Think I finally got all of the accidental Americanisms out that were confusing people in regards to school/University, etc. Feel free to Brit-pick at your leisure, constructive comments are always welcome!
Sherlock Holmes lays in bed, pondering the intricacies of belonging to another person. It had been a very odd day – chasing a serial killer through a minefield of a house, getting shot, John being seriously injured, having a row outside in a thunderstorm. But the strangest of all was the conclusion which they had reached. Of course, John was right, it was only fair that if John was his, he was John’s. It was slightly silly that it hadn’t occurred to him before, and there was no person on earth he’d rather belong to. Or tolerate belonging to, as it happened. Still, it goes against his nature to allow anyone, even John, the smallest amount of a say in his life.
It always starts small, little concessions made to the happiness of others, family, friends, sexual partners, but soon they’ve got you on such a short leash you can’t even figure out how to get away, and if you try you’ll hurt them and it will be all your fault, never theirs, but John doesn’t want him tame and safe like that, he said so…
John stirs next to him and he is instantly attentive. The blow from the fire iron had miraculously not shattered anything, but the soft tissue damage and bruising to his lower back is extensive, and John won’t walk for at least a week, until the swelling goes down. John does not wake or cry out and Sherlock relaxes, leaving a hand on his stomach so he can feel the slightest movement, the barest twitch of pain.
After such a day, how could he not do anything John asked of him? He wasn’t asking so very much, really. All he wanted was for Sherlock to try not to die any time soon. And it wasn’t like Sherlock really wanted to die all that much, and now less than ever. Just, danger and excitement called to him, made things more tolerable, less boring. He sometimes didn’t notice how close he was to death or permanent harm until it had passed.
Death is alluring, always has been, the final new thing, but even when he’s bored he knows there’s still things here to tempt him, and dying would mean leaving John, unless John came with him and that would be even worse, so he really should try to put it off as long as possible…
He knows John isn’t trying to control him, to change him, to pen him up like an animal. He knows he’s just trying to make sure they stay each others’ for as long as possible. It’s actually rather nice, feeling like there’s no place he can go that is too distant to return from, that he can never be truly lost because he’s John’s and John will find him. He should feel trapped, suffocated, by all rights, but he doesn’t.
It’s why he has objections to the concept of love. He hates being controlled. And not just by chemicals, but by one’s own feelings, other people’s feelings. When people love you, they try to obligate you with that love, try to hold you hostage with it, bind you in its silken chords, and when you love them you let them. That’s the trouble with love – it’s the ultimate excuse, impossible to argue with, the unassailable emotion, carte blanche for dictating someone’s existence. Love is supposed to be the purest thing, but in his experience it never is, there is always something else, something more required.
Mummy had done this, well-meaning, adoring, wanting the best for him but entirely unable understand him, it had been an irresistible force, the one person he could never refuse but always failed anyway, then later his brother had done it too and that had been intolerable, and no one else had been permitted to love him since, at least not from up close, well, that wasn’t quite true, but it had been so long ago and they had never actually said perhaps they never had…
Ownership is simpler. At least no one is pretending any noble feeling as an excuse, and if you belong to someone it’s presumably because they want you as is. Terms can be negotiated rationally. How could possession offer more freedom than love? Perhaps it depended on who you were with. And mutual ownership somehow seems to him to mean more. You aren’t pulled into it against your will, it’s something you choose proudly, willingly. And it doesn’t change with emotions or whims. It’s constant and forever. Love rarely is.
John stirs again, tensing a bit either with pain or a bad dream, but it’s too early for more medication. Sherlock wants to hold him, but knows any movement would only hurt him more. He settles for turning on his side, as close to John’s body as possible without actually touching it beyond that single hand. He closes his eyes and drifts into a very light sleep, thinking how wonderful it is to not be in love with John Watson.
It takes some time for John to heal enough to do anything approaching casework beyond internet research from the bed, which he insists upon doing to keep from losing his mind to cabin fever. It’s slow anyway, partially by design, as with John out of commission and Sherlock needing to look after him (plus still hobbling on a sprained ankle), all but the most urgent and fascinating cases are to be avoided. But not a lot interesting is coming in, and this trend continues once John is up and about. There’s a minor one, just an afternoon’s work, that involves a missing wife on the very day of her marriage. It’s diverting enough for a short time, and offers no physical risk to either one of them.
But after that, there is nothing. For the first full day of idleness, Sherlock can entertain himself well enough. There’s a test on poisons administered through the skin that he wants run, and he’s finally collected all the substances he needs, as well as enough body parts to make it rigorous. Of course it would be more conclusive on living human tissue, but John points out that that would be wrong, even if one was standing ready with the antidote.
It’s quite absorbing, not to make a pun, and keeps him occupied for that day and most of the next. John hovers more than usual, clearly alarmed by the presence of so many acutely toxic substances on the kitchen table but not wanting to discourage Sherlock from any healthy activity that prevents him to turning to drugs or anything more destructive in his boredom. Healthy being a relative term here meaning that at least Sherlock wears gloves.
He’s not completely insane, and dying in his kitchen while doing a simple experiment would be the height of embarrassment, he can only imagine what Anderson would say…
“Don’t you think there might be a better place to do that?” is as far as John will go.
“Not unless you let me turn your room into a laboratory, finally,” Sherlock answers, glued to the microscope. But they have talked about this before. Even though John rarely sleeps there, he says he needs one corner of the flat that is just his, and guaranteed not to have had poison, body parts, blood, or narcotics in it. Sherlock also knows that John is wary of cluttering up his bedroom, realising that the spareness and strict order of it is as important to Sherlock’s state of mind as the ability to perform medical experiments on the table, keep eyeballs in the microwave, and leave piles of papers and evidence about the flat. Sherlock is grateful for this, so he doesn’t press the issue much.
He thinks he wouldn’t mind a little more clutter if it was John’s clutter, it’s not like he’s a slob, he’s actually quite neat, but not in the regulated, precise way that Sherlock’s obsessive compulsive nature presents in his personal space, leading to the sock index and the suits hung in exact order by colour and style and a very bad day if any of it gets muddled…
Day three leaves him with less compelling experiments, which he slogs through in a bad temper. Day four, John manages to distract him for most of the morning by refusing to allow him to get out of bed, and succeeds in tiring him out enough to tolerate the rest of the day, barely.
Day five… that’s the one. His thoughts inevitably turn to the wonderful stimulation even a small amount of cocaine can provide. He never promised John he wouldn’t do it again and John never actually asked him to, though it’s obvious that’s what he wants. He just asked him to think carefully about it, about them, before he took the risk.
John had also said as much as he hates it, please, please Sherlock if you really must at least don’t do it when I’m not here, I couldn’t handle coming home to that if you ever made a mistake, at least let me be there in case something happens, and Sherlock does promise this, but John’s face when he sees him high is unbearable, even when he says nothing, so he might as well have promised never to do it again…
By the middle of the morning of the fifth day, Sherlock is jumping out of his skin, pacing, chain smoking so aggressively John doesn’t dare to comment but just opens every window in the flat, breaking small items, and picking at the wallpaper until a visible bare patch appears above the couch. He’s determined not to succumb, and he doesn’t have any in the flat anyway, but dear God it’s completely wretched, how can anyone stand to be this inactive, how can they survive without some kind of stimulation?
At 09:15 John puts down the paper he has been reading as he ignores Sherlock’s tantrums, stands up, and says firmly, “That’s it. Enough. We’re going to play a game.”
Sherlock is surprised enough to pause his manic wanderings. “We only have three board games and you’ve sworn never to play at least two of them with me ever again. That leaves Battleship, which you always lose.”
“Yes, but at least you follow the rules. Anyway, not a board game. Get dressed and I’ll show you.”
A new game, one that does not need a board but does require clothes, he has no idea what this could be possibly be, unless it’s sports which John should know better than to attempt with him, a single kick while trying to get him to play footie once had easily convinced John of the futility of that cause…
Intrigued, Sherlock obeys and follows John outside. John confiscates his phone and says, “All right. You’re so proud of how well you know London, so I’m going to give you an address and we’ll see who gets there first. Clock starts from when I say it, no GPS allowed for you. I get GPS because I’m not constantly bragging at how well I’ve memorized every street and alley.”
“Hmm,” Sherlock says, interested despite his inclination to remain in a sulk. “I suppose it doesn’t hurt to hone my skills. But you’re not supposed to run yet… am I to walk as well?”
“Nope, run all you like,” John tells him. “I’ll be in a taxi.”
Oh, this is good. This is very, very good…
He hails one and climbs in, rolling down the window. “Ready? 15 Mitre Rd, Waterloo. Go!”
“But that’s more than 4 kilometres as the crow flies, and across the river,” Sherlock protests.
“Better run fast then,” John calls back, as the taxi pulls out into traffic. Sherlock grins wolfishly, closes his eyes for just long enough to map the route in his head, as well as the one the taxi will take, and breaks into his full speed.
“Five out of seven is still very impressive,” John tells him as they enter the flat.
“I must be out of practice,” grumbles Sherlock, but without any real ill feeling. It had been a more than suitable distraction, innovative and very enjoyable, and he doesn’t want John to think he’s failed in his attempt. Even if, as Sherlock suspects, this was the human equivalent of taking one’s destructive terrier on a run to tire it out before it completely devastates your home.
It wasn’t better than the cocaine, nothing’s better than cocaine but it did the trick if only temporarily and he's trying so very hard for John’s sake, though John says he should try for his own sake but he can’t bring himself to care about that half as much as he does about John’s…
Sherlock is pleasantly exhausted, John had taken him in a wild zig-zag around the city. He’d travelled at least 18 kilometres on foot, and has actually worked up an appetite. John goes to assemble something for lunch and Sherlock checks his email, hoping for a case before the boredom ramps up again.
He spots a name in his inbox that he hasn’t seen in years, and the accompanying email sketches a picture of what could be potentially be a very interesting case indeed. Even if it is in the country.
Actually, there’s not enough information to tell whether the case is interesting, but the person asking for his help and the fact that it’s after so many years is enough to make him more than curious…
“John,” he calls. “Get packed. We’re going north.”
John pokes his head into the sitting room. “North? How north?”
“Near Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland.
“Sherlock, that’s basically Scotland! What the hell is up there?”
“An old acquaintance with a unique problem, a lot of cows, and virtually nothing else.”
“I see. Any other details you’d like to share at the moment?”
“Not particularly. Be sure to bring a jumper,” Sherlock adds dryly, and John gives a small snort.
“Do we at least have time for lunch before we go?”
“Eat on the train.”
John groans, and in less than an hour they are on their way to the North Country.
“So, where exactly is this place?” John asks after they’ve both gotten depressing sandwiches and unrecognisable coffee from the food car.
“From what I understand it’s a recently restored, but rather isolated,estate near the coast. It’s a ways away from the station but our client said he’d send a car for us, and he has rooms for us in his…well, I suppose castle would be the most apt term for it.”
John raises an eyebrow. “And our client is?”
Someone he doesn’t think about anymore, someone who seems so far in the past it’s almost like Sherlock is looking at a film strip of things that had happened to a stranger…
Sherlock pauses, trying to think how to explain it to John. At last he settles on, “A university mate of mine, we did our first year together. I solved something for him once, but I fear it brought more grief than anything else, and I haven’t seen him since. I had heard he’d moved abroad.”
He can tell John wants to ask more, but restrains himself, and they both fall silent. Sherlock stares out the window at the rushing countryside and finds himself getting lost in the past, to the degree that he has actually forgotten John beside him and is startled when his friend touches him discreetly on the thigh and asks, “All right, Sherlock?”
He blinks to clear his mind. “Of course, John, why do you ask?”
“Because you’ve been completely silent and motionless for a good 45 minutes now.”
“Ah.” Had it been that long? “Just thinking.”
John’s hand on his leg is warm and grounding. “What were you thinking about? The case?”
“No. I was thinking about how much I despise working in the country.” This is not strictly what he had been thinking about, but it’s true enough.
“You do? I mean I know you’re a city boy like me, but don’t you think it’s nice for a holiday now and then? And if there’s ever not a miserable time to visit the north, it’s the height of summer.”
John is a city boy, but he likes nature, likes getting out in what passes for wilderness in England, sometimes he even goes trekking voluntarily which is truly beyond the realm of comprehension, maybe he misses the vast expanses of sand and mountains in Afghanistan…
“I don’t take holidays, and this isn’t one. The country is so much more…sinister…than the city.”
“Oh yes,” John agrees gravely. “With all the trees and birds and friendly farm folk waving hello to everyone all the time. All that fresh air. Ominous.”
“Birds are fine. Trees are a hassle. It may be beautiful out here, but for cases and crimes it’s far worst than the roughest neighbourhood in London.”
“Okay, you’re going to have to help me out with this one,” John tells him, shifting a little closer. “I’m lost.”
“Unsurprising,” Sherlock comments, sharper than he means to. “In the city there’s plenty of crime and violence, I’ll grant you. But there is always someone to hear, to see, to notice something even in the darkest alleyway. Someone’s always watching, even if they don’t do anything about it. They can always be tracked down. No one just disappears without a trace, at least not for long. There’s always something to go on, someone who knows.”
Nothing goes truly unobserved in London, which is both comforting and unsettling, it’s lovely for finding things out but the thought of who else might be observing him, observing them, is enough to give him a chill sometimes…
“True enough,” John says mildly, showing no offense at Sherlock’s snappishness. “So, what about the countryside?”
Sherlock snorts. “House far apart, estates in the middle of nowhere, deeds hidden by high hedges or deep forests, miles of empty moor and fen. Anything could be happening. No witnesses, no questions. Everyone turns up for church on a Sunday with a clean face and their best clothes and no one knows if the devout man in the third row beats his daughter of a Saturday night or if the well-bred lady in the last pew is growing marijuana in her back garden. Anything could be going on and there might be no witnesses, not even a rumour.”
“Hmm. Well, thank you for that.”
“For ensuring I never look at a pastoral landscape again without seeing a grim scene full of twisted, wife-beating cow rapists.”
Sherlock sees that John is grinning a bit and can’t help a small chuckle himself.
John always looks so shiny when he’s teasing, it makes Sherlock feel warm inside, maybe because there’s never any malice at the heart of it, it’s as good as affection, sometimes better, he wonders if John knows that…
They arrive at the station just at sunset. They are pretty much the last people on the train and the only ones to disembark here, so it’s not hard to figure out that the single vehicle in the car park is for them. It’s about twenty minutes drive to a massive, ancient, stone structure not far from the sea cliffs, surrounded by a few smaller buildings but otherwise not within sight of any other home.
Perhaps castle was too mild of word, Sherlock thinks as they get out of the car and gaze up at the monolithic building. He judged it to be as early as the 12th century, with new repairs to it obvious even in the dwindling light. It had been comfortable enough when they got off the train, but here with the sun nearly gone and the wind blowing in from the sea, it’s shockingly chilly for late June.
The chauffer shows them in through a set of doors one could drive a carriage through, into large hall with a roaring fire. The room is well lit, but mostly by candles and lanterns.
“Did we just travel back in time?” John whispers to him, as they shed their coats.
Sherlock has no chance for a snappy comeback, as their host strides briskly into the room, flashing a wide grin as he spots Sherlock.
“Sherlock,” he says warmly, breaking in to a trot to meet him, grabbing his hand and pulling him into an hearty, unresisting hug. The man is nearly as tall as Sherlock, slightly broader but still slender on the whole, with thick auburn hair and bright blue eyes, both glittering in the firelight.
Last time Sherlock had seen him he’d been so gangly and thin, a stretched out adolescent just hinting at his future handsomeness, but then they both had been, a pair of awkward teenagers playing at being men, at being sophisticated and worldly…
“Victor,” Sherlock greets him, beaming without even realising it. Victor still has one hand on Sherlock’s shoulder and the other behind his neck, almost but not quite brotherly. “I had heard you went to Saudi Arabia with some big oil company and then something about a knighthood?”
“Long story, not important. I hear you’ve refused a couple knighthoods yourself. I still get Christmas cards from Mycroft. But I am very glad you’re here – let’s hope this mystery has a less traumatising resolution than the last one, eh?”
Sherlock chuckles, relieved that there’s no lasting resentment from Victor. Not that it had been his fault, but sometimes people retain negative associations for a long time.
John coughs pointedly next to him.
“Oh yes… sorry… Victor, this is my… um… John…” he manages lamely.
That was potentially Not Good, but he’d been caught off guard, they never have discussed a proper name, and “person upon whom my existence depends” seems ungainly, besides their relationship usually doesn’t come up when working cases and everyone who knows them just says Sherlock-and-John and understands what it means…
John steps forward and, uncharacteristically, puts a hand firmly on the small of Sherlock’s back.
“Doctor John Watson,” he says. “Pleased to meet you.”
“John, this is Sir Victor Trevor, previously of Norfolk.”
Victor give them both an appraising look, then withdraws his hands from Sherlock and takes a few steps back, removing himself from Sherlock’s personal space. His expression wavers briefly, but then he smiles at John as well, teeth dazzling, and welcomes him graciously.
Sherlock detects a distinct, non-verbal exchange taking place between Victor and John but is unable to decipher exactly what is happening, except that John is flickering at least as fast the firelight, and crackling a bit and Victor is keeping carefully at arms length.
That is what John looks like when something is wrong, not so much dim as disjointed, uneven, going from dark to bright in an instant and back again, sparking with displeasure, he wonders what’s happened, whatever it was took place in the last few minutes…
“Well, unfortunately I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to show you the grounds, but you must be famished anyway. Let me show you to your rooms – they’ll be heated and lit properly, unlike this one – and you can freshen up. We can catch up over supper.” The last he addresses to Sherlock, but includes John with a friendly glance after the fact.
They are led up a cold stairwell to the third floor, to a well-furnished room that is as warm as the hallway is frigid.
"There’s a connected bathroom and study,” Victor tells them. “I also arranged separate rooms for Dr. Watson, but if you don’t need—”
“This will be fine,” John cuts him off. “Thanks.”
“Well, then,” Victor says, rubbing his hands together. “Supper in an hour? No need to dress, of course, it’s just us three.”
Sherlock flops into an overstuffed chair by the window, worn out and not sure why. He realises John is staring at him and that it is not a good stare.
Still flickering, out of kilter, unhappy but not sad, angry but not furious, annoyed perhaps…
“Well?” says John.
“Well, what?” Sherlock asks, genuinely baffled.
“You told me,” John replies in a calm, cold voice. “That we were helping out an old acquaintance. Not visiting a former lover in his own personal fortress!”
“Lover?” Sherlock sits up straight. “We were never lovers. Perhaps friend would have been more accurate a word than acquaintance, but that’s as far as it goes.”
“Right. You were never lovers and I got this hole in my shoulder by falling on a picket fence.”
John is holding back, at least to some degree. Sherlock knows his ability to read the nuances of emotion in facial expression and tone is not always to be relied upon. He’s best when they’re touching, and he can read in John’s body the things that aren’t being said. John seems to have figured this out on his own, and often moves closer to Sherlock when there is a misunderstanding, to make it easier for him to catch on.
But John doesn’t move closer now.
“I mean it, John. We were good friends. That’s it.”
It’s it and it’s not-it, he doesn’t know how to explain what it was, just like he doesn’t know how to explain what he and John are, but the two aren’t the same, not at all, still John might not believe that it’s completely different…
“Like you and I are good friends?” John say, reading his mind.
Sherlock opens his mouth, but John doesn’t let him talk. “You know what, Sherlock, it’s fine. Really. I’ve got exes, why shouldn’t you? I mean, I’ve never tricked you into a weekend getaway with one of mine, but there’s a first time for everything. I just wish… I wish you’d warned me, okay?”
John has calmed somewhat, though Sherlock can tell that he’s still not happy.
“I’m going to take a shower and change,” John adds, rummaging through the bags that were brought up before them and taking out the nicest button-up he has with him.
“We don’t need to dress for dinner,” Sherlock reminds him, grateful to be off the topic.
“Oh, you don’t,” John agrees. “Nor Victor. Seeing as how you’re both already wearing perfectly cut, designer clothing in a modern yet timeless style. I’m not showing up in this.” He indicates his rust coloured jumper.
“I like that jumper,” Sherlock offers.
“You hate this jumper.”
“I like it on you?”
“Liar.” But John’s face has relaxed and he moves closer to Sherlock at last.
“I… like you in spite of the fact that you are wearing that jumper?” he tries.
He does like the jumper on John, the hideous, horrible, shapeless, scratchy jumper, because it is so very John, so very unstylish, he doesn’t want him to start dressing smartly all the time, that would be very not-John…
“There we go. Snob.” He puts his hands on Sherlock’s and leans to down to kiss him briefly. Sherlock can feel that he’s been reprieved for the moment, but that this subject is not, by any means, closed in John’s mind. And John does not invite him to share the shower.
Dinner is, thankfully, in a small room off the kitchens and not in the cavernous and droughty main hall. It’s what Victor considers simple fare – roast pheasant, bread, cheese, soup.
“I apologize for the leanness of the spread,” he says sincerely. “I didn’t know what time you were getting in.”
John seats himself closer than usual to Sherlock and puts an arm over the back of his chair, casual but definitively possessive. They make small talk while they eat, and Victor is mindful to include John in the conversation, steering away from old reminisces and private jokes. Slowly Sherlock feels John’s tension ease next to him, to the point where he even laughs at some of Victor’s remarks. Victor is very charming and very funny, Sherlock remembers.
Victor is that rare aristocratic creature, well-born, at least on his mother’s side, wealthy, titled, educated, generous, unfailingly gracious, kind to a fault, liked by nearly everyone, not many people can manage that, Sherlock certainly couldn’t and he’d had far more advantages as a young man…
“So, how did you come by this place?” John asks finally. “Family home?”
Victor laughs, an easy silvery chuckle. “Not quite. As I’m sure Sherlock has told you, there was some family unpleasantness after our first year at uni and I found myself without parents, money, home, or even a name I could call my own. I got a job in oil on the last of my father’s good reputation and did very well there - made my fortune and my name, but I missed England. I started looking for an estate, and Mother had some people from up here so it was a good place to start.
“I found out about this place, pretty much left to ruin since the 1920’s, and thought if I could fix it up it would be a nice tourist attraction, you know, help the economy around here. This is a lovely area and it doesn’t get as much attention as it should. But as you can imagine it’s a rather Herculean job – half of the place is still completely uninhabitable and only a small part of what is has heat or electricity right now. Wiring a place like this is an undertaking in and of itself. Sometimes I feel like I’m camping out inside of it!”
“So, what’s the problem that called us up here? Sherlock’s been rather tight lipped about it,” John adds pointedly.
Still annoyed with him but not dangerously so, he can relax for the moment…
“Oh, don’t blame him, I didn’t give him much to go on. And in fact, I think it should wait for the morning… it makes more sense if I show you rather than tell you,” Victor says sheepishly. “I didn’t call the police because I figured they’d think I was crazy. I get enough of that talk just from moving into this place. And of course, Sherlock’s the smartest man I’ve ever met. I’ll bet you’ll have it solved before tea tomorrow, right?”
“That remains to be seen,” Sherlock says in a carefully neutral tone, but pleased at the compliment.
“Well, early start then, yeah?” John pushes his chair back. “I think I’ll turn in.”
Sherlock makes a half a move to get up as well, then hesitates, looking at John uncertainly.
Is it a test, doesn’t seem to be, John doesn’t usually play mind games like that, although nothing about tonight has been usual…
“No, it’s fine. Why don’t you stay and catch up?”
“If you’re sure…”
“Of course,” John says pleasantly, although Sherlock thinks there might be the barest hint of an edge to his tone. “I’ll see you upstairs. Victor, thank you for supper.”
Victor nods to John, and John leaves, brushing Sherlock’s shoulder with his hand on the way past. Once he is gone Victor asks, “Are you sure you shouldn’t join him?”
“No. He said it was fine.”
It is fine, isn’t it, John said it was but he uses fine to mean so many things and some of them are most definitely not fine and he can’t tell if this one of those times or not…
Victor raises an eyebrow but doesn’t comment. He puts his feet up on the table and leans his chair back on two legs, sprawling comfortably, while Sherlock pulls his knees to himself and wraps his arms around them so he forms a surprisingly compact figure, both men unconsciously assuming old postures and attitudes around each other.
“I just want you to know that I had no idea about you and John when you came here. I hope he knows I wasn’t trying to… well, I hope I didn’t make him uncomfortable. He seems like a very good man.”
“He is,” Sherlock agrees firmly. “I see you’ve never married.”
Victor doesn’t ask how Sherlock knows this, he’s seen him work things like that out hundreds of times before. “Not the marrying kind, I suppose. No more than you. A few fleeting things, but boyfriends are bad for business in conservative Muslim countries, even secret ones. And up here…well, you can imagine. I keep myself entertained though. The role of eccentric bachelor landholder suits me.” He pauses. “I have missed you, Sherlock. Very much. Have you missed me?”
“I did, at first,” Sherlock admits. “It was difficult. But after that I only thought of you quite rarely. I was glad to see your email, though,” he hastens to add, realising his previous statement might be misconstrued.
Victor only smiles, unoffended. “You haven’t changed, have you? Same Sherlock as ever. I wish I had your talent for compartmentalising, would have saved me a lot of grief. To just put something painful away in a box like that, and not have to look at it if you don’t want to… it’s a gift, my friend.”
They chat a bit about their university days and old memories, Victor doing most of the talking. Sherlock isn’t one for rehashing the past, but listening to Victor is enjoyable and they both avoid any emotionally loaded territory. After some time they both lapse into companionable silence, nursing red wine and staring at the fire. “Did you ever think we’d sit like this again?” Victor asks after many minutes have passed.
He always was sentimental and romantic, loving poetry, to hang on the past, to dream of the future, he knew how to spin such pretty stories, how many hours had they spent by a fire just like this, Victor telling outrageous tales, or Sherlock lecturing on forensics, or neither of them saying anything at all…
“No, I didn’t. But it’s… pleasant.” Sherlock shakes himself. “I should retire if it’s going to be an early morning.”
“Do you still only sleep a few hours a night?”
Victor gives him a knowing grin, and if it’s a bit sad as well Sherlock doesn’t notice. “Off you go then.”
To Sherlock’s disappointment John is quite soundly asleep when he comes in, on his back and on the very edge of his preferred side, like he's still sleeping on a narrow army cot. He stirs when Sherlock crawls under the thick, old fashioned bedclothes but doesn’t wake – his subconscious has identified that it’s his friend and there’s no need for alarm. If anyone else had come through that door, he’d have been awake and at the ready in under three seconds. Sherlock’s seen him do this and it’s really quite impressive.
Sherlock feels a small twinge of guilt, although he’s not sure what for. He’s done nothing wrong, and yet it still seems as if he has. Or as if John thinks he has, and those amount to the same thing.
John is never cruel on purpose, almost never tries to punish him for things done, but sometimes just navigating the emotions of another human being, even a very understanding one is so exhausting, he wonders how other people do it and with multiple friends and family members too, how could anyone keep it all straight…
He traverses the expanse of the mattress until he is next to John, scrunching down so he can put his head on John’s shoulder and a hand on his chest to feel his heartbeat. Sherlock closes his eyes, meditating on the rhythm, but does not fall asleep for some time.
He awakes to bright sun streaming through the window. Dawn is early here this time of year, and it’s a nice way to be woken considering he’s usually up while it’s still dark. John rouses slowly and smiles to see Sherlock snuggled up next to him in the morning light, an extremely rare occurrence.
“Morning, nightmare,” he murmurs, running his fingers through Sherlock’s hair. He can feel John’s not angry with him any more, content and soft like the sunbeams around them, and sighs happily.
“I’m sorry I was a bit horrible last night,” John says after a minute. “I was tired and this whole thing took me by surprise. I was just jealous, I suppose.”
“Jealous?” This thought had not occurred to Sherlock. “What could you be jealous of? I haven’t seen Victor in eighteen years and we were never…not really… Anyway, it doesn’t make sense to be jealous, I’m yours.”
Of course now that it has been pointed out it’s blatant that John was acting out of jealousy, but why would he be, how could Sherlock make it any clearer to the man than he already has, it seems so obvious to him all the of the time that John is all there is, how could there be room to think of anyone else…
John’s eyebrows go up at “not really” but he lets it go for the moment. “Well, the lovely thing about jealousy is that it tends to be completely irrational.” He sighs. “I guess when I saw you and Victor I felt… well, out of place. You two look so good together, it seemed like you belonged with him and not with me. You’re both gorgeous and tall and upper class, like a pair of champion racehorses or prize hunting dogs, all sleek and elegant and perfectly matched. And then… well you hugged him and you smiled for him and you laughed for him. I’m not used to it.”
“I laugh and smile very often, John.”
John shakes his head. “You laugh and smile at people all the time. Smiling is a reflex you’ve trained yourself to have around people, but it’s not a real smile. You laugh or smile for real when someone is being stupid or when you’ve just gotten a brain wave or heard there’s an exciting case. But there’s only two people I’ve seen you really smile for or hug, and one of them is Mrs. Hudson. And I’ve only ever seen you let one person make you laugh for real, at a joke or something clever, only one person you laugh with…”
It is true, he only ever laughs with John, jokes with John, lets John make him giggle, and he has since the day they met, the rest of it is an act or laughing at the universe or the folly of others, Mycroft used to make him hysterical with laughter as a child, laughter until he couldn’t breathe but that had happened less and less and now it would never happen again…
“I didn’t realise,” Sherlock says, honestly.
“I know you didn’t. It’s a stupid thing to be hurt over, anyway. I want you to laugh and smile and be happy, and not just for me. I don’t want to be that selfish. I just… I didn’t expect it.”
“We were very young when we knew each other – I suppose I was a little less guarded then and that’s why he can still make me laugh now.”
“I think maybe that’s what I was most jealous of. You met him long before me. He knows you in ways I can’t ever, he has a part of you I can’t approach, he got to see you when you were just starting to be who you are. I often wish we’d met at university, had all those intervening years together.”
“But if we’d met then, we wouldn’t be us now,” Sherlock says, as if that would be unthinkable.
“True enough.” John kisses Sherlock’s forehead and runs a hand smoothly across his flank. “Tell me about him and you. Please. How you met… what you were not exactly to each other. I won’t be cross, I promise, I just want to understand that part of you.”
This doesn’t smell like a trap, not John’s style anyway, but he doesn’t want to hurt him again, make it worse, still John’s body is relaxed, languid, not waiting to pounce but wanting to make it up to him…
“His dog bit me,” he says finally. “Second week of my first term. I was walking and reading at the same time and suddenly this horrid little bulldog was attached firmly to my ankle and refused to be shaken off. Victor ran up, calling to the dog, and managed to pry him off me, apologising the whole time. He was so embarrassed and he insisted that I let him help me to his rooms, as they were close by, and he would call our college's physician from there. I could hardly walk on my own and I didn’t have any friends, so I agreed. He ended up putting me up for a week while my ankle healed, declaring it was his responsibility to see to me, and by the end of that time we had grown quite close.”
Sherlock shook his head. “Not like that. Not quite. We were both late bloomers, as you can imagine, still figuring ourselves out, not much of an idea about who and what we were. I knew I wanted to study chemistry and deductive science, but that was all I knew, and all I did, before I met Victor. He was so incredibly different from me – gregarious, suave, light-hearted, sentimental. But he was fascinated by what I did and it flattered me. He took interest in my experiments and I let him drag me to parties once in awhile. By end of term we were inseparable and when the summer holidays rolled around he invited me to stay. It was a far sight better than rattling around that house with no one but Mycroft.”
By then too much had happened, too often a parent, too seldom a brother, how could they be expected to bear each other’s company for an entire summer, everything had been said and there was no one left to pretend for…
“I can believe that,” John agrees. “But something happened that summer?”
“His father liked me well enough, but in showing off my deduction skills I accidentally stumbled on a secret of his, one which was about to be revealed anyway, that the man was a fraud and had made his money as a criminal and thief. His father died of the shame and stress shortly after – someone had been blackmailing him. I helped Victor piece together the true story, he lost everything and left the country. Hadn’t heard from him since.”
Sherlock pauses for a long time, debating what to say. “Three kisses,” he says finally. “There were three kisses. Brief, chaste, childish kisses. Once in his rooms as the first term was ending. Once in the orchard at his father’s house before things turned bad. And once to say goodbye.”
So incredibly innocent they had been, the merest brushing of lips, he’d never spoken of them to anyone, he treasures them still, keeps them in a little corner of his mind and takes them out to look at once in awhile, not for wishing to have that time back, but as reminders of the only thing that could be called true affection he’d tolerated between childhood and John, a brief respite from having to be defensive against the constant grating of the world, before the days of anonymity and mutual use and physical need that had characterised what little else there had been for him until now…
He feels John’s mood shift, but can’t tell how. “Are you upset?”
“Of course not,” John tells him, touching his arm reassuringly. “I was just thinking how very sad that must have been for you.”
Sherlock had never thought about in the context of sad or not sad before. It was lovely at the time and then it had gone away. He settles on, “It was unpleasant when he left. But it was a long time ago.”
John accepts this, but seems sceptical.
“I was rather thinking you might take to Victor,” Sherlock adds. “You are not really very dissimilar.”
“I have taken to him,” John admits reluctantly.
“Have you?” It seemed quite the opposite to Sherlock.
“Of course I have. I doubt there’s a person he’s met who hasn’t. He’s friendly and sincere and entertaining and attractive. That’s what’s frustrating… I wanted so badly to dislike him right away but I couldn’t make myself do it. He’s completely and utterly likeable.”
“I don’t understand,” Sherlock says, baffled.
Don’t you either like someone or not, how can you hate that you like them, can’t you choose, but maybe it was a bit like him and Moriarty, being drawn to each other, hating but needing, but then again hopefully it was nothing like that at all…
“I know. Don’t worry about it. I promise to behave from now on. You can’t blame me for being a bit territorial, though.”
“Mmm. I don’t mind.” Sherlock yawns. “Better get going, we’ve got a case to solve!” Now that his worries about John are relieved he’s anxious to get started.
“Do we?” John asks innocently, and rolls himself easily on top of Sherlock, legs straddling his waist. “I should think we have a few minutes before breakfast.”
“Perhaps… a few…” Sherlock agrees absently, distracted by the movement of John’s fingers across his chest.
They are only a very little bit late for breakfast.
If Sherlock and John are late for breakfast, Victor is far past due. There is a more than adequate spread of both hot and cold selections laid out for them in the makeshift dining room by the small household staff, but their host is not in evidence and doesn’t show until John is well into his second helping of sausage and Sherlock has shredded his toast into tiny pieces without eating a morsel.
At last Victor rolls in, dressed but attractively rumpled, and makes his apologies. “I’m trying to fit in with the rural ethic of rising with the dawn, but I’m afraid 15 odd years in business made me more accustomed to late nights than early mornings.”
He never was a morning person, rarely seen before ten am if he could help it, while Sherlock sat up all hours, haunting their college's grounds, as Victor had called it, John’s ways were much less extreme than either of them unless pulled into Sherlock’s schedule by a case…
Victor wolfs down some eggs, potatoes, and juice with a sheepish grin. “All set, boys? Then I can show you around and explain my little problem.”
He leads them out through the kitchens with a nod to the cook and they emerge on a grassy knoll facing the ocean, less than a mile away with some sea cliffs in between. It’s a bright morning, although clouds on the horizon portend rain in the afternoon. Sherlock can finally get a good look at the castle and the buildings around it, ranging from low stone structures as old as the place itself to wooden cottages not much more than a hundred years old. The southern and western sides, where they are lodged, look intact, but the north side is in bad shape and the eastern tower, where most of the current work seems to be centred, is almost gone.
“Welcome to Corvin Castle,” Victor says effusively, spreading his arms wide. “As you can see it’s a work in progress. Always has been really. From what we can tell, this site was constantly inhabited from the Iron Age until around the first World War. Makes for eclectic architecture, and quite a restoration challenge let me tell you. Main building is Norman construction, very early, but it seems to be built at least partially on the foundation of an old broch, and you can see remnants of a previous motte and bailey structure as well in the landscape. We’ve found Roman bricks as well.”
John looks impressed by all of this, while Sherlock is mainly uninterested in anything other than the fact that is very, very old.
Sherlock keeps a file on history and architecture of the British Isles in his brain, it’s come in useful on more than one case, but he finds it tedious, how could anyone devote their lives to something so dull, it’s in the past, it’s over, it doesn’t matter…
“It’s been in private ownership forever,” Victor continues. “Although of course I’m working with English Heritage to make sure we don’t accidently destroy anything important. I have a guardianship agreement with them. Apparently they’re more than happy for me to spend my money instead of theirs. Had some proper archaeologists up and everything.”
Sherlock is scrutinising the layout of the property and the surprising number of people about, mostly construction workers, and vaguely hears John ask, “So, how much land do you actually own?”
“Pretty much everything from the bluffs to the road, and then a bit further than you can see to the north and south. A few farms on my land, mostly derelict except for one, but I’ve been getting some new people in. It’s good land for sheep and cows and hay, hoping to get things producing again, get this place into shape for visitors and maybe a little museum…”
Victor’s voice is shining with pride and excitement for his project. He’s a do-gooder at heart and now’s he got enough improvement projects to keep him busy for the rest of his life. He makes to continue his speech but Sherlock cuts in.
“What exactly is the problem you called us up here for?”
“Ah. Yes… all right, this way.” He leads them around the corner to the north side of the castle, to a gaping hole in the foundation of the building, ugly and yawning. “It’s…um…this…”
Sherlock raises an eyebrow. “The restoration project hit a snag?”
Victor shakes his head, tossing his hair and then running his fingers through it to put it back in place.
Victor tended to be a bit vain, Sherlock remembered, especially of his hair, he didn’t like anyone to know, but he was always checking in looking glasses out of the corner of his eye…
“No, this isn’t part of it. I mean to say… this stone was here until two nights ago. Then it just…vanished.”
“Vanished?” John asks incredulously. “How does a giant piece of limestone vanish?”
Leave to John to ask the obvious questions, it’s rather endearing, although of course it didn’t actually need to be said, they all know it’s improbable, still there’s a space in the conversation that begs to be filled with the unnecessary question and John obliges…
“Well, that’s what I’d like to know. This is the third one, too. The others were on the opposite side but exactly the same as this. No one sees anything, the times aren’t predictable, and there’s no evidence of it being dragged away. If this keeps up it could destabilise the entire foundation.”
Sherlock looks at him sharply. “Three stones? When?”
“First one was six months ago, then about three weeks, then this one when I emailed you.”
Sherlock swears. “Why didn’t you contact me at once? All the evidence from those first two will be useless by now!”
“I didn’t know if you would want to hear from me,” Victor says mildly.
John breaks the ensuing silence with a polite cough. “Is there anything else you can tell us? Anything unusual?”
“Other than massive blocks of stone disappearing from my home at seemingly random intervals? Not really.”
“The ground is pretty well trampled by workers,” Sherlock notes, really interested now. “But it’s impossible that the dragging of a block this size wouldn’t have left marks. Likewise, the ground around is soft enough that there would be evidence of a vehicle. No one heard anything?”
“Not a thing. You might not inside, the walls are 12 feet thick here and it’s the uninhabited side, but the boys staying in the cottage and the groundskeeper would have heard if there were people messing about.”
Sherlock pulls out his hand lens and crouches, leaning into the vacated space in the foundation. He examines every corner and crevice, licking a finger and putting it to the stone and tasting the dust there.
Pitting, corrosion on the three sides but not the blocks above, fresh, not water or weathering, grooves from being moved, sour taste for limestone, new dust, no handprints, no unusual footprints or damage to the turf, movement quiet but couldn’t have been silent, not completely, doesn’t add up…
He’s aware he’s moving his lips soundlessly as he goes through all the possibilities he can think of, running a finger along the seam between the bottom and back stones.
"He’s always like this when he’s onto something, just kind of have to wait… well, I guess you know.” Sherlock hears John speaking to Victor very distantly.
“I do, a bit,” Victor admits with a low laugh.
“Right.” Sherlock springs to his feet in front of them. It’s an odd sensation having both John and Victor looking at him expectantly, but he is far too into his deductions to worry about that at the moment and forges on. “No mortar remnants, but that’s not surprising.”
“Why not?” John asks, and Sherlock shoots him an impatient look.
“Original dry stone construction down here,” Victor tells him. “Some of it’s been replaced with mortared stonework on the upper levels over the centuries, but the foundation is intact. Or was.”
“Yes, all right, we don’t care,” Sherlock snaps peevishly. “As I was saying, the blocks in the base fit together perfectly, so even without mortar it would have taken some loosening. Note the pitting and grooves on all sides? Acid was applied here to create a bit of space to wiggle the stone out, but it still left marks on the surrounding pieces as it went. Look, here.”
Victor peers at them. “Yes, I can see them. But what does it tell us?”
“The marks are vertical. And there are no such marks on the blocks above it!”
His companions stare at him without comprehension and he makes a noise of frustration. “Imbeciles!”
Really, sometimes he doesn’t know why he puts up with it, they make him go so slow, why can’t they just get out of his way and let him work, but then again there’d be no one to be impressed when he got the answer, and sometimes he missed things when he went too fast….
“Sherlock!” John chides.
Sherlock waves him off. “Come on, it’s incredibly obvious. Neither of you? Why do I bother? It wasn’t pulled out of the wall, it slid down!”
“But that’s impossible, Victor interjects. “Where would it go? How?”
“Don’t know, but the evidence is right before your eyes. And look at the stone below it. More marks.”
“Back to front,” John observes.
“Close. Front to back. If the stone had been pulled out this way there would be back to front horizontal marks here, on both sides, and the top and no marks on the back.”
“So, what are you saying? That the stone below it magically moved out the way to allow it to drop…where?”
“Not magical, but essentially correct. You can see there’s just the barest bit of a gap between the block in the back and the one on the bottom. It must be able to be moved back into a space behind it. Probably not part of the original construction. As to where… Victor, what’s underneath us?”
Victor shrugs. “Until just now I would have said nothing but more stone foundation of one era or another, but now I couldn’t say. It’s not like there’s blueprints for this place. I’m still discovering new things about it, and I’ve lived here four years.”
“Well, clearly there has to be some kind of chamber or tunnel beneath the missing stones, probably leading somewhere inside.”
“You’re saying my missing pieces are…inside the castle itself?”
“Or under it. They certainly can’t have gone very far, even with the several men this operation doubtless would take. Have you explored the cellars or dungeons or whatever it is you have here?”
“The ones I know about, yes. But it’s a maze of tunnels and collapsed passageways, even parts of previous incarnations of the building, earth, wood, stone... Some are blocked up and there’s likely more I haven’t found.”
“Well, you’re about to become intimately familiar with them.”
“Can we just try to push the lower stone out of the way, like you think was done before?” John asks suddenly. “Would save a lot of trouble in the secret passage-searching department.”
“Oh.” Sherlock pauses. “I suppose…”
It always throws Sherlock a curve when John offers one of his simple, obvious, practical solutions, something Sherlock should have noticed but was too high above it to see, now he remembers why he keeps him around, well, that and all the other lovely things John does that have nothing whatsoever to do with casework…
Victor calls over some of the workers, the brawnier ones, who bring with them a large iron bar. There’s more stonework under the turf they’re standing on, but the men manage to find a point of leverage and shove for ten solid minutes without budging it.
“No use,” Victor says finally. “Thanks mates,”
Sherlock is irritated. “Whoever did it blocked it up after so no one could follow. Can’t we just dig it out to get to the chamber underneath?”
“I’m concerned about my building being undermined by missing foundation stones and you’re proposing to smash a hole in it to find out how?” Victor asks archly. “Besides that, you saw the underlying masonry, even I don’t know where it ends. It’s not exactly a shovel job. And Heritage would have my head.”
Obviously brute force isn’t the answer. Sherlock resigns himself to a different tack. “All right. How many people live here?”
“In the house or on my land?”
Everyone has to be a suspect, must be an inside job at least to some degree, someone intimately familiar with the castle and grounds, can’t overlook even the frailest individual, anyone can hire muscle to help them, though it certainly would take quite a bit of it to move those blocks…
Victor thinks for a moment. “Well, there’s Margaret, the cook and her son, Justin, just out of school. He helps in the kitchen, runs errands, that sort of thing. The housekeeper, Mrs. Pershing. And Alicia, my PA is usually here as well but she’s seeing to some investments of mine in Spain at the moment. That’s all for the main house. The groundskeeper has his little place, over there. And my trainer, Linda, keeps rooms in the back of the stable, down that path. Likes to be near her babies.”
"Trainer? Babies?” John asks, confused.
“Horses, John. Victor breeds racehorses.”
Victor shakes his head with a rueful grin. “No, I’m off the racing scene. Andalusians are my passion now. Dressage horses.”
“How dull,” Sherlock rolls his eyes.
“It takes finesse. And no one places bets on dressage. Should have switched years ago, I’d be a much a richer man. You ride, John?”
Oh yes, that, he’d always been a gambler and the ponies were a particularly weakness, almost never had any pocket money, started raising and losing his father’s money on them when he was twelve, Sherlock told him he was a fool but he never could keep away…
“Uh, that’s a pretty firm no,” John answers, taken by surprise. “Dog person.”
“Can we please return to the topic or do you two want to stand here all day discussing the finer point of equine care?” Sherlock growls.
Victor sighs. “Where was I? Right. The trainer, she lives alone but sometimes has a girl or two up to help her out, for up to a week at a time. Right now I’ve got the master stone mason and his two apprentices in the cottage there.”
“What about the rest of the workers?”
“Ten in all, but they drive into town every night and have lodgings there.”
“What about the farms you mentioned?”
“Well, there’s the Dinkins to the south, old man and his wife, their son and his kids. From what I can tell the family’s been working that land for centuries. Owners like me come and go, but they just keep at it. Then I’ve got Angus McKellig, first farm to the north. Started two years ago, says his family used to live here and work the land when his grandfather was young. Widower with no children, not a young man either, but he’s been working hard to turn his little piece around. And then right at the very north edge of my property, just moved in about four months ago, is Susie Kyffin, nice Welsh girl, very bright. She and her partner – Cora, I think – plan to raise sheep for artisan cheese and grow organic veg to sell in town. Ambitious. That’s everyone, I believe.”
“Anyone else about the castle or property regularly? Anyone with an interest?”
“Well, I get Northumberland Historical Society people up once in a while, but they don’t have regular access. I can get you the names if you want.”
“Give them to John. Obviously it would take at least four strong men to handle a stone of that size, but they don’t necessarily have to be men who are around here all the time. The construction workers are, of course, suspect but all it would take is one person with access to the castle to let accomplices through to the basements or wherever the entrance to the chamber is. So it’s most likely someone in the immediate household, although I’ve seen you don’t lock up so it could be anyone who wouldn’t be immediately out of place in your home. I assume that includes your tenants?”
“They come by regularly, yes. It’s a big place, sometimes I don’t know I’ve got visitors until we stumble upon each other in the halls.”
How was he supposed to solve a case where just anyone could wander freely on and off the property without detection, Victor was so universally trusting, even after the deaths of his parents and sister and losing everything, John doesn’t understand it either, he can see, but it too polite to say anything…
Sherlock gives him a disapproving glare. “You might want to think about tightening security, ie, getting some at this point. Do you seriously leave a historical building full of your personal affects and priceless antiques open to the winds?”
Victor shrugs. “People are honest and peaceful up here. I like it. Besides, I keep most of my valuables locked up in my rooms. And are you really suggesting my 61 year old housekeeper might be facilitating a ring of international masonry thieves to plunder my walls?”
“Hang on a second,” John cuts in. “Have we dealt with why on earth anyone would want to steal chunks of rock out of your home? A prank of some kind? They aren’t worth anything in and of themselves, are they? It just doesn’t make sense.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Sherlock smirks. “But once we get the who and the how exactly, I suspect we’ll stumble on the why.”
“And for my part I don’t really care why, I just want it to bloody stop,” Victor adds. “So, what now?”
“Research and data. John can interview the household members and workers on the grounds. People… like… him.”
“Thanks,” says John dryly.
Well, they do, it’s one of his best qualities, Sherlock likes him and he almost never really liked anyone…
“I’ll need to look at whatever records you have on the building itself and the surrounding area. I’ll need internet access too for further research. I’ve noticed there’s no mobile signal here – do you have a high speed connexion or do you go into town?”
“Managed to get satellite internet installed. Cost a pretty penny, but I really need it out here. Unfortunately all the signal boosters in the world won’t get a wifi signal through the walls so if you want to use it you pretty much have to be in my office. We have an old-fashioned copper wire landline for calls, but as you rightly noted, no mobile signal until you get right near town.”
“Right. Victor, I’ll need the use of your office for the day. Alone. John, get started on interviews and if you run out of those to do go into town and poke around the worker’s lodgings and whatever sorry pub they spend their evenings at.”
“And what am I to do?” Victor asks. “Shall I help John—”
“No, your staff won’t talk in front of you. Just do…whatever you do. As long as it’s not in your office. Play with your horses or something.”
Victor looks a little bit hurt but recovers quickly. “John, you all right or do you need me to…?”
“I’ve got it,” John tells him. “I’ve gotten surprisingly skilled at prying personal information out of strangers.”
“Okay,” Victor says, cheerful but a bit adrift. “Sherlock, I’ll just show you where everything is, then.”
Victor’s used to being in control, doesn’t like to be made useless, particularly in his own home, but can’t be helped, his poking around would only make everyone jumpy and if he could have figured it out on his own through research, he would have, he’ll only be in the way at the moment…
Victor leads Sherlock back in through the kitchens, through a set of doors, the only locked ones Sherlock’s seen since his arrival, and into a large study decorated in flawless Edwardian style. Even the large plasma TV is disguised by a clever frame and a screen display of a pastoral landscape painting. Victor opens the massive desk and pulls out a very new Apple laptop.
“This is the one with all my building and land records on it,” he tells Sherlock, typing in the password. “It’s got internet access as well, but it’s restricted to certain sites I use for business and this project. If you need to go anywhere else you’ll have to get the key code from Mrs. Pershing. I, um… don’t have it.”
“I see. Because of the…?”
“Yes,” Victor says shortly. “I’d like to murder the man who invented internet poker.”
“That’s why you moved to such a remote place, then.”
“Partially. What about you, are you still… I heard some things…after university…”
“There was a period of time that was Not Good,” Sherlock says carefully. “But it’s over. I’m clean now.”
He is, he realises with a start, not just what he considers clean which is really just under control but everyone else doesn’t believe him that it can be under control so he cops to clean as a reflex, but actually clean and with no plans to change, damn John for that, but it does feel nice to mean it for once…
Victor smiles approvingly. “Well, I’ll let you get to it then,” he says, but Sherlock is already engrossed in files and correspondence. There’s an amazing amount to go through, and while Victor has organised everything fairly well, the information is still fragmented, jumbled. Ownership records from the 1600’s, a land survey done in 1745, appraisal from the mid 1950’s. Nothing he finds turns up any sort reference to underground chambers or moveable stones in the places the blocks were taken from. Already this is one of the most frustrating cases he’s ever had, but it is fascinating.
He jumps when he feels a hand on his shoulder.
“Easy,” John says. “Just came to check on you. It’s supper time.”
“It’s half eight. You’ve been at it for nearly twelve hours.”
Sherlock squints at the tiny clock on the desktop. “Ah. Did you get anything from the staff?”
“Don’t think so, but I’ll give you the full account after we eat.”
“Not hungry. I’ll stay here, be up later.”
John puts a hand to his face and pulls it gently towards him, finally forcing Sherlock’s eyes away from the screen. “Have you looked at everything that’s on there?” he asks gently.
John with his dark blue eyes like a storm tossed ocean today, whole self glimmering with care and concern, sometimes he hates the power John has to draw him away from work, even if just for a tiny bit, and make him rest or eat or just stop for a moment, it seems so pointless when there’s something new to learn about, but then he remembers what it was like before and how close he’d come to being lost, and is grateful for what he sees there even if he still resents the interruption…
“All right then. Leave it for now. You haven’t eaten today and we shouldn’t be rude.” He closes the laptop nearly on Sherlock’s fingers, and Sherlock follows him reluctantly into the little dining room.
“You exhumed him from his cave, I’m impressed,” Victor says to John as they enter. Sherlock nods to him with ill humour and sits. “I poked my head in there twice and he didn’t even notice.”
“He’s here under protest,” John informs Victor.
Sherlock glowers and picks at his food, eating just enough to prevent nagging from John. Victor and John and are carrying on a lively conversation that seems to centre around countries they’ve both been to, cuisine, and fishing. Does John even like fishing? He tunes them out, trying to focus on the case, but there’s not much to grab onto at this point. He knows little more of relevancy than he did this morning after inspecting the site.
Victor and John’s chumminess is making him annoyed, even though he’d hoped they’d be friendly, not that he’s jealous, he doesn’t want to be talked to right now anyway and he’s hardly worried about John’s fidelity, it’s just more stressful than he anticipated having the two people who know him the best together at the same time, it’s worse than when John and Mycroft talk about him, at least John is usually hostile to Mycroft on his behalf…
He stands abruptly, halfway through the meal. “Right,” he announces. “I’m going up. John?”
John wipes his mouth quickly and, with a longing glance at his unfinished serving of roast, stands as well. “Um, well, I suppose… good night?”
Victor nods. “By the way, tomorrow’s Sunday so there’ll be church in the little village down the way.”
Sherlock brightens. “Excellent idea. I imagine everyone in the area goes there? If get there around eleven we can catch them coming out. It will make questioning easier, won’t have to track everyone down.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Victor says, giving him an odd look. “Also that’s when I go. To church. So if you’d like to do any questioning of the parish you’ll have to go when I do and sit through the service. There’s only the one car right now.”
How Victor had managed to still be a devout CoE man after all these years is beyond Sherlock, and he positively could not abide it, Victor's piety had been quaint when they were young, but now it seems preposterous, Sherlock had smelled a rat there when he was six and refused to ever go back to Sunday School or Eucharist unless physically dragged, a strategy vindicated as he grew up and discovered the church’s stance on nearly every aspect of his life…
“Absolutely not,” Sherlock says coldly. “We’ll wait outside.”
“Oh, that won’t attract any attention or make anyone suspicious,” John mutters.
Sherlock looks daggers at him and then turns back to Victor. “Then I’ll do it the hard way. Visit everyone separately.”
“As you like,” Victor says with studied indifference. “I’m sure people around here will be more eager to open up the door to a taciturn stranger asking intrusive questions than to speak to a guest of mine who’s just sat through church with them and is chatting over coffee.”
Sherlock has no retort for that and spins on his heel and stalks away, furious. He hears John say, “Sorry, he means… um… we’ll be there,” and then trot after him. He lengthens his stride enough so that he gets to the bedroom door before John can catch him and slams it firmly in his face.
Sorry to anyone who had their comments deleted on chapter 3. I was trying to fix something in there and accidentally deleted the whole chapter and had to re-post. No idea how I managed that! Thanks for your patience!
John barely even pauses before yanking the door open and storming in after Sherlock. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Me?” Sherlock is indignant. “What about you?”
“What about me? Victor’s being completely practical. It will help us with the investigation, he’s not trying to convert anyone – I’m sure he knows you better than that! What’s the harm in sitting through one single service? I’m sure you’ve done it before. When was the last time you went?”
Seventeen, just done with school, only the second time in more than ten years, flowers, distant relatives who didn’t know his name, meaningless chatter about eternity and a better place but he knew what dead was and all the talk in the world wouldn’t change a body rotting in the ground or invoke the help of a god who never existed…
“That is not the point,” Sherlock snaps. “Don’t tell me you’re religious! Of all the feeble-minded things you could believe in, I really thought better of you, John, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised with your level of intellect. Although even you should realise what the church would have to say if they knew everything about your life, and then where would you be?”
“Christ, Sherlock, get a hold of yourself before I punch you,” John barks. “I don’t care how much better insulting me makes you feel, keep speaking to me like that and you’ll have a whole other set of problems.”
John looks dark and dangerous and Sherlock, though still in a rage, backs off minutely. “Then why are you insisting on this? Think I’ll get something out of it, become a better person?”
“Oh, come off it! The only thing I expect either one of us to get out of it is an in with the locals for the investigation. And I’m not insisting on anything other than that you try not to be a unreasonable arsehole to the person in whose home we are currently residing. Or to me, for that matter. Go, don’t go, I don’t care. It’s your case.”
Your case, not our case, he hates it when John does that, it’s like a slap in the face, a denial of their partnership, even though sometimes he himself pushes John off cases out of pique, which he knows John hates even more…
Sherlock says nothing, lips pressed together, balanced on his toes by the window like he’s ready to fight or run.
“And since you were so kind in asking,” John continues bitterly, “I am not religious. But when I was young my family went every week and our parish was nice. The priest was kind, you got sweets and pages to colour in at Sunday school, and there were picnics and fundraisers for good causes. It was a good thing for the community, brought people together. Remember, I’ve seen first hand what religious extremism brings, but this is hardly it.”
“What would your kindly vicar say if you turned up with me in tow then?”
“Mazel tov, probably. Liberal city parish.”
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Not that liberal, not really. The official line still calls for repentance of pretty much everything you and I have ever done, together or separately. But that is miniscule beyond the problem of attempting to use an eclectic set of ancient and mistranslated mythology to construct a code of conduct that flies directly in the face of every known fact of human nature, and then thinking you can apply that to people en masse to convince them to believe in a deity there is no evidence of, with the threat of an eternity in agony as a stick and the promise of intangible rewards after death as a carrot! I had that worked out by the time I could read picture books. It’s a method of control, nothing less.”
Doesn’t matter how many bake sales or visits to the poor or fundraisers for a new firehouse, he could never see religion as innocuous, it’s just a way to manipulate people, to stop them from thinking for themselves, to allow them to feel better than others and give them false hope to distract them from their miserable lives, he had never wanted any part of it and resented every single time he was made to participate, and that was before all the hours and weeks and months Mummy had spent begging an imaginary deity for her life, as their priest promised her a bright future in heaven and her body wasted away…
John frowns. “Are you quite done? Because I believe the topic was whether you could or could not manage to sit quietly in a church for forty-five minutes, and not the premise of all world religions or the existence of a god.”
“Well, I’m making it the topic. Do you believe in god?” Sherlock practically spits the question at John.
“Does it matter? Would you lose all respect for me and walk out the door if I said I did?”
“It does matter. I should know if you do.” Sherlock is attempting to rein himself in now but it is going poorly, he realises.
John sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “I’ve seen far too many terrible things to be able to hold onto the notion of a loving creator or an all-powerful being of some kind, because if god exists and that’s the sort of thing he or she allows then I wouldn’t want to know. And I’m a rational man and a scientist. The supernatural doesn’t make sense to me.
“But when I think about meeting you, I hate to imagine that was just an accident, that if you’d been working elsewhere that day or I’d been slower on my walk through the park that we never would have known the other existed. It feels impossible that such an important thing should hang on such trivial circumstances. It feels like we have to mean more than that, like there had to have been a reason beyond coincidence. And when I think about… the end…whenever it comes, I have to hold on to some glimmer of hope, delusional though it might be, that we won’t be just gone, separated, non-existent forever. I need to believe there could be something for you and me after this, together, because it’s the only way all the risks we take are bearable for me.”
The end, he hates to think about it, the final problem, more than just an academic exercise now, the thought of nothingness never bothered him but the inevitable separation is terrifying, even though it shouldn’t matter if nothingness really is all there is, he’d never know the difference, but it still frightens him to imagine any sort of existence without John and he hates that it does….
Sherlock swallows, all his anger gone. He moves closer to John, who is visibly upset.
“Okay,” he tells John almost meekly.
“Okay, I can accept that. Okay, I’ll go tomorrow. Take your pick.”
John lets out a long, weary breath and nods. “Good.” He sits on the bed and Sherlock sits beside him.
“John, I…” he begins, not really sure how he’s going to finish that sentence.
John shakes his head. “It’s over.”
“I was harsh.”
He sidles closer to John, but doesn’t touch him.
“I’m still angry,” John tells him and he nods. They sit quietly for a few moments, and then John seems to make a conscious effort to shake it off.
“Now,” he says with false cheer. “Do you want to hear about the people I talked to today or shall we do another five rounds on theology?”
Sherlock is careful to listen attentively to John’s rundown of the interviews instead of bombarding him with questions and interruptions as he usually would do. He is not entirely above the concept of penance, although he’s aware it’s a meagre measure.
“The only one who seemed at all unusual was the groundskeeper. The housekeeper was unfriendly, but straightforward about it and seems very loyal to Victor. The groundskeeper, Hobbes, is a local though – he kind of came with the castle – and seems to regard Victor as an interloper. He wouldn’t answer any of my questions directly but was only too happy to hold forth on his opinion of the restoration project and the archaeologists and tourists who were going to tramp all over his land. I couldn’t tell if he had something to hide or just doesn’t like outsiders. There seems to be a lot of that in this area. He could want to sabotage Victor to make him give up and leave, but it seems like there are easier ways to do it. And he’s old – in his seventies and not healthy. He’d need help, a lot of it.”
But he might know the place better than anyone, the history, the tunnels, the ins and outs of every passageway, living there his whole life, feeling proprietary about the building and the land, he certainly is a decent candidate if it weren’t for his frailness, perhaps he knew secrets he had passed them on to someone else…
“A possible, if unlikely, suspect, then. What about the stone mason? He’s got the skill set.”
John shakes his head. “He loves old castles and churches like most people love their children. He was almost in tears to talk of the missing stones, how perfect an example of early Norman technique it was, what a loss to the structure.”
“And the apprentices?”
“I didn’t know it was possible to be a geek about stonework, but apparently it is. They’re absorbed. And I asked around and all the other workers are regularly accounted for at The Heath and Holly, drinking their pay away. Including the night of the last disappearance.”
“So, we’ll keep an eye on the groundskeeper then but see what we can learn tomorrow from the local populace. Hopefully some of Victor’s tenants will be there as well. Anything else?”
“Nothing that struck me. I’m done in though.” John did look worn and a little grey, very dim and subdued still. “Are you going to go back to your research or…?”
He really should, but there might not be much more to glean from the files and he’s reluctant to leave John after the row, not sure if he’s been forgiven yet or not…
“No, I’ll stay here… if… it won’t bother you.”
John nods and smiles a little, tiredly. They get ready for bed without speaking and settle under the heavy coverlet, John in his usual position, half on his stomach, half on top of Sherlock with his head just in the crook of Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock relaxes automatically, an almost Pavlovian response to the feel and smell of John against him, allowing him to let go of all the Not Good things he’d felt and said. But he still needs to make it up to John somehow, give him something in return for his patience.
“John?” he says at last, before his friend’s breathing slows into slumber.
“I think about it too. What might have happened if we had never met. And what will happen. The end. I can’t bring myself to believe the things you do, even a little. But you’re the one with the heart… if you want to believe it for both of us, I wouldn’t object.”
He can feel that John is surprised, but he only says, “All right, Sherlock,” and squeezes his arm very tightly.
Sherlock doesn’t sleep that night, turning the facts over and over in his mind, but laying there with John is restful, and by the time morning comes his excitement for the case has returned and he’s almost eager to get to the church and start canvassing for suspects. He asks Victor to keep the reason for their visit quiet, but Victor only laughs. “Do you think there’s a single person with in 50 kilometres who doesn’t already know who you are, why you’ve come, and what your shoe size is? Visitors are the ripest gossip.”
Corvin Village barely deserves the name, consisting only of a stone chapel, a small shop selling necessities that doubles as a post office and petrol station, and a few houses clustered around. They are nearly late, so there is no time for chit-chat, although judging by the smiles and waves from many of the congregants as they slide in to Victor’s pew he is quite popular with the locals.
Of course he would be, he seems effortlessly at ease in this setting, as does John, Sherlock sticks out like a sore thumb with his city clothes and strange face, one that couldn’t possibly belong here…
Sherlock attempts to blend in as much as possible, appearing to look intently at the hymnal John holds up for them, although not actually singing. Instead he uses it as a chance to survey the crowd. Several people jump out at him as having something to hide, although that’s no sure sign of guilt in the case. Church is enough to put anyone on guard and there are plenty of other crimes a person could have committed.
He stands and sits as others do, though he will not kneel, and tries to block out the words of subjugation and praise, faith and supplication. He can feel himself growing agitated by the rituals, the mindless, pointlessness of it all and by the time of the homily he is almost crawling out of his skin in his efforts to stay silent and still, appear a normal church-goer. The priest drones on about self-sacrifice, resisting temptation, and the consequences of failing to do so.
He feels wound tighter than a spring, especially once the priest begins to go into specifics, and feels the compelling desire to stand up and denounce the entire Church of England, and every other religion, loudly and in great detail, deconstructing every false ideology he has heard this morning (he’s counted twenty seven so far).
How are Victor and John so relaxed, how can they even be here, both moderately intelligent men, both essentially good in a way that Sherlock can never be, listening to a stranger telling them they are evil at heart, that they should renounce so many of the things that make them good for an arbitrary standard of holiness, what if they actually believe what is being said, what does that mean for Sherlock, does John think somewhere deep inside that what they have is wrong…
John senses Sherlock’s mounting discomfort and shifts a little closer to him. He doesn’t say anything but hands Sherlock a little scrap of paper upon which he’s scribbled several verse references: Song of Solomon 5:16; 6:3; 7:10.
Intrigued and temporarily distracted, Sherlock pulls the Bible out of the pew in front of him and looks up the scriptures.
“His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether desirable. This is my lover and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem… I am my lover’s and he is mine; he browses among the lilies… I belong to my lover and his desire is for me.”
Shocked, he looks at John, who gives a little smile and takes his hand. “When I was a teenager I used to look for all the naughty bits when I was bored,” he whispers very quietly. “It’s not all bad. Comes quite in handy, really.”
Sherlock feels some of the tension leave him and focuses on John’s hand in his. He still feels somewhat under attack, but is warmed by John’s stubborn loyalty to him, even here.
My lover, my friend, the beauty of reciprocal possession, ancient words alive in them today, he doesn’t even mind the sentimental streak in John that offered up those passages to him because it really is so apt, so pleasing that John thinks such things and to have John by his side burning as brightly and steadfastly as a lantern in the night, those words were almost worth having come here…
At last the ordeal is over, and they are released outside for coffee and baked goods set up on little folding table. No one seems in a hurry to leave; it’s likely this is the main social event of the week for many of the more rural families. Sherlock and John sip their coffee in silence as Victor speaks briefly to the priest. Sherlock observes the movements and interactions around him silently, taking mental notes, and he can tell John is doing the same beside him, though likely missing much.
Snippets of conversation drift by, mainly about children, livestock, crops, the upcoming fair, and a large amount of inconsequential gossip. Suddenly, he hones in on a group of men not far from them, catching just part of a sentence.
“…and I don’t care whether ‘tis a prank or a crime or an act o’ God, I don’t know why he thinks he needs to bring a couple o’ London queers in to sniff around our business – he should keep ‘is own house in order…”
Sherlock tenses instantly. From John’s sudden change in attitude Sherlock can tell he heard it too, and is about to do something lovely and foolish. Sherlock’s tempted by the potential enjoyment of letting him go off, despite the damage it would likely to do to their investigation.
John flares with anger, sodium dropped into water, it’s electrifying for Sherlock when he’s like this, because Sherlock knows it’s for him alone…
Before he can decide what to do or John can rip anyone a new arsehole, Victor materializes and steps smoothly into the group, motioning to Sherlock and John to follow. “Good morning, gentlemen,” he says pleasantly. “Have you met my very good friends? They’re staying with me and helping with my little mystery. I certainly would hope they would receive the same kind of welcome and respect you all are always so kind in extending to me.” He smiles at them, assured and unblinking, a confident alpha dog commanding by sheer force of personality.
After a long moment of uncomfortable silence, the men back down, shamed, and mumble greetings to Sherlock and John, avoiding eye contact, before they disperse.
“I apologise for that,” Victor tells them gravely. “I’m afraid many people out here are not very open minded. You shouldn’t have much more trouble though – word gets around. Here, let me introduce you to some people you may wish to meet.”
He’s been called worse, much worse, but it does resonate deeper now, insulting them is so very different than insulting just him, he’s used to being a target, hardly notices, but now he’s hyperaware of every unfriendly look and whispered slur they get, in London or out of it…
Sherlock shakes off the encounter quickly, though John retains a distinct aura of wariness, standing beside him with an expression as if daring anyone to say a word. Sherlock puts on his most convincing and friendly normal-person persona, nudging John as he does. He appreciates the defensiveness, but it won’t exactly help people open up to them. Reluctantly John relaxes and lets his usual open and harmless demeanour return, but remains on alert.
Victor introduces them first to Mr. Dinkins and his son, both of whom have such thick local accents Sherlock can barely understand them. The elder Dinkins is a gnarled old specimen, aged and wiry, but looking like he could probably lift twice his own weight for all of that, while the son is a hulking man who appears to have the approximate IQ of a baked potato. Neither show any interest or ability to converse beyond farming and the weather, and Sherlock dismisses them as suspects immediately. Their family may have been attached to the land for centuries, but they appeared untroubled by any change of ownership provided they were not disturbed in their work.
How could anyone stay in one place for so long, doing the same thing generations before had done, never moving, never changing, any reasonable person should go mad with boredom, of course Sherlock would stay in London for a thousand years if he could, but London is always new and changing, it’s not the same from one day to the next…
“Do you need to meet Suzie and Cora? They don’t attend, but I can drive you up to meet them after this,” Victor offers.
“You said they moved in four months ago, but the first incident was six months ago, correct? No need, then.”
Victor nods. “Right. Ah, Mr. McKellig, come and meet my house guests!”
A dark haired, barrel-chested man in his early sixties lumbers amiably over to them.
“This is Dr. Watson and –”
“Sherlock Holmes,” Sherlock offers with a high-wattage smile, shaking his hand heartily.
Large rough hands, calloused but not from farming, weather-beaten face, tattoos in a Bantu language, hair cut short, distinct pipe tobacco scent, clothes un-ironed but clean…
“Navy man, I see. Lots of time around Africa, I presume?”
McKellig looks startled. “That’s right, Mr. Holmes. Sir Victor been telling you about me?”
“Not at all. Ship’s engineer, am I correct?”
“More’n thirty years,” he says proudly. “But got too much for my back and knees to be crawling all around like that.”
“What brings you to farming? Quite a leap from a sailor. Did you grow up on a farm? I’ve always had a fancy to try it myself, but I’m afraid I don’t have the fortitude of a man like yourself.”
McKellig grins at the flattery. “My grandparents farmed this land, but they died when my mother was a baby. I got no people left, so I figured I might as well do what I could with the family legacy.”
“Well, best of luck to you,” Sherlock tells him, shaking his hand again and waiting for him to turn away before he lets the fake expression of friendliness slide from his face.
Strong man, some connection to the land, but not to the people around here, they’d be viewing him as an outsider, he’d still need help, seemed like he put most of his energy into his farming, definitely kept to himself…
Sherlock mentally places him in the same category as the groundskeeper; a suspect but not a strong one. The crowd is beginning to thin out now, and Victor excuses himself for a brief talk with the deacons about some upcoming event or other, while John heads for the loo. Sherlock doesn’t spot anyone else who seems to be worth interviewing, so he goes and waits impatiently by the car. As soon as he reaches it, a thin blonde man, perhaps in his early forties, makes a beeline for him. Sherlock had seen in him the service and marked him as one of the ones with something to hide.
Not farm folk, he’s got all the signs of an educated, indoorsy man, a scholar, he squints at the sun like it’s unfamiliar, awkward in his own skin, but determined about something…
“You’re staying up at the castle, aren’t you? With Mr. Trevor,” the man says without preamble.
“Well, I think the whole thing is a travesty. Turning an historical landmark like that into a circus for tourists.”
“And you are?”
“Andrews. Jacob Andrews of the Northumberland Society for Historical Preservation.”
“I assume that’s different than the Northumberland Historical Society?” Sherlock drawls, amused.
Andrews all but snarls at the mention. “Very. Those sods only care about economic development, they have no appreciation of true history. If they did, they wouldn’t be supporting Trevor’s ‘reconstruction’ plan, which is really just a veiled excuse to turn Corvin Castle into a money-making enterprise to exploit the history of the country for his own gains. He’s literally steam-rolling over thousands of years of English heritage, and the government and their toadies are all too happy to let him do it. Ruins like Corvin castle need to preserved in their current state, carefully studied by professionals, and protected. Not tarted up and rented out to the highest bidder!”
This is intriguing, not everyone in the county is cheering Victor’s efforts, puts a new twist on the whole thing, a motive, if not for Andrews then for others like him, he looks far too unathletic to attempt it himself, but presumably he is not the only member of his society…
“I see,” Sherlock says carefully. Andrews has gone red with anger during his little speech. “And you’re telling me all this because…?”
“I have little hope of anyone being able to persuade him to change course now, but if you really are his friend perhaps you can make him see the folly of it. If he is a true history lover, he must realise it will only end in disaster and the loss of precious data about our predecessors. Good day, Mr. Holmes.”
The other man stalks off, just as Victor returns.
“Oh Lord,” he moans. “He got to you, didn’t he? He’s a determined bugger, I’ll give him that. He’s been trying to stop my restoration project since the day I bought the property.”
“Why didn’t you mention him before?” Sherlock asks sharply. “I asked about enemies and people with interest in the castle. He seems to qualify as both.”
“He’s not an enemy, he’s an annoyance.”
“He might say differently. You should have told me.”
Victor sighs. “Probably,” he agrees. “But frankly I try to put him and his people out of my head as much as possible. They’ve been quiet lately, I was rather hoping he’d given it up.”
Not a man to give things up, that one, not any more than Victor or Sherlock himself, he bears investigating more deeply, but interviews won’t do any good, man like that’s bound to have a paper trail though…
“Hmm…” says Sherlock, but doesn’t elaborate.
John still hasn’t returned. “I’m sorry again if that was uncomfortable for you. Church. I know you never liked it,” Victor says.
“It’s fine,” Sherlock says tightly. “I just don’t… Never mind.”
“No, tell me.”
“I don’t understand how you can still believe in any of it, how you can tolerate sitting there week after week, listening to that rubbish!”
“It’s not completely rubbish,” Victor replies mildly. “No one is more aware of the flaws of the Church of England or organised religion as a whole than me. But I find comfort in my faith. It makes me a better man, it gives me something to strive for. The lessons of community, of caring for others, of generosity and kindness and responsibility, the sense of something greater than myself. It means something real to me. I know you don’t understand it, and that’s fine. But it works for me.”
“And what about the judgement and doctrine of hell and the misogyny and the condemnation?”
Victor shrugs. “Nothing is perfect. I take what I need and let the rest go.”
Sherlock marvels at his ability to remain unscathed by negative teachings, completely faithful yet totally unburdened by any guilt or shame the church would try to impose upon him, absorbing the good and rejecting the bad, Sherlock will never understand how he manages it, even after leaving as a child he had still been infected by the poison of it through his family, conduits of its harmful doctrines, ideas that took years to be free of even after dismissing them as ludicrous with his rational mind…
John rejoins them shortly. “Well, now what?” he asks brightly, seeing that Sherlock has something in mind.
Sherlock quickly shoves the bad memories away and refocuses on the case. “I need you to find out everything you can about Jacob Andrews and the Northumberland Society for Historical Preservation. Victor and I – and anyone else he can spare – are going to go look for secret passages.”
Sorry for how long this one is - this is the chapter that pretty much earns the story its rating. Have fun, kids!
They drop John in Berwick-Upon-Tweed to see what he can dig up.
“It’s Sunday afternoon,” Victor points out. “The hall of records will be closed.”
“Who’s in charge of it?” Sherlock asks.
“I don’t know, early thirties?”
“I’ll bet you a fiver John can get her to let him in.”
John stifles a laugh and Sherlock frowns. “Into the files, John, don’t be childish.”
John has the sense of humour of an eleven-year-old boy, which Sherlock usually enjoys, but his patience is limited after the morning, references to John’s heterosexuality make him edgy, he’s happy to use his friend’s powers of flirtation to his advantage, doesn’t like the thought it might go further, even in jest…
Upon return to Corvin Castle, Sherlock immediately rounds up all the current house staff, even the less-than-eager Mrs. Pershing and gives them their marching orders.
“We’re going through the whole place systematically, even the upper floors. Starting at the top and working into the underground levels. I want you to check every wall, every brick, every cupboard, nook, staircase, or lose stone. Touch everything, press it if it can be pressed, wiggle if it can be wiggled. Anything that opens or moves that shouldn’t, come get me and Victor immediately.”
They obey reluctantly, except for the cook’s son, Justin, who seems quite excited by the whole thing. But after six hours of exhaustive sweeping, even his enthusiasm is dimmed. Everyone is dusty, ill tempered, and frustrated, including Sherlock. Victor did discover one unknown door, but it only leads from his study to the pantry.
“Useful for late night snacking, but not exactly what we’re looking for,” he comments.
Sherlock finds a panel leading to an old dumbwaiter, but the staff already knew about it and it’s blocked up on the other end. Nothing that goes down into the sublevels, much less underneath the foundations. By the time John returns, Victor and Sherlock are weary and discouraged, slumped so low in their chairs at the table that they threaten to sink right out of them.
John’s arrival injects a little energy into the scene. He bounds in and sets into a roll while they wait for supper.
“Aren’t you both cheery! I guess if you don’t want to hear what I found out today…”
Sherlock jerks upright. “Tell me, now!”
“All right, I’m going to, calm down,” he says grinning like a cat.
He gets so smug when he knows something Sherlock doesn’t, likes to string him along, make him wait until he knows Sherlock is about to snap, it’s insufferably cocky, as if the case didn’t get him wound up enough…
John takes another bite of his roll, basking in Sherlock’s glare. “Well, it seems Mr. Andrews is not only outspoken with his views regarding historic building preservation, he’s also highly litigious. He’s launched suits against Victor, against British Heritage, even against the Northumberland Historical Society. Not only that he’s petitioned Parliament directly to intervene and declare the property protected, he even went as far as to try to get it declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The man does not quit!”
Sherlock turns sharply to Victor. “Did you know about any of this?”
Victor looks sheepish. “I knew there were some legal issues from Andrews’ group, but I let my solicitor handle all that. Besides he wasn’t likely to get anywhere, I have all the proper clearances and permits and I own the building and land outright.”
“Idiot! Don’t you pay attention to what goes on under your own nose? How can you expect me to help you if you aren’t even interested in your own affairs?!”
Victor’s hackles rise. “I pay attention to plenty, I’m sorry I can’t memorise every little detail of everything that happens in each of my investments for your convenience. I have quite a few things on my plate as you may have noticed!”
“Daft pillock! You could have saved us days.”
Victor shows all the signs of being about to go into a sulk to rival any of Sherlock’s, opening his mouth to retort, but John jumps in first. “Christ, not you too. Would you both like to continue squabbling like overgrown schoolboys, or did you want to hear the rest of what I have to say?”
They both quiet, although Victor still is looking at Sherlock resentfully.
“Good boys,” John says sarcastically. “Now, what’s really interesting is that in the most recent suit filed by Andrews, as part of his evidence that Victor is not a responsible guardian for such an important location, he cites the first missing stone from the foundation, claiming that you are causing or allowing damage to the original structure. That suit was amended two and a half weeks ago to include the loss of the second stone.”
He knew about the theft, but did he know early or was he just quick on the draw as soon as the gossip got around, either way he’s got motive, he’s got knowledge of the castle, he’s a desperate man, desperate men make mistakes and Andrews seems to have made a big one…
Sherlock’s bad temper vanishes. “Now we’re on to something – maybe sabotage, or maybe he knows something about the structure that’s made him frantic to stop Victor’s restoration lest he find whatever’s there before Andrews can extract it! We’ll start tailing him first thing in the morning, see who he talks to, who his accomplices might be – he can’t have done it alone. Twenty-four seven until we’ve got him red handed or we rule him out.” He rubs his hands together eagerly. “I’ve thought of something as well. I looked at the pattern of the thefts and, aside from seeming to get closer together, they all happened on completely dark nights. No stars and no moon visible. Tomorrow night will be a new moon and complete cloud cover is forecasted. I think our culprits will strike then.”
That had come to him hours ago, while inspecting the dustier corners of the wine cellar, he’d been waiting for a suitably dramatic time to reveal it, got to have an audience or what’s the point, besides it’s more exciting now that they have a strong suspect, he’s quite pleased with himself and at least John looks a little impressed…
“So soon?” asks Victor, interested despite his vexation. “And won’t they have their guard up since you’re here?”
“The criminals could have two responses to my being here. To go to ground and hope we don’t find whatever it is they are taking the stones for and recover them. Or to speed up and risk it right under our noses, out of fear of the lose of their prize. I’m betting the latter – obviously the stones are extremely valuable to them for some reason and they’ve gone to so much trouble, they won’t stop now even knowing they’re being investigated. And following Andrews through tomorrow night will likely enough take us to his partners and the stolen blocks.”
“Mmm,” says John, his mouth full. “One problem. Andrews is going out of town tomorrow midmorning. Mary – Ms. Dorsing – told me that when I was asking about him.”
“He may just be trying to provide himself with an alibi while his associates do the dirty work. He’s certainly not physically strong enough to be of much use in actually moving them. John, first thing in the morning I want you to go into town again. Don’t let him out of your sight until you can confirm that he’s actually gone. He may talk to his people before he goes if they are planning a job tonight. Then try and find out if he was out of town for the other thefts, and if he knew about them before other people in town did. Find out who he’s been talking to – break into his house and office if you have to.”
John knows what to do, give him a mission and he’s like a pit-bull, won’t let go until he’s gotten every required piece of data, even if he can’t put it together himself, a reliable recorder and investigator, Sherlock no longer has to waste time and space on his hard drive for logistics and trivia…
“Sherlock are you sure that’s necessary? Or wise…?” Victor protests.
“Absolutely,” Sherlock hisses, and John nods reluctantly.
“Don’t worry, I’m getting practised at this part, God help me.”
Talk turns to other things while they eat their dinner. Sherlock, in an exuberant mood now that they have a solid lead, helps himself to inhuman portions of chicken and mash. Victor eventually puts his hurt feelings aside and the meal is relatively merry, though they all call it an early evening. John heads straight for bed, exhausted, while Sherlock stays up poring over the pictures of the legal briefs John snapped with his phone.
The next morning John sets out at the crack of dawn, leaving Sherlock with maddeningly little to do until he reports in. He would have gone with, but he is much more noticeable and out of place – John can nearly pass for a local. Frustrated, he spends several hours examining the foundation again, looking for a pattern in the disappearances, an overlooked way of removing them, or anything that would indicate why those particular ones and not others. He checks the untouched ones for signs that they might be loose or marked in some way and comes up empty.
“No luck?” Victor says from behind him, on his fifth pass around the building.
Sherlock doesn’t deign to respond.
“If you’ve gone about as far you can for the moment, I thought you might like to come down with me to see the hives,” Victor says, almost shyly. “I remember you used to be fond of bees. Are you still?”
Surprising that Victor recalls this, he did used to talk about them but not all the much, bees are fascinating creatures, small, powerful, there are endless things to learn about them but once you do they are refreshingly predictable, bees have rules and logic and can be figured out, made sense of, while still retaining new secrets to learn…
“I’ve written a treatise on techniques to domesticate and interbreed novel Apis species and subspecies to strengthen the existing domesticated genetic pool as well increase honey production, taste, and hive hardiness. It also includes a detailed section on innovative hive designs for the hypothetical crosses.”
“So that’s a yes then?”
Sherlock nods, then narrows his eyes. “But you were never interested in bees. In fact, you were frightened of them.”
Victor shifts from one leg to the other. “Perhaps you inspired me. Anyway, it’s healthy to face your fear. Do you fancy a look or not?” He seems eager to move away from the topic of the past.
Sherlock agrees and follows Victor down a path past the stables to a very modern and well laid out group of hives. He soon finds himself absorbed by the swarms, occasionally asking Victor a question about their age or production quantity but spending far more time observing out loud and lecturing on ways Victor could improve the health and output of his hives.
Victor seems happy to let him talk and advise, looking on proudly and a little wistfully. Before Sherlock knows it more than two hours have passed. He is enthralled – he still devotes time to his apiculture studies, but actual bees are few and far between in London, much less established colonies – and is only distracted from his inspection by the distant sound of car that could only be John returning.
His attention snaps back to the case instantly, John’s back with news, they can make progress, talking honeybees with Victor is pleasant enough but could never match that expectant feeling he got when truly working…
“Thank you, that was most enlightening, I’ll send you some of my notes when I get back to London,” Sherlock calls to Victor as he sprints away up the path, leaving his host behind.
Sherlock and John reach the top of the drive at approximately the same time, and Sherlock barely waits for John to get out of the car before peppering him with questions.
John shakes his head, “Nothing new or suspicious. He got up, had breakfast, went to his office and did some work that was completely unrelated to this property, and then got on the train heading for Cornwall. He may be involved, but he certainly didn’t show it this morning.”
Sherlock swears. “Nothing to do but wait until tonight, then.”
“Wait for what?” Victor asks, finally having caught them up at his more sedate pace.
Sherlock fills him in. “Tonight we’ll all stand watch and see if we can’t catch the thieves in the act.”
“Victor, are you feeling all right?” John asks suddenly. “You look a bit pale and…” he stops mid-sentence with an indecipherable expression.
Sherlock looks at Victor. He does appear wan, especially for someone who had just had brisk walk in the open air. And his usual effervescence is dampened.
He’d seemed normal a moment ago, or had that been hours, had he gotten bored with staying so long at the hives, perhaps Sherlock had said something unkind about his skills as an apiarist, but he’d just been trying to help him improve, maybe he was getting ill, but if Sherlock was pressed to guess he’d say he was sad, though why he should be when they finally have a plan of action he couldn’t tell...
Victor waves off John’s concern. “Stayed up too late reading last night. So what do we do until dark?”
“There’s nothing to be done,” Sherlock says reluctantly, already dreading the coming idleness. “Just wait.”
Suddenly an idea occurs to him about what could possibly occupy the time and he moves to subtly hook a finger through John’s belt, his usual signal when others are around, but John sidesteps him gracefully without even a look.
Sherlock is bewildered by this, he’d thought a sunny afternoon in bed would be agreeable to both of them, certainly would pass the time, John almost never refuses him unless he’s picked a wildly inappropriate setting like a crime scene, even then there’d been a few times, he can’t imagine what’s wrong with now, clearly he’s missed something…
“Any suggestions for things we might want to see in the area?” John asks, a bit louder than his normal tone.
“Well, this is the prettiest time of year up here,” Victor says. “If it were me visiting I’d take a little trek in the countryside. The flowers are all blooming and the weather is supposed to stay fine til this evening.”
John nods. “What do you say, Sherlock? It could helps us get a good idea of the terrain around here, might be useful if we have to hunt for or pursue our suspects. Call it a scouting mission?”
Sherlock agrees with bad grace. John has a point. Plus Sherlock knows when he’s outnumbered, and he doesn’t exactly thrill to thought of sitting about inside if John’s not interested in other distractions. He supposes there are worse things than walking.
John’s rejection still stings, but he can hardly throw a fit over it here, besides he needs to work off the unreleased tension he’s now stuck with somehow…
He becomes aware that John is looking at him strangely. "Why is there a bee in your hair?"
After a quick lunch they set out and ramble in silence, heading westward towards and eventually across the road.
“Why didn’t you want me to touch you this morning?” Sherlock asks suddenly, as they pause near an elm tree in the middle of the meadow they’re crossing. It’s warm here away from the shore, warm enough that Sherlock has left his coat for once and has his shirtsleeves rolled up the heat.
John sighs and rubs the back of his neck, which is beginning to tan again after only a few days here. “I just don’t feel right about flaunting it.”
“Us. In front of Victor.”
Sherlock is puzzled. “You seemed more than eager to flaunt it when we first arrived,” he points out.
“Well, that was before I knew the situation.”
“But I told you that was ages ago.”
“Yes, but did occur to you that when an old flame contacts you and asks to see you after many years, he might just be harbouring the hope that you are still unattached and if you give him no sign otherwise might reasonably expect to… rekindle… upon your meeting?”
“Not…until just now,” Sherlock answers honestly.
His mind is so full of John, only John, all the time that he sometimes forgets that it’s not as obvious to others as he thinks, feeling like he goes about with a lit sign over his head that says “John Watson” that anyone should be able to read, even over email, so he forgets to mention their relationship at all, because it seems completely redundant…
“I thought as much. Victor has been extremely kind since we’ve got here, but I’m sure he’s disappointed and I don’t want to throw anything in his face when he’s being such a good host. He’s an honourable man, and he’s done nothing wrong.”
Victor is an honourable man, always has been, even before he was really a man, his mother raised him to a be gentleman in the way that has nearly passed out of society in the modern time, noble and self-sacrificing and courtly and not the least bit arrogant about any of it, Mummy had tried with him and Mycroft, but it had never taken, not with him at all, and with Mycroft only enough to allow him to fake it when it suited his purposes…
A mutual respect and understanding has developed between Victor and John over the last few days, both sharing a strict moral code, a basic goodness, and, apparently, a heretofore unknown love of fishing which Sherlock does not even begin to comprehend. It makes him just the smallest bit nervous.
“Just next time it comes up,” John continues, “you may wish to make it a little more clear ahead of time that you’re taken.” He grins. “I don’t want anyone getting any ideas.”
“But there is no one else,” Sherlock says calmly.
John raises an eyebrow. “No one? Ever? But you said you had…”
“Well, yes, that… there was a fair bit of that in my last two years at uni and shortly after when… things were Not Good. But there was no one in particular, it was just relief, gratification, convenience, and, usually, anonymity. And I told you, no proper shagging. That’s only been you, ever.”
John looks a little stunned, though Sherlock isn’t sure why. He’s told him as much before, but maybe John hadn’t believed him or had thought that even if he was telling the truth there had to have been at least one partner in there who he’d cared about enough or at least been with long enough to qualify them as an ex. But there hadn’t been.
He’d never wanted anyone like he’d wanted John, not even Victor, with him it had been so new and wonderful to find a companion, he’d hardly thought to want more beyond the merest scraps of affection and spending nearly every moment together, two motherless boys clinging to each other in a strange place, both still innocent and unexperienced, just grateful to be with each other in any way at all, and with everyone after it had been nothing but physical, and usually fleeting…
“So, there’s no one else in your whole life who could possibly be considered a former lover, no one who was more than just—”
“A Saturday night suck job?” Sherlock finishes, crudely. “No. Not even consistent ones at that, well except I suppose for Seb, but he doesn’t matter.”
“Seb?” John chokes in a suddenly cold and furious voice. “Are you telling me that you… and that… that horrible prick…”
Sherlock immediately regrets mentioning it, but he was trying to tell the truth. He did not factor in the depths of John’s hatred for the man, or the effect that the mention of a physical relationship might have on John. And honestly, he had assumed John had already figured it out – it seemed so blindingly obviously to him whenever they were in each other’s company.
“It wasn’t like that,” Sherlock backpedals. “Well, all right, it was a bit, but we always hated each other, even then. There wasn’t a lot to choose from and he was close by and terrified of it getting out so I knew he’d be discreet. It was simple proximity, just using each other. And then he grew so intolerable I couldn’t even stomach that, so it stopped. He always was a bully.”
Looking back now he can hardly believe he let Seb anywhere near him, he’d had no idea what things could be like with someone who didn’t despise you, it had felt good at the time but now he knows just how much a mockery of real passion it had been, wishes he could delete those memories entirely, but they’re so clear and stubborn they just won’t fade…
John looks faintly nauseous.
“I’m…sorry?” Sherlock attempts.
John shakes his head. “You don’t need to apologise for something that happened years before you met me. Just Seb is so…” He makes a noise of disgust, then reaches out and pulls Sherlock to him, looking solemnly up into the pale eyes.
“I hate the thought of his hands on you,” John tells him with a quiet ferocity. “I hate the thought of anyone’s hands on you except mine, but his most of all. He’s a contemptuous, filthy arsehole and isn’t even worthy of speaking to you, much less… If I could think of a way to get away with it I would erase his existence from earth so thoroughly that not even a memory of him would be left.”
There is genuine bloodlust and fury in John’s eyes, and he’s surrounded by a ring of flame. Sherlock trembles a bit with pleasure at his words, and pushes him back against the tree trunk, feeling the heat of John’s sun-soaked body against his own as he kisses him passionately, like a starving man. He puts his hands to John’s waist as he works his tongue deeper into his mouth, warmth of the sunshine on his back.
John so small and strong and kind and fierce all at once, how could he ever want anything else, if only he’d known years ago that there would be a John he would have waited so patiently...
John returns the kiss with equal fervour, like he is trying to reclaim what is his, and that’s just perfect. But after a few moments, just as Sherlock is contemplating how best to make it up to him, John pulls away.
“Just to be clear here…that’s it, right? There’s no one else I should know about? Innocent romance with Victor, booty call with Seb, then me?”
Sherlock finds John’s possessiveness endearing, but at the moment he’s annoyed by the interruption. “Yes, that’s it.” He adds peevishly, “Shall we talk about yours, too, then?”
He’s surprised when John shrugs. “I suppose it’s only fair.”
Sherlock hadn’t actually wanted to talk about John’s romantic history, he’d wanted to find a way to get him on his hands and knees in the fewest moves possible, and make him forget all about the previous exchange. But now that it’s been mentioned, Sherlock is curious.
“Well, what do you want know?”
John laughs. “That might take too long. Besides, you’ve met some of my exes. You’ve caused some of them, in fact.”
“So, then, how many?” Sherlock asks shortly, wishing he hadn’t started down this road but unable to divert now.
“How many ex-girlfriends? Or how many…total?”
John whistles. “Well… let me think.”
Why should he have to think, is it really that hard to remember sexual partners, even if it was just one time, Sherlock remembers everyone, and there weren’t really that many, even if they were just a passing wank in the night, even if he never knew their name…
“I suppose I can’t give you an exact count but I’d estimate around… 240?” John himself winces as he says it, having never actually calculated before.
Sherlock steps back, horrified. “You think you’ve been with two hundred and forty women? How exactly did you arrive at that sum? They were all women, weren’t they?”
John gives an embarrassed cough. “Pretty much. And I mean…is that really so many? I’m thirty eight now… starting at fifteen that’s…what, an average of fewer than twelve per year, one a month? Of course a few years there was only one and other years… Well, when you’re deployed and you finally get some leave it feels like you have a lot to make up for and there’s beautiful and willing girls in every part of the world I’ve been…” He trails off awkwardly, trying to read Sherlock’s carefully blank expression.
Fifteen! Had Sherlock even been aware of sex as anything other a biological method of reproduction at that age, he’d barely been aware of it at eighteen with a pretty boy right in front of him all year, he’d known John was a ladies’ man but that was an appalling number of conquests, even for a solider, how can he not be jealous after hearing that…
“Two. Hundred. And forty,” Sherlock repeats.
“Give or take.” John is blushing a deep crimson now. “I did have the better part of three continents to get through…”
“I wasn’t aware you were participating in some kind fuck around the world challenge.” Sherlock growls. “And what did you mean by it was ‘pretty much’ all women?”
He wouldn’t have thought it was possible for John to get much redder, but he’s wrong. John shifts, awkwardly, clearly wanting very much to be out of this conversation. “Well…the army… you know. Long, cold nights in Afghanistan, not another soul other than your mates for miles…”
Sherlock is stone-faced, refusing to help him.
“Just a few times…” John continues, fumbling over the words. “Nothing like… with you, not even close, you’re the only one I’ve ever been with like that. Just, as you said… you need relief, and sometimes it doesn’t matter who from. I didn’t really care for it, but there were some stressful and lonely and frightening deployments, and once in a great while it was better than nothing, better than being completely alone. Anyways, that’s all over. That, the women, all of it. Forever.”
John’s devoted to him and clearly enjoys being together, but he often worries if he doesn’t miss being with women, Sherlock’s nothing like a woman at all, wrong parts, all straight lines, no soft curves, no gentle voice, John’s spent so long as a connoisseur of that sex how can he bear to confine himself to one person, a man, permanently, won’t he get bored, won’t he long for what his natural orientation calls him to…
“Are you sure about that?” he asks coldly.
“Sherlock!” John exclaims, offended, and steps closer to him until he can wrap his arms around Sherlock’s slender waist. “I can’t believe you’d ask me that.”
Sherlock doesn’t pull away, but remains unyielding in John’s grasp. “I mean it, John. I’m not saying I doubt you, but you’ve been straight and… lusty… for a very long time and it seems like it might be a lot to give up, particularly forever.”
“Well, now I’m with you and still lusty.” John grins, pulling him closer until their hips are touching. “Seriously, Sherlock. You’ve completely spoiled me for anyone else.”
“I have?” This seems unlikely for a man with so many data points to compare him to.
“Absolutely,” John tells him sincerely. “There’s no one else I could be with – man, woman, or space alien – who could possibly live up to being with you. And I don’t mean just sexually, although yes, definitely sexually. And if there is such a creature I don’t want to know about it.” He goes up on tiptoe and presses his lips to Sherlock’s, who begins to relax, finally, and puts his own hands to John’s shoulders.
“I thought perhaps I was a bit too much,” Sherlock says. “People have often mentioned that was a problem.”
Always too much, too much curiosity, too much danger, too much logic, too much coldness, too much need, too much anger, too callous, too ruthless, too strange, too mad, too terrifying…
John laughs. “Oh, you are way, way, way too much,” he tells him. “Trouble is, after you, no one else would ever be enough.”
With that John reaches up and drags his head down to John’s own mouth and lets Sherlock feel exactly how true that is. Sherlock backs him against the tree again, feeling an urgency inside of him, physically needing to be with John immediately after such an upsetting conversation, to reassure himself, reassure them both. John is instantly keen to his intentions.
“Here and now?” John asks. “Outside, in the middle of the day?”
“Objections?” Sherlock begins kissing the line of John’s jaw very, very softly, with just the barest touch of lips, moving slowly upwards to his ear and into his hairline.
“Not in the least.” John’s voice has gone mellow and breathy now. “I just didn’t think you would want to.”
“Mmm,” replies Sherlock, continuing his slow and sensuous progress, knowing exactly how aroused this can make John, particularly when his hands are preventing John from pressing up against him or returning the affection in any way. “Well, Victor’s not here…”
“No…” agrees John, writhing a little as Sherlock starts working down the other side of his face, still lightly touching him only with his lips.
“And there’s no horde of attractive women here…”
“Not at all… oh!” Sherlock’s reached his neck now and is using a bit more pressure, starting in on the very sensitive skin of his throat, still not allowing him to move or respond.
“In fact I should be surprised if there’s anyone at all within a kilometre of us right now… And as we can’t make any more progress on the case until nightfall…”
John only whimpers as Sherlock sucks on the hollow of his collarbone.
“…it seems like an ideal time to me,” he concludes, coming up for air one last time. He intends begin work on John’s chest, but to his surprise John uses his wiry strength to shove him back, hard. He gets his arms around Sherlock so that when Sherlock stumbles and trips, they both fall, landing on the soft turf tangled up together.
This feels like playing, he’s suddenly light-hearted in a way he’s so rarely been since he was a very young child, at least about anything other than a case, running wild outside without care or supervision, he just barely remembers those days…
Sherlock rolls himself on top of John and looks down at him for a moment, the sandy head against the green grass, the crinkled and trusting face. Down here it smells like hay and clean earth and mint and wildflowers all baked together in the sun. The air is heavy with the fragrance, thick and soporific and so still except for the lazy buzz of a few bees around them.
John smiles up at him, sweetly at first, then with a devilish twinkle in his eyes. He arches up against Sherlock so he can feel quite clearly how hard he’s made him, then pulls Sherlock down to him, hungrily, running his hands across Sherlock’s lean frame. They kick off socks and shoes and John has Sherlock’s shirt off him almost before he has a chance to notice. His bare back is pleasantly hot and he briefly wonders how long it will take for him to burn, then decides he doesn’t care in the least.
Nimble fingers are working on his belt now, as they grind into each other, and Sherlock moans as John gets a hand into his trousers and starts stroking through his pants almost teasingly. Sherlock realises he’s fallen behind and quickly strips off John’s long sleeve tee, very nearly tearing it in his haste to get to John’s chest, that delicious expanse of muscle and silky blonde hair interrupted by two perfect and responsive nipples.
John’s body is endlessly fascinating, from the collection of scars, to the sculpted shoulders and legs, to the slightly rounded softness of his belly, everything is so completely appealing, speaking of courage and strength and comfort all at once…
He cries out softly as Sherlock begins licking first one nipple and then the other, finding himself distracted by the way they tense and relax, go erect or soft, depending on what he does, all the while running his fingers through John’s chest hair. John grips his buttocks tightly, massaging, sending little frissons of pleasure shooting up Sherlock’s spine, and Sherlock shifts so he has one leg in between John’s, straddling his thigh.
He thrusts against John’s hip, thrilling at the friction, while deftly undoing his fly and plunging a hand inside of his jeans and pants, grasping the hard smoothness he finds there and caressing firmly, but very slowly. His lips find John’s again and he sets about invading John’s mouth, tasting coffee and salt, exploring every crevice, seeking out every tooth and tastebud with his tongue.
At last John pulls away enough to pant, “Too many clothes. Off. Now.”
Sherlock agrees, reluctant to stop for even a second, but realising he is closer than he wants to be so soon in the proceedings and trying to pull himself back as they both shuck off trousers and pants. He notices John rummaging in his wallet for a moment before coming up with a small foil packet, grinning.
Sherlock is taken aback. “Do you always carry that with you?”
“Well, I do now,” John tells him, rolling over to face him, the grass around them already thoroughly flattened. “Problem?”
It’s lovely, completely lovely, that John should be so practical, that he should have thought in advance about all the ways and places and times he might be with Sherlock and prepared accordingly, the thought of sex nestled perpetually in a corner of his brain while this is nestled in a corner of his wallet…
“None at all,” Sherlock purrs. He goes to grab it from him, but John is too quick.
“Ah ha, no!” he laughs, holding it out of reach behind his back. “It’s mine so I get to decide what gets done with it.”
Oh, this is interesting. Sherlock had intended on running the show, but John has plans and the thought of finding out what they are is far more exciting than anything Sherlock could possibly have come up with on his own. He subsides, intensely curious as to what happens next. John shifts closer to him, still facing him, so they are almost but not quite touching, laying on their sides as they so often have in Sherlock’s bed. Then he tears open the packet and squeezes some of the contents onto his finger, carefully setting the rest aside.
“Don’t move,” he whispers in Sherlock’s ear. Sherlock shivers in anticipation and John begins to glide his hand over the curve of Sherlock’s arse, as if trying to soothe a nervous steed, gradually moving closer and closer until suddenly he plunges one slicked digit sharply inside of Sherlock.
He gasps, tightening for a moment involuntarily and then consciously relaxes, closing his eyes and letting the brief sting fade as John slowly works his way deeper, moving gently but mercilessly, brushing ever so slightly against his prostate, tender and firm at the same time.
Sherlock wants very badly to touch John, to touch himself, to do anything, but John stops him. “No,” he tells Sherlock in a husky voice as he continues to finger him almost leisurely. “I just want to watch you feel this.”
It’s agonizingly wonderful, both the sensation and that such an idea came out of John’s brain, exquisite torture, to feel so much and be able to do nothing about it, to be observed so closely by someone else, to be terrifyingly vulnerable, unable to hide a single reaction or need or emotion, the bare fact that John wants to know him this intimately and that Sherlock should want to let him…
Sherlock obeys, letting John’s storm-cloud blue eyes rove over him, taking in every catch in his breath, every involuntary buck of his hips, every muscle twitch and pupil dilation and bead of sweat forming on his brow. Never in his life has he allowed himself to be so completely helpless, so fully laid bare and in the power of another, not even a roof or walls to shield him from the world.
He watches John too, despite being nearly unable to cogitate at all, noticing how John’s lips are parted eagerly as he works and watches, how tightly his stomach muscles are contracted as he holds himself back, and how gloriously stiff he is, so close to touching Sherlock’s hip. Sherlock feels the pressure building with every motion of John’s hand and throws his head back, eyes closed and letting out a low guttural moan. He can still feel John’s gaze boring into him.
There is warm humid air on his cheek and he opens his eyes to find their faces only inches apart. “I bet I could make you come with just this one finger,” John breathes.
Given the rising feelings inside of him, Sherlock is not going to argue with that. “We have hours in which to test that hypothesis,” he manages, as a shudder of pure bliss runs through him.
It wouldn’t take hours, it wouldn’t take very much longer, in fact, he’s never considered that such a thing might be possible before, but now he knows it definitely is, even if John Watson is the only man who could manage it…
“Oh no, you’re not getting off that easily.” John laughs at his own terrible pun, radiant in the afternoon light as he slips out of Sherlock and with a wicked grin pushes him onto his back. “I’m not even close to done with you.”
Sherlock is briefly frustrated by this pause, but is soon distracted by the thought of what John might be up to next.
John climbs on top of him, straddling his thighs. “Keep your legs closed,” he murmurs, grabbing the rest of the lubricant and slicking himself thoroughly, languidly, letting Sherlock get a nice, long look. Sherlock’s not sure if the halo around John is from his own brain or the sun behind him, and it doesn’t really matter – either way he looks rather like a minor Greek god shining down on Sherlock.
Slowly, John works his way between Sherlock’s clenched thighs as far as he can manage, holding himself up with his hands on either side of Sherlock’s chest. This is new. He’s never felt anything quite like it before. He stays still as John begins thrust between his legs, in and out, slippery and warm and hard and rhythmic.
“Oh… John,” he whispers, overwhelmed by the novelty and eroticism of it all. He reaches up and puts his hands to the back of John’s neck, burying his fingers in the fair hair and beginning to push back up against John in time to his thrusting, keeping his thighs as tight as he can manage while still allowing John in. John lets out a low, deep throated cry and brushes his lips across Sherlock’s smooth chest.
It’s like being penetrated and yet not quite, something somehow more equal than that, more sensual but no less pleasurable, he had no idea he had so many nerves in his inner thighs, not to mention all the other spots John is hitting, all having been paid more than adequate attention on previous occasions but never eliciting sensations quite like this…
He can feel John sliding easily, smoothly over his testes and even more sensitive parts, feel him begin to swell and shake as he draws near, almost more vividly than if John were actually inside of him. John’s almost there, riding on the very edge, trying to last just a few seconds more.
Sherlock knows that expression of intense concentration and delight, knows the familiar quiver in John’s whole body that takes him right before, and he crushes John to his chest at the exact second, digging his nails into John’s shoulder blades as the smaller man stutters to a stop, pressing his hips hard into Sherlock as the release comes in waves, spilling out hot and sticky and trembling between his legs.
John slowly goes limp on top of Sherlock as it draws to a close, letting out a long breath of relief and pleasure, whispering Sherlock’s name over and over as he covers his shoulder with kisses.
Sherlock is twanging like a violin string tightened to its limits, aching, nerves screaming, waiting for John to release him, knowing that’s what he wants, what they both want. He knows John can feel the tension in every fibre of Sherlock’s body, the need pulsing up from him, and John, blessedly doesn’t make him hold on much longer.
He takes hold of Sherlock with sure, practised hands.
Oh, those hands, hands of a solider and a surgeon and a lover and a friend, they can kill and heal and worship and calm and seem to be doing all of that at once to him at the moment…
John brings him off efficiently, knowing he can’t take much more. As he feels Sherlock’s climax begin, he dips his head down quickly and takes him in his mouth, surrounding him fully, letting Sherlock empty himself into John and then licking him clean with obvious enjoyment, taking in every last drop.
Sherlock collapses bonelessly back into the grass, completely spent, sucking down great gulps of oxygen. John drapes himself back on top of him and they lay like that, wordless and naked in the warm afternoon, unashamed. Sherlock’s mind is completely blank, taking longer than usual to reboot after such a stellar performance.
Eventually the power of thought returns and he notices vaguely that he is dirty and damp and that the foliage is itching at him. Normally this would make him extremely agitated, unable to relax, but he realises with a shock that he doesn’t mind for now. The reassuring pressure of John’s body on his own, the rush of chemicals whose names he can’t quite remember at the moment, the completely bodily exhaustion – it all combines to make him quite content to lay like this for a very long time, with John radiating happiness into him like the embers of a fire.
Nothing feels quite so right as when John is laying on him, completely guileless and affectionate, covering his body with his own, physically letting Sherlock in on what he’s feeling when words would never work, making Sherlock be still, be with him, be present, keeping him from floating away or running off, it quiets both his brain and his body, at least for awhile, at least as much as anything can…
“Mmm…” John says eventually, voice heavy and slow like molasses. “So my dark nebula can survive the full light of day.” He nuzzles into the curve of Sherlock’s neck.
Sherlock is still having difficulty forming sentences. “You were… that was…”
“I was thinking more along the lines of brilliant… revolutionary… apocalyptic…”
“Hmm… I don’t think I’ve had apocalyptic sex before. I would have expected more brimstone and screaming.”
Sherlock lifts his head to look at John solemnly. “I mean it, John. It was so bright I thought I’d never see anything again… I can’t even…” His voice is tender but frustrated, unable to find suitable words.
John smiles. “I know. Me too.” He stretches briefly and settles again. “In case you had any doubts about my ability to be satisfied with you.”
“That was… very creative,” Sherlock adds. “I like it when you’re creative.”
“Oh, good.” John pauses. “Our conversation before… I’m sorry if it hurt you. We probably should have talked about all that a long time ago. But there’s no one for me but you, you believe that, right?”
Sherlock nods. “Yes, John.”
Another pause. “You’re never going to leave me alone with another woman ever again are you?”
“Aside from blood relations, confirmed lesbians, and Mrs. Hudson… No.”
John sits up at that and laughs deeply, throwing his head back and pulling Sherlock up after him. Sherlock can’t help but laugh too, grateful that any bad feelings have been banished.
Even though he knows John never would, he still always fears when they have a row that it might be the last straw for John, that he might just walk away and never come back, that Sherlock has missed something vital in the exchange and make an unforgivable mistake that he’ll never understand…
“We should probably get ourselves together and head back before you burn to a crisp or they send out a search party for us.” John moves to stand but Sherlock catches him with a long arm around his bare waist.
“John, wait…” John looks expectantly at him with honest eyes. “I… I… You’re not just my dwarf star… I think… you’re all the stars, the universe. I don’t think I could…” He trails off, far too deep into unfamiliar emotional territory but desperately needing John to understand, even if he doesn’t really understand himself. John looks confused but pleased and finally, at loss for anything else, Sherlock pulls him back to him and kisses him deeply one more time, hoping that will convey it. John melts into the kiss and looks a little addled when they break apart.
“Yours,” John says simply, squeezing Sherlock’s shoulder one more time before he stands and begins to collect his clothes.
Yes, that would cover it, he wants to say more but he doesn’t know the words, but that’s okay because John knows what he doesn’t say and really everything comes down that anyway…
“Yours,” replies Sherlock gravely, and John gives him the smile that lights up his eyes and takes ten years off his face, reserved only for times he is very happy with Sherlock.
“So, what were we supposed to have been doing all this time?” John asks as they dress, sensing that this is verging on too much for Sherlock and nudging them onto less murky ground.
“Walking tour of the countryside, I think.”
“Well, we certainly didn’t get very far.” John looks at himself and his companion, both completely filthy, sweaty, hair mussed and more than a little pink from the sun. “Maybe we can say we fell in a ditch?”
“That would be a formidable ditch. I believe sneaking in the back before we can be seen is the traditional way of handling these situations."
John agrees, and after making themselves as presentable as feasible, they make their way back towards the castle, comfortably quiet beside each other.
Sorry for the delay, been super busy. Hopefully the rest of the chapters will be quicker!
It seems to take ages for the sun to set, even after trekking back to the castle, taking a long soak followed by allowing John to tend to the friction burns he’s accrued in novel places, and sitting through an agonisingly leisurely supper. Sherlock spends the meal downing cup after cup of strong coffee and Victor and John follow his example, though with the addition of actual food. Even after the sun goes down it won’t be completely dark until almost eleven pm this near to the solstice, but Sherlock wants them in place before then.
He sets each of them a side of the castle to keep watch.
“What about the front?” Victor asks, as he passes around torches and crowbars.
“Stones are different on the facing,” Sherlock says dismissively. “Are you sure Justin has enough attention span to keep his watch?” They had asked him to stay up in the great hall to make sure no one came in that way. Sherlock had discounted it being an inside job almost completely after their search of the building, but one could never be too careful.
It would certainly make more sense but he was almost positive there was no existing way under the foundation from the inside, looking more would be a waste of time, they’d looked for an outdoor entrance too, but fruitlessly, this might be their only chance and he knows the thieves will strike tonight, knows it in his gut, he can feel the victory so close…
Victor nods. “He’s a good lad. He’s proud of the responsibility, he won’t let us down.”
“You think everyone’s good,” Sherlock grumbles, but lets it go.
“Right, so what are these for?” John asks, examining his crowbar. “Can’t say I’m a fan of heavy iron bars these days.” He rubs his lower back, still bruised, ruefully.
“If one of the stones drops down, we jam this into the sliding compartment underneath to stop it from closing completely after it. Then we might have a chance of finally getting into the chamber below. Obviously.”
John rolls his eyes. “Obviously. So now what? We just hide in the tall grass until we hear something?”
“No, the walls are too long, it might be over without anyone hearing a sound if we stay in one place. We’ll have to each patrol our section. Keep your torch off until you really must use it – we don’t want to attract external attention if there’s an associate keeping an above-ground watch and if any light makes it through the cracks while the thief is at work he’ll likely abort before we can work out a way in.”
“How will we see anything?” Victor asks. “After twilight you have no idea how dark it can be all the way out here, particularly on a cloudy night like this.”
“I do,” John says quietly. “You’d be surprised what your eyes can adjust to.”
He imagines John in a dark desert somewhere, even more distant from city lights than here, had he patrolled alone in the pitch black night, had there been nights of a billion stars to walk under, or other nights even darker than these, waiting for an enemy to leap out of the black, he didn’t like to ask but sometimes when John thrashed in his sleep Sherlock knew he was back there and longed to be there with him, to learn what it was like to be that brave, but right now John’s still glowing in the dark, like the northern lights, he doesn’t want him to go out of sight but there’s more important things now…
“Enough talk,” Sherlock cuts in. “Let’s get to our stations. Remember, try to jam up the mechanism before calling out or they’ll know something is up.”
The others disperse. Sherlock’s given himself the eastern side of the castle, facing the ocean, so that he won’t be far from the action if something happens either on John’s or Victor’s side. He starts walking the length of the wall, pacing with slow, measured steps, peering carefully at each foundation block as he passes for any hint of a change.
It’s fully dark now, a darkness Sherlock is not accustomed to, even though his eyes seem to be coping as John had said. It’s never this dark in London, at least not outside. It’s not possible. He knows his friends are only a few hundred metres away, but it feels like he might be the very last person in the world. It feels like the world itself might very well not extend beyond the tiny radius which he can make out dimly around him.
If there was a hell, is this what it would be like, a world of total blackness with only himself and his brain, eating itself alive while things moved in the unrelenting shadow beyond, never to be known or studied, no new data, no new problems, no John, just alone and trapped and forever bored, so bored it should kill him if he weren’t already dead…
A cold fog has moved in, making the experience even more unearthly. He pulls his coat more tightly around him and turns up his collar against the unpleasant moisture trying to seep into his body. He refuses to let his mind wander and falls into an almost trance-like state as he walks up and down his route.
After two hours he finds he’s beginning to tire, both mentally and physically, but reminds himself it’s infinitely preferable to laying motionless on the ground in this weather. And more difficult to accidentally fall asleep. He’s tempted to check on how the others are faring, particularly Victor. John’s used to this, but Victor’s determination might be starting to wane – he’s not accustomed to extended discomfort and Sherlock doubts his fortitude. Still, it’s his home so he ought to be motivated, and calling out or leaving his post to check on him aren’t really options. Sherlock has to content himself with not knowing.
Two more hours pass with equal unpleasantness, although Sherlock supposes the numbness in his extremities is preferable to the original painful cold he had felt. It will be starting to get light again in an hour and a half, and he’s beginning to doubt his estimation of the thieves’ persistence. Maybe they had called it off once they knew he and John were investigating.
It didn’t matter if they’d given up, he’d still find them, he’d still solve it, he wasn’t going to leave this one no matter how ridiculous and hopeless it got, even if he had to spend the next ten years in god-forsaken Northumberland digging out the foundations with a spoon to get the answer…
He’s shaken from his reverie by a shout off to his right – Victor. Instantly alert, he springs in to a run, using the castle wall as a guide to keep from stumbling. John overtakes him in the dark, a bright streak like waving a sparkler in a slow-shutter photograph, navigating almost blindly at a speed that even Sherlock wouldn’t dare under these conditions.
Victor is kneeling on the ground at the base of the wall, near to the front of the castle. There is a gaping hole before him, exactly like the others.
Sherlock swears. “You missed him! That may have been our only chance. Wasted! Why can’t you ever focus?!”
“Sherlock, stop it,” John tells him irritably. “Victor, what happened?”
“I was on the other end of the north side, and I thought I heard something, so I turned around and walked back quickly, just in time to see the lower stone sliding back into place. I wedged the crowbar in there but…” He holds up his tool and Sherlock can just make out that it’s been sheared in half. “That’s when I shouted.”
“That’s more than just man power that did that,” John points out. “They must have some machinery on their side.”
“Quickly, did you hear anything mechanical? An engine, a whirring noise, anything?” Sherlock demands.
“No, just stone against stone. I’m lucky I heard anything at all, the distance I was at. I just can’t believe the whole process took…what? Less than three minutes from the time I left this spot till I returned.”
“Ack, they are right beneath us! We’re missing them, right now, as we speak!” Sherlock shouts, frustration and anger boiling over, pacing in a tight circle before the missing block.
“I know you’re under there,” he yells at the ground. “I can feel you there and this is not the end of it! Fuck!”
So close, so close, failure now is not an option, he should have taken this side, he never would have missed it, he’d have thrown himself down the rabbit hole if that was what it took, let the stones slice him in half, now all he’s got is impotent, useless rage, at the thieves, at the building, at the very stones themselves, at the Norman masons, at himself, at Victor and John and anyone who dared to get within his eye line…
“Sherlock…” John begins, approaching him carefully, as if he were a feral dog. He knows he’s not acting his sanest right now but he hates it when John gives him that look. He hates being handled, even by John, even when he knows he’s being at least vaguely unreasonable.
“Shut up, just shut up,” he barks. “The thieves are literally underneath our feet right now and we can’t do a single thing about it. Probably laughing at my humiliation.” He lets out another impressive stream of curses aimed at the ground and continues his pacing.
“I am going inside.” John says calmly. “I am going to have a cup of tea, a hot shower, and a sleep – and hope that I one day am reunited with the feeling in my toes. If you would like to join me for any of those things, feel free. Otherwise, enjoy stomping in the dark and swearing at the turf in a freezing fog for as long as you like.”
He spins on his heel and walks towards the front of the castle. After a slight hesitation, Victor follows, leaving Sherlock alone.
Good riddance, they were being useless tonight, he shouldn’t be surprised about Victor, but John, even John, he should have managed something, Sherlock doesn’t know what, but John’s the man of action, he ought to have done…
It’s entirely maddening, knowing how close they are, knowing the answer is literally right in front him and being able to do nothing about it. It’s like being deliberately taunted. He is sorely tempted to obtain a backhoe and dig them out like a nest of voles, damage and injury be damned. He needs to know how, he needs to know why, the frustration of the situation overwhelming even his admiration for such an elegant and brilliant scheme.
Slowly, though, his rage recedes, if only due to sheer exhaustion and chill. It is a tad unseemly to be standing outside in the middle of the night screaming at people who may or may not be able to hear him or even still be there. He collects himself with difficulty. It is very cold and he can’t deny he’s reaching the end of how long he can go without sleep and still be effective.
Grudgingly he goes inside and makes his way up to their rooms. He can hear the shower running in the bathroom and the thought of warm water – and warm John – is suddenly very appealing. He strips out of his damp clothes and creeps into the bathroom nearly silently. John jumps with surprise as he slips into the steam-filled shower, but doesn’t order him out. The water is painfully hot on his frozen limbs, but he doesn’t mind.
John likes scalding showers, ones that make your skin feel like it wants to peel off and turn your bones to jelly, he says he’s just grateful for the hot water, that it’s the only way he feels clean sometimes, it’s too hot for Sherlock’s delicate skin, always makes John turn the heat down, but tonight he doesn’t care, likes how much it hurts because it means he hasn’t frozen to death…
John lets Sherlock come up behind him and put his arms around his slippery waist. He’s bright red from the heat, parboiled, and feels almost like a person-sized hot water bottle in Sherlock’s grasp.
“Are you done now?” John asks. “You sure there’s nothing else you’d like to say to the empty countryside? A few more choice words for the local inhabitants? I’m sure they could hear you clear into town.”
Sherlock tries not to bristle at his taunting, unfair though it seems. “I’m done,” he agrees reluctantly, resting his chin on the top of John’s head.
John sigh, patiently. “It shouldn’t be this difficult to stay angry with you. So… what do we try next?”
Sherlock says nothing.
“You don’t know, do you?” John says, turning to face him, catching the look of uncertainty on his face before he can quite hide it away. “Well, never mind that. You’ll figure it out after you’ve had some rest.”
John’s face is comfortingly confident, wreathed in hot steam, and Sherlock relaxes despite himself. Once they are both clean, John has to bully him into going to bed and even then he lays there rigidly, thinking the case over and over, determined not to succumb to sleep before he has a plan to solve it. He’s aware of his thoughts growing less coherent and productive with each go-round, but stubbornly refuses to let it go until at last sleep takes him against his will.
Consciousness and the answer hit him at almost exactly the same moment and he wakes with a shout, startling John beside him. It’s not entirely safe to wake John without warning, and he crackles brightly as his brain assesses the danger level, cycling through possibilities and reactions until he subsides into a low, annoyed shade upon determining that it’s just Sherlock having a brainwave.
He didn’t do it on purpose, but it’s a nice bonus, seeing him flick from soldier to doctor to bedmate in a few heartbeats, knowing that had his shout had been one of alarm John would already be armed and on the attack before his conscious mind even woke up…
“Christ, I’ll never get used to that,” John mutters, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Bloody menace!”
Sherlock grins at him. “I know what’s next. Get up. We need to find Victor. No, don’t bother getting dressed, hurry up!”
John grabs his dressing gown and follows Sherlock, still grumbling, but Sherlock can see how sharply he’s gleaming, caught up in Sherlock’s excitement. He bursts into Victor’s rooms, John trailing apologetically after, and gives the still-sleeping man a hard shake.
“Victor! Up!” he shouts in his ear and slowly Victor claws his way towards consciousness.
“Sherlock, wha…? John?” he manages. “Is everything…alright?” He yawns deeply and shakes his head, blinking. “What time is it?”
“Nearly noon, you lazy bastard!” Sherlock informs him cheerfully. “We’ve got work to do!”
He’d never known a man to sleep so soundly as Victor, he used to amuse himself by determining the exact disturbance level, down to the decibel and amount of physical force, that Victor could tolerate before he finally woke, playing every type of music he could think of and piling objects on top of him, from the cat to a dozen glasses of water to a tower of blocks, while he slept, not that he’d known how many other men slept, mainly John and Mycroft, who didn’t sleep any longer or more deeply than Sherlock did….
Sherlock smirks. “We’re going to find the entrance to tunnel running underneath the foundation. And when we find that, we’ll find our man. Or men.” He preens visibly, but John and Victor do not look as awed as he’d hoped.
“Didn’t we try that?” Victor asks.
“Yes, but we were looking inside the castle and on the immediate grounds. There has to be a way people are getting under the blocks to steal them, and if the entrance isn’t nearby, then it must be far off and we have to find it!”
“And how will we do that?”
“By looking!” Sherlock says, exasperated. They really ought to be more impressed, even if it is an obvious next step and he is a little ashamed he hadn’t thought of it earlier. “We do a systematic sweep of the land in a wide radius around Corvin Castle, until we find the entrance.”
He’s determined, he’ll wear out his boots, all their boots, all their legs before he gives up, there’s got to be an entrance and he’s going to find it if it kills them all…
“That’s… a lot of land…” John says weakly.
“Which is why we need to get started right away!” Sherlock claps his hands. “Come on, get dressed, both of you, I want us outside and ready to go in twenty minutes!”
Once everyone is more or less ready, Sherlock divides the land around the castle up into even thirds, like overly large pie pieces. “Now, we start here and sweep back and forth like a searchlight, moving outward until one of us finds something, then he calls the others. Obviously the entrance has been well used lately, so there should be footprints, trampled plants, a path near it even it is well disguised. It might be a hatch or hidden by a cave or cairn. But I’m betting once we see it, it will be obvious.”
“How will we call if one of us finds it?” John asks “No mobile service, remember?”
Sherlock pulls out his Browning and fires three shots in the air as answer.
“Fantastic,” Victor mutters, and goes back inside to retrieve one of his hunting rifles before they set out, each in a different direction.
Victor could never kill an animal in his life, but he always did keep up appearances, he was a good shot, they once had gone stalking with his father, an avid hunter, and each and every time they got in range of a stag Victor had successfully put a bullet exactly three inches to the right of its ear, the harried creatures might now be deaf but at least they'd survived…
Sherlock thinks he will have had quite enough of walking when this case is over. It’s coming horrifyingly close to exercise. And sweeping back and forth like this is more tedious than enjoyable, particularly as the fog and clouds have persisted and it is now a surprisingly chilly afternoon for nearly July.
His progress is slow and unfruitful, and by the time the sun starts to dip to the horizon he’s forced to admit he’s not going to find anything else today. And he’s far enough out now that it’s unlikely any tunnel would be quite so long. Perhaps the other’s have found something, but he’s heard no shots.
Sherlock tramps back in defeat and meets Victor in the dining room, where he is warming himself by the fire with a stiff drink.
“Good Lord, did you just get back?” he exclaims, jumping up pressing his drink into Sherlock’s hand. “Here, you need this more than me. I’ll call for some food for you, I ate already.”
Victor gets Margaret to put on something hot for Sherlock and settles back into his chair. “So, no luck either? Neither you nor John? I must have walked 20 kilometres today myself and I’ve been back two hours already.”
“You haven’t spoken to John?” Sherlock, previously slumping over his drink, snaps to attention.
How had he forgotten about John, why hadn’t he checked for him right away, was he that tired and caught up in the case, of course he was, he always was, John knew that, would have been waiting for him not expecting Sherlock to seek him out, something was wrong…
“No… I mean, I thought you’d both gotten back earliera and were upstairs. He wasn’t with you then?”
“No,” snaps Sherlock, springing out of his chair and running up to their room. He finds it empty and dashes immediately back down and out the rear door, shouting John’s name into the darkness.
“He’s not back?” Victor asks from behind him, knowing the answer.
“I have to go after him, now!” Sherlock declares, sprinting back inside. Victor finds him up in their rooms once again, frantically collecting torch and John’s medical bag and damn it, what else?
What else would he need, something warm and dry to wear, something to eat, rope, a weapon, did he have all those things, did he even need them, if John were here he’d know…
“Sherlock, you can’t!” Victor tells him. “It’s pitch black out there, he could be almost anywhere. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack. Blindly. We have to wait until we can see something.”
“No, now,” Sherlock repeats, shoving a clean jumper and thick socks into John’s bag.
It’s dark, he should have known, should have been able to tell John’s light was missing, he could always tell, now he feels like he’s being squeezed in a vice, cold inside, no light, no direction, adrift, he hadn’t known how much he’d come to rely on John’s bright and warm presence until it was gone, he closes his eyes looking for the little spark in his head that is John and stays lit even when he doesn’t know where John is, and that’s gone too, it’s never been gone before…
“We’ll never find him. Look, it’s not that long until dawn. I promise as soon at it’s light I’ll have dozens of people down here scouring every inch of my land for him. It’ll be all right, he’s tough. You’ll only get yourself hurt or lost like this.” His voice is soothing, reassuring, but it only enrages Sherlock.
“No!” he yells, slamming his palm on the dresser. He’s breathing fast and shallow, his heart pounding, terror filling his mind and blockading rational thought. “I won’t wait one minute more. He could be hurt or dying or captured or—”
Dead, he might be dead, fallen off a cliff, drowned in the sea, head smashed open on a rock, stabbed by a criminal, shot accidentally by a hunter, no longer John but just so much meat lying somewhere, growing cold, rotting, being fed on by foxes or ravens, never to move again or touch Sherlock or make things stop being Not Good for him, how could Sherlock possibly live in a world where that could happen, he couldn’t, he’d have to leave, have to….
Suddenly he feels strong hands on his shoulders. Victor has gripped them tightly, forcing Sherlock to be still.
“Sherlock.” His blue eyes are wide with compassion.
Sherlock meets Victor’s gaze. “It’s all going grey,” he tells him, before he even knows what he’s saying. “Black and white and grey and getting darker every second.”
Victor is taken aback, but when he speaks his voice is firm and calm. “We will find him. I promise. We’ll go right away, night be damned. Okay? We’ll get him back for you. But you have to stop panicking. You’re no good to him like this.”
Sherlock snaps out of it. He nods and forces his breathing and heart rate to slow, even though to wait for another moment is agony.
“Good,” says Victor. He leans forward and touches his forehead to Sherlock’s briefly. He whispers. “We’ll find him, I swear to you.”
Victor seems like he understands, he makes Sherlock come back to sanity, but how could he understand, he’s never had someone who was a physical requirement for existence, someone without whom the world became unbearable and unfaceable in every way, if he had he’d be with them now or dead, but Sherlock is grateful for his loyalty and comfort in the moment, even if he can’t ever really know what it’s like, like being pulled apart, like being drowned, like falling into that dark alone place he was before but this time with no one to come and pluck him out of it…
Sherlock hurriedly pulls on his coat and picks up the bag and the torch, ready to run out again but Victor stops him. “Wait, we can’t just run out like this. We need a plan. And something better than stumbling around in the dark on foot.”
Sherlock halts his progress reluctantly. “Do you have any vehicle that could navigate the terrain?”
Victor shakes his head. “Not here. Look, I am going to ring the police and everyone else who might be able to help, but I know you don’t want to wait for that. You should get going as soon as possible.”
“If not on foot, then how?” Sherlock demands, impatient, mind starting to go to bad places again.
“Well… how much of your riding lessons do you remember?”
Sherlock had had six years of riding instruction and two more of polo, because that was what was done in his family. It was all still there, in a very dusty back corner of his hard drive – neglected but not deleted. He really ought to have gotten rid of it ages ago, but it didn’t take up much space and now it looked like it would be useful.
Victor shows him to a stall. “Take Celia – she’s the smartest and most surefooted. But don’t push the speed, even the best horse can put a foot just as wrong as a human out there, and tonight’s bad enough already without having to put down my prize mare as well. You’ll have to tack her up, I’ll head off Linda. She’ll be having a litter of kittens over me endangering one of her charges like this.”
Sherlock nods his thanks and lets muscle memory take over to saddle and bridle the mare. He doesn’t like horses and they don’t like him, but he knows how to make them obey. He knows the exact amount of pressure, the right shifting of balance, the perfect firmness of touch and voice to get the animal to do exactly what he wants.
He was a far better rider than Mycroft had been, some small satisfaction since Mycroft actually loved the animals and had been dying to make the polo team at school, but he was clumsy and unsure in the saddle, at eight Sherlock had been able to make a horse do things Mycroft hadn’t mastered at eighteen, too bad he’d loathed every minute he’d spent riding…
He straps John’s bag behind the saddle and swings himself easily astride the increasingly nervous mare. She champs her unease but doesn’t try to unseat him. He takes the reins in one hand, holding the powerful torch with the other, and steers her with thighs and heels in the direction John had left in that afternoon.
It’s faster than being on foot, but not as much as he could wish for. Even with his light the terrain is too uneven to risk a trot, although being elevated is useful for searching. He calls John’s name every few moments and sweeps around with his flashlight, looking for any sign of him. He picks up John’s footprints every so often, so at least he’s on the right track, but the turf is so springy and the dew so new that it’s impossible to keep his trail for long, even when it’s not too dark to make anything out.
Why did Victor have to keep horses instead of dogs? A couple good bloodhounds, a beagle even. What kind of good English aristocrat didn’t have at least one hunting dog around the place? A horse was transport, but a decent hound could track down John in minutes, no matter how dark it was. There must be someone around here with dogs, he hoped Victor had the presence of mind to find them, wake them, and set them on John’s scent.
What had possessed him to settle in the middle of nowhere like this, it was all his fault that John was missing, his mystery, his remote castle with land completely out of mobile range, if he lived in a more civilised area John could have just called and said where he was, or Sherlock could text information back and forth with other search parties, why live like it’s the Stone Age, most people didn’t make it to see thirty back then and there was a reason why…
The width of the area John would have been covering grows larger the further out he gets from the castle, and Sherlock tries to think how John would have gone about a systematic sweep of an area. He’d use his army training of course, he wouldn’t just haphazardly wander back and forth like a stray puppy. Sherlock had calculated an efficient zig-zag pattern for his area, but John… no, John would have plotted out a grid system. It would have taken longer, but he’d be less likely to miss something. John was nothing if not thorough. Which means he would not have not gotten as far away in a straight line from the castle as Sherlock had in the same time, and certainly not further. It's something.
He closes his eyes and imagines how John would have set up his search grid. If he’s right… he nudges the reluctant animal behind her ribs to five degrees north and twenty metres ahead. There are the footprints again, in John’s sure and even stride. He blesses John’s predictability and continues on, finding the trail easy to follow even when it temporarily fades, now that he’s got John’s method worked out.
Sherlock urges the Andalusian to go faster and she speeds her walk but refuses to change stride. He finds the pace frustrating but can’t help but admire her talent for self-preservation. He continues to sweep the landscape with the torch, checking the ground every so often to make sure he hasn’t gotten off track, but confident now in his strategy. He calls out again and again, listening keenly for any response, a voice, a gunshot, anything.
As long as he thinks about it as a puzzle, a case, he can keep back the panic, the complete short-circuiting of his brain that happens whenever he contemplates a world in which John does not exist, the idea is so unfathomable that it destroys neurons and obliterates brain cells if it's allowed to ping around inside his skull…
He’s not sure how long he continues like this, too absorbed to check his watch, but eventually he realises he can’t be far from John’s turnaround point, he wouldn’t have had time to get much further before darkness fell. In fact, John should have turned around a bit earlier than this, if he had planned to get back with any light left at all.
Sherlock checks the ground around him but the footprints have disappeared. He swears and backtracks a good three minutes until he picks up where the trail diverged from his predictions. Right where John most likely would have finished, suddenly the prints halt and then go off on a sharp tangent. Sherlock can tell by the length of stride that John was running here, the force of his feet hitting the ground making the prints easier to follow than before, which is fortunate now that Sherlock has no pattern to follow.
Not wanting to lose the trail, Sherlock dismounts and leads the mare behind him, keeping his eyes as close to the ground as he can manage while still jogging as quickly as is safe. Suddenly the prints disappear onto an expanse of bare rock and he pulls up short.
“John!” he yells, swinging his light wildly hoping to spot something or at least allow his friend to spot him. “John, are you here?!”
There’s no response, and no way to follow his trail. But to go running off like that, John must have seen something, and he’d been running in a straight line. The mostly likely scenario was that he’d continued along the same trajectory. Sherlock draws the line in his head and follows it, alternating between sprinting and pausing to shout for John.
At last, just when his voice is growing hoarse and he’s beginning to doubt his calculations, he hears the unmistakable sound of a gun shot, muffled but not far off.
John, it had to be him, who else would be shooting here at the this time of night, he was alive, he had to be, unless that was the sound of the gun that had killed him just now, when Sherlock was so close, or maybe it was just a warning, he shouldn’t call again, could attract attention, not sensible…
“John!” he shouts. “John, tell me where you are!” He turns his light in the direction of the sound and forces himself to scan the area methodically, but sees nothing.
“John, let off another shot! I can’t triangulate your position like this!”
But there is only silence. Impatiently, he illuminates the area again, starting carefully towards it. Suddenly, he spots something. It’s a grouping of stones that seem just the slightest bit too regular to be natural – about 300 metres ahead. Old ruins? Had John taken shelter there?
He drags the mare along as he runs towards the stones, and she whinnies unhappily at being made to trot after him in the dark on rocky and uneven ground.
“Shut up or I swear I’ll leave you,” he growls. It’s an idle threat and they both know it.
He calls to his friend again, this time hearing a weak response, coming unmistakably from his target. When he reaches it, he finds that it is the remains of an old, crumbling well. And at the bottom of it is John. Curled on his side on the floor of it, slightly bloodied and blinking at the sudden assault of light from Sherlock’s torch, but very definitely alive.
Relief suffuses his mind, making him hyperventilate, John is alive, the world still turns, the universe is operating once again under acceptable parameters, Sherlock will not have to choose between existing forever in a state of utter wrongness or not existing at all, it’s too much, he can’t understand or process the feelings that are trying to crop up, put them away for now, too much still to do, look at them later or maybe not at all…
“John! How did you get down there? Are you hurt?”
John squints up at him. “Sherlock, is that you?” he croaks. “Thank God, I thought I was imagining it. How on earth did you find me?”
“Are. You. Hurt?” Sherlock demands.
“I fell on my back, reinjured it a bit. It’s not serious but I can’t climb back up.”
Sherlock can see the inner surface of the well is uneven, with plenty of protruding rocks that would allow a fit man to scale it easily. He could climb down simply enough, but could he get John back up it?
“Wait one moment,” he calls down, and goes to remove John’s bag from the back of the horse, who is waiting patiently nearby. He rummages inside, grateful the thought of bringing a rope had occurred to him, even if he’d been thinking about cliffs rather than wells at the time. He ties one end of the rope tightly to a boulder, and loops the other end around himself, running it through the handles of the doctor’s bag as well so as to strap it to his back.
“I’m coming down,” he informs John, climbing up the outside of the well and sticking the torch securely in his belt.
“No, don’t be ridiculous! I’m fine, just go get help. You’ll just end up stuck down here with me.”
“I am help,” Sherlock retorts. “Watch out, I’d hate to exacerbate your injury by falling on you.”
Slowly and carefully, he rappels down. He can see why John would have had trouble climbing in or out – handholds are plentiful but every surface is wet and slippery, mould, slime, and moss inhabiting each crevice and outcrop. He nearly loses his footing several times on the way down. At last he reaches the bottom, untangles himself and rushes over to John.
“Don’t worry, I’m okay, just don’t shine that right in my face,” John tells Sherlock as he runs his eyes and hands rapidly over John’s body, seeking out every injury and scratch.
Small cuts on face and hands, coccyx and lower spine with fresh bruises, ribs and vertebrae intact, ankle possibly twisted but not sprained, body temperature 32.8 °C, into hypothermia, colour…
John is blue with cold and damp through, the bottom of the well being wet and moisture oozing from every crevice. Sherlock had barely noticed the chill until now – he had been too pumped up on adrenaline – but now he realises it’s even colder than it had been the night before.
Without a word he begins to peel off John’s wet jacket, jumper, and undershirt, working silently but efficiently, and taking care to mind John’s injuries as much as possible.
“You know, Sherlock – oww! – I really don’t think this is the time or place…” John jokes half heartedly.
Sherlock takes out the dry clothes he’d brought – blast it, why hadn’t he thought of trousers – and helps John into them. Finally, he removes his coat, suppressing a shiver, and pulls it around John, buttoning it tightly.
“First aid?” he asks.
John shakes his head. “Nothing you can do here, a few cuts and new bruising. I can stand and move with help. I don’t know how you’re going to get me out of here. I was so stupid, I was about to turn around and head home when I would swear I saw a light in the distance. I followed it here, but there was no sign of it... I thought this well might be the entrance we were looking for so I tried to climb down for a closer look and…” he motions vaguely.
He’s got to get John out of here now, even dry clothes won’t keep his temperature from declining, if he gets too weak or passes out Sherlock won’t be able to move them both, then he’ll have to go to that place of thinking of a reality with no John again…
“Can you hold on to me?” Sherlock asks abruptly. “Do you have enough strength to keep a grip on my shoulders.”
“I…think so. But you can’t be serious. You can’t climb back up that with the weight of an extra person!”
Sherlock raises an eyebrow but doesn’t answer. He grabs the bag and hurls it up over his head, out of the well, then helps John to his feet and supports him as he hooks his arms under Sherlock’s and wraps his legs around his waist as tightly as he can manage. Sherlock grabs the end of the rope, making intricate loops around himself and John as a makeshift safety harness.
“Ready?” he asks, and John nods without conviction.
Their progress is agonising in its slowness, as well as just plain agonising. Sherlock finds a stable foothold, then shortens the rope. Then he finds another foothold. He repeats this over and over, carefully testing each new spot for slipperiness and lose mortar. He can feel John tensed on his back, using all his strength just to hold on and try not to cry out in pain. But he can hear the sharp breathing through his teeth that means John’s close to the limit of his physical tolerance.
John can withstand so much pain, Sherlock can too but it’s because he doesn’t feel much of it, while John feels it and bears it beyond what a person should be able to, Sherlock knows he’d lain for hours in the brutal sun with the shrapnel in him before he’d been found, dying by inches and seconds, had he thought it was happening again, that he’d been left and forgotten by Sherlock to die alone in darkness…
By the time they reach the top Sherlock’s arms and shoulders are on fire and John is panting with pain and exhaustion. Sherlock hauls them over the edge back to the safe, solid ground and unropes them. Then John does the last thing Sherlock expects at the moment – he starts chuckling, a rough laugh punctuated by sharp gasps, but one of real hilarity.
“John, are you quite all right?”
John fights to catch his breath. “I’m…fine… heh … Sherlock… did you actually… come to rescue me… riding on a fucking white horse?”
Sherlock looks at him quizzically. “Technically, she’s a grey.”
This only makes John laugh harder, for reasons beyond Sherlock’s ken. He must be hysterical. When he’s settled down at last, Sherlock carefully puts him in the saddle and then climbs up behind him, keeping an arm firmly around John’s waist.
“You’re going to freeze like that,” John says. “You really should take back your coat.
“No.” Sherlock turns the mare around elegantly and sets them on a course directly back to the castle. In a straight line – as opposed to the meandering route both of them had taken to get here – it’s less than three kilometers away. Theoretically, one could see this spot from the castle on a clear day, but Sherlock had learned the hard way that the seemingly gentle and rolling landscape was littered with rills and copses and sharp dips that could conceal almost anything.
He can feel the cold of John’s body seeping into him even through the thick coat, they can only go so quickly, too fast and it will injure John more, what if it’s not quick enough, every minute counts, he’s found his friend but it’s not safe yet, it’s never safe, really, what they do, he risks them both almost every day and he knows he won’t stop, even when this is the result…
“Sherlock.” John says as they ride back. “Thank you for coming for me. I knew you would.”
Sherlock nods curtly, unable to articulate any of the things running through his head. John, thankfully, is not put off, and tries to keep up a one sided conversation either to keep himself awake or to reassure Sherlock that he is actually okay.
“Being saved from entrapment and certain death by a tall, dark, and handsome man riding on a white – sorry, grey – horse, who sweeps me off back to an ancient castle... all that’s missing is a dragon. I honestly can’t tell you whether this is the most romantic or the most humiliating thing that has ever happened to me.”
Sherlock finally gets the reference and snickers just a tiny bit, then is surprised that he has. He allows himself to start to feel just the tiniest bit optimistic, but it’s short lived. As they approach the castle, John lapses into unconsciousness, colder than ever.
He decides it’s better to hurt his back more than to risk his life in the cold, and forces the horse into a canter, steering her towards the front doors.
“Open up!” he bellows. “I’ve got him!”
The massive doors swing open just as he reaches the steps and he charges up them, riding right into the hall. Victor is there, as are the entire household staff, some police, and several other people Sherlock doesn’t recognise and has no interest in.
They made it, John’s still alive, he’s going to stay alive, Sherlock won’t let that change, not now and not ever if he has anything to say about it, but he’s so cold, so dim, a weak little light, bluish, nearly impossible to make out in the brightness of the hall…
“My God,” Victor breathes at the sight of them, going pale when he sees John.
“Here, take him, quickly – careful!” Sherlock orders, and Victor and Justin slide John down and lay him on a huge oak table. “Have you called a doctor? He’s injured his back and he’s unconscious from hypothermia.”
Sherlock dismounts and immediately forgets about his steed, who is taken away by one of the nameless folk milling around. “Quick, we need to get him completely dry and wrapped up, he probably needs fluids too, where is that doctor!”
“He’s nearly here,” Victor promises. “Help me, we’ll put him in my room for now, it’s closest.
With the assistance of Justin, who is as strong as an ox, Victor and Sherlock manage to get John into his bedroom without too much additional jarring. Sherlock lays him on the bed and strips him naked, before removing nearly all his own clothes and getting into the bed with him, rolling them both tightly together in the down duvet.
Body heat, John needs an external source of heat, his own body can’t do the job right now, he’s like an ice cube in Sherlock’s arms, he’ll give John all his warmth but he doesn’t have that much to give, it won’t be enough…
“Get more blankets and something warm – soup, tea, coffee, anything!”
They obey, and Sherlock manages to spoon some hot broth into John’s mouth. He’s still insensible but not so out that he can’t swallow if he’s told. The doctor arrives eventually, scowling at Sherlock still wrapped around his friend, and provides an analysis similar to Sherlock’s own earlier diagnosis, prescribing an IV of warmed saline solution, plus morphine, and some very strong pain pills for the next day. Sherlock hands these over immediately to Victor for safekeeping and he doesn’t question why.
What he wouldn’t give for a pill right now, to dull his senses and his nerves, raw with the state of hyperawareness he’s been existing in since John went missing, he can’t afford to drop it now, not until John is out of danger and maybe not even then, but oh the relief would be so sweet…
Sherlock remains with John in the bed until it’s almost light out, by which time the doctor is awake and coherent, able to keep his body temperature stable, and off the IV.
“Sherlock, I just need some sleep – real sleep – and I’ll be completely fine,” John tells him, even though he hasn’t said a word. “And you do too, by the way. Why don’t you go get cleaned up and have a rest? I’m okay here. Really. Don’t worry.”
Reluctantly, Sherlock goes to find a shower and fresh clothes, intending upon returning immediately to John’s side. Victor stops him in the hall.
“He’ll be okay, then?”
“Eventually,” Sherlock says grimly.
Victor nods, relieved. “Look, I’m sorry I brought you up here, just for some silly old rocks. What happened to John… it’s not worth it. You should go home, as soon as he can travel. A couple of blocks, even this whole building, don’t matter in the grand scheme. I never thought it would lead to this. I don’t want anyone else getting hurt.”
“I plan to send John back to London immediately,” Sherlock tells him. “I will stay until the case is solved.”
“It’s too dangerous, looks what’s happened already!”
“What’s happened already is why I’m not leaving until it’s finished,” Sherlock says grimly and Victor is smart enough not to argue.
When he returns, John is deeply asleep, snoring gently. Sherlock finds the snores, combined with the soft, healthy pulsing glow of warmth around him, deeply reassuring. John sleeps for hours and Sherlock sits silently beside him, trying to keep his mind from going to bad places, such as what might have happened or where Victor would have hidden the opiates.
Before he’d met John he’d hardly known fear, the rare times he had it had been fear of losing or dying without an answer to a puzzle, almost never for his safety or for another’s, now he feel it on an almost weekly basis, fear for John, fear for himself if something happened to John, fear for John if something happened for him, he’d tried to suppress it, it’s dangerous, clouds his judgement, makes it more likely to get one of them killed, but he can’t seem to stop it, he’s thought about leaving John for both their sakes but how much worse would it be if he wasn’t there to know what was happening to him…
It’s late afternoon when John wakes again and he smiles up at Sherlock. “You’re still here.”
“I’m not the one who spent most of the night in a cold, damp well after falling six metres on to stone.”
John frowns. “Sherlock. You know what I mean. Are you all right?”
Sherlock closes his eyes, wishing John’s concern would go away. He doesn’t answer.
“Sherlock… you’re trembling.”
His body’s betrayed him and he goes to move away but John catches both of his hands. “Hey, you have to talk to me. Remember? We agreed on it. You can’t do that thing anymore.”
Sherlock looks away from John, unable to stand seeing his eyes right now. “You were… lost…” he says finally.
“Yes, and you found me. We always find each other, right?”
Sherlock nods uncertainly. “But you were lost. Really lost. I couldn’t see you at all.”
John lets out a long breath. “Not at all? And you thought I was…?”
“Yes. It’s never been like that before. I thought of all the ways it could have happened, what would it be like, how long I could bear it before…”
He trails off, knowing that finishing that sentence would be very Not Good, but John seems to have figured it out anyway and gasps.
“Sherlock, no. You have to promise me that no matter what happens to me you won’t do that!”
“I can’t promise you that, John.” He finally looks at his friend, whose eyes are nearly grey with exhaustion and wide with worry. “I would if I could, but I… I’m not being sentimental. I don’t think it’s romantic. But the thought of long-term survival in such a scenario make an unsolvable equation. I can promise to try, to exist with the irrationality for as long possible, but that’s…that’s all I can do.”
It’s not like he’d plan it, hang himself from a rafter or throw himself into the Thames, it would just happen, somehow, it was as inevitable as gravity, his foot would slip on a rooftop chase, Moriarty would return and best him terminally, an experiment would explode in his face, he’d lose a knife fight, and it would be over and he’d be grateful…
John inhales slowly and deeply, forcing himself not to argue right now. “Well, then I guess I have an incentive to take care of myself,” he says at last, voice quavering just a bit.
Sherlock nods again but doesn’t say anything, still stiff in his chair and shaking against his will. John pulls his hands closer, until he is forced out of his seat and kneeling on the floor.
John cups his hands around Sherlock’s face. “This isn’t your fault. I chose this. This is what we do. That’s why I’m yours – because no else understands that.” He leans forward and kisses him on the lips, firm and soft and definitive. It’s the warmth and taste of his friend that finally breaks through Sherlock’s defensive system.
Slowly the tension drains out of him, his stiff posture relaxing into weariness, his emotionless mask slipping to allow John to see the barest remnants of his fear and confusion. For a moment, he sees himself reflected in John’s eyes and is surprised that he looks more lost than John had seemed during the whole ordeal.
“I’m still yours,” he tells John in barely a whisper.
John wraps his arms around Sherlock’s neck. “I know you are. And I shouldn’t have run after a ghost like that, not when it was dark and I didn’t know the ground, without a light or a way to tell you where I’d gone. It was foolish. I’m sorry.”
Sherlock swallows and pulls himself together, easing out of John’s embrace and straightening his clothes. “How’s your back?”
No more thinking about the end right now, it has all come out right, that’s only thing that matters, isn’t it…
“It hurts,” John admits. “But not like the first time. I think I can probably walk with a little help. Do you mind? I don’t want to get too accustomed to laying about!”
Sherlock helps him sit up and swing his legs off the bed, then sits beside and puts an arm around him. John winces audibly when pulled to his feet, but finds his balance and limps along next to Sherlock in a slow circuit of the room.
“There? See? It’s not so bad. I mean, it hurts like a motherfucker, but it gets easier once I’m moving. Here, let me try on my own for a moment. Ahhh, okay…ouch…”
John balances on his own and takes a few halting steps. Sherlock can see how much pain he’s in, despite his falsely cheerful grin – which he may have learnt from Sherlock himself – and has to physically restrain himself from assisting. John hobbles around for a few moments and his steps improve until he’s walking almost normally, if not without extreme discomfort.
“Aaaand… I think we’re done for now,” he says at last, collapsing gingerly back onto the bed. “Now, what does an injured man have to do to get some proper dinner around here?”
Victor brings a tray for John, as well as food for himself and Sherlock. Sherlock can feel the guilt pouring off him around John, but he tries not to show it and remains, on the surface, his ebullient self. He excuses himself after eating, leaving Sherlock and John alone again. It’s getting late, but John’s not sleepy. He does another few laps around the room unassisted, stronger this time, claiming he doesn’t want to stiffen up, and then lets Sherlock read to him until it starts to once again grow dark.
“Do you think they’ll strike tonight?” John asks. “It’s overcast again.”
Sherlock shrugs. “If so, we have no way of stopping them. I’ll have to reformulate the plan again. Can you tell me anything about the light you saw, where it might have gone?”
John shakes his head. “I would swear it disappeared right where the well was. But when I got there, there was nothing down there and at the bottom… you saw how it was. No entrances, nothing. Maybe it was just a hinkypunk... it was kind of marshy over there.”
“Perhaps…” Sherlock mutters. Something’s not right. John opens his mouth but Sherlock shushes him, shutting his eyes tight and putting his hands to his head.
He’s at the bottom of the well, without John this time, reconstructed perfectly in three dimensions from the random sweeps of his light last night, each stone and crack crystal clear, he scans around himself, high and low, the floor, the walls, the masonry…
Suddenly it jumps out at him in high definition and he gasps, yanked out of his mind palace suddenly back to the room, John staring at him with fascination.
“You’ve got it, haven’t you?” John asks. He throws back the covers and struggles out of bed. “Ahh…Just let me get some proper clothes on, then we can leave right away!”
Sherlock frowns. “You’re not coming, John.”
John snorts, fumbling for his shirt. “Then you are not going!”
“How exactly do you plan to stop me?”
“I’ll tell Victor. See how far you get on your own then. If you want to do this without interference, then you’re bringing me with.”
“John, you can’t help me,” Sherlock says cruelly. “You’ll only slow me down.”
John is unaffected. “All the more reason to start at once. Unless you think you’ll go faster once Victor calls the police and has them muck about around all your evidence.” He sighs. “If we’ve learned anything, I think it’s that bad things happen when one of us goes running off on a lead alone.”
Sherlock acquiesces with severe bad grace. Once they are both bundled up and armed, they slink out through the kitchen exit, using Victor’s secret pantry passage to avoid any questions, and Sherlock sets them on a course right back towards John’s well.
“You’re not serious!” John exclaimed. “You saw that place. There’s nothing there.”
“Nothing indeed.” Sherlock tries to remember to maintain a slow pace for John’s sake, but the lure of the answer is too strong and he continually speeds up without realising. John keeps up shockingly well, even considering the larger-than-recommended dose of ocycodone he swallowed before they left. Sherlock wouldn’t have thought he’d even be conscious after that, but isn’t surprised he’s managing to ignore his pain.
He’ll pay for it later, Sherlock knows from experience, but it’s worth it to John, he won’t be left behind, Sherlock would have done the same, John’s earned the right to be here even if it will make things ten times worse for him in the morning…
When they reach the well, there is something hanging off it.
“A chain ladder… I’ll be buggered!” John exclaims.
“Elementary. I saw the marks on the edge from its hooks when we climbed out, fresh scratches. There was other evidence too, I just didn’t have time to process it immediately.”
They climb down into the well, John biting his lip the whole way. With the exception of the ladder it looks exactly the same as their previous visit.
Sherlock waves him quiet and begins methodically examining the protruding stones of the wall at chest level. He’s about three quarters of the way around when he cries, “Yes! I knew it! Completely clean of slime and algae. It’s been touched repeatedly and recently.” He pushes down on the stone like a lever and a crack appears in the wall. A little door, only about a metre high.
“Okay, that was impressive,” John admits. “I can’t believe you noticed all that. Especially considering…”
Sherlock straightens at the praise and feels that finally, all is right again. “After you,” he says, pushing the door open all the way and motioning John through ahead of him.
They find themselves in a packed dirt tunnel, with both wood and stone supports, just tall enough for John to stand straight. Sherlock has to duck.
“So you think this goes…all the way back to the castle?”
“It must. Perhaps it was built as an escape for inhabitants in case of a siege. They wouldn’t want to come out where their enemies could still see them or it would be useless. In any case, it’s being put to a different use now. We follow this…”
“…we find our thieves,” John finishes. He grins at Sherlock. “Glad my adventure ended up being useful.”
Useful, if there was one thing John always managed to be it was useful, even when Sherlock grumbles about his lack of intellect, his slowness, he still manages to be the epitome of usefulness, at least for Sherlock’s purposes…
“Indeed,” Sherlock agrees. “We must be as silent as possible, if we are to get the advantage. We’ll have to turn off the torches too and go by feel.”
John rummages in his pocket. “Here, we can use this to help see a little.” He hands Sherlock a little keychain that, when pressed, emits a low green light for the purposes of helping one find the keyhole in a door at night.
Sherlock creeps forward, almost inhumanly quiet and John follows, behind and on the other side of the tunnel. It seems like they are underground for hours, although in reality it is only about thirty minutes, before they glimpse a light in the distance.
“That must be the chamber under the foundation, where they’re working,” John whispers. They slink more carefully now, flattening themselves as much as possible against the walls of the tunnel. They pause at the entrance to the lighted room, both straining for any sound and not hearing anything. At last, weapons drawn, they carefully enter, blinking both at the light and at the scene before them.
The chamber is cavernous, but oddly shaped. There is a wall before them that seems to be at least part of the underground foundations of Corvin castle. There are strange pipes and tools every where, and the chamber stretches away from them in either direction at a ninety-degree angle.
“We must be under the northeast corner,” Sherlock whispers. “Look above us…those are the stones that make up the outer side of the foundation. This chamber undercuts it, while leaving enough to keep the building stable. The outer stones bear almost no weight. Brilliant. And there, see? Our missing property.”
Sherlock had expected a primitive job, based on brute strength and maybe some simple levers, but he was seeing a sophisticated set-up here, no mere henchmen, a bright mind had planned and executed this, he hoped to meet this person, he or she was worthy at least of a conversation…
There is one of the missing foundation stones a few metres beyond them, and they approach it carefully. “Look, hydraulics… that’s how they’ve been moving them so quietly. Ahh, see here we are…” On the top of the stone there is a hole, about eight centimetres in diameter, drilled deep into the block. Sherlock shines his torch down there. “Whatever was in there has already been removed. But someone’s been here tonight, and unless they left the lights on and forgot their ladder, they either still are or are coming back soon. We should search, try to locate the other missing stones, and if we find nothing, hide until their return.”
John agrees but no sooner have they set foot down the left passage of the chamber, what would be the eastern wall of the castle, than they hear a click behind them and freeze.
“None o’ that will be necessary,” a gruff voice says. “Now, you boys should put your nice guns down very slowly and kick them away. I would hate to cause trouble by killing guests of Sir Victor, but I will if I have to.”
Here's the last bit, finally, to this overly-long monster of a story! Thanks for all the encouragement and patience, I hope you all enjoy it.
Sherlock puts his hands up and allows himself a small smile. “Mr. McKellig. I can’t say you were the man I expected to find down here.”
He slowly sets down his gun and kicks it out of reach, as instructed. John follows suit.
John is wound tight, smouldering besides him, Sherlock can see him estimating exactly what his chances of taking the former sailor out are, he’d probably have a good shot at if Sherlock caused a diversion, but that’s not how Sherlock wants things to happen tonight and John’s still injured, not working at peak strength by far, Sherlock thinks they can talk the man down…
He gives his head a barely perceptible shake and mouths “not yet” at his friend, who backs down minutely. They turn slowly to see the burly farmer with a rifle, sweating profusely.
“You know, there’s two of us and one of you,” Sherlock observes dispassionately. “And we are quite a bit younger. Even with you armed, there’s a fair chance we could take you down before you could shoot us both. Perhaps before you could even shoot one of us.”
McKellig shifts nervously and tightens his grip on the weapon. “Not that I’m bothered by it, but I seen you two together – I don’t think either of you are goin’ to risk that. Now, stand closer together so’s I can keep an eye on both of you,” he orders.
They do as told, Sherlock watching the man carefully. He’s desperate, but he’s not a killer, not at heart, although he’s scared enough that anything could happen.
“I’m really very impressed, Mr. McKellig,” Sherlock says smoothly. “It’s an unusually clever plan. I had assumed that this was the work of several men, a crime ring even…but you pulled it all by yourself, didn’t you? You built a portable hydraulic system to trigger the trapdoor stones, lower down the foundation blocks, and seal it all up behind you. You didn’t need strength, you had brains.”
He didn’t look like he had brains at all, it’s always pleasant to have someone surprise him like that, proof that the human race is not entirely cause for despair, still, continuing once the case had come to Sherlock’s attention had been foolish, revisiting the site when he knew people were out searching, would see his light, that was sloppy, disappointing, emotion was running the show now…
“And thirty years of experience with hydraulic machinery, and some amateur masonry.” He’s still sweating, but he looks pleased at the recognition.
“I just have one question,” Sherlock tells him.
“Oh, just one?” John hisses.
“What was in those stones?”
“Nothing for you to be concerned about,” snaps McKellig.
“It’s war spoils, isn’t it? German treasure from the Great War? Your grandfather brought it back and hid it here until it would be safe to sell. You said you were here…what was it, trying to keep up the ‘family legacy’? You meant recover and sell illegal artefacts to fund your comfortable retirement.”
“You’d never understand. And it doesn’t matter. I just have one more cache to remove, then I’ll have everything and no one around here will ever see me again. You can tell Sir Victor I’m sorry for what I done to his house – I woulda put them all back, but my system wasn’t powerful enough to lift them to back up, only to ease them down. I was planning to fix it, to make it right, but then you two turned up and I was out of time.”
“So there’s still one more stone with treasure in it?” John pipes up. “How are you going to manage that, then?”
“Well, what are you going to do with us? Let us go and we’ll run call the police. Even if you escape you won’t ever get back in here.”
“I’ll tie you up,” he says uncertainly, glancing back and forth from John to Sherlock. “I’ll call to tell someone where you are once I’m clear.”
“Ahh, but if you’re tying us up, who’s holding the gun? You’re only other option is to shoot us. And I don’t think you’re up for that, not really. I know what a murderer looks like, and you aren’t it. Come on now… put down the gun and we won’t say anything about it. You can come with us and we’ll all explain to the police together, all right?”
John is inching towards McKellig in his most harmless, appeasing posture. Sherlock doesn’t like it, McKellig is under too much stress to be predictable, but John’s done this before.
John knows how to talk to people, how to soothe them, his bedside manner impeccable, he might just be able to hypnotise the gun away from him, he’d certainly got Sherlock to do plenty of things he never intended without quite noticing until he’d already done them…
“That’s right. We don’t want anyone to get hurt…”
The man’s resolve seems to be wavering and he starts, slowly, to lower the barrel of the rifle. But then John takes one more step and he panics. “Get back!” he shouts and John jumps away from him, hands up again. “Stay still, don’t try anything… I just need to think, let me think!”
“There’s no other way out,” Sherlock tells him. “You’re only making it worse for yourself. We can still pretend this never happened.”
“No, I can’t believe you!” He’s breathing heavily now, hands shaking but his aim would still be sure at such close range. “I’ll just… I’ll just have to shoot you both, just to keep you here, I’m sorry about it, I’ll try not to hurt you too much, but you don’t understand what this means to me. I have no choice.”
He points the rifle at Sherlock’s foot and Sherlock can feel John ready to spring next to him, coiled and humming with energy. If McKellig pulled that trigger he wouldn’t have a chance to do anything else before John got to him, and that would be very unfortunate for him. Before either of them can make a move, a bullet whistles past McKellig’s head and embeds itself in the earth of the chamber wall behind him.
“No one’s shooting anyone if I have a say in it,” says Victor, as he steps out of the darkness of the tunnel that had brought them, holding an antique pistol. “Angus, give me the gun. I know you’re upset, but you are not going to hurt my friends. And I don’t think you’d like having to live with yourself if you did. You’re not that kind of man.”
Victor must have followed them, he’s smarter than Sherlock had given him credit for, Sherlock ought to be annoyed with him, but given the circumstances it prevents a rather messy conclusion, Sherlock’s not afraid of a bullet wound, he’s had many, but it is inconvenient and puts a damper on his work, which he hates…
Victor walks slowly up to McKellig. “You don’t know what kind of man I am,” he wails, looking increasingly trapped and frightened.
“Yes, I do.” Victor’s voice is steady and warm. “I’ve seen you at church, you always help set up the tables for coffee hour and you volunteer to clean the chapel once a mouth. You always polish the rails even though you don’t have to. Last week you towed Mrs. Hart’s car out of the ditch and all the way home, and you patched her tire. You’re gentle with your animals, and you always send along something to anyone who gives you farming advice. You’re not the kind of man who would steal another man’s property or endanger lives or hurt people on purpose. So whyever you’re doing this, I’m sure you have good reason, and I’m prepared to listen to it if you’re prepared to help me to do that. Okay?”
By now Victor is within arms’ reach of McKellig. He holds out his hand sternly and after a long, tense pause, McKellig hands over his rifle and sinks to the floor. The three other men let out long breaths. Victor tosses the weapon to John, who unloads it and retrieves his and Sherlock’s sidearms from the floor.
He’d known Victor could talk almost anyone into anything, but this was a new level, he’d be impressed if he wasn’t irritated not to have been able to finish things himself, still at least now they could get to the bottom of things without any hospital trips…
“All right now, why don’t we all put our guns away and we can talk like civilised people,” Victor says. Sherlock rolls his eyes, but John helps McKellig up and guides him to sit on the nearest block.
“Would you rather tell us your story now, or wait until you’re at the station?” Sherlock demands.
McKellig shrinks back from him a bit, but nods. He bears the attitude of a defeated man. “Yes, sir. I am sorry I tried to… I wasn’t myself. Haven’t been really.”
Sherlock raises an eyebrow and taps a foot impatiently.
McKellig clears his throat. “Well, it starts with my grandparents, as you rightly guessed. My grandfather’s ancestors had farmed the land around Corvin Castle for decades, maybe centuries. When he was young he joined the army, trekked around Europe and eventually came home to take over the farm with a young bride, my grandmother. They weren’t married too long before the Great War began, and he knew it was only a matter of time before he was conscripted, along with his brothers and most other young men in the area. My grandmother feared what would happen to her when he was gone. She knew being a German Jew living alone wasn’t safe in that political climate, and the locals already mistrusted her.
“She begged my grandfather to help her hide her most treasured possessions, everything of value she’d brought over from the old country. He thought she was crazy, but he loved her. So he got his brothers to help him – Corvin Castle was already abandoned then, after the east tower toppled, but he knew about the passageway, and knew about the hollowed out stones a Scottish owner had installed hundreds of years before to keep his wealth from the British. Of course they had to pry the stones out with just crowbars and muscle, but they were strong lads. They hid what my grandmother gave them, where no one would ever guess, not even if they turned this place upside down.
“My grandmother’s premonition was right. Once her husband was gone and the War was going badly, suspicion fell on her that she was a spy. Or a witch. Depending on who you asked. I don't think she spoke much English, which only deepened the conflict. She became fearful and rarely came out of their home. She had a little girl, and rumours started that she must be mistreating her, starving her, that she planned to steal her from my grandfather and raise her as a Jew, all sorts of lies. Hysteria was running high, particularly so close to the coast, people expected a German invasion any moment.
“A mob formed. They planned to scare her and take the baby to be kept by a proper Christian family until someone else from my grandfather’s side came back. But things got out of hand. She barricaded the house, but eventually the townspeople got in. There was pushing and shoving and rough words. They took the baby and somehow a fire started. My grandmother wouldn’t leave the house, she was too distraught, and she burnt to death.”
Sherlock’s history is spotty except in a few highly specific areas, but John is nodding thoughtfully and he’s obsessed with military history, the timeline at least must fit, did he have any reason to lie about it now, no he’s done, he’s given up now, Sherlock can see it in his eyes, any deceit he’d had is gone, he’s in their power completely…
McKellig continues. “Soon after, word came that my grandfather and his brothers had all been killed. My mother ended up in an orphanage. She never knew a word of this, and died herself before I was out of school.”
“Then how do you know all this?” Sherlock asked. “That’s a lot of detail for something that happened before you were born.”
McKellig shook his head. “It was like a miracle. About twenty years ago, the orphanage my mother grew up in was shut for good. The attic must have been full of the things kids had come in with, and there was a box of my mothers things – they had been stored when she came as an infant and then forgotten – she’d never seen them. Some kind person had taken it upon themselves to track down the all the grown children or their living relatives and return the items to them.
“My mother’s box had baby clothes, a few handmade toys, and some letters my grandmother had written to my mother regarding where her possessions had been hidden. Before the house burned down, she’d tossed a bundle of things for my mother out the door, which included those letters. They were in Yiddish, of course, but I had them translated and then I managed to track down the rest of the story in local archives and by asking around, former orphanage employees, locals here, that sort of thing.
“I wanted to desperately to get my grandmother’s treasures back, but from the description I knew I’d need a lot of help or a lot of equipment, and a reason to be around the place. It took time to get together what I needed and save up enough money to rent out a farm on the land and make a credible go of it. Finally, when I heard the castle has been sold, I knew it was my chance. It took two years to find the tunnel and outfit the chamber so I could get the blocks out myself, and I thought I’d be done months ago, put them back and be gone before anyone knew what had happened, but I had equipment problems and things dragged out and then you two came up and I started to panic…” He put his head in his hands.
“That’s all very touching,” Sherlock says. “Fascinating story, really. But, what, exactly, were these treasures that were worth so much?”
How much wealth would a foreign bride have brought with her, if she was marrying a poor English farmer, couldn’t have been that much, from McKellig’s story she sounded comparable in class to her husband, perhaps they were things that would be very valuable now, antiques and handiwork that could be sold, that must be it, knick-knacs would hardly be worth the effort he’d gone to…
McKellig reaches into his jacket and pulls out a thick envelope, handing it to Sherlock. “This isn’t all of it, but it’s what I found in the last stone. The rest are like them.”
Sherlock reaches into the envelope and pulls out… nothing. Well, not nothing, but no jewels or money or anything he’d anticipated. There were journal entries. Letters. A few black and white photos of dour-looking individuals. A hairpin, a signet ring, neither expensive or particularly well made. A piece of paper containing what looked like a family tree.
“What is this?” he demands.
“It’s… my history. My family records from my grandmother’s side. Genealogies, pictures, correspondence from all her relatives. Everything she had that tied her back to her home.”
Sherlock is incredulous, and Victor and John look scarcely less so. “Let me see if I understand,” says Sherlock. “You spent years of your life, thousands and thousands of pounds, all your energy, to create an elaborate cover and a highly technical system of mechanisms, even being willing to shoot and injure two people to recover… letters? Paperwork? This is your treasure?”
McKellig sighs, looking old suddenly, but he meets Sherlock’s gaze almost fiercely despite his seeming level of brokenness. “Mr. Holmes, do you know what it’s like to have no one? No people at all?”
Sherlock opens his mouth to say of course he does, but stops himself.
He likes to think he does, that he's an island unto himself, but it’s not true, he’s got Mycroft and they hate each other, but he still exists and imagining a reality in which there had never been a Mycroft was simply not possible even if it sounds rather pleasant, he’d got other relations too, he never spoke to them but that isn’t the same as not having any, and John, of course there is John, John is his family, even if he had no one else ever, he still has people if he has John…
“No…” he says at last.
There is a silence, then Victor clears his throat. “I know what it’s like, Angus.”
The farmer looks at him in gratitude. “My mother’s dead, I don’t have an extended family, never met my father and from what I hear I’m lucky about that. I got no wife nor children, no siblings. It’s just me. And when I die that’ll be done with. I thought if I could find my grandmother’s things I could find my family, on the continent or wherever they scattered to. Find out who I was, be a part of something. Have people who knew I existed and remembered me when I died. I didn’t care how much money or time it cost, it’s the only thing that mattered in the end.”
“And that’s…all there is to it?” Sherlock is still unbelieving.
“That’s it. I was going to put everything back as soon as I could, wrap up my business on the farm, and then go try and find my German family, learn what it means to be Jewish after all this time, maybe go to Israel... But now…” he puts his head in his hands. “…now it’s all for nothing.”
“Well, Victor,” Sherlock says brightly, rubbing his hands together. “You have your answer. I was certain from the beginning that there had to be something important hidden inside of them, although I can’t say I expected…this. In any case, have you called the police or shall we take him back with us now and call them?”
“Sherlock,” John whispers angrily, flicking his eyes at the despairing figure before them. “Sympathy!”
Sympathy for what, for a foolish man who’s wasted his life looking for something that likely he will never find, spent all his resources on a silly dream, he did cut a pathetic figure but it was his own fault, why do Victor and John seem so affected by his story…
He gives John a blank look, but Victor is talking.
“Angus, what I don’t understand is why you didn’t just come to me in the first place?” He sounds disappointed. “I would have allowed to you retrieve your property as long as it didn’t cause permanent damage, of course I would have. I would have helped! I spend all my time researching this history of this area – you don’t think I would have loved a story like that?”
McKellig dips his head even further. “I’m sorry, sir… I never thought… I mean they were in your home and it seemed like so much to ask, and if you’d said no…I’d never have another chance.
Victor nods. “All right. Well, I don’t think the police are going to be necessary, at least on my part. Now, if Sherlock or John wants to press charges for your threatening them, I’m not going to stop them… but as long everything gets put back the way it was, I have no argument with you.”
He looks to John and Sherlock. Sherlock opens his mouth but John cuts in first. “No, we’re… we’re not going to pursue anything. Are we Sherlock?”
Sherlock shakes his head. “No. But only because you never pulled that trigger.”
McKellig looks overwhelmed. “Thank you…thank you, Sir Victor, thank you two… I am so sorry… I never meant to… You’re all very kind…”
Victor is kind, John is kind, Sherlock is baffled, but they do have a point, there’s no real reason to have him put away, he didn’t actually hurt anyone and he’s not going to reoffend unless he’s got family record stashed in another historic building, still Victor ought to be angrier over the damage to his property and difficulty it’s all caused but that’s none of Sherlock’s affair, he supposes…
“It’s all right,” Victor assures him magnanimously. “We’ll get you the rest of your things and perhaps when you’re done using them to find your family, you’ll allow me to display some of them in the little museum I’m planning, along with a bit of your family story? It’s an important part of Corvin Castle’s legacy. Sherlock, why don’t you and John go back? I’d like to talk with Angus and help him with his last extraction. I’m curious to see how it works, and I’m sure John could use a rest.”
“I could do, at that,” John admits, which means the pain is really bad again, and Sherlock agrees.
“Too bad whatever passage between the castle and down here that existed is blocked up,” John comments as they trudge back down the tunnel. “I can’t say I fancy walking, what, six kilometres, to reach a place that is basically right above my head.”
“Mmm…” says Sherlock, lost in thought.
“Something bothering you?”
“Everything about this bothers me. McKellig’s story was obviously true, but it doesn’t make any sense. So much effort for so small a thing, he doesn’t even have any guarantee he’ll find his people, or if he does that they will be interested in knowing him. The risk/reward ratio is completely off. And Victor… all the expense and the trouble this had caused him. He just waved it off like it didn’t matter. Sentiment, again?”
“Something like that. Look, neither of us talk much about our pasts and our families, even to each other, right? Even after a year, even after we became…us… We still don’t often delve too deeply.”
It’s true, there’s a lot he doesn’t know about John, he’s deduced some and could find out the rest if he tried, sometimes John shares things unexpectedly, but he doesn’t like to think too much about John-before-Sherlock, that person was different, that person wasn’t his friend, it made him think of how things might have been different, if John had never joined the army, if John had died of his wounds, if John had never been wounded and not come home, it did not rest easy in his mind, just like contemplating where he had nearly ended up, how close he’d come to…
“It doesn’t matter what came before, John. This is what matters, now.”
“I agree, mostly,” John says. “But we know. We know who were are and who our parents and grandparents were and who we came from. We might ignore it or regret or loathe it, but we know. Can you imagine having a mystery like that and living it with it for years with no hope, and then suddenly finding out everything you need is with arm’s reach?”
When put that way, it does make sense to Sherlock.
It would be torment, complete torment, not that he’d actually want to have anything to do with any family he might discover, but not knowing would be unacceptable, it would have to be solved before he could tend to anything else…
“And Victor… he also has no family, so he’s sympathetic to McKellig’s plight.”
“Exactly. It must be even worse for him, really, because he thought he knew who he was for a long time and then suddenly he didn’t any more. I’m sure he’d do anything to get that back, but the closest he can manage is helping out McKellig.”
“You feel for him too?”
Maybe this is why Victor clings so stubbornly to his faith, he said he liked to feel like he was a part of something, he had no people so the church gave him a simulacrum of family, McKellig had joined the navy for the same reason, he guessed, even John’s entry into the army had been a means of gaining connection, Sherlock doesn’t understand that need, he doesn’t want to be a part of something bigger, he prefers to be the something bigger himself, which is what had drawn John and Victor to him to begin with…
“I do,” John admits. “He didn’t mean any harm. And you have to agree, it’s rather nice.”
“Solving a case where everyone lives and there’s not actually a bad guy. Victor has his answer, and a new compatriot, we both got one hell of a chase out of it, and McKellig is going to find his past. It’s a good day, Sherlock,” John declares, slapping him on the back. The sun is starting to come up over the ocean.
“I suppose it was,” says Sherlock, brightening. “Now, lets get back – I’m famished!”
“We should get the first train in the morning,” Sherlock comments that night, folding his shirts precisely. They had slept away most of the day after the overly exciting night before, and helped Victor with some loose ends, but now there was nothing left to do. “The sooner we’re back in the city, the better.”
John agrees. “Are you going to say goodbye to Victor?”
“I said goodnight. I don’t imagine he’ll be up before we leave.”
“Hmm.” John makes a thoughtful noise, but says nothing.
Sherlock continues packing for a moment, then says, “Do you think I ought to say something else?”
“If you’re asking my opinion honestly… yes, I do.”
“What would I say? Why?”
John sighs and asks a question Sherlock does not expect. “Sherlock, did you love him?”
“John, you know I don’t –” he begins sharply, but John shakes his head.
“I know, I’m not talking about you now. I’m talking about eighteen-year-old you, maybe a little less cynical, a little innocent, spending hours and days and months with someone you couldn’t take your eyes off of, feeling that pull for the first time… Did that Sherlock love him?”
Sherlock falls silent. Had he?
He detests the thought of it now, but what had he been like all those years ago, when he still retained some shred of youthful optimism, it hadn’t been like any of the things that had been introduced to him as love before, but it had felt like some of the poetry Victor had read aloud to him in the evenings, like the little compositions Sherlock had written and played just for him, was that what most people meant when they said love…
“I think… I may have,” he says at last, with difficulty, cringing even as he says it.
John nods knowingly. “Well, I think you should go tell him that.”
“Because he still loves you, loves you enough not to say a word about it, enough to not even try to come between us. He deserves some recognition of what you had, some closure.”
“How do you know? And what would it serve?”
“I know what it looks like,” John sighs. “Sometimes when I see at him looking at you it’s so clear that it hurts to watch. And because I have you and he doesn’t and never will again, and he should at least get to hear it one time in his life and know that it was real then, even if you hate the whole concept now. Even if you don’t think you really mean it.”
Sherlock notices that John is wavering a bit, like a candle almost being blown out, and is clearly in distress. Sherlock sits next to him on the bed, legs and sides touching. He’s upset, Sherlock can feel it, but he’s not sure what to make of it. A thought occurs to him, a bit of a horrible one, but he had better to ask to be certain.
“John…Do you need to hear—”
He can’t do it, can’t ever say it to John, not even pretend he can, it’s so wrong, it’s the antithesis of everything they are, isn’t it, but what if John needs that and he can’t give it to him, what then…
John shakes his head vehemently before Sherlock is forced to finish the sentence. “That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m fine. I’m yours and you’re mine and that’s all we need. Don’t worry.”
Sherlock relaxes. “Then why are you so concerned about what I say to Victor? It’s likely neither of us will ever see him again.”
“Because I can imagine what it would be like to be him. I think about what it would be like to have you and lose you and then have to watch you with someone else, and it… it breaks my heart.”
Sherlock doesn’t understand this, but he trusts John’s judgement in these matters and he doesn’t want to upset him any more. He doesn’t want to upset Victor either, and he had thought that refraining from talking about that part of the past the best way to prevent it. But perhaps he had misjudged.
“You won’t be angry? I would think that my saying something like that to someone else would hurt you.”
“No. Not like this.”
“You’re being… compassionate?”
“Compassionate would have been for us not to come here, I think. Merciful is the best I can do now.”
Sherlock understands that even less, but nods and slips quietly out of the room to find Victor. The castle is a maze, but he eventually finds him on a terrace on the second floor. After three nights of cold and fog, a new air system has moved in and it’s an unusually warm evening, no wind to bring a chill. Victor is leaning against the railing, smoking a pipe, and watching the ocean beneath the bright stars.
Perhaps he doesn’t actually need to say it, perhaps there is a way to give Victor resolution without getting into it, Sherlock must be able to make him see somehow…
“Leaving first thing, then?” Victor asks without turning around to see who it is. Sherlock goes to the railing as well, but they don’t look at each other.
“Yes, I believe so. Unless there’s anything else you need.”
Victor shakes his head. “You’ve done me a great service. That’s all I can ask. You’re a faithful friend, Sherlock, even after so many years. Thank you.”
The words are right but even Sherlock can hear that the tone is strangely flat, like he is unable to keep up his usual good cheer.
“Victor,” he begins hesitantly, then stops, unsure of what to say next.
There is a long silence, and then Victor says suddenly. “Do you remember my father’s orchard?”
In an instant, Sherlock is back there, with a vividness that is startling.
Sherlock is sitting with his back to an apple tree on a hot summer afternoon, poring over an anatomy textbook and gnawing idly on a green apple, completely absorbed and unaware of the sunny day or the blue sky or the peaceful idyll which surrounds him. Out of nowhere, an arm reaches down and snatches his book out of his hand.
A red haired boy is perched on a tree limb above him, and he laughs like a sonata and tosses Sherlock’s book into the air, catching it again easily.
“Victor, give that back! I need to finish it.”
“It’s holidays, Sherlock. You’re missing a perfect day.” His laugh tinkles again. “Your books will still be there tomorrow.”
Sherlock scowls and Victor flips easily out of the tree, still holding the book and landing on his feet in the tall grass. Sherlock makes to grab his property, but Victor is quicker, slipping it behind his back and ducking around the tree trunk.
“You’ll have to catch me if you want it!” he calls, making for the shelter of another of the ancient trees around them. “I’m not letting you mope another glorious summer day away!”
Sherlock chases him, furious at this intrusion and at the delighted giggles Victor is taunting him with. “See, you’re having fun already!” he calls to Sherlock. He vanishes in a dense patch of trees. Sherlock follows and stops in the middle, listening keenly for breathing. Slowly, he approaches the oldest, most gnarled of the group and, in a flash, pops around the other side, snaking an arm out and grabbing Victor by his slender wrist, finding their faces suddenly only inches apart.
“Got you,” Victor says breathlessly.
Sherlock looks puzzled. “You caught me?”
Victor grins and darts forward, pressing his lips to Sherlock’s. Sherlock tastes tart fruit and green grass and sunshine. His eyes blow wide as Victor pulls away, still grinning. “Yep. I got you.”
Sherlock forgets completely about his book, merely staring at his companion in surprise and something akin to happiness, until Victor laughs once more and says, “Now, you can either come swimming with me or you can watch me toss your book in the lake!”
He takes off running, barefooted, through the orchard as it slopes down the pond below, and with only a little hesitation Sherlock follows, for the first time in his life looking forward to a swim…
“I…I remember it fondly,” Sherlock says, shaking himself out of his reminiscence. “Very fondly.”
Victor nods beside him. “You know, I built those hives for you.”
“For me? But… you hadn’t seen me in years.”
“I took up beekeeping because it reminded me of you. I never really thought you’d see them, but whenever I worked on them I thought of you.”
Sherlock is lost now, but realises he has to say something.
“That was…kind of you to want to remember me,” he offers, but Victor doesn’t reply.
The silence hangs uncomfortably and Sherlock fidgets. He tries again, even more awkwardly.
“Victor… the orchard…our time together... those kisses...” Victor’s head jerks up. Neither of them had ever mentioned it directly before, not even when it happened. “They number among my most precious memories.”
“Mine too,” Victor says in almost a whisper.
He was hoping that would be enough, but it’s not, John’s right, Victor needs something more, Sherlock doesn’t know if he can give it to him, at least not now, maybe once, maybe if that golden day hadn’t slipped away into the nightmare that Victor’s life became and they had been allowed to finish growing up together, but it’s gone and can’t come back, Sherlock doesn’t want it to because there is John now and nothing is better than that, still Sherlock owes Victor something, he understands that now...
It goes against every instinct, every practise Sherlock has trained himself to have for nearly two decades, but he sees no other way out. He doesn’t have to like it, but it would be cruel not to say it at least once. He doesn’t want to be cruel, not to Victor, not to John. They may be the only two people Sherlock never wants to be cruel to, even if he often is.
He puts a hand on Victor’s shoulder, who blessedly still does not turn to look at him. “Victor, I know I never said… we never said…” Sherlock begins with difficulty. “But I think I should tell you... I did…love you. And I should have made sure you knew that before you went away.”
Victor bends his neck to press his cheek against Sherlock’s cool fingers for a moment, letting out a long sigh. “I… I loved you as well,” he says in a carefully controlled voice. He puts his lips to the back of Sherlock’s hand and kisses it for a long moment, meeting Sherlock's pale eyes with his sad, but grateful, blue ones.
Sherlock wonders if he should say anything else, but Victor has turned back to the ocean. He leaves quietly and goes back up to their bedroom, where John is in bed but not asleep. He sits on the edge of the mattress. John comes over to him and wraps his legs around Sherlock’s waist and his arms around Sherlock’s chest, resting his chin on his shoulder. “All right?”
“That was…painful. Why was that painful? Shouldn’t it have felt…better?”
"Sometimes things that make us better don’t feel like it at the time. I’m proud of you for doing that, I know it wasn’t easy but it was the right thing.”
“Yes, I think it was,” whispers Sherlock. “I just didn’t expect to…”
“To mean it.”
“And it’s okay? Even though I can’t…I don’t… with you… It’s awful of me, I should… but somehow it’s not right, I can’t make those words match what I think about you, they seem wrong and hateful and like they represent everything I don’t want us to be… And yet with Victor they seemed right. How is that possible?”
They had seemed right, it was quite a shock, suddenly realising that he had loved someone once, someone other than his mother, and his brother when he was very small, he feels guilty now for thinking it, wrapped in the arms of a man he can’t ever love, of course John is a category apart from all that, far more vital, a category that includes oxygen and water and light, but normal people don’t understand, John’s not normal but he craves love, Sherlock knows, if he doesn’t have it will he sicken and fade and go out…
John is silent for a minute, but still holding Sherlock tight as ever, flickering tenderly against his cheek, warm and orangey, like a caress. Finally he says, “That’s because those words were what the eighteen-year-old Sherlock needed to say to the eighteen-year-old Victor. You’re older now, you’re different now. Maybe if you had ended up staying with him, you’d think about it otherwise, but you didn’t, you became someone else, you found your way to me, and what we have is not what you and he had and never could be. That’s why the words don’t work for me, because they mean something entirely separate to you now. And I don’t need them, I have you.”
He kisses the back of Sherlock’s neck. “Besides, we have plenty of words between us, don’t you think?”
So many words, their own language they have built between them, imperfect and forever in progress, but enough to make each other understand, which had once seemed impossible, good and Not Good, yours and mine, dwarf star, dark nebula, countless insults-turned-endearments, a hundred terms for darkness and a thousand for light which blazed together in moments when no other words could bear the weight…
He pulls Sherlock backward until they are face-to-face on the bed, with John’s arm under Sherlock’s head and his other hand on Sherlock’s hip.
“You look like a lamppost in the snow at night,” Sherlock tells him, because he does.
“And you are my favourite dark thing in the sky,” John replies.
“John… do you…” Sherlock begins, then halts.
“Do I what?”
“I realise I’m not always…good… at understanding what people need. I had no idea what Victor needed. I had no idea I needed it too.”
John smiles. “Well, that’s what you have me for.”
“Indeed. But I think I must ask… do you have what you need? Sometimes I think I must neglect you terribly, and I don’t want you to… wilt…”
John raises an eyebrow. “I’m not cut flowers, Sherlock. I have ways of expressing and obtaining the things I need. Look, emotionally this isn’t like any other relationship I’ve ever been in or even heard of. But I don’t want it to be. Yes, it would be easier if things were more typical as far as that goes, but it’s also wouldn’t be you.”
“You will tell me? If you need something and I’m not… I don’t…”
“Well, this is a new one,” John says thoughtfully. “You making me promise to talk to you about how I’m feeling. This might even count as progress.”
“Yes, Sherlock. I promise. Better?”
“Better,” agrees Sherlock happily.
“Good. Now, I’ve had about as much of the country as I care for. Let’s go back to Baker Street. I’m ready to be home.”
Home, Sherlock likes the sound of that, he doesn’t like to be away too long, 221b has become as much apart of his identity as his clothing and his lab equipment and his habitual antagonism of his brother, he doesn’t feel like himself when he’s gone for long periods of time, but being away from Baker Street with John is still preferable to being there without him, thankfully he doesn’t have to choose right now and hopefully not ever…
“Yes,” he says. “Home.”