The first time they’re introduced to each other, Sherlock stares at John for the length of three heartbeats, his gaze flying from John’s shoes to his jumper, his tie – all brand new and part of the uniform – and ending on his face.
John tries to smile, feeling a little intimidated. It’s kinda silly, because he’s a year older than Sherlock and it’s not like underclassmen faze him or anything. Still, it’s the first time he meets a Prophet. Even in his own head, he makes sure to use a capital P. Not just any Prophet either, but the youngest of three in England at the moment. The most promising one, everybody says – if only he is paired with the right interpreter. No need for the uppercase there. Some people think interpreters are special, but John knows his place.
He only hopes this can truly be his place.
“Twin lambs,” Sherlock says, then turns away, never having shaken the hand John proffered.
The three adults standing around them look at John expectantly. Or rather, two of them do: the Academy’s Headmistress and the Minister of the Future. The third one, a severe looking man in a crisp suit who was there during each of John’s interviews and tests but never said a word, keeps looking at Sherlock, who stepped away and is now standing by the window, his forehead pressed to the fogged glass.
“What does he mean?” the Headmistress asks eagerly.
John’s throat tightens a bit. His first Message. Did it really have to be this one? There’s no doubt in his mind that he’s right, though. He can practically feel the meaning of Sherlock’s words like it was carved into his skin, can hear it like music composed for his ears only. His interpretation scores were good, but he never thought it’d be so easy.
“He means I’ll be his interpreter for two years,” he says quietly.
The Headmistress and Minister look at each other, and there’s a hint of disappointment there. Prophet and interpreter are usually paired up for life – except that Sherlock has run through five of them since he was first identified at age ten, six years ago. If John lasts two years, it’ll be twice as long as anyone else, but still not enough.
By the window, Sherlock huffs. That, too, John can interpret, though he doesn’t say anything.
That huff means, “Either you’re another idiot who only understands half of it all or you’re too scared to tell them what I actually meant.”
John isn’t scared of Sherlock or of the adults around them. But he is scared of this Message. He is scared he’ll be there, in two years, right next to Sherlock, watching and unable to do a damn thing when he dies.
Because the true Message was, “Don’t expect to make a career out of this interpreter thing. I’ll die in two years.”
For the first time in his life, John wishes he’d never taken the Cassandra Tests.
The first few days at the Academy are… cold. And it has nothing to do with the January weather.
Everyone here was identified by a Prophet as being important to the future of the world – and to the Crown – in some way. Or rather, everyone is supposed to be important some day. John’s own importance is fully dependant on Sherlock’s. And then there are those rumors that a spot in the Academy can be bought, if the parents only know the right people and pay the right price. Who could tell, though? Personal Prophet predictions are sealed by law.
Right now, the hundred or so students are no different from the ones in John’s old school. They’re immature, or lazy, or exuberant, or shy, or fun, or a thousand other things that teenagers can be. And they’re also cruel in a way that only teenagers can manage.
If it was cruelty toward him, John would shrug it off. He’s had a lot of practice learning to let comments about his mother, his sister, his clothes, his hair, his height, every damn little thing about him slide off like innocuous water drops he can just shake off. He couldn’t keep taking a swing at every damn idiot who looked at him wrong, so he learned.
But when vicious jabs are flung at Sherlock, it feels different. Very different indeed. Like mud rather than water. And Sherlock just sits there, in class or in the cafeteria, utterly still in a way that, to anyone else, might mean he doesn’t care. John hears it as the unending shout of pain and rage and despair that it is.
It takes him a while to understand. Why are they so mean to Sherlock? He’s a Prophet, for god’s sake! Someone finally clues him in. Prophets are honored and respected for the knowledge they impart. How can Sherlock be a true Prophet when he never, ever says anything?
By day four, John has had enough. He can’t actually believe he’s endured it this long. When they wake up that day in the five-bed dormitory and one of their peers says something idiotic toward Sherlock, something John doesn’t even want to remember after today, John stands from where he’s putting on his socks at the foot of his bed. With one sock on and his shirt only half buttoned and untucked, he crosses the room and punches Anderson in the nose.
It doesn’t break – John knows how much force it takes to break a nose, and he has a small idea of how much he can get away with at the Academy and a broken nose is on the wrong side of the line – but damn if it’s not satisfying to look at that bloody idiot sprawled on the floor and blinking wildly up at John. Their other two dorm mates look for a moment like they might intervene, but a hard look from John and they wisely think better of it.
“You leave him the fuck alone, you hear me?” John says, ostensibly to Anderson, but he has no doubt the message, his message, lower case and still very important thank you very much, will spread through the Academy. He might have to repeat it, but he’s ready for it. “You leave him alone, or I’ll make you.”
When Anderson does nothing more than blink, John turns, very calmly, and goes back to his abandoned sock. In no more than a handful of seconds, it’s only him and Sherlock in the dormitory. Sherlock hasn’t moved a finger since John first stood from the bed. He’s watching him with a light frown and an expression John can’t really place – but then, he’s trying not to look at Sherlock.
“That was stupid and entirely unnecessary,” Sherlock finally says.
They are the first words John heard him utter since their first introduction. And he hears the Message behind them loud and clear.
“You’re welcome,” he says, grinning.
Sherlock looks away, but not before John can catch the smallest of smiles flickering on his lips.
The classes are not what John expected. Being a year ahead of Sherlock, he figured he’d have to sit through stuff he’d already learned. Not so. Students at the Academy make up their own schedule according to what they are interested in. Sherlock’s classes include the most advanced science courses the Academy offers and in three of them, he’s not even following the same curriculum as the rest of the students but has his own work and experiments set up in a corner.
John has to work hard – very hard – to catch up with the rest of the class, and he doesn’t bother trying to catch up with Sherlock. It occurs to him that, with everything he learns here, he could easily get on track for a medical career after…
Two years seem like forever, at times.
But mostly it feels like it’ll be over in a flash.
The same day John punches Anderson, Sherlock talks to him at lunch time. Usually, he keeps his nose in medical textbooks, sometimes munching on a piece of fruit, never bothering to even acknowledge John is sitting across from him at the otherwise empty table. Today, he looks up from his reading just long enough to meet John’s eyes and say, “Counterstrike is a feminine word in French.”
John blinks. He’s not sure what surprises him the most: that Sherlock talked to him twice today, or that he’d bother giving John a warning.
And it is a warning.
Donovan will try to get him back for what he did to Anderson.
“Why her?” he asks, frowning.
Sherlock rolls his eyes and returns to his reading.
Suddenly uncomfortable, John shifts his shoulders and glances at the table across the cafeteria where Anderson sits with his clique, a mix of boys and girls. Sally Donovan sits on the other side of the table, although not directly across Anderson. She’s chatting with her girlfriends, but every so often she glances at him. The way she looks at his discolored nose…
“Huh. They’re together?”
Sherlock’s snort is a very obvious, “Of course they are. Are you blind?”
“Hey, I’ve only been here four days and we only have one class with both of them. Not everyone can…”
Sherlock’s eyes find his again. He doesn’t say a word, but it’s right there, in the blue that looks more like a storm than a summer sky. This wasn’t the Prophet talking; just someone who has eyes. After all, John figured it out too, didn’t he?
“Point taken,” he says.
Sherlock shrugs and returns to his reading.
“Although that is a problem,” John mutters, glancing across the room again. “Her coming at me, I mean. I don’t hit girls.”
Sherlock doesn’t look up as he says, “Your father will never stare out of mirrors.”
John’s breath catches in his throat. As far as Messages go, he doesn’t need to be an interpreter to figure out this particular meaning.
“No,” he says, a little choked up. “I bloody well hope not.”
They eat in silence for a little while after that – well, John eats, at least – but soon the Dean approaches their table, empty save for the two of them. It’s always empty.
“Hello, boys,” he says affably as he sits down, a clipboard in front of him. “I couldn’t help but notice you were having a little chat. Is there anything you want to share?”
He phrases it as a question, but it’s not a request. This is what John is here for. Listen to Sherlock, interpret his Messages, and share them when asked to. It doesn’t matter if it concerns the fate of the world or if it’s something private, John has to divulge it.
He’s starting to understand why Sherlock doesn’t talk.
Before John can figure out what to tell the Dean, Sherlock speaks again, his eyes flicking toward the other end of the room where Sally Donovan is laughing rather shrilly.
“Warm baguette isn’t always blue.”
John, who had reached for his glass of water to give himself a second to think, swallows the wrong way and starts to cough violently, his lungs burning. Sherlock raises an amused eyebrow at him over his book.
“Yes?” the Dean says before John has caught his breath again.
“Sally Donovan,” John says, still coughing a little. “She and Anderson… Well, if she’s not pregnant yet, she will be soon.”
The Dean’s head snaps up, his smile disappearing instantly. He looks around the room, and his eyes narrow when he finds the right table.
“Excuse me,” he says, already striding away.
John watches, bemused, as Donovan and Anderson follow the Dean out of the cafeteria, both of them looking rather stricken.
“La Marne won’t flood,” Sherlock comments.
John nods. “Apparently not, no. Thank you.”
Sherlock doesn’t reply, but that same tiny smile from this morning makes a fleeting reappearance.
The second week is a little easier. When there aren’t adults hovering nearby, Sherlock and John have what could pass as conversations. John quickly notices that they’re mostly about innocuous things. Rarely, if ever, does Sherlock predict anything. Mostly, he points things out to John: the Biology teacher cooks up hallucinogens in his private lab, the Strategy instructor can’t abide his English Literature peer and regularly spits in her tea, the Trelley twins, despite pretending not to be able to stand each other, have an incestuous relationship that, if it became common knowledge, would no doubt ruin whatever great purpose they’re supposed to have in the world.
Every time, John wonders if he ought to tell someone about all these bits of information. It’s what interpreters do, after all. And still, he keeps quiet, and whenever the Headmistress ‘accidentally’ crosses his path and asks if he has anything new to share, he shakes his head and looks down, feigning embarrassment rather than look her in the eye as he lies.
Sherlock always flashes him a smile, afterwards. And those smiles aren’t quite so tiny anymore.
At the three weeks mark, it’s time for a family weekend. Everyone’s parents, grandparents, siblings come to visit, and the corridors and grounds are buzzing with voices, laughter and puffed up pride.
John stays in his dormitory, intending to get ahead on his homework. He knows full well no one will visit. It’s not so bad; Sherlock is there, too, sprawled on his bed, staring up at the ceiling as though it holds the secrets of the universe – and maybe, to Sherlock, it does.
In the middle of the afternoon, the door opens after a light knock, and the same severe-looking man who observed John’s tests steps in. He gives John a light nod of greeting before going to stand by Sherlock’s bed.
“Hello, Sherlock,” the man says. “Would you care to walk the grounds with me?”
Sherlock doesn’t move except for the way his arms tense, folded up behind his head. “Peacocks in the winter.”
John bites the inside of his cheek and turns back to his notebook. He clears his throat softly before saying, “He means—”
“Piss off,” the man interrupts coolly. “Yes, I know, thank you Mr. Watson. Would you be so kind as to leave us for a moment?”
His ears a little warm, John looks a question at Sherlock. Sherlock glances at him, then nods once. Only then does John leave. He hates it, but he leaves. Only three weeks, and it feels wrong to be away from Sherlock. What if he needs to say something, something really important, and there’s no one there to listen, to understand? John’s stomach twists a little more with every step he takes away from the dorm. He goes as far as the end of the hallway and stands by a window, feeling a little awkward and very lonely in the middle of the happy reunions around him.
An entire eternity trickles by – a full ten minutes. He turns when someone clears their throat behind him. It’s the severe-looking man.
“Thank you,” the man says.
“You’re welcome,” John answers automatically. But then, he has to ask, “For what?”
The man’s small, fleeting smile is oddly familiar. “He said you’re being a good friend to him. That’s… more than any of the previous interpreters ever cared to be.”
John can’t help but frown at him. “He said that?” he asks, frankly disbelieving. “How would you know what he means?”
The man’s smile returns, now with a distinctly bitter tinge. “Oh, I know, Mr. Watson. I always did. But knowing what he means doesn’t always help. Not him, not anyone else. Just… keep being his friend, would you? I could have been his interpreter, but he wouldn’t have me as his friend anymore.”
And with that, he steps away, leaving John confused beyond words. When John returns to the dormitory, Sherlock’s curtains are drawn around his four-poster bed, and John doesn’t say anything. He wouldn’t know what to say if he tried.
Two months pass. On another visit day when no one shows up for either of them, John finds Sherlock in the Biology lab, stoned out of his mind. Apparently, the Biology teacher forgot to put his latest batch under lock. Or maybe Sherlock picked the lock. John doesn’t care how it happened. What he cares about is that his friend is convulsing on the floor, his pupils blown so wide there’s no blue left in his eyes, only infinite darkness.
John should get Sherlock to the nurse, he knows that. He should get an adult. He should do something, anything more than kneeling on the floor and holding Sherlock so he won’t flail about and hurt himself.
The thing is, he knows Sherlock won’t die today. It’s one year and a few months short of the mark. He won’t die, so there’s no need for the nurse, no need for a hospital, no need for anyone to know about this.
After a little while, Sherlock stops convulsing. He feels very cold. John sits with his back to the wall under the window, in a pool of warm sunlight, holding Sherlock with both arms around him, his back to John’s chest. One of his hands is pressed over Sherlock’s heart, feeling his heartbeat jump and stutter.
“Sparrows fly upside down,” Sherlock mumbles much, much later, when his heart has calmed down.
“Yeah? I don’t care. That was stupid. You’re not doing it again. Ever. You hear me?”
“The wind leaves no mark.”
John’s arms tighten. “You’re a bloody idiot and I don’t give a damn what you think. You’re not doing it again. If that means I have to remain glued to your side day and night—”
It’s the first time Sherlock has ever said John’s name, and there’s an entire discourse in that one syllable. John closes his eyes tight.
“Don’t try to save me,” that one word says. “You can’t. Nobody can. And I can’t save anyone. It’s all a lie. All of it. Prophets and interpreters? The world would be better off without them, better off without knowing what will happen. They don’t always stop it, you know. The Ministers of the Future in the entire world, they don’t always stop bad things from happening. They say they weren’t warned in time, or that the Prophet wasn’t clear enough, but really they only stop what they want to stop. What they care to stop. So what’s the point of it all? What’s the point of telling our Headmistress she’ll have a stroke on the last day of term? She’ll die anyway. Everybody will die. So will I. So don’t try to save me.”
Shaking his head, John says, “Day and night if I have to.”
It’s another long while before John helps Sherlock to his feet, then back to their dorm. Night has fallen. They missed dinner. John really couldn’t care less. He gets Sherlock to his bed and helps him strip. Their dorm mates snicker in the dark. John makes a low growl, something he never knew could come out of his chest. The snickers fade into silence. John sits on the edge of Sherlock’s bed until he’s sure Sherlock is sound asleep. Then he steps out of the dorm.
He doesn’t go, just leans against the door – day and night, he promised, and he meant it. It isn’t long before one of the proctors who patrol the corridors at night finds him. John tells him he has a message for the Headmistress. When he refuses to go to her, she comes to him in a pink dressing gown and white slippers. Her face turns as white as the slippers when John tells her.
He goes to sleep, but even despite being exhausted he can’t stay asleep for more than a few minutes at a time. Every time he wakes up, he sits up a little and glances toward Sherlock’s bed, only closing his eyes again after he’s identified his breathing among the sounds of the room.
John stays close to Sherlock after that, as he promised. Sherlock tolerates it. He doesn’t get stoned again. He doesn’t get a chance to do it.
On the last day of term, there’s an ambulance parked in front of the school when they cross the grounds to go to class.
“Crowned eggs,” Sherlock says, not meeting John’s eyes.
The Dean becomes Headmaster. The next term starts with a funeral service.
The summer vacation is fast approaching. John’s heart misses a beat or ten every time he remembers. How will he keep his promise when he and Sherlock have to go to their respective homes?
On the last family weekend of the year, the severe-looking man returns. This is his fourth visit. He always speaks to Sherlock alone. He hasn’t said a word to John since the first time. Today, he does.
“We were wondering if you’d care to spend the summer with us. Provided your family is amenable, of course.”
“Who’s we?” John asks, confused.
The man’s expression turns patronizing. “Sherlock and I, naturally.”
As if it were completely obvious. Which it’s not, at least not to John.
“So… Sherlock spends the summer with you?” he asks, now frowning a little. “How come?”
“Where else would he go?” the man asks, frowning as well.
“I don’t know. Home. With his family.”
The man’s lips tighten into a thin white line before he asks in a dangerously soft voice, “And who do you suppose I am, exactly, Mr. Watson?”
John feels dumbstruck. He always thought… “The government?” he offers in a timid voice even though he now realizes he was wrong.
The man snorts quietly. “Sherlock is my brother. I’m the only family he has left. So yes, he will spend the summer with me. Will you?”
John’s mother is ‘amenable.’ On the last day of the year, a black car picks up Sherlock and John. The man – Mycroft; John managed to get at least his name out of Sherlock – isn’t there.
It’s not a home. It’s an estate. Countryside, manor, barn, a pond, a small house for the cook-slash-maid and her groundskeeper husband. Many more rooms than actually needed, most of them empty.
It doesn’t feel like a home.
John’s bedroom is right across the hall from Sherlock’s. When he’s in bed, if he listens attentively, he can hear noises well into the night through the two open doors. Soft steps on the wooden floors. The light clinking of slides as they are set under a microscope and taken away. Glass vials bumping against each other.
“What’s all this anyway?” John asks one morning, standing in the doorway; Sherlock never invited him into his room after all.
Sherlock explains. Babbles, really. It’s the longest speech John has ever heard him make, and it’s the most passion he’s ever seen in his eyes. They’re cornflower blue, today, with gold sparkles as he explains… John really has no idea what. He smiles when Sherlock is done, nods as though it all made sense.
With a rueful grin, Sherlock asks, “Did the poem harmonize?”
“Not a word,” John admits. “But that’s okay. It’s nice to see you happy for once.”
Sherlock’s grin melts away. He silently mouths the word ‘happy’ like it’s the oddest thing he’s ever heard and he’s not quite sure what it means. Moments later, he turns back to the long desk on which his experiments are set up.
“Honey doesn’t just flow.”
Not quite sure whether he ought to apologize or not, John retreats. “All right. I’ll be in the library. Maybe we could play a game of chess later?”
Chess with Sherlock isn’t particularly fun. Not only is he good at it, but he can predict most of John’s moves. Unless, that is, John stops thinking and moves his pieces randomly, in which case Sherlock’s confusion – and his obvious appreciation at being confused – make it worth losing.
Sherlock doesn’t agree; he’s already lost in whatever it is he’s doing. John sighs, defeated. When Mycroft invited him over, he imagined… something else. He’s not sure what anymore. But it certainly wasn’t this, long days inside the mansion, meals prepared by the cook who otherwise is all but invisible, Mycroft coming in late on Friday nights and departing again early on Monday mornings, though he doesn’t interact much with John or Sherlock when he’s there.
Four hours later, having finished another book from the well-furnished library, John returns to Sherlock’s room to ask about that chess game again. Or maybe suggest lunch. The door is open as always. Sherlock is sitting on the floor with his back to the wall. His eyes are vacant. There’s an empty syringe next to him, and a red dot at the crook of his elbow. John feels like he’s going to throw up.
Cursing himself with every insult he knows, John goes to him, shakes him, talks to him. Sherlock blinks a few times, his head lolling on his shoulders.
“Rainbows have no beginning,” he murmurs, and John’s heart breaks a little.
“That’s not true,” he says, tears prickling his eyes, drawing Sherlock into his arms and rocking him lightly. “Not true at all.”
Sherlock lets himself be rocked. He doesn’t say again that he’s all alone and cold. They’re still like this when Mycroft finds them that evening, although John’s tears have long since dried, and Sherlock has fallen asleep. It’s a Wednesday.
“Maybe I should have warned you,” Mycroft says calmly, remaining on the other side of the threshold.
“About what?” John asks, his voice raw as though he’d spent hours shouting.
“About this kind of things. It’d been a while, I hoped…”
It’s obvious what he hoped. John doesn’t need to be an interpreter for this.
“At school,” John says. “Three months ago. I tried…”
Mycroft isn’t standing so straight anymore. His shoulder presses to the doorjamb. He bows his head.
After a moment, he steps in and, more gently than John would have thought possible, he picks up his brother and carries him to his bed while John stands. Two fingers check Sherlock’s pulse. Mycroft’s hand sweeps Sherlock’s hair out of his face, then draws a blanket over him. In the dim moonlight falling in through the open window, he looks old though he can’t be more than a few years older than Sherlock.
“He’ll be all right,” he says quietly.
He doesn’t say ‘this time’ but it echoes in the room anyway.
“Tell me what happened.”
The kitchen is bright. Too bright. John’s eyes are stinging again. Or maybe that’s the lingering smell of Sherlock’s vials and things being poured down the sink with copious amounts of water and liquid soap. He’s going to be mad when he wakes up. John can’t wait to shout back at him.
“When?” he asks, taking a sip of tea. The splash of scotch or whatever it was that Mycroft used to spike both cups makes him want to lie down and sleep for a week. “Today or three months ago?”
“Let’s start with three months ago. The school never said anything happened.”
John snorts quietly. “They don’t know. Nobody knows. I found him. I made sure he was okay. And then I made sure he didn’t do it again.”
“What did he take that time?”
“The Biology teacher… He cooks some strange things in his lab. Sherlock knew. He got his hands on some.”
Mycroft pulls a cell phone from his jacket. His call is brief, his voice like ice. John has a feeling that they’ll have a new Biology teacher by the time they go back to the Academy.
“Did anything set him off that day?”
John shrugs and takes another sip. He’s thought about that day a dozen, a hundred times. It was just like any other family day. Noisy and crowded – just not for them.
“I don’t know,” he says.
Mycroft gives him a look, like he doesn’t quite believe him, but finally he nods and says, “All right. What about today? What happened?”
John hoped they wouldn’t have to talk about that. Part of him knows this is Sherlock’s doing, Sherlock’s decision, and it’s not John’s fault in any way. But another part remembers all too well how his face fell when John said one innocent word.
“Earlier, I… He explained to me about his experiments. Well, tried to. I didn’t really understand. And I said he looked happy. And then… and then he wasn’t happy anymore.”
Mycroft doesn’t berate John for it. But he doesn’t say it wasn’t John’s fault either. Instead, he asks, in a quiet voice fully bereft of feelings, “Did he tell you what happened to our parents?”
John shakes his head. Mycroft finishes his tea before speaking again.
“Most Prophets are identified by the time they’re eleven or twelve. Sherlock started to make predictions when he was five. No one understood that was what they were. Our parents thought he was slow or autistic. They were so ashamed, they didn’t even seek a medical opinion. But me… I told you before. I was always able to interpret his words. And I… well, I didn’t think my brother would enjoy being a Prophet. He was already too brilliant for that. So I listened to him, I interpreted what he said, but I didn’t tell anyone.” He clears his throat quietly. “So when two years later he predicted they’d die in a car accident, when I told them he’d predicted as much, they didn’t believe us. They laughed it off. They scolded me for playing along with him. And they got in the car to go to some charity function.”
John eyes the golden bottle just beyond his reach on the table. He’s never cared much for alcohol, but right now he can understand its attraction.
“He holds me responsible,” Mycroft continues. “As well he should. But he blames himself, too. And nothing I say ever makes a difference. He was ten the first time I found him like you did today. He asked to go to the Academy so he’d get away from me. He won’t talk to anyone – not that it’d help unless they were interpreters. Do you understand what I’m saying, John?”
It’s the first time he calls John anything other than Mr. Watson. John swallows the lump in his throat.
“Yeah. Yeah, I understand. He wants to die. When we first met. He said… But you know what he really said, don’t you?”
Mycroft nods. “It wasn’t the first time I heard that particular prediction. Always the same. He’ll die at eighteen. But I think you’re wrong. He doesn’t want to die per se. What he wants, I believe, is to stop feeling. Stop hurting. The drugs aren’t so much an attempt at suicide as they are a way for him to feel numb.”
“But they’ll kill him,” John protests.
“I’m afraid they will, yes.”
“And you’re not doing anything?”
Anger pierces through John’s voice, though it doesn’t appear to touch Mycroft.
“I found you, didn’t I?” he says, an eyebrow raised, and leaves John with that burden.