Rating: PG-13 for this bit
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, and am making no profit from their use, more's the pity.
Warnings: Slash, mention of sex in this part.
Summary: HDM AU. John meets up with some old friends, Mycroft unravels the secret of the prophecy, and Sherlock searches for more information on Moriarty.
(Title page by birddi )
Part One: The Architecture of Our Lives
Part Two: Stepping Stones
Part Three: Foundations
Part Four: Shadowed Archways
Part Five: Buried Labyrinths
Part Six: Crossing The River
Part Seven: Glimmers in Darkness
Part Eight: Perdition's Bridges
Part Nine: Building The Republic
Part Ten: Lit From Within
While Sherlock was still trying to convince John that no, nothing had gone wrong, and yes, this meant he had a degree of sensitivity which was completely unprecedented, Mycroft called for a car.
Sherlock and Raniel were unmoved, of course. Mycroft could call in as many automobiles as he liked, they were not going home with him before they had to.
“I thought we were going tomorrow,” John pointed out, with the refreshing bluntness he descended into when he was annoyed. “Why the rush to pack us off now?”
Mycroft sighed loudly, as if he wanted them to know how patient he was being with them. “There are several tests I would like to-”
“Tests?” John repeated, suspicious.
Amarisa wasn't growling, but her shoulders hunched protectively as she placed herself in front of her human.
Tehayla cocked her head.
“I assure you, they will not be invasive,” Mycroft said, his tone turning mollifying.
John and Amarisa showed no signs of moving and continued to look uncomfortable. Though Sherlock supposed that wasn't too surprising – with only 0.4% of dæmons being hybrids and only 0.000007% of dæmons in the United Kingdom settling in a wolf form, a wolfdog dæmon was entirely unique. And unique dæmons always attracted curiosity, from both insensitive peers and from those doctors who made studies of the effects of dæmons settling in certain shapes.
While Sherlock and his dæmon would have rejoiced if Raniel had settled in a form so patently unusual, John and Amarisa were clearly disturbed when they attracted scrutiny. Sherlock wondered where that aversion had come from.
While it might be interesting to experiment with John's sensitivity, if John and Amarisa didn't want it...
Raniel scurried across the carpet to position himself in front of the wolfdog, standing on his hind legs as though trying to act as a shield, even though he didn't even reach Amarisa's chin. Sherlock moved to John's side at the same time, silently adding his own support to whatever stance John and his dæmon chose to take.
Not that they needed it. If John and Amarisa didn't want to do something, the only way Mycroft could succeed was through emotional blackmail – bullying would only make them more stubbornly resistant.
But Mycroft, of course, knew that.
“But wouldn't you like to see Aeliana, John? And Tamsyn and Hasna? I am not proposing running any tests now, merely fulfilling the second part of Mummy's request which is to take you to see them.”
And with that, John folded so quickly it was deplorable.
“You'd better keep your word about there being no tests,” John warned as he was climbing into the car, Amarisa having hopped in before him and already making herself comfortable. “I mean it, Mycroft – you come near me with any kind of funny-looking instrument I will break it.”
“We could always stay at home,” Raniel muttered indignantly, still sulky that Amarisa and John had agreed to go with Mycroft.
Sherlock shared his dæmon's irritation.
“Emotional leverage works very well on you, doesn't it?” he could resist digging as the car pulled away.
“I'm quite keen on seeing Aeliana again,” John admitted without the slightest trace of shame. “And Tamsyn and Hasna, of course.”
“Why?” Raniel asked. “Their dæmons have been visiting you.”
“Yes, but they can never stay long,” Amarisa sighed. “It'll be nice to spend a few days with them.”
“Now if Ragnvald were along for the ride, it would be just like the old days.” John smiled, ruffling the thin fur on his dæmon's head, apparently just to hear her huff.
Then his expression changed, becoming strangely apprehensive as his fingers twisted in Amarisa's ruff as though seeking comfort. “Aeliana, she'll...she'll be all right with this, won't she?”
For a moment, Sherlock was confused – what was John asking? He couldn't be worried that Mummy and Father wouldn't approve of him – who could fail to approve of John? He tried to sound reassuring.
“Oh, I'm sure she and Father will be ecstatic – they've been hoping I'd settle down with someone for almost ten years.”
John stared, and Sherlock wondered if he'd made some mistake. Was it bad to talk about a lifetime commitment when they weren't even a day away from their first sexual encounter?
But then John grinned and slid along the seat to kiss Sherlock slowly and thoroughly. Very thoroughly. Amarisa put her forepaws up on the seat so she and Raniel could wiggle close, licking and nipping at each other's muzzles and necks.
Within a few moments John had manoeuvred himself so that he was practically lying over Sherlock, still kissing, which allowed Sherlock to grab delicious handfuls of John's frankly magnificent arse. He squeezed appreciatively, rubbing his thumbs over the bones of John's hips (but only lightly on the left side, remembering the dark bruise). John chuckled, the kiss becoming uncoordinated as his lips began to twist into a smile.
One of Sherlock's hands leapt to the back of John's neck, not holding him in place but simply trying to communicate that he would not appreciate the other man moving away. But John didn't move away – on the contrary, he shifted even closer, one hand resting over Sherlock's collarbone as the other slid through his hair.
The kisses were deep but not insistent, just slow and languid as though John was in no hurry to either move or talk or do anything except kiss Sherlock. And when Sherlock found that little spot at the corner of John's jaw with his teeth and tongue, John gave a shuddery sort of sigh and every scrap of tension just melted out of his body in a way Sherlock hadn't believed was physically possible.
Sherlock had known he was aroused – had felt it as a distant hum, present but essentially unimportant, but as John leant towards him he became aware of John's arousal and the effect was electric.
He knew sex in the back of cars was something some people seemed to feel racy and exciting, and if he were back in university with one of his many anonymous shags he certainly wouldn't have cared about the presence of the driver. But he felt that the sight of John and Amarisa during sex – flushed and panting, John so still while Amarisa wriggled and writhed like her skin was too tight, both so clear and transparent in their reactions they were like polished glass – was for him and Raniel alone. No one else, ever.
John drew away, and for a moment Sherlock thought he'd noticed the sudden tension and was going to stop, but instead he just smiled.
“Want to make out in the back seat like teenagers?”
That startled a laugh out of Sherlock and an enthusiastic chitter from Raniel. John's smile stretched wider, into the grin he wore after they'd caught the criminal and all was well, and Amarisa huffed in amusement and butted Raniel over onto his back. The polecat squealed in indignation, which swiftly degenerated into a croon of pleasure as John's dæmon rubbed her nose against his belly, alternately ruffling and smoothing the thin fur.
The dæmons' pleasure shivered through their humans, and Sherlock twisted a hand in John's hair to guide him into another kiss.
It was marvellous. Sherlock had never done this before – he'd never had someone leaning against him unless they'd just had sex or were about to start having sex. And while that had always been vaguely pleasant, this was so much better; it was just so unexpectedly lovely to cuddle and kiss and laugh, their dæmons climbing all over each other beside them.
Though he couldn't deny he felt a little out of depth. He'd had sex before, obviously, but this kind of relationship with kisses in the mornings and hugs and John's total lack of self-consciousness in his affections was...new.
At some point Sherlock's hands migrated to John's backside again, which prompted another of John's warm laughs, so strong he actually tipped his head back and shook with the force of it.
“What's so funny?” Sherlock asked, wanting to get back to the kissing.
“Nothing, it's just...you seem very fond of my arse.”
Raniel giggled, and Sherlock sent the polecat a quelling look.
“Why shouldn't I be? It's pleasingly firm, perhaps a product of your military exercise regime, the rudiments you still follow...”
Amarisa and John laughed as though sharing a private joke, and the man ducked his head to apply his lips to Sherlock's neck.
“What's so...” Sherlock's breath caught audibly as John nipped at a particularly sensitive area. “...funny?”
“Trust us, it's not so much deliberate exercise as it is running after you two all the time,” Amarisa said.
Sherlock heard the heavy thump of a wagging tail that signalled the wolfdog's mirth, but didn't see it – somewhere along the line, his eyes had closed involuntarily beneath John's ministrations.
John didn't seem in any hurry to cease, as though determined to kiss Sherlock all through the drive, but gradually Sherlock noticed that the other man's lips were becoming looser, as though relaxing against his will, the kisses slower and slower with longer intervals in between, like a clock winding down.
“Am I boring you?” he asked sharply, just to see that small furrow that formed between John's eyebrows when he was exasperated.
“You are the exact opposite of boring,” John assured, his jaw stretching out in a half-yawn. “It's just that long car rides always put me to sleep.”
“Well, not so much in Afghanistan – threat of being shot and all...”
John trailed off in another yawn, and Sherlock added that fact to the list he was hoarding about John Watson and Amarisa. It wasn't nearly comprehensive enough for his tastes – he doubted it would ever be comprehensive enough, but he was prepared to try.
John ended up drifting off against Sherlock's chest. Half-lying on Sherlock, the other man wasn't exactly heavy, but it was certainly enough to make Sherlock's ribs work every time he breathed in.
Sherlock liked it – there was something very appealing about feeling John so tangibly there. John and Amarisa so rarely relaxed around other people, some part of them always on alert for any potential danger, and it was gratifying to realise just how much that wariness relaxed around Sherlock and Raniel.
Amarisa was still awake, but blinking drowsily as she fought against the pull of her human's sleepiness. She curled a foreleg around Raniel to draw him to her as she rested her head on John's hip and nosed at his jumper.
“It's been a rough few days,” she murmured, addressing both Sherlock and the polecat. “He'll probably sleep for the rest of the trip.”
Sherlock couldn't help tensing at the reminder of just how 'rough' the previous twenty-four hours had been. He looked at Amarisa, curled up on the seat and sleepily grooming Raniel, obviously at peace, and knew he shouldn't ask. But he had to know.
“What happened with Moriarty?”
Amarisa went still, her ears flattening against her head reflexively. She darted a concerned glance at her human, but John didn't stir – Sherlock had kept his voice low so he wouldn't be roused.
“We told you how he trapped us,” she muttered evasively, her hackles rising.
“We don't care about that!” Raniel hissed. “We want to know what he did to you!”
Amarisa closed her eyes and tucked her face against John's leg, and for a few moments Sherlock thought this was her way of ignoring them completely. But eventually she spoke, her voice muffled against the denim of her human's jeans.
“He did a lot of gloating, and he told us about the prophecy. He said something about not understanding what was so special about us, he grabbed John's chin, and then when I growled he...”
Amarisa trailed off, but the way she shivered and swiped roughly at her ear as though trying to clean it told Sherlock and Raniel everything they needed to know. Moriarty had touched her.
Sherlock reached out and caressed Amarisa's ear before he even knew what he was doing.
He froze at the warm flush of pleasure that washed through him. Amarisa shuddered beneath his fingers and he drew back hastily, chiding himself for crossing such a boundary when John wasn't even conscious and his dæmon was remembering such a violation.
But Amarisa's eyes were soft and grateful, and John was smiling in his sleep.
Sherlock curled his fingers into a fist as though to hold in the tingling warmth still racing over his skin. He was half-expecting to feel the wild, all-consuming desire for sex he'd felt last night, but he didn't. Perhaps because the motives behind the touch were different this time – he'd just wanted Amarisa to stop remembering Moriarty, to make her feel better.
Amarisa's gaze was still fixed on his face, and Sherlock twisted his head to look out the window, feeling uncomfortably exposed beneath those golden eyes. It was as though Amarisa could see exactly how much it had distressed Sherlock and Raniel to see Moriarty manhandle her, and Sherlock wasn't sure if he was entirely comfortable with that.
Raniel, of course, had no such caution. Not when it came to Amarisa.
“It was probably the worst moment of our life,” the polecat whispered. “When we saw him hurt you like that.”
Sherlock felt himself flush, but fortunately Amarisa chose not to comment in favour of licking and nuzzling at Raniel.
“It's all right,” she murmured. “He seemed to lose interest in us after that, anyway. I mean, he said some nasty things to John while the jacket was being prepared, but, well...” Amarisa snorted loudly through her nose, the air ruffling Raniel's fur. “We don't consider amoral psychopaths reliable sources of character assessment.”
Although there was absolutely nothing amusing about the image of Moriarty toying with John and Amarisa, Sherlock couldn't help but smile. Because he was sure Moriarty would have tried to reduce John to the blubbering, barely-coherent mess all of the other hostages had been, and he was equally sure John and his dæmon had resisted, in spite of what had been done to them.
John did indeed sleep for the rest of the drive, and Sherlock woke him just before they reached the house.
Aeliana and Grayson were waiting for them at the door, and Sherlock wondered what they’d make of John. Mummy liked him already, of course, but it would be interesting to see how she responded to a friend who was now her son’s lover. And they would know the status of his and John's relationship – for all the government secrets he supposedly kept, Mycroft simply could not keep his mouth shut on those matters.
John seemed to be wondering that, too, given the slightly nervous look on his face as he climbed out of the car, Amarisa pressing herself against his thigh in silent support.
“Sherlock!” Aeliana called happily. “John!”
Sherlock was expecting the embrace and the kiss, and accepted them with an air of impatience, wanting to see how John and Mummy interacted. John held out his hand, obviously deciding to err on the more formal side of things.
And Sherlock watched in surprise as his ancient, dignified mother – who'd never greeted anyone outside their family with anything warmer than a handshake – ignored John's outstretched hand to throw her arms around his neck.
“It's so good to see you again!”
John twitched in shock, but his stiffness melted after a moment and he returned the embrace. “Good to see you, too.”
Aeliana drew back and ran a critical eye over John. “Tamsyn and Nostrepheus told me you’d got rid of the cane, and it’s good to see your shoulder isn’t giving you much trouble.”
John smiled, his cheeks flushing. Amarisa partially ducked behind his legs, the way she did when they were embarrassed about something.
“Oh, and John? This is my husband,” Mummy went on, drawing Father forward. “Grayson Holmes.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Holmes,” John said, polite as always, sticking out a hand for Grayson to shake as Samieyah and Amarisa took each other’s measure.
“Oh, please, call me Grayson. You saved my wife's life and you're dating my son, there's no need to stand on ceremony.”
John flushed again.
“Saved my wife’s life?” Raniel whispered to Sherlock.
“Clearly John and Risa have not been entirely honest regarding their exploits in Afghanistan,” Sherlock muttered.
Two witches were waiting inside, and Sherlock assumed them to be Tamsyn and Hasna by the exuberant way they greeted John. The brunette embraced him as Aeliana had, with the complete lack of self-consciousness that came from a sibling-esque relationship, while the redhead was shyer, hugging him only briefly and backing quickly away.
Sherlock thought it was safe to assume Hasna was the redhead.
Amarisa’s tail was wagging enthusiastically and John himself was grinning, clearly pleased to see his friends. Sherlock and Raniel deliberately hung back, keeping themselves away from the meaningless pleasantries and tired lines of inquiry people trotted out when they hadn’t seen each other for a long time. Being polite, making friends…that was John and Amarisa’s area, and Sherlock and Raniel couldn’t deny they felt a little resentful at being out of their depth. And for some reason, the way Mummy kept smiling at them only made them feel fidgety and unsettled, as though she were in on a joke they hadn’t even heard.
All in all, Sherlock and Raniel were almost glad when Mycroft showed up and wanted to drag them away to the study. Only a little though, and they’d certainly never voice it aloud.
John and Amarisa ascended the stairs to the bedroom they’d been designated, having been told to wash up, and idly wondered where Sherlock and Raniel were.
The three witches had been overjoyed to see John again, and intrigued by the news of his sensitivity.
“Why didn't you say something?” Tamsyn had asked. “You never even gave a hint.”
“I never thought it was anything out of ordinary,” John shrugged.
Since they'd learned just how unusual their degree of sensitivity really was, he and Amarisa had wondered more than once if there were other people and dæmons like them out there. People who had never thought their sensitivity was anything special, and so had never called attention to it.
Still, even though John and his dæmon felt hyper-aware of their new status as 'freaks of nature', they'd been pleased to see their friends. Aeliana had settled nicely into her position as clan council – the worst of the friction was over, and witches' clashes tended to be very subtle and barbed anyway, which Aeliana assured him was nothing she didn't have practice in dealing with. Tamsyn was eager for him to meet her girlfriend. Hasna seemed rather close-lipped on personal matters, but John could respect that, so he didn't push her.
He'd wanted to know how Ragnvald was doing, and had interjected that question as soon as a lull in conversation presented itself.
Ragnvald had been called out of Afghanistan because his elder brother – Valsgard Finnurson – had left the clan holdings to go to Russia, apparently planning to work in the diamond industry. Valsgard was looking into the merits of somehow combining industrial diamond with the skymetal used to forge their armour, in the hopes of both making the metal stronger and ensuring their skymetal reserves would last longer. As it was, John knew that many bears now melted down and reforged their ancestor's armour.
John knew that a panserbjørne's armour was the equivalent of a human's dæmon, and had always been confused about that part – how they could re-use an ancestor's armour? It wasn't as though John could take on his grandfather's dæmon.
He'd been curious and had asked Ragnvald about it back in Afghanistan. Ragnvald had told him that while it was impossible for a bear to make their armour from anything other than skymetal, it was the act of forging it that made the armour and the bear one.
But panserbjørne society didn't really think much of experimentation with their armour (even if it was looking to improve it), so Ragnvald's brother was probably something of a rebel. Either way, the fact that he'd left the clan holdings to follow such a career had disqualified him as the heir, which meant that Ragnvald had to come back and take his place.
John had been startled to learn that Ragnvald was the son of what, among the bears, amounted to a clan leader. Bears still had an overall king, of course, that all the clans owed their allegiance to, but Ragnvald's clan was rather high in the pecking order even so – Ragnvald himself could trace his lineage all the way back to Iorek Brynison.
John couldn't deny he'd been hoping to wrangle some humiliating stories about Sherlock's childhood out of Aeliana, but that was when he'd been told dinner would be ready in ten minutes.
It seemed embarrassing ammunition on Sherlock would have to wait for another time.
“I can see what he means,” Amarisa mused as John washed his hands and used his damp fingers to straighten her fur. “About Hasna.”
“You mean when Sherlock said she was in love with us?”
Amarisa nodded. “I didn’t think much of it at first, but if you’re looking for it…”
John frowned, still dubious. “But wasn’t she with a journalist bloke, last we heard?”
“Because people never have a relationship while they're trying to get over someone,” Amarisa drawled, with a pointed glance that practically screamed ‘remember Sarah and Vassilian?’
“But Percila seemed to think they were in love,” John pointed out.
The wolfdog shrugged. “You can love more than one person at the same time – look at the polyamourists. Just because Hasna knows it isn’t going to happen, doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel it.”
John frowned again, feeling vaguely uncomfortable and almost wishing his dæmon had kept quiet. If Hasna loved him…well, what was he supposed to do with that information? She hadn’t said anything, and John had no desire to embarrass her by drawing attention to it, so should he just leave it be? Or should he try to show some kind of consideration for her feelings? But that way she’d probably figure out that he knew about them, which would embarrass her anyway…
John sighed and asked his dæmon. “What do you think we should do about it, Risa?”
“We don’t need to do anything,” Amarisa said. “We go on as usual, and eventually Hasna will move on.”
John was a bit dubious about that, but wasn’t sure what else they could do. He and Amarisa made their way to the large dining room, prepared for some sort of stiff, formal meal with an intimidating variety of cutlery.
What they walked into more resembled a hungry study group the day before the big exam. Oh, there was certainly food, but the people around the table were bent over books and ancient sheaves of paper and in the centre a large whiteboard rested flat to the tablecloth, with an apparently random and nonsensical list of words written on it in letters large enough to be read from the doorway.
“John,” Sherlock greeted perfunctorily, not looking away from the enormous, foot-thick book opened in front of him, Raniel peering so closely at it his nose almost touched the page. “Take a seat.”
John slid into the chair beside Sherlock, replying politely to the vague murmurs of greeting. Grayson directed his attention to the lone plate still sitting beside the whiteboard, piled high with roast lamb and vegetables.
John thanked him as Amarisa put her forepaws up on the table beside him so she could see what everyone was doing.
Like Sherlock, everyone around the table had an enormous book in front of them. And it might just have been John’s imagination, but they all seemed to be part of a set. They were all bound in rich, red leather with gold leaf inlay and intricate silver clasps to lock them shut, and all of them had the musty, somehow pleasant smell of old paper.
Everyone seemed thoroughly absorbed in whatever book was in front of them, except for Mycroft, who was staring at a small stack of notepaper in front of him, tapping a pen on the table and occasionally scribbling something down. But John was more interested in the broad golden disk lying next to his right hand. John tried to subtly lean closer, and almost started when he caught sight of the clock-like face on the disk’s surface, ringed with symbols, the three hands that each pointed to a different symbol, the thin needle that whirled and stuttered around the dial...
It was an alethiometer.
“He asked about Moriarty,” Raniel confided to John and Amarisa in an undertone, noticing their curiosity. “It’s not going so well.”
John glanced over Sherlock’s shoulder, and realised (as he had half-suspected) that those books were the books of symbols, the ones that helped people decipher alethiometers.
“Can we help?” Amarisa asked Raniel in an undertone, even as John raised his knife and fork and began to tuck into his dinner.
In response, Sherlock pushed a sheet of paper towards them, though he didn’t look up. John took it and read through it, making sure to half-turn it towards Amarisa so she could see too.
John assumed these were the symbols Mycroft had got in reply to his question, and reached for one of the books in the centre of the table. Amarisa nosed it open, and began to look through it as John ate.
Though the books were thick, each only detailed the meanings of a handful of symbols, with some more scribbled onto the ancient sheets of paper. Even then, these lists were far from comprehensive – they showed only the most likely six hundred or so meanings for each symbol, even though there could be many thousands.
Frankly, John didn't know how anyone anywhere had ever read an alethiometer, if they were this complex.
“Do you have to go through this every time?” he whispered to Raniel.
The dæmon shook his head. “Usually it's not so intensive – with most questions, you can make a reasonable hypothesis as to the answer, and can guess the meaning of one or two of the symbols. And once you have the meaning of a few symbols, it's easier to decipher the rest. But even then, it can take days.”
“And this is probably going to take longer because we have no real idea what the answer is,” John surmised.
“Can't someone create a computer program for this or something?”
Raniel snorted. “It would be equally as labour intensive to go through the millions of possible combinations a program would spit out. At least this way we can see when a possible meaning is emerging.”
Part Eleven: Structural Integrity (contd.)
Part Twelve: The Reader