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Over Fathoms Deep

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The hours at sea are long and lonely.

Sherlock is bored; bored beyond belief, bored down to the very core of his being in a way that surpasses all the tedious hours spent in Sunday services, through long family dinners, under the droning tutelage of insipid schoolmasters. Boredom at sea gives new meaning to the word tedium.

He’s tired of the flat grey line of the horizon—never changing, the relentless pitch and heave of the ship, the creak of the hull, the groan of the rigging above him, even the dull glitter of the sun on cloudless days feels harsh and monotonous—seems to grate on him.

But worse than the boredom is the loneliness.

Sherlock is used to being lonely of course, used to feeling unwanted. That’s why he’s here after all, the youngest son, troublesome, useless, incalculably bright but unsuited for any worthwhile profession by dint of his temper, his sullenness, and his absolute refusal to follow any of the normal rules of etiquette in proper society. It was determined that ‘nothing could be done’ for the time being, so he’s been cast off, sent on a three-month-long sea voyage to some god-forsaken part of the world in the hopes that all the qualities that have made him such an intolerable nobleman’s son will be shaken out of him by trial and tedium.

Sherlock could have spared them all the trouble by assuring them that no change will come of it. A year away from civilization isn’t going to cure him of any of his bad manners because it isn’t going to change the fact that he knows he doesn’t belong in the world, that he can’t stand any part of it.

The other passengers treat him just as everyone has treated him his whole life—like some strange aberration that might do them harm if they get too near to him. They avoid him, and in his turn, Sherlock keeps out of their way. He doesn’t want their company. They’re the same as the society his family keeps—and they bore and enrage him simultaneously. The group is largely made up of petty aristocrats, the lot of them so busy scrambling to win one another’s favor that they don’t give a second glance to the sullen, dark-haired young man brooding by himself in a corner of the deck. Sherlock is glad of it. He’d rather pull off his own fingernails than talk to any of them.

The crew is another matter. They are fascinating to him, but for a different reason entirely they also keep well out of his way. To them, he might as well be another species—a strange dark bird hovering around them as they do their work, harmless, but not to be engaged with.

When the weather is fine, Sherlock spends the monotonous hours up on deck, watching the crew at work, the rhythm of their movements as they wind the rope, the dexterity of their sea-limbered bodies as they climb the rigging remarkable to him. Watching them, he feels overly aware of his own long awkward limbs, his thinness, ashamed of the memory of how profoundly he lost control over his body in the first few weeks at sea, how ill he was, how helpless.

However, if Sherlock is honest with himself, then he must admit that the real reason he spends all his time watching the crew is because of one sailor in particular, a man who stands out from all the rest like the glimmer of sunlight on the crest of the wave, the pearl lying in the mouth of the oyster.

The man is short, neither stocky nor lean, but his body is compact and capable, wiry with muscle from years of hard work. His hair is a shock of gold—bright from hours spent in the sun. He has a care-worn, expressive face that often turns up in a smile at the least prompting. However there is a hardness to him, a darkness in the corners of his face that speaks of hidden depths, of wars won and battles lost, a thirst for danger glittering just out of sight.

He is a curious mixture of both youth and age—at times Sherlock looks at him and thinks the man must be close to his own age, no more than a boy really, but other times, at the look in his storm-blue eyes, Sherlock can see fathoms there, and years of sorrow, ungrieved.

Sherlock spends hours watching his gentle, work-worn hands as he twists together lengths of rope, his bare torso as he climbs the rigging, the muscles in his arms shining gold under the noon sun, the muscles in his back as hard, as smooth as marble.

One day, he is sitting and watching the young sailor braiding knots into a length of rope. Sherlock can’t take his eyes off the speed, the dexterity of the man’s small fingers as he works. He’s trying to sort out the pattern with his eyes, to follow the rhythm of the complex movements when the young sailor looks up with a sunburned smile, blue eyes crinkling at the corners, and asks, “Would you like to know how to do it?”

Sherlock looks up, shocked; unaware his focus on the young sailor’s hands had been so obvious.

He is so flabbergasted it takes him a moment to reply. “What?”

His own voice comes out harsh and rusty, and Sherlock realizes in that moment just how many days it’s been since he’s spoken.

The young sailor continues to smile up at him, his eyes creasing against the glare of the sun. “I said, would you like me to show you how I do it?”

Sherlock drops his eyes, shame making the color rise in his cheeks. “No, it’s…fine. I’m sure you’re busy.”

He starts to rise to his feet, embarrassed that he’s been caught out, sure that the young man is making fun of him.

“I’m not teasing you. I really mean it. I’ve seen you watching me work. And I know that look, like your skull might crack if someone doesn’t give you something to keep your hands busy with. I can show you if you like, help you keep yourself occupied.”

Sherlock risks a look down and is stunned to see the man still looking up at him, now evidently trying to keep the smile off his face. “It would be my pleasure.”

Sherlock nods, speechless, still shocked that another human would not only take an interest in him, but show him kindness.

He moves to sit where he had been but the sailor gestures with his elbow. “Come sit by me so you can see better.”

Sherlock does so, moving as though in a trance.

Very cheerily and with incredible patience, the sailor begins to show Sherlock how to twist the strands of fiber together to make the rope.

Sherlock watches quietly, with rapt attention, his eyes focused with hawk-like scrutiny as the sailor explains to him how to emulate his movements.

When he finishes speaking, he hands Sherlock a length of the fibrous material to try himself.

After several false starts, and several gentle corrections, Sherlock slowly, stumblingly begins to copy the sailor’s movements.

They work together in silence for a time, and Sherlock is concentrating so hard, that when the sailor speaks again, Sherlock doesn’t hear what he says. He’s forgotten entirely he isn’t by himself.

“What?” Sherlock says, looking up, feeling foolish in the man’s presence for the second time that day.

“John,” he repeats cheerfully. “My name. John Watson.”

John, Sherlock thinks to himself, silently delighted. John, John, John.

“And whose company do I have the pleasure of keeping?”

“Sherlock,” Sherlock mumbles, careful to keep his eyes on the frayed tangle of cords between his fingers.

“Well, you’re quite good at that you know,” John says. “I’m amazed you’ve gotten the hang of it so quickly. That’s a skillful pair of hands you have there.”

Sherlock says nothing in response to this, but he can feel the pleasure uncoiling within him from the compliment, and it is as warm as the sun on his sallow cheeks.

***

That night, at dinner, flushed with his triumphant afternoon of companionship with the young sailor, still warm from the compliment and the man’s steady company, Sherlock is perhaps slightly less cautious than usual. Without realizing he has done it, he lets his guard down, doesn’t hunch his shoulders quite so tightly around his ears as he eats his soup.

It is a foolish mistake to think that any measure of happiness can be his for long. He should know better by now—know not to let his guard down.

One of the lower-ranking officers, who seems to yearn the hardest for the approval of the others, and often picks on Sherlock when he wants to show off—Anderson is his name—notices Sherlock’s buoyant mood, immediately starts in on him.

He leans across the table at Sherlock, his mouth curling into a mocking smile.

“I saw you with that blue-eyed sailor today, Holmes. What were you doing with him?” Anderson leers closer. Sherlock can smell the stink of whiskey on his breath. “Trying to learn a useful profession since your family’s cast you off? You going to join the crew?”

A chorus of laughter erupts at this remark. One of the men pounds Anderson on the back in triumph.

Sherlock drops his soup spoon, his cheeks on fire.

“Maybe you’d like to come and clean out my cabin after dinner? Put your new skills to good use.”

Another roar of raucous laughter greets this remark.

Sherlock, never very good at holding his temper on the best of days, immediately snaps back. “I thought that was the job of your good-for-nothing wife. Oh no, that’s right, you didn’t dare bring her with you, did you? You had to leave her behind in Liverpool thanks to her tendency to open her legs for any sailor who bats an eyelash her way. She’d have bedded half the crew by now—”

Anderson is out of his chair and across the table before Sherlock has even finished speaking.

The first blow catches him square in the mouth, the second blow knocks him from his chair. By the time another passenger rushes forward to pull Anderson off of him, Sherlock is on his hands and knees with Anderson’s boot in his stomach.

“That’s enough, Anderson! He’s an obnoxious brat, that’s certain, but you’ve had too much drink. Come on now.”

They drag Anderson off, and Sherlock staggers blindly to his feet and out the door, angry tears burning at the corners of his eyes as he races up the stairs to the upper deck.

It isn’t so much the sting of his cut lip, or the ache of his bruised ribs that makes him upset, but the shame that a greasy, weasely good-for-nothing of a man like Anderson can bring him to his knees in a fight.

The cool night air feels good on Sherlock’s face and it is a relief to get the stink of overdone-stew, the smell of warm whiskey, and the closeness of the other passengers out of his lungs. Sherlock drinks it in, in large grateful gulps.

He sits on a coil of rope, and stares up at the night sky, blinking angry tears out of his eyes, trying to calm the storm of impotent fury battering itself against his ribs.

A soft voice from behind Sherlock startles him out of his reverie.

“Everything alright?”

Sherlock jumps like a spooked rabbit, immediately hurries to wipe the tears off his cheeks. It’s the young sailor—John, Sherlock thinks with a swooping feeling, half-delight, half-terror.

Fear curdles unpleasantly in his gut—fear that this man will see him looking stupid, looking weak, because Sherlock is both of those things and he cannot live with himself if this man sees, if he decides that Sherlock isn’t worth speaking to anymore. He hunches his shoulders against John’s gentle, worried voice. All of a sudden, he can’t stand the thought of another human being, especially this man who is so fascinating to Sherlock—so filled with kindness and strength.

“What happened?”

Sherlock doesn’t answer. He draws his arms around himself, silently willing the other man to leave.

When John speaks again, his voice is so quiet Sherlock almost doesn’t hear him. “I see the way they treat you.”

“And what of it?” Sherlock rounds on him, forgetting to hide his tear-stained face in his fury. “Have you come to have a good laugh as well? To marvel at the freak on board? Go on then, do it if that’s what you came for. Have your laugh.”

“That’s not why I’m here.”

The gentleness in John’s voice cuts through Sherlock like a blade.

He turns away, hunches in tighter against himself as though he can block out the stars, the moon, the wind, even John’s kind voice if it means not having to feel so deeply all the time. More than anything most of the time, Sherlock just wishes he could shut it out, make himself completely numb to all the noise, the chaos of the world.

His voice is vicious. “I don’t need your pity.”

“I haven’t come for that either.” John sits quietly beside him. “Just came to say, if you’d ever like lessons in how to dodge a blow, and how to give as good as you get, well…” John shrugs. “I know a thing or two about fighting.”

Sherlock cannot help himself, he looks up, fascinated, speechless for the second time that day that this man would not only willingly seek out Sherlock’s company, but offer to teach him something useful.

Sherlock turns slightly to face him. “That would be…” He licks the blood off his bottom lip, and nods, in his eagerness. “I’d like that.”

The words fail utterly to convey his true feelings.

“Good.” John says, and then stands up. “We’ll start tomorrow. Go on and get a good night’s sleep.”

Sherlock nods again, his rage almost completely forgotten in his amazement over John’s proposition.

“Oh, and Sherlock? One more thing.”

Sherlock turns to look up at John. His worn face is soft with some emotion Sherlock cannot place. “Don’t let them get to you, alright? You’re better than the lot of them combined.”

Sherlock watches John retreat into the shadows.

Long after he can no longer make out the shape of the other man’s silhouette, Sherlock sits in the darkness, listening to the creak of the ship, remembering over and over again the sound of John’s voice saying his name.

Chapter Text

True to his word, John finds Sherlock the next day in the early afternoon, lurking by the main mast, watching a group of men roll up the sails. The more he pays attention to the work done by the crew, the more Sherlock is fascinated by the intricacy, the efficiency with which the ship is run. What he fails to understand draws his attention all the more, and there are so many details of the running of the ship that he is still trying to work out.

As usual, he is so absorbed in watching that he fails to hear John approach.

“You are an observant one, aren’t you?” The man’s voice is warm with amusement, and something else that Sherlock can’t quite put his finger on.

Sherlock turns to look at the other man, once again in awe of his ability to move so quickly without being heard. Sherlock would like to learn this skill. He feels like he’s spent his whole life attempting to vanish from sight, to observe without being seen, and yet somehow he always remains painfully conspicuous and out of place.

Sherlock studies John’s eyes, observes that today they are a different shade of blue entirely—as bright, as transparent as the blue sky stretched above them.

“I like to know how things work,” he says quietly.

John nods. “It’s a good quality to have. It means you’ll learn a great deal about the world very quickly.”

John holds Sherlock’s gaze. This is another thing Sherlock likes about the sailor—he doesn’t seem thrown off by Sherlock’s tendency to stare. He simply looks back, his expression open and searching.

“I have an hour or so before my next watch. Are you still interested in my proposition?”

Sherlock nods, attempts to hide his eagerness and utterly fails.

John laughs good-naturedly as Sherlock hurries to rise to his feet and almost trips in his haste.

“Come on, then. I think there’s a spot over this way that should give us enough space.”

They find an unoccupied spot on the foredeck, tucked away under the sails. Sherlock is relieved that this corner of the ship is relatively private, hidden from the rest of the deck by the sizeable girth of the foremast. He doesn’t think he could tolerate the prying eyes of the passengers and other crewmen while he is most likely about to make an utter fool of himself.

Sherlock has never been particularly skillful at physical endeavors. He’s always existed too much in his own head to spare much attention for the goings on of his tall, unruly body. He’s a fair rider and could have been quite good at it if he’d spent more time on horseback. But Sherlock hated hunting, and avoided it at all costs. It was worth the criticism he was forced to endure from his smug pig of an older brother to not have to spend hours crashing through the woods, searching for the desperate creature.

He always identified rather too much with the fox. “The poor thing just wants to be left alone!”

Mycroft had mocked him for weeks following that comment.

Similar to what Sherlock had experienced the day before, John proves to be just as skilled at teaching fighting techniques as he is at sailing knots. He is patient and gentle, but firm, and good at disseminating information in a way that makes sense.

Sherlock forgets to be nervous almost as soon as John’s smooth voice starts telling him about some of the basics of what to remember in a fight.

“It’s all about making use of the particular strengths of your body. You’re tall, you’ve got long arms—that’s good, that’ll make it easier for you to reach. It also means you can dictate the pace of the fight. If you can get your punch in with those long arms and then get back, you’ll be well out of his reach.”

Sherlock nods, his eyes clinging to John’s frame like a limpet to the side of the ship.

The day is warm. John has removed his double-breasted jacket, rolled his linen shirt up to the elbows. Sherlock’s eyes flicker appreciatively over the cords of muscle that stand out in John’s forearms as he puts up his fists.

“First, let’s go over the basic stance. Keeping yourself on your feet in a fight, more than anything, comes down to balance. So you’ll want to place your feet shoulder width apart, and you want your body at an angle, not directly facing your opponent. That limits the space of his target. You want your left foot in front, your weight back on your right foot. Just like that—good.”

Sherlock mirrors John, copying his movements exactly.

“Now, for your hands, you always want your hands up alongside your chin. Never let your hands drop for a second; otherwise you’re lowering your guard. Keep your elbows tucked. Good. You also want to keep your head down. Don’t look at your opponent’s face—look at his fists. That’s what’ll give you the most information about where the next blow is coming. It also protects your throat, which is a vulnerable place in a fight. So hands up, head down, and bend your knees.”

Sherlock does all this, hungrily absorbing each piece of information as he studies John’s movements.

“When you’re throwing a punch, it’s important to keep your thumb on the outside of your fist—otherwise you’ll end up with a shattered thumb and that hurts like the devil, I can tell you from experience. You want to place it here between these two fingers. Punch with your knuckles not the flats of your fingers, and always keep your wrist straight.”

Sherlock watches John deliver several jabs to the air and finds himself stunned all over again by the compact power in this man’s body—the efficiency of his movements, the speed. Just from looking at him, Sherlock can tell that there is deadly force behind each blow.

“Now you try.”

Sherlock puts his hands up, tilts his body like John said, tries to remain light on his feet, and swings his fist.

“Don’t wind up your fist. That lowers the power of your punch and it’ll make you lose your balance. You’ve got to conserve your energy. Keep your movements small and tight. Like this.” John demonstrates again, his jab fierce and quick. Sherlock’s eyes follow the movement with something like hunger. “Try again.”

Sherlock does, but there’s no force behind the blow.

“That’s better, but remember, even though your movements are tight you’re still using your whole body. Push off from your back foot. Use your hips. Here. Let me show you.”

John steps forward, places his hands on Sherlock’s shoulders to adjust his stance. Sherlock’s whole body tenses at the touch.

“You want your shoulders to be in line with your hips.” John’s strong hands move down Sherlock’s back to settle just below his ribs. Sherlock feels a shiver run through him at the movement like a bolt of lightning down a metal rod. “People think the power comes from the swing and some of it does, but most of it comes from here. You want to roll your hips as you throw the punch. This will help you keep your balance. But you’ve got to relax. Let the tension out of your shoulders.”

Sherlock tries, heat rising to his cheeks as he struggles to quell his body’s response. He is sure John can feel the loud thump of his heartbeat underneath his hands. But John’s grip is sure and steady, never falters, and gradually Sherlock feels his body begin to calm.

“Good, now throw your punch and I’ll help direct you.”

Sherlock does and John talks him through it, his hands guiding Sherlock by the hips.

“Start your punches right by your face and keep your motions tight. Follow through is everything. Keep your arm level with your shoulder, and always bring your hand right back to your face. Good, just like that. Feel the power that’s coming from your hips? Bring the tops of your knuckles just below your eye level, and snap the hand back—good!”

John steps back to eye Sherlock’s stance.

“Remember to stay light on your feet, head down, elbows tucked, fists up by your cheek.”

Sherlock does, tries to incorporate every detail of information that John’s giving him into what his body’s doing.

He’s wishing now that he had had the foresight to remove his own jacket. The sun is hot on his black curls and he can feel sweat beginning to crawl down his back.

“Good, that’s good. Now shall I show you how to block?”

A good while later, red-faced and out of breath, his shirt clinging to his back with sweat, Sherlock takes a step back, lifts a hand. He doesn’t want to suggest they take a break, doesn’t want to give any indication of his own weakness but he’s so hot he’s starting to feel light-headed.

John, on the other hand, doesn’t appear in the least fatigued. His eyes are glittering, watchful, as he circles Sherlock, throwing light punches his way, light but lightning-quick, to try and break in through Sherlock’s defense.

John is unbelievably fast and even though he’s curbing his punches, Sherlock can feel the power behind each jab as it strikes his fist, resonating through him to the core of his bones. It makes him wonder how it would feel to be on the receiving end of a real blow from the smaller man. He decides he never wants to know.

“Can we—?” Sherlock puts his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath. “Take just a brief—rest?”

“Oh, right.” John lowers his fists, laughs apologetically. Sherlock decides in that instant that he will never be tired of John’s laugh. “I’m sorry. Lost track of the time. You must be tired—here.”

John drops himself down on the deck and reaches into his waistcoat to pull out a small canteen.

Sherlock follows suit, momentarily forgetting his self-consciousness and stripping off his jacket. He rolls his sleeves up, tugs at his neck scarf to pull it loose, and uses it to wipe the sweat off his brow.

John passes him the flask. “Here, you look thirsty.”

Sherlock takes it gratefully, lifts the bottle to his mouth to take a long drink, and then almost chokes. The canteen is full of some strong spirit that burns like fire all down his throat and into his stomach. He breaks off, coughing and spluttering.

John thumps him on the back, grinning. “Sorry about that. I guess it might be stronger than what you’re used to.”

Sherlock returns it to him, watery-eyed, one hand up over his mouth. He swallows down the taste of fire and shakes his head. “No, thank you, that was… most invigorating.”

John laughs again. He throws his head back and the sound is one of pure joy. Sherlock has never heard anyone laugh so much and so freely. He finds himself smiling in return.

John looks at him and there is something like amazement in his eyes.

The smile drops from Sherlock’s face as quickly as it came. “What is it?”

John’s eyes go soft. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile. It’s… lovely. You look lovely when you smile.”

Sherlock drops his head, his cheeks burning. He is certain his entire face has caught fire.

“You should smile more often.”

There is something in John’s voice—regret? longing?—that makes Sherlock experience a strange flip-flopping sensation in his belly where the fiery alcohol is still churning. He suspects it must just be the drink.

Too embarrassed to respond, he stares out over the horizon.

The ocean is bright today and smooth—glittering under the expanse of the wide-open sky. It’s on days like this that Sherlock grudgingly admits that there is something beautiful about all that blue, but that might just be because of the way it brings out the color in John’s eyes.

John takes another pull from the flask and then twists the cap back on.

“You did well today.” His voice is full of quiet approval. “You’ll need to keep practicing, and more than anything else, you should work on strength training.”

Sherlock’s head flies up with interest.

“I can show you a few simple exercises to practice every day, help you build up your arm strength.”

John spends the rest of his free hour showing Sherlock how to do a series of exercises that will help strengthen his arms.

“Do those every morning, or as often as you can. It’ll give you something to help pass the time as well.” John grins at Sherlock, and then stoops to pick up his jacket. “Well, I’m off for the next watch.”

Sherlock is suddenly filled with panic at the realization that they have not arranged to have another meeting.

“When will I see you again?” he blurts, so panicked he forgets to feel self-conscious about the question.

Sherlock watches John’s face perform a complicated series of different expressions all in the space of half a minute. He cannot read them all, but is reassured when John’s face settles into a smile, tugging at the corners of his lips. “It’s not such a big ship. I’m sure you’ll be seeing me again before too long.”

And then, slinging his jacket over his shoulder, John disappears around the foremast.

***

That night, in his narrow cabin before going to bed, Sherlock runs through all the exercises John taught him, twice.

When he throws himself down on his lumpy mattress after, his heart beating fast from his body’s exertions, he realizes he feels tired in a way he hasn’t experienced for many months. He feels more alive than he has ever felt, his body tingling happily from all the exercise.

Sherlock closes his eyes, reflecting that he will sleep long and deeply tonight.

As he lies in the dark with his eyes closed, listening to the creak of the ship, he finds himself thinking back to his afternoon with the fair-haired sailor, remembering the way John’s body looked in motion, the ripple of the muscles in his forearm when he threw a punch, the hard line of his jaw.

For all his gentleness, there is something untamable, something fierce, shimmering just below the surface of his kind good looks. Sherlock feels as though he got a better glimpse of it today while watching John fight—the raw power of his movements as beautiful, as terrifying as the foam on the crest of a breaking wave.

Sherlock could feel the power in John’s hands just from his gentle placement of them on Sherlock’s shoulders.

Sherlock remembers the way John’s hands felt on his hips, small, but so strong, directing his movements; he remembers the feel of those hands sliding down his sides, skimming over his ribs. Even through all the layers of fabric, the resulting shock from his touch was like the heat from an open flame. Sherlock can feel it on his skin still, like two ghostly prints on his hips, gathering heat.

Sherlock makes a little sighing sound and rolls over in his bunk, suddenly all too aware of the coarse feel of the linens under his bare legs, the scratchy quality of the pillow under his cheek.

He feels hot, too hot—he pushes the sheet off of himself, shifts his legs.

There is a growing ache deep in his belly, a shivering, desperate feeling that makes him push his hand down between his legs and wrap his fingers around himself.

Sherlock doesn’t do this often—his body is usually mute to him, and he ignores it in turn, but today, all day, since his lesson with the blue-eyed sailor, Sherlock’s body has felt tingling, awake, yearning for something he can’t quite place.

As he closes his fingers around himself and begins to stroke, a small groan escaping his lips, Sherlock knows all too well what he’s been yearning for all day.

He presses a hand to his mouth to stifle any further sounds—the walls on this ship are as thin as paper, and Sherlock cannot bear the thought of the humiliation that would await him if anyone were to overhear him, engaged in this most private of pursuits.

Under his hand, he bites his lip, hard, forcing his mind away from thoughts of the other detestable passengers and back to the memory of John’s hands on him, so strong and so warm, guiding him.

Sherlock tries to imagine how those hands would feel on his bare flesh, stroking his flanks, holding him down against the bed, and he curls over his own fist, speeding up the movement of his strokes, his breath coming hot against the hand clenched over his mouth.

Instead of his own hand, he imagines it’s John’s hand pressed against his mouth, silencing him. He imagines John bending low against him; his lips warm against Sherlock’s ear as he murmurs an apology. He tries to think how John’s voice would sound in his ear, hushed and private, only for him.

A shudder runs through him at the thought of this, and he’s so aroused by now, his hand is slick with moisture. He rubs his thumb through it, whimpering, imagining it is John’s hand there, his touch hungry, reverent.

He imagines John’s lips on his throat, hot—searching, his hands moving over every inch of Sherlock; he imagines John’s lean thighs straddling his own, imagines the hard lines of muscle as they flex, as John bends to kiss Sherlock’s mouth, his hand stroking faster now.

It is the thought of John’s mouth on his that pushes Sherlock over the edge—his body stiffens, and he feels the hot pulse of liquid against his wrist as he finds release.

He rolls over onto his back, gasping for breath, and it is minutes before Sherlock feels calm again. He lies in the darkness, shivering and overcome, until thoughts of John’s arms around him pull him into sleep.

Chapter Text

Sherlock manages to make it through exactly half the next day before he starts consciously looking for John. But despite his constant scrutiny of the three masts and the corresponding rigging, despite his prowling the perimeter of the main deck like a gawky panther, there is no sign of the blue-eyed sailor.

He lingers by the door of the mess hall at dinnertime, hoping to catch a glimpse of him on his way in, but John does not appear.

Sherlock is too timid to actually enter the area where the sailors eat—he knows he doesn’t belong, and he’s too afraid to ask anyone where John might be.

When Sherlock is almost run down by a sullen-looking sailor with a tattoo of an anchor on his neck, he decides to stay well out of the way and goes to sit by himself on the fore-deck, in the same tucked away spot where John taught him how to throw a punch yesterday.

He sits in silence, wishing he could take up a length of rope and practice the knots John taught him, but the work is not his, and it wouldn’t be right to do it without leave from a member of the crew.

Sherlock swallows down his disappointment, feeling as useless, as unwanted as ever.

A shadow falls over Sherlock’s face and for a brief hopeful second Sherlock thinks it might be John, coming to find him at last. He scrambles to his feet, an eager greeting half-formed on his lips when, looking up, he discovers to his ultimate displeasure that it is not John, but Anderson, who has come to find him.

“What are you doing skulking back here, Holmes? I should think you have something better to do than lounging around on deck. But that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Your family never could find a useful occupation for you. I suppose being at sea wouldn’t change any of that.”

Sherlock curls his lip, thinks about the jab John taught him yesterday, pictures his fist connecting with Anderson’s smug face, shattering the bridge of his nose.

“What are you smirking about?”

Sherlock chooses not to answer. He moves to step around the other man, but Anderson thrusts his shoulder in front of Sherlock’s, blocking his way.

“Not so fast, Holmes.” Anderson dips his hideous mouth close to Sherlock’s ear. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about what you said the other night. I’m not ready to let you get off so easy, so you’d better watch yourself, if you get my meaning. I’ll be coming for you when you least expect it.”

Sherlock’s entire torso is vibrating with rage.

The urge to punch Anderson right in the gut is so overpowering for a second Sherlock’s vision blacks out. Before he can properly dismiss the impulse, Sherlock hears a shout from behind Anderson.

“OYE! Anderson! What are you doing?”

Muttering mutinously, Anderson drops back a step, putting a safe distance between himself and Sherlock.

A man appears around the foremast and comes to stand at Anderson’s shoulder, his eyes narrowed, clearly displeased.

Sherlock has seen him before although he doesn’t remember his name—he is second in command on the ship. He’s a younger man, but well weathered from his time in the wars, his hair gone prematurely grey. He has kind eyes, like John.

“What are you up to, Anderson?”

“Nothing, Lieutenant.” Anderson keeps the expression on his ugly face carefully innocent. “I was just exchanging a friendly word with Holmes here.”

“Doesn’t look too friendly from where I’m standing.”

The lieutenant stares Anderson down with a disapproving look.

“I heard you got into a little bit of trouble the other night—had too much to drink.”

Anderson opens his mouth, likely to say something nasty, but the other man cuts him off.

“My advice to you? Stay well out of it, unless you’d like to earn a few stripes.”

Anderson drops his gaze, scowls at his feet.

“Did you hear me, Officer?”

“Yes, sir,” Anderson mutters.

“Good. Now beat it.”

Anderson slinks away with his tail between his legs and Sherlock is so pleased to see Anderson firmly put in his place that he almost smiles.

“You alright?”

The lieutenant is talking to Sherlock, he realizes after a beat. Sherlock nods.

“He’s a trouble-maker that one. If I were you, I’d stay as far away from him as you can manage.”

The man’s warm brown gaze on Sherlock’s face is full of something like concern.

Normally, this kind of interfering advice would incite Sherlock’s ire but instead Sherlock finds he is full of gratitude. Perhaps it’s just that something about this man’s kindness, his steadiness, reminds Sherlock of John, or maybe it’s just the fact that he’s only the second person on board the ship to not treat Sherlock with either scorn or neglect. Or it could simply be the fact that anyone who’s an enemy of Anderson is a friend of his. Whatever the reason, Sherlock finds he takes an instant liking to the man.

“I’m Lieutenant Lestrade by the way.” Sherlock looks up, his gaze sharpening. Lestrade. A French name. But the man’s accent is clearly English. Curious. “If you ever need anything, well…” The officer inclines his head. “I’m at your disposal.”

Sherlock returns the nod, trying to convey his gratitude in his gaze. “I appreciate it.”

“I better get back to my post so I’ll bid you good day Mr. ... Holmes, is it?”

Sherlock nods again. “That’s right.”

“Nice to have made your acquaintance.”

“And yours.”

Sherlock watches the neat blue line of the man’s shoulders until they disappear around the foremast, feeling a bit bewildered by the interaction, but grateful all the same. Although Sherlock cannot understand the reason for the man’s kindness, the thought of an ally in future fights against Anderson is a happy one, and Sherlock will take what he can get.

Sherlock lingers on the upper deck as long as he can before going down for dinner but John never appears.

He casts one last look toward the rigging before heading down the stairs but John is nowhere to be seen. Feeling far more disappointed than he has any right to be, Sherlock descends into the darkness of the lower deck.

***

Another long, dull morning passes with no sign of John, and Sherlock tries to resolve himself to the fact that the sailor has a great deal of work to do, and cannot spend his every free hour in the company of bored aristocrats. The realization makes him feel foolish, and ashamed of his own entitlement, and the corresponding sour feeling in Sherlock’s belly makes him want to spit nails.

He finds himself longing for Anderson to appear and start picking on him just so he can have an excuse to be cruel to someone.

He’s about to retire to his quarters to escape the heat of the noon sun, when Sherlock notices a crowd of passengers gathered nearby, staring up at the top of the main mast, tittering nervously and pointing. He follows the line of their eyes and there, climbing his way down the masthead with a bucket in one hand and a brush in the other, is John.

Sherlock has seen John climb the rigging before but never with both his hands occupied. How he can navigate the tangle of ropes and sails and cables with both hands full is a mystery to Sherlock.

Sherlock stands frozen in place, watching; transfixed.

“What on earth is he doing?” One woman squeals in distress.

A sailor nearby eyes the woman’s quivering parasol with amusement. “He’s tarring the ropes, Ma’am. Got to start at the top and work down. Got to do it all. The shrouds, the back-stays, the spinnakers, the jibs, standing parts of the lifts, the runners, the ties, the foot-ropes… It’s all gotter to be tarred on a regular basis to keep out the rot. Hot day like this is the time to do it.”

“But he’ll fall!”

The sailor chuckles and shakes his head. “You don’t know our Johnny. He’s never fallen once. Ain’t never seen a seaman with such a pair of arms and legs as our Johnny Boy. He’s as nimble as they come. Just wait till he gets out to the yard-arms.”

They all watch as John climbs down below the foretop and then, true to the sailor’s word, when he reaches the yardarm, John straightens up, and begins to walk the length of it as easily, as elegantly as a man might walk down the street.

Sherlock almost gasps in astonishment at the speed with which he moves along the narrow wooden beam out over the water.

The sea is calm and flat today so the movement of the ship is minimal but even so, to see a man walk with such perfect ease on such a slender piece of wood with no trouble, all the way out to the edge of the ship’s vast girth, as though he means to keep right on going out into the sky—it takes Sherlock’s breath away. How John keeps his balance is impossible to understand.

Even from a distance, Sherlock can tell John is enjoying himself. His eyes are creased against the sun, his white teeth stretched wide in a smile. He swings the bucket almost jauntily as he walks, his movements casual but assured.

The woman with the parasol screams.

“Oh, he’ll fall! He’ll fall to his death!”

The jovial sailor laughs again. “Nah, he can hang on with his eyelids, our Johnny. He’s the best man for the job. He’s a right little monkey.”

They watch him reach the end of the yardarm and lower himself down with his bucket, the handle of his paintbrush clenched between his teeth, thighs straddling the beam tightly as he leans forward and begins to daub the thick tar over the stays.

“I can’t bear it! I can’t bear to look.”

The hysterical parasol-wielder is led away by her companion and Sherlock is relieved to be able to watch in silence.

The other passengers gradually lose interest and go about their business but Sherlock cannot take his eyes away.

The way John moves along the narrow yard-arm and then down through the rigging, tarring as he goes—it’s like poetry, like dancing, but it’s better than any of those things because the act itself is so much more dangerous, remarkable for its risk, but still filled with the same fluidity and grace. There is a practiced motion to his movements that makes it clear he’s done this job before, knows the ins and outs of all the places of where to put his feet, where to grip. It’s like the ship is an extension of his body, it comes so naturally to him.

Sherlock feels a thrill just watching him—the joy he takes in his own body is as bright, as evident as the sunlight on his hair, as the strong lines of his muscles standing out in his arms.

But what is most striking of all to witness is his fearlessness. You can tell from the confidence of his movements that he knows he isn’t going to fall. Or if he knows, he does not fear it. And that to Sherlock is pure magic. To have that kind of trust in the world—to leap, without fear of falling, into danger’s arms—it’s like nothing Sherlock has ever seen.

Standing on the deck, squinting up into the ship’s rigging, watching the sun glance off John’s golden hair, his body threading the air like a diving bird, Sherlock makes a promise to himself.

One day, Sherlock whispers silently, fiercely, one day he will be as fearless as John Watson.

***

Sherlock spends the rest of that afternoon in his cabin, running through the exercises John taught him until his arms are trembling, and his back is dripping with sweat, until he cannot physically lift himself anymore off the floor.

Afterward, splashing water on his face from his pewter wash-basin, shirt stripped to the waist, he peers down at his pale, thin torso, discriminating.

Sherlock has never liked his appearance—he’s always thought of himself as too scrawny, gangly arms and legs too long for his body. His coloring is dramatic and ill matched; his shockingly black hair makes his striking paleness all the more exaggerated. He’s been told his eyes are strange—angular, slanted, too high on his face—that they change color eerily depending on the light, on the time of day.

Freakish looking, that’s how he has most commonly been described. Even when he came of age, he never fully filled out, the high collars of his dark frock coat rendering his tall, lean frame into that of an awkward heron.

Unbidden, into his mind, streams the memory of years of insults from other children, from his hated cousins who would tease him, with Mycroft acting as their ring-leader until Sherlock ran, crying and red-faced to tell the Nurse.

“Cry baby! Cry baby!” They would shriek as fat, messy tears rolled down Sherlock’s cheeks, and then as soon as Sherlock lamented that he would tell on them, “Tattle-tale! Tattle-tale! He’s a dirty snitch!”

The Nurse was never much help to Sherlock. Mycroft was her favorite—she always thought Sherlock a strange and brooding child.

“He never smiles enough,” she would say to anyone who would listen, and then, lowering her voice, but not enough so that Sherlock couldn’t hear. “He’s got an otherworldly look about him that one. And have you ever noticed? He doesn’t look like any of the Family. Sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t left by the Faeries. A changeling,” she’d whisper dramatically.

This was another favorite nickname among the cousins. “Go back to the Faeries!” They’d yell, howling with laughter. “You don’t belong here! Go back to the woods where you came from.”

Sherlock would hunch up his stiff little shoulders and do just that. He preferred the woods to the large dark house where his family lived. There at least, there were no people to bother him, and there were miles and miles of fascinating plants and creatures to inspect.

This was perhaps another reason the Nurse considered Sherlock strange. He was always bringing home treasures that he’d found in the woods—beetle carcasses, empty bird shells, snake skins. One time he found a mouse skeleton in its entirety and when he’d tried to show it to the Nurse, she’d shrieked in terror and dashed it to bits on the floor.

Sherlock yanks his shirt back on with disgust, teeth clenched against the memories.

His body is all the more hideous to him now in light of what he saw of John’s that afternoon—the power in his muscles coupled with the levity of his movement—so sure, so strong, as fluid as the surf.

Sherlock thinks about how John’s hands would feel from all that gripping and climbing—the calluses that must surely coat his palms, his fingers—how rough would the drag of those palms be over Sherlock’s skin, gripping his thighs?

Cheeks burning, Sherlock shakes his head, and attempts to clear his thoughts. He’s deluding himself if he thinks that such a thing could ever take place. Best not to dwell on the impossible. No good can possibly come of it.

He sits down at the narrow desk beside his bed and endeavors to forget all about John Watson for as long as he possibly can.

He pulls out the leather-bound sheaf of pages that Mycroft gave him before he left on his journey.

“What’s this?” Sherlock had asked with thinly veiled disgust.

“A parting gift.”

“You make it sound like I’m going to my death.”

Mycroft had shrugged. “You might be.”

Sherlock was often surprised icicles didn’t form around his brother’s words in mid-air they were so cool and unaffected.

“It’s so that you might keep a record of your thoughts during your voyage.”

“What for?” Sherlock had sneered. “No one’s going to read it.”

“You never know, brother mine, what good might come of it one day.”

Sherlock had delivered his most searing scowl and flounced into the carriage without another word.

Mycroft is useless as an older brother, never around when you need him—only there to scold you and look disapproving when things are at their worst.

Sherlock won’t be sorry if he never sees him again.

He dips his pen into the inkwell and holds the quill aloft, watching the ink run down the nib and drip back into the tiny bottle.

Drip. Drip.

He tries to think of what to write and realizes he has absolutely nothing of any importance to say.

For one terrible instant he is seized with the desire to write a poem about the blue-eyed sailor, to somehow try and capture what he witnessed earlier today—the raw beauty of a body in motion.

But Sherlock has never been good with words—when he reaches for them, they skitter away like dust before a wind, scattering.

He presses the tip of his pen hard against the page, watches the ink bleed out, leaving a black mark that mars the unblemished cream of the paper.

He ends up writing John’s name over and over as he thinks. He doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, until he comes back to himself and sees the page covered with John Watsons made out in his scrawling, spiky script.

Sherlock tears the paper out of the book.

Later that night, he sets the corner of it in his candle flame, watches as the letters catch and curl, then blacken before they fall to ash.

He dumps the whole mess into his slop bucket before crawling into bed, determined not to dream of bronze-armed sailors swinging from the rigging, leaping over the waves.

Chapter Text

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.

“ANDERSON!”

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!”

“Poppycock.”

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.

Chapter Text

Sherlock’s dreams are fragmented, disconnected, snippets of memories spliced with strange images he has never seen.

He dreams of a white bird flying over the ocean, diving down over the cliffs along the coast not far from where he grew up, and Sherlock is following it from the shore, desperate to catch up with it. He runs along the shoreline, but he cannot get close enough. He is high above the water; if he slips, he will fall to certain death on the sharp rocks beneath him, pounded by the surf.

But he must get to the bird. Of that much he is certain.

So he finds himself climbing down over the slippery shale on the cliffs, clutching at the snarled fingers of exposed tree roots as he tries to get closer, reaching out with one hand.

Sherlock slips.

He begins to fall, fear like a dark worm in his belly as he plummets toward the rocks but then, inexplicably, he feels strong arms around him and he realizes it is John, John who has caught him and is bearing him down, as gently as he would a child, to settle on the cold sand.

“You’re alright,” he murmurs, lips brushing Sherlock’s hairline. “You’re alright now.”

He starts to lean back but Sherlock clings to him, desperate not to let him go.

Speech is beyond him but Sherlock hears himself make a whimpering sound, and John seems to understand.

“I’ve got you. I’ve got you, Love. You’re safe now.” And then John’s lips are at his throat, his hands moving warm and sure over his shoulders, pulling Sherlock closer, his body lowering down against him.

Sherlock parts his thighs and then using his grip on John’s neck, pulls John down until their mouths are only a hair’s breadth apart.

Sherlock seems to have recovered his voice. “Kiss me,” he whispers, and John does.

Sherlock wakes up then, his heartbeat kicking a sharp staccato under his ribs, and lies in the darkness, gasping.

His forehead is damp with sweat. He reaches up to wipe it away and realizes he is still in his clothes. The cabin is hotter than it was earlier—the air feels close, stifling.

Sherlock swings his legs over the side of his bunk, feeling the low ache of his previous misery still throbbing unforgotten all through him.

He listens very carefully to the surrounding ship to ascertain the time of night.

The darkness is deeper than it was when he fell asleep and the voices and the footsteps of the other passengers are noticeably absent. Sherlock reasons it must be sometime before midnight.

He is desperate for the feel of fresh air on his face, and because of the late hour Sherlock is hopeful there will be no one else around so he steals as quietly as he can from his cabin and makes his way to the upper decks.

The air is fresher up on deck but the night is oppressively hot and still, even in the open air.

Other than the silhouette of the men on watch, there is no one else about.

Sherlock finds a tucked away corner on the portside of the deck, out of sight of the men on watch, and squints up at the sky.

The moon is absent tonight so the glitter of the stars is sharper than ever, the force of their brightness doubled in the dark expanse of ocean on all sides.

Sherlock reflects that it looks as though they are at sail in the midnight sky.

He is so deep in dark reflection that he does not hear the other man approach until he is standing above Sherlock.

His voice is soft in the darkness but it still makes Sherlock jump in surprise.

“Thought I might find you out here,” John says, and Sherlock can hear the quiet smile in his voice, even without looking at him.

The storm of conflicting emotions that rises within Sherlock’s breast are almost too many to catalogue—fear, resentment, shame, embarrassment, longing, but surprisingly (or perhaps, not surprisingly at all), the emotion that wins out is joy at the other man’s nearness.

John settles himself down beside Sherlock.

Sherlock doesn’t look up. He cannot bear to, for fear of giving away too much, but he can feel his whole body lift with happiness in the presence of the other man. He stares into his lap, biting his lip.

He feels he will burst open with joy.

“How have you been?”

Sherlock cannot think how to answer this. There is too much to say; too much he cannot say at all. So he remains silent, overcome, staring into his lap.

John is silent beside him for several minutes, looking up at the sky, and Sherlock hates himself for not being able to answer, feels the return of his misery with a palpable pang in his chest, but before he can fully re-immerse himself in his self-hatred, John’s gentle voice interrupts his thoughts.

“I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to say hello these past few days.”

There is real regret in John’s voice, and in the presence of it, Sherlock feels his misery begin to evaporate, rising off of his shoulders like steam into the muggy air.

“I was on the midnight watch—and then they had me tarring the ropes for two days. I love doing it, but it’s hard work. Takes a lot out of a man. It’s a two-person job, but old Adelaide who usually works with me, he took a fall last week and has been laid up in bed so it was down to me. Took me longer than usual. Especially the stays, which you’ve got do by getting rigged up to the masthead.”

Sherlock doesn’t say anything but perhaps John can sense the curiosity in his silence, or perhaps he just remembers that Sherlock likes to know how things work because he goes on to explain.

“You take a long piece of rope—topgallant-studding-sail halyards, or something of the kind—and rove it through the block to make a girt-line. Then you take a bowline round the stay, and climb in. A man down on deck holds the other end. It’s the one piece I have to do with the help of a rope. Funnily enough it’s the one time I’m afraid of falling. You’ve got to put your faith in the man down on deck. If the rope slips, breaks, or he lets go, there’s nothing to stop you falling overboard or breaking your neck. But you don’t think about that. You just think about the work at hand. If you leave any holydays—places not tarred—then you have to do the whole thing again.”

The soothing murmur of John’s voice is like a balm to the aches of Sherlock’s misery. He wishes John would just go on talking all night—about anything—about halyards and jibsheets, bowlines and topgallant studding—things Sherlock doesn’t understand but that are made all the more interesting in the warm embrace of John’s sturdy voice.

“The rigging above the martingale is always the trickiest, but I managed all right on my own.”

There is a note of pride in John’s voice and hearing it, Sherlock can no longer hold in his excitement.

“I saw you up there, on the yardarm!” Sherlock bursts out. “Walking along without holding onto anything. You were—” Sherlock struggles to find a word to convey how John looked—how to express the grace, the power of his body, the amazement Sherlock felt just seeing him up there, like a part of the sky. “It’s like you were born to walk those ropes.”

John laughs, clearly pleased, and Sherlock feels his whole torso flood with warmth.

“I’m afraid that’s far from the truth. But I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. There’s no feeling quite like it in the world. Swinging between heaven and earth, nothing to keep you from falling but your own hands and feet; your own belief that you won’t slip. It makes me feel…”

John grows quiet, and Sherlock can tell he is thinking deeply, searching for the right words.

Sherlock finds he has no idea what John is about to say. This is another thing Sherlock likes about John—the fact that Sherlock cannot anticipate how he will act, what he will say, like he can with so many people. This is one of the primary reasons why Sherlock finds so much of the world dull and unworthy of his attention, because people are so easy to read, so predictable. They all seem to share the same petty interests and ambitions, but not John Watson. He is something else entirely.

For the first time, Sherlock lifts his head to study John’s silhouette in the darkness. Sherlock wants to memorize every detail of it—the downturned corners of his slender lips as he thinks, the sharp slope of his nose, the fringe of his eyelashes as he looks out over the horizon.

“It feels like…”

John’s eyes crease up at the corners and it strikes Sherlock how changeable his face is—so malleable from moment to moment, so expressive. Sherlock is fascinated by it.

“It’s like you’re holding your life in your own two hands—like you’re completely in control of your own fate. Just you, no one else. It’s… freeing. Makes me glad to count myself among the living.” John leans back on his hands; his gaze still on the horizon and Sherlock watches the corners of John’s mouth shift as his expression changes yet again. “It’s a strange thing but somehow I never feel more alive than when I’m so close to death.”

In spite of the contradictory nature of this statement, Sherlock finds he knows exactly what John means.

It speaks to the un-nameable quality that Sherlock has seen glimmering under the surface of John’s steadfast exterior, and all the other contradictory parts of John that Sherlock has witnessed—the hardness and the softness that coexist in his small, muscular frame—the simultaneous storm and quiet in his eyes—and more than anything the sheer, unbridled joy John seems to take in living, his complete engagement with all capacities of life, no matter how dark, how unpleasant.

Sherlock is bursting with things to say in response to this. He wants to tell John that he has never seen anyone look more alive than John does when he’s climbing the rigging, when John throws his head back and laughs his full-bellied laugh, but Sherlock’s tongue feels like wax in his mouth and his own hesitation is a physical force stopping his throat. He cannot bring himself to speak around it for fear he will say the wrong thing, that he will give the wrong impression. So instead, he says nothing.

He drops his gaze again to his lap, concentrates on his tightly clenched fingers.

If John notices Sherlock’s tortured reticence, he gives no sign of it. He speaks easily into the silence, his tone shifting slightly, yet again.

“I wasn’t always so confident. I was as clumsy as a newborn lamb my first day on this ship. Took me a long time to learn to move like that.”

John’s voice softens, becomes serious. “I certainly wasn’t born to it.”

Sherlock is desperate to know—wants to ask how John ended up on this ship, doing this work, but he hesitates, once again stricken with shyness.

However, something about John’s tone indicates that he is not going to speak freely on this topic without prompting.

Sherlock’s curiosity gets the better of him.

“What—” Sherlock swallows around the tightness in his throat, forces the words out. “What led you to it? A life at sea?”

John’s gaze squints out over the water, at the glitter of star shine reflected in the darkness all around them.

He is silent for a long while, looking out over the ocean.

A light breeze tugs at the kerchief around his throat.

“It wasn’t by choice.”

Sherlock considers this. He has heard about press gangs, the navy’s infamous method for forcing men into service as a means of crewing warships, but as far as he knows the practice is limited to men who already have experience at sea.

“You don’t mean…?” Sherlock’s indignation gives him the courage to speak. “But the Impressment Service is only legally permitted to conscript experienced seafarers.”

John smiles wryly. “Turns out they can take anyone they please.”

Sherlock’s curiosity quickly turns to horror as the implications of this sink in. “What—what happened?”

John is silent for another long minute before he answers.

“I come from a little village outside London. My father was a farmer but he was committed to his children having a better life. We helped him in the fields during the day but he taught us to read and write nights. I was going to learn a skill, he said, so when I was fifteen, I moved to London and was apprenticed to a surgeon in Fleet Street. I was old for an apprentice but the surgeon took me on anyway because he needed the help. I was saving up to marry a girl from my village—Mary was her name. She was going to wait for me. Said she didn’t mind waiting.”

John pauses, and Sherlock can hear something in his voice shift imperceptibly at this particular detail.

There are a thousand questions hammering against the inside of Sherlock’s skull. What was the name of the village where John grew up? Did he have brothers and sisters? What did his mother look like? Was she kind? Ill-tempered? What did he do as a surgeon’s apprentice? Did he practice on real bodies? Where did the bodies come from? What does a limb look like once it’s been shorn off? Is there a lot of blood? What does the inside of a body look like? How does it smell? Has John saved anyone’s life?

But more pressing even than these questions—as fascinating as they are to Sherlock—are the ones pertaining to the girl, Mary.

The thought of her makes Sherlock’s heart beat painfully fast. Just the invocation of her name fills Sherlock with a vicious, wounded curiosity. What did she look like? What color was her hair? In what state were her teeth? Was her voice soft or shrill? What were the first words she spoke to John? How slender was her waist? What passed between them? Did John ever take her hand in his? Did he kiss her?

And more pressing than any of these—or perhaps, simply, the singular question which encompasses all the others—that seems to press against Sherlock’s heart, so hard he is certain he can feel the force of it against his ribs: What made you love her?

Of course, he does not voice any of this.

He sits perfectly still and silent at John’s side, waits for him to go on.

“Apprenticeships usually last four or five years but I was a fast learner, so after two years I was nearing the end of my training. Then, two months before I turned eighteen, I was down at the public house one night when a gang of mercenaries came in. They seized all the men in the tavern, took us to their headquarters on Tower Hill. We were presented to the lieutenant, asked about our experience at sea. I told them the truth—that I had never been to sea, that I was a surgeon’s apprentice. They asked to see my hands. They saw I had a laborer’s hands—the evidence was there from my years of working in the fields. I told them I was a farmer’s son. They laughed, told me, ‘No farmer’s son becomes a surgeon.’ I spent the night in a room with a crowd of other men—mostly merchant sailors, a few fishermen. They barred the door so we couldn’t get out. I’ll never forget that night. I was desperate to get some word to my father, to Mary, to tell them I was bound for sea, but there wasn’t time. We set sail the next day for Gibraltar.”

The wind is picking up; Sherlock can hear it stirring in the rigging, can feel its warm caress on his cheek.

“I kept trying to tell them those first few days that I wasn’t a sailor—that I had no experience at sea, but they didn’t believe me. Looking back, I’m not sure it would have made much difference one way or the other. War had just broken out again with the French. They were desperate for men. There was another landsman they took—he was a clergyman’s son, had never done a day of labor in his life. He fell off the bowsprit on his second day at sea; hit his head on the way down. He was dead before he hit the water.”

John falls quiet and there is a heaviness to his silence that speaks of years of untold miseries.

Sherlock is immobilized by horror.

He tries to imagine being taken in the night, stuffed into the brig of a ship, put to work at a trade he has absolutely no knowledge of, his body just another disposable cog in the machinery used by the Royal Navy to fight their wars against the French.

He finds he cannot imagine it. His own life has been full of misery and neglect but no sorrow Sherlock has experienced can touch what John has been made to undergo. The thought that this could happen to John, that he could be snatched from his life with no means to protest, no chance of resistance, fills Sherlock with a white, hot rage on his behalf.

“How long?” Sherlock asks, dreading the answer. “How long were you at sea before you returned to England?”

“I was at sea for three years, fighting against the French. I was on board the Monarch during the battle at Rochefort. Got shot in the shoulder. They finally sent me home after that.”

Sherlock cannot bear to ask the next question. He is sure he knows the answer already, but he needs to be certain. He realizes John will not say it without prompting.

Sherlock’s voice is a dry croak of fear. “And Mary?”

John swallows, lifts his chin in a sudden sharp gesture, and Sherlock recognizes it as the gesture of a man raising his defenses. Sherlock feels a flash of sympathy so hot and bright he feels scalded by it.

“She died that spring. The spring before I came home. Typhoid fever.”

The wind pulls again at the kerchief around John’s throat. His eyes are screwed up as he studies the horizon, his hands clenched into fists on his knees.

“She never did get married. She was still waiting for me up until the day she died.” Sherlock watches the line of John’s mouth tighten. “She didn’t even have a chance to find happiness of her own. She was still waiting. Never had any idea if I’d come back.”

Sherlock wants to say something, wants to do something by way of offering comfort but he has no experience with this. He doesn’t know what to do, what to say, to ease the weight of John’s suffering. His own feelings are a maelstrom of agonized confusion. He feels sorrow for John’s loss but he cannot ignore the deep throb of jealousy over this past love that seems to tug at his heart.

He cannot remember ever having felt so many emotions at once.

On top of all of this, Sherlock is experiencing a newfound wonder over the fact that John can still take such joy in living after undergoing so much loss. It is remarkable to Sherlock, but at the same time, it makes his own profound unhappiness feel all the more selfish and undeserved.

Sherlock can feel himself physically shrinking with shame.

John stretches beside him, rolling his shoulders as if to physically shrug off the weight of his grief. He flattens his fists out on his knees, rubs his palms over his thighs.

The wind stirs in the rigging, louder this time, and John squints out over the horizon. “There’s a storm coming. We’re moving right towards it. It’ll likely be a bad one.”

Sherlock follows John’s gaze, but can see nothing in the starlit darkness that would suggest rough seas up ahead.

Sherlock is curious, in spite of himself. “How can you tell?”

“Change in the wind. That and all the heat we’ve been having. You can feel it in the air, can’t you? Feel that heaviness? That charged quality?”

Sherlock does feel it.

John looks over at Sherlock through the darkness and Sherlock stiffens under his gaze. He wants to study the expression on John’s face but he keeps his eyes straight-ahead, trained on the horizon.

He can feel the movement of John’s eyes over his face even without looking—something about his regard feels gentle. It’s as though he can sense Sherlock’s inner turmoil.

“I saw you earlier today, up on deck,” John says quietly. “You should have come over to say hello.”

Sherlock thinks of the scene with Anderson from earlier and feels the violence of his self-hatred and embarrassment return like a blow to his gut.

The fact that John noticed his hasty retreat as well makes shame burn in his cheeks, worse than the shame he felt at Anderson’s blatant cruelty. He cannot bear for John to think he is a coward.

“The other men aren’t as rough as they look. They’re actually quite friendly.” John continues, his voice gentler than ever. “I think they’d like you.”

Sherlock can tell John is trying to be nice but that only makes it worse. John doesn’t understand that people don’t like Sherlock; and worse than that, he doesn’t like other people. But he doesn’t have the heart to correct him, doesn’t want John to know how cold and strange he really is.

Sherlock says nothing in response to this. He hunches his shoulders up against his ears, wishing a hole would open up in the deck so that he could drop through it out of sight.

Sherlock feels John’s eyes leave his face and look out again over the horizon, his tone shifting once more.

“I missed you, you know. These past few days.” He laughs softly and shakes his head.

Sherlock’s head whips up in surprise. He stares at John openly, too stunned to hide his reaction.

John turns to look at him and Sherlock can see his mouth curling into a smile at the look on Sherlock’s face.

“Ridiculous, isn’t it?” He laughs again and Sherlock feels the tension run out of his stiff shoulders like water melting in a frozen stream. “What can I say? I like you.”

John keeps looking at Sherlock, his smile open and unafraid; his gaze warm on Sherlock’s face. There is something mischievous in the corners of his smile and Sherlock suddenly finds he cannot tolerate the directness of his look, what feels to Sherlock like flirtation.

He returns his gaze to his lap, his heart pounding as though he’s just run a great distance.

John leans a little closer in the darkness and all Sherlock can think about is his dream, John’s lips against his hairline, the feel of John’s mouth on his throat.

“What about you?” John asks, something playful in his tone, slightly teasing. “Do you have a sweetheart? Is there a girl back home, with a lock of one of those dark curls tucked away in a locket that she clutches to her breast at night, longing for your return?”

Sherlock feels a cold trickle of horror at the question.

John isn’t flirting with him—he wants to swap stories about past sweethearts.

Of course, Sherlock has never had a sweetheart. Girls are no different than other people—worse even. He finds them difficult to understand, impossible to communicate with. They are like a different species altogether, utterly removed from him, too talkative, too changeable; too full of lightness and levity.

Sherlock feels his stiffness returning, wishes John would change the subject.

“You’re very tall. You’re very handsome. You must have had a sweetheart.” John’s voice is colored with some emotion Sherlock cannot place. His voice is lower, darker, and it pulls at something in Sherlock’s chest. “Even if you didn’t, I bet all the girls were pining for you in secret.”

Sherlock cannot tell if John is flirting with him or teasing him, but the nearness of him, the low pitch of his voice is making Sherlock warm all over. The night air is suddenly too hot on his face, his heart kicking a relentless staccato against his breastbone. He finds he does not know what to do with his hands. He clenches them together, hard, in his lap.

“I bet they wrote you love letters—pages and pages of odes dedicated to your eyes, your hands—your mouth—and then burned them in secret.”

Sherlock stands up suddenly, overcome.

He is sure now that John is mocking him and he cannot bear it. The sudden betrayal guts him; feels as real as a knife in his side. It is a thousand times worse than the scene with Anderson earlier, because this is John, whose opinion matters more than anything.

The hot throb of his own desire suddenly feels as though it’s choking him.

“Sherlock?” John begins to rise to his feet, concern evident on his face.

Sherlock bows stiffly, his voice made rigid by pain. “If you’ll excuse me.”

He turns to leave but before he goes, he inclines his head again. “Please accept my condolences on the loss of your fiancée.”

And then he is walking away across the deck, pain resonating through him with every step, headed for the darkness of the staircase.

“Sherlock!” There is a note of desperation in John’s voice but Sherlock ignores the pang it strikes in his chest. He keeps on walking and does not look back, does not stop until his footsteps have taken him down into the darkness, and the bitter solitude of his narrow cabin.

Chapter Text

Sherlock lies in the darkness, breathing slowly in and out, trying with every ounce of will to harden his heart against the tide of misery that feels as though it’s eating him alive, that feels as though it’s laying waste to him, body and soul.

It should be easy for him. He’s never cared about anyone before. It’s what he excels at—not caring.

Mycroft has always been gracious enough to remind Sherlock of this at every given opportunity. Strange, cold-hearted boy. Perhaps you don’t have a heart at all, Mycroft would tease.

Child of shade, the nursemaid said. Boy without a heart.

Don’t worry, Sherlock, Mycroft would tell him; smiling condescendingly. Its absence won’t do you any harm. In fact, you’re better off without it.

In this moment, Sherlock is inclined to agree with his hateful older brother. If this is what it feels like to care about people then Sherlock is savagely glad he’s never wasted any energy on it before.

He wishes now that he truly didn’t have a heart—at this point he would do almost anything to end his suffering.

Every breath he draws is more painful than the last, at the memory of John’s smile in the dark, the lovely curl of his voice around Sherlock’s name, the heat of his gaze, the way Sherlock was so certain for a moment that John was flirting with him. Oh, how it stings to remember that it wasn’t flirtation at all—just a joke, just a cruel joke at Sherlock’s expense.

Oh, how it aches.

Stop being so foolish, he tells himself sharply, and hears his brother’s voice. He’s nothing to you. You barely know him. Just forget the day you ever laid eyes on him. Forget his blue eyes, the gentle strength of his hands, all the words he spoke to you. Forget, forget, forget. The words beat against the inside of his skull, and he tries, and tries to absolutely no avail.

He falls asleep still trying.

***

When Sherlock wakes again, it is full daylight.

His room is hot, hotter than it was last night—oppressively so. Sherlock can feel his whole back is wet with sweat where it’s pressed against the mattress. His brow is sticky; his palms slick, his throat, uncomfortably dry.

The sea is still strangely calm—the usual pitch and heave of the ship is absent.

John was right. The heat from yesterday—the heat that he said signaled an impending storm—has gotten worse. The air feels even more loaded than it did the day before—full of pressure, crackling with an electric presence that makes the hair stand up on the back of Sherlock’s neck.

At the thought of John, a deep twinge of pain lances through his breast. Sherlock rolls over onto his side, feels his sticky cheek dragging on his sweat-soaked pillow.

He wills the thought of John away, with several heavy, careful breaths, his fingers clenching involuntarily to fists.

He will not think of John again. He squeezes his eyes shut, pictures himself twisting his mind between his fingers like a sponge, wringing out all thoughts of John, watching them swirl down and drain away beneath his feet.

That’s done now. There will be no more of that.

Sherlock opens his eyes again, studies the pattern of light streaming in through the cracks of his cabin, and guesses it must be mid-morning.

He thinks about getting up, getting dressed, to go in search of cooler air up top, but just as he considers swinging his sticky legs out of his bunk he hears a flurry of voices in the passageway outside his cabin door and with it, the memory of what happened at the dinner table last night rears up to confront him like a slap in the face.

In the wake of his newfound misery, he’s forgotten all about the humiliation at dinner—Anderson’s cruel words, the judging eyes of every passenger in the saloon fixed on him, reading his obsession with John in every shamed line of his body.

Sherlock can taste bile rising up the back of his throat at the memory, and he has to concentrate hard for several long minutes, willing himself not to be sick.

He cannot possibly leave his cabin now; he cannot face the inquiring, judgmental stares of the other passengers, the whispers, the murmured comments that will have doubled in frequency.

No, he cannot bear it.

Sherlock pulls his knees in tighter against his chest, cringing away from the retreating voices as they disappear down the corridor.

With no John to go looking for, now there is truly no reason to leave his cabin.

So he lies on side with eyes clenched shut, throbbing with misery, until he slips back into a listless sleep.

***

When Sherlock wakes again the room is stifling.

Judging by the dim quality of the light, it is almost evening but the room feels like an oven, the electric quality of the air prickling all along Sherlock’s scalp.

By this time, Sherlock’s hunger has manifested itself. He can feel it, twisting in his belly like a living thing, but when he thinks about getting up to go to dinner, Anderson’s mocking face swims before his eyes.

He would know. He would know instantly that Sherlock was suffering, as he always does. He would be able to tell that Sherlock was hiding his wounds, would be able to see it from the stiff way Sherlock held himself, like a wolf picking out the frailest, limping member of a group of prey.

The heat is almost unbearable now—Sherlock’s entire body is soaked with sweat. His hair is dripping; sweat trickling down his temples. Sherlock wipes it away with the ball of his fist, feels the salt sting his eyes.

Sherlock shuts his eyes again, waits for darkness to bring with it cooler air and a respite from the eyes of other passengers, so that then he might chance a visit up top and find refuge from the oppressive heat and stillness of the prison that his room has become.

***

Sometime in the night Sherlock wakes to the groan of the ship around him, his stomach rolling.

He opens his eyes to darkness, hears the thunk of the bucket under his bed as it slides across the wooden floorboards and into the wall. He listens to a clap of thunder overhead tear through the roar of pouring rain and wind.

The ship is heaving to and fro—Sherlock can hear the crash of waves on the deck above, beating against the side of the ship, and more faintly, the sound of water trickling down through the gaps in the wood beside his bunk.

John’s storm, it seems, has found them at last.

At the memory of John, Sherlock feels pain knife through him, churning in a deep sickness in the pit of his belly, but then the ship rolls again—sending the bucket under Sherlock’s bunk sliding back across the floor with another loud thunk—and Sherlock realizes it is not his misery over John that is responsible for the pain in his belly but the violent motion of the heaving ship.

The heat has broken but Sherlock still feels hot, too hot—his throat is parched and dry. He’s aching for a drink of water but just as he considers attempting to crawl down the passageway in search of the purser, another wave of sickness grips him and he flings himself over the side of his bunk, emptying out the meager contents of his stomach.

He misses the sliding bucket by feet and Sherlock collapses back onto his sweat-soaked sheets, reviled by the mess he has just made, but too sick to crawl from his bunk to try and clean it up.

The rolling motion of the boat makes his head swim and he clenches his eyes shut against the motion, feeling desperately ill, dizzy, feverish. He feels as sick as he did when the ship first left port but sicker. His body is aching, and despite the heat in his head, he is shivering, his limbs shuddery and weak.

The ship heaves again and Sherlock’s stomach with it. He throws himself over the side of the bed just in time, coughing until there is nothing left to come up.

Distantly, he hears a woman’s scream down the passageway, over the violent creak of the ship, and the twinge of fear that runs down Sherlock’s spine has nothing to do with the scream but with the distance the ship lists this time—too far, too far—the hull will surely break upon the waves.

Sherlock lies, gasping, pictures the tangled wreck that must be the rigging, the ragged ruin of the sails that surely must hang in tatters from the mainmast—surely, unless the sailors managed to fold the sails in time, and with this thought comes another jab of fear, this time much worse; it cuts right through the heart of Sherlock, leaves him open-mouthed, eyes spread wide in horror.

John must be up there, crawling among the ropes, clinging to the mast like a tick to the back of a wild dog, holding on for dear life as the storm tries to tear him off and throw him to his death in the churning chaos of the sea.

He is the best man for the job, Sherlock knows, now picturing the smiling sailor without any teeth who sang John’s praises when he tarred the ropes. Old Johnny Boy. No one’s quite as clever with his hands and feet, a right little monkey he is, just like them little monkeys we saw in Barbados, climbing up and down the trees with nuts in their fists—no one can hold on quite as well as our Johnny.

Sherlock shuts his eyes, whispers a silent, fervent prayer inside his head. Please save John, save John, save John. Please, please keep him safe.

Even if the ship is dashed to splinters, the rest of them tossed like so much flotsam on the waves before being dragged to a watery death in the depths of the sea, let John be saved.

Let the rest of us drown, be crushed by the wreckage of the failing ship, be chewed to death in the jaws of a giant sea serpent. The Devil take the rest of us, but please, please, save John Watson, Sherlock pleads, eyes screwed shut, his shaking palms pressed against his mouth.

Sherlock is not a religious man by any means so he is not sure whose mercy he is begging for when he asks to spare John Watson’s life but he cannot stop himself from chanting the desperate request over and over, even as he dives back over the side of his bunk, retching, heaving the insides of his belly out over the creaking floorboards.

Save John, Sherlock thinks as he clings to the edge of his bed, shaking. Take me instead if you have to take someone. I’m worthless; I’m nothing. Throw me to the mercy of the gods of the sea, let the storm sponge me out, wipe my body off the face of the earth.

Do anything you want with me, but don’t hurt John Watson.

Please please please please please.

***

Hours later—or so Sherlock would guess if he were in any state to make this kind of calculation—the storm shows no sign of letting up. In fact, it has worsened, as has Sherlock’s condition.

The pounding of the waves against the side of the ship, the shriek of the wind, and the intermittent screams of terrified passengers have become a miserable, relentless backdrop to Sherlock’s ailing body. He has no idea how long the ship has been pummeled by the waves; the time between now and when he first woke to the crash of the storm is a wretched blur of feverish-worry and sickness.

He cannot stop vomiting, long after there is nothing left inside him to come up, he is still coughing, clinging to the edge of his bed, his cheeks running with sweat, throat burning with the taste of bile.

His pleas for John’s life—his desperate bargaining to some unknown powerful entity—have become increasingly nonsensical as Sherlock’s sickness worsens. His worry for John’s safety has slipped into an indistinguishable misery from his own fever-wracked body. He is certain now that they all will drown, that the ship will be pulled beneath the waves. The fury of the storm is now so great that Sherlock must hold, white-knuckled, to the edge of his bunk to keep from being thrown to the floor.

It takes all his strength to hang on, and he holds so tightly, he imagines he will still be clinging to this piece of wood when the ship sinks, his rigid corpse still holding on, even in death.

All he can think is that he would like to see John’s eyes one more time before the sea takes them all—John’s brilliant smile, the white flash of his teeth.

But Sherlock knows that this is not to be; he’s too weak to crawl from his bed. His body will not stop shaking, the fever and the storm together making his narrow cabin swim around him.

If I die and not John, then let me become a ghost, Sherlock thinks deliriously. So I may follow him always. I’ll keep a safe distance—he need never feel my presence, just let me stay with him. I could watch over him, keep him safe from harm.

The ship lists harder than ever before, water rushing in under Sherlock’s door, the shrieks of the ladies down the corridor drowned out by the roar of the waves.

Sherlock holds tighter than ever to the edge of his bunk as the ship rolls on its side, his lips still forming the words of his plea.

Let me be a ghost.

***

Sherlock’s despair is burning; it is burning him up.

He longs now for the sea to take him. To be plunged into the cool depths of the waves, to have the sickness washed out of his body would be sweet relief to the burning at the heart of Sherlock.

Despite the heat in his body, everything around him feels wet. His sheets are soaked through; Sherlock is not sure whether this is from his own sweat or from the water leaking in beside his bunk—probably both. He is no longer aware of the rolling movement of the ship, nor is he cognizant of the wooden walls around him. He slips in and out of knowing into fevered dreams until he is not sure whether he is dreaming or waking.

He dreams that he lives beneath the sea with a fish tail instead of two legs, and there he dwells on the ocean floor, wreathed in strange flowers and green weeds, a bevy of eels at his calling. He spends his days gazing at the ship above where he knows John Watson smiles and laughs with the other sailors, climbs the rigging like a bird of the air.

One night the ship is taken by a storm and he swims up to find John’s body in the wreckage, pulling him from the debris and swimming to shore to lay his cold body on the sand, bending to put his mouth to John’s to breathe life back into his blue lips.

When John’s chest swells beneath his hand and he leans over, coughing up seawater, Sherlock allows himself a moment to look into his face and John’s blue eyes spark with feeling as he catches sight of Sherlock.

“You’re—”

Sherlock waits for him to call him an abomination; a sea serpent; a monster, readies himself to dive back into the surf.

“Beautiful,” John breathes, his eyes going round with wonder.

He wants to drag John with him back into the sea but John cannot breathe underwater. If Sherlock were to pull John down with him, it could only be as a drowned man. He knows he must leave him, and leave him he does, with a twitch of his fins, in a flash of sea spray.

Sherlock is quick—quick as a flicker of light on the wave—but not quick enough that he doesn’t hear John’s desperate cry before the water closes over his head, the note of longing in his voice unmistakable as he begs Sherlock not to leave him yet.

Deep in the heart of the ocean, Sherlock despairs.

He can no longer take pleasure in the places where he once found it. His longing for the blue-eyed sailor seems to steal the life from his body. He sits in shadow, his life whittled away by grief.

The sea witch offers him a choice—give up his voice for the chance to walk on two legs, make John fall in love with him. Sherlock agrees.

She cuts out his tongue and he is left, white-faced, blood leaking from his mouth, watching his tail split into two flesh-colored entities, strange and flat at the bottom, but perfectly formed with five toes on each foot.

Each step he takes is like walking on knives but he walks with a grace that none on land have ever witnessed. Because he cannot speak to John he tries to convey his love for him through movement.

John smiles fondly at him every day, even lets Sherlock sleep at the foot of his bed, sometimes slides one hand through Sherlock’s silken curls and strokes them back from his forehead, his blue eyes full of a faraway look and Sherlock thinks (hopes) that sometimes in those moments, John may love him, but then John draws away, and Sherlock cannot be sure, cannot be sure what he thinks he saw.

One day, a beautiful girl comes visiting from another kingdom—a princess. She is lovely, has golden curls, bright laughing eyes, a red-lipped smiling mouth. She is like something from a fairy tale, her China doll eyes round with innocent surprise as John explains to her the way the sails work, how the anchor is pulled up from the deep. She laughs and smiles, places a hand on John’s arm, and Sherlock watches in agonized silence, despair breaking open in his chest as he sees the way John looks at her.

The way he looks at her, fond, adoring—that is the way John must look at Sherlock if he is to break the spell, but John sends Sherlock away so he and the princess can be alone together and Sherlock knows then that all is lost.

John and the blue-eyed laughing girl—her name is Mary, Sherlock knows—are to be wed the following day.

It has all been for nothing.

Sherlock stands on the prow of the ship that night, looking down at the sea, wishing he could plunge back into its depths, dash his heart to pieces in his breast so he never has to experience pain like this again, and then, Sherlock sees his brothers, their green heads breaking the surface of the water like seals, the hands of his eldest brother outstretched, offering him a knife.

“Plunge this into the heart of the blue-eyed sailor,” they tell him. “Then you will regain your fins and you can return to us, to where you’re meant to be.”

Sherlock takes the knife—the handle is studded with pearls, the blade is curved and cruelly sharp.

He stands over John as he sleeps beside his bride, her golden head pillowed on his sleeping chest, hears John murmur her name in his sleep, and Sherlock thinks about the knife slicing through John’s breastbone, sliding between his ribs to pierce his heart. He pictures the bright blood welling up and staining the white sheets of the bridal bed.

He raises the knife in the darkness, the moonlight glinting off the blade—

John shifts, head rolling on the pillow, mouth falling open as he sighs in his sleep.

Sherlock drops his arm at his side, bows his head.

He cannot do it.

Instead, he turns and throws himself into the sea and his heart is dashed to foam upon the waves.

His brothers bow their green heads in sorrow, lifting their arms to the moon as they sing their lament, their long hair tangling with the waves.

***

Sherlock’s dreams become fragments—shards of pain and sickness mixed with flashes of heat.

He dreams that John is a sea king, running along the waves, naked, gleaming, his arms twined with seaweed, his golden hair so bright it seems to generate a light all its own.

He dreams that he and John become flecks of sea foam together, rising on the air like bubbles, only to melt in the heat of the sun.

He dreams the ship is dashed to pieces, the waves crashing over his head as he clings to a broken piece of the hull, before he is dragged down to the bottom of the ocean.

There he lives among drowned sailors, playing chess with chips of bone and shell, ghostly pipes clenched between their teeth from which no smoke ever issues. It seems they cannot abandon the habit, even in death.

He dreams that he is back home in England, lying in his grave, looking up at Mycroft’s disapproving face, his mother weeping into her handkerchief, his father, in a black cravat.

“Dying at sea of a broken heart.” Mycroft shakes his head and sighs. “You couldn’t even die properly, Sherlock.”

Sherlock opens his mouth to protest but his answer is stopped by the first shovelful of dirt.

He dreams of John, standing on a cliff above the ocean, Mary in his arms. She is wearing a blue dress that brings out the color in John’s eyes. He stoops to kiss her cheek over and over, her damp eyelashes, her little nose, his hands on her shoulders, his voice a soothing murmur.

Sherlock realizes then, with a sudden cold, draining feeling that he is saying farewell.

At the sorrow in John’s eyes, Sherlock cries out, tries to force himself awake, but fever hangs on him like a shroud and he cannot claw himself out from under its heavy weight.

He dreams then that John is with him in his filthy cabin, bending over Sherlock, his hands cool on Sherlock’s shoulders, his voice low and soothing, just as it was with Mary.

Sherlock whimpers, and then the cool hands are on his forehead, smoothing his hair back, and the low voice is murmuring, warm and golden in his ear. “Shh. The storm is over now. We made it through.”

Sherlock whimpers again, and the cool hands slide down his arms—so strong, so gentle. Sherlock can feel the calluses on each finger as they glide over his skin and he imagines them drawing the sickness out of his veins, healing him.

“Jesus, you’re burning up.” The voice sharp suddenly with concern. “Jesus, Sherlock.”

He feels something cool strike his forehead—one drop, two, three four.

He opens his eyes and sees John leaning over him, dripping wet, storm-blue eyes dark with worry. His clothes are soaked through, his shirt sticking to his chest, the blue kerchief around his neck, dark and dripping. His face is creased with concern, deep lines around his mouth and eyes.

“Can you hear me, Sherlock? It’s me, John. Can you answer me?”

Sherlock wants to reach up and smooth the worried lines off of John’s beautiful face but he’s too weak to lift his hand.

“Sherlock, can you hear me?”

Sherlock can smell the fury of the storm on this John—he is drenched with sea spray, his body licked by foam. He smells of the ocean and the storm-split sky, like salt and chaos and the crash of the waves. Sherlock can feel the power thrumming off John’s torso—like a current, like a god’s curse, like a ragged crease of lightning as it cleaves the sky in two.

The force of John’s presence is so strong, Sherlock can feel it bending the walls of his narrow cabin, until it feels as though the wood will pop and split, like the slender ribcage of a bird crushed in the fist of a giant.

He is radiating light and heat, and Sherlock knows then that he was mistaken—John is no sea king, John’s power is the strength of the sun. His golden light fills up the tiny room, is filling up Sherlock’s chest, until Sherlock is certain he will burst open from the force of it.

Sherlock knows then that John has come from battling the sea, and John has won.

“Sherlock!”

The cool hands on his shoulders are shaking him, and Sherlock tries to answer, tries to tell him everything is fine now that John’s here, but his throat still aches, and he is too hot, too hot in spite of the cool presence of John’s hands on his body, and all he can manage is a moan.

“It’s all right. I’m here now. I’ve got you. We’re going to make you well again, in no time at all. Do you hear me, Sherlock?”

Sherlock tries to nod but he is worried now—John’s hands are gone and he hears the creak of a door opening, John’s voice in the distance, yelling for water, for clean towels, and then the sound of receding footsteps.

In his terror, he falls back into darkness, has almost slipped entirely beneath its surface when John’s voice returns, and with it, the feel of something lovely, damp, and cool, pressed to his forehead.

Sherlock whimpers again, this time in relief, and he feels John’s cool, dry fingers take his hand.

“Hush now, I’ve got you. You’re going to be all right now. I’ve got you. Everything is going to be just fine.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock’s dreams turn quieter then.

He dreams of a cool green place, full of trees.

John is there, sitting in the gold-flecked shadows, patting the ground beside him, motioning for Sherlock to come and sit.

Sherlock does. The grass is soft, the air sweet with the smell of flowers. He lays his head against John's shoulder and John begins to sing.

The melody is beautiful but sad, the voice singing it low and full of longing. It makes Sherlock's chest ache, fills him with an indefinable sorrow.

He turns to John, intending to offer him some comfort but the dream melts away and Sherlock hears John’s voice, now filled with fear, calling his name, asking him for something that Sherlock can’t make out.

He tries to ask John what he wants, tries to reassure him that he will give John anything, anything he asks for he but he cannot answer and then John’s voice is melting away too, despite how Sherlock tries to reach for it, to hold onto it in the burning darkness.

His dreams dissolve again, turning to a nightmarish patchwork of shadows and heat, punctuated at times with flashes of cool relief like veins of silver in a stretch of dry stone. In these moments, Sherlock imagines John is with him, his cupped palms full of water, holding them up to Sherlock’s mouth to drink—but they never last, the water leaking from John’s fingers before they ever reach Sherlock’s mouth, and Sherlock is continuously turning, continuously reaching, his eyes burning, his throat full of dust.

Try as he might, he cannot fully wake. The walls of his cabin twist and bend, sometimes bleeding away altogether, and Sherlock looks out over the ocean, crystal blue and deep, stretching on and on forever until sky and sea become one entity.

John was right—the storm is over. Sherlock can tell by how calm the water is, how flat.

Sherlock is glad of this.

It means John is safe now.

But sometimes, he is not sure that John has survived. He wonders if he simply imagined John bending over his bed, dripping wet from the storm, his face licked raw by the waves and worry over Sherlock.

This is how Sherlock knows he dreamed the storm-dark, dripping John. The worry in John’s eyes—all for Sherlock—is nothing more than a figment of his imagination, and he cries out in terror then, because maybe John did not survive the storm after all, maybe they wrapped his body in a sail and dropped him over the side of the ship, or maybe John was torn off the rigging by the wind and his body will never be found.

Sherlock cries out, louder this time, twisting in fear, but then there is a low voice above him and cool hands on his forehead, stroking his hair back from his brow and Sherlock looks up to see John is there above him. Really there, pressing a cool cloth to Sherlock’s forehead, his voice low and soothing.

Sherlock opens his eyes wider, disbelieving.

John sits back, the damp cloth held tight in one hand, and Sherlock watches relief wash over his face like water from a burst dam.

“Thank God,” he breathes, and Sherlock thinks for a moment that he sees tears standing out in the corners of John’s eyes, blurring the lovely blue of his irises. “Thank God.”

Then John smiles, so wide, so brilliantly that Sherlock feels as though the sun has burst through the walls of his cabin and he is being drenched in sunlight.

He tries to croak out a question, to ask how John could possibly be here, in Sherlock’s room, bending over him, the worry chased from his face like shadows in the presence of the sun.

But John shushes him when he tries to speak, lays a gentle hand on Sherlock’s shoulder to keep him from sitting up.

“Hush. I’ll answer every question you can think of later when you’re feeling stronger but for now, you need to rest.”

Sherlock licks his cracked lips, wide eyes still roaming disbelievingly over the John-shaped apparition that has appeared before him.

John cannot be here, sitting on an upturned bucket beside Sherlock’s bed, shirtsleeves rolled up above his elbows, haggard with exhaustion, grinning in relief.

Sherlock blinks hard, and opens his eyes again to find John still there.

He knows now he is no longer dreaming.

He can feel the soaked and filthy sheets beneath him, can see the faint beams of light filtering in through the cracks in the door from the passageway beyond, can feel the lank mass of his unkempt hair against his neck.

He stills feels weak and shuddery and thirsty—desperately thirsty—but he no longer feels the disorienting burn and ache of fever. He knows now that the fever has broken, and as he continues to gaze at John before him, taking in every detail of his exhausted face, it becomes immediately apparent that it is thanks to John that he made it through.

Sherlock’s cabin is no longer as hot it was before the storm but John is dressed only in his linen shirt and breeches. His waistcoat and jacket are slung over the back of Sherlock’s chair, the kerchief around his neck pulled loose.

His shirt is no longer drenched like it was in Sherlock’s dream—or was that a memory?—the kerchief around John’s neck now dry. A considerable amount of time must have passed if the presence of storm-drenched John in Sherlock’s cabin was indeed a memory and not a fever-induced hallucination.

The memory of that John—golden, god-like, brimming with the triumph of slaying the storm, stands in sharp contrast to the John before Sherlock now. He is still warm and golden but his brightness seems to have diminished slightly, or, not diminished but calmed, turned soothing and gentle—the comforting warmth of a low-burning hearth rather than the raging fire of an angry star.

This John looks smaller, tired. There are dark lines under his eyes that speak of sleepless nights and Sherlock wonders suddenly how long he has been sick, how long John has been sitting by his side, pressing the cool cloth to his forehead again and again, urging water between his parched lips.

John sets the cloth back into the bowl of water at his feet and reaches for a cup behind him on Sherlock’s desk.

“Here, drink.”

He raises the cup to Sherlock’s lips and Sherlock drinks deeply, gratefully—drinks until he empties the cup.

John laughs and the sound is like music to Sherlock’s ears, like the clear, sharp notes of bells.

“Easy there. There hasn’t been much in you for several days. You need to go slow.”

Sherlock drops back against his pillow, exhausted just from the effort of lifting his head to drink.

He is desperate to know how long John has been beside him—how much of what he remembers from his fevered dreams is real, and how much imagined.

“How long have I been sick?” he rasps with effort.

“Shh. No more questions now.”

John bends over to reach for the cloth again, wringing it out in the basin before he lifts it, this time to place it on Sherlock’s chest, just below his collarbones where the neck of his nightshirt is stretched open.

The damp cloth is deliciously cool against his skin.

Sherlock shuts his eyes.

“I’ll tell you all about it when you’ve had some sleep.”

But perhaps John can sense Sherlock’s curiosity because he goes on to add, his voice softer, “I don’t know for certain how long you’ve been sick. I came to check on you as soon as the storm was over and found you burning up with fever. That was late yesterday afternoon. I didn’t think…”

John hesitates, something dark and fearful creeping into his voice.

At John’s hesitation Sherlock opens his eyes, looks up at him, curious.

John moves the cool cloth to Sherlock’s neck and Sherlock tilts his head back with gratitude, elongating his throat.

John is not looking in Sherlock’s eyes.

“I’ve seen a lot of fevers in my day—treated men, women, children, little babies in the grips of terrible illness. Some of them I saved. Some of them I couldn’t.” John shakes his head, moving the cloth to the place where Sherlock’s neck meets his shoulder. “I’ve never seen anyone survive a fever as bad as that.”

John’s eyes slide up to Sherlock’s. They are bright with pain.

“I didn’t think you were going to make it.”

There is an ache in John’s voice that makes Sherlock’s throat go dry, his chest pull tight with some sudden, sharp emotion. He looks up at John, at the sorrow in his eyes, the weariness, and knows in that moment how terrified John really was.

His mind floods suddenly with the image of John bent over him, one of Sherlock’s limp hands clasped tightly between his own, pressing it to his forehead, kissing the knuckles, prayers tumbling from his lips, whispering fierce and broken, over and over, for the fever to break, for Sherlock to be well again.

The image shimmers and dissolves as suddenly as it came like a stone shattering a reflection in still water. Sherlock cannot know what happened, but he does know that he is glad John is here now—that this is not a dream.

“Go to sleep now,” John says softly. “Sleep now and we’ll talk when you’re well again.”

Sherlock shuts his eyes, feels weariness pulling at him.

But his mind is restless, still reeling from the revelation that it was John who discovered he was ill; who stayed by his side and nursed him through what he now realizes must have been a deadly fever.

Sherlock cannot stop turning this impossible fact over in his mind, disbelieving.

And then something miraculous happens.

John begins to sing.

He starts out softly at first, his singing smooth and steady, keeping time perfectly with only the cadence of his own voice.

It is an old song, one Sherlock has never heard, but as soon as Sherlock hears John’s voice take up the notes, he knows that the John singing in his dreams was this same John, now sitting by his side.

John, singing to him, to bring his fever down.

Sherlock feels amazement filling him up, hot and sweet, like a mouthful of the strong spirits John drinks.

John’s voice is rich and lovely. He seems to know the rise and fall of the melody as well as he knows the feel of the ship under his feet, the rope under his hands. Sherlock can tell by the loving way John’s voice curls around the notes and seems to savor each one, that it is a song he has known a long time, that it means a great deal to him.

The music seems to creep inside Sherlock’s bones and draw his sickness out. John’s voice settles over him like cool water, slipping softly over his arms and legs, his stomach and chest, until he does not feel his exhaustion anymore. It is as though the cool weight of the song, the measured rhythm of the melody, is touching him all over.

This is John—John—singing to him; John letting music pour out of him just for Sherlock’s sake.

Sherlock marvels.

He loves music.

It is the thing he has missed the most since leaving England.

In the Holmes’ vast manor house, if Mycroft was bothering him, if his parents were being tedious, then Sherlock could always slip away to some quiet corner and play his violin. It was his one solace in life, other than the woods.

Mycroft, of course, is a virtuoso at any instrument he touches. He plays several instruments beautifully but he doesn’t love playing any of them. Not particularly.

Sherlock, on the other hand, can play several instruments perfectly decently but the only one he has really taken to is the violin. He loves composing, but more than anything he loves to play.

Music is different than so many of the things Sherlock is fascinated with. It is complex and mathematical, and can be planned and calculated to a certain degree, but what Sherlock really loves about it is that quality that cannot be predicted or planned, that degree to which music is always just slightly beyond his grasp, so that when things are really working well, he is able to move beyond the structure, beyond the physical makeup of the instrument, and the mathematics of the composition.

It becomes about something else—something he cannot pin down, something he cannot touch, and that is the magic to Sherlock.

Of course, he never uses the word ‘magic’ to describe it, at least not out loud, but that’s what it is. It’s bigger than Sherlock himself, bigger than Mycroft, and Mummy and Daddy, and all the silly little people stumbling around in the world going about their everyday lives.

Music is bigger than all of that.

And Sherlock finds he misses it now more than any of his other solitary past times. It is the one activity he has always been able to escape to, that gives him some kind of meaning, that he feels is really all his own.

He brought his violin with him on this godforsaken voyage, but of course, in the close quarters of the ship, he hasn’t dared to play it.

It remains strapped under his bed in its case, wedged tightly between the wall and the wooden legs of Sherlock’s bed, untouched since the ship left port all those weeks ago.

He thinks of it now, distantly, as he listens to the lovely rise and fall of John’s voice.

He thinks how he’d love to play for John, someday, in some universe, if ever he has the chance. Sherlock doubts the opportunity will present itself, but here, in the space between sleeping and waking, he can imagine his fiddle tucked under his chin as he pulls the bow across the strings, coaxing melodies out of the polished wood to bring a smile to John’s face.

Sherlock imagines how John would look at him if could hear Sherlock play—the way his eyes might crinkle at the corners with joy, or perhaps go smooth with contentment and peace—the way the light might pour out of him like when he smiles at Sherlock.

These thoughts lead Sherlock finally into a deep sleep during which he does not dream.

***

When Sherlock wakes again it is to the gentle presence of John’s hand on his shoulder.

Sherlock opens his eyes to John’s warm, golden smile unfolding all over his face.

Sherlock stares at John in wonder, realizing yet another thing about John Watson that is impossibly beautiful.

When he smiles, he smiles with his whole face—not just his mouth, not just his eyes, which crease becomingly at the corners, but every part of his face. The lines of worry, the grooves around his mouth are smoothed away; he seems to radiate light.

The expression on John’s face shifts to one of apology.

“I’m sorry to wake you. I’m off duty for the moment and won’t be able to get away later. I thought I’d better check in on you when I could.”

Sherlock wants to tell John that there is no reason to apologize. It is still unbelievable to him that John is here at all—not only in practical terms (how John managed to spend long enough away from his duties to tend to Sherlock is still a mystery to him), but that he should want to be here, at Sherlock’s sweat-drenched, shivery side is impossible for Sherlock to understand.

As he struggles for a way to put any of this into words, another smile breaks out on John’s face, as though he cannot help himself.

The effect it has on Sherlock is as visceral as the effect of the sun breaking suddenly through clouds.

“You look much better. How are you feeling?”

Sherlock is so busy studying each facet of John’s beaming face it takes him a moment to answer.

He sits up a little, considering.

Sherlock’s voice is hoarse with sleep. “Hungry.”

John laughs, and Sherlock wishes he could tuck the sound away, keep it in some hidden place so that he could have it always.

“I thought you might be.”

John reaches behind him for a bowl of something and Sherlock’s stomach grumbles at the smell of it.

“Nothing too exciting, I’m afraid. Just some watery porridge.”

John grins again and Sherlock is suddenly very glad he is lying in bed—the intensity of that smile directed at him is making him feel faint.

“Here, sit up a bit.”

Sherlock does, feeling more light-headed than ever as John reaches behind him to rearrange his pillow and help him into a sitting position.

It is more difficult than Sherlock imagined it would be to sit up, but he manages with John’s help.

John holds up the bowl of thin-looking porridge. Sherlock is so hungry its unappealing appearance does not deter him. He reaches for it but John lays his hand on his arm and shakes his head.

“Lie back. You’re still too weak. Open your mouth.”

Sherlock does so, feeling like a baby bird.

John spoons the warm porridge into his mouth and Sherlock swallows hungrily, opens his mouth again.

John feeds him the whole bowl, slowly, forcing him to take long drinks of water in between.

When Sherlock has eaten it all, he lies back, feeling sleepy again.

John sets the empty bowl at his feet, reaching out to smooth Sherlock’s hair off his forehead.

Sherlock is too content to question the ease with which John completes this gesture. He feels drunk from the food and John’s warm presence—he can feel himself rising into the touch, back arching like a satisfied cat.

“How are you feeling now?” John asks, his voice as gentle as his hands.

Sherlock doesn’t answer. Instead, he shuts his eyes, and lets himself drift happily, savoring the feeling of John bending over him, his small hand so warm on Sherlock’s forehead.

“You gave me quite a scare, Sherlock Holmes,” John says, voice quieter than ever, his hand continuing to push the hair back off Sherlock’s forehead. “You must promise not to do that to me ever again.”

Sherlock opens his eyes and stares up at John in amazed disbelief.

He can’t not see it now—the way John cares for him. Sherlock is not simply imagining it. It is real, as real as the presence of John’s hand on Sherlock’s forehead.

He can see it now, but that does not mean he understands it.

A thousand questions swarm Sherlock’s mind. He bites his tongue in his efforts to quell the furor, tries to pick just one, decides to start with the most basic.

“How did you know? How did you know that I was ill?”

John keeps stroking Sherlock’s hair. There is no reason for him to do this. Sherlock hopes that he will never stop.

“The captain had us account for everyone once the storm was over. It was a bad one—as I’m sure you could tell. Almost snapped the foremast right in half. We had a hell of a time getting all the sails down in time.”

Sherlock blows out a long breath.

It was just as he suspected then. Of course it had been John up in the rigging in the height of the storm.

Sherlock shuts his eyes briefly, whispers a silent thank you to whoever might be listening for letting John survive.

“I knew that a storm was coming, and I had a feeling it would be a bad one so I urged the captain to put the sails up before it hit. He wouldn’t hear of it. He told me there was no reason to take days out of our journey with no certainty of a storm.”

Sherlock watches the edge of John’s jaw harden, thinks of what he has seen of the ill-tempered captain, and marvels at the daring of John Watson to challenge this man.

“I couldn’t convince him. It was mayhem as soon as the winds started. He waited until the last possible second to give the order.”

Sherlock watches the hard line of John’s jaw tighten further and he knows there are words that John is holding behind his clenched teeth. Sherlock is about to tell John he need not censor himself for Sherlock’s sake, but then John continues speaking.

“After the storm, the captain ordered everyone up on deck to take an inventory. Most of the passengers were badly shaken, but no one was hurt, thank god. The only person unaccounted for was you. When I asked around, they said when they’d knocked on your door you didn’t answer. Apparently no one could be bothered to open the door to see why.” John’s voice takes on an edge of darkness Sherlock has seldom heard before. “I asked when last they’d seen you and when it became evident no one had seen you since before the storm, I worried some misfortune had befallen you. I had the steward show me to your room. When I knocked and received no answer, I went straight in, only to find you on the brink of death for a completely different reason.”

John’s voice is grim.

“It’s a good thing I found you when I did. Fever or not, if I hadn’t found you when I did you would have died of thirst.”

Sherlock’s mind is whirling.

He is still trying to absorb the fact that John worried enough to come looking for him. Even now that it’s apparent he has been ill for several days, he is not surprised in the least to hear that the other passengers couldn’t be bothered to look in on him. Indeed, he is surprised they noticed his absence at all.

“But how—how did you manage to stay with all of your work? How did you find the time?”

John sits up straighter, lets his hand drop from Sherlock’s forehead.

“I’ve tended to sick and injured men on this ship before. They know about my training as a surgeon—it proved useful during the war. They often took me away from my regular duties to help care for the wounded. The first time someone fell injured on this ship, I told them about my background, and they were eager to have the help. So every now and again when someone’s ill or injured, they give me a reprieve from my regular duties.”

John makes it sound as though it was easy to arrange but knowing the captain of this ship, Sherlock suspects there is more to the story.

Sure enough, John goes on to add, “I didn’t…” He clears his throat. “The captain doesn’t know about it. He likely wouldn’t approve, but I spoke with Lieutenant Lestrade. He’s a good man, and although he made it clear he wasn’t condoning my actions, he assured me he would let no word of it come to the captain through him.”

“What about your fellow crewmen?” Sherlock asks with sudden fear.

The captain’s cruelty, his lack of mercy when it comes to matters of discipline, is infamous. If the captain learns of John’s transgression, John’s punishment will be severe, of that he has no doubt.

“What if they tell the captain?”

John shakes his head. “It’s a simple matter of swapping shifts. Besides, we trust one another. None of my men would ever peach.”

Despite the complete sincerity in John’s voice, fear still gnaws at Sherlock.

If John were made to suffer on his behalf…

Sherlock does not think he could live with himself.

“I’ve sailed with these men for a long time. We’re like a family. The captain on the other hand is a stranger to all of us. This is the first voyage we’ve sailed with him.”

Sherlock looks up, curious.

“Our previous captain fell ill just before we set sail. We did not know who would be commanding the vessel until the morning we left the harbor.”

Sherlock thinks back to see if he can recollect hearing any part of this, but then he remembers that he spent the majority of the coach ride, and several of the weeks leading up to his departure sullenly ignoring the whole of his family and all their conversation in protest. Little good it did him.

Sherlock realizes then, with a sudden lurching sensation, what it would have cost him if he had not come on this voyage—he never would have met John.

Sherlock feels a creeping dread steal over him just at the thought.

“Unfortunately, in spite of the generosity of my crewmates, there is only so long a sailor can vanish from his post before the captain takes note. Which is to say…” John offers him a small smile before standing. “I’d better get back up top.”

John stoops to pick up the empty bowl at his feet. Even though Sherlock knows John has taken far too many risks, has offered too much of himself already, Sherlock feels a pang at the thought that John must leave again so soon.

“It’s alright, you need to sleep.”

At first, Sherlock thinks John has noticed his sorrow and he feels a hot wave of embarrassment move through him, but then he realizes John is not looking at him at all. He is staring at the empty bowl in his hands, and in that moment, Sherlock wonders if John isn’t in fact saying it to comfort himself.

“I’m only thankful you made it out of danger before my absence became too noticeable.”

Sherlock thinks again of what John must have looked like crouched beside his bed, dipping rag after rag into cold water, wringing them out over him in his desperation to bring Sherlock’s fever down, trying to force water between his dry lips.

Sherlock has only seen someone in the grips of a dangerous fever once before. When he was a boy, Mycroft had fallen ill and come very close to death.

Sherlock was small at the time but he remembers distinctly how his parents had looked huddled in grave conference with the doctor, the grim set of the doctor’s mouth, how he had shaken his head.

Sherlock had been certain in that moment that his brother would not live to see another day.

Of course, Mycroft had survived, much to Sherlock’s later dismay, but he will never forget the sight of his older brother, pale and sweating, his skin like wax, muttering, restless, his eyes unseeing while death hung like a specter over the shuttered room.

John said earlier this morning that he came to check on Sherlock yesterday afternoon. Sherlock is certain now that John did not leave his side from that time to when the fever broke earlier today, which means that John stayed with him all through that afternoon and night, wide-awake, working tirelessly to try and bring his fever down.

If Sherlock was as sick as John says, how he must have worried.

Sherlock can tell by the slant of the light coming in under the door that it is early evening, and he knows that John has to leave, but he has one more question. It is the most pressing one of all.

On any other occasion, Sherlock would not have the nerve to ask it, but something about the mournful way John is studying the empty bowl in his hands gives Sherlock courage.

“Why?” he asks, his voice the barest whisper. “Why are you doing all this for me?”

John’s eyes flicker up to Sherlock’s. His expression is one of mild surprise.

When he answers his voice has the tone of someone stating the obvious. “You would have died if I didn’t.”

In spite of his better judgment, Sherlock feels a sinking feeling at John’s words.

Of course.

John is a good man. He was trained to be a surgeon. He helps people; he likes to help people. He wouldn’t have stood by and let a man die if he knew he could do something about it.

He has no special affection for Sherlock; he simply believes everyone deserves to be treated well, that every life has value. The sad truth is that Sherlock has such little practice with being treated as though his life has meaning that he didn’t even recognize this basic level of respect as normal treatment.

How quickly he began to suspect it was something more than it was. He’s so starved for affection he’s like a stray dog gobbling down whatever scraps he can find, savoring each one as though it were a delicacy.

Pathetic.

Sherlock nods in response to John’s words, his eyes falling to his lap, trying to hide his disappointment.

However, John must notice he has said something amiss because he goes on talking, as though trying to amend what he just said.

“And because I like you.”

There is something like longing in John’s voice.

It’s unmistakable, but Sherlock cannot trust his senses anymore, cannot trust his judgment of simple statements such as the one John has just uttered. He wants too much not to read into it. He cannot stop himself from reading his own desires in everything John does and says.

He keeps his eyes firmly in his lap.

“Oh, Sherlock, don’t you know?”

All of a sudden, John drops back to sitting at Sherlock’s side, a change coming over his voice.

“How can you not know?”

Sherlock’s head snaps up in disbelief.

There are so many different emotions in John’s voice; Sherlock is desperate to try and decipher each one—sorrow, astonishment, fondness; regret.

“No wonder you ran away from me.”

Sherlock’s voice is stiff with pain. “I didn’t run away.”

“You did,” John says, shaking his head, but there is joy somewhere in the depths of his voice. “Oh, I’m such a fool. Can you forgive me?”

Sherlock’s mind is racing. There is too much new information—too many emotions. He cannot process it all at once.

His throat is suddenly very dry. “Forgive you for what?”

“For failing utterly to convey my true feelings.”

He has to ask. If he doesn’t ask, he may never know. His instincts are telling him to keep quiet—not to embarrass himself; not to reveal his stupidity, but in spite of all his doubt, Sherlock forces his mouth open.

“I don’t—” he ventures, his voice still very stiff. He tries again. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

John’s eyes have gone impossibly soft—all the lines in his face smoothed away by tenderness.

“I thought you knew. I thought you knew how I felt about you.”

Sherlock’s next question is so quiet he’s half-afraid John won’t hear him—his voice the merest scrape of a whisper.

“How do you feel about me?”

Sherlock watches John’s fingers tightening suddenly on the empty bowl in his hands.

John’s eyes are like two stars in the dim room—Sherlock can see them burning.

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you.”

The world seems to freeze around Sherlock. He holds his breath, certain he has misheard.

“I noticed you a while back, watching me around the ship, and I couldn’t stop thinking about you… but really it started the first time we spoke, that day I showed you how to do the knots.”

John’s expression grows shy, his eyes dropping to his hands.

Sherlock’s whole body is tingling. He feels as though he has caught fire.

“Don’t ask me to explain it,” John says, his own voice just above a whisper. “Because I can’t. I truly can’t. But there it is.”

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say. He can scarcely believe his own ears—much less determine how on earth he can find the courage to tell John that he feels the same way.

John moves to stand up again and the spell is broken.

“You need to rest.”

Sherlock wants to protest but he still doesn’t know what to say, how to put all of what he is feeling into words.

He still cannot believe that it’s true.

“Rest,” John says, stooping down to press a kiss to Sherlock’s brow. “We’ll talk when you’re well again.”

Sherlock is floating somewhere above his bed—his body has ceased to contain him.

John bends to set the bucket right ways up and then pauses, seems to notice something under the bed.

Sherlock realizes what it is at once. There’s only one thing underneath his bed—his violin.

“Do you play?” John asks, straightening up, eyes bright.

Sherlock nods, unable to speak, still floating somewhere above himself.

The joy on John’s face is like that of a small child’s—absolutely pure.

“Oh.” John’s expression is rapturous, full of longing. “We haven’t had a fiddler on board since Danny left. Would you play for us sometime? The men would kill for a bit of fiddle music.”

Sherlock hesitates—the terrifying prospect of playing for a crowd of strangers momentarily drowning out his intense desire to bring happiness to John, but at the transported expression on John’s face, he cannot help but nod.

Holding the empty porridge bowl in one hand, and reaching behind him to pull his waistcoat and jacket off the back of Sherlock’s chair with another, John slings the garments over his shoulder before turning back to Sherlock.

“Sleep now. I’ll stop back to check on you when I’m off duty next.”

John puts a hand on the door before turning back around.

“You need to get well again quick so we can have another boxing lesson. I’m not letting you off the hook until you can best me in a fight.”

John’s grin is like a bolt of lightning through Sherlock’s heart.

“And I still have lots to teach you.”

Chapter Text

John’s promise works better than any medicine he could have given Sherlock.

Sherlock focuses all of his energy on getting well. He is desperate to regain his strength so that he can leave the tedious confines of his cabin and spend time once again with John up on deck.

He is determined to get well again as soon as possible, and when Sherlock is determined about something, rest assured, he will accomplish it, and he will accomplish it quickly.

Never was there a more willing patient.

John has assured him that sleep is the most important thing he can do for his body to ensure its recovery—that, and eating and drinking to keep up his strength.

So Sherlock does nothing but sleep for the next two days (granted it’s not difficult to do, as he is weary to the bone), he drinks as much water as he can, and he swallows down every spoonful of the thin gruel that John brings him, even though he quickly grows tired of the taste.

“Soon you’ll be able to have real food again,” John tells him. “Well, as real as food gets on a vessel of Her Majesty’s Navy, which isn’t much more appealing than this, I’m sorry to say.”

True to John’s word, the bowls of porridge gradually transform into the regular ship’s fare, and Sherlock dutifully cleans every plate—no matter how unappealing, no matter his lack of appetite.

Someone must have a word with the steward because when John is not there to bring him his meals, the steward will appear grudgingly outside Sherlock’s door, bearing a tray.

Clearly, that someone is John, although Sherlock is not sure how he manages it. It’s unheard of for a sailor to dictate conditions for a passenger—even a passenger with Sherlock’s background.

Sherlock suspects that the silver-haired Lieutenant who was so unexpectedly kind to him might have something to do with it.

If so, Sherlock vows to convey his gratitude as soon as he is well again.

John stops by whenever he can to see how Sherlock is getting along.

His visits are rare moments of brightness in the otherwise dark stretch of hours as Sherlock waits for his ailing body to recover.

Following John’s advice is easy at first. Sherlock is so exhausted after fighting off the fever that he can scarcely manage to do little else other than sleep for the first two days.

After that, however, it becomes more difficult.

Sherlock has always suffered from boredom, but now, confined to his cabin for hours at a time, staring endlessly at the same four wooden walls with nothing to occupy his mind, no sound around him other than the continuous, monotonous creaking of the ship and the occasional murmur of voices in the corridor, Sherlock’s overactive mind feels as though it will tear itself to pieces.

If it weren’t for John’s visits (which Sherlock looks forward to with single-minded eagerness), and John’s promise to resume their boxing lessons as soon as Sherlock is strong enough, Sherlock is certain he would go mad.

When John is there, everything is different.

Sherlock could spend all day listening to John talk, perched on the end of his bed, telling Sherlock about the work he’s done that day, recounting the gossip from the ship, his jacket slung over the back of Sherlock’s chair, his eyes glittering in the low light of Sherlock’s cabin.

Sherlock doesn’t speak much, but he listens with rapt focus, studying John’s hands, his face while he talks, sometimes when he grows tired, shutting his eyes and letting the low murmur of John’s voice wash over him.

The most remarkable thing about John’s visits is that John seems to understand that even when Sherlock isn’t speaking, he is completely engaged, completely content. He is somehow able to sense Sherlock’s enjoyment even through his reticence, which fills Sherlock with a deep, incredulous gratitude.

He has never met anyone who isn’t unnerved by his tendency to quietly absorb the world around him without speaking. Most people ply him with questions; consider it strange that he will often go for entire days without saying a word.

John, on the other hand, clearly doesn’t mind at all.

He carries on talking even when Sherlock closes his eyes, sometimes reaching down to smooth Sherlock’s hair off his forehead, which Sherlock enjoys more than he can possibly put into words. So he doesn’t try to, he simply simmers with silent pleasure, sometimes turning his head on the pillow to move it closer to John’s hand.

If Sherlock ever doubted John’s assertion that he cares for Sherlock, he cannot possibly doubt it now, in light of everything that John has done to keep him alive—everything he continues to do.

But still, impossibly, Sherlock does doubt.

Every time John appears in Sherlock’s doorway, that brilliant smile unfolding all over his face, Sherlock wonders if he isn’t dreaming, if all of this isn’t simply one long, mad hallucination.

But then John sits down beside him and takes Sherlock’s hand between his own to feel his pulse and Sherlock can smell the lovely smell that he has come to recognize as distinctly John’s—the faint scent of sweat and pipe tobacco, the brine of the ocean. He can feel John’s strong fingers framing the bones in his wrist, can see the fine shadows cast by John’s eyelashes—the color of autumn wheat in sunlight, can hear the quiet rhythm of John’s breathing as he counts the beats of Sherlock’s heart, and he knows that what’s happening is real (he can’t deny that level of visceral sensory input), and Sherlock doesn’t know what he has ever done to deserve this.

He and John have not spoken of their conversation again. Sherlock tells himself that John will be true to his word; that he is waiting for Sherlock to get well again before they discuss the issue further, and he is not sure whether he is relieved for the chance to try and summon the courage to communicate to John that he feels the same way, or disappointed that the matter has not yet come up.

Either way, he tries as hard as possible to banish the issue from his mind and concentrate instead on getting well.

“You’re quite good at this, you know,” John says one day, after Sherlock has eaten every crumb off the plate John has brought him, drained the jug of water beside his bed.

“Good at what?” Sherlock asks, sitting up a little straighter, eager for any bit of praise John has to offer.

“Recovering from the brink of death.”

John looks Sherlock over with something like amazement in his eyes.

“Most people take weeks to recover from a fever like that. You’re looking almost completely well again, and it’s only been a few days.”

Sherlock beams silently in the wake of this assessment.

“I imagine by tomorrow morning you’ll be well enough to be up and about again.”

Sherlock takes this evaluation to heart.

The next morning, as soon as he wakes, he swings his legs over the side of his bunk and pushes himself to standing.

He wobbles for a moment, clutching the side of the bed, feeling the weakness in his legs that comes from nearly a week of lying on his back, but he remains upright, waits for the initial shakiness to pass before taking several tentative steps.

He keeps one hand on the bed for balance. The movement of the ship today is not particularly violent, but neither is it completely calm. It takes Sherlock several minutes of walking back and forth to remember how to compensate for the constant rolling motion, how to walk without falling over.

He keeps at it until he can walk the length of his room without holding onto the bed—and without falling over. As soon as he accomplishes this goal and has dropped back to sitting on the bed, he is disappointed to find that he is exhausted from the endeavor.

Before he can decide what set of exercises to do next, he has fallen asleep.

When Sherlock wakes, hours later, it is to the sound of John, shutting the door behind him, setting something heavy on the floor at his feet before turning around.

Curious, Sherlock sits up and tries to peer around John to see what it is.

“How are you feeling today?” John asks, coming towards the bed, and Sherlock is certain there is an extra spring in his step, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth that he is trying to suppress.

“Better,” Sherlock says, and means it.

“You look better.”

John seats himself on the edge of Sherlock’s bunk and reaches out to take Sherlock’s wrist, feeling for his pulse.

Sherlock tries again to lean around John to see what it is John has set on the floor, and John makes a small stern noise.

“Bit difficult to take the pulse of a patient who won’t sit still.”

Sherlock freezes, momentarily chastened, but he can see the humor in John’s eyes and the shame that threatened briefly to engulf him evaporates in an instant. He is about to open his mouth to ask John what it is when John sits back.

“There, all done. You can squirm as much as you like now.”

Sherlock looks and sees that the heavy thing John has set by the door is a bucket of water—water so hot he can see steam rising from its surface.

“I thought you might like to have a bath.”

Sherlock stares at the steaming bucket for several moments in utter disbelief, before lifting his eyes to John’s face in incredulous wonder.

Any bathing that takes place on the ship is done with cold water. Hot water is a luxury that the passengers and crew cannot afford for an act as frivolous as bathing.

“How did you—?”

The delighted expression on John’s face is enough to make Sherlock weak with gratitude. The thought of washing himself with hot water—of being able to get clean again, properly clean—is so delicious a prospect, Sherlock wonders for a moment if he actually might faint.

“I’m a member of the crew. I have access to the kitchens on the days I cook. I finished the washing up early, and we had a bit extra so…” John shrugs, grinning. “I thought I’d bring you some. I know that if anyone on this ship would appreciate it at the moment, it’s you.”

Sherlock knows there is no such thing as extra fresh water on a voyage of this duration, but John’s lie just makes the appearance of the bucket all the more miraculous.

Sherlock stares at the steaming bucket for another few moments in mesmerized rapture.

He is certain there are people on the ship who need it more than he does, people who might deserve it more than him, but John is right about one thing, and that is the fact that there cannot possibly be another person on this ship who will appreciate it more than Sherlock.

Never in his life has he longed for a bath as badly as he does now. He’s fantasized about baths for weeks at sea, with only the occasional basin of cold water to splash on his hands and face. Granted, the small bucket of hot water is not large enough for Sherlock to immerse himself in fully, not like a proper bath, but just the fact that the water is clean and hot is a wonderful prospect.

Especially now, after a week of lying in his own sick and sweat, his body sour, thick with filth, his hair a matted tangle at the back of his neck, Sherlock cannot imagine anything he could possibly want more.

Sherlock looks back up at John with shining eyes, utterly unable to convey the extent of his gratitude.

“Thank you,” he whispers, knowing it is not enough—it is nowhere near enough—how could it be?

But John seems pleased by his response. His smile grows wider, even as his eyes soften with affection.

Sherlock holds his gaze.

He sees something else there, in the corners of John’s smile, in the depths of his eyes, that makes warmth uncurl low in his belly.

Sherlock drops his eyes, overcome.

“Well, I suppose I should leave you to it,” John says, rising to his feet.

The tension of the moment has broken, but Sherlock can still feel his heart beating too fast in his chest. His cheeks feel warm, his limbs loose and shivery. He swallows the feeling down, lifts his eyes back up to John’s to see John looking at him with gentle concern.

“Unless, of course, you need my help.”

Sherlock feels his cheeks flush scarlet.

“N-no,” he blurts out, too fast, his voice full of panic. “No—it’s fine. I don’t need help.”

John is clever enough to hide his smile with the back of his hand, but Sherlock can still see it, peeking out at the corners, and he’s not sure whether he is pleased by the sight of it, or more embarrassed still.

“I walked a bit this morning, just back and forth beside the bed, but… I managed fine.”

“Good.” John’s voice is suddenly warm with praise. “That’s really good.”

Sherlock can feel himself responding to John’s approval, physically opening up, like a flower opening its petals in the heat of the sun. He doesn’t dare look up at John in that moment, for fear he will catch flame.

“I brought you a bit of soap too… in case you didn’t have any.”

John pulls out a fat cake of soap and sets it on the corner of the desk.

He clears his throat, suddenly business-like. “I’ll come back in a little while to get the bucket.”

Sherlock wants to say something else—wants to say a hundred things to attempt to convey his gratitude but all that comes out is another hushed thank you, his eyes fixed firmly in his lap.

Even as he says it he feels his cheeks burn hotter.

He doesn’t dare look up again until he hears the soft sound of the door closing behind John.

Sherlock waits until the sound of John’s footsteps have died away, before looking up at the fresh cake of soap John has left on the desk, the bucket of steaming water, and he feels a delicious shiver of anticipatory pleasure move through him.

He wastes no time climbing out of bed and stripping off his filthy nightshirt, rummaging around for the sponge he has in his things.

As Sherlock stoops over the steaming bucket, immersing the sponge and his hands up to the wrist, his breath leaving him in a wordless sigh of pleasure at the feeling of all that hot, clean water, he takes a moment to be grateful for the fact that he did indeed practice walking on his own this morning, because the thought of bending naked over the bucket in the presence of John Watson—his strong fingers framing Sherlock’s hips to support him—is enough to make Sherlock drop the sponge.

He wastes several precious seconds (the water is getting cooler every moment, and he cannot afford to let a second of it go to waste), watching the sponge bob on the surface of the water as he thinks about how it would have gone—John guiding Sherlock gently out of bed, instructing him to lift his arms so he could pull his nightshirt off, then sliding an arm around Sherlock’s bare waist to help walk him towards the bucket, telling Sherlock softly, his mouth so close to Sherlock’s ear, “Lean on me. Give me your weight. I’ve got you.”

At the thought of that—John’s warm arm around his naked waist—Sherlock gives a little cry, and has to lower himself to his knees beside the bucket, as he is suddenly incapable of supporting his own weight.

He clenches his teeth, steeling himself against the current of distracting thoughts that has opened up inside him, as though just being alone and without clothing is enough to flip open the lid on a chest that Sherlock keeps locked tight, full of all the things he has been trying not to think about for the past week—of how John would feel against him, touching him—his mouth on Sherlock’s body.

Sherlock shakes his head and grabs for the sponge, resolutely pushing the thoughts aside.

He manages to keep his mind carefully blank as he begins to wash himself, stooped over the bucket, letting the warm water sponge down over his back, his legs. He splashes it under his arms, over his neck and chest, before reaching for the cake of soap and lathering it between his hands.

He isn’t sure where John managed to find the soap—he knows everything on the ship is carefully rationed, and he is certain no sailor is entitled to a piece this big—but oh, he is grateful for it.

He scrubs it over every part of himself he can reach, grateful for the scouring, abrasive quality it has, scrubbing himself until his pale skin turns pink, washing away weeks of dirt and grime and sweat, before dipping the sponge back in the water and rinsing it all away.

He is making a mess of the floor, but Sherlock reasons the floor is just as filthy as he has been and could do with a bit of a wash anyway.

It feels wonderful, and Sherlock loses himself in the sensation of the slightly rough texture of the sponge scratching between his shoulder blades, scrubbing the back of his neck.

He dips his whole head in the bucket, bent over on his hands and knees—feeling like a dog, not caring in the slightest—rakes his soapy fingers through his bedraggled curls, trying to work the knots out.

However, his fingers aren’t enough this time. He reaches for the comb he keeps, bending his head over the bucket as he begins to work the teeth through the ragged snarl of his hair, wincing at the pressure on his sensitive scalp, water running down his naked arms to form a puddle on the floor beneath him.

It takes him a while to comb all the tangles out. By the time he dunks his head back in the bucket to rinse out the soap, the water is lukewarm, no longer as clean as it was at the start.

He saves the area between his legs for last—lathering up his palms with the now considerably smaller lump of soap—and as his hand works under himself, over and around all his most sensitive parts, he cannot help but imagine what it would feel like if it were John’s hands on him instead of his own, helping him, cleaning him so gently.

Sherlock is feeling fatigued by this point, worn out from the exertion of washing himself. He’s still kneeling by the bucket and he lets himself lean back a little, sitting on his haunches. What if he was too weak to go on washing himself? What if John were here with him, and he had to take over at this point?

Sherlock imagines John sitting behind him on the floor, his strong chest against Sherlock’s back—he would have taken his shirt off, Sherlock reasons, so as not to get it wet. He would have one arm wrapped around Sherlock’s waist, holding Sherlock to him, as his other hand works gently to clean between Sherlock’s legs.

Sherlock imagines John’s breath, warm against his ear; his mouth tucked in close, asking Sherlock, “Is this alright? Am I being too rough?” and Sherlock’s answer is one long exhalation of pleasure, sinking back into John with gratitude, his bones like butter.

He is barely able to answer so he just shakes his head, and at that motion, the movement of John’s hand changes deliberately from washing to stroking.

Sherlock can hear John’s breath catch behind him at the feel of Sherlock, stiffening in John’s hand, lengthening and thickening until he is red and swollen, and Sherlock cannot help but hitch his hips up with a small, plaintive sound, desperate for John to stroke faster, to take more of him in hand—the soap, stinging slightly as John begins to pull the skin back at the tip.

“You’re sure, this is—this is alright?” John’s voice would be breathless, the words seeming to stick in his throat.

Sherlock can hear him licking his lips, and he would wet his own mouth in sympathy before turning around in John’s arms to answer him without speaking, pressing his own flushed mouth against John’s in wordless assent.

John’s hand would stroke faster then, his other hand slipping down to grasp Sherlock hard by the hip. Sherlock would help him by thrusting upward, pushing himself into John’s hand to help him find the right pace.

When John found it—his clever fingers so adept at braiding and sewing and climbing equally adroit at finding the precise way to bring Sherlock pleasure—Sherlock would not be able to stop himself from crying out against John’s mouth, a whine building low and desperate in the base of his throat, and John would kiss him harder, the hand on Sherlock’s hip coming up to hold Sherlock so gently by the place where his jaw meets his ear, and that is the gesture that will push Sherlock over the edge—that tender placement of John’s fingers on his jaw line, dragging the orgasm out of him in a burst of light.

Sherlock stiffens, puts a hand up over his mouth to stifle his cry of pleasure as heat blooms long and golden all through him—uncoiling in a lovely spiral that leaves him shivering and weak, working his palm one final time over the sensitive head, pulling one last pulse of warm liquid out of him to coat his fingers.

It takes several moments before Sherlock can open his eyes again, and remember he is sitting on the damp floor of his cabin, naked and wet—fingers still slippery with soap. The bucket of water is cold beside him.

He makes short work of cleaning the last of himself with the cold, dingy water, and then rubbing himself dry with the length of clean fabric he uses for a towel, scrubbing his skin until it is warm and tingling.

He wrings out the sponge, sets the cake of soap back on the corner of his desk, and dresses himself—feeling more awake, more alive than he has felt in days. He has forgotten how good it feels to be properly clean.

He stretches out on his bed to wait for John’s return, but the effort of bathing (and the other activity Sherlock engaged in) wore him out more than he realized because the next thing he knows he is waking up to the gentle creak of the door.

Sherlock sits up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes, yawning so wide his jaw cracks.

John stands in the doorway, grinning.

The sun must be shining up on deck—the warmth of his hair, the brilliant white of his teeth in his tan face seem to carry the sunlight with him into Sherlock’s dim cabin. The room feels brighter and warmer just from his presence.

“How was your bath?”

Sherlock flushes scarlet from the roots of his hair all the way down to his toes.

He cannot meet John’s eyes.

“It was fine, thank you,” he says, graciously to the floor.

“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” He can hear the smile in John’s voice even without looking at him. “You look… nice.”

Sherlock’s flush, impossibly, burns hotter.

He is certain he will die of joy.

“I came to ask if you’d like to venture up on deck, get a bit of fresh air before nightfall. It’s a gorgeous evening, and I’d be happy to accompany you. That is,” he goes on to add, “In case the stairs prove too much.”

In his eagerness, Sherlock forgets that he is too embarrassed to make eye contact. He looks up in undisguised longing. “Oh, will you?”

John’s answering smile warms Sherlock all through.

“Of course.”

***

Sherlock follows John out of his room and down the creaking corridor. He manages all right on his own until they reach the bottom of the first staircase. He steels himself for the ascent but then, before he can even ask for help, John’s hand comes out and settles in the small of Sherlock’s back, supporting him gently from behind as he climbs, holding tight to the railing.

The sea is relatively calm tonight, the rocking motion of the ship subdued, but still, Sherlock is grateful for that little bit of pressure at his back, the reassurance that John is there to catch him should he slip.

He makes it to the top of the stairs, and has to pause to catch his breath.

John’s hand stays against him while he waits, and suddenly, Sherlock is flooded with the memory of the last time he thought about John’s hands on his body. He takes a deep breath, forces his mind to think cool, neutral thoughts as he turns to climb the next staircase.

When they reach the open air of the upper deck, and Sherlock feels the wind on his face, the sensation is so welcome, so refreshing, he almost stumbles in his relief. But John’s hand is still there at the small of his back, supporting him, and when Sherlock lurches, John’s other hand comes forward, lightning-quick, to catch Sherlock around the waist and keep him from falling to the deck.

“Easy now,” he says, guiding Sherlock over to the railing where he can hold on and look out over the sea.

Sherlock never thought he’d consider the sight of the ocean a welcome one, but after nearly a week confined to his cabin below decks, the sight of that deep blue horizon on all sides feels as soothing to his eyes as a drink of cool water to his parched throat.

John was right—the evening is a beautiful one.

The sun has set just moments before, the traces of its descent evident in the streaks of pink lingering over the horizon. The rest of the sky is a rich, powdery blue—deepening to purple where the light has begun to leave the sky. In the east, under a thin layer of fragile clouds, the first stars are beginning to emerge.

There is a group of passengers on the other side of the deck, enjoying the evening air, but they are standing far enough away that Sherlock cannot make out the individual words of their conversation, and it is easy to imagine the low murmur of their voices is just the sound of the wind.

The air is soft on Sherlock’s face, but cool. A breeze pulls at the damp tendrils of hair on his forehead, and Sherlock shuts his eyes, drinks it in.

He listens to the creak of the ship beneath them, the low swish of the water rushing by against the hull, and for the first time in a long time, feels utterly at peace.

John stands close beside him, doesn’t say a word, and Sherlock basks quietly in his nearness, feels his body sway closer as though of its own volition.

Sherlock opens his eyes to see John’s hand holding the railing beside his own.

He looks up to see John watching him, his eyes soft and fond. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

John’s hand is so close to Sherlock’s there is scarcely the width of a finger between them.

For the second time since he’s known John, Sherlock takes a risk.

He readjusts his grip on the railing, settling his hand close enough so that his little finger brushes against John’s.

John takes the hint.

He picks his hand up and settles it over Sherlock’s, so that his fingers are covering Sherlock’s where they hold the banister, giving them a gentle squeeze.

Sherlock let his fingers curl slightly off the wood so that they can wrap around John’s.

“So am I,” Sherlock whispers, and he means it.

For maybe the first time in his life, he’s truly grateful to be alive.

He turns his hand so that the back of it is pressed against the wood, tilting his palm up until it fits neatly against John’s.

John laces their fingers together and Sherlock burns with happiness—the intensity of his feelings so silent, so furious he is certain they will burn right through him and reduce him to ash.

They stand like that, without speaking, hands clasped together against the railing until the light has faded completely from the sky and the sea below them is lit by nothing but starlight.

Sherlock listens to the voices of the other passengers recede into the darkness as they descend the stairs below decks, leaving only he and John in this particular corner of the ship, and for a moment he can imagine it is just the two of them onboard, just the two of them alone on the impossible vastness of the open ocean, now transformed into a glittering mirror of the night sky above.

He turns in the darkness to see John studying their clasped hands.

When John’s eyes meet Sherlock’s they are questioning.

“May I?” he asks, gesturing to their hands.

Sherlock nods, his mouth suddenly very dry.

John lifts their joined hands off the railing, turning them so he can study the backs of Sherlock’s long fingers.

“My god,” he breathes, looking at Sherlock’s fingers where they curl around his own. Sherlock’s fingers are so long they easily span the entirety of John’s hand. “Your hands.”

“What about them?” Sherlock asks, an irrational dagger of fear lodged in his throat.

His hands are giant’s hands compared to John’s small, strong ones—Sherlock’s fingers long and spindly, ghostly white, pale in the darkness against the warmer tones of John’s sun-browned skin.

Sherlock looks at John’s neat, square, capable fingers where they meet his own, feels where the pads of John’s fingers are rough with calluses, sees where the skin over his knuckles is scored with scar tissue, and thinks how slender, how useless are his own comically large hands.

“They’re beautiful.”

It’s happening again, Sherlock thinks. He’s hearing emotions in John’s voice that surely cannot be there, but he can’t be mistaken this time. The reverence in John’s tone is so sincere it’s almost worshipful.

John lifts Sherlock’s fingers until they are inches from his mouth.

His eyes flicker up to Sherlock’s. They are deep blue in the shadows, as dark as the ocean around them.

When he speaks, his voice is almost too low for Sherlock to hear.

“May I kiss you?” John asks.

Sherlock’s heart is pounding so hard he can taste it in the back of his mouth.

He licks his lips, gone impossibly dry.

“What did you say?”

“I asked, if I could kiss you.”

John’s mouth is so close to his hand Sherlock can feel the heat of John’s breath against his knuckles.

All thoughts leave Sherlock’s mind. He is an empty vessel. He cannot think.

“Just here…” John clarifies, lowering his mouth to the skin of Sherlock’s hand, his voice a murmur of heat. “Just on the hand.”

Yes! Sherlock thinks violently inside his own head but he cannot speak—his voice has abandoned him.

Luckily, John’s eyes are still turned up toward him so he cannot mistake the wild nodding of Sherlock’s head, even in the dark.

“Oh good,” John sighs, lowering his mouth to graze Sherlock’s hand, his eyes fluttering shut as he presses his lips so softly to the skin over Sherlock’s knuckles.

Sherlock studies the fringe of John’s eyelashes against his cheeks, shining silver in the starlight, the press of his mouth so warm, and Sherlock is frozen in time—he is suspended in a drop of amber, his blood turned to molten fire in his veins.

Sherlock is burning—he is burning up. He has become an inferno of want, of longing.

The touch of John’s lips against his skin tears open a hole inside of him that can only be filled by more of John—all of him—against Sherlock, now, now, at once.

Before Sherlock can even begin to catalogue the firestorm of different sensations and desires that have arisen in the wake of John’s chaste kiss, John has lowered Sherlock’s hand, and Sherlock can hear that he is speaking to him, telling Sherlock something that is likely important.

It takes all of Sherlock’s effort to tune back in.

“…back to work I’m afraid, but I’ll walk you back down first.”

Sherlock realizes John needs a sign from him to show that he has heard, so he nods his head in mute agreement, and then he is walking—somehow, miraculously—his legs are doing what they need to do to carry him forward and down the narrow steps into the hold, John following just behind him to be sure he doesn’t fall.

Far too soon, Sherlock is standing outside the door of his cabin and John is murmuring good night, raising Sherlock’s fingers to his mouth once again, and Sherlock will die—he will surely die—if John does not stay and continue kissing him—if he does not turn Sherlock’s hand over and kiss his palm, his wrist, following the pale blue tracery of veins up Sherlock’s arm, kissing all the way up until his mouth finds Sherlock’s.

Instead, after one final squeeze of his fingers, he is sliding his hand out of Sherlock’s and vanishing into the shadows at the bottom of the stairs, leaving Sherlock to stand, clutching the door handle for dear life, his legs suddenly useless beneath him.

His legs are so weak the few steps it takes to cross the narrow distance from Sherlock’s doorway to his bunk are more precarious than any of Sherlock’s earliest, clumsiest attempts to walk at sea.

The effort of removing his clothes takes all his energy—he has to do it sitting down. It takes him twice as long as it normally would, his fingers listless and fumbling over every button, every clasp, completing the motions without seeing what’s in front of him, his eyes staring into the distance like a man in a trance.

When he finally stretches out in bed, years could have passed—the ship could have capsized, been taken by pirates, been blown to pieces by enemy fire—and Sherlock would have no idea.

He feels weak, insubstantial, like he might be floating apart.

Sherlock lies in his bunk in the darkness, holding his knuckles against his mouth, pressing his lips to the place where John’s lips touched him only moments before—the heat from John’s mouth living somewhere inside him, warming him all through.

His bones may have turned to water but his heart remains aflame.

In spite of the weariness of his body, his exhaustion from all that he has done that day, Sherlock’s body is wide-awake. It is lit up, singing, dragged to sudden vivid life by the touch of John’s lips against his skin.

He is torn between his desire to live forever in that memory, in that moment with John’s mouth so soft against him, and his longing for more of John, all of him—to leap into a possible future world where that might happen. He does not even know what it is he wants precisely, except that he wants more.

He will burn up in the fire of his longing, and still he will carry on burning until there is nothing left of him—nothing but embers and ash.

He falls asleep with the knuckles of his left hand still held against his mouth.

Chapter Text

“Higher—get your fists up higher.”

Sherlock squints against the glare of the sun and lifts his knuckles until they are level with his cheeks.

“Keep your elbows tucked, forearms close to your body. Remember move with your hips. Counter my blows with your hips.”

Sherlock pulls his elbows in, spares a moment to shake the sweat-soaked tendrils of hair that are clinging to his forehead out of his eyes.

It has been almost a week since Sherlock has completely recovered from his illness and he has been working tirelessly to improve his strength and speed. John was true to his word—as soon as he determined that Sherlock was indeed fully restored to health, he resumed his boxing lessons with Sherlock.

It’s only the third time they’ve managed to find time to do it and in spite of his renewed commitment to the strengthening exercises John taught him, Sherlock is feeling his weakness keenly today.

The day started out hazy and still, but now it is past noon and the sun has burned off the cloud-cover. A low fringe of puffy clouds clings to the horizon but they do nothing to alleviate the direct force of the sun overhead—Sherlock can feel every scorching beam of it beating down against his face.

No breeze disturbs the lagging sails. Part of the reason John has time today to spend with Sherlock is because the ship has hit a spell of dead air and flat seas. There is nothing much the crew can do except wait for the wind to pick back up.

“Remember to keep you knees bent. Stay light on your feet.”

John circles him and Sherlock pivots to keep John in front of him.

Sweat is trickling down his forehead into his eyes. Sherlock blinks hard, tries to blink the sweat out of his eyes without moving his fists from their position where they are now protecting his face.

John swings and Sherlock side steps to the left, managing to dodge the blow, but only barely.

“Good. Better. But remember to look at my torso, not my face. Watch my body.”

Sherlock does, and then immediately remembers why he’s spent the last ten minutes doing everything in his power to avoid looking at John’s body.

John is stripped to the waist, dressed in nothing but his light linen trousers. His feet are bare, his gold hair blazing in the sunlight. His small brown fists are raised above his face, his eyes sharp on Sherlock’s.

The muscles in John’s raised arms are gleaming with a fine sheen of sweat. Sherlock watches the sunlight glimmering on his shining torso as he moves and all he can think is John is made of gold. He is a deity of sunlight.

John’s jab catches him off guard. Sherlock fails to sidestep the blow. He raises his arms just in time to absorb the punch but the force of it knocks him backward.

Sherlock staggers back a step then rights himself.

“Keep your body loose. If you tense up when I hit you then you won’t be able to recover quick enough to come back at me. Try and loosen up. Shake your shoulders out.”

John drops his fists and demonstrates, rolling his shoulders.

Sherlock lets out a hard breath and copies John’s movements.

“Shake your arms out—stretch your neck. Good. Now,” John lifts his fists. “Come at me.”

Sherlock takes a deep breath, summoning all of his powers of concentration to ignore the glittering lines of John’s golden body, the powerful curves of the muscles in his torso and in his flexed arms.

Sherlock shuts his eyes briefly, centering himself.

He can do this. He just hasn’t been concentrating hard enough.

When Sherlock opens his eyes, he finds John watching him, a grin pulling up one corner of his mouth.

“Give me all you’ve got.”

Sherlock tosses the sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes, puts his fists up.

He tries to remember everything John has taught him—arms in close, body angled, the bulk of his weight centered on his back foot.

He circles John, eyes on his torso, but now he is only taking in relevant data about how John is moving, where his vulnerable points are—all the parts of his brain that were distracted by the beauty and power in John’s lean, muscular frame have finally been silenced.

Sherlock watches just a moment longer, then throws his right fist forward, rolling with his hips to give the blow the proper force, pivoting with his torso.

John falls back a step as Sherlock swings, and Sherlock’s knuckles graze the edge of John’s forearm.

It’s a near miss.

“Good!”

Sherlock pulls his fists back against his face, and continues to circle John, light on his feet, eyes watchful.

Now that Sherlock is fully concentrating and is able to read John’s body for clues of his movement, his precision improves exponentially. He can almost always predict where John’s blows will come from even if he can’t always block them.

They keep at it until Sherlock’s face is running with sweat, his limbs shuddery with exhaustion. He’s so focused he doesn’t even realize how tired he is until John steps back and puts his hands up.

“Let’s take a break.”

John drops himself down on the deck, and Sherlock follows suit, tired but content.

He’s managed to dodge or block every blow John has thrown his way in the last thirty minutes. His punches still lack power, but his technique has vastly improved. He no longer forgets to bring his fists back into position, and he’s consistently light on his feet, no longer stumbling and struggling to regain his balance after ever hit.

He still has a long way to go but Sherlock can feel the difference his ability to concentrate has made and he is quietly pleased.

John takes a pull from the flask he left by his discarded waistcoat, passes it to Sherlock.

He watches Sherlock take a long drink of the fiery liquor, his eyes sparking with delight.

Sherlock doesn’t cough this time but he can feel the drink burning all the way down from his mouth to his belly. He reaches up to rub a fist against his watering eyes.

“You have incredible reflexes.” John takes the flask back from Sherlock. “I’ve never seen someone with such sharp eyes. Once you get your strength up, you’re going to be unstoppable.”

John grins at him then—confident and beaming with pride, and Sherlock cannot help but smile back.

It’s incredible how much easier it is for him to smile these days when he’s around John. It actually used to feel difficult to work those muscles in his face. Smiling felt stiff and unnatural—he couldn’t maintain it, but now he can do it, openly, easily, and he finds the more he smiles, the happier he feels.

John passes him the flask again and Sherlock takes another drink.

“Your strength is already improving though. Have you been doing the exercises I showed you?”

Sherlock nods earnestly, and John’s smile widens.

“Good. I can tell. You know what else we can do to work on your arm strength?”

Sherlock takes one final drink from John’s flask before handing it back. He can already feel the effects of the alcohol uncoiling within him, making him feel sleepy and loose-limbed. He is suddenly aware of the deep fatigue in his body after the hour or so they’ve spent practicing in the hot sun. Sherlock reaches up to push the sweat-soaked curls back off his forehead. “Mmm?”

John laughs at his answer. It is a low, good-natured sound. “Well, I was going to suggest arm-wrestling, but I think you’ve had enough physical exertion for one day.”

Sherlock looks over at John—at his cheeks flushed dark from the exercise, his blue eyes bright in the direct light of the sun, pupils shrunk to almost invisible pinpricks. Other than the color in his cheeks, he doesn’t even look winded from the exertion.

Sherlock thinks about clasping his hand in John’s, pushing with all his might as John tries to pin his arm to the table, and something flashes through him, hot and bright as a stroke of lightning. He feels heat spread through him that has nothing to do with the sun overhead, and is suddenly grateful that John has decided the activity will have to wait.

He doesn’t think he could take it.

Sherlock isn’t sure what gives him the courage to ask this question—perhaps it is the alcohol, or maybe his guard has started to come down around John just that little bit more. Whatever the reason, he finds himself shaking his head in wonder as he looks at John.

“How do you do it?” he asks. “How do you work so hard, all day, every day, and never get tired? How are you so strong?”

The last part of his question comes out more emphatic than Sherlock intended, but he can’t keep the amazement out of his voice. He genuinely doesn’t understand how John does it.

John laughs again, softly.

“I’m not sure I know how to answer that.” He looks down at the calluses on his palms, spreading his hands in his lap as he goes on talking. “I’ve always worked—my whole life. Work is what I know. I’m not sure I would know what to do with myself if I wasn’t working. It’s just a part of life. And I enjoy it. Well—most of it.” John smiles wryly. “There are some tasks that I don’t think I’ll ever warm to.”

“Like what?” Sherlock asks, brimming with curiosity.

“Holystoning is probably one of the least pleasant.”

At Sherlock’s look of confusion, John goes on to clarify.

“Scrubbing the decks every morning. They call it holystoning because we have to get down on our hands and knees to do it—someone thought at some point it looked as if we were kneeling down in prayer.”

“What’s so unpleasant about it?”

Once again, Sherlock’s curiosity overpowers any self-consciousness he might have over his lack of knowledge about something as basic as the physical discomfort caused by heavy labor.

“We use a bucket of saltwater to get it clean and then a block of sandstone to do the scrubbing. It’s hard work, and tedious. It’s hell on your knees. Worst of all is when it’s cold out. You’ve got to be barefoot to do it. And it’s got to be done every day.”

Sherlock tries to imagine beginning every day bent over on his hands and knees, sleeves and trousers rolled up to keep them from getting wet, scouring the long expanse of the ship’s upper deck, shivering in the icy spray lashed against him from the waves.

He knows in that moment he wouldn’t survive one day as a sailor.

“The officers always supervise. If any of them are in an ill temper, that’s a sure way for them to take it out on us. It’s not so bad on this ship, but on bigger ships, in wartime, discipline is always tighter, and there’s a lot more petty officers struggling to assert their authority over those beneath them. It was much worse when I was onboard the Monarch.”

Sherlock is treated to the mental image of a deck full of Anderson’s, red-faced and shouting, yelling criticism, standing with their boots on the backs of the working men; and shudders inwardly.

Sherlock is certain that John had to put up with a lot more than cold, tedious morning chores on board that ship but he doesn’t want to press John into telling him anything he doesn’t want to remember—not now.

“I have it better than a lot of sailors because I happen to be good at the work that’s required of us. I’m very fortunate in that way. Many men are not so lucky.”

“Like the way you can walk out on the yardarm without holding onto anything!”

Sherlock’s exclamation is so enthusiastic that John laughs. The sound of it is sweet and spontaneous.

“Yes, like that, for instance.”

Sherlock bites his lip, embarrassed. The alcohol has definitely gone to his head. But John’s laugh is so lovely, so appreciative he cannot feel embarrassed for long.

“I’m lucky as well to have been trained—if only partially—in another profession. Having a surgeon’s training has proved more valuable than I ever could have guessed on a ship like this.”

Sherlock is fascinated by John’s history as a surgeon’s apprentice. The litany of questions in his mind is so numerous he cannot pick just one to ask. He knows little of the work performed by surgeons, but now knowing that John served as a sometimes surgeon during his time onboard the Monarch, he imagines that John has had his share of grisly, horrifying work.

“What about you?” John asks, taking another drink from his flask before screwing the cap back on. “I’m sure you have many, many talents—”

He pauses to throw a grin in Sherlock’s direction.

Sherlock’s heart turns over in his chest.

“But is there any one thing in particular that you’re really good at?”

Sherlock thinks about it, hard, for several minutes.

Objectively, he knows he’s extremely intelligent—so intelligent that it’s proven a problem for him his whole life. It’s always done more harm than good. Indeed, it is Sherlock’s extraordinary intelligence that is mostly to blame for his passage on this voyage. His family didn’t know what to do with him.

No tutor was able to keep him sufficiently academically challenged. He outstripped every one of them in a matter of weeks. His parents eventually got so fed up with it that they enlisted Mycroft for the job, which he naturally resented. That worked to Sherlock’s favor though as after about a week, Mycroft left him to his own devices. After reading every book in his father’s library, Sherlock began conducting his own experiments. He was able to occupy himself some of the time but boredom plagued him at every corner.

Most days he refused to come out of his room. He was fairly content being left up to his own devices but there was always someone nagging him—telling him what to do. Sherlock took to locking the door so no one else could come in or out (the household staff were continually disturbing and therefore ruining his experiments). Sherlock became very adept at climbing up and down the ivy outside his window.

He took to bringing strange specimens back from the woods and hoarding them in his rooms. The maids began to complain of the mess and the smell and the housekeeper insisted she couldn’t work in a household where she was barred from entry to clean the rooms. When Sherlock accidentally set fire to his curtains one night, his parents decided they had had enough, and even though he was only sixteen at the time, they packed him off to university.

He only lasted two seasons before he was thrown out for insulting all of the most esteemed faculty members. Sherlock had no problem correcting them when they made mistakes. Some of their theories were so backwards it was impossible for him to understand how they’d ever been able to receive their professorships. Sherlock was convinced at the end of his first season that the whole place was corrupt and full of impostors. If he was smarter than most of the faculty, then what did that say about the quality of the education he was getting? It was ridiculous; it wasn’t worth his time.

Sherlock thinks about all of this and bites his tongue.

He doesn’t know what to tell John. Not one event in his lonely, pampered life is worthy of John’s attention. Sherlock has done nothing, seen nothing; earned nothing on his own terms. It’s all been given to him, and he has nothing to show for his enormous privilege.

He thinks again of the difficult life John has lead, a life of hard work and misery—a life in which choice was taken from him. Sherlock is certain John has undergone suffering that he hasn’t even begun to communicate, and in spite of all that, the joy John takes in life is evident in everything he does.

Sherlock should be grateful for the leisure he has had, the benefit of being born into a world of entitlement and opportunity, but despite his best efforts, he cannot find it in himself to summon up even one morsel of gratitude. Sherlock has spent his life controlled by his family, bullied, hated, misunderstood at every turn, and as a result, he is filled with spite, suspicious of other humans, and resentful and unappreciative of the fortune birth has brought him.

Shame bubbles in his stomach at this realization and Sherlock’s shoulders curl inward. He feels as though he’s being crushed by the weight of his own ineptitude, as though his own inherently sour disposition is curdling any good feeling he might be capable of having. His aristocratic blood may well be full of poison. Any good thing that comes near him withers and dies.

“Hey—”

John reaches over, puts a hand on Sherlock’s knee, inquisitive and reassuring all at once.

“Sherlock, can you look at me?”

Sherlock doesn’t want to but the note of kindness in John’s voice draws him out.

“Hey.” He looks up to see John’s eyes swimming with concern. “Where did you go?”

Sherlock looks back at him, picking out the flecks of color in John’s irises. Today they are the color of the sky in a storm. Sherlock wishes he could get lost in them and never come out. He watches a furrow appear between John’s brows.

“You do that sometimes. You go away even though you’re sitting right in front of me. What happens? What are you thinking about?”

At the concern in John’s eyes, Sherlock feels something give way inside him.

He draws a sharp breath.

“It—” He stops himself. How can he begin to put into words the depths of misery inside himself, his failure to reconcile that with the joy he feels in John’s presence?

“Why are you always so sad?”

“I think you’re incredible,” Sherlock says in a rushed breath.

John looks momentarily taken aback, but then his face floods with the sweetest expression Sherlock has ever seen on it. He does not know how to describe what he sees. John looks pleased, happy certainly, but it’s more than that. His eyes are shining, his lips curling upward, but still parted in surprise.

It’s like seeing light pour suddenly into a darkened room.

“You do?”

The look of shocked delight is still unfolding—John’s face is growing brighter every second.

Sherlock nods, unsmiling. It is imperative to him that he conveys to John how serious he is. “I do.”

John’s expression shifts fractionally again. His hand is still on Sherlock’s knee, warm and solid. His fingers slide slightly, his thumb grazing the inside of Sherlock’s thigh. There is sorrow in his eyes. “And that makes you sad?”

“No!” Sherlock begins, then immediately doubles back. “Well, yes, but only because—”

He stops himself again. Words are so traitorous. They fall so utterly, utterly short of the enormity of what Sherlock feels, the complexity of it. This is why he usually never even tries. But he has to try for John, who’s looking at him so searchingly, so earnestly. It’s becoming apparent to Sherlock that John does not know what Sherlock is thinking and feeling. He has no idea. Sherlock finds this hopelessly frustrating, but he has to try, he can’t stand to have John looking at him the way he is now—the delight and pleasure almost completely gone from his face.

John waits. Even his patience is more than Sherlock can take—it just makes the ache of longing in his chest all the worse. How—how will he ever possibly convey to John how much he means to Sherlock? He can’t, he can’t, but John’s hand is warm on Sherlock’s knee and he wants to say something that will make John inch it further up his leg, instead of keeping it still and frozen like it is now.

Sherlock takes a breath.

“It’s only because I like you so much, and I know—well, I’m nothing like you, so…”

This is the hardest thing Sherlock has ever done. He only hates himself more with every botched word.

John is still waiting so patiently.

“So?” He prompts.

“So it’s a shame I’m not worth your company.”

Sherlock stares at his lap. He cannot look up at John. He looks instead at John’s hand on his knee.

John is quiet for several of Sherlock’s long, painful heartbeats. When he finally speaks, his voice is full of incredulity. “Do you really believe that? That you’re not worth my company?”

Sherlock jerks his head sharply in assent.

John takes his hand off Sherlock’s knee, and laughs. It is a sad, incredulous laugh. “Sherlock! Do you realize what you’re saying?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve got it completely backwards. Sherlock, you’re landed gentry. I’m the one who should be ashamed to be seen in your company!”

Sherlock’s cheeks flush hotly. “That doesn’t mean anything.”

John is shaking his head. He lets out another disbelieving laugh. “I assure you, it does.”

“All of that is meaningless! Titles and wealth and heredity—it means nothing. It has absolutely no bearing on the intelligence, the worth of a person, on their character.”

In his rage, Sherlock has turned his eyes back to John’s. He sees John’s face filling once again with surprise at his words.

“It’s an absolutely absurd assumption that one’s lineage—” Sherlock speaks the word with acidic disdain, “has any bearing whatsoever on the nature of one’s character. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it has the opposite effect. Lands and titles, if anything, bring out the worst qualities in people, taking their worst traits and exaggerating them to intolerable proportions. Having that amount of comfort and privilege makes people grasping, shallow, squabbling, presumptuous fools. I should know my own brother is one of them.”

Sherlock keeps on talking, suddenly eloquent with anger.

“I’ve known more cruel, crass, absolutely worthless aristocrats than good ones. I’ve known smarter serving girls than countesses, boot boys with more integrity than barons, and peasants with more depth of feeling in one little finger than any titled man or woman in the whole of England. The combined intelligence of the aristocrats I know could be contained on the head of a matchstick.”

John sits in shocked silence. He doesn’t move for several moments. Gradually, a smile begins to overtake his face.

Sherlock looks at him, his self-consciousness momentarily forgotten. “What?”

John shakes his head, eyes full of wonder. “You.”

Sherlock feels his cheeks burning again. “What about me?”

“I’ve never seen you speak so passionately about... anything. It’s incredible.”

“What is?” Sherlock asks, his self-consciousness returning as rapidly as it left.

“All of that… everything you just said. The fact that you believe that.”

Sherlock bristles. “Why?”

John shakes his head again, still smiling hugely. “Sherlock, no one thinks that.”

Sherlock frowns, shifts slightly. “Well, of course not. It’s like I said. They’re all imbeciles.”

“Sherlock, that’s… that’s remarkable.”

Sherlock darts his eyes back up to John, a feeling cresting within him that feels very like hope.

John’s eyes are growing softer by the minute. Now they are the color of sea-glass worn smooth. “It’s… beautiful.”

“It is?”

“You see people for what they really are, not the trappings they’re surrounded with. That’s a rare talent.”

“It isn’t.” Sherlock is stubbornly belligerent, still thinking of all the people he’s met and hated over the years. “It isn’t difficult at all to know that you’re worth a hundred of them.”

John’s face changes again, and this look, this look Sherlock wants to preserve forever in his memory.

Sherlock is flushed suddenly with a burst of rare confidence prompted by John’s last remark.

“There is one thing…”

The tenderness blooming in John’s face is so lovely to behold Sherlock has to stop speaking for a moment just to watch.

“What thing?” John whispers.

John, Sherlock realizes, is looking at his mouth.

Sherlock purses his lips. “One thing I’m especially good at.”

John’s lashes look heavy. They are dripping golden in the bright sunlight—they make Sherlock think of honey oozing slow and sticky off a knife.

John’s eyes are still fixed firmly on Sherlock’s mouth. “Tell me about it.”

Sherlock doesn’t know why—why suddenly he feels hot and flushed at the collar, like the air has been stolen from his lungs—just because John is speaking at a slightly lower timber, and is looking at his mouth.

Sherlock lifts his chin, ignores the fluttering feeling in the pit of his stomach. “It’s a game my brother and I used to play, to see how much we could learn about a person just from looking at them… just from observation.”

John’s eyes finally flicker back up to Sherlock’s, his expression curious. “How so?”

“For example…” Sherlock scans the deck. “Do you see the woman standing opposite us? With the yellow parasol?”

John nods, following the direction of Sherlock’s glance.

“Well, I can tell you that she’s twenty four years old. Her father is a widower—mother died when she was very young. She has three sisters—all older, all married with children. Her family is firmly middle class; she has no inheritance. She is on this voyage because she is headed to a position to be a governess for a magistrate’s family. She likes children but she resents the position; she would rather have children of her own. She is not close with any of her sisters. She is comelier than all of them. She’s terrible at mending, loves reading novels, and she is left-handed, in spite of the serious interjections of all her governesses.”

Sherlock looks over at John, expectant.

John looks doubtful. “You can tell all that from looking at her?”

"You don't believe me," Sherlock states plainly, his heart sinking.

"Well, it's just that..." John looks hesitant to confess the nature of his doubts.

Sherlock knows immediately what the trouble is. “There’s no reason for you to believe that I didn’t simply know all of that already.”

John nods, still looking hesitant.

“That’s a fair point. Fine, then. Pick someone you know well. One of your crewmates. I’ve never spoken with any of them.”

John chews on his lips, considering. His eyes search the decks for a familiar face. John gestures to a sailor standing about ten yards off, working on the rigging. “How about Old Leroy?”

Sherlock studies the man for a moment or two, his eyes flickering over his torso, his limbs, watching as another sailor calls down to him, observing the way he answers; then his mouth quirks up in a smile. It’s too easy. He should ask John to pick someone more difficult, but it wouldn’t make any difference. He’s too good at it.

He puts his shoulders back, and begins speaking very fast.

“In spite of his grey hair, weathered features, and his nickname, Old Leroy isn’t actually old at all. Life at sea has aged him considerably. I’d venture he’s somewhere between thirty-five and forty years old. He was married once but his wife is no longer living. He has one son—eighteen years old—who he hasn’t seen in years. He worries over him, although he’d never tell him that. They had a falling out some years back. The boy wanted to ship to sea like his father, but Leroy was against it. It’s no life he’d recommend to anyone, especially not his own kin. He himself started as a cabin boy on a schooner that traveled to China and back. Rose to the rank of able seamen but never progressed past that. Worked on merchant ships for years before the war broke out. He’s been in several battles—sustained two separate injuries that nearly cost him his life. One to the right hip—shrapnel from the cannons—the other on his left arm near the elbow, gunshot wound, I’d say, although it’s difficult to tell at this distance.”

Sherlock is running out of breath, but he keeps going, the words tumbling out one over the other, in an almost unstoppable current. There are so many details, and he wants to include as many as he can in order to impress John.

“He’s tried to leave twice—once after each injury, but the truth is, this life is all he knows, and he knows no other trade so he just kept coming back. He smokes a great deal, never touches liquor, and can play the mouth organ with quite a bit of skill.”

Sherlock finally runs out of breath and stops.

John stares at him, speechless.

Sherlock waits, slightly nervously. He knows he’s right (well, about most of it—some of it is always guess work), but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s dying for John’s good opinion and he hopes this will help him to it.

John is still staring at Sherlock with his mouth agape.

Sherlock shifts uncomfortably. “Did I get it right?”

John nods with his mouth open, his face full of amazement. “Every detail. How on earth did you do that?"

“Observation.”

“Tell me.”

Sherlock takes a deep breath. “I can tell he’s spent his life on ships from the way he moves on the rigging, and the way he walks—with the slightly bow-legged stance typical of sailors. I know he’s older than he looks because of his wrinkles—they’re the result of years spent in the sun. It’s the case with many sailors that they look far older than they are. It’s also the case that most sailors work primarily on merchant ships if they can help it because of the difference in wages, but I know he’s been to war because of the scars on his hands and neck. That, and his deafness, which is likely due to his post below decks by the cannons.”

“How do you know about his deafness?”

“Because he cups his ear every time the man above calls down to him. The injuries are easy,” Sherlock goes on before John can ask. “It's a simple matter of noticing the way he carries himself—see how he leans slightly to the left when he turns? That’s because of the wound in his hip. He’s compensating for the lack of flexibility on his other side. I guessed shrapnel because the majority of injuries on warships are from the shrapnel blown into them by cannon fire. The elbow injury is even more apparent. You see he can’t fully extend that arm? It’s always slightly bent. In fact, it’s remarkable he was able to keep the arm with an injury like that.”

John looks at him, flabbergasted.

"How do you have such knowledge of the human body?"

“I’ve always been fascinated by anatomy.” Sherlock looks down shyly, considering his long pale fingers. “My father has an enormous library so I learned as much as I could from books.”

"You learned all that from books?"

Sherlock shrugs, feeling self-conscious. "I had little else to do."

The look on John's face is a curious one—part wonder, part envy.

"How did you know he was a widower?"

“That's easy—a man that ill and that badly wounded wouldn't have chosen to stay at sea for so long if he had a family at home.”

“What about the falling out with his son?”

“His time in the war and the grave injuries he sustained would mean he wouldn’t recommend a sailor’s life to anyone, but his boy—left behind, all alone, his father his only living kin—would always look up to an absent father, would want to do as his father had done and start a life at sea. Naturally, they argued about it.”

“How on earth did you know his son’s age?”

“Also, easy. See the tattoos on his arm? There are two—one with two dates and a pair of initials—that’s for his wife, year of birth and death. The other is a pair of initials and just one date, eighteen years ago—that’s the year his son was born. And the tattoo on his neck? That’s a Chinese character. That’s how I know he worked the Eastern trade routes to China and back. No Englishman would know how to make a symbol like that.”

John is silent for several moments and Sherlock waits, feeling apprehensive.

He’s never taken someone through his observational process like that before. Usually when he deduces details about people and tells them what he’s figured out, they become angry, sometimes frightened. He and Mycroft used to sit and do it with their parents’ party guests. Sometimes they’d play the game with Sherlock’s hated cousins, which usually ended badly for Sherlock, as he was better at it than any of them.

His cousins were always convinced he cheated. Once they got so angry they dragged him out back and tied him to a birch tree. They snapped off the branches to make switches and struck him on his arms, on his stomach, until he told them how he cheated. He got so angry his face turned bright red, but he refused to lie so they kept on beating him until he was covered all over with welts, his swollen cheeks streaming with angry tears.

Gradually their cries of ‘Witchcraft! He used witchcraft, that’s how! He got his faerie friends to help him!’ roused the attention of one of the gardeners who chased the children away and untied Sherlock. The kind old man was one of the only allies Sherlock had on the grounds of the house. He used to scold Sherlock for picking things from the gardens that he wasn’t meant to, but gradually he began to take pity on the boy and left him to his own devices.

That day Sherlock learned of the man’s intense capacity for kindness. He took Sherlock to his cottage and let him sit on the edge of his iron bedstead while he boiled some rags in clean water and made a poultice out of herbs. He made Sherlock drink a cup of strong tea with a generous dose of whiskey in it (‘There’s no need to tell your parents anything about tha’. It’ll help to calm ya, is all’) before coating Sherlock’s wounds with the sticky balm of boiled herbs, shaking his head as Sherlock whimpered in pain. ‘I dinna ken why on God’s green earth, when there’s so much suffering already, little children must be so cruel to one another.’

Sherlock remembered the gentleness of his gnarled fingers as he rubbed the salve into the stinging welts, the sorrow in his eyes as Sherlock fought to keep his chin from trembling, and his quiet admonition, ‘There, there now. Crying over it won’t help now, will it?’

Afterward, he wrapped the worst places in the clean rags to keep them from rubbing against Sherlock’s clothes. ‘Keep them on as long as you need to, and come back to see me if you have any itching.’

Sherlock had nodded dutifully, wiping the last of the tears off his cheeks with the back of his hand, feeling slightly dizzy from the whiskey.

‘I’ve got to get back to work, but you stay there and rest a while,’ he said, rising stiffly to his feet. He re-filled Sherlock’s chipped mug with plain tea, and urged Sherlock to drink it down. ‘You can sit there as long as you like. Give those nasty cousins of yours a chance to cool off. And don’t forget what I told you about the bandages. You come and see me if they start to give you any trouble.’

Sherlock never forgot the man’s kindness. Indeed, a sort of pact was forged between them that day, and thereafter followed many happy months of Sherlock visiting the old man’s cottage to ask him questions about various growing things, showing him the bones and stones and specimens he found while traipsing through the woods. In spite of all his duties, he always managed to find time to talk a bit with Sherlock, to listen to what he had to say.

To Sherlock’s profound dismay, the old man fell ill that winter, and did not recover to see the spring. That was around the time Sherlock decided to give up hope entirely on the human species. In the aftermath of the old gardener’s death, Sherlock became more spiteful and solitary than ever.

The worst part about the incident with Sherlock’s cousins was the way Mycroft—who was the oldest of the group—acted the part of ringleader in the beginning, and then did nothing to intervene on Sherlock’s behalf, despite the fact that he was the one who taught Sherlock how to play the game in the first place. Sherlock suspected it was because it irked him that Sherlock had surpassed him at a game he’d invented. Mycroft supported the cousins in their initial taunts and then wandered off looking bored and important as soon as they started getting too raucous, saying Mummy and Daddy were missing him at the party.

Sherlock’s hatred of his older brother solidified that day into something hard and immovable. The image of Mycroft, standing coolly off to the side while one cousin held Sherlock’s shirt up above his waist so the other could beat him on the soft skin of his belly, is one that is forever burned onto the inside of his brain. Never in all his young life had Sherlock felt so betrayed.

Instead of putting Sherlock off the game for good, the episode made Sherlock stubbornly obsessed with getting even better at it—mostly with the intent of spiting Mycroft. So rather than forgetting all about it, Sherlock worked as hard as he possibly could to improve. When he got to university, he used to do it to try and impress people upon first acquaintance. However, he learned very quickly that it almost never impressed people at all, and instead tended to elicit their immediate derision.

When it became apparent to Sherlock that he was absolutely abysmal at making friends, he kept on doing it with the sole purpose of annoying people. It gave Sherlock a sick sort of satisfaction to see people’s reactions when he blandly rattled off every detail of their petty, unimportant lives.

He hasn’t done it during all the time he’s been at sea, or at least not out loud to anyone. It’s difficult to stop the constant flow of information in his brain as he observes the world around him. He’s trained himself for too many years to really cull the habit.

He worries now what John will think—kind, intelligent John, who can make friends as easily as breathing. Will he be offended on Old Leroy’s behalf? Is he disturbed by Sherlock’s strange ability? Will he find it sinister and unnerving like so many others?

John shakes his head and Sherlock stiffens in fear.

“That was…”

Sherlock ducks his head, avoiding John’s gaze.

“Absolutely incredible.”

Sherlock looks up in disbelief. “You think so?”

“Of course, it was. It was extraordinary. It was quite extraordinary.”

“That’s not what people usually say.”

“What do people usually say?”

“Piss off.”

John’s face breaks into a smile, and then he laughs and laughs.

“Sherlock Holmes, you are a wonder!”

Sherlock ducks his head, blushing furiously. He fiddles with the edge of his coat, mutters, “It’s nothing.”

But internally, he’s beaming from head to foot. He feels as though his chest will burst with happiness.

John Watson thinks he’s clever. John Watson thinks that he’s a wonder.

“Do another one!” John urges, “Do someone else!”

Sherlock spends the rest of John’s free shift deducing various details about members of the crew. When he’s done every available seamen in view, he moves onto the passengers, which somehow still manages to impress John even though he knows very little about any of them.

By the time the bell tolls, ringing out the hour, Sherlock is grinning to rival John’s sunniest smiles. He has never felt so happy.

“Well, that’s me. Got to get back.”

John is still laughing as he moves to stand but before he can rise to his feet, a shadow falls over them both, blocking the light of the late afternoon sun.

Sherlock looks up and his stomach drops.

Anderson is standing above them, the corners of his lips pulled back into a sneer.

“Watson, didn’t you hear the bell?”

“I did, sir.”

“Then what are you doing still sitting here? You’re on the dog watch.”

John rises to his feet, calm as ever. “Yes, I’m well aware of that. Coming right now, sir.”

“Well, look lively,” Anderson barks. He eyes John critically as he stands. “Seems to me you’re lagging behind these days, Watson.”

John is now standing in front of Anderson, and in spite of the rather significant height difference between the two men, it strikes Sherlock that even from where he’s sitting, John doesn’t look all that much shorter than Anderson.

It’s because he carries himself with so much confidence, Sherlock thinks, taking note of the strength of John’s open shoulders, the slight lift in his chin.

John makes no reply to Anderson’s comment other than to raise a single eyebrow in his direction.

“What have you been doing these last two hours? You’ve been sitting here with Holmes haven’t you? Don’t you have better things to be doing than wasting your time with cast-off members of the gentry?”

Sherlock feels Anderson’s eyes cut to him, and even though it’s a silly, throwaway comment, just the prospect of Anderson making a fool of him in front of John makes his cheeks fill with fire.

John’s response is smooth as butter. “You are well aware that I am at liberty to spend my two free hours in any manner I choose. If there has been any complaint as regards my work, I’m sure I will hear it from Lieutenant Lestrade, and not yourself.”

Anderson leans in, lip curling menacingly. “Are you giving me cheek, Watson?”

“Not at all, sir.”

John’s tone is utterly without malice but Sherlock can see tension in the line of his shoulders. It is clear to him in that moment that if there were no issue of rank, John would have already given Anderson two black eyes, and likely several broken ribs.

“It sounds to me like you’re giving me cheek.”

“I was merely answering your question.”

“I was merely answering your question, sir!” Anderson snaps.

“Precisely, sir. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have duties to attend to.”

John bends down to snatch up his waistcoat and discarded shirt where he left them beside Sherlock.

As his mouth dips close to Sherlock’s ear, he says in a low voice that only Sherlock can hear. “See you later, you lovely thing.”

He straightens up before Sherlock can be sure he’s really understood, striding away down the deck, with his jacket slung over one shoulder.

Sherlock feels his cheeks fill with color. He looks up to see Anderson watching him with narrowed eyes, before he turns to glare at John’s retreating back.

“Yes! Get to it!” Anderson calls lamely after him.

Sherlock can see how badly he wants to reprimand John, but it is not technically within his purview to do so. He turns back around, his face splotchy with rage.

“What are you looking at, Holmes?” Anderson snarls. “I suggest you get off the deck and out of the way before you become a problem.”

Sherlock stands, glaring at Anderson with every ounce of his ire, unconsciously assuming his haughtiest expression.

Anderson’s face twists with hatred.

“I’ve warned you, Holmes, that you’d better watch yourself, but it seems you didn’t take my warning seriously. So I’ll tell you again now, and I’ll make it very clear. If you spend any more time distracting members of the crew, you’re going to be very, very sorry. Is that understood?”

Sherlock raises himself up to his full height. The joy from his recent interaction with John is still sparking within him, giving him a sense of assurance he rarely feels in Anderson’s presence.

“You can’t tell me what to do. You’re just a midshipman.” His voice lingers on the word with pointed scorn. “You have no authority at all on this ship, and that infuriates you, doesn’t it? Because you love controlling people, don’t you, Anderson? It makes you furious, how utterly unimportant you are, how impotent. I suppose that’s why your cheating wife left you. She’s not going to wait around for you to gain a position when you can’t even pass your examination. How many times have you failed it now? Is it twice now? Or just the once?”

Anderson’s face ripples with rage, before going absolutely stiff. He leans in close to Sherlock, his face a mask of hatred.

Sherlock feels his triumph pierced momentarily with real fear. He resists the urge to drop back a step.

Before Anderson can open his mouth a voice cuts over him.

“Anderson! We need you up on the quarterdeck—where are you?”

Anderson’s lips curls, his face now sickeningly close to Sherlock’s. His voice is soft as death.

“Well, well, saved in the nick of time once again it would seem. Next time you’re not going to be so lucky, Holmes. You’re going to be sorry you ever crossed me, mark my words. I’m going to make you wish you’d never been born.”

Anderson’s breath is hot and putrid against Sherlock’s cheek. He wants to turn his face away but he holds Anderson’s gaze, his hands tightening to fists at his sides. His heart is pounding with suppressed fury.

“ANDERSON!”

Anderson steps back, his eyes traveling with vicious intent down the length of Sherlock’s torso. “You mark my words.”

He turns away before Sherlock can respond, making his way back towards the stern of the ship.

Sherlock lets out a breath, shakes out his fists. There is so much hatred coursing through him he fears for a moment that he might be sick. He puts his hands on his knees and takes a deep breath, waits for the sensation to pass.

He’s furious that Anderson spoiled the end of what otherwise would have been the perfect afternoon. But the shadow cast by his ugly presence recedes quickly in the wake of the joy Sherlock feels at John’s reaction to his strange ability, the look on John’s face when Sherlock told him how he feels about him, the way his eyes lingered on Sherlock’s mouth.

This thought warms Sherlock all through, and it’s not long before he’s forgotten Anderson’s hateful words entirely, burned up in the heat of the memory of John’s mouth close to his ear, his low voice calling Sherlock ‘lovely.’

***

That night, as Sherlock lies in bed, thinking back over his conversation with John, he is seized with the desire to compose.

He has not had the inclination to write music in months and months, but suddenly it is gripping him like an unstoppable force, filling him up with its sweetness, the melody sweeping through the inside of his head, curling and dipping, twisting and rising, and he is desperate to get his nib into the ink, to get the pen to paper to start notating what is a whirl of color in his mind.

He reaches for his quill, spilling ink all over himself in his desperation, scribbling down the notes as quickly as they come—his hand not nearly quick enough to keep up with the notes unfurling in his mind, like a long sweep of rolled parchment being shaken out.

He works at it late into the night, hunched over the paper, pages and pages of notes spiraling out of him until his candle burns itself to nothing and he lights another, disregarding the fact that he may regret this decision later. He only has so many candles to his disposal on the voyage. But for the moment, Sherlock doesn’t care. He couldn’t stop writing even if he was dragged from the tabletop.

Finally, his eyes blurry with fatigue, his fingers cramped and aching, smeared with ink, he sets the pen down, sprinkles the paper with powder to help it set, and leans back in his seat, cracking his knuckles.

He blows the candle out, and crawls into bed.

Sherlock dreams the composition—it looks like light cutting through water from above.

It looks like John Watson running on the yardarm, the sun winking in and out of existence behind his leaping frame.

Chapter Text

The wind picks up again, and John is kept busy for the next few days working on the sails. He is almost always aloft, crawling up the masthead, walking on the rigging below the yardarm to help unfurl the sails, bending and unbending, tacking as the wind changes.

For the first time since the voyage began, Sherlock doesn’t mind.

He feels more content than he can ever remember feeling; his mind is more at ease. The little spark of confidence that John awoke in him during their last conversation has been growing steadily, expanding until it has become a bed of embers, glowing hotly under Sherlock’s breast, even when John is not near him.

Sherlock can feel the heat of it giving him the confidence to ask questions of the other sailors when John isn’t around, as long as they’re not too busy. His shyness is still so debilitating that he keeps the conversations brief, but all the sailors he has spoken to are friendly with him, and don’t seem to mind Sherlock’s questions. They seem to have become accustomed to Sherlock’s solitary presence on the deck, perched just off to the side, quietly observing.

He is learning more about the ship, bit by bit, every day. He likes to impress John with what he has picked up in his observations, casually pointing out a part of the ship’s rigging and asking, “Those are the jack-stays, aren’t they? And that’s the martingale?”

The look of surprise on John’s face every time as it gradually transforms into a stunned smile helps to fan the embers of Sherlock’s confidence into a tiny flame.

“You’ll be up on the masthead before we know it,” John says with a fond smile. “One of these days I wouldn’t be surprised to come out and find you hanging off the foretop!”

Sherlock smiles back every time, beaming with pride at John’s praise, but Sherlock knows there is a grave difference between knowing the words for things and knowing how to do what John does every day—how to manipulate such a complicated system of ropes and rigging to steer the massive wooden structure through the water. The more Sherlock learns about the intricate workings of the ship, the more impressed he is by John’s abilities until it feels as though Sherlock’s awe of John is as vast, as unending as the ocean they are sailing over.

The ship’s progress south is evident in the growing warmth of the climate. Each day as they draw nearer to the equator, the winds gather force and the heat of the sun intensifies.

“We’ve almost hit the trade winds,” John tells Sherlock one day, while they are standing together on deck. “Which means smooth sailing for three or four weeks, if we’re lucky.”

“Does that mean you’ll have more time to yourself?” Sherlock asks, afraid to hope.

“It does, indeed,” John says with a smile. “I wonder how on earth I’ll stand to occupy myself with all those hours of freedom. Can you think of any useful occupation for me, Mr. Holmes?”

John’s gaze as he casts it over Sherlock is decidedly heated. “Anything at all?”

Sherlock flushes scarlet from the roots of his hair down to the tips of his toes.

He stares at his fingers on the railing, and shakes his head.

John laughs, warm and low, and the sound makes Sherlock feel as though his stomach has detached itself from his body and is floating somewhere out over the open ocean.

John leans closer, and his voice is a tendril of heat, curling itself around Sherlock’s heart. “I’m sure you and I can think of something.”

When Sherlock is not up on deck observing John and his fellow crewmen, he is working on his composition, which he has come to think of as a study of John Watson.

When he is not working on it, he is thinking about it—twisting and manipulating the melody in his mind, changing the texture, the scope of the notes ever so slightly. At night, he goes over the cramped lines of script, making corrections, shifting the breaks in the movements, adding other instruments. He has forgotten the thrill of working on something that takes his attention so completely, the joy of work that actually has meaning.

Although Sherlock doesn’t have the command Mycroft has over every instrument he touches, he has had extensive training in all of the strings and a good number of the woodwind family, so he can write music for them with considerable skill. The main weight of the melody is carried by the violin but he adds a medley of other instruments to support it, to give it nuance and depth, so that it will have the necessary gravitas, but also the vibrancy of what he is struggling to express.

It only takes a few nights of furious composition, before Sherlock cannot resist the temptation any longer to pull out his violin. Even though he knows he won’t be able to play it properly, he longs to hold it, to press the notes into the fingerboard, slide his fingers up and down the strings. He can at least work through the notes, and the feel of it under his hands will help him get closer to the sound, even if he cannot actually hear it.

So Sherlock drops to his hands and his knees beside his bed and unfastens the intricate system of straps and buckles he has employed to keep his instrument safe from the violent movement of the ship.

The sea is calm tonight and Sherlock can take his time as he seats himself on the bed and settles the case over his knees.

His fingers slide into place against the clasps with practiced ease and he doesn’t even realize he is holding his breath until he pushes the case open and sees the violin tucked in its familiar bed of worn blue velvet, and all his breath leaves him in a sigh.

How could he have forgotten? How could he have forgotten how much it means to him just to smell the slight must of the velvet lining the case? The smell of the rosin, the crisp scent of the polished wood rising up to meet him in a fragrant rush of sensory memories, memories of fire lit nights when Sherlock played for Mycroft in a corner of their drafty nursery, rare moments of peace between them that seemed only to come when Sherlock had his violin in hand—memories of colder nights, up on the roof of their vast home, the world spread out at Sherlock’s feet in a tangle of silver-tinted shadows, the cost of slightly frigid fingers worth every moment of blissful solitude he spent, playing to the moon.

He studies its lovely dull gleam for a moment longer, lost in memories, before pulling it carefully free, mindful of the slight rocking of the ship as he holds it in his hands, wrapping his long fingers around the neck, running a palm down the curve of the waist. He tucks it under his chin and closes his eyes, feels the glow of his memories warming him like a flame cupped between his palms.

His fingers itch to play but he doesn’t dare pull the bow across the strings for fear of disturbing someone. However, he can pluck out the notes, pizzicato style, and he does, as he works through the new composition, testing it out, rewriting those parts that don’t quite fit.

He works at it until his candle has burned down to a puddle of wax, finally extinguishing itself with a quiet hiss, leaving Sherlock to settle the instrument back in its case in darkness.

He does so without difficulty, crawling underneath his bunk, feeling his way to the straps to secure it firmly back in place.

This incident causes Sherlock to consider the alarming rate of candles he has already used up and he resolves to work from now on in daylight in order to keep himself from exhausting his supply completely.

As he drifts off to sleep, Sherlock thinks about what John said about the sailors longing for a fiddler, and wonders when the opportunity will present itself.

The opportunity, it turns out, comes sooner than Sherlock thinks.

The next night at dinner, Sherlock is sitting in the passenger saloon, making short work of a bowl of beef and barley stew (his appetite has increased in frightening leaps and bounds in the wake of his weekly boxing lessons with John), only half listening to the drone of conversation around him. His mind is occupied with the newest alterations to the movement led by the second violin (he’s thinking of adding an arpeggio toward the end, just before the melody comes back in), so he almost doesn’t hear the piece of news, but the enthusiasm in the man’s voice catches his notice.

“—hit the trade winds at long last. They say if the good weather holds, there’s to be a celebration tomorrow night, a party for the officers and passengers!”

A young man to Sherlock’s left gives an incredulous chuckle. “Our captain? Throwing a party? I’ve never heard the like.”

Henrietta Long, a blonde-haired, buxom young woman who is only too fond of displaying her myriad charms, leans forward with undisguised eagerness. “Oh, do you really think so, Mr. Jackson? A party? On this ship?”

The beaming Mr. Jackson nods jovially, lifting his wine glass to underscore his words. “Indeed, Madame that is what the officers are saying. I heard it from the mouth of Lieutenant Lestrade, himself!”

Several of the women break into excited giggles, and duck their heads together in fervent conference.

A young woman with thin brown hair and a nervous, melancholy smile—Miss Hooper is her name—lifts her eyes to Mr. Jackson. Sherlock has never heard her say two words together. Therefore, he assumes he is as startled as everyone else at the table when Miss Hooper asks, in a voice just above a whisper, “Will all the officers be in attendance, sir?”

Mr. Jackson inclines his head in a deferential gesture. “I do believe so, my lady.”

Miss Long leans closer to Miss Gibbons to speak in a carrying whisper. “I think we all know which officer Miss Hooper is counting on, don’t we?”

Miss Hooper’s pink cheeks turn a vivid shade of crimson, her eyes dropping to her lap.

Sherlock feels a flicker of rage lick the base of his spine as the other women laugh conspiratorially together.

Sherlock is so deeply encased in his own desire to remain invisible that he is rarely aware of the social dynamics between the other passengers, but now he feels a small burst of sympathy for the brown-haired girl in the faded, polka-dotted dress.

For the first time, he really looks at her, and sees in her flushed cheeks, her thin lips, her threadbare shawl, a girl who is as cast-off as he is in the small, vicious social order of the ship. He decides, in that moment, to be more aware of her suffering, and see if he can’t help prevent it in some small way in the future.

“Oooh, do you think they’ll bring our trunks up for us, so that we can dress in something decent for the occasion?”

“As to that, I’m afraid I cannot say,” Mr. Jackson intones with mock-seriousness, staring mournfully into the depths of his wine glass. “Although it is customary for passenger ships on voyages of this length to have a day for airing and arranging. I’ll have a word with Lieutenant Lestrade tomorrow morning, and see what he has to say. I believe weather will be the final determinant in the matter, but never fear, ladies!” When he looks up again, his eyes are twinkling with good humor. “I am, as ever your humble servant.”

There is a great deal of appreciative giggling in the wake of Mr. Jackson’s promise.

The young man to Sherlock’s left speaks up again. Sherlock can tell by the lurch in his voice that he’s had more wine than he can stomach. “But seriously? Captain Thunderbrows wanting to throw a party? Can you imagine—him dancing a quadrille? What’s he going to do? Shout us into having a good time?”

“Watch yourself, Bailey.” A beetle-browed gentleman in a worn frock coat speaks up from the end of the table. “Everyone is subject to the rule of the captain on his vessel, not just the crew. You want to be careful what you say.”

“I was only joking,” Bailey concedes, taking a drink of wine, but Sherlock can hear the slight quaver in his voice.

“Nothing that you say on board this ship is ever private. Remember that. Ships have ears.”

The boy takes another nervous sip of wine, casting his eyes downward.

Taking advantage of the silence created by the boy’s remark, Sherlock clears his throat. He raises his voice, gathering his courage to himself like a blanket. “Are all members of the crew invited?”

Several heads turn to stare at him in mild fascination. Sherlock is certain they have forgotten he has the power of speech.

A large man named McKinley answers him, his booming voice filled with mild scorn. “Don’t be daft, boy! The point is to provide an opportunity for good relations between passengers and officers. Give us the chance to get to know one another better, lift the spirits and all that.”

Sherlock can feel his stew curdling in his stomach as he thinks of Anderson striding the length of the room, trussed up in his uniform like a hideous peacock, trying to catch the eyes of the female passengers, all the while hissing insults at Sherlock under his breath.

The momentary flicker of excitement he felt at the prospect of a party where John would be present vanishes, leaving him cold.

“The crew will have their own more primitive means of celebration,” McKinley adds with a derisive smile. “Of that I have no doubt.”

A few snickers follow this remark.

Sherlock narrows his eyes, feeling another lick of fury move through him like a stroke of flame, but he bites his tongue; none of these people are worth the breath of his reproof.

“If you think that’s the reason for the party you’ve got another thing coming,” a thin man with an unnervingly scrutinizing gaze says darkly into his cup.

“What’s that, Ferguson?”

The man shakes his head with a bitter smile. “I’ve heard plenty where it concerns our captain, and spirit-lifting is not one of his better known qualities. He’ll have his own reasons for the festivities, you can be sure of that.”

The beetle-browed man—Knott is his name, Sherlock recalls—leans forward in his chair, his expression deadly serious. “You heard what I told Bailey. I’d watch what you say, Ferguson. Especially at the Captain’s table.”

“He hasn’t come to dine with us once, has he?” Ferguson says, with something like bravado in his voice. “He barely sets foot outside his cabin. I don’t see any reason for him to change his habits now.”

There’s a woman sitting to the left of Mr. Knott, fanning herself nervously. Sherlock recognizes her as one of the women who screamed in terror seeing John up on the yardarm. Her eyes skid from one man to the other. “Well, I for one, hope he does make an appearance at the party. We’ve hardly seen him since the ship left port!”

Ferguson’s gaze is fixed on unwavering on Mr. Knott. “Don’t think there isn’t a reason for that.”

“Ferguson,” Knott growls. “I think it would be wise to abandon this particular thread of conversation. Especially in present company.” His eyes flicker meaningfully to the curious faces of the other passengers around the table. Old Mr. Mills has leaned so far forward in his chair that his cravat is dangling in his soup bowl. “None of us wants any trouble.”

“Whoever said anything about starting trouble?”

There is a moment of palpable tension as the two men lock eyes across the table.

Sherlock can feel the struggle between them as clearly as though a sudden draft has swept into the room.

The other passengers can clearly feel it too. Miss Goodfellow, the prospective governess, is pursing her lips so hard they seem to have vanished completely, and the young man named Bailey is so full of nervous energy he upends his wineglass with an abrupt gesture, spilling wine all over the lap of the elderly Mrs. Mills.

The accident breaks the tension of the moment.

Mrs. Mills gives a squawk of surprise, and Mr. Bailey leaps to his feet, stammering apologies.

Loud, good-natured Mr. McKinley scolds the boy in earnest while Miss Hooper helps Mrs. Mills to her feet and out of the dining room.

The diners go back to their individual conversations, their interest in the conflict between the two men already forgotten, but Sherlock keeps the corner of his eye fixed on Mr. Ferguson. His eyes have returned to the bowl in front of him but he looks angrier than ever; the hand that is holding his soupspoon is white-knuckled with rage. Clearly, there is more the man wants to say but Sherlock is certain from the iron gaze of Mr. Knott that he will do everything in his power to keep that from happening.

For the first time since he’s set foot on the ship, Sherlock finds he is interested in the affairs of his fellow passengers, if only because the matter relates so clearly to their nefarious captain, a man who has far too much power over all their fates. If there’s one matter upon which Mr. Knott is entirely correct it is that it is the ship’s captain, first and foremost, who will determine the outcome of the voyage and all those who are a part of it.

The thought makes Sherlock’s blood run cold.

For this reason, Sherlock vows silently to pay attention whenever the captain’s name comes up in conversation. More knowledge in this matter can only be helpful at this point, to avoid falling victim to the cruel man’s whims.

***

The next day, Sherlock is up with the sun.

He runs through his morning exercises, spends two hours perfecting the final movement in his composition (the arpeggio for the second violin, it turns out, was exactly what was missing), and then ascends to the upper decks with a newfound levity to his movements, eager as always for his first glimpse of John.

The sun is shining with full force up on deck. It is now glaringly evident that they are moving through tropical climates, Sherlock thinks, as he reaches to wipe the freshly accumulated sweat off his brow. He has only been above deck for several moments and already he is regretting his decision to wear his coat.

A band of officers is standing, looking hot and miserable, below the main mast, taking their mid-morning calculations.

Sherlock recognizes Anderson’s scowling face in their midst and gives the group of officers a wide berth, working his way instead back toward the quarterdeck, where he sees broad-shouldered Mr. Jackson standing beside Lieutenant Lestrade, deep in conversation.

Sherlock thinks back to the conversation at dinner the previous evening, and in spite of himself, feels a flicker of curiosity as to whether the aforementioned festivities are actually going to take place.

Despite his disappointment over the fact that the alleged party this evening will not include John, Sherlock has been unable to shake the disagreement between Mr. Knott and Mr. Ferguson from his mind, and he is curious to see for himself whether the party will take place, and if so, how the captain will behave if he decides to make an appearance.

It strikes Sherlock that Mr. Ferguson is entirely correct in his assessment that providing opportunities for merry-making is not a trait the captain has ever been known for. The decision does not fit with what Sherlock has heard of the captain’s behavior; therefore it is more than a little curious that the man would go out of his way to do so now.

It is also apparent that Mr. Ferguson has some theories of his own as to the captain’s motivations. How truthful they may be is difficult to say, but Sherlock is interested in any information that anyone has, surmised or no, on the captain’s reasons for throwing a party in the middle of the voyage.

Sherlock positions himself under the eaves of the quarterdeck, out of sight of the men standing above him, but just close enough to be within earshot of their conversation.

Mr. Jackson’s usually carrying voice has lowered to a more discreet volume, but he is speaking loudly enough that Sherlock can easily hear his words.

“—were of course curious to know how much truth there is to the proposition.”

“It comes as much of a surprise to me as to any of you, I’m sure. But yes, the captain gave me instructions this morning to get the preparations underway. It shouldn’t be too grand an affair, just a little something to commemorate crossing the line. Typically, there’s one sort of celebration or another to mark the event. The captain doesn’t go in for any of the more pagan rituals, King Neptune and all that, but now that we’ve hit the trade winds, there’s a bit more time for the men to relax. He thought it might be a good opportunity to allow for some fraternity on board, and to celebrate coming successful through that storm. Everyone’s nerves were a bit jangled after that.”

“Oh, indeed, sir. My own Tabitha has yet to fully recover. She hasn’t left her berth since the storm. She subsists on nothing but broth and lemon tea. She is too weak to do much more than lift her head from the pillow, but I do believe this party will be just the thing to rouse her spirits.”

“I’m very glad to hear it,” Lestrade offers politely.

“Well, you may tell the captain that I commend his decision making. Might I also inquire, on behalf of the ladies you understand, whether the trunks will be sent up?”

“Yes, I’ve just given the order actually.”

“Splendid, splendid. Do I have your permission then to begin spreading the good news? It’s only that… well, the ladies have much to prepare for, sir. I believe they would appreciate the additional hour or so.”

“Yes, by all means—”

Lestrade’s assurance is cut short by the appearance of the captain himself.

Sherlock recognizes him instantly by the sound of his approach—the heavy, dragging tread is unmistakable.

It seems the prospect of the party has done little to improve the captain’s own sour disposition. The man’s evident displeasure can be heard in the resounding bark of his voice.

“What’s all this, Lieutenant?”

Sherlock presses himself closer against the shadow under the railing.

“Just speaking with Mr. Jackson about this evening’s festivities, sir.”

“And did anyone give Mr. Jackson permission to be standing on the quarterdeck?”

“I did, sir.”

“Well then, as your superior officer I override your decision, and request that Mr. Jackson remove himself from the quarterdeck at once.”

“Very good, sir. Right away, sir.”

Mr. Jackson appears to have enough savoir-faire to know when to remove himself from a sticky situation, as Sherlock sees him retreating with haste down the staircase to Sherlock’s right, before Lestrade has even finished speaking.

“Who is in command of this ship, Lieutenant?”

Sherlock clings to the shadows, listening hard.

“You are, sir.”

The captain’s voice is a low snarl of rage. “You would do well to remember it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sherlock hears the angry footsteps approach the stairs. “Keep the passengers OFF the quarterdeck!”

Sherlock holds himself perfectly still as the captain pounds past him and makes his way into the waist where the officers are gathered around the mainmast, finishing up their readings.

Sherlock hangs back.

He has no desire to cross paths with the captain under any circumstances, and certainly not when he is in one of his moods, as he clearly is today. But there is no sign of John up in the rigging, and it’s too hot to venture back below decks.

Sherlock can hear the sound of the captain’s voice, yelling criticism at the assembled officers in training. It occurs to him that if the captain’s mood is as black as it seems, then the officers are in for it, no matter how competent their work.

The opportunity to hear Anderson criticized is all the motivation Sherlock needs.

He creeps closer, hugging the larboard rail, until he is once again within earshot of the captain, but well hidden behind a crate stacked on deck.

“You call these calculations, Patterson? Tell me, were you born in a barn?”

“N-no, sir.”

“Well then, why is it that your marks more closely resemble chicken scratch than legible calculations?”

“I don’t kn-know, sir.”

“Figure it out, Patterson, and figure it out quick. I don’t have time to waste on dribbling school children who don’t know one end of a slate from another. And get rid of that stammer before I have to beat it out of you.”

“Y-Yes, sir.”

“Who’s next?”

Sherlock listens as the captain continues down the line of midshipmen, criticizing and mocking each candidate in turn. Anderson is the very last to be subjected to the captain’s scorn.

“What’s this, Anderson?”

“Those are my calculations, sir.”

There is an audible crack, which cannot be mistaken for anything other than the back of the captain’s hand hitting Anderson’s face.

“This work is unfit to line the inside of my privy, and you are the oldest in this company. How many years have you been a midshipmen now, Anderson?”

Anderson’s sullen silence is audible even from the other side of the crate.

“Don’t test me, boy.”

“Seven.”

“What was that? Speak up!”

“Seven.”

“That’s right, seven years and you’re still fumbling through simple astrological readings? You better shape up, Anderson, if you want to remain in this fleet. The Navy’s got no time for stupid, lazy sailors, much less officers. You’re on deck duty for the rest of the afternoon.”

Anderson makes a sound of outrage. “But, sir, you can’t—”

“What did you say to me, Officer?”

Sherlock can hear the menacing drag of the captain’s bad leg as he draws closer to Anderson with malicious intent.

“That’s right, deck duty, until I say otherwise. In fact, you’re on deck duty the rest of the evening. No festivities for you tonight, Anderson.” The mocking curl of the captain’s voice around the word is acidic enough to strip the varnish from all the wood on the ship. “And if I hear one word—one word of complaint out of you, I will thrash you so hard you won’t be able to walk for a week, is that understood?”

Anderson’s answer is a mumble of discontent.

“What was that?”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“The rest of you, get out of my sight. Make sure you get everything done before sundown if you have any desire to be present at the celebration. Any questions, speak with Lieutenant Lestrade.”

Sherlock ducks into the darkness behind the crate as the captain strides past him on his way back to the quarterdeck.

The rest of the officers disperse in silence. It seems the captain has effectively quashed all feelings of fellowship between them.

Sherlock thinks on this, reflecting that the captain’s decision to throw a party clearly has very little to do with wanting anyone on board the ship to have a good time. Indeed, his attitude towards the whole affair seems to be one of grudging acceptance. It’s as if the idea was never his in the first place, as if he’s being pushed into it by someone else. But this is a man who does not stand to be pushed around.

Lost in contemplation, Sherlock almost misses the seething form of Anderson as he strides down the deck and into a boy climbing down from aloft.

Anderson seizes him by the shoulder and spins him around. “You there! Boy! I told you to go aloft with those spunyarns an hour ago. Why haven’t you done it yet?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I was told to do this fir—”

Sherlock winces as he hears the sharp crack of Anderson’s hand against the boy’s cheek.

“Don’t talk back to me!”

“But you asked me—”

The second crack is louder than the first, and is followed by a thump as the boy falls hard to the deck.

“How dare you speak to me like that? You never question an order from one of your superiors, is that understood?”

Sherlock sees the boy nodding from where he’s still splayed on the deck, blood running from his split lip.

“Now get on your feet and do as you’re told. I want those cables sorted and taken up top by the time I come back. Or you’ll have much worse to contend with than the back of my hand.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Sherlock watches Anderson stalking away across the deck, he feels rage boiling in him, hot and poisonous. The tiny scrap of pity that Sherlock may have felt for Anderson in the wake of his humiliation at the hands of the captain vanishes in the span of a single heartbeat.

Sherlock has seen the boy around the ship. He’s a green hand, which means he’s responsible for all the jobs no one else wants to do—slushing masts, sweeping and clearing up decks, assisting the seamen in their duties and running errands for the officers. He’s the youngest person on the ship, but he works harder than anyone. Every time Sherlock sees him, when he’s not up in the rigging with the sailors, he is running somewhere with his arms full.

The sailors are obviously fond of him. They treat him like a favorite pet when they’re not asking him to help with other duties, rumpling his hair, teaching him how to smoke a pipe, but he’s still something of an outcast because of his age. The fact that Anderson would take advantage of this boy’s status at the very bottom of the pecking order is perhaps more despicable than anything else Sherlock has seen him do.

Sherlock watches the boy reach up to wipe the blood off his face and feels a pang of sympathy move through him so visceral he can almost taste the bitter copper of the blood himself.

Sherlock waits until Anderson has vanished from sight before going over to the boy who’s still sitting where he fell, his cheeks flushed dark with shame.

He stops in front of him, stiff with uncertainty, wanting to help, to offer some gesture of good will, but he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t want to embarrass the boy even further. He feels panic tightening his throat. What should he say?

What would John say?

The answer comes to him then in a burst of clarity. It’s the simplest thing possible.

Sherlock crouches down beside him, holding out his handkerchief.

The boy looks from the handkerchief, startled, up to Sherlock’s face.

There is a moment’s hesitation and then he takes it, wordlessly, his expression shifting to one of gratitude as he begins to dab at his swollen lip.

“What’s your name?” Sherlock asks, still crouched beside the boy.

“Billy,” he says.

“How long have you been working on ships like this?”

“This is my second year—third voyage,” Billy says, and Sherlock can detect the infinitesimal degree with which his chest expands, the fractional lift to his chin. He recognizes the posture as one he has adopted all too many times himself, and feels another twinge of sympathy.

“Well, Billy,” Sherlock says, “If I’m right—and I usually am about people—you’re going to make a fine officer one day.”

Billy stops wiping at his lip to stare at Sherlock in amazement. “How do you know that?”

“I’ve seen you around the ship. You’re clever. You learn on your feet, and there’s no better quality for a seaman than that. Except one, which is the one that makes all the difference. It’s the one Mr. Anderson doesn’t have.”

“What’s that?”

“Kindness. You’ll make a better officer than he ever will because you’ll never treat the boys on your ship so unfairly.”

Sherlock offers him a hand to help pull him to his feet.

Billy takes it, and then stands looking at Sherlock considering, before nodding solemnly. “You’re right. I won’t.”

He tries to hand the handkerchief back to Sherlock, but Sherlock shakes his head. “You keep it. I have plenty more.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Call me Sherlock.”

Billy nods again, tucking the handkerchief into his pocket.

“If he gives you any more trouble,” Sherlock says, nodding in the direction where Anderson walked off. “You let me know.”

Billy nods at Sherlock, his expression still deadly serious. “I will.”

Sherlock watches as Billy stoops to lift the heavy coil of rope and sling it over his shoulder, before climbing back up into the rigging.

Sherlock lowers his eyes to find a woman in a faded polka-dotted dress watching him from across the deck, the parasol in her hand shading her eyes from the sun.

As his eyes catch hers, Miss Hooper drops into a nervous curtsy of acknowledgment before hurrying away toward the stairs.

***

John must be employed in some task down below decks because Sherlock doesn’t see him for the rest of the morning.

When Sherlock goes down for lunch, the corridor outside the passenger cabins is a flurry of activity. The corridor is lined with bags and boxes; the trunks that have been brought up so that the passengers might dress in their finer things for the festivities have their lids flung open with ladies spilling out of them, pulling out lengths of cloth, feathers, ribbons, cooing with excitement over items they packed weeks ago back in England.

Sherlock’s own trunk is standing beside his cabin door. He walks past it without interest—there is little inside of it to give him cause for excitement.

The prospect of a party with no John seems gloomier and gloomier with every passing moment, and as Sherlock drops into his chair, eying the stack of papers with the scrawled and re-scrawled notes of his composition, he feels a wave of bitterness rise up in him and overtake any of his previous feelings of accomplishment at having finished.

What good is a piece of music that he cannot play?

Sherlock tucks the pages out of sight and stretches out on his bunk, trying hard as he is able to ignore the muffled squeals and exclamations from the hallway.

Maybe he won’t go to the party after all. He’s already witnessed enough of the good-for-nothing captain, and based on what Sherlock observed this morning, it would be highly surprising if the captain even showed up. Sherlock doesn’t think he can bear the prospect of the music, the lights, the dancing—with no John in attendance.

The trouble is Sherlock loves music, and he loves dancing. Standing so near to it without the one person he wants to enjoy it with would be sheer torture.

Sherlock turns petulantly toward the wall, pulling his pillow over his head to drown out the commotion from beyond his door. He lies on his side, staring at the slats in the wood until they blur together before his eyes.

However, he can only lie so still for so long with his newly finished composition lying so near to him. After a time, he sits up and pulls it out again, studying the notes, listening to the rise and fall of music in his mind, thinking of John.

He spends the rest of the afternoon copying what’s written on the heavily inked pages onto clean sheets of parchment, marking in the notes as neatly as he is able.

When he is finished, he sets the fat sheaf of pages on the desk and stares at it with satisfaction, then turns to look at the corner of his bed where his violin is tucked away. His fingers are itching to play it. He wonders if there will be musicians at the celebration tonight and feels a hot spike of jealousy at the thought.

He consoles himself with the realization that he wouldn’t want any of them to hear him playing anyway, with the exception of Miss Hooper perhaps. He still hasn’t made his mind up about her, but there’s a chance she might be different than the rest of them.

The chaos in the corridor outside his room has died down—everyone seems to be inside their cabins getting dressed—and Sherlock decides to head back up on deck to distract himself from the temptation of pulling out his violin.

The first thing Sherlock notices when he reaches the top step is the distinct lack of activity on the usually busy deck. Then he hears the sounds of shouts and laughter, and looking around, notices a crowd of men standing by the starboard rail, peering down into the water.

Curious, he draws closer and leans over the railing to see what the commotion is about. Down in the water a large makeshift pool of white canvas has been strung up alongside the ship, and to his astonishment, Sherlock sees men swimming in it, splashing and laughing.

“What are they doing?” Sherlock gasps.

A wizened sailor to Sherlock’s right, chuckles lightly. “What does it look like? They’re bathing, me boy.”

“But—how?”

“They rig up a steering sail with some shot in the middle to make it sink—see how it bows down there underneath? It makes a nice spot for bathing. It’s quite deep in the middle, and does a lovely job keeping the sharks away.”

“Sharks?” Sherlock can’t keep the trace of alarm out of his voice.

“Oh, aye. They’re always on the lookout for something falling overboard. Clever creatures, sharks.”

A flash of gold catches Sherlock’s eye, and to his mingled horror and delight, he spies John Watson in the water, the sunlight gleaming off his bare, muscled back as he flips over and dives down out of sight.

“Nothing beats a swim in the Tropics in this heat,” Sherlock’s companion goes on conversationally. “Some captains don’t approve of it, mind you, but as ours hardly shows himself morning or night...” He shrugs. “Lieutenant Lestrade gave us the go ahead, and what with the festivities tonight, I suppose he’s in a lenient mood.”

Sherlock scarcely hears him.

His eyes are all for John, who is flipping and diving through the water as gracefully as a fish, his strong arms parting the water in neat even strokes as he swims. Sherlock watches the golden streak his body makes as he dives down under the surface, vanishing from sight for minutes at a time before breaking the surface again, spraying his companions with a triumphant shout, his sleek head cresting the water like a seal.

Just when Sherlock thought he couldn’t stand to be more in awe of John Watson, the man goes and does this.

He is as radiant as ever and Sherlock stands and looks and looks, and he cannot decide what he is feeling there are so many emotions pounding through him—joy and envy and lust, perhaps primarily, as all Sherlock can see of John, other than a flash of white covering his thighs, is bare, glorious, golden skin made brighter in the glare of the late-afternoon sun arching down through the water.

Sherlock swallows hard, finds his throat suddenly dry and aching.

“Alright lads, come on out, there’s work to be done yet before the sun goes down!”

One by one, the men begin to climb up the side of the ship, with help from a rope ladder thrown over the edge, and Sherlock watches with wide eyes as John emerges from the water, the muscles in his arms and back visible with each powerful reach of his hands as he pulls himself up, until he is swinging himself over the starboard rail to land on his feet, light as a cat, and Sherlock doesn’t care how foolish he looks, he doesn’t care who sees him, he stands, open-mouthed, and stares.

If this is Sherlock’s last moment on earth, he will die happy because John Watson is standing in front of him, dripping wet, the sun picking out the droplets of water on his skin like jewels, his white-blonde hair slicked back flat on his head, clad only in a pair of white linen breeches that are clinging to the muscles in his thighs and everything else below his narrow hips, and oh, thank god for linen, Sherlock thinks, (Sherlock will write odes to linen forever after this moment, he will dedicate his life to its production if necessary) because linen goes transparent when wet.

“Sherlock? Are you alright?”

He might actually be whimpering, and he must look the worse for it because suddenly, John is rushing forward, his cool hands on Sherlock’s arms, guiding him to a packing crate nearby to sit, dropping into a crouch in front of him, his blue eyes bright with concern.

“What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Sherlock manages to shut his gaping mouth but that’s about the best he can do with John’s cool hands still resting on his forearms, his warm blue gaze so focused on Sherlock’s face.

“What is it? What’s wrong? Are you too hot?”

One of John’s cool hands reaches up to brush the hair off of Sherlock’s forehead, and the sweep of his fingers—so filled with tenderness—is the same gesture he performed so many times when Sherlock was sick, but now, with John crouching between his knees, fresh from the ocean, his skin glowing with heat, smelling of salt and blue sky and wind (yes, these things do have smells, Sherlock knows that now, John smells like all of them), the gesture takes on a whole new meaning.

Sherlock shuts his eyes, losing himself in the sensation of John’s cool palm against his skin, still damp from the ocean. He feels a drop of water strike the tops of his hands where they lie useless in his lap, and maybe he’s actually swooning now, because John is dripping on him.

“Sherlock, you’re scaring me a little. Can you look at me?”

Sherlock opens his eyes to find John’s eyes on him, the color of a cloudless sky. There are tiny droplets clinging to his long lashes like beads of light.

Sherlock does whimper then.

“Here, just sit for a minute. You’ll be all right. It’s blindingly hot out here, I know. You’re not used to it. Why are you wearing this heavy coat? You should take this off.”

John’s hand are reaching for the edges of Sherlock’s coat and he makes a strangled cry of protest, because with all that has happened, with all that he can take, John removing his clothes on the deck of the ship in broad daylight is the limit.

“I’m fine,” he gasps out, reaching up to pull the lapels of his coat out of John’s hands. “Just—hot. Too hot. I’ll be fine in a minute. Like you said, I just need to…sit.”

John lifts his hands away in a gesture of surrender and sits back on his heels.

Sherlock can’t bear to look at John directly but he can feel the intensity of John’s gaze as he studies him, his concern still issuing out toward Sherlock in hot, bright waves. It’s as though there’s something extrasensory connecting them, another force, more than sight or touch or taste or smell, something in the air between them, feeding Sherlock information, enabling him to perceive the proximity of those clinging linen breeches, even without looking at them—

Sherlock shuts his eyes again.

“You sure you’re all right?”

Sherlock nods frantically, with his eyes still shut.

“Well. If you’re sure…” John sounds uncertain but Sherlock hears him rising to his feet.

Sherlock counts his throbbing heartbeats with his eyes squeezed shut, waiting for the storm of his desire to ebb back to a level he can tolerate.

“I better get back to work,” John is saying, with a touch of reluctance in his voice. Then Sherlock hears something in his tone shift. “And you’d better get down below. You’ve a party to get ready for, if I’m not mistaken.”

Sherlock opens his eyes and looks up at John to find him grinning mischievously.

“Don’t you want to look your best for all the young ladies?”

Sherlock feels a stab of disappointment at the remark, but instead of dropping his eyes, he goes on looking at John—recognizes the high color in his cheeks, the deep glitter in his eyes, and realizes that John is teasing him.

“No, I do not,” Sherlock answers stiffly.

John leans back in toward Sherlock; his mouth dipping so close, Sherlock can feel John’s smile brushing his ear. “What about for me then?”

Sherlock’s mouth drops open in shock.

Heat courses through him—instantaneous, all consuming, searing every rational thought in his brain. He clenches his hands tightly in his lap as the sudden rush of feeling overtakes him, grateful that he is still seated as all the blood leaves his brain.

“B-but you won’t be there,” Sherlock protests, painfully aware of the whining quality in his voice.

The brutal disappointment of a party where there will be music, wine, dancing—but no John—crushes Sherlock all over again, dousing the heat of his desire as effectively as a bucket of cold water. He feels petulant, wounded, like a small child who has been promised a treat, only to be punished instead.

He knows he is acting foolishly, but he cannot help himself.

Sherlock hangs his head, trying to swallow the bitter taste of his disappointment and failing.

Then all of a sudden, John’s fingers are there under his chin, tipping his head up to meet John’s gaze. There is no mistaking the fire Sherlock sees there.

“I’ll just have to come and find you then, won’t I?”

Before Sherlock can find the breath to respond, John has risen to his feet.

Sherlock stares fixedly at John’s face—avoiding everything below his waist with the self-restraint of the most pious holy sister.

John’s lips are curled in a smile, but the look in his eyes hasn’t changed.

Sherlock feels a shudder run through him.

“Now go and get dressed. I’ll come for you after I’ve finished my work. Once the sun has set, I’ll come find you.”

Perhaps John sees the creeping doubt in Sherlock’s eyes because he takes Sherlock’s hand between his own and squeezes it briefly, once, before letting go.

“I promise.”

As Sherlock watches John walk away across the deck, his self-restraint crumbles.

He cannot help but let his eyes slide down John’s muscular back, still shining with water, to the curves of John’s buttocks beneath the clinging linen of his trousers, each powerful flex of the muscle as he steps—his gait as strong, as graceful as a dancer’s—fanning the flames of Sherlock’s desire until it is an inferno of need.

It is a long time before Sherlock has the strength to rise to his feet, and feels that he can walk again.

Chapter Text

When Sherlock reaches his cabin, he wastes no time digging through his trunk and pulling out his deep green tail coat, his velvet knee breeches, a fresh pair of stockings, and a clean shirt. The waistcoat he chooses has slender golden stripes stretched horizontally across the breast, and a row of golden buttons that gleam when they catch the light. The neck cloth he selects is a creamy ivory.

They are the finest clothes he owns.

He never thought for one second that he would have a reason to wear them on the voyage. And he wouldn’t be wearing them now—party or no party he wouldn’t waste the effort—if it weren’t for his conversation with John just now. Usually, Sherlock doesn’t care one way or another about the clothes he wears. He feels awkward and unsightly no matter how he dresses. But tonight is different. Tonight, John has specifically requested that Sherlock dress his best. And so he will.

He wishes longingly for a moment that he had another bucket of hot water for a proper bath, but he quickly dismisses the extravagant thought and settles for a thorough scrubbing with the cold water from his pewter basin.

He strips down to his bare skin and splashes cold water on his face and neck, under his arms and between his legs. Despite the relative warmth of the evening air, Sherlock finds he is shivering uncontrollably, like a harp string tightened past endurance and then plucked. He feels hot and cold at once, his skin strangely light as though it is too fragile to hold in all the feelings that are thrumming underneath his ribs.

His flagging disappointment over the party has been rekindled into a feverish delight over an unexpected opportunity to spend time with John. He isn’t yet sure what capacity it will take but the promise in John’s eyes, in his voice, leads Sherlock to believe that something about tonight will be different.

There is something in the air, perhaps it is the communal giddiness over the party, perhaps it is something else, but it has left Sherlock feeling alive with possibility.

Everything around him looks different—the little lights skipping in under his door from the lanterns outside, the crisp lines in his jacket as he lays it out upon the bed, even the goose bumps on his skin from the cold water make him aware of how much it’s possible to feel, how much sensory input is constantly streaming in on him from all sides—his own hands skimming up over his ribs are making his body react in unexpected ways. He has to concentrate very hard to not let his attentions stray while he finishes washing himself.

He dresses carefully, meaningfully, lacing up the ties on his breeches with trembling fingers, tucking the scarf in at his throat with more attention than he has ever bestowed upon it, tugging his waistcoat so firmly into place that it feels as though he is being embraced by its snug fit.

He wets his hair, combs it back from his face with fastidious care, calming the dark, unruly curls into sleek submission. He gazes at himself briefly in the foggy sheet of glass above his desk that doubles for a mirror, and although the reflection is hazy, he can make out the deep lights of his eyes, the soft sweep of his hair as it curves back from his brow, the strong lines of his cheekbones, his full mouth.

Looking at his own blurred image he wonders briefly how someone like John can see anything in him he finds appealing. He feels his cheeks flushing at the thought as he tries to study himself from John’s eyes—what is it that he sees?

He gives it up as a lost cause and then, with one last longing look at his violin case where it’s poking out from under the bed, he exits his cabin and makes his way to the upper decks.

The celebration is being held in the rather grand stateroom just below the quarterdeck that serves as an antechamber to the captain’s private quarters. Sherlock is surprised that the captain would allow the festivities to take place so close to his own rooms, however, there aren’t very many other places on the ship large enough for such an event. The ship that they are on, although less grand than some of the frigates in Her Majesty’s Navy, is possessed of a stateroom spacious enough to comfortably fit a large gathering of people with just enough space for a small dance floor.

By the time Sherlock arrives, the room is already filled with people. He is surprised by the size of the crowd, but then, it’s easy to forget just how many people are on board the ship when they so rarely congregate anywhere all at once. Even more overwhelming to consider is that the present crowd represents only a fraction of the ship’s population, as none of the ship’s rather sizable crew is in attendance.

The ladies are decked out in their customary finery. The afternoon of excavation in their trunks, it seems, did not go to waste. Indeed, there is such an impression of ribbons and feathers and lace that Sherlock can hardly see the lights beyond the window pouring in from the setting sun.

The officers are in uniform, and are mingled throughout the passengers, talking heartily, with glasses in hand. They are easy to pick out in the crowd—their coats providing bright splashes of color in the sea of dark coats worn by the men and the pale dresses of the women.

The room is modestly decorated with several strands of paper bunting strung overhead, and though the sky outside is still light, the candles are already flickering in their sconces along the wall. In one corner of the room stands a table with a punch bowl. In the corner opposite, a rather forlorn trio of musicians have taken up residence and are sawing away at their instruments with disinterested gusto.

Sherlock winces internally at the violincello’s plodding rhythm and helps himself to a glass of punch to give himself something to do. He makes his way to a far corner of the room—as far as possible from the industrious musicians—and stands between two guttering candles with his back to the wall, wondering suddenly why on earth he decided to show up at all.

The brief shimmer of excitement he felt as he was getting dressed is rapidly diminishing in the presence of the well-dressed, chattering crowd. There is absolutely nobody in this room that Sherlock has any desire to talk to, and there is nothing to take his mind off the dragging minutes as he waits for the sun to sink below the horizon beyond the windows.

After sunset, John said, but that may as well be hours from now based on the glacial pace with which the sun is making its descent. The longer Sherlock looks at it, the more convinced he is that the sun isn’t actually moving at all.

The only consistent bright spot in the evening is the fact that Anderson is not among the guests. Every time Sherlock sees the flash of a uniform out of the corner of his eye, his heartbeat starts to pound in fear, until he remembers with a wave of relief that Anderson has been banished from the festivities.

Meanwhile, there is no sign of the captain at all.

Within ten minutes, Sherlock’s excitement has been replaced entirely by boredom. He is making his way back to the punch bowl to refill his empty glass when he is stopped on his way by a gentle touch on the shoulder.

Sherlock turns, exasperated, preparing to make an apology for having accidentally trod on the hem of a lady’s gown, and finds, to his surprise, the worn, smiling face of Lieutenant Lestrade looking at him with open good will.

“I say, Sherlock Holmes, I’m glad to see you up and about again!”

Sherlock is so startled that at first he doesn’t know what to say.

Luckily, Lieutenant Lestrade proves to be a man not easily deterred by silent, awkward conversation partners because the next thing Sherlock knows Lestrade has seized hold of his hand and is pumping it up and down with vigor.

Sherlock must look slightly overcome because Lestrade lets go of his hand with an apologetic smile, and goes on to explain.

“Crewman Watson brought the matter to my attention—that you were ill, I mean. He came seeking my permission to look in on you. I admit I was hesitant at first, but when he told me of his medical history I didn’t see how I could refuse. And now, seeing you fully recovered, I’m only too glad I was able to help in some small way.”

Sherlock is touched by the man’s genuine expression of concern and startled all over again that the Lieutenant considers him worth speaking to, much less congratulating him on surviving a deadly illness.

“Ah, well. It was just a fever but… I guess it was rather a bad one as far as fevers go. I’m… very grateful to Mr. Watson for his help.”

“By the way he tells it, if he hadn’t gone to look in on you when he did, you wouldn’t have made it through. It’s a very good thing he’s got his eye on you. Otherwise, I’m not sure we’d be having this conversation right now.”

Sherlock nods, uncertain what to say; and then remembers the vow he made to thank Lestrade for all his help. He is more certain now than ever that it wouldn’t have been possible for John to come to his aid if not for the Lieutenant’s intervention on his behalf.

Sherlock takes a deep breath. “Actually, Lieutenant, I’ve been meaning to thank you for… ah, well, for being so lenient with Mr. Watson that week, and letting him… assist me the way he did. I’m… well, I very much appreciate anything you did to help the matter, that is… by way of not informing certain individuals of certain transgressions, turning a blind eye and all that. It was... well, I guess what I mean to say is… thank you.”

As this horrible speech stammers its way to its inevitable conclusion, Sherlock is seized with violent regret that he didn’t in fact perish in his cabin last week, if only because it would mean he wouldn’t be standing here making a fool of himself now.

Sherlock wants very much to crawl under the punch table and die.

But Lestrade appears not to mind Sherlock’s sudden loss of all verbal fortitude. He claps Sherlock hard on the shoulder.

“Don’t mention it. I really had very little to do with it. You should be thanking Mr. Watson, not me. You’re very lucky, Mr. Holmes, to have a friend like that.” There is something knowing in Lestrade’s warm brown gaze. “It’s clear he’s very fond of you.”

Sherlock can feel his cheeks turning steadily pinker as the full weight of this sentiment takes hold of him.

“I… I…”

Mercifully, he is saved from responding by a corpulent passenger in a decaying military jacket coming up behind Lestrade and throttling him in what Sherlock can only assume is an expression of good will. While Lestrade is being grappled in the man’s vise-like grip, Sherlock slips behind his back and away toward freedom.

Sherlock is still trying to make his escape, struggling to squeeze his way between two corpulent men engaged in passionate conversation, when a ripple of excitement moves through the crowd. The trio of musicians has struck up a minuet, and Sherlock is relieved to find the crowd dispersing somewhat as couples flock to the floor in partners to begin the dance.

The two men Sherlock is trying to work his way around, turn to one another in evident relief.

“Ah, it looks as though there’s to be some dancing.”

“About time, I dare say! Those musicians would have had a hard time rousing me from sleep the way they were playing. Let’s hope they improve now that they have a concrete objective.”

They move off in the direction of the dance floor and Sherlock flees to the other side of the room. He takes up residence directly opposite the window, where to his dismay, he can see the sun still hovering above the horizon, staining the sky a dark gold.

He’s just wondering how on earth he will tolerate another moment of this awful evening when he feels another tap on his shoulder, this time much more delicate.

Sherlock turns with an exasperated sigh to see who could possibly want his attention, prepared to say something very rude indeed to whichever individual dares to interrupt his inner monologue of suffering. However, when he sees who it is, he shuts his mouth with a snap.

Standing before him in a very pink gown that’s clearly two seasons out of fashion and at least two sizes too big (must be inherited Sherlock thinks, the young lady certainly has older sisters) is Miss Hooper.

“Good evening,” she says to her shoes, before dropping into an exaggerated curtsy.

“Er… good evening, Miss…. Hooper, is it?”

“That’s right.” She nods, her face trembling briefly into a smile before reassuming its habitual nervous look. “I… I know we’ve never spoken before but… I just wanted to come over and tell you that I saw what you did earlier today… for the boy, Billy. They treat him abysmally. It makes me sick to see it. I always want to intervene but I never quite know how to help. When I saw what you did today, that was—”

She ducks her head, as though looking for her fallen courage somewhere at her feet. When she looks back up at Sherlock, she is smiling again, this time without a trace of melancholy. The genuineness of the smile changes her whole face. Instead of pinched and nervous, she looks young… sweet.

“That was really kind of you.”

Sherlock feels his cheeks heat with embarrassment. He has no idea what to say in response.

“Oh. Well.” His discomfort feels as though it’s strangling him. “It was nothing.”

“Well.” She purses her lips, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. Her hair seems to be eternally escaping around her face in frayed wisps. She dips her head in a nervous approximation of a curtsey. “Well, I’ll let you get back to enjoying the party…”

She begins to back away.

Sherlock feels relief wash over him but then remembers with a stricken feeling, his promise to himself earlier. About offering Miss Hooper some kindness if he can.

The minuet has just finished. The couples on the dance floor are bowing to one another and moving into position to start the next dance.

“Actually, um.” Sherlock stares hard at her left elbow. “We could um… that is… would you care to dance?”

Sherlock risks a glance up at her face to gage her reaction, and watches as her cheeks turn pink with pleasure.

“I’d be delighted,” she says, accepting his proffered arm.

Sherlock leads her stiffly out into the small throng of other dancers. Thank goodness, it’s a waltz. Sherlock thinks anything else might prove too much for his nerves.

But then, Sherlock has always had a knack for dancing.

It’s been a while since he danced properly with anyone. He refused to attend any and all parties his parents gave in the last year before he went to school. He hated the way his mother would push him toward any eligible young woman in the neighborhood in the hopes that he might find a suitable marriage partner, since in his mother’s eyes there was little else he could do for the family that was worthwhile.

Sherlock liked the dancing but hated the presumption on his mother’s part, the expectation that he must engage his partner in amicable conversation. He never had anything to say to the women he was forced to dance with. They had no interest in his experiments and he couldn’t care less for the vapid things most women spend their time thinking about. So as a form of protest, he always kept his mouth resolutely shut, and sometimes trod purposefully on his partner’s foot so that she would refuse to dance with him again.

However, when he chooses to be, Sherlock is an exceptional dance partner—as he is now. He moves Miss Hooper over the floor with grace and skill. For her part, she is a relatively forgiving dance partner, only clinging to his arm a little too tightly on the turns.

He prays desperately that she won’t try and make conversation and is rewarded with her contented silence—only occasionally does she flicker her eyes up towards him and offer him a grateful smile.

Indeed, she looks so pleased by the activity that Sherlock doesn’t have the heart to dismiss her at the dance’s conclusion. They’re halfway through the next dance (it is a quadrille), when Sherlock feels a tap on his shoulder.

He turns to see Lieutenant Lestrade. “Do you mind if I cut in?”

Sherlock steps graciously aside, trying not to broadcast his palpable relief. “Not at all.”

Miss Hooper has turned a becoming shade of vermillion bright enough to match her dress.

“May I have this dance, Miss Hooper?”

Lieutenant Lestrade takes her slight hand in his, bowing deeply over it.

“You may, sir,” she whispers, as she inclines her head in acceptance.

Sherlock is concerned the girl might actually faint, but before her swoon can take effect, the Lieutenant has stepped in to take his hands in hers.

Lestrade, in turn, is beaming all over his worn, handsome face. “Very good.”

Sherlock watches the two of them return to the dance floor and feels a curious sensation come over him. Although he does not know either of them well he feels strangely glad seeing them together. He feels a sort of fondness for them both as well as… recognition. There is something achingly familiar about the way they are looking at one another, the light in Lestrade’s eyes, the lilt to Miss Hooper’s mouth. The realization strikes Sherlock as hard as a physical blow—it’s the way John sometimes looks at him.

At the thought of John, Sherlock looks to the window, and sees—at last, at last!—the sun has disappeared below the dark curve of the sea, leaving the sky a wine-drenched crimson obscured here and there by fragments of cloud steeped in gold.

Sherlock wonders fleetingly if John will come looking for him here, and he scans the room wildly, his eyes searching for a shock of white blond hair. He is disappointed, of course, and is about to make his way toward the doors to the stateroom to go looking for John when he finds he has been backed rather effectively into a corner by two elderly gentleman speaking together in loud, self-important voices.

“I say, rather a dull affair, wouldn’t you agree, Edwards? Where’s the pomp and circumstance we were promised? Something about a king of the sea being sacrificed to the gods? Or is it the other way around?”

“I do believe, my dear Bartholomew, that you are entirely mistaken. I heard from Mr. Jackson earlier this afternoon that the sort of primitive rituals to which you are referring are precisely what Lieutenant Lestrade and the captain wish to avoid. No, no, this is meant to be a far more civilized affair.”

At the mention of Lieutenant Lestrade, the other man’s voice drops to a conspiratorial murmur. Sherlock has to lean slightly forward to catch his next words. “No sign of the captain at all, yet. A bit suspicious, wouldn’t you say?”

“Suspicious? My good man, how do you mean?”

“You heard Ferguson yesterday at dinner. He seemed to be implying the man had ulterior motives.”

“Yes, but what on earth could they be?”

“That’s just the question isn’t it? Ferguson certainly seemed to have some theories of his own by the way he was talking. Speaking of which, I haven’t seen Ferguson yet this evening, have you?”

“No, I haven’t. Although he doesn’t seem the sort to go in for parties much, does he? Bit of a gloomy chap.”

“Not as gloomy as that Mr. Knott.”

The two men share a conspiratorial chuckle as they move off through the crowd.

The air is close in the stateroom, and heavily scented with perfume; made warm by the heat of so many bodies in a small space. Sherlock decides conclusively in that moment that he has had enough of this party.

Just as the two gentlemen remarked, there has been no sign of the captain, nor of the other two disgruntled conversation partners from the previous evening. If anything sinister is taking place, it’s certainly not taking place in the stateroom filled with people.

The sky outside is now a dusky blue; the sun has well and truly set. John must be free by now and even if he isn’t, Sherlock would much prefer to stand in the open air of the upper decks, rather than in the stuffy air of the crowded stateroom.

However, Sherlock has scarcely taken two steps toward the doors when he hears a small, gasping voice calling his name.

“Mr. Holmes!”

He turns to see Miss Hooper walking toward him, with her arm around Lieutenant Lestrade’s waist. She’s walking strangely with a heavy, shuffling step, and it takes him a moment to notice that her arm is not around his waist out of affection but rather because she is struggling to keep him on his feet.

“Mr. Holmes,” Miss Hooper squeaks as the Lieutenant begins to slide out of her grasp. “Oh—help!”

Sherlock rushes forward to take Lestrade by his other arm, steadying him on his feet.

The man’s face is pale, his eyes unfocused.

“What on earth…?”

Miss Hooper begins speaking in a hushed voice. “I’m not sure what’s wrong. One moment we were dancing and the next, he was stumbling and couldn’t seem to stay on his feet.”

“Has he been drinking?”

Miss Hooper’s brown eyes are wet with worried tears. “Not that I know of.”

“Lieutenant,” Sherlock ducks his head down next to Lestrade’s. “Lieutenant, can you hear me?”

Looking over at his companion in the lamplight, Sherlock can see sweat standing out on his brow, and notices with a sharper pang of worry that his color is not right.

Lestrade tries to reply but he seems to have lost control of his faculties so profoundly that all he can do is hang off Sherlock’s arm.

A feeling of alarm comes over Sherlock then, so rapidly and with such conviction, that it is not until much later that he can point to the source of it, but he is certain in that moment that drunkenness is not the cause of the Lieutenant’s illness.

A man like Lestrade would not let himself become this intoxicated, even at a celebration, Sherlock is certain of it. There is no smell of alcohol on him, and even if he had been drinking, the likelihood of the drunkenness hitting him all at once like this is rare at best.

Worry is now beating hot and swift in Sherlock’s temples. He can feel his pulse hammering at the base of his throat. He needs to get Lestrade to his rooms and lying down before anyone notices, but more important than that, he needs a doctor.

Sherlock is afraid that the man has been poisoned.

Sherlock glances up at Miss Hooper, attempting not to display the terror he is feeling on his face. “It’s not drunkenness—of that much I am certain, but he’s very ill. We need to get him to his bed.”

Miss Hooper nods, her pinched face very white. “What can I do?”

Sherlock hesitates.

She clearly wants to help, and he is impressed with her determination, in spite of himself. Many women would have fled in terror at the first sign that something was amiss. But it is imperative that no one notices that the Lieutenant is ill, and it would be far too conspicuous for both of them to help him from the room. Besides the fact that as an unmarried woman, if Miss Hooper were to set foot in the Lieutenant’s private quarters, her reputation would surely suffer.

“I’m afraid nothing more at the moment. I want to get him out of here without causing a disturbance and the pair of us will arouse too much attention.”

Miss Hooper nods again, but the fleeting look of disappointment on her face is impossible to miss.

“I’d better get back to Ms. Grimsby anyway—my chaperone.” Miss Hooper clarifies, lips pursed in an expression of evident displeasure.

Sherlock is treated to the mental image of an older woman he has seen in Miss Hooper’s company who spends the majority of her time peering disapprovingly at everyone over the tops of her pince-nez.

“I’m grateful for your offer.” Sherlock bows his head in thanks. “I’ll keep you abreast of all developments to the best of my abilities.”

Miss Hooper’s dark eyes flash up at him with gratitude as she dips into a final curtsy. “Thank you, Mr. Holmes. I appreciate it.”

Sherlock watches her move away through the crowd with a pang of regret. But it cannot be helped. He turns away, readjusting his grip so that he is supporting Lestrade more firmly by the waist.

Luckily, the party is in full swing at this point, and those guests who are not dancing are clearly deep in their cups, talking loudly and laughing, so no one pays any attention to the slender young man in the dark green coat leading the officer towards the back of the room and the door to the officers’ quarters.

The first mate on a ship as large as this always has his rooms in connection with the captain’s cabin, so thankfully it is easy for Sherlock to find his way to the somewhat modest berth beside the captain’s more stately quarters where Lieutenant Lestrade sleeps.

In the time it takes Sherlock to get the man through the crowd and down the corridor to his room, his condition has worsened considerably. His face is set; sweat running down his cheeks as he concentrates on putting one leg in front of the other. Although he is unable to express it, he seems to understand the dire nature of his situation, and this, more than anything, causes Sherlock’s worry to transform into terror.

He guides Lestrade to his bunk, helps him somewhat awkwardly until he is lying down, and then straightens up, his eyes scanning the room for water. Luck is with him. There is a pitcher of water on the stand beside the Lieutenant’s bed and Sherlock seizes it and pours a full glass, holding it carefully up to the man’s shaking lips to drink.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” he says, as he holds the glass up to Lestrade’s mouth. “But I’m very much afraid that you have been poisoned.”

Lestrade’s color worsens with Sherlock’s words and Sherlock wonders suddenly if he shouldn’t have told the man as much.

“Who were you with earlier this evening? Did anyone offer you anything to drink?”

Lestrade shakes his head, overcome. He lies back against the pillows with effort and shuts his eyes.

“Never mind that now,” Sherlock says. “You need help—I’m going for J— Crewman Watson, I mean. He’ll know what to do.”

Sherlock hates to leave him, but he knows nothing about poisoning other than that every second he hesitates this man’s life might be slipping away.

He pauses in the doorway, offers uselessly, “Don’t go anywhere, and don’t let anyone in. I’ll be back with help shortly, I promise.”

Sherlock is forced to make his way back through the throng of party guests on his way to the deck, and he has to squirm breathlessly past several people in order to reach the door to the outside. It is moments like these that Sherlock is thankful he is thin as a rail, with knobby elbows perfect for digging into people’s ribs.

Darkness is falling as he makes his way outside onto the deck, the sky around him the color of a deepening bruise. Sherlock freezes, his eyes scanning the rigging above him for a sign of John.

But the only sailors around are the two men at the helm, and the man on the watch, who is not John Watson, and Sherlock realizes with a terrible sinking sensation that he will have to head down into the hatch at the front of the ship that leads into the forecastle, the stairwell that is forbidden to him as a passenger.

He wastes several valuable seconds looking again just to be sure, but he doesn’t see John anywhere, so he sets out, at a run, toward the stairway at the front of the ship.

But luck is on his side again. He is halfway down the stairs, heart pounding in his throat, when he crashes into someone coming up.

Sherlock staggers sideways but the person he crashed into has better balance than he does, and catches him lightly by the arm, steadying him.

“Woah, woah! Easy there, where are you rushing off to in such a—”

Sherlock looks up, breathless, and then gasps out in relief as he is met with the steady blue gaze of John Watson.

“John! Thank god—”

“Why are you in such a hurry?” John’s eyes are twinkling good-naturedly. “I told you I’d come find you after—”

His expression changes at the look on Sherlock’s face. “What is it?”

“Lieutenant Lestrade, he isn’t well—I’m afraid—” Sherlock stops a moment to catch his breath. “I’m afraid he may have been poisoned!”

John’s look of confusion quickly changes to one of alarm.

“Where is he?”

“He’s this way, in his cabin—”

Sherlock has never been more relieved to be in the capable company of his friend than he is now, tearing back across the deck, about to throw open the doors of the stateroom when John stops him with a hand on his arm. “There’s another way in. It’s much faster.”

John takes them through another doorway on the larboard side of the ship that leads right into the corridor with the officers’ rooms. Sherlock opens the door and follows John in until they are both standing at the Lieutenant’s bedside, where he is lying grey and still against the pillows.

As soon as he enters the room, John is all business, pulling up a chair beside the bed, rolling up his shirtsleeves. “How long has he been like this?”

“I—not long, a quarter of an hour, at most. He was fine one minute and the next—it was like he was drunk. His condition worsened rapidly. He started sweating, he couldn’t speak, his color changed from yellow to grey…”

John is feeling along the Lieutenant’s brow line and then checking his pulse, the concerned expression on his face worsening by the minute.

Not stopping for a moment in his assessment he speaks to Sherlock in a low, urgent voice. “I need my medical kit. You’re going to have go and fetch it for me. It’s in the trunk stowed under my berth, down in the forecastle. Lieutenant,” John’s tone is somehow deferential and apologetic all at once. “Lieutenant, I need you to sit up for me if you can. I’m going to have to do something unpleasant.”

Lestrade’s eyes are unfocused but he manages to sit up with John’s help, slumped over on his shoulder.

“Sherlock, pass me that basin.”

Sherlock does so and John sets it on the floor at his feet.

John’s tone is gentle but matter of fact; he is speaking quickly and to the point. “You’ve been poisoned, sir. I’m going to need to make you sick to try and get the poison out of you.”

Lestrade’s head lolls in acknowledgment, and John turns to Sherlock.

“If you can’t find your way, ask someone to direct you to John Watson’s hammock. If anyone questions you, tell them you are doing so with my permission. In fact—” He adjusts his grip on Lestrade momentarily to reach for a chain around his neck that Sherlock has never seen before, tucked away under his shirt. He lifts it off over his head and places it in Sherlock’s outstretched palm. “If they question you, just show them this.”

The delicate chain is silver and thin as a spider’s web. It weighs almost nothing in Sherlock’s hand. Suspended from the chain is a small silver locket with the initials M.W. carved into its surface in elaborate script.

Sherlock is momentarily speechless with the weight of this gesture—his mind lurching with fear at the possibilities of those two entangled letters—but then John’s gentle voice is urging him from his trance.

“Go, now. Time is the only weapon we have to fight this and we haven’t much of it left.”

Sherlock doesn’t need to be told twice. He loops the delicate chain over his own head so as not to lose it, and races from the room.

***

His journey back down the corridor and across the upper decks, and even down through the hatch into the forecastle is met with no obstacles and Sherlock is breathless with relief.

It takes him a moment to find his way under the beams to the area at the front of the ship where the crew sleeps, but it is easy to locate once he does, the forest of hammocks swinging with the slight sway of the ship is impossible to miss.

There are a few men about, playing cards in the center of the room—some of whom he recognizes from his time up on deck. They look at him strangely when he appears, and he must look a sight, dressed in his best clothes, breathless from running back and forth.

“Excuse me,” Sherlock begins, speaking through the fear tightening his throat. “I’m looking for John Watson’s hammock. I’m here on his orders. I need to bring him his medical kit. He’s with the Lieutenant who is very ill.”

The men stare at him for several heartbeats, apparently uncertain as to what to make of this speech.

Sherlock holds up the chain around his neck that John has given him, adding, “He gave me this to show I’m acting on his orders.”

Still the men hesitate and Sherlock is beginning to wonder what he will do if they do not help him, when a young voice behind him causes him to whirl around.

“Oye, it’s Mr. Sherlock Holmes come to visit!”

Sherlock recognizes the slight form of Billy, whose ruddy smiling face is turned up toward his with good humor.

“Billy! Thank goodness, I need your help! Tell me, where does Mr. Watson sleep? I need to fetch him his medical bag.”

Billy swings himself off the beam in the ceiling and lands on one of the hammocks, agile as a monkey. “He sleeps right here. And there’s all his kit, down underneath.”

Sherlock hurries forward, dropping to his knees to pull open the top of a worn canvas sack, stitched with the initials J.W.

Billy leans over the hammock to watch Sherlock as he looks, swinging back and forth.

“Who’s ill then?” he asks, conversationally, evidently untroubled by Sherlock’s grave demeanor.

“Lieutenant Lestrade,” Sherlock says, distracted, as he pulls out what he’s looking for.

John’s belongings are few and it’s only a matter of seconds before Sherlock’s hand closes on the case that must be full of a surgeon’s tools.

He rises to his feet, the bag clutched under his arm. “Thank you for your assistance, Billy. Your help has been indispensible.”

Sherlock doesn’t wait for his response but he hears Billy call after him, “Don’t worry, Mr. Holmes! If it’s John Watson helping him, he’ll be well again in no time!”

***

Sherlock’s journey back through the mazelike corridors under the forecastle, and up the stairway to the main deck is mercifully uneventful, and he sets off at a run back across the outer decks, John’s medical bag tucked tightly under one arm.

However, just before he reaches the main door to the quarterdeck, a uniformed figure glides into view, effectively blocking his path.

“Well, well, well, what have we here? A gentleman in his best coat running like a creature possessed back and forth across the ship’s decks, in the middle of a party no less. Whatever can be the reason for his haste?”

Sherlock is caught in the shadow between lanterns, so it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust in the gloom, but even without the sight of his repugnant face, the mocking voice of Anderson is unmistakable.

Sherlock shuts his eyes briefly in fury, and then opens them again, begging whatever deity may be listening for patience. “Let me by, Anderson.”

“Why should I? I think you should tell me where you’re off to in such a hurry first. I am the only officer on duty at the moment, and as a passenger on this ship, you’re expected to obey me.”

“Because a man’s life depends on it, that’s why!” Sherlock spits, shaking with fury. “Every second you detain me leads him one step closer to death!”

“My, my, such dramatic claims. Did anyone ever tell you you’re a wretched liar, Holmes? What’s that around your neck?” Anderson sneers, pointing to the chain John has given him. “Let me guess—it’s a love token from your blue-eyed sailor. How quaint. Does that mean he’s marked you as his territory now? Just like a dog pissing on a tree stump. But I bet you’re thrilled, aren’t you? Anyone can tell just from looking at you that you’re gasping for it. You’re just waiting for him to get you alone so he can turn you over and bugger the living daylights out of you.”

Sherlock has never been so angry in his life. There is blackness at the corners of his vision. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”

“Or what? None of your sailor friends are here to help you, are they?” Anderson draws a menacing step nearer, snatching the medical bag out from under Sherlock’s arm. “What’s this? Did he give this to you too? Are you going to play surgeon with him?”

“Give it back.” Sherlock has gone utterly still.

“You know…” Anderson drawls, his bored voice full of superiority. “If you pinched this from someone, I can have you whipped for theft. Do you know what they do to thieves at sea, Holmes? They bend you over a cannon and flog you senseless. God, what I wouldn’t give to see that. Your pretty little face all twisted up and covered with tear—”

It is only the matter of a few seconds’ work to set up the punch. All the hours of training have made the movements second nature to him now—pivoting his body slightly, making sure his weight is shifted so that the force will come from his back foot, squaring his shoulders and pulling back his arm to ensure he delivers maximum force—but the look on Anderson’s face as Sherlock’s fist connects with his nose is one Sherlock will savor for the rest of his life.

Sherlock hits him so hard he can feel cartilage shifting under his knuckles, and there is a satisfying spray of blood upon impact, spattering the exposed cuff of Sherlock’s shirt.

Anderson lets out a mingled yell of pain and fury and drops the medical kit.

Sherlock lunges for it, and although he wants nothing more than to stop and gloat, reveling in the glory of his first successful punch, he doesn’t waste a moment. He’s off and running again, back through the door that leads to the officers’ cabins, and to the lieutenant’s room at the back.

***

As soon as Sherlock hands John his medical bag, he takes it without a word, and if he notices that Sherlock is slightly more breathless than usual, or that there is an aura of triumph about him, he doesn’t remark upon it, and instead gets straight to work.

Billy’s prognosis turns out to be utterly correct. However, the assurance of Lestrade’s recovery does not come without an anxious hour of John leaning over his bedside with his bag of medical tools as Sherlock paces the floor behind him.

He’s in an agony of nerves, not only due to his worry over Lieutenant Lestrade—who John assures him, has indeed been poisoned but thankfully not with a lethal dose, just enough with the intent of making him very, very ill—but also, due to the wealth of new information Sherlock has been treated to this evening about John Watson. The influx of new stimuli surrounding this remarkable man is almost more than Sherlock can tolerate.

He has now seen where John spends his hours when he is not up on deck; he has seen (Sherlock feels faintly light-headed at the thought) where John sleeps. He has touched, with his own hands, some of John’s possessions. He can still recall the feel of the worn canvas in his hands as he pulled it apart, the slightly crooked tilt to the initials stitched into the satchel leading Sherlock to believe that they were put there by a younger sister, new to the art of needlepoint perhaps (he tells himself this to supplant the other, much less desirable theory, that the letters were put there by the dreaded Mary), the faded quality of the thread giving him further evidence for the fact that John may have smoothed his fingers over the letters more than once in passing.

All of this, however, pales in comparison to what Sherlock is witnessing right now, which is a whole new side of John Watson that Sherlock has never been treated to, and that is John Watson in his role as healer, as physician, and Sherlock may very well drop dead where he is standing, so overwhelmed is he by this tremendous new capacity of which John is capable.

He is utterly focused on his work; he could be alone in the room, save for himself and his patient, so intent is he on the matter before him. His brow is creased in concentration, his blue eyes serious and dark, thin lips pursed as he pulls out another instrument from his bag and sets it to the man’s skin.

Sherlock is torn between feeling helpless at John’s side, frustrated that he cannot be of more assistance, and relieved that John has not asked for his help so that he can concentrate all his efforts on watching John, taking in every facet of this new side of him.

At long last, John sits back, closing his leather bag with a snap, and looks up at Sherlock.

“He’s out of danger now. He needs to rest, but he should be perfectly all right again by morning, and none shall be the wiser.”

Sherlock lets out a long breath of relief. “Thank goodness.”

John continues looking at him with a steady regard. “The dose he’s been given wasn’t meant to be lethal, of that I am certain. It was only enough to… detain him for a while. However, it if it wasn’t for your intervention, he would have been out of commission for several days.”

Sherlock is nodding, too relieved to pay attention to the steadiness of John’s gaze. “I think whoever it was that poisoned him was counting on the fact that it would go unnoticed because of the party. I think they imagined everyone else would simply think the man was drunk.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No, I didn’t. I don’t know him well but it just seemed… uncharacteristic for him to lose control of himself like that. He wouldn’t drink to that excess.” Sherlock shakes his head. “He just wouldn’t.”

“I’m certain the dose wasn’t intended to be lethal, but I’m also certain that Lieutenant Lestrade was given far more than was intended. What we see here is the work of an amateur poisoner. If you hadn’t come and found me when you did…”

John rises to his feet, his eyes still on Sherlock, and Sherlock is suddenly very aware of the particular nature of his gaze.

“Sherlock, you may very well have saved this man’s life.”

In response to the look John is giving him, Sherlock feels breathless all over again. He drops his eyes, flustered. “It’s lucky that I noticed.”

“No,” John shakes his head. “No, this wasn’t luck. This was you putting your extraordinary abilities to use. This time, to save a man’s life.”

John’s eyes are dark, intent—there is a ferocity in his regard that Sherlock has seldom seen before and Sherlock wonders if this is what John looks like staring down the barrel of a gun.

Sherlock feels a shudder run through him at the thought.

Suddenly, the lieutenant’s small cabin feels far too intimate.

“We should…” Sherlock glances over at the now-sleeping man, lowering his voice. “Shouldn’t we let him rest?”

This question finally causes John to break the intensity of his gaze. “Yes. Yes, of course. Let’s leave him to sleep.” He stoops to pick up his physician’s case. “I’ll send Billy by later to check in on him.”

They exit the room, shutting the door softly behind them. The noise of the party is much louder in the hallway. They hesitate in the corridor together, the spell of the quiet room behind them now broken.

Sherlock feels suddenly uncertain what to do with his hands. He tugs at his waistcoat.

John’s eyes are drawn to the nervous gesture. His gaze alights on Sherlock’s hands.

“Is that… blood on your knuckles?”

“Oh…” Sherlock looks down, sees the spatter of dried blood and hastily covers it with his other hand. “I may have… that is, there was a bit of an incident on the way here. Someone I encountered was trying to detain me and had to be… dealt with.”

John’s look of dawning wonder transforms to a grin.

“Why, Sherlock Holmes, you devil, did you just throw your first punch?”

Sherlock ducks his head, trying to keep the smile off his face, and failing miserably.

He looks up at John, and shrugs. “I may have.”

The sound of John’s laugh is pure and unmediated. Sherlock is grinning so hard his face actually hurts.

John sobers. “It was that midshipman, wasn’t it? The one that’s always giving you trouble.”

Sherlock nods darkly, but can’t help grinning in spite of himself. “I think I may have broken his nose.”

John laughs again, and then looks up at Sherlock, seems to notice for the first time the way Sherlock is dressed. His eyes skip up Sherlock’s torso, flickering over the bright buttons on his waistcoat, and up to the creamy white cravat at his throat, eyes lingering on the dark gleam of Sherlock’s hairline.

“You…” John swallows hard. Sherlock can see the muscles in his throat shifting as he does. “You’ll be wanting to get back to your party, I imagine.”

Sherlock feels the smile fade from his lips. The evening certainly hasn’t gone the direction Sherlock thought it would, and in spite of his relief that Lestrade will be all right, he feels a surge of disappointment at the realization that now he and John must part ways.

He makes a noncommittal movement with his shoulders.

“That is, unless…” John coughs nervously and Sherlock looks up at him in shock. What on earth does John have to nervous about? “Me and the lads are having our own celebration below decks—nothing fancy. Nothing anywhere near as grand as this party,” John says, gesturing with his head down the corridor toward the civilized sounds of the string trio, the distant tinkle of polite laughter. “But, well, I thought…” John looks down at his own hands clutching the handle of his case. “Well, I thought you might like to join us. Of course, if you want to go back to your own party I completely understand.”

“John.” Sherlock doesn’t even have to make an effort. He can hear every ounce of longing in his own voice, plain as day. John looks up at him, and Sherlock sees hope in his eyes. “Please, take me with you.”

John’s answering grin makes heat flare hot and bright in Sherlock’s chest. “Good, good, that’s what I thought you might say. Come on then, follow me.”

John starts off at a trot down the hallway and then stops so suddenly Sherlock almost walks right into his back. “Oh, but we need to make one stop on our way.”

At Sherlock’s quizzical look, John’s face lights up.

“We’ll need to stop by your room. So you can get your fiddle, of course.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock is halfway down the corridor behind John when he remembers his promise to Miss Hooper to keep her apprised of all developments pertaining to Lieutenant Lestrade.

He stops John with a hand on his arm. “Wait, before we do that. There’s just one more thing I have to do. There’s someone I made a promise to.”

John nods and follows behind Sherlock as he heads back to the door of the stateroom.

“I’ll be just a moment,” Sherlock says, before ducking in through the open door.

He hasn’t gone far at all when he spots Miss Hooper on the arm of her dreaded chaperone, making their way toward the exit.

He calls out to her to halt her progress, and turning, she looks back at Sherlock, her face flooding with anxiety.

He runs the last three steps to her, and remembers just in time to bow to her chaperone, inquiring in the politest voice he can manage whether he might have a word in private with the young lady.

The older woman sniffs disdainfully but nods her consent, turning away with a flutter of her fan and walking a few steps distant so that she’s out of earshot.

Sherlock dips his head to Miss Hooper’s ear, speaking quickly. “The Lieutenant is out of danger. He’s sleeping now, but he should be fully recovered by morning. It seems that someone may have had… ill intentions against him.”

Miss Hooper’s face is filled with relief, but her eyes widen as Sherlock goes on speaking.

“I’m not sure yet as to the nature of the offense, so please don’t say anything to anyone. Our discretion is imperative at this point until we have more information.”

Miss Hooper nods, and then reaches down to press Sherlock’s hand briefly in gratitude. “Thank you.”

Sherlock glances down in surprise.

“For taking the time to let me know. I appreciate it more than I can say.”

Sherlock nods, his cheeks turning briefly pink with embarrassment. “It was no trouble at all.”

Miss Hooper looks up then, a smile pulling at her lips. “I think someone’s waiting for you.” She nods to the door where Sherlock sees John in the doorway, watching them from across the room.

“Ah.” Sherlock takes a step back, dropping Miss Hooper’s hand. “Yes, it would seem so. I… must go.”

Miss Hooper curtsies as Sherlock backs away, her face once more lit up in a genuine smile. It changes her look completely, Sherlock reflects for the second time that evening.

“Thank you, Mr. Holmes. I’ll speak with you again soon.”

“Indeed.” He nods to her one final time, and then turns to make his way back across the room to John.

There is something slightly off about the way John is looking at him when he rejoins him in the doorway, but before Sherlock can question it, the look is gone and it’s replaced by John’s smile as he moves out onto the deck. “Ready?”

Sherlock nods.

He follows John down the staircase to his room, his eyes intent on the lines of John’s strong shoulders as they descend the steps. He thinks fleetingly of the last time he watched John walk away from him earlier today and Sherlock has to bite his tongue to keep the memory of John’s strong thighs and buttocks from completely overwhelming his current mental faculties.

John watches from the doorway as Sherlock drops to his knees and crawls forward to pull his instrument free from where it’s strapped beneath his bed. One shoulder propped against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, he is the picture of casual nonchalance, but Sherlock is observant; Sherlock knows otherwise.

He can sense the tension in John’s body even from across the room, can feel the anticipation leaping off of him like tiny sparks from a growing flame, and as Sherlock straightens up, violin in hand, and sees John watching him, his dark blue eyes simmering with suppressed desire like a storm at the edge of an autumn sky, Sherlock feels his own want leap up inside him like a flash of light.

Sherlock has to look down at his feet, draw several deep and steadying breaths before he can stride forward to follow John back up the stairs and across the deck. The night air is warm but it feels cool in contrast to Sherlock’s heated cheeks. As they reach the hatch leading down to the staircase into the forecastle, Sherlock feels a wave of nervousness overtake him.

The distant sounds of music and laughter can be heard drifting up from down below. At the thought of all those people, all those strangers watching him play; Sherlock seizes up, in the space of a few heartbeats, his excitement transforming into utter terror. His legs suddenly feel like two planks of wood beneath him.

Sensing his hesitation, John reaches back in the darkness and takes Sherlock’s hand in his. He smoothes his thumb over the back of Sherlock’s hand, offers him a smile. “Come on.”

The warm note of invitation in his voice thaws the ice encasing Sherlock’s legs just enough to get them moving again.

John tugs on his hand and Sherlock lets himself be led down the steps. By the time they reach the bottom, the distant sounds of revelry have grown in volume. Sherlock can see the dapple of light just up ahead from the many lanterns hanging from the beams.

John must sense Sherlock’s nervousness from the grip on his hand; must be able to feel it thrumming through Sherlock’s body like a badly tuned string because he turns to Sherlock in the shadows at the bottom of the stairs, worry creasing his forehead. “What is it?”

“John, I—”

Sherlock hesitates. He is clutching his violin case so tightly in his hand that he can feel his heartbeat pounding along the lengths of his fingers.

John takes a step nearer to him and when he sees the expression on Sherlock’s face, his eyes soften. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m—I don’t…” Sherlock shakes his head. “John, I’m not good with people. I’m worried that…” He drops his head, staring at the gleam on his boots in the light of the distant lanterns. His voice is a whisper. “What if they don’t like me?”

John steps closer still, pulling the hand that is already holding Sherlock’s close to his chest so he can place his other hand on top of it. “They already like you. Sherlock. Look at me.”

Sherlock looks.

John’s gaze is filled simultaneously with warmth and darkness; it reminds Sherlock of the light at the very heart of a fire; crackling, and dangerous, full of heat.

“They do. And if they don’t, we’ll leave, and no harm will come to you, alright?”

Sherlock nods, his throat tight.

Still, he hesitates. His fear of their derision is like a shadow hanging over him, haunting his every movement.

Sherlock’s hand is still clenched hot between both of John’s. John looks up at him, tilts his head in the darkness. When he speaks again his voice is lower, resonant.

“I haven’t told you yet…” Sherlock feels the instinct to lean closer to catch John’s words. He does so, feels the soft exhale of John’s breath against his cheek as he continues. “Just how lovely you look. In your dark green coat, and your ivory and gold.”

Sherlock feels his face fill with fire at John’s words, but it is a pleasant heat. The warm curl of John’s voice in the darkness is like a caress.

“We don’t have to go in there, you know. I would be just as happy to find a private corner of the ship to sit with you, and watch the stars come up.”

The weight behind this quiet statement strikes Sherlock like a physical blow. His yearning for the very thing that John has just expressed moves through him with dizzying force. He feels light-headed with want, but he’s not ready for that, not quite yet.

The fact that John would be willing to leave his friends, to abandon his rare chance to sing and drink and laugh with them, just to be with Sherlock, is so staggering it wrenches the world back into perspective. Sherlock wants this, wants to try and be a part of John’s world.

Sherlock shakes his head. “No, no, I want to go. I do. I’m just… nervous.”

Sherlock can feel John’s eyes, still warm on his face. “There’s no pressure for you to play. If you don’t want to…”

Sherlock shakes his head again, his voice adamant. “No, I want to. I want to play.”

He’s been so looking forward to this—he knows he will not be able to live with himself if he does not take the opportunity before him now.

“You’re sure?” John’s eyes are so careful on his face Sherlock is afraid for one moment that he might actually melt under John’s gaze.

“I am. However, I wouldn’t say no to a sip of that uh… liquid courage you carry around with you?”

It takes a moment for John to catch his meaning and then understanding dawns on his face, smoothing the lines from his brow. John throws back his head and laughs.

John takes a step back to reach into his jacket and pull out his flask. He hands it to Sherlock with a wink. “Knock yourself out.”

A ripple of heat passes through Sherlock at the brush of John’s fingers over his own. He accepts the flask and takes a very long drink, coughing only slightly as he hands it back to John.

John tucks it back into his jacket, his eyes on Sherlock steady and warm. “Ready?”

Sherlock throws back his shoulders, lifting his chin, and nods.

***

John leads him under the beams of the lower deck toward the front of the ship, where Sherlock stood only an hour earlier, desperately searching for John’s bunk. However, in the mere space of an hour, the room has utterly transformed.

The space under the ship’s bow that before was relatively empty is now a chaos of noise and lights and people.

Most of the hammocks that Sherlock saw before have been rolled up and stowed out of sight, and the tables where the crewmen were sitting have been pushed to the edges of the room. Everywhere Sherlock looks there are sailors crowded close together, shouting, laughing, playing cards. Some are sitting on the table, others are perched on hammocks and crates, with pipes clenched in the corners of their mouths, but all have tankards in their hands.

The lanterns suspended overhead cast everything in their swinging golden light, the wreaths of the pipe smoke coiling in and around the bodies of the men like friendly ghosts. The slide of the lights over their faces, the sinuous movement of the tendrils of smoke, gives the scene the shifting other-worldly quality of an underwater grotto, puts Sherlock in mind of the dream he had when he was ill, of the drowned sailors congregating at the bottom of the sea.

The difference between what Sherlock sees before him, and the orderly celebrations going on upstairs could not be more striking.

The air smells of sweat and liquor, of many unwashed bodies crammed for too long into close contact. The voices rising and falling around Sherlock are loud, raucous, accented with many different tongues. These men, who Sherlock has observed over the past few weeks so closely when he is up on deck, take on another quality altogether here, in their element, at ease and unafraid.

Sherlock recognizes Old Leroy, playing a tune on his mouth organ to the evident delight of several men around him, who are clapping their hands and stomping their feet—and there is Billy, sitting at Old Leroy’s knee, his mouth stretched wide with laughter. Sherlock recognizes Matthews and Stapleton, Banana Bill and Lean Jack, MacTavish and Patterson, Stewarts and Half Pint Lee. He didn’t even realize how many of their names he knew until now, and seeing them, spitting, laughing and carrying on, Sherlock feels a wave of something like fondness overtake him. He feels far more at home here than he ever does up above.

Sherlock is so absorbed in his study of the scene before him that he has not realized John is watching him, still and silent, at his side.

Sherlock turns to him and sees John’s eyes on his face, and realizes at the look of apprehension he sees there that John is nervous of what Sherlock thinks; worried it will be beneath him, that Sherlock’s delicate sensibilities may be offended.

John offers him the briefest grin, tinged with nerves. “What do you think?”

Sherlock smiles back at him and he can feel the grin chasing all the tension from his face. “I already like it much better than the other party.”

John grins back at him, for real this time, the worry sponged away in the blink of an eye, until he’s beaming at Sherlock, reaching over to grab him by the shoulder. “Welcome to a party with the other half of the ship.”

A roar of greeting interrupts the shared moment between them as the room becomes aware of John’s presence.

“OYE! John Watson! Where have you been?”

“About time!”

“Johnny Boy, come give us a song!”

“We’ve got your hand all ready for you here, John.”

John strides into the sea of people, pulling Sherlock behind him by the hand, and it is like being in the presence of a king, or a god, the way the men part before him and then close back in, pounding John on the back, calling out in greeting, pushing tankards into his hand.

The requests and the entreaties roll off of him like water off an oil skin, grinning all the while, acknowledging the greetings with a wink and a nod, before he’s climbing up to stand on a table in the center of the room and yelling for silence.

Sherlock stands just below him; violin case clutched tightly in his hand, gazing up at John through the haze of shuttered lantern light, the tendrils of smoke around his head as becoming as any crown.

“Alright, listen up you lot! Tonight, we’ve got a very special presence among us—my good friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Some of you may recognize him from up on deck. He’s a very keen observer, and clever as they come. He can give you a run for your money on just about any topic so tread carefully if you choose to engage him in a battle of wits.”

Sherlock’s cheeks flush hotly at John’s words of praise, but he fights the instinct to stare down at his boots in favor of watching John’s radiant face.

“Now, as this gentleman here is a friend of mine, I’d like you to treat him as well as you treat me. And if we’re very good to him, and very lucky, then maybe he will give us a bit of music later on, as he’s a damn fine fiddle player to boot.”

John flashes a grin down in Sherlock’s direction so bright with affection, Sherlock feels seared by it.

John’s words are greeted by a roar of approval from the crowd. Sherlock is nearly deafened by the thunderous sound of applause, and the various whoops and hollers of delight. As John leaps down from the table, Sherlock feels several hands clapping him hard on the back.

“Welcome to the crew, Mr. ‘olmes,” a smiling, toothless sailor says to Sherlock’s right, pushing a very full tankard into his hands.

“T-thank you,” Sherlock stammers, accepting the tankard with his free hand, still holding onto his violin case with the other as though for dear life. “I’m honored, truly.”

An enormous man with a red beard and a tattoo of a mermaid on his muscular forearm booms a greeting from Sherlock’s other side. “Anyone who has the good opinion of our John Watson has mine as well. Good to make your acquaintance, Mr. Holmes.”

“Please, call me Sherlock,” Sherlock says, wondering suddenly where John has got to as another sailor pushes forward to offer Sherlock a boisterous word of welcome.

“They call me, Ironsides Jake,” the sinewy man says, reaching down to take the hand that is holding Sherlock’s violin and shaking it vigorously. “I fought with her in the Barbary War. Lost me eye but managed to preserve me dignity, which is all that matters in the end, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Holmes?”

“Indeed,” Sherlock says, unable to keep from staring at the vivid scar bisecting the man’s face.

“When we leave this world, we will not take our worldly possessions with us after all, only our dignity what we’ve earned in this life.”

“Alright, Ironsides, don’t start your pontificating on him just yet.”

An older man, with a neatly trimmed silvery beard, steps forward to gently disentangle Sherlock’s hand from the other man’s enthusiastic grip.

“Burns is the name,” he says, eying Sherlock up and down with a stern gaze. “I’ve seen you up on deck, Mr. Holmes. Watson’s entirely correct about you, I imagine. You’ve got a keen eye for the sailing life. Is this your first time aboard a frigate?”

“It is,” Sherlock manages, still trying to juggle his overflowing tankard of ale with the violin case in his hand.

“Well, your interest seems genuine enough. Much more so than some of the other brainless birds that call themselves passengers on this ship, begging your pardon, sir.”

“There’s no need. I quite agree.”

The man gives a curt nod of acknowledgment. “If you’d ever like a tour of the ship, I’d be happy to show you around.”

Sherlock nods. “Thank you, that would be—”

But he is saved from more over enthusiastic sailors by John, reappearing at his side, placing one gentle but firm hand above his elbow to lead him away.

John smiles at the older sailor in apology. “Excuse me, Burns, but I’ve got someone I’d like Sherlock to meet.”

The silver-haired Burns nods and turns back to his companion.

John takes the tankard from Sherlock’s hand as he guides him to a less-populated corner of the room, and Sherlock leans down to whisper gratefully into John’s ear. “Thank you. They’re all lovely but a little…”

“Over zealous?” John looks up at him with a grin. “I told you, you had nothing to worry about. They already like you.”

Sherlock is about to say something to the tune of ‘No, they clearly like you,’ but he’s interrupted by the presence of another smiling sailor coming up to make his acquaintance.

This man is younger—about John and Sherlock’s age, heavy-set, with kind brown eyes, and a ruddy, good-natured face.

“Sherlock, I’d like you to meet my good friend, Mike Stamford. Mike, this is the wonder I’ve been telling you about.”

Sherlock can feel his cheeks flushing at John’s words, even as he reaches out to shake Mike’s hand. He has a warm, solid grip, and to Sherlock’s relief he lets go after just a few seconds.

“John’s told me quite a lot about you, Mr. Holmes.”

“Please,” Sherlock says, wondering just how many times he will be forced to say the words this evening. “Call me Sherlock.”

“Mike is our inimitable cook on board. He truly works wonders with the scraps he’s given.” The two men share a grin and Sherlock can tell at a glance that their friendship is an old one. “We were pressed together, Mike and I, same ship, same squalid tavern they herded us into that night, isn’t that right?”

“It is indeed.”

“I would have regretted that incident if not for the good friend I made that day in Mike. He’d been on merchant ships before. Without his help, I never would have learned the ropes as quickly as I did. Hell, I wouldn’t have lasted a single day.”

“As ever, your friend is being modest,” Mike says, with a smile. “John Watson has saved my life on more than one occasion. He’s quite a man, if ever I met one. You’re lucky to have found him, Mr. Holmes.”

Sherlock is feeling slightly overwhelmed by the insinuations at work behind this good-natured man’s remarks. He’s struggling for what to say in response when John tugs on his sleeve again to lead him away.

“Alright, Mike, enough now. I don’t want to scare him off.” John laughs and the sound is meant to be light-hearted but Sherlock can see the color rising in John’s cheeks and he realizes with a small jolt of surprise that John is embarrassed.

Embarrassed about what?

“John, what did—”

But Sherlock’s question is drowned out by a roar from the assembled crowd.

“D’you hear that lads? It’s time for dancing!”

There is a small but frantic shuffle of activity as space is cleared in the center of the room. Old Leroy sets his stool down on the edge of this space, a man with a silver hoop in his ear sits down next to him with a tin whistle, and a younger sailor in a stocking cap pulls out a curiously flat drum with a handle on the inside, and a stick in the other hand to hit it with.

Someone calls out the name of a tune and the three musicians begin to pick out the notes with earnest application. The red-bearded man with the mermaid tattoo who introduced himself to Sherlock earlier gets up and begins to dance a hornpipe with shocking nimbleness.

John pulls Sherlock by the arm until they are sitting on a bench at the edge of the floor. He puts the tankard back into Sherlock’s hand, and takes one for himself from the man beside him before raising his own with a smile.

“To your good health.”

Sherlock lifts his glass to John’s, his eyes serious as he studies John’s face. “And yours.”

Sherlock takes a long drink, his eyes on John’s throat as he swallows. He feels slightly breathless when he lowers his tankard again to turn back to the music. Distracted, he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, eyes intent on the trio of musicians.

He’s heard of the cheap whistle favored by sailors, made of tin, often called the penny whistle, but he’s never seen a drum like the one in the stocking-capped sailor’s hands before and he is mesmerized by the dexterity with which he strikes it using the small stick.

“What kind of drum is that?” Sherlock asks, his eyes still on the man’s quick-moving hand as he flicks it over the surface of the drum.

The toothless sailor who initially handed Sherlock his ale leans over to him. “It’s an Irish drum. It’s called a Bodhrán. Our Fionn’s quite clever with it, wouldn’t you agree?”

Sherlock nods, still unable to look away. Something is happening to him—he knows the feeling, but it’s been so long since he’s experienced it he’s almost forgotten what it feels like. It is the feeling of music stealing over him, moving deep into his body and affecting him in such a profound way that he forgets where he is, who he’s with, all the details of the room around him—it is almost as good as when Sherlock is playing himself. It’s nothing like the music of the plodding musicians playing in the stateroom upstairs. This music has substance; there is something about it that is greater than the three men drawing it into existence, and suddenly, Sherlock cannot bear another second of his fiddle resting in its case, silent and useless.

He waits until the song they’re playing comes to a close and then, before he can think too much about what he’s about to do, he’s risen to his feet, and he’s striding across the small, cleared space, his violin case clenched tightly in his hand. He stops in front of the three musicians.

The room behind him has gone silent.

The three musicians look up at Sherlock expectantly. He bows his head. “I… I’d love to play with you. If you’ll have me.”

Old Leroy grins up at Sherlock. “Of course! Pull up a chair, laddie. Or stand if you like, whatever pleases you.”

“I’ll sit, thank you.”

“GET THE LAD A CHAIR!” someone hollers and for a few minutes there is general chaos as the room shifts around to make room for Sherlock to sit up at the front. The proffered chair turns out to be an upturned slop bucket, but Sherlock hardly notices. He pulls off his jacket—the heat of the room has only gotten more intense since they arrived—and folds it neatly by his side, before settling the case on his knees, flicking open the clasps, and pulling out the violin to the general pleasure of the assembled crowd.

There is a chorus of appreciative sounds as the curve of Sherlock’s lovely instrument catches the light. He raises it to his shoulder, sets his bow against the strings, fingers on the tuning pegs.

“Isn’t she a beauty?” Sherlock hears someone murmur, and he’s almost grinning already, so contagious is the general atmosphere of excitement awakened by the appearance of his violin.

The sweet vibration of the instrument as he pulls out the first note is so lovely, so satisfying Sherlock can feel it all the way down to his bones. It’s like a piece of himself that has been missing all these months has suddenly been handed back to him.

It’s as if a spell has been wrought to dispel his nerves. Even the prospect of tuning in front of a crowd of onlookers isn’t daunting to Sherlock so eager is he to begin playing. Simply being able to pull the bow across the strings again in earnest is enough to make the hard weight at the center of Sherlock’s chest begin to uncoil.

Even though his attention is focused completely on the instrument, there is still a part of him that can feel John watching him from across the room; his blue eyes intent on Sherlock as he begins to work the instrument back to life under his hands.

When his instrument is fully tuned, he sets it on his knee, and then looks up at the other musicians. Sherlock feels a small flutter of anxiety at the prospect of playing with three other people who he’s only just met and perhaps they can sense his discomfort because Old Leroy says, “What shall you play for us, lad?”

Before Sherlock can answer, a sailor shouts a song out from the crowd. “‘Sweet Moll of Plymouth!’”

“No! ‘Drowsy Maggie!’”

“What about ‘Old Maui’?”

Sherlock’s cheeks flush dark with embarrassment. “I—I don’t know those.”

Panic hovers at the edge of Sherlock’s excitement. He’s going to disappoint them. Of course, he doesn’t know any of the songs they know and love. He’s on the verge of convincing himself that coming up here was a terrible mistake when John’s voice cuts through the din of chatter. “Just play us whatever you know. Doesn’t matter what.”

Sherlock looks at John across the room, his face, smiling and patient as ever and feels a bit of his boldness return.

Sherlock lifts the instrument to his shoulder and settles it beneath his chin. “I-I could try to play one of those. If you could sing a bit of it?”

An old sailor with a face so wrinkled his eyes look perpetually shut, opens his mouth and begins to sing in a carrying voice. “Sweet ladies of Plymouth, we’re saying goodbye!”

The rest of the room takes up the chorus. “Ro-o-o-oll down!”

“But we’ll rock you and roll you again by and by—”

“Walk her round, me brave boys and roll down!”

Sherlock is momentarily astounded that the rest of them all know the words, but on the heels of that astonishment comes the realization that of course they would all know the same songs. These are working songs, and men who work as much as they do must know a lot of them.

“And we will ro-o-o-oll down! Walk her round, me brave boys and roll down!”

The wrinkled old sailor has a remarkably melodious voice. “Now the anchor’s aweigh and the sails are unfurled—”

“Ro-o-o-oll down!”

“And we’re bound for her to take her half-way around the world—”

“Walk her round, me brave boys and roll down!”

As Sherlock listens to the swell of voices take up the chorus, he begins to pick out the tune. The melody is simple and repeats with every verse, so it only takes him a minute or two to get it right. By the fourth verse, Sherlock is playing along as though he’s always known the tune.

Fionn, the drummer, takes up his drum and begins to tap out a rhythm. The piper joins in not long after, and soon the three of them are developing their own accompaniment to the rise and fall of the men’s voices.

The song is over far too quickly, and Sherlock and the drummer play twice more through the melody before drawing to a close.

The thunderous applause that greets the end of this simple song makes Sherlock’s cheeks flame scarlet. He sets his fiddle on his knee and the drummer reaches over to clap him on the back.

“Play us another one!”

The same wrinkled old sailor starts to sing again, and almost immediately Sherlock picks out the melody. Old Leroy has abandoned his mouth organ for the time being, content just to watch, but the piper and drummer join in as soon as Sherlock starts to play.

From across the room, Sherlock can see John staring at him, his eyes enormous, his mouth fallen partway open. Sherlock can read the expression on his face as easily as reading a book. It’s amazement, pure spellbound amazement that Sherlock can play a song that he’s only just learned as though he has always known it.

It feels so good to be playing again, and the songs they are singing are so simple, it’s easy for Sherlock to embellish them almost as soon as he has learned the melody. The drummer at Sherlock’s side is clearly as gifted at improvisation as Sherlock; the rhythm he’s beating out on his drum complements the flourishes that Sherlock adds so well for a moment it’s difficult even for Sherlock to believe that what’s happening is happening right now without any prior preparation.

Again, when the chorus of men’s voices reaches the end of the song, Sherlock and the other two musicians play on long after the singing is done. When they finally come to a stop to the furious delight of the crowd, the drummer leans over to Sherlock.

“What’d ya say about playing a jig?”

His accent is so thick it takes Sherlock a second to understand what he’s saying.

Sherlock shakes his head. “I don’t… I don’t know any off the top of my head.”

“There’s a lovely little one called Elderberry Jig. Aidan here can start us out. You’ll pick it up in no time. Just join in whenever you’re ready.”

Sherlock nods.

The two men start to play and the drummer was right, the melody is easy for Sherlock to pick up. He joins in after just a few bars and Fionn grins at him over the top of his drum.

Although this song has no singing accompaniment, that doesn’t deter the enjoyment of the listening crowd. Almost as soon as Aidan starts playing, the men begin to stomp their feet in time with the music. Sherlock cannot blame them—the rhythm is infectious. It’s impossible to sit still listening to it. Sherlock can feel it beating in his blood, feeding the notes to his fingers as they fly over the strings.

Sherlock has heard jigs played at country dances, and he’s played one or two in his time—simple exercises to warm up, but never like this, never in the heat of the moment in the middle of a sea of people, pounding their feet and clapping their hands. He’s never played music like this before. It’s nowhere near as complicated as the arrangements that Sherlock usually plays, the symphonies and concertos on which he cut his teeth, but the energy of it is affecting in a visceral way.

Something is beginning to take hold of Sherlock as he plays and it is what he has been missing all these months, the part of that himself that’s been hollowed out, left behind him somewhere back in England, and suddenly it’s so full, it’s full to bursting and Sherlock needs to keep playing to keep filling it up.

The jig ends, but without stopping, Aidan begins playing a reel, and this one, the men must know—several of them rise to their feet with whoops of delight and begin dancing.

Sherlock watches, breathless, his bow poised over the strings until he’s learned the melody, and this one, this one is even more infectious than the previous one, or maybe it’s just that Sherlock has finally warmed up because the room starts to fade around him as he loses himself in the music.

It feels these past few weeks as though he’s been pinned up, as though his arms were bound behind him, as though a great pair of wings on his back was folded shut and strapped down and they have suddenly burst from their holdings and are beating free. He may as well be flying. He can do anything in this moment, and looking across the room to see John’s eyes on his face filled with wonder, his lips parted, his eyes almost sad, Sherlock grins at him and he has never smiled so wide in his life. He wants to share this with John, this utterly weightless feeling that makes him feel as though he will break through the walls of the ship and go soaring over the sea.

They play and play and play and Sherlock has no idea how much time has passed because time has become immaterial, the only thing anchoring him to the world the sight of John’s face across the room, watching him in amazement, bathed in golden light.

They finally stop to refill their glasses and catch their breath, and it is only when he lowers his instrument that Sherlock realizes how long they have been playing. His fingers are filled with a buzzing sting; it’s been so long since he has played his calluses are almost gone. His forehead is damp with sweat, all his earlier efforts to tame his hair rendered ineffective as several dark curls have slipped free and are hanging over his brow.

He reaches up with the back of his wrist to wipe the sweat from his forehead, pushing the hair back from his face. He leans down to settle his violin back in its case and when he straightens up there are sailors on all sides, clapping him on the back, shaking his hand, offering him tankards full of ale.

Sherlock does up the clasps on his case, nodding politely, as the eager faces around him seem to multiply. The room is hotter than ever, and the swirl of the lights and the noise and the people seem to rise in volume. Sherlock tries to back away, his violin case clasped to his chest like a shield, but his spine bumps up against the edge of a table and he cannot move for the press of people around him.

He’s on the verge of complete panic when he hears John’s voice from the back of the crowd. “OYE, you lot! Clear off! You’re gonna suffocate him.” And then, mercifully, John’s golden head emerges from the throng, the lantern light glinting off his hair.

Sherlock nearly gasps in relief as John reaches out to take his hand and pull him away from the clamor of eager sailors.

John leads Sherlock to a stool on the far side of the room, partially hidden from the dancing shouting crowd by the sway of a hammock.

John guides him gently to a sitting position and then eases the violin case from his hand. He sets it on the ground at Sherlock’s feet, and drops into a crouch in front of him, a fond smile unfolding over his face.

“Hey,” he says, and Sherlock’s heart swoops and plummets several leagues into his own belly where it continues pounding, loud as Fionn’s drum.

“Hi,” Sherlock says shyly, unable to bear the intensity of John’s gaze longer than a few seconds. It’s as though his nerves have expanded to twice their size in the wake of his playing. Without even realizing he was doing it, Sherlock opened himself up in order to let all of the music in; and looking at John now, with his senses still stretched wide and open, is like looking directly into the sun.

“How are you?”

“I’m…” Sherlock pauses to catch his breath, searching for a way to put the enormity of what he’s feeling into words. He doesn’t know where to begin.

“You look like you could use a drink,” John says, reaching into his jacket to pull out his flask. He passes it to Sherlock, who takes it gratefully, and takes a long sip. He doesn’t cough at all this time. The burn of the liquor in his throat and belly is a welcome one.

Sherlock takes another long drink before passing it back.

“Thank you,” he says, still searching for a way to describe to John what he is feeling. He can feel the alcohol unspooling through his veins, warming him up. He pushes an errant lock of hair off his forehead, struggling to find the right words. “That was… I love playing music, and I’ve missed it, but…” He looks up at John, joy bursting to life all over his face as he recalls the feeling it gave him. “I’ve never experienced anything like that… that was something else entirely.”

Sherlock looks back at John and the look in his eyes takes Sherlock’s breath away.

It’s the same way he was looking at Sherlock when he was playing earlier but it’s somehow more awe-struck, more reverent; more full of tenderness than Sherlock could make out from across the room. His brow is furrowed as though with sorrow, his blue eyes deep and dark.

“I can’t believe you,” John breathes. “Watching you play like that…You’d never heard any of those songs before in your life. How did you do that? How… how can you be so—?”

Sherlock leans closer; he wants to smooth the lines of sorrow from John’s face.

“What?”

Before John can answer, there is a commotion behind them.

“Johnny Boy! Your presence is requested!”

The man who calls himself Ironsides Jake appears before them, arms crossed over his lean chest. “You haven’t sung a word yet tonight and that needs to be remedied.”

John opens his mouth to protest but a crowd of sailors surges around him like the sea itself, pulling him to his feet and leading him in their midst back to the cleared space in the center of the floor.

Sherlock trails behind, situating himself on the edge of the crowd to watch, torn between frustration and amusement.

“Just one song, John, and then we’ll let you get back to your young man.”

A tide of snickers breaks out in the wake of this remark but dies down almost immediately as John takes his place on a stool at the front of the room.

The crowd falls silent and it occurs to Sherlock that this is the quietest he has heard them all evening. All eyes in the room are on John. The musicians have set down their instruments, and even the men playing cards have turned from their game to watch.

“What’ll you sing us Johnny? Sing us a love song!”

“Naw, sing something sad.”

John lifts his chin slightly, the line of his mouth firm, something commanding in his eyes, and the men fall silent. Sherlock feels heat spreading through his chest in response to that look. He tugs at his neck cloth, filled suddenly with the desire to pull it off.

John looks down for a moment, and then lifts his head and begins to sing.

There is a young maid and she lives on the shore,
She lives on the shore all alone, oh.
And nothing she could find could comfort her mind,
Then to roam all alone on the shore, oh shore.
Then to roam all alone on the shore.

His voice is strong and clear, the melody sweet but full of sorrow. The only accompaniment to his lovely, resonant voice is the time he keeps with his foot.

There is a young captain who sails the salt sea,
Let the wind blow high, blow low, oh.
I will die, I will die, the young captain did cry,
If I can’t have that maid on the shore, oh shore,
If I can’t have that maid on the shore.

Well, I have lots of silver,
I have lots of gold,
I have lots of costly ware, oh.
I’ll divide, I’ll divide with my lowly ship’s crew,
If they’ll row me that maid on the shore, oh shore,
If they’ll row me that maid on the shore.

There is something raw in his voice, a longing that resonates through every word, the depth of emotion in each note so present that Sherlock feels an ache in his chest at the sound. Sherlock is certain then that if anyone else were to sing this particular song, it wouldn’t be half so full of feeling. But listening to John sing it, the downturned corners of his sorrowful mouth as he sings the refrain, it hits Sherlock like a punch to the gut.

After much persuasion they got her on board,
Let the wind blow high, blow low, oh.
They replaced her away in the cabin below,
There’s an end to all sorrow and care, oh care,
There’s an end to all sorrow and care.

They replaced her away in the cabin below,
Let the wind blow high, blow low, oh,
So pretty and sweet, so neat and complete,
She sang captain and sailors to sleep, oh sleep,
She sang captain and sailors to sleep.

The emotion in John’s voice shifts slightly, and there is a quirk to his mouth as he continues, something playful in his voice, but the longing is still there, and Sherlock leans forward without realizing he’s doing it, utterly drawn in by the spell of John’s voice.

Then she robbed them of silver,
She robbed them of gold,
She robbed them of costly ware, oh,
She took his broad sword instead of an oar,
And she paddled her way back to shore, oh shore,
And she paddled her way back to shore.

Oh, me men must be crazy,
Me men must be mad,
Me men must be in deep despair, oh.
For to let you away from my cabin so gay,
And to paddle you back to the shore, oh shore,
And to paddle you back to the shore.

Oh, your men was not crazy,
Your men was not mad,
Your men was not deep in despair, oh!
I deceived all your sailors as well as yourself,
And I’m still the maid on the shore, oh shore!
Yes, I’m still the maid on the shore.

There is half a beat of silence after the song draws to a close, and then the men are on their feet, whooping and cheering, calling for another.

John smiles, and Sherlock has to reach out to grab hold of the beam behind him to support his weight as his knees buckle beneath him.

John motions for silence and the men press forward with eagerness. “One more. But that’s it, all right? Then you’ve got to entertain yourselves for the evening,” John’s tone is serious but he’s smiling as he says it.

The next song John sings is clearly one the men know well and love because there is a murmur of approval as soon as John starts up.

Fine friends and companions come join me in rhyme,
Come lift up your voices in chorus with mine,
Come lift up your voices, from grief we’ll refrain,
For we may or might never all meet here again.

The men sing along with him on the chorus, lifting their glasses, and a chill moves through Sherlock at the sound of so many voices coming together with John’s.

So here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let’s drink and be merry all out of one glass,
Let’s drink and be merry from grief we’ll refrain,
For we may or might never all meet here again.

Again, it is apparent that this song in the hands of any other singer might be completely unremarkable, but the lilt of John’s voice lifts it up, opening up the notes, filling the song with such feeling that Sherlock’s chest is tight with an emotion he has no words for, until he is lost somewhere beyond himself, carried along on the current of John’s lyrical voice.

Here’s a health to the wee lass that I love so well,
For style and for beauty there’s none can excel,
There’s a smile on her countenance
As she sits upon my knee,
There is no man in this wide world as happy as me.

As Sherlock listens to the words John is singing, it strikes him that maybe the reason there is so much emotion in John’s voice is because he is thinking of a particular person as he sings. At this unwelcome thought, Sherlock feels a spike of sorrow in his chest.

Sherlock thinks back to the depth of emotion in John’s voice in the previous song, as he sang about the young captain’s love for the girl on the shore. That yearning in John’s voice that had filled Sherlock with a longing of his own now twists in his gut, making him feel sick. Suddenly, it all makes so much sense.

Sherlock’s hand flies to the locket around his throat. He forgot that he was still wearing it, forgot to give it back to John in the chaos of the evening. He holds the locket up to the light, studying the entwined letters on the case, the chain as soft as silk against his fingers. M.W.

The ‘M’ could very well stand for Mary.

Sherlock’s throat is suddenly tight with a different emotion altogether as John’s haunting voice sings out the final verse.

Our ship lies at anchor she is ready to dock,
I wish her safe landing without any shock,
And if ever I should meet you by land or by sea,
I will always remember your kindness to me.

The men take up the chorus one last time, raising their glasses as the song comes to an end. Sherlock looks at the faces of the sailors around him as they lift their tankards, the warmth of the lantern light softening their faces, giving the scene an intimate feel. Sherlock watches it all as though from a great distance, his body rigid with sudden misery.

It takes John a moment to work his way back through the crowd of men to Sherlock’s side. When he arrives, Sherlock is so lost in his own bitter thoughts that it takes him a moment to notice John is speaking to him.

“I’m sorry about that, they never would have left me alone if I hadn’t…. Sherlock?” John puts a hand on his arm and the touch seems to bring Sherlock back to earth. “You alright?”

Sherlock looks up at John, at the concern in his eyes, the lovely grooves around his mouth, and he can’t make sense of it.

If John is looking at him like that, then he must feel something for Sherlock, but Sherlock has never been a good judge of human emotions. Maybe he’s wrong, maybe he’s been wrong all along. Perhaps what Sherlock is seeing is just John’s concern for Sherlock out of the goodness of his heart. But oh, if that is the case, then Sherlock cannot bear it.

His own longing seems to rise up and choke him.

“What’s the matter?”

Sherlock watches John’s eyes fill with sudden sorrow, and something darker underneath that, something painful—an echo of what Sherlock saw earlier when John was watching him play his violin.

Sherlock’s heart lurches at the sight.

“Let’s…” John ducks his head, licks his lips. “Let’s get out of here, yeah?”

Sherlock nods, his throat now tight with worry at the depths of suffering he sees in John’s eyes.

He follows behind John, silent as a shadow, as he makes his way to the staircase leading to the upper decks.

Chapter Text

They are silent as they make their way back up the staircase to the open air.

Sherlock’s jacket is folded over his arm, his violin case still clenched tightly in one hand. He is clinging to it like a talisman, as though if he holds it tight enough it will give him the power to go back in time to an hour before, when he still existed in that transcendent space with John’s eyes on him from across the room, his fingers flying over the strings, before he realized what John was singing about, who he was singing for.

The night is warm but after the heat and the chaos of the party, the press of so many bodies, the change in temperature comes as something of a shock. Sherlock shivers as he mounts the final step, but not because of the change in air. His misery seems to have leached all the heat from his body, leaving him hollow and cold. He stops to pull his jacket on again over his shoulders before following John into the shadows under the rigging.

John leads them up to the front of the ship, to the more or less private space behind the foremast where he gave Sherlock his very first boxing lesson. There is no one about save the man at the helm, a ship’s length away in the darkness. The distant sounds of the party in the stateroom still carrying on drift toward them on the night air, but they are far enough away that the sound blurs almost instantly to insignificant background noise.

Sherlock stops beside John at the railing, sets his violin case at his feet.

The stars have come out since they’ve been below deck, and the sight is astonishing even to Sherlock, who doesn’t usually pay attention to such mundane atmospheric details. The light of the stars is so bright for once even he can’t ignore it.

John looks out over the sea, where all the stars are mirrored in the dark water around them, and Sherlock can tell he is gathering the courage to speak, trying to think how to begin.

Sherlock wishes he were brave enough to tell John he already knows what he is going to say. In the brief space of time it took them to climb the staircase, the reason for the sorrow in John’s eyes struck Sherlock like a slap in the face. John is going to tell him that he cannot love Sherlock. Maybe he even wants to, but he cannot because he still loves Mary and his love for her is too much—there isn’t enough room left in his heart. Sherlock could spare John the pain by just telling him he knows already, that he understands.

But Sherlock isn’t brave like that.

He can feel the locket still around his neck, lying against his breastbone where it fell earlier when he let it drop from his fingers.

It feels like a weight at his throat, dragging him down.

John takes a breath. “I… owe you an apology.”

Sherlock waits, his heart pounding painfully in his breast.

“I… should have said something earlier in the evening, as soon as I noticed it but…” John sighs and the sound is full of regret. “I was hoping maybe I had imagined it, that I had… misinterpreted somehow. But I realize now I should have said something right away. It isn’t fair to either of us. In all honesty, I think I was trying to pretend like I hadn’t seen anything, hoping maybe that I’d imagined it. As though wishing it could change things.”

John looks out over the sea and his voice is edged with a bitterness Sherlock has never heard before.

“But that was selfish of me. I care about you too much to treat you like that.”

John straightens up and looks at Sherlock, and of all the sad expressions Sherlock has ever seen on John Watson’s face he’s never seen anything like this.

Horror steals all the moisture from Sherlock’s throat. He cannot imagine what he could have done to make John Watson look like that, but whatever it is, he would do anything in that moment to take it back.

“Tell me,” he says, voice stripped of emotion. “What the matter is.”

John turns away from Sherlock. His look is cold, closed off, and it sends a dagger of pain through Sherlock, hot and sharp.

“The trouble is I care for you so much, it’s easy to forget sometimes that I don’t… that I’ve had no confirmation that you return those feelings. And I shouldn’t have assumed. I presumed too much. When I saw you earlier with Miss Hooper, I should’ve realized...” John shakes his head, still not looking at Sherlock. “I’m sorry. I let my own feelings blind me to your intentions this whole time.”

Sherlock is so shocked and confused that for a moment he cannot speak at all.

His tongue feels like a block of wood in his mouth. “What?”

“In the ballroom, when you said goodnight to her… I didn’t realize… the way you felt about her... I should have known as soon as I saw, but I didn’t want to believe it.”

Sherlock cannot make sense of what John is saying.

“What?” he repeats stupidly.

“I should make it clear now,” John says, his voice still full of pain despite what Sherlock can tell are his best intentions. “That no matter what form our relationship takes, I will be content. If it just remains friendship, if that’s all that you desire…” John takes another deep breath. “My life will still be better for it.”

Sherlock shakes his head. He is so shocked by John’s incorrect assumption that it takes him a moment to find the words to convey how utterly wrong he is.

“No,” he says, still shaking his head. “No.”

“No?” John turns his head to look at Sherlock, his voice full of tentative confusion.

“No,” Sherlock says, more adamantly than before. “You’re mistaken. You’re entirely mistaken. Miss Hooper is sweet on Lieutenant Lestrade! They were dancing together when he became ill. I promised her that I would let her know how he was getting on. She was so worried about him I couldn’t break my promise.”

There is a note of apologetic anguish in Sherlock’s voice. He’s desperate to justify to John why it was so important that he make that particular errand—to make clear that it had nothing to do with any secret feelings he was harboring for Miss Hooper and everything to do with his awareness of her own feelings for the Lieutenant.

It occurs to Sherlock now that he was thinking of how he would have felt if some ill had befallen John but he wasn’t able to help, if he’d been kept in an agony of waiting. If anything, Sherlock’s decision to tell her had more to do with his feelings for John, than his feelings for her.

“I promised her, John. She was beside herself with worry and I promised her.”

John is now looking at Sherlock full on and Sherlock can see the dawning understanding on John’s face mingled with a look of deep embarrassment. His mouth drops open. “Oh, God I…”

John lets his head fall to the railing. He presses his face against his forearms and doesn’t move for several moments. He speaks into his arms, his embarrassed voice muffled by the sleeves of his shirt. “Oh, Sherlock, what a fool I’ve been.”

When he lifts his head again to look up at Sherlock, he is smiling weakly. “Can you forgive me?”

Sherlock jerks his head stiffly. “There is nothing to forgive.”

“I’m sorry.” John is looking at his hands where they are still clasped together on the railing. “Sometimes I just can’t believe my luck, meeting you, and the fact that you… seem to genuinely want to spend time with me.”

Sherlock stares at John, his mouth agape. John is speaking the very feelings that Sherlock feels every day. John—glorious, beautiful, confident John—cannot believe that Sherlock wants to spend time with him? Sherlock wants to shake his head. It doesn’t make any sense. He feels three steps behind in the conversation, still reeling from the discovery that John was convinced he had feelings for Miss Hooper.

But the way John is speaking, it sounds as if… Sherlock’s thoughts are a whirl, struggling to catch up. John said he cared for Sherlock. He said it. And the sorrow in his voice when he thought Sherlock had no more interest than friendship… Sherlock heard it. Perhaps he mistook the sadness in John’s eyes for something other than it was.

He almost doesn’t dare to hope.

Sherlock hears John take a deep breath, and he squints at him through the darkness. He looks… nervous. All at once, Sherlock recalls the flickers of nervousness he has seen in John throughout the evening, like the glare of the sun on the surface of the ocean, obscuring the depths beneath.

“I just get…” John takes another deep breath, looks back at his hands. “Sometimes I don’t know how to talk to you.”

Sherlock’s stomach sinks.

He knows he is difficult to talk to, that his sullen silence is a foreclosure to all easy conversation, but he thought he had been making progress. Shame roils through him, stifling his hope as effectively as a damp blanket smothering a flame.

“I know,” he says, voice low with shame.

“No, no, please don’t mistake my meaning. It isn’t because of anything you’ve done, it’s just—” John smiles that wry smile, shaking his head, and Sherlock watches as his eyes grow sad again. “I couldn’t believe you earlier, playing your violin. You looked… I’ve never seen you look like that. You were transcendent, unreachable, as though you would vanish into air if I tried to touch you.” John shakes his head again. “Sometimes I just… can’t believe you’re real.”

Sherlock is so shocked by this declaration that he can’t think what to say.

John sighs, seems to realign himself. He shifts his weight forward on the railing and looks out over the sea. When he speaks again, his voice is soft.

“Do you know why I sang that song?”

“Which one?” Sherlock asks, thinking suddenly of Mary, his heart pounding hard against the locket at his breast.

“The Maid on the Shore.”

“No, I don’t know,” Sherlock says truthfully, dreading the answer.

“She reminds me of you.”

“Who does?”

“The girl in the song.”

Sherlock is genuinely puzzled. “Why?”

“Well, you’re clever like her for one thing. And because… you’re solitary like she is, apart from the rest of the world. But it’s more than that. You’re independent. I think… you go where you like in life. You don’t let it push you where you don’t want to go. You’d never let anybody own you.”

Sherlock is both surprised and pleased by this assessment in equal measure. He feels that the opposite is true. He feels like he’s been beaten by life, cast hither and thither like a leaf on the wind, never exerting control over his own fate, never fighting back as hard as he should. He considers this. Well, perhaps he has fought back, but never with very promising results.

“If someone tried to catch you, I don’t think you’d stand for it. I think you’d break free. You wouldn’t let anyone take you against your will.”

Something about the phrasing of John’s words makes a dark shudder move through Sherlock.

“How do you know that?” he whispers, his mind filled suddenly with the image of John appearing before him, his arms full of golden chains, using them to pinion Sherlock’s wrists behind his back and lead him away to a room from which he could not escape.

The thought makes his breathing quicken.

John may be right. If anyone tried to take him against his will Sherlock would be furious; but John is different. If John tried to take him… Sherlock swallows, hard, fingers clenching on the railing.

“You’re like no one else I’ve ever met. You’re like… something from another world.”

“I’m not,” Sherlock says breathlessly; eyes on John’s sorrowful mouth. “I assure you I’m quite ordinary.”

“You’re not,” John’s voice is dreamy, low and sinful. “Everything about you is the opposite of ordinary.”

Sherlock lifts his head in the darkness, studies the silhouette of John’s face.

“I do feel for the captain though,” John goes on, his voice softer.

Sherlock’s chest tightens with sudden fear. “Why?”

“He never got the girl he wanted. That kind of longing…” John’s voice is full of pain; Sherlock can hear the ache in his words. “It doesn’t go away. There’s only one cure for it.”

Sorrow is like a splinter in Sherlock’s throat—swallowing around it actually hurts. He knows whom John is thinking of. He doesn’t want to ask the inevitable question, but John is his friend. If John needs Sherlock’s help to make his confession, then Sherlock can’t abandon him now.

“You… you’ve felt that before?”

John nods, wordlessly.

Sherlock already knows the answer but he forces himself to ask it anyway before he loses the courage, although the words seem to stick in his throat.

“For Mary?”

John turns to look at Sherlock and the expression on his face is one of genuine bewilderment.

“No,” he breathes, and there is light dawning in his eyes, and Sherlock’s heart begins to pound again, harder than before, although he isn’t yet sure why—that expression could mean anything. He has no idea why John is looking like that all of a sudden. “No, Sherlock, it’s you.”

Worlds shift and planets realign in the time it takes for Sherlock to absorb what John has just said.

His voice is a dry rasp of disbelief. “What?”

The distant sounds of the party across the deck fade away completely, and it is only John and Sherlock, alone on a wide sea; the night stars could be singing in Sherlock’s ear, he is deaf to them in this moment, blind to everything but the shimmer of John’s eyes in the dark as he turns toward Sherlock.

Sherlock can hear now that John’s breath is speeding up.

“But…” Sherlock reaches for words but they vanish before him like dust on the wind. “But her necklace...”

“Whose necklace?”

Sherlock pulls at the chain around his neck, lifting the locket out into the light. “Mary’s necklace that you still wear!”

“That isn’t Mary’s necklace. It was my mother’s.”

Sherlock is staring at John, the locket suspended from his fingers. “But… the initials...”

“Those are my mother’s initials. M.W. is for Margaret Watson.”

“Oh…” All of Sherlock’s breath leaves him. He shuts his eyes, allows the full meaning of John’s words to sink in. Margaret Watson.

Sherlock keeps his eyes shut. It’s not so scary to say what is on his mind if he cannot see John’s face when he says it. “I thought you sang the song for her. I thought… that’s why you looked so sad when you were singing. Because you missed her.”

“Oh Sherlock, I do miss her. But not like that. Not anymore. I’ll always think fondly of Mary but… in truth, I scarcely knew her. I wish she hadn’t waited for me all those years, that she had found love somewhere else, that she hadn’t died so young but… none of that has any bearing on my feelings towards you.”

Sherlock opens his eyes.

He watches John lick his lips. “No Sherlock, it’s you, it’s you. It’s always been you. But I—”

John stops himself, physically from taking a step forward into Sherlock’s space, his hand clenching compulsively against the railing as though the gesture pains him, demands all his effort, which Sherlock thinks, it might, because that is how he feels, holding himself at a distance from John.

They are like two magnets held close enough together to feel the pull, but always kept apart, or like a wound that needs stitching. It feels wrong, unnatural for space to exist between them. Sherlock wants to close it, draw the edges back together but he stays where he is, rooted to the spot, terrified.

Sherlock risks a look up at John’s face.

It is dark in this corner of the ship but the stars are bright here under the tropical sky and Sherlock can see that John’s eyes are enormous, filled with hunger.

“John…”

In a fit of bravery, Sherlock reaches out to take hold of the hand that John has balled into a fist against the railing. He tugs gently at John’s fingers, pulling them apart until they fit in against his own.

He hears John’s breath catch in the air between him as their palms slide together.

Sherlock swallows, looking down at their hands. “John, you must speak plainly with me. I’m not… I’m not good with innuendo. Just tell me. Tell me what the trouble is.”

He can see John working to calm himself. “I don’t want to pressure you, or rush you into anything you don’t want. I’ve tried to be careful, Sherlock. You’re so young.”

“So what?” Sherlock whispers, suddenly painfully aware of his own naïveté, his inexperience, how foolish he must look to John.

He pulls his fingers out of John’s grasp as though scalded.

“No, it’s not—” John is shaking his head again.

This is going all wrong, Sherlock thinks, and once again, it’s his fault. He feels like he’s ruined this evening every step of the way; made it so difficult for John. He hunches his shoulders, crowding into himself, putting the walls back up.

John reaches for his arm.

“No! Don’t do that! Don’t shut yourself away.” The note of desperation in John’s voice cuts through him like a blade. “Please.”

They both look down at John’s hand where it’s wrapped around Sherlock’s wrist.

John lets go, his expression apologetic.

“I’m just…” John’s eyes are wide and glittering, reflecting starlight. “I’m afraid of hurting you.”

The ache in John’s voice seems to reach down into Sherlock’s chest and catch hold of his heart.

“You won’t.” Sherlock whispers. “You can touch me. I won’t break.”

Sherlock hears John’s quiet inhalation of breath at his words.

Sherlock watches John shut his eyes, as though steadying himself. When he opens them again, they are darker than Sherlock has ever seen them.

“Do you know the song I would have sung if the two of us were alone?”

Sherlock shakes his head.

The note of restraint in John’s voice is all too apparent, as though he’s holding himself back from something, but it’s still there under the surface, hot and traitorous. “Shall I sing it for you now?”

Sherlock nods in the darkness, his heart pounding in his breast.

John puts his head down close to Sherlock’s and starts to sing.

He sings quietly, presumably so as not to arouse the attention of the man on watch, but the presence of John’s voice at Sherlock’s ear is so intimate, the touch of his breath so warm, so alive against Sherlock’s neck, all Sherlock can think is that John’s voice is only for him. The words in the song seem to speak it true.

Black is the color of my true love’s hair,
His lips are like the roses fair,
He’s the sweetest smile, and the gentlest hands,
I love the ground on where he stands.

John’s rich voice is as melodious as ever, somehow more so in the dark. Perhaps it is the presence of the open sky above them, or the ocean at their feet; perhaps it creates a richer canvas on which to experience the sound, or maybe it is just the fact that Sherlock can feel every nuance of John’s breath, every inhale, every exhale of gentle heat as he sings each note, holds it and shapes it with his voice, so that Sherlock is feeling the song as much as he is hearing it.

I love my love and well he knows.
I love the ground on where he goes.
I wish the day it soon would come,
When he and I can be as one.

John is standing so close Sherlock can feel the vibrations of the music in his chest. It is the most intimate experience Sherlock has ever had with anyone. It is like a part of John is inside him, filling him up, and suddenly, Sherlock feels the way he did earlier when the music was pouring in to fill the hollow place in his chest, but this time it is John, John’s warm voice touching him with a physical presence.

Sherlock is warm all through at the thought.

I go to the Clyde, and I mourn and weep,
For satisfied I ne’er can be,
I write a letter, just a few short lines,
And suffer death a thousand times.

The song is simple but John infuses every word with a sorrow that pulls at Sherlock’s heart. There is a sweetness, an emotional pitch to the notes that speaks louder than any declaration Sherlock has ever heard pronounced from any lover’s lips. Now that he knows the song is for him, and no other, as he listens to the words, he realizes John is truly singing to him.

Black is the color of my true love’s hair,
His lips are like the roses fair,
He’s the sweetest smile, and the gentlest hands,
I love the ground on where he stands,

Oh, I love the ground on where he stands.

The last note rings out into the darkness between them and Sherlock’s breath is coming short, his heartbeat pounding a tattoo of desperation underneath his ribs. He feels as though his body has turned to starlight.

John licks his lips. When he speaks, his voice in Sherlock’s ear is startlingly rough compared to the sweetness of the melody. “Do you believe me now?”

Sherlock nods, clinging to the railing.

“I’ll tell you then,” John says, his voice as quiet as a shadow, as deep with feeling as the sea beneath their feet. “I’ll tell you what the real trouble is.”

Sherlock stands utterly still, listening with his whole body.

“The trouble, Sherlock Holmes,” Sherlock can see John’s gaze in the darkness falling heavy on his mouth. “…is that I’m falling in love with you.”

Now it’s Sherlock’s turn to catch his breath.

John goes on talking; his voice more serious than Sherlock has ever heard it. “And if you don’t return those feelings,” his voice catches briefly but he presses on, “That’s quite alright. But I need to know that now, so as to stop… to stop all this before I get ahead of myself.”

Sherlock scarcely has the breath to speak. It feels as though his heart has swollen to such a size that it’s crushing all the air from his lungs, pressing against his ribs, but if he knows one thing, it’s that it has never been more important than it is right now for him to try and communicate to John just what he means to Sherlock.

“You’re not,” Sherlock whispers, his voice as fragile as a dry leaf. “You’re not alone in your feelings. I’ve never felt about anyone the way I feel about you. You’re…” He struggles, as he always does, to find a word, any word, that can begin to convey the depth of his feelings. As always, he fails, feels frustration prick him like a thorn. His voice shrinks to the size of a pin. “You’re everything to me. It’s… well, it’s a little frightening to be honest.”

John lets out a soft laugh into the air between them. “I’d say it’s bloody terrifying, actually.”

Sherlock feels some of the tension go out of his shoulders at the sound of John’s quiet laughter.

He forces himself to keep speaking, his heart hammering so loudly in his own ears it almost drowns out the sound of his voice. “I’m sorry I haven’t… been better about conveying that. I just… it’s difficult for me… all of this.”

“I know,” John says, his voice so filled with compassion it makes Sherlock’s heart turn over in his chest. “I know it is. There’s no need to be sorry. I suspected as much, or I should say, I hoped that was how you felt.” Sherlock can see the wry glimmer of John’s grin through the darkness. “But I had to be certain before…”

Sherlock can see John’s eyes returning again to his mouth. He wishes suddenly it wasn’t quite so dark in this corner of the ship. He wants to know the color of John’s eyes right now, as he looks at Sherlock the way he is, lashes growing heavy, his lips dark against the pale tip of his tongue.

“Before what?” Sherlock asks, his mouth dry as a bone.

“Before I kiss you,” John says, his voice gone low and dreamy again.

“Kiss me where?” Sherlock asks, breathless, unconsciously parting his lips.

“Oh,” John’s fingers are reaching out to take Sherlock by the wrist, lifting that hand up to his mouth. “So many places.”

Sherlock can feel the heat of John’s breath against the back of his hand as he lowers his mouth to it, the long drag of the ‘so’ as John stretches it out, until it sounds halfway between a prayer and a moan.

When John’s lips touch the skin on the back of his hand, the kiss is so light Sherlock scarcely feels it, but Sherlock is so starved for John’s touch that even the feather-light suggestion of a caress sets Sherlock shivering with delight. It feels like the best kind of flirtation; it feels like a promise of what’s to come.

Sure enough, before Sherlock has even fully absorbed the sensation of John’s warm lips against the skin of his knuckles, John is turning his hand over and pressing a kiss to the tips of his fingers.

“These hands…” he murmurs, mouth drifting down to the center of Sherlock’s palm, his dark eyes looking up at Sherlock as he does so. “I could spend lifetimes just kissing them.”

The feel of John’s eyes on him as he presses his lips to the sensitive skin at the center of his palm is so intimate Sherlock gasps aloud, his body leaning instinctively against the railing at his back, searching for support as his knees begin to buckle.

John smiles and lifts his mouth to kiss the skin of Sherlock’s inner wrist.

“John—” Sherlock gasps as the heat from John’s lips seems to sink directly into his veins. “I have one request, and then… then you can kiss me anywhere you like.”

“Anywhere?” John asks, his teeth flashing white in the dark as he grins and then Sherlock’s knees actually do give out beneath him as a surge of pure desire drags him down like a wave.

“I—yes,” Sherlock rasps, grasping at the railing behind him like a drowning man as John’s eyes travel up his waistcoat to the fabric at his throat.

“Tell me,” John says, the note of urgency in his voice transforming those two simple words from a request into a demand.

“Please, will you—” Sherlock swallows, licks his lips. The plaintive note in his voice is unmistakable. Oh god, how he has longed for this. He almost cannot get the words out, and he realizes as he draws breath to speak that he is shaking with desire. “Will you kiss me on the mouth?”

John makes a sound that Sherlock cannot describe other than to say that it is the sound of a man who has but one desire in the world that he has been deprived of and has just been told he is allowed to have it.

“Yes,” John breathes, stepping in close, his eyes soft in the darkness, full of glimmering lights and Sherlock thinks fleetingly that John’s eyes are like the sea around them full of starlight. “Yes, of course, I will kiss you on the mouth.”

Sherlock drops his eyes to John’s lips, feels his breathing growing shallow as John leans in closer to him still until his mouth is inches from Sherlock’s own.

John is shorter than him but Sherlock is not standing at his full height; his weight still supported by the railing at his back. His entire body is trembling like a leaf in the wind and suddenly, he is worried that it will be too much, the feel of John against him will be so much sensation he will not be able to stand it.

His senses still feel blown open by the music from earlier and every scent, every touch resonates through him at ten times its normal resonance.

“Don’t worry,” John says, rubbing his thumb in a soothing circle around the inside of Sherlock’s palm. “If it’s too much, you just tell me to stop, all right?”

Sherlock nods, draws in a ragged breath.

John lifts a hand and places his fingers under Sherlock’s jaw, tipping his chin up.

“You have the most beautiful mouth I’ve ever seen,” John says and his voice is heavy and slow, like liquid sunlight; full of beautiful, unspeakable things. Sherlock can feel the effect of it traveling from somewhere below his sternum deep into his belly.

“And your hair, your hair,” John murmurs, bending closer to slide his other hand into the tumbled curls at the back of Sherlock’s neck, his voice reverent, lilting, more than a prayer; it is like a song. “I’ve lain awake thinking about it, wondering if it’s as soft as it looks.”

Sherlock gasps at the feel of John’s fingers sliding in against his scalp.

Oh,” he says, as John’s fingers begin to move in tiny circles, his eyelids sliding almost shut.

John’s breath comes out in a sigh to match his own at the look on Sherlock’s face. “Oh, you beauty…”

And then Sherlock’s eyes are fluttering open again as John tilts his face ever so gently with the press of his fingers and settles the curves of his lips against Sherlock’s.

At the touch of John’s lips against his, Sherlock goes absolutely still.

His eyes are wide open, studying every detail of John’s face up-close, the golden blur of his eyelashes, the slope of his nose, his heart racing as the reality of the situation makes itself known.

This is John with his mouth against mine.

John’s lips are soft and dry; he smells like tobacco and salt and something else, a smell that is distinctly his own. Sherlock has smelled it before, but to have it now, so close against him is entirely different and wonderful and he whimpers then, at the nearness of John, and the gentleness of his mouth against Sherlock’s.

John pulls back, his eyes flickering open, full of alarm. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, John,” he sighs, his voice softer than breath. “Please, kiss me again. Please.”

“Oh, love,” John says, and there is such tenderness in his voice that Sherlock knows in that moment that his bones have turned to molten gold; that he will burn to a crisp on this ship’s deck beneath the stars. “I haven’t even really kissed you yet.”

Sherlock draws in a breath to ask a question, but before he can ask it, John’s smiling mouth has found his own again and this time, John’s lips are sliding against his so softly, the fingers that are cupping Sherlock’s jaw moving back toward Sherlock’s ear and down the skin of Sherlock’s neck, and Sherlock gasps at the sensation that light touch awakens in him, and feels John’s smile grow against him. The changing shape of John’s mouth fills Sherlock with new information, sending little stars of pleasure skipping over Sherlock’s skin.

He is surrounded by John on all sides—one of his hands in Sherlock’s hair, the other cradling the corner of his jaw, and this, Sherlock thinks, seared white-hot by the power of his feelings, this is what John’s lovely, laughing mouth feels like pressed against his own.

Sherlock feels like he is filling up with music, like he is filling up with light, as though he is one moment away from dissolving into something more than flesh and bone, his soul bursting out of him in a shimmer of notes.

The hand in his hair slips down to the back of his neck and Sherlock makes a crying sound of pleasure.

John pulls back slightly to look at him. “Is that all right?”

“Yes, yes, more than all right,” Sherlock gasps, clutching in desperation at John’s sleeves to tug John back against him.

“You can touch me more than that if you like,” John says, breathlessly, and Sherlock readjusts his grip, places a tentative hand on John’s upper arm.

In response, John shifts his grip on Sherlock, moving his hands down to hold Sherlock by the waist. Sherlock feels the muscle in John’s arm flex with the movement and he shudders, hard, and closes his eyes.

“Still all right?” John asks, and Sherlock hears something unsteady in his voice, a note of another emotion John is struggling to contain.

Sherlock nods, with his eyes still shut.

He cannot open them just yet; he’s too busy cataloguing the feel of John’s arm under his hand. He’s spent so long looking at John’s body as he works, the flickers of muscle beneath his skin, but now Sherlock is feeling it and it is both harder and softer than he imagined, and suddenly, Sherlock finds, he cannot catch his breath.

“Do that again,” he breathes.

“Do what?” John asks.

“The muscle in your arm, it—”

Sherlock feels the quiet exhalation of John’s laughter before he hears it. “You mean this?”

John curls his forearm up towards his torso, flexing the muscle in his bicep, and Sherlock makes a soft little crying sound, opening his eyes to reach out for John’s other arm with his free hand.

“How was that?” John says against his mouth, his voice teasing, full of mischief, and Sherlock clings to him with both hands, pulling John down against him and back to his mouth.

“That was good,” Sherlock says, “You should do it again, but kiss me while you’re—”

John doesn’t wait for him to finish. He presses his lips against Sherlock’s again, this time with more force, and Sherlock feels something flutter in his belly in response to the feel of John surging in against him, his movements still gentle but underscored with something less controlled.

This time, Sherlock moves his mouth against John’s, just a slight drag of his lips, tipping the angle of his head, exploring the feeling of his lips sliding over John’s, and then something remarkable happens: John’s mouth isopening against his, and Sherlock is awash in new sensations. The inside of John’s mouth is warm and wet and he can feel John’s tongue—John’s tongue!—against the seam of his lips.

John’s hands lift again from Sherlock’s waist to cup Sherlock’s jaw, the muscles in his arms bulging under Sherlock’s hands, and Sherlock thinks nothing could possibly be better than this when John whispers, in a rush of heat, “Open your mouth,” and Sherlock does, curious, and then John’s tongue is pushing in between his lips, and Sherlock gasps because he didn’t even know this was a thing you could do with another person and he can taste John, and it is heavenly, and John’s tongue is in his mouth.

Sherlock holds his open mouth very still at first as John’s tongue moves around the circumference of his teeth, overwhelmed by how intimate this act is, how much of John he can feel and taste—how warm, how slick—how shuddery and soft it makes him feel, how tender and exposed, like John is reaching down inside his chest to cradle Sherlock’s heart, but then John’s tongue starts to move against his own in a rhythm that sends heat funneling down Sherlock’s spine in a shower of sparks. The feeling of it is undulating, slow; it is the lewdest thing Sherlock has ever experienced and as John repeats the motion, Sherlock realizes that John is licking Sherlock’s tongue with his own and all thought leaves him.

Sherlock can no longer think; he is nothing but feeling, and the whole of his world has shrunk down to the feel of John’s tongue moving over his, dragging sensations out of Sherlock that he did not even know he was capable of having. His body responds to John as though of its own accord. There is no deliberation, just reaction; just the hot, pulsing need to thrust his body forward into John’s, his hips seeking friction, his entire being alive with a singular desire, which is to have more of John against him now, ringing through Sherlock’s body as clear as the tone of a bell.

All the blood has left his head and is beating hot and insistent between his legs. He has never felt like this before, in all the times he has thought of John when he was by himself. He pulls on John’s arms in an effort to bring John closer against him, a moan sounding low in his throat as John stumbles one step forward, his thigh brushing against the front of Sherlock’s breeches.

John breaks away, breathing hard, his hands dropping to grip Sherlock by the upper arms, holding him in place. “Woah, woah. Easy. Easy now.”

Sherlock’s breathing is ragged, his own hands insistent on John’s arms. “John,” he pleads, surging forward to kiss the corner of John’s mouth. His voice is shredded raw with longing. “Kiss me again.”

“I think,” John says, licking his lips, and pressing his forehead in against Sherlock’s. “We’d better find someplace a bit more private if we want to continue… kissing.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, edging John closer against him by the grip on his arms until John’s thigh is nudging in between his own. “We can use my cabin. It’s more private than anywhere else.”

“Alright. But only if you’re cer—certain,” John says, and then his breath hitches as Sherlock finally drags John close enough to press in fully against the front of him. “Oh my god.” John’s eyes fall shut.

Sherlock lifts his hips ever so slightly so John can feel the full length of him, where he is straining hard against the soft fabric of his breeches.

“I can’t wait anymore,” Sherlock says, his voice breathless, deeper than he’s ever heard it. “Even if I wanted to, I can’t, John. Please. Don’t make me wait anymore.”

Sherlock can hear the shaking exhalation of John’s breath as he struggles for control. He reaches down to take hold of Sherlock’s hands. “Sherlock, I—”

“I want everything. I want all of you.”

John’s face is so close to his own Sherlock can see that the center of John’s ink-dark eyes have all but eclipsed the blue. “Only if you’re absolutely certain…”

“I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life.”

John laughs shakily, and squeezes Sherlock’s hands. “Good. That’s… good.”

Sherlock wonders suddenly if John might be as nervous as he is.

He steps back in against John, reaching up with his arms to loop them around John’s neck. He pitches his voice low, as low as he can, and into it he pours every fragment of desire that has been burning through him since the very first time he laid eyes on John.

He parts his lips to speak, hears John catch his breath.

“John, take me to bed.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock takes John’s hand in his and leads him over the scrubbed surface of the deck, shining slick with moonlight, toward the staircase at the back of the ship, back the way they came so many hours earlier but now with their positions reserved, Sherlock leading, John following soundlessly behind, and Sherlock reflects just how much has changed in the short space of time. When he walked this way earlier, he did not know the feel of John Watson’s hands in his hair, the taste of his mouth, how he looked just before he kissed Sherlock, and Sherlock pities this former version of himself for all he did not know, how naïve, how inexperienced was this self from just a few hours ago.

It feels as though they are moving through a dream, Sherlock thinks, as they pass the lights of the party in the captain’s stateroom, still glowing bright, the loud clamor of voices and laughter rippling out over the open sea. The time that he spent in that room earlier this evening feels like lifetimes ago, or as if it were a dream and only now has Sherlock woken up. It is as if he and John occupy a different reality entirely, as though those people laughing behind the lit-up windows are the dream, and only he and John are in the real world.

The walk from their hidden spot behind the foremast down to Sherlock’s cabin is brief, but it does not feel brief to Sherlock; it feels heavy and slow, weighted with meaning, each step bringing him closer to something he has dreamed of ever since the first day he laid eyes on John.

Sherlock’s body feels strange, distant, dreamy, his own heartbeat loud and heavy in his ears, and it is only when he and John come to a halt outside the door of his cabin that John turns to him, his eyes dark in the shadows, to ask him, “Are you all right?”

Sherlock nods in the darkness and John squeezes Sherlock’s fingers between his own.

John’s low voice is a ribbon of heat between them. “Remember we don’t have to do this. We can do whatever you like, and if that’s nothing at all—”

Sherlock lifts his fingers to John’s mouth and settles them against John’s lips.

John falls silent.

John’s lips are soft under Sherlock’s fingers; Sherlock can feel the gentle rhythm of his breath coming in and out, the warmth of it. It makes Sherlock want to replace his fingers with his mouth, right here, in the corridor outside his room where anyone can see them. Instead, Sherlock licks his lips before bending forward to put his mouth to John’s ear.

His voice is heavy and slow, like he feels. “I want everything. Everything you’ll let me have, everything you’re willing to give me. I want it, however long that takes. I’m not going to change my mind.”

Sherlock hears the sudden exhalation of John’s breath, as though he’s been punched in the sternum. He tips his head back, eyes closed, whispers, “Oh my god.”

Sherlock watches him, curious. “That’s the second time you’ve done that.”

John drops his head back and opens his eyes. “Let’s get into your room, before someone comes.”

Sherlock nods, pushes open the door.

The room is as black as pitch within. John waits in the doorway, presumably for Sherlock to light the lantern by his bed before losing all the light from the hallway, but before Sherlock has time to do so the sound of approaching voices echoes down from the top of the stairs, followed shortly by the sound of footsteps descending from the upper deck.

John steps with haste into the room and Sherlock lunges behind him to pull the door shut, plunging them into total darkness.

They stand still, listening to the sound of the women’s voices speaking in fervent whispers as they pass by Sherlock’s room and continue down the corridor. The words of their conversation are indistinguishable but the murmur of their voices continues for several moments more until they bid one another good night and the creak of a cabin door signals the end of their conversation.

Sherlock lets out the breath he was holding, hears John do the same, and realizes suddenly how close together they are standing in the dark.

All at once Sherlock is nervous, the dreamy heaviness of his mood evaporating in the space of a heartbeat, transforming to a torrent of nameless anxiety.

John is with him, here with him, in his room, with the intent of…

Sherlock swallows.

He knows not all of what John’s intentions are.

He is not nervous about what John will or will not do—he meant it when he told John he wanted everything—but rather of his own responses to these things, whether he will know to do them well, or right. He feels suddenly vastly unprepared for what is about to take place, and Sherlock hates feeling unprepared, unpracticed, lacking knowledge.

A thousand anxieties swell to the surface of Sherlock’s mind, quenching his desire as effectively as water to a flame. What if John finds his ignorance, his lack of experience childish, unappealing? What if John decides Sherlock is hideous without his clothes on? What if Sherlock does something to offend him? What if John finds him foolish, awkward, clumsy?

Sherlock feels a hot flare of panic burst open in his chest.

Sherlock knows the details of a coupling between a man and a woman, of course he does. But he does not know quite all the details of how desire is expressed between two men. He has heard the vulgar things that people say about two men together, what they do, but he’s not sure precisely what they mean, or even how they would be possible. Of course, he has had his own imaginings about the things he would like, the things he would do if he and John were alone together, but he has no idea whether these are things that John would also be amenable to.

John must sense his anxiety even through the dark because John’s voice suddenly speaks into the silence, soft and careful. “Sherlock? Should I light the lantern?”

Sherlock feels conflicted. He is both grateful and distraught by the current atmospheric circumstances. He is grateful as the darkness means his sudden panic may remain invisible to John, but he is distraught by the fact that it means he cannot see John.

“It’s alright if you want it to be dark but…” John’s hand reaches out for his and Sherlock gasps at the sudden brush of John’s fingers. “I’d like to see you.”

Sherlock feels John lift the hand that is holding Sherlock’s up to his mouth. Sherlock feels the touch of John’s breath before his lips descend and the feeling is so charged with intimacy that Sherlock shivers from the roots of his hair down to the tips of his toes.

John kisses his knuckles lightly, and then lifts his mouth away to continue speaking. His voice is so soft, so full of heat Sherlock can almost feel its weight against his skin in the dark.

“I want to see the curls in your hair as they catch the light, the shape of your mouth when I kiss it, the color rising in your cheeks as I kiss you here,” John pushes back the fabric at Sherlock’s wrist to kiss the bone, “And here…” John straightens up and leans in to press a kiss to Sherlock’s jaw, “And here.”

His mouth descends to the skin just below Sherlock’s ear and Sherlock’s sharp intake of breath is as loud as a gunshot in the dark.

“You see,” John says, and his voice is a low murmur against the skin of Sherlock’s neck. “I’ve spent a long time imagining just how you would look when I do this to you, and although hearing you and tasting you are probably more than enough, I’m greedy.”

John’s mouth slides down the side of Sherlock’s neck and Sherlock tips his head back, his mouth falling open at the sensation of John’s warm mouth moving over his skin.

“Sherlock Holmes, you’ve given me a thirst I cannot quench.”

In the wake of the heat of John’s mouth against his skin, the issue of whether or not to light the lantern has fled from Sherlock’s mind to make room for much more pressing concerns, such as where John’s mouth will go next.

“J—John?”

John’s mouth lifts off of his neck and Sherlock almost cries out at the loss. “Yes, my love?”

“Will you… kiss me again? On the mouth?”

John’s answer is a sigh of heat against Sherlock’s lips and then John’s mouth is sliding in against his and Sherlock parts his lips in a gasp of pleasure as John’s hands settle in his hair.

John kisses him sweetly, lightly, but Sherlock is having none of that.

Sherlock decides right then and there that open-mouthed kissing is far superior to kissing with mouths closed. Honestly, what a waste of time.

He opens his mouth wider and pushes his tongue with gentle curiosity into the wet heat of John’s mouth.

Oh, Sherlock thinks, as John’s tongue comes forward to meet his own, John’s hands sliding from his hair to cup his face. This is what all the fuss is about, what all the poets and playwrights are sighing over.

Sherlock has always found poetry desperately overrated, but as John’s tongue slips in against his own, John’s moan pouring out like a song from his throat, Sherlock begins to understand why so much ink has been spilled over this endeavor.

Sherlock has never kissed anyone in his life before tonight, and if you had asked him an hour ago whether he was nervous about his lack of expertise in this area he would have blushed and glared at you, while thinking secretly, ‘Yes of course I’m nervous! I don’t know a thing about it!’ But Sherlock is realizing, as John begins licking into his mouth, Sherlock’s own tongue rising with enthusiasm to meet John’s, it is perhaps not something one needs much practice at.

Sherlock pushes his body forward against John’s, his nervousness all but forgotten, and he’s so adamant about kissing John, about getting his body as close to John’s as possible that he’s entirely forgotten where they are until he feels John stumble against the edge of his bunk.

John breaks away, breathing hard, Sherlock’s hands holding his hips.

“I want…” Sherlock kisses him between words, missing John’s mouth in the dark, kissing his chin instead, not caring as he drops his hands to the fabric at his throat. “I want… to feel you…without anything in the way. These clothes…!”

Sherlock is shuddering hard now, like a horse that’s just run a race. He wants the layers of fabric between him and John gone as soon as possible but his shaking fingers make it difficult for him to make any headway.

He tugs with frustration at his neck cloth and then feels John’s hands reaching up to hold his own, the sound of his chuckle against Sherlock’s cheek momentarily pausing his frenzy.

“Easy, easy there. This is why the lantern may be of some use. It’s much easier to do this with a bit of light.”

Sherlock nods, breathless, before he remembers John can’t see him and then gasps, “On the stand beside the bed, there are matches.”

John reaches for them, and it is only a second or two before John’s nimble fingers find a match and are dragging it to life against the tinder.

He lights the candle on top of Sherlock’s desk and then leans over to light the one in the lantern above Sherlock’s bed, kneeling on Sherlock’s bed to reach it.

Sherlock thinks about John Watson’s knee pressing into his mattress and feels heat climbing up his throat.

John shakes out the smoking match, sets it on the desk beside the candle, and then comes toward Sherlock, the ghost of a smile of his face.

John Watson by candlelight is arguably no lovelier than John Watson in the sunshine, his hair shining like a flame, no more breathtaking than John Watson on a misty morning halfway up the rigging, or John Watson in a storm, his face streaming with rain. Sherlock thinks that there is no version of John Watson that he could ever take issue with, but right now, in this moment, it is his conviction that John Watson by candlelight coming towards him with a smile on his face, his eyes blue-black with wanting Sherlock, is by far the best John he has ever known.

“Come here,” John says, stepping up against Sherlock, settling his fingers over Sherlock’s fingers where he’s still struggling to pull apart the fabric at his neck. “I’d like to do the honors, if that’s alright with you.”

John’s grin is so sudden and full of mischievous intent that it is all Sherlock can do to nod his assent. He lifts his chin to give John more room.

“Yes, that’s lovely,” John murmurs as he pulls the strip of cloth free, baring Sherlock’s throat. “Oh god, yes.”

He folds the length of silk with several deft movements before settling it with care on top of Sherlock’s desk. Then he leans in, lifting himself up on his toes to press his mouth to the long white expanse of neck that he has uncovered. He kisses Sherlock where his pulse is throbbing, hot and insistent, underneath his jaw, his mouth so warm, so wet that Sherlock makes a whimpering sound, his hands coming up to clutch John by the shoulders.

John mouths his way down to the groove between Sherlock’s collarbones, pulling wide the collar of Sherlock’s linen shirt, his hands slipping around beneath Sherlock’s jacket, over the ivory and gold stripes of his waistcoat to hold his waist.

“God, how I’ve dreamed of doing this,” John says in a burst of heat against Sherlock’s collarbone.

“You—you have?” Sherlock manages, his mouth falling open as John’s mouth returns to his neck to suck on the sensitive skin. This time, Sherlock cries out, loud and keening, and John’s fingers fly up to Sherlock’s mouth to stop the sound, his laugh a breathless rush of air against Sherlock’s cheek.

“Shh.” He kisses Sherlock as his fingers begin working apart the gleaming buttons on his waistcoat. “I’m sorry. I should have given you fair warning before doing that.”

John grins at Sherlock, the white of his teeth a flare of brightness in the dark.

“But your neck has been driving me wild for the past few weeks.”

“It has?” Sherlock asks, half-curious, half-completely distracted by John’s clever fingers already halfway through the endless line of buttons on his waistcoat. He feels strangely breathless watching John’s hands on his buttons, working them apart. Even through two layers of fabric the feel of John’s fingers against his belly makes him feel light-headed, shivery with want.

“Oh, I’ve spent hours…” John says, his voice wistful, as he pulls the last button free. “Hours and hours thinking of how I would kiss this lovely neck of yours, how it would taste—the corner of your jaw, the shadow here—could it possibly taste as sweet as it looks? There’s only way to be certain.”

John presses his mouth in just below Sherlock’s ear and licks.

Sherlock makes a keening sound, his knees buckling beneath him, hands reaching helplessly for John’s arms as he begins to sink towards the floor.

“Woah, woah, woah. Easy now!”

John grabs Sherlock by the arms and spins him around, pushing gently until Sherlock is sitting on the bed.

Sherlock sits, shuddering hard, gripping the edges of the bed with white-knuckled fists, taking deep breaths, trying to calm the storm of desire that feels like a live thing trying to tear its way out of his breast.

“Easy, easy,” John sighs, like gentling a spooked horse. “Let’s go slowly all right? It’s a lot to take in.”

John kneels in front of Sherlock, settles his warm hands over Sherlock’s knees before running his palms up Sherlock’s thighs, his face tipped up toward Sherlock’s with attentive focus, the curves in his face made soft by lantern light.

“There’s no need to rush.”

Sherlock imagines the touch is meant to be soothing but the feel of John’s callused palms stroking so deliberately up his thighs, sets Sherlock’s entire body to quivering as though he were a harp string John has just plucked.

“John—” Sherlock’s voice, full of desperation, catches on the single syllable, like a fish caught in a hook.

“I know,” John says, his voice low, soothing, as he runs his hands back down Sherlock’s legs to pull off his boots.

Somehow, even the act of John tugging his boots off—an act that Sherlock performs himself every evening with no aplomb—is loaded with erotic force simply because John’s hands are holding his calf as he does so, John’s eyes focused with reverent intent upon the curve of Sherlock’s ankle as he frees it from his boot.

It doesn’t help that as soon as John has set the boot aside, his hands cradling Sherlock’s heel as though it were made of crystal, his mouth is descending to kiss the instep of Sherlock’s long pale foot, his lips so soft that Sherlock gasps in shocked delight.

John strokes his hand over the underside of Sherlock’s foot and Sherlock jerks at the touch, gripping the bed so hard he can feel the edge of it leaving marks in his palms.

John moves his attention to Sherlock’s other leg, pulling off his other boot with equal tenderness, this time running his hands up over Sherlock’s calf, his mouth following in the wake of his hands, not touching, just hovering over the muscle until his mouth finds Sherlock’s ankle where he presses a kiss to the bone, his thumbs rubbing into the bottom of Sherlock’s foot.

Sherlock cannot stop himself from crying out again and he puts his hand up to his mouth to stifle the sound, fingers pressing hard against his lips.

“I know,” John murmurs again, his voice full of sympathy. “I know. I feel it too. Truth be told, I want to devour you.”

He looks up at Sherlock then and Sherlock can see how wide his pupils have grown, the black swallowing up the blue of his irises until they are nearly invisible.

John runs his hands back up over Sherlock’s knees, up this thighs, up, up, until his palms are framing the bulge in Sherlock’s breeches, and he leans in close, his breath hot against Sherlock’s inner thighs, even through the fabric. Sherlock can feel it and he has to close his eyes for fear he will ruin himself before John has even started.

John holds his mouth there, his breath coming out in warm, unsteady plumes as he continues speaking. “I want to eat you up.”

Sherlock cannot bear it. The hunger in John’s voice sends a bolt of feeling straight to his cock, and before he can stop himself, Sherlock’s hands are reaching down and fisting in the material of John’s shirt, dragging him up on one knee to pull John’s mouth against his, lips parting immediately to allow John’s tongue into his mouth.

John kisses him back greedily, his mouth open against Sherlock’s, tongue plunging in to stroke the length of his tongue, climbing to his feet without moving his mouth from Sherlock’s and putting his hands on Sherlock’s shoulders to direct him backwards on the bed.

Sherlock pulls his mouth away, gasping, to turn his attention to crawling up the bed.

He drops himself back against the pillow, his breathing quick and shallow, his entire body trembling with need.

John bends down to remove his own shoes with haste, and then he’s climbing in beside Sherlock, shockingly agile as he maneuvers himself into the narrow space, the gold in his hair glinting in the soft light from the lantern above the bed.

All at once, Sherlock is struck again with the magnitude of what is about to take place. John Watson, his John Watson, who can do anything—who swims in the ocean as sleek as a fish, who runs through the air as though the weight of the earth does not hold him down, who sings like the gods of the world are in his lungs, who battles storms and surf and emerges, triumphant, laughing, his cheeks bright with rain—this man has chosen to lie down with Sherlock in his narrow bunk, and suddenly, Sherlock is wilting beneath the pressure.

John notices the change in him immediately—whether he sees it in the nervous dart of Sherlock’s eyes, or the sudden paleness in his cheeks, Sherlock cannot be sure but he knows John is aware of it, because his body stills, his eyes enormous in the flickering candlelight as he looks down at Sherlock.

“What is it?”

Sherlock feels all his fear rise up and stop his throat. He turns his head away from John’s worried gaze.

“Don’t do that,” John says, reaching down to place one hand over Sherlock’s where it’s clenched into a fist against his side. “Don’t slip away. I need you here, with me. I need all of you if we’re going to do this. Tell me. What’s wrong?”

Sherlock looks up at John’s lovely face, the corners of his eyes creased tight with concern. It’s so difficult to say what he’s thinking, to tell John what he’s afraid of, but he wants so much, and the gentleness in John’s eyes gives him the courage to speak.

“I’ve never…” Sherlock’s voice is shy, choked tight with anxiety. “I’ve never done any of this. With anyone.”

Sherlock sees the flash of distress in John’s eyes. “Sherlock, if I’m going too fast. If we start doing anything you don’t want to do—”

“No!” Sherlock all but cries. “No, it’s not that, it’s just I’m not… I won’t be...” Sherlock swallows hard, forces the words out. “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know… anything.”

The shame he feels at this admission is so great Sherlock wants to curl up into a ball and hide his face. He hates not knowing things, hates admitting to it even more, but he is saying this for John’s sake, so that John will drop his expectations down to the appropriate place, will be prepared when Sherlock utterly falls short in every way.

He wants to be the best for John, needs to be the best lover he has ever had, will ever have, but how can he be when Sherlock doesn’t even know what he’s supposed to do?

Sherlock’s chest is heaving now, not with arousal, but with shame. Perhaps it would be better if he banished John from his bed right now—sent John away so he would never have to taste the bitterness of disappointment.

It takes all his effort not to lift his hands and cover his face, so great is his embarrassment, but the wretchedness in his tone is apparently evidence enough of his discomfort because John squeezes Sherlock’s fingers under his own as though in supplication.

“Sherlock, you lovely, foolish creature, look at me a moment.”

Sherlock swallows hard, looks up at John, his expression full of sorrow.

“It doesn’t matter to me that you don’t know what to do. I don’t care how much you know or don’t know; I want you, Sherlock. And that includes the parts of you that don’t know what you’re doing.”

Sherlock is still tense with doubt; he looks up at John, his lips trembling and John reaches out with his other hand to trail his fingers down Sherlock’s cheek.

Sherlock shivers at the delicate touch before pressing his face into John’s hand.

“Have you ever thought…” John continues, his voice like liquid darkness, like heat itself, “That it might be appealing to me? The thought of being the first one to who gets to do these things with you? The first one to kiss you…” John’s thumb strokes down Sherlock’s cheek, brushing the corner of his lips. “And touch you…” The hand covering Sherlock’s begins to trace light patterns on the back of his wrist. “And see you like this?”

John goes on speaking, his voice like syrup, like honey, like molten chocolate drizzling off a spoon.

“I can’t lie.” Sherlock watches John lick his lips, his pale pink tongue shining in the low light. “The thought of being the one to make you come apart, the first one to touch all the secret places in you that you don’t even know yourself,” Sherlock can hear John’s breathing growing less and less steady as he goes on speaking; the thumb at the corner of Sherlock’s mouth stroking gently over Sherlock’s bottom lip. “It’s kept me up most nights.”

A shudder goes through Sherlock at John’s words.

Hearing John describe the things he wants to do to Sherlock coupled with the way John is looking at him, like he is a feast that John wants to devour, like John is a cat and Sherlock is a bowl of cream—it burns away his shame in a shimmer of heat.

“And if you’re nervous,” John goes on. “Don’t be. I’ll be here to guide you through it. I’ll show you what to do.” John’s thumb strokes back across the plumpness of Sherlock’s bottom lip. “And if you don’t like it—any of it, you just tell me.” His thumb stops stroking abruptly, his eyes deadly serious. “If you want to stop, we’ll stop. It’s all fine by me. But you must tell me if it gets to be too much. Will you promise me that, Sherlock?”

Sherlock nods, his eyes wide, and then, because he’s tired of waiting for John’s thumb to start moving again, he pushes his mouth into the palm of John’s hand, parting his lips against it, his breath stuttering out in a plume of heat. He presses a kiss to the center of John’s hand and then pulls it down to clasp it with his own against his stomach.

He watches John’s eyelashes flutter closed at the touch of his mouth and at the sight of John so visibly affected by this simple gesture, Sherlock feels tingling warmth fill his body.

“Good,” John says, his eyes growing darker as he lowers his mouth down to Sherlock’s. He licks his lips before pressing them to Sherlock’s, his voice rough with longing. “Then let’s begin. Let me draw you out.”

Sherlock barely has time to suck in a breath before John’s lips are covering his and moving over Sherlock’s, soft and slow and wet. Sherlock pushes up into the lovely heat of John’s mouth, parting his lips, inviting him in, his fingers tightening around John’s where they lie against his belly.

John kisses him slow and deep, the hand not entwined with Sherlock’s sliding into his hair, pulling gently at his curls and Sherlock’s entire body jerks in response to the slight pressure on his scalp.

Sherlock breaks his mouth away, shocked, breathless.

“John! Do that again—”

John tugs gently, tilting Sherlock’s head back on the pillow, baring his throat, and Sherlock can feel his entire body filling with heat, his arousal gathering force between his legs. He can feel their joined fingers rising up and down with the rapid movement of his belly.

“John—” Sherlock’s voice is plaintive. “Kiss me while you’re doing it…”

John tugs at the curls, lowering his mouth to Sherlock’s and Sherlock cries out low in his throat, his body surging up against John’s, his free hand reaching out to clutch at the material of John’s shirt to pull John closer.

His body is electric, shivering, overwhelmed with the desire to feel John against him, all of him, every inch of skin and bone and muscle on top of him, touching him, but John holds himself at a distance.

“Sherlock, wait.” John’s breathing is ragged. “God, there are things I want to do to you…” Sherlock watches John shut his eyes and take a deep breath. “You’ve got to help me go slow, all right? You’ve got to… stop me.”

“Why?” Sherlock gasps, thrusting up against John, parting his thighs, pulling John down into the heat between his legs, not conscious of what his body is doing just wanting, wanting, wanting.

“Because,” John gasps as their hips come together in a spark of heat. “You’ve never…” John licks his lips and Sherlock pulls his mouth down against his. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”

“Then tell me,” Sherlock breathes against John’s mouth, “Tell me what you’re going to do.”

John drags his mouth over Sherlock’s in a not-quite kiss, his lips barely touching Sherlock’s in a slow slide of temptation, causing just enough friction to make Sherlock mad with the need for more of it, the heat of his breath unsteady over Sherlock’s mouth.

“Do you really want to know?” John asks, teasing, the corners of his mouth curling over Sherlock’s.

Sherlock tightens his hands in the fabric of John’s shirt, half-mad with frustration. “Yes,” he pleads, not even bothering to disguise the whine of need in his voice.

“Shh,” John kisses the corner of Sherlock’s mouth, soothing, but Sherlock can see the glitter of mischief in his eyes as he leans back a little to continue speaking. “I’ll tell you.”

He sits back so that there is space between them, causing Sherlock to give another little whine of frustration but from here, now, he can see more of John, and his eyes as they fall heavy on Sherlock almost make up for the absence of John’s thighs against his own.

Sherlock can feel his breathing quickening just from the look in John’s eyes—John’s gaze on his body, almost as visceral as the touch of his hand.

“First, I’m going to rid you of all of these beautiful clothes.”

John trails a hand down the front of Sherlock’s chest and Sherlock sucks a breath in and holds it as John’s hand moves all the way down to his belly button and over his hip, where it rests, warm and light, fingers spread over the top of Sherlock’s thigh.

“And I’m going to look and look.”

John leans back down against Sherlock, until his lips are at his ear.

“And then I’m going to kiss every bit of you I can reach until you can’t bear it anymore, until you’re begging me to touch you in one particular place…”

Sherlock, emboldened by the sudden force of his desire, by the warm weight of John’s hand on his hip, turns his head towards John’s mouth, parting his own lips against it, his voice light, breathless. “I think I might know where that place is already.”

“Good,” John purrs in low satisfaction, one hand coming up to hold Sherlock’s face, his thumb smoothing at the hollow of Sherlock’s cheek. “That’s very good.”

John’s lips part under Sherlock’s, his tongue invading Sherlock’s mouth in a burst of heat. Sherlock opens his mouth wider, his own tongue pushing up against John’s to feel the lovely thrust of that muscle that is so intimately John.

The feel of it—John in his mouth pushing into him, stroking him, hot and slick and wet, makes Sherlock melt, at the same time as it incites a fire inside him that feels as though it can never be quenched. It’s not enough. He needs more, so much more.

There is still space, infuriatingly, between John’s body and Sherlock’s, and John, Sherlock notes with vivid dismay, is still fully dressed in his jacket and shirt. This is intolerable, Sherlock thinks.

Sherlock reaches up to loop his arms around John’s neck and pull John down against him, his hips writhing against the mattress, desperate, seeking friction.

“John!” Sherlock pulls his mouth away to try and communicate to John what he needs. “I need you. I need—”

John’s hands settle on Sherlock’s shoulders, pressing him back gently against the pillow.

“Tell me,” John says, his voice soft and rough all at once.

Sherlock whimpers as John’s hands hold him not quite gently against the mattress, his palms on Sherlock’s shoulders leaking heat.

“I need you… against me…” Sherlock licks his lips. “With… no clothing between us, just you. Just me.”

The sound John makes in response to Sherlock’s words hits him right between his legs. He surges up against John in an effort to pull John down closer against him.

The buttons of Sherlock’s waistcoat are all undone but the garment is still around his shoulders, flapping open at his chest to expose the expensive linen shirt beneath, the quality of the fabric so fine, it is soft as a breath against Sherlock’s skin as he squirms against the mattress, desperate to bring John’s body into contact with his.

He reaches up to tug at the knotted fabric around John’s throat, his fingers trembling as he struggles to pull the knot loose and John sits up, pulling himself out of Sherlock’s reach, settling back on his knees to undo the knot and pull the fabric free.

Sherlock lets a whine of displeasure escape him as John pulls away from him but it dies in his throat as he watches John, tugging the material from his neck, shrugging out of his dark jacket and tossing both garments to the floor beside the bed.

“Is that better?” John asks, sliding back down against Sherlock, his voice low and rough, like the purr of a cat.

“Y-yes,” Sherlock gasps, but also thinks No, as John’s shirt is still on him, keeping John’s chest from Sherlock’s eyes, preventing it from touching Sherlock’s skin.

He doesn’t say anything though because John is back against him now, his hands pushing the waistcoat off of Sherlock’s shoulders, his mouth at Sherlock’s ear, gently coaxing him to sit up so he can free him of the garment.

John takes the expensive material between his hands, begins to fold it, but Sherlock makes an impatient noise, and pushes the fabric out of John’s hands so it drops to the floor.

“Don’t worry about that,” he sighs, leaning forward against John’s chest, sliding his arms around John’s waist.

“But—”

Sherlock swallows John’s protest with his mouth, pushing his body forward into John’s.

Sherlock will never get tired of the feeling of John’s mouth against his own, the soft slide of John’s lips against his. He still feels slightly clumsy, not wholly sure where to put his tongue, how to tilt his head, but it’s impossible to care when John’s mouth is there, warm, and wet and opening beneath his own. The corresponding rush of heat in his belly, surging down between his legs, when John pushes his tongue past Sherlock’s lips, hot and slick, moving with delicious intention, makes Sherlock moan in response, his arms tightening around the small of John’s back.

John pulls back slightly to look at Sherlock, his eyes enormous in the low light of the candles. “You may have no experience but I can tell you, as someone who has a great deal of it, you are getting the hang of things very quickly.”

Sherlock feels a flush of pleasure at John’s words.

John leans back in to recapture Sherlock’s mouth, his breath soft against Sherlock’s lips. “You’re a natural.”

John kisses him deeply, sweetly—the touch of his mouth soft and lingering, the feel of his tongue against Sherlock’s like warm silk—pulling away every few seconds, grinning, to give Sherlock a chance to catch his breath, which just makes Sherlock more desperate than ever, tightening his arms around John’s back to pull him close again.

They are both still sitting upright, John on his knees, Sherlock with his legs folded under him, leaning into John.

Sherlock wants to go on kissing John forever. Of all the pursuits he has taken up in his life (and he has tried many), this is by far the most superior. He never wants it to end. However, the slow, soft slide of their mouths is making the melting heat deep in Sherlock’s belly burn hotter than an inferno, and he finds the need for stimulation between his legs is distracting to say the least. His hips have begun rocking of their own accord, seeking some kind of friction.

Luckily, John is attentive to these sorts of details.

“I think—” he says, his mouth reluctant to separate from Sherlock’s to continue speaking. “We’ve gotten…” Another kiss interrupts his speech. “A bit… side-tracked from our initial plan.”

“Yes,” Sherlock agrees, his response more of a gasp than an intelligible word. “Yes, we were going to…”

Sherlock entirely loses the thread of what he was saying as John’s mouth has moved from his own and is now sliding, hot and open, down under his jaw. He feels John begin to suck lightly and Sherlock whimpers, letting his head fall back.

John’s mouth continues moving down the slope of Sherlock’s neck to his shoulder, where the collar of Sherlock’s linen shirt has slipped down, revealing the pale skin of his shoulder and throat.

“My god,” John whispers, his mouth skimming, hot and open over the bare skin of Sherlock’s shoulder. “You unbearably lovely thing.”

Sherlock sits back a little to give John room, and John’s hands drop to his sides, tugging gently to pull his shirt free from his breeches. His mouth continues down to the front of Sherlock’s chest, still covered by the thin material of Sherlock’s shirt.

Sherlock can feel the heat of John’s breath through the linen and he waits, trembling lightly, to see what John will do.

John presses a kiss to Sherlock’s chest, just above his heart, and Sherlock gasps and trembles harder.

John smoothes his hands down Sherlock’s arms—they are warm and strong—and it is only for their presence that Sherlock does not fall back in shock when John’s warm, wet mouth opens over Sherlock’s nipple and sucks it softly through his shirt.

Sherlock’s mouth drops open, his hands coming up to seize John by the arms, and he cannot even make a sound because the feel of John’s mouth touching him there—there—feels like nothing, nothing, he has ever experienced.

He can feel John smile against him in response and when John’s mouth pulls away briefly the heat of his breath on the damp material of the shirt makes a shudder run through Sherlock that he feels all the way through his cock.

He makes a strangled sound and John shushes him quietly before moving to lower his mouth to Sherlock’s other nipple, this time licking it through the shirt before he sucks. A sound escapes Sherlock that he has never heard before—it is guttural, low, filled with longing, and John sucks harder in response.

Sherlock makes the sound again and John breaks away to kiss Sherlock briefly in entreaty, his eyes laughing, although his mouth is serious. “Shh. You’ve got to be quiet, my love.”

Sherlock kisses him back in desperation, whimpering against John’s mouth. He’s certain that his fingers have left bruises on John’s arms where he’s clutching them; he loosens his grip as soon as he becomes aware.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, voice trembling as hard as his body. “I’ll try, but… what you did, that was…”

John’s eyes are very close to his, his pupils liquid black. They are filled with humor, but also, hunger that Sherlock can feel down to the very center of his bones. It makes him shiver and press himself forward into John.

“Kiss me there again, John. I promise I’ll be quiet.”

John’s answer is a low groan, his hands falling to Sherlock’s hips.

“Well, if it’s alright with you, before I do that, I think I’ll carry on with our original plan and rid you of the rest of your clothing.”

Sherlock’s breathing picks up at the feeling of John’s fingers at his waist, settling on the fastenings of his breeches.

John’s fingers hesitate. He lowers his mouth to Sherlock’s ear, his voice more heat than sound. “But only if that’s alright with you.”

Sherlock nods soundlessly, pressing his face in against John’s shoulder. He feels a burst of nervous self-consciousness but he knows, he knows that he wants this more than anything else in the world.

John’s fingers are gentle but steady as he pulls the fastenings free and then moves to tug the material down.

“Lie back,” he breathes in Sherlock’s ear, one hand guiding Sherlock down against the pillows, the other warm on Sherlock’s hip, until Sherlock is lying, stretched out beneath him.

John is leaning over him, both hands now back at Sherlock’s waist.

“Lift your hips,” he murmurs, and Sherlock does, all his breath leaving him as he feels John’s hands pulling the material down his hips and to his knees.

Sherlock’s heart is pounding, and he is shaking harder than ever as he feels cool air on the skin between his legs. He feels John’s fingers brush the bare skin on the inside of his thigh as John reaches to tug the material free of his legs and he jerks, once, violently, as though he’s been struck.

John freezes mid-tug and lifts his hands from Sherlock’s legs.

He leans down to press his mouth to Sherlock’s cheek, warm and soothing, both hands coming up to cup Sherlock’s face. “I’m sorry, if I startled you. Shall I stop?”

Sherlock tries to answer but finds he cannot speak, so overwhelmed is he by the feeling of lying underneath John, with his breeches halfway down his knees, almost completely nude except for the linen shirt that falls just past his hips. He feels bare, exposed, and the feeling is as terrifying as it is exhilarating, with John Watson leaning over him, his kind eyes creased with worry, strong hands so gentle on Sherlock’s face.

Sherlock lifts his own hands to cup the backs of John’s, as though in disbelief that John is really here with him, holding him so gently, as though he needs the touch of John’s hands beneath his own to convince him that what’s happening is actually taking place.

Sherlock shakes his head. “Don’t stop. Please.”

John must hear the evidence of his longing in his voice, must see it in his face, because his mouth is descending to kiss Sherlock, long and deep, and perhaps it is only Sherlock’s imagination but he feels as though he can taste an extra note of urgency in the movement of John’s mouth. Sherlock rises up into the kiss, lifting his chest to press it forward into John’s, inviting him closer with the thrust of his body.

With his mouth still on Sherlock’s, John reaches down between them and pulls Sherlock’s breeches the rest of the way down his legs. He breaks the kiss to shimmy partway down the bed and free first one foot, then the other from the soft material, before dropping it to the floor and out of sight.

John stays where he is, crouched by Sherlock’s knees, and Sherlock lifts himself up on his elbows to look down at John, where he is leaning forward to settle his palms on Sherlock’s shins.

Such a banal place for John to touch, but once again, Sherlock’s body leaps in response to the placement of John’s hands as though he has been struck. John does not take his hands away but his eyes flash up to Sherlock’s face, silver-quick with worry, a question evident in the lines of his face.

Sherlock shakes his head again, licks his lips. “Don’t stop,” he gasps, voice shaking more violently than ever as John’s hands slide around to caress his calves and up to the backs of his knees.

It shouldn’t feel this good to have John’s hands touching his legs in such an innocent place but somehow, Sherlock knows in this moment, there is no place on his body that John could touch that would not be charged with feeling, that would not feel as though his skin were set aflame from the dragging heat of John’s callused palms.

John’s hands circle back around, cupping Sherlock’s knees, his thumbs stroking the curves where Sherlock’s knees become his thighs, and Sherlock can feel the heat rising in his cheeks, in his chest and throat, staining the pale skin over his collarbones a mottled red.

It is not only the touch of John’s hands that is making him feel as though he will come apart at the seams, it is also the sight of John, his thin lips flushed and swollen from kissing Sherlock, his long eyelashes dark gold in the candlelight, heavy with lust as he gazes at Sherlock’s legs; and the sight of himself, clad only in his linen shirt, the jut of his erection all too evident through the thin material, so apparent above his bare thighs, is utterly obscene.

John’s hands slide up his thighs, up, up, up to hold him by the hips, and Sherlock’s breathing is so shallow that for a moment he is frightened he will not be able to draw enough air into his lungs. Sherlock has to shut his eyes; the flood of information is too much, he cannot possibly withstand both the sight and the feel of John’s hands, where they have now slid below the hem of his shirt. Just the feel of them, warm and heavy on his hips is almost more than he can take.

John takes hold of the edge of Sherlock’s shirt, rubbing the thin material between his fingers as he bends over Sherlock, his voice dark and deep—the sound of the shadows at the bottom of the ocean—the feel of it, a wave of warmth over Sherlock’s bared throat. “May I take this off?”

Sherlock nods, eyes still shut, trembling so hard he feels he will shake apart, and then John’s mouth is pressing a kiss into the skin of his throat, whispering, “Can you sit up for me?”

Sherlock opens his eyes to do as John asks, raising himself off the pillows to give John the room he needs to free him from the garment.

John lifts the material in his hands, pulling it off, slowly, over Sherlock’s head, and Sherlock looks down at himself, sees his pale thighs, the dark patch of hair between his legs and then the rosy head of his erection coming free, and embarrassed, overwhelmed, he covers his face with his hands.

He stays like that, his back bowed slightly, his own face hot under his palms, feeling so naked, so horribly exposed, and it’s terrifying, it’s awful—the thought of his scrawny torso, his long pale legs, his very obvious arousal all made plain to John’s eyes—it’s enough to make him want to curl up into a ball and hide, drag a blanket over his head and send John from his side. What John must think of his body, so different than John’s sun-warmed, capable one—so white and frail and useless, nothing more than skin and bone.

Sherlock feels the mattress shift as John leans forward, and he flinches, hunching into himself, pushing his face deeper into his hands.

Gently, so gently, John takes one of Sherlock’s hands between his own and lifts it away from his face.

“Oh, my love. My love, look at you…. Look at you.”

John’s voice is soft and so filled with reverence that at first Sherlock thinks he must be imagining it, but then he feels the warm murmur of John’s breath against the palm of his hand and then John’s mouth is pressing a kiss to the center of his palm and there is no imagining the reverence in the touch of John’s mouth, the way his lips part hot and sweet against the center of Sherlock’s hand and linger there.

Sherlock sucks a breath in and feels something begin to uncoil deep within him.

“Do you know…?” John goes on, his voice hitching slightly, as though he is too overwhelmed to draw breath. “Do you know how beautiful you are? You must know. You must.”

John is pulling the other hand from Sherlock’s eyes and kissing the knuckles, pressing his lips to the curve on the inside of Sherlock’s fingers, to the heel of his palm, the inside of his wrist.

“You rare, rare beautiful thing.”

John lowers his mouth to kiss the slope of Sherlock’s shoulder, the hot humming presence of his lips like a match being dragged over Sherlock’s skin, gathering flame as it goes until there is a burning trail in its wake. One of John’s hands settles in his hair and Sherlock tips his head back slightly, his body uncurling from its hunch of displeasure.

Sherlock can feel himself opening under the touch of John’s mouth, softening and loosening—the tension chased out of his body by the warm slide of John’s lips.

“You’re like a sculpture, carved from ivory.” John’s voice is as warm and soft as the touch of his mouth, as his lips trace the vein in Sherlock’s throat. “You’re like a siren, a mermaid, some sea-wracked god who stumbled out of the deep.” John’s fingers curl in Sherlock’s hair, pulling lightly, and Sherlock gasps with pleasure. “Your mouth is a rose, your eyes the sea. Oh, Sherlock, Sherlock, you beautiful, impossible creature.”

John is a poet, Sherlock thinks, blushing at his words, color rising to heat his pale cheeks, the skin of his throat. He knows the words are fanciful, the claims utterly false, but he cannot discount the feeling in John’s voice, the tone of conviction that tells Sherlock he believes every word. He cannot stay shut inside himself in the presence of such adoration. Sherlock can feel the ice of his own self-loathing melting under the heat of John’s worshipful tone.

He opens his eyes and the sight of John kneeling before him, his golden head bowed over Sherlock’s chest makes him give a little cry and lean back against the pillows.

“Yes, yes, yes…” John chants, his breath still hot on Sherlock’s neck, as Sherlock lowers himself down, John’s body following Sherlock’s until he is crouched over Sherlock, his hands on either side of Sherlock’s naked chest, one clothed knee pressing in against Sherlock’s bare leg. “God, look at you.”

The reverence in John’s voice is unmistakable. His hands are gliding down Sherlock’s shoulders, over the curve of his hip, and Sherlock gasps at his touch, suddenly acutely aware of the way John is looking at him, how awed, how hungry is his look.

The touch of John’s hands, the tone of his voice were enough to make Sherlock forget his self-consciousness, but now, at the look in John’s eyes, Sherlock feels his arousal returning, beginning at the very center of himself and skipping out along his limbs and down to the tips of his fingers in little star-bursts of crackling heat.

John skims his knuckles over Sherlock’s bare hip and Sherlock arches his back, lifting his body up to the hungry touch of John’s eyes, feeling something come over him he has never experienced before. He licks at his bottom lip, feels how plump it is beneath his tongue, how sensitive, and then bites down on it, lightly, looking up at John from under lashes grown heavy with desire. The sound John makes in response—urgent, filled with longing—makes Sherlock reach up and fist his hands in the material of John’s shirt, pulling John down against him.

John lets himself be pulled, his clothed body covering the length of Sherlock’s, making Sherlock gasp at the rough feel of John’s trouser-covered thighs pressing in against his own, the heavy weight of John against his aching erection almost more than he can take.

John’s hand is still between them, trailing so lightly over Sherlock’s hip, and Sherlock presses up into it, seeking movement, seeking friction. He is desperate for John’s hand to creep several inches further and take him in hand but he does not know how to ask for it; it feels too intimate, too obscene, so Sherlock parts his thighs instead, urging John’s body to settle closer against him.

John’s mouth is in his hair, close by his ear, and he feels John’s breathing change against him at the movement, and then, in one miraculous, infinitesimal shift, John’s hips have settled against Sherlock’s and Sherlock feels the long, hard length of John pressing into him.

Sherlock’s mouth falls open, and as though of its own accord, his body thrusts up into John’s, his hips pushing John’s erection into his, and the hot rough drag of it—the knowledge that this is John—John—blood hot and hard because of him, his body pushing into Sherlock’s at this most intimate place, is so filthy-sweet that Sherlock cannot make a sound at all; his voice is stolen from him.

John’s fingers tighten on his hip, lips dragging over Sherlock’s ear, and Sherlock thrusts again, grinding up into the heavy weight of John, pleasure sparking down his limbs in response to the friction, and this time, John moans against him, the sound low, unsteady, filled with heat.

It’s glorious, but still it’s not enough, because there is clothing between them creating a barrier between John’s skin and Sherlock’s, and this is intolerable.

Sherlock pulls on the fisted material of John’s shirt, trying to push it off. “I want you too…without clothes on.” His voice is shaking with need. “Take this off.”

“Yes.” John kisses him briefly before sitting back. “Yes, of course.”

Sherlock is almost sorry for the loss of John against him, the absence of his warm weight between Sherlock’s legs, but then he forgets his sorrow as he is treated to the sight of John kneeling in the trembling light of the candles and reaching up to pull his shirt off over his head.

Sherlock has seen John without his shirt before—more times than he can count, and to be sure, he has savored every instance—but this time is different. This time it’s John baring himself for Sherlock’s eyes alone, and this realization, coupled with the sight of John’s muscular shoulders, the swell of his biceps as he drops his shirt beside the bed, the ripple of his abdominal muscles as he twists back around, is enough to make Sherlock moan, long and low, and bite down on his lip.

The look in John’s eyes at the sound Sherlock makes is sinful—how someone’s look can be so sexual is something Sherlock cannot understand. Perhaps it has something to do with the heaviness of John’s eyelids and the depth of darkness beneath those heavy lids, in each pupil a single drop of gold suspended from the reflected candle flame above the bed. But it’s more than that. It’s also the way his fingers settle on the fastenings to his trousers, pulling them apart with slow deliberation, so slowly that Sherlock sits up on his elbows to get a better look, licking his lips, his thighs spreading apart against the mattress as John pushes the material down his hips.

Oh, John’s hips—Sherlock has seen them before, showcased most prominently earlier today—was it really today? How could it be?—when John climbed up out of the ocean, dripping wet, the translucent material of his trousers clinging to the grooves of his slender hips—but now here they are with no fabric to hide them, just the luscious sight of golden skin curving over bone, two grooved shadows pointing toward what Sherlock cannot believe he is about to see. His mouth is actually watering, although he does not understand why.

John sits up higher on his knees to push the material down his thighs and then, oh then, at last, at last, Sherlock can see all of John, and there is oh so much of John to see.

John shifts around to pull the garment off his ankles, tossing it into the darkness at the end of the bed before returning to his knees.

Sherlock was overcome by the sight of John earlier, when the damp material of his trousers seemed to showcase every nuance, every curve of flesh, but now, not only is there no fabric to obscure a single detail, but John is swollen with arousal, the hard length of him curving up against his abdomen, and Sherlock moans again, louder, filled with desperation at the sight of John’s desire, so prominent, laid bare to Sherlock’s eyes, and without any prior thought, he is sitting up and reaching out to settle his hands on John’s slender muscular hips.

John goes absolutely still, and Sherlock pauses too, eyes flickering up to John in question.

“Is it… is it alright if I touch you?”

John’s brows come together momentarily as though he is in pain, and for the briefest of moments, Sherlock is concerned, but then John’s answer is sighing out from between his lips, and Sherlock realizes that the look on John’s face is one not of pain, but pleasure. “Oh my god, yes.”

Emboldened, Sherlock slides his hands up John’s hips, up over his lean muscular sides, fingers rippling over John’s ribs, feeling every muscle, every bone, and he marvels not only at the sight of his pale fingers against John’s darker skin, but also at the feel of John’s warm, living body shifting and breathing underneath his palms.

Tentatively, his slides his hands over the hard muscles in John’s chest and over the flushed circles of his nipples, which stiffen under Sherlock’s touch, hardening into peaks.

Sherlock gasps at the instantaneous effect his touch has on John and looks up at John’s face to see that same look of almost pain, his breath coming in shallow gasps from between his parted lips, his eyes half-shut.

His hands keep sliding, up over John’s collarbones and to his shoulders—oh, his shoulders. Sherlock shifts slightly closer in delight at the feel of that smooth, warm, golden skin beneath his palms. How John can possibly feel better than he looks is a mystery to Sherlock.

“You feel so good,” Sherlock breathes; his voice full of wonder, and John laughs in response, but he can’t quite complete the sound. It comes out breathless, broken, a single gasp of sound.

Sherlock lets his fingers continue down John’s upper arms, his thumbs trailing over the swells of John’s biceps, and by the time Sherlock’s hands reach John’s wrists, his own breathing is as shallow as John’s, breath coming out in short, desperate pants.

“John,” Sherlock whispers, his voice trembling as hard as his hands, not even knowing what he’s asking for anymore, overcome by how much of John he’s already been given, how much more he wants.

His fingers clench around John’s wrists in desperation, and although Sherlock cannot find the words he needs, John seems to understand. His hands settle on Sherlock’s shoulders, pushing him gently back down against the bed.

“Tell me what you need,” John says, against Sherlock’s lips, his body following Sherlock’s down to lie not over him, but just beside, the top of one naked thigh pressing in against Sherlock’s.

Sherlock is hot, so hot, the want in his belly trembling and twisting like a living thing. He knows what he needs—it’s what he’s needed all along, but hasn’t had the courage to voice aloud.

“I want…” His voice is as soft as a sigh, his mouth lifting up against John’s. “I want you to touch me.”

He parts his thighs as he says the words, hitching his hips up in invitation, and at the shuttered look in John’s eyes at his plea he knows John understands.

John kisses him softly, slipping his tongue between Sherlock’s parted lips, as his hand slides down between them, over the trembling muscles of Sherlock’s stomach and along the curve of his hip.

Stretched out naked underneath John, Sherlock’s body feels completely new to him. He’s never felt so alive, so aware; his skin is like an unknown landscape, a whole new country of sensations. He can feel every shift in touch, every slight gradation of texture, of heat—the slow progress of John’s fingers over his hip drawing him out, shivering and raw, until he’s lifting his body up in desperation, moaning softly with need.

“Shh,” John breathes against him. “I know what you need. Don’t worry, love. I’m here. Here you are. I’m right here. You’ve got me.”

And then finally—finally, finally—John’s warm fingers are closing over the stiff flesh between Sherlock’s legs and Sherlock’s entire body goes still as the heat of John’s palm surrounds him.

Oh,” he breathes, his mouth falling open, hips lifting of their own accord, urging John’s hand to move.

Sherlock wants to watch the expression on John’s face but his eyes are falling shut, and he cannot stop them—he is overcome, and with his eyes closed he can concentrate better on the feel of John’s callused palm gripping him, and on the feel of John’s thumb as it slides over the head of his erection, swirling in an agonizing circle.

He is already wet and leaking—Sherlock can feel the moisture slick under John’s thumb, and now his thighs are trembling and he is moaning with want because he cannot take it, he needs John’s hand to move.

He reaches out blindly to seize hold of John’s arms, whimpering, senseless, his voice a dry rasp of need. “John—”

“I’m sorry, love. I know. I was being selfish. I can’t help drawing it out, you feel so good in my hand.”

Sherlock cries out at that, his fingers biting into John’s arms, and finally, finally John’s hand begins to stroke, using the moisture under his thumb to coat the length of Sherlock.

The feel of it—the slow, slick slide of John’s hand around him, the flex in the muscles of John’s arms as he strokes—is so good, Sherlock almost cannot stand it. He tosses his head on the pillow, his breath coming out in short, panting gasps. He can feel perspiration beading on his brow, making his hair stick to the back of his neck.

His eyes are still squeezed shut but he feels the heat of John’s mouth pressing a kiss in against the side of his neck, before asking in a constricted voice. “How does that feel?”

Sherlock forces his eyes open, licks his dry lips and tries to speak, but when he opens his mouth all that comes out is a keening cry of pleasure as John’s fingers shift around him.

John presses a kiss to Sherlock’s swollen lips, pulling back to murmur a warning.

“You’ve got to be quiet, my love. They’ll—” His own breath is lost in a shudder of heat as Sherlock pushes his hips up into John’s hand, urging him to stroke faster. Sherlock feels John licks his lips against him. “They’ll hear us.” His voice is soft with apology. “We can’t let them hear us.”

Sherlock nods, desperate, biting hard on his lip to keep from crying out as John shifts against him, rising up to his knees and leaning down over Sherlock, straddling one of Sherlock’s legs with his muscular thighs, changing the angle of his grip.

John’s mouth is at Sherlock’s ear, his breathing hot and ragged, growing less and less steady with every stroke of his hand.

“My god, Sherlock, you—you’re so beautiful like this. You’re exquisite.”

The hand that isn’t stroking Sherlock is warm against his thigh and Sherlock presses up against it, needing the pressure, needing an anchor, feeling as though he is going to float apart.

Sherlock whimpers in his throat and John seems to understand; the press of his palm against the sensitive skin of Sherlock’s inner thigh as warm as a brand as John pushes it down against the mattress.

Sherlock cannot hold back his cry then, a whine clawing its way out of his throat, and John lifts his hand to press his fingers in against Sherlock’s mouth, a flash of worry in his eyes.

“Hush, my love. Hush now. They’ll hear us.”

Sherlock tries, he really tries but the feel of John’s fingers pressing in against his mouth only make it harder to keep the sounds from slipping out—and Sherlock remembers in a dizzying rush of heat how he imagined this very scenario, John leaning over him with his fingers at Sherlock’s mouth, and the fact that it is really happening now, John, bending over him, his eyes as dark as the shadows beyond the candle flame, the lines of his body gleaming gold in the gentle light, means that Sherlock cannot possibly be quiet now, not with John’s eyes on him like that, John’s hand drawing every ounce of feeling out of him through the touch of his hand.

He cannot stop the chorus of desperate little moans streaming from his mouth, nor can he stop the force of his hips rising up to meet each of John’s strokes.

Sherlock shakes his head on the pillow, clutching in desperation at John’s arm. “I can’t—I can’t! I’m sorry—”

“Shh, it’s alright. It’s alright.” John lifts a hand to cup Sherlock’s cheek, bends low to kiss his mouth, his hand never stopping in the rhythm of his strokes. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

It is John’s quiet assurance that pushes Sherlock over the edge, the gentle feeling of his mouth opening against Sherlock’s.

The sweet, wet heat of John’s mouth coupled with the lovely friction of his hand on Sherlock’s cock drives a spike of pleasure through him so intense, so white-hot with feeling that he fears in that moment that he will break apart.

His body arches, his back lifting off the bed, fingers clenching on John’s arms; the cry that issues from his lips lost in the heat of John’s mouth.

Pleasure bursts open within him, coursing through his veins, and Sherlock has moved outside his body. He is heat, he is light; he is speed without sound, nothing more than a swell of upward movement toward something that he cannot see or describe.

He is shaking with the force of it, so swift, so all encompassing that for one frightening moment Sherlock fears he will be carried away with it and lost, unable to come back to himself; but then, he is crashing back to earth and into the awareness of his body with shattering abruptness.

Dimly, Sherlock registers his body sinking back down to the mattress, his chest heaving with exertion, his forehead damp with sweat.

John has settled fully between his thighs, his weight on his elbows to hold himself above Sherlock’s chest, and he is kissing him, softly, all over his face. Tiny, gentle, close-mouthed kisses against his hairline, his temple, his chin; each one a reassurance and a question in its own right, seeming to ask, ‘Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright?’

When Sherlock flutters his eyelids open—his eyelashes sticking with what Sherlock suspects might be tears—he looks up to find John gazing down at him with worry, his hands lifting immediately to frame Sherlock’s face, blue eyes swimming with tenderness.

“Are you alright?” he asks, his voice rough, and Sherlock lifts his arms up around John’s neck to pull him down against him.

“Yes,” he whispers, his lips sticking against John’s cheek, his heart pounding harder than he’s ever felt it with love for the man above him. It’s as if what John has given Sherlock has shaken something lose inside himself—something that was caged up and trying to break free, but had no means of doing so.

It’s as if John has suddenly presented him with the key.

Sherlock opens his mouth, feels his lips tremble with the weight of the words he’s about to speak.

“I love you,” he whispers, voice growing bolder with each word, arms tightening around John’s neck. “I love you, John Watson.”

Sherlock says it again, and this time, the words come easily, come effortlessly, as natural as the wind moving over the sea.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock waits, his arms still twined around John’s neck, to see what John will say.

John is silent for several long heartbeats but Sherlock does not even feel afraid, so full up with joy he feels at any moment that he will overflow.

Never before has he felt the way he feels right now, his body is quiet, humming with satisfaction. He feels soft and open, like a flower whose petals have been gently pulled apart, and now all the light of the world is streaming in, filling him with warmth.

There is a quietness in him, a contentedness that he has never before experienced, but at the same time, there is an undercurrent of new awareness thrumming through him, like a secret spring he did not know was in him all along come suddenly to life. He feels alive with possibility, his body tingling, wide-awake.

And John is here with him, here, here between his thighs, his body hot and hard against Sherlock, the force of his arousal still very present against Sherlock’s hip. Sherlock shivers at the weight of it, gently shifts against him, full of pleasure at the thought of helping John find his own release.

But John is still quiet against him.

Sherlock’s face is pressed in against John’s neck—he can feel the hot rhythm of John’s pulse against his cheek, but he cannot see his face. He pulls back a little to see John’s expression.

John’s face is turned away from him but Sherlock can see the sorrow in his expression in the down-turned corners of his mouth.

“John?” he whispers softly, voice full of horror. “What’s the matter?”

John looks down at Sherlock—his face is not so very far away, his weight still supported on his elbows to hold himself above Sherlock—and Sherlock can see tears standing out in his eyes.

“Forgive me,” John says, and then he’s rolling off of Sherlock, pushing the heels of his hands in against his eyes to wipe his tears away.

He stays like that, with his fingers pressed against his eyes, his bare chest heaving in the soft light, and Sherlock watches him, motionless with worry, studying the shadowed grooves of John’s ribs, that grow more distinct with each inhaled breath, that soften with each exhale.

He wants to reach out and touch John, offer him comfort, but it was his words after all that made John react this way, so he stays where he is, frozen with fear, watching the trembling line of John’s mouth grow smaller with every passing moment.

After what seems like an eternity to Sherlock, John lowers his hands, blows out a long breath.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice unsteady, his eyes still wet. “I would say I don’t know what’s come over me, but I know exactly what’s come over me.”

“Did I do it wrong?” Sherlock’s voice is smaller than a speck of dust.

John shakes his head, a burst of breathless laughter rising to his lips, but it comes out sounding like a sob.

“No, you didn’t,” he says, smiling briefly before his mouth shrinks, lips bending at the corners before vanishing completely as he presses them together. “No, it’s…”

Sherlock watches the line of John’s mouth shrink again, and feels a prickling wave of dread move through him. He hates it—he hates seeing John look like his heart has been torn out of his chest and then flayed open. It’s all wrong. John should be happy; John should be overjoyed, but instead…

“It’s you, Sherlock. Having you here with me, the fact that you feel this way about me… I’m having a hard time believing this is real.”

John reaches down for Sherlock’s hand, which is lying motionless between them, palm up. He traces a finger over Sherlock’s palm and down to the tip of his middle finger. Sherlock shivers at the touch.

“I can’t believe how lucky I am,” John breathes into the darkness between them. “Hearing you say it, I…”

John shakes his head again, his voice growing thick, and suddenly Sherlock understands. He knows exactly what John is describing. He has felt it almost every day since he first met John. The experience of loving someone so much that it feels as though his body cannot contain it, as though it’s bursting out of him from every pore, as though he will drown in it, be burned up in the heat of his feelings. Perhaps John has felt it all along too, but he didn’t realize that Sherlock felt that way as well, until now, until Sherlock let himself come apart beneath John’s hand, until Sherlock said the words out loud.

Sherlock curls his fingers around John’s; looks down at their entwined fingers.

“So you’re not… actually sad then?”

John lets out another breathless laugh, but this one sounds less like a sob.

“No. No, Sherlock, I’m not sad at all. Quite the opposite.” John squeezes Sherlock’s fingers between his own, so hard it hurts. Sherlock is grateful for the pain. It takes the sting out of his worry; makes the moment feel more real.

John’s eyes flicker up to Sherlock’s face for the first time since he rolled away, and his expression changes yet again, real sorrow flashing in his eyes.

“Oh, Sherlock, love. Don’t look like that. I’m crying because I’m happy, fool that I am. My god, I’ve never been so happy. Oh love, come here.”

John reaches out and wraps an arm around Sherlock’s shoulders, pulling Sherlock to his side.

Sherlock’s worry is gone in an instant, washed away by the feeling of John’s warm naked body against his own, John’s bare arm hard around his shoulders.

He is naked and John is naked and here they are, lying against one another, John’s mouth against his hair.

Sherlock’s body feels so soft, so loose. There is a warm tingling feeling moving all through him, growing louder every moment as he becomes aware of every point at which his body is touching John’s.

His face is on John’s shoulder, his chest pressed in against John’s ribs, his hips tucked in against John’s thigh. As an experiment, Sherlock shifts the leg that is laying against John’s, lifts it so that his right leg twines around John’s left, feeling the slide of skin against skin as he settles it between both of John’s.

Sherlock listens to the sound of John’s breathing growing unsteady above him, and feels delight unspooling hot and fluttering inside his belly. John is here against him, all his, to touch, to taste, to become acquainted with. He shifts his hips a little closer into John, feeling giddy at the prospect.

He rubs his cheek against the smoothness of John’s chest and then wriggles back a bit, readjusting so that his nose is pressed into the warm hollow under John’s arm.

The fact that John is warm and smooth to touch comes as no great surprise to Sherlock—he was already deeply appreciative of the sleek lines of John’s body, the cords of his muscles standing out under the skin—but what’s unbelievable to Sherlock, what was impossible to imagine before now, is the smell of him.

There is soft golden hair underneath John’s arm, slightly damp with sweat, and Sherlock finds when he pushes his nose into it and inhales, there the smell of John is strongest. He smells like clean sweat and heat and sunlight, and truly Sherlock thinks, there are no words to describe the smell of John, other than to say he smells like sex itself.

John makes a soft sound above him as Sherlock buries his nose underneath his arm.

“Sherlock, love, what—?”

But John’s question is swallowed by a gasp of shocked delight as Sherlock opens his mouth and licks at the warm, wet flesh.

He pulls back and settles his weight on his elbows to look down at John. His eyes are serious. “You taste as good as you smell.”

“Oh my god,” John says and his head is falling back against the mattress, his eyes sliding shut.

In contrast to the warm, loose pliancy of his own body, pressed up against John, Sherlock is suddenly aware of the tension present in John’s. There is a tremor running through him, as fine as a ripple of wind across the surface of still water, and Sherlock sits up a little higher on his elbows, feeling determined. He wants to give back to John what John has just given him so selflessly.

Sherlock runs a hot palm down the center of John’s chest, watches John’s torso jerk in response.

“John,” Sherlock whispers, his voice full of reverence, stroking his long fingers down over John’s muscular hip, his thumb lingering in the groove of his pelvic bone. “Tell me what to do.”

John lets out a soft groan and opens his eyes.

“Oh my god,” he says again, and Sherlock notices how black his eyes have become, blacker and blacker with every passing moment until Sherlock is certain he will tip forward into them and drown.

“You’ve said that a lot tonight.” Sherlock’s voice is soft, his thumb still stroking over the groove in John’s hip. It feels so good he never wants to stop touching him there.

John tries to laugh but it comes out all wrong—a breathless, helpless sound. “I can’t handle you looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” Sherlock asks, sitting all the way up so he can hold John’s other hip with his free hand. Now he is holding John’s body between both of his hands. It feels right. He likes the way his long white fingers look framing John’s golden hips. It looks like something beautiful.

“Like you’re a wolf pup that hasn’t eaten in a week. All teeth and dark eyes.” John’s voice is low and heavy, as heavy as Sherlock’s body feels as he leans over John, hands hot on his hips. He feels like any second now he will dissolve, become liquid just so he can pour himself over John, seep into every inch of him.

He notices that touching John there, holding him by his slender hips, where he feels both hard and soft at once, is making his own arousal come flooding back between his legs, hot and insistent, as though it never left. Sherlock shifts slightly to give his stiffening flesh the room it needs.

Sherlock looks down at the swollen length of John’s cock where it’s straining up against his stomach, the head of it flushed and leaking, and feels a hard tug of arousal in his abdomen.

John’s heavy golden lashes are sliding low over his eyes. “Honestly, you don’t need to do much of anything, just go on looking at me like that and I’ll be all set.”

John licks his lips, shifts up to his elbows, and Sherlock releases John’s hips to watch hungrily as John takes himself in hand.

Sherlock sits on his knees, leaning forward with eagerness, his attention rapt on John’s face, the soft ‘O’ of his mouth stretching open as his fingers curl around himself, his eyes fluttering completely shut.

The sight of John like this is breathtakingly gorgeous but Sherlock doesn’t simply want to watch, he wants to know what John feels like when he is touching himself. He wants to be involved.

Sherlock doesn’t ask, he simply follows his instincts, climbing up and over John’s legs and then lowering himself down so that he is straddling John’s thighs.

John’s eyes fly open with a shocked gasp.

“Is this alright?” Sherlock asks, feeling hesitant but not wanting to move now that he has settled into place. There is already so much more information available to him from where he is sitting and oh, it is delicious: he can feel the hard muscles in John’s thighs under his bare arse, can feel the way John’s body tenses under Sherlock’s weight.

“Oh my god, yes,” John says, his breath coming out in one long hiss, his fingers sliding down the length of himself and then back up as his low-lidded eyes take in the sight of Sherlock gazing down at him, face shining with eagerness.

In an effort to bring himself closer to John, Sherlock leans forward and as he does so, he hears the soft silvery sound of metal moving against skin, feels the gentle pull of the chain around his neck, and for the first time since John undressed him, remembers that he is still wearing John’s mother’s necklace.

The locket is warm against his bare chest and looking down at himself and realizing that he is naked except for the thin silver chain, the heavily ornamented locket glinting softly against his pale flesh, he feels his cheeks flush hot. There is something obscene about the knowledge that he is nude except for this keepsake that does not belong to him.

“John,” he whispers, his voice trembling slightly. “Your mother’s necklace. I forgot to take it off.”

John looks up at him and groans, fingers stuttering around himself at Sherlock’s words, eyes flickering over the silver chain at Sherlock’s throat.

“John,” Sherlock repeats, voice still soft with anxiety. “Should I take it off?”

“No,” John breathes, his voice thick and heavy sounding. “Don’t—don’t take it off.”

“But—”

“I like you… in it,” John says, tongue tracing the length of his bottom lip, fingers stilling on his cock. “It’s all I have left of hers. I wouldn’t let just anyone wear it.”

Sherlock sits back.

“Alright,” he whispers, feeling the locket settle against his chest and shivering at the weight of it, the implication that something impossibly precious to John is circling his neck. The realization that the object that lay so close to John’s heart now hangs against his own, fills him with a swooping, dizzy feeling, as though the ship is tilting in a heavy gale. He thinks of Anderson’s cruel words from earlier, about John marking him, and finds that instead of filling him with shame, the association makes his heart beat faster, fills him with a shuddery feeling of pleasure.

“I like seeing you in it,” John says, his hands leaving his cock to lay heavy on Sherlock’s thighs.

Sherlock takes the locket in his fingers, studies the intricate pattern of the interlocking letters, the sweeping curves that twine together like the vines that grow up around young trees. “It’s so beautiful,” he whispers.

“That’s why it suits you,” John breathes, his hands sliding around to cup the curves of Sherlock’s arse where it rests against his thighs.

Sherlock gasps at the touch, the necklace falling from his fingers. He lifts up, so John’s hands can continue exploring, tracing the swell of his buttocks down to where they meet his thighs.

“J-John,” he pants, shocked at the charge of feeling surging through him like a spark to gunpowder, leaning forward to place his weight on his palms. John’s hands are so warm, so rough against the soft skin of his arse. Sherlock has never thought about this particular part of his body as having any sort of erotic appeal, but now, as John’s hands knead the muscled flesh, Sherlock can feel the corresponding ripple of arousal move directly through his cock.

He pushes back into John’s hands, wanting pressure, wanting… something, he knows not what, other than the fact that he knows he wants John’s hands to do it.

He hears John’s breath catch at the movement, fingers squeezing in response and Sherlock makes a little mewling sound he did not know he was capable of.

“Oh God…” John’s hands leave his arse and Sherlock’s face must show his disappointment because John is apologizing almost immediately. “I’m sorry, love, but I need—”

He interrupts his own words with a moan as he returns his fingers to his cock, and Sherlock lowers his arse back down to John’s thighs to watch.

He decides in that moment that he could never, never tire of watching John like this, the full length of his magnificent cock clenched between his fingers, the muscles in his body lit up gold in the shuddering light of the candles, shifting and becoming more prominent with every movement of his arm.

“Oh god, you watching me like this it’s…” John’s hand tenses, his head falling back, his eyelashes flickering on his cheeks like two streaks of gold.

Sherlock leans forward to press a curious hand against John’s stomach, to feel the muscles flexing in John’s abdomen as he strokes, his eyes raking over John with awed wonder, and John’s breath leaves him in a long hiss.

“Sh-Sherlock…”

The flush is high on John’s cheeks, staining the skin of his throat. Sherlock reaches out another hand to touch it, to see if he can feel the heat.

John makes another strangled noise.

Sherlock snatches his hand back as though he has been burned. “Was that—?”

“No, no, it was lovely. Do it again. I just—you, touching me, it’s… oh, Sherlock.”

Sherlock has seen John in all states of physical duress, has observed the power in his arms as he tows the line, muscles hard and gleaming under the sun, his face running with sweat as he turns the capstan, body bowing against the weight of the anchor; but this state of exertion is like no other Sherlock has witnessed.

It’s like John is more alive than Sherlock has ever seen him. He is like a brighter version of himself, like a lantern that was covered by a shade but now is shining out, undimmed.

His body is hot under Sherlock’s thighs, the muscles in his stomach tensing under Sherlock’s palm, and it’s as though Sherlock can feel all the power in the heart of John thrumming up into his own body.

The feeling makes him hot all over, makes him want to grind down into John, to feel the lovely friction of their bodies coming together—to somehow join himself to the heat and the strength that is John Watson.

“Can I help,” Sherlock breathes, scooting forward, feeling the lovely drag of his arse over the muscles in John’s thighs. He gasps at the sensation, but refuses to be distracted. He leans forward over John, licking his lips, eyes intent on the movement of John’s hand. “Please. Let me help.”

“Oh god, y-yes you can put your hand over mine if you like…”

“Like this?” Sherlock asks, concentrating hard, the world’s most eager pupil, his tongue poking out one corner of his mouth as he leans forward to wrap his long pale fingers over John’s.

John’s breath leaves him in a rush, his own fingers momentarily falling still as Sherlock’s fingers press in against his own.

“Oh, that’s… yes. Yes, that’s perfect. J-just keep your hand there.”

The movement of John’s hand begins to speed up. Sherlock clenches his fingers tighter around John’s, fascinated. He has never experienced another person giving himself pleasure and it is simultaneously nothing like he imagined and so much better because this is John, John at his most vulnerable, at his most intent. In this moment, John is more himself than ever, and Sherlock is a part of it. The realization fills Sherlock with an ache somewhere deep inside himself that seems to throb within him, that he feels will never be satisfied.

Sherlock studies him as his hand moves with John’s, concentrates on memorizing every detail of this new, wonderful version of John that is all for him.

There is a shimmering feeling in Sherlock’s belly growing brighter the faster John strokes. He shifts his hips against John’s thighs, unconsciously seeking friction against the growing heat of his own flesh, licking at his swollen lips.

He has never seen John lose control like this. John, who has such mastery over his body, who is so confident, so sure of himself, to see John, to feel John trembling between Sherlock’s legs, his eyes squeezing shut, his body pushing up into Sherlock’s weight—it is beautiful like the stars are beautiful, like the first curl of frost on the window in winter, like the light of the sun on Sherlock’s cheeks. It is rare and so delicate, so brief, Sherlock wishes there was a way he could capture this moment and all its sensations and bottle it up somewhere, to ensure that he could have some part of it always within himself.

“John?” Sherlock’s fingers tighten over John’s. “Can I…?” Sherlock licks his lips. He cannot seem to stop doing that. It’s as though he’s hungry, ravenous, as though he hasn’t eaten in weeks, and John is a feast laid out just for him.

John’s lust-starred eyes slide up to his. In the shadows of the candlelight they seem to shine with a light of all their own.

“What is it, my love?” His voice is bright with tension. Sherlock can hear the effort it takes him to speak.

Sherlock slides a little closer over John’s thighs, feels the heaviness of his genitals drag against John.

John’s breathing hitches, thighs tensing under Sherlock’s weight, his body so sensitized that even the subtlest shift in movement makes his powerful body quiver like the most breakable thing.

“Would it be alright if I… that is—may I touch you? I mean, just me. I want…” Sherlock licks his lips again, his mouth unspeakably dry. “I want to feel you in my hand. I need to know what you feel like now. When you’re like this.”

John curses then, and it is the foulest string of words Sherlock has ever heard put together.

His cheeks blush hot in the wake of his own request, but also because of the lewdness of what John has just said.

“My god, Sherlock, yes. Jesus Christ, yes, please. Please.”

John lets go of himself, lifting his hand away, and Sherlock leans forward, replacing John’s small competent fingers with his own longer, paler ones. He leaves them there for a moment without moving them, just feeling, feeling every inch of John under his hand.

“Oh John,” Sherlock whispers, completely overcome.

John’s flesh is hard and hot under Sherlock’s hand, but also, soft, so soft, like living silk. Sherlock can feel John’s pulse along the length of him, can feel every vein, every ridge of flesh, and he is breathing hard now, so hard he almost cannot catch his breath.

Sherlock lets his fingers slip down an inch or two, and John’s body rises up beneath his, his mouth parting with a gasp.

“How—how is that?” Sherlock asks, hearing the tremor in his own voice. He is so overwhelmed by the feel of John he realizes his own eyes are half-shut.

“It’s…” John nods with his eyes closed, breathless. “Perfect. You’re perfect.”

Sherlock drags his swollen bottom lip in between his teeth, biting down on it to keep himself from grinding down against John’s trembling body, like an animal in heat. He has more self-control than that. At least, he hopes he does.

“Sh—should I…?” Sherlock is seized with sudden self-consciousness. His voice shrinks until it is barely more than a whisper. “How should I do it?”

John’s eyes are still shut. Sherlock wants to kiss his trembling lashes, so gold against his cheeks.

John swallows. Sherlock watches the movement of John’s throat as he does, wants to lick the length of it. For one dizzying moment, he is seized with the desire to have his mouth on every part of John at once.

“However you like,” John’s lovely voice says, pouring out of his chest like a ribbon of gold. Sherlock can feel the vibration of it between his thighs. His hips give a little jerk in response. “Whatever you do will feel good, my love. Just start out gently and I’ll tell you how it feels.”

Sherlock nods, serious, suddenly all business, and sits up a little straighter on John’s thighs.

John lets out a moan at the movement. His voice is strained. “Whatever you do, just know that I’m not going to last much longer.”

Sherlock shifts his fingers all the way up to the head of John’s lovely cock, finds the moisture there, slides his fingers through it, and uses the slickness to ease the movement of his fingers as they slide back down, the same way John did for him, and—oh god, the thought that John is wet like that because of him—Sherlock lets out a breathy little moan and John’s hips buck beneath him at the sound.

Sherlock starts to stroke John, slowly at first, still in too much awe over the feel of John under his fingers to pay attention to the rhythm of his movement.

“You can—you can hold me a little tighter if you like… and go a little—yes, like that—a little faster.”

Sherlock takes John’s advice to heart, tightening the circle of his fingers to increase the friction as he strokes, and to his amazement he sees the immediate effect it has on John, as his hips thrust upward, his eyes flying open with a low groan.

“Y—yes, that’s p-perfect. Keep going, j-just like that.”

John’s eyes are sliding shut again, his head tipping back against the mattress, and Sherlock can see that the skin of his neck and shoulders is flushed with arousal, the golden line of his throat shining with a fine sheen of sweat.

So many times, Sherlock has seen John’s body glowing under the sun, the muscles in his arms and chest gleaming with sweat, but never, never has he looked as beautiful as he does now, and the sight of him like this, the feeling of his body under Sherlock’s weight, the feeling of his live desire under Sherlock’s hand, sharpens Sherlock’s hunger to an unbearable pitch, makes him reach forward with his other hand so that he can feel John with both hands at once.

Sherlock wraps the fingers of his left hand around the base of John’s cock, slowly, reverently, letting two fingers drift down to touch the hot skin underneath, gathered tight against John’s body, the intimacy of touching someone there (Sherlock can feel the soft hair covering the delicate skin, the intense heat of him) causes Sherlock to gasp aloud.

John makes a sound that is somewhere between a cry of pain and a groan, his entire body tensing under Sherlock’s legs, hands tightening to fists at his sides, hips thrusting upward.

Sherlock would be worried he has hurt John as his neck arches against the mattress, eyebrows drawn together as though in pain, but then he hears the words issuing from between John’s lips, soft and desperate, repeated over and over like an invocation.

“Oh my god, your hands. Your hands, Sherlock, oh my god…”

Sherlock’s own breathing has become as labored as John’s, and it feels for a moment as though they are both fighting toward the same thing. It feels like fighting to Sherlock right now, his entire body coiled up tight with need, making him desperate, light-headed with all the things he wants, but he is determined to help John get through to the other side, god, he wants to help him get there so badly.

He starts to stroke again with his right hand, slowly, but careful to apply the right amount of pressure that before seemed to have such a profound effect on John, continuing to hold the base of John’s cock delicately with his left hand.

This time, John’s reaction is even more intense.

Sherlock watches his mouth fall open in a soundless cry, the muscles in his abdomen flexing as he pushes up into Sherlock’s hand, hands reaching out blindly to clench in the sheets.

Sherlock sees the tension in John’s fists, and can guess the effort it is costing him not to cry out.

“John!” he gasps, pausing briefly in his strokes. “You—you can hold onto me if you like… where you did before.”

John’s hazy eyes look up at Sherlock, at first not understanding, and then Sherlock gives an unconscious twitch of hips and John’s hands reach up to settle on the swell of Sherlock’s buttocks.

Sherlock lets out a little moan of appreciation at the feeling and resumes his stroking.

His hands are full of John, and oh the feel of him, hot and hard and aching under Sherlock’s hands, it’s like nothing Sherlock has ever experienced—Sherlock can feel his own cock bearing heavily down against John’s thigh as his own desire swells in the wake of John’s. He feels John’s fingers tighten against the flesh of his arse in response, dragging Sherlock closer against him.

He cannot help himself; his hips begin to twitch forward against John’s thigh, seeking friction. The movement of his hips mirrors the rhythm of his strokes around John, every slide of his fingers over John’s swollen flesh causing the shivering want in his belly to grow more desperate. He feels so good under Sherlock’s hands—the velvet heat of him, the slickness, the blood red beat of his skin.

He starts to cry out under his breath, so softly at first he’s almost not aware he’s doing it, a little chorus of ‘oh’s as he continues to stroke, rocking his hips against John’s thigh, the firmness of the muscle a lovely point of pressure beneath his aching flesh.

“Oh, John, Oh, Oh, Oh.”

John’s hands clench on Sherlock’s arse, pulling him forward, so that Sherlock’s weight is bearing down on John’s thigh, finally giving Sherlock the friction he needs. The sudden movement causes the locket around Sherlock’s neck to swing forward between them, the change in position making Sherlock gasp, and he almost loses the rhythm of his stroking so perfect is the new angle at which his body is bending over John’s, connected thigh to hip.

His eyes flutter closed briefly as he loses himself in the perfection of having John’s hands on his arse, John’s cock between his hands and John’s body under his. Never could he have imagined a scenario so absolutely right in every way.

If there is a heaven, Sherlock thinks deliriously, surely it is this.

But Sherlock can feel the tension radiating through the body under his, so he refocuses, concentrating as hard as ever on the speed, the angle of his strokes, searching for the ideal balance between gentleness and pressure, in awe every moment his fingers travel over the slick heat of John’s sizeable girth. He is unable to stop the rocking motion of his body, so he uses it to his advantage to help direct the rhythm of his hands on John’s cock, as though he is stroking John not just with his hands but with his whole body.

The locket around Sherlock’s neck sways forward with the movement, each jerk of his body sending it swinging back against his chest in an obscene counterpoint to his thrusting hips. The metal is warm where it strikes his chest, just above his heart, and Sherlock thinks again how wearing this necklace is like having a part of John around his neck, possessing him. The thought makes him shiver all over again, pushing down with his hips to grind hard against John’s thigh, fingers tightening inadvertently around John’s cock.

John cries out in response, his body arching up beneath Sherlock’s like a bow pulled taut, fingers biting hard into the flesh of Sherlock’s buttocks.

This is it, Sherlock thinks, beside himself with anticipation.

Sherlock can actually feel John’s cock swelling in his hands, feels it jerk, and then spurts of warm liquid are pulsing out to coat Sherlock’s fingers, his wrist, the skin of John’s belly.

John is as beautiful as Sherlock has ever seen him in this moment, his cock still hot in Sherlock’s hands, his head thrown back, mouth open, the trembling arc of his body pressed up close against Sherlock, every inch of bare skin glowing in the light of the candles.

Gold, Sherlock thinks, not for the first time, He is made of gold.

But it’s more than gold, it’s something brighter at the heart of John, as though he’s made of light itself, and now it’s pouring out of him, heating Sherlock’s hands and thighs, his arse where John is holding him.

Oh, how foolish Sherlock has been all this time, to think that John’s hair, the color of his skin are such that they pick up the color of the light. No, no, he’s gotten it all wrong—John is the source of it, and here now, with John as alive as he can be in Sherlock’s hands, the light is pouring out of him, so hot, so bright that Sherlock can hardly stand to look at him without crying out.

His body stays stiff beneath Sherlock’s for several seconds more, his cock gradually softening under Sherlock’s hands as he sinks back slowly to the bed, and Sherlock leans forward, feeling as greedy as ever, overwhelmed by how many places on John he wants to taste in this moment—the gleam of sweat on his bared throat, the fading flush along his cheeks, the moisture in his eyelashes, the soft pink shadow of his mouth—in order to discover how he is just after he has taken his pleasure, whether he tastes as heavy and golden as he looks.

He decides John’s mouth is foremost on his list, so he bends low against John’s chest and with an open mouth, kisses the trembling line of John’s lips.

He tastes just as good as Sherlock imagined—better even, dreamy-sweet and hot, but softer, gentler than he felt before, his mouth opening so easily under Sherlock’s, his tongue less insistent, letting Sherlock’s tongue explore his mouth with no resistance.

Sherlock pulls back after a moment, and John throws an arm up over his eyes, sighing deeply, the sound full of satisfaction.

Sherlock shifts off of John’s thigh in order to lie beside him, nuzzling his face into the sticky hollow of John’s neck, and John hums in approval, eyes still shut, lifting his arm to drape it around Sherlock’s shoulders and pull Sherlock in against him.

Sherlock wants to be good, he wants to lie still and appreciate this new, gentle, sleepy John, whose hard lines have all gone soft as molten fire, whose hand is stroking lazily up and down the line of Sherlock’s back, drawing shivers out of him; but his own cock is hard and aching again, his pulse pounding insistent along the length of it and Sherlock cannot help but squirm a bit against John’s side.

John kisses his hairline, must notice Sherlock’s wriggling because he lets his hand drift lower back down to Sherlock’s buttocks. He kneads his hand into the muscle and Sherlock cries out, hips shooting forward into John as though he’s been shocked.

Sherlock can feel John’s warm chuckle in response vibrating all through his chest.

Sherlock is so aroused he is certain in this moment that if he does not touch his own cock he will surely die.

He slides his hand down between their bodies but before it gets there John’s hand is on his wrist, stopping him, strong fingers curling warm against the bone.

“J-John, I need—”

“I know what you need, love. I’m going to give it to you. I’m going to give you something so much better than you can possibly imagine.”

Sherlock whimpers in response to this.

John kisses his fingers. “I know. I promise it’s going to be worth it. Sit up for me. I need you on your back again.”

Sherlock lifts himself partway off of John, but his body is trembling so hard he can scarcely complete the movement.

John’s strong hands reach out to help him, and in one smooth motion, John is sitting up, hands on Sherlock’s shoulders, guiding him back down against the bed.

Sherlock licks his lips, hips jerking, dizzy with need. He wants to reach down and touch himself but he knows what John will say if he does so he clenches his fingers into fists to stop himself.

“Good. Oh, look at you, you’re being so good.” John’s voice is a low purr of approval as he bends over Sherlock’s body, and Sherlock writhes with pleasure at the sound of it.

John drops his head to place a kiss on the skin of Sherlock’s belly—close-mouthed, so innocent, but Sherlock cannot stand it, any touch from John at this point might be the end of him. He pushes a fist up to his mouth, biting at his fingers, whimpering around them.

“I know, I know,” John breathes, voice low and soothing, mouth moving now to place a kiss on the bone of Sherlock’s hip.

Sherlock’s hips jerk in response. He cannot take much more of this. He reaches down to grip at John’s shoulders in supplication, his voice breaking. “John…”

“Yes, yes, you’re right. I won’t be able to drag this out as long as I might like. That would just be cruel.”

John’s mouth has moved again and now, oh god, now—where is it going? What is it doing? What does John think he is doing? His mouth has moved along Sherlock’s hip and is hovering above the hair at Sherlock’s groin.

John presses his face in against the base of Sherlock’s cock and inhales, and no, Sherlock cannot take it—his fingers must be leaving bruises on John’s shoulders, his nails biting half-moons into John’s flesh—because John’s mouth is right there against the base of him, and John cannot be thinking—? He cannot be thinking of…

“J—John, what are you—?”

John looks up at Sherlock, his blue eyes glittering and bright, his teeth stretched wide in the most lascivious grin Sherlock has ever seen.

“You can put your hands on my head if you like.”

“John, what—”

And then all thought leaves him as John leans down and takes the head of Sherlock’s cock into his mouth.

John’s mouth, John’s mouth is around his cock—his cock is in John’s mouth. John’s beautiful, incredible, singing, smiling mouth is currently folded warm and wet around Sherlock’s cock.

The thought of it alone would be enough to blow the last of Sherlock’s self-restraint to bits—so obscene! John’s mouth! On him, around him—his mouth! But nothing, nothing on earth could have prepared Sherlock for the feel of it.

Not only is it hot and wet and velvety soft, but John’s tongue, oh god John’s tongue is licking the skin around the head, and Sherlock knows in that moment, that this act will be the death of him because there is no way that he can survive this.

He takes John’s advice without thinking, blindly reaching out to move his hands from John’s shoulders to his head, fingers grasping at the short strands of hair, too short for him to grip properly but so soft, and Sherlock realizes in a delirious jolt of disappointment and amazement that he has never felt John’s hair before this moment—every moment of his life before this suddenly making itself known to him as a complete waste—and it feels as lovely as it looks, as though he can feel the sunny brightness of it shimmering against his fingertips.

John’s hair in Sherlock’s hands is almost enough to finish him—he can feel the tightness in his belly and his loins, gathering like a spring that is about to uncoil, pulling and pulling until he feels as though he cannot bear another second. It as though every part of his body is somehow connected to his cock in this moment; every slight shift of John’s mouth against him sends minute currents of pleasure rippling through him, as though his body is crisscrossed with a network of the finest threads, all culminating in the place where John’s mouth is sliding warm and wet around him.

It is the downward slide of John’s mouth that finally breaks him, slipping down Sherlock’s cock an infinitesimal distance, sucking lightly. Every muscle in his body draws tight, his hips thrusting up off the bed. The feel of it, the slick hollows of John’s mouth enveloping him, cheeks and tongue curling close to enfold the heart of his desire, is what sends the first wave of pleasure crashing through him. But it is also the realization that one of John’s hands is curled around the base of his cock, fingers nestled in the dark curls, his other hand, hot on Sherlock’s hip, pushing him back down against the bed, and most of all the knowledge that this is John—John’s mouth around him—made desperately real by the feeling of John’s hair under his hands as fine as sunlight.

The fragile cords holding Sherlock’s body together seem to break apart, and distantly he is aware that he is crying out, his body drawing up and rising, rising; in spite of the pressure of John’s strong hand on his hip, he feels as though he will go on rising forever, pleasure unfolding from him in continually renewing waves—like the ocean, Sherlock thinks in a haze of bliss, like the never ending pounding of the surf against the side of the ship, surging, powerful, carrying him away in a rush of foam and salt spray.

He can still feel John’s mouth around him, the movements of his cheeks and tongue suggesting to Sherlock that he is swallowing down each burst of Sherlock’s pleasure as it issues from him, and that thought alone—John is drinking down a part of Sherlock—causes a renewed tide of feeling to rip through him, driving him harder up against John with a ragged gasp.

He is breathing so hard he cannot catch his breath, gasping for air as though he has been underwater and his head has only just broken the surface.

Minutes seem to pass before Sherlock’s body sinks back down against the mattress, and it is the soft feeling of John’s mouth sliding off of him that causes Sherlock to open his eyes, to become aware that his body is shuddering, his breath still coming impossibly fast as though he has run a great distance.

John’s hands are smoothing down Sherlock’s flanks. He leans in to press a kiss to Sherlock’s sweat-dampened cheek, his voice as gentle as his hands. “Breathe, my love. You have to breathe for me now. Take a deep breath.”

Sherlock looks up at John with wide, panicked eyes, feels the heaving motion of his own chest under John’s warm palms.

“Do it with me now—in.” Sherlock watches John and does as he says, drawing a long, slow breath into his lungs. “And out.”

Sherlock breathes out with John, before drawing in another long breath. He repeats the motion several times. Gradually he feels his hammering heart begin to slow down.

“Better?”

Sherlock nods.

John reaches down to push the sweat-soaked hair off of Sherlock’s brow, his eyes full of tenderness and something else, something that seems to spark like a living flame at the center of each iris.

“John.” Sherlock’s voice is a low rasp.

“Yes, my love?”

“What you just did…that was…”

Sherlock shakes his head. He wants to convey to John what it meant to him, but there are no words to describe the feeling.

John bends down to kiss his temple and Sherlock can feel his smile in the curve of his lips. “I’m glad you liked it. I was hoping it might have a positive effect on you, but I must say, it went over even better than I had hoped.”

When John sits back, his eyes are full of the same bright fondness, his hand still soft in Sherlock’s hair. “I keep thinking, ‘This, this is Sherlock at his most beautiful,’ and then, I see a new side of you, and I have to amend that thought. It keeps happening, so I think it’s safe to say that you are simply growing more beautiful every moment.”

Sherlock flushes hot at John’s words. His voice is shy. “You think I’m beautiful now?”

Sherlock feels like a sponge that has just been wrung out—his body limp, his hair damp with sweat. He is still shaking lightly from the effects of his orgasm; he feels weak, fragile.

John’s face softens at the doubt in Sherlock’s voice. The hand in Sherlock’s hair pushes through the tangle of curls, and Sherlock responds immediately to the feeling, face lifting into the touch, body relaxing. If he were a cat, he would be purring.

“You look like a mermaid just pulled out of the sea—dark hair soaking wet, blue eyes bright, your red mouth the color of sea poppies.”

John’s voice is low and heavy. It seems to work on Sherlock like a spell. That, combined with the feel of his fingers, combing slowly through Sherlock’s hair, pulls Sherlock down into an almost trance-like state.

“Your body is trembling at the shock of the air, the shock of seeing a man with two legs instead of a tail, a dangerous man who surely wants to devour you. He keeps licking his lips, and looking at your mouth, and when he finally leans into kiss you, you think your heart will stop for fear of him, because you do not know what kissing is, and when his mouth opens on your mouth, you are certain he is going to eat you up.”

Sherlock wants to laugh at John’s words, wants to say in an incredulous voice, ‘Sea poppies? Surely, there is no such plant,’ but there is something darkly romantic about John’s words, and the tug of his fingers in Sherlock’s hair, the possessive slide of his hand on Sherlock’s hip makes Sherlock gasp in shocked delight just as John leans down to kiss him.

The kiss is slow and soft and Sherlock parts his lips for John, inviting him to deepen the kiss. John does, and when his tongue slides into Sherlock’s mouth, he tastes completely different, and Sherlock realizes with a little shock that he is tasting himself on John’s tongue. The thought makes him warm all over and press closer into John.

When Sherlock pulls back after several moments to catch his breath, he says to John, in a quiet voice. “I think the same thing about you, you know.”

John’s voice is playful but his eyes are dark. “You’re afraid I’m going to eat you up?”

“No,” Sherlock says with a shake of his head. “That you grow more beautiful every time I look at you.”

“Oh, Sherlock…”

Sherlock hears the break in John’s voice before John bends down to kiss him again, his mouth trembling against Sherlock’s, his lashes flickering on Sherlock’s cheeks as he tilts his head to kiss him deeper.

John’s eyelashes feel wet against Sherlock’s skin, and he pulls back slowly, a note of admonishment in his voice. “John, you’re not crying again, are you?”

John’s shaky burst of laughter in response is all the confirmation Sherlock needs, and he leans back all the way to look sternly up at John, who’s rubbing a fist against his eyes, and smiling in apology.

“I suppose you’re disappointed that a man who survived three years of war at sea goes to pieces at any sign of affection.”

The stern expression stays on Sherlock’s face. “That isn’t what I was thinking at all.”

John sniffs and blinks the last of his tears away.

Sherlock’s voice goes soft. “I was thinking you’re even beautiful when you’re crying.”

“Oh Lord.” John puts a hand up over his mouth as several new tears well up in his eyes.

Sherlock sits up so he can wrap his fingers around John’s wrist and pull John’s hand away from his mouth. He places a gentle hand against John’s cheek, and then leans in to kiss the tear that is sliding past John’s down-turned mouth.

“Don’t cry, John.” His voice is soft and pleading. “It makes me sad.”

“Alright,” John says. He reaches up and places his hand over Sherlock’s where it’s cupping his face. He offers Sherlock a watery smile. “Anything for you. My sea flower, my mermaid, my impossible beauty.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Sherlock whispers, but he’s blushing with pleasure.

Sherlock is still holding John’s wrist in his other hand. John’s pulse is a pleasant flutter against his fingers. For the hundredth time that night he thinks how remarkable it is that he gets to see John like this, so soft and open, that Sherlock gets to have him, so strong, so warm, and his to touch.

He wants to go on kissing John all night long, exploring John’s body with his mouth—there is so much of him to taste, to touch—but the candle on Sherlock’s desk is guttering in its pool of wax, and fatigue is crowding in to slow his thoughts.

John must see his weariness in his face because he smoothes a thumb over the back of Sherlock’s hand, and says, “I think it’s time we got cleaned up.”

Sherlock nods, sighing as John pulls his hand away, and climbs from the bed, his movements as graceful and efficient as ever.

Sherlock watches with sleepy contentment as John pours water from the pitcher on his desk into the pewter basin, his eyes moving appreciatively over the strong lines in the backs of John’s bare thighs and over the muscular curves of his buttocks. John should never be allowed to wear clothes again, Sherlock thinks sleepily as he reaches for the towel nearby, the muscles in his back leaping to vivid life under the soft touch of the candlelight.

This is not the first time Sherlock has seen John’s naked back, but it’s the first time he’s had a chance to study it in detail up close, and for the first time, he sees all the little scars crisscrossing the golden flesh, some of them small and very fine, but others, deeper, longer, the evidence of much more grievous wounds. Sherlock wonders with a feeling of growing horror what might have caused them all.

There is one that is worse than all the others, a deep knot of scarred-over flesh on John’s left shoulder, and Sherlock feels a tightening in his belly at the sight of it. John said he was wounded in the war against the French, that’s what finally got him sent home—the scar on his shoulder must be the result of that wound.

John sets the basin on the chair by Sherlock’s bed, and dips the towel in it, wringing it out before he turns toward Sherlock to wipe the stickiness from his belly.

“What is it?” John asks, seeing Sherlock’s face.

“Your back,” Sherlock says, his voice soft. “So many scars.”

John’s expression goes hard. “Yes.”

“The one on your shoulder it—is that the wound that took you out of commission?”

John’s hands are gentle as he wipes Sherlock clean, but his face is still hard and distant. “Yes.”

Sherlock’s voice shrinks with fear. “What about all the others?”

John turns to wring the cloth out over the basin, and Sherlock thinks he wrings it harder than he normally might—the whiteness of his knuckles evidence of the pressure. Sherlock cannot see John’s face from where he’s standing and John is quiet for several moments as he cleans himself briskly and efficiently.

When he turns back around, his face is softer but the hard look in his eyes remains. “I’ll tell you someday. Not right now.”

“Alright,” Sherlock says with a sinking feeling, now regretting that he ever asked. He wishes he could take back the question.

John bends over Sherlock’s desk to blow the dying candle out. As he’s straightening up, a loud crash sounds from beyond the door. John’s body tenses in response, immediately poised for action, but he relaxes as several loud and slurring voices follow the noise. It is the sound of several drunken passengers descending the stairs from the upper deck, returning at last from the party to their cabins.

The disruption breaks the uneasiness of the moment, and as John climbs back onto the bed and leans over Sherlock to blow out the candle on the wall, in the moment before the flame goes out, Sherlock sees a smile on his face.

John slides in next to Sherlock, reaching down to pull the sheets up around them both, and Sherlock is so overcome with delight at the prospect that John is going to stay and sleep with him that it takes him several moments to realize John is speaking.

“What?” Sherlock whispers with numb lips, distracted by the feel of John’s warm leg pressing in against his, the curl of John’s toes as he stretches.

“I said, it’s a good thing the party proved such a hit with the passengers.”

Another crash from the corridor confirms John’s words, followed by the sound of raucous laughter.

Sherlock holds himself very still, heart pounding hard against his ribs. He is frightened in spite of himself, remembering with a sudden lurch of unpleasantness just how thin the walls really are, how flimsy a barrier they provide between him and John, and the hostile world of the surrounding ship.

He had forgotten—all through the slow unfurling beauty of their lovemaking—he had forgotten entirely that he and John were not alone in the world. For Sherlock in the last few hours, the whole world had shrunk to the four walls of his narrow cabin, bathed in the light of the candles, heated by the warmth of their bodies coming together.

Sherlock remembers now with sudden, stinging clarity how John begged him to be quiet, how he failed to do so. A slow trickle of horror creeps cold through the pit of Sherlock’s stomach at the realization of just how loud he really was.

“John?” Sherlock whispers in the dark, his voice catching in his throat with fear. “Do you think they heard us?”

“Oh, my love. Come here.”

John’s arms pull Sherlock to him in the dark, and Sherlock acquiesces gratefully, lets John turn his body gently so that he is on his side and John is lying close behind him, tucking his hips in against the curve of Sherlock’s arse.

One of John’s strong arms folds in around Sherlock’s waist, and Sherlock settles back against him with a happy sigh, already feeling calmer, more at ease.

John’s voice is warm against the back of Sherlock’s neck. “No, I don’t think they heard us. I think we were very lucky that the party went so late and that the alcohol was freely flowing. I think most of them were still above deck when we came down, and I imagine the ones already in their rooms were stone cold drunk.”

Sherlock is quiet for a moment, considering this. He feels some of his fear begin to recede.

“However, we’re going to have to be more careful in future. We will not always be so lucky.”

Sherlock feels a twinge of regret move through him. “I’m sorry, John.”

“Oh, love, there’s no need for you to be sorry.” John tightens his arms around Sherlock. “Believe me when I tell you that I want to hear every gasp and cry of pleasure that comes out of your mouth. It kills me to have to tell you to be quiet.” John’s voice is low with sorrow. “But under the circumstances, we have no choice.”

“I know,” Sherlock says in a small voice. He squeezes John back with all his might.

“As much as I’ve grown accustomed to a life at sea sometimes I wish…”

John’s voice is full of yearning, and Sherlock wishes, not for the first time in his life that he was better at comprehending other people’s emotions. There is so much feeling in John’s voice but Sherlock cannot pull apart all the threads to begin to sort out what they are.

“What?” Sherlock asks, uncertain whether he should.

John sighs. “Sometimes I wish that things were different.”

Sherlock does not know what to say to this, so he stays quiet, holding tight to John’s arm.

John’s fingers are moving meditatively against the skin of Sherlock’s belly, through the hair below his belly button. Sherlock shivers in appreciation, pushes closer back against John’s hips.

“John?”

“Mmm?”

“Are you going stay with me all night?”

John presses a kiss to Sherlock’s hair. “I’ll stay with you until the sun comes up and then I’ll have to get back.”

John’s fingers continue their slow, hypnotic movement. Sherlock can hear John’s breathing growing steadier behind him, can feel the press of John’s belly against his back with every exhaled breath. Contentment spirals through Sherlock, slow and sweet. He cannot remember ever feeling so happy. His body feels heavy and sleepy. Sherlock closes his eyes.

“John,” Sherlock whispers, after they have been lying quietly for a time. “Will you sing to me?”

John says nothing, but he shifts against Sherlock, his body curling closer, slightly adjusting his head on the pillow beside Sherlock and Sherlock knows John’s answer by his movements.

In a voice so soft it can only be for Sherlock, John begins to sing in a language Sherlock has never heard.

The melody is beautiful, sweet and haunting, the strange syllables on John’s tongue so close to Sherlock’s ear, so intimate and dark with feeling that Sherlock shivers at the sound.

Although he cannot understand the words, Sherlock can guess at the meaning from the depth of feeling in John’s voice. It is both sad and sweet at once. John’s voice sounds like light piercing through dark clouds, like high cliffs coming into view over the sea through a veil of mist.

The sound of it makes Sherlock’s chest ache, although if you asked him why, he could not put the feeling into words.

Sleep comes to claim him before John has finished singing, tiptoeing up behind Sherlock to draw him down into deep dreams.

Chapter Text

Sherlock’s dreams are heavy and deep, carrying him far from the narrow bunk where he lies between John Watson’s arms, down into the shimmering landscape at the bottom of the sea.

He dreams of the ocean floor, its caverns and dark grottos, peaks of coral rising up like pale mountains to break the surface of the waves, covered here and there with strange flowers that open and close in the gentle rhythm of the surf, frail golden tendrils uncurling from each flower’s mouth only to recede at the slightest sign of movement.

He dreams of beds of white sand that stretch on and on like rolling plains, illuminated by the sunlight far overhead, striped with green in places from the gloom of nearby weeds.

He seems to float above it all, as though he himself were a fish, a member of this world to which he does not belong, privy to its secrets, its mysteries and dreams.

He dreams of things he can’t remember, images that flicker and fade as soon as they awake within him, vanishing like the storm of bubbles that evaporate in the trail of some underwater creature.

He dreams of a city sunk beneath the sea, its spires and turrets coated dark with algae, the delicate majesty of its intricate architecture now home for schools of fish. Where light once shone upon its rooftops, radiant and clear, now shadows creep and stretch dark fingers over crumbling stone. Eels wind their way through the arches in the colonnade and polyps climb the spines of buildings like multi-colored hands. Where panes of glass once gleamed silver in the sunlight now blank windows gape like empty eyes.

Sherlock drifts above it all, feels an ache within him at the sight, sorrow rising in his heart like a wave breaking over a dam, and just as he wonders how a city came to rest at the bottom of the ocean, he awakens with a gasp to darkness.

He does not know what woke him—some sound from beyond his door, some disturbance in the corridor. Or perhaps the movement of the ship changed subtly. Sherlock lies, eyes stretched wide in the darkness and listens, but the steady creak and groan of the hull around him does not change in tempo.

Something else, then.

Sherlock is so focused on discovering the source of the sound that it takes him a moment to register the feeling of the body curled against him. Looking down through the darkness, Sherlock can just make out the soft contours of John Watson sleeping soundly, his body turned in toward Sherlock, one arm stretched over Sherlock’s hip, his mouth slightly open, his breathing even and deep, golden lashes heavy on his cheeks.

The sight of him, the feel of his solid warmth against Sherlock’s side and the spool of lovely memories his presence brings, fills Sherlock with a spike of joy so fierce it feels like pain. A tiny sob of agonized relief escapes his mouth and Sherlock lifts a hand to muffle the sound, for fear that he will wake John.

It was real then, everything that happened. It wasn’t just a dream.

He settles back against John, head tucked in against John’s chest and lets the soothing rhythm of John’s heartbeat underneath his cheek lull him back to sleep, back to the world of dreaming.

Sherlock dreams he hears the noise again. He dreams it is the rush of angry footsteps pounding down the stairs, that he and John are discovered naked, twined together, the full measure of their sins made glaringly apparent as the flimsy cabin door bangs open, grey daylight rushing in. The entire population of the ship streams forward, fills the room, Anderson at the head of the commotion, sneering and pointing, his smug face twisted up with satisfaction, saying over and over, ‘I told you! I told you they were in here together! Didn’t I tell you?’

The captain seizes Sherlock by the hair and pulls him from the bed into the corridor. John, leaping after, his nudity somehow rendering him all the more glorious, his body lit up by the splendor of his fury like Achilles charging in the heat of battle, jaw clenched and muscles gleaming, but before he can reach Sherlock’s side, he is restrained. It takes half a dozen men to seize him, and when they finally succeed, his arms pinned to his heaving sides, John roars like a lion they have chained.

They drag the pair of them up on deck—John is brave and ferocious and golden, standing completely upright, not a drop of his magnificence tarnished by their filthy hands on his arms. In contrast, Sherlock feels bowed down by the weight of their hateful stares. He is hunched over, shivering in the cold light of dawn, his pale arms drawn around himself, terror and fury and shame all mingling in his belly in equal measure, the captain still holding tight to a fistful of Sherlock’s air.

“The punishment for the sins which you have committed—is DEATH!”

There is no time to think, no time to protest. He and John are pushed together, their shoulders knocking hard against one another, the crowd surging in behind them with shouts and jeers to press them toward the edge of the deck. John takes hold of Sherlock’s hand, squeezes it tightly as they’re driven toward the railing. The last thing Sherlock sees before they’re shoved over the edge is Anderson’s maniacal, grinning face stretched in a rictus of demonic glee.

“PUSH THEM IN!” he screams, and then they are falling over the side of the ship, down into dark water.

Down, down they plummet, their hands clasped tightly, Sherlock’s legs kicking hard to stop their descent, but his efforts are useless against the force of their plunging bodies.

They break the surface and all the furor of the yelling crowd is swallowed in a single heartbeat by the silence of the waves.

Down, down they sink, never stopping, Sherlock’s legs still kicking weakly without result, the water growing darker the further they sink.

Sherlock’s eyes follow helplessly the stream of silver bubbles pouring from his nose as they travel downward, and he looks up to see the webs of light stretched overhead, bisecting the dark hull of the retreating ship, painting lines through the water like the arches on the inside of a cathedral.

Death may be all around them in the water, but oh, what beauty there is too, down here among the green.

John turns to him, pulling Sherlock close by the grip of his hand.

“Breathe into me. We’ll live down here together, we’ll be safe.”

Sherlock tries to answer but his words all turn to bubbles.

Sherlock cannot breathe underwater; neither of them can. Sherlock knows this but he does not know how to communicate it to John, John whose short golden hair is rippling in the movement of the current, whose smiling face bears no awareness of the knowledge that they will surely drown.

Maybe Sherlock is wrong. Maybe John can breathe beneath the water. After all John is practically a god in human form.

But Sherlock knows that he cannot. He does not even know how to swim. He can feel the water pulling on him, like long fingers trying to drag him down.

Already it has been too long. His lungs are tightening, his field of vision shrinking as he fights for breath.

John pulls Sherlock to him, dawning horror on his face as he realizes what is happening, too late, too late—his mouth closing over Sherlock’s in desperation.

But John is only human. His last breath is not enough.

The last thing Sherlock sees before the darkness takes him is the sorrowful curve of John’s mouth opening before him, screaming his name.

Sherlock wakes with a start to the feel of John’s hand on his shoulder, his John, real John, shaking him awake.

Sherlock turns toward him with a gasp, heart still pounding in his chest.

“Sherlock?”

John’s worried face is leaning down over him. The light in Sherlock’s room is dim, but it is no longer the pitch black of night so he can make out the concern stark on John’s face. “Are you alright?”

“You’re here,” Sherlock breathes in wonder, not yet able to dim the raw admiration in his voice so recently pulled from his dreams.

John lifts a gentle hand to Sherlock’s face. “Yes, of course, I’m here.”

Despite the terror of his dream, Sherlock’s body feels soft and warm, and Sherlock realizes with a little shock of delight that John is still curled around him, just as he was when Sherlock fell asleep, hips tucked in against Sherlock’s thigh.

Sherlock turns toward him with a happy sigh, burying his face in against John’s shoulder. He inhales deeply, savoring the scent that is so distinctly John’s. When he speaks, his voice is muffled by John’s warm skin. “I was afraid it might have all been a dream.”

John pushes his fingers through Sherlock’s hair. “No, love. It really happened. I’m really here.” His fingers card through Sherlock’s hair, and then gently he guides Sherlock’s face until he can see him. His voice is filled with tenderness. “And I really love you.”

Sherlock gasps softly with delight. Every time John says it, it is a revelation to him.

Sherlock shifts forward on his elbows and leans in to press his mouth to John’s.

John tastes different after sleeping, warmer and softer—somehow more like himself—and Sherlock loves every bit of it.

There is faint stubble on John’s jaw that wasn’t there last night; it’s scratchy against Sherlock’s mouth. He rubs his cheek against it and feels a spark of pleasure skip down his spine.

Sherlock wants to rub his face all over John, discover every part of him with his mouth, but John pulls back, worry still present in his eyes.

“You were whimpering in your sleep.” He reaches up to smooth the hair back off Sherlock’s forehead. “What were you dreaming about?”

Sherlock drops his face back down against John’s chest.

“I dreamed they found us.”

John’s arms come up around him, wrapping warm around Sherlock’s back. “Oh, love.”

“They burst in through the door and dragged us out of bed. They brought us up on deck, then pushed us overboard to drown.”

Sherlock shivers with dread at the memory of Anderson’s face twisted in hatred, the cold dark water closing in over their heads. He feels John’s arms tighten around him.

“You tried to save me underwater. You told me you could breathe for me, that we could live down there together. But I couldn’t do it. You tried to save me but you couldn’t. We were drowning, John. We were both going to drown.”

John’s arms shift against him. “Sherlock, I want you to look at me.”

Sherlock looks up at the note of urgency in John’s voice, and sees John looking at him with deadly seriousness.

“I want you to listen to me very carefully. Are you listening?”

Sherlock nods.

“No harm is going to come to you while you are onboard this ship. Do you hear me? While I am still alive to draw breath, they will not dare touch a single hair on your head, is that understood? They will not hurt you. I will not allow it.”

It’s absurd; it’s an absurd promise to make, impossible to carry out. As strong as John may be, as determined as he is, he is only one man. The ship is staffed by dozens of men. If even half of them put their minds to subduing John, they would win. There is no question about it. Simply by sheer force of numbers, they would win. But something in John’s voice, in his demeanor, inspires absolute belief in Sherlock, makes a chill run down his spine, makes the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

The glimmer of fire that lies at the center of John has rarely had cause to make itself known, but now is one of those times when Sherlock can see it blazing out of him, can see why John survived being pressed to sea with no knowledge of seamanship, why he was able to endure three years in service at war with the French, loading the cannons and lowering the sails in the heat of battle, three years spent up to his knees in blood and bilge-water sawing off men’s legs in the stinking bowels of ships that were being blown to pieces all around him.

There is steel at the core of John Watson that Sherlock has yet to truly witness, that makes him wonder if there is nothing this man cannot accomplish if he sets his mind to it.

Sherlock finds himself nodding, utterly in awe by the change in John’s whole regard.

“Good,” John says, and seems to soften slightly, but the crackle of energy in the air around him in the wake of his speech lingers on, sets Sherlock’s heart to pounding.

“John,” Sherlock says, feeling slightly dazzled in the presence of this new John. He feels as though he has just taken several long pulls from the flask John carries in his jacket. He feels light-headed, his skin spark-shivering with heat.

“Yes, my love?”

“You’re incredible,” he breathes, the awe in his own voice painfully evident.

John laughs softly in response and the feeling of John laughing against him, this John who is so fierce and full of strength, who commands such immediate respect simply with the look on his face, that he can laugh so openly and warmly, just moments after, his torso shaking under Sherlock—that all this can be contained in one small person—it is almost too much for Sherlock to take.

He crawls up John’s body to get nearer to his laughing mouth.

“John,” he says again; this time his voice is pleading. “John, kiss me.”

John’s eyes go dark and he slides his hands low on Sherlock’s back, just above the swell of his arse, to pull Sherlock in against him.

John kisses him long and deep, his mouth opening under Sherlock’s with a low groan that seems pulled out of him almost against his will. The sound of it makes desire leap to life in Sherlock’s belly, makes Sherlock spread his legs around John’s muscular thigh and rub himself against John in a slow, needful thrust.

John’s tongue is warm in Sherlock’s mouth; pushing softly against his own, and then John’s hands are sliding down to cup his arse, fingers kneading at the muscled flesh.

Sherlock makes a whimpering sound and thrusts against John’s thigh again, his tongue slipping over John’s.

Much to Sherlock’s disappointment, John breaks the kiss and falls back against the pillows, breathing hard.

“We can’t do this now.” His voice sounds resolute, even though his face is filled with longing.

Sherlock wriggles down against him, chasing John’s mouth with his own. “Why not?”

John tips his chin up, pushing his mouth into Sherlock’s until their lips brush, in a not-quite kiss. “The sun is almost up.” John pushes a hand through Sherlock’s hair. The touch feels full of sorrow. “I have to leave you.”

A tiny trickle of cold despair stirs in Sherlock’s chest but he ignores it.

He opens his mouth against John’s, licks the lovely soft expanse of John’s pink bottom lip.

John’s eyes flutter shut in response, another groan sounding low in his throat.

“Not quite yet,” Sherlock says. “They haven’t rung the bells.”

Sherlock lets his mouth skim down John’s jaw to the softer skin under his chin. He licks the skin there experimentally. John’s breath comes out in a hard rush.

“My love…” Sherlock presses his tongue against John’s neck, searching for his pulse. He wants to feel the life of John pounding underneath his tongue. His tongue slides, seeking. John’s hand clenches in his hair. “My love.” His voice is breathless. “I need to get up top before anyone…sees me. I should go now.”

Sherlock knows that John is right. He knows he should let John up, but John’s body is so warm beneath his, John’s skin is salty underneath his tongue, and apart from his words, John is making no sign of protest at the downward progression of Sherlock’s hot, inquisitive mouth.

He licks all the way down the side of John’s neck, marveling at the flex of muscle underneath his tongue as John’s head turns slightly. He continues down, pausing to lap at the hollow in his collarbone, and then down to John’s chest until he reaches the tiny pale pink circle of flesh, which he runs his tongue over experimentally, delighted at the way it stiffens immediately beneath his tongue. Sherlock licks at it again and when John gasps involuntarily, his torso arching under Sherlock’s mouth, Sherlock decides in that moment to be completely shameless. He decides it’s worth the risk.

Sherlock shifts his weight onto his elbows so that he can reposition himself, settling the aching flesh of his now very present erection down against John’s groin. They are still both completely nude, the only thing covering their nakedness the sheet twisted around them both, so when Sherlock presses his hips down into John’s, he is rewarded by the stiff heat of John’s very full and very naked cock sliding in against his own.

John’s breath leaves him in a hiss.

Oh, Oh, Oh—the feel of John against him, the feel of John’s hard cock hot pressing in against his own is so good for a moment Sherlock cannot breathe. What an utterly ingenious idea. Why has Sherlock never thought of this before?

Sherlock’s weight is still on his elbows—although his arms have started to shake from the effort of holding himself up. He lowers his mouth down to John’s and breathes a plea into John’s open mouth. “Please, John, please. Don’t go yet. We can be quick. Just don’t—” He rolls his hips and they both groan together. “Don’t—leave…just yet.”

John’s breathing is labored, his body tense beneath Sherlock’s.

“You are a very bad influence, Sherlock Holmes.” John’s fingers clench on Sherlock’s arse, prompting Sherlock to thrust forward with his hips again, causing lovely friction all along his aching cock. The added realization that the friction is the result of John’s own erection dragging over his, makes Sherlock’s eyelids flutter shut with a soft moan of pleasure.

“God help me, I don’t think I could leave now if I wanted to.”

John lets out a stuttered breath of air, presses his forehead into Sherlock’s.

“Alright, my love. You want it quick? I’ll make it quick.” There is a hard edge suddenly in John’s voice, a roughness that makes Sherlock think of smoke and gunpowder, of John yelling orders over the roar of cannon fire. His eyes are dark in the dim light of Sherlock’s cabin but there is something dangerous glittering at the center of each pupil. The sight of it makes Sherlock shiver in anticipation.

John shifts beneath him; he spreads his legs, bending his knees and settling his feet flat against the bed so Sherlock is effectively clenched between them. Then, using his grip on Sherlock’s arse to guide Sherlock’s movements he begins to thrust up against him, pulling Sherlock down to meet him as he pushes up.

The new position means their cocks are sliding directly over one another, trapped between their bodies. The resulting sensation makes Sherlock gasp aloud, his arms shaking harder than ever as he struggles to hold himself up.

“How’s that?” John asks, his teeth flashing briefly as he grins up at Sherlock.

“It’s… uhhh.” Sherlock’s words evaporate into the sound of a moan as John drags Sherlock’s body harder down against him. Sherlock can feel the muscles flexing in John’s strong thighs as he thrusts, each powerful stroke of his body causing more sweet friction against Sherlock’s throbbing cock.

“Tell me what it feels like,” John says, something commanding in his voice as he lifts his mouth up for a kiss. Sherlock takes it, breathing messily into John’s mouth as their lips slide together.

“It’s so good, John,” he gasps, his own breath panting out around his words. “You feel s-so good.”

“Do I?” John asks, his eyes glinting in the brightening room. “Tell me, Sherlock. Tell me how it feels.”

Sherlock is rocking his hips in time with John’s thrusts, faster now, more controlled; John’s hands on his arse have helped him find the right rhythm.

There is slickness between them, and Sherlock cannot be sure if it is the result of his own leaking cock or John’s, but the feeling of it makes him groan, long and low, dropping his head between his arms as he thrusts.

“It’s so good,” Sherlock slurs, feeling drunk with pleasure, desperate to convey to John just how good it is. “I’ve never felt anything—anything¬—like this, like you. Oh God, John, you’re m-magnificent. You’re everything.”

John digs his fingers into Sherlock’s arse in response to Sherlock’s words, and Sherlock hears John make a sound that can only be described as a growl.

It feels so good but it’s not quite enough. Sherlock wants more pressure, more of John against him.

He plants his hands on the mattress on either side of John, pushing himself up with a shaky burst of strength, so he has a better angle to push back against John.

His thrusts renew their vigor, but still it’s not enough.

Sherlock locks his eyes with John, biting at his lips. He feels a drop of sweat glide down his temple, licks more sweat off his upper lip before opening his mouth to speak. “Harder, John. Please. Please.”

John curses and the sound of it, so filthy in John’s breathless voice makes Sherlock drive his own hips harder down against John, faster, losing the careful rhythm that John has established, his movements uneven, desperate.

“You want it faster?”

“Y-yes, John,” Sherlock pants.

“You want it harder?”

Sherlock nods, whimpering.

“I need to hear you say it, love.”

“Yes! Please, John. Please!” Sherlock whines.

“Shh.”

John slides one hand up Sherlock’s back into his sweat-soaked curls to pull Sherlock’s mouth down against him, his other hand sliding up to rub circles into Sherlock’s lower back. Sherlock whimpers at the loss of John’s hands on his arse, at the loss of the added pressure, his hips bucking wildly.

John slips his tongue into Sherlock’s mouth, and Sherlock gasps in conflicted pleasure. The slow sweep of John’s tongue over his feels so good but he’s desperate for more friction on his cock. He ruts against John, keening into his mouth with need.

“Shh. Quiet, my love. I know. I know exactly what you need.”

“J-John.” Sherlock pushes his quivering body into John’s, unable to ask for what he wants, senseless to almost everything except for the feeling of the blood pumping through his cock.

“I know.” John kisses him again, as if in apology, and then murmurs. “Lift your hips for me, love. Just a bit. I’m going to make you feel so good I promise. That’s it.”

John’s hand shifts from Sherlock’s lower back to reach between their bodies, and Sherlock jerks violently as he feels John’s fingers slide in against him.

“Just you wait,” John whispers against Sherlock’s swollen mouth, his own voice trembling slightly. “It’s going to feel so good.”

And then all of Sherlock’s breath leaves him, because John has wrapped his hand not only around Sherlock’s cock, but also his own—the two of them together in his grip, the hard, throbbing heat of both of them contained within the circle of John’s fist—and finally, finally it’s the right amount of friction, of pressure that Sherlock has been craving, as John’s hand begins to stroke.

Sherlock moans into John’s mouth, the sound long and guttural, pulled out from somewhere deep within him, his hips rocking into John’s hand in time with his strokes, John’s body rising against him in response. The feel of John’s fingers moving over him combined with the slick length of John’s cock so hot and velvet-soft against his own—it feels so good that Sherlock is afraid he will go mad with pleasure.

John begins to stroke faster and Sherlock thrusts against him with abandon, a chorus of small, desperate noises forming in the depths of his throat.

Sherlock bites down hard on his bottom lip to stop the noises—aware in some distant corner of his brain that he isn’t meant to make a sound, but it’s hard. John feels so good, too good, the slick thrusting heat of John’s cock against his own is almost more pleasure than he can take, the steady rhythm of John’s hand pulling on his cock in long even strokes better than anything Sherlock has ever felt.

His arms are shaking on either side of John—he’s biting his lip so hard he’s about to break the skin. He can feel the peak of his pleasure drawing closer, like a wave gathering force, tightening the muscles in his belly and his legs.

John is making little panting sounds beneath him as he strokes the two of them in his fist. Sherlock risks a look down at him, and can’t stop the groan that pours out of his throat at the sight of John, pink lips parted, tongue pressed against the corner of his mouth, his heavy-lidded eyes focused on the place where their bodies come together, on the movement of his hand between them—the obscene thrust of Sherlock’s hips each time they come to meet him.

John sees Sherlock watching him, lifts his chin in invitation and Sherlock bends down to press his mouth to John’s. He tries to kiss him but he’s too far gone to complete the action with any kind of precision. Instead, his mouth slips wetly over John’s, John’s tongue coming out to meet him, tracing the swollen length of Sherlock’s bottom lip.

Sherlock whimpers into the kiss and feels John speeding up his strokes.

“How does it feel?” John gasps, his words more heat than sound against Sherlock’s mouth.

“S-so, so good. It’s so good, John.” Sherlock shakes his head, feels sweat running down his temple into his hair.

“You’re so gorgeous when you’re like this, do you know that?” John breathes into Sherlock’s mouth, the movement of his hand slowing momentarily as he pushes his mouth closer against Sherlock’s. “The way you feel in my hand…”

Sherlock feels John’s thumb circling the sensitive head of his cock, and he cries out, hips twitching, desperate for John to re-establish the speed of a moment before.

John slides a hand up into Sherlock’s sweat-soaked curls. His eyes are dark and brutal. “You’re going to come when I say so, alright?”

“Y-yes, John,” Sherlock pants, his whole body shuddering.

“Only when I tell you,” John says, his voice a tendril of heat uncurling between them as his hand begins to speed up again. “You beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Sherlock holds his mouth there, panting into John’s as John licks at him, tiny little swipes of his tongue against Sherlock’s, the softest moans sounding in the base of John’s throat, and it’s as if he’s offering them to Sherlock, these sounds he’s making just for Sherlock, sliding into Sherlock’s open mouth and down his throat, and that gesture—the lapping of John’s tongue against his own is so soft, so wet, so utterly obscene that Sherlock can feel his limbs start to shake as the pleasure builds within him, tightening and tightening.

“J-John,” Sherlock gasps, terrified that he is going to break John’s reprimand because he cannot hold it off any longer—he can feel the first ripples building in him low and sweet. He tries to stop himself, tries to hold his body still to keep the exploding force of his pleasure at bay. “I’m—I’m going to…”

“Yes, my love,” John says, pushing his mouth up into Sherlock’s. “Come for me now.”

Then John is lifting his legs and wrapping them around the backs of Sherlock’s thighs, pressing in just below his arse, pulling Sherlock in against him with the grip of his legs.

Sherlock was already too far gone to pull himself back from the edge, but the feeling of John’s muscular thighs gripping his body, pulling him in down close to John’s, John’s knuckles dragging over the skin of Sherlock’s belly as his hand works the slippery heat of both of their erections marks the beginning of the end.

Sherlock drops his head, his elbows giving way as pleasure rips through the center of him, coursing through his body in great shuddering waves. His body stiffens against John, the muscles in his arse pulled taut, hips bearing down as he shoots pulse after pulse of warm sticky liquid between them.

He presses his face in against John’s neck, muffling his cries in the damp skin of John’s throat, and his cock is still twitching through the aftershocks when he feels John arch up beneath him with a bitten-off cry.

He hears John swear once, feels John’s fingers clenching in his hair, his fingers tightening around them both, pushing, pushing against Sherlock with all his body’s strength and Sherlock marvels at the force of it, the heat of John against him, the warm liquid of John’s release against his belly.

Sherlock collapses hard against John’s chest, and lies completely boneless on top of him, panting into his neck as John’s body slowly sinks beneath him back down to the mattress.

He can feel John’s breathing against him, rapid and erratic, John’s hand smoothing through the damp hair on the back of his neck, over the quivering muscles in his back, rubbing soothing circles.

Sherlock’s whole body is still trembling lightly, his lips pressed in against John’s neck. He feels John press a kiss to the top of his sweaty curls.

“How are you, my love?”

Sherlock lifts his head with effort. When his voice emerges from his throat it comes out dry and cracked. “Thirsty.”

John chuckles against him and kisses his temple. “I bet you are. Here.”

He leans over and reaches for the pitcher of water and the cup that Sherlock keeps beside his bed. One-handed, he pours water into the cup and then settles back against Sherlock, raising the cup to his lips. “Drink.”

Sherlock sits up a little to do so, and obediently parts his lips, suddenly aware of just how thirsty he is as John tips the cup, and the cool liquid slides into his mouth. He gulps at it, desperate, feels water spill down over his chin.

John holds it for him until Sherlock has drained the contents of the cup. He sets it back down, before reaching out to wipe the water from the corners of Sherlock’s mouth with fond fingers.

“I’m sorry if I was a little rough there towards the end.”

“No!” Sherlock says and lifts himself up onto his elbows. “You were magnificent. John, you were—”

He looks down and sees John’s warm blue eyes watching him, gone soft—a deeper blue than he has ever seen them.

“Yes?” John asks, one corner of his mouth quirking up in a smile.

“Oh, John.” Sherlock says, overcome, and bends down to kiss the smile off of John’s lovely mouth.

He lies with his chest pressed against John’s, feeling the steady rhythm of John’s heartbeat underneath his own, and all over again, the thought of John leaving fills him with a fresh wave of despair.

“Don’t go back,” Sherlock whispers against John’s chest, needy, desperate, heedless of the fact that he knows his words are nonsense; that of course, John has to go back, that he should have left five minutes ago. The sun is surely up by now. It’s difficult to judge precisely in Sherlock’s windowless chamber, but the thin line of grey light creeping in beneath the door has grown brighter and Sherlock knows they can’t ignore it for much longer.

“Stay with me,” he begs, knowing the request is impossible, cruel even because John will want to honor it.

“I can’t, my love,” John says, tightening his arms around Sherlock and Sherlock can hear the pain in his voice as clearly as he can see the light seeping in under the door.

“I know.” And then Sherlock feels ashamed, and he buries his face in John’s neck and refuses to let him up.

John’s hands stroke his back for several moments more and then John is shifting his arms on Sherlock’s shoulders, hands sliding down to hold Sherlock by his upper arms, his voice apologetic.

“I’ve got to go.”

Sherlock nods, once, silent and miserable, his mouth drawn into an unhappy bow.

“But I’ll be back.”

Sherlock says nothing, feels once again like a petulant child, embarrassed by the force of his emotion, unable to stop it.

“Sherlock?”

He feels soft fingers settling beneath his chin, pulling his gaze up.

“I’ll be back, all right?”

“I know,” he whispers, ashamed of his misery.

John kisses him on the forehead, the placement of his mouth so soft, so sweet that Sherlock wants to cry out from the touch of it almost as badly as he cried out when he came.

“I’ll be back with you again before you know it,” John says, gently shifting Sherlock off of him, lifting his body upright and swinging his legs over the side of Sherlock’s bunk.

He stands in one smooth, graceful motion and Sherlock curls over on his side, drawing his knees up against his chest.

Sherlock lies with his head on the pillow, and watches John brusquely and perfunctorily wipe the expanse of his belly and chest with a rag that he dips in the cold water from the pewter basin. He dabs under his arms and over his lovely, softened cock, and all of a sudden Sherlock wishes he was helping John instead of just lying and impotently watching him, but when he sits up, a question half-formed on his lips, John shakes his head.

“It’s alright,” he says, as if he knew instinctively what Sherlock was about to ask. “I know you want to help but I’ll be quicker if I do it myself.”

All too soon, John has pulled his trousers back on, dragged his shirt on over his head, and shrugged into his jacket. He’s just lacing up his shoes, the line of his back one strong beautiful curve for Sherlock’s eyes when the sound of the ship’s bells sound through the morning haze.

John turns to Sherlock who is sitting naked, with the sheet pooled in his lap; dark curls in disarray against his forehead, watching John with equal parts awe and sorrow. John leans in and presses one last kiss to Sherlock’s frowning mouth.

He’s turning back around to stand when Sherlock asks, his voice a breathless rush. "When will I see you again?"

"Soon."

"But when?" Sherlock presses, leaning forward to catch hold of John’s wrist in desperation.

Sherlock’s heart is pounding. He cannot explain the irrational feeling of dread that if John leaves his side everything that happened between them will vanish like a curl of smoke, as if John’s physical presence will take away all traces of the event, and it will be nothing more than a dream—as if John leaving his side means he will never see him again.

"I don't know," John says and there is real sorrow in his voice. "Whenever I can get away."

He takes hold of Sherlock’s hand. His fingers under Sherlock’s are so strong and warm.

"Tonight?" Sherlock asks, his voice a whisper.

"Perhaps,” John says, and squeezes his fingers.

Sherlock nods and ducks his head to hide the sorrow on his face. Looking down, he sees the gleam of silver on his chest.

“You should have this back,” he says, reaching behind his neck to undo the clasp but John stops him, wraps his fingers around Sherlock's own where they hold the locket and press it in against his heart.

“No,” John says, his voice firm but full of tenderness. “I want you to keep it for me. I want you to wear it. I don’t have many things I can give you. So let me give you this.”

Sherlock, awed by this gesture all over again looks down at where John's hand is folded over his, pressed in against his chest.

John places two gentle fingers under Sherlock’s chin and tilts his head to lift his gaze to John’s. John’s eyes are fathomless.

“Consider it my promise that I’ll come back to you. Consider it a symbol that my heart is yours, if you’ll have it. Will you, Sherlock?” John’s voice is as soft as breath. “Will you keep it safe for me?”

“Yes, of course,” Sherlock breathes and then John is kissing him, his hand sliding up to cup Sherlock’s cheek, pulling Sherlock’s mouth to him, his thin lips warm and full of feeling.

Sherlock lets the necklace drop back against his chest as he leans into the kiss, his whole body melting at the touch of John’s mouth, at John’s strong fingers so gentle on his face.

John pulls away far sooner than Sherlock would like, his breathing slightly unsteady.

"Now I really have to go."

He runs one hand down the curves of Sherlock’s face—his touch lingering, full of tenderness and Sherlock’s chest resounds with the feeling, like the tone of a bell.

“Goodbye, my beauty,” John says, his eyes soft and deep. “Get some rest.”

And then, before Sherlock can answer, John has slipped from the room, closing the door so softly behind him that it does not make a sound.

Chapter Text

Sherlock tries to follow John’s advice; he does. He tries to go back to sleep. John’s right, of course, he is worn out. He’s never experienced so much sensation, ever in his life. He knows, in some part of himself, that he is exhausted in a bone-deep, weary way, but he finds he cannot possibly fall back asleep.

For as exhausted as he is, he is also exhilarated.

Every time he shuts his eyes and tries to clear his mind and wait for sleep to come, his thoughts are flooded with memories of John’s hands against him, the glow of John’s body in the light of the candles, John’s soft, hot mouth under his own, John’s thighs gripping him, John’s lips tracing the tendon in his throat—the feeling of John’s cock beneath his hand. The sensations are too numerous for him to count, he wants to go over every one in his mind, relive every moment, obsessively catalogue each press, each touch of John’s body against his—how he looked, how he tasted in every moment, the slide of his hands, the hitch of his breath, the way his mouth curled up at the corner as he looked at Sherlock—so that he cannot possibly forget a single one of them.

They are so numerous, each so delightful in turn that Sherlock finds it’s only been minutes since John left and already he’s fully hard again, a deep ache in the center of his belly as he thinks about everything that passed between them.

John has given Sherlock a new appreciation for his body, has made him aware of a capacity for pleasure that he never knew he had. Yes, of course Sherlock has experienced pleasure at his own hand, but it never, never felt the way it did with John. It was always somewhat rudimentary, somewhat mechanical—mostly he was desperate just to get it over with as quickly as possible so that he could go back to ignoring his body and all its petty miseries and yearnings.

But there was nothing petty about what he experienced with John. Every touch, every look was loaded with meaning.

And now, even in John’s absence, the feeling remains. His skin feels thin—translucent even, humming with the memory of John’s touch. His body feels so new to him, feels different, full of possibility. He never knew he was capable of so much feeling.

Sherlock shifts under the sheets, slides his hand down over his own hip—remembers how John’s eyes widened when he performed the same gesture, how his breathing changed. Sherlock licks his lips and sighs at the memory, clenching his hand into a fist against his thigh to stop its movement.

He rolls over, dragging the sheets up underneath his chin. He squeezes his eyes shut tight, tries valiantly to sleep, because John said so, and John knows what’s best, willing himself not to think about any of it, but when he pushes his face into the pillow he smells John, as sure as if he were there himself.

Sherlock buries his nose in the scent, inhaling deeply, wriggling his hips against the mattress as the smell brings him a renewed flood of memories—the taste of John’s skin under his tongue, the smell of that golden hair beneath John’s arm—so strong, so viscerally the smell of John.

It’s no use.

Sherlock gives a little moan, and reaches down to take himself in hand.

Part of him feels ashamed that he’s doing this, not an hour after he just came between John’s thighs, but he cannot help himself, it’s as if John has awakened something within him that has always been there, slumbering and dangerous, just out of sight, that now refuses to go back to sleep.

Sherlock has never felt his way, not ever in his life, and the feelings are so deep, so satisfying that he has no wish to stop them.

He strokes himself in long, hard strokes, remembering John’s mouth, John’s eyes as dark as the ocean under the evening sky as he looked at Sherlock without clothes on for the first time, the gentle drag of John’s fingers down his arm, the sound of John’s voice telling Sherlock how beautiful he was. Sherlock groans into the pillow, his body curling tight over the increasingly rapid movements of his hand.

“Oh, John,” Sherlock moans into the pillow. “Oh John—oh, oh!”

He comes in a burst of pleasure, the light whiting out behind his eyes, jerking up against his own fist as he imagines John watching him, John’s cock against his hip, John’s lips hot on the back of his neck.

It’s too easy to imagine now—Sherlock has such a wealth of material to work with.

He sags back against the mattress, warm and sticky and filthy and sated, and only then—as he imagines John, gently smoothing his hands down over the curve of Sherlock’s back, whispering endearments into his hair—does Sherlock slide down into a deep and dreamless slumber.

***

When Sherlock wakes—hours later, stiff and covered in dried sweat and fluid—it takes only a second for the memories of the last twenty-four hours to come flooding back and he can feel his face breaking into a smile even before he has fully regained consciousness.

John,” he breathes to the room around him, so softly, so full of joy that even the sound of John’s name being spoken aloud fills him up with warmth as though there is a tiny flame inside of him that grows brighter with the sound.

He buries his face in the pillow, grinning, giddy with the knowledge that he and John are lovers now—in every sense of the word.

Lying there, face down against his mattress, grinning like a fool, Sherlock can feel John’s locket digging in against his breast. He rolls over onto his back so he can hold it in his fingers and study it again.

It’s a beautiful object, so delicate—so at odds with John himself who is coarse and strong and sturdy—somewhat rough around the edges, but then, Sherlock thinks, as he turns it in his fingers, watches it reflect the light, how like John to be in possession of such a rare and beautiful thing—complicated John who has such hidden depths, who is so full of light himself.

John said it was his mother’s; that it’s all he had of hers. Sherlock wonders now what she was like—was she kind to John? How old was John when she died? Where did she come from? Was she of gentle birth? It seems a very fine object for someone from John’s background to have in his possession. There is so much Sherlock does not know, so much Sherlock wants to ask, and Sherlock’s heart gives a sudden lurch, wishing John were with him now.

Take it as a symbol of my heart, John said. As a promise I’ll come back to you. Sherlock shuts his eyes, feels a hot, tight wave of feeling overtake him at the memory of John’s words. He clenches the locket in his fist, and presses it against his breastbone where his heart is pounding.

Even with his eyes shut, Sherlock can tell that it is full daylight now, getting on towards afternoon, and he is aware that he should rise and wash himself and dress and go in search of food.

But there is part of him that does not want to move at all—that simply wants to lie, curled around his memories, sifting through them in his mind, savoring each one, picking them up like sacred objects to run his fingers over every contour, every smooth and shining edge, tucked away inside his mind until John returns to make new memories with him.

The thought is a seductive one but hunger wins out in the end, his growling stomach reminding him with urgency how long it’s been since last he ate.

Sherlock stretches like a cat, pushing one pale wrist far above his head, his feet pushing the sheet off of his torso. He sits up, feeling dreamy, light-headed, and wonders what John is doing right at this moment. It is that question—and his eagerness to find the answer to it—that gives him the burst of energy he needs to propel him to his feet.

He has a silent battle with himself over getting clean. There is a deep and fearsome part of him that does not want to wash himself, that wants to keep the marks of John’s body against him, the traces of John’s release on his skin as silent talismans of what passed between them. He has no desire to wash them off.

But sense wins over in the end, and Sherlock reassures himself with the knowledge that the John of their future interactions will not want to touch and lick a Sherlock that is still encrusted with the remains of their last encounter. Just the thought of that future John, his hungry eyes eating up the sight of Sherlock’s smooth, clean skin, sets him to shivering, and for once, Sherlock is grateful for the lack of hot water. The bite of the cold water against his skin helps to dampen the flames of his rising arousal.

Sherlock dutifully scrubs himself clean, listening with thinly veiled disdain to the sounds of the other passengers coming and going in the corridor beyond his room, whispering and gossiping no doubt about the events of the previous evening.

He has just finished washing himself and is reaching for his shirt when he remembers with a horrible shock the disturbing events of the previous evening that resulted in Lestrade’s poisoning.

He stands completely still for several seconds, heart pounding in sudden distress. That he could have forgotten about the incident so completely fills him with shame.

He pulls the rest of his clothes on with haste, all thoughts of his own hunger forgotten in his eagerness to go up top and find Lieutenant Lestrade and ensure that he’s all right.

Sherlock takes the stairs two at a time, emerging into the open air to find a day that is clear and hot and lovely, the tropical climate they have entered fully evident in the force of the sun overhead and the bright blue of the sparkling water.

All these details register distantly in Sherlock’s mind as he scans the quarterdeck for a sign of the Lieutenant. There is a very good chance that the man might still be in bed, not yet fully recovered from the effects of the poison, in which case Sherlock will be very worried indeed—not just for the Lieutenant’s health (although John’s prognosis that he was out of danger was surely correct), but for the fact that people might notice his absence and begin asking questions.

However, to Sherlock’s great relief, Lieutenant Lestrade is on duty, standing at the shoulder of the helmsman, looking slightly paler than usual but otherwise no worse for the wear.

Passengers are not allowed up on the quarterdeck, but Sherlock is so desperate to speak to the Lieutenant and inquire after his health that he is halfway to the stairs, heedless of this rule, when he sees the captain appear at Lestrade’s side as if from nowhere, his small eyes hard and bright as he surveys the deck.

Sherlock freezes where he stands as though the man’s gaze has the power to arrest movement. He feels the captain’s eyes move over him and Sherlock turns toward the railing at his side as though he has noticed something of interest on the horizon.

There is nothing there to hold his interest of course, other than the bright glitter of the sun on the waves, but Sherlock stands for a long time looking out as though transfixed, until he feels the captain’s eyes retreat from his back to focus on something else.

The man’s gaze on the back of his neck is as palpable as a physical touch and the absence of that hard, dark look when it finally leaves him comes as a relief, even though he cannot see it.

Sherlock stands for a long time looking out over the waves, stricken with the uncanny feeling that the captain knows he was making his way to the quarterdeck, even though he had not yet reached the stairs and there’s no reason for the man to suspect that Sherlock would have business there.

None the less, Sherlock cannot shake the feeling that the man was watching him for a reason.

He decides to postpone his quest to speak with the Lieutenant until the captain has left the quarterdeck, and Sherlock heads back toward the staircase leading below decks, careful to keep his head down all the while, and never once let his gaze stray toward the helm of the ship.

***

Sherlock missed the midday meal but he manages to find the porter and convince the man to give him some bread and cheese to stave off his hunger until suppertime.

Sherlock is pleasantly surprised that the man is amicable to Sherlock’s request. A month ago—even a week ago—Sherlock never would have dared to ask for such a thing, but he feels emboldened, more confident in these past few weeks than he has ever felt.

When the porter returns with the food and sets it before Sherlock, in response to Sherlock’s eager word of thanks, the man offers him a smile. “I’m happy to give it you, Mr. Holmes. You don’t eat enough if you want my opinion on the matter, so I’m more than obliged to help you with some feeding up.”

Sherlock is so taken aback by this open display of good will that he does not think of a response until the man has left the room. Perhaps, Sherlock thinks, blinking at his retreating back, perhaps he has been too quick to assume that everyone on the ship despises him; perhaps he hasn’t been paying quite enough attention.

However, as he sits alone in the passenger saloon, he is blessedly grateful for the solitude, and he finds himself reflecting how pleasant it would be to eat every meal safe from the eyes of other passengers.

Sherlock eats the cold bread and cheese scarcely tasting it, his eyes fixed on the shimmer of blue beyond the windows, puzzling over the event of the poisoning in his mind. What could be the reason for it? Who would have cause to poison Lieutenant Lestrade?

Sherlock turns a piece of bread over in his hands; considers it without really seeing it.

John said that the dose was not large enough to be lethal, which would imply that someone wanted the Lieutenant out of commission last night, presumably so he would not be aware of certain goings on. But what? What events would need to be kept hidden from the ship’s first lieutenant?

Sherlock finishes his meal, brushes the crumbs from the table, nods his thanks to the porter, and drifts back down the hallway to his room, deep in thought.

Sherlock has no proof of it, but he is sure, as sure as he is of his own bones under his skin, that somehow the captain is responsible.

Sherlock is so lost in thought that it is not until he arrives again before the door of his room that he realizes that the flurry of activity around him is that of the other passengers, busy packing their fine things away into their trunks.

“The crew are coming to take the trunks back down before suppertime. You’ll want to get yours sorted before then,” drawls Amesbury, the snobbish barrister who occupies the cabin directly next to Sherlock, noticing his stare.

Sherlock nods to convey he’s heard and then ducks into his own room before the man sees cause to speak with him again.

A tiny bubble of hope has risen up within him. It could be John—John could be one of the sailors coming to take the trunks back down.

This thought propels Sherlock into motion as he busies himself tidying up the trail of discarded clothing on the floor of his room.

His heart gives a little throb as he takes up each garment and is assailed with the memories of the corresponding removal of each item. Each silk stocking causes a pleasant shiver down the backs of his thighs, the discovery of his crumpled waistcoat beside the bed bringing with it the memory of how John tried to neatly fold it, how Sherlock tore it from his hands and threw it aside. Finally, his neck cloth, coiled in a puddle by the door, sets off a reaction in Sherlock so strong at the memory of John’s lips at his throat that he has to sink down on the bed for a moment to recover himself.

Eventually though, he collects it all, and returns to the hallway where he kneels before his trunk to tuck the fine clothes away inside.

Sherlock’s irritating neighbor is still standing and gawking by his door. He tries as hard as possible to ignore Amesbury’s nosy stare—why the man has cause to stand for hours outside his own cabin is a mystery to Sherlock—and lifts the lid of his trunk.

The contents of his trunk are obscured by the bulk of his folded overcoat, the heavy garment that he has had little cause to wear since leaving England. Sherlock reaches in to move it out of the way so that he may place his other garments underneath, but when he lifts it from the trunk, a flutter of several scraps of paper descend as if from nowhere to land at Sherlock’s knees.

Puzzled, he reaches down to take one in his hand, and upon seeing the torn edges of the paper, knows exactly what it is.

As discreetly as possible, Sherlock gathers all the scraps and stuffs them into the pocket of his waistcoat. Then tucking the remainder of his clothing back in his trunk, he rises to his feet and returns to his room without another word to Amesbury.

Sherlock sits on the edge of his bunk, and piles the stack of paper fragments beside him on the bed. He selects one at random and smoothing the paper open in his hand, he recognizes immediately the small, even lines of his brother’s script.

Holding the torn scrap of paper in his palm, seeing his brother’s familiar neat writing, transports Sherlock back as effectively as though time itself had rearranged the contours of its fabric, back to the grey day all those weeks ago when he had been loaded with the trunk containing all his worldly possessions into the coach that would take him to the harbor where the ship lay at anchor; his mother and father standing apart—his father cold and distant, his mother with her face tucked away against the rain, and Sherlock’s hateful older brother, dressed himself for travel, looking bored, impatient, continuously pulling the watch out of his waistcoat pocket to check the time. He was meant to accompany Sherlock on his journey to Portsmouth, to see him off at the harbor, but Mycroft’s new appointment as secretary to the chief officer of financial affairs had called for his immediate attention in London on urgent business, and so Sherlock would be making the journey by himself.

Sherlock tried to tell himself he didn’t care—that in fact it was a great relief not to be faced with the prospect of staring at Mycroft’s bland and puffy face for two days rattling over miles of uneven road—that he would rather be alone; but the feebleness of this lie, even to himself was undeniable as Sherlock’s misery and solitude and fear ran like a poison river through his heart, blackening his every thought as surely as the rain soaking the back of his neck as it ran off the brim of his hat.

The truth of the matter was so plain Sherlock couldn’t hide from it anymore: His mother and father were happy to be rid of him, and so was Mycroft.

The disinterest of his parents came as no surprise but Mycroft’s abandonment of Sherlock had come as rather a nasty shock. When the subject of Sherlock’s shipment to the East Indies had first arisen, Sherlock had vehemently protested, and he had expected Mycroft to stand by him in acknowledging that the suggestion was a preposterous one. However, much to Sherlock’s horror, Mycroft had been the biggest proponent of the plan, stating that he believed the voyage would do Sherlock “a world of good.” Indeed, it had been due to Mycroft’s insistence that his parents hadn’t completely forgotten about the idea altogether.

The sting Sherlock felt at Mycroft’s betrayal made him aware that there was still some part of him that craved his brother’s approval, that longed for his respect; that wished he could summon one scrap of affection to throw his way, but Sherlock would never admit this to anyone. He had hardly admitted it to himself.

All he knew was that he was filled equally with misery and rage as he climbed into the coach under the spitting rain.

He hunched low into the seat and out of sight as the driver flicked the horses to life. He didn’t want to look back. He had no desire to see their hateful faces ever again. But as the coach turned at the gate onto the road he couldn’t help himself. What if his ship capsized? What if he caught a fever and died? By the time he returned to England, if he ever did, they may well all be dead and cooling in their graves—so Sherlock turned in his seat for a final look at the three lone figures standing by the grand entryway, only to see that they’d all gone back into the house.

None of them had stayed long enough to see the coach leave the drive.

His wounded fury at Mycroft had been the reason Sherlock had so violently torn up the note that he now held the remains of in his hand, the note he had received the night before his ship left its berth.

The night before his voyage began, Sherlock was sitting alone over a grey supper in the tavern where he was boarding, hunched in his cloak, watching the rain pelt the thick glass of the tavern windows, the misery that was lodged cold and hard in his throat preventing him from taking even one bite of his dismal supper when a boy had found him at the table, drenched from the rain, breathless, his cheeks pink from the cold night air. “Mr. Holmes?”

Sherlock looked up without interest. Nothing was able to shake him from his fog of misery.

“I have a letter for you, from a Mycroft Holmes, Esquire.”

Sherlock held his hand out blandly without saying a word.

The boy hesitated.

“Well, give it to me,” Sherlock snapped, his patience worn thin by exhaustion and misery.

“He said to deliver it into your hands alone. That I was to be sure…”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. His brother’s dramatics were apparently only increasing as he climbed his way up through the ranks of the government.

Sherlock pulled a ring from the depths of his purse. “The Holmes signet ring?”

He never wore it but he was careful to keep it with him at all times, per his brother’s instructions. Although in that moment, Sherlock was seized with the desire to throw it in the mud of the alley as soon as he stepped outside. What need did he have for tokens such as these where he was going?

The boy looked at it carefully and then nodded. This seemed to satisfy him.

He pressed the letter into Sherlock’s hand, and Sherlock gave the boy a coin for his trouble and turned his attention to the note. However the boy remained standing where he was.

“What is it?”

“Are you going to eat that, sir?” He pointed to Sherlock’s cooling dinner.

Sherlock shoved the bowl across the table at the boy without another word.

The boy sat and ate hungrily, desperately even, until every bite of the congealing stew had been cleaned from the bowl.

Sherlock felt something in his chest give way at the depth of gratitude in the boy’s face. For one rash moment, Sherlock was tempted to give him the entire contents of his purse, just to spite his brother and his family and everything they stood for, but it was all he had and the days ahead of him were long and unknown so Sherlock kept it although the weight inside his coat felt as heavy to him as an iron chain.

Sherlock tucked the letter in his waistcoat out of sight but he never read it.

The next day, as Sherlock’s coach made its way through the mud of the filthy streets of the harbor town, he discovered the letter, unread, and in a fit of rage, he tore the letter into bits.

If Mycroft had something important to tell him, then he could just as well have told Sherlock himself.

He’d tucked the crumpled pieces of the letter into his overcoat and then completely forgotten all about it until now.

At the time, Sherlock had been so lost in his own misery that he hadn’t given the matter a second thought but now, Sherlock wonders at his brother’s urgency. Surely, the contents of the letter were important if Mycroft had secured a tavern boy to deliver the letter who had insisted that Sherlock prove himself.

Indeed, Mycroft’s script, usually neat to the point of absurdity, looks messier than usual, suggesting that the message was written in great haste.

Sherlock peers down at the scrap in his hand but the fragment is too small to be of any use in making sense of his brother’s missive.

He sifts through the fragments beside him on the bed, pulls out the largest piece he can find and reads:

—note comes to you. H—is with an ill wind—your hands. I wrote to—It seems that the cap—are to depart tomorrow m—strange circumstances a few—typically not be cause for alarm—take his place at the helm is—little that is good. A captain—war hero but with a spot—ink over such trivial m—through various circles i—to say the least. The—

Overwhelmed with rage at his former self, Sherlock reaches now with frantic fingers to unfold each scrap of crumpled paper and smooth them out upon the bed in the hopes that he can rearrange them into their former order.

Sherlock stares down at the mess before him in hopeless frustration. Some of the fragments are so small and so badly torn, Sherlock seriously doubts whether he can make any sense of them at all. But he has to try.

It takes him the better part of an hour to rearrange the torn bits of paper into any kind of sense. A large part of this time is spent tearing the contents of his trunk apart all over again when it becomes apparent that there are pieces missing. Despite his thorough search, and recovery of one or two more fragments, the disappointing result of all his effort is that the message remains incomplete.

As far as Sherlock can determine, his brother’s letter reads as follows:

My Dear Brother,

I have——————your coach has made it to Porstmouth without incident and it is my hope that you are staying as planned at the Horse and Hound by which this note comes to you. How————is with an ill wind——————your hands. I wrote to you as soon as I heard the news. It seems that the cap———are to depart tomorrow m——————under very strange circumstances only a few days ago——————would typically not be cause for alarm—————take his place at the helm is——————little that is good. A captain——————war hero but with a spot—r———————not waste ink over such trivial matters but it has——————in London——————that the man—————rumors of—————too late to secure your passage on another ship, and I am—————to tread cautiously—————above all else do not cross the captain in any matters——————your burning desire to assert your intelligence over all those around you who are in positions of authority, but brother, I beg of you, for once in your life, keep your head down and do not cause trouble. The cost of your insolence in this matter could very well mean your life.

I hope this letter finds—————health.

—————Brother,

Mycroft Holmes, Esq.

Sherlock’s frustration at his former self has never been greater than it is in this moment. From what he can make out, Mycroft wrote to him with some news of the captain, who as John said, came to the position late, due to the fact that the original captain fell gravely ill only days before they were to set sail.

However, every part of the letter that seems as thought it might have contained useful information appears to be missing—gone in the unthinking consequences of Sherlock’s juvenile fury.

Half the fragments probably ended up on the floor of the coach and have long since been swept away, dissolved into meaningless pulp in the mud of that stinking harbor town.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Of course, it would just so happen that the most in tact portion of his brother’s note is the part that contains Mycroft’s warning to “keep his head down” and “not get involved.” Rereading the words, Sherlock can hear Mycroft’s smug, condescending tone as clearly as if he were standing before him.

In an instant, Sherlock’s rage and frustration shift from his sullen former self to his brother.

Knowing Mycroft, the letter probably didn’t contain any kind of valuable information at all—he was probably just writing to Sherlock to warn him to stay out of trouble. He never would have told Sherlock anything interesting.

Well, if Mycroft intended Sherlock to stay out of trouble then Sherlock is dead-set on becoming as involved as he possibly can. He’s determined to speak with Lieutenant Lestrade at once.

Sweeping all the scraps of the letter together, Sherlock stuffs them into the back of the leather-bound book Mycroft gave him before the voyage, and tucks it away out of sight.

As he’s closing his cabin door behind him, he has to duck out of the way of a sailor carrying one of the lady’s trunks toward the stairs. Sherlock recognizes him almost immediately as the boisterous fellow who lost his eye in the Barbary War, who introduced himself to Sherlock last night as Ironsides Jake.

“Afternoon there, Mr. ‘Olmes!” The man calls jovially, catching sight of Sherlock.

“Good afternoon.” Sherlock nods politely, his back still firmly against the door of his room.

“You enjoyed the rest of your evening last night, I trust?”

“Y-Yes, thank you,” Sherlock says, stammering, caught off guard by the appearance of this man who brings with him memories of the magic of the previous evening, of the smoke-filled space between the hammocks, the laughing men, the light of the candles filling everyone’s faces with warmth, the sound of the drum and the pipe transporting Sherlock to another world, and most of all, the memory of John’s face as he watched Sherlock from across the room, transfixed.

“We lost track of you and Johnny… we was wonderin’ where you might have got to...”

The smiling sailor gives Sherlock an exaggerated wink and Sherlock can feel every inch of exposed skin turn beet-red, from the collar of his shirt to the roots of his hair.

Luckily, the grinning man does not wait for Sherlock to scrape together a response but continues on his way up the stairs, the heavy trunk perched precariously across his narrow shoulders.

Watching his retreating back it occurs to Sherlock that the trunk must weigh nearly half as much as the man and yet he carries it as though it were nothing more than a sack of flour.

Sherlock waits until Jack’s footsteps have vanished up the steps before hurrying after him to look once again for Lieutenant Lestrade.

The air is hotter than before, the sun high in the vivid sky. Several sailors are sitting by the mainmast, mending sails. Sherlock scans the group briefly for a sign of John, and tries to tell himself that his heart doesn’t sink when he doesn’t find him among the assembled sailors.

All the better, Sherlock tells himself firmly, as he makes his way back to the quarterdeck—he can’t afford to be distracted at the moment. It’s imperative that he speaks with Lieutenant Lestrade as soon as possible.

To Sherlock’s profound relief, he finds the Lieutenant still present on the quarterdeck speaking to one of the officers. Mercifully there is no sign of the captain anywhere about.

Sherlock hovers in the shadows at the foot of the stairs, no longer feeling bold enough to dare set foot on the staircase. He waits until Lestrade has finished his conversation with the officer before drifting back into the man’s line of vision.

“Excuse me, Lieutenant?” Sherlock calls up to him, trying to keep his voice as low as possible so as not to attract attention.

Lestrade’s eyes flicker for the source of the speaker for a moment before settling on Sherlock.

“I was wondering if I might have a word?”

Lestrade nods his assent, turning to the helmsman to give him direction before making his way toward the stairs.

Sherlock meets him at the bottom of the staircase. “I wanted to ask you ab—”

But the words haven’t even left Sherlock’s mouth before Lestrade is shaking his head, and putting his hand on Sherlock’s arm in warning.

“Not here,” he mutters in a low voice. “Someone might overhear us. I know another place where we might talk unnoticed.”

With an incline of his head, Lestrade gestures for Sherlock to follow him.

Sherlock does, silently, keeping some distance between himself and the Lieutenant so that it’s not immediately apparent that he’s following him.

The Lieutenant makes his way to the front of the ship, and then, to Sherlock’s surprise, heads down the staircase where John led Sherlock last night, on their way to the sailors’ celebration.

But Sherlock does not question him. He simply follows the Lieutenant without a word, down and around the beams under the stairs, away from the forecastle where the party was held the night before, down to the deck below it where the ship’s cannons line the narrow gallery.

This is where the sailors eat, Sherlock knows, observing with curiosity the boards that they pull down between the cannons, which are currently folded up out of the way.

However, there is no one about now, and they pass no one on their way. Not for the first time, Sherlock marvels that there can be any privacy at all aboard a ship this size. The ship, by no means a small vessel, is so stuffed with people that it’s a wonder to Sherlock that such hidden spaces can exist onboard.

Lestrade leads them to a dark corner under the bulwark at the midsection of the ship. The area is cloaked in shadow and when Lestrade steps into the darkness, Sherlock can only see that he is there thanks to the gleaming buttons on his uniform.

Sherlock steps in beside him.

“I’m sorry for all the secrecy,” Lestrade says in a hushed voice. “But it will soon become clear to you why we have need of it.”

Sherlock nods. The shadows make it so that it is difficult to see the Lieutenant’s face, but even through the darkness he can see that his eyes are ringed with circles, his skin is pale and wan.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better, thank you. Much better than I would be feeling had you and Watson not intervened when you did. I’m glad you came to find me today because I want to thank you. I am certain now that your medical friend was right. I would have died had he not intervened in time. I owe both of you my life.”

“It was nothing.”

“No.” Lestrade’s eyes are hard. “It really wasn’t. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. You put both of your lives at risk just by coming to my aid. There’s still the possibility that whoever made me ill did so with the intention of killing me. If that was their intent, they are by now well aware that they didn’t succeed. If they know that either of you tried to help me the two of you could be in very real danger.”

Sherlock feels a prickle of dread creep down the back of his neck at the Lieutenant’s words. He cannot help but think of the captain’s gaze on him earlier up on deck.

Sherlock leans in. “Lieutenant, I wanted to speak with you because I have reason to believe—”

He hesitates.

The words he is about to utter are dangerous on any ship, possibly more dangerous than any words that can be spoken at sea. And although he feels as though he can trust Lestrade, he has very little basis for that trust other than the fact that he knows Lestrade played a part in allowing John to come to his aid when Sherlock was sick. Even so, to confide in Lestrade in the way that he is about to is a very great risk.

“What is it?” The Lieutenant’s voice is full of tension. “I can assure you that we will not be overheard here. Whatever you need to say, I advise you to say it now.”

“There is something I must tell you however… before I do so I must be certain that I have your trust. I… I feel already that I can trust you after what you did for me in allowing John Watson to look in on me when I was ill.” Sherlock draws a breath and hurries on. “But what I am about to tell you could be considered insubordination of the worst kind. Therefore, I must ask for your word that you will repeat to no one what I am about to tell you.”

Lestrade nods once, deeply. “You have my word.”

The empty gun deck is at Sherlock’s back so he cannot see if anyone should approach but he trusts that Lestrade is keeping a watchful eye.

Sherlock ducks his head closer to Lestrade’s ear, careful to keep his voice as low as possible. “I received a letter from my brother the night before the ship left port—he gave it to me at the last minute and—“ Sherlock hesitates briefly over how to explain the embarrassing fact that he tore the letter up in a fit of juvenile fury. He decides to leave that detail unmentioned. “This letter did not come to my attention until just now, today, as I was going to put my evening clothes back into my trunk. Unfortunately, the letter was damaged so I could not make out the entirety of its contents, however, what was utterly apparent even from what I could make out, was that there is reason to doubt the captain’s intentions.”

Sherlock feels Lestrade give a gentle start of shock and lean back slightly. “Now listen, Holmes…”

“I am well aware of the danger I put you in by even broaching the subject. I realize I risk my own life as well as yours in bringing this matter to your attention. But there was talk also, before the party yesterday evening, one of the passenger’s—Ferguson is his name—he seemed to imply that the captain had ulterior motives for throwing the party last night. It wouldn’t have caught my attention if not for another man trying his hardest to keep him quiet. There may be some quarrel between them, but it is highly suspect that this man Ferguson would have cause to doubt the captain’s motives in the first place. What makes the matter all the more strange is the fact that he was right to suggest that the captain would not appear at the festivities. Did you see him at the party last night? At any point?”

Lestrade shakes his head. “No. Only just before. When he gave the last calculations up on deck.”

“And what—if I may ask—is your opinion of the captain?”

Lestrade frowns, considering. “He’s certainly a strange man. I have sailed with many captains and never have I been at the helm with a man so… mercurial. When he’s not yelling at the officers and the crew, he keeps to himself. Indeed, I barely speak with him. As far as I can tell he hardly speaks to anyone. And yes, I have heard the rumors too about the strange circumstances under which Captain Adams fell ill before the voyage. He was not an old man, nor was he inclined to illness. I believe they were still searching for the cause of it when we left port.”

The wheels in Sherlock’s mind are turning rapidly as he takes in what Lestrade has said. It only confirms his suspicions.

“How did he seem?” Sherlock presses. “The captain—this morning when you returned to work, did he seem surprised?”

“I—” Lestrade pauses to reflect. “It’s difficult to tell with him. His temperament is frequently sullen and disinterested. I cannot say that it was any different this morning.”

“Did he notice that you looked unwell? Did he comment on your appearance?”

Lestrade shakes his head. “No. No, he made no comment other than to ask whether I had enjoyed myself at the festivities the previous evening.”

“And what did you say?”

“I told him that I had, very much.”

“You did not mention the poisoning?”

“No.”

“Good.” Sherlock is silent for a moment as he prepares to utter the words that may well be the most dangerous words he has ever spoken. “It is my belief that the captain is responsible for your poisoning.”

Lestrade’s face goes grey. His voice is a vicious whisper. “Why would the captain want to poison his first officer?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock says, shaking his head. “He must want you out of the way for some reason. Or wanted you out of the way yesterday evening.”

“Now listen here, Holmes, you can’t simply make an accusation like that without any evidence—”

But Sherlock’s mind is already racing on ahead of himself. It’s obvious that the captain wanted to throw the party to distract the passengers and officers from some business that he had to carry out, and whatever it was, it was serious enough to demand that the ship’s first officer not learn about it, at all costs.

But what? What could he be doing that necessitated such a high level of secrecy?

“What is this ship’s cargo?” Sherlock demands.

The question seems to catch Lestrade off guard. “Well, the ordinary things. Textiles. Steel—”

The sound of voices coming down the stairs at the far end of the gallery causes Lestrade to stop talking abruptly.

Both men stand utterly still until the owners of the voices head in the opposite direction and the sound of their conversation gradually becomes indistinguishable again.

Lestrade draws an urgent step closer to Sherlock, putting his head down next to Sherlock’s ear and speaking low and quickly. “Listen to me, Holmes. What you are implying is—as you’ve said—a risk to your life simply by virtue of the fact that you have mentioned it. Under gentler command, this kind of talk is dangerous—it could mean you spend some time in irons. But on this ship, under this captain, your suggestion of the matter guarantees you will hang, likely without trial.”

Sherlock opens his mouth to protest but Lestrade goes on speaking before he has a chance to respond.

“You are right that there is much that is strange in this, however, we have no evidence thus far that the captain is implicated in any way, so for the time being, Mr. Holmes, I think it best if you keep your head down and your thoughts well away from this affair.”

Sherlock feels a sharp twinge of annoyance that the Lieutenant’s words should sound so similar to the explicit warning in the letter from his brother.

Lestrade must sense Sherlock’s insolence from his silence because he continues, his voice slightly pleading.

“Please don’t misunderstand me. I appreciate what you have done for me more than I can say, however, that does not change the fact that whoever it is that wishes me ill—whether it’s the captain, or some other party—must know by now that I had help. I am hopeful that they do not know who it was that helped me, but there is always the chance that they do. So please, for this reason, whatever you do, be careful. And for the love of god don’t mention any of your suspicions to anyone but me.”

Sherlock has no intention of remaining uninvolved. However he realizes that the Lieutenant will not let the matter rest until he agrees, so he nods once, to show that he has understood.

He can see the evidence of Lestrade’s relief in the relaxing line of his shoulders. “Good. I think it’s better for all of us if the whole matter is forgotten as quickly as possible. Let us not speak of it again.”

Sherlock nods once more, suddenly grateful for the darkness, as he is confident that the poor lighting hides the tightness at the corners of his mouth, what would otherwise be a sure betrayal of his irritation at being told to forget the issue so completely.

“I better get back up top.”

Sherlock steps back to let the Lieutenant by.

“However, I think it’s best if we are not seen together returning to the deck. Will you wait several minutes until I have returned before going back up?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you.” Lestrade takes a step in the direction of the staircase but before he leaves he puts a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. “And please pass along my thanks to Mr. Watson. I wanted to express my gratitude in person but I think it’s best if none of us are seen in conversation for the time being.”

Sherlock inclines his head solemnly. “I will.”

“Don’t forget what I told you. Be careful, Holmes.”

Sherlock nods again, and Lestrade, seemingly satisfied with this, turns and heads toward the staircase at the end of the gun deck.

Sherlock waits a good ten minutes after Lestrade’s departure before he heads back the way they came, weaving his way around the massive, silent cannons, and the casks of supplies that are stored in and around them. He imagines what this part of the ship must look like in wartime, men running every which way, yelling orders, covering their ears and ducking out of the way of the leaping cannons, the air acrid with the bitter smell of gunpowder.

Although he does not yet have the evidence to prove it Sherlock is certain that the captain is responsible for Captain Adams’ sudden illness. If the man has a hand for poisoning—which he clearly does—it would make sense that he aimed to get rid of the other captain in the same manner with which he tried to incapacitate Lieutenant Lestrade. But what Sherlock can’t figure out is what motive a wartime captain like Roberts would have for commandeering a merchant ship to the East Indies.

He cannot possibly arrive at a solution with the limited information that he has at hand—he needs more evidence, for which he will have to go looking, his brother’s warnings and the Lieutenant’s cautions be damned.

Sherlock is so deep in thought over the puzzle of the captain’s motives that it is not until he is back up on deck in the open air that he recognizes the sounds of shouting, and looking over, sees a crowd of sailors gathered to one side of the deck.

There is a mood of concentrated excitement around the men—some of them are leaning so far over the railing it looks as though they might pitch over the side into the water—and many of them are whooping and hollering words of encouragement to what Sherlock can only guess must be someone down below.

Sherlock recognizes Billy, who’s bent forward with his head between the bars. He comes to a halt beside him to ask the boy what’s going on.

“Billy? What’s all this?”

Billy turns back to look at Sherlock, his face shining with excitement. “It’s a bet, Mr. Holmes! Mr. MacTavish offered a wager of five pounds if John Watson could go down the side of the ship, strike off into the water without a net, and come back onboard again.”

What?

“See for yourself! He’s on his way back now!” Billy points down into the water, and there, carving through the water like part of the ocean itself, is John, swimming back through the crystal blue waves toward the side of the ship.

Sherlock’s heart is in his throat.

John’s body looks miniscule in the vast expanse of open-ocean and he is far, too far from the side of the ship for Sherlock’s liking.

“But why would he…?”

“If a man is issued a wager of five pounds, he can’t rightly turn it down, Mr. Holmes. Not if he wants to retain any kind of self-respect.”

Sherlock turns to the source of the reassuring voice and sees the matter-of-fact face of one of the sailors who introduced himself yesterday below decks as Mr. Burns.

“Especially not John Watson,” the man adds with a low chuckle. “If ever there was a risk-taker—and I’ve known many in my day—he goes by the name of John Watson. Never known that man to say no to a bet. The trick of course is getting back on board without arousing the attention of the sharks.”

“Oh my god.” Sherlock clings to the railing under his hands, his eyes trained on the golden dot of John’s head moving through the water back toward the ship.

“Don’t you worry,” Burns says, clapping Sherlock on the shoulder with formidable strength. “John is as strong a swimmer as ever I saw. He’ll be alright.”

John is now only several yards from the side of the ship, but as far as Sherlock is concerned every inch of ocean water between John and the hull is too many. Sherlock’s mind is a litany of silent pleas as he leans forward over the railing, his stomach churning in fear. Why? Why would he do a thing so reckless?

“COME ON JOHNNY!”

“Hurry up now! Them sharks is lookin’ mighty hungry!”

The men are jovial, hitting each other on the back and laughing—none of them seem concerned that John won’t make it, that he’ll be swept away in a rogue current, or that one of the rumored but not-yet-visible sharks will make itself known by taking a bite out of John’s side.

Sherlock is sick with fear, clutching the railing as though his life depended on it.

It is only a matter of seconds before John touches the side of the ship and the men erupt into triumphant cheers.

Sherlock lets out a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding, his body going weak with relief.

“Hey there,” Sherlock feels a much gentler touch on his shoulder, and turns to see Burns, watching him closely with something like sympathy in his eyes. “You were really worried about him, weren’t you?”

Sherlock can only nod weakly, his eyes fixed on John’s lean body as it emerges, dripping, from the water, whole and uninjured, unable to take his eyes from the sight of John, pulling himself up hand-over-hand with the help of a rope, walking up the side of the ship as easily as anything.

When John reaches the railing, he rises to his full height and pauses for a moment to look down at the men as they break into a chorus of renewed shouts, his face lit up in a triumphant smile, bare chest heaving slightly from the exertion, the gold of the late-afternoon sunlight glinting off his wet hair, and it occurs to Sherlock, not for the first time, just how impossible John Watson is, with his impeccable balance, bare feet gripping the railing with ease, the light pouring out of him until Sherlock is not certain whether it is John that is responsible for his brilliance, or the sun at his back.

Sherlock’s fears of a moment ago now feel completely ridiculous. This John standing above them is clearly invincible, he is immortal—he cannot be defeated by war, or cannon fire, not even the rage of the sea can tame him. If a shark had tried to take a bite out of him, John probably would have wrestled it into submission before it even opened its mouth.

Of course Sherlock knows this—how could he have forgotten?

Someone offers John a hand, and John reaches down and takes it, leaping, laughing into the center of the crowd, and then someone is clapping him on the back between the shoulder blades with a stinging sound, while another sailor ruffles his hair with rough affection, and a third thrusts his own shirt into his empty hands.

Sherlock retreats to the back of the boisterous crowd, feeling suddenly small and pale and insignificant in the face of so much raucous glory.

“Well go on then, MacTavish!” Someone shouts. “Pay up!”

“Here, here!”

Sherlock recognizes the large burly figure of the red-bearded sailor with the mermaid tattoo on his forearm shuffling forward to the heart of the crowd, looking somewhat sheepish.

Sherlock sees John, shirt now draped around his shoulders, shaking the wet hair out of his eyes before placing his hands on his hips and turning to face the significantly larger man. “That’s right. Time to put your money where your mouth is, friend.”

His mouth is unsmiling but Sherlock can see the spark of humor in John’s eyes even from where he stands.

MacTavish reaches into his jacket to pull out his purse. “What was it, we said? Three was it?”

John drops his chin and crosses his arms over his chest.

It’s preposterous—John is a third the other man’s size, half-naked, unarmed, soaking wet, and yet the raw power in his regard is enough to make the other man visibly quail before his gaze.

He doesn’t need to say a word; the look on his face speaks volumes.

“Er… that’s right. It was five, wasn’t it? Yes, I do believe we agreed on five.”

MacTavish pulls out the coins, fastidiously counting them several times before dropping them into John’s outstretched palm.

The assembled crowd watches the entire proceedings with careful attention, the tension of the moment evident in their silence.

As soon as the last coin is pressed into John’s waiting fist, John curls his fingers around the money, and looks up at MacTavish with a blinding grin.

Sherlock feels all the air leave his lungs in a single breath, just as he can feel the tension go out of the crowd at that simple change in John’s expression.

“Lovely,” John says, tucking the money into the pocket of his soaking trousers and out of sight. “I’m so glad you saw sense, Angus. I was worried we’d have to discuss the matter over fists.”

He reaches up to clip the other man on the shoulder good-naturedly, and MacTavish beams back at him.

“Ahh Johnny, you know I’m good for it.”

The crowd moves with John as he makes his way toward the front of the ship and Sherlock shrinks into the shadow of the mast, feeling hesitant, uncertain of how to make his way through the sea of people to catch John’s attention.

The crowd is so raucous and moving so quickly that Sherlock decides it isn’t worth the effort. Even if he could squeeze his way through to get close to John, what would he say in front of all these people?

Sherlock turns toward the staircase at the aft of the ship, feeling sullen and hateful, angry at himself for his jealousy over the attention of the other sailors. It’s ridiculous to feel jealous—John didn’t even see him there, it’s not John’s fault. Besides, Sherlock reminds himself bitterly, he is not the only person John thinks about.

Unlike Sherlock, John has other things, other people to occupy his mind. It hasn’t even been a full day since they parted after all. John probably hasn’t had time to even miss Sherlock yet, unlike Sherlock who spent half the day mooning over John’s absence.

Sherlock’s cheeks burn hot at the memory of his desperate pleas from earlier this morning, his chest filling with shame.

John probably doesn’t even want to see him tonight; maybe he wants to spend time with the crew, maybe he wants to play cards and drink with his messmates, like any other sailor.

It’s fine, Sherlock tells himself, although the words resound with bitterness even inside his own head. There’s nothing to be upset about.

Sherlock is just putting his hand on the railing of the staircase, his entire body vibrating with misery at the possibility that he will not get to see John tonight, when he hears his own name being shouted over the din of the crowd.

Sherlock turns, searching for the source of the shout, and is momentarily disoriented by the light of the setting sun cutting into his eyes. He takes two unsteady steps toward the starboard railing, a hand thrown up over his eyes to block out the glare of the sun, and all of his misery vanishes in a single heartbeat as he sees John Watson walking towards him in a blaze of light, shirt still thrown around his shoulders, his mouth stretched wide in a brilliant smile, gold hair dripping down into his eyes.

John reaches Sherlock in two strides, leaning in toward Sherlock with casual grace to place one hand on the railing between them, until he has made a pseudo cage around Sherlock with his body.

John’s smile could set the whole ship aflame.

His voice is low and sweet as honey. “Hello there, Beautiful.”

Sherlock’s heart is pounding so hard he feels light-headed.

He licks dry lips. “Hello.” His voice sounds frail to his own ears.

“Did you see me win my bet?”

Sherlock nods, his worry and his awe and his relief all struggling for dominance on his face.

“And what did you think?”

Sherlock can hardly respond—he’s so overwhelmed by the presence of this soaking-wet, half-naked John leaning into his personal space, his blue eyes fixed on Sherlock with unwavering scrutiny, bright and searching.

Sherlock watches a bead of water make its leisurely way down the edge of John’s jaw, and shuts his eyes.

“I think…” Sherlock remembers how his chest tightened with fear at the sight of John as he swam toward the side of the ship, how small he looked in all that endless ocean, how powerless. Sherlock draws a shaking breath. “You’re a madman.”

Sherlock can hear John’s grin grow wider, even with his eyes closed, and he resists the urge to open them to see if he is right.

“Is that all?”

John leans closer. Sherlock knows because suddenly he can smell John; suddenly he is awash in the sharp, masculine, salt bright smell of him, and oh, Sherlock’s mouth is watering, and now he cannot open his eyes because if he does he knows he will not be able to resist the urge to bend down and lick the trail of water off of John’s torso, all the way from his belly button to the hollow of his gleaming throat.

“No,” Sherlock manages, swallowing hard.

“And why, may I ask, didn’t you come say hello?”

Sherlock opens his eyes at this question because he can hear—underneath the bravado—what sounds like a trace of real sorrow in John’s voice.

Their eyes connect and at the look in John’s eyes, tender, loving, playful—slightly hurt—Sherlock feels all at once how foolish he was to doubt.

“I thought—” Sherlock begins but then stops, suddenly ashamed at his conviction that John might already be tired of him. The words seem to stick in his throat. “I thought you wouldn’t want to see me.”

“Why would you think that?”

Sherlock can hear the wounded incredulity in John’s voice and his shame doubles in force.

How to explain that his self-doubt is something that is with him always, like a shadow he cannot shake? That his self-worth is so fragile it can apparently fall apart under the influence of a single poisonous thought worming its way into his brain?

“I—”

Sherlock opens his mouth to answer but is interrupted by a loud holler and several shrill whistles from behind them.

“Don’t believe a word he tells you, lad!”

“Our John can sweet-talk the bristles off a coconut but that doesn’t make a single word of it true!”

“You should see him when we reach a new port—the ladies are lining the docks even before we’ve laid anchor.”

“How do you think he earned his nickname—Three Continents Watson?”

“OYE!”

It only takes one word.

By the time John has turned around to glare at his raucous crewmates, they’ve already headed, laughing, in the direction of the stairs. But when John turns back to look at Sherlock, in addition to the anger that’s clear on his face, Sherlock can see his cheeks are pink with embarrassment.

Sherlock is momentarily stunned—he’s never seen John get embarrassed before.

“Sorry about that,” John mutters, not meeting Sherlock’s eyes. “They’re idiots—the lot of them. They’ve had far too much to drink this afternoon.”

Sherlock looks at the thin line of John’s mouth, which seems to have grown smaller with his fury, and feels something inside him melt.

Sherlock wants so badly to reach out and take John’s hand but he can’t, not out here on the deck in broad daylight.

John still won’t meet his gaze. Sherlock can see the water beaded on the lashes of his downcast eyes; Sherlock wants to kiss them dry.

John’s voice has grown stiff, formal. “Please accept my apologies on their behalf.”

“John—”

John looks up at the note of urgency in Sherlock’s voice.

“You don’t need to apologize.”

As Sherlock studies John’s upturned face, he notices, for the first time, that there is a fresh cut on John’s cheek, just below his eye.

There was no cut on John’s face this morning when he left Sherlock’s room.

Sherlock draws a sudden breath, lifting his hand to gesture toward John’s cheek. “John, what—?”

John catches Sherlock’s wrist; shakes his head. “Not now.” He drops his voice. “Later. I’ll explain. Not here.”

At the establishment of this minor point of contact between them—the touch of John’s fingers on Sherlock’s wrist, so simple, so innocent—the fragile thread of Sherlock’s self-control snaps. He can feel the world shift, the roar of his desire suddenly drowning out every other thought.

The press of John’s warm fingers seems to awake in him the memory of every touch John has ever given him, and Sherlock shivers in spite of the sun, his skin erupting into goose bumps, his breathing going shallow.

“John.” Sherlock starts forward, his voice pleading. “Will you—?”

“Yes.” John answers before Sherlock has even finished speaking. “Yes, I will. I just—” John looks over his shoulder in the direction of the stairs leading down into the forecastle, and his face is agonized, as though the gesture actually pains him. “I need to go below and get cleaned up. I still have work to do before the sun goes down.”

He turns to look back at Sherlock.

The tension between their bodies is like a living force, vibrating with possibility. Sherlock can almost see it, like the shimmer of heat that’s visible on summer days. It’s as though the warmth of both their bodies is filling up the space. Sherlock’s face feels hot and for the first time today it’s not because of embarrassment.

They are standing too close together. Sherlock should take a step back. If anyone were to see them... But he can’t bear to. John is breathing hard and fast, the sound of it loud between them.

“I have to wait until dark. As soon as it’s dark…” John’s eyes are like a flash of sunlight on the water. “I’ll come to you.”

Sherlock nods to show he’s understood because words are beyond him now. His throat is too tight.

“I’ve got to go.”

Sherlock licks his lips and drops back a step. It takes all his effort to do so. “Yes. Yes, you should go.”

There is someone who has paused across the deck, someone watching them. Sherlock can feel it as sure as he could feel the captain’s eyes on him earlier today. He holds himself very still, his posture perfectly upright, forces himself not to look.

John takes the hint, his body language changing in an instant—the looseness in his posture, the inward tilt toward Sherlock resolving back into his natural gait, upright, broad-shouldered, confident.

“Until tonight,” he says, the words so low Sherlock almost doesn’t catch them, the look in his eyes filled, unmistakably with heat, and then he’s turning and making his way back across the deck, and disappearing down the staircase.

It’s not until John is out of sight that Sherlock turns to look and see who has stopped to watch them from across the deck, and when he does, all the heat in Sherlock’s body turns to ice.

Anderson is standing, watching him, unmoving. There is something about his utter stillness, the unwavering quality of his stare that makes Sherlock’s skin crawl. His face is vivid with bruises from where Sherlock hit him yesterday; the skin around his nose badly swollen, and Sherlock cannot help but experience a savage jolt of pleasure at the knowledge that he is responsible for the violent markings on Anderson’s injured face.

But his pleasure—however vicious—is short-lived as Anderson refuses to break his gaze, even after Sherlock stares back at him with all the hatred he can muster, his own mouth convulsing to a sneer. Even then, Anderson goes on staring, the cold fury in his eyes so unpleasant that finally it is Sherlock who is forced to look away and retreat, with hurried footfalls, toward the staircase at the back of the ship.

Even after he has reached the flimsy solitude of his cabin, his back pressed solidly against the door, even then he cannot shake the memory of the cold, unwavering fixedness of Anderson’s stare, its presence as heavy, as unwelcome as a hand on Sherlock’s skin.

Chapter Text

Sherlock does not go to dinner.

It’s not because he’s afraid of seeing Anderson again—no, it isn’t that at all, he tells himself firmly, and only half-believes it—it’s because he feels too tense and jittery, too hot, too full of feeling after those brief moments on the deck with John.

His heart has not stopped pounding since John approached all lean and wet and smelling of the ocean, bright gold and shimmering like the sun itself, his longing for Sherlock pouring off of him in waves.

How foolish, how foolish Sherlock was to think that John would rather not come see him if he could, that John would rather drink with this friends then come to Sherlock’s bed—Sherlock shivers even as he thinks the words, and falls, hard, into the chair beside his desk, legs as weak as water. He thinks of the sorrow so plain in John’s voice and feels the ache of his regret still sharp within him.

He will make it up to John, he thinks fiercely. As soon as John is here, he will show John just how much he missed him.

After dark, John said. He will come to Sherlock after dark.

Sunset is still an hour away at least, Sherlock realizes in a burst of agony. There must be something he can do to occupy himself while he waits, otherwise, he surely will go mad.

Sherlock hunches forward over his desk, his hands buried with frustration in his hair, casting his eyes around the room for anything to take his mind off of the minutes crawling by.

Luck is with him. His eyes alight on the stack of pages that he tucked out of sight yesterday afternoon before the party—was it really only yesterday? It feels like eons ago—the neatly copied pages of his composition.

Sherlock pulls them out and begins flipping through them, running through the music in his mind.

It occurs to him now that the ending is all wrong—the movement with the second violins—no, that isn’t right. That isn’t right at all.

He pulls out his pen and ink, almost spilling it in his haste to wet the nib, and begins scratching out notes to write new ones in.

He finds himself filled with a burst of inspiration as the melodies from the night before, the rhythms of the reels and jigs, unspool within him. He thinks of the sound of that curious drum, the way the stick beat so fast against the skin—how that music made him feel, the raw power in it, how it seemed to stop his breath, so much like the way John made him feel when Sherlock saw him climbing up the side of the ship, the muscles in his arms gleaming as he pulled his body up with just the strength of his arms.

The notes are appearing so fast in Sherlock’s mind that his fingers can’t keep up. He reaches for a fresh sheaf of pages to mark down the unstoppable stream of new music that is welling up within him.

This piece of music is about John, and Sherlock has so much new information about him since the day before. He’s now seen John in action as a surgeon—bent low over Lestrade, brow furrowed in concentration, one nimble-fingered hand reaching into his medical bag to draw out an instrument, every action graceful, filled with confident assurance; he’s seen John in revelry—the way he can command the attention of everyone in the room with his easy laugh, the low cadence of his voice in song—the way he seems to grow brighter in the presence of their open affection.

All of this fills Sherlock’s mind as the music rises up within him like a tide, the memories of John mingling with his memories of the music from last night; the beat of the drum, the reedy, haunting notes of the whistle, and the sweet sonorous sound of his violin moving in him to create something unlike any piece of music he’s ever written.

And of course, that isn’t all that’s new that he’s learned of John—he now knows John, also, as a lover.

He thinks of John stretched out beside him, the heat of John’s body, the power of it under his hands—the way John’s mouth felt against him, the low sounds he made when Sherlock touched him.

Sherlock feels his cheeks heat and bites his lip, pressing his pen so hard against the page that he makes a blot across the last three measures.

Cursing lightly under his breath, Sherlock sits back a moment to wipe at the sweat on his brow.

It’s hot in Sherlock’s cabin.

Now that they’ve entered the tropics, the heat is an ever-present reminder that they are very far from the cold and foggy shores of England. Sherlock does not mind it; for the most part it’s an improvement over the stinging rains and bitter cold that he has grown accustomed to. But tonight, the air feels close and stifling, and he finds himself longing for a window in his narrow berth so that he could feel the cooling touch of the evening air.

The best he can do is to remove his jacket, pull off his neck cloth, and roll up the sleeves of his shirt. It helps a little but the more Sherlock thinks about John, the hotter he gets, until the sweat is dripping off his forehead onto the pages of his composition.

He writes furiously, feverishly—like a man in a trance—for how long he does not know, but suddenly he is aware that the light in his room is so dim he can scarcely see the page beneath him.

He is just rising to light the candle on his desk when a gentle knock sounds at his door.

Sherlock starts like a rabbit at the sound of the hunter’s rifle. He drops the matches he was holding, almost tripping over the chair in his eagerness to reach the door.

He pulls the door open, heart-pounding, terrified in the instant before he does that it will not be John at all but Anderson, or some other passenger come to disturb him.

All of his breath leaves him in relief at the sight of John’s sun-browned face beaming at him through the dimness of the corridor.

John inclines his head in a formal greeting, the light from the candle in Sherlock’s room shining gold off of his hair as he bows his head.

“Good evening,” he says in a low voice before looking up at Sherlock with a grin.

Sherlock’s heart flips over in his chest, and he is so spellbound by the sight of John really there outside his door that he is completely motionless for several pounding heartbeats.

John’s smile lifts at one corner in amusement. “May I come in?”

Sherlock snaps back to life, stepping quickly to one side to let John pass; mortified that one of John’s smiles should cause him to forget all his manners. “Yes, of course. Come in, come in.”

John steps in at Sherlock’s invitation, moving past Sherlock without touching him but close enough that Sherlock can feel the air move as he passes. He shuts the door behind him with a click.

John turns to look at him and his smile in the candlelight seems to flicker with his delight.

“How are you?” he asks, in that same low voice that seems to pull at Sherlock’s belly as though it’s connected to it with an invisible thread.

“I’m—I’m fine,” Sherlock stammers, in awe all over again at the effect that John can have on him, just from being within arm’s reach.

John has changed since Sherlock saw him up on deck; he’s in a worn blue linen shirt, the color faded, the fabric soft with age, but the color of it brings out the blue in John’s eyes, makes them shine a deep indigo. His sleeves are rolled up to reveal the cords of muscle in his golden arms; his jacket is slung over one of his hands. He’s no longer dripping wet but Sherlock can see the salt stains on his temples from the ocean water, and his hair looks softer than usual. Sherlock wants to touch it.

Sherlock can hardly think what to say; he’s suddenly overcome with nervousness. He can scarcely believe that it was just this morning that he and John lay naked in each other’s arms in this very cabin.

Sherlock blushes hotly at the memory.

He finds he does not know what to do with his hands.

“Would you—would you like some water?” Sherlock flush deepens at the utter banality of this offer, but he cannot think what else to say, what else he has that he can give to John.

John throws back his head and laughs, and Sherlock feels some of his nervousness dissolve at the sound. “That’s very kind of you.” He’s smiling at Sherlock in a way that looks as though he’s trying to keep his mouth serious but the smile just keeps finding its way back onto his face. It’s infectious. Sherlock feels his own lips twitch. “Yes, thank you. I’d love some.”

John gestures towards the chair in front of Sherlock’s desk. “May I?”

“Oh, yes. Please. Sit.”

John is like a breath of fresh air in the close space of Sherlock’s cabin. Everything about him is cool and clean and blue. His neat appearance makes Sherlock painfully aware of his own less than pristine state of dress, of the damp hair on his forehead, and the way his shirt is sticking to his back with sweat. He wishes that he had at least had the foresight to change his shirt.

John moves to sit, and as he does so, Sherlock sees what John’s jacket had hidden from view; John is holding a dusky bottle in his hand.

“We could also drink this,” John says, with a mischievous grin, holding it up. “I don’t know much about wine but Styles assures me it’s a very good vintage.”

“How did you—?”

“One of the lads who lost the bet, he didn’t have wages he could offer me, so I accepted this in lieu of payment.”

Sherlock stares at John in utter shock. The mysterious abilities and accomplishments of John Watson are boundless, he realizes. There really isn’t anything that John can’t do.

John is already pulling out the cork with his teeth. “I didn’t bring any glasses though, so we’ll have to share a cup if that’s alright with you.”

Sherlock nods, speechless, the water he has offered John completely forgotten, as he sinks down on the bed to sit opposite John.

“It’s either that or drink straight from the bottle.”

John grins at Sherlock again and Sherlock is very glad that he is sitting down. The promise in that smile makes his knees go weak.

The energy between them that was there up on deck is between them still, shimmering, hot—like a wall of flame, like a living thing twisting its way up Sherlock’s spine, making him feel dizzy and light-headed, shivering, hot and cold at once.

“We can use my cup,” he says, reaching for it, his heartbeat pounding hard in the base of his throat as he leans over.

Sherlock passes it to John who fills it halfway with the deep red liquid, before passing it back to Sherlock for the first drink.

John raises the bottle in a silent toast as Sherlock lifts the cup to his lips.

“To your health,” John says, and Sherlock can scarcely take a drink without spilling, his fingers are shaking so hard.

He does drink, deeply; feels John’s eyes on him all the while, watching the movement of his throat as he swallows.

He lowers the cup, licks his lips; sees John lean slightly forward in his chair, and when he passes the cup to John, the brush of John’s fingers over his own make Sherlock start so violently that he almost does spill the wine then, but he scarcely notices because John’s eyes still haven’t left his.

“John—” he begins.

“Yes?” John says, before he’s even finished, the cup frozen in the air between them, still held by both their hands.

“You look… you look good,” he stammers, feeling his cheeks flush with embarrassment as his words utterly fail to convey what he’s trying to say. He tries again. “I mean, you look nice, tonight… your—your blue shirt.”

Sherlock stammers to a halt, and bites his lip. His face is on fire.

“My blue shirt?” John asks quietly, grinning, his tongue coming out to trace one corner of his smiling mouth. “Do you like it?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says and lets go of his hold on the cup to drop his eyes into his lap.

“I’m glad,” John says and Sherlock feels John lean a little closer still.

There isn’t much space between Sherlock’s desk and his bed, and sitting opposite John now they’re close enough that if Sherlock shifted only slightly, their knees would brush.

“I missed you today,” Sherlock says, painfully aware of the longing plain in his voice. He keeps his gaze firmly affixed in his lap, embarrassed.

“Did you?” John asks, and there is something in the cadence of those two words that seems to respond to Sherlock, something lilting, something lifting, something equally filled with longing.

“I couldn’t—” Sherlock is encouraged by what he hears in John’s voice, but he is still too shy to look up and confirm it. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I couldn’t… I couldn’t think of anything else.”

John has taken the cup of wine from Sherlock but he hasn’t raised it to his mouth—it remains forgotten in his hand.

“What did you do all day?” he asks, his voice soft, filled with genuine curiosity.

“I…” Sherlock dares a look up at John’s face and his breath catches in his throat. “Thought of you mostly,” he admits, cheeks flushing hot as he thinks back to what he did this morning just after John left.

“You did?” John asks, setting the cup of wine on the desk beside him, untouched, his eyes only for Sherlock, all for Sherlock. His voice is growing breathless. “What did you think about?”

Sherlock is squirming where he sits, remembering how he buried his face in the pillow and thought of John, how he couldn’t resist touching himself.

“I…” He darts a nervous hand up to his mouth, worrying the edge of his bottom lip with his finger, unsure as to the source of the gesture, but compelled to do it, and John catches hold of his wrist, stilling the movement.

“What’s this?” John breathes, pulling Sherlock’s fingers towards him, cradling them gently between both his hands, uncurling Sherlock’s fingers one by one to study the length of them.

Sherlock’s fingers, he realizes, are covered in ink-stains.

“I was… composing.”

John’s eyes, as they slide up towards Sherlock’s from his hands, are so filled with tender passion that Sherlock is certain that if he keeps looking into them he will catch fire.

“Oh god, you brilliant thing.”

John’s voice is as near to a caress as any touch Sherlock has ever felt and he gasps softly at the sound of it, leans forward on the bed until his knees brush John’s.

“It… it isn’t finished yet but when it is…” Sherlock swallows hard, studying his long white fingers, curled lovingly against John’s palm. His eyes flicker back up to John’s. “When it is, I’ll play it for you. I want you to hear it.”

“God, Sherlock…”

Sherlock feels John’s hands tighten on his fingers as he says it, and he can no longer stand the distance between them. He clutches back at John’s hands, holding tightly, so tightly John looks up at him in surprise.

“I missed you,” he says again, this time not bothering to disguise the ache in his voice, the ache in his chest that he’s felt all day, that feels as though it’s tearing a hole open inside of him, that only now might be filled by John’s hands in his.

“I know,” John says, and Sherlock knows now for certain that he’s not imagining the breathless quality in John’s voice, the ache to match his own.

“It was only a day, I know,” Sherlock rattles on, aware that he’s speaking more than he’d like to, but unable to stop the torrent of words that have been burning at the brink of his lips all day, waiting to burst forth. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about you. Your hands, your mouth… the way your body felt against mine…” Sherlock hesitates at the sound of John’s indrawn breath, his eyes darting up to hold John’s. “That’s all I could think about.”

John’s breathing has grown ragged, his fingers tense against Sherlock’s where he holds them.

“I… I couldn’t stop touching myself even after you left.”

John actually groans then, the sound long and loud between them, and Sherlock dropping his voice with embarrassment but encouraged by John’s reaction, goes on speaking, his breathing low and quick.

“I tried to go back to sleep like you said but when I turned over—the pillow, it smelled like you and I…”

John’s nails bite into Sherlock’s palm with sudden force. His voice sounds strangled. “And you…?”

Sherlock’s voice is now a whisper. “I took myself in hand while I remembered… and I… I touched myself… all the while imagining it was you, that it was your hand around me.”

Sherlock risks a look up at John’s face. His lashes are heavy over his eyes, his pupils black and deep and glittering. Sherlock’s eyes drop to the line of John’s lips, which are parted slightly, flushed a lovely pink.

Sherlock wants so badly to kiss him.

“John,” Sherlock says and his voice is shaking. He leans in closer; feels John’s fingers tighten around his. “I want…” Sherlock wets his lips, his eyes never leaving John’s mouth. “Will you let me…”

John leans closer in turn, his posture a mirror for Sherlock’s. His breathing is shallow. “What is it?”

“I want to kiss you.”

John’s answering smile is slow and full of heat. “Good. That’s… good.”

Sherlock is still tipping forward slowly, as though his body is drawn toward John’s through a force of its own.

“May I…?” Sherlock licks his lips again, sees John’s eyes watch the progress of his tongue across his bottom lip. “May I kiss you?”

John’s answer is a sigh. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Emboldened by the longing in John’s voice, Sherlock leans in until he can feel John’s breath—soft against his parted lips. He holds himself there, overwhelmed, his mouth trembling, his own breath loud and quick in the infinitesimal space between them.

Just this is almost too much for Sherlock—just being in this space, so close to John, so close that he can feel his breath, his face a blur in Sherlock’s vision, his fingers tight in Sherlock’s, makes him feel as though his heart will burst within his chest it’s so full up with feeling.

“Sherlock…” John’s voice is a warm exhalation against his mouth. “Close your eyes.”

Sherlock hesitates, his eyes spread wide to take in the sight of John’s cheek so close against his, the curl of his eyelashes just visible in Sherlock’s field of vision.

His heart is pounding—he feels light-headed with the intensity of his desire, like he might fall off the earth if he doesn’t keep a grip on the feeling, as though if he surrenders to it, he will be washed away.

“Sherlock.” John’s voice is so gentle.

Sherlock closes his eyes.

He feels John tilt his head, his eyelashes fluttering against Sherlock’s cheeks as he moves in closer until John’s bottom lip gently grazes his own.

Sherlock gasps at the sensation, made doubly intense by virtue of the fact that his eyes are closed.

John holds himself still, breath coming out warm against Sherlock’s lips, and Sherlock is grateful that John understands, that as much as he wants John to keep moving, to press in further, for his tongue to come out and find Sherlock’s own—he needs a moment to absorb the feeling of just this, the miracle of John’s mouth against his again.

John’s lips are soft, and they feel softer still for the contrast of the stubble on his cheek—he did not have time to shave this morning after leaving Sherlock’s room and Sherlock can feel the vivid scratch of it against his chin. He wants to rub his face in it until his skin is tingling all over.

Up close John smells even more like himself—a lovely blend of sea and fresh wind—and Sherlock draws a breath in to pull the scent into his lungs, let it spread slowly through the heart of him and into the stream of his blood.

Come into me, he thinks. Become a part of me.

Even as he thinks it, he parts his lips and John responds in turn, the soft heat of his own mouth opening, fitting over Sherlock’s so perfectly, the wet sweep of his tongue finding Sherlock’s bottom lip and tracing it with careful reverence, making Sherlock gasp again in shocked delight.

That it can feel so good still fills Sherlock with amazement—why, why is it that having John’s mouth against his mouth can make everything right with the world, can fill him with so much feeling that he wants to cry out as though he is in pain?

John’s tongue is now stroking the dip in Sherlock’s top lip and Sherlock is trembling from the gentle exploration of it, torn between the desire for John to keep doing what he’s doing and for John to plunge his tongue into the heat of Sherlock’s mouth with more force, to stroke the length of his tongue.

John slides his mouth over the curve of Sherlock’s bottom lip, pulling it gently in between his teeth. Sherlock lets him, shivering at the hint of pressure. He feels John’s knee press in against the inside of his thigh, and Sherlock parts his legs wider in response, reaching out as he does so to take hold of John’s forearms so that he can feel the muscles flexing under the skin.

John’s arms are smooth and warm—so warm it’s as though Sherlock can feel the presence of the sun still on John’s skin and he slides his hands up, up over the cords of muscle, gasping into John’s mouth as he feels the shift and flex.

He hears John make a low sound of pleasure in response, somewhere in the back of his throat, and Sherlock feels a flare of heat burst into life between his legs at that sound. He slides his hands back down John’s arms until he’s caught hold of both of his hands and then surges forward, pushing his tongue into John’s mouth.

John’s lips part willingly to let Sherlock in, mouth opening wide, and Sherlock finds John’s tongue and strokes it the way he remembers John doing for him.

John’s hands come up to hold Sherlock by the arms and then his tongue is licking back against Sherlock’s, tiny little lapping movements that make Sherlock’s bones feel like they are turning to jelly, causing the fire burning low inside him to burst into an inferno of need.

John’s knee is pressing hard into Sherlock’s inner thigh and Sherlock realizes if John’s knee just moved slightly further inward it would be rubbing against the part of Sherlock that currently needs the most attention.

He twists on the bed, leaning forward in an effort to get closer to John, almost falling in his eagerness.

John’s hands come up to Sherlock’s shoulders to steady him and John pulls back with a smile on his lips, breathing hard.

Sherlock actually cries out at the loss.

“I think… it might be better if I came and sat next to you.”

Sherlock’s cheeks are hot as he straightens up. He undoes his shoes and kicks them off, then scoots backwards onto the bed.

There’s no reason to feel nervous; he and John just did all this not twelve hours ago, but somehow his anticipation is sharpened to an almost unbearable pitch. It’s like his skin cannot contain the enormity of his desire, it feels as though he will burst open at any moment.

John takes a long drink from the cup of wine on the desk before reaching down to pull off his shoes. When he straightens up to look at Sherlock he is grinning. He offers the cup to Sherlock who takes it and swallows down half the contents without tasting it. He’s too focused on getting John back against him again to notice trivial things like the taste of the wine. Although some distant part of his brain registers that it’s actually quite good. He can feel the effects of it, warm and pleasant, uncurling in his chest.

John takes the cup from Sherlock’s distracted fingers, trying to contain the smile that keeps breaking over his face. He only half-succeeds and the result is that his mouth remains quirked in lopsided amusement.

It makes him look more handsome than ever.

He sets the cup of wine back on the desk and then gestures to the bed, his face sobering as he becomes suddenly formal once again. “May I join you?”

Sherlock nods his head, his hands clenched tight between his shaking thighs.

He is so aroused he feels as though it will all be over as soon as John kisses him again.

John kneels on the bed, his mouth quirking up again in that impossible grin that makes Sherlock feel simultaneously breathless and as though he is looking into the sun.

“Do you know…?” John says, crawling toward Sherlock on his hands and knees, his smile shifting imperceptibly the closer he gets, glimmering at the corners with something dangerous, something full of hunger. “I also couldn’t stop thinking about you all day. No matter what task was before me it seemed to disappear as I found myself thinking of your hands, the sounds you made… your mouth.”

As he says the word, his eyes drop to settle on Sherlock’s mouth, his eyelashes low over his eyes, casting spiky shadows on his cheeks in the candlelight. He leans in and Sherlock can scarcely breathe, he is so desperate for John to close the last inch between them and bring their mouths together again.

“You... you did?” he asks, parting his lips and leaning in towards John even as John brushes his mouth against Sherlock’s.

“I did.”

Sherlock’s entire body shivers once, hard, and then John’s mouth is opening on his and his tongue finds Sherlock’s—lovely, warm and wet, and Sherlock moans softly and leans into the kiss, opening his mouth as wide as possible to invite John in.

John is still on his hands and knees, leaning into Sherlock with his whole body, lapping at the length of Sherlock’s tongue with the same long obscene licks that make Sherlock’s bones feel like they are melting.

The feel of it makes Sherlock remember vividly how John performed the same sort of licking gesture on another part of him the previous evening.

Sherlock makes a whimpering sound in the back of his throat, his hands flying up to seize John by the front of his shirt and pull him closer, thighs spreading apart on the mattress as though of their own volition.

John tips forward into Sherlock and breaks away, laughing, breathless, resettling himself so that he’s sitting on his knees opposite Sherlock. He reaches up a hand to cup Sherlock’s cheek, his thumb smoothing fondly over the corner of Sherlock’s lips. His smile is affectionate but his eyes are dark and full of sin. “You like that don’t you?”

Sherlock nods, unsmiling; his hands still fisted in the material of John’s shirt. He pushes his forehead against John’s, breathing hard, eyes heavy on John’s mouth, before using his grip on John to pull John’s mouth back against his.

John obliges, his tongue coming out to lick into Sherlock’s open mouth, the hand cupping Sherlock’s face holding him gently, guiding his head so that he can deepen the angle of the kiss.

John pulls away after another minute or so, settling his forehead against Sherlock’s just like Sherlock did. His voice is low and heavy, his hand warm on Sherlock’s jaw line. “Do you know which part of you I missed the most?”

Sherlock licks his kiss-stung lips, tasting John and shivering hard. “No,” he whispers, his own voice rough with longing.

“Your hair,” John breathes against Sherlock’s mouth. Even as he says the words his hand is sliding into Sherlock’s curls, nails scraping lightly against Sherlock’s scalp as he goes, and Sherlock melts.

His whole body bows, leaning into the touch of John’s hand and John presses his mouth to Sherlock’s hairline, burying his nose in the dark curls and inhaling deeply. “Oh god, the smell of it—Sherlock... god.”

Sherlock can feel John’s open mouth moving over his part as his fingers card through the hair at the base of Sherlock’s neck.

He goes on talking, mouth still buried in Sherlock’s part. “It’s so dark, so rich. Do you know, Sherlock, how long I wanted to touch it? Ask me. Ask me how long it’s been.”

Sherlock’s head is tipped back; his neck is extended, lost in the sensation of John’s strong fingers working through the thick curls. It’s almost as good as John kissing him. Almost. Sherlock feels drunk from the sensation.

His voice comes out slurred. “How long?”

“Since the first day I met you. God, I wanted to bury my hands in it. Just like this. And do you know what I learned, Sherlock?”

Sherlock’s head rolls forward on his neck as John’s mouth finds his ear, murmuring against it.

“What?” Sherlock asks, already forgetting the question, the hypnotic movement of John’s fingers against his scalp setting his whole body to tingling.

“It’s so much softer than it looks,” John answers, lips sliding over Sherlock’s ear, tongue coming out to trace the whorl at the center, fingers fisting in the curls and pulling.

Sherlock whimpers, letting his head tip back, baring the long curve of his throat.

“Kiss me, John,” Sherlock gasps, his voice breathless, desperate. “God. Please. Kiss me while you’re—”

John falls on Sherlock’s upturned mouth, plunging his tongue between Sherlock’s parted lips and stroking the length of Sherlock’s tongue, hands pulling gently all the while at Sherlock’s curls.

The combination of John’s tongue licking sweetly into his mouth with the pressure of John’s hand on his scalp is almost more than Sherlock can take. He can feel all the blood in his body pounding hot between his legs.

If John doesn’t touch him soon he will surely perish where he sits.

Sherlock kisses John back, hungry, desperate, his mouth slipping over John’s even while John tries to keep his kisses slow and deliberate.

John is sitting up on his knees so that he is above Sherlock, leaning down over him. Sherlock surrenders to the pull of John’s hand in his hair, letting his body curve backwards as far as it will go and he is on the edge of over-balancing when he feels John’s hand slide from his hair down his side until he’s holding him gently at the small of his back, holding him up.

John keeps one hand in Sherlock’s hair, fingers carding through the curls.

He breaks his mouth away from Sherlock’s, kissing down his chin and over the edge of his jaw. He sucks lightly at the underside of Sherlock’s throat and Sherlock cries out, reaching up to seize hold of the front of John’s shirt again and tug John down against him.

John lets himself be pulled, falling in between Sherlock’s spread thighs, his arms braced on either side of Sherlock’s torso to support his weight.

Their hips fall into satisfying alignment. John’s groin is a welcome heaviness against the aching length of Sherlock’s trapped erection.

Sherlock immediately thrusts his hips up against John’s body and is rewarded with the feel of the long ridge of John’s very hard cock pressing through the thin material of his trousers.

Sherlock gasps with pleasure, hands going slack in John’s shirt as John thrusts back against him, his open mouth traveling hot and wet down the length of Sherlock’s bared neck, pausing to suck hard on the side of Sherlock’s throat—so hard that Sherlock feels John’s teeth bite the sensitive skin.

Sherlock cries out, bucking upward with his hips and John’s fingers fly immediately to Sherlock’s mouth to silence him.

“Quiet, my love.” John’s mouth is warm against Sherlock’s ear. “Remember, you’ve got to be quiet.”

Sherlock nods, distracted, breathing hard against John’s fingers, not bothering to close his mouth.

He’s desperate for more friction against his cock; he lets his knees fall wide open, squirming against the heavy weight of John against him, shuddering as the movement causes both their erections to slide against one another.

Sherlock watches John gasp above him in response, mouth falling open, eyelashes fluttering closed.

The movement pushes one of John’s fingers in past Sherlock’s parted lips and Sherlock, seized with some mindless desire that he cannot explain, opens wider, pulling the length of it into his mouth and sucking hard around it.

John groans, his eyes flying open to look down at Sherlock.

“Oh my god,” he manages, voice trembling audibly.

Sherlock sucks harder in response, hips pumping into John, his mind flooded with thoughts of the way John’s mouth felt around his cock the day before. He imagines suddenly what it would feel like to have his mouth not around John’s fingers, but his cock—the hard, silky heat of it against his tongue, his lips stretching wide to take it into his mouth. What would it feel like on his tongue? Would he be able to fit it all? What would it taste like?

His mouth waters at the thought and he watches John’s eyes grow hazy with pleasure as his tongue laps at the calluses on John’s finger, over his knuckles, his own hips still thrusting in an attempt to reestablish the drag of their cocks coming together.

He’s about to pull his mouth away to voice this desire, to ask John if he might return the favor from last night when John, ever attentive to his needs, slides a hand down between their bodies to find Sherlock’s cock, his palm settling over the hard heat of it where it’s straining through his trousers.

All thoughts of Sherlock’s previous plan are lost as John palms the length of him; Sherlock cannot stop himself from thrusting up into the pressure of John’s hand, gasping at the welcome drag of John’s palm against him.

John pulls his hand from Sherlock’s mouth to better prop himself up as his other hand is now occupied. His eyes as he looks down at Sherlock are heavy and dark, his lips parted. “That’s right,” he says, as he begins to slide his spread palm over the ridge of Sherlock’s cock. “You can let go now. I’m here.”

Sherlock’s hands fist helplessly again in the front of John’s shirt. He begins to rock his hips in time with the movement of John’s sliding palm and oh, it feels so good.

He wants so many things—he wants to pull the soft blue shirt from John’s torso, to feel John’s belly against his own, to watch the muscles flexing in John’s lean stomach as he moves—he wants to lick the salt from John’s temples, to feel the softness of John’s hair against his mouth—he wants John’s cock hard and naked in his hand—in his mouth. He wants all of these things but he is so overcome from his yearning for John all day, and John’s hand against him feels so good, that all he can do is cling to the front of John’s shirt, hips rising up to meet his hand with every stroke, breath panting out of him in shallow bursts.

He wants to tell John how good it feels, how relieved he feels to have John here with him again but all he can manage is a broken gasp as John’s fingers find the fastenings to his trousers and begin to work them apart. Before Sherlock can even think to reach down and help him, John’s warm fingers have slid inside his trousers and taken the length of him in hand.

Sherlock does cry out then, the feel of John’s fingers on his bare flesh almost more than he can take, and John leans down to stop his mouth with a kiss as he begins to stroke, fingers slick from the moisture at the head of Sherlock’s cock.

Heaven—Sherlock is in heaven with John’s tongue in his mouth, his hand stroking the length of Sherlock’s erection in long, even strokes.

He’s too far-gone to kiss John properly; he keeps his mouth open and John licks into it, panting slightly at first, and then sucking hard on Sherlock’s tongue as he increases the speed of his hand.

Sherlock can feel the peak of his desire coiling in his belly, drawing up tight at the base of his spine—and he wants to make it last, wants to draw it out so that the bliss of John’s mouth against him and his desire hot and naked in John’s fist can last forever—but the combination proves too much.

John licks obscenely over Sherlock’s tongue, his fingers squeezing slightly at the base of Sherlock’s cock and it’s all over.

Sherlock arches up against John, his cry of pleasure lost in the heat of John’s mouth, hips thrusting brokenly as his orgasm rips through him, sending pulse after pulse of hot liquid splashing over John’s fingers and the fabric of Sherlock’s shirt.

Neither of them even managed to remove a single garment of clothing.

Sherlock sags back down against the bed, feeling boneless and heavy, a low sweet note of pleasure still humming through him, filling him with contentment.

John’s mouth moves to Sherlock’s temple, pressing a kiss to the sweat-soaked curls, and Sherlock unclenches his hands from the front of John’s shirt to slide his arms around John’s shoulders and pull John flush against him.

The weight of John’s body is a welcome one against Sherlock, as is the presence of his very prominent erection pushing in against Sherlock’s hip.

Sherlock wriggles his hips against it and feels John stiffen in response, breath catching.

Sherlock’s breathing is still harsh and quick; he lets his mouth drag over John’s ear, feels John shiver against him.

Sherlock licks dry lips. When he speaks, his voice comes out rough. “I’m sorry that was over so quickly. I wanted—” Sherlock wets his lips again, feeling his shyness returning. “There are so many things I want to do with you but I… it felt so good what you did—I couldn’t…”

John shifts so he is looking down at Sherlock. His eyes are full of tenderness. “Don’t you dare apologize for that,” he says, his voice heavy and soft all at once. “I’ve been wanting to do that all day. And besides,” he goes on, mouth curling into a wicked smile. “We’ve got all night ahead of us.”

“Yes,” Sherlock breathes, happiness stealing over him warm and sweet, like stepping into a sudden beam of sunlight. He wiggles his hips under John to settle John firmer against him, looping his arms around John’s neck to pull him down for a kiss. “Yes, we do, don’t we?”

Chapter Text

The kisses between them are long and lazy.

Sherlock is happy to keep his mouth open, slack, while John licks into it, slow and leisurely, his clean hand coming up again to twine in Sherlock’s curls. The pace of John’s kissing is unhurried, sensuous, but Sherlock can feel the tension in John’s body, the way he holds himself somewhat stiffly against Sherlock, like a cord that is pulled taut, thrumming with possibility.

John’s other hand is still clenched sticky and hot against Sherlock’s hip, trapped between both their bodies. Sherlock’s waistcoat and the linen shirt he wears underneath are bunched up, twisted from his desperate thrusting into John to bare a strip of pale skin. He can feel the softness of John’s blue shirt where it’s pressing into his naked stomach.

This may be Sherlock’s favorite part of sex so far—the moment after he has come and his body feels slow and heavy and sweet, when his brain has disconnected, and he’s finally able to relax. It’s made even better by the fact that the last few times this has happened, Sherlock has been lucky enough to have an incredibly aroused John still against him, his whole body vibrating with tension, just waiting to be uncovered by Sherlock’s hands, his mouth.

Sherlock is hotter now than he has been all evening with John on top of him. His linen shirt is soaked completely through with sweat, and he can feel his temples gleaming with it, wetting the hair against his forehead and the nape of his neck. He doesn’t mind the sticky, debauched feeling anymore because now it feels like it belongs to him and John both, like it’s a result of the pleasure that they are shaping between them, and Sherlock loves it, revels in it, wants to rub his face over the length of John’s body to discover which parts of him are wet and why.

However none of that changes the fact that he is still very hot, and desperate to get rid of every garment of clothing preventing his body from touching John’s.

John is still kissing him, lazy and slow, when Sherlock runs his palms down the expanse of John’s back. John’s worn blue shirt is soft under his hands, the muscles in John’s back so prominent even while relaxed—just the feel of those powerful muscles makes Sherlock’s breathing speed up.

He tugs at John’s shirt where it’s tucked into his trousers and John pulls away from Sherlock’s mouth, grinning, his eyes glimmering at Sherlock through the dim light.

“What have we here? Someone is eager to get me undressed I see.”

“Too much… clothing,” Sherlock pants as he begins to haul the shirt up and off of John’s back.

“I thought you liked my blue shirt,” John says cheekily, leaning back down to recapture Sherlock’s mouth.

“I do,” Sherlock says against John’s lips as he struggles to pull the material off John’s shoulders. “But I like just… you… better.”

Laughing, John sits up and out of reach of Sherlock’s hands.

Sherlock opens his mouth to protest and then sees that John is reaching to pull the shirt off over his head.

Sherlock sits up with him, reaching down to undo the buttons on his own waistcoat while John throws his shirt to the end of the bed, but he freezes, fingers frozen on the buttons, at the sight of John before him, shirtless now, his bare chest gleaming in the light of the candles, his pectorals, the graceful line of his abdominal muscles all so lean and firm—glowing golden from the touch of the sun.

Sherlock cannot help himself—he surges forward, half-unbuttoned waistcoat completely forgotten under his hands, to press his mouth to one gleaming shoulder—lips parting against the heat of John’s skin, tongue coming out to slide, smooth and wet over John’s chest down to the slightly darker skin of his nipple.

Sherlock licks at it, tentative at first, quickly growing bolder at the sound John makes in response. He’s encouraged by the way the flesh stiffens under his tongue, beading into a tiny pearl. Sherlock loves the texture of it against his tongue, the fact that this part of John is so small and sensitive, sensitive enough to make John gasp above him as Sherlock rubs his open lips against it.

“Oh, Sherlock… your mouth…”

Sherlock licks at it again, swirling his tongue around the circumference of the beaded flesh before lapping at it like a cat, in long wet strokes, like the way John lapped at Sherlock’s mouth that drove him to near madness.

Oh my god.”

John’s hands come up to seize Sherlock by the hair, the gesture rougher than John usually is, and something about the slight loss of control in John’s movements makes something flip in Sherlock’s stomach, makes him push his mouth harder against John’s chest, closing his lips around his nipple and sucking.

John cries out sharply, fingers tightening in Sherlock’s curls.

Sherlock—”

John’s breathing is harsh and fast above Sherlock, and Sherlock, emboldened by John’s reaction, slides his open mouth across John’s chest—pausing to lick at the line between John’s pectorals—before focusing his attention on the other nipple, licking his way around it several times before settling the flat of his tongue against it and sucking.

John’s skin is salty and slightly rough under his tongue—he tastes like how Sherlock imagines the sun would taste; he tastes like the sea.

Sherlock loves, loves, loves the feel of John’s fingers pulling just a little bit too hard in his hair, the sounds of John’s breathing growing ragged above him.

His hands come up to hold John’s waist, thumbs smoothing over the ripples of John’s ribs, amazed at how strong and fragile John’s body can feel beneath his hands—how alive and powerful, and yet how delicate.

His fingers find a scar low down on John’s left side and Sherlock traces it with the tip of his index finger, fascinated by the swollen line of scar tissue on John’s otherwise smooth side.

Sherlock pulls back to look at it, and John’s eyes follow Sherlock’s gaze, hands still coiled in Sherlock’s hair.

“Sword wound,” he says, breathless. “Battle of San Domingo. A Frenchman came at me from behind—I was engaged in combat with two other men and he snuck up behind me, caught me unawares. Not very gentlemanly. But he didn’t live long after that.”

The corner of John’s mouth quirks upward in a hard smile, and Sherlock sees, for one brief moment, a glimpse of the way John might look on the battlefield, the graceful line of his arm as he delivers a killing blow, his eyes full of dark fire—unstoppable. It makes Sherlock’s breath catch.

Sherlock’s finger traces the raised flesh again and he sees John shudder in response, looking down at Sherlock’s long fingers.

“Your hands, Sherlock.” He reaches down to take hold of Sherlock’s fingers in his own and pull them up to his mouth pressing a kiss to the knuckles, before turning them over to kiss the sensitive skin on the pads of Sherlock’s fingers.

It’s Sherlock’s turn to shudder as John’s warm mouth slides down to his palm, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to the center of his hand. There is something so erotic about John’s mouth there against Sherlock’s palm, about the way he holds Sherlock’s wrist so gently in one hand, fingers cradled so tenderly in the other. It makes Sherlock feel like John is holding his heart in his hands.

“I could spend my life kissing these hands and never tire of them.”

John’s mouth slides up to the inside of Sherlock’s wrist, pushing the sleeve of Sherlock’s shirt up his forearm to bare more of his white skin.

John’s breath is warm in the wake of his wet mouth but the feel of it against Sherlock’s damp skin is deliciously cool in the heat of the room.

“There is no one on earth more beautiful than you,” John murmurs as he reaches the crease of Sherlock’s elbow, pulling back to look Sherlock in the eyes as he says it. “And I should know, I’ve traveled the entire world.”

Sherlock leans in then and kisses John’s smiling mouth, the kiss somehow sweet and desperate at once as Sherlock’s hands drop to the front of John’s breeches and begin to pull at the fastenings.

“Yes,” John says, breathless, recapturing Sherlock’s mouth between every word, his own hands going to Sherlock’s half-unbuttoned waistcoat and pulling at the buttons, twice as fast as Sherlock could. “Yes, yes, yes.”

“John,” Sherlock pants, his forehead pressed hard against John’s, fingers shaking as he pulls the fabric apart above John’s straining cock. Lovely, patient John who’s been hard for what probably feels like hours. “John, there’s something I want—”

“What is it, my love? Tell me. Anything. Anything you want it’s yours.”

“What you did for me yesterday… I want—” Sherlock licks his lips. “I want to do the same for you.”

John abruptly stops unbuttoning, his hands finding Sherlock’s and holding them still. “What?”

“When you…” Sherlock can feel his cheeks blushing hot even before he can get the words out. “I want to—”

He’s too embarrassed to say it out loud, so he leans forward until his lips are against John’s ear, face almost hidden in the curve of John’s neck.

“I want to put my mouth around… around you.”

John’s hand comes up to clasp Sherlock by the back of his neck, the gesture sudden, fierce; Sherlock can feel a quiver go through John’s body like a bolt of lightning. He can feel John holding himself very still.

His voice is soft against Sherlock’s ear. “Sherlock, you don’t have to do that.”

Sherlock rears back, affronted by the suggestion that he wouldn’t want to do this for John, to experience John in the most intimate way Sherlock can possibly imagine—in a way he couldn’t have imagined before last night.

It’s all he wants.

“I know I don’t have to,” Sherlock says, offense clear in the stiffness of his voice, his fingers obstinately continuing to pull apart the buttons of John’s trousers. “John, I want to.”

John lifts his hands away in surrender as Sherlock works the last button free, his breathing growing ragged. Sherlock can feel the unsteady warmth of it against his neck.

Sherlock pushes the fabric apart and then moves his hands to slide the garment off John’s hips. John leans back on his hands to give Sherlock more room.

Sherlock glances up at John with sudden worry. “But… I might need your help. I mean—to- to figure out exactly what to do. I don’t—” He licks his lips, his voice growing frail. “I don’t know how to do it.”

John reaches a hand out to cup Sherlock’s jaw, tilting Sherlock’s eyes up to his own. They are full of flame.

Sherlock’s voice drops to a whisper. “Will you teach me, John? Will you show me how to do it?”

“Of course, I’ll help you.”

Sherlock feels some of his anxiety ebb away as John’s thumb caresses the hinge of his jaw.

“Although I don’t think you’re going to need it. Anything you do with that mouth of yours will be enough for me.”

Sherlock licks his lips again, self-conscious.

“Actually I do have one request to start out.”

Sherlock’s eyes flicker back up to John’s with attention.

“Do you mind if I finish undressing you first?”

Sherlock nods; mildly surprised by this request.

John’s hands return to the buttons on Sherlock’s waistcoat. He undoes the last of them in no time and then pushes the silk off Sherlock’s shoulders with gentle hands.

Sherlock sighs as the material slithers off of him.

John drops his hands to Sherlock’s waist, tugging at the hem of his sweat-soaked shirt, leaning in to press a kiss to Sherlock’s temple as he begins to lift the garment off.

“You taste good,” John says, lips hot against Sherlock’s forehead.

Sherlock hums noncommittally, lifting his arms as John pulls the shirt off over his head.

It feels good to be free of the dingy garment and Sherlock shakes his curls to help lay them flat once John has thrown the shirt down to the end of the bed to join his own.

Sherlock’s hesitation returns almost immediately. “Should I… should you…that is, should you be lying down?”

John smoothes his hands down Sherlock’s bare arms and Sherlock’s shivers at the touch, at the feel of John’s callused palms rough against his hot skin.

“Here.” John leans behind Sherlock to take hold of the cup of wine. “Have another drink of wine first.”

“John I—”

But John kisses him quiet, pushing the cup into Sherlock’s hand.

When John finally pulls away they are both breathless.

“Alright,” Sherlock says, feeling slightly disoriented, flushed with arousal. He takes a long drink of wine, sparing a fraction of his attention to notice fully how good it really is. The taste is rich and dark, peppery but also sweet, with hints of oak and cherry.

“Plum,” Sherlock says, handing the cup back to John. “And cherry.”

“Really?” John asks, dropping a hand to rest on Sherlock’s thigh as he raises the cup to his lips.

“Yes. It’s delicious.” Sherlock is distracted by the presence of John’s thumb creeping up his leg. “It tastes French.”

“It is,” John says before draining the contents of the cup and leaning backwards to reach the bottle off of Sherlock’s desk, somehow managing to do all this without moving his hand from Sherlock’s leg. “Styles got it off a French ship. I told you—he assured me it was the very best.”

John sets the bottle back on the desk and then passes the full cup to Sherlock.

Sherlock’s head is already swimming from the delicate movement of John’s thumb up his thigh, from the intent look in John’s dark blue eyes, his whole body tingling with arousal, but he takes the cup, long fingers brushing over John’s as he does.

He drinks again, shutting his eyes briefly to savor the rich flavor of the wine on his tongue, losing himself in the complex unfolding taste of it in his mouth, still very much aware of John’s hand which has settled in the crease of his hip.

John takes the cup from his hands and Sherlock hears him setting it back on the desk. Sherlock’s eyes are still closed when John’s mouth finds his again, his tongue coming out to stroke the seam of Sherlock’s lips.

John’s mouth is warm and soft. Sherlock parts his lips to let John in and is rewarded by the slick heat of John’s tongue pushing in against his own. He tastes like the wine they have been drinking—sweet and dark.

Sherlock feels John’s fingers drop to the front of his trousers, which still hang partly fastened at his hips, and push them off.

“Up on your knees,” John breathes into Sherlock’s mouth.

Sherlock acquiesces, hands on John’s bare shoulders, John’s tongue still in his mouth, and John tugs his trousers down his thighs to his knees.

“Sit back,” John says and Sherlock does so that John can pull the garment down his calves and off over his feet.

Sherlock is now completely nude and John leans in over him, his own unbuttoned trousers still hanging loose on his hips, one hot hand stroking up Sherlock’s leg from his knee all the way to the crest of his hip, his eyes wide and ravenous as his gaze follows the path of his hand.

Sherlock is still leaning back on his hands and as he looks down at his body splayed out under John, his cheeks flame briefly with self-consciousness at the lewdness of his posture, at the sight of his own cock visibly thickening before his eyes just from the touch of John’s hand on his leg.

But his embarrassment is short-lived; it’s only a pale shadow of the crippling self-consciousness he felt yesterday being completely exposed to John’s eyes. Now he knows he would be a fool to doubt John’s attraction to him. The reverence in John’s gaze as his eyes trace every inch of Sherlock’s naked body is unmistakable, blazing as bright as the hottest flame.

“My god, Sherlock Holmes,” John says, sinking low over him, shaking his head, one hand planted next to Sherlock’s chest to support his weight as he leans down. “Your beauty will be the death of me.”

“I should hope not,” Sherlock whispers back, his tongue loosened by the wine, sliding his hands up John’s deliciously bare back, feeling every scar, every hard muscle, every inch of smooth hot flesh before pulling John down against him. “I plan to keep you with me for a very long time.”

“Is that so?” John murmurs, brushing his lips against Sherlock’s. “And how do you plan on doing that?”

Sherlock locks his hands around John’s waist, opening his mouth under John’s as he says: “By refusing to let you leave my bed.”

Sherlock can taste John’s smile against him, and then he gasps at the feel of John’s thigh nudging in between his legs. “That does sound fairly foolproof.”

“J-John?” It takes all of Sherlock’s self-control to break free of John’s warm, insistent mouth.

“Yes, my love?”

“It’s my turn now.”

“Your turn for what?”

Sherlock’s hands have slid down to the luscious curve of John’s buttocks and now he’s completing the task that he started minutes before, pulling John’s trousers the rest of the way down his hips.

“Time for me to be on top.”

As he says it, Sherlock locks his hands again around John’s back and rolls until John is under him, wide-eyed with surprise and something else, licking dark and unquenchable at the base of his gaze.

Sherlock is straddling him, nude thighs spread wide, and Sherlock experiences a delicious flutter in his stomach at the feeling of John pinned, however ineffectively, beneath him.

He licks his lips and scoots down John’s legs to kneel between them, pulling John’s trousers as he goes, all the way down over each beautifully muscular knee, and Sherlock cannot help but catch his breath at John’s long flushed cock springing free, so hard and thick that it sets Sherlock’s mouth to watering just at the sight of it.

Now Sherlock understands why.

He wants to put his mouth around it at once but he forces himself to pull John’s trousers completely off his legs before he leans back in.

John’s chest is rising and falling rapidly, his breathing quick and shallow.

“My god, Sherlock, I’m not going to last long with you looking at me like that.”

“I’m going to do much more than look,” Sherlock says and feels his mouth going dry.

“Oh Christ.” John drops his head back against the pillow, shutting his eyes, and Sherlock is stricken briefly that John can get as overwhelmed by this as he.

Sherlock settles his hands on John’s knees, thumbs rubbing over the hard muscle in John’s thighs. Now it’s Sherlock’s turn to let his eyes sweep with reverence over every inch of John.

“You’re so strong, John,” he hears himself whispering as his hands glide up John’s thighs, up to the dramatic grooves of John’s pelvis, fingers lingering over the smooth skin, the sharp dip around the bone. “Sometimes I think there’s nothing you can’t do, even if it meant moving the world with your bare hands. You could do it. I know you could.” Sherlock’s voice is low and worshipful. “You could do anything you set your mind to.”

Sherlock knows it’s the wine talking—that it’s gone slightly to his head, but it’s also John. John makes him feel as though Sherlock is a boat pulled loose from its moorings, cast helplessly out to sea. He always has that effect on Sherlock; it’s only that the wine takes down the barrier between these thoughts and the world outside Sherlock’s head, so Sherlock feels no hesitation voicing them out loud.

“You’re incredible,” he whispers.

His hands keep gliding upward, over John’s slim waist, up, up over his ribs until his thumbs find John’s nipples again, rubbing them in rough circles, smiling as he hears John gasp in response.

“You like it when I touch you there.” It’s not a question.

John nods, eyes still shut.

Sherlock wants to touch John everywhere at once, wants to rub his mouth all over John’s body but he knows John has been hard for a long time now and as apprehensive as he is about getting it wrong, he’s desperate to get his mouth around John’s cock, so he lets his hands slide back down to frame John’s hips.

He leans forward and then pauses, uncertain where to start.

John must sense his hesitation because he’s opening his eyes and hitching himself up on his elbows to look down at Sherlock.

His irises are thin slivers of blue, almost completely eclipsed by pupil. The depth of his arousal is impossible to ignore but so is the look of intense tenderness he’s giving Sherlock.

“Sherlock,” John says in a soft voice. “You don’t have to do this.”

John’s gentle voice only intensifies Sherlock’s determination.

Sherlock shakes his head, resolute. “I want to. I just… I’m not sure exactly…” He darts his eyes back up to John’s. “I’m not sure exactly where to start.”

Sherlock can hear how tense John’s breathing is. “Start wherever you like.”

Sherlock nods briefly, eyes flickering back down to John’s erection.

Perhaps what John said earlier was true—maybe he doesn’t need to do much more than put his mouth around John. After all, he thinks, remembering the way it felt to have John do this for him yesterday, if John has anything like the same experience then it shouldn’t require too much skill on Sherlock’s part.

He reaches forward to take the base of John’s cock in his hand, eyes flickering briefly up to see John’s lashes already falling heavy over his eyes as Sherlock’s fingers wrap around him.

Sherlock eyes it apprehensively and licks his lips. John’s cock is big—thick, and for a moment he’s concerned he’s not going to be able to get his mouth around it but oh god, he wants to so badly.

“Should I… I mean, how should I…?”

“Just do what feels good. I promise you, whatever feels good for you will be good for me too.”

Sherlock nods, reassured by the searing tenderness in John’s eyes.

He decides to start by exploring the base of it with his mouth—putting his face down close to it and inhaling deeply. He feels John’s body jerk in response.

“Is that alright?”

“Yes,” John manages, his voice sounding strained. “That is more than alright.”

Sherlock drags his mouth back up to the tip, his own breathing heavy; his mind going a bit blurry with want at the raw scent of John this close. He pauses over the swollen head of John’s cock, his eyes darting up to hold John’s.

He can feel the pulse in John’s cock beating under his fingers.

“John, I’m going to…” Sherlock licks his lips. His breath must feel warm against John when he speaks. “I’m going to put my mouth around you but… will you talk me through it? Will you tell me what to do?”

“Yes,” John says, his voice so tight Sherlock wonders he can speak at all. “Yes, I’ll tell you. O-open your mouth.”

Sherlock does.

“And—” John is breathing so hard he can scarcely get the words out. “Now put—put your mouth around the head if you can manage it.”

Sherlock lowers his mouth down.

“Y-yes, just like that now, open your mouth w-wider... oh, god.”

John’s cock is so thick Sherlock is briefly worried about fitting the whole of its wide circumference in his mouth but he manages with no trouble, at first surprised, and then delighted by the taste of the fluid generously coating the tip.

Sherlock swirls his tongue through it, tasting it. What a remarkable piece of anatomy the tongue is that it can satisfy the curiosity of two senses at once: both taste and touch. Remarkable, Sherlock thinks—what other body part is so wonderfully capable? He is one moment away from selecting the tongue as his preferred piece of human anatomy when he remembers that that would make the organ currently in his mouth second best, and that isn’t right at all. No, he supposes, the cock would have to be his favorite.

Or at least John’s is, Sherlock thinks as his tongue slides around the head, tracing every crease, every fold of skin—each delightful inconstancy he finds giving him new information about this part of John’s body. His tongue is following the vein on the underside of John’s very swollen cock when he feels John’s thigh tense under his hand.

Sherlock pulls back, worried, suddenly very conscious of John’s absolute silence above him.

But when he looks up at John, he sees John looking down at him with parted lips, brows knitted together as though he might be in pain, his eyelids so low over his eyes they are barely open, and Sherlock suddenly understands the reason for his silence.

John is utterly overwhelmed.

“Is this alright?” Sherlock asks, just to be sure, his fingers still wrapped around the base of John’s cock—because he’s never done this before; because he has to be certain.

John nods; pale pink tongue coming out to lick his lips. It seems to take him a moment to find his voice. “Yes,” John manages, his voice almost unrecognizable. “Just keep—doing what you’re doing. Your tongue—good. Everything you’re doing is very, very good.”

Reassured, Sherlock lowers his mouth back down, and, feeling inspired, decides to lick at the head of John’s cock without putting the whole of it in his mouth.

“Oh my god, Sherlock.”

Sherlock glances up at John as he repeats the motion, just in time to see John’s eyelids flutter helplessly closed.

Sherlock runs his tongue around the wet, swollen head, savoring the feel of it, marveling once again at how delicate, how sensitive is this place on John’s strong, capable body. The thought that he can have such an intense effect on John, that he can reduce John to this completely undone state of pleasure makes the desire leap up in Sherlock’s belly, and he can actually feel his cock thickening where it hangs heavy between his legs.

It’s not just that Sherlock now has access to the taste of John, he can also smell John better this close, and Sherlock does not even have to think about it, it’s second nature for him to drag his parted lips down the length of John’s cock, inhaling deeply as he goes until he reaches the soft golden hair at the base, burying his nose in it, breathing in the musky, animal scent of John where it is strongest, feeling almost dizzy from its effects.

He drags his face downward until he finds John’s testicles, drawn up tight against his body. Sherlock licks at first one, then the other, curious, desperate to know what every part of John feels like under his tongue—to gain this new knowledge of John that is only available to him from this remarkable organ. He is tentative at first but when he hears John make a strained noise above him, he swallows the whole of one into his mouth, and experiences a sharp swoop of pleasure at the obscenity of what he is doing.

John gives a low cry, and Sherlock, lost in the sensation of having such a warm, soft part of John in his mouth, pushes at John’s thighs to spread them further apart, sliding his attentions from one to the other. He resettles himself between John’s legs to get a better angle, lying flat on his belly so he is closer to all the most sensitive parts of John.

He releases John’s testicle from his mouth only because he’s eager to return his attentions to John’s neglected cock, which is easier now for him to reach from his new position lying between John’s spread legs, his weight on his elbows, his gaze trained on its flushed curving length. Sherlock places his hands on John’s thighs and then licks his way back up John’s cock, letting his tongue trail over every ridge and vein, delighting in just how much he can feel with that incredible part of his anatomy.

It’s clear to Sherlock now that the presence of his mouth here should feel good to John—but what Sherlock cannot understand is how the feel of John’s hot, soft skin against his lips and tongue should feel so good to him. It’s as though there is a direct connection between their two cocks, forged by the presence of Sherlock’s mouth, so that every slide, every caress of his lips on John’s cock reverberates through his own, making his cock swell and twitch despite the fact that he hasn’t even touched it yet.

Tongues and cocks, he thinks. Yes, they are definitely two of his favorite body parts.

He knows it’s the wine talking now; he can feel its warm, buzzing presence all through his limbs, combining with the deep and ever-growing throb of his arousal for John, making him conscious of every point of contact between his body and the world—of the roughness of the sheets under his belly, the strength of John’s tensed thighs beneath his hands, the pulse pounding down the length of his own achingly hard cock.

He’s stricken once again by how much more awareness he has of his body since John came into his life—how much more appreciation he has for all its faculties, sexual and otherwise. There is so much that John has showed him, and some part of Sherlock knows in an intuitive way that this is only the beginning.

Sherlock’s tongue has reached the head of John’s cock again, and as he licks over the slit, he hears John make a strangled noise above him.

Sherlock looks up to see John’s hands fisting in the sheets. His cheeks are flushed dark with arousal—his teeth clenched in a white grimace. Sherlock can see the effort it is costing him to keep supporting himself on his elbows so he can look down at Sherlock. The sweat is standing out on his forehead, shining in gleaming stripes down his chest.

When their eyes connect, John actually gasps.

“My god, Sherlock, I can’t—the way you look right now… I wish you could see yourself. It—”

John loses all faculty of speech as Sherlock flattens his tongue and strokes it over the head. He cannot get enough of the taste of John there, of the feel of that tiny hole against his tongue.

The tense note in John’s voice sharpens Sherlock’s desire to a razor sharp pitch. He’s desperate to have more of John in his mouth, to get him to make that sound again.

Careful to keep his eyes on John’s, Sherlock rubs the swollen head of John’s cock against his closed lips, nuzzling at it, before parting his lips and taking it back into his mouth.

Oh my god.”

John’s head falls back against the mattress with a strangled curse and Sherlock feels a burst of arousal deep in his belly at the sound, prompting him to keep sliding his mouth down until he can feel the head of John’s cock bump the roof of his mouth.

There’s a brief, frightening moment where Sherlock thinks he might be about to choke because how can he breathe with his mouth so full? His hands must clench where they hold John’s thighs because immediately, Sherlock hears John’s voice, gentle above him.
“Easy, Sherlock, easy. Breathe. You’ve got to remember to breathe.”

But Sherlock won’t give up so quickly—if John can do it, then so can he. He refuses to concede one inch.

“Breathe through your nose.”

Oh.

Of course.

Sherlock does so and instantly feels some of his panic recede.

“Good,” John says, and his voice is still strained, but Sherlock wants—needs John to be speechless again.

Sherlock thinks about all that John has given him—all the times that John has put Sherlock’s pleasure first—how gentle he has been, how patient—and suddenly it is imperative that Sherlock gets this right.

Sherlock knows there is no way he’s going to be able to take John’s cock as deep as he wants, at least not this first time, so he does the next best thing. He slides his mouth off John’s cock briefly to rub his fingers through the slickness at the tip, then wrapping his slippery fingers around the base of John’s cock he begins to stroke.

He swallows down the head of John’s cock again—careful this time to breathe through his nose. Sherlock experiments with sucking lightly, and feels a thrill go through him when he realizes that he can actually feel the pulse throbbing in John’s cock against his tongue.

John makes a guttural sound in response, and Sherlock watches John’s fists tighten in the sheets.

The sight of John’s clenched fists fills Sherlock with the memory of John’s hands in his hair; causes Sherlock to pull back with a wet sound and gasp, “Hair, John! Put your hands in my—”

John does not need to be told twice.

Before Sherlock has even finished speaking, John is reaching out, burying his fingers in the soft, dark curls. Sherlock returns his mouth to the head of John’s cock and just the sight of it—red and slick and shining from Sherlock’s mouth is enough to make Sherlock moan around it as he swallows it down, flicking his tongue against the underside, and then John is tightening his fists in Sherlock’s curls and Sherlock moans again, deeper, rutting against the mattress.

“Oh, that’s p-perfect, Sherlock. Just like that, just like—Christ.”

Encouraged by John’s rough voice, by the presence of his hands in Sherlock’s hair, Sherlock drops his mouth and swallows more of John than he has dared; feels his lips stretch around the width of John, feels the slick hard heat of John filling his whole mouth, trying to remember all the while to keep breathing through his nose. It makes his jaw ache, holding his mouth open so wide but the pain is somehow connected to his pleasure because it’s like he can feel the ache of his jaw in his cock, and oh god, it feels so good.

Sherlock whimpers, grinding his hips against the mattress, and John must be able to feel the sound all the way through his cock because his hips jerk reflexively up into Sherlock’s mouth, and then Sherlock really does choke.

He pulls off, gagging, coughing, and John is gasping, “Sorry. I’m so sorry,” his hands smoothing at Sherlock’s curls, his voice breathless, filled with worry. “Are you alright?”

Sherlock nods, equally breathless, desperate to reassure John. “I’m fine. It’s fine.”

John’s hands have slid down to his shoulders and are trying to pull Sherlock back up against him. “You don’t have to keep going. You can stop, if it’s too much…”

But Sherlock shakes his head, insistent, resisting the pull of John’s hands.

He can feel how wet his lips are, how swollen. “No. Please, John. Let me keep going.”

“Are you sure?”

Sherlock looks up at John with hard, glittering eyes. He licks his tongue deliberately over his swollen lips. “Yes. And I want you to pull my hair while I’m doing it. I like it when you’re rough.” His voice drops to a self-conscious whisper then, loses some of its confidence. “Please, John.”

“Oh god.” John’s fingers tighten in Sherlock’s hair and Sherlock gasps happily, his eyes sliding back up to John’s. “Of course. Of course.”

John rakes his fingers through Sherlock’s curls, fingernails scraping lightly against Sherlock’s scalp and for a moment Sherlock lets his head drop back into the touch, lets his eyes fall closed—and then John takes two fistfuls of Sherlock’s hair and pulls.

Sherlock’s eyes snap open. He sucks in a sharp, delighted breath, and then lowers his head to take John’s cock back between his lips. This time he does not relent. He strokes his tongue along the underside as he slides, hollowing his cheeks to create suction like John did for him. He lets the hand that’s holding the base of John’s cock stroke as much of it as he can reach, two long fingers slipping down to find John’s testicles again and tease them lightly. Sherlock hums in pleasure at the feel of them and feels John’s hips give another involuntary jerk.

Jesus.” Sherlock can hear John clenching his teeth around the word as he struggles to keep his hips flat on the bed, his hands tightening in Sherlock’s curls. Sherlock whines low in his throat, and speeds up the pace of his stroking, swallowing down one more impossible inch.

“Sh-Sherlock, th-that’s enough you don’t have to—”

John’s fingers are clenching hard in Sherlock’s hair, and it feels so good, Sherlock whines again, higher, more desperate.

He shifts on the bed, pressing his hips against the mattress. He knows this moment—this act—is for John but he’s so desperate for some friction on his aching cock that the movement is almost unconscious, and he begins to grind his hips, hard, into the bed beneath him.

John’s breathing is ragged above him, and Sherlock knows that he is close. He wants to take John deeper into his mouth, to return the pleasure that John is giving him by offering his body up to Sherlock like this, but he knows that he cannot do so without choking.

The solution is intuitive—it arrives from the need in his own thrusting hips. He may not be able to take John deeper into his mouth but he can simulate a sort of friction by sliding his mouth up and down John’s cock. So Sherlock does just that, mimicking the rhythm of his own rocking hips in the slide of his lips, careful all the while not to catch John with his teeth.

The effect this act has on John is immediate. He cries out above Sherlock, fingers pulling so hard in Sherlock’s hair that Sherlock’s eyes water from the pressure. It feels so good Sherlock almost loses his rhythm, but he’s determined to keep going now until John finds release.

He’s breathing through his nose hard and fast—he can hear the sound of it harsh in his ears. His lips are tingling; there is drool sliding out of the corners of his mouth and dribbling down his chin; his jaw is aching worse than ever, but all of these discomforts somehow only sharpen his arousal.

The sounds John is making above him only incite him to suck harder, to bob his head faster. He’s never heard John make noises like that before—the sounds are low, continuous, helpless-sounding—little, breathless moans that seem pulled out of him by some unstoppable force. Sherlock can feel each one between the circle of his lips, under his hand, deep in the pulse of his own throbbing cock, and he wonders for one wild moment whether he is going to come before John.

But then John’s fingers are tightening in his hair with purpose, suddenly desperate, trying to pull him off.

John can barely speak above him.

“Sher—Sherlock, st—stop I’m going to—”

Before he can get the words out, John’s whole body arches off the bed, hips pressing up into Sherlock’s mouth and Sherlock pulls off just in time, as the first wave of come spurts fast and hot out of John’s cock, splattering against Sherlock’s lips.

Delighted, fascinated, Sherlock runs his tongue over his lips, tastes bitterness and something else—tastes John, and Sherlock dives down to take John’s twitching cock back between his lips to catch the next burst of come.

John makes a guttural noise, hips contracting sharply, frozen halfway off the bed, and Sherlock can actually feel John’s cock pulse against his tongue, feel his release well out, hot and bitter.

Sherlock keeps his mouth there through another pulse and tries to swallow it, but he’s not coordinated enough to manage it with his mouth full of cock, so he pulls back, tongue slick with come, and the last pulse hits him on the cheek.

John’s eyes are shut, his temples slick with sweat, his whole body shuddering as it sinks back down against the bed.

He lies there, shaking; his eyes still shut tight, his breathing harsh and irregular for several long seconds.

“Oh my god,” John finally says from under the arm that he’s thrown up over his eyes. His voice sounds wrecked.

“What is it?” Sherlock rasps, realizing that his own voice sounds far worse.

John lifts his arm off of his eyes and reaches his hands down to Sherlock. “Come up here.”

Sherlock does, feeling slightly stiff as he rises to his knees and crawls up John’s body.

John pulls Sherlock down against his side, and Sherlock can’t help but gasp as his hips settle in against John’s thigh. His cock is still achingly hard and even that brush of contact is enough to make his whole body stiffen in response.

John curls one hand up to settle it in Sherlock’s hair, pulling Sherlock’s gaze up to John’s eyes.

The look in John’s eyes makes Sherlock’s chest feel like it’s going to burst open. It’s full of so many emotions Sherlock cannot possibly identify them all—gratitude, admiration, desire, tenderness—and something deeper, more complex that Sherlock has no word for.

“You are…” John licks his lips, shakes his head and tries again. “That was… that was the most incredible sex I’ve ever had.”

Sherlock can hear his own shallow breathing, magnified in the hollow of John’s throat. His voice is a harsh whisper. “You’re just saying that.”

John shakes his head. “No, I’m not. Sherlock, that was…” John sighs; stretching his fingers in Sherlock’s hair and Sherlock melts a little more against him. John settles his lips against Sherlock’s hairline. “I’ve been hesitant to tell you this because I don’t want you to feel…” John pauses for so long that Sherlock actually starts to worry. “Intimidated… by it. But… well, I’ve had a fair number of sexual partners over the years and a lot of sexual experiences and that… no one has ever made me feel like that.”

Sherlock is quiet against John, digesting this.

John was right to worry. This new information does make Sherlock feel intimated, and absurdly jealous over John’s past lovers, but if he is perfectly honest with himself then Sherlock has to admit that he had already suspected as much. John being who he is, Sherlock doesn’t understand how half the world hasn’t already fallen in love with John.

But the awe in John’s voice, the sincerity is real, and Sherlock cannot feel jealous for long when there’s a hot bubble of pride swelling in his chest at John’s words, crowding out every other emotion.

“Really?” Sherlock whispers, wanting to be fully present for this conversation but still distracted by his very hard cock against John’s hip. It is taking all his effort to keep his hips from rubbing off against John’s side.

“Really,” John says, his voice washing over Sherlock like a warm tide, quenching all his fears. His breath is hot against Sherlock’s hairline. “You’re unbelievable,” he goes on, voice still full of awe. “That was unbelievable.”

“John?” Sherlock says, unable to keep the slightly frantic pitch of yearning out of his own voice. “I… I want to hear more about all this but I... first will you…?”

Sherlock doesn’t even have to finish asking. John has already slipped his hand down to take hold of Sherlock’s cock, tilting Sherlock’s chin up as he does so to bring Sherlock’s mouth against his own.

As John’s lips close over his, Sherlock realizes just how long it’s been since he’s kissed John—his lips are still somewhat sticky with John’s come.

John groans softly into his mouth. “Oh god, you taste like me.”

And then it’s Sherlock’s turn to moan softly as John’s expert thumb has found the head of his cock and is rubbing circles over it, before slicking down to encircle the whole of Sherlock’s aching erection in his fist.

Sherlock makes a stuttering sound of pleasure at that first long stroke, his open mouth pressed hot and desperate against John’s.

“I’ll just have to compliment you while I’m doing this,” John says, smiling against Sherlock’s mouth. “Lucky for you, I’m very good at doing two things at once. You,” John continues, the smile melting off his mouth as quickly as it came, his lips turning down at the corners, turning serious, “…are the most remarkable creature I’ve ever met.”

Sherlock whimpers helplessly in response as John’s fist begins to stroke his cock, clenching with the perfect amount of friction.

John’s other hand slides down Sherlock’s back, nails scraping lightly down Sherlock’s spine. Sherlock hisses at the feel, hips pressing closer into John’s fist, then gasping in surprised pleasure, as John’s hand comes to rest on Sherlock’s buttocks, fingers digging into the muscular flesh.

Sherlock is relieved that John seems to sense just how desperate Sherlock. There is nothing teasing or hesitant about his touch. His strokes on Sherlock’s cock are generous and steady, and the direct touch feels so good after so much aroused anticipation that Sherlock cannot keep his eyes open. He lets his eyes drift shut, his open mouth still pressing into John’s.

“No one,” John says, emphasizing his words with each pull on Sherlock’s cock, “No one I’ve ever met has been as clever, as talented, as beautiful as you. You’re exquisite, Sherlock, you’re perfect.”

John presses a kiss to Sherlock’s jaw, the movement of his hand speeding up.

Sherlock clings to John’s arm with his free hand, John’s words slipping over him like beads of mist in the spray of an ocean wave, lost in the pleasure of John’s tight fist around him, John’s other hand kneading the flesh of his arse, pulling Sherlock closer against his body.

It’s too good—it’s perfect, and as desperate as he is for relief, Sherlock wishes it would last forever, that he could stay in this place always—pulled hard against John’s body, caught between John’s hands, John’s lips hot at his throat.

“That’s it—yes, come for me, Sherlock. Come for me, my beauty, my love… I’ve got you.”

Sherlock’s orgasm is explosive, bursting over him in the wake of John’s gentle prompting.

He can feel his body seizing up against John’s as pleasure overtakes him, his hips driving forward into John’s hand, John’s fingers clenching hard on his arse as he shoots his release, hot between their bodies.

“Yes, yes… so beautiful.”

John’s warm lips are soft against his throat, drifting up to find his mouth, and kissing Sherlock so fiercely, so sweetly, as Sherlock shakes through the last of his orgasm.

John breaks the kiss to let Sherlock breathe, guiding Sherlock’s down to rest on his shoulder, the hand that was holding Sherlock’s arse coming up to rub his back.

As his orgasm leaves him, Sherlock finds exhaustion crowding in to take its place, bone-deep and all encompassing, making his eyelids slide shut.

Sherlock’s eyes are closed but he feels John’s fingers on his cheek, and then the gentle exhalation of John’s laughter against him.

Sherlock cracks one eye to look up at John.

“God, you have my come on your cheek.”

Sherlock grins up at him, warm and sleepy and content.

He’s still thinking up a witty retort when he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

When Sherlock wakes, the cabin is dark.

John is still with him—Sherlock can tell by the very warm body against his own, the gentle rise and fall of John’s chest beside him, but he must have gotten up to blow the candle out. He’s lying in a slightly different position than when Sherlock fell asleep on his chest.

Sherlock sits up on his elbows, squinting through the darkness. It’s fully dark now; the evening must be getting on toward midnight. He can’t have slept for more than a few hours, but still the knowledge disappoints him. That’s a few hours less that John and he can enjoy in each other’s waking company.

“John?”

John stirs beneath him, one warm hand coming up reflexively to hold Sherlock’s shoulder.

“Mmm?”

“John, wake up.”

Sherlock leans over to light the candle on the desk, the sizzle of the flame dragging John’s sleeping form to life before Sherlock’s eyes, throwing the curves and hollows of his nude body into sharp relief.

Sherlock allows himself a moment to simply sit and look.

John is lying on his stomach, one arm thrown up over his head, fingers curling loosely towards his hair. The groove of his spine is one long sensuous line leading to his firmly rounded buttocks. Sherlock’s eyes follow it hungrily, noticing for the first time that John has two dimples in his lower back on either side of his spine, just above his buttocks. Sherlock reaches out a hand and trails two fingers over the indented flesh, feeling his heart clench as his eyes roam over the scars on John’s back. Seeing them there, seeing the way John’s body has been used as though it is something other than his own over the years, like so much disposable cargo, makes anger trickle hot and swift through Sherlock’s gut, makes him want to go back in time and bring the perpetrator of each and every mark to justice.

Sherlock’s gentle, inquisitive touch causes John to rouse beneath him and Sherlock feels a momentary throb of guilt for waking him, but it dies in an instant as John shifts, the muscles in his back flexing as he stretches his arms out above his head, before rolling onto his side to look up at Sherlock.

He is still exquisitely unclothed and Sherlock lets his eyes travel shamelessly down the front of John’s torso, over his compact muscular chest, down the lean lines of his abdomen to his still slumbering cock, as beautiful as the rest of him, and more fascinating to Sherlock for the fact that he has rarely had the chance to gaze on it in its non-erect state.

John settles his head on one hand and smiles up at Sherlock, blinking sleep out of his eyes.

“Mmm…good evening, beautiful.”

“Good evening,” Sherlock whispers, as though he needs to use a reverent tone for the god that has surely tumbled straight out of the heavens and into his bed.

He stays where he is, momentarily stricken, by the stunning beauty of this creature before him.

Every time, every time he sees him it’s as though it is the first.

“Come here,” John says. He reaches out with one hand, his smile lazy and confident, filled with affection, and that’s all it takes.

Sherlock slides back in against him, shivering at the feel of John’s warm legs tangling with his own.

“I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” he says as John’s arm comes up around his shoulders, pulling Sherlock in against his chest.

John presses his lips to Sherlock’s hair. His voice is a low murmur against Sherlock’s curls. “I didn’t want to wake you. You seemed pretty worn out after your extraordinary performance.”

Sherlock experiences a small shiver of pleasure at the naked admiration in John’s words. “How long was I asleep?”

“Just an hour or so.”

John’s warm mouth is traveling over Sherlock’s ear.

“John?”

“Yes, my love?”

“I want to tell you about what happened yesterday.”

John’s mouth is opening against Sherlock’s ear. “Mmm, I thought you told me. You thought of me…”

John’s breath is hot and moist; it makes Sherlock squirm in anticipatory pleasure. “Yes, but... not only that.” Sherlock is struggling to focus, but he has to tell John; he can’t miss the opportunity to brief him on what happened. John must return to work in the morning, and Sherlock is not certain when he will see him again. He pushes this dark thought away to continue speaking. “I spoke with Lieutenant Lestrade.”

John pulls back from Sherlock’s ear, his expression suddenly serious. “How is he?”

“Better. Almost fully recovered thanks to you. He wanted me to thank you for what you did. He said he owes you his life.”

John’s eyes are grave as he looks back at Sherlock. “I hope you conveyed to him that he owes me nothing—it was my duty to come to his aid.”

Sherlock nods and hurries on. He’s eager to get to the important part of the story. “I wanted to talk to him, not only to see how he was getting on, but because I came across what I believe to be new information as to the identity of the poisoner.”

John is sitting up now to listen, his gaze focused, intent.

“I tried to go up and speak with him as soon as I woke up yesterday. Well… not quite as soon as I woke up,” Sherlock adds, blushing fiercely. John’s answering grin almost makes Sherlock lose his train of thought. “But when I got up on deck, the captain was on the quarterdeck so I had to wait until he’d gone. When I went back down to my cabin to pass the time, I was returning my evening clothes to my trunk when I found a letter that my brother had given to me before I left England. I had never opened it.”

John nods, prompting Sherlock to go on.

“I…” Sherlock hesitates, the same apprehension filling him as when he told this story to Lestrade. But John is different; John might understand what an absolutely infuriating idiot Mycroft is. In fact he has to—he’s John. “My brother is an intolerable person. He is smug, manipulative, and conniving, and without fail he will always put his own needs before those of everyone around him.”

“Sounds like a real treat.”

Sherlock is encouraged by the look of distaste in John’s eyes.

“He sent me a letter that arrived the night before I boarded the ship. But I was so… frustrated with him that I didn’t read it. In fact, I tore it up.”

Sherlock flickers his eyes up to John’s, fearing he will see disapproval, disappointment, but John only nods again, encouraging him to continue.

“I found the fragments of this letter in my trunk. It must have fallen out of my coat pocket. It was only upon attempting to reassemble the pieces that I realized that the letter contained information about the captain.”

John sits up straighter, his attention rapt. “What did it say?”

“That’s the most frustrating part—Mycroft, prat that he is, didn’t disclose any really useful information. Also I…” Sherlock clears his throat self-consciously. “There’s the small matter that I couldn’t find all the fragments so there was some information missing. But knowing my brother, it wouldn’t have been very helpful. All I could make out was that our current captain came into command of this vessel just a day or so before the voyage, and under very strange circumstances. There was some allusion his unsavory reputation. In fact…”

Sherlock wriggles backwards off the bed to pull out the leather-bound journal that holds the fragments, then shakes them out onto the bed between them.

John sits back to make space, his eyes spread wide.

“Just give me a moment.”

It takes Sherlock less than thirty seconds to re-arrange the scraps into the order he pieced together. He has an excellent memory, and once he has seen the way the bits of paper go it’s as simple as anything to put them in the proper place.

“There,” Sherlock says with a touch of self-satisfaction.

John bends forward to read, his forehead nearly touching Sherlock’s as they both lean in.

“So you can see there’s hardly anything useful there.”

When John leans back, his brow is furrowed deeply. “Your brother? He’s… someone important?”

Sherlock sniffs. “He thinks he is.”

“I mean does he work for Parliament?”

“Something like that.”

“Seems to me,” John says, his frown deepening. “Important person like your brother, if he has cause to worry—to worry enough to warn you? Well… that’s not good at all, is it?”

“No,” Sherlock says. “No, it isn’t.”

“I’ve heard some things too—below decks. The men don’t like him. None of us were too pleased to learn that Captain Adams had taken ill, and it was odd, seeing as we’d just returned with him from the West Indies not three weeks before and he was fit as a fiddle.”

Sherlock lurches forward with excitement. “John, that’s exactly what this letter made me think! What if the captain—what if he was responsible for Adams’ illness? What if whatever he used to make Lestrade ill was the same method he used to incapacitate Adams?”

John’s eyes on Sherlock’s fill with dawning understanding. “You don’t mean…?”

“That the captain poisoned Lieutenant Lestrade? Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.”

John’s brow furrows further. “But what would his motivation be for poisoning his first officer?”

“I haven’t figured that part out yet. But I’m sure of it, John. I’m sure of it.”

“What did Lestrade say when you told him?”

“He…” Sherlock exhales in frustration through his nostrils. “He told me to stay out of it—that it was too dangerous.”

“He’s right, of course.”

Sherlock’s head whips up to stare at John.

John’s voice softens. “It is dangerous, Sherlock. A man who ruthlessly poisons those who stand in his way—even those in positions of authority—wouldn’t hesitate to harm a passenger whom he caught meddling.”

Sherlock is stung by this to the core. John is supposed to take his side in everything—John is supposed to understand, to help him.

“John,” Sherlock leans forward to take John’s hands in his, his voice filled with urgency. “If the captain is responsible for poisoning the Lieutenant—and I am certain that he is—he did so with a specific purpose in mind. We’ve got to find out what that purpose is so that we can stop him.”

“Sherlock…” John’s voice is gentle but matter-of-fact, as though trying to talk Sherlock back from some wild pursuit, which Sherlock realizes, is precisely what he’s doing. “What you’re suggesting—it… that’s treason. The pair of us could be hung simply for having this conversation.”

Sherlock tightens his grip on John’s hands. “I know,” he says, leaning in. “I know it’s dangerous but whatever the captain is plotting is likely more dangerous. All of our lives could very well already be at stake.”

John looks down at their hands as though considering.

“I know that he’s responsible, John. I know it. I just don’t have the evidence yet that I need to prove it.”

“And what would that look like—getting the evidence you need?”

“I don’t—” Sherlock falters. “I don’t know yet.”

John’s fingers shift in Sherlock’s, his thumbs tracing the inside of Sherlock’s palms. His eyes follow the movement as he speaks. “I have no love for the captain. He pays far too much attention to his own affairs, and far too little to the needs of his crew. That much was made clear by his actions during the storm. He put the entire ship at risk by insisting that we keep the sails up until the last possible minute. He said it would ‘unduly compromise the progress of the ship,’ which shows he cares more about expedience than he does about the lives of the men and women on board.”

Sherlock watches John’s expression harden as he goes on speaking. “I don’t trust the man, not one bit. And I don’t doubt that your suspicions are entirely correct. But I think the Lieutenant’s right.”

Sherlock opens his mouth to protest but stops when he sees the look on John’s face.

When John’s eyes flicker back up to Sherlock’s, they are hard as flint.

“He’s a dangerous man, Sherlock, and clearly a very shrewd one. It won’t do any good to be seen poking around in his affairs. It’s like you said, we have no evidence to go on, and until we do there’s really nothing we can do.”

“But—”

“As the commander of this vessel, his power is absolute. The captain’s word is law. He can do what he likes with any of us—especially while at sea. I’ve seen captains—far milder men than he—abuse their power, and I hate to think what he would do if he suspected someone trying to cross him, which is why for the time being, I think it’s best to simply lie low. As much as I hate to say it, I think your brother’s right.”

Sherlock drops his head, fuming. This is not how this conversation was supposed to go at all. John is supposed to take his side in everything.

He can feel his own mouth shrinking with displeasure.

“So you’re saying you think we should just… wait until he poisons someone else?”

“What I’m saying is that we already know the captain has an incredibly violent and unpredictable temperament, and he occupies such a position that if he were to become aware of anyone on board this ship harboring suspicions about him, he would not hesitate to render the lives and duties of those men as unpleasant as it is within his purview to do so. And I can tell you from experience, he will make the situation of all those who cross him as uncomfortable as that in which any human being may be placed. I do not say this lightly, Sherlock.”

Sherlock knows that John is speaking the truth but it bothers him that John should take the side of the Lieutenant—and his brother against him. He feels all over again that he is being treated like a silly child.

He pulls his hands out of John’s grasp.

“Sherlock, look at me.”

Sherlock doesn’t want to look up. He stares petulantly at the sheets between them.

John’s voice is insistent. “I say all this because I care about you. Your life is worth more to me than anything else in the world and I will stop at nothing to keep harm from coming to you. I’ll stand by you no matter what you do, but if there’s anything I can do to keep you safe, I’m going to do it and that includes telling you this. I won’t stop you, Sherlock,” John says, his voice gentling, “but I have to warn you, all right?”

John’s fingers settle over Sherlock’s where they’re clenched against the mattress. The touch is so soft it makes something in Sherlock’s chest ache.

“Just promise me that no matter what you do, you’ll be careful.”

Sherlock lifts his head at the imploring note in John’s voice, and when he sees the love blazing fiercely in John’s eyes he feels all his anger melt away.

Of course John is on his side.

Sherlock drops his head again, suddenly ashamed of his feelings of wounded betrayal.

“I will,” he whispers, turning his hand up to squeeze John’s fingers in his own.

“I’ll do whatever I can to help you, if you need me,” John continues, his voice fierce, fingers holding tightly to Sherlock’s. “You’ve got me in this—no matter what. I’m yours.”

At John’s words, Sherlock’s eyes flicker back up to John’s face, and he feels a burst of pure feeling erupt in his chest at what he sees there. John’s expression is both fierce and tender at once. The sight of it makes the throbbing ache in Sherlock’s chest triple in size, and swell until he can feel it closing up the back of his throat.

What—what has he ever done to deserve this man?

Sherlock is so overcome that for a moment he cannot speak. He clings to John’s hand, his eyes tracing over every contour of John’s face as if to memorize it. His eyes alight on the half-healed cut on John’s cheek and Sherlock realizes that in all their desperation at seeing each other again he never asked John how he came by it.

Sherlock reaches up and trails his fingers over it, the gesture soft—inquisitive. His voice is as soft as his touch. “What happened, John?”

John’s eyelids flutter at the touch of Sherlock’s fingers but do not close. Something dark moves through his gaze like a shifting storm cloud.

He shifts back gently, away from Sherlock’s touch to reach for the wine bottle and the cup behind him on Sherlock’s desk. He pours the cup full and offers it to Sherlock first, who shakes his head; then takes a long drink.

John chews his lip, takes another long sip of wine, then sets the cup behind him again.

“I’m close with my mess. I’ve sailed with some of them for close on two years now— they’re like family to me. Some of them I like more than others, of course, but for the most part they’re good lads.”

Sherlock waits for John to continue, feeling inexplicably nervous. Something about the shift in John’s body language puts Sherlock on edge; it’s as though John is putting his defenses up, just recalling the incident.

“We tease each other a lot—it’s part of our rapport. I can tolerate teasing as well as any man, better than most actually. But this morning, they were teasing me about… where I was last night.” John clears his throat conspicuously, lifts his chin, his spine straightening imperceptibly to make himself taller even as he’s sitting down. “They were teasing me about us.”

Sherlock watches John’s lips thin as he says the words, his nostrils going hard and flat with irritation.

“And that’s just fine—they’re welcome to tease me all they like. Like I said, I don’t have a problem with that. Where the problem comes in—” John’s nostrils flare with sudden rage. “Is when they start to have a go at you.”

Sherlock’s heart is pounding in his chest. His tongue feels dry, too thick for his mouth. He’s afraid to ask but too curious not to do so.

“What… what did they say?”

John’s jaw tenses. “Nothing worth repeating. But that’s beside the point—the point is they don’t get to talk about you. Not a single one of them. Not to my face and certainly not behind my back. They don’t get to say one bloody word about you.”

The transformation that is taking place over John before Sherlock’s eyes is magnificent to behold. Even while simply sitting on the bed, his stature changes—seems to broaden, so that he looks bigger, more powerful, more graceful all at once. Sherlock can see the quiet energy sitting in his tensed shoulders, in the taut line of his jaw, in the relaxed but anticipatory way he holds his arms. Sherlock can feel the rage shimmering off of John like heat in a desert; can feel the threat of danger as vividly as though he were holding a lit fuse in his hands.

It should be frightening, but to Sherlock, who knows he’s not actually at risk, it’s utterly breathtaking.

“So what happened?”

“It was just two of them—one of them really—and as soon as I heard what he said, I asked him to repeat it. He wouldn’t so I told him—you ever say anything like that again, so help me god you will not walk off this ship. The other one—his mate, he made the ill-advised decision to keep talking. I didn’t warn them again. Words evidently had no effect, so I made it clear to him in a more… demonstrative way.”

There is a look of grim satisfaction on John’s face, and Sherlock can see from the way John’s fists are tensing on his thighs that he’s having a hard time recalling the incident without losing his self-control again.

Now that Sherlock is paying attention he can see that the knuckles on John’s left hand are split. He wonders suddenly just how badly John hurt the other man.

“Is he… all right?”

“Oh, he’ll be fine. He only got one punch in before I brought him to the floor.” John lifts a hand to touch his own cheek, distracted, his eyes far away. His mouth is twisted in a humorless shape. “I have a feeling neither one of them will make the same mistake again.”

“Is that why you…” Sherlock swallows hard, his eyes flickering over the tendons standing out in John’s flexed forearms. He knows he should probably be upset in light of what John has told him but instead he feels a spreading warmth in his chest from the knowledge that John came to blows in his defense. “Is that why you took that bet?”

John’s eyes seem to really see Sherlock for the first time in minutes. A gentle line appears between his brows.

“I… well I hadn’t thought about it like that, but I suppose in a way… yes. I’m something of a betting man. Always have been.” Sherlock sees the guilty shift in John’s features and wonders just how deep the problem goes. “When MacTavish made the wager I thought ‘Well, that’s easy. I can manage that with no trouble,’ but I admit I was still… not quite calm after what happened this morning. I suppose there was a part of me that wanted to show them that I wasn’t somebody easily challenged. That if they wanted to hurt you in anyway, they’d have to go through me.”

Sherlock watches John’s chin lift with this speech, his body language shifting yet again to something proud, something protective, and suddenly Sherlock’s mouth is so dry with want that he can scarcely speak.

“John…”

“What is it?”

“The wine, could you…?”

John passes him the cup and Sherlock drinks until he drains its contents.

He holds out the empty cup, trying not to look desperate. “More, please.”

John gently arches one eyebrow in amusement, but he says nothing as he reaches for the bottle and empties it into the cup.

“That’s the last of it. You should finish it.”

Sherlock does. He drinks it all down and then passes the empty cup back to John, breathless.

“Thank you.”

John smiles at him, both his eyebrows raised slightly, as if to say, ‘it was nothing.’

“No, I don’t mean for the wine,” Sherlock says, leaning forward to place one hand on the mattress between them. “I mean,” Sherlock licks his lips. “Thank you for defending me the way you did.” Sherlock drops his eyes, suddenly self-conscious. “No one has ever done that for me. Defended me like that. People have said a lot of horrible things but no one ever…”

Sherlock is embarrassed to find his own throat growing tight with emotion as he thinks back over all the awful things people have said to him over the years, all of the terrible names he’s been called. They hurt, every one, no matter how hard he pretended he didn’t care, no matter how hard he tried to convince himself that it didn’t affect him. He can still hear his cousins’ mocking voices in his ears as clearly if they were standing before him.

“No one ever told them to stop.”

“Oh, Sherlock…”

John’s hands are in his hair but Sherlock doesn’t remember how they got there. He’s embarrassed to find there are tears running down his cheeks and into his mouth. He wipes at them with the back of his hand, his chest tight with shame.

“Oh, Sherlock, Sherlock…” John is tilting his head so gently. He leans in to kiss one of the tears winding its way past Sherlock’s nose. “If I could go back in time, if I could, I would go back to each and every person who’s ever said anything cruel to you—and I would make them hurt ten times over for the hurt that they’ve caused you.”

The ache of sorrow in John’s voice makes the knot in Sherlock’s throat grow tighter. He feels two more tears slip from his eyes.

“God, how could they—how could anyone intentionally hurt you? My god, Sherlock, look at you.” John’s thumbs smooth over Sherlock’s cheeks, his blue eyes dark on Sherlock’s face. “I would beat each one to a bloody pulp just for thinking unkind things about you. I’d break their bones and drag their severed heads back to you as trophies.”

The image is horrifying, but something about the loving way John says it, as though this promise is the sweetest gesture he could think to make, makes Sherlock laugh—startling himself, and he smiles at John, watery-eyed.

“That’s better,” John says, smiling back at Sherlock, rubbing away a stray tear with his thumb before leaning in to kiss his forehead. John’s mouth on Sherlock’s forehead is so gentle but his voice is fierce. “I won’t let them make you sad, especially if they’re not here for me to hurt them. It isn’t fair.”

John’s hands slide down to Sherlock’s shoulders and then he’s pulling Sherlock in against him, pulling him into his lap.

“They don’t get to hurt you if they’re not here.”

Sherlock laughs again, sniffling, his face pressed in against John’s chest.

John pulls back slightly to look at Sherlock, his hands on Sherlock’s shoulders.

“What I said before—I meant it. If anyone on this ship tries to hurt you—anyone at all—I will not hesitate to kill them.” John slides two fingers under Sherlock’s chin, the delicacy of his touch so at odds with the steel in his voice. It sends a shiver down Sherlock’s spine. John’s rage probably shouldn’t have this effect on him. It does things to Sherlock when John looks at him like that. “Do you understand? You have my protection, no matter what happens.”

Sherlock nods at John. “I know.”

“We’re going to have to be careful in the weeks to come. Especially if you’re right, that the captain is up to something—something that is only just beginning. It means we’ll have to be more watchful than ever.”

Sherlock nods again, his eyes full up with the brightness of John in this moment. In the dim light of Sherlock’s cabin, he seems brighter than he’s ever been. His eyes look liquid in the low light—soft and dark—but each pupil is illuminated by a tiny pinprick of golden flame that seems to burn with the intensity of his feeling, so that Sherlock feels as though he can almost touch the heat between them with his fingers. The intensity of his whole regard as he studies Sherlock—the combination of iron and heat, of tenderness and rage, the hard line of his jaw in contrast with the liquid darkness of his eyes, the softness of his mouth—it makes Sherlock feel shivery and weak, as though his skin cannot contain all the longing in his body, as though his heart will burst into flame.

It’s almost unbearable—the force of his love for this man. John is like heat—like light—like the heart of a star; he is too good, too bright for Sherlock to contemplate without feeling seared to the core of his being, too much to hold in his mind at once. He should be impossible. No human should be able to have all the qualities that John has—to walk the yardarm with the casual grace of a dancer, to fight three Frenchmen with blood pouring out of his side and emerge victorious, to sing so softly and sweetly even after all the suffering he’s faced, his smile, so lean and bright and full of heat, bringing out the color in his eyes as blue as the ocean’s waves—and yet there he sits, within Sherlock’s reach.

And what’s most impossible of all, Sherlock thinks, feeling stricken, is that he should care for Sherlock the way he does.

Suddenly, it’s imperative to Sherlock that John know how good, how bright, how beautiful he is, that he convey to John just how much he means to him.

His heart is pounding in his chest. He feels hot, light-headed, slightly feverish, and Sherlock registers in some distant part of his brain that this time the wine has most definitely gone to his head. However this does nothing to alter his conviction that John must be made aware of just how much he means to Sherlock.

John must read some of what Sherlock is feeling in his face because Sherlock watches John’s look soften further as he holds Sherlock’s gaze. John’s hand slides back into Sherlock’s curls, the gesture so full of feeling that Sherlock has to shut his eyes.

“My god, Sherlock. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you. You know that, don’t you? Tell me you know that.”

Sherlock’s eyes blink open slowly—he feels as though the room has dropped away beneath them, as though he and John are about to be plunged down into the vastness of the sea—so immense are his feelings in this moment.

“I do,” he says, leaning in, his voice pitched low—it feels warm in his throat, sounds as dark as the blackness in John’s pupils. Sherlock lets his mouth brush soft against John’s jaw. “John. My John.”

John needs to know—he needs to know how much he means to him. Sherlock grips John’s shoulders in his hands, lips traveling over the skin of his throat. His voice is an exhalation of heat. “You’re everything to me.”

Sherlock hears John’s breathing catch as his mouth slides up to the corner of John’s lips.

“John, John, John…” Sherlock strokes John’s shoulders, his thumbs trailing over the ridge of muscle in his biceps. The feel of that hard muscle under Sherlock’s hands makes him shift in John’s lap to make room for his stiffening cock. John must feel it too because the hiss of his breath against Sherlock’s mouth is as sudden, as welcome as the feel of John’s abdomen pressing back into Sherlock’s.

Sherlock readjusts himself in John’s lap, settling his long legs so that they curl around behind John’s waist. Yes, Sherlock thinks. This is good. This is right, as John locks his hands low around Sherlock’s back.

“You’re everything,” Sherlock repeats, tipping his mouth forward into John’s to find the pale pink heat of John’s tongue behind his teeth. Sherlock licks at it, delighted by the spark of feeling when he finds it and it pushes back against him.

They are quiet for several minutes as their mouths are otherwise occupied, the plunge and slide of John’s tongue into Sherlock’s mouth making him gasp with pleasure, opening his mouth wider, angling his jaw to pull John deeper in. He needs John to know how he makes Sherlock feel—like he cannot contain all the joy in his body, all his need for John in his bones and skin—and he tries to make John aware of that in the pressure of his mouth, in the pulse of his tongue against John’s.

“My god,” John says, pulling back for air, pressing his forehead in against Sherlock’s as he fights for breath. “I can’t believe that you have never kissed anyone before two days ago. You’re an expert.” He dips his mouth back in against Sherlock’s and Sherlock mirrors the gesture, swiping out with his tongue to trace John’s lips. “You’re a genius.”

“I’m a fast learner,” Sherlock says, unable to stop himself from smiling at the compliment, and John trails his open lips against Sherlock’s.

“You’re a prodigy,” he breathes as his bottom lip catches against the dip in Sherlock’s top lip.

John’s words of praise light a small fire in the center of Sherlock’s chest, and he can feel the warmth of it creeping all the way out to his fingers and toes. But this is not about Sherlock’s brilliance; it is about John’s.

“No, I just have an excellent teacher,” Sherlock says and then he recaptures John’s mouth with his fully and doesn’t let him speak for several minutes more.

Sherlock’s body feels warm and loose and every second John’s tongue works at him, his body melts a little more, pouring forward into John. He can feel the movements of his own mouth becoming increasingly desperate as John’s hands rub small circles at the base of his spine, thumbs seeking out the notches and smoothing over each one with attentive delight.

Sherlock is almost a head taller than John and although frequently he forgets this is the case—John’s presence is such that any difference in height is minimized in Sherlock’s mind—the difference is noticeable now as Sherlock can feel himself bending down to meet John’s mouth, the long curve of his spine arching under John’s warm hands.

It just makes Sherlock more aware of how remarkable John is—that he can be so small and still so full of strength, so full of brilliance.

“John,” Sherlock says, breaking his mouth away to slide back down John’s throat, hands coming up to hold John’s face, to tip his head back so he has access to the tender underside of John’s jaw, the lovely golden tendons standing out in his neck. Sherlock licks at John’s pulse—feels the heat of it sear him to the center of his bones. “You’re so bright. You’re like sunlight. You’re the sun, John. You’re my sun.”

Sherlock’s legs are hitching tighter around John’s back as he tries to draw John closer in against him, cradling John’s face in his hands. The gesture is successful as Sherlock suddenly feels the heat of John’s erection brush against his own. Sherlock shudders, clenching his knees still tighter against John’s back.

John’s hot mouth presses in against Sherlock’s forehead with a gentle laugh. “I think you might be a little drunk, my love.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sherlock slurs, his mouth slipping down to the hollow at the base of John’s neck, pressing open-mouthed kisses as he goes. “It’s true, John, everything I said. You’re sunlight. You’re my sunlight.”

John gasps then as Sherlock bites him softly on the side of his throat, Sherlock’s long fingers brushing over John’s chest to find his nipples.

He feels delirious with his need for John, desperate to make John understand. He wants to kiss John everywhere at once but he’s afraid that just kissing him won’t make it clear enough.

“You make everything brighter—you make me better, John.” Sherlock’s mouth is trembling as he kisses the sharp swell of John’s shoulder. “John, John, John—you need to know.”

“Well,” John says, breathless, his warm hands sliding forward to settle on Sherlock’s hips, the touch of his calloused palms rough and yet somehow achingly sweet against Sherlock’s skin. “If I’m the sun, then you’re my moon—” He presses a kiss to Sherlock’s throat. “White and pale and shining.”

“John,” Sherlock cries, pushing his hips forward into John’s, his breath hitching as John’s hands still the movement.

“Wait,” John says against his lips, and then he lifts Sherlock in his lap, pulling his knees up behind Sherlock’s back to cradle Sherlock close to him, dragging their erections into sharp alignment.

Sherlock shudders at the contact and John kisses him, sweetly, on the corner of the mouth, settling Sherlock’s body more firmly against his. “Put your arms around my neck.”

“J-John,” Sherlock gasps as he follows John’s command, linking his arms behind John’s neck, glad to have a direction from John for what to do with his body as the contact of John’s hot and rigid cock against his own has driven every coherent thought from his mind.

He can feel his whole body shivering lightly as John’s hands guide his hips in a slow thrust against him, John’s own hips coming up to meet his; the movement causing their cocks to come together in a long slide of heat.

Sherlock gasps again at the contact, pressing his forehead in against John’s.

“That’s right, my beautiful boy,” John breathes against him, his own voice shaking now from the force of his feelings, from the tremendous effort of keeping his movements controlled. Sherlock wants John to move faster, to thrust against him with abandon until he is crying out from pleasure—but for the moment he is grateful for the chance to let the reality of John holding him here unfold around him, lapping gently at his senses like warm water in a bathing pool. He tries desperately to hang onto each sensation, to embed it forever in his mind so that he might have it always: John’s hands on his hips, John’s strong thighs cradling his back, the corners of his downturned mouth so close to Sherlock’s own, his eyes quickening, quickening in the low light. “You’re my moon—rare, mysterious, only coming out in darkness—with the strength to move the tides.”

John thrusts up again with his hips, making Sherlock hiss and dig his fingers into the back of John’s neck—the slow drag of their cocks together drawing the pleasure out of him like fire from a wick. The leisurely roll feels good, it burns, but it awakens a hunger in Sherlock, wide and deep—so cavernous he fears it will swallow him whole. He needs more of that friction, needs it so badly that he aches in its absence.

Sherlock tries to jerk his hips, to repeat the motion, but John holds him still as he bends to lick a trail up Sherlock’s neck, causing Sherlock to drop his head back and whine deep in the base of his throat.

“People underestimate you,” John says against him, his voice low and dark, his words punctuated by another slow roll of his hips. “But you’re stronger than you let on. You’re stronger than all of them, aren’t you?”

Sherlock whimpers in response, shivering with the need to pump his hips, to thrust forward into John. Words are beyond him now—he can only think in urges—bursting hot and phosphorescent in his mind like the flash that lingers after cannon fire in the dark.

“No one gets to see what I see—the silver at the heart of you, the white fires blazing, bright as starlight, hot as the wrath of every angry god.”

John’s words pour over him like lust itself, warm and caressing. Sherlock is so lost in the needs of his own body, in the feel of John around him, that he can hardly understand what John is saying. But he can feel the heat in John’s voice as clearly as he can feel the pressure of John’s fingers on his hips, the yearning in his tone fanning the flames of Sherlock’s own desire until he’s squirming in John’s grasp, desperate for movement, for friction. But John does not relent.

“My god, you’re beautiful like this,” John says, kissing a drop of sweat trickling down his temple, his tongue coming out to lap at the spot—sending a shudder through Sherlock, making him whine again, long and needy, his hips jerking in John’s grip. “You’re glowing, Sherlock. You’re as radiant as moonlight.”

“J-John, please—” he rasps, his own voice sounding broken, far-away, and his desperation must be palpable in his voice because at last, at last, John’s hands are moving him in a rhythm that isn’t sinfully slow, his own hips rising up to meet Sherlock’s in a burst of friction.

Sherlock cries out in pleasure, letting his head fall back as John begins to thrust up into Sherlock in an even tempo, his hands on Sherlock’s hips no longer holding him back, finally allowing Sherlock to buck forward into John as hard, as quickly as he wants—setting his own pace to match Sherlock’s, and god above does it feel good to finally be able to move.

Sherlock’s legs tighten around John as he thrusts, pulling John’s body in closer against him until he and John are pressed stomach to stomach, his fingers clinging so hard to the back of John’s neck that he fears he may be leaving marks—but that doesn’t stop him.

The pistoning need in his hips is matched thrust for thrust by John, whose forehead is pressing in against his, his own hands slipping in the sweat on Sherlock’s shoulders, the rhythm of their breathing echoing hot and frantic between them.

They’re so close together, tangled arms and legs, that it’s almost as good as being fused into one, but still the need to push harder into John drives Sherlock up against him until his body’s shaking from the effort.

Then John—oh clever, clever, brilliant John—shifts so that he’s leaning back onto his hands, his palms flat behind him on the bed, giving him the leverage he needs to thrust up against Sherlock with more precision, grinding their cocks together between their bellies.

The resulting sensation makes Sherlock’s eyes slide shut with a tremulous moan—the friction is doubled, tripled, by John’s adjustment—the moisture leaking from the heads of both their swollen cocks easing the slide of their hips together.

Now that the angle is right, Sherlock can finally let himself go, his whole body thrusting into John’s, rising and falling in John’s lap, as steady and even as the tide, the sweat running down between their foreheads mingling, their bellies pressed together—warm and slick and filthy.

Sherlock can feel the warm, low pulse of his desire building in him and never has he longed so much for his release, or worked so hard to find it. Its impending presence makes his throat go tight, inexplicably makes tears prickle hot behind his eyes, and he suddenly remembers the whole point of all this was to convey to John his own importance, but Sherlock forgot, he got distracted, and just as he’s opening his mouth to tell John, his orgasm bursts through him—searing and bright and all encompassing.

He jerks forward, hips bucking, knees clenching hard against John’s back, his open mouth pressed, gasping, into John’s, as pleasure shakes through him like a summer storm. He can feel the hot liquid of his release gush out between them, slicking his own belly and chest, can feel John’s hips coming to a halt against his as his whole body stiffens with the force of his orgasm. Gradually, he softens against John, his hips still making little rocking movements of their own accord as the pleasure continues unfurling within him, until it finally leaves him feeling wrung out, shaking, his face pressed in against the curve of John’s throat.

Because John is patient and beautiful and good—and essentially a god in human form—he waits several long minutes for Sherlock to catch his breath and does not stir until Sherlock lifts his flushed face from John’s neck to reach down between them and take the hot, slippery length of his still very hard cock in his hand.

Sherlock is still sitting in John’s lap, John’s legs curled around his sides, and although he’s bleary-eyed and warm, and feeling slightly dizzy from the effects of his orgasm, Sherlock is so inspired by the sight of John’s hand around himself, beginning to stroke, that he reaches down to fold his fingers over John’s.

John licks his lips, his eyes flickering up to catch hold of Sherlock’s. His eyelids are heavy over his eyes, his lashes lustrous in the hazy light of the guttering candle. Somehow he manages to find his voice. It’s heavy and thick, as affecting as the feel of John’s cock under Sherlock’s fingers. “Sherlock, you don’t have to—”

Sherlock lifts his fingers to John’s lips and leaves them there as the long fingers of his other hand continue to follow the path of John’s—up and down over his swollen cock, up and down, twisting slightly around the head, making John’s lashes slide closed over his eyes with a sharp intake of breath.

Sherlock shifts forward, eager, determined. “Let me,” he says, carefully lifting John’s fingers off himself to replace them fully with his own. “Let me do it, John.”

John lets him.

He sits back with a quiet sigh of acquiescence, leaning his weight back on his palms, lifting his hips up into Sherlock’s hand as Sherlock carefully, oh so carefully, repeats the movements that John started, copying the pressure, the speed of his strokes so that it’s only a moment before John’s mouth is falling open with gasps of pleasure, one of Sherlock’s fingers slipping into his mouth.

John sucks on it hard, and Sherlock speeds up the pace of his stroking, his gaze, unwavering on John’s as he pulls John towards the brink of his orgasm.

“I meant to tell you,” Sherlock says, leaning in closer so he can replace his fingers with his mouth. “John, you…” Sherlock presses his open mouth over John’s, lets his tongue lick into the heat of John’s panting mouth. “You make my life better, brighter… you’re the sun, John. My sun… I need you to know.”

He pushes his forehead in against John’s, and they’re both panting now as Sherlock strokes the length of John, faster and faster, until he feels the first tremors start to move through John, the smell of his sweat, the ripe heat of his body filling Sherlock’s nostrils, causing him to tighten his calves around John’s back, to break his mouth away so he can lick the sweat off of John’s throat.

“John,” he breathes into John’s hair, rubbing his open lips against it, relishing its softness against his mouth. “You’re so bright. You’re more beautiful than anyone I’ve ever seen. You are strength to me—and light. John, John, John, I need you to know.”

Sherlock feels the muscles tense in John’s thighs, and then his entire body’s tightening, his head tipping back as his orgasm takes him, spurting into Sherlock’s fist.

Sherlock continues to stroke him through it, trembling almost as hard as John, still pressing absent kisses into John’s hair as he listens to the sound of John’s ragged breathing begin to calm.

Sherlock shifts his weight in John’s lap—suddenly aware of just how stiff he is from sitting in the same position, and feels John’s arms come up around him.

Something in the gesture makes the hot tight feeling in Sherlock’s chest burst open within him and before he understands what’s happening, he’s pressing his face into the curve of John’s neck, tears streaming from his eyes.

It takes John a moment to realize that the quiet hitching of Sherlock’s shoulders under his hands are tiny sobs, that the dampness against the side of his neck from Sherlock’s face isn’t just sweat, but as soon as he realizes, his hands slide up to Sherlock’s hair.

“Shh,” he breathes into Sherlock’s ear. “It’s alright.”

Sherlock lifts his head, sucking in a shaky breath of air. He wants to tell John why he’s crying but finds he doesn’t know what to say. He does not have the words.

John pulls Sherlock back against him, bowing his mouth to Sherlock’s hair.

“You’re alright,” John says, his voice low and warm. “You’re alright. It’s just the wine.”

John leans back, shifting Sherlock in his arms, rearranging them so they can lie down together with Sherlock’s head against John’s chest.

He keeps one hand in Sherlock’s hair, smoothing his fingers through the curls, the other rubbing circles into Sherlock’s back.

The gesture is wonderfully soothing and before long Sherlock feels the storm of emotion in his chest begin to loosen its hold on him, his body bending to the weight of his exhaustion. He wriggles tighter against John’s side and closes his eyes even as a few stubborn tears trickle down his nose and onto John’s chest.

John seems to know instinctually what will calm him, and before Sherlock can even think to ask, John starts to sing, soft and low, into the narrow space between their bowed heads, his voice a rich counterpoint to the gentle rhythm of his hands. A shiver runs through Sherlock at the sorrow in the melody, at the lovely, haunting tenor of John’s voice.

He needs to tell John that he was wrong about his tears—that it wasn’t the wine at all, but rather the immensity of his feelings, the enormity of his love for John, which is as wide as the sky, as vast as the sea they are sailing over, but deeper, deeper—fathomless.

However, before he can lift his head to speak, sleep has crept in to pull him down to darkness, sponging the words from his lips for the second time that night.

Chapter Text

The room is warm when Sherlock wakes.

He can feel the drowsy heat of the tropical sun pulsing in the confines of his cabin even before he opens his eyes, and he knows that the sun must have been up for several hours to soak down through the layers of the deck to transform his narrow berth into the veritable sauna that it feels like now.

He opens his eyes and sees that he is alone in bed.

Of course. John will have been up hours ago, would have woken when they rang the bells at dawn, but the practicality of this knowledge does nothing to stop the pang that moves through Sherlock’s chest at his absence, as visceral as a physical pain.

Sherlock sits up, rubbing the heel of one hand in his eye, chasing away the fading remnants of his dreams. They were good dreams. John was with him in some hot and sunny landscape—was it a desert? Sherlock tries to recollect but the images fail to focus, their details bleached away as if by heat.

They were searching for water, Sherlock thinks, and in that instant it occurs to him just how thirsty he actually is.

He leans over for the pitcher on his desk, feeling as he does so how thin his skull feels, how dry his mouth, and sees in the same instant that his water cup is stained dark with wine.

He looks at the empty bottle on his desk and groans.

No wonder he feels as though he’s dying of thirst.

Lucky for him, John was thoughtful enough to fill Sherlock’s pitcher with fresh water before he left. Sherlock fills one cup to the brim, drinks it greedily down, and then instantly fills another.

He has not felt so thirsty since his illness.

He drinks half the pitcher before he feels satisfied, and although it’s late morning and Sherlock should probably rise and dress, he feels no urgency to seek out the blazing noonday sun, nor to discover just how badly it might exacerbate the condition of his aching head so he lies back down against the pillows, drawing his knees up tight against his chest. He shuts his eyes, and lets his mind drift back over the events of the previous evening.

John in his blue shirt, temples salt-stained, eyes so bright; Sherlock’s nervousness; the kiss as John leaned in from the chair by Sherlock’s desk; the wine, the taste of it on John’s lips; Sherlock coming before either of them had even undressed. And then what Sherlock had done after—god how glad he is now that he dared to try it, the feel of John between his lips, that blood-hot flesh against his tongue, the noises John made in response.

Sherlock’s stomach flips at the memory and he clenches his knees tighter against his chest, breathing hard.

His mind seems to speed up, rushing forward over all that came after—waking up beside John’s naked slumbering body; John’s worry over Mycroft’s letter; his gentle admonition to Sherlock not to get involved followed by his promise to stand by Sherlock no matter what; and then, and then!—the reason for his injured face; his fierce protectiveness for Sherlock blazing like a flame in the darkness of the cabin.

Sherlock trembles thinking of it now, presses a fist against his mouth as though to staunch the tide of memories, so powerful Sherlock feels as though his head is being pulled down beneath the waves.

And after, how Sherlock tried to tell John what he means to him, slurring, desperate, his thighs clenching hard around John’s waist, lips slipping over his throat, hand working the length of him as though he could draw the life out of him up to the surface through the grip on his hand—god, the things he said.

He told John he was the sun, his sun. Oh god.

Sherlock tucks his burning cheek in against the pillow, feeling hot with shame.

All true and yet all of his words, every one, failing utterly to convey the truth of what John is—what John means to him.

Thinking on it now, still, Sherlock feels a well of frustration rise within him—frustration and shame and fondness and lust, and underneath it all, throbbing like the heart of the ocean itself, his love for John, ever-growing, impossible to represent.

There is so much feeling coursing through his body that Sherlock feels as though he may break apart. He has never felt so much in all his life and he finds he does not know quite how to manage it.

His response is to do what he always does with the most important moments of his life—to sort through every memory, each sensation, to catalogue it, smooth it out, examine it from every angle, before tucking it away inside his mind in order to preserve it.

It’s something Sherlock has always done since he was small. Important things need to be placed somewhere no one can touch them or take them away. He learned this from a very young age when the nurses began destroying all his specimens—when his cousins would sabotage his experiments just to see him cry and rage, when Mycroft abruptly decided that he had grown up and wanted nothing to do with Sherlock or the games they played together as boys.

People like to destroy things, to take away what was precious to you. That’s what other people did. So Sherlock learned very quickly that the only way to hold onto anything was to keep it in his own head.

He has always had an exceptional memory but he began to train himself to remember things in a particular way—there were so many things that Sherlock realized he would need a system to keep everything in order, to help him call it up when he needed it.

The catalyst for his development of this system was the death of his father’s hunting dog, the dog his father claimed was his, but who Sherlock knew had always really belonged to him; since the day he stopped the puppy being killed.

They went everywhere together, Sherlock and the dog he came to call Redbeard.

He was the runt of the litter—small, malnourished, always pushed aside at feeding time. When he was still a puppy the kennel master took him out behind the shed to shoot him—“There’s no way he can survive in this pack,” but Sherlock, furious, angry tears streaming down his cheeks, who’d already taken a liking to the undernourished pup, had stood between the trembling dog and the kennel master’s gun. “I won’t let you shoot him. I won’t let you.”

Sherlock had never felt so full of rage—and he had been angry plenty of times in his life. But this rage was different. It was white-hot, blinding. He felt as though he could have walked through fire and emerged unscathed. Let the kennel master shoot him. The bullet would likely pass right through him without leaving a mark.

He scooped the puppy in his arms. “You can’t have him. He’s mine.”

When he learned what was going on, Sherlock’s father tried to intervene, but at that point, Sherlock had hidden himself away with the puppy up in the straw above the barn. Mycroft found him, hours later, curled around the sleeping dog, hair matted, furious tears long since dried on his cheeks, and told him with a weary sigh, “Father says you can keep the beast, but you’re responsible for it. You’ll have to keep it away from the other dogs.”

Redbeard slept in Sherlock’s room from then on.

They were inseparable.

The two of them would wander the woods for hours, crashing through the brush, scaring birds, Sherlock collecting specimens, Redbeard snuffling happily among the roots of trees.

Sherlock would fill his pockets during dinner, with Redbeard lying at his feet. Afterward, when the gentlemen had gone through to smoke, the ladies to their cards, Sherlock would drop from his chair and lie under the table with his head on Redbeard’s belly while the servants did the clearing up, feeding him scraps of bread and mutton that he had hoarded from his own plate. He would laugh when Redbeard’s warm rough tongue licked his face, and bury his face in Redbeard’s soft and pungent smelling fur until one of the servants discovered him there and dragged Sherlock out to box his ears, sending him back to the nursery to await his thrashing.

Redbeard had come into Sherlock’s life just at the time when Mycroft had decided he had outgrown childish things—that he was a man and therefore couldn’t associate with Sherlock anymore. He filled a hole in Sherlock’s tiny miserable life that he hadn’t even known was there.

Those years with Redbeard were the happiest Sherlock had ever known.

But then one day, in the woods, they ventured farther than they’d ever gone before—miles from the house—and Redbeard vanished from Sherlock’s line of sight. This wasn’t uncommon, they would often separate for a little while, Redbeard pursuing some scent, Sherlock stumbling on a new breed of fungus or some never-before-seen insect, only to come back together again, like the course of a diverted stream. But this time, Redbeard had been gone for so long Sherlock began to worry.

He stayed in the woods until the sky grew dark, breaking through branches, pulling thick hedges apart with his bare hands, his movements growing increasingly frantic as his desperation increased, calling and calling Redbeard’s name until his voice was hoarse from shouting.

He finally found him after the sun had set. The woods were black as pitch, but Sherlock was alerted to his presence by the thin sound of his whimper. He followed it like a thread in the dark to where the dog was lying in the center of a dark copse of trees.

His foot had been caught in a hunting snare. The teeth of the vicious trap were sunk deep into his hind leg. Sherlock tried to get him out but his efforts were useless, fingers slipping in the blood, his own two hands of flesh and bone powerless against the metal jaws of the trap.

Never had he felt so useless as he did that day, unable to do anything against the pain, to help allay the creature’s suffering. There was nothing he could do.

Even if he could somehow remove his leg from the trap, he would never walk again. The wound was too serious.

So the kennel master got to shoot him after all.

No incident in Sherlock’s life was darker than that long walk back through the woods to the house to get help, knowing all the while that Redbeard was in pain, and alone under that dark circle of trees.

He has no memory of the details of that walk—he has erased it completely from his mind.

He does remember returning with his brother and the kennel master, kneeling in the dirt while it happened, his eyes dry and stinging, afraid every moment that he was going to be sick but telling himself fiercely he had to be strong for Redbeard’s sake, Mycroft standing behind him, his posture utterly stiff. He may not have understood Sherlock’s love for the dog but he understood what a loss this was for Sherlock.

Mycroft had helped Sherlock find a place to bury him in the woods outback. He even helped Sherlock dig the hole, didn’t even complain about his clothes getting dirty.

Sherlock didn’t want to leave the place, but Mycroft dragged him home again, too exhausted and numb with grief to put up much of a fight, and helped him up the stairs and into bed.

Sherlock was sick for a long time afterwards. He caught a fever, and couldn’t leave his bed for weeks. There were so many days when he couldn’t find it in himself to exert the strength it took to keep on living. What’s the point? He’d often think, staring up in blank horror at the ceiling. But something in him had refused to stop fighting and he had survived it, although he had a long period of convalescence.

He was too weak to leave his bed for weeks afterward, and that was when he’d started to put together his system for remembering things.

If the only way that he could hang onto Redbeard was in his mind, then so be it.

The structure was based on the layout of the Holmes’ estate, which Sherlock could easily walk through in his mind with his eyes closed. He started out by grouping certain types of memories in particular rooms, organizing them by a complicated schema of logic that made sense only to him. Over the years as he continued to add to it, Sherlock modified the structure in his head—gutted rooms that he’d never liked, replacing their interiors with objects that were important to him.

His father’s study became a space to store his fungi, dark roots breaking up through the floorboards to reveal the rich soil underneath, vines growing up to twine around his father’s desk, erupting from the chimney and crawling up the ceiling to make a dense latticework of leaves that broke the plaster overhead.

The dining room became his menagerie for rare specimens of plant life; the parlor next door housed his collection of animals. His mother’s sitting room became the storehouse for all his knowledge of geography and astronomy; Mycroft’s room his chemical laboratory.

When Redbeard died, he replaced the grand entryway downstairs with Redbeard’s favorite meadow so that Redbeard could run and run through the sunshine all within the structure of Sherlock’s family home.

Space expands in a curious way in the architecture of Sherlock’s mind—the sky opening up in the rafters of the ceiling, sunlight pouring down between the beams; whole forests swaying in the space beneath the main staircase.

He is constantly adapting it, adding to it, making slight modifications as he encounters new information, new memories that he deems important.

He started a room for John the day that he met him, but he’s realizing that he’s going to have to expand into another room at least—if not two—just for John, as he’s quickly running out of space.

When Sherlock opens his eyes again, finally satisfied with the storage of his new memories after shifting a whole portion of now unnecessary clutter out of the old night-nursery to make more room for John, he is relieved to find that his headache is mostly gone.

Sherlock sits up tentatively, realizing as he gradually becomes aware of the presence of his body again just how hungry he is.

It must be only a little past noon; if he hurries, he will still be able to make it to the passenger saloon in time for lunch.

He dresses quickly and perfunctorily, sparing only the briefest of minutes to splash his face with water from his pewter basin. It’s so hot today, he will be sweating again in minutes he has no doubt; so a more thorough wash hardly seems necessary.

As he moves about the room getting dressed, he is surprised to discover several places in his body—low in his abdomen, in the juncture between his hip and thigh—that feel tender and sore.

He flexes his hips experimentally and with the pang of soreness comes a whole host of memories: his thighs clamping tightly around John’s waist as Sherlock rocked into him; Sherlock’s back arched and stomach muscles clenched as he thrust up into John’s fist; Sherlock crouched over John on the bed, his own thighs spreading wide against the mattress.

It appears that John is helping him to develop a whole new regimen of strength training that extends far beyond the realm of simple boxing lessons, and Sherlock finds he cannot stop himself smiling as he exits his cabin and makes his way to the dining room, each step bringing a small twinge of pain and with it a memory of John against him, so that each ache in Sherlock’s body becomes a silent talisman in honor of John’s presence, a reminder of the fact that John has worked his way deep into Sherlock’s flesh, down into his muscles.

***

Lunch is an unremarkable affair, blessedly free of Anderson’s presence, or any of the other petty officers. They are likely all up on deck, occupied with training exercises now that the ship has hit the trade winds. Everyone, it seems, has more leisure time these past few days.

It’s hot in the dining room.

Sherlock eats his soup quickly; too preoccupied by the fierce blaze of his own thoughts to spare much attention for the other passengers whose languid and infrequent conversation echoes the torpor of their movements. It seems the heat has sapped their energy, causing everyone to move at half their normal pace, as though time itself has been slowed; the only energetic presence in the whole room the ceaseless flutter of Miss Goodfellow’s fan over her bosom.

Sherlock’s thoughts are all with John, back in the dim, candlelit glow of his memories from the past two nights. He is only distantly aware of the thick, simmering feeling in the atmosphere of the room, in the way the men’s sleeves cling to their arms and backs, and the sweat stands out on the bare throats of the women.

He spares a smile for Miss Hooper as he rises from his chair, and feels a stab of pity, seeing that she has been seated between Ms. Grimsby, her oppressive, steely-eyed chaperone, and the elderly, and mostly deaf, Mr. Mills. She smiles back at him, mouth hidden by her napkin, her brown eyes full of warmth.

He’d like to ask her whether she’s had a chance to talk to Lieutenant Lestrade since the events of two nights past, but he knows the conversation would be impossible to have in the presence of Ms. Grimsby.

He’d also like to ask Miss Hooper in more detail about the events of that evening, whether she noticed anyone passing the Lieutenant a drink, or even who he had employed in conversation—any number of seemingly insignificant details could hold the key to the identity of Lestrade’s poisoner.

For even if Sherlock is certain now that the Captain is responsible, what’s also certain is that the man wasn’t present at the party, so he must be working with an accomplice.

He’ll have to look for an opportunity in the near future to speak with Miss Hooper when she is alone, but it’s difficult to do so, nearly impossible to catch her in those rare moments when her steps aren’t darkened by the dour shadow of her chaperone.

Sherlock experiences a brief flash of real annoyance at the idiotic tenets which dictate the behavior of young women.

It is well past noon when Sherlock exits the dining room, and the heat below decks has reached an almost unbearable capacity. As he moves through the dark and airless corridors of the lower deck, Sherlock feels the full weight of the mid-afternoon heat suddenly make itself known to him.

He pulls at his neck cloth as he climbs the stairs to the upper decks, desperate for a bit of fresh air, even if it means also welcoming the brutal intensity of the tropical sun.

Sure enough, the force of the sun on his hair and face as he moves from the shadows into the light is every bit as intense as Sherlock imagined it would be, but there is also the ghost of a breeze. It may be hot, but it lifts the damp hair from Sherlock’s forehead and he closes his eyes at the feel of it, drinking it in.

Sherlock crosses to the portside rail, moving in the direction of the breeze, and stands looking out over the ocean.

The sun may be brutal but the sight of the ocean lying clear and flat under the brilliant blue sky is enough to take Sherlock’s breath away.

He has never seen the sea the color that it is today—it’s a vivid blue-green, so startlingly clear that if Sherlock leans over the rail, it looks as though he can see down for miles, the sunshine where it hits the water cutting arcs of light down through the deepening blue.

The sea is so flat that the sky and sea seem to have become one entity, swelling hot and blue green in opposite directions, the sun glancing off the surface of the water in white shimmers of light far out on the horizon.

One lazy seagull interrupts the endless blue of sea and sky, the crisp white lines of its wings held immobile, unmoving, as it hovers in the ship’s wake.

Sherlock turns back to the deck, eyes scanning the beams above the clean, white shapes of the billowed sails, searching for the lean brown form he knows so well, waiting for a flash of gold hair under the sunlight to catch his eye.

The hot blue brilliance of the day seems to have affected the energy of the crew in a similar fashion to that of the passengers—there is little noticeable activity on the deck. A group of sailors sits at the foot of the mainmast, sewing sails and talking in low voices; a group of midshipmen are finishing their calculations on the quarterdeck in silence; and the lieutenants gathered near them are as quiet as the helmsman at the wheel.

Sherlock’s eyes climb all the way up to the very top of the mainmast where John often sits, but the sailor currently keeping watch is not John; neither are any of the men Sherlock can see in the rigging.

He’s about to approach the group of working sailors to ask them about John’s whereabouts but before he takes a step forward he remembers John’s explanation from last night for how he came by the cut on his face.

Sherlock hesitates, his mind suddenly full of speculation.

John said he didn’t mind that the men were making comments about the two of them together, but that it was their comments about Sherlock in particular that had roused his anger.

What could they have said about him to make John so upset?

A half a dozen unsavory possibilities cross Sherlock’s mind, and although a dark part of him is curious to know, a larger part of him suspects that finding out would lead to nothing good; and he has a suspicion that if he were to approach the group of sailors now asking about John, he would get an earful of some kind or another.

So instead he skirts the group entirely and makes his way around the perimeter of the deck, avoiding the lieutenants and midshipmen as best he can until he reaches the forecastle deck, where he and John often have their boxing lessons.

Bu he finds the forecastle deck abandoned.

With a sigh of disappointment, Sherlock crosses to the foremost point on the ship and leans over the rail above the bowsprit, resigning himself to the fact that John must be busy somewhere below decks.

It’s only as he turns to go that he sees John, previously hidden from view behind the bulk of a cannon. He is lying in the narrow space between the cannon and the foredeck rail, stretched out, with his eyes closed, arms pillowed underneath his head.

Sherlock can see from the gentle rise and fall of his chest that he’s breathing deep and even; is likely asleep.

He’s shirtless, dressed only in his breeches, and Sherlock cannot tell if it’s because he’s been in the water, or if it’s just that hot, but his skin is coated in a fine sheen of moisture that makes the whole of his body glisten in the light of the sun.

John always looks brilliant to Sherlock, but this time, he is actually glittering, the bright glare of the sunlight on his bare limbs and torso drawing the light up out of him in long, gleaming lines, as though the sun is drawn to John in particular, as though it knows how well John’s body will wear its light.

As quietly and cautiously as he is able, Sherlock moves into the space between where John is lying and the railing, sinking to his knees to kneel before John on the sun-warmed boards of the deck.

Sherlock has seen John’s bare torso before, of course. He’s seen John climbing the rigging without a shirt, and working the sails under the glare of the sun, but all those times were before he and John were lovers; and all the times he has seen John without clothing since then, Sherlock has had to make due with the thin light from the candles in his dim cabin.

Seeing John now—stretched out under the sunlight—this is how John is meant to be seen, Sherlock thinks, this is how it should always be.

He can see so much, so much that was invisible to his eyes before, and Sherlock’s gaze moves over John desperately, hungrily, drinking in every detail.

He can see every fine hair on John’s jaw, every bit of stubble where his beard is coming in. Sherlock wants to run his fingers over it, feel the scrape and the burn of it against his mouth.

The light on his hair, down his arms, on the planes of his chest, makes him glow like a god who just stepped out of the surf, makes his skin shine like the sheen on the shell of an oyster.

Every detail he sees brings with it a memory of what it was like to touch that part of John’s body, but now Sherlock finds, he wants more than ever, because John looks different now, is different. He has changed in the eight hours or so since Sherlock last kissed him; his short hair is slicked straight back from his brow, looks stiff from the salt of the waves or from sweat—probably both, the grooves round his mouth are softer in the bright light of day, the lines on his forehead all smoothed away.

He must taste different now, feel different, and Sherlock is filled with an animal need to touch him, to kiss him, to learn how he tastes here, now, in this blaze of sunlight and open sky.

Sherlock wants to lick the salt off of him, taste the shadow at the hinge of his jaw; rub his cheek against the gleam of John’s chest.

Even the hair under his arms catches the light of the sun, seems to glisten. His eyelashes are two fringes of gold. Sherlock wants to brush his mouth against them.

It’s the warm glow of his torso that finally tempts Sherlock to break the spell of John’s slumber. His bare torso is browner than ever and Sherlock can’t resist laying his hands on the swell of his chest, feeling the heat of John’s body in the flat of his palms, the shape of the muscles stretched beneath the skin so smooth, so powerful.

It’s what Sherlock has longed to do so many times when he’s seen John working under the sun, and here he is now, stretched out for Sherlock’s eyes, and for the first time, Sherlock knows his touch will be welcome.

John’s eyes flutter open at the touch of Sherlock’s hands. He looks disoriented briefly as he blinks against the harsh light of the sun, squinting up at Sherlock through the glare.

Sherlock watches the moment of recognition break over his face, watches joy lift the corners of his mouth, making creases around his eyes, and thinks for what must be the thousandth time that John Watson’s smile is the best thing he’ll ever see.

“Hello, Beautiful,” John says, mouth spread wide in a sleepy smile.

Sherlock studies the lovely white of John’s teeth—remembers with sudden visceral clarity running his tongue along the outside of them, against the inside of John’s bottom lip, remembers how shockingly soft it was—and flushes hot at the memory.

“Hello,” Sherlock whispers.

John stretches lazily and Sherlock watches the muscles in his chest pull taut; looks at the hair under John’s arms again with something like hunger. He keeps his hands on John’s chest even as John stretches, feels the flex of the muscles as John re-settles his hands behind his head.

Sherlock looks at John’s nipples, thinks about tasting them.

John’s smile grows wider.

“Like what you see?”

Sherlock doesn’t answer. Instead, he lets his fingers slide down John’s torso, over the sun-warmed grooves of his ribs. His thumbs linger in the hollow of John’s belly, brushing oh so softly at the swell of John’s hips. Sherlock watches with fascination the change that comes over John’s face at his touch. His eyelids look suddenly heavy.

“Come closer, lovely.”

John reaches a hand up to wrap around the back of Sherlock’s neck.

“Why?” Sherlock whispers, suddenly apprehensive that someone might see them, even though he knows they are safely hidden from view by the bulk of the cannon. He cranes his head back to look up at the man on watch in the foretop, but the white curve of the foresail blocks him from Sherlock’s line of sight. They are hidden from view on all sides, shrouded by the canvas of the sails.

“I’d like to kiss you.”

Sherlock feels a shudder go through him at John’s words. The low pulse of his desire, brought to life by his discovery of John’s sleeping form, has been growing steadily with every passing moment and now he can taste it, licking steadily at the back of his throat like wildfire. He lets John pull him down until their mouths are inches apart.

John holds them there just a moment, the sea-sweet curl of John’s breath warm against Sherlock’s mouth as John watches Sherlock watching him, something almost like sorrow in his look. Sherlock studies every sun-bright detail—the way his lovely golden lashes hang so heavy over his slate blue eyes, the crooked slope of his nose that is unlike any nose Sherlock has ever seen, the color of his lips up close, the pale pink of living coral.

The rough pads of John’s fingers rub at his hairline, making him shiver in spite of the heat of the sun, and that is all Sherlock can take—the last thread of his self-restraint dissolves into mist.

He drops his mouth to John’s and fits their mouths together so gently, tongue waiting eagerly against the tip of his teeth for John’s lips to part, inviting him in.

At the feel of John’s mouth yielding beneath his, and the warm lovely heat of John’s tongue in his mouth, Sherlock cries out, low, helpless, full of delight, as everything around him fades beyond his perception—the hard boards under his knees, the sun on his back, the distant roar of the foam against the hull—everything, everything dissolves around him until there is only John’s warm body under his hands, John’s hot, slick tongue in his mouth.

He tastes as good as Sherlock imagined—but better, fuller, more complex. He tastes like sunlight and the spirits he drinks—sweet, but with fire underneath.

The kiss is slow, bone-meltingly deep. John feels even more open and vulnerable than usual, his edges softened by sleep. Something about the curl of John’s tongue in Sherlock’s mouth feels more intimate than ever, as if John is inviting Sherlock not just into his mouth, but into the world in which he was just dreaming.

It’s as if another layer has come down between them, and Sherlock is discovering a whole new side of John—this soft and gentle, sleep-warmed John that stretches out behind cannons to take his rest on the sun-bleached boards of the deck.

John’s sun-warmed skin is hot beneath Sherlock’s palms and for a fleeting moment Sherlock thinks longingly of how it would be to see the whole of John’s naked body under the blue sky and sun, and what it would be like to lie with him in the warm embrace of the open air.

Perhaps John feels the change in Sherlock at the thought because he pulls back slightly, fingers still soft on Sherlock’s neck, his voice breathless.

“How long have you been watching me sleep?”

He’s so close against Sherlock’s mouth that Sherlock can taste the words.

“Not long,” Sherlock says, feeling light-headed. It’s disorienting, coming back to reality so suddenly, back into his awareness of the world outside of John. He concentrates on the gentle rise and fall of John’s chest beneath his palms.

“I like watching you watch me,” John says, dropping his head further to gaze at Sherlock’s face. “The way you look at me, you make me feel… utterly unique.”

“You are,” Sherlock says, aghast that John would consider it otherwise. “There is no one like you on this earth, John Watson.”

John laughs softly. He strokes his hand down Sherlock’s neck. “I’m not sure you’re right.”

The fondness in John’s look is making Sherlock’s throat close up with emotion. “But if I am to you, that’s all that matters.”

The wind snaps in the sail above them.

“I didn’t want to wake you up,” Sherlock says through the tightness in his throat. “I could have watched you sleeping all afternoon. But I’m glad I didn’t. This is better.”

“This is better,” John agrees in a murmur and captures Sherlock’s lips again.

The sea and the sky dissolve again in the presence of John’s mouth on Sherlock’s. His fingers slide up into Sherlock’s hair and Sherlock cannot stop a moan of pleasure escaping from his throat.

Sherlock pulls back in sudden fear, hands on John’s shoulders, eyes watchful.

“It’s alright,” John says, smoothing a hand down Sherlock’s shoulder. “Wind’s coming from the east. It’ll carry the sound right over the water.”

But Sherlock sits back on his heels, too frightened to continue.

John sits up, propping his weight on his elbow, and grins up at Sherlock with one eye shut against the glare of the sun.

“Can I tell you a secret?”

“What?” Sherlock asks through numb lips, still too frightened by his outburst to really focus on what John is saying.

“I wasn’t asleep when you came over.” John reaches his hand out to where Sherlock’s fingers are clenched in his lap, callused palm turned upwards. Tentatively, Sherlock slides his fingers into John’s. “I mean I was earlier, but when I heard your footsteps, I was just lying there, letting my thoughts take me where they might.”

“What were you thinking of?”

John looks at him, his eyes so much darker than the bright sky behind him. He rubs his warm thumb over Sherlock’s palm, making Sherlock shiver in response.

John’s expression has turned dreamy, contemplative.

“I was thinking about the little garden I used to keep, back at my father’s house, and how about this time of year, the first spring flowers would be coming up. By early summer, it will be crowded with foxglove and lilacs, narcissus and wood violets, anemones as blue as the sea.”

John’s eyes are trained on Sherlock’s hand, but his gaze is fixed on something only he can see.

His voice is a low murmur; it’s as dreamy as his expression, as steady as the ebb of the surf. His thumb in Sherlock’s palm has not stopped its meditative stroking, and Sherlock finds his breathing growing shallower with each gentle circle traced by John’s thumb.

“It was right beside the woods where the rowan trees stood, and in springtime, the lilac boughs at the entryway would make a little bower, the branches so laden with flowers they hung almost to the ground.”

All of Sherlock’s desire, which had fled in the wake of his fear of them being discovered, has returned tenfold. He’s so aroused by John’s low voice and the steady rhythm of his stroking thumb that he’s shivering now as if he has a fever.

John goes on talking, his gaze transfixed on Sherlock’s hand, his voice full of sorrow.

“The sea is beautiful in its way, but sometimes I find my heart yearning after growing things—green woods and rich, black soil, solid ground beneath my feet, and for the songs of birds other than gulls. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night for trying to remember what they sound like.”

The ache in John’s voice is so palpable that for a moment Sherlock considers what it must be like to spend years away from life on dry land, only going on shore for weeks at a time, to have no place to call home, other than the length of canvas where you lay your head each night. In a way, Sherlock now knows what it’s like, having been cast off himself, but it must be different after so many years away; it must be different if your family never wanted you to leave in the first place.

Sherlock wonders what it must be like to actually miss your family. He thinks of Mycroft and his stomach twists. Then he thinks of the little unmarked mound of earth beneath the apple tree at the edge of the woods on the Holmes estate, and feels a wave of sorrow so intense it’s as though no time has passed at all, as though he’s back on that horrible day, standing by that mound of earth, hands torn apart from digging, Mycroft standing at his shoulder, telling him in a toneless voice, “It’s time to go home now, Sherlock,” and how he had turned to Mycroft, voice raw from crying and rasped, “That’s not my home. Redbeard was my home and now he’s dead.”

Sherlock wonders if any members of John’s family are still alive. He knows his mother is no longer living but what about his father? His sisters? Brothers? How many siblings does John have? Sherlock wants to ask him, but he doesn’t know how to do so without sounding insensitive. Part of him wants to tell John about Redbeard, but he doesn’t know where to begin.

As Sherlock struggles to think what to say, John’s eyes flicker back up to Sherlock’s and he laughs suddenly, self-conscious, sad. The sound of it is like a knife through Sherlock.

“I’m sorry,” he says, pulling his hand out of Sherlock’s and sitting up to lean his back against the cannon. He drops his head, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck, the gesture distracted, full of shame. “Listen to me. I sound like an old fishwife sitting on the docks, dreaming of song birds.”

He offers Sherlock a smile but there’s no light in it.

Whatever just happened, Sherlock hates it. Whatever it is inside of John that makes him ashamed of his feelings, ashamed of his own desires, Sherlock wants to find it and destroy it.

“You didn’t,” Sherlock says haltingly, awkwardly. “You don’t.”

He wants to make John feel better but he doesn’t know what to say.

But John’s sorrowful mood seems to pass as quickly as it came because when he next looks up at Sherlock, his eyes are full of something dark and eager.

“You know the real reason I was thinking of that lilac bower?”

Sherlock shakes his head.

John leans in, his smile bright and hungry, his voice dropping back to that low and dreamy register.

Sherlock feels his heartbeat start to pick up just from that look in John’s eyes.

“I was thinking how someday, I’d like to take you there, show you every flower, and then lay you down under those scented boughs.”

Sherlock makes a small shocked sound.

His dramatic reaction only seems to encourage John.

“It’s the perfect place,” John continues, voice lowering with every word, as he leans in closer, his eyes on Sherlock’s mouth. “It’s completely secluded, hidden from sight. In the springtime, the air—it smells like heaven, the ground so soft with flowers. The sunlight coming in through the branches overhead covers everything in a patchwork of light, makes a dappled pattern that’s constantly shifting with the wind—god, what I wouldn’t give to see that play of light on your bare skin.”

This time, Sherlock actually gasps.

“And you could be as loud as you like,” John goes on, smiling, as Sherlock’s cheeks flush dark with heat. “No one would hear you but me.”

“John,” Sherlock says, his voice conspicuously strained. His hands are knotted into fists at his sides. It is taking every ounce of his will power to keep his hands from reaching out and straying over John’s lean hips. He knows that he would not have the ability to stop himself this time.

“Yes, my love?”

“When is it… that is—” Sherlock clears his throat, struggles for control. “How long do you have until you’ve got to go back to work?”

John laughs and leans into Sherlock, all mouth and glittering eyes.

Sherlock goes rigid, feels like he should pull back but fails utterly to do so.

This John is a dangerous John—he is capable of anything. Sherlock can tell this from the look in his eyes, can tell from the wild energy coming off of him like a pulse, infectious, intoxicating. It makes Sherlock want to do mad things as well, like push John against the cannon at his back, and drag his trousers off his hips.

“Why do you ask?”

“No reason in particular, I just… wondered.”

John’s grin is all teeth, he looks like a hungry wolf; but his voice is as sweet as the lightest confection. “Did you have a suggestion for some… activity that I might use to occupy myself during my free hour? Is that it?”

“I…”

John leans over to retrieve his jacket, and slings it over one shoulder before turning back to Sherlock.

“I think I know exactly what you had in mind.”

Sherlock’s heart leaps into his throat. “You—?”

But before he can finish his question, John has taken Sherlock’s hand in his, and is pulling him to his feet.

“Come on!”

Sherlock lets John tug him by the hand, out from the shadow of the cannon, and back across the deck.

Sherlock is so dazzled by the brilliance of the smile that John throws him over his shoulder that it takes him a moment to hear the next thing that comes out of John’s mouth.

At first, he thinks he has misheard him.

Sherlock halts beside the foremast.

“What?”

“I said,” John says, dropping Sherlock’s hand to shrug into his jacket. “I’ve been wondering when you were going to ask me for a tour of the ship.”

“A tour of the—?”

Sherlock looks up in bemused horror but John’s laughing face has already vanished from sight around the foremast.

Sherlock lets out a frustrated breath.

“I’m going to kill him,” he says quietly to himself.

“Hurry up!” John calls from the top of the stairs. “I’ve only got an hour!”

Sherlock drops his shoulders, unclenches both his fists.

“I’m actually going to kill him,” he mutters again, but he’s smiling as he traces John’s footsteps around the foremast to the staircase leading below decks.

Chapter Text

In spite of Sherlock’s severe disappointment that John hadn’t suggested another very different activity to occupy his free hour, there’s something decidedly pleasant about having all of John’s company to himself, and all of John’s attention on him, as he guides Sherlock through the complicated maze of storerooms and narrow passageways, through hatchways and under low-hanging beams into every secret corridor of the ship.

John shows him where the sailors sleep—down in the forecastle, and where they eat—on the lower gun deck; he takes Sherlock past the galley, where they catch a glimpse of John’s friend Stamford, leaning over an enormous boiling pot, his features lost in a swirl of steam.

“My god, it’s hot,” Sherlock says as a fresh wave of sweat breaks out along the back of his neck. The accumulated heat from the giant furnace at Mike’s back and the row of boiling kettles is enough to transform the small space into what Sherlock imagines the lower circles of Hell must feel like. “How does he stand it?”

John shrugs. “It’s better than serving on a naval ship—when Stamford and I were on the Monarch, he had to cook for 600 men.”

Sherlock has no response for this—he’s too stunned to know what to say. He follows John wordlessly down the gallery where some of the men from John’s watch are sitting at one of the makeshift tables pulled down between the cannons smoking and playing cards, clearly enjoying their reprieve from the blazing heat of the sun as long as they remain off duty.

Sherlock recognizes Matthews and Patterson and Half Pint Lee, all of whom are engrossed in their game with another sailor whose name Sherlock can’t recall. Sherlock has seen him around on deck—the man is tall, broad-shouldered with a sullen sloping face. The silver-whiskered Burns sits off to one side, mending a jacket, with a needle in his teeth.

“Ho there, Johnny Boy!” Burns takes the needle out of his mouth and nods first at John, then at Sherlock in greeting. Sherlock is certain he sees something glimmer in the older man’s eyes as his gaze falls on Sherlock, but just as quickly, his eyes slide back to John. “Did you manage to get that nap you were so desperate for?”

“I did, indeed,” John says, grinning. “And a fine nap it was. There’s nothing beats sleeping on deck in the tropical sun.”

“You can keep your tropical sun—I’ll have none of it.” The sullen faced sailor whose name Sherlock can’t remember spits over his shoulder, as if to punctuate his distaste. “Sooner we’re out of the tropics, the better. I feel like a roasting pig on a spit.”

“That’s cause you’ve got such a fair complexion, Stevens,” says Patterson, who’s about John’s age and is as brown as a nut. He grins up at the other sailor. “You burn about as nicely as a roasting pig—all red and crispy.”

The other sailors laugh good-naturedly, except Burns who’s gone back to his sewing, and John, who Sherlock notices has gone very still beside him.

Sherlock glances over at him, curious, and sees that all the humor is gone from his face. The line of his jaw is hard and tense, and although his posture is relaxed, there’s a tension radiating from him that Sherlock recognizes at once as the same quiet, powerful rage that emanated from him last night when he was telling Sherlock the reason for his wounded face.

Sherlock looks again at Stevens who’s clearly not someone who can take a joke. He’s glaring openly at his crewmates, his expression darkening with fury.

“All right, all right,” says Matthews, as he deals out the next hand, his tone light and appeasing. Matthews is older than John and Patterson but certainly younger than Burns. He’s got curly, sandy colored hair, and a good-natured face; Sherlock can tell from one glance at him that he usually occupies the role of peacemaker.

The other men grow serious again as they pick up their cards.

Stevens is the last to do so, as if uncertain he’s willing to stick around for another game, but after a beat, he leans in to scoop up his hand. As he does so, his face, which before was bathed in shadow, is momentarily illuminated by the glow of the lantern, and Sherlock notices for the first time the vivid bruise darkening the left side of his face.

John never identified the names of the men who had been talking about Sherlock—it could be anyone on the crew. Sailors got into skirmishes all the time on big ships like this; the bruise on Stevens’ face could be the result of any number of accidents or incidents from the last twenty-four hours. There is as yet no proof that this man is in anyway connected to what John described yesterday.

However, in spite of all this, Sherlock is certain that the fresh and painful-looking bruise on the glowering man’s face is the result of John Watson’s fist.

As if sensing Sherlock’s eyes on him, Stevens’ eyes flicker up to hold Sherlock’s gaze. There’s something unpleasant in his look that’s more than just passing hostility; there’s something deeper there, something dark and ugly, that makes Sherlock feel pinned, like a specimen from one of his insect collections, and Sherlock is ashamed to find he cannot hold the other man’s gaze. He drops his eyes, feeling strangely unsettled.

“Well, I won’t keep you from your game,” John says. His tone is carefully light and pleasant, but Sherlock can feel the tension still coming off him in waves.

“We’re due back on deck at seven bells,” says Burns, as John turns to go. “We’re painting the bulwarks and the waterways.”

“I’ll be back in time.”

And without another word, John strides back down the deck, Sherlock following closely in his wake.

Sherlock waits until they reach the hatch leading down to the next deck before he leans in to ask John, in a low voice, “Was that—?” but John just shakes his head, the movement so abrupt and definitive that Sherlock closes his mouth without another word.

John’s physical response is answer enough to Sherlock’s question. His body is still thrumming with the same violent repressed energy as he begins to climb down the steps.

As Sherlock follows John down the stairs, he finds that John’s dangerous mood has the same effect on him that it always does: despite the lingering sick feeling left in the wake of Stevens’ gaze, Sherlock finds his arousal returning to him as he watches the neat, angry movements of John’s body as he climbs down into the darkness and is gradually swallowed up by the shadows.

This is lower down in the ship than Sherlock has ever been, and the darkness takes on a different quality as they sink below the waterline.

It’s difficult to see where he is placing his feet—they have no lantern, and just as he’s nearing the bottom, Sherlock misses a step in the dark.

He experiences one moment of real terror as he plummets backward, only to find that his foot was on the last step, and there isn’t far to fall.

John’s hands come up instinctively to steady him. “Careful there!”

Embarrassed by his clumsiness, and by the immediate reaction from his body at the feeling of Johns’ strong hands at his hips, Sherlock feels his cheeks catch fire.

“I’m fine,” he says, more quickly than he means to.

John drops his hands and steps away and Sherlock instantly regrets his words.

“This is the last part of the tour,” John says, turning away to gesture to the dark space they’ve entered. “Welcome to the orlop deck.”

John’s tone is light, but Sherlock can hear the low pulse of anger in his voice that he is still trying to suppress. It makes Sherlock wonder with renewed interest what it was the other sailor said about him. John had said there were two of them—surely, Stevens was one, and guessing by his sullen interactions with his fellow crewmates, it isn’t difficult to imagine Stevens refusing to stop talking even after a warning from John.

Sherlock tries to picture what it must have looked like, John going up to him to throw the first punch. Stevens is a large man—powerful, his body hardened from years of heavy labor. He is older than John, nearly a head taller. John would look petite standing next to him. But the bruise on Stevens’ face indicates that John hit him hard, and John had said he’d brought his opponent to the floor.

Once again, Sherlock tries to picture this. He’s torn between the dual sensations of relief at not having had to witness the terrifying prospect of John challenging this man, and disappointment that he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to see John’s clearly excellent boxing abilities put to good use.

Sherlock pushes the thought aside and refocuses on John’s voice.

“This is as low as we get. Well, almost as low. You go one lower and you reach the hold, but there’s nothing down there but casks of supplies.”

The darkness around them is absolute. Even so, Sherlock can feel that the space they are in is cavernous. Now that his eyes are beginning to adjust to the dim light, he can make out huge hulking shapes in the darkness.

“This is the cable tier, where we stow all the cables when they’re not in use, and the spare rigging and sails, among other things. Because the cables are wet when they’re brought up, we keep them low in the ship so that they’ll drain right into the bilges.”

The most noticeable thing beside the darkness, Sherlock realizes with John’s words, is the damp. The air is moist and rank with the smell of stagnant water, and the darkness is alive with the sound of its dripping.

“That there, next to the main hatch, that’s the sail room. The sails are kept separate so they won’t get wet. And just beyond it is the well where all the stray water collects—that’s where the water from the cables goes, so we can pump it out—by far the most unpleasant task on this, or any ship.”

Sherlock’s eyes are finally beginning to adjust and now he can make out, quite clearly, that the hulking shapes lining either side of the deck are indeed great masses of coiled cable, stacked higher than John’s head. The cables are so thick around they are almost as wide as Sherlock’s waist.

Sherlock gazes in awe at the vast coils of rope stacked in rows all down the length of the deck. He can just see through the darkness that the space doesn’t extend the full length of the ship—there are doors on either end.

“What’s down there?”

“Through that door there is the cockpit,” John says, pointing to the door at the aft of the ship. “That’s where the purser has his cabin, and the steward. It also houses the captain’s storeroom, and the slop room, as well as the surgeon’s dispensary. Those hatches in the middle, there, lead down to the spirit room and the fish room.”

“Ah. I thought it smelled… rather ripe down here.”

John grins at Sherlock through the darkness. It’s the first time the emotion on his face has looked genuine since their run-in with Stevens. “Just gets riper and riper the further down you get.”

Despite the damp, moist quality of the air, and the fetid smell, Sherlock finds that standing close to John in the dripping darkness is doing nothing to take the edge of his very present arousal.

Although Sherlock knows that there are people just beyond the door at the end of the gallery, and people just above them, something about the impenetrable darkness and the anonymous, towering presence of the massive cables gives Sherlock the impression that they have finally come upon a part of the ship where privacy is a possibility. How easy it would be to melt into the shadows between the giant towers of rope…

“Then at this end,” John points just behind where they are standing. “We have the block room, the pitch room, the boatswain’s store room, the foresail room, the gunner’s store room, and the carpenter’s store room. They’re all locked of course. The warrant officers keep the keys.”

“John…” Sherlock says, trying valiantly to hang onto the words coming out of John’s mouth rather than the fact that in the close darkness he can feel the heat coming off John’s torso as vividly as the heat pouring off the furnace in the galley. “How… how often does anyone come down into the cable tiers?”

“Well, not so often. The purser typically uses the aft hatch to get to and from the cockpit, and the same goes for the steward. It’s probably the carpenter and the boatswain you’d find down here the most, and sometimes the boys running errands for them. But why are you…” John stops and looks at Sherlock, seems to really see him for the first time since they came down the steps. “Oh.”

Sherlock watches the white glimmer of John’s smile grow wider in the darkness as he takes a step nearer Sherlock. “Oh.”

“I just…” Sherlock licks his lips, his eyes on the faint light from the hatchway making golden stripes across John’s hair as he takes another step closer. Sherlock finds himself dropping back a step for each step John takes nearer to him, leading them deeper into the shadows. “I just wondered whether, for instance, if there were two people on board this ship in need of some privacy—” Sherlock can’t keep the note of naked longing out of his voice. “If this might be a place where they could ah… meet, if they so desired.”

Sherlock’s back has come up against the nearby coil of rope. He halts, shoulders pressing hard into the cables at his back.

John leans in and places his hands on either side of Sherlock’s head to make a cage around him with his body. His face is lost in shadow but Sherlock can feel the steady warmth of his breath against his cheek.

“Just what are you suggesting, Mr. Holmes?”

“Nothing... nothing indecorous, to be sure. Nothing you wouldn’t approve—ah.”

John is so close now his lips are skimming Sherlock’s ear, his nose grazing Sherlock’s cheek, and Sherlock realizes with a sharp kick of desire in his belly that John is inhaling as he goes, that John is smelling him, and whimpers sharply.

“John—” He reaches out in desperation to grab hold of some part of John, and as if by instinct, his hands find John’s lean hips, palms settling against the bare strip of sun-warmed skin between John’s trousers and jacket.

All the breath leaves Sherlock’s lungs at the contact of that warm, soft skin against his palms, at the flex in John’s torso as he shifts forward, mouth sliding into Sherlock’s curls and breathing deeply. There is something possessive in the gesture, something fierce and desperate, as though John needs to claim Sherlock for his own.

One of John’s hands drops from where it was beside Sherlock’s head to take Sherlock by the hip and tug him forward, Sherlock’s boots sliding easily along the floorboards as his groin comes to settle against John’s leg.

Sherlock is already fully erect and he can’t help from thrusting his hips reflexively against the hard muscle of John’s thigh as it settles against him. Even that brief contact makes a long shudder move through him and Sherlock cries out, fingers digging in against John’s hips.

As though in response to the need in Sherlock’s cry, John’s mouth slides down to Sherlock’s neck and he kisses the skin behind Sherlock’s ear, softly, teasingly, so gently Sherlock cannot stand it, making Sherlock shiver harder, and cry out again.

It feels like he’s been aroused for hours, even though it’s only been an hour at most. Ever since he came upon John’s sleeping form on deck, the feeling has never fully gone away, and the smell of John now, the heat of him, so warm against Sherlock in the darkness is almost more than he can take.

John is wearing his jacket but has no shirt on underneath, and Sherlock cannot resist sliding his hands up the hard planes of John’s abdomen to find his nipples, already erect, and brush over them with his thumbs.

John’s gasp in the darkness is like a gift, his hair sliding soft against Sherlock’s cheek as he stiffens in response.

Instead of diminishing John’s brightness, the damp and mildewed darkness creates a backdrop against which John’s searing presence shines all the more brilliantly.

Chiaroscuro, Sherlock thinks, in a flash of delirious pleasure, picturing a painting in his father’s study—a girl, drenched in candlelight, the soft curve of her cheek so white against the darkness all around her.

John’s hair is still warm from the light of the sun, his torso glowing with heat, and Sherlock can smell the salt on him, the sharp smell of his sweat, and underneath that the smell that is distinctly John’s, that brings with it a host of memories, foremost of which is the memory of Sherlock’s face buried in the hair at the base of John’s cock before he took him in his mouth.

Sherlock gasps at the memory, as John’s nimble fingers reach up to yank the knot free in Sherlock’s neck cloth, pulling the fabric aside so that John’s mouth can continue downward, tongue gliding down the strained tendon standing out in Sherlock’s throat.

The fingers of his other hand card gently through the curls at the back of Sherlock’s neck, and Sherlock cries out at the delicate touch, thrusting with abandon against John’s thigh, desperate for friction, for some relief against the aching pressure in his cock.

To Sherlock’s profound relief, he feels the hand that was holding Sherlock by the hip slide forward to the front of Sherlock’s breeches.

Sherlock can feel John’s smile against his neck as his hand traces the length of Sherlock’s cock through the straining fabric. “My, my, what have we here?”

Sherlock can only whimper in response. He is suddenly immensely grateful for the presence of the massive stack of cables at his back, otherwise there would be nothing holding him up as his legs have long since lost their capacity to stand.

John’s callused palm is dragging far too lightly over Sherlock’s trapped erection—he needs more, he needs friction; he needs to feel the rough warmth of John’s fist around his naked flesh. He does not know what he will do if John doesn’t pull apart the fastenings on his trousers and take him in hand.

Sherlock is breathing so hard the sound of his panting is deafeningly loud between them in the dark.

He slides his hands up to grip John by the waist in entreaty, his voice pitifully desperate. “J—John, please—Please, I can’t—”

John’s hands come to rest over Sherlock’s own, and he moves his head to press his forehead in against Sherlock’s, kissing him gently on the side of the face. “I’m sorry, love. I’m being cruel. No more teasing.”

Sherlock nods feverishly against John’s forehead in agreement as he feels John’s fingers pulling with exaggerated deftness at the buttons on his trousers—one by one he slides them free, still too slowly for Sherlock’s liking, until Sherlock is shaking with anticipation, hands fisting in the lapels of John’s jacket, his breathing quick and shallow; and then before John’s hand can slide inside, he lifts his hands to Sherlock’s shoulders.

“Wait—before we do, come this way.”

Sherlock can scarcely process what John is saying to him but luckily, he doesn’t have to, as John tugs him gently by the shoulders, pulling him deeper into the shadows, guiding him until they’ve moved around to the back of the tower of cables, now tucked into the space between the cables and the hull.

The darkness here is absolute; Sherlock can’t see anything. Even the bright sheen of John’s hair is lost to the shadows and the dripping of the water running down the walls is louder here than ever. A scurrying just beyond the coil of rope alerts Sherlock to the fact that they are not entirely alone in the darkness.

“Just rats,” John says, as though in anticipation of Sherlock’s question. At the moment Sherlock couldn’t care less about their rodent companions—he wouldn’t care if there were a hundred rats down here with them in the dark, as long as John’s hands return to what they were doing.

John’s hands smooth down Sherlock’s arms and he leans in, his voice warm and meditative. How he can sounds so absolutely calm is beyond Sherlock. “It seems a shame to do this when I can’t undress you fully….” Even through the thin material of Sherlock’s shirt, John’s fingers raise goose bumps on his arms. “When I can’t even see you.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sherlock rasps out.

“It doesn’t seem right.” There is something sorrowful in John’s voice as he goes on speaking. “Me sticking my hand down your trousers in the filthy, rat-infested darkness. You deserve better than this.”

John.” Sherlock’s voice is strained. “I don’t care about any of that. I only care about you.”

There is something decidedly strange about having a body, being fully aware of it in every other sense, but unable to see it. However, Sherlock finds it only serves to amplify the experience of his other senses.

The small hitch in John’s breathing in response to Sherlock’s words takes on a new meaning—it’s as though Sherlock can feel the sound more than hear it; it makes him slide his hands up John’s shoulders and pull John close against him.

“Yes,” he says in the direction of John’s mouth. “Now come here and kiss me.”

Kissing in such profound darkness, Sherlock discovers, is equally erotic. Every soft press, every shift of John’s warm mouth seems magnified a hundred times its normal intensity; until Sherlock is shivering hard again, pressing his half-opened trousers shamefully in against John’s hip.

John licks at the seam of Sherlock’s lips before pulling back and sliding his hand down to pick up where he left off.

“One day…” he says, as his fingers unfasten the final button. “I’m going to have you in a proper bed, like you deserve. It will be enormous. Feather mattress, wooden-frame.” John’s mouth is warm against Sherlock’s temple as he slides his fingers in. “Pillows up to here.”

Sherlock drops his head back with a long low groan as the heat of John’s fingers curl around him.

John presses a kiss against his temple. “Just you wait.”

Sherlock is practically sobbing by the time John’s fingers start to move. He had great plans—he was going to touch John too, in so many places—push that jacket off his shoulders, put his mouth all over John’s chest, but all he can do is lean his head back against the cables, biting his lip hard to keep from making noise as John strokes him with the perfect tempo, his own breath hot and fast against Sherlock’s ear.

He’s so far gone that it’s only a minute—maybe two—before he feels the beginnings of his orgasm gathering tight at the base of his spine.

His hands are still clutched in the lapels of John’s jacket and he tugs at them now to get John’s attention, because he can barely speak.

“J-John…”

“What is it, love?”

John’s mouth is warm just above his.

“Will you… will you kiss me while you—?”

He doesn’t even need to finish asking; John warm, rough mouth has leaned in to capture his own, and at the feel of John’s tongue pressing in against his, Sherlock’s hips buck forward, and then he’s coming, hard, into John’s hand, crying out into John’s mouth as his orgasm takes hold.

He has to break his mouth away to gasp for air as he shudders his way through it, his body wracked with pleasure, John’s warm hands holding him upright.

“I’ve got you,” he says, pressing a kiss to Sherlock’s hair. “I’ve got you.”

Sherlock sags back against the cables, half-dragging John with him, his hands still limply clasped in the front of John’s jacket, his bones turned to liquid.

“All right?”

The warm murmur of John’s voice is like a light in the dark.

Sherlock nods against him, gasping.

“Feel better?”

Sherlock rubs his open mouth against John’s cheek, delighting in the burn of John’s stubble over his sensitive lips. He shivers at the sensation, wishes now that he could peel the rest of his sticky clothes off and rub the whole of his naked body over John.

“Oh yes, John,” he breathes.

In spite of the fact that he’s leaning half-dressed against a tower of cables in the dripping bowels of a ship, his shirt soaked through with sweat, cheeks flushed as though with fever, Sherlock has never felt better.

He feels as though his veins are full of sunlight.

John’s mouth is pressing kisses to the skin just below his ear; his voice, a warm rush of breath against Sherlock’s ear, is filled with regret. “I hate that I can’t see you.”

Sherlock lifts his chin to give John’s searching mouth more room to kiss.

“You’re always beautiful, but this may be my favorite look on you—the way you look just after I’ve taken you apart.”

There’s something dark, and yearning in John’s voice. It makes Sherlock shiver again, and pull John closer to him by the grip on his jacket, until John is slotted neatly in between Sherlock’s angled hips.

John takes the invitation and grinds slowly into Sherlock, until Sherlock can feel the long, rigid line of John’s cock through the thin linen of his trousers, pressing in against him.

Sherlock makes a soft noise of pleasure and parts his legs wider to invite John to do it again.

John’s mouth is hot against the skin of Sherlock’s throat—searching, as he rolls his hips against Sherlock.

Sherlock can feel the line of tension in John’s body as he struggles to keep his movements careful and controlled, but Sherlock doesn’t want that. He wants all of John—he wants John to let go completely.

“You don’t have to do that,” he pants. “You don’t have to hold back.” Sherlock’s mouth brushes John’s hairline, hands finally letting go of the front of John’s jacket to slide in against his bare chest, passing so lightly over his nipples. “You can—you can take me anyway you like.”

John bites back a moan, his hips grinding forward again, harder this time.

“Yes,” Sherlock breathes, rubbing his hands down John’s bare sides and then back up to brush his nipples again. “Yes, yes yes.”

“You shouldn’t say that to me.”

“Why not?” He bends his head to lick at the shell of John’s warm ear.

John must have been in the ocean today—he smells like brine, and the waves of his hair, pushed back from his forehead are stiff with salt. Sherlock drags his nose through it, inhaling deeply, as John’s open mouth slips down his throat.

Sherlock can feel John’s lips are trembling.

There’s a note of something almost like pain in John’s voice—something desperate, on the verge of breaking. “You don’t know what you’re asking for.”

A chill ripples through Sherlock at John’s words, makes a low pulse of arousal throb through the base of his cock. “What do you mean?”

“There are things I want to do to you, Sherlock… things… you won’t even believe.” Sherlock lets out a soft cry as John’s teeth graze Sherlock’s neck. “But you’re not—you’re not ready yet, Sherlock.”

“I am.” Sherlock slides his palms over John’s chest, fingers rubbing harder against John’s nipples, eliciting another low groan from deep within John’s throat as he thrusts. “I can take anything you can give me.”

“You can’t,” John pants, rutting hard against Sherlock with his hips. “You’re too—”

“Too what?” Sherlock demands in sudden anger. “Too young? Too inexperienced?”

John is grinding hard into Sherlock now, the steady rhythm of his thrusts already rousing Sherlock’s desire again. Sherlock can feel John shake his head against him, his mouth warm at the base of Sherlock’s throat. “It takes—preparation. It takes time—”

“I don’t care,” Sherlock breathes.

John is right. Sherlock doesn’t even know what he’s asking for, all he knows is that the smell of John is all around him in the dark, John’s mouth is hot against the thin skin of his throat, and Sherlock is already hard again. He wants all of John, whatever that means, every piece of himself he has to offer.

“John,” Sherlock pushes his hand down between their bodies, traces the length of John’s cock through his trousers, feels John shudder in response and then go utterly still. He pulls at the fastenings with fumbling, inexpert fingers; he has to use both hands to push the material down John’s hips. Sherlock puts his mouth to John’s ear, pitches his voice as velvet deep as it will go. “Just tell me what you want me to do. I’m yours.”

John lets out a hitching, desperate breath at Sherlock’s words, and then everything changes.

John shifts his hands, slides them down Sherlock’s back until he’s gripping Sherlock by his buttocks. He tugs Sherlock hard against him, making Sherlock stumble once before John pulls Sherlock’s leg around him, lifting first one, then the other, until John is holding Sherlock up just by the grip on his arse.

Sherlock gasps in shocked delight. John’s low voice is a growl at his throat. “Hold onto my waist.”

Sherlock does, and is shocked to feel how easily John bears his weight.

He can feel the searing heat of John’s very erect cock pressing hard into his own.

And then he’s thrusting forward into Sherlock, rubbing the naked heat of his cock against Sherlock’s body, harder than he ever has, so hard Sherlock can feel the scratch of the bristled cables against his back as John rocks into him.

He drags his teeth down Sherlock’s neck and then Sherlock gasps again, this time in pain as John’s teeth sink into the skin underneath his ear.

John is biting him—John is biting at his neck.

The realization makes something low and hot burst open in Sherlock’s belly.

He clasps his hands tighter around John’s waist, his gasp of pain transforming into a moan of pleasure as John licks and sucks at the freshly bruised skin. The sweet sensation of John’s warm wet mouth against his skin is shot through with little stars of pain, making the pleasure of it all the more intense.

Sherlock has never felt anything like it—he wants John to do it again, but he can’t find the breath to speak.

John’s fingers are hard on Sherlock’s thighs, the muscles in his biceps straining from the effort of holding him up as he thrusts. Sherlock lets go of John’s waist to slide his hands over the bulge of John’s upper arms, wishing desperately that he’d had the foresight to pull John’s jacket off as soon as they started.

Never has Sherlock been more aware of the raw power in John’s compact form, of the sheer force of his strength as he holds Sherlock up and pistons into him with his hips. He rubs his mouth against John’s bent head, tasting sweat, as each thrust of John’s hips forces Sherlock’s shoulders back against the scratch of the cables. The pain feels good. Sherlock grips onto John harder with his thighs, fingers slipping in the sweat on John’s neck.

The friction of their cocks rubbing together is messy, rough, imprecise—it feels so good. Sherlock is in awe of the feeling of John so unrestrained against him, but for the first time he finds himself wishing for a way that he and John could somehow get closer together; Sherlock finds himself wanting still more.

He locks his ankles around John’s lower back with a low whine, pushing his body harder into John’s. As if in response John bites down again on Sherlock’s neck, making Sherlock cry out in sharp surprise, which seems to incite John to do it again, and again, sucking and biting and licking until Sherlock is looping his arms around John’s neck, arching his back to press his body closer, baring his throat to John’s greedy mouth with a ragged moan.

“Say it again,” John gasps, his mouth skidding back up Sherlock’s throat to find his swollen lips. He kisses Sherlock, searchingly, something dark and commanding in the thrust of his tongue into Sherlock’s mouth. He bites at the corner of Sherlock’s lips and Sherlock groans, surprising himself. “Say it again.”

Sherlock is so overcome he can’t think what John is asking him. “W-what?”

“Tell me you’re mine.”

“I’m—I’m yours,” Sherlock says and he feels John shake against him, fingers clenching hard into Sherlock’s arse as he gives one last thrust and then comes, his face buried hot in Sherlock’s shoulder, Sherlock’s arms clasped round his neck.

At the feel of John’s cock pulsing against his own, Sherlock rocks one final time into John’s warm torso. His whole body tightens—he can feel his toes curling in his boots, shoulder blades flexing against the rope at his back, and then he’s coming too, his head thrown back, a long low cry pulled from his throat.

Sherlock didn’t know it was possible for him to come more than once in such a short space of time but it seems John Watson causes all kinds of inexplicable reactions in his body; the fact that his second orgasm is even more intense than the first is yet another surprise. It seems to last forever, the pleasure spiraling on and on, as he shudders and jerks in the circle of John’s arms, John’s lips still warm at his throat.

When Sherlock’s body finally calms, he’s aware that his legs have slid out of John’s grasp. John is leaning weakly against him, breath still coming hard, one hand braced protectively above Sherlock’s head. If it weren’t for the press of John’s body against him, holding him up, Sherlock is fairly certain he would be sitting on the floor.

They are both shivering, soaked in sweat.

“I’m sorry,” John gasps. “That was—”

Sherlock curls his fingers at the nape of John’s neck, pulling him close. He kisses him, hard, stopping the apology on John’s lips. When he pulls back again they are both breathless.

“Don’t you dare apologize,” Sherlock whispers, his voice simultaneously fierce and full of awe. “That was…” There are no words that can even begin to convey what that was. He struggles for a moment in frustrated silence. “It was indescribable.”

Sherlock’s bones feel like putty. There is a lovely twinge radiating from the skin on his neck. Sherlock puts a hand up to feel at the bruised flesh, curious.

“God, Sherlock—” Sherlock can’t see John’s expression in the dark but he can hear the plaintive note in his voice, the hint of something that sounds almost like shame. “That wasn’t—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, I didn’t mean to let myself go like that—I never meant—”

Sherlock lifts his fingers to John’s lips in the darkness. “Shh.”

From far off, they can hear the distant sound of the bell.

“Bloody hell. I’ve got to get up above.”

John steps away from Sherlock to fasten up his trousers.

Sherlock reaches down to do the same, but it takes him twice as long as John. His fingers are slow and unresponsive; all the blood apparently has yet to return from other parts of his body.

He feels dizzy from the darkness and the heat, and the fact that he just came twice in the space of half an hour. When he moves to take a step toward John, Sherlock finds his legs are also not working properly yet, and he stumbles.

John is there to catch him though, his hand fastening around Sherlock’s upper arm. “Woah, woah. Easy there.”

Sherlock holds tight to John’s arm. He’s embarrassed to find his head is reeling.

“Come this way.” John’s voice is gentle as he guides Sherlock toward the pool of light at the base of the ladder where they came down.

“I’ve got to get up top,” he says with a trace of sorrow in his voice.

His face is lost in shadow but Sherlock can see the outlines of everything he isn’t saying in the downturned corners of his mouth.

“I know.”

Sherlock lifts his chin bravely, to show John that it’s alright—he’ll be all right even if John has to go back to work, but the gesture makes a flash of worry flicker through John’s eyes.

He places his hands on Sherlock’s shoulders and pushes him a step backward until Sherlock’s face is bathed in the light from the hatchway up above. Sherlock blinks in the sudden brightness.

John sucks in a sharp breath.

“Jesus, Sherlock.”

He lifts his hands to Sherlock’s jaw, tilting his head back to inspect the bruised skin on his neck.

“I’m sorry.” John’s voice is somber, full of disapproval. “I never meant to be this rough.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.” Sherlock licks his lips. He lifts his chin again, and is careful to meet John’s gaze. “I liked it.”

John’s eyes on his are searching. “You did?”

“I did,” Sherlock says sincerely. “I like the thought of you…” Sherlock halts, feeling suddenly self-conscious. He licks his lips again. “The thought of you leaving marks on my skin.”

Something dark and complicated flashes through John’s eyes.

Far above them, the bell has stopped ringing.

John’s fingers are still warm on his jaw. Sherlock lifts his hand to capture John’s fingers in his own. “You should go.”

The uncertainty is plain on John’s face. “I—”

Sherlock squeezes John’s fingers. “Go.”

“Alright, but first, let me…”

John does up the buttons at Sherlock’s throat, retying the cloth around Sherlock’s neck with gentle fingers, and settling it back into place.

He leaves his hands on Sherlock’s shoulders. Even through the dim light, Sherlock can see his blue eyes swimming with concern. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

Sherlock pulls John’s fingers to his mouth and kisses the tips. “Never been better.”

Something in John’s expression shifts at the gesture and then John’s warm palms are sliding down the front of Sherlock’s chest, the quirk of his mouth suddenly playful. “You know… you could come with me if you like.”

Sherlock’s chest expands with hope. “I… could I?”

“I don’t see why not. We’re just painting the deck.” John’s hands continue sliding down Sherlock’s chest, pausing to tug his waistcoat back into place. He leaves his hands on Sherlock’s flanks, eyes flickering back up to Sherlock’s with mischief. “Ever seen a team of sailors painting bulwarks before?”

Sherlock shakes his head.

“It’s quite…” John’s thumbs stroke Sherlock’s sides. “Stimulating.”

Sherlock just came twice in less than half an hour—how, how can John’s low voice, the presence of John’s hands above his hips succeed in flooding him with arousal already again?

“I- I admit I’ve never had the pleasure.”

In the distance, Sherlock can hear someone calling John’s name.

“Well, don’t take my word for it,” John says, sliding his hands reluctantly off Sherlock’s hips before turning with a wink to head up the stairs. “Come and see for yourself.”

Chapter Text

When John and Sherlock emerge back on deck, the late afternoon sun is blazing low and hot in the sky, basking everything in honey-colored light.

The blast of heat that greets them as they step from the shadows is so intense it takes Sherlock’s breath away. The sun has apparently only gathered in strength throughout the afternoon. The closer it gets to the horizon, the hotter it seems to grow. The air feels still and heavy, weighted, shimmering.

The other sailors are assembled in the waist by the starboard rail, some of them already hard at work scraping the last of the old paint off the railing, others gathering brushes, and filling bucket after wooden bucket with paint. Many of them have stripped off their shirts and jackets. They are barefoot, clad only in their linen trousers, their brown torsos gleaming in the golden light as they pass the buckets down the line.

John goes forward to join them but Sherlock hangs back, lingering by the main mast where he can remain partially hidden from view. Even though John’s mess is clearly well aware of the fact that John and Sherlock just vanished for half an hour in the depths of the ship, Sherlock suspects it’s better if he waits before rejoining John—best not to provide them with the opportunity for any immediate associations.

Despite the heat, the sailors appear to be in a jovial mood. They are talking and laughing as they fill the buckets with paint. Sherlock watches MacTavish thump John hard between the shoulder blades as he comes up to take a bucket, sees John grin in response and then say something that makes the larger man throw his head back and howl with laughter.

Sherlock sinks a little deeper behind the stout wooden mast, feeling slightly overwhelmed at the prospect of being immersed in the crowd of laughing, shouting sailors, even if he does know them better by now, even if some of them may genuinely even like him thanks in part to his fiddle playing, but largely due to John’s persistent endorsement of him.

If they like him at all, it’s because John likes him, and they all love John.

It occurs to Sherlock all of a sudden to wonder just how much the sailors know about the particular nature of his relationship with John. He thinks back on the glimmer in Burns’ eyes when he and John encountered the other sailors below deck; remembers his meeting with Ironsides Jake the day after the party, the way the grinning sailor had winked at him, the knowing implication behind his question.

Reflecting on all these knowing looks and glances, it would seem that some of the sailors may be well aware of just how much John likes Sherlock; but at least for Burns and Ironsides, it appears that this knowledge has in no way affected either man’s opinion of Sherlock or John, a fact for which Sherlock is immensely grateful.

Even so, Sherlock cannot stop the tide of embarrassment that steals over him at the thought of anyone knowing what he and John get up into the privacy of his cabin—in the darkness of the secret corners of the ship. Better that that knowledge remains hidden and kept well out of everyone’s thoughts. Sherlock feels his face grow warm, and reaches up to tug his neck cloth more snugly into place, hoping it will hide the worst of the vivid bruises John has left like a necklace around his throat.

In spite of his fear over the marks being seen, knowing they are there fills Sherlock with a lovely shivery feeling of pleasure. Recalling what John said to him just before he came, Sherlock traces his fingers over the wounded skin. Tell me you’re mine, John said. Sherlock had never seen this streak of possessive fury in John before. Just the thought of it makes his mouth go dry, makes desire spark through Sherlock like lightning in a heat storm.

Sherlock is pulled from his reverie by the sound of singing. He recognizes the voice of the old sailor who led the first song at the party below decks, the one who has a remarkably sonorous voice in spite of his age.

Leaning around the mast to get a better look, Sherlock sees the old man singing as he paints. Even he has stripped off his shirt in the force of the sun’s rays and Sherlock is surprised to see an intricate tattoo of a rooster, the vibrancy of the ink long since faded, on his wrinkled back.

As Sherlock looks down the line at the bared bodies of the working men, he sees more tattoos than he has ever had occasion to see before, and he’s fascinated by the sheer number of them, and the variety of the images and texts. Some of the meanings are self-evident—such as the dates and initials of important people, like those Sherlock noticed on Old Leroy’s arm—but others are strange to Sherlock. He sees birds and sea-monsters, anchors, ships, and fish, symbols that he knows are full of significance for those who bear them but whose messages remain obscure to him.

There is so much meaning in the life of a sailor that Sherlock doesn’t understand.

Sherlock listens to the words of the old sailor singing, and feels all the more perplexed.

“Help me Bob, I’m Bully in the Alley.”

“Wey hey, Bully in the Alley.”

“Now Sally’s a girl in Shin Bone Alley.”

“Bully down in Shinbone Al.”

The song follows a similar call and response pattern to the ones the sailors sang at the party—the old man sings a line and the other men sing the refrain, everyone joining in together on the chorus.

From what Sherlock can tell the lyrics of the song are part nonsense, part utter filth.

“I waltzed up to the Angel Inn, oh.”

“Wey hey, Bully in the Alley.”

“Kicked down the door and walked right in, oh!”

“Bully down in Shinbone Al.”

“I walked up to the barrel counter.”

“Wey hey, Bully in the Alley.”

“There I met with Greasy Annie.”

“Bully down in Shinbone Al.”

“Greasy Annie’s a slimy whore, oh!”

“Wey hey, Bully in the Alley.”

“Every shellback’s knocked on her door, oh!”

“Bully down in Shinbone Al.”

Sherlock sneaks another look around the main mast. He sees with a fluttering feeling in his chest that John has stripped off his jacket as well, and is kneeling next to a waterway, daubing it with paint. Sherlock can hear John’s voice in the midst of all the others as he sings.

“I bought her rum, and I bought her gin, oh.”

“Wey hey, Bully in the Alley.”

“Bought her wine, both white and red, oh!”

“Bully down in Shinbone Al.”

Sherlock watches John as he works, his eyes attentive to the muscles in John’s back that shift with every stroke of his arm, savoring the opportunity once again to see John’s body in the full light of the afternoon sun, rather than the weak glow from the lantern over Sherlock’s bed. He admires the dimples in John’s lower back, the way the curve of his spine picks up the gleam of the sun, and once again regrets that their time together in the cable tiers was so rushed and frantic. He didn’t have the chance he wanted to really appreciate John’s body under his hands.

“Went and spent up all my tin, oh.”

“Wey hey, Bully in the Alley.”

“Up to bed we then did creep, oh!”

“Bully down in Shinbone Al.”

“We up and tumbled all night long, oh!”

“Wey hey, Bully in the Alley.”

“Dawn did break and the cock did crow, oh!”

“Bully down in Shinbone Al.”

As Sherlock listens to the crude lyrics, he can hear John’s voice distinctly among the others. Something about John’s warm tenor singing those words makes heat creep into his cheeks.

Even though the words are crass, they make Sherlock think of him and John together in his narrow bunk, John’s hands holding him down against the bed, the taste of wine in his mouth as he pushed his tongue between Sherlock’s lips.

John looks up at just that instant and spots Sherlock beside the mast. Catching Sherlock’s eye, he grins, and Sherlock swears by the look in John’s eyes that he knows exactly what Sherlock is thinking.

Sherlock’s blush accordingly, deepens.

“Oye! Laddie!”

Sherlock is startled out of his thoughts by the sound of a loud voice at his elbow. He looks up to see Burns, eying him sternly, the top of his bald head shining in the sunlight.

“If you’re just gonna stand around and watch, then we might as well put you to work.”

Burns thrusts a paintbrush into Sherlock’s hand.

Sherlock looks down at it in shock, realizing too late that he was so caught up in watching John that he neglected to hide himself sufficiently from view. “But I—”

“It’s a simple enough task. If you’re as clever as Johnny says then you should have no trouble. Go on then.”

Burns gives him a little push between the shoulder blades and then Sherlock is stumbling toward the starboard railing, cheeks still blazing with embarrassment.

There is an empty space at the end of the line, next to an enormous sailor with a full beard and lines of chain tattooed around his sizeable middle. He says nothing as Sherlock kneels beside him.

Sherlock eyes the paint bucket and the length of peeling rail before him with something close to terror, but when he turns to dip his brush in the bucket between them, the other man gives Sherlock a silent nod.

Sherlock interprets this as a sign that he too might share the bucket of paint, and he tentatively reaches over to wet his brush.

Just as he’s holding his dripping brush in mid-air, considering how many wrong ways there might be to paint a bulwark, Sherlock hears Burns speaking to someone behind him.

“Found your young man standing over by the mast, Johnny. Thought I might as well put him to work.”

“Good!” Sherlock can hear the sunny approval in John’s voice behind him without even turning to look. “That’s good.”

He pictures John grinning down at him, standing, sun-bronzed and smiling, with his hands on his hips. He feels too self-conscious to turn around and look.

And then to Sherlock’s immense relief, he hears John say: “He might need a bit of a tutorial though. Shall I just…?”

“By all means, Johnny my boy. By all means.”

John drops into a crouch beside Sherlock.

“Hello there, lovely.”

“John,” Sherlock hisses in a panic. “Burns told me to—”

“It’s fine,” John says, and his voice is as warm and reassuring as ever. “Watch, I’ll show you what to do.”

Sherlock looks over at John and even though it’s only been minutes since they parted from one another at the bottom of the stairs, Sherlock feels relief sweep over him at the sight of John’s soft blue eyes looking into his.

In the bright light of the setting sun, his eyes are a more vivid blue than Sherlock has ever seen. They look like crystal.

“Just do what I do.”

John takes his own brush and dips it into the bucket of paint. “You want to start at the top and work your way down—that way you can paint over any drips. You want to do nice, broad, even strokes—like this.”

Sherlock watches John intently for several seconds, and then raises his own dripping brush to the bulwark, copying John’s movements.

John sits back to watch him, and it takes all of Sherlock’s concentration not to turn and simply look at John sitting on his haunches, the casual elegance of his strong body in repose—one arm resting on the top of his thigh, the muscles in his upper arm so prominent even when relaxed.

But it helps to know John’s eyes are on him as he works; it intensifies Sherlock’s need to follow John’s directions all the more precisely. It’s almost as if he can feel the steady presence of John’s eyes on his hand as he moves the brush.

“Good! That’s really good.”

Sherlock can feel himself beaming in the wake of John’s praise. Even if it’s a silly thing for John to commend him for, Sherlock can’t help basking in its presence. John’s approval means everything to him—even over Sherlock’s first paltry efforts at physical labor.

“The tricky part is doing the details round the top—you’ll want to make sure you don’t do too thick a coat, otherwise you’ll clog up the gaps. See here?”

Sherlock leans in to study what John is pointing to.

“It’s difficult to get your brush in between the slats, so make sure you wipe off carefully before doing the first coat.”

Sherlock nods, his concentration sharpening in light of the precise and difficult nature of the task.

He dips his brush again, and concentrates on copying John’s strokes exactly.

It doesn’t take long for Sherlock to lose himself completely in the task at hand. He is concentrating so hard on getting it right that the rest of the world recedes to a pleasant blur behind him. He can hear the voices of the men around him as they begin another song, John’s voice clearer than all the others, steady and rich at his side.

He’s working so hard and so intently that he doesn’t realize how hot he has gotten until he feels John’s hand on his shoulder.

“Sherlock.” John’s voice is gentle.

Sherlock glances up; distracted, wiping a trickle of sweat off his cheek with the hand still holding the paintbrush.

“Take your jacket off, love. You’re too hot.”

At John’s words, Sherlock suddenly realizes that the material on his back is soaked through with sweat. It suddenly occurs to him how ridiculous he must look, fully outfitted in jacket and waistcoat in the midst of all the bare-chested sailors. He shrugs out of his jacket, rolls his sleeves up to his elbows, and tugs his neck cloth loose. The relief he feels is immediate. He never realized painting could be so much work.

Remarkably, Sherlock has managed to keep up to speed with the other sailors. He’s just finishing the section in front of him, when there’s a shout from the man at the end of line, and all the sailors cross over to the portside rail to continue working.

The sun has stained the entire sky a deep orange; the ocean beneath is awash in reflected light. The whole horizon looks as though it’s on fire.

As Sherlock crosses the deck, he feels another hand on his arm and looking over he recognizes one of the sailors from the card game earlier, Half Pint Lee, smiling at him with apparent good humor. Sherlock has never noticed before that the man is missing almost all of his teeth.

“Good to have you workin’ with us, Mr. Holmes. There’s nothing beats this tropical heat like a little heavy labor I always say.”

The other man laughs at his own joke, and Sherlock nods in acknowledgment, without knowing what to say.

Luckily, he moves off to refill his bucket before Sherlock has to think of a response.

He crouches down beside John, unfastening the first few buttons on his waistcoat before he returns to work. He catches John looking over at him.

“What?”

John just shakes his head; there’s a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “I never thought I’d see the day. Sherlock Holmes, helping me to paint the decks.”

Sherlock hesitates. “I can stop if it makes you… uncomfortable.”

John’s look sobers suddenly, the line of his mouth going soft. “Why would it make me uncomfortable?”

Sherlock has to look away.

If John goes on looking at him like that then Sherlock will be compelled to kiss him.

“You have paint on your face.”

John reaches over to rub at his cheek and it takes every ounce of Sherlock’s self control to hold himself still, not to turn and push his face into John’s hand like an affectionate kitten.

“You’ve got some on your waistcoat too.” There is dismay in John’s voice, and glancing down, Sherlock sees he’s right.

“It’s fine. It’s just a waistcoat.”

Sherlock turns to wet his brush but something in John’s silence prompts him to look up again. John’s expression is complicated—part awe, part distress—and in that moment Sherlock remembers all over again how different are the worlds that he and John come from.

He looks down at John’s threadbare trousers, sees for the first time the seams that are evidence of where they’ve been mended over and over. He looks at John’s jacket, where it’s folded neatly at his feet, sees where the collar is ringed with salt stains and sweat, the material thin at the elbows, and remembers suddenly with what reverence John folded his scarf and waistcoat the night of the party, how he tried to set them so carefully on Sherlock’s desk, and something hot and painful fills Sherlock’s chest that feels an awful lot like shame.

Sherlock wants to say something to make up for it, to convey to John that if he could, he would give John every worthless costly item in his parent’s vast estate. He thinks of all the fine furniture, the paintings, the porcelain, the silver, his mother’s jewels—how all of it means nothing to him. He wouldn’t bat an eyelash if all of it was taken away; they’re just objects, after all. But suddenly he wonders about the home John grew up in. John said his father was a farmer; if John had worked so hard to become a surgeon, there couldn’t have been much profit in his father’s land. How big was the house he grew up in? Was it drafty in the winters? John had siblings—did they have to share a bed? Did they ever go hungry?

Sherlock thinks back on John’s modest berth under the forecastle, the one canvas bag that contains all of his worldly possessions tucked away under his hammock. How much does John make working on a merchant ship? More than he did when he was in the navy, of that much Sherlock is certain, but it can’t be much.

Sherlock never thinks about money, never thinks about the cost of things, because he’s never had to. But all of a sudden, he finds himself wishing he could help in some way to alleviate John’s extreme poverty. He would give John every item from his parent’s fortune in a heartbeat, if he needed it; every penny of his inheritance, if it would help him.

But as usual, Sherlock doesn’t know how to put any of this into words.

John has returned to painting, unaware of the earth-shattering nature of Sherlock’s realization, and as Sherlock struggles to think what to say, his thoughts are interrupted by the presence of another sailor settling himself beside Sherlock with his bucket.

Sherlock recognizes at once the sinewy, scarred face of Ironsides Jake. He leans over to take Sherlock’s hand and shake it vigorously in greeting.

“Good Evening, Mr. ‘olmes, sir. What a pleasure it is to see you out on such a fine evening, if you don’t mind my saying so. And by Jove, what an evening! What an evening indeed, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. ‘olmes?”

“Please,” Sherlock says as he struggles to reclaim his fingers. “Call me Sherlock.”

“Is this your first time painting a bulwark, Mr. ‘olmes, sir?”

Sherlock nods; he sees John smiling beside him out of the corner of his eye.

“And what a lovely job, you’re doing if I do say so myself. Very nice even strokes you’re doin’ there. Very fine work it is. If you’ve been learnin’ from our Johnny here then you’re learnin’ from the very best. Why, if it weren’t for our John half the crew wouldn’t know stem from stern. I’ll warrant he’s taught most of us a thing or two about most things, even if he was a bit of a greenhorn when he—”

“Oye, Ironsides!” The red-bearded MacTavish leans forward to call down the line. “Put a cork in it! You’ll talk the boy’s ear off.”

“Let’s have another song!” Someone calls.

This time it’s Stapleton who starts singing. His booming baritone reverberates out over the golden water. “All for me grog, me jolly jolly grog!”

“All for me beer and tobacco!”

“For we spent all our tin with the lasses drinkin’ gin.”

“And across the Western ocean we must wander.”

Matthews takes over singing the verse. “Where are me boots? Me noggin, noggin boots. All gone for beer and tobacco! And the heels they are worn out, and the soles are knocked about, and me toes are lookin’ out for better weather!”

“Oh! Well for me grog, me jolly, jolly grog!”

“All for me beer and tobacco!”

Sherlock looks over to see John is smiling as he sings, his head thrown back, his lovely cheeks so prominent as he opens his mouth on the ‘O’, and Sherlock has never felt so in love with John as he does in this moment.

It’s not just the way his blue eyes crinkle at the corners, the way the light of the setting sun catches gold in his hair, the way joy seems to pour out of him as clearly as the music—it’s the fact that he’s looking over at Sherlock as he sings, sharing this with Sherlock, this moment, this joy he has for the world in spite of everything he’s gone through.

Sherlock has never felt like a part of anything before. He’s always been the strange one, the outsider—he’s never been involved in anything larger than himself, but as the sound of the sailors’ voices swell around him, the smell of wet paint filling his nose as the sun turns everything around them to gold, Sherlock feels for the first time like he understands what it is to be part of a group and not be hated.

It isn’t an altogether terrible feeling.

He goes on painting in silence, letting the rhythmic motion of the brush, and the sound of the singing on all sides, soothe him into something almost like contentment.

The only dent in Sherlock’s pleasure comes from the knowledge that two men down the line, on the other side of Ironsides Jake, looms the dark and unsettling presence of the scowling sailor with the bruise on his face, the one Sherlock is certain felt the effects of John’s fists the other night after talking about Sherlock.

It isn’t that the man has done or said anything to raise Sherlock’s alarm, but there’s something in his presence that rankles Sherlock, like an itch under his skin, something about his mood that acts as a counter to the general good humor of the group of working men.

Sherlock can feel it, like a shadow on the sunny deck, and as the minutes go by he can feel it growing worse.

As the song comes to a close, Sherlock leans over to John, eager to distract himself from the brooding sailor’s presence. “John. That last song—the one you sang before—what does it mean—‘bully in the alley’?”

“Oh, ‘bully’ means drunk. It’s about a sailor who drinks away his pay. Well, drinks and whores away his pay, I should say.” John grins at him. “You’ll find most songs revolve around those two topics.”

Sherlock doesn’t like the way Stevens is watching their conversation from down the line. He can feel the other man’s eyes on him, like a brand on the back of Sherlock’s neck.

“John,” Sherlock begins in an undertone, even though he knows now is not the time to bring it up. “What did—”

“OYE! Johnny! Give us a song!”

A cheer of approval goes up in response to this suggestion.

“How about The Derby Ram?”

“No, no—Whiskey Johnny!”

“Aw, John, sing us a love song!” A young sailor named Talbot calls out. “You’re really best at love songs.”

Patterson cuffs Talbot on the shoulder with a good-natured admonishment. “John is good at every song.”

“Well, if it’s a love song, then let it at least be a dirty one!” yells MacTavish.

John sits back on his haunches, smiling, and the glitter in his eyes makes a chill run down Sherlock’s spine. “I think I may have just the one.”

A ripple of excitement runs down the line in response to this.

“Alright lads—quiet down, quiet down! Let him sing.”

There is some appreciative nudging and tittering as the song begins, which makes Sherlock think it must be a song John has sung before.

Sherlock, of course, has never heard it.

The melody is lilting and complex; somehow both playful and melancholy at once. John continues to paint while he sings, and although the other sailors also continue to work, there is a new quality of intensity to their silence as they listen.

As a sailor was walking one fine summer day,
The squire and the lady were making their way.
And Jack he heard the squire say,
“Tonight with you, love, I mean to lay
With me do me ama, dee me ama, do me ama day.”

“You must tie a string all around your finger,
With the other end of the string hanging out the window,
And I'll slip by and I’ll pull the string,
And you must come down, love, and let me in
With me do me ama, dee me ama, do me ama day.”

Says Jack to himself, “I've a mind to try,
To see if a poor sailor he can't win that prize.”
So he slipped by and he pulled the string
And the lady come down and she let old Jack in
With that do me ama, dee me ama, do me ama day.

Sherlock knows why the sailors love John’s singing best of all. It isn’t just that his voice is lovely and clear—resonant and full and always perfectly on pitch; he has a way of conveying each emotional shift in the song purely through his voice, of coloring the notes with the mood of each moment, making the characters’ feelings come to vivid life.

The smile in John’s voice as he sings ‘and she let old Jack in’ is unmistakable. It makes desire squirm hot and bright in Sherlock’s belly.

Well the squire came by, he was humming a song,
Thinking to himself how it wouldn't be long.
But when he got there no string he found.
Behold, his hopes was all dashed to the ground
With that do me ama, dee me ama, do me ama day.

Early next morning, it was just getting light,
The lady jumped up in bed in a terrible fright.
For there lay Jack in his stripey shirt,
His hands all covered with tar and dirt
And that do me ama, dee me ama, do me ama day.

“Oh what do you want, you tarry sailor,
Breaking in a lady's bedroom to steal her treasure?”
“Oh no,” says old Jack, “I just pulled that string
And you did come down, love, and let me in
With me do me ama, dee me ama, do me ama day.”

John’s voice as it carries the notes out high over the shimmering water seems to fill Sherlock’s chest with warmth.

Even though the words are potentially comical, there is something deeply sincere in the cadence of John’s voice, in the way his mouth curls sorrowfully around the notes. Hearing John sing the word ‘love,’ that endearment that he uses so often with Sherlock makes Sherlock feel like the song carries a secret meaning just for him.

Once again, the nature of the song reminds Sherlock all too keenly of everything that has transpired between himself and John, and he feels his cheeks growing flushed with heat.

For once, Sherlock is grateful for the presence of the sweltering sun—if anyone asks, he can simply tell them his cheeks are flushed because of the heat.

Says Jack to the Lady, “Oh, forgive me I pray,
I'll steal away very quiet at the dawn of the day.”
“Oh no,” says the lady, “don't stray too far
For I never would part from me jolly Jack Tar
And that do me ama, dee me ama, do me ama day.”

The sailors give a triumphant cheer at the end of the song. Half Pint Lee, who’s sitting on the other side of John, leans in and pounds John on the arm in gratitude.

Somebody passes his flask down the line to offer John a congratulatory swig.

John takes it laughing, and after taking a long drink, lifts the flask high in the air to the sound of more cheers.

“You know why he sings it so well, boys?” Matthews hollers as John passes the flask back. “It’s because he’s singin’ from first-hand experience!”

A loud chorus of laughter greets this remark.

“Tha’s right! Judging by the frequency of his amorous encounters, our John’s got quite the ‘do me ama’.”

Sherlock almost drops his paintbrush.

“Oye!” John calls, cuffing Matthews on the shoulder; but he’s laughing as he says it.

Sherlock was so caught up in John’s singing that he only now realizes he’s been painting the same strip of railing for the last three minutes.

He hurries to re-wet his paintbrush, hoping that nobody noticed the obvious longing in his stare or the blaze of heat on his face in the wake of their teasing. He re-focuses on the task at hand, giving all his attention to the smooth application of the paint on the wood before his eyes, willing his thoughts away from John and the twin grooves of his hips, the lean muscles in his thighs, and all that lies underneath the worn hem of those linen trousers.

Sherlock tries to think about cool, clean things—dull things, like the paint going onto the wood, the slight ache in his wrist, but somehow even the rhythm of his paintbrush brings to mind the rhythm of a very different activity, and John’s voice in his ear, urging him on with warm approval, prompting him to stroke faster…

Sherlock is concentrating so hard on not thinking about John’s voice in his ear, John’s warm palms at his hips, that he almost misses the question from Ironsides Jake at his side.

“Oooh, laddie, what happened to your neck there?”

Sherlock freezes mid-paint stroke.

He forgot. Like an idiot, he forgot to keep his neck cloth on; he removed it when he got too hot. Now the evidence of John’s love bites are in full, glaring effect on the pale skin of his throat, laid out for everyone to see.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Ironsides Jake is looking at him with friendly curiosity, and when Sherlock doesn’t answer, he leans in amiably and says in a carrying whisper. “I reckon our Johnny has something to do with it, doesn’t he?”

Sherlock clenches his fingers hard around the handle of the brush. He looks over at John in fear, his face on fire.

The expression on John’s face is a mixture of amusement and exasperation, but before he has a chance to answer, a sneering voice interrupts him.

“Oh you bet Watson has something to do with it.”

Sherlock turns at the sound of the voice, and sees Stevens standing just a few paces away, an empty paint bucket in his hand, presumably on his way to refill it. His scowling face is badly sunburned.

In one fluid motion, John rises to his feet and turns to face him.

Stevens sets the empty bucket at his feet as he goes on talking. “You only have to take one look at him to know that Watson’s been all over him. But then who can blame him? Judging by the look of this one, he’s an easy one to bed. Mouth like that—Even I couldn’t refuse.” Sherlock can feel Stevens' eyes on him as he says the words and his skin prickles with revulsion. “I warrant it wouldn’t take more than one soft look to get him to spread his legs.”

John has gone utterly, terrifyingly still.

Within an instant his whole demeanor has changed, has gone from the casual stance of a man who’s sharing a joke with his friends to that of a soldier alerted to the presence of enemy fire. His muscles are tensed, poised for action, fingers flexing at his sides.

Even in the midst of his panic, Sherlock cannot help but marvel at the presence John commands, how much he can communicate without saying a word, the way danger seems to siphon off of him like heat from an open flame.

The fuse has been lit; it is only a matter of seconds before the explosion follows.

Everyone on the deck can feel it; every head has turned to watch, the men frozen at their work like clockwork figures not yet brought to life.

When John speaks, his voice is cool as ice. “Say that again, Stevens.”

“I said—”

“What’s going on here?”

If Sherlock was certain the situation could not possibly get worse, he realizes now with dawning horror, just how unmistakably wrong he was. Anderson has appeared at the heart of the crowd of sailors, his smug face fixed with a pompous and self-important expression.

“Why aren’t you all working?”

Matthews speaks up from the back of the crowd. “Stevens was causing trouble, sir!”

“Stevens, was it?” Anderson’s dark eyes flicker from the broad shouldered man whose arms are crossed in front of his chest to John, standing opposite, to Sherlock still crouching by the bulwark. His gaze travels pointedly over Sherlock’s paint-spattered waistcoat and forearms, and then to John’s rigid stance. “It looks to me like the trouble is stemming from the fact that Mr. Holmes here seems to be fraternizing with the crew.”

Sherlock, whose own rage was lying dormant in the presence of the menacing Stevens, feels all of his fury engulf him like a sudden storm at sea. How dare Anderson come and meddle in a situation that has nothing to do with him?

Sherlock rises to his feet and steps up to Anderson, lifting his chin as he does so, summoning every ounce of his own aristocratic imperiousness to combat Anderson’s ridiculous attempt to assert his control. “You can’t tell me what to do. You have no authority over me.”

Anderson smiles and Sherlock doesn’t like one thing about that smile; it makes Anderson’s confidence look unperturbed, makes his eyes glimmer coldly with pleasure. “Oh no? That may be, but it just so happens that I do have authority over Mr. Watson here, as I have been put in command of his entire mess.

John opens his mouth to protest but before he can speak Anderson has whirled around to face him. “I would advise that you think very carefully about your choice of words before speaking to me, sailor. I am now your direct superior.”

John says nothing but the look in his eyes is enough to melt the stanchions on the side of the ship.

Sherlock can see his chest heaving from where he stands.

Burns’ voice cuts through the tension. “Begging your pardon sir, but Lieutenant Moore is our superior officer, as far as we understood.”

“Well, there’s been a change,” snaps Anderson. “I’ve just had a conversation with the Captain, and he has put me in charge of your mess. Any complaints you might have about this decision may be given directly to the Captain.”

Anderson smiles cruelly, well aware that none of them will dare.

“The first new order of business is that your mess is on the night watch. After you’ve finished painting these bulwarks, you’ll be up in the foretop on watch. Then first thing tomorrow I want you down working the pumps. The boatswain’s just been down to look and no one’s pumped the bilge water since before the storm. I want you working double shifts.”

A wave of disapproval ripples through the crowd at this, and Sherlock remembers vividly the cast of John’s face, and his words when he’d told Sherlock that this job was by far the most unpleasant on any ship.

Anderson’s glee seems to grow exponentially in the face of the men’s displeasure.

“And another thing.” He spins around as he goes on talking as though to look into the face of every man on deck. “If I catch Sherlock Holmes speaking to any one of you for any reason that man will be flogged to within an inch of his life, do you understand me?”

The men are doggedly silent. Sherlock can feel their resistance in the air around him as clearly as if they were shouting it.

“I said, do you understand me?”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“Good. Now get to it. Holmes—I want you off this deck and out of my sight. I’m sick of you meddling in the running of this ship. This isn’t a parlor game for your enjoyment. This is work, and I won’t stand to see you making a mockery of it.”

Sherlock remains frozen where he stands, speechless with disbelief. Behind Anderson, he sees Stevens smirking as he picks up his bucket.

Rage fills Sherlock then, a rage so hot and all-encompassing that for a moment he cannot see the deck before him.

“Holmes! You heard my directive! Get. Out. Of. My. Sight.” Anderson takes a step toward him, putting his sneering face far too close to Sherlock’s own. “I shouldn’t think you’d want to risk putting any of your little sailor friends in danger. Or at least I should hope not. Then again, who knows? Perhaps you’re more self-involved even than I presumed.”

In desperation, Sherlock looks to John.

This cannot be happening—how is it possible that Anderson could suddenly be in charge of the one person he wants to torment most? There must be some mistake.

But when John meets Sherlock’s gaze, he nods curtly, once, as if to say—Do as he says, and this, more than anything that has happened so far, floods Sherlock with despair.

Cheeks still hot with rage, Sherlock drops his head and makes his way toward the gangway at the back of the ship.

Every step he takes away from John feels like a betrayal. He cannot leave John to Anderson’s sadistic devices; he can’t, but the look in John’s eyes brooked no room for argument.

He looks back once when he reaches the top of the steps and sees John, stooping to pick up the empty buckets, Anderson standing behind him, grinning in triumph.

Sherlock descends the stairs with a cold, heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach, and for the first time in a long time, is afraid he might be sick.

Chapter Text

Sherlock’s room is dim when he opens the door; the sun’s golden warmth that was so pervasive up on deck has no presence here in the dark corridor off of which his cabin lies. The heat remains—thick and stifling, but all is colorless and grey. The walls of Sherlock’s chamber are bathed in gloom.

Never has the narrow space looked so like a prison as it does to Sherlock now.

He thinks of how the room transforms when John is here with him, the way the candlelight seems to warm and fill the dingy space, how the four rough-hewn walls take on a different quality, become a private sanctuary that could be worlds away from the surrounding chaos of the ship.

As he thinks of this, coupled with the newfound knowledge that John will no longer spend his evenings here with him, Sherlock feels grief drag him down like a weight.

He cannot bring himself to light the lamp.

He falls into the chair beside his desk, pushes his shaking fingers through his hair, and tries to staunch the tide of panicked grief and rage pounding through him so that he can think.

He’s so angry he doesn’t know what to do, but worse even than the rage is the feeling of helplessness, the knowledge that Anderson finally has Sherlock just where he wants him. The look in John’s eyes had communicated everything Sherlock needed to know. Don’t. Just don’t. Anything Sherlock attempts now will only make matters worse.

And the worst part is Sherlock knows John is right.

If Anderson is in control of John’s mess, that means that John now defers to him, and such is the nature of discipline on merchant ships that if Anderson decides that John has done wrong (regardless of whether he has or not) he is subject to Anderson’s word and law. If Sherlock does anything to displease Anderson then Anderson will make John suffer.

From up on deck, he can hear the distant shouts of Anderson yelling orders to the crew.

Sherlock clenches his fists in his hair and stands abruptly.

He begins pacing the narrow space of his cabin, raking his fingers through his hair in agitated fury.

There must be something he can do to try and remove Anderson from his position. He’s a terrible midshipman—that much is clear. If only Sherlock can somehow draw attention to this fact then perhaps he can have Anderson stripped of his authority.

The question is—why would Anderson suddenly be put in charge of John’s mess? It doesn’t make sense. The change is so sudden, so arbitrary, so clearly a result of Anderson’s own wishes. Anderson would have had to request the change in leadership, he would have had to ask for permission first and the only person on board who has the authority to do so is—

Sherlock halts mid-stride.

The captain.

Sherlock sits down abruptly on the edge of his bed.

Anderson would have had to make his appeal directly to the captain for the change in leadership. Even Lestrade doesn’t have the authority to make that kind of change on board a ship this size. The question is how did Anderson get the captain to agree to it?

Anderson is just a midshipman, a low-ranking one at that. Even if Anderson was high performing, based on what Sherlock knows of the captain’s temperament, he doesn’t seem the type to grant errant favors to lower-ranking members of his ship.

Besides, Sherlock has seen the interactions between them. Based on what he witnessed during the midshipmen’s noonday reading, the captain considers Anderson a witless and incompetent fool who has no right to set foot on a naval ship, much less ever command one. So how on earth did Anderson get the captain to grant his request? What could he have possibly said or done to put himself in the captain’s good favor?

Sherlock tightens his fingers in his hair, tugging in silent frustration.

Thinking of the captain now, it occurs to Sherlock that he hasn’t given any thought to the matter of Lestrade’s poisoning in the last twenty-four hours. He’s been so distracted by thoughts of John that he hasn’t had a thought to spare for the sinister goings on aboard the ship. He feels a small flicker of guilt at this realization.

The question as to why the captain would want to poison his first officer remains unsolved; and although Sherlock is certain there is a connection between the strange circumstances of the former captain’s sudden illness and the incident with Lieutenant Lestrade, he has yet to collect any evidence that would support this connection. Sherlock is no closer to solving the puzzle at hand.

Sherlock stands up and begins pacing again.

To begin with, why would the captain have poisoned the former Captain Adams in the first place? Why would he have been so desperate to take command of this particular voyage?

Sherlock reflects on this, thinking back over his tour with John earlier today around the ship, remembering the casks of goods John had pointed out—the barrels and chests filled with textiles, tobacco, staves and shingles, bars of iron, lead, and tin—goods that will be sold as soon as they reach the port in Madras.

Suddenly the answer for the captain’s motivation is so obviously apparent that Sherlock is stunned it hasn’t occurred to him before now.

This is a merchant voyage; the ship is stocked with goods to sell in the East Indies. Captains of merchant sailing ships are entitled to a sizeable cut of the profits, and, Sherlock knows, are allowed a certain amount of tonnage on board every vessel for goods intended for their own private ‘indulgence.’

The vessel they are on is a large one by Indiaman standards, which means that the allotted tonnage for this type of investment will be equally large. Thus, the profits from a voyage of this nature could be quite substantial. In light of this information, Captain Robert’s motivation for putting himself in charge of such a potentially profitable voyage is obvious.

What still doesn’t make sense is why he would feel obliged to poison Lieutenant Lestrade halfway through the voyage.

Sherlock thinks back to the night of the party, wishing now that he’d had more presence of mind that evening to be alert for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. He had been so bored and impatient waiting for John that he hadn’t given a second thought to any strange goings on.

He finds himself longing once again for the chance to speak with Miss Hooper, to ask her about her own recollections and observations from that night.

Sherlock sits back down on the edge of his bunk, steepling his fingers underneath his chin as his mind turns over all the relevant details.

He thinks back on the conversation he heard between Ferguson and Knott, the two passengers who quarreled over the captain’s decision to throw the party. The man Ferguson was convinced the captain had ulterior motives for doing so, an assessment with which Sherlock entirely agrees, and a theory which is compounded by the captain’s noticeable absence from the festivities. Why would such a misanthropic man call for a celebration, and then refuse to attend it?

The most likely reason for this is that the captain had other business that he needed to attend that night, business during which he did not wish to be interrupted.

Or perhaps apprehended.

If the party was a cover for some goings on of the captain’s design, then perhaps the reason for Lestrade’s poisoning was simply that the captain desired that his first lieutenant be kept out of the way. Perhaps he was concerned that the party would not be a great enough distraction.

Maybe, in order to be certain, he prescribed the Lieutenant a milder dose of what he’d used on Captain Adams, simply to ensure he wouldn’t come meddling in his private affairs.

Once a poisoner, always a poisoner, Sherlock wryly thinks.

What’s still unclear is whether he’d intended to kill Lestrade, or simply put him out of commission for a night to keep him out of the way.

John said that the dose was strong enough to potentially have killed Lestrade if John hadn’t intervened. It could have been a botched job but if Roberts had as much experience with poisoning as Sherlock was certain he did, then it wouldn’t make sense for him to have gotten it wrong.

If he wanted Lestrade dead, then he would certainly be very displeased by now.

Sherlock thinks back to the feeling of the captain’s eyes, heavy and cold, on the back of his neck the morning after the party when he’d gone up to try and speak with the Lieutenant. There was no mistake, he had been looking at Sherlock. He’d never looked at Sherlock like that before, in fact, he’d never given him any notice at all.

It occurs to Sherlock now to wonder, whether the captain’s private business on the night of the party and his desire to keep those affairs hidden, has anything to do with him putting Anderson in charge of John’s mess.

Sherlock did see Anderson the night of the party—Anderson had seen Sherlock with John’s medical bag—had implied that he knew it was John’s.

There’s no way the captain would trust Anderson with any real knowledge of his affairs, but what if Anderson had gone to the captain the night of the party, to complain about seeing Sherlock going down into the forecastle? If Anderson had told the captain he’d seen Sherlock with John’s medical case…

Sherlock feels his stomach fill with cold, prickling dread.

The captain is an intelligent man. Even if his intent had been to put Lestrade out of commission for a few days, he would know that someone had intervened to make him well again. And if Anderson had told the captain about seeing Sherlock, he would know John was involved in the matter.

Sherlock remembers the smirk he’d seen on Anderson’s face the following day. What if he had gone to the captain in an attempt to try and get Sherlock into trouble? Perhaps the captain arranged to put Anderson in charge of John’s mess in order to keep an eye on him.

Sherlock lets out a long breath, dropping his hands into his lap.

So much of this is speculation—too much. He’s letting his mind run away with him. He’s got to stick to the facts. What does he know?

Sherlock goes with sudden purpose towards his desk. He lights the candle without ceremony and then seating himself in the narrow chair, he pulls out the leather-bound book that Mycroft gave him before the voyage, and begins to make a list.

As carefully and methodically as he can, he records the names of all the passengers he knows on board the ship, marks down everything he has observed of them, what he’s heard them say in regards to the captain.

The man must have an accomplice in all this—that much is certain, and although Sherlock is relatively confident that his accomplice is another member of the crew, not a passenger, he writes all of their names down anyway just to be sure.

Once he’s recorded the names of the passengers, he moves onto the crew. In all his idle days sitting on the ship’s deck—especially in the weeks before he began speaking with John—he had plenty of time to observe who was who and what each man’s function is aboard the ship. If he does not know their name, he identifies the man by title. He writes down every crewmember, from quartermaster to caulker to sail master down to the last ship’s boy.

When he’s exhausted his memory bank of information, he looks over the list of names. He feels better having written something down, so that he might begin to piece together some kind of system to ascertain what’s happening. However, it’s infuriating to realize how much he still doesn’t know.

He needs more information.

Sherlock leans back in his chair, cracking his sore knuckles, as he does, noticing for the first time the smears of drying paint on his forearms and wrists. His sleeves are still rolled up from his work up on deck earlier, and at the sight of the paint on his arms, he is flooded anew with the memory of all that transpired this afternoon—his brief experience of feeling joy at being a part of something larger than himself now feels ridiculous to him, even laughable.

He thinks of the scorn in Anderson’s voice—his accusation that by participating in the sailors’ activities Sherlock was making a mockery of the work they did—and feels the last spark of his joy from the afternoon flicker to darkness.

What a fool he was to think he could be part of a group so completely different from himself, a group that he really knows nothing about and will never fully understand. Although it had never been his intention to make light of their work, maybe Anderson is right, maybe just by trying to participate he was making a mockery of their way of life—he, who knows nothing of the misery and hardship that they daily face, taking up a paintbrush as a means of distracting himself from his own boredom.

All of the warm looks and encouraging words from John’s crewmates now feel entirely undeserved. Sherlock thinks again of the horror in John’s eyes at seeing paint splashed on his fine waistcoat, of his own blithe dismissal of the matter, and feels his cheeks burn with shame.

As Sherlock feels shame make his cheeks grow warm, he realizes that his face feels hotter than it normally does—in fact, the whole of his face and neck and forearms are warm to the touch.

Sherlock stands to peer at himself in the tiny square of glass he uses for a shaving mirror and sees that his face and neck are stained a dull pink. The heat on his skin is the result of sunburn. At this realization, he feels a renewed prickle of shame as he hears the ghost of Anderson’s scornful voice. He can’t even spend two hours up on deck without contracting a sunburn—pathetic.

However, all thoughts of shame over his own-overly delicate constitution evaporate in the wake of the other sight that greets him in the mirror, which is the state of his neck in the aftermath of John Watson’s hungry mouth.

Sherlock feels the dull glow of heat from his sunburn increase with a different kind of warmth altogether at the sight of the livid purple marks all down the sides of his neck. He can feel his own breath growing shallow as he looks at them—the bright color of the blood drawn to the surface of his skin by John’s teeth bringing with it memories of the feel of John’s body so hot and hard against him in the dark, the sweet spike of pain as John’s teeth nipped and pulled at the delicate skin of Sherlock’s throat.

Sherlock tugs the collar of his shirt far down so he can survey the full range of them, lifting a hand to trace his fingers over the sensitive flesh. He shivers at his own touch, feels blood pound unbidden into his cock, as he remembers now, in a flood of heat, what John said to him as he ground against Sherlock’s body with his own.

“You don’t know what you’re asking for.”

John thinks Sherlock doesn’t know what John is capable of, thinks Sherlock isn’t ready, but what John doesn’t realize is that there is a darkness and a wildness at the heart of Sherlock deep enough to match John’s own. Sherlock can feel it like a pull at the very center of his being, can feel how it has erupted into vivid life in response to the urgent feeling of John’s fingers on his thighs, the dark hunger behind every thrust of John’s hips, the growls pulled low from the base of his throat.

John thinks he doesn’t understand, but really it’s John who has yet to see the darkness at the heart of Sherlock.

It fills him now like an ache, a yawning void that can only be satisfied by the feel of John’s body atop his own, fingers hard on Sherlock’s wrists pinning them to the bed beneath him, the length of his cock rubbing into Sherlock, the scrape, the press of his teeth, his strong hands on Sherlock’s hips, bending him to his will.

He would peel back the skin of his chest if he could, offer his own heart to John as a sacrifice, still beating, if it meant it would help satisfy the need he feels for more of John, for all of him, for their bodies to come together in a frisson of light and heat.

He wants, wants, wants, and each encounter with John only seems to make it worse, until the force of his wanting is almost unbearable. He feels as though he will be devoured by it, as though if he does not sate it, it will consume him.

Sherlock extinguishes his candle in a sudden surge of misery and lies down on his bed, fully clothed, with his hands clenched tight between his thighs.

His swollen cock is throbbing insistently against the front of his trousers, begging for attention, but Sherlock will not touch himself. It doesn’t feel right that John should be up on deck in the darkness, suffering under Anderson’s petty ministrations all because of Sherlock.

Of this fact Sherlock is painfully aware—Anderson wouldn’t spare a glance for John Watson if it weren’t for him. His hatred of John is only by proxy of his true hatred for Sherlock, and his desire to see Sherlock as miserable as possible.

Sherlock rolls over onto his back with a tiny cry of rage, and to his utter disgust, feels tears well hot and bitter at the corners of his eyes and slide down the sides of his face. He wipes them savagely away, disgusted with himself, chest tight with misery, biting his own lips, willing himself to stop feeling sorry for himself when it’s John he should be thinking of, John who needs his help.

He curls over onto his side again; arms clenched tightly around himself, trying to stem the tide of his arousal, his feelings of helplessness, his despair.

As he reflects upon it now, the only minor blessing brought about by Anderson’s interruption, is the fact that it at least prevented John from knocking Stevens clean over the side of the ship. Judging by the look on his face when Anderson appeared, John had every intention of laying into the larger man and not stopping until his opponent was dead, or at the very least, beaten bloody and unconscious beneath his fists.

Sherlock feels something hard and cold solidify inside his chest at the memory of Stevens’ eyes on him while he was speaking, the proprietary look as he’d stood so casually discussing helping himself to Sherlock’s body as though he were a whore up for bid at an auction. There was something chillingly clinical in the tone of his voice, in the blasé assumption of ownership, like Sherlock was a plate of meat presented to him at a tavern for the taking.

The vast, unknowable depths of John’s rage in the wake of the other man’s presence now make more sense to Sherlock. He can only imagine that the comments Stevens made the other day were of a similar nature. He doesn’t like to think how John’s rage will have increased in the aftermath of this new incident. But at least Anderson’s interruption worked as an impediment against John’s initial fury, which likely would have ended in misery.

There was murder in John’s eyes plain as day, and killing a fellow sailor isn’t a crime Sherlock imagines John would be able to easily escape from, no matter how charming and well loved he may be.

It is in the midst of these dark thoughts that Sherlock succumbs to his exhaustion, falling asleep with his knees pulled up against his chest, hands still clenched between his knees.

***

Sherlock dreams he’s in a boat on dark water—a tiny skiff, big enough only for one or two people. As he rows over the silent sea, the only sound around him is the rhythmic hiss of his oars as they slice into the surface, which is smooth as glass.

He knows he is looking for John.

He rows until he reaches the shore, a line of jagged cliffs looming stark above the water, and there he sees a black dog standing, as though waiting for him.

When he looks up at it, the dog lifts its head and howls, long and loud. It is a mournful sound, full of pain and loneliness. It sends a chill down Sherlock’s spine, raises the hair on the backs of his arms.

He leaves the boat on the beach, scrambles his way up the loose stones and sliding shale of the cliff until he reaches the top of the bluff.

The dog is still there, waiting; long pink tongue dangling out of its black mouth.

He knows he must follow it, even though a sense of doom presides over every step he takes toward the black beast, which sets off at a rapid trot as soon as he starts walking toward it, leading him down to the line of trees at the bottom of the bluff.

As Sherlock draws nearer, he realizes these are the woods that edge the Holmes estate, the woods where he spent the majority of his childhood, wandering through the dense underbrush with Redbeard at his side.

Of course, Sherlock knows they cannot really be the same woods, that the Holmes estate is nowhere near the sea, but Sherlock does not question it as he strides forward into the trees.

It occurs to Sherlock now that the dog in front of him may be Redbeard—it has to be. Redbeard must be leading him to John.

He quickens his footsteps but the dog remains ever out of reach, the ripple in the leaves in front of Sherlock the only sign that the dog is still before him, leading him still deeper into the trees.

The faster Sherlock moves, the faster the dog seems to move ahead of him, until Sherlock is running to keep up.

He runs until he is breathless, his sides aching, and then all at once he stumbles into a clearing where he sees a hunched figure bent over something on the ground.

“John?”

Sherlock stumbles, fatigue making him dizzy, hands on his knees as he struggles to catch his breath.

“John!”

And then the figure rises and turns, and he sees, that it is not John at all but Stevens, wearing John’s mother’s necklace, leering at Sherlock with a sickening grin.

“Where did you get that?” Sherlock gasps, horrified. “That isn’t yours. Where’s John? John!”

He yells into the darkness but there is no reply.

“JOHN!”

He looks around for Redbeard, desperate, but the dog has vanished without a trace, and now Stevens is crossing the distance between them, eating up the space with long, easy strides, his grin growing wider with every step, until he’s reaching out to grab hold of Sherlock’s wrist and yank Sherlock hard against him.

Sherlock tries to move but he can’t, he’s frozen where he stands; he tries to scream but no sound comes out, he’s helpless as Stevens’ hand comes up to grip his jaw.

He can feel the palm of Stevens’ hand pressing hard against his mouth, can taste the unpleasant clamminess of someone else’s skin, the pressure of it against his teeth, and he’s about to bite down in spite of his revulsion when he wakes with a start, gasping; his forehead drenched in sweat.

He stares in horror through the darkness, blinking hard—his heart pounding in his throat.

In desperation, he reaches out, needs some sign, some confirmation that it wasn’t real, that he’s still in his narrow berth on the ship, not in some dark wood with Stevens’ hand over his mouth, his grip like iron on Sherlock’s wrist.

The coarse blankets underneath his grasping hands confirm that he is indeed in his own room. Over his own gasping breath, he can hear the sea outside—the sound of the sloshing waves against the side of the ship have never been more welcome.

Sherlock lets out a long, shaking breath.

The dream was so vivid.

He unclenches his hands with effort, feels his palms are slippery with sweat.

It felt so real.

Even though he knows now that it was just a nightmare, there is a darkness that sits somewhere heavy in his chest that won’t be moved, an irrational fear that something might have happened to John.

It’s fine, he tells himself. You’ve just seen him a few hours ago. What disaster could possibly have befallen him in that time?

But even as his rational mind tries to convince him everything is fine, he cannot seem to shake the lingering feeling of dread the dream left in its wake, and he’s overcome with the desire to see John.

He sits up, his body, stiff and aching.

It must be getting on close to midnight.

He knows he shouldn’t. If he is seen up on deck with any of the sailors, he will put all of them at risk, but, he thinks wildly, it’s late; Anderson isn’t likely to be on duty. If he is very quiet, perhaps he can catch John coming down from his post without being seen.

Once the idea has taken root in his mind, he cannot shake it. It grows like a weed, overtaking every logical protest.

He doesn’t care to admit to himself that he’s too shaken to go back to sleep; that he cannot bear to sit in the darkness alone with his thoughts.

All he wants is one look at John up in the foretop to assure him that everything’s all right.

Even just to see John from afar, silhouetted against the night sky, will put Sherlock’s heart at ease.

He slips silently from bed, feeling as he does so all the aches and pains from his physical endeavors yesterday, both from painting the deck, and from what took place between him and John down in the shadows in the bottom of the ship.

The ache in his shoulders, the twinge of pain in the juncture of his thigh and hip, feel as sweet to him as any gift because they make him think of John.

Soft as a shadow, Sherlock steals out of his room. He is careful not to let the door creak as he swings it open on its hinges, shutting it behind him with the utmost care.

The corridor is dark—abandoned; moonlight lies in silver streaks across the stairs. Sherlock takes them two by two, avoiding every splash of silver, clinging to the shadows by the rail.

The deck is quiet as Sherlock reaches the last step.

It might as well be a painting, the scene before him is so still, the only movement the occasional flutter of the wind in the rigging, tugging gently at the ropes.

In spite of the darkness, the air feels hot and close—it’s as if the sun is lurking somewhere just out of sight, as though it never left the sky, unwilling to give up its reign to the presence of the moon.

Sherlock moves from the shadow of the gangway to the shadow by the longboats, scanning the deck as he goes for any sign of John.

The moon is almost full; its bright light coats the world in silver, draws the gleaming edge of shining things to life under its touch, makes skeletons among the rigging with a few strokes of its wintry light.

The surface of the sea is calm, almost as flat as the water in Sherlock’s dream. He feels a shiver at the thought, presses closer to the longboat at his back. In the same instant, he sees a figure not far off, standing by the foremast, smoking a pipe.

For two long heartbeats, he cannot make out the other man’s face. Dread stops his throat like an icy fist.

But then the wind changes, dispelling the wreaths of silvery smoke, and Sherlock sees that it is Burns; a clay pipe clenched tight in his blackening teeth, and relief courses through Sherlock, swift and immediate.

Burns is someone he can trust. He will tell Sherlock where he can find John, Sherlock is sure of it.

Sherlock creeps forward on silent feet—still quiet, still careful—not wanting to be recognized by the men at the helm if he can help it.

The moonlight is bright enough that Sherlock can see Burns’ eyes light on him as he approaches, can see the look of mild shock on his face as he recognizes Sherlock.

By the time he’s come to stand by Burns’ side, the other man's face has settled back into its normally impassive expression, but Sherlock can’t forget his look of startled disbelief that Sherlock would dare to come up on deck so soon after Anderson’s reprimand.

Sherlock’s question about John’s whereabouts withers on his tongue.

All of a sudden, his worry over John feels completely selfish.

Burns moves his pipe from one side of his mouth to the other, looking all the while at Sherlock with a steady gaze.

“Evenin’,” he says at long last.

“Good evening,” Sherlock whispers.

He feels like he can’t look Burns in the eye. What was he thinking? Even by standing here next to him, Sherlock is putting the other man’s life at risk. If Anderson were to catch Burns talking to him—

“What is it, lad?”

Burns’ voice is kinder than Sherlock knows it has any right to be, and the sound of it makes Sherlock shrink inside.

He wants to curl into a ball and drop himself over the side of the ship, but now that he’s come all this way, now that he’s already put the man in danger, he may as well ask what he came to find out. So instead, he forces himself to ask, “Where is John?”

“He’s up in the foretop.”

Sherlock cranes his head to look but all he sees are shadows, moonlight tangled in the rigging.

“He’ll be up there all night.”

As he strains his eyes to see through the darkness, Sherlock feels another wave of shame crash over him at the irrational nature of his fear, the utter futility of his errand.

Even if something had been amiss, what could he have done?

“Go back to sleep, lad.” There is still kindness in Burns’ voice but Sherlock knows a warning when he hears one. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I know,” Sherlock says, his voice smaller than ever.

He is ashamed of himself.

After all the sailors have done for him, he takes the first available opportunity to put all their lives at risk.

He thinks of Burns handing him the paintbrush earlier today, realizes how much that gesture really meant, and his shame is suddenly so intense he fears that he will drown in it.

He feels like he should explain why he’s here, in order to make clear that this wasn’t just selfishness. Why he is desperate to make this sailor not think the worst of him is a mystery to Sherlock.

He never cares what people think—but even as he thinks the words, Sherlock sees through his own thinly-veiled act of self-deception, and knows that his desire to prove himself to this man has everything to do with the kindness in his voice.

“I had a dream that John was in danger, that he was—” Sherlock bites his tongue. It sounds stupid when he says it out loud but he forces himself to go on. “That something bad had happened. I had to check on him, I had to make sure…”

Sherlock looks down at his boots, feeling utterly foolish.

He is startled by the feel of a rough palm gripping his shoulder; Sherlock looks up in surprise.

“You should know John Watson well enough by now to know that one measly, little, snot-nosed midshipman isn’t enough to worry him.”

“I know,” Sherlock says, hanging his head again.

And he does know; or at least, he thinks he does.

Somehow, even though he’s seen the fury at the heart of John, all his power, all his rage, it still does nothing to stop the tide of worry Sherlock feels every time he is confronted with danger.

He’s never felt so much worry over one person in his life—it’s exhausting.

Maybe it’s because he’s seen the scars on John’s back, the marks that life has left on him, that cause Sherlock to remember in a sharp, visceral way, like the sting of a whip, that even John Watson is not invulnerable to the blows of the world, that he has felt pain, vast quantities of it, and that every time, it has taken something from him that he cannot get back.

Sherlock thinks of all this and looks up again, straining his eyes through the shadows to see if he can catch a glimpse of John through the rigging—just one flash of moonlight on his hair, that’s all that Sherlock needs.

Burns claps his hand hard on Sherlock’s shoulder, drawing his gaze back down beside him.

“Don’t worry about him, lad. He can look after himself.”

Sherlock nods, his throat still tight with misery.

Burns drops his hand from Sherlock’s shoulder, shifting the stem of his pipe in his teeth, before lowering his voice. “Listen, lad, there’s… something I want to say.”

Sherlock looks up at the tone in his voice, feels dread begin to pound beneath his heart.

“I know that you and Johnny have been… meeting in his time off.” Burns pauses to drag a match to life, the flare of light briefly illuminating the deep grooves in his face, making his features jagged. He shakes the match to darkness, puffs at the stem, and then blows out a curl of smoke. “Things is different now. You’ll want to leave him alone for a bit.”

Even though the night is hot, Sherlock feels his body go cold.

The implication that he would do something foolish enough to put John’s life at risk makes his insides curl up with horror.

“I wouldn’t—”

“I know you wouldn’t. Not on purpose. But it’ll go smoother for everyone if you let him alone for now.”

Sherlock presses his lips together hard, feeling tears prick the corners of his eyes.

Why on earth hearing Burns say aloud what he already knows should cause him so much grief is a mystery to him.

Sherlock wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand; he doesn’t trust himself to speak without his voice breaking.

“Go back below.” Burns’ voice seems to soften. “I’ll tell John you came by.”

Sherlock nods hard to show he’s understood, and then without another word, he turns and makes his way back across the deck, through the splashes of moonlight that now look to Sherlock like pools of blood, like the ghosts of bloodstains from naval battles long past that only come out in the light of the moon, back through the gangway and down the moon-spattered staircase at the back of the ship.

It’s only after he’s made it to the stifling darkness of his room that he realizes he forgot to say thank you.

Chapter Text

Sherlock wakes early the next morning to the thin grey light of dawn suffusing his cabin, the color of a bucket of dingy water tossed out after the washing up. He can hear the faint rushing of the surf against the hull, indicating that the ship has picked up speed since the day before, and is moving at a faster pace.

As he lies staring up at the stained grey ceiling above him, he lets himself imagine for just a moment that the events of the previous afternoon were all a nasty dream, that he will rise and dress and go up top to find John, blue-eyed and smiling, sitting with his crewmates, mending sails, and Sherlock will sit down beside him and John will show him how to make the careful even stitches with the giant needle he holds so deftly in his capable hands.

And then maybe afterwards, when John’s work is done, he will take Sherlock by the hand, and they will go and sit together at the prow of the ship, in the hidden space behind the foremast, with their backs against the cannon and John will tell Sherlock all about the ocean currents, why their speed has picked up in the last few days, how the wind has shifted, changing their course, all the while holding Sherlock’s hand in his, fingers moving over Sherlock’s palm as he talks, the movement soothing and thrilling both at once, until he stops, tells Sherlock that he can’t possibly concentrate with Sherlock looking at him the way he is. “Like what?” Sherlock will ask, and John’s answer will be to pull Sherlock’s mouth to his and kiss him.

But no, it does no good to imagine such things, because the pain of returning to the reality of his situation—of long, dull days made up of endless hours to try and fill, with not even the promise of seeing John at the end of them—the idea of returning to the routine of his life on the ship before he met John is like torture.

The pain in Sherlock’s chest is real; it’s difficult to breathe around it.

How can he face the days at sea without John in them? How can he go back to what life was like before? Thinking back on his life before John is like looking at the sketch an artist makes before a painting. The difference between that life and the one he knows now is like the difference between the monochrome of the initial sketch—everything flat and colorless, shapes and figures just faint suggestions of what is to come—and the brilliant color of the finished painting, executed in hues he didn’t even know existed.

He cannot go back. He cannot bear it.

He rolls over onto his side, pulling his knees in against his chest, teeth clenched tight against the misery.

Of course, he knows he must bear it; he must for no other reason then to get through it until the next time that he can see John.

But how do you know you there will be a next time? says a nasty little voice inside his head.

There will be, he thinks fiercely. There has to be.

You don’t know that, the nasty little voice replies. Anderson may well remain in charge all the way to India and any attempt you make to see John puts his life at risk. How selfish are you, Sherlock Holmes? Would you make him take that kind of risk?

Sherlock shuts his eyes and shakes his head; he wouldn’t, he would never.

Then what was it you were doing last night, brother dear?

That the voice of doubt inside his head carries Mycroft’s scornful intonations comes as no surprise to him. But even with the knowledge that it is his snide older brother’s disapproval he has internalized, the question still fills him with impotent fury, makes his stomach crawl with shame.

What if it hadn’t been Burns on duty? What if it had been another sailor who trusts you less? He could have told Anderson. What do you think would have happened to your precious John then?

“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” Sherlock hisses, putting his hands over his ears, fingers knotted in his hair, as though if he presses hard enough he can push the voice out of his head.

Do you think John would still come to you, murmuring endearments, after he’s been beaten raw by the captain’s whip? Are your embraces so precious to him that they’re worth his weight in spilled blood?

“SHUT UP!”

He doesn’t even realize he has seized the shaving glass beside his bed until he hears the sound of its shattering upon impact with the flimsy cabin wall.

A woman in the next compartment screams and Sherlock hears voices in the corridor lifted in concern.

Let them scream, he thinks savagely. He couldn’t care less if he frightens them, if they think him strange, disturbed.

He knows, with a surety that reaches deep into his bones, how quickly their dislike of him would turn to hatred if they knew the true nature of his relationship with John, how they would cast him out, like one infected with some dark and terrible disease, and if he stayed, how little time would pass before some tragic accident befell him, a fire starting just outside his cabin door perhaps, something jammed before the door to prevent him getting out, how none of them would lift a hand to intervene except to sweep his charred remains away when at last the flames died out.

Yes, he thinks. Let them hate me as much as I hate them.

He hunches back down in bed, chest heaving, willing himself to breathe deeply and slowly, desperate to still the raging of his pounding heart.

His fury with his brother, with Anderson, with himself, is all tangled into one black knot in Sherlock’s chest. His rage is pounding in his temples so hard he cannot see, so he shuts his eyes, squeezes his fists against his chest, and tries to focus on the thin sound of his own shallow breathing.

You will get through this, he tells himself. You will. You must.

It isn’t until several moments have passed that Sherlock realizes he must have cut his hand on the razor in his glass when he’d thrown it. Blood is trickling slow and warm down through his fingers, staining the yellow of the mattress a dull red.

He looks at it numbly; decides he can’t be bothered to get up to find something to bind it with.

What’s the use in getting up? It isn’t as if he has anywhere to go.

He lies curled in around himself, bleeding fist pressed tight against his heart, heedless of the blood surely ruining his shirt.

Let it be ruined. What does it matter.

A sharp rap at the door rouses Sherlock from his stupor.

“Mr. Homes?” It is the voice of the passenger steward, the man who couldn’t be bothered to notice when Sherlock became too ill to leave his cabin. “Everything all right, sir?”

The ladies must have been upset indeed.

“Go away!” Sherlock yells with all the violence he can muster, wishing suddenly he had another glass to throw against the door to scare the man away. He looks wildly around his room for something else to break, fingers itching to destroy something, to experience the satisfaction of destruction, of taking something whole and shattering it to bits, but there is nothing else that isn’t either indestructible or bolted down. This is a ship’s cabin after all, designed to sustain the impact of the violence of the sea. Sherlock’s own small storm of rage pales vastly in comparison, shrinks to the scale of the moth, beating itself to death against the windowpane.

At this sudden blunt reminder of his own insignificance, Sherlock feels all his anger drain out of him. It leaves him feeling carved out and empty, worse than before; as though his insides have been hollowed out, and only the frail husk of his body remains, limp and meaningless.

His one small consolation is the sound of the steward’s footsteps, retreating in haste from Sherlock’s cabin door.

The breakfast hour comes and goes.

The dull ache of hunger in Sherlock’s gut is easy to ignore. He’s never had much of an appetite and now that misery has returned with such force to his life he finds all thoughts of food make him distantly sick.

He’s so deep in the blank fog of his own wretchedness that when another knock sounds on his cabin door a while later, he almost doesn’t hear it.

At first, he thinks it is the steward come back to bother him.

“Go away,” he snarls, but when the knock comes again, more insistent this time, a voice calls out to him, and it is not the steward’s.

“Mister Holmes!”

Sherlock recognizes the voice at once. It’s Billy.

He’s up and out of bed before he has a chance to think, almost upending the chair at his desk in his haste to reach the door.

When he pulls it open, sure enough, there’s Billy standing, looking somewhat apprehensively up and down the deserted corridor.

Sherlock doesn’t realize how dreadful he must look—hair wild, bloodstains down the front of the shirt—until he sees Billy’s eyes widen at the sight of him.

“Mister Holmes…” he whispers, voice gone soft with worry. “Are you alright?”

Sherlock glances down at himself, hastens to wrap his bleeding hand in a corner of his shirt to hide it from sight.

“Yes, fine. I’m fine. What is it?”

Billy looks less than convinced but he straightens up at the reminder of his mission, eyes brightening.

“I’ve got something for you, Mister Holmes.”

“You have?” Sherlock asks, utterly shocked.

“I have,” says Billy with unmistakable pride in his voice. “Although…” His eyes dart once again up and down the passage, voice lowering to a dramatic whisper. “I’m not meant to tell you who it’s from.”

Sherlock’s heart is pounding in his throat. He doesn’t dare to hope.

Indeed, he cannot afford to, for the disappointment if he is wrong would be so severe it would surely tear his heart in two. But before he can fully dispel the thought, Billy is thrusting a small, stained, wedge of paper into Sherlock’s hand.

It has been folded neatly into a triangle, so tightly that the person who folded it must have very deft and skillful hands. There are no markings on the outside to designate who it’s for, but Sherlock knows as surely as he knows his own name that that small triangle of paper is meant for him.

“Now take that, and don’t ask me who sent it! For I canna tell you.”

Sherlock is still staring breathlessly at the note in his hand when Billy turns to go, but before he can leave, Sherlock regains enough of his wits to reach out and seize hold of Billy’s arm.

Billy looks at him in mild surprise.

“Tell him thank you,” Sherlock says, hunched over almost double in his gratitude. “Please, will you tell him I said that?”

Half of Billy’s face lifts in a smile—the other half remains resolutely blank.

“I’ve no idea what you’re talkin about, Mister Holmes,” Billy says, before giving Sherlock a wink, and then racing away down the corridor.

Sherlock can scarcely get the door closed behind him his hands are so numb with relief.

He suddenly remembers his bleeding hand, and his agitation with himself and his own stupidity is severe, as he must waste precious seconds tearing off a length of his now ruined shirt to wrap around his palm. The cut is shallow and scarcely bleeding anymore, but Sherlock binds it just to be sure he does not spill a drop of blood onto the triangle of paper.

When his hand has been tended to, he sits down on the edge of his bed, heart pounding somewhere in the vicinity of his throat, and peels apart the pages of the note with desperate care.

The message isn’t long, but the hand is neat, and if Sherlock hadn’t already known who sent it simply by the appearance of the outside, he would know from the writing, even though he’s never seen it before in his life.

A Message for the Moon:

Even though the moon may think it doesn’t need to eat, or sleep, in times of difficulty, the sun would like the moon to know that it depends upon the moon’s wellbeing to arrive as it does every morning in the sky with such punctuality. Even when the sun can’t see the moon because circumstances intervene, the sun finds it cannot do its duty if it’s worrying about the moon, wondering whether it’s drinking enough water, whether it’s putting cool compresses on the blisters on its fingers that are surely there from painting yesterday, whether it’s doing everything in its power to maintain the loveliness of its clear and shining light. You know how the sun worries so.

Please, my love, eat something. Do your exercises. Keep busy. If not for yourself, then do it for my sake. Do it for me.

We will see one another again before too long. You can count on it.

With Love From,
Your Sun

Sherlock reads the words so quickly at first that they have no meaning. He has to read the entire message several times—he does not know how many—before the letters take on individual shapes and become recognizable as words.

When he has finished reading it for what must be the hundredth time, he finds his eyes are hot and stinging.

He does not want to stop reading it.

He is holding it so tightly in his hands that he is frightened he will tear it, that the pressure from his palms will make the ink run and dissolve the message. He forces himself to ease his grip, smoothing the paper flat against his thigh.

He runs his fingers down the surface of the page. The writing is neat, but the number of ink drops running along the words lets Sherlock know that the letter was written in haste—and of course it must have been. When John would have the time to write a note like this is a mystery to Sherlock. The paper itself is old, stained, and Sherlock wonders with a kind of quiet amazement how John came by pen and paper at all, whom he had to beg for the use of this minor luxury.

Reluctant as he is to let go of it, Sherlock folds it back up into its tidy triangle and then dropping to his hands and knees, he crawls under his bed to hide it in the safest place he knows.

He tucks it into the velvet lining of his violin case.

Afterward, Sherlock lies on his bed, staring at the same stained ceiling that he has looked at all the long miserable months he has been at sea, but this time, he does not see the buckled wood, the long, grey watermark that looks like a bulging horse’s head, instead he sees the letters of John’s note, as clearly as if they had been traced there onto the ceiling for him to see, and he reads them over and over and over again.

Your Sun.

Sherlock closes his eyes, feels his chest grow tight.

Even though he’s heard John say the words ‘my love’ perhaps a dozen times by now, something about seeing those words addressed to him in ink—in ink—makes Sherlock feel as though his body is too fragile to contain everything he feels, as though his heart is suddenly too big for his chest.

It’s almost worth the pain of being kept apart from him to have received such a truly astonishing new piece of John, to see the narrow, even letters of John’s neat hand. His writing looks just exactly as it should—it looks like John somehow.

He will never forget a word of that note, even if he lives to be a hundred.

Some soft and cool emotion is flowing through him, filling up the emptiness inside him, making his insides feel less hollow. It isn’t quite relief but it’s calming all the same.

John needs him to keep going. Do it for me.

The thought is grounding.

Sherlock thinks suddenly of what John is likely doing right now and feels shame wash over him—John is working. He probably misses Sherlock too—maybe just as badly—but he doesn’t have time to wallow in his own misery; no, he carries on, because he has to.

If John can get through this, then so can he.

Perhaps most important of all—John says that they will see each other again.

Sherlock clings to this promise, like a drowning man clinging to a piece of wreckage in a storm. If John says it will happen, then surely it will.

Hope flickers back into view and Sherlock seizes hold of it, but gently, carefully so as not to bruise its fragile wings.

He sits up in bed, and as he does, a thought occurs to him.

He was so busy feeling sorry for himself he’d forgotten the promise he’d made the night before to dedicate all his efforts to uncovering what he could about the captain.

The sooner Sherlock is able to deduce what’s going on with the captain, the sooner he will gain the leverage he needs to get Anderson out of his current position of authority over John. In fact, there are a multitude of ways Sherlock may be able to get rid of Anderson—he just needs to figure out the best way to go about it. And the first place to start is gathering as much information as he can about who might be involved.

With a renewed sense of purpose, Sherlock climbs out of bed, and strips off his ruined shirt. He takes the time to wash his face, and shave; he even drags a comb through his ragged curls. He needs to look at least mildly presentable if he plans to dine with the rest of the passengers in the saloon for the midday meal.

And that is precisely what he intends to do because there is one passenger in particular that he needs to make an appointment with, and that is Miss Molly Hooper.

***

When Sherlock reaches the dining room, most of the other passengers are already there, leaning over their plates of mutton and boiled vegetables, deep in conversation.

The heat is just as bad as yesterday but the energy of the group seems livelier somehow—or perhaps, it’s just that today Sherlock is actually giving them his full attention.

To his great relief, Miss Hooper is there, seated as ever in the domineering shadow of her chaperone, Ms. Grimsby. She gives Sherlock a tentative smile as he seats himself at the other end of the table.

Sherlock’s arrival prompts a series of nervous glances and whispers, especially among the female passengers, but the rest of the diners ignore him as usual; his inconsistent comings and goings in the passenger saloon are simply looked upon as yet another manifestation of his anti-social eccentricity.

Sherlock has never been more grateful for their pointed disinterest in him; it gives him the chance to study them all in silence as he picks at his plate of food.

He has little interest in the meal in front of him but he thinks of John’s plea to him to eat something and the thought is enough to force him to grudgingly swallow several bites of food.

Sherlock pushes his plate away, takes a sip of warm wine, and focuses on observing the passengers around him.

There is nothing much of interest for his keen gaze.

Mrs. Whitehall is seated beside her husband, who is deaf in one ear, which is surely the only reason he can tolerate the constant stream of murmured conversation she sends in his direction. The man appears to take no notice; he goes on scraping congealed butter onto his biscuit in cheerful ignorance.

The Damsons sit on the other side of Mr. Whitehall. Mrs. Damson, with her three children clustered round her, ages four, seven, and ten respectively. The littlest one is not well. It’s frequently crying and listless, its color pale and wan. Every time he sees the boy he’s clinging to his mother’s skirts, or being pinched and bullied by his older sisters. Sherlock pities the poor thing. He knows what it is to be strange and unwanted.

Beside the Damsons sits the ever-ebullient Colonel Jackson, whose good mood appears not to have been dampened by the persistent heat. His round red face is shining more than ever. He is speaking energetically to Mr. Stallworthy, a frail, and somewhat lackluster barrister, whose only noteworthy quality as far as Sherlock can tell, appears to be the amount of wine he is able to dribble on his waistcoat during the course of a single meal.

Amesbury, the other dull and snobbish barrister, whose cabin lies directly beside Sherlock’s, sits on Mr. Stallworthy’s other side; he is deep in conversation with Lieutenant Moore, one of the lower-ranking officers who frequently dines with the passengers, unlike the higher-ranking lieutenants who dine separately with the captain in his quarters.

As usual Miss Gibbons is employed in giggling conversation with Miss Long, their beribboned heads bent together in fervent conference over their empty wine glasses, both of their plates of mutton similarly untouched.

Dull, dull, dull, Sherlock thinks, as he looks around. There is nothing of interest for him here.

His gaze alights on Mr. Knott, the beetle-browed gentleman who seemed particularly keen on preventing the other passengers from speaking ill of the captain, wearing the same worn frock coat, sitting off to the side at the other end of the table, a pair of pince-nez perched on his nose as he studies a paper in his hand.

Sherlock regards him with interest.

The man is severely middle class, likely worked as a… clerk, judging by the arthritic bulge of his knuckles, what looks to be semi-permanent ink stains on his gnarled hands. His clothing is worn, his gaze sharp. He’s a clever one; that much is certain.

Sherlock wonders as he studies him whether he’s simply a shrewd man, who like many of them has heard of the captain’s violently colored past, or whether he knows something more than he should.

The longer Sherlock’s gaze lingers on him though, the more certain he is that the man knows nothing. He’s clearly well read, someone who is aware of his surroundings. He’s old enough to have heard of some of the captain’s nastier dealings during the war. It is likely just his common sense that has led him to regard the captain with such caution.

Sherlock considers going over to speak to him, but upon reflection, concludes it wouldn’t be worth the effort. The man seems to have a vested interest in keeping people from speaking ill of the captain; he surely wouldn’t speak freely of the man himself.

Sherlock’s gaze flickers back to the other end of the table, where Miss Hooper sits, listless before her empty plate, looking as bored as he feels.

Beside her, the indubitable Ms. Grimsby is glaring across the table at the giggling young ladies, as though she may prevent them from further indiscretion simply by the power of her gaze.

Sherlock studies the older woman for a moment more in quiet reflection. There is only one way he is going to be able to speak in private with Miss Hooper, and doing so is going to demand that he summon all of his nonexistent habits of decorum.

It isn’t that Sherlock is ignorant of the customs of polite society; it’s simply that he doesn’t care to abide by them. Thanks to his upbringing, he is intimately aware of all of them, all of the stupid codes and rules that dictate proper behavior, even if he may be hideously out of practice.

Sherlock waits what feels like an interminable amount of time until the last of the meal has been served and all of the plates cleared away, until most of the passengers are lingering over tepid cups of coffee, before standing up and crossing the length of the dining room to stand before Miss Hooper.

“Good afternoon, Madam,” he says, with the customary bow.

Miss Hooper blinks up at him in mild surprise. “G-good afternoon, Mr. Holmes.”

“How are you?” he asks, perhaps a bit abruptly.

“I’m—I’m fine, thank you,” Miss Hooper replies, glancing nervously over at her chaperone.

“Good. That’s very good. I was wondering if…” Sherlock can almost hear the groan of the rusty cogs turning as he struggles to remember the proper way to phrase such a request. “That is, I’d like to ask if I might have the pleasure of your company later on this afternoon perhaps…” Sherlock’s eyes flick to the worn drawstring bag that is perpetually dangling off of Ms. Grimsby’s arm. “Over a game of whist?”

“Oh!” Miss Hooper’s exclamation is a rush of delighted breath. “That would be… yes, I’d like that. We… that is, Ms. Grimsby and I, often enjoy a game of whist in the afternoons after luncheon, don’t we, Aunt?”

At Miss Hooper’s words, Ms. Grimsby turns the full force of her judgmental gaze onto Sherlock. He can feel her eyes crawling over every inch of him, noting every indication of bad manners and untoward behavior, every suggestion of future scandal.

This process takes almost a full minute. Sherlock isn’t surprised. He is aware there is a great deal of it.

“This… gentleman...” Sherlock can hear the pointed question in her voice as she says the word. Her eyes move over the arch of Sherlock’s forehead to his hair. He is glad he spent the extra moments it took to wet it and comb it this morning. “He would like to play whist with us, would he?”

“Yes, Aunt Gertrude.”

Sherlock feels the older woman’s gaze sharpen. “Any reason for this sudden interest in cards, Mr. …?”

“Holmes, Ma’am, Sherlock Holmes.” Sherlock says with a grave incline of his head. The more matter-of-fact he is with this one, the better. “I’m not much for cards, Ma’am, but I find the dullness of the voyage has gotten the best of me, and was hoping two sensible ladies such as yourselves could teach me what you know.”

Sure enough, Sherlock sees the glint in the old woman’s eye at the mention that he has poor luck with cards.

“Hmmm… well, we’ll need a fourth player if it’s to be whist.”

Sherlock is prepared for this. “Perhaps Ms. Simpson might be persuaded to join us?”

Ms. Simpson is the other old maid on the ship, who keeps mostly to herself, nose buried in her book of psalms. Sherlock knows two things: one, that she is the only other unmarried woman on board the ship of whom Ms. Grimsby doesn’t disapprove, and two, that she never receives social calls of any kind and therefore will not refuse the invitation.

Ms. Grimsby sniffs approvingly. “Yes, I think she might be. Well, in that case, Mr. Holmes, I’m sure we will endeavor to teach you something.”

“Very good, Ma’am. And what time do you usually play?”

“Oh—” Miss Hooper begins eagerly. “We usually play just after lun—”

“Today I think a bit of fresh air will do you well, my dear. We shall take a turn about the deck before our game.”

“Very good, ladies. Shall we say… four o’clock then?”

Ms. Grimsby’s sniff as she turns away is all the answer he can hope to get.

“I am looking forward to it,” Sherlock says with a stiff bow in Miss Hooper’s direction.

As he raises his head, he catches her small grateful smile, and the sight of it is almost enough to inspire a smile of his own in return.

However, he finds he can’t quite manage it.

He leaves the dining room before he can do anything to risk the old woman’s disapproval and her withdrawal of the invitation.

***

Two hours later, Sherlock finds himself warding off fits of excruciating boredom as he pretends to let the old woman teach him how to play cards. He plays badly on purpose, knowing that every round she wins will increase her good humor, thereby increasing the chance that she might let Miss Hooper out of her sight for more than a quarter of an hour when the game is done.

Sherlock’s choice of Ms. Simpson as the fourth card player proves to be a flawless one. The older woman is as unlucky with cards as Sherlock is pretending to be, which draws out Ms. Grimsby’s condescending glee in trying to tutor her accordingly. Indeed, it relieves Sherlock of some of the pressure of his own pretense at playing badly—Ms. Simpson is stealing the role he’d intended to play, and as Sherlock is actually quite good at cards, this distraction provides a welcome reprieve.

Much to Sherlock’s relief, the ploy works, and after the third game, the woman is so eager with her winning streak that when Sherlock leans deferentially forward to ask if he might speak with Miss Hooper for a while in private, she readily agrees.

“How did you do that?” Miss Hooper whispers to him in a breathless undertone as soon as the old lady is out of earshot.

He and Miss Hooper have moved to sit by the vast stern window at the back of the room. The sun is hot today and the sun-drenched room would be unbearable if not for the fact that the stern cabin is far enough above the water that the windows can be opened when the weather is fair, to let in a bit of a breeze.

The water today is a brilliant blue, the sun on the sparkling waves so bright it hurts Sherlock’s eyes. He positions himself so he does not have to look at it. It makes him think of John, and the thought is as painful as a wound.

“Oh, it was a simple enough matter. The old woman clearly loves her cards.”

“But how did you know?” Miss Hooper presses, and then something sharper surfaces in her smiling face. “You’ve played whist before. You were shamming.”

Sherlock looks at her, impressed. “How did you know?”

Miss Hooper ducks her head, pushes her fingers together in her lap. “You lost every hand. You did it deliberately.” She darts her eyes back up at him. “You’re cleverer than that. You would’ve gotten the hang of it quicker.”

Sherlock is staring at her, slightly dumb-founded. “How do you know I’m clever?”

“I’ve seen the way you look at people. You’re always… taking information in about them. I can see it in the way you look at them.”

Sherlock’s mouth may well be hanging open but he’s too shocked to bother to close it. How this drab, desperately ordinary girl can know so much about him is absolutely baffling.

“I know because…” She drops her gaze back to her lap again, a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. “I do it myself. I look at people, notice things about them.” She offers him a nervous smile. “I have a great deal of idle time on my hands. I get so…” She looks up again, only to look out the window, eyes squinting against the glare of the sun on the waves. Every trace of the thin smile is gone from her face. “Sometimes I think I will go mad from boredom.”

Sherlock cannot speak, he is so stunned to hear another human being saying things that he has thought himself a hundred times—much less a girl—speaking thoughts he has had so often they have become a part of himself.

Miss Hooper’s eyes flicker back towards him, the nervous smile returning to her lips. “I think perhaps it might be the same for you.”

“You’re… you’re quite right.