This story was born when I had alizarin_nyc and thirdbird over one fine evening many moons ago and we succumbed to the pleasures of the Sally Hawkins/Rupert Penry-Jones Persuasion. We started discussing how to cast the story with Sherlock characters, and I held out for John being Wentworth for the armed-forces ties, though Sherlock's drama-queen tendencies made him a pretty good fit for the role as well. Long story short, I finally wrote it, and my hearty thanks to thesmallhobbit for the thoughtful Britpicking and to ariadnes_string for her remarkably acute beta work. I tried to catch the rhythms of Austen's omniscient narrative voice; you'll have to tell me if it worked.
I'm dedicating this story to the lovely oxoniensis, who's a fan of Austen adaptations and Sherlock and has also been having a rough time of it in real life; honey, I hope this makes you smile even a little!
One note: this story does not take place at exactly the same time that Persuasion does, for a number of reasons. First, Sherlock is a naturalist, and I wanted to be able to use actual scientific discoveries in the story without suggesting that Sherlock predicted Darwin, etc. Second, the story of the female sailor is true, right down to the date, and I wanted to include that. Which brings me to the next related point: this world is not nineteenth-century England as it really existed. Women can serve in the navy, and same-sex marriage is legal, though many of the characters who live in the country and not in London are not aware of that.
And a gif, to give you some images of what I had in mind for the kiss:
On to the story!
Lord Mycroft Hope would have been astonished to learn that one of the many thoughts he had had regarding the offspring of Sir Anders Holmes had also occurred to the man himself, as Sir Anders was not often to be caught thinking. Sir Anders had inherited a baronetcy through circumstances so tortured that the title was his only until his death and could not be inherited by any of his children, passing instead to the issue of a distant cousin, but this was not what prompted his thought. Rather, on the morning in 1817 on which his third wife had presented him with a son, he'd felt a brief flash in the vicinity of his brain, more neatly and fully represented in the formidable mind of Lord Mycroft.
Little short of a decade earlier, Sir Anders had run off with an actress and married her rather than be sued for breach of promise. Not long thereafter, she had borne him his first child, a daughter named Irene. The pangs of childbirth had assailed the actress cruelly, and she had died some few hours after offering her lord his heir; Sir Anders returned home to Holmes Hall with his child, some trunks of Parisian fashions, and a determination to find a mother for the poor infant. He found a better one than either he or the child deserved, for Irene was as vain and fractious as her father and Lady Sherrin Hope's intellect was matched only by her kindness. Lord Mycroft had been abroad at the time of the courtship, wisely investing the small sum their parents had left them, and had no notion that his sister was being seduced into marriage by a fop whose only thoughts were of his sharp cheekbones, golden curls, and lithe figure. The union was not a happy one, yet in good time Lady Sherrin was delivered of a boy called Sherlock. Sherlock spent four years in the sunshine of his mother's love, taught to respect his Uncle Mycroft and to set more store by his own intellectual gifts than his father ever would. The great tragedies of Sherlock's life were his mother's illness, which lingered cruelly, and her death, which still seemed sudden.
Sir Anders faced life as a widower with a daughter of six and a son of four with no more equanimity than he had his first bereavement. With a speed that justified Lord Mycroft's contempt for him, he married again – this time to his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, a very good and friendly woman whose husband had been dead for some two years. It was on her delivery of his last child that the aforementioned thought wormed its way into his head: the names he had chosen for his two elder children had proved false. Irene was not in the least a peaceful or easy child, being much spoilt due to her looks and prone to dominating everyone in the vicinity with the force of her selfish personality. Sherlock was no fair-haired boy; his sable curls and keen intellect marked him as his mother's child, and he wanted nothing to do with the various diversions his father offered. Sir Anders, considering all of this, decided to trick the fates into giving him a clever and accomplished child by naming him in the spirit of opposition. "Dimmock," he pronounced, and drank so many healths to his new son that he was nearly dead by the time the lad was christened. A winter's cold finished him off within the month, which might have counted as a mercy since his one and only cunning plan had come to naught, for little Dimmock was as dim as his name suggested and his parents' intellects had foretold.
In one respect alone had Dimmock eclipsed his more brilliant siblings; he had married early and married well, to Molly Hooper, eldest of the three Hooper daughters, the acknowledged belles of the county gentry. Miss Hooper had quite a respectable parcel of land and a substantial fortune of her own, and it was deemed most appropriate that, upon the formalisation of the match in 1835, Mr. Dimmock Holmes should live with her upon Hooper land. It was whispered that the other Hooper daughters, Miss Sally and Miss Anthea, would have to meet with suitors of vast wealth or great rank in order to induce them to give up their name. What was not bruited about, at least outside of the families, was that Miss Hooper had been most desirous of bestowing her hand upon Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and had settled for Dimmock only after patience had climbed down from her monument. For five years Miss Hooper had cast her most charming looks at Sherlock, newly returned to his father's house, but to no avail; after one long, tearful night's conference with Sally, Molly had determined to advance the family name by marrying Dimmock.
Mrs. Holmes, Miss Hooper that was, had not a vengeful spirit, and meant to meet Sherlock bravely, as the joining of their families ensured some constant intercourse between them, but Miss Sally had not borne her sister's tears lightly, and wondered if Sherlock Holmes had a heart at all.
Lord Mycroft could well have answered Miss Sally's question, had he but known of it, for he had had the care of Sherlock since the lad was five years old. In his sister's child, he delighted to find a spirit that recalled her most vividly, and was always desirous of giving his godson the care he so desperately needed. As Irene tried to insinuate herself into his life whenever he visited Holmes Hall, he determined to retire to his own estate and bring Sherlock with him, and they settled there in 1815. Sherlock was enchanted by the scientific laboratory that ran the length of one wing, and under Lord Mycroft’s care he learnt the discipline necessary to bring any scientific labour to fruition. A very fair budding naturalist Sherlock became in his years of study, though Lord Mycroft could do little to interest him in society outside of Hopewell Abbey.
It was a mixed blessing that the child had been alternately sheltered and neglected, Lord Mycroft thought, for that changeable treatment had made him shy and wary, unwilling to walk through the doors his beauty had opened. Sherlock Holmes had inherited from his father his height, upright figure, and curls, and from his mother her sparkling eyes, colouring, and smile; Lord Mycroft, a rather canny reckoner, was unable to determine which would be the greater draw, Sherlock's beauty or his dowry, but acknowledged that the two together would be irresistible to most. Had Sherlock mixed more in society, he would surely have been limed precipitously by some aspiring suitor, but Lord Mycroft was satisfied that no one in the vicinity was capable of captivating his nephew, whose heart beat only for science and whose fidelity to his vocation was absolute.
Lord Mycroft had no way of knowing that, some dozen years after he'd first learnt to call Hopewell Abbey his home, Sherlock had found something more wondrous than science in the steady heart of John Watson.
John Watson was the orphaned son of two of Hopewell Abbey's least pecunious tenants, his parents having perished in the first days of 1810, during a winter as lengthy as it was bitter. A neighbouring farmer had heard the child squalling lustily, curled against his dead mother's breast and searching in vain for some heat. Not far removed from his swaddling clothes, the child was brought home by Farmer Croft and immediately attended to by his wife. Lord Mycroft's father had allowed the two farms to be joined together, as the Crofts had no children of their own and if the child lived, he would be granted the lease on both farms. Having consented to so much, the late master of Hopewell Abbey thought no more about either land or child.
The late lord would have done well to heed both, for the Crofts were practical people who tilled the soil earnestly and were repaid by bountiful harvests, and John Watson was their delight. A clever, warm-hearted child, he was bright enough to suggest innovations to his father's labour and affectionate enough to offer freely the filial embraces his mother longed for. But for all he wished to be a comfort to his second parents in their old age, he yearned for the sea as his father had done before him; Jack Watson had come to farming late, only after love of a woman replaced the sea's siren song. John read, by candlelight, journals of naval adventurers and pieced together enough of an understanding of life on board a ship to fire his blood. The sea called to him and the Crofts well knew he was bound to answer the call; Mrs. Croft entered into the spirit of things and gamely prepared hardtack for her boy, and Farmer Croft, moved by much the same sentiment, allowed all manner of knots to be tied in the ropes that had served to dip buckets into wells.
John repaid all of their care by working diligently and earning the trust of his superiors. Though he had had no formal schooling, John made a name for himself by marrying practical medical knowledge (based on the herbal lore he'd learnt at Mrs. Croft's knee) to a lack of squeamishness with respect to dressing sores, amputating limbs, or cauterising wounds. His ability to tell a story so that it lingered long in the minds of his hearers brought affection to match the respect in which he was held, and all in all, his prospects were, he felt, very fair indeed.
The bright June day Lieutenant John Watson set foot on England's shore, bound for home and with a notice of leave for a three-month, was the day he met Sherlock Holmes.
John dropped his canvas ditty bag at the edge of the lake he'd last swum in at the age of ten and stripped himself bare. He dove in without further ado, relishing the luxury of freshwater against his skin. Floating reeds tickled gently at his body as he cut through the water. Sated at last with the sensation of cleanliness, he took his ease, twisting until he floated on his back like an otter, the rays of the sun warming his wet belly most pleasantly. He wiggled his toes, no longer aching and overheated, delightedly; he'd only just got his land-legs back before he'd set out on a tramp of many miles to steal home, determined to beat the letter he'd posted once his leave had been approved. It had been a very brief note, as he'd thought it best to avoid exciting any anxiety in his parents on the topic of the action against pirates at Grambusa; he had earned a field promotion from Captain Doyle for his actions in that skirmish. Surely, he felt, it would be better to delay such news until he could relay it in his own person, which had suffered no grievous injury. There were further good tidings to be shared; he had not long after sat and passed the lieutenant's examination, and was an officer in His Majesty's Navy.
A shadow fell over John's eyes, and he cracked them open to frown up at the gracious old tree whose roots were on the very banks of the lake. Its long green leaves fluttered overhead, markedly fainter on their undersides, so that he could see the ripple of the breeze in them as surely as his body was creating ripples in the water. He turned again, slowly, lumbering weightlessly, until he was submerged from the chin down.
John went still then, for he caught sight of something wholly unexpected. It was a man, a youth really, not much more than a stripling, whose long and lean form was folded into a compact posture, the better to keep his balance on the sloped ground as he drew a sample of lake-water into his jar. The concentration on the boy's face was unmistakeable, and John licked his lips unconsciously as he took in the brilliance of the boy's eyes and the elegance of his long-fingered white hands.
Sherlock looked up from the jar he was labelling when silence descended so abruptly on the lake that it was as if a velvet curtain had fallen upon the environs. He had inspired no such reverent hush when he'd come quietly through his uncle's woods and lands to gather his daily samples from the lake. Frowning, he peered about him, then nearly lost his grip on the jar when he saw the man in the lake, half-risen from its glassy swirl. He could not put a name to the figure he saw: broad, bronzed shoulders promising a pleasing strength, wet hair plastered darkly to a well-shaped head but already drying and lightening, an expression of wonder caught on a face marked by generous features. Sherlock allowed himself one moment of fancy – surely this was the handsome merman king of his mother's stories – before cloaking himself once more in rationality. The man was clearly accustomed to spending time unclothed – or at least bared to the waist – under the sun, which indicated that he was a labourer of some sort. And yet there was no tenant-farmer belonging to these lands whom Sherlock did not know by sight, and this man surely belonged here, given the lordly ease with which he lounged in the water, as if he did not need to issue a command to know it would support him. At home in the water, then, which was rare for these parts; Sherlock peered past the man's figure (with some reluctance, keeping one of the man's well-muscled arms in sight though not in focus) to spy a canvas bag on the far shore and concluded that the man was a sailor. How had a sailor come to his lake?
"This is not your lake," he said. "You must come out."
John had been very nearly holding his breath, as if the boy were a fawn he did not wish to startle, and he released it in one go then, as his heart sped up from hearing such dark, deep tones issue from that long white throat. Almost he wished the lake were his, that he could invite this pale boy to play the naiad with him and watch him slide those white limbs into the water. John trod water, put up his hands, and smiled, failing to catch hold of himself and wondering why the boy's sparkling eyes widened. "White flag," he called and pointed to his bag. "I'll offer my apologies once I'm dressed."
Sherlock ran then, racing toward the canvas bag that gaped open, heedless of where his feet went as long as he could keep his eyes on the man, whose powerful arms were propelling him through the lake at great speed. He felt a dull ache under his ribs and spared a glance down to see the jar of lake-water pressed painfully tight against his belly. He felt even more coltish and unsure when he saw the efficiency of motion the man commanded, and his respiration halted altogether when the man pushed himself out of the water and onto land in one swift, easy movement that made him a blur of brown and cream. His flanks were paler but no less sharply defined than his trunk and arms. Sherlock took a step closer without meaning to, and the man started and glanced up with eyes as deeply blue as the water from which he had emerged. There was a little pouch below them, as if his eyes had been underlined, but Sherlock needed no interference from Nature to know when to pay attention; remarkably long and curled eyelashes made those eyes arresting in any case. The man's skin was worn by sun and wind and yet it retained the freshness of youth; he could not be more than two or three years above Sherlock's age.
As he was accustomed to do whilst alone in his laboratory, Sherlock spoke his observations aloud. "You're a sailor, and you're either the youngest or the only child of your elderly parents. They do not know you've been granted leave, and therefore are not expecting you, which is why you felt you had the time to indulge yourself in a swim."
John, entranced by that improbably deep voice and bewildered by the truths it spoke, only remembered his state of undress when the boy's eyes dropped to his thighs, and he flushed profoundly, making haste to pull smallclothes, trousers, and a shirt from his bag. Almost his hand strayed to the still-new uniform folded neatly below, but he had too often envisioned his parents' proud and loving faces as he pulled the fine cloth and polished fastenings out for their inspection to do so now in the hopes of impressing a boy he would never see again.
He reached for his boots and the boy's eyes narrowed. "Why are blood and sand in evidence upon the soles of your boots?"
Surprised, John turned one boot upside-down to find where reddened sand lingered in the crevices of the sole. "May I offer my apologies first?" he asked, trying to dismiss the memory of amputating Meriweather's left arm above the elbow. "My name is Lieutenant John Watson of His Majesty's Navy, and I've come to visit my parents, who have no child but me. May I know my interrogator's name, and how you knew so much about me?"
Sherlock stared at the man – this John Watson – who smiled but bore blood on his boots. "Tell me about the boots first," he demanded; there was an order to these things, that John Watson was already threatening to disrupt.
"You must not think I'm dangerous," John said, feeling rather daring, as speaking to a mythical creature surely was, "else you wouldn't be standing unarmed before me, saving of course that deadly jar of water." The boy's bright face twisted briefly before a hearty laugh spilt out of him, and John felt as though his heart had capsized. He struggled to speak. "It has been my privilege to assist our ship's doctor – a proper physician, Dr. Murray is – with his medical researches and procedures. We lay sand down to keep from sliding with the ship's motion on the blood and seawater."
"Truly, have you?" Sherlock asked, a thousand questions bubbling up; he'd only been able to investigate the anatomy of the creatures he'd found dead on his daily excursions, and had never dreamt of learning the intricacies of human systems from one who'd seen for himself. "Would you be able to show – oh, but you're not stopping here."
"Why do you think so?" John asked curiously, wondering about the colour of the boy's hair, hidden beneath a practical straw hat with a wide brim. That much he might be able to glean, and it struck him as rather amusing that his reading of the boy was so limited when the boy had discerned far more arcane truths about him from a single glance.
"There are no Watsons on my uncle's land. And you specified that you were visiting your parents." John could not bring himself to look away from the peculiar clarity of the boy's brilliant eyes, and Sherlock gazed avidly at the slow recession of pink from John's cheeks.
"My people are the Crofts, who do farm Lord Mycroft's land; they have raised me as their own since my natural parents died," was the answer, and Sherlock clutched his jar more tightly, irritated with his own inability to reason so far. "So you are Lord Mycroft's nephew?"
"Yes, Sherlock Holmes." Sherlock remembered only belatedly that he ought to bow. John's bow was slightly more profound.
"What was it you were wanting me to show you, Sherlock Holmes?" John asked, watching delightedly as Sherlock's face brightened.
In the first flush of his excitement to become a naturalist, when he was still but a boy, Sherlock had often grown engrossed in his researches and explorations and, as a consequence, forgotten that his growing body required sustenance. Though he had felt his sight grow dim on a number of occasions, a quick meal or rest was enough to restore him to his full powers, and no one was ever the wiser. It was only when, as a lad of eleven, he'd misjudged his strength and fallen into a faint at the very banks of the lake, that Lord Mycroft was made aware of his nephew's distressing tendency. Lord Mycroft had newly returned from London when he heard the servants' whispers about the missing child, and he'd gone into the laboratory made over entirely for Sherlock's use to find the boy's latest notes. What he read (in a none-too-neat hand) were acutely detailed observations of the insect life at the lake, complete with rough sketches of a particular kind of beetle, carefully labelled. Lord Mycroft set out himself, scrutinising the shores of the lake until he saw an area where the bankside reeds were thinner as if some had been flattened; there, hidden by their height, was Sherlock's unconscious form. He carried the boy back to the hall, reproaching himself bitterly all the while for not keeping a watchful eye on his beloved sister's solitary child.
All Sherlock knew was that he awaked in his own bed hours later, feeling safe and warm. His uncle sat at his bedside and spoke to him tenderly, asking Sherlock to take care with his own health, to eat and sleep at regular intervals. Sherlock assented, loath to lose the large hand that cupped his face so warmly, and thereafter, made a point of sharing a hearty breakfast with his uncle each morning both were in residence at Hopewell Abbey.
All of this Sherlock reflected upon in the days after meeting John Watson, after John had obligingly sketched gangrenous and amputated limbs for him. He bent once more over the letter he was composing to the head of the Geologic Society, wondering why those memories were coming back at this time. He picked up the sedimentary rock he'd found, studying again the distinct layers and the whitish object that might have been bone embedded in it, and suddenly had the answer. He knew all too well what it felt like to live but dimly, in the days when he had starved himself in the name of science, but now, now that John Watson was there to brighten and gladden his days, he finally knew the sensations of the other end of the spectrum, when his thoughts were sharper and his heart beat altogether more quickly, as befitted a heightened life.
John found much sweetness in being with his parents once more, relieved of all responsibilities save the ones he shouldered for them. His father protested, but John was happy to spare his father's back and put himself to use, drawing water and tilling the soil. He allowed his mother to mend his clothes and feast her eyes on the smartness of his uniform whilst he wound yarn and entertained them both with the stories he'd learnt from the other members of the navy. He relished the wise, pleased nods his mother gave when he told her of the most particular friend he'd made in the ranks, a woman by the name of Harriet Harville, whose father had found his best mate in Jack Watson; Harry and John had begun where their fathers had left off, clambering up the rigging like a pair of monkeys, as Captain Doyle had named them, and had both enjoyed promotion after the bloody skirmish with the pirates had decimated the crew of the Orontes.
John knew he was bringing a touch of foreign glamour into his parents' simple, domestic lives, and knew too that the charm of their contentment lingered at the core of him, protecting him wherever he roamed. He owed his life to them, after all, and tried to pay his debt as best as he was able. The Crofts, meanwhile, once more proved themselves worthy of this good son's devotion, and ensured that he had sufficient leisure to allot to his newfound friendship with Sherlock; the first time John had returned from an excursion with the master's nephew, he'd worn a happy glow for the rest of the day, and neither the farmer nor his wife needed more persuasion than that to send John out for sun-filled days with Sherlock whilst they contented themselves with the sweetness of evenings in his company.
It was not about gradations or even types of happiness, John discovered on that leave. It was about a surfeit of bliss, so that even lying abed at night, he smiled in his sleep and woke refreshed.
"Soon it will be too cold for this," Sherlock pointed out, tearing off the prim straw hat he habitually wore for their excursions. His refusal to acknowledge the still more pressing need for celerity – that John's leave would expire within the week – made his tone brusque. "You'll have to teach me immediately."
"As if I need lessons on the weather from you," John teased, marvelling at the halo of sooty curls crowning Sherlock's head, which surely would not grow any darker even when streaming with water. "Very well. Into the lake with you." He stripped and turned his back so that he could not watch Sherlock doing the same; the boy was but seventeen, and sheltered. He cut through the water cleanly and then emerged, wiping the excess from his eyes and saw he needn't have bothered to try to protect Sherlock's virtue; Sherlock was completely bare, sitting on the downward grassy slope and reaching one long foot tentatively toward the lake's edge. John's breath caught in his throat at the picture Sherlock made, innocent in his abandon.
It took him a moment to be sure his voice was his to command. "Cannot you venture further?" he called and Sherlock looked up, chastened, and bit his lip. John took pity and swam toward him. "Catch hold of my arms," he invited, and Sherlock leant forward, his elegant fingers coiling close round John's forearms, and let himself be submerged, bit by bit, until he stood waist-deep in the water.
Sherlock still looked nervous, and John could not bear the sight of his friend, so brave and brilliant, suffering for his own obstinacy. "Why must you learn to swim?" he asked, chiding and yet fond.
Sherlock scowled even as he tightened his grip on John's steadying arms and felt John reciprocate, as he always did. There was no logical way to explain that he wished for entry into a space in which John ruled, and that he would be happy if John would deign to share his demesne. John waited patiently, as was his wont, and his eyes glowed azure, a colour that made him look like the very spirit of the lake. Frustrated by the impossibility of finding the right words, Sherlock leant in and captured those ruddy lips that had tempted him past the point of patience. "Oh," John exhaled softly, so softly, when he pulled his head back enough to lose contact, and Sherlock dropped John's arms as if they had suddenly grown blisteringly hot. His eyes were seared by angry tears but before he could even turn to flee, John pulled him back with arms wound round him, and nipped at Sherlock's lips with quick touches of his teeth and tongue and then, gloriously, cradled Sherlock's head in his sure hands as he let their mouths meet fully.
Sherlock submitted completely, paying deference to John's greater experience, letting his arms wind pliably round John's trim waist. Far too soon for his liking, John uttered another murmured, "Oh," and released him. Sherlock blinked, wondering when the sun had moved so far west. "Sherlock, we must get you home," John was saying hurriedly, pushing him from the water and following closely behind. "Quickly, put on your shirt."
Dazedly, Sherlock tried to comply, but his fingers were unwilling to obey. John, dripping onto his trousers, looked over and threaded Sherlock's arms into the sleeves of his shirt. Sherlock's pained cry brought a frown to John's face. "Hush now, you've got sunburnt. You'll need to add vinegar to your bath tonight. I wish I had some of the African plant to soothe your skin –"
"Aloe," Sherlock gasped. "It secretes its own unguent, Dr. Lennox wrote me, when I was investigating various botanicals under his tutelage."
"Prize pupil, I'd wager," John said, leading Sherlock through the wood. He gave Sherlock a gentle push once Hopewell Abbey was mere yards away.
"Must you go?" Sherlock asked, and John's face transformed, wonderfully, from anxiety to joy.
"I quite lost track of the time," John admitted, a white smile shining out from his burnished face. "Off with you, sweetheart – and don't omit the vinegar." Sherlock watched him turn to go and caught the cheery whistle John produced as he tramped back home.
In vain did Sherlock wait for John to appear at his door the following day, and he chided himself for the delusion whilst soaking in the bath his sweetheart had recommended, looking delightfully authoritative. John had never ventured as far as Hopewell Abbey, preferring always to rendezvous at the lake, but in a summer as glorious as this, what could be more natural than that?
His skin still felt too tight, but he managed to ignore it through the course of the day, which went from rainy to sunny and back again. Evening at last brought two welcome missives: a note from his uncle to say he would be back at Hopewell Abbey on the morrow and a letter from John, which Sherlock planned to savour.
When he opened it, his eye was caught by the small stain in one corner and he brought the paper to his face to sniff at it. It was grease, redolent of sugar and ginger, which meant John had indulged in his mother's baking as he wrote – hastily, it appeared, judging by the elongated letters and smeared ink. I would like to have kissed you once more it began, and Sherlock felt his heart beat more swiftly at the very sight of the words, or perhaps it was the memory of John mastering him and seeming undone at the same time; there had been too much in John's eyes for even Sherlock to read aright.
The smile dropped from Sherlock's face as he read on: John's captain had been obliged to gather his crew from their furlough ahead of schedule, as losses to the British fleet rendered the Orontes necessary immediately. Lost in a single line were all of the delightful hours Sherlock had planned with John, and he felt their disappearance keenly. Lost too was the opportunity to discuss with John how they could join their lives, though there at least John had made an effort, writing about his intention to seek reassignment on a supply ship rather than a warship, as then Sherlock could safely join him on board. Sherlock lost all patience with himself when he both smiled and cried at his darling John's foolish, wonderful plan, and the words swam before his eyes. Best of all was the last: You are mine, and I am yours. Nothing can part us for long.
Lord Mycroft returned to Hopewell Abbey with a profound sense of satisfaction, having concluded his business in London with a marked degree of success. He was very much looking forward to hearing of the progress Sherlock had made in his studies and in fact bore letters from two botanists, an herpetologist, and three entomologists eager to tutor the boy; though Lord Mycroft was well aware that his influence was spoken of in whispers throughout London, he had faith that the scientists were mostly motivated by the reports of Sherlock's extraordinary brilliance.
Sparkling though his intellect was, Sherlock was not usually demonstrative, and Lord Mycroft was caught by surprise when he was embraced, those dark curls brushing against his face – so the boy had grown another inch at least since he'd been gone. "What's brought this on?" he enquired, for though he scrutinised his nephew carefully for clues, all he could see was an aura of happiness. Had he had a breakthrough in his researches?
With every word Sherlock spoke, Lord Mycroft's horror grew. With all Sherlock's claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw himself away at seventeen on a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connections to secure even his farther rise in the profession, would be, indeed, a throwing away, which Lord Mycroft grieved to think of. His disapprobation strengthened upon perusing the letter of which Sherlock chattered so blithely; anger darkened his gaze at the presumption within, that the man had kissed Sherlock and claimed ownership over him. Lady Sherrin had fallen prey to a disastrous suitor without his guidance, and he would not let the same happen to her well-loved child.
Lord Mycroft sought to bring Sherlock's rapturous soliloquy to a halt and laid his hand on Sherlock's shoulder; when the boy hissed in pain, Lord Mycroft bade him reveal his injury. The sight of Sherlock's fine white skin carelessly, maliciously reddened was the last straw he could stand, and he put the case to Sherlock impassively, the better to engage the boy's judicious mind. "Can you not see how unworthy such a match must be, Sherlock? You are the son of a baronet and a peer's daughter, the godson and heir of the present peer; this John Watson is the adopted son of my tenants. He may be called to war, which might or might not spare his life or his health. You might be tied to a man both poor and maimed within a month, dear child, and discover how little you truly know of him. I have only been absent for some sixteen weeks, in which time he has come and gone, and so soon you have discovered that he is your heart's delight? Had you mixed more in good company, you would not have been so forcibly impressed by this sailor's charms, I assure you; your first look at the world ought not to have been your sole reason for engaging yourself to him in this overhasty fashion."
Lord Mycroft could see how little impression his words were making, and was obliged to change tack. "I do not relish speaking of such matters with you. Even supposing that he saw more in you than a wealthy beauty – for there is far more to you than that, and I do him the justice of believing him capable of perceiving it – you must concede that your future with him is ill-provided for. Consider that he asks you to give up your work – and I bear here the letters of several men of science expressing their desire to guide your mind's development – and yet makes no such concession for himself; he consigns you, in fact, to a small, mouldering cabin on a ship as liable to sink as it is to sail, cutting you off from all of the correspondence and research in which you have spent your happiest, most productive hours. You would have no scope for your mind to grow, and to know you were unhappy in that way would undo me utterly."
"Truly, Uncle?" Sherlock asked at last, a tear shining on the sweep of his eyelashes, ready to fall.
"Truly, my child. I would not steer you wrong," Lord Mycroft promised earnestly.
His parents murmured the news quietly, so that he could choose whether to acknowledge what he heard or not, and John was assailed by the sensation of his love for these good people whose first thoughts were always of him; he determined he would not spoil his leave by mooning over what might have been. In any case, the news that they imparted was that Sherlock had left his uncle's house three years previous, and that Lord Mycroft had shortly thereafter shut up Hopewell Abbey and gone to live at his London residence, the better to manage his affairs.
"I've something to show you," he said, unfolding the envelope that held his treasures. "A letter you might care to read. Not – not that one," he amended, as his father's hand hovered over the heraldic seal on the letter Sherlock had sent not forty hours after receipt of John's own, in which any engagement was disavowed, every line formal and cold as the hot-eyed creature in his arms that lovely day had not been. He fetched a smile from somewhere deep inside him as he produced the missive in question: formal orders for Captain John Watson to take command of the Ardent at the end of his month's leave.
The smile felt more natural when his mother's arms went round him; he could scarcely conceive of being unhappy in her warm embrace, and his father's proud smile had much the same effect. John's hand was not quite steady – that lead ball had gone through his shoulder, leaving a tremor that manifested when he was not engaged with work – as he returned the letters to the envelope, and a few more sheets spilled forth. "Have you gone courting, John?" his father asked, catching sight of the sketches. John followed his gaze and saw himself – idealised into someone handsome – in several attitudes: locked in an earnest discussion with Harry; in full dress uniform, laughing heartily; and then again dancing with a blonde-haired woman.
"There's been no one for me since –" he demurred, not needing to furnish a name. "Clara, Harry's new wife, is a bit of an artist, and insisted upon drawing me rather than the landscapes to which she'd long grown accustomed." He pulled all of Clara's rough sketches from the packet, spreading them out before his parents. "That's Harry there, you can see very well what she's like. This one of Lestrade is rather good as well," he noted, considering the one in which he'd been laughing; Lestrade had always had a merry tongue. "This last was of a ball, which is a bit of a cheat, as Clara did not stop dancing long enough to pick up her pencils. I think she promoted me inadvertently; look, she's given me a second epaulet."
"Perhaps the young lady foretold your letter, then," his mother said, and he laughed at the sally.
"It is well for you that your chosen field of study is not womankind, Sherlock," Irene pronounced one day, inviting herself into his apartment within Holmes Hall and keeping him from completing his latest letter to Dr. Lennox, on the topic of that eminent scientist's proposed participation in a geological survey of Britain. Irene continued to speak even though Sherlock kept up his stone-faced silence. "Have you not noticed that the eldest Hooper girl has been throwing herself at you?"
He had felt a vague alarm when closeted with Miss Hooper, all imploring eyes and pale mouth and fussy braids, and had excused himself to continue his researches. "She's rather pretty, and you might do worse. She'd pay for all of your wretched equipment, at any rate," Irene observed tartly, evidently begrudging that his godfather sent him a reasonable allowance.
"I have no need to be caught and kept," Sherlock answered smartly, bending to his task with renewed enthusiasm. The sooner he dealt with his voluminous technical correspondence, the sooner he would allow himself a peep at the navy lists and newspapers, the better to search for John's name. He had had an agonising time of it some sixteen months previous, when John's name had appeared in the lists of the wounded after a battle renowned for its ferocity, and he had had no one in whom to confide his fears, doubts, and regrets but his violin, the music of which was like a balm to his soul. John had to live; Sherlock wished never to conceive of a world without John in it.
Since that dark night, Sherlock had seen John's name in the prize-money lists with some frequency; as often as War had found him – on three separate continents – so too had Fortuna, who had clearly marked him as a favourite. Smiling, golden, lovely John deserved his place in her good graces. Sherlock opened the newspaper, alight with anticipation, and saw the listing: Captain John H. Watson, HMS Ardent. So John had won through. How could Sherlock ever have been persuaded otherwise?
on to part 2/2
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/425029.html.