The next morning when Sherlock wakes, he is sore all over. For a moment he forgets the cause of this, and then he remembers his relentless regimen of exercises, and the corresponding pain in his arms, his back, his shoulders makes sense.
Sherlock sits up slowly, wincing, and then lowers himself to the floor beside his bed.
He is determined to run through the exercises again this morning—he needs to do them as often as he can—but his body refuses to cooperate.
He tries to push his torso off the floor with the force of his arms but his muscles scream in protest.
Sherlock grits his teeth, tries again.
He makes it halfway up before his arms give out, and he lands on his face on the sticky floorboards.
Sherlock lies with his cheek pressed to the floor, panting, and feels the small kernel of self-hatred that always seems to be wedged somewhere just under his ribs give a vicious twist and then expand to twice its usual size, until it feels like it’s pressing on his lungs and he can scarcely breathe for the pressure.
He squeezes his eyes shut; feels waves of self-hatred wash over him like the slosh of dirty water in the base of the ship.
Why are you even trying? A nasty little voice in his head says. It won’t make any difference. You’ll never be strong. You’ll never be worth anything. May as well give up now and save yourself the effort.
Sherlock clenches his teeth against the voice, and rises, painfully to his feet.
He’ll try again later—he’s not giving up. He simply needs to wait until his body is less stiff.
Getting dressed is a painful endeavor.
Sherlock has never been so sore in his life. Pulling his coat on over his shoulders makes him hiss in pain.
He skips breakfast—the thought of confronting Anderson’s sneering face over a bowl of porridge makes his stomach turn. He considers staying in his room for the duration of the morning until his movements are less noticeably stiff but the threat of boredom gets the better of him.
Besides, no matter how much he wants to deny it, he cannot ignore the fact that he longs to catch another glimpse of John up in the rigging, or doing anything really, so long as Sherlock can see just one of his brilliant smiles, the reassuring white flash of his teeth.
He makes his way stiffly to the upper decks, holding tight to the railing, trying not to wince as each step jars his sore shoulders.
The day is hot and still like yesterday—the sails stretched wide against a bright blue sky, the sun beating hot and golden onto the scrubbed wood surface of the deck.
To Sherlock’s relief, the day is too hot for many of the other passengers to be out in the sun. They are probably all down in the passenger’s saloon, the ladies fanning themselves and gossiping, playing whist; the men, discussing politics.
After carefully scrutinizing every inch of the three masts and finding no trace of John, Sherlock lingers by the quarterdeck, watching the two sailors manning the wheel of the ship. He is impressed all over again with not only the strength, but also the precision it takes to steer this bulk of wood and rope through the belly of the ocean.
The ocean is relatively calm today, has been relatively calm since they left port, but still, Sherlock reflects, as he leans over the starboard rail and looks down at the foaming roar of water against the ship’s hull, the ease of the voyage so far is an impressive feat.
Sherlock suspects this has little to do with the captain, who, when not standing on the quarterdeck barking orders, stays locked in his cabin.
He is a large man with small, suspicious eyes, a sour disposition, and an infamously short temper. He walks with a limp they say is the result of a wound he suffered during the American War of Independence, fighting the French at Martinique. The rumor is that the constant pain in his leg is what gives him his surly disposition but Sherlock suspects there is more to it than that.
He is known to be quite fond of the lash.
Sherlock has never interacted with the man face-to-face but there’s something about the captain that makes him uneasy. He is not a stupid man, that much is certain, but something about his small, shrewd eyes, his distrustful stare, fills Sherlock in turn with suspicion and unease.
He is standing on the quarterdeck now, yelling something to the sailors on the mizzenmast, and Sherlock follows the direction of his eyes to see if he can make out the instructions.
Sherlock is interrupted by a sniveling voice in his ear.
“Well, well if it isn’t our little naval expert, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Always so keen to observe the goings-on of the ship. Tell me, Mr. Holmes, are you indeed planning on joining up before the voyage is out? I should warn you now, I don’t think your frail constitution could withstand the work. You wouldn’t last one day. You’d likely faint from exertion just cleaning up after the morning meal.”
Sherlock hunches his shoulders up around his ears, the sting of Anderson’s words striking far too close to home.
How is it that he can always sense when Sherlock is at his most vulnerable? He’s like a wolf that knows when Sherlock has been wounded, that can smell the blood on Sherlock’s flank, and circles in for the kill, jaws slavering.
Sherlock can feel his body actually trembling with rage.
“Those slender white hands of yours—I bet they couldn’t even lift a bucket. You don’t have any idea what real work is like. How could you? You’re a spoiled, aristocratic, little brat.”
Sherlock turns, fury stark in every line of his face. This time he really is going to punch Anderson, right in the mouth. He drops his weight back on his right foot like John taught him, pulls back his fist.
The roar of the captain’s voice causes them both to turn, Sherlock’s fist suspended by his ear.
“What the devil are you doing down there?”
Anderson opens his mouth to answer but the captain’s wrath-filled yell cuts over him before he has a chance to speak.
“You’re not meant to be diddling around talking to passengers! Get back to it! Otherwise, I’d be happy to offer you another taste of the whip. Or has it been so long that you’ve forgotten?”
Sherlock watches Anderson’s face turn from mottled crimson to white. The threat clearly carries real weight. The fear in Anderson’s eyes is as evident as the sun blazing down from overhead.
Anderson says nothing in reply, but before he leaves, he throws Sherlock a look that could peel paint off the starboard rail.
Sherlock glares at his retreating back. He doesn’t let his shoulders drop until Anderson is safely out sight. He shakes the tension out of his fist, rage still bubbling, hot and acrid-tasting just under the surface of his calm.
It’s probably for the best that Anderson was called away, but the urge to knock out a couple of Anderson’s teeth, to see the expression on his shocked and bloody face has become an almost physical need.
Sherlock has hated a lot of people in his time, but his hatred for Anderson eclipses all of them combined. The way he constantly follows Sherlock around the ship—it makes Sherlock feel like he is being hunted.
He spends the rest of the morning safely out of sight in his newfound hiding place under the foremast at the prow of the ship.
He is reluctant to go down for lunch, but his hunger has reared its ugly head and he knows he’ll need his strength if he wants to reattempt his exercises.
Luckily for Sherlock, Anderson is absent from the dining table so he is able to eat his stew in peace.
He eats as quickly as possible, avoiding eye contact with the other passengers, shoulders hunched up around his ears.
No one speaks to him and for that Sherlock is savagely grateful. He can hardly bear the sight of other humans today, much less stand to interact with any of them.
He pushes his chair back with a scrape as soon as his bowl is empty and leaves without a word.
Sherlock’s shoulders still feel stiff and sore and he cannot bear the thought of his body’s potential failure again so soon, so he heads back up top, hoping against hope that he will have just one glimpse of John.
He feels foolish for even thinking it but he cannot help himself.
When Sherlock emerges into the harsh sunlight, he sees a group of sailors sitting under the main mast, mending sails.
It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust but as he draws closer, he catches sight of a shock of fair hair, and to his delight, sees John, sitting in the crowd of sailors, sails covering his knees, his face lit up with mirth in response to what one of his companions is saying.
Sherlock’s chest feels as though it might burst from happiness. He hasn’t spoken with the other man in more than two days and he’s dying to ask John about his feat up on the yardarm the day before.
Sherlock rushes forward, almost tripping over his own feet in his eagerness, but before he can get close enough to say hello, he is seized with a sudden lurching feeling of self-doubt.
The thought of his affection for John on sudden glaring display in front of all those other people makes Sherlock’s insides clench in terror. He can’t possibly interact with John in the presence of all the other sailors. He can’t. He can’t do it.
He ducks behind one of the covered longboats on deck; partially conceals himself behind its bulk so he can watch safely from a distance instead.
Unbidden, into his mind, comes the disapproving voice of his older brother—cold, polished, heavy with disdain. “Always watching, never participating, that’s our Sherlock. One of these days, Sherlock, you’re going to have to do more than simply observe. If you want to learn anything about the world you’re going to have to get involved.”
Growling, Sherlock shoves the memory away, focuses instead on the rise and fall of the sailors’ voices.
They are a boisterous group, talking loudly, laughing while they work. Many of the voices are rough, sharply accented—Sherlock cannot pick out all the dialects but many are unfamiliar to him.
Someone is telling a story that is clearly very humorous. Sherlock can only hear snatches of it, but he’s fairly certain he wouldn’t understand the joke even if he could make it out.
Then, through the undercurrent of other voices he hears John’s laugh; that beautiful, full-bellied laugh that Sherlock has heard once before. The sound of it makes Sherlock’s heart beat faster; it is utterly lovely.
Sherlock peers out from his hiding place to get a better look.
He sees John elbow the man next to him good-naturedly, duck his head down toward the other man’s ear and whisper something that makes his companion cry with laughter.
He laughs so hard the tears run down his cheeks.
The other man pounds John on the back, and John doubles over, his own eyes creased to mirthful slits, the material in his hands momentarily forgotten as his body shakes with laughter.
Sherlock watches all of this, feels his own chest fill up with a riot of conflicting emotions—envy, longing, self-consciousness.
John makes it look so easy. It clearly comes naturally to him, talking to other people, liking other people; feeling at ease in their company. Sherlock doesn’t understand how John does it, how he can enjoy it so fully, so freely.
The other sailors are slapping each other on the back, telling stories, swapping jokes. There is a sense of comradeship between them that is evident even from where Sherlock is standing. They clearly talk to each other, relate to each other; enjoy one another’s company.
Sherlock isn’t like them; can never be like them.
There is an ache growing inside him, and the more he sees of John’s laughing face, the worse it grows.
John is like the sun—he makes everything brighter that comes within his orbit.
Well, if John is the sun, then Sherlock is a shadow; Sherlock is a scrap of cloud, obscuring his brightness, smothering it, sucking it down into himself. That’s what he wants to do, he realizes. He is like a leech, sucking the brightness out of the world.
Sherlock pulls his head back out of sight. He cannot stand to look anymore. His own freakishness feels as visible as a brand on his forehead.
Suddenly he can’t bear it, can’t stand to be within earshot of John’s laughing voice, knowing he will never be a part of it.
He hauls himself away from the longboat at his back, and makes his way as quietly and as quickly as he can back toward the stairs leading below deck.
Every step between him and the privacy of his cramped cabin feels like an eternity. Sherlock tucks his head down, walks as fast as he can, prays with every fiber of his being that no one will see him, no one will speak to him.
When he makes it to his room, he latches the flimsy door behind him and leans against it with something like relief. No, not relief; this feeling is darker, infinitely more painful. He cannot stop himself from sliding to the floor, his head in his hands, chest heaving with misery. His arms still ache. He curls in on himself, feels the self-hatred growing tighter and tighter within him, until he feels as though it will stop his breath.
It makes no difference, he tries to tell himself, John was never going to understand you anyway. He’s just like all the others—they never understand. To them you are strange, a creature apart. You will always be strange, always be on your own. It’s no different than it has ever been. There’s no reason to be upset now. Nothing has changed.
Sherlock curls in tighter around himself, his fingers digging painfully into his sore ribs.
Then why does it suddenly hurt so much?
He knows the answer but he cannot bear to think it. However, he can feel it down to the center of his bones.
It’s because John is like no one he has ever met. John is fascinating, contradictory, like a sudden beam of sunlight in an otherwise darkened room. Sherlock yearns to know everything about him—where he came from, what interests him, how he came to be the man he is today. But more than any of that—which Sherlock wants with every fiber of his being—he is realizing that he wants John to be interested in him too. For John to take notice of him, to care that Sherlock is present or absent—for John to want Sherlock just as much as Sherlock wants him.
He has never wanted anyone the way he wants John.
The realization takes Sherlock’s breath away.
He’s never experienced an emotion as complex as this, as deep. The feeling is vast, complicated—so immense Sherlock is afraid it will swallow him whole.
It is utterly terrifying.
Sherlock sits for a long time in the darkness, the fingers of one hand pressed against his mouth, his other hand pressed to the center of his chest, trying to adjust to the magnitude of what he’s just realized, trying to calm the hammering rhythm of his beating heart against his fingers.
He listens to the footsteps of the other passengers coming and going, the occasional creak of a door, the murmur of a voice in the cabin nearby, and under it all the constant deep groaning of the ship as it moves through the ocean.
Sherlock has never felt so alien as he does now, so apart from all the goings on of the other people on the ship—their everyday concerns and cares. It is as though he has been set adrift on his own tiny raft and pushed out to sea, their ordinary lives as far from him, as distant as the ever-shrinking silhouette of the retreating ship.
Sherlock hunches down over his own arms, making his body as small as possible, as though that will somehow lessen the impact of his suffering. He concentrates on the feeling, in the hopes that maybe if he tries hard enough, he can will it away.
He sits in the creaking darkness, feels the shudder of the ship through the flimsy door at his back, every bit of his will bent on ridding himself of this affliction, but it does no good.
Sherlock wraps his arms tighter around himself, presses his forehead to his knees, and aches.
Sherlock is not certain how long he sits there in the darkness, but gradually he recognizes the familiar swell of voices and the sounds of footsteps making their way to the passenger’s saloon.
It must be dinnertime.
Sherlock climbs stiffly to his feet, his sore shoulders aching worse than ever after so many hours of sitting without moving. He is resolved to go to dinner if only because he cannot bear another moment alone with his own thoughts.
A kind of numbness has settled over him to dull the shock, and he is grateful for it, although it leaves him with a strange, detached feeling, as though he is walking through a dream.
The other passengers are particularly raucous tonight. Everyone is in good spirits due to the fine weather they’ve been having and the smooth progress of the ship.
Sherlock listens to the ebb and flow of their eager voices, disinterested, but unable to block them out.
“If this weather keeps up, we could reach port earlier then they’ve predicted.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Jackson. Good weather never holds up at sea. Especially days like these. I reckon the wind will die down soon enough.”
“Always the broadcaster of doom, eh, Mr. Summersby?”
The other man puffs out his chest, offended. “I’m merely being realistic.”
A small, nervous woman who Sherlock is fairly certain is sweet on Mr. Summersby speaks up. “I heard one of the sailors say weather this fine means a storm is just around the corner.”
“Now see here, Summersby, you’ve made the women fearful!”
Although Sherlock is seething inwardly at the insipid nature of the conversation, he welcomes the distraction from his own turbulent thoughts. Anything to take his mind off his present situation is something of a relief.
A less welcome distraction is the presence of Anderson, who comes in late, and settles himself in the empty chair across from Sherlock.
Sherlock lowers his head closer to his plate, determined to ignore the scowling face of the man opposite but Sherlock can feel the force of his glare even without lifting his head. Anderson’s rage is as palpable as a sudden cloud moving over the sun. It feels as though all the warmth has gone out of the room.
Sherlock finds his already failing appetite completely abandoning him.
He pushes back his chair to stand up.
No one takes any notice. Sherlock often leaves the meal halfway through. The first few times there was some shocked tittering, but by now the other passengers are used to it, they simply chalk it up to one more strange behavior from the eccentric Mr. Holmes.
But this time Anderson calls him out.
“And where are you so desperate to run off to?”
Anderson’s voices cuts through the general chatter of conversation. Several heads turn with interest.
Sherlock ignores the question, rises to his feet.
“Are you off to go stare at your blue-eyed sailor?”
This question freezes Sherlock where he stands, one hand on the back of his chair to push it in.
Anderson leans back a little in his own chair, smiling in satisfaction, aware that he has the attention of the whole table now. “I saw you earlier today, hiding behind the longboats so you could spy on him. What are you up to, Holmes? Are you really so lonely that you’re desperate for the attentions of a sailor?”
Sherlock feels his cheeks flame with embarrassment.
This isn’t happening; this can’t be happening. He is dreaming and this is a nightmare.
The silence in the room is absolute.
“Oh come now, you can’t be this shocked that I’ve noticed. You’ve been trailing after him like a lovesick schoolgirl for the better part of a week. Surely, everyone’s noticed by now.”
The room is so quiet Sherlock is certain they can all hear the dull thud of his heartbeat, the sickness rising in his belly.
Now would be the time to punch Anderson. Right now. Sherlock should throw himself over the table and knock him from his chair, but it is as though he has been paralyzed. He cannot move; he cannot speak. He can only stand, frozen with horror, feeling the eyes of everyone in the room burning into his face.
Anderson is in his element; his chair is tipped back from the table with casual arrogance, balancing on two legs, and his triumphant smile is so broad it looks as though it will split his sneering face.
“I hate to break it to you, Holmes, but I don’t think your family is likely to welcome you back with open arms if you show up with a filthy, little sailor in tow. You’d better settle your sights elsewhere.”
This is too much.
The words seem to break Sherlock’s spell—either that, or his body decides he simply cannot bear any more, and before he’s made the decision to do so, he is running from the room, almost colliding with the porter on his way into the dining room, tearing down the hallway and back to his cabin.
Almost as soon as he reaches his bunk, Sherlock feels the urge to be sick and lunges for his bucket, heaving up the contents of his stomach until he is gasping for breath.
When he is certain there is nothing more to come up, he pushes the bucket away, and curls into a knot on his bunk, teeth chattering with misery, waves of horror rolling over him in a relentless stream, as constant as the beat of the surf against the side of the ship.
He wishes that the ship would capsize, for a squall to rise up out of the ocean and dash the ship to smithereens, pull them all down to their deaths beneath the waves—anything, anything to spare him the continued misery of life trapped on this floating capsule of other humans and their hatred, their mocking judgment, their disdain.
Sherlock lies without moving; wracked with misery, until sleep claims him and he is dragged down into dark dreams.