating a jet stream between their bodies and the water.  This increases their speed trifold as they rocket upward, and before he knows it, Sherlock breaches the surface.

They bob in the water, gasping, taking count, cooing comfort at their offspring. The councilpengs gather to discuss what Sherlock realises he’s known since he first spotted the halting, jagged movements of his peers in the distance. Some of them were too large, he thinks to himself, weren't they?

Hydrurga leptonyx.
Leopard seals. 

It is a desperate age before they resume passage, and not until the scouts have declared it safe. The seals are gone.

Mycroft cannot temper Sherlock's determination now, but he can trail him, so he does. They take turns in each other's wake, closing the gap between the pack, and whatever carnage awaits. It would be a trip made in record time, but no one is paying attention to that now.

Eternity. John. 

He sees no birds in the water as they approach the berg, not one, nothing to see and observe and translate into meaning. The face of Cassiopeia races to meet them, but still, they do not slow. Instead, they speed up, release one final, primal burst of energy, and fling themselves out of the sea, arching high above the ice. They land with a grace that defies the brute force of the leap, and skid to a halt. Behind them come the rest, one after the other.

The wind cannot sweep the scent of adrenaline and fear away fast enough. The ice is smeared with blood and feathers. All around him, Sherlock sees injury and death. He will process this later. Right now, he needs to know. He stands tall and scans what he can see of his colony. His colony. He lifts his bill high and closes his eyes.

He calls.

He calls again and again and again.

He forgets to stop and listen.

There’s a light touch on his shoulder, so he quiets himself and slowly, slowly opens his eyes and turns around. It is not John. It’s Erebus, and Sherlock falls into him.

Turituri, Sherlock, it’s all right. It’s all right. He’s coming, see? He was helping Cetus with the wounded, but he’s coming. It’s all right.”

Sherlock turns from Erebus just as John reaches them, tobogganing the last stretch. He doesn’t stop. He crashes into both of them, knocking them off their feet, then scrambles over to where Sherlock is sprawled on his stomach, and buries his face in his neck. Sherlock tries to stand, but John won’t stop, he just presses and presses and finally Sherlock stops moving, and he nudges back, rubbing the top of his head and bill along John’s chin.

Atua! You’re here, oh god, Sherlock, you’re here, you made it!”

“You’re alive, i pai ai. Are you okay? Are you hurt? John, let me see!”

“Sherlock. Atua. Sherlock.”

Sherlock hums soothing noises and lets himself be tugged at, positioned, rubbed. He had not anticipated this. He had swam, and he had thought of nothing but John’s existence. It had been a black or white scenario. Yes or no. Alive or dead. Only one option would allow Sherlock to go on, to move and breathe and live. He had not thought beyond that, that John would be alive but injured, but traumatized, but worried. Worried about him.

Where he thought he would seek comfort, he is being sought. Where he thought he would have a story to tell, he has one to hear. John’s need of him is staggering, and it fills him with purpose and responsibility and awareness. He understands now that it is not enough for him to have John in his life, to need John. He has to be in John’s life, too, he has to be there for John. To give.

Eventually John stops shaking and chattering, and pulls back enough to look Sherlock in the eye. They help each other stand, not letting go, and when he can, Sherlock looks John over, practicality competing with sentiment. John is covered in blood.

“John! You’re hurt – where are you hurt – why didn’t you say – let me see – let me –”

“I’m all right, Sherlock. It’s not my blood. Well, not most of it, anyway. I’m okay. Stop, I’m okay.”

Sherlock can’t stop touching John, his chest and belly, his wings and legs, his neck and face. He spins him around to see his back and tail, and John wobbles back, insists again that he’s okay.

“What do you mean, “not most of it”? What part of it is yours? How much? Where? Show me? What happened? Where are you injured?”

“It’s nothing, it’s fine. Really. It was an –”

“Nothing? Fine? You’re bleeding! Where’s Cetus? You need help!”

Sherlock opens his bill and takes a deep breath, about to holler for the healer, but out of the corner of his eye he sees Erebus, who had remained respectfully distant during their reunion. Good, maybe the Elder will be able to talk some sense into John.

“Elder Erebus! Can you please tell John he requires healing? He’s injured! Whara!” he adds, as if Erebus has temporarily lost his faculty for language and can’t understand him.

He looks back to John, who is staring with his tongue hanging out, in awe of the legendary Elder.

“Oh. Elder Erebus, this is John. John, this is Elder Erebus.”

Erebus bows low, mannerly even in the face of tragedy, and extends his wings to the sides. “A pleasure, young John. If you have no objection, may I please look at your shoulder?”

John gapes.

“His shoulder? What’s wrong with his shoulder? Is that where you’re hurt?”

Later, he will ponder why he lost all ability to observe and deduce when his entire system was overridden with concern for John. Concern? Panic? Sheer terror.

John’s shoulder twitches. He looks at Sherlock and leans in close, then whispers, “That’s Elder Erebus, the Hunter.”

Erebus tries not to smile, and has to swallow down a chuckle when Sherlock whispers back, “Yes, I know. And I’m Sherlock, and you’re John, and if you don’t let us look at your shoulder, right now, I will … I will … do something bad.”

Erebus steps in and prods at John’s wing, causing John to wince. He scoops up some snow and swipes it over John’s shoulder and chest, washing away the blood. For the first time, Sherlock realizes that some of it is dry, but some of it is new, and still flowing, from the site of the injury.

“Oh," John sighs. "That feels good.”

Erebus continues to wash the blood away with snow, revealing more and more of a recognizable John. As he works, he speaks.

"Let me know if this hurts in any way, John. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal, and it is not my intention to make it worse. Might you be able to tell us what happened?"

"What happened? To ... me? Or?"

Sherlock shuffles behind John and peers over him, trying to get a better look at his injury.

"Whatever you are comfortable sharing with us. You've no doubt had quite a shock. I don't wish to cause you further trauma."

"No, it's okay. It's fine."

He leans back into Sherlock as he talks, resting and taking comfort.

"We were finishing dinner. There was a krill pod, enormous, I've never seen so many. It came right up to the berg, it was so close. So fast. It was ... so fast. I had eaten my fill and come back to wait for Sherlock. I was going to climb to Fables Peak, that one there, to wait. Sherlock, I was waiting for you. Like I said. Remember?"

John is getting heavier against Sherlock now, and Sherlock has to lean forward on his toes to shift his weight and hold John up.

“I remember, John. Just like you promised.”

Erebus has cleaned the wound thoroughly and is packing ice over it. John doesn't seem to notice.

"And then I heard it. Screaming, so much screaming. And I turned, and they were everywhere, the seals. They'd come out of nowhere, it seemed. Lasted forever, but it couldn't have had, could it? It was chaos. Everyone was calling, everyone was calling for each other, searching. I saw ... I saw ..."

"Okay. That's enough, John. You've been very brave. Very brave, indeed." Erebus' voice is soothing, and John goes a little limper in Sherlock's wings.

"S'okay. I can tell you. I should tell you. I saw parents go in after their children. Going back in. They were the brave ones. Not me. Families, gone. And I saw ... do you know what they do? The seals? How they do it?"

Erebus flinches.

"Turituri, John, turituri. Shhh. Don't think about that. How did you hurt your shoulder? Can you tell us that?"

"She bit me."

Sherlock lifts his head from where it's nestled along John's cheek.

"She bit me, but it's okay. She didn't mean to. She was trying to go in, but it made no sense. She was about to jump in. I held her back, I made her stay. She was trying to get to her parents, you see. Both of her parents were in the water. I held her back. She would've died. See? I held on to her, and she bit me, she wanted me to let her go, so she bit me."

"I see. You were right, John. You did the right thing. You saved her life. Where is she now, this peng?”

“With Elders Pavo and Vela. They’re … they’re with …  the orphans, and those who have lost someone.”

John slips lower against Sherlock, sagging, the events of the day catching up with him as the adrenaline seeps away. Erebus helps Sherlock steady him between them, and John lets his eyes fall shut. He sits onto his haunches and rests his bill on his chest, lets out a shudder of a sigh, and sleeps.

"Sherlock, son. He has seen into the darkest shadows of the sea today. The colony has suffered tremendous loss. I am sure the Council will call for a hui soon, but for now, stay with him. Take care of him. His shoulder will be fine, but ... Take care of him."

"Yes. Of course," Sherlock replies, but Erebus is already moving away, moving on to other groups, others who need him.

He rubs his bill over the top of John's head, the barest of touches. John stirs.

"John. My John. I'm so sorry."

John is far away, asleep but for the part of him still trying to make sense of what he's seen.

"Not her fault, Sherlpeng," he breathes out. "Not Maryle's fault."

Chapter Text

The Council calls for a hui as dusk and shadow settle over them. It has been the longest day of Sherlock’s life. He is exhausted, but he trudges to the makeshift meeting area, John at his side. All around them are emperors making their way, some of them injured, all of them mourning.

In front of them are six of the seven councilpengs, standing in a line, waiting for the colony to come to rest before them. The only sound is the rush of the wind whipping around the peaks of Cassiopeia, a siren’s call to mark their collective tragedy. That, and the occasional trill of a peng who is desperately missing someone.

Siger steps forward and stretches tall, puffing his chest and extending his wings in a stance of leadership, a bid for attention. Behind him, Mycroft stares at the ice.

"Fellow emperors. I need not explain why we have called a hui this evening. The Council wishes to recognize those we’ve lost, and means to put forth a plan for moving forward, difficult as that may seem right now. First, though, I would like to thank all of you for your unwavering support and assistance as the events of the day unfolded.

“Vela and Pavo, you mobilized immediately to gather those who have lost loved ones, and have done an extraordinary job of setting up temporary crèches and huddles. Thank you.

“Cetus, your healing expertise has saved many lives and mended many wounds, and for this we cannot thank you enough. We have come to understand, as well, that you had assistance from several young pengs. Molling, Stamfjord, and John, we recognize you for your heroic efforts and invaluable assistance. Cetus, you may find yourself with some very promising apprentices after today.

"Erebus, as usual, your compassion, grace under pressure, and stalwart presence provided an unwavering anchor for so many of us."

Here, Siger pauses, and takes a moment to regard those behind him. Pavo and Vela are openly weeping, and Mycroft continues to stare at the ice beneath him. Erebus stands, turned slightly away, his gaze fixed on the treacherous sea. Cetus' eyes are closed, and he sways back and forth, rocking ever so slightly.

"It is with great sorrow and the utmost respect that I name those lost. The Council wishes to express our most heartfelt promise to each and every one of you who stand before us, lives irrevocably changed, that you will be cared for by your colony."

Siger closes his eyes and begins. The names come, one after the other, a cruel roll call of those never to return. He starts with Lyra, Peacekeeper and Councilpeng, and works his way through the colony. Sherlock hears names he recognizes, but most are unknown to him. Around him wails of grief quiver and float, as individuals hear the names of friends, family, neighbours. It goes on forever. Sherlock counts. Thirty-seven of them, gone.

When Siger finishes, he and the other five councilpengs bow their heads, and the colony imitates the gesture in a moment of silence and reflection. When Sherlock lifts his head he looks toward John, who is looking away. Sherlock follows his gaze to what must be the group of orphans. John is staring at one of them, so Sherlock does, too. He knows without being told that this is Maryle.

He cannot concentrate on the rest of Siger's speech. He hears bits here and there about patrols, meal schedules, and nomination procedures for a new councilpeng, but mostly, he watches John watch Maryle.

...

Olive finds him the next day and asks for a word. He is reluctant to leave John, so he does not let her lead him too far away. He makes sure John is still in his line of sight, and watches him kick absentmindedly at the ice.

She starts by asking him how he's doing, and if he would like to talk about the accident. He wonders why she doesn't call it what it really was: an attack, a massacre, a slaughter. He considers that maybe he isn't doing as well as he thought, because obviously she is using the least aggressive word for his sake, to protect him, to cosset him a bit.

"I'm concerned about John." 

Olive glances over her shoulder at John, and they both observe him staring off into the distance.

"He witnessed a horrible scene, poor dear. Unfortunately, it will not be the last time this happens. It does not get easier, my love. How is his shoulder?"

"Elder Cetus says that if he doesn't push himself, and if he lets it heal before going back in the water, he should see a complete recovery. If, however, he damages it before it heals, he may never regain his previous speed or abilities."

He does not tell her that none of this matters, as he is never going to let John near water again. 

Olive raises her head in understanding and clucks her concern. 

"Then it's important that he follows Cetus' instructions. I've no doubt that you'll keep him in line, yes? No snowball fights, no sledding, no –"

"Māmā, please. I'm not an idiot." 

"Far from it. In fact, I wanted to talk to you about something Elder Erebus shared with me." 

Sherlock snaps his attention away from John and back to his mother. Erebus wouldn't have shared their private conversation, would he have? 

"He told me, and your father, about the research you were conducting on the way here. Sherlock, he is extremely impressed with you, and your theories. And now, after yesterday's ... loss, the Council wishes to reconsider the way we forage and hunt. Erebus believes that your hypothesis, if proven sound, could bring tremendous benefit to the colony.

“Sherlock, love, the Council has struggled for years with what to do about the increasing seal populations, and the shrinking peng colonies. They feel we are at a tipping point. If our numbers continue to decrease as rapidly as they have been, it is only a matter of time before –" 

"Before they eat all of us?"

Olive steps closer and tilts his chin up with the tip of her wing. Sherlock lets her, but cannot meet her eye. He's only just arrived, he thinks. He needs more time. He needs his lifetime, and then some, with John. 

"Do not despair, little one. Years ago the colony had something of a Junior Council. It consisted of a select group of young pengs, much like yourself, who held particular gifts of intellect, and tremendous potential for leadership. They were included in almost all colony policy, and attended Council meetings. They were highly effective in their assigned tasks.

“There is serious discussion about reforming the Junior Council, and of course, your name came up. Nothing has been decided yet, but I want you to think about what I've told you, and consider how such an honour might influence your future. This would be a significant responsibility for such a young one, but the alliances you form could be advantageous for the rest of your life."

Sherlock nods. She does not have to tell him that she is thinking about the prophecy.

"Do you have any questions for me?"

"When will they decide?" 

"After they elect poor Lyra's successor. That will be done before the moon begins its ascent."

“Do they have any candidates?”

“They have one, yes.”

“Can you tell me who?”

Olive frowns and tilts her head, looking away. Sherlock knows that she is searching for diplomatic words.

“It’s all right if you can’t tell me, Māmā. You don’t like this individual, though, do you?”

He has given her a way out, knowing that he’ll learn more soon enough.

“I don’t know them, Sherlock. This is all I can say. Go take care of John, my love.”

She kisses his bill and gives him a tired smile, then turns and walks past him, back toward the adults.

He only thinks of it when she's almost out of earshot, but pivots in time to call after her.

"Māmā! What happened to the other Junior Council? Why did it not continue?"

She stops but doesn't speak for a moment. When she answers, she sounds sad.

"It was a time of great social unrest and change, Sherlock. Two of its five members went missing; the circumstances were unusual, and the families involved imagined themselves scandalized. The parents of the other three refused to let their pengs continue. Like I said, it was a long time ago."

Sherlock lets her words sink in, then turns back. John, the penggit, is trying to skip ice chips with his bad arm. Sherlock wonders if he could skip one at John's head without doing further damage.

...

“Hold still.”

“I am holding still.”

“This is not holding still. This is flapping around like a grounded flounder.”

“Oi!”

Sherlock holds John’s left wing flat against his side and continues grooming around the injury on his shoulder. He tugs as gently as he can on feathers that are stuck to the healing wound, then combs them with his bill, straightening and laying them back in place. When everything looks clean and settled, he scoops up a small chunk of ice and holds it where John’s skin knits back together.

John shivers, and his wing trembles along Sherlock’s belly.

“Penggit. I’m almost done.”

“I’m going to be okay, Sherlock.”

“I know you are.” 

“Let’s go already. I can make it. I want to show you.”

“If you fall, or twist your wing, or if –” 

“You’ll make sure that doesn’t happen, yeah? Although, I’m not sure you’ll be able to protect me from a fierce, giant skua. Bird like that could just swoop right down out of the sky, grab me in its mighty talons –”

“For the love of pengs, John, skuas have webbed feet. They scavenge on the ice.” 

Sherlock knows that John is trying to make light of, well, of everything, and he knows that he’s behaving like a constipated elephant seal, but he can’t help it. He’s not sure if he’ll ever lose the residual shock and fear that seized him when he thought he might have lost John. Not ever. 

John sighs, a little puff of breath that swirls against Sherlock’s ear.

“You’re nervous. I can tell.”

“I’m unsettled. There’s a difference.”

John taps his foot in a series of short, fast movements. Sherlock doesn’t respond, so he does it again. 

“Are you calling me a liar?” 

“Maybe.”

John taps out another code word with both feet. The ice chip falls off his shoulder, and lands with a clinking sound behind them. Sherlock tries not to laugh, which causes the right side of his face to twitch and smirk. He rolls his eyes, but can’t hold back an exasperated giggle. 

John laughs out loud, and oh, Sherlock loves that sound so much. John’s laugh consists of high, light notes and gasps of air from his precious lungs, rising above the roar of the wind and the lull of the ocean around them. He can imagine those notes drifting higher and higher, delighting the sky long after Sherlock can no longer hear them.

“Oh, you go ahead and joke with your “could be dangerous” secret peng language. See if I protect you when that giant skua comes for you.”

“Hey, you’re the one who came up with that particular code. Remember?”

He leans forward and rubs his bill against John’s, and John goes still, exhales, and rubs back.

“I remember. Ready, John?” 

“As I’ll ever be.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock insists that John walk in front of him, so that if he slips as they climb, Sherlock can break his fall. He also insists that they take the longer way, climbing around half of Cassiopeia as they ascend, because it's less steep. If they could have tobogganed, he would have insisted on that, too, but even this extended trail has enough of an incline to make that impossible. 

John growls and huffs and carries on about not being a baby, but Sherlock isn't having it. Better he think Sherlock an overprotective hen than have him permanently injure his still healing wing. John grouses a bit more, and Sherlock fusses a bit more, and when Sherlock suggests he carry John, John laughs and says he'd like to see Sherlock try. The tense mood breaks, and they start the journey up the berg, John leading the way.

Now, over his shoulder, John calls back a constant stream of commentary about what he so eagerly wants to show Sherlock.

"It's just past Fates Peak, where I was going to wait for you, well, you know. When it happened. I'd been up there the day before, just exploring, when we found it."

We? Who's we? Sherlock starts to ask this very question, but he can't get a word in edgewise.

"You're not going to believe your eyes, it's like something out of mythology, like maybe a god lived here once or something, or maybe, I don't know, a mermaid."

A mermaid?

"You're going to love it, Sherlock, and we can use it as a fort, or a hideout, because at one end there's a little ledge with an opening above it, and you can see everything from there, the whole landing shore down below, and the sea as far as the Shelf, and, well, just wait."

Sherlock takes in most of what John says, but his own thoughts get in the way now and then. John sounds nervous, he thinks. Is he nervous? Why is he nervous? Is he afraid that Sherlock won't like this special place? Or is it something else? Is he worried? Is he still thinking about everything he witnessed the day before? Maybe he's in shock.

"Are you in shock, John?" He yells out in front of him, and then immediately thinks about what a stupid thing that was to say, because if John is in shock, would he even know? What's he going to say? Well yes, Sherlock, I am totally in shock, and losing my mind, too, thank you!

He walks right into John, who has stopped in his tracks and turned to answer him.

"Oof! Am I in shock?"

"I didn't mean it like that."

"How did you mean it?"

"You're talking a lot and you seem nervous, and – oh! John, do you have a fever? Are you sick? Is your wound getting infected?"

John looks up at the sky and shakes his head. Sherlock is pretty sure everything he said may have been a bit not good. When John looks at him again he has a very frustrated look on his face. Sherlock prefers his amused look, or even his confused look, to frustrated.

"Listen to me, okay? Please listen to me. I need you to hear me."

Sherlock nods. He furrows his brow. He leans forward. He's listening. He's really, really listening.

"Okay. Yesterday was, bar none, the worst day of my entire, albeit short, life. Do you know why? No, don't even try to answer that. Let me tell you why. It was, in part, because I saw horrible, horrible things, things I never want to see again, things that should never even happen.

"And, because thirty-seven of us died. Thirty-seven of my friends, and their families, and pengs that I should have had the opportunity to know better at some point in the future.

"But the biggest reason that yesterday was the worst day of my life, is because I was sure you were dead, Sherlock. I was convinced beyond all doubt that those monsters got to your pack, too, and that you were gone, snapped in half, torn apart, dead. I thought I would never see you again, Sherlock. I thought I would have to spend the rest of my life without you. Do you have any idea, any at all, what that felt like?

“And then, when you arrived, and started calling for me, and I realized you were alive, that I hadn’t lost you, I knew I'd be okay. I knew I'd survive what had just happened. So, no, no I'm not in shock, and I don't have a fever, but what I am is very, very grateful, and relieved –"

Sherlock is shaking now, and doesn't care if John is done or not.

"Do I have any idea what that felt like? Are you insane? I was within sight of this floating chunk of ice, John, we were almost here, and I saw it happening, and Mycroft saw, and he made us turn away, he led us away, and I had no idea if you were one of them, John, and then we had to wait, we had to wait for the scouts to survey the area and come back and say that we could keep going, that we could come and see the aftermath, and call for our loved ones, John, so I could call for you, and see if you were dead, if I would have to spend the rest of my life without you. So, yes, I think I know what that feels like!"

His words echo off the walls of ice around them, his cries repeating again and again until there is nothing but cold air and silence between them.

"Loved ones?" John asks.

"What?"

"Am I one of your loved ones?"

"Of course you're – John, you’re more. No, you’re less."

"I’m less than a loved one?"

Sherlock closes his eyes and takes a deep, calming breath. This is not one of the various love-professing scenarios he's created and tucked away in the John Wing of his Ice Palace. Never mind, he thinks, there's no going back now.

"John. You are my only one. You must know that."

John shuffles on his feet and takes a step closer.

"How would I know that, Sherlock? You've never said anything. You never want to be with my friends, and you barely talk to me when we aren’t alone. You're so much smarter than me, and you know important pengs, like Elder Erebus, and your dad and brother sit on the Council, and you're like colony royalty. I'm nobody next to you."

Sherlock cannot believe that John thinks that he’s nobody. He tries to interject, but John doesn't stop.

"And, Sherlock, you never call for me. You have never called for me, not once, before yesterday. It’s always me, going to find you, every single day."

"That's not true, John! That can't be true!" Sherlock says, but even as he protests he knows that it is true, he always lets John call for him at the start of each day, to look for him first, so he can hear John’s voice, calling, just for him. It's true. And it’s not just that, not if he’s honest with himself. He lets John call first to be sure that John will call, to make sure that John still wants to see him.

Fix this, fix this, fix this, he thinks to himself.

"I'm sorry. You're right. You are. I do always let you call for me, because it … it’s the best sound in the world. It’s one of the best moments of each day, when I hear your voice, calling my name.

"But, John, also, it’s because you're so popular and sociable, and you're so athletic and kind, and everyone likes you. You could be friends with anyone. So, yes, I would wait for you to call, to be sure that you wanted to see me again, because I couldn't believe that day after day, you still would."

John steps forward, again, and reaches out to Sherlock.

"Of course I would. Of course I do."

They are bill to bill now.

"Why?"

John wraps his good wing around Sherlock's neck and pulls him flush against his body.

"Because you're my only one, too. Anahe."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

They stand, leaning against each other, heads on each other’s shoulders, and commune through touch. Sherlock can feel John’s heart beating against his chest, and his own, answering back. He is overwrought with the significance of their outbursts. The sounds of wind and sea wrap around them, and in time, frantic gives way to awareness, and then to understanding. They are together.

"Will you take me now?" Sherlock asks.

"Excuse me?"

"To the ice fort. I think it would be best if we continue now, because I would very much like to be someplace private with you for a little while, because I have messed all of this up, and I need to make it better, I need to tell you things, all sorts of things, and –"

"Shhh, shhh. Stop. You haven't messed up anything, Sherlpeng. But yes, let's keep going. We're almost there, anyway."

 

...

 

The ice cave exceeds both John's descriptions and Sherlock's expectations. It is open on both sides, which allows light to flood the cavern no matter what the time of day. As if by magic, that light is brilliant blue, catching and refracting the sea below and the sky above, capturing the two mighty elements at the horizon, and combining them here within Cassiopeia.

The interior is slightly spherical in shape, a long, narrow oval, and the walls are smooth and shiny. Above them, hundreds of minuscule icicles cling to the ceiling, glistening as they warm in the afternoon air and prepare to melt, refreezing at night before they get the chance.

It is high enough in the berg to give the impression of floating above the sea, a perch in a cloud, and the views from its vantage point are vast. Sherlock sees more of the world in one glance than he's ever imagined possible.

Open though it may be, it is rendered safe and semi-private by the ledge John spoke of earlier. They stand behind it now, the highest point touching them at chest level, and gaze down on the colony below them. They watch as groups of their peers gather and break apart, as scouts scan the water for threats, as some birds slip into the sea, and others leap out, then skid to a stop on the ice.

When Sherlock speaks, he whispers, out of reverence for the spirit of this place John has found.

"It's amazing, John. I understand now why you were so excited to show me. It is truly spectacular."

"Isn't it? We don't have anything like this on Pobeda."

"Who else knows about this?"

"I don't know. I came up here with Harriet, but she wasn't nearly as impressed as I was. She just wanted to go back down and eat. We almost didn't even find it, but I wanted to see if there was a better place to watch for you than Fates Peak, and I made her keep going. I guess most pengs have no reason to leave the shore in the first place, given how much of the summer we spend in the water."

John's words remind Sherlock of what Elder Erebus said about most pengs being self-centred, and not seeing beyond their most immediate interests. That, in turn, makes him think about all the other things the elder so openly discussed with him. What should he tell John? When? Despite the revelations of their recent conversation, he does not want to force them into the future, toward problems that they might not even encounter. What, he questions, of everything that was said, is relevant to them at this moment?

John interrupts his train of thought with a touch to his wing.

"Sherlock?"

"Yes, John?"

"Are you all right? You seemed very far away just then. We said a lot, on the way here. Are you –"

"I meant everything I said, Johnling. I should have told you sooner how much you mean to me. I didn't realize that you didn't know. I promise to do a better job of showing you from now on."

"You do show me, Sherlock. I just needed to hear it. You're the greatest thing that's ever happened to me. You're my best peng, the most important of all."

"I am? I'm your best peng?"

"Yeah, 'course you are."

"Not Lestra or Stamfjord, or, or Maryle?"

"What? No! I like them all a lot, and they're my friends, too, but not like you are."

"You're mine, too, but John, you should know, we – we – we might not – we might find –" He groans at his inability to form or finish a sentence.

"What is it?"

Sherlock feels trapped inside his own head, unable to find the words to tell John that the world might conspire against them, that there might be battles yet to fight. He doesn't know how to talk about the long journey ahead of him, and he doesn't want to scare John, doesn't want to give him reason to doubt what he's only just given Sherlock. He wants to relish this, to tuck it deep inside and let it set him on fire, just for now, while it all seems so possible.

"John, what did your shell say? Did your mother read the pieces after you hatched?"

"My shell? What does that have to do with anything?"

"Potentially everything."

John smiles at Sherlock and shakes his head, confused, but willing to humour him.

"Um, yeah, okay. She read it. She said I was going to meet a mad genius penggit with beautiful eyes and a tendency toward dramatics."

Sherlock tries to sort the words, to put them back in order, but he can only see two of them, beautiful, and eyes.

John giggles.

Sherlock sighs.

"I'm sorry. I'll be serious. It doesn't really make much sense, but then again, my mum isn't really known for her prophetic shell reading skills. It was something about having to make an important decision."

"About what?"

"Dunno. That part of the shell must've been missing."

"What about when? Did she tell you that?"

"Nope. What about yours? What did yours say?"

"Mine?"

"Yours."

"Oh. Well," Sherlock stammers. "Just something vague about changing the heart of the colony, or, oh, I don't know, it's all a bit blurry now."

John gives him a fondly exasperated look that makes his belly flutter.

"Bit blurry? You're a horrible liar, Sherlock, but I think I'll keep you anyway. Least until something better comes along."

Sherlock wants to say that John isn't funny, not one bit, but then John winks and tilts forward, and Sherlock leans down, and when their bills touch, he's pretty sure he can see glitter and sparkle in the walls of the ice cave around them.

Chapter Text

Sherlock and John's days shift and evolve until they've taken on a distinct pattern. Each morning they wake, together, in the crèche. More often than not, Sherlock opens his eyes first, and checks to see that John is close, that his shoulder is free of any impediment, and that he is still as adorable as he was the day before. Each day, much to Sherlock's delight, John proves to be even more adorable. 

From this point forward, Sherlock fights with himself. He wants to let John sleep, but he cannot resist his urges to touch John, to groom him, to kiss his bill, his aural patches, his neck. He tries to be quiet, and still, but sometimes, as if sleeping John can sense that Sherlock is awake, John will lean into him, or push a wing under his, or snuggle his face against Sherlock's neck, and Sherlock cannot imagine how anyone would expect him to not lean back, or tighten his grip, or snuggle back.

After all, he is only penguin.

Then, John will mumble into Sherlock's feathers, and yawn, then open one eye, then the other, and then stretch. This movement separates him from Sherlock, but also bends and flexes his body in the most tantalizing way. Wings pulled back, neck extended, belly long and flat, John becomes a taut canvas that Sherlock wants to mark. 

He is not sure how to do that without drawing attention to them, so instead, when John is ready, after he's greeted Sherlock with an affectionate mornin', they will head to a nearby swimming hole, the one that the scouts have designated as safest, and have breakfast. John stays on the perimeter of the opening in the ice, and Sherlock dives in, catches krill and shrimp and the occasional miniature cephalopod, and tosses it back up to John. When John has a large enough collection at his feet, Sherlock resurfaces, and they eat together.

John says over and over that he feels useless lurking above while Sherlock hunts for both of them. His shoulder is healing beautifully, according to Cetus, and John wants back in the game. Cetus also says, and Sherlock reminds John of this, that healing beautifully and completely healed are not interchangeable terms, and that John would do well to wait a little longer before he resumes swimming.

Sherlock is learning that the best way to manage John's grumps and whinges about his relative immobility is to ignore him. When Sherlock tries to assuage John's complaints, John argues back with greater fervour. When Sherlock argues back more vociferously, John goes quiet. So instead, Sherlock stays silent while John lets everyone nearby know how unhappy he is with his current non-swimming situation. Sherlock slips into the water mid-sentence, and tosses breakfast onto the ice. The sooner John has food, the sooner he stops grumbling.

When they've eaten their fill, Sherlock lets John take him around to socialize with his various friends, and Sherlock practices being less-than-rude. The goal is polite, but Atlantis wasn't built in a day, and neither will Sherlock's social persona. John instructs Sherlock to smile, but not the creepy smile, to use simple greetings, and to not deduce out loud unless it is an observation that he knows will make another peng happy. Sherlock knows that he's supposed to engage in conversation, but prefers to wait until someone asks him a question, or John says, "What do you reckon, Sherlock?" or, "Oh, well, Sherlock is an expert at that, let's hear what he has to say."

Sherlock tolerates this. He tolerates this because he and John have confessed their feelings to each other, and one of the unforeseen advantages of navigating that particular tsunami of potential emotional disasters, is that John touches Sherlock all of the time now, and Sherlock is allowed, and encouraged, to touch John back. It is delightful. It is unadulterated joy to stand in company with John and let the tip of his wing trail down his back, or feel John's wing under his, or lean into each other as they listen to someone else pontificate about sky warming and melting ice caps. 

They are one of the first, but are not the only young pairing that Sherlock observes. They are of that age, smack in the middle of adolescence, when quickly changing pengs start to take notice of each other, and grow bolder in their flirting. Interested parties test the waters, advance, retreat, advance again. He watches his peers dance around each other, trying more adult behaviours on for size. Couples form and dissolve around them. He, however, feels as sure and steady as Cassiopeia with John. This is not fleeting.

He detects no change in the way those around them perceive or react to them. Again, he reflects on Elder Erebus' words, that pengs see what they want to see, what they are used to seeing. Two males together indicate friendship, and so if they touch each other, it is friendly touching. He does not try to draw attention to their relationship, but neither does he deny the consequences of allowing his heart these feelings. He wants to touch John.

The way Sherlock sees it, anyone truly paying attention would know that John is his, and he is John's. He is pretty sure that Mycroft, Māmā, and Siger are paying attention. Harriet is paying attention. Elder Erebus continues to pay attention.

And now, Maryle is paying attention.

In the first few days after the attack, Sherlock refuses to go anywhere near her. He knows that she has not apologized to John for her vicious bite, and that John doesn't expect her to. John says that Maryle didn't do it on purpose, that she was in a state of panic when it happened, and that she is not to be held accountable. Sherlock says that even baby pengs are taught to apologize for hurting another, even if the circumstances are accidental.

John counters by reminding Sherlock that baby pengs are also taught to be generous with their forgiveness, but Sherlock doesn't see what one has to do with the other. Maryle should say she's sorry. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Everything comes to a head one morning when John is discussing Cetus' new apprenticeship lessons with Molling and Stamfjord. The program is mostly rumour so far, but all three are excited about the possibility, and eager to participate if given the opportunity. Sherlock stays at John's side, pretending to listen, as he's already heard the same conversation many times over.

He watches pengs around them go about their business, and soon notices Maryle approaching from over John's shoulder. He cannot help but notice how her posture changes as soon as she sees John, how she pulls her shoulders back, grooms her face, and shakes out her tail feathers. Sherlock is flabbergasted by how intuitive these moves appear to be. He is also, he must admit, just a little bit impressed by her nerve.

He presses himself up against John's side so hard they almost topple over, but John takes it in his stride and wraps his wing around Sherlock's back as he continues to talk. Sherlock nuzzles John's ear. Stamfjord attempts the wing hug on Molling, but Molling just glares at him before stepping away. Sherlock finds the dynamic fascinating.

Maryle stops at the edge of their foursome, close enough to be noticed, but not close enough to join the group. She's waiting to be invited, he realizes, because an invitation makes her more a part of the group than her own self-insertion. Oh, she is clever, isn't she? And who is most likely to see her first, to acknowledge her, based on where she has chosen to stand? John, of course.

It takes less than three heartbeats for John to pause, turn, and extend the wing not wrapped around Sherlock.

"Maryle! You know everyone, don't you?"

Maryle gives a shy nod and makes eye contact with Molling and Stamfjord, but does not look at Sherlock. He wants to laugh out loud. He didn't know that such game playing existed, but recognizes it in every move she makes. Now that he sees her in action, he knows exactly how to play.

Just as she's about to speak, he interrupts, and says, "Actually, I don't believe we've met. Irena, did you say?"

Her bill is still hanging open when John says, "Sherlock, this is Maryle. Maryle, you've met Sherlock before, haven't you?"

She cocks her head and gives Sherlock a brief, indifferent look, then says, "I really don't know, to be honest. Would I have remembered?"

Sherlock cannot resist the opening. He knows that John won't like what he's about to do, but the words are rolling into his mouth and off his tongue as if each and every one has a little brain of its own.

"You certainly would have, and now you'll never forget. I am Sherlock, of Councilpeng Siger, and Olive, and Maximus, Stelli, Frederick, and Clementa before them. I am siblinged to Mycroft, and soon to take a seat on the Junior Council. More importantly, I am John's ipo, his anahe, and if you ever bite, injure, hurt, or so much as look at him the wrong way again, you will answer to me and mine."

The response is not quite what he had hoped.

John shouts, "SHERLOCK!"

Stamfjord gapes at him. Molling looks like she wants to slap him.

But Maryle? Maryle laughs. She throws her head back and laughs and says, "Oh dear, aren't you precious? John did say you have a flair for the dramatic, didn't you, John?"

Playing the game takes more strategy and foresight than Sherlock had previously thought, but he considers himself up to the challenge.

“John is blinded by his affection for me. He can’t be held accountable for what he says. You, however, you can be held accountable. Speaking of which, don’t you think John’s shoulder is healing well? It’s nothing short of a miracle, really, in light of the damage you did with that barbed tongue of yours.”

Now John is gaping, too.

Sherlock sees a tiny crack in Maryle’s armour, so he plunges ahead.

“Cetus told us that he might not ever swim again. Luckily, you won’t have that burden to bear. I’ve made sure that he doesn’t overdo himself until it’s good as new. How about you? How have you been spending your time, other than not apologizing?”

John throws his wings into the air and stomps a few paces away. Stamfjord backs up. Maryle steps up her game and bursts into tears, and Molling hurries to comfort her, tutting over her shoulder at Sherlock.

“She just lost her parents!” she whisper-shouts at him.

Over Molling’s shoulder Maryle smirks at Sherlock. For the love of Poseidon, Sherlock thinks. She’s good.

“Foster parents, second set. She never knew her real parents.”

John, Molling, and Stamfjord all stare at him, then turn and stare at her.

Maryle pries herself out of Molling’s grip and glares at him.

“How did you know that?”

“I didn’t know. I observed. And, based on your reaction, I’d say that I was correct.”

“Not quite. Third set.”

“There’s always something.”

"Isn't there, though?"

“Are you two done?” John asks, still bristling in understated fury. It’s a good look for him, Sherlock thinks.

Maryle sighs and extends one wing toward Sherlock. “Can we please start again?”

She’s herself now, Sherlock observes. No coy expressions, no phony posturing. She’s not playing anymore, and he respects her for it. He drops his façade, too, smooths down the feathers on the top of his head, and extends his wing.

“Sherlock.”

“Maryle.”

“Oh my god,” John huffs. “You two are perfect for each other, and I’m hungry. Can we eat?”

Sherlock leaves the encounter with two observations: She still hasn't apologized; and, adoption is allowed in his colony.

 

 

Every day, after breakfast, socializing, and lunch, John and Sherlock sneak away to their ice cave. They don’t invite anyone to join them, and they never announce their departure. The trail under their feet becomes more familiar as each day passes, until they know each bump, each crack, each slick spot. Knowledge of the path translates into confidence in their step, and the journey shortens.

Each day they carry some little treasure with them, something to adorn the space and make it more their own. Cassiopeia doesn’t offer much in the way of decoration, but they acquire a growing collection of albatross, petrel, and cormorant feathers, assorted fish bones, and one curved, triangular tooth. They both know that it once sat in a seal’s mouth, but neither feel the need to discuss it.

The treasures are tucked in a line along an interior wall of the cave, safe from the winds that lick around the berg. John arranges them, and when he's not looking Sherlock rearranges them, and each day the cave looks less like a fort, and more like a home away from home.

Here, too, they find a routine. They fuss for a bit with their treasure collection, and then they move to the ledge and look out over the world. They start with their own corner of it, commenting on the colony below, rich in detail and the potential for storytelling. They watch their peers and make up tales about the whys and wheres and whos of their comings and goings. Beyond the colony is the sea, sometimes peaceful, sometimes stormy, always endless. There is less to say about the water's surface, so they surmise what might be unfolding underneath. Then there is the sky, stitched to the horizon, rising up and over them, a ceiling against which clouds roll and bump. The sky hears everything they have to say, but offers little inspiration of its own. When the last story has been told, they turn away from the world outside, toward each other, and work on weaving the best story, their story.

Sherlock has found great freedom in telling John how he feels, and that freedom has fuelled great curiosity. He cannot explain why gestures that were once innocent and affectionate are now heady and maddening. Everything takes on an air of urgency, every touch feels illicit, each move infused with electricity.

It always starts the same way. A smile, or a wink, a brush of bill against bill. It takes such control not to rush the connection. They take tentative steps toward each other, letting the tension build until the shallow space between them vibrates and quivers. At the first press of one warm belly to the other, Sherlock might sigh, John might hum.

Wings lift and flutter in silent question, Can I? The answer is always quick and sure. Yes, please. Oh, please.

A closer embrace, a more insistent nudge, necks twining and curling and rubbing. At first they only do this, necking for long afternoons in the blue light of their secret ice cave. Soon though, their necking inspires further exploration, and then the undersides and tips of silken wings find tender spots along chests and ribs and flanks.

Sherlock is drawn to the downward slope of John's belly to thigh, the feathers here short and sleek over hard, flexing muscle. It takes him days to work up the nerve to let his desire take flight, to let his touch drift in that direction, and when he does, unable to stand one more heartbeat of curious torture, John goes weak in the knees and loses his breath.

"Lean on me," Sherlock whispers, and John wraps both wings around Sherlock's neck and lets his cheek rest on a soft shoulder.

Sherlock presses along the seam of leg and torso, tracing the indentation up and over the curve of hip, then back down, further, into the crease of John's groin. 

John pants and slides his feet further apart.

Sherlock trills deep in his chest, a growl, a groan. There is a tightness inside him, deep and low, and it thrums in time with his heartbeat. His breath is more of an attempt than a fact, air dancing in his throat, just barely reaching his lungs, before bursting back out of his mouth. It sounds loud in his ears.

John lets one wing drift down Sherlock's side, then resettles it on Sherlock’s lower belly. He rubs in soft, tentative circles, and Sherlock presses himself into the touch. Emboldened, John slides his wingtip straight down Sherlock's midline. He pauses when Sherlock nips at John's throat.

That tight place deep inside squeezes, hard, and Sherlock finds himself frozen in place, waves of arousal flooding him from head to toe. The walls of the ice cave take his whimper and throw it back and forth.

Sherlock needs to see John's face. He arches his neck and bumps John's bill up, and John, who is staring down between Sherlock's legs, drags his gaze up and blinks. Sherlock rubs his bill along the side of John's, and they pant into each other's mouths. Somewhere close in front of them exists an invisible line that they both know not to cross, although neither one knows where it is, or what they will find when they reach it.

They know they need to slow down. Wings come back to sides, breathing regulates. They stand, foreheads touching, and murmur into each other's ears. The light outside has deepened and dimmed. How long have they been gone?

Sherlock figures that in order to be aware of the passing of time, you must be aware of the environment around you, and in order to be aware of the environment around you, you must use all of your senses. Vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch – it all combines to inform you of time and space.

When all of his senses have been centred on John, John is his only environment. Being with John makes time stand still.

Chapter Text

The moon is at the peak of its ascent, and the colony is aflutter with talk about the new councilpeng. Sherlock has questioned both Mycroft, and Olive, but neither will tell him anything of substance. He decides to approach Siger, and finds himself more nervous than he was the first time he talked to Elder Erebus. His relationship with Siger has always been somewhat formal. He remembers those first few weeks on his father's feet with hazy affection, but they have had infrequent, brief interactions since then. Sherlock doesn't think of him as Pāpā. He thinks of him as Siger.  

He finds his father at the temporary council grounds, just after a private meeting has ended. Siger looks tired and frustrated, and Sherlock worries that this might not be the best time. He pauses, and is about to turn away, when Siger sees him and calls out.

"Son!" 

"Yes, sir."

"Your timing is impeccable. I've been meaning to talk to you, as you have me."

Sherlock closes the distance and bows his head in respect to his father's position. He is startled to feel Siger's cheek on the crown of his head, brushing with unexpected tenderness.

"My youngest," he says, pulling up to his full height. "My son, first and foremost. Do not bow, Sherlock. It only reminds me how I've neglected you, that you see me as your leader, instead of your father."

"It's all right, sir. You've been swamped with the needs of the colony and Council. It hasn't been an easy time for you."

Siger smiles and lays his wing on Sherlock's shoulder. "That's no excuse, but thank you for trying to cover for me. Tell me what's on your mind, tama."

Sherlock looks up at his father. He finds him quite awe-inspiring, with his noble bill, his tall stature, his sharp eyes. Is this what leadership looks like? Siger seems to radiate understated power and intelligence. Was he born with these traits, or did he acquire them? Was he taught? Sherlock experiences a rush of regret that he hasn't made it his business to know his father better, but just as quickly he hears the senior peng’s answer, as if he had spoken out loud. All in good time, Sherlock. You're only young yet. We have years. The words bring comfort.

"Father, everyone is talking about the new councilpeng."

"Ah, yes. And what are they saying?"

"Mostly rumours, sir, and everything I've heard contradicts something else. There are rumours that he is too young, too old, that he has strange ideas from faraway places, that he is a genius, that he is a wizard –" Sherlock pauses to take a breath, "– rumours that his placement has caused great dissension on the Council, rumours that he is not from our colony, not even an emperor –"

"Dear me. Slow down, child, slow down. That certainly is a confusing mess, then, isn't it?"

Sherlock nods and searches his father's face for any clues he might find, but Siger only smiles and shrugs.

"I can't say I blame everyone for their curiosity. We haven't had a new councilpeng since Mycroft, and he was a very well-known entity to all. I must admit, however, I find it somewhat alarming that anyone would think the new member would be anything but an emperor. Surely they have more faith in us than that?"

"If I may, Father, I suspect it has more to do with a lack of common sense, than faith."

Siger chuckles, and Sherlock feels relief surge through him, because if there is any humour here to be found, the situation can't be so dire. He starts to giggle.

"What if, what if he were ... a walrus?" he says in a fit of imagination. "Or a pelican? Or maybe a pufferfish! Whenever he disagreed in session he'd blow up and you'd all have to wait for him to deflate again!"

Siger snorts, laughing hard enough to shake his considerable belly. He wipes a wing over his eyes, then pulls Sherlock toward him in a hug, and kisses the top of his head.

"Oh, I needed that, I truly did. Thank you, son. Maybe you should go back and tell everyone that I confirmed the new councilpeng is an ancient wizard pufferfish who intends to turn us all to ice."

"Oh, Pāpā," he says, surprising himself with the hatchling term of endearment. "No one will believe that."

"No. Probably not. You're right. Well, tell them that they'll find out soon enough, as we're calling for a hui two nights from now, and all will be made clear at that time. In the meantime, I'd like to talk to you about something else."

Sherlock nods, and listens. 

 

 

John and Lestra are laughing as Sherlock approaches, Lestra’s deeper chuckle a pleasant undertone for John’s higher giggle. Sherlock stands back for a moment and observes them, unaware of the goofy smile on his face. John acts out a scene with great animation, and then Lestra joins in, and they both dissolve into hysteria. What on the ice are they doing?

He doesn’t even really mind when Mycroft skids to a stop by his side, rights himself, and clears his throat. He pretends to be put out, anyway.

“I’m busy, Mycroft. Go away.”

“Yes, I see that, brother dear. And how exhausting it must be for you, admiring your tahu from afar.” Mycroft glances over at the other two pengs. “Pray tell, what are they doing?”

“I think they’re trying to imitate the rockhoppers, but I’m not certain.”

Mycroft hums as he considers.

“Northern, or Southern?”

“Irrelevant, as the geographic location wouldn’t alter their method of locomotion.”

“I suspect you are right.”

Sherlock tries not to fall over in shock. The effort of doing so results in an extended period of repeated blinking.

“Anyway,” Mycroft continues, “How did your talk with Father go? I take it he’s filled you in?”

“He has.”

“And you’re satisfied with the arrangement?”

“I’ve no cause not to be.”

“Just so.”

Sherlock and Mycroft watch John fold his wings back, jut his neck out, and push off with both feet in an attempt to hop. He falls flat on his belly, and then Lestra joins him, the two of them howling like elephant seals.

"Right. I'll just leave you to it, then."

"Laters, Mycroft."

 

...

 

Sherlock drops to his belly and kicks against the ice, propelling himself in John's direction. He and Lestra are still carrying on like complete idiots, but Sherlock’s chest is suffused with affection and warmth. He likes that John can have fun, that he's not self-conscious and shy, the way Sherlock tends to feel around other pengs. 

As he draws near he realizes that he's expecting to feel something else there, too, nestled in with his affection, something he'd normally feel when in close proximity to John's other friends. Insecurity. There's no room for it now, though, not after John's proclamations and touches and whispers. John has chosen Sherlock as his best peng, and more.

When he reaches John he drags his wings at his sides, slowing himself, then pops back up to standing in front of the ridiculous rockhopper impersonators.

“Hey, Sherlock, look! Who am I?”

He watches John fold over into launch position, wiggle his tail feathers, then try to hop. He gets no lift whatsoever, topples over, bill first, then bursts into giggles again. Next to him, Lestra prepares for his next try.

“You're an Aptenodytes forsteri trying to bend your incompatible anatomy into the shape of an Eudyptes filholi, for the purpose of hopping simultaneously on two feet, and you are failing abysmally.”

“Oi! Lestra, did he just call me an abysmal failure?”

“He did, mate,” Lestra answers from where he’s sprawled over the ice.

John lunges at Sherlock, knocks him down, then rolls in an attempt to put him in a headlock. They grapple and slide, laughing, until Sherlock is on his belly and John has one foot on a wing, the other on his back, and both wings around his neck. Sherlock thrills in John's victory. He has no need to move, ever.

“Take it back, Sherlpeng, take it back right now,” John growls against his aural patch. Sherlock goes a bit limper.

“Noooo, never!”

John presses down harder on Sherlock's back, curving his spine so that his tail comes up high in the air. Nope. Never moving.

“What am I, Sherlpeng? Am I an abysmal failure?”

“Only … at being … a … rockhopper, you penggit!”

John laughs and whispers in his ear.

“Tell me what I'm good at, and I'll let you up.”

Sherlock might be melting the ice underneath him.

“You're exceptionally good at being adorable, and you're the embodiment of everything that drives me mad, in all the best ways.”

Lestra, who has been grooming his chest and belly in an effort to ignore them, clucks in disgust and shakes his head.

“You two are beyond hope. I'm going fishing.”

John lets Sherlock up, and helps him wipe off the drops of ice and frost clinging to his feathers. Sherlock suspects he's not nearly as mussed as John's comprehensive brushing would indicate. He ruffles his feathers to release the warm air trapped against his body, and resettles.

“Where've you been, then?” John asks.

“Talking with my father. He had some very interesting news to share.”

“Can you tell me?”

“Some of it, yeah.”

“Ice cave?”

“Ice cave. Definitely.”

Chapter Text

John and Sherlock stand near the front of the assembly, waiting for the hui to begin. Sherlock's neck is sore from snogging John senseless, and John is leaning heavily on Sherlock, flank to flank, a blissed out expression on his face.

“How long do we have to stay at this meeting? I'm exhausted. I wanna go to the crèche.”

John lets out a huge, drawn out yawn, and closes his eyes.

“It's just two announcements, John, but they're big ones, so it may take a while.”

Sherlock had told John most of what he knew, except for a few, crucial details that he'd held back as a surprise. He looks forward to John's reaction, even though right now it looks like the peng might fall asleep.

Siger trumpets the call for order, and one by one, the councilpengs behind him fall in line and repeat the call. The assembled emperors fall quiet, and Siger begins.

“Welcome, everyone. We thank you for your patience as the Council has worked to clarify and resolve important affairs.

“As you know, the events upon our arrival at Cassiopeia necessitated that we base ourselves here longer than usual. The process of vetting a new councilpeng, and nursing our wounded, were time intensive endeavours. Under other circumstances, we would have stayed here for a few days, at most, and then dispersed into the sea for other destinations. The Council believes that we are now ready to proceed. That said, not all of us will continue the journey at this time. Some will remain here, on Cassiopeia, for the duration of summer, and rejoin the colony at Pobeda, during the migration.

“Unusual as this may be, we believe it will have far-reaching, long-term benefits to the colony. Now, to further explain, I invite Elder Erebus to step forward and explain the reasons behind this decision, and who, exactly, it affects.”

Erebus moves forward to stand beside Siger, and the two of them confer for a moment, then Siger rejoins the other councilpengs. Sherlock notices that there are still only six of them. Is the seventh here? He must be. He must be waiting for his name to be announced before he steps forward. Still, he can't help but look around, scanning the crowd for any clues. Next to him, John curls and uncurls the tip of his left wing.

“Don't worry, John.”

“I'm not worried.”

“Your wing is worried.”

“My wing is an idiot.”

They look at each other and laugh, and Sherlock cannot resist the urge to bump his head against John's sleek neck.

The colony’s collective fidgeting stops when Erebus turns to face the gathering. When he speaks, his voice is steady and clear, loud, but kind.

“Pobeda Colony, my heart, my home. Despite our losses, we are healing well, both in body and spirit. This has always been our way, to let the animus of the greater good mend our individual pain and sorrow. I am proud of you, all of you, for pulling together the way you have. Of course, we cannot prevail on goodwill and hope alone. There are always ways upon which we can improve our methods, and the Council has spent the last half moon on Cassiopeia evaluating exactly that.

“We have a plan, an exciting new plan, which weaves the traditions of our past with current day knowledge. The most senior elders among us may recall a time when the colony supported a youth panel of sorts, a Junior Council to mirror our ruling Council. That group of young pengs was intended to apprentice to our leaders, to conduct research, and continue the work of their elders when the time came.

“Circumstance intervened, and the original Junior Council was disbanded before it could prove its worth. It has been a long time since the Council revisited the possibility of a new Junior Council, but after much reflection, we find ourselves blessed with the convergence of opportunity, talent, and motivation.”

Sherlock thinks he'd be able to hear a herring bone drop if the wind weren't working so hard to drown out everything but its own, invisible roar. Erebus raises his voice against it.

“You are aware that each Councilpeng supports an important functional element of emperor society. Healing, Hunting, Storytelling, Planning, Peacekeeping, Teaching: they all help define the way we live. More than that, they define the way we survive. The Junior Council will work under the tutelage of the Pobeda Council, with young penglings assigned to six of the seven Councilpengs. Siger, our leader, shall remain independent, and oversee both Councils.

“In addition, we have assigned one of our most highly respected elders to watch over the juveniles while their parents continue their summer hunt. I know you will agree that your children will be well-cared for under her careful eye. Elder Hudi, please come forward.”

Sherlock can see the crowd to the right of him jostle and part as a short, plump, female waddles and tuts her way to the front. He only knows her from a distance, but has heard that Hudi never had hatchlings of her own, choosing not to court again after her first mate was implicated in a prohibited Fugu tetrodotoxin smuggling ring.

Hudi joins Erebus at the front and waves to the colony, the majority of whom trill and wave back.

“I am very pleased to inform you that the Council has selected some of our very best young minds to support our plans. These are the penguins that will stay behind, on Cassiopeia, to begin their training. Now, without further ado, I announce the second Pobeda Junior Council.

“Assigned to Mycroft, in support of his important work on Colony Relations and Planning, Anthea, of Kahu and Aria. Please, do come forward as I call your name.

“Selected to work with me, applying his theories on mesoscale eddies and polar currents to the way we hunt and forage, I am thrilled to name Sherlock, of Siger and Olive.”

Next to him, John stands straight up and goes rigid.

“That's you, Sherlock, Erebus just named you to the Junior Council!”

“I know, Johnling, I know.”

“But you'll be here all summer! You didn't tell me you’d have to stay!” John is hissing under his breath, trying not to be heard by those around him.

Behind him, someone is pushing Sherlock, telling him to go forward to join Erebus at the front.

“John, it's okay, I promise!”

“But we'll be separated again!”

“No, please, just wait. Listen to Erebus. Please, John, it's going to be all right.”

The crowd jostles Sherlock ahead, but he continues to look back over his shoulder at a very agitated John. He wishes Erebus had called him at the end of the announcement, instead of the beginning. There's nothing to be done now, but wait. He joins Erebus, Hudi, Mycroft, and Anthea, and the roll call continues.

Erebus calls a female named Irena to apprentice with their teacher, Pavo; and then another female, Janine, as Vela’s student in emperor mythology and storytelling.

Sherlock watches the colony as Erebus speaks. He can see so much from this slight elevation above the rest. The crowd is keenly attentive, aware that the potential for change stands among them, but not sure what that change might be, or if they will welcome it.

He brings his eye back to John, and startles. John is not there. John is moving away, pushing through the pack, toward the back. Oh, John. No. Sherlock nudges Erebus and points his bill at John’s retreating back. Erebus takes the cue and redirects, his voice booming overhead.

“It is with great pride that I announce what may prove to be the most important addition to the Junior Council, and therefore, to the colony at large. Would John, of Kaia and Hemi; Molling, of Mereana and Ari; and Stamfjord, of Ria and Niko, please come forward. The three of you have been selected, based on your heroic work at Cetus’ side, to apprentice with our esteemed Healer.”

Sherlock holds his breath. His only point of focus is John, who, until hearing his name, had continued to push through and leave. Now John stops, goes still, as the pengs surrounding him reach out to offer congratulations.

Turn around, John.

Two others, having correctly read the situation, move in John’s direction. Molling and Stamfjord join him where he stands, back still turned. Stamfjord ruffles John’s feathers in teasing camaraderie, and Molling leans in close and whispers in his ear. Sherlock realizes he is still holding his breath, and about to pass out.

As one, they turn, two of them grinning, one trying his hardest not to, and make their way to the front. Sherlock follows their progression, and by the time John reaches him, he’s not sure if he’s going to be clobbered, or kissed.

John utters out the side of his bill, “You should have told me. I’m going to kill you.”

Sherlock smiles with half his face, still looking forward, and answers, “What? You’re going to kiss me?”

John steps on his foot, hard.

“If we could have your attention for just another moment, we’re almost finished for the evening. There’s one more member to be assigned to the Junior Council, one who will work closely with our newest Councilpeng, who has been selected to take over the role of Peacekeeper, in the wake of Lyra’s most tragic death.

“If Lestra, of Wiremu and Anahera, would come forward? And then we’ll introduce our newest Councilpeng.”

A small shout of cheer goes up as Lestra pushes his way to the front, and when he arrives, he taps wings with the others as he makes his way to the end of the line. Sherlock isn’t exactly sure what is expected of him in this regard, but he holds his wing out, imitating John, and lets Lestra smack it as he passes. It appears to be some odd gesture of congratulations.

They are all present now, eight of the previous winter’s hatchlings, brought together by virtue of their talents and interests, to serve the colony alongside their leaders.

Erebus stands behind them and extends his wings wide, as if to frame them.

“Emperors of Pobeda Island, I give you your new Junior Council!”

Joyful honking fills the air around them, and Sherlock’s eyes are filled with a blur of black, orange, and white exuberance. On both sides, his peers are beaming at each other, caught up in the excitement of the moment. Although honoured, he is overwhelmed by the attention, and moves to take a step back, behind John.

“Where do you think you’re going, Sherlpeng?”

“Off of centre stage, if possible.”

“Stay right here, with me. You’ll be okay.”

John lays his wing over Sherlock’s shoulders, and pulls him close.

“So you’re not mad at me for not sharing all the details?”

“I’m not mad, penggit. You nearly gave me a heart attack, though, and I haven’t learned how to treat those, yet.”

Sherlock smiles and snuggles as close as he can. Focussing on John, instead of the jubilant pengs in front of him, alleviates some of that urge to flee. He closes his eyes and breathes in the warmth of John, and the chill of the air. He lets himself be anchored.

The noises around him subside, and he fancies that all he can hear is the wind, and John’s heartbeat in tandem with his. It’s a moment short-lived, and then his father’s voice is bringing him back, reminding him that the hui is not over.

He opens his eyes.

Siger has positioned himself in front of the Junior Council, and waits for the colony to fall into silence. Calm restored, he bows in recognition, and begins.

“Junior Council, I thank you for your enthusiasm, and I look forward to working with each and every one of you. We have important work to do, and each of you can make an important contribution.

“Now, without delay, I would like to present our newest Councilpeng.”

Siger’s introduction is short and to the point, altogether lacking in endorsement. Sherlock listens to his father cover events on a timeline: hatched on Pobeda, moved with family to the Shelf at eight winters old, then reunited with the colony this past migration after both parents had passed. There is nothing in his speech to measure, nothing to be considered in favour of, or against, the new Councilpeng.

Nothing stands out, but then Siger calls the emperor by name, and everything stands out.

Moringa, his father says. It takes Sherlock half a blink to realize that Moringa is a female’s name. Moringa is not a he, and so in a way, none of their assumptions were correct. On the other wing, Moringa is not a pufferfish or walrus, but is she really one of them? Maybe some of the rumours weren’t far from the truth, after all.

Moringa sweeps in, glides to Siger’s side, and smiles out at her colony.

“Dearest friends,” she calls, her voice like ice on ice. “It is so very, very good to be home, where I belong.” She turns, and for the space of a heartbeat Sherlock thinks she’s about to direct her frozen gaze right at him, but instead, she looks pointedly above his head, and winks.

“It was only a matter of time, I suppose,” Erebus sighs.

Chapter Text

The crèche is quiet. No one needs to tell them to settle down, not tonight. Penguins are falling asleep in heaps against each other, exhausted from the long hui and the drama of the reveals. Sherlock and John are last minute stragglers, having stayed a bit later to receive congratulations from family and friends.

John's mother had been beside herself, petting her son with one wing while wiping tears away with the other. A healer, in our family! she had cooed, nudging John's father with her hip, until he patted John on the back and harrumphed a simple, well done, sonHarriet had called him a brown-biller before disappearing with Clara, but no one would have missed the pride in her expression.

Now they’re huddled at the outer edge of the group, listening to the soft twitters and squeaks of their sleeping peers. The night sky is a dusky summer grey, and only the brightest stars are visible. John stands with his back to Sherlock's chest, and tilts his head to rest on Sherlock's shoulder. Sherlock wraps his wings around John, and pulls him in, tight.

"Was that a bit weird, there, at the end?" John asks.

"Moringa?"

"Yeah, her, but also what Erebus said, about it being only a matter of time. What did he mean?"

Sherlock has theories, but that's all they are, and not having told John about Erebus' past, he's not sure what to say now. He aims for something vague, and probably true.

"Well, I got the sense he was neither surprised, nor happy, that she came back, after living away for so long. It's possible that they knew each other before her family left the colony."

"How old is Erebus, do you think? And how long was she away?" John's bill is very close to Sherlock's cheek, and Sherlock rubs up against it before answering.

"Erebus must be about eighteen winters old now, but she's younger. Māmā said she was still a juvenile when Moringa left, and Māmā is ten, so if Moringa was eight when Māmā was two or three, Moringa is probably fifteen or sixteen winters now."

"Maybe they courted each other. Oh! Maybe they were bonded!"

"I highly doubt that," Sherlock says, distracted with his careful grooming of John's neck.

"Why?"

"Hm? Oh. Just a hunch."

John turns to face Sherlock, and bumps his bill away from his glistening feathers to get his attention.

"Sh'peng, you don't operate on hunches. What are you not telling me?"

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Don’t even start.”

"Fine. Well. Turns out, females aren't really Erebus' area."

"What?” John does not appear to understand. How can he not understand? “But you deduced that his mate had passed away recently, remember?”

“Yes. That is true.”

“So if he had a mate –”

Sherlock pulls back a bit to look down at John, to see his eyes. John’s little face is scrunched, and Sherlock really, really wants John to figure this possibility out on his own. He watches John blink, and hears him huff.

“John. Erebus did have a mate. His name was Selvic.”

John just keeps blinking.  

“John?”

“How do you know that?”

“He told me. On the way here, we talked a lot about my mesoscale ideas, and hunting, and we talked about other things, too.”

John pulls away from Sherlock, and cold air sweeps between them.

“Why did he tell you that?”

Does John sound anxious? Why does John sound anxious?

“Because he … he wanted me to know that … that it can be difficult to be different. That it was challenging for him, and for Selvic, to be together. Pengs tried to keep them apart, for a very long time. They did keep them apart. For six winters, John.”

“Who did?”

“His parents, and Selvic’s parents.”

“But why would they do that? Why would they care?”

“They thought it was wrong. They thought it was fine for young friends, but not for mates.”

John’s wing starts to shake at his side. “Sherlock, what’s one of the very first things we learned, as hatchlings? What did Vela teach us, about Kororā and Pono? What did Kororā say to Apo, when he doubted her choice?”

Sherlock knows that John has the answer to this, or he wouldn’t have brought it up, but he also knows that he wants to hear Sherlock tell the story, that it might reassure them both. Sherlock closes his eyes and digs deep, waiting for the right words to come.

Kororā told Apo that she had selected male and female mates for longer than he could possibly imagine. She told him that he could not hope to know all the mysteries of the heavens. That her own father, Kararehe, had lain with the male God of Terra to create her brother, the Father of Oceans, and with the female Goddess of Skies, to create Kororā, herself. Kororā said it was not theirs to question. She said that it was the heart of the peng that mattered, not their strength, or stature. She said only true love could create Aumārire.

John interrupts now, his voice growing loud, his shoulders pulled back, his stance wide. “And what happened when Apo went against them? What did it cost us?”

“Shh, John, you’ll wake the others.”

“I – don’t – care!”

Sherlock doesn’t know what he was expecting when he finally told John all of this, but it wasn’t indignation. He should have known, though, that in addition to, or regardless of, any implications for their own relationship, John would take issue with the greater injustice, that he would find the discrimination intolerable.

“It cost us flight,” Sherlock whispers. “It cost us all future Aumārire. It cost us ourselves, John. It cost us Kororā.”

“Exactly. Didn’t Erebus and Selvic’s parents understand?”

“I don’t know. But Erebus wanted me to know what they did, because it affected everything, the entire colony. That’s why the first Junior Council fell apart. They were both selected to serve, but then Selvic’s parents took him away, because they found out that he and Erebus were going to run away together.”

“Why did Selvic’s absence bring an end to the Junior Council? Why didn’t they just put another peng in his place?”

Sherlock thinks about this for a moment. He knows the answer, but it’s buried somewhere messy in his ice palace, someplace he’s been tossing information since he arrived at Cassiopeia.  He steeples his wings under his bill , and goes inside.

“Oh! I remember! Māmā told me that two of the original five members went missing under unusual circumstances, and the other parents didn’t want their offspring involved in anything scandalous. Oh, John. Erebus must have left, too, after they took Selvic. He must have gone looking for him.”

Sherlock’s heart hurts. John shuffles forward again, resuming his place pressed against Sherlock. It helps Sherlock’s heart hurt a little less.

“That’s so sad. Why didn’t you tell me? You should have told me.”

“I’m sorry, John. It’s been so hectic since we arrived, and I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to scare you ... away.”

“Why would that have scared me away?”

“Erebus told me all of this before I knew, really knew, that you feel the same for me as I do for you. I didn't want to assume anything. I didn't want to hear you say that his lessons couldn't possibly apply to us."

"Penggit."

"So you keep telling me. John, what if it’s like that for us?”

“For us?”

Sherlock feels squirmy inside, tied in knots. He is not built for these conversations. They’re scary. Dangerous. More dangerous than diving blue whale depths, and teasing the seals, and making Mycroft angry.  

“Sherlock? What do you mean, ‘what if it’s like that for us?’”

“If they try to keep us apart, when we’re older. If I can’t be with you, John, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

John puts his wings on Sherlock’s shoulders and steps up on top of his feet. He looks up to the night sky for a long moment, and then back at Sherlock.

“Sherlock, I can only think about today. The us that exists today is safe, right? Maybe the us in the future will need to worry. Maybe not. I don’t know. But I like us right now, and we’re okay, and I’m not going to let anyone take you away from me, or me from you.”

John steps down and pushes his way under Sherlock's wing, yawning.

"M'kay, Sherlpeng?"

"Okay, Johnling."

“And Sherlock? Tomorrow we’re going to talk to Erebus. Both of us.”

“Okay, John. Goodnight.”

John's body settles and relaxes against Sherlock's, and for once, Sherlock envies his ability to fall asleep so quickly. He thinks he must be the only one still awake in the whole sea. He listens to the wind gust in circles around them, and to the gentle sloshing of water on ice. He scans the mid-summer sky for stars, and fills in the blanks with his imagination, threading together known constellations, and then creating some new ones of his own.

He thinks he sees the tip of Kororā's bill, and maybe the quasar that represents the life of her child, unhatched, kukune. Pono doesn't shine tonight, but he knows where she would be, where he'll find her in a few moons time, when the earth tilts toward winter, and the sky goes black again. He has never felt sad for Pono in this story, for her untimely death. Had she lived, she never would have seen her lover again. This way, Pono will spend all of eternity with Kororā.

Chapter Text

The next morning starts with a flurry of activity, as the majority of the colony prepares to leave Cassiopeia and continue their summer at sea. Ever civilized, the emperors arrange themselves in a long queue along the shore, waiting for their turn to enter the water. One by one, they waddle toward the edge, clumsy and heavy on their feet, and then transform into graceful swimmers with one clean dive.

The Junior Council stands nearby, waving goodbye and calling last messages to their friends and families. Some may be reunited before the season’s end, others will wait until the migration, and some, although none acknowledge it, may never see each other again.

Sherlock is eager to get down to business. He has already shared farewells with Siger and Olive, and Mycroft is staying berg-side, to fulfil his duties to the Junior Council, and his newly assigned apprentice, Anthea. Sherlock steals a look at them now, standing off to the side.

Mycroft looks entirely too pleased with himself, with his lofty posture and the upward lift of his chin. Next to him, Anthea is just as elegant, radiating an air of understated self-importance. Yes, those two will work well together.

“What are you giggling about, ‘Ping?”

“I was looking at Mycroft. He looks as if he has an icicle rammed up his bum. I think Anthea will be a good fit for him.”

“What kind of good fit?” John says, winking at him.

“You never know, John, the polar cap may still melt in our lifetime.”

The two of them are still snickering into each other’s necks when Sherlock hears a soft ahem from behind them. They flutter apart, wiping down errant feathers, and turn to see Maryle standing there. She doesn’t wait for them to greet her before bursting into tears.

“John,” she sniffs, “could I talk to you for a moment? Alone? It’s just, I’m supposed to leave now, and I don’t know … I don’t know if …”

Sherlock would very much like to ask Maryle to just hack it up already, but John has already stepped forward, his voice soft with concern.

“Of course,” he croons, and Sherlock wants to vomit cephalopod. Instead, he grumbles under his breath, and rolls his eyes when Maryle shoots a vicious glare in his direction.

John and Maryle step a small distance away, but Sherlock cannot be bothered to afford them any privacy. He stands, facing them, and stares. Maryle clears her throat a few times and gives John pointed looks while nodding her head in Sherlock’s direction, but John either doesn’t pick up on it, or doesn’t feel inclined to move any farther away.

Maryle keeps the waterworks going as she explains to John that she’s come to think of him as her only true friend, the only “floe” to which she can cling, now that her parents are gone.

“You saved me, John, and even though I was quite upset at the time, I do understand how much I owe you, and I just want you to know, should I not come back, that you … you mean … the very world to me. And,” she continues, her voice going low, “if I do come back, I hope that we can continue to get to know one another, and continue this very special friendship.”

It’s John’s turn to clear his throat now, as Sherlock crosses his wings over his fluff-scattered chest and raises one eye. He hopes that John’s guano-radar is on high alert.

“Maryle, you are so sweet, and it was very kind of you to share these … sentiments with me. I would’ve done for any penguin what I did for you, and I will do it again if required. You just stay safe out there, okay? Stay near my parents, and Harriet, if you’d like, and don’t go out on your own, and I’m sure we’ll run into each other back at Pobeda.”

Sherlock does a tiny victory dance on his feet, a shuffle-shuffle-skid-skid number, and shakes his tail feathers. Maryle glowers at him.

“Thank you, John. Perhaps I will stay close to Harriet. That’s a good idea. I only wish … I wish …”

Sherlock sighs and scans the trudging lines of pengs in front of him. Maybe he can find Harriet and call her over to help move things along.

“I wish there’d been a place for me on the Junior Council. I’d feel so much safer here on dry berg, than out there … in the … where my parents …” Maryle starts sobbing.

Sherlock drops his head to his chest and groans. She has got to be kidding. Could she be any more transparent? He considers. Perhaps if she were of the Cranchiidae family, with their sixty-some kinds of glass squid, she could be a bit more transparent.

“Oh!” he hears John say, caught off guard. “Well, I mean, I didn’t know, none of us knew, I’m not sure what the process was, but if you’d like, I could talk to someone, I’m not really sure –”

This has really gone on quite long enough. He’s going to need more than Harriet. Sherlock swivels 180°, then again in reverse, until he spots who he’s looking for. He gives a sharp call, and the other peng twists around, sees Sherlock, and waves. He drops to his belly and toboggans down a short but steep slope, picking up good speed. He slows himself by dragging his wings as he gets closer, comes to a complete stop near Sherlock’s side, then bill-plants and pops back up.

“Good day, young Sherlock! How are you this morning?”

“Hello, Elder Erebus. I am very well, thank you. How are you?”

“Quite well, indeed, thank you for asking. Can I be of some assistance?”

Sherlock flaps a wing in John and Maryle’s general direction, and explains. “Maryle is worried that she'll be devoured in the open sea, and thinks that a role on the Junior Council, with John, may be just what she needs to stay safe.”

Erebus looks over at the other two pengs and considers. John is still blabbering about what he may or may not be able to do to help her, and Maryle is trying to dredge up more tears. After observing the situation, Erebus turns back to Sherlock and says, “Leave it to me, young Sherlock.”

Sherlock watches Erebus make his way to the disaster taking place. He looks so regal and refined, and Sherlock experiences a surge of pride that this distinguished bird is his friend.

John stops talking when Erebus reaches them, but forgets to close his bill. Erebus bows low to Maryle, and greets John with a pat on the back. Maryle bobs in response, but immediately looks suspicious. She squints over at Sherlock, and he smiles and waves.

“Good day, my young friends. It’s a beautiful morning to commence travel, don’t you agree?”

John turns to Sherlock and cocks his head to one side.

“John, might I look at your shoulder?”

John nods. Erebus leans in and takes a good look, mhmm-ing as he does so.

“It’s looking quite well, don’t you agree, Maryle? He really has been most fortunate. Not all wounds of that nature heal as nicely. Cetus must be quite pleased.

“And how are you, my dear? I was so saddened to hear of your loss. I realize you only knew them for a very short time, but your stepparents were absolutely delightful pengs, always so generous with their time and energy. They will be sorely missed.

“I've no doubt you were relieved when you heard that Elder Vela had organized a swim pod for those who have lost their parents. You will be chaperoned at all times, and should you need assistance hunting, or with anything whatsoever, they will be there for you.

“Ah, look, here they come now.”

Erebus calls to Vela, and she detours the group toward him.

Maryle is sputtering. John looks completely baffled, but not unhappy with this turn of events.

Then, like the most beautifully orchestrated underwater pirouette, Erebus slips between John and Maryle, wraps one wing securely around Maryle’s shoulders, and begins nudging her toward the approaching group.

“Ah, there you are, Maryle! We’d wondered where you’d gone off to!” Vela says by way of greeting. Sherlock half expects Maryle to dig her claws into the ice and refuse to budge, but with the exception of one imploring look at John, she allows herself to be led away.

As soon as they are safely removed, Erebus rejoins John, and the two of them make their way back to Sherlock.

“Poor thing,” Erebus sighs, looking into the middle-distance. “She must be out of her mind with grief to have forgotten about the swim pod.”

John is busy watching the group tag onto the end of the queue, and misses the smile and wink that Erebus shares with Sherlock.

“Well, now that she's settled, we should probably head to the council grounds,” Erebus says, puffing up his chest with the satisfaction of a situation well-sorted.

“Actually, if it's not too much trouble, Sir, um, Elder, Elder Erebus, Sherlock and I would like to talk with you. Me, mostly, but Sherlock, too.”

“Certainly, John. Why don't we talk on our way to the grounds? What's on your mind?”

Erebus leads the way, with John at his side. Sherlock falls a step behind, allowing John all of the elder’s attention. He wants John to feel comfortable with Erebus, and to trust him, just as Sherlock does. He wonders, when John remains silent, if he will have to broach the topic himself, but then John begins.

“Sir, Sherlock and I were talking last night, and he told me a little about you and Selvic. I’m very sorry, Sir, for your loss, and also for what the colony put the two of you through when you were younger. To be honest, it had never occurred to me that wanting to be with someone who wanted to be with you, would ever be anyone else’s business, so I was pretty angry last night.”

John looks back at Sherlock with an okay? look on his face.

“It's true. I’ve never seen you so upset, John. You were very angry,” Sherlock answers.

“I was. And I have a lot of questions about why your parents did what they did. I mean, I know that they did it because they didn’t agree with your decision, but I don’t understand why they didn’t agree with your decision. Actually, I don’t understand why they were involved, at all.”

Erebus, quiet until now, nods and stops walking. He waits for Sherlock to catch up, then says, “I appreciate your condolences very much, John. I can tell that you are a very caring young peng, and that you are struggling with what you perceive to be the injustice of my earlier life circumstances.”

John trills a soft sound of agreement, and holds out his wing toward Sherlock. Sensing that John has established himself with Erebus, Sherlock walks to John’s side, and into the curve of his wing.

“Specifically Sir, I don’t understand why your elders disregarded the lessons taught by Kororā. Not just her spoken words, but the consequences of Pono’s death, too.

“Isn't the Legend of Kororā meant to be a cautionary tale against that type of judgment, Sir? Isn't that why we lost the ability to fly, and why Kororā has never come back? Because a select few decided that Pono was not a worthy mate?"

Erebus looks at John for a long moment before answering. "Indeed. But did you know, that along with those who believe that Kororā was right to choose with her heart, there have always been others who believe that Apo was right?

“These individuals believe that the goddess brought on Pono’s death, and jeopardized her hatchling's life, when she chose the wrong mate. They believe that even the gods and goddesses are fallible, and must suffer the consequences of their misjudgements."

John shakes his head. “Are you saying that these … these pengs … think she deserved what happened to Pono? That her death proves that Apo was right?”

John looks like he’s about to hit something, and Sherlock decides it might be a good time to step in.

"Elder Erebus, excuse me Sir, but that sounds like a purposeful misinterpretation of the legend to suit the wishes of a small contingent of pengs."

Erebus gives Sherlock a solemn nod. "You are both correct. Now, let me ask you this: What would that group of pengs stand to gain by disallowing same-peng pairings?"

Sherlock doesn't want to disappoint Erebus, so he thinks long and hard before answering. "It's not about what they might gain, I don't think. Maybe it's about something they think they will lose, if things were different? Power?"

"Very good. Do you see how?"

He and John look at each other, then both shake their heads.

"Not really, sir."

"That's all right. Most pengs don't learn about colony social politics until they are much older. Same-peng couples do not reproduce, correct? Therefore, they do not need to forage as hard as parent pengs, because they have only themselves to feed. As a result, they have more time, food, and strength. They also have less risk, because their attention is not focussed on keeping a youngster safe. They might live longer, as well, although we can't dismiss the possibility of predator attacks.

"And what happens if some of the colony stops reproducing? If a small group has more than the rest? If some are stronger?"

John has been growing more and more agitated next to Sherlock, and starts answering as soon as Erebus has asked his last question.

"Sir, with all due respect, nothing happens. What percentage of the colony would actually stop reproducing? We already have pengs among us who have chosen not to reproduce, and the colony seems to be just fine.

“And, if we are kind, generous, and community-minded, as we are taught, wouldn't we continue to share our resources, and care for others, anyway?"

Erebus grins, delighted with John’s answer. "Well said, little friend, well said. But, to take this a step further, some pengs believe that same-peng couples will prompt others to select same-pengs, so that they, too, can have more food, time, and energy. They fear that the population of the colony will plummet, leaving us defenceless against the harsh elements, and more vulnerable to predator attacks. Some have even theorized that the same-pengers would take over the Council, and impose their rules on the entire colony. Frankly, they fear all sorts of ridiculous things.

"My parents were these types of thinkers. Keep in mind, there are always those who obtain positions of power by leveraging the fear they instill in others. They use that power to maintain the status quo. That is what Selvic and I came up against, and what kept us apart for so long."

Until now, John has been pressed up close to Sherlock’s side, drawing strength from his presence. Now, he takes one determined step forward, then another, and peers up at Erebus.

“With all due respect, Sir, your parents and their supporters were complete idiots.”

Erebus chuckles and rubs the top of John’s furious little head. “I appreciate your indignation upon my behalf, little one. It would be irresponsible of me, however, to not remind you that no one is all one thing, or another. Each individual is made of many, many, sometimes conflicting, layers. My parents had esteemable qualities, as well as those we’ve already discussed.”

“I’m sorry, Sir, I didn’t mean to insult them. It’s just hard to imagine a parent messing things up so badly.”

“No harm done, John. We need to join the others now, but there is one last thing I must say before we reach the council grounds.”

Erebus leans down, and Sherlock and John slip closer.

“There are pengs among us, even today,” he confides, “who claim allegiance to Apo’s beliefs. They call themselves Apologists, and they are not to be trusted.”

Chapter Text

Early March

The summer passes in a series of training sessions, practicums, and assorted group activities. There are so few emperors on Cassiopeia now, and they are reliant on each other for so much. They hunt and eat together, and huddle together at night. They learn together, and teach each other. Sherlock finds himself challenged in many new ways, and the time goes fast, but he never stops wishing for more time alone with John.

Each morning begins with a group hunt and shared breakfast. John is well enough now to swim, and it takes him no time at all to retrain his shoulder to its previous strength and flexibility. He lets Sherlock fuss over him for only a few more days, and then insists that they swim together, as equals. Sherlock gives up his role of protector with great drama and reluctance, and it’s not until John assures him that they will always watch for each other, no matter what, that he realizes that John is not asking him to stop caring. Just to stop hovering.

After breakfast, they adjourn to the training grounds. Here, the eight Junior Pengs, as they’ve come to call themselves, join the six Senior Pengs, and they spend the morning learning the workings of the colony, and the detailed history of their past. They learn the myths and legends that grew from the sky, when the world below was still only an idea. They memorize important names and events that, when strung together, create the essential journey to where, and who, they are now.

Sherlock loves this part of the day, and works hard to store away all of the information in his ice palace so that it is easy to cross-reference, analyse, and retrieve. His very favourite lessons are about the constellations. He is fascinated by the dichotomy between those vastly distant pinpoints of light, and the cultural foundations with which they are so reverently imbued.

He and John spend long evenings under those same stars, going over the day’s stories. Side to side, or with John leaning back against Sherlock, they look above, and trace the constellations’ lines and angles with their wings, and whisper the whys and hows of the legends.

They discuss the theories of how Leo came to rule over the sea lions. Could it really be that Leo was once a four legged feline, ruler of the Felidae family? And if so, where are these animals now, these tigers and lions and jaguars? What happened to Leo’s legs and paws? Was it a curse, or a blessing, that turned him into a pinniped? Sherlock and John decide that maybe it was both.

They are swept away by the romance of the legend: Leo, attempting to rescue one of his own, plunges from the heavens and into the sea. Unwilling to sacrifice the kitten clutched in his jaws, but unable to resurface with the extra weight, Leo begins to drown.

Enter Delphinus, who saves the sinking lion and his young charge, in exchange for one night with the mighty god. Leo agrees, but must transform himself into the shape of a compatible creature. The night is spent in passion, and Delphinus finds herself with child. Enchanted, Leo stays, and the first sea lions are born.

What about Hydra, then?

Why would she abandon her eels, leaving the sea-dwelling anguilliformes for the foreign, land-based squamata? Is it true that she fell in love with a land-dwelling herdsman, and forsook her aquatic family for her mortal lover’s world? Or was she cast out of heaven after tempting the goddess Virgo with forbidden harvest fruit? Or are these two tales perhaps intertwined in some way?

Sherlock wishes they had proof of these cold-blooded snakes, because without them, exile seems more likely than elopement. He says to John, not for the first time, “There is nothing like first-wing evidence.”

John, though, is content to let his imagination fill in the blanks. “Have you seen those eels when we’re hunting, Sherlpeng? Depraved, the whole lot of them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she turned her back on them and went after something better.”

Cassiopeia, herself, has a story in the stars. Pavo tells them that if, in the deepest of the darkest days, they look as far north as they can from Pobeda, they’ll see the iceberg’s mother, the Seated Queen, trying to embrace her child. She’s visible only by the five bright stars outlining her arms. She lowers them as close to the horizon as she can, over the sea and her daughter, who waits alone through the long stretch of winter, until the sun reappears.

The Seated Queen rises then, when Cassiopeia is bathed in light, neither isolated, nor alone. Is it true then, that the Seated Queen lost her daughter as punishment for her own conceit? Or did she send Cassiopeia and her twin, Andromeda, into exile to save them from a half-brother’s unwanted advances? And where is the twin, Andromeda, now?

They whisper back and forth, captivated by the heroics and exploits of the gods, until John starts to fade into sleep. Inevitably, he wriggles and nudges until he’s ensconced under Sherlock’s wing, and the mysteries of the stars are put off for another night.

In the afternoons the group dives and hunts for lunch, and then they break apart to meet as apprentice and teacher, or in John's case, apprentices and teacher.

Erebus does a good job of keeping Sherlock focused on the application of his mesoscale theories to established hunting strategies, no matter how often Sherlock tries to steer the conversation back to the Apologists, a topic about which he's been unsuccessful learning more.

John loves his lessons with Cetus, and works well with Molling and Stamfjord. Each day he shares with Sherlock the healing practices he's studied, and if possible, the reasons behind the use of particular materials. Sherlock is most interested in the science of what the healers do, although John stresses to him that, sometimes, there is as much comfort in an incantation, or calling upon the appropriate god or goddess, as there is in laying a carefully crafted poultice to a wound, or applying the right movements to a disjointed wing.

At the end of the day they swim and eat again, then gather for a debriefing of the day's events. Each Junior Peng tells the group one or two things they learned, and asks questions of each other's experiences. Sherlock eats it all up, filing away everything, no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time.

Lestra talks about the territories and habits of their predators, effective patrolling strategies, and managing outbreaks of colony violence, of which Sherlock has seen nothing, but is very curious.

Irena, the teaching apprentice, another of Sherlock's new acquaintances, shares ways to hold a group of hatchlings’ attention while instructing them, how to organize a curriculum, and how to field and answer questions from an audience. Most interesting to Sherlock is how to answer a question as if you know the answer, when, in fact, you know nothing relevant whatsoever. Why would anyone attempt to speak upon a topic about which they are uninformed?

Janine, another new addition to Sherlock's circle of known pengs, discusses the craft of original storytelling, including how to extract and use personal information from others to spin a tale. The point, she says, is to always make your audience feel involved and relevant to the story they're hearing. It bridges doubt, she says excitedly, and fosters loyalty.

Anthea stays annoyingly quiet, and shares nothing. The Senior Pengs must have an understanding with Mycroft, because no one questions her, ever. Sherlock does not trust Anthea as far as he can throw her.

John and Sherlock's visits to the ice cave are few and far between, snagged here and there when they’re granted free time in the late afternoons or early evenings. Even then, it’s hard to sneak away, as everyone is so aware of the comings and goings of everyone else. They very much want to keep their hidden lair a secret.

An opportunity comes one evening when the others have opted to use their free time diving. Sherlock claims to have a headache, and John volunteers to stay behind and watch over him. When the others have disappeared into the water, Sherlock and John slip away and begin their ascent up Cassiopeia's side.

Once tucked away in the privacy of their hideaway, John checks over their treasure and fusses over a few pieces that the wind has shifted. Sherlock loves this side of John, meticulous and nest-proud. He hovers nearby, utterly charmed as John mumbles under his breath about order and arrangement and aesthetically pleasing design. John is precious, and Sherlock's heart is full of sentiment.

He waddles over to the ice window before he embarrasses himself with some outpouring of emotional verbosity. John joins him soon after, and they go through the ritual of reading the stories in their surroundings. The tales are abbreviated now, without the colony's masses to offer inspiration. The sea is calm, the sky devoid of blemish, the horizon far and flat and dull. Neither mind.

They have more personal narratives to explore, and they turn to each other, eager to pick up where they last left off. The summer has left signs of maturity on both of them. John's grey fluff has given way to mottled black and white feathers, as has Sherlock's. Neither have achieved their adult height, but Sherlock is two sure wingtips taller than John now. Sherlock has seen his reflection in the water from time to time, and he knows that his body mirrors the changes he sees in John's. The bulk of their shape is shifting, from their hips to their chests. Their wings are elongating, which helps tremendously with balance and locomotion. They have longer, stronger tails, and longer bills, too. Most of their new height is in their torsos, but some of it is found in the stretch of their necks, too.

Sherlock loves this change the most, and indulges in it now. He leans forward and slides his cheek up and down the sleek side of John's neck. John trills a low sound of encouragement, so Sherlock does it again, and again. Soon they are entangled, neck to neck, chest to chest. John's wings stroke Sherlock's sides, and Sherlock's flutter and caress over John's shoulders.

So caught up are they in their growing ardour that they don't hear the arrival of an unexpected visitor, not until she speaks.

"Well, isn't this cosy?"

They pull apart but only John turns his head to see who has joined them. Sherlock already knows.

Moringa.

Chapter Text

John and Sherlock follow Moringa down the sloping path from their ice cave. John is furious, aggressively huffing and muttering under his breath. Sherlock, one step behind him in their single file line, can make out enough of his words – spying, no business, nerve, treasure, for the love of – to get the general gist.

Sherlock listens to John with one ear, but focusses most of his energy on analysing the potential outcomes of Moringa’s surprise visit, and categorizing their most effective responses. He watches the set of her shoulders as she plods along in front of them, the haughty tilt of her head, the arrogant way she holds her tail out behind her. This peng, Sherlock thinks to himself, walks like a bird who has never slipped and felt the hard ice meet her behind. Or, he reconsiders, a bird who wants everyone to believe exactly that about her.

Half-way down the berg Sherlock has narrowed down Moringa’s motives to three possibilities, the Senior Pengs’ responses to two, and John and Sherlock’s best strategies to one. He lets his mind rest and his body take over, one foot in front of the other, the ice cold and wet under the rough pads of his feet. He lets the wind buffer and sway him, and the taste of the sea air rest on his tongue. He watches John, head down, grumbling into his chest, and tries to send him reassuring thoughts.

These thoughts consist of telepathic messages such as She’s an idiot, Johnling, and You have a very cute bum. He does not detect any decrease in John’s rate of sputtering. He keeps trying.

The Junior and Senior Pengs have just finished swimming, and are ambling inland from the shore when Moringa and her charges reach the base of the iceberg. She stands, imperious in spirit and body language, and waits for the group to cross the flat plain and join them. The night is as dark as it’s going to get, which is not very dark at all, and the icy mountain behind them stands in stark relief against the violet and salmon coloured sky.

Sherlock taps John on the back, and when John looks at him, his face still pinched in a scowl, Sherlock shrugs his head in the direction of the dusk-smeared sunset, and smiles. John’s precious face softens a bit, and his eyes lose some of their murderous glare. He shuffles closer to Sherlock and aligns their wings. It’s the most minimal of contact, but it makes Sherlock feel as if he’s united with the entire universe.

The group is almost upon them now, and Sherlock can see that Mycroft has seen, observed, and dissected everything there is to know. He looks neither dismissive, nor despairing. Mostly, he looks annoyed. Sherlock finds this acceptable.

Stamfjord and Lestra are laughing and roughhousing, trying to knock each other over. Janine, Irena, and Molly are chatting amongst themselves, and have not noticed the party of three standing in their path.

Erebus, however, has not only noticed them, but has taken on the countenance of a perturbed peng who has had entirely enough of someone else’s nonsense. John’s left wing is spasming against Sherlock’s right.

“Elders!” Moringa calls out, as if she’s addressing the entire colony. “We have a hara on our wings!”

Oh, hardly, Sherlock thinks. Since when is it a crime to neck a little bit? Next to him, John makes a noise between a choke and a hiss.

He aha hoki tāu?” Erebus answers, immediately taking charge of the situation.

“My problem, Erebus, is that these two pengs were halfway up the iceberg, hidden away in a secret lair, and they were … they were …”

“They were?”

“They were … onioni. I saw them with my own two eyes!”

The other juveniles fall about, snickering and clasping their wings over their bills. Pavo and Vela look thoroughly confused, and Mycroft rolls his eyes so hard Sherlock wonders if they might not get stuck staring backwards at his brain.

Erebus, though; Erebus pulls himself up to his full height, rises up on his toes, and shouts. “They are eight moons old, Moringa! They are not capable of onioni, nor do they have the anatomical maturity to do that of which you accuse them!”

“Oh, please, you know what I mean, Erebus! You, of all pengs, know what I mean!”

“You said they were mating, Moringa.”

Moringa ruffles her feathers and trills in dismissal. “Copulation, making love, you know what I mean! They were all over each other, they were ‒”

“ENOUGH!”

Everyone turns and looks at Mycroft now. Sherlock must admit, he’s rather intimidating when he wants to be, and the roar he just let out was enough to startle an elephant seal.

“These are not harmless accusations to be thrown to the winds, for all to hear and entertain! If you have any formal complaint against an emperor of this colony, you will follow the proper procedures for lodging it, and the Council will hear you.

“Until then, I would warn against further public defamation of these two pengs of fine name and good standing. Have I made myself clear?”

Moringa takes the verbal slapdown in her stride, and does not back down. “This is absurd! Am I not also an emperor of fine name and good standing? I saw what I saw, and my word alone, as a member of the Senior Council, should be the totality of any procedure required.”

“Please, Moringa,” Pavo says, stepping forward, “Do take care with your words. Let's move out of the wind and to the Council grounds, where we can discuss this properly.”

"Fine. I do hope that what I have to say will be met with less resistance," and here she glares at Erebus, "and that the nature of this hara will be taken seriously." She turns to make her way toward the Council grounds, effectively ending the conversation.

There is a flutter of activity from the younger pengs now, all of whom have been standing in a huddle, bills agape. Lestra pushes forward from between Stamfjord and Molly and squeaks something unintelligible, then clears his throat, and starts again.

"Um, excuse me?"

Moringa stops, but does not turn around. All eyes but hers are on Lestra, who looks like he might change his mind and disappear back into the huddle at any moment.

"Lestra?" Mycroft's look of annoyance has given way to amusement. "Have you something to say?"

"I do, and I'd rather say it now, sir, before I forget. See, the thing is, as apprentice to the Peacekeeper, albeit one who has only just recently rejoined her native colony, I have already learned quite a bit about dispute resolution, tribal law, and the like."

Moringa turns so slowly, Sherlock isn't sure she's actually moving. She stops when she is in profile, then twists her neck so that she can peer, disbelieving, at her pupil. Sherlock wills Lestra to keep going before he's intimidated into silence. She's an idiot, You can do this, Unless you're about to further indict us, then you should probably stop now.

"Have you now, young sir?" Erebus asks. "I am sure we are all most interested in what you have to say. This is, after all, one of the reasons we've recreated the Junior Council, is it not?"

He has asked this question to no one in particular, but almost everyone begins to nod. Almost everyone.

"Right. Well then, I would just like to point out that each and every peng is entitled to due process, and that due process is based on three important pillars of respect.

"First, each and every peng, regardless of age, ancestry, pairing status, or Council affiliation, is entitled to a private airing of any grievance against them, so that the allegations brought forward cannot bias the colony before the Council can form an opinion and announce action.

"Second, the Council is required to hear from all pengs involved, including secondary witnesses, regarding said allegations. An accused peng can choose to waive his or her right to share their version of events, but in response, the Council has the right to solicit impressions on behalf of the accused.

"Third, there are only two crimes that can result in a guilty verdict, as every single other hara is meant to be dealt with in a productive, rather than punitive manner, with consequences including, but not limited to, mediation sessions for the parties involved, private counselling, skill retraining, and probationary periods."

Lestra gains confidence as he speaks, and the words roll off his tongue, fast and furious. He leaves no room for interruption.

"The two crimes for which a peng can be found guilty are murder, and egg abandonment, and the consequences for those crimes are determined on a case by case basis."

Moringa's feathers are standing erect, almost perpendicular to her body, and Sherlock imagines he can feel the waves of indignant heat rolling off of her. Next to him, John's wing has stopped its incessant tensing, and is lying, relaxed, against his own.

"I am new to this, as you know, and I may be wrong, but it seems to me that we are in danger of violating the first tenet of due process. Should that happen," Lestra continues, settling back on his heels and crossing his wings as if preparing to stay for a while, "the Council will need to initiate an entirely separate investigation into the matter of the violation --"

"Well done, Lestra. If I might interrupt you for just one moment?" Erebus rocks back and forth, his wings clasped behind his back. "And well done to you, too, Moringa. I cannot find the words to express how extraordinarily pleased I am with your diligent efforts toward training your apprentice. Truly, his grasp of emperor law, after only a few moons, is to be commended.

“Lestra, you have provided us with an excellent summation of the precautions that must be taken when one emperor brings a charge against another; however, I believe this would be the right time to end our group conversation. The Senior Council will pick this up again at the Council grounds, when you young ones are asleep, and we can talk about next steps.”

"Let's get on with this, shall we?" Moringa resumes walking away from the group, and slowly, one by one, the others follow. Sherlock and John take up next to their friends, and fall into step behind the elders.

"What was that all about?" Molly whispers.

"Nothing, really. Sherlock and I were cuddling, that's all. I mean, for Poseidon's sake, that's what penguins do."

"Lestra, do you think she has a chance of getting them in trouble?" Stamfjord looks genuinely concerned, with his brow drawn and head inclined conspiratorially toward the others.

"Nah. There's more stuff I learned that I didn't get to say. The Council needs a quorum to proceed, for example. That means," he says, seeing some confused expressions, "that there must be a previously agreed upon majority of Council members in place before any vote can be taken. Our quorum is set at five out of seven Councilpengs."

"But we have that," Janine says. "We have six."

"Yes," Sherlock pipes up now. "But I imagine, and Lestra, please correct me if I'm wrong, that Moringa will be recused from the proceedings, because she's the one bringing whatever ridiculous allegation she thinks she has against us. She won't get a vote. She can only present her case."

Lestra nods in agreement. "Yes, that's correct. And honestly, I can't imagine the others will take any of this seriously."

"But that still leaves five," Janine says.

"Wait, though," Irena asks. "Can Mycroft participate, since he's related to Sherlock, and might be considered biased?"

"He's usually biased against me."

"No, she's right, though. No one would know for sure, should he vote to dismiss the allegations, if he did it for the right reasons." John has been quiet until now, but sees the way the numbers are aligning and gains confidence.

"So, that would leave Pavo, Vela, Erebus, and Cetus. That's not a quorum."

"So, what, then? We wait until after the migration back to Pobeda to see if there will be consequences for cuddling?" Molly starts giggling, and Irena joins her.

"We'll have to ban the crèche, and the incubation huddles, and maybe the brooding pouches, too!" They've fallen further behind the elders as they've talked, but are almost at the Council grounds, and shush each other and hurry to catch up.

Lestra tugs on Sherlock's wing before they arrive, and the two hang back for a moment.

"Hey, listen, I don't know what really happened, and I'm not asking for any details, but the two of you may want to chill it down a bit for the foreseeable future."

Sherlock considers asking how much more chill they can get, given their habitat, but suspects he should meet Lestra's seriousness with some of his own.

"We aren't doing anything wrong. Are we? What are we doing wrong?"

Lestra wriggles his shoulders and looks away toward the group. "It's just, you guys take the regular peng cuddling to all new levels. It's like you can't keep your wings off each other sometimes. And it's fine, it's not like you're doing anything wrong, but if Moringa is willing to go so far as to say that you and John were, well, you know, then maybe don't give her so much to work with."

Sherlock considers. On one wing, it doesn't matter if he and John are innocent, not if Moringa has made up her mind to cause trouble for them. On the other wing, no way is he going to cease plastering himself up against John whenever possible, especially since it isn't a hara.

"Thank you, Lestra. I see what you're saying. I'll take it under advisement with John."

Lestra nods. "Yeah, okay. Just one more thing. If I can help you guys in any way, with the peng law or colony rules, let me know. John's a good friend, and so, I guess, by extension, you know ..."

Sherlock thinks Lestra may be even more inept at this type of thing than he is.

"I understand. And, um, yes, you, too. Me, too, I mean."

The two pengs clear their throats and randomly groom some feathers that do not need to be groomed, then join the rest of the group.

Chapter Text

Hudi is furious. Sherlock is sure that if the older penguin hadn’t been raised in an era of genteel manners and all-things-civil, she’d be tearing Moringa apart, feather by feather. He watches her barely manage to contain her fury, and adds two pieces of information to his ice palace: 1. Hudi is a bad ass mother peng, and 2. She needs to be bumped up on his list of “allies to bring with you into a dark crevice.”

The Junior pengs are huddled now, or something close to huddled. One by one, sometimes one by two, or two by three, they whisper pieces of the Moringa debacle to their carekeeper. Somehow, she assimilates their random bits of data, and strings them all together until she has the complete story. When it comes together in her mind, solid as a tale carved in ice, she appears to grow twice her size.

She circles them, packing them in as tight as she can, muttering to herself the entire time. “Of all the feather-brained things I’ve ever heard … as if she would know onioni if she saw it … dried up old … jealous of anyone else’s affection … have half a mind to shake some sense into her … teach her a thing or two … and after all the hard work … shouldn’t have let her know in the first place … over my dead body …”

The pengs around Sherlock are foostering and fluttering, trying to get comfortable, but everyone is listening, and all of their heads move in synchronicity as she continues to circle, pressing and smoothing as she fusses over their sleep arrangements. Sherlock, always on the outside, has a prime position to hear her utterances every time she passes him. John, belly to belly with him, has craned his neck up and over Sherlock’s shoulder, so he can listen, too. Sherlock tries not to be distracted by the full body contact.

She takes a step back now and cocks her head to one side, inspecting her work. “Janine, stop slouching, you’re creating a gap between yourself and Lestra. Anthea, we need to fatten you up a bit; you’re too thin for anything but the middle of the huddle. Bless you, Stamfjord, you’re a regular peng hotspot, you are. Irena, move closer to Stamfjord.”

She licks the tip of her wing and holds it up above her head. “The wind is dying down a bit, but it’s low and moving counter-moon. Shift with it, not against it, if you get cold.”

She’s been saying the same things to them each and every night of the summer, ever since the rest of the colony left, when she was left in charge of their care and safety. She has taken this responsibility above and beyond any expectation anyone could have had. Sometimes Sherlock thinks she must believe they’re all still hatchlings, but he sees how important it is to her, so he never disallows her the notion that they cannot survive a night without her. Who knows? Maybe they can’t.

They all watch as she stomps away to rejoin the elders, still irate at what the younger pengs have told her. Eight pairs of sleepy eyes track her every movement, half-hoping for some sort of showdown between the two spinsters. When she reaches the older emperors, arranged in a discussion circle, she wedges herself between Erebus and Cetus, and with great agitation, begins to whisper directly into Erebus’ ear. Sherlock watches Erebus nod now and then, and then, coming to the conclusion that there will be no spectacle forthcoming, he relaxes against John, and closes his eyes.

The next morning, he wakes earlier than the others. Stretching, blinking, he surveys the scene before him. Irena and Janine are snuggled together in the middle of the huddle, Anthea back-to-back with Janine, and close to, but not touching, Stamfjord’s side. Lestra is back-to-back with John, and belly-to-belly with Molling. Interesting.

He takes a careful step away from John while nudging Stamfjord and Lestra into his place, making sure that John resettles against them before he removes himself from the crèche. If he wasn’t fully awake before, the rush of cold air that surrounds him now does the job.

Nearby, the Senior Council prepares for the day. Mycroft and Cetus have just emerged from the water after their morning ablutions, and are drying themselves with their bills. Pavo and Vela are removing fish bones and shed feathers from the area, and Hudi and Erebus are moving through a series of slow exercises to loosen and elongate their backs, necks, and wings. Moringa is nowhere in sight.

Sherlock considers his options, and heads toward Cetus. As he approaches, Mycroft looks up and gives him a questioning look. Sherlock gestures toward the other peng, and Mycroft gives a small signal of acknowledgment, exchanges a quick word with Cetus, and waddles away. The healer finishes grooming with one last shake of his feathers, and smiles at Sherlock.

“You’re up early this morning, Sherlock.”

“I have a lot on my mind, Elder Cetus. I found it difficult to sleep.”

“Understandably so. What can I do to help alleviate your unease?”

“I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?"

“Of course. And hopefully, I’ll be able to answer them.”

Sherlock looks over his shoulder to make sure no one else has wandered within earshot. Taking his cue, Cetus steps further down the shore, putting more distance between them and the rest of the Senior Council.

Sherlock thinks back to the questions he asked at Mycroft’s presentation hui, only five moons ago, and yet, most of his lifetime.

“Elder Cetus, I have learned that Aptenodytes forsteri do not reach reproductive maturity until approximately three winters of age. I suspect this is why Elder Erebus said that John and I could not have been engaged in onioni, because it would be biologically impossible to reproduce.”

Cetus nods, but remains silent.

“I only tell you this now because I know I will be asked later. John and I were not in the mating position, as it has been explained to me. So, I am not overly worried about Elder Moringa’s claims. Her sanity, perhaps, but not her claims.”

Cetus fidgets, and Sherlock realizes that he’s trying not to laugh.

“I do wonder, though, about what is happening inside my body, to make me want to, well, to touch John all the time. And I want to know if it’s going to get worse. I mean, not that it’s bad. But I don’t want to get John in trouble for what feels natural to me. And so, if it’s going to get stronger, these physical feelings that I possess, I wonder if there is a method to, perhaps, lessen those feelings?”

Cetus takes a deep breath, humming in consideration when he exhales. His expression is a study in focussed concentration.

“Sherlock, my dear peng, I do wish all emperors were as straightforward and unabashed in their curiosity as you. It would save so many of them so much confusion and misunderstanding.

“Your feelings are natural. You are an adolescent now, changing rapidly from a chick to an adult. The changes in your outward appearance are mirrored by changes inside your body, as well, and these developments are rather drastic at times.

“I have examined the bodies of many deceased penguins over the passing of many moons. Although very sad, some of these were the bodies of young chicks, and some were juveniles, like yourself, and of course, some were quite elderly.”

Sherlock struggles to pay attention, even as dozens of new questions flood his mind with each and every word Cetus speaks. Examined deceased pengs? Dissections, perhaps? Where? How? Can he watch?

“ – various differences based on age. The reproductive organs change over time, with the demands put upon them during different life stages. I am not entirely sure of the purpose of everything I have seen, and I suspect there exists many important processes that are invisible to the eye.

“For example, why is it that all emperors court, and then mate, at the same time each winter season? I am convinced that something inside the body is heightened, perhaps released into our blood, or our brain, that causes these behaviours. But what? I do not know.

“I think, young Sherlock, when the call comes upon you, you will find yourself quite incapable of stopping it. Your body will direct your thoughts, instead of the other way around.”

Sherlock highly doubts this, given how hard he has worked to manage both his thoughts and his body, but he doesn’t interrupt. Instead, he directs his frustration into his furrowed brow.

“Perhaps I have drifted in my explanations. What I endeavour to tell you, Sherlock, is that there is a long behavioural and experiential continuum between chick and adult; between wanting only basic needs met, and wanting the social and biological imperative of a mate and family. Your urges to connect with and touch one another are natural, and yes, they will become stronger over time. However, they will not lead you toward inappropriate action, not as long as your body remains unprepared.”

“Does this mean, Sir, that I will not find myself wanting to mate before my body is ready, or that I will want to mate before my body is ready, but the action will not be effective, and therefore, cannot be inappropriate? And if the latter, why would some consider it improper, and if it is improper, surely there is a way to stop it?”

Cetus smiles and pats Sherlock on the shoulder. “You are insatiable in your quest for knowledge, aren’t you?"

“It seems important, Elder Cetus, given yesterday’s histrionics.”

Again, Cetus appears to stifle a laugh. “Ah-hm. Yes, indeed. Sherlock, exploration is natural. Enjoy yourself. It is not inappropriate or improper, but no, as far as I am aware, there is no way to dampen those feelings. I have, in the past, found certain marine components to reduce hunger during the long moons of incubation, and to revive airflow after a near drowning, but I have yet to find something to alter the emotions or outcomes of reproduction. Does that help?”

Sherlock checks off items on a mental list, and nods. “Yes, Sir. That helps. I only have one other question, but I am not sure that anyone here will have an answer.”

“And what is that, if I may ask?”

“If our feelings are natural, and our actions were not inappropriate, deductive reasoning leads me to conclude that Moringa took offense only in that we are both males. Why would that be wrong?”

Cetus offers Sherlock a weak smile and shakes his head. “That, my son, is one for the ages.”

Behind them Erebus calls the morning hui to order, and Sherlock and Cetus make their way back.

Chapter Text

Moringa’s complaint is summarily postponed for the very reasons Lestra explained. She and Mycroft cannot participate in the proceedings; therefore, they do not have a quorum. Sherlock can tell that Moringa is angry, but resigned. She will not fight something she cannot change, but she will wait, and try again when the Senior Council reunites with Siger, after the migration back to Pobeda.

The summer is coming to an end, but there is still much work to do. The Junior Council has been informed that they will stay in training on the iceberg until the new moon, at which time they can expect the first of the colony to reach Cassiopeia on their way home. The Junior and Senior Councils will join that pod, and begin the long journey back. According to Sherlock’s calculations, they have eight more days, nine nights, until then.

John and Sherlock are careful not to draw what they have termed the not so good type of attention. They are very clear with each other about what the not so good type of attention entails. First, doing anything in public that could be misconstrued as adultish, adultish meaning sexual. Second, doing anything that anyone could justifiably discipline them for. Third, any attention whatsoever from Moringa.

After one day of their new behavioural plan, Sherlock comes to the conclusion that the entire thing is stupid. John consoles him with a quick hug and bill rub, then moves away to something else they have discussed and agreed upon: a respectable distance. The sun has only crossed a small fraction of the sky before Sherlock comes to the conclusion that this, too, is stupid.

Each night, Sherlock looks forward to the evening crèche with a longing exponentially related to the length of their blasted respectable distance. Dinner is barely finished, grooming hardly begun, when Sherlock starts jostling John to the wind-protected huddling spot.

“I’m not done eating,” John complains the first time it happens. Sherlock sighs and sulks and taps his foot until John glares and spits a fish bone at him.

“It’s the middle of the day, Sherlock,” John whines the second time it happens.

“Sherlock, no one is at the crèche yet, not even Hudi. It would just be the two of us, standing by ourselves, looking like penggits,” John says the third time.

Sherlock’s slow unravelling is only halted by the fact that eventually, they must go to sleep, and if they must go to sleep, they must huddle, and if they must huddle, he must attach himself to John the way a barnacle attaches to a whale: with no intention of ever letting go.

If John is annoyed at him during the day, and Sherlock deduces that he is, he sheds that annoyance the moment they’re tucked up together, belly-to-belly, bill-to-bill, under the constellations. Then, with their wings wrapped around each other, with no need for respectable distances, they can murmur mythology, and whisper words of adoration, until John snuggles up under Sherlock’s wing, and falls asleep.

And even then, Sherlock soaks up John’s little snores, his sleep-mumbling, his shifting about on Sherlock’s toes, and stores them up for the next day, when he will have to work hard to deflect the not so good type of attention.

They have not been back to their ice cave since Moringa’s surprise visit. There is little opportunity for free time, and when they have it, they cannot justify the potential risk. Even if, John tells Sherlock, they stand on opposite sides of the cave and take a nap, Moringa would be able to spin a tale of the two of them sneaking away, unchaperoned, to be adultish.

“Then let’s bring a chaperone, John. Let’s bring Hudi. And we can stand on opposite sides of the cave and take a nap if we have to, but let’s not allow that bitter old bag of feathers to completely curtail our actions.”

John considers, and can find no reason to disagree. For the first time since the entire debacle began, John seems truly happy. His whole face lights up when he tells Sherlock that this would be the perfect opportunity to check on their treasure.

“You’re right, Sherlock. We never did anything wrong in the first place. This whole thing is nenekara.”

“It’s beyond ridiculous, John. It’s kuku.”

“Completely kuku. Let’s go ask Hudi.”

Hudi listens as they explain that they would like to check on their treasure before the migration home, and happily nods her head when they ask her to chaperone them.

“Of course! It would be my pleasure. And the exercise would do my hip some good, too. I haven’t hiked up there in more winters than I can count.”

“You’ve been to the ice cave before?”

Sherlock has a hard time imagining this, but Hudi winks at him and says, “You’re not the first two young pengs to drive each other to distraction, you know.”

They agree to meet right after lunch at the path that leads to the cave, and Hudi hustles away to tell the other Senior pengs about the change in her afternoon plans.

Sherlock puffs up like a blowfish, full of pride at their success, and John sneaks him a quick peck on the bill.

After lunch John and Sherlock wait at the foot of the path, chirping in excitement about the opportunity to revisit the cave one last time. John has spent what little free time he’s had between the morning meeting and his session with Cetus, scouring the shoreline and flat plains of the berg for new treasure. Under his wing he’s tucked a dark grey feather in excellent condition. Sherlock inspects it, careful to not separate the still-adhered barbs, and declares that it is from a lightly-mantled sooty albatross.

John is just putting the specimen back in place, when Hudi toboggans over, skidding to a halt at their feet.

“Ready?”

She has a long strand of something red and leafy draped over her neck, and both Sherlock and John stare at her as if she’s grown a Narwhal horn.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, looking back and forth between them. “Oh! This! I think you’ll like this idea, my friends. If you lay this over your treasure while the seaweed is still wet, it will freeze to the ice, and seal your bits and pieces until next summer.”

Sherlock nods appreciatively, and John reaches out to poke at one of the leaves.

“I should have thought of that myself!” Sherlock exclaims, leaning forward to get a closer look. “Is it Palmaria decipiens? I’ve heard of it, but have never seen it before.”

“It is! Erebus knew just where I could find some! See how thin it is? It will freeze in place, but you’ll be able to tear it easily from the ice next summer. If you need to loosen anything from it, you can just rinse it in seawater.”

Sherlock thinks Hudi is marvellous, so he tells her so.

“I think you’re marvellous. Thank you so much for doing this for us.”

Hudi laughs and waves them on.

“You’re rather marvellous yourself, Sherlock. Let’s start, shall we?”

The trek up the iceberg takes a little longer than usual with Hudi in tow, but John and Sherlock are happy to slow down their pace in order to accommodate her. Along the way they chat about the upcoming migration home, and what they’re most looking forward to.

Hudi is looking forward to seeing her friends, from whom she’s been separated most of the summer. John is looking forward to learning more about the healing practices from Cetus. Sherlock is looking forward to not being the centre of so much not so good attention, and being more openly affectionate with John, hidden in plain sight among the masses.

They stop talking as they approach the entrance to the cave, each of them out of breath, each silently anticipating their time here. John enters first, then Sherlock, then Hudi. Hudi has only one foot inside the cave when John shrieks. The call is one of outrage and warning. Sherlock doesn’t make a peep. He is too shocked to open his bill.

Everything is gone. Every single feather, every tiny artefact, bone and shell. The seal tooth. It’s all gone.

“She took it! She took everything!” John yells, wings flapping, feathers fluffing. “I can’t believe it! Why would she do that? It was ours! Our treasure! It couldn’t have meant anything to her!”

Sherlock wants to step forward and soothe John, but is afraid of getting knocked in the head with an errant wing. His own rage simmers inside, but he tamps it down for now, not wanting to add to John’s spectacular display. His is enough for both of them.

Hudi goes to the ice window and looks down on the iceberg below them. She considers the sea, the horizon, and the sky, then turns back to her two charges.

“The treasure means nothing to her, my little pengs. Hurting you means much, much more. I am so very sorry that this has happened. My heart breaks that any emperor among us would set such a poor example, but especially one that sits on the Council.”

John is crying now, fat tears rolling down his sleek cheeks, slipping over his smooth white chest, freezing to the ice at his feet. Sherlock moves in and pulls John’s head down to his shoulder and holds him close, then warbles a soft call of comfort, just like the ones Olive made to him when he was a hatchling.

“I’ll kill her. I swear to Poseidon, I’ll kill her.”

“Shh, John. Shhh.”

Hudi turns back to the window.

 

 

The others are assembled for the last group assembly before dinner when they arrive back to the Council grounds. The other Junior pengs greet them with enthusiasm and ask about their pahī.

Hudi rushes to answer first, as John looks like a tiny, feather-encrusted volcano about to explode.

“Our expedition was quite exhilarating! We discovered all sorts of interesting new things!”

Sherlock watches the Senior pengs for their reactions. Erebus and Cetus smile and nod, Vela and Pavo make small bows of recognition, and Mycroft doesn’t react at all, unless perhaps his usual frown is slightly different in some way that Sherlock cannot detect.

Moringa looks away, feigning indifference.

 

 

The Junior pengs gather for the evening, having been sent to huddle by Erebus, instead of Hudi.

“She’ll be along shortly, young ones, do not fear. She is presently attending to a different matter, but should be done momentarily.”

Sherlock’s undercoat bristles with suspicion. Where is Hudi?

As soon as Erebus has left them in their huddle, Sherlock whispers to John that he will be right back, and he slips off. Twenty steps away he hears something behind him, and leaps into a spinning twist, ready to catch his attacker.

“You penggit, it’s me. As if I’m going to let you go sneaking off on your own.”

“Ah, John. Fine. Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?”

“To find out what Hudi is up to. Be quiet.”

The two of them sneak away in the opposite direction of the Council grounds and crèche. They slip to their bellies and slide as stealthily as they can, staying close to the base of the berg and off the broader, more visible plains.

They are about to round the curve that will lead them back to the path that leads to the cave, when the wind carries a hiss of conversation to their ears. Sherlock drags his feet to stop himself, and John plants his face into Sherlock’s tail feathers.

“This is not the time or place, John!”

“It was an accident!”

The voices get louder as they sneak closer. Backs to the berg, they halt just before the curve of the ice would give them away. Sherlock cups his wingtips to his aural patches, and leans in as far as he dares. The wind cooperates only every few words.

– absolutely intolerable – do such a thing – harmless pengs – little hearts! – the satisfaction of – makes me wonder – you really are – on earth –”

“Hudi,” Sherlock whispers over his shoulder to John.

– silly – could not care less – stupid feathers – dare you accuse – told you – put up with this – on which side – over!

“Moringa?” John asks.

Sherlock nods in affirmation.

– had I known – voted in favour – bring you back – seriously need to – whether or not – right decision – said and done – let it go – send you back!

– not tell me – ruined my family – stand by – all over again!

Sherlock has heard enough. He knows that what they are doing, spying on two adults, would unequivocally result in some serious not so good attention. They slip back to the crèche, and when Hudi returns, Sherlock is pretending to be asleep, and John really is.

Chapter Text

The next morning Sherlock waits until Hudi wanders down to the water for her daily ablutions, before nudging John awake. John mumbles and fusses and tries his hardest to burrow back under Sherlock’s wing, but Sherlock manages, for once, not to succumb to the adorableness of John, and insists that he wake up.

John raises his head and blinks at him, smacks his bill together a few times, and slumps against Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock perseveres.

“John, I’m serious, wake up!” Sherlock whispers.

He doesn’t want to wake the other pengs in the huddle. He knows by now that he can trust Molling, Lestra, and Stamfjord, but still he has no idea what to make of Irena and Janine. And Anthea? No. She mustn’t hear a single word of what he has to say.

“What’re you all in a fluff about, Sherlock? It’s not time to wake up. Time to snuggle.”

“Stop being cute, Johnling!”

John sighs and rubs his eyes with his wings. He slouches down even more, his chin flat against Sherlock’s chest, and stares up at him.

“Okay. I’m awake.”

“John. Do you remember what we overheard last night?”

“Hudi and Moringa fighting?”

“SHHHH!”

“I remember.”

“I think I’ve pieced together what they were talking out.”

“Yeah?”

“Hudi and Moringa were fighting last night?” Molling’s little face peeps up over Lestra’s shoulder.

“No. Nope. Not at all. Go back to sleep.”

“Who was fighting?” Lestra asks Molling.

“Hudi and Moringa,” Molling answers, eyes still on John and Sherlock.

Sherlock glares down at John and gives him his best see what you did? face.

“You asked! You asked if I remembered, and I was just clarifying! I’m tired. You should’ve let me sleep.”

“What were they fighting about?” Lestra and Molling have wiggled their way through the others and are now pressed up against Sherlock and John.

“About where to go for breakfast today.”

Lestra stands up on his toes and glances back toward the Council grounds.

“I’d hurry up and tell us the truth, if I were you, because she’s going to come back any time now, and if you don’t tell us, I’ll ask her myself.”

“Oh for the love of – fine! But it won’t make any sense at all, without the backstory.”

“Better get started, then. What’s the backstory?”

“John and I found an ice cave halfway up the berg. We go there sometimes to hang out. We like to bring special items we find –”

“Treasure,” John interjects.

“– treasure, yes, fine, little things like feathers and bones and dried sea plants.”

“It was all very special to me,” John sniffs.

“I know, Johnling. I’m sorry.”

“Johnling? Is that like Molling?”

“Shhh, Lestra, let him talk.”

“That’s where we were when Moringa found us –”

“Ambushed us!”

“– ambushed us, and made those kuku accusations. Well, John and I knew we couldn’t go up there alone again, so we asked Hudi to go with us, as a chaperone.”

“Not that we need a chaperone.”

“Not that we need one. We went yesterday, after lunch, and –”

“She had stolen everything! Our entire treasure!”

John is definitely awake now.

“She stole your treasure?” Molling’s face is the very definition of indignant. “That’s, that’s, that’s just awful!

“I KNOW!” John stands on Sherlock’s feet now, back to front, the top of his head crammed under Sherlock’s bill. “What on earth and sea would she need our feathers for? And fish bones? And a seal tooth?”

Everyone falls quiet. Molling and Lestra are staring above Sherlock’s head and shuffling back and forth on their feet.

“What seal tooth would that be, if you don’t mind me asking, young friends?”

Sherlock wraps his wings around John and shuffles around in a circle, bringing John with him.

“Good morning, Elder Erebus. How are you this morning, sir?”

“I find myself of a most curious nature this morning, young Sherlock. Thank you for asking. And how are all of you? You certainly are awake at a crisp and vibrant time of day, aren’t you?”

The four junior pengs greet Erebus. How the other three manage to sleep on is beyond Sherlock, but he’s grateful for their continued slumber and silence.

“Wonderful. I’m so glad to hear that you are all well. Now, Sherlock and John, would you do me the favour of walking with me for a while? I do enjoy a little walkabout first thing in the morning, and I believe that we have something of importance to discuss.”

Erebus nods and bows to Molling and Lestra, who stare up at him in intimidated wonder, and gestures for Sherlock and John to follow him.

They are some distance away from the crèche when Erebus stops, turns to them, and speaks.

“Dearest young pengs, I do apologize. I neither meant to startle you, nor worry you, when I approached the crèche, but I am glad that I intervened when I did.

“I have spoken with Hudi, and she has informed me of the loss of your personal artefacts from the ice cave. She feels certain that Moringa absconded with these items. I must admit, I was reluctant to assign blame so soon, without endeavouring to understand her motives. Now, however, I believe I may understand.

“John, young sir, as I approached the crèche this morning, I believe I overheard you say something about a seal tooth. Would that be correct?”

“Yes, sir. It was ours. She took it.”

“And where did you find your seal tooth?”

“On the path, sir, on the path that Sherlock and I take to the ice cave. It’s the longer one, the one that curves around the back and side of the peak, because when we first started going to the cave, my shoulder was still injured, and that path isn’t as steep as the regular path.”

“I completely understand. Do go on.”

“Well, that’s all, sir. We found it about halfway up that path, not long after we started going to the cave.”

Erebus looks up at the sky for a long moment, then looks back at them and nods.

“I understand. And now it’s gone?”

“Yes, sir. Why would she do something so mean?”

“Did you tell Hudi exactly what had been taken?”

“I don’t think so, sir. It didn’t seem important.”

Sherlock knew the moment Erebus asked them to step away that there was something significant about Moringa’s actions, something far more deliberate than merely wanting to further upset two young pengs with whom she has a fish bone to pick. The line of Erebus’ questioning leaves no doubt in his mind.

“Sir? Why is the seal tooth so important?”

Erebus smiles at Sherlock.

“That depends, Sherlock, on whether or not it is the seal tooth.”

“Which?”

“Before I answer, let me ask you this. Could you tell, from looking at the tooth, if it was recently lost of its owner, or if it was an older specimen?”

“There was no blood on it, sir, and no root left. It was yellowed, and chipped, and quite large. I was of the impression that it was a tooth lost long ago, and lost from an elder seal, as well.”

“I see. I agree with you, it does not sound like a recent loss, or a young tooth.”

“Is that relevant?”

“It very well may be.”

John has been looking back and forth between them while they’ve discussed the attributes of the tooth, and now takes his chance to speak.

“You forgot something, Sherlock. The snowflake, remember?”

“Oh! Yes, of course. On the back of the tooth, sir, toward the pointed end, there was a shape, like a snowflake, with six points. It looked as if it had been etched, but there were no grooves at all. It was a slightly different colour, too, quite golden. It was very peculiar.”

Erebus closes his eyes and hums.

“Is that important, sir, about the snowflake?” John asks, not wanting to disturb the elder, but too curious to stay quiet.

“Young friends, it is not a snowflake. It is a star. A star that our kind have been looking for, for a very, very long time.

“You could not have known. We rarely talk about it anymore. Most, in fact, doubt it ever existed in the first place. Those who believed, gave up searching, and the legend dwindled, and diminished, and is all but mythology, now.”

Sherlock is about to nudge John’s open bill shut, but suspects that his is hanging open even more.

“What legend would that be, sir?”

Te Uto mā Ika. Have you heard of this legend?”

“No, sir.”

“We have been remiss. As I said, it has all but disappeared from our teachings, given up long ago, along with the hope it carried.”

Sherlock’s brain speeds through various rooms in his ice palace, quickly making connections. He remembers that Ika was Kororā’s half-brother, God of the Seas, born of the star Atutahi and the male god Terra. Utu, he knows, is their ancient word for revenge. Ika’s revenge.

“Ika’s revenge of Kororā? Against who, or what? Against Apo?”

John snaps his bill shut, and stares at him, blinking.

“Amazing. Absolutely brilliant.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.”

“You are, too.”

“Nah, but thanks.”

Erebus gives them this brief moment of mutual adoration, then continues.

“Ika was mentioned briefly in the legend told to you by Vela when you were but hatchlings. Do you recall the part of the legend when Apo asked Kororā how she could produce an egg without the male gift?”

John nods, fluffing a bit at the mention of the male gift.

“And do you remember what Kororā said, in response to him? She said that he could not hope to know all the mysteries of the heavens and the gods that ruled them. She reminded him that her father, Atutahi, had lain with a male god, to create her brother, and then with a female, Kapua, to produce herself.

“Her brother, or half-brother, if you will, was Ika.”

“I see. And is Sherlock right? Did he seek revenge against Apo for what he did to his sister, and to Pono?”

“He is correct.” Erebus pauses to bow, just the slightest nod of acknowledgment, at Sherlock, then continues.

“He sought revenge for Kororā’s heartbreak, for the death of Pono, and for the suspension of Aumārire’s arrival.”

“She’s still stuck in that egg?”

Oh John, Sherlock thinks, turning his head as to not offend John with his amused expression.

Erebus doesn’t blink an eye. “She is, as you say, dear John, still stuck in that egg. At least, that’s what the legend tells us. The legend does not tell us what we, emperors, must do to release her, and return peace and harmony to our kind. There has been much speculation, of course.”

“Elder Erebus, how does the seal tooth relate to Kororā and Ika? Does it have something to do with releasing Aumārire?” Sherlock has tried to further deduce the connection, and has a theory, but doesn't want to come across as a braggart in front of his ipo, or the elder.

“Let us keep walking, so that we don’t draw attention to ourselves. There is a patch of sun there, near the shore. We can warm ourselves.”

Erebus leads the way, and John and Sherlock follow. John keeps tugging on Sherlock’s wing and whispering under his breath, but in his attempt to be quiet, Sherlock can barely hear him. Finally, John begins to use the secret language they created when they first met, but instead of using his feet, he uses his wings. It’s a bit more difficult to understand, but Sherlock follows along well enough.

secret treasure – not know – important – must find!

Sherlock signs back, suspecting he looks like he’s having a seizure while doing so.

wait – story first – get help – other pengs.

The sunny spot bathes them in warmth, and all three emperors turn their faces toward the sky, close their eyes, and take a deep breath.

“Now, that is simply lovely, isn’t it?”

Sherlock agrees, but can’t find it in himself to give a tail feather about the sun, not when there are stolen, legendary seal teeth to consider. Still, he won’t rush Erebus, who is older, and has been through so much, and finds such comfort in a spot of sun. He waits, and he waits, but after fifteen entire heartbeats, he can wait no more.

“Sir?”

Erebus slowly blinks himself back to them, stretches his neck, wings, and back, and sighs. “Where were we?”

“How does the seal tooth tie into the legends?”

“Ah, yes. Just so. Sherlock, John, what I am about to tell you remains one of the biggest mysteries of pengkind. Had I not overheard you this morning, it is very likely that you never would have heard this, not in all your winters. That I tell you now does not signify that the legend is true, or that it is false. It is simply told.

“Kororā took Pono, and Aumārire, back with her to the heavens. We see them there, in the stars, during the darkness of winter. Kororā abandoned her kind, never to return, never again to mate, or walk amongst us, to share her wisdom, her aid, her love.

“You can only imagine how hard this was on her. Most pengs, I’m sure you can imagine, think only of how hard her withdrawal was on them. However, Kororā’s self-imposed isolation cost her a very great deal. Without her purpose, she began to fade. Without participating in the mating season, without sharing of herself, and being loved in return, she withered.

“Ika, not far from her in his own realm of the night sky, witnessed her suffering. He tried to help her, to encourage her, but she was unresponsive even to her own family.

“Concerned that she would vanish altogether, he devised a plan. Fearing for her stability, and the soundness of her judgment, he would not leave his sister’s side. Instead, he called upon the strongest, most trustworthy of his own progeny, and made a pact. He would instill in this chosen one half of his own power. They would be blessed with his speed, his strength, and all his capabilities as a god. All but one. They would retain their own mortality.

“The descendant was charged with finding the heartstone, with or without Apo, and delivering it to him. He believed that if he could retrieve the heartstone, perhaps he would also find a way to restore Pono’s life, free Aumārire, and bring Kororā back from the brink upon which she was perishing.

“He transferred half his power, as promised, to his scion, and bade her a safe, successful journey.”

"Who was it?" John asks, practically vibrating with curiosity.

"We believe her name was Pōrangi."

Sherlock flips through the language files in his head. "That's odd, isn't it? Her name has a double meaning."

John looks between Sherlock and Erebus, waiting for one of them to speak. "Well, what did it mean?"

"Traditionally, to seek, to search. But, also, in more modern times, lunacy, madness," Sherlock explains.

Erebus nods. "It has been suggested that Pōrangi went mad in her quest to find the heartstone. And do you see, now, how Ika did it? How he transferred his power?”

Sherlock raises his wing as if in a lesson, and jumps up and down. “Me, me! I know!”

John sighs. “Of course you do.”

“Ika transferred his power into the tooth, the seal’s tooth! That’s why it has the image of the star on it, isn’t it? Am I right?”

“You are right.”

“Okay,” John interjects over Sherlock’s hollering. “That makes sense. But did she find Apo? Did she retrieve the heartstone? And why is the tooth important now?”

Sherlock and John, leaning forward on their toes into the elder’s very words, completely captivated, don’t dare move. They don’t blink. They don’t breathe.

“All good questions, young sir. We doubt that she found Apo, or the heartstone, as Ika and Kororā remain in the sky, unmoving. We know from the legend, if accurate, that Apo did not keep the heartstone, as dictated by Kororā, but threw it into the tundra, before he himself disappeared.

“The tooth, though, is all that matters now. It is no longer bound to Pōrangi, therefore, the pact to find the heartstone no longer stands. The power, however, remains.”

“And what could the possessor of that power do?” John asks.

“Whoever holds the tooth, holds the power to fulfil a god’s desires.”

“Like what?”

“Like absolutely everything. For good, for evil, for one, for all. The sky, my young friend, is the limit.”

And with that, the three of them look to the heavens, and imagine.

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe it, Sherlock. I cannot believe it! We had the tooth! The legendary tooth! We had the power of the gods at our wings!”

Ever since they parted ways with Erebus earlier in the day, John has been perseverating on their brief contact with absolute, unmitigated power.

Sherlock paces back and forth in front of John, who stands near the shore, flinging ice chips into the water. Wingtips pressed under his bill, Sherlock paces, and he ruminates.

Since speaking with Erebus, they have had their lessons, eaten lunch, rejoined the Senior Council for a group meeting, and been granted some free time. Through all of it, John has been muttering, sotto voce, about their loss, and Sherlock has been racing through the caves and corridors of his ice palace in an attempt to find a solution to their problem.

This close!

“John, please. You must stop looking backward. What could it possibly show you?”

“Everything!”

“All right, yes. I see how that is a very appealing view. But does it help us at all?”

“What do you mean?”

“Obsessing about what could have been. How does that help us now?”

John sulks for a bit, then aggressively grooms his shoulder. Sherlock stops his pacing and gently removes John’s bill from where it’s making a bare spot in his beautiful feathers.

“I don’t know. But just think, Sherlock, of what we could have done had we known!”

Sherlock shakes his head and shrugs his wings. “What would you have done, Johnling, had you known about the tooth, and if the legend is true? What would you have done with that power?”

John regards Sherlock for a long, quiet moment. He looks out at the sea, then up at the sky, where two black-browed albatross are circling the swells. They call to each other, and dive.

“John. Look at me. Focus.”

John looks away from the sea and back at Sherlock.

“What did Erebus say to us this morning? What was the last thing he said?”

“He said that we need to find the tooth before we leave the iceberg.”

“Yes. Good. What else?”

“That it’s significant that Moringa is still here. He thinks she’s working with someone, and is waiting for them to return. She won’t risk doing anything suspicious in front of the Senior Council, and she won’t attempt migrating early, as that will only draw their attention.”

“Go on.”

“Once Moringa is in the water, she, and the tooth, are lost to us.”

Sherlock puts his wings on John’s shoulders and kisses the top of his head.

“That’s right. And what does all of that mean?”

“It means I hate that pengging piece of hamuti.”

Sherlock giggles, then John giggles, and then Sherlock slips and lands on his back, and John slips and lands on top of Sherlock.

“You said hamuti!

“But she is!”

“She is, she really, really is the poo of pengs.”

They laugh and laugh, and Sherlock feels the tension of the last several days begin to ebb away.

They stand up, brush each other off, and refocus their thoughts.

“What all of that means, Johnpeng, is that we have to get the tooth back in the next six and a half days, before we start the journey back to Pobeda.”

“And how are we going to do that?”

“I don’t know, yet.”

 

 

The junior pengs are enjoying a bit of recreation at the swimming hole after dinner. Lestra has invented a game, and all of them, including Sherlock, are taking turns.

The rules are simple. Lestra throws an ice chip into the water and counts down from three to one. On his count, a peng jumps into the water, finds and retrieves the ice chip, and resurfaces. The fastest peng wins. The ice chip, of course, gets smaller and smaller each round, making it harder and harder to play. The last peng to find the ice chip before it melts away, is the first runner up.

Sherlock prepares for his turn, stretching his wings and bouncing on his toes.

“Sherl’peng, what’re you doing? This isn’t the Penglympics.”

“That’s no reason not to apply myself, Johnling.”

Lestra tosses the ice chip, counts down, and Sherlock slips into the sea. The world changes mid-blink. What was bright is now dark; what was loud is now silent. Beneath him, the blue of the water fades to mid-gray, then black. This is his trick. He waits until the ice has sunk low enough to stand out in contrast against the depths, and then he dives. The others, he notices, dive down immediately, wasting oxygen before determining their direction.

There, not even two orca depths! He dives, bites down on the chip, twirls upright, and resurfaces.

“How is that even possible?” Lestra demands. “I just threw it!”

“I am a bird of many talents, Lestra. Ask John.”

John titters and fluffs and rubs his bill against Sherlock’s, and for a moment, Sherlock forgets all about the game. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived moment.

“Sherlock, brother mine, might I have a word?”

“What do you want, Mycroft? I’m busy.”

Mycroft rolls his eyes. Truly, Sherlock thinks, he has refined this action to nothing less than an art form. If only they would get stuck while he’s doing it.

“Can’t a penguin request the company of his brother for no reason other than to commune –”

“Stop! I’ll come, I’ll come.”

He smirks at John and the other junior pengs, and he and Mycroft take their leave. As they walk away, Sherlock hears Lestra count down for Janine.

“Well, then?” Sherlock asks, turning to check that they are out of earshot.

“You’ve talked with Erebus.”

“Can we not waste each other’s time, Mycroft? You already know that Elder Erebus talked to me and John this morning. He overheard John make a throwaway comment about a stolen seal tooth, realized why Moringa must have taken it, and explained everything.”

Mycroft stops walking, wings behind his back. “Mm. I see. And what do you intend to do about the tooth, now?”

Sherlock steps out of his brother’s shadow and glares up at him.

“Me? What do I intend to do? I think, brother mine, that I should be asking you that very question. What do you, and the other Senior Councilpengs, plan on doing to shake down the thief, get our seal tooth back, and save the entire world from that piece of hamuti?”

Mycroft’s eyes go wide at Sherlock’s insulting reference to Moringa. He makes a small burping noise and belatedly covers his bill with his wing.

“It’s okay, Mycroft. You can laugh. I won’t tell anyone.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. And, this isn’t some sort of covert sting operation. No one will be shaking down anyone.”

“You think it’s just a tooth, don’t you?”

“Don’t you?”

“I don’t know what to think. I’ve never been a believer. I’ve always taken the legends at face value, as parables and nothing more. But Mycroft, I saw the star. I saw it with my own two eyes, and I have to admit, it did not appear to be merely an anomaly of pinniped dentition.”

“And yet you let it lie, untended, in a crevasse for moon after moon. Why?”

Sherlock sighs and flaps his wings. “First of all, it’s not a crevasse. It’s a proper ice cave. Second of all, we left it there because the star was an interesting oddity on its own, but out of context, nothing more. Now, in light of Te Uto mā Ika, it stands to reason that the tooth could indeed be something far more important than the missing part of some stupid seal’s jaw.”

“I remain unconvinced.”

“Mycroft, what are the chances of us finding a seal tooth that exactly matches the description of a seal tooth from an ancient legend? And, I might add, one that involves the fate of our kind?”

Mycroft purses his bill and toes at the ice, drawing what are either complicated mathematical figures, or his and Anthea’s initials inside a heart. Sherlock leans in to take a closer look, but Mycroft wipes his work away with the sweep of his tail feathers.

“I would estimate the odds are in the vicinity of one in ten billion. The odds of it being a coincidence, however, are much lower.”

Nenekara. What have you told me, time and time again, about coincidences?”

“I see that your study of the ancient language is going rather well.”

“My study of everything is going rather well, Mycroft. You would expect no less. But, you haven’t answered the question about coincidences.”

“The universe is rarely so lazy.” Mycroft makes a begrudging gesture with one shoulder, and looks Sherlock in the eye.

“Do you remember, Sherlock, Māmā’s interpretation of your shell? Your poropiti?”

Sherlock and Mycroft stare at each other, and Sherlock feels an undercurrent of familial connection run between them.

“I do.”

“Tell me.”

“You already know.”

“Tell me anyway.”

Sherlock does not look away. He stands tall and pulls his shoulders back, and he meets Mycroft’s demand the way he might meet a call to war: with determination and pride. He owns his prophecy.

“I will take a long journey, and I will change the heart of the colony.”

“Yes. And do you know what mine was, almost eight winters ago?”

Sherlock realizes that he has never even considered what Mycroft’s shell may have said about him, his future, his path. He shakes his head.

“To protect you, at all costs. To see to it that my yet unhatched brother fulfils his destiny.”

“Mycroft –”

“Is this tooth part of that journey, Sherlock?”

“I don’t know. How could I know that?”

“Sherlock. This is important. Close your eyes. Look inside. Is this tooth part of your journey?”

Sherlock doesn’t know what Mycroft is asking of him. Close his eyes? Look inside? Look at what? Where?

“Close. Your. Eyes.”

Sherlock will never be able to explain why he does what he does next. It happens without thought or intention. He lifts both wings, and holds them out to Mycroft. Mycroft appears startled, but then he reaches out, too, and lays his wings under Sherlock’s, supporting them.

Sherlock closes his eyes.

He sees it.

“Yes, Mycroft. Yes, it is.”

“Then, let me ask you again, little brother. What do you intend to do about it?”

Chapter Text

They are running out of time. With the deadline of migration looming ahead of them, Sherlock and John find it increasingly more difficult to focus on their lessons and daily routine. Discussions regarding the stolen seal tooth bubble up in fits and bursts, are shared in whispers, at night in the crèche, while they swim, as they eat.

They are vigilant about not talking about it in front of those who are unaware of the situation. Unfortunately, this includes everyone except Mycroft and Erebus. Meeting with the two elders frequently is necessary; and, perhaps due to the nature of their training, no one finds it suspicious that a small group of them meets apart from the others.

No one, of course, except Moringa, who finds every reason to linger when she sees the party of four shuffle off for yet another meeting. When she asks them, point blank, what they are talking about, Erebus informs her that they have formed a subcommittee for the evaluation and analysis of trends in the rapidly evolving dynamic of penguin slang amongst the juvenile set.

He does this with a straight face, and concludes by saying that she was not included because she would have nothing to contribute, given her age. He stops short of calling her a penggeriatric.

Sherlock and John are sure to ask the other juveniles their thoughts on emperor slang, just to be sure their cover can stand up to interrogation.

Mycroft resorts to assigning Moringa extraneous tasks that will keep her out of their feathers. She does not even pretend not to be miffed as she sets off to assist Cetus with a lesson on puss removal.

On the morning of the fourth to last day, the “slang subcommittee” swims to a nearby ice floe to ensure maximum privacy. They are well in sight of Cassiopeia, and will notice if anyone else approaches.

Mycroft leads the discussion with a brief overview of the last three days. They have reviewed the legend several times, scouring it for any fresh detail. They each know the story inside and out by now, but have garnered nothing new.

They considered including some, or all, of the other elders in their efforts, but shut down that conversation under the assumption that if Moringa is in cahoots with someone else, the traitor could be planted on the Senior Council. None of them believe this to be true, but neither are they willing to take the risk. Besides, Mycroft suggests, to ensure confidentiality, they would have to include everyone, except Moringa, and how would they present and justify that?

They have debated the likelihood that the legend is true, and that the seal tooth stolen from the ice cave is, indeed, the tooth from the legend. They have agreed that they must take action, regardless of the answers to those two questions; to not do so, and be wrong, would be catastrophic. They have come up with, and abandoned, no less than six plans for retrieving the tooth.

John, despite the three-to-one vote against his idea, continues to propose they stab Moringa in the head with a gigantic icicle, and search her for the tooth. He suspects she has tucked it high up under her wing, but when asked, cannot explain how she could swim with her wing permanently tucked against her side.

Erebus speculates that she swallowed it. John counters that she would have eliminated it by now, adding that she’d be a complete moron to risk internal injury, or lose it while swimming. He then reconsiders what he knows about her, and decides Erebus may be right.

Sherlock suggests she has shoved it where neither sun, nor moonlight, can shine. Mycroft refuses to participate in that particular conversation.

They have summarily dismissed the idea that they simply approach her and ask for it back, proceeding with force if she refuses to cooperate. They suspect that she suspects that they suspect that she has the tooth. If they confirm that they know, there is nothing to stop her from using its inherent power, swiftly and without remorse, to her advantage. Unless, Mycroft reminds them, she has hidden it elsewhere on the iceberg, and does not have it on her body.

Mycroft then revisits the only option with which they all concur. It is unlikely that she has it on, or in, her body. If she has hidden it on Cassiopeia, they must find it. The four of them have studied and memorized a map of the berg that Erebus had scraped into the ice. They each have one quarter of the iceberg to search, and have been doing so as frequently as time allows.

As acting Council Leader, Erebus devises a way for the four of them to search without raising suspicion. Each morning, during the first group meeting, all of the emperors are recruited to help Cetus look for items that will assist him in treating any injured, returning colony members.

Although a thinly veiled ploy, as there is next to nothing on the iceberg, Cetus gratefully accepts the gesture and provides a short list of materials that he needs. He explains that some of his supplies are available in the water upon which they float.

The first day, Erebus sends Sherlock, John, Lestra, Molling, Anthea, himself, and Mycroft, to survey the iceberg. He sends Vela, Pavo, Moringa, Cetus, Janine, Irena, and Stamfjord into the water. He shuffles the lineup each day after that, but tries to keep as many of the junior pengs on the ice as possible, surmising that they would notice a seal tooth whether or not they were looking for one, and would eagerly show it to the others.

They have done this for the last three mornings, and have acquired three Skua wing feathers (good for lancing infected wounds), a few scrapes of Antarctic Shag droppings (useful as an antiseptic), half a dozen Himantothallus grandifolius leaves (a seaweed useful for wrapping poultices, and rehydrating dried and cracked bills), and several fish bones (necessary for setting broken bones). They have not found a seal tooth.

Now, assembled on the ice floe, John asks if they have a backup plan. “It’s just that we only have four more days until we expect the first wave of pengs to return, and then what do we do? You’ve already said that we can’t risk losing Moringa to the open sea, as there is no guarantee that she will return to Pobeda. Do we have some idea where she might go?”

“It depends on who she is working with, if anyone, and where that co-conspirator waits,” Mycroft explains. “And we have no information whatsoever pertinent to that eventuality.”

“Can’t you just say that you don’t know?” Sherlock quips.

Mycroft ignores him. “We must keep in mind that she may be in league with another emperor, another species of penguin, or a different sea animal, utterly unrelated to the class Aves.”

“He means not a bird,” Sherlock says to John.

“Or, she may be working on her own. Furthermore, she may not actually be engaged in any troublesome behaviour. We mustn’t overestimate her motivations, or her intelligence. For all we know, she scooped the tooth up with the rest of your trifles, and tossed it in the sea, completely unawares of what she was holding.”

“Trifles?” John lunges at Mycroft; Sherlock restrains him just before the ice floe tilts precariously out of balance and dumps them all into the water.

“He called our treasure trifles!”

“Consider the source, Johnling. He likes to eat fish eggs.”

“Ewww.”

“Right?”

“As I was saying,” Mycroft continues, carefully inspecting a feather on the tip of his wing, “We are no closer to knowing Moringa’s role in this seal tooth caper than we are to knowing if penguins ever did fly. The tooth, whatever its origin, may be forever lost to us.”

Oh, how Sherlock wishes this were the case. He yearns for that simpler time of his youth, just half a moon ago, when there were no unjust accusations against him and John, no spiteful robberies, no legends of revenge and power-laden teeth.

“Whatever the case,” Erebus adds, “we have already agreed that we must respond as if the very worst case scenario is in effect. Therefore, we find the tooth in the next four days, or we need a backup plan.

“There is a good chance that Siger will arrive with the first pod. No matter what our circumstances at the time, we must debrief him and seek his council.”

The other three pengs agree. Sherlock wishes his father would show up now, and take all of this off his shoulders. He has not told John about his conversation with Mycroft regarding his shell’s prophecy. He doesn’t know what to make of it. He doesn’t know how to act on it. He is lost in thought when something John says catches his attention.

“– only ones looking for it?”

“I’m sorry, John. Can you repeat that?”

“I said, how do we even know that we’re the only ones looking for it? I believe she knew exactly what it was when she saw it, so we can assume there are others who would recognize it, too, and who are probably looking for it.”

Erebus nods. “You raise an excellent point, John. According to the legend, Ika granted his power to a seal. Certainly the seals have their own version of the legend, and their role in it. Perhaps the seals are looking for it, too.”

“Yes,” Sherlock interjects, “but it could have been any type of seal, even one of the fifty species that are now extinct. Maybe their legend died with their kind.”

Mycroft furrows his brow in a way that Sherlock chooses to interpret as holy peng, my brother is astute.

“This is useless,” Mycroft says, which certainly does not fit with Sherlock’s interpretation of his brother’s expression. “The entire ocean may be seeking the tooth. It doesn’t matter. We need to focus on one penguin, and one iceberg.”

“I disagree, Mycroft.”

“Well, of course you do. Isn’t that what you’re here for?”

“No, I’m serious. Hear me out. If there are others looking for it, we can find them, and we can work together.”

Mycroft sighs, an exhalation that lasts forever and ruffles Sherlock’s feathers.

“We don’t have the luxury of time, Sherlock. Please, let us concentrate on what we know. Which, to be honest, is nothing.”

“Remember this moment,” Sherlock whispers to John. “He’ll never admit that again.”

They conclude the meeting, and dive back into the water, each of them frustrated and worried. The swim back to the iceberg is short, and when they resurface John and Sherlock see their friends gathered around the swimming hole, playing Lestra’s ice chip game.

Diving after ice chips bores Sherlock now, because how many times can he be both the fastest retriever, and the last to find the melting speck, before it ceases to hold any amusement at all?

Still, he follows John to the swimming hole and watches the others play. When it's Sherlock's turn to dive, Lestra suggests they even the odds by giving him a handicap of a longer count.

“Fine,” Sherlock yawns. “What’s my new count?”

“Two hundred,” suggests Irena.

“I'd like to end the game before dinner, but thank you for your input,” Lestra answers. “It's three for everyone else, so how about ten for Sherlock?”

“Fine with me,” he says. Slightly less boring, he thinks.

Lestra tosses the chip into the water, and by the time he has counted to eight, Sherlock has factored the weight of the chip, angle of the toss, speed of the drop, and the force and direction of the sea’s current, into a computation that solves for the trajectory of the ice chip, and the distance it will have reached by the time he enters the water.

Lestra hits ten and Sherlock dives.

The chip is exactly where it should be, and he bullets his body through the water in pursuit. He snags the chip in his bill, swoops up, and looks toward the patch of light shining through the swimming hole. He is much further away than usual, thanks to the higher count, but by his estimation, he will win this round anyway. Boring.

He ascends, noticing as he flies through the water how much of the berg’s keel he can see at this depth. It hangs in the murky silence, massive, an inverted cone of silvery-blue plains, upside down peaks, and shallow caves.

He adjusts his trajectory slightly, moving closer to the otherworldly walls of the submerged mountain. As he closes the distance, small fissures and crevices become visible, a network of webbing etched into otherwise smooth surfaces. Some are mere suggestions, but others widen into small canyons. Fascinating.

He slows, thinking about how happy the others will be when he loses the game, and then, out of the corner of his eye, he sees it. Two, maybe two and a half orca lengths below the surface, a discolouration mars the opaque white on white. The spot looks about the size of a Dragonfish, not quite as long as his wing. He swims closer.

Upon further inspection, he realizes that the mark isn't part of the iceberg, but something caught in a thin crack. Seaweed, he observes, but that can’t be right, because if seaweed snagged on the ice, some of it would still be floating, reaching toward the surface.

He is flush against the keel now, and he prods at the caught material with his bill. Definitely seaweed, and Himantothallus grandifolius to boot, the same type they collected for Cetus, to augment his healing supplies. This seaweed appears to be wrapped in a tight ball, and wedged into the narrow space.

The ice chip on his tongue is long gone, and he’ll need to resurface soon, but he plants his feet on either side of the odd parcel, grips it in his beak, and tugs. It barely budges. He pulls again, and again, his feet slipping and sliding. He digs his claws just inside the opening of the slit in the ice, grabs as much of the water plant in his bill as he can, and redoubles his effort.

The wad pulls free, and Sherlock plunges back. He circles his wings to stabilize his position, and the seaweed unravels, sluggish, as if it’s just woken from a deep sleep. He watches the way it spools away from itself, grace in slow motion, until there is one long stretch of it, the end still anchored in his bill.

There, from inside a curl along the edge of the ribbon, something scant - trifling - releases and begins to sink. His wings propel him even before his mind has made the connection, and then he has it, flat against his tongue, protected inside the walls of his mouth.

He arcs, he pumps, he shoots toward the swimming hole, where surely they are wondering what’s become of him. He pierces the breach, torpedoes through the air, water sluicing off his back, and slides on his belly until he skids to a halt beyond the six staring emperors. He does not turn around to face them.

He closes his eyes, parts his bill, only enough to breathe, and sucks in lungfuls of air. Behind him, John calls his name, his tone full of concern, questioning. Still, he doesn’t turn around. He lets John approach, waits until John is tugging on his wing, trying to spin him, but still, he does not turn.

John huffs, exasperated, and walks around Sherlock’s side, finally facing him.

“What the hades do you think you’re doing?”

Sherlock uses his feet to tap the signs for wait, look, and opens his mouth. John’s confusion lasts as long as it takes for him to look inside, and then his bill falls open, too.

Sherlock bends forward and presses his cheek against John’s aural patch.

“It wasn’t on the iceberg, Johnling. It was underneath it.”

Chapter Text

John hustles Sherlock away from the swimming hole faster than Sherlock can say seal tooth. Lestra calls after them, asking if they're going to finish the game or not, and John calls back over his shoulder, “Um, decompression sickness, have to run, keep playing without us!”

Sherlock spits the tooth out and bounces it from wing to wing, until John hisses at him to put it away before someone sees it. He tucks it up, high under his wing, but not using that wing for balance causes him to move with an awkward gait, so John wraps a wing around him to help him along. He probably looks a bit piapia, he thinks, and that makes him giggle, which causes John to huff and ask him what, exactly, he finds so amusing about this situation.

“Nothing. Just, if we want to explain why I’m walking like this, you can just tell everyone I’ve had too much waiwaihā.”

“Please. The last thing we need is for you to start drinking strong water. Your brain is magnificent, Sherlock, let’s not try fermenting it.” He tugs Sherlock along with increasing urgency, and it dawns on Sherlock that John is quite keyed up.

Sherlock feels a flush spread under his feathers at John’s praise of his brain, and wonders if his ipo can feel that heat where he’s pressed along Sherlock’s side. Then, he realizes that a good part of that warmth is actually coming from John, and that realization makes him fear for his own combustion.

As they pass some of the elders, John smiles and waves and passes little comments, such as, “Lovely day!” and “Hello, Elder Hudi, nice to see you!” and “Great silverfish the other day, Elder Pavo! Delicious!” That he is practically yelling out these greetings as he half-drags Sherlock, both of them slipping and stumbling, does not seem to alarm anyone.

They make their way to a secluded alcove beyond the curve of the berg leading away from the councilgrounds, and John backs Sherlock up against the ice wall and takes his face between the tips of his wings. He bumps and rubs their bills together while Sherlock tries to speak, but John isn't coming up for air, except to mumble utterances of praise and awe.

“Bloody genius … incredible … cannot believe … so amazing … how did you know … fantastic … tell me everything …”

Sherlock goes weak in the knees from all the attention being lavished on him, and lifts his wings to pull John closer. The tooth clatters down between their feet and they pause, look down, and then back to each other.

“That's going to be a problem,” Sherlock says, ducking down to pick up the totem.

“Tell me everything, Sherlock. How on earth did you find it down there?”

Sherlock tucks the tooth up under his wing again, and starts at the beginning. He tells John about his equation to plot the ice chip’s trajectory, and how long he waited before diving deeper, and what the keel looked like that far down. By the time he's explaining the carefully rolled seaweed, and his attempts to loosen it, John is waddle-pacing back and forth in front of him, a barely contained bundle of excitement, nervous energy, and agitation.

“She's going to go back to check on it, Sherlock. She probably checks every day, maybe several times a day. As soon as she realizes it's gone, she'll come after us.”

“I know, Johnling. I should've rewrapped the seaweed and tucked it back into the crevice, but I dropped it when I went after the tooth, and I needed air, and I wasn't thinking clearly.”

“Shh, no, it's okay, I'm not saying you should have done that. Maybe we can sneak back down and tuck some into the same place? But we'd need to find another strand.”

“Elder Cetus has some.”

“He does. But he'll want to know why we need it.”

Sherlock stops John before they get too involved in a plan to take Cetus’ seaweed.

“John, listen, she'll realize it's gone soon enough, no matter how we try to hide it. We need to figure out what to do with the tooth, right now. My father will be back in three days, and we will either tell him we have it, or we won't. We need to figure out if we should tell Erebus and Mycroft, too.”

John stares at him, all perplexion and worry on his precious face. “Not tell them?”

“John. This is the tooth. We have the tooth. Once two other pengs know we have it, no matter how much we trust them, opinion on what to do with it doubles. We need to decide, just you and I, what we want to do. How are we going to use it?”

“Okay. Right. Yeah.”

Sherlock pulls John closer and looks him right in the eye. “If the legend is true, we can do anything, John. If this is Pōrangi’s tooth, and contains the power of a God, we have a connection to Ika himself, and to Kororā. We can save them. We can save her, and Pono, and maybe we can bring Aumārire back. And, if we can bring Aumārire back, we can overcome the apologists, and we can be together, without anyone trying to stop us.”

“Bring Aumārire back. Be together. Yes. But Sherlock, we have to find the heartstone. We can’t do any of that without the heartstone.”

“And how do we find the heartstone?”

“With the tooth.”

“Right.”

“But Sherlock, won’t we have a better chance of finding the heartstone if we have others helping us? What do you think Erebus or Mycroft would do with it if they had it? Wouldn’t they want the same thing? To fulfil the promise?”

Sherlock looks over John’s shoulder at the way the slowly greying sky is seeping down from up high, as if to touch the water, to rest on it for the night. Soon, he won’t be able to see where either one meets the horizon.

“John, only one peng can use the tooth’s power. We can’t break it up and share it.”

John blinks at him, slowly at first, and then faster, and his brow draws down between his eyes, which are beginning to squint. “Oh, no. No. You are not doing this alone, Sherlock. No. I don’t care how we manage it, but you are not doing this on your own. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, yes, I hear you, I do, John, but please, for now, let’s not say anything to the others. At least for tonight, not until we figure out how we want to proceed. Let’s know what we want to do first. Can we do that?”

“I suppose. So, how would you proceed? Do we have a plan? For finding the heartstone?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Not really. I mean, I’m holding the tooth, and you’ve held it before, and I don’t feel any different. Did you?”

John shakes his head. “Maybe we have to do something to make it work?”

Sherlock wriggles so the tooth slips down his side, then he balances it on his wing. They both look at it.

“I can see now how that’s a star, and not a snowflake,” John says, leaning low to get a better look. “Maybe the star does something?”

“Let’s not mess with it until we know what we want to do. In the meantime, we have to make sure Moringa doesn’t swim tonight. It’s probably time for dinner, but maybe we can offer to bring her something? Or try to direct everyone to a different place to forage?”

“Good idea. But how are you going to hunt with that under your wing?”

Sherlock considers, then says, “I’ll keep it in my mouth the whole time. Can you catch something for me? I’ll transfer it back to my wing in order to eat. Or, we could take turns in the water. I’ll hold it while you swim, then you hold it while I swim.”

John nods. “Okay. Either of those should work.”

Sherlock slips the tooth under his wing and practices walking more naturally. He has a limited range of motion with that wing, but at least he can move it a bit. John stays close to that side, which no one will find suspicious, and they head back toward the Councilgrounds.

Almost everyone is there when they return, but no one is paying attention to them. They’ve gathered around Cetus, who is attending to a prone peng.

“What’s going on?” John asks, as they approach. They join the circle gathered around Cetus, and try to peer over Molling and Irena’s shoulders.

“Moringa hurt her foot,” Molling whispers, loud enough for pengs on the next berg to hear.

“It’s not really a secret, Molling,” Irena says, keeping her eyes locked on the scene in front of them.

“Sorry. I just didn’t want to disturb Cetus.”

“Try not yelling.”

“Try not being rude, Irena.”

Sherlock and John roll their eyes at each other, and wriggle over to stand behind Anthea and Janine.

“How did she do it?” Sherlock murmurs into Janine’s ear. Janine jumps half her height in the air and squeaks.

Hā! You scared me! Sherl, you can’t just go around sneaking up on pengs like that!”

“Sherl?” John leans in a bit, and cocks his head at her.

“I didn’t intend to scare you, Janine. How did Moringa hurt herself?”

John turns to Sherlock now, and licks his bill. “Sherl?”

Sherlock shrugs.

“She slipped and fell, she said.”

Sherlock looks over Janine’s shoulder at where Cetus is binding her foot with some sort of seaweed.

“John, Molling, Stamfjord, come closer, now that you’re here.” Cetus makes room for his apprentices near Moringa’s side. “I want you to watch how I bind her ankle with this rimurapa.”

The three pengs shuffle closer, and Moringa shoots them all a look of complete contempt. “Not too close, tamariki. I’m in pain enough without one of you clumsy juveniles bumping into my foot.”

Sherlock suppresses an urge to belly flop on top of the cranky old bird, and steps into the space Stamjford has vacated, next to Lestra. Lestra nods at him, and goes back to watching Cetus wrap the seaweed around Moringa’s foot.

“We’ve talked about walrus kelp before, but now you’ll get a chance to see how well this strong, flexible seaplant works for this type of injury.” Cetus keeps talking, but Sherlock’s mind drifts as he puts together the disparate pieces of this new puzzle.

Penguins fall all the time, he thinks, but they rarely get hurt, padded as they are with layers of feathers and insulating fat. Penguins slip and fall and skid and flop and bump and bounce and clatter, and they almost always pop right back up and keep going. So, he infers, Moringa must have fallen from quite a height to have hurt her foot like that.

He turns and looks up at Cassiopeia’s peak, then tracks lower, to the ice cave. He can see a sliver of its window from where he stands. He and John aren’t allowed up there anymore without a chaperone, but is that to keep them from the temptations inherent in such a private place, or to keep them away from something else? What was Moringa doing in the ice cave? Or was she somewhere else? Are there other places on the berg that she would have tried to reach? Why?

“The pockets in the leaf allow air to flow, and the entire plant is very rich in minerals and alginates, which will help heal the broken skin and reduce the swelling.” Cetus is almost done with his instruction, and the group will break up soon.

Sherlock doesn’t have to worry about keeping Moringa out of the water tonight, but his mind is already spinning around bigger concerns. Moringa is keeping more than one secret, and he wants to know what it is. No, he corrects himself, he needs to know what it is.

Chapter Text

Sherlock stands on the ledge and looks for a way around the obstacle in his way. Ice. So much ice on this stupid iceberg, he thinks to himself. He could try to climb over the protuberance, but if he slips, if he falls, he’s done for. Frustrating as it is, he’s going to have to retreat, and try to ascend from a different angle.

He’s been up all night, having snuck away from the crèche as soon as everyone was asleep. The moon is round and bright, and the sky is free of clouds. Whether or not the heavens had cooperated, he would’ve done it tonight. He has no more time. His father, and others on their way home to Pobeda, will arrive tomorrow. He and John have to make a decision, but before they do that, Sherlock needs to gather more information. He needs to know what Moringa was up to, if anything, that she fell from high enough to hurt her leg as badly as she did.

He turns with as much regard for the slippery path beneath him as he can, and retreats toward the last turning point in the path. He has explored as much of Cassiopeia as he can, one nook and cranny at a time. If he couldn’t find a way to continue, he figured that no one else would be able to, either, and rules that part of the berg out of consideration. He hasn’t found a thing, but the pinnacle of the mountain remains unexplored, still out of reach, perhaps forever unattainable.

Far below him John sleeps, unaware that he is now cuddled up to Molling instead of Sherlock. The sun will rise soon, and Sherlock’s plan does not include being yelled at by one very pukukino John, not if he can help it. He told John that he would not go off in search of the heartstone by himself, and he won’t, but if John wakes and finds Sherlock missing, he might jump to the wrong conclusion. He’d be unhappy anyway, to think that Sherlock was risking life and wing, in the middle of the night, to scale this formidable chunk of ice.

When he reaches the place at which he last turned, he stops and looks around. The only way to go is back down, or to the ice cave, their ice cave. Certainly a fall from this height would cause injury, but why would Moringa keep coming back to the cave after taking everything out of it? Wai ka hua? Who can say? He certainly can’t predict anything about that crazy bird, except the obvious: her craziness makes her unpredictable.

He decides he has enough time to check the ice cave, and makes his way there more by touch memory than sight. He steps inside and stares, never having imagined this version of their secret place. The ice cave has captured the moonlight and is bouncing it around its walls, illuminating the space in sparkling blues and silvers, brighter than the longest summer day. The light ricochets between the stalactites above him before shooting it back down in dazzling lasers. He stands, staring, wishing that John could see what he is seeing. He imagines that standing on a star would be similar, all glitter and shine.

A star.

He spits the tooth out of his mouth and watches it skip across the floor of the cave. It is so bright, so glossy-clear, Sherlock can see his reflection when he bends down to examine the tooth. He is caught off guard, not having seen more of himself than is possible in the ever-moving, dark, and blurry reflection of the sea. He takes a moment to look at himself, as he has often wondered what John sees when he looks at Sherlock.

He has gained height over the summer, but is not as full as John across the chest or belly. He is almost entirely crisp white, dark grey, and smooth black, having lost all his soft grey chick fuzz. He has not gained the yellow plumage of adulthood, nor has his underbill taken on its eventual stripe of vivid colour. His eyes are slanted up more than John’s, giving him a thoughtful, serious expression. Interesting, but ultimately, not important. John likes him as he is.

He turns back to the tooth lying at his feet. In the illumination of the cave, with its blue and silver cast, the tooth seems larger, and the etching more precise. He prods it with his bill, hoping to see something new, something different.

“Do something, already,” he says. “Are you even real? Is there a heartstone? Or are you a plain, ordinary seal tooth, interesting markings purely coincidental? Maybe the legend grew from you. Maybe you inspired the story. Maybe the clouds inspired some of our stories, and the stars, and the constellations, and maybe it’s just us, here alone, in this ice-covered corner of wherever we are. We never flew. Never had Aumārire bestowed upon us, or taken away.”

Sherlock is depressing himself. He’s standing in a cave talking to a tooth, and he sounds like a pengistential crisis waiting to happen. Well, maybe that’s better than the alternative, he thinks, which so far, is nothing. What did he expect, he wonders. Proof of Moringa’s hidden secret plans? Instructions on use of the tooth? A map to the heartstone? Some sign of what he's supposed to do?

Nenekara. Nonsense, all of it. If he's going to move forward, he's going to have to rely on what he actually knows, and nothing more. What does he know? What information can he rely on, right now, to help inform his next step? He knows that he has the tooth. He knows the tooth is tied to a legend about a brother trying to save a sister and her family, from ruin. He knows that, maybe, or maybe not, whoever holds the tooth holds immense power. The power to what? To have whatever they want? He knows what he wants. He has what he wants. He will not risk that to go off on some fool’s errand, chasing something that remains unknown and nebulous to him.

Now, he asks himself, what does he believe? Does he believe that the legends are just that, stories created by mortals to better understand the world in which they live, to answer the unanswerable? Yes. He believes that. Does he believe in the possibility that more than what he knows exists in this universe, mysteries and secrets that affect him, although he cannot see them? Yes. He believes in that possibility, too. What else does he believe? He believes in John. He believes in their love for each other. He believes he is good, and John is good, and most pengs are good. He believes, in the end, if he does the right things, lives the right way, doesn't hurt others, he will prevail over any obstacle thrown his way, as a peng, and with John, and in the colony.

He believes in the colony. He believes that the spirit of Aumārire resides in each and every one of them, that it is a choice, that they each must choose to be peaceful, kind, and generous, to look after the heart of the group, and not just the individual.

The sun is throwing her first rays over the surface of the sea. Soon, she will use those rays to pull herself up and over the horizon, and she will chase away the moon, and the prism of magic light in this ice cave will disappear. He feels desperate to be back with John now, to tell him that he’s given it all a great deal of thought, and that he has decided absolutely nothing, because there is nothing to decide, because they already have each other.

He stands up straight and looks around the cave again. Yes, it’s beautiful, but no, there’s nothing else here. He needs to go. He needs to get back to the crèche before the sun does.

Chapter Text

Sherlock approaches the crèche as quietly as he can, hoping that everyone, especially John, is still asleep. The sun has cut through the horizon now, and long shadows cast by Cassiopeia’s peaks are traversing the ice, almost as fast as Sherlock. Beyond the crèche, the senior pengs are stirring. He knows they might question why he’s up so early, or where he’s been, but he doubts any of them will chastise him; none of them but Moringa. He has to make it back before she sees him.

He is so close now, and if he can get just a little closer before being noticed, he can say that he just woke up and was stretching his wings, or taking a stroll, or was going to help hunt for an early breakfast.

Almost there.

Ahead of him, Cetus is waking, lifting his head from his shoulder, stretching his long neck up and back. Sherlock is almost close enough. Cetus looks in the opposite direction, toward the furthest shore, and ruffles his feathers. He takes a deep breath, takes a step away from the adult huddle, and begins to preen. He hasn’t seen Sherlock.

Almost there.

Sherlock drops to the ice and toboggans the rest of the way. Chances are he won’t be able to slow and stop before he crashes into the crèche, but the fallout from that is preferable to being caught out by the adults, who are all beginning to stir, now that Cetus has. They can’t see him now, not with the junior pengs blocking their line of site to Sherlock’s approach.

Almost there.

Sherlock drops and drags his feet on the ice, and would normally put his wings down to increase the drag, but cannot do so now, because he is holding the tooth tight up against his body with one wing. He aims himself toward John, just in case he can’t stop in time. Just in case, it would be much better to take out John, who would be startled but forgive him, than Irena, or Janine, or gods forbid, Anthea.

From out of nowhere, one head pops up from the edge of the crèche. Hudi. But of course, Hudi. She opens one eye, cocks her head to the side, and zeroes in on Sherlock, only three blinks away now. He plants his bill in the ice, flips up to standing, and winks at her. She gives him a slow shake of her head, sighs, and tucks her head under her wing again. Tēnā koe, Hudi, Sherlock thinks, thank you.

He’s pressed up against John now, insinuating himself between his sleeping ipo and Molling, who doesn’t wake as she’s jostled and repositioned into Lestra. Molling fusses in her sleep a bit, and Lestra lifts one wing just enough to nudge her under it with the other, then he rests his head on her shoulder, and they both slip back to the depths of their slumber.

Sherlock watches them diligently, making sure they’re settled and not about to catch him out, so he does not notice the pair of eyes glaring at him from half-slit lids. These particular eyelids belong to his very own Johnling, and as soon as Sherlock feels the weight of them on his face, he snaps his eyes shut, and pretends to sleep. It’s ridiculous, he knows it is, but it’s the best combination of avoidance and delay he can come up with in the moment.

Of course he doesn’t get away with it.

“Shut up.”

Sherlock opens one eye as wide as the filament of one of his undercoat feathers, sees John’s astronomically annoyed face close to his, and slams it shut again.

“I know you can hear me,” John growls under his breath, “and I know that as soon as you realize that I know that you’ve been gone all night, you will start talking, and as soon as you start talking, you will start spinning some ridiculous tale about unidentified flying supernovae, or some such rot, and as soon as you start up with that, I will tell you to shut up, so I’m just going to say it now. Shut up.”

“They could exist, you know,” Sherlock says, not bothering to open his eyes.

“They could not.”

“Could.”

“Shut. Up.”

Sherlock’s next tactic is slightly more sophisticated than pretending to sleep. He wraps his free wing around John and hugs him as hard as he can, but still keeps his eyes shut. John lets out a small puff of air, and squirms, putting space between them again.

“Did I not just say that I know you were gone all night?”

“So you missed me? Because I missed you, too. I actually thought about you the entire time I was gone, if you want to know the truth. I went in search of something very important, Johnling, but what I found was not at all what I was expecting. I saw the light, you might say, and I mean that in more ways than one. I can explain.”

“You’re not going to shut up, are you?”

“This is important, John!”

The two of them are hissing at each other, trying not to have a repeat of what happened a few mornings ago, when Lestra and Molling woke up and overheard them talking about their stolen ice cave treasure.

“Open your eyes, penggit, and look at me.”

Sherlock opens his eyes and cranes his head back a bit, just in case John is still shooting close range daggers at him. One look at John’s adorable face, though, and Sherlock scooches right back, and rubs his neck against John’s, and his cheek, and his bill.

“All right, all right. Calm down.”

Sherlock doesn’t want to calm down. Epiphanies should not result in calming down, he thinks. Epiphanies should result in kissing and cuddling and pronouncements of passion. To this end, he wriggles up against John again and presses their foreheads together. He rubs his wingtip down John’s cheek and neck and gently slides his bill along John’s.

“You mean it, don’t you? You found something. Something important.”

“Yes.”

“More important than the tooth?”

“The tooth is not important.”

“Not important? The seal tooth that we’ve been obsessing over for the last several days is not important? The one that Moringa stole from us, and we stole back, and have been protecting with our very lives, is not important?”

“Good. You understand.” Sherlock nibbles his way down John’s neck and snuggles the top of his head into John’s shoulder.

“No, I really don’t. Come on. Come with me.” John nudges Sherlock back from the edge of the crèche, poking his wings into Sherlock’s ribs to get him to move.

“Ow!”

“Move. Now.” He flutters his wings against Sherlock’s belly.

“Stop penghandling me!”

“Let’s go.”

This is not the epiphanic lovefest moment Sherlock was hoping for. John most definitely owes him an epiphanic lovefest moment. They walk down to the landing shore, which is deserted this early in the morning, and have a bit of a staring contest. John is tapping his foot on the ice, waiting for Sherlock to explain himself, so Sherlock takes a deep breath, and begins.

“Okay. It started like this. How did Moringa hurt her foot? She fell. She must’ve fallen from a great height. Why was she at a great height? Was she looking for something? Someone? What? Who? Where?” He pauses. “See?”

John narrows his eyes at him and increases the rate of his foot tapping.

“You don’t see. Okay. I needed to find out what she might be hiding, but I knew I couldn’t just go wandering off without a good excuse, so I waited until everyone fell asleep, and then I went.”

John sighs.

Sherlock continues, spewing out his story as quickly as he can, so that John has no time to interject, derail, or otherwise dampen the spirit of his big reveal. He describes his trek up and down and around the berg, climbing every surface, poking into every crevice, until he came back to their ice cave, and thought to check it one more time. He tells him about the moonlit interior of the cave, the illuminating brightness, the sparkling surfaces, the clarity of the light, and the absolute absence of anything significant.

“And that’s when it hit me, John. It doesn’t matter what she’s doing. It doesn’t matter what the tooth can do for us. Even if it’s real, even if it could grant us tremendous power, what would we do with it? We have each other, and our friends, and our families. We can accomplish what we want together, just the two of us, against the rest of the world, tooth or no tooth.”

He sees the exact moment John begins to truly understand, which is the same moment he lets go of his frustration and anger. Sherlock forges ahead.

“Think about it, John. Work it out, backwards. The tooth gives the bearer power to find the heartstone, because the heartstone might save Kororā, who might save Aumārire, who might return to us, to bring us peace and kindness, and grace, and all of that good community stuff. Or not! We don’t really know, do we?

“Why are we waiting for some possibly-does-not-exist mythological god to fetch a possibly-does-not-exist mythological body part, so he can give it to his sister, who might not even be able to do anything with it, to possibly hatch a chick, that’s been stuck in an egg in the stars for eons and eons, so the chick can descend from the heavens –”

“I get it. I get it. Breathe, Sherlpeng, breathe.”

Sherlock takes a deep breath and settles his dishevelled feathers. He’s worked himself into a bit of a lather.

“I think what you’re saying is, perhaps, we’ve put too much faith in the power of something that might not even exist, and that it’s time for us to take responsibility for ourselves, and make our own decisions, and live the right way regardless of an egg in the sky. We need to save ourselves.”

“Exactly, John!”

John nods his head and flutters his wings out a bit. “So,” he continues, “what did you, um, do? With the tooth?” He says this with a certain tone that conveys a very different question, something along the lines of please tell me you did not fling the potentially god-power-infused tooth into the sea.

“Oh. I’ve still got the tooth. You were right. We need to tell Mycroft and Erebus and my father, and we need to deal with this as a community, because that’s the whole point, right? Community.”

The last of John’s impatience and reluctance melt away. “You are brilliant. You are amazing. Come here.”

Finally, Sherlock thinks, they can move on to the epiphanic lovefest. Sherlock moves into John’s wings, and John goes up on his toes to nuzzle Sherlock’s neck and chin and face and beak. The affectionate onslaught is perfection. Sherlock lets out a string of soft chirps against John’s ear.

“This does not mean,” John says, pulling back enough to give Sherlock a stern look, “that I am not still mad that you snuck off in the middle of the night to climb great heights on slippery surfaces and risk your very life while I was asleep. Make no mistake.”

“Okay,” Sherlock whispers, rubbing increasingly larger surfaces of his body across John chest and belly and wings. “That’s okay. You won’t stay mad long, will you, Johnling?”

“I do not appear to have the ability to stay mad at you for long, penggit. It’s one of your many charms, and one of my weaknesses.”

“You don’t have any weaknesses, John, not a single one.” Sherlock presses the top of his head under John’s chin, and the two of them wobble, threatening to topple over backwards.

“You, my pengheart, only you. You are my greatest weakness. I lose all sense when it comes to what I would do for you.” John slides his wings up and down Sherlock’s, and turns his head so they are cheek to cheek.

“I would rather be your greatest strength.”

“You’re that, too. And right now I need you to have the strength to stop molesting me, which is fantastic, but also breaking those three rules we established for ourselves. Remember? We agreed to not draw any not-so-good attention to ourselves by doing anything potentially adultish in public, or anything we can be disciplined for, or anything that would attract Moringa’s attention in any way whatsoever.”

“What kind of heahea came up with those rules? They’re stupid,” Sherlock pouts into John’s shoulder, which, at the moment, seems like a wonderful place to nuzzle his bill.

“You’re the idiot who came up with those rules, and me. We agreed.” John extends one wing down, and rubs over Sherlock’s hip and thigh.

“Then you should set a good example and stop breaking those stupid rules, Johnling, right now. You’re being a very bad influence. Very, very bad.” Sherlock is panting now, bill open, head back, neck elongated.

From some distance away they hear a loud, shrill whistle.

They jump apart and turn toward the sound, puffing and shuffling themselves back into order.

“BOYS! COME GET BREAKFAST!” Hudi screeches at them.

“Oh my god. She is such a pengblocker, isn’t she?”

“Totally.”

John rubs one more kiss into Sherlock’s neck, and wraps a wing around his side. Together, they head back to the council grounds, and to the day ahead of them, to wait for Siger’s arrival.

Chapter Text

Sherlock, John, Mycroft, and Erebus stand on the landing shore, and they wait. They have been there for most of the day, scanning the waters for Siger’s arrival. They’ve told the others they are acting as an ad hoc welcoming committee, and no one disagrees that the colony’s leader deserves to be greeted upon his arrival.

In truth, they are waiting for Siger so that they waste no time pulling him aside, confiding in him the matter at hand, and seeking his counsel. They do not want to wait for the evening, after the excitement of seeing friends and family members has left them exhausted. They do not want to risk that other important business will arise and usurp their agenda, or that they won’t catch a private moment with Siger until tomorrow. They don’t want to delay one more minute than they have to, because the pressure they’ve been under since Erebus realized exactly what it was Moringa stole has been building and building, and they need to share this, or they will collectively implode.

While they wait, Mycroft and Erebus take turns examining the tooth. Neither seem over the shock of Sherlock and John’s announcement, and are treating the tooth as if it might break, or yell at them, or transport them somewhere. Mycroft had been very angry when he realized Sherlock hadn’t come to him the moment he found it, but Erebus had been Erebus, always constant, and had hugged both him and John, and told them how extraordinary they were.

Sherlock suspects that Mycroft did not believe the star-etched artefact existed until Sherlock actually produced it. In fact, Mycroft’s face when Sherlock had let the tooth slide out from under his wing, and come to rest on his other wingtip, will ever remain one of his most cherished memories.

He and John have spent the entire morning trying to come up with the right word for that look.

“Astonished?” John suggests.

“Yes, but more than that. Astonished with shades of disbelief, I think.”

“Flabbergasted?” John tries again.

Sherlock presses his wings together under his bill, and hums. “Stupefied?”

“Dumfounded!” John shouts, wings up in a victory stance.

“Yes, John, exactly! Because my brilliance found him dumb!”

“I don’t think the word works that way, Sherlock.”

Caught up in this amusing conversation about the precise term required to describe Mycroft’s face, they do not realize the older pengs have joined them.

“I believe the word you are looking for, young sir, is whakaawangawanga,” Erebus announces.

“Whaka-whatta, sir?” Sherlock asks, leaning in and cocking his head.

Mycroft sighs, but gestures that Erebus should continue his impromptu language lesson.

Whakaa – wanga – wanga,” the elder repeats, drawing the word out so they can hear it, then saying it again, faster, so they can hear the inflection. “Flummoxed, bewildered, perplexed.”

John immediately starts giggling. Sherlock, who had been focussing on hearing and memorizing this new addition to his already vast native vocabulary, looks over at John, and then he starts giggling, too.

Wanga wanga!” they whisper into each other’s necks, barely standing.

“Ah yes, and there we have them, the young saviours of our modern world, falling about the place over a silly-sounding word.” Mycroft looks grim, but Sherlock can read him like one of Vela’s seaweed leaves, the kind she uses to predict the weather, or someone’s love life, or from which direction the seals might come.

Mycroft may want Sherlock to think he’s annoyed, but in truth, Mycroft is unsure, and if there is anything Mycroft cannot tolerate in himself, it is being unsure. He is particularly troubled because he has no real recommendation to make to their father. There is too little data, and too many variables. The look on his face now, Sherlock thinks, is a cross between addled, and afraid. And, as much as Sherlock would like to revel in Mycroft’s state of uncertainty, he finds he cannot do so. If Mycroft is whakaawangawanga, the situation is dire, indeed.

They continue to wait throughout the morning, and then take turns hunting for lunch. Sherlock and John are just finishing a shared meal of silverfish and krill, when Erebus, who ate first, and has finished his post-meal preening, stands up straight, stares out into the swells, and says, “There. The first group is arriving.”

The four emperors line up on the shore and watch the first migrators approach. Siger leads the formation as they dive and resurface, using their time airborne to cover distance without expending the energy required underwater. They must be tired now, Sherlock thinks, having travelled for several days to return to Cassiopeia. He wonders, for the first time, if it’s fair of them to burden Siger with their celestial conundrum directly upon his return.

As if reading his mind, Mycroft tilts his head toward Sherlock, and says, “An emperor assumes tremendous responsibility when they become the leader of their colony. Ultimately, there is no action, no decision of significance, that does not start, or end, with that individual. He would rather know immediately; of this one fact, I am certain.”

Sherlock looks up at Mycroft, and sees as clearly as he sees Mycroft's bill on his face, that Mycroft will stand in Siger’s stead someday, and that he will be a very good leader, if a bit intimidating. Perhaps, in time, he will learn their father's ways of patience, humility, and warmth.

“He's here,” Mycroft says, putting an end to Sherlock's distraction. Sherlock looks up in time to see Siger sail out of the water, clearing the edge of the landing shore in a high, graceful arc. One after the other, they come, leaping and sliding across the ice. It is a far different homecoming than the one that started their summer.

Despite the growing crowd, Siger has seen them, and now makes his way to where they wait. Sherlock is sure that he has read them, and the entire situation, before he reaches them. There is a sharpness in Siger's eyes, a stiffness to his spine and tail, that speaks of an emperor bracing himself for the worst possible news. Next to him, John stands taller, and pulls his shoulders back.

Siger bows to them, and they return the gesture. Wasting not another second on pleasantries, Siger turns to Erebus, the most senior among them, and asks, “What is it? What has happened?”

Sherlock loves Erebus, but thinks he will die if the elder peng takes as long to explain as Sherlock suspects he will. He watches Erebus take a deep breath, watches the worried expression on his face turn to one of storytelling.

Oh, there is no time for this! Sherlock thinks to himself, no time at all for their stories and suggestions and suspicions. Stepping forward, out of line from the others, Sherlock looks up at his father, and lets the tooth slide from where it is tucked against his body, into the cupped tips of his wings. There is nothing but the sound of the wind whistling up and down Cassiopeia's frozen curves, and the sharp inhalation of Siger's breath. Sherlock has seen enough of the tooth to last a lifetime, so now he watches his father bend down low and take a closer look.

Just when he thinks perhaps his father does not understand, Siger speaks.

“It cannot be.”

Siger raises his gaze from the tooth to his son’s face, then lifts his wing and touches it to Sherlock's cheek. It is a gesture so unexpected, so tender, that for a moment Sherlock forgets why they're there.

“My dear boy, you have had quite a summer, haven't you?”

“Yes, Pāpā. John, too.”

“John, too. Well then, I think it best that the two of you fill me in. And,” he says, straightening up to include Erebus and Mycroft, “Your brother and Elder Erebus, as well.”

It takes until dinner time for Sherlock and John to tell Siger everything. They start at the beginning, filling in details for each other, one jumping in when the other must pause to take a breath. They explain how John had planned to use the ice cave as a viewpoint as he waited for Sherlock to arrive on that horrible, fateful day, and how, once John was recovered enough, they returned there frequently.

They tell him about the treasures they carried there, so carefully chosen, and how John loved to decorate the cave with what they found.

If Siger understands more than they share, he does not let on.

They explain, still indignant, how Moringa surprised them, and of her ridiculous accusation against them. They admit that they followed Hudi to her encounter with Moringa, and the confusing half-bits they overheard, and how Hudi agreed to accompany them back to the cave, and what they found when they got there.

They go over the morning Erebus overheard John and Sherlock telling the other junior pengs in the crèche what Moringa had taken, and the questions he asked them about the tooth. They say that Erebus then taught them Te Uto mā Ika, and about Pōrangi going mad.

They tell him about the meetings the four of them had, floating on floes for privacy, and they even tell him about John's idea to stab Moringa with icicles, and how hard they searched the iceberg, and how desperate they felt, counting down the days, unable to find Moringa’s hiding place.

John takes over to explain Lestrade's ice chip game, and brags about Sherlock always winning the game, and how they had to change the rules, to make it harder for him, and when John tells the part about Sherlock finding the tooth, wrapped in seaweed, tucked into a crack in Cassiopeia's hull, he is bursting with pride, adoration for his ipo bright as day on his face.

When Sherlock picks up the story again, it is to tell his father that he snuck away from the crèche, and spent the night trying to figure out where Moringa had been when she fell, and what she had been doing there. He loses himself in the recalled images and descriptions of the ice cave, and the realization that there was nothing there, nothing to find. He only pauses when he tells his father that no matter what the tooth may be able to do, he doesn't need it, because he has John, and if he has John, he can do anything.

He will not apologize for not telling Erebus and Mycroft sooner that he had found the tooth, because his time alone with it led him to understand that he cannot choose a course of action by himself, not if he is to respect the colony, and its deeply rooted teachings of community. He has learned so many things this summer, he ends, but the most important lesson is that Aumārire is theirs to take, not theirs to wait for.

Finally, completely drained, but with John at his side, he drops his head. “That, Pāpā, is what happened.”

“That is no small adventure, Sherlock. You have both been beyond brave, beyond wise.

“Erebus, Mycroft, I owe you my most sincere gratitude for all you have done in my absence, and for all that you are about to do. Erebus, fetch Pavo and Vela. Mycroft, fetch Cetus and Hudi.

“Sherlock and John, find Moringa. Tell her that she is to make herself available to me immediately. Stay with her. I will talk to her before the Council Meeting.

“Erebus, sound the call at sunset. We will start then.”

Erebus and Mycroft are off like shots, each in a different direction, leaving John and Sherlock pressed side-to-side, bills hanging open.

“Father, I –”

“Sherlock, my son, I know what you want to say, and I assure you, it is not necessary. It is I who should apologize to you, and John, and the others, for leaving you in the company of someone untrustworthy. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and she was not ready. Perhaps it is not too late.

“Now go, so that we can start the work of our future.”

Siger turns. He cranes his neck up to the sky, his body elongating, his wings momentarily lifting. He shakes his head, feathers rippling and resettling from head to toe, and he nods, just once, and walks away.

“What will happen now?” John whispers, watching their leader take his leave.

“I’ve no idea.”

Chapter Text

They find Moringa at the Council Grounds, waiting. She doesn’t say one word, and her silence is all that Sherlock needs to put the pieces together. She knows he has the tooth, and that Siger is back, and that something very big is about to happen. Still, she stands proud in her guilt, defiant, looking out over the horizon. She does not look at Sherlock.

Sherlock turns toward John, but John is too busy glaring a series of his most intimidating expressions in Moringa’s direction, and so doesn’t see the look of concern on Sherlock’s face.

Soon after, Erebus and Mycroft arrive with Pavo, Vela, Cetus, and Hudi. Hudi has sent the rest of the Junior Council to the swimming hole, for a little extra recreation after dinner, and seems nervous to have left them unattended. She rubs her wings together and looks off in the distance, but there’s nothing to see from where they’re gathered.

Siger is the last to arrive, and the shh-shh of his tail swiping over the ice as he approaches sounds ominous to Sherlock. He is exhausted, and not for the first time, he wishes he and John had never seen the tooth. He wishes they were home, on Pobeda, huddled together under their own night sky, with their own constellations, and their own stories. He moves closer to John.

Siger faces them and exchanges greetings with those he has not yet seen. The pleasantries are polite, but quick. Moringa does not raise her eyes from the ice, and makes only the slightest of bows when Siger addresses her.

When he speaks, his voice is low and steady. He asks Sherlock to come forward, and when father and son are facing each other, Siger simply says, “May I see it, son?”

Sherlock places the tooth at his father’s feet, and moves back to stand with John. The moonlight is strong, but not stronger than the pull of the tooth. It catches the yellow light, as if basking in it, and pulls that light deep into the etching on its surface.

“I do not know,” Siger begins, “How this came to be on Cassiopeia. I do not know how long it has been here, or who has carried it in the ages leading to this one. I do not know where it will go in the ages after ours.

“I know that it is revered by some, feared by others. I know that our ancestors searched tirelessly for it, put their faith and hope in it, and then let it slip away, lost to the mysteries of time.

“Ours is not a peaceful time. Some of us fight internal struggles. Others fight ideas and notions and the world at large. Each and every day, we must battle the sea, and the enemies with which we share it. I will not have us at war with each other.

“Erebus. You must have considered your own battle over a long time ago, and I am sorry to see it rekindled now, especially so soon after the loss of your beloved Selvic.

“Sherlock, John. With my blessing, Erebus has shared his story with you. If he left out certain details, it is either because he thought them irrelevant, or because I asked him to. It is time you knew that story in its entirety.

“Theirs is not an unusual tale, to be clear. There have always been same-peng pairings in emperor culture, and, in fact, all penguin species, if not all animalkind. What has changed, unfortunately, is the way in which societies respond to those couplings. If I could explain why thoughts on love have drifted back and forth over time, we would probably not be here now, having this discussion.

“That said, the days in which Erebus and Selvic, and others in their position, came of age, proved to be one of the least accepting times in our history. Families were torn apart, horrible accusations made, dire consequences threatened.

“You will have heard of the Apologists. Their resurgence on Pobeda was the work of a small faction of pengs bent on keeping Erebus and Selvic apart. They succeeded, as you know, for six long winters. After that, the two were reunited, and had hoped to spend the rest of their lives together, in peace, within the protection and acceptance of our colony. Unfortunately, they still met with considerable resistance, namely from their own families. Others, who would have paired according to their heart’s desires, mated against type, to avoid a similar fate. Still others chose to remain alone.

“At that time, my father, Maximus the Greater, was council leader. He would not abide the cruel behaviours and threats directed at the couple, but the Apologists would not desist, despite constant orders to do so. Accordingly, it was decided they would be banished from Pobeda. It was perhaps a harsh consequence, to further tear families apart, but Maximus, and his council, felt they were out of viable options.

“The most unapologetic of the Apologists were given a timeframe within which they had to leave; it was up to them and their families to decide if others would voluntarily go with them. In the end, five families left, a total of twenty-three pengs.

“Selvic’s family was among them. His parents, a brother, and two sisters left with the group. The brother and one sister were lost at sea. Selvic’s parents, and the remaining sister, made it to the Shelf. Moringa, as you may have guessed, is Selvic's surviving sister, and now, the only remaining member of her family's line.”

The gathering is quiet. Sherlock assumes only he and John did not already know this about Moringa. He should have known, though, he tells himself. He knew that she had left with her family when she was eight winters old, and that Erebus knew her from her time on Pobeda. He knew that Erebus was not pleased to see her return.

John is looking at him, searching his face to see if he knew this, so Sherlock turns to him, and sees relief in John’s expression, realizing that Sherlock did not know.

“At the passing of her parents, having spent half her life in a colony not her own, Moringa sent word that she wanted to come home. Arrangements were made to meet here, on Cassiopeia, to discuss her intentions.”

Siger looks at Moringa now, but there is no recognition in return, and he turns back to the others. “Moringa was thoroughly questioned as to her affiliations with the Apologists, and she assured us that she had left that behind her, and sought peace, both with her colony, and among all pengs, no matter what their coupling preferences. As proof of her loyalty, she gave us extensive information regarding the current Apologist structure, including their numbers, locations, leaders, and strategies for an emperor-wide war on same-peng unions.

“As a sign of our good faith, in return, she requested a position on the Council. It seems clear to me, now, Moringa,” Siger says, addressing her directly for the first time since he began speaking, “that you suspected the tooth was here, and your suggestion to meet here was part of a multi-faceted plan.”

Next to him, John begins to clench and shake his left wing. Sherlock wraps his wing around John’s back, and rests his chin on the top of John’s head. He can feel the tremors moving through John’s entire body now, sending waves of his manifested anger directly into Sherlock.

Still, Siger is not done. “All of this, I may have been able to accommodate, in some way, but that you chose to malign two innocent young pengs in the process, for the purpose of retrieving what you considered yours, and to publicly humiliate them, is a violation of more emperor codes than I care to count at the moment. To be sure, our first official order of Council business will be to dismiss any formal allegations that you might bring against them. We can start the process now, or you can tell me that you understand, and will not bring any such charge. Even if Mycroft and I recuse ourselves as relatives of Sherlock, there are five other adult witnesses here, four of whom are Council members, and whom will stand as a quorum. In light of the allegations against you, Moringa, I suggest you drop your charges. Are we clear?”

Sherlock watches Moringa, hardly daring to breathe. He watches as she lifts her head from her chest, watches as she holds it high, and dares to meet Siger’s eye. Moringa does not look threatened, or afraid, or even slightly worried. Moringa’s eyes are black dots of hate, and she trains them on each and every one of the penguins standing in a semicircle around her. Sherlock meets that gaze with a sense of horrible anticipation, and he feels John’s wing jerk against his body, as if he is no longer able to control it.

“Do you not see what is happening here, right under your very bills?” Her voice is shrill and sharp, and it alone is enough to make Sherlock want to take a step back. “Do you not understand what is at stake, to let history repeat itself? To encourage such an abomination of nature? When will it stop? How many families must be torn apart? How many hatchlings unborn? How many colonies have to disappear to the evil handiwork of freaks like these?”

Next to him Erebus growls, and Sherlock is reminded that he is the greatest hunter of their time, and no one, friend or foe, should mistake his kindness and gentlepengly ways for a lack of ferocity.

“My siblings were lost because of you and your ipo,” she snarls at Erebus, making the term of endearment sound like a curse. “We were exiled, cast away, forgotten, so that you could thrive in your kino, and spread your wickedness around like a foul disease.”

“My family dies with me, because my brother refused to take on the mantle of male responsibility and fill a female with a hatchling’s egg. And who would have me, and give me my own hatchlings, after being branded an outcast? All because of you and your sick hold on my brother.”

Sherlock’s worry that Erebus may do something physical is increasing with every one of his choked off grunts.

“We have worked for endless cycles of the sun to locate that tooth, to ensure that Pono is never resurrected, that her ill-begotten offspring never hatches. I was more than willing to play your silly game if it meant I could get close enough.”

Sherlock looks at Siger, and then at Mycroft. They are both perfectly calm, and would look almost bored, if not for the slight flaring of feathers around Mycroft’s bill, and the narrowing of Siger’s eyes. Pavo and Vela, to Mycroft’s right, look completely gobsmacked, as if they never even considered the peng before them capable of such hostility and malicious intent. Cetus, on the other side of Erebus, has moved half a step closer, as if to restrain his friend if necessary.

Siger does not address a single one of Moringa’s rants. There is only the slightest nod of his head, and one blink, and then he says, “I see. I had truly hoped that it would not come to this, Moringa. I had hoped we would be able to move toward reintegration and rehabilitation, but that is not to be.

“You will remain with us, under our watch, until this can be referred to the Emperor High Council, as you have committed hara against our youth, have threatened our peaceful ways, and have identified yourself as an Apologist. It is this last allegation that bears the most weight. It would be negligent of this council to hold your hearing within the confines of our colony alone, as yours is a species-wide threat.

“We will bring the tooth to the High Council, as well, for safekeeping, and further examination. It is to be neither destroyed, nor heralded, until the High Council has had its say.

“Mycroft, you and Sherlock will leave at first light. Prepare.”

Perhaps it is the cold, or the wind, or the way John’s wing is shuddering against Sherlock’s side, but it seems to take an eternity for the last of his father’s words to make their way across the space between them, assisted by the wind, and into his comprehension.

“Cetus and Erebus, take Moringa to the huddle, and keep her there, in your sight. We will wait for the rest of the packs to arrive, and then we will depart for Pobeda.

“You, Moringa, will remain under colony arrest until Mycroft and Sherlock return with word from the High Council.

“Hudi, please prepare a pouch that can be secured to Sherlock’s body, and within which the tooth will remain secure.

“Vela and Pavo, alert the elders of what is to take place, and prepare to resume your roles as chaperones of the orphans as they return.”

Siger is not done speaking, but the next words come from John.

“And what about me, Sir? Am I to go with Sherlock?”

In the half-moment it takes Siger to respond, several things happen. First, Sherlock understands that they are to be separated. Second, his mother’s prophecy rings through his ears. Third, his knees buckle.

“No, John. We need you here, to continue your work with Cetus. As the migrators return to Cassiopeia, there will be injuries to tend to; there always are. You will leave the iceberg with the last pack.

“Depending on how long it takes Sherlock and Mycroft to reach the High Council, and conduct their business, you should be reunited shortly after we reach Pobeda.”

“Shortly?”

John is bordering on impertinence now, in tone if not word.

“If all goes well, they should be home within three moons of us.”

Siger dismisses the meeting, and the pengs start to move along, to tend to whichever task they have been assigned.

Sherlock and John remain, standing side-by-side. Sherlock is afraid to look at John, because he knows that he will cry. His heart is already breaking, and they haven’t even said goodbye.

Next to them, Erebus murmurs, “You can do this, my young sirs. You will do this, and be reunited, and the colony will be better for your efforts.” He shuffles away then, his shoulders sloped in sadness, he and Cetus on either side of Moringa, who spits and hisses at them as they lead her away.

When they are alone, John turns to Sherlock, and wraps his wings around him. Sherlock cannot hold back his sobs, and he does not try. Against his shoulder, he feels John’s own tears trickling over his feathers.

“I can’t, John. I can’t do it without you.”

“Shh. You can. You can.”

“No. Everything I said, it was all true. I don’t need the tooth. I need you. I can’t do this without you, John. I won’t.”

“You still have me, Sherlock,” John whispers into his neck. “You’ll be in my every thought, and I’ll be in yours. And I will wait for you, at home. I will watch for you every single day, do you understand? I will watch, and wait, until you come home to me.”

“Please. Please, John, I can’t.”

“We don’t have a choice, pengheart. We don’t have a choice. I would do anything to change this, I would. But to go against your father now, with so much at stake, would be wrong. If I went with you, and anything happened, if your journey was not successful, they would blame us.

“You’ll be a hero when you come home, Sherlock. My hero. And the High Council will rule against Moringa, and the Apologists, and all of this will change, all of these hurdles those before us have faced.

“Think of Erebus and Selvic, Sherlock. Think of what they went through. We can’t let them down now, my love. They made most of the journey for us, and now we’ll finish it for them, yes? Sherlock, look at me.”

Sherlock lifts his head and tries to swallow back his tears. John’s precious face is wet with tears, his eyes flooded with them, and yet he is trying hard, so hard, to buoy Sherlock, to give him the love and courage that he needs to do what his father has asked of him. He will try. He will try to be strong for John.

“All right, John.” He nods, and sniffs, quite loudly. John smiles. “All right. I will go with Mycroft, gods help me, and we will be reunited soon. I will tell the High Council all about you, how wonderful and smart and brave you are, and I will tell them that I couldn’t do any of this without you.

“I will give them the tooth, and deliver the news about Moringa, and the resurgence of the Apologists, and I will come home to you, and we will be together. Forever.”

John’s shoulders are shaking with the effort of holding himself together. Sherlock sees his eyes brim over, again and again, he sees the way John is bracing himself, feet apart, wings slightly askew, shoulders back.

“Sherlock, listen to me. You are the best and the wisest peng I have ever known. You can do this. Do it for me. Can you do that? For me?”

“Yes, John. For you.”

“Okay then. We only have a few hours left. Will we wait, together, for the first light? Or would you like to sleep?”

“I won’t sleep tonight, John. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and remember that we have to say goodbye.”

“Me neither. So let’s go to the shore, and spend this last night together, just me and you, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And tomorrow we won’t say goodbye, Sherlock. Tomorrow I’ll kiss you, and you’ll tell me that you’ll see me soon, and that will be that.”

Sherlock’s tears start anew, but he nods, and together, wings wrapped around each other, they walk to the shore.

Chapter Text

It is the most fleeting night of Sherlock’s life. He and John pass it together, with their backs to the eastern horizon. The sun will rise, and bring with it their separation, but they don’t have to watch for it, so they don’t.

The wind is mild and the moon is low and bright in a crystalline sky, and if Sherlock were to wish for the perfect canopy under which to say goodbye to John, he would wish for nothing different. This way, he can see John’s sweet face clearly, and memorize every single feather, every shift in the shade of his colouring, every nuance of John’s eyes that make them uniquely his own. He touches John’s cheeks, and neck, and chest, and memorizes the gentle slopes and curves of his precious body.

John does the same, staring at Sherlock, studying him, and Sherlock wishes John didn’t look so desperate, like he may never see Sherlock again, but he knows he wears the exact same expression, so he bends his thoughts toward the difference between until next time and never, and then on the difference between soon and distant.

“Do you know where you’re going?” John asks him, running his wings down between the undersides of Sherlock’s, and his body.

“No. Mycroft will know. He knows everything.”

“The High Council is on the Shelf, though, isn’t it?”

“It is, but the Shelf is enormous. It’s more than twenty times the size of Pobeda, and can only be accessed at certain places along its coast, where the slope is lower, and we can climb it.”

“But Mycroft knows how to get there? And once you’re there, he knows where the colony is?”

“I imagine so. If he didn’t know a few hours ago, he does now.”

“Which colony houses the High Council?”

“The Rūnanga. The entire colony is organized around the High Council. The Council members are recruited from across the continent and its territories, but if you are hatched Rūnanga, chances are great you’ll spend your life in legislative support work. Most of our kind’s messengers, mediators, and tohungas are Rūnanga.”

John nuzzles Sherlock’s bill, and presses the top of his head to Sherlock’s neck. His voice is muffled, but Sherlock can hear him clearly enough. “Go quickly. Don’t explore. Just get there.”

“I will, John. As fast as I can. I will be single-minded in my efforts to arrive there as quickly as possible, impart the necessary information, and return home.”

“And be safe. It’s just the two of you. You won’t have the protection of a swimming pack.”

“I know. I’ll be as safe as I can.”

“Sleep on floes.”

“Of course.”

“The sun is coming up.”

“Shhh.”

Sherlock feels filled up, overflowing, with tenderness for John. Each touch is a gentle kiss, a love poem, a promise. Neither have the emotional energy for more than these soft caresses and whispered requests to not let go. Not now, not ever.

John turns his face to the side, and sighs. Sherlock knows he has seen what Sherlock heard only a moment ago. They’re coming.

“Sherlock, it’s almost time.”

“Yes.”

“Sherlock, there won’t be time when they get here. I love you so much. You know that, right? How much I love you?”

“Yes. You love me as much as I love you, and that’s, that’s –”

“Shhh. It’s okay. Don’t cry. It’s a tremendous amount of love, how much I love you. And one of the reasons I love you so much is that you’re smart, and brave, and good.”

“I’m not those things, John. That’s you.”

“No, you are. You are those things.” John is speaking urgently now. He has gone up on his toes with his wings pressed to Sherlock’s shoulders in order to better see Sherlock, and make sure Sherlock sees him. “You’re smart and brave and good, and that’s how I know that you can do this, and do it well, and that you’ll come home soon.

“You remember that. Your father wouldn’t send you on this journey if he didn’t think you could do it. This is only hard because we want to be together, and we won’t be. It’s not hard because you can’t do it. Do you understand?”

John radiates sincerity. His entire body shouts, Sherlock, I mean this. This is true. Take this with you.

“I understand. If I am half as brave and good as you, John, I’ll be okay.”

John shakes his head and smiles. “Penggit.”

The group approaches; Siger, Olive, Mycroft, Hudi, and Erebus, each so quiet, so somber.

“John, I love you, so much. Don’t forget. I love you.”

“I know you do. I won’t forget.”

“Every night, find the constellation Carina in the sky. Look for the brightest star, all the way at the top. That’s Atutahi.”

“Atutahi?”

“Kororā and Ika’s father. If anyone will be watching out for us, he will be. Every night, we’ll look at Atutahi, and we’ll be together.”

John nods and leans in to kiss Sherlock one more time, and then they are out of time.

Hudi approaches, and waits until John steps back, then holds up the pouch she has fashioned around the tooth. Sherlock turns and ducks his head down so she can fasten it around his neck. She pulls the seaweed lengths snug around his neck, the tooth resting over his heart, and secures them in several tight knots.

He reaches up to tap at the bundle resting on his chest. It feels solid, and much bigger than the tooth, wrapped as it is in sturdy Himantothallus grandifolius leaves. This is the same plant, he thinks, as the one the tooth was wrapped in when he found it. Hudi has selected well.

All eyes are on him as he turns around again. No one says a word. John steps closer and slips the tip of his wing underneath Sherlock’s.

He feels caught in a daze, everyone standing still, not speaking, just looking at him. Then Siger breaks the trance with a single nod. Olive moves forward, and John moves to step away, but she shakes her head and extends her wings to enclose the two of them. “Look at you, both. Growing up so fast. You are not the children I left, are you now?

“Sherlock, my son, what you are to undertake was written in the fates before you were even a feather of a thought. Do not doubt that you are up to the task. Find excitement in what is to come, and be present in the details; you could very well be making history.

“John, you have two families now. You are welcome to swim, eat, and huddle with us at any time. We must stick together, those of us who love Sherlock as much as we do, don’t you think?”

John gives his feathers the slightest ruffle, and Sherlock knows that he is honoured, and touched, by Olive’s words. “Thank you, Elder Olive. I would consider it a privilege.”

“Oi, none of that ‘elder’ for me, John,” she teases, reaching out to tap his bill. “Sherlock, you remember your prophecy?”

“Yes, Māmā.”

“It is to begin.”

“No, Māmā. It already did. The journey began when I understood that the tooth cannot give me what I do not already have.”

Olive cocks her head and looks at Sherlock again. She nods her head, slowly, as if still taking in his words. “Already so wise.” She smiles and kisses Sherlock on the top of his head, once for speed, twice for protection, thrice for grace.

When she steps back, Erebus approaches, and like Olive, he addresses both of them. “Remember our studies, Sherlock. You will be safer, and hunt more effectively, on the outer edge of the eddies.

“Show Mycroft what you have learned, and work with him, not against him.

“When you get to the High Council, follow Mycroft’s lead. Be honest, no matter what they ask you. Speak in facts, unless they ask for your opinion.”

Sherlock has been too caught up in saying everything that needs to be said to John to realize how much he will miss Erebus, but it hits him very clearly now, a sharp pang resonating with Erebus’ earnest advice.

“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Elder Erebus. Thank you for everything. For everything you’ve told me, and how you’ve helped me, helped us, me and John.”

“I have done very little, young one. I have complete faith in you. I wish you godsspeed, Sherlock, and I will look eagerly toward the day you come home to us.”

Erebus bows low, and Sherlock is so moved by the sign of respect, he breaks from John’s side and nearly tackles Erebus in a hug. Erebus huffs out a surprised breath, and hugs Sherlock back.

“I will be there for John, Sherlock, while you are away,” Erebus whispers into his ear. He gives him one last squeeze before stepping away.

Sherlock looks down at the ice as Siger approaches, working hard to school his features into the steady, stalworth mask his father will want to see. He is, therefore, entirely caught off guard when Siger enfolds him in his broad wings and rocks him back and forth.

“My son. My beloved son. Do not believe for one instant that it does not pain me to send you away. Do not think I do not understand the depth of your regard for John, or how powerfully you will miss him during your absence.

“You go by my orders, Sherlock, but also with my blessing, and my promise that no matter what happens, John is family now, and will be treated as such. Godsspeed, my son.”

“Father, I will make you proud. I ‒” but then Sherlock’s voice cracks, and he closes his eyes.

“You already have, tama. Beyond measure.”

There is no one left to wish him farewell. Mycroft steps to the edge of the shore and looks out toward the horizon, now glowing pink–mauve-orange over the black band of sea. “When you are ready, brother mine.”

Sherlock looks at each and every one of these emperors, his friends, his family, his ipo. He bows down low. He holds the pose until the wave of emotion that threatens to topple him has crested, and passed him by, then he stands, kisses John one more time, and joins Mycroft at the precipice.

He does not look back. He takes a deep breath, presses his wing over the tooth to which he is bound, and dives.

Chapter Text

The days are made of nothing but water, but they pass quickly.

In the beginning, Sherlock followed Mycroft’s lead, forcing himself to keep up despite the heaviness of his heart and the yawning absence next to him. Within a few days, he acknowledges that he is doing himself no favours, shakes off his malaise, and dedicates himself to completing his task.

Now, Sherlock flies, and Mycroft keeps pace. True to his word, they do not dally, they do not stop to explore. The speed at which they travel should be exhausting, but Sherlock’s body thrums with energy, infused with purpose. When he thinks, he thinks of John, and those thoughts help hone his focus on his goal: the Shelf.

He and Mycroft work together seamlessly, in tune with each other in a way borne of both genetics, and constant companionship. They do not waste movement, or words, until they alight on a floe for the night, and settle down for a few hours of rest.

This is how they live.

They review the distances they’ve travelled, and what remains. Mycroft teaches Sherlock sophisticated methods for mapping their precise location in the sea, triangulating themselves in relation to the stars, the Shelf, and Pobeda, and Sherlock listens, rapt, hungry for new knowledge now that his Junior Council training is over. He consumes new constellations, new combinations of clusters, new ways to read the blackness in between.

Mycroft is patient when Sherlock calculates, and recalculates, where John might be at any given time. He reconfigures the variables over and over again, taking into consideration how many swimming packs may have arrived to Cassiopeia, how many might yet arrive, the number and ages of potentially injured birds, the nature of their injuries, their required healing times, the day upon which the last pack may have taken to the sea. All of this produces a final probability of John’s location, which is then combined with their own travelling data, to culminate in the ultimate answer: Reunion. It consumes him.

One late night, a dozen days into their journey, Sherlock miscalculates the anticipated degrees of the sun, which causes a gross extrapolation of the curve of the earth, and a frighteningly large number of minimum days of separation. Muttering fractions and equations to himself, Sherlock freezes mid-number, gasps, and shudders.

“No, Sherlock. Go back three steps. Your mistake is there. You will see him long before then.”

This is how they speak of love.

He and Mycroft seldom encounter others, and when they do, they are always large packs of pengs, heading home, migrating in a perpendicular direction to their own.

“Don’t other penguin species migrate back to the Shelf from the east?”

“Not usually. Almost all penguin species summer north of their rookeries.”

“Do we always spend summer to the east?”

Mycroft shakes his head, a sour expression on his face. “This was our first time in many years.”

“Of course. Cassiopeia was a concession.”

This is how they speak of Moringa.

Sherlock learns to sleep without John. It is the most odious education he has ever endured. The frigid temperatures require him and Mycroft to huddle, and Sherlock softens his resistance with a memory of John at the first hui they had attended together. "C'mon, get closer. Haven't you learned about body heat yet?"

They stand as close as possible without touching, as any shifting of a single feather will cause the loss of precious body heat trapped beneath. They rest their heads on their own chests, underwing. Sherlock stops staying awake for the purpose of watching John sleep. Now he wakes himself for the purpose of seeing John, soon.

At night Sherlock dreams of the sky, of flight. He reverses his saltwater journey under Atutahi’s watchful eye, assisted by Kapua’s winds, through banks and wisps of clouds, back to John. Far below he sees his shadow, cast on the surface of the sea. His wings look long and full, and he watches them beat powerfully. He circles Cassiopeia, descends, softly-softly, until he sees the crèche, and John, the graceful curve of his neck, the fascinating lines of his skull and bill and shoulders, standing with the others, but alone.

He dreams that he can blanket John, all of him, and that John recognizes him by the subtle shifts in air and temperature, and that John dreams of him, in return. He talks to John in these dreams, of the constant sluicing through brine, how he passes time with the computation of endless factors, how maybe Mycroft isn’t so bad, after all.

John tells him of news on the berg, of shifting council dynamics, of his work with Cetus. John doesn’t cling, and Sherlock can’t linger. The sun gives fair warning, and Sherlock retreats back to dreamless sleep, and then to wakefulness. He carries these slumber-sodden encounters with him through the day, and sometimes forgets that they are not real.

Mycroft learns from Sherlock, too. Depths beneath the surface, Mycroft follows Sherlock’s lead. He records and translates each and every one of Sherlock’s seemingly spontaneous shifts in dive and approach, although nothing about Sherlock’s foraging movements are ever spontaneous.

He learns, through observation, about the minute changes in the currents around them, which lead to the eddies, which, at their edges, contain the largest, healthiest zooplankters and forage fish, which allow them to hunt in a safer, faster manner. They eat very well.

Under the stars, Mycroft summarizes his hunting observations and their implications for changes in their hunting methodologies. Sherlock explains and confirms, and during the days, they test, analyse, retest, and further hone his hypothesis.

This is how they build their siblinghood.

The moon waxes and wanes, and one morning, after he smacks his bill awake, checks on the pouch, and stretches, Sherlock turns around and sees the Shelf. It is a thick band of ice resting on the milky blue horizon, the thin edges of its parent continent curving away in either direction.

He opens his bill to speak, but Mycroft has beat him to it. Next to him, standing tall, alert, his brother enumerates.

“… position of the sun … relative … waning gibbous … degrees of illumination … allowing for …”

Sherlock keeps up in his head, then races ahead. “One hundred seventeen degrees of the sun, Mycroft. We can reach it today. Late, but today.”

Mycroft turns and stares at him. “One hundred sixteen point eight, brother mine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.”

“Even better, then.”

They stand, side by side, and assess their destination. It has been the better part of a lunar cycle since they left Cassiopeia. Mycroft does not look at his little brother when he says, “You have done well, Sherlock. You have met, and exceeded, all of my expectations for this journey.”

Sherlock doesn’t look at his big brother when he responds, “As have you mine, Mycroft. As have you.”

“Shall we?”

They dive.

Chapter Text

The Shelf is high and vast, and there are penguins everywhere. After so long at sea, just the two of them, Sherlock finds it disconcerting to be surrounded by so many others. There are not only emperors, but king, Adélie, rockhopper, gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni, all marching home to their rookeries for the impending winter.

Most of these distant cousins he has never seen before, but recognizes based on his studies. He knew his own kind were the biggest and tallest, but to see them peng to peng is an entirely different matter. He feels rather enormous in comparison, stately, significant. He finds this interesting. His physical characteristics have never set him apart before. Should they? Surely these other pengs should be judged on their personality traits and not size, colour, or shape, just as he would wish to be?

He observes. They are all, each species, similar in almost every way he can imagine. They are protective of their offspring, accommodating of their elders’ needs, polite yet reserved with strangers (except the rockhoppers; the rockhoppers seem to be everyone's ecstatic best friends), and they are demonstrative with their affections. All around him, pengs nuzzle and trill and lend supportive wings.

He misses John.

He and Mycroft had arrived at Ascension Point, at the northern tip of the Shelf, precisely when they'd predicted they would, but none of Sherlock's calculations had factored in the arrival of thousands of others at the same time. He had watched in awe as organization evolved out of chaos, and stayed close to Mycroft as they fell into a logical formation, created queues, and waited patiently for their turn to leave the water and waddle up the long, narrow incline.

On the ice, they walk. They walk in formation, too, thousands ahead of them, thousands behind, separated by kind, but together. The lines mingle, chains touching and breaking apart, conversations picked up and dropped. Where have you been? Which colony are you from? What is it like there? How was the forage? Across species the juveniles ask, how much longer? and the elders laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

They march for days, and then the first chinstrap colony breaks away, heading west. Another goes, then another, and more and more, like fibrous threads of floating seaweed, floating away in the pull of its own current.

Mycroft and Sherlock stay on course. Days and days and days pass, until the Adélies are gone, then the macaroni, then the gentoo, and all the others, until only emperors remain. Sherlock understands. They are the hardiest, the only ones to winter so far south.

A juvenile from Sherlock's winter, but not his colony, approaches him one morning as the sun struggles to rise. It will not succeed in climbing much higher for many lunar cycles to come. Sherlock hears the other penguin’s purposeful shuff-shuff-shuff approach before he sees him. He is Sherlock's height, with slightly more remaining juvenile plumage, and a sharp, curious glint to his eyes.

“I am Nikau of Anahi.”

“I am Sherlock of Pobeda.”

“The island?”

“Do you know of another?”

“You are far from home, Sherlock of Pobeda.”

“I am well aware, Nikau of Anahi.”

They walk in silence for a while, then Nikau says, “What are you carrying?” and nods at Sherlock's neck.

“A talisman.”

“Are the Pobedans superstitious?”

Sherlock considers. “We are undecided.”

“About?”

“Whether or not we should be superstitious.”

Nikau nods. “Is that your father?” He gestures discreetly to Mycroft, who is marching with two elders a short distance behind them.

“My brother, Mycroft. Our father is Siger.”

“That is my father, Wiremu, six pengs ahead of us. Are you the only two from Pobeda?”

“Yes.”

“I'm only going to keep asking, you know. You might as well tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“Why you're going to the High Council.”

Sherlock doesn't show it, but he's surprised. He takes a second, longer look at Nikau. “Why do you think we're going to the High Council?”

“There are four colonies still marching. The Rūnanga are one of them. You carry something very special, you have not taken it off since we climbed onto the Shelf, and you have a chaperone. You, Sherlock of Pobeda, are on a mission, sent by your own council. Obviously.”

Sherlock squints into the distance and considers his options.

“He's not my chaperone.”

“Is that the only part you're going to refute?”

Oh, for gods’ sake. He settles on an answer that he hopes will serve him better than it will Nikau. “What do you know about them, the Rūnanga?”

Nikau falls into step with Sherlock, having taken his question as an invitation to close the previous, polite distance maintained by strangers. Sherlock doesn't mind. They've followed the protocol for inter-colony relations; they've exchanged names, colonies, and identified family members. Anything less than this level of conversation would not have mandated it.

“They are good and just pengs, very hard working, very serious. Their offspring undergo intense training, based on family line, from almost the moment of hatching. They aren't very … fun. But, they are honest, and I would take that over fun, I suppose.”

Sherlock files away these bits of information before asking his next question. “The High Council, though, is not only Rūnanga. Are other emperors accepted as equals, despite what may be differences in background or training?”

Nikau shrugs. “You must give up your own colony to serve on the High Council, so then you aren't different anymore, are you?

“Is that what you are doing, then? Applying to the High Council?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “No. I do not wish to remain on the Shelf any longer than necessary. I wish to conduct my business and return home, soon.”

Nikau makes a small hum of acknowledgement. “I understand. Home holds the heart, isn't that what they say?”

Sherlock doesn't answer. John holds his heart. Johnling. If John is on Pobeda, that is where Sherlock's home is. If John is on Cassiopeia, that is where Sherlock's home is. If John were on the moon, Sherlock would be at home there, as well.

Sentiment rises fast and hard in Sherlock's throat, and he swallows it back down before it can spill out.

“So, is it true, what they say about Pobeda?”

“What do they say about Pobeda?”

“That our social revolution started there, and ended there, between the wingspan of one generation.”

Now shock replaces sentiment in Sherlock's throat. Is this what their world thinks? Is Erebus and Selvic’s story, and the resulting fallout, that well-known, as to have become the foundation for species-wide speculation?

“Sherlock, brother mine, where are your manners? Please, do introduce me to your new friend.”

Sherlock's shoulders release tension he did not realize he was holding.

Sherlock introduces Nikau to Mycroft, and Mycroft steers the conversation to safer territory. He does it with no effort whatsoever, with such grace, such charm, Sherlock is left without words. He watches the way Mycroft directs the interaction, and how Nikau preens under the attention of the older peng, flattered by his inquiries, his thoughtful reflections, his unwavering focus.

Fascinating.

The next morning the Anahi break away. Nikau wishes Sherlock and Mycroft both safe travels, full bellies, and a short winter. It is one of many emperor salutations, and they return it with sincerity, the three pengs bowing low before parting.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft says, as soon as they are a considerable distance from everyone else.

Sherlock interrupts. “I understand. I will be more careful.”

They march together, side-by-side. Sherlock watches the sun strain for elevation, watches her fail. They are almost there.

Chapter Text

Sherlock and Mycroft march with the Rūnanga now. They march away from the weak, watery sun, and they huddle with strangers at night. No one asks them who they are, or where they’re from. Perhaps, Sherlock, thinks, the other pengs assume they are Rūnanga. Perhaps, his thoughts wander, he is surrounded by other non-Rūnanga, who wonder why he and Mycroft do not ask where they are from. Perhaps half of this crowd is heading toward the Rūnanga rookery for business with the High Council. Sherlock begins to panic.

How will this even work? How will they introduce themselves? To whom will they introduce themselves? Is there a docket? A waiting list? Are matters ranked by some rating of perceived importance? What if they –

“Stop.”

– refuse to see them? What if the High Council –

“Sherlock, stop.”

– won’t even see them, and –

“SHERLOCK.”

Sherlock’s mental machinations come to a stop, and he turns to look at Mycroft.

“You’re thinking too much, Sherlock. Stop it.”

“How do you know I’m thinking too much?”

Mycroft sighs. “Because you mutter and huff and trill to yourself when you do it.”

“No I don’t. Pāpā does that.”

“Yes, and so do I, and so do you. And you’ve been doing it since we started walking this morning. It’s getting on my very last nerve.”

Sherlock is tempted to ask which nerve that is; the one that makes Mycroft walk like an anemone is shoved up his bottom, or the one that makes him talk as if he’s trying to swallow an entire cephalopod.

“You’re still doing it. Why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind? Perhaps I can help.”

Sherlock wants to refuse, but then has a vision of John, wings on his hips, nodding his head, and gesturing for Sherlock to move forward. Talk to Mycroft, Johnling says, he hasn’t let you down yet. Sherlock is flustered enough to want to argue this point with imaginary John, but John knows him too well. He shakes his head, blows Sherlock a kiss, and disappears.

Sherlock opens his bill, and out spills every worry, every doubt, every half-thawed thought he’s had since starting this journey. He talks and talks and talks, wings flapping, feet stomping, and when he's purged every last bit, he stops, stops talking, stops walking, and he glowers at Mycroft.

Mycroft clears his throat.

“So, basically, what I hear you saying,” Mycroft says in some odd mimicry of one of Vela’s lectures on How To Have Difficult Conversations, “is that you’re afraid we’re on a wild peng chase, that the High Council won’t see us, this will never be resolved, and you’ll never see John again.”

“I didn’t say a single word about John.”

“Sherlock, you never stop talking about John, even when you’re not actually speaking.

“Now, listen to me. There certainly is a protocol for approaching the High Council, and a method by which they determine how quickly they will see us.

“First, we will attend their regular council meeting. At the end of that, they will ask the colony if there are any matters of new business. We will approach the council leader and introduce ourselves. He, or she, will arrange for our introduction to the appropriate High Council representative, who may or may not sit on the High Council. That peng will debrief us on proper protocols, and then direct us through the next step of the process. After we have presented a summary of the events that have led us here, the High Council will meet privately to decide how to best serve our needs, after which point –”

“This is ridiculous. Listen to yourself. It would all be much more efficient if I just yelled at the top of my lungs, the moment we arrive, that I have Pōrangi’s tooth, and let the ice chips fall where they may.”

“A fascinating approach, to be sure.”

“Oh my gods. Wait. You said that our first step will be to attend their first council meeting?”

“Yes.”

“Mycroft, there won’t be a council meeting until the hatchlings are old enough to attend, and that won’t be until after they actually hatch, and that won’t be until after they’ve incubated for two moons, and that won’t be until they’ve been laid, which doesn’t happen until after they’ve been conceived, which is some time after courting takes place!”

“What is your point?”

“We will be stuck here for at least four lunar cycles before we even meet the High Council! By the time they see us, and decide how to proceed, and then do something, an entire solar cycle could pass. Another winter, Mycroft! I could be away from John for longer than I’ve even known him!

Mycroft is quiet for a moment, and the space between them fills with a bitter, icy wind, and the rising tide of Sherlock’s panic.

“Get this off of me. Get it off right now!” Sherlock pulls at the seaweed knotted securely about his neck. He inserts both wingtips under it and yanks, again and again, until his breath goes shallow, and his heart is pounding in his ears, until he feels Mycroft’s wings around him, holding him still, shushing him, telling him to breathe, to take a deep, deep breath.

Sherlock struggles against this attempt at rational behaviour, because rational behaviour will lead him straight back to the maddening realizations that led him here to begin with. He struggles, but not for long.

Mycroft is strong, and Sherlock cannot move. Mycroft is surprisingly gentle with his strength, and says something to him now, something soft and confident, something about his prophecy. Not Sherlock’s prophecy, but Mycroft’s. Sherlock’s head pulses with the wind and spinning stars and his fear and Mycroft’s words.

“– keep you safe – facilitate in any way – not let you suffer – carry the burden – you will go home – journey ends here – saw it in my shell – trust what she said –”

Sherlock breathes. He sucks lungfuls of air from where his head rests on Mycroft’s shoulder, holds on to them, lets them back out as small white clouds. Slowly, he finds his feet, and he straightens up. Mycroft does not let go until Sherlock is standing, independent of all support. When he does let go, he does so slowly, letting his wingtips slide down Sherlock’s shoulders, down his wings, before letting them drop to his own sides.

Sherlock thinks he should probably say something now, apologize. Maybe he should reassure Mycroft that he hasn’t dived off the deep end, and he would, except he isn’t really sure that he hasn’t. He is still considering what to say when a new voice joins them.

“Are you both quite all right?”

Mycroft bows, pointing his bill toward the other peng’s feet. “We are. Thank you for your concern. I hope we didn’t startle you.”

“Not at all. The journey is arduous,” the other peng says. Her voice is lilting and melodious, and Sherlock wonders if this is a native Rūnanga accent. Her accent may be captivating, but her appearance is otherworldly. She is almost entirely white. Where she should have golden patches she is slightly pinkish in colour, and where she should be black, along the tops of her wings, her face, and her back, she glows like moonlight. Her eyes are silver, her bill, too.

“It is. You see, my brother – oh, dear me, excuse my manners. I am Mycroft, and this is my brother, Sherlock. We hail from Pobeda, but have been sent by our father and council leader, Siger, to consult with the High Council on a matter of great urgency.”

“I see. But you do not come from Pobedan waters now. The Himantothallus grandifolius around young Sherlock’s neck is not found south of here. It is not found north of here. That particular seaweed is found east of here, and some distance at that. You have indeed been travelling a long time.

“But now it seems I’ve lost my manners. I am Anahera of the Rūnanga, daughter of Hara and Terina. I have heard of Siger, and of Pobeda, of course. We have studied your social and coupling dynamics closely.”

Sherlock wonders if she’s referring to the same social revolution that Nikau mentioned, but his thought is fleeting. He cannot help but stare at her.

“Why are you all white?” he bursts out, and the resulting roll of Mycroft’s eyes is loud enough to calve an iceberg.

“Please, excuse my brother,” Mycroft begins, but Anahera cuts him off.

“Not at all. I find it refreshing when someone asks, because everyone is undoubtedly wondering the exact same thing.” She gives Sherlock a small smile and nods in his direction. “I have a very rare condition, one which results in a lack of colouring in my feathers.”

“But you are well? It does not harm you?”

Anahera’s smile blooms. “Do you know, I’m not sure anyone has ever asked me that. Yes, Sherlock. I am well. It does not harm me. In fact,” she says as she moves closer and nudges him back into the line of marching pengs, “it often works to my advantage.”

“How is that?”

She turns to make sure that Mycroft is following, then slips her wing under Sherlock’s. “Many think that I am kēhua, unable to find my way home. Some think I am from the stars, perhaps a fallen atua. Some, despite the evidence, insist that I must be something other than what I am, which is an emperor, just like you, and your brother, and all these other pengs.”

“Besides, there are no ghosts,” Sherlock scoffs. “So, how does it benefit you that others refuse to recognize you as one of their own?”

“They grant me favours, and kindnesses, to appease me. They wish to stay on my good side, you see.”

Sherlock considers this. “Do you ever take advantage of their superstitions?”

Behind him, Mycroft trips, slips, and rights himself.

Anahera only laughs. She leans close to Sherlock’s ear and whispers, “Sometimes, Sherlock, I do. Do you see that as a flaw in my character?”

“Only if you use it for personal gain, or to hurt another peng. If you use it to help others, than I think it’s a character trait to be lauded.”

“Quite. Now you tell me something about yourself.”

Sherlock likes Anahera. He trusts her. Still, he told Mycroft that he would be more careful, so he thinks carefully. Anahera waits patiently, leaning slightly against Sherlock’s shoulder, her wing slotted under his as they walk.

“I miss my ipo. His name is John.”

“You are quite young to have an ipo, Sherlock, are you not?”

Sherlock shrugs. “We were meant to be together, John and I. I am sure of it. Why should our ages matter?”

“Quite true. How old do you think I am?”

Mycroft clears his throat, much louder than necessary for whatever warning is lodged there. Sherlock ignores him. “It’s hard to say without traditional markings, but you speak a bit like my friend, Erebus, and you regard me the way one might a little brother, so I’m going to say that you are five or six winters old.”

Anahera nods. “I am almost six winters old. My hatchday is toward the end of the hatching season, one of the last days.”

“John was one of the first to hatch last winter, and I was the next day. We won’t be able to celebrate together. Not this winter.”

Anahera is quiet for a moment, looking out over the heads of the pengs in front of them. There is a narrow band of pink resting on the horizon, and the stars are shining bright above them. There is the low moan of the wind, and the shuffle-sweep of thousands of feet and tails moving over ice.

“Hmm. You miss him, not only now, but well into the future. You feel his absence growing larger around you, don’t you?”

Sherlock nods. “Sometimes I miss him so much, I want to forget this whole journey, this mission to the High Council. But I know he would be disappointed in me, and that I would regret it. I wish he were here, with me. I’m better with him.”

“Sherlock, you are exactly who are you, no more, no less. You are happier with him, but not better. If you say that being happier allows you to be better, I will say you are allowing his absence to let yourself be less. He wouldn’t want that, would he?”

“He would hate that.”

“Right. Now, how did you know that I wouldn’t care that your ipo is male?”

“I didn’t know whether or not you would care. I only knew that you shouldn’t care, and that if you did, it was your problem, not mine.”

Anahera tugs him closer and kisses the top of his head. “We will be at the rookery soon. When we arrive, I will introduce you to my parents. My mother, Terina, sits on the Rūnanga council. Her eldest sister, my matua kēkē, sits on the High Council. Perhaps we can get you home sooner than later.”

“You would do that?”

“How could I not? And after that, I’ll introduce you to Tui.”

“Who is Tui?”

“My ipo. I think you’ll like her.”

Chapter Text

Pobeda stands solid under the onslaught of wind, snow, and ice. The emperors huddle tight and make continuous, shuffling rotations, so that those on the outside can move in, and those on the inside can move out. There is no crèche now, only one, united colony, moving together.

The females won’t leave until they’ve mated, produced their eggs, and entrusted them to the care of their mates. For now, families are reunited.

John is almost fully grown, as are Molling, Lestra, Stamfjord, and the others. Their baby fuzz is gone. They stand sleek, black and white, well-insulated by their layers of oiled feathers, and a summer’s worth of thick fat. They try to stay close to each other, friends bonded through hatchlinghood, trauma, and their time together on Cassiopeia.

The summer at sea has left John’s chest and shoulders broad, his wings long and strong, his tail dense and powerful. He is a very handsome bird, and he carries himself with confidence and fortitude. He has earned the respect of his peers and council leaders alike. Others take notice.

Tonight he makes his way to the edge of the huddle, ready to escape the high temperatures at the centre, and the space he leaves behind fills in as another peng steps into it, and another next to him, and another next to her, and so on, causing the entire mass to swirl and shift like a black cloud against a white sky.

John shuffles, head down, belly almost touching the emperor in front of him, back almost touching the emperor behind him. Next to him, never far from his side, Maryle moves, too. When they reach the next place to settle, he shuffles back just far enough for her to move in front of him, and he rests his wings on either side of her body, with his head bowed against her neck, protecting her from the blitz of stinging ice and whipping winds.

Maryle coos and sighs and presses back a bit more. John runs the side of his face and bill down her shoulder. The gesture could mean anything. It could be an itch, a way to generate warmth, a kiss. It could be a kiss.

“How long do you think this will last?” she asks him, turning her head to be heard over the wail of the storm.

“Hard to say. They don’t usually last longer than a day or two. I imagine we’ll see it through the night, at least.”

She murmurs a soft sound, like a chuckle. “I hope I don’t blow away.”

“I won’t let you. I’ll protect you.”

“Thank you, John. You make me feel safe.”

“I'm glad. Try to sleep now. I've got you.”

Sherlock hovers above them. He tries to break through the dense haze covering Pobeda, but the wind keeps pushing him back. Snippets of John and Maryle’s conversation reach his ears, and fuel his determination. He must reach John. He presses down again, trying to break through, wanting to make his presence known. He calls to John, he calls and calls, until his throat hurts and tears are falling from his eyes, mixing together with the sleet.

“John, please! John, I’m here, above you! Johnling! I’m so close, John, look up, we could pass the storm together, I’m sure of it, and you’ll be safe, I’ll keep you safe! Please, please don’t give up on me, John. Please don’t let her come between us! Johnling … can you hear me? Johnling!”

Sherlock cannot stay if John doesn’t hear him, and he begins to drift back. The last glimpse he catches is his Johnling entwining his beautiful neck around Maryle’s. The storm disappears, as if sucked through a hole in the sky, and he sees white, all white, and then he hears a voice, coming to him from someplace beyond his heavy eyelids.

“Sherlock, it’s just a dream, a bad dream. Wake up, darling, I need you to wake up now.”

He tries to open his eyes, but he can’t, and then another voice reaches him, low and steady, near but far.

“This happens sometimes, Anahera. He has had the most extraordinarily intense dreams since he’s had the … since we started this journey. He misses John terribly. He believes he can travel to him at night, while they both sleep. Sometimes he wakes up startled, as if he’s being ripped from another world, still talking to John. Sometimes he’s crying. I have to say, it’s not usually this bad.”

Sherlock cannot wake up. He doesn’t like this white, in-between stage, after being with John, but before returning to himself. He cannot go back. He has to go forward, but he’s so weighed down. It’s all so heavy.

“Sherlock, my lovely, can you hear me? It’s Anahera. You remember, don’t you? We met just yesterday morning, before we arrived at the rookery. Can you open your eyes for me, lovling?”

Soft wings are running down the length of his, again and again. Something touches and clacks under his bill, and prods his head up. His heart makes so much noise. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe he needs to turn off that noise, so that he can focus on opening his eyes, instead. He’ll just turn it off. He’s not sure how, but surely that’s the answer.

The stroking down his wings gets stronger. The voices rise.

“Sherlock, open your eyes now. You’ll feel better once you wake up. Anahera and I will help you. You’re safe with us. Open your eyes.”

Sherlock opens his eyes. His vision fills with white and silver, black and yellow, a streak of orange under black. The colours float in disparate shapes, then travel towards each other, slotting together, this way and that, until the scene is settled. Anahera and Mycroft. He’s back.

The three of them stand a short distance away from the huddle, which is now waking up, breaking apart, preparing for the day. Did they move him? Did he move himself?

“Shh, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

Sherlock looks back and forth between them and tries to smile. “Hi.”

“Hello, sweetness. How do you feel?”

“Tired. Oh! He was with her! She’s trying to take my place! Mycroft, I saw them, I went to Pobeda, there’s a huge blizzard there, and everyone is packed wing to wing, belly to back, and she … she’s practically … and he was …”

“It was just a dream, Sherlock. It was all in your mind.”

Sherlock shakes his head, as if some remnant of the night might fall out onto the ice and prove that it was, indeed, only a dream. “But it was so real. The wind, the sleet, the snow. I could hear them, I could see them, but I couldn’t get close enough.”

Mycroft gives Anahera a side glance, and swallows. “Sherlock, look at yourself. You’re dry. You weren’t in a storm. You’ve been here with us.”

“Well obviously I’ve been here with you, physically. But my mind, couldn’t that be possible, that because of the … that there’s something enabling my mind to travel when I’m asleep, through some other kind of power? Or energy?”

“Mind travel?” Anahera cocks her head at him. Her eyes are sincere and kind. “What kind of energy would that require? How would it be enabled?”

Sherlock looks at Mycroft. Mycroft shakes his head.

Anahera nods. “You don’t have to tell me. I won’t pry. But it has something to do with what you’re carrying, doesn’t it? And that’s why you’ve come to the High Council.

“Whatever it is, Sherlock, it seems to be having a profound effect on you. Whether it is real, or imagined, I do not know, and perhaps it does not matter. It is real to you, and it is disturbing you. I can see that.

“I told you I would introduce you to my mother and my aunt, and I will. Let’s go now, and see if we can’t put things in motion. Shall we?”

Anahera gives Sherlock one last hug. He realizes that his heart is not pounding anymore. He cannot hear it.

Hoake. Let’s go.”

Anahera leads the way, Sherlock behind her, Mycroft behind him. They weave in and out of other penguins, everyone intent on carrying out some task. The calling has started, only a few voices to begin, but then more and more join as mates try to find each other. Those who were able to stay together throughout the migration did, but many were separated as they swam those long distances, chasing food, escaping danger.

The first days home will be spent reconnecting. Those who are not mated will start calling and listening, hoping for an answering call, an invitation to court. In the next few days, the emperors will pair off, some with old mates, some with new mates, some with first time mates. Those who are too young, or too old, will watch from the sidelines as the pair parade starts. Couples will walk, side-by-side, around the perimeter of onlookers, showing the colony they are, so to speak, off the ice. They will posture and preen, and their bodies will say with me, with me.

There will be some drama. Pengs who do not receive an answering call will panic. They will interrupt the parading couples and try to push away their competition and claim the potential mate as their own. Fights will break out. Wings will beat. There will be pecking and hissing and slapping. It never works. No one ever says, fine, have him, then. Hysteria does not make a good foundation upon which to build a relationship.

All of this has been explained to Sherlock and the other juveniles by Pavo, their teacher. They had giggled and guffawed and rolled with the hilarity of it – adult pengs beating each other up, trying to steal each other’s ipos!

Sherlock does not find it so funny now that he has seen someone else trying to steal John. No, this is not funny at all.

Anahera walks toward the heart of the colony. She stops, apparently having reached some point of significance to her, presses her chin to her chest, and calls. Anahera’s call is songlike, melodic in a way that matches her speaking accent. The notes drift up and ring clear in the icy air. Everyone around them turns to look.

The answering call comes from somewhere nearby but out of sight, and they follow it, Anahera calling, the other bird answering, until they meet in the middle.

“Māmā!” Anahera sings, and Sherlock is endeared to her, this ghost-angel of a peng who still calls her mother māmā. Mother and child embrace, touching each other affectionately in greeting, and then Anahera turns back to face them, and says “Māmā, allow me to introduce you to Mycroft and his younger brother, Sherlock.

“They are Pobedans who have travelled a very long way to request a private audience with the High Council on urgent business. I thought perhaps matua kēkē Rika could help them.

“Mycroft, Sherlock, this is my mother, Terina. She is the kindest, best, smartest peng you will ever meet.”

Terina laughs and shakes her head at her daughter. “Such an exaggerator, this one. I don’t know where she gets it. It’s a pleasure to meet both of you. Welcome to the Rūnanga colony.”

“The pleasure is ours, Terina. Anahera has been a most excellent hostess since our arrival yesterday. She has been very informative and helpful.”

Āe, she would be lost without someone to talk to, wouldn’t you, my little white herring? Constantly making new friends, everywhere you go.”

“Māmā says I talked so much as a hatchling, she tried to put me back in my shell. I talked all day, I talked all night, even in my sleep.”

The two pengs beam at each other, and Sherlock thinks about his own mother, and hopes that he has brought her even a fraction of the delight that Anahera seems to bring Terina. When he gets back to Pobeda, he will make sure she knows how special she is. He’s not sure how he will do that, but he’ll try.

Now though, he focuses on the weight against his chest. Each day it gets heavier. Each day it seems to cling tighter to him, as if sinking right into his heart. He is not entirely certain anymore where he starts and the tooth ends. Is this what it was like for Pōrangi?

He has a vision of the great seal, Ika’s chosen one, forcibly ripping the tooth from her mouth, blood seeping into the creases of her powerful jaw, pouring out over her chin, her eyes rolling back in their sockets. He hears her roar, not from pain, but from her torment, sees her spit the tooth out into the frothing waves, her mind flooding with despair even as she frees herself. I've failed, I've failed, I've failed. Forgive me, I've failed.

Sherlock isn't sure where the voice comes from, Pōrangi’s past, or his future. He must get to the High Council. He must fulfil his duty and end this.

The others have stopped talking, and are looking at him. He doesn’t know what they’ve said. Perhaps they asked him something. It doesn’t matter. “I’m sorry. I am not feeling well. I do not mean to be rude, but I wonder if Elder Rika might meet with us, sooner rather than later. I don’t think I’ll be able to –”

The ice rushes up to meet him, and again, everything is white.

Chapter Text

Sherlock hears everything at once.

Sherlock!
Oh, dear! Has he been ill?
Go for help, Anahera. Find Tākuta, or one of her helpers, quickly!
Sherlock, can you hear me? Sherlock?

We’re too young to have to think about that, Maryle.
But we won’t always be young. Don’t you want to have hatchlings?
I haven’t thought that much about it, I guess.
I understand he’s a good friend to you, John, but you can’t, you know …
Can’t what?
Can’t have chicks with him, silly.

Move aside, let Tākuta in, please!
Tākuta, this is Mycroft, a very important guest to our colony. His brother, Sherlock, has fallen ill.
Any history of fainting? Has he been eating enough snow? What is this around his neck?

Do you remember, Sherlock, your shell, and the predictions held within?
Yes, Māmā. You said I would change the heart of the colony, and that there would be a long journey.
That’s right, tahu. Taerenga, a long journey, and not always an easy one. The shell held a message, too, tahu, an important message.You will love, you will suffer, you will prevail. Always remember, Sherlock, all right? Listen to me carefully now. You will prevail.

Can we change the subject?
Of course, John. I didn’t mean to upset you. But surely you realize …
Realize what?

John, what did your shell say?
My shell? What does that have to do with anything?
Potentially everything.
It was something about having to make an important decision.

It’s a talisman. It’s the reason we’ve come here, to see the High Council.
It’s been giving him awful dreams, Tākuta.
Hoihoi, Anahera, let Tākuta work.
His heart sounds fine. He is breathing well. I’m going to open his eyelids, to look at his eyes.

John. You are my only one. You must know that.
You're my only one, too. Anahe.
I am? I'm your best peng?
Yeah, 'course you are.

You have an important responsibility to the colony, John. Your training in healing is an important skill, and you will probably sit on the council some day. Your lineage is already highly valued. The colony needs you, don’t you see? You’ll need to mate, to keep your line going.
Stop.
I just want you to understand –
Stop it. Please.

Māmā, what else do you see? Do you see me and John, together? Māmā?

What do you see? What do his eyes tell you?
Hmm. Interesting.
Tākuta?

Everyone agrees, you know.
Who is everyone?
Well, everyone. I’m not the only one talking about this, John.
That’s ridiculous. It’s no one’s business.
Whatever you say. Shall we join the huddle?

John, what if it’s like that for us?
For us?
If they try to keep us apart, when we’re older.
I’m not going to let anyone take you away from me, or me from you.

Father, I will make you proud.
You already have, tama. Beyond measure.

Tākuta? Is my brother okay?
Help me turn him on his side. Gentle, now, gentle –

Sherlock sinks. He sinks and sinks and sinks, and the lonely murk rises up to meet him. The sea is honest. It may be cruel, but it is always honest. Sherlock sits on the seabed and feels silky silt press against the bottom of his feet, feels it seep into his tail feathers.

His heartbeat fills the sea’s silence with its thrumming.

He opens his eyes.

Pōrangi swims around him in a slow circle, her body twisting, undulating. She blinks at him as she passes, great sweeps of smooth eyelids over round, black eyes. She is graceful. She is sleek. She is enormous. She could swallow him whole.

She stops circling and moves closer, until they are nose to bill. Sherlock’s vision is filled with the vista of her silver and black face, her short, bristly whiskers, her flat, leathery nose closed against the water. She opens her nostrils and releases bubbles, and the feathers on Sherlock’s face, neck, and chest lift, release their own bubbles, and resettle. The tooth in its casing bobs and bounces against him with the movement. She nudges his chest, pushing him backward on the ocean floor, follows him, then does it again. He is not afraid. She does not try to hurt him. Her focus remains on what he carries.

Pōrangi shakes her head back and forth, a repeated, rapid movement, as if she has been shocked. She opens her mouth, although it appears to Sherlock that she has actually, somehow, unhinged her jaw. Her gums and tongue are pink, and spotted grey, the entire opening longer than wide. There, lining each side of the top and bottom of her skull, are lines of five double-tipped, dagger-like molars. In the front of her mouth, on the bottom, separating the molars from smaller, almost delicate incisors, is one massive, single-tipped canine tooth, and a gaping crater where its match should be. Sherlock has never seen anything so frightening in his life.

Neither has he heard anything like the wail she releases into the silence around them, low and steady, trailing off into a groan of grief and regret. She closes her mouth, and her eyes, and she floats, still now. When she opens her eyes again, several moments later, she regards him with great sadness.

Talofa, he hears in his head. He has not heard the language of the seals before, but he understands, and answers in his own tongue.

Hello.

E te iloa a'u?

Yes, I know who you are. You are the great Pōrangi. Do you know me, too?

O outou o le penikina itiiti, faia tele i le taunuuga ma le faamoemoe.
You are the little penguin, made large with fate and hope.

My name is Sherlock.

She nods at him, and points one of her stout flippers toward his chest.

Have you come for this, Pōrangi? Do you want it back?

Her language comes rushing into his head, a flood of fa sa ma na ta sounds. He cannot discern each word, but he doesn’t have to. The words are cloaked in understanding, translation occurring between them by some simultaneous force of its own.

Leai, ou te le toe manao i ai. Ua na o se vaa. Le a le mea e umia ea Ika, ma e na o Ika. Faaiʻuina lenei, po o le a taofia ai oe.
No, I do not want it back. It is only a vessel. What it holds belongs to Ika, only Ika. End this, or it will keep you.

What do you mean, it will keep me?

Sa tele, o le afa a le mana o le atua. O atoatoa tele.
It was too much, half a god’s power. It was fully too much.

But what do you mean it will keep me?

Pipii iinei i le va i le va o le tagata ma le atua.
Stuck in the space between the mortals and the gods.

In the sea?

Penikina Sher-lo-ka, nu. I le faaaliga.
Penguin Sherlock, no. In the visions.

Are you trapped, Pōrangi?

Ua valaauina au, ma ua ou sau. o lenei ou uma e mafai ona taʻu atu ia te oe.
You have called me, and I have come. This is all I can tell you.

I called you?

Iʻuga. Faamalolo ia te aʻu, ma isi uma i lo tatou va.
End it. Release me, and all the others between us.

Between us? How many? How many others have held the tooth, Pōrangi?

Mafaitaulia.
Countless.

How do I end it, Pōrangi?

Iʻuga.
End it.

How much more time do I have?

Faamolemole, penikina itiiti. Sher-lo-ka.
Please, little penguin. Sherlock.

Pōrangi is fading, slipping further away from him into the blackness of the depths beyond. She keeps her gaze locked on him as she goes, staring, begging without words. Sherlock feels the shudder of a thousand souls move through him, but he sees nothing except the fabled seal, Ika’s chosen one, disappearing from his view.

Pōrangi! How do I end it?

Faamolemole, Sher-lo-ka.

Sherlock resurfaces to the lingering sound of his name on her tongue, clipped, like the rush of wind, and the clack of ice. Sher-lo-ka.

A hard, cold surface supports the side of his body, his leg, his cheek. A sharp wind slices through the air and blasts over him, liberating him from the memory of the water’s weight. The voices around him are clear.

Tākuta, what do his eyes tell you? Is my brother okay?
He is between worlds, Mycroft. He is neither wholly with us, nor entirely away.
How do we get him back, Tākuta?
Shhh, Anahera, do not cry.
But Māmā –
Shhh, listen to Tākuta.
We can try a reviving poultice, but I suspect we will get him back when he is ready to come back.
Are you saying this is his choice? He seemed to have no control over what happened.
Āe, Terina. The spirit is stronger than the body. It makes its own decisions.
What can we do for him, Tākuta, to protect him, while he is like this?
Take him to the huddle, Mycroft. Give him snow to eat throughout the day. I will check on him again soon.
Terina, Anahera, will you help me carry him?

Sherlock soars. He soars and soars and soars, and the lonely sky descends to meet him. The sky is honest. It may be cruel, but it is always honest. Sherlock floats to the heavens and feels silky cloud fluff press against the bottom of his feet. It seeps into his tail feathers.

His heartbeat fills the sky’s silence with its thrumming.

He opens his eyes.

Chapter Text

The white is blinding. This is not the white of snow, or cloud, or ice. This is the white of pure radiance, the white of matter’s absence. The light surrounds him. There is nothing else to see. He closes his eyes again. He listens.

Will you stay with him, Anahera? Keep him safe, and warm, until I return?
Of course, Mycroft. For as long as you need.
Thank you. I will come back as quickly as I can. I need to find your aunt, Rika, I need –
I understand, Mycroft. Māmā will help you, won’t you Māmā?
Āe, lovling, of course.
Māmā, if you see Tui, will you send her to me?
Of course. We won’t be gone long.

What if he doesn’t come back?
He will come back, Maryle. He will.
You don’t know that, Johnling.
Don’t call me that. Do. Not. Call me that.
Ooh, testy this morning, are we?

Anahera, where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere.
Tui, I am sorry, love, I could not get away.
Is this him, the one they call Sherlock?
Āe. Will you stay with us? I will explain everything.

If the legend is true, we can do anything, John. If this is Pōrangi’s tooth, and contains the power of a God, we have a connection to Ika himself, and to Kororā. We can save them. We can save her, and Pono, and maybe we can bring Aumārire back. And, if we can bring Aumārire back, we can overcome the apologists, and we can be together, without anyone trying to stop us.
Bring Aumārire back. Be together. Yes. But Sherlock, we have to find the heartstone. We can’t do any of that without the heartstone.

Every night, find the constellation Carina in the sky. Look for the brightest star, all the way at the top. That’s Atutahi.
Atutahi?
Kororā and Ika’s father. If anyone will be watching out for us, he will be. Every night, we’ll look at Atutahi, and we’ll be together.

The voices fade. Near him, the white begins to pulse. He watches as the waves of light move toward him, one after the other, and he watches as these waves reach him, and move through him. Each one brings a thought, and each of those joins the next, and soon, his head is in a hyper state of awareness. The thoughts are not his own.

So it is true. Ika will be pleased. Ah, Pōrangi, rest easy. He made it.

Sherlock experiments sending out his own thoughts, and finds himself utterly transfixed as waves of light emanate from him, move away from him, outward. They are not strong, they do not have great speed, but he works at it, trying to find a balanced flow of thought and energy.

I. Hear. You. I hear. You. I hear you. I hear you. Can you. Hear. Me? Can you hear me?

The waves crash over each other, and the thoughts break apart and scatter, nothing clear, but soon the waves find a rhythm of their own, one rising as the other sinks, one booming as the other fades. They are more than thoughts now. Now, they are a conversation.

We hear you. Clever, clever creature.

Me?

Not one before you has come so far.

Will anyone come after me?

That depends on you.

What must I do?

End it.

How do –

Finish the journey.

– I end it? Finish the journey?

You see?

End the journey!

This ends when that ends.

Not the tooth, it was never the tooth, was it?

Clever, clever creature.

Can you tell me more? About. The journey?

You are tiring, clever one. Go back.

But the journey?

You already know. You’ve known all along.

Are you –

We are.

Sherlock feels the weight of the tooth on his chest lift. It is lighter now, it is a lessening pressure on his heart. He drifts on the last of the diminishing waves. They reach him, surge, reach deep inside. Warmth floods through him, tugging at every experience, every memory. The waves stir through his ice palace, sifting, leaving a burst of recognition behind, snowflakes tossed in a storm.

Apo did not keep the heartstone
Apo did not keep the heartstone
Apo did not keep the heartstone

One more, one more, he begs. The light is dimming now. One more, please. For Pōrangi, for Kororā and Pono and Aumārire! For John!

For a moment there is nothing, but then it comes, a rush of tingling sensation proceeding the pulse. This one is blinding. Sherlock spreads his wings as it catches him, and he dives. He stops himself just on the border of brilliance and the black void beneath, and he scans.

The continent is enormous, curving beneath him, securely tacked to the bottom of the world. He surveys to the north to get his bearings, there there there, then scans around the perimeter to the east. Syowa, Mawson, Amery, Davis, the Shelf, I see the Shelf, now east, the sea, Pobeda, Pobeda, I see Pobeda. Look for the colonies, find the colonies, where do we live? There is lightning behind him, speed borne of necessity, of desperation. Where would it be, where would it be, find it find it, narrow it down. Narrow. It. Down. Oh!

Sherlock has nothing left. The thoughts end. The light fades. Sherlock drops.

Anahera, look, he’s coming to!
Tui, quick, gather some snow for him. Sherlock, can you hear me?

When Sherlock opens his eyes, he is unsure of his surroundings. He blinks. He looks up, and from side to side. He sees the darkening sky above him, and Anahera next to him, and beyond, he sees ice, and emperors, emperors everywhere. He does not see Pōrangi. The brilliant white is gone.

He hears the wind. He does not hear water, he does not hear the language of the seals. He hears no thoughts pulsing inside his head but his own.

“Sherlock?”

“Yes?”

“How do you feel?”

“Well-travelled.”

“Oh, Sherlock. You’ve been asleep, or at least, not awake, for most of the day.”

“Have I?”

“Can you sit up? You must be thirsty. Tui has snow for you to eat.”

“Tui? Your ipo?”

“Yes.”

Wings slide under his, and around his chest, and help him stand upright. Anahera’s Tui steps in front of him, and smiles. She is about Anahera’s size, a little smaller, a little older. She lifts her wingtips toward him, and too tired to care about his independence, he nibbles at the snow gathered there. When his throat feels wet, the inside of his bill slick, he stops, and bows his head in thanks.

Tui steps back and settles against Anahera. They watch him.

“Where is Mycroft?”

“He went to find my aunt. He was quite insistent that he move matters with the High Council along as quickly as possible.”

Sherlock takes a deep breath.

“How long has he been gone?”

Anahera looks at the sky. “Most of the day, Sherlock. I would imagine he will be back very soon now.”

“Will you help me, Anahera?”

“Of course, Sherlock. What do you need?”

“Help me take this off.”

Anahera looks at the seaweed encircling his neck. She elongates her neck, tilts her head to the side. “Are you sure? You’ve been wearing it a long time now, yes?”

Tui looks between them, and back to Sherlock’s chest.

“Since summer’s end.”

“What will happen if you take it off?” Tui has a soft voice, and she steps closer to Anahera as she speaks, glancing between them.

“If you asked me yesterday, I’d have said that I wasn’t sure. Today, though, I am confident that nothing will happen. I want to test something. I want to take it off, and ask you to hold it for me while I try something.”

Tui trills and shuffles her feathers, but Anahera nods and reaches out to him. “Am I going to get in trouble with Mycroft for this?”

“Probably.”

She laughs. “Good, I think I like this plan. Tui and I will guard your talisman, won’t we, Tui?”

Tui hides her face under her wing, takes a deep breath, and peeps out at them. “You will be the death of me, makau.”

“And then I shall follow you there, and you will love me all the same.”

Sherlock will miss them when he’s gone.

“Turn around, Sherlock, let me work at the knot.”

Sherlock turns, and watches the colony around him as Anahera tugs and twists and pulls with her wings and bill.

Tui comes around to face him, holding out more snow. He eats from her wingtips, grateful for this unquestioning hospitality. Anahera trusts Sherlock, and Tui trusts Anahera. He trusts them both.

Behind him, Anahera mumbles something through her clenched bill, and Tui shuffles back to her side. “Here, love, put your wing here. I’ve almost got it. Just a bit more. Mmmrrggrrr.”

The twisted rope slips from his shoulders and lands with a thud at his feet. He bends down to look at it, and the other two join him. Heads craned low, bills almost touching, they look, and they wait. Nothing happens.

“Excellent. All right, then. Anahera, if you would please hold on to this, and please, no matter what, do not let it go to anyone else, except Mycroft, should he return while I’m away.”

“Sherlock, you are not leaving, you cannot possibly –”

“Not in the way you think, no. I’ll be right here. In fact, Tui, would you mind staying next to me? Hold my wing.”

Tui takes Sherlock’s wing between her own and holds on tight, pressing herself to his side, as if he might float into the sky at any moment. He can feel her trembling. He thinks her very brave. He closes his eyes. He steps inside his ice palace.

You are the most fabulous creature under the skies, Johnling.
But not brilliant?
In your own way.
Diplomacy must run in your family, you penggit.
John, all the brilliance in our world couldn't outshine you. Not ever.

John, I love you, so much. Don’t forget. I love you.
I know you do. I won’t forget.

Sherlock, there won’t be time when they get here. I love you so much. You know that, right? How much I love you?
Yes. You love me as much as I love you, and that’s, that’s –

Sherlock sorts and sifts.

Apo did not keep the heartstone
Apo did not keep the heartstone
Apo did not keep the heartstone

He turns toward Pobeda and flies.

John!
Sherlock, is that you?
Wait for me. I promise I will come back.
I know. I know you will.
I love you so much, John.
I love you, too, Sherlock. So much. Are you okay?
I’m fine.
Where are you?
The Shelf. But I’ve been everywhere, John, everywhere. I have so much to tell you.
And you will. Safely now, okay? Be safe for me.
I miss you.
I miss you, too.

Chapter Text

Mycroft is most unhappy. He stands in front of Sherlock, Anahera, and Tui, and scowls the scowl of a wicked fierce wind. Sherlock expected this, so he’s prepared to wait it out. Mycroft makes him wait until everyone is squirming.

“So, tell me again, Sherlock. You woke up from your unconscious state, a state in which you fancied yourself able to breathe on the ocean floor and chat with mythological seals, as well as fly to the heavens and converse with the essence of the gods, and then removed the item you’ve been charged to protect with your very life, and decided to take a nap. Do I have this right?”

Sherlock considers the question. He’s not sure if Mycroft is right. Was he unconscious? It seems so, but he couldn’t observe himself, could he? Maybe he was, maybe he was not. Did he fancy himself able to do those things? Well, seeing as how he did do those things, yes, he supposes he does have confidence in his ability to have done them. Did he take off the tooth? Yes. Did he take a nap? No.

“Maybe, yes, yes, and no.”

Mycroft sighs and turns to Anahera, who clutches the seaweed-wrapped mystery to her chest and looks about ready to bop Mycroft over the head with it. She doesn’t even know what she’s holding, but she’s protecting it. Sherlock adores Anahera.

“Anahera, thank you for indulging my little brother. Would you mind giving that back to him now?”

Sherlock waves his wing at Mycroft. “I don’t want it back. Don’t need it. You take it.”

Mycroft stretches his neck up high and angles his head down low. He glares. “Sherlock, might I speak to you privately for a moment?”

“I know what you’re going to say Mycroft.”

“Do you, now?”

“I do. And here’s my answer, which does not require privacy. I have answered my own questions regarding our talisman. This is now a matter for the High Council, and the High Council only. They will need information about the logistics of this item, where we found it, who else sought it, why they sought it, the implications of that, and so on.

“You can deliver this information as well as I can. Better, in fact. You’re the diplomat between us, like Father. You thrive on council matters.”

Sherlock does not miss the minute ruffling of Mycroft’s feathers under this praise.

“So, I suggest that you handle the situation from this point forward. You should hold it now.”

Mycroft sighs. Anahera and Tui have been watching the exchange with avid attention.

“And how, may I ask, do you propose to pass your time, should I agree to go to the High Council on my own? Or do I want to know?”

Sherlock doesn’t want to tell him. Mycroft will be greatly displeased. However, he’s going to find out sooner than later. Much sooner. Soon. This very day.

“I plan to implement the next stage of this journey, brother mine. I’ll be taking my leave in short order.”

“Next stage? There is no next stage, not until the High Council speaks on the matter. Then they will inform us of the next stage.”

Sherlock notices, out of the corner of his eye, that Tui, made uncomfortable by their dispute, is trying to shuffle backwards. Anahera lifts one wing behind her to halt her exit.

Now Sherlock sighs. “Mycroft, again, that is your area of expertise. Whatever the High Council decides, you will be here to act upon those decisions. You don’t need me now.”

Mycroft swallows and blinks several times in a row.

Sherlock finds that he needs to swallow too, and blink back the irritating moisture trying to escape his eyes. Odd, that. He was sure he had already expelled all of the residual brine extracted from the seawater in his body.

“I wish to disagree. I do ... still need you, and your assistance.”

Sherlock understands. He will miss Mycroft, too. It is not something he would have predicted when they took that first dive off Cassiopeia several moons ago. He takes a step closer to his older brother.

“Mycroft. We have come very far. The journey has exceeded both our expectations. It will not end here, the work we have done, together. We do not end here.”

Mycroft nods, and that subtle acknowledgement of Sherlock’s sentiment is enough for Sherlock.

“You must at least stay until the High Council hears from you. I believe it would be very beneficial to hear of the events leading to this moment directly from you. There are intercolonial affairs at stake, decisions and policies to be made that will affect thousands of our kind, for a long time to come. Your story, Sherlock, is the foundation for all of it.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “No, not mine. Erebus and Selvic, Mycroft. They are the foundation.”

“They are not here, Sherlock. Erebus has been through enough in his lifetime, or Father would have asked him to accompany us. He has entrusted you with this, now. You were chosen to continue their work, Sherlock.”

Sherlock thinks about his shell and the prediction drawn within its cracked and fragile remnants. Was he chosen before he was hatched? Has he been chosen to undertake something that coincidentally parallels the prophecy? If not this, would there have been something else? His head feels full to bursting.

Sherlock tells Mycroft that he will sleep on this request, and answer him in the morning, and Mycroft accepts this compromise, presumably, Sherlock suspects, because he knows it’s the best response he’s going to get right now.

Sherlock sleeps well that night, with Anahera and Tui tucked by his side. He does not dream. He does not travel. The question Mycroft posed stays at the forefront of his mind in its restful state, and when he wakes, he knows what he will do.

Mycroft approaches him first thing. He does not look as if he has slept nearly as well as Sherlock. This time Mycroft is the one to wait, but Sherlock doesn’t make him wait very long.

“I will stay to tell the story, Mycroft, but only if I can do so in the next three days. The next part of my journey bears a sense of urgency that I cannot deny. I will be useless to you here once that compulsion to continue consumes me. And it will.”

Mycroft relaxes his shoulder and extends a wing toward Sherlock, pauses, and then puts it on his little brother’s shoulder.

“I believe the High Council will accommodate us. When I spoke to Terina and Rika yesterday they both expressed interest in moving this to the High Council as soon as possible. If none of the Council members plan to breed this season, and Rika doesn’t think any of them have such plans, they can convene an interim session, which could start as soon as tomorrow. We need only wait for confirmation.”

“Fair enough.”

Confirmation comes that afternoon, by way of a visit from Terina. The High Council will see them first thing the morning of the next day. Terina gives explicit instructions on where to meet, explains who will be there, and what they can expect.

“Do you know what the sequence of events will be? Will they allow me to speak first?” Sherlock can feel the impatience flowing in his veins. What if they have some ridiculous, prescribed process that impedes his ability to leave by the day after tomorrow? What if they insist he stays for the duration? What if the duration is something ghastly, moons and moons long? What if ‒

Sherlock!

Sherlock snaps his head toward the peng hissing his name. Mycroft, of course.

“You asked Terina a question, and she answered. It appears that you were not listening.”

“I apologize, Terina. I have a quite a lot on my mind, but did not mean to be rude.” All of those things on Sherlock’s mind crept forward, threatening to take over again. What if he is wrong? What if his vision wasn’t accurate? What if he made it all up? What if Maryle is flirting with Johnling right now? What if Maryle convinces Johnling not to wait? What if Sherlock doesn’t make it back? Would being eaten by an orca be less painful than existing without John? Probably.

“That’s all right, dear. I was just saying that there are standard protocols for bringing intercolonial matters before the High Council, but there is plenty of flexibility within those customs. You and Mycroft are the only ones who know what you wish to present. The onus will be on you to explain as thoroughly and clearly as possible why you have come. After you present, they will ask questions of a clarifying nature. When they trust they have enough information, they will convene. I cannot say what will happen after that, but the Council is always expedient and fair.”

“And are we the only two pengs who will be in attendance?”

“That is up to you. The High Council starts each case with no assembly, except for the one you may wish to bring.”

Sherlock looks at Mycroft and widens his eyes, tilts his head, tweaks his bill fractionally to the right. Mycroft narrows his eyes, wrinkles his forehead, twitches his bill to the left. Sherlock stares. Mycroft blinks. Sherlock stares. Mycroft sighs.

“Fine.”

“I would like Anahera and Tui to attend if –”

“Yes! We would love to attend, wouldn’t we, Tui?”

Tui stays still, turning only her head toward Anahera. Her face gives nothing away, which tells Sherlock everything. He has seen this posture and expression before, plenty of times, on his Johnling.

“You can discuss it privately, if you’d like,” Sherlock offers, hoping to atone for some of his past impulsive decision making.

“That’s kind of you, but unnecessary,” Tui replies, still looking at Anahera. She has a fond smile on her face. “As usual, Anahera is correct. We would love to attend, as long as you tell us at any time if our presence becomes a hindrance.”

“Excellent. So it’s decided. Terina, would you like to attend as well?”

Next to him Mycroft makes a low sound in his throat. Mycroft can just get over himself, Sherlock thinks. They have no one here, no family, no support, and these three pengs have moved heaven and ice to help them.

“That is very gracious of you, Sherlock. Let me discuss this with Rika, and if she has no objections, I will see you at the Council grounds tomorrow morning.”

Sherlock is pleased. These are compassionate, open-minded emperors. It will do no harm for the High Council to see highly respected members of the Rūnanga colony showing support for their cause, especially as one of them is a High Council member’s sister, and another is her niece.

If all goes well, he will be on his way in two days. He hopes John will forgive him for this unexpected detour from a trip they thought would end here, on the Shelf. He hopes John will understand that if Sherlock cannot bring this full circle, the journey here will have been for nothing. He hopes John will wait.

He hopes.

Chapter Text

Sherlock waits until everyone is asleep, then begins the arduous process of unravelling the tooth from its seaweed prison. He has not seen it for such a long time, but it shines in the moonlight now the way it did that last day on Cassiopeia, the details every bit as radiant as they always have been. He holds the tooth up to the sky. He tilts it this way and that and notes the changes on its surface as it shifts: shiny now, golden, then brilliant, white, ivory, soft, and now glaring, sharp.

He holds it on his wingtip and raises it to his eye. He turns it this way and that, watching how the light bounces and refracts and catches. He flips it over, carefully, silently, to look at the other side. The grooves of the star are as deep as he remembered, the lines as straight, the points as sharp. At one time, he remembers, he and John thought it was a snowflake. Stars and snowflakes, snowflakes and stars. They’re quite similar, each unique, each born in the sky, one shining down, the other falling down. One eternal, the other fleeting.

Somewhere in between is where he will find what he needs. He raises it to the sky again, scans, finds its match, and whispers a promise to John. He binds the tooth in the seaweed again, and loops it around his neck. He does not tie it. He is not bound.

Sherlock wakes early the next morning, even before Mycroft. He wakes Anahera, and the two of them waddle out of earshot to discuss the day ahead of them. She rubs at her eyes and looks back at Tui, who is leaning against Terina, and snoring just the tiniest bit.

“Are you nervous, Sherlock?”

“No. Not anymore. I was, when we started out, but I’m not anymore.”

“And you know what you want to say? Do you feel prepared?”

Sherlock considers. There are so many ways he could start, so many points he should make, so much he could ask for. None of it seems enough.

“Not really. But it’ll work out. I’m sure of it.”

She smiles at him. “I’m glad. I’m glad you’re so confident. I feel very honoured to be a part of this. I don’t even know what ‘this’ is, but I can tell it’s going to be important.”

“I hope it will be. Listen, Anahera, the things I’m going to say today, some of them, I think they will be of interest to you and Tui, on a personal level. And I want you to know that just because I haven’t already shared them with you doesn’t mean that I haven’t wanted to, or that I wouldn’t have trusted you.”

“I understand, Sherlock. One doesn’t travel as far as you have to see the High Council, and then blabber all over the place about the business at hand.”

“Not that it wasn’t tempting.”

Anahera laughs. “You don’t seem like the type to give in to temptations, Sherlock.”

“Oh, you don’t know the half of it. I don’t stand a chance against some of them.”

“John?”

“John.”

Before they leave the huddle, Sherlock takes a private moment to remove the seaweed pouch from his neck, and tuck the tooth high under his wing. It’s just him and the tooth now. No more hiding.

There is no one at the High Council grounds when they arrive; Sherlock, Anahera and Tui stand to the side and make small talk while Mycroft glares at them. Sherlock understands. This is a stressful situation, with many unknowns. Mycroft lacks the ability to fret, so he glares. Every once in a while Sherlock gives him a little wave, and then Mycroft huffs, and then he glares some more.

He belatedly realizes that not everyone knows Mycroft well enough to know that he glares instead of fretting, but the way Tui half hides at Anahera’s side is a dead giveaway. He leans in close and tells her not to worry, that Mycroft’s eyes are probably stuck like that, and he doesn’t mean anything by it. Tui shoots Mycroft a curious look and relaxes half an iota. Anahera pulls her tighter and rubs her cheek over Tui’s, and Tui relaxes the other half an iota.

Terina arrives, rushed and out of breath. “Oh, good, I was so afraid I would be late, and miss the start. How are you all this morning?”

Pleasantries are exchanged, and Terina settles next to Mycroft and catches her breath. The two of them talk quietly to each other, and Sherlock turns his attention back to Anahera and Tui.

“Do you mind if I …” Anahera starts, then she leans in and pats down some feathers on Sherlock’s head that must have gone astray. She bends back again, inspects her work, frowns, and smoothes over his head again.

“No, Anahera, like this,” Tui says, nudging Anahera out of the way. “Come here, Sherlock.”

You’re a mess without me, aren’t you, silly peng?

Sherlock angles himself toward Tui, and she surprises him by grooming the sides of his face and around his aural patches with her bill. “There. Much better.” She smiles at Anahera, and Anahera laughs and shakes her head.

Not much more time passes before Sherlock hears the sweep of tail feathers over ice, and they all turn to watch the progression of the High Council, in elegant single file, approach the grounds. No one says a word as they pass, twelve of them, twelve emperors of distinction, each of them bearing the nature of their responsibility like an invisible cloak, heads held high, chests wide, wings straight by their sides. Sherlock wishes John could see this. He tries his best to memorize every detail of their forbearance and civility, their grace and fortitude. Rarely has he seen a sight as impressive as the Intercolonial Emperor High Council.

Next to him Mycroft exhales, long and soft, and Sherlock recognizes the sound as that of a lover finding his mate.

The High Council arranges itself in a deep arc, so that the two members at either end are facing each other. One stands at the middle, facing the direction from which they came, and the others complete the semicircle at exacting intervals. Behind them, the Shelf stretches forever. Above them the sky fades to dawn blue. The wind settles down, as if humbled by the spectacle beneath it.

Your bill is hanging open, penggit.

Sherlock blinks, closes his bill, and resettles his feathers. He pulls himself up to his full height, straightens his wings, makes sure they’re pointing toward the ice, and waits.

You can do this.

He can do this.

The emperor at the centre of the arc nods at each of his High Council peers, and one by one, they nod back. He takes three steps forward, brings his head to his chest, and sings the kupu whakatau in their ancient tongue. The welcome cuts through the silence, crisp and clear. It is a ceremonial call, laden with tradition, and Sherlock feels it in his blood as clearly as he hears it with his ears.

They begin.

“The High Council is assembled. Until we announce its conclusion, we shall perform as one preeminent body, each member shedding their individual leanings for the greater benefit of the whole.

“Should one ask a question, consider it asked by all. Should one allow an answer, consider it allowed by all. Should one announce emperor law, consider it announced by all. You shall address each of us the same, Kaunihera, as that is our role before you today. Are we understood?”

Sherlock, Anahera, and Tui nod, but when they hear Mycroft say, “Āe, Kaunihera,” they repeat the same words.

“Who before us today brings kaipakihi to the council?”

“We do, Kaunihera,” Sherlock says, before the words can come out of Mycroft’s open bill. Sherlock surprises even himself, but continues before he loses his nerve. “I am Sherlock, and this is my elder brother, Mycroft, from the Pobeda colony on the island of the same name.”

The same emperor at the centre of the council’s arc addresses him again. “And what is the nature of your business, Sherlock of Pobeda?”

My gods, where to start? Sherlock asks himself.

Start at the beginning, Sherlpeng.

The wind gains strength, and whistles between them as Sherlock prepares to speak. Sherlock has the fleeting thought that the wind is trying to intimidate him. He huffs at it, and lifts his bill high in the air.

Kaunihera, may I approach?”

“You may.”

Sherlock steps forward, aware only of the shifting perspective of the arc of emperors around him as he closes the distance. When he is in line with the two penguins at the end of the curve, he stops. He’s not sure if he should bow, or show some other sign of regard, so he decides to lower his head for a moment. While bending low, he tucks one wing under the other, and retrieves the tooth.

The wind is quiet again. The stars are so very bright above him, and a few scattered snowflakes are swirling down around those gathered, adding to their small audience. One lands on the tooth. He steps forward. He holds the tooth on both his wingtips, pillowing something precious, and lays it on the ice in front of the centre council member. He steps back.

“This is our business, Kaunihera. This is why we have come.”

There is complete silence. There is no movement. The wind has turned itself back to air, still and heavy over them.

I’m so proud of you, Sherlock.

Behind him, he thinks he hears Terina gasp, and Tui trill a light, questioning sound.

“May I?”

Sherlock looks up. A council member near the edge of the line has addressed him.

“Of course, Kaunihera. You all may.”

One by one, the twelve emperors gather, until they are huddled into a small space around Sherlock and the tooth. He feels quite trapped, and wishes he were on the other side of their circle. That would not do, however, as they are as intent on studying him as they are the tooth. Their inspection is respectful, centred primarily on his face, his eyes, his bill. They look at him, and to the tooth; at the tooth, and to him.

“Extraordinary,” one of them says.

“Quite.”

“I never would have thought.”

“Nor I.”

“And yet.”

“Yes.”

“That I would live to see the day.”

“It will require further review.”

“I should think so.”

“Although it certainly does appear.”

“Indeed.”

“All this time.”

“So long.”

“Just like that.”

“Well, no. I’m sure not so easily.”

“No.”

“Shall we?”

“At once.”

The voices rise and mix around Sherlock, and then at once, they stop. The twelve emperors return to their respective places, and when they are settled, the one in the centre speaks again.

“You are Siger’s son, are you not, Sherlock?”

“I am.”

“Your colony summered on Cassiopeia, did it not?”

“It did.”

“And that is where you found this?”

“That is where we found it, Kaunihera.”

“You and Mycroft?”

“No. John and I.”

“Who is John?”

“John is my ipo.

“Your tau?”

“Yes.”

“Where is John now?”

“He is with the colony, by my father’s orders, caring for ill and injured pengs. He is training with Elder Cetus to be a healer. He is very special.”

Sshhh. This isn’t about me.

“He must be highly-esteemed.”

“Yes, Kaunihera.”

“All right. Let us lay down the foundation of this tale, shall we? Sherlock, the ōrokotīmatanga, if you please.”

And so Sherlock tells the tale, building it up from the moment he and John found the small artefact resting in front of them now, adding layer upon layer, until he has presented them with a pearl of a story, a treasure made rich for its spectrum of detail, its many characters and motivations, its theoretical history and ingrained mythologies. He gives them the ice cave, Erebus and Selvic, Moringa, and the apologists. He offers up his prophecy, and Mycroft’s, and his struggles to understand a world in which it is not readily accepted that everyone ends up with the one they love.

He gives them everything.

When he is done, he thanks them for their time, and explains that he must be on his way. He has a prophecy to fulfil.

Chapter Text

All eyes are on Sherlock. The wind picks up again, howling at them, demanding a response to Sherlock’s announcement that he will soon be on his way. The emperor at the centre nods his head, once, in acknowledgement.

"Where are you off to now, young Sherlock?"

"I'm to follow the path of Atutahi’s star, Kaunihera."

"May I ask why?"

"You may."

Behind him Anahera titters, then coughs to disguise the sound of her amusement. He can imagine Tui poking her in the ribs, a silent reprimand to behave herself.

You’d better behave yourself, as well, Sherlpeng.

"Why will you follow Atutahi’s path, Sherlock?"

"I need what is at the end, Kaunihera."

The elder stands and studies Sherlock for a starlit moment, then says, "Sherlock, what is it you seek from the High Council, now that you have presented us with the tooth, your tale, and Moringa's treason?"

"I seek, by request of Pobeda's Council, and in the name of all emperors, safekeeping and examination of the tooth, judgment in regards to Moringa's actions, and protection against the apologists.

"I seek the right to court and pair with whomever I wish, no matter their gender, and to enjoy the same societal benefits, respect, and acceptance afforded any other bonded pair. I seek acknowledgement that a choice of a same-peng partner could never be detrimental to any individual, colony, or aspect of emperor society.

"I seek freedom from prejudice. I seek a guarantee against discrimination and harassment. I seek to make right the wrongs done to those before me.

"I seek to make Erebus proud, and to honour Selvic's memory."

I seek you, I seek you, I seek you.

"If I understand correctly, Sherlock, your requests are trifold. You wish safekeeping of the tooth, so that it does not fall into the wrong wings, and continued study of its validity and value to our kind. I can assuredly grant you this. Kaunihera, have you any objections?"

Eleven emperors shake their heads and call out kāo. There are no objections.

"You wish for evaluation of, and ruling on, the accusations brought against Moringa by the Pobeda Council. I can assure you that this, too, shall come to pass. Kaunihera, have you any objections?"

Eleven emperors shake their heads and call out kāo.

"You wish for us to quiet the voices of apologist opposition to same-peng pairings, across all emperor colonies. Is this correct?"

"Kaunihera, everyone is entitled to voice their opinion, no matter how misguided. I wish to eliminate the negative consequences of those voices against same-peng couples. I wish to be protected against the actions spurred by those voices, for they will rise, again and again, for all the ages of the emperors."

"This is a vast request, young Sherlock."

"Āe, Kaunihera." Sherlock stands tall. His pulse beats strong in his chest, his heart saying āe, āe, āe. "But is it not as just as it is vast?"

And not half vast again as my love for you.

The emperor standing left of the centre leans over and speaks in a low tone to the one in the middle. He in turn nods, then turns to the one on his other side, and confers with her. She nods. The communication passes down each side of the arc, each emperor turning to his or her neighbour, sometimes turning back for another word, restrained in their movements by the formality of the process.

They cannot be heard from where Sherlock stands. He listens to the sweep of the wind over his ears and feels the way it rushes over him, clinging to his curves and plains. If he lifts his wings, the wind will caress his sides, will whisper to the underside of those wings held high.

Fly, fly, fly home to me.

The twelve members of the High Council are done conferring, and face forward once again.

“Mycroft, please step forward.”

Mycroft comes to stand by Sherlock’s side. Out of the corner of his eye, Sherlock observes the graceful slope of Mycroft's forehead, the regal tilt of his bill. He looks like one of them, he thinks to himself. He is one of them.

"Sherlock and Mycroft of Pobeda. We propose the creation of a committee to study the apologist movement, its history, members, agendas, and so forth. This committee would operate under the jurisdiction of the High Council, present its findings, and recommend appropriate amendments to existing emperor law. The High Council would then review those recommendations, and enact commensurate measures. Do you have any objection?”

Kaunihera, may I speak?”

Āe, Sherlock.”

“You are undoubtedly aware that the proposed committee must be led by a particular type of emperor. A peng in this position must be highly educated in emperor history, mythology, and law. The position requires familiarity with council protocol, committee dynamics, and intercolonial relations. Furthermore, this emperor must be impervious to subjective opinion, and not allow bias to influence their decision making.”

Sherlock would continue, but the centre emperor, as he has come to think of him, interrupts. “Sherlock, I get the distinct impression that you are about to make a recommendation.” There is a smile in his tone, the first personal undertone of the proceedings thus far.

“Indeed. I can think of no one better suited for this position than my brother, Mycroft. His familiarity with every aspect of this -”

Sherlock!” Mycroft hisses at him out of the corner of his bill. “Kuanihera, please pardon my brother’s impertinence.”

“Not at all, Mycroft. Your brother’s advocacy of your skills and expertise would carry much less weight had he not spent the better part of this day impressing us with his mature countenance and sound analysis. If family cannot champion their own, who will?”

Sherlock very much wants to stick his tongue out at Mycroft, but suspects this would undermine what they perceive as his mature countenance.

“Sherlock, you speak of subjectivity and bias. Would Mycroft not, as your brother, be biased toward you, unduly affecting the nature of his work?”

The feathers along Sherlock’s neck give an involuntary bristle.

Kaunihera, my brother has sacrificed a life of his own to selflessly serve his Council, and now the Junior Council under it. He is charged with keeping me safe, and seeing to it that I fulfil the destiny predicted by my shell’s prophecy. Everything he does, he does for someone else. Of course he is biased. He is biased toward the wellbeing of each and every emperor hatched, last winter, this winter, and for all the winters to come. And who better to serve you, than an emperor who puts the needs of the whole above the whole of his needs?”

Centre emperor considers.

“Is this a role in which you might be interested, Mycroft? It would require that you remain here on the Shelf, as a guest of the Rūnanga colony and the High Council, for an indeterminable period of time.”

Next to him, Mycroft makes a warbled choking sound. They are standing close enough that Sherlock can reach behind and give Mycroft a solid thud on the back.

Kaunihera, please know that I did not come before you today to ingratiate myself to you, or to endeavour to claim any position –”

“Mycroft, are you interested in directing the efforts of the committee?”

Āe, Kaunihera, I would be honoured by your consideration.”

“Then we twelve shall meet privately and deliver an answer to you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Kaunihera.

“I thank you both for presenting to us today. It has been most informative, and extremely interesting. You have taken great risks travelling for so long, so far from home, but were right to come. You have kept safe and delivered a piece of emperor history previously thought lost to the ages. You have presented a compelling personal narrative, and proposed several significant matters for our consideration.

“I hereby dismiss this session of the Emperor Intercolonial High Council. Sherlock, you are free to go, although I speak for all twelve of us when I say that I sincerely hope we may meet each other again. I wish you godsspeed on your journey, and every blessing in finding that which you seek.

“Mycroft, you will be summoned tomorrow before midday. Are there any questions?”

Sherlock and Mycroft each offer a solemn kāo, and bow. The twelve before them return the gesture.

It is done.

They stand together until the High Council has left the way they came, single file, silent. As the last sweep of tail on ice fades from earshot, they turn toward each other. Out of the corner of his eye, Sherlock sees Terina lead Anahera and Tui back toward the heart of the colony. There will be time for them to talk, later.

“Sherlock.”

“It’s okay, Mycroft. It’s what you want, and what you deserve. If not this, you would insist on coming with me, and really, I’m quite sick and tired of you.” He tries to smile, but his bill seems intent on producing only a shaky quiver.

Mycroft manages only slightly better; a half formed slip of a smile, but a smile nonetheless. “And I you, little brother. When will you go, then?”

“First light.”

“I see. And there’s no way I can convince you –”

“No. You will be most helpful here, now. When I get back to Pobeda I will tell Māmā and Pāpā what has transpired. They will be so very proud of you. And you will come back, when you are done here, and then it will be your turn to tell us all the news, and what has been decided. Yes?”

Mycroft only nods, and blinks. He is trembling.

“Don’t. Please.” Sherlock squeezes his wings together, hard, and focuses on the tension in his bones.

“Sherlock. Only this. You will prevail. If nothing else, I am absolutely certain of this one thing. You will prevail. I am so very, very proud of you.”

“We will all prevail, together.” Sherlock loses his battle then, his heart eeking out one, lonely cry. He falls forward as Mycroft lifts his wings, and enfolded, he presses his cheek to Mycroft’s shoulder. He closes his eyes, and the wind circles them, whispering, soothing. Sometime later he realizes that Mycroft is rocking, back and forth, back and forth. His heart has settled again. He steps away.

“Well. Enough of that. You reek of fish.”

Mycroft laughs, he laughs so hard his belly shakes. “Back to the huddle, then, brother mine.”

They go back without words, each contemplating the day behind them, and the days to come. Ahead of them, pengs are gathering together and closing down the edges of the colony. Couples call to each other, small groups congregate, then join other small groups, everyone moving toward sleep.

As soon as they reach the colony, Anahera and Tui come tobogganing over the ice toward them.

“Sherlock! Mycroft! You were amazing! It was amazing! Everything you’ve been through, everything that has happened! So many important matters! And they’re going to help you, I can just tell, they were so impressed, this is the most significant thing that’s happened in such a long time, you’re making history, you’re ...” Anahera is talking faster than flying fish fly, wings flapping, body vibrating.

Next to her, Tui waits patiently. As soon as Anahera pauses for breath, Tui steps forward, and holds one wing up in front of Anahera’s bill.

“When do you leave, Sherlock?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“All right. We’ll be ready.”

“We can say goodbye now, if you’d like. I don’t want to disturb you, should I go before you wake. You’ve all been so kind, so generous.”

Anahera starts to speak again, but Tui flaps her wing.

“We’re not saying goodbye, Sherlock. We’re coming with you.”

Anahera’s bill falls open.

Sherlock squints.

Mycroft sighs.

“We’re what?”

“Well, he obviously can’t go alone, love. He’s right, Mycroft should stay here and steer the committee, but that means Sherlock would be on his own, in the middle of winter, who knows where, for gods knows how long. I don’t think so, do you?”

“Tui, I could not possibly ask you to accompany me.”

“I’m not asking you to ask me. I’m telling you. We’re going with you. Right, Anahera? Anahera?”

If possible, Anahera looks even more radiant than usual. All of her, from head to tail, is glowing white, all of her except her eyes. Her eyes are wide and round, silver-grey and glistening. She looks at Tui as if there were no other peng on the continent.

“Tui? Oh. Yes. Yes, of course we are. We’re going with you, Sherlock.” She says this as she stares at Tui, who stares back, resolute. “It makes perfect sense.”

“I knew you would see reason, love.”

Sherlock senses he is about to witness a very personal moment between his two friends. Mycroft is already backing away.

“Oh, Tui.”

“Come to the huddle with me, right now, Anahera.”

“Well. Fine. We’ll just see you tomorrow, then, shall we?” Sherlock hopes his words have found their way to at least one of their ears. He suspects not. He turns to follow Mycroft, who now waddles away at almost full pengspeed.

Behind him, just over the hush of the wind, he thinks he hears the brush of feather against feather, and a sigh.

Like us, Johnling, like us. Soon. Soon, now.

Chapter Text

July

Sherlock has never walked so much in his life.
Sherlock has never been so cold in his life.
Sherlock has never talked so much in his life.

He wonders what he would have done if Tui and Anahera had not insisted on accompanying him. He’d be a peng-shaped icicle right now, halfway to nowhere, daymaring about Johnling and Maryle. This, though, this is so much better.

Tui and Anahera fuss over him, like two elders, even though they’re not really that old. They’re Mycroft’s age, just a bit younger, but they’re so different from Mycroft. They seem freer. Sherlock thinks this is what it would be like to have older sisters, instead of stuffy old Mycroft, then he chastises himself, because Mycroft is only the way he is because he has so much to take care of.

They walk from sun-up to sun-down, and then longer, because the sun is not visible for long in the depths of winter, and they have far to go. Sometimes they toboggan, and sometimes they race each other, but mostly, they spend the days walking, and talking. When they are tired one of them will call out, “This looks like a good spot to stop for the night!” and then they laugh, because really, all of the spots are exactly the same, just flat ice surrounded by more flat ice.

Exhaustion admitted, they mash themselves into the tiniest huddle ever, clinging to each other through the frigid temperatures, the snowstorms, the winds that threaten to blow them right off the face of the planet. They tuck their heads underwing and turn inward, hearts triangulated, tails lying low on legs, shoulders sealing their self-made enclave from above. If not warm, it is sustaining, and when they wake they are rested and ready to continue.

They keep each other entertained, telling stories about their colonies, their families, their friends. Sherlock tells them all about the day he met John, after weeks of scouring the island for just one peng who was not an idiot. He admits that he’s grown much more flexible since he was a hatchling, and has embraced the friendships of many pengs he’d previously have ignored. He has John to thank for that.

Anahera and Tui tell him how they met, although they each have drastically different versions of the story. Anahera waxes poetic about seeing Tui from afar, the sun glinting off her glossy black feathers, her face tilted to the sky’s warmth, eyes closed in repose. Anahera claims to have kept her distance, watching Tui over the next few days, working up the courage to talk to her. Finally, having summoned her bravery, she approached, introduced herself, and, according to Anahera, the rest was history.

“Don’t listen to her, Sherlock. She stalked me for weeks. And I already knew who she was. I mean, look at her, it was impossible to not see her. Finally, one day, I just turned around and said, ‘Anahera, you seem to be following me. May I help you with something?’ and she said, ‘Yes, I think you probably can. It seems I have fallen in love with you.’”

“I did not!”

“You did, love, I remember it so clearly.”

“Don’t listen to her, Sherlock. She’s afflicted with delusion.”

Tui says it doesn’t matter anyway, as it was love at first sight for her, too. She compares Anahera to a walking moonbeam, an earthly star, a glowing heart. Anahera stretches and flutters, releasing the warmth inspired by Tui’s words, then preens herself back into something more presentable.

He tells them about the seal attack at Cassiopeia, and John’s injury, and Maryle. He tries to be objective, but his friends are not impressed when they hear about Maryle biting John, or her manipulations to be near him, or her attempts to join the Junior Council. Anahera is particularly, and Sherlock thinks, justifiably, suspicious of the other peng’s motives, but Tui tuts and says they haven’t met her yet, and should reserve at least some modicum of judgment.

Then Sherlock tells them of the visions he’s had of Maryle wooing John away from Sherlock by telling him he must mate to continue his line, and even Tui bristles and clicks deep in her throat. “Do you think she’s an apologist, Sherlock? Or working with Moringa?”

Sherlock has wondered the same thing himself, but has no proof. On the other wing, his intuition has served him well so far. “I do think she’s an apologist. She’s lost her own parents, and several sets of foster parents. I think she very much cherishes the concept of all pengs perpetuating the traditional model of peng families.

“But about working with Moringa, I truly don’t know. I have never observed them together, but perhaps I was not looking carefully enough.”

“Never mind that now,” Anahera soothes. “Soon enough, you will be home, and none of that will matter.”

He tells them about the ice cave, spinning out fantastic descriptions of its icy blue walls, glittering icicles, its perch high above their summer home. He shares details he had not told the High Council, listing each and every treasure he and John had found, and how lovingly John had arranged and rearranged them along the walls of the cave. He recounts how furious John had been when they discovered the empty cave, found all of their beautiful treasure taken by Moringa, how he had raged against the injustice.

This time it is Anahera who rages, who flaps her wings in indignation and stands tall, throwing her back and growling out words of Moringa’s deserved comeuppance.

As much as Sherlock relishes their stories, and is grateful for their company, they remind him of himself and John, and he misses his ipo terribly. He tells them story after story about John, about how he loves to skip ice chips, and the secret language he’d suggested, and how protective John is, how easily he makes friends, and what a good healer he has already proven himself to be.

Anahera and Tui ask questions, and Sherlock answers, and in this way they pass the time, and learn about each other, and in turn, about themselves.

“Is he handsome, your Johnling? What does he look like?”

Sherlock sighs and looks up at the stars in the ever-dark winter sky. “Handsome? Handsome does not begin to describe him, Tui. He is broad shouldered, and solidly built. He is shorter than me by perhaps half a head, but what he lacks in stature he makes up for with strength, and determination, and courage.

“When I last saw him –” and here Sherlock’s voice trembles, because saying those five words out loud breaks his heart in so many ways, “– he was entirely black and white, with no fluff left. He had yet to show his yellow markings, or his bill colour, much like myself, but he stands out among the many. His eyes are sharp, and so expressive, and his left wing trembles and shakes when he’s angry. And he’s adorable, too. When he is surprised, or terribly focussed on something, the tip of his tongue peeks out of his bill. Also, he is an amazing kisser.”

Sherlock flushes under his feathers. Has he shared too much? Would John mind?

Anahera coos and trills. “Ohh, he sounds divine, doesn’t he, Tui? He sounds like a gentlepeng and a leader. And he wants to be a healer?”

“He is a healer,” Sherlock corrects. “He’s a natural, hatched to help others. He never even noticed his own injury after the seal attack, he just kept helping others, right alongside our healer, Cetus. Did I say that he’s very brave?”

Oh, how he misses his Johnling.

He catches Anahera and Tui smiling at each other. “You sound so very in love, Sherlock.”

Sherlock mumbles and coughs and redirects the conversation.

There are times he cannot talk about John, not one word, because to talk about his John is to miss his John, and there is only so much absence Sherlock’s heart can absorb before it weighs itself down, dark and heavy with longing. When that happens, he tells his companions about Moringa, and the Junior Council, and all the tales Erebus had told him about him and Selvic.

Tui cries when she learns of those six long winters apart, and Anahera says, “Darling, every step we take with Sherlock brings us closer to ensuring such a thing never happens again.”

They never question Sherlock’s plan, never ask him how he knew to follow Atutahi’s star, or what he expects to find. They are almost an entire moon into their journey when Sherlock’s curiosity about their lack of curiosity gets the better of him. “You have questions,” he says to the cold air and expanse of ice in front of them.

They walk another silent stretch before Anahera answers. “And you have answers, dear Sherlock, but we will not ask for something you are not ready to give.”

That night Sherlock shares with them the plan they’ve never asked for, hoping beyond hope that they don’t declare him insane, turn right back around, and go home. He starts before the beginning, attempting to lay some icework.

“I have never believed in a literal version of our mythology. I do not mean to offend you, I only mean to be clear. From the first time I heard about Kororā and the heartstone, I thought the creation of such myth was our way of explaining those things we couldn’t understand. Why can we no longer fly? What happened to our cousins from long ago, now gone?

“To me, it only made sense that we would take those answers from the stars. We have little else while we endure the long, harsh winters, with no food, no shelter, holding an egg on our feet. How do we not give up? We look to the stars, and the stars give us our past, and our past gives us something to hold on to, for the future.

“So, you must understand, when Erebus told us about Ika, and Pōrangi, and the importance of the tooth, I was skeptical. Surely, there are hundreds of seal teeth scattered about our shores? And surely, these relics of our most feared enemies have also inspired stories, stories to weave into the loose ends of other stories?

“Or maybe not. Because this tooth was different. This tooth had a star on it. It was then I allowed myself to consider that it might be true. All of it. And I have considered. I carried the tooth for a long time. It was hard to think about anything but that tooth, and John, of course. Even now, having left it behind, I still think about it, because I think if you are so consumed by something, your thoughts continue to carry it, even when you do not.

“Our minds are mysterious, aren’t they? I have travelled far since I’ve held the tooth. I have gone home, to John, and I have been to the ocean’s floor, and met Pōrangi, and to the sky’s ceiling, and met the gods, and in doing so, I have sought my own answers.

Tui and Anahera stand close, transfixed, and wait for Sherlock to continue.

“After everything that has happened, I am still not sure if the legends are true, or if they are of our own making. I'm not sure it matters. What does matter is that the heartstone is the way back to hope. Because that’s what Aumārire represents. Remember? Peace, harmony. Aumārire teaches kindness, generosity, and respect. Aumārire represents peace for the whole. And that’s what we need, if we are to love who we want to love, and not be condemned for it. So I’m going to find it, and bring it back.”

Tui cocks her head and stares. “What are you bringing back, Sherlock? Hope?”

“The heartstone.”

“The heartstone? That’s why we’re following Atutahi’s star?”

“Yes. I believe the star on the tooth is Atutahi's, meant to guide us.”

“I don’t understand. You just said that we don’t need the tooth, or the heartstone, to find our own answers, or to have hope.”

“I don’t believe we do. But others do. And if I can find the heartstone, if I can find something that no one else has been able to find, if I can do that, then maybe I can prove that we all have the ability inside us to do what we thought was impossible. We don't have to wait for someone to give it to us.”

Anahera nods. “And if we can take responsibility for our own hope, then we have to take responsibility for our own actions, don’t we? We can’t continue to do wrong against others in the name of someone else.”

Tui turns to Anahera, then back to Sherlock. “Apo. You talked about Apo at the High Council, and the apologists, and Moringa claiming that the gods themselves believed Apo was right to show Kororā she was wrong to choose her own kind as a mate.”

“Yes. And I don’t think we should use a myth to justify our hateful actions against others. It’s not right to tell two pengs they can’t be together because of something some other peng may have said a million moons ago.”

“But Sherlock,” Tui says. “If you aren't sure you believe in the myths, how can you be sure you'll find the heartstone?”

“Oh, I believe there’s a heartstone. If the myth is real, it's still here, somewhere. If the myth is not real, something like the heartstone has to exist, something mysterious and odd and beautiful, something no one could explain, something that made them look to the stars and find Kororā, and Pono, and Apo.”

Tui looks unsure. “We’re searching for something that either proves, or inspired, the legend, something the size of … my heart, on the continent of Antarctica?”

Anahera nods her head and shakes her tail feathers. “It’s brilliant, Tui, don’t you see?”

“I’m not sure I do, love.”

“If I found something unusual, I’d make up a story about it. The story would grow and grow and grow, until one day, three hundred generations from now, my ancestor would tell her hatchling about it, but it wouldn’t be a story anymore. It would be truth.

“It could be a tooth, a stone, a shell, a feather – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I create something around it, something bigger than what I found, and that over time my story becomes crucial to us, crucial to all pengs, everywhere.

“And imagine what would happen if someone was able to find it, and bring it back, and prove that it was all true!”

“But how will we know if it's real or not? Everyone will think it’s proof that the legend is real, and Sherlock said he isn't sure if he believes in any of it!”

“Yes,” Sherlock interjects, “but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, if others believe, not if it brings us hope, and peace. Plus, it will be the best souvenir ever. For John.”

Tui’s eyes snap open, wide. “Please tell me we didn’t leave home to find a souvenir for John.”

“I’m sorry, Tui. That wasn’t very funny, was it? No. But, it will be the best gift ever for John, and me, and you, and Anahera. And for Erebus, too. It will be a legend coming full circle. It will be a sign of hope, the end of one age, and the beginning of the next. We were told that the burden of finding the next Aumārire would be ours. And we’ll have done it.”

“We’ll have done it?”

“You, and me, and Anahera.”

“We’ll be the ones to bring back Aumārire?”

Āe.”

“Sherlock, you are brilliant.” Tui hugs him, and then Anahera. “We’ll be able to court openly, and be recognized as a bonded pair, a couple?”

Anahera starts to cry. “Yes, Tui. Finally.”

“Well, then, what are you two standing there for? We have work to do. We have a heartstone to find.”

Anahera falls into line behind Tui, and Sherlock behind Anahera, and they walk toward Atutahi.

I’m coming, John, I promise. Soon.

Chapter Text

Late July

Sherlock grabs Anahera’s face between his wings and squeezes. If she looks shocked, he can't tell.

“That's it! Anahera, you're brilliant!”

She has to extricate herself from his grip before she can ask what, exactly, she has done that is so brilliant. Tui seems as perplexed, although she would never question Anahera's brilliance.

“Don't you see?” Sherlock hops up and down, flapping his wings and laughing, all of his energy about to tip over. At this rate it would not be a long fall to hysteria.

“See what?”

“We missed it! We already passed it!”

Anahera and Tui exchange a worried look.

“We passed it? We passed what? And what do I have to do with it?”

Sherlock points down to the frozen tern body they’ve just stumbled over. It’s barely visible under a thin layer of snow and ice. “See?” He holds his wings out, underside up, and looks back and forth between them. He lets them flop back down to his sides. They don't see it. How can they not see it?

“Really? Okay. What did you say when we happened upon this dead tern?”

“I said, ‘poor little thing.’”

“Yes, and then what?”

Anahera looks up at the sky. “Umm, I said… Tui, what did I say?”

Tui clears her throat. “You said, ‘Poor little thing. It must have just died recently, or it'd be completely covered up by now.’”

“My voice doesn't sound like that. All airy and delicate like that.”

“It does. You have a beautiful voice.”

“Certainly it's more commanding than that?”

Sherlock wants to stomp on the tern. “Lady pengs, please. Focus.”

“Apologies. Apparently I said, in the tone of a wispy little feather floating on the wind, that it must have just died, or it'd be completely covered over by now.’”

“Exactly! So you see it now, right?”

Neither of them say a word.

“What else do we hope is sitting out here on an otherwise interminable flat stretch of wretched ice?”

Tui gets it first. “The heartstone!”

“Yes! And what did we pass this morning?”

Anahera flops down her belly and sighs. “Well, first we saw some ice. Then there was some more ice, after which we saw some truly fascinating ice.” She blinks up at them, then pops back up to her feet. “Oh gods! Oh my gods!”

“That strange little hill!” she and Tui call out together.

Sherlock raises his wings high in the air and laughs. “Yes!

“You think it's the stone? Under the snow and ice?”

“I can't say for sure, but it's the right size for something that has been here a very long time, if you take into consideration the meltage that occurs at the height of the sun’s cycle, and then the refreezing and snowfall we get during the winter. We have to go back and check,” he says, toeing at the edges of Anahera’s poor little tern. She and Tui have already started walking back in the direction from which they came, laying down new tracks next to the ones that brought them to this clue.

They cover the distance in no time at all, fuelled by possibility, and hope. When the small hill comes into view, they drop down and toboggan, huffing out frosty plumes of air, pushing themselves as hard as they can for the last stretch.

The rise in front of them crests just over their heads. They walk around it, exuding a reverence that Sherlock hopes is not wasted on yet another dead bird. Anahera and Tui come to a stop on either side of him, and they all stand, and stare. Sherlock reaches out and pokes it with his wing, and they all instinctively flinch back. Nothing happens.

Tui starts giggling. “We’re ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Shall we start digging, then?”

“We may need to scrape a bit, too,” Sherlock adds, looking at his wing tips.

“And claw.” Anahera peers down at her feet.

The work is long and taxing, and by the time they decide to take a break, Sherlock estimates they are twenty-five percent of the way to the centre. They did not start at the top, figuring that tunnelling in would be more expeditious than digging down.

Standing aside now, they rub their wings together and huff warm breaths over the tips.

Tui stretches up, to the side, to the other side, then down to her feet.

Anahera lies flat on her front, lets herself go limp, and groans.

Sherlock hopes.

Exhaustion sets in earlier than usual, and Sherlock reluctantly admits that they should stop for the night, and sleep. He can feel his body growing stiff already, after all the strenuous activity. He wonders if he'll be able to move a single muscle in the morning.

Tui and Anahera preen their ruffled feathers, bills sliding in slow, languid strokes over their shoulders and chests.

“I'm too tired for this,” Anahera yawns. “I'll give myself a proper cleaning tomorrow. If I'm still alive, that is.”

“Don't say that. Come here, I'll keep you warm.”

Sherlock watches them move toward each other, holding out a wing on either side to pull Sherlock into the huddle. He looks over at the progress they've made on the nearby icy knoll, and has what he knows is a truly inspired idea.

“Anahera, Tui. Look. We can sleep in the tunnels we've made. We'll be protected from the wind, and stay warmer.”

None of the openings are big enough for all three of them, so Sherlock lets his friends have the biggest one to share. They manoeuvre in, feet first, heads peeping out.

“I haven't slept lying down since I was a hatchling,” Anahera says, and Tui nods her head in agreement.

“It's quite cosy. It’s not fair that you won't fit, though, Sherlock. Would you rather we stand and huddle through the night, as we usually do?”

Sherlock would like nothing less. Anahera and Tui have had no time away from him, no privacy whatsoever, since they left the Rūnanga colony and joined him on this journey. They've never once complained, or treated him like a third wing, but he knows they must crave some time alone.

He waves them off before they can insist, and shuffles backward into his own little cave, feeling around him to get a sense of space. He has never been so enclosed in his life, not unless you count his shell. He doesn't like it. He wriggles forward until his head and shoulders are outside, and he breathes in the night air, and looks up at the endless sky with its limitless stars and stories.

He lets thoughts of John come. John, under this same sky, these same stars. John, helping others catch the eggs that must be coming by now. John, keeping busy with Junior Council business, shadowing Cetus, sharing stories with Erebus, keeping an eye on Moringa. John, at home in the centre of colony life, growing into the adult Sherlock so desperately wants to see, and touch, and hold. John.

Sherlock falls asleep to thoughts of John’s proud shoulders, his broad chest, his strong wings. He slips away to the sound of John trilling deep in his throat, to the memory of that rumble-groan John makes when he's touching Sherlock, when they're caressing each other, when they know they have to stop because they aren't ready for what comes next, aren't even sure what that is. He falls asleep to a flush in his blood and a hum on his tongue and a dream behind his eyelids.

Sherlock dreams he's swimming. The journey has ended, and he is swimming home. He swims and swims but never covers any distance. When he looks to the familiar patterns of starlight above, nothing changes, ever, no matter how hard he swims.

The water around him is too warm, too shallow, and there are no fish left, no krill, no life at all. The sea is disappearing, and he knows in his heart that he will never make it home, not before the last drop of saltwater has drained away, leaving him marooned on the vast seabed, surrounded by odd shapes and colours and landscapes.

He tries to stand, determined to walk the rest of the way, but he cannot move his wings, he cannot straighten his legs. He is pinned down, secured to the barren seascape by some unknown force. Oh, but Pobeda, he thinks, what will happen to Pobeda? Is that gone, too? The Shelf? The very continent? And all her inhabitants? John? John must be gone, too.

Sherlock wakes with a startled gasp, and immediately hits his head on the roof of his miniature ice cave. For one brief moment he panics, feels his body expand to fill the empty space around him, feels the walls of his hideaway press in to meet him, meld to him, hold him. Breathe, Sherlock, breathe. Breathe.

Look around you, he tells himself. What is real? Morning light. A low, shushing wind. A slow drip. A drip. A drip. A drip. It sounds like the memory of a sunny day, when the ice finally loses its battle against nature, and melts. But this is not that time.

A drop of water lands on his head, then his bill. When the next drop lands on his neck, he understands. His body heat is melting the ice around him. Not only did he stay warm through the night, but he has melted a peng-size indentation into the area around him. He wiggles, and water sloshes up around his sides and under his wings.

He presses down with his feet, down, down, until he finds more solid ground to dig into, and uses the toehold to propel himself out. Standing has never felt so wonderful, and Sherlock shakes and shimmies to rid himself of the water drops clinging to him. He preens a bit, working at sleep-ruffled feathers, drying and combing with his bill. When he cranes back to tend to his shoulder, his eye falls on something behind him, something sitting at the edge of the now mushy hill of ice. Thoughts rush in and over each other, rapid fire.

under me last night
melted ice
revealed
didn't expect
could that be
relax
maybe a fossilized
urchin algae creature egg
what lays a red egg you penggit
better look
go ahead
and if not
then not
then keep going
is it is it is it

Bending low, low enough to touch the object with his bill, if he so chooses, but doesn't dare choose, not yet, he peers at it. He inspects it with his right eye up close, then his left eye, then with both. He catalogues information that makes no sense. Not yet.

red-black
shiny
hard
size of my foot
impermeable
not quite opaque
slightly oblong
broader on one end
narrower on the other
light reflected, or absorbed

He scans his ice palace for a marine life match, ruling out the options one by one.

Mesocentrotus franciscanus: no evidence of sea urchin spines
Hyperiid amphipod: not shaped like this
Sterechinus neumayeri: would be rounder than this
Chlamydomonas nivalis: this is bigger than that type of algae

He prods at it with his bill, and finds it lighter than he expected for something that looks like ice. Also, this doesn’t seem to retain cold the way ice does, but absorbs the temperature of whatever surrounds it. He flips it over, checks for any other details, but one side is much the same as the other.

So caught up in his thoughts, Sherlock jumps straight up in the air when he hears Anahera’s voice in his ear.

“I’m sorry, I thought you heard us call out that we were awake. We were worried when you didn’t call back.”

He looks at her, not quite able to shift his focus from the object at his feet.

“We melted the ice quite a bit, last night. Did you, too? I wasn’t expecting that! It was like a bath.

“Sherlock, are you all right?”

When he doesn’t respond, she looks around his side, and sees what lies at his feet.

“Oh dear me, Sherlock. Oh my. Oh. But where –”

“I melted it. I mean, I melted the ice around it. It must have been under me when I woke up and came outside. I’m examining it. I’ve ruled out various species of sea urchin, and algae, and now I’m trying to remember if there are any Antarctic birds that lay red eggs. Do you know?”

Tui waddles over, stretching, and rests her head on Anahera’s shoulder. When neither Sherlock nor Anahera acknowledge her, she stirs and looks between them, then down to where they are both staring.

“Oh, my gods.”

“Sherlock, of course it’s not a sea urchin or algae or an egg. You found it. You found the heartstone.”

“It can’t be.” Sherlock states.

“Oh, my gods.” Tui repeats.

“But of course it is. Just look at it!”

“But maybe not.”

“Oh, my gods.”

Anahera puts one wing on Sherlock’s shoulder and nudges him around to face them. She looks very serious now, not unlike John when he is about to impart some great and significant knowledge to which Sherlock has previously been oblivious.

“Sherlock, love. You didn’t think you’d really find it, did you? You can’t believe that this is it because you never really thought you’d find it. You hoped. You dreamed. You were committed to your journey, but now that you’ve actually found it, you don’t believe.

“Listen to me. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is indeed the heartstone, or, at least, it is the very thing that would have inspired such a legend. Kororā, Pono, Aumārire, all of it. This is Pono’s heart, either way. This is Pono’s heart for emperors everywhere. This is the end of the journey. You found it.”

“If what you say is true, this is not the end of the journey.”

“No?”

“No. Now we have to take it home, to Pobeda.”

Tui looks up from the heartstone and touches her wing to Sherlock’s cheek. She nods.

“Yes. Let’s take it home. Let’s take it home to John. It’s the very best souvenir you could ever bring him, don’t you think?”

They gather around the heartstone, the heart of their journey, of their fates, and lower their heads in awe. Each of them silently reflects on the significance of their discovery, on its relevance to their past, and their hopes for the future.

Sherlock takes a deep breath and exhales six moons’ worth of apprehension and worry.

“Yes. Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

They take turns carrying the heartstone. It’s light, but larger and bulkier than the tooth Sherlock had become so used to. They have no seaweed, so sometimes they hug it tight, heart to heart, and sometimes they press it low, between wingtips and bellies. Only once does Sherlock attempt to jostle it forward on the ice with his feet, but Tui says, “Absolutely not, Sherlock.

The big sisters he never had, indeed.

The trip to the near bottom of the Shelf, from which Pobeda is only half a day’s swim, passes quickly. They talk and laugh as they walk, sharing what they are most looking forward to, and how they imagine their world might change, now that they hold the key to a new future. Sherlock tries not to talk incessantly about John, but fails most of the time in that endeavour. Anahera and Tui humour him, but they also ask him about the other pengs they will soon meet. He tells them all about Lestra, Molling, Stamfjord, Erebus, and his parents. In doing so, he realizes how much he has missed them – all of them.

Sherlock does not ask if his friends are nervous to meet his colony. Anahera, he knows, would delight in any new adventure, and will impress all of his fellow Pobedans. Tui, who was so reticent, so shy just one moon ago, has bloomed under the wide, peaceful sky. Watching her now, waddling tall and happy next to Anahera, Sherlock thinks to ask whatever inspired her to insist they accompany him on his trek.

“It was not inspiration, Sherlpeng. I was simply doing what was right. The Shelf is very big, much larger than your island. You would not have survived one night without shelter, or the warmth of another peng.

“You will have noticed that I am a very anxious peng. Mānakanaka is in my nature, and has been since I was a hatchling. I can’t help but worry about what might go wrong. Anahera, bless her, cannot see beyond the silver lining of a cloud. I tend to see only its raindrops. Between us, the cloud is balanced. Anyway.

“As soon as I heard what you intended to do, I was consumed with terrifying thoughts of all the ways you could perish. And so I did what I had to do, to keep you safe."

Anahera’s face is like a new star, pride shining bright in her eyes.

“But why take on the responsibility of protecting me? You barely knew me. Would you have done that for anyone?”

Ehē, Sherlock, not at all. I knew enough to know that I must help you succeed. Consider it from my point of view, yes? Imagine. All around you, pengs, pengs, pengs. All the same. Except for this beautiful creature, of course,” she says, nodding toward Anahera and her unmitigated whiteness.

“All you know is your colony. You do everything with them. You huddle with them, swim with them, eat with them, migrate with them, and now you face the long, dark winter with them.

“And then one day, two strangers arrive. One is clearly the protector, the whakaruruhau, one is the protected. The protected carries a secret; not with him, but on him, wrapped in seaweed, bound to his body.

“His eyes see everything.

“He can hover between awake and asleep, between here and there, between the mortals and the gods. He not only tells the most amazing stories about where he has been, who he has talked to when he is in between, but he believes these tales. He believes in such a way as to never have questioned whether or not he should believe. He simply does.

“And so I did, too.

“The stranger has come to talk to the High Council. He is young, only one winter old, but he has come to stand in front of the twelve most important pengs in emperor society, and he approaches this as if it is not only his duty, but his pleasure. You realize that he was born to carry out the very thing he has come to do.

“And so he does it. He goes to the High Council, and he weaves his words together, one by one, and he lays them all down, creating a new path, for not only himself, not only for the High Council, but for every emperor, everywhere. It’s a path to reach a new world. A new way of being.

“Sherlock, love. Tell me you would not have done the same.”

At some point during Tui’s speech, they stopped walking. Sherlock stares at her now, unmoving except for some rapid eye-blinking. He stares and he stares. “Is that how you see me?” His voice sounds so young in his ears, so unbelieving.

“Of course.”

Sherlock looks at Anahera, and she nods her head.

“But I am — I am just me. Just me, and I am really not very special, I don’t think.”

“We are all of us special, in our own ways. You are special in a very important way. It does not mean you are not without flaw. It does not mean you are not also a penggit sometimes, as your John would say.” Tui smiles at him, and shakes her head. “Come now. We must keep going.”

Sherlock thinks about what Tui has said as they continue on their way, and he tries to align her opinions of him with his own view of himself. He is certain that anyone could do what he is doing. He has not even enjoyed carrying out these undertakings with which he has been tasked. He did not do them happily, or eagerly. He had cried when his father had ordered him to leave Cassiopeia, and John, to deliver the tooth to the High Council.

Still, though, he has done it, and done it his way, hasn't he? He has pursued the visions, presented his case, advocated for Mycroft, and quite literally uncovered the heartstone. Perhaps his own type of special will bring about his own type of success. He hopes it is enough.

They spend that night at the edge of the shelf, within sight of water. They discuss the plan for the morning. Upon waking, Anahera will fetch a strand of seaweed capable of securing the stone to Sherlock's body. Tui and Sherlock will assess the distance to Pobeda from their vantage point, and determine the best way to approach the island, weaving through any remaining floes. And then they will leave. They will leave the Shelf behind, and they will swim home.

Sherlock stays awake under the stars while his friends sleep, and he allows his excitement to build and climb, higher and higher, until he imagines he can manipulate it into something substantive, twisting and turning it, bending it, arcing it over the sea, connecting it to Pobeda, like a bridge of promises. He wills John to sense it and understand its significance. I'm coming home, John. Can you feel it? Do you know how close I am now? Are you awake, too, looking up at the stars?

He dreams of all the ways their reunion might go. John will see him coming in the distance, and rush to meet him, knocking him to the ice in embrace. Or, Sherlock will call for John, and John will hear him, and stand up from the frozen specimen he is dissecting with Cetus, and call back. Or, someone will see Sherlock coming, and whisper it to someone else, and the message will spread and spread and spread, until the entire colony is gathered, waiting, John standing in front of them all. Or, Sherlock will sneak up on John, just tap him on the shoulder, and John will turn around and gasp in surprise, and pull him close and not let go for such a long time.

Sherlock spins endless scenarios for their reunion, each one more alluring than the one before. Every once in a while he acknowledges that he will have to introduce Anahera and Tui, and deliver the heartstone to the Council, and debrief with his father, and tell his mother that Mycroft is well, and – and – and, but all of that is boring. The only thing that is not boring is seeing his Johnling again. Beautiful Johnling.

He is surprised when he wakes up the next morning, because to wake up means he fell asleep, and he was sure he wouldn't have time to sleep with all the scenario planning still left to do. But he wakes up, and when he does, Anahera is just coming back with a long strand of Himantothallus grandifolius, and Tui rushes over to inspect it, humming and hawing over the best way to utilize it.

"Why in the heavens didn't you wake me up?" Sherlock asks.

Tui mutters through the side of her bill, which is clenched down on the watery sea plant. "Kept us up half the night with your sleep talk about seeing John again – figured at least one of us should get some shut eye."

"I was talking in my sleep?" Sherlock is horrified.

"No. You were planning in your sleep. I think you got up to 'scenario seventy-six,’ before your brain finally had enough, and shut down."

Sherlock is mortified. Matangurunguru.

Anahera grins at him from where she holds up her end of the seaweed, and calls over, "I'm partial to 'scenario fifty-two,' myself, if you can manage to glide that far without crashing."

Sherlock squeaks.

"No, no," Tui corrects. "Fifty-two was about the recitation of starlight-inspired love poems."

"Stop! Stop, stop, stop! You are both awful, horrible pengs!"

"Shh, we're just teasing, pengheart, don't be cross. Come here, let's try this on for size." Anahera winks at Tui, and Tui smiles back.

Sherlock walks over, head held high. He's going to see John today, so they can tease all they want. Nothing can ruin this day for him.

It takes longer than he would like to secure the heartstone within the seaweed, and then to secure that around Sherlock. In the end, they decide to wrap it over one shoulder and under the other wing, lessening the potential for movement, and more evenly distributing the stone’s weight across his upper body. Sherlock mimics swimming, circling his wings in the air, and after a few minor adjustments, they all agree they are ready to go.

They stand at the edge and look over to Pobeda, a speck in the distance, but only ninety degrees of the sun away. The ice floes are minimal, most everything swallowed up by the expansion of winter ice, so they decide to approach the island from the Shelf side. It is closest, and will be the shortest walk to the colony.

They dive in unison, and the moment of submersion is shocking in its ability to transform them from cumbersome to weightless. Sherlock flies, Anahera and Tui flanking his sides. They spin and twist and dart about, thrilling in their underwater freedom.

They stay under for as long as they can, only resurfacing to fill their lungs with air, and dive again. Anahera and Tui are as fast as any other peng Sherlock has ever swam with, and they each take turns pulling ahead and dropping back, the leader creating a jetstream for the other two to slip into.

The time passes quickly, and sooner than Sherlock would have imagined, the morning is gone, and they have arrived at Pobeda’s eastern edge. He signals for Anahera and Tui to wait, then speeds ahead to survey the area for the best landing spot. Satisfied with his decision, he slips under and turns back, returning to his friends so he can lead them to the spot he has chosen.

He is only two and a half orca lengths away from them when he sees the seal. She comes from behind, closing the distance with unstoppable momentum, her mouth already opening in anticipation of snatching her prey. Sherlock will realize later that he must have radiated sheer horror, because the expressions on both Anahera and Tui’s faces change instantaneously, from joy to confusion to abject terror. Instinct kicks in, and the two emperors immediately separate, bulleting along opposite trajectories, each hoping the other will be spared.

The seal chooses Tui.

Sherlock jets toward her, adrenaline fuelling his body, his mind bereft of a single plan other than distraction. Beneath them, Anahera jack-knifes and rockets straight up, her wings flattened against her sides, her streamlined feet steering her body toward her tahu’s attacker.

Tui releases the bubbles trapped under her feathers, which serves to double her speed, and obscure the seal’s vision. It is not enough. Sherlock is almost there, his eyes locked on Tui’s, willing her to find more speed, and then that gaping, cavernous mouth snaps shut.

In the same instant, Anahera torpedoes her body against the monster’s throat, piercing its fur and skin with her bill. The seal barely flinches.

Sherlock shoots through a cloud of blood, spins, and turns himself around.

The seal has dropped Tui in an attempt to locate her attacker, but Anahera has plunged out of sight, no doubt circling around to attack again. Sensing no danger, the mighty predator turns back to Tui, who is dropping like a stone toward the seafloor, blood trailing behind her.

Sherlock surges forward, scanning the seal’s body for something vulnerable, anything at all. Belly, flippers, neck, nose … and then he sees his target.

He must reach the seal before she reaches Tui. He feels the multitudes of bubbles release and propel him forward. He sees the creature open her mouth, her jaws extending to what must surely be an unfathomable one-hundred-sixty degrees.

In the moment she reaches Tui, she slows, as to not overshoot, and Sherlock is there. He offers one last message to John, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, and slams into the seal, his bill piercing the black, sinister swell of her eye.

Chapter Text

Mid-August

Time stands still. The image is imprinted on Sherlock’s memory, indelible. Air bubbles, frozen in place, spotted fur, so close it blurs his vision, his bill, long and curved, with stripes of new colour on the underside, piercing the eye of Tui’s murderer.

The last word snaps Sherlock back to himself; No, not murderer. Tui is not dead. Tui will not die.

The seal twists away, roaring in their underwater battlefield. Sherlock hovers, suspended near her open, raging mouth. Her teeth are a line of daggers, soldiers constantly at the ready. One long, black feather swirls over her tongue, dances delicately out of reach, and floats away.

Tui.

The seal will do what the seal will do, Sherlock thinks. He cannot waste any time on her. He hopes that her pain will drive her away, and that if she stays, her blindness will confuse and disorient her.

Sherlock dives.

Anahera is already there, a beacon of white in the dark depths. There are tendrils of red curling around them, slick blood spreading slowly through the water. Anahera has Tui grasped in her wings from behind; she wriggles her body and kicks her feet, fighting toward the surface. Sherlock arrives in a heartbeat, slips his wings around Tui from the other side, and working together, he and Anahera climb toward safety.

He watches Anahera’s face for any sign, any tell whatsoever, that the seal is on them. Ahahera’s eyes are almost closed, with grief or effort or both, Sherlock does not know. She knows he’s watching her, though, and she shakes her head, back and forth, just once. For now, they are out of danger.

Sherlock thinks they will never breach the surface, but they do, and he and Anahera gulp down the cold air, shake water from their eyes, and scan their location. They are further along the shore than Sherlock had planned, but it’s fine, it doesn’t matter. This will work. Anything will work, any bit of solid ice under their feet will work, but it has to work now.

“Anahera, look at me. Look at me. Listen. We need to get her on land, and we’re only going to be able to do that if we work together. Put your right wing under her left, and I’ll put my left under her right. We’re going back under — Anahera, we have to — only to gain speed. On my count of three, launch at approximately forty degrees.”

Anahera stares at him, and he’s not sure that she’s heard him at all. Then she kisses Tui’s cheek, and slips into position. Thank the gods, Sherlock thinks to himself. Please let this work. Sherlock flanks Tui’s other side, and they dive down and away from Pobeda, just enough, just exactly enough and not one iota more. Sherlock lifts his free wing in front of them and waves it, one — two — three, and they’re off.

The surface, with its streaks of dim light and flashes of sky, rushes to meet them, and they launch. Their angle is perfect, their speed is perfect, but Tui starts to slip out from between them before they’ve cleared the water. Sherlock contorts himself mid-air, trying to bring his free wing over and across Tui’s chest. It’s not ideal, but it’s enough. They still have her when they land, hard, Sherlock on his back, Tui on top of him, Anahera pressed to their sides. They skid and slide, careening over the ice, bumping along, and Sherlock’s head and neck and back hurt terribly, but they’re safe.

They’re home.

Sherlock doesn’t realize they’ve come to a stop until he hears Anahera next to him, begging.

“Tui, please, Tui, please, open your eyes. Open your eyes for me, love.” Her voice is soft, words whispered into feathers, the wind scattering them about. “Please, Tui.”

Sherlock rolls over and stands with a grunt of effort, and assesses the situation. Tui remains unconscious, and she’s a mess. Her right foot is mangled, two of her toes gone, the bone of the leg protruding at a sickening angle. There’s a gash in her hip, how deep Sherlock cannot tell. At least half of her tail is gone.

First things first, he thinks. He rolls Tui onto her side as carefully as he can, and gently taps her back. Nothing happens. He taps a little harder. Nothing. He considers how much pressure he can safely apply, but before coming to an answer, Tui’s body convulses, and she vomits up a great volume of water. She does not regain consciousness.

Oh, Tui.

John. John can help.

Sherlock turns inland. Ice, ice, ice, but no colony. It doesn’t matter, they’re here, they’re here somewhere.

“Anahera, help me cover her in snow. We need to stop the bleeding, or she’ll die. Just her lower half, from the hips down, here, like that, keep going, cover her. I’m going for help.”

Anahera snaps her head up and stares at him, then comes to life. She jerks up, one wing resting over Tui’s heart, and nods at him. “Yes. Snow, to stop the bleeding. I’ll do this. Where will you — John, Cetus — please Sherlock, hurry!”

Sherlock toboggans toward the centre of the island, thoughts keeping time with his wings and feet, every part of him racing for help. There, there in the distance, they come into view. Black and white and — grey? Hatchlings. Hatchlings, of course, they’d have arrived by now, he realizes. My gods, so many hatchlings!

Forget about the hatchlings.

Sherlock drags his feet, plants his wings, and jumps to a stand. He calls. He calls louder and longer than any peng has ever called before, of this he is absolutely sure. He calls for John, over and over and over again, trumpeting the long stretch of beautiful sounds that make up John’s unique call. There is no other call for Sherlock to make in this moment, no other combination of notes. There never has been.

There is no response. He moves closer, and tries again. He tilts his head toward the sky and cranes his neck, and he calls. He puts every bit of his being into John’s song. Every hope, every prayer, every wish he never dared to wish, he wishes now. John.

This time when he looks, what he sees surprises him. The colony remains a black, white, and grey cloud on the ice, but in front, facing him, moving toward him, are two hatchlings. They are still so far away, but he can tell they have seen and heard him, and are venturing out, cautiously, their curiosity peaked.

He calls again.

The hatchlings bounce and wobble and flap their ridiculously small wings. Despite everything, Sherlock has to smile. They remind him of himself and John, just one winter ago. So alert, so excited, always on the lookout for a new adventure. Like these two, they were probably the only ones who would have heard such a call over such a racket.

He needs them to help him, but they either do not understand him, or do not know John. Now he calls for Cetus. He calls for Siger. He calls for every single emperor that these tiny pengs would know by now. Finally, one of them turns to the other, wobbling and flapping, and then it lifts its fuzzy head, and tries to call back. Sherlock can’t hear what must be a tiny little trill from this far away, but it doesn’t matter, because the other one has slipped back into the crowd while his friend stays and waves at Sherlock.

They come.

Sherlock keeps calling, and they come. He calls for John while they approach, not because he has to anymore, but because he will always call for John.

He stops when he can hear as well as see them, the claws on their feet scratching and pushing against the ice, their wings sweeping them closer. He stops and he looks, and John is almost there, and oh gods he is so beautiful. In the four moons they’ve been apart, John has matured fully into adulthood, bursts of colour augmenting his stark black and white. Sherlock wants to inspect and catalogue every single change, but there’s no time now, not one moment to spare.

And then John is with him, pressed against him, wings wrapped so tight, his neck rubbing Sherlock’s, his cheek and bill caressing his shoulder. John is whispering his name, Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock. You came back.

The others gather around them, Cetus, Siger, Erebus, each of them talking, asking questions, reaching for him.

But: Tui.

Sherlock pulls back from John, wishing he could give him a different reunion, the reunion he’s dreamed of for so long, but that will have to wait.

“John, we need help. She’s dying. Please, you must help her. This way.”

“Sherlock, you’re covered in blood! What’s happened?”

“It’s not mine, it’s my — it’s hers, she was attacked. Please come.”

“She? She, who?”

“Tui. She’s hurt, she’s dying. Please, I’m sorry, we have no time.”

For the blink of an eye John looks hurt, confused. Then he’s John again, giving Sherlock a curt nod of his head. “Show us.”

They make the trip back together, Sherlock in the lead, John right by his side, the others following. They are huffing and short of breath when they arrive, and if they weren’t shocked by Sherlock’s abrupt reappearance and unexpected plea for help, they are speechless now.

Tui lies half-buried under a blanket of snow. Anahera may as well be Tui’s ghostly spirit hovering over her, and Sherlock realizes they’ve never seen anything like her before. There is no time for lengthy explanations.

“Anahera, this is John, Erebus, Cetus — the healer, and Siger, my father.

“Everyone, this is Anahera, and that is Tui. We were attacked by a seal just as we arrived; Tui is badly injured, she has lost a lot of blood, please —” Sherlock has been talking to John the entire time, unable to look away, but Cetus has wasted no time rushing to the unconscious, wounded emperor.

John stares at Sherlock, stares at him hard, then asks, “Sherlock, who —” but then Cetus is calling for him, shouting.

John moves toward Cetus, but then turns back to Sherlock and says, “Later, later you’ll tell me everything?”

“Of course, John.” Sherlock reaches for him, but John is already at Cetus’ side, and Sherlock’s heart just aches and aches.

Cetus rattles off a list of what he needs: seaplants, fresh and dried; tern bones; a poultice made from something Sherlock doesn’t recognize; sea urchin spines; fresh snow; a dozen of their own feathers. John nods and repeats it all, and as he turns to speed back to the colony, Cetus hollers after him, “Bring Molling! Bring Stamfjord!”

It’s only when Sherlock looks up from where Anahera is dripping melted snow from her bill into Tui’s, that he sees Erebus and Siger standing side by side, watching him. He’s been so caught up in all of this, he’s not even acknowledged them. He shakes himself alert and joins them, apologizing profusely for his rudeness.

Siger cuts him off with a hug, shushing him and telling him there is nothing, not one single thing, to apologize for. Sherlock stands in his father’s embrace until he feels his breath even out and his heart rate slow, then Siger releases him. Sherlock slips out of one set of wings and reaches for another, and can feel the moment Erebus’ surprise settles into acceptance of Sherlock’s affection.

They stand there, the three of them, and Sherlock understands there is so much they want to ask, so much they must wonder about. He needs to explain, but this seems neither the time nor the place, not when he can hear Anahera behind him, singing softly to Tui.

“Pāpā, Elder Erebus, I have so much to tell you. For now, let me say that Mycroft is well, and sends his fondest regards. He did not return with me, as he was asked by the High Council to stay behind and oversee a new committee formed as a result of our meeting with them.

“Anahera and Tui are Rūnangan, and are, well, I will tell you everything later, but they came home with me when they realized that Mycroft was to stay behind. They finished the journey with me. It is over.”

And here, Sherlock stops, because he has told them everything, but nothing at all, absolutely nothing. He touches the seaweed wrapped heartstone that lies against his chest, and shakes his head.

“This is not the tooth, Pāpā. I delivered the tooth, as you asked of me. I’m sorry. I will tell you everything, but right now –”

Siger shakes his head and raises a wing against the unsteady flow of his words. “Sherlock, my son, all in due time. We have many questions, and you have many stories to tell, and all will be reconciled soon enough. You have only just arrived, and under the very worst of circumstances.” Siger nods toward Sherlock’s friends, one dying of her wounds, the other of her broken heart.

Exhaustion seeps in, and Sherlock sags low on his feet, and lets his head rest against his chest. “Please, Pāpā, whatever we can offer them, whatever we can do, I would not be here if not for them.”

“You have my promise, tama, whatever is within my power to give, they will have. Rest now. There will be much work to do when the others return.”

Sherlock waits with Anahera. He cannot rest. He thinks about John.

Cetus has gone to the water to collect seaplants and krill, while Erebus and Siger stand off to the side and confer.

Sherlock is sure the day must be coming to a close, but the light touching the horizon says they have not even passed the afternoon.

Cetus returns from the sea, dragging green and red and black strands of seaweed behind him, and at the same time, John, Molling, and Stamfjord arrive, their wings laden with bundles of supplies.

Sherlock and Anahera are bustled out of the way before Sherlock can approach John, and Cetus and his apprentices surround Tui, eight wings flying in a flurry of movement. If Sherlock did not trust Cetus the way he does, he would think that the healer’s ways were founded on complete bedlam and chaos.

Sherlock and Anahera stand close, Anahera straining to see. Sherlock puts a wing around her and gently leads her away when they remove the snowpack and re-expose Tui’s wounds. Anahera is a heavy weight against his side, her head resting on his shoulder, and Sherlock recognizes that her body’s gradual defeat mirrors the one inside her heart.

“Do not give up hope, Anahera, not now. If anyone can save her, Cetus can.”

Behind them, Cetus and his helpers have lifted Tui to a fresh patch of snow, and as they set her down, Tui lets out a long, low groan. Not lifting her head from his shoulder, Anahera asks, “Sherlock, was that the wind?”

“Shh, no. It was Tui. She’s awake now. It’s a good sign, and they’re helping her.”

“I must go to her.”

“Not yet. Let them tend to her injuries. Soon.”

Cetus begins barking out orders to each of his apprentices, and they carry them out, without pause, without question.

Sherlock does not let Anahera watch. Eventually, she falls asleep under the support and protection of his wing. Erebus joins them, and offers to take Anahera under his own wing so that Sherlock can rest.

“Thank you, Elder Erebus, but it’s all right. She’s not very heavy.”

“Are you sure, young Sherlock?”

“Maybe in a little while, Sir.”

Ereubs nods, but does not move away. He regards Anahera carefully, his curiosity respectful and kind. “She’s very rare, Sherlock, very special,” he whispers. “I’ve only ever heard of her kind before.”

Sherlock knows Erebus refers to her lack of colour, and perhaps the mysticism associated with this anomaly, but all he can think to say is, “Yes. She’s extraordinary, and very brave, and very kind. She is my friend.”

“As am I. Let me help you take care of her.”

Sherlock nods, and Erebus steps to Sherlock’s other side, taking Anahera’s weight under his wing.

Behind them, Cetus and his team of healers work their magic.

Chapter Text

Anahera sleeps for a long time, occasionally whimpering against Sherlock’s shoulder. He and Erebus talk quietly about the colony, about their long migration home, who has coupled this mating season, who has added a hatchling to their family. They talk about Sherlock and Mycroft’s journey to the Shelf, and the Rūnangans, and the High Council. Sherlock gives Erebus the most basic of details, wanting to save the highlights of his stories for a gathering of the Pobeda Council.

It is good to be with Erebus again, and Sherlock takes strength and comfort from the older emperor’s wise reflections and encouraging words. Erebus treats him as an equal, despite their age difference, and Sherlock suspects that the elder enjoys both the process of imparting his knowledge, and learning from Sherlock’s youthful perspective.

They are discussing the other kinds of penguins that live on the Shelf when they are interrupted by Molling. She has Tui’s blood and feathers smeared over her belly, wings, and cheek. She looks like a hero to Sherlock, like a saviour.

“She’s sleeping, but you and your friend can come be with her now.” Molling looks back and forth between Sherlock and Anahera, and ducks her head low, something awkward written on her face. Sherlock remembers his rushed introductions, which weren’t really introductions at all.

“Wait one moment, Molling, please.” He nudges Anahera with his bill, and whispers to her that it’s time to wake up, that the healers are done. Anahera opens her eyes. Sherlock watches as she transitions from confusion to remembrance to fear.

“Tui? Is she all right?”

“Anahera, this is Molling. Molling is one of Cetus’ apprentices, like John and Stamfjord. Molling said that Tui is asleep, but we can go to her now.”

“Thank you, Molling. Oh, thank you so much. Is she all right? Will she be okay?” Anahera stands on her own now, and takes the tips of Molling’s wings in hers, her energy pure hope and gratitude.

Molling’s voice is soft and shy when she answers, and Sherlock can see that Molling is intimidated by Anahera’s unusual appearance. “We think she has a very good chance of surviving her injuries. She will be very weak until she has fully recovered, which may take a while. Cetus will tell you more, but she will need to eat certain types of fish to help her regain her strength.”

Anahera thanks Molling again, and then the four of them, Sherlock, Anahera, Molling, and Erebus, join Cetus, Siger, Stamfjord, and John at Tui’s side.

Tui looks peaceful now, Sherlock thinks. He wonders if she knows she’s safe, and if she is in less pain. They have put a bone splint on her leg, and wrapped it with seaweed, and her foot is encased in a rather foul smelling dressing, which is wrapped in a different type of seaweed. Her hip has been cleaned and dabbed with some sort of paste. Sherlock peers down low, to see what is left of her tail, and how they have treated the wound.

Cetus must be able to tell what Sherlock is wondering, because he says, “The damage to her tail was minimal. It looked much worse than it was, because so many of those feathers were ripped out at the quill. As long as the skin there heals well, and it should, the feathers will regrow.

“May I ask, which of you will be responsible for her care? We must talk about her ongoing treatment.”

Next to Cetus, John tenses and looks away.

Anahera steps forward. “Me, Sir. She is my tahu, and I will care for her, whatever she needs, whatever it takes, I will do it.”

“Excellent. Let’s get her back to the colony, and into the huddle. We can talk there. For now, we've woven these strands of seaweed together, and can use this to transport Tui back to the colony. Siger and Erebus, would you mind doing the honour of taking the leads? Anahera can walk alongside her, in case she wakes and is disoriented.”

Cetus gives a few other instructions to Stamfjord and Molling regarding the remaining supplies, but says nothing to John, who is still staring at the ice. Around them, pengs organize themselves, fall into place, and begin the trek back to the colony. John and Sherlock are the last, and when John takes a step to join the others, Sherlock puts his wing on his shoulder, and whispers, “Please. John.”

John steps closer to Sherlock. He’s trembling. His eyes are liquidy and sad. “Sherlock. I just need to know, for sure. Tui, you said, I thought, but she is – she is the other’s tahu? Not – not yours?”

Sherlock feels like he’s been kicked in the gut, then realizes that the perceived pain is what John must be feeling, because John has misunderstood Sherlock’s distress for something else entirely, and has carried it with him this whole, long day. “What? NO! Oh, John, no! She is my friend, a takahoa only. John, I have come home to you.

John’s shoulders slump in relief and he shakes his head from side to side, sending unshed tears flying. “Takahoa. Your friend. Sherlock, when I hugged you, and you pushed me away, and you were so upset, so afraid for her, I thought –”

Sherlock throws himself at John, wraps his wing around him, rubs his cheek frantically against John’s cheek. “I didn’t mean to push you away. I’m so sorry. I was distraught, I thought she was going to die. She is to Anahera what you are to me, and they left their colony to come with me, to help me and keep me safe, to have pengs to huddle with at night. I never would have forgiven myself if Tui had died, and left Anahera alone.”

Sherlock presses himself up tight to John, and holds him as close as he can. He takes strength in John’s presence.

“John, I have thought about you every single moment I’ve been away. I’ve seen you in my dreams, I’ve talked to you, we’ve had conversations in our sleep, John. I have missed you, everything about you, and I have missed us, the way we are together, our conversations, our adventures, the way we take care of each other. Everything. I’ve missed you so much.”

As Sherlock talks, John relaxes into Sherlock’s wings, and starts to rub Sherlock’s cheek, and return his affection. He listens as Sherlock talks about how much he has missed him, and when Sherlock stops, John nods, and pulls back to see Sherlock’s eyes.

“Me, too, Sherlock. So much. I never want to be separated like that again. I tried so hard to be strong on Cassiopeia, to send you off with courage, to make you think it was all okay, but every day we were apart, I felt like half of me was missing. Half of me was missing.”

They fall silent, looking at each other, touching each other’s wings. This, Sherlock thinks, this is the reunion. Make this what you have dreamed about, now. Show him.

“John. Look at you. You’re so handsome. My gods.”

Sherlock steps back a bit more, and his eyes wander up and down John’s body. John’s neck is thick, and his chest is broad and full. He has lost weight during the winter, but his hips and legs are strong, and even his feet, below the silky white feathers of his ankles, have grown. He stands sure and solid, with his black claws gripping the ice as he leans toward Sherlock.

The feathers around John’s neck have turned golden yellow, forming a vivid band just under his chin, fading softly into the white of his chest. From there down, and under his wings, John’s feathers gleam a glossy, pure white. The sides of John’s neck, behind his eyes and over his ears, have bright, bold fans of orangey-yellow, which dramatically frame John’s eyes and face.

Sherlock stares at John’s bill, because this might be the most breathtaking change that John has undergone. Sherlock is used to seeing black and white and orange. Most emperors have orange stripes on their underbills. Some have pink. Some have a bit of both. But John – John’s bill is as rare and unique as he is, because John’s bill is striped with lavender. Sherlock stares. He lifts his wing and runs the tip down the side of John’s bill, tilts it up, to the side, brushes his wing back down the other side.

“John. You are – you are stunning. Tell me you’re mine. Tell me again, that you’re mine, that I am lucky enough to call you my own.” He says this as he strokes his wings down John’s sides, across his chest, over his neck. He says this as John trembles and shivers under Sherlock’s caresses.

He says this as John tilts forward and murmurs, “I’m the lucky one, Sherlock. Look at you. You’re so tall, so strong. I can tell how hard you’ve worked while you’ve been away, how much swimming and walking you’ve done. Look at your legs, and your wings. They’re so powerful.”

Sherlock has to admit, John is looking at him as if he wants to devour him.

“And your coat, Sherlock, I’ve never seen such a rich black before. You look like midnight, like the space between the stars, made even richer for their brilliance.

“Your markings have come in, too, but yours are so soft, like the lightest of whispers. Gods, Sherlock, I want to – I want to –”

“What do you want, Johnling?”

“I don’t even know, I just want to be so close to you. I want to feel you all around me. Come here.”

They reach for each other, and John kisses him, a proper kiss, a welcome home kiss. John’s bill is parted, and he strokes it along the length of Sherlock’s bill, across his cheek and down his neck, over his shoulder and chest. John touches him and touches him, and Sherlock spreads his wings and lets John explore his body, and learn its new curves and hollows and strengths.

Sherlock cranes his head back and feels John’s forehead press against his throat, and Sherlock thinks he was a fool to ever imagine what this moment might be like. This is not reunion. This is combustion.

Sherlock has heard the legends of fire, how it lives on the surface of the sun, that all the earth’s creatures flee in the face of its mighty, wild phoenix, this beast that grows and destroys and dies in ash. The legends are wrong. He’s sure of it. If the sun is made of fire, then John is the sun, and Sherlock will walk straight into its heart, and ask for more. He cannot get enough.

They pant against each other, necks entwined, feathers mussed, and when John slips his wing down Sherlock’s chest and back, when he mutters, “What is this, why are you still wearing seaweed?” Sherlock is so gone he has no idea what John is talking about. Instead, he pushes his cheek against John’s strong chest, and makes a distinctly non-penglike sound. Embarrassing.

“Sherlock, wait, wait. What is this?”

“Never mind that. Kiss me again.”

“Is – is this – the tooth?”

Sherlock pulls back, straightens up, feels dizzy. “What? Oh! I guess you could say I traded in the tooth for this. A new talisman.” He tries to kiss John again, all his feathers quivering in an attempt to release heat. John’s wings are sliding over his chest, under the seaweed rope, testing the weight of what it holds inside.

“But what is it? Gods, Sherlock, tell me you’re not leaving again. Please, tell me –”

“I’m not leaving again. At least, not if I can help it. Not now. Not without you. I brought back something for us. For you. It’s an owha, of sorts.”

“You brought a gift back, for me?” John’s eyes are wide, hopeful.

“Yes. Well, kind of. I mean, if they let us keep it, then yes, this is for you, a gift, from me. But even if they don’t let us keep it, it is also a gift, for us, for you. Does that make sense?” Sherlock would really like to go back to kissing John, and is vaguely aware that this object pressed to his chest should be more significant than kissing John. But right now, in this moment, it’s not. Not even close.

“Can I see it?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe? Why, maybe?”

“Kiss me again. Then I’ll let you see it.”

John comes close, so close, but stops with his bill a feather’s breadth from Sherlock’s ear. “Sherlpeng, my love. I will do so much more than kiss you, I promise.”

Sherlock has a moment of vertigo, and thinks he’s about to slip and go down on the ice, hard, but John’s wings are around him, more secure than the most ice-locked continent in the universe.

“Okay. Help me take it off, and I’ll show you.”

They work together, John holding the wrap away from Sherlock’s body so he can shimmy out of its hold, and then they lay it down on the ice between them and work on the knot. When that’s undone, Sherlock finds the seam, and pins it down with his feet, then starts to unroll it with his bill. John helps. Just before the last roll, just before John’s gift comes into view, Sherlock stops. Should he tell John what led him to this? Should he explain what it may or may not mean, and how it might not matter whether it is or is not real?

John doesn’t wait. He gives the seaweed one last tug, and falls back, gasping. “Stars in heaven, Sherlock. Oh, my gods. It’s the heartstone. You found the heartstone? You found the pengging heartstone!”

They face each other, the stone gleaming between them, and stare at it. John looks up at Sherlock, bill hanging open, wings shaking, chest heaving.

“Well, yes. I think I did, anyway.”

“What do you mean, you think you did? Look at it! Can’t you feel it?”

Sherlock looks at it. He doesn’t feel anything. He looks at John. He shakes his head. “What does it feel like?”

“Hope, Sherlock. It feels like hope.”

Chapter Text

It takes John and Sherlock half the night to make it back to the huddle. They can only take a few short steps before they have to stop and touch each other again, to look at each other, to kiss. When Sherlock tries to look at John while he's walking, he slips; when John tries to reach over and stroke Sherlock's wing with his own, he loses his balance. So, they stop. They stop under the stars on what has turned out to be a mild, clear night, and they grin at each other, and touch.

The rightness of being back at John's side, where he belongs, suffuses Sherlock with something vital, like oxygen. He is not the same peng he was when he left Cassiopeia, but no matter where he might have gone, what he might had done, he would not have been himself without John. Now he feels returned to himself, complete, with the added experiences of his time crossing the sea, and walking the Shelf.

John asks questions, so many questions, and although Sherlock tries to answer them in a way that lends to the whole story, he finds himself jumping from topic to topic, nothing in chronological order. Each question leads to another tangent, a thought remembered, something to share. Sherlock's ice palace has a large cavern to one side filled with shimmering icicles that whisper tell, John about the time … tell John how you … tell John what happened after … These icicles now seem to hang in disarray, much to Sherlock's frustration.

John doesn't mind. John stares at Sherlock with wide eyes when Sherlock talks about the giddiness of the rockhoppers, and his encounter with Nikau of Anahi, and the first time he set eyes on Anahera. John’s bill falls open when Sherlock tells him about meeting Pōrangi, and communicating with the gods, hidden in their starlight, and John absolutely gapes when Sherlock tells him about visiting Pobeda in his sleep, and the visions he had of him and John sharing news of their respective days. Sherlock does not tell John about the more painful visions he had, not yet. He will. He is loath to introduce any topic that might make John frown while they are both so happy to be reunited.

John wants to know about the High Council, and if Sherlock was nervous to speak in front of the highest law of their land. How long did their tribunal take, and how many were there, and did they look just like all the other emperors? What did they do when they saw the tooth, and where is it now, and why didn't Mycroft come back? What are Anahera and Tui like, and how old are they, and how did they meet, and are they allowed to be tahu? When did Sherlock know he would look for the heartstone, and how did he know where to look?

John hangs on every word, sometimes nodding in understanding, sometimes shaking his head in disbelief, but always staring right into Sherlock’s eyes, and always touching Sherlock as he speaks. Those touches are very distracting to Sherlock.

“So, then I had a real glow-fish moment, John, and I realized the star on the tooth was a clue, and so of course then it was completely obvious that it was Atutahi’s star, and that if I proceeded in that direction …”

John moves closer while Sherlock talks about following the star, and brushes his wing, then moves even closer, and presses their bellies together. Sherlock loses track of where he was in the story a few times, especially when John starts nuzzling his neck, but John says, “Mmhm, keep going, tell me more,” so Sherlock tries, but then John slides his wing up under Sherlock's wing and strokes his side, and Sherlock loses his place again.

“Why have you stopped? How far past the ice hill had you gone before Anahera pointed out the dead tern?”

“Well,” Sherlock tries again, stretching his neck to the side to give John better access, “we were able to … backtrack in about … half a … ohhh … day ” and then he loses his place again.

John makes encouraging, inquisitive noises as he inspects Sherlock’s pale yellow collar, and the stripe of pinkish-orange painting his bill, and the smooth, sleek muscles of his chest, but Sherlock no longer has any idea what they were talking about. Something about the stars? The sea? The Shelf?

“You okay, Sherlpeng?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why'd you stop talking?”

“Hmmm? Oh. That feels good, John.”

“You're so strong, Sherlock. Look at your thighs.”

Sherlock is pretty sure that John doesn't really expect him to lean down and look at his own thighs, and when he feels John rubbing them with both wings he figures himself quite incapable of movement, anyway. He closes his eyes and finds himself capable of panting.

“You warm, Sherlock?”

“Quite.”

“Cold out here, though, yeah?”

“I hadn't noticed.”

John hums and moves behind Sherlock, keeping one wing on him the whole time. Sherlock feels John's chin on his shoulder, and his chest and belly against his back, and then his breath in his ear.

“Your tail.”

“My tail?”

“I like it. I like your adult tail. It's very long. Thick. Strong.”

“Strong?”

“Mmhm.”

Sherlock flutters his tail from side to side, and realizes that John's legs are positioned on either side of it.

“Oh!” John seems very surprised by the sensation, and then he’s panting, too.

“Sherlock,” John says, stepping back a little bit, “were you still with the Rūnangans when they started their courtship rituals?”

“No,” Sherlock says up to the stars, with his cheek pressed to John's. “We left just before the calling started.”

“That's too bad. I saw everything here. I saw the calling, and the pairing off, and the mating, too.”

“Oh. Was, was it, um, interesting?”

“Very informative. When the male, well, when he's ready to, you know, pass on his gift? It's like he has no choice. Like he has to do it.”

“Do … what?”

“Mount.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. It made me think, that someday, when we're ready, I'm going to want to do that with you, Sherlock.”

“Oh.” Sherlock's body has started to do some very interesting things during the course of their conversation. He's hot, and breathing heavily, and his tongue feels thick in his bill. His feathers feel like they're lifting and resettling, over and over again, in small, imperceptible movements. Something inside him feels swollen and tight at the same time, and there's a throbbing sensation in his lower belly.

“Mm. And you might want that, too, you might want me to couple with you, and you might want to couple with me, and I'll want you to, too. I'll want that.”

“You will?”

“Oh, yes. It seems quite unstoppable to me, after having seen it. It must be part of our penguin nature.”

“I see.”

John shuffles around Sherlock’s side again, and stands in front of him. They are very close. “Do you think that will be all right? For us to do that? Together?”

“I think it would be wonderful for us to experience that, John, together. It would be very much all right with me. But are you asking if it will be acceptable, in terms of emperor behaviour within our colony, to engage in that act, as two males?”

John lets his wings rest over Sherlock’s, and he rests his head on Sherlock’s chest. It’s an affectionate hug that helps settle some of Sherlock’s more heated responses. “Both, I suppose. I wondered if you would want to do that with me, but also if it’s going to be allowed. And I wonder about Erebus and Selvic, and what happened when they were reunited, and the apologists were sent away. Were they allowed to be a couple? A real couple? Were they able to, you know, do those things together, too?”

Sherlock doesn't know those details of Erebus’ relationship, and suspects it might be unfair to ask him about something so intimate. It must be hard for Erebus to be alone now, after having what he had with Selvic. He must struggle with those more evocative memories enough as it is, without Sherlock asking him to discuss them. On the other wing, Erebus has made it clear that he wants to help others like him and Selvic avoid the hardships they had faced. He has made it clear that he will answer any question Sherlock has.

“John, of these questions, you have already answered one of them. When you looked at the heartstone you said it felt like hope. In the legend, Kororā’s love for Pono was pure. Pono’s heart should be a reminder to all of us that same-peng love is not a crime. This is what I hope to achieve by bringing it home.

“The other question is whether or not I would want that with you. I want everything with you, John. If there is an experience that two emperors can have together, then I want that with you. You and I have always wanted to touch each other, to explore each other. That grows within me, all the time. I find myself wanting something I cannot define, and maybe that is what it is: coupling, with you. Mating. Does that answer your questions?”

John nods against Sherlock’s chest, and yawns. It is very late. It has been a very long day. “Yes. Thank you. I thought you would say that, but it had been on my mind, since the days of mating here on Pobeda.

“And if your journey took longer because you went to find the heartstone, and if the heartstone can bring about acceptance, and teach others that there is no crime in any of us loving who we love, then I am glad that you went. What happens next?”

Sherlock rubs his cheek on the top of Johnling’s head, and tightens their embrace. “Now we make sure Tui is okay, and we sleep, and then tomorrow we will talk to my father about how to proceed with the heartstone.”

“What if he wants you to take it back to the High Council?”

“I do not have that journey in me right now, to be honest. It was essential when I left Cassiopeia, because of Moringa’s subversive actions regarding the tooth. That was absolutely a matter for the High Council. And the heartstone is, as well, but we need time with it here, in our own colony, if we are to benefit from what it represents.”

John makes a sleepy noise into Sherlock’s feathers, and leans more heavily against him.

“Come, John, let’s go back to the huddle. We will talk more tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

The huddle is in a deep sleep when Sherlock and John return. Next to it is a smaller huddle, with Anahera’s sleek, white head at the centre of it. The entire Junior Council surrounds her, creating a shelter for Tui, who lies asleep on her seaweed bed. Sherlock and John nudge forward and add their warmth and protection to the cluster of sleeping pengs.

“We won’t get much sleep,” John whispers to Sherlock as he leans back against Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock is tickled that John has stepped right back into their usual sleeping position, as if their nights together had never been interrupted.

He rests his head on top of John’s and wraps his wings around him from behind. “No, but I’m used to it by now. We can rest tomorrow if we need to.”

“Tomorrow will be busy.”

“Yes, I suppose it will be. Well then, we can rest some other time. It doesn’t matter. I don’t mind being tired if we are tired together.”

John wiggles into the circle of Sherlock’s wings and wedges his feet between Sherlock’s. “I’m so glad you’re home, Sherlock. I’m so glad.”

“Me, too, John.”

They sleep. Sherlock’s night mind is black with nothingness. He has no dreams, no visitations, no subconscious meanderings. His body relaxes into a state of deep rest and rejuvenation, in a way he had been unable to manage while travelling the sea and Shelf.

He wakes early the next morning to a light tap on his shoulder. Awareness flits through his mind as he transitions from sleep – I’m home, John, morning, and then – Māmā!

Olive stands behind him, smiling as if she’s never seen such a beautiful sight as her son, blinking open sleepy eyes and yawning.

Tama …” Olive’s voice breaks as she steps forward and pulls him into a tight embrace. They stand that way in the predawn light, just the two of them awake under the fading stars. He did not know how desperately he missed her until this moment, but now that she is here, he has a hard time letting go.

When they finally move apart, she touches his face with her wings, turning his head this way and that so she can see how he’s changed. “I have to look up to you now, Sherlock, you have grown so much!”

Sherlock grins and bows low, both a sign of respect, and to tease her for her shorter stature. He stands and looks down at her, joy and belonging bubbling up in his throat. “Māmā, I am home!”

“Yes, Sherlock, I see that.” She laughs and taps him affectionately on the shoulders before lowering her wings. “Your father told me everything about your arrival yesterday, but warned me not to wait up for you.” She winks in John’s direction, and Sherlock pretends he has no idea what she is talking about.

“I rushed over as soon as I woke. You look wonderful, my love! You are all grown up, and so handsome!” She leads him a short distance from the huddle, so as to not wake the others. “Tell me, are you well, Sherlock?”

“I am very well, Māmā. The journey was very successful, more so than I could have anticipated.”

“I am not surprised, Sherlock. Your father was right to send you. I can see your shell’s predictions, even now, clear as Sirius in the winter sky, and growing brighter all the time.

“Now tell me, is it true that Mycroft has been retained to serve the High Council?”

“Yes, that is true. He was thrilled to be asked, Māmā, although he would never say so. And I will tell you everything of the task he has been charged with, when we meet with the Council.”

“All right, love. I will wait. And I must thank your friends as well, for travelling home with you.” Olive looks over at Tui’s huddle, and sighs. “Cetus told me one of them was gravely injured, but has a strong chance of recovering, thanks to you, and thanks to his apprentices.”

“Thanks to me? I am the one who led her to danger, Māmā.” Sherlock looks down at the ice, sorrow flooding through him at the memory of the attack.

Ehē, Sherlock. Cetus told us, had you come all the way to the colony to get help, it may have been too late. He said you called for him from afar.”

“Oh! Māmā, you must help me! Two tiny hatchlings heard me call, when no one else did. One waved at me to wait, and one went back and alerted the others. It is them I need to thank.”

Olive chuckles and nods her head. “Yes, I think I may know who your little helpers are.” She tilts her head to the side, and looks over Sherlock’s shoulder. He hears their chirping as he turns around, and there they are, standing off to the side, whispering to each other.

“Come here, you two!” Sherlock calls, trying not to smile as the little balls of grey fluff wiggle to attention and scurry forward. They stand at his feet, as if reporting to duty, and look up at him with wide eyes.

He clears his throat, ready to speak, but one of the chicks beats him to it. “Are you really him? Sherlo-Kimi?”

Sherlock glances at Olive with a raised brow, and she winks back.

“Sherlock the Kimi? Is that what you said?”

The shorter of the two fluff balls, which is not saying much, as neither of them reach Sherlock’s hip, flutters his wings, and says, “That’s what we call you, un-oh-fish-ly, but we have decided it sounds better to say Sherlo-Kimi.

Sherlock did not anticipate how stories of his journey may have grown and spread in his absence. He’s not sure who is responsible for this new title, Sherlock the Explorer, but he can see that the chicks have already turned it into something legendary. Him, a legend!

“I think it may be best if you stick to my official name, which is simply Sherlock.”

“Oi, don’t listen to him. He’s definitely Sherlo-Kimi.” John is awake, stretching, smiling. “You hatchlings are very lucky to get this chance to speak with the mighty explorer, you know.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “John, I believe these two young ones are the hatchlings that heard me calling for you, and went to find help.”

“Who are you?” the taller one says. He is holding John in the most suspicious regard, and when John takes a step closer to Sherlock, both of the chicks move to block him from moving further.

John’s shoulders shake with suppressed laughter. “I am John. I’m Sherlo-Kimis tahu. And who, may I ask, are you?”

The shorter one stands up tall and puffs out his chest, which throws him off balance and sends him careening into the taller one. “Oof. I am Ariki of Hoani and Tria, and this is –”

“Shush, I can speak for myself! I am Kahu of Tane and Ana. It’s very nice to meet you, Sherlo-Kimi’s tahu.

“You can call me John.” John is still trying to navigate his way around the flustering hatchlings and reach Sherlock’s side.

“Okay, Sherlo-Kimi’s tahu. What’s a tahu, anyway?”

“Okay, you two, that’s enough.” Olive steps in, sweeping low with her wings as if to gather them up. They bump and wobble into each other as she shuffles closer. “Sherlock and John are delighted to meet you, and are very grateful for your invaluable assistance yesterday, but now they really must have breakfast and convene with the Council. Run along, and perhaps you’ll see them again later.”

Ariki and Kahu wave their tiny wings at Sherlock and John as Olive prods them along. She calls over her shoulder, “Siger wants to see you after breakfast, Sherlo-Kimi!”

With the hatchlings no longer in his way, John comes and stands in front of Sherlock, his eyes still sleepy, the feathers on one side of his face smooshed out of place. They stand, and smile at each other.

“Good morning, Sherlpeng.”

“Good morning, Johnling.”

“Did you sleep well?”

“Very well. Better than I’ve slept in several moons.”

“Me, too. You know why, right?”

“Because we’re together again, of course.” Sherlock closes the distance between them and preens John’s errant feathers, sneaking in kisses as he does so. John raises his face toward the sky and closes his eyes, basking in Sherlock’s attentions. Around them the colony is coming to life, and Sherlock knows they don’t have much time before time is no longer their own.

John rubs his bill along Sherlock’s neck and sighs. “I know you have things to do today. I do, too. In fact, let’s go check on Tui now, so I can report back to Cetus.”

This suits Sherlock well, as he wants to make sure Anahera has everything she needs and is settling in well with the others. The mini-huddle around the two visitors is stretching awake as they approach, and when they see Sherlock and John, they call out in greeting. Only Molling and Stamfjord have seen Sherlock since his return, and the rest are eager for news of his journey.

Cetus’ apprentices discuss Tui’s night’s sleep, while Sherlock exchanges pleasantries with Irene, Janine, Anthea, and Lestra. Everyone has grown and matured while Sherlock has been away, not just in size and colour, but in more subtle ways, as well. The females seem even more aloof now, and are harder to deduce. He is aware of the way they look at him, taking note of the changes in him, as he has in them.

Lestra strikes Sherlock as a more concentrated version of his younger self. He gives Sherlock a solid thump on the shoulder and welcomes him home, then jerks his head in the direction of Anahera, and says, “What’s with the white one?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s with the white one’?”

“She’s white.”

“Yes. Be careful, or she’ll put an evil spell on you.”

Lestra looks a bit nervous, and a bit disbelieving. “Ah, go on then. She’s not really mākutu, is she?”

Sherlock winks at Lestra as he passes him to join the others. “Watch yourself, or you may find out the hard way.”

Anahera tsks at him when he joins her. “I heard that, Sherlock. Really, now.”

She looks amused, though, so Sherlock smiles and whispers under his breath, “Weren’t you the one who told me, when we first met, that you sometimes use your unique appearance to your advantage?”

“Ah, yes. I should have known you would remember that. But what advantage would I gain here, by deceiving your friends into thinking I have some power that I do not? They have all been perfectly lovely, and very accommodating. They stayed and huddled with us all night, in fact, and have been very concerned about Tui.”

Sherlock leans down to study the rise and fall of Tui’s chest. “That’s because they think you’re going to put a curse on them.” He stands up again, and turns to Anahera, laughing. “You know I'm only joking. Do keep a bit of mystery going, though, if you don’t mind. I suspect it may serve us well with certain other members of the colony, those who are not as accommodating as my friends.”

Anahera studies him a moment, then gives a discreet nod. “I understand. She came by last night, you know, looking for John. The others told her that you and he had not yet returned from the shore, and that she should respect your privacy.”

Sherlock is torn between feeling annoyed that Maryle came looking for John, and thrilled that his friends recognized the significance of their reunion, and warned her against going in search of him. “So, you met her, then?”

“Not oh-fish-ly, as your little friend said. I was tending to Tui’s dressings, and she did not pay us any attention.”

“Help me understand. She came looking for John, encountered one possibly mākutu peng of foreign origin, and one who has injuries so severe as to require the attention of four healers, and she paid you no mind whatsoever?”

“Correct.”

Sherlock shakes his head and growls. “I shouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, enough of her. How is Tui? How did she pass the night? Is she well?”

Anahera caresses Tui’s forehead and nuzzles her bill before answering. “She has not yet woken, Sherlock, which does worry me. But she has no fever, and is breathing normally. Cetus has shown me how to take care of her while she sleeps. He said that her body has had a great shock, and that her constant sleep is a sign of healing.”

Anahera does not look convinced.

“Cetus is very wise, Anahera. I trust in what he says. Do you need help gathering food for her, or anything at all?”

Tēnā koe, Sherlock, but no. Cetus has arranged for John and Molling to keep her dressings clean, and for Stamfjord to gather food and supplies that she may need. I am so grateful, Sherlock, for the warm reception your colony has given us. I can see why you love it here so much.”

Guilt subsumes Sherlock. Tui would be healthy and whole, had she not come on this journey with him. It feels wrong to accept thanks for helping right a wrong that sits squarely on his shoulders.

“Ah, none of that, Sherlock. I can read you the way some read the stars. This is not your fault.”

Sherlock is not convinced, but the sound of crunching snow interrupts their conversation, and he turns to see who approaches. It is John, and even though Sherlock just saw him, and spent the entire night with him, he loses his breath yet again when he sees his handsome tahu smile at him.

“Sherlock, would you do me the honour? I did not properly meet your friend yesterday.”

John’s formality delights Sherlock. It’s clear he wants to make a good impression, as if he could do anything but.

“Anahera, may I present John of Hemi and Kaia, resident of Pobeda colony. John, I present Anahera of Hara and Terina, from the Rūnanga colony.”

The two pengs bow deeply to each other, holding the position long enough to express their deep, mutual respect. Sherlock thinks his heart may explode with his love and admiration for them both. Then they stand and start speaking at the same time, formality forgotten, and Sherlock can only smile at how similar they are.

“Sherlock told us all about you –”

“Sherlock has told me –”

“I have so looked forward –”

“I must thank you for accompanying him –”

Sherlock steps back and watches them talk over and at each other, somehow building a heartfelt conversation on half sentences and their shared affection for him. He has never felt so at home, so secure, in his life. He is the luckiest peng in the world.

Chapter Text

Late August

The next several days pass in a blur of activity. Sherlock and John are inseparable, rushing from one encounter to the next, intent on doing everything together.

John accompanies Sherlock when it's time to address the Council, and listens to all of the stories again, showing no less wonder than he did the first time he heard them. He has nothing to contribute to the proceedings, nothing but his proud grin, and the silent praise and support he radiates, standing close by at Sherlock's side.

Sherlock talks and talks at the Council sessions, stopping when an elder has a question, or requests clarification about something he has said. He has retold his tales several times now, to the High Council and Anahera and Tui on the Shelf, and to John when he returned, and he finds it easier and easier to know what is important, what is not, what can be told with a quick summation, what requires detailed explanation. It spills out of him, flowing with a rhythm and pace that lends his words credence and respect.

“You're becoming quite a storyteller, Sherlock,” John tells him one day when the Council stops to take a break.

“Is that good?”

“Of course. You're telling truths, significant ones, and the way you're doing it is impressive.”

“You think they're impressed? Why are they impressed?”

John sighs. “Oh, Sherlock. Don't you understand yet, how inati you are, how exceptional? How smart, how clever? You're telling them about things no other peng has ever experienced before. You've found a way to find the loose ends of our most beloved legends, and bring them home. Not only that, you're showing everyone what can be done with those loose ends, how we might tie it all up to foster acceptance, and help eliminate intolerance. It's very, very impressive.”

“Oh.”

“It makes me want to kiss you.”

“Oh! Well, then you probably should.”

They're still kissing when Erebus makes his way back for that day’s afternoon session. “Ah, young love. It does a heart good, boys.”

Sherlock feels flushed from the kissing, and more so for being caught in the act. John just looks like the peng that caught the parrotfish. He grins at Erebus and snuggles up under Sherlock's chin.

“Elder Erebus, I was just telling Sherlock how impressed everyone is with his accomplishments.”

“My goodness, yes. You have set truly wonderful dynamics in motion, my son. It is history in the making, and I feel very fortunate to watch it unfold. Selvic would be as proud of you as I am, you know.”

“I'm sorry it was not in time for him, Elder Erebus.”

“Ah, Sherlock. You are not responsible for those things that happened before you were hatched. Besides, I have a feeling he does know, somehow, and that he is as excited as I am to observe the changes you'll have instigated.”

Sherlock likes the idea that in some way, Selvic is still with Erebus. He would like to talk more about this, but the others are rejoining them, and he must finish telling his story.

Later, as John helps him unravel the seaweed again, and lay the heartstone at the Council's feet, he looks up to see Erebus wipe a tear from his eye. He can see that they are all impressed, like John said, but Erebus is truly moved by what is presented before him. The others will rely on their intellect when they confer and plan over the heartstone, but Erebus will rely on his heart.

When they are done for the time being with the Council, Sherlock wants nothing more than to escape to some quiet place, and sleep in John's wings. It's exhausting, this storytelling, this business of impressing others. Responsibility is heavy.

Instead of resting, Sherlock stays with John to confer with Cetus about Tui’s progress, and then goes with him to join the healing apprentices as they gather seaweed and food for the injured peng’s recovery. Sherlock enjoys this very much. It is a relief to let someone else be the expert, and he relishes having nothing to explain, only new things to learn and act upon.

Supplies gathered, they make their way back to where Anahera stands vigil at Tui’s side. John changes the dressing on Tui’s foot, and Sherlock peers over his shoulder, wincing at the sight of her missing toes and broken leg. Still, he must admit that the injuries are much improved. The swelling seems reduced, and the wounds are not as angry and raw looking. The poultices Cetus concocts are working.

John and Sherlock are there again, a few days later, when Tui blinks her eyes open for the first time, looks up at her tahu, and smiles. They are about to slip away, leaving Anahera and Tui to reunite after her long sleep, but Tui shakes her head and reaches one wing toward them, so they stay.

Anahera leans down and presses her bill to Tui’s.

“Welcome back, love.”

“Anahera?”

“Yes?”

“Did we reach Pobeda?”

“We did.”

“Sherlock?”

“Yes, Tui?”

“Introduce me to your John.”

Sherlock’s eyes well up, and isn’t that silly, he thinks, that this is one of her first requests. He sniffs and clears his throat, and steps back to put one wing around John’s shoulders, and nudge him forward. John feels solemn next to him, solemn as the miracle unfolding before them.

“Tui, it is my pleasure to introduce you to my tahu, John of Hemi and Kaia. John, it is an honour to introduce you to my very good friend, Tui, of –”

Sherlock realizes too late that he does not know Tui’s parents’ names, and does not know how to rescue his bungled introduction. Tui was at Anahera’s side when he came out of his last trance on the Shelf, but in the confusion and concern over his well-being, there was never a proper, formal introduction.

“It’s okay, Sherlock. I am Tui of the Rūnangans, orphaned as a hatchling, raised by one thousand emperors. It is such an honour to finally meet you, John.”

John bows low, his bill almost touching the ice, his eyes closed. Tui cannot bow, so rather than risk embarrassing her, John meets her where she is. Beautiful John.

“How are you feeling, Tui? You’ve suffered some very serious injuries, and a traumatic shock.”

Sherlock marvels at this side of John, so knowledgeable and competent after his time studying at Cetus’ side. He realizes he is seeing a side of John he hasn't experienced before. He has seen John as a student of the healing sciences, and even as a healer, but now, interacting with Tui, he sees John as the emperor he will become, as one dedicated to the care of others. He is still staring in awe when Tui answers John’s question.

“Tired. And sore. I don’t fully remember what happened. A seal?”

Anahera nods, and brushes her wingtip over Tui’s cheek. “Yes, love. Sherlock and I got you to shore, and the Pobedan healer, Elder Cetus, and his apprentices, moved sea and sky to save you. I thought you were – I thought –”

Sherlock rubs Anahera’s back and leans down close. “Tui, just so you know, I plucked that hamuti’s eyeball right out of its head.”

Tui starts giggling, and Anahera wipes her eyes, and she laughs, too.

“You did what?” John is not laughing.

“I, um, I stabbed that hamuti in the eyeball.”

Sherlock can tell that John is trying not to laugh. This business of charging a seal is not funny in the least, but Tui is alive, and Sherlock is calling that seal a piece of poo, and now Anahera is laughing so hard she can barely stand.

“We’ll talk about this later, yeah?”

“Okay, Johnling.” Sherlock plants a quick peck on John’s bill to let him know it’s all okay.

“Right. Back to business. Tui, memory loss under these circumstances is normal. You may or may not get those memories back. Do you want us to fetch Cetus to come and explain your injuries and treatments, or would you like some time alone with Anahera right now?”

Tui smiles up at Anahera, who is trying to pull herself together after the fit of hilarity. “I think I’ll let Anahera explain the first time around, John, but maybe Cetus can come when it’s convenient for him, and fill in the blanks. For example, I would love to be able to stand up some time soon, but sense that might be problematic.”

The other three stare down at her, and then John says, “Tui, your leg and foot were badly damaged, but you will stand again, and you will walk again. And, you will most certainly swim again. That said, you’re going to need a lot of time, and help. I just want you to know that it might take a while, so you don't have unrealistic expectations.”

Tui looks to Anahera, and finds what she needs there. “Thank you for telling me, John. I have Anahera to help me, and all the time in the world.”

“And us. You have us, too, Tui.”

“Of course I do. Thank you, Sherlock.”

Sherlock and John turn to go, but Tui calls out one more time. “Sherlock? Where is it? The heartstone? Did it survive the seal attack?”

“Yes. It’s fine. I presented it to the Council a few days ago, and they are safekeeping it for now. Eventually, it will be delivered to the High Council, but for now, it is safe. And, Tui? The Pobeda Council understands what it means. They will fight for us. For me and John, and you and Anahera, and all the others like us.”

Tui nods, and yawns. “Good. That’s good, Sherlock. I’m so glad. And Moringa?”

“Still under colony arrest. The Council will wait for Mycroft to return with word of the High Council’s ruling. Until then, she stays here, under close watch.”

Tui looks like she’s going to ask another question, but Anahera shushes her and tells her to rest. John and Sherlock walk away, heading toward Cetus’ usual corner of the colony. They’ll let him know that Tui is awake, and in good form, and that she has questions.

When they are done with that, they fulfil their pengsitter duties together, watching over curious hatchlings as they wander farther and farther from the safety of their mothers’ feet. The single emperors of the colony work together to keep the chicks safe from overhead birds, or straying too far, or slipping into cracks in the ice. Several times already, Sherlock and John have reunited lost chicks with their mothers, turned wayward fluffballs back toward the colony, and pulled wobbly walkers back to their feet.

After that, they fulfil a promise to show Ariki and Kahu how to skip ice chips over the water. The two hatchlings have been relentless in their stalking of the two older emperors. Their mothers have apologized several times, but Sherlock is beyond bemused by the attention; plus, he likes seeing the way John interacts with the wee ones.

As he would have expected, John is always patient, and kind, even when Ariki has asked his twenty-third question in a row, and Kahu has interrupted the answer for the seventeenth time. John is funny, and makes them laugh, and keeps them on the tips of their toes with his embellished stories.

The hatchlings observe John and Sherlock using their secret language when they want to communicate outside of the chicks’ comprehension – I'm going to kiss you later Yes, please – and they asked for lessons in that, too. John tells them they have to develop their own language, because that’s the whole point of a secret language, and Sherlock smiles and laughs as Ariki and Kahu’s eyes go wide with realization, and immediately begin trying out new signals on each other.

John, Sherlock thinks, is going to make an excellent father someday. John and Sherlock will both be excellent fathers. Sherlock just isn't sure how they can be fathers without a chick.

Chapter Text

September Equinox thru October

Sherlock stands in awe as the entire colony assembles on the evening of the spring equinox. He remembers his first equinox conference, only one winter ago, and wonders how the time has flown away so quickly. John stands next to him, taking in the sight of several hundred emperor chicks bouncing and scooting with their fluffball friends, giddy with the prospect of staying up past their bedtime. They are abuzz with the excitement of their first colony meeting, and feeling very grown up despite being only a bit more than one moon old.

Finally settled, chicks at the front, parents behind them, they stand in silence and wait for the activities to begin. One thousand pairs of eyes look forward as Pavo steps away from the other Council elders. As she has done for so many equinoxes before this one, the colony’s teacher gives the chicks a brief lesson on who, and where, they are.

They reside on Pobeda Island in the Mawson Sea, she says, on the eastern side of the Shackleton Ice Shelf, on the eastern edge of the land mass known now as Antarctica, in the South Indian Ocean, at the bottom of the world.

They are Aptenodytes forsteri, she continues, emperor penguins. They are not king, chinstrap, macaroni, rockhopper, gentoo, or Adélie. They are the largest penguins on Earth, the fastest swimmers, the deepest divers, and the only ones able to mate and hatch on the ice in the depths of winter.

Sherlock remembers the last line of her lesson as if he heard it only yesterday:

They are survivors.

The next night the colony assembles again, and storyteller Vela regales them with the legend of Kororā and the Heartstone. This part of their history, she explains to the chicks, is the very foundation of all they’ve come to be, all of their blessings and burdens and beliefs. Sherlock and John stand, wing to wing, and see themselves in the chicks as they gape up at the stars, searching for the tragic triad frozen in their star-bright constellation.

John turns to Sherlock, eyes shining, and says, “Could you ever have imagined, Sherlock? When we heard this story, standing where they stand now, could you ever have imagined everything that has happened since then?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “No. Never. But it was a very important night for me. It was the first time I ever saw you, John.”

John shimmies his tale in recognition of the memory. “Oh, I remember. I remember seeing you and thinking that you were the only other peng paying attention. You looked so intelligent, as smart as you were mateoha.”

“I was never adorable,” Sherlock huffs, but the accompanying twitch of his bill betrays his false indignation.

“You’re still adorable.”

Sherlock adopts what he hopes is a sophisticated tilt of his head and an intelligent expression, but John just titters and whispers mateoha under his breath.

“You were standing up on your toes, John, glaring icicles at all the chicks around you who weren’t paying sufficient attention. You were so focussed on the legend. Your bill was open a little bit, that’s how hard you were listening.”

John laughs and leans into Sherlock’s side. “You remember all that? That my bill was open, and the expression on my face?”

“I do. I was very curious about you. And then when I met you again, skipping stones on the water, I very much wanted to make a favourable impression. I wanted you to like me.”

John looks at Sherlock for a long moment, then gently bumps the top of his head against Sherlock’s sleek neck. “You did impress me. You very much impressed me with your talk about physics, and all the things you could deduce about other pengs, and your thoughts about the legends.”

“I wasn’t sure if you believed my deductions. Remember when you tried your wing at it, and deduced that a young female peng was pining for her macaroni penguin tahu on a nearby island, and was going to elope and make little emp-aroni chicks?”

John giggles and nods. “I do! And you said I was ridiculous, and you said it like being ridiculous was the very best thing in the world. And I thought, I will be all kinds of ridiculous for this peng, for as long as he’ll let me.”

They stand there and smile their besotted smiles at each other, and Vela’s voice carries over to them on the wind as she recounts Kororā’s ceremonial questions:

“Are you willing? Are you ready? Are you mine?”

When John tilts his bill to Sherlock’s ear and whispers, yes, yes, and yes, Sherlock closes his eyes and sighs.

The days stretch longer on the other side of the spring equinox. The sun rises higher in the sky, raising everyone’s energy with it, and the colony thrums with activity as the long winter draws to its end. Adults and chicks alike move about more freely, leaving the huddle behind for longer and longer periods of time.

Sherlock and John settle into a routine, just as they did when they were chicks exploring the island for the first time, and then again as juveniles discovering Cassiopeia and making it their own.

They spend their mornings with Anahera and Tui, who grows stronger and stronger each day. John checks her wrappings and consults with the other apprentices, and they all agree, Cetus included, that Tui has made remarkable progress. She spends more and more time standing, propped up by Anahera, or John, or Sherlock, and sometimes, on her own. She cannot toboggan yet, as her injured foot and leg are not recovered enough. When she is not practicing staying upright, she lies on her belly and watches the colony move around her.

Each morning, John and Sherlock take turns keeping Tui company, while the other goes afield with Anahera. At first, Anahera resists leaving her tahu’s side, but Tui encourages, and eventually insists, that Anahera go for walks, and meet others, and get to know life on Pobeda. Sherlock loves both his time alone with Anahera, and his time alone with Tui. They are so different, each delightful in her own way, and yet in Sherlock’s mind, they only seem wholly themselves when considered in light of the other.

When Sherlock walks with Anahera, they tend to keep to the periphery, looking into, and around the colony. Sherlock points out who is who, and deduces that which he does not already know about their neighbours. This amuses Anahera to no end, but when she tries it on her own, she does no better than John and his emp-aronis.

They talk about their tahus, and about their futures. Sherlock wants to ask her if she and Tui have ever wanted a chick of their own, but he doesn’t know how to broach such an intimate topic. As they weave their way between a cluster of bumbling chicks, Anahera saves him from his own awkward contemplation by asking him the very same question.

“They are precious, aren’t they? And apparently the same the continent over, so curious, so excitable! You and John seem to spend a lot of time pengsitting. Do you enjoy spending time with the wee ones?”

“I do. We do. Ariki and Kahu, especially, have become quite attached to us. We enjoy them.”

“Did you think you wouldn’t?”

“I hadn’t thought of it, really. My own chickhood was spent entirely in the company of John, and I must admit that I resented any other peng’s interference in our friendship. I refrained from meeting other chicks altogether, until John began acquiring friends. Then I tolerated them, so that I could be with John.”

Anahera laughs. “Oh, Sherlock. I can clearly imagine that. Is it hard for you now, for such a one-peng emperor to be so well-known? Everyone must want time with you since your return.”

“Do they? I don’t know. I could spend the rest of my life with just John. Although I must admit, having friends, certain friends, like you and Tui, is surprisingly satisfying.”

“It is my experience that the right friends can immensely enhance one’s own experience. And so what about chicks, Sherlock? Have you and John discussed whether or not there is room in your lives for offspring?”

Sherlock looks down at the ice as they continue their walk, taking short but steady steps in a sweeping circle around the colony.

“We haven’t talked about it, as such, but I would like to experience parenthood with John. I think he would be an exceptional parent. Any chick would be lucky to have him as a father, don’t you think?”

Anahera hums her agreement, and takes his wing in hers. “As would you, Sherlock. You know that, right?”

“I hope I would be able to rise to the occasion. Gods know, however, that I can be quite selfish when it comes to sharing John. And I’ve been known to be impatient, and harsh, and perhaps overly critical.”

Sherlock is not expecting the burst of laughter Anahera lets loose. “Oh my goodness, Sherlock. You are the least selfish, most patient, extraordinarily kind peng I think I have ever met. No, those are not faults of yours. It is your shocking lack of accurate self-perception that seems to trip you up the most.”

He registers the compliment, filing her words away for later, when he’ll have more time to parse and process them.

“What about you and Tui, then? You are of chick-raising age now. Would you like to be parents?” He gives himself a mental pat on the shoulder for working up the nerve to ask such a personal question, and Anahera squeezes his wingtip under hers.

“Honestly? No. We have talked about it many times, but neither one of us feel the compulsion, or desire to be parents, as do so many of our kind. I can be rather flighty, as you know, and Tui can suffer the most debilitating spells of anxiety. It’s not that we don’t like chicks, you see. We do our fair share of pengsitting at home, and we enjoy it. But we also enjoy walking away at the end of the day.”

Sherlock doesn’t ask Anahera if she and Tui want to go home, because Sherlock doesn’t want to think about them leaving, not ever.

John, he knows, spends his time with Anahera in a different way altogether. John introduces her to their peers, and their peers’ parents, and anyone else he may know. Over time, Anahera comes to know all of John and Sherlock’s friends, and makes some of her own. Those friends begin to visit with Tui, too, to help her pass the time, and make sure she’s comfortable, and ensure she feels at home.

The only one who never makes any effort whatsoever is Maryle. John has introduced Anahera to Maryle, as surely as he would introduce her to anyone who has a place in his life, no matter how small, but Maryle has resisted the introduction, the same way she resists anyone who has a place in John’s life. Anahera tells Sherlock later, as diplomatically as she can muster, that Maryle was cold and indifferent, and dismissed John’s foreign friend with no more than a brief inclination of her head.

Then, she tells Sherlock, Maryle invited John out for a walk on their own, which precious Johnling had politely declined. But then, Anahera shares, not quite so diplomatically, Maryle went even further, and asked John if he would meet her in the huddle that night. John, Anahera reports, now having lost all hopes of even pretending to be diplomatic, had scrunched his brow and tilted his head and asked Maryle what reason she had to ask him to join her in the huddle. Was she not warm enough at night? Was she afraid? Was another peng bothering her? Instead of answering, Maryle had huffed with impatience and stomp-waddled away with a parting remark about John needing to wake up and see reality.

Anahera tsks and shakes her head when she finishes telling Sherlock the story. She assures him of the encounter’s insignificance and reminds him of John’s dedication and loyalty to him and him alone, and then tells Sherlock about some of the others she has met while strolling with John.

She especially enjoys sweet Molling, and wise Olive, and feisty Harriet, who spends most of her time doting on Clara. Of the males, Anahera absolutely adores Erebus, and begins to seek him out on her walks with Sherlock.

The adoration is mutual, and Erebus has soon taken both Anahera and Tui under his kind, thoughtful wing. Sherlock sees him at Tui’s side at all times of the day, often gesturing with great exaggeration as he divulges some story or legend that he hopes will entertain the recovering peng. Tui, in turn, laughs and interrupts with questions and exclamations of wonder, and sometimes, doubt.

Some of the more supengstitious Pobedans are slow to warm to Anahera, influenced by ancient pengtales of the mischief and mayhem wrought by emperors wearing divergent coats. Others are quite eager to gain Anahera’s favour, imagining she can somehow bestow them with blessings and privilege. Though Sherlock bristles equally under ignorant censure and false platitudes, Anahera treats them all with kindness and respect. She tells Sherlock that over the course of her lifetime, she has come to understand that just as she is who she is, they are who they are, and there is little she can do to sway a staid mind. An undecided mind, however, will often blossom under a gentle touch.

Sherlock has no doubt she will win them over, one by one, until the entire colony falls under the spell that is no spell at all.

Chapter Text

Late October

The mothers have gone back to the sea to feed again, leaving the fathers to care for the young. When the males first come back from hunting after the long winter’s fast, the chicks are so excited to be reunited with their pāpās, they almost never roam out of sight. The appeal of time spent with their fathers quickly fades, though, when compared to the delights of exploring the island, and soon Sherlock and John are up to their necks in pengsitting again.

More often than not, Ariki and Kahu tag along, and Sherlock and John joke that they no longer know who is watching whom. Their two little friends are quite self-sufficient, and almost never any bother. Sherlock and John pass their afternoons keeping a loose eye on them, while corralling less capable little runaways, dusting off snow-covered bellies, and righting the indignant bills of those who have tumbled or slipped or bounced a bit too hard.

Always, somewhere nearby, Ariki and Kahu practice their secret language, or make up stories, or ask question upon question.

“When will we migrate?”
“What colour do you think my bill will be?”
“Are we going to Cassiopeia this summer?”
“Tell us about the ice cave again – has anyone ever fallen out of it?”
“If you were going to have a secret signal for ‘don’t be a penggit,’ what would it be?”
“Can I be on the Junior Council when I’m bigger?”
“What are the rockhoppers like?”
“Have you ever met a walrus?”
“How big was the biggest seal you’ve ever seen?”
“What does squid taste like?”
“How come you don’t have a chick of your own?”
“What’s a tahu?”

Kahu in particular loves asking this last question. He asks over and over again, giggling when Sherlock’s smile goes a bit wobbly, and when John puffs up his chest and explains, “I am Sherlock’s tahu, and he is mine. It means we’re together, a couple, not just friends. We’re very important to each other.”

“Is my māmā my tahu, because she’s my māmā, and not just my friend, and she’s very important to me?” Ariki asks.

“No, it’s not the same thing.”

“But she calls me tahu.”

Sherlock tries to explain. “You hear pengs around you use the word tahu to show affection for each other, right? She may call you tahu, the way she calls you darling, or treasure, or heartling. But that’s different from being someone’s tahu. Your māmā is your pāpā’s tahu, and she is his. It’s different when it’s a noun.”

“What’s a noun?”

And so it goes. No matter how many times they explain, the chicks pretend they don’t understand, and then explode into laughter and wriggle themselves into a fluffy ball of hilarity, leaving Sherlock and John to shake their heads and consider the silly little pengs with great exasperation and fondness.

The penglings insist on calling them Sherlo-Kimi and Tahu-John, and Sherlock and John stop correcting them when it becomes clear that these names are indelible to the chicks, some integral part of their associations with these two adult emperors, unlikely to ever change.

It is a peaceful, quiet afternoon, on a crisp, sunny day, when Ariki and Kahu decide to collect stones and ice chips to practice their skipping skills. John and Sherlock stand halfway between them and a group of small chicks playing nearby, chatting and making sure no one wanders too far or needs assistance.

They are surrounded by the sounds of enthusiastic romping and rollicking, especially Kahu, who exclaims loudly over each and every stone he adds to their growing pile. He holds them up for Ariki’s inspection, detailing the stones' superior traits over others, and Ariki nods solemnly and pats Kahu on the back.

“You were just like Kahu at that age, you know,” Sherlock teases.

“How so?”

“Your abundance of excitement over every single thing.”

“Am I so different now?”

“You’re exactly the same, but even more perfect.”

John gives Sherlock a despairing shake of his head. “I am hardly perfect, Sherlpeng.”

“I’ll be the judge of that, Johnling.”

In front of them, a chick slips, squeaks, and goes sliding head first into a snowbank. “I’ve got this one,” John says, and toboggans over to help the little one extricate herself.

Sherlock watches John glide away, trying not to be obvious as he stares at John’s upturned tail and the tufts of silky feathers around his strong legs. He continues to watch as John reaches his destination, checks the chick for any damage, and brushes off her snow-covered shoulders and face. With a kind word and gentle nudge, he sends her back in the direction of her friends.

Lost in visions of John, Sherlock doesn’t at first register the noise coming from behind him. Blinking himself back to reality, the noise becomes recognizable as a high-pitched –

“SHERLO-KIMI! HELP! SHERLO-KIMI!”

Sherlock whirls around and swallows two lungfuls of frigid air. Kahu has thrown himself in front of Ariki, who is trying to throw himself in front of Kahu. Above them, a grey-brown hākoakoa dives, steep and fast, toward her intended meal. Wings back, neck elongated, the skua rockets down out of the sky.

Sherlock throws himself to the ice and kicks forward, feet scrabbling against the slippery surface. He already knows he cannot get there in time. He opens his bill to sound the bird-of-prey-alarm – all chicks must immediately be accounted for – but what comes out is not the call, but, “JOHN!

Ariki and Kahu have stopped fighting over who will protect whom. They stand frozen now, stubby wings grasping at each other, faces pressed together, eyes squeezed shut.

The free-falling hunter announces her arrival with an ear-splitting screech, extends her wings out from the sides of her body, adding drag to her descent, and reaches forward with her talons.

Something whizzes by Sherlock’s ear. There’s a clink-clink-clink-thump sound, and the skua drops to the ice like a rock.

Sherlock is so close now, almost there, but the skua rights herself on the ice, shaking her head, unbalanced, and limps toward the chicks. There’s another clink-clink-clink-thump sound, and the skua goes down again, hard.

Sherlock skids at a right angle, spinning to a stop between the bird and the chicks, and rights himself. His body immediately assumes an instinctual posture – wings out, shoulders down, neck stretched toward the aggressor. He digs his claws into the ice, puffs his chest out, and glares, daring the skua to stand again.

She does. Ignoring her injuries with a shake of her head, she wobbles toward the emperors, chest heaving, panting for breath. She doesn’t stand a chance now, and Sherlock growls deep in his throat to make that point crystal clear. She stops, and seems to calculate her odds.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sherlock sees John lob a wide, flat stone into the air at a shallow, five-degree angle. The missile skips along the ground, three – four – five times, then meets its target with another loud thwack, and the bird goes down a final time with a solid thunk.

A feather’s breadth later, Sherlock scoops the trembling chicks against his chest, and encloses them in his wings. He feels them shuddering into his belly, and sees that their eyes are still clamped shut. They have not let go of each other.

“I’ve got you now,” he says, and “you’re okay,” although he’s not sure if okay, as a state of being, is possible after such a fright and close call. This was his watch, he thinks to himself. How would he have gone back to Ariki or Kahu’s father and told him such a horrific thing?

He hears John racing over the ice, huffing out great breaths of air as he approaches. Then he’s with them, crowding against them, his wings wrapped around Sherlock’s. Sherlock meets his eye and sees his own panic reflected there, but also relief, and empathy, and understanding. John’s voice layers softly over the soothing hush of Sherlock’s words.

“We’ve got you now, you’re safe, you’re safe now.”

Over the span of a hundred heartbeats, Ariki and Kahu stop shaking, and open their eyes. Kahu peers up at both of them. Ariki watches Kahu.

“Is it gone?”

“It’s near, but it’s not going to hurt you,” John answers.

“How do you know, Tahu-John?”

“She’s injured, or maybe, um, more than injured.”

“It won’t take us now?”

“No.”

Kahu looks back to Ariki and nudges his bill up. “Ariki, we’re safe now.”

Ariki looks up, back and forth between Sherlock and John, who take tiny steps backward, and let their wings lower to their sides. Ariki backs up with Sherlock, preferring to remain plastered to his chaperone. Kahu stays where he is, and when the space between them allows, he waddles to John’s side, and cranes his head around to look for the skua.

“What happened to it?”

John swallows and raises invisible eyebrows at Sherlock. Sherlock lifts his chin in answer and says, “Tahu-John saved you. He skipped stones and ice at the skua, and hit it. Three times. Perfect throws. From very far away. He saved your lives. We are all very, very lucky that he was here. And I am very, very sorry that I was not closer.”

Ariki scuttles to Kahu’s side now, and together they peer at the unmoving skua, at her feathers ruffling in the breeze, and her lifeless eyes staring up at the sky from which she fell.

“You saved us, too, Sherlo-Kimi. You would’ve beaten up that mean old skua if she’d tried to get us, you’d have beaten her up and thrown her out to the seals.” Ariki’s bravery grows now that the threat is over. “But she can’t hurt us now. She’s mah-tay, isn’t she?”

John nods. “Yes. Mate. She’s dead.”

Kahu nods vigorously. “Yes. She’s mah-tay. Tahu-John, you killed her.”

Sherlock can see the struggle on John’s face. “I did. But I only wanted to stop her. I didn’t mean to kill her.”

“It’s okay, Tahu-John. You saved us. Is this your first time being a tua-han-ga?”

“A what?”

“A tua-hana-ta?”

Sherlock translates. “I think you mean tuahangata. A hero. No, this is not John’s first time being a hero, but you’re absolutely right, he is one. He has saved lives before. See that small scar on his shoulder?”

“Sherlock.”

“He got that scar saving someone’s life, last summer. Not that she was very appreciative.”

“Sherlock.”

“John, you are. You saved her, then, and you saved them, now.”

The four of them stand there, Ariki and Kahu staring at the dead skua, Sherlock and John staring at each other. It is not right, Sherlock thinks, that John would not want others to know how brave he is, that he has saved lives, that he is a tuahangata. A hero.

“Can we go back now?”

Sherlock’s attention snaps back to the chicks.

“Yes, Ariki, let’s all go back now.” John lets the chicks lead the way, and falls into step with Sherlock. “I only did what I could do Sherlock. I’m not a hero. You were trying, too, to get there in time.”

“But I wouldn’t have.”

“It doesn’t matter. You were trying. I’m not a hero, not unless you are, too.”

Sherlock doubts this very much. He is no more a hero than John is a rockhopper. He’s about to argue his point, but John keeps talking. “Sherlock, you stabbed that seal in the eye to save Tui. And have you already forgotten about your journey? About delivering the tooth to the High Council, and finding the heartstone? I killed one stupid skybird with a stone. You have delivered justice to an entire species. You’re the hero, not me.”

Sherlock keeps his eyes on their little friends as they run-waddle ahead of them. Sherlock only did what he had to do. John only did what he had to do. Maybe they are both heroes. Maybe neither of them are. Maybe you are a hero if you do what you have to do. Sherlock isn’t sure, but it doesn’t matter, because Ariki and Kahu have decided for them.

Rushing into a crowd of pengs, chicks and adults alike, they shout the news as loudly as they can. “Tahu-John is a tua-hana-ga, a tua-hang-ara, a tua-hanga-something-hero! He saved us from the bird! She was going to eat us and he saved us by hitting her with a giant rock! She’s mah-tay now, dead! Tahu-John is a hero!”

“Oh my gods,” John groans. “Are they out of their minds?”

“Just like you, Johnling, that’s exactly what you would have done when you were that age.”

“And what would you have done while I was shouting my head off?”

“I would have loved you for it, for every moment of it.”

Chapter Text

News spreads like a tidal wave through the colony, and within moments of returning from the skua’s thwarted attack, all eyes are on John, Sherlock, and the chicks tripping and tumbling around their feet. Ariki and Kahu trumpet their arrival with tiny, squeaking honks, and herald their pengsitters as heroes with mispronounced words and wild wing gestures.

Sherlock guides them toward Anahera and Tui, hoping for a respite from the noise and attention, and John tries unsuccessfully to shush Ariki and Kahu as they inch their way through the crowds of curious pengs. He smiles and nods at the onlookers, staying close to Sherlock’s side, muttering, “This is all just a bit much, isn’t it?”

Ariki and Kahu spot Anahera and Tui, and put on a fresh burst of speed, throwing themselves at their adopted aunts. Sherlock and John glare at the backs of their fluffy friends as the chicks race ahead, knowing that the damage will have been done in less than a blink of an eye.

“What’s this then, Tahu-John? We hear you brought down two dozen skua with one evil glare?” Anahera teases as they approach.

Tui is standing, leaning against her tahu, beaming at both of them. “And you, Sherlock, you were ready to reduce the bird to nothing but pulp with just your bill?” She tentatively puts more weight on her foot and straightens away from Anahera’s side. Sherlock sees the slight wince she makes before shifting back toward Anahera.

“How long have you been standing, Tui? Is it time for a break?”

“Don’t change the subject, John, I’m too smart for that, and I’m fine.”

“I’m one of your healers; it’s my duty to make sure you are well.” John is trying hard to assume an air of stern authority but Tui laughs and shakes her head.

“You can inspect my damage in a bit, Tahu-John. Now tell us all about the flock of skua.”

John bends to peek under her wrapping anyway, poking and prodding while he grouses. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. It wasn’t a flock of anything! It was one bird, that’s all. We protect the colony’s chicks from birds of prey all the time. This was no different.” John seems pleased with Tui’s progress for the time being, and pats everything back into place.

“Well,” Sherlock adds, “it actually was quite different, in that we usually defend against skua on the ice, protecting with our wings until the bird gives up and flies away.” Sherlock pauses here, because his beautiful John is glaring incredulous icicles at him, and peng-it-all if that’s not hot. “You launched stones at the bird as she was diving at great speed, at a very steep angle, and you hit her. Dead on. Three times. Three out of three. It was spectacular.”

“Yes. Well.” John clears his throat and inspects a bit of underdown peeking out of his chest feathers.

Oh, gods, Sherlock wants to kiss John so badly he can barely stand it. John must recognize Sherlock’s want, because when he looks up from his unnecessary grooming, a muscle in his cheek twitches, and the tip of his tongue peeks out.

Ariki wraps his wings around John’s belly and gives him a full body hug. “You were spacular, Tahu-John.” John absentmindedly pats him on the head and locks eyes with Sherlock.

Kahu is running in circles around the four adult emperors, trilling, “Tua-gan-hata, no, tua-han-taga, nooo, tua-han-gata! Tuahangata!

“You are absolutely right, Kahu, John most definitely is a tuahangata.”

Sherlock can tell that John is about to contradict Tui again, but a look on her face stops him.

“In fact,” she says, peering over his shoulder, “Are you two little kinas ready to repeat the tale of your great adventure?”

“We aren't sea urchins, Tui, we’re pengs! The biggest in the world! The fastest, the fiercest, the –”

“Yes, I know, silly. And be that as it may, your mighty, fierce, emperor leader is approaching, with a seriously epic hunter by his side. I think they want to talk to you two.”

The two chicks flit and flutter until they’re arranged at her side, stretching as tall as their snowball shaped bodies will allow in order to catch a glimpse of their leader and the legendary hunter as they approach.

“You talk to them,” whispers Ariki.

“You talk to them, too,” answers Kahu.

“I’m nervous.”

“Don’t be nervous, Ariki. They are very nice pengs. Right Sherlo-kimi?”

“They are. There’s nothing to be afraid of, Ariki.”

“Will you stay here, too, Sherlo-kimi and Tahu-John?”

“We’ll stay, too. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Ariki does not seem convinced. He tiptoes backwards until he’s flush up against Anahera’s belly. Anahera puts her wing around him, looks at Tui, and winks.

Kahu takes several steps forward, presenting himself as the unofficial ambassador for the group. As soon as Siger and Erebus are close enough, Kahu bows low, too low, and has to wave his wings in circles to keep himself from going down on the ice, face first. His almost bill-plant does nothing to dampen his enthusiasm, however, and his tiny wisp of a tail flutters with excitement.

“Greetings, all,” Siger calls out, adopting a less formal salutation, probably, Sherlock thinks, to put the chicks at ease. Siger obviously does not know Kahu.

“Greetings, great leaders, Elder Siger and Elder Erebus!” Kahu shouts back.

Next to Sherlock, John pointedly looks up at the clouds. Sherlock knows he is trying not to laugh. Now Sherlock cannot look at John, or he will laugh, too.

“How are you this fine afternoon, young Kahu?”

“I am very well, thank you for asking Elder Erebus! How are you? Can I get you anything? Some snow?”

John starts shaking.

“Ah, now aren’t you a thoughtful young peng? Thank you, but no. I’m fine. Siger, what about you? Are you in requirement of any snow at the moment?”

“Thank you, Erebus, and Kahu, but no. I’m all right for now, as far as snow is concerned.”

John snorts.

“And hello to you, John, Sherlock, Anahera, and Tui. Tui, you look wonderful, my dear. How are you feeling?”

“Very well, sir, thank you. Your colony has been most kind, and your healers have been exceptional.”

“I am very glad to hear it, Tui. And who is that hiding under your wing, Anahera?”

“Elder Siger, please allow me to introduce you and Elder Erebus to our young friend, Ariki.”

“He’s my tahu!” Kahu yells, hopping from foot to foot.

John turns around and bites on the tip of his wing.

“Is he now?” Siger answers, grinning from ear to ear. Sherlock has never seen his father lose control of any emotion, but he suspects he may be about to.

“Yes, he is! He’s just a little shy right now because you guys are so important.” Kahu lowers his voice to a whisper-yell and calls back over his shoulder, “Ariki, come here!”

John sniffs loudly, but turns around, wiping tears from his eyes.

“We are all important in our own way, young pengs. Elder Erebus and I have simply had more winters to discover our particular talents, wouldn’t you say, Elder Erebus?”

“Indeed. Plus, we all started out the same way, hatching from a simple egg. So, not very different after all.”

Erebus steps closer to Anahera and Ariki. “Young sir, might you come out for just a moment? We would like to most sincerely thank you for your invaluable service upon the occasion of Sherlock’s return. I understand it was you who heard Sherlock calling for help, and who told Kahu to fetch us. Is that correct?”

Anahera lifts her wing a fraction, and cranes down to speak in his ear. “Go on, then,” she says. “They won’t bite.”

Ariki peeks out. Ariki steps out. Ariki shakes out his fluff, lifts his bill, and comes to stand by Kahu’s side. “Yes, sir. I heard Sherlo-kimi call. I didn’t know who Tahu-John was then, because I was just a little hatchling at the time, so I didn’t know who he was looking for. But then Sherlo-kimi called your name, and Elder Siger’s, and Elder Cetus’, and then I knew what we had to do. And Kahu is very, super fast, so we decided he would go and find as many of you as he could, and I would stay and wave at Sherlo-kimi so he would know help was on the way.”

“You were exactly right to proceed as you did, Ariki. I am sure the others have thanked you already, but Elder Erebus and I would also like to thank the both of you for your actions that day. You helped save Tui’s life. You are both heroes, you realize.”

Ariki’s eyes go enormous, and Kahu starts hopping back and forth again. “Are we just like Sherlo-kimi and Tahu-John, sir? They saved us from the skybird who wanted to eat us, because those birds think we’re very tasty, but they saved us and we didn’t get eaten. Tahu-John knocked that bird down out of the sky, and she’s mah-tay now. Dead. He’s a hero.”

“Indeed, young sir. Elder Siger and I heard all the commotion, and have already been told quite a few interesting stories concerning your rescue from the hākoakoa. We thought we should come and hear about it directly from John and Sherlock, though. If you don’t mind, of course.” Erebus turns to Sherlock and John, a look of fond indulgence on his face.

“We don’t mind at all, do we Ariki? Would you like to interview us, too, Elder Erebus?”

Ariki clamps his wing over Kahu’s bill.

“John,” Erebus continues. “News travels fast. It also seems to grow and warp in an exaggerated fashion with each retelling. So, please do forgive us if we are not entirely convinced that you single-wingedly caught a bolt of lightning and used it to strike down an entire flock of skua.”

John groans. “How would that even be possible? No one can think that's what happened.”

“Penguins of all species have always loved a good story, John. We are a society built on legend and mythology. Five thousand years from now you may very well be known as the emperor who wrangled fire from the heavens.”

Hiko hiko,” Sherlock murmurs to himself. “Or Kapo kapo? Or Kapo hiko? Hiko kapo? Fascinating.”

“Sherlock?”

“Sorry, Pāpā. I was just noticing that both words mean lightning, and both mean to grasp, or catch. It's almost as if our language were created to name someone Lightning Catcher. It may as well be you, Johnling.”

“You are not helping, Sherlock.” John looks like he’s had more than enough. Sherlock is ready and willing to distract John from all of this.

From hip level comes a duet of little voices. “Hiko hiko!”

No, Kapo kapo!”

“Hiko kapo!”

“Kiki tiki hako!”

“Those aren't even words, Kahupeng!”

“How do you know, Arikipeng?”

Sherlock wonders if he and John were such a source of amusement when they were that age, but is pretty sure he knows the answer.

“Ariki,” Siger interrupts. “Might you tell us what happened?”

“Yes, sir. Kahu and I were collecting stones so we could practice skipping, just like Tahu-John. All of a sudden we saw the skua bird diving right at us. She looked very mean. We tried to hide each other, but she got closer and closer, and then she screeched at us. But then, all of a sudden, Sherlo-kimi and Tahu-John were holding us, and Sherlo-kimi told us it was okay. He said Tahu-John had knocked the bird out of the sky with three rocks. The three rocks made her mate, sir.”

John pats Ariki on the head. Sherlock wants to pat John.

“John, is this accurate?”

“It is. There was only one bird. No lightning.”

“And she was dead before she hit the ground?”

“No, sir. The first rock knocked her to the ice. The second rock knocked her down when she got up again. I believe the third rock killed her. Please understand, I would have been content to simply scare her away. It was not my intention to kill her, but she kept getting up, and moving toward our chicks.”

Sherlock’s ears prick to attention.

“I mean, not our chicks, as in ours, sir, but collectively ours. The ones we were asked to watch this afternoon.”

Sherlock’s heart swells with adoration.

“John, forgive me for asking, but in order to be clear, how many rocks did you throw, in total?”

“Three, Elder Erebus.”

“And each one hit its target.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sherlock’s chest puffs out with pride. John is amazing.

Erebus and Siger are quiet for a short time, then Siger says, “This is most impressive, John. Most impressive. I have observed you skipping ice and stones before, but I had no idea that you had developed such accuracy and force.

“Do you believe you would be able to teach this skill to other pengs? Perhaps other pengsitters, and parents?”

Sherlock’s entire body is going to fly apart with elation.

“If you would like me to, sir. I could teach the little ones, too.”

“Excellent. The other councilpengs and I will discuss it at our next meeting, but I cannot imagine there would be any opposition. I anticipate you would work with Junior Council member Lestra, toward enhancing our security and defense efforts.

“Sherlock, we have not forgotten about the gift you presented upon your return. We are close to making an announcement about that, as well.”

“Yes, Pāpā.”

Erebus and Siger bow deeply to Ariki and Kahu before they leave, and the two chicks are so stunned, they forget to bow back, and just stand there, eyes unblinking and bills hanging open.

Sherlock can hear the elders chuckling as they disappear into the colony.

“Congratulations, John. We are very pleased for you, aren’t we, Anahera?”

“Indeed.” Anahera looks back and forth between Sherlock and John, and smiles. “It sounds like a thoroughly exhausting afternoon, all told. Why don’t you leave these little urchins with us, and go take some time to yourselves?”

Sherlock could kiss her. Sherlock would rather kiss John. He hugs Anahera and Tui and tells the little ones to behave themselves. They are busy seeing who can belly-bump the other the hardest, but wave at Sherlock and John.

“Don’t worry, Sherlock, I will make sure they get back to their parents safely, before bedtime.”

“Thank you, both of you,” John says as he pulls Sherlock away by the wing. Sherlock takes one last look over his shoulder at their two mini-pengs, and presses a kiss to the side of John’s neck as they walk away.

“You’re magnificent, John.”

John laughs. “Feeling affectionate, are we?”

“Exceedingly.”

John kisses his shoulder as they move to the outer edges of the colony. “Are you doing that on purpose?”

“Doing what?”

“Making your voice sound like that?”

“Like what?”

“All deep and smooth, like the bottom of the sea.”

Sherlock has no idea what John is talking about. “Not purposefully, no.”

“See? You did it again.”

John and Sherlock find privacy behind a snowbank and John makes a low sound in his throat, a sound that surprises them both, and one that sends a shiver up Sherlock’s back. John crowds up against him and Sherlock bumps into the wall of snow behind him.

“You had a very, um, appreciative look on your face, Sherlock, when we were telling Erebus and Siger about what happened.”

Sherlock’s knees seem to be melting.

“Because you’re so brave, John, and so good, and you saved their lives today. It’s very, um, appreciation-making.”

“Is it?” John kisses behind Sherlock’s ear and presses his chest to Sherlock’s. One of his wings has slid down Sherlock’s side, and rests on his hip.

“I think you’re – amazing.”

“You’re so handsome, Sherlock. I want to – I want – I don’t even know what I want.” John slides one leg between Sherlock’s, and slips his wing around his side. The back of Sherlock’s head hits the snow with a soft thud, and John takes the opportunity to kiss down Sherlock’s long neck and across his shoulder.

Something is coiling tight inside Sherlock, gathering him up, making him ache. It takes everything he’s got to lift his head from the wall of snow, and meet John’s kisses with his own. They stand there, necking, bills to cheeks and throats and shoulders, bill to bill.

“You feel so good, John.”

“Not as good as you.”

“John?”

“Mm?”

“What does it feel like for you? When – when we kiss and touch like this?”

“Like a – a pressure, inside, squeezing, and like – I don’t know, like I want to – I want to feel that more, but release it, too.”

Sherlock drops one wing and glides his wingtip just below John’s belly. “Here?”

“Yeah.”

“Me, too.”

John shifts his hips, pushing himself against Sherlock’s wing. “That’s – that’s good.”

Both their wings are trapped between them now, both of them caressing each other as they try to increase the pressure they feel but can’t identify, can’t resolve.

John kisses Sherlock and Sherlock kisses back, until they can hardly breathe, can only pant against each other. Sherlock’s wings are trembling, and his feathers are a mess, and John looks exactly the way Sherlock feels, dishevelled and dreamy and not at all in control.

Slowly, so slowly, they still themselves and settle. Sherlock rests his head on John's shoulder and closes his eyes.

“Are you all right?”

“Mm, I'm fine, John. It's a little odd that our bodies let us feel so much, but aren't ready for whatever comes next. It's …”

“Frustrating?”

“A bit. But I don't want to stop touching you, or being touched by you.”

“Can you imagine what it's going to be like, when we're old enough, and our bodies are ready?”

“Like hiko kapo.

“Exactly. Like grabbing lightning.”

Chapter Text

Late December

At the edge of the huddle, chest pressed to John’s back, Sherlock stands awake, studying the constellations and imagining stories that might yet be told.

Carina, Centaurus, and Crux hang above him, snug against their inky black backdrop, swelling and shrinking with each flash and blink of their congruous parts. Carina, the fabled water vessel created and used by a species oft discussed but never seen, with her hollow keel and mechanisms for catching the wind. What, Sherlock wonders, would one put in a hollow keel? What would one do if one harnessed the wind?

As he ponders the mythological sea-faring transport, his eye catches a movement, just a speck of a movement, from the nearest shore of the island. Excitement surges through him before he has a chance to consider the possibilities. His heart knows before his mind comprehends; nothing would move toward the huddle in the deepest stretch of night that wasn’t adventurous and important and pivotal for them all.

Mycroft.

Sherlock slips away from John’s sleeping form and turns to regard the approaching figure. He kicks off, brushes the ice with his wings, hurrying to meet his brother, to welcome him home.

Mycroft keeps an unhurried pace until he sees his younger brother break away from the huddle, then he drops down to his belly and pushes forward, and soon enough Sherlock hears the shush-shush sweeping of Mycroft’s wings and the click-click pushing of his claws, and he imagines that Mycroft can hear Sherlock, too, and thinks that maybe those same sounds are mixed with the sound of Mycroft’s heart beating against the ice, just as they are for Sherlock.

Meeting in the middle, Sherlock stands and throws himself at Mycroft, and they both fall down again, backwards, tumbling and rolling before righting themselves. Mycroft rarely grins, but he grins now, reaching for Sherlock with tired wings and soft chirps of greeting.

They hug, swaying, the silence between them conveying more than words could ever wish to speak, inspecting each other for health and happiness and success.

“Sherlock. All is well, then?”

Āe, brother mine, we had a bit of a rough time, but all is well now. Come, I will tell you everything.”

And so he does. They take their time walking back to the colony, and Sherlock tells Mycroft everything that has transpired since they last set eyes on each other, since they ended their shared journey, before Sherlock took his leave with Anahera and Tui.

Mycroft listens as they walk, spellbound, softly tutting at the most important parts of Sherlock’s tale. When Sherlock tells him about the heartstone, Mycroft stops walking and freezes, not moving even one filament of a feather.

“You are sure?”

“I am not. But John is, and Anahera and Tui seem quite certain. I gave it to Father as soon as I returned, and the Council has kept it safe since then. I have not been told, but I think eventually our Council will deliver it to the Emperor High Council, as we did the tooth.”

Mycroft looks over his shoulder, as if the Shelf from which he has just returned has followed him, is already waiting for him to return.

“Fascinating.”

Sherlock tells Mycroft about Tui and the seal, about the way Cetus and his apprentices worked miracles to save her, about her slow recovery. Mycroft listens, wide-eyed, with a shocked and furious expression on his pinched face, until he is reassured that she is well, that both she and Anahera are happily ensconced in the heart of Pobeda’s colony.

“But this is all old news, Mycroft. Tell me what has transpired since you’ve been with the High Council? What shape did your committee take, and what conclusions can you share with us now?”

Mycroft tells him, glossing over the boring bits about committee member selection, and strategic planning, and ensuring the repengsentative sampling of beliefs and opinions. He touches on the undercover work he did while seeking to identify key apologists and gain their trust, then the tedious process of mapping their connections across colonies and through the ages. Mycroft tells a tale of a secret society of pengs, working across ice borders and on the waves of the sea to communicate and carry their agenda and further their cause.

Sherlock listens, rapt, seeing complete fulfilment in his brother’s face. Mycroft has found his niche. Sherlock asks him how the High Council received the conclusions of his committee’s work, and Mycroft tries to play down his excitement when he relates what can only be described as the highest of praise and accolade: Mycroft has been invited to apprentice to the High Council itself.

“You are deserving, Mycroft. I offer my most sincere congratulations.”

A small smile wobbles on Mycroft’s face. “I believe I have you to thank, Sherlock. I would never have volunteered myself for the position of committee head.”

“No, you wouldn’t have, because you’re an idiot.”

The brothers smile at each other, words unsaid settling between them. Mycroft touches his wing to Sherlock’s shoulder, and they go on their way.

Back at the colony, Sherlock leads Mycroft within a short distance of the crèche. They stop, and Mycroft takes in the site of hundreds of adolescent emperors packed together, a hodgepodge of ruffled feathers and renegade fluff, bills tucked down low under wings. An occasional hiccup or snort or squeak escapes their slumber.

“Ah,” he hums. “Our newest generation. They look well. Perhaps I had not fully appreciated how much time has passed, busy as I was. But here it is in front me. Seven moons, Sherlock. Seven moons.”

Āe, Mycroft, but look at what we have done under those moons. Would you have thought that the fate of all emperors could sway so far in so short a time period? Ka whitu, Mycroft, only seven.”

Mycroft regards his little brother and nods. “You are right. Now, let me tell you the rest.”

Within a few days of Mycroft’s return, Siger calls for a series of colony-wide hui in which the Council recognizes individual accomplishments, announces changes in the structure of the Council, and reveals the nature of the closed sessions they’ve had since Sherlock, and then Mycroft, returned from the Shelf.

During the first hui, the Council rewards John for the heroic way in which he had defended Ariki and Kahu from the skybird attack. Siger announces that John will organize a new program through which he and Lestra will teach a group of adults and juveniles John’s stone skipping technique; this group will, in turn, train others, who will train others, and so on, until the colony is proficient in defending the smaller members of their collective family from birds of prey.

John’s healing work with Cetus will not diminish, Siger assures the colony. John is about to become even busier than usual.

The colony cheers and trumpets around them, and John hides his face in Sherlock’s neck before allowing Sherlock to hold up one of his wings in acknowledgment of their calls, and to wave his thanks. John looks overwhelmed by the attention, but bows gracefully to the Council before crowding up against Sherlock again.

Ariki and Kahu are especially exuberant in their vocalizations of John’s accomplishment. They are the first to volunteer to be trained, and so are doubly delighted when John later tells them they’d already been wing-selected to join the first line of trainees.

Sherlock and John’s young shadows are growing, and growing fast. They are juveniles now, that odd combination of sleek and fluffy, black and white and grey, sophisticated and bumbling all at the same time. They still spend as much time as they can with their mentors, and now also seek audience with Erebus, who has great depths of patience for the two little pengs. Ariki cannot get enough of Erebus’ hunting stories, while Kahu’s fascination centres more on Erebus’ tales of searching for Selvic, and their subsequent life together.

During the second hui, Siger makes two announcements regarding the Council. Councilpeng Moringa faces charges of stealing a mythological treasure, false accusations against juveniles, and subversive apologist practices. The High Council has determined that Moringa will be delivered to the Rūnangan colony to sit before the twelve intercolony elders, and be judged for the accusations brought against her. She will be transferred back to the Shelf in one moon’s time, when the Pobedans will take to the sea for the summer.

A new Councilpeng has been selected to replace Moringa, and there’s a murmur of surprise throughout the colony when Siger announces that Anahera has accepted the position. Anahera, Siger reminds them, is not the first non-Pobedan to join their council. As a Rūnangan with an aunt on the High Council, Anahera is well-versed in emperor politics, and her unique experiences and intercolony perspectives will benefit their smaller, more isolated colony.

“Did you know about this?” John whispers. He need only look at Sherlock’s gobsmacked face to know the answer.

Three pengs ahead of them, Anahera turns around and winks at them. Tui is at her side, standing almost entirely on her own. She looks back over her shoulder and grins, and Sherlock knows that he cannot be mad that Anahera did this on her own. It is a gift, he thinks, a wonderful surprise of a gift, because if Anahera sits on Pobeda’s council, Anahera and Tui are staying.

Later, Anahera and Tui will tell John and Sherlock that their time on Pobeda may not be forever, but it feels right for now. Tui requires more time to recuperate, and they believe they owe her very life to Pobeda’s advanced healing skills, and the care and kindness the colony has extended toward them. They are at home, second home though it may be. Anahera is not worried that some emperors are wary of her mysterious white colouring; there are equal numbers, maybe more, who believe she brings blessings; she would rather swim in their positive superstitions than drown in less fortuitous suspicions.

It is also during this second hui that Siger formally announces Mycroft’s return. Mycroft resumes his position as Planner, and as such, seamlessly integrates what he has learned during his time away into his functional role on Pobeda.

Mycroft moves to the front of the Council and clears his throat. Sherlock would not have bothered to consider it before their journey from Cassiopeia to the Shelf, but it seems Mycroft has softened under the weight of his recent responsibilities. Sherlock reads in Mycroft’s stance and expressions that the privilege of intercolonial committee work has humbled the older peng.

Mycroft clears his throat and studies the assembly before him for several long moments, and it seems to Sherlock that he is seeing them as individuals, instead of a colony of same after same after same.

“My dear Pobedans,” he begins. “Every winter we are blessed with a new generation of hatchlings. We watch over them and teach them, and when summer comes, we take our chances and send them to the sea. We hope they will survive, and prosper, and come home to Pobeda again, to repeat the cycle in their own time.

“This past summer, two young emperors began the same journey that millions before them have taken. They, however, did more than survive, and prosper, and return. Through their curiosity, their perseverance, and most of all, their love for each other, they put into motion a sequence of events that may very well change the course of pengstory.”

Sherlock reminds himself to breathe.

There is no noise. There is not one sound interfering with Mycroft’s words. There is no wind, no shuffling feathers, no chirp or shift or sigh. If the blink of an eye made a sound, there would still be nothing to hear.

Mycroft stands tall now, pulling back his shoulders and expanding his chest with a deep breath.

“Every winter we gather our youth before us and explain who we are, where we are from, what we believe. In doing so, we hope to illustrate who we hope to be. And yet, we continue to repeat the same mistakes, over and over again. These are not, for the most part, purposeful mistakes. They are mistakes of omission, mistakes of ignorance. We have, for time immemorial, allowed misinterpretation of our most important legend to divide us.

“That legend tells us that Kororā abandoned penguins after Pono died; that Pono died trying to defend her egg against a thief, a thief named Apo. Apo’s lack of acceptance of Pono as Kororā’s mate created a chasm in our faith, which became a crevasse, and then a sea, dividing those who could not reconcile varying interpretations of the legend.

“Apo’s followers, the apologists, believe Kororā was punished for choosing a female mate, and have worked tirelessly, hidden amongst us, to eradicate the possibility of same-peng couples. Over time, the apologist movement has grown. This summer, one of their own infiltrated Pobeda’s Council.

“Our two intrepid explorers, however, proved she had stolen an important mythological artefact, with the intention of using it to further the apologist cause.

“As such, the High Council created a committee to study apologist history, structure, members, and plans. After several moons of study, the committee presented its findings and suggested amendments to existing emperor law. The High Council has reviewed those recommendations, and has amended intercolony emperor law as follows.”

Sherlock reminds John to breathe.

“Apologist actions that result in discrimination against same-peng individuals and couples are hereby prohibited. Apologists who act in such a way as to disallow same-peng coupling, or who harm same-pengs in any way, will be banned from our colonies.

“From this time forward, all same-peng individuals shall be allowed to participate in the calling, to partake in the parade of mates, and to live their lives together, safely and openly. Same-peng individuals will receive the same support from their Councils as their peers, be they coupled or not, young or old, male or female. To interfere with this inalienable right to freely love the mate chosen by one's heart will be considered a crime against penganity.

“Plans are underway to establish adoption programs for same-peng couples who wish to be parents.

“These important changes come too late for those emperors who were forced apart from those they loved, separated for years, if not lifetimes. It is too late to make amends to the families that were destroyed by non-acceptance and discrimination. It is not too late for our younger generations.”

Sherlock looks at Erebus, who stands silent in his place among the row of Council members. He imagines Selvic there, too, standing next to his beloved. Sherlock thinks that Erebus must be imagining the exact same thing. Perhaps, for him, it is even more than imagination that brings Selvic to his side.

Mycroft continues.

“Sherlock, John, please step forward.”

Sherlock does not expect this. He has not been forewarned. John looks at him, questioning, and Sherlock can only shake his head in response. They make their way through the crowd and come to stand next to Mycroft.

“This past summer, Sherlock and John found what the High Council believes may be what we and countless others have long sought – Pōrangi’s tooth. It was the theft of that tooth by Moringa that opened our eyes to the strong undercurrents of apologist action in which we have been unknowingly swimming.

“Not only did they reclaim the stolen artefact, but when tasked with the responsibility of delivering the tooth to the High Council, Sherlock was able to interpret the star-shaped marking on its underside. For the first time in known pengstory, an emperor held that tooth and understood what the shape meant. The marking represented an exceptional star – Kororā and Ika’s father, Atutahi. Sherlock followed it, and then, with assistance from his Rūnangan escorts, Anahera and Tui, he found something extraordinary.

“I’ll remind you now of what Kororā said to Apo before returning to the heavens with Pono’s lifeless body and their unhatched chick: ‘Forever carry this relic of my love, and may the burden of finding another Aumārire be yours.’

Mycroft turns on his feet and reaches behind him. When he turns back, he has the heartstone cupped in his wings. He holds it high above his head for all to see, then lays it at Sherlock and John’s feet.

“My fellow emperors, I give you the heartstone.”

In front of them, one thousand bills fall open.

Chapter Text

Sherlock and John stare down at the precious stone sitting on the ice in front of them. They stare at it, and then Sherlock looks up at John, and sees that John’s face is bathed in soft pink and ruby and violet, the result of the late afternoon sun casting out its rays, hugging the stone and spreading its light.

Sherlock looks down at himself, and sees the pink light bouncing off his own chest and belly, hips and legs. “John,” he says. “Look.” John doesn’t look up right away. He looks at the stone and at the points of light flowing into it, through it. Then John looks up at Sherlock, and Sherlock sees John’s eyes roaming over his body before they settle on his face. John’s bill is glowing bright, his usual lavender even more intense in the stone’s reflective brilliance.

Can Sherlock kiss Johnling right here, right now, in front of the colony? Would that be a bit not good?

Mycroft interrupts his thoughts when he addresses the colony again. “The heartstone. Or is it? The stone’s pengstory predates all of us, and all the memories of those who came before us. It is considered the mythological mooring of our cultural core. It is the first story we learn when we are hatched into this world. The stone, Pono’s very heart. What powers does it hold? What stories does it tell? But I ask you, my fellow emperors, how do we know that this is that stone?

“And how do we know it is not? Surely, the events preceding its discovery are in keeping with the likelihood of its validity. My own brother carried the stone’s map around his neck, swaddled against his chest, and felt it guide him in his dreams.

“He unravelled a mystery few of us could ever begin to comprehend. ‘Go to Atutahi,’ the tooth said, and Sherlock did. And on the way to Atutahi, he found this. What else could it be?

“My dear Pobedans, please hear me carefully now. All our lives we have been told what to believe. We have been told that we are flightless because of our transgressions. We have been told that we are abandoned because we disbelieved. Some of us, perhaps, have been told that we are the victims of a god’s folly.

“It is time for each and every one of us to decide for ourselves what is right. What do you, and you, and you, and you, believe? Is this the heartstone? And what if it is? I invite each and every one of you to come stand before it today, here and now, and make up your own mind.

“And then, ask yourself, what does this change? Does it have the power to bring them back? Does it give us the power to bring them back?

“Does it afford us peace? Respect? Love? Trust? Aumārire?”

Beyond him the colony grows animated. Pengs are looking at each other, whispering, craning their heads to get a better look.

“Now, let me ask you this. If those blessings are returned to us, how do we know it’s because of this stone? And if we cannot know that, how do we know we haven't given ourselves the very same blessings, on our own, of our own hearts?”

The light shifts as the sun moves, and the parade of colours begins a slow sweep over the colony. Pengs watch as their toes and legs and bellies and chests are bathed in the jewel tones of pink anthias and sunsets and algae and blood. They reach out and touch each other, wide-eyed. Rapt, Sherlock thinks. Rapt.

One by one, they come, forming a line, as pengs always do, and they look. Some of them stay for a long while, standing off to the side so others can pass. Some touch the heartstone, and pet it, bowing down low with reverence. Others remain at a distance, no less reverent. Some murmur to themselves, or to the stone, Sherlock isn’t sure. Most are silent.

And then Ariki and Kahu are in front of them, and Sherlock half expects the young pengs to peck at it, or try to skip it, or sit on it. He does not expect Ariki to bypass the stone altogether, to come to stand in front of him, hug him tight, and whisper, “Thank you, Sherlo-kimi. Thank you.”

Sherlock hugs him back.

After Ariki, Kahu comes, and bows to both the stone and to Sherlock, and whispers, “Thank you, Sherlo-kimi.”

Sherlock and John stand behind the stone for a very long time, Mycroft behind them, the Council behind him. They stand and let the colony pay their respects. At first Sherlock thinks that they pay their respects to the stone, or to him, but the longer he watches, the more it seems that his fellow pengs are paying respect to each other, to themselves, to the opportunity presented. They glow with respect.

Sherlock reaches out when Olive arrives, meeting her in a hug.

Tāmanga.” She has tears in her eyes. “Do you remember, my child?”

Sherlock sees in her eyes the broken shell lying at their feet. He sees her stretch out her glossy black wing to bring him in close, and hears her promise him magnificence, and bless him with strength of heart. He sees her study his shell, and he hears her speak of a long path, and of trust, and love. He, his māmā had told him, would be the evolving heart of the colony.

He sees her again, just before she takes to the sea in the first days of the summer migration. He feels her hold him tight, hears her coo soft, gentle praises, tells him to listen well. A long journey, tahu, and not always an easy one. But you have gifts, Sherlock, many gifts, to ease your way. Your future is what you make of it, but the shell predicted a tumultuous current along the way. Remember these words and you will succeed. You will love, you will suffer, you will prevail. Always remember, Sherlock, all right? Listen to me carefully now. You will prevail.”

Āe, Māmā, I remember.”

“You have prevailed, Sherlock.”

It is soft dusk when the last emperor has filed past. The sky reflects a mix of colour and starshine, light and dark. The heartstone’s glow has faded to a deep red burn.

The Council gathers around Sherlock and John; Siger, Mycroft, Erebus, Cetus, Pavo, Vela, and now, Anahera. It does Sherlock’s soul a world of good to see her there. He loves his father, and Erebus, and even Mycroft, but Anahera is like him. She knows him in a way that the others do not, because Sherlock has told her things that he has not told the others. She knows that he doesn’t have any answers about the legends, and she knows that he can’t say whether or not he believes. She knows that John is his faith, and that he needs nothing more.

“You have both made us exceptionally proud,” Siger begins. “No doubt this has been an exhausting day, and one of surprises. It is important that you both realize we did not come to you first to discuss our presentation of the stone, because no matter what else, we wanted the message to come from the colony’s Council. It was your message, though, Sherlock. I am not wrong, am I?”

“No, Father, you are not wrong. I know there are some who are absolutely sure this is the heartstone. I suspect there are some who are not exactly happy to see it, too. But we cannot know, and to set any expectations around its validity sets us back down a trail of imposing one belief over another.”

“Just so,” Pavo says. “Sherlock, John, the only matter we must resolve at this time is what to do with the stone now. We cannot leave it here, unguarded, for the summer moons.”

Vela nods in agreement. “Siger has asked me and Pavo to accompany Moringa to the High Council when the colony departs Pobeda. You are welcome to join us if you feel the stone should be delivered there.”

Sherlock and John do not need to talk about this. “Elder Vela, with all due respect,” John says, “Sherlock and I would rather not make that journey. The heartstone does not belong to us, and we want pengs everywhere to understand that. It belongs to all of us.

“The safest place for it is undoubtedly with the High Council, but we see no reason you cannot take it with you, unless you would rather not have it near Moringa?”

“If Tui were well enough,” Anahera says, “we could go with you. We know the way like the backs of our wings.”

“No, Anahera.” Cetus says. “She will not be fully healed by the time the colony leaves. It is a long journey, and we cannot risk a setback of her health. She needs to have the full support of the colony.”

“Mycroft, when do you begin your apprenticeship?” Siger asks.

Mycroft looks from peng to peng. “They are eager for my return, Father, but they understand I have responsibilities to my home colony, as well. No member of the High Council will retire until I am fully trained and prepared. There is no rush.

“That said, if there are no matters of great urgency here …”

Sherlock can read Mycroft like the inside of a shell. He is not ready to go. He has only just returned.

“Mycroft, let me ask you this. Regarding the task appointed to you when you were hatched --” and here Sherlock pauses to make sure Mycroft is tracking, “-- do you feel it is complete?”

Mycroft’s eyes widen and his brow lifts. He tilts his head to the side and opens his bill as if to speak, but nothing comes out.

“You raise an important issue, Sherlock. Mycroft, Olive, and I need to discuss this. You should be part of that conversation, Sherlock.

“For now, let us say that the stone will be delivered to the High Council with Pavo and Vela, and that another peng will travel with them for additional security. We will have decided by then. Do we all concur?”

There is a murmur of unanimous agreement.

“Thank you. Let us meet again at my call. It should not be more than a few days.”

The Council disperses, except for Siger and Erebus, who remain standing by Sherlock and John's side. “Siger, I could make the trip with them. I know those hunting lanes very well, and then could meet you at Cassiopeia.”

“I knew you would volunteer, Erebus, and I am most appreciative. However, I believe you will be instrumental to the younger generations this summer, as they strive to understand the new rulings, and how it may affect their futures. Education will be paramount, and they accept and respect you.

“Pobeda has for too long been a symbol of social unrest and injustice. The apologist movement was never as strong anywhere else as it was here, when you and Selvic were so horribly persecuted.

“Now we have the chance to be a different symbol, one of progressive, proactive change. I want you to be at the very forefront of such a sea change, Erebus. You deserve it.”

Erebus’ eyes shine. “It would be my honour, Siger, to support the new rulings in any way I can. I will do it for Pobeda, and for Selvic. It would make him proud.”

Now John’s eyes are shining, too.

“Erebus, my dear friend, not one day has gone by that you have not made Selvic proud. I am sure of it.”

Sherlock's eyes shine for only a blink, and then they spill over, tears falling to the ice.

Chapter Text

Sherlock meets with Siger, Erebus, Mycroft, Vela, and Pavo again a few days later. This time, Olive joins them. The first issue they discuss is who will accompany Vela, Pavo, Moringa, and the heartstone to the Shelf.

Everyone in attendance is aware that Mycroft’s prophecy, as read by Olive on the day he was hatched, was that he would protect his brother at all costs, and see to it that he fulfilled his own destiny. There is no question that Mycroft has, up until now, done exactly that. And, just in case anyone has some teeny, tiny, ice chip of a question about this, Sherlock announces to all assembled, at great length, that he never would have been able to deliver the tooth to the High Council without Mycroft’s assistance and guidance.

“Thank you for that glowing report, Sherlock,” Siger says, ready to move on.

“Furthermore,” Sherlock continues, “it was only because of Mycroft’s confidence in me that I was able to continue my journey –”

“Sherlock, I do appreciate your endorsement, but –”

“– across the Shelf, walking in Atutahi’s path –”

“– I do believe everyone here understands –”

“– which eventually led me to –”

“– that you believe I helped you –”

“– find the heartstone.”

“– find the heartstone.”

“Yes, Mycroft.”

“Okay, Sherlock.”

Sherlock and Mycroft give each other a curt nod and turn back to their parents. Olive is beaming at them, her head raised high toward the sun, her wings folded neatly over her belly.

“Are you both quite finished?” Siger asks in a tone that quelches any idea they might have to start another verbal exchange asserting the affirmation of their confirmations. Satisfied that they are finished for the time being, he nods at Olive.

“The matter of Mycroft’s prophecy is a complicated one,” she says. “We cannot divine that Sherlock has completed the entirety of his fate; therefore, we cannot know that Mycroft is finished following his.

“However, Mycroft has been called to serve the High Council, and one might argue that he can serve his prophecy as well from there, as he would here, by Sherlock’s side.”

Sherlock is sure that they are going to send Mycroft back to the Shelf, and he is equally sure that Mycroft is not ready to go. He is also sure that he is not ready for Mycroft to go.

“Sir, if I may?”

Siger raises an eyebrow and blinks at Sherlock. “Yes, son?”

“Māmā’s observations are sound, but John and I were hoping to do a bit more reconnaissance on Cassiopeia, and I wonder if Mycroft shouldn’t be part of that process? Afterall, if we do find more evidence of apologist action, or some sign of how the tooth came to rest there, Mycroft would be … he would be … practically negligent if he didn’t bring that information back to the High Council.”

“I see.”

“You do?”

“Quite.”

Siger looks as if what he sees is exactly what Sherlock is up to.

“Thank you, sir.”

Siger sighs. “Mycroft, your brother makes a good point. What are your thoughts on the matter?”

“Sherlock’s argument is not without merit, sir.”

“Indeed. Olive, what do you think?”

Olive tuts and waddles to Sherlock's side. “I think perhaps it would be imprudent to separate our sons at the moment.”

“All right then, that’s settled. Mycroft cannot accompany Velo and Pavo to the Shelf as his presence is required on Sherlock and John’s reconnaissance mission.”

Olive continues to beam.

Sherlock’s plan is going swimmingly, and he does not want to waste any more time listening to anyone else’s suggestions, when his own is so perfect. He strikes while the icicle is frozen.

“Lestra.”

All eyes are on him, and then six voices repeat, “Lestra?”

“As Junior Councilpeng for defence and security, this is the type of mission for which he has already been prepared. He knows emperor law as well as any Senior Council member, he will be respectful of Moringa’s rights, and he will be able to present her to the High Council on behalf of Pobeda in an official capacity. He’s perfect for this task.”

Slowly, everyone around him starts to nod.

“Siger,” Erebus begins, “young Sherlock makes an excellent argument.”

“He does,” Mycroft agrees.

Olive beams.

“I am beginning to wonder if I am pertinent to this process at all,” Siger quips, but his voice is filled with affection. “I am not opposed to this recommendation. Shall we ask Lestra if he would be willing?”

“He’s willing.”

“And how, my son, do you know that?”

“I may have already asked him.”

Next to him Mycroft snorts, and across from him, Erebus makes a soft harumphing sound.

“But of course you did. Sherlock, would you mind terribly if I tell Lestra this news myself, or did you already assure him that we would see things your way?”

“Oh, of course not, sir. I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear from you directly. He’s waiting right over there.”

This time Siger laughs, although Sherlock is not sure why this is funny.

“Excellent. Sherlock, would you like to call this hui to a close?”

“Me? No, sir. That’s your job.”

“So it is. I hereby call this meeting to a close. Thank you, everyone, for participating in Sherlock’s plan. It has all been quite successful.”

Sherlock is hurrying back to tell John all the news when he runs right into Maryle. Or, she runs into him, he suspects, because the impact knocks him over, but she's still standing, cool as a sea cucumber.

"You should be more careful, Sherlock, and watch where you're going. You could get hurt."

"I'm fine," he answers, standing up and shaking himself back to order. "I trust you're fine, as well, since you saw me coming, and moved directly into my path?"

"I'm fine, Sherlock. I'm always fine. I land on my feet."

“Are you sure you’re Aptenodytes forsteri, Maryle? We rarely land on anything but our bellies. Perhaps you’re Panthera leo? They are rumoured to always land on their feet.”

He takes small satisfaction at the look of confusion on her face. It’s so tedious, really.

“Constellations 101, Maryle. Yes? Leo?”

“The cat?”

He sighs.

“The lion. Mythological, of course, but fearsome all the same.”

Maryle taps one foot on the ice, her claws making an annoying clicking sound. Sherlock’s patience is waning thin. He has bigger fish to eat.

Maryle gives him a wry smile. “You enjoy being smarter than everyone else, don’t you, Sherlock? But really, in the end, where does it get you? You’re still here, with us, in the middle of the sea.”

“Our shared location hardly assures us a shared experience, though. After all, I have something you do not.”

Maryle is very still. She looks less amused with each passing beat of Sherlock’s heart.

“And what would that be?” she says, eyes mere slits, bill pressed tight.

“John.”

Maryle’s eyes close for two beats, and Sherlock can see the machinations of her mind sorting and searching and settling. The bit of cheek just near her bill gives a minute jerk, and she opens her eyes. She looks at him with a mix of loathing and anger on her pinched face.

“The colony needs him, you know.”

“The colony has him. He’s an outstanding healer as well as an excellent defence peng. He has been recognized as such and he uses his talents to the best of his abilities.”

“He will never reach his full potential with you.”

Sherlock sighs through an odd sense of déjà vu. “Maryle, what is your point?”

“He should reproduce. He should have chicks to carry on his line, and all of his talents.”

Sherlock doesn’t even know where to start, so he stares up at the sky as if someone up there is sharing this moment of Maryle-induced-exasperation with him.

Ka tahi,” he begins, “Neither of John’s parents, nor his sister, share these talents, so I’m not sure why you think his chicks would inherit them. That’s one.

Ka rua,” he continues, “I can’t imagine you are suggesting that certain pengs be forced to reproduce, whether they want to or not. I’m quite sure John has never had a conversation with you about whether or not he wants to have chicks, and just as sure he never will. So, that’s two.

Ka toru, you may think yourself clever, pushing your apologist agenda along under a different pretence, but I see right through you, and if you persist, I will report you to the Council.”

Maryle opens her bill to rebut Sherlock’s accusation, but Sherlock talks over her.

“Ka whā, John and I may very well adopt chicks, and those chicks would be just as much his as any that he produced with a female. He would undoubtedly teach our offspring the skills that they are interested in learning, and in which he specialises. Was that four?

Ka rima –”

“Enough, Sherlock. Enough. One day we’ll know more about how traits are passed down in families, and then you’ll know that you were responsible for keeping John from doing the right thing. And then you’ll have to live with your guilt.”

Sherlock wants to laugh, but Sherlock is done. His brain is loaded with information he wants to share with his Johnling.

He nods to Maryle as he moves around her, and he wonders if his expression portrays the somewhat sad sensation that washes over him when he considers her, and her life, and why she is like this.

“He’ll have to choose,” she says to his back as he walks away.

“He already has,” he answers, not bothering to turn around.

Sherlock finds John soon after his encounter with Maryle. He wastes no time with greetings, he simply wraps his wings around John's body and squeezes him tight.

“Did the meeting go well?”

Sherlock nods into John's shoulder.

“They picked Lestra?”

Sherlock switches shoulders and nods into that one.

“So Mycroft can stay a bit longer?”

Sherlock nods against John's neck.

“And you're clinging to me like a strand of limp seaweed because everything is so wonderful?”

Sherlock does his best impression of a piece of seaweed flopping against John.

“Sherlock? What's wrong?”

Sherlock peels himself away and looks John in the eye. “What would you have done if I'd never come back? Or if I'd never been hatched?”

John gapes at him, confusion clouding his eyes. “What? If you’d… If you'd never been… Why would you think of such a horrible thing?”

“I think of a lot of horrible things.”

“But why this one, why now?”

“Do you think you'd have ended up with Maryle?”

John doesn't speak for far too long, but when he does, his words fill Sherlock, spill over, and flood around his feet. “Excuse me? Did you just ask if, without you, the most brilliant, intelligent, gorgeous, sexy, amazing peng in the pengstory of pengs, I'd choose to be with a dim-witted, manipulative, lying, prejudiced, backstabbing, whining, distrustful, undermining, pain in the arse peng? Because I'm pretty sure you have a higher opinion of me than that.”

John has a point.

“I do. I definitely do have an extremely high opinion of you. I definitely do not think you'd have chosen to be with someone like that.”

“Good. Sherlock, you do realize, don't you, that I saved her life last summer because I would've tried to save anyone's life, and not because I had feelings for her? Because I do not have feelings for her, nor have I ever had feelings for her. And saving her life didn't make me have feelings for her, and her wanting me to have feelings for her cannot make me have feelings for her.”

“No feelings for her.”

“None.”

“Because you have feelings for me.”

“‘Feelings for you’ is a bit of an understatement, penggit.”

“They're almost as big as my feelings for you, I bet.”

John throws his head back and laughs, and Sherlock's world turns a brilliant shade of yellow and gold, everything halcyon and just.

“Don't even start. Now tell me about the hui, and everything you said, and how impressed they all were with you.”

Sherlock tells John everything, and John listens, nodding along, smiling at all the good parts, and when Sherlock is done, John kisses him, and snuggles up close.

“So, back to Cassiopeia for a little reconnaissance, you said?”

“Exactly. I expect we’ll need to spend a lot of time in the ice cave, alone.”

“Yes, absolutely. Very important work to do, in the ice cave, alone.”

Neither of them notice Ariki and Kahu standing nearby, and neither of them hear one ask the other, “Did you know there's an ice cave?”

Chapter Text

Late January

Another moon has passed, and the colony is preparing to leave Pobeda for the summer months of feeding. Most will return to Cassiopeia, and her waters teeming with shrimp, squid, and silverfish. Not all of them, however, will head west. A small band of pengs will swim east, to the Shelf, and the High Council.

Arrangements have been made, instructions imparted. The party of four bring with them the past, and the future: Moringa, and the heartstone.

Sherlock knows the heartstone does not belong to him, yet watching Hudi and Molling wrap it in its seaweed pouch and secure it around Lestra’s body makes him feel homesick for it, and for the Shelf, and for adventure. Even so, if asked, he would not switch places with his friend. He does not begrudge Lestra this moment to shine as he heads off to present this newly discovered treasure to the High Council. He would not change a thing, but he is manawarau, and he is uncomfortable with his discomfort.

“Are you all right, Sherlock?”

“I suppose so.”

“That's Sherlockian for, No, John, I’m not all right. Are you regretting this?”

“No.”

John gives him a look. Sherlock knows John's looks, has catalogued all of them, and this one says that John knows Sherlock better than anyone, and John wants Sherlock to stop wasting time and just tell him what's wrong, already.

“No, really, I have no regrets. But, neither am I completely at ease watching another peng take responsibility for the heartstone.”

“Your father has had it since you came back.”

“True. But, I was right here. Close to it. It won't be with me anymore. John, I – I will probably never see it again.”

“Maybe not. Is that important to you?”

“I didn't think it would be, but this is much harder than I expected. That stone has been a very important part of my life so far.”

“The heartstone has been a part of your life since before you were hatched, and will continue to be so. From this point forward, no peng will ever learn the legends without learning about you, as well, Sherlpeng.”

“I don't care about that. I don't care if others associate me with the heartstone, or the legends. I have my own association with it, and although it's not mine to miss, I think I will. I'll miss it. Does that sound strange to you?”

“Not at all. You have helped define it, and it has helped define you.”

They look over to where the travellers ready themselves for their journey. Moringa stands off to the side, staring out over the sea. She hasn't spoken one word in Sherlock's presence since he came home. From what he has heard, she has said nothing to anyone, staying to herself at the edge of the colony, always in sight, never within reach.

Vela and Pavo are consulting with Erebus on currents and distances. Hudi is testing Molling’s knots. John turns back to Sherlock and smiles.

“I think you'll see it again. But for now, go say goodbye.”

“To … the heartstone?”

“To the heartstone.”

Sherlock knows John’s joking face, and he is not currently wearing his joking face. John’s face is very serious. John’s face, adorable as it always is, is giving Sherlock a very pointed look, and Sherlock knows that John knows things that Sherlock does not, so he takes John’s advice and he goes to say goodbye.

He feels a bit foolish as he approaches, but Pavo and Vela are still talking with Erebus, and Hudi has stopped fussing over Lestra and has moved on to glaring at Moringa, so the time is right.

“Hello, Lestra. Hello, Molling.”

Molling gives him a sweet smile, but it is tinged with something else, something sad. Sherlock has seen enough proof since coming home to know that Lestra and Molling will call to each other when they are of age, just as he and John will. Watching Lestra leave cannot be easy for her, not when every time penguins leave each other, they risk never seeing each other again.

“Molling, would you mind if I took a moment of Lestra’s time? I promise it will not take long.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I’ll just, em, go have a chat with John, then.” She glances at Lestra as if to say something, shuffles on her feet a bit, then looks back to Sherlock. He bends to remove some nonexistent fluff from his leg, and sees their shadows bump together in a quick kiss before she moves away. When he stands straight again Lestra is watching her go.

“Sherlock. I have to thank you again, for this opportunity.”

“You don’t have to thank me, but you’re welcome. Could I ask you something? It may sound strange.”

“You know I’m going to take good care of it, right? The best of care. And I won’t lose it. I’ll protect it with my life. I’ll deliver it right to the High Council and I’ll –”

“I know you will. That’s not what I wanted to ask.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“I wanted to ask if I could say goodbye. Not to you. I mean, to you, too, but to the heartstone. I want to say goodbye to the heartstone.”

Sherlock looks over Lestra’s shoulder just in case he looks at him like he’s a complete penggit, but Lestra seems to be nodding, so Sherlock meets his eye and sees that Lestra does not think Sherlock is a penggit. If Sherlock deduces Lestra’s expression correctly, and he always deduces these things correctly, Sherlock could ask for anything at all, and Lestra would try to give it to him. Sherlock doesn’t know what to do with that.

“Yeah, yeah, of course you can. This must be kind of hard for you. I hadn’t really thought of it.” Lestra moves to shimmy out of the seaweed bound across his shoulders, neck, and chest, but Sherlock stops him with a small shake of his head and a tap of his wing to the centre of the heartstone.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to take it off.” Sherlock looks at where he touches the stone, covered as it is, and feels a small tremor start at the tip of his wing and work its way toward his shoulder. He closes his eyes. He can see the glow of it in his mind, and the colours it had cast over him, and John, and the colony, at the hui. He can see them clear as ice. Sherlock steps closer, and without opening his eyes, he bows down and touches his forehead to the stone.

Whakawhetai, he thinks. Thank you for letting me find you. Whatever you are, whatever you mean, thank you for calling to me, and for sharing with me such an extraordinary experience. Thank you for helping me grow up a little more, and for the opportunity to show my kind that they have a choice, that they can choose Aumārire.

Thank you for Anahera, and Tui, who came with me to find you so I wouldn’t be alone. Thank you for John. I’m not exactly sure if you have anything to do with John, but thank you for John, anyway.

Please don’t forget me.

Please keep Lestra safe. Lestra is a good peng. He’ll take good care of you. Maybe try to help Moringa, too, because she needs a lot of help. I’m glad I’m not saying these things out loud, because everyone would think I’ve lost my mind. I haven’t, though. Whatever you are, you have helped me understand my own mind.

Thank you. Pengspeed to you.

When Sherlock opens his eyes he realizes that the others are ready to go, and are waiting on him. They stand back at a distance, watching without looking.

Sherlock touches his bill to the centre of the wrapped stone, and then straightens up tall and gives Lestra a short nod. Lestra doesn’t say a word. Sherlock holds Lestra’s gaze and wishes he knew how to impart even one snowflake of the storm of thoughts swirling in his head. But, maybe he does know how, because Lestra holds Sherlock’s gaze and opens his bill as if to speak, then closes it again. Instead of using words, Lestra bows to Sherlock. Sherlock bows back.

Then, he turns and walks back toward John, who has his extremely proud look on his face. When Sherlock has gone no more than a few steps, he hears a sound in his head, the sound of whakawhetai, and the sound is pink and purple and orange and red.

Thank you, Sherlock.

Chapter Text

The colony chases summer across the sea, to Cassiopeia. The massive iceberg looks the same as when Sherlock and John last saw her, but when Sherlock glides to a stop on the landing shore, he can't help but feel some of the heartbreak that marked their time here the summer before. Friends of theirs died here. He and John were accused of wrongdoing here. They had to say goodbye here.

Soon after arriving, the Council has established its grounds, the young pengs have discovered the swim hole, Hudi has corralled the juveniles into crèches, and Sherlock and John have ventured away from the others, and gone to their ice cave.

They find it bittersweet, haunted by the best and worst of memories, but when John leads Sherlock to the overlook, and kisses him soundly, Sherlock knows he will create new memories of this special place.

They are not surprised the first time they find Ariki and Kahu exploring the ice cave; their two constant shadows have not grown distant, simply taller. John is delighted when they return to the cave one day to find the beginnings of a treasure collection arranged along one wall; a strand of pink seaweed surrounds tern feathers and several fish bones. Sherlock leans over his tahu’s shoulder and smiles, “No tooth.”

“No,” answers John. “Is it wrong that I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed?”

“Not wrong. You’ve always been ready for adventure, Johnling.”

Over the course of the summer, Ariki and Kahu's generation grows and thrives. The Junior Council takes on new apprentices with all manner of talents and interests, Cetus collects new supplies, Erebus hunts, and life goes on.

Tui heals, and Anahera swears that her new tail feathers are even more beautiful than the old ones. Tui’s leg boasts a frightful scar, and she walks with a limp, but there's something about the slightly crooked limb that allows her to make the most graceful turns and dives underwater. She is undeterred by her experience with the seal, and takes to the sea with great eagerness.

Winter chases the colony back to Pobeda, and another emperor cycle begins. Sherlock watches carefully, having missed this stage of Pobedan life the winter before. Some couples call to each other to make official what they have known for a long time; others call for the first time not knowing who, if anyone, might call back.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the ritual starts. One peng lowers his head to his chest, fills his lungs with air, and calls. Then another calls, and another, and then the entire colony seems to be singing and moving as potential partners weave their way through the crowds in search of each other. It goes on for days.

When finally in the company of their mate, the new couple mimics each other. One stands tall and cranes their head and neck skyward, then the other matches the pose. They stand that way for a long time; Sherlock counts one hundred heartbeats before most lower their heads. When they have shown each other how well they match, they entwine their necks, exchange hugs, and take their place in the parade.

Sherlock watches as pairing after pairing march in a circle around the colony. They adopt the same walk, the same sway, the same wing movements, and by doing so, show everyone else that they are taken. They are so in sync with their mate, they can now only be viewed as half of a perfect whole.

Sherlock is happy to stand on the periphery, with John, and watch from a distance. He is lost in thought when John pokes him and whispers, “Sherlock, look! Anahera and Tui are parading!”

Anahera stands out no matter where she is, but she is impossible to miss now, walking with her head held high, her wing pressed to Tui’s side. Tui’s limp is barely noticeable, and although she must rely heavily on her tail for balance, Sherlock senses it is mostly joy that bolsters her now.

Couples disperse as they leave the parade, and Sherlock knows they will seek out a place to mate. He remembers what John told him of a newly bonded pair’s behaviour, but has no desire to observe what he will someday experience himself. For now, he enjoys his and John’s mutual exploration of each other’s bodies, their petting and hugging and kissing, and the warmth that flows through him when John whispers private words in his ear.

After the courting and mating, the eggs come, and within two moons of the eggs, the chicks hatch. When the brooding period is over, the legends are told, and then the usual chick-related chaos breaks out all over the island.

Sherlock and Erebus are chatting one day as they watch hatchlings run to and fro, stirring up mischief and mayhem that requires constant supervision. Erebus chuckles as one little peng runs headfirst into Sherlock’s leg, bounces off, and scuttles away.

“I understand something now that I did not understand when I was a chick.”

“What is that, Sherlock?”

“I had no idea, that first winter, how hard the entire colony worked to keep us safe, and warm, and alive. Perhaps I gained some inkling last winter, when I was pengsitting, yet I still didn’t really understand. Now, however, I see that our care of each other is constant. It is not the caring of a moment, or of a season.

“All who came before me watched for me, not just my mother and father. You were watching for me, too, just as you are watching now, to keep these pengs safe, so that they might grow and take their place in our colony. You are not able to turn away from it, but neither would you want to.”

Erebus nods and looks over at a small group of chicks tumbling on the ice. “Yes. This is our way. We are individuals striving for the success of the whole. And no, it never does end. Being a part of it makes us who we are. If we did not do this, we would not be emperors.”

Sherlock discovers, not for the first time, that he is quite proud to be an emperor.

Pavo, Vela, and Lestra come home that spring, and share news of their travels with the Council. Lestra eagerly shares his stories with Sherlock and John, but Mycroft also takes the opportunity to meet with Sherlock and convey what he has learned since the three travellers have returned. He tells Sherlock that in spite of being called before the High Council, Moringa kept silent. They questioned, conferred, and deliberated, but Moringa would not speak.

After learning the details of her background from Lestra, the High Council decided to give Moringa the one thing she had lost and so bitterly misses: a family. They could not bring back the brother and sister that perished at sea when the apologists were banished from Pobeda, but they can put her in a position that commands compassion, empathy, and grace. They put her in charge of the Rūnangan orphans.

Moringa is too busy to get into trouble, Mycroft explains, and if her current duties do not soften her, if the sheer numbers of pengs in need of parents do not ease her worries about the future of emperor families, there is nothing left to be done for her.

Sherlock asks Mycroft if there are really so many orphans on the Shelf.

“Per capita, it is probably the same as here, on Pobeda. Some mothers do not come back from the initial hunt. After so many moons without food, the fathers have no choice but to leave their chicks behind and return to the sea for sustenance. The hatchlings are left with pengsitters, or in crèches, such as the one Moringa cares for now, but if the father does not come back, they either die, or remain orphans.”

“Now that same-peng couples are recognized by their colonies, can’t the orphans be adopted by those couples?”

“Eventually, yes. However, the High Council has not yet determined the best way to place the orphans. We need interested couples to come forward, and we need to confirm that they will be suitable parents.”

“But of course they will –”

“Do not misunderstand me, Sherlock. This is not a matter of gender, or preference. There are many other factors to consider. Are they healthy? Are they young enough to dedicate many moons to a family? Will they take a chick who needs extra care? We cannot pass off parentless pengs, willy-nilly, to anyone who expresses an interest.”

“I understand. But are they close? Will they resolve this soon, do you think?”

Mycroft shrugs. “The High Council has numerous issues to resolve at any given moment, but I understand this to be a top priority for them. I have told Father that our own Council needs to establish rules for placing Pobedan orphans, and I have suggested some that will align with the High Council’s decisions.”

They stand quietly and observe the comings and goings of the colony. After a moment, Mycroft asks, “Forgive me if it is too personal a question, but do you think you and John will adopt?”

“We will want to, when the time is right. John will be an excellent parent, don’t you think?”

Mycroft looks at Sherlock with a raised brow. “You are both already excellent parents, don’t you think?” He raises a wing toward the many juveniles around them, many who call out Hello, Sherlo-Kimi! as they pass.

The compliment is unexpected, but comforting. Sherlock ducks his head in acknowledgment, then changes the topic.

“And the heartstone? How was it received?”

“I am told it was received the way it was presented, brother mine, and you will be happy to know that Lestra did an excellent job. Both Pavo and Vela say he practiced his speech the entire way to the Shelf, and he spoke eloquently about interpretation, free will, and the power of the unknown."

“Will you join them at summer's end?”

"I will. I will take the same journey that you and I did last summer, with the tooth. It will not, of course, be the same without you."

Sherlock ruffles his feathers and settles them back to order. “I appreciate you saying so.”

The brothers treat their limited time together like a favourite gift, something to cherish, and not take advantage of, lest it become common. By the time Mycroft departs, Sherlock has many more memories for his ice palace, and a few words of wisdom from his older sibling.

Summer comes again, and winter, and then summer again. Sherlock and John watch the dynamics of colony life ebb and flow with the journey of the sun and the moon. They learn, and grow, and love. They build their own traditions, create their own hopes and expectations, and they shape their own community within the colony.

At night, they huddle with those closest to them: Anahera, Tui, Molling, Lestra, Stamfjord, Ariki, and Kahu. These last two are as silly as ever, but they are peers of Sherlock and John now, and friends. Sherlock and John will always watch for them, the way Erebus will always watch for Sherlock and John, but they are fully grown, and planning for their own future together.

Maryle stays on the fringes of their circle. Sherlock tracks her movements, but notes nothing alarming. Although she occasionally strikes up conversation with John, she spends more and more time with Janine and Irena, less and less time with her previous friends, and almost no time with any of the male pengs. Sherlock cannot discern whether she has grown less interested in them, or more angry with them.

As Sherlock and John leave Cassiopeia after their fourth summer, they know that this will be their winter. They are ready, and they can’t get home fast enough.

“I’m going to call for you when we get back, Sherlpeng.”

“You always call for me, Johnling.”

“You know what I mean, penggit.”

“I do. And I’m going to answer you.”

“And then you’ll be mine.”

“John, I have been yours since the day we met.”

“But it will be official. Everyone will know.”

“I think everyone already knows, but yes, it will be done in the traditional way of our kind, recognized by council and colony. Manawanui. Immutable.”

“Abiding.”

“Pengfast.”

John wraps his wings around Sherlock, and presses their cheeks together. “Pengfast. Forever.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock is waiting. Sherlock has been waiting since they arrived home two days and three nights ago, and his patience is running thin. He stands on the edge of the huddle and watches the sunrise crest over the heads of still-sleeping pengs, and he decides that today is absolutely the day. It must be.

Also, he decides, John must wake up, right now. The sooner John wakes up, the sooner it can happen. John is not waking up. John is standing with his head tucked under his wing, his shoulders rising and falling with the slow breathing of a peng fast asleep. Sherlock looks at his Johnling, at his shiny black coat, his long, elegant wings, his bright yellow ear patches and shiny white chest.

John is so beautiful.

John needs to wake up.

Sherlock shuffles back to the huddle and presses himself up against John's side. John hums in his sleep and leans into Sherlock. He lets out a dream-rich sigh and mumbles something about Cephalopoda before tucking his head under his other wing and settling down again.

Unacceptable.

Sherlock sticks his head under John's wing, too, and whispers. "John? John. John, wake up."

John does not wake up. Sherlock whispers a little louder. Still nothing. Fine, Sherlock thinks. John will need his energy, anyway. He'll let John sleep until the sun is fully over the horizon, and then Sherlock will wake John up. And then, it will happen.

When the sun is a feather's width above the horizon, Sherlock taps John on the shoulder. He taps harder. He puts both wings on John's shoulders and gives him a tiny shake. He gives John a bigger shake. He is about to give John a rather large shake, when John opens one eye and glares at Sherlock. John looks at the sky, no doubt judging the time of morning, and glares at Sherlock again, with both eyes this time.

"Good morning, John. I thought maybe you'd want to wake up now."

"You were wrong."

"But, it's day."

"It is barely day. It is two herring past sunrise."

"Yes, well, still. This is our third day back."

"Yes, yes it is. And tomorrow will be our fourth day back."

Sherlock thinks his lower bill may be wobbling. "Yes. But the third day is sooner than the fourth day. The third day is now."

"I'm going back to sleep, Sherlock." And he does.

Sherlock storms off in huff, slapping his feet down to distract his wobbly lower bill. He stomps to the top of a snow drift, hunches down onto his feet and tail, and watches over the colony. To be fair to John, no one else is awake yet, either.

Tendrils of steam drift over the huddle, slips of warm air sent upward as emperors shift against each other. The whisps soon disappear, but while they exist, they are tinged with the pinks and oranges of the sun as she rises over the sea.

From the west edge of the huddle a lone peng breaks away, stretches, and surveys his surroundings. Sherlock recognizes Erebus' gait, and is pleased to see the elder emperor walk in Sherlock's direction. Sherlock greets him as he approaches, and Erebus nods in acknowledgment.

"You are up early this morning, Sherlock."

"I suppose I am."

Erebus regards Sherlock silently before speaking again. "Could you not sleep?"

"I could neither sleep, nor convince John to wake up." Sherlock stares down in John's general vicinity.

"I see."

"We have been home for three nights and two days, Elder Erebus!"

"Ah. Yes. And you are waiting." It is not a question. "Sherlock, have you noticed that everyone else is waiting, too?"

"But why wait? It's time. We are both ready, and it is time. Why are we waiting?"

Erebus chuckles. "Sherlock, my dear boy, for one as smart as yourself, you can be keenly unobservant at times. Look at the huddle. What do you see?"

Sherlock looks. "Penguins, asleep. It's tedious."

"Don't look at the penguins, or what they are or are not doing. Look at the huddle itself, and tell me what you see."

Sherlock is not in an observant mood. He's in an annoyed mood. "It's round."

"Mmm. What else? What about its size?"

"It's size? Oh! Stupid, stupid, stupid! The huddle is approximately seventy-three percent its usual size."

"That's a rather specific number for an approximation." Erebus has a fond look on his face. "What does the size tell you?"

"We are not all back from Cassiopeia, yet."

"Exactly. Nothing will start until we are all gathered here, together. There is no sense in calling for someone who has yet to arrive."

Sherlock wants to say that all the other someones do not matter, because he and John are both here, but he doesn't say it. This is their way. They will do it as a community, or not at all.

Below him, the huddle is waking up.

"Thank you, Elder Erebus."

"Not at all."

"May I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"How do I know what to do? After? When we've called to each other, and paraded?"

Erebus smiles. "When it is time to mate? You will know, Sherlock. Your feelings for John will guide you, and you will learn together."

Sherlock was afraid Erebus would say something like this. Surely there are guidelines, or tips, or warnings to heed? "But, is it the same for us, for two male pengs, as it is for a male and a female?"

"Exactly the same, except that both of you will release the gift, instead of just one. Trust yourself, Sherlock. Trust John. It will be fine. I promise. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I do believe I see your intended coming to fetch you. I will take my leave."

Erebus bumps to his belly and toboggans down the snowdrift, calling hello to John as they pass each other.

John arrives a moment later, yawning. He slouches against Sherlock and grumbles a good morning, then asks, "What were you and Erebus talking about?"

"Oh, not much. We discussed the size of the huddle, the importance of community, things like that."

John hums and stands up tall to look Sherlock in the eye. "And that's what has you so flustered? You look like you just raced the length of the island and back." John presses himself up against Sherlock's chest. "And your heart is racing. And you feel warm. Are you getting sick?" John runs his wing over Sherlock's forehead. "Open your bill."

"What? No! No, I'm fine! Very healthy. An excellent example of an emperor peng in the prime of his life! Not a thing wrong. Perfectly fine."

"If you say so, penggit. Come on, I told Anahera and Tui we'd go for a walk this morning."

The rest of the colony arrives late that evening, exhausted by their final push across the sea. Sherlock and John watch the hustle and bustle as pengs search for friends and family. "Look, there's your father," John says, nudging Sherlock.

“I see him.”

“Well, that's good, isn't it? That he's home?”

“Were you worried? He's a very good swimmer, you know.”

John shakes his head. “No, I wasn't worried, but it's good to see him.”

The day draws to a close, the sun setting in a fit of rose and purple and orange. John and Sherlock wait until the huddle’s centre is tightly packed, then take their place near friends. As always, Sherlock manoeuvers John in front of him, turning his own back to the winter cold.

John wriggles around until they face each other, then says, “I know what you're doing, you know.”

Sherlock rubs his cheek along John's shoulder and smiles. “What am I doing?”

“You're staying on the outside so you can sneak off in the middle of the night and get yourself into trouble.”

“That is absolutely not what I am doing.”

“Oh, really?”

“Really.”

“So, why do you always insist on being on the outside?”

“To keep you warm.”

“To keep me warm.”

“Yes.”

“Move. Tonight I'm keeping you warm.”

“John, it's fine, I'm plenty warm. You throw off more heat than the average peng. Sometimes I have to step away because you're so warm.”

John is determined to change places with Sherlock. “That's why I should be on the outside. I get too hot. I need to cool down. Look at me, I'm panting.” John sticks his tongue out and gasps.

“That's not panting. That's alarming, but it’s not panting.”

“I'm serious. You're on the inside tonight.” John makes another ludicrous sound, this one more like a wheeze than a gasp.

“Stop that.”

“Not until you move.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.”

Sherlock and John switch places, and John presses himself flush against Sherlock. Sherlock must admit, it's very cozy. John runs his wings up and down Sherlock's sides, and within no time at all Sherlock feels himself relaxing, and slipping into sleep.

“I love you, Sherlpeng.”

Kei te aroha au ki a koe, too, Johnling.”

Sherlock wakes up with the distinct feeling that things are not as he left them. The peng in front of him is not John, but Stamfjord. Right. He remembers. He was on the inside last night, because John insisted on sleeping on the outside. But, John is no longer on the outside. John is gone.

Sherlock turns and looks at the ice, which has a fine film of frost over it. John has not been gone long, but he most definitely woke up and left earlier than usual. Sherlock looks at the sun, which has not finished her climb over the sea. Sherlock looks at the huddle. Everyone is still sleeping.

Sherlock is about to step away, and go searching for his errant Johnling, when he hears it. He freezes in his tracks and angles his head toward the sound. He hears it again, long notes of love and promise reaching him from some distant place.

John is calling for him.

John has called in morning greeting, and when he is searching for Sherlock, and even in anger, but John has never called for Sherlock like this. John’s call covers their island with song. It hovers in the air above them, each note loud and clear before fading away into the cold. John’s call comes to him in colours, pink and orange and purple.

John is calling for him.

The huddle is waking, eyes opening wide at the first call of the season, graceful necks arching this way and that, feathers ruffling, feet shifting.

Sherlock scans the colony until one peng catches his attention. Pāpā. Siger smiles at him, and nods his head a fraction of a degree, and Sherlock understands. John waited for everyone to return, but he specifically waited for Siger, their leader. And now, it has begun, and John is the very first one.

John is calling for him.

Sherlock lowers his head to his chest. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, then opens his bill. He sings back to John, calling with his heart, which is so full it may burst. He calls and he calls, and when he is out of breath, he lifts his head, and he opens his eyes.

The colony is wide, wide awake. In front of him, hundreds of pengs listen with Sherlock, and when John’s call comes back, they shift in unison, looking over each other for the song’s origin.

Sherlock’s body is vibrating with his need to get to John. He cannot control it, it falls out of his realm of decision-making. He simply must get to John. He calls again, and this time his song rings out from somewhere deeper than even his heart, and if he were able to listen to himself, he would hear the soulfulness of it flying over the distance between them, tugging at the hearts at everyone it passes.

He must get to John.

He knows John is on the other side of the huddle, but should he go to the right, or to the left? Which way will get him to John fastest? Why are all these pengs in his way?

John calls again, plaintive now, desperate for his mate. Sherlock decides he cannot waste one more iota of time getting to John. He’s going to go straight through. He steps forward, and forward again, and then he’s bumping into them, sliding past them. He follows John’s call, and the huddle parts like a hewn glacier in front of him, two halves of an obstacle falling away, leaving a gap to be filled with the unstoppable: Sherlock’s love for John, bigger than the sea.

As Sherlock walks through his colony, his senses register short flashes of input, little moments that will stay with him forever. He sees the tip of an orange bill, the sheen of a yellow feather, the blink of an ebony eye. He hears the last notes of John’s song, the click of a foot on ice, the coo of a peng moved to tears. He feels the rush of wind against his chest, the sweep of ice under his tail, the sting of cold in his lungs. The world comes to him in bits and pieces as he makes his way to John.

Then, finally, he sees John, and they are in each other’s wings. John rocks on his feet, both tugging Sherlock against him, and pressing himself flush against Sherlock. They kiss each other’s bills and faces and necks, and then John rests his forehead on Sherlock’s shoulder and whispers, “You came. You came.”

Sherlock can’t help it. He giggles. “Of course I came, you penggit. I’ve been bugging you about this since we got home.”

John stretches tall and touches his bill to Sherlock’s. “I know. But I wasn’t sure how to do it, how to make it special, and I wanted it to be what you wanted, and I was afraid –”

“Shhh. You knew exactly what to do. It was perfect. You are perfect. But, we’re not done, Johnling.”

“No. Not yet. Ready?”

“I was hatched ready, John.”

John chuckles, takes a step back, and looks down. He raises his head, winks at Sherlock, and then cranes his head up, his wings down, his chest out. He holds the pose, and Sherlock mirrors it, not needing to look at John to know the position of each feather. He senses John all around him, and it is the work of a subconscious thought to form himself in his mate’s image.

They stay that way, in perfect sync, until Sherlock lowers his head, rounding his back, bill almost touching the ice. The air around him shifts as John imitates his posture, and Sherlock feels the top of John’s head brush against his own.

Sherlock understands the importance of this part of courtship, for how can two emperors spend a lifetime together if they are not in sync with each other?

Around them, other pengs begin to call for each other, and the sky above Pobeda bears witness to another season of courting. In a few days it will be done. For now, Sherlock and John take their place at the head of the parade, where they will lead other couples around the colony in a show of who’s who in the newly bonded. As they wait for others to join them, Sherlock alternately preens and grooms John.

John laughs and ducks his head toward his belly, out of reach of Sherlock’s nipping bill. “What are you doing, you silly peng?”

“I’m loving you. I’m yours, and I’m proud as a peng could be, and I want everyone to know that I am the luckiest peng who ever lived.”

“So, I take it you’re happy, Sherlpeng?”

“How can you ask me that? I woke to the sound of my anahe calling for me, and it was the most exquisite sound I ever could have imagined.”

“And you called back.”

“Of course I called back. Kei te aroha au ki a koe.”

“I love you, too, anahe.”

“Look, others are coming. Are you ready?”

“I was hatched ready, Sherlock.”

Sherlock shakes his head, laughing at his mate. They start the parade, wing in wing, whispering terms of endearment as they go.

Āwhai.”

Hoa.”

Makau.”

Tau.”

In the end, there are only two words that seem to fit.

“Sherlpeng.”

“Johnling.”

Chapter Text

The parade feels like an interminable crawl and a ride on a shooting star, all at the same time. Sherlock’s body buzzes with John at his side, walking in unison as a newly bonded couple. As they make their way around in a circle, with dozens and dozens of other couples behind them, the rest of the colony calls out sounds of celebration. All eyes are on them, but Sherlock hardly notices. His eyes are fixed on John, who holds his head high, and puffs his chest out with pride.

Sherlock has never felt so proud in his life. He knows he’s done good things, important things, but bonding with John speaks to a place inside him that overflows with accomplishment. They are accepted, and loved, and supported. They are allowed.

John smiles at Sherlock as they make the last turn. “We’re tahu, now Sherlock, not just ipo.

Tahu.” Sherlock could say that word all day long. Tahu. Tahu, tahu, tahu. Tahu John.

As soon as they can, they break away from the parade and hurry away, tumbling over each other in their rush to be alone. Private spaces are scarce on Pobeda, limited to the occasional snowdrift, but no one seems to pay attention to anyone else once the mating starts. Still, Sherlock and John head to the northwest end of their island, postponing their union for the sake of a bit more distance.

They are huffing when they stop in sight of the isolated shore, and laughing, and they both have to ruffle up their feathers to release heat. Sherlock grooms a messy patch on his shoulder, and John watches him, amused.

“Don’t bother, tahu Sherlpeng. I’m just going to mess them all up again.”

Sherlock stops, and raises his head. His cheeks feel hot again, so he raises his head into the wind, and breathes in the cold air.

“Are you?”

John steps closer and nods. “If we do it right, yeah.”

“Oh.”

“Are you okay? Are you … do you … still want to?” John cocks his head and reaches out with one wing, but doesn’t touch Sherlock.

“Of course I do. I just … I don’t really know … what to do.”

“You know how to kiss me, right? Let’s do that, and then, I think, we’ll know. We’ll know how to move forward.”

Sherlock swallows and steps forward, close to John, almost, but not quite touching his tahu. John is the same as he was yesterday, but everything about him feels new. Sherlock takes in John’s bright eyes, his beautiful lavender bill, his brilliant yellow patches. He notes the way John’s neck sweeps down to his broad chest and his strong wings, and how his strong wings slope down to his soft, rounded belly, and his firm thighs, where the feathers are silky smooth and glossy.

“You’re so beautiful, tahu John. You’re stunning.”

John ducks his head and shakes it back and forth. “No, tahu Sherlock, you’re the stunning one. So elegant, so regal.” John peers up at Sherlock, angling his head toward one shoulder. “I’m so lucky. You picked me. I don’t know why, but you picked me.”

“I picked you, but you kept me.”

“How could I not? You’re amazing.”

Sherlock and John study each other, and Sherlock feels like he’s meeting John for the first time, but this time, as tahu. When John drops his eyes to Sherlock’s bill, then lower down his body, Sherlock can only blink back, and stare. When John closes the distance, slowly, slowly, Sherlock angles his head and reaches, bill first, and sighs.

John rubs his cheek down the length of Sherlock’s neck, then presses his bill to Sherlock’s. John closes his eyes and kisses Sherlock, just the lightest brush of bill on bill, and Sherlock kisses back.

“Come closer, tahu,” John says, and Sherlock thinks he may fall over at John’s feet.

Sherlock inches forward on the ice until they are belly to belly, and rests his head on John’s shoulder. John slides his wings under Sherlock’s, holding him tight, and Sherlock presses back. He can feel his heart pounding in his throat, on his tongue, down to his wingtips. He can feel John’s heart, too, against his own, thudding hard and sure.

John brushes the undersides of his wings down Sherlock’s sides and over his flanks. He pets over Sherlock’s curves, inward, then glides one wing down his thigh, leaning down to brush across his ankle. John rubs his cheek along Sherlock’s belly, and Sherlock is already panting when John slips lower, and presses his face over the tightness gripping Sherlock’s lower belly.

John straightens to his full height and kisses Sherlock again. They kiss and kiss and kiss, and then John stops, and with his eyes still closed, says, “Sherlock. Touch me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Shh, it’s okay. We’re okay.”

Sherlock touches John, caresses his face and neck and chest, and rubs himself against his tahu, belly to belly. John stretches back and extends his wings to the sides, and Sherlock explores everywhere, touches all over John’s body, his hips and ribs and the silken, white undersides of his wings. He kisses John’s chest, and one shoulder, and then the other. He can hear John trilling deep in his throat.

When he lifts his head to kiss John’s face again, John lowers his head and nips at Sherlock’s neck. A tremor shoots down Sherlock’s body, momentarily stilling him.

“I’m sorry, is that all right?”

“Yes, yes, it’s … very all right.”

John does it again, and Sherlock’s legs wobble. When John moves behind him, murmurs in his ear, “Sherlock, let me …” and clamps down on the back of Sherlock’s neck, Sherlock’s body understands exactly what John wants, and he finds himself on his belly, facing away from John, with his tail high in the air.

“Oh my gods, look at you,” John whispers, but Sherlock cannot answer, cannot make a sound, because everything inside him is a twisted knot of need, and he needs John to unravel it.

Sherlock spreads his wings out on either side of him, stabilizing himself, and cranes his head back to look at John, who stands off to the side, with his bill open and his tongue peeking out. Sherlock blinks at him and raises an eyebrow, and John shudders and moves to his side.

John leans down and coos lovely soft sounds in Sherlock’s ear. Sherlock feels John combing through the short feathers on the back of his neck, murmuring into them. Sherlock lowers his head, offering the full expanse of him, and hears John sigh just before nuzzling and nipping again. Sherlock spreads his feet further apart, and digs his claws into the ice.

John doesn’t let go of Sherlock as he tentatively places one foot on his lower back, and steps up. Sherlock shifts his weight to better support John, and then John steps up with his other foot. Sherlock can see John’s wings flutter out to the side as he finds his balance, then John lowers himself down along the length of Sherlock’s back, and releases his hold on Sherlock’s neck.

Tahu Sherlock?”

“Yes, tahu John?”

“Are you ready?”

“Gods, yes.”

John wriggles and rolls on top of Sherlock, setting off a series of vibrations throughout Sherlock’s body that drive directly into the pressure building in his belly, everything going tense, so tense, and tingling, and amazing.

John rounds his back, grasping Sherlock by the neck again, and angles his tail low, toward the ice. The shift in weight causes Sherlock to arch his back, lifting his own tail higher. He plants his bill in the ice for stability, flattens his wings, and strains his bottom up, toward John, who curves down.

It is so much. It is the moment before diving into the sea, the instant before a sneeze, the tiny space before a yawn. Something has to give. Every part of him clamps down, squeezing hard on the throbbing at the centre him. Something, he does not know what, has to give.

“I love you, tahu Sherlock.”

John shifts his weight further back, and for a brief moment Sherlock fears he’s going to slip right off, but then there’s a touch between them, a connection of something hot and moist to hot and moist, a fluttering, a quickening, and the knot inside Sherlock bursts open, and turns into a sharp, shuddering pulse. He throws his head back and gasps, only just barely aware of John panting in his ear, both their bodies heaving.

Sherlock feels soft and smooth on the ice, his muscles turned to sea jelly, his eyelids weighted down with sweet exhaustion. The feathers under his tail are warm and slick, and his legs and back ache. He feels absolutely wonderful. He is swimming in a sea of elation, and would be content to drown there.

John slumps down next to him and bumps his head against Sherlock’s. He mumbles something Sherlock cannot understand, and Sherlock wonders if the joys of mating have somehow interfered with his ability to comprehend language. It would be a small price to pay. He musters together some scrap of energy, and grunts a questioning noise in John’s direction.

“Hmm?”

“Mmkay?”

“Mmhmm. You?”

“Mmm. Very. Yes.”

They lie on the ice, sleepy and spent, until Sherlock recalls that pengs do not sleep lying down. He pokes his wing into John's side, and says, “Tahu Johnling?

John yawns. “Yes, tahu Sherlpeng?”

“We should stand up.”

“Not sure I can, love. Something appears to be wrong with my legs.”

“What's wrong, my beautiful Johnling?”

“Can't feel them, Sherlpeng.”

Sherlock pushes to standing, which takes much longer than it should, and wobbles at John's side. “C’mon, tahu Johnling. I'll help you.”

John looks up from where he lies sprawled on the ice and smiles. “Hello, tahu Sherlpeng. You look very handsome right now.”

“Do I? I feel rather dishevelled, actually.”

John grins. “Yes. Your feathers are sticking up everywhere and your tail is crooked and you have snow all over your belly. You look like I just had my wicked way with you, and it's very handsome.”

“Get up, you silly penggit.”

John manages to get to his feet, and then immediately collapses against Sherlock. They stand, wings around each other, heads on each other's shoulders.

Tahu Johnling?”

“Mmm?”

“I think we did it right.”

“Are you sure, tahu Sherlpeng?”

Sherlock could replay the memories he's already stored in his ice palace, to see where they may have gone wrong, but then John giggles and says, “I suggest we do it many more times, just to be sure we're doing it right.”

John is a genius. Sherlock is going to tell John this, right after he closes his eyes for a moment. The next thing he knows, he’s lifting his head off John's shoulder, and observing that the sky is much darker than it was when he closed his eyes.

Also, John is snoring.

Soon, he will wake John so they can return to the huddle and get a proper night's sleep, but first, he snuggles up closer, gathering John as close as he can, and he whispers, “I love you, tahu Johnling. I love you so much.”

Chapter Text

Being John's tahu is profoundly satisfying. Sherlock knew it would be, but didn't understand just how much so until after the fact. John and Sherlock, he thinks to himself. Sherlock and John. These are the same two names he's been putting together for the last four winters, but they resonate differently now. They fill the universe with their rightness.

Sherlock spends a lot of time thinking about what has changed. Nothing is different in their daily lives, well, except for the mating, and thank the gods for the mating, but something else new exists between them since they bonded.

It's not about commitment, because he and John have been committed to each other since they met.

It's not about the recognition of the colony, because the entire colony has known they were under each other's wings since they were tiny.

It's not even about the mating, because as much as Sherlock loves that connection with John, he would choose John even if they never mated again.

Unable to come to a substantive conclusion, he decides to collect more evidence, and goes off to discuss the topic with others.

He asks Olive, and she ruffles the feathers on the top of his head, and says that for her and Siger, it felt different after bonding because they could have hatchlings together, and therefore, would always be connected through their offspring. Sherlock knows that's not what it is for him.

He asks Molling and Lestra. Lestra waddles away muttering under his breath about analyzing everything to death, but Molling says that for her, it's different now because Lestra loves her enough to say he will not change his mind. Sherlock doesn't even know what that means, because there's never been a shred of doubt in his mind that he and John will never change their minds about each other.

He asks Anahera and Tui what it means to them to be bonded, and they smile at each other for a long time before answering, and then Anahera says that it means she knows she will be with Tui forever.

Sherlock starts to interrupt, to tell her it's obviously forever, but Tui stops him, and says that forever isn't only until they stop being pengs. Forever means always, for the rest of time, even if there comes a time that there are no more pengs, no more ice, no more sea. It means there can never be a different interpretation made, by anyone, about who they were to each other.

If history remembers them, it will remember them together. If the gods honour them, they will honour them together. If the stars above save a place for them, they will shine there together. They cannot be separated, not by nature, not by thought, not by time itself. Forever, Tui says, means they will be a part of each other, even if time itself ceases to exist.

“Like Kororā and Pono?" Sherlock asks. "I don't even know if they really existed, but regardless, they exist in our history, and they will be always together.”

Anahera nods, then asks, “But do we need to be bonded in the eyes of the colony to have that fate?”

Sherlock considers. “I don't know. Erebus believes that he and Selvic are together forever, for all time, even beyond this life. They weren't bonded.”

“Weren't they, though?”

“They couldn't be, not — oh. Oh, of course. They didn't need a calling, or a parade. Of course they were bonded. Are bonded.”

Sherlock's thoughts circle back to all the reasons none of the other explanations had made sense: because they were already committed, because everyone already knew, because they would choose each other no matter what, because hatchlings don't matter, because they would never change their minds. Sherlock and John were bonded before they were bonded. And yet, it feels different now.

He walks away from Anahera and Tui even more confused than before. If they were bonded before they were bonded, why does something feel different? Did Erebus and Selvic always feel what they felt, even though they were never officially bonded? He finds Erebus, and explains his confusion.

Erebus sighs, and looks out to sea. “Have you considered, my dear peng, that it comes to each couple differently? That you feel something unique to you and John, while your parents experience something else, and Anahera and Tui something else again? That would, of course, explain why their explanations do not align with your own experience.”

Erebus’ answer makes so much sense, Sherlock is embarrassed not to have thought of it himself. Of course it would be particular to each peng, and each couple. He still does not know, however, why bonding with John has added some new element to their feelings for each other.

He approaches the issue from a different angle. “But you agree that you were bonded with Selvic, despite the lack of all the colony-derived pomp and circumstance?”

“I have no doubt, Sherlock, neither in my mind, nor my heart. The moment I met Selvic, I knew it was forever. I just knew. But I can’t put myself in other pengs’ heads, and know what it feels like for them, or why you feel differently now that you’re bonded with John.”

“And was there any one moment when something felt different for you, felt more … more?”

Erebus stands silent for a long moment. When he speaks again, his eyes are bright, and his voice is low. “Yes. Yes, very much so. When we were reunited. When we saw each other for the first time after those six long winters apart. Have I told you about our reunion, Sherlock?”

“No, Sir. John and I have wondered, though. Did you go searching for Selvic, when he didn’t join you that morning? When you were meant to elope?”

“I did. My parents kept a very close eye on me during the journey back to Pobeda. But they couldn’t watch me every bit of every day. They had to hunt, and sleep, like the rest of us. When I could, I took my leave. I swam, Sherlock, not unlike you did, to the Shelf. There are few other places in this sea for emperors to go, and I knew that Selvic’s parents would seek out another colony. So, I went to the Shelf.”

“But the Shelf is enormous. How did you know which way to go, once you got there?”

“I did not know. I had no idea.”

“Six winters. You searched for six winters?”

“Yes, but so did he. He knew I would not go back to Pobeda without him. He stayed with the new colony until he knew their habits and ways, and when he could, he took his leave.”

“Which colony was it, Erebus?”

“They are called the Anahi.”

Sherlock startles at the name, familiarity flooding through him. He knows this name, he is sure of it. His mind whirs, searching for and pulling up a memory from his own trek across the Shelf, with Mycroft, and the tooth. A conversation with a stranger who called himself Nikau rises to the forefront of his thoughts:

“So, is it true, what they say about Pobeda?”

“What do they say about Pobeda?”

“That our social revolution started there, and ended there, between the wingspan of one generation.”

“I met an Anahi emperor on the Shelf, when Mycroft and I were walking to the Rūnangans. Nikau of Anahi, that was his name. He was very eager to know what I carried, and where I was going, and why. I said very little, but he figured out that we were going to seek an audience with the High Council, and he was very insistent to find out why. Mycroft intervened before I could say too much.

“When he found out I was from Pobeda, he talked about a social revolution, and it caught me very much off-guard. I had never thought of what you and Selvic went through as the start of a social revolution, but it was, wasn't it? And he knew as much about it as anyone, maybe even more, because Selvic was there. Selvic was with the Anahi, and they came to know everything, didn’t they? About you and Selvic?”

“You met an Anahi? And he said that?” Erebus’ body has snapped to its full height, and even though Sherlock is tall, if not taller, he is glad that Erebus is his friend, because Erebus, in this current posture, is fiercely intimidating.

“Yes. But, I never saw him again. The Anahi broke off soon after I met him.”

“Fascinating. Yes, the Anahi took in Selvic and his parents, and his siblings. You will remember that Moringa is Selvic’s sister? There were two brothers, as well. They created a devastating image of a family having escaped something awful, a family in need of protection against some great evil.”

“Some great evil? What? Same-peng bonding?”

“Mm. They said that I had somehow shifted Selvic’s mind so he no longer knew right from wrong. They said I had convinced him to elope with him, and to engage in sinful activity, and that they had rescued him just in time.”

“But Selvic, he didn’t believe any of that rot, did he?”

“No, no, of course not. But, no one believed his version of the story, and his family certainly fanned the apologist fires. The Anahi have been a hot spring of apologist movement ever since.

“The peng you met, this Nikau, he would have known of Moringa, and her return to her native colony. It is very likely he was fishing for more than fish.”

Sherlock thinks back to Nikau. Was he an apologist? What would he have done if Sherlock had told him the truth?

Erebus must see the worry etched into Sherlock's expression. “The evidence does seem to indicate that the Anahi are still heavily influenced by apologist theory. But, Sherlock, you must not fret unnecessarily. Mycroft’s work with the High Council would have identified the Anahi as a stronghold of apologist thought, and the High Council will no doubt be working to neutralize any continued threat."

Sherlock feels the draft of a very close call having passed him by. Erebus is right, there’s nothing for it, now. If Nikau was up to no good when they met, he did not get far.

“Sherlock, you may never see that emperor again. Do not let it bother you. You have done all the right things. You have set our kind on a different path, a path of acceptance.”

And then Sherlock understands, realization bursting bright like a sunbeam through the clouds.

“Erebus, that's it! That's what is different. The calling, the parade, it marked the culmination of everything John and I have worked and suffered for, of everything my shell spoke to when I was hatched.”

Erebus grins at him. “And so, it is the achievement of same-peng rights that heightens your bond to John, and not the bonding itself?”

“That, or perhaps the sheer relief of being able to participate in the ritual for which we had strived.”

“And in the same light, it was finding each other after so long and arduous a search that marked the change for me and Selvic.

“We found each other on the outskirts of the Rūnanga colony. We were both heading there, I, because I was searching for him; he, because he planned to present his case to the High Council, and ask for their help in reuniting us.”

“He would have told the truth of his nature to the High Council, not knowing how he'd have been received?”

“Yes. We had each been to as many colonies as we could find, undoubtedly missing each other time and time again. We were tired, and running out of options. He was willing to risk anything at that point. And then, after we found each other, well, we did not go to the Council.”

“And that was when you knew? That something was different?”

Erebus looks past Sherlock, past Pobeda, past the here and now.

“I saw him. I saw him in the distance, and I knew it was him. And then, he saw me. I cannot remember crossing the space between us. I cannot remember anything between the instant we saw each other, and the moment we were in each other’s wings.

“We could not speak. We held each other, and my mind and body were equally overwhelmed. To hold him again, to touch him, it was unlike any experience I’d ever had, or have ever had since. Every caress was familiar, every sound he made, every feather.

“When we were able, we pulled away, just enough to look at each other. We studied each other, all the small changes, all the things that were exactly the same. He had a very distinctive marking on his right side, where black meets white, above the wing. I had thought of it so many times. I imagined it, the way it looked, and all the times I had traced it with my wing, and my bill. And it was there, the same, exactly the same. And then reality rushed in, and I understood, completely, that it was him, it was my Selvic. It was really him.

“I knew then, with every bit of my existence, that we would never be apart again. So, yes, that was when my love for Selvic surpassed anything I had known before. That moment, of finding each other again, that was the moment of our bonding.”

Sherlock cannot imagine what it has taken from Erebus to share such an intimate memory with him. Having heard it, Sherlock feels both drained, and exhilarated.

“Even now, Sherlock, that he is gone, he is with me. Still, we are together. And I know I will see him again. I will see him, soon.”

“No,” Sherlock says before he can think about it. “I mean, yes. You will see him again, but I rather selfishly hope that it’s not soon, Erebus. Not for a very long time.”

“I am tired, Sherlock. I am old, twenty-two winters old. I was already old when you were hatched.” He smiles and shakes his head. “I must seem ancient to you, now.”

“You seemed kind and wise and essential to me then, and you feel even moreso now. Ancient, I believe, must be a state of mind, just like being bonded to another is a state of mind. Do you feel ancient, Erebus?”

“I feel … finished. And I would very much like to see my Selvic, again. But the timing of my departure is not for me to determine, so you may very well get your wish, my young friend.”

The discussion is unsettling to Sherlock. He walks with Erebus back to the huddle, and they bow low to each other before Erebus disappears into the heart of it. Sherlock is torn. He wants to follow Erebus, to stay with him and make sure he is not suffering alone in his sadness.

He waits until he sees Vela and Pavo wrap their wings around him, then he seeks out John. He needs to share his recent observations and learnings with his tahu, but when he finds him, John seems equally unsettled. Sherlock approaches him, and wonders why his John is standing alone, staring at the ice, muttering to himself.

“Johnling?”

“Sherlock.”

“Johnling, so much has happened. I have spoken with Erebus, at great length, and he shared so much with me.”

“Hmm?” John has not come back from his thoughts yet. Sherlock waits, watching his tahu put things to rest in his mind before turning his attention fully to Sherlock. “Yes. Yes, I, too, have had a very interesting conversation.”

“Have you?”

“I have.”

“With who?”

“With Maryle.”

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock blinks. He blinks again. Perhaps if he blinks a bit more, instead of talking, John will correct himself, and explain that actually, he’s had an interesting conversation with Kahu, or Stamfjord, or a seagull. Because, Sherlock thinks to himself, there is no reason between sea and sky that Maryle should need to speak to John. Ever.

Sherlock stops blinking long enough to study John for any clues about the nature of their interaction. John is still staring off into the middle of his own befuddlement. He seems unsettled and thoughtful, but not agitated or angry.

“John? What did she say? Please tell me she’s not conspiring to usurp me and somehow become your mate?”

“What? Oh! Oh, no, no. I'd say she's well over me at this point.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Well, she's bonded now, for one.”

“Maryle is bonded?”

“It seems so, yes.” John looks at Sherlock properly, then, really looks at him, and sighs.

“To whom?”

“To Janine.”

“To Janine. Janine, the same Janine that sits on the Junior Council with us? The same Janine that studies under Vela? The same Janine that is female?”

“The very same.”

Sherlock steps back and raises his wings, drops them back down, shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head. “Maryle is same-peng?”

“It would appear that way, yes.”

Sherlock cannot stand the distraction in John's countenance. He needs answers, and he needs them right this very ... now, or he will implode with the maddening, itchy, intolerable, not-knowing that is building in his throat and threatening to swallow his brain.

“Tell. Me. Everything.”

John snaps out of it. He bristles, feathers standing in spikes, and he does not bother to right himself before launching into an explication the likes of which Sherlock has rarely heard from his Johnling.

“She intercepted me, right here, at this very spot – I was coming to look for you, you see, and she stopped me, and she said that it was urgent that she talk to me, that she set things right, because she needed to explain why she had done the things she'd done, why she had pursued me, even when she knew that I was with you, even that first summer, on Cassiopeia, all those times she tried to manipulate me, like the time she tried to stay behind and find a place on the Junior Council, do you remember that? And you talked to Erebus, and he intervened, and sent her on her way –”

“John! What. Did. She. Say!”

“She said she’s always known she was same-peng, and she knew I was, too, and for a long time she had hoped we could come to an arrangement of some sorts, that she and I could bond for appearances, so as to not raise suspicions. Then she met you, and, well, she decided to keep trying despite the odds, because of family.”

“Family.”

“She said she remembers her parents, the ones she was hatched to, but doesn’t know what happened to them. For some reason, she believes they abandoned her, even though penglogic tells us they must have been killed at sea, and wouldn’t have abandoned their hatchling. Then, her first set of foster parents disappeared, and then her second set, and her third were killed in the Cassiopeia tragedy, and she said that – Sherlock, it was quite touching, she said that if it's the last thing she does, she will have a family, and stay. She will stay with her offspring and give them what she did not have.”

“Offspring.”

“She said she never thought she'd see the day the apologists were silenced, or the day same-peng partners were more than just tolerated, but were allowed to call for each other, and to bond. She never thought it would happen, so she’d hoped, you see, she’d hoped that we could agree to an arrangement and that I'd be able to give her an egg to raise, because she can’t have an egg on her own, obviously.”

“Obviously.”

“She said she wouldn't have minded doing it on her own, I mean, being a mother with no partner, in case I didn’t want to stick around, but then everything changed, and you found the tooth and stone, and all the rules changed, and she fell in love.”

“She fell in love.”

“With Janine.”

“Janine.”

“And she loves Janine, they love each other very much, but they still very much would like to have a family, but of course they cannot have a family without the male gift –”

“No.”

“What?”

“Never.”

“Sherlock, just listen to me for a second.”

Sherlock cannot listen to John. Sherlock is busy listening to memories in his ice palace, specifically one memory in particular, of Maryle telling Sherlock that John would have to choose. Now he understands. She did not mean that John would have to choose between her and Sherlock. She meant that John would have to choose between continuing his own line by mating with a female, or not continuing it at all. Oh. Oh, no.

“I will not listen to one more word of this if you are about to tell me that she wants you to mate with her and give her an egg.”

John shakes his head. “No. No, that's not what she wants. She understands that given the circumstances, and the hard feelings between you and her, and me and her, and kind of everyone and her, she knows that it would never happen. She wanted me to know the entire story, and to apologize.”

“She apologized.”

“She did.”

“And that's all?”

“Um, no. There's more.”

“She wants you to steal an egg for her.”

“What? No!”

“She wants you to steal a hatchling for her!”

“Sherlock, no! She doesn't want me to do anything!”

Sherlock's squints, channelling all of his focus onto John. “Tell me.”

“You’re not going to like it.”

“Obviously.”

“She wants you to mate with Janine.”

It starts low in Sherlock's gut, like a rumble of digestive illness about to burst free of his body. By the time it reaches his chest, it has gathered enough force to manifest as full body shudders. It gains speed, tickling his tongue as it rushes past his bill, filling the air around them. Hilarity. It is the sound of hilarity, and Sherlock can do nothing to stop it.

John glares at him.

Sherlock laughs so hard, bits of herring fly out his nasal passages. Tears run from his eyes, and his belly shakes.

Snorting must be John’s last line, because as soon as the indelicate noise escapes Sherlock, John stomps his foot down and shouts, “Sherlock, enough!”

Sherlock takes a deep, calming breath, and wipes his eyes. “Sorry. I’m sorry. So sorry. You were saying, um, Maryle would like me to mate with Janine?” He snickers again.

John sighs.

“That’s what she said. Yes.”

Sherlock chokes down a chuckle, takes a deep breath, and then stops to wonder why John is not laughing. John should be laughing, because this is the most absurd idea he’s ever heard.

“Why are you not laughing?”

“Because it’s not funny, not really. They want to have hatchlings, Sherlock, and they can’t.”

“Well, we can’t either.”

“Exactly.”

“No.”

“No, what?”

“I’m not going to mate with Janine or anyone but you, and neither are you, ever, going to mate with anyone but me.”

“Well of course not. That’s exactly what I told Maryle.”

“So why are we still talking about this?”

John steps forward and puts his wings on either side of Sherlock’s shoulders. He looks him straight in the eye, and says, “Sherlpeng, I would like to have hatchlings with you one day. I think you would like to have hatchlings with me one day. Other same-peng couples want to have hatchlings, too. How is that going to happen?”

John and Sherlock stare at each other, and the seriousness of the topic settles over Sherlock. This isn't about Maryle, or Janine, or John, or Sherlock. This is about all of them.

“The High Council has been working on adoption procedures –”

“They've been working on it for winters now.”

Sherlock nods. This is true. They have had no updates from Mycroft in several moons. He had hoped by this mating season they would have more information, but Sherlock hadn't worried because he and John weren't ready for chicks. But what of the others, who are ready?

“I apologize. I see now why you were so affected by the conversation.”

“No, it's all right. You thought I was thinking only about Maryle and Janine, because of my conversation with her. But, no matter how ludicrous her idea, it has given me great pause. You and I would not wish to mate with another, but perhaps there are others who would be willing to help? Perhaps single pengs, or pengs who know they do not want to have hatchlings?”

“Would the Council allow it?”

“Would the Council need to know?”

Sherlock considers. “I don’t know, Johnling. Where is the line? Surely the Council cannot govern every aspect of emperor life, especially matters of such an intimate nature.

“We have asked for the right to partake in the same freedoms that all other pengs enjoy, freedoms that should have been ours all along. The right to bond with anyone we choose exists as one of the most personal freedoms I can imagine, and we had to involve the High Council to ensure us that right.

“But does that mean we must involve them in all such matters? If there is not already an emperor law banning some sort of egg-by-proxy, then perhaps it serves us best not to bring it up at all, and let each couple choose their own way.”

“Yes, I agree.” John shakes his head emphatically, and sets his posture at ease.

Sherlock relaxes into the conversation now that he knows John isn’t about to give his male gift to Maryle, or ask him to give his to Janine. “Why you, John? Why did Maryle want you to father her eggs?”

John shuffles on the ice and looks down at his feet. “Oh, I don’t know. It was silly, really.”

“It can’t be any sillier than the idea of me mating with Janine.” Sherlock reaches out and touches his wing to John’s.

John gives Sherlock a small smile and rolls his eyes. “She said, and I quote, that I am ‘an excellent emperor specimen, one which would create superior hatchlings,’ and, I don’t know, something about multiple talents or some such thing.”

Sherlock watches as John looks anywhere but at him. His Johnling seems so uncomfortable with the compliment. Is that it, Sherlock wonders, or is John uncomfortable about something else?

“She is right,” Sherlock says, his voice hushed. “You are, and you would. You are intelligent, brave, handsome, strong, compassionate, kind, generous, creative, funny –”

“Okay, okay. That’s enough.”

“John, listen to me. Is it important to you that you continue your own line? If it is, we will find a way. I promise.”

“No, Sherlock. It really is not important to me in the slightest. What is important to me is that you and I continue us, and someday, when we are ready, I would like to share who we are with a hatchling of our own. I think that any hatchling of ours would be a continuation of us, and that is far better than a continuation of just me.”

Sherlock is on John faster than a slip on ice. John lets out a soft humph sound upon impact, and when Sherlock wraps his wings around John and nuzzles his neck, John laughs and nuzzles back.

“I love you more than I can say, my Johnling. You are the best and wisest peng I have ever known. We will figure out a way, I promise you. We will help the others, too, we will.”

“I know we will. I know.” John bumps and rubs his cheek along Sherlock’s neck before pulling back enough to look him in the eye. “Only me for you, and only you for me. Anahe. I promise.”

Anahe.”

Chapter Text

Word spreads softly, like feather fluff on a breeze. Couples gather, couples chat. Ideas are generated and shared, and some of them begin to take root. Sherlock and John find themselves at the centre of it all, putting pengs in touch with other pengs, trying to keep track of who is who, who knows who, who should know who. They neither broadcast their actions, nor try to hide them. They believe wholeheartedly in what they are doing, but they also understand that the concept of egg surrogacy is about as familiar as that of purple penguins.

Anahera assists them as a member of the colony, but not in her official capacity on the Council. She tells Sherlock and John that each Council member is aware of John and Sherlock’s efforts, but assures them that none of the members have initiated an agenda item about the matter, or expressed any negative opinions. They are all waiting for word from the High Council regarding adoption protocols, but until that time, this under-ice network of pengs helping pengs seems to be their best option.

By the arrival of the next winter, arrangements have been made for the passing of one male’s gift to one female couple. The peng involved is a young adult, single, of good blood and education. At nine winters of age, he still does not feel a call to bond, and does not mind if he never does. After moons of searching and analyzing candidates, brokering the introduction was almost anticlimactic. Sherlock and John had left the three emperors to themselves to discuss the particulars, and then, two moons later, they had congratulated the new mothers upon the arrival of their chick.

Finding female pengs willing to carry an egg for a male couple, however, proves most difficult. It seems that if a female peng wants to have a hatchling, she wants it for her own. Many females of egg-bearing age are already with mates, none of whom, so far, like the idea of their partner mating with and carrying another peng’s egg. Single females are hesitant to carry an egg for a male couple, fearing that potential mates will see not as altruistic, but as moepuku.

Sherlock asks John if misunderstanding generosity for promiscuity wouldn’t be a sign that the suitor would not be a worthy partner, but John reminds him that the season for finding a mate, bonding, and producing an egg comes only once every twelve moons, and not all emperors are as clear-headed as Sherlock.

Sherlock and John, now five winters old, are the only bonded male couple on Pobeda of which they are aware. They have observed several likely same-peng couples in the younger generations, and are eager to find a solution to their problem, both for themselves, and for those who will come after them.

They remain sure that they do not wish to mate with a female when the time comes, but have made no inroads into the possibility of adoption. Abandoning an egg is one of only two punishable offenses in emperor society, the other being murder; they do not know if there are couples who keep eggs they might otherwise be willing to place in another couple’s care.

Sherlock and John continue to split their time between Junior Council responsibilities, visiting friends, and spending generous amounts of time pengsitting. Each winter finds them more and more besotted with their small charges. They agree that the tiny creatures must have been designed by the gods to be as adorable as possible, as it is hard to take your eyes off something so cute, and when you cannot take your eyes off something, it tends to stay safe.

Kahu and Ariki also pengsit, but despite having been deemed responsible enough to watch over chicks the winter before, the two friends have not quite mastered their duties. Ariki and Kahu are not careless, but are easily distracted by each other and everything around them, and so are never fully on the job. Sherlock and John pengsit the pengsitters, calling out advice when Ariki tries to console a little lost one, and reminders to Kahu when he wanders off to examine a bright piece of seaweed, or an especially throwable rock.

Sherlock asks John who they remind him of, and John smacks Sherlock on the shoulder and reminds him of what almost happened the time Sherlock was busy watching John’s backside, instead of watching Ariki and Kahu.

“But, Johnling, it all ended well, and you became a tuahangata that day. And since then, you’ve trained so many emperors to use ice and stones against the hākoakoa.” Sherlock lowers his voice. “You’re my hiko hiko don’t forget.”

John tries not to smile.

“You are. You’re a kapo kapo. A lightning grabber. At least, I know you grab mine.”

“Stop! My gods, you are incorrigible!” But John laughs when he says it, and scans the area before he rubs up against Sherlock. “Do I? Still?”

Sherlock nuzzles John’s ear and whispers, “How could you doubt that, Johnling? We’ve only been bonded one winter, and every single day I wake up pressed against you, and my first thought is how long it will be before I can get you somewhere alone.”

John ducks his head under Sherlock’s bill, and sighs. “Mmm. Can we slip away, right now? What are those two penggits doing?”

Sherlock looks up from John’s shoulder and peers around. “They’re chasing after Molling’s little one, who is chasing after Stamfjord’s little one. And, somehow, they’re losing ground. Oh, no. Kahu just tackled Ariki, and – oh, for heaven’s sake.”

Sherlock peels himself away from John and flaps a wing in Ariki and Kahu’s general direction. “Just look at those penggits.”

John watches, and chuckles. “Who exactly is watching who over there?”

The chicks have circled back around and are jumping on Ariki and Kahu, who are pretending to be injured and calling for mercy. “They’re all right, Sherlpeng. I’d leave our little one with them, you know?”

Sherlock whips his head around and blinks at John. Their own hatchling is an idea that exists between them, hovering just on the other side of reality. But something in John’s tone has gone straight to Sherlock’s heart and tugged the idea over that thin line. “Ours?”

“Yeah. Someday.”

“When?”

John smiles and shrugs. “I don’t know. When we both feel ready? It’s a pretty big step to take. Parents.”

Sherlock stands wing to wing with John and takes in the vista before them: hundreds of chicks with all their cuteness and curiosity and chaos to spare. “Look at them. Look at how amazing they are, growing and learning and exploring all the time, every single moment. They have everything ahead of them. We could teach them so much, John, couldn’t we? Wouldn’t we be good parents?”

“We’re going to be wonderful parents.”

“When will you be ready, do you think?”

“I don’t know. What about you?”

“Now. I’m ready now, Johnling. Look at them.”

John nods, sliding his wing over Sherlock’s shoulders. “I know. I know, Sherlock. Look at me right now, though, okay? We can’t have a hatchling right now. We have to wait until next winter, and we have to find someone to help us, yeah? We need to find someone who would be willing to do that for us, to give us such a gift. And we haven’t been very successful this winter, finding females who would be open to such a thing. So that’s what we do over the next several moons, okay? We’ve helped Harriet and Clara find someone this winter, and maybe we’ll find someone for Maryle and Janine. But our new goal is finding someone for us, okay?”

A slow tremor moves upwards from Sherlock’s belly into his throat. Each wave of it reminds him of diving into the sea, reminds him of the tension, the push, the suspension, the plunge. It reminds him of the crossover into that otherworldly place.

“Johnling,” Sherlock whispers, eyes wide. “Johnling, a chick of our own.”

“I take it you’re sure, then, love?”

Sherlock nods, frantically. There can be no misunderstanding. He’s ready. They’re going to do this. “But you said you’re not ready yet, you said you didn’t know when you’d be ready.”

John kisses Sherlock softly on his cheek, then his other cheek, then his bill. “I didn’t realize I was ready until just now. After listening to you, there is no doubt in my mind that we are both ready, that we can make this happen. But we have to work hard. We have to talk to everyone we think might help us, and everyone we think might know someone who might help us.”

“That’s the entire colony, Johnling.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do. Now, though? We have something else to do.”

“What?”

John tilts his head in the direction of a cacophony of honking and squawking. “We need to save Ariki and Kahu from those chicks.”

“No, John. We need to save them from themselves. And after, we’ll go someplace quiet, okay?”

“Deal.”

Chapter Text

If Pobeda was once known as the place social revolution died just as quickly as it flared to life, it is now known as the foundational centre of emperor rights, a bastion of progressive movements, both philosophical and pragmatic.

At seven winters old, Sherlock and John live at the heart of a colony that teaches its members to hunt and forage more effectively, to protect themselves against birds of prey, to actively seek political involvement through an expansive Junior Council, and to seek out healing with the most skilled team of healers any peng, anywhere, has ever experienced.

They are taught to accept love in its many forms, to care for each other's young as if they were their own, and, in some cases, to help other pengs have their own young.

Word of Pobeda’s ways spreads during emperor summers spent at sea, and their ways spread, too. Intercolony communication and cooperation grow and blossom like some previously rare and dormant sea flower, and there follows an uptake in intercolony travel, friendship, and bonding. It is a golden time for emperors, and like so many others, Sherlock and John reap the benefits of such burgeoning change.

All but one.

The new winter is on them, and despite working tirelessly, they are no closer to receiving an egg than they were before they knew they wanted one. They have found pengs willing to impreggnate same-peng couples, but there has not been a single case of a peng willing to donate an egg, and no eggs viable for adoption. Sherlock and John have avoided having the inevitable conversation for as long as they can, until they cannot put if off any longer. The mating season is on them once again.

They stand apart from the rest of the colony, the weight of a heavy discussion holding them in place.

“Sherlock,” John says, brushing his wing down the length of his mate’s, “we may need to reconsider the options.”

Sherlock stares at the ice, and stays silent.

“I know we said we would never do it, but you and I both know that we are unlikely to find a couple willing to give us their own egg. We should at least discuss this. Sherlock?”

Sherlock closes his eyes. He thinks back to the couples they have helped, all of them so grateful. Even Maryle and Janine had a chick last winter, and Maryle had cried, and hugged them both, which Sherlock had not expected, and had not especially enjoyed. But, still.

He wishes he did not want his own family as much as he does. That would be so much easier. But Sherlock has long since stopped trying to pretend that he is above certain common desires, that he does not want certain things. He wants.

“Sherlpeng, love, we don't have to talk about it right this very moment if you are not ready, but we will have to decide in the next few days.”

Sherlock opens his eyes and leans against his beloved. “Whom would you mate with?”

John shakes his head. “I don't know. And it wouldn't have to be me. It could be you.”

“No, no, it really couldn't. I would not be able to, Johnling. It would have to be you, but with whom?”

John sighs, and kisses Sherlock. “Someone we trust. Someone we like. Someone who is already bonded, so there could be no misunderstanding.”

Sherlock nods. “Yes, someone from a same-peng couple, because we will not find a male willing to let his partner mate with another male, I do not think.”

They look at each other, and they smile sad little smiles.

“Anahera,” they say at the same time.

“Not Tui?” Sherlock asks.

“I would not risk the integrity of Tui's leg, even after all this time. And we do not know if her injuries affected her ability to make eggs. I would not want to put all of us though that, not if …” John trails off, not needing to finish his sentence.

Sherlock sighs. To make such a decision, and then end up in the same place, without an egg? No. Sherlock couldn't bear it.

“Shall we ask them together, or should I go on my own?”

“Let's go together, John, as it affects all four of us.”

“Now?”

“Now would be best. Before I change my mind.”

Anahera should be easy to spot, but she is nowhere to be found. The colony swirls around itself in action, the last of the calling and parading unfolding before them. Several times they must stop to avoid being trampled by furiously waddling pengs, oblivious to everything but the distant call of an intended mate.

After skirting several near collisions, they see Tui standing at the edge of the chaos, by herself. She waves when she sees them, welcoming them to join her apart from the frenzy.

“I'd say the next season of hatchlings will be a spirited bunch, if their parents are anything to judge by,” she says, gesturing to a peng who has slipped, skidded, and rolled the last Orca-length to his partner.

“You might be right. Tui, John and I have come to talk to you and Anahera about something very important. Is she nearby?”

Ehē, Sherlock, she has already left.”

“Left? For where?”

Tui cocks her head and looks back and forth between them. “To find you, I thought.”

“We have not seen her.”

“She told me she had an idea she thought you might like, and that she would be back soon.”

“When was that?” John asks.

Tui looks up at the sky. “This morning. At least half the day. She has not spoken with you?”

“No. Did she say what her idea was about?”

“She meant it to be a surprise, and I know she wanted to tell you herself, but … It was regarding your egg, an egg for the two of you. We were both very pleased with the idea of it, and I told her not to dally.”

Sherlock should have known that Anahera would come to this solution before even he and John did. She is kind, and compassionate, and so very, very smart.

“Sherlock, we should go find her.”

“Yes, John. Tui, we will find her, and bring her back to discuss matters. Time is of the essence. Thank you. Thank you so much, for everything.”

“I've done nothing at all, Sherlock. Truly. And there is no reason to discuss it further; Anahera and I are in agreement, if you are. Good luck!”

They decide to split up, each of them heading in opposite directions. If Sherlock finds her first, he will bring her back to where Tui waits, and they will wait together for John. If John finds her first, he and Anahera will decide when and where to proceed. John will check in periodically with Tui if he does not find Anahera, to see if she is there.

Before parting, Sherlock wraps his wings around John and holds him tight. “I love you, Johnling. I love you so much. I didn't think I would be all right with this, but now, with the realization of our dream so close, I feel only great joy and anticipation for what is to come.”

John rubs his bill over Sherlock's shoulder, and holds him just as tight. “Can you imagine, love? We might be parents soon.”

Sherlock's heart is going to explode. It is going to burst right out of his body, thousands of pieces of his love scattering over the ice, the colony, the sea and her continent. His own heart stones will take root and grow, they will shelter his fellow emperors and cover them in the purest love ever felt, ever. He is sure of it.

“Go,” he whispers. “Go find her. Tell her I give you to her willingly, gladly, that I am grateful beyond measure, but that she must return you to me immediately, because you are mine. You always have been, and you always will be.”

Anahe, Sherlock.”

“Anahe.” Sherlock lets John go, knowing that there is nothing in the world that can separate them now. They have faced what they thought was an insurmountable obstacle, reconciled themselves with a difficult path, and have come through on the other side even stronger than before.

Sherlock carries this euphoria with him well into the afternoon and early evening. He does not find Anahera, and so is positive that John has. When he goes back to Tui, she reports that John has been back twice to see if Sherlock and Anahera had returned, and then had left again. Sherlock smiles and hugs her and escorts her back to the huddle. He does not join in, not yet. He will wait for John.

The moon is near-full, and the ice is bright in reflection. Sherlock dozes and wakes, dozes and wakes, and finally, he sees John approach the huddle from quite a distance. Anahera is not with him, but the significance of that does not breach his happiness until John is close enough for Sherlock to read his expression. Something is wrong.

“Where is she? Where is Anahera?”

“Sherlock. Please tell me that Anahera is in the huddle.”

“No. Tui is, but she is alone. Neither of us have seen Anahera. I thought … when you both were gone so long, I thought …”

“I did not find her. Sherlock, I have searched every feather-width of this island, every crook and cranny, every curve of her shore, and I did not find her. I was sure I would find her after Tui said that she had not returned with you.”

Sherlock struggles to process this information, because he does not want to process this information.

“But then, John, where is she?”

John lowers his head and slowly shakes it.

“Okay. It's okay, Johnling. It's okay. She cannot be ngaro. You have only missed each other. She must still be looking for you, and she will return to the huddle soon. We will try tomorrow, Johnling. Tahu, look at me. We will try again tomorrow. You must be exhausted. Come to the huddle with me, and I will warm you and take care of you. Come.”

Sherlock does his best to be brave for his Johnling. He pushes his disappointment aside and pulls his love to him, and holds him. They will try again tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes, but they do not find Anahera. The next day comes, and the next. Anahera does not come.

Tui is distraught. Sherlock and John are numb. The days of mating come to an end.

Chapter Text

Sherlock sinks. John tries his best to buoy him, but Sherlock continues to sink, the blackness of his despair rivalling that of the seabed and a starless midnight and the glossy ink of his own feathers. It is not a quick dive into the clarifying cold. Every day that Anahera is missing, he dips a little bit more into the dark.

John tells Sherlock that he cannot blame himself, that she was in no danger as she looked for them, and they for her. Sherlock counters that she went looking for them only because she knew how much they wanted to be parents; she wanted to help. John counters again, reassuring him that she did not seek them in risk; her disappearance makes no sense, not unless she left the island, and why would she do that?

Still, Sherlock sinks.

“For Tui, Sherlock. Please. She is coming to visit with us today, and I don't want her to see you like this, not if it will make her feel worse.”

It is not until he sees Tui approach that Sherlock understands that the weight of his own sadness might add to her grief. Her shoulders are bowed, and her eyes are dull. She looks only half herself without Anahera by her side. He becomes more aware of himself as he observes her, noticing how hard John has worked to keep him groomed, and warm, and safe. He pulls himself up to his full height, and takes the first steps he has taken in days. His body feels stiff, and heavy, and if he weren’t trying so hard for Tui, he would feel even worse for having let himself drift so far away, from himself, from John, from the colony.

“I am sorry,” he says, as she joins them.

“I have not come for an apology, Sherlock. You have done nothing wrong. I have come so that we can support each other. Alone will not protect us.”

Sherlock hugs Tui, and tries not to cry. She and Anahera have been part of his life for more than six of his seven winters. If the iceberg were turned, if it were John who had gone missing, he would not want his friends to mirror his own pain. He would want them to hold onto hope, even if he felt it slipping away. He must do the same for Tui.

John hugs her next, and asks, “How are you holding up, Tui, and what can we do to help?”

Tui sighs, and shakes her head. “Quite honestly, I’m a mess, John. This is so unlike her. But, I do have an idea, and a way that you can help.”

“Good, ideas are good. What is it?”

“We should go to the Council and tell them that she is missing. They will not hold another meeting until after the hatchlings come, and we cannot wait that long. Maybe someone saw her, or heard something, the day she disappeared.”

“Of course!” Sherlock says. “Oh, how stupid of me not to think of this myself!”

“You are far from stupid, Sherlock. We have both been beside ourselves with worry, and not thinking clearly. Now, though, it is time to take action. What if we split up? You and John can talk with Siger, Erebus, and Cetus, and I can talk with Pavo and Vela. Who is the Junior Council representative this moon?”

“I think that honour falls to Ariki. We will find him, too. Ask everyone to spread the word to their families and friends. Then those pengs should ask their families and friends, and so on. If anyone has seen or heard anything, should they report back to you?”

Tui considers. “Me, you and John, or any Council member, I should think.”

“Yes, okay. This is good.” Sherlock hugs Tui again before they part, and they promise to meet at midday.

Sherlock can tell that John is keeping a close eye on him as they walk, searching for signs of the blackness that had consumed him. Talking to Tui had helped a great deal, and having a task to work on continues to pull him up and out of that horrible trench of a place.

“I’m okay, Johnling. I’m sorry for behaving that way.”

“Don’t you dare apologize, Sherlock. Not for loving a friend so much that you can barely breathe at the thought of her loss. I am relieved, though, to see that you’re starting to bounce back.”

“Hmm. We pengs are good at bouncing, aren’t we?”

John chuckles and bumps Sherlock’s shoulder. “That we are.”

Over the course of the morning, Sherlock and John find and talk to Ariki, Cetus, Siger, and Olive. Although not a council member, Olive has the ear of the entire colony, and promises to spread the word herself. Sherlock and John speak freely with her about the day of Anahera’s disappearance. The three of them were looking for each other, they explain, excited to share an idea that would give Sherlock and John a hatchling of their own. Olive listens, empathetic and kind, and vows to come to them immediately if she learns anything that might be important, no matter how small a detail. 

They stop to chat with other friends, as well, knowing that the more pengs they speak to, the faster the news of their enquiry will spread. By the time they make their way back to Tui, the colony is abuzz, and there’s an energy of intrigue, concern, and determination in the air. Everyone wants Anahera home, accounted for, safe. Everyone wants Sherlock and John to have a hatchling. For Sherlo-Kimi, and John the Tuahangata, they say. For Sherlo-Kimi, John the Tuahangata, and Anahera, the ghost-angel.

Tui has talked with Vela and Pavo, plus Janine, Anthea, Irena, and Molling. No one has seen or heard a thing, but they have all promised to spread word of Anahera’s disappearance, and to do what they can to bring her home. Sherlock and John update Tui on their own conversations, and the three of them take some small comfort in knowing that they have done what they can for now.

That night, Sherlock enters the huddle feeling lighter than he has in days. He settles against John’s chest, fussing and nudging until he and John have as much of themselves pressed together as is penguinly possible.

“She’ll be okay, Sherlpeng. I’m sure of it,” John says, slipping his wings higher up Sherlock’s sides and prodding one of his legs between Sherlock’s.

“I hope so, John. I don’t think I'd be able to stand never knowing what happened to her.”

“Shh, love, it’ll be okay. We did good work today. Someone must have seen something, something they didn’t even realize was important at the time.”

Sherlock relaxes into John, and that night proves to be one of the rare times that Sherlock falls asleep first. He sighs, he settles down, he lets John pet and nuzzle him further and further into that midnight respite, and then the moehewa begins.

He dreams that he and John stand on a precipice, high above the sprawling plain of Pobeda. Below them, hundreds of their own colony members form a queue, shuffling toward them, waddling the slowest waddle Sherlock has ever seen. When the first one finally arrives, she says nothing, but pushes an egg onto Sherlock’s feet. The next one arrives, and slips an egg onto John’s feet. More and more come, steady as snow, and each of them give Sherlock and John an egg.

John and Sherlock cannot possibly hold all of the eggs; after two, they have reached their capacity, and yet the eggs are everywhere, piled up in their wings, pressed between them, in mounds around them, impossibly balanced, towering over them.

“Wait!” they call as the pengs retreat, eggless once again. “Wait! We need only one! We cannot manage so many! Please, come back!”

Sherlock feels the first egg begin to slip. He spins solutions as fast as he can, seeking some magical movement that will save that egg, and all the others that are about to follow its certain path to the ice.

His heart speeds up in that moment just before he acts, and the dream changes. He and John are alone. There are no eggs. They stand on the Pobedan ice, their backs to the sea, and they observe the colony swell and swirl around them.

“Look,” John says. His voice is low and rough, the rumble of a calving iceberg. “Look at our lives, Sherlock, look at the evidence of all we have done.”

Sherlock is tired, but so very content. All around him are the offspring of the offspring of the offspring of their hatchling. There are dozens of their descendents of all different ages, all of them beautiful proof of who they are, and who they were. Sherlock opens his mouth to speak, but his throat closes up, and his eyes blur, and his tongue swells thick in his bill.

“Sshh, it’s okay, love. We’ve had such long lives together, haven’t we? It will be okay. Soon now, we’ll go, and we’ll be reunited with so many that have passed before us. And do you know, Sherlock, whom I may be most looking forward to meeting?”

Moehewa-Sherlock shakes his head.

“Selvic. We’ll finally get to meet Selvic.”

Sherlock turns to smile at John, because yes, that is something wonderful to look forward to, a homecoming he has thought about many times in their advancing years. He turns to smile at John, but John is gone, and now he is facing Anahera.

She is blindingly white, and he must squint to see the shape of her through the light.

“Anahera! Where have you been! We have been so worried about you, worried sick!”

“I’ve been right here, Sherlock.”

“But you haven’t been! We’ve looked everywhere!”

“Well, then, I suppose I’ve been here, but not here, too.”

This makes perfect sense to moehewa-Sherlock, and he laughs, thrilled, as if finally having solved a difficult puzzle.

“Yes! Excellent! It is very, very good to see you, Anahera.”

“And you. I thought of you and John while I was here-not-here, and I have brought you something.”

Sherlock finds he doesn’t have to squint quite as much now to see Anahera. The aura of her illumination has begun to fade. He can just begin to make out the distinct feathers of her face, even the tiniest ones around her eyes.

“You are very kind, Anahera. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Oh, but I did, Sherlock.” Anahera leans in close, and Sherlock has the briefest glimmer of a thought that she is about to share a very important secret. He leans in toward her.

“Are you ready, Sherlock? Are you willing?”

“Am I ‒ ? Yes. Yes, of course. Whatever it is ‒”

“This was mine. Now it is yours.” Anahera brushes again him, just the lightest of touches, but Sherlock finds himself off-balance, and has to flatten his tail against the ice so he does not fall over. Just as suddenly, she steps back, and sighs. “This is it, then, Sherlock. I do believe we are safe now.”

“Safe? Were we in danger?”

“Always.”

Anahera’s light is almost completely gone now, and Sherlock has the sudden urge to step forward and touch that shine before it altogether disappears. He cannot move, though. His feet are so heavy, his legs are like pillars of ice. He looks down to see what holds him, but encounters only his own belly. He looks up again, and she is gone.

Sherlock wakes himself with an enormous yawn, and surveys the sky for the sun’s position. The day is already underway, but he feels surprisingly tired for having had such a full night sleep. John is still snug up against Sherlock, his wings slotted under Sherlock’s, his head resting on Sherlock’s shoulder.

Sherlock yawns again, and John begins to stir. He raises his head and blinks his eyes open, then hums against Sherlock’s neck and kisses him hello.

“I had the strangest dreams, Johnling. Did you have any dreams?”

“I dreamt of shrimp and cephalopod and a particularly tasty herring. What did you dream about?”

“Eggs. First, I dreamt that the colony gave us more eggs than I’ve ever seen, hundreds of them. We couldn’t hold them all, and they began to fall. I tried to catch them, but then the dream changed ‒ you know how that happens sometimes? ‒ and then we were old, Johnling, you and I, we were so very old, and our great-great-great-grand-pengs were all around us.”

John shuffles closer to Sherlock as he talks, warm and cuddly with the last shadows of sleep. Sherlock wraps his wings around him, and tries to pull him closer, but John fidgets, trying to find his own comfort.

“I think maybe we were dying, and we were looking at our lives’ work, right there before us, all of these beautiful emperor descendents. And you said that you didn’t mind going, because we would get to see old friends again, and we would finally meet Selvic.”

“What do you ‒”

“But then you were not you anymore, you were Anahera, but it was like Anahera had travelled to the skies and back, because she was glowing like the moon, and I could barely see her through the intensity of it.

“And she said the strangest things, about being here but not being here, and about bringing us a gift. And then she started to fade ‒

“John, are you listening to me at all?”

“Sherlock. What on earth ‒” John cranes his head between them, low, close to the ice.

“What are you doing? I’m telling you about my dreams.”

“Sherlock.” John looks up at him, and he has the silliest look on his face, so serious, so focussed, as if he has not heard one word that Sherlock has said, and is about to explain for the one-thousandth time the deliciousness of silverfish.

“What? What are you so ‒” Sherlock stops mid-sentence, because John isn’t even looking at him.

“Sherlock. Come here.”

“I am here, John.”

“Come down here, I mean.”

Sherlock bends down as low as he can, curving his neck and twisting his head to meet John’s gaze. “Okay, I’m here. What?”

“What is that?” John is staring at Sherlock’s feet.

“Those are my feet, John. What is going on with you?”

“Not your feet, love. What’s on your feet. On them.”

Sherlock opens his bill to tell John that there’s nothing on his feet, but then his mind and body connect in a way that they sometimes do, his body telling his brain something, instead of the other way around, and he scrunches up his forehead, because not only is there something on his feet, but that something is between his legs, and up against his belly, and it’s very warm.

Sherlock closes his eyes.

“Oh gods, John. Gods. What is it? Tell me. Please, tell me.”

There is a heart beat of silence, then another, then one more.

“It’s an egg, Sherlock. There’s an egg on your feet.”

Chapter Text

“Find her. Find Anahera. She’s here, John, she’s back. She has to be.” Sherlock stands tall again, stretches his neck high in the air above the rest of the huddle, and scans his sea of pengs.

John doesn’t move. John is staring at the egg. He’s about as close as he can get, foot to foot with Sherlock, with one eyeball just about plastered to the smooth, warm shell.

Sherlock bends down again and joins John in his inspection. He has to pull up his pouch, which feels odd, and uses muscles he didn’t know he had. When the extra bit of feathered flap is out of the way, they can see one whole side of the egg.

“It’s definitely an emperor egg?” John asks, running the side of his bill over the creamy white surface.

The question surprises Sherlock, who had not stopped to consider that it might not be an emperor egg. He runs his bill over it, too, although what this is supposed to tell him, he does not know. He has never before run his bill over an egg of any kind.

“It has to be. What other kind of egg could it be?”

John shakes his head. “I have no idea.”

Finally, John stands up and looks at Sherlock with clear, bright eyes. He presses his cheek to Sherlock’s, as if to kiss him, but the kiss doesn’t come. Instead, John starts giggling, quietly at first, as if he’s just thought of the funniest thing, a flying fish, perhaps, or a pink penguin. He giggles louder, and louder, until his entire body is shaking, and he has to lean into Sherlock for support, because his body is so consumed with laughter, it cannot focus on other simple functions, such as standing.

“There’s an egg on your feet, Sherlpeng. An egg.” He snorts, then hiccups, then shudders. And then John isn’t laughing anymore. John is crying, having somehow crossed that line from hilarity to emotional overwhelmedness, unable to process anything whatsoever about this extraordinary happenstance.

“Sherlock ‒ we have ‒ an ‒ egg,” he stutters through his tears. “That’s our ‒ hatchling, love ‒ on your feet.”

John’s emotion strikes Sherlock like a physical phenomenon, and it moves like a tremor between them, spreading through Sherlock until he, too, is breathless with the significance of the situation.

He reaches down and holds the egg closer against him with one wing, holding out the other to soothe down John’s wing. When they can, they take deep breaths, and stare at each other, eyes wide.

“We need to find Anahera, John. She’s done something, this is about her, I can tell. I had dreams, I dreamt that she came back, although somehow she had never left, and she said that she had thought of us while she’d been away, that she’d brought us something, that we were safe now.”

“Safe from what?”

“I don’t know. We have to find her. Oh, but wait, first, here, don’t move. Oh. Oh, John.”

Sherlock must share this with John before he does anything else. John must also have this experience, because there is nothing anywhere, in the sea nor the sky nor on ice nor in their collective consciousness that can convey the beauty of this singular sensation.

“Stand still. Don’t move.” Sherlock aligns himself with John, belly-to-belly, then bends down, and slowly, with the grace and finesse of millions of pengs before him, nudges that perfect peng egg off of his feet, and onto John’s. When he has tucked it up as far as he can, and run his bill over it once more, he stands up and wraps his wings around John, his beautiful Johnling, who is crying again, trying so hard to hold it together, because he’s holding their egg on his feet. Their egg.

“I know. I know, Johnling.” Sherlock kisses his mate, kisses his cheek and his bill and his neck, and smears their tears together, the two of them standing there, shivering with wonderment.

John holds on to Sherlock, and lets himself be kissed and loved and coddled. He looks at their gift, their hatchling, and he shakes his head and sighs. “Go find her, Sherlock. Find her and bring her back.”

Sherlock kisses John one last time, stoops and kisses their egg, and then scurries off around the perimeter of the huddle, looking for his missing friend. He doesn’t have to go far. Coming toward him, curving around the edge of the horde of sleeping pengs, is Anahera, a single white presence circling the colony.

Sherlock is reminded of flocking flight birds, and shoaling fish. As Anahera moves around the huddle, she lightly touches a shoulder here, a wing there, the base of a tail, the curve of a neck. As she does so, those emperors she has touched shift infinitesimally, which causes the ones next to them to shift, too, and then the next, and the next. As he watches, Anahera single-wingedly creates an entirely new huddle, whereby those who need more warmth are turned inward, and those who need to cool down come to the outer rings.

Oh, Anahera, you clever, clever … peng?

“Kia ora, Sherlock! You are up early!”

Sherlock waits until they are bill-to-bill. He smiles at her, cocks his head, nods ever so slightly.

Kia ora, Anahera, hello. I must say, I am quite relieved to see you again. I trust you are well?”

“Quite well, thank you, Sherlock. And you?”

“Fantastically well, Anahera.”

“Excellent. And John?”

“Anahera, let’s not waste time on small talk. Let’s review, shall we? You told Tui that you were coming to find us, that you had a brilliant idea to help us get an egg. We were on our way to find you at the same time, and we searched all day. You disappeared. You have been gone, and our hearts have been breaking, for more than half a moon. Half a moon, Anahera.

“And I wake up this morning, and I have an egg on my feet, and here you are. Now, do not get me wrong. John and I are ecstatic, as you can probably tell by the tear tracks covering most of my body. But, I come to find you, and you smile at me, and say ‘hello’?”

“Well, of course. No matter what, a polite greeting is in order, is it not? You are happy then, with the egg?”

Sherlock stares at her. “Does Tui know you’re back?”

“Of course.”

He stares a little harder. “Where were you, Anahera?”

“I was making your egg.”

“Anahera. You and I have always been completely honest with each other, yes?”

“Yes.”

“What on the face of this great blue world have you been up to?”

Anahera places her wing on Sherlock’s shoulder, and gently turns him around, back in the direction from which he came. They walk.

“Sherlock, I did not mean to scare you, or worry you. When I left Tui that day, I truly was coming to find you and John, to tell you that I thought I could help you. Along the way, though, I found the other peng that I needed to find, quite desperately. In talking with him, I became distracted. Time was of the essence, Sherlock, and I did what I had to do. This other peng and I, we needed to leave while the light was good, and as soon as were able to, we came home. With your egg.”

“Could you not have left word with someone?”

“But Tui knew my plan, and so I assumed you all would’ve realized that I was okay.”

“Tui told us that you had a plan, and that you were both very excited about it, but she did not tell us what the plan was. We told her we were coming to find you to talk to you about a plan, so she must have assumed we knew what your plan was. When we couldn’t find you, she feared your disappearance wasn’t part of your plan, or John and I wouldn’t have been as upset as we were. But we had no idea. We actually did think that you and Tui had the same idea John and I had. So it made no sense that you would’ve left.”

“And what was that idea?” Sherlock can see that Anahera is tracking this colossal misunderstanding, but still has not figured out what he and John had finally settled on as a solution to their problem.

“We thought that maybe you would be willing to ‒ mate with ‒ well ‒ with ‒ John.”

“John? But you were both so clear that you never wished to mate with another.”

“I know. But, Anahera, we became so desperate. No, no, I do not mean it like that, I do apologize!”

“Oh, Sherlock,” Anahera laughs. “I am in no way offended. You would have trusted me with your Johnling, and I do thank you for that.”

Sherlock’s feet are slowing to a halt, the opposite of his thought processes, but Anahera nudges him again, and they keep moving. “Where were you, Anahera?”

“We had to leave Pobeda, for his privacy, Sherlock.”

“Yes, but where, precisely, were you?”

“I’m not sure I could say. It was just a place, near here, but not too near, and far enough, but not too far.”

“Just to be clear: you mated with a male peng from Pobeda to make our egg?”

“I did! It was all very interesting, I must say.”

“Where is this other peng now? Who is he?”

“He is here, in the huddle, resting. The mating was quite exhausting for him. Not so much for me; I really didn’t have to do much at all.”

“Who, Anahera? Who did this for us?”

They are almost back to John and the egg. Their egg.

“I would rather he be the one to share that with you and John, should he decide to do so. That is not my story to tell.”

At first, Sherlock does not see John. Then, he realizes that John is exactly where he left him, but bent double, his neck and bill forming an enclosure of sorts over the egg. Around him emperors are waking, shuffling, shaking the sleep from their feathers. Someone is going to notice the egg, soon.

“Don't worry, Sherlock. I cannot imagine that anyone will be anything but thrilled for you and John.”

“And curious. What will we tell them?”

“The truth, of course.”

John looks up when he hears the approach of clicking claws on ice. He stands up partway, keeping one wing poised low, as if the egg might roll away at any moment.

“Anahera!”

Kia ora, John! You are a natural with your egg! You might relax a bit, though. It cannot roll away.”

John looks back at the egg, then up at her and Sherlock. Sherlock sees so many questions there, including the very ones Sherlock himself has asked. Practicality wins out, though, and John says, “Can't roll away? Of course it can. It's a small, round, slick object, and we are on a large, flat, slicker surface.”

Anahera smiles and gestures toward the egg. Their egg.

“Almost correct. Emperor eggs are not round. They are narrower at one end than the other. If dropped, the egg will roll in a circle, back to you.”

John stares down at his feet. “I'll take your word for it.”

“Do.”

“Right.” John says to the egg.

Around them, the colony stirs.

“Anahera,” Sherlock muses. “Why has no one else laid their egg yet? Did you lay yours in the middle of the night? And how did you get it to me without waking me?”

“Yeah,” John says to their egg. “What about all that?”

“I think you'll find that many eggs were laid overnight, including yours, and that many more will come today. As to how I got it to you without waking you, I did try. Tui was with me; she'll tell you. Honestly, you both seemed under some special spell, so deep was your sleep. And, Sherlock, you were muttering something about ‘all the eggs.’”

“The eggs?”

“It didn't make a lot of sense. You said something about not being able to carry them all, about there being too many. Then you started whispering to John, in your dream, although he was sleeping right next to you.”

“What did I say?”

“I do not know. It was between the two of you, and I did not want to eavesdrop.”

Sherlock’s attention has been divided between Anahera and John, whose attention has been undivided, on the egg.

“When you seemed more settled, I tried to wake you again, both of you, but I could not. John, you were dreaming, too. Something about herring. Anyway, you would not wake up, but you started to talk again, this time about the moon and her brightness. As I could not wake you, I pressed the egg between you, thinking I would explain in the morning, and that is exactly what has transpired.”

Anahera seems so proud of herself, and Sherlock feels a wave of humility and self-consciousness wash over him. He stands by John’s side, and tugs on his wing, until John finally looks up from that distant hatchling shore on which he’s been so focussed.

“Anahera. Thank you. I cannot believe we haven’t properly thanked you yet. Please, let us do so now. Tēnā rawa atu koe. Ehara koe i a ia,” Sherlock says, bowing low.

Next to him, he hears John repeat the same phrase of gratitude, ehara koe i a ia, and then John bows, too, the two of them side by side over Anahera’s precious gift to them. Their egg.

Ehara i te aha. Do not bow to me, boys. Please.”

Sherlock stands, but does not acquiesce. “No, Anahera, do not say it was nothing. We do thank the heavens for you, we always will. I will not ask how we might return such a favor, as I know there is nothing we could do. You’ve given us life, Anahera.”

“Oh, Sherlock. Has it ever occurred to you that I am returning one of the many gifts you have given me? Or that perhaps I have attempted to do for you and John what the colony could do, collectively, if it could? You have done so much, both of you, for emperors everywhere. And what have I done? I’ve given you one egg.”

“I gave you all a tooth, and a stone, Anahera. You have given us a life.”

“No. I will not have you explain it that way, it is so unjust! You gave us hope, and choice, and from those seeds we have harvested peace and harmony. Look around us. Look at the changes that have come to us since you were just only very small, Sherlock, John. Only seven winters, and we are safe again.”

Sherlock did not realize he had been staring down at the egg until his neck whips his head up so fast, he thinks he may have penglash.

“What did you say?”

“We are safe again, because of you, Sherlock. Our kind. We are safe. We can bond, we can parade, we can coexist, without fear of our families destroying themselves, without fear of being separated, or alienated, or exiled. We are safe in the arms of our colonies, Sherlock. All I have done is given you an egg. Now, if you will excuse me, I have promised Tui that I would spend the day with her, and only her, and I believe that I hear her calling.”

Anahera turns to the huddle, and listens. “Do you hear that?”

“Tui?” John says to the egg.

“Not just Tui. The eggs. The eggs are arriving, boys. You are in good company.”

Anahera leaves them and Sherlock watches her go. He watches her glide over the ice ‒ she really never was one to waddle. He waits until she disappears into the heart of the huddle, and then he closes his eyes, and listens.

There is the sound of the sea, of course, always that; rising above that gentle sway, though, there comes the sound of baited breath, of anticipation, and watchfulness, and awe. Yes, the eggs are coming, one by one, to their parents, who have been waiting, some of them many winters, for this opportunity to bring another life to this small patch of ice in this most southerly sea, abutting this lowermost continent. New life.

Their egg.

Chapter Text

“You're going to suffocate it.”

“Don't be ridiculous. You can't suffocate an egg. It doesn't breathe.”

“You're going to squash it, then.”

“Johnling. Stop it. I am not going to squash her.”

“Her?”

“Maybe.”

“Could be a him.”

“Could be. Can I please kiss you now?”

“Just be careful of him.”

“Could be a her.”

“Could be.”

Sherlock loves that egg, and he loves John, and he loves their tiny soon-to-be-hatched family. There is so much love, and right now, that love wants to spill over into kisses for John. Sherlock leans in close, nudging his belly against John's, feeling the shape of their egg between them.

John, who usually has love spilling out all over Sherlock, has been surprisingly reticent about expressing that love in too physically intimate a manner, ever since Anahera dropped off her little gift. Sherlock understands. He does. The egg is precious, and fragile, and to squash, drop, expose, crack, shake, or otherwise harm it would be catastrophic. However, Sherlock thinks John may be just a tiny bit overprotective.

He leans in, careful of both the egg and John's concerns, and plants a great big clacking kiss on John’s bill. John closes his eyes and hums. Sherlock kisses him again, and when John returns the kiss with more interest than that of a dead flounder, Sherlock slips his wing under John's, and rubs that one spot that makes John growl.

John growls.

John growls and strokes Sherlock's neck and hip with his wings. “Sherlock … This isn't good. This is really just a bit not good.”

“I disagree Johnling. I think this is exceedingly good.” He kisses John's cheek and nips his shoulder, and John sighs so deeply Sherlock can feel it in his own belly pouch.

“No, it's really not, because we're just going to end up frustrated. And even, oh, even if I did this ‒” and then John does something with his wing that makes Sherlock see entire constellations, “‒ or this ‒” he continues, doing that thing with both wings now, “we can't lose ourselves, can't, you know, in front of him.”

Sherlock wriggles up against John's wings and tries to make some words come out of his mouth, but his first attempt is thwarted by the high pitched trill that sneaks out instead.

“She doesn't know, John. She's safe in her shell, sleeping and having little hatchling dreams. She wants her parents to be happy, don't you think?”

“No one is going to be happy if you start spasming and knock him onto the ice, Sherlpeng.”

“I. Do not. Spasm.” Sherlock tries to tamp down the beginning of a full-body tremor.

“Oh, my gods, you really do. You're halfway there now.”

“Johnling, I am leaving soon and I will be away for two moons. We haven't had two arcs of the sun alone since Anahera brought us our egg.”

“I know, love. I'm sorry.”

Sherlock had not anticipated the strength of the colony’s reaction to the two of them waking up with an egg on their feet. Since then, only two days ago, they have swapped the egg back and forth numerous times, and taken turns greeting friends and family who want to congratulate them and hear the full story.

Accepting the congratulations is easy. Explaining the circumstances of their egg is not. They tell the story that they know: after working so long for the right to bond, and after helping so many other couples find ways to have their own hatchling, they had begun to doubt they'd ever have one of their own. They explain that they had been on the verge of a possible solution when Anahera had come up with one of her own, and disappeared.

And that's when the story becomes something of a free-for-all. The questions come so much faster than they can respond, mostly because they are trying to find new ways to say, “We don’t actually know.”

Where did Anahera go?

Who did she mate with?

Why won't he come forward?

How do they feel about that?

How did Tui feel about Anahera mating with another peng?

Not everyone is this intrusive. Molling and Lestra, Stamfjord and Cetus, all of the elders, come to simply hug them and wish them well. Sherlock gets the impression that Olive could not care less where the egg came from. A skua could have dropped that egg; all she knows is that she's going to be a grandmāmā. Siger has sent word to Mycroft; whether or not his brother can return home to greet his niece is something Sherlock tries not to think about.

Tui, as well, expresses herself with far more grace than Sherlock would have expected under the circumstances. She arrives skidding and chirping in a flurry of feathers. Sherlock can read her like a school of plankton, but John sees the chaos in her approach and drops his pouch over the egg faster than he can say tāku.

“John, don't be ridiculous! She's excited, not psychotic. She knows it’s yours.”

John presses his body up against Sherlock's side and tries to hide the egg.

Sherlock rolls his eyes and opens his wings to welcome their friend. “Come see, Tui! Come see what your amazing tahu has done for us.”

Tui ducks down low and coos. She looks up at John, and when he nods, she reaches out and lets her wing hover there, not quite touching.

“Go ahead,” Sherlock says.

Tui rests the tip of her wing on the soft swell of the shell, and coos again. “There you are, my little one, safe and sound. So close now, love.”

John still looks like he might take Tui down if she so much as uses the wrong term of endearment.

She has tears in her eyes when she rights herself. “Well,” she says, sniffing into the underside of her wing. “She scared me half to death, but I must say, this is an outcome beyond what I could have imagined.”

“Tui, we feel terrible that we were the reason Anahera left and caused you so much distress,” Sherlock says.

“The miscommunication was only that, Sherlock. I knew what she intended to do, but did not think to ask where she intended to do it. She assumed I knew. You thought the plan involved a different solution, and so had no reason to believe she would leave Pobeda. We were all acting without full information. Anyway, all is right again, yes?”

“Very right. Right, John?”

“What’s that?” John says to the egg.

“Please excuse him, Tui. He’s eggsessed.”

“I can see that. It’s quite touching. I’ll be off, then. I told Cetus I’d help him check on those who have not yet laid their eggs. I know you’re all anxious to leave on the hunt. Which one of you will go?”

Sherlock looks at John and then winks at Tui. “John’s going. Right, John?”

“Okay.” John says to the egg.

“Never mind. I’m going, Tui. I think you can probably see why. Plus, between us, I’m the better hunter, and will bring back more, faster.”

“Will you come and say goodbye before you go?”

“Of course I will.”

When Erebus comes, Sherlock finds himself shocked by his friend’s disimproved appearance, though his kind and gracious countenance remains constant. Erebus’ eyes are clouded, his gait slow. His back curves, as if under a great weight. His body is failing him, but his spirit is strong. Sherlock goes to him, wraps his wing around this most stalwart emperor, and guides him the last short distance to John and their egg.

Erebus does not speak at first, and the silence stretches long and soft under the star-bright sky. When he does speak, his voice is cracked, dry.

“Sherlock. John.”

Sherlock is overcome with the urge to bow to the great hunter, so he does, and out of the corner of his eye he sees John do the same.

“Ah, the two of you. Come now. We are well beyond that.”

“It is always an honour to see you, Erebus. Especially now, which such good news to share.”

“I never doubted, Sherlock, not for one moment, that this would happen for you. You and John are most deserving.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Erebus smiles at him, and gestures to the egg nestled in John’s pouch. “May I, Sherlock? John?”

“Of course.” John stretches tall and retracts his pouch, a sentry granting access to something sacred.

Erebus takes his time as he shifts and bends to visit with the egg. “Selvic, come look. See now?”

At first, Sherlock thinks he has misunderstood, but then Erebus continues. “I told you, love. I told you.”

Sherlock’s heart sinks. Whether or not Erebus sees Selvic, he believes he does, and that can mean only one thing. He lowers himself until he, too, is eye level with the egg.

“It’s a beautiful egg, Erebus, don’t you think?”

Āe, Sherlock. The finest. My heart overflows for the three of you.” Erebus presses his cheek to the shell. He sighs. “I cannot stay for long. Do you understand?”

Sherlock hesitates, not entirely sure to whom Erebus is speaking.

“I will stay as long as I can, in hopes of making a proper acquaintance, but then I must go.”

“Erebus,” Sherlock starts, his throat tight. “Are you not well?”

Erebus stands again, breathless with his exertion. “I am more well than I have been in a long time, dearest Sherlock. The last eggs will be arriving, and you will leave soon, with the others. Remember what you have learned, my friend, and it will serve you well.”

“I will. I will hunt the edges of the eddies, and ー”

“No, Sherlock. I do not speak of the hunt. I must go rest now, but it is my most fervent wish to see you again, and your beloved hatchling, when you return.”

Sherlock escorts Erebus back to the huddle, making certain he is tucked in tight at the center. He finds Pavo and asks her to keep a close eye on their friend. Pavo nods, but says there is little she can do now, but make sure the emperor stays warm and comfortable.

It is after Erebus’ visit that Sherlock asks John for a kiss. Sherlock wants to take memories with him when he goes to the sea, because memories and anticipation are all that Erebus has right now, and that’s all Sherlock will have during his two moon separation from John and their egg. Thoughts of returning home to his hatchling will carry him most of the way, but memories of the here and now will ensure he leaves with the fullest heart possible.

“John,” he says, nudging him with his bill to make sure he is listening, “I will have to leave in the next day or two, and I will be away for at least two moons. I promise to gorge on every single thing that swims so we’ll have enough food for our hatchling. She's going to be very healthy, John, and epically fat.”

“I know, love. You’re so good to go and let me stay here with him.”

“And I am going to be very fat, too. Huge. Enormous.”

John’s eyes go from diamond-shaped to extremely diamond-shaped.

“I know how much you like it when I have a bit of extra fish on my bones.”

“I do. Yes. It gives me more to hold on to when we … you know.” John glances down at the egg as if looking for ears to cover.

Sherlock brushes the top of his head over John’s neck and shoulder. “I do know. And after those moons apart, we’ll have a lot to make up for, but we won’t be able to, not until our hatchling joins the crèche. So maybe we could, you know, build up the snow bank a little bit, now?”

“Build up … but we can’t … the egg …”

“We don’t have to do that, Johnling. We can kiss, and touch, like we used to when we were young, in the ice cave. Remember?” Sherlock tilts his head down at an angle most flattering to his long neck, and blinks up at John.

John takes a tiny step forward. “Oh, I remember. Of course I remember.”

“What do you remember, Johnling?”

“I remember everything. I remember standing at the overlook in the cave, trying to pay attention to the things you were talking about, when all I wanted to do was kiss the very air out of you. I remember how daring it felt to touch you, to press up against you, and how I thought I would turn to volcanic ash when you would touch me lower, and lower, and how you would shake when I did that to you.”

Sherlock moves closer as John recalls those moments during their first summer on Cassiopeia. He strokes John’s chest and belly with light touches, as if to soothe, but it has quite the opposite effect on John. With each touch, John’s voice drops lower, and his chest puffs out a bit more.

“And I remember not understanding what I was feeling, but wanting more of it, and knowing that I’d only ever want that with you.”

Sherlock sighs his way under John’s bill, and kisses that sweet spot where black meets white. “Oh, John. And only you for me. Anahe.

Anahe, pengheart.”

The word slips into Sherlock’s heart, but his mind picks it up, twirls it around, breaks it down, and spits it back out.

“Oh.”

“Mmm”

“Wait, John. Have you ever thought about her name?”

“Whose? Our hatchling’s?”

“Anahera’s.”

“You want to talk about Anahera, now?” John says, while returning several of Sherlock’s kisses.

A-n-a-her-a.”

“Mmm?” More kisses.

“The ghost-angel. I had assumed she was named for her unique colouring. But, listen: Anahe-ra. Anahe.”

John continues to nuzzle Sherlock’s ear while he speaks. “That’s what we call each other. The only one.”

Yes, the only one, without exception, you alone. And ?”

“Yonder? Beyond?”

“Yes, but it can also mean a distant time.”

“And the sun.”

“And day, by way of, and to marry.”

Anahe-rā? But what does that mean?”

“It could mean nothing at all, I suppose.”

“You wouldn’t have brought it up if you didn’t think it meant something, Sherlock.”

“What if it means none but her, without exception, the ancient one from beyond?

John looks down at their egg. He looks at Sherlock and shakes his head. “That’s ー that’s just ー I don’t even know what to say to that. Except, I wish you could stay. I wish we could stay together.”

“We’ll need the food, John.”

“I know. I do. But you must come back, Sherlock. You must be very careful, and you must come back.”

“Of course I’ll come back. And you’ll keep our little one safe. Stay in the huddle. Sleep as much as you can. I’ll hunt quickly, and return as soon as I have enough.”

John reaches out with his wings, and hugs Sherlock into him, holding him as tightly as he can. Their hatchling is safe and sound in its shell, and the egg is safe and sound between them. Sherlock closes his eyes, and tries not to think about leaving.

Chapter Text

Erebus holds his head high as Sherlock approaches, but Sherlock sees the tremble in his right wing, and the shake in his shoulder. Erebus’ sight is failing him, and he has a hoarse, barking cough.

Sherlock has not seen the elder outside of the huddle since he ventured out to greet him and John and their egg. Cetus, Pavo, and Vela take turns staying with him, but now they are leaving for the hunt, too. Erebus will be cared for by the fathers staying with their eggs, but their priority will be their precious cargo, and Sherlock fears they will not pay close enough attention to Erebus’ health. John has promised to stay close to Erebus at all times, and he has recruited Lestra and Stamfjord to join his makeshift huddle-within-a-huddle.

He is within steps of Erebus now, but his friend seems lost in his own world, and unaware of Sherlock’s presence.

“Erebus, it's me, Sherlock.”

Erebus focuses on Sherlock and nods. “Is it time then, young Sherlock? Is the hunt on?”

“Quite soon now.”

“Good. That’s good. The hatchlings will need to eat. Hard to believe, another generation. I think I’ve lost track, Sherlock, after all these winters.”

Sherlock reaches out to touch Erebus. His feathers, once so black, so shiny, have lost their lustre. The fabled hunter’s body has thinned and weakened. His hero has begun to curve in on himself, and Sherlock’s heart swells to fill the empty spaces around those sunken shoulders and shrinking chest.

Pretending he is here for a social visit would be a waste of time and an insult to Erebus’ still vast intelligence. “Erebus, please, if you can wait until I come back, I ‒ I do not think I could bear to say goodbye now. I know how eager you are to see Selvic, I do, and I would not delay your reunion, but if you could wait, if you could stay and meet our hatchling, just another few moons, Erebus ‒”

Erebus smiles and lifts his wing. He rests it on Sherlock’s shoulder as if to reassure him.

“Shhh. It’s all right my dear boy. He’s here, actually, around here somewhere. Not sure where he’s disappeared to. But he understands. He wants to see her, too.”

Sherlock almost misses it. Erebus’ words about Selvic’s presence distract him, and he almost misses it.

“She?”

“Mmm. You’re to have a tamāhine. It’s wonderful news, isn’t it?”

“A daughter?”

“Mmm.”

“How do you know that, Erebus?”

“It was part of the dream. Did I not tell you?”

“No. Would you tell me now? Do you feel well enough?”

Erebus looks out over the water. His gaze rests on the horizon, but Sherlock knows that if he turns to look, he’ll find only the sea, stars, and sky. What else does Erebus see there?

“It was lovely, Sherlock. She came to me and told me her idea, and I agreed. Of course I did, for you and John. And so we went. It was not a very long trip, all things considered. Lovely, really.

“She did not tell me he would be there. Perhaps she meant it to be a surprise. Oh, Sherlock, such a joyous reunion, you cannot imagine. He was absolutely beautiful, just as he always was before he got sick. I thought I should die of joy. I thought maybe I had.”

Erebus closes his eyes. He hums to himself, and the softest of smiles plays over his face.

“Erebus? Can you tell me more? About what happened?”

Āe.” Erebus does not open his eyes. “She left us then, I think. It’s hard to recall. It fades in and out. She left us together, to become reacquainted if you will. It had been such a long time. How many winters are you now, dear Sherlock?”

“Seven winters, Erebus.”

“Then that’s how long it had been since I had seen my love. I lost him just before your generation was hatched.”

Sherlock takes a step back into his own thoughts. It seems so long ago that he was just a hatchling, starting out at John’s side, seeing everything as new and wondrous for the first time. For a moment he feels the panic of time slipping past him, uncatchable, like water under his wing.

“Do you know what I remember, Erebus? I remember seeing you at the third hui when I was just a hatchling. I was with John, and I was already so in love with him I could barely breathe. I told him you had recently lost your mate, and he asked me how I knew. I didn’t realize then that not everyone could see what I could.”

“And what did you say?”

“That you had missed a spot grooming, and that you had a small wound that had not been properly tended to. They were little things, but signs that you were on your own after having been looked after by someone.”

Sherlock stops. He does not wish to upset Erebus, especially not when he seems so lost in comforting memories.

“You have always been a most exceptional emperor, Sherlock. Even then, when you had only just left the pouch, you saw so much more than all the others.”

What Sherlock sees now is how far away he is from the little hatchling he used to be. That hatchling could never have imagined the adventures he would have, or the pengs he would come to cherish. That hatchling would not have spared half a thought on the eventual loss of one so precious to him, or the way such loss would drag him under the way it threatens to do now. What will his life look like without Erebus in it?

“I wish I could have had your sight, Sherlock, to see and understand so much. Perhaps I could have done more when emperors so needed it.”

“You have done so much. You have been the backbone of this colony longer than any other. You have changed my life, Erebus, and John’s, and the lives of so many others. You took a chance when you told me your story. Do you remember? When we went to Cassiopeia my first summer? And then later, when you told us the story of the tooth? You gave us with so very much. We were not even one winter old yet.”

“That was not taking a chance, my dear boy. Oh my, no. That was placing my trust in something greater than myself.”

“I do not understand.”

Aumārire, Sherlock. Harmony. The very essence of emperor life. You were right when you told the colony it is ours to choose, and not something to wait for. I chose aumārire the first time I saw you and John together. You reminded me so much of me and Selvic, and I couldn’t ‒ I could not let your love come to the same fate as ours. I chose to trust that you would take the right course of action once you knew our story. I made the same choice to trust when I told you and John the mythology of the tooth. You have never once disappointed me.”

A wave of humbleness overtakes Sherlock. That it took him a trek across the Shelf in search of mythological baubles and countless debates within his own head to come to the conclusions that Erebus did so easily, without pause, reminds him of how much he has yet to learn. That, in turn, reminds him that Erebus has not finished telling him about his experience with Anahera. “Can you tell me the rest of the dream?”

“Hm? Ah yes, the dream. Where was I?”

“Anahera had left you and Selvic alone for a while, I believe.”

“Yes. Exactly. My beautiful Selvic.”

“Erebus, may I ask a rather personal question?”

Erebus nods.

“Did Selvic not mind that you helped make an egg with Anahera?”

“No, he did not mind because he helped too. That’s why she took me to meet him, you see.”

Sherlock does not see.

“How did he help?”

Erebus shakes his head and shuffles closer to Sherlock. He lowers his voice and says, “I do not know how to explain, but to say that we made that egg together, the three of us.”

“Erebus,” Sherlock says, trying hard to find the right words to steer them back into more understandable territory, “which part of your experience with Anahera was a dream, and which part was real? You did leave with her, did you not? She found you and told you the plan, and you left Pobeda? You and Anahera made the egg, and at some point, you must have dreamed the rest of this? It’s just that I am confused. You said you know our hatchling is a tamāhine because it was part of the dream. How do you know this is true if it was a dream?”

Erebus looks at Sherlock for ten or so heartbeats. “I cannot say with any degree of certainty, Sherlock. It was as if the dream was a recollection of things already come to pass.

"That Selvic is here with me now could very well be a dream. Is this a dream, Sherlock?”

“No. This is not a dream.”

“Perhaps it was all real, then.”

“Was it cold, Erebus? When you left Pobeda and swam, could you feel the cold?”

“Water? I can’t remember water, Sherlock.”

“But there was water, yes?”

“I am not ‒ it seems ‒ there must have been, but I do not recall the water. Odd.”

“Erebus, are you sure you left Pobeda?”

“Quite sure. Sherlock, my boy, would you mind terribly if I slept now? I find myself quite tired these days.”

“Of course. I apologize Erebus, for taxing you and adding to your fatigue. I will say goodbye for now, dear friend, but only until I come back. And when I do come back, we will greet our tamāhine together.”

“Yours, Sherlock, yours and John’s. Your keakea.

“I rather think our offspring is the result of a great amount of love, Erebus. She most certainly does belong to you as much as she does me.”

Erebus fades fast, his head sinking lower on his chest, his eyes fighting to stay open. Sherlock bows to Erebus, his bill touching the ice. He stays that way until he feels a light touch on his back.

“Please, Sherlock, do not bow to me. We are well past that.”

Sherlock stands but continues to look at the ice near his feet. “I do it out of respect, sir, and love. Tell me how else to show it, and I will.”

Erebus pulls Sherlock into a hug, and Sherlock is relieved to find surprising strength still left in those wings. “I love you, and I am proud of you, Sherlock.”

The sharp whip of wind has nothing to do with the sting behind Sherlock’s eyes.

“To respect, pride, and love, then.”

Sherlock hugs Erebus for a long time.