Have you ever fed a lover with just your hands?
Closed your eyes and trusted, just trusted?
Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air?
Have you ever looked fear in the face and said, “I just don't care.”?
~Glitter In the Air, Pink
“Do you hear that?” Sherlock pauses in his perusal of the alley wall and tilts his head to the side as if he’s listening to something above them.
John looks up, then tilts his head the same direction. A sudden, unexpected whip of wind lifts the collar of his jacket and stirs the pages of a discarded newspaper, tossing it along the pavement. Other than that, he hears only the ever-present London noise—the distant hum of traffic, the blare of a car horn, a voice raised as someone down the street calls hello to a neighbour.
“What?” John asks after a moment. “The wind?”
Considering that the winter weather is so dull and dreary that it’s felt as if there’s been no air moving for days, the sudden swoop of breeze does feel a bit abrupt. But nice despite the cold. John tips his face up to it and fans his collar open, lifts the neck of his jumper away from his throat. Fresh air that feels warmer than he’d expected curls down his breastbone.
Sherlock shakes his head. “Can’t you hear it?”
John stops moving and listens again, but he still hears only the dull roar of city traffic and the whisper of newspaper against pavement. “What?”
“Voices in the wind,” Sherlock breathes, obviously entranced, tilting his face to the sky. “Singing… Music…” He turns slowly, head leaned so far back that John automatically puts a hand out behind him in case he falls over.
Then Sherlock’s head snaps up. He freezes and triumph washes across his face. He points towards the end of the alley. “There!”
John doesn’t look. He stands where his is, hand out, still trying to hear the voices on the wind, but Sherlock grabs his elbow and drags him deeper into the dank alley. “John, look!”
John follows the direction of Sherlock’s finger and sees, high on the brick wall that marks the abrupt end of the alley, a symbol in glossy red paint. It’s so nearly the same colour as the bricks that, except for the sheen, it would be imperceptible.
John shakes his head, half in tired despair, half in admiration. Sherlock’s found another one…
He’s trudged behind Sherlock all morning, through train yards and junk yards and alleys looking for the graffiti—shades of the case John had written up more than a year ago as ‘The Blind Banker’—to support Sherlock’s theory that a multi-national gang of thieves is at work in the city.
But unlike those garish yellow symbols which kept popping up at every turn, these symbols are proving elusive. Perhaps non-existent, except in Sherlock’s mind.
Sherlock insists there’s a connection between a squiggle that might be Sanskrit painted on a subway wall, and a Japanese haiku in a train yard, and a Latin word on a derelict car, and what—to the best of his ability to google and walk at the same time—John thinks may be a handful of Mi'kmaq symbols scratched on alley walls.
John can’t see the connection. None of it makes sense except to Sherlock. But it wouldn’t be the first time John’s seen Sherlock connect a handful of seemingly disparate clues and puzzle pieces into a whole picture that no one else could perceive. So John’s stayed with him, slogging through muck, breathing noxious smells, climbing piles of trash to photograph curlicue-d symbols and words in foreign languages.
He drags his cell from his jacket pocket and thumbs it on. The breeze plays across his fingers as he flips through the photos he’s taken during the morning. This symbol, all curves and squiggles, is very similar to one he photographed in a previous alley.
As Sherlock leans over John’s shoulder to look at the picture, the breeze lifts the ends of Sherlock’s scarf. The soft fringe flutters across John’s cheek, and then, as if the wind has reached out with ghostly fingers, the long length of blue unwinds neatly from around Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock grabs for the scarf as it slips away, but the breeze snatches it playfully from his fingers and throws it skyward. The breeze doesn’t seem strong enough to even lift the scarf, much less toss it about, but the scarf sails further into the alley.
John says, “Look at that,” more to himself than anything else because Sherlock has already leapt forward, trying to catch the scarf.
It flutters just out of reach, and Sherlock follows it, exclaiming at the way the scarf seems to dance away from his fingertips just as he reaches for it. John shuffle-trots to catch up, trying to keep the dancing rectangle of blue in sight and not stumble over the uneven pavement and wads of paper—or worse—that litter the alley.
The scarf flies up, then abruptly drops towards the brick wall at the end of the alley. It flutters down, hits the wall, and disappears through it as if the solid brick has suddenly become a curtain of dark red smoke.
John skids to a stop. Blinks and shakes his head. Then blinks again. He can’t have seen what he thinks he just saw! It has to be a trick of the light. The scarf probably hit the wall and slid down it, the blue blending into the deep shadow that cuts across the brick.
Sherlock has stopped, too, a couple of metres ahead. “Did you see that?” he exclaims and looks back at John for confirmation. There’s such a mix of surprise and indignation and delight warring on his long face that John almost laughs.
Then, delight winning, Sherlock grins at him. And John’s heart lurches up into his throat. He leaps forward, reaching out with such desperation that his fingers cramp. His adrenalin spikes and alarm screeches along his nerves. Dread clamps down at the base of his spine.
He already knows what’s going to happen. Before he can even summon the words, before he can suck in another breath, he knows. “Sherlock, no!” he yells, but it’s like telling a child not to grab for a coveted toy. Not to touch a hot stove. Nothing short of a gunshot or an earthquake will stop Sherlock from what he does next…
Sherlock steps back, takes a deep breath. Plunges into the wall. And disappears.
The bricks waver and ripple like water in his wake. John rushes after him, heart hammering so loud it drowns out the clatter of his footsteps and the curses raining from his lips. He only just manages to stop himself from plunging into the wall at the last second. His feet slip and slide, shoe soles against newspaper against pavement, as he rocks back from the bricks.
His brain wars inside his skull, the instinct, the need, to rush after Sherlock warring with his instincts as a soldier, as a doctor. His training urges caution. His desire to protect Sherlock, to back him up, urges him forward. But if there’s trouble on the other side of the weirdly writhing wall, he’ll be no good to Sherlock if he rushes in blindly. If he can even get in.
He reaches forward and touches the surface of the wall. The tip of his finger disappears into what should be solid brick, leaving his finger looking like it’s been cut off at the knuckle. Nausea roils in his gut even though he can feel his finger, can wiggle it.
The sensation is like pushing through a sheet of water filled with sand. It’s cool and fluid, but gritty, as if liquid brick is flowing around his knuckle. Where his skin meets what should be solid brick and mortar, the line seethes and writhes and ripples, the edges not quite straight, not quite in focus. He jerks his hand back and checks it. His finger is whole.
Okay, so he can get through. In. Whatever. He nods, a quick, decisive snap of his chin, though there’s no one there to see him. Except…maybe there is. In London, there almost always is.
He looks around quickly, spots the cctv camera at the entrance of the alley. Luckily, it’s pointed down the alley, towards him, instead of down the street. He speed dials Mycroft, says tersely, “Can you access cctv footage of Klippe Alley?”
Mycroft’s dignified yet indignant tone is clear. “Dr Watson, really. Do you actually think—”
“No time,” John interrupts. “This is an emergency. Yes or no? Sherlock just disappeared through a brick wall.”
“What do you mean, dissap—”
“Emergency, Mycroft! Yes or no on the surveillance?”
Apparently, the anxiety in John’s voice finally gets through. “Yes, I can access video of that area.”
“Watch the last few minutes. I’m going after him.”
John cuts the connection with his thumb, shoves his cell in his pocket, takes three deep, deep breaths, and steps through a wall of soggy red bricks.
The sensation is…not what he expected. He’d expected it would be like pushing through a waterfall of sand, but with his whole body immersed, it’s more like stepping slowly, slowly, slowly, through a curtain of cool, thick, gritty smoke. He closes his eyes against the fine dust and pushes through. Into…cool air fragrant with the scent of flowers and rich earth.
He stumbles as his feet meet something soft and uneven. He brushes at his eyes, dislodging what he imagines are flakes of brick from his lashes, and looks down.
Grass. He’s standing in lush grass.
He blinks. Rubs his eyes. Blinks again. Because what he’s seeing can’t be real. He’s in a small bushy clearing in the middle of a forest. On a warm spring day. The air shimmers with birdsong and bright golden light. And more green than he’s seen since he was a boy. He forgets, living in the city, just how green the forest can be.
But Sherlock’s nowhere in sight.
John calls out, low at first. The birds pause their chirruping, twittering songs as if they’re listening for a response, then start up again when he calls out louder. “Sherlock?”
He hears a soft quaver of laughter, so low that he can’t tell whether it’s a male or female voice, whether it’s Sherlock or not. And he calls again, a little more strident this time. “Sherlock!”
Sherlock answers from somewhere ahead, in the trees, his voice too light and easy, too filled with delight, for him to be under duress. “John, this way!”
John breathes a sigh of relief. The bands of tension across his gut ease. “Sherlock, where are you?” Then he mutters, “Though a better question would be…where are we?”
“This way. Come on!” Sherlock calls again.
Sherlock’s voice sounds odd. So light it’s almost like he’s drugged. Except that John’s seen Sherlock drugged, and his extraordinary voice gets slow and slurry when he’s under the influence. And that’s certainly not how he sounds now.
“Sherlock, wait for me!” John takes a couple of quick steps forward, then forces himself to stop. The way forward is obvious, a trail of flattened grass curving away, disappearing in the deep, inviting shade of the trees. Maybe it’s too obvious.
“This way…” Sherlock’s voice is further away this time and has a wavery quality as if he’s calling down into a well.
John’s muscles and the blood pounding in his veins, the too-quick thud of his heart, urge him to rush after Sherlock. To find him and run his hands over Sherlock to make sure he’s all right. To look into his eyes and make sure they’re clear. To punch him on his elegant jaw for rushing through a brick wall without stopping to think. For going on without him and calling to him from a forest instead of waiting.
But, again, John forces himself to stillness, to exude a calm he’s not feeling.
He glances back. The brick wall is gone, replaced with trees and brambles interwoven with a vine of heavy, gold coloured flowers that smell faintly like honeysuckle. But the door—passage? portal? gateway?—through which he’s just passed is still there. It’s just barely visible, a rippling, not-quite-in-focus oval where the plants and tree trunks flicker and undulate like a desert mirage. He reaches back, unable to resist checking, and his hand disappears into the misty green and gold.
He touches, carefully, a young oak just to the side of the shimmering oval. His hand connects with the tree trunk the way it should. The bark is solid and rough under his fingertips. It feels real, though it can’t possibly be real. It’s not possible. And yet… He pats the tree again. There’s no denying the solidity, the reality, of it.
He takes a deep breath. His initial clattering fear is easing; the screaming urgency to chase after Sherlock settling down to a taut hum.
Considering where he is and what he’s just done, that Sherlock is out of sight somewhere ahead, sounding like he’s had a few too many puffs on a happy pipe, John thinks he should be terrified, or at least jittering with nerves and adrenalin, but… He isn’t. The place into which he’s stepped is too light and airy to be frightening. Too…non-threatening.
Maybe it’s the chirping, tweeting birds, which would surely be silent if there was danger nearby. Maybe it’s the way everything sparkles with life and vitality. Even the shadows glisten and twinkle as if there couldn’t possibly be anything sinister hidden in their depths.
As if it’s responding to John’s growing sense of calm, a dragonfly lights on his knuckles, its thin, transparent wings swirling with all the colours of the rainbow. John raises his hand, bringing it up to admire it, and it flutters away up the path, reminding him of the voices and laughter ahead. Of Sherlock, waiting for him.
He jerks his chin again, nodding to himself, and sets off, glancing back just once more to reassure himself portal is still there. Then he thinks better of it and goes back. Since the bright spring sun shining down on his shoulders is making him too warm anyway, he takes his jacket off and wraps it around the base of the oak tree beside the portal. He feels better this time when he glances back and sees his jacket marking the sight.
John reaches out as he walks, touching bushes and branches and the dark velvet of leaves, patting the solid bark of the trees again and again, reassuring himself that they’re really there. The air under the huge, ancient trees is cooler and scented a darker green than the clearing. Fingers of sunlight beam down through the trees, dotting the meandering path. Overhead, birds flit in and out of the shadows, calling to him in voices pure and high. Just ahead, voices call to him with unintelligible whispers and enticing laughter that promise of finding Sherlock.
John breaks into a trot, watching to make sure he doesn’t trip over anything, a rock or stone, a branch, but the path is flat and well-trodden, the hard ground showing through a bare cover of crunchy leaves. But he doesn’t seem to be catching up to the voices. His sense of time feels distorted, and he’s not sure whether he’s been walking only a couple of minutes or much longer. He’s not sure how long it’s been since he came through the brick portal, how long he stood admiring the rainbow wings of the dragonfly.
He slows to a walk and tugs his mobile from his pocket. The screen is blank and dull, the only thing in the whole place that not’s flickering with life. He presses the on/off button, but the screen remains dark. As he drops it back into his pocket, he reaches out to a gnarled knot on the trunk of a huge tree. Has he seen that before? Slowed to inhale the blue scent of the flowers growing around the base of the tree? It seems familiar.
His breath quickens, sounding loud and harsh compared to the spritely twitter of birds and the ripple of breeze through the treetops. He’s opened his mouth to call out for Sherlock again when he realizes there’s brighter light ahead. A glow silhouetting the trees.
He trots toward it and bursts out of the forest into a glade. He almost stumbles over a pile of shoes littering the path. Shoes of all shapes and sizes. Men’s and women’s, trainers and sandals and heavy leather dress shoes. A woman’s elegant, spiked-heel evening shoes. Sherlock’s long, narrow loafers, his purple socks peeking from under the tongue of one shoe, lie in the middle of them.
John huffs out a breath and takes a couple of quick steps forward.
And there’s Sherlock.
Every muscle in John’s body goes limp with relief, and then snaps taut again. Because he’s found Sherlock. But Sherlock as John has never seen him. His mouth drops open, and before he can even think what he’s doing, he steps quickly sideways, concealing himself in the deep shade of a giant oak.
Sherlock is barefoot and bare-chested, wearing only the grey trousers he was wearing when he went through the portal, and he’s standing in the centre of a group of dancing…it should be easy to think ‘people’, but John’s mind stumbles over the word as if his subconscious knows something his conscious mind doesn’t. There are ten or twelve of them—male and female, moving, twirling, leaping—with Sherlock as their musical centre. He has a violin tucked beneath his chin, and he moves sinuously, with supple, airy grace, as he plays.
The sound he’s drawing from the violin is like nothing John’s ever heard. Sherlock has played compositions that made him feel as if his heart was swelling, but never anything like this. The music sounds like the violin is giving voice to the radiance of light, to the dance of leaves. Like it’s weaving together laughter and the rush of water over stones and the lovely rhythm of a lover’s heartbeat. It’s the flash of pale bare feet on spring grass. The silver whistle of birdsong in crisp winter air. The laughter of children. It’s magical, and John sighs and leans against the huge trunk of an oak and lets the music wash over him as he looks around the glade.
The pale greygreen trunks of young aspens gleam in bright, sparkling sunlight. Halfway around the clearing, right at the edge of an even denser wood then the one through which he’s just walked, is a huge hawthorn bush full of fairy lights so dazzling he can see them even in the bright light. Meandering through the clearing is a brook, a winding ribbon twinkling silver and gold, water burbling and sighing over a bed of stones. There are other people, too. Lounging in the clearing, walking arm in arm, picnicking, laughing and talking. Kissing. More figures flit in and out of the shadows across the clearing.
The whole scene, everything—dancers, leaves, water, light, the soft whisper of breeze through the trees, Sherlock—is like something out of a storybook or an old painting. And it all dazzles his eyes. It looks like someone threw a fistful of glitter in the air. Everything, everyone, shimmers with light and joy and unbridled, quivering happiness.
John’s gaze slides back to Sherlock.
The normally almost-too-tight trousers hang loose on Sherlock’s narrow hips. The button on the waistband is open and zip partway down, making Sherlock’s narrow torso look even longer than it is. And in the few minutes that he’s been out of John’s sight, it looks like someone has put their hands in Sherlock’s curly hair and ruffled it. The chocolate curls Sherlock tries so hard to subdue are mussed and tousled, standing out around his head like a burnished skullcap.
He looks like he’s been here forever, like he’s one of the laughing, dancing crowd, and it makes John wonder, again, how much time he spent wandering along the path. The light doesn’t seem to have changed since he stepped through the brick wall, but—
“Your friend seems to fit right in.” The voice is masculine and raspy with disuse.
John starts as the words, so close to what he was thinking, intrude on his reverie. His gaze darts around the clearing. He finds an old man, white shock of hair brilliant against the dark green, sitting on a fallen tree near the edge of the glade. He has a bottle clutched between his knees, and he’s nodding in time to Sherlock’s music.
John glances back, just checking, and, yes, the pile of shoes is still there. The shadowy rectangle that marks the path is still there, limned by dancing leaves. Keeping his gaze on Sherlock, he sidles towards the old man.
The man gives a slow nod towards the tree trunk, obviously inviting John to sit.
John nods his thanks, but before he sits, he steps forward into a beam of sunlight and calls out, “Sherlock!”
Sherlock’s head snaps up, and he meets John’s gaze. His smile is warm and welcoming, like they’re old friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time.
John points towards the tree trunk and the old man so that Sherlock will know where he is.
The music ceases for a moment as Sherlock waves with his bow. But then he takes up the song again and does a quick, light step. He twirls, his long bare feet flashing as he leaps. He’s not as light and graceful as most of the dancers around him, not as practiced. John can’t help but laugh.
The people around Sherlock seem to be as affected by Sherlock’s joyous dance as he is. They clap and laugh, their voices as playful as the music Sherlock’s coaxing from the violin. Dancers spin away, leaving the circle, and others join. There’s a weaving, wandering pattern to it that John feels he could decipher if he could concentrate. But it’s difficult to really concentrate on anyone other than Sherlock.
Sherlock smiles at him, waves again, barely missing a beat, and dances away, leading the flock of dancers along the brook. They follow, weaving and winding about him, some even dancing into the water, squealing and splashing, sending water like sprays of flying gems arcing out.
It’s all so beautiful, so fantastical. And feels so comfortable. So…relaxing. Seeing Sherlock so carefree lifts John’s heart. Makes him feel like his nerves are alight and his skin is glowing. He wants to chase after Sherlock, but he also wants to question the old man who’s spoken to him. So he only watches as the group meanders along the brook.
They turn this way and that as the music weaves a spell like magic, notes soaring up into the sky. Just when John thinks he’ll have to go after them to keep them in sight, the group turns. Shifting like a flock of starlings in the evening sky, turning back towards the glade. Back towards him.
Sherlock waves again. He plucks the strings on his violin with his fingers to make up for the missed notes as he points, indicating that they’re just circling the glade.
John understands, with a comprehension that’s more intuition than logic, that Sherlock’s signalling that he won’t leave him again. Won’t bolt out of his sight.
He walks over and sits near the man, who’s also watching the dancers. Like everything else John’s seen so far, the old man is a character out of a book. Wizened face creased with age; ragged clothes that need mending; gnarled, bare feet dug into the earth. He has a bottle clutched between his bony knees.
John clears his throat. “I’m John,” he offers, hoping that, wherever the hell this place is, it’s not bad manners to give his name.
The old man clears his throat, too, and his voice is a bit less raspy than before. “Tom.” He offers John the bottle.
It’s the strangest bottle John’s ever seen. It’s double-bottomed and so rounded it can’t possible stand up. It reminds John, more than anything else, of testicles with an upright penis for a neck, the tip capped with a round cork. He grins as he takes it and holds it up to the light. The green glass is so thin and fragile that it feels as if it will shatter with the gentlest touch, yet it’s obviously sound enough to withstand being clutched between a probably drunk, old man’s wavery knees. It’s about a third full of a gold, fizzy liquid.
John uncorks the bottle and sniffs. The liquid smells of berries and lavender and vaguely like expensive champagne. His mouth waters as he contemplates how rich it will taste, how the flavour of ripe, fermented berries and rich herbs will burst on his tongue.
He raises the bottle to his lips, but the volume of the music increases, distracting him. The dancers flocks back towards them, Sherlock leading like some barefoot, bare-chested Pied Piper. Except, in this case, it would be a Pied Violinist, with—John squints as he realizes—a purple violin. Where in hell did Sherlock get a violin the exact same bruised-purple shade as that damn shirt he wears all the time?
“Where are we?” he asks and hands the bottle back to Tom, wine untasted.
The old man uncorks it and takes a big swig. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand as he settles the bottle back between his knees. “What does it look like?”
John grins. “It looks like a fairy tale,” he says as he watches the—the…
Once again, his mind stutters around a good word the people dancing around Sherlock. They all look human though there’s just something about some of them…something not quite human. Which is as ridiculously daft as the idea of being in a fairy tale. Though the scene really could be a fairy tale setting right out of a film. Except there aren’t any winged creatures flitting about. Unless…
John tilts his head as if it’ll bring things into sharper focus. The figures dancing around Sherlock are all different sizes and shapes and races. All clothed in loose, fluttering clothing. The women and a couple of the men have loose, flowing hair—golden blond and chestnut brown and red the copper of a new penny. They’re all varying degrees of beautiful. Or ugly, in the case of one small, lanky lad with eyes too big for his face and hair so black it’s almost blue sticking straight out all over his head. And a woman John’s age who’s so skinny her bones stand out beneath her skin.
It’s not the way they looks that makes them strange, though, John realizes as they twirl around Sherlock. It’s the way they move that differentiates the people from the…not-people. The ones who don’t appear human, including the lanky boy, move like flowing water, like dandelion fluff in a breeze. The otherworldly ones dance as if their feet barely touch the ground.
A young woman wearing a dress that looks as if it’s made of gossamer and leaves walks past carrying a tray of cakes. The smell is better than any baked thing John has ever smelled and reminds him that he ate only a light breakfast before spending the whole morning traipsing over half of London in Sherlock’s wake.
He shifts as the woman passes, lifting his nose to sniff the sweetness of the air trailing behind her. She laughs, low and musical, and turns, holding the tray out to him. It’s filled with cakes and biscuits of all shapes and sizes—long fingers of sponge filled with cream; diamond cakes filled with a jelly so dark and rich it looks like blood; square cakes so coarse they look like American cornbread drizzled with golden honey; crescents that look like they’re iced with pastel diamonds; biscuits brimming with melted chocolate morsels; pieces of fruit dusted with sparkling sugar.
John wonders if it would be considered rude to sample one of each, but then Sherlock laughs. The sound is deep, as golden as the honey on the cakes, and so merry it’s like a living thing has been loosed into the sky. Not like any laugh John has ever heard Sherlock utter. There’s no undertone of derision or sarcasm, none of the despairing mockery that normally interlaces Sherlock’s extraordinary voice.
Cakes forgotten, John looks to see why Sherlock’s laughing like that. Who or what’s created it. But there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it other than just being at the centre of a group of twirling human and maybe non-human dancers. Or maybe for making music so beautiful it makes the air around them shimmer and glow.
“Are we…? Is this a fairy tale?” John asks, aware of how ridiculous it sounds. But he’s also aware that he’s already said it once, and Tom hasn’t denied it.
If it sounds daft to the old man, he doesn’t show it. He simply shrugs. “Not—” His voice is tight and rusty again, and he stops to uncork his rude bottle, to sip from it. “Not if you mean like the things your mum used to read you when you was a young’un.”
John peers at him sharply. But it’s hardly mind-reading for Tom to think that John’s mother would have read him fairy tales. Though he’s right. John’s mother did read fairy tales to Harry and him. More to Harry than him, in an attempt to interest her in things their mother considered more appropriate for girls—frilly dresses and flowers and handsome princes and such. Harry had been, even back then, more interested things considered boyish, cars and dinosaurs and playing in the fields, than in dolls and clothes.
“How should I mean it then?” John asks.
“This ain’t like fairy, f-a-i-r-y, like in a story for kiddies. This is F-a-e-r-i-e. As in the Fae.”
“You mean like in that book…” John searches for the title. He never studied it himself, but he did attend a couple of seminars while he was at uni. Not that he was interested in fairies. Or Faeries. But a girl in whom he was interested had been, hence several hours spent pretending to pay rapt attention while some professor droned on about Celtic mythology and old beliefs and— The name pops into his mind. “Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries! Like in that book?”
Tom shrugs as if to say he has no idea what book John’s talking about. “Ain’t no book can really tell you about the Fae. You have to be here.”
“But that’s…” This time, John searches for the right way to say what he’s thinking without sounding insulting. “The Fae. Travelling to a fairy land. That’s all…a myth. Folklore. Isn’t it? No matter how you spell it.”
“Fae ain’t no folklore, boy.” The old man takes a long drink from his bottle, and this time, instead of tucking it between his knees, he plunks it down on the ground. “Faerie is real. Faerie gets in your blood. Faerie changes you.”
John leans forward, sure the bottle will topple right over.
Tom gives it a twist so that it sinks a bit into the soft earth and remains standing.
John grins. So that’s how it works!
Tom leans towards him and pins him with eyes so blue they’re almost white. “Use the eyes in your head to see what’s before you.”
It’s so near to Sherlock’s constant chiding to ‘observe’ that John can’t help but grin at the old man. And turn back to do what he’s been told to do. Observe.
A group of the dancers around Sherlock break away to leap and dance their way towards a smaller group of young women who’re walking across the glade. They gather near the hawthorn bush he’d noticed earlier, the one lit with fairy lights. As John watches, they clap their hands. The pinpoints of flickering light that John thought were electric (though now that he thinks about it, where would the power come from?) rise up from the bush in a swarm and flutter away. The women laugh and call out, their voices high-pitched and singsong-y, and the cloud of lights flows back into the bush. Settles and twinkles like stars set against a deep green sky.
John sighs at the beauty of it. The magic. Everything here, whether he believes it’s Faerie or not, is magical. So exquisite it makes his heart ache. So soothing it makes him want to go out into the sunlight and lie down on his back, spread his arms in the cool grass, and fall asleep to the music of Sherlock’s violin.
Maybe he’ll dream. Of music and Sherlock’s pale skin gleaming in the sunlight. Of the fairy stories of his youth. He can’t recall much of what his mother read to him and Harry. And not a lot from the seminars either. He remembers how bored he’d been. How smooth his girlfriend’s skin had been and the odd, squeaky sound she had made when she had an orgasm. But he can recall only a few of the things he’d learned.
He sits up straighter and shakes away the lethargy that’s trying to settle into his bones. His smile fades as he recalls the sonorous voice of the professor, the notes his girlfriend had been scribbling… Fairies, or Fae, are tricksters. They never lie, but they don’t always say exactly what they mean either. And now that he’s thinking about it, there was something about how you’re not supposed to accept a gift of salt or eat or drink if you find yourself in a fairy place. Or was the salt something different, from a different seminar? Something about welcoming a guest into your home? And what happens if you eat or drink? Was it something about not being able to go home? Or about having to perform some service before you could go home? About dancing?
He frowns. He doesn’t remember. But it doesn’t matter. A fairy/faerie tale may have come to life before his eyes, but they—he and Sherlock—aren’t where they’re supposed to be. He’s been lulled by the warmth and magic, distracted by beauty, by Sherlock’s music, by wondering where he is, when he should have been thinking about how to get home.
“Can we go back?” he asks Tom. “Can we go home?”
The old man yawns and shrugs. “Depends.”
Tom shrugs again and stares off into the distance. When he speaks, John has the feeling that what he’s saying is more about himself than about John and Sherlock. “You can mebbe go back. But you won’t be the same.”
“You Can’t Go Home Again,” John says softly.
John smiles. “Another book.” He nods to Tom as he puts his hands on his knees and pushes himself up.
Sherlock ends his song with a flourish and starts away from his flock of dancers. They protest, begging for more songs, and one of the young women catches his arm and tries to draw him back, but he smiles and breaks away.
A young man with a flute takes up where he left off as Sherlock walks towards John. “John!” he says.
For a moment, John’s so lost in the merry welcome in Sherlock’s voice, the depth of magical colour in his eyes, that he forgets where he is, what he was thinking. “You look like you’re having a good time,” he says, smiling.
Sherlock smiles, too, sweet and intimate. “I’ve never played in a forest before. I didn’t realize the acoustics would be so perfect.”
“Where’d you find your back-up dancers?”
Sherlock’s gaze wanders back to the dancers who are now fluttering around the flute player as if they’ve already forgotten him. A woman with a tambourine has joined in. The tune is similar to the one Sherlock was playing on his violin, but…different somehow. Less pleasing to John’s ear, but then, despite the reservations he’d had when he’d decided to move into 221B, he’s grown quite partial to Sherlock’s playing.
Sherlock shrugs. “They were just…here. Like magic.”
Which reminds John of why he stood up in the first place. “Sherlock, where are we?” He waves his hand to indicate the old man sitting nearby. “Tom says we’re in Faerie, f-a-e-r-i-e, but that’s just crazy.”
Sherlock gifts him with one of his everybody’s-an-idiot-including-you expressions, but it’s softened by the relaxation around his eyes and the fondness in his smile. “Honestly, John,” he says lightly. “Look around you. What do you see?”
“Trees, a brook, and dancing people dressed like they’re on a film set,” John says promptly. “Including you.” He eyes Sherlock up and down. Despite Sherlock’s penchant for lounging around their flat wearing only a sheet, John’s seeing more flesh than he’s seen since the last time Sherlock injured himself while chasing a suspect along the Thames and John had to patch up his cuts and bruises.
Sherlock’s the picture of health, now, though. Up close, his pale, flawless skin gleams with a dewy sheen of sweat. The shimmering sunlight sparkles off the fine coppery hair on his chest, on the thicker arrow of hair trailing down his abdomen and disappearing behind the half-open zip of his trousers.
John forces himself to look away from Sherlock’s torso, tilting his head further back so he can see Sherlock’s face more easily. So he won’t be tempted to ogle his friend’s belly. He grins. “Are you wearing pants?”
Sherlock grins back and lifts a shoulder.
And they laugh at each other, chortling like school boys, the way they did that day in Buckingham Palace.
Then John sobers. “So where are we, really?”
Behind them, Tom harrumphs as if he’s disgusted.
“Faerie,” Sherlock says simply,
In spite of all he can see, John says, “That’s not possible. That’s mythology.”
“And yet…” Sherlock drawls, scribing a circle in the shimmering air with his bow to indicate their surroundings.
John sighs. He can’t deny the evidence. And he can’t come up with a better explanation. He could be dreaming. He could be hallucinating. He could be drugged. But in all those cases, nothing he does will matter. He’ll wake up.
But that thought saddens him. The idea of discovering that Sherlock’s beautiful, ethereal music, Sherlock’s beautiful, otherworldly laughter, is only a dream—doomed to be shrouded in the mist of waking—is depressing. He realizes he’d rather be in Faerie than discover this is all a dream. He likes Sherlock smiling and relaxed and making otherworldly music that shines like glitter in the air.
Sherlock smiles into his eyes as if he can read John’s mind.
And John smiles back. Still…there is that whole, trapped forever in a fairy/faerie paradise thing that all the stories warn about. “Well, okay. If you accept that we’ve somehow come through a brick wall into Faerie, then you also have to accept that, if we’re going to leave, we need to go now.”
Sherlock looks around. Back at the circle of dancers. “Why?”
“Because if you assume that we’re in Faerie—and not in some dream or drug hallucination—you also have to accept the rules of Faerie. And from what I remember, if we eat or drink anything, we’ll be trapped here.”
The expression that flits over Sherlock’s face tells John that he knows the myths to which John is referring. But then he looks back at the circle of dancers with longing. “Would that be a bad thing?”
John’s breath catches behind his breastbone. “Are you saying you want to stay?”
Sherlock doesn’t answer. Instead he asks, “How long do you suppose we can stay without being trapped?”
John can’t answer that. “We could be trapped now. But if we want to go home, I think we have to try soon.”
Sherlock nods. But he says, “Do we want to go home? Do you?”
“I—” John can’t answer that either. He thinks he should want to go home. And he’s a bit unnerved because he doesn’t feel more of a compulsion to find their way out of this gleaming world of faeries and honey-soaked wine and real faerie cakes (not fairy cakes) and wine bottles shaped like genitals. A world in which Sherlock seems to fit as if he was born to it, way better than he fits into the other, ‘real’ one.
John laughs aloud at the thought. That would explain a lot, wouldn’t it, if Sherlock was a faerie changeling?
Sherlock peers at him. “What?”
“I was just thinking that if you were a faerie changeling, that would explain a lot.”
Sherlock draws himself up tall, though with him barefoot and John still wearing his shoes, the height difference isn’t quite as great. He gifts John with a peevish, affronted expression. “Explain what? And I think I would know if I was Fae.”
John laughs again. “Yeah, but wouldn’t Mycroft throw a wobbler if it was true?”
Sherlock laughs, but there’s still no derision in it, not even at the mention of Mycroft.
It’s difficult, with Sherlock so light-hearted, to concentrate on the more serious side of their conversation. To contemplate going back. Going home. But it is home. And this isn’t, no matter how much it shimmers and glows. “I think—” John swallows, finding the words more difficult to say than they should be. “I think we should head back.”
He looks to make sure the path is still visible. The pile of shoes and the rectangle of shadow is where he expects it to be. He takes a step towards it.
But Sherlock doesn’t move with him, and that makes him really nervous. “Sherlock, we have to go. Don’t we?”
Sherlock nods again, agreeing, but he points with his bow towards the musical circle. “One more song.” And he turns back towards the musical circle.
As he walks away, John remembers something else he’d read or been taught about the Fae. And faerie music. About how a mortal could be so captivated that they danced until they were exhausted. Could be lured by faerie music, drawn into the faerie world by it.
“Sherlock!” he calls and chases after him. “We’d better go now.”
But Sherlock has already tucked the purple violin under his chin, already laid the bow across strings as blue as his scarf. As he steps into the circle of people around the flute player, he takes up the tune of the song being played.
John’s steps slow as the notes soar into the air, into the earth. There’s a flare, a burst of glistening light, as if the music Sherlock creates with the violin makes the sky bluer, the grass greener, the air clearer. The notes ripple across John’s skin. He’s tempted to take off his shoes and socks, his jumper. To stand barefoot in the grass, bare-chested in the sunlight, so he can feel the music spiral down and soak into his body like warm light pouring through his skin. So he can feel it echo up into his bare soles from the ground and vibrate through his bones.
The dancers around Sherlock whoop and whirl into fiercer movement. They sprawl out in a lazy, messy line and gambol towards a grassy mound John hasn’t noticed before. A beautiful woman with hair so nearly silver that the shining waves look like water spilling down her back catches John’s hand and pirouettes him into the weaving, spinning dance. He laughs and allows himself to be swept up in the music and the press of swaying bodies. He can feel Sherlock’s gaze on him as he brushes past. He’s charmed by the approbation and joy in Sherlock’s smile.
Sherlock lifts his elbow higher and sends a shower of notes up into the sky. They cascade back down like stars falling from the sky, skittering across John’s skin like fiery coals. Even he, with his less than musical ear, can tell that Sherlock is crafting sounds that no ordinary man, no ordinary instrument, should be able to create.
“That’s amazing,” John calls to him over the whirl of music.
Sherlock twists, gaze following John, without missing a beat. His grin is radiant, nearly manic. His face is flushed, beads of glistening sweat standing out on his forehead.
As John sweeps past Sherlock a third or fourth time—maybe the seventh, he’s lost count—he sees the underside of the purple violin. The wood is smooth, shiny, glistening like everything else in this place. And it has a shirt button on it! The end button doesn’t look like a wooden peg, as on Sherlock’s violin in their flat. It looks like a shirt button with blue tail gut wrapped around it.
He twists, taking himself out of the sinuous line of dancers, grown to 20 or more strong now. He whirls to a stop near Sherlock’s upraised elbow and braces his hands on his knees as he gasps, trying to get his breath back.
He ducks, trying to get a better look at the violin, and almost gets an elbow to the temple as Sherlock swings around. John stays with him, resting his fingers on Sherlock’s hip to steady himself, to match the swaying tempo of Sherlock’s movement. On the side of the violin, the curl of the violin’s beak looks weirdly like a shirt cuff.
“Sherlock…” he whispers, his voice a disbelieving rasp. “We have to go now.”
As if John’s flipped a switch, Sherlock stops playing. He ignores the cries of protest from the crowd. “John? What’s wrong?”
John holds out his hand for the violin. He expects an argument, more questions, but Sherlock passes it to him easily, without protest.
John takes the violin gently by the neck and turns it. The end button is literally a button. A dark, suspiciously familiar button. He turns the violin on its side. Instead of the normal elegant but plain swirl of polished maple, the tip of beak is shaped like a rolled shirt cuff. And it has another button on it.
John catches the cuff-shaped edge between his finger and thumb and gives a gentle tug. The violin softens as if its dissolving and melts into John’s hand. His mouth falls open. He squeezes his eyes shut, then opens them to find himself standing on the edge of a faerie mound, in the glittering sunlight, holding Sherlock’s purple shirt and his blue scarf in his hand. Sherlock is standing beside him. Instead of his bow, he’s holding his belt in his hand. The buckle gleams in the sunlight.
John looks up at Sherlock, shocked and a bit horrified. Sherlock looks a bit shocked, too, but then a blinding grin breaks out on his face. He’s delighted, as if he thinks John’s discovered something truly wonderful.
After a moment, John thrust the shirt towards Sherlock. But he holds tight to the scarf, clutching it to his chest. The scarf brought them here. So maybe whatever magic created the blue-stringed violin can’t be re-wrought without it. Maybe without the violin, without the promise of faery music, Sherlock will be content to leave with him. “We have to go,” he says quietly.
Sherlock nods. But he doesn’t take the shirt.
All around them, the dancing comes to a halt. The music trails off, leaving only the chirp of birds and the flutter of leaves high in the trees.
A ring of protests break out. “No!” different voices cry in various tones and languages, all recognizable for what they are—French, something Gaelic, a Russian dialect—yet surprisingly John understands the words of each as easily as he understands the pleas in English. “Don’t go!” “Play another tune for us.” “We want to dance.” “Stay!” “Please, stay!”
Sherlock gives them a moue of apology. “Thank you, but we must go,” he demurs and gives a bow as strangely formal as his choice of words.
John holds his breath, because one of the things he remembers from his mother’s readings was that you should never thank a fairy for anything. But no one seems to mind. No one turns into a red-eyed demon with fangs. No one reaches for Sherlock with scaled fingers tipped with talons.
The young woman who was carrying the tray of cakes murmurs, “But you can’t go!” She has a cap of blond curls the colour of corn silk and eyes nearly as bluegreen as Sherlock’s, and a voice that’s the feminine equivalent of Sherlock’s. It lowers to a husky promise. “Not without a kiss!”
John catches his breath as, improbably, Sherlock smiles at her as if he’s charmed by the idea.
John grabs at Sherlock’s elbow. “Sherlock, you can’t!” John’s never read anything about faerie kisses, but it only stands to reason that if faerie cakes and faerie wine and magical faerie music can bind them to this place, then a kiss would have even more power.
Sherlock ignores him. “A kiss?” he purrs, listing towards the blond woman.
She nods enthusiastically. “In payment for your beautiful music.”
Sherlock considers, then nods as if it makes perfect sense. His eyes glow as if there’s sunlight behind them.
“Sherlock, no!” John grasps Sherlock’s forearm in both hands and tugs.
Without looking at John, Sherlock pulls his arm free and steps forward.
The woman blushes prettily, pink staining her round cheeks. She tilts her head back and her eyes flutter closed. Her lips purse as if she’s already anticipating the touch of Sherlock’s lips.
John braces to intercede as Sherlock reaches for her waist, his hand extended, fingers splayed as if he’s about to cradle his violin. But at the last moment, he shifts, pirouetting on the sole of one foot to face John. And the hand he’s holding out closes on John’s waist instead, draws him in.
John laughs, the tension in his biceps easing, fists coming unclenched. Of course! A quick brush of lips, and they’ll have fulfilled the request, and they’ll still be free to go home. What a clever way to escape a faerie trick. But then, he would expect nothing less from the master of unique solutions to problems and mysteries.
Gazing into his eyes, Sherlock hesitates just long enough to give him time to say no. Then he leans in, his fingers gripping John’s waist tighter, his other hand coming up to cup John’s face.
Sherlock’s fingers are hot, and John shudders as he realizes it’s from playing the violin. It’s like being touched, gripped, by music.
Sherlock touches his mouth to John’s. It’s not the quick peck John was expecting. And not with the inexperienced clumsiness John was expecting.
Sherlock’s kiss is warm and soft, nearly chaste, except for the way his lips caress, light as a dragonfly, along the line of John’s mouth. Teasing. Teasing. Taking his breath away. Kindling a flame John didn’t know was smouldering.
He gasps and grabs Sherlock’s arms for balance as the tip of Sherlock’s tongue touches his lips, his tongue. Sherlock tastes of cinnamon and coffee, and he smells masculine, of clean air and rosin and grass. Sherlock hums softly as John stretches up to meet him.
John’s mind reels like he’s drunk on faerie wine. As if faerie glitter is dancing in his veins and faerie music, hot and soaring, is playing over his skin.
His hand comes up, finds warm, smooth skin. His fingers dance, as lightly as faerie toes on tender green grass, across Sherlock’s ribs, down across the sharp jut of hip, and come to rest just inside the loose waistband of Sherlock’s trousers. Sherlock’s stomach flutters against his knuckles, and Sherlock sighs into his kiss.
It must be Faerie. Of course, it must be Faerie. It must be the magic around them that making him feel like this. That’s searing his nerves and overwhelming his senses. That’s making everything except the touch of Sherlock’s lips, the heated press of his fingertips, fade in the background. As Sherlock breathes his name, John realizes it doesn’t matter what’s causing it. Or why.
He murmurs against Sherlock’s lips, and Sherlock pulls back slightly. His thumb strokes John’s cheekbone, and his breath is soft and sweet across John’s face as he whispers, “What?”
It takes John a moment to sort through the flurry of emotions, of confusing, befuddled thoughts, to figure out what he said. But when he does, he smiles. “I said, ‘I just don’t care.’”
John smiles. “That I’m not gay. And you’re a pain-in-the-arse Faerie changeling. Or going home. Or being trapped in Faerie. I just don’t care about anything but this.”
Sherlock tilts his head and kisses the corner of John’s mouth once more, then lets him go.
John stares into Sherlock’s eyes, only peripherally aware that he’s breathing as hard as if he just ran up the stairs at 221B. He hopes that Sherlock was as reluctant to end he kiss as he was. That Sherlock’s body is singing as his is, arousal pooling hot and thick in his groin.
“We have to go,” Sherlock says.
John nods without speaking.
Sherlock picks up his belt from where he’s dropped it on the ground, and they turn together and head towards the path through the woods.
A chorus of ‘good-bye’ and ‘farewell’ follows them across the glade, and John dares a glance back. The young woman who’d wanted to kiss Sherlock smiles and wiggles her fingers at him before looping her arm through the crook of another woman’s arm. As the flute player starts up a song, they skip and hop together, picking up the tune, feet moving in step as if they’ve practiced.
Sherlock stops at the pile of shoes to retrieve his shoes and socks. As he leans against a nearby tree to pull them on, John looks for Tom. The old man is fast asleep with his back against the tree trunk on which they were sitting, his green bottle cradled in his lap.
The flute music still doesn’t sound as sweet to John as Sherlock’s violin did, but it’s pretty, and it follows them through the trees as they walk silently along the path, fading slowly until all John hears is the sigh of leaves and the call of birds and the crunch of their footsteps in the leaves.
John loses track of time again in the wood. He’s not sure how long they walk, Sherlock striding ahead of him without looking back. It feels like an hour. It feels like only minutes. He sees the knot on the oak tree for what he’s sure is the second time before he sees the glow that indicates the end of the path.
As they emerge into the small clearing, he searches for the portal and his marker. He easily spots his jacket wrapped around the foot of the young oak. And the portal is still there, an out-of-focus oval of leaves and drooping flowers. It seems quiet, somehow, dimmer than before, but it’s there, and he sighs with relief.
Sherlock retrieves his coat from the low-hanging branch of a nearby tree, and John gawps at him. He’s sure the coat wasn’t hanging there when he came through. Surely he would have noticed it?
Sherlock holds out his hand for his scarf, but John clutches it to his chest. “Not until we’re out of here,” he says.
Sherlock raises an eyebrow, but John only shakes his head. He supposes it’s silly, the superstitious fear that if he gives the scarf back, Sherlock won’t go through the portal with him. It’s even sillier to be worried that a man who just danced with faeries won’t understand what he’s thinking.
Rather than let go of the scarf, he loops it around his neck while he retrieves his coat and pulls it on.
Silently, Sherlock hands John his Belstaff so that he can slip his belt through the loops of his trousers. He has to fasten the button and zip them all the way before he can fasten the silver buckle.
John looks away, a bit disappointed--and definitely not ready to examine the feeling—that he can no longer see Sherlock’s navel and the line of coppery hair beneath. Sherlock watches him as if he knows what John is thinking. But neither of them says anything, and John wonders if Sherlock is so silent and pensive because he’s sorry to be leaving Faerie, or regretful that he kissed John, or embarrassed that he kissed John. Or uncomfortable with how John responded to it.
He’s not sure that it really matters at this point. Everything’s changed. The way he thinks of himself. The way he thinks of Sherlock. Just like Tom said. A Faerie change. And he suspects the same is true for Sherlock. But there’s no way to know whether it will last. Whether it will hold true, for either of them, once they step through the portal.
Assuming they can step through, once they’re back in the dreary winter of London, back in their flat, will this shivery, iridescent feeling seep away? Will he regret things said and done in the glimmer of Faerie?
Sherlock leans close, breaking into his thoughts, and the sudden rush of blood in his veins sounds like voices in a Faerie wind.
John looks up into Sherlock’s bewitching gaze. He’s seen documentaries, pictures of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with shining white sand and clear bluegreen water that looks like it can’t possibly be real. Like it was painted in oils by an old master. The sea in those pictures can’t hold a candle to the glowing blue, green, and gold of Sherlock’s eyes.
“Sherlock…” John says softly, but he can’t tell, in his heart or from his tone, whether it’s warning or beseeching.
Sherlock draws him in, and John catches his breath. Holds it. Waiting. Waiting. Lips tingling, parting, as he anticipates the touch of Sherlock’s mouth on his again.
But all Sherlock does is take his coat from John’s arm. He whirls it above his head with a flourish and lets it slide down his arms. He shrugs to settle it onto his shoulders. He frowns as he runs his fingers through his hair, trying to groom the wild disarray of his curls. “Shall we?” he asks, jerking his chin toward the portal.
John swallows the mix of disappointment and relief that courses through him. He nods. “You first.” There’s no way he’s taking a chance that Sherlock might change his mind. Might want that land of laughter and song more than he wants London. And John.
But Sherlock shakes his head. “Together?” he suggests, holding out his hand.
John takes it without hesitation. This is familiar territory, though they’re usually clinging to each because they’re running for their lives or their freedom, not so they can slide through a magical portal. Sherlock’s hand feels like it always does, palm warm and soft, fingertips cool and callused from hours and hours of pressing on violin strings.
When they step forward, the oval of unfocused energy resists. Where it felt like stepping through a wall of smoke before, it’s now like rubber. The oval gives, energy humming along John’s hand and arm where he leans into it, but it doesn’t yield.
John looks up at Sherlock, eyes wide, heart chewing at his ribs like a jackhammer breaking up concrete. And he lets go of Sherlock’s hand. Backs away. He glances over his shoulder. The path is still there, slightly flattened grass waving in the breeze. Shadows beckoning. Maybe they’re trapped! Maybe they can’t go home. Maybe kissing him wasn’t enough. Maybe it was too much of a trick.
He may not remember much of the stuff his mum read to him, but he does remember that faeries love to play tricks, but they don’t like it when the tables are turned. They don’t like to be outwitted.
Sherlock is looking at the portal as if it’s a crime scene puzzle to be solved. “Maybe,” he says slowly, “we came through separately. Maybe we have to go back the same way.”
John nods. “That makes sense.” And then he laughs aloud, not a laugh of chiming bells like Sherlock’s, but a dull one. Rueful at the absurdity of thinking that anything to do with any of this makes sense. “You go first.”
Sherlock nods and steps up to the portal again. But when he touches it, it’s obvious that it’s as unyielding as it was only a moment ago. Sherlock examines the oval, stretching up on tiptoes to reach as high as he can. Testing and prodding at the leaves and vines.
A thought, so ridiculous that John huffs laughter at it, flits through his mind.
“What?” Sherlock asks, turning towards him.
“Sorry. Just…I suddenly wished I had an umbrella so I could tap the bricks, like in Harry Potter. Except, the bricks are on the other side, so I guess that wouldn’t work.”
Sherlock smiles, too, and pats his pockets as if he’s searching for an umbrella. Then says, with a rueful lift of his eyebrow, “I never thought I would say this, but…where’s Mycroft when you need him?”
“Probably on the other side of this wall, actually,” John confesses. “I called him, just before I followed you through.”
“You called Mycroft? Why?”
John pretend glares. “You followed your scarf through a brick wall and disappeared!”
Sherlock has the decency to pretend that he’s embarrassed and regretful, to murmur, “Hmmm…” as though it’s an apology.
John sincerely doubts the apologetic tone is genuine, but he can’t really feel regretful either, at seeing Sherlock dancing in the sunlight with a gaggle of fai—faeries, playing a purple violin, at hearing his laughter. He refuses to allow himself to think about the kiss.
“I’m not sure how you thought Mycroft could help…” Sherlock’s tone is peevish and put-upon.
John shrugs. He’s not sure himself. “I don’t know. I guess I thought he’d launch a rescue mission.”
Sherlock says drily, “Or open a bottle of champagne in celebration.”
John snorts. But thinking of Mycroft leaping through the portal after them, or more likely, sending one of his toadies through, gives him an idea. “Maybe…” he says, “Maybe…”
“Well, you went through first, and I followed.”
“Very observant, John,” Sherlock says wryly.
John glares at him. “Maybe we have to go back in the same order?”
Sherlock steps back and half bows/half points towards the bricks.
But John hesitates. “You’ll follow me? You won’t…” He jerks his head back towards the path.
Sherlock smiles. “Yes, John. I’ll follow you.”
John isn’t quite convinced, but he takes a deep breath and steps forward. Leaves and flowers swirl as his fingers draw near. His hand disappears into a curtain of smoky green. A wash of cool air eddies around his wrist, threatens to slide up his cuff. He glances back at Sherlock. “See you on the other side.” It’s a question. And a plea.
Sherlock glances back at the path, then back at John, and says, “Yes.”
John almost steps back, almost reaches out for him. Instead he says, “It’s the only way to get your scarf back.” And then he steels himself, takes another deep breath, and steps through.
The sensation is the same as before. Except instead of the grit of brick dust, the scent of crushed flowers swirls around him as he steps slowly, slowly, slowly through a curtain of leaves. He closes his eyes as leaves and vines snag at his clothes and slide across his face. A branch catches in his hair and tugs.
He stumbles as his feet meet something hard and uneven. He brushes at his eyes, dislodging pollen and leaf dust from his lashes, and looks down. Pavement. He’s standing on a sheet of crumpled newspaper, on pavement. The alley coalesces around him in a blinding contrast of bright artificial light and deep, deep shadow of night. The scents and sounds of London slam into his consciousness. Air, close and heavy with rain, fills his lungs.
Mycroft, sans umbrella, is standing in the middle of the alley. He wheels towards John. “Dr Watson!”
Anthea is standing near Mycroft. She looks up from the screen of her mobile. Further back, a gaggle of men and women, black-suited Mycroft-clones, clutch computer tablets and phones and cameras. Off to the left of the portal, a trio of a two men and a woman are gathered around a table containing a row of computers and—John has to squint—round, dull grey objects that he assumes are some type of sensors.
Metres away, silhouetted against the streetlamps, a row of uniformed police officers stand in front of a line of yellow police tape, guarding the entrance to the alley. They’re dressed as London coppers, but something about the way they stand, the way they don’t glance back as the volume of voices and beeping, hissing machines rises, tells John they’re much more than just coppers. Army maybe. Or Secret Service. Maybe Mycroft has his own army, like Dumbledore.
John would grin, except he feels as if his face is frozen with fear. He turns to face the brick wall through which he’s just stepped. Sherlock still hasn’t appeared.
Mycroft materializes at his elbow as if he used a portal to cross the distance. “Where is my brother, Dr Watson?”
“Right behind me,” John with certainty, as if he can will it by words alone. He pretends the way his heart is thudding is because of the way he can’t quite get a good, deep breath in the chilly, humid air.
It seems like minutes stretch out and out, time elongating the way it had in the forest, before the brick oval shifts. Morphs and stretches and ripples. And Sherlock steps through.
John laughs aloud with relief. Sherlock is dressed as he was when he went through the portal except that he didn’t button his shirt. As he strides towards John, the tails of his shirt flap in the breeze and pale skin flashes against purple fabric.
Sherlock meets John’s gaze and smiles. The smile changes to a sneer as he glances at his brother. He says drily, “Imagine finding you here, Mycroft.”
John feels, rather than sees, Mycroft stiffen beside him, and he can’t help but grin, too. And breathe a silent sigh of relief. It’s the first real breath he allowed himself since he came through.
If Mycroft finds it odd that his brother has just stepped through a brick wall, or notices that his Sherlock’s clothing is in disarray, or that John is wearing Sherlock’s scarf, he recovers quickly. His tone is even more dry than Sherlock’s as he nods in greeting and says, “Sherlock…” And he motions with his hand.
A squad of men and women, arrayed in black, bristling with weapons and equipment, detach themselves from the shadows of the alley wall. They trot towards the end of the alley.
“Mycroft, no!” Sherlock hisses.
“That’s not necessary,” John says urgently, grabbing Mycroft’s arm to make sure he has his attention. “It’s not a threat.” At least, he amends to himself, not in the way that Mycroft understands.
But they needn’t have bothered. As the troops approach the brick wall, the soft focus quality of the oval clears as if it was fog puffed away by a quick gust of air. Even in the darkness and the contrast caused by the artificial lights, the surface is as sharp and in focus and solid as the rest of the wall.
The man in the lead touches the wall. His hand stays flat and whole. The man next to him touches the wall with the same result. A tiny woman steps up between them and slaps her palm to the bricks. The slap of leather against stone echoes through the alley. They all look back at Mycroft.
John is suddenly aware that he’s been holding his breath again, and he lets it out with a huff. His hands are clenched in Sherlock’s scarf, and he forces himself to let the soft fabric slide through his fingers.
Sherlock looks down at him, and in the dim light, his eyes glow a brilliant bluegreen. He smiles with a nearly feral flash of white teeth and wheels away, his coat flaring with his movement. “Ready to go home, John?” he calls as he strides away.
John has to lengthen his stride to catch up. He ignores, as Sherlock does, Mycroft calling their names in quick succession, his voice annoyed and demanding. “Sherlock! Dr Watson! I have questions. You must be debriefed. And we need to do tests.”
A couple of ‘Mycroft’s Army’ detaches themselves from a group still standing at the wall. Two of the officers at the end of the alley turn, step closer together as if they’ll block the way.
“Tomorrow,” Sherlock calls without glancing back. But he slows as he nears the officers.
John turns back. “Tomorrow, Mycroft. I promise. Right now, we’re tired and hungry.” Right now, he just wants Sherlock as far away from that brick wall as he can get him. Before Sherlock gets curious about why he could go through, but Mycroft’s Army can’t.
After a moment, as if he can read John’s thoughts, see the agitation that’s creeping into his shoulders and back, Mycroft nods. Waves for them to be allowed through. “Tomorrow,” he agrees. It sounds like a threat.
They’re in the kitchen, John and Mycroft. As John makes sandwiches—cucumber and butter, cheese and pickle, and ham and mustard—Mycroft watches with such concentration that it looks as if he’s taking notes for later. Not that John can see Mycroft ever making his own tea sandwiches. Not that John’s all that sure he’s doing it right. It’s not normally something that he does himself. It just feels right—after where they’ve been, what they’ve seen—these light, crust-free sandwiches and tea in delicate china cups.
It's been like that for the three days since they returned. John feels like fussing. Doing something different. Making an effort. Even today, with Mycroft as an uninvited guest.
Half of John’s attention is on spreading paper thin layers of butter, of fine gold mustard, on the thin slices of bread, the other half is on Sherlock.
Sherlock is in the living room, standing at the window with his violin. It’s plain brown with ivory strings. John keeps looking to make sure it’s not purple like the one in—John gulps over even the thought of the words—Faerie. Sherlock’s had no trouble saying it, but now that he’s back in the real world, John’s been stumbling over the word. Even in his thoughts. Despite what he’s seen.
Sometimes, he’s half convinced he dreamed it. That it never happened. Except… It can’t have been a dream. Not with Mycroft as a witness that they’d stepped through a brick wall. Not with Sherlock standing at the window, as he has been all afternoon, limned in soft light that’s turned almost violet as the day wanes, trying to re-create the song he was playing as they swirled and danced amongst the Fae.
John has watched all afternoon as Sherlock’s done the same thing over and over again. Working with a concentration John normally only sees at a crime scene. Violin tucked under his chin, Sherlock plays a few notes, frowns, plays again, then again, until he’s achieved the sound for which he’s searching. Then he juggles his bow and a pencil in his right hand, makes a notation on the sheet of manuscript paper lined for writing music. Then he plays again. So far, he’s filled three pages with musical notes as sprightly and soaring as the music he’s re-creating.
“He’s very focused,” Mycroft observes without inflection.
John glances at him.
Mycroft is leaning lightly, bum against the edge of the worktop, arms crossed, expression casual and bland. Almost suspiciously so. That’s the expression that stole over his face when Sherlock and John ‘debriefed’ him two days ago. And he’s pretty much stayed that way. Flat and noncommittal, even as he insisted on them repeating their stories, on them submitting to blood tests and physical examinations.
John can’t tell whether the nonchalance means Mycroft believed them or that he thinks they’ve spun a gigantic fabrication of lies. He’s almost convinced Mycroft would have been happier if they’d told him some tale of an alien world, or being transported to some remote area of Russia by a transporter beam.
“It’s the music he played in F—” John stumbles over the word again. “Ummm…over there,” John tells him. “He’s trying to remember it.”
“Ah-h-h.” Mycroft says, and he watches Sherlock, too, with a narrow-eyed, intense gaze.
“You don’t believe us, do you?” John says it casually, trying for the same bland tone that Mycroft pulls off with such ease.
Mycroft doesn’t even blink. “Why do you say that?”
John shakes his head, grimaces but with humour. “I believe that’s known in diplomatic circles as a ‘non-answer answer’. And I say it because you’re being so quiet and casual about everything.”
Before Mycroft can respond, if he was even going to, Sherlock stops playing. He turns, violin still tucked under his chin, bow held suspended above the strings. “You’re ignoring an even more obvious explanation, John. That he already knew about the portal.” He glares at Mycroft. “That he’s unperturbed because he knows we’re not lying.”
Mycroft’s eyebrows start to climb up his forehead, but he recovers quickly. Smiles that smarmy smile that manages to double as an indictment. “What an imagination you have,” he says.
“Non-response response,” John mutters and goes back to his sandwiches.
After a moment, Sherlock turns back to the window and music flows into the kitchen.
Mycroft watches him a while longer before turning back to John. “That sounded more like the Sherlock I know,” he says.
For the first time, John can hear the undercurrent of concern bleed through Mycroft’s banality. “I—” John pretends more interest in the sandwiches than he feels as he takes a deep breath and confesses, “It almost didn’t seem right. To make him come back to…this.” And he hopes Mycroft understands what he means by ‘this’. Back to a world in which Sherlock will never really fit. Back to a world in which he either blazes with energy or is gutted by boredom. A world in which John has never heard Sherlock laugh the way he did there, with a sound like the play of sun-sparkled water over stones. “He was so happy there. So…content.”
“As he is when he’s high,” Mycroft says, his tone sharp and a bit sarcastic. “But if you found him about to stick a needle into a vein you’d stop him, wouldn’t you?”
Startled, John looks up at Mycroft. “Yes, of course, but—”
“It’s no different,” Mycroft says softly.
And John nods. He’s not sure he agrees. Mycroft didn’t see Sherlock there. Can’t understand how happy Sherlock was, the music he made. But…it’s something to think about…Faerie as addiction.
“You know, none of my people have been able to duplicate what the two of you did,” Mycroft says it almost conversationally, as if it’s of little consequence. “The portal appears to be closed.”
John’s sure Mycroft’s had people working in the alley around the clock, tapping, testing, probing. He wouldn’t be a bit surprised to go back and find the wall has huge chunks knocked out of it, holes outlined in ragged brick, exposing the interior of the building beyond.
John doesn’t bother to tell Mycroft that he suspects that duplicating what he and Sherlock did would require a strange, singing wind. And a particular man and maybe even a particular scarf. Which is hanging on the mirror in John’s bedroom. Sherlock hasn’t asked for his scarf to be returned, and John hasn’t offered it.
But he’s not about to tell Mycroft about his suspicions. Nor is he going to mention them to Sherlock. So far, if Sherlock’s thought about going back, either to Faerie or the alley, he hasn’t mentioned it. He’s been quite content to pluck and stroke and saw away at his violin for hours on end. To spend his evenings sitting, book unread in his lap, staring into the fire, with John opposite him, doing the same.
They’ve talked very little. Not at all about Faerie except in passing a couple of times. And that’s fine. John’s in no rush to hash it over. Sherlock seems to feel the same way. He seems, if not carefree, then at least content. And John wants to keep it that way. He’s not sure how they managed to escape Faerie the first time, and he’s not eager to try to do it again.
“You know…” Sandwiches made, John puts the kettle on to boil. Puts three cups and three saucers on a tray. “I’ve been researching a bit. And if even half of what I’ve read is true, it’s lucky we were able to come back at all.”
Mycroft reaches behind his back on the counter and retrieves the china teapot. He places it solemnly in the middle of John’s tray, as if he recognizes the importance of John’s ritual of tea, then he nods for John to continue.
John glances at Sherlock, but he doesn’t appear to be paying them any attention. “If I’d taken even a bit of cake, a sip of the wine, if Sherlock had…”
His attention drifts as he thinks of what he’s learned. He’s downplayed it to Mycroft. He’s done a lot of reading about the mythology of human interaction with the Fae. And quite a lot of contemplating it all. He has no idea how they managed to avoid the pitfalls of Faerie. It sure as hell wasn’t skill or knowledge, so it must have been luck.
“Yes?” Mycroft prompts.
John twitches himself back to the present. “The…people…there. They offered me cake. And wine. And it all smelled so good. I can’t even describe it.” He hesitates, searching for words. They’ve explained to Mycroft, twice over, what happened, what they saw. But not how it looked. How it felt. “It was— The cake smelled like warm honey and caramel and cream, combined. And the wine smelled…sweet and fresh. Like an icy spring, but better. Like it was made from champagne and berries so ripe they were bursting. And it was all so beautiful. So magical. The air sparkled, like it was filled with glitter.”
“Very poetic, Dr Watson,” Mycroft interjects drily.
John shrugs to acknowledge that maybe he’s drifted off into romantic language, but there’s really no other way to describe it. And even then, words aren’t rich enough. “According to everything I’ve read, If I had taken even a bite, or a sip… If Sherlock had… According to the legends, we would have been trapped. We would have been bewitched. For a minute there, just before we left, I thought Sherlock was bewitched. By the music.”
John shivers. He walks a couple of steps towards the arch between the kitchen and living room.
Sherlock is wearing his bathrobe, cotton pyjama pants tied loosely around his slender hips, and an old t-shirt washed so often it’s soft and faded and a bit too short for his long torso. When he swings his elbow up to position the bow on the strings, the shirt rides up and the pants slip down, exposing a long, thin line of pale belly between hem and waistband. And then he swings back towards the window, and the slash of skin is visible only as a long pale streak reflected in the glass.
John’s fingers twitch, curl and uncurl. He remembers the softness of Sherlock’s belly under his fingers. The silky warmth. The sweetness of Sherlock’s kiss... he wills Sherlock to turn back towards him, acknowledge him. Smile at him. Even a fraction of that woodland smile would warm the room for hours.
Sherlock plays another trill of notes on the violin, then sighs and shakes his head. He drops the bow down by his thigh and rolls his shoulders to loosen them. Twists his neck to one side as if he’s trying to make it crack. Then he repositions the bow to try again.
John turns back to Mycroft. “I have no idea why I didn’t eat anything. Or drink anything. The food looked amazing. The wine smelled so good. But I wasn’t even tempted. I have no idea why Sherlock wasn’t taken in by the music.”
Sherlock plays a long trill on the violin, and John can feel the Fae in it. The notes trickle down his spine, conjuring the scent of green and the feel of silver dancing on his skin. For just a moment, the air seems brighter. Shimmery.
“You’ve almost got it,” he says softly as he walks towards Sherlock. “But wasn’t it more like—” He hesitates. His voice is inadequate to even try to make a sound that comes even near the music Sherlock can create. And so he simply says, ‘La la la, la la, la la la la,” trying to show, more than the sound, the rhythm and emphasis he remembers. That he’s remembered every night, in fevered dreams. Sherlock dancing, pale skin agleam in the glitter of golden sunlight, a sound like colours come to life vibrating from the strings of a purple violin. Sherlock’s lips touching his, warm and sweeter than any Faerie wine.
Sherlock lowers the bow and looks back over his shoulder. “Yes. That’s it!” But instead of returning to the violin—or the paper that looks like a spider dipped in ink has crawled across it, scrawling notes with each of its eight legs before crossing them out and starting again—Sherlock stares at him. His eyes are the brilliant bluegreen shot through with the gilded crystal of a faerie pool. A rosy blush colours his cheeks. He smiles.
It’s as if the moon itself has peeked over the trees, mellow light banishing the shadows. As if someone’s thrown a handful of glitter into the air. It takes John’s breath away.
Behind him, the kettle whistles as it boils. There’s the clink of the teapot lid, the rushing sound of liquid against china that tells him Mycroft is pouring the water into the teapot.
But John can’t be bothered, not by tea nor by the fact that Mycroft is in the flat with them. He drifts to Sherlock, as drawn as he was by smell of Fae wine.
Sherlock, violin still tucked beneath his chin, leans towards him.
Moving slowly, the way Sherlock moved before he kissed him, giving Sherlock time to move away if he chooses to, John leans in. He runs the tip of his finger along the strip of bare skin above Sherlock’s waistband.
Sherlock shivers at the contact, puffs his flat belly out as if inviting further caresses. The violin drops to his side and hangs, forgotten, in his long fingers.
John runs his finger along the line of fabric, tempted to dip his finger in behind it, to lay his whole hand, open wide and flat, against the warmth of Sherlock’s belly. To slide his fingers lower. But he doesn’t. He may be ignoring the fact that Mycroft is standing only a few metres away, but he hasn’t forgotten it.
Instead he says, voice playful but low enough that only Sherlock can hear, “Still not wearing any pants?”
Sherlock laughs, low and intimate. “When one has been to Faerie, John, clothing seem quite irrelevant.”
Heat climbs up the back of John’s neck. His heart beats, not with a tripping excited beat, but slowly. With a ponderous thudding that he can feel against the back of his ribs, in the vee of his groin.
Behind them, Mycroft clears his throat. “Perhaps,” he says, “faerie food and faerie wine, even faerie music, holds no temptation when one is already enchanted.”
John glances back over his shoulder.
Mycroft is standing near the door. He turns and takes his coat and umbrella off the hook. With an inscrutable smile that could as easily be sarcasm as approbation, he gives a jaunty salute with his umbrella, then leaves, closing the door quietly behind him.
Shocked, John stares at the closed door as if a portal has just opened there. And maybe one has. Not a portal into Faerie, but a portal into his own mind. He’d already understood that Old Tom was right. Touching Faerie changed him. And he’s also realized that it isn’t going to dissipate. The magic of Faerie, the magic of Sherlock’s kiss, won’t ever leave him. Even if Sherlock never mentions it again. Even if Sherlock forgets, John never will. But until this moment, he hadn’t realized that meeting Sherlock, touching Sherlock, had changed him way before he ever went through a brick wall into another world.
Sherlock frowns. “What did Mycroft mean by that?”
John blushes deeper. “I think he was referring to something I said, about how I wasn’t tempted by the food and drink in Faerie. And how you weren’t tempted by the music.”
He waits for Sherlock to make the connection, wheels upon wheels turning in that amazing mind. He waits for Sherlock to realize that Mycroft has just said that they resisted Faerie because they were already enchanted. With each other. He waits for Sherlock to step back.
But Sherlock only smiles. And runs the knuckles of his bow hand along the inside of John’s arm. Then he reaches past John to take up his pencil and make a notation on his paper. “Really, John?” he says with only a touch of his usual disdain. “You hadn’t figured that out already?”
John’s breath catches. A shiver dances down his spine. And he laughs for sheer joy at how relaxed and carefree Sherlock sounds.
Then he goes back into the kitchen for the tea. Just as he suspected, Mycroft has added the water to the teapot, and there’s fragrant steam escaping the spout. Mycroft has also set aside the third cup and saucer that John had put on the tray for him.
John carries the tray back into the living room and puts it on the coffee table. “Tea?”
Sherlock glances up from his paper at the tea tray. He raises his eyebrows at the plate of tiny sandwiches and the delicate china cups, but he doesn’t answer. He just goes back to his notations. He plays another run of notes on the violin and leans over to write them down.
“Sherlock, you’ve been at that all afternoon. What’s it going to take to tempt you away from that and get some food in you?” John holds up a sandwich, thinking that if the sight of it doesn't tempt Sherlock, he might just go over and pop it in Sherlock's mouth.
Sherlock looks up from his violin and smiles. The brilliant, heart-shattering smile that John had been sure was Faerie magic.
“Perhaps,” Sherlock says, “I could be persuaded…for a kiss.”