Chapter 1: Conjuration
"The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned."
- Christopher Marlowe 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus'
Power saturated the air, mixing with the rich, metallic scent of blood. The walls were covered in it: white paint stained in shades of claret. However, the carnage was far from the most striking detail of the little bedsit in Bethnal Green.
'Whoever drew this was careless. Either that or a complete amateur.' Sherlock dipped his finger into the wobbling chalk line of the circle's edge. It was poorly constructed, barely enclosing the space within. That was how the demon had been able to take far more than its summoner wanted to offer. The ashen silhouette of a protective amulet lay near his foot, nothing but a husk. 'They went fishing for haddock and caught a shark.'
'Where is it now?' Lestrade asked. 'Am I looking at a loose monster in London, or can I wrap this case up as some daft bugger playing Faust and getting killed instead?'
'As if he knows that,' Donovan sneered, her lips curling as Sherlock met her gaze before returning his attention to the evidence.
'I don't understand why he's even here. A necromancer shouldn't be at a murder scene,' Anderson added with a sniff. 'For all you know he might be taking bits home with him.'
Sherlock closed his eyes, silently cursing the stupidity of people in general and the Forensics Lead in particular. 'Even if I were a necromancer, there's not much I could do with half an ear and a thin patina of blood.' He cast Anderson a dark look. 'The grave-arts are about raising the dead, not working out what made them into corpses in the first place.' To Lestrade, he held out his hand, palm up. 'I can tell you where your demon is, but I’ll need your lighter.'
A ripple of unease stirred the air. Sherlock felt it as surely as if someone had opened a window, letting in a breeze that tickled those of his senses which were attuned beyond the standard fare. It was nothing ominous: mere human uncertainty. They knew what he was, but few of those from the Yard had seen him do any kind of magic. They all had the ability, to some extent or other, but there was a big difference between a basic practitioner and a masterful adept.
'Do we need to be in a –' Lestrade made a vague, protective motion with his left hand as he passed Sherlock the lighter, frowning when his only response was a faint sigh. 'If you drag something back here, Sherlock, I swear to God I'll lock you up and never let you go again. Level ten containment. Not even you could get out of that.'
It was not a meaningless warning, and Sherlock rolled his eyes, casting a deeper glance over Lestrade's team. They all glowed with their own powers and shields. Lestrade was bonfire bright while Anderson glittered, starlight weak, and Sally's intensity faltered somewhere between the two. Various other technicians added the rainbow colours of lesser spells to the mix: all safe and secure.
Then there was John.
When Sherlock had first seen him, he had been so surprised that he had almost lost his train of thought. Normally, power was symbolised as light to his higher-vision, but John was different. At any level of sight, he looked like a normal man, his flesh bare and exposed to the elemental powers that sluiced through London.
Yet it had been Sherlock's other senses that had alerted him to the truth. John did not glow, but he radiated heat. Even now, more than a dozen paces apart, he could feel the glide of it like rough spun silk across his skin, blissful and tender. The lingering scent of dry air and sandalwood filled his nose, laced with the faintest acrid bite of gunpowder: the war dogging John's footsteps.
Sherlock had expected his magic to be out of the ordinary: particularly strong, perhaps – adept level at least, but John's abilities were limited to the basics. He was able to remove a curse and deal with most ailments, both paranormal and biological. He also had wards like reinforced concrete walls, but that was where his supernatural talents ended: practically mundane.
However, he made up for that normalcy in other ways.
When he had taken on a flatmate almost a year ago, Sherlock had expected to merely tolerate their presence. They would be a necessary intruder and nothing more. How wrong he had been. Within twenty-four hours, John had shot a man dead to save Sherlock's life. No questions, no expectations; he had simply pulled the trigger as if protecting Sherlock was the obvious choice.
From that moment, John had infiltrated his life, and surprisingly, Sherlock had not only allowed him to do so; he had welcomed it. Now, almost a year later, it was impossible to consider an existence where John was not there in the morning, grumpy and rumpled, or breathless after a chase, the pull of something hot coiling between them to be left regrettably unanswered. John was not a docile lamb following along in Sherlock's wake, but someone who engaged with him, challenging him even as he encouraged Sherlock to higher leaps of deduction.
With some effort, Sherlock focussed on the circle again, inwardly berating himself for his distraction. John had a habit of catching and holding his attention at the most inopportune moments. At first, he had thought it was simply because John was someone new to be categorised, understood, and then discarded, but even now that he knew John so well, he still found his thoughts drifting back to the man, captivated.
Breathing a sigh, he flicked his thumb over the lighter, letting the spark find ignition. Other mages would spend hours with magnificent circles, dripping candles – all the useless paraphernalia that so many people thought were essential. Perhaps for some they were a necessary crutch, but Sherlock had mastered some of the most complex spells known to man when he was eight. By the time he was twelve, he was making up his own, manipulating the fabric of the occult and creating new seams and folds for his own purposes: dangerous, but satisfying.
Magic stirred around him, and Sherlock urged his focus to shift down and in, picking up the lingering strands of conjuration and allowing his consciousness to ghost along them. A small part of him stayed in his physical form: a sentry in an empty house. If he strained his senses, he could still feel the floor beneath his feet and hear the soft, shocked noise one of Lestrade's men made. Vacancy often caused discomfort in the uninitiated. They did not like seeing the mostly-hollow shell of a human being that remained when a skilled mage went on the hunt.
The trail was fresh, which made his job easier. Truthfully, he could track a demon days after the circle to contact it had been activated, weeks, if the creature was powerful enough, but it was a challenge. Now, transit was brief and simple, like following the broad, straight sweep of Ermine Street from one end of the country to the other. Within seconds, the rushing torrent solidified around him, and the demon's realm came into view.
Sherlock's discorporate form was still hunkered in the same position as his physical one back in the real world, and he cautiously straightened up, every sense on high-alert. The generally held belief among the populace was that demons lived in worlds of fire and brimstone: unimaginative copies of Dante's notorious inferno. Everyone assumed that they were evil things, sent to steal the few, fragile virtues man called his own.
Wrong. As if anything could be so black and white.
Demons were intelligent predators, and their worlds could be shaped to assume any form: already Sherlock was reading everything the environment had to tell him, and it was an interesting display. This place was dark and glossy, like polished jet or obsidian. The light played tricks on his eyes, but in the gloom it was possible to make out objects, and the fragrance of fresh blood and magic scented the air.
Like old gods long forgotten, demons embodied power. Human souls sustained them, and many had perished, unable to tempt or claim the food they needed. This one, however, was a success story. Even if it weren't for the transparent remnants of the unfortunate conjurer, bloodless and torn apart at Sherlock's feet, it was evident in the weight of the atmosphere. Ancient strength whispered promises in his ear. Temptation pulled on him like a bow line, seeking to draw him in, but he kept himself completely smooth, glassy and untouchable.
It was a challenge: take me if you can.
'Well,' a voice purred, drifting inwards from the walls to a single point of focus as a man stepped out of the shadows. 'Aren't you something special?'
As forms went, it was unremarkable, but Sherlock knew better than to pass judgement. Besides, a true observer would see the demon's strength in the cut of his suit, the sharpness of his smile and, more obviously, the bottomless black of eyes too dark to be anything like human: dank holes in the whiteness of the orb.
'I like to think so,' Sherlock replied, a hint of satisfaction scything through him as the demon raised an eyebrow in surprise.
'You can talk!' A laugh escaped the man's mouth, writhing like auditory worms through the dead air. 'Now that's new. He couldn't even breathe.' A neatly manicured hand flicked in the direction of the human remains. 'Most people who find me are too exhausted by the trip to do more than cry, but look at you!' The smile vanished, and the melodic, Irish brogue turned wanton and rough. 'Just look at you.'
The demon closed his eyes, breathing air in through his nose like someone savouring the scent of fine wine. Lashes fluttered in ecstasy, and a new smile twitched across the pallid elasticity of his face. 'You're practically seething with power. And your mind...' He tipped his head, observing Sherlock from an angle. 'I'd almost say you weren't human, except that I can taste your soul.'
A blink, and the demon was suddenly in his space, pressed so close that Sherlock could discern the heat of him dragging at his skin: clammy fingers sticking to the cold crystal of his wards. Yet the demon did not scrabble or snarl, instead he merely arched his spine, ignoring the burn of power as it began to stab and claw at the narrow distance between them.
It was not that the creature was resistant; Sherlock saw burns bloom and fade on its flesh with every passing second. Instead it was as if the pain was of no consequence to him, or perhaps just an adequate price to pay as he stared up into Sherlock's face, his gaze moving from side to side as if he were reading the lines from a book.
'Clever,' the demon murmured. 'You're putting thoughts to the forefront of your mind for me to see. Are any of them true?'
'Can't you tell?'
The creature's lips curved. An almost serpentine sway of his head gave something away of his nature: not human at all. 'I know you're not alone. There are others around you, weak, dull. Except...'
Something twitched across its face, taking the childish joy away with it as a frown creased his brow. 'Oh, you have a pet. He shines for you. Follows in your footsteps like a good little dog. Dodgy shoulder, crippled leg.' The demon grimaced. 'Better put it out of its misery.'
Magic slammed into Sherlock's shields as he met the assault head on, shoving the attack away from the path that would lead it back to John. Roars and crashes split the realm, and Sherlock felt a thrill as the demon's eyes widened.
'Oh,' he whispered, looking as if he had found something intriguing. 'More than a pet, then. Does he spread his legs for you? Whine into your pillows? Does he touch you?'
Fingers burned into the fragile skin over Sherlock's pulse, agonising points of contact as his wards creaked and groaned, not gone, not yet, but bowing under the onslaught. Stupid! Stupid! He had under-estimated the demon's strength, and now every nerve shrieked with the pain of his caress. It took all of his concentration to hold the monster at bay.
'Or could I be wrong? Not your lover, at least not yet,' the demon asked, breaking off and stepping away with a trembling, wistful sigh as Sherlock considered the option of retreat. 'You came looking, and now you already want to leave.' He pouted: a mockery of disappointment before a cruel smirk carved its line across his face. 'But I have what I want from you, Sherlock Holmes, and you'll come back.' Suit-clad shoulders twitched up towards his ears before relaxing again as he danced away, a puckish grin baring blunt, human teeth as he bit his lip in coy parody. 'I'll be waiting.'
Energy snapped around Sherlock's body, dragging him back to slam him painfully into the confines of his own flesh. Normally, the transition left him feeling constrained, chafed and captive within his body, but this time the sensation was drowned out by the thudding throb of a painful bruise at the hollow of his jaw: a lingering testament to that unwanted touch.
'What the hell was that?' John's rough hush sounded tight with near-panic, and Sherlock dragged his eyes open. He blinked up at the man who was gripping him, fingers clamped around his bones as if he were trying to hold him in place. Dimly, he realised that John's wards were folded on top of his own, wrapped around them like the wings of a giant bird.
John's face was pale as lines of concern etched themselves around his eyes. The warm wash of magic swirled around them, emanating from the point where John's hands touched him. The curl of his fingers eased back from desperate claws to rub, just once, along the line of Sherlock's shoulder-blades.
Sherlock's stomach jolted, nervous butterflies shivering awake in subtle pleasure even as his mind grappled with the enormity of what John had done. Not the caress, John was often a tactile friend, at least around Sherlock, but with the magic. He had pulled Sherlock back here as surely as if he had hauled him home by his collar, but how?
'Something unexpected,' he managed, shrugging aside his questions and reaching up to give John's wrist an instinctive squeeze of reassurance. Getting to his feet, he probed the bruise before looking at Lestrade and his men. They were all pressed back against the walls of the room, doing their best to avoid disturbing the scene while staring at Sherlock as if they had never seen him before. Even Lestrade, who had known Sherlock when his magic was at its most wild, bore the gleam of nervous sweat along his hairline.
A glance downwards solved the mystery of their confusion, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes in interest. The lighter was still in his hand, and now it was obvious why the reservoir was spent. The purpose of the flame was to absorb excess energy that spells threw off. It was normally a harmless way of disposing of the power, yet the scorch marks told their own story. Even more intriguing was the pattern of interlocking circles they created: Sherlock's wards given ashen form. They coiled through the room like the petals of a flower, unfamiliar, exotic sigils to everyone but him. Yet at their centre were a different set, more common and understandable. John's shields had entwined with his own.
The sight made Sherlock falter, but he covered it quickly, turning to Lestrade as if nothing untoward daubed its baffling story across the floorboards. 'The demon is still in his realm, but probably not for long.'
'What do you mean?' Lestrade asked, easing himself forward and stepping over the charcoal lines. His gaze never left Sherlock's face, as if he expected something from the abyss to be hiding behind his eyes. 'What did you do?'
'I merely observed,' Sherlock replied, not bothering to credit the half-obscured suspicion in Lestrade's voice. 'He's gathering a cult. It was written all over his realm. There were trinkets – offerings from followers – not to mention the iconography: a spider and web.' He paused again, thinking of the moment when the creature had plucked his name from his mind – a powerful token. Except that such things went both ways, because when the demon had murmured Sherlock's name, he had heard the answering trade: as old as magic itself.
'It's called Moriarty.' He uttered the syllables carefully, warding them without a thought. 'Don't say it out loud. All names have power, and his is not the kind you want to try and tame. Someone's planning something, but I doubt they realise the danger.' He turned, his dark coat settling around his body as he headed for the door, ignoring the DI's spluttering protests. 'Keep your ear to the ground. The cult's not small – it should be easy to find.'
'And the conjurer?' Lestrade called out, jamming his hands on his hips as Sherlock glanced back over his shoulder, taking in the bloody room and the pale faces of the police within.
'A journeyman, judging by the books on the shelves. It's not beginner's magic, but nor is it advanced. Job applications on the table suggest he's new in the city and looking for high-paying employment. I suspect he was an initiate in the cult who barely believed in the demon to begin with and thought he would try to summon it for his personal gain.' Sherlock shrugged. 'He couldn't afford the assistance on offer.'
'Eaten?' Donovan looked sick at her own question. For all her bitterness the woman was intelligent, and she had the sense to look to Sherlock for the answer.
'Thrown away,' he replied, his memory settling once more on the strange, uncertain realm he had seen. 'The demon wasn't hungry; he's too well fed for that.' He remembered the mirthless smiles, the dark, abyssal eyes and the intellect in those depths, as engaging as it was repulsive. He knew that look well; he saw it in the mirror more often than not.
'He was bored.'
John watched Sherlock's reflection in the taxi's window, pretending to give a damn about the view of London beyond the pane of glass while all his attention was fixed on the man at his side. He was used to Sherlock's magic by now, from arcane circles on the living room floor and eyeballs on the kitchen table to the more subtle, elegant spells that he wove around himself at every moment, but what had happened in the bedsit was in a different league.
There were already whispers about the things Sherlock had done in the past – mutterings among Lestrade's men about dodgy deals and power that touched on the wrong side of the law. John did not believe a word of it. Their fear stemmed more from jealousy than any concrete proof, but tonight's events would not help to silence the rumours.
It was rare that Sherlock went on the hunt like that, leaving his body absent while his being was off elsewhere, chasing the trails of a case through worlds the rest of them could only imagine. Such things were normally restrained to the stronghold of Baker Street, where his physical form would be completely safe in its undefended state. John was not sure whether Sherlock's actions tonight had been a sign of trust in the people surrounding him, or a product of his endless curiosity.
Either way, it had backfired. John had known it the instant the icy prickle of Sherlock's wards had come to life. He had sensed a problem when the body hunkered on the floor – still breathing, still living, but empty all the same – had turned pale and begun to sweat. The fire that danced at the lighter's peak, sparking happily with the fuel the magic sent its way, had stuttered, turning sickly violet before unfurling in a heatless blaze to chart the circumference of Sherlock's ferocious shields.
Lestrade and his men had staggered back. John had marched forward.
It was a stupid thing to do. Now, in the aftermath, he could hardly believe his own idiocy. Sherlock's wards, already keeping out something else, should have repelled him – should have turned him to nothing but ash and dust with their vigour – but instead they had parted like silk. John could still feel the worshipful caress of them across his skin and hear the harmony as they resonated along his own, meeker protections. They had mingled until he was able to stand at Sherlock's side and grip those shoulders tight, desperate to somehow call him back.
Surprisingly, it had worked. Sherlock's muscles had jerked immediately, a presence finding its home once more as the mundane symbols of John's wards burned into the floor at their feet.
It shouldn't have happened like that. Shields weren't supposed to blend and merge. They were repulsive, forcing away all threats and interferences. Yet John had been welcomed like a lover into their embrace, and that wasn't – he and Sherlock weren't – they were friends, nothing more.
Swallowing tightly, John tried not to let his thoughts linger on the occasional hot moment that sometimes flourished between them after a chase, or quiet evenings where unusual contentment found them both. He would be lying if he said he didn't wish he had more with Sherlock, but the man had made it clear that work was his top priority, and John knew Sherlock better than to believe that might change.
No, they had something incredible – the kind of friendship John had not believed existed until he limped into Sherlock's life – but was that enough to make their magic act so differently? Had it always done that and they had never had the chance to notice, or was it something new?
'You have questions.' Sherlock's statement was hoarse, and John saw him fingering the bruise at his jaw again as if fascinated by its presence. The unconscious gesture was enough to set John's teeth on edge, and he folded his arms, running his tongue over his lip as he glared at the floor.
'What were you thinking?' he demanded at last, pitching aside the more personal bafflement over the wards and their behaviour. He did not think he was ready to face Sherlock's cool logic on that topic. Instead, he let his mind drift back to the demon. 'You said yourself that whoever summoned that thing got more than they bargained for, yet you still dove right in, dashing off where none of us could follow.' John straightened his shoulders, glancing in Sherlock's direction. 'You know his name, and you can't for a minute make me believe he gave you that for free.'
Sherlock looked at him, his capricious eyes gleaming silver as John shifted beneath the scrutiny. 'I'm surprised you're aware of its value,' he mused at last. 'I thought you had no interest in summoning.'
'No aptitude, either, but I remember the classes on it at school; the ones you probably deleted. It would be illegal if the government didn't find it useful.' John thought back to those endless days in the classroom, burdened by the dark, uncertain facts of conjurations and summoning. 'To have power over a demon, to really bind it to you, a mage needs to know its full name. Without that –'
'You have nothing but trouble,' Sherlock finished. 'I didn't get his entire name. Normally there are laws that demons must obey, superstitions that even out the balance. A demon cannot take something from a protected practitioner, not directly. It has to deceive or trick them out of what it wants: information, their freedom, their life...' He paused, glancing away to stare out at fey-lit London. 'He didn't play by the rules, breached my shields and stole my name – my full name. Part of his flowed back along the connection.'
John closed his eyes as a chill washed through him, surfing over his muscles and seeping into his blood. Everyone with even an ounce of magic in their veins knew that names had power. It was an ancient Wyrd. Once, back in the dark ages, they had been used to target spells. Now there were far more people than monikers in the world, and more efficient ways had been found.
'What could he do with it?' John asked, leaning forward to pay the taxi driver as the vehicle pulled up to the kerb. 'Can he get to you?'
'Not through normal means,' Sherlock replied, crooking one finger in emphasis and making his wards sing. It was a high, crystal symphony of music, lilted with the ethereal air of violins. The sound was so familiar that John's tense muscles uncoiled, falling torpid beneath his skin. 'Not in this realm, anyway. In his own, it could be another matter, and it might make any stand-off with his cult more complicated if they can develop spells to specifically hide themselves from me.'
A subtle, wicked smile curved Sherlock's lips, one that said he was already a dozen steps ahead of the demon in question. He stopped beneath the street-light at the corner of the road leading to Angelo's, and John shifted back, allowing himself the pleasure of watching Sherlock work.
God, but he was a good-looking man, striking in almost every way. When he had first set eyes on him, John had wondered if he used a glamour, because surely no real person could be that strangely unique. However, that kind of magic took a lot of effort to maintain, and John had never seen him look any different. Even in a fit of pique, or lost in sulks, or up to his elbows in a bizarre mixture of arcane and organic chemistry, Sherlock still caught John's eye. No, it was genetics, rather than any spell, that gave Sherlock their blessing.
Yet in moments like this, when Sherlock's focus narrowed down to the pursuit of a single result, he seemed to glow: a man with more purpose in one moment than most people found in their lifetimes.
'Why do you always do this here?' John asked, wincing at his interruption. Yet Sherlock did not complain as he cupped his hands in front of him and gazed sightlessly into the empty air between his palms.
'It's a nexus,' came the reply. 'Three church spires, one cathedral and fourteen statues with spears, staffs or other linear objects in their grasp stand within a short distance from here. The majority of them direct power to this point. Can't you feel it?'
'Not everyone's as sensitive as you,' John reminded him, watching as tiny motes of light began to spark into existence, sending out little, happy sounds as their carmine glow lit Sherlock's cheekbones. 'Mostly all I feel when we're near Angelo's is hunger.'
'Then we had better feed you,' Sherlock replied, bending his head to whisper something before spreading his palms wide. The air stirred, the wind smelling like the warm tropics rather than England's frigid bite, and John watched the sparks dance away, darting down alleys and into the dark, forgotten places of London where many of Sherlock's informants made their homes. 'It will probably be an hour or two before we have an answer, anyway.'
Wordlessly, John fell in at his side, matching Sherlock's easy stride as they entered the restaurant and sat at their normal table. Angelo was his usual, genial self, singing Sherlock's praises as they were plied with wine, food and the obligatory candle. John did not even have it in him to protest, not now when his stomach was growling for sustenance and his heart felt bruised with concern.
'You think they'll find the cult?' he asked, jerking his head to indicate the vanished stars. He leaned back as his dinner was placed in front of him, smiling his thanks as Sherlock shrugged his shoulders. As usual, there was no meal for him, and John fought down the urge to offer Sherlock morsels from his plate.
'The sprites will spread the word, and someone will bring something back to us. There were too many offerings there for this to be something people can hide. We just need to listen to the whispers.'
'And if there aren't any?'
Sherlock glanced his way with a hint of a smile. 'Then there are others I can consult, if I must. You know my methods by now, better than anyone else.'
John picked at his pasta, letting a thoughtful silence settle over the table. He had seen Sherlock in action within five minutes of meeting him. Not the magic, which came a couple of hours later, but the man himself. Sherlock saw everything; his powers of observation and deduction were stunning. It was those, initially, that had led to Sherlock helping the police. He looked at a murder scene and saw what everyone else somehow missed – spells had nothing to do with it.
That was probably part of the problem. It was not some curse or incantation that enabled Sherlock to perceive the finest details of the world around him: it was simply his nature, and most people found it more eerie than intriguing. At least Sherlock's conjurations were something everyone could begin to comprehend, but him knowing every secret they had? That's what made people talk.
It had been Donovan who told him, her voice low and hushed, about Sherlock's enjoyment of murder scenes and the mutterings that he had sold his soul in exchange for all-seeing eyes. John had been stupefied, not so much by the words, but that one mage could say that about another. For an individual to willingly relinquish all that made them who they were as a person, both good and bad, they had to be beyond desperate. Even bleeding out in the hot, arid terrain of Afghanistan, John had not reached that point. Not that he would have been able to do it even if he wanted to. You had to be powerful to make your request heard, and John's magic didn't have that kind of strength.
Sherlock's was another matter. People only had to look at him to realise that his capabilities far exceeded the average. Then he opened his mouth and removed all doubt that he was something out of the ordinary: aloof and proud, distant and exceptionally talented – it was no wonder people looked for something to diminish his abilities – to make them somehow lesser and vile.
'And you never question the things I can do.'
Those words made John glance up, swallowing his latest mouthful too quickly as he realised that Sherlock was watching him, reading him as easily as he had done all those months ago when they had met in the lab at Bart's. It took him a moment to pick up the threads of the conversation, and he reached out for his wine, looking back at Sherlock and wishing he could see something – any emotion – beyond the brilliance of curiosity.
'Would you give me a straight answer if I did?' he asked, shaking aside his own question a second later. 'I know you've not done what people say. Only an idiot who has never seen someone without a soul would believe you'd lost yours.'
That caught Sherlock's attention, his eyebrows lifting a fraction as he deduced the particulars. This time, when he spoke, his voice was softer. Even Sherlock had finally grasped that the war was not something John liked to discuss. 'Afghanistan. Prisoners?'
John nodded, trying to ignore the phantom assault on his senses: dust and blood, the distant echo of gunfire, a body so mutilated it was unrecognisable but for the haunted, hollow emptiness of its eyes. 'You can't sell someone else's soul without their cooperation, right?' He waited for Sherlock's nod before continuing, 'They tortured them until it was their only escape – until they willingly agreed to the transaction. You only had to look at them. They were –'
Sherlock's answer made John glance up sharply, trying to discern whether it was research or personal experience which had led him to that conclusion. He was right. The soulless moved, would even speak in dead, empty tones and interact with their environment, but there was no emotion there. Nothing could drag a glimmer of sentimental response from them: neither joy nor horror.
'There was a case, not long after I started helping Lestrade. He was a sergeant then: no Anderson, no Donovan, just him desperate for a promotion.' Sherlock drummed his fingers on the table in an absent gesture, ignoring the faint gleam of blue that shone over his cutlery as he did so – his wards making their presence known.
'A serial molester was doing the same thing to children, assaulting them until they begged him to take what he really wanted. He sold their souls for more power.' A crease interrupted the smooth line of Sherlock's brow: a faint sign of distress that most people would have missed entirely. 'Even vacancy isn't like that. When I'm on the hunt and my body is empty, I'm gone. I have to fight to feel anything at all. They were still present, still aware, but they didn't care about anything.'
'You're nothing like that,' John replied. He doubted that Sherlock was looking for the reassurance and half-expected him to sneer at it, but instead there was a hint of a smile in reply. 'Anyone who has seen a soulless once can identify them immediately.'
Sherlock made an uncertain noise, turning back to look out of the window. The fleeting moment of connection was gone, and John returned his attention to his dinner as he listened. 'There are theories that suggest it's not always like that. It's only if your soul is consumed while your body lives that you become so – distant.' He shrugged. 'If you're a powerful mage and your soul is of use to a demon as something other than sustenance, the results may be different. Many people entered such deals during the middle-ages, and none of them are reported to have behaved in the same way as the soulless we know of. They kept their minds, at least.'
'So someone like you …' John let the question trail off, watching Sherlock's reflection in the glass.
'I don't know what would happen, and I have honestly never been tempted to try,' Sherlock replied. 'What could I want so desperately that would make me sell my soul? What could possibly compel me to surrender the part of myself that makes me who I am: the source of my magic, my self-control, everything?'
'Knowledge? Power? Wealth?'
'With the right books and enough time I can teach myself anything. Knowledge is power, and wealth often follows. I don't need a demon's assistance for that.' Sherlock's disdain was clear, as if such mundane desires were beneath him, and John hid a smile as he finished his dinner. 'Are you ready to go home?'
'Yeah, are we walking?' John already knew the answer. The sprites tended to alarm taxi drivers, and vehicles often acted like a magical Faraday cage, cutting their passengers off from the city. For John's part, it meant they felt a little cold, but if Sherlock spent more than twenty minutes in a cab, he became irritable and twitchy. Besides, on foot might take longer, but it was better for their health – both physical and financial.
London's night parted around them as they spoke in quiet voices, the rhythm of their footsteps underscoring the facts of the case as Sherlock spun out the details for John's attention, his knowledge slowly easing the tension in John's chest. Like this, alive and exuberant with the promise of a puzzle, it was difficult to imagine that Sherlock – compelling, intelligent and far from naïve – could be in danger from anything harboured in the other realms.
No, he would solve the case, the cult would be gone, and the demon would be cut off from the world once more.
Winter air sleeted into the flat through the windows, open wide for the few lingering sprites that had yet to return. It had been a week since Sherlock had pushed his way into Moriarty's realm and learned of his cult, but still there was nothing. Around him, the last of the conjuration spell faded, taking the outline of the little girl with it. Appearances could be deceiving. The spirit had owed him a favour, and as such had appeared in a benign form. Unfortunately, she returned to him empty-handed.
Sherlock scrubbed his fingers through his hair, flicking through the curls as if he could pitch his thoughts aside. He was being Obscured, obviously, yet the fact that the members of this cult were able to hide themselves so thoroughly suggested they had more power at their command than he had originally estimated, and they seemed to be gaining strength.
More bodies had turned up: tribute for the demon, judging by the cobweb patterns carved into their skin. It was crass and barbaric: a human touch. The demon was too poised for such theatrics, but his cult clearly had other ideas. Mortal, careless, they should have exposed themselves by now, so where the hell were they?
'Christ, Sherlock, it's freezing in here!' John's voice dragged him out of his aggravated musings, making him look up. John had been at the surgery, and a glance at the clock and then the window told Sherlock that night had drawn in. Another day gone, and he was no closer to knowing the truth. 'Have you even moved?'
John padded over, still huddled in his jacket, and reached out to touch Sherlock's arm. He did not wait or ask permission, just wrapped his fingers, warm from his gloves, around Sherlock's wrist and muttered a curse at the chill he found there. 'You prat. What are you doing sitting with all the windows open and your shirt-sleeves rolled up?'
'Trying to solve the case,' Sherlock replied, not caring that he sounded like a petulant child. 'Everyone is coming back with nothing. I've been forced to ask Mycroft for assistance.'
John paused, a huff of surprise catching in his throat before he hunkered down at Sherlock's side, clasping Sherlock's left hand between his own and rubbing some life back into his fingers. Those blue eyes lingered critically on the three nicotine patches dotting his arm, but John knew better than to comment by now. Instead he kept up his steady caress, flexing Sherlock's frigid knuckles before moving on to the other hand.
Sherlock watched what he was doing, following the glide of John's skin as his heart beat hard beneath his ribs. He could feel the calluses on John's fingers and his dry palms as they stroked back and forth, too slow and gentle to be truly clinical. They performed no magic to bring heat back to Sherlock's skin, but it worked all the same, making his flesh tingle and the crests of his cheeks flush with warmth.
'You've been summoning,' John muttered, taking in the hints of chalk on the floor and the flipped back rug that exposed the bare boards. 'I know you're one of the best and that Baker Street is shielded, but you shouldn't be messing about without using your personal wards!'
'They are up,' Sherlock murmured, his thoughts changing the instinctive flow of energy so that the bubble of protective magic made itself visible. 'You walked straight through them.' He glanced away, pulling his hands free of John's grasp as he did so. Not that the man's heat left him; his weren't the only wards behaving strangely. He could feel John's furling around him, enclosing him in their depths like a cocoon: doubly safe.
'Oh, I – I didn't –' John looked confused and embarrassed, as if he had been caught doing something rude. 'Sorry.'
Sherlock thought he would ask why spells that should be protecting them both from everyone, including each other, were instead twining together with such elegant ease. The shadows of questions dwelt in John's expression, and Sherlock watched, helplessly following the swipe of John's tongue with his gaze as he licked his lips.
A knock at the front door cut through the air, curtailing anything John might have said. Clumsily, Sherlock got to his feet, listening as Mrs Hudson checked the protections on the threshold. He could hear them humming in irritation as they always did when Mycroft darkened the doorstep, and he fixed his face into an indifferent expression as his brother entered the building and climbed the stairs.
'You've had no more luck than I,' he said in greeting, his frustration temporarily eclipsed by the satisfaction of Mycroft's failure. He would have been disgustingly smug if he had found something that Sherlock had been unable to discern.
Mycroft gave a disdainful sniff, taking in the flat with his usual level of scrutiny. On the surface, he looked disinterested, but Sherlock knew better. His brother would examine everything, probing the magical and mundane for any significance. 'The cult is completely veiled. I can't find them on CCTV or in the mists.'
'I don't know why you bother; you're a substandard seer at best.' It was a useless barb. Brilliance ran in the Holmes bloodline, and Mycroft was masterful at attuning his mind to the interwoven strands of potential futures that lay before every human being on the planet. More to the point, he had the control that so many lacked, allowing him finite focus. Alternatively, he could turn the ability off if he had to. As such, he had not lost his mind – at least not yet.
'Is that why you've veiled yourself and John so thoroughly against me that I get a headache just trying to find you?' Mycroft gave Sherlock a cool glare. 'Must you use such an obnoxious glow on that particular ward? It makes attempting to divine anything within a mile radius of Baker Street rather like looking into the sun.'
'Someone's got to keep you on your toes,' Sherlock replied. 'If you could see everything that we were going to do, you'd never bother leaving your desk. Do you have anything for me or not?'
John's voice made him turn to see his flatmate by the window, smiling at the glowing star that hovered there. The sprite made dizzying, happy curves around him like an orbiting sunlet, occasionally nuzzling up to his cheek or his open hand like a cat. The noises it made were euphoric, far more suited to the bedroom than anywhere else, and it was all Sherlock could do not to blush. First his wards and now this – emanations of his magic fawning over John like...
He cut the thought off, deliberately not looking in Mycroft's direction. He could feel the smug surprise radiating off his older brother as it was, and he swiftly pulled the sprite towards him and away from its rapturous admiration of John. The star came grudgingly, weaving through the air to settle on his palm. It was not alive, not really, but its heat kissed him as it dissolved into his skin, allowing its findings to flow into his mind like syrup.
A jumble of impressions – darkness, rot, the smell of the river – and then a glimpse of a street-name before the images faded: Rotherhithe Street. Finally.
'Got them. Come on, John!'
'What about Lestrade?' John asked, chucking Sherlock his coat as Mycroft stood aside to let them pass. 'Shouldn't we call him?'
'Not yet. Not until I'm sure there's something there worth investigating.' Sherlock pulled on his gloves, glancing back at his older brother. 'Show yourself out, Mycroft.'
'Have a care, Sherlock. I might not have found much about the cult, but I did find something on the demon: class one. You know what that means.'
'Well, I don't,' John cut in, looking between the two of them as Sherlock digested the information.
'He's considered too powerful to bind,' Mycroft explained. 'The few, previous attempts to which I have found a reference had apocalyptic consequences. The last time an effort was made to summon and tame him appeared to result in the Black Death. I recommend you take your gun.'
John's expression took on that shuttered, stoic tension that Sherlock knew well: the face a soldier wore to war. He did not even look Sherlock's way for confirmation as he went to retrieve his weapon, leaving the two Holmes brothers alone.
Sherlock clenched his teeth, waiting for the inevitable. He could practically hear Mycroft's thoughts from where he stood, rife with ridiculous assumptions.
'Mummy will be so pleased.'
Sherlock flinched, glaring at his older brother as he spat, 'Shut up, Mycroft. You're too busy staring into the future to focus on the reality that's right in front of your overly large nose.'
His only response was a faint smile, and Mycroft shook his head as he walked down the stairs. 'I don't need magic, Sherlock. I know your views on sentiment echo my own, but if you must feel for someone, you could do far worse than Doctor Watson.'
The spell snapped at Mycroft's skin-tight wards, raising a brief shower of cerise sparks where they touched: nothing but a toothless dog biting at his heels, but Sherlock felt marginally happier for the display. With a flick of his umbrella tip, Mycroft bade him farewell, stepping out of the door and leaving him to shift from foot-to-foot, waiting impatiently for John.
'Come on!' he called up the stairs, rolling his eyes as John thundered down to meet him. 'What took you so long?'
'If I didn't have to hide my gun from you to stop you shooting the walls, it wouldn't take so long to retrieve it,' John pointed out tersely as they hurried from the flat and slid into the taxi Sherlock flagged down. 'What's the plan?'
Sherlock rubbed his thumb over his brow, narrowing his eyes as he gave the question some thought. 'They'll have a base of some kind. That's what we're looking for. Probably underground. There's a dis-used sewage system near Rotherhithe Street; it used to be a drug den.'
John stiffened beside him, and he could almost sense his flatmate struggling to find the right words for his next question. 'Are you – personally familiar with it?' he said at last. Sherlock's history of pharmaceutical abuse was not something they discussed. It made John uncomfortable, so he left the topic closed.
'Yes. From what I can recall, it's serviceable for the purposes of a cult such as Moriarty might gather.'
Someone else might have questioned the accuracy of memories no doubt addled by drug use, but John kept his mouth stubbornly shut. If it weren't for the lines etched around his lips and eyes, Sherlock could almost believe he was indifferent. However, a heavy silence dragged down around them as the cab continued its journey, weaving through the streets of London before depositing them at the end of the road in question.
Mundane senses were driven to obscurity, overwhelmed by the tingling, electrified sensation of power in the air. The river was a dead wall of nothing to the north, almost overwhelming enough to hide the tell-tale signs of something amiss, but it was the iron manhole covers pocking the street that acted as conductors for the magical charge, shining like beacons.
'Something's here,' John muttered, scratching at the nape of his neck. 'Even I can feel it. It must be like a neon sign to you.'
'Text Lestrade. Tell him he needs a team at the Rotherhithe culvert. We'll go in and see what we can find.'
'Shouldn't we wait for them?'
'And have them trample all over the evidence?' Sherlock shook his head. 'I need to get a good look before Anderson and his idiots intervene.'
He was vaguely aware of the slow peck of John's fingers over the keys as they strode forward. Every entrance they passed was warded, dense with angry, offensive spells, and Sherlock ran his tongue over his teeth as he considered his options. The culvert was probably the best choice. Larger entrances were harder to protect, so while the manhole covers would be practically impenetrable, the sizeable outflow would be the weak point.
Leading John ever onwards, he ignored the squelch of his shoes along the bank of the Thames, foetid now at the ebb of the tide. The culvert gaped like an open mouth, dark but for the gleam of the barrier in his other-sight. The spell was weak and transient, no doubt this was the main point of entrance and exit and therefore constantly disturbed.
It took Sherlock less than a minute to open it, leaving a faint ring of magic behind – enough to stop the breach from raising any alarms. Water splashed beneath their feet as they walked, and Sherlock let his body lead the way: an old, routine journey coming back to haunt him. Two right turns, then a left, along almost-forgotten tunnels until, at last, where there had been only darkness, there was a hint of light ahead.
When people pictured cults, they often imagined robed pseudo-monks and a cruel mimicry of established religion: altars and prayer-books. The truth was that such groups, when they formed, were more like a gang. The members were usually dressed in their normal clothes, fighting and arguing among themselves. The altar could be anything, from a stone monolith to an upturned milk-crate. The only stereotype that rang true was the human sacrifice.
Sherlock crouched at the tunnel mouth, examining the room beyond. Power lingered around the corpses, three in all. From this distance, he couldn't be sure, but he doubted he would find any signs of a struggle. Lives willingly given then – powerful fuel for the demon, should he need it. There were bowls of fluid on the altar – blood judging from the aura they gave off – but there was no-one else to be seen in the circular chamber.
'Maybe no-one's home?' John whispered, and Sherlock looked across to see him crouched on the other side of the entrance, his gaze astute as he searched for threats. 'What now?'
'Let's see if we can find out what they had in mind,' Sherlock replied, carefully stretching out a sensory spell to check everything was as bare as it seemed. He could discern John's steady pulse, slightly fast, and the patter of life from rats and other pests. Beyond that, the place was deserted. 'Be careful,' he whispered. 'I can't sense anyone else, but they could still be Obscured from me.'
Quickly, they moved forward, working in easy tandem. It was obvious that the cult were not living here. There were neither sleeping bags nor any signs of habitation – it was merely a meeting place. The blood in the bowls was cold – days old – and clotted in a miasmic mess. The bodies had been scavenged by the rats, and the stench of their remains turned the air thick and repulsive.
Sherlock clenched his teeth against the sharp, hard edge of magic that cut through the room. There were circles all around the altar, running into one another in a dizzying swirl of symbolism. Some were familiar, but most were a mystery even to him, and he cocked his head in fascination.
Several were designed for summoning, the runes cast like hooks into the infinite seas of the other realms, but others were for tribute: channelling energy through to a specific place. All around, far-flung and firm, were protective markings, which suggested someone in the cult had the moderate intelligence to know they were playing with fire. The construction of the designs implied none of the mages were of a higher level than journeyman, but –
The blast of a gun rang through the air, its echo clanging in his ears. Sherlock ducked instinctively, his teeth bared in a snarl as he glared in the direction of the noise. Echoing, fleeing footsteps followed, and Sherlock's spells reacted automatically. They raged outwards, tearing through everything within the cult's shrine to neutralise the threat. However, before he could follow through and wreak his punishment on the running gunman, a gasping, choking sound pulled him back, and the world fell blank and still as he realised where the bullet had found a home.
The Browning clattered beneath Sherlock's shoe as he stumbled closer, falling to his knees and plucking at John's jumper. The cheap wool was soaked and hot with a growing, cardinal stain. Sherlock knew blood, saw it every day, used it, touched it, read its story – but not like this, not John's, spreading like a cancer around the hole high in his chest.
He applied pressure, the cool leather of his gloves rapidly growing warm as his mind, normally so linear, skipped and slid, orbiting helplessly around the one fact that burdened his mind like a lead weight.
John could not survive this.
That tanned face was unnaturally pale, already starting to grey as John's blood pooled beneath him in an unstoppable torrent. He was trying to say something, attempting to speak around the pain and the shattering shivers of exsanguination, but the words cracked and failed in his throat, drowned out amidst the fury of a losing battle.
Sherlock shushed him, pretending that his eyes weren't going bright and his vision blurry with the startling presence of genuine tears. This was – it was a nightmare – it had to be. He would wake up back at the flat and John would nag him about rituals on the table and chalk on the floor and not be here, like this... leaving.
John's fingers, kitten-weak, looped around Sherlock's wrist above his glove, the slick of blood sticky on his skin. At last, he forced two syllables free as if they were all he had ever wanted to say:
'John!' Sherlock's throat closed as those blue eyes slid shut, his mind scrabbling with useless facts. John was still breathing, barely, but even if he called an ambulance it would never get here in time. How long did John have, seconds, a minute? No time for anything at all, not even a damn spell could make this better.
Like a black flower, and idea unfurled in his mind, touching his thoughts with noir potential. It was a desperate concept, as likely to send Sherlock hurtling into the grave at John's heels as it was to bring his friend back to life, but he could not let this go. Too much lingered between them for him to accept this twist of fate, and he bit his lip as his mind raced.
There was no time to consider it logically, nothing beyond the gut-wrenching spin of yes/no before the name fell from his lips. Not John's – not this time. Sherlock spoke, his power exposed in every syllable: a lush temptation to capture the attention of the creature he knew would be listening.
Loud voices called John back, puncturing bottomless oblivion and dumping him ruthlessly into the waking world. His head was pounding and his ribs ached as if he had taken a punch to the chest, but as his mind replayed the last few moments of consciousness, he realised the impossibility of his situation.
The bullet had killed him: he knew that as soon as it ploughed into his flesh. He had never even seen the sniper, hidden off in the shadows. His memory was patchy: a collection of disjointed images. Sherlock applying pressure, looking as pale as if he were the one who was dying. Tears: startling stars in those dazzling eyes – real for once – and the solid weight of regret that had settled around the shrieking pain in John's body, because he did not want this to be how they parted ways.
'John, bloody hell! Are you all right?'
He rolled his head to stare at Greg. The DI and his men were picking their way across the room, the protective spells around them crackling and hissing with every step. It was no wonder. Something had changed while John was out. Where the air had been rank with dormant power it now felt like the moment after a lightning strike, so vivid it made his eyes ache.
Belatedly, he realised there were scorch marks on the walls, and that the floor beneath him was cracked and glassy – superheated. He had never seen anything like it, and steadily, his dazed mind started putting the pieces together.
He jerked upright, ignoring the screaming protests of his body as something clinked beneath his left hand. His fingers closed around it automatically, and he stared down at the bullet, misshapen from impact, covered in a thin layer of blood, but harmless. It had been in him. He had felt it cut through his lung and the major blood-vessels at the top of his heart, bringing with it death's brutal bite, so how...?
Abruptly, his focus shifted, looking beyond his own hand to the figure that lay on the floor a short distance away. Sherlock was close enough to reach out and touch, and John's shaking fingers caught in the heavy wool of that black coat, plucking fitfully at the scarf as he sought out a pulse. Questions shrieked through his mind, colliding with dank, noisome fears as he pressed his fingers hard over the lingering green blemish of the demon's bruise.
'John?' Lestrade's voice was gentle, but John shook his head as he tried to pick out anything like life in the warm body. It seemed to take an age, but his quest was answered by the thready thrum of a heartbeat.
'John, there's an ambulance on its way. I need to know what happened.' He became aware of Greg crouching down at his side, a steady hand clasping his shoulder and giving him the tiniest of shakes. It was a dangerous, trusting thing to do. With such indications of a massive spell all around them, John was surprised the DI was willing to touch him at all, in case he was something else wearing John Watson's face. 'Whose blood is that?'
At first, John thought he meant the stuff in the bowls on the altar, and his fingers tightened hopelessly in Sherlock's scarf before he realised that there was not much left of the dais. The stone had been split clean in two, and the items on it were nothing but dust and shrapnel. There was no trace of the thick, black gore that had stood in pride of place.
'What blood?' he managed at last, his lips cold and numb as he spoke. His voice sounded hoarse, as if he had been screaming, and he cleared his throat. It was easy to move his hands and search Sherlock's unconscious form for injuries while his mind floated, disconnected and disbelieving.
Something heavy covered his shoulders, and he blinked to realise Greg had shrugged out of his coat and draped it over John's back. It was a disturbing burden, an anchor into a reality John did not want to face, and he drew in a stuttering breath before dragging his gaze from Sherlock's prone form.
For the first time he took in the DI's expression: confusion and horror mingling together as those brown eyes dropped to the front of John's jumper. Automatically, John followed, seeing the mess all across his torso. It made him look like a walking corpse. If it weren't for the heartbeat thrumming in his chest, he would have checked his own pulse.
Suddenly, it was as if he were another piece of evidence, something damning, screaming its accusations for all to see. Only the need to keep touching Sherlock prevented him from folding his arms across his chest, and he found himself staring at the bullet hole in the jumper's weave – the epicentre of his own destruction.
Numbly, he turned back to where he had been lying, half-expecting a lingering pool of blood there like a lake. However, bar a faintly grisly stain, the floor was clean. He had been losing it fast – had seen it pouring out over Sherlock's hands – so where was it? There might be half-a-pint on his jumper, sodden and heavy, but there had been much, much more. Was it all back inside him?
What the hell had Sherlock done?
Wordlessly, he shook his head, his shoulders lifting in a shrug. 'It doesn't matter,' he managed, his words slurring. 'We need to get Sherlock to –'
The sound of someone's quick, sharp stride interrupted him, and John blinked up as Mycroft, of all people, marched into the room. He had never seen the older Holmes move with such focussed purpose before, so fast that Anthea and a few nameless men in suits had to hurry to keep up. With the half-hysterical tones of shock, John thought that Mycroft's expensive brogues would be fit for nothing but the bin after walking through the sewer, but then the man spoke and the fretful emotion ebbed.
'Thank you, Detective Inspector, I'll take it from here.' Gone were the smooth, benign tones Mycroft so often employed. His enunciation remained, educated as always, but now there was steel in his voice that made John believe Sherlock's assertions that his brother actually ran the country. Around him, the people Sherlock sneeringly called Mycroft's thralls were taking readings and muttering incantations, their faces set in grim lines as they worked. The assembled officers could only stare in bafflement as they were gently ushered to one side.
'Mr Holmes,' Greg said, his voice tired and disbelieving. 'This is a police investigation.'
'And now it is a government one, Detective Inspector.' Mycroft's voice sounded odd, a little soft behind the veneer of stress, but John did not pay it much attention as he stopped at his side. He did not crouch down, not like Greg, but when he spoke again it was in the delicate tones someone might use to a person standing on the precipice of a rooftop, about to jump.
'John, I need to know what happened. I can make my own deductions –' He looked at John's jumper, and then the bullet where it had been abandoned by John's knee. '– but there is no room for error. I need to know what Sherlock did.'
John swallowed, trying to breathe around the lump of fear like granite in his chest. The instinct to protect Sherlock from the judgement of others, to bundle him off and hide him from the public eye, was almost overwhelming. They could go somewhere quiet and out-of-the-way, where it wouldn't matter what had happened.
Except that the police and Lestrade were right there, and Mycroft was watching him, hawk-like and intense, waiting for some kind of answer. There was no way they could escape. What choice did he have?
Slowly, with every word feeling like a betrayal, John began to speak.
'I was – I don't know. There was someone here. We checked before we came in, but he must have been hiding. We were examining the altar when he fired.' John looked at the ammunition again automatically, relaying the information it could give him, which wasn't much. 'He was using a Dragunov rifle; I was hit. The silver bullet went straight through my shields.'
'Here?' Mycroft went to touch the breach in John's jumper, looking as if he hated to ask something so obvious but needed the confirmation. However, before he could get close, John's wards snapped, abrupt and vivid, adding a prickling, warning edge to the air that made Mycroft duck his head in apology and Greg lean back out of range.
'No, I always wear clothes with holes in them,' John muttered, drawing his hands back from Sherlock's motionless body to scrub them across his face. Now, he kept his voice quiet, careful not to let its echoes carry to unfriendly ears. He was not sure what Sherlock had done, but suspicions sat in John's gut, slick and nauseous.
'Chest shot, not quite to the heart, but close enough. I was bleeding out, and Sherlock...' John shook his head, staring blankly at his own knees. 'He was right here, trying to help, but there was nothing he could do. I passed out within a minute or two. Next thing I knew, Greg was here and Sherlock was –' He gestured to his friend, surprisingly peaceful amidst the tension that filled the room. 'We need to get him to a hospital.'
'You're the one who was shot,' Greg pointed out, looking up as a couple of paramedics were led in by Donovan. 'Check them both over, will you?' he ordered, ignoring Mycroft's harrumph of annoyance and looking back at John. 'Maybe Sherlock can tell us more when he wakes up?'
Silence followed that statement, tense and unnatural, and John met Mycroft's eye in one dreading glance, seeing the same fear in the older Holmes that lingered in him. He was a doctor, one who had worked on the front-lines, and he knew there were no spells in existence that could save a life so nearly expired. How many times had he been on the battlefield, holding in some poor kid's guts and wishing that magic could change it all? People didn't have that kind of power, not even mages as capable as Sherlock.
'How did you know we were here?' he asked Mycroft, moving like a puppet as one of the paramedics cut away his jumper, searching for an injury that wasn't even there. He watched the other one working on Sherlock, following the same rudimentary examination John had conducted before checking for curses or other, more malignant magics. 'I thought you couldn't “see” us.'
Mycroft leaned on his umbrella, staring at Sherlock as if he was struggling to recognise his own brother. 'He has been warding against me since he was six – blocking himself from my sight in the most obnoxious ways possible. When I try to analyse Sherlock's future, or even divine his present, there is nothing but light so dense I cannot glimpse beyond it.'
Now John could see the pallor in Mycroft's face, not just tense, but almost sick with concern. 'I am always aware of it in the same way that others are attuned to the sun or moon in the sky. This evening, while I was sitting at my desk, that light went out.' The tip of the umbrella scraped on the floor as Mycroft ground it into the stone. 'Immediately, I realised something was wrong. I could sense the two of you here.'
'What about now?' Greg's question took John by surprise, and he glanced over at the DI, who looked faintly embarrassed. 'I mean, if you can tell his future, that could save everyone a lot of trouble.'
Mycroft pursed his lips, a mirthless smile curving their thin line. 'My dear Inspector, where there was nothing but light, there is now only darkness. Previously, I could tell if Sherlock would be involved in an event because it would abruptly become shielded from me. Now I see only shadows.'
The paramedic continued to work in silence, going through the motions as if she could not hear a word that was being spoken two feet from her side. However, it was clear she was having trouble finding anything to pursue. Each diagnostic came back clean. There were no curses, no spells and no wards in place – which was unusual for Sherlock, who even had basic shields up when he slept. It was as if someone had simply switched him off, everything, from the spark of his magic to the incandescence of that brilliant mind.
Abruptly, the paramedic jolted back in surprise, fumbling with the slim torch in her hand and flushing in embarrassment. 'Sorry,' she murmured. 'The heterochromia took me by surprise. It's very – distinct.' At the blank looks she received, the young woman licked her lips. 'His eyes –?'
John removed the pen-light from her grasp, his hands steady as he peeled back Sherlock's right eyelid. The pupil responded normally to the illumination, despite the absence of focus, and those mercurial colours flecked the iris: tones of blue-green-grey with one tiny patch of gold. The same as always.
It was only when John shifted to the left eye that he realised what had surprised the paramedic, and his stomach sank. There was no trace of ocean hues or starlight glimmers. Instead, the iris was thick, choking brown, so dark it was almost indistinguishable from the pupil. There were no familiar patterns to be found, no radial lines and shifting petal tones, just blank colour: absolute.
'Told you you’d be back.'
Sherlock opened his eyes, taking in the obsidian tones of Moriarty's realm. There were more trinkets and tributes, and this time the steady drip of fluid punctuated the oppressive peace. Sluggish with shock, his mind took a few seconds to realise that this was a sound he had brought in with him: John's blood, or a representation of it, dripping from his own leather-clad fingertips. He was not corporeal. No doubt his body was back in the real world – the one where John lay dying.
He drew in a deep breath, trying to control the surge of fear that welled up in his chest. It was not terror for his own situation. He had called Moriarty, and he would face the consequences of that, whatever they may be. No, his horror was at the thought of John slipping out of reach with every passing second. It filled him, paralysing his muscles, choking his voice and knocking loose his mind to spin, helpless and frantic with no sure path to follow.
Moriarty stepped forwards, his lips curved in a salacious smile as his eyes burned. 'Tick tock, Sher – lock!' he tittered, his mirth vanishing a second later as his voice became a growl. 'Your pet is running out of time.'
'Change it,' Sherlock bit out. 'I know you can. Grade one – the only thing you can't do without help is get into the real world. No-one's quite stupid enough to let you out. Not even your cult.'
'Why would I want to leave?' Moriarty cried, spreading his arms wide and tipping back his head. 'Why walk in your dull little reality with its faceless drones of humanity when I can stay here and watch them all crawl from cradle to grave?'
'Because you're bored.'
Moriarty froze, an almost imperceptible lack of motion before he spun around. His head tipped to one side, one eyebrow lifting in acknowledgement of Sherlock's point. 'Nothing happens. Here. There. Anywhere.' A grin twitched into place. 'I could set the world on fire. Mayhem but not chaos, no. Something elegant. Glorious. I wouldn't be bored.' His eyes fluttered closed as he stepped forward, his breath ghosting across Sherlock's cheek as he added, 'Neither would you. We're alike, you and I. Together we could bring everyone else to their knees.'
Sherlock did not look away from the demon's gaze, meeting those eyes without a flinch as he clenched his hands into fists, slick fingers starting to turn tacky as the blood dried. 'I'm not here for me.'
'Oh, forget him!' Moriarty shouted, his face contorting into a snarl. 'He's holding you back. Making you feel. He's nothing, no-one!'
The demon took a deep breath, pursing his lips as he reigned himself back under control and flicked imaginary dust from the sleeve of his suit. 'I suppose I should be grateful to the Doctor. It's because of him you're here.' A moue of distaste cinched Moriarty's mouth, tight and disgusted before it vanished. 'So what will you give me, Sherlock? What is he worth?'
'Well, obviously.' Moriarty sighed, his footsteps echoing in a strange myriad of percussive beats as he paced in a circle. 'You know it won't be cheap. You have to give me something I want.'
Sherlock swallowed, the pressure of passing time raking across his nerves. Normally, he would never attempt something so fundamentally stupid, but if he did, he would take weeks to prepare. Demons were nefarious, and a single word out of place could often spell disaster. Now, he had nothing, no planned contract, no finely-etched clauses, only the most basic and simple of equations – anything to stop John's life drawing to its bloody close.
Only last week he had sneered at the thought of using his biggest asset as a bargaining chip, questioning what he could ever value above something so precious. Now, he had his answer. Moriarty would accept nothing else, and Sherlock had no greater wealth to offer.
'My soul, such as it is and as long as you're able to keep it, for John Watson's life.'
Moriarty stopped with his back to Sherlock, the lines of his body tense as he looked over his shoulder. Surprise was a fleeting thing – a bird freed from its cage to fly over the demon's face before it was replaced with the scimitar curve of a callous grin. 'Oh, but you are desperate. Is that it? That's your deal?'
A tremor wound down Sherlock's spine, making his skin crawl. 'I thought you were intelligent. Do you need me to spell it out for you?'
'Oh, no. I understand.' Moriarty spun around, his stride confident as he closed the distance. His eyes trailed down Sherlock's presence and back up again to meet his gaze. 'I understand completely.' His hand was already held out, the demon's fingers a pale splay in the darkness around him, and Sherlock stared at the mute offering before a smile crossed his lips.
'Do you? Let me be perfectly clear. Doctor John Watson, who lives with me in 221B Baker Street, London, England and is currently bleeding out on the floor of your repulsive little shrine will live, and will suffer no harm from your actions – or mine, if they are controlled by you – in my world or any other.'
'Don't you trust me?' Moriarty murmured, wiggling his fingers meaningfully. 'Don't you worry, Sherlock. He'll be safe and sound.'
'The no harm clause applies to others of my acquaintance,' Sherlock added, watching Moriarty's smile turn brittle.
'Name them,' the demon challenged. 'Quickly. Death comes for your doctor.'
'Gregory Lestrade, Martha Hudson, Mycroft Holmes, Evelyn Holmes.' Names skated through his mind, and one more stood out at him. More a nuisance than a friend, but she was taking care of something for him that could be useful in this situation. 'Molly Hooper.'
'Anyone else?' Moriarty asked, rolling his eyes. 'Your soul is only worth so much.'
'It's enough,' he retorted. 'You want it. It's written all over your face.'
'Oh, Sherlock,' Moriarty purred, tipping his palm up meaningfully. 'You read me so well. Now you know how this goes, shake on it, or your Doctor is no more.'
Sherlock paused, squaring his shoulders as the moment hung in the balance. This was his decision. Seal the deal with the demon before him, or turn and walk away, back to a life haunted by the absence of John Watson. Before he had met the man, the thought of reaching this point had been inconceivable. Now, the concept of returning to the way he had once been, alone and distant from everyone around him, hurt more than he could begin to comprehend.
In the end, it was no choice at all.
He seized Moriarty's hand in his own, the tacky blood sliding between them as triumph bloomed on the demon's face. A heartbeat later, the pain struck, writhing beneath Sherlock's ribs and coiling around something hidden there. It stabbed along his nerves, crippling taut muscles and bringing him to his knees as the pungent scent of old, dark magic filled every breath, rotten and profane.
Each gasp was a labour, as if something were being torn from the flesh of his chest. Words were beyond him as the realm gave a dizzy lurch and a retch caught in the back of his throat.
'Now, how about a few conditions of my own? Moriarty sang, a chortle escaping his lips as he thrust his fingers into Sherlock's hair and pulled back his head, bending so that their noses almost touched. 'Your power is mine, now, and Sherlock? You are strong. Oh, the fun I am going to have with you!'
The hand gentled, stroking over his ear and charting the chaotic twist of a curl. 'No docile little Holmes-doll for me. I own you. You can't communicate any of the details of our agreement to anyone. No blabbing to that all-seeing big brother of yours just whose hands are pulling your strings. And I will pull.'
Sherlock's hiss of pain echoed in his ears, and he forced his eyes open. He may have entered the bargain willingly, but that did not mean he would be a meek, docile thing for Moriarty to command. Not if he could help it.
'Oh, defiance! How exciting.' Moriarty bent his head, his lips brushing the curve of Sherlock’s ear as he whispered, 'How useless. Do you know the best part? Do you? One of the things all those boring little people have forgotten? You can't just sell your soul. It's tied to your body, and when it's torn out it leaves a hole. Something someone else can fill.' Moriarty yanked his fingers free of Sherlock's hair as he danced away. 'You were right, Sherlock. I was so bored. Not anymore! Who do you think John is going to see when you open your eyes? You? Or me?'
'You're not –' Sherlock wheezed, his lungs trembling beneath his ribs as he strained for one good breath. 'You should have voiced your limitations before sealing the deal. You're breaking the rules.'
'That's what they're FOR!' Moriarty yelled, flinging his hands out wide.
As if beckoned from the darkness, something else strode forward. The figure was taller than Moriarty, blond and well-muscled with a scar cutting across one cheek. He wore a plain t-shirt and jeans, nothing out of the ordinary, but the lingering echo of mud on his boots gave away his last location: the sewer. It was a subtle hint, one almost lost as Sherlock's attention focussed on the sniper rifle in his grasp.
'You.' The gunman, except he wasn't a man at all. 'You're another demon.' Sherlock closed his eyes, berating himself for his stupidity as he addressed Moriarty. 'The tribute, the rituals. It wasn't to get you out of here; it was to set him free.'
'My tiger,' he replied by way of explanation. 'My little hunter. I couldn't let you get away, Sherlock, and I knew just who to hurt to bring you running. You were looking for mortal life in that shrine – too obsessed with the case to bother searching for anything more. You led your doctor right into the sights of the gun.' A breath of air stirred, and Moriarty was at his side once more 'Now you're mine.'
His last word was loaded with magic, a red-hot brand that struck Sherlock through-and-through. Power surged anew in a crashing, towering wave that bore him to the ground, his face pressed to the uncertain floor of Moriarty's ghostly realm as agony ripped through him. His vision faded, wavering between pitch darkness and intense light as bells rang in his ears, shrill and discordant. Only one sound brought him anything like comfort: Moriarty's hissed words, tight with their own kind of pain.
'Stop fighting it! We had a DEAL!'
Sherlock's thoughts collided, splintering into fragments of delirium as he tried to focus. It felt as if he had a foot in each world, both moving in opposite directions and gradually tearing him apart. Moriarty's touch burrowed through flesh-that-was-not and insubstantial bone. The demon's fury was palpable, his strength rapidly depleting as Sherlock blocked him at every turn.
At least he could fight without fear of retribution. It was the magic that forged the deal which would judge whether the terms had been breached and mete out a punishment, rather than the demon. Perhaps Sherlock's conditions had been imprecise, but they worked in his favour as much as against him, and Moriarty had said nothing about Sherlock being a willing puppet for him to control.
He lost himself, somewhere in the blank blue light of Between. Time and logic faded away as he continued his struggles, gripping on to that fragile tether that would allow him back into his own skin. Normally it shone like a sunbeam, keeping him sure and steady, but this time, the road home was a dead, blackened thing. It was like trying to hold onto smoke, empty and vacuous. Tendrils caught in his throat, choking him as thick smog closed around him like a shroud.
After what seemed like centuries, he forced his eyes open to be greeted with the blank white plaster of his own bedroom ceiling. It was so mundane it seemed almost obscene, and Sherlock dragged in a shaky, pained breath as he tried to focus on his surroundings.
The click of a gun punctuated the peace, and he froze. A sideways glance brought John into his line of sight, sitting at his bedside with the blunt, baleful eye of the Browning's muzzle pointed at Sherlock's head. The pistol didn't waver, and John's face, pale and taut with strain but living still, wore the shuttered, horrified look of a man who would do what he had to regardless of the consequences to himself.
'Who are you?'
The demand was quiet but steel-hard to the core, and Sherlock revelled in a distant glimmer of triumph. Moriarty had forbidden him to speak of the deal, and that restriction lay heavy upon him. It was obvious in the stiffness of his jaw and the burden of his tongue: unspeakable. However, for all his seemingly benign nature, John was not an idiot. No doubt he could guess what Sherlock had done and who he had summoned to help him achieve it.
'Sherlock Holmes,' he replied at last, wincing at the sound of his voice. It was a husk of its former self, weak and rasping as if he had cried himself hoarse – just one of the many ills his weary body was beginning to report. He was bruised and battered in a skin that did not seem to fit. His sense of self, of where he began and came to an end, had lost its accuracy. The world felt as if it were sliding in place, no longer truly connected to him and somehow not quite within his reach.
Then there was his mind. Gone was the sharpness and focus. Instead, every thought had turned to tar, slow and ungainly in his head. Each moment was a battle in an ongoing war, and all the while he could sense Moriarty prowling at the periphery of his existence, waiting to strike and claim his place.
An impossible request. Perhaps John did not realise it, but any demon who could wake up in Sherlock's skin would have everything – his memories, his mannerisms, his voice – and could use them at will if they chose to do so. Nothing would be safe. He could only stare at John, trying to ignore the brutal weapon still aimed at him and force his exhausted mind to observe.
There was not much to see. Any indication of the wound was gone, and the man who kept watch over him was firm and unflinching. A gleam of despair lingered in that blue gaze, clouding John's eyes and making him seem ten years older than Sherlock remembered, but that was the only outward sign of emotion. Everything else was wiped clean: a soldier's face.
Tentatively, he moved, stretching out one hand like someone reaching out to an animal that was likely to bite. John's grip tightened on the gun, but he did not back away or give any kind of warning as Sherlock's fingers brushed lightly over the place where the bullet hole had been.
He was wearing a different jumper now, a blank canvas that hid any sign that anything had ever been amiss, but the image was emblazoned across Sherlock's mind, hideously visceral amidst the haze of his other thoughts. Beneath his fingertips, like the sound of a distant drum, was the steady, solid thud of John's pulse. For all his trickery, Moriarty had kept his side of the bargain. John lived, and Sherlock was left like this – feeling as if he no longer belonged in his body and fighting to keep control from falling into Moriarty's hands.
'Are you all right?' he asked, pulling back his hand and meeting John's gaze. 'I thought – I thought I might have run out of time to get you back.'
John's expression crumpled, the shaky wall falling to let all of his emotion through. He looked wrecked, broken down as he lowered the Browning. Those thin lips twitched downwards, twisting awkwardly as John clenched his jaw. 'You – you should have let me go. Why did you – How could you do this?'
'It was surprisingly easy,' Sherlock murmured by way of reply, wincing as he tried to prop himself up on his elbow and found his muscles uncooperative: it was like being the pilot in some machine, rather than a creature of autonomous reflex and instinctive movement. He had to think about everything, and his brain was overwhelmed by the unnatural effort. 'Do you honestly think I would let you die if I had any choice in the matter?'
'But this?' John gestured to him, meeting his gaze and flinching away, his eyes dropping to the floor. 'I know what you've done, Sherlock.' His voice cracked around that name, and Sherlock watched a tight, convulsive swallow flex John's throat. 'I wasn't worth crossing that line for –'
'And if the positions had been reversed?' he interrupted with a harsh bite. 'If I had been dying in front of you and you had the same ability, would you have turned your back on the option?'
He saw John's shudder, fear and horror at its most base, but beneath their wan glow was the answer Sherlock had already known. John would have done the same for him, had it been necessary. Their investment in their – friendship seemed too pallid a word, yet it would suffice – was equal and, it seemed, without limit, even now.
Good. Sherlock may have sacrificed his soul to Moriarty, but even in the heat of that uncertain moment, he had chosen his words with all the care he could muster. Moriarty would not have missed them. Sherlock suspected it was the wording, rather than the act itself, that the demon aimed to keep hidden by forbidding Sherlock to speak of it.
“My soul, such as it is and as long as you're able to keep it.”
With that simple turn of phrase, he had left a potential escape route. If anyone could wrest his soul from Moriarty's grasp, then the demon would lose all claim to it, and Sherlock would be free once more.
He just needed someone who was willing to fight for him.
John stared at the man on the double bed, wishing desperately that he could rewind the entire day and start again. If only he had seen the damn sniper instead of remaining oblivious until the bullet hit his skin, because then Sherlock would still be himself, rather than this – whatever he was.
If he tried, he could almost pretend Sherlock was no different, but after almost a year of living with the man, some of his skills had rubbed off on John. He had no choice but to observe all the little, subtle wrongs. Worse, he knew what they meant. All the soulless John had ever seen had been more like automatons, going through life as if by rote with no real connection to the world. Sherlock was more present than that, but the disconnect was apparent in the way he moved and spoke – as if both actions and words took all of his considerable concentration and effort, rather than coming to him naturally.
Then there were his eyes. John had hoped that, once Sherlock came around, the mismatched colours would be gone. Yet the disparity lingered: one iris like a misty winter sky, pale blue and grey, the other the colour of muddy tar, bottomless and corrupt. The man in front of him might look and sound like Sherlock, might be Sherlock, but at any moment that could change, and he would be left with something else in his best friend's skin.
His best friend, who had sacrificed the thing he valued most to save John's life.
He should be grateful. A voice in his head spat that he should be on his knees, rapturous with thankfulness, because it was Sherlock who had saved him – not some paramedic doing their job without any risk of personal cost. Sherlock, who delighted in his own sociopathic persona, had blown that whole façade to pieces through the simple act of self-sacrifice, and he would have to live with the consequences.
If he wanted to, John was able to turn and walk away, his life intact. He could move out of London, carry on with his existence and forget the price that had been paid. Sherlock couldn't. His choice and actions would haunt his footsteps for the rest of his life, and beyond, if you believed the importance most major religions ascribed to the soul.
All for John.
'Thank you.' John winced at his own voice, finally setting down the Browning. He wasn't sure what good shooting a demon would do anyway. Would it really hurt anything but Sherlock? 'I wish you hadn't done it, but thank you. You saved my life.'
'For purely selfish reasons, I assure you,' Sherlock retorted, and in those words, at least, he sounded like himself. 'I've become used to having you around.' Licking his lips, he dragged himself into a sitting position and wobbled as if dizzy. He blinked, pressing a hand to his forehead before moving his fingers down to pinch the bridge of his nose. 'Why are we back at Baker Street? You should be in hospital. You were shot.'
'There's nothing wrong with me,' John replied. 'Nothing more than a ruined jumper and shirt, anyway. I wanted to take you to UCLH, but Mycroft wouldn't hear of it. He said there was nothing medical staff could do for you.'
'He's right.' Sherlock looked towards the closed bedroom door. He seemed bleary and confused, as if a familiar world was no longer making any sense to him, and John's heart clenched to see that acuity so dimmed. 'Is he still here?'
'Yeah, along with Greg.' John shrugged, getting to his feet as Sherlock slid off the mattress. He was as unsteady as a new-born foal, and John reached out without thinking, grabbing his forearm to support him. He was not sure what he expected, a zombie, perhaps, something feigning life. However, Sherlock was warm under his jacket, and John could just make out the fretful thrum of a pulse beneath his fingertips.
Quickly, he let go again, watching Sherlock head for the door, limping slightly and moving as if his bones and muscles did not want to obey. He wanted to ask if Sherlock was all right, but that seemed like the world's stupidest question, so he groped for an explanation instead, filling him in on the facts.
'The police turned up not long after I came round. Your brother took the whole thing out of their jurisdiction.'
'Lestrade doesn't like giving up his cases.'
'He doesn't like giving up on you,' John corrected, watching Sherlock hesitate with his hand on the doorknob, face half-turned back in acknowledgement. 'No-one does. You could have been locked up in level ten containment; instead we brought you back here. Greg's not an idiot. He'll suspect what you did as much as me and Mycroft, but he didn't stop your brother from bringing you home.'
'Neither did you,' Sherlock murmured, dragging in a deep breath and bracing his shoulders like a man about to walk onto a battlefield. John did not miss the faint wince that tightened his features as he did so, nor the brief, fluttering tremor that raked down his spine before he pulled open the door and stepped across the threshold.
Mycroft and Lestrade had been talking quietly, and John saw their faces: the tight, grim masks of two men torn between the duty of their office and their regard for Sherlock. Greg's hands were on his hips, his head bowed and his lips pressed into a thin line, while Mycroft stood with his back straight and his shoulders hard, his knuckles gripped around the handle of the umbrella.
They both looked over as Sherlock stepped into the room, and now there was a divergence in expression. Greg's hazed over with uncertainty, confusion, and something like grief: all feelings that were mirrored in John. Mycroft's, on the other hand, grew sharper, his gaze deeper and more focussed as he took in his brother's presence.
'Interesting,' Mycroft murmured, and John fought not to bridle at the single word statement. Trust a Holmes to treat this whole mess like an experiment, rather than a disaster. 'You're still in control.'
'For now.' The warning in Sherlock's tone was as clear as day, and John watched his friend sag onto the sofa as if he did not have the strength to stand. 'I don't know how long that will last.'
'What can you tell me?' Mycroft asked, striding closer and towering over Sherlock. He was tense with urgency, and even John could see the desperation in Mycroft's face. 'I need details, Sherlock. I need to know if I'm to help you.'
Sherlock's throat pulsed, but no words came forward, and John saw Sherlock's jaw clench so tight he could hear the grind of his teeth in the quiet room. Creamy skin blanched out to pale white, and a spasm of pain crossed Sherlock's face before he simply shook his head.
Mycroft sagged, his fingers fluttering to press between his eyebrows. 'You fool. Can you communicate anything of the contract you made? Write it down, blink it in Morse code – anything?'
Again, that same negative motion, taut and agonised, as if Sherlock's spine were a bar of steel rather than a sinuous, flexible column of bone and tendons. It made John want to reach out and stroke his nape in an effort to banish whatever restricted Sherlock with such success, but he knew it was hopeless. This was nothing that a human touch could cure, and he doubted his meagre magic could make a dent in the power that had to be at work to exercise this level of control over Sherlock.
'I see,' Mycroft murmured, bowing his head as if all the options that remained open to him were ones that he could not consider.
'But you fail to observe,' Sherlock challenged, his baritone voice startling after his forced silence. He did not say anything else, but the look he gave his older brother was layered with meaning and rich with implication. It was the same stare John got more often than not, the one that told him he had missed something obvious.
A wrinkle appeared on Mycroft's brow, the only sign of his perplexity before, abruptly, it was smoothed away. The older Holmes lifted his chin, one eyebrow arched in delicate surprise as he breathed out a sigh of relief. 'I think perhaps I understand.'
Sherlock clenched his hands in front of him, glancing sideways before speaking. This time, it was slow and cautious, as if he were waiting for the bite of retribution. 'John being shot was not a random event. The gunman was a demon, one under the command of –' He stopped abruptly, a faint snarl catching in his throat before he tried again. 'The cult was to bring the sniper into our world, a weaker demon, not the Other One. They did not have the strength to attempt that.'
'Another demon?' Mycroft nodded. 'An agent. The stronger creature hurt John via this gunman, which brought you to him. A deliberate act, rather than one of chance. It seems –'
'Be careful what you say,' Sherlock interrupted sharply. 'I don't think –' A choked sound caught in his throat, and this time he rolled his eyes, looking more frustrated than uncomfortable as he sought out alternative words. 'I don't think the Other One can hear you now, but if it gains control of me, it will probably have full access to my memories. The less information it can derive, the better.'
With a brief nod, Mycroft gestured for John to follow him, murmuring for Greg to keep an eye on Sherlock and call if anything untoward occurred.
The last thing John wanted to do was leave Sherlock alone. Somehow he felt that the act of watching him was enough to keep him here. The fear that, the moment he looked away, the demon would gain the upper-hand sat like barbed wire in his throat, sharp and aching.
Reluctantly, he followed Mycroft down the stairs and out of the front door, bracing himself against the chill as they stopped on the doorstep.
'What's going on?' he asked, not wasting a moment as he thrust his hands in his pockets and glanced back up at the lit windows of Baker Street. 'What did Sherlock mean? Why couldn't he speak?'
Mycroft pursed his lips, looking thoughtful before he replied. 'Sherlock's inability to discuss any of the details of his covenant, or even speak the name of the demon with whom he agreed the contract, is surprisingly informative.' He stared unseeingly along the street, his eyes unfocussed. 'The demon has forbidden him to enlighten anyone of the details, which means there is something there worth keeping hidden. It is clear that Sherlock did not have the time to form a water-tight agreement, but neither did the demon. It could work to Sherlock's advantage.'
John shook his head, too exhausted and torn by the day's events to unravel what Mycroft was talking about. 'How?'
'While Sherlock may have surrendered his soul, qualities such as obedience or loyalty may not have been specified.' Mycroft's lips curved in a fractional smile as he clarified, 'Sherlock can do exactly what he is doing now, and fight. Until the moment his soul is devoured, he will be able to offer resistance.'
'And how long will it be before the demon decides he's too much trouble?'
'He must be worth more to the creature in question than mere sustenance. That much is suggested by the fact that the demon orchestrated your murder in the hopes that Sherlock would act exactly as he did.' Mycroft narrowed his eyes, his umbrella tapping out an absent rhythm against the pavement. 'The question is, what does he want it for?'
'No,' John snapped. 'The question is, how do we get Sherlock out of this mess?' He crossed his arms, straightening his shoulders as he glared at the man in front of him. 'This isn't an experiment. It's your brother stuck in some monster's power –'
'Because of you,' Mycroft interrupted sharply, effectively silencing John with a leaden rush of guilt. When he spoke again, it was softer, though far from apologetic. 'In all the years I have known Sherlock, he has never shown regard for anyone. I wonder if you comprehend the significance of his actions?'
'He saved my life,' John whispered at last. 'Of course I understand.'
'No, I don't think you do.' Sadness lingered at the edges of those words, but it was gone before John could question it. 'At least not yet.' Mycroft fiddled with his umbrella, taking a deep breath of the cold night air before gracefully changing the subject. 'I need to do some research. What Sherlock did today may have been a rash and foolhardy choice, but it is also impressive, in its way. That he has the strength to keep a demon of such calibre at bay and fight the – albeit loose – constraints of the deal is frankly unheard of. I need to know more.'
'So we can get Sherlock back?' John asked, hearing the fragile hope in his own words and hating their weakness.
Mycroft's gaze took on a pitying gleam before he looked away. 'So we can prepare for any eventuality, Doctor Watson. A surveillance team is in place, and I have left a panic button device in the flat. Should you require assistance, press it, and help will be with you within two minutes. Sherlock is to be considered under house arrest. It is the preferable alternative.'
'As opposed to containment? Is that the best idea? I mean, I don't want to see Sherlock locked up, but if the demon takes over...'
'If he gains control and finds himself so tightly constrained, what do you think he will do to Sherlock as a result?' Mycroft asked. 'My brother is not merely a potential carrier for this creature, he is effectively its hostage. Please make sure that Detective Inspector Lestrade is also aware of that interpretation. He is more the victim in this scenario than the perpetrator. I will explore the demon's capabilities. The more we know, the better.'
'What about me?' John asked. 'What do you expect me to do?'
Mycroft gave him a weary smile. 'The same thing you have always done. Take good care of my brother, John, and be careful. I'll be in touch.'
With a nod of farewell, Mycroft departed, striding towards the black car that waited nearby and leaving John to turn back to the familiar door of Baker Street.
His body moved with heavy lethargy as he pushed his way inside and climbed the stairs, trying to breathe around the helpless, hopeless weight that had taken up residence beneath his ribs. The enormity of what Sherlock had done for him plagued his mind, becoming the centre of gravity around which every thought circled. It was too much to grasp, but he tried anyway, repeating the facts to himself as he reached the top of the stairs and nudged his way into the flat.
He was alive, and it was Sherlock who had paid the price. That was not the kind of sacrifice John could ignore. He had been fascinated by Sherlock from the moment he had met him, caught up and carried along in the whirlwind of his existence, and he was not about to let some stupid demon turn all of Sherlock's potential into a mindless vessel. He was fighting, and John had every intention of being at his side until the end.
Wherever the battle took them, they'd go there together.
Chapter 2: Subjugation
"The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned."
- Christopher Marlowe 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus'
It was torment: unique and loathsome. Seventy-two hours ago, John had been shot by Moriarty's agent – a lesser demon summoned free of its realm by the cult. Even now Sherlock could still feel the fretful, dying flutter of John's heart beneath his palms and the obscene pulse of blood over his gloved hands, washing away the spectral remains of life.
There had been no choice. He had taken the only path left open to him and cut a clumsy, graceless deal: John's life for his soul.
Yet it was worth such a price to have John with him still, padding around the confines of Baker Street, making tea which Sherlock did not drink and casting sidelong, worried looks in his direction. He never got too close to where Sherlock lay on the sofa, his robe wrapped tight around his body like a second skin and his knees drawn up to his chest. The distance was logical, and Sherlock himself was the one who had demanded it, but he found himself aching for the quiet camaraderie and those warm, fleeting touches that, a few days ago, John had been happy to bestow.
Now that was gone, and his body was left to fall into ruin. Even worse was the state of his mind. It felt tarnished and beaten: a derelict chunk of metal where a gleaming machine of spinning cogs and diamond light once stood. He had tried solving a few cases via email, but the details slipped through his fingers like fine desert sand, leaving him staring at the screen of his laptop: useless.
He couldn't answer the call of the Work, couldn't think or stand, move or breathe without Moriarty's presence fighting to get in. Sherlock could sense his thirst for a corporeal frame and the magic – his magic – that would come with it. In theory, there was a lot Moriarty could do with his soul: simply eating it would be a blessing at this point. However, it seemed he had other plans and, to put those into action, he needed power.
If he had been a weaker mage, Sherlock knew that the demon would have already won. Moriarty had under-estimated his ability to fight back, but even that resistance would be a drained resource before much longer. Every tribute and sacrifice the cult made tipped the odds in the demon's favour, feeding him the energy he required to overcome the last of Sherlock's fading strength.
There had been more murders, of that he was sure. Greg came over twice a day to talk to John. The two of them would stay on the doorstep and out of Sherlock's ear-shot, but the DI's presence suggested that the cult was far from gone.
A constant flow of texts to John's phone indicated that Mycroft was doing all he could to capitalise on the loose wording of the deal, though with Sherlock unable to divulge the specifics, he was not sure how much luck his brother would have. The content of the messages was a mystery to him, their words deleted as soon as John read them. Sherlock longed to assist, but he couldn't know what they had found, not unless they wanted the demon to be aware of whatever plans they had.
A breathless gasp of pain caught in Sherlock's throat, half-stifled as a fresh wave of leaden, drowning discomfort sank through his body and into his bones. It felt like being pushed from all sides, compressed down into the darkness of the metaphorical hole where his soul had once been. His vision dimmed and flickered at its edges, taking on shades of haematite and onyx: a brief glimpse of Moriarty's realm before he broke the surface of reality again.
There was a clang from the kitchen, and fast footsteps crossed the floor in a soldier's march. Sherlock flinched as something fluttered above him before the heavy blanket settled over his body, trapping a thin layer of warmth next to his trembling frame. It was the closest John had got to him since he had woken up three days ago. Sherlock choked down a sigh of relief as, with the deliberate ease of a doctor bandaging a wound, John spread his wards to cover the scabrous, invisible welts where Sherlock's shields had once stood.
'You shouldn't be near me,' he murmured, a weak reminder with none of his usual force or spirit. The words sounded awful: limited intonation, cracked with exhaustion and barely human. John twitched at the sound, but Sherlock saw the line of his shoulders harden with determination.
'Bollocks to that. You look like shit, and I can't stand around doing nothing while you're like this.' John's hand hovered tentatively before he wriggled his fingers into the lax curve of Sherlock's grip. 'You need to eat something, or sleep, or both.' John's other hand shifted, his fingertips brushing softly beneath Sherlock's right eye at the shadows he knew lingered there. The touch was beautifully light, and Sherlock leant into its warmth like a plant moving towards the sun, clinging in a way that would embarrass him if he weren't too far gone to care.
'Everything tastes like ash, and if I sleep –' Sherlock moved his shoulders in a shrug, hating the way his once lithe body had turned to brittle stone. 'I wouldn't be able to fight him off.'
'You might not need to.' John gave him a strange look, his brow cleaved by tense lines as he gestured to the walls. 'Haven't you noticed?'
Sherlock's eyes were gritty beneath the bars of his lashes as he took in the hideous drab wallpaper. The ungainly pattern was gone, hidden behind the elegant sweep of sigils and circles, incantations given graphical representation by John's left-handed efforts. Mrs Hudson's work was also apparent, charting delicate intricacies amidst the foundations which John had lain down.
'Your wards fell as soon as you -' John paused, licking his lips as his voice grew strained. 'As soon as you saved me. Everything was gone, from the spells around you to the ones on the flat. We had to put something back. The demon isn't your only problem.'
Sherlock's eyes drifted closed, a frown pinching at his face as he whispered, 'I didn't see.'
'You've got more important things to worry about,' John replied, shifting restlessly where he sat on the floor by the sofa. He looked like a man torn, and Sherlock tried to understand the conflict on his face. Before he could discern its meaning, it smoothed away, and John got to his feet, giving Sherlock's hand another squeeze before he wandered through to the kitchen. 'The new wards might be enough to keep the demon out. Will you sleep if I keep watch?'
'No.' Sherlock attempted to inject some strength into his voice, but it was a hopeless effort. He listened to John put something in the microwave, its buttons beeping obnoxiously to his command. 'I don't want you getting hurt.' Part of his deal with Moriarty was that John would come to no harm. In that, at least, he had been specific, but that did not stop the lingering fear that the demon would find a way around that particular detail and wreak his revenge on John's fragile form.
John watched him from the kitchen, the weight of his gaze obvious against Sherlock's skin. No doubt his expression was a mixture of pity and uncertainty, and he huddled tighter where he lay, idly charting the lines of the protective designs on the walls.
Sherlock stared at the mantelpiece, seeing the corpse-like remains of his dead spells with his other-sight. Once, it had been sharp and vivid, but now everything was a myopic blur, swimming in and out of focus. No soul in his body meant no magic under his command. He was a circuit without a battery. All the knowledge was present, but there was no fuel to feed it. He thought briefly of all the long-standing enchantments that must have faded. Protections on those who needed it stripped bare, Obscurations torn aside... So much of his life had been built on his power, and now it was gone.
'Where are all the mirrors?' The question left his lips without any input from his brain, and he sensed the tension in the air increase ten-fold. It had still been his voice, but there was an edge of sibilant menace to the words. He could detect Moriarty's influence like a tumour, malignant and oppressive. It was neither a compulsion nor a possession, nothing so obvious, but it was the first sign that the demon was finding his way through, and Sherlock swallowed the sharp taste of bile in his mouth.
'That wasn't you, was it?' John asked, stopping a few paces away with a steaming bowl of leftovers in his hand and giving Sherlock a long, hard stare. It was uncompromising, and beneath all his exhaustion and weakness, Sherlock felt a hint of relief. John's lack of magical ability and observational skills meant he often missed the obvious. However, it seemed that where Sherlock was concerned, he paid close attention.
'How could you tell?'
John frowned down into the bowl of rice as if hoping to divine the answers from the fluffy white grains. 'I just could,' he said at last. 'I know what you sound like, no matter what mood you're in. That's not it.' His eyes narrowed, the tip of his tongue flashing out to wet his lips before he raised an eyebrow. 'But I'll answer the question. According to Mycroft, the demon likes mirror magic and can take advantage of reflective surfaces to amplify his power.' Now John's smile was coldly satisfied. 'Look around. It's not just the mirrors. The windows are blacked out, the door handles are warded. We've even replaced all the cutlery with plastic. No reflections for anyone.'
'That would explain why you've been clumsy enough to cut yourself shaving,' Sherlock replied, hearing Moriarty's displeasure like a fading echo in a distant cave. 'He was close enough to hear you. He's getting stronger.'
'And you're getting weaker,' John replied matter-of-factly, setting the bowl down on the coffee table and reaching out to manhandle Sherlock upright. 'I don't care what it tastes like, you need to eat this.'
John sat down at his side, close enough that Sherlock could feel the magnetic warmth of magic and flesh alike. He pressed the bowl into Sherlock's hands, forcing numb fingers, stiff with the cold, to curve around the fork before Sherlock grudgingly picked at the food in front of him. Logically, he knew that the rice contained cumin and ginger – all manner of spices – but they barely impinged on his tongue, leaving him to swallow bland mouthfuls with little relish.
'Look at me.'
Sherlock lifted his eyes automatically, giving John a bleary stare through the steam of the bowl and noticing, not for the first time, how John's gaze never quite met his own head-on anymore, always skimming slightly to one side. Many people found the sharpness of Sherlock's pale eyes disconcerting, but until now, John had never been one of them.
'What is it?'
John pursed his lips and shook his head. 'Are the demon's eyes dark brown?'
'Black, mostly.' Sherlock watched, and this time he observed the guilty shift of John's gaze to Sherlock's left eye. It took a few moments, but abruptly the memory of old demon summoning texts came to mind – especially the wild stories about what happened to those who called upon them. Most symptoms had been ridiculous superstitions, from forked tails to scales on the face, but one sign had recurred, and the idea had lingered with Sherlock as a particularly compelling facet.
'My eyes have changed.' He looked for something reflective to confirm his suspicion before remembering John's statement about mirrors a few minutes ago.
'One of them. The right one's the same as always, but the left one is – dark. Blackish brown. It's been like that since the shrine.' John leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together. 'I keep thinking it will go away, but...'
Sherlock lifted his fingers to his eye, pressing at the lid as if he could somehow feel the colour change through that thin sheath of skin. 'Interesting,' he murmured, dragging himself to his feet and giving the room a critical look. There were no variations to his vision, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but he had no reason to doubt John's statement. Even if he had not said anything about it, his behaviour was enough to alert Sherlock's scattered mind to the fact that something was amiss.
Forcing his shaky body to move with purpose was an uncomfortable challenge, but Sherlock managed, leaving his bedroom door open as he began to rummage among books and case-files. Most of the tomes in his possession had been consumed when he was in his adolescence and now lined his shelves like old, forgotten friends. He had retained the majority of information they had to offer, but now John had mentioned his mismatched eyes, something was ringing the faintest bell of recollection.
He was aware of John hovering on the threshold as he finally pulled down the right book and began to leaf through the pages. It was a history of magecraft, one that gave particular attention to summoning and conjuration. Accounts were sketchy; calling upon creatures from the other realms had never been truly acceptable behaviour, and in modern times many people had simply lost the skills required. Instead, Sherlock had to delve into the details of magic-users who had lived centuries ago.
Eventually, he found the list he was looking for, sinking onto the bed and drawing one leg up under him as he scanned the names. They were demon-dealers, mages like himself, burned at the stake by the church for their sinful pursuits. Next to each name was a string of identifying physical characteristics: so-called evidence of their crime. All of them experienced changes in eye-colour, but unlike Sherlock, it affected both sides, not just one.
Only a woman called Medresi displayed the same trait, one eye turning vivid green while the other remained soft brown.
'You're sure it's just one?' he asked John. 'No bleeding through into both? It could be important.'
John came to a halt by the edge of the bed and reached out, tucking one finger under Sherlock's chin and encouraging him to tilt his face towards the glow of the lamp overhead. He blinked up at the bulb, trying not to tremble as he felt John's hot-silk wards enclose him again. It seemed to be instinctive on John's part, as if his shields spread automatically to include Sherlock in their protection whenever he got near.
However, that sensation dwindled in comparison to the steady pressure of John's hands, one on his jaw, the other on his robe-clad shoulder as he examined Sherlock's eyes. It was a searing scrutiny, as if John were taking in every hue and questioning each tonal change. He concentrated on the unchanged iris, and Sherlock realised that it was a determined focus, as if he did not want to take in the altered state of the other one: a matching pair suddenly dichotomous.
'It's definitely just one,' John said at last, his gaze shifting to look into Sherlock's eyes, rather than at them. Instantly, a familiar, electrifying connection sprang to life, making Sherlock's breath catch in his throat. His voice vanished as the air pulled tight around them like a drum skin stretched across its frame. He was intensely aware of everywhere that John was touching him, two meagre points of contact that warmed him all the same, and his skin tingled as John's hand shifted.
Warm fingers ghosted along the ridge of Sherlock's jaw until John could press the pad of one thumb to the sharp edge of his cheekbone, not holding him in place, but urging him to stay. John's eyes flickered down to Sherlock's mouth and back up again. His desire was clear, not turned on and off like a switch, but something the clouds of a shifting mood had parted to expose.
This was how it felt in those moments after a case, where the world seemed to halt in its spin and wait for the decision they never made. Except this time there was no thrill of success, only the uncomfortable edge of an uncertain future before them both. It was enough to make Sherlock hesitate, torn between leaning forward with nothing to lose, and pulling back because he could not offer John anything but this: one moment in time, and no more.
Yes. Give the pet a goodbye kiss.
Moriarty's words echoed in Sherlock's head, so loud they drowned out everything else. His body swayed as if shoved, his muscles screaming as he threw all of his strength into resisting the command – an act made all the more challenging by the fact that he wanted it – to see if John tasted how he imagined and kissed as well as he suspected.
The sudden, sharp snap of John's wards did what Sherlock could not, forcing him back. John jerked away in shock, already stammering apologies as Sherlock gritted a curse at the new wave of punishing pain that slammed through his torso. It was like a heart-attack: a stabbing bruise of agony that left him gasping and clutching at his ribs while John's shields shrank back, singing out their warning.
'Sherlock, what –'
Like a light going out, Moriarty's presence was gone, leaving Sherlock free to open his eyes again. His body had curled up, his knees tight to his chest and his skin slick with sweat. Nausea sat in his stomach like grease, but he swallowed it back as he struggled to speak. 'The demon tried to make me do what he wanted – compulsion.' He slid his fingers up to his temples before curving them through his hair. 'He was in my head.'
'He was trying to make you hurt me?' John asked, clenching his hands into awkward, nervous fists at his side before flexing his fingers. He looked like he wanted to reach out, despite the sudden antagonism of his shields, and Sherlock watched John struggle to hold himself back as he considered his answer.
'Quite the opposite.' He pursed his lips, trying not to flush. Risking a glance at John's face, he saw the moment where John cottoned on and then, unexpectedly, disastrously over-extrapolated.
'Oh. Oh, God.' John backed away, head ducked and his cheeks flushed in mortification. 'I thought – I, I mean – I didn't know it wasn't you looking at me like...'
'No!' John held up both his hands, shaking his head desperately. 'It's all right. I – I should have known better. I'm sorry. I need to –'
Sherlock tried to speak, to explain that it was only in that last moment that Moriarty had slipped into his mind like smoke and tried to tip the balance of hesitant longing over into something more physical, but John was already hurrying from the room. An attempt to stand up and follow left Sherlock in a graceless heap on the floor, panting as the world gave a giddy waltz. Moriarty's delighted laughter lingered in his ears as he was left unable to do anything but utter a single, wretched curse.
John scrubbed his hands over his face, feeling the heat that still dragged at his skin and the thudding, aching beat of his heart. Could he be any more of a fool? He should have stepped back the minute the familiar glow of want for Sherlock ignited in the pit of his stomach. It was one thing to look at him like that after a chase, high and needy and wondering if this time it would go further, but now?
'You idiot,' he hissed to himself, sinking onto his bed and staring at the thin carpet beneath his feet. He could still feel the whisper of Sherlock's breath across his cheek and the ripple of pleasure that had thrilled through him when Sherlock had licked his lips and then left them parted in invitation.
Except it hadn't been Sherlock giving him that strangely innocent come-hither look, but the demon. It was only John's wards that had stopped him from ducking his head and claiming that mouth, circumstances be damned. He had wondered, briefly, why now of all times Sherlock had decided to invite John across the line they had drawn in the sand: one of longing looks and silent fantasies, but nothing more. It was the first time Sherlock had been so blatant about it, and now the reason was obvious.
He wouldn't have been kissing Sherlock, not really, and the thought of forcing himself, even unwittingly, on a man who was first-and-foremost the best friend he had ever had was enough to make John's skin crawl. Then, to make matters worse, rather than facing up to it and helping Sherlock with whatever he had been researching, he was hiding up here in his room, swimming in a twisted morass of palpable guilt and shame-faced desire.
The buzz of his phone in his pocket interrupted the peace. John pulled it free, trying to ignore the miserable shake of his hands as he read Mycroft's message: brief and to the point.
“Any developments? - MH”
A bitter laugh caught in John's throat like a sob, but he forced it aside as he concentrated on the slow rhythm of tapping his reply. Mycroft didn't need to know the details, but the fact that the demon was trying to compel Sherlock was something he had to be told. The words stumbled clumsily from his fingertips, and more than once he had to go back and correct an error as his thoughts twisted in the gale of his emotions.
He would rather his first guess had been right – that Moriarty was trying to get Sherlock to hurt him than initiate something more intimate. That made it seem too much like a game, as if Sherlock was something to be toyed with rather than a tool the demon was trying to use. Sherlock was not a man well-equipped to deal with emotion – that was evident in the way he tended to ignore it in himself and disdain it in others – but that didn't mean he didn't feel. It was as if the demon had seized upon the one area in which Sherlock was less than confident and was using it to his advantage.
'Bastard.' John jammed his thumb into the last letter of his message and read it back to himself, making sure he was giving Mycroft the information he needed, rather than any other implications.
“An effort at compulsion. Sherlock fought him off, but it's getting worse. Thinks it could be important that only one eye has changed. Something you can work with? - JW”
With a sigh, John got to his feet, absently moving around in a fretful, useless effort to distract himself. He made the bed, which barely needed it, and put some clean washing away, but within ten minutes his Spartan room was as neat as it could be, and John stared around at the space as a hollow ache filled the cavern of his chest.
He had been trying hard to focus on the immediate, rather than the uncertainty that lay ahead, but the prospect of a life without Sherlock still loomed like a hurricane on his horizon. John almost hated himself for the thin, reedy resentment that curled through him. He should be glad he had any kind of future at all, considering the alternative. Sherlock could have let him die back in that shrine. Instead, John would live. The question was, would Sherlock be with him, or was this the beginning of the end? Was all the brightness and excitement and purpose fading from John's existence before his eyes, embodied as it was in Sherlock's frame? Was he going to be left as he had once been, an empty outline of a human being because Sherlock would be...?
Quickly, John cut the thought off, unable to consider it. He had not dared to ask Mycroft what would become of Sherlock if there was nothing they could do. A deep, dreading part of him knew that death would probably be the most merciful answer, and the least likely. Would he have to be confined, locked away until his body gave up on life and was of no further use to Moriarty? Would the demon grow bored and devour the soul he had accepted in payment, leaving Sherlock like the other soulless John had seen – utterly lacking in anything but the basic accoutrements of life?
It was difficult to imagine that Sherlock could ever be himself again – razor sharp intelligence, easy grace and, amidst it all, startling glimpses of the softer elements of humanity he tried so hard to keep hidden. John knew that Sherlock was still present, but already it was as if he had been lost, drifting further beyond John's grasp while he groped for something – anything that could help reverse Sherlock's reckless deal.
Another rasp from his phone caught his attention, and he frowned, not expecting an answer from Mycroft so soon. When he read the message, hope twisted in his chest, chasing back the shadows of his doubts as his heart skipped into a faster beat.
“A promising avenue of consideration. On my way. - MH”
John was out of his bedroom door before he knew it, halfway down the stairs with his phone in his hand and Sherlock's name trembling on his lips. He expected him to still be in his bedroom and paused in surprise when he saw Sherlock in the kitchen, dressed for the first time in days and leaning casually against the table. His skin, which had been chalky white, had warmed with a touch of something more healthy, and the hand stirring milk into his tea was steady and unlaboured.
The bubble of John's relief was short-lived, bursting around him as he began to pick up salient points. The wards on the flat were down; he could hear their dying refrain echoing in the brickwork and slipping down between the floorboards. They had been sliced apart with surgical precision, falling away unnoticed.
John swallowed, automatically reinforcing his personal shields as he took in the stranger standing in the kitchen: a familiar face, but it didn't matter what his eyes were telling him. That wasn't Sherlock.
'Get out,' he hissed, clenching his hands into fists as one eyebrow lifted, not the quick quirk Sherlock often employed, but something supercilious and wrong on every level. Sherlock might look at most people as if he thought they were sub-human, but his disdain was normally laced with frustration, as if he wished that others would make the effort to better themselves. This, this thing acted as if the world were a curiosity, interesting for now, but something to be destroyed and eventually discarded.
Mismatched eyes raked over John's frame, that full mouth twisting in a sneer before the creature straightened up. 'I don't think so. This is mine, now.' He gestured down at Sherlock's body with a wave of one hand, his fingers trailing lovingly down the vee of Sherlock's lapel. 'You have to admit, I could have done a lot worse.'
The splay of that hand lifted to Sherlock's collar where three buttons lay open, exposing the hard edge of his clavicle and the beginning plateau of his chest. Sherlock never left that many undone; he would hint at debauchery occasionally, when it suited him, with the subtle part of fabric, but the demon appeared unconstrained, resting elegant fingers against the throb of Sherlock's pulse before trailing his fingernails over the exposed skin.
'A beautiful body, and barely used.' A hum of pleasure escaped that throat, but it was not a genuine sound. There was no hitch or crack to it, nothing bordering on the loss of control. It was completely choreographed – a sham of an act – but John still struggled not to swallow as the demon simpered. 'I can see why you want it.'
Sherlock's voice was a whisper over the demon's words. It was still his intonation and his cadence of speech, but John could hear the resonance of something else underneath that articulate enunciation: the faintest hint of a thicker brogue. 'You've thought about spreading his legs and sinking into him – fucking him until he's screaming your name...' Dark lashes fluttered downwards, a parody of euphoria before the demon looked right at John. 'I could give you what he won't.'
'And you think I'd take it?' John spat, fiercely ignoring the jolt of desire in his stomach and stepping back as the demon pushed away from the table. His movements were leonine, more so than Sherlock ever employed. Sherlock's stride was confident and competent, occasionally hinting at predatory when dominance had its place. Moriarty was a hunter through-and-through, completely genuine, and the hunger with which he looked at John had nothing to do with sex. 'Stay the hell away from me.'
'I'd like to see you try and make me, Doctor Watson,' the demon purred, stalking forward. For the first time, all the threat John had seen Sherlock use on muggers and informants alike was aimed at him. It made John feel short and small, weak in every way, and he forced himself not to retreat as he clenched his teeth tight.
'Look at you, brave little soldier. I admit, you've turned Sherlock's head. Enough for him to give me all of this in exchange for your life, but I can't see why. You're so – ordinary. A parasite.'
'I'm not the one inhabiting someone else's body,' John muttered, glancing around in an effort to locate the panic button Mycroft had left behind. He was not sure what good it would do, but he could see the unbalance in Sherlock's – Moriarty's – gaze. It was a wobbling equilibrium, torn between rationality and the feral cruelty of his more base nature. That unpredictably was enough to make the hairs at John's nape bristle and his pulse hammer, pushing adrenaline-drenched blood through his body and making his muscles ache.
Yet there, right there, when Moriarty had called John a parasite, he had seen something. Not quite a weakness, but a flaw he could not help but push.
'It bothers you, doesn't it?' he asked, shifting towards the door. 'That he cares about me enough to trade his soul for my life. You hate it, even though you used it to get to him.'
'I won,' Moriarty spat, those long, violinist hands clenching into fists, knuckles like blades beneath the skin. 'I'll have him, all of him, and you'll be left with nothing but your foolish, mortal memories.' He straightened up, giving John a cold, hard look as a sneer twitched across his face. 'Perhaps you don't realise the extent of what Sherlock has given me.' He pulled something out of his pocket, tossing it in the air, and John recognised the panic button. He had not realised that Sherlock was aware of it, but there it was, caught in the cage of Moriarty's grasp.
'Flesh, blood and bone is nothing – a shell. A soul is meaningless, a collection of experiences and emotion, moral compass and guiding light, but together...' Moriarty snapped his fingers, and magic flared throughout the room, making John's wards squeal at the pressure as the device disintegrated into ash amidst the storm. 'Power.'
'You already had that,' John muttered. 'Enough to drag a bullet out of me that you put there in the first place!'
'Little manipulations at great expense. Shift a few cells in your body, move an object from where it's lodged in your chest...but influencing anything in this world from my own realm is almost impossible,' Moriarty whispered, flexing Sherlock's fingers and taking a deep gasp of the air as if the metallic, electric tang was all he had craved. 'This – this is like breathing. You go through your whole lives so blind. He sees more than most of you, but he didn't see enough to know what I could do.'
'Whatever it is you've got planned, Sherlock won't let you. He's been fighting you, he's –'
'He has lost!' Moriarty roared, his hand lashing out, fingernails curled like claws to rake at John's face. His wards parted like cut velvet, but before the strike could land, something snapped through the air. John felt its passing like the fall of a shadow across the sun, cold and abrupt. The blackened windows rattled in their frames and the bulb overhead dimmed before sparking back to life, leaving him braced for a blow that never came.
Sherlock. John could not describe how he knew, but it was like a blurry picture coming back into focus, the summation adding up to reassure him that, this time, Sherlock was in control. He stood exactly as he had been, hand still half-raised, but the aggressive stance was gone for his shoulders, which sloped and hitched with each ragged breath. His skin was bleaching back to paper-pale, the shadows beneath his eyes seeming to darken in moments, but it was the four deep gouges across one cheek that caught John's attention.
Crimson oozed from their ragged lines, carving a gruesome trail down Sherlock's face. Moriarty's blow had been reflected on the body he had inhabited. John might not be as bright as Sherlock, but another piece of the puzzle clicked into place, leaving him weak-kneed.
'You made sure he couldn't hurt me,' he whispered. 'When you cut the deal, you put in safeguards so that he couldn't turn around and do me any harm. Sherlock –' He blinked, at a loss for words. It was hard enough to get his head around the fact that Sherlock had traded his soul for John's life, but to know that he had occupied Sherlock's thoughts so fully in the moment of that decision was both agonising and humbling.
With a shake of his head, John stepped forward, pulling Sherlock's hand from where those fingers were gently probing the wounds on his face. 'Come here. Let me clean that.'
'How long was I –?' Sherlock sagged into one of the kitchen chairs at John's urging, bending forward to bury his face in his hands. 'I closed my eyes, just for a minute.'
'He cut the wards down,' John pointed out, realising that maybe Sherlock couldn't feel their absence anymore. 'I guess they weren't strong enough. I came down here to tell you Mycroft was on his way, and you – he was making tea. Do you remember getting dressed?'
Sherlock shook his head, his expression still hidden, and John found his hands fluttering uselessly at his sides. He didn't like this – didn't like any of it – but worse was Sherlock's obvious defeat. Even when neck deep in a case going nowhere, low on sleep and food and sanity, he never looked this close to giving in.
'Half an hour, if that,' John replied at last, busying himself retrieving the first aid kit from one of the kitchen cupboards and silently berating himself for leaving Sherlock in the first place. He should have stayed, no matter how embarrassed he was. Perhaps then Moriarty would not have had the chance to sneak in. 'Do you remember anything?'
He held his breath, wondering if Sherlock had been there, an unwilling observer to Moriarty's... whatever it was. John was not stupid enough to believe it was an attempted seduction. Moriarty had no interest in him as anything but a potential food source, and it seemed Sherlock had made sure that couldn’t happen. No, the demon had been doing what came naturally: leading others into temptation – offering John Sherlock's body as if it were nothing but currency.
It was hard to decide what repulsed him more, the fact the demon thought there was a chance John would accept, or the split-second consideration John's more base instincts had given to the proposition before rational thought had interceded.
A shiver worked its way through John's frame, and he fought to suppress it as he pulled Sherlock's hands from his face and gently started bathing away the smears of blood that daubed his cheek. He considered healing it, but there was magic at work that exceeded his knowledge: not Sherlock's or Moriarty's, but something far older that had been woven into the fabric of the universe during its creation.
Abruptly, he realised Sherlock had not answered his earlier question, and there was something vacant about his expression, like someone in a daydream.
'Are you still with me?' he asked cautiously, leaning back even as Sherlock seemed to blink himself awake.
'I wasn't here when the demon was,' Sherlock explained, tilting his head obligingly as John continued his work. 'I can't remember much. The fog between realms and then – something.' He pressed a hand to his forehead, screwing up his eyes tight as if in pain before his shoulders shuddered. 'What did he do?'
John threw away the antiseptic wipe, wondering if the gashes would scar as he considered his response. 'Gloated,' he replied eventually. 'Threatened, not much else. He seems fascinated with you, and he could use your magic.'
'An unfortunate turn of events.' Mycroft's voice made John look up at the doorway to see the older Holmes standing on the threshold. Greg was at his side, his hands wrapped around a paper cup of coffee like his life depended on it as his gaze moved from John to Sherlock and back again. 'The demon took possession, I take it?'
'Only for thirty minutes or so.' John bit his lip, hearing the defensive tone of his own words. 'Sherlock fought him off.'
'No I didn't.' Sherlock's voice was so tired it sounded dead, the last intonation draining away to leave something flat and robotic in its wake. 'He tried to hurt John and was pushed back.'
'By the magic that formed the contract?' Mycroft raised one eyebrow, giving John a brief, speculative look before he walked over to Sherlock's side and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. It was strange to see; John could not recall the two brothers ever touching each other, and he shifted uncomfortably, trying to ignore the fact it felt like Mycroft was standing at his brother's death-bed, rather than in their kitchen. 'I see. I imagine he lost some strength in the process.'
'He'll be back,' Sherlock replied instantly. 'You know that as well as I do. If you have any sense you'll put me in containment.'
Mycroft sighed, a sound of regret, rather than waning patience. 'Not yet. If it comes to it, I will, but you have to know that as long as Moriarty hasn't consumed your soul, there is still a chance for this to be undone. If the conditions of the deal are broken to a suitable extent, there is precedent for reversion.'
The emotion in Sherlock's voice was startling, more so for its previous absence, and John stared in surprise, seeing a hint of something like fear in his expression. 'What's a reversion?'
'What it sounds like: the effects of the contract will be undone,' Mycroft explained. 'Sherlock's soul will be restored to him.'
'And John?' Greg's question was followed by the thick, leaden kind of silence that found its home at funerals. 'He's part of all this too, isn't he? Part of the deal. Are we going to set Sherlock to rights only to have John drop dead on us?'
Mycroft ducked his head, staring at the floor before looking up to meet John's gaze. The honesty there was stark and surprising, enough to shake John where he stood, and he sucked in a breath as Mycroft spoke. 'We can't be sure. The rules by which demons operate and the magics which forge these trades are a mystery. The only way to find out would be to force the covenant to shatter and cope with the consequences.'
John paused, considering the possibility. If Mycroft was right, it could go either way. He and Sherlock could return to the way they had been, souls intact: a consulting detective and his blogger. Alternatively, it could simply send them back to that moment at the shrine, where “goodbye” was the only thing he couldn't bring himself to say.
That was how it was meant to be, and how it should have ended. Not like this, with Sherlock fighting for control of his own body and mind while John stood on the sidelines, unharmed but far from unaffected.
With a roll of his shoulders, he straightened his spine, folding his arms and meeting Mycroft's gaze.
'So how do we break it?'
Sherlock shifted, his body too weak to get to its feet but too restless to remain still. He was still sitting in the kitchen chair, slumped like a marionette while John stood there, calm and collected, and offered to put his life on the line at Mycroft's suggestion.
'You can't,' Sherlock said, answering John's question before Mycroft could speak.
'Sherlock,' his brother chastised. 'You're allowing sentiment to cloud your judgement.'
'No, you are,' he muttered, wishing he had the strength to smirk when Mycroft expression took on a sharp edge of offence, as if Sherlock had accused him of something perverse. 'You're allowing the fact that I'm your sibling to interfere with your logic; if you weren’t I’d already be in containment. More to the point, you're hoping for a positive outcome from a reversal and overlooking the risks.' He paused, aware of both John and Greg listening to his every word. 'The power released in the backlash of deals being broken is immense. It could kill me as easily as John, or worse. Think of Boreraig, Bothwellhaugh, Shipden...'
'What are they?' Lestrade asked, looking as if he craved a good night's sleep and a packet of cigarettes. 'People?'
Mycroft bowed his head, clearing his throat awkwardly. 'They were places. According to a few vague accounts, they were sites of reversions several centuries ago. It did not end well.'
'Boreraig is empty, and the other two are under water,' Sherlock added. 'You said it yourself, Mycroft: the demon we're dealing with is class one. The sheer energy release could wipe out half of London. You must know that, so why suggest it?'
'We would make efforts to contain any rebounding power. Such things are rare,' Mycroft replied, his expression faltering before he sighed. Belatedly, Sherlock noticed the shadows under his eyes and the sag of his face: exhausted and defeated in a way he had not seen for years. 'It was the most viable of a scant few options.'
'It's not viable at all,' Sherlock replied, laying down his final argument, eminently logical. 'You can't break a contract when you don't know the particulars. I can't communicate specifics, and without them it's like trying to perform brain surgery with a blindfold.' He bowed his head. 'It relies on you knowing what Moriarty promised me and hoping that the magical retribution of him breaking that oath will be enough to destroy him but leave everything else standing.'
'Can't we just kill him?' Lestrade asked. 'If he's gone, surely your soul is yours again. A bullet in the head will take out a demon, right?'
'And which head would you shoot?' Mycroft asked succinctly. 'The only body the demon has in this realm is my brother's. He would be the one who died from such a wound.'
'And it would only force the Other one back to its realm; it wouldn't destroy it.' Sherlock scrubbed at his face, wishing he could tell them what they had to do. Yet where Moriarty had been able to try and break his promises and suffered the retribution, Sherlock did not have the strength to overcome the magic holding him back.
'What about the eye thing?' John asked, shifting to stand closer to Sherlock's side. He was near enough that if Sherlock tipped his head, he could lean against John's hip. The temptation was almost overwhelming, and he swayed before hardening his spine and sitting rigid in the chair. 'You said that might be an avenue of investigation?'
'Indeed,' Mycroft replied, his umbrella tapping on the floor before he glanced in Sherlock's direction. 'Though perhaps we should discuss this in private. So far I doubt we have given the demon access to any information he did not already know, or at least suspect.' He reached into his pocket and removed an orb the size of a marble before passing it over. 'You look tired, Sherlock. This is almost drained, but it should give you a few hours of respite.'
'A See-lo?' Lestrade winced, managing to look both disapproving and fascinated at once. 'I should arrest you for even having one of those,' he said by way of warning, though Mycroft looked more amused than threatened.
'Government property, Detective Inspector. It is sometimes necessary to keep things hidden from the people, or creatures, actively searching for them.'
'Bane of my bloody existence,' Lestrade muttered. 'A murder suspect can be standing right in front me with one of those. If it's strong enough, I won't have a clue he's there, no matter what kind of seeking spells I use.'
'That one is particularly potent; my apologies if Sherlock's use of it has any adverse effects on you, but as you can see, he needs to rest.'
That was an understatement and a dismissal all in one. Part of Sherlock was desperate to stay, to guide them in their plans and reassure himself that his brother was not going to lead John into any ridiculous course of action, but it was impossible. Besides, his intelligence had been reduced to Anderson's level. If he could claim a few hours of rest, then perhaps he would be able to access some power of thought and put it to good use.
'How much time do I have?' he asked, looking at the pearly sphere nestled in his palm. 'Two hours?'
'Four at the most,' Mycroft replied. 'We'll awaken you before it drains entirely.' With a brief tap of his fingers into the cup of Sherlock's hand, he activated the device. A tendril of familial magic unwound between them, encircling their wrists and fingers before it faded from sight and left the See-lo glowing in Sherlock's grasp.
Hiding it in the curl of his fist, he stumbled towards the bedroom, barely hearing Lestrade's curse of discomfort or the steady beat of John's footsteps behind his own. He collapsed onto the bed gratefully, not bothering to remove his suit or burrow under the sheets as his eyelids began to droop. Someone tugged at the quilt, freeing it from beneath his body and pitching it over him before a warm hand rested gently on his head: a brief, comforting gesture as John's voice caressed his ear.
'Sleep well, Sherlock. Call if you need me.'
'Don't.' Sherlock frowned to himself, trying to think of the right words as exhaustion slurred his voice. 'Don't do anything stupid. Not for me.'
He felt John's hesitation: a faint sensation of reluctance giving the air a sharper edge before the reply drifted through the steadily encroaching seas of sleep.
'I'll do what I have to.' The soft whisper of wards slid across his skin like a promise, bringing with them warm respite before they were gone. 'I can't leave you like this.'
Those words followed him, drops of molten gold amidst slumber's darkness. They floated on the edge of his mind, as precious as they were concerning. John's devotion was outlined in bold, simple terms, and Sherlock knew he would not hesitate to turn his statement into action should the opportunity arise, no matter how loudly Sherlock protested.
He lost himself within the sable oblivion, dreams and memories mingling in a vague haze of perception. Time's passage went unnoticed, his consciousness reduced to nothing but the occasional, glacial drift of a thought as his body finally found the rest it craved.
Sherlock was not sure when the darkness found definition and flat, matte surfaces began to shine, light bouncing off the sharp angles and polished faces of Moriarty's realm. It was as if he had turned around and found himself there: an unexpected observer. He sat cross-legged on the floor at the foot of a wing-backed leather chair, currently vacant. The position reeked of submission, of master and slave, and Sherlock risked a glance down at himself.
He was still wearing his suit, but the jacket buttons were undone, as was his shirt, leaving a stripe of bare flesh down the parted veils of fabric. His skin looked strange, oddly ethereal in the grim tones of twilight all around him. Shadows danced across the glowing pallor of his body, twisting and joining before bleeding apart again. Also, in a typically cliché fashion, he appeared to be transparent. Clearly his actual body was still back in Baker Street, but he was here in a form that, he slowly realised, had no pulse and seemed to be made more of light than anything solid.
'You lost your temper.' The voice rumbled through the darkness, stoic and unemotional.
'Obviously,' Moriarty stepped forward into Sherlock's field of view, looking straight at him but somehow disengaged, as if Sherlock were a piece of art or an aquarium: something to admire and nothing more. 'How was I meant to resist? You didn't see him. Lust written all over his soul for anyone to see but so... noble. The only reason he still breathes is because of what I had to promise to get this all to myself.'
The demon bent down, trailing fingers along the line of Sherlock's jaw and down the column of his throat. He tried to recoil or snarl, but the best he could do was flinch. His soul was tied too tight to Moriarty – held in place by thick, inky tethers – to gain any distance. The demon's laughter oozed through the air as he dipped his hand below Sherlock's shirt, his fingernails biting into the insubstantial interface of Sherlock's skin.
It was not pain, not in the typical sense, but something deeper and more visceral. Blood, flesh and nerves had nothing to do with it. A chill swept over him, and he blurred and dimmed as Moriarty drew in a deep breath, licking his lips in delight before he stepped back and, one by one, sucked his fingers clean of the dewy glow that lingered on his skin.
When he was done, he tipped his head to one side, frowning at Sherlock in fleeting confusion before glancing over his shoulder at the other demon: the one called Moran. 'How much longer? I don't trust that bloody doctor not to meddle with things.'
'Humans only move so fast,' Moran growled, and Sherlock finally picked out his silhouette nearby, large hands moving with confidence over the Dragunov rifle. It was not a mortal weapon, but more the soul of one. No doubt out there, in the real world, it would solidify into something usable, but now it was a suggestion of all that a gun could be rather than the physical presence of metal and springs, bullet and trigger. 'Another few minutes. If you hadn't tried to hit the other one...'
'I know. I know!' Moriarty snapped, his voice thick with something feral and furious. 'This way is better, anyway. If my followers do their job right, I'll have all the time I need. A bit more power, and then that body will fit like a glove. Last time, the trade was incomplete. He wasn't here, was he?'
Moran gave a negative grunt. 'Lost somewhere Between.'
'That's how he returned so easily when the magic threw me out. We can't both be in his body at the same time. Once I was gone, he slipped back in.' Moriarty's lips tilted down in a mocking pout. 'Next time he'll be stuck here.' The demon's shoes tapped across the uncertain floor as he continued to stride, his gaze skating back to Sherlock more than once.
'He is special,' he said at last, his tone conversational but for the hint of a warning to Moran: agree or die. 'I've never found a soul like this. Centuries, and they've all been the same. A little light and nothing more.' Moriarty stared at Sherlock, rocking back on his heels. 'I thought Segregates were something of the past.'
'Segregate?' Moran's question sounded grudging, but there was a sulking edge to his tone. Jealousy, Sherlock realised. The lesser demon did not like that Sherlock was the focus of all Moriarty's attention.
'You're too young; you won't remember. Neither do I, for that matter.' He sighed in brief rapture. 'Mages were stronger once. They all used to be like him. They'd sell their soul, thinking it meant a miserable afterlife but a powerful existence, only to realise they'd left the door open. You could step into their skins and feel them fighting back, cursing you, hating you and themselves all at once.'
The demon turned, his fingertips ghosting along his own jaw like a lover's caress as his eyes narrowed. 'Their souls could be bound to you, but there would be something else – something separate – a higher awareness that was always floating outside the union.' Moriarty scowled. 'You could never touch that part of them. Not that it did any of them much good. Some, the strongest, would try and fight back with it, but they had no body. It was just an angry intelligence – or so the stories go.'
'He's like that?' Moran asked, spearing Sherlock with a cold glare – instantly distrustful. 'There's something in there that can hear what we're saying?'
'It doesn't matter if there is.' Moriarty hummed, crouching down in front of Sherlock and giving a wide grin. 'Even if he understands every word, there is nothing he can do. Is there, Sherlock?' His joy fell away, wiped clean like chalk from the slate and replaced with a hint of a frown. For the first time since he had opened his eyes here, Sherlock saw Moriarty's gaze sharpen, its focus going deeper as he met the stare head-on.
'Clever.' The demon bit his lip. 'Big brother's trying to hide you from me using one of those wretched little balls.' Those eyebrows lifted in mocking apology as he reached out and touched Sherlock's cheek. Instantly, there was a draining sensation in the pit of his belly, drawing a line of fire from the palm of his hand and down along every nerve. 'A shame it's running out.'
As if summoned by his words, the realm around them began to resonate with pure, high notes of ecstasy. The stench of blood and death filled the air. At the edge of his vision, Sherlock saw starbursts of power: violet and crimson, emerald and sickly, sallow yellow rushing together in an oil spill of colour as Moriarty hummed in delight. He could make out bodies – ghostly representations of fresh sacrifice – and he knew without counting that there were enough.
'Just in time,' Moriarty whispered, leaning in closer as the choking bonds tightened around Sherlock, dragging at him in wanton abandon. Moriarty's fingers cupped his jaw, resting over his pulse as he said, 'Should have kissed your pet goodbye when you had the chance.'
Thin lips pressed over his own – rough and possessive as the demon's tongue licked into his mouth, lapping in a parody of seduction even as the heavy, sickening draw began again. Sherlock tried to clamp his jaw shut, to bite down and fight back, but it was useless. He was dimming, the glow of him fading as the tethers thickened into a choking shroud. Finally, the demon broke back, touching his lips before rolling his shoulders as he gathered the magic around him and shook his head in pity.
'Too late now.' He curled his fingers, and the power sprang to life: vociferous and hungry. Sherlock felt the last connections with his body tear asunder and Moriarty's foetid touch take their place.
Possession: body and soul.
John sat on the couch, scrubbing his hands over his face as if he could somehow force his leaden brain to absorb the information Mycroft had imparted. 'So you're telling me that, in theory, the reason Sherlock's eyes aren't both the colour of the demon's is because they're the same?'
'Equally matched,' Mycroft corrected. 'Though the precise meaning behind that description is not clear. Some sources suggest the other mage to display heterochromia after selling her soul was of equal intent to the demon she used: They had the same goal in mind. Others indicate that this was far from the case, and it was an indication of balanced power, equilibrium, strength of will.'
'You mean they were both stubborn?' Greg asked. He was perched on the arm of the sofa, his elbows propped on his knees as he blinked his eyes wide like a man trying to stay awake. 'I don't understand how that helps.'
Mycroft's eyebrows lifted briefly as he shook his head. 'If Sherlock's will is of equal strength to the demon's, it makes him all the harder to control. Not just his body or his soul, but his very being. My assistant is looking for more concrete evidence. At this juncture all we can assume is that it may indicate that Sherlock's transaction with the demon is atypical. There is something that sets it apart from the norm.'
'We already knew that,' John pointed out. 'He made that obvious when he first woke up and was still here rather than –' He waved a hand, trying to indicate the vast expanse of emptiness they could have found when Sherlock opened his eyes: a body and little more.
'Is there any way to find out what he wants?' Greg asked, getting to his feet as his phone buzzed in his pocket and dragging it free. 'I mean, Sherlock was certain that the demon set this up. He was after Sherlock's soul in particular. Was it just because he's taken a shine to him, or what?'
'Hard to say,' Mycroft replied. 'Previous accounts of interactions with the same demon suggest a more primitive creature: almost primordial, only driven by the need to cause destruction and chaos. However, those mages did not enter anything contractual. They attempted to bind him.'
'That's different?' John asked, loathing his dearth of knowledge. If it were the other way around, if it was John who had sold his soul and Sherlock here, he would know precisely what made Moriarty tick and how to stop him.
'Think of it as the opposite,' Mycroft encouraged. 'It is an attempt by the mage to enslave the demon to do a human's bidding. On a lesser creature, it is usually successful, but their power is limited. If a mage is strong enough to bind a major demon, their magical abilities would be considered limitless and the price to themselves would be inconsequential: unless the demon was able to break their enslavement, which often happened in due course.'
'Bet that didn't turn out well for the mage.' John glanced over at Greg, frowning at the pallor on the DI's face. He was reading a text message with his lips parted, a frown cleaving his brow. 'What's wrong?'
'Something happened at Carnwarth Road: massive magical discharge reported.'
'On the surface?' Mycroft asked, moving closer to read the text over Greg's shoulder.
'No, underground. People felt it coming up from the sewers. What would you bet it's the demon's bloody cult again?' Greg was already scrabbling in his pocket for his keys, turning towards the door. 'I'll let you know how many bodies I find. If – '
The room shuddered before Greg could finish, making the cups rattle in the sink and knocking a couple of things off the mantelpiece. The doors sighed in their thresholds, clanking against their latches as if a creature had taken a gigantic breath. Abruptly, the temperature plummeted, making his next exhale cloud in front of his face.
A whine cut through the air like a knife, making John wince as the sound arrowed straight into his brain. It was an agonising noise, like something made of glass screaming under intense pressure. He clamped his hands over his ears, barely noticing Mycroft surge towards Sherlock's room before the cacophony cut off, leaving a ringing silence in its wake.
John dropped his hands in time to hear Sherlock's bedroom door being opened, and he looked up to see the man's long frame leaning against the threshold, all casual ease.
'Thirteen sacrifices.' Moriarty's grin scythed across Sherlock's face, and John's hand twitched, longing for his gun. 'Unlucky for some.'
'He should have been hidden from you,' Mycroft pointed out, his voice like ice as he surveyed the man in front of him. 'Even that many sacrifices should not have been enough to help you find him while he had the See-lo.'
'Distasteful little things, don't you agree, Inspector? And fundamentally flawed. Connected as I was to Sherlock, it was easy to drain it prematurely.' The demon held up Sherlock's hand, the bloody, tattered wreck of his palm evident. Glass shards were embedded in the flesh. 'A shame it exploded, but then it's not as if Sherlock is around to complain.'
'Where is he?' John's question sounded like barbed wire, all sharp angles and hateful, jagged lines. However, the cruelty of it only made Moriarty smile again – that disturbing twist that John wished had never found its way onto Sherlock's face. 'What have you done to him?'
'What do you think?' Moriarty purred, lids sinking to half-mast. 'Such a pity that you'll never know how he tastes. I suppose you'll just have to take my word for it.' He licked his lips, teeth glinting in a grin. 'He was delicious.'
John almost walked into Mycroft's umbrella, flung out as it was to stop him approaching the thing standing in their flat, wearing Sherlock's face and mocking them all. It was a single, hostile move – enough to make Moriarty respond. A conjured blade gleamed like oil in his hand, solid, for all that it was made of magic.
'That doesn't scare me.' John smirked. 'You can't hurt me, Sherlock made sure of that.'
'Oh, do you think you're special?' Moriarty laughed then, Sherlock's deep, baritone chuckle turning harsh in a way that made John's heart hurt. 'Do you honestly believe he was only thinking of you? He's too clever for that. Even when you were dying on the floor, that brain was still working.' Now those mismatched eyes took in Greg and Mycroft with equal distaste before darting towards the door. 'There were six people he thought to include in his “no harm” clause. All so boring. Two members of his family,' The knife flicked to Mycroft. 'The beloved doctor and the Detective Inspector, the landlady, and one other...'
Slowly, Moriarty turned the blade, bringing its edge to press lovingly to the pale column of Sherlock's throat. 'He could have saved himself, but no, he chose to protect a sad little mouse of a woman in the morgue.'
Now that voice turned soft, almost meditative. 'You thought it was about sentiment, didn't you? You thought that, after all this time, you had finally got the great Sherlock Holmes to feel.' The blade slipped, charting a shallow, broad line of red like a promise across the path of Sherlock's jugular. 'He protected people he thought were useful, nothing more. She gives him things he needs for experiments, the landlady provides shelter, the Inspector allows him access to the Work, the brother sometimes gets him out of unexpected trouble, and you?' The demon sneered. 'You help pay the rent. That's all.'
'I doubt that,' Mycroft replied, filling the silence when John was robbed of his own voice, wanting to deny it as the first seed of uncertainty awakened. 'And so do you. You knew how to get Sherlock where you wanted him, and it had everything to do with Doctor Watson and the sentiment between them. So tell me this: why do you want Sherlock's soul? You've not eaten it, not yet.' The umbrella flicked away, pointing at one of Moriarty's eyes, then the other. 'If you had, those would both reflect your true nature.'
The demon raised an eyebrow as if acknowledging the point. 'You really should have put me in containment while you had the chance,' the demon murmured. 'You might have lost your brother, but everything else would have been safe, at least until I could find a replacement for him. Now... Well, let's just say I have better places to be.'
'You think we'll let you leave?' Greg asked in disbelief, his hand braced around his phone. 'There are a dozen squad cars on their way here to get you under control.'
The demon tutted as if the DI was being obtuse. 'A little late for that. The best thing about Sherlock is the things he can do. So many things. Did you turn a blind eye, or did you honestly not know?' He waved the knife again in emphasis; a weapon conjured from nothing but power and air. 'This is just one of his skills.'
'What good's it going to do you? John demanded. 'You can't hurt us with it, and you won't kill the body you're in. You need it.'
'Oh the good Doctor. Always willing to see the best in people. There's a lot I can do to a human body before it will die. Various...bits... I can remove. Perhaps if you had lost hope, it wouldn't matter, but look at you all: so eager to believe you can have him back.' Moriarty grinned again, flipping the knife idly in his hand and bringing the point up to the blue eye, so close that John could not hide his wince. 'That's why you'll let me go.'
It was a gamble, the demon had to realise that, but one look into that mud-brown eye was enough to reveal the insanity there. For all the demon's apparent intelligence, it was riddled with spite. He would harm the body that harboured his presence just to make them squirm.
The demon took one step towards the door, then another, before he turned and sauntered away, apparently indifferent as to whether anyone went after him. John would have leapt forward – would have grabbed the collar of that jacket and slammed him into the wall in an effort to shake the demon loose if he could – but Greg’s hand on his elbow stopped him.
'For what? Him to get away? That's Sherlock's body he's in!'
'Exactly. Hostage situation, remember?' Greg looked over at Mycroft, and something was exchanged in their silent glance. 'The bastard's using Sherlock's magic, and he's right. There's a lot he can do with that, including glamouring himself. I can have every soul from the Yard looking for him and he could walk right past, but he can't hide his magic.'
'You're attuned to it?' Mycroft asked, one eyebrow raised in appreciative surprise. 'I wasn't aware Sherlock was such a prominent factor in your career.'
'He's the only reason I have a career,' Greg muttered, turning to John and speaking in the calm, logical voice people used in the depth of a crisis. 'You two never seemed to think it was strange how I could always find you. Seeking is what I do, and I've always got tabs on Sherlock. For whatever reason, he hasn't blocked me since you moved in to Baker Street.'
'So you think you can find him?' Mycroft asked, already dialling a number on his phone.
'As long as the demon keeps using Sherlock's magic without putting up any kind of shield, I'll know where he is, but I need to get back to the Yard to activate the spells.' Greg was already moving, sending a text message as Mycroft spoke in quick, clear tones down his own line.
'Anthea, please collect Miss Molly Hooper from the morgue and bring her to Scotland Yard. Tell her Sherlock requires her assistance.' At John's frown, Mycroft gave a wan smile and disconnected the call. 'While the demon may have been wrong about you, John, he did have a point. It has always been clear that his attachment to Miss Hooper is more about convenience than anything emotional. He protected her for a reason, and I intend to find out what that was.' He gestured meaningfully to the stairs leading to John's bedroom. 'I suggest you retrieve anything that could be of benefit in a confrontation. We need to depart.'
Numbly, John did as he was told, his body moving on autopilot as he went to get his gun. It was easier to follow instructions than think for himself, at least now while his head was still full of the demon's voice. He knew Moriarty had been trying to make him give up, but that didn't mean his words were without their sting.
'He saved you,' John whispered to himself, his fingers curling around the butt of his Browning where it lay on his bedside table before he tucked it into the waistband of his jeans. The words weren't much, but if nothing else they bolstered his determination to put things right. Whatever reasons Sherlock had, whether sentiment had any part of it or not, the results were still the same. Sherlock thought he was worth fighting for, and in that respect, the feeling was mutual.
Squaring his shoulders he turned back out of his room and headed down the stairs, his head held high and jaw tight as he climbed into the back of Lestrade's car. Mycroft was in the passenger seat, and no-one complained when Greg flicked on the lights and sirens, allowing them to scythe through the traffic towards New Scotland Yard.
The building was a hive of activity, thronging with people. As soon as they stepped through the doors, Sally Donovan was marching towards them, files stacked under her arm as she began to speak. 'Thirteen dead in the sewer. All part of the cult and lined up around a circle like hours on a clock. One was in the middle.' Her eyes darted to John, a frown pinching her brow. 'Where's the freak?'
There must have been enough written on their faces for her to make an educated guess, because her strong expression grew shuttered. In a good light, it might be considered disappointed, but John suspected the sergeant felt more vindicated than anything. 'I knew it,' she muttered, shaking her head and shifting where she stood.
'I told you this would happen,' she snapped at Greg. 'Told you that one day Sherlock Holmes would be the one we had to put away because of what he does!'
'Is Sherlock in trouble?' Molly's soft, tremulous voice cut off John's sharp retort, and he turned to find her standing by Anthea's side, her lab coat askew and clutching her bag to her chest like a shield. 'You said he needed help.'
'We'll talk about this in my office,' Greg said quickly, giving Sally a hard glare as she looked like she was about to protest. 'You should know better than to make assumptions without all the evidence, Sergeant.'
'What assumptions?' she hissed, the click of her heels punctuating every stride as she paced over the threshold. 'You saw the look on his face in that bedsit. You saw what happened!'
'He was doing his job,' Greg replied.
'Oh, his job? Selling his soul? What for, I wonder?'
'For me.' John didn't shout, but his words cut through the small room all the same, hidden away from prying ears as Mycroft calmly closed the door. 'Were your eyes shut in the sewer, or is selective blindness the way things are done in the police force? He traded his soul for my life.'
Donovan pursed her lips, ducking her head and frowning in John's direction. Her voice was softer, but still firm. 'That doesn't make it better.'
'It does in my book. Tell me, Sally, is there anyone who would do the same for you?'
It was a cruel question, one that John would never have given voice in different circumstances. He saw the flash of pain, hastily smothered, before Greg stepped in, a piece of chalk in his hand. 'Look, right now it doesn't matter how he got there. The demon's in Sherlock's body and in control of his magic. God alone knows what he plans to do with it, but if we're going to stop him, first we have to find him.'
'He'll want to make his own body.' Molly looked nervous as abruptly everyone's attention focussed on her. However, her fingers loosened their grasp on her bag, and she straightened her shoulders as she shrugged. 'Basic demon psychology. They don't stick around in a mortal body any longer than they have to. It's too tenuous. If a demon finds itself in a mage strong enough to conjure it an immortal form, it's the first thing it will do. Every time.'
'Is Sherlock strong enough for that?' John asked, his gut sinking as Molly nodded. 'You sure?'
'Positive.' Molly's lips twisted in a smile as Mycroft offered her a chair, effectively clearing space on the blank stone floor for Greg to get to work. The circle he drew was quick and perfunctory, a guideline more than anything, and John watched him check the details before looking back at Molly.
'So if the demon gets himself a body, what happens to Sherlock? Is he free?'
Molly pressed her lips together. Her cheeks had lost what little colour they had, and she looked away as if she couldn't meet his eyes. 'According to the remaining records, the magic involved is huge. I don't think there's ever been a case of a practitioner surviving the process.' She twisted her hands together in her lap before shrugging her shoulders. 'Even if he did, you said the demon's already possessed his body. If the demon's gone there's nothing in it anymore. He would be soulless.'
'The demon hasn't yet consumed Sherlock's soul. If there's something left...' Mycroft trailed off, watching Molly intently, but she could only shake her head.
'Then I don't know. Sherlock is strong, so maybe he'd be all right, but –' She looked at John, her eyes brimming with apology. 'There's no precedent for it.'
'Well,' Mycroft murmured, offering her a soft smile. 'At least it seems clear now why Sherlock thought to protect you when he cut the deal with the demon. I was unaware you had such extensive knowledge in the field.'
Molly clearly heard the unspoken question, because she blushed and stammered. 'I – I wasn't always in the morgue. I studied demonology at Oxford before changing specialisations. It's not the kind of thing you forget.'
She looked down, her face twitching into a strange expression before she reached into her bag. 'I don't think that's why Sherlock remembered me, and it's not because he thinks I'm anything special.' The hurt in her voice was well-hidden, but there all the same, and John experienced a stab of pity as Molly continued, 'He gave me something to look after a few years ago. Said he might need it one day. Perhaps you know what it is?'
Molly took out a test-tube, sealed with what looked like lead and wax, and held it out to John. Inside were three of Sherlock's sprites. Yet they were not like the one that had fawned over John only a few days ago. There was no carmine glow or dancing life to them. Instead they hung like bubbles in ice, their light evanescent.
'They used to be brighter. I only realised they'd almost gone out this morning,' Molly murmured, passing them to John. 'Oh!'
Her gasp of surprise was almost smothered by John's own. As soon as his fingers touched the glass, it was as if a bolt of ice shot up his arm, the familiar, brumal chill of Sherlock's wards ghosting along his skin. Within the confines of the test-tube, the sprites grew more intense, still delicate, but now they moved in little swirls, almost filling the narrow confines.
'I thought his magic wasn't active anymore?' John asked, looking over at Mycroft. 'I thought because Moriarty has Sherlock's soul, all Sherlock's old spells had failed, but his shields are all over this.'
The older Holmes crossed the intervening space, gently taking the glass prison from John's grasp. There was a faint noise of complaint from its confines, and the stars clustered against the wall closest to John as Mycroft examined them through critical eyes.
'When did you learn to do that?' The question seemed rhetorical, aimed more at his absent brother than anyone else in the room, and John waited for Mycroft to explain. 'Do you know what these are, John?'
'Sprites. Little bits of Sherlock's magic. He uses them as messengers. Or to find out things when he can't go himself.' Mycroft was nodding, as if he was being told nothing new. 'He's always sending them off somewhere.'
'It appears we have been deceived,' Mycroft mused, tipping the test-tube away from John and watching the stars move to stay as close to him as possible. 'The wards around it are still active, because they are still being powered by a piece of Sherlock's soul. Or, I should say, three pieces.'
Mutely, John slipped the glass vessel free of Mycroft's grasp, holding it in the cradle of his palm as a rush swarmed across his skin. The wards had not sought to push Mycroft away, but nor had the older Holmes seemed comforted by them. In contrast, John could sense Sherlock's magic slipping into his own, blending at the edges and making him think of comfortable days in the confines of Baker Street, forcing Sherlock to watch a film or helping (often unwillingly) with one of Sherlock's experiments.
'So he was cutting up bits of his soul and sending them across London?' Donovan demanded, her expression one of repulsed disbelief. 'I thought he was meant to be intelligent?'
'He is,' Mycroft replied. 'Enough to know that no-one could catch and hold onto the fragments he sent out. Not without his permission, express or implied. The only reason the demon has hold of Sherlock's soul now is because he agreed to it, and it would have been Sherlock himself who trapped them in here for Miss Hooper to guard.'
'But why?' Molly asked. 'He wouldn't tell me, just said that it might help.'
Greg cleared his throat, a hoarse flaw running through his voice as he spoke. For the first time, John noticed the sweat beading the DI's brow and the taut, controlled charge of magic in the air. 'Well, whatever the reason, we need to figure it out, and fast. I've found him.' His glassy eyes met John's, lips pressed tight together. 'He's at St Paul's.'
'The cathedral?' Donovan asked. 'But he's a demon!'
'Do not confuse demons with scripture, Sergeant,' Mycroft warned. 'They suffer no ill-effects from holy ground. In fact, his appearance there is no doubt deliberate.'
'Why?' John asked, watching Mycroft send a nod in Anthea's direction, a signal of some sort. 'What's at St Paul's?'
'The biggest nexus of magical power in London,' Mycroft replied. 'Just what he needs to create a body for himself.'
He had overdosed on cocaine, once, and there had been a few seconds before his heart tripped in its rhythm when Sherlock had felt more himself than ever before in his life. Now, it was the same. He was not the Sherlock Holmes made up of physical appearance and personal tastes, but the creature he would still be without all those constructs to define him. Distilled, refined...
Not in a manner of virtue and chastity – another human creation – but something integral, tied into the world and the magic within it. Segregate, Moriarty had called it: an angry intelligence. He had praised Sherlock's strength even as he mocked his helplessness, but Sherlock did not feel incapacitated. He had no body, since Moriarty was in it, and no soul, as the demon had taken that with him.
No, this was what was left when the rest was removed. He had no eyes with which to see nor skin to define his limits, but with the loss of those constraints came the sharpest, most brutal focus Sherlock had ever known. It was a hunger, a vengeance: spite given sentience. It would be easy to lose control of it, to become nothing more than the unstoppable force, directionless and without mercy, but Sherlock made himself concentrate.
He was aware, in the vaguest sense, of the scent of London in a nose that was not his own. The pull of a glamour tingled against the distant plane of his skin, but they were fleeting impressions: dreamlike. This was his reality. Not his city, with its wide roads and tiny alleys, but Moriarty's sanctuary. This was the demon's world, one formed in his image, and Sherlock could perceive the connection of creature and realm.
It was an umbilical cord stretching outwards into the mists of Between, a nurturing leash to bring the demon home to the place of his own creation. Moriarty had poured himself into every facet and angle of this world, and it, in turn, had been reflected in him.
A smile: so much stranger with no lips or face with which to form it, but it uncurled through Sherlock's existence all the same. Delight warmed him as he stretched his ill-defined senses outwards and began to look for something he could use.
Sharp edges, rasping and raw, cut at him. Deep clefts drew him in, allowing him to seep like smoke into their narrow confines as he hunted for a flaw. For so long people had studied demons, but somehow their realms were always forgotten: mere geography, rather than manifestations of everything the creatures called their own. It was a safe-haven and a power-store, a nest and an egg all in one. A demon, broken and bloodied, could retreat to their world to heal, but what if they had nowhere left to go?
That thought brought a rush of satisfaction, so sharp that Sherlock could almost feel the gleam of the teeth he did not have. Yet this was not about the physical: fingernails or claws, skin or scales. Nor was it about magic, at least not in its mundane, human state. This was about the fabric that held it all together, the substructure which he had toyed with since he was a child. Now, he was agonisingly aware of it brushing like raw silk against exposed nerves, coarse and exultant and so easy to rip.
With all his concentration, he applied himself, following the line of its weave until he began to find the knots and scars of damage long ago. Moriarty had been around for centuries. He had fought his share of battles, overcoming competitors to climb to the top of the heap, and his realm bore the evidence of those harder times.
It also held his secrets, his memoirs: the annals of all his years. Sherlock discerned it all, from the time when Moriarty was little more than Sherlock was now – something unformed, a hateful idea given life – to the moment when he snatched dominance from his last rival. He could hear the whispers of promises made, some so old they no longer made sense. The rise and fall of civilisations was lain down within the vaporous walls of this place, and Sherlock briefly forgot his loathing as he explored and learned, unravelled and understood.
It was there, in those velveteen depths of an oblivion not unlike the boundary between sleep and death, that he found it. The truth was a whisper, a scant collection of syllables curling through him, not heard, but comprehended down in the core of his being. To another, they might just be words murmured in a language they could not understand, but Sherlock was connected to Moriarty, and he knew what was being said.
The demon's real name. All of it.
Carefully, quietly, Sherlock folded that knowledge within himself, letting nothing of it slip back along the tenuous link to the man who stalked through London's sprawl. With no voice, Sherlock could not speak it, nor wield its inherent power, but that could change. He could feel the potential sleeting all around him, the balance teetering between one extreme and the other.
Moriarty was confident that the forces moving against him would be inadequate. They were human after all, but Sherlock understood the strength of his acquaintances. If he tried, he could sense the tickle of Lestrade's seeking spells like an invisible fishing line plucking at the seams of the suit that Moriarty wore. He could detect the questing, searching pressure of Mycroft's foresight trying to push aside the curtain that obscured the future from him.
And he could feel John: not light but heat, like a home fire drawing in a wayward traveller. It was too far beyond Sherlock's reach now, trapped as he was in this prison, but the promise lingered.
I'll be waiting.
Sherlock drew on those silken strands of connection back to the world he called his own, strafing across them like fingers on harp strings and wondering, briefly, if he could be felt. Not that it mattered. In all likelihood, Moriarty was the only one person in the living world who could sense his presence from here, and Sherlock intended to make him suffer.
Seeking out the largest, ugliest scar, Sherlock began to infiltrate its fibres. Some were soft and pliable, while others ran like veins of iron, strong and immoveable, slicing at him when he flowed along their lengths. Finally, he found one point that was weaker than the rest, threadbare and thin. It was an old wound to this place, something that had almost destroyed Moriarty, aeons ago, and it had never properly healed.
Sherlock thought of destruction: the butter-slice of a sharp blade through skin, the rush of blood and muscle torn apart. He thought of cracked stone and shattered earth, concentrating his entire being on the concept as the strands began to fray.
Retribution slammed into him, knocking him away with the whip-crack agony of feral fury. If he had been a physical thing, he doubted there would have been a whole bone left in him. As it was, he simply reeled, losing his sense of time and place, shattering only to coalesce once more. The pain was something internal, a heavy, leaden burden hidden from sight that flared again and again as the blows rained down. It was nothing as solid as a punch, but around him the realm squeezed and roiled, a pulsing, living thing seeking to annihilate that which had caused it harm.
Sherlock lunged forward, chipping away at the seams that held this place together, but every answering attack left him weaker, scattering his concentration. Gone was the focus and intelligence. All that remained was intent. His entire existence became a quest for eradication – of himself or the realm, he could no longer be sure. He twisted and tore, clawed and howled, blind to the fissures becoming gaping holes beneath his influence.
At last, something broke through the determination. He was left dizzy and wrecked, weak in the ebb of his own nauseating fury, and Sherlock hesitated to take in his efforts. It should have been satisfying to see the corpse of Moriarty's sanctuary. Instead he felt spent.
The keening wails of the realm's death filled the air. Jet black walls were fading, letting in the ice and fog of Between. There was still a floor, a horizontal plane of some sort, but now it became a plateau on the peak of eternity. Tribute and sacrifices were strewn around the wing-back chair, no longer hidden in shrouds of shadow but exposed to the acid, ethereal light all around.
Pieces of human remains littered the floor, some bloody, others little more than calciferous dust. They were more symbolic of sacrifice than something organic, but Sherlock took in the clues that could be offered, his deductions clearly engrained far deeper than the level of his soul. He moved closer to one pile of tribute: no footsteps, no whispering clothing... he was little more than a breath of air, but he could still read the story written over this exposed, remaining facet of Moriarty's realm.
It was the core, the foundation on which all the rest had been built, and Sherlock found himself crawling along its edges, trying to summon his strength as he began his search for a weakness anew.
He ached now, desperate for respite: a bed or a grave, he didn't care. However, Sherlock made himself keep going, shifting back towards the centre of the strange space and examining the piles near the chair. They were smaller here, less spectacular than those that lined the periphery. There were no jewels or coins. These were more simple things: stone tools, the occasional bead, and dozens of scallop shells. Ancient worship, Sherlock realised. Somehow he doubted Moriarty had once been a benevolent god watching over his followers. No, he had probably always been using people's wishes against them. A different era entirely, but the same cult. The first one, perhaps, Sherlock guessed, seeing the faint etching of a crude spider on the blush interior of one of the scallops.
It was a moment of thought to crush the fragile offering to dust, hearing the hiss of its sandy remains as they rained down to the floor. Yet with it, Sherlock felt a bubble of power burst; nothing awe-inspiring, but the plateau tilted a fraction, as if the foundations beneath it were giving way. Experimentally, almost curious, Sherlock did it again, disintegrating another shell with the force of his will: hate like a punch, harsh and unforgiving.
Again the totter and sway, the faint sound of stone crumbling at one edge. Imminent destruction.
Quickly, he plunged himself at the tribute, breaking one after the other, crushing and grinding their shards to nothing as the floor began to buckle and groan. He was so involved that he did not hear the distant roar of furious horror or sense the rush of parting air until something slammed into him.
It was shockingly abrupt: not the blow itself, but the sudden solidness of his body. Gone was the transient sensation of power. Instead, he had an outline – bloody hands, broken fingers, aching ribs, thudding bruises. The pain became something he was wired to understand, leaving him moaning and gasping against the floor as Moriarty's fingers dug into his back.
'You – !' The demon clawed at him, nails curling through the barrier of Sherlock's transparent skin. The sensation made him writhe. Shadows snaked across his skin as Moriarty inhaled through his nose, his voice a series of short, staccato words as he spat his hate. 'You think this means anything?' He dragged one hand back, something opalescent dripping from his fingers to splash on the floor by Sherlock's cheek. 'You think I can't build another one?' With a snarl, he grabbed the ghostly echoes of dark curls, slamming Sherlock's skull into the ground.
'It's been fun,' Moriarty said at last, pulling Sherlock's head back up and watching his struggles, weak and broken as they were. 'It really has, but now you're in my way.'
'So you'll devour my soul, I suppose.'
His voice was little more than the softest of whispers, but the demon recoiled as if he had not expected Sherlock to be capable. It was a gargantuan effort, more than he could spare again, and Sherlock cursed his foolishness as he huddled and shivered, too frail and spent for more of a fight.
A moment later, Moriarty recovered, getting to his feet and dragging Sherlock up with him, eidolon fingers dragging uselessly at his grasp in an effort to free himself.
'Not yet,' the demon promised. 'I'm going to do to you what you've done to me.' He yanked Sherlock's head back, snarling down into his face. 'I will burn you. You will scream and you will weep as everything you love – your city, your friends, that stupid, ordinary Doctor – are turned to nothing but ash!'
'You think that's going to matter?' Moriarty closed his eyes, his full lips curving beatifically as he tipped back his head in surrender. 'And I thought you were a genius. Once I have an immortal form, even the Wyrd can't touch me. I'll be a god.' Moriarty's eyebrows quirked flirtatiously. 'I'll have the world on its knees, and those that aren't in my service?' He shrugged, then softened his grip, patting at Sherlock's hair as he took a deep breath. 'They won't last long.'
He stepped forward, towards the uncertain edge of what remained of his realm, dragging Sherlock after him. 'I should thank you. Without you, none of this would have been possible. Oh, you saved your pet for a little while: a few days of worry and misery, but in the end, it's all for nothing.' He stopped at the precipice and bent down, his gaze skating over Sherlock's face. Dimly, he wondered if it was as battered as it felt, but if Moriarty saw any injuries, he paid them no heed. 'You really were better off without him.'
Anger stirred within him, constrained by the uncertain edges of his soul's transparent shape. There was no escape. The part of him that had been free to wreak havoc upon this place was locked into his soul like a matching puzzle piece, fused there by Moriarty's control. He was helpless, but he fought all the same.
Sherlock stilled instantly, the compulsion reaching down and removing any other choice. He went slack, shivering as the pull of Between curled around him, dragging at his skin with apical barbs.
'Moran told me I shouldn't leave any part of you here. He didn't trust you from the start. Surprising, isn't it, when the simple ones pick up on something that we miss?' Moriarty shrugged, indifferent, stretching his free hand outwards as the magic gathered around them. 'This time, I'll have you where I can see you.'
Sherlock's senses twisted, a nauseating spin of disorientation before he struck another floor, harder this time and solid in a way that seemed to scorch wherever it touched. His palms splayed over tile, red and black laid out in a vast sunburst, prickling towards the circle at the periphery. A pair of shoes interrupted his line of vision, and he scowled as he recognised them as his favourites.
He looked up, hating the sight of Moriarty's smile on his face. It was the first time he had seen the demon behind the mask of his own expression, and something cold slid through him as he tried to speak. Yet the effort was beyond him, and he glanced down at himself, clearly seeing the tiles through his prone body.
Specks of crimson stained the floor: blood from the injuries that had transmitted themselves back to his physical frame. Every bruise and wound was there on the skin Moriarty wore. His bottom lip was a mess and one eye had almost swollen shut, though the demon didn't seem to care. Nor was he concerned about the obvious break in Sherlock's left forearm. He used the limb anyway, seemingly oblivious to the pain as he spread his hands wide, and other people, members of the cult, stepped into Sherlock's field of view.
Power gleamed off the white stone and gilt of St. Paul's: its nebulous energy drawing itself down and in. Heat resonated through the translucence of Sherlock's soul and along the circuitry of the bonds that tethered him so inexorably to Moriarty. A rush of euphoric agony had him crying out as it blazed brighter, blooming through him until he could sense nothing but the vastness of that immense strength: unfathomable, untameable and utterly unstoppable.
Moriarty had won.
'Area's evacuated,' Greg said, stopping at John's side as he gestured to the hissing, crackling spell that arced from Paternoster Square on the north to Carter Lane Gardens on the south. 'No-one will see what happens, even if we blow the place to bits.'
Mycroft gave a nod to Anthea, who began tapping furiously on her mobile phone. 'Media blackout,' he said by way of explanation, twitching his fingers in a meaningful manner. A number of men and women in dark suits moved to his bidding, spreading out to surround the hulking monolith of St Paul's.
'What exactly are we hoping to do here?' John asked, suffering a hollow ache in the pit of his stomach as he waited for the answer. 'We're still trying to save Sherlock, right?'
Mycroft's eyes met his. 'We will do what we can, but our main priority must be the control and containment of the demon,' he said at last. 'If Miss Hooper is right and it is making itself an immortal frame, there will be an opportune moment to strike: one where the creature must leave my brother's body and enter his own. We might be able to trap it.'
He held up a nondescript box, all sleek, glassy sides. It was only when Mycroft turned it in the light that John saw the hexes and seals etched on its surface.
'Like Ghostbusters?' John smiled at Greg’s snort of laughter, shaky though it was. Mycroft merely looked unimpressed at the parallel. 'So we need to actually let the demon go through with this before we can do anything?'
'Indeed. However, I doubt it will be as easy as it sounds. Surveillance indicates that there are members of his cult inside. As soon as he is aware of our presence, he is likely to retaliate.'
'Can he do that?' Greg asked, rolling up his shirtsleeves as he answered something on his radio, directing his force. 'I thought the deal meant he couldn't hurt us.'
'Exactly, Inspector. Us.' Mycroft gestured to the three of them before indicating Molly as well, who stood a short distance away, looking pale but determined. 'The other members of the police and my own security teams are under no such protection and could come to considerable harm. We cannot let them resolve this situation without our assistance.'
'I wasn't planning on standing around outside anyway,' John pointed out, folding his arms and lifting his chin. 'What are we waiting for?'
'It would be unwise to consider ourselves immune to the demon's attacks,' Mycroft said hurriedly, reaching out to grab John's arm as he took a step towards the cathedral. 'His cult and the agent may still be able to harm us. Without the specifics of the contract, we can't be sure.'
'The gunman?' Greg asked, swearing under his breath. 'So we're up against a load of civilians and a creature with a sniper rifle.'
'Not to mention the demon himself.' Mycroft's voice became decisive in a way that meant business. 'Alone, he is formidable, but do not forget he has free access to Sherlock's magic and will use it with no moral restriction. There are many things Sherlock can do, but chooses not to. I do not believe the demon will show any similar qualms.'
John slipped his hand into his pocket, wrapping his palm around the slim, cylindrical shape of the test-tube. Molly had offered to keep it in her bag, but John found himself reluctant to let it go. It was the only bit of Sherlock not in Moriarty's grasp, and it felt as if the simple act of releasing it from his possession would expose it to the demon's interest. It was important in a way John could not quantify, and now he drew strength from the skim of the glass against his fingertips.
'What – what exactly do you expect me to do?' Molly asked, her voice wobbling as Greg handed her a bullet-proof vest and helped her to put it on. John shrugged into his as easily as fitting into a second skin, and Mycroft did not look nearly as perturbed at the addition to his own wardrobe as John thought he would.
'Remember that time at the morgue?' John asked after a moment's thought, glancing at Greg and Mycroft and considering their likely reaction. There was a good reason Molly had ended up working with the dead, after all. 'When you had one of the corpses helping out?'
Molly flushed, stammering as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and ducked her head. 'We were jam-packed, and I made sure it was one which had been donated to science!' She looked away guiltily. 'Mostly it was taking my notes.'
'Exactly. Even Sherlock was impressed,' John said, knowing the words would do the trick to soothe her obvious discomfort. 'It's not easy having that level of control over an inanimate body. I know you'd never mess with people's remains maliciously, but you can probably push the odds in our favour using what's in the crypts?'
He made it a question, including Mycroft and Greg with a flick of his eyebrows. The older Holmes did not look surprised at Molly's skills; Greg was more likely to raise objections. People could be funny about necromancers. Anderson was a prime example, but John was fairly sure he knew the DI better than that.
'I'll watch your back,' Greg said, giving Molly a firm nod of a promise. 'You'll need to concentrate on your control. I'll make sure no-one gets to you in the meantime.'
'Pick somewhere sheltered,' Mycroft instructed with smooth ease. 'An easily defensible position, preferably with an exit should you need to use it.'
Molly drew in a deep, shuddering breath, seeming to shoulder aside her uncertainty as she gave John a weak smile. 'I just need to know where to point them.'
'The demon is under the dome,' Anthea cut in, directing her words to Mycroft. 'Surveillance indicates that he's standing with his feet on the periphery of the circumference on the floor.'
'A pre-drawn circle,' Mycroft murmured, frowning unseeingly at the pavement. 'He's not doing anything?'
'Initial reports suggest vacancy,' she replied. 'Blank stare, no movement. However, his cult are with him.' She hesitated, drawing a breath as she looked up from her Blackberry. 'A sniper is in position to take a shot.'
She did not add that it could be their only chance; that knowledge was written in the professional, unemotional lines of her face. There was an option to bring this to an end, here and now, but it would cost Sherlock his life.
'No, not while there's an alternative. If we can trap the demon, my brother should be freed,' Mycroft replied after a few, heavy moments, ignoring his assistant as she pursed of her lips. 'We'll continue as planned. Ready?'
John nodded, knowing that Greg and Molly did the same, with varying levels of certainty. 'Are we just going to march in the front door?'
'Head for the south portico. It is closest to the dome, and we will emerge in the transcript,' Mycroft replied, already leading the way. His umbrella was nowhere in sight, but John saw him fiddle with the ring on his right hand, activating something that made strange glyphs glow along the golden band. 'Ensure your personal shields are up. Obscure yourself if you're able, otherwise use the stonework to provide cover.'
He looked over his shoulder, finding John without hesitation. 'Remember, we will retrieve my brother if we can, but we must contain the demon. Even if that is at the eventual cost of Sherlock himself.'
It hurt Mycroft to say those words as much as it agonised John to hear them. The older Holmes may not be wailing or cursing their current situation, but his face was rigid and pale, set in the determined lines of someone who was running out of options.
John wanted to argue, but in the end, he could only nod his understanding. In the pit of his gut, John knew the truth of it. If it came to that, then at least he would not be around to see it. He had every intention of pulling Sherlock back from the brink or dying in the attempt.
In one motion, he freed the Browning from the waistband of his jeans and checked the clip: silver bullets in neat rows. Instinct took over, cruising down his shoulders and arms, steadying his fingers over the trigger as he pulled back the safety hammer and crept up the steps.
The doors slid open on oiled hinges, making no noise as he ghosted over the threshold. John instantly sought out shelter amidst the pillars, hunkering low and giving one last, fleeting glance at the others before focussing on the scene before him.
Members of the cult milled around, some arguing among themselves, hissing and blaspheming in the sanctity of the cathedral. Others stood with weapons, scanning their surroundings for any sign of a threat, but it was not an organised defence. They were not trained. None of them looked up to the galleries, where John caught the occasional ripple in the air: Mycroft's men, obscured from sight. No-one patrolled the periphery. They were just people caught up in the flow of events.
His eyes fell on the figure in the centre of the room. It was familiar enough to make him ache. Not the place, but the dazed, absent focus on Sherlock's face. It was how he looked every time he went on the hunt, empty and harmless. His face was a slack canvas for the injuries painted across his skin. A bruise at his jaw, a ragged, bloody lip, a swollen eye. Clouds of purple and black were darkening his brow and temples as well, and John noticed the strange way the body held its arm, slightly away from itself as if in pain. Moriarty would not have done all this to the man that sheltered him, would he? It was one thing to threaten, but abuse seemed illogical.
John itched to move, wanting to reach out with healing hands and do what he could to ease the physical pain etched all over Sherlock's flesh. However, before he could so much as flinch, a blaze of light had him blinking away the spots in his vision to find that the body was occupied again.
Moriarty sneered down at what lay at his feet, and John's heart cramped beneath his ribs, locked in a breathless rush of fear/hope/desperation as he drank in the sight of what had to be Sherlock's soul. Not the few sprites contained in his pocket, or the stars that danced through London's streets, but the core of it.
That intelligence was there, caught up in the faint presence of a see-through, human body. There were hints of clothing, ripped and torn, and frequent blemishes interrupted the ethereal light like bruises. In fact, they corresponded to the injuries that lingered on the physical body towering over it, and John's stomach clenched.
He had never seen anything simultaneously so beautiful, yet so horrifying. This vision of Sherlock was not just himself, but all his potential, and it made something in John's body press forward, eager to reach out and touch. Yet for all its glory, the truth was plain: it was shattered and drained, too weak for more than the mutinous glare it cast back in its body's direction. It was not a stand-off between two opposing forces, but the victor and vanquished. Moriarty, triumphant and smirking down at the slender, dimming man who was slumped and defeated at his feet: all that remained of everything that made Sherlock into the man John admired.
Abruptly, Moriarty gestured, seemingly ignorant of the fact that the body he occupied was in pain as he spread his hands. The milling, disorganised cult stepped forward, taking their places at the edge of the black tile circle on the floor as if they were nothing but puppets. Perhaps they were. John tried to get a good look at them. Some carried tribute, others merely clenched their empty fists, looking at the demon and the soul at his feet as if neither were anything special.
The demon bent, hauling the ghostly Sherlock up by his hair until he was on his knees. The soul did not cry out, though it had to hurt, and John pressed his lips together to stifle the sound that wanted to scrape up his throat: half sympathetic whine, half threatening growl. The gun was a lead weight in his palm, brutal and deadly, every groove and edge of it pressed tight into his skin, but he could not put it to any use, not when the person hurting Sherlock was Sherlock himself.
Shifting behind the pillar, he blinked, noticing the alabaster stonework growing brighter. Light gleamed along the floor and down the columns, coalescing around the circular montage in the centre of the floor. The dome, high above their heads, began to resonate as sparks crawled across the faces of statuesque saints and crackled down from the pulpit.
A distant thudding reached John's ears, and he saw Moriarty flinch, a twisted expression pinching that face as his concentration wavered.
'That won't do you any good!' he called out, Sherlock's voice ringing through the nave. 'Did you think I didn't know what you were, Molly? They're just parlour tricks!' Vivid aquamarine shot across the floor, turning the first skeleton to emerge from the crypt, amazingly agile under Molly's command, to nothing but dust. However, she had raised more than one. Perhaps the shambling dead forms – some little more than crumbling bone while others clung to scraps of what they had once been – did not bother the demon, but the members of his cult were another matter.
One woman recoiled, stepping out of her place in the circle. Her scream was a short, sharp shriek, ripped free before her life was dragged from her: a vivid splash of gore to join the growing storm of magic all around them.
The compulsion was like a lead hand pressing down on John's back, locking his feet to the floor. The strength of it was sickening, and sweat beaded along his brow as he tried to shake off the weight of the demon's command. It was not directed at him, but the air was saturated with Sherlock's power and Moriarty's intent, and the combination was almost too much for him to fight.
Finally, John managed to tear himself free, staggering from the physical effort involved. It left him panting and nauseous, and he was not the only one. He could see Mycroft's hazy presence, his Obscurations fading, bent double and gasping as if he had run a marathon. Several of Mycroft's men lay slumped, unconscious and useless beneath the burden of Moriarty's command, or propped against pillars as they struggled for breath.
At the circle's edge, Moriarty threw back his head, a rapturous grin sitting ill on Sherlock's lips as the storm of potential found ignition.
Magic exploded outwards, carrying with it the screams of the cult as light seared through the thin veil of John's eyelids. Magnesium blue battled with acid white as, around them, the masonry groaned and sighed, struggling to contain the forces at work. The pillar next to him twisted with the effort, and he tore his eyes open, blinking aside tears of pain as he tried to see what was happening.
One of Mycroft's team ran forward, a gun in her hand, but before she could breach the interface between normal, power-baked air and the seething mass of energy, she froze, her muscles locked rigid and her mouth parted in a silent scream. It was the horror of a moment. One second she was there, the next she was torn to pieces.
Mycroft's curse was visceral, a spat invective almost lost beneath the angry bark of a sniper rifle. The bullet skimmed the floor, ricocheting harmlessly away. Another shot would soon follow, and John snatched Mycroft's shoulder, dragging him behind one of the hard-oak pews where it lay on its side.
'What now?' John asked, glancing over the wooden frontier, trying to find the sniper and seeing nothing but the scattered remnants of the cult. Some were corpses not even Molly could use, but others were getting to their feet, calling out instructions as they armed themselves with candlesticks, crucifixes... anything they could turn into a weapon. Some readied spells, and John swore as the more powerful ones conjured lesser demons to join the fray. 'We're going to be outnumbered before long.'
'To stand a chance of trapping Moriarty, we need to be present within the sphere of magical influence.' Mycroft shut his eyes, rubbing his thumb across his brow. 'I did not realise it was possible to shield the process. We cannot get close.'
John glanced at the burning, opaque wall of energy, narrowing his eyes against the vicious bite of illumination. He had seen what had happened to that poor woman, but where he expected the air to feel vitriolic – a snarling, raging beast that would incinerate anything that got too close – all he could sense was the silken ice of Sherlock's shields. Bigger, true enough, but welcoming all the same.
'Give me the box,' he said, shifting his Browning into his left palm and holding out his right. 'Before all this started, I could walk straight through Sherlock's shields and never know they were there. If that's the same thing, then I might be able to get close enough.'
'And if it's not?' Mycroft countered instantly. 'You'll be killed. Does the life Sherlock won back for you mean so little?'
'Without him in it? Yes.' The answer leapt from his tongue as if the words had been waiting to be voiced. A brief flash of shock twitched across Mycroft's face before it was replaced by something else, softer, more pained, but utterly opaque to John's understanding.
At last, the older Holmes nodded, relinquishing the trap to John and showing him the hex to touch. 'This will activate it. You need to press it the moment the demon leaves Sherlock's frame. A few seconds, that's all you will have. And John?' Mycroft's hand on his forearm made him pause. 'Sherlock did not save you out of obligation, or anything as pale as friendship. You need to know that.' It seemed like there was more Mycroft wanted to say, but he bit it back, straightening his shoulders. 'You'll need to run. I have no doubt Moriarty's agent will be aiming for you.'
John nodded, his chest too tight and breathless for any more of a response as he lurched forward, jumping over the pew and sprinting as fast as he could towards ground-zero. Behind him, Mycroft shouted orders and a hail of covering fire chattered through the cathedral. More than once, marble chips exploded from the impact of a bullet at John's feet, but he barely noticed the shards slicing into his jeans as he dodged the clumsy swing of a candlestick and lunged for the white-blue sphere of magic.
It was like slipping into a hot bath, and as John stumbled into the clear air at its centre, the ragged edges of his emotions disappeared. Determination took their place, solid and sure. Moriarty may be in here, but in the light surrounding him and the welcome skim of magic across his body, John could feel Sherlock's presence.
'Too late!' Moriarty sang. Now even Sherlock’s voice had faded, replaced completely by an educated, Irish twang. Behind the pair of them, something dark was taking shape in the sea of power, humanoid and organic as it was spun from empty air. Not complete, not yet, but John suspected there were only a couple of minutes left before Moriarty would have the immortal body he craved.
The demon bent down, ignoring the blood that still oozed from various wounds as he cupped his hands around the face of the soul on its knees before him. That diaphanous presence was little more than a suggestion in the air. Only areas of contrast – the shadow of curls, the dark sweep of eyelashes and the panic-constricted pupils – were still visible, and even they dimmed as Moriarty pressed their lips together. His tongue slid out in a lazy, luxurious glide as the soul in his grasp struggled against the parody of a kiss, fading with every second.
John forgot about the box and gun in his hand, both equally useless. Instead his thighs clenched, muscles coiling to launch him forward in a flying leap. It was instinct that drove him, headstrong fury lending its strength as he slammed into the demon's side, sending them both sprawling in a graceless heap.
A bolt of pressure slammed into John's chest – a kick hard enough to crack ribs. The snap of bone was obvious, a sharp, unmistakable sound. John flew back, slamming into the marble floor, and the tinkle of breaking glass in his pocket reached his ears as he blinked to clear his vision.
Moriarty clutched at the chest of Sherlock's body as he gasped for air, his face contorted in an expression of fury and pain. He looked like he was struggling to move, and John winced as he realised that the damage Moriarty had intended to inflict on him had bounced back once more, reflected by the covenant Sherlock had made.
'Another minute,' Moriarty hissed, 'and I can let this wretched thing die. A shame to waste something so pretty, but –' He spat blood, teeth gleaming with a crimson sheen as he grinned. 'I've had my use of him.' With a wave of his left hand, he indicated the empty expanse of floor around him. 'His soul is gone, Doctor, and when I leave this body, there'll be nothing left of him at all.'
The demon stepped forward, and John had no time to voice the curse in his head as one well-polished shoe came down on the trap Mycroft had given him. Glass whined and shattered, splintering apart as the power of the hexes faded to nothing. The demon twisted the sole of his foot on the floor like someone crushing out a cigarette, his shoulders moving in a jerky, uneven shrug. 'It looks like you've lost, Doctor Watson.'
'He's not gone,' John said, licking his lips as something warm brushed against his skin. 'Not completely.' He held up his hand, fingers splayed and palm open to reveal the three stars that gleamed there, their ephemeral light shining off the blood from the cuts the broken test-tube had left in John's flesh.
'Crumbs after a five course meal!' Moriarty growled, lunging forwards as if to snatch them away, despite his words. 'Useless!'
The air rippled as the word left John's lips, his fist clenching around the remaining fragments of Sherlock's soul as he pulled his hand back towards his chest. It was instinctive to lower his head and square his shoulders, bracing for a fight even as he hunkered close to the ground. Perhaps he could not stop the demon, or prevent him from wreaking his havoc on the world, but he would fight with all he had to keep the last glimmers of Sherlock's being safe.
Something shattered: a sharp, vicious whip like the snap of a wire. John stared as a slash burst open across the dark left eye, drawing blood across Sherlock's brow and down his cheekbone. Power heaved and throbbed, pulsing in hues of black, grey and midnight blue as a rattle of a laugh escaped Moriarty's throat.
'Oh, very good! Did you know about it, or did Sherlock hope you'd stumble into the little loophole he left for himself?' A shuddering breath wobbled through full lips, and John took half-a-step forward, hearing that voice shift between the disturbingly soft Irish brogue and Sherlock's harder, clipped English. 'The latter, from the looks of you. He built the entire deal on its foundation: “My soul, such as it is and as long as you're able to keep it, for John Watson's life.” All you had to do was fight for it.' Moriarty shrugged. 'Well, I don't need him anymore.'
Sherlock's knees went, and John grabbed him without thinking, losing his balance as the body became dead-weight. All around them, the air turned electric, sparking at random intervals while the magic's song changed, becoming hoary and wrathful.
John could still feel the demon: a malignant force that thrashed, heavy yet invisible, above his head. Bending forward, he shielded Sherlock's broken body with his own, stifling a bitter, pained pulse of grief at the unnatural stillness of the flesh beneath him. John choked on his next breath, uncurling his fist to stroke frantic fingers over thunderous bruises and painful wounds.
A sudden, sharp zephyr of wind rushed over him, racing towards the dark shape forming in the oceanic heart of the magic's waltz. A crashing crescendo filled the chamber, making John's lungs shudder in his chest with its force as he tried to flinch away, shielding himself and Sherlock as best he could.
Abruptly, the power died, agonising light winking away to leave John bleary in its aftermath. He could see the cathedral now, its floor littered with a mess of broken bone and dead bodies. Battles still raged between the remaining members of the cult and Mycroft's men, but John could not move to join them. He barely noticed their struggles as he found himself staring at the man a short distance away.
Dark hair was combed back and black eyes stared from the pale stretch of his face. His frame, neither tall nor short, nor remarkable in any way, was clad in a grey designer suit. He looked like nothing special, but then he smiled, and every inch of the demon's madness was clear in that expression.
'Told you you were too late.' Moriarty shrugged, his gaze darting down to Sherlock's body with a regretful sigh. 'Sherlock's all yours again – ' A grin danced across his face. 'And there is nothing left to protect you from me.'
John flinched, cringing away from the fatal power that arced his way. It hit the air next to his shoulder with a furious roar, but the spell never touched him, separated from his skin by the thinnest veneer of familiar ice-cold blue.
'Sherlock?' he whispered, hope filling his chest as he looked down at that unresponsive face. Yet there was no movement, nothing to suggest consciousness.
No questions. I need you to repeat after me.
Sherlock's voice drifted through John's mind, a glimmer of words that he did not hear so much as feel. Warmth brushed against the nape of his neck, small points of contact like the ghost of fingertips, and John trembled as he leaned into the invisible caress.
A short string of nonsense syllables echoed in his ear, and he frowned in concentration as his voice tripped over the unfamiliar consonants. Carefully, John put them into words, trying to ignore the increasing pressure of Moriarty's attack as the shields around him began to buckle and waver.
' Yal-ha No-ved Nha: ee-tra-eeroM Sem-yaj.'
The world fell still.
John blinked, meeting the furious, horrified rictus of Moriarty's expression as his own words bounced around the vaults of the cathedral. It had only been a whisper, but with every moment it seemed to gain volume, colliding and twisting until John could pick something logical from the scramble.
James Moriarty: An Damhán Alla
Moriarty lunged, his hands extended and his face twisted with fury. Yet his cry was drowned out by the answering howl of magic. Not the demon's, but something else, something that seemed to seep from the stones of the cathedral itself, travelling along the web of the nexus to lash out at the creature in its depths.
The shock wave rattled John's ribs, making his lungs tremble until he could not even draw a breath. Sound assailed his ears anew, an Armageddon cacophony. He hunched over, his forearms braced either side of Sherlock's head as dust and rubble rained down from the height of the dome, impacting with the marble floor like cannon balls as the forces found their release.
The demon's cry became a scream, agonised and tormented, too far from human to be comprehensible. John closed his eyes tight, throwing up his shields in an effort to repel the backlash. He did not understand what was going on – wasn't sure if this was a reversion about to wipe them all off the map or something else. All he could comprehend was the presence of Sherlock under him, around him, in his heart and in his head.
His name. That rich baritone was faint now, little more than a breath. His full name: you said it backwards, and it was his undoing. Oldest trick in the book.
The last thing John heard before the magic overcame him was Sherlock uttering the same words that John had struggled to voice back at the shrine: the only sentiment that mattered.
Chapter 3: Restoration
"The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned."
- Christopher Marlowe 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus'
Sirocco heat surrounded him, thick and forceful. It was not the scorching agony of an inferno, as he had almost feared, but a dense, constant warmth stirred only by an arid wind. It made Sherlock think of the narrow expanse where the desert met verdant lands: life on the edge, where water's gleam was more precious than any diamond, and scant soil barely covered the bare, mountainous bones of the earth.
'Afghanistan or Iraq?' His whisper formed the question and the wind gave it flight. Perhaps he was on the precipice of something – life and death – like the land itself. If he could find the strength to open his eyes, he would know, but somehow this oblivion was almost peaceful. It was a warm bed after the longest day of his life, respite from the distant, tremulous ache of his muscles and the stabbing pain of shattered bones. His thoughts grew sullen, giving up their struggle to return to their normal speeds and succumbing, instead, to the siren call of silence.
'Afghanistan. It always is.' The voice sounded tight, as if its owner were struggling not to openly weep. 'Don't talk. You've not got the strength for it.'
Sherlock opened his eyes in surprise, finding himself beneath a sky of eternal blue. It was deep and endless, a duck-egg horizon blending ever upwards into a cobalt zenith. Neither birds nor clouds interrupted the view. Only one wavering tree bough – cedar, judging from the shape of the leaves – bisected the perfection and lessened the sensation that he was falling into that endless abyss.
'Shh, Sherlock.' A fingertip touched his lips, preventing his questions from escaping the cage of his teeth. He tried to force his groggy mind to comprehend what was happening, because there were very few potential outcomes of destroying Moriarty that had ended up with John still at his side. 'I mean it. You're so weak. Can't you see?'
Competent fingers circled his wrist, tanned by the Afghanistan sun to the colour of strong tea – more brown than Sherlock had ever known him. It only served to highlight his pallor, not just starlight white, but little more than a thin veil of substance in the curve of John's palm. The tattered cuts on John's hand were visible through Sherlock's outline, but there was something about them which made him pause. They were not bloody slices, but something more artistic: a representation of a wound, rather than the injury itself.
'Where are we?'
John sighed, giving him the kind of look he usually reserved for Sherlock when he was being difficult, all concern and waning patience. 'You don't know how to shut up, do you?' It was a rhetorical question, and John shook his head as he reached out for something, returning with a clean cloth in his hand, water dripping like liquid wealth from his knuckles. 'This is where I normally end up in my nightmares.' He brushed lightly over Sherlock's cheek, dabbing and soothing. Sherlock wanted to tell him that it was pointless – that the real wounds to heal were back on his body, wherever that may be – but the act seemed to bring John some comfort. His hand stopped shaking and his voice gained some strength.
'It was my therapist's idea, some sort of lucid dream rubbish. She wanted me to try and picture this place in a positive aspect.' He turned Sherlock's head, dragging the cloth down the column of his throat with a string of murmured apologies. 'It didn't work. The nightmares are still here.'
As if to answer John's words, there was a distant crackle of gunfire, alien in the natural wilderness that surrounded them. An eagle’s shriek of alarm became a child's sobs, and John's muscles tightened into miserable bedrock as his voice shook. 'The last thing I remember is trying to keep you safe while Moriarty was torn to shreds and then –' He sat back on his heels, scrubbing one hand across his face before rinsing out the cloth. The clear water remained so, unstained by blood, but John seemed not to notice. 'You shouldn't be here.'
Part of him wanted to argue that he didn't have any choice. He deeply suspected it was John who had brought him to this place, but he pushed the words aside. He was too weary for anger and too hollow for anything but the drab shade of regret. 'I'm sorry. I doubt this is anything you would have wanted me to observe.'
John's hand paused at Sherlock's clavicle, caught between the uncertain plane of Sherlock's bones and the insubstantial wing of his tattered shirt. 'You prat,' he whispered with a fondness that made Sherlock think of the two of them in Baker Street, John his only anchor to the demands of the real world while he was off chasing the lines of a case to his detriment. 'You know everything about me, anyway. You could probably have deduced this, if you hadn't already. I meant that you shouldn't have to experience any of it. The dust, the blood, the god-damn camel spiders... You, you're London and life, not this place.'
Sherlock paused, feeling the thin pillow beneath his head and the pallet below him: a simple makeshift bed that still felt like the safest, most luxurious nest he had ever known. Water, when John made him drink it, tasted like the elixir of life, fresh and clean and pure. The land itself was harsh and unforgiving, but beneath the surface there were fertile depths. Life was nurtured here even while the distant sounds of war raged: violent potential.
He blinked up at John and thought If I am London, then this foreign land is you. The idea drifted through the oceans of his mind, ponderous and creaking. He found himself latching onto it and trying to comprehend the significance, but there was too little data. Sherlock felt like he was missing not just a piece of the puzzle, but most of the picture. If only he understood what had happened! All he knew was that John was here, murmuring soft reassurances and bathing wounds, pouring his care and attention into Sherlock as if it could sustain him.
The effort to stay awake was gargantuan, and several times he succumbed to darkness, only to open his eyes and find himself alone. Sometimes the sky was bottomless black, littered with the glacial glitter of the stars. Others he was greeted by the heavy bronze disc of the sun and interminable blue. Either way, he would watch, enraptured, cloaked in ceaseless heat, day and night. It seemed to seep through him, settling like molten metal deep in his chest and spreading outwards, reinforcing and fortifying.
Yet every time John returned, he looked more haggard and lost. His words became desperate prayers: pleas that Sherlock didn't understand and could not answer. His only recourse was to lie, weak and helpless, while John paced, his body moving in a tight line like a sentry guarding something precious against an invisible threat.
To John, this place was a war-zone, an area of death and destruction, but as Sherlock drew a breath of the sandalwood-scented air, he knew he had never been so safe. Everything was too distant to impinge on this unusual sanctuary. Even John's frantic concern was somehow untouchable – a problem Sherlock couldn't solve – and he let himself slip back into the welcoming clutches of slumber to the rhythmic sound of John's footsteps over dusty stone.
It was the weight of an arm around his waist that brought him back. The sky was blushing with dawn, and part of Sherlock knew that the air should be frigid from the passage of a clear night. Instead the same calescence lingered, concentrated down to the solid length of a body at his side.
John was stretched out next to him, his forehead digging into the insubstantial ridge of Sherlock's collarbone. It was the closest John had got to him, no longer a pair of hands at his frontiers, but pressed near as if he were trying to infuse Sherlock with his strength. The thrum of concern echoed in the straight edge of John's thigh, the soft swell of his cotton-clad belly and the squat power of the arms trapping him close. What he could not sense, he realised at last, was the flutter of breath and the stutter of a pulse.
'You're like me,' he murmured, his fingers moving like creaking stone to press to the humid skin at the hollow of John's jaw. 'A soul, a consciousness, but not a body.'
John blinked up at him, tight lines carving their message across his face. 'You're barely anything, Sherlock. It's been days. You need – you need to wake up. You need to tell me what to do to make this better, because...' He choked, his breath wavering in a way that made Sherlock cringe. John felt things keenly at times. The story of it was there at a particularly gruesome crime scene: grief and empathy, bitterness and anger, but this was devastation cleaving into everything that made John himself and tearing him apart. 'I don't know what to do. You're in bits and I can't put you back together again. You just –' His fingers tightened into claws, as if John thought he could bring him back with sheer force of will. 'Wake up, please?'
Sherlock wanted to say that it was not a matter of consciousness, but rather here and there, two separate places both as real as the other, but John was in no state to listen. Despair came off him in waves, damp and cloying, tearing away the nurturing heat and reminding him of the chill of Between. John's grip on him faded, and Sherlock clutched at his temples, trying to remember where he was meant to be.
His tired mind protested as he thought of following the tether that would lead him back into his body. However, there was nothing to guide his footsteps as the sandy terrain departed from view and left him in the unsure haze of elsewhere. The flat, aching light clawed at his eyes, making his head pound out a fretful, thunderous rhythm as he tried to think, but logic evaded his grip. He was forced to limp ever onwards, trying to ignore the growing clot of fear in his chest as he searched for a place he could call home.
It was impossible to tell how long he wandered. Seconds and aeons were the same in this place, but at last he sensed something familiar. It was not the perfect cocoon of his body, nor the singing, warded sanctuary of Baker Street. Instead it was heat where he was expecting light. It was the scent of soap and skin, sweat, stress and warm wool – dry fingers gliding over ice cold hands and blue eyes gleaming with amazement, all for him.
He expected it to be like stepping through a door, one moment absent, the next right there, but Sherlock found himself bullying his way back into a world that should have welcomed him. Perception lost all sense of balance, becoming a mess of confusion and discomfort. He kept getting lost, stuck in dreams of narrow alleys and messy crime scenes before pulling himself free to soldier onwards.
More than once, he was aware of the prickle of magic across his skin. Not the familiar glide of his own wards, but something more impersonal. Distant pain became a constant, proximal companion, making his being shriek to its ghastly composition. It was a gruesome refrain, but at least in that clashing disharmony there was a path for Sherlock to follow. Every step crippled him and each breath filled his lungs with smoke, but after what seemed like years of fighting, he opened his eyes to the physical world.
Immediately, sensation flooded through him, tortured nerves screaming for attention as the itching, scraping chill of spells darted across his skin like a fresh scald. After days of magical silence, where all he could feel was the occasional furl of John's shields, it was almost overwhelming, like stepping out of sensory deprivation to an immediate bombardment. An involuntary twitch jerked through his body, awakening the agony of wounds. It was dulled by whatever dripped into his veins – drugs and fluids – but present all the same.
His hum of acknowledgement was uncomfortably close to a moan, and he pressed his lips together to stifle the whine that wanted to follow it. The power around him increased its intensity, calling out to its creators to come and check on the patient within its grasp.
'Oh, thank God,' John breathed, so relieved that the expression sounded genuinely devout. It was enough to make Sherlock try and move his head, only to grunt in complaint when he realised he was restrained. Nothing so crude as straps or chains held him in place. Instead it was magic cushioning his body as if he were made of spun glass, liable to shatter apart at the tiniest stress.
John seemed to realise the problem, because he immediately moved into Sherlock's line of vision, the mask of “doctor” sitting ill over the ebb of fear that was steadily leaving his expression. 'We were beginning to think you wouldn't come back.' He lifted his head, talking to someone Sherlock could not see. 'Get Mycroft and Lestrade. The doctors will already be on their way.'
'What happened?' The question cost him, physically at least, but after the struggles to speak against Moriarty's compulsion and the constraints of the deal, it seemed blessedly easy, and Sherlock allowed himself a moment of relief. The contract was broken; he did not need John to tell him that. Where there had been the demon's dark, insidious touch, there were now the clean lesions of his absence.
Sherlock was not the same as he had been before the bullet had slammed into John's chest and forced him to make that reckless choice, but nor did he seem trapped beneath another's command or lost in the shadows of their cruel power. Instead there was that same nurturing, volatile heat drifting over him, soothing even as the potential for it to burn stirred deep within him.
'You've taken a serious beating,' John explained. His fingers lingered at Sherlock's wrist, measuring his pulse as if he didn't trust the machines and magic to do the job. 'Repairing the damage caused by the demon hasn't been easy. Spells don't seem to stick for more than an hour or two.'
Sherlock blinked, trying to ignore the tempting pull of returning unconsciousness as he turned John's words over in his mind, hoping for a spark of reason to ignite in their wake. 'Conflict,' he managed, breathing in too deeply and immediately regretting it as pain shot through his ribs and intercostal muscles. 'Wyrd power caused the injuries. Probably too strong.' Sherlock closed his eyes, swallowing tight and trying to master the simple art of breathing using a chest that felt as if it had been cracked open and put back together in a twisted knot of bone and tissue.
'How long?' he managed, hoping John would be able to fill in the rest of the question.
'The cathedral was three days ago.' John swallowed, closing his eyes and dragging his hand across his face. 'I – I don't – I don't know what happened. What he did to you, or what I did to you, but –' He shook his head, heavy scars of exhaustion charting across his face, just as they had been in arid Afghanistan.
Sherlock wanted to ask John if that had merely been a product of his mind to protect him from the harsher edges of his injuries, or if they had both been there together. However, the question died in his throat as John mutely uncurled the fingers of his left hand, revealing what lay within.
The sprite was no bigger than a single tear, opalescent and dim against the bandage around John's injured palm. There was no colour, no reddish gleam or golden glow. It was a bleached bone shade of light, stark and uncomfortable to see. Sherlock was used to watching the stars drift and sway, but this stayed caught in the crook of John's careful hand, barely even flickering.
He knew what it was, though the certainty came from no logical level of his mind. It was instead something he felt in the hole Moriarty had left in his wake, a gaping chasm that should be filled, but was far too big for the final fraction of soul left in John's grip.
'It's all we can find,' John said, sinking into the chair at Sherlock's bedside. 'It won't go back to you. We tried, but...' He frowned, looking so defeated that Sherlock forced himself to move, bullying aching, agonised muscles to snap the silken strands of the spells that tried to keep him in place. It was a tiny movement – the stretch of a palm and the curl of his fingers around John's own, forcing them to bend back in over the sorry remains.
'It's in good hands,' he murmured, dropping his arm back to the mattress as several members of the medical staff bustled into the room. He had no choice but to surrender to their ministrations, struggling to answer questions with a voice that wanted to fall silent and a mind that desired nothing more than to sleep.
The last thing he saw was John. He stood well out of the way as the nurses worked, and in his hand, cradled as if it were the most precious thing in the world, the feeble glow seemed to burn a little brighter: safe and sound in John's unflinching care.
He ached with exhaustion; not the tiredness that came from lack of sleep, but a blade of weariness honed by constant, unremitting stress. John had woken up in hospital, barely needing the bed in which he had been placed. His unconsciousness had been caused by the rush of magic brought about by Moriarty's undoing, rather than any trauma, and as soon as he opened his eyes his thoughts had focussed on Sherlock.
What followed was one of the worst times of his life, including the one where he'd been shot in the war. Watching Sherlock lying in that bed, surrounded by spells that failed to heal him and broken in more ways than one had been a nightmare. John kept cursing himself; for Christ's sake, he was a doctor and a soldier, but seeing Sherlock in that state was more appalling than anything he had experienced on the battlefield.
Then there were the dreams. He was used to finding himself in Afghanistan's terrain when he slept. He was even prepared for the strange semi-consciousness that came with them, but he had never thought it would be Sherlock he saw lying in the shade of a cedar tree, nothing but a ghost on the narrow bed – the kind they used for soldiers who were waiting to die.
'Here.' Greg grabbed John's left wrist, breaking apart the gloom of his thoughts and forcing his fingers to close around the cheap cardboard cup of coffee. 'You should probably try and get some sleep, you know. Mycroft's watching Sherlock. Just an hour or two on the chairs?' He sounded so hopeful, but a glance from John made the DI sigh his defeat before sitting down at his side. 'Any change?'
'He's been slipping in and out for the past day or so.' John took a sip of the coffee; it was hot, which was about all it had going for it. 'When he's awake, he's tired and woozy, but mostly coherent.' He paused, a flutter of satisfaction stirring through him as he remembered Sherlock opening his eyes to reveal matching irises of silver-blue: a welcome sight, even if they were hazy. 'I'd feel better if the spells would do their job. Mending broken bones normally only takes a few minutes. They've been trying for days. The doctors are considering surgery. They would have done so before now, but Mycroft's unwilling to let them proceed. So am I, if I'm honest.'
Greg's grimace matched his own. There was nothing wrong with conventional medical practices; people had breaks pinned all the time, normally because they did not like the idea of magical remedies, but it was the difference between an instantaneous recovery and months of physio that ended in a body that was never as good as it had once been.
'Mycroft's been trying to figure out what happened.' John tensed the fingers of his right fist, feeling the reassuring pin-prick of heat within: his constant burden. He kept thinking of finding a bottle for the sprite, something more secure than his grip, but the idea of not having that tiny pearl of light against his skin did funny things to his chest, turning his throat tight and thick with panic. 'Sherlock's not soulless, but –'
'But he's not gone back to how he was before he cut the deal?' Greg sighed at John's silent head-shake, his expression set in tense lines as he stared at the linoleum beneath their feet. The unspoken fear that perhaps he would never be that man again lingered between them, dark and indistinct. John found himself hunching his shoulders and ducking his head, trying to push it aside.
'What a mess.' Greg drained the dregs of his coffee. 'Is there anything I can do to help?'
John shook his head, forcing an uncomfortable smile onto his face. 'Really, there's not much anyone can do. What about me, do you need anything else? Statements, anything like that?'
The DI gave John a companionable pat on the shoulder. 'You let me deal with the paperwork. Mycroft's people are helping out, and so's Molly. We can't exactly cover-up what happened to the cult, there are too many corpses for that, but there's no-one to punish. Sherlock's not culpable, not by any interpretation of the law.'
'Not everyone would see it that way,' John pointed out, thinking of Donovan's disgust when she had heard what had been done. 'Sherlock was the one who made the deal and gave Moriarty a body to possess.'
'Without malicious aforethought, and any defence worth their salt would argue that he was not in his right mind at the time. Who would be, with their –' Greg paused, indicating John with a wave of his hand. 'Friend or whatever dying right at their feet?' He got up, giving his jacket a quick tug before giving up on the rumpled wreck of his suit. 'Our main concern is Moran. No-one's quite sure if he went down with Moriarty or not.' With a shake of his head, Greg offered John a wan smile. 'Let me handle the clean-up, you just concentrate on getting the two of you back on your feet. You might not be hurt, John, but you're not much better off than he is.'
John wanted to protest against the deep shadows he knew lingered under his eyes and the constant shake that had found its way into his hands. However, before he could speak, a pretty nurse called his name with an apologetic smile. 'Doctor Watson? Mr Holmes is asking for you.'
'Which one?' John asked, his lethargy loosening its grip as he got to his feet.
'Both of them.'
'I'll see you later, John. Keep me updated, all right? And if you need anything let me know.' Greg smiled weakly as John nodded his understanding, already turning away to follow the nurse the short distance along the corridor to Sherlock's room.
Patients under magical influence were isolated from the others to prevent spells from interfering with one another, but even as he stepped over the threshold John knew that the incantations were still failing to hold. The subtle notes on the edge of his hearing were discordant, and jarring edges of power brushed against his skin.
Sherlock was awake, his skin paper-pale despite the petulant pout of his bottom lip. He was glaring weakly in Mycroft's direction, but no snide remarks coloured the air. Instead there were just the sounds of his breathing: too shallow, thanks to the damage to his ribs, and edged with something like genuine distress.
'How do you feel?' John asked cautiously, trying to read the atmosphere of the room and failing miserably. It felt different from the usual brand of Holmes attrition, but he couldn't pinpoint why. 'Do you need more pain medication?'
'He can't have any,' Mycroft said, raising a meaningful eyebrow. 'His – previous experimentation – makes it inadvisable. I was hoping you would assist us, John. Sherlock's memories of events are somewhat imprecise, but I thought that together the two of you may be able to enlighten me as to what happened in the cathedral.'
John glanced in Sherlock's direction, watching him lift his uninjured shoulder in a half-shrug before he scratched irritably at the splint that was supporting his arm and the spells on it. 'I thought Greg was dealing with all that. What do you need our statements for?'
'Mycroft doesn't care about the investigation,' Sherlock replied, and John smiled at the sound of that voice: strong despite his apparent discomfort. 'He's intrigued by all this.' He lifted his good arm, waving it weakly in emphasis.
'I want to know why my brother is far from soulless, despite the fact that it appears Moriarty consumed all but the tiniest fragment.' Mycroft spared a meaningful glance for John's clenched fist. 'The portion which you now hold and, for reasons unknown, either cannot or will not relinquish.'
'I've tried giving it back. You were there! It doesn't work!' John snapped, bristling defensively and not giving a damn. He sat heavily in the chair at Sherlock’s bedside and glared at the older Holmes, who returned the scrutiny with endless, aggravating patience.
'Show me again.'
Pursing his lips, John eased his fingers open, spreading his palm flat so that the tiny glow could drift to Sherlock if it desired. Yet the sprite stayed where it was, lax and unmoving, no more than a candle flame on the brink of being extinguished. Even when he tipped it into Sherlock's hand, it remained like a water droplet on an oilskin, as if Sherlock was somehow impermeable.
'If this is really all that's left, then why aren't you like the others we've seen?' John asked quietly, not meeting Sherlock's gaze. 'I thought that, once a soul was consumed, the person just became... empty.'
'It's not that simple,' Sherlock replied, his words strained as he shifted in the bed. 'Moriarty said I was different – called me a Segregate.' A noise caught in his throat, discomfort cramping his words as he continued. 'Even when he had both my soul and my body with him, there was still something left. My consciousness or – whatever.'
Mycroft's eyebrows had lifted, ascending almost to his hairline, and John knew a look of pure intrigue when he saw it. Yet he did not speak or challenge Sherlock's explanation, leaving John struggling to understand.
'So there's more to it than body and soul. There's something else as well?'
'Think of it as the glue that holds the two together.' Sherlock sighed, closing his eyes for a long moment before opening them again. 'For some people, that's all it ever is. When a demon consumes their soul, their intelligence, personality and emotion are devoured along with it.'
'But for you, probably due to your strength as a mage, it was possible to separate your soul and your consciousness.' Mycroft leaned forward, pressing his thumb to his chin as he narrowed his eyes. 'So that –' He gestured to the gleaming jewel of light still resting on Sherlock's skin. '– is just your soul. The part that Moriarty called the Segregate is in its rightful place?'
'So why won't your soul stick?' John asked, shrugging his shoulders when Sherlock and Mycroft both looked his way. 'If you've got the glue...'
'Moriarty did not leave enough of it behind for it to bind where it belongs,' Sherlock replied quietly, bowing his head and pursing his lips as if there was another answer he did not want to give voice. At last, he cleared his throat, not meeting John's gaze. 'What you said when you were keeping the sprites safe from Moriarty's grasp may also have had an effect.'
John's mind skipped frantically over his memories, tainted as they were by fear and anger. He could recall his determination, hot like lava in his chest: the absolute certainty that he would die rather than let the demon touch the last few splinters of Sherlock's soul, but what had he said?
In a rush, the answer came to him, and the blood drained from his face as he shook his head. 'But I – I didn't mean –'
'Tell me?' Mycroft asked, glancing from Sherlock to John and back again.
John swallowed, curving his hand over his eyes as he replied, 'I said “Mine” but I didn't mean it like that. I just meant not his.' He drew in a deep breath, remembering anew why magic was not nearly as easy as Sherlock made it look. The precision required was often immense, and the wrong word in the wrong place...
'No!' Sherlock had not sounded so determined since this whole mess started, and John looked up in surprise as he struggled upright, clearly bullying himself through the pain as he gripped John's wrist. 'Do you honestly think anything else would have been enough? You had to be willing to fight Moriarty for what was left. The loophole I created was specific. You had to challenge his claim.'
'Often in these situations, it is not so much the words used, but their implication which plays the strongest role,' Mycroft explained, frowning at the floor before he got to his feet. 'I need to make a few phone-calls. This entire situation is atypical, and I find myself inadequately acquainted with current theory.'
'You mean you have no idea what's going on, or why,' Sherlock retorted, wrinkling his nose as Mycroft gave him a bored glare. 'I have no wish to become someone's research project.'
'And I have no desire to shut you away in a lab. Your confidentiality will be maintained, but we need more information if we're to discover how to proceed.'
Sherlock gave an irritated grunt, one swiftly curtailed as his ribs made their complaints. He did not say another word as Mycroft left the room, leaving John to shake his head and repeat his apology.
'I didn't mean for this to happen,' he murmured, frowning as Sherlock's grip on his wrist shifted, forcing his hand palm up before depositing the listless sprite back into John's care. 'This is yours, Sherlock, not mine.'
'John, what you did – it was –' Sherlock grimaced, his fingers lingering briefly on John's pulse before he withdrew. 'Good.'
'I stole your soul!'
'You saved it. Think.' Sherlock pulled back the sheets, his face locked in a deliberate mask as if he were trying to hide the winces John could still see tightening his eyes. 'If current understanding is correct, if the soul is like a battery, not only for magical power but for the body and whatever else, what would I have left by now? How much longer do you think the rest of me would have survived without your actions? Life-expectancy of a soulless is –'
'But you're not like them!' John did not bother to hide the wretched edge to his voice. 'Even with no soul in you, you're still here. You're not even remotely distant. It's almost like it doesn't matter.'
The look Sherlock gave him suggested that was a stupid conclusion. 'The effects of its loss are diminished because there is still some of my soul nearby.' Sherlock gestured to John's hand, swinging his feet over the side of the bed and ignoring John's squawk of protest. 'Not in another realm or in a demon's grasp, but within arm's reach. I imagine that's why I can sense magic again. Not just yours, but everyone's. Performing it, I suspect, is still well beyond my abilities.'
'What are you doing?' John demanded, already getting to his feet, reaching out with his spare hand to try and keep Sherlock in the bed. 'For God's sake, you can't get up.'
'I need the bathroom.'
'That's what bed-pans are for.' At any other time, John would have laughed at the repulsed indignation on Sherlock's face, but right now he was thinking of broken ribs and arms and fingers, internal bruising and God-knew what else that the spells still hadn't healed. 'Sherlock!'
He swore as Sherlock ignored him, getting to his feet and almost falling flat on his face. Only John's quick reflexes saved him, grabbing him instinctively around the waist.
Every nerve John possessed shivered to life, consumed by a tingling, rushing thrill. The remaining magic around Sherlock snapped apart as something bigger and stronger – a soothing wave, rather than a frail scaffold – washed through him and into the lean body in his impromptu embrace.
John abruptly realised both his hands were spread on Sherlock, the right at his shoulder and the left over his broken ribs, sandwiching the clinging, tenacious bead of light between their bodies.
It was like the jolt of a defibrillator, hard and punishing, a thick pulse of power that made John's bones ache and his head swim. Sherlock swayed into him, propping himself against John's smaller frame and making a noise that was half agony, half absolute, heart-felt relief.
John knew the way his power burned along his fingertips and slid like balm across a patient's body, but this was different. Even in the chaos of a gunfight, when his magic turned rough with adrenaline, it was not this strong. For one, brief moment, he revelled in the glory of it before panic cut through him like a knife.
This was not just his magic. The absinthe burn of Sherlock's spells mingled with it, powered by the crumb of light that was pressed between them. The minuscule deposit was already too depleted, and now it lent its timid strength to the effort.
He expected it to be gone, the light extinguished and Sherlock changed forever with its loss, but when John snatched his hand away, the mote lingered where it was, hovering drunkenly in the narrow space between their bodies as if suspended in happy equilibrium. It was not replenished, not by any stretch of the imagination. It looked like something newborn, all wobbling and weak, utterly dependent, but at least now it seemed alive, rather than corpse-like.
'Are you all right?' he asked in a frantic hush, gripping Sherlock's chin and guiding his head up so he could examine the canvas of Sherlock's expression. It took only a second for John to realise the bruises and scrapes were gone, and scabs were wiped away as if they had never existed. Pallid skin had regained a touch of its usual warmth, and the hazy focus of Sherlock's gaze had sharpened to something beautifully familiar.
He watched as Sherlock took an experimental breath, his chest swelling with comfortable ease into John's side before he was given a puzzled, thoughtful look. 'Interesting.'
'You're better?' John pressed lightly against Sherlock's ribs, seeing nothing like discomfort pinch his friend's face. His hands wandered, brushing up to Sherlock's throat, where Moriarty's wide, shallow scrape had been wiped from existence, replaced instead with the pale strength of Sherlock's skin. He lingered over the splint on Sherlock's left forearm before easing it aside and seeing something strong and whole. 'I don't believe it.'
'Why not? You're an excellent doctor.'
From anyone else, John would have accepted that compliment with comfortable grace and genuine pride. He knew he was good at mending flesh and bone, he always had been, but his magic was no different from that which the other doctors had used on Sherlock. However, where theirs refused to take, John's had worked with natural comfort, as if within Sherlock was where it was meant to be, undoing every ill in its path.
'I know I am, but I don't think that has anything to do with it.' He gestured helplessly, cupping the sprite where it drifted in the air and pulling it closer to him, cradling it in his hand as he stared blankly at its guttering light. 'And neither do you,' John added, seeing the gleam of thought in Sherlock's eye. 'Is it because of this? Does having part of your soul somehow make the spells work where others fail?'
Sherlock did not get a chance to answer as a doctor and two nurses hurried in, stopping in surprise to see Sherlock seemingly unharmed and on his feet. What followed was a mixture of explanation and apology from John, and irritated impatience from Sherlock. The doctor in particular seemed disgruntled that John had interfered with Sherlock's care, even if it was by accident, and his chilly instructions that Sherlock was to be kept in overnight were met with scathing disdain.
'Sherlock, please?' John asked, sparing the doctor from a stream of cripplingly accurate deductions. 'We don't know what happened, and we don't know what could change. It's not unheard of for these spells to reverse. Just give it twelve hours?'
'It won't come undone, John. Surely you know the difference between a spell that will hold and one which won't?' Sherlock muttered. However, after a mute, shared glare, he gave a sigh, climbing back onto the bed and submitting himself to the nurses' care, and John was left standing in the doorway, lost in lingering worry and confusion.
'It seems thanks are in order.' Mycroft's voice sounded only marginally grateful. In fact, suspicion seemed to be the dominant emotion in those words, though it could have simply been curiosity.
'You saw?' John asked. He had not realised anyone was watching, but then he had not been at his most observant. It was hard to notice the world around him when he had Sherlock in his arms, warm and strong again.
'Indeed. A fascinating turn of events, but perhaps not unexpected.' Mycroft gave John a thin smile, guiding him out of the room and into the corridor before he continued to speak. 'Initial findings would indicate that, although Sherlock's soul is not in him, a connection is maintained between it and his body.'
Mycroft tipped his head to the side, his eyes narrowing as he summarised the situation. 'He can still sense magic – may possibly be able to perform it again once he is stronger – and does not seem to be any more emotionally reserved than he was before all this began. Clearly, his soul being in your possession is not nearly as damaging as when it was in the demon's grasp.'
Relief ran soft fingers down John's spine, untangling some of the knots in his muscles and allowing his shoulders to sag. 'It's still Sherlock's. It should be in him.'
'I simply thought you may be encouraged to know that, at this point, it's probably for the best that it is under your protection.' Mycroft leaned forward, examining the small starlet with interest where it wobbled drunkenly above John's open palm. 'It is in need of care as much as Sherlock, if not more so. Even without the evidence of a few moments ago, it has always been clear that such things fall within your gift.'
John frowned, already shaking his head. 'A body is a physical thing I can put back together. This? How the bloody hell do you heal someone's soul?'
The older Holmes smiled, looking faintly smug as if the answer was obvious.
'You cherish it, Doctor Watson.'
Three days had passed since he and John had returned home from the hospital – three empty, case-less days. By all rights, Sherlock should have been climbing the walls, but instead his mind – fast and dazzling once more, to his great relief – had occupied itself with the seemingly endless puzzles that had been lain out in front of him: all embodied in the compact form of his flatmate.
The initial mysteries that Sherlock had never bothered to solve still lingered – John's magic manifesting as heat rather than light to his senses, and the way their wards curled around each other when they should repel. Then there was what had happened at Bethnal Green: it had been John who pulled him back from Moriarty's realm, interfering with the kind of spell he knew nothing about to return Sherlock to his side. At the time, they had been curiosities, occurrences that he had chosen not to investigate too deeply, but now he was beginning to suspect that they were far from insignificant.
Theories were taking tentative shape, and Sherlock was not sure their conclusions were something he should welcome. Emotions left him feeling confused and irritated, torn by their lack of logic. A mood could be flipped in a moment. Love became hate with sickening ease. Feelings defied understanding, and so he did his best to ignore them. He was not immune to their pull, not as inhuman as most people liked to believe, but he always strove to keep them hidden. After all, why expose weaknesses that others would only exploit?
Except that, when it came to John, it seemed he had no choice. It was not just the look on his face or the tone of his voice that could give away his uncertain, ill-defined regard. His magic was equally transparent, and that was far more instinctual and beyond his control than he would have liked. When Mycroft had seen one of Sherlock's sprites fawning over John, practically falling over itself in rapture, he had made the obvious assumption: Sherlock cared for John in a way that went deeper than the platonic, and his powers reflected the sentiment he had not put into words.
He shifted his gaze, taking in the man currently sitting in the armchair and reading some trite, tacky excuse of fiction with every sign of enjoyment. On the surface, John was unremarkable, attractive more for who he was than what he looked like: sandy blonde hair with hints of coarser grey, blue eyes lined with both kindness and stress, thin lips and a bone-structure that fell squarely into the realms of the mundane. Handsome enough, but nothing out of the average way.
Then that ordinary form would take action, and Sherlock would be reminded that the man was unique – compelling in ways that could not be seen in a mere glance, not even by someone as observant as himself. It left him breathless and turned idle, physiological desire into something purposeful and honed.
It had begun as a spark, an 'Oh!' of surprise on that first day when John had shot a man dead, and grown from there, despite Sherlock's efforts not to acknowledge it. Perhaps that was why, when there had been a few others who caught his eye and shared his bed, they had never influenced his life, his behaviour or his magic to any extent. Even before all this mess with Moriarty, John had affected all three without even trying.
Over the past few days, John's care of him had been patient and exemplary: firm and stubborn when needed, but with the judicious application of surrender when necessary. More to the point, he had shared that same conscientiousness with the sprite. It needed no sustenance, nor particular protection within the sanctuary of Baker Street, but John still sheltered it within his shields or the camber of his hand. He paid attention to it as if it were the most fascinating thing he had ever seen, and Sherlock felt it all.
Now, John absently reached out, touching his fingertips to the uncertain surface of the star. It listed towards him, and Sherlock swallowed convulsively, trying to ignore the phantom whispers of callused fingertips across the ridge of his cheekbone – so much more than a physical touch: protective, devoted and shockingly erotic.
He sat up hurriedly, spreading his legs wider and propping his elbows on his knees to better disguise the increasing tautness of fabric at his crotch.
'You all right?' John asked, looking up from his book with a frown. 'Your ribs okay?' It was his most frequent question. He seemed unreasonably concerned that the magic he had wrought to make Sherlock whole once more would unravel at the seams. As if it was anything so weak. Even now, the bedrock of those spells sat beneath his skin: a memory against his bones.
'I'm fine,' Sherlock replied, briefly pressing his fingertips to his brow as he tried to sort out the tangled mess of his thoughts. What he wanted was straightforward answers, and what he was getting was a mess of emotion. Souls and magic, sentience and the physical form were all intimately intertwined. He was certain the reason John's spells had brought about his recovery was because John had been in possession of Sherlock's soul. Their power worked cooperatively, it had even before Moriarty interfered, and that alone spoke volumes to anyone who was willing to listen.
This – this thing he was feeling was not a random occurrence. Sherlock knew with absolute certainty that anyone else in John's place would not have such an effect on him, nor be nearly so capable of restoring him to full strength. It was not the simple act of someone else holding his soul that made him feel this way – Moriarty had inspired the opposite, in fact. John was the only one with the capability – the only one for whom Sherlock would surrender his soul in the first place – and it was that emotion which had brought them to this point: through the direst of circumstances and out of the other side.
A whisper of fabric suggested John was moving from his chair, and Sherlock blinked up to see him clearing clutter out of the way before sitting down on the coffee table and gripping Sherlock's wrist without preamble. It was one touch among many since they returned from the hospital, willingly given, as if he and John were no longer entirely separate individuals and the boundaries of their physical forms had blurred together. Heat rolled up his arm and down through his body, making him think of the scent of cedar and tangled sheets beneath the sea-foam spray of stars.
'You don't look fine,' John murmured, his fingers curling absently around Sherlock's. 'You're distracted. Is it because you can't –' He gestured weakly to the floor, where a few pieces of chalk lay abandoned and the corner of the rug was still flipped back, revealing the periphery of a basic summoning circle. 'Everyone goes through stages when their magic doesn't behave how it should, Sherlock. It'll probably sort itself out.'
'You're making it sound like erectile dysfunction.' Sherlock's lips twitched at John's faint snort of laughter. 'It's not that. It's logical that there are issues in that department since –' He gestured to the star, which was currently curled up at the crook of where John's neck met his shoulder, comfortable and content. It seemed illogical to be jealous of his own soul, but that did not stop the petulant tightening of his gut. 'I can't do much magic if my power source is with you, rather than me.' He saw the familiar wash of guilt across John's features and hurried on, before John could reiterate his almost constant apologies. 'At least it's getting stronger.'
John gave him a look that suggested he knew exactly what Sherlock was doing, and with one gentle hand he scooped the sprite from where it was nestled against him, gripping Sherlock's wrist and depositing it unceremoniously in his palm. The glow gave a little waltz, dancing back and forth between them like a happy puppy torn between two owners. Yet it did not sink into Sherlock's skin as it was meant to, and he dropped his hand away, leaving it to float in empty air.
The sprite's reactions were interesting, if somewhat frustrating, but John's were far more captivating. He took his guardianship seriously, not only of Sherlock's soul but the associated body that went with it. Strong muscles lay tense beneath his skin, as if he were concerned someone would try and snatch the sprite away from him. More importantly, the burn of John's wards surrounded Sherlock, inwardly sheltering but outwardly lethal: a vicious protectorate.
John had always inspired sensations of security, but this went beyond anything as simple as the confidence a gun could bring. More than once over the past few days, Sherlock had tried and failed to put the idea into words. All he could distinguish was that there was a huge difference between someone caring for him because of obligation, and someone doing so because they desired nothing more than his well-being.
There was no questioning John's motivations. His tenderness was like sunlight in the air, nurturing and unfailing. It made Sherlock want to curl against John's skin as the sprite had done and lose himself in his presence. His fingers itched with the temptation to touch and explore, to map out the breadths and depths of John's terrain and learn all his secrets. Only the knowledge of his likely reaction held him back.
John's horror when that almost-kiss had been interrupted by Moriarty's compulsion was still painfully fresh in Sherlock's memories, vivid and nauseating. Perhaps if he had been able to explain immediately, to correct John's misconceptions, then things would be different, but the moment had passed. Now, he suspected John would write off any advance Sherlock made as a symptom of their current situation.
Looking into John's face, he saw the lines digging deep paths into his brow. It was an expression of concern, rather than anger, and Sherlock moved his left hand, lightly tracing the furrows and hearing the whispered hush of John's indrawn breath. The fingers gripping his right palm tightened spasmodically, and Sherlock watched something conflicted cross John's face.
His gaze flickered to Sherlock's mouth before moving quickly away, the tip of his tongue darting out to wet his lips before he pursed them. The frown became deeper as John cleared his throat, but whatever he had been about to say died in his throat as Sherlock spoke, the sensitive pads of his fingers touching the bruises of exhaustion under John's eyes.
'You've not been sleeping well.'
Hardly his most astute deduction, but John seemed to neither notice nor care, giving a faintly embarrassed shuffle as he shrugged his shoulders. 'Nightmares,' he replied succinctly, reaching out to catch the sprite, holding it close as if it could somehow shield him from Sherlock's scrutiny as he got to his feet.
Sherlock paused, thinking of that strange stretch of arid land in which he had found himself – of John's worried, frantic form hovering around him, treating wounds as he lay beneath the balm of what should have been a blazing sun. He had half-hoped to find himself back there in John's company when he slept, but instead there was only darkness and hints of flat light like the aching glow of Between.
John paced absently, tidying up cups and straightening cushions, not meeting Sherlock's eyes as he sighed. 'Not really,' he replied eventually, looking more awkward than offended. 'It's there in the background; it always is. I just –' John shrugged. 'I'm looking for something, and I can't find it. It's very... real.' The mug and plate in John's left hand rattled, jostled by the tremor, and Sherlock watched him stride towards the kitchen.
The conversation was closed: that much was written in the tense border of John's shoulders. Sherlock bit back his questions, licking his lips and slumping back into the sofa with a sigh. 'Tea would be nice.'
It was something normal to say, neither coddling nor tender, and John's reply, heavy still but faintly amused, was as it should have been.
'Make your own damn tea, you lazy git.'
A split-second later, Sherlock felt it: the solid press of compulsion. Yet where Moriarty's orders had been crushing, this was light and tempting: hypnotic smoke drugging his mind and shrouding his free will. It was so blissfully easy, as if the burden of choice had been removed from his shoulders, leaving him free to simply exist.
The concept of resistance did not cross his thoughts. He barely registered the glide of his muscles as he obeyed. It was only when he became aware of fingers around his wrists and John's pleading voice that he blinked back into himself, reconnecting to find he was holding a tea spoon as a mug of the brew steamed innocently on the kitchen surface.
'Sherlock?' John whispered, his thumbs rubbing fretfully over Sherlock's wrists. 'I don't – what was that?' His wards were buzzing in confusion, emanating his distress, and Sherlock glanced at the gleam of his soul, seeing it burn bright and fretful. 'What did I do?'
He was not used to hearing John sound so lost. Sherlock could see him struggling not to cringe where he stood, beaten down and submissive: gruesomely apologetic, because John knew he had done something wrong, even if he had no idea what it was.
'You compelled me,' Sherlock murmured through numb lips. It was difficult to decide what was more surprising; the fact John had been strong enough to do so, or that the thought of fighting it had not even glimmered in Sherlock's mind. It was rare for any human mage to be able to compel another to do their bidding. The magic involved was complicated and tied into the strength of a person's will. For those who were capable, they had to be desperate. Their request had to be something meaningful, essential to their continuing happiness and existence, not something so embarrassingly menial as making tea.
'What?' John asked, shaking his head as he took a step back, the table graunching on the linoleum floor as he banged into it. 'No, I, I just told you to make your own tea. I didn't mean –' His next breath sounded harsh, and Sherlock watched helplessly as John scrubbed his hands over his face, dragging his fingers back through his hair.
Mutely, Sherlock added some milk to the cup, remembering how John took it with ease before holding it out. 'You look like you need it,' he said by way of explanation, waiting as John reluctantly took the mug from Sherlock's grasp. He held it but didn't drink, instead staring into the depths of the beverage as if he could find the answers to his question in its lazy spin.
'Is it the first time I've done it?' John looked up at him, something agonised in his gaze. 'Tell me I've not been robbing you of your damn free will without even noticing what was going on!'
This time, Sherlock bit his tongue, chasing away the words that tried to leap from him at John's command. However, the tug was still there, something that curled beneath his ribs and yanked even while a blanket of euphoria attempted to latch onto his mind.
John must have a sensed it this time, the push of the demand from him to Sherlock, because he sucked in a breath, slamming his tea down on the kitchen table and turning away. His strides were fretful as he grabbed his jacket and clattered down the stairs, intent on nothing but escape. Sherlock vaguely heard Mrs Hudson's question, followed by Lestrade's deeper exclamation of surprise: John had probably collided with him on the doorstep. There was a question in Lestrade's voice, something that Sherlock could not discern, and John's answer, curt and brief, was an equal mystery.
He found himself staring wretchedly at the abandoned mug of tea, his stomach twisting in sick, uncertain knots. Part of him thought that he was the one who should be storming off, offended by John's thoughtless manipulations, but logic prevailed. John did not know what he was doing, probably had no intention of bending Sherlock to his will and seemed genuinely horrified that he had such power over him. Odd, since most people of Sherlock's acquaintance would have been delighted to have him on a leash: controlled at last.
However, John had always been different, celebrating his abilities where others reviled them. Now he was the one unwittingly adjusting Sherlock's behaviour with nothing but careless words.
A knock on the door made Sherlock glance over to see Lestrade hovering on the threshold, pale and worried. His gaze checked Sherlock over from head-to-toe: a quick, professional skim as if he were ensuring the pieces of a puzzle married before he spoke. 'Everything all right?'
'Obviously not,' Sherlock muttered, straightening up and nodding towards the file in the DI's hand. 'What have you found?'
Lestrade glanced back down the stairs after John, pursing his lips before turning back and beginning to speak. 'One dead body, recently killed. A few hours old, maybe, but this was carved on its foot.' He held out the glossy photo: the gory lines of a spider and web etched on flesh. 'As far as we know, Moriarty's cult are all either in jail or the morgue.'
'Except the conspicuously absent Moran,' Sherlock replied, narrowing his eyes at the photo before reaching for his coat. 'I need to see the scene.'
Lestrade hesitated, his face locked in a stiff mask. 'Is that wise? I almost didn't bring this to you. I mean, it's got trap written all over it. He probably did it just to get your attention, or put you where he wants you. He doesn't even need magic – that sniper rifle will do the trick.'
Sherlock paused, giving it careful thought. It had been challenging to focus on Moran when Moriarty had been present, filling his horizons from one edge to the other with malice, but he had seen enough. 'It's unlikely he'll force a confrontation in this realm. He was an agent of Moriarty; most of his strength died with him. I'd be amazed if he is still corporeal.'
He could see the argument on Lestrade's face, stubbornness mixing with genuine concern to create a slack, grim expression, but Sherlock pushed his advantage, stepping close and meeting his gaze.
'The longer we stand here arguing, the more time we waste. I think there have already been enough bodies thanks to Moriarty and his associate, don't you?'
Lestrade sighed, ducking his head in surrender. 'Fine, come on, but for God's sake at least text John and tell him where you'll be? I don't know what happened –' He gestured to the kitchen in general, indicating the bizarre equation of the two of them and Baker Street, 'but if something goes wrong and you're hurt when John's not there, you know as well as I do that he'll never forgive himself.'
Sherlock's lips twisted in an uncomfortable expression that he could not hide.
'I think it's already too late for that.'
It was a fast stride, one that pulled at his thighs and strained his hips, feet beating out a frantic tattoo in an effort to escape himself: an impossible task. John dove into Regent's Park as if it were some kind of sanctuary, hunching his shoulders against the chill and staring at the ground beneath his feet. It was almost impossible to think around the heave and churn of panic in his mind. He kept seeing the look on Sherlock's face: ripped in a dozen directions between confusion and annoyance, but underpinned by the dank spectre of genuine fear, as if he was looking at John and seeing an enemy instead.
And why shouldn't he? Moriarty had done the same thing, forcing Sherlock into actions he would not consider. Humans weren't meant to be able to compel each other, at least not with any level of success, and John had never even tried. Now he found himself questioning everything he had said to Sherlock since the hospital, trying to second-guess what Sherlock had done of his own accord and what had been John's influence.
Today, he had felt it: an outward push, a weight in his words which was not normally there. He was almost certain he had never experienced that before – but to do it twice in a matter of minutes, and not just to anyone, but to Sherlock, the most independent man he knew... It made John feel physically sick. He kept thinking of Sherlock on his knees in front of Moriarty, broken and beaten, and now it was as if John had been handed the leash to something that should never have been in captivity in the first place.
He paused, his hands clenching into fists in his pocket as he tried to calm his breathing from its ragged, gasping pace, but it was useless. His body barely felt under his control anymore, too ground down by stress, worn out by disturbed sleep and laden down with guilt, because if he was honest with himself, he had enjoyed it.
Not forcing Sherlock to do his bidding, but the rest of it. It was so rare that Sherlock let anyone take care of him, but over the past few days John had seen Sherlock respond to his ministrations. Food, rest, comfort – all of them were met with relatively peaceful acceptance, but it was not those simple acts that made John's heart ache in his chest. It was all the things Sherlock seemed to think he kept hidden, like the way every time John touched the starlet of his soul, Sherlock took a deep breath: sharp and surprised. His expression would hold delight, just for a moment, before it was hastily wiped away like something shameful.
Yesterday, John had been holding the glowing light close to him, coddling it between the curve of his palm and the wool of his jumper over his heart. It had not been much, a warm little cocoon and the occasional swipe of his thumb, but one glance at Sherlock had arrested his attention.
That long body had been on the sofa, but rather than locked in its rigid thinking pose or lost in a bored sprawl, Sherlock had looked catatonic with pleasure – parted lips, flushed cheeks and steady, deep breathing. His eyes had been almost shut, with just a narrow flash of silver visible between the dark lines of his lashes.
Even now, the memory was making John shamefully hard in the confines of his jeans, because there had been nothing innocent about Sherlock in that moment. He looked as if someone had spent a very long time taking him to pieces, bringing him pleasure again and again – lax and trusting in a way that Sherlock never was with anyone, not even John.
He could have stopped – should have – because John knew it was the touch of his fingers on Sherlock's soul that was reducing him to that state, but he had found himself mesmerised by the vision of Sherlock so exposed. He had still been clothed and his body was motionless. There was no restless grind of hips nor moans to escape his lips, but he looked naked all the same, and John had allowed himself to imagine that Sherlock like that was something he could keep.
Now, all he could think was that maybe he had been wrong. Perhaps that wasn't Sherlock's response at all, but something forced upon him, his mind wiped clean and somehow overwritten with everything that John wanted. If that was the case, then how was he even a fraction better than Moriarty?
'Shit,' John muttered to himself, kicking at a loose pebble hard enough to send it skittering ahead of him, bouncing and rattling before it fell down a drain.
Something whispered in his ear, a soft hush of sound, and he abruptly realised that the sprite was following him, never falling behind despite his speed. It orbited his head before sinking to rest on his shoulder. 'You're not mine!' he hissed at it, not caring if it could understand or not. 'I don't want you! Go!'
One minute there was light and warmth and the faint, ghostly feeling of Sherlock at his side, the next: nothing. John's stomach went into free-fall. Not just guilt but horror as well, because that was Sherlock's soul, not something trivial to be cast away. Mycroft had told him to cherish it and instead here he was, using it as a target for his misery, blaming it for things that were his own damn fault!
Frantically, he looked around, trying to see if it had merely drifted away to linger amidst the groomed parkland around him, yet there was nothing to see but the occasional crystalline drip of water from the boughs above his head. He moved without thought, already turning back to Baker Street. It would go home, he told himself firmly, trying to keep a lid on the well of bubbling panic that was tightening his throat. He would get back to the flat and it would be there, with Sherlock, the both of them safe and sound.
That did not stop his body feeling bereft, caught up in a bizarre tangle of something like heartbreak. It was as if someone had blinkered him, surrounding him in oppressive darkness on all sides and leaving a gaping emptiness. He had never experienced anything like it: a strange, phantom-limb discomfort that bit into his shoulder and made his leg cramp.
He was so engrossed in getting back to Baker Street that he almost didn't notice the sleek black car pull up at his side as he exited the park, nor Mycroft's soft instruction.
'Get in, John.'
With a blink, he tried to factor the older Holmes into his current strategy, but his brain was unwilling to budge, concentrating entirely on the only objective that mattered. 'Not now. I need to be somewhere.'
'Yes, but it's not where you think. Get in.' Mycroft's expression was artfully blank, and John hesitated, almost weaving where he stood as he was torn by indecision. He dreaded to think what he looked like: high, perhaps, or suffering from withdrawal, twitchy and urgent in a way that had Mycroft watching him with care.
'Take me straight to Sherlock. No –' He waved a hand, indicating the usual drama. 'No car-parks or anything.'
'I assure you, I had no intention of doing anything else.' Mycroft slid over, making space for John before adjusting the angle of his posture.
'Where are we going, then?' John asked as the car pulled out into traffic.
'Ealing. A fresh body with Moriarty's mark on it has been discovered. The Detective Inspector was kind enough to inform me of this before he told Sherlock, though it was unnecessary.'
'I thought you couldn't “see” things where Sherlock was involved,' John asked, frowning in confusion. 'Because of his – oh.' John pressed the heel of his hand to one eye. Of course, Sherlock had actively blocked out his brother, and then Moriarty had done something similar. However, with no demon and no magic, Sherlock was probably unveiled to his older sibling's obsessive surveillance – and so was John. 'Did you – '
'Contrary to what my brother believes, I do not deliberately watch his every move. At least,' Mycroft conceded, 'not anymore. I was aware of the body because I have been keeping tabs on the situation. Besides, my foresight where Sherlock is concerned has always been unreliable.' He seemed embarrassed by the admission, fiddling with his umbrella and looking out of the window. 'Even when he is not blocking me, his actions are often unpredictable. Most information I receive is non-linear and sometimes entirely false. However, I can clearly see you are distressed without any help from my additional talents. Do you require assistance?'
That was not a question, for all that Mycroft phrased it like one. John clenched both his hands into fists on his knees, staring blankly out of the window as he tried to sort out something from the mess in his head. 'I told Sherlock's soul to go away and it did,' he confessed at length, chewing on his lip.
That was not the response he had been expecting. Mycroft had turned scathing into an art-form, and John fully anticipated being told in no uncertain terms that he was an idiot. Instead, the older Holmes sounded mildly curious.
'Why did it go away?'
'Why did you tell it to do so?' Mycroft gave John a thin, mirthless smile. 'You have been unsettled since all this began, but you take your duty of care seriously. I do not believe you would partake in an action that could be perceived as an abandonment of that responsibility unless you somehow think you have failed.' When John just blinked, Mycroft drew in a sigh. 'Something happened to make you think you were unsuitable to take care of Sherlock. What was it?'
The words tried to get stuck in John's throat, held back by confusion and shame, but he managed to force an answer through. 'Compulsion.'
His voice seemed to hover in the air, and the interior of the car turned glacial and unforgiving. His wards gave a fretful hum as something vicious stirred: dreadful retribution restrained, but only just. He cast a wary glance in Mycroft's direction, remembering that just because he specialised as a seer did not mean that Sherlock's brother was incapable of more brutal magic.
'What did you make him do?' His voice was arch, enunciated and clipped as if he were spelling out a death sentence, but the implication behind it was clear and John bridled in anger.
'Nothing, I – I made him make tea, by accident. You think I want to do that to him? You think I want to force him to do anything?' He gestured wildly, wanting to hit something, wanting to shout because he had not asked for this and it turned out he was woefully inadequate at dealing with any of it. 'All I want is for him to be himself again. I want him to do things and know he is doing them because that was his choice. I want to believe that he's looking at me like –'
He bit his tongue hard, catching the words back before they could escape him in a rush of panicked anger. The magic in the car had shifted, losing its aggressive edge in the face of John's denial. Now Mycroft was watching him with careful consideration, one eyebrow lifted receptively.
'Instead, I'm fucking up everything,' John muttered, raking his hands through his hair. 'What if I've lost it for good? What if his soul isn't with him?'
John looked at Mycroft with undisguised horror. 'What, so where –? At the flat? Back at the park?'
'Stop,' Mycroft ordered, acting as if he were talking to a child one step away from having a meltdown. 'I realise, John, that magic is a useful tool to you, rather than a way of life, and I am fully aware that you feel out of your depth in this situation. However, that does not mean you are helpless.' His voice softened, becoming something more patient and calming. 'You have the skills, but you do not reach for them automatically. If you looked for Sherlock's soul with something other than your eyes, you would realise that it has not gone anywhere.'
John paused, shaking his head. 'It's gone. Mycroft. It's like Sherlock was right next to me and now he's not. It's –' He frowned, because even as he spoke the words, he felt it, a faint change like someone walking into the same room as him, not standing at his elbow, but still close by.
'I think unfortunate timing may be partly to blame for the situation. You ordered the sprite to go just as Sherlock was increasing the physical distance between you. It demanifested, so you would no longer be disturbed by its presence, and at the same time, Sherlock himself moved out of the range of your perception.' Mycroft raised an eyebrow. 'Now you're getting closer, you can sense him again.'
John could, but his relief – a hot rush, like a tropical wave – was short lived. Within the confines of Baker Street, the sensation of Sherlock's presence had been warm and powerful, implicitly trusting. Now it was jittery and weak, and John's muscles coiled with urgency, wanting to rush and race until he could be at Sherlock's side again. 'Something's wrong. Can we go any faster?'
The driver obeyed without any further urging, darting through the traffic as Mycroft fired off a quick text, his brow creasing with a frown as he received a response. 'It seems Sherlock's reaction to the distance is more evident physically, unlike yours, which appears to be emotional.' He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, but John did not give a damn what the man was or was not seeing in his countenance. He felt like a horse about to bolt, tense and restless and hating this cage of a car.
A soft whisper caught his ear, and he looked down, watching a small seed of light unfurl between his arm and the door by his side, blooming outwards until it was almost the size of an egg. It was out of Mycroft's direct line of sight, and John was reminded of a child hiding from an uncle it didn't like much.
He reached out, brushing his hand apologetically over the glowing spark and feeling its response: a medley of concern and forgiveness, gratitude and a solid foundation of something like adoration.
Mycroft shifted, taking in the sprite with the tiniest twitch of a smile before he straightened his jacket. 'Don't think of it as a separate entity,' he advised, seeming faintly embarrassed as John caught the star in his palm. He ran his fingers over it in reassurance and hoped that Sherlock could feel it too – would know that John was sorry and miserable, worried and, above all else, on his way.
'I don't.' John forced himself still, but he could not bring himself to let go of the star. 'It's part of Sherlock. I know that. If I didn't I wouldn't be so afraid that I'm influencing it – him.'
He heard Mycroft shuffle and could almost sense the discomfort radiating off the man next to him. Sherlock behaved in a similar manner when he realised he had no choice but to express something sentimental – a kind of pained resignation.
'The compulsion must be – disturbing,' Mycroft began. 'However, I doubt you would be nearly so successful if, on some level, Sherlock did not want to oblige you. Yes, you hold his soul, but – with no offence intended towards you, John – you don't have the power to make Sherlock do anything to which he objects on a fundamental level. I am certain that anything you think you might see in him – emotionally, or –' Now Mycroft looked acutely discomfited, and he cleared his throat before giving a minuscule shake of his head and starting again.
'Ask Sherlock why, before all this started, your wards were able to combine so easily, and why you could interfere with his spells, even though you had no knowledge of their mechanisms. Ask him why even then, his sprites were drawn to you.' Mycroft pursed his lips. 'He will probably prevaricate, but the answer could help to put some of your fears to rest.'
'Can't you tell me?' John asked. 'You clearly already know, or think you do.'
The look Mycroft gave him was vaguely insulted, as if he were offended by the implication that his information may be inaccurate. 'It's not my place to do so,' he said, straightening as the car pulled up to the police tape. 'And John, the compulsion is unexpected, but easy enough to overcome for the duration. Prefacing any instruction with “please” transforms it into a request, and will leave Sherlock's will unimpeded by your own.'
John hesitated, his hand on the latch to open the door as he took in Mycroft's words. It sounded so easy, as if something as simple as manners could free someone from enslavement, but it made the most straightforward kind of sense. With a nod of understanding, he climbed free of the car, barely acknowledging Donovan as he made his way to Sherlock's side where he was hunkered down by the body. He drank in the sight of him and immediately saw what Mycroft meant about a physical reaction.
Sherlock's face was bleached out and his lips were pursed tight. He looked like he was coming down with something, and judging by the way Greg was hovering nervously at Sherlock's side, John wasn’t the only one who noticed the change. Back in the flat Sherlock had seemed fine: unhurt and healthy. Now he seemed fit for nothing but bed.
He met Greg's gaze, seeing the meaningful lift of one eyebrow before the DI stepped away. To anyone else it probably looked like he was giving Sherlock space to work, but John knew differently. It was a fragile sort of privacy. 'He looks better than he did ten minutes ago,' Greg muttered as he went past. 'I thought we were going to end up with two corpses, rather than just one.'
The words made John suck in a breath as something squeezed tight in his chest. He wanted to grab Sherlock's arm and lead him back to Baker Street, bundle him up somewhere warm and safe until he looked how he had this morning, before the disastrous tea-making episode: thoughtful, but with a subtle edge of happiness.
Except that if he did, that would be worse than any compulsion. It would be taking Sherlock away from the one thing he lived for – the case. Perhaps, physically, it would make Sherlock better, but it would be his destruction, something beautiful and unique smothered from existence.
Instead, John stood near enough that Sherlock's shoulder brushed his thigh: a slim point of contact that said everything he could not put into words. He was here, and whatever Sherlock needed from him – protection, friendship, unwavering support – he would give it.
Sherlock tried to concentrate on the body in front of him, reading the details with natural ease, but his interpretations were clouded by thick waves of relief. John was here, and with him the nauseous, disoriented sensation of being lost, with no anchor nor clear path forward, had vanished. Even now, the trembling weakness was ebbing away from his body, replaced by familiar heat.
Belatedly, he realised he was half-slumped against John's hip, his shoulder pressing into the strong expanse of his thigh as if it were the only thing holding him up. Perhaps it was. The motley mess of John's emotions had reappeared to his perceptions approximately ten minutes ago and only grown stronger since, vivid and exhausting. It was separated sentiment: not something which emanated from Sherlock himself, but feelings which he could understand. Empathy had never been his strong suit, but it was impossible not to be influenced by John's mood. Not in the way John feared – total control – but enough for him to understand some of John's often opaque mental state.
'It wasn't your fault,' he murmured, not looking up from the corpse and keeping his voice low. 'I should have foreseen compulsion as a consequence and warned you.'
John leant closer as he shook his head. 'How can you predict what no-one else understands?' he asked. 'As far as we know, this kind of thing's never happened to anyone before.' He motioned weakly to the light still hovering at his side, always within easy reach. 'Just – please don't let me do it again.'
Sherlock looked up, seeing the lines of strain that had carved themselves into John's expression. Out here, amidst London's crass bustle, he looked as exposed as Sherlock felt. The craving to be back at Baker Street was overwhelming, so strong he could taste it, and Sherlock clenched his jaw, wobbling to his feet as he lifted his voice.
'There's another body near here,' he called out. 'Young male, judging from the prints in the mud, malnourished, because she was able to try and fight him off: look at the defensive wounds.' He met Lestrade's gaze. 'Probably homeless, and almost certainly dead.'
'So, not Moran?' Greg asked, his voice rippling strangely through the wards they had erected around the scene: excessive for the protection of the corpse, but then it wasn't the victim they were trying to keep safe, it was Sherlock. He was used to being the strongest mage wherever he went, and this – the vulnerability of his weakness – was an uncomfortable disruption of the status-quo.
'Sir!' One of the PCs stood at the end of the alley, grim-faced. There was no blood trail or obvious disturbance leading up to where he stood, but Sherlock saw the slack legs of someone else slumped against the wall, almost hidden beneath the rubbish strewn around. 'Looks like he did it to himself.'
Sherlock got to his feet, his suspicions galvanising into fact as he moved closer to take in the details. The boy was no older than twenty, his weakness written all over him in the hollows of his cheeks and thin, vulnerable line of his neck. No doubt it was that frailty had made the body an easy target for Moran.
A knife handle stuck out from between his ribs, obscene, and Sherlock clenched his jaw, wishing yet again that he had access to his magic. He felt half-blind to the additional information he knew would be on offer, and the irritation of the unknown stropped like a razor across his skin.
He did not notice the glimmer of his soul dart forward, only turning when John made an abortive noise of alarm. It slipped into his palm as if it had been made for it. He expected warmth, or perhaps a hint of power. Instead, it was as if the last disparate piece of his being slotted into place, aligning his circuits.
Someone swore, but Sherlock barely heard it. It was as if a blindfold had been ripped away, leaving his second sight blinking and overwhelmed. Where he had only been able to sense John and the active, human spells of those around him, he could now see everything. It was like being plugged back into the mains as the ethereal glow of London's background magic sprang to life. Not only could he perceive it, but it was also something he could use.
Yet there was still something tenuous about it, rough and raw at the edges. It made Sherlock think of adolescence, when the growth of his expertise, abilities and physical form had all combined to make his spells more explosive than reliable. Over time, it had taught him finite control, but there had been a year or more of unpredictable, dangerous adjustment, where his magic would build itself to a crescendo of calamitous potential only to crash to nothingness, rendering him incapable of any spells for days on end.
Quickly, Sherlock adjusted his vision, looking beyond the lights of Lestrade and his men to the haze that lingered around the dead man, thick and wraith-like in smoky coils. 'He was possessed.' He swept his fingers through the vapour, feeling the subtle memory of black stone and the ridges of scallop shells beneath his skin. 'Definitely by Moran. He's not got a body in this realm any more, but he had enough strength to claim one and then kill it.'
'Why?' Greg called out, his voice distorted, and Sherlock realised that his wards, absent for far too long, had sprung up around him in vicious sapphire veils, far thicker than necessary. Pulling them back under control made his head hurt and his muscles burn, as if he were straining with all his might to hold back the tide. Like this, his magic was too much to control, and the sprite felt like something fractured and wrong: not his to hold. With one last glance around the alleyway, he took in all the details that he could before physically pushing the sprite out of his hand and back towards John.
The sudden loss made Sherlock's knees shake, his senses shutting down to almost nothing but the few, mundane ones that kept him connected to the real world. His stomach clenched with nausea as he tried to adjust, his head letting out a throb as he splayed one hand against the alley wall, waiting for the disorientation of being struck half-senseless to pass.
'It's a message.' He pressed his lips together, swallowing the greasy feeling at the back of his throat and feeling John step closer, a short wall of comfort. Blinking his eyes open, Sherlock focussed on Lestrade. 'He'll be back in Moriarty's realm, or what's left of it. He wanted us to know he wasn't gone.'
'Can he get out?' Donovan asked, folding her arms and running her tongue over her teeth as she surveyed Sherlock through narrowed eyes, her gaze darting to the gleam of light that hovered by John's shoulder.
Sherlock shook his head, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose as he tried to understand the demon's motives. Why would it use the last of its strength to send a melodramatic message when he could have begun to draw a following or maintained possession?
'Not without being summoned or bound. If there were any of the cult in active service, that might be a possibility. Either you've missed something in your investigations or there's something we're not seeing.' He looked at Lestrade, watching the DI shrug his shoulders. 'Double-check the shrine and the homes of his followers. Look for anything that indicates Moriarty's worshippers were more numerous than we thought.'
'What about you?'
Sherlock glanced at the sprite by John's shoulder, bigger now than it had been that morning, as if fed by the brief connection back to the field of magic around them. 'I'll ask around,' he replied, knowing that both John and Lestrade would realise he wasn't talking about his usual, mortal informants. 'Demons are normally standard in their behaviour, but Moran's not fitting the pattern. There's something I've failed to observe.'
'That'll be a first,' Lestrade murmured, a crooked, worried smile on his lips. 'Christ, I really thought this was over.'
'If Moran were a vengeance demon, I would put this down as petty scaremongering, but he's not. Moriarty wouldn't bother using one of those as an agent – they're too unpredictable.' Sherlock shut his eyes, blinking hard to try and clear the lingering haze from his vision, both normal and higher.
'I'm guessing we're safe to say his name?' Greg asked, nodding his head in understanding at Sherlock's confirmation. 'I'll let you know what I find. Keep me informed, and for God's sake take it easy. If you're right, Moran's not going anywhere for a while, and you look fit to drop.'
'He's got a point,' John said quietly, resting his hand on Sherlock's elbow as the police set about their work, processing the bodies and collecting evidence. Occasional, furtive glances were cast in their direction, but Sherlock ignored them in favour of watching John, reading the expressions that darted like shoals of fish across the depths of his face. 'Please can we go back to Baker Street?'
'Did Mycroft tell you that?' he asked, ignoring John's brief, guilty twitch in favour of savouring the feeling of John's hand in his. He led Sherlock through the throng of police as if such physical contact was commonplace and natural, rather than something that made Anderson sneer and Lestrade raise an eyebrow. 'You're not normally so polite.'
John grimaced. 'He said it would make the compulsion stop.'
Sherlock snorted, the noise coming out more weak and strained than he would have liked. 'A trick to hide the symptoms, rather than a cure,' he muttered. 'Better that you learn to understand and control it than rely on altered wording.'
'It's not forever,' John pointed out, trying to hail down a taxi and huffing in annoyance when one obeyed the idle lift of Sherlock's hand. 'Once your soul is back in you, everything will go back to normal.' John sounded so hopeful, but the smile on his face slipped as he took in Sherlock's expression. 'Won't it?'
He did not reply, sliding into the taxi and instructing the driver towards home as John settled at his side. The weight of John's gaze and the burden of his worry transmitted itself along the tenuous empathy that seemed to connect them via the brazen orb of his soul. The sprite hovered between them, equidistant and balanced, making the cabbie cast nervous glances in its direction before he snapped, 'No magic in the cab.'
John's tight noise of discomfort made Sherlock glance his way, watching the fading mist of demanifestation with indifference. It was only when he sensed the blade of concern from John that he realised what seemed mundane to him was cause for distress. He reached out, brushing his bare fingers over the back of John's hand and speaking in a low voice. 'It's not gone, it's just made itself so it can't be seen by normal eyes.'
The waxy pallor of John's cheeks didn't lessen, and nor did the tense line of his lips. Sherlock rarely bothered to consider what the world must be like to people who weren't him. When he did, he concluded it must be a lesser place, the limited scope of their abilities meaning they could only see a fragment of the picture, rather than the entire scene. John, for example, could wander through London oblivious to the flux and change around him. It was only when it came to injury and illness that his abilities exceeded Sherlock's and his true skills came to the fore.
However, those talents were no good to him now, and Sherlock considered his options. Like having an ability for certain academic subjects, magical specialisation tended to be as much about nature as nurture, rooted somewhere in brain composition and genetic code. However, John did not need the depths and breadth of Sherlock's magical expertise. He merely needed to know which door to open in his head which would allow him to observe unimpeded.
With a quick glance at the cabbie, Sherlock turned in his seat, facing John and nudging his wrist before holding out both his hands, palm up. He had never been the best teacher; his patience was short, but this was not about explaining theory. It was about showing John the way.
'What –?' John began, already sliding his hands into Sherlock's grip, immediately trusting.
'Shh.' Sherlock shook his head, turning to glare at the driver again, who appeared to be looking more at them than the road. 'The cab will make this easier. I'm just showing you.' He silently cursed at the inability of the English language to explain what he meant. 'It's the same thing you do when you're checking a patient over for a malignant curse, just on a different level. Look in, not at.'
'Look in what?' John asked. 'You?'
'No.' Sherlock clenched his jaw, because this was harder. How to explain to John that it was not about outlines and limitations? It was not about the physical world, but the transience that lay over it like a fog, caught up in everything: people, buildings, the sky and the ground beneath their feet. 'Air. Just look at the air in the car.'
He hesitated, before adding, 'Try not to look out the window.' It was unlikely John would be able to see anything beyond the pane. Like a newborn opening its eyes for the first time, a new second sight took time to evolve into far-reaching vision. Still, it was probably best to warn him, just in case. It was one thing to view a single, demanifested soul. Quite another to see the thronging hive that was London, with all its ghosts and spirits, demons, shields, auras and other magical ephemera.
Gently, he slipped his hands down so that the index and middle fingers of each pressed against John's pulse. The expression on his face was one of absolute concentration, and Sherlock lifted his right hand, leaning forward until their brows touched as he rested his palm along the side of John's face. A strong physical connection would help, and Sherlock could not bring himself to linger at the edges of John's body.
'I'm not seeing anything except the inside of my own eyelids,' John muttered, his breath fluttering over Sherlock's lips. 'What am I meant to be looking for?'
Sherlock rolled his eyes, reminding himself that, like most of the world's population, John's magic was very much rooted in the physical. He and Mycroft were the exception, rather than the rule, both with specialisations that transcended the reality in which they lived. To someone with no experience of that, it must be like standing on the shore but not knowing how to approach the ocean.
Taking a deep breath, he focussed, mentally reaching out to his soul and feeling the silken connection strengthen. This time, it was not an overwhelming rush of power and sensation. Part of that was because of the metal of the taxi and the spells imbued within it keeping London's dross from his senses, but it was also because, this time, Sherlock was more prepared. He did not seize on the invisible presence, but brushed against it, gently blurring the line of it and him until he could reach out to John and give his mind a faint, magical nudge in the right direction.
He saw the moment when John opened his eyes, and then really looked. The shift in perception reflected in his iris: a brief wave of brighter blue as his pupils constricted, taking in the gleaming chaos of stars all around them.
It was not one single light, but a nebula brimming with chemical hues: magnesium blue and golden sulphur, copper's emerald gleam and the purple blaze of potassium chloride. The colours traversed the spaces between diamond chips of gleaming illumination, each no bigger than a fingernail and yet somehow also infinite.
'This is –' John's free hand reached out, moving through the ghost-like vision. It made the mists swirl and the stars within waltz, humming in a joyful symphony at his touch even as Sherlock's stomach clenched with heat. 'Beautiful. God, Sherlock. This is you?'
The awe in John's voice made Sherlock's mouth go dry, his heart thudding beneath his ribs as the air seemed to flee his lungs, leaving him gasping beneath the sensation of John's caress. Perhaps it would have been a better idea to conduct this in the privacy of Baker Street, but John's need for reassurance had been desperate. Sherlock forced himself to concentrate on the words leaving John's lips and stirring the air between them, rather than the electrical shocks of pleasure that ricocheted through his frame.
'Does everyone look like this?' John asked, cupping a hand around one of the infantile stars before releasing it again. 'To you, I mean. Is this how you see people?'
Swallowing tightly, Sherlock shook his head and tried to speak. 'That's not how it works. In normal circumstances, a human soul isn't visible. It's something internal, intrinsically tied with who they are: their magic, their existence.' He cleared his throat, trying to remove its husky edge. 'I've often theorised that it manifests in the colours and intensity of their spells and wards, giving them an aura. I've always seen people as light, except you.'
'What am I?' John asked, still looking around in amazement. Sherlock wondered if he could even see the faint haze of the taxi's outline or feel the pressure of the seats supporting their bodies. He seemed utterly absorbed and, for the first time in days, truly content, his shoulders relaxed and his lips parted around every breath.
'Heat.' Sherlock said in the same tone of voice a man in the desert might say “water”, all longing and need. 'You've always been heat. I don't know why.'
John cocked his head, a hundred questions lining up behind his eyes, but Sherlock spoke quickly, knowing they were running out of time. Even the simple effort of this was exhausting. It was not dissimilar to going on a hunt, except that rather than moving to another realm, he and John had simply stepped outside themselves.
To the taxi driver, they would appear motionless and silent, and Sherlock hastened to explain. 'I just wanted to show you where it goes. If you practice, you'll be able to check it any time you want.'
'Until it's back where it belongs,' John added, his voice underlined by a bedrock of stubbornness. 'Once it's in you, I won't be able to see it any more, will I?'
Sherlock closed his eyes, opening them again to the bland view of the taxi as he sank back into reality. His hand had not moved from its place against John's cheek and their brows were still pressed together, noses almost touching. John was staring at him, his blue eyes dark, but conflicted, as if he still could not trust what he was seeing. It would be so easy for Sherlock to change the angle, to brush his lips across John's mouth and steal away his questions along with his next breath, but before the thought had a chance to settle in his mind, the driver's rough voice interrupted.
'Oi, you're here.'
Sherlock jerked away, glaring at the back of the man's head and thinking a silent curse before answering John's question. 'I don't think it's going to be that simple,' he murmured, reaching into his coat for his wallet to pay the cabbie before climbing out of the car.
'What do you mean? Sherlock?' John shoved his way out, trotting over to Sherlock's side. 'Please, I need you to tell me. Between you being like this and Mycroft being all cryptic, I've not got a fucking clue what's going on.'
'No-one has.' Sherlock pressed a hand to his forehead, trying to dispel the ache that lingered in his temples. He sighed as John pursed his lips and folded his arms. 'You need to keep an open mind. You're treating this like it's an illness to cure, when that might not be the case.'
'Your soul isn't where it should be,' John pointed out, taking the keys from Sherlock's shaking grasp. 'Doctors hate it when body parts aren't in the right place. They tend not to work.'
'A soul isn't biological.' Sherlock let John bully him up the stairs, his footsteps heavy and dogged.
'It's still a part of you, Sherlock, and it shouldn't be hovering around outside you. It's –' John let out a tight noise of frustration as they made their way into 221B, automatically turning so that Sherlock could help him out of his coat as he always did. 'I just don't like the idea that Moriarty's done permanent damage.'
With a shake of his head, John reached up to bat Sherlock's fingers aside and divested him of his scarf, coat and suit jacket before nudging him towards the couch. 'It can wait. All of it. Moran, Moriarty...' He shifted his shoulders, the unvoiced addition of us drifting in the air between them. 'Lie down before you keel over. You look done in.'
Reluctantly, Sherlock did as he was told, stretching out along the sofa. He meant to wander in his mind palace, but his body seemed to have other ideas. His muscles steadily relaxed, his eyelids drooping to the sounds of John making tea. He had not realised that the once instinctive act of reaching out for his magic had become so exhausting, and he clenched his teeth in frustration, barely hearing John settle on the floor beside the couch.
That would be uncomfortable for him before too long, but Sherlock suspected John was still uncertain after their brief separation, and he could not bring himself to be the voice of reason. Not when this was what he wanted. John was close enough to reach out and touch, and Sherlock curled his body, nudging his forehead into the back of John's shoulder and giving a shivery sigh. He half-expected to be chastised about personal space, but instead John relaxed, a contented hum echoing in the barrel of his chest before coalescing into murmured words.
'Please go to sleep, Sherlock. We can figure out what to do when you wake up.'
He wanted to protest, because John was still unsure and Moran was still a problem, but this time, exhaustion gave him no choice. He drifted off to the steady pulse of John's breathing and felt, just before he slipped away, the brush of tentative fingers in the chaos of his curls.
John did not remember falling asleep. One moment he was in Baker Street, sat by Sherlock's side like a guard dog, the next he could smell the scent of desert sand and sparse grass curling in his nose, bringing him back to a land he had left in the footsteps of his past. Sometimes, he could gladly throttle Ella for making the ridiculous suggestion of lucid dreaming. She had been so keen for him to control his subconscious, but now tattered remnants of a war-torn nation only served as a back-drop for this: his determined search for Sherlock.
It had started in the hospital, when John had dropped off at Sherlock's bedside and opened his eyes to find his best friend dying on the cot beneath the desert sun– not even a human body but a soul spread too thin. He could remember being able to see every crease of the rough linens through Sherlock's body and the sick, terrible knowledge that his friend was fading. There were vague recollections of days spent bathing wounds and nights on patrol, pacing back and forth while distant gunfire blazed.
He would wake in the hospital to find Sherlock still unconscious and vacant, and before long John found himself yearning for sleep once more. At least there, in that fantasy, there was something he could do other than wait and clutch the feeble remains of Sherlock's soul.
At last, there had been the horror of that final day when the doctor's prognosis, never that great to begin with, had started to grow dire. He had joined Sherlock on the pallet then, beneath that endless sky. He had begged and pleaded and prayed as if any of it could help. Twelve hours later, Sherlock had opened his eyes to the reality of a shattered soul and a broken body – both in need of healing.
Since then, every time John slept, he found himself here, looking hopelessly for Sherlock amidst the scrubby land and unforgiving peaks. In his waking hours, John wondered why he was so obsessed with the hunt. All he could recall was the steadiness of his marching feet and the slick feeling that, wherever he was, Sherlock was vulnerable: captive or exposed somehow to the horrors John's nightmares had to offer.
He never found him.
John screwed his eyes up tight as he tried to slip deeper, beyond the reach of whatever bizarre half-conscious state he was in. He could feel the cheap, sparse mattress of the bed beneath the cedar tree supporting his back. Its narrow confines were inadequate for his breadth and its sheets were little more than veils, but he tried to ignore them as he turned over with a huff only to smack into a long, lean sprawl at his side.
He grabbed a fistful of expensive cotton shirt at the same time as a strong hand gripped his hip, preventing him from rolling out onto the craggy earth where the solitary tree grew. For a moment, John lay there, staring in surprise. He could feel Sherlock along every inch of him, long legs and bony knees, the blunt angle of his hips and the flare of his ribs. They were both fully-clothed, although he belatedly realised most of Sherlock's buttons were undone to reveal the snow-white expanse of a bare chest.
John was wearing a plain white t-shirt, rather than anything bulky and woollen. In fact, he was fairly sure if he looked under the sheet, his legs would be clad in fatigues. The heavy burden of his boots weighed down his feet – a familiar sensation of too many nights under desert stars where he had fallen into bed and into slumber in the same instant.
He belonged here; Sherlock didn't. Moonlight bathed the landscape like a second sun, capturing the night in Sherlock's hair and finding its reflection in his eyes. There was no sign of injury on him now, nor lingering transparency. His skin was warm and real beneath John's fingertips, yet his pulse and the swell of each breath was conspicuously absent.
'Look at me?'
John lifted his eyes back to Sherlock's face at the command, a frown pleating his brow as he found himself in the spotlight of deep scrutiny. That gaze searched his face, not a limpid, longing look but something knowing. It made John swallow, glancing away before meeting Sherlock's eyes again. 'What?'
'This isn't a dream.' Sherlock licked his lips, the fleeting dart of his tongue briefly tantalising before it was gone. He pulled himself free and struggled to his feet. John got a brief view of well-fitted trousers over the strong curve of Sherlock's arse, emphasised by the debauched ruck of cotton where the shirt was coming untucked. Somehow, he didn't think Sherlock's clothes were that tight in reality.
'Looks like it is to me,' he murmured, propping himself up on his elbows and watching Sherlock pad over to the tree, his bare feet pallid against the dark stone of the land. They shared a brief glance, and John saw something hot flash in Sherlock's eyes before it was shaken away. 'This is Afghanistan, the war –'
'I know. You brought me here when you saved me from Moriarty. I woke up on that bed, under this cedar. I thought it was a product of my imagination, but it was too –' He bent down, picking up a handful of thin, dusty soil and letting the wind blow it from his grasp. '– Too real.'
John flopped back down on the mattress, watching Sherlock press one hand to the tree-trunk and lean his weight against it as he ducked his head in thought. He had no idea why his subconscious had chosen to picture him like this – scintillating and keen, rather than sprawled and naked beneath him as he would prefer – but that didn't mean he wasn't going to enjoy the view.
The moonlight bathed Sherlock's lean frame, picking out the sharpness of his cheekbones and the angles of his body in silver and plunging the secretive, dusky hollows at the base of his throat into eclipse. It made John want to chase the light across that alabaster skin with his tongue and set his teeth to the crest of his clavicle. His lips burned with the urge to press kisses into the dewy heat at Sherlock's jaw and blaze a trail ever downwards, over the straining cage of Sherlock's ribs and the barely-there swell of his stomach before dropping lower.
John licked his lips, breathing out a sigh as he decided that the narrow distance between himself and where Sherlock stood was practically profane. He had spent days searching for him in this place, and now that they had finally found themselves in the same location, John had no intention of letting him go.
Getting to his feet, he absently adjusted his erection in his fatigues before padding closer, spreading one hand across the solid line of Sherlock's shoulder-blades and curling the other around his hip. 'Come back to bed,' he urged, keeping his voice soft and low. 'You'll get cold.'
Sherlock's eyes darted to his, his pupil swelling to overshadow his iris as John gave him a mischievous look, completely unashamed. That was the best thing about dreams: no awkwardness or explanations, no concerns about a friendship trashed by failure. It wasn't real, and therefore neither were the consequences.
Sherlock swayed, his body moving in a faint twitch of longing towards the mattress before he stopped, shaking his head and turning to grab John by the shoulders. 'Not even a lucid fantasy would be this clear. You wouldn't have to walk the intervening space between us, you wouldn't be suffering discomfort from –' His gaze darted downwards, one eyebrow lifting in appreciative implication '– your current state of arousal, and more to the point, you would not have had to invite me back to bed.' His voice dropped in its register, the gravelly tone full of promise. 'I would already be there.'
John sighed. Clearly, his brain hated him. 'Fine, if it's not a dream, then what is it?'
'Why are the nights warm?'
Sherlock gestured around them at the darkness, uninterrupted by anything like human civilisation. 'Afghanistan suffers a typical climate for the region. Limited cloud-cover, so the land's heat radiates back into the atmosphere at night. You said it yourself “Come back to bed, you'll get cold.” but it's pleasantly temperate both day and night.'
'I don't know,' John scratched his neck and shrugged his shoulders. 'Ella spent hours with me making me construct it properly; it's meant to look real.'
'It is real,' Sherlock retorted, picking up a rock and pressing it into John's hand. Its sand-worn surface was smooth beneath his fingertips, polished to a dull shine by the creaking passage of the ages across this forgotten land. 'So am I. I'm not a figment of your imagination, I'm something autonomous, and I'm –' He frowned around at the landscape in confusion. 'I'm here; wherever this is, it's not inside your head.'
'Prove it,' John challenged, sweeping one hand across his face. 'Tell me something I don't know or couldn't have figured out for myself. Something only the real Sherlock hasn't already told me.'
Sherlock made a tense, abortive gesture before flicking his fingers through his hair as if he were trying to shake his thoughts into life. 'Could you narrow it down a bit? The scope of things you don't know is vast.'
It was tempting to remind Sherlock of the whole Heliocentrism fiasco, but John decided against it as he folded his arms and raised his eyebrows. He watched the dance of Sherlock's fingers from the twist of his curls to the swell of his lip, his thumb skimming over his pout in consideration.
'Moriarty,' Sherlock said eventually. 'His real name meant “the Black Spider”; Irish Gaelic, which tells you all you need to know about his origins. His realm was full of offerings, the earliest of which were primitive at best. He had a wing-back leather chair.' Sherlock frowned, glancing away as if distracted by a tangent. 'Incongruous, now I think of it, but I assume even demons like somewhere to sit.'
John narrowed his eyes, his certainty beginning to waver. Some of it, he hoped he would have been able to guess, but there was so much information in Sherlock's words that he found himself looking around at the Afghani landscape anew, searching for the flaws that would tell him his initial impression was false.
'You're still not convinced.' Sherlock paused his pacing, coming to a halt in front of John and looking down into his face. 'Why not?'
John shrugged, glancing back at the bed without really seeing the tangle of sheets. 'How can this not be a dream?' he asked. 'I've been having it since not long after I moved into Baker Street, well before all this mess with Moriarty began. Now you're telling me it's not what it seems?'
'I didn't say it didn't start out that way.' Sherlock pressed his hands to his hips, ducking his head as he flexed his toes against the sand-strewn rock beneath his feet. 'I'm sure that, initially, this was nothing but a product of your sleeping mind. That's undoubtedly where its roots lie, but –' He looked up, clearly reading the lingering confusion in John's expression, because he sighed before changing tack. 'Fine, tell me something you want me to do or say when we wake up. If I remember, surely that will prove that I am actually here?' He jabbed his finger at the ground as John sighed.
Sherlock was watching him expectantly, his head tilted and his eyes bright. One dark curl had fallen across his forehead, a comma of black against the pallor of his skin. John reached out to brush it aside, noticing the way Sherlock's lips parted and his body leaned forward into the touch. Neither action seemed conscious, and it was that more than anything that gave John his reservations, because this Sherlock wanted him. He reciprocated John's unspoken desire, because that's what John longed for.
The real Sherlock didn't.
John bowed his head, thinking how unfair it was that he could be so exhausted, even when he was asleep. He had shut his eyes in search of rest and instead found himself here, apparently arguing with a figment of his imagination in the form of his flatmate.
'Fine,' he said, thinking quickly back over the day and remembering that moment in the car, when Mycroft had quietly handed him one question after another for Sherlock, laying them down like breadcrumbs. He hadn't found the courage to voice any of them in the taxi on the way home, but now.... Well, if it was all in his head, then Sherlock would never know, and if it wasn't then perhaps he would finally get something like a straight answer.
'When I wake up, you're going to tell me why our shields combine so easily, and why your sprites ignore everyone else but can't seem to get enough of me.'
John frowned as Sherlock stepped back, looking briefly vulnerable before he lifted his chin and raised an eyebrow.
'I didn't think you'd noticed.'
'It's a bit hard not to. For God’s sake, Sherlock, your wards let me in. Even in the cathedral, I could still get through when they tore other people to dust.' John had been too panicked to think much of it at the time, clutching at straws in a fitful effort to rescue something of Sherlock from Moriarty's grasp, but now he could see that he had hit a nerve. Sherlock knew something, or at least had theories, and for whatever reason he was keeping them to himself.
'But to deduce they're connected...' Sherlock's puzzled frown became a scowl as he turned away. 'Oh, obvious. Mycroft. You should know better than to listen to him.'
'Sometimes, he's the only one that tells me anything,' John pointed out, tugging on Sherlock's elbow and guiding him back around to face him. 'I mean it, Sherlock. You want to prove whatever little theory you've got going here? Then you need to answer that question when you wake up.'
'And if I don't? If I pretend I don't remember?'
John swallowed, balling up the thin veneer of his courage and lifting his chin, because Mycroft was right. If it was something straightforward, then Sherlock would share the answer, rather than reacting defensively, like someone with a secret to hide. 'I'll ask again, and I'll keep asking until you tell me. Your brother obviously thinks it's something I should know, and I'm inclined to agree. If it wasn't important, you wouldn't be trying to avoid it.'
'I'm not –'
'Then what, Sherlock? What aren't you telling me?' John watched him clench his jaw, his face set into stubborn lines before he blew out an irritated breath through his nose.
'If I explain now, it rather defeats the object of the exercise,' he said, and John knew a frankly dodgy delaying tactic when he heard it. 'If you want to know, you're going to have to wake up.'
Like the thin film of a bubble bursting to nothing, Afghanistan vanished. John opened his eyes, lifting his head with a jerk of surprise only to groan as his neck protested. The gloom of evening was drawing in across Baker Street, chased off by the weak glow of a couple of lamps. He had fallen asleep with his head propped on the same cushions that Sherlock was currently using as a mattress.
Sparks ignited in John's memory, unfurling the recollection as clear as day for his viewing pleasure. Normally his dreams were a mess of gunfire and misery on the bad days, and a hazy sprawl of lust and gasping, shivering moans on the good ones. Yet now he could remember every word Sherlock had spoken, and his challenging question lingered in the forefront of his mind, awaiting a response.
Glancing at Sherlock, he realised he was being watched. Those expressions, so often hidden behind the mask of Sherlock's disdain or disinterest, were clear to see. He was giving John a half-hearted glare, as if he had been backed into an uncomfortable corner, and John frowned, his breath catching in his throat as he waited.
'Definitely real,' Sherlock murmured, rolling onto his back and steepling his fingers, pressing their tips to his chin as he perused the ceiling. 'I remember it. Interesting'
John's mind reeled in a brief tumble of confusion over reality before he clung frantically to the question he had asked. He was damned if he was going to let Sherlock keep his silence. With a jab of his finger into Sherlock's waist, he dragged him out of whatever portion of his mind palace he was currently trying to occupy. 'Then you remember what I asked. Start talking.'
'What, no “please”?' Sherlock lifted an eyebrow, and John remembered the compulsion of earlier that day. Yet even though his previous words had been an order, the command did not shove its way from him to Sherlock. They were just words, nothing more. 'Your question is irrelevant.'
John caught the hand Sherlock waved in emphasis, locking his fingers around the slender bones of his wrist and holding it still. 'I know I don't have your massive intellect, but please don't treat me like an idiot. I want an answer.'
'It's hardly the highest priority, John. Don't you understand? You and I ended up in the same place – a dream but not. The possibilities –'
'Sherlock!' John interrupted sharply, knowing that if he let him, his friend would rush off down a tangent and he would never find out the truth. 'You can think about that later. Whatever it is, whatever is happening, you'll figure it out, but right now I need to know about the magic.'
Sherlock set his jaw in a stubborn line, rolling his eyes before sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the sofa. After a moment's consideration he slid onto the floor to sit at John's side. He was chewing his lip, and John could see him thinking through possible options. It made his muscles tense in anticipation, trying to understand what could lie ahead as Sherlock appeared to search fruitlessly for a distraction.
At last, those slender shoulders slumped and he folded his arms, staring petulantly down at his lap. Defeated. Yet the look he cast in John's direction was neither childish nor angry. It brimmed with uncertainty, completely alien on Sherlock's face as he cleared his throat and began to speak.
'Magic isn't just something people can do, it's part of who they are. As such, it tends to respond to emotional variables in the practitioner.' He said it clinically, like something out of a text book, and John narrowed his eyes, waiting for Sherlock to continue. 'An upset child, for example, is more likely to display volatile magical practice than one who is calm. The same with adults.'
'I know that. In case you've forgotten, I am a doctor. I do have to deal with spells from patients in emotional distress.'
'It’s not just negative emotion that causes it.' Now he was glaring away and to the side, looking for all the world like he would rather be anywhere but here. 'Positive feelings can alter the way spells behave. Make them more powerful against some people and practically useless against others, or result in unusual phenomena and – '
'Sherlock,' John interrupted, reaching out to touch the hard ridge of his back in an effort to make the insufferable man meet his gaze. 'Our wards don't just fail to keep each other out, they combine against other threats. That first night, in Bethnal Green with the dead conjurer, I pulled you out of a hunt. I shouldn't have been able to approach you, much less help your magic.' John wet his lips, thinking furiously. 'I don't know what it means, but I know it's significant.'
John had his pride, and begging was not something in which he indulged lightly. If this had been anyone else, he would have trusted his intuition and guessed what they were trying to say. It did not take a deductive genius to realise what kind of sentiment could be responsible for the extreme reaction of their magic, but John barely dared to let himself hope.
Sherlock picked at a bit of fluff on his trousers, his chest swelling with a deep breath before he swallowed tightly and seemed to force the words past his lips. 'I care for you.' He froze a little, as if expecting some kind of retribution for the confession before hurrying on. 'My shields let you in because I want you close. My magic responds to your occasional interference because I trust you, and the sprites adore you because –'
It was hard to believe; John was breathless with the knowledge of the last words that had not been given voice. This was Sherlock Holmes, to whom sentiment was nothing short of repulsive, and yet here he was saying that his power responded to John because of how he felt.
'You care for me?' John repeated, reaching out before snatching his hand back and clearing his throat. This had to be torture for Sherlock, but John needed to make sure that his frantic hope was not leading him astray. 'As a friend?'
The temptation to lie was obvious. John could read it in the minuscule furrow of Sherlock's brow and the micro-movement of his eyes, but a moment later those subtle tells had passed. Sherlock's shoulders sagged, his breath leaving him in a disbelieving rush of embarrassed annoyance.
His cheeks were flushed dull rose, a graceful blush of embarrassment and uncertainty that John tried and failed not to admire. 'Must you be so obtuse?' Sherlock asked, but there was no bite to his words as he glanced away, seeming to consider something before he reached up, his palm pressed to the side of John's face as it had been in the taxi.
John's heart stumbled before racing into double-time, his mouth abruptly dry and his lungs indifferent to the whole inconvenience of breathing as Sherlock leaned in closer. There was a moment of fleeting concern – fear that this was something John was orchestrating without conscious thought – but one look into the darkness of Sherlock's eyes cast aside the first wave of doubt. Silver irises darkened to slate, and those pupils were focussed on him as if he were the most amazing thing Sherlock had ever had the good fortune to observe.
John tilted his head, his heart pounding like cannon-fire as those soft, full lips brushed temptingly against his own.
Sherlock kissed him, and John's soul soared.
Chapter 4: Transformation
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned."
- Christopher Marlowe 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus'
A simple caress, the brush of one mouth to another; Sherlock knew the theory of a kiss, had practised it with both hunger and indifference in the past, but nothing compared to the sensation of John's lips parting beneath the apprehensive pressure of his own. He tried to stay aware, looking for signs of reluctance, but trembling nerves were shaking apart the linearity of his thoughts, surrendering him to a base tempest of sensation.
Brief annoyance at the awkward angle – he and John twisted where they sat, connected by their lips and the lines of Sherlock's palm – was obliterated by the electric thrill of John's tongue flickering against his. Warmth and promise trailed across his skin as the kiss changed from something stolen to something shared. Timid chastity fell away when John gave a rough groan, capturing a deeper taste of Sherlock's mouth with a bold swipe that left him breathless. He was lost in the flavour and sensation of John this close, so near that the boundaries of clothes became irrelevant.
Capable fingers caught in his collar, smoothing up the stanchion of his neck and over the drugged rhythm of his pulse to linger at his jaw, guiding Sherlock's angle. He moaned when John moved away, breaking the contact long enough for him to shift, straddling Sherlock's thighs. Immediately, he ducked down and nibbled Sherlock's bottom lip, heavy breaths mingling between them as John settled.
His touch eased through chaotic curls as his lips tempted Sherlock into sacrilegious worship. His body was pressed to Sherlock's chest, supported in its surrender, and Sherlock thrilled at the realisation that this man – this soldier who had been wounded and beaten at the hands of war – could offer such faith to him, of all people. John gave himself without reservation, and Sherlock could only gasp his wordless gratitude, tipping his head back as John's lips abandoned his swollen mouth to burn across the leaping beat of life beneath his skin.
'Oh, God, Sherlock,' John whispered, trailing across pale flesh. 'You – this is –' He took a shuddering breath, leaning back to blink open half-lidded eyes, his fingers wandering the topography of Sherlock's face in rapture as Sherlock's hands gripped John's hips. 'This is you, right? It's not – there's nothing –'
John's inarticulacy was not a rare occurrence, but Sherlock could not help the dark flare of pleasure that this extreme was because of him and the way he made John feel. It was a mutual experience, and he swallowed tightly, trying to bully his mind into producing sentences.
'I'm not under the influence of anything, or anyone,' he promised, failing to hide the nadir of his voice, which was little more than a rumbling growl. John shifted in his lap, causing the flushed hardness of Sherlock's growing erection to intensify. His grip spasmed, unsure whether to ease John away or draw him close and grind. However, the noise John made when he surrendered to the latter was worth the indecision: a moan that encased a symphony of need, making Sherlock twitch and rock.
John whined, bestowing a string of feverish kisses to Sherlock's jaw before reaching his mouth again, pulling them both into the messy, wet, glorious taste of each other. Brief thoughts of poise, finesse and dignity became dying stars beneath the surge of desire that shot along Sherlock's spine, coiling in the pit of his stomach and igniting fever down his thighs.
John's hands, tremulous in a way that had nothing to do with PTSD, shifted down Sherlock's chest. Soft cotton scraped over the attentive pinkness of his nipples and lower, tantalisingly close to the obscenely hard bulge at his groin. He grabbed Sherlock's wrist, guiding his palm to the answering ridge beneath the denim of John's jeans, scorching and solid beneath Sherlock's questing fingertips.
He stifled a moan, sitting forward to nuzzle the skin beneath John's chin, scraping with the blunt edge of his teeth and feeling the rasp at the frontier of John's stubble. His eyes were closed and his senses dimmed to everything but this: John's desert heat around him, sinewy arms over his shoulders and palms tracing frantic, clutching patterns across his back.
Abruptly, John tensed, not with delight but surprise, and Sherlock made a gentle sound. His first thought was that someone had interrupted: Mrs Hudson getting an eyeful, perhaps. If it was Mycroft, Sherlock would be forced to commit justifiable fratricide.
'Sherlock?' John's question cut through the haze, not embarrassed or amused but baffled, and Sherlock followed his gaze, staring at the sprite that gleamed above their heads. It no longer glowed plain white or weak yellow but familiar, bloody carmine. Yet that was not all there was to see. All around them, weaving in and out like an intricate web, filaments of light glistened. 'What's it doing?'
Experimentally, Sherlock reached out and plucked one of the trails. He was not sure what shocked him more: the inferno that shot along his nerves or the way John jolted, spine arching and his body trembling.
'Christ,' John choked, his hand covering his mouth and his expression torn between lust and embarrassment. 'What – is it reacting to us? What we're doing?' He shook his head, mimicking Sherlock's gesture and touching the cobweb-fine thread nearest to him.
Sherlock jerked, almost tipping John off his lap as his muscles responded, his mind made silent by the overwhelming sensation of – there were not even words for it. Desire, need and sentiment mingled in a kaleidoscope that left his skin pulsing over his bones. It made him want to push John to the floor and dive after him, losing himself in all he had to offer, but it also spawned the urge to clutch him close, safe where no one could ever get near him again. It left Sherlock's mind whirling and his chest fluttering in short, staccato breaths. The same sensation washed over him whenever John cupped his soul close: secure and loved, but this was magnified a thousand-fold – a better high than anything he had experienced – as unnerving as it was addictive.
'Fuck,' he breathed, the rare curse escaping him unbidden as John's hand rested over his heart and his lips offer tender, delicate homage across his brow. 'Don't do that again.'
'Feels good?' John asked, and there was a hint of laughter in his voice. It made him sound ten years younger, full of mischief and intrigue. 'What the hell is it? You again, like the stars?'
Sherlock parted his lips to reply, but the words caught in his throat as John pulled his hand back, revealing what lay beneath his palm. The other strands were no bigger than a thread of silk, but the light that beamed between John's hand and Sherlock's chest was far from delicate. One end was embedded beneath Sherlock's ribs and the other anchored deep in John's palm, right over the area where there had been scabbed wounds from their confrontation with Moriarty, healed now that John had the time and inclination.
'Oh!' Reaching out, Sherlock explored the unmarked skin, his fingers moving through the tether without interruption. Unlike the thinner fibres around them, now steadily fading from sight as the urgency receded and passion ebbed, it did not incite physical gratification. Instead, it brought the scent of desert and cedar, dust and old, dead tombs.
'Do you know what it is?' John asked, his voice gruff as he shifted back, settling lower over Sherlock's legs. He looked as if all his uncertainties were flooding back, bringing with them the jetsam of regret. 'Is it – should I be worried?'
Sherlock lifted an eyebrow, trying to foresee John's likely reaction. It was unlikely to be favourable, considering his ongoing concerns that Sherlock's behaviour was being influenced. If he was right, then this new development would not put those fears to rest, and he swallowed, forcing himself to think.
'Were you bleeding back at the cathedral?' he asked, trying to keep his voice light. 'When you won me back from Moriarty?'
John nodded. 'The test tube with the sprites in it shattered. That's where the cuts came from.' He wriggled the fingers of his left hand in emphasis, a weak smile slipping off his face to be replaced with a frown. 'Why?'
'You were holding them in that hand when you – saved me?' He chose his words with care, wishing he could entice John close again and return to a few minutes ago, where their only concern in the world had been each other. Now, he could feel the distance stretching between them, and there was nothing he could do to bridge it, even though John was right there.
'Claimed you, you mean,' John muttered. He dropped his hands to Sherlock's thighs, rubbing his palms absently across the fabric as the misty golden ribbon looped around his wrist like a vine. 'Yeah, I think so. Is that important?' He pursed his lips, giving a mirthless smile. 'What am I saying? Enchantments and blood were made for each other. So what exactly have I done to you?'
Sherlock grasped John's elbows as he shook his head. 'Nothing deliberate. It's not your fault.' He saw the pain creasing John's face, emotional, not physical, and wished he knew how to banish it. Most people would automatically implement methods of comfort, but Sherlock's experience of such things was limited. He could only brush his thumbs over John's arms, trying to restore the tenderness that had fled so abruptly.
'What's not my fault?' John asked, his head down as he glanced at Sherlock from beneath his lashes – vulnerable, not coy.
Sherlock tried to decide how to explain. The problem was not a lack of terminology, but a surfeit of it, all laden with connotations that had no place in a scientific field. Ancient rituals became modern fairy-tales, their real meaning lost beneath a plethora of trite folklore. There was a word for it, for the condition of which the bond was undoubtedly a symptom, but Sherlock bit it back: too complicated and loaded with expectation.
His voice creaked in his throat, lost around too many aborted sentences, and Sherlock sighed. The last euphoric cord of the web vanished, leaving the sprite to weave playfully between them, crooning when John reached out to give it a stroke that made Sherlock shiver all the way down to his toes.
'Stop that, I'm trying to think,' he muttered, steepling his fingers beneath his chin.
'Stop thinking, start talking,' John instructed, adding a belated “please” when Sherlock glanced his way. 'How hard can it be? You know what it is, why it was doing that, why this is here.' He gestured to the binding linking them, slowly turning gossamer as it faded from sight. However, much like his soul when it demanifested, Sherlock suspected that invisible was not the same as absent. The web and tether would still be there, occupying a different plane.
'Bond,' he said at last, wincing. The word was not much better than the one which he was attempting to avoid, but it would have to do. 'If my suspicions are correct, which they usually are, you've inadvertently formed a bond between your soul and mine. You and me. Us.' With a jerk of his head, he tried to dispel the knot of words and find the ones that worked. 'It's an ancient ritual used between two mages to share and amplify their power, among other things.'
John blinked, his brow creasing. 'Because I was bleeding when I took your soul from Moriarty? That's all it needed?'
Sherlock took John's hand in his, rubbing his thumb over the back of John's knuckles. He expected John to withdraw, but he remained where he was, waiting for a response. 'It's rarely that simple. There was already a massive amount of energy available due to Moriarty's activities; clearly enough to initiate the procedure.'
John's mood was difficult to read, and the suggestions of emotion Sherlock was receiving were a mess that he could not begin to interpret. 'I should have realised sooner, but I thought most of what I was experiencing was indicative of you being in possession of my soul, rather than a connection taking shape between us. I suppose it has only made itself visible now because it's gained potency over the past few days, the same way the sprite's been increasing in size and power.'
John shook his head, closing his eyes in an obvious effort to gain some distance from the situation. 'I don't understand. What exactly is it doing to us?' He looked like he wanted to claw at his own skull, as if he could somehow force his brain to understand what was happening. 'Is it just our power or is it changing other things? The way we feel? The way we behave?' With a hollow laugh, John clambered off Sherlock's legs. 'Stupid question, I suppose. Most people can't have a bizarre almost-threesome with their partner's soul.' He pursed his lips, looking pale as he plucked absently at the sleeve of his jumper.
'Partner?' Sherlock watched, and for once he could deduce the emotion on John's face: hope, uncertainty, a touch of embarrassment and, smothering it all, the thick shroud of confusion. He was looking at Sherlock as if he were unsure of his reaction – a potential mass of miscommunication already beginning to cloud the situation. Did John believe Sherlock wanted nothing so permanent while, in reality, he was half-breathless with the realisation that John was already thinking in terms of a relationship?
'Whatever,' he mumbled, turning away and shrugging his shoulders, only to look up again as Sherlock got to his feet and touched his arm.
'Partner is good.' He ducked his head to lean his brow against John's, seeing surprise give away to comforting gratitude. His words were not much, but the sentiment provided them both with a foundation of confidence. It was an agreement: whatever was happening around them, with all the uncertainty of Moran and the evolution of the situation with Sherlock's soul, they could rely on each other. He was tempted to seal the accord with a kiss, but he suspected that once he started, he would be lost, and there were too many questions awaiting an answer, the first of which John voiced.
'What do we do now?'
Reluctantly, Sherlock stepped back, moving through to the kitchen and opening the fridge door to stare at the contents as his mind raced. Putting his thoughts into words was second-nature, and he spoke with barely a pause.
'There's not much we can do. I should have seen it before; it's the only answer that accounts for what's been happening. You shouldn't be able to compel me because, power-wise, you're weaker than me.' He examined a carton of Chinese, deeming it edible. 'However, if a bond is forming then that suggests you have access to the magnitude of my power if not the knowledge that goes with it. It also explains how you, or I, or perhaps both of us, have constructed a realm outside the physical in which we can meet.'
'Hang on, what?' John sat down heavily in the kitchen chair, his gaze following Sherlock as he absently put some leftovers in the microwave and pressed the buttons. 'What?'
'Afghanistan. The not-really-dreams.' Sherlock shook his head. At first he had been too injured to consider the possibility, and then simply too disbelieving. Realms were places built by demons, well beyond the capabilities of mages. 'If we initiated a bond when you took me from Moriarty, it makes sense that my being would retreat to a place where it could replenish. In theory, us being tied together in this manner would allow me access to your mental landscape.' He looked over his shoulder. 'You slept at my bedside.'
It was not a question, but John nodded anyway. 'So you got into my head?'
Sherlock tapped his fingers on the kitchen surface, staring blindly down at the floor as he considered the likely process. 'I learnt more in the hours I spent in Moriarty's possession than I have in years. All his knowledge was there for me to see. It's possible that I used it instinctively. I needed a safe-haven, so I constructed one, but rather than it reflecting my existence, it based itself on who you are.'
'A soldier and a healer.' The microwave chimed, and Sherlock gripped the bowl, placing it in front of John and handing him a fork.
He did not reach to take it, instead looking beyond the gleaming tines to meet Sherlock's eyes. 'What are you doing?' He gestured to the meal. 'In all the time we've lived together, this has never happened.'
'It's re-heated leftovers, not five-star gourmet,' Sherlock muttered, reading the fear on John's face as easily as if he had spoken it aloud. 'For God's sake, you're hungry. Despite emotional distress your stomach is rumbling at three minute intervals, unsurprising since the last thing you ate was breakfast. You have not compelled me to make you dinner, and I didn't “feel” it. It's obvious.'
'I've been in that armchair, half-dead from hunger and you've still never put food in front of me. You normally drag me out to a restaurant somewhere, if you notice at all.' John stood up, getting a plate and doling half of the noodles onto it before handing it back to Sherlock. 'Do you see what you're doing? Do you even realise?'
'No, Sherlock. I just – I keep thinking that maybe you only feel this way because you're picking up something from me and it's –'
'Stop.' Sherlock leaned forward, his heart frantic in his chest as he tried to explain. The fretful whimper of the sprite, high like the chime of a crystal wineglass, did not help, and he wondered if it was broadcasting John's distress or his own. He hated the vulnerability that came with expressing sentiment, but he would bear the discomfort if it helped to put John's mind to rest. 'The bond is new – any influence has been in place for six days, three of which I was unconscious. My regard for you, and the visible consequences of it, were evident before all this began. It's simple chronology.'
He took John's hand, thinking furiously. Possession, even one which was benevolent, worked in a single direction: John to Sherlock. However, if he was right and this was a bond, then that was another matter entirely.
Licking his lips, he tried to concentrate. It was not a case of pushing sentiment through to John: the possibility of influence was an unsavoury one that he did not wish to attempt. Instead he was putting his emotion on display, forefront in his mind for John to see.
It was a chaos of imagery: late-night chases and the thrill of success, always magnified by John's presence. The searing jolt of shared moments that never came to fruition and the quiet contentment that made Baker Street home, rather than simply a place that provided shelter. Putting it into something cohesive was an impossible endeavour, but perhaps it was unnecessary.
John's abrupt intake of breath was a loud hiss, and he gripped Sherlock tight, his gratitude obvious. A tremor of surprise wound through Sherlock's body when John's nose nudged against his, closely followed by the shy caress of lips.
'Do you see?' Sherlock asked. With anyone else, he would not have cared whether they understood, but it was imperative that John grasped what he was trying to convey – not just the emotions, but their source. They came from him, rather than any outside influence. Blooms of sentiment had flourished against the odds, and all for John.
His head jerked in a nod, his breath ghosting across Sherlock's cheek as he pulled back. However, this time, he did not relinquish Sherlock's hand, clinging on as if he could not bear to lose the contact. 'Thank you. I care about you too, in case you'd not worked that out for yourself.' John's smile was frail, but present, and an immense improvement over the fog of confusion that seemed to have taken up permanent residence across his features over the past few days. 'I'd show you, but I don't know how.'
Sherlock raised an eyebrow, a few ideas springing immediately to mind. However, it was simple to deduce that John was both hungry and tired, and he folded them away for later, noticing John's quick, hot blush. Sherlock was not sure if it was in response to the expression on his face, or if John had felt something over the bond. Either way, it was scintillating, and Sherlock wondered what their attachment would allow the two of them to do. He needed more data, and that meant research.
By the time they had cleared away dinner, John was obviously flagging, his shoulders hunched and each blink slow as if fatigue was pulling him under. Perhaps slumber was less restful when they found themselves back in Afghanistan, or maybe it was the strain of too much all at once. Either way, Sherlock held out his hand, mutely encouraging John to follow him.
'Just to sleep,' he promised, seeing the battle of desire and exhaustion behind John's gaze. 'You can go to your room if you prefer –'
'No,' John cut in, a grin slanting his lips as Sherlock tempted him over the threshold, grateful that his mattress was tidy, rather than buried in a slew of case-files. 'I – I don't think I'd get any rest if I was up there anyway. I feel like I need to be here.' He gestured to the bed and Sherlock with a single sweep of his hand before pulling off his jumper, stripping down to his boxers and t-shirt. He hesitated, only moving when Sherlock nudged him down and slipped in at his side.
It was strange to have another warm body so near, but oddly right, and Sherlock flicked off the lamp, promising himself he would turn to research once John was safely asleep. Above his head, the star of his soul, a constant presence throughout the evening, thinned and vanished, leaving them in the muted twilight of London's lights.
'You don't seem bothered,' John said quietly, reaching across the narrow gap between them and taking Sherlock's hand. 'Here's me freaking out, and you don't appear to care that I've somehow stuck our souls together.'
'Linked them,' Sherlock corrected. 'It's fascinating.'
'You would say that.' John's voice held no malice, and Sherlock tugged him closer so that he could skim his hand up John's forearm, feeling the bulge of his muscles. He reminded himself, quite firmly, that the purpose of this was to give John the rest he needed, rather than sate Sherlock's own urge to know everything about him. Besides, for once, there was a selfless facet to his need. It was not just about satisfying the rare bubble of lust that simmered within him. He wanted – needed – John to be sure, because even now Sherlock knew there was no going back. The last thing he wanted was to take a more intimate step only to have the whole thing fall apart.
'Do you think it can be undone?'
Sherlock frowned, trying to understand the emotion in John's voice. It was nothing he could deduce, and whatever had happened between them did not give him an all-access pass to read John's emotional state. At best it seemed to drop vague allusions, and they were nothing that he could discern. 'Would you want to break it, if we could?'
His only answer was an inarticulate hum, neither positive nor negative as John's weariness won out. Sherlock was left to rub his hand back and forth over John's skin, his heart cramping in his chest at the thought of losing something that, until now, he had never thought to want.
Baker Street quivered with power. It crackled over the poker and light fittings, earthing wherever it could make its way to ground. The hairs on the back of John's neck trembled, upright and bristling. Every breath tasted of hot tin, and Sherlock sat in the middle of it, god-like and glorious.
Yet John was not merely a spectator. He knelt behind Sherlock, hands resting on the peaks of his shoulders and palms splayed over the delicate stability of muscle and bone as energy throbbed through their bodies. It made him want to flatten his chest and stomach against Sherlock's back and bury his nose in those dark curls, but John was afraid to distract him. Still, that did not stop his body from swaying closer and his breath stuttering between his lips.
He had woken up that morning to find Sherlock sitting cross-legged on the bed, books strewn across the mattress as the sprite orbited in a dizzying circle above his head, practically demented with enthusiasm. Before he knew it, Sherlock was off, explaining the intricacies of bonded souls while John was left struggling to keep up, torn between excitement and dread.
He had thought it was bad when he believed that Sherlock's soul was in his care. To find out that, by a freak event, they had forged some kind of astral connection was almost as hard to swallow as it was to comprehend. However, Sherlock's reaction had gone a long way to ease the jangled sense of intrusion. He was not repulsed or offended; instead, there were the giddy heights of delight and fascination. Sherlock saw this as more of a gift than a curse, and John was beginning to share that view.
This was not something he had asked for, but more than once since waking up this morning he had considered the alternative: Sherlock's soul lost forever and the man a shadow of his former self. Now he was right here, alive and animated and as dazzling as ever, fully engaged with the world and by something – accident or miracle – he was John's.
His heart skittered with happiness, pattering against his ribs as he remembered what Sherlock had shown him the day before. When John had questioned everything, from Sherlock's new found admission of sentiment to every word he spoke, Sherlock somehow opened up and let John see how he felt.
Even in his most indulgent imaginings, John had expected Sherlock's emotions to be tepid and dignified, but what he had sensed, like reading letters from a page, was all-encompassing. Perhaps Sherlock could not put it into words yet – maybe he would forever find himself unable to voice it – but that simple insight put most of John's fears to rest. Sherlock said he cared for him, but John knew the truth went far beyond that.
Sherlock loved him.
Willowy fingers, agile and sensuous, slipped up to touch the back of John's hands, gripping hard as Sherlock's murmur reached his ears. 'Concentrate,' he chided, amusement lilting his words. 'You're more than a battery for this, you know.'
John leaned forward into Sherlock's back, feeling the elegant curve of his spine against his chest, hidden by the thin sheath of Sherlock's shirt. 'What, exactly, are we doing again?' he asked, wincing at the scrape of his clothes over his sensitive skin. It was almost too much, the spells overwhelming every nerve, and Sherlock’s presence like a lightning conductor wasn't helping matters. He took the prickling awareness in John's body and gave it focus. John wasn't sure whether he was attuned to the magic or aroused by it.
'An experiment,' Sherlock replied, the words stuttering over a sharply indrawn breath. 'I wanted to see if it was true about power enhancement.'
John shifted his hands, moving down the fabric of Sherlock's sleeves to where they were rolled at his elbows, feeling the scatter of fine hairs on his forearms. 'I know I've never felt anything like this,' John managed, finally giving into temptation and kissing the hollow behind Sherlock's ear.
Around them, the spell changed its pitch to a deeper, resonant drone that made John think of a gigantic cat's purr. It was an obvious tell of pleasure where Sherlock himself would probably have been more subtle. Perhaps it was cheating: a way to bypass those frustrating blank masks and Sherlock's sometimes-chilly distance, but he was comforted by the fact that, now, Sherlock was as open in his affection as his sprite was in its appreciation.
He had always wondered about Sherlock's behaviour if their relationship went to the next level, but John had never pictured that he would be like this: still himself, but softer. He had not thought Sherlock would deign to share a bed with him at all, not simply for sleeping, anyway, and he had been partly right. The shadows under Sherlock's eyes suggested slumber had not been his priority last night, but he had stayed close by, despite it being more practical for him to research in the living room. He sought John's company, and more than once John saw a half-aborted motion, as if Sherlock had reached out for him only to stop, unsure of where their new boundaries lay.
As if John could ever turn him away.
'It's very – intense,' Sherlock whispered, and John was not sure if he was speaking about the magecraft or the yearning that boiled between them. Possibly both, judging by the way that Sherlock had slumped against him, his head resting on John's shoulder and a gasp hissing through his parted lips.
John moaned in agreement, a delicious shiver arcing down his spine as the spells danced. It was something Sherlock was controlling. He could feel the pull of it, a tide of give and take as their shields manifested around them, dropping into the physical world.
'Christ,' he breathed, resting his head against Sherlock's and staring in disbelief. He knew their wards had mixed before all this began, blending through each other like two over-lapping bubbles. Now, they were no longer separate spheres like layers of an onion, but a mix of colours that cast fractal patterns of shadow and light.
Sherlock's were shades of blue, from ice white to deep violet, but in between those hues were shadows and voids that shimmered like a mirage. Sometimes, tiny sparks of Sherlock's power would appear in that darkness before vanishing again, dancing out of sight.
Minutes passed, measured out in the steady sweep of John's touch over Sherlock's body: harsh cheekbones, the tender column of his throat and the angle of his clavicles below his shirt. He was hypnotised by the thrum of life in the man before him, and John ached to take and taste and touch.
Sherlock reached around to rub at the taut muscles of John's thighs. When he spoke, his voice was gratifyingly hazy. 'Later?' It was almost a question, but John heard the gleam of promise. 'I need to try something else. A summoning.'
John pursed his lips, gliding his fingers up the nape of Sherlock's neck. 'Are you sure that's a good idea? We're still working out what we can do, and you're not at full-strength yet.' He did not say anything about his reluctance to let Sherlock go wandering off into realms unknown, but perhaps he deduced it anyway.
'I'll be calling something here, to the flat. It's well-protected, and you'll be with me,' Sherlock looked over his shoulder. 'We need some information on Moran. His behaviour doesn't make sense; we need to deduce what he's planning. It will only take a few minutes, but if you're tired –'
'No!' John shook his head, wondering how to explain that, rather than debilitating him, the power was rejuvenating, chasing off the clouds of lethargy and dragging him out into the sun. 'I'm fine, I just don't want you to over-do it. What are we summoning?'
'Let me worry about that.' Sherlock reached for some chalk, adding a few sigils to the basic circle he had reluctantly scribed on the floor before they began this experiment. With every stroke, John could hear the symphony changing, going from joyful and enticing to firmer bastions of protection: something with purpose beyond mere curiosity.
'What do you need me to do?' John asked, shifting on his aching knees. It was one thing to watch Sherlock summon from a distance, but quite another to be like this, cinched so close they may as well be fused.
'Doing this with my soul hovering around outside me is inefficient,' he explained, and John heard the underlying frustration in his words. 'Since it still refuses to return to its normal place, then having you nearby allows me better access to the energy it provides.'
'You could just have told me not to go anywhere,' John pointed out, smiling as he returned his palms to the chines of Sherlock's shoulder-blades. The bond sang between them. He still did not understand how it worked. Sherlock's hurried explanation this morning had given him the vague impression that, while Sherlock could hold his soul in his hands and access its energy, it was like using a car battery to power something huge: strained and unreliable.
Yet when they touched, everything changed. It was the difference between spells being something John could pick up and use, and them being living, breathing things wrapping supple bands around his heart.
'Ready when you are.'
It began as a tug, like a hook caught between his ribs. Yet the initial twinge of pain soon softened, evolving into a steady flow of sensation that seemed to draw downwards along John's nerves and veins, flirting over his muscles to feed the thrill in the pit of his stomach. It reminded him of the swoop when riding a roller-coaster, practically free-fall, but just as he reached the point where he could not bear it any longer, the ferocity dropped.
He was being drained and filled at the same time, a continuous loop of ebb and flow. There were parallels to his healing spells, but this was not a relocation of energy from himself to a patient: It was shared breath and a synchronised heartbeat – him and Sherlock.
The spell slammed through him like a piston, making him grunt in surprise. His hands slipped and panic sparked. However, they were still connected: not skin-to-skin, but caught in the same fine-wire mesh they had seen the day before. He expected the rip-tide to overwhelm him, but for all its wildness, iron-clad restraint burned through his body.
Quickly, he contemplated the circle in front of Sherlock's cross-legged form. Frost rimed the periphery, gleaming like diamonds. Tendrils of fog, white but for the occasional flash of peacock blue, slithered over the floor, recoiling from the dome of their wards wherever they touched. One wrapped around John's wrist: a cold, damp tongue of sensation. It made him feel as if he had been drenched in icy oil, but as soon as Sherlock spoke, the sensation fled.
The wraiths condensed, flowing inwards to reveal a boy sitting in the centre of the circle. He looked about eight or nine. Cherubic blond curls clustered on his head, and chubby cheeks swelled with a smile, but John was transfixed by his eyes. There was no pupil or iris, just a plain silver orb, cold like steel, in each socket.
'You've changed,' the demon said, and though John was certain those eyes couldn't see anything, he realised the creature could still sense him. 'Your name is being whispered all over the realms.'
'I'm not interested.' Sherlock's breathing was measured and his tone indifferent. However, John knew that he would be thinking fast, picking his words with care as they both balanced on the high-wire of discipline the spell demanded. It was already sapping John's vitality, making his brain heavy in his skull and his bones leaden. He had seen Sherlock sit here for hours talking to things, but he had never realised the amount of sheer stamina required.
'You should be. The weak ones fear you; the strong ones take refuge in their loathing.'
'And you?' John bit his tongue in disbelief. Talking to demons was Sherlock's thing. He knew what to say and how to phrase his questions so as not to be led into a trap. It definitely was not the purview of a man who, a week ago, had been a healer and nothing more. However, a quick look at Sherlock's profile showed nothing like concern. If anything, there was an edge of approval in the sideways glance Sherlock shot in his direction.
The boy lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug of indifference. 'I watch. Gods are made and lost in the turn of the hour. One seeks to break you.'
'What do you see?' Sherlock asked.
The demon smiled, those ghoulish eyes sliding from John to Sherlock, nothing but sleek, mercurial movement. 'Rebirth and destruction.'
'That answer lies in the balance of a moment.'
John sucked in a deep breath, watching the child smile as if delighted by his own riddles. Yet there was nothing innocent in his joy; it was cold and malevolent like a cat toying with a pair of mice. 'Tell me.'
The command bunched liked a fist, making the wards sing and the circles spark. For the first time, the demon visibly flinched, small hands raised as he hunched away. Silence followed in the wake of John's words, and he felt the creature fighting their restraints.
'Do as he says and we'll let you go,' Sherlock murmured. 'Tell us Moran's plan.'
'He seeks to rebuild that which gave him purpose.' The boy's face knotted with fury, but his lips kept moving as if the words were forcing their way from him. 'Your destruction at his hand is the Spider's rebirth. He will hunt you through the days of your mortal lives. He will stalk your months and years, your waking hours and your darkest slumber; you will find no respite.'
'And if we destroy him?' Sherlock asked, his hands shifting to form a bowl of bone and skin with the long bow of his fingers. 'I can be his undoing.'
'You're wrong.' The air began to seethe as the demon pulled harder against the ideographs holding him in place. 'You are not the hunter. He has given a warning: dead flesh and living caution. He will not wait long.' The boy ducked his head, his face taking on an ageless expression of faint regret as the summoning started to fade. 'I shall not see you again.'
Power collapsed, erasing the chalk circle into oblivion as the floorboards creaked and sighed. Softly, the tight, icy chime of their wards eased, and the shrouding weight fled, leaving him wobbling at Sherlock's back. Every muscle was like elastic stretched too far, and his knees were cramped and biting with pain.
The boy was gone. Only a faint sheen of frost, rapidly melting, indicated he had ever been there at all. Yet his words echoed through John's head, their reverberations sparking dark flames of fear as he turned the message over in his mind. 'Moran's going to bring Moriarty back, and he's going to kill you to do it.' John spat the words out like poison as he gripped Sherlock's shirt, creasing the fabric with his fists as if he could keep Sherlock safe through the act of holding him close. 'Do we believe him? He was just a kid.'
'Appearances can be deceiving.' Sherlock swept chalk dust from his hands and turned where he sat, taking in John with a flick of his gaze. 'Many demons take on the form of children; it makes them seem vulnerable and lulls the summoner into a false sense of security. The only thing they can't change is their eyes.'
'Who was he?' John got to his feet, too restless to sit still. The process had left him wired and anxious, and he pulled Sherlock up after him, steady fingers wrapped around the delicate bones of Sherlock's hands. 'He knows you.'
'I've called on him before. He doesn't have a name, but if Mycroft were prone to worship, that would be his God.' Sherlock rubbed out the few enduring traces with his toe. 'Think of him as fate.'
John folded his arms, craving the comforting weight of his gun in his hand. 'I don't believe in fate,' he retorted. 'People make their own choices. We're not walking a path that's already been made for us! I don't give a damn what he says. He's wrong.' He took a deep breath as a soft note heralded the manifestation of Sherlock's soul. Warmth and comfort flooded through him as it nuzzled under his jaw, crooning quietly.
'That's unlikely.' Sherlock stopped in front of John, idly swatting away the star and replacing its glow with the solid heat of his touch. John swayed forward, his shoulders still hunched and hard as Sherlock continued to speak. 'He has never given me false information before, but my interpretation of what he says has occasionally been inaccurate.'
'His implications were pretty clear,' John pointed out. 'Is it even possible? I mean, can Moran really bring Moriarty back? I thought he was killed or whatever.'
'Unmade.' Sherlock shrugged, his eyes glazed as he gave it due consideration. 'Before today, I would have said not, but –' The chime of his phone in his pocket interrupted, and he pulled it out, scrolling through the text with a swipe of his screen. 'Lestrade's found something at one of the cultists' homes.'
'No, something else.' Sherlock frowned, and John caught a glimpse of the photo attached to the message: a bare room with hieroglyphs on every surface. 'Perhaps it can answer some of our questions; I need a closer look.'
Sherlock glanced up, and while John knew he would never admit to seeking approval, there was still something like a request for permission in his face. He was not stupid enough to think Sherlock would actually obey him if he did say no, but it was good to know that he was in Sherlock's thoughts – unconsciously included as if it were the most natural idea in the world.
'Let me get my gun, and I’ll be right behind you,' John promised.
Something about the way Sherlock said it made it sound like an important distinction, and John grinned to himself. Despite his fear, his heart lifted, and he glanced back, watching the sprite orbiting Sherlock like a wisp as he toyed with his phone.
He took John's breath away, not just the way he looked, but the power in his frame, confident despite the demon's dire warning. If John shut his eyes, he could sense Sherlock's certainty like a fire burning in a nearby hearth, chasing off the chill shadows that had tried to catch him in their grasp.
It reminded him that this was his, something to call his own: Sherlock in his entirety, and the startling connection that had been forged between them.
He didn't give a damn what fate had told them. He couldn't lose that now.
The stink was overwhelming, filling his nose with the acrid scent of burnt iron as he took in the mess of marks painted across the walls, ceiling and floor of the cellar room. It was a square box of malice, pocked by one grimy window near the roof. To an outsider, it must have looked like the paint-born ravings of a lunatic. Protections mixed with offensive spells, and some circles ended in abrupt spatters, but to Sherlock the logical progression was clear.
His wards spat in fury beneath the threat around him, making his scalp prickle uncomfortably as he took it all in. The sprite hovered at his shoulder, casting its glow into the corners of the room but remaining silent, a reflection of Sherlock's own concentration.
John stood at the threshold with Lestrade at his side, and Sherlock could feel the draw of energy flowing between them, not nearly as exhausting as the effort of summoning had been, but potent all the same. It was adequate to sustain him, returning his power to the levels he had enjoyed prior to his deal with Moriarty.
Even better, the closer John stood to him, the more efficient it was, taking them both to new heights. Inaccessible spells fell into his capabilities, and John had already demonstrated his – albeit clumsy – new talent with summoning. When dealing with the demon in their living room, Sherlock had stepped back, letting John cast his influence as he held the spell in balance. He was not sure John realised how little Sherlock had been doing to help him along, but his efforts had been admirable, if a little blunt.
Then there was the way the link behaved when they touched...
'You got anything for me?'
Lestrade's question interrupted his musings, and Sherlock was not sure whether to curse the DI or chastise himself for losing focus. He had come here hoping to gather information about Moran's activities, and instead he was being pleasantly distracted by thoughts of John.
'Whose house was this?' Sherlock asked, glancing at the paint cans on the floor and the crusted, useless brushes. 'Obviously a young female, investment banker, recently made redundant. What was her name, and where is she now?'
'Paige Cubric; she's dead. Took a bullet to the head in the cathedral.'
Sherlock absorbed the information, sweeping through the doorway as Lestrade and John stood aside. He heard the pair fall into step behind him as they all trotted up the narrow staircase to the main house: an old Victorian building, recently renovated into four pokey town-houses, no doubt over-priced and in high-demand.
The living room was cluttered with furniture meant for a much bigger apartment, suggesting the recent downgrade of her employment status and living accommodation, but Sherlock ignored it as he reached for the books stacked two deep on either side of the fireplace. The first layer, easily visibly to the casual observer, were the usual dross of fiction and reference people tended to accumulate, but it was the tomes behind that he was looking for: older and leather-bound, tattered at their edges.
'Heavy reading,' Sherlock said, his gloved fingers roving along the spines and picking out the themes. 'I don't think she was Moriarty's disciple; she was Moran's.'
'What do you mean?' Lestrade asked, shaking his head. 'You're saying the sniper had his own followers?'
'One, at least. Someone who could work independently of the cult, probably using some of the power they gathered to fuel their own spells.' He gestured back to the stairs. 'The marks down in the cellar are over a week old, but less than a fortnight. The thicker splatters where the oil-based paint fell from the brush are still giving off residue thanks to the damp atmosphere. Forensics can confirm it.'
'So what are they for?' John asked, stopping at Sherlock's side and folding his arms. 'It just looks like a mess to me.'
'They're clumsy, created in a hurry.' Sherlock checked the edges of one of the books, seeing the paint and flicking open to the relevant pages to show the designs. 'Moran was confident, until something changed. If I were to guess, I would say it was when Moriarty explained that I was a Segregate. He realised I was more than simple fuel, possibly a threat, and panicked. He got his follower to create the arrays downstairs. They were a way to store some of Moriarty's power so that Moran could use it even if he was gone. He must have come here straight after the cathedral. They've all been drained.'
'So he made himself a battery,' Lestrade summarised, shrugging his shoulders. 'Then used it to, what? Kill someone? Let you know he was still around? What's the point?'
Sherlock shut the book, tapping it against his palm as his mind worked. 'Demons are difficult to destroy. A few centuries ago, unmaking them would be the end of it, but they've had time to plan how to avoid their downfall. Think of them like a cancer, unless you annihilate all the affected cells, the tumour can return.'
'So a piece of Moriarty escaped what happened?' John bowed his head, frowning at the floor. 'A seed.' He pursed his lips, glancing up at Sherlock. 'You?'
He shrugged, his lack of knowledge uncomfortable. 'It ties in with what the demon said this morning. My destruction for Moriarty's resurrection.'
'So you don't give him the chance.' Lestrade's statement was flat and to the point. 'He's stuck wherever he is, isn't he? Moran needs you to go to him, so you don't. Let him rot. He can't touch you from where he is.'
Sherlock pursed his lips, holding back his arguments. Lestrade was a mage who specialised in seeking. The closest he normally got to demons was seeing those in containment. He fell into the trap of thinking of them as animals: almost mindless bar their cunning. If only it were so easy.
'Just because he cannot currently return to this world, that doesn't mean he can't seek out allies and get the power he needs. Demons can move between each other's realms easily, they simply often lack the motivation to do so. You saw Moran. How much do you think he wants Moriarty back – not the demon himself, but the strength he offered? It's not about sentiment; it's about survival.'
The silence was interrupted only by the sound of the Forensics team conducting their second sweep. The scene was old, and most evidence should have been processed, but Lestrade had called them in again when they found the cellar.
'What can we do?' John asked, his question for Sherlock alone. The concern on his face was evident, his shoulders set in that stubborn, aggressive line they always took when John felt trapped by something he did not fully understand. 'Do we try and find him, fight him now while he's weak and we're –' He hesitated, but Sherlock knew what John was thinking. Moran might be at a disadvantage, but they were not in a much better state, uncertain of their limits and abilities, as well as the reliability of the bond.
'We keep digging up what we can,' Sherlock replied at last. 'Perhaps –'
His words were cut off by Anderson's huff of irritation. He was filling something out on a clipboard as the gleaming light of Sherlock's soul bobbed around his shoulder – probably making sure he was doing it right. 'Will you get this bloody thing away from me?' he demanded, lips twisting in an ugly sneer. 'Bad enough we have to put up with him at crime scenes. Now this?' He gestured to the star where it hovered. 'It's sick!'
'Leave it, Anderson,' Lestrade groaned. 'It's not doing any harm.'
'It's in my way!' The Forensics Lead's face pinched with annoyance, and before Sherlock could flinch, the wretched man's fist closed around the ball of light.
Sherlock's stomach rolled, his skin suffused in a clammy wave of horror as spots exploded across his vision. His throat constricted as if someone had clenched their grip around the slender column, crushing his larynx and turning the next breath dead in his chest. He almost didn't hear John's snarl or a sharp, vicious pop that made Anderson howl in pain.
Abruptly, the sensation vanished, leaving him reeling where he stood. One hand gripped the shelf for support while the book, which he had not even realised he had dropped, lay open at his feet, the covers split and the pages splayed like the wings of a bird. Lestrade was shouting something, though whether it was at Anderson or John or just yelling in general, Sherlock couldn't make out. His hearing was filled with a buzzing crackle, and another shudder ripped down his spine.
When John touched his soul, he felt loved. When Anderson did it, it was a violation.
Sherlock tried to understand what was happening, waiting for the din in his ears to recede as he took in the scene in front of him. The light of his soul gleamed furious crimson. It was free from Anderson's grasp, and the burn across the odious man's palm told Sherlock that it had sought its own escape. Nothing could hold onto his sprites for long without his permission, but this was the first time he had suffered physical repercussions from an unwanted touch.
Anderson was pressed against the wall, his back arched awkwardly over the bulk of the radiator at his hips as John's arm jammed hard across his throat. It was a typical restraining manoeuvre, the professionalism of which was at odds with the fury on John's face. Lestrade's hand was on John's shoulder, fingers white-knuckled, lips moving in a hurried scatter of words that Sherlock could not comprehend, but none of it seemed to be getting through.
Stretching his jaw eased the tinnitus and allowed him to hear the ghostly hush of his own voice. It was painfully quiet, and he tried again, straining his vocal chords to be heard. 'John! Leave him.'
He stumbled forward, all knees and elbows and clumsy gracelessness as he encircled John's wrist , plucking at the bones beneath to capture his attention. This was not John the doctor, or even the soldier. It was him shorn of everything but the fundamental protective foundation of his nature, lost in his most basic impulse to keep Sherlock safe.
John blinked, and Sherlock saw logic return. There was the tiniest glimmer of shame, but it was quickly smothered as John justified his actions in his own mind, his lips peeling back in an additional snarl before he stepped away from Anderson. 'Don't ever do that again,' he ordered, his voice thick with all the command the army could offer.
'It's his fault!' Anderson squeaked, clutching at his neck and glaring as John absently reached out for the sprite, guiding it close to his chest with a proprietary hand. John's empty fist trembled at his side, and Sherlock was not the only one who thought he would send Anderson sprawling. Lestrade saw it too, but unlike Sherlock, he made some efforts to intervene.
'Anderson, that's enough. What's wrong with you?'
'Me? He –'
'No!' Lestrade stepped between the two of them and dropped his voice. 'Use your common sense. You know you don't touch another mage's manifestations, no matter what they are or how annoying they become. That's just asking for trouble. Get your hand seen to and get back to work.'
Anderson looked like he wanted to argue, but the murderousness on his face was held up by an uncertain cornerstone of justifiable fear, and he quailed when John met his gaze, visibly cowed. 'Freak,' he spat, turning to hurry away, no doubt seeking both sympathy and allies within the rest of Lestrade's team as the DI turned back to Sherlock and John.
His shoulders were slumped and his face grim as he heaved a sigh. 'You can't do this,' he said, lifting a hand as John stepped forward to protest. 'I know – I know. He grabbed Sherlock's soul, and I can only imagine how vile that was. If Sherlock had gone for him, I wouldn't have bothered holding him back, but he didn't. It was you instead. Care to tell me what that's about?'
Sherlock watched John clench his jaw, his head tipped slightly to the side before he gave it a shake. 'So what?' he demanded. 'I should have just stood back while he –?' The words choked, and Sherlock realised he was not the only one who had felt the insidious displeasure of Anderson's touch. John must have sensed something along the bond, but whereas Sherlock was rendered helpless – paralysed by revulsion – John had gone off like a loaded gun, all fury and retribution.
'Anderson was causing pain; it's no different than if John joined in a brawl.'
'Sherlock, it's not like throwing a punch – ' Lestrade protested, his voice falling away as Sherlock reached up, unravelling his scarf. A thin gloss of blood stuck to the fabric; Anderson had left his mark. 'My God.'
John's fingers were cold against Sherlock's throat, and a fine tremor transmitted itself through their touch. A quick glance in the mirror on the opposite wall showed Sherlock the damage: four scratches and the slowly spreading bruises beneath, as if someone's hand had been wrapped around his throat and then ripped away, their nails clawing at his skin as they withdrew.
'How?' John asked, the word sharp and rough. 'I thought it didn't matter if someone tried to catch one of your sprites? I thought it couldn't hurt you?'
'That's not just one of my sprites,' Sherlock reminded him quietly. 'It's the only one I've got. As for how: it was malice. Anderson was aggravated by my presence, and that manifested in this.' He gestured to his neck, grabbing John's wrist as the subtle pull of a spell being initiated caught beneath his ribs. 'Don't heal it, not here. There might be other active spells on the house that could interfere.'
Reluctantly, John dropped his hand, glancing over his shoulder at Lestrade. 'I think Anderson got what he had coming to him, don't you? I'm taking Sherlock back to Baker Street so I can get this patched up.' He glared as Sherlock opened his mouth to protest. 'No arguments, please?'
There was something in John's voice that said more than his mere words, and Sherlock hesitated before reluctantly obliging. 'Let me know if you find anything else,' he told Lestrade, already halfway to the door when the DI's voice made him pause.
'Same goes for you. You don't have to deal with Moran alone, you know? And Sherlock?' He flicked his hand in the direction of Sherlock's soul where it burned bright, the bloody tones of its illumination steadily easing back to something sunny. 'Maybe next time, keep that out of sight. Best not risk someone else doing you some damage.'
'Maybe next time you should keep idiots like Anderson off the crime scene,' John snapped in reply, his ire clear. Lestrade raised his eyebrows in surprise, and Sherlock watched John blow out a breath, bowing his head as he muttered an insincere apology.
'Go on, go home and get that sorted out.' Lestrade stood back, and Sherlock found his hand gripped in John's hard enough to bruise. Yet for all the ferocity of it, he still led Sherlock with care, guiding him past the DI, whose suspicion was still writ large in his body language, and out of the house onto the pavement outside.
Donovan gave them a poisonous look on the doorstep, but Sherlock ignored her in favour of attempting to understand the man at his side. John's movements were stilted, not limping and beaten down, but ragged and aggressive, as if he were trying to burn off a surge of adrenaline. He was also pressed close to Sherlock's side, so much so that it made walking awkward, and Sherlock waited until they were out of Donovan's earshot before easing John away from him. 'I'm fine.'
'Liar.' He threw out the challenge, lifting his chin like a man spoiling for a fight before taking in a deep breath. 'You're not fine, Sherlock. He touched you and it hurt.'
Sherlock saw the gleam of a black cab and raised his hand, ignoring the way his arm shook as the vehicle pulled up to the kerb. The glimmer of his soul was resting against John's neck, mostly hidden under his collar, but the associated contentment faded completely as it demanifested. 'We should urge it to move into another plane when we're at crime scenes in future. I did not realise it would be a vulnerability.'
'I should have kept it closer. Will it be safe like that?'
'People rarely try to seize what they cannot see,' Sherlock pointed out logically, directing the driver before huddling deeper in his coat. Shivers were playing across his muscles like a bow across violin strings, making him feel pallid and small. Part of him was shocked at the contrast. When John touched the arch of Sherlock's soul, it was exquisite: tender and caring, but Anderson's interference drew blood and left bruises. Worse than that, it made Sherlock's skin crawl.
Next to him, John made an abortive movement, his back ramrod straight. The wealth of his anger had fled, leaving him looking green and pale, his brow twisting into a frown of distress and his lips bracketed by the strain. Yet when Sherlock moved to reach out, he visibly recoiled.
'Don't. I – I don't –' John bit his lip and clamped his jaw tight before meeting Sherlock's gaze. 'If I touch you now, I won't stop, and I don't think that's what you want.' He frowned as Sherlock simply stared before adding, 'Is it?'
When Sherlock didn't answer, John shook his head, letting out a breath and looking through the window. 'I wanted to rip Anderson's head off,' he confessed. 'It wasn't about removing a bully; I wanted to make him suffer.'
'But you didn't,' Sherlock pointed out. 'It must be the bond making you react. You don't normally exhibit such urges when I'm in danger.' There was a telling silence from the other side of the cab, and Sherlock raised an intrigued eyebrow. 'Do you?'
'The first night we met,' John reminded him succinctly, dropping his voice to a quiet intensity that made the hairs on Sherlock's nape prickle. 'I killed that cabbie and didn't regret if for a second. I always want to keep you safe, but that wasn't the same.' John shook his head, his voice wretched as he repeated his earlier words. 'He was touching you.'
Sherlock hesitated, knowing John's redundancy was not his normal thoughtlessness. It was as if that simple fact was burning into his mind, as disturbing to him as it had been to Sherlock. He could not discern whether John was satisfied with his attack on Anderson, or horrified by it. 'He was affecting something integral, something through which the two of us are connected. Your reaction makes sense, and you didn't reach for your gun.'
'It didn't even cross my mind. I just had to make him let go.' John swallowed, fidgeting in his seat as the cab pulled up at the pavement. 'Though your soul did it for me, actually, but not before –' He glanced back at Sherlock's wounded neck, his lips flattening into a pinched crease before he practically fled the car, leaving Sherlock to pay. However, John did not hurry inside; he waited for Sherlock to join him, hunched and small in their doorway.
This time, Sherlock did not move slowly or give John a chance to object. He could not deduce John's feelings from the messy mire of supposition he could sense, but instinct told him how to act. Weaving bare fingers through John's grip, Sherlock pulled him close, not caring that half of London could see them embracing on their threshold if they chose to look.
For a few seconds, John stood rigid in his arms, but gradually he began to relax. Firm muscles melted and his spare hand slipped through the buttons of Sherlock's Belstaff to rest over his heart, a shield over the thud of his pulse. It felt like an anchor rooting him firmly in place, banishing the drifting, Arctic sensation left by Anderson's unexpected assault. Sherlock could sense the answering relief in John's frame, as if he were finding stability from the racing rush of his fears in the curve of Sherlock's embrace.
'I thought he'd take you away,' John admitted, sounding both hurt and embarrassed.
'Anderson?' Sherlock asked in disbelief, grazing his lips across John's brow in absent-minded comfort. 'Please. He wouldn't dare.'
'I know.' A small laugh escaped John's lips, meek and tired. 'I know, it's just –' He shook his head, stepping back and pulling Sherlock after him. 'It felt like he would snap it if he tried hard enough, the bond I mean. I couldn't let that happen.'
Sherlock's heart ached at the thought of this thing between them, still so new and unfounded, being put at risk – not just their connection but the relationship that had begun its first tentative steps. As soon as they were inside the flat, he shrugged out of his coat and removed his scarf from where it draped loose around his shoulders before taking John's hands again and rubbing his thumb over the gnarl of his knuckles.
There were hundreds of words trying to escape his lips, from quiet reassurance to vehement denials that such a thing was possible, but the truth was, he couldn't be sure. Their bond had been created with enviable ease, something formed in the heat of the moment: the right word at the right time. Who was to say that it couldn't be split asunder in the space of a heartbeat?
In the end, he could only nod his head, telling John that he was not alone in his fears. Neither of them had chosen this, but even after so little time with it present in their lives, Sherlock knew that he could never stand back and allow what they shared to come to harm.
John paced, each fretful movement jolted his frame. He tried to calm himself; Sherlock didn't need him wound up, twitchy and desperate to peel off those clothes and somehow write his name over every inch of Sherlock that was revealed. He required someone with a level head who could heal the mess Anderson had made of his neck.
A distant voice of logic told him that it had not been intentional. Anderson probably had no clue about the damage he had caused, though John doubted the twat would show anything like remorse. However, that did not change the fact that the pink stain of new bruises was darkening against the canvas of Sherlock's pallor, crowned by the dry edge of blood.
'Your shirt's a mess,' John said, reaching out to touch the crimson splash on the white cotton. 'If you take it off and soak the stain, it might come out?' He sounded doubtful and hollow to his own ears, and he swallowed the sharp bit of bile in the back of his throat.
John could not remember the last time he had felt this vicious. It was not the calm consideration he had learned in the army, where emotion could be set aside in the name of getting the job done. This was visceral and base, and it seemed as if he were fighting a losing battle trying to keep it under control.
The mute obedience from Sherlock took him by surprise, and John panicked, wondering if he had managed to add insult to injury and force a compulsion. However, the bossy pull on his arm banished that fear. John just had time to grab the first-aid kit before Sherlock led him through to his bedroom.
Sherlock's suit jacket was pitched carelessly on the floor, and the shirt soon followed. It landed in a crumpled flag of surrender on the carpet before he climbed on the bed, crossing his legs beneath him and lifting his chin. It was utter trust: a half-naked exposure that turned John's mouth dry. He had seen Sherlock in various states of undress before, but that did not stop him from taking in the faint definition of muscles across his shoulders and chest, darting helplessly down over Sherlock's stomach before John forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand.
The first-aid kit undid with a quick snap, and he grabbed an antiseptic wipe before he set about cleaning away the blood from the cuts. Some mages used spells to disinfect the wounds, but John had seen them go wrong a few times too many to trust them entirely. Besides, for some things, the natural approach was the best.
He could feel the hard ridge of Sherlock's tendons and the bump of his Adam's apple, the heady thrum of blood in his veins and the torridness of his skin. It was a potent reminder of how human Sherlock was beneath his cold exterior, and how easily that body could be brought low by damage.
'Why didn't your shields stop this?' John asked quietly, blotting as one of the scrapes began to bleed again and Sherlock's deep voice vibrated beneath his ministrations.
'The sprite was outside of them, and yours as well. I suspect it acted as a conductor, transmitting the injury back to me and bypassing any wards.' Sherlock shrugged. 'In a way, we should be grateful that Anderson showed us the damage was possible. A stronger mage could have done a lot more harm.'
John pursed his lips, not wanting to offer that idiot gratitude for anything. He pitched the antiseptic wipe into the nearby bin before placing his right hand carefully over the front of Sherlock's throat and his left at his nape. Any other patient would have stiffened at the implied danger, but Sherlock remained still, merely tipping his chin to allow John better access and watching him with half-lidded eyes.
His spells were easier than ever before – not something he had to muster and push, but a power that flowed readily through him, washing away some of the jangling, edgy distress that still filled John's body. Bruises and wounds were cleansed away, discolouration fading back to white and split skin fusing, flawless once more.
'There, all done.' John moved to drop his hand away, hesitating in surprise when Sherlock grabbed his wrist. He raised John's palm to his lips, bestowing a tender kiss to the heel of it before giving a nip: the subtlest edge of teeth that made him sway where he stood. 'Sherlock,' he murmured. 'I meant what I said in the cab. If I start touching you now, I won't stop...' He left the warning hanging in the air, thick with more promise than threat, but he couldn't step away. Sherlock was not holding him captive, but he was willingly imprisoned all the same.
He wanted to blame the bond for what he was feeling – a despicably selfish urge to lay his claim across Sherlock's form – but John suspected that spells had little to do with it. He had always been a possessive lover, though he was normally better at hiding it than this.
The lap of Sherlock's tongue made John twitch forward, desire rocketing south as the confines of his jeans became restrictive. His gasp was loud in the peace of the bedroom, and the rustle of the sheets had him opening his eyes to see Sherlock kneeling in front of him, his thumb pressed to the damp skin at John's wrist as the other hand cupped his jaw, catching John's lips in a soft kiss, all breathlessness and raw need.
He broke away, leaving John's body buzzing and his mouth full of Sherlock's taste. 'What makes you think I want you to stop?'
John paused, reading the evidence written all over Sherlock's body, from the glow in his gaze to the attentive peak of his nipples and the taut hardness visible beneath the immaculate tailoring of his trousers. 'Are you getting off on the magic or on me?' he asked, not sure if he cared which way the answer went. He cradled Sherlock's shoulders in his palms and dragged his fingers down lean arms and across his chest, feeling delicious shivers ignite in his wake. Sherlock's hands had crept beneath John's jumper, haste making him awkward as he tugged the t-shirt out of his jeans and skimmed beneath, his touch cool against John's stomach.
'You,' he replied, his lips curving at their corners. 'And the things you do. I want –' There was no verbal end to that sentence, only the lithe stretch of Sherlock's body and the minuscule rock of his hips as John stepped closer. His legs nudged the edge of the mattress as he ran his palms down Sherlock's back, outlining the notches of his spine and the vault of his ribs like half-hidden secrets. 'I want.'
The repetition was unusual, but John heard the variation of tone, not a trailing sentence but a statement of fact. Sherlock's skin was smooth and warm beneath his touch, the waistband of the trousers creating a frustrating frontier, and John knew where this was going. The certainty of it thrilled in his gut, fanning the fire that was steadily igniting in his veins. All thoughts of bloody Anderson, souls and bonds fled John's mind, replaced instead by the reality of Sherlock's body straining into his, separated still by too much fabric.
'You sure?' He managed one last ditch effort of rationality, almost lost in the folds of his jumper as Sherlock peeled it and the t-shirt beneath off over his head, pitching them aside. He pulled John close, guiding him down to the mattress with fleeting kisses to his jaw and neck, mismatched shoulders and profile of his collarbone. 'We can wait if you – we don't have to...'
Every fibre of John's being screamed those last words were a lie – that what they were doing was somehow imperative – but he forced it aside. Perhaps it was his reaction to what had happened earlier that day that made him so desperate to join physically with Sherlock, or it could be something to do with the connection they shared. In the end, it made no difference. What mattered was the man at his side, heavy-eyed and gorgeously flushed, the first hues of desire standing out like a beacon.
Sherlock's kiss whispered across John's mouth, a fleeting, feather-light gesture before returning again with parted lips and an eager tongue. A week ago, anything like this had been consigned purely to fantasies. Now, the taste of Sherlock was emblazoned in his memory, and the restless shift of that body next to his was impossible to ignore.
'Please?' the whisper stirred the air, echoing the silent cry of John's being so accurately that, for an instant, he was not sure whether it was Sherlock or him who had spoken. He opened his eyes to see Sherlock watching him, close enough that the tips of their noses touched, his irises dark and his pupils huge. Those full lips pursed, a thin line that looked wrong on his face before they parted again, his admission escaping in a voice that cracked at its edges. 'I need you.'
It was all John wanted to hear – more than he had ever expected Sherlock to confess – and he leaned forwards swallowing the words as his hands renewed their exploration, charting every furrow, ridge and vale as Sherlock's hands copied his movements. Other lovers steered clear of his scar, perhaps fearing they would bring him pain or because they were put off by the knot of tissue, but Sherlock was clearly fascinated, running over it time and again.
The heady feeling of being allowed to do this made his heart swell as Sherlock grabbed his shoulders and rolled him onto his back, straddling his hips and curling downwards, his dark head bent. The hot brand of his lips across John's chest had his spine arching, pushing up into Sherlock's mouth with a hiss as he sucked and bit – never too rough, but still hinting at the danger that John loved so much.
Fingers curling into brief claws, scratching lightly over the soft swell of John's stomach before trailing down and plucking at the denim that barred his way. A rumble of annoyance purred between them as John spread his hands across Sherlock's back and pulled him down, joining them from mouths and chests to twitching hips and the twine of long legs, scissoring them together and making them gasp.
'Fuck,' John breathed, throwing his head back and squeezing his eyes tight as Sherlock rolled his hips into the grind, sending fireworks shooting up John's stomach and down his thighs. Sherlock gave a hum of appreciation at the idea, his lips too occupied kissing John's throat to vocalise anything further.
The mix of soft caresses and sharp teeth, cool fingers and a hot tongue was tormentingly erotic. John's hands skittered over Sherlock's body without cease, trying to take in everything at once and failing to find the measure of even a tenth of this man. With a coarse growl, John slid his palms over Sherlock's arse, pulling him down and arching his hips at the same instant, making Sherlock's whine.
His jeans chafed against his sensitive arousal, growing unbearable, and John reluctantly nudged Sherlock back, yanking open his fly and trying to wriggle free. The whole effort would have been more successful if Sherlock was not still straddling his legs, watching with a hungry gaze before taking over, his hands swept John's hips and thighs as he stripped the fabric away, huffing in irritation when he realised John was still wearing his boots.
'You're not making this easy,' he groused as John laughed again before plucking at the waistband of Sherlock's trousers.
'What about you? You're going to need those off for what I have in mind.' John smirked, batting Sherlock's hands away and practically ripping off his boots and remaining clothes. Still, Sherlock was quicker, his shoes toed aside and his trousers and underwear falling in a hush to the floor. John caught only a glimpse of milky skin and the red jut between Sherlock’s legs before he climbed on the bed behind him and crowded close.
Firm hands smoothed over his shoulders and down his chest, following the fine trail of hair that led down his stomach until John leaned back, propping his weight on his hands and spreading his legs in invitation. They groaned in unison as Sherlock's grip wrapped around him, stroking along the heavy length and circling beneath. John shuddered in pleasure as he rolled, stroked and teased, flirting with the idea of friction without ever quite giving John the pressure he needed.
It was deliberately coy; John could feel the mischievous curl of Sherlock's mouth where it whispered against his neck, and he knew Sherlock's eyes would be open, cataloguing every response as his erection prodded, hard and neglected, against John's back. He wanted to reach around and return the favour, but Sherlock was too close to him to make it possible. Instead he had to pull away, turning to push Sherlock down to the mattress and taking in the sight of this man – his almost-lover – for the first time.
Sherlock was beautiful clothed, but this... Gone was his poise. Instead, his body was reduced to the impatient shift and twitch of need, rosy everywhere that it wanted to be touched. Sherlock's lips were swollen, bleached now as he sank his teeth into the plump flesh, fidgeting in aggravation as John grabbed his hips, holding him down and taking the time to admire him.
He smoothed his hands over Sherlock's body, charting the camber of his ribs and the concave of his stomach, blessing each with the dance of his lips and the lave of his tongue, inhaling the scent – soap and musk – from Sherlock's skin as his spine tightened in response. Sherlock's fingers grazed across John's shoulders before dropping to twine in the sheets, white-knuckled counterpoints to the debauched noises that were catching in his throat. Barely stifled moans evolved into a curse of surprise as John scooted down, lying between Sherlock's legs and taking him swiftly into his mouth.
'Oh, fuck! John –!'
There were many things that John expected from Sherlock, and one was for him to be as bossy in bed as out of it. He unconsciously braced for the arch and buck of hips or nails digging into his scalp in demand. He had wrapped his hand lower down Sherlock's shaft for the purpose of both gratification and damage limitations.
However, when Sherlock brushed John's temple and moved back through his short hair, the touch was reverent. Every breath was still ragged, and John could see the first dewy sheen of sweat shimmering at Sherlock's collarbone, but he held himself in check as John explored, revelling in the flavour at its most potent. It was only when Sherlock's legs slid further apart, his hips tilting gently deeper into John's mouth in blatant invitation that he paused, pulling back to stretch his jaw and growling his question.
The noise Sherlock made – inarticulate, eager acquiescence – made John's cock twitch in hungry response. He did not think he would ever see anything more gratifying that this elegant man reduced to such clumsiness as he grabbed what they needed, not just lubricant but protection as well, which tipped the balance of “probably” to “definitely” and make the fire in the pit of John's stomach blaze.
He fumbled with the cap, spilling a generous amount of gel. However, John could not bring himself to care about the mess as Sherlock shoved a pillow under his hips, keening as John's cold fingers slid between and back to tease at his opening. Going fast was not an option. John had no idea how long it had been for Sherlock since he had last done this. He seemed too experienced to be new at it, too eager and aware of what he wanted, but John still suspected that it had been a while. Longer than John's last time with a man, more than three years ago, now. There was no way he could risk hurting Sherlock.
Half-sentences, promises and quiet instructions gasped between them, punctuated by occasional moans that only grew more frequent as John dipped into that tight heat. He forced himself to think of anatomy in general, rather than Sherlock's in particular, because if he was not careful this would be over before it started. He concentrated on the smooth, elastic stretch until, eventually, he found the bundle of nerves that had Sherlock's chest heaving and his muscles clenching, a shivery groan filling the air with its timbre.
'God, that's sexy,' John breathed, bending to scatter kisses across Sherlock's hips and trembling with every press of Sherlock's hands. He was almost out of reach, but that meant Sherlock's whispering caresses fell on his shoulders, arms and the crown of his head, as tender as they were eager. 'Tell me what you want.'
'More,' Sherlock managed. 'More, John!'
With quick care, John obliged, adding another finger, then another as he watched the heat suffusing Sherlock's face with avid fascination. He looked as if he were coming undone, still Sherlock, but somehow boiled down to the essence of himself, something raw and wild that was John's alone to cherish.
At last, Sherlock was pliant and slick, and John withdrew to fumble for the condom, hissing as he rolled it onto the sensitive swell of his cock and positioned himself between Sherlock's legs. 'Stop me if I hurt you,' he asked, his grip tight on himself to guide him in as he leant forward to capture Sherlock's hungry mouth in a kiss, wet and messy and more right than anything John had known. 'Please?'
'You won't,' Sherlock gasped, his eyes rolling back as John nudged against him, so very close but still hanging back.
'Yes, okay, just –' He hitched his legs higher around John's ribs and dug in with his heels, and who was John to say no to that wordless demand? He followed Sherlock's urging, biting his lip hard as he eased his way in. The moan that escaped him made him sound like he was the one being impaled, and he blinked his eyes open to check on Sherlock, seeing passion that bordered on pain. Yet before he could pause or find the brain power to ask if Sherlock was okay, another flex of Sherlock's body jerked him forward, seating him deeper.
They said it in unison, and John's giggle bubbled in his throat as Sherlock's laugh hitched in his chest. 'You all right?' John asked, keeping his left hand on Sherlock's hip and curling forward to cup Sherlock's face with the other, seeing hazy desire in those watchful eyes.
'Better than all right,' he promised, his lashes falling closed and a crooked smile gracing his lips. 'You're in me.'
John shivered at those three simple words, canting his hips further forward and watching Sherlock arch in response. It was pure appreciation in that face now, and John withdrew to surge in again. He tried to hang onto his control and learn what made Sherlock gasp and moan, what made him catch his breath or cry out in pleasure. It would have been easier from behind, the angle better, but more than anything John wanted to see him and read every cue he could offer. It was worth it to see the fluttering shift of bliss when he nudged Sherlock's prostate, making him choke back a shout of encouragement.
He was so engrossed, half lost in Sherlock and submerged in the steady build of his climax that he did not notice the glimmer of the sprite, or the return of the gossamer web they had seen the day before. It was only when he tipped back his head, clutching at Sherlock's hips and plunging in, that the glisten caught his eye.
'We're being watched.' He bent awkwardly to lick the sweat from Sherlock's chest and heard a breathless noise of confusion. 'Your sprite's back.'
'Ignore it,' Sherlock groaned, his hand drifting down his belly to fist between his legs, quick and knowledgeable in a way that had John hypnotised. His hips twitched, finding a rhythm with John's increasingly ragged thrusts, and Sherlock's left hand gripped John's forearm, bands of bone and skin around the hot muscle, hard enough to bruise as they chased their completion.
A sudden flash of power made John's breath choke, the tendons in his neck standing out as he clenched his jaw against the wash of absolute bliss. It was not orgasm, but something that reached all the way down through him and ignited every corner of his being. Dizzily, he tried to work out what had caused it, realising that the golden web had drawn tight, catching him in its net.
Beneath him, Sherlock writhed, his moans muted to something soundless as the fervour surged through them. Sweat trailed down the side of John's face, and the abrupt assault of a second wash of power through the gossamer strands was his undoing. The stripes of Sherlock's release splashed between them as those muscles clamped down, leading John helplessly over the edge.
He came like he was dying, bent double and lost. Heat shone beneath his skin, cleaving through and bursting from beneath his ribs as his vision dimmed, leaving him shaking on arms that struggled to hold his weight as he spent himself in Sherlock's depths.
It seemed to last an eternity, aftershocks made electric by the power that had enfolded them in its grasp. John's breath caught as Sherlock's clumsy hands stroked the sides of his face, skittering across his cheeks before tangling in the sweat-drenched spikes of his hair.
'Fuck,' John croaked, blinking to try and clear the spots from his vision before his arms gave out, dumping him on Sherlock's sprawled form with an uncomfortable whuff of air. He wanted to ask what had just happened, because there was sex and then there was whatever they had shared. The word transcendent hovered in the back of John's mind, too difficult for his clumsy tongue to vocalise. Instead he could only trail his hand over Sherlock's chest, feeling the race of the heart contained within and the shiver of their sensitive bodies, still joined.
'You okay?' he whispered, smiling as Sherlock pressed a firm kiss to the top of John's head and stroked down the column of his spine in a delicious medley of sensation.
'"Okay" is an understatement,' Sherlock replied, gripping John's hips and urging him back and out. John only just had time to grab the condom to keep it in place before they disentangled with a wince. 'That was –'
'Different?' he suggested, flicking the condom towards the bin with one hand while keeping the other firmly planted on Sherlock. The very thought of breaking physical contact left him light-headed and weak. Letting go of the man at his side was too alien an idea to comprehend, and John didn't miss the fact that Sherlock never quite broke away. Every shift of his fingers was a glide over John's sweat-damp frame, and even when he reached out for tissues, he kept one palm cupped around John's shoulder as if he could not stand even a hair's breadth of separation.
'Incredible.' The praise was soft, given life by the deep purr of Sherlock's voice, and John leaned forward, letting the kiss consume him with echoes of desire. It was unhurried, but still meaningful, and he only withdrew when Sherlock swiped a tissue over him, raising tickling tremors in his wake.
Clean-up was both clumsy and rudimentary, the two of them too drained to manage more than a laughing effort at getting off the worst of the mess. Sex on top of the covers at least meant there was no wet patch to lie in, and they burrowed under the quilt. John sank into Sherlock's arms as if it were where he was designed to be, caught up in a shameless muddle of limbs.
'Shower,' he managed, too lazy to give the word anything more than a passing mention.
'Later.' Sherlock ducked his head, brushing soft kisses against John's cheeks and lips, less feverish than before, but still exquisite. It stopped John's breath and made his body burn, not with desire, slaked for now, but something that seemed to live down behind his heart. 'Stay?'
John smiled, tightening his arm over Sherlock's waist and relaxing as Sherlock curled around him, hooking one leg over John's ankles to pin him comfortably in place. 'I'm not going anywhere.'
Even as the words left his lips, John knew he wasn't just talking about now – this moment and this bed. He meant it as a promise from this day forward.
Sleep crept up on him, summoned ever closer by the hush of Sherlock's breathing and the slowing beat of his heart beneath John's palm. As they gradually succumbed, neither of them noticed the aureate light glowing from between John's fingers, dancing to the rhapsody of two souls united.
Sherlock drew in a deep breath, truly content for the first time years. He ached in the pleasant ways of a body well-loved, and something hot and substantial dwelt beneath his ribs: a puzzle piece finding its rightful home.
'Why are you doing that?'
John's sleep-rough voice made him open his eyes, seeing him beautifully debauched in the skein of their sheets. It was not an accusation, but something curious and confused. At Sherlock's rough sound of enquiry, John chuckled, propping himself up on his elbow and looking down into Sherlock's face. 'You're shining.' He said it in the tone of a man who had seen so many unbelievable things in the past few days that nothing surprised him anymore. 'Like someone's turned on a light inside you.'
It was a weak joke, but John smiled all the same, taking Sherlock's hand and holding it up in demonstration. The effect was subtle, but Sherlock could see a faint, dewy luminescence to his skin. It was not the first time it had happened. When he had learnt to create his sprites as an adolescent, his pallor had glimmered for hours after their return. Over time, the response faded, possibly as his confidence grew, but this was exactly the same: the celebration of a soul reunited with its physical form.
Sitting up, he cocked his head, listening to the sounds of Baker Street and, more importantly, the song of all the spells that he had been unable to maintain after he cut the deal with Moriarty. Even with the sprite in his hand, or him standing in close proximity to John and fuelled by their linked souls, he had not been able to put them all to rights. Now, they filled his higher senses with their chorus, adding their evidence to his theory.
Quickly, he curved his palms, feeling his power swell like water bursting forth. John's indrawn breath was a distant, happy sound, and the pull of their bond was another plucked string among the many as, carefully, Sherlock summoned the familiar sprites into being.
They came with joy, euphoric between his hands and fuelled by the entirety of his soul from where it lay in its rightful place within him, healed at last by John's devotion. He gave them no instruction, merely released them and watched the three sprites instantly weave towards John, leaving trailing little orbits around his wrist as he reached out to touch their gleam.
'You couldn't do that earlier,' John said, his crooked smile breaking into a grin as the sprites gradually crept back to Sherlock and sank into his skin. 'You're back to normal?'
'I was never normal,' Sherlock corrected, folding his legs beneath him, not caring if the shift of the sheet took all modesty with it as he arched his back and stretched his arms luxuriously above his head. The whisper of John's hand across his stomach made his breath hitch, and he opened one eye halfway, watching John's fingertips dance through the light that emanated from him. 'My soul is back where it should be.'
Now John looked shark-like, predatory and more than a little smug. 'So, was it the sex? Because if I'd known, I would have done that a lot sooner.'
'I think the healing abilities of sodomy are rather limited,' Sherlock retorted, but the delicate shiver of delight at the fresh memory took the edge from his voice as he considered the more likely answer. 'It was perhaps more the implication behind the act that was the tipping point: sentiment, connection...'
John raised an eyebrow, no doubt hearing the trailing four letter word that Sherlock did not give voice. However, he let it slide, stretching like a happy cat before gliding his hand over the sharp angle of Sherlock's knee. 'How long were we asleep?'
'A few hours.' Sherlock glanced at the bedside clock and then out of the window, where London lay wrapped in dying light. 'We missed lunch.'
John gave an inarticulate murmur of acknowledgement, sounding lost in the lazy decadence of an afternoon spent in bed. It was tempting to let him lie there, soft and sleepy, but Sherlock's mind was already speeding up, returning to the lingering threat of Moran. At least now he was back to full fighting form, his power washing through him in a tidal march that brought life back to vacant muscles, and he was eager to put this mess to rest. There were several places he could start asking questions about the vanguard of Moriarty's agent, and somehow he doubted that John would let him work alone.
'Come on,' Sherlock urged, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He listened to his wards, making sure they were not alerting him to anyone else's presence in the flat before he opened the door and strode nude towards the bathroom. He had just got the water running at a decent temperature when John padded in behind him looking wonderfully rumpled.
Sherlock expected it to feel strange, this casual domestic intimacy. Most relationships were fraught with the chaos of miscommunication and uncertain boundaries in the opening stages, but then he and John were hardly a standard pair. Even without the bond in place, tenderly bringing them into magical sync, they had built a metropolis of friendship in their time together and spent the entirety of it sharing a small flat. Few people could claim that level of familiarity with their new lover.
'You all right?' John asked, twitching Sherlock from his musings as he clambered into the shower and tipped his face up to the spray, moaning in contentment as the warm water sluiced over his body. Crystal rivulets carved their way across his physique, and Sherlock licked his lips, struggling against the temptation to follow the trails down to the dusky shadows between John's legs.
'Just thinking,' Sherlock replied, getting in behind John and crowding him back under the spray, making him laugh as the cascade was dashed to mist. He kissed John's nape, his tongue darting out to taste the salt of sweat before it was completely banished.
'Glad your soul's back where it should be?' John asked, something faintly regretful in his voice.
'It makes things easier,' Sherlock replied. 'And in light of what happened at the crime scene, it's probably for the best.' He smiled, wrapping his arms around John's chest and cupping his palms in front of them both, summoning a sprite as easily as if he were taking his next breath. 'Of course, if you miss having it around...'
John laughed as the star made a bristling gesture, the water evaporating in tiny breaths of multi-coloured steam before it could hit its surface. 'I was starting to get used to it,' he admitted, capturing the ball of light in his hand and pulling it towards his neck. Sherlock growled as the ghost of John's caress surfed over him. He slumped into John's back, letting the shorter man prop him up as John's other hand reached for the soap.
As he did so, the steam from the shower coalesced, forming eddies around the glimmering ribbon of the bond. Sherlock watched it pulse, almost hidden but no less tenacious for being so-concealed. Gently, he reached out, following its winding path with his touch and feeling John's muscles soften, making him sag backwards until they were the only thing holding each other up.
'It's permanent,' Sherlock said, wondering if he should be bothered at the thought of being so tied up in someone else. 'Not just a side-effect of you having my soul.'
John turned, his hand catching Sherlock's wrist before shifting up his arm to rest on the plane of his chest. Beneath his palm, Sherlock could feel the bass throb of his heart. However, it was the light that seeped from between John's fingers that caught his attention, bright like sunshine on the rare perfect day in a British summer. There was still so much that they did not know about the new bond, but for all that there was a thin veil of uncertainty lying across John's features, there was also acceptance. He did not question Sherlock's claim, merely nodded his head as if he could feel the same stability.
'I think I can live with that,' he said eventually, leaning forward to kiss Sherlock's nipple before grabbing the shampoo. 'I mean, what do we know about it? It gives me access to your power, lets me not just interfere with your spells, but help with them, boosts my own strength... Not much of a down-side, so far.'
'We'll need to explore it properly – test its limitations,' Sherlock pointed out, his mind already racing as he lathered shampoo into his hair and soap across his body before nudging John aside and taking his place under the spray. 'You holding my soul these past few days will have interfered with available data. We won't know cause and effect without further experimentation. The compulsion, for example, and the discomfort we experienced when separated could be symptomatic of either state.'
Some of John's joy faded, and Sherlock reached out, flicking the last suds from spiky blond hair. 'The more we know, the more effectively we can put it to good use,' he explained. 'It's not a concept to which I've given intensive study.'
'I would have thought you'd look into most opportunities to increase your power.' John cupped his shoulder. 'From what you've told me, you've been studying spells since you could read. I've never heard of bonds, but you clearly have. You knew what it was as soon as we saw it. Is it taboo?'
'Like selling your soul, you mean?' Sherlock gave a weak smile, tipping his head back to rinse the last of the shampoo from his curls. He wanted to explain that, when he had found out about bonds, he had seen the immediate flaw. Even at thirteen, Sherlock had known that everyone else was an idiot. For a bond to work, merely tolerating the company of the other party – the closest thing to friendship Sherlock really hoped for – was inadequate. There had to be complete compatibility in every aspect of life. However, the fact that John was the person who fit him so flawlessly implied more than Sherlock was willing to put into words.
'It's not forbidden, merely a lost art,' he said at last, attempting to steer the conversation into less potentially sentimental territory. 'The ritual can be simple, but the power required is hard to come by. The only reason ours formed is because of what happened in the cathedral.'
'I'd feel better if it hadn't been made by Moriarty's –'
John's last word was cut off by an abrupt gasp of pain, and Sherlock looked around in surprise, his hand outstretched before a throb of agony assailed his senses. It boomed through his body like the thud of a drum, rumbling thunder along his nerves as an image flickered across his mind: a star-flung sky and craggy mountains, sand-swept land and a cedar tree.
The gleaming line of a Dragunov rifle and a demon's silhouette.
'Moran.' Sherlock forced his eyes open, trying to disregard the waltz of nausea that trembled through his stomach. John had slumped back against the tiles, his body frail and his cheeks pallid. Blue eyes were dark in his face, wide with alarm as he wet his lips and tried to speak
'He's in our realm? How –?'
With a shake of his head, Sherlock flicked off the shower and stepped out. Grabbing a towel for himself, he handed the other to John, rubbing the terry cloth over the clammy chill of John's skin before the doctor gave an irritated huff and took it from him. 'I'm all right. Just tell me what's going on.' He slung the towel around his waist before holding out a hand. 'And don't tell me you don't know. I don't care if you've not got facts. Theories will do.'
Sherlock ran his tongue over his teeth, hating that he had nothing more concrete in the way of answers. 'Demons can move between each other's territory easily. If they're allies, it can be like walking from one room into another is for us. If they're enemies, it's more challenging, but they live in their realms and can actively defend them if necessary.'
John nodded his comprehension. 'We're not there to protect it, and he's found a way in.' He frowned, cuffing his hands carelessly through his hair before pulling open the bathroom door and heading for the bedroom. There was nothing haphazard about the way John clothed himself, and Sherlock allowed himself to watch as John's questions continued. 'So it's a real place, our world, like Cardiff or Bristol, just somewhere else?'
'It's more complex than that, but the analogy is adequate.' Sherlock pulled a clean shirt from the cupboard, shrugging into the purple fabric and doing up the buttons on autopilot. 'So far, we have only found the way to our Afghanistan when we're asleep, and even then, it's not a constant state of affairs.' He gestured to the bed. 'I don't think I dreamt anything this afternoon.'
John shook his head. 'Me neither. So, if we can't be sure that we'll end up there when we're asleep, how do we find it now?'
Sherlock paused, glancing at John in interest. He had not said a word about entering their realm being a necessity, but John had deduced it for himself. Perhaps it was the logical step. Their territory was under threat, and so the soldier responded. Find the borders, pace the periphery, act as sentry and quell the invasion.
'We go on a hunt. It's the same as when I followed Moriarty's trail after the murder in Bethnal Green. We just have to find our way there. Considering it's ours, it should not be challenging. It's dealing with Moran that could be an issue.' He pulled on his trousers, socks and shoes, thinking fast.
'I'll get my gun.' John was already heading towards the door, seemingly not caring about whether it would be able to travel into their refuge with them. He paused on the threshold, looking back. 'Moran did something, didn't he? Caused damage? That's why it hurt.'
'Yes, I did the same to Moriarty, but that was the only place he could exist without a body to possess in the physical plane. We are different.'
John pursed his lips, worried and confused. 'I don't think that matters. I get what you're saying. We're here, in this world, so it shouldn't have dire consequences if he tears our realm apart, but –'
'But we can't let that happen,' Sherlock finished. He felt it too, the ancient panic of something beyond humanity that was threatened by the demon's presence. 'If we don't go after Moran, he'll continue to destroy what we created. I'm not questioning that. I just wanted to make sure you realised that I don't know what would happen if he succeeded.'
Sherlock rarely admitted a gap in his knowledge; the need was so infrequent. However, now he found himself in a situation where the answers could not easily be deduced. He could read all the signs and still end up with the wrong answer. For now, his only certainty was that he and John had to get to the Afghanistan born of their imagination and force Moran out.
Or better yet, destroy him.
'Get what you need,' he urged, ignoring the damp tickle of his curls at the nape of his neck as he followed John out and surveyed the living room. He had to be sure it was well-protected. Whatever Moran had done had been his way of getting their attention, but Sherlock had no intention of leaving his and John's bodies vulnerable while they went on the hunt.
Moving the armchairs back, he flung the rug aside, standing in the middle of the bare wooden boards as he closed his eyes. There was no time to revel in the ease of his power, so recently regained in full. Instead he concentrated his mind on checking every shield. He probed for flaws, flexing each interface so that they would absorb a blow, rather than shatter.
The light of his contributions glowed as always, but it was the whorls of John's dark heat that provided a foundation stronger than anything Sherlock had seen before. They comprised a mighty core within the shifting illumination of his spells while stars danced in their blackened depths: a flawless blend of two wards as one.
Carefully, Sherlock began to weave the power together, integrating traps and alarms. Mrs Hudson was visiting her sister, which made matters easier and allowed him to extend the ruthless wall of energy to cover every entrance to the building. Doors and windows, chimneys, walls and floors, each was barricaded by unforgiving ferocity before he turned his attention to the next spell.
Normally, he eschewed using circles and sigils for a hunt. The theory was so known to him it may as well have been carved into his bones, but this time he was unwilling to take any chances. He had no idea what tricks Moran had waiting for them, and he needed to have as much power available as possible. The outlines would prevent his focus from being split between two worlds. Besides, the addition of John was still a new component, and Sherlock's confidence was not yet absolute.
The chalk was smooth as he drew the images. They flowed from his mind like spilt blood: sweeping arcs and jagged symbols of Runic, Cuneiform and Sanskrit. Each pictogram fell into place like the tumblers of a lock. Unlike summoning a demon to him, where the circle acted as a prison, this was a doorway. Physically, he and John would never cross, but this way Sherlock could be confident that nothing would follow them through.
It was only when he straightened up that he realised John was watching, his head tilted to one side in interest as he took in the interlocking circumferences. 'It looks like art.' He stepped forward with a frown. 'It's weird. I look at it, and I don't know what I'm seeing, but I understand its purpose: a locked door, right, and we've got the only key?'
'That's the idea,' Sherlock replied. 'Normally I hold something like this in my head when I go on a hunt. It works just as well and saves time, but I can't afford to split my concentration.'
John nodded, squaring his shoulders as his gaze skated around the flat, no doubt aware of the combined shelter their shields provided throughout the building. Sherlock could see the glow of questions in his eyes, but only one found its way past his lips. 'What do you need me to do?'
Wordlessly, Sherlock held out his hand, entwining his fingers with John's and urging him closer. An hour ago, he had still been in bed with this man, curled up in his comfort and utterly content. Now, Sherlock's chest hurt with the thought of how badly this could end. Normally, he was armed with knowledge, data, certainties, but this time he had so little to work with that it left him adrift.
'Stand behind me, the same as before. Don't let go until we're in Afghanistan again. I doubt you'll get lost if you do, but I don't want to risk it. And John? Be careful.'
John's hand squeezed his so tight that it hurt. 'You too. If it looks like things are starting to go wrong, we retreat, all right? Moran can't follow us, and we can regroup.'
'If we do, he'll continue his attacks,' Sherlock pointed out.
'It might not be ideal, but if it's necessary...' John trailed off as Sherlock nodded in understanding. 'Come on. Let's go and see what this bastard’s trying to do. If he's got a body, I'll shoot him. If not –'
'Then leave it to me,' Sherlock instructed. 'He's got to be desperate. If he had any sense of strategy he would make us join him in the husk of Moriarty's realm. It's the only place where he can gather any strength. In our world, he should be cut off: a finite resource. He won't toy around with us. He'll kill us if he can, and a bullet to the head for either of us there is as good a death as he needs.'
He watched the shift of John's face, the tension in his jaw and the downward cinch of his brow, but his only response was a nod as Sherlock stood at the periphery of the main circle. Behind him, John's palms slipped up his shoulders and over their peaks. There was no trace of a tremor in either hand, and Sherlock took the time to relish the solid wall of John's presence and record it in his mind.
Something to remember for the rest of his life, however long that may be.
John tried to concentrate on the length of Sherlock's body in front of him, but as soon as he released the power of the hunt, it was all he could do to remember to breathe. It felt as if he were flowing outwards from himself, leaving the confines of bone and skin to plunge into icy water. A blue glow suffused his vision, drilling into his head, and strange sounds travelled to his ears like the creaking of an old house as its beams settled after a hot summer's day.
There was a sensation of vastness – an infinity within which to lose himself – but just as he began to panic that he would be lost forever, recognition pulled at him. It was a road to guide his footsteps, and John allowed himself to seep along the charted path, aware of Sherlock in front of him, in him, around him and all the places in between as they raced onwards.
The familiar fragrance of Afghanistan – rasping sand and musky cedar, sun-baked stone and heavy air – beckoned him, and the abrupt sensation of being nothing but fog gave way to something more solid. He could feel the grit in the air and steady rock beneath his feet. John knew that his body was back in the flat. What stood in this place had little to do with the physical. It was about the rest of him, the parts left over when the organic was removed.
Yet his self-analysis vanished as instinct came to the fore, causing him to pull the Browning free and cock the safety hammer, drawing the weapon up and ready to fire. Dawn light spilt across the terrain, casting its illumination on the scene. There was no sign of Moran – nothing living except the tree and the distant, far-off speck of a circling eagle – but this was a far-cry from the barren, half-remembered land from his nightmares.
An antelope skull, head-phones intact, hung on the trunk of the cedar, and here and there the glimmer of glassware – Sherlock's lab-kit – shone bright white in the rising sun. Another gun, a copy of his Browning, sat squat and ready on the coffee table from the living room, around which the familiar forms of their chairs were arranged. Pieces of Baker Street had materialised here, including, he realised, the bed they had shared. Gone was the narrow cot, thin and cheap and built to be left behind. Instead Sherlock's stood in pride of place, covered by John's quilt and pillows.
It felt like home.
'It's formed itself in our image. We don't have followers, not in the typical sense.' Sherlock leaned down to scoop something from the floor and held it up in evidence: one of Lestrade's badges. 'But this is still something akin to tribute. There's as much your stuff here as mine.' He pointed to the shattered splinters of glass littering the rocky outcrop not far from the bed – a smashed flask. 'Moran broke it to send us a message.'
'They're just things. How can we sense when they're damaged?' John whispered, grabbing Sherlock's elbow and guiding his retreat, checking the potential lines of sniper fire and doing his best with the limited cover available on the plateau. 'Stay low.'
Sherlock grabbed the spare pistol from the table, an identical twin for the one in John's hand. Immediately, he pried the Browning from John's grip and traded them over. 'They aren't objects. They're representations made up from our power. That's how we can feel it when he interferes. I've never tried bringing a weapon into a realm before, but that was forged here. It will definitely do its job.'
'Wonderful. Now we just have to find the bastard.' John frowned, feeling Sherlock stiffen at his side a second before the sensation washed over him. Cold whispered in the desert air as a soft vibration carried through the ground beneath their feet. It was like a stone in his shoe or a razor blade in a bite of food: sharp, painful and out of place, but he couldn't work out where it was coming from.
Sherlock shook his head, his eyes narrowed in thought. John could almost see the meteoric rise and fall of theories, and he pursed his lips as Sherlock ducked his head closer to John's ear, pouring forth a susurrus of information. 'Don't assume Moran will be in a recognisable form. He is isolated from Moriarty's power now, but he must still have some of his own left to command. He could be –'
The crack of a shot cut off the sentence, and John yanked Sherlock further back behind the tree, calculating angles and trajectories as a pock of sand marked the bullet's impact. The air trembled, dancing as if baked by a heat haze and undulating with a quiet groan, but John hardly noticed. He was too busy staring at the gleam of blood that dripped through Sherlock's fingers where they were clutching his arm.
'Graze,' he gritted out, pulling hard on the hem of his shirt and ripping off a wobbling strip. He used his teeth and spare hand to bind it tight over the tear in the sleeve. 'Where did it come from?'
'The north,' John replied, gesturing to the rise of a craggy outcrop more than a kilometre away. 'Most snipers would struggle to manage that distance, and even as a demon I'm guessing he fucked it up, or it would be lodged in your head.'
'When weakened, demons lose form, function and coherency,' Sherlock explained. 'It could be that Moran, and the gun he carries, are both coming undone.'
John swallowed, reading between the lines of that statement. 'So with every second, he's getting more desperate and more dangerous. How long will it take? I mean, if he runs out of power entirely, what happens?'
'He will disintegrate, but we can't wait for that. If he has allies, he will flee to their assistance when he has no other choice and could come back stronger. This is our best chance to beat him.' Sherlock wiped his bloody hand on his trousers before reaching out to latch onto John's wrist and shutting his eyes. His breathing, hitched with pain, began to level out. The gasp of the wind took on the same tidal rhythm as it cooled the sweat on John's forehead.
Dimly, coming up through the soles of his boots, John thought he could feel the drum of a giant heartbeat: an echo of life in the land itself. He swallowed tightly as Sherlock abruptly opened his eyes, his pupils constricting in the glare of the rising sun. 'Got him. I can get us closer, but you need to hold on.'
'What are you going to do?' John asked, clutching his gun tight in his left hand while he turned the right over to clasp Sherlock's arm.
'Realms vary in size. Moriarty's was concentrated, no larger than a room. By its very design, ours is bigger, but it's like scenery painted on fabric. You can fold it and reduce the distance between two points. He'll know we've done it, but he won't know where we are.'
'How precise can you get it?'
Sherlock shook his head. 'Accuracy will be poor, but if we try crossing the distance on foot, we'll be giving him too many opportunities for another shot.' With a quick squeeze, Sherlock took a breath, and the world shifted. It was like trying to stand on a rug as someone else yanked on it, all precarious equilibrium and uncertainty. A moment later it was over, and John was leaning against the barren rock of the outcrop, his grip digging in tight to Sherlock's arm as he tried to gain his bearings.
Slender fingers covered his lips, forcing back any words that might have escaped him as Sherlock leaned around the outcrop of the stone at their backs. Now that John listened, he could hear the clatter of someone getting to their feet, their movements frantic.
He did not wait for confirmation, merely stepped out and pulled the trigger. The gunshot echoed around them, a punctuating discord only interrupted by the zing of the bullet ricocheting to be lost in the landscape.
Moran's shoulders twitched, jerking with silent laughter as he looked at John. Tall and well-built, he was a threat, even if his face looked drawn, haggard and marked by too many scars. 'Good try,' he drawled, 'but I'm not that stupid.'
'Dumb enough to come here looking for us,' John challenged. He itched to pull the trigger again, craving the satisfaction of watching the bullet burying itself between Moran’s eyes, but there was no point wasting ammunition if the bastard had shields. In the real world, the silver shot would cut through without a problem. Moran's own projectile had sailed through Sherlock's protections unimpeded, but something was providing him with a working ward.
Around John's wrist, the gleam of the bond sparked to life, a verdant link back to Sherlock's chest. In the same instant, a thought arrived in his mind. It was nothing complex, just an image, something Sherlock was pushing towards him: the dog-tags around Moran's neck.
The demon's eyes narrowed, his fist tightening on the rifle at his side as he glared at the luminescence of the connection. John could see the glimmer of sweat beading his upper lip as the tautness of the stalemate spread around him.
'I suppose I should give you credit for attempting intelligence,' Sherlock said, stepping from the shadows and examining Moran. 'You thought to protect yourself and enchanted your ammunition so they could penetrate my shields. Pity you didn't think it through.' He turned fractionally towards John, deliberately sharing the information. 'The spells that forced your bullet to ricochet also impede Moran's rifle. He can't fire unless he takes off his tags, and if he does that –'
'I can kill him.' The thought brought with it a guilty sense of satisfaction, and John considered their options as Sherlock continued to speak. Moran stood on a spar of stone overlooking the ground below. John could clearly see the plateau on which their sanctuary stood, a stronghold within the landscape. There was nowhere the demon could run, no way out but through him and Sherlock, unless he fancied taking his chances with the drop at his back.
This fight would not come down to bullets; it would end in fists. All he needed was for Sherlock to hold Moran's attention.
John tried to send the image of his plan, fumbling over the process. He was not sure how Sherlock had been able to transmit the picture, but he tried to do the same, noticing Sherlock flinch out of the corner of his eye and hearing a brief stumble in his words before he continued speaking.
'Moriarty is undone. Even if you have a glimmer of him left, you don't have the power to remake him.'
Moran sneered, his face a mask of disdain. 'Think what you want.' Again, his gaze flickered down to the glowing rope of their tether, and John watched the hate contort his face. 'I do the job in front of me; I get results. Easy.'
'Oh!' The breathless wonder of Sherlock's epiphany whispered through the air. 'You need to break the bond.'
John twitched at Sherlock's realisation, suffused in sudden ice as his shoulders braced. It was the same feeling he'd had in the cathedral, where something in his keeping had to be saved at all costs, no matter what the price. He heard Sherlock chastise himself for his lack of foresight but kept his gaze locked unblinkingly on Moran.
'Stupid of me to have missed it. John said it himself. Moriarty's magic was what made it possible. A twist of fate, nothing more, but if you break it, you release the last echoes of his power.' Sherlock shifted at John's side, and now his voice took on the rapid-fire tone of his deductions.
'But it's not something just anyone can do. Moriarty gave you away when we cut the deal. He called you his tiger, his little hunter.' Sherlock huffed at the diminutive, but John was too busy watching Moran, seeing the growing spread of loathing and distrust as Sherlock peeled back the layers of truth. Any minute now...
'He made you. You're not some random ally. He gave you your existence. You don't need a seed because you are the seed. You break the bond and you get his power. You'll drain yourself for his benefit in the hopes that he'll bring you back again.' Sherlock's shoes scraped along the ground, loud in the sudden, breathless silence. 'Doesn't seem likely, does it? Not when you failed to protect him at his most vulnerable. Not when you were the one who was too slow to shoot John in the cathedral.'
'Shut up!' Moran's yell bounced off the craggy mountainside, his features turning dark with anger as his hands shook at his sides. Those eyes were intent on Sherlock, ignoring John completely, and he pushed his advantage.
Moran's protections were useless against the solid reality of John's fist, and he smashed his knuckles into that cruel face, hearing the rifle clatter away as the demon stumbled back, his lips drawn over snarling teeth. In the next instant, he leapt, reversing the momentum of the stagger into a lunge that knocked John to the ground.
The Browning rattled on the floor, but John did not hear it bounce away. He was too busy trying to kick and claw, punch or bite whatever part of Moran he could reach. The demon was heavy over him, enough to make the sharp rocks beneath John's back slice through his jumper.
There was nothing magical about what they were doing. It was brutal and wild: physical dominance rather than prowess with spells. Moran was a demon, but John was a soldier. It was not about the perfect left hook or a knock-out blow. Whatever he could do to make Moran bleed was enough, because at least while he was fighting John, he was not looking at Sherlock like he wanted to tear his skin from his bones.
A punch ground John's teeth together. His nose was dribbling blood and there were deep scratches on the back of his hand as he and Moran rolled. However, for every mark that blemished John's body, he gave as good as he got, feeling the satisfying tells of pain beneath each blow. He kept expecting Moran to change form, but the demon was too lost in either anger or weakness to do so, because he stayed locked up in a human body, wounded and snarling inarticulate threats.
With a swipe of his leg, John knocked Moran off balance, forcing him to the ground and pulling back his right fist. Yet before he could release the punch, Moran’s split, wrecked lips stretched into a grin, and his hand reached out, not for the rifle, but to John's left wrist, wrenching the palm up and grabbing at the air beneath.
Except it was not just air. The demon touched the bond, and the world pitched. It was as if someone had sat on John's chest: a dead-weight that made him gasp and choke as the sunlight vanished from the sky. There were no stars nor clouds, just thick, black night, and through it all John could hear the creak of something strong buckling under immense force. It felt as if his heart was being ripped free from its moorings and hauled over the sharp knives of his ribs until he was sure that his dry heaves would splatter Moran with gore.
The image of the dog-tags crashed into John's mind again, veiled with panic and pain. Moran had pinned him to the earth like a butterfly to a board, useless and weak. His nails scraped clumsily across the demon's cheeks, gouging at his eyes and scrabbling fitfully down the column of his throat. His fingers caught in the chain, tingling with the burn of the spells on the metal.
Moran's face was red with the strain of trying to hold John down while attacking the bond. He shook with the need to shatter it apart even as the light scorched into his hand, screaming its own bitter fury at the assault.
In comparison, the weak metal thread around the demon's neck was nothing but a cobweb. One yank was all John needed; the links parted, trailing around his knuckles as the tags gleamed against his skin.
A gunshot echoed as Moran's shields fell, instantaneous and deadly. The bullet slammed into the demon's skull, burrowing into his cranium. The body jerked and the hand on the bond fell away. John expected it to slump, a meaty remnant absent of life, but just like that, Moran's weight was gone from his stomach and chest. Light flooded back into the world, gleaming off the ashen grains that Moran became: undone to dust. The wind took it, carrying it away and leaving John on his back, gasping like a landed fish.
Jittering fingers touched the swelling on his cheek and his bloody lip before rubbing down his arms to grab his palms tight, clinging on in a death grip that John tried his best to return. He was aching and diminished, but steadily, the sensation was beginning to ebb. Nearby, the bond gleamed bright, scything through the air from him to Sherlock. Moran had not left even a nick in the sturdy structure, nor a shadow of a bruise in its light.
'Next time,' John croaked, 'feel free to give me a hand.'
Sherlock's relief at his words was obvious, and he pulled John into a sitting position. 'You had Moran under control. Besides, I was attempting to limit the damage.'
There was no need for Sherlock to answer. Even as John spoke, he realised what he was talking about. All the way from the outcrop on which they sat to the horizon, a huge fault ran through the earth, cracked and gaping like a fresh wound. It cleaved along the east side, not far from their bed, and John knew that closer inspection would reveal a web of cracks under their safe-haven in this world.
'If he broke the bond, he would destroy the realm as well. If this place fell, the bond would shatter. They are interlinked,' Sherlock stated, shaking his head at John's tired, puzzled glance. 'I don't know how I knew, but since you were trying to get Moran off the bond, I tried to hold the realm together until the opportune moment.'
'Then you pulled the trigger.' Part of John wished he could have saved Sherlock from that. It was a foolish thought; Sherlock had probably done worse things in his time than killing a demon, but that didn't make the feeling any less poignant. 'Good shot.'
'The gun was practically in his ear,' Sherlock pointed out. 'Missing from that range would have been mortifying.' His hands tightened over John's once more, making bruised, swollen knuckles sting, but John could not bring himself to protest. Now that the fog was starting to lift, the dull edges of confusion and pain were sharpening with the sense of victory, and he leaned in, sharing a bloody kiss before wincing at the discomfort.
'He's gone,' John breathed, freeing one hand to rub at his eye and swearing as the bruise there bit out a complaint. 'It's over.'
John looked up sharply at Sherlock's correction, stifling a disapproving noise as he pulled himself free and got to his feet. He watched Sherlock cross to the blunt, squat form of Moran's rifle where it lay on the ground, still solid and brutish. The metal gleamed strangely in the desert sun, and he could almost see the malevolence radiating from the weapon as Sherlock hunkered down and splayed his hands above its surface.
Beneath him, the stones began to purr, a low, contented rumble as the power seeped up out of the world itself and flowed into Sherlock's frame. It reflected back at John; hints of energy flickered like lightning along the bond. He could see the spell coiling, the strain escalating with each passing beat of his heart until it slammed down into the black alloy, marbling the metal with rivulets of molten liquid.
A shock-wave pulsed through the air, sending a scatter of sand racing before the howl of the wind. The gun disintegrated beneath its force, not into splinters or shards, but glittering particles: component molecules and nothing more. Sherlock wobbled upright, his pale face exhausted as he met John's gaze.
'Now it's over.'
John struggled to his feet, reaching for him without a second thought and enfolding that slender body in his arms. He did not need Sherlock to tell him about the fatigue that clawed through his frame. John could feel it, but while his own was something physical, Sherlock's looked like it went deeper. The bliss of their afternoon was a distant memory, and John was desperate to get back to Baker Street and prove to himself that it was still real.
'Let's go home,' he urged, narrowing his eyes as Sherlock gestured to the injury in their realm.
'We need to fix it, put up defences and protect this place. If Moran has allies...'
'You think any demon out there cares enough to come after him?' John asked, running his hands up Sherlock's arms before cupping his elbows as he tried to think. The healing would have to wait, but Sherlock was right. They could not be here to guard their world from invaders. However, a simple ward would be better than nothing.
John bowed his head, a spell unfurling through him like a full sail catching the wind. The desert heat developed purpose, no longer benign, and when he looked to the horizon he saw the drunken, wavering haze thicken, almost opaque as it responded to his command. It was a makeshift protection, but it would stand for now.
'We'll come back,' he promised, nudging Sherlock's nose. 'As soon as we can, we'll do everything possible, but right now we're the ones who need healing.' He rested his hand at the edge of the blood-soaked strip of cloth around Sherlock's arm in emphasis, but he suspected it was his own bruises and scrapes that made up Sherlock's mind. The man would ignore his health until he dropped dead if it suited him, but even before all this he had never been tolerant of John's pain.
Sherlock did not speak. Perhaps he knew there were no words necessary. Instead, he obeyed. The world dissolved around them, the warmth replaced with the cold dampness of their passage. It was as easy going as it was coming, like water flowing to the lowest point, and John opened his eyes to the clamour of the wards of Baker Street and the shriek of pain across the new splits in his skin.
With a loud boom, the chalk circles slammed shut, scattering in a chrysanthemum burst of dust to stain the floorboards. The high-wire of power that they had sustained, unnoticed, snapped with a cruel bite that left John slumped against Sherlock's back, his brow sweaty and his body weak. With a peal like a church bell, the wards stuttered and died, reducing the flat to its basic defences, and John winced as he heard someone slam through the front door.
'Mycroft,' Sherlock explained, panting as if he had run a marathon, his ribs flaring outward in a rapid rhythm as the drum of footsteps hurried up the stairs, sounding far too ungainly to be the older Holmes. 'Lestrade as well. I think we gave them cause for alarm.'
The door to the flat burst open, and John rolled his head against Sherlock's shoulder-blade, too tired to peel himself away from his lover's back as he blinked at the two men standing at the threshold. Mycroft's spare key glimmered from where it hung in the lock. He suspected he should be grateful that Mycroft had one, since both of them looked like breaking the door down would have been an acceptable option.
'Are you two all right?' Greg demanded, striding to where they still stood. John knew it was pure luck that meant they hadn't slumped to the ground. 'What the hell happened?'
'We dealt with Moran.' Sherlock's statement was matter-of-fact, bald data without any embellishment, and John saw the tic of frustration jump in Greg's jaw.
'You lit up half of fucking London with whatever you were doing!' the DI bit out, gesturing out of the window. 'We thought it was God-damn terrorists until we realised it was your signature all over it.'
'Not just Sherlock's,' Mycroft corrected, meeting John's gaze with a knowledgeable arch of one brow. 'This was clearly symbiotic magic from both of you.' As tired as he was, John did not miss the older Holmes' smile. It was not mirthless or coldly satisfied, as was Mycroft's wont. It actually looked happy, albeit subtle. 'Impressive, and unexpected.'
'Shut up, Mycroft,' Sherlock groaned. 'If you have any sense you would make sure your minions have cleansed the shrines, both in the sewer and in Paige Cubric's house, as well as any others you find.'
'I am several steps ahead of you,' the older Holmes replied, completely unperturbed by Sherlock's curt command as he turned towards the kitchen, filling the kettle and switching it on. 'We have isolated three more sites of worship and begun to eradicate them. There should be nothing left within twenty-four hours.' Braving the cupboards, Mycroft retrieved a packet of biscuits and offered them immediately to John. 'Intense power discharges can result in an abrupt decline in blood sugar. Food will improve your constitution.'
John managed to straighten up, clumsily scrabbling a digestive free from the packet and thrusting it into Sherlock's hand before slumping onto the sofa and doing as Mycroft suggested. He was more sick than hungry, but while the first bite sat in his stomach like rock, the second went down better, and some of the shuddering began to subside. 'Thanks.'
Mycroft seemed shocked at the gratitude, probably because Sherlock's only response to the biscuit had been a glare. He had eaten it, though, John noticed, and was now picking at the blood-drenched sleeve of his shirt.
The sight gave him a guilty start. There was no binding on it here, since it had not been their actual bodies bearing the wounds. Yet before he could bully enough of his brain together to think of a healing spell, Sherlock pushed John's hands away. 'You're weak,' he pointed out without mercy. 'One spell's probably more than you can take right now. Lestrade, there are some ice-packs in the freezer. It might be enough to stop John's eye swelling shut. I'll get the first-aid kit.'
John wanted to protest because Sherlock was not much better off than he was. However, in less than a minute, he was back, ignoring his own arm in favour of swiping antiseptic carefully over the gashes on John's knuckles.
'What do the shrines do?' John asked, taking the offered ice-pack and resting it against the bruising around his eye. He probably looked like hell, and he vowed that as soon as he could he would heal both Sherlock and himself. 'Greg, just tape a dressing over Sherlock's arm, will you?'
'Already on it,' the DI promised. 'I'd heal you both if I could, but my first-aid spells are shit.' He shot an amused glance in Mycroft's direction. 'Somehow I doubt they're your speciality either.'
Mycroft pursed his lips, choosing to answer John's question instead. 'We are simply being cautious. Cleansing the shrines ensures that no further power can be channelled back to whatever remains of Moriarty's lair. It would be unwise to leave any conduits open.'
'But they're gone,' Greg said, gripping Sherlock's arm and peeling back the slashed cotton of his shirt, holding him still long enough to fix the dressing tight over the wide gash in his bicep. 'Moriarty and Moran I mean, aren't they?'
'Think of it like salting the earth,' Sherlock instructed. 'We don't want anything growing where they once stood. We don't want other demons getting hold of the remnants of what they had, or building something up from nothing.'
'We cannot remove all trace,' Mycroft added, 'but we can do our best. There will always be seeds of their existence, influences they left in their wake or memories locked in people's head, but this way we can ensure they never become anything more.'
John shifted the ice on his face, wincing at the tender swelling. In contrast, Sherlock's touch was exquisitely careful, firm enough to be capable, but he seemed to be going out of his way to minimise John's discomfort. The thought made him give a wonky smile, and he twitched his hand, catching Sherlock's in a tight squeeze that made the bond between them glow.
'We've done our bit,' Sherlock told his brother, eventually lifting his head from his scrutiny of John's injuries. 'As long as you do yours, neither Moriarty nor Moran should reappear.'
'And what about you?' Greg asked, raising one eyebrow as his gaze darted to the still shining connection. 'You can't tell me whatever you just did was normal.' He glanced at John, including him in the question. 'Do I need to worry about what's happened to you?'
'I don't think we have any cause for concern, Detective Inspector,' Mycroft assured him. 'My brother's soul is clearly back where it belongs and I'm sure any –' He paused, glancing pointedly towards Sherlock and back again '– alterations are only for the better. We have work to do. John, will you see us out?'
'Mycroft...' Sherlock clenched his jaw, but he did not finish his sentence as John shook his head.
'It's all right. The sooner they're gone, the sooner they can sort out the shrines and we can put this behind us.' John got stiffly to his feet, but found himself able to stand without feeling as if he would fall flat on his face. He just hoped that he could bear whatever Mycroft had to say with equal fortitude. For all his efforts at the dramatic, Mycroft did not scare him, but the last thing he needed was a protective speech from Sherlock's older brother.
He led Mycroft and Greg out of the door, sensing the slide and spark of the remaining wards. For him they were like silk against his skin, but he could detect Sherlock's ire bleeding into the low-level shields, petulant and irritable at his brother's interference. Nothing new there, then, although John had never been able to perceive it so acutely, before.
Greg departed with a promise to check on them tomorrow, clearly still uneasy about everything that had happened. John could appreciate the sentiment. He and Greg were two of a kind. They liked things simple, and the past few days had been anything but. Moriarty and Moran might be undone or whatever it was that happened to demons when they were brought to an end, but the consequences of their brief foray into the real world remained, both bad and good. Some would fade, but others John knew would be with them forever, from the grief that had been dealt to the families of the dead followers to the irrevocable change between himself and Sherlock.
At least that was something he never wanted to pale into nothing but a memory.
'It seems congratulations are in order,' Mycroft said, interrupting John's thoughts and making him narrow his eyes suspiciously, 'and I don't mean for the advancement in your relationship with my brother.'
'How did you –' John shook his head, frowning in distaste as he guessed at the answer. 'For God's sake, Mycroft. Keep your second sight to yourself, all right? We're not putting on a show.'
Mycroft actually wrinkled his nose. 'Please, John. I would not wish to witness your intimacy even if I could. I knew simply by observing Sherlock. He is spent from whatever happened with Moran, weakened by the use of powerful spells and worried over your welfare, but underneath that he is genuinely happy. You know how rare that is for him.'
'That could be because we beat the demon.'
Mycroft gave him a look that suggested further efforts to insult his intelligence would be met with disdain. 'I am offering my felicitations on the formation of the bond you share. Finding your soul-mate is exceptionally rare. It's only the second such event I have ever seen. Perhaps if I had not been so concerned over the state of my brother after the events of the cathedral I would have recognised the signs of its formation.'
'Sorry,' John interrupted, blinking in surprise. 'Soul-mate?' He was not sure what threw him more, the sentimental term itself or the fact that it was Mycroft Holmes who had said it. 'This isn't some ridiculous love-at-first-sight thing.'
'Isn't it?' Mycroft smiled, shaking his head. 'Regardless, you misunderstand the terminology. Truthfully the meaning has been appallingly bastardised by the greetings-card industry and popular culture. It is the correct term for the bond you have forged with my brother: the ribbon of light that links you. I doubt anyone else would ever have been able to create such a thing with Sherlock.'
John paused. Whenever Sherlock spoke about their tether, there always seemed to be something that he left unsaid. Now, he wondered if Mycroft was about to give him an answer. His attentive expression appeared to be all the invitation the older Holmes needed as he continued to speak.
'All the power in the world cannot blend the boundary of two souls if they are not already complimentary pieces.' Mycroft's explanation was stark and to the point, for once. 'Successful bonds in today's society are almost unheard of. Even at the height of their use, they were still a rare occurrence. Few people share the required level of understanding to make it work.'
'What exactly are you saying?' John asked, his tired mind struggling to grasp the words sluicing around him.
Mycroft lifted his shoulder in a shrug. 'I mean you have not simply met your match, John, you have claimed him, and he you.' Now his voice became softer, heavy with something like a caution. 'I appreciate the formation of the connection was not deliberate, but you and Sherlock will need to study how it affects your lives, for better and worse.'
'You make it sound like marriage.' Oddly, there was no fear behind John's voice. How could he be afraid of something that made so much sense? For God's sake, he had felt the potential of what he and Sherlock could be on the first day of their acquaintance. Not love, not then, but the knowledge that it was possible. Now he had the bond to prove it.
'A wedding ceremony is nothing but promises and legal convenience,' Mycroft pointed out, dropping his chin to give John a piercing look. 'This will be far more meaningful. It is still growing, and you are both learning of your new capabilities. No one will be able to bring you as much happiness and pleasure as Sherlock. Nor will anyone else be able to visit you with such pain should they desire. I hope, for both your sakes, you are never driven to loathe one another. I am not sure either of you would survive it.'
John nodded, hearing the warning clearly in Mycroft's voice. His concern was for Sherlock, not just now, but in the future. 'We'll fight,' he pointed out. 'We always do.'
'Of course you will. Do not misunderstand me. Quarrels will affect you no more adversely than any other, normal couple. I am simply attempting to alert you to the consequences.'
'“Break his heart and I'll break your legs?”'
Mycroft's smile was a brief twitch. 'Quite. Though in your case, heartbreak might be more literal than others would lead you to believe. Goodbye, John. I shall be seeing you again before long, I'm sure. Perhaps you could try to keep Sherlock out of trouble for a few days? It is so hard to address the issues of the nation when he is constantly in need of my assistance.'
He did not wait for an answer as he stepped through the front door and towards the car that awaited him at the kerb, leaving John's head and heart abuzz with the information he had imparted. It was not the word “soul-mate” that made him pause, but the fact that Sherlock had not been the one to explain. It made John wonder why he would not call the bond by its real name.
He climbed the stairs slowly, keeping his footsteps light. He would not have put it past Sherlock to eavesdrop on whatever his brother had to say, but when he nudged his way into the flat, there was no sign of him. Instead the bedroom door stood ajar, with Sherlock's shoes, socks, trousers, shirt and lastly, underwear forming a tell-tale trail towards the threshold.
Quietly, John pushed his way inside, smiling to see the bedside lamp lit to ward off the darkness that had fallen outside. A cup of tea sat on one of the side tables, steam still curling from its rim. It was made how he liked it, and the unexpected thoughtfulness was only improved by the sight of Sherlock lying on his side. He looked like he had meant to watch the door for John's return, but instead his lashes formed ebony fans against his cheekbones, and his breathing was growing steady and deep.
Moving stiffly, John eased off his jumper and shirt, hissing at the bruises clouding his torso. As soon as he was able, he would wipe them away, but for now he wanted to slide in next to Sherlock and feel that velveteen flesh against his own. Sex was a lower need, tantalisingly present, but nothing urgent. More than anything, John just wanted to curl up somewhere safe and reassure himself that they had both made it through the day relatively unscathed.
Cautiously, he lowered himself to the mattress, wincing when Sherlock stirred. A long arm curved over John's waist, dragging him close to Sherlock's torso, and John took the opportunity to check that no blood had seeped through the dressing that Greg had applied.
'It's fine,' Sherlock murmured, nuzzling at John's temple and breathing out a gusty sigh. A heartbeat later, he pulled back, a frown pinching his brow as he blinked his eyes open and looked down into John's face. 'What's wrong?' he asked, his expression deepening into a scowl. 'Whatever Mycroft said, ignore it. He's a fool.'
'He said we were soul-mates.' The words rushed out of him, and John winced as Sherlock tensed abruptly in his embrace. He would have thought it was outrage if it were not for the faintly defensive hunch of his shoulders, and John quickly stroked his hand over his back in an effort to soothe.
'A bloody fool.' His thumb followed the line of John's waist, soft despite the harshness of his condemnation.
Part of John wondered if maybe this conversation should wait until tomorrow, when they were both well-fed and rested, rather than tired, hungry and still unsettled by the aftermath of Moran's efforts. Yet even as he considered keeping his silence, he knew he couldn't do it. He needed to know that, despite his unwillingness to call their bond what it was, it was still something Sherlock appreciated. The thought of him coming to regret what had formed between them turned John's stomach and made his heart ache.
'Is he wrong?' He lifted his head and met Sherlock's gaze, trying to ignore the way his face hurt where the pillow scraped his face as he sought his answers.
The silence stretched between them for ten seconds, then twenty before Sherlock dropped his gaze and shook his head. 'The modern era has made the term trite. Something out of fairy-tales, as if everyone is wandering around broken and can only be fixed when they meet the one person made for them. That's not what it means.'
John pursed his lips, thinking of Mycroft's clinical explanation and knowing he needed to hear how Sherlock saw it. He didn't even have to ask. His patient silence was invitation enough and, haltingly, Sherlock began to speak.
'The term used to be strictly scientific. A soul-mate was someone with whom your soul could bond. It only works if you meet an individual who enhances you – who makes you more yourself than you could have been on your own.' Sherlock made a frustrated noise. 'Language is inadequate to describe the phenomenon.'
John frowned, trying to grasp what Sherlock meant. Eventually, he put forth a suggestion, watching a smile spring to life at his words. 'You mean, we're like each other's catalyst?'
'Yes. We still work on our own, but together –'
'We're better.' He felt Sherlock relax, as if John's comprehension had meant everything to him. John tightened his embrace, trying to convey without words that, for once, he realised what Sherlock was trying to say.
The bond was not the cause of their compatibility, nor the reason they complimented each other so well. It was a symptom of it. Something that could only be achieved through the foundation they had already built long before this mess began.
Somehow that made it all the more precious. Not something to be hidden away, but a badge of honour that John knew he would always wear with pride: love by another name.
'Are you all right?' Sherlock asked, his hand moving up to the back of John's head and threading softly through his hair, tenderly exploring the angles and hollows of John's skull. 'I didn't mean for Mycroft to tell you anything. He never can keep his big nose out of other people's business. It doesn't have to – I don't want you thinking you don't have any say in what we are to each other. Like you can't get out if you –'
John lifted his hand, brushing the tips of his fingers across Sherlock's mouth as if to steal away the rest of his sentence. It worked. Sherlock paused, his eyes attentive as John hurried to allay his fears.
'I know that I always have a choice, but I made up my mind the day I moved in with you.' John swallowed, forcing the words out. He was no good at grand declarations, but he knew that Sherlock would understand. 'I'm where I belong, Sherlock. I don't want to be anywhere else, and I don't think I ever will.'
Sherlock's lips touched his, mindful of the split Moran had dealt him. It was an answer in kind, something that went beyond what the human voice could offer and gifted John with so much more than a promise. Sherlock tasted of blood and stress, desert sand and the flavour that was uniquely his, and John had never known anything more right.
Later, there would be midnight takeaway and the healing wash of magic, fevered touches and physical declarations of what they had come to share, but now there was just the reality of each other. Men forged by the path of different lives but made more complete by the other's existence.
And in a world built from the war-torn ruins of a soldier's nightmares, the truth shone clear and bright. Over the cradle of that dusty land, the vault of the sky arched into eternity. Gone was the Milky Way in its chaotic white swirl. Instead, new stars moved in an endless waltz of ever-changing constellations. Gem-stone hues of mist cradled their existence, splashing the heavens with a myriad of coloured near-darkness: impossible green and sapphire blue, vivid purple and hidden gold.
No gunfire echoed in the distance and no screams of the wounded pierced the air. If anyone chose to listen, they would hear only the sough of the wind, the peace of the earth and the steady song of two souls in flawless harmony.
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned."
- Christopher Marlowe 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus'
Speculation ran rife through the crime scene, just as it had every time Sherlock had been called to assist for the last eleven weeks. It had been present before that, of course, the leers and whispers: Think they're shagging? As if what he and John did together made any difference to whether a case was solved.
However, since the events surrounding the demon Moriarty, suspicions had changed. Perhaps it was because that first question had been answered. Even Lestrade's team were not stupid enough to mistake what Sherlock and John now shared for something as tenuous as friendship. They were not blatant in their behaviour – at least, no more than most couples breaching that new frontier of physical intimacy – but it was still obvious to anyone who cared to look.
Now, the unspoken question that lingered like rime in the air was What did they do? It did not matter if the cooperation between John and Sherlock's souls, fully-fledged and breath-taking in its potential, normally remained hidden from physical sight; others could still sense its presence in the harmony of their interactions. Perhaps they did not know the precise nature of the alteration, but their curiosity was nothing short of distracting.
More than once, it was tempting to explain, if only so he could concentrate on the case, but Sherlock kept his silence. After all, he had no illusions about how Anderson and the others would view their situation: an unknown and a threat – something to be disdained. Sherlock had no hope that people of such limited intelligence and narrow scope could begin to comprehend that, rather than an alien presence, the bond had become natural to him. Already he struggled to remember life before: cold and isolated, not incomplete yet somehow suffering from an unrecognised absence.
John's agreement strafed shyly across Sherlock's senses, bringing him out of the mire of his considerations. They could not precisely read each other's thoughts, not like letters from a page, but if he did not deliberately shield his musings, then John was able observe themes and emotions if he chose to do so. It was one of the many aspects he doubted that other people would grasp. They would see such abilities as an intrusion, but there was nothing passive about what he and John could do.
Except in the most emotional moments, everything they shared and combined – from sentiment to the spells they wrought – was done by choice; they had to want it to happen. While the tether had been forming, that had not been the case, but with every passing day it strengthened, and he and John had immersed themselves in its study, teaching themselves through trial and error the mastery of their own control. The only exception was their wards, the heat-and-light blend of which could only be separated through conscious effort.
For thoughts to be communicated to one another – as images, sometimes indistinct and others vivid – one of them had to transmit them, and the other had to be a willing receiver. At first, Sherlock had not understood the need to close off the connection in any manner. He left it open by default, whereas John had a tendency to keep it at least partly sealed.
It did not take long for John to prove his point and demonstrate how distracting it could be. Sherlock had spent the duration of one crime scene, a couple of months ago, struggling against a raging erection after John pushed various filthy, creative and undeniably enticing scenarios into Sherlock's receptive mind. Now, his cheeks threatened to darken at the memory, and he tried not to grin as he recalled how swiftly he and John had put the one involving the kitchen table into practice.
Clearing his throat, Sherlock blinked, forcing himself to focus on the headless corpse in front of him. Being distracted by his unrelated musings was unprofessional, and besides, he could detect the hot ember of John's amusement haloed by sparks of lazy arousal from where he stood across the room.
With a frown, Sherlock narrowed the field of his thoughts, gleaning all he could. Facts and intricacies had already been observed and recorded, and now they lined up for his inspection. The windowless room had been locked. There was no evidence of summoning, nor any method of egress magical or benign, yet there was no sign of the missing body-part.
'His head must still be here.' Sherlock glanced at Anderson, who was pressed to the wall by the door, watching John with a wary, bitter gaze. Ever since grabbing Sherlock's sprite and facing John's unpredictable wrath as a result, the Forensics' Lead had been refreshingly obedient, even if he did mutter unflattering character assessments under his breath. 'You've checked for illusions?'
'Twice,' Donovan cut in, folding her arms and lifting her chin in challenge. 'If you don't believe us, why don't you take a look yourself? Or are you still struggling with that?' Her lips curled, her gaze slicing pointedly downwards over Sherlock's frame as if criticising not just his magical potency, but his physical capabilities as well.
'There's no indication of anything happening in here for weeks,' Lestrade interrupted, perhaps trying to prevent any bickering. 'No spells we can detect, not even any wards.'
'Wrong.' Sherlock examined the remains: a business-man at first glance, but the cut of his suit was poor. The tie around the bloody stump of his neck was knotted by a clumsy hand, and the buttons at his cuffs had not been fastened.
He hunkered down, sensing John shift closer to his side as he leaned in to examine the wound. 'Cauterisation implies a magical blade, though the damage is strange; the ill-fitting clothes aren't his, and his fingertips have been burned. I suspect someone's trying to manipulate the corpse's identity – an individual who does not have the abilities to glamour a body.'
'That doesn't narrow it down much,' Lestrade pointed out. A valid statement. Dead flesh only accepted necromantic magics with any ease. Anything else slipped off unless the caster was of exceptional strength.
'So someone's doing it the non-magic way, but why leave a body behind at all?' John asked. 'A quick bit of petrol and some arson, and we would have nothing left to identify.'
'If someone is trying to falsify their own demise, they may want access to their assets quickly. With merely a missing person's report, there's a statutory waiting period of –'
'Eighteen months,' Anderson provided grudgingly, 'but for all you know, it's straight-forward murder and they just didn't have time to torch the place.' He cast a disparaging glance around the run-down house, barely holding together under its own structural integrity. 'Shame; it would have been an improvement.'
Sherlock frowned down at the evidence. He knew Anderson was wrong, but he was not entirely convinced of his own conclusion. He was missing a facet: something unseen but none-the-less integral to the mystery.
A rough chafe of wrongness scraped across his senses, agonisingly subtle. If it weren't for the abilities his bond with John bestowed, it would probably have slipped his notice entirely. Instead, he stiffened, his breath catching in his throat as he caught a mental glimpse of umber and tasted burnt toast: John's worried confusion broadcast for him to discern.
'Feel that?' John closed the narrow distance between them as Sherlock straightened up, searching the room with both levels of vision. To his standard eyes, there was nothing but cracked plaster and dilapidated wallpaper, blood and a body. To his higher senses there was the myriad of wards from Lestrade's men, the intensity of their power and John's shadowy heat, sylph-like and tempting at his side. 'What is it?'
'What's what?' Donovan demanded. 'There's nothing here!'
No, there wasn't. To Lestrade's team, their instruments, and all the spells at their disposal, the room was clean, and Sherlock's skin prickled with unease as he considered the handful of magics and creatures alike that could hide themselves so thoroughly. Ignoring the headache threatening to set up its percussion in his skull, he narrowed his eyes, straining to detect the threat.
The spell melted into his vision, seething with increasing violence as the charge gathered. Realisations shattered through Sherlock's awareness, pin-wheeling in a mess of panic and breathless knowledge that time was not on their side. In less than a minute, the street would be decimated, a battlefield of charred bodies. Even if they ran, they wouldn't escape the blast.
There was no time for poise as he shoved an idea in John's direction, desperate with survival's greed. Much like facing a bomb with three-seconds left on the clock and not knowing which wire to cut, this was a situation where there was nothing to lose. If it worked, they would be safe. If not...
Well, at least their deaths would be quick.
'Back!' John ordered, his harsh tone jolting the baffled Yarders into disorganised retreat as, deliberately, Sherlock hauled their entwined wards apart. It was like trying to unravel a tapestry by pulling one thread, arduous and uncomfortable, but as John applied an equal level of pressure in the opposite direction, they separated. Sherlock was swathed in the brash blue light of his protections while John's haze, little more than shadows on the periphery of Sherlock’s sight, surrounded everyone else in the room, leaving Sherlock beyond their boundary.
His shields bowed and twisted, leaving him exposed to the air as they curved around the crackling distortion, turning angry red as the discharges spat and hissed. Burns lashed across his out-stretched palms, but he forced himself through the pain, hating that he could not protect John from the shared agony. All he could do was fight against the heavy, sickening thrum of panic that surged back and forth between them, amplified by symmetry, and hope that they were strong enough for this to work.
A heartbeat later, the detonation exploded in a burst of searing light. His shields screamed – the noise like a human cry as a pulse thumped through the room, making the walls creak and flex with its passing. Loose plaster rained down, turning the air thick with its clouds.
Yet it was fire without heat. The spell was contained in the taut sphere of Sherlock's wards, acid violet petals of fatality withering only to bloom again, captured but far from neutralised. He had to keep it there. If he let it go now, he would have earned them a pitiful reprieve and nothing more. John and the police were still there – as were the other residents of this run-down city street.
Not that Sherlock held it back for them. Even people he knew, like Lestrade, barely permeated his considerations. No, he was keeping this from John and himself. They already knew that an injury to one was replicated in the other. Death would be no different. When they went, whenever that was, it would be together.
That thought did not bother Sherlock. It seemed right. After all, what would life be without John in it? However, he was damned if it was going to be today.
His muscles tensed, his physical body representing the magical strain of trying to hold back the energy that longed to eradicate them all. John's presence caressed his mind, reading the situation and, a split second later, the velvet heat of his shields fell away: a parting cloak. Yet Sherlock was not wrapped in their furls. Instead, John's magic tugged at the air. It was the lightest sensation, like someone tipping the balance of an invisible scale, and immediately, the web that wove them together and the solid line of their intrinsic connection dropped into view: a golden beam that throbbed with the strength Sherlock was channelling towards containment.
It should not matter whether it was visible or not. The plane of its occupation had no impact on what it could offer, but that knowledge faltered as a sudden surge swamped through him. His muscles loosened, gathering the strength not only to hold the exploding spell at bay but to push against it, plucking apart the knot of destructive force into harmless eddies of light. It was still a constant battle, but now the effort was something he could endure.
The moment John stumbled into Sherlock's back, his shaking hands splaying across Sherlock's ribs and his breath ghosting over the nape of his neck, it became easy. Heat pulsed through them, caught and carried by the capillary system of the web as it drove ever inwards to the interface of Sherlock's shields, where it methodically broke apart the spell that would have ripped them all to shreds.
A slip of concentration would still kill them. A breach in Sherlock's cage of wards would be their undoing, but hope's gleaming bead was growing into a sun of certainty. Another minute...
Anderson gave an inarticulate shout of alarm, his words stumbling over each other as his footsteps beat a staggering retreat towards the door. 'Body! The – the body –!'
'Sherlock?' Lestrade's yell was edged with panic, and Sherlock clamped his jaw together, not daring to split his concentration to glance over his shoulder. Not that it mattered. He could guess what was happening to the corpse, and at the moment, there was nothing he could do. If he stopped, the only thing to survive would be what had yet to emerge from the remains on the floor.
'Draw a circle around it. Something with chemical salts.'
'Like what?' Donovan asked, her voice thin and furious under her fear.
'Anything! Piss on it if you have to; just keep it contained!'
Perhaps it was the crass suggestion that jolted them into action, but gradually Sherlock heard a powdery whisper and the thud of footsteps, percussive beneath the oozing, organic sounds beginning to emanate from the meat of the body. Anderson was swearing under his breath: a whispering litany of revulsion that ended in a squeak as a fleshy rip cut through the air. Donovan retched as the stench rolled outwards, and Sherlock forced himself not to react as he blinked sweat from his eyes.
'It can't hurt you as long as the circle's complete,' he gritted, wincing as Donovan heaved again. 'For God's sake, don't throw up on the salt. You'll let it out.'
'What the hell is it?' Lestrade spat, his voice muffled. Sleeve over his nose and mouth, probably.
'Busy!' Sherlock snapped, trying to ignore the way his arms were shaking and the constant tremors of John's body against his spine. They were so close, but this was the hardest part: the core of the magic was where it was strongest, and it was like trying to close a door on a room full of water. His fingertips were bleeding, his knuckles were cramped and his jaw ached from clenching his teeth, but finally the resistance was gone, leaving his wards to wobble and pop like a bubble's broken film around the few harmless stars that remained.
John sagged against him and Sherlock locked his knees, doing his best not to collapse. He sucked in a deep breath and immediately regretted it. The fragrance of fresh decay caught in his nose and coated his tongue, reminding him pointedly that the problem was only half-solved.
'You all right?' he croaked, groping behind himself to touch John's arm as those fingers dug into his ribs with the last of their strength.
'Been better,' John mumbled at last. 'You stupid git. You had no idea if that would work, did you?'
'I never claimed I did.'
'I can't believe you told them to piss on it!' The laugh that bubbled in John's throat sounded half-hysterical, but it was preferable to silence.
Sherlock chuckled in response, turning to examine the situation. His lips gave an involuntary twist of disgust at the creature in the circle. It was rooting around in its visceral nest, gorging itself on its first meal. It looked vaguely reminiscent of a slug with teeth, but the viscous trails emanating from its boneless body were leaving pitted marks in the floorboards. So far, it had not noticed that it was trapped in a salty circumference – too content on making the most of the narrow window in which it could digest the uncooked meat.
'An Abrogate spawn,' Sherlock explained. Lestrade recognised the name. It was obvious by the way his face turned pale and he scrabbled for his mobile, fingers clumsy as he dialled for disposal. Everyone else, however, maintained their blank, uninformed stares. 'Unusual.'
'Revolting,' John corrected, ignoring the still-visible gleam of the web's filaments around them and the ribbon of the bond that coiled over his wrist. 'What exactly just happened?'
Sherlock lifted a shaking hand to his temple, rubbing at the ache there. 'The corpse was that of a summoner, I imagine. An Abrogate tempted him in and used his body as a living incubator for its offspring. An enzyme released by the embryo attacks the brain and impacts on cognitive process. Zombification of a sort. He probably disguised himself and possibly removed his own fingerprints so that he would not be disturbed before the job was done.'
'What about his head?' Donovan asked, the back of her hand pressed shakily to her mouth.
'After three days, the spawn is ready to mature. Two hours prior to that, the enzyme in the cranium breaks down brain-matter and bone. It's an exceedingly precise chemical reaction.'
'His head dissolved?' John asked, his lips twisting as the rooting creature lifted its snout, its body trembling and covered in gore, before resuming its feeding.
'Releasing a cocktail of fumes as it did so. The chemicals in the vapour triggered the creation of a highly explosive spell, the detonation of which would cook everything organic within a certain distance.' He gestured to the scorched portion of the wall where the magic had found ignition. 'The spawn can only digest raw food within the first hour of its life. After that, it needs a source of cooked protein.'
'Us.' Anderson had wedged himself into the corner of the room, not only distant from the creature, but from the glow of Sherlock and John's magic. 'Then there's you, and this.' He gestured to the insubstantial mesh with a juddering hand, snatching it back as he passed through one of the cobweb-fine tendrils with no effect. 'That's a monster, but what the hell are you?'
'They're the mages that just saved your bloody skin,' Lestrade snapped, disconnecting his call with a brutal punch of his thumb. '“Abrogate” is the proper name for a World-Eater.'
That had the desired effect, and Sherlock rolled his eyes wearily at the moniker. It was a trite example of hyperbole embodying the demon's voracious appetite. 'It would not have eaten the entire planet,' he muttered, giving Lestrade a disapproving glare.
'Just most of London,' the DI retorted, but despite the stress lining his face, there was something warm beneath it: respect and approval that became more deeply entrenched as his gaze lingered on the golden cord still thrumming between John's hand and Sherlock's chest. 'I'm guessing if it wasn't for that, the two of you wouldn't have been able to contain the spell?'
'We wouldn't have known it was there.' Sherlock did not bother to soften the honesty of his response, relishing the grim satisfaction of seeing Anderson pale further and Donovan purse her lips. Their thanks was not something he required, nor had the patience to wait for. He carefully eased himself away from John, making sure he had the strength to hold himself up before turning towards the door. 'Disposal will deal with the spawn. If that's all, Lestrade?'
The DI chewed his lip, looking like he wanted them to stay. They still needed to identify the body and make sure the summoner had not left anything untoward in his lodgings, but clearly the image he and John presented was enough to sway his judgement in their favour. 'Go home before you keel over,' he ordered, frowning as a drop of blood fell from Sherlock's fingertips. 'Unless hospital's better?'
'It's superficial.' Sherlock ignored John's tired huff, gently guiding him towards the door and trying not to lean against his shorter, sturdier frame. His thigh muscles were shaking as if he had run a marathon, and his limbs seemed too light. 'We'll manage.'
The look Lestrade gave him suggested he was not fooled for a moment, but Sherlock disregarded it, wobbling out of the door just as the squeal of tyres and shouted orders announced the arrival of the disposal squad. They would destroy the demon – so much less complex than the likes of Moriarty. A quick burst of cold would shrivel it to a husk and extinguish its brief effort at life. They would also be there with Lestrade to ensure the adult that had implanted the spawn had not escaped its own plane. Unlikely. Abrogates were not the most subtle of creatures. It would have made itself known by now if it were stalking London's streets.
'Are you sure you're all right?' John asked, reaching out to take Sherlock's right hand in his, examining his sliced fingertips as if they were not precise copies of those breaching his own sensitive skin.
'You tell me.' Sherlock wrapped his other hand around the ribbon of the bond, appreciating its heat, strong yet vulnerable, not erotic in this moment but comforting. 'Shared injuries, remember?'
John's lips pursed, and Sherlock watched the evidence of their link fade discreetly from sight. 'Not one of my favourite effects of what's happened to us.'
Sherlock restrained a sigh, taking John's hands in his and reaching for the healing spells John had taught him in such meticulous detail. He had never bothered with such things before. Bandages did the trick and the body mended itself in time, but if nothing else taxi drivers disapproved of blood on the upholstery, and he didn't have the strength to walk back to Baker Street.
A weak protest about their exhaustion died on John's lips as the balm of magic washed over them, sealing up split skin and easing away aches. It was like being filled with warm honey, replenished from the soul outward, and Sherlock was happy to bear the additional strain if it wiped away the lines from John's face.
John leaned in, his head bent a fraction to fit in beneath Sherlock's jaw, and his murmured thanks hushed across the skin at Sherlock's pulse. 'We need to rest,' he said softly, pulling back to look up but not bothering to remove his hands from where they were both locked in Sherlock's grasp. 'As in sleep, not just lie on the sofa and pretend your mind isn't going a-mile-a-minute.'
Sherlock gave a reluctant nod as he flagged down a taxi. He was fairly sure that he had slept more in the past three months than he had all year, but he could not bring himself to begrudge the rest. It was necessary. He and John had undergone an experience of intense magical growth, and the physical demands were undeniable. Besides, sleep was no longer the black, useless oblivion of downtime. While his body rested, his being retreated to their realm, aware and autonomous, allowing him to hold John in his arms and puzzle through a case, or share whispered words of conversation that lingered on in their memories once they woke.
Climbing into the back of the cab, John settled at his side, still weak and shaking, but at least no longer bleeding in sympathy to Sherlock's wounds. There was a time when he would have resented being so caught up in another person – their well-being taking such obvious priority over everything else – but this was John. Even before they had been opened up to each other so completely, he had been the same; his attention helplessly captured by this man's presence.
The difference now, beyond the intimacy, was that every boundary that stood in his way had been eradicated. The bond rendered them void, leaving him and John to make their own rules about what lines they would and would not cross. It had been an ongoing process, carving out those frontiers between each other.
They may not have chosen what had happened to them, but at least they were able to influence how its changes shaped them.
'You're broadcasting,' John murmured, a faint smile on his lips.
'And you're listening,' Sherlock pointed out, knowing he had caught John in that little truth. He could mentally transmit all the thoughts he wanted, but if John was not looking for the information, he wouldn't see it.
'I'm just checking you're all right. That – whatever that was...' He trailed off, gesturing weakly over his shoulder at the distant house and the demon spawn within its walls. 'It could have killed us.'
'Without the bond, it would have.' Sherlock winced as John flinched, tasting the flavour of his fear: brackish water and rusty iron. He almost apologised, but John would not appreciate it. Instead, he explained, 'Even if I had been able to detect the spell before it discharged, the injuries sustained trying to contain it would have finished me off, I imagine, shortly before the rest of you succumbed.'
John stretched out his hands, flexing his fingers as he examined the newly healed flesh. 'You said they were superficial.'
'They were, because the wounds were shared between us.' At his side, John's shoulders slumped. 'If you'd let me experiment...'
'No.' The harshness of that single word filled the cab, amplifying Sherlock's headache. John's hand squeezed his, more in emphasis than apology. 'Some things aren't meant to be tested, Sherlock. I don't care how useful the data would be.'
'But an unproven theory is dangerous. If I am correct, then the severity of any injury is decreased by our connection. We should sustain each other through trauma that could otherwise be fatal. We would both be hurt, but it would be a burden shared.'
'One which could kill us both.' John shook his head sharply, and Sherlock could feel how distant he was becoming, complete shut-down as he closed the topic of conversation. 'I'm not letting you deliberately do yourself serious harm just to see if you're right.'
Sherlock turned towards the window, allowing the rest of the car journey to pass in silence, not just vocal, but mental as well. With practice, it had become easy to shut each other out. In theory, it gave the two of them privacy and individuality. In reality, it simply allowed them both to sulk – a reminder of what life had been like when John's thoughts were a mystery and Sherlock's were always his own.
Finally, the cab pulled up at Baker Street, and Sherlock left John to pay as he nudged his way inside and climbed the stairs to the flat. Reluctantly, he could acknowledge John's concerns. Ever since they had realised – in the course of solving a case – that physical wounds inflicted on one of them appeared on the other, Sherlock's theories had taken a more macabre path.
Bound souls meant linked lives, and while he could consider the thought of his own death at arm's length, the possibility of John's was like a splintered stake to the heart. It made him want to hide them both away somewhere, secure and concealed from every threat, but they both knew that would be a half-existence. Sherlock would perish from boredom and John would fade in the monotony.
Peeling off his coat and scarf, he stumbled doggedly towards their bed, shedding clothes as he did so. The covers welcomed him with a soft sigh, and he slotted into place on the half that had become irrevocably his side. However, the mattress was as wide as a mile until John nudged him over, invading Sherlock's territory to shuffle in behind him and wrap strong arms around his naked waist. The angle of John's nose rested between Sherlock's shoulder-blades and the bare curve of his body cradled him, intimate, even if the current mood in the bedroom was more petulant than aroused.
'Go to sleep,' John urged, and Sherlock felt the tentative opening of the bond once more – muted and subtle – but undeniably comforting. 'Please?'
With a grunt, Sherlock forced himself to relax. He knew that John thought he was being pedantic, wishing to quantify the changes they experienced for the sake of science, but the true reason was far more practical and laced with edges of silken sentiment. John mattered to him more than anyone else, and the more he knew about what they could do, the better his chances were of keeping them both safe.
That said, if John would not let him push the boundary of his understanding in that particular direction, then so be it. He was a genius, after all, and he would find another way to cement his theories into fact; one which did not make John's mood taste of bitter chocolate and uncertainty.
In the end, what mattered was this: he and John in balance and unison, happier than either of them ever believed they could be. He knew their equilibrium would be disturbed now and then – set to waver through thoughtlessness, but he would do his best to keep what they had found.
Behind him, John began to relax, slipping into the depths of sleep and leaving Sherlock wrapped within the protection of his arms. It made him feel precious and safe, admired and wanted, and Sherlock smiled as he shut his eyes, allowing slumber to finally claim him.
It was the wrong Afghanistan. John knew it as soon as the dream swam into focus. This was not the crystalline definition of their realm, but smoke-smudged lines and the brash smell of warfare. His heart thudded, bringing with it the vortex of fear and familiarity. Nightmare. He hadn't suffered one for months, not since before Sherlock had first stumbled into Moriarty's presence, but there was no denying its existence as he sank into its grasp.
His helmet banded his head, itching where the sweat prickled along his brow. His pack dragged at his shoulders as his hands shifted on the gun in his grip, an automatic, rather than his pistol. Everything seemed unnaturally quiet. No birds sang, and only the sough of the wind stirring through the coarse dust in his path applied any definition to the peace. In front of him, the road was a sandy, serpentine stretch, narrow and confined. His feet paced, locked in the old rhythm of patrol.
The explosion was a tsunami of sound that had John hunching away, hands lifted to shield himself as the screams cut across his consciousness. He lunged towards the scene, fighting his instinct to flee as he slid in sand turned to mud by the crimson splash of gore.
His weapon was up and ready, waiting for the snap of sniper fire to pick off the survivors as he began to prioritise, picking out the dead and dying from the could-be-saved. His gaze skipped and jumped from the landscape to the bodies, recognising the indistinct features of old members of his unit before he saw a soldier who did not belong.
John's world fell still, his fingers nerveless around the metal in his hand. Men were groaning around him, calling out for help, but he was held transfixed by the familiar sprawl of the body, graceless now. Even without seeing his face, John knew it was Sherlock.
His knees gave, bruising as they smacked into the unforgiving earth. Shaking hands caught in the fabric of desert fatigues – not Sherlock's style at all – pale but for the gruesome stain across his stomach.
He was beyond saving. The doctor in John knew that even as he pressed his palms to the injury, trying to push Sherlock's flowing life back into him where it belonged. A dozen useless ideas whirled through his head, and John's throat constricted as his voice cracked between his lips. 'Stay with me. You said you'd stay with me!'
Desperately, he tried to tear himself free from the rut of the war, cognisant enough to think of magic and sprites, but there was no golden gleam in the desert air and no connection to the man lying on the arid earth. John reached out, seeking, but there was nothing to be found. It was gone. Broken. Or perhaps it had never existed at all: a fantasy and nothing more.
All he could sense was the thready drum of Sherlock's pulse as, at last, it fell still beneath his touch.
An inhuman cry snatched at John's chest, hurting like a blade between his ribs as he looked around, frantic for someone to help him. Yet the harried road was empty, marked only by the rusty splashes of passed life, days old, and the determined crawl of the flies. His gun and pack were gone, and his helmet straps swayed loose beneath his jaw, harsh pendulums measuring out the staggered pace of each unsteady breath.
Icy agony yawned in his heart, desolate and wild as the loneliness closed around him like a vice. Despair sank through him, catching tight claws in his guts until he could only curve his arms over his stomach, hunched as if he were the one whose insides had been ripped free. Sand bit at his face and stuck to the sweat on his skin, filling his mouth with grit as tearless sobs burned his throat.
Sherlock was gone, and John had been left behind.
Warm fingers touched the back of his neck, familiar calluses trailing over the notches of his spine and gripping tight. The other hand smoothed down his arm, capturing his wrist and hauling him back to sit on his heels, his body heaving and his eyes screwed up tight, because it was a phantom – a memory. Sherlock was dead.
'No, I'm not. John, look at me!'
Dry palms cupped his face, thumbs pressing to the hidden ridges of his cheekbones and painting frantic lines across his brow. They felt so solid, more so than the chafe of his uniform against his skin, and at last John dragged open his lashes, his eyes stinging from unshed tears as he met Sherlock's earnest, frightened gaze.
'It's a bad dream,' he explained, his hands flexing around John's head in emphasis. 'You need to wake up.'
His mind slipped and slithered, torn between the body that had been on the ground in front of him – visceral heartbreak – and the illusion with him now, showing him the way out. One was real, the other not, but it took all his focus to recall which was which.
Gradually, he began to see the flaws, true memory flooding in to fill the outlines of his torment. The war was over, and Sherlock had never been there in the first place. This was a trick of his own creation. England was his home now – Baker Street with Sherlock at his side – and he fought a different kind of battle. One he knew how to win.
A gasp of air swelled in his chest, filling his nose with the smell of Sherlock's skin and laundry detergent as his eyes shot open. Silver twilight filled the bedroom, seeping in like an unwelcome phantom through the window and casting the topography of Sherlock's silhouette into relief. He had moved over while John was asleep and now lay facing him, but it was not the dormant calm of a resting body. Instead, both of Sherlock's hands were clasped around John's wrists, solid manacles as he spread John's hands across the beat of his heart: a rapid, wakeful thud. The light of the bond gleamed through the gaps between his fingers, sun-bright and reflected in the pale sky of Sherlock's eyes.
The noise in his throat was agonised, and he pretended the salty wetness on his face was sweat rather than tears as Sherlock gently tugged him closer, wrapping him in the lithe strength of his arms. The embrace was cautious, as if Sherlock was afraid to cage him in but couldn't hold back the urge to offer comfort. John mashed his forehead gratefully into Sherlock's collarbone, wishing the treacherous shaking of his body would subside.
There were no requests to talk about it, to drag it out in the open and hash out the details. Sherlock did not attempt to shush John with softly whispered words; perhaps he knew that any assurances would be lies. It did not matter that it wasn't real. To John, it may as well have been. The tacky echo of Sherlock's blood lingered on his hands, and though the man himself was right here, a naked stretch half-entwined around him, John could not shake the memory of a pallid face and white lips, eyes already closed against death's swift approach.
The hush of Sherlock's apology curled in John's ear, shattering apart the panting rhythm of his not-quite sobs and letting him take one deep breath of air. It gorged his lungs to bursting point, and he focussed on the pain, forcing his body to acknowledge its limits as he tried to free himself from the vale of its dreams.
'What for?' he managed, his words muffled by the press of Sherlock's clavicle against his mouth. 'I'm the one who woke you.'
Slowly, he became aware that Sherlock was tense and quiet, his body wire-taut. John knew he was often violent during these episodes, prone to lashing out at people who tried to wake him, but Sherlock's behaviour was not one of someone under threat. Instead...
John hesitated, reaching out along the bond and relishing in its presence as he carefully sifted for anything that Sherlock might be leaving on display. However, there was nothing to find. Sherlock's mood was icy and opaque, and John's shoulders rounded at the exclusion. 'Sherlock, what's wrong?'
Long fingers tightened around his body, and Sherlock dropped his head, talking into John's hair while effectively stopping him from pulling back and looking up into his face. 'You don't realise, do you?'
'Realise what?' John demanded, all fear crumbling under the sheer weight of his concern. He could not see much or sense anything but the gentle background hum of the link between them, but every clue he could gather was adding up to genuine guilt: something Sherlock rarely displayed. 'What did you do?'
A shaky breath whispered in the air. 'You weren't in our realm. That's not unusual. Sometimes if you're very tired you slip past it and go somewhere deeper. I assume I do as well, on occasion, but –' A complicated movement of his shoulders suggested a shrug, and John held his tongue as he waited for more. 'I wanted to be with you, so I went looking.'
John frowned, the sweep of his fingers across Sherlock's chest falling still as he considered those words. “Looking” had taken on a nebulous meaning for both of them – something no longer intrinsically tied to the sense of sight. When John used their magic to try and read Sherlock's mood, they called it that, though there was nothing physical to see.
Gradually, his tired, shell-shocked brain began to move ahead, his suspicions growing as Sherlock's silence lengthened. When he had felt Sherlock's hands on him back on that dusty road, he had assumed it was a trick of his mind – something conjured up in response to Sherlock calling him from the waking world. Now...
'You were there. Really there.' John pulled back, fighting against the automatic tightening of Sherlock's arms until he could tear himself free and sit up, staring down into Sherlock's face. 'You were actually in my head?'
It shouldn't surprise him. Their connection had shaken aside so many certainties about what was and wasn't possible, but that did not stop the growing curl of horror in the pit of John's stomach. It was the last straw, the final step over a fading line, and John swallowed the hard, hateful spite of the thought that nothing, not even his inner-most fears, were truly secret from Sherlock.
Not that they ever had been. Even without magic, he still deduced everything, adding together the sum of minutiae to paint a picture of John's existence. Yet knowing was different from seeing. Being aware of the nightmares was different from experiencing them, and John was not sure what scared him more: that Sherlock wouldn't understand the root of his terror, or that he would share it.
'You're upset.' Sherlock had not moved from where he lay, his dark hair a riot against the pillow and his skin as pale as the sheets which formed their nest.
'Good deduction.' With a shake of his head, John pitched back the covers, reaching for his clothes and throwing them on. It was the middle of the night, too dark and cold to give into his instincts and just walk until the mess of his emotions was something he could identify. Still, he couldn't stay here. He craved some space, the rare commodity of some actual god-damn distance, even if he only went as far as the next room.
'Don't,' he ordered, sensing that Sherlock was about to speak. 'I mean it. Just – just leave me alone.'
He didn't wait for an answer as he pulled open the bedroom door, his bare feet whispering across the carpet as he stepped over the threshold and shut Sherlock firmly within those four walls. It would do nothing to stop him, of course. John had grown used to the warm honey sensation of their souls brushing against one another and braced himself for that intrusion, but he remained cold and untouched: honestly alone.
Scrubbing his hands across his face, he moved towards the kettle, going through the motions of making tea as his thoughts whirled. Most of the time, he was happy with the bond and the gifts it bestowed. Working together, he and Sherlock had ironed out most of the creases. They could bear long distances apart with nothing more than the usual heavy heart that separation could bring. Compulsion still slipped through occasionally, but it went both ways and they had realised how to fight it. They had adapted to the changes in their lives, knocking off the rough edges until they fit one another perfectly.
It was just that, sometimes, the golden vine that entwined them would grow another thorn. Something would happen to throw it all into doubt, and John found himself fighting for the last of the few boundaries he had left. It did not help that Sherlock had the advantage of massive intelligence and years of broad study in magic. John was a brilliant healer, but when it came to the rest of it – skills Sherlock had known all his life – he was miles behind. Sherlock adapted and took almost everything in his stride, but John always found himself trying desperately to hang on to the facets that made him who he was; John Watson, rather than just a subset of Sherlock Holmes.
A treacherous voice whispered that, even before all this began, he had been more than halfway there. Sherlock led and John followed, his own quiet qualities almost hidden by the gleam of his lover's brilliance. Most of the time, he could live with that. Recognition was never something John had craved, and appreciation found him in the words of patients and Sherlock's stammered thanks when a steady hand on the Browning was the best answer to the situation.
This, though, was different. It was not an eclipse, but an invasion. What had started off as cooperative symbiosis had evolved to the point where John was not sure where Sherlock's abilities came to an end and his began. How much of him would be left in six months – a year? Anything?
Earlier that day, he had felt Sherlock's emotions regarding their unique circumstances: gratitude and subtle amazement, coupled with the firm knowledge that other people wouldn't understand. At the time, John had agreed. It had been a struggle to get to that point of easy, happy acceptance, but they had succeeded.
Now, the misgivings had returned, leaving him miserable and uncertain. Perhaps if it was equitable, he would be more confident, but Sherlock was overwhelming in every aspect. He was always the one finding new limits and uses for their connection and sweeping John along in his rip-tide. It was never the other way around, and it was that lack of control that shook John down to his core.
Could he live like this, always wondering if today would be the day he truly lost himself – overwhelmed by Sherlock's presence and tied up so intricately in his existence?
By the time John's third cup of tea was growing cool in the cradle of his palms, he was still no closer to finding an answer. Instead he was bogged down in a black quagmire. The night beyond the windowpane reflected his mood, the array of city lights barely making an impact as he rested his forehead against the cold barrier of the glass and let himself be lost.
A quiet purr of sound caught his attention, and he shifted his focus to see one of Sherlock's sprites struggle from beneath the bedroom door, freeing itself with a rush to hover in the air. It kept its distance, a flickering star that John could ignore if he chose, but that seemed like a punishment. Logically, he knew that none of this was Sherlock's fault – not really – and even in his most petty moments, John tried to confront problems rather than avoid them.
'Come here.' He gave a weak smile as the orb zipped to his side, mashing itself into his palm like a grateful puppy, all fawning joy and relief. At the same time, the bond changed, its muted calm becoming resonant with sentiment. John had not noticed how much Sherlock was holding back. For once, he had respected John's demands. Normally, he didn't bother with that kind of restraint, and something complicated clenched beneath John's ribs as he headed back towards the bedroom door.
The hinges squeaked quietly as he nudged it aside, freezing on the boundary of the room as he tried to make sense of what he could see. Where there had been the pallid, sallow light of a city's night-time, there were now dozens of sprites. They sparkled like fireflies, some resting on the sheets and casting white haloes through the cotton while others wandered around the lampshade and poked themselves into the darker corners of Sherlock's room. One seemed to have got itself stuck in an Erlenmeyer flask, and another shone from the nest it had made in John's boot.
Sherlock was watching him, a creature of moonlight amidst the beaded sunshine of his emanations. His eyes were open and unblinking, one eyebrow lifted a fraction as if he were waiting for John to speak. A gentle skim across their tether allowed John to gather what Sherlock wanted him to know. The scent of cut grass and emerald green assailed him: genuine apology and remorse.
'I'm sorry.' The deep words curved through the air of the room, soft and repentant as the sheets whispered in harmony to the shrug of his shoulders. He sounded as if he wanted to say more, but instead the silence reclaimed its throne, and John put his empty mug down on the bedside table before perching on the edge of the mattress.
He rubbed his thumb over the one that had sought him out, watching Sherlock relax helplessly out of the corner of his eye, boneless to John's ministrations. 'I know.' His voice caught in his throat, locked up around the explanation of his fears. When he managed to force some words out, they sounded strangled and thin, meagre in the rippling light and shadow of the room. 'Sometimes I worry about how deeply you can get inside my head. The bond's one thing, but turning up in my nightmares...'
'I was there anyway.'
A shudder quivered through John at the memory, and he shook his head. 'As a character – a product of my own mind rather than an intruder in it. It's just – I wonder when it's going to stop – if it's going to stop – or if you're just going to consume me.' He bit his lip, hating the small part of him that wondered if such an obliteration would be so bad. 'I thought we'd found our balance and then this happens and I just –' His words trailed off with a fitful shake of his head.
Sherlock shifted, propping himself up on his elbows and turning on the bedside lamp before crooking his finger at empty air. The luminous motes responded instantly, giving up their meanderings to return to him. Those that passed John slowed down, their notes taking on a pining edge before they reluctantly obeyed Sherlock's command. It was always gratifying to see such affection on obvious display, and John smiled as he watched the last straggler, which had finally freed itself from the flask, fade into Sherlock's skin with an aureate glow.
Now there was only the one left in his hand, caught happily in the cage of his fingers, and John realised with a guilty start that he had actively restrained it, not wanting the vivid, honest fragment to leave. Anyone else would probably have received burns for their efforts, but Sherlock seemed indifferent as he leaned on the headboard, unashamedly naked as he tugged at John's shoulder. After a few moments of confusion, John settled his back against Sherlock's chest, feeling ridiculous in his jumper and jeans while Sherlock's pale, bare skin surrounded him.
'If I thought what we shared would somehow diminish you, do you believe I'd allow it to continue?' Sherlock asked, his hands brushing over John's shoulders, fingers catching in the loose weave of the wool before disentangling to move onwards.
'Would you have any choice?' John replied, breathing out a gusty sigh. 'The bond's permanent. You said so yourself.'
'An intuition, rather than a known fact.'
John hesitated, watching as the sprite that hovered in front of them seemed to grow dim – dull and dejected as if overshadowed. The sight had him reaching out, one hand tightening around Sherlock's wrist as the other nudged the star closer. Its warmth nuzzled into the crook of his neck as it had done during Sherlock's recovery, and some of the dark worry wrapped up in John's guts loosened its grip. For all that he might seem like nothing but a passenger to the glorious whirl of Sherlock and the magic, this was all it took to remind him that he was not just useful, but essential to the man behind him.
'I was wrong.' Sherlock shifted, reaching into the bedside table, pulling out a bulging file and dropping it into John's lap. 'Moran made that clear with his efforts. If it can be destroyed by malice, probably taking us with it, then it is logical to assume there would be other ways to reverse the process.' His arms tightened around John's body. 'I asked Mycroft to look into it. He brought that over earlier today. I was going to show you once I'd had time to examine it properly.'
John's thoughts fell silent, blanked out by the surprise of what lay in his grasp. He had never thought to question Sherlock's initial assumption that what had happened to them could not be undone. Now he was being told there could be a way to reverse it – to free himself from the gossamer web he and Sherlock had woven.
Relief felt like the appropriate emotion, but John was instead suffused with repulsion. It did not come from Sherlock, whose thoughts were dark and quietly mournful, but stemmed from somewhere deep and instinctive that he had learned to listen to on the battlefield. He knew that, if he went through with breaking their connection, he would regret it for the rest of his days.
Taking a deep breath, John rested his hand on the plain, manila folder, staring at the splay of his fingers before he allowed his internal focus to change. He did not look forward, but back towards the truth that Sherlock had left out in the open for him to see.
'You don't want to reverse it.' John shifted, turning around to sit, cross-legged and awkward, between the spread of Sherlock's legs. It gave him a good view of that bare chest and stomach, down lower to the dark curls at the juncture of his thighs, and even in a moment of seriousness, John was helpless but to admire the sight. Only when Sherlock pulled a pillow into his lap did he blink, meeting Sherlock's weak half-grin with one of his own: acknowledged attraction.
'You hate the idea, but you're still showing this to me. Why?' When Sherlock did not answer, John continued. 'You could have hidden it. Burnt the file and pretended it never happened. Instead, you looked for the information. You asked your brother for help, and I know you'd rather go to Anderson than Mycroft.'
Sherlock tipped his head to one side, his mercurial eyes narrowing as he took in the expression on John's face. 'This is far from the first time you have responded unfavourably towards something our situation has enabled within us. You resent it. I thought that if you had a choice, you might feel as if you were in control.' His shoulders slumped as his gaze fell away. 'It's an option, that's all.'
John tapped his thumb on the folder, watching the subtle shift of emotions across Sherlock's features. Cautiously, he looked for any tells, both physically and over their bond, that Sherlock was manipulating the truth of the matter, casting it in a favourable light to work in his own benefit, but there was nothing selfish for John to find. Sherlock did not want to sever what they had, but he was giving John the choice. Not because it would be right in the eyes of a moral society, but because he knew it was best for John.
Sherlock would not work against his own interests for anyone else.
With a sigh, he shifted, dropping the file over the edge of the bed before straightening up and gathering Sherlock's hands in his. 'Thank you,' he managed, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes and curving his mouth as he felt the tropical wash of relief from Sherlock. Had he really thought John would grab it with both hands? Had his moments of bitter uncertainty been so obvious? 'It helps. Not just the possibility, but the fact that you told me about it.' John bit his lip, shaking his head as he looked blindly down at the mattress. 'I wish it was as easy for me to deal with the changes as it is for you. You act like it's not affecting who you are.'
'It's not.' Sherlock lifted his chin, unease replaced by confidence as he quickly spoke. 'It affects what we can do and how we can interact with each other, but how we respond and behave is still unique to ourselves. Do you honestly think that you would have acted any differently to me intruding on something so private if we weren't bound?'
'It wouldn't have happened in the first place,' John pointed out, nodding his acknowledgement at the frustrated wave of Sherlock's hand. 'All right, I get your point, it's just...' He shrugged, not knowing how to put it into words. All he could do was nudge the twisted knot of concern in Sherlock's direction, hoping he could glean John's fear of changing beyond all recognition – losing parts of himself without noticing their absence until it was too late.
Sherlock's fingers wrapped around John's wrists, stroking down over the bowl of his lax palms. However, his expression was one of intense thought, highlighted by the glow of the sprite that hovered between them, equidistant.
'Will you let me show you something?'
John raised an eyebrow. It was unlike Sherlock to ask for permission. Normally, he simply demanded John stay still so he could test out whatever idea had crossed his mind, whether it was an experiment in the name of magic or murder. Now he sat there, waiting for a response.
It was the decision of a moment. Even uncertain about the bond and its constant evolution, John still trusted Sherlock, probably more than he should. Besides, he could sense a bright, hopeful heat that suggested Sherlock had found the answer John craved.
'You're not going to –' He gestured towards the file on the floor, smiling as Sherlock gave an adamant shake of his head.
'I have no intention of breaking the bond unless you demand it. It occurred to me that you're accustomed to seeing my soul and the cords that tether us together with your own eyes. It gives you a concrete appreciation of their strength. You don't need to believe in them, because you have evidence that they exist.' He shrugged. 'The only proof you have of your own soul used to be the healing spells. Now that your power is fed by both of us, you've lost even that reassurance.'
'If you say so,' John replied. He knew he had a soul, but he could see Sherlock's point. Wasn't that what his fears came down to, in the end? That everything which comprised his existence would be scooped out and replaced? 'So what are you going to do?'
With quiet care, Sherlock pulled on their connection – not a vicious yank but a gentle twist – as if he were tuning a violin string to the perfect pitch. Magic began to vibrate along its length like water flowing through a channel, and a rash of goose-pimples broke out across John's skin. He wet his lips, his eyes sliding shut instinctively as he focussed on what he could feel: Sherlock's confidence and the tease of heat as magic curled under his ribs, down through his body to something beyond his physical reach.
It was as if a captive force had been released. An immense rush raced through him, leaving his blood surging in its wake. The sensation of wings unfurling, not from his skin but through his frame, suffused him. Yet when he opened his eyes, he was still the same. Nothing had sprouted from his back, no matter what it felt like. The only thing that had changed was that now a swirl of inky smoke wobbled drunkenly in front of him, coiling and twisting outwards only to fall in on itself once more.
Perhaps it should have looked sinister, but as John watched it began to change shape. At first, it looked like the down of blackbird before it developed the fragile wings of a moth, all harmlessness and erratic flight.
Cautiously, John reached out for it, blinking in surprise as the creature alighted on his skin and dispersed back into his body. It left a sooty smudge in its wake that lingered after he ran his fingers over it.
'Was that –?'
'Everyone could make sprites if they took the time to learn how,' Sherlock explained. 'Can you do it by yourself?'
There was no question of whether he would try again. People like Donovan found the idea repulsive, and John had always wondered if it hurt, excising pieces of your being and setting them loose to the world. He had never realised it could be like that – like stepping out of a cramped space into an open landscape of endless horizons.
Quickly, he tried to emulate what Sherlock had done, cupping his hands in front of himself as he envisioned the snow-soft thrill. For long moments, there was nothing but the natural rhythms of his body, organic and solid, but finally the power engaged, allowing warmth to unfurl between his hands.
He stared, watching it shift and change – mutable and so very different from Sherlock's light. 'It's nothing like yours.'
'No one person's the same. Why would their souls be similar?' Sherlock's hand twitched like he wanted to reach out and touch, but he held himself in check. 'Mine have always been stars. The fact that I normally visualise the auras of other people as incandescence is just a coincidence.'
'Except me.' John smiled, remembering Sherlock's tentative explanation that where everyone else would gleam with different hues of illumination, John's magic was more a presence of heat. 'It looks so fragile.' He watched as Sherlock's counterpart edged closer, its golden shine turning the darkness of John's representation to the colour of a starling's wing: green, blue and purple all caught up on a backdrop of black.
Sherlock's response was a smile, one that grew as John watched the two sprites – different but made of the same ethereal substance – circle each other, releasing tiny sparks whenever they touched. Yet for all that they were lost in their waltzing, happy orbits, John soon realised that the two did not blend. They enhanced each other, seemingly magnifying their strength, but there was never a moment when one over-ruled the other. They fell into a natural symmetry of darkness and light – hopelessly attracted, but never lost.
'I think I'm beginning to understand what you mean,' he murmured, looking beyond the two to the play of shadows across Sherlock's face. 'You wanted me to see how resilient it is. The light of yours should destroy mine, but it doesn't.'
Sherlock's smirk was satisfied, no doubt pleased that John had got the point of the demonstration with so little effort. 'Or the darkness of yours should extinguish mine. In theory it could work both ways.' He shook his head. 'Your soul is a valuable commodity. Mages and demons alike can try to steal it or trade it, bind it or devour it, but it can't be changed by someone else's influence. It's a constant. This –' He gestured to the moth-like shape, smiling as it drifted closer to his fingers as if magnetised. '– is the basis of what we have, not the other way around.'
John pursed his lips, following Sherlock's logic. 'You mean even if it's depleted or bound, it's still a soul?'
'It's still the soul of you. Even if you don't own it anymore, it cannot become the soul of the new owner. It doesn't work that way. That's why selling it is so meaningful. You're offering the cornerstone of your own being.' Sherlock reached out, brushing his thumb gently across the back of John's hand. 'It's only useful to anyone else as an energy source, but to you it's everything, and nothing can change that. Think of what we share like a bridge across a river between two separate nations. The cultures may mix and enrich one another, but in the end, it doesn't fundamentally alter the land on either side.' Sherlock cocked his head, his eyes full of wary hope. 'Do you understand?'
Silently, John wondered if he could ever comprehend all that Sherlock saw, not just in the world around him, laid bare to his observations, but his comprehension of the energy that wove itself invisibly through everything. Still, in front of him, he had the demonstration that he needed. It did not remove the sting of finding Sherlock in his nightmares or the shivering shock of the bond changing their boundaries once more, but it gave him the reassurance he so sorely needed.
With a nod of his head, he reached out for his sprite, watching it flutter around his hand before the moth's form dissolved, leaving smoke trails to drift through the air. They coiled and twisted around the orb of Sherlock's soul, enfolding it in darkness but never snuffing out the light. As soon as Sherlock reached out, it lunged towards him, looping around his finger like a wedding band before curling up, kitten-like, in the cradle of his palm.
A gasp escaped John's lips, called forth by Sherlock's touch against the raw interface of something so quintessentially his. The tension fled from his muscles, leaving his body full of brimming warmth and lost in contented surrender. He should have known it would feel like this from watching Sherlock's response to John's attentions during his recovery, but somehow John had never equated that back to himself.
When caressing the shimmering, misty rope that linked them, a wide spectrum of emotion could be evoked, and it always went both ways. It could be comforting or thrilling, electrified and arousing, but while it was more intense, it was not nearly as intimate. Sherlock touching his soul was not about sex, though that burn lingered in the pit of John's belly. It was acceptance and understanding, sacrifice and compromise. It was a promise to cherish rather than change, and to flex with the challenges rather than stiffen and shatter.
It was a naked truth translated through the media of the vapour in Sherlock's grasp, similar to when he had shown John how he felt all those weeks ago, pushing all those impressions of unspoken love to the front of his mind where they could be seen. Yet somehow, this was a thousand-times more explicit. John's breath hitched in his chest as he swayed near, barely noticing Sherlock close the distance and press their brows together, not kissing, not quite, but sharing every breath.
'I love you.'
John was so lost he almost did not hear the words Sherlock whispered – a vocal acknowledgement of all that he could feel. It was more than he had ever expected to receive from this seemingly cold, aloof man, who saw everything with such a dispassionate gaze. It made him wonder, had Moriarty never initiated the débâcle with Sherlock's soul, whether he would have known how deep that vein of sentiment ran through Sherlock's being, well-hidden from everyone but those who knew where to look for its gleam.
John's hand shook as he reached for Sherlock's sprite again, letting it nestle against him and complete the loop: not a linear conduit but a circuit. It was almost overwhelming, and he heard Sherlock's shuddering indrawn breath as he softly murmured his reply. 'I know.' Normally, the words would be awkward on his tongue and lips, but now they followed with beautiful ease. 'I love you too.'
The audible confirmation should have been unnecessary, but to hear it out loud still made John's heart swell. Perhaps it was because he knew that, while he had never been able to show Sherlock so plainly how he felt before, or see the emotion himself, the words were something that had always been possible. They were his and his alone. Magic wasn't needed to put them on display any more than it was required for love to grow between them.
Sentiment had come first, unspoken and unacknowledged, and while John knew that the connection they shared would continue to change, the way they felt about each other was both the core of it and somehow more.
Perhaps he could not control what the bond would do and where it would take them in future, but as Sherlock bent his head to kiss him again, John knew that their relationship was another matter. It was not a product of the magic between them or Moriarty's meddling, but something born in the real world without the touch of any spells, and for that it was all the more precious.
It would never be easy. The power they shared was sure to test them both and what they had as much as it would enable a deeper understanding, but he knew it would be worth the effort. He would fight to his last breath for the years of their future: happiness and danger, love and contentment. He would battle through every argument and compromise, content in the knowledge that Sherlock would do the same.
They were in this together, and John would not have it any other way.