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The Republic of Heaven

Chapter Text

When Sherlock was born, people knew he was different. Not due to any sort of action on his part, but merely because his mother was a witch.

Grayson Holmes had very little patience with that attitude. Yes, his wife was a witch, but his children were more than just their parentage. And if some of the nurses and doctors in the hospital had been conspicuously absent when he was walking the corridors with his son in his arms in an effort to stop him crying...well, that was their problem, not his.

And right now, all his attention went to the small bundle in his arms. Sherlock had drifted off to sleep again, his dæmon curled up on his tiny chest, currently in the form of a baby rat, still blind and mostly hairless.

Grayson smiled and bent down so Samieyah could look at the baby. His dæmon had been reduced to waddling awkwardly at his side, as there wasn't enough room in the hallway for an osprey to fly comfortably.

“They're so tiny,” she whispered, before using her beak to tug the edge of the blanket further over the little rat dæmon.

As quietly as he could, Grayson made his way back to his wife's room, to find his elder son was sitting up on the bed with her, tucked under one arm. Their dæmons were on the bedstead, his wife's owl dæmon perched next to Mycroft's Tehayla, who was currently in the form of a swift.

He handed Sherlock over, and tried to ignore the way the back of his neck prickled as a nurse glanced surreptitiously into the room, as though afraid they were planting explosives.

It was far from unknown for witches to fall in love with men and have children, but it could hardly be called commonplace, either. Some (stupid, superstitious) people even thought that the children of witches were somehow cursed – there were more than a few children at school who avoided Mycroft like he was carrying a deadly virus. It made Grayson both sad and angry to think his sons might have to endure that kind of prejudice all their lives, but at the moment that thought was only the barest tickle in the back of his mind.

His son would be extraordinary, Grayson knew, and his family would only be a small part of that.

--

When John was born, he was nothing particularly remarkable. Average size, average weight, arrived neither late nor prematurely, and his mother's labour was as straightforward as a textbook.

When Harry was called in to see her new brother he was already asleep, one chubby hand resting on his dæmon, curled up in his blanket as a newborn puppy.

Harry's first thought was that both people and dæmons were ugly as newborns, a thought which was fully supported by Saphelon, who had made herself a mouse so as to be quiet and unobtrusive. Harry had been curious about John's dæmon, wondering if, like her, he had a dæmon that was the same sex as himself.

Unfortunately, no – Amarisa was female, much to Harry's disappointment. She didn't even take any interesting shapes, preferring to spend most of her time sleeping, only waking up to nose feebly at John's hand when he was being fed.

John didn't do anything interesting, either. He didn't scream when he woke up, only blinked open his eyes and peered around at the world with a sort of dim curiosity. There were no birthmarks, no weird defects...

As baby brothers went, John was actually rather boring.

--

Mycroft had accepted that there would be some people who disliked him purely because his mother was a witch. There would also be people who were in awe of him, and those who simply did not care one way or the other.

Mycroft would have preferred to associate solely with the latter two categories, but the world being what it was (full of dull, ignorant people), that did not happen. But he'd learned to be polite to those people in spite of their prejudice, because allies – however tentative they were – were always useful.

Sherlock, however, did not seem to grasp that concept.

Unlike Mycroft, who did not advertise his heritage, Sherlock seemed to take a strange glee in announcing that he was a witch's son whenever he could. Mycroft had seen his brother's so-called peers as their eyes widened and they made excuses to leave Sherlock's company, Sherlock and Raniel watching them go with a kind of fierce triumph.

Like just this afternoon, when a nice family outing to the beach had taken a downturn when Sherlock had disappeared. Mycroft found him fifteen minutes later, terrorising a small collection of cousins with boasts of his abilities to put a curse on them, Raniel at his side in the form of a dragon.

Mycroft had intervened, dragging his brother off by the collar of his shirt as Tehayla – who had settled as a raven one year ago, when Mycroft was thirteen – swooped at Raniel, pecking and harrying him along the way.

“We weren't hurting them,” Sherlock muttered resentfully.

Raniel had given up snapping at Tehayla and had changed into a small adder with red scales, fleeing into Sherlock's sleeve to escape.

“We just wanted to see what they'd do...” came the dæmon's plaintive mutter.

Mycroft sighed, pausing in his stride for a moment to let Tehayla land on his shoulder, her small claws digging into the weave of his shirt to anchor her there.

“Sherlock, you cannot announce Mummy's identity or claim fictitious powers simply because having people both frightened and in awe of you is somehow amusing. I'm certain Father has discussed this with you. Also, for future reference, you might want to avoid having people in authority see Raniel take such a shape again.”

Though really, Mycroft hadn't been surprised. Raniel was always taking strange, obscure forms; if he deigned to change into an ordinary animal it would either be an albino form or possess a similarly striking colour variant. Hence, the ruby red adder that was now peeking his head from beneath Sherlock's collar.

Both Sherlock and his dæmon played up their strangeness at every opportunity, almost as though they enjoyed being pariahs.

“Why?” Sherlock asked. “Don't people have mythical animals as dæmons?”

“It's usually an indicator of insanity,” Mycroft said, making his tone as rude and condescending as possible.

As expected, Sherlock bristled. “And you know everything about dæmons, is that it?”

“No, but I know enough.”

Once Tehayla had settled, Mycroft had read up all he could about dæmons; what certain forms could indicate about people, what the frequency of physical contact between human and dæmon could tell you...even how verbal the dæmon was could tell you a lot of things about their human.

“Well?” Sherlock folded his arms. “Go on then, what's the most common type of dæmon?”

“Mammals and birds predominate by a slim margin, though it is not yet clear why. The central theory is that mammals and birds are simply physiologically closer to humans than insects, reptiles, amphibians or fish, and so our dæmons are more likely to take one of those forms.”

“Does that include witches?”

Tehayla laughed, and Mycroft gave him a patronising glance. “Of course it does not include witches. All witches' dæmons are birds; including them would have skewed the data.”

“So, including witches, birds would be the most common dæmon,” Sherlock said, with a pointed glance at Tehayla.

Mycroft knew Sherlock was trying to imply that they were common, but wouldn't let himself be baited.

“What about people like me and Raniel?”

“Raniel and me,” Mycroft corrected. “Approximately ten percent of the population have dæmons of the same sex as themselves.”

“What about Samieyah?” Sherlock asked, referring to their father's dæmon. “Ospreys are meant to be brown and white, but she's white and gold.”

“Dæmons displaying colour variants are seen in close to six percent of the population.”

“Raniel displays colour variants all the time,” Sherlock announced.

Mycroft nodded agreeably. “Yes, but that is largely because he hasn't settled yet – if you remember, Tehayla was fond of taking colour variant forms before she settled.”

Sherlock scowled. “Could someone have a mule for a dæmon? Or a liger?”

“Hybrid dæmons are extremely rare, Sherlock – they manifest in less than one percent of the population. If you're trying to ask me what I think Raniel will settle as, there are easier ways to go about it.”

Sherlock turned away, huffing. Raniel slithered out onto Sherlock's shoulder and took the form of a small cat with blue fur, hissing indignantly up at Tehayla.

Mycroft sighed again. But as Sherlock was still walking alongside him, heading back to their parents, he refrained from commenting.

--

John continued to be, by and large, a pretty ordinary brother – sure, he got good grades, but he was hardly a genius, and while he did well at sports he was never going to represent the nation – but that was okay, because Harry knew their family were pretty ordinary to begin with. The most exciting thing about them was that she was a lesbian, and she took pride in being the one to bring a bit of a spark to an otherwise forgettable household.

Except she couldn't help but notice that for all John seemed average and forgettable, Amarisa wasn't. Most people's dæmons took on the forms of other dæmons or animals they'd seen, and Harry had thought it was pretty exciting when Saphelon had ended up settling as a spotted salamander when they were twelve, something they'd only seen twice in wildlife documentaries.

But Amarisa...Amarisa changed into forms Harry had never even heard of before. She'd once spent three days as some kind of bizarre, spotted cat-like thing that Harry had only later learned was a civet. Then it had been an eagle, then a cobra, an hyena, a bird-eating spider...

Amarisa shifted when the situation called for it in the meantime, of course. Changing into a mouse when they were playing hide-and-seek and it was John's turn to hide. Becoming a sparrow and hopping from branch to branch when John climbed a tree. Taking on the shape of a fish when John went swimming at Brighton.

Except the shapes Amarisa was truly attached to, the ones she kept for days on end...they were always predators, always dangerous creatures, though occasionally she also became a dog.

“Do you think she'll settle as a dog?” Harry asked her brother once as they watched television, Amarisa stretched over John's feet in the form of a St. Bernard.

John frowned, looking down at his dæmon. “Don't think so. Why'd you ask?”

As he spoke, Amarisa rose and leapt onto the couch beside him, snuggling in under his arm. Then, as though purely to defy Harry's question, she changed into a lynx.

Harry couldn't deny it was a little eerie. John was supposedly to be the normal one, the ordinary one – she and Saphelon were the weird ones in the family, the exciting ones.

She told herself it didn't mean anything. That in spite of Amarisa's fondness for wild, dangerous shapes, there was no reason for her to settle as one. Harry knew John was far more likely to have a dog for a dæmon.

At least, she hoped.

--

Raniel and Sherlock took pride in being able to make people uncomfortable. In Sherlock's case, with his words and general bearing. In Raniel's, with a variety of unnatural and disconcerting shapes.

So Raniel settling when Sherlock was ten was something of a disappointment, along with being a surprise. Disappointing because now he couldn't take the forms of mythical animals any more (it was always interesting to make the teachers think they had mental problems), and surprising because Sherlock had always assumed Raniel would settle as a bird. Of course, just because a member of your family's dæmon took a certain form didn't mean yours would too, but every member of Sherlock's family had a bird dæmon. Mycroft's Tehayla was a raven, Father's Samieyah was an osprey, and of course Mummy's Nostrepheus was an owl because all witches dæmons were birds.

Raniel, however, was a European polecat which, in spite of the name, was actually a form of ferret. Mustela putorius, to be precise, and they believed in always being precise. He couldn't take any of his more outlandish forms any more – he'd never turn into a rainbow-scaled cobra again, for example – but the polecat was striking enough, along with the fact that Raniel's final form was an albino, complete with pure white fur and pink-tinged eyes.

People seemed to consider polecats ugly, thought them vicious, and popular opinion held that having a ferret dæmon was something to be ashamed of, that it somehow represented trickery and deceitfulness.

Which, truth be told, suited Sherlock just fine. Most people were idiots, too blind and self-centred to just open their eyes and pay attention to the world around them, and every time he came into contact with people 'his own age' he always found himself desperate to slip away on the off-chance their stupidity actually was contagious. He played on their fears, insisting he'd put curses on them and their dæmons if they didn't leave him be, and had been satisfied when he remained alone. A dæmon that had settled as a polecat would help with this.

Besides, he liked Raniel's form. He had a predator's reflexes, an excellent sense of smell and was flexible enough to ride along Sherlock's shoulders and neck like a scarf, which meant he never had to stop and wait for Raniel to catch up.

He announced it that very night over dinner.

“Raniel's settled,” he addressed to the room at large.

Mycroft rolled his eyes.

“I wondered if he had,” Tehayla remarked loudly to Mycroft. “It's not like Raniel to keep a single form for an hour, let alone three.”

“Congratulations,” Father said, as Samieyah winged across the table to land on the back of the chair next to Sherlock, bending down to peer at Raniel as though scrutinising him.

“That's wonderful, darling,” Mummy smiled. Nostrepheus was nowhere to be seen, but Sherlock was accustomed to that.

He knew the separation between Mummy and her dæmon made most people uncomfortable, but Sherlock had grown up seeing Mummy sitting in front of the fireplace without Nostrepheus anywhere in sight, or being called in for dinner by the dæmon while his mother was in town. Their separation was simply a fact of life, and there was no reason to get worked up over it; he might as well have become distressed by the colour of the sky.

Raniel was curling his lips up at Tehayla to show his teeth when Mycroft spoke again.

“Will you be separating?”

“Mycroft!” Mummy scolded. “That's not a decision to be made lightly, and certainly not when Sherlock's only ten. You think on it, sweetheart,” she told Sherlock. “And come talk to me in a few years.”

Sherlock shrugged, having no particular feelings on separation one way or the other, save that it seemed an awful lot of effort for what would probably be very little reward. Witches separated from their dæmon because it was expected of them, and Sherlock could admit that separation would be useful with a dæmon capable of flight.

Mummy had felt her sons should have the option of separation, even if they never went through with it, and had raised the subject when Tehayla settled. While to witches it was something of a coming-of-age ritual which their dæmon often resented for a long time afterwards, Mycroft and Tehayla were unusual in that their decision to separate had been mutual.

They'd separated only a year ago, when Mycroft was sixteen. Mummy and Nostrepheus had taken them somewhere – they refused to say where, but Sherlock suspected it was at one of the poles – and they had undergone the ritual. Tehayla had told Raniel that for all of its dressing-up in mysticisms and superstitions, essentially Mycroft had been required to cross some kind of landscape that Tehayla could not follow him into. At the end, they'd found that instead of such an experience breaking their bond, it had simply...stretched.

While Sherlock reflected on that, Tehayla launched herself into flight, lapping the room before she sailed out of the window and into the open air, just to prove she could.

Sherlock watched her go, then glanced at Raniel, shrugged, and went back to his meal.

--

John fidgeted, one hand rubbing nervously at his knee, the other curled in Amarisa's thick ruff. He didn't know why he'd been called up to the office, but a sinking feeling in his gut told him it couldn't be good.

Amarisa gave a soothing half-whine and licked at his hand, nosing his palm in an effort to reassure him.

“It'll be all right,” she whispered. “You haven't done anything.”

“I know, I know,” John muttered, his voice low. “But why do they want to see me? If it was a family thing, they'd have Harry up here too, right?”

Before Amarisa could reply, the door at the end of the corridor opened. John blinked in surprise when he realised it was the school nurse, Mrs. Holbrook, that was beckoning him inside, not the principal as he'd been dreading.

Cautious, John rose to his feet and entered the room, deliberately decorated in bright, optimistic colours to make people feel at ease. At the moment, the cheery décor was having the opposite effect on John, ratcheting his nerves up another notch. Mrs. Holbrook's badger dæmon approached Amarisa slowly, his nose extended in welcome, but Amarisa was on-edge as well, and skittered back against John's legs as her human sat down.

“John, you know that I'm a nurse, don't you?” Mrs. Holbrook began, smiling warmly.

“Yeah.”

“And part of my job is to make sure students are healthy and happy.”

“I'm not sick,” John said defensively.

“I know,” Mrs. Holbrook agreed placidly. “But are you happy, John?”

“...I guess.”

“How are things at home, John?”

“What's this about?” John demanded.

Mrs Holbrook hesitated, but a telling glance at Amarisa told John what this was about. Not for the first time, he wondered if he should have lied on the registry.

You had to register your dæmon as soon as they settled, so arrangements could be made if the dæmon had special requirements. Like Lisa, the girl whose dæmon had settled as a bat; they had to close the windows in the classroom so her dæmon's sensitive ears wouldn't be too overtaxed. Or Mark, whose dæmon was a frog, and always had to have a spray bottle on hot days so she wouldn't dry out.

Amarisa had been late in settling – John was about to turn fifteen, and most people's dæmons were settled after fourteen – and John had first thought she was some kind of dog. And a rather intimidating dog, at that; she was 1.8 metres from nose to tail – longer than John was tall – with lamp-yellow eyes and a coat so deep black it took on a blue sheen in the right light.

But Amarisa had told him she didn't feel like a dog, so he'd done some research.

At first, he hadn't believed it. But when no better option had presented itself, they'd had to accept the truth.

Amarisa was a wolfdog. Half wolf, half dog.

It seemed ludicrous, but nothing else fit. John knew how rare hybrid dæmons were, but he didn't see what else his dæmon could be; Amarisa looked like a grey wolf with a black coat, except true wolves never had black coats. She had dew claws, again something wolves never possessed, and with the muscular proportions of the dog, she was actually heavier than a wolf of similar size would have been. She also barked and wagged her tail – behaviours wolves never engaged in.

But she had the larger feet, longer legs, and the long snout of a wolf. Her canine teeth were bigger and sharper than a dog's, and her skull was of a slightly different shape.

So John had put down 'wolfdog' on the registry, and now he was in the nurse's office being asked about his home life. Which, to be perfectly honest, he'd been half-expecting; wolf dæmons made people uncomfortable.

It wasn't as though predators were unknown as dæmons – plenty of people had birds of prey as dæmons, or large cats – but wolves were different.

Wolf dæmons existed, of course, but tales of them usually came from those wild places of the world where people still fought for survival. Wolf dæmons were the warrior's dæmon; they belonged in times of bloodshed and death, and while they were common in the Middle Ages they were much rarer in the twentieth century. Wolf dæmons were meant to be loping in the shadow of some battle-scarred warrior, swinging a broadsword or a spiked flail, not trotting beside a small, acne-riddled boy halfway through high school.

“This is about Amarisa, isn't it?” John asked bluntly.

Mrs. Holbrook sighed. “John, you must understand, wolf dæmons are very rare-”

“She's a wolfdog.”

“Which is even more unusual, but the fact remains; a wolf or, in your case, a half-wolf dæmon usually indicates problems at home,” she explained gently. “So I'll ask again; is everything all right, John?”

“You think someone's abusing me?” John asked, incredulous.

Mrs. Holbrook didn't say anything. Her badger dæmon was somehow managing to look both solemn and sympathetic at the same time.

Suddenly, John was absolutely furious. “Is this why I'm here? Because Risa settled in a form you don't like, so we must be hiding some dark, awful secret? We're not abused, we don't have a broken home or whatever other stupid explanation you've thought up – this is just us!

John regretted storming out of the office the instant the door slammed closed, but now that he'd done it, he might as well do it properly, so he kept going.

He didn't return to class immediately, though. Instead he found a quiet corner near the library they could tuck themselves into, where he wound his arms around Amarisa's neck and buried his face in her fur.

Another one. First it had been Mum. Then Dad, then Harry, then his friends, then his English teacher, and now it was Mrs. Holbrook; they all thought that something awful must have happened to them for Amarisa to have settled as a wolfdog. Like it was somehow wrong for her to be that unless they were traumatised.

Why did they have to apologise for who they were?

“I'm sorry,” Amarisa whispered. “I didn't mean to settle like this.”

“It's not your fault,” John grumbled. “They're just stupid.”

“Still, you know they think-”

“We're fine just the way we are,” John declared, hugging his dæmon to him and trying not to dwell on why everyone thought something was wrong with them.

--

Sherlock knew Raniel's behaviour was a large part of the reason people thought him a sociopath.

He never showed much interest in other people's dæmons...or other people, come to that. He rarely spoke to them, usually settling for whispering his observations to Sherlock and letting him interrogate them (people got so huffy about that, as if someone else speaking to their dæmon was some kind of crime. Ridiculous, really; it wasn't as though Sherlock touched them).

Oh, he paid attention when they were being introduced for the first time; scenting them and examining them, noting every aspect so that Sherlock could identify what the dæmon was. A lot could be inferred about a person from their dæmon, and Sherlock made it a point to know as much as he could about the dæmons of the people he regularly interacted with.

Take the members of the MET, for instance. The first time he met them, Sherlock had identified their dæmons down to the genus, and his first action when he arrived home that night had been to go to his computer and identify them down to the species.

Lestrade's dæmon was called Zarania, and was Falco peregrinus macropus; a peregrine falcon of the Australian subspecies. Anderson's dæmon was a faded tricolour beagle, Canis lupus familiaris, and Donovan's an African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica.

Mycroft's assistant – whose name changed every week – had a Chamaele o calyptratus , commonly known as a veiled chameleon. Molly Hooper's dæmon – called Tobithias but she referred to him as Tobi – was a large specimen of Calopteryx aequabilis , a River Jewelwing damselfly.

But once they were identified, Raniel lost interest in them. Even Tobi's desperate attempts at conversation barely warranted a glance. And as dæmons of sociopaths never showed interest in anyone but their human, Raniel's complete disregard for other people and dæmons had always made such an assertion believable.

It was times like these that Sherlock almost wished he was a sociopath. He almost envied them, those people who moved through their lives serving nothing but themselves; it must be so much simpler not to care, not to get bogged down and tangled up in the complicated snarls of human emotion.

“Sherlock...we have something to tell you,” Father said, Samieyah shifting awkwardly behind him from where she was perched on the back of his chair.

Mummy looked sad, but what really tipped Sherlock off was the presence of Nostrepheus – he was never at Mummy's side during the evening unless it would be a particularly trying time for her, such as when the family was coping with bad news.

But, as usual, Mycroft spoke before he could. “You're leaving.”

“I am,” Mummy said quietly.

Sherlock had suspected it, but to hear it confirmed felt uncomfortably similar to being punched in the stomach. He'd always known Mummy would have to return to her clan, but he'd always assumed it would be decades in the future; certainly after Father died, at the very least.

“Why?” was all he asked, Raniel pressing his nose into the skin just behind Sherlock's ear in an effort to reassure his human.

Mummy's eyes darted to Mycroft, but it was Father who answered.

“There's been a...” he took a deep breath, apparently faltering over his words. “Your mother's clan was attacked.”

Sherlock had known that witch-clans held grudges, made alliances, and even went to war with each other now and then, but he'd never related that knowledge to his mother. She always seemed so removed from clan politics, living quietly in the country with Father, that it seemed ludicrous that they could have any impact on her.

“Why didn't you know about this?” he rounded on Mycroft.

In addition to running the British government to the extent that Sherlock was sure it would collapse were his brother ever assassinated, Mycroft had made his own position among the Witches' Consul, and it was something of a peace-keeper. Every alliance, every demand, was routed through him, because only he could see how it would affect every tiny detail of the witches' politics. Most people could see the immediate consequences, but Mycroft could see the far-reaching ones that even witches did not see, the ones that might not come about for two hundred years or more.

In short, it was impossible for a witch clan to make a significant move such as this without Mycroft knowing of it several months, sometimes years in advance. At least, it should have been; judging by Mycroft's scowl and Tehayla's hasty, embarrassed preening, this one had slipped them by.

“The attack took place over Norway,” was all Mycroft said.

Sherlock had already assumed such an attack would have to happen in a foreign country. Mycroft's reach and influence wrapped the world, but England was where it was absolute. And Norway was one of the few places where Mycroft had less control than he would have liked, largely due to the high numbers of panserbjørne; the armoured bears was the one society in which Mycroft didn't have a place. He had influence, of course (Mycroft had influence everywhere), but not control, and Sherlock knew the challenge of it usually frustrated his brother as much as it invigorated him.

But not now. Now, his lack of control in that part of the world was nothing but a liability.

“And we know it was a deliberate attack,” Mummy said, her eyes looking suspiciously wet. “There are less than twenty of us left.”

That rocked Sherlock. Having a witch for a mother meant that he'd grown up knowing as much about witches' politics as he did about humans – which was to say, not much, but enough to appreciate how truly rare such an act was. Clans didn't make sudden attacks to wipe another clan out, it just simply wouldn't be feasible; the other witch clans would forever after regard them warily, refuse them help, shun any alliance they might seek. So what would a witch clan have to gain from doing something like this?

“I won't be gone for long,” she went on, Nostrepheus leaning over her shoulder, as though for support. “With so few of us left, we will likely be absorbed into the clan of one of our allies. But for now, I am clan queen, and there is work for me to do.”

The 'clan queen' bit actually surprised Sherlock. Mummy had told them she was the niece of the current clan queen, but he had never thought anything of it; daughters inherited, not nieces.

Except in cases such as these, when all others in line for the title had perished.

“You're going to Afghanistan,” Mycroft said, in that bland, all-knowing way of his that made Sherlock want to punch him.

Mummy nodded. “I am.”

Sherlock suddenly understood. The fact that the Afghani forces had allied with witches had been in the newspapers for weeks, and given that Mummy was now going to Afghanistan, that suggested the clan that had made that alliance and the clan that had all-but destroyed hers were one and the same.

Mummy was taking her place as clan queen to lead a counter-attack.

Sherlock wished he could attribute the chill that struck him to a cold breeze.

Raniel noticed, of course, and licked at his cheek, trying to be comforting. It didn't quite work – he and Raniel had never been good at being comforting, quite the opposite, really – and he suspected Raniel's heart wasn't in it. After all, Sherlock's dæmon was as intelligent as he was, and he surely knew as well as Sherlock did the likelihood of Mummy returning.

The clan she would face would likely have members numbering in triple digits – one hundred and fifty was about the average for a witch-clan, and even accounting for losses they'd taken in the war, they would still vastly outnumber Mummy's clan.

“Why do you have to go?” he asked bluntly.

“Sherlock-” Father said, his tone reproving.

“No – you've often told us that witches do not bear grudges and do not seek vendettas. Even for murders or massacres, so long as there is no threat to those remaining, because to throw away lives in the pursuit of vengeance is to dishonour the dead. So were you lying, or are you simply a hypocrite?”

Mycroft frowned, Father shouted, and Mummy looked hurt. But Sherlock forced himself to be indifferent – this wasn't his fault, she was the one who was leaving them!

“There is a deeper reason behind this,” Nostrepheus announced. “There was a reason they struck now, and a reason they've decided to interfere with the conflict in the Middle East. We need to determine what those reasons are.”

The explanation was reasonable, sensible, and logical. Sherlock hated it.

Mycroft's scowl etched deeper lines into his face, and Tehayla clattered her beak in irritation. Usually, their sour expressions would have prompted a smirk from Sherlock, but now he felt nothing but frustrated fury and sickening worry. Even Mycroft would have trouble monitoring Mummy in a war zone, especially one that involved witches.

There was every possibility that they would never see Mummy again.

Sherlock wanted to say, “Don't leave us.”

He wanted to say, “Come back to us.”

He even wanted to say, “I love you.”

But in the end, he said nothing.

--

John knew he seemed to have strange tastes in friends. But perhaps 'tastes' was too strong a word – it implied he actually sought it out, rather than simply fell into it, and he hadn't actively tried to befriend his current companions; it had just sort of happened.

And now he was in base camp, staring up at the plethora of stars scattered across the night sky, with three witches.

'Funny how life works out,' John mused, tousling Amarisa's fur.

“What are you looking at?” came the low, musical voice of what John fancied to be the youngest of the three witches, Tamsyn Talitha.

“The stars,” John said honestly. “Been a while since I've seen this many.”

“Why?”

“London has a lot of light pollution,” John explained. “Can't see any stars, really...”

That statement attracted the attention of Hasna Azenet, the redheaded witch. “None?”

“None,” John confirmed.

Both Tamsyn and Hasna were frowning slightly, as though they couldn't contemplate not seeing the stars.

“As a human, you don't feel the star-tingle,” Tamsyn said suddenly, as though remembering something. “But...don't you miss them, nevertheless?”

John shrugged. “I don't think so. I mean, they're nice to look at, but I don't pine for them or anything.”

Tamsyn and Hasna still looked puzzled, as though they couldn't quite credit it. Only Aeliana looked understanding.

Aeliana Isidyor was the oldest of the three witches (or so John assumed – it wasn't like she had wrinkles or anything), and showed much more understanding of humans than her clan-sisters did. She'd admitted to John that she'd married a man and had sons with him, but John didn't know if she was speaking of a current marriage or something decades, maybe centuries, behind her, and it seemed impolite to ask.

In some ways, John thought he could understand why the witches preferred his company to that of the other humans; he never acted as though the absence of their dæmons was something freakish. Most people were made extremely uneasy by it but John, while he'd certainly been unnerved at first, had gotten over it relatively quickly. Perhaps it was because Amarisa was considered so unusual, because he knew what it was like to have people unsettled by his dæmon, that he was more willing to accept unusual qualities in other people's dæmons.

John had never seen Tamsyn's or Aeliana's dæmons, but Hasna's swan dæmon, Caedmon, remained with her and was often used to relay messages between companies.

Aeliana, perhaps sensing his gaze on her, looked up from where she was fletching her arrows and smiled at him.

Maybe it was the clear aura of wisdom – extensive even for a witch – maybe the fact that she seemed much more in tune with human needs and wants than her clan-sisters, but John felt much more at ease with Aeliana than he did with her clan-sisters.

It could also be the fact that he'd saved her life. And not in his usual way, either; there hadn't been an infected wound he'd needed to clean or an bleeding injury he'd had to staunch. John had spotted Aeliana in the air when she was struggling against three other witches, and had managed to shoot two of them down.

The witches believed that saving someone's life created a special bond. John wasn't sure whether he believed that or not – he never felt particularly connected to the people he treated, after all – but he couldn't deny that he felt more comfortable with Aeliana than with Tamsyn or Hasna.

“Why do you use bow and arrows?” John asked. He'd been curious about that for some time.

“Instead of guns, you mean?” Aeliana remarked, stowing her new arrow in her quiver. “It's easier for us to spell them. We make our arrows and our bow ourselves, which already creates a connection. And the closer our weapons are to their natural form, the easier it is to spell them. We can cast magic on wood, feathers and sand, but it's difficult for a spell to hold in forged metal.”

“Oh,” John said quietly as Amarisa extended her muzzle in the direction of Aeliana's quiver, her nose wrinkling as though she were trying to detect the spells by scent.

John heard Ragnvald's approach before he saw him, but he knew that was only out of courtesy. If he'd wanted to, the armoured bear was more than capable of sneaking up on them.

While John could (sort of) understand why the witches considered him a friend, it was more puzzling as to why Ragnvald did.

John knew the army had hired several armoured bears in an effort to even the odds after the enemy forces made an alliance with a witch clan. Aeliana's clan had soon joined the effort, of course, but they weren't exactly hired on by the army – it was more that they sought the same enemy, were more likely to encounter that enemy if they remained close to the soldiers, and so travelled with the platoons more out of convenience than anything else.

As to the exact number of armoured bears hired, no one seemed to know for certain, only that it was less than they'd have liked and more than they'd hoped. At least it was easier to hire the bears than it used to be – the panserbjørne used to be found only on Svalbard, but as their numbers swelled they were forced to expand their territory, increasing their contact with humans and thus, the likelihood of a bear finding work among them. It was still very rare for one of the panserbjørne to take up labouring in a human city, but it was becoming more and more common to find them hired as mercenaries by various governments.

Still, few had agreed to come to Afghanistan, largely because the stifling heat required that their thick fur be clipped regularly. At least they were safe from overheating in their armour, as it didn't conduct temperature the way other metals did (and John knew there were more than a few industrial companies who would pay a small fortune to get their hands on a bear's armour).

Ragnvald Finnurson and his sister, Aaltje Finnursri, had been the armoured bears attached to John's company. 'Had been', because Aaltje Finnursri was now dead.

John had been familiar with both bears, as they were often tasked with forging a path through the battlefield so medics could get to injured soldiers, and they seemed to like him better than most. Though personally John thought it was only because he avoided both categories most people seemed to fall into when they were dealing with an armoured bear – he was neither starkly terrified of them, nor did he treat them as though they were somehow less intelligent than humans.

John had never entirely understood that attitude. The absence of dæmons often led people into thinking they were little better than animals, but John had spoken to them and knew that there were frighteningly intelligent, cunning minds beneath the animal-like exterior. So John had trusted their judgement and listened to their suggestions, and they'd got along just fine until John and Aaltje had the misfortune to be pinned down by a squadron of enemy soldiers and witches.

They could have dealt with the soldiers (few human beings could withstand an armoured bear without a tank or rocket launcher or the like), but the witches were another matter. Those witches had been armed with more than bows and arrows; they'd had grenades, and had hurled every last one of them at Aaltje. She could fend off most of them – batting them away like they were tennis balls – but eventually too many of them came at once, and one grenade caught on her armour, in the small chink between her helmet and the plates that covered her shoulders.

The resulting explosion had been as bloody and devastating as anyone could expect.

John ran to help her, using his own jacket to try to staunch the bleeding, just as Ragnvald and a small squad appeared over the hill, too late.

John had bellowed for some of the soldiers to surrender their jackets to him, and had clamped them against Aaltje's wound as well, Amarisa actually having to lean all her weight against it to produce anything close to the pressure they needed. One hand worked on positioning the already blood soaked fabric as the other fumbled within her reddened fur, trying to find her pulse in the side of her neck that was still intact.

Aaltje Finnursri died within three minutes, in spite of all John's attempts to save her life.

Still, even though he'd failed, the mere fact that he'd tried to save Aaltje seemed to endear John to Ragnvald in some way. He'd even helped the panserbjørne burn her body, he and Amarisa gathering kindling and matches while Ragnvald had lugged the immense branches that made up the bulk of the pyre. John had lit it up, and together they'd watched the flames consume Aaltje's body.

When it was done, when there was nothing left but blackened ash and charred bone, Ragnvald had made a strange gesture. He'd bent down until his face was level with John, and pressed his furred head against John's forehead, his fierce eyes wide open and gazing straight into John's own.

John had been puzzled but, instinctively knowing it meant something, had held himself still, staring straight into Ragnvald's eyes until the bear straightened again.

It was only after the panserbjørne had lumbered away that John learned that gesture – pressing foreheads together while looking straight into each other's eyes – was one performed between two bears of equal standing who respected and were fond of each other.

It had been a little unsettling to learn that, but since then Ragnvald often sought him out whenever they weren't busy with their duties.

“Finished with sentry duty, then?” John asked as Ragnvald sat down beside him and began unbuckling his armour.

“Yes.”

Ragnvald's conversation was always terse and to the point, something John respected – just because he could make small talk when he had to didn't mean he liked it. Even if he never made any particular effort to converse with John or showed him any unusual kindness, there was something soothing about Ragnvald's presence, the mutual silence and understated respect of comrades.

Of course, John was aware if he told someone he found it soothing to have an armoured bear sitting next to him, they'd think he was insane. Hell, he was having a few doubts about his sanity himself (doubts Amarisa was only too happy to confirm – she thought he was completely crazy, but didn't see why that should be a problem).

But here, in the middle of a war, in the company of witches and an armoured bear...for the first time, John felt like he belonged.

Chapter Text

Really, a little knowledge of dæmons could tell you so many things about people. Sherlock was surprised the police didn't make a habit of identifying every dæmon they came into contact with during a case, and told Lestrade so.

“Because not all of us have a bloody encyclopaedia in our heads, Sherlock,” the inspector snapped, Zarania glaring at Raniel from her perch on a nearby shelf. “We see a dæmon that looks like an ant, we're going to assume it's just an ant!”

Sherlock scoffed – how could they not have noticed the difference between between a true weaver ant and a Myrmarachne plataleoides, a spider that mimicked a weaver ant in order to deter predators? A dæmon like that indicated a deceptive nature, and while it was true a person could have a deceptive nature and perfectly benign intentions, it had certainly warranted a closer look at the woman.

And sure enough, she'd been the one to poison her friend because she was sleeping with her husband. Petty, stupid and dull.

Things would be more interesting if people's dæmons weren't so obvious,” Sherlock complained to Raniel when they were back in their tiny flat. “That Myrmarachne plataleoides, now that was interesting.”

“Doesn't happen nearly often enough,” Raniel agreed. “Took us ten whole minutes to work it out, and we were only looking in the first place because the smell was wrong for an ant.”

Sherlock smirked, briefly reminded of how useful it was to have a dæmon with a keen nose. Other people had to rely on their own eyes to identify dæmons, but Raniel could often pick them out by scent alone.

Sherlock picked up his violin and began to play, so that when the shouting match between the couple next door started (five thirty-five, a little late this time) he was already trying to drown them out.

Still, even his violin couldn't help him, not when he felt bleak frustration already creeping through his brain. Why did people's dæmons have to be so obvious all the time? Insect dæmons were the least expressive, and even they fidgeted and waved their antennae and suddenly burst into agitated flight and in general possessed a hundred gestures that could betray their human. Only the most self-possessed people and dæmons could remain calm and collected while being quizzed about a murder.

Robberies and fraud were actually more interesting in comparison, as people were less likely to feel guilty about them – especially if it was in pursuit of something they thought they were entitled to – so their dæmons were less likely to betray them. Of course, even in a murder Sherlock rarely knew who did it from the very start, but the people with the most agitated dæmons were always the ones he looked into first.

For a moment, he wished he hadn't gone off the drugs; at least they'd be a distraction.

“No!” Raniel said loudly from his perch on the sofa arm.

“What?”

No!” the dæmon repeated. “We've been clean for three months, and that stuff always makes me act like an idiot – no!”

Sherlock was about to retort, but then the shouting match started up again.

“We need a new flat,” he sighed.

--

No matter how many retrieval missions John went on, the method never varied; run like hell, and stay behind the armoured bear.

“Oh, wonderful, there's witches,” Amarisa groused, briefly glancing up at the sky as she bounded along at John's side.

John didn't bother looking; his eyes were fixed on Ragnvald, following the path the panserbjørne was cutting through the battlefield. “You know the drill, Risa.”

“I know, I know – ignore them, if they fire at us they'll hit whether we see it coming or not.”

John had asked Aeliana about the kinds of spells witches would put on their arrows, and she had told him that a simple one for accuracy was by far the most common. It didn't allow the witch to specify exactly which part of the target she would hit (if it had, they'd all have been dead with arrows to the throats within fifteen minutes), but it did ensure they hit their target somewhere. There was also a spell which would ensure the arrow caused a grievous wound, but – as two spells could not be held on the same arrow – they thankfully didn't see much of that one.

John had also been worried if it was possible to put some kind of a spell on the arrow to induce instant death. Aeliana had confirmed it was possible, but rarely done.

It requires that your own power – in essence, your will for them to die – overcomes their own life force and their own will to live. As you can imagine, it is difficult to muster that much conviction to see someone perish; death-spells are used only in the most bitter vendettas.”

That hadn't exactly been comforting, but John had found it reassuring to know that he wouldn't have to deal with death-spells.

A soft whizzing sound broke John's concentration, and something drew a line of ice across his right hip as he and Amarisa hurdled a small ditch. John stumbled and went to one knee, feeling blood dampening his trousers as he turned and aimed his gun into the sky.

He pulled the trigger twice and a small figure clad in black silk plummeted to the ground, her branch of cloud pine slipping from her grasp. But in the next instant, another arrow slammed into his left shoulder.

The force behind it drove John onto his back, and he could see the witch diving towards him, shrieking in triumph...

But the plunge took her within range of Ragnvald. Perhaps she simply forgot about him in her elation, perhaps she thought a bear contracted to fight the war wouldn't concern himself with a lone human soldier...whatever the reason, she ignored Ragnvald.

It was the last mistake she ever made.

Ragnvald let out a roar that made John's bones shake, and swatted her out of the air like a fly. Her tern dæmon vanished before she'd even hit the ground.

John told himself to get up, to get back in the fight...

Except he couldn't. Numbing cold was spreading from the wound like poison, and the world went dim and soft before John's eyes, like a picture fading out on a television.

He was so cold. So cold and so tired, and he could just close his eyes and slip away...

John!” There was a sudden burst of sensation in his left earlobe – Amarisa had nipped him.

“Risa...” he murmured, his tongue heavy and thick.

He couldn't raise his hand and bury his fingers into her ruff like he usually did. He couldn't open his eyes. He felt disconnected from his whole body – it was worn and empty, like the husk of a snake's skin, and he could just cast it away and move on...

Except no, because where would that leave Amarisa? At the thought of his dæmon – her bright golden eyes, the rich black fur that was always so warm – the coldness ebbed somewhat. Ragnvald was still roaring, and as John prised open his eyes to see the gleaming metal that covered his friend's belly, the bear braced protectively over him, the coldness eased yet again.

Amarisa was lying beside him, panting heavily and trembling, and John felt certain that calling his name had taken the last of her strength. The arrow must have been poisoned, likely with one of those hellish concoctions that managed to affect dæmons as well as their humans.

Slowly, John's eyes dragged to the arrow embedded in his flesh. It had pierced deeply; only the feathers and a few dozen centimetres of the shaft could be seen, the cloth around it already heavy with blood.

'Pull it out,' was the only thought that ran through John's head. 'You need to get it out of you.'

He knew witches often used barbed arrows that did more damage coming out than they did going in. He knew he shouldn't touch it – the presence of the arrow could be putting much-needed pressure on arteries and veins to prevent him bleeding out – but something in John's gut, some deep, primeval instinct told him he needed to pull the arrow out.

And in situations like this, John trusted his gut above his head.

John's right hand crept across his chest slowly, fingers wrapping tightly around the arrow. It probably should have hurt – he could feel his grip shifting it in the wound – but there was no pain, only the numb chill that had seeped into every cell.

He didn't brace himself; he couldn't tense his muscles, or it would only be more difficult. He took a deep breath, felt Amarisa press her nose against his neck, and then yanked with all the strength he could muster.

The arrow tore free with a wet sucking sound, and John cast it aside. But the terrible cold didn't ease, and within moments John was trembling as though he were lying on permafrost instead of sun-warmed sand.

Amarisa crawled onto his chest, lying across the length of his body as though she were trying to warm him. John knew it should have hurt – her paws had tugged at the skin around his injury more than once – but the pain was dim and distant, as though he'd been drugged.

A huge paw slid under his body, lifting him and Amarisa as though they were newborn kittens, cradling them against an enormous, metal-clad chest. Ragnvald's low growl quivered through John's ribs as the bear began to move, turning away from the battle.

Moments before he slipped into unconsciousness, John felt Ragnvald break into a run.

--

“Why are all the acceptable flats so expensive?” Sherlock spat, closing the laptop in disgust. “You'd think we could find at least one that's in a high crime area or supposedly haunted or something that would lower the price.”

“We need a flatmate,” Raniel said, distaste in his voice as he spoke the fact neither of them wanted to acknowledge.

No,” Sherlock said, his tone hard and flat. “Absolutely not.”

He didn't want to share his living space with someone else. Someone who would undoubtedly be ordinary and pedestrian and so dull it would make him want to scream. And they'd be put off by Raniel's complete disinterest in them, or else disturbed by the fact that it was Sherlock who talked to their dæmon, not Raniel, or they'd insist on not having body parts in the flat and he'd have to bow to their wishes (at least in part) because without them he'd have to move again...

On top of the table, Raniel rocked back on his hind legs and stood up, looking Sherlock in the eye. “Then we have to either stay here or settle for a place that's just as awful.”

No!” Sherlock said again, opening the laptop again and starting a new search. “There has to be something...”

“We'd have to go out of London to find something decent in our price range,” Raniel continued ruthlessly. “Unless you ask Mycroft to help out.”

Sherlock's lip curled. “Fine, we'll get a flatmate.”

--

As soon as she saw Ragnvald, Aeliana had known something was wrong.

The bear had been running on three legs, his left front paw tucked up against his chest as though he clasped something precious. And John and his dæmon were nowhere to be seen.

Ragnvald had bypassed all the human doctors and come straight to her, and it was only then Aeliana had realised it was John tucked into the crook of the panserbjørn's arm, unconscious and shivering, his dæmon lying atop him and shuddering just as violently.

“He was shot with a witch's arrow,” was all Ragnvald said, before gently laying John and Amarisa on the ground at Aeliana's feet.

The witch had passed her hand over the ugly wound in John's shoulder before yanking it back abruptly, a sickening numbness rising from the injury like heat from a forge.

A death-spell. John had been shot by an arrow with a death-spell on it.

Aeliana's first thought had been 'why?' John was a doctor, a mid-ranking soldier, a human – he was about as far removed from witch-clan politics as it was possible to be. Why would a witch want him killed so badly they put a death-spell on their arrow?

And it had been two witches, not just the one – the deep gash on John's hip had emanated the same terrible numbness as the wound on his shoulder.

She would have been perfectly happy to work under the stars, but humans felt cold, so she asked Ragnvald to take John to his tent. Ragnvald had done so, and then planted himself outside the entrance, clearly intending to stay where he was until he had news on John's condition.

Then Aeliana had set to work. There was little she could do to truly help John – overcoming a death-spell relied purely on the subject's will – but there were potions and spells that could ease the way. And John had already proved himself formidable; most humans and witches afflicted with a death-spell died at once, as soon as the arrow pierced their skin. John had not only remained conscious for several minutes but he'd actually managed to pull the arrow out, which meant his own will was far stronger than that of the witch that had cast the spell.

But death-spells lingered like poison, and John's health could be permanently affected if Aeliana didn't counteract it.

So here she was, mixing potions and dribbling them between John's lips, breathing spells over herbs and rubbing them over the oozing wounds.

And through it all, John lay unconscious, motionless save for his constant, low-level trembling. Amarisa lay next to him on the thick sleeping bag that was serving as his bed, and they often reached for each other in their delirium, John's fingers clutching at his dæmon's fur or her nose pressing into his side.

It was only when the sun had begun to rise again that John stirred, his eyes opening slowly, as though even his eyelids were stiff.

“Ae...liana?” His voice had the slurring, disbelieving quality of the not-quite coherent and Aeliana lay a cool hand on his brow, hoping it would soothe him.

“It's all right, John,” she murmured. “You were hit by an arrow, but you're going to be fine.”

“R-Ragn...vald...?”

“He's fine, John – he's just outside, in fact. Shall I tell him you've woken up?”

But there was no response; as soon as the words 'he's fine' had passed her lips, John's eyes had slipped closed almost immediately.

Aeliana sighed, and brushed some of his sweat-slicked hair away from his forehead. It was a maternal gesture, but she couldn't help it – John was quite close in age to her own sons, after all.

The fact that he'd regained consciousness said a great deal about the progress he'd made, so she left the tent to inform Ragnvald.

A human would have spoken, would have prompted her with a demanded 'well?' or an impatient 'so?' , but Ragnvald simply turned his attention to her and waited.

“If he was a different man, I'd still be worried,” Aeliana admitted. “But knowing him, and now that he regained consciousness for a few moments, I think we can safely say the danger has passed.”

Ragnvald nodded. “That is good.”

With that, the bear rose to his feet and padded away.

Aeliana shook her head – humans she could grasp, but she was convinced she'd never understand the panserbj ø rne .

--

Mycroft was only mildly surprised to find his brother waiting in the office. It was true that Sherlock usually avoided Mycroft's offices (both the real and the decoy) as though he were in danger of some allergic reaction to them but now, with Mummy in Afghanistan, Sherlock had to come to Mycroft if he wanted any hope of news.

“Sherlock,” he greeted, nodding at his brother to sit down and not surprised at all when Sherlock remained standing. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

Sherlock, of course, didn't bother with so much as a polite greeting. “How is she?”

Mycroft toyed with the idea of pretending not to know who 'she' was, before discarding the idea – he just didn't have the heart to, not today.

“What makes you think I would know?” he asked, voice cool and deliberate.

Where another dæmon might have shifted, might have fidgeted, might have betrayed their human, Tehayla was as disciplined as Mycroft himself was and remained perfectly motionless.

“I know you have an alethiometer, Mycroft!” Sherlock snapped, Raniel bristling on his shoulder. “Cease prevaricating!”

It was true that Mycroft did possess an alethiometer, one of those strange devices that could answer any question posed to it via the thirty-six symbols inscribed on its clock-like face. Each symbol had thousands of possible meanings, and the reader of the alethiometer posed a question by manipulating three hands via dials to point at the equivalent symbols. The answer was obtained by observing the fourth hand and the symbols it pointed to as it rotated about the face.

The alethiometer had been invented in the seventeenth century, and the exact specifics of the device were still unknown. Only six had ever been made, and only three had survived to the present day.

One had been destroyed in WWI, and two were now lost (though Mycroft made sure his networks were always alert for news of them, just in case). Of the three that were accounted for, one belonged to a private collector in Zurich (who Mycroft had under close survelliance), one was on display in the Louvre, and the last one was in Mycroft's possession.

But he didn't use it often. In part because, while many experiments had been run, no one yet knew exactly what powered the alethiometer, or what enabled it to answer every question so accurately. And if you didn't know how a device worked, you couldn't know if it had been tampered with.

It was true that no one had ever found any substance or device that was capable of affecting an alethiometer, but Mycroft knew better than to take anything like that for granted.

Still, the main reason Mycroft didn't use his alethiometer was that, with so many thousands of meanings for each symbol, every answer was vulnerable to misinterpretation. And it was far better to work with no information than wrong or misleading information.

However, for Mummy, Mycroft had made an exception. He'd asked what she was doing, and the needle had swung to the symbols of the camel, the beehive, the moon, the helmet, the lightning bolt, the serpent, the helmet again and then the hourglass. Of course, the symbols were only the first, easiest step of reading the alethiometer – the real test came in interpreting them, in trying out the various combinations of meanings until you hit upon one that seemed sound.

Mycroft believed the camel referred to the desert, indicating that Mummy was still in Afghanistan. The beehive could indicate either work or company, he wasn't sure. The moon was the way the alethiometer referred to witches, which said she was either working with or in the company of witches, there was little difference either way. The helmet could mean fighting or war, which seemed obvious, but the addition of the lightning bolt symbol after it seemed to indicate another meaning. The lightning bolt was often used to represent a force of nature, and together with the helmet often referred to armoured bears. As panserbjørne had been dispatched to Afghanistan, that much seemed relatively straightforward.

However, the serpent still puzzled him. It could mean cunning or deceit (though that was usually referred to via the chameleon), or it could be a way of indicating reptiles in general. One of its deeper meanings was poison, and it was also a way of referring to medicine and sometimes doctors. It could mean that Mummy had been treated for some kind of injury, which was disturbing when coupled with the final two symbols.

The helmet and the hourglass together seemed to indicate that she was fighting death.

Though of course, Mycroft wasn't going to tell his brother that. Not purely based on the response of a subjective device that by its very nature was open to multiple interpretations.

“It was very oblique,” he said eventually, with just the right amount of grudging frustration in his voice. “All it told me was that Mummy is still in Afghanistan, working with her clan and armoured bears.”

Sherlock, of course, scoffed and demanded Mycroft describe exactly what symbols the alethiometer had stopped on, invented a dozen different explanations, and eventually swept out again with a parting shot about Mycroft's weight.

Tehayla clacked her beak resentfully as the doors closed. “Siblings can be such a trial.”

“Indeed,” Mycroft agreed, absently running the tips of his fingers down her chest.

They sat in silence for a few moments, both wondering how to progress from here.

“I could go to Afghanistan,” Tehayla said at last, hopping down from his shoulder and onto the desk.

Mycroft pursed his lips. “No – it would take you far too long to get there.”

“But Mummy-”

“I would have been informed if she'd truly been hurt,” Mycroft said, trying to convince both himself and his dæmon.

Tehayla shifted her weight, opening one wing and preening it, a sure sign she was uncomfortable. “So where do you want me to go?”

Mycroft usually liked to have Tehayla perform surveillance during the day; it was one of the more tangible benefits of their separation. He had to be seen entering the office with her – it wouldn't do to let people think he and Tehayla were in any way unusual – but she usually departed mere minutes afterwards. However, today he found he didn't want to send her away.

He knew it was ridiculous – he'd never fully trusted the answers the alethiometer gave him, and he wasn't about to start now – but the idea that Mummy might be injured, might be dying, while he was sitting at this desk...

He didn't want to be alone today, childish as it sounded.

“You're staying with me, today,” he announced, his eyes casting across the desk for an excuse. “We'll work on this little economic problem.”

Tehayla knew exactly what he was doing, of course, but refrained from commenting. She merely took her usual place on his shoulder, shifting close enough for her folded wings to brush the side of his head every time she breathed.

--

It was the first time John had actively sought Ragnvald out instead of just waiting for the bear to turn up in his own time. His arm was still in a sling, and the crutch he'd been given was rather dodgy, but it had got him up and moving, and John refused to lie in bed for any longer than he had to.

Amarisa at his side, as always, John made his slow progression across the camp until he reached the panserbjørn, Ragnvald buckling on his armour with a dexterity that always amazed the doctor. Somehow, even though he knew that those huge paws were as deft and delicate as his own hands, it was always a surprise to see it.

Ragnvald, of course, didn't waste time with meaningless pleasantries. He took one look at John's limp, at his still-healing arm, and he knew.

“You are leaving.”

“Yeah,” John sighed, wondering if he should be more enthusiastic. Most people were happy to be sent away from war zones.

But then, most people wouldn't be leaving the only place they'd ever felt accepted. It was true that most people didn't know Amarisa was a wolfdog – they usually thought of her as a very large dog – but when they did, they inevitably started to give John strange looks. Even his family had never been entirely comfortable with them, which had stung in more ways than one.

He wished there was some way for them to remain, but he was pretty useless in his current condition. Although the death-spells had been counter-acted by his own will and Aeliana's ministrations, there would be side-effects; if John was feeling sad, or scared, or dreading something, the wounds would twinge and flare with pain. And even putting the death-spells aside, he'd still had a large chunk of wood jammed into his shoulder, which meant there was a long recuperation time and a lot of physical therapy in his future.

Ragnvald nodded, and though John wanted to thank the panserbjørne for having carried him and Amarisa to safety, he held his tongue. Bears rarely accepted gratitude for such actions; in Ragnvald's mind, he had simply done the duty he owed John as a comrade-in-arms.

“It has been good to fight with you,” Ragnvald suddenly stated. “If you had been born a bear, you would have been a good one.”

John knew that was probably the highest compliment a panserbjørne could give. But as Ragnvald wouldn't want any kind of effusive flattery, he settled for nodding in acknowledgement as Amarisa wagged her tail.

Then Ragnvald bent over, pressing their foreheads together just as he'd done when they'd burned Aaltje's body, gazing straight into John's eyes with an intensity that still rather intimidated the doctor.

“Strength and victory, John Watson,” Ragnvald said clearly, bestowing the traditional blessing of the armoured bears.

“Strength and victory, Ragnvald Finnurson,” John replied.

Ragnvald grunted in satisfaction and drew back, leaving John to turn around, and slowly limp away.

“Well,” Amarisa said quietly. “That was one of the nicest, simplest goodbyes we've ever engaged in.”

She was trying to cheer him up, and John smiled weakly at her, appreciative but not yet able to look at his discharge as a good thing.

They found Tamsyn, Hasna and Aeliana towards the edge of the camp, and John was grateful all three witches were present – he'd rather do the farewells all together.

Hasna saw him first. “John?”

“Hey,” he greeted as he shuffled up to them, wincing when he moved a little too quickly and pain sparked through his hip, Amarisa giving him a chastising growl.

“Are you all right?” Tamsyn asked, looking as though she was torn between putting out an arm for him and respecting his pride.

“I'm fine – it's just my leg...”

Aeliana looked uncomfortable. “That's likely my fault. I concentrated most of the spells on your shoulder, as it was so badly injured. I could try to do something about it now, but so much time has passed...”

“It'll be all right,” John said, trying to smile for her. “And thanks for what you did – I don't think I'd be here, otherwise.”

Aeliana had informed him he'd been hit with death-spells as soon as he was coherent, though the two of them were still baffled as to why. He wasn't exactly a witch clan's greatest enemy, and he was fairly certain no witch should have a vendetta against him serious enough to justify a death-spell.

But Aeliana seemed uncomfortable with his gratitude, so John changed the subject swiftly. “So, what about you? And Tamsyn and Hasna – are you going to stay with this company for a bit longer, or are you going elsewhere?”

The witches glanced at each other.

“We're thinking of withdrawing,” Aeliana admitted. “You know why we involved ourselves in this war, don't you?”

John nodded – Tamsyn had explained it to him several weeks ago.

“Well, the more I see of this war, the more I think we aren't going to find any answers here.”

“We think the mystery will be unravelled closer to home,” Hasna put in. “We're not learning anything here.”

“Well, good luck with that,” John said. “I'm leaving, tomorrow, so-”

“I'm going with you,” Tamsyn interrupted.

Confused, John blinked at her for a moment. “What?”

“Two witches thought you worthy of a death-spell, John,” Aeliana reminded him, her voice hard. “Tamsyn will go back to England with you, for your own safety.”

“You don't need to do that-” John began, protesting automatically.

“But we do,” Tamsyn interrupted. “If they want to kill you that badly, they won't simply give up.”

John was starting to feel a little alarmed now – the idea that an entire clan of witches wanted him dead wasn't exactly a pleasant thought. Amarisa leaned against his good leg to reassure him.

“Don't worry,” Hasna said, reading John's trepidation. “It's only until you reach England.”

“Is England some kind of safe base or something?” John asked, trying to inject some humour into his voice. “They can't kill me there because it violates some sanctified law or something?”

Aeliana smiled, small and secretive. “Not quite. But suffice to say, they won't dare touch you in England.”

Hasna nodded. “And in the meantime, we'll try to find out why they were so desperate to kill you.”

John couldn't argue that – he'd wondered the same thing himself many times. After all, he wasn't particularly high-ranked in the army, he wasn't some sort of genius doctor, and he certainly wasn't the sort of person who changed the course of a war...so why had the witches suddenly decided to kill him?

--

Sherlock made a habit of staying in touch with people he'd assisted. Or perhaps not 'staying in touch', as that implied it was a mutual communication – more like he was aware of where they were and what they were doing, in case he ever needed to call in a favour.

For example, due to a few small problems here and there that he'd cleared up, almost every Gyptian on the waterways would be willing to help Sherlock in any way they could. Sherlock had used them several times to locate missing people or to obtain information he wouldn't have been able to otherwise.

And now a flat in Baker Street had opened up, and Sherlock knew the landlady. He'd helped out Mrs. Hudson in America, and remembered her as one of the few people he could tolerate in extended close proximity. It helped that her dæmon – a red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) by the name of Kai – was never made uneasy by Raniel's lack of attention. Kai never expected Sherlock's dæmon to interact with him, and was never offended when Sherlock addressed him instead of Mrs. Hudson.

His previous acquaintance with the woman meant she'd presented him with an offer substantially lower than what she should have demanded, which meant he'd only need one flatmate to help him pay the rent. That was good news; as there were only two bedrooms the only other option would have been to rent it with a couple, which would have been much more unpleasant.

Now, all he needed to do was find a flatmate who wouldn't demand any consistent social interaction from him, and who Sherlock could stand to be around.

--

John's shoulder had improved in leaps and bounds, and John thought he had Aeliana's spells to thank for his speedy recovery.

But that was only his shoulder. John's leg still twinged at odd intervals, and he still needed a cane to get around. Tamsyn had told him he could combat the pain the same way he'd fought off the death-spells – by thinking of life, why he wanted to live it and what made his good.

Except while that had been easy in Afghanistan, it was much more difficult now. He'd been useful in Afghanistan, he'd had purpose, while back here he was just another crippled ex-soldier. He'd had friends in Afghanistan, people who understood him, who accepted Amarisa – and thus, himself – while here people began to edge away any time his dæmon displayed her more wolf-like characteristics.

At least John had managed to stay in touch with his friends; Caedmon had come to visit him twice, checking in on him and informing John of the progress the witches had made. They were no closer to finding out why he'd been a target for not one but two death-spells, but the swan dæmon had told John that the enemy witches seemed to be withdrawing their support from the Afghani forces – at the very least, they weren't nearly as involved in the conflict as they had been.

Of course, Caedmon also told him other, less important news. Such as the fact that Hasna had fallen in love with one of those combat journalists that had been tagging along with the company. John had first wished her luck and then, when Caedmon had told him they were in the beginning stages of a serious relationship on his second visit, had passed along his congratulations. Aeliana had reunited with her family (apparently her husband and sons were current, not long in the past) and John was happy for her. Tamsyn was still unattached, but was making overtures towards another witch (John had vaguely suspected that Tamsyn was a lesbian; not through anything she'd done or said, but simply because living with Harry through their teenage years had given him a decent gaydar).

Because they were so small now, the remnants of their clan had been absorbed by one of their allies, and Aeliana was now on that clan's council – John had been rather shocked when Caedmon had informed him Aeliana had been the clan queen.

Ragnvald was still fighting in Afghanistan, though the unpopularity of the war (and the subsequent scarcity of funds for it) coupled with the withdrawal of the enemy witch clan made it likely the government might cut back on the number of armoured bears sometime soon.

And while he was certainly concerned about his friends, John had problems of his own to worry about. His therapist, for one; like every other human on the face of the planet, she seemed to think that Amarisa being a wolfdog meant they were hiding some terrible childhood trauma. John resented such an implication and made no secret of the fact – but of course, she only thought his defensiveness was proof she was striking close to home.

John's other problem was that he didn't have the income to stay in London without a flatmate. Not that he was particularly attached to his current set of rooms; they didn't feel like home, and the only personal touch John had brought to them was his photos.

He didn't have many – only four. One of his family, taken when he was seventeen. Another of him and his university friends, and one of the platoon he'd served with. The most recent addition was one taken by a combat photographer that John had ended up keeping for himself, and it showed himself and Amarisa with Ragnvald, Tamsyn, Hasna and Caedmon.

John didn't have a picture of Aeliana, which he supposed was a pity but hardly something he could change now.

The point was, attached to his rooms or not, John couldn't live in London and certainly not in any decent apartment without someone to help him pay for it. But that was easier said than done – people didn't want to live with someone with a wolfdog for a dæmon, and John was self-aware enough to know he'd probably make a terrible flatmate at this point. Aside from a host of lingering battlefield reflexes (John was still uncomfortable with people coming up behind him, for example) and a sense of paranoia – though he felt this was at least partly justified, as he had a witch clan out for his blood, after all – there were the nightmares.

It might have been bearable if he'd dreamed about the war, about the battlefields, but he didn't. His nightmares were always about the death-spell. Night after night, he revisited the all-consuming cold, the creeping numbness, the feeling that he was sinking into darkness, alone and away from everything he loved, away from even Amarisa.

So, he doubted anyone would want to share a flat with him. Harry might be willing to put him up, but John was determined that would be an absolute last resort.

So he didn't think anything of mentioning his problems to Mike Stamford when they stumbled across each other in the park, and was bewildered by Mike's sudden chuckle.

“You're the second person to say that to me today.”

Amarisa's ears pricked, and John couldn't help asking, “Who was the first?”

--

Sherlock glanced up from his experiment as the door opened, Raniel doing the same from his perch on the table, sniffing the air.

Mike Stamford and his pig dæmon (Sus domestica) entered the room, followed by a man Sherlock assumed was a prospective flatmate. He'd deliberately mentioned his housing troubles to the man earlier, hoping he would spread the word – Stamford's circle of acquaintances was likely to consist primarily of doctors and researchers, and Sherlock needed a flatmate who wouldn't be squeamish.

It was clear the other man was both a doctor and a soldier, so Sherlock and Raniel turned their attention to his dæmon.

Sherlock's first thought was 'dog', but that didn't quite fit. While the dæmon was obviously canine, the shape of the skull was wrong for a dog, the snout too long and the head too low. There was something wrong about the way she moved as well; much too predatory to be a dog. His next thought – with more than a hint of interest – was 'wolf', but that didn't fit, either. The dæmon couldn't be a wolf, because no true wolves had black coats or dew claws. That she was some kind of canine was obvious, but what kind?

Raniel actually scurried the length of the table to stare down at this strange dæmon, sniffing intently.

People usually became uncomfortable beneath Raniel's scrutiny of their dæmons, but it didn't seem to bother the military doctor at all. Raniel himself was usually enough to unsettle people, or at the very least warrant a second glance, but the man just looked at Sherlock's dæmon for a moment before he began glancing about the lab.

Intriguing. It seemed either that this doctor was surprisingly accepting of strange qualities in dæmons, or Raniel was not the strangest dæmon he'd ever seen. Possibly both.

Raniel bounded back to Sherlock, scrambling up his sleeve to curl around his neck.

Sherlock turned his face away so the other men wouldn't see him speaking, and kept his voice low so it wouldn't carry to the ears of their dæmons.

“What does she smell like – dog or wolf?”

“I don't know,” Raniel whispered, practically trembling with excitement. “I've never smelled a dæmon like her before.”

Sherlock turned his gaze on the mysterious dæmon again, wondering if he'd missed something. But she was definitely a canine of some sort...a strange kind of wolf? A particularly exotic dog breed?

He didn't know. For the first time since they were eleven and that woman's hoatzin had puzzled them, Sherlock and Raniel were honestly confounded by a person's dæmon.

How very interesting.

Chapter Text

John and Amarisa didn't really know what to make of this 'Sherlock Holmes', or his dæmon. He was an attractive man, and if he was in Bart's laboratory then he was certainly intelligent, but exactly what his purpose in the laboratory had been John couldn't divine, and Stamford had been less than forthcoming. His dæmon was male and albino, and seemed to be a very large ferret-type creature.

The dæmon in question had spent the entire conversation staring fixedly at Amarisa, and while she and John were used to people and dæmons staring at her, it had still been rather disconcerting.

Not to mention the litany of facts the man had rattled off as though he'd had John followed by a private detective. It was rather eerie, and John felt at a distinct disadvantage, so as soon as he and Amarisa were back in their rooms he googled the man.

“The Science of Deduction,” Amarisa read aloud, resting her front paws on the desk beside John as she peered at the laptop screen. “Sounds kind of suspicious.”

“It does,” John agreed, leaning back in his chair as one hand reached out to fondle Amarisa's ears. “I mean, I'll buy that you can tell some things from looking at people, but surely not all this. I mean, an airline pilot by his thumb?”

Amarisa glanced up at him. “So, are we going to have a look at the flat or not?”

“Might as well,” John shrugged. “He probably won't be the strangest person we've ever met anyway.”

“No, I think that honour still goes to Ragnvald,” Amarisa agreed. “Even if Sherlock's dæmon seems a bit...intense.”

John shrugged again. “Maybe that's just how he is. Or maybe he just acts that way with people he's only met recently.”

John read a book for the rest of the afternoon while his dæmon napped on the bed, until it was time to make their way to Baker Street.

“I wish you'd take a cab,” Amarisa scolded John as he limped down the street. “It would be so much better for your leg...”

“I'm fine, Risa,” John muttered. “It's all in my head, anyway.”

Amarisa lightly nipped his fingers in remonstration. “You were shot with a death-spell, remember? It's not the kind of thing that just goes away. 'Try to think happy thoughts' indeed! Honestly – it makes war sound like a production of Peter Pan!”

“What else would you suggest?” John grumbled and predictably, Amarisa fell silent.

John immediately felt contrite. He knew she was only trying to cheer him up, and that at heart Amarisa felt as downtrodden as he did, so he scratched gently at the top of her head in silent apology.

They made good time, and Sherlock pulled up in a cab just as they reached the front door. The landlady, Mrs. Hudson, seemed nice (even if the story about her husband was a little bizarre), and her dæmon – a red squirrel who introduced himself as Kai to Amarisa – was friendly and welcoming without being fussy. John had been looking around, trying to get a better measure of Sherlock and his dæmon (who Kai had called Raniel), when they were interrupted by a man barging into the flat.

He seemed to be in his thirties, and his dæmon was a sharp-eyed falcon that rode on his shoulder, her piercing gaze snapping around the room. And though John wasn't completely certain, he also seemed to be a policeman.

It was clear that this man and Sherlock were acquainted, and that it seemed to be in a professional capacity, but how that worked John had no idea. Sherlock sped out the door like a hurricane, Raniel draped around his neck like a fur scarf, and John was left in the chair, unable to help feeling a stab of envy at his clear excitement, his purpose.

It had been a long time since he'd had anything resembling purpose.

His bitterness made him shout at Mrs. Hudson, which he was instantly sorry for, Amarisa licking at his hand in an effort to console him. He'd just glanced at the newspaper when a voice intruded on his thoughts.

“You're a doctor.”

John looked up, and Amarisa stood reflexively.

Sherlock was standing in the doorway, pulling on a pair of gloves.

“Matter of fact, you were an army doctor,” he went on, with the air of someone being deliberately casual.

Feeling the need to be on his feet for this conversation, John grasped his cane and pulled himself upright.

“Yes,” he said shortly.

“Any good?” Sherlock asked.

Taking affront, Amarisa bristled, but John's voice was calm. “Very good.”

It wasn't empty boasting, either – it was the truth; he knew he was a good doctor. Not the absolute top of his profession perhaps, but still a cut above the rest.

“Seen a lot of injuries, then? Violent deaths?” Sherlock's eyes were staring very intently into his.

Raniel was back to staring at Amarisa just as intently, but – as John knew she would – the wolfdog was simply taking it in stride, cocking her head as she stared right back at him.

“Yes,” was all John said.

Sherlock was approaching them slowly, and there was an air of restrained excitement about him. “Bit of trouble, too, I bet.”

“Of course, yes,” John replied, then felt the need to add. “Enough for a lifetime, far too much.”

He knew that was how he was supposed to feel about it. But John couldn't help it – he wanted purpose again, and he knew Amarisa felt the same.

But re-enlisting was out of the question with his leg the way it was, and Aeliana and the others wanted him in England until they figured out why a witch clan had tried to kill him (frankly, it was something John wondered about quite often himself). One would think that being hunted by witches would have spiced up his life, but England was as much a sanctuary as he'd been promised: he hadn't even been mugged.

So Sherlock's next words seemed like a godsend. “Want to see some more?”

“Oh, god, yes!” was out of John's mouth within an instant.

Amarisa yipped happily, and her tail was wagging furiously as they followed Sherlock out the door.

--

When Sherlock first met John Watson, he supposed he and Raniel could have done a lot worse in flatmates. The puzzle of Amarisa's form was a pleasant surprise (he still couldn't decide between an obscure species of wolf or an exotic breed of dog, and the rich black coat raised the possibility that she was a colour variant), and she and her human seemed relatively easy to live with, though Sherlock suspected John might attempt to insist on an annoying level of cleanliness in the living room and kitchen.

Several hours later, rifling through rubbish for a pink suitcase, Sherlock and Raniel were coming to the conclusion that it would have been hard to do better.

John Watson and Amarisa were interesting.

Instead of being unsettled or repelled by Sherlock's deductions, John seemed to honestly marvel at them, and he was so free with his praise Sherlock had at first wondered if he was somehow unaware he was verbalising his thoughts. While most dæmons would have been unsettled by Raniel's unwavering scrutiny as he tried to determine what Amarisa was, the canine dæmon took it in stride, seemingly not bothered in the slightest.

Watching Scotland Yard's reaction to them had been interesting, to say the least. Sally's wildcat-dæmon, Matriel, clearly hadn't thought much of Amarisa, turning his nose up as the dæmon went by. Lestrade and Zarania seemed to afford John and Amarisa a measure of respect, but the most interesting observation had been that Anderson's beagle-dæmon refused to meet Amarisa's eyes.

Dog dæmons usually got along relatively well, the pack mentality being what it was, so Izeah's uneasiness around Amarisa raised some very intriguing questions.

John had worked smoothly and efficiently, he and his dæmon moving in sync as though they'd examined a hundred bodies. And maybe they had – it wasn't entirely improbable.

John had investigated the woman's fingers as his dæmon bent her head to sniff at the corpse's lips. Sherlock had opened his mouth to ask her what scents she'd detected, wondering how her sense of smell measured up to Raniel's, when his own dæmon beat him to it.

“What do you smell?”

Sherlock had twisted to stare at Raniel where the polecat was crouched beside the body, and he'd known Lestrade and Zarania were similarly shocked. Raniel never spoke to other dæmons unless it was to tell them to shut up and stop talking to him, let alone to ask a question Sherlock would have been perfectly capable of asking himself.

John and Amarisa, of course, had no notion of how unprecedented it was, and Amarisa answered promptly.

“Perfume – that new Chanel one, and it's very strong,” Amarisa had reported, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “Her last meal was something spicy with chicken in it, but there's something else, something chalky and bitter...”

That had been the poisonous pill, of course, and moments later Sherlock had rushed out in search of a pink suitcase, sweeping up Raniel along the way.

“We probably shouldn't have left him there,” Raniel muttered as they peered into yet another rubbish bin.

This, too, was rather unprecedented. Raniel did display concern for some select people and dæmons, but they were usually Mummy and Father exclusively, not a potential flatmate they'd only met a few hours ago.

“He'll be fine,” Sherlock muttered.

It wasn't a dismissal – it was a fact. Most people seemed to think John relatively harmless, which was completely idiotic; you only had to look at Amarisa to know that. Wolf or dog, she was quite clearly a predator, and an intimidating one at that.

More than that, John was experienced. He was a man who had been through a war and had come out sane and relatively whole, psychosomatic limp notwithstanding.

If John could endure all that and still come out genial and good-natured, the streets of London weren't going to present a problem.

“Why are you so interested in them anyway?” Sherlock asked his dæmon, genuinely curious.

Because Raniel was more taken with a dæmon than Sherlock had seen in...ever. He supposed it could be the puzzle Amarisa presented, but he couldn't help but feel it was something more. Something new and different.

“I...like her...” Raniel announced slowly, as though he could barely believe it himself. “Amarisa, I mean. And John, too. I can't explain why, I just...like them.”

That was another first – Raniel had never taking a liking to another dæmon without a reason. He respected Zarania because even when she shouted at him she never expected him to reply, and he was fond of Kai for the same reasons; the squirrel didn't intrude on his space and never attempted to catch his attention.

But for Raniel to just 'like' a dæmon for no conceivable reason...that was new.

Sherlock was aware it was actually relatively common for dæmons to like or dislike each other on sight. Studies had been done on the phenomenon, colloquially known as the 'compatibility test', and they seemed to indicate that your dæmon's feelings about another dæmon usually indicated whether or not you would get along with their human. Many happily married couples (rare in his line of work) claimed that their dæmons had taken an instant, completely unprecedented liking to each other.

Of course, Sherlock was certain that wasn't what was happening here. Not that John Watson wasn't appealing, because he was, though in a surprising way – the quicksilver flash of attraction when he first saw him had actually caught Sherlock unaware. John wasn't particularly beautiful or striking, but there was something warm and steady and strong about him, like a rock in the centre of a maelstrom.

Sherlock shook the thought away – extraneous data, pointless to his search – and moved on to the next skip.

--

John wasn't sure what was going on, and the woman who'd given her name as Anthea refused to tell him.

She was tapping away at a Blackberry, her chameleon dæmon in her lap, one foreleg resting on her wrist. Amarisa was sitting at John's feet, braced against the slight rocking motion of the car, her muscles tense and ready to leap into action.

They didn't know what was going on, but they did know that people who interfered so casually and precisely with public phones and CCTV cameras were not people to be trifled with.

John supposed he should be more concerned at the fact he and Amarisa had essentially been abducted off the street, but all he felt was the strange calmness and clarity that had always descended when he was running into a battle in Ragnvald's wake.

The car pulled up in what appeared to be an empty parking garage. Well, empty except for a solitary chair and the man standing in front of it.

He was dressed in a business suit and was holding an umbrella in one hand. His dæmon – a raven – was perched on his shoulder, her eyes trained on John as he and Amarisa stepped out of the car.

It was probably meant to be intimidating, but...well, if John intimidated easily, he wouldn't have made friends with an armoured bear.

It was made apparent within moments that this man was interested in him for his connections to Sherlock, and John was swiftly coming to the conclusion that his potential flatmate led a very interesting life.

Amarisa stood close, close enough for her fur to brush the side of John's trousers, her muscles tense as though preparing to spring. The raven dæmon was looking down her beak at the wolfdog, and Amarisa's hackles were up, her lips pulled back ever-so slightly to show just the barest tips of her canines.

The rampant tension of the situation was what had made her so visibly hostile, but Amarisa was usually taciturn with strangers. It took her a while to warm up to people and dæmons, even though she seemed to have become fond of Raniel and Sherlock inordinately quickly. But then, Sherlock's dæmon was interesting (as was Sherlock himself), and John had heard stories of people's dæmons just clicking, so maybe that was what had happened there.

As the stranger in the business suit noted, they were becoming very loyal very quickly. Though he seemed to overlook the fact that John's refusal could have been based purely on common sense – when offered money to spy on someone who worked for the police by a man who claimed to be their enemy, it was probably better to refuse.

The raven clacked her beak, probably to sound menacing, as the man reached into his pocket and produced a small notebook once more.

“Trust issues, it says here,” he commented mildly, flipping it open.

A crawling sensation shivered up John's spine, and Amarisa gave a low, rumbling growl.

“What's that?” he asked, his voice tight.

The man continued as though John hadn't spoken. “Could it be you've decided to trust Sherlock Holmes, of all people?”

“Who says I trust him?” John shot back automatically.

“You don't seem the kind to make friends easily...”

John had never been good at letting someone else dissect and critique his life as if it was a poorly-shot movie. It was probably why therapy had never seemed to help him much.

“Are we done?”

The man looked directly at him, something close to a challenge in his eyes. “You tell me.”

John had never had much taste for these kind of pointless dramatics and turned away, determined to stride out of there...

“I imagine people have already warned you to stay away from him,” was called to his retreating back. “But I can tell from your dæmon and your left hand that's not going to happen.”

John whirled – he'd always been sensitive to comments about Amarisa.

“What do you mean?” he snapped, resting one hand on his dæmon's ruff as Amarisa snarled low in her throat.

The stranger smiled as though pleased at John's reaction, and his raven dæmon ruffled her feathers in a contented manner. “Most people blunder around this city and all they see are streets and shops and cars. When you walk with Sherlock Holmes you see the battlefield – you've seen it already haven't you?”

Amarisa had stopped snarling, but that didn't mean their anger and affront had in any way diminished – just that both she and John were now in better control.

“Do you have a particular point to make?” John asked, trying not to grit his teeth.

“You have an intermittent tremor in your left hand,” the man explained, voice steady and sure. “Your therapist think it's post traumatic stress disorder; she thinks you're haunted by memories of your military service...but then, she thinks your dæmon took the form of a wolfdog because you suffered some sort of abuse as an adolescent.”

In spite of himself, John was surprised. Apart from the information on his therapy (which John was pretty sure was confidential), most people never guessed Amarisa's form themselves. At first glance people took her for a dog, and it was only if they spent an extended amount of time around her and John that they started to think she was something more...and even then, they rarely got it right.

“Who the hell are you?” John asked, unable to help himself.

The stranger smiled, the kind of smile that said he wasn't going to answer, pointedly looking down at Amarisa. “No more slinking around trying to act like a dog to put people at ease, hmmm?”

Neither the wolfdog nor her human acknowledged the comment.

“You are haunted by memories, but it's not the memories she thinks,” the man went on, still sounding supremely satisfied with himself. “You're under stress right now and your hand is perfectly steady. You don't dream of bombs or gunfire or battles – after all, you were a soldier and these were your life...your nightmares are of what you felt when those witches shot you with their death-spells.”

John's leg twinged painfully at the reminder, and now he was truly uneasy – Aeliana and the others had tried to keep the exact nature of his injury under wraps until they knew more. The fact that this man knew said a lot of things about his reach, none of which John liked.

He tried for a calm voice when he spoke again. “Who told you that?”

“A concerned party.”

John hadn't paid too much attention after that, his mind too busy racing along to try to determine who might be able to tell people about his injury. He eliminated the witches and Ragnvald almost immediately – armoured bears weren't exactly known for being blabbermouths, and it had been the witches' idea to keep it a secret in the first place. He supposed it would have been on the discharge papers, and someone who had access to his therapist's notes would have been able to take a glance at those without a problem.

Eventually, the strange man left and John made sure to retrieve his gun before he and Amarisa went back to Baker Street.

Sherlock had located the pink suitcase, and John had been more than a little pissed off at the idea the other man had only called him back to send a text.

“Couldn't you have got him to do it?” he'd asked, nodding at Raniel, the polecat curled up on Sherlock's belly as he lay on the couch.

“No opposable thumbs,” the dæmon piped up. “I'm rubbish at keypads.”

It was unusual for dæmons to address another human directly unless they were especially close or the person was absent or indisposed, in the cases of witches or coma patients. But really, when compared to everything else that was unusual about Sherlock and Raniel, it wasn't anything to get excited about.

Sherlock had stared at his dæmon for a moment, looking almost surprised, as though Raniel was doing something out of the ordinary, but the expression had passed so quickly John wasn't sure it had ever been there in the first place.

John had done as ordered and sent the texts, and Sherlock – still apparently buzzing from the high of finding the suitcase – was busily snatching up his coat and scarf, when Raniel suddenly looked at John and Amarisa.

“Want to come along?” he asked, almost hopefully.

Amarisa wagged her tail beseechingly, and John glanced at Sherlock.

He saw again that strange expression on Sherlock's face, as though he were startled by what his dæmon had just done, before his eyes met John's and he shrugged.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Well, you could just sit there and watch telly,” he said, as though watching telly was the most hideous thing anyone could ever do with their free time.

Sherlock and Raniel didn't seem to be the social types, so John felt the need to clarify. “You want us to come with you?”

“I think better when I talk aloud,” was all Sherlock said.

John was about to point out that a dæmon rather negated the need for company to talk aloud to, but Sherlock and Raniel were already gone.

“Well?” Amarisa asked impatiently, eyes shining.

John sighed. “We're crazy, you do realise that, don't you?”

Amarisa laughed. “But it's so much fun!”

It was difficult to argue with that, so John grabbed his cane and followed his dæmon down the stairs.

--

Sometimes – not very often, but sometimes – Sherlock was honestly astounded by the workings of the world and the coincidences that drove it. He never would have guessed that his search for a flatmate he could tolerate would lead him to...to this.

'This' being rapidly cooling Chinese takeaway, he and John eating in their chairs, Raniel sprawled across the padded back of Sherlock's and Amarisa sitting beside John's. 'This' was complete unprecedented in Sherlock's experience.

Not to mention that Raniel's behaviour was only growing more unusual. Aside from actually talking to Amarisa and John, he'd even held a full conversation with the other dæmon. While they were on lookout at Angelo's, with Amarisa lying beneath the table, Raniel had forgone his usual place on Sherlock's shoulder or the chair beside him and had leapt down to the floor as well. Sherlock and John's ensuing conversation had been slower than usual and slightly stilted, their attention forced to split between their own conversation and their dæmons'.

It hadn't been a particularly involved conversation, just the sort of overtures strange dæmons made to each other all the time, and Sherlock was quite sure neither John nor Amarisa knew how unusual it was for Raniel to be making them to another dæmon.

And then John and Amarisa had followed them out of the restaurant, leaving the cane behind, even though Sherlock hadn't really expected that to work. He'd felt the need to try (though why he did was still a mystery), but he hadn't anticipated such immediate success. Obviously the hold the psychosomatic injury had on John's mind had been fragile at best, which raised all sorts of intriguing questions.

When they got back to the flat it had been invaded by the police, Anderson's dæmon sniffing around and trying to stay out of Amarisa's way. The faux drug bust had been irritating, to say the least, especially the split-second of fear in which Sherlock wondered if John wouldn't want to share a flat with an ex-junkie, if he and Amarisa would leave.

It had been slightly disconcerting to realise that he hadn't even known the man for a full day, yet was honestly perturbed at the thought of him leaving the flat.

And then...then the cabbie. That had been brilliant, truly brilliant, because who suspects the cabbie? Even his dæmon was forgettable – a red fox of the European subspecies (Vulpes vulpes crucigera). But Sherlock and Raniel knew the red fox was distinguished from other fox species because it represented a more progressive carnivorous form, and could adapt rapidly to its surroundings.

Then came the game, which was brilliant as well, and the shot and as Sherlock gazed through the hole in the window into the darkened and empty room opposite them (Raniel keeping watch on the dying murderer), he remembered that though red foxes were the largest of the true foxes, they were vulnerable to attack from predators such as wolves.

He didn't have any idea why his mind should have fixed on that fact, not until he was standing in front of Lestrade in that ridiculous blanket and his eyes wandered over to John standing behind the police tape. John looked perfectly innocent, a mix of curious and bewildered, but Amarisa...

Amarisa was standing at his side, but there was something wrong about her stance. When dogs were relaxed, their heads were held high, their tongues lolled, and there was a sort of slouch to their posture that said they'd be quite happy to lie down right where they were. Amarisa's head was low, parallel to her back, and she held her tail perfectly straight and angled away from her body. Her ears were pricked and attentive, but they weren't flicking from side or side and she wasn't fidgeting – her whole being exuded a sort of predatory stillness that Sherlock had never seen any dog display.

Then Sherlock knew. He and Raniel had put Lestrade off the scent (he wasn't sure if they'd done it very successfully, but he was determined that in a few hours there would be no evidence to find in any case), and re-joined their new flatmate and his dæmon. At which point Mycroft had shown up, John had lingered to clarify something, and then run to catch up to Sherlock and Raniel.

And again, Amarisa didn't behave like a dog. She didn't run the way dogs did, feet overlapping and body bounding and jolting along. She moved the way wolves did; the long, loping stride, almost a trot, that kept their back level and allowed them to glide over the ground.

It was, quite frankly, fascinating. Both of them were. John Watson's history was written on him like calligraphy, but for all that was obvious about him there was a hint of mystery, of depths not yet touched. And his dæmon...

For the first time in years, a dæmon honestly confounded both Sherlock and Raniel.

Of course, they could only take the mystery for so long, and when they were back in the flat, finishing up their meal, Raniel finally spoke up.

“What are you?” he asked bluntly, staring at Amarisa.

She and her human tensed almost imperceptibly, and John glanced up from his food and said, “Figure it out for yourself.”

With that, both he and his dæmon retreated upstairs, the solid thuds of John's shoes on the stairs a counterpoint to Amarisa's near-silent, padding footsteps.

Sherlock and Raniel were up all night googling various wolf species and flicking through their index of canine dæmons. At this point Sherlock was certain Amarisa was a species of wolf; it was true that no pure wolves were black, but at this point he was assuming Amarisa was a colour variant. John had been unusually uneasy when the question of Amarisa's species was raised – it could just be people's usual discomfort in the face of questions about their dæmons, but Sherlock thought there was something more to it – and having a wolf dæmon would explain why. The only question was, what type of wolf was she?

None of the species he saw fit. Their skulls weren't the right shape, their proportions were incorrect, and while a grey wolf might come close to matching her size the body was too lean, the chest too narrow.

In the early hours of the morning, Sherlock finally found it. When you eliminated the impossible whatever remained, however improbable, must be the truth, and this was the only solution that fit all of the data.

Wolfdog.

A disgustingly unimaginative name, but certainly very descriptive. Half wolf, half dog, and Sherlock could certainly understand why John didn't want to advertise that fact.

Wolf dæmons were rare, yes, but hybrid dæmons even more so. It indicated an instinctive dichotomy of the person's soul, a divide that was nonetheless smoothly reconciled and integrated...

Like a doctor who was also a killer.

Something thrilled in Sherlock at that thought, and Raniel shivered on his shoulder. They read on.

By the time John and Amarisa were stirring the next morning, Sherlock and Raniel had what they needed. Amarisa was undoubtedly a wolfdog, and her sheer size made it likely that her wolf half was that of a grey wolf – Canis lupus – though he didn't know which subspecies it was.

The dog half was much harder to determine, but Sherlock suspected something along the lines of a husky or a malamute, something thickset but still close to the ancestral wolf form.

A wolf dæmon would have been interesting. But a wolfdog was fascinating.

Because while the information Sherlock found claimed that wolfdogs could be domesticated (some people kept them as pets, but more often they were used by the police or the military), everything he read pointed to the fact that in the wild, wolfdogs were more dangerous than wolves. They formed larger packs, were capable of greater speed and stamina when chasing down their prey, and were far less likely to flee from humans as true wolves did.

Feet and paws descended the stairs as John came into the sitting room, Amarisa at his heels. The glance they shot towards Sherlock and Raniel on the sofa was wary, as if they expected both of them to run screaming.

“If you're making tea, I'll have some, too,” Sherlock told him.

“If you want tea, make some yourself,” John groused, but Sherlock could hear the relief in his voice, as though John had honestly been expecting Sherlock to throw him out of the flat as soon as he learned what Amarisa was.

Amarisa's tail waved happily, and Raniel made a pleased chittering noise in response.

John, however, kept looking at Sherlock out of the corner of his eyes, as though at any moment the doctor expected him to suddenly retract his acceptance. Sherlock wondered how many people had been uncomfortable around John once they discerned Amarisa's true nature.

Perhaps in a world without dæmons, John Watson would have looked quite unremarkable – people would pass him in the street with no idea of what had slipped them by. But the prescence of Amarisa ensured that John was seen for what he was by those who knew what she was; unique and dangerous.

--

John could admit that at this point, he'd probably made a friend even stranger than Ragnvald.

Even aside from Sherlock's deductions, the way his mind seemed to be operating on a different wavelength and his dæmon's bizarre interest in Amarisa, they seemed to have somehow missed the memo on normal social interaction. Like calling John back to the flat from halfway across London just to obtain his mobile phone, for example.

John knew most people seemed to be discomforted by Sherlock's habit of talking directly to their dæmons, but he and Amarisa weren't particularly bothered by that. Perhaps it was because they were used to conversing with Caedmon without Hasna present, so Sherlock speaking directly to Amarisa was more a semi-endearing quirk than the affront other people seemed to take it as.

They'd ended up chasing down the cab, and for the first time in months John had forgotten all about his leg. Even when he'd realised what had happened when they got back, still gasping and laughing in turn, and his leg tried to twinge and spasm, all he had to do was remember the chase. Remember how excited and breathless and alive he'd felt, and the pain scurried away.

Then Sherlock had to go and be a complete idiot and follow a serial killer out the front door. John and Amarisa had followed the phone's coordinates, had gone looking in the wrong building, and he'd ended up shooting the murderer through the window.

John had known the man was dying; he never missed, and the fox dæmon was already beginning to evaporate into golden smoke when he and Amarisa turned around and left as quickly as they could.

Sherlock had known of course, but John had been half-expecting that. Then the supposed nemesis had turned out to be Sherlock's brother (and John had thought his family dynamics were bad!) they'd ended up getting themselves some Chinese, and Raniel had asked the question John had been dreading.

He thrown them a challenge, daring them to work it out themselves, and then he and Amarisa had retreated to his bedroom.

John had lain on the bed with Amarisa curled against his side, trying to tell himself that it didn't matter.

“They probably won't care,” Amarisa tried to reassure him. “I don't think they actually know how to care about stuff like that.”

“Yeah, but what if they do?” John couldn't help asking.

At least Amarisa didn't apologise for what she was any more. That had stopped years ago, when they'd finally realised that other people's reactions and prejudices weren't their problem.

John had swiftly learned not to actually tell people what Amarisa was. He'd become an expert at dismissive brush-offs such as 'isn't it obvious?' or 'can't you tell?' or 'oh, some kind of dog'. None of them were lies – it was rather obvious when people trusted their instincts, they just preferred to think of her as a dog, and being only half-wolf, Amarisa was technically a type of a dog. A hybrid, true, but still a type of dog.

“I'm surprised Sherlock's dæmon didn't figure it out right away,” John admitted. “He certainly spent enough time staring at you.”

Amarisa grinned, and her tail thumped against the mattress. “Raniel was just curious – I don't think they usually come across dæmons they can't figure out right away.”

John chuckled, then sobered immediately. “You think they'll be all right?”

“Probably. I mean, Murray was weird about it for a while, but he came around.”

“Yeah, but I never had to live with Bill,” John pointed out. “You know how people are; they're fine with something if it's at a distance, but once it actually comes into their lives...”

He shrugged. Amarisa wiggled closer, licking him under the chin in an effort to be reassuring.

John pulled a sheet over them – he rarely needed many blankets, even in the winter, as having Amarisa next to him was like sleeping with a radiator – and tried to get some sleep. It had been a very long day, after all.

When he awoke, John was honestly surprised he'd fallen asleep at all. The clock on his bedside table told him Sherlock had been given more than enough time to figure it out, and he was unable to completely quash his dread as he and Amarisa descended the stairs.

Sherlock had his laptop open on the table, and Raniel was hanging onto his human's shoulder, leaning over towards the computer with an air of barely-contained excitement.

Not entirely sure what was going on – this wasn't a reaction he was familiar with – John went about making himself a cup of tea and seeing what he could scrounge for breakfast.

“If you're making tea, I'll have some, too,” came Sherlock's demand.

There was no wariness in his voice, no hesitation – nothing about Sherlock's attitude had changed overnight, and John almost sagged against the kitchen counter, he was so relieved.

Of course, it didn't mean he'd actually give in. “If you want tea, make some yourself.”

Amarisa was wagging her tail, just as relieved as John, and the doctor could hear Raniel making a happy chirruping sound over his shoulder, almost as though the polecat was delighted at Amarisa's reaction.

John couldn't quite believe it. It seemed almost too good to be true. Sherlock and Raniel knew Amarisa was a wolfdog...and they didn't seem to care in the slightest.

And if John was smiling as he made Sherlock a cup of tea, he didn't think anyone could really blame him.

--

Over the next month, Sherlock and Raniel gathered enough data on John Watson and Amarisa to make conclusions of varying importance and validity, all of which were essentially only frills around their original impressions.

John Watson was one of those people who got into medicine because they felt a need to help people, to make a difference, and he'd joined the army for the same reasons. Amarisa had an abundance of wolf-like characteristics, but played up her dog-like behaviours to put people at ease. John and his dæmon were gentle and caring at heart, but thrilled at the chase in the same way Sherlock and Raniel did. They trusted their instincts, and were loyal to the point of killing to protect those close to them. They'd kill to protect even those people who weren't close to them – they'd known Sherlock and Raniel less than twenty-four hours when John shot the cabbie.

In short, John Watson and Amarisa were possessed of depths even Sherlock and Raniel had yet to grasp.

It didn't stop them trying, though. Sherlock observed John and Amarisa at every opportunity, in their interactions with other people and dæmons and in their interactions with each other.

You could tell a lot about a person by the contact they had with their dæmon. Sherlock and Raniel went through their day with absent, almost impersonal touches – Raniel's usual position on Sherlock's shoulder or around his neck was more convenience than anything else. And because he was a small dæmon, at those times when they slept he usually did so curled up on the pillow beside Sherlock's head.

John and Amarisa, however, were a different case entirely. When he sat down at the table to read a book or tap away at his laptop, John would reach down to scratch at his dæmon's ears at least once every fifteen minutes. He curled a hand in her ruff whenever they were waiting for something, be it a cab on the corner or for food at a restaurant.

Most people with large dæmons tended to have them sleep at the foot of the bed or beside it. But Sherlock had charged into John's bedroom to wake him up on more than one occasion, and knew that Amarisa slept beside John, both of them tangled together beneath the sheets. When John was in his armchair, Amarisa usually curled up on his lap – she was far too big for it to really work, and it should have looked hideously uncomfortable, but instead just looked...cosy.

It showed that John valued contact – not necessarily physical contact, but certainly social contact. He also valued bonds with other people, which was already made obvious by Amarisa's form; both wolves and dogs were known for their loyalty to whatever and whoever they considered 'pack'.

His constant contact with Amarisa also suggested that John and his dæmon had been through many hardships with each other as their only support. Sherlock assumed few people had been able to determine what Amarisa was, and even fewer would have been accepting.

Sherlock's family had been supportive all throughout his life – even if Mycroft was a comprehensive prick, he hadn't tried to shove Sherlock in a neat little box and make him conform to society's expectations. He suspected John had endured the exact opposite, which provided a plausible reason for his attachment to Sherlock; he was never going to demand John be normal, that Amarisa act like a dog – he much preferred John and his dæmon exactly the way they were.

He knew Raniel felt the same. Sherlock had expected Raniel's interest in Amarisa to wane once the mystery of her form was solved, but if anything, the revelation that she was a wolfdog had the exact opposite effect.

The polecat's attachment to Amarisa had been utterly unexpected, and in her presence Raniel completely departed from his usual behaviour. Raniel spoke to Amarisa. He spoke to John even, which of course the other man had taken in stride as calmly as he did everything else. Sometimes John even addressed questions and statements and jokes to Raniel now, rather than Sherlock, and talking to each other's dæmons was usually the purview of lovers rather than friends.

And only very intimate lovers at that – Anderson's and Donovan's dæmons never paid any particular attention to each other, whereas Raniel practically fawned over Amarisa. He still rode on Sherlock's shoulder, but now he wove through the wolfdog's legs when they were at crime scenes and sat down beside her when they ate at restaurants, close enough to press the length of his body against her flank.

Even now, with John dozing in front of the television – Amarisa at his feet this time – Raniel left the sofa to nudge against her side. Golden eyes flickered open, looking puzzled but not offended.

“It's cold,” was all Sherlock heard Raniel say before he burrowed himself into the thick fur on Amarisa's chest and belly.

Amarisa blinked sleepily down at the bundle of white fur that had anchored itself to her side, and Sherlock half-expected her to nudge Raniel away. But Amarisa simply yawned, tucked herself around Raniel, and went back to sleep.

Sherlock watched them, the black wolfdog and the albino polecat, curled together on the carpet like a bizarre yin-yang symbol, and wondered.

Raniel had never been so tactile with any other dæmon in Sherlock's life, even when they were very young. Largely due to their own nature – Raniel had never shown much interest in other dæmons until Amarisa – but also partly due to the fact that other dæmons seemed to find him off-putting in some way.

But something told Sherlock that this was more than just Amarisa's easy acceptance of him; that Amarisa and John were special in some way.

With a snort of derision at both himself and his dæmon, Sherlock put it out of his mind and turned to other, hopefully more interesting matters.

--

John thought most of the misconceptions about his and Sherlock's relationship could be blamed on their dæmons. Or, more precisely, the way they acted with each other's dæmons.

They'd never been particularly bothered by Sherlock speaking to Amarisa as often as he spoke to John, and the doctor was becoming accustomed to having a question he'd addressed to Sherlock answered by Raniel, and often found himself speaking directly to the dæmon.

Of course, he never engaged in that behaviour with anyone other than Sherlock – he had manners and actually respected other people's boundaries, even if the consulting detective didn't.

Still, for the dæmon of a supposed sociopath, Raniel was surprisingly affectionate. Like Sherlock, he possessed a near-complete disregard for the usual rules of dæmon-human interaction, and seemed as careless about addressing John as he was about talking to Sherlock. When John and Amarisa had first met them, it had seemed like just another quirk, but they'd spent enough time around them at this point to know that was rather unusual; Raniel snubbed everyone else, human and dæmon alike. He ignored Zarania, and even Kai didn't get much attention.

So for Raniel to talk to Amarisa, let alone talk to John, was a complete departure from the way the dæmon usually behaved. John knew that, but he still needed to work out what that meant. With anyone else, he'd think it was because Sherlock was interested in him, but the conversation in the restaurant had killed that idea (more's the pity).

In the end, John had simply told himself that Sherlock didn't have many people he considered friends and that this was probably the way Raniel acted around anyone Sherlock was truly close to.

John liked to think he and Amarisa were getting used to Sherlock's and his dæmon's particular brand of weirdness, but their flatmates could still surprise them.

Like when John's forage for some bread (he wanted toast for breakfast) was interrupted by one of Sherlock's more bizarre requests.

“Amarisa, I'll need to take a picture of you.”

What?” John snapped, spinning around as Amarisa began to bristle. He knew their reaction was probably ridiculously out of proportion, but they'd been treated like a science experiment once too often.

Sherlock raised a careful eyebrow, clearly startled by their defensive reaction. Raniel scurried from the table he'd been sprawled on and approached Amarisa warily. The wolfdog dæmon had stepped in front of John, an instinctively protective gesture, and Raniel stood on his hind legs to tentatively touch his nose to hers.

At such a plainly conciliatory action, John felt some of his anger leeching away as the raised hairs on Amarisa's back flattened.

“Why do you need a picture?” John asked, significantly calmer.

“Because I keep an index of species to identify dæmons,” Sherlock explained. “With visual references. It took me so long to identify Amarisa because I had no entry on wolfdog, and that should be remedied immediately.”

His attention switched to John's dæmon. “Which is why I need a picture of you.”

Still a little wary, John quit the kitchen for the living room. “You keep indexes?”

Sherlock waved a hand dismissively in the direction of the bookcase, and John thought he was gesturing towards a pile of folders on the bottom shelf. Curious, he pulled out the top of the stack and opened it up.

Dominating the first page was a picture of a snow leopard, accompanied by notations about the animal's size, its basic physical description, with highlights about how a snow leopard was distinguished from other feline species. There were notes on the behaviour that continued to the next page, most apparently clippings from magazines or articles printed off the internet. At the very bottom, there was a name scribbled in Sherlock's handwriting.

Madeline Patel

John paged through the rest of the folder; it seemed to be a compendium on felines that Sherlock had cobbled together from whatever scraps of information came his way. It wasn't in alphabetical order – cheetah followed immediately after lynx – and every entry had a picture of the animal, a written description, notes on its behaviour and the same for any subspecies.

Most entries had a name written at the very bottom, often more than one, and John didn't know why until he came across the page on African wildcats.

Sally Donovan was scribed in the margin, and John realised Sherlock was keeping notes of which person had what dæmon.

“So you need an entry for wolfdog,” Amarisa surmised at last, having read over John's shoulder as he crouched on the floor.

“Exactly,” Sherlock nodded, apparently pleased the dæmon had followed his reasoning.

“It's kind of exciting,” Raniel chimed in from where he was stretched out on the floor. “We haven't needed to add a new entry for years.”

Amarisa glanced at John, and he shrugged.

“All right,” she agreed.

“Excellent!” Sherlock exclaimed, producing a camera from somewhere. “I need a shot of you in profile, to start with.”

Amarisa obediently turned side-on, extending her nose slightly and holding her tail away from her body. The camera flashed and beeped, and Sherlock glanced at the display with interest.

“I need a look at your teeth,” was his next demand.

Amarisa rolled her eyes and wrinkled her lips back.

In spite of Sherlock's complete lack of concern, John half-expected him to blanch at the sight of Amarisa's teeth. A dog baring its fangs was unsettling enough, but there was something about Amarisa's teeth – too sharp, too big – that put an extra edge on that fear.

But Sherlock, of course, simply made a sound of interest as Raniel scooted across the carpet to get a closer look.

“Her teeth are bigger than a dog's,” Raniel offered. “Especially her canines.”

He sounded fascinated rather than repelled, and John couldn't help it – he laughed. Because only Raniel would look at Amarisa's teeth and simply remark on how large they were, rather than running back to his human.

Sometimes, his life was so far removed from what it had been barely a month ago that it seemed ludicrous. Who would have guessed meeting Sherlock could have changed so much?

Chapter Text

John!

John mumbled something and tried to roll over. Whatever Amarisa wanted, he was certain it was far too early.

John, wake up!

Grumbling, John dragged his eyes open. “What is it, Risa?”

Amarisa just nodded towards the window. John sat up and glanced over, surprised to see an albatross dæmon perched on the sill outside.

“Oh, sorry,” John said, clambering out of the bed and making his way to the window. “I'll just-”

He opened the window and the albatross hopped from the sill into the room. There was no one in sight. So this was probably a witch's daemon.

“Good morning, Dr. John Watson,” the albatross greeted.

“Call me John,” he said automatically

The dæmon bobbed her head in something that might have been agreement. “I am Percila.”

If that name was supposed to ring a bell with John, it failed. One glance at Amarisa confirmed she didn't know it, either.

“Tamsyn Talitha's dæmon,” Percila elaborated.

“Oh!” Understanding dawned at last, along with the vague feeling that he was being a bad host with Percila standing on the floor and talking up to him.

John cast about for something that could serve as a perch in his small bedroom, and settled on the bedside table. He put the lamp on the floor, tossed his alarm clock on the bed, and passed his hand over the table's surface to clear away any dust.

“Please, sit,” he said, gesturing. “Or, well...um, rest?”

Obviously, Percila didn't smile – as a bird, her beak simply didn't move that way – but John got the distinct feeling she was amused as she hopped onto his bedside table and made herself comfortable, nestling down on the wood.

Amarisa leapt off the bed and placed her heavy forepaws on the top of the window, closing it before a draught could sneak in. John neatened his covers by force of habit before he sat down on the bed, facing Percila but with enough distance between them to be polite.

John's dæmon returned to the bed, extending her nose to Percila and sniffing but not actually touching the albatross, the way she usually greeted strange dæmons.

“So..how's everyone?” John asked.

“Much the same,” Percila replied, idly extending one wing as though she were stretching it. “Still concerned about you.”

“Me?” John echoed. “I'm fine. I mean, apart from a clan of witches trying to kill me for no clear reason we can determine, but they haven't been much trouble lately.”

“At first, we suspected a witch scorned,” the albatross admitted. “We can be very hot-blooded about our passions, you know, and it wouldn't be the first time a man suffered for rejecting a witch.”

John frowned. “I don't think I've ever rejected a witch. Unless Daniela Cooper was a witch – she was the cousin of one of my army mates.”

“She reminded us of Harry,” Amarisa explained. “It would have been weird.”

“Felt creepily like incest,” John nodded.

Again, John had the distinct impression Percila was amused, and wondered how he knew that – was it something in the dæmon's eyes?

“No, Daniela Cooper is not a witch,” Percila agreed. “We always knew it was an unlikely theory, given that you were shot by two witches, not one.”

John nodded absently, then almost started as he remembered Mycroft. “Oh, I almost forgot, there's a bloke that knows about that – the death-spells and all. His name's Mycroft-”

“Yes, we know,” Percila interrupted, sounding a touch impatient. “He's been charged with helping us discover exactly why those witches deemed it to necessary to eliminate you; he holds a position in the Witches' Consul.”

“He does?” John shook his head, sighing to himself. “What am I talking about – of course he does. Of course a bloke who mucks around with CCTV and public phones is going to have an in with the witches as well...”

Amarisa whuffed softly in amusement, and John tweaked her ear in retaliation.

“Have you ever considered that maybe I'd just done something to offend those two witches?” he queried. “I mean, no one else has come after me, so maybe assuming the whole clan was out for my blood was a bit premature.”

Percila shook her head. “And how would you have offended those witches? We aren't like the panserbjørne; insults mean nothing to us, nor dispersions on our honour or moral character. Death-spells are a rarity because there is almost no crime a witch will kill for.”

“So...what would you kill for?” John couldn't resist asking. “Hypothetically speaking, I mean.”

Percila's head tilted to one side, and regarded John with an impenetrable look in her dark, liquid eyes. “If someone tortured or murdered our lover, or our children, or one of our sisters. And I do speak of murder, not simply killing – if a witch falls in battle...no vendettas spring from that. We can often be philosophical about our sister's deaths, simply because most of us live so long in any case. But the mortals we love? No.”

“We get so few years with those we care about as it is,” Percila went on. “That when their already short lives are made shorter by sheer malice...we became angry, we become jealous of the time we didn't have...we become vengeful.”

She sighed, and stretched her other wing. “If you were struck down, John, if you were murdered on the streets of this city you call home...we would take up the vendetta for you. And it is likely Hasna and Aeliana would do the same.”

“What?” John snapped, Amarisa bristling and growling with the alarm of their violent reaction. “No! No one is going on a quest for vengeance for me – I'm not messing up anyone's life like that.”

“Why not?” Percila asked, and she sounded genuinely curious. “If someone murders you, they're clearly someone who needs to be removed from society, wouldn't you agree?”

“If I'm murdered, my new flatmate would probably find the killer within a week,” John said honestly. “And then they'd go to jail, which would satisfy that 'removed from society' bit. So if I'm murdered, everyone's to keep on living their lives, thanks very much. Anyone takes a vendetta on my account, I'm coming back as a very annoying ghost and haunting them, is that clear?”

Percila was amused again, and John finally figured out how she showed it – it was to do with the angle her head tilted and the way her eyes squinted just slightly at the same time.

“There is another reason a witch would put a death-spell on her arrow,” Percila went on softly. “And that's if the protection of the clan demanded it. If a person or witch was so powerful they threatened the clan itself.”

“Well, that's obviously not me, “ John sighed, feeling more than a little frustrated.

“So...” he began, trying to turn onto other topics. “Is that clan still in Afghanistan?”

He'd heard rumours that there were now no witches fighting in the Middle East, but the media often got conflicting reports.

Percila rustled her wings, almost like a shrug. “Some are staying; those who now have friends and lovers amidst the soldiers. But the clan itself is officially withdrawing.”

“Well, Ragnvald will be happy if he at least has some witches to fight,” John mused.

The armoured bear had never exactly complained about fighting foot soldiers, but John had known Ragnvald appreciated the challenge the witches represented. After all, ordinary humans needed a tank, grenades or rocket launchers to even come close to injuring a panserbjørne.

Percila made a non-committal noise. “We're more concerned about what their withdrawal means. If they're abandoning the conflict now, it means one of two things. Either they're unable to obtain whatever they wanted from it in the first place, which seems unlikely – there's certainly been no significant upheavals, at least none that we're aware of. The only other reason we can determine is...”

“They've got what they wanted,” John finished. “And now there's no reason to stick around.”

Percila nodded. “Which, of course, begs the question of what they wanted in the first place.”

“What do you think, Risa?” John asked his dæmon.

“Well, it's not territory,” Amarisa mused. “Aeliana explained to us about witches and territories. And probably not wealth, because witches trade favours, not money. But I can't think of anything else.”

Witch clans didn't recognise states or countries as John knew them. Aeliana had told him witches drew their own boundaries, and though each clan had what would be considered its homeland, it wasn't uncommon for witches to go hundreds of years without setting foot in their own. They travelled where and when they would, and rarely interfered in another clan's business – which had made the massacre of Aeliana's clan all the more unusual.

As for money...John supposed when you saw ten different kinds of currency come and go in your lifetime, money probably seemed kind of stupid.

“We can't decipher what it might be, either,” Percila admitted. “There were once rumours that one of the missing alethiometers had surfaced in Afghanistan, but that was over ten years ago.”

“And if they didn't move then, why do it now?” John surmised.

“Exactly. We have discussed the problem with our new clan, but no one can conceive of what they could have gained. Nor can we comprehend why they would have struck at us as they did.”

John's eyes automatically darted to the drawer his gun was hidden in. “Doesn't it concern you? To know that the people who killed your clan are still out there? That they might come back and finish the job?”

Percila was silent for a long time, and John wondered if he'd overstepped, if he'd brought up something the dæmon would rather not think about.

“I think what is truly unsettling us and our sisters is that we simply don't know,” Percila said eventually. “We don't know if they will attack us again, because we don't know why they struck in the first place.”

“Well, if I can ever give you a hand, look me up,” John said honestly.

And he meant it – if Tamsyn or Aeliana or Hasna or any of the clan needed his help, it was theirs. Granted, he didn't know what help he could really give them, but he was willing.

“We will keep it in mind,” Percila said, looking almost affectionate.

Her tone was gentle and doubting, as though she didn't think he could be of much assistance but was grateful for the offer.

It so closely mirrored what John himself had been thinking that he couldn't resist laughing, and the remainder of Percila's visit was much more light-hearted.

--

Sherlock wasn't particularly surprised that Amarisa's true identity seemed to escape the police – John's easy demeanour left people unwilling to even entertain the idea that she was a wolf. Certainly Lestrade, Donovan and Anderson seemed to be under the impression she was some variety of dog, even taking into account Izeah's wariness of her, and on this occasion Sherlock was perfectly willing to let them continue in their ignorance. It was strangely thrilling to watch Amarisa trot at John's side, her tail wagging, and know that he and Raniel were the only ones in the room who saw her for what she truly was.

But their ignorance came to an end eventually, soon after the body of twenty-two year old Lisa Marks was found abandoned on a side-street. There was no injury or mark to indicate how she died, and the autopsy revealed she hadn't been poisoned.

Incidents like these were usually a result of the dæmon dying, with their human following instantly. And of course, as dæmons vanished when they died, there was rarely any evidence left behind.

Sherlock loved cases like these. The absence of the dæmon's body always made it so delightfully complex, and it was always difficult to determine whether the death was murder or accident or a complicated suicide.

However, as Lisa's dæmon had been a common northern boa (Boa constrictor imperator), it seemed unlikely that such a dæmon could perish by mere accident. Added to the fact that bruises on Lisa's wrist and scuff marks on the heel of her shoes indicated the body had been dragged, and it was likely foul play was involved.

Two days worth of investigation had led Sherlock to a loosely-organised group of people (primarily aged between sixteen and thirty-two) who made a habit of meeting in deserted areas and setting their dæmons to fight each other. It sounded masochistic in the extreme, and Sherlock thought it would be interesting to probe the psychology behind it. Lisa's dæmon, of course, had been seriously injured in one of the fights and died, Lisa following, and the other members had moved the body away from their usual haunts in an effort to divert the investigation.

John had likened it to a movie known as 'Fight Club' and, when Sherlock had expressed his ignorance of said film, had threatened him with a movie night.

It had been easy to identify the ringleader as soon as one of the members had mentioned her dæmon was a grey wolf. Wolf dæmons stood out (there were perhaps four in all of Great Britain, counting Amarisa), and from there it was only matter of time before they tracked down Sharon Ellis, a twenty-five year old retail worker, and her boyfriend, Lionel Bedrook.

Lestrade and Donovan had expected them to come quietly – after all, they were quiet, upstanding citizens apart from their one illegal activity. Sherlock had invited himself and John along to scoff at that attitude; these people had their dæmons fight other dæmons on a semi-regular basis, there was no possible way they were the type of people to 'come quietly'.

Which had led to the current confrontation in Bedrook's kitchen.

Sharon Ellis had been cutting cheese for a sandwich and was now armed with a knife, but Sherlock knew that was the least of their troubles; he was more concerned about the dæmons currently spitting and bristling on the linoleum.

Ellis' dæmon was indeed a Eurasian wolf (Canis lupus lupus), and Bedrook's was a margay (Leopardus wiedii), a spotted cat that bore some resemblance to an ocelot. Both creatures had placed themselves in front of their humans, clearly intending to cover their retreat out the back door. They wouldn't actually go anywhere, of course – Lestrade, John, and one of the policemen Lestrade had called in for back-up were moving around the house to cut off any escape – but it could become difficult and messy.

While dæmons of children often engaged in scuffles and fights, it was something people by and large grew out of. Even if their human was being arrested, it was very unusual for their dæmons to outright attack the dæmons of the police officers – growl and bristle and look fearsome, yes, but physical struggles between adult dæmons were rare.

Sherlock knew this would be one of the exceptions, and felt a prickle of apprehension beginning to creep up his neck. Matriel – Donovan's wildcat dæmon – would be capable of taking on the margay, but Amarisa was the only dæmon in the party capable of taking on a wolf. Zarania would do the best she could, but there was only so much help a falcon could give, and the two other policemen had dæmons that were ill-suited for a physical confrontation.

The blonde man (recently engaged, fiancee worked in a library in some capacity) had a European paper wasp as a dæmon (Polistes dominula), and the red-headed woman (new to the department, not yet settled but eager to prove herself) had a grass snake (Natrix natrix). The snake might have been of use if it was an adder, but as a non-venomous species, there was little it could do.

The margay dæmon was making a strange bubbling wail, obviously tensing to spring, and Matriel hissed in response, his tail lashing.

“Drop the knife!” Donovan ordered, her voice low and commanding.

Both Ellis and her boyfriend began to sidle towards the back door, but that was when Lestrade and the red-headed policewoman appeared in the doorway, John and Amarisa standing behind them.

“Come on, Bedrook, Ellis, let's be sensible about this,” Lestrade said, his voice quiet and reasonable even though Zarania, on his right shoulder, was poised to launch herself into flight at any moment.

Ellis' dæmon snarled, deep and menacing, his lips pulling back to show his long teeth. Every dæmon in the vicinity froze for a moment, and even Raniel's heartbeat jumped – Sherlock could feel it against his neck.

Sherlock found it intriguing; there was no appreciable difference between a dog's snarl and a wolf's, but every dæmon immediately knew. Knew that wasn't the sound of an animal domesticated for thousands of years, but of something wild and dangerous.

He saw a triumphant spark flare in Ellis' eyes, and knew she took pleasure in how intimidating others found her dæmon. The woman grinned broadly, almost gloatingly, but her smiled died in the next instant.

Amarisa had stepped into the kitchen and snarled in response, guttural and rumbling.

Sherlock could tell everyone knew instantly it was not a dog's growl. It reached that same deep, primitive part of the brain that the wolf dæmon had touched, but while Ellis' dæmon had merely brushed it, Amarisa's snarl seemed to reach every flight instinct the mind possessed and light them up like neon signs.

The wolf dæmon had looked enormous and intimidating standing alone in the kitchen, but next to Amarisa he looked skinny, underfed...weak.

Lestrade and Donovan were staring at John and Amarisa as though they'd never seen them before, as though they were surprised at the glimpse of John's savage, dangerous side. Sherlock found it slightly ridiculous – how could anyone ever think John was non-threatening? He had a small stature for such a strong presence, true, but there was a reason Amarisa was one of the largest dæmons Sherlock had ever seen.

Raniel's heartbeat was now thundering against Sherlock's skin, and he could certainly sympathise. If this devolved into a fight, Amarisa would stand alone against the wolf dæmon.

Zarania, of course, knew just as well as Raniel how the situation was leaning. “Amarisa...”

“Help Matriel,” was all Amarisa said in response, never breaking the stare-off she and the grey wolf were locked in.

Lestrade shot a glance at John, but the doctor only nodded, looking as placid and confident as if the suspects were already in handcuffs. He trusted his dæmon.

As though John's nod had been some kind of signal, the hostile dæmons attacked.

Sherlock was only dimly aware of Matriel and the margay spitting and scratching, Zarania leaving Lestrade's shoulder to arrow into the struggle. The two feline dæmons were struggling face to face, leaving the falcon unable to dive for the margay's face in case she caught Matriel, but she raked the spotted cat's back again and again, seizing the dæmons' tail and tugging it, doing anything she could to force the margay to split its attention between her and Matriel.

He was aware that Lestrade and Donovan were moving to subdue the humans, but all Sherlock's attention and focus – and all Raniel's, come to that – went to the pair of wildly struggling canines.

They had lunged in same fashion both wolves and dogs did; the swift rush that curved just slightly, their forelegs coming off the ground at the very last second as they tried to gain height on their foe. They met chest to chest, Amarisa's solid, heavier build rocking the wolf back on his heels. He recovered swiftly, of course – he was accustomed to physical fights – and their heads twisted like snakes, teeth flashing, each seeking the vulnerable flesh of the other's neck.

They hit almost in perfect unison, teeth closing in the thick fur and folds of skin that protected their throats. Wolf and wolfdog braced their feet, each trying to use the grip on the other's throat to toss their enemy aside. It was contest of pure strength, and as the muscles in Amarisa's neck corded and bulged beneath dark fur Sherlock knew who the winner would be.

As expected, a flick of Amarisa's powerful head tore the wolf free, her teeth ripping through the other dæmon's flesh as he slid out from under her. But where wild animals would have retreated and tried to rush again, Amarisa and the wolf dæmon were conscious of the close quarters of the kitchen and didn't back away, snapping at each other's faces so quickly Sherlock could barely track their movements.

Blood stained the wolf's fur a vivid crimson and though it was difficult to see injuries against Amarisa's dark fur, a line on her neck and a patch above her eye were glistening as though wet. For a moment, it was impossible to tell which dæmon had the upper hand...

Until Amarisa reared up on her hind legs and dropped the full weight of her body onto the wolf dæmon. She'd done it at a slight angle as well, so the wolf's legs slid out from under him and he went over onto his back. Amarisa came down on top of him, pinning him to the lino as her teeth closed around his throat.

The wolf dæmon stilled instantly, Amarisa's fangs resting threatening close to his jugular vein and carotid artery, her sheer weight preventing him from scrambling away.

It was only when Ellis was in handcuffs and being led out that Amarisa released the woman's dæmon, edging carefully away, obviously wary of another attack. But the dæmon seemed subdued as he followed his human out the door, and Amarisa relaxed. Her tail wagged once, as though she were pleased with herself, and she ambled over to Matriel, sniffing at the wildcat to ensure he wasn't badly injured.

Lestrade and Donovan were darting surprised, surreptitious glances at John's dæmon, and the two strange policemen had edged away from Amarisa, likely thinking they were being subtle. Sherlock found it ridiculous; they had been perfectly at ease with Amarisa earlier, and now their opinion of her altered just because they found out she was part wolf?

People so rarely looked beyond the surface, assuming that a wolf dæmon meant a wild, intractable nature, meant the person was savage and dangerous. And in a sense that was certainly true; Amarisa and John were formidable enemies...but they were also fanatically loyal to those they perceived as their friends.

John made to go to his dæmon, to examine her injuries, but Raniel was already streaking across the floor.

Amarisa lowered her head to his level, and Raniel nosed briefly at the wound in her neck, his white muzzle coming away stained with red.

“I'm all right,” Amarisa told him, her voice low as Raniel's attention transferred to the gash above her eye.

Raniel didn't reply, slowly raising himself on his hind legs, his forepaws on Amarisa's nose to balance him. It was easy to guess at what he was trying to do, and Sherlock wasn't at all surprised when Raniel began to lick at the cut above Amarisa's eye, cleaning away the congealing blood that had begun to stiffen in the dark fur.

The dæmon's face came away red from nose to throat, and he seemed about to back away. But Amarisa extended her muzzle and carefully, delicately, cleaned away her own blood until Raniel's fur was china-white once more. For a moment the two dæmons didn't move, staring at each other as though unable to see anything else.

Then Amarisa glanced down and away, retreating to John's side as though embarrassed. John knelt beside the wolfdog, probing gently at her wounds, one hand rubbing soothingly at the uninjured side of her head. He looked flushed, and seemed reluctant to look at anyone, and for a moment Sherlock wondered if John had felt what Sherlock had when their dæmons touched – that soft bubble of warmth in his chest that seemed to expand slowly the longer Raniel and Amarisa remained touching.

Lestrade and Donovan were staring at Raniel as though he'd tried to touch them, and Sherlock suspected his reputation at the MET as a sociopath was over. A sociopath's dæmon would never have so obviously fussed over another dæmon, and he was feeling more than a little resentful as he scooped Raniel off the floor and replaced the polecat on his shoulder.

--

Lestrade liked to think he was pretty observant man – maybe not up to the standards of Sherlock bloody Holmes, but still a notch or two better than average; he wouldn't have got far in his career if he wasn't.

So when Amarisa stepped into the wolf dæmon's path and snarled the way she did, Lestrade didn't need the gentle squeeze of Zarania's claws on his shoulder to tell him what was going on. Didn't need her hasty whisper in his ear to know that this dæmon they'd thought they knew was not a dog, but something much more dangerous.

Now that he realised it, Lestrade wondered how it had ever slipped him by. It had been easy to think of Amarisa as a dog – a very large dog, but still a dog – when she stood alone at John's side, but now, when she was facing down a wolf, the similarities were staring him right in the face. The shape of their heads ran along the same lines; the long snout and sharply triangular ears. The body that had a slight difference in proportion to a dog's, the legs that were just a bit longer than they should be.

Except Amarisa was bigger. It was in a subtle way, but her chest was definitely wider, her shoulders thicker, extra layers of muscle all down her body. Under normal circumstances, extra bulk would make the dæmon slower, but Lestrade had seen Amarisa move, and knew she could be as quick as lightning when she wanted to be.

Lestrade knew who was going to win the fight before it had even started. He didn't even glance at it, as his attention was taken up with trying to subdue Bedrook. Zarania was helping Matriel, and he knew it was going well – there was no pain or fear coming through their connection.

The whole thing was over in a few minutes, and he directed Evans and the rookie, Smithson, to take the suspects back to the station. It was for the best, as both of them were looking downright frightened of Amarisa.

In some ways, Lestrade couldn't blame them. The last person he'd heard of having a wolf dæmon had been that American serial killer, Ted Bundy.

But on the other hand, he also had a strong urge to slap them around the head. Because this was still John Watson, the man who – by virtue of having put up with Sherlock for a flatmate for over a month – was probably the nicest, most patient person in the northern hemisphere. He certainly had a crazy side – tagging after Sherlock the way he did proved that – but on the whole he was the sort of man you were glad to be friends with.

After all, the first thing Amarisa had done after the fight was give Matriel a once-over for injuries; hardly the behaviour of a wild, savage beast. In fact, now that Lestrade thought about it, he wouldn't be surprised if Amarisa wasn't all wolf – there had to be a reason it was so easy to mistake her for a dog.

Frankly, Lestrade found Amarisa's form less surprising than the way Raniel acted around her. He'd become accustomed to Sherlock's bizarre behaviour around dæmons; the man's own dæmon paying them no attention while he paid them far too much. Even when Zarania lost her temper with Raniel and screeched at him, the polecat never did anything apart from stare disdainfully at her.

But with Amarisa...well, Raniel was even now licking at the gash on her head, cleaning it slowly and meticulously, ensuring no blood would drip into her eye.

Lestrade had never entirely bought Sherlock's claim to be a sociopath, but it was always vaguely believable, given Raniel's self-absorption and Sherlock's attitude towards...well, towards the whole world. But since John and Amarisa had come on the scene, Sherlock's 'sociopath' claim not only didn't hold water, it leaked like a sieve.

Sherlock seemed to recognise that, because he was scowling when he snatched up Raniel with more haste than was strictly necessary. At first Lestrade thought he was embarrassed to have his dæmon demonstrate such a wealth of affection for his boyfriend's dæmon in front of himself and Donovan. But then he saw the way Sherlock looked at John, longing and confused and almost angry, as if he didn't understand what he wanted or why he wanted anything in the first place.

And then Lestrade knew; Sherlock and John weren't lovers. Sherlock hadn't said anything, probably didn't understand how to even begin to speak, if he'd even realised there was anything to speak about. And of course he seemed so disinterested in anything sexual that John would never make the first move, regardless of how affectionate their dæmons were with each other. For a moment, Lestrade felt depressed – he was a romantic at heart, and the idea of...this...continuing indefinitely was certainly saddening.

But then he made himself cheer up; Sherlock was the most intelligent person he'd ever met, so it was surely only a matter of time before he and John sorted everything out.

And for now, Lestrade could enjoy the satisfaction of having figured something out before Sherlock Holmes did.

--

A week after their spot of excitement with the dæmon-fighting ring, John came to the conclusion that he absolutely despised chip and pin machines.

“And how do they save time?” he muttered to Amarisa as he stormed back home, shopping abandoned.

“They don't,” she agreed, though her tail was waving in a way that suggested she was laughing at him.

“Yes, I'm sure it's very funny – I'd like to see you handle them,” John grumbled.

“No fingers,” Amarisa retorted, her eyes gleaming and her tail now whipping vigorously from side to side.

“Exactly – you're in no position to criticise!”

“So...” Amarisa said as they stopped outside 221b and John fumbled in his pockets for his keys. “Who gets to tell Sherlock that we're broke?”

“You're so cheerful, you can do it,” John groused as they ascended the stairs.

Sherlock was reading a book in his chair, apparently not having moved since they'd left, but Raniel was now on the coffee table, his eyes bright with excitement.

Of course, as soon as he saw Amarisa, Raniel leapt off the table and flowed over the floor to touch his nose to the wolfdog's, chirping happily. Amarisa licked the top of his head, nuzzling the white fur. But Raniel was clearly feeling playful and darted away from her tongue, leading Amarisa to chase him around the kitchen table, laughing and wagging her tail.

Amarisa acted like an infatuated schoolgirl with Raniel, and John often found it more than a little embarrassing. He'd have liked to yell at her for it or stop her somehow, but it wasn't really her fault; she was his dæmon, she couldn't help expressing what they were feeling.

It wasn't Amarisa's fault John had somehow developed a ridiculous, unrequited crush on his flatmate; that was his own idiocy all the way. He was approaching middle-age, for heaven's sake – shouldn't he have been over those kinds of things by now?

John's plan was to say nothing and hope his stupid infatuation went away as quickly as it had come. It wasn't a very good plan, true, but he didn't see what else he could do. He'd hardly been subtle in his devotion, and he had a feeling the only reason Sherlock had refrained from disparaging comments was because John's affection barely entered his head. One of those 'extraneous data' things he sometimes went on about.

With anyone else, Raniel's behaviour might have given John hope, but he knew there was no possibility of reciprocation on Sherlock's part. Sex itself didn't seem to interest Sherlock at all, let alone a relationship, and as for his dæmon's behaviour...well, that was probably how Raniel behaved with anyone Sherlock was truly close with.

Which was why when they went to meet Sebastian Wilkes, John expected Raniel to be friendlier than usual. Except he wasn't.

Sebastian's dæmon was a spider monkey of some sort (John couldn't identify species at a glance the way Sherlock could) called Netheirya, who Raniel disdained with almost maniac ferocity. John barely even registered the man's usual assumptions about the nature of his and Sherlock's relationship, he was too busy looking at both Raniel and Sherlock for clues as to why they seemed to dislike Sebastian so fiercely.

Then Sebastian started talking and John thought he might understand. Not only was Sebastian a prick, there was a history there. He couldn't figure out what kind, and it was really none of his business anyhow, but it was there; in the past, something had happened to make Sherlock dislike the bloke with more fervour than his usual contempt for the less intelligent.

Netheirya had been trying to engage Raniel, with no success, and had eventually turned to Amarisa while Sherlock was dashing around the offices with his dæmon, bobbing up and down like a demented bird.

Amarisa was polite, of course she was, right up until they were leaving. Sebastian smiled – a smarmy, condescending, rich-banker type of grin – and Netheirya reached out to pat Amarisa on the head.

The response was immediate, and one John had been expected for several minutes – Amarisa snarled. And not the soft, warning snarl, either; her ears flattened against her skull, her lips drew back to show her teeth, and the growl was deep and piercing, savage in the extreme.

Netheirya leapt back in shock, seizing onto Sebastian's arm and clinging to her human almost desperately.

John smiled in a conciliatory way as his dæmon pressed herself against his legs, instinctively defensive. “Amarisa doesn't like being touched.”

It was true; while John and Amarisa were very tactile with each other, Amarisa tended to be reluctant to touch other people's dæmons. Except for Raniel, of course.

Sebastian smiled again, this time obviously nervous and placating, then his eyes dropped to the wolfdog once more and widened slightly.

John glanced down. Raniel had somehow ended up on the floor and was approaching Amarisa, who had stopped snarling but was still glaring up at Netheirya. The polecat nudged up against her front legs, and Amarisa's head jerked down, the aggression melting out of her stance so quickly it was almost frightening.

Raniel was looking up at her, seemingly concerned. Amarisa bent down and nuzzled the top of his head, her black nose ruffling his white fur.

“Shall we go?” John asked, keeping his voice deliberately bright and cheerful.

--

Sherlock could admit to a certain vindictive pleasure at Sebastian's and Netheirya's fright. Amarisa's reaction had been inevitable, of course; Sherlock had been expecting something of the sort since he and John first stepped into Sebastian's office. Some sort of confrontation was inevitable when men like Sebastian collided with men like John.

Sebastian was considered a powerful man. But that power came from what he was, from his money and connections...and if those were taken away, he would be nothing.

John, on the other hand...John was strong. Take away everything John possessed and he'd still be strong, because his strength came from who he was.

Sherlock had found that kind of quiet, innate strength made people like Sebastian uncomfortable, eager to assert their own power and dominance. And of course, neither John nor Amarisa would tolerate the kind of simpering condescension Sebastian and Netheirya had treated them with.

Still, just because Sherlock had seen it coming didn't mean he hadn't enjoyed it.

He wasn't the only one; Amarisa had a certain spring in her step as they walked away, and she was grinning.

From what Sherlock had observed, Amarisa's smile seemed to come in two basic permutations which he'd come to think of as her dog-grin and her wolf-grin. The dog-grin came out when she was happy and relaxed – her mouth parted, her tongue lolled, and it was often accompanied by a lightly waving tail. Her wolf-grin was different, and Sherlock usually glimpsed it when they were chasing a criminal – her mouth opened and her lips pulled back every so slightly, just enough for a glimpse of her teeth, and her tail didn't wag unless she was particularly excited.

It was the wolf-grin Amarisa was wearing now.

“I think you scared them,” Raniel giggled as soon they were out of Sebastian's earshot.

“They'll get over it,” John said, waving a dismissive hand.

Sherlock was looking at Amarisa, wondering if there was any truth to John's assertion. “Is that true?”

“Is what true?” she asked, tilting her head to the side so one golden eye was fixed upon him.

“That you don't like being touched.”

Though now that Sherlock was thinking back on Amarisa's behaviour he realised it was true that, as tactile as she was with John, she didn't make a habit of engaging other dæmons. Even Kai, who was always hovering over her and stroking at her ears, seemed to be tolerated rather than welcomed, as Raniel was.

“Not by dæmons we don't like,” Amarisa clarified.

The idea that Raniel alone was welcome to touch Amarisa made Sherlock want to smile for no clear reason he could discern.

“So you don't like Sebastian, then,” he mused aloud. It was something he did often these days, just to see John and his dæmon's reactions and hear their opinions.

Amarisa snorted softly through her nose. “Of course not – he's a prick.”

“Plus, Netheirya was a monkey,” John added, as though this was important in some way.

“You don't like monkeys?” Raniel piped up from Sherlock's shoulder.

“Stupid, right? The guy with a wolfdog having a prejudice against certain dæmons.” John grinned in a very self-deprecating way. “But I've never met anyone with a monkey dæmon who wasn't a manipulative, pretentious arsehole. Though that might be because you tend to meet a lot of monkey dæmons at medical school, learning to do surgery on dæmons...”

“It makes them the most arrogant, snobbish bunch of tossers you've ever seen,” Amarisa finished decisively. “As though opposable thumbs make them somehow better than the rest of us.”

Sherlock laughed, something he did surprisingly often since he'd met John.

John seemed able to laugh at anything. He laughed at himself as often as at Sherlock, he laughed at things others would take offence to, he laughed at chasing criminals through the streets, he laughed at crime scenes, and he'd even laughed minutes after shooting a serial killer dead.

Someone else might have found that disturbing. Sherlock found it fascinating.

He was actually looking forward to the case; there was a promise of money to stop John worrying about the bills, and a chance to show up Sebastian, just for old times sake.

Then he and Raniel found Van Coon dead in his apartment, and the case suddenly became much more complicated. Much more interesting, yes, but also complicated.

It was irritating that this case was apparently going to be investigated by the inspector called Dimmock, though. Sherlock hated working with new people; they always whined and doubted and were so difficult about letting him examine the evidence.

Still, it meant he saw proof of John's assertion first-hand. Most dæmons, when meeting for the first time, would touch each other briefly, like humans shaking hands. Raniel didn't do that, of course – he didn't pay any attention to Dimmock's dæmon, a blue-eyed, sable-coated Siberian husky (Canis lupus familiaris) called Kitra. But Amarisa didn't touch the dog dæmon either, only extended her nose towards Kitra's and sniffed at her. It was like a polite acknowledgement of the other dæmon's presence, but Amarisa's muzzle never actually touched the husky.

Sherlock wasn't particularly surprised that Dimmock's dæmon was a canine, as such dæmons were rather over-represented in the police force. A canine dæmon usually denoted respect for whatever pecking order their human served, coupled with a protective streak and an inquisitive nature. Obviously, such people were welcome in law enforcement.

And if Kitra hadn't been a canine with their sharp sense of smell, Sherlock doubted Dimmock would have believed there had been an intruder, at least not initially. But as it was, she could detect the foreign scent in the apartment as easily as Amarisa and Raniel could.

“They're right,” the dæmon whispered in low, urgent tones to her human. “I can smell that someone else was here.”

Sherlock smirked.

--

John could admit he was more than a little irritated with Sherlock for refusing to let him in the flat.

“What if the murderer had still been here, Sherlock?” he'd hissed while his flatmate was poking about in a dead man's pockets.

“We didn't know there was a dead body...” Raniel muttered, the dæmon sniffing around Van Coon's belongings.

“Exactly!” John snapped. “That's why you let me check the place out first – you know, the man who was actually trained in unarmed combat?”

“What if you disturbed evidence?” Sherlock interjected, and John was somewhat pleased to note he was actually paying attention to the conversation.

“I'm not going to go moving bodies or walking through blood trails-”

“Not those kinds of evidence!” Sherlock barked. “Any idiot with eyes can see that! I mean the kind of evidence I need, the kind that every one of you dullards seem to overlook as though you're all stone-blind!”

Maybe John should have been more upset by Sherlock's constant disparaging comments about his intelligence, but it was actually rather difficult to be offended by them. Perhaps because they always seemed so automatic – the insults were more reflexive and sweeping than targeted to John specifically. They were also quite offhand as well, as though it was really nothing more than a long-instilled defensive mechanism that Sherlock had never bothered defusing.

It might have also been because even as Sherlock was ranting at him, Raniel quite deliberately wove between Amarisa's forelegs, drawing the wolfdog's attention and pointedly glancing between Amarisa and the top of the bed.

With a roll of her eyes, she gripped Raniel gently by the scruff of his neck and lifted him like a puppy, depositing him onto the mattress. The polecat touched his nose briefly to the wolfdog's, his tongue swiping at the thin fur on her snout as if in thanks, before he began sniffing at Van Coon's trouser leg.

Frankly, Sherlock's insults sounded rather insincere when his dæmon was busy cuddling up to John's.

Then Detective Inspector Dimmock had come on the scene, and right away John knew he and Sherlock were going to butt heads. His dæmon didn't seem to display any of the usual wariness dogs had for Amarisa, but that might have been because Kitra was some variety of husky – large canines usually didn't feel as uneasy around John's dæmon, perhaps because she didn't seem to loom over them quite as much.

Although it was more likely that the lack of reaction was because Dimmock and Kitra served with the MET – they had to be tough and difficult to intimidate, or Dimmock wouldn't be an inspector.

At least Dimmock seemed to believe Sherlock's story about an intruder, after a little prodding from his dæmon, of course.

Kitra immediately set herself to tracking the murderer's path through the apartment, her human following along behind her. At first Amarisa was doing the same, trotting level with the husky, but while Kitra darted into the bathroom and out of it almost as quickly, Amarisa lingered by the sink, sniffing at the hand soap container in enormous, drawn-out inhalations.

“What is it, Risa?” John asked quietly.

“There was a woman here,” she muttered, her head dropping as she nosed at the corners of the bathmat. “But the scent's old, like she hasn't been around here for a while.”

Then she was loping swiftly into the bedroom, where Raniel and Sherlock were still digging through the man's closet and luggage. She sniffed at the floor, the bedside table, the corner of the mattress...

“What are you doing?” Sherlock asked.

“I smelled a woman in the bathroom,” Amarisa explained. “And in here, too. But it's faded, and there are a lot of scents on top of hers.”

The wolfdog took another deep breath, the edge of her nose tucked into the small gap between the bed and the floor. “And I can't shake the idea that the scent's...familiar.”

Sherlock's interest was piqued. “Familiar how?”

“I don't know,” Amarisa huffed, a short growl conveying her frustration. “I've smelled her before, but I can't remember where – it could have been down at the supermarket, for all I know.”

Sherlock was clearly thinking very intently, his eyes slightly vacant as he stared at the body lying on the bed. “Could it have been someone at the bank?”

Amarisa rolled her shoulders in a gesture that came close to a shrug. “Maybe.”

Raniel had been peering into the still-packed luggage, nosing at the rumpled clothes, when he suddenly spoke up. “There's a funny smell coming from this part of his suitcase.”

“Three days of unwashed laundry might smell a bit funny,” John pointed out, a teasing grin curling his lips.

“Not like that,” the polecat said impatiently. “Metallic.”

He was nudging at a shirt that was lying in the centre of the suitcase, crumpled in such way that seemed to indicate it had been packed around something heavy and circular, like a stack of discs. But John thought discs were made of plastic, not metal, so...what had Van Coon been carrying?

Sherlock, of course, was grinning at the news. “So Mr. Van Coon was carrying at least one item composed primarily of metal inside his luggage. An item that he removed recently, but which we have yet to find in his house.”

“You think it has something to do with him being murdered?” John queried.

“Very likely,” Sherlock replied, he and Raniel already sweeping out of the room.

--

Interrupting Sebastian's meal had been necessary, but irritating him had been an unexpected bonus. It was clear that both Sebastian and Netheirya remembered their last encounter with Amarisa – the monkey dæmon was going to great pains not to look at the wolfdog, and Sebastian's pompous attitude towards John had been tempered with wariness.

John was aware of the change in Sebastian's manner, and smiled blithely (and perhaps just a bit mischievously) whenever the man's eyes landed on him. Even though his expression was always perfectly innocent, something about it seemed like a deliberate goad.

Sherlock delighted in it. He let John ask most of the questions, just so he could more closely observe their reactions to each other.

It was intriguing to see John and Sebastian side by side, the object of a previous interest compared to...to John.

Sherlock reflected that if nothing else, his taste had certainly improved. Granted, there were some people who'd think a poor doctor invalided out of the army would be a step down from a rich banker with family money, but those people were idiots. There was a reason Raniel liked Amarisa far better than he ever had Netheirya.

Sherlock took note of the loss and return of five million pounds, which coupled with the missing metallic object from Van Coon's suitcase was painting a very intriguing picture.

But Sebastian lost patience with the discussion right after he received a message from the chairman about Van Coon's death being declared 'suspicious circumstances'. He'd actually seemed worried when he read the text, but then Netheirya murmured something in his ear and the concern vanished from his face as quickly as it had appeared.

“Suspicious circumstances isn't murder,” he said, tucking his phone away.

“It's pretty close, though,” John said, in the same amiable voice he'd been addressing Sebastian with for the entire conversation.

Anyone listening to them would have thought they were getting along well, but Sherlock didn't think it was a coincidence that Amarisa's smile revealed the edges of her teeth, startlingly white against her black fur. Netheirya was doing her best to pretend she didn't notice, and was instead glaring at Raniel who, of course, was watching Amarisa avidly and paying the monkey dæmon no mind whatsoever.

“But it isn't murder,” Sebastian repeated. “In fact, if I recall correctly, doesn't 'suspicious circumstances' just mean they haven't worked it out yet?”

“Seb!” Sherlock said urgently, seeing where the conversation was going.

Sebastian gave him a scornful look. “I hired you to do a job – don't get sidetracked.”

With that, he and Netheirya left the bathroom. As they swept past John and Amarisa, the wolfdog moved so quickly Sherlock could barely follow it, her head swinging around and her jaw opening...

Amarisa's teeth clicked together scant inches from Netheirya's tail, Sebastian's dæmon flinching away in reaction and making their exit seem much more like a hurried retreat than a dismissal.

Raniel muffled a snigger against the collar of Sherlock's coat, and the consulting detective could feel the beginnings of a smile pulling at his own lips.

“And I thought all bankers were supposed to be heartless bastards,” John deadpanned.

Sherlock lost the struggle he'd been waging with the muscles of his face, and was grinning broadly when they left.

Chapter Text

“You probably shouldn't have done that,” John murmured to Amarisa later that night, when they were curled together in bed.

There was no need for her to ask what he meant. They both knew he was talking about the fright she'd deliberately given Netheirya when she pretended to take a snap at the monkey.

“I wanted to,” Amarisa muttered.

“I know,” John said quietly, caressing her ears gently in a way she usually found soothing.

And he did know – he'd had to contain a far bit of resentment himself. Resentment which, if he was being honest with himself, was probably fuelled by more than a hint of jealousy.

John still didn't know Sherlock's exact history with Sebastian, but he had a feeling it might be sexual. He couldn't pinpoint exactly what had given him that idea, but the impression had developed slowly over the two brief periods he'd actually seen them interacting.

Hence the jealousy and resentment. And the small, self-pitying voice that in his head that was wailing that if that was Sherlock's 'type', then John didn't have a hope in hell.

Realistically, he'd known he never had much of a chance, but there was a difference between knowing abstractly and knowing because you'd seen the evidence with your own eyes.

John supposed Sebastian was the kind of person he'd expected Sherlock to go for; attractive, powerful and important. Intelligent as well, and the kind of person who could play other people like pianos, or he wouldn't have risen through the ranks as quickly as he obviously did.

In short, the kind of person who would have more in common with Sherlock than an ex-military doctor who, aside from an unusual dæmon and an unhealthy lust for excitement, wasn't anything special.

His leg twinged at the thought.

“Snap out of it!” Amarisa barked.

“Out of what?”

“That self-pitying sulk you were working yourself into – snap out of it!”

John felt irritated to hear his perfectly justifiable disappointment dismissed so blithely, but when he glanced at Amarisa and saw her drooping ears and tail and downcast eyes, he realised Amarisa had really been talking to the both of them.

“Come here,” he muttered roughly, winding his arms around her neck and yanking his dæmon on top of him.

Amarisa wiggled a little, as though unwilling to accept comfort, but within two seconds she had gone limp, her chin resting on his shoulder and her nose tucked under his ear, her body pressed against the length of his.

“It'll be all right,” he said gently, one arm wrapped around his dæmon's ribs to feel her heartbeat as the other scratched softly at her head.

“I really thought Raniel liked me...” Amarisa whispered, her voice mournful. “I mean, he's always looking at me, or touching me...I thought...”

“As soon as Sherlock said he was married to his work, we should have known this was going to end in tears,” John sighed, determined to try to be philosophical about the whole thing.

“Yeah...” Amarisa sighed wistfully. “But they're so-”

“No, enough,” John said firmly. “We're not going to debate over whether someone 'likes' us – it feels far too much like some lovesick teenager mooning over an unrequited crush.”

“Are you saying you're not?”

“A teenager? I'd hope so-”

“Not lovesick? Not mooning?”

“...whether I am or not isn't the point.”

“Thought so.”

“No, we're going to get past this,” John said determinedly. “Plenty of fish in the sea and all that.”

And there were more for John than most – it was one of the advantages of being bisexual. So when he went for the job interview the next day and the woman, Sarah, seemed to be flirting with him, he was much happier about it than he would have been two days ago.

“You're a bit overqualified,” she pointed out.

“I could always do with the money,” John admitted.

Sarah's dæmon looked like a pigeon, but John had never seen a pigeon of that colour before. The bird was pure white, but the ends of his feathers were tipped with a rich, coffee-brown colour, leaving him with a delightfully freckled appearance.

“Well, we've got two away on holiday this week,” Sarah went on, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear in a gesture John had always found strangely endearing on both men and women alike. “And one's just left to have a baby...”

She trailed away, half-glancing at Amarisa, and John waited expectantly.

“Might be a bit mundane for you,” she said at last.

“Ah, no, mundane is good sometimes.” Maybe 'mundane' would get John to stop thinking about Sherlock for a while. “Mundane works.”

Sarah gave a small smile, and her dæmon preened his chest feathers. “It says here you were a soldier.”

“And a doctor,” John nodded, feeling they should be very clear on that point. He'd met people who thought those two different professions somehow cancelled each other out.

“Anything else you can do?” Sarah asked.

There was just the barest hint of flirtation in her tone and smile, and John couldn't resist adding playfully, “I learned the clarinet at school.”

Sarah had laughed, and John left the interview much more pleased with himself and the world than he'd been when he woke up that morning.

“She seems nice,” he remarked to Amarisa on the way back home.

“Her dæmon, too,” Amarisa agreed.

John could admit the bit of flirting had been just what his ego needed, especially seeing as Sherlock and Raniel didn't even seem to have noticed they'd been gone. They were still absorbed in the bizarre cipher that had been left in the bank, and Raniel barely glanced at Amarisa when they entered.

While it was far from unusual for Sherlock's dæmon to ignore the wolfdog when he was absorbed in a case, today it just seemed to underline the fact that John and Amarisa were nowhere near as important to Sherlock and Raniel as Sherlock and Raniel were to them.

John's mind wandered back to Sarah, and he blamed that for the telling slip of his tongue when Sherlock asked asked how his interview had gone.

“Great, she's great,” he replied, and only noticed the mistake when Amarisa nipped at his fingers reprovingly.

Raniel's head snapped up, pinning John and his dæmon with a hard glare. “Who?”

“The job,” John tried to recover.

She?” Raniel repeated stridently, obviously disbelieving.

John did his level best not to flush. “It.”

To John's surprise, Raniel actually seemed to be bristling. Looking concerned, Amarisa began to approach him, when Sherlock suddenly spoke and drew their attention to a news article he'd brought up on the laptop (John's laptop, of course).

Before John knew it, he and Amarisa were following Sherlock all over London – at least, that was how it seemed. They dropped in on Inspector Dimmock, poked around the dead journalist's flat and finally trotted off to the library where they found the same cipher from the bank painted on the back of a shelf.

Sherlock actually admitted to needing help (which John couldn't resist needling him for), and they ended up in a some back-alley talking to a graffiti artist. He seemed like a decent bloke, and for a while it looked like everything was going just fine.

Then the police came on the scene and Sherlock and Raniel, the bloody traitors, just up and abandoned them!

--

“What if they're in jail?” Raniel said, his voice a little higher than usual.

“They won't be put in jail over a bit of graffiti,” Sherlock muttered darkly, staring at the cipher and trying to resist the urge to pace up and down in front of it.

“It's all your fault!” Raniel hissed. “They'll hate us now!”

“No, they won't!” Sherlock spat defensively, refusing to look at his dæmon.

This, exactly this, was why Sherlock was married to his work. Because his work would never make his dæmon behave like a prepubescent with a crush. His work would never complain about the bills or that he hadn't noticed it was gone. His work would never come back home mooning over some woman at the surgery and show Sherlock just how extraneous his presence was...

Sherlock closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. No, no point in getting worked up over it now. If John and Amarisa didn't need them, then Sherlock and Raniel would show them just how little they needed them in turn.

So he ignored John and Amarisa's vocal complaints and bundled them off to track the journalist's – Lukis' – whereabouts, while Sherlock and Raniel went to talk to Van Coon's personal assistant.

The PA in question was a blonde woman by the name of Amanda, and her dæmon was a common starling (Sturnus vulgaris vulgaris). She herself was quite composed but her dæmon looked ragged, as though he'd been neglecting his grooming, and Sherlock knew she was much more upset about the banker's death than she was letting on.

The hand lotion on her desk caught his eye, the same type as the lotion in Van Coon's bathroom.

“Remember what Amarisa said?” Raniel whispered in his ear. “That she smelled a woman in the apartment, and that the scent was familiar?”

It seemed very likely Van Coon's PA was that woman. It would explain why she was so upset but felt she needed to hide it (he doubted their relationship would have been common knowledge), and also why Amarisa had recognised her smell. The wolfdog would have picked up her scent in passing when they came to see Sebastian, but as she hadn't been specifically tracking the woman she hadn't taken note of it, though that passing whiff was still enough for the dæmon to feel it was familiar.

Sherlock probed into the matter cautiously. “What kind of a boss was he, Amanda? Appreciative?”

“No. That's not a word I'd use,” she said, glancing down. “The only things Eddie appreciated had a big price tag.”

So they'd broken up. It explained why Amarisa had said the scent in the apartment was faded – it had been some time since Amanda had last been there.

“Like that hand cream,” Sherlock observed, then turned and pinned the woman's dæmon with his eyes, addressing his next remark to the starling. “He bought that for her, didn't he?”

He didn't bother waiting for a reply – the brief, frantic flutter of the bird's wings was answer enough.

Sorting through the receipts took barely two minutes; Van Coon had taken a taxi to an unspecified location in the West End, the tube back (he'd clearly dropped off a package on the way, a package that likely had something to do with the metallic scent Raniel had detected in his suitcase), with lunch in-between. It was child's play to find where he'd eaten, but much more difficult to discover where he'd delivered the mysterious package.

He was surprised when John and Amarisa had turned up with the address, but it turned out to come from the journalist's diary. It soon became clear there were few legitimate reasons for a banker and a journalist to visit the shop, and certainly not one that involved dropping off packages – Sherlock had suspected something shady ever since Sebastian had mentioned Van Coon making five million pounds in a week, and while he'd considered several possibilities he was now certain it was smuggling.

He informed John of his suspicions as the man tucked into spaghetti at a nearby cafe. Amarisa was at his feet, stretched out below the windowsill with Raniel curled up between her forelegs.

“But why did they die?” John mused between bites. “It doesn't make sense. If they both turn up at the shop and deliver the goods, why would someone threaten them – and kill them – after the event, after they'd finished the job?”

This was why it was good to have John along with him. John kicked Sherlock's mind into gear, and made him think in new directions much more quickly than he usually would.

And sure enough, the answer came. “What if one of them was light-fingered?”

John's mouth was full, so Amarisa asked the question they were both thinking. “How'd you mean?”

“He stole something,” Raniel piped up. “Something from the hoard.”

“And the killer doesn't know which of them took it,” John finished, understanding lighting his eyes. “So he threatens them both.”

Sherlock was smiling when he glimpsed the damp package of the Yellow Pages across the street. Given that it seemed to be intended for someone living above the Emporium and that it hadn't rained since Monday, it was certainly worth a closer look.

A quick glance around the back only made the situation more suspicious – the resident might have gone on holiday, but not with their windows open.

They needed to take a look inside.

Raniel leapt for the fire escape first, launching himself from Sherlock's shoulder. His human followed quickly, both of them clambering up the metal staircase and making for the open window.

“Sherlock!” John hissed.

“Raniel!” Amarisa growled.

Sherlock paid them no mind, letting Raniel scramble in the window first before swiftly following his dæmon.

He hadn't been the flat for even a minute before he realised someone had been here before them; the position of the vase – easily knocked over by someone climbing through the window – and the damp patch on the carpet below it told him that. Raniel's nostrils flared as he sniffed the air.

“The scent's very strong,” he whispered. “They were here quite recently.”

John was ringing to be let in but Sherlock quite deliberately busied himself with examining the flat – he was still feeling a touch resentful, and he liked being the one with the power in their relationship for once. He supposed an outsider would think that between him and John, he was the one in control, but that wasn't strictly true.

John was with Sherlock because he wanted to be. No one could make John do something he didn't want to, and he certainly didn't do this to please or impress Sherlock. The same couldn't be said for himself, though – he was beginning to suspect he'd go to ridiculous lengths to impress John.

“We should let them in,” Raniel muttered, darting guilty glances at the staircase.

“If they're bored, they can go play doctor with that woman at the surgery,” Sherlock said bitterly.

But he did feel the need to yell down information, just to make sure John and Amarisa didn't walk away. As Sherlock collected more data on the mysterious intruder, his dæmon made a pertinent observation.

“Why didn't he close the window when he left?”

And then Sherlock realised. “He's still here.”

He surveyed the room with a critical eye. The only place where someone could be easily concealed was behind the screen, and Sherlock began to creep towards it.

“No!” Raniel hissed. “We need to get John and Amarisa!”

Sherlock didn't pay him any attention, sweeping back one panel of the screen to reveal...

Nothing.

For a moment Sherlock wondered if he'd miscalculated, if the intruder wasn't here at all or if he was hiding in the bathroom. Then a band of cloth was abruptly slipped over his neck and tightened like a noose.

Sherlock reeled backwards and fell to his knees, his hands scrabbling at the cord that was throttling him, instinctively trying to ease the pressure on his throat.

JOHN!” he could hear his dæmon screaming. “John, we need help! JOHN!

There were squeaks and scrabbling sounds close by, and Sherlock knew Raniel was struggling with his attacker's dæmon. His eyesight was blurring and dimming, his brain struggling to function on too-little oxygen, when a crunching, splintering sound reached his ears.

Sherlock had seen enough police raids to recognise the sound of a door being kicked in. The terrible constriction of his airway eased a fraction, the person strangling him apparently caught by surprise.

Sherlock!” came John's bellow, accompanied by Amarisa's snarl.

But it wasn't a snarl Sherlock had ever heard from her before, not even when she was facing down that wolf dæmon. It was somehow louder, deeper, a hundred times more menacing – like a she-wolf when her pups were threatened.

Even though Amarisa didn't actually speak, the message was loud and clear: 'run now, while you still can'.

The attacker was gone before John had even finished climbing the stairs, obviously not wanting to face a man whose dæmon made that kind of sound. Sherlock was left on the floor, gasping and choking as his starved lungs greedily sucked in air.

He felt Raniel nudging at his cheek, licking and gentling him, and he nuzzled at the crease of Sherlock's jaw in a way Sherlock suspected he'd learned from Amarisa.

John and Amarisa burst into the room, and for the first time Sherlock understood why gods of war and vengeance were depicted with wolf dæmons. Amarisa's hackles were up, a line of raised fur running down her spine like the blade of a knife. Her mouth was open, a red tongue writhing between teeth that could slice through flesh like a razor through sun-warmed butter. Her feet were planted wide apart, braced to spring, and not for the first time it struck Sherlock just how large Amarisa was.

Sherlock's instincts for self-preservation had never been particularly strong, yet now – in spite of the fact that this was John and Amarisa, the two beings least likely to harm him – he felt them stirring. Felt an urge to back away slowly and carefully, ensuring he wasn't seen.

He didn't listen to it of course; the almost primal thrill in his gut that came from seeing John's dæmon like this was much, much stronger than any petty fear reflex.

John's eyes flickered about the room, automatically noting exits and places of concealment – making sure there were no more enemies to be dealt with – before he dropped to his knees beside Sherlock. Warm, strong hands tore away the cord around his neck, and gentle fingers probed the bruise.

Sherlock managed to drag himself to his knees, and made a token attempt at pushing John away.

“Laundry's starting to smell and the milk's gone off,” he rasped, trying to gain his feet. “Someone left in a hurry three days ago.”

“Sherlock, stop talking and sit down,” John told him, in the firm, no-nonsense tone common to all doctors.

“But John-”

Now,” John said, voice intent in a way that suggested if Sherlock didn't sit down under his own power John was going to make him sit down.

Just to be contrary, Sherlock sat down on the floor instead of the chair. John rolled his eyes and knelt in front of him, his hands bracketing Sherlock's throat as his thumbs nudged against the line of his flatmate's jaw, urging him to tilt his head. Sherlock did so, hoping John wouldn't notice the way his pulse spiked at the feel of those warm, calloused palms against his skin.

In an effort to avoid looking directly at John, Sherlock's eyes sought out Raniel.

It looked like the polecat had been bitten by the hostile dæmon – there were several small, scattered patches of blood across his chest and throat. Sherlock quelled the urge to reach out for him; Amarisa had it well in hand.

Just as Sherlock was submitting to John's examination, so Raniel was submitting to Amarisa's. He was on his back on the carpet, one of Amarisa's enormous paws resting gently on his belly as she licked at the injuries.

“You see?” she was scolding between swipes of her tongue. “This is why you let us in as well!”

That, right there, was why it was John and Amarisa who were truly in control. Because when they demanded something, truly demanded it...Sherlock and Raniel couldn't help but give in.

Noticing his human's gaze, Raniel spoke up, “His dæmon was Arvicola amphibius.”

Sherlock nodded, filing that information away.

John sighed. “For those of us who don't know the Latin names of every single animal on Earth?”

“I believe they're commonly referred to as water rats, though the animal is actually a vole,” Sherlock explained, his throat still raw.

“You sound awful,” John pronounced, leaning back on his heels. “But there doesn't seem to be any permanent damage, though you'll have one hell of a bruise. Still, if you seem to be getting short of breath, or if your throat starts to feel tight, for god's sake let me know, okay?”

Sherlock made an agreeable sort of noise, glancing around for any clues that attacker might left in his hurry to escape John's wrath.

“Sherlock, I'm serious about this!” John snapped, in the same intent tone that dragged Sherlock's attention back to the man like it was being pulled by a wire. “If your throat's bruised badly enough to swell, it could block off your airway and kill you, do you hear me?”

“We hear you,” Raniel said, sounding surprisingly obedient.

Sherlock didn't reply – he'd seen a spot of black on the carpet, one that definitely hadn't been there when he'd first entered the room. He brushed John's hand away and strode over to pick it up, realising that it was black paper folded into the shape of a flower, practically identical to the one he'd found stuffed into Van Coon's mouth.

John blinked at it. “Is that their calling card or something?”

“Very likely,” Sherlock said, pocketing the origami.

John snorted with laughter. “Sorry, it's just...a black flower? I mean, really?”

“I suppose it is a bit melodramatic,” Sherlock mused.

“If by 'melodramatic' you mean 'suited for a bloody Bond film', then yes, it is.” John chuckled to himself for a few moments, then sighed and changed the subject. “So, this Soo Lin Yao person hasn't been in for a few days...you think she's still alive?”

“It seems likely, but I should check to see if any unidentified bodies have been brought into the morgue recently,” Sherlock said, gathering up Raniel on his way out.

“Hold up, Sherlock – I'll have to call someone about the door...”

--

Another example of the graffiti at the National Antiquities Museum lead to a trawl through graffiti hotspots. The graffiti artist accompanied them and John heroically restrained himself from punching the man in the face (though Amarisa had growled rather menacingly at his dæmon, and the snake had darted inside the man's jacket to escape). They found only a few faint traces and Sherlock demanded that they split up to cover more ground.

Which was why John was tramping along the train tracks, feeling cold and a little frustrated, his leg beginning to flare with pain and cramp. Aside from the death-spell, there was also the fatigue of over-exerted muscles – he'd kicked in a door today, no mean feat, and John knew he'd be paying for it tomorrow.

Amarisa suddenly stilled, her nose twitching.

Highly attuned to his dæmon, John knew she'd picked up something. “What do you smell?”

“Fresh paint,” she declared, closing her eyes and scenting the air. “Laid down in the last few days.”

“Paint?”

“This way,” Amarisa called, loping into the darkness as John hurried to keep up. Sometimes he thought it was very unfair that he had such short legs while his dæmon was capable of outpacing professional athletes.

It took only one brief flash of his torch on the wall to see that it was covered with the cipher, in a far greater variety of symbols than they'd ever seen before.

“Whoa...” John exclaimed, staring at the yellow paint daubing the dark brick.

“That's a lot more complicated than a simple warning,” Amarisa pointed out, her shoulder nudging his leg.

“I'll call Sherlock,” John said, digging his phone out of his pocket.

He rang Sherlock's number, but of course there was no answer – John was starting to wonder if Sherlock actually owned his own phone or if he just borrowed everyone else's.

“Well, we're going to have to find them,” he muttered. “Honestly, would it kill him to just take a call once in a while?”

“We'd better take a photo first,” Amarisa pointed out. “Just in case we have trouble getting back here.”

“Good plan.”

John fiddled with his phone until he found the camera setting and snapped a quick photo of the wall, ensuring every part of the graffiti was clearly visible. Then they took off to find Sherlock and Raniel, and John's leg didn't twinge once.

Sherlock, of course, was poking around the train cars and in general not doing anything that would have prevented him from answering his phone.

Which was why it was the first thing out of John's mouth. “Answer your phone, I've been calling you!”

“We found it,” Amarisa declared proudly. “Follow us!”

But when they got back the wall was completely blank. At first John though they'd made a mistake, that they'd taken a wrong turning and this wasn't the wall they'd seen. But that wasn't possible – Amarisa had been leading him and she would have followed their own scents, essentially retracing their steps.

“It's been painted over!” the wolfdog exclaimed indignantly, sniffing at the bricks then sneezing, one forepaw rubbing awkwardly at her nose. “This layer's so fresh it stings!”

John took the edge of his shirt and began absently wiping off his dæmon's nose. “I don't understand...it was here ten minutes ago! We saw it – a whole load of graffiti!”

Raniel jumped from Sherlock's shoulder to the ground – John could never figure out how the polecat kept doing that without breaking one of his ankles – and began to sniff at the gravel around them, as though searching for the trail of whoever had painted the wall.

“Somebody doesn't want me to see it,” Sherlock murmured.

Then, while John was still absorbing the implications of that (the idea that someone was watching them was far from reassuring, after all), Sherlock moved. The detective abruptly spun to face him, both of his hands coming up to grip John's face, the soft leather of Sherlock's gloves cool against his skin.

John thought the fact that he hadn't moved – that his automatic reaction hadn't been to knock Sherlock's hands away and possibly break his wrists – said a lot about how much he trusted this man.

Of course, just because John trusted him didn't mean he wouldn't question him. “Sherlock, what are you-”

“Shhh!” Sherlock snapped. “John, concentrate! I need you to concentrate – close your eyes!”

“Wha-what? Why? Why? What are you doing?” To say John was bewildered was an understatement; Sherlock seemed as intent as a bloodhound on the trail of a fox, and for one wild moment John thought Sherlock was about to kiss him.

But then Sherlock's grip slid down to his shoulders and he began to turn them in a circle like some bizarre dance, and John smacked that errant thought to the back of his brain, stuffed it in a dark hole and bolted down the hatch.

Sherlock was still talking. “I need you to maximise your visual memory. Try to picture what you saw. Can you picture it?”

“Yeah...” John said slowly, another spin giving him a glimpse of Amarisa and Raniel.

The wolfdog was sitting on the gravel, Raniel a splash of white against the thick fur on her belly, and both dæmons were watching their humans with interest.

“Can you remember it?” Sherlock demanded, and John suddenly realised where this was going.

“Yes, definitely-”

He tried to explain about the photograph Amarisa had suggested taking, but Sherlock charged onwards with all the single-mindedness of a rampaging bull. “Can you remember the pattern?”

“Yes-”

“How much can you remember of it?”

“Well, don't worry-”

Once again, John tried to tell Sherlock he'd taken a photo, but the infuriating man interrupted him again. “Because the average human memory on visual matters is only sixty-two percent accurate.”

“What about wolfdogs?” John felt the need to ask.

He must have surprised Sherlock, because he stopped spinning them. “What?”

“Risa saw it too, you know. Are you saying her memory's worse than mine?”

John thought he heard both dæmons giggle softly, but it was hard to be sure. Sherlock looked as though he was honestly considering the concept.

“Actually, there's never been a study done on the visual memory of canines. I wonder if-”

“Never mind,” John interrupted, pulling free and reaching into his pocket.

“We took a photograph,” Amarisa said, grinning broadly.

“Oh,” was all Sherlock said, and John couldn't deny he felt a bit triumphant.

This time, John was certain he heard Raniel laugh, but when he glanced at the polecat he was perfectly calm and composed.

They went home and Sherlock printed John's photo of the graffiti many times over in many different magnifications, using the internet to work out what numbers the various symbols represented.

John would probably have felt more chuffed about their discovery if he wasn't so exhausted. Sherlock felt another trip to the museum was necessary, and abruptly proclaimed that Soo Lin was still in the building. Apparently it was all to do with teapots (really? The teapots?).

Soo Lin Yao turned out to be a pretty Chinese woman seemingly in her mid- to late twenties, and her dæmon was some kind of otter. Soon Lin herself seemed calm and collected, but her dæmon looked frazzled, his eyes constantly darting around the room, betraying her fear and dread as clearly as if he'd shouted it.

“You saw the cipher,” she said, her voice quiet. “You know he is coming for me.”

“You've been clever to avoid him so far,” Sherlock said, and John blinked at Sherlock calling someone 'clever' without a sarcastic undertone.

“I had to finish...to finish this work,” Soo Lin explained, and in her voice was something John recognised – the passion for a cause. “It's only a matter of time – I know he will find me.”

Her dæmon made a soft, mournful sound and she rested her hand on his back, curling her fingers in his short fur.

“Who is he?” Sherlock asked. “Have you met him before?”

The otter chittered nervously, and Soo Lin dropped her eyes. “When we were young, living back in China. I recognise his...signature.”

John had a feeling she wasn't telling them the whole story. Her dæmon was becoming agitated, and Amarisa moved closer to the table, coming eye to eye with the otter, whining softly in an effort to be comforting.

“The cipher,” Sherlock assumed.

Soo Lin nodded. “Only he would do this. Zhizhu.”

“Jee-joo?” John echoed.

“The spider,” Sherlock explained.

Soo Lin reached out, gently lifting her dæmon onto his hindlegs as her fingers parted his fur. John caught a glimpse of a mark on the skin of the otter's chest, like a stylised black flower, but it was too obscured by fur to get a good look.

“You know this mark?” she asked.

Sherlock glanced at it. “Yes, it's the mark of a Tong.”

John was feeling more lost by the moment. Was that really a tattoo? On Soo Lin's dæmon? “A what?”

“Ancient crime syndicate, based in China,” Sherlock muttered, almost as an after-thought. “It was supposed to have collapsed around the beginning of the twentieth century, but people believe they simply went underground.”

Soo Lin shrugged. “They only started becoming prominent in the past ten years or so. Every foot-soldier bears this mark...”

“Always on the dæmon?” Sherlock asked suddenly.

Soo Lin shook her head. “Not always. Some have it tattooed on the sole of their foot. But everyone has it – everyone who hauls for them.”

“Hauls?” John repeated. “You mean you were a smuggler?”

The bleak look Soo Lin gave him suggested smuggling wasn't all she'd been used for. She pulled her dæmon close, tucking him against her chest, instinctively seeking comfort.

“I was fifteen. My parents were dead. I had no livelihood. No way of surviving day to day, except to work for the bosses.”

Amarisa made a sympathetic noise and John felt a little guilty for asking what, in retrospect, had been a rather obvious question.

Sherlock, of course, didn't seem to have much of a sense for the delicacy of the situation and went right on with the interrogation. “Who are they?”

“They are called the Black Lotus.”

John couldn't help but think this whole scenario was sounding more and more like a James Bond film every minute – did smuggling rings really give themselves names like that? It sounded more like some sort of teenage gang than a crime syndicate.

“By the time I was sixteen, I was taking thousands of pounds of drugs across the border into Hong Kong,” Soo Lin continued. “But occasionally, I would be called upon to carry something else, something in a round metal case, a case that was always locked shut.”

John thought of the metallic scent Raniel had detected in Van Coon's suitcase, and when he caught Sherlock's eye, he knew the detective was thinking along the same lines. Granted, Sherlock was probably several steps in front of John, but at least they were on the same page.

“Do you have any idea of what was in this case?” Sherlock asked, his voice mild but his eyes feverish.

Soo Lin's dæmon was quaking in her arms and John could tell that something had happened with that case, something that had badly frightened them.

“I saw it,” she admitted quietly. “My bag was thrown to the ground, the hinges were old...they broke open.”

She swallowed harshly. “It was like a golden clock, but instead of numbers it had symbols, dozens of them. There were four hands-”

“Three were thick, weren't they?” Sherlock said, and John suddenly realised Raniel was practically quivering on his shoulder. “Like the minute or hour hands of a clock. But the fourth one was thinner, wasn't it? And it moved; spinning around at a constant pace?”

Soo Lin nodded, and and uncomfortable crawling sensation began to march along John's spine. What Sherlock had described sounded suspiciously like an alethiometer...

“I put the case back together and delivered it just as I'd been told,” Soo Lin went on. “But I was afraid they'd see the broken hinges, that they'd know it had opened. And if they'd tried so hard to hide it, what would they do to me when they knew I'd seen it?”

She shook her head. “I ran as soon as I could. I came to England. They gave me a job here – for a while, everything was good...”

“And he came looking for you,” Sherlock finished.

“Yes. I'd hoped, after five years, maybe they would have forgotten about me.” Soo Lin paused, swallowing and wiping at tears as her dæmon crooned to her.

“Did you know him well?” John asked. “When you were living back in China?”

“Oh, yes.” Soo Lin whispered, her voice hoarse. “He's my brother.”

John hadn't been expecting that.

Soo Lin told them that she and her brother had been orphaned at a young age and – with no other way of putting food on the table – had worked for the Black Lotus. Unlike her, her brother was fully committed to the cause, and worked under a Black Lotus general known as Shan.

Sherlock asked her about the code, and Soo Lin managed to tell them it was based on a book before all the lights in the building abruptly cut out.

“He's here,” Soo Lin whispered into the darkness, terror in every syllable.

John's eyes were still adjusting to the sudden gloom, but he could hear the door opening and Sherlock's distinctive footsteps hurrying away.

Sherlock!” he hissed. “Sherlock, wait!”

“Raniel, what did we discuss not six hours ago?” Amarisa growled.

But there was no reply. Once again, Sherlock and Raniel had decided to leave them behind.

John set his teeth against both the sudden spike of pain in his leg and the urge to swear, and directed Soo Lin to crouch under the table. They already knew that Zhizhu had a gun, but John was going to rely on the darkness the man himself had provided – when shooting in poor visibility, most people tended to aim at about chest height, so it was better to crouch close to the floor.

For several moments, there was nothing but eerie silence, but then the sound of gunfire hammered against John's ears.

Amarisa yelped as though she'd been struck, and before John could catch her, she was running across the room and out the door.

John clenched his jaw against the pain of separation; that hideous pull in the chest everyone suffered when their dæmon was too far from them. It was partly physical pain – as though someone was trying to pull his heart out through his ribs – but mostly it was sheer emotional anguish, loss and grief and loneliness the likes of which he knew he couldn't survive.

John tried to hold his ground. He kept telling himself that Amarisa couldn't go far, that she was feeling the same thing, that she'd come running back any moment...

But she didn't. And eventually, inevitably, John's will broke.

He managed to retain enough presence of mind to tell Soo Lin to bolt the door after him, and then he ran after his dæmon.

With each step, the sickening stretch of their bond eased, the loneliness and pain ebbing away, but as soon as he was in the open gunshots rang out again. John dropped to the floor instinctively, crouching behind a pillar, his body thrumming with the need to get to Amarisa. He was still being tugged forward, undoubtedly in the direction Sherlock and Raniel had fled to (he could vaguely hear Sherlock bellowing something about skulls), and he risked sticking his head out from behind the pillar in an effort to locate the wolfdog.

A dark shape streaked up the stairs, and desperation lent speed to John's legs as he caught up and seized his dæmon by the scruff of her neck.

“Down!” he hissed, dragging her behind the wall that framed the staircase.

While there hadn't been any shots in the past minute or so, that was no guarantee the gunman was gone; they needed to stay under some kind of cover.

“Whoever's shooting obviously isn't a very good shot,” John whispered urgently to Amarisa. “But you never rush into a gunfight unprepared – just calm down and think about it for a bit!”

Amarisa's eyes were wild, but she nodded and took several deep breaths, obviously trying to bring herself under control. John couldn't blame her; when he'd heard the gun, some part of him had wanted to run after Sherlock as well.

John was preparing to stick his head out in an effort to see where Sherlock and Raniel were when a single gunshot rang out, but it wasn't from in front of them.

It had come from behind them – from the restoration room.

“Oh, no,” Amarisa whimpered.

John didn't even need to step inside to know what had just happened. Sure enough, Soo Lin was sprawled on the floor, a bloody gunshot wound straight through her chest and a black origami flower resting in her upturned palm.

Her dæmon had completely vanished, so John didn't both performing CPR; you could always tell when a person could be revived, because their dæmon lingered as translucent golden smoke. If there was no dæmon, there was no point.

Amarisa looked stricken, and she stepped forward as if to nose at the body but John dropped an arm around her neck to hold her back.

“I'm sorry,” she choked, turning to look at him with glassy eyes.

“It's all right.”

“If I hadn't run-”

“If you hadn't run, we'd have died, too.”

Amarisa shook her head violently. “We might have been able to stop him.”

John snorted. “Oh yeah, we'd have stopped him for all of the two seconds it would have taken him to shoot us as well.”

Amarisa was silent, and John knew he'd made his point; there was nothing they could have done. John's gun was back at the flat, and Zhizhu wouldn't have hesitated to gun them down. All their presence would have achieved was one more body on the floor.

And in many ways, Soo Lin had accepted her death. John had treated and lived with soldiers long enough to recognise when someone had resigned themselves to the end, sometimes to the extent of ignoring any paths that could have saved them.

He might only have a vague idea of how things like that worked, but John was pretty sure Soo Lin could have gone to the police and been granted protection and immunity in return for whatever evidence she could have given them. She could have left the country – if they'd waited five years before threatening her, he didn't think it likely the Black Lotus would have bothered to chase her to Norway. Even just bolting the door when he told her to might have saved her life, but in some ways, John suspected she'd welcomed death.

He couldn't imagine the kind of strain you'd live under when you knew, every second of every day, that an entire organisation (including your own brother) was after you. If Aeliana's suspicions about the witch-clan that shot him were true then John had come close to it, but it was no real basis for comparison; he'd been attacked once, then shipped back to England and left entirely in peace. It couldn't compare to being recruited into virtual slavery, just barely escaping, and living the rest of his life in fear that they'd come after him.

For five years, Soo Lin had known they were out there. The constant paranoia was probably the reason she'd been almost obsessively dedicated to her work, the reason she'd shied away from forming emotional attachments...

This was exactly what Soo Lin had been expecting, and in many ways what she wanted – an end to the fear.

Still, it didn't mean John didn't feel an aching mix of regret and grief as he gazed down at Soo Lin's motionless body.

--

Armed with the information Soo Lin had given them about the tattoos before she was murdered, Sherlock took Dimmock to examine the bodies currently stored away in the morgue at St. Bart's. Knowing that Van Coon's dæmon had been a beetle and Lukis' a snake – neither of them animals easily tattooed – he'd hoped to find the mark of the Black Lotus on their feet.

The tattoos had been there, of course, and Sherlock was feeling vindicated when he and John got back to the flat.

“It's more than an organisation, John,” Sherlock said, hanging up his coat on the rack. “It does some true smuggling, yes, but its primary purpose is to serve as a front for something much more concerning.”

“What do you mean?” John asked, lowering himself into his chair, Amarisa springing onto his lap and stretching herself over him like a particularly large and heavy blanket.

“What was your first reaction upon seeing their calling card?”

“Well, apart from the feeling that it was rather on the dramatic side-”

“Exactly!” Sherlock said. “Why? Why make themselves so obvious via tattoos and origami flowers? So that if at any point the organisation is exposed, people focus on the smuggling and obviously criminal aspects rather than probing deeper.”

He could see John and Amarisa consider it. After a few moments, the wolfdog spoke, “Does it have anything to do with what Soo Lin described? It sounded like...well, almost like...”

“An alethiometer,” Raniel finished. “Precisely.”

“I thought all the alethiometers were accounted for,” John pointed out. “There were never that many made, to begin with...”

“Six alethiometers were made,” Sherlock's dæmon went on. “Three are currently accounted for – one in the Louvre, one with a very wealthy collector, and the last with Mycroft.”

“Your brother has an alethiometer?” John reiterated, then rolled his eyes. “Stupid question – of course he does. Of course he has an alethiometer...”

“One was destroyed in World War One,” Raniel continued. “And the other two were lost hundreds of years ago.”

“And you think this is one of those lost alethiometers?” Amarisa assumed.

Sherlock nodded. “Soo Lin said they only became prominent ten years ago, so it's likely whoever's behind this only found it ten years ago. About that time there were rumours one of the lost alethiometers had been found in Afghanistan, but when it was investigated it turned out to be just a replica. A very convincing one, but a replica nonetheless.”

Then John had one of those moments of understanding Sherlock honestly marvelled at. “You think someone nicked it and put the replica in its place?”

Sherlock nodded again. “And the name Soo Lin mentioned – Shan, remember?”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“A blind Chinese woman named Shan was once employed to read the alethiometer at the Louvre. Now I'm sure there are many 'Shans' in China, but it all seems a bit too coincidental.”

“Who can create a fake smuggling ring just to traffic an alethiometer around the world?” John asked, absently scratching at his dæmon's ears. “Seems a bit extreme, really.”

Sherlock couldn't help but wonder if it this was at all related to Moriarty, whoever he, she or they were. He shook the thought away – it was pointless speculation at this point, and wouldn't help them here.

“And why kill Soo Lin now?” John went on. “I mean, if they'd left her alone for five years...”

Amarisa finished her human's thought. “Did they find her only recently, or is there another reason they wanted her dead now instead of five years ago?”

“I don't know,” Sherlock admitted, crossing the room to the laptop resting on the desk.

He needed to look at the antiquities auctions. While it was true they still had no clear idea what these people were smuggling, antiquities were their best bet. Soo Lin had mentioned drugs, but they were a dead lead – the entire load would have been absorbed by the black market by now, and would be impossible to trace. Antiquities, on the other hand, would leave a trail.

It would also be much easier to cover up the alethiometer. After all, if a drug mule was suddenly asked to carrying an object sealed in a metal case, they might become suspicious or curious and take a look. But give it to someone smuggling antiquities, and it would seem like just another haul.

“What are you after?” John asked, leaning to the side in an attempt to peer at the screen.

“We think they were smuggling antiquities,” Raniel said.

Sherlock couldn't be certain, but Amarisa seemed to be frowning when she spoke. “But why kill Lukis and Van Coon? If the smuggling is just a front, wouldn't murder draw unnecessary attention?”

Sherlock answered that himself. “Even if you're not a true smuggling ring, you still don't let people steal from you.”

He found a painting, sold for half a million pounds, that matched the dates inscribed in Lukis' diary and Van Coon's schedule. The metallic smell in Van Coon's suitcase indicated it had likely been he who'd carried the alethiometer...but what had been stolen, and which one of them had been carrying it? Van Coon seemed more likely – the alethiometer was far smaller than a painting, so it stood to reason he'd been given something else to carry as well – but what exactly was it, and what had he done with it?

Sherlock also found a statue and a pair of vases that corresponded to either Van Coon's or Lukis' trips to Hong Kong – whoever had set this up was making a tidy profit on the side. Then Dimmock arrived with the books Sherlock had asked for, and an evidence bag with the photographs of the cipher they'd asked Soo Lin to examine.

The policeman actually offered to help them, as if Sherlock would agree to work with anyone besides John. Everyone else was just far too...irritating...for him to be around them for any length of time.

Then John had to go to work in the morning, which was distasteful but the man seemed to think it somehow necessary, and then...and then John went and got a date, of all things. With that woman at the surgery.

Still, at least John took his suggestion about the circus and Sherlock could get a good look at her.

He supposed Sarah was what people called a 'good catch', but really, she was far too dull and ordinary for John. It was true that her dæmon – a rock pigeon (Columba livia livia) named Vassilian – was a colour variant, but it wasn't much of one. He wasn't pure white, more like his feathers were partly white and then speckled with brown on the ends.

“He looks like an egg,” Raniel muttered resentfully when they saw Sarah and Vassilian for the first time. “A stupid, spotty egg.”

Sherlock agreed. Unlike Raniel (whose pure white fur lent him a sense of elegance), Vassilian just looked foolish, and both he and Sarah were...well, they just weren't right for John and Amarisa.

So he and Raniel largely ignored them in favour of watching the circus perform, alert for the presence of anyone with a water vole dæmon. While it was far from certain that Zhizhu and his associates had used the old 'performing artists' trick to get into the country, the fact that this particular circus was performing for one night only was rather suspicious.

Yet there was no sign of the water vole dæmon. The woman who seemed to be in charge had a Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis), and the man who played the part of an escape artist had an Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster), but Sherlock had yet to see a mammal. He spared a brief moment to regret that the article on the alethiometerist Shan had never mentioned what kind of dæmon she had – the woman's deliberate movements, the way she never truly made eye contact with anyone and the fact that the alligator was subtly guiding her at times led Sherlock to suspect that she was blind. But as the article hadn't even included a picture, there was no way to be sure that this was Shan.

He and Raniel slipped away as soon as they could, going backstage in the hopes of finding proof that either this collection of performers were innocent, or that they were working for the Black Lotus.

Proof was indeed found in the form of cans of yellow spray-pain and being attacked by one of the performers. Within minutes, the circus degenerated into a panicked mob (and all right, Sarah proved herself marginally useful when she dealt with Sherlock's attacker) which provided the perfect cover for the rest of the smugglers to escape. By the time Inspector Dimmock showed up, the hall had been cleared out and scrubbed with something that smelled strongly of eucalyptus and tea-tree, which Sherlock suspected had been done purely to prevent Kitra from picking up on the assassin's scent.

Sherlock knew he wasn't the only one displeased at the fact that Sarah and Vassilian accompanied them back to the flat – Raniel was bristling, pointedly ignoring Amarisa and occasionally muttering darkly into Sherlock's collar. Even the interest she and Vassilian took in his work didn't endear them to Sherlock at all, only set his teeth on edge and made Raniel hiss to himself.

Even when Vassilian noticed that two words of the cipher had been translated by Soo Lin, Raniel didn't so much as glance at the bird. But if Soo Lin had managed to translate part of it, that meant the book she'd spoken of would be in the restoration room.

Sherlock and Raniel left as quickly as they could, almost flattening a German couple in their haste to hail a cab. They exclaimed in anger as their dæmons hissed and spat, and Sherlock bent down to pick up the book he'd knocked out of the man's grasp, handing it back with an automatic, hurried apology.

But that had made them miss the cab, and Sherlock clenched his jaw in annoyance as he glanced around for another one.

“That was the London A to Z,” Raniel suddenly whispered.

“Yes, what of it?” Sherlock snapped, wondering if he should run to the corner and try his luck there.

The London A to Z,” Raniel repeated. “Everyone has the London A to Zeveryone!”

Realisation unfolded in Sherlock's head in one crystal-clear moment of understanding. He searched his memory – yes, that book had been in Van Coon's apartment, in Lukis' as well, and in the restoration room where Soo Lin died.

They were using the London A to Z.

Sherlock ran to catch up with the German couple, practically tearing the book from their hands, and within moments had translated the cipher in the bank and the one John and Amarisa had found by the train tracks.

The symbols left in the bank, the library and the museum were indeed a threat. Deadman – simplistic, but it certainly got the point across.

The ones found at the train yard, however, were instructions.

Nine mill for jade pin dragon den black tramway

Elated, he and Raniel rushed back up the street to 221b, already calling out as they climbed the stairs.

John!” Sherlock bellowed, eager to share his discovery. “John, I've got it!”

Then he saw the empty kitchen, and the yellow paint on the windows.

Deadman

For a moment, Sherlock felt sickeningly disoriented, as though the floor had shifted under his feet. Raniel gave a thin, high scream of shock and horror.

Even an imbecile could see what had happened. The Black Lotus had been here, and they'd taken John and Amarisa. Sarah and Vassilian too, but Sherlock and his dæmon were much less concerned about that. It was the sort of thing John would scold him for, but it was the truth.

He was an idiot. A blind, stupid, naive, idiot. Ever since the cipher had been painted over at the train yard he'd suspected someone was watching them – he should have seen this coming! He should have taken precautions, should have insisted John have his gun on him at all times, should have refused to let John and Amarisa out of his sight for even a moment, but he hadn't – he'd been complacent and unforgivably slow-witted and now...

Now they'd taken John, and Sherlock had been mere feet away when it happened – why hadn't he realised?

More disturbingly, why hadn't John (and Amarisa come to that) put up enough of a fight to make it nigh-impossible not to realise? If John and his dæmon had shouted even once, Sherlock was certain Raniel at least would have heard them, but instead the abduction had been executed quietly enough that they'd been completely unaware of it.

Which meant either John and Amarisa had been caught by surprise, or something had been done to prevent them from fighting back or crying out.

Raniel was twisting in awkward circles on the table as Sherlock dug out a map and desperately tried to determine what 'dragon den black tramway' referred to.

“It will be all right,” Sherlock muttered to his dæmon, hoping to convince himself at the same time. “If they wanted to kill John, they would have done it. Instead, they just abducted him – he's still alive, and they'll keep him that way.”

“Only because they want the pin!” Raniel shrilled. “They probably think John and Amarisa know where it is – they could be torturing them!”

Anyone else would have told their dæmon to stop being hysterical, but Sherlock couldn't, because he knew how horrifyingly likely that scenario was. These people clearly didn't baulk at murder in the name of their organisation, and so were unlikely to shrink from torture.

It might been easier to bear if John and Amarisa were the sort who folded under pressure, if they would give up everything they knew quickly. But they weren't. If they thought their information might put Sherlock and Raniel in danger, they wouldn't say a word.

And he doubted the Black Lotus employed professional torturers – it would be easy for one of them to make a mistake, to go too far...

To accidentally kill John and Amarisa while trying to extract information from them.

Sherlock had never prayed in his life, but now he thought he understood why people felt the need.

Chapter Text

John could admit he'd had some rather selfish reasons for asking Sarah out. He'd been feeling rather bitter towards Sherlock and his dæmon lately – refusing to let John and Amarisa into apartments, treating him like a burden rather than a colleague or friend or whatever the hell John had thought they were. John felt like screaming at them to back off, that he and Amarisa got the message; they clearly weren't important in Sherlock's life.

John knew it was human for him to be pleased at Sarah's attention, but 'hah, someone wants me' wasn't the best reaction to her acceptance of his invitation. But he'd kept it under wraps, and anyway that reaction had only been that selfish inner child everyone had and no one truly outgrew.

He hadn't been pleased that Sherlock and Raniel invited themselves along on the date (even if Amarisa had wagged her tail at them, the traitor). At least the fight at the circus hadn't scared Sarah and Vassilian off, and she even took Sherlock's entirely irrational dislike of her in stride.

Besides, she'd only been chatting with Sherlock for a few moments before the man rushed out the door searching for the book that was the key to the cipher. While Sherlock might regard digestion as a waste of energy, John had been rather hungry by that point so he and Sarah had ordered Chinese.

The doorbell rang, and John made his way down the stairs, Amarisa trotting at his heels. He was hoping the evening could be salvaged when his dæmon suddenly came to a halt on the last two steps, her nose twitching.

“What's wrong?” John asked, looking back at her even as he unlatched the door.

No!” Amarisa cried. “John, it's-!”

Something smashed into John's temple, pain exploding like fireworks inside his skull. He fell heavily to the floor and automatically tried to rise, but his body was limp and uncooperative, as though all his muscles had turned to water.

There was something wrong with his vision – shapes and colours flew past his eyes, but he couldn't focus on any of them. His left hand was fisted in Amarisa's ruff and John had no clear idea how it got there, only that it was very important he keep it there.

He was aware of movement and voices around him, but he couldn't make his brain concentrate long enough to figure out what was going on. He'd try to think about what had happened and why he was in this state, but his mind would just float away from it like a piece of driftwood spinning through the ocean. Nothing made sense, and every time John blinked it seemed like an age passed between closing his eyes and opening them again.

He was just so tired. He wanted to go to sleep, but something told him that would be a bad idea. John shook his head, knowing it wouldn't make the frustrating fog around his thoughts recede, but unable to shake the idea that his brain would start working properly if he just gave it a jolt...

Predictably, it only made things worse – the world swam away in whirls of colour and sound and vertigo so extreme that for a moment John actually didn't know which way was up. He lay still after that, keeping his eyes closed and hoping he wouldn't vomit over Amarisa.

He was vaguely aware time was passing, but he had no idea how much; John's awareness was limited to the pain in his head and the definite sense that something was wrong, though he was having trouble figuring out exactly what.

He didn't make a true effort to clear the haze he'd descended into until Amarisa's fur slipped from between his fingers. He grabbed clumsily after his dæmon but couldn't find her, and John belatedly realised some kind of cord was being wound tightly around his wrists.

Someone was tying him up.

John made a Herculean effort to open his eyes, pleased when the world seemed to be resolving itself into a scene that made sense instead of a sickening mash of out-of-focus shapes and muffled sounds.

Of course, that didn't necessarily mean it would be a good scene. He was tied to a chair in something that resembled an underground dungeon, complete with flickering torches. Sarah was bound and gagged beside him, Vassilian at her feet, locked up in something suspiciously similar to a cat basket.

Someone was talking. John was trying to mark their words, trying to pay attention to anything that might help get them out of here, but it was difficult to concentrate.

He knew he had a concussion. The fact that he couldn't remember exactly how he'd got here, the way Amarisa lurched and wobbled dangerously any time she tried to stand, the blood that had dried on the side of his face...it all told John he'd suffered a blow to the head. So, he was concussed and had possibly cracked his skull, check.

The woman at the circus was in front of him, her crocodile dæmon beside her. Or maybe it was an alligator, John wasn't too clear on the difference, though admittedly he wasn't too clear on anything at the moment.

Clarity came rapidly, however, when the woman – Shan, as she'd named herself – pulled out a gun.

John leaned back automatically, trying to move his head from the pistol's immediate range. It did absolutely nothing, of course, and only made Shan's dæmon laugh.

This was usually the point at which the hostage told their captor all the reasons they shouldn't kill them. John was quite willing to play the game, if he could only make his stupid brain work. He was still dazed, and his unhelpful mind kept cycling through one word, over and over.

Gun! Gun, gun, gun!

“What does it tell you when an assassin cannot shoot straight?” Shan asked, with a smile disturbingly similar to the one permanently adorning her dæmon's face.

John scrabbled to come up with some kind of reply, his thoughts feeling as slow as if they were moving through syrup. He was still trying to lean away from the gun – futile, really; it wasn't as though a few extra inches of space between him and the muzzle was going to make a bullet to the head any less devastating.

Shan squeezed the trigger and John's heart thundered in his ears for long moments, until his sluggish brain realised that the firing pin had clicked harmlessly – the pistol wasn't loaded.

The Black Lotus general smiled again. “It tells you that they're not really trying.”

John was still trying to figure out what was going on. They'd obviously been kidnapped, but why?

He became aware that Shan was speaking once more, and struggled to make himself pay attention.

“If we wanted to kill you, we would have done it by now. We just wanted to make Mr. Holmes...inquisitive.”

In that, John had to admit they'd succeeded.

“Do you have it?” she queried, voice polite but hard as bedrock.

In spite of the concussion, John thought he was beginning to understand what was going on – they'd been kidnapped for information. Or possibly ransom, if Shan thought Sherlock had...whatever it was they were after.

Which meant that ignorance was probably his best option.

“Do I have what?” he asked blearily.

“The treasure.”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

While John did know that either Lukis or Van Coon had stolen from the organisation, something told him it would be best not to mention this. He really hoped they didn't know Soo Lin had told him and Sherlock about the alethiometer.

John squeezed his eyes shut for an instant, hoping to make his surroundings come into clearer focus, but it proved to be a bad idea when vertigo swamped the world in a spiral of blurred colour as soon as he opened them. He furrowed his brow and blinked furiously, trying to hear past the rushing in his ears and hoping he wasn't about to pass out and leave Sarah alone.

His vision slowly cleared and sharpened once more, to reveal Sarah now sitting directly in front of what looked like the enormous crossbow from the circus performance.

'Not good,' was all John thought. 'Very much not good.'

“Where's the hairpin?” Shan hissed, her dæmon snapping its teeth menacingly.

“What?” This time John's confusion wasn't feigned. A hairpin? Had he missed some very important exposition while he was out?

“The Empress' pin, valued at nine million sterling – we already had a buyer!”

'Nine million?' John thought, dazed. And for some reason, his brain chose that moment to point out, 'Whoever created this smuggling ring is making out pretty well...'

Amarisa could have chewed through the cords around his wrists, but she wasn't in any fit state to provide help (drugs and injuries altering the mental state always affected dæmons much more than their humans), so John was rocking back and forth in an effort to wiggle free. The motion was making him dizzy and nauseous, which was why he missed whatever Shan said next, but John thought it was safe to assume they thought he and Sherlock knew where the hairpin was.

Given that he'd been on tour in Afghanistan, John knew the basics of what to do in the case of capture by the enemy. And one of the most important lessons had been to do whatever it took to keep himself alive and postpone torture.

It was hard to think through the pain in his head, but John had a feeling Shan might be one of those people who were pleased by their victims begging and pleading. So that was what he did.

It took very little effort to inject fear and desperation into his voice. “Please, listen to me,” he gasped. “You have to believe me – I haven't found whatever it is you're looking for!”

Doing that rankled, but if he scraped and grovelled it might delay them long enough for him to think of a plan. Or, failing that, for Sherlock to work out what had happened and call the police.

Shan gave a very dramatic, grandstanding speech before she pierced the sandbag to allow the weight to lower onto the trigger, a speech John had peppered with some more helpless begging. At that point, he'd accepted that it wasn't going to outright stop her, but he'd been hoping it might at least delay her for a while.

Except the weight was slowly lowering, Vassilian's screeches echoing off the tunnel walls like a deafening police siren, and John almost felt like begging the dæmon to shut up so he could think. His brain wasn't very good at multitasking right now, which was deeply frustrating as he was usually pretty good in crisis situations.

They didn't seem to believe John's claim not to know anything, so he was desperately trying to come up with some kind of convincing lie, but a concussion didn't exactly make it easier to think. If he said Sherlock knew where the pin was he suspected they'd just kill Sarah (and probably himself as well) and then go after Sherlock. So he needed to bluff, somehow let them believe they'd found it and then taken it elsewhere.

“All right, all right, we found the pin,” John choked out.

He was about to attempt to spin a good story out of thin air, when a familiar and very welcome voice rang out.

“I wouldn't trust him on that if I were you!”

Sherlock.

John's vision still wasn't perfect, but for a moment he caught a glimpse of Sherlock silhouetted at the end of the tunnel before the other man darted into the shadows.

“That's a semi-automatic,” Sherlock called. “If you fire it, the bullet will travel at over a thousand metres per second...”

The echoing was making John's skull throb again and he closed his eyes against the pain, only vaguely aware of Sherlock going on about ricochets. He wanted to yell at the other man to shut up, but he suspected that if he opened his mouth he'd vomit.

Something boomed and John cringed, opening his eyes and trying to blink past the lights and shadows dancing across his vision.

Sherlock was struggling with a man John assumed was Zhizhu. Raniel was trying to chew at the ropes holding Sarah in place, but it was difficult with the water rat/vole/whatever-that-dæmon-was attacking him at the same time.

Sarah was rocking back and forth as though trying to tip herself over, but there was sandbags on either side of her chair to hold her in position – she was still sitting directly in the crossbow's path.

Breathing slowly and deeply in an effort to control the urge to throw up, John rocked forward onto his toes. Still bound to the chair, he shuffled awkwardly forward – even though his hands weren't free, he could at least turn the bolt away...

He managed to get perhaps four paces before the dizziness from the concussion took its toll. John mis-stepped and went down heavily, scraping open knees, elbows and wrists on the rough ground.

But the fall seemed to have cracked something in the chair – John's legs could move much more freely, and he ignored the renewed aching of his skull in his efforts to wiggle forward. He didn't even let himself look at the weight – he couldn't.

His depth perception wasn't the best at the moment, but when John judged himself close enough he lashed out awkwardly with his leg, catching the edge of the device and swinging it almost ninety degrees...

Given that he'd felt as though his desperate crawl had sapped the last of his strength, it was only several moments later that John realised the bolt had caught Zhizhu in the chest. John would have liked to take credit for that, but with his vision and coordination problems it had been more chance than anything else.

And considering where Sherlock had been in relation to the assassin, John had come frighteningly close to impaling his friend, something he'd rather not think about right now. Or ever, come to that.

He was vaguely aware of Sherlock untying Sarah, and he even appeared to be bringing himself to say the usual reassuring platitudes that he used to scoff at. Raniel's sharp teeth set to work on the plastic twist-ties securing Vassilian's prison, and within moments the pigeon dæmon was comforting his human, nuzzling into her hair as she clutched him against her chest.

A streak of white blurred along the edge of John's eye as Sherlock bent to untie him from the ruined chair – Raniel was going to Amarisa.

“Thanks for reassuring Sarah,” John said quietly (and perhaps with a bit of a slur), feeling the need to let Sherlock know his gesture had been appreciated. “That was sweet of you.”

The look Sherlock gave him suggested neither he nor Raniel had ever been called 'sweet' before.

Leather-gloved hands tugged John upright, but he'd barely gained his feet before he started listing dangerously. His brain had apparently given up his sense of balance as a bad job, and his legs felt decidedly wobbly. When John's right leg bent like wet spaghetti – his injury picking the worst time to act up – Sherlock gripped him beneath the shoulders to support him.

He wanted to go to Amarisa. She was limp and panting on the ground, obviously dazed, but John was reassured to see Raniel hovering over her, nuzzling and licking at her head and neck as though trying to reassure her.

John was a proud man, but he knew when to accept help. He leaned against Sherlock's chest as he tried to coordinate his rubbery legs so he could move and not trip the other man up at the same time. The first wavering step was a disaster and he ended up having to grab Sherlock around the waist to stay upright.

'This feels nice,' John thought absently. 'Sherlock smells nice, too...'

As soon as that thought passed through his head, he groaned – his date had almost been killed by some sort of Chinese mafia, he was probably bleeding in his brain even now...and all he could focus on was how good Sherlock smelled? Why did his libido have no sense of decency?

He shook his head against Sherlock's chest, then hissed when the motion sent a fresh wave of pain through his head.

“John?”

“I need an ambulance,” John muttered. “I'm probably bleeding in my brain.”

--

Sarah knew she was smart. Not a genius, perhaps, but certainly a cut above average – the fact that she'd graduated from medical school proved that.

And she wasn't just smart; being a local GP gave you a knack for sizing people up, a way to tell the hypochondriacs from the truly ill, and Sarah had found those sort of instincts came in handy in her forages into romance. They told her when a guy was serious about her, when he might be fooling around, when to stay...and when to get out.

Like now – now was the time to get out. One date with John Watson, and she already knew they wouldn't be going anywhere.

Strangely, though, it wasn't being kidnapped by a crime syndicate that put her off, but what had happened afterwards.

They'd gone to the hospital as soon as they could – Sarah hadn't needed the paramedics to tell her John had a concussion, that had been obvious from the first. It didn't seem to be severe, but certainly enough to warrant overnight observation.

Sherlock had paced around John's bed like a paranoid bodyguard, and Raniel had perched on the bedside table and fretted over Amarisa.

And in response to their obvious concern, John had turned and spoken, not to Sherlock, but to the man's dæmon.

“Don't worry," he'd said, trying to smile. “We'll be all right.”

Raniel had crept onto the bed, on top of the sheets, and for a moment he was so close to John's hand Sarah had thought John was about to touch the polecat.

And the strange thing was, she didn't think she would have been surprised if he had. She'd already seen John address Sherlock's dæmon without even a hint of awkwardness, and it was probably safe to assume Sherlock did the same...so exactly how deeply were they attached to each other?

Touching someone else's dæmon was something of the last bastion in any relationship. Everyone speculated on what it would be like, but few people actually did it – in spite of her varied romances over the years, Sarah had never felt comfortable enough with someone to try it. She'd only once seen someone touch another person's dæmon, and that had been her parents.

That was why she was going to break up with John. Because if you saw two people who looked as though they'd be perfectly comfortable touching each other's dæmons...well, there was no possible way you were getting in the middle of that.

--

John had required a night of observation, and was discharged at one thirty in the afternoon – when it was proven that his coordination was getting better, not worse, and the MRI revealed there was no bleeding in his brain. The gash on his head had been closed with four stitches, and was expected to heal without complications provided John kept it clean.

Sherlock, however, couldn't quite relax. He knew it was ridiculous, knew that John and Amarisa were safe and sound...but he kept remembering that moment when he'd rushed into an empty flat to find yellow paint on the windows...

“That'll take forever to get off,” John grumbled as he followed Sherlock's gaze.

Raniel giggled disbelievingly and Sherlock was half-inclined to join him. Only John would look at the signature of the syndicate that had kidnapped him and comment on how long it would take to tidy the place up.

“We'll have time,” Amarisa pointed out. “Sarah gave us the next day off.”

“She did?” Raniel asked. “Why?”

John shrugged. “No outward symptoms of a concussion, but it's still not a good idea to have me diagnosing people.”

Sherlock snorted. He'd been beginning to think Sarah might not be as dim as the majority of the population (though he still maintained she and her stupid dæmon were far too dull) but then John had told him Sarah had declined to go out with him again. As far as Sherlock was concerned that put her firmly back in the category of 'idiot'.

“By the way,” John said abruptly, as though something had suddenly occurred to him. “What was that message? I'm assuming you translated it somehow.”

“Oh, that.” Raniel rooted around in the pile on the kitchen table until he tugged out the photo.

John's brow furrowed. “Nine mill-”

“Million,” Sherlock cut in.

“Yeah, I figured that, thanks, Sherlock. Nine mill for jade pin dragon den black tramway...?”

“I get it,” Amarisa chimed. “Put it by the train tracks, and the message gets out to anyone associated with them, without the bother of having to actually get in contact with them.”

Sherlock nodded. “Precisely.”

“I think I vaguely remember that Shan woman saying something about an Empress' pin,” John admitted. “But then again, I was concussed at the time, so everything was pretty hazy. And I have to wonder, if they were looking for this pin, why didn't they just use the alethiometer?”

“Because at that point, they didn't have it any more,” Sherlock explained. “It had been passed on to whoever created the organisation. And if they refused to use it to find the pin...”

“That means nine million quid is pocket change to them,” John finished, catching Sherlock's train of thought in a way that never ceased to be amazing.

“And Shan got away,” Raniel half-snarled.

Sherlock felt his own lip curling. The woman had ordered John and Amarisa abducted, and apparently hadn't been picky about the condition they arrived in – for that alone, Sherlock wanted her locked up.

To him, the truly concerning aspect wasn't that Shan got away, but that they still didn't know who she worked for. And if this faceless person could create an entire smuggling ring just to hide an alethiometer...what else could they do?

Of course, dwelling on that kind of thing was pointless, and they still had to actually locate the pin. Fortunately, Sherlock knew where it was – complimenting the hairstyle of Van Coon's ex-girlfriend.

“We're going back there?” Amarisa growled as they approached the bank.

“We're going back there,” Sherlock agreed, deliberately making his tone light and frivolous just to see the dæmon huff and shake herself.

“Cheer up,” Raniel offered as they stepped inside. “You get to take money off Sebastian this time.”

John chuckled, and Amarisa grinned her wolf-grin.

Sherlock and Raniel informed Amanda of what she was wearing, told her she'd likely be eligible for a finder's fee, and left her with her dæmon zipping in enthusiastic circles around her head. He found John and Sebastian just after the pompous tosser had handed John the cheque, and felt a surge of amusement at the way Amarisa was deliberately showing just the tips of her teeth to Netheirya.

Netheirya's unease was making Sebastian discomforted and resentful, while John was grinning broadly, clearly enjoying himself. Sherlock didn't know exactly what made John dislike Sebastian with such fervour, but he couldn't say it wasn't gratifying.

Amarisa had let more of her wolf nature loose than usual to intimidate Netheirya, and it showed. She was still stalking along like a predator when they left the bank, head low and tail still. The dæmons they passed glanced at her with poorly-disguised fear before hurriedly looking in the other direction.

Raniel, of course, was staring at her like the wolfdog was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen.

“Stop that,” Sherlock whispered, hoping Amarisa's keen ears wouldn't hear them.

A wolfdog's hearing was extraordinary, but if they kept their voices low, there was a chance Amarisa would just ignore them like she ignored the background noise of the city.

Raniel, predictably, ignored him. “She's beautiful...”

Sherlock grit his teeth against the urge to huff in frustration. “You could at least try to look a little less infatuated.”

“Like you're not in the same boat with John,” his dæmon muttered.

Sherlock did his level best not to flinch.

“Hey, Sherlock,” John began, breaking into the near-silent conversation. “Is there any way to track an alethiometer?”

“How do you mean?”

“You know...like with a Geiger counter or something. Do they give off some kind of weird radiation?”

Raniel chuckled, and Sherlock snorted. “Alethiometers aren't radioactive, John.”

“Yeah, but they must give off something you can track it with. Or why carry it in a metal case?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Just to conceal it from view. I'm sure a cloth bag would have worked just as well, but it wouldn't have cushioned the device against impacts. Hence, a metal case, no doubt with some kind of padding inside.”

“That makes sense,” Amarisa agreed.

“Alethiometers were created when Galileo Galilei tried to create something that would respond to the alignments of the planets,” Raniel said, always eager to show off for John and his dæmon. “He failed, but no one could deny that the alethiometer was responding to something. Scientists have been trying to discover exactly what that is ever since.”

John nodded. “So what do they think it is? I mean, you said they don't know for sure, but there must be some theories, right?”

“I suppose you're aware of the various attempts to determine what dæmons are constructed of?” Sherlock asked, but it wasn't really a question.

As a medical man, John would be well aware of the research being done – what created dæmons was the foremost question in the fields of biology, physics and even philosophy. A dæmon could be injured or killed like any other animal...but they never needed to eat. While alive, samples taken from a dæmon would appear under the microscope as cells and tissues identical to that of the form they'd taken on...but when they died, they dissolved into something resembling golden mist that vanished within minutes.

Efforts had been made to contain that substance at the moment of death, but thus far, all attempts had been futile. Even capturing it in sealed radiation flasks didn't work.

“I know some of the basics,” John said. “At the moment it's almost universally agreed that dæmons are constructed from some kind of undiscovered element – they've nicknamed them Stanislaus particles.”

Raniel nodded. “After Stanislaus Grumman, the man who first postulated their existence.”

Amarisa was frowning. “So, let me see if we get this – you're saying that people think Stanislaus particles power the alethiometer?”

“It's just one theory,” Sherlock shrugged. “Some people also believe that the manipulation of these particles are what allows witches to cast their spells, and that it's possible some people are more sensitive to it than others. Approximately thirty percent of the general population can detect when a witch has cast a spell on an object, though some of the studies documenting this phenomenon are rather spurious.”

“I don't know about that,” John mused. “I made friends with some witches back in Afghanistan, and some of their arrows, well...”

“We could feel they were different,” Amarisa finished.

“Really?” Sherlock was intrigued. “Different how?”

“It's like something...pushing outwards,” Amarisa said, clearly searching for words. “Like heat, but not exactly...something compacted and concentrated.”

Sherlock hummed pensively – that could certainly be useful.

Stanislaus particles were currently the most widely-accepted theory, largely because it explained so many points of contention. Stanislaus particles also explained why dæmons could detect the presence of other dæmons, and why people could tell a bird dæmon apart from a flock – something in Stanislaus particles recognised their like, and so dæmons could distinguish other dæmons from mere animals.

It had been heavily experimented on within the last century or so, largely for spies. No matter what disguise a spy wore, their dæmon remained the same, and some enterprising people with small dæmons such as a mouse or insect wondered if they could hide their dæmon on their person and use a cat or dog to imitate their dæmon. And while it was true that such facsimiles fooled people at a distance, they were useless if the person was within ten metres – their dæmon could always detect a counterfeit.

It was also claimed that interactions with a foreign strain of Stanislaus particles was why people said that touching the dæmon of someone they loved was so...intense.

Sherlock had only once seen someone touch another's dæmon. It was when he was at university – the head librarian and his lover. They were kissing softly, their dæmons entangled...and their hands on each other's dæmon.

Sherlock had known it wasn't their own dæmon from the way they shuddered and gasped at each touch, each stoke. He'd seen people fucking in alleys, had visited sex clubs of all varieties and descriptions (usually for a case but occasionally to sate his own curiosity), and that remained to this day the most intimate thing he'd ever seen.

He and Raniel had considered trying it, curious as to what it would feel like, but in the end they had never been able to. Sherlock had never been able to trust someone enough to let them put their hands on his dæmon, on his soul, and Raniel hadn't been able to stomach the thought of feeling someone else's fingers in his fur.

Now, though, everything had changed. Sherlock knew he could trust John with Raniel, knew those wide, capable hands would be kind and careful, would never take advantage of the power he had over Sherlock in those moments. He knew that Raniel wanted it too, knew because of the way his dæmon watched John's hands as they moved over Amarisa's dark pelt, knew because of the whispered conversations held in his bedroom.

“He's a doctor,” Raniel whispered that night, curled on the pillow beside Sherlock's head as his human stared at the ceiling. “He'd be gentle, but firm as well. He wouldn't be timid and just touch me with the tips of his fingers or anything silly like that – he'd make sure we could feel it.”

A shiver skated up Sherlock's spine at the idea, and he raised a hand to rest it on Raniel's back, slowly petting him. Touches between him and Raniel were usually light, absent, and brief – not like John, who would scratch Amarisa behind the ears when they were bored or in need of reassurance, who would spend hours in front of the telly with Amarisa draped over him, his hands traversing her body in long, slow caresses.

Sherlock tried to mimic that now, tried to stroke Raniel as they imagined John would; firm yet gentle sweeps that started at Raniel's head and followed each dip and curve of his spine. He wondered what it would be like to touch Amarisa like this – would her fur be fine, or coarse? Was her coat smooth or rough? Would she simply tolerate his caress or would she arch into it as Sherlock had seen her do when John was particularly attentive? Would she prefer him to rub at the thin fur on her ears, or would she like him to sink his fingers into the dense ruff on her chest?

“What does she feel like?” he asked.

Raniel understood of course – he was Sherlock's dæmon, after all. “Like rough-spun silk. Smooth, but thick and slightly coarse at the same time.”

“A wolf's coat,” Sherlock mused. “Meant for braving the elements, so wind and rain won't penetrate to the skin.”

The idea was appealing on a very visceral level.

When John rose that morning, Sherlock looked at the man puttering around the kitchen, Amarisa lying in the doorway, still blinking the sleep out of her eyes, and had to subdue the sudden rush of want. He wanted to stride over to where Amarisa lay and reach down to her, wanted to ask John the question that had burned on his tongue for days...

Would you touch Raniel? Would you let me touch Amarisa?”

But, as with so many times before, he didn't dare. John and Amarisa were surprisingly accepting of his and Raniel's quirks and disregard for the usual dæmon etiquette, but touching...that was a very different matter.

It was slightly sickening to know that for all they'd faced, they weren't brave enough to face John and Amarisa's horror and rejection.

--

John understood that Sherlock had 'moods'. Or at least he tried to, but there came a bloody limit!

“We told you we'd be like this,” Raniel hissed resentfully.

“You said you might not talk for days on end!” Amarisa snapped. “At no point in time did you mention indoor target practice!”

Sherlock cut in with some disparaging comments about his blog, and within minutes John was well and truly fed up, so he left.

“Self-obsessed, arrogant jackasses!” Amarisa growled as they strode along the street.

John could move quite rapidly when he was angry, and was already several streets away and seriously considering not returning to the flat for the rest of the night. Even though they weren't dating any more, he and Sarah had remained on friendly terms, to the extent that she'd offered him the use of her sofa when Sherlock got too crazy.

A loud thump and a bang reached his ears, as though a car had backfired. At first John was ready to dismiss it, but Amarisa had gone completely still beside him, her ears pricked.

“What's wrong?”

“That was an explosion,” she said, her nose twitching. “I heard glass shatter, and there are car alarms going-”

“Lead the way!” John ordered, following his dæmon as she loped through the darkened roads.

They were practically re-tracing their steps, and John became more and more uneasy. He told himself he had no reason to be, but he was uncomfortably aware that if anyone in the vicinity had blown a flat up, it was most likely to be Sherlock.

“They'll be all right,” Amarisa was muttering, half to herself. “They surely have some concept of personal safety if they've managed to survive this long...”

They swung into Baker Street, and at first all John felt was an absurd relief that it was the building opposite them that had exploded. Then anxiety surged again as he realised that the windows in the flat had been blown out and what that could mean.

He took the stairs two at a time, in spite of the throbbing in his leg. “Sherlock? Raniel? Sherlock?

“Back already?”

Sherlock was lying on the sofa, looking as though exploding windows and glass scattered across the carpet was beneath his notice. But John wasn't fooled – Raniel was curled up on Sherlock's lap, both paws clutching his head.

John told himself the relief he was feeling was ridiculously out of proportion to the actual danger.

“Give us a look,” he demanded, grabbing Sherlock's head and tilting it towards the light. He left Raniel to be dealt with by Amarisa as he examined Sherlock's pupils and checked his ears.

“Is this really necessary?” Sherlock drawled.

“It's a bloody miracle your eardrums didn't rupture,” John groused. “Any dizziness, ringing in your ears?”

Sherlock opened his mouth, but it was Raniel that answered. “Our ears are ringing.”

“Not much we can do about that,” Amarisa admitted. “Take two aspirin and call us in the morning.”

Raniel glared.

“Sorry, couldn't resist. But really, it'll fade.”

“If you say so,” the polecat groused, scratching roughly at one of the ears in question.

“So...what happened?” John asked, stepping into the kitchen for a broom and dustpan.

Sherlock shrugged. “Who knows? Gas leak, most likely, going by the force and localisation of the explosion.”

“You don't think...you don't think anyone was in there?”

“Unlikely – that building was closed for renovation, and few construction companies work at ten o'clock at night. Observation, John.”

“Well excuse us for not noticing every little detail of random buildings,” Amarisa muttered – she'd remained in the corner while John swept up the broken glass.

John fastened sheets of paper over the destroyed windows in an effort to keep out the chill, and attempted to restore some semblance of order to the flat. Not that there was much he could do – the place was chaotic at the best of times, and Sherlock got snappy if John rearranged the mess he called his records.

“By the way, Mrs. Hudson spotted the wall,” Sherlock said, sounding far too pleased with himself for John's taste. “She says it's coming out of our rent.”

“No, you got that wrong,” John said firmly. “You meant to say it's coming out of your rent.”

“It was your gun.”

“But I'm not the one who used it to shoot holes in the wall, am I?”

Sherlock sniffed disdainfully, but the lack of verbal response meant John had scored a point. Still, once he'd cleaned up, there wasn't really anything he could do. The prospect of storming off to Sarah's was less appealing now that his anger had lost momentum – and besides, he wanted to keep an eye on Sherlock and Raniel. But they wouldn't tolerate John and Amarisa hovering over them, so in the end John and his dæmon simply went up to bed, after extracting a promise that if either Sherlock or Raniel developed any other side-effects, they'd call.

Of course, John didn't sleep very well, given that various emergency services were swarming the street within minutes of the explosion, but he and Amarisa gave it their best shot. In the end, they roused themselves only when Mycroft's voice began to drift up the stairs, and only because John wanted to have a chance at averting hostilities before Sherlock did something drastic. Like actually blowing up the flat in an effort to get his brother to leave.

Only when he came down, Mycroft wasn't alone. There was a tawny owl dæmon perched on the coffee table, watching Sherlock and Mycroft's stand-off with something quite close to disapproval.

“John,” Sherlock said blandly in acknowledgement.

Mycroft smiled one of those insincere, polite-greeting smiles that on anyone else seemed annoying, but on Mycroft seemed vaguely menacing.

“Good morning, Dr. Watson,” the owl greeted, bobbing his head. “I am Nostrepheus.”

That seemed familiar. John racked his brain, wondering where he'd heard that name before...then suddenly it clicked.

“Oh, you're Aeliana Isidyor's dæmon!”

Sherlock, who'd been plucking at the strings of his violin, suddenly froze, and Raniel turned to stare at them.

“Nice to finally meet you,” John went on as Amarisa sniffed politely at the witch's dæmon. “And it's just John – 'Dr. Watson' always makes me feel like I should be diagnosing someone.”

“You know each other...” Sherlock said slowly, looking as though he was thinking something over very rapidly.

John had no idea why Raniel was glaring so viciously at Mycroft's raven dæmon, nor why the older brother looked so smug.

“Sort of,” John said, opening and closing cupboards in the kitchen as he wondered what he could rustle up for breakfast. “I met Aeliana in Afghanistan – how is she, by the way?” This he addressed to Nostrepheus. “Still going strong on that clan's council? And how's her husband and kids?”

John got the distinct impression that the owl was puzzled. “John...these are her children.”

For a moment, John was certain he'd misheard. He glanced back at the siblings in the living room – Mycroft still smug, and Sherlock starting to look angry.

Amarisa snorted, and John echoed her sentiment. “You're joking, right?”

“No, he is not,” Mycroft said, a hint of a smile lingering in the corners of his face. “Aeliana Isidyor is indeed our mother.”

John blinked. But now that he was looking for it, he thought he could see the family resemblance. Sherlock had her high cheekbones and dark, curly hair, Mycroft her aristocratic nose...

It felt very weird to know that he'd met Sherlock's mother and hadn't actually known she was the famous 'Mummy' until right this moment. But John supposed stranger things had happened.

“Well, small world, isn't it?” he mused, turning back to his search for breakfast.

Amarisa whuffed softly in amusement.

Sherlock, however, still seemed to be stuck on 'surprised' and 'indignant'.

“John knows Mummy?” he asked stridently, glaring at Mycroft. “And you knew about this?”

“Of course,” Mycroft said, smiling genially. “Given my position as the Witches' Consul, it was necessary for me to be aware-”

John tuned out the bickering as he made himself some toast, one slice with honey and the other with strawberry jam – he had a feeling he'd need the energy the sugar rush would give him.

He passed close to Mycroft's umbrella on the way back into the living room, and John blinked as he felt the emanation of energy that signalled when a spell had been laid. It was dim – John had found he usually needed to be within a few inches or so to feel anything – but still stronger than anything he'd felt from an arrow; the umbrella was literally seething with spells.

Well, that certainly explained why Mycroft carried it around everywhere.

John shook his head as he sat down on the sofa, opposite Nostrepheus on the coffee table – he still found it a bit bizarre to think Sherlock and Mycroft were the sons of the witch who'd saved his life.

The siblings were still trading barbs (they'd moved on to Mycroft's weight and Sherlock's social skills), so John engaged Nostrepheus in conversation instead.

“So,” he said loudly, trying to talk over the verbal fencing match. “Are you here to check up on Sherlock and Mycroft? Or have you finally found out why a couple of witches wanted to stick me full of death-spells?”

There was a sudden piercing, discordant note from the violin, as though Sherlock had plucked a string a little too hard.

The consulting detective was staring at John looking almost...upset?

“Death-spell?” Raniel screeched incredulously from the carpet. “Death-spell?”

Somehow the polecat had moved from the arm of Sherlock's chair to the floor, directly in front of Amarisa. Raniel was on his hind legs, his face centimetres away from Amarisa's nose as he shrieked.

“Erm...yes?” John hazarded, glancing between Sherlock and his irate dæmon. “The second arrow was a direct hit to the shoulder, but the limp came from the first one – it just grazed my hip.”

“And you didn't think this was something I should be informed of?” Sherlock hissed.

But before John could even start to construct a defence for that, Sherlock had turned on Mycroft.

“And you knew?”

“Of course I knew,” Mycroft sniffed. “Mummy wanted me to look out for him. I'm sure you realise that if they thought he was worth the bother of two death-spells, they won't just give up and go away.”

Sherlock was sitting very, very still, but Raniel was grumbling and turning in tight circles, betraying their agitation. Amarisa rolled her eyes and pulled him into her chest with a paw hooked around his waist, nuzzling the top of the polecat's head until he calmed down.

Tehayla gave a funny, strangled squawking noise, her eyes fixed on the two dæmons, and Mycroft raised his eyebrows in a rather pointed fashion. John didn't know what the man was trying to convey, but Sherlock refused to meet his brother's eyes.

“About that...” John began slowly. “The death-spell thing...any progress? New information?”

Mycroft's face became grave once more. “That's partly why I came to talk to you. John...those witches tried to kill you because of a prophecy involving their clan.”

“A prophecy?” John echoed. Because, really? A prophecy?

Nostrepheus nodded gravely. “A prophecy that says you will be their doom.”

Chapter Text

On occasion, the most irritating thing about John and Amarisa was how well they took things, how they seemed to accept strange happenings with barely a qualm.


Sherlock had been left reeling.  John was not only being attacked by death spells but also had the gall to keep this fact a secret.  And to cap it all, Nostrepheus was going on about doom and prophecies.


“A prophecy that says you will be their doom.”


It seemed there was more to John Watson than even Sherlock had suspected.

John stilled with a piece of toast halfway to his mouth, and Amarisa froze in her attentions to Raniel.

Then they did something even Sherlock hadn't expected – they laughed.

“You're joking, right?” John said, grinning a little uncertainly.  That's why they wanted to kill me?”

Sherlock spared a moment to hope that he wasn't gaping at John the way Raniel was gaping at Amarisa.

“I assure you, this is not a joking matter,” Mycroft said.

“Well, it's obvious they got the wrong guy, isn't it?” John said, still chuckling.  “They definitely misunderstood something about that prophecy.”

“We've had no indications that's the case,” Nostrepheus said, a hint of disapproval in his voice.

John made an effort to moderate his amusement, perhaps sensing that every other occupant of the flat disapproved of how blithely he treated threats to his life.  Raniel nipped at Amarisa's forelegs to show his disapproval, and the wolfdog retaliated by gently biting at the scruff of his neck.

Two months ago, Sherlock had watched a nature documentary on the mating habits of various animals so he would be better able to detect when two people were engaged in a relationship by their dæmon's behaviour.  Strangely, watching Amarisa and Raniel triggered a memory of the narrator describing the courting habits of mammals.

Resolutely, Sherlock turned his face away, and ignored Mycroft's disgustingly smug, all-knowing look.

“Do you really think I'm capable of being some witch clan's doom?” John was asking Nostrepheus.

“Don't sell yourself short, John,” Raniel muttered, and Sherlock wished his dæmon would just shut up right now – Mycroft was looking smugger by the second.

John grinned at the polecat.  “Nice of you to say so, Raniel, but Risa and I aren't important enough in the grand scheme of things to make problems for witches.”

“So speaks the man who befriended an armoured bear,” Mycroft commented, voice deceptively light.

John blinked.  “How did you...oh, Aeliana told you, right?”

Mycroft smiled.

“John...whether you believe in the prophecy or not is irrelevant,” Nostrepheus said.  “The important thing is that they believe it.  They joined the war in Afghanistan because they knew it would give them an opportunity to kill you.”

At least that seemed to startle John.  It startled Sherlock, come to that.

But then, infuriatingly, John laughed again.  “You're telling me the entire clan joined a war just on the off-chance that they'd find the person the prophecy was talking about?  And then they somehow mistook me for that person, so that's why they're withdrawing now?”

“That's exactly what we're saying.”  Nostrepheus sounded a little frustrated, and Sherlock could sympathise.  “The prophecy is clear on that point – as long as you are alive, their downfall is assured.”

Under normal circumstances, John's conviction that he and Amarisa were in no way important would be rather fascinating, but as it stood it was just irritating, not to mention short-sighted.

“So why didn't they go for me immediately, then?” John asked.  “I was there for quite a while before the death-spells made an appearance.”

Mycroft sighed theatrically.  Under normal circumstances Sherlock would be making his violin screech horribly right now to drive his sibling out of the flat, but he wanted to see this through.  He had no interest in whatever petty government problem Mycroft was bringing him, but John...John was another matter.

“They needed time to determine who you were, John,” Mycroft pointed out.  “They did not know you on sight.”

“And once they did, they tried to kill you,” Nostrepheus reiterated, as though unable to understand why John couldn't grasp the concept.

Sherlock could feel Raniel's agitation, but with Amarisa's paw still around his chest the dæmon was restrained from expressing it, and so was practically vibrating on the spot with outrage.

“So couldn't they have got it wrong somehow?” John pressed.

Mycroft shook his head minutely, apparently giving up on John's inability to comprehend his own importance.  Tehayla shuffled on his shoulder and tapped his ear gently with the tip of her wing, as though in reminder, and Mycroft produced the file that had been the true purpose of his visit and attempted to hand it to Sherlock.

Sherlock, of course, didn't so much as glance at it or raise his hand.  Tehayla clacked her beak reprovingly as Mycroft moved past Sherlock's chair to deliver the file to the disgustingly agreeable John.

“Don't take it!” Raniel snapped.

John sent the dæmon an exasperated look, and Sherlock wondered if he was imagining the definite tinges of fondness in the doctor's expression.

He tuned out Mycroft's explanation about the man and the death in favour of rosining his bow.  Though he couldn't resist smirking at John's snort when Mycroft said the plans for the new missile defence system were on a memory stick.

“That wasn't very clever,” John said, in the calm, placid tone that meant he was privately amused by something.

Sherlock managed to stifle his outright grin into a close-lipped smile, and Raniel chittered in amusement.

“This is serious, John,” Nostrepheus admonished.

John sent the owl a chastising look.  “Don't pretend – I know you're smiling.”

Sherlock froze with the rosin in mid-stroke over the hairs of his bow.  Mycroft didn't blink, but Tehayla's feathers suddenly ruffled.  Even Raniel had gone still between Amarisa's paws.

John and Amarisa seemed to realise something was wrong.  John was glancing awkwardly between Nostrepheus, Mycroft and Sherlock, while Amarisa's ears were pricked and her eyes were darting around the room.

“How did you know?” Nostrepheus asked.

John shrugged, obviously uncomfortable with sudden scrutiny.  “Something in your eyes, the way your head tilted...oh, I don't know, I can just tell.  The same way you can tell someone's smiling even if you can't see their mouth.”

By and large, dæmons settled in animal forms – save the rare few who took human shapes – so their expressions were constrained by the form they'd settled in.  While mammals and some reptiles could make an approximation of a smile, birds were a very different matter; beaks just didn't bend that way.  People with bird dæmons usually said they could tell when their dæmon was smiling by some nuance of expression like the way their eyes looked or how their head moved...but it was always their own human who made that distinction.  People with bird dæmons themselves had a certain measure of success in deciphering other bird dæmons' expressions, just as someone with a lizard dæmon was more likely to understand the communications of a snake dæmon.

Sherlock had grown up around bird dæmons and had trained himself to be able to determine what all varieties of dæmons were expressing…but he'd never met anyone who could 'just tell'.

It was made all the more eerie by the fact that John hadn't been given any other indication as to Nostrepheus' mood.  The dæmon's tone had been disapproving, and there certainly hadn't been any other verbal cues.  It had taken Sherlock almost a full second to determine that Nostrepheus was reluctantly amused by John's quip, and he'd been raised with the dæmon.  Yet John, who didn't have a bird dæmon and had apparently never made a great study of them had just glanced at the owl, and he'd known.

But this had happened before, Sherlock reminded himself.  John had always had an unusually good grasp on people's moods and their dæmon's state of mind.  He was just exceedingly empathic, that was all.  Nothing more than a natural gift for understanding people.

“Interesting...” Mycroft mused.

But Mycroft seemed willing to let it go, and continued describing the problem he'd decided to dump on Sherlock's doorstep.  In spite of himself, Sherlock was somewhat intrigued, but of course he would never let Mycroft know and instead lifted the violin to his shoulder.

A few moments of truly horrific bowing, and Mycroft and Tehayla were out of the flat, Nostrepheus departing along with them.

John was looking mildly puzzled.  “What was-?”

But Raniel interrupted, scrambling free of Amarisa to jump onto the coffee table.  “Now you're going to tell us exactly why you kept it a secret that you'd been shot with death-spells!”

“We thought you knew,” John replied, sounding bewildered.  “I mean, you worked out everything else.”

“Strangely, 'being shot by an arrow with a death-spell placed on it' didn't enter into my calculations when I was considering the source of your limp,” Sherlock hissed, feeling incensed for no clear reason he could name.

“We're sorry,” Amarisa said, in a move obviously meant to placate them.  “But it's not like there's much to tell.  One moment we were running along behind Ragnvald, and the next...”

Amarisa rolled her shoulders in a shrug.

Ragnvald sounded like a Norse name, and Sherlock assumed it referred to the armoured bear that towered over John in the photo on his bookshelf.

“We don't remember much about it,” John finished.  “I mean, being hit by the arrow was pretty unpleasant...”

Both he and Amarisa seemed to suppress shivers, and Raniel scurried to the edge of the coffee table to nudge at the side of the wolfdog's head, obviously trying to comfort her.  Amarisa turned and briefly touched her nose to his, and Sherlock wondered if it was entirely logical to be jealous of your own dæmon.

“But Ragnvald carried us back to base, and then Aeliana – your Mum – put a bunch of spells on us to put us back together.”

John sounded so unconcerned Sherlock was gripped by the irrational urge to grab him by the throat and shake him.

“So what was Mycroft on about?” John went on.  “What was 'interesting'?  Should I expect men in black suits to come and take me away to secret testing facility?”

Raniel sniffed, as though to express what he thought of that.  “No.  It's just...well, that degree of sensitivity to other people's dæmons is unusual.”

“Really?” John asked.  “You're not having me on?”

“You never thought it was anything special,” Sherlock realised.  Which, really could be said for a lot of things about John.

“We've always been able to do that,” Amarisa said.  “And did you know your brother has a magic umbrella?”

Raniel chittered, and Sherlock grinned to himself; this was more like it.  John and Amarisa tended to be much more restrained when someone else was in the room – Amarisa was less likely to address Sherlock and John was less likely to talk directly to Raniel – as though these free, easy conversations were something private.  Something restricted to their own little world.

“Mummy enchanted it for him,” Sherlock explained.  “Being a Witches' Consul and also being in politics isn't easy.”

Raniel nibbled at one of his forepaws broodingly, and Sherlock knew exactly what his dæmon was thinking on.  Though the conversation had drifted from the original topic, their minds were still consumed with two questions – what kind of prophecy would induce the witch clan to kill John, and would they try again?

Sherlock doubted they'd ever be able to determine the exact wording of the prophecy; Mycroft and Nostrepheus would have supplied it if they'd uncovered the actual text, which meant their information had come second-hand, more from rumours and whispers than any concrete informant.

When Lestrade called with an interesting problem it was pleasantly diverting, but some part of Sherlock's mind was still ticking over those questions, and he knew Raniel was doing the same.  He couldn't help glancing up at the sky, wondering if the clan would someday decide eliminating John was worth the risk of Mycroft coming down on their heads.

Logically, Sherlock knew that his knowledge of the clan wouldn't affect whether or not they came after John.  But it was still there, a niggling urge to watch any woman on the street with a bird dæmon if only because John and Amarisa weren't watching them and dammit, why were they so careless with their life?

But then they reached the police station and Sherlock’s attention was thankfully consumed by the mysterious phone addressed to him.  Though it was slightly infuriating to learn that most of Scotland Yard apparently read John's blog, especially with Zarania who, instead of glaring at Sherlock and Raniel, now spent most of her time snickering at them.

And when that voice sounded from the pink phone...Sherlock knew this particular mystery went far deeper than they'd suspected.

“Do you think it's Moriarty?” Raniel whispered as they poured over the trainers in the laboratory.

They'd long-since hypothesised that Moriarty and the anonymous poster on his website (and John's blog) were one and the same.

“Very likely,” Sherlock mused, adjusting the microscope to give him a better view of the pollen grains he'd scraped from the tread of the shoes.

Which made it likely these shoes would be the most fascinating puzzle they'd ever received.  They were used to solving crimes that had been committed to serve other people's motives, as had the ensuing cover-up.  But this was a mystery addressed to directly to them, and they'd never been so excited about a case, never.

This was why the drugs could never really compete with the cases.  Oh, they'd passed the time, stopped the incessant boredom from gnawing their brains into shreds when there wasn't a case on but when there was...

There was nothing better.

John and Amarisa came back – they'd left to get a coffee, as they'd had difficulty sleeping last night (probably due to the noise of the emergency services outside) – and even though their presence made no appreciable difference to his deductions, Sherlock was glad to have them in sight again, all the same.  Ridiculous, really, but there it was.

Raniel leaned over the edge of the table to touch noses with Amarisa, and Sherlock resisted the urge to scoop his dæmon up and pull him away from the wolfdog.  He was always uncomfortably aware of how much that greeting looked like a kiss, and felt vaguely embarrassed every time Raniel did it, as though some secret had been given away.

But Amarisa only held the contact for a moment before dropping her head and loping around the table.  John seemed similarly restless, pacing up and down the room, and while it could be the influx of caffeine, Sherlock suspected there was something more behind it.

“So who do you suppose it was?” John asked eventually.

“Who?” Raniel asked.

Sherlock didn't look up from the microscope.

“The woman on the phone,” John clarified.  “Remember, the one who was crying?”

There was a certain sharpness to his voice, almost impatience.

“Oh, she doesn't matter, she's just a hostage,” Sherlock murmured carelessly.  “No lead there.”

They weren't dealing with someone who'd choose someone known to them.  No, this person would be clever enough – and cunning enough – to pluck a complete stranger off the streets, someone with no connection to them whatsoever.

Amarisa bristled.  “We weren't thinking about leads.”

“Then you're not going to be much use to her,” Sherlock pointed out.

John looked as if he wanted to say something in response to that, but settled for asking, “Are they trying to trace the call?”

“The bomber's too smart for that,” Raniel said.

The polecat was perched on the very edge of the table, alternating between looking up at John and down at Amarisa.  There was perhaps ten centimetres of space between Raniel and the edge of John's fingers, and it would be so easy for John to lift his hand and just touch...

The chime of an incoming message interrupted Sherlock's thoughts.  “Pass me my phone.”

He wasn't entirely sure why he'd said that.  Now that he had, he'd see it through, of course, but the order had been pure impulse.  He'd seen John near Raniel, and he'd just wanted the man to touch him in some way, however small...

“Where is it?” John asked, glancing around.  Amarisa even appeared to be sniffing the air, as if she could find the phone by scent.

“Jacket,” was all Sherlock said, resolutely keeping his eyes buried in his microscope as Raniel skittered nervously across the table.

“Are your arms painted on or something?” Amarisa groused.

John practically stomped over to Sherlock's side, shoving his hand into the jacket and jostling Sherlock's chest sharply.

“Careful!” Sherlock reprimanded.

The hands gentled almost immediately – even when John was angry and frustrated, there was no malice in him – and pulled out Sherlock's phone.

Sherlock had been expecting the text from Mycroft about the missile plans, and told John to delete it.  He already had a very strong suspicion about who had his brother's precious USB, but there was no reason to act quickly – after all, if any move was made to sell it, the Secret Service would be able to get their hands on it without Sherlock having to go to the bother.

“Why is my brother so determined to bore me when someone else is being so delightfully interesting?” Sherlock sighed, commiserating with his dæmon.

Raniel huffed in agreement, then suddenly snickered.  “Do you think he's texting because they had to numb his mouth during his dental appointment?”

“Try to remember there's a woman who might die,” Amarisa muttered.

John didn't say anything, but the skin on his face was slightly stretched as though his muscles were clenched tight.

“What for?” Raniel asked loudly, now staring avidly at the computer screen as it scrolled through various pollen spores.

“There are hospitals full of people dying,” Sherlock said, looking directly at John and his dæmon for the first time since they'd re-entered the room.  “Why don't you go cry by their bedside, see what good it does them?”

Honestly, he would have thought that John and Amarisa, of all people, would understand.  Yet the wolfdog growled, low and almost sub-sonic; it wasn't a snarl, but there was a definite warning tone to it.  It almost sounded as though they…disapproved?  But why – surely they didn’t shed tears over every patient they treated?

The computer sounded an alert as the search completed itself, and Sherlock made note of the results before he began examining the laces beneath his microscope.  There seemed to be flakes of skin attached to the material, and he boosted Raniel up to the eye-piece so the polecat could see.

They were so absorbed they barely glanced at Molly's new boyfriend, not even to identify his dæmon – it seemed to be some kind of spider, and both he and Molly were carrying the reinforced glass boxes that were used to protect delicate dæmons in bad weather or heavy crowds.

Admittedly, Sherlock and Raniel might have been able to spare Molly and 'Jim' a few moment's notice if they hadn't been working on two problems at the same time.  The puzzle in front of them was their foremost consideration, of course, but in the back of their minds they were still thinking over what Mycroft and Nostrepheus had said.

“A prophecy that says you will be their doom.”

But how?  John and Amarisa were dangerous, yes – no sane person would dispute that – but how could they be such a threat to an entire clan of witches?  A dozen, maybe, but over a hundred or so?  It would have been a consideration if John and his dæmon had some reason to want all of them dead, if they'd actively wanted to hunt the clan down and pick them off one by one, but they didn't.  The witches had deliberately tried to murder them and they still hadn't borne a grudge, at least not the kind that drove people to mass murder.

Sherlock knew they shouldn't be thinking about it.  As much as it absolutely galled him, there was little they could do.  Thinking about it wouldn't help, so he should stop doing it – he'd given that advice to John and Amarisa only moments ago.

So why was he having so much trouble following it himself?

--Amarisa had tried to contain herself while Jim and Molly were in the room, but as soon as the door swung shut, she was sneezing vigorously and shaking her head.  John scrubbed at her nose with his shirt – he was never really sure if it helped, but at least it let his scent overlay whatever had so taxed his dæmon's senses.
“Are you all right?” Raniel asked.

John was a little bewildered at how Sherlock and Raniel could swing from being so caring with them to being so, so...sociopathic with everyone else.  Hadn't they been expressing their disinterest in a woman strapped to a bomb only minutes ago?  And now Raniel was hovering over Amarisa like a hen with a single chick?

“Jim was wearing far too much cologne,” Amarisa explained, still rubbing at her muzzle with one of her paws.  “He was practically drowning in it – I don't know how Molly can stand it.”

“I'm sure her nose isn't as sensitive as yours, Risa,” John reminded.

Though he had to admit she had a point.  Even John had been able to smell it, and he'd been halfway across the room.  He suspected the only reason Raniel hadn't noticed it was because the polecat's nose was right up against the computer screen and his concentration was as unbreakable as his human's when something interested him.

He and Amarisa made a mess of trying to deduce things about the shoes, as usual, but Sherlock and Raniel always seemed so pleased when they tried it was almost impossible to refuse.  Even if they were derided almost immediately afterwards.

Still, Sherlock and Raniel did seem to come to a realisation as they were trumping John's and Amarisa's observations with their own.  The polecat dæmon suddenly went still, hissed the name 'Carl Powers', and then the next thing John and Amarisa knew, they were in a cab on the way back to Baker Street, the trainers accompanying them.

“1989, young kid, champion swimmer, came up from Brighton for a school sports tournament, drowned in the pool,” Sherlock explained, speaking rapidly as though he was being timed somehow.  “Tragic accident, you wouldn't remember it – why should you?”

“But you remember?” John pointed out inanely.

“Yes.”

“Anything fishy about it?”

“Nobody thought so,” Raniel sighed, as though disgusted with the intelligence of every other human and dæmon on the planet.  “Nobody except us – we read about it in the papers.”

“Started young, didn't you?” Amarisa mused.

While Raniel was sitting comfortably in Sherlock's lap, holding onto the plastic bag that contained the shoes, the wolfdog's sheer size meant that she was sitting on the floor, leaning against John's legs to steady herself against the motion of the car.

“The boy, Carl Powers, had some kind of fit in the water,” Sherlock went on.  “His dæmon screamed for help, but by the time they got him out, it was too late.” He hissed through his teeth, as though in frustration.  “There was something wrong, something I couldn't get out of my head...”

“What?” John asked.

“The shoes.”

John and Amarisa shared an exasperated look before the wolfdog prodded for more information.  “What about them?”

“They weren't there.”

“We made a fuss,” Raniel chimed in.  “We tried to get the police interested, but no one seemed to think it was important.  Nobody but us.”

“He'd left all the rest of his clothes in the locker,” Sherlock elaborated.  “But there was no sign of his shoes.”

“Until now,” Raniel said, deliberately nudging the trainers.

“Hang on a minute!” John exclaimed, suddenly struck by something.  “You said his dæmon got help?”

Raniel nodded.

“Well, most kinds of seizures usually affect the dæmon as well.”

“Do they?” Sherlock drawled, looking thoughtful.

“I mean, it tends to vary,” John hastened to qualify.  “But usually, the only seizures that don't affect dæmons immediately are ones triggered by poisoning or something similar.”

“Interesting...” Sherlock mused.

His face took on the intent, focused expression which meant there'd be no point talking to him for the next two hours or so, and as soon as they were back in the flat Sherlock and Raniel shut themselves up in the kitchen.

John and Amarisa stayed in their bedroom, trying to pretend they weren't as useless as they felt.

“Carl Powers was the first crime they were really interested in,” John mused.  “And his name was on the envelope...”

“It's slightly disturbing to think this rigmarole with the hostage and the bomb is specifically targeted to Sherlock and Raniel,” Amarisa finished.

The whole business gave John a very strong urge to clean his gun and count his bullets, and he didn’t bother resisting.  But at this point he was so familiar with the firearm it didn’t need any thought at all, and he and Amarisa seen needed something more absorbing to distract them.

They tried to busy themselves with reading, fiddling with the laptop, and trying to figure out some of the more sophisticated functions of John's phone for an hour before they finally admitted defeat.  They couldn't concentrate on anything but the case, not now, so they went down to see if there was any way they could be of help.

The chime of an incoming message told them Mycroft had resorted to texting John about the plans now, and he reminded Sherlock and Raniel about it...only for him and Amarisa to get scoffed at for their sense of duty.

“You can't just ignore it!” John snapped, Amarisa beginning to bristle beside him.

“I'm not ignoring it,” Sherlock replied, his voice perfectly even and calm.  “I'm putting my best man onto it right now.”

Which, of course, meant he was putting John onto it. 

“Brilliant, just bloody brilliant,” John muttered as he and Amarisa made their way to Mycroft’s offices.  “’Best man on the job’ – more like only man…”

“Come on!” Amarisa encouraged.  “We see them do that deduction thing all the time – given a chance, I’m sure we can solve this mystery!”

John laughed in spite of himself and ruffled his dæmon’s fur as they sat down to await Mycroft’s coming.  Sure enough, barely five minutes had passed before the man himself was striding through the door, umbrella swinging at his side…

But his dæmon was nowhere to be seen.

John tensed, remembering the medical lecture of ‘dæmon pulling’ and the adverse side-effects of having your dæmon deliberately held away from you.  Amarisa sprang to her feet, as though determined to track down the raven dæmon right away and find out whatever was keeping her from her human.

Mycroft, apparently correctly interpreting their tension, spoke quickly, “I assure you, Dr. Watson, I'm in no danger – Tehayla and I are separated.”

“Oh!” John relaxed, and Amarisa sat back down.  “Oh, okay.”

As the name implied, ‘separation’ referred to the condition in which dæmon and human could be separated by great distances with no ill-effects.  It was an ability usually seen in witches, though a few (very few) people chose to undergo it themselves for various reasons.  People with aquatic dæmons – like that man whose dæmon had settled as a reef shark – usually underwent separation so the human wouldn’t be forced to linger constantly at the water’s edge.

As far as John knew, it was unusual for a non-witch to separate from their dæmon when it wasn’t strictly necessary, but Mycroft and Tehayla seemed happy enough, and it was hardly his place to judge their choices.

So with that understood, John got down to business.  “What can you tell me about Andrew West?”

Mycroft tilted his head to the side in a manner very much like his dæmon, as though John and Amarisa had said or done something puzzling.  A little unsure as to why the older man was staring at him like that, the doctor shared a confused glance with his wolfdog.

“You're very accepting of people's little quirks, aren't you?” Mycroft mused.

John wasn't sure what to say to that.  Fortunately, Mycroft didn't seem to be expecting a reply, as he then began to list everything known about the dead man.  John made sure to jot it all down, even facts he was certain were included in the file Mycroft had given them.

Andrew West:
Dæmon – Nahara, female meerkat
27
Clerk at Vauxhall Cross, MI6
Involved in project in minor capacity
Secruity checks clean
Last seen by fiancee, 10:30pm
Oyster card, unused, no ticket on the body

It seemed the big mystery (apart from how he'd ended up dead and what had happened to the Bruce-Partington plans) was how West had got from his home to the train tracks at Battersea.

John and Amarisa were still mulling that over when they arrived home, entering the kitchen just in time to catch Sherlock's moment of triumph.

Clostridium botulinum!” he exclaimed, hitting the table with enough force to jolt Raniel and rattle the teacups.

“It's one of the deadliest poisons on the planet!” Raniel said as he turned to Amarisa, apparently unperturbed by the fact that he'd nearly tumbled from the table.

John knew he and his dæmon weren't unintelligent, but sometimes they required a few extra moments to catch up with the runaway locomotive that was Sherlock and Raniel's train of thought.  This was one of those times.

“Carl Powers!” Raniel cried, when Amarisa's blank stare hadn't cleared.

“Wait, are you saying he was murdered?” Amarisa clarified.  “And you're certain?”

“Remember the shoelaces?” Sherlock prompted, gesturing to the pieces of the shoes that had been strung around the kitchen.

John nodded and Amarisa made an agreeable noise.

“The boy suffered from eczema, it'd be the easiest thing in the world to introduce the poison into his medication,” Sherlock explained, prowling around the kitchen and gesturing wildly.  “Two hours later he comes up to London, the poison takes effect, paralyses his muscles, and he drowns.”

John was frowning.  “How come the autopsy didn't pick that up?”

“It's virtually undetectable,” Raniel told him.  “And nobody would have been looking for it. But we found tiny traces of it inside the trainers from where he'd put the cream on his feet.”

Sherlock was busy at the laptop, typing something up at the kind of speed John envied – why had he never quite been able to grasp touch-typing?

“That's why the shoes had to go,” the detective finished.

John nodded once to show he understood.  It seemed Sherlock intended a slightly cryptic message on his website to be the bomber's cue, to let it be known that he'd solved the case.

“The killer kept the shoes, all these years...” Amarisa mused, nosing at one of the low-hanging laces.

Sherlock nodded jerkily.  “Yes.”

There was a moment's pause, and both he and his dæmon seemed to be waiting for something.

“Meaning...?” Raniel prompted.

John and Amarisa connected the dots at exactly the same time.

“He's our bomber!” they exclaimed together, their voices matching in tone and cadence almost perfectly.

Sherlock grinned and Raniel chittered as though they were somehow amused.

The pink phone rang in the next instant, and the poor woman was finally released.  When they invaded Lestrade's office the next morning, he told them that she'd been forced to don packages of Semtex and made to read out from a pager.  If she'd deviated by a single word or if Sherlock had failed to solve the case, a sniper would set off the explosives.

John was so perturbed by this development and caught up in wondering if it was going to happen again that he almost missed Sherlock's breathless whisper.

“Elegant.”

Amarisa turned, the hairs along her back beginning to stand up, and John reflected that it was times like these that made Sherlock's claim to sociopathy seem believable.

“Elegant?” he echoed, unable to entirely disguise the disbelief and vague stirring of anger in his voice.

Lestrade wondered aloud why someone would ever do something like this as Zarania shifted uneasily on her perch, and Sherlock gave some pat dismissal about being bored.  Moments later, a message came in on the phone – a picture of a car – and a call came for Sherlock in the voice of the new hostage. 

The car in question was discovered at a construction site with blood puddled in the driver's seat and smeared liberally across the gear stick.  John and Amarisa hung back, letting Sherlock and Raniel poke into the glove compartment and check the mirrors and whatever else they were doing

“Still hanging around him?” Donovan asked, Matriel up on her shoulders like a fur scarf in an effort to keep his paws out of the wet.

“Yeah,” John said shortly.

He was cold and grumpy and really not in the mood for this.  His gloved hands were buried in Amarisa's thick ruff to keep them out of the biting wind. 

“Opposites attract, I suppose...” she mused.

Oh, god, not this again.  He’d become somewhat resigned to it in the beginning, but after meeting Sebastian and realising just how much he wasn’t Sherlock’s type, these comments just seemed like cruel digs.

Sherlock and Raniel emerged from the car as Donovan was suggesting alternative hobbies.  The detective and his dæmon put on a show for the widow, pretending to be a grieving friend, and John reflected that it was more than a little unnerving the way Sherlock could just do that.  Amarisa flattened her ears in disquiet and John tried not to let his face give anything away – it was difficult, as the idea of Sherlock honestly crying over something was just…it just didn’t happen.

Sherlock figured it all out, of course – Mr. Ian Monkford had faked his death with the help of Janus Cars – and soon enough, the poor sod draped in a bomb was being rescued.  But by then John was in desperate need of food and, seeing as the only things in their cupboard were a jar of pickles, some suspicious-looking bread and a bloodied finger in a zip-lock bag, they went out for some food.

John wondered how it was that Sherlock and Raniel could not give a damn about those poor hostages and then turn around and go out to a noisy, crowded diner – something they hated – just to ensure John and Amarisa got some food.

But of course, with the way their luck had been going, they were barely halfway through the meal before another ‘pip’ came in.

“I’m worried,” Amarisa admitted on their way to see Connie Prince’s brother.  “Did you see Sherlock’s face when we said what the bomber was doing was all for them?”

John nodded.  Sherlock had smiled – that faint, barely-there smile that meant he was truly pleased – and Raniel had actually wriggled on the spot with delight.

John and Amarisa had always known their flatmates were enthusiastic about crime, but this time…there just seemed to be a much more sinister undertone to it.  They could almost feel them pulling away, and it was ridiculous to feel like an old housewife competing with a young and gorgeous mistress, but this bomber was leading Sherlock and Raniel to some very dark places.

John and Amarisa would follow, of course they would, and they’d try to keep their friends from going too far down the rabbit hole.

Sherlock and Raniel determined Connie Prince died by botox injection, but it didn’t save the old woman.  She’d started to describe the sound of the bomber’s voice, and had died for it.

John watched the news feed detailing the explosion (which had been given out as a gas leak), the fact that twelve people had died when the block of flats went up, and tried to ignore the sinking feeling in his gut.

Outside of a war, most people baulked at that kind of careless massacre.  Those who did, those people who attacked schools and workplaces…it was always their own school, their own workplace – there was always some kind of motive to it, however pathetic and convoluted.  But this bomber didn’t do that – he chose people and locations apparently at random.  The explosions were incidental, the people unimportant…

In short, there was a deliberate coldness to it, a distance that somehow seemed far more chilling than any case they’d dealt with before.

“Well obviously I lost that round,” Sherlock said.  “Although technically I did solve the case.”

He punctuated that petulant mutter with a jab of the remote control that turned the television off.

There was something in the way he said it that John didn’t like.  If he was asked, he couldn’t have said exactly what it was, only that it was there, creeping under his skin.  He knew Amarisa felt the same – the hair along her spine was beginning to stand up.

“He killed the old lady because she started to describe him,” Raniel remarked from Sherlock’s lap.

Sherlock nodded absently, staring off into the middle distance, his brain obviously going a thousand kilometres an hour.  “Just once, he put himself in the firing line.”

“What do you mean?” John asked.

“Well, usually he must stay above it all.  He organises these things but no one ever has direct contact.”  Sherlock still wasn’t looking directly at him, and John tried not to feel like it was a deliberate slight.

Amarisa, sensing his discomfort, licked at his hand for one brief instant before she spoke up.

“What, like the Connie Prince murder – he arranged that?  So people come to him wanting their crimes fixed up, like booking a holiday?”

“Novel,” Sherlock breathed.

Raniel was practically vibrating on his human’s lap.  Sherlock’s fingers were clenched in the polecat’s pale fur, and both of them oozed pure, joyous excitement.

As John stared, hoping he’d imagined the admiration in Sherlock’s voice, Raniel glanced at the phone sitting prominently on the armrest.

“Taking his time…” the dæmon hissed.

He sounded disappointed.  John knew Sherlock and his dæmon got excited about murders – truth be told, he and Amarisa got a little excited about them now as well – but this wasn’t a body.  This wasn’t someone who was already dead and wouldn’t be suffering anymore; this sounded almost as though they were eager for another hostage to be grabbed and strapped into Semtex.  This had an undercurrent of heartlessness that John and Amarisa were desperately trying to ignore.

There was a brief back and forth about Carl Powers – the only person the bomber had admitted to killing himself – which John barely paid attention to, still unsettled by Sherlock and Raniel’s blatant fascination.

“So why is he doing this then?” John wondered aloud.  “Playing this game with you?  Do you think he wants to be caught?”

The barest hint of a smile twitched at Sherlock’s lips.  “I think he wants to be distracted.”

There was only so much John could take.  He smoothed a hand down the stiff, ruffled fur along Amarisa’s back and heaved himself out of his chair. 

“Well I hope you’ll be very happy together,” he muttered, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

His comment seemed to draw Sherlock out of some reverie.  “Sorry, what?”

“There are lives at stake!” John snapped, gripping the back of his chair in an effort keep himself under control.  “Actual human lives!  Just so I know, do you care about that at all?”

Sherlock’s head tipped back slightly, as though John was a particularly fascinating specimen of bacteria and Sherlock wanted a better view.  “Will caring about them help save them?”

“Nope.”

“Then I’ll continue not to make that mistake.”

There had been a measure of contempt in Sherlock’s tone that set John’s teeth on edge.  As a doctor, he knew a certain distance was required between yourself and your patients, as with Sherlock and the victims of whatever case he was investigating…but you still felt something for them.  Didn’t you? 

“And you find that easy, do you?” he asked before he could stop himself.

“Yes, very!” Sherlock replied, sounding indignant.  “It that news to you?”

“No,” John admitted, his voice abrupt.

Both dæmons were quiet.  Raniel, still half-curled on Sherlock’s lap, only looked irritated, as if John and Amarisa were being the obtuse ones.  The wolfdog, however…

Amarisa’s ears were low – not flattened, but certainly drooping – and her shoulders were hunching even as her tail stood defiantly straight.

“I’ve disappointed you,” Sherlock said in a more moderate tone, as though he’d only just realised it.

“Good deduction, yeah.”  There was an undercurrent of venom in John’s voice that surprised even him.

“Don’t make people into heroes, John,” Sherlock scoffed.  “Heroes don’t exist and if they did I wouldn’t be one of them.”

Another ‘pip’ interrupted the escalating argument, and the tension didn’t exactly defuse but it did crack and flatten, like a glass door hit with a mallet.  It no longer obstructed the way, but it left sharp shards scattered about, glittering and painful underfoot.

At least, that was what it was like for John and Amarisa – Sherlock and Raniel didn’t seem to care.

John and his dæmon were feeling battered, almost shocked.  They’d thought they were at least friends with their eccentric flatmate and his albino dæmon, but this had them questioning everything they thought they knew.  Because surely if you cared for someone – anyone – you’d understand why people in general were considered important?  Surely you’d think more of their lives than just as pawns in some madman’s game?

But apparently, Sherlock and Raniel didn’t quite grasp this, so John and Amarisa were stuck loving a man and his dæmon who thought caring was a mistake.

Sherlock told him to check the papers, as though John was a trained monkey or something, not a friend whose thoughts and opinions he might at least pretend to respect.  For several moments, John didn’t move, toying with the idea of just walking out the door and coming back when he didn’t want to strangle the man quite so badly.

“Oh,” Sherlock drawled, a tone of understanding overlaying the definite sneer in his voice.  “You’re angry with me, so you won’t help – not much cop, this ‘caring’ lark.”

At that, Amarisa’s tail finally wilted, dropping between her legs.  John didn’t say anything – he didn’t want to draw Sherlock or Raniel’s attention to it, but he rested his hand on the top of his dæmon’s head, giving comfort and taking it at the same time.

They ended up checking the newspaper anyway, and accompanying Sherlock and Raniel to the crime scene, of course they did.  Because they loved them.  And god help John and his dæmon both, but it simply wasn’t in their nature to abandon someone they loved.

Chapter Text

On occasion, there were some things that Sherlock and Raniel just did not understand. John and Amarisa’s insistence that they should care about the hostages, for example.

They were just aspects of an equation, really, and could be horrible people for all they knew. Had John and Amarisa ever stopped to consider that the world might be better off without these people?

“Don’t make people into heroes, John, heroes don’t exist and if they did I wouldn’t be one of them.”

That was only partly true – Sherlock knew heroes existed. He and Raniel hadn’t believed in them for most of their life, true, but a scientist had to adjust their views when confronted with first-hand evidence. And evidence of heroes walked around the flat every day, living and breathing and eating and grumbling about body parts in the fridge. 

But they were terribly frustrated right now – why didn’t John and Amarisa understand? They usually seemed to grasp Sherlock and Raniel so well, better than anyone else they’d ever met in fact…so why were they slipping? Why care now?

But of course, John and his dæmon wouldn’t see it that way. There were times when Sherlock, in one of his rare flights of fancy, wondered if John and Amarisa were the product of an experiment to turn pure goodness into a weapon.

Still, it wasn’t fair of them to hold everyone to the same standard.

“You’re angry with me, so you won’t help,” Sherlock drawled, putting as much scorn in his voice as he could. “Not much cop, this ‘caring’ lark.”

It was a petty dig and he knew it, but really, he and Raniel couldn’t be expected to care for everyone. John and Amarisa were about as much as they could stand.

John's face was blank as they descended the stairs, but Amarisa's tail was drooping. Sherlock didn't know why that should be, only that he didn't like it. Raniel was so concerned that when they got into the cab, he actually scrambled off Sherlock's shoulder and dropped to the floor beside the wolfdog, standing on his hind legs (awkward in the moving car) to rub his nose on hers for a moment.

Amarisa's tail gave a weak flick, then dropped again. Raniel shared a glance with Sherlock, human and polecat equally unsettled at this strange mood that seemed to have descended on John and his dæmon. The doctor's usually-expressive face was hard and very still, giving away no clues.

Something about it told him speech would most definitely not be welcome. Usually, Sherlock and Raniel would have ignored that as they ignored most other social cues, but they'd never seen their friends in this kind of mood before, and didn't know what would happen if they pushed the limits of their tolerance now.

So they stayed silent, though Raniel didn't take his usual place on Sherlock's lap. Instead, he wriggled closer to Amarisa, tucking himself against her side. She glanced at him, then bent her neck and slowly, carefully passed her tongue across the top of the polecat's head. Just once, before she straightened once more and rested her head on John's knee.

It felt oddly like a goodbye, and Sherlock and his dæmon spent the remainder of the taxi ride trying to convince themselves the disquiet niggling at the back of their brains was nothing important.

The body was simple enough, because the puzzle wasn't the body, but that lost Vermeer painting all the newspapers had been banging on about. At least John and Amarisa seemed to cheer up a little when Sherlock and Raniel walked them through their reasoning.

He knew who the murderer was – the man known as the Golem – but the problem would be in finding him.

Sherlock got word out to the Gyptians. Living in narrow boats, they travelled up and down the Thames and the various canals and they knew everything. Not even Mycroft's surveillance could compete with the Gyptians, and fortunately Marge Costa was moored close by at this time of year.

Marge Costa was far from his only contact among the Gyptians – there was a tremendous sense of community among them, and if you did a favour for one they'd all be willing to do a favour for you in turn (marvellously useful, that) – but she was certainly the one he found most helpful. Because while most Gyptians would agreeably give him the information he requested in a succinct, helpful report, Marge always gave him more than he asked for, and it usually turned out to be good.

Even if it wasn't strictly relevant to the case at hand, it was useful to know underground gossip.

Sherlock and Raniel had hypothesised that Marge was always so willing to speak with them because Gyptians were an inherently gregarious people, and she rarely socialised outside her own clan because her dæmon had settled as a human. Apparently some people became uncomfortable around human-shaped dæmons, which Sherlock found frankly ridiculous. It was unusual, yes, but far from freakish – what were humans but another species of animal?

Sherlock had determined John was perhaps the most accepting person on the planet when it came to oddities in other people and their dæmons, but he'd never seen his and Amarisa's response to a dæmon in human form, and so deliberately neglected to inform them.

Upon seeing Marge for the first time and realising that the man beside her (looking to be in his late twenties, vaguely Spanish and exotic with tanned skin and dark green eyes) was her dæmon, not her boyfriend, John didn't disappoint. Amarisa's nose worked frantically as though confirming through scent that Orian was, in fact, a dæmon, and John looked momentarily surprised, but there was no hint of discomfort or judgement in his face.

Raniel chittered softly with pleasure, following Amarisa as John and Marge's husband went to the opposite end of the boat, discussing fishing, of all things, while Sherlock was left to explain the situation to Marge.

“I've heard that a very strange man's been seen around the city,” she said as she dried the collection of dishes stacked in the sink. “Apparently no one's sure where he's from, and it isn't good to cross paths with him – I could see if anyone knows where he is, if you like.”

“That would be appreciated,” Sherlock said absently, staring at Orian.

The human dæmon was sitting in a corner, his knees tucked up to his chest as he whispered to the Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) resting in his cupped hands. The moth was Marge's husband's dæmon – the narrow boat small enough for the human to leave his dæmon in another room without any ill-effects. 

Orian was stroking one of the moth's wings, his touch as careful and gentle as if he were handling some rare, precious artefact that could shatter beneath his fingers. Sherlock could understand the need to be delicate – insect wings were incredibly fragile, after all – but his attention was arrested by the reverent expression on Orian's face, easily recognisable on a human countenance.

If Raniel had settled as a human, would that be what he looked like when he pressed himself against Amarisa?

He raised his eyes to find Marge smiling at him in a way that looked far too knowing for his tastes. She glanced to the side, out the door to the deck where John and her husband were chatting amiably, Amarisa sitting in the doorway with Raniel curled between her forelegs.

“It's good that you've got yourself a nice man,” was all Marge said.

Sherlock didn't respond.

--

John and Amarisa went to Alex Woodbridge's home and talked to Andrew West's fiancée, and tried very hard not to dwell on their earlier argument (if it could even be called that) with Sherlock and Raniel.

Their anger had quickly evaporated, leaving only the residue of bitter disappointment and resignation. But John knew they couldn't hold it against Sherlock and his dæmon – he and Amarisa fell in love with them for who they were, sharp edges and ugly sides and all. That wasn't going to change just because those edges were a bit sharper than they'd first thought.

John wasn't fool enough to expect anything from them, though. It wasn't Sherlock and Raniel's fault he and Amarisa felt the way they did, and to expect them to somehow change to accommodate it would just be...well, selfish, really.

So John and his dæmon tried to play the good sidekicks, running off to the Vauxhall Arches with the man and dæmon they loved, taking on a man that looked like he'd jumped straight out of a horror film, standing by in silent support while they rushed to deduce why the painting had to be a fake even as a child's voice recited the grim countdown.

They'd even held their tongues when Sherlock exulted in those few, tense moments before he'd shouted the answer, Raniel chittering and squirming happily on his shoulder.

“This is beautiful,” he'd exclaimed to the polecat. “I love this!”

John couldn't help the small, mean-spirited thought that wondered if Sherlock would enjoy it quite so much if the hostages were people he knew. Would he and his dæmon feel concerned in any way? Or did they have so much control over their emotional responses they wouldn't feel anything even if it was Lestrade or Molly or even John himself on the other end of that phone?

And then Andrew West turned out to have been murdered by the man he would have eventually called his brother-in-law, which was really the perfectly depressing end to a very depressing day. It was good that they'd found the killer, but John couldn't help but think of the women he'd talked to only yesterday; she'd lost her fiancée, and now she was going to lose her brother.

The living room was chilly at night – the windows hadn't been replaced yet – so John was wearing a jacket and scarf while he tapped on his computer. Amarisa was leaning against his leg, letting him warm his hands on her fur whenever his fingers started going numb.

Sherlock was curled up in his chair and shouting at the telly, Raniel resting on the arm, sprawled out and looking very pleased with himself. John knew they were still anticipating the final 'pip' – the so-called 'game' wasn't over yet, that's why they were so happy to lay around doing nothing.

John knew some people might question why he was still staying with Sherlock instead of looking for a new flat and a room mate who wouldn't scorn his loyalty and affection, but John and his dæmon had just never been able to do that. They couldn't lock their emotions away, couldn't turn their backs and pretend they didn't care about someone...they simply soldiered on.

It was what they did.

Of course, that didn't mean they had to be miserable, and John wondered if Sarah would want to go for a drink. He could admit he hadn't really given her his full attention when they were dating, but now that he'd had just how hopeless it was to care about Sherlock hammered into his skull, he thought he could do better. If she was willing to give it another shot.

“I'm going to Sarah's,” John eventually announced. Then he felt compelled to add, just in case Sherlock got hungry, “There's still some of that risotto left in the fridge.”

Sherlock made a non-committal noise and Raniel nodded absently.

“And we need milk,” Amarisa reminded her human as they stepped out of the living room.

John was nodding and making a mental note to pick some up on the way back when Sherlock suddenly called out.

“We'll get some.”

John and his dæmon stopped in their tracks, turning around to fix their flatmates with a disbelieving look. Had Sherlock really just offered to do the shopping? 

“Really?” John asked, looking for a hidden trick. Was it going to be another of Sherlock's weird bargains – 'I'll get the milk if you let me put something hideous and unsanitary in the oven?'

But apparently not, because Raniel simply said, “Really.”

John felt like pushing his luck. “And some beans, then?”

Sherlock nodded, but didn't so much as glance up from the telly. It seemed suspicious somehow, like there was some aspect of this John and Amarisa weren't detecting, but right now John didn't care. If they had some kind of ulterior motive, John couldn't see it and frankly, he and his dæmon could do with a breather. They'd get away from Sherlock and Raniel for a little while, sort themselves out, and hope that the fifth 'pip' wouldn't come for a while.

“I don't think they know,” Amarisa murmured as she loped down the street at John's side. “Raniel asked me why we were in a strange mood when Sherlock was talking to that Gyptian lady – I don't think they know how we feel.”

“Well, thank heaven for small mercies and all that,” John sighed.

It wasn't that they were ashamed of being in love with their flatmates – John had never felt ashamed of his feelings, and wasn't about to start now – but he didn't want Sherlock to sneer at them for 'caring' the way he had yesterday. They could deal with being mocked over their loyalty to their country and their compassion for faceless victims, but not over this; there were some humiliations they could live without.

John turned the corner, lost in thought, when Amarisa suddenly nudged his palm with her nose. Surprised, John halted and looked down at his dæmon.

“What is it, Risa?”

“Someone's calling you!” she said, nodding down the street.

Sure enough, a man was approaching, swiftly and with a barely-contained sense of urgency. “Dr. Watson! Dr. Watson!

It took John a moment to recognise him – it was Molly's boyfriend.    “Oh, Jim...erm, hi.”

As Jim hurried closer (Amarisa wincing as her nose was once more overwhelmed with cologne), John realised that his spider dæmon wasn't on his shoulder, and the reinforced glass case swinging from one hand was empty.

“It's my dæmon, she's stuck!” Jim blurted.

In an instant, John slid into 'crisis mode'. “Where?”

“Back here, come on!”

He led John back into Baker Street, to the side of the building that had been blown up, and stopped in front of a gaping hole in the brickwork, only a foot or so off the ground.

“I told her not to go in,” Jim was babbling, obviously feeling his dæmon's fright and anxiety. “But she's always been so curious, and I can't fit and I was wondering could you – could your dæmon...?”

John glanced at Amarisa, and she nodded, dropping her head so it was in line with her shoulders and carefully, slowly, creeping in.

“It'll be all right,” John told Jim, putting a hand on his shoulder – years of being a doctor had given him a certain knack for comforting someone. “Amarisa will find your dæmon-”

“But what if she can't get her out?” Jim blurted, his eyes round and his lower lip trembling just a little.

“Then we'll call for help,” John went on, his voice low and soothing. “Don't worry, everything's going to be fine...”

He could feel Amarisa – concentration, determination, and a slight edge of worry for the trapped dæmon. She was moving cautiously forward, unable to rely on her nose after it had been blasted with Jim's cologne (and really, did the man have some kind of body odour problem or something?), and then...

John felt a flash of something like relief, then confusion, which morphed into comprehension and horror so swiftly it took his breath away.

“John!” Amarisa called. “John!

Her fear and panic drove him to scramble forward and drop to his knees, some crazy idea of crawling after her floating in his head...but then he heard the distinctive click of a pistol's safety.

“Quiet and still, Johnny-boy,” came a slow, pleased drawl, and it was so different from Jim's high, frantic voice that it took John a moment to realise it was actually the same man speaking.

Amarisa's terror and pain had subsided into creeping, constant anxiety and grim resignation. John slowly swivelled his head, taking in the four men ranged behind Jim, each with a gun, and each holding it in such a way that it wouldn't be visible to a passer-by.

For a moment, John wondered why Amarisa hadn't smelled them, then remembered the sickly-sweet scent of Jim's cologne, and he knew this had been planned down to the smallest detail.

“Stand up,” Jim (if that was even his name) gestured, and John obeyed.

Five men against him, four with guns – the odds weren't good, and John wasn't about to try anything until he knew what had happened to Amarisa.

John had a sinking feeling that Sherlock's final puzzle was coming up. This obviously-meticulously planned kidnapping, the 'pip' that was still to come...it was too much to be a coincidence.

“Who are you?” John asked, staring into the eyes of the man who now seemed anything but harmless.

“Jim Moriarty,” he beamed.

Something cold ran the length of John's spine like a bead of sweat.

There was a snarl and the sounds of a scuffle to the side, and John's heart pinched when he saw Amarisa dragged from the ruined building. She was being held with one of those devices animal services used to catch dogs – a long metal pole with a loop of wire at the end.

“You know, I really didn't think it would be that easy,” John could hear Moriarty saying as he and Amarisa were hustled into a van that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. “But give you someone in trouble, and you jump at the chance to be a hero, don't you?”

The mocking lilt to his tone when he said 'hero' was almost identical to the one Sherlock had used, and John scowled.

“You know where to take him, boys,” Moriarty practically sang out. “I'll meet you there – I need to wash up before my big date.”

John spent the next hour being driven around in the back of the van with four men holding guns on him. He conjured up a dozen ways to derail whatever Moriarty was planning, and was forced to discard them all as none of them worked with Amarisa tied up like that.

His dæmon was clearly resenting the wire pulled tightly around her neck, but her golden eyes were steady on his and her body was still, as if she was willing him to be calm and rational about their situation.

When the van finally stopped and they were ordered out, John was surprised to find them in front of a public pool. He'd expected some out-of-the-way place where Moriarty could tuck him while he gave Sherlock another case to solve, or even some kind of hideout...but a pool?

Moriarty was waiting, dressed in an impeccable suit and for once without that smothering cologne. His minions dispersed to...somewhere, but if John had any ideas about resistance or escape when they took that demeaning leash off Amarisa, they died when the red laser sights began to meander across his dæmon's body. A single glance down confirmed he was in the same predicament – one sight on his right thigh, one on his abdomen and one hovering over his heart.

Snipers. Of course there were snipers.

John remembered Sherlock's breathy whisper of 'elegant', and hoped he could pass off his shudder as a reaction to the cold wind biting through his clothes. Amarisa moved to his side and the feel of her body against his leg – warm and heavy and as solid as dependability itself – eased the knot in John's chest.

“What do you think, Johnny-boy?” Moriarty asked, gesturing to himself. “Much smarter than before, I thought. And I won't lie, I'm glad I could finally abandon that awful cologne, but I couldn't let your dæmon pick up my scent now could I?”

John couldn't see Moriarty's spider dæmon, but that didn't truly surprise him; if he was a criminal mastermind, he'd hide his dæmon whenever he could as well.

As Moriarty came closer, John realised he was feeling it again – the weird sense of something nudging at the edge of his senses that he always experienced whenever there was an active spell nearby. He wasn't sure where it was coming from, either. Usually, John and Amarisa could work out where the spell was, the same way you could work out which object was boiling hot in a cold room without touching it – it just radiated out, but there didn't seem to be a single point on Moriarty where the magic was coming from. It seemed to be coming from...well, from all over him.

Moriarty grinned, with a look in his eye that said he knew exactly what John was thinking. “Like the clothes? My mother made them for me.”

Realisation hit John with a little jolt. “Your mother's a witch.”

“Oh, very good,” Moriarty praised with layers and layers of condescension in his voice, as though John was a pet that had performed an amusing trick.

If John were Sherlock, he might be able to make something of that fact. As it was, he just worried at Amarisa's fur where his fingers were sunk into her ruff and tried desperately to put it all together. The fact that Moriarty was the son of a witch was important somehow, he could feel it...he just didn't know why.

“They told me you were special...” Moriarty mused, slinking ever-closer. “But I think they got it wrong.”

John quelled the urge to retreat, determined to stand his ground even as Moriarty leaned in uncomfortably close.

“He will walk the fringes and his dæmon will set him apart,” the criminal said, in the high, absent voice of someone reciting something they'd memorised. “He will find a home with the outcasts and his soul will be unique. A witch will raise him and the witches will protect him. He will forge his own path and he will answer his country's call. Loneliness will know him, death will touch him, he will see what others are blind to and he will know what others cannot see. And he will be our destruction. And he will be our downfall.”

Something cold and hard twisted itself around John's intestines. He was no expert, but that sounded like...well, it sounded like...

“That's the prophecy of my mother's clan,” Moriarty said, seeming to revel in John's shocked surprise. “You know, the one that says you'll be their doom. And my doom, come to that, considering.”

He laughed then, as if he'd said something particularly funny. “As if you could ever be my downfall! No, I think it's much more likely someone on the council made a dreadful mistake – the prophecy doesn't refer to you, Johnny-boy.” 

Another grin, smug and triumphant. “It refers to Sherlock.”

The coldness in John's gut was creeping up his spine and wrapping around his heart. He wanted to deny it, wanted to say that Moriarty's stupid prophecy was so vague it could refer to a hundred people in London alone...

But it was making a sickening kind of sense. He will walk the fringes and his dæmon will set him apart? If anyone could be said to hold themselves above society, it was Sherlock. He will find a home with the outcasts? That Gyptian woman, Angelo...Sherlock seemed to have a habit of befriending people on the outskirts. His soul will be unique? Well, Raniel certainly was that and there had already been that line about his dæmon setting him apart...

“No,” Moriarty said, drawing John out his thoughts with a near-audible snap. “I don't see anything particularly special about you.”

Amarisa tensed as he leaned still closer. John held himself still, the way he would if an adder had slithered across his path.

“I really don't understand why Sherlock is so obsessed with you,” the man breathed, sounding honestly puzzled. “I mean, just look at you.”

John made sure he didn't so much as twitch when Moriarty's fingers reached out and cupped his chin. The hand tilted his face from side to side, as though Moriarty was inspecting him.

That was too much for Amarisa, and John felt her warning growl shiver through his leg where it was pressed against her side.

Moriarty blinked, as though startled out of some reverie, and to John's relief the fingers on his chin fell away. Moriarty actually took a step back – a small step, but it put a good ten centimetres of space between their bodies and allowed John to breathe a little easier.

But then he glanced down at Amarisa, and his lips quirked. “Bad dog!”

Then Moriarty's hand shot out and he grabbed – he touched, he actually touched – Amarisa's right ear. And twisted.

It was like nothing John had ever felt before. There was pain, yes – he felt it clearly through their connection, and vaguely heard Amarisa yelping over the roaring in his ears – but it was nothing compared to what it felt like to have Moriarty touching his dæmon.

It was nauseating and wrong in a deep, vital way. It was disgust and horror and fear and every negative emotion all rolled into one searing blast and shoved through him like a bullet. It was a violation beyond comprehension.

John and Amarisa had always been a little wary of touch. John wasn't physically demonstrative with other people, and Amarisa didn't nudge or lick dæmons in greeting. They'd known some people let their lovers touch their dæmons, but they'd never felt comfortable with the prospect. And now to have Moriarty...

The touch withdrew as swiftly as it had been inflicted, and John realised that he'd dropped to his knees without realising it, his hands on the cold pavement and his head hanging like a beaten-down carthorse. His shoulder and hip burned like dry ice, the wounds throbbing as if newly-inflicted.

Amarisa was whimpering, pressing up against him like a newborn puppy; blind and helpless and instinctively seeking its mother's warmth. John curled his arms around her and pressed her into his chest as much as he was able, burying his face in her neck. One hand was clenched tightly in the thick fur of her underbelly, the other ran feverishly over her still-tender ear, trying to erase the chilling imprint of Moriarty's fingers.

“Bad dogs get punished,” came Moriarty's voice, soft and chiding.

Somehow, John found the strength to raise his head, the courage to glare straight at Moriarty, hating the man standing above him more than he'd hated anything before in his life.

Moriarty only smiled, drinking in John's murderous look like it was applause. “Oh, now I'm beginning to understand what he sees in you.”

John locked his muscles to stop himself flinching. Amarisa pressed herself against him as though she was trying to crawl inside his chest.

A laugh, low and thick with venom. “Oh, Johnny-boy, this is going to be even more fun than I thought...”

--

Sherlock waited until he heard the door shut behind John and Amarisa before he put the blatant invitation on his website. He made the deadline midnight, as a few hours would certainly be enough time for the bomber to make their way there from wherever they were in London. And Sherlock knew the bomber was in London – they wouldn't go to all this trouble without sticking around to see the results. They wanted to play, after all.

He spent the next several hours pacing around the flat and counting down the seconds. Raniel was restless as well, jumping up on the coffee table only to jump down against almost immediately, running back and forth underneath the windows.

“Do you think we should have told them?” the polecat asked, perched on Sherlock's chair and staring at the pink phone as though the dæmon was willing it to ring.

There was no need to ask who 'them' referred to. “No, it's better if they sit this one out.”

Largely because John and Amarisa didn't seem to appreciate the game the way Sherlock and Raniel did. And also because the bomber had tailored these brilliant little puzzles to Sherlock and Raniel alone, and might react badly if someone else was brought into it.

It was easy enough to get to the pool, to pick the locks and slip inside. Raniel was practically shivering with delighted anticipation on Sherlock's shoulder when they entered at last.

The tang of chlorine filled the air, and even through their excitement they didn't forget that the bomber was dangerous – Sherlock glanced around, checking for people hidden in the shadows, and Raniel scented the air, searching for a whiff of explosives.

It seemed there was nothing, and Sherlock was about to flourish the USB stick and make his entrance when Raniel suddenly went still on his shoulder.

“John...” he whispered, disbelieving. “I can smell John...”

Sherlock froze in place, thoughts and plans momentarily derailed. Why would John's scent be in this pool? He hadn't known what Sherlock was doing, he didn't visit this place, so how could Raniel be smelling John?

A side-door opened and shut, the sound echoing off the tiles. Sherlock turned automatically, ensuring he and his dæmon were facing whoever was entering.

It was John. John dressed in a thick green parka and his usually expressive face carefully – calculatingly – blank.

Amarisa was nowhere to be seen.

“Evening,” John greeted, his voice as flat and cold as his expression. “This is a turn-up, isn't it, Sherlock?”

“John...” Sherlock breathed, not even realising he'd blurted the other man's name in his confusion until he heard it echo back to him.

“What the hell...?” Raniel whispered, his nose twitching and his eyes darting from side to side as he sought out Amarisa.

“Bet you never saw this coming.”

John's voice was still bare of inflection or emotion, but he was blinking quite rapidly. That might have meant something, Sherlock wasn't sure, he couldn't think past the conclusion being presented to him, a conclusion as inescapable as it was improbable.

John had come to meet him.

John had come to meet him.

John was the bomber.

John and Amarisa had fooled Sherlock and Raniel, completely and utterly. But how, how could they have...?

But no, this was okay, because John and Amarisa hadn't left any evidence. There'd been nothing tying them to the crimes, nothing to arouse even the slightest suspicion, which meant Sherlock and Raniel could cover up their involvement. They could take them away, could teach them how to restrain their impulses, and anyway those hostages were probably horrible people if John had done that to them – that old blind woman must have been a monster.

Then John took his hands out of the parka's pockets, the fabric shifting across his chest and affording a glimpse of wires and lights and white packaging.

There was a bomb strapped to John's chest.

Raniel whimpered, and his paws tightened convulsively on Sherlock's shoulder, tiny claws puncturing his clothes to dig deeply into the skin above his clavicle.

Sherlock didn't even feel it.

“What would you like me to make him say next?” John said, and finally Sherlock recognised in his voice the dead, emotionless recital of someone parroting lines.

John had spread the lapels of the parka, displaying a black vest with several kilos of Semtex attached to it, wires twisting through them like dead snakes. A single laser sight from a sniper rifle shivered on the block of explosives that rested over his heart.

John was a hostage. That was all Sherlock could comprehend, as though it were all his mind could process. John was a hostage and where was Amarisa?

He and Raniel approached with slow, measured steps, glancing behind them, tilting their heads to scan the dark rows of seats above them. The sniper was somewhere in this building – if they could just find out where they were...

“Gottle o' geer,” John said dully, the resignation in his voice making Sherlock's chest feel tight, and he could feel Raniel tremble against the urge to go to John and comfort him.

“Gottle o' geer. Gottle o' geer.”

On the third repetition, John's voice broke and he went pale, swaying slightly on the spot. There wasn't any particular logic behind it but in that moment Sherlock knew that something was happening to Amarisa, and that John was feeling it.

“Stop it!” he snapped, even as he tried to keep his voice low and calm. It wouldn't do to alarm the sniper, after all.

“I can't see them,” Raniel breathed into his human's ear, and Sherlock could feel his dæmon's mounting fear. “I can't see the sniper and I can't...I can't smell Amarisa.”

Logically, Sherlock knew that the chlorine would overpower any scents from outside, which was probably why his dæmon couldn't detect the wolfdog's scent. It didn't stop Raniel's statement from raising his blood pressure several notches.

But then John was speaking again and in spite of himself, Sherlock listened. “Nice touch, this. The pool, where little Carl died. I stopped him.”

John grimaced suddenly, half-turning his head and closing his eyes as though he didn't want to say whatever was being fed into his ear. Raniel actually rocked forward on Sherlock's shoulder as though preparing to leap towards him.

“I can stop John Watson, too,” John said, his voice still a careful monotone as he glanced down at the laser sight on his chest. “Stop his heart.”

Who are you?” And now Sherlock was shouting – there was only so much he could take.

Because this wasn't the way the game was played. No, it was played with delightfully twisted cases and people he and Raniel didn't give a damn about, not with a puzzle already solved and John and Amarisa's life on the line. Sherlock was calling time out or game over or something – however this was stopped, he was stopping it now.

“Oh, but you know who I am,” came a jaunty voice from the opposite end of the pool. “We've met before, remember?”

Frankly, Sherlock was less concerned with the man's appearance and identity than with the fact that he was dragging Amarisa on what seemed to be a choke chain. And even though the wolfdog was bristling and showing her teeth, she wasn't audibly growling, and actually seemed to be cringing away from her captor.

Sherlock didn't want to contemplate what kind of threat or abuse could make Amarisa frightened of someone.

“...Risa...” Raniel whispered, the name echoing in the sudden silence.

Wanting to divert the bomber's attention from his dæmon's obvious distress, Sherlock drew the gun. No matter what people liked to say, he and Raniel weren't completely without a sense of self-preservation, and coming unarmed to a confrontation with a known killer would have been idiotic.

But the gun meant nothing, really. An empty menace next to the far more potent threat of John strapped to a bomb, of Amarisa chained.

“But I suppose we weren't properly introduced,” the bomber mused, and something about his appearance, his voice, was niggling at the back of Sherlock's mind.

“Jim Moriarty,” he announced. “Hi!

Raniel hissed, and while some part of Sherlock's brain was noting that revelation, the name 'Jim' had finally prompted the memory he needed. 'Jim' from the hospital, Molly's new boyfriend, the one he hadn't even glanced at because he was too busy (stupid, stupid) and why hadn't he just taken the time to classify the man's dæmon, surely that would have told him something?

Moriarty was sliding along the edge of the pool, and Amarisa was becoming more animated the closer she came to John. She was twisting her shoulders and head as though she was trying to slide the silvery chain off her neck, shifting her weight restlessly and straining against Moriarty's hold now and then, as though she were making an effort to control herself but wasn't able to stop trying to reach her human.

“Don't,” Moriarty said, his voice as mild as if he were scolding his own pet. “You know what happens to bad dogs.”

Sherlock expected that to provoke some response – a snarl, a pithy comment – but to his surprise Amarisa went still and silent, and John swallowed audibly.

Sherlock did his best not to think about exactly how long Moriarty had held John and Amarisa for. About how many hours they'd been alone and at his mercy and what might have happened in that time.

“I've given you a glimpse, Sherlock,” Moriarty went on as though picking up a conversation they'd already started. “Just a teensy glimpse of what I've got going on out there in the big bad world. I'm a specialist – like you.”

So that was how they were going to play it, was it? Moriarty wasn't even glancing at either John or Amarisa, and that was good – the less attention he paid them, the less likely he was to hurt them.

“Dear Jim,” Sherlock mused, even as he wondered if he should raise a hand to Raniel to try to still the polecat's trembling. “Please will you fix it for me to get rid of my lover's nasty sister? Dear Jim, please will you fix it for me to disappear to South America?”

Moriarty smirked. “Just so.”

He was moving ever-closer and dragging Amarisa with him. Sherlock found himself feeling thankful that the distance between John and his dæmon had decreased to something that would be approaching comfortable.

“Consulting criminal,” Sherlock hissed. “Brilliant.”

Because it was, he had to admit that. He and Raniel had been having the time of their lives solving Moriarty's puzzles, and would have been quite happy to continue their little dance indefinitely – they would never have been bored again, never.

But John Watson and Amarisa were sacrosanct. John Watson and Amarisa were not to be touched, and when Moriarty had crossed that line he'd engineered his own destruction.

“Isn't it?” Moriarty all-but crowed. “No one ever gets to me...and no one ever will.”

Sherlock released the safety on the gun – a sharp, metallic snap. “I did.”

“You've come the closest,” Moriarty allowed. “Now you're in my way.”

“Thank you.”

“Didn't mean it as a compliment.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Yeah, okay, I did,” Moriarty shrugged, and beneath his genial tone Sherlock could hear an edge of annoyance, and he had a very clear idea of why it was there.

The bombs, the cases, the shoes...from the start, this had been about attracting Sherlock's attention. And while his banter had given the appearance of attentiveness, Raniel's gaze – darting between John and Amarisa, never resting on Moriarty for an instant – showed where his attention truly was.

“But the flirting's over, Sherlock – Daddy's had enough now.” Moriarty practically sang the final word, which should have made the whole statement seem ridiculous but somehow only made it more unsettling.

What did he mean by 'had enough'? More specifically, what did that mean for John and Amarisa?

“I've shown you what I can do,” Moriarty went on. “I cut loose all those people, all those little problems, even thirty million quid just to get you to come out and play. So take this as a friendly warning, my dear – back off.”

He began to move forward again, and there was a restrained eagerness in Amarisa's movements as she followed. She was clearly desperate to go to John, but trying not to telegraph it.

Moriarty was still speaking, but now there was a tight eagerness in his voice. “Although, I have loved this, this little game of ours. I really shouldn't, considering, but there you go.”

Something flickered in John's eyes, something that looked disturbingly like comprehension – as though John was seeing a layer to that statement that was hidden to Sherlock.

“People have died.” And right now Sherlock didn't know what to do to ensure John and Amarisa wouldn't be among them. He couldn't think of anything to do but play along, and Raniel was no help – his dæmon had been useless ever since John opened the parka.

“That's what people DO!” Moriarty snarled.

Then, as though determined to punish someone for the lapse in his self-control, he jerked on the chain in his hand, tightening it ruthlessly for one moment before letting it fall lax once more. John choked as Amarisa did, and as soon as the throttling ended, Amarisa growled reflexively – a warning that she wouldn't tale such abuse lightly.

Sherlock had expected Moriarty to ignore it, or maybe mutter the same warning he'd used before about the fate of 'bad dogs'.

He certainly hadn't expected Moriarty to actually touch John's dæmon.

He reached down and twisted Amarisa's ear as casually as if he were disciplining his own pet. Amarisa yelped pathetically but barely struggled – she was stunned and shaking and limp, as though the choke chain was all that was keeping her on her feet. John paled and trembled, looking as though he were inches away from vomiting or passing out himself.

Sherlock felt sick and horrified, as if he'd walked in to find Moriarty raping John on the tiles. His own emotional reaction was so extreme it locked Sherlock's body and wiped his mind blank as John swayed and gasped and Amarisa whimpered.

Stop it!” Raniel cried, his voice thin and brittle.

Seemingly pleased at getting a response from Sherlock's dæmon at last, Moriarty released Amarisa. Released her entirely, in fact, dropping the choke chain and not even trying to stop her as she flew to her human's side.

John dropped to his knees and clutched at her, heedless of the bulky bomb or the laser sights dancing over them as he hugged his dæmon close, stroking and whispering to her as they both let out little shaky gasps and sobs of relief.

Sherlock felt detached from the scene, partially absent from his own body as though the horror of seeing Moriarty touch Amarisa had made part of his mind withdraw into itself. He didn't even realise he was speaking until he felt his lips and mouth working.

“I'm going to kill you.”

Raniel was quivering on Sherlock's shoulder, his lean body as tense as a coiled spring, and if Moriarty's dæmon had been in the vicinity Sherlock knew Raniel would have ripped it apart.

Moriarty snorted. “No, you won't.”

Clearly, he didn't know Sherlock as well as he thought he did, but that wasn't Sherlock's main concern.

“You all right?” he asked, clearly directing the question to John and Amarisa.

They were so caught up in each other – Amarisa's head tucked into John's chest, John's face lost in her fur – that at first Sherlock wasn't sure if they'd even heard him. But then they shifted minutely, enough for John's face to be visible and for one golden eye to peer out from under John's arm.

Moriarty leaned over them, and Sherlock's hands tightened around the gun. If Moriarty tried to touch Amarisa again...

“You can talk, Johnny-boy,” he said, his voice dripping with derision. “Go ahead.”

But John didn't say a word, just nodded silently.

At that, Raniel – previously wound so tightly he seemed in danger of vibrating off Sherlock's shoulder – suddenly relaxed so completely and abruptly he practically melted into his human's suit.

Sherlock wanted to touch him, to at least attempt to comfort him, but he couldn't drop the USB and he couldn't risk taking the gun off Moriarty. Instead he tilted his head just slightly, so the edge of his ear brushed the polecat's haunch, and hoped Raniel would understand.

In the same moment, he shoved the USB in Moriarty's face. “Take it.”

It wasn't ideal, but if the man was mollified by Sherlock's offering he might let John and Amarisa go.

Moriarty's pleased grin and the kiss he pressed to the dark plastic gave Sherlock a moment's hope, but it didn't last long.

“Boring,” Moriarty sang, flicking the USB into the pool. “I could have got them anywhere.”

Sherlock didn't even see John move. One moment he was on his knees, arms wrapped around his dæmon, and the next he was on his feet with one arm locked around Moriarty's neck.

“Sherlock, run!”

Raniel sucked in a startled breath, and Sherlock re-adjusted his aim, but neither of them made any move to turn away or flee.

Amarisa growled low in her throat, sounding frustrated, as though she and John had actually expected Sherlock and his dæmon to turn tail and leave them with an insane criminal who'd already shown no compunction about violating them.

“Good!” Moriarty hissed, almost admiringly. “Very good.”

The laser sight was jogging around on their bodies, clearly trying for a shot that wouldn't also hit Moriarty.

“If your sniper pulls that trigger, Mr. Moriarty, then we both go up,” John gritted out, voice as intent and dangerous as one of Amarisa's snarls.

“He's sweet, I can see why you like having him around,” Moriarty cooed to Sherlock as though completely unaware of the dangerous man who had him in a headlock. “But then, people do get so sentimental about their pets.”

John yanked viciously on Moriarty's throat as though trying to shut him up. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to work.

“They're so touchingly loyal,” Moriarty sneered, twisting his head to look John in the eye for a moment. “But – oops! You've rather shown your hand there, Dr. Watson.”

John suddenly froze.

“Sherlock...” Amarisa gasped, her tail dropping and starting to curl between her legs.

Raniel twisted on Sherlock's shoulder, and then abruptly went still.

Sherlock couldn't see the laser sight, but he could guess it was hovering somewhere in the region of his cranium. He shook his head, willing John to hold his ground. The ex-soldier had the advantage now – he couldn't give it up, not for Sherlock.

But John's arms were loosening, slipping off Moriarty's body as John stepped back into something approximating his original position. The laser sight returned to his chest even as Amarisa crept to his side, pressing her head against his leg.

Moriarty smirked and gloated for a few moments, then abruptly returned to business. “Do you know what happens if you don't leave me alone, Sherlock? To you?”

“Oh, let me guess, I get killed.” It seemed rather obvious, and Sherlock felt a measure of relief that Moriarty was now threatening he and Raniel directly, instead of John and Amarisa.

But Moriarty only cocked his head.

“I should,” he mused. “I really should, but...” The sigh he gave sounded like an infatuated teenage girl. “I think I'd rather save it for something special. No, if you don't stop prying...I will burn you.”

Moriarty's face twisted then, vicious with hatred and envy and longing. “I will burn the heart out of you.”

'Don't look at John,' Sherlock ordered himself, and made his voice cold and intent when he replied, “I have been reliably informed that I don't have one.”

Moriarty smirked, the kind of expression that said he was disappointed to see Sherlock mouth so transparent a lie. “But we both know that's not quite true.”

'Don't look at John,' Sherlock repeated. 'You've given Moriarty enough ammunition tonight. Do. Not. Look. At. John.'

He turned the impulse into a blink, and hoped Raniel had similar success in controlling himself. Though really, he suspected it didn't matter – if John had shown his hand tonight, then surely they had too.

“Well, I'd best be off,” Moriarty suddenly announced. “So nice to have had a proper chat.”

He glanced back at John and Amarisa, and though they didn't flinch or shift backward it was clear that they wanted to.

Fury twisted in Sherlock's gut like a living thing. Moriarty had hurt John, had touched Amarisa and now he thought he could just walk away? Unacceptable.

“What if I was to shoot you now?” Sherlock hissed, Raniel bristling on his shoulder. “Right now?”

“Then you could cherish the look of surprise on my face,” Moriarty's expression morphed into a ridiculous caricature of shock. “Because I'd be surprised Sherlock, really I would. And just a teensy bit...disappointed. And of course you wouldn't be able to cherish it for very long.”

As much as it burned, he was right. However much Sherlock wanted to shoot him, he couldn't risk it while John was still strapped to that bomb.

Moriarty was moving towards the exit – slowly, as though he had all the time in the world. “Ciao, Sherlock Holmes.”

Sherlock stepped closer to John, feeling an urge to throw in one last taunt just to cover how shaken he was. “Catch. You. Later.”

“No you won't,” came Moriarty's jeering rejoinder just before the door clanged shut.

Both humans and dæmons held themselves still for the space of a breath. Then Sherlock dropped to one knee in front of John and began yanking at the straps and buckles that secured the vest. Raniel leapt to the floor and streaked across the tiles to Amarisa's side, teeth closing around the choke chain and tugging it off her neck.

“All right?” Sherlock and his dæmon spoke at the same time.

At the edge of his vision, Sherlock could see Amarisa press her nose against Raniel's, offering silent reassurance. But John was panting heavily, his head thrown back so Sherlock couldn't see his face.

“Are you all right?” Sherlock repeated.

“Yeah, I'm fine, I'm fine,” John breathed as Sherlock worked on stripping the vest and parka from his shoulders. “Sherlock? Sherlock?

Incredibly, John sounded worried about him. Worried about Sherlock, even after all that he'd endured.

But there was no time to dwell on that, just as there was no guarantee Moriarty was truly gone. Sherlock snatched the gun from the floor and went to check, but soon found he couldn't go far because Raniel hadn't followed him. When he re-entered the pool John was crouched against the wall of a cubicle, one hand clenched in Amarisa's ruff, and he was actually asking Raniel if the dæmon was all right.

“We're fine,” the polecat muttered, licking and nudging at Amarisa's muzzle as though trying to comfort her, but his movements were too frenetic to really be called 'soothing'.

Sherlock could sympathise – he couldn't help pacing up and down, filled with nervous energy, the vestiges of horror and bone-deep terror jangling along his spine.

He remembered Moriarty's hands on Amarisa with a fresh surge of bile, and wondered how many times she and John had been subjected to that in the hours before he and Raniel came. He remembered John tackling Moriarty without hesitation, and wondered how many people would have shown the same courage.

“That, uh, that thing that you did,” Sherlock muttered, knowing that he was being far from coherent but feeling the need to say it. “That you offered to do, that was, um...good.”

Amarisa seemed to be smiling, and the corner of John's mouth gave a weary twitch.

“I'm glad no one saw that,” he sighed.

“Glad no one saw what?” Raniel asked.

“You, ripping my clothes off in a darkened swimming pool,” John clarified with a tired smile.

“People might talk,” Amarisa finished, her dog-grin clearly in evidence.

A joke. John and Amarisa were joking moments after having been abused and how did they do that?

Sherlock tried to muster himself to respond. “People do little else.”

John smiled again, and to his surprise Sherlock found the muscles of his cheeks pulling his lips into a similar grin. Amarisa whuffed and nipped playfully at Raniel's ear, and the polecat chittered as he nudged sharply at her chin.

Snorting with amusement at their dæmon's behaviour, John began to push himself to his feet...then suddenly ground to a halt.

A spot of red light was dancing over his shirt. It was joined by others, and a single glance confirmed Sherlock's worst fears – a swarm of laser sights covered all of them, hovering over himself, John, Amarisa and even Raniel.

He could feel himself tense, his muscles winding tighter as his hand took a firm grip on the gun once more. John was tense as well, preparing for action even though he clearly didn't know what that action could be, and Raniel had gone completely still, pressing himself back against Amarisa as if he believed his much-smaller body could somehow shield her.

Amarisa was the only one who spoke, in a statement no less crass than it was a neat summary of the situation.

“Well, shit!”

Chapter Text

Sorry boys!” Moriarty called, laughter in every syllable. “I'm sooo changeable! It is a weakness with me, but to be fair to myself, it is my only weakness.”

Sherlock could see that John's fingers were resting in Amarisa's ruff, his hands steady and completely without any hint of a tremor. The wolfdog's neck bent to curve around Raniel's body, as though trying to hide him from Moriarty.

And as much as Sherlock thought, as much as he belaboured his mind, he couldn't see a way to save all of them. He couldn't even see how to save one of them.

“You can't be allowed to continue,” Moriarty drawled, and for the first time there was a touch of regret in his voice. “You just can't. I would try to convince you, but everything I have to say has already crossed your mind.”

Sherlock turned his head, just slightly, trying to ask a question without actually voicing it. All three – human and dæmons alike – nodded in response. Sherlock could see the answer in John's eyes as clearly as if he'd shouted it.

Do it.

“Possibly my answer has crossed yours,” Sherlock replied, his voice deliberately even as he turned and aimed the gun at the bomb.

He wouldn't hesitate. He wouldn't, because if he did he'd think about John and Amarisa and everything they were to Raniel and himself and everything they weren't, everything they could have been but wouldn't.

Sherlock pulled the trigger and the bullet hit the jacket, sending it skidding across the tiles...

Nothing happened.

Moriarty laughed, clapping his hands. “Oh well done, well done! I can certainly see how you might be my downfall. But you see, Sherlock, you have to be careful when handling explosives – that bomb won't go off any old way.”

Of course, there was a trigger – one area of impact where the bullet would ignite the bomb, and nowhere else.

“And if you pull that trigger again,” Moriarty went on, his voice hard. “I'll get my darlings to put a hole in the mongrel.”

Sherlock glanced quickly over at Amarisa. Her teeth were bared, showing what she thought of that threat, and John's hand was still clenched in his dæmon's ruff. Raniel was on his hind legs, stretching as though to make himself taller, and the polecat was hissing with fury, long teeth exposed.

“They say you're going to be my doom,” Moriarty mused. “But I've never been able to resist playing with things I shouldn't.”

Sherlock didn't understand all these references to doom and downfall, but the grimness in John's face suggested he did. Amarisa was holding herself very still, like a wolf in hiding, just waiting for the rabbit to wander close enough.

He made himself look back at Moriarty – he couldn't indulge himself with staring at John and Amarisa, not now, not when their lives depended on him taking the measure of Moriarty and coming up with a plan to get them out of this.

Even if Amarisa's stillness and the set, determined expression on John's face were comforting in ways even he couldn't articulate.

With a flourish, as if making a particularly obscure joke, Moriarty produced an arrow. Sherlock was startled – he'd been expecting a gun. What was the man doing with an arrow?

“I'm supposed to stab you with this,” the criminal said, smiling as he moved closer.

Sherlock wanted very badly to shoot him – for all his talk of Mycroft being his nemesis, he'd never in his life hated someone as violently and as expansively as he hated Moriarty. He could put a bullet in this man's heart and celebrate it.

But with Moriarty's threat still fresh in his mind and laser sights still hovering over Amarisa, Sherlock couldn't do anything.

When Moriarty was within five feet of their position John suddenly twitched, a sharp ripple across his body as though a gust of cold wind had touched him.

Moriarty stopped, glancing down at the doctor and his dæmon. Sherlock tensed.

But Moriarty simply smirked, glancing up at Sherlock as though they were sharing a private joke. “Sensitive, isn't he?”

Sherlock had no idea what he was referring to, something that was becoming distressingly frequent. How could he get them out of this if he didn't know everything that was going on?

“Most people need to touch objects to detect a spell,” Moriarty went on. “In fact, every documented case of Stanislaus particle sensitivity needed touch. But not Johnny-boy – you can feel it from all the way over there, can't you?”

A slow, measured nod from John, and Sherlock frantically tried to remember everything he'd ever read about 'sensitives' – those people who were particularly attuned to Stanislaus particles and so could detect the presence of a witch's spell. There was a documented case of a woman who could even tell what type of spell had been cast, and all she needed was to remain in contact with the object for five minutes.

And that was the point. Sherlock realised every paper written on the subject had talked of the time-spans needed to detect the presence of a spell. There had never been any references to distance, because every single sensitive ever known had needed to touch the object first.

But that twitch...there was over a metre between him and Moriarty, yet John had felt that spell.

“I bet he can tell us what it is as well,” Moriarty enthused.

John's eyes were flat and his voice was a monotone when he replied, “It's a death-spell.”

That got Sherlock's attention.

Moriarty grinned and spun the arrow in his hand. “You've already survived two of these, Johnny-boy, want to go for the hat-trick?”

John didn't reply, but Sherlock could see that he'd shifted his position so he was ready to leap to his feet at a moment's notice.

Moriarty rolled the arrow between his fingers as though debating something, but eventually a set expression drifted over his face and Sherlock knew that whatever the question was, Moriarty had settled on his answer.

“But there's no need to rush,” he said at last, a sick pleasure lighting his eyes. “This is only the first date, after all...”

He was actually backing away, and Sherlock wondered (hoped) if Moriarty was just going to leave. It was far from ideal – there were still far too many unanswered questions for Sherlock's taste – but if it kept John and Amarisa safe...

Just before he left, Moriarty winked flirtatiously, clicking his tongue.

Apparently that had been a signal, because it was answered by a gunshot. The Semtex-laden vest exploded, the concussive blast knocking Sherlock to the ground.

Through the ringing in his ears, he thought dimly that the explosion had been out of proportion for the amount of Semtex on the vest. He'd been expecting the kind of inferno that ensured all that was left of them was charred bones, but that was just a small bang and a lot of smoke.

And Sherlock suspected that the smoke wasn't all from the explosion. It was thick and black, and each inhale tasted vaguely of chemicals that scoured his throat and made him cough and choke.

Where was Raniel? Where were John and Amarisa?

Sherlock's eyes were streaming and he couldn't see a thing beyond the cloying smoke, but he knew where'd he last seen them. He rolled over, ignoring the way his ribs twinged – probably bruised, he'd hit the tiles very hard – and groped through the darkness, following the tug of his bond with Raniel.

A hand grasped his and yanked him to his feet. In the smoke, any kind of movement was disorienting, and Sherlock reeled as he was dragged through the blackness. He couldn't see the person pulling him along, but the hand – the broad palm and dexterous fingers, calloused but gentle – told him who it was.

John.

He still didn't know where Raniel was, only that the polecat couldn't possibly keep up with the pace John was demanding. With anyone else, Sherlock would have pulled himself free and scrambled to find his dæmon, but he trusted John.

Still, it didn't stop him from waiting for the twisting, wrenching pain that came from being pulled too far from your dæmon. But it never came. There was no painful stretch on their bond, and Sherlock couldn't feel any fear or pain from Raniel, only a strange feeling of relief and security, as though he knew he was safe.

He heard John throw open the door before he saw the glimmer of streetlights. John didn't stop, but kept running, dragging Sherlock down the street even as they both coughed and panted.

A single (blurry) glance to the side showed him why Raniel wasn't distressed. Amarisa was running perhaps two paces behind her human, with Sherlock's dæmon dangling from her mouth. She hadn't grabbed him by the scruff of his neck – she must have simply swept him off the floor, because her jaws were wrapped lightly around the polecat's chest.

It was a dangerous position – all Amarisa had to do was close her mouth to break ribs like brittle chalk – but Raniel was completely limp and trusting in her grip.

Sherlock had no idea how John determined what point was a safe distance away, but eventually the doctor stopped, releasing Sherlock's hand. Sherlock took the chance to catch his breath, and knew that for a few minutes he looked very undignified, coughing and gasping until his lungs were no longer screaming for air.

Of course, as soon as his breathing returned to something approaching normal, John insisted on checking for a concussion.

“I'm fine,” Sherlock tried to say, the words strangely muffled over his tinnitus.

John smiled wearily with a touch of incredulity in his expression, as though he still wasn't sure how they'd survived that. He glanced at his wolfdog, and the smile became softer, more obviously affectionate.

“You can put him down now, Amarisa,” he said gently.

Sherlock looked over – and it was a measure of his trust in John's dæmon that he'd felt no need to check on Raniel – to find his dæmon still dangling from Amarisa's jaws.

Looking flustered, Amarisa gently placed Raniel on the ground. The polecat shook himself, and she bent to lick his ruffled fur smooth.

Though he knew, logically, that the night was cold, each time Amarisa's tongue passed over Raniel's fur Sherlock felt a shiver of warmth. When she began to pull away, Raniel leaned up to lick and nuzzle at the ear Moriarty had abused. Amarisa sighed and closed her eyes beneath Raniel's ministrations, and a glance at John showed that his eyes were half-closed, as though he were sleepy, and the line of his shoulders was so relaxed it was practically slumped.

After a moment, the dæmons seemed to realise the effect they were having on their people and backed away from each other. Raniel climbed Sherlock's clothes to his shoulder and Amarisa went to John, nuzzling into his side as the doctor knelt and embraced her.

Sherlock watched John press his face into Amarisa's neck, cradling her head and rubbing gently across her ears, and wondered if they were still feeling the effects of Moriarty's manhandling. Wondered if there was anything he and Raniel could do even if they were.

In the end, both he and his dæmon did nothing but stand uselessly by while John and Amarisa whispered and crooned to each other. Eventually they drew away, though John's hand remained on Amarisa's ruff, his fingers gently curled in her fur.

“So, uh...” John gave a weak grin, nodding towards the black smoke billowing from the swimming pool two streets away. “Do we call the police or the fire department? Or both?”

--

John collapsed into his chair with a sigh, feeling his muscles unwind from their knots for the first time since Moriarty's goons had forced him and Amarisa into that van.

They'd given their statement to the police and been checked out by the paramedics. In spite of John's concerns about smoke inhalation, they all seemed to have escaped unscathed apart from some bumps and bruises. The ringing in their ears was even starting to fade.

Amarisa draped herself over him, and John hugged her close. Even though it had been two hours since Moriarty had touched her, the wrongness of it still lingered in their bones.

Sherlock and Raniel, meanwhile, were clattering around in the kitchen, in full brooding mode.

“His mother's a witch, by the way,” John said wearily. “Moriarty, I mean.”

He and Sherlock had given their statements separately, and considering how distracted Sherlock had looked John thought there was a good chance the other man hadn't overheard the information John had given to the police. The pause in the the noises of activity from the kitchen told him that Moriarty's maternity was new to both Sherlock and his dæmon.

“And he's obviously separated from his dæmon,” came Raniel's voice.

“Like Mycroft,” Amarisa recalled. “But you and Sherlock aren't, are you?”

“No we're not,” Sherlock said tightly.

He abandoned his rummaging in the kitchen in favour of throwing himself on the sofa and glaring up at the ceiling. Raniel curled up on the coffee table, and John wondered if the polecat's worried, sidelong glances were meant to be subtle.

“His mother was part of the clan that attacked me,” John went on, and now he definitely had Sherlock's attention – the detective was sitting up on the sofa and staring at him. “But he thinks the prophecy refers to you, not me.”

“He recited it for us,” Amarisa chimed in. “I made sure to memorise it.”

John felt a swell of pride for his dæmon – even after all that had happened to them, she'd ensured she brought Sherlock and Raniel important information. On impulse, he pressed a kiss to the top of her head and Amarisa gave a pleased whine.

“He will walk the fringes and his dæmon will set him apart,” the wolfdog recited. “He will find a home with the outcasts and his soul will be unique. A witch will raise him and the witches will protect him. He will forge his own path and he will answer his country's call. Loneliness will know him, death will touch him, he will see what others are blind to and he will know what others cannot see. And he will be our destruction. And he will be our downfall.”

Sherlock snorted. “Frankly, I think it's only his own arrogance that makes him believe that refers to me.”

“Why?” John asked. “You have to admit that it's-”

“When have we ever 'answered our country's call'?” Raniel interrupted.

Amarisa chuckled, and John was forced to admit that patriotism was definitely not one of Sherlock and Raniel's qualities.

“But he thinks it means you,” John couldn't help adding. “Which probably only exacerbated the whole...”

He waved his hand in an attempt to indicate the twisted game Moriarty had been playing. Sherlock frowned at the ceiling and Raniel suddenly began grooming himself frantically, as though trying to avoid Amarisa's gaze.

John wondered if they were now feeling uncomfortable about having enjoyed Moriarty's puzzles, considering the way they'd ended.

But Sherlock surprised him when he suddenly announced, “You can leave.”

John blinked in surprise.

“I beg your pardon?” Amarisa demanded. “Did you just say we could leave?”

Sherlock nodded jerkily, but neither he nor his dæmon looked at them. “Since it appears to be me Moriarty is obsessed with, there's a very good chance he won't bother you again if you leave now and...and don't contact us again.”

When he finished, he rested one hand on his dæmon – Raniel looked like he was trembling, but John couldn't understand why. Sherlock and the polecat couldn't possibly think he and Amarisa would take them up on their offer, could they? Did they really think John and his dæmon would turn their backs on them when they were in trouble, just because it might be a little risky?

“We're staying!” Amarisa snapped, just as irritated as John was.”Do you think we're going to leave just because it might be dangerous? Wasn't that what you used to attract us in the first place?”

“That's different!” Sherlock practically snarled, glaring at the wolfdog. “What he did to you...do you think he'll hesitate to do it again?”

John tried not to shudder at the reminder of Moriarty's touch, and his grip tightened on Amarisa. Then he made himself smile, and quip.

“Harry always said that when they were handing out common sense, we were standing in line for an extra helping of stubborn.”

The tense line of Sherlock's spine softened, Raniel actually let out a little sigh, and John and Amarisa both pretended not to notice how relieved their friends were.

“Besides,” Sherlock drawled, his voice brusque and unconcerned as if John and Amarisa's departure had never been in question. “Moriarty's smart enough that, sooner or later, he'll realise the prophecy refers to you.”

“I don't know,” John mused. “That bit about knowing what others can't see? You have to admit, that sounds a lot like you.”

Raniel scoffed. “What would you call your sensitivity to spells? Even Moriarty had to admit it was unusual.”

John pulled a face. “I doubt it's as special as he tried to make it out to be.”

“It is, John!” Sherlock snapped, seemingly irritated all over again. “Have you never read any of the papers on Stanislaus particle sensitivity?”

“Not particularly closely,” John admitted. “They were interesting, but not exactly medically relevant – no one's ever been hurt by it, after all.”

“Well if you had, you'd know that most sensitives – indeed, every subject ever studied – has needed physical contact in order to determine the presence of a spell on an object. Most of them need a few minutes of contact, in fact.”

John was surprised – a certain percentage of the population were sensitives, he knew that much, which was why he'd never though his and Amarisa's talent was anything particularly special. They didn't talk about, not because they wanted to hide it, but because it would have been like saying 'I have blonde hair'. Drawing attention to it just seemed silly, because it was nothing unusual or interesting.

And now Sherlock was telling them it was the exact opposite. John couldn't quite wrap his head around it. He knew for sure whether an object was spelled or not from within about twelve centimetres, but very strong spells – like that death-spell or Mycroft's umbrella – could often be felt much farther away. Because he usually needed to be so close, John hadn't thought he was particularly sensitive, and to learn every other sensitive ever studied needed to actually touch the object...

It wasn't bad, exactly, just strange. He'd thought he'd known his own talents and skills, and now he was being told that something he'd considered unremarkable was actually completely unique.

He sighed, and shook his head. “Sorry, but...that just seems so bizarre to me.”

Sherlock made the kind of sound that suggested he despaired of John's intellect, and the doctor couldn't help smiling. Amarisa huffed in amusement, but Raniel didn't seem similarly cheered.

“Are you all right?” John asked the dæmon.

The polecat looked up. “Me?”

“Yes, you,” John said, with just a touch of impatience. “You've been out of sorts ever since...well, ever since...”

“Ever since the pool,” Amarisa finished.

“Well, excuse us if we're not taking you being treated like a booby trap as well as you are,” Raniel hissed.

John shrugged. In truth, being bedecked with explosives was bothering him less than the...other things Moriarty had done.

“What were you thinking?” John blurted. “I'm sorry, but I have to ask – Moriarty didn't give me all the details, but he made it sound like you issued a challenge to him.”

“Not as such,” Sherlock said. “But I did choose the time and place of the meeting.”

“Then I repeat – what were you thinking? Organising a meeting with someone who's been shown to have no compunction about blowing people up? Without us?”

“We didn't think it was something you'd approve of,” Raniel offered.

John thought Amarisa's growl neatly summarised their thoughts on that.

“To hell with our approval!” John snapped. “If you're doing something that puts either of you at risk, you tell us about it, dammit!”

“We wanted to keep you safe!” the polecat snarled. “You were supposed to be at Sarah's, and we were supposed to meet up with the bomber in a nice, private location and then...”

“And then I stepped out,” John finished.

“Actually, we thought you were Moriarty at first,” Sherlock put in, as though thinking he should contribute to the conversation before it devolved into a discussion of feelings.

John laughed, but there wasn't much humour in it. “Well, at least he made me open the coat before you dragged me off to jail.”

“We wouldn't have done that,” Sherlock protested automatically. “We were thinking about how to cover up your connection to the bombings.”

John found it slightly disturbing that Sherlock was so calm and resolved about it.

“I'm not sure I like knowing that,” John mused. “That you'd cover up a crime if the person who committed it was interesting enough.”

“Wrong!” Raniel said loudly.

Amarisa cocked her head. “Why?”

“We'd never cover up a crime just because someone was interesting.”

“But you just said-”

“We'd cover it up if it was you.”

John wasn't entirely sure he wanted to examine the nuances of that statement.

“...bit not good,” he said weakly.

Sherlock's snort told them what he thought of that.

“We'll have to get access to the CCTV in Bart's,” he mused, and John wasn't really surprised to find that Sherlock's brain had already leapt miles beyond the conversation.

“Why do you need access to the cameras in Bart's?” Amarisa asked, leaping down from John's lap to stretch languidly.

“To identify Moriarty's dæmon, obviously,” Raniel sighed. “We weren't paying enough attention when they came in.”

“You weren't paying attention?” John repeated, feeling the beginnings of a smile twitch at the corners of his mouth. “Hang on, I think we need to record that somehow – just for posterity, you understand.”

Sherlock glared, looking very unamused. “We had other things on our mind.”

“Of course,” Amarisa agreed easily, grinning her dog-grin.

“We'll find him,” Raniel asserted, though it wasn't clear exactly who he was trying to reassure.

“Of course we will,” Sherlock affirmed. “We think the way he does, which means-”

“Only to a point,” John interrupted, feeling they should be very clear on that.

There was a pause. Then Sherlock spoke again, in a much softer voice, one that could almost be called tentative.

“You must admit the parallels are staggering.”

“Not so much, actually.”

“Oh, come on!” Sherlock spat. “We both have a witch for a mother, we both have a general contempt for society and the stupid people that inhabit it, we both-”

“You're nothing like Moriarty,” John said firmly.

“I thought we'd already had this discussion about making people into heroes-”

“I'm not making you into a hero,” John interrupted, resolutely keeping his voice calm and collected.

Sherlock and his dæmon still looked sceptical, so John decided to give them an example.

“Moriarty's separated from his dæmon, you aren't.”

“That's because it wouldn't be useful,” Raniel insisted.

“I doubt that very much,” John rebutted. “If you two were separated, you'd never have to worry about being pulled away from each other, for one. For another, Raniel's small enough to creep through air vents and pipes and the like – you could learn a lot just from sending him into a building on his own. But you didn't separate.”

“And this is supposed to prove something?” Sherlock asked archly.

“You didn't separate from Raniel because you were afraid of weakening the bond between you.”

Most of the time John had no idea of the motives behind most of Sherlock's behaviour, but right now, he was sure of himself. John could only imagine how much of an outcast Sherlock would have been as a child – at times his dæmon would undoubtedly have been the only ally he had, and he hadn't separated from Raniel because he'd been afraid he would somehow lose the only being who truly understood him.

Sherlock had turned his face away, but John could tell by Raniel's expression that what he'd said had made an impact.

“And you help the police,” Amarisa chimed in. “That's altruism, right there.”

“It's for the cases!” Sherlock hissed. “They're intriguing, and some of the good ones are a challenge – that's all!”

John shook his head. “You'll never convince me it's more difficult working with the police to catch a small subset of criminals than being a criminal and working against the police and essentially our entire society.”

Sherlock's expression was hovering dangerously close to a pout.

“Don't get me wrong,” John hastened to add. “Altruism is definitely not your primary motive, and you don't have much of it, but it's there.”

It seemed both Sherlock and Raniel didn't have anything to say to that. They were staring at John and his dæmon as though they'd never seen them before – a metaphor John had never thought would ever be able to apply to the hyper-observant Sherlock.

Sitting on the floor, Amarisa wagged her tail and whuffed softly in amusement.

John smirked. “I think it's time for some crap telly – Amarisa, would you bring me the remote?”

--

It was close to five o'clock in the morning, and John and Amarisa were dozing in front of the television; the doctor was lying back in his chair, his dæmon at his feet.

Sherlock had thought they'd at least attempt to go to bed, but he supposed the events of the night hadn't exactly been conducive to rest.

Amarisa's hind legs were stretched out so that they were touching the side of Sherlock's own chair, and other under circumstances he might have felt the familiar want to see what that thick fur felt like against his fingers, but it was...dimmer, somehow. He couldn't help but remember Amarisa's fearful yelps and John's sickened, violated expression when Moriarty touched the wolfdog, and Sherlock never, never, wanted to see that look on John's face ever again.

Raniel looked down at Amarisa, then up at his human, then across at the dozing and oblivious John. Then he abruptly leapt from the arm of Sherlock's chair to the floor.

Sherlock didn't like the resolute, determined look in Raniel's eye. “What are you doing?”

“If we don't do it now, we never will,” Raniel said, in the tone of someone explaining the obvious. “And I'm not prepared to spend the rest of our life pining away for them.”

And then, before Sherlock could stop him, he seized onto the leg of John's trousers and used it to scramble up onto the doctor's lap.

John stirred, blinking awake as one hand came up automatically to cradle whatever had landed on his thighs...

He froze with his hand barely an inch above Raniel's fur.

John's mouth was open as he stared between Sherlock and the dæmon on his lap, clearly expecting an explanation. But what could Sherlock say? 'Oh, I believe I've been in love with you since about a month ago and even if it's not 'in love', per se, you're still the person I trust most in the whole miserable world and would you please touch my dæmon if it's not too much trouble?'

Two lupine eyes the colour of fine whiskey gleamed up from the floor – Amarisa was awake. Probably just as confused as her human, but Sherlock didn't look too closely at the wolfdog. All his attention was on his own dæmon and the man whose hand hovered just above Raniel's white fur.

Everyone was silent – the tense, anticipatory silence that came just before the high dive.

Then Raniel whispered, so softly it was barely more than a breath. “Please?”

John looked up from the polecat to his human and then, staring straight into Sherlock's eyes the whole time, his hand lowered.

Sherlock had read plenty of studies on the phenomenon of dæmon-touching, but nothing could have prepared him for what he felt when John's fingers carded through Raniel's fur.

At its most basic, it was pleasure – not necessarily sexual, but the kind of pleasure that came from feeling satisfied and sated and completely, utterly at peace with yourself. It was warmth, so all-consuming it was practically a fever, in an intensity that made your chest feel too tight. It was knowing and feeling that you were safe and cherished and loved.

But that was only the bare bones of it, really. At heart, John touching Raniel was...utterly indescribable.

John was caressing Sherlock's dæmon in long, firm strokes that began between Raniel's ears and followed the line of his spine all the way to the base of his tail. Raniel, for his part, was shivering in pleasure and letting out small, involuntary mewls of ecstasy.

Through the haze of something that felt very much like bliss, Sherlock was aware of a sudden pressure against the side of his leg. He glanced down to find Amarisa was standing in front of his chair with her head resting very deliberately beside his knee.

It took him an embarrassingly long time – at least twelve seconds – to realise what she wanted. Sherlock looked up at John for permission, for confirmation that yes, he did want what his dæmon was proposing.

John's eyes were heavy-lidded and he was practically glowing with lazy pleasure – clearly dæmon-touching wasn't all one-sided – but he nodded, just once.

Permission officially granted, Sherlock wasn't about to be timid. He reached down and buried his fingers in Amarisa's ruff, just as he'd so often seen John do.

Rough-spun silk had indeed been a good way to describe it. It was thick and dense and in spite of the soft scratch of guard hairs against his skin, there was a certain softness to it. But Sherlock had to admit that the texture of Amarisa's fur wasn't foremost in his mind.

Because John touching Raniel was one thing, but John touching Raniel while Sherlock touched Amarisa was something else entirely.

It doubled, trebled the exquisite sensation of it all. Like the switch that completed a circuit, like the hypothetical perpetual motion machine, each stroke and caress only drove it higher.

Raniel had climbed John's shirt and was nuzzling into the man's neck, squirming in John's hands as though trying to push himself impossibly closer. Sherlock took his cue from his dæmon and dropped to the floor to let Amarisa press herself against him. The wolfdog laid her forehead against his, her eyes fluttering shut as Sherlock's hands came up to cradle her head and rub his fingers into her fur.

Sherlock had trained himself to be very aware of the passage of time, but he honestly didn't know how long they stayed like – John stroking Raniel as Sherlock caressed Amarisa – until it simply became too much and they were forced to break away from each other's dæmon.

In all the studies and first-hand accounts Sherlock had ever read, it was claimed that dæmon-touching usually preceded sex but that it didn't compel it. Frankly, Sherlock would never, ever believe such an assertion again because how could it not? One moment he was wrapping himself around Amarisa, literally submerging his senses with the essence of John, and the next moment he was alone? Going from 'too much' to 'nothing' so rapidly left him scrambling for a foothold, and if he couldn't touch Amarisa then he had to touch John.

He reached out for John, who pulled him down so that Sherlock was straddling his lap. Sherlock had the fleeting thought that it was good the chair was wide enough to accommodate his knees on either side of John's hips. Then he was bending down and John was leaning up and somehow their lips met in the middle.

The kiss was messy and awkward but the endorphin rush it created in Sherlock's body was unprecedented. John's right arm was hooked around Sherlock's waist, and his left hand was busy following the curve of Sherlock's spine, as if John couldn't get enough of touching him. Not that Sherlock was much better; one of his hands was clenched tightly over John's shoulder and the other was wrapped around the nape of his neck, fingers curled through the short hair.

Some part of Sherlock's mind noted that stroking the scrubby hairs at the back of John's head was very much like stroking the fur beneath Amarisa's chin – short, slightly rough, but oddly soft at the same time.

Their position wasn't easy on tender bruises and rattled bones, but Sherlock couldn't bring himself to care – he needed to be closer.

In spite of his scorn for the uselessness of social convention, Sherlock was aware that people didn't usually have sex immediately after they'd kissed for the first time. Not outside of a one-night stand, anyway. But he'd never wanted to do things the 'normal' (boring) way, and in any case he couldn't seem to stop. Under any other circumstances, he'd probably be concerned about his sudden lack of control over his own body and his own desires, but right now he just needed more of John.

After all, they'd just surrendered their souls to each other. Compared to that, their bodies were only a technicality.

Still, their respective positions weren't exactly comfortable. Sherlock and his dæmon had roused John and Amarisa often enough that they were aware the doctor had the larger bed, so relocation seemed obvious.

“Your bedroom,” Sherlock announced, mustering enough self-control to peel himself off John.

John blinked as though coming out of a daze, and for a horrible moment Sherlock thought he'd refuse. But then he smiled and grabbed onto Sherlock's hips to pull himself from the chair. Amarisa barked once, as though in celebration, before scooping up Raniel in her jaws and bounding up the stairs, the polecat chittering enthusiastically.

Sherlock had observed that people tended to fall into two main categories when removing their clothes in front of someone for the first time. There were those that tried for a sort of coy striptease (pointless in Sherlock's opinion, but he supposed some people might enjoy it), and those that threw off their clothes as if they thought they were on some sort of deadline.

John did neither, but undressed as though he was preparing to step into the shower – calmly, naturally, and completely without haste. He wasn't what people would call conventionally beautiful, which was one reason why Sherlock never paid attention to what was conventional.

John was glorious.

There was substantial muscle definition along his shoulders and chest, off-setting a waist and belly that had thickened away from the rigorous exercise of army life. He had a thick dusting of hair across his chest, and a small line from his navel to his crotch, and while his penis was far from fully erect it was certainly thickening and flushing.

There was a small splotch of a bruise on the curve of his left hip, and shadowy imprints of fingers across his biceps and wrists. Frowning, Sherlock stepped close and ran a careful finger over one of them.

“Didn't even realise I had those,” John said with surprise, glancing down at his arms.

“Must have come from when we were being hustled into that van,” Amarisa put in, sounding slightly breathless.

“Van?” Sherlock echoed, still staring at the pale purple bruises.

“We were shoved into a van and driven to that pool,” John explained.

Sherlock didn't want to think about the pool right now.

John appeared completely unconcerned about his nudity and Sherlock's scrutiny. Sherlock knew it was considered polite to disrobe when your partner did, and he had every intention of reciprocating, but he couldn't tear his attention away from John's body.

There were small scars scattered across his skin – the random wear and tear that chronicled an active, daring life – but it was the three largest that caught Sherlock's attention. The first was a faded white and obviously years old; a neat surgical scar on his abdomen where he must have had his appendix removed. A much more recent scar streaked across his right hip, a line that was essentially clean but looked somehow inflamed – where the first death-spell had grazed him.

With that noted, Sherlock raised his eyes to where the second death-spell had struck true.

It was...interesting. A bullet would have been neater – a small pucker, perhaps an incision scar where they removed the actual bullet later, but this had been a barbed arrow. And apparently it hadn't been removed cleanly. Thick ridges radiated outwards from the star-like centre where the arrow had pierced John's body, looking like some kind of exotic lily. Sherlock let his fingers skim across the skin, trying to memorise the too-smooth feel of the scar tissue.

He wondered what it had felt like – did it hurt to be struck with a death-spell? Had John known what had happened immediately, or was he informed later?

The idea that John could have died before Sherlock had even met him prompted a flicker of...something. Relief? Anger? He wasn't sure.

A deep, rich chuckle broke his concentration.

“You about done?” John asked.

He looked so nakedly affectionate that Sherlock's breath quickened audibly.

John reached out and pulled Sherlock towards him, his fingers fumbling with the buttons of Sherlock's shirt.

“If you wanted me to remove my clothes, you only needed to ask,” Sherlock couldn't resist pointing out as he undid the final buttons.

John smiled as if Sherlock had just told a joke. “Yeah, but I didn't need to ask, did I?”

Sherlock didn't reply, largely because he was absorbed in watching how John's pupils expanded as he watched Sherlock discard his clothes.

John was staring in rapt fascination. He was now fully erect. The knowledge that Sherlock's own nakedness had caused this reaction was intoxicating.

John reached for him, and with a small dart of excitement Sherlock thought that this was it, that they'd fall on top of each other on the bed now...but no, John just wanted another kiss.

That was fine with Sherlock. John was a good kisser – there was something so relaxed and delightfully decadent about his kisses, as though he'd be perfectly content to just devour each other's mouths for the rest of the morning even though they were both naked and in close proximity to a bed.

And really, being naked only made the kissing that much better. Now Sherlock could feel John's hands on his skin without the numbing layer of cloth between them, could scratch his own fingers through the curly hair on John's sternum, curve them around the prominent scar on his hip.

It was when they'd ended up on the bed and he had no clear idea of how they'd got there that Sherlock realised something was wrong. Except not wrong, exactly, because nothing about John could ever be wrong, but...different. Unique.

In all his previous experience with sex, Sherlock had never, not once, become lost in another person to the point that he wasn't aware of his surroundings. There was always some part of his mind that was observing and recording and noting whatever points of interest occurred to him at the time, even as his body yielded to physical pleasure.

But not now. Sherlock half-glanced towards his dæmon, wondering if Raniel could offer an explanation.

Oh. Perhaps that was why this encounter was so much more...intense than any other Sherlock had experienced.

Raniel tended to have a rather pained, dismissive attitude towards sex. His general bearing ensured that the other person's dæmon didn't try to interact with him, and he often retreated to some high point in the room – a bookshelf or the top of a wardrobe or something similar – to either turn his back or look down on the proceedings with undisguised disdain.

But Raniel certainly wasn't disdainful now. He was sprawled on Amarisa's chest, his paws grasping and kneading at fur and flesh even as the wolfdog hooked one foreleg over his body to anchor him to her. John's dæmon was lying on her back, belly and throat bare, writhing slowly on the carpet. She was nipping and licking at Raniel's head and neck even as the polecat rubbed his nose against hers and bit at her chin.

Sherlock was used to feeling nothing from Raniel during sex, but now he was feeling pleasure and relief and love so thick and potent it could choke.

John diverted Sherlock's thoughts by deciding to gently close his teeth around Sherlock's nipple. It was only for a moment, but it was an electrifying jolt of sensation that took Sherlock's mind from the spiritual track and placed it firmly back on the physical.

They were lying side by side on the bed, and Sherlock attempted to nudge John so that he was on his back, wanting to slide on top of him and explore his body at leisure, but was but was halted by a firm hand on his hip. In fact, John seemed intent on pushing Sherlock onto his own back.

Predictable, really, that John would be just as kind and generous in this as he was in everything else. Anticipation curled in Sherlock's gut.

Sherlock propped himself up into something approximating a sitting position, wanting to see John. The heavy, insistent ache of arousal was somehow a secondary consideration next to the need to watch the other man, to observe and catalogue every nuance and flicker of expression that crossed his face.

First there was gleeful anticipation and just a touch of apprehension (about what?), then there was determination, resolve, that small line that formed endearingly between his brows when he focused on something, and then...

Oh. Oh.

Apparently, kissing wasn't the only thing John was good at.

Except there was a problem. Or not exactly a problem, because Sherlock couldn't think of anything as a 'problem' when John's lips were stretched around his erection, but there was something not right .

“Condom!” he managed to choke out, half a question and half an exclamation of triumph that he'd managed to realise what was missing.

John pulled off with a writhing flick of his tongue that had Sherlock's hips bucking upwards on instinct, and the expression on his face was very serene.

“I'm clean,” was all he said. “You?”

Sherlock's brain wasn't working at optimal capacity at the moment, but he had some idea of the trust John was placing in him. As a doctor, he was likely aware of how many people were either unaware of their own status or lied about it.

Though he'd let Sherlock touch Amarisa (mere hours after Moriarty had violated her) and next to that, trusting him to be honest about his health probably wasn't much to speak of.

“Last time I tested, yes.” John's head began to dip back towards it's previous task, and Sherlock hastened to add, “But I habitually work in morgues or at crime scenes where blood has been exposed, so...”

He trailed off, and hoped John understood what he was trying to say. The probability was low, yes, but there was a chance he'd picked up something from a dead body and if there was some kind of pathogen incubating in his body, he didn't want John exposed to it.

John only smiled fondly, and the expression sent a warm glow through Sherlock's chest. “Sherlock, you do remember who's usually with you at those crime scenes, right? If you've picked up something, odds are I've got it too.”

Then he went to work with his lips again, and Sherlock had to concentrate on not thrusting up to meet that mouth. John quickly settled into a steady rhythm of heat and pressure, the kind that built pleasure and arousal at a slow, lazy pace. But it was the expression on John's face that truly arrested Sherlock's attention.

He looked so...earnest. He was obviously concentrating on his task, his eyes occasionally darting up to meet Sherlock's as though gauging reactions to different stimuli, so clearly dedicated to bringing Sherlock pleasure even as he disregarded the heavy swelling between his own legs.

The image stole Sherlock's breath in a way he couldn't describe.

Sherlock was just beginning to feel a flicker of concern for the state of John's jaw and neck muscles when the other man suddenly sucked and hummed and...

Sherlock wasn't sure if he made a sound, but if he did he was certain it was embarrassing.

When he came back to himself, John was lying beside him once more, grinning and looking very satisfied with himself.

Sherlock wasn't exactly sure what to do. Nothing in his previous encounters told him the correct action to take when you'd just been given a frankly fantastic blowjob by a man who now wasn't leaving the room or trying to urge you to reciprocate, but was instead smiling softly as if whatever you did now would be the most wonderful thing in the world.

He tried to gather his thoughts. “You swallowed.”

John nodded placidly. “Easy clean-up.”

“Marvellous,” Sherlock murmured, then promptly shoved John onto his back.

John laughed out something that sounded like 'pushy', but choked as Sherlock turned sideways on the bed and gave his erection an exploratory lick.

John's penis was like the rest of his body; deceptively average-looking, yet somehow full of details that Sherlock just had to know. Respectable length and width – thicker than Sherlock's own – and it was hot and hard in his mouth, vascular tissues fully expanded.

He could feel John’s pulse against his tongue.

The intimacy of it was thrilling. John trusted Sherlock with everything he was, and that thought made Sherlock's ribs feel tight, as though the organs in his chest were stretching.

Sherlock began to suck gently, delighting in the way John’s breath caught. When he brought his hand up to cup John’s testicles, the other man let out a moan that sent a small shiver of arousal through Sherlock’s abdomen. Sherlock wasn’t about to get another erection so soon, but his libido was certainly interested.

He felt John’s hand on the back of his head, and for a moment wondered if the doctor would display that irritating habit of trying to guide him. But no, his fingers didn’t grip or tug, they just stroked very softly through Sherlock’s hair. Foolish of him, to think that John would ever be anything other than considerate and generous and so lovely it made Sherlock ache.

John’s hands wandered gently about Sherlock’s face and hair as though the other man just couldn’t stop touching him, a ridiculously romantic thought that nonetheless prompted a surge of pleasure and contentment.

Sherlock knew John was close to orgasm when his pants and gasps began to take on a frantic edge and his hips began to stutter upwards, as though he were trying desperately not to thrust up into Sherlock’s mouth but couldn’t quite stop himself. Still, in spite of the obvious signs, John seemed to think some warning was needed.

“Sherlock, I…I’m going…Sherlock!

Sherlock sucked harder, rolling John’s testicles in his hand and pressing his index finger hard against the man’s perineum.

John let out an incoherent string of syllables that might have been Sherlock’s name and tensed, his hands tightening painfully on Sherlock's shoulders before he went completely limp.

“Come here,” John muttered, tugging on Sherlock's arms to drag him into a kiss.

They were too blissed out to properly coordinate themselves and Sherlock's lip bumped against John's teeth. So, really, Sherlock couldn't explain why it made him feel so...well, happy.

Now that John was sprawled limply across the sheets, a sated and ever-so-slightly dopey smile on his face, Sherlock found himself feeling a kind of contentment he'd never experienced before. And, strangely, he was almost sleepy.

The mattress pitched as Amarisa leapt up onto the bed with them. John shuffled over, nudging Sherlock towards the side of the bed in an effort to make room for his dæmon. The wolfdog pressed her head against John's for a moment, letting the doctor scratch gently at her ears, before she leaned over her human and licked at Sherlock's cheek.

He felt a sudden jolt of electrical awareness and a strange tingle of warmth. Then Amarisa pulled away and stretched out beside John, snuggling down with a heavy sigh.

“You can lie over our legs if you like,” Sherlock offered.

Amarisa and John laughed together, as if Sherlock had said something very amusing.

“What?” Raniel asked, indignant – the polecat had scrambled up the discarded duvet to curl around Sherlock's head.

“Do you remember what it felt like for me to touch Raniel?” John asked, still grinning. “Do you really think I could get to sleep during that?”

Sherlock supposed not.

Raniel pawed Sherlock's hair for a moment before flowing across the mattress, over the top of John's head. Like Amarisa, he licked once at John's temple – the sensation making Sherlock shiver – before he curled up with the wolfdog.

Amarisa was lying on her side, and Raniel insinuated himself between her forelegs, pressing his nose against the underside of her chin and sinking his paws into the fur on her neck and chest. John's dæmon sighed again, soft and contented, and rested one paw on his side.

“Good night,” Amarisa muttered.

“Technically, it's early morning,” Sherlock couldn't help pointing out.

Though really, he was feeling the same drowsiness that the dæmons seemed to be experiencing. Yet another event unique in his experience – Sherlock had never felt sleepy after sex before now.

“Don't care,” John said, pulling blankets over the lot of them. “Going to sleep now. And come over here, I want to cuddle.”

Sherlock snorted, and couldn't resist the obvious dig. “Not a very manly request, is it?”

But he did as he was bid, winding an arm around John's shoulders and allowing the other man to throw his arm over Sherlock's waist and entangle their legs.

“Everyone wants cuddles,” John muttered, his eyes already closing. “Scientific fact – look it up.”

Sherlock was tempted to do just that, but that would necessitate leaving the bed. It could wait for a little while. A few hours or so, at least.

He'd always thought the term 'afterglow' was overly poetic, but right now it certainly seemed appropriate.

John suddenly giggled, and Sherlock glanced down at him. “What's so amusing?”

“We had it all out of order,” John explained. “You're meant to have sex, then move in together, then touch each other's dæmons.”

“That's what normal people do, is it?” Sherlock asked, not bothering to downplay his disgust for that particular concept.

“And god forbid you ever be normal.”

What some people had said sharply, with the intent to offend, John said with affection.

“It'll be dangerous,” Sherlock said, feeling the need to ensure John was fully informed about what this entailed. “Moriarty promised to burn my heart out, after all – I think we can guess what or rather, who, that refers to.”

“He won't catch us off-guard next time,” John promised. “And anyway, do you really think me and Amarisa are going to be put off just because it might be dangerous?”

“No,” Sherlock admitted. “But it had to be said.”

“That's sweet,” John yawned, ignoring Sherlock's snort at his choice of adjective. “Also, a romantic pillow-talker, you are most definitely not.”

“You would have preferred that, would you?”

“No. Probably would have scared me, to be honest.”

“Most of those explosives were fake,” Sherlock mused aloud, the mention of Moriarty dredging up unwelcome memories.

“I know – I'll chat about it with you in the morning,” John muttered.

“Technically, it is morning, so-”

“Shut up, Sherlock.”

Sherlock smirked at the weary patience in John's voice – and affection, always so much affection – and didn't bother to resist the urge to press his face into the other man's short hair.

He closed his eyes, listening to the soft wheezes of Amarisa's snoring from the other side of the bed, feeling John's chest shift against his with each breath. The whole bed smelled of sex and sweat and John, along with a soft, animal-like smell that must have been Amarisa.

Sherlock wondered if he could pinpoint the exact moment at which John drifted off just by listening to his breathing, but before he could put the idea into practice, he was asleep

Chapter Text

John was surprised that Sherlock fell asleep before he did. To tell the truth, he was surprised Sherlock fell asleep at all – John had been expecting Sherlock to cuddle for maybe a few minutes before losing interest and going off to do something else.

It wasn't that he thought Sherlock didn't care about him – after tonight, he'd never make that mistake again – but Sherlock's abhorrence of boredom meant he was often incapable of just relaxing and doing nothing. Not to mention his usual disdain for sleep.

But no, Sherlock was dead to the world, and even seemed to be snoring lightly against the back of John's neck.

But then the whole day had been a bit of a roller-coaster, and emotional exhaustion was probably a new concept to Sherlock.

“I can feel you thinking,” came Amarisa's soft mutter from beside him.

“Sorry,” John whispered. “Won't happen again. It's just...they're really dead to the world, aren't they?”

“Yeah...” Amarisa licked gently at the top of Raniel's head, prompting a sleepy mewl of contentment as the polecat snuggled closer.

John tried to shift to get a glimpse of Raniel, but was halted when Sherlock's arm – previously content to lie limply on his chest – suddenly tightened around him, the other man making a displeased noise. John stilled, wondering if he'd woken Sherlock up, but as soon as the doctor stopped moving Sherlock relaxed, his face smoothing out.

“Awww,” Amarisa cooed. “You two are just adorable.”

“Oh, shut up,” John said, ruffling the thin fur on the top of her head in retaliation.

“I will if you'll go to sleep.”

“Deal,” John sighed, closing his eyes.

All things considered, it had been a very long day, and he was only too happy to drift off.

When he woke up, he and Amarisa were alone in the bed, but John had rather expected that. He stretched languidly, yawning, and then grimaced as his collection of bruises made themselves known. Most of them had darkened overnight as the crushed capillaries leaked blood beneath his skin, and now there was no adrenaline rush or endorphin high to mediate the ache.

“You okay?” Amarisa asked.

“Fine,” John sighed, carefully mobilising tender joints. “Just a bit rough around the edges. How about you?”

“I'm fine – you were in front of me, remember?”

John nodded, and wondered idly why dæmons often seemed to be more resilient than their humans to physical injury. It was hypothesised that because their bodies were constructed in different ways to their humans, it was more difficult to damage them.

“No heavy thoughts before breakfast,” Amarisa grumbled, her tongue curling on an enormous yawn.

John seriously considered going down for breakfast without bothering to get dressed before he remembered that the windows were still strips of paper. While a glance at his alarm clock told him he'd slept straight through the morning and into the early afternoon, it would still be pretty chilly down there.

Amarisa rolled about the bed as he got dressed, wriggling the kinks out of her back and legs. As soon as John had pulled a jumper on, she bounded down the stairs so quickly John felt an uncomfortable tug on their bond.

“Hey, watch it!” he called good-naturedly, hurrying to follow her.

Sherlock was at the computer – John's computer, but by this point John had rather given in to having his possessions appropriated – and Amarisa was rubbing her face against Raniel's so hard she'd butted the poor dæmon over onto his back.

It was like nothing had changed. John couldn't help grinning at the idea because really, he didn't think anything was going to – they were still Sherlock and John, much the same as they'd ever been, just with kisses and sex now.

Even if it still seemed slightly unbelievable. Not so much the sex, though that had been pretty amazing. But more the incredible, improbable, wonderful fact that they had touched each other's dæmons.

John freely admitted he hadn't known what was going on when Raniel had scrambled onto his lap – he'd been frozen in place, dimly wondering what on earth Sherlock and his dæmon were playing at. But there had been an expression of such yearning on Sherlock's face, and Raniel...

Then he'd known. He'd looked straight into Sherlock's eyes as his hand lowered, trying to tell him he knew what this meant, that he was ready.

Touching Raniel had been...well, John had never experienced anything like it. The feeling of the polecat's white fur against his palm produced the kind of satisfied pleasure John usually only felt from a very absorbing kiss, but there was more to it than that. Sherlock's eyes had practically been rolling back in his head and Raniel was trembling under his fingers – they were so utterly helpless that John had felt a swell of protectiveness in him, a deep need to somehow be worthy of the trust they were placing in him.

And a desperate longing for reciprocation, for Sherlock to touch Amarisa.

John's dæmon had climbed to her feet and was gazing longingly at Sherlock's hands, resting limply on the arms of the chair, as though Sherlock was too drugged with pleasure to move. She'd glanced at John, almost whining in her eagerness, and John had nodded.

He couldn't say they hadn't been a bit wary. They couldn't help but remember what it had felt like for Moriarty to touch Amarisa, and some part of John was terrified that it would feel the same even with Sherlock.

But he'd trusted Sherlock. Enough to tell himself that it would feel completely different – it had to – and that even if he and Amarisa didn't like it, Sherlock would stop.

Except it hadn't been unpleasant. It had been wonderful.

John didn't think he'd ever be able to describe the sheer intimacy of it – it was just so far beyond anything he'd ever known before. Even beyond sex, though John had certainly had no objections to the way the evening (well, morning, as Sherlock had insisted on reminding him) had ended.

He usually didn't sleep with people he was serious about straight out of the gate, but after that...John had craved it, had needed that physical connection with Sherlock.

“Does sex usually put you in this good a mood?” Sherlock asked, jerking John out of his reverie.

John realised the kettle was well past boiled, and that he'd been standing at the wall grinning stupidly for at least three minutes.

“Well, you'll find out, won't you?” he retorted, his smile stretching even wider.

Amarisa giggled, and John tweaked her ear.

Sherlock and Raniel were staring at them as though John's response had surprised them somehow.

“What's wrong?” Amarisa asked, frowning.

“Nothing,” Sherlock said quickly, though he still had that look on his face, a strange mixture of incredulity and satisfied pleasure.

John made his tea and took a few tentative sips. Then, secure that his morning breath had been replaced by the taste of tea, walked over to Sherlock and kissed him. He made sure to keep it light and undemanding – just a brief press of mouth to mouth – with the barest flick of tongue as he pulled away.

Sherlock looked pole-axed, and John shifted his weight, wondering if that had been a mistake.

“I like kissing in the mornings,” he explained lamely. “Will that...be a problem?”

“Not at all,” Sherlock said softly, still looking a little dazed.

Then he seemed to come back to himself as John stepped away, and something in him relaxed. John couldn't have explained how he knew it – Sherlock didn't slump, didn't sigh, but a tension that been in him before suddenly dissipated. He turned back to the computer, but not before his mouth quirked in a satisfied (and strangely, almost relieved) smile.

Raniel chittered and rubbed himself against Amarisa's forelegs. The wolfdog made a soft, almost sighing sound of pleasure and lowered her muzzle to lick and nudge at the polecat.

It was almost as though Sherlock and his dæmon hadn't known John and Amarisa were in this for the long haul before this morning, but John dismissed that thought as ridiculous.

“What are you looking at?” he asked as he went back to making himself breakfast.

“How much Semtex is needed to kill someone,” Sherlock answered promptly. “It's very frustrating – reports seem to vary greatly.”

“That's because it's dependent on the situation, Sherlock,” John told him, pouring museli into one of their clean bowls. “If there's shrapnel about, you don't need much force to make an explosion potentially lethal. And even if you're talking about purely concussive force only, it can still depend on a lot of factors – why do you want to know?”

“We want to know if that bomb jacket could have killed you,” Raniel said from the floor, curled between Amarisa's forelegs.

“Oh, definitely,” John nodded at the dæmon. “If it was strapped to my chest when it went off, it certainly would have given me the white butterfly.”

“The white butterfly?” Sherlock echoed.

“It's when a concussive force turns all the internal organs of the chest cavity into soup,” Amarisa explained. “It makes a chest x-ray look like a white butterfly on a blue background.”

“And the bomb jacket would have done this to you?” Sherlock pressed.

“Probably,” John nodded, digging a spoon out of their cutlery drawer and sitting down at the kitchen table to eat his breakfast. “Remember how the explosion knocked us on our arses? Well, imagine that much force turned in on my chest, with no space in-between to cushion the blow.”

“So the bomb was certainly intended to kill you,” Sherlock said, looking ever-so slightly disconcerted.

“That's partly why John ran up behind Moriarty like that,” Amarisa chimed in. “We knew there was something wrong with the bomb, and figured he should be really close to make it a real threat.”

“And you're never to do that again!” Sherlock snapped, glaring at them from over the computer.

“Which part of it?” John asked. “Because if you mean we're never to get strapped to a bomb again, we're right with you-”

“No, you idiot!” Raniel growled. “You're never to tell us to abandon you ever again!”

Amarisa huffed, and John scowled, feeling his dæmon's irritation mingling with his own. “Well, excuse us for trying to save your lives!”

“You could have died!” Sherlock hissed, then – apparently recognising how emotional he sounded – pressed his lips together and turned away.

We know,” John said wearily, remembering what he and Amarisa had felt when he'd tackled Moriarty. “But...well, as soon as he put that bomb on me, we figured we were already dead – the only thing left to worry about was how we could get you out. We might not be anything special, but-”

Raniel interrupted with a snarl. “If you ever say something so patently stupid again, we'll...”

The dæmon broke off with a noise of frustration and Amarisa licked soothingly at the top of his head, making a crooning noise low in her throat.

Sensing that this was something of an important moment, John abandoned his museli and made his way into the living room. Sherlock was scowling at the computer, and his hands were clenched into fists on top of his thighs.

John would have liked to be angry at being dictated to and yelled at not twelve hours into their new relationship, but he just couldn't – not when he and Amarisa had so clearly terrified Sherlock and Raniel with their sacrifice. Or more specifically, their offer of sacrifice, because they hadn't actually died and John wanted to make sure Sherlock and his dæmon remembered that.

He laid his hand over Sherlock's clenched, whitened knuckles, his fingers gently stroking tendons and prodding muscles until Sherlock's hand had relaxed enough to allow John to slip his own beneath it.

Then he tugged on Sherlock's arm to make the other man lean against him and looped an arm over his shoulders.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock ask, voice somewhat muffled by John's jumper.

“You're concerned and unsettled – I'm prescribing a hug.”

“You do have a fondness for them, don't you?” Sherlock's voice might have been acerbic, but John didn't miss the way Sherlock's arm crept around his waist – carefully, as if Sherlock didn't want him to notice it.

“Yep,” was all John said.

It was true, he was fond of cuddles – they made him feel connected. Because while sex was always enjoyable, just holding someone seemed much more intimate, at least to John. It had always been something of a marker in his relationships, and John knew he and his partner had turned a corner when he was eager to hug them, perhaps because he wasn't usually fond of prolonged physical contact. At least, not with people he didn't trust.

“And I'm not concerned. Or unsettled,” Sherlock added, as though belatedly realising his 'sociopath' title needed to be defended, if only perfunctorily.

John heard Amarisa scoff to herself, but both he and his dæmon let that one pass without comment

“Okay,” John said quietly. “Now I know you're not the best with this empathy stuff, but try to imagine what you would have done if you'd been in our position. If you'd been sure you were going to die and the only thing up in the air was whether or not we'd die with you.”

“That's not fair!” Raniel hissed.

“Why not?” John asked.

“It just isn't,” the polecat huffed.

Still, by the way the dæmon curled himself into a tight ball, hiding his face in the thick fur where Amarisa's foreleg joined her body, John knew he'd given them something to think about.

He patted Sherlock's shoulder and then, just because he'd always wanted to and now he could, gave the man's dark curls a light, affectionate tug before he moved away.

Sherlock was frowning, but not in the sense that John had done something bad, more as though he was puzzled by something. “You've never been this tactile before.”

“Yeah, well, I never had permission before,” John grinned.

While neither he nor Amarisa liked unsolicited physical contact, they'd always found it pleasant to touch people (or in Amarisa's case, dæmons) that they cared for. But relationships were all about compromise, and if Sherlock was bothered by it...

“I can stop, if you want,” he offered.

“No, it's...fine.”

John grinned to himself.

He went back to his (now very soggy) museli, leaving Amarisa in the living room to answer Sherlock's questions about the bomb.

“We knew something was off with the bomb from the beginning,” the wolfdog said. “It didn't smell right, and the weight was all wrong.”

“So you knew there wasn't as much Semtex attached to you as there appeared to be,” Sherlock surmised.

Amarisa wrinkled her nose. “Not really. We knew something was different, but we didn't really know what that might mean. We're not entirely sure that the explosives he used were even Semtex, come to that.”

“Why?” Raniel asked.

“Wrong colour,” John's dæmon explained. “Semtex tends to be reddish-brown, but those bricks were white, like C4.”

“Likely whatever chemical combination produced the smoke,” Sherlock cut in, tapping away on the keyboard once more. “The reaction was instantaneous and seemed to be triggered by the bullet – though of course it could have been on some sort of timer and the bullet merely a diversion – so it's possible it bears some resemblance to the mechanism found in a car's airbag. But the odour didn't match, so-”

Sherlock broke off as both dæmons' heads swung towards the door, their ears pricking. They'd obviously heard footsteps, because moments later there was a knock from below.

John wondered if it was Lestrade, come to scold them about the pool, but when he went to open the door, it was Mycroft standing on the step.

“Good afternoon, John,” he greeted, stepping through the doorway so smoothly it took John a second or two to remember he hadn't actually invited the man in.

Mycroft's eyes flickered up and down John's body just once, and his raven dæmon suddenly began cackling madly.

Amarisa growled softly, irritated, and John tried not to feel as though he had 'just had sex with your brother' embossed on every inch of his skin and clothes. It wasn't that he was ashamed of it, it was just that Mycroft could probably deduce what they'd done down to the exact positions and oh god no, no, no – why did his brain think those things?

John preceded Mycroft up the stairs into the living room, striving to maintain a neutral expression. They were followed by Mycroft's assistant, who was carrying something that looked a bit like a laptop bag, except that it was too bulky for any laptop made within the last eight years.

“What are you doing here?” Sherlock snapped.

Mycroft offered him an insincere smile. “Does visiting my brother have to come with some ulterior motive? Perhaps I simply wanted to make sure you were unharmed after the debacle at the pool last night.”

Sherlock's face showed very clearly what he thought of that, and even John had to stifle a disbelieving snort. Sometimes he got the feeling Mycroft only kept up the 'pretentious government official' persona because he knew it annoyed Sherlock.

“I'm sure your minions have told you everything there is to know about what happened last night,” Sherlock scoffed.

Neither Mycroft nor his assistant had made any move to sit down, which was making John uncomfortable for no reason he could articulate. Raniel, as usual, ignored both the raven and chameleon dæmon from where he was curled into the thick fur on Amarisa's underbelly.

Mycroft's dæmon started cackling again, and John hoped his flush wasn't as obvious as it felt.

Sherlock was glaring at the bag as though it had personally insulted his deductive capabilities. “Why have you brought that?”

“I need to take a picture,” Mycroft answered placidly.

Sherlock's eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Comparison purposes, of course.”

“Why do you need that to take a picture?” John asked, eyeing the enormous case sceptically. “And of what?”

“You, John, if you are agreeable. I suppose it was presumptuous to bring it over without first obtaining your consent.”

John had the feeling Mycroft was only tacking on that semi-apology because it was the socially acceptable thing to do, not because he meant it.

“Why?” John asked levelly, suspicious.

“He wants to subject the negative to the Asriel procedure and compare it with the standards for Stanislaus particle visibility,” Sherlock explained.

At least, it would have been an explanation if John had understood that sentence at all.

“Sherlock...” he sighed, exasperated.

Raniel snickered to himself, and Amarisa batted him lightly on the top of his head in remonstration.

It might just be John's imagination, but “Anthea's” chameleon dæmon seemed to be smirking.

“There is a method by which Stanislaus particles can become visible on photographs,” Mycroft interjected. “It's known as the Asriel procedure, and unfortunately requires a photograph to be taken with one of these devices.”

“Anthea” opened the case as though on cue, revealing a wealth of instruments and parts that meant absolutely nothing to John, but as she assembled it the device began to resemble a turn of the century camera.

Sherlock was still scowling, and John wasn't sure if it was a reaction to his brother's high-handedness or the prospect of the photograph being taken itself.

“You said 'compare',” John pointed out. “What-”

“Stanislaus particles become attracted to people once their dæmons settle,” Sherlock interrupted. “But they seem especially attracted to sensitives – a photograph of a sensitive put through the Asriel procedure will show significantly more Stanislaus particles.”

Amarisa blinked, and John couldn't help but ask, “You know that, but not the solar system?”

The mention of the solar system had Sherlock making an expression disturbingly close to a pout. “It's useful to know that people sensitive to spells exist, and that there's a way of identifying them.”

“Indeed,” Mycroft said, smiling. “Now John, if you could just stand over there...”

“Hang on,” John broke in. “How do you know I'm sensitive?”

“Because he doesn't know how to keep that over-large nose out of other people's business,” Sherlock muttered but John ignored him, waiting for Mycroft's answer.

There was a little voice in the back of his head saying that he probably didn't want to know, but John was honestly curious. It wasn't the sort of thing that went in your medical records, after all, and he certainly hadn't put it on his CV.

“You knew Nostrepheus was smiling,” Mycroft said.

“Really? That's it?”

“It's well known sensitives demonstrate above average empathy, both for other people and other people's dæmons. To the extent that it's debated whether the unusual empathy somehow causes the sensitivity, or whether said empathy is merely a subset of sensitivity.”

“Okay,” John said, beginning to understand what this was about. “And you want this kind of photograph to see whether I come up as a sensitive, right?”

“Correct. And the photographs often give a general idea of the degree of sensitivity as well.”

John took the photos “Anthea” offered to him, sitting down beside Sherlock so he could see them too.

“The first is of what we might call a normal person – that is, someone without any degree of sensitivity,” Mycroft told them. “The next is of a sensitive, and the last is of a woman who is believed to be the most sensitive person in the world...for the moment, at least.”

John didn't pay any attention to Mycroft's addendum – he was too busy looking at the photos.

First there was a picture of a man seemingly bathed in golden light, and it would have looked over-exposed if not for the fact that his surroundings were so dim in comparison. The golden light was much more prominent in the second one – beginning to wash out details of the face and clothing – and it seemed to be coming from inside the person, as though there was a neon light beneath their skin.

The woman in the third picture was like concept art of what an angel should look like. Light seemed to spill from every pore, to the extent that it was difficult to spot the buttons on her shirt, and the features of her face were only vague shadows.

“All right,” John said eventually. “You want a photo, I can do that – what do you need me to do?”

Sherlock remained uncharacteristically silent as “Anthea” directed him to stand against the bookshelves and took a picture with an eye-piercing flash and a puff of chemical smoke. He was probably intrigued as to how the picture would turn out but didn't want to admit that his brother might have had a good idea – John was rather curious about the photo himself.

“Has anyone tried to photograph a witch like this?” John wondered.

“They show up like sensitives,” Raniel said as “Anthea” left with the camera and the negative.

“I suppose they would,” Amarisa mused. “After all, they can feel spells, can't they?”

“And now that little curiosity is taken care of, I thought we could get down to business,” Mycroft said, watching the dæmons with something close to amusement in his eyes.

“Your minions not as reliable as they once were?” Sherlock sniped.

Mycroft gave him the kind of look that suggested he was being difficult on purpose. “Many of them were preoccupied informing a host of concerned citizens that you and John are, in fact, alive.”

“Shit!” John blurted, the mention of people being worried about them having jump-started his brain. “I was supposed to meet Sarah last night!”

Amarisa was just as alarmed as John grabbed the phone. “She probably thinks we're in the morgue by this point!”

“Sarah has been notified,” Mycroft interrupted.

“By who?” John asked, already dialling her number. “Because let me tell you, some random government mook calling to say someone you know isn't dead is not as reassuring as you might think.”

Both Sherlock and Mycroft were looking as though they didn't quite realise why that would be.

John declared them both hopeless as he held the phone to his ear and listened to it ring.

--

Sherlock couldn't deny he'd been somewhat anxious – no, concerned – no, intrigued – over John's expectations. He and Raniel had woken at ten, and had lingered in the bed for several minutes, uncertain as to whether the doctor and his dæmon would feel they needed to wake up with them.

Eventually, Raniel had sighed and extracted himself from Amarisa's grip, scurrying across the blankets to climb onto his usual spot on Sherlock's shoulder.

“This is John and Amarisa,” the polecat whispered, as though trying to remind them both. “I think they know what to expect of us by now!”

But that was the problem – what if they didn't? They'd experienced partners who seemed to think they'd change after sex, suddenly expecting Sherlock to dote on them, Raniel to interact with their dæmons, and while the latter wasn't a consideration any more, Sherlock wondered if John was anticipating a similar personality change.

But then John and Amarisa came down and it was all right, because apparently John expected him to be exactly the same, just with kisses in the morning and occasional hugs. Sherlock had never really liked when his partners became clingy, but with John the affectionate gestures were...nice.

He also liked the way John was smiling, and the way Amarisa couldn't seem to stop touching Raniel. What he didn't like was the way John talked so blithely about the bomb jacket, dismissing the possibility of his and Amarisa's death as though it didn't warrant more than a footnote in their explanation.

It was times like this that Sherlock couldn't help but think that, for all John's honesty, he was one of the most deceptive people Sherlock had ever met. Everything about him told you to overlook him, dismiss him – even his dæmon could be mistaken for a dog – until he sensed a spell from five feet away or shot a murderer or talked about his death like it was nothing to get worked up about. He and Amarisa seemed so ordinary at first glance, yet everything about them was...incomparable. Unique.

John had been unconsciously rolling his shoulder as he ambled about the kitchen, getting the stiffness out of the tough scar tissue, something Sherlock had seen him doing virtually every morning since they'd taken the flat. But this time he knew what the scar looked like, what it felt like, what it tasted like.

The idea had left him feeling unaccountably smug.

Then, of course, Mycroft had to turn up and spoil the entire day. He wanted to submit a picture of John to the Asriel procedure to have an idea of his degree of Stanislaus particle sensitivity (and Sherlock refused to admit that might be a good idea).

And, of course, he also wanted to discuss Moriarty. Tedious.

“Well, what have you got?” Sherlock didn't bother with reiterating the information he and John had supplied the police with.

“Very little at this point,” Mycroft said, and it was only the flick of Tehayla's head that told Sherlock how unsettled she and her human were by that.

It unsettled Sherlock, come to that, and he hoped no one noticed the way Raniel had wormed closer to Amarisa. Mycroft had connections, and he worked people like Sherlock worked cases; England was his home territory and it shouldn't have been possible for someone to hide from Mycroft in England.

But apparently it was, because if Mycroft still had so little information on Moriarty he wouldn't bother discussing it, that meant he wasn't likely to learn any more. In the end, for all Mycroft's power and the games the man had played with Sherlock, it seemed John was the one who had learned the most about Moriarty.

Which Sherlock couldn't help but think was a poor trade for what John and his dæmon had endured.

The memory of Moriarty's hands on Amarisa made something in Sherlock clench and he dimly heard Raniel hiss softly, his dæmon sharing his distress.

But something else occurred to him. His own experience had proved that dæmon-touching wasn't one-sided – he'd gained pleasure from touching Amarisa, and John had clearly experienced the same when touching Raniel. Logically, touching John's dæmon couldn't have been a pleasant experience for Moriarty, so did he do it to make a point? Or did he just not care what he felt in those moments?

There was no hard evidence to back up his conclusion, but Sherlock couldn't help feeling that the latter was more likely.

We have managed to determine the identity of his dæmon from security camera footage at St. Bart's hospital,” Mycroft went on. “A member of the genus Phoneutria, though the quality of the images means we are unable to narrow it down to the species level.”

Sherlock shared a glance with Raniel, filing that information away.

“What's that?” Amarisa asked, nudging the polecat to attract his attention.

In the kitchen, John's conversation on the phone faltered as his concentration became divided.

“Brazilian wandering spiders,” Raniel explained.

“Often considered the most dangerous spiders in the world,” Sherlock put in. “Their venom contained the potent neurotoxin known as PhTx3, which causes loss of muscle control and paralysis to the point of asphyxiation.”

“But the reason they're so dangerous to humans is because they don't build webs, but wander nocturnally,” Raniel chimed in. “They hide in dark, covered places during the daylight hours, which means it's very common for unwary people to stumble across them and get bitten.”

Amarisa snorted. “Appropriate then, isn't it?”

“Of course it's appropriate – it's his dæmon!”

There was a telling light of interest in Mycroft's eyes as he looked at the dæmons before continuing. “There are no records of Moriarty's birth or schooling, which makes it likely he was a clan child.”

“A clan child?” Amarisa echoed, and though it was Mycroft's statement that had prompted the question, it was Sherlock she looked at.

“A child birthed and raised completely within the witch clan,” Sherlock explained. “Often with no contact with the outside world until they were considered adults. It was common a hundred years or so ago, and is still practised in some parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East – a whole host of countries, really. It usually depends on how women are treated in that society; if they aren't afforded equality, the young witches aren't exposed to that and are raised with their own clan.”

Amarisa's eyes scrunched in puzzlement. “So they never go to school? But didn't Moriarty say something about Carl laughing at him?”

At times, Sherlock adored the way Amarisa's and John's minds worked. They never saw or knew as much as Sherlock and Raniel did, obviously, but it meant that occasionally they could cut effortlessly through the extraneous details to get to what really mattered.

“He did,” Raniel breathed. “We assumed the connection was through school, but what if there was something else?”

Some other kind of connection,” Sherlock finished. “But what kind?”

With no records, they could only speculate, but at least it was a possible avenue of investigation where they'd had none before.

John seemed to have finished his quick ring-around to assure people that they were still alive – redundant and unnecessary, as Mycroft had explained, but John got funny about these things sometimes – and collapsed into his chair with a sigh.

Amarisa moved smoothly to his side, allowing him to rub her ears. “Everyone okay?”

“More or less,” John said. “Lestrade was pretty pissed off, though. He said we should have called him as soon as we'd got out of the pool – that way he wouldn't have had to wait for someone to connect the name 'Moriarty' to the case he'd been working and dump the report on his desk.”

Sherlock could tell from John's tone that Lestrade had likely had some choice words about Sherlock arranging a meeting with a murderer, but was forgoing repeating them because he doubted it would do any good.

And it wouldn't. It felt vaguely repellent for Sherlock to think he and Raniel had 'learned their lesson', but there was really no other way to describe it. The next time they decided to meet with a psychopath, John and Amarisa were coming with them, so there would be no opportunity for said psychopath to abduct and torture them.

Looking back, it seemed ridiculous he and his dæmon hadn't predicted Moriarty taking John and Amarisa. It had been a game of escalation, each case gradually becoming more prominent and far-reaching – why hadn't they anticipated that Moriarty would raise the one stake they couldn't afford to lose? Perhaps because they'd expected Moriarty to think like them, at least on some level, and the thought of hurting John or Amarisa just...it had never entered their heads.

“Mummy wants you and John at dinner tomorrow night,” Mycroft announced. “Given Moriarty's connections, I think we can agree this is a matter for the clan as well.”

Much as it rankled to ask for help, Sherlock knew that in this, he was out of his depth. Witches tended to exist outside of human society, with their own rules and punishments, and if Moriarty had grown up in those circles, Sherlock needed people who understood them.

“That's good,” John replied absently, still caressing his dæmon. “It'll be nice to see Aeliana again. Will Tamsyn and Hasna be there?”

Mycroft smiled. “I believe you can ask them yourself, right about...now.”

As if on cue, there was a sharp tap at the kitchen window. Sherlock rolled his eyes – really, couldn't Mycroft go five minutes without needing to demonstrate his knowledge?

Looking suspicious, John rose and went to the kitchen, then suddenly threw open the window with an exclamation of joy.

“Caedmon!”

A swan dæmon – Caedmon – swept inside, landing ungainly on the floor before it flapped awkwardly up onto the table. Sherlock identified it as a Bewick's Swan ( Cygnus columbianus bewickii ), but was more interested in the way John was clearly familiar with the bird.

He'd cleared a space on the table for the swan, and Amarisa had dashed into the kitchen as soon as her human had called the dæmon's name, blunt nails cluttering on the lino. The wolfdog stretched up to touch her nose to the tip of Caedmon's beak, a gesture Sherlock knew Amarisa only made with dæmons she was fond of.

Caedmon nudged the side of Amarisa's muzzle, just once, then suddenly turned away, as though embarrassed.

A small suspicion uncurled in the back of Sherlock's mind.

But that suspicion wasn't as important as the ease with which John filled a breakfast bowl with water at the sink and set it down in front of Caedmon. He was careful to ensure he didn't move too close to the dæmon, and the motions were too practised to be impulsive – this was something John and Caedmon had done before.

Not to mention the fact that most people were put off by talking to a dæmon without their human present – they either didn't look at the dæmon, as though trying to pretend they were having a 'normal' conversation with a human, or looked far too closely, with a kind of horrified fascination. John did neither; he treated Caedmon like...well, like a person.

No wonder he'd never minded Raniel speaking directly to him.

“You habitually entertain witches' dæmons,” Sherlock stated.

John blinked at him. “Of course. Mostly Caedmon here,” he smiled at the dæmon, not talking around him the way so many other people would have. “But Percila dropped by once.”

“Here?” Sherlock asked, surprised.

John nodded, his eyes full of tolerant amusement.

“How did we miss that?” Sherlock wondered, looking at Raniel.

“We've only had one visit here,” Amarisa said, her dog-grin clear. “And I think you were out at the time.”

John's attention turned back to the swan dæmon. “I take it you heard about what happened?”

Caedmon bobbed his head in affirmation. “Are you all right?”

He shuffled closer to John as he said it, peering at the doctor and Amarisa in obvious concern. The wolfdog wagged her tail and Caedmon rocked forward ever-so slightly, as though he wanted to reach out and touch Amarisa but stopped himself.

Sherlock's suspicion grew into a near-certainty. He recognised Caedmon's behaviour – he'd seen it before, in dæmons of people with infatuations they'd deemed hopeless.

Caedmon and his witch were in love with John and Amarisa. But it clearly hadn't come to anything; that stifled impulse was the gesture of a love denied and suppressed, not one given voice and rejected. John and Amarisa treated the dæmon as a friend – Caedmon and his witch had evidently realised their attachment wasn't reciprocated, and had never spoken of it.

Some witches killed when their love was turned aside. But most...most simply accepted it, and tried to move on.

“We're okay,” John assured Caedmon as the dæmon gave in and took a drink of the water the man had provided. “Just a few bumps and bruises – I've had worse after a rugby match.”

Not content to let John and this new dæmon have an interesting discussion while they were stuck with Mycroft, Sherlock and Raniel made their way into the kitchen. Mycroft could follow if he had anything useful to add, and if not, he could get out.

“You were with John in Afghanistan,” Raniel said, not bothering with introductions.

John bothered with them, of course, but Sherlock ignored the usual addresses in favour of laying his hand quite deliberately on John's shoulder.

He didn't really know why he was making this point. He didn't think he was jealous – to be jealous you had to feel threatened, and he certainly wasn't that. Caedmon had clearly never spoken of his affection, and the idea of someone as loyal as John being unfaithful was frankly laughable.

But he felt a strange need to ensure Caedmon understood that John was no longer available, understood what he and Sherlock were to each other.

John, for once apparently ignorant of the emotional undercurrents of a situation, looked up at Sherlock and smiled. It resembled the smile he'd been wearing when he came down from the bedroom – soft and satisfied and peaceful, as if he thought everything was right with the world.

It gave Sherlock a very strong urge to smile back, so he did.

Then Mycroft came in and spoiled the moment. But Caedmon had come to talk about Moriarty and the prophecy, which meant Mycroft was bound to poke his nose in it. Amarisa recited the cryptic statements again, which predictably alarmed both Sherlock's brother and the swan dæmon, to the extent that Caedmon wanted to look at John's gun to see if there was any way it could have a spell put on it to help him.

Sherlock knew John's gun was tucked away in his bedside table – he'd taken it off Sherlock and concealed it under his jacket before the police arrived – and went up with him to bring it down.

“She's infatuated with you,” he said bluntly as John took the gun from the drawer, automatically checking it to ensure it wasn't loaded.

“Who?” Amarisa asked.

“Whoever Caedmon's witch is,” Raniel answered, huffing.

John frowned. “Hasna isn't 'infatuated' with me – why on earth would she be?”

'Why indeed?' Sherlock thought sarcastically.

Why on earth would you become attached to a man who didn't treat you like a freak, who behaved as though your strange quirks were nothing unexpected? Sometimes, Sherlock wondered what had happened in John and Amarisa's life to give them such a skewed opinion of themselves.

In the end, the gun was far too processed to be of much use, though Mycroft seemed to think that replacing the grip with carved wood was an option. Caedmon wanted to create a talisman for John – an object that would be heavily spelled that John could carry with him for protection, like Mycroft's umbrella.

Sherlock could tell John liked the latter suggestion much better; the idea of someone altering his gun obviously didn't sit well with him.

Caedmon departed (with a last, lingering stare at Amarisa) a few minutes before Mycroft's assistant returned with a thin envelope tucked under one arm.

She passed it to Mycroft without a word. Knowing that it must be the photograph of John subjected to the Asriel procedure, Sherlock tried to surreptitiously slide closer as his brother pulled it out of the envelope.

A tremor went through Mycroft's wrist. He didn't drop the picture, but his eyes widened and Tehayla actually fluttered in shock. Sherlock didn't understand what was so surprising, until Mycroft flipped the photograph so he and Raniel could see it.

It was like looking at a photo of the sun. They could only dimly tell it was meant to be John by the outline – there were no facial features, no skin tone, no details of clothes...just bright golden light, so intense his eyes itched with the urge to squint even though it was only a photograph.

And John – humble, self-effacing John, who never thought he was anything special even when it was shoved in his face – took one look at it and frowned.

“What went wrong?”

Chapter Text

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.”

“Really?”

“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.

Baby

Cornucopia

Wild Man

Madonna

Snake

Dolphin

Crucible

Sun

Moon

Owl

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.

“Exactly.”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“Where did you two go, anyway?” Amarisa asked, looking up at the polecat. “You just disappeared and we didn't see you again until now.”

Raniel pulled a face. “Mycroft wanted to talk about some possible developments, so we left you to your little social rituals. Believe me, you were better off.”

John smirked. “Anything interesting?”

“You could say that. Mycroft has made a tentative link between Moriarty and a group called Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain.”

“I think we've heard of that lot,” Amarisa mused. “Aren't they the nutters that basically want to resurrect the Magesterium?”

“Essentially, yes.” Raniel agreed. “We didn't think much of it – groups like that have been buzzing around since the Magesterium fell and they've never managed to really do anything. It's like how white supremacist beliefs survived the abolition of slavery and the fall of the Third Reich. You're always going to have idiots latching onto something that justifies their belief that they're better than the rest of their species.”

“But if this particular group is linked to Moriarty...” John commented between bites.

“Then they might actually pose a threat, yes.”

John grimaced.

The Magesterium had been the name of the theocratic government that had existed a few centuries back. Back then, government and law and the Church had been inextricably intertwined, to a scary extent. No one held a government position without being active in the church, and even the most minor of the biblical 'sins' were things that you could be legally punished for.

Then they overreached themselves. The discovery of Stanislaus particles, and in particular the discovery that they were more attracted to adults than children, was held as the proof of original sin, and that those particles were somehow the manifestation of that. It had culminated in government-sanctioned abductions of children and transport to a place that came to be known as Bolvangar, where intercision experiments were performed on them.

Just the word 'intercision' was enough to make the food in John's mouth turn sour.

“Does Mycroft think it's a serious link?” Amarisa wondered, subtly rubbing the side of her muzzle against John's hand as she felt his flash of distress. “I mean, is he actually invested in their goal, or is he just playing consulting criminal for them?”

“Given that his contact with them seems to be more extensive than his usual business deal, the former seems more likely,” Sherlock cut in.

They'd been keeping their voices very low in an effort not to disturb anyone at the table, but as Sherlock was sitting right next to them and his own dæmon was involved in the conversation, he'd obviously heard everything.

“And it's not so much the humans that we have to be worried about as the witch clan,” Sherlock went on. “Or possibly clans, plural, depending on if they have allies they trust enough.”

“You think the witches are in on this too?” John frowned. “But why – I thought witch clans in general didn't think much of human politics? What do they have to gain by getting involved in something like that?”

“In the past, witches didn't care about human politics, that's true,” Raniel said. “But that was only because human government never affected them. Witches could go anywhere they wanted and no one could see or stop them, so they never bothered with whatever the humans in their country were doing. But nowadays, with fighter planes and radar...they can be monitored, and laws can be enforced.”

“What sort of laws?” Amarisa asked, looking up from the book.

“Witches can only be punished for serious felonies,” Sherlock explained. “Some sort of treaty with the UN. Murder, kidnapping...crimes at that level. But it's still a lot more than they used to answer for – why do you think that the habit of killing men who scorned them has gone down in the past fifty years?”

John shrugged. “We just assumed it was because human and witches were interacting a lot more, and they were accepting that we weren't a lower class of being that should automatically be flattered when one of them displays interest.”

Sherlock snorted, clearly expressing what he and Raniel thought of John and Amarisa's optimistic beliefs about people's natures.

“There are also rules they have to follow for moving between countries,” Raniel added. “Some witches – well, a lot of them, really – resent the restrictions they're being placed under.”

“And maybe they resent it enough to try to change the government itself,” John finished, scraping the last bits of potato off his plate. “I get it.”

Sherlock nodded. “It's likely that Moriarty's clan is seeking to establish a government they can rule through. And as the Magesterium's stronghold was originally in England, England is where it's likely to gain a new foothold.”

“What about The Vatican?” Amarisa pointed out. “I mean really, if any place is the most susceptible to a religious-based government...”

“But that wouldn't work,” Sherlock interjected. “This is hardly a purely religious government they're planning – they want the witches (and likely Moriarty) at the top of the proverbial food chain, something that would be difficult to wrangle in a place so saturated with people sitting on the highest rung of the religious ladder.”

John had a nasty feeling that this was probably why the witches had attacked Aeliana's clan. Because they never could have managed a coup of this size with England's native witch clan around.

Sherlock hadn't even paused in his hushed, rapid-fire narrative. “Of course, the prophecy about you being their downfall clearly worried them enough to shoot at you, which concerned Mummy enough to enlist Mycroft's help in watching over you-”

John blinked. “Say again? Mycroft was watching over us?”

“I just said that, John – pay attention.” Sherlock's mouth was scrunched and Raniel appeared to be pouting, as though disgusted by the idea of Mycroft watching John and Amarisa before they met them.

“But Moriarty didn't kill us,” John said. “Why? Not killing you, I could sort of understand, but he didn't seem too fond of me or Risa, so-”

“Clearly, he's playing a different game,” Raniel interrupted, looking disgruntled. “But what? Is he really that certain that the prophecy refers to us? Or is he just waiting to see why you're so important before he makes his move?”

“Don't discount the 'he's batshit crazy' theory,” Amarisa offered. “He seems the type to leave us alive just because it amuses him.”

Sherlock made a thoughtful noise, then dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand. “In any case, re-instatement of the Magesterium will require people in the government, especially as the movement hasn't attracted overwhelming support from the general public. Mycroft will have to find those agents and clear them out, which will be difficult – if they haven't slipped up already, they're not likely to.”

John couldn't deny he was feeling a bit daunted. Not scared, exactly (at least, not yet), but rather unnerved at the dizzying prospect that Moriarty might have people in the government. Because for all Sherlock's and Raniel's talk about the grand plan of the witches, something in John's gut told him that Moriarty was the mastermind in this, all the way.

And bringing him down wasn't going to be easy. He had at least one very substantial witch clan behind him, along with a network of criminals extensive enough to keep him hidden until he'd chosen to reveal himself.

Though if John was being honest, he'd admit the prospect of a long struggle with Moriarty didn't intimidate him so much as how that struggle was going to play out. Moriarty dealt in espionage, with string-pulling and networks of contacts and that wasn't the kind of war John was equipped to fight. Give him a gun in his hand and an enemy to kill or subdue and he was at home – ask him to ferret out a traitor within a certain group, and he was completely lost.

Of course!

Only years of army training kept John from jumping at Mycroft’s exclamation. Everyone else around the table jerked in surprise, and Raniel hissed in displeasure as the book in Sherlock’s hands bumped him in the chest.

“Mycroft!” Aeliana scolded. “Don’t shout at the dinner table – I taught you better manners than that!”

But for once, Mycroft seemed unaware of his surroundings, scribbling frantically on the paper in front of him as his raven dæmon preened, seemingly particularly pleased with herself.

“Well?” Sherlock demanded impatiently. “Are you going to actually say anything? Or were you only trying to look clever?”

Hasna's eyebrows rose at the acerbic note in Sherlock's voice. “And here I thought you'd exaggerated their rivalry, Aeliana.”

“Oh believe me, she hasn't exaggerated anything...” John groused.

Both Aeliana and Grayson sighed, as though resigned to the endless in-fighting of their children. Amarisa giggled to herself, quietly at first, then louder and wilder when Raniel leaned over and nipped her ear in annoyance.

Mycroft's raven (John would have to remember to ask Sherlock her name) clacked her beak at the pair of them, glaring disapprovingly.

“We were too narrow in our approach to the prophecy,” Mycroft was explaining. “The pronouns are identical, true, but there's nothing to suggest they refer to the same person. If the prophecy is split in half, then-”

“Wait, are you saying the prophecy refers to two people?” Tamsyn broke in, frowning. “Not just John?”

“That's exactly what I'm saying. In fact, I believe it refers to both John and Sherlock.”

John thought it was a reflection on what his life had become that his first impulse wasn't to just laugh out loud at the idea that he and Sherlock were the object of a witch prophecy, but to give it serious consideration.

“Both of them?” Hasna echoed, surveying the pair of them as though weighing the thought in her mind.

“It certainly has potential,” Grayson reflected, his golden osprey dæmon looking over his shoulder from her perch on the back of his chair. “And you're right, Mycroft – there's nothing to say that 'he' can't refer to two different men.”

Raniel looked disgruntled, and Sherlock's eyes had narrowed as he glared at his brother. “And what makes you think it doesn't refer solely to John?”

“The line 'he will forge his own path',” Mycroft explained. “With no slight intended upon you, John, a doctor in the army is hardly an original profession.”

John nodded amiably, but Sherlock seemed to take it as a personal insult. “Have you ever considered that it might refer to something other than his career choice?”

“Look at the evidence, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, in the tone of someone who wanted everyone else to know exactly how patient they were being. “'He will walk the fringes and his dæmon will set him apart' – John has hardly spent most of his life on what we would call the fringes of society, but you have. And Raniel's behaviour towards other dæmons has often proved alienating, at least until...”

He nodded tactfully at Amarisa and Raniel, Sherlock's dæmon having climbed on top of the wolfdog's head and seeming quite content to stay there, pawing idly at Amarisa's ears. John's dæmon grinned her dog-grin, her tongue flicking out from the side of her muzzle to swipe at Raniel's tail.

A squirmy feeling of semi-embarrassment crawled up John's chest (their dæmons were all-but making out in front of Sherlock's parents!) and he hoped he wasn't blushing.

Mycroft was far from finished. “The second line speaks for itself. 'He will find a home with the outcasts and his soul will be unique' – that certainly applies to John-”

“Hang on a sec!” John interrupted. “How does the 'home with the outcasts' bit apply? Because it-”

“Oh, do wake up, John!” Sherlock snapped. “You became friends with three witches and you're on first-name terms with an armoured bear – hardly people widely accepted by human society.”

“Moving on,” Mycroft said, just the suggestion of raised volume in his voice. “'A witch will raise him' is obviously Sherlock, while 'the witches will protect him' refers to John. Sherlock's consulting detective business certainly constitutes forging his own path, while John's military service may be construed as answering his country's call.”

“What about the 'loneliness will know him' bit?” Tamsyn asked.

Aeliana and Grayson looked a little uncomfortable, while Sherlock's expression could best be described as 'defiant'.

Mycroft seemed to hesitate, before saying diplomatically, “My brother has never been particularly talented at endearing himself to others.”

“Why bother?” Sherlock muttered. “Normal people are so dull we'd die of terminal boredom if we had to spend time with them recreationally. Ordinary jobs, ordinary lives, duping themselves into believing they're special when they're just like every other Homo sapiens on the planet-”

“Hey!” John interjected, feeling as though he should defend himself.

Sherlock gave him an exasperated look. “John, you are as far from ordinary as it is possible to be.”

John refused to acknowledge that something in his chest might have fluttered at what, from Sherlock, was probably the highest compliment he could give someone. Amarisa ducked her head and nuzzled John's side, making Raniel squeak and clutch at her ears to keep himself from tumbling to the floor.

“Don't do that,” the polecat chided.

Amarisa laughed, then tilted her nose to the ground and deliberately shook her head until Raniel slid to the ground in an undignified heap of ruffled white fur. But before he could sulk too much, her left paw shot out and yanked him close, so she could nuzzle and lick at every inch of him.

Though the polecat was grumbling, John didn't miss the way his small claws had curled in Amarisa's thick chest fur, keeping himself pressed hard against her.

“I assume 'death will touch him' refers to John's encounter with the death-spells,” Hasna said, her voice dragging John's attention back to the people around the table.

“It seems likely,” Mycroft agreed. “'He will see what others are blind to' pertains to Sherlock-”

“Would it?” Tamsyn asked. “No offence intended, Sherlock, but John's sensitivity does seem to fit that better. From what I understand you just observe things that other people overlook or don't realise the significance of. Would you say that they're 'blind' to it?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said rudely.

John nudged Sherlock's knee with his own, a silent admonishment of, 'she's helping, be nice!'

Sherlock nudged back, which John took as a reply of, 'I am being nice – I didn't announce details of her sex life, did I?'

“Besides,” Mycroft cut in smoothly. “It's far more likely that John is referenced in the second part of that line. 'He will know what others cannot see', remember? John's sensitivity is closer to 'knowing' than 'seeing'.”

“And then those bits about destruction and downfall refer to each of us separately,” John surmised.

“Precisely.”

John digested that for a moment. “Are you sure it doesn't refer to someone else?”

“Oh, for fuck's sake!” Sherlock spat. “What will it take to open your eyes to the fact that you're special!”

“Language!” Grayson barked, and John was surprised to see Sherlock look momentarily chastened.

“We always assumed the prophecy referred to John, and now we know it refers to Sherlock as well,” Aeliana mused, looking concerned. “But we're no closer to finding out why.”

“That puzzled me, too,” Hasna admitted. “When we thought the prophecy only referred to John, I couldn't see how he could possibly be a witch clan's downfall. And I still don't see it now. Your sensitivity is certainly impressive, John, and unique, but I just...”

“Don't see how it's meant to work against them,” John finished. “Me too. I mean, it's kind of handy to sense where spells are, but so what? What good does that really do me against them?”

Sherlock's fingers were steepled in front of his face in what John had come to consider his 'thinking pose'. Sherlock had clearly checked out of the conversation, his brain going along at its usual screaming pace – even Raniel was now limp in Amarisa's grasp, the dæmon muttering to himself.

By general consensus, everyone left them to it and resumed flicking through the books of symbols in an effort to decipher the alethiometer's message.

--

Sherlock and Raniel were still pondering the question of exactly how he and John were going to be a witch clan's doom when they went up the bed that night. Not to sleep, of course, but Mummy had harried them out of the library.

“These all-nighters can't be healthy,” she'd fussed. “At least let me pretend that you're getting some sleep.”

Sherlock and his dæmon had been reluctant to admit it, but Mycroft's theory about the prophecy referring to both them and John made sense. How Sherlock could assure the downfall of the witch clan's ambition seemed obvious – he could stop Moriarty.

And it would be Sherlock that stopped him, both he and Raniel knew that. Mycroft might be close to their intellectual level, but he had other duties, couldn't devote all his energies to it...and didn't have the raw, visceral motivation Sherlock did to see Moriarty brought down. But if Sherlock's role was to disable Moriarty, then what was John's role? The prophecy suggested that it was something to do with his sensitivity.

So Sherlock had been speed-reading through Sensitive: Examination of the Stanislaus Particle Theory, a treatise on Stanislaus particles and why certain people might be sensitive to them. Officially, it was still a theory – no one had ever managed to capture and examine Stanislaus particles to determine once and for all whether they were responsible for these phenomenon – but it was widely accepted as fact, if only because it explained so much.

He hadn't really learned anything new, though. Stanislaus particle sensitivity was estimated at about thirty percent of the population (in varying degrees depending on the individual), but it was hardly an accurate estimate. Given that so few of the population came into contact with spells, it was believed to be vastly under-reported. Children were often more sensitive to Stanislaus particles than adults, but that sensitivity seemed to disappear or dim as they grew older.

Sherlock had left the book in the library, as there was little point in finishing it – he'd already been on the epilogue-like attachment about the alethiometer. No one knew what ran alethiometers, but one tenuous theory was that the alethiometer was also somehow linked to Stanislaus particles.

But by and large, the general consensus was that some kind of immensely complex spell had been cast on the alethiometers, one that was now lost accidentally or had been deliberately abandoned after their creation. Given that witches were often slightly better at translating then humans, this seemed the most likely explanation.

They found John and Amarisa in the ensuite bathroom of their room, preparing for bed. Amarisa's front paws were resting on John's shoulders to keep her balanced upright, her lips wrinkled back as John brushed her teeth. It was a familiar sight – though Amarisa didn't eat, she used her mouth to handle objects, and liked John to get out the fine particles stuck between her teeth before she went to sleep.

Raniel took the opportunity. “You saved Mummy's life?”

“It wasn't anything special,” John said, now rinsing the toothbrush in the sink. “While we were in Afghanistan, I happened to look up and spot her having a bit of difficulty with three other witches. I managed to shoot two of them, and she took care of the last one. Anyone else would have done it.”

“Unlikely,” Sherlock pointed out. “Most people make an effort not to get involved in the struggles of witches for fear of supernatural reprisal.”

John's expression said that he doubted that (and had there ever in the history of humanity existed someone so completely blind to their own qualities?), but apparently decided to let it pass without comment. “It was good to talk to everyone again. And I even got to ask them about Ragnvald – he's in line for leadership of his clan now.”

Sherlock made a non-committal noise, even as he and Raniel took note of that. It wasn't likely, but if it ever came to outright war with Moriarty's witch clan, a panserbjørne clan leader who considered John a friend could come in handy.

Not for the first time, Sherlock reflected on just how unusual that was. Three sentient species existed on the planet, the most numerous of which were humans (Homo sapiens sapiens). There had been debate about the classification of witches (Homo sapiens mulier), as they couldn't reproduce by themselves, but in the end, no one could argue the fact that witches and human women were very, very different. Though well aware of their existence, most humans would never meet a witch in their lifetime – the two cultures were simply so far removed from each other. Ursus sapiens, the armoured bears, were even more distant; by necessity, they were restricted to the colder areas of the world, and when there was contact with human society it tended to be wary and fractious.

Most sentient beings would only rarely interact with a member of another species, and almost never form an extended acquaintance. But John...John counted at least one friend in each species.

“What were you guys looking for anyway?” Amarisa asked. “You went to the library and never came back.”

“We were looking into Stanislaus particle sensitivity,” Sherlock replied.

“Oh. You were wondering how we're going to be that witch clan's doom too?”

“And we found out there's been a burglary at the Yad VaShem Holocaust museum,” Raniel announced. “They took the Maystadt guillotine. Mycroft believes Moriarty might have had a hand in it.”

John and Amarisa didn't shiver at the name, but they did go momentarily still. Understandable, really – few people could discuss anything to do with the Maystadt procedure without discomfort.

The Maystadt guillotine referred to an intercision device designed by scientists in the pay of the Magesterium, and later used by Mengele in the concentration camps. It was a blade of magnesium-titanium alloy with an electrical current running through it which, when brought down between a human and their dæmon, severed their bond.

John was actually looking a little ill. “Do you think he's...”

Sherlock shrugged. “Who knows?”

Sherlock had taken a glance at the case, and though he'd admitted to Raniel that it could very well be Moriarty's handiwork, he wasn't going to leave the country. At least not until they had more information, and could be adequately prepared for a second confrontation...

“Are you all right?” Raniel asked, and Sherlock realised Amarisa was pressed against John's thigh, licking his hand the way she did when they needed comfort.

“Fine,” John said automatically. “It's just not pleasant to think of Moriarty experimenting with intercision. I mean, we've seen people after that, and they're just...”

He trailed off, but the expression on his face was a contorted mixture of horror and pity.

“You've seen severed people?” Sherlock repeated, curious.

'Severed' was the term used to refer to those humans and dæmons whose bond had been sundered.

John nodded. “I worked in some nursing homes while I was getting work experience, and there were a few of them – survivors of concentration camps, you know? And they walk and talk and act completely normal, but they're just...off. They'll ask how your day's been or what's for dinner, but they have no real interest in the answers. I mean, I was dealing with people suffering from advanced Alzheimer's and dementia, and they never unsettled me as much as severed people did.”

“How so?”

“It's hard to explain, but I'll give it a shot,” John said, and spent several moments thinking it over before, “Give someone with dementia paper and crayons and they'll draw. Probably not very well, but they'll still do it – scribble lines on paper, choose different colours, that sort of thing. Give severed people the same materials, and they won't touch them. They'll spend hours staring at a blank sheet of paper without making the slightest move. They're just...missing something – whatever part of us that gives us ambition, interest, that makes us want to create something, that makes us passionate about things. We can't really quantify it or measure it, but when you see them...you feel its absence.”

There was a distant, slightly haunted look in John's eyes, and Sherlock was reminded of the theory that myths of zombies came from stories of severed people.

John and his dæmon blinked, shook themselves, and moved into the bedroom. They were obviously exhausted, having spent most of the night looking through the books of symbols and writing down possible meanings; Amarisa heaved herself laboriously onto the bed, and John was stripping down to his underwear with a lot of yawning and blinking. Raniel chittered in amusement when the doctor's foot caught in his trousers.

“You shouldn't laugh at the man with the illegal gun,” Amarisa muttered drowsily as her human slid under the covers.

Which, of course, only made Raniel laugh harder.

“Do you want to have sex?” John asked, in the same tone of polite enquiry he used when offering tea or food.

His train of thought momentarily halted, Sherlock considered the question. The idea was tempting in an abstract way, but Sherlock's mind was fully engaged at the moment, which meant his usual appetites fell by the wayside.

“Thinking,” was all he said.

From his position on Sherlock's shoulder, Raniel's tail slapped the back of Sherlock's neck as the polecat hissed reprovingly. Belatedly it occurred to Sherlock that his response had been a bit brusque he probably should have done it more gently – the last thing he wanted was for John to feel offended or rejected. After all, the fact that he'd even considered sex while so absorbed in the puzzle of the prophecy was a real first for Sherlock.

But John's response was simply, “All right.”

He rolled over, closing his eyes as Amarisa snuggled against his back.

“You can leave the light on,” the wolfdog yawned. “Just try to keep it quiet, okay?”

Her eyes were already shut, and within a minute both her and her human's breathing had adopted the deep, even pattern of someone in the beginning stages of sleep. Sherlock had always been slightly dubious of people who claimed they could fall asleep instantly, but it seemed that was exactly what John and Amarisa had done.

Sherlock glanced at his dæmon, shrugged, and opened their suitcase, pulling out the laptop, intending to search for more information on Carl Powers. Even Mycroft had agreed that Carl Powers was the most likely route to Moriarty – he'd even resorted to asking the alethiometer, hadn't he?

They were intending to sit on the chair, but...well, the room could get a bit chilly, and it seemed a waste to get a blanket or turn up the heating when John and Amarisa were already under the blankets, undoubtedly radiating warmth. Sherlock made himself comfortable slowly and carefully, half-expecting John to startle and wake up, but the other man didn't stir. Only Amarisa's eyes opened to peer at them for a moment, unfocused with sleep, before she nudged her nose against Raniel's and settled back down.

Sherlock opened the laptop, and he and his dæmon settled in to get as much work done as they could before breakfast. Mycroft, the lazy bastard, was probably sleeping like the rest of the household, and Sherlock couldn't deny he wanted to be gloating over information his brother didn't have by morning; it was only what Mycroft deserved for keeping John's encounter with Mummy and the death-spells from Sherlock for so long.

“We should probably turn off the light,” Raniel whispered.

Sherlock glanced over at his dæmon. Raniel was sitting on top of the bedspread, his forepaws resting on the edge of the laptop with his attention on the sleeping figures on the other side of the bed. Amarisa's head was buried beneath John's arm, and the man's hand was flung over his face, as though subconsciously shielding his eyes.

Sherlock was half-surprised that his first impulse wasn't to ignore Raniel and get back to work. But instead, he rose and turned off the light before returning to the bed by the light of the computer screen.

“Now,” he murmured, keeping his voice low and soothing so as not to disturb the sleepers. “Back to Carl Powers...”

Chapter Text

Sherlock had never shared a bed while researching before. He and Raniel had researched in bed more than once, but never with someone else in it.

John and Amarisa had moved in their sleep. They'd sighed, moaned, mumbled, and at about three in the morning John had barked 'scalpel!' in such an authoritative tone that for a moment Sherlock could have sworn he'd woken up. By the time the rest of the household was stirring, John had migrated across the bed to Sherlock's side.

He wasn't exactly cuddling, but he was resting a hand on Sherlock's thigh, his thumb tucked into the waistband of his pants and resting on the crease of his hip. For all the connotations of the position, there was nothing about sex in the gesture and everything about comfort.

Sherlock had never cuddled with his previous partners. He'd never wanted to, and had in fact actively discouraged sentimentality and clinginess – they were there to give him an orgasm, not hug him.

But this was...nice. This was something he could get used to – he and Raniel on the computer while John and Amarisa slept nearby. And more than that, it occurred to him that he'd have the chance to get used to it, just as he'd got used to John trying to feed him up at every available opportunity, to the crashes and curses and utter chaos that resulted whenever John had to wash Amarisa in their tiny shower, to the nightmares that occasionally disturbed their sleep...

Even as he and Raniel watched, John and Amarisa were stirring. The wolfdog yawned widely, her tongue curling, while John's eyes opened and he blinked up at Sherlock, a contented smile stretching across his face.

Which swiftly degenerated into a sleepy look of concern. “What's that look for?”

Sherlock wasn't aware he had a 'look'. “What do you mean?”

“The look you get when you've got a new case,” Amarisa explained. “You know, the one that says you don't quite know what's going on yet, but look forward to figuring it out.”

Against his will, Sherlock's lips twitched, and he told himself it was ridiculous to be pleased that John and his dæmon categorised his facial expressions.

“It's new to us,” Raniel said softly, nuzzling into Amarisa's chest so he didn't have to look her in the eye. “This...this thing that we're doing. I mean, for you two it's probably par for the course-”

“Not so much,” John admitted, a touch sheepishly. “We've never got this attached so quickly.”

“Apparently we're a bit reserved,” Amarisa chimed in.

Looking at them – John's hand still resting on Sherlock's leg, Amarisa cuddled up to Raniel, waving her paws lazily in the air as though she just couldn't be bothered to get up – it was easy for Sherlock to doubt that statement. But then he remembered the way Amarisa didn't touch other dæmons, the way John preferred a certain distance between himself and people he was meeting for the first time, as though he was taking their measure.

The thought that he and Raniel might be as big an exception to John and Amarisa's usual behaviour as they were to them made Sherlock smile.

But it seemed a half-awake John was a verbose and surprisingly honest John, as he continued. “I mean, we need you in our life, god help us…but we also want you, you know?”

Sherlock blinked.

“And that's more important?” Raniel asked, forepaws braced on Amarisa's chest as he scrutinised both the wolfdog and her human.

“Well, we think so,” Amarisa grinned. “I mean, you can need a lot of things you don't really like. Take you two and eating, for instance. It’s like how we love you, but we also like you.”

Raniel made a curious grumbling sound, and Sherlock looked at John intently. “What do you mean?”

John looked away as his dæmon buried her nose in the crook of his elbow. His thumb rubbed over Sherlock's skin, and Sherlock felt a faint stirring of interest in his groin.

“Things were...difficult with my family when Risa settled,” John said quietly. “Still are, really.”

“They looked at me like I was wrong,” came Amarisa's muffled voice, smaller and more vulnerable than Sherlock could ever remember hearing it.

Something quite close to fury formed a hard knot in Sherlock's chest. Raniel hissed in anger even as he licked at the tip of Amarisa's ear, and Sherlock gave in to the impulse to card his fingers through John's short hair.

He was certain that here was the root of John and Amarisa's aversion to being considered unusual - and to anything which marked them out as different or special. There had probably been other factors in their life, but this was where it started.

Sherlock was gripped with the urge to track Mr and Mrs. Watson down and...well, not hurt them, exactly, because their DNA had combined to make John so they were clearly good for something, but somehow make them understand what utter idiots they'd been.

“We love them,” John went on. “Don't get us wrong, but...we don't like them much.”

“But we like you,” Amarisa added, rubbing her nose against Raniel's.

“We like you too,” the polecat whispered shyly.

Sherlock's cheeks burned. John was still rubbing slow circles into Sherlock's skin with his fingertips, so gently and absently he didn't think John was even aware he was doing it. Given that, it was really quite unfair that it was taking up so much of Sherlock's attention.

“Do you experience nocturnal penile tumescence?” he blurted.

There was a moment of silence. Then Amarisa let out a low-pitched giggle, short and hiccupy, as though she were trying not to make a sound. John had turned his face against Sherlock's knee but his ribs were trembling with suppressed laughter.

“What's so amusing?” Raniel asked indignantly, he and his human feeling something that was dangerously close to hurt.

John looked up at Sherlock and his dæmon, grinning that broad, welcoming smile of his that invited them in on the joke. “Nothing, it's just...well, usually people just call it morning wood.”

“Foolish and vague,” Sherlock muttered sulkily.

Another laugh from John and the wolfdog. “Are you asking in the interests of scientific inquiry, or is it a bit more personal?”

“I want to have sex.”

Rather blunt perhaps, but John and Amarisa seemed to prefer bluntness to hedging.

Amarisa giggled, and John appeared to ponder the matter. “Brief and to the point. Refreshing, really, that you didn't go for some weird euphemism.”

He was still grinning when he sat up and kissed Sherlock. The first press was brief and almost chaste, his lips dry and closed. It was a definite prelude to the kind of slow, steady kissing they'd indulged in during the trip here, but Sherlock was in no mood for slow and steady.

With a noise of frustration, he wrapped his hands around John's face, nudging at the hinge of his jaw with his thumbs and licking eagerly at the seam of his lips. John's mouth opened willingly, one hand coming up to rest on the back of Sherlock's neck, his fingers tracing circles around the nape. The other dropped to begin undoing the buttons on Sherlock's shirt – again, too slowly, and Sherlock batted John's fingers away to do it himself.

Amarisa still giggling, even as Raniel rubbed his nose along the top of her muzzle.

“Do you take anything seriously?” the polecat asked.

“We take lots of things seriously,” Amarisa rejoined. “Sex, however, should never be taken too seriously.”

“Why?” Sherlock asked, curious, drawing back from kissing John to yank impatiently at the tab on his pants.

“Well, from a strictly medical perspective, sex is a bit ridiculous,” John offered. “Heart rate and blood pressure go through the roof, neurons fire at random, muscles spasm and clench and just about every part of your body goes into overdrive – if it were a substance, it'd be illegal.”

“Except for protection and contraception and all that,” Amarisa added, their medical side obviously not willing to allow that statement to go unqualified. “You need to take that seriously. But the actual sex? Never.”

“You’re strange,” Raniel muttered.

“Like you can talk,” John snorted.

But he was still smiling, and when Sherlock slipped a hand into John's boxers he was definitely hard.

--

In John's experience, it usually took a few weeks of sex to get to the 'banter in bed' stage, when you weren't trying so hard to impress the other person and desperately hoping they'd want to sleep with you again. It usually came when you were relaxed with your partner, enough to joke and be silly without worrying that they'd never take you seriously again.

But then, John had never slept with someone who knew him as well and on so many levels as Sherlock did.

He sighed gustily into Sherlock's mouth when he felt those long fingers sliding down his belly, and hissed when they closed around his erection, partly in pleasure, partly in alarm.

“Your hands are freezing!” he blurted.

Sherlock looked offended, but he didn't move his hands. “I've been working – unlike some people I could name.”

A muffled giggle came from the direction of their dæmons, though John couldn't tell if it was Amarisa or Raniel who had snickered. Deciding to give Sherlock a taste of his own medicine, he took hold of Sherlock's cock, not bothering to warm his hands first.

Except that judging by the moan Sherlock let out, he wasn't in the least displeased. Obviously John's hands were warmer than Sherlock's – but then, he'd been under the blanket like a sensible person. He was fully prepared to lecture – loudly – on why chilled hands on body parts that often withered in the cold wasn't conducive to the kind of fun they had in mind, but then Sherlock moved his hand in a long, slow pull and the pleasure that shivered through him momentarily derailed John's thoughts.

It was hard to be mad in the face of that, so John applied himself to returning the favour.

You had to be very close to someone to trust them with their hands near your cock. You had to trust that they'd be careful, that they'd remember to be gentle even when approaching orgasm. Lips were very sensitive, and it was easy to be gentle with them, but with hands...all it took was too-sharp fingernails, pressure in the wrong place, and serious damage could be done.

But Sherlock's touch was gentle, just firm enough, and he seemed to be reading the tiniest gasps and moans John was making and tailoring his technique to provoke more of them. They were hardly kissing at all at this point, just sort of breathing messily into each other's mouths, and John tightened his grip on the back of Sherlock's neck, needing to hold onto something.

With a great effort of concentration, he managed to maintain his rhythm on Sherlock, crying out and accidentally digging his fingernails into Sherlock's neck when a particular twist of the wrist and flick of the thumb made him convulse. The blunt scrape of John's nails across Sherlock's vertebrae provoked a gratifying noise of pleasure, and he leaned in to nip lightly at Sherlock's earlobe.

Sherlock made a startled sound that was not quite a moan, but not quite a gasp, and it went straight to John's cock, making him throb against Sherlock's fingers. He ducked his head, licking and kissing and biting his way down Sherlock's neck, until he could purse his lips around a nipple and suck.

Sherlock cried out, his hips jerking so hard John nearly lost his grip. John kept sucking, using just a hint of teeth, listening to Sherlock getting steadily louder and more incoherent with a deep satisfaction that more than made up for the fact that Sherlock's attentions to John had become rather uncoordinated. He could practically feel Sherlock's body winding tighter and tighter, and kept up his ministrations, until he felt Sherlock's hand in his hair, tugging a bit harder than was comfortable.

“Get up here,” Sherlock demanded, his voice low and raspy and thick. “I want to be kissing you when-”

John didn't give him a chance to finish. He just slid his lips over Sherlock's, deep and dirty with wicked flickers of the tongue, as he tightened his grip and twisted his wrist deftly...

Sherlock came with a near-silent cry, as though all the air had been punched out him by the force of his orgasm.

He folded against John, his own hold on John's cock becoming loose and limp. John reached down and laid his fingers over Sherlock's own, weaving them together and moving their hands in unison over his cock.

He wasn't going to last long, and John actually felt a bit miffed about that – his stamina had been absolutely rotten with Sherlock thus far. Though in his defense, with Amarisa's pleasure shivering through him as well – she and Raniel were nipping and licking and rolling around like lazy cats that had just mated, and her pleasure was deeper and somehow steadier, like warm, glowing embers rather than a dancing, blazing fire – there was only so much John could take.

Sherlock's fingers were still limp beneath his own, but he stirred enough to trace his tongue over the corner of John's jaw, humming contently before sucking and scraping with just a hint of teeth.

John clenched his jaw in an effort not to scream as he climaxed.

As the white-hot sparks of pleasure faded from behind his eyes and the familiar lassitude swept his body, John maintained just enough presence of mind to ease himself and Sherlock back down to the bed instead of simply flopping backwards like landed fish.

John panted softly in an effort to get his breath back, one hand tracing Sherlock's spine and the other gripping Amarisa's scruff to anchor himself. His skin began to cool, and he was considering cleaning up and how much effort it would take when Sherlock stirred, kissing John beneath the chin before propping himself into a sitting position with his hands on John's chest.

“I checked medical records,” Sherlock announced, apropos of nothing. “School records – anything we could get our hands on.”

“How did you do that?” Amarisa asked, and John was grateful his dæmon could voice the question he was too out of breath to articulate. “Aren't they supposed to be private?”

Sherlock shrugged, and Amarisa giggled.

“Only technically,” Raniel muttered, curling into Amarisa's chest as though he was trying to burrow straight through her fur.

“We didn't find much,” Sherlock went on, reaching for the laptop he'd deposited on the bedside table. “But look at this.”

John looked. It a photograph of a school swimming team, and Sherlock tapped the face of a boy John assumed to be Carl Powers.

“What are we meant to be seeing?” John wondered, his voice pleasantly raspy.

“Oh, for – look at him! More than a passing resemblance to Moriarty, wouldn't you say?”

John squinted, feeling Amarisa wriggling around beside him to get a better view. Now that he was looking for it, he could see that Carl Powers had the same nose, the same basic facial structure, and the same smile, though it was unsettling to see it relaxed and content instead of maniacal.

“Family, then?” John's dæmon asked. “At least that would explain how they knew each other...”

Sherlock nodded. “But why would he have any contact with his family? Clan-raised children usually don't even know their father's name, let alone have contact with him.”

“You know your father,” Amarisa pointed out.

“We're not a clan child,” Raniel explained. “We lived in Father's house and we went to school – a clan child never does that. They travel with their mother, and only rarely have contact with humans.”

“So if Moriarty was a clan child, why would he know his father?” Sherlock reiterated.

John shrugged. “Search me. Do you think it's important?”

“We don't know,” Raniel hissed, obviously frustrated. “Carl Powers' family wasn't particularly important or influential, so they weren't trying to grub up connections for the planned takeover-”

The dæmon was interrupted by the ringtone of John's mobile.

--

Lestrade liked John, he really did – after all, the doctor was a genuinely likeable man who more often than not smoothed the feathers Sherlock had ruffled in a way Lestrade was usually too busy or exasperated to manage. And though Zarania's tall perch and fierce, ever-glaring eyes often intimidated most dæmons that came into his office, Amarisa always had a tail-wag and a word of greeting for the falcon dæmon.

It probably helped that Amarisa was as large as her human – maybe even larger, it was rather hard to tell. It was rare for a dæmon to get that big, and Lestrade had heard more than a few officers chuckling around the precinct about how Amarisa's abundance of size was making up for John's lack of it.

Except John wasn't actually small. It was more that he just seemed small, because you kept expecting him to be bigger than he actually was. After all, this was John Watson, who ran with Sherlock Holmes and actually seemed to moderate the man's behaviour somewhat, who'd joined the army and got shot in Afghanistan, who had a wolfdog for a dæmon, and surely he was six feet tall at least? Your mind kept expecting him to be a giant of a man, and when he wasn't, you found yourself thinking he was...well, short.

But ever since the incident with the dæmon-fighting ring, Lestrade has difficulty thinking of John without remembering that preternatural calm that had enveloped the man and his dæmon as soon as they realised a fight was going to break out. Most people got tense and nervous before a physical confrontation, even veteran police officers – one of the side-effects of adrenaline. Lestrade and Zarania were always tense and flighty after a close call.

But John and Amarisa had looked relaxed, at ease and calm in a way more reminiscent of a hunting tiger than a human being.

“They're a perfect match,” Zarania had said.

“How do you mean?” he'd asked, not quite understanding what his dæmon was saying.

“They're both crazy, but in opposite ways. Danger makes Sherlock and Raniel excited, but it makes John and Amarisa calm – they're just more subtle about it.”

Lestrade had been forced to agree.

Yes, John was crazy, but still the most likeable of the two, and if Lestrade wanted answers from one of them, it was most likely going to be John. So when he'd had a chance to read the report on their encounter with Moriarty more thoroughly and wanted to know any information Sherlock might have gleaned from the man, he rang John, not Sherlock.

Sherlock would probably acquiesce to a meeting John arranged, and anyway Lestrade doubted Sherlock would be going anywhere without John for the next two months. Maybe even three or four, if he was feeling especially paranoid.

Though he waited until a suitable hour, of course. Lestrade was a detective – he knew the tone of the recently-laid, and John's voice had been dripping it over the phone yesterday.

At least something good had come of that debacle.

“Hello?” John answered, his voice hoarse and slightly thick, as though it's most recent use hadn't been for producing words.

“It's Lestrade,” the detective said, grinning to Zarania, and the falcon spread her wings and gave a single, laughingly triumphant shriek.

“What was that?” John asked, sounding worried.

“Nothing – don't worry about it,” Lestrade said hastily. “I was wondering if I could come over and have a talk with the two of you.”

Sherlock was always more vocal and amenable (such as he ever was) in person than over the phone.

There was a short silence before John admitted, sounding reluctant, “We're not actually in London anymore.”

Lestrade was used to nasty surprises, so he was able to catch himself before he actually screamed 'WHAT?' down the phone. Zarania, feeling his frustration, clacked her beak in displeasure.

“Care to tell me why you're not in London anymore?” Lestrade asked, deceptively calmly. “Considering there's a psychopath out for your blood or Sherlock's attention, and frankly I don't know which is more worrying.”

“You wouldn't believe me if I told you,” John sighed.

“Try me.”

He could hear John take a deep breath. “There's a prophecy that says Sherlock and I are going to be the destruction of the witch clan we think Moriarty's mother belongs to, which is why I was shot in Afghanistan, and they're probably trying to resurrect the Magesterium, though we can't be sure about that, so Sherlock's mother wanted to come to Sherlock's ancestral home or whatever this is so she and the rest of her clan can work out some kind of counter-attack.”

Lestrade's first impulse was to laugh. But John sounded so resigned and forlorn, as if even he couldn't quite believe this was going on, that all thoughts of this being some kind joke vanished before they'd even truly coalesced.

“You do realise if anyone else had told me that, I'd be ringing the ambulance and demanding to know what they'd taken?”

“I know, I know,” John groaned. “But I swear, we'll be back...sometime. I'm not too clear on what the schedule is here.”

Privately, Lestrade thought John would be safer with three witches looking out for him than the police protection of the MET, if only because they’d be prepared to meet spells with spells, but he wasn’t going to actually say that – it wouldn’t do to encourage this sort of behaviour.

“All right,” Lestrade sighed, one hand stroking Zarania’s chest feathers in an effort to calm both himself and his dæmon down. “But make sure you call me when you get back.”

“Of course,” John replied quickly, sounding grateful that Lestrade wasn’t about to demand their presence by tomorrow.

“And John?”

“Yes?”

“Take care of yourself, all right?”

Lestrade hung up before John could answer.

--

Of course, by the time John got off the phone with Lestrade – and had showered, cleaned his teeth and brushed Amarisa’s fur – Sherlock and Raniel had left the room. Probably too eager to share their revelation that Moriarty and Carl Powers had been related to wait, and John had a fond smile on his face when he closed the door to their bedroom.

Amarisa was still sleepy, still learning the sounds and smells of the house, and John blamed her unawareness when they nearly ran over Sherlock’s father as they turned a corner.

Amarisa leapt back, instinctively bristling in surprise, and John tried not to blush. Was he cursed to always run into a member of Sherlock’s family whenever he and Sherlock had just had sex?

Grayson’s eyes widened, his gaze fixed on Amarisa, and his golden osprey’s wings started to open and then closed swiftly, as though she’d been about to launch into flight instinctively but stopped herself. Amarisa quickly softened her posture, her lips falling back over her teeth and flattening her fur – she even wagged her tail for good measure.

But John could see by Grayson’s startled expression that it was too late. He might have been aware, objectively, that Amarisa was a wolfdog, but he hadn’t seen it until now. John braced himself for the pity or wariness or whatever expression was about to cross Grayson’s face, and was completely shocked when the man beamed at them.

“Fascinating,” he breathed, with the exact same tone Sherlock used when he’d stumbled across an interesting facet of a case. “I knew she was a wolfdog, but I didn’t expect her to be quite so…magnificent.”

John was struck dumb, and Amarisa’s tail stopped wagging, standing straight up in surprise.

“I’m sorry, that was terribly rude of me,” Grayson backpedalled. “I study dæmons you know – their bonds with their humans and why they settle in the forms they do – so I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of boundaries when it comes to other people’s dæmons.”

In that moment, John could clearly see the man’s influence on his youngest son. No wonder Sherlock was so blasé about directly addressing people’s dæmons.

“It’s fine,” John said automatically. “Sherlock doesn’t have many boundaries about that, either.”

Grayson’s lips quirked into a smile. “I’m not surprised.”

There was a small pause where Grayson stared almost wistfully at Amarisa, before his dæmon nipped him gently on the ear.

“Oh yes,” he startled, coming out of whatever thoughts he’d been absorbed by. “Samieyah just reminded me – we came to show you to the kitchen for some breakfast.”

John absently noted the dæmon’s name – Samieyah – for future reference as he and his wolfdog followed Sherlock’s father down the hall.

“I like him,” Amarisa whispered.

John rubbed the top of her head to communicate his agreement.

But Grayson and Samieyah seemed agitated, the osprey constantly glancing over at John and then down at Amarisa. Their whole demeanour practically screamed self-containtment, as though they were just barely holding themselves back from an inappropriate outburst.

John just waited. If Grayson was anything like his son, he and his dæmon could only control themselves for so long.

“If I’m over-stepping, please tell me and there’ll be no hard feelings,” Grayson eventually blurted, speaking very rapidly as though he was afraid John would interrupt. “But I was wondering I could measure the two of you.”

John blinked, and put a comforting hand on Amarisa’s back as the fur there began to bristle defensively. “Measure how?”

“Nothing invasive,” Grayson hastened to assure them. “Just height, weight, that sort of thing. One of my areas of research is the comparative size of dæmons to the true animals of the form they settle in. While their shape is still mutable, dæmons can change their size to a certain extent, but they rarely exceed the size of their own human. My current theory is that it has to do with shared energies-”

John listened to Grayson ramble on with half an ear, glancing down at Amarisa with a question written in his face. The wolfdog rolled her shoulders and wagged her tail, as if to ask ‘why not?’.

Besides, it was a good idea to stay on good terms with your father-in-law…and damn if that thought didn’t sound strange even in John’s head.

“All right,” John interrupted gently.

“Really?” Grayson asked, his eyes wide and Samieyah all-but wriggling in delight. “Do you mind if we start right now? Oh, but you’ll probably want breakfast first-”

John couldn’t help smiling. “Now is fine. As long as it won’t take long.”

“Barely ten minutes, I promise!” Grayson enthused, practically chivvying John down the hall in his excitement.

--

Sherlock and Raniel were in the study, and they’d been asking their mother about why a clan child would have been introduced to his father. Mycroft was there as well, but that couldn’t be helped – he’d sent Tehayla off to communicate with some of the more remote clans, a subtle probe to determine if they’d received any word of this planned coup.

“It’s not unusual for a clan child to know their father,” Aeliana explained. “But it’s usually limited to short visits.”

“And we know Moriarty spent a period with his father’s family that was long enough to give him motive to kill Carl, time to conceive of a plan and opportunity to execute it,” Mycroft mused, paging through the book of symbols – still struggling to translate the alethiometer’s answer.

Because given the sheer number of symbols in the reply, it seemed likely the answer was much more complex than simply ‘Moriarty and Carl Powers were related to each other’.

Sherlock heard footsteps and managed to identify them as his father before the door flew out and Grayson burst into the study, looking ecstatic.

“Darling!” he cried, wrapping his arms around Aeliana and giving her an exuberant kiss. “John allowed me to measure him!”

Raniel’s head rose, turning towards them, and Sherlock found himself listening intently.

“And what did you find?” Aeliana asked, looking tolerantly amused by her husband’s child-like enthusiasm.

“Amarisa is actually larger than John,” Grayson exclaims. “Just by a little mind you, but she’s definitely larger than him. Heavier, too – she’s clearly much stronger than a wolf, there’s so much muscle mass on her.”

Sherlock hid a smile, and Raniel licked at his forepaw in a self-satisfied manner. It was good to hear John and his dæmon being appreciated for the marvel they were, rather than shunned by misunderstanding idiots.

“I think I surprised them when I came around the corner – his dæmon actually snarled at me! It’s certainly easy to see her wolf side when she does that. He’s really all you said he was.”

That was intriguing.

“What did you say John was?” Sherlock asked bluntly.

He thought he saw Mycroft smirk from the corner of his eye, but refused to react beyond Raniel hissing at his brother.

Aeliana smiled fondly at him. “I said he was a remarkable man. Lonely, when I knew him – he was human but people were often wary of him, simply because his dæmon had chosen to settle in an unusual form. But compassionate, in spite of that. And if you have his loyalty, there’s nothing he won’t do to protect you.”

Sherlock couldn’t help but scowl, Raniel bristling beside him as they remembered the pool and John’s desperate command for them to run.

“Where is John and Amarisa?” Raniel asked Samieyah.

“We left them eating breakfast,” the osprey replied, with a hint of almost-parental approval. “Healthy appetite, that boy.”

Raniel chittered and Sherlock smiled in satisfaction and pride as he recalled exactly why John would have such an appetite so early in the morning.

--

After breakfast, John wasn’t sure what to do with himself. For lack of anything better to do, he and Amarisa went looking for Sherlock and Raniel, the wolfdog tracking their scent through the house for their own amusement.

He found Sherlock in the study, debating with Mycroft about the circumstances under which a clan child would have extensive contact with their father’s family.

“Ah, John,” Mycroft greeted as soon as they entered the room. “I’d like you to try reading the alethiometer.”

John was instantly defensive. “You promised no tests!”

Mycroft blinked. “You let Father measure you.”

“Because he asked politely.”

Sherlock snickered, and Raniel giggled as Amarisa bumped her nose against the polecat’s.

“This isn’t a test,” Mycroft said, obviously trying to be conciliatory. “Witches are often more adept at reading the alethiometer, and one theory as to why is that it’s a result of their increased sensitivity to Stanislaus particles. If you ask the question, it’s likely you may be able to get a better feel for the answer.”

John was tempted to tell Mycroft to piss off and find his own lab rat, but it was only last night that he’d been wondering what he could do, how he could help, and if this was an opportunity to be useful…well, surely it couldn’t hurt to try, could it?

Sherlock and Raniel were silent, not even muttering impolite things to their brother, which was a sure sign they were curious too, just determined not to push John.

He took the golden disk from Mycroft with more than a bit of awe. It was heavier than he’d expected, as though made from something much denser than gold, and John could almost feel how old it was as he ran his fingers across the worn designs etched into the metal, ridges and swirls rubbed smooth by centuries of handling.

John knew it was ridiculous to feel as though the device was watching him, but he couldn’t help it. It was like something in him had recognised the alethiometer and been recognised in turn, and now it was just waiting for him to act on that recognition.

He could see why people were wary of alethiometers, if this was what they felt every time they picked one up.

“Just ask a simple question, first,” Mycroft coached. “One you already know the answer to.”

“Um…how?” John asked, staring blankly down at the instrument in his hands. Amarisa sniffed at the metal edge, wary.

“The three dials,” Raniel said, inching closer along the couch towards John, looking excited. “Point them at the symbols to ask a question.”

“But I don’t know what the symbols mean,” John said, tilting the alethiometer so Amarisa could have a better look at it.

“Just pick the ones that feel right for your question,” Mycroft offered, and though his tone was only mildly curious there was a strange intensity to his eyes, the same kind John saw in Sherlock’s when they were on a case.

“All right,” John said slowly, reaching for the dial on the left side first.

Mycroft had said to ask it a question he knew the answer to, so he decided to ask it what he'd had for breakfast. He turned one dial to point at the bread symbol, because it was food, the next to point at the sun, which he supposed could mean morning and thus breakfast, but how could he refer to himself? Eventually, John settled the final hand at the helmet, because he'd been a soldier.

The thin needle shivered to life, spinning around the dial and stopping at the bread, the honey, the bull, the tree and the cornucopia. It was simple enough to see that the first three symbols were indicating that he'd had porridge with honey and milk, and John supposed the tree and cornucopia together meant 'tea', though he didn't see how.

“Okay,” he said, looking up at Mycroft again. “That was easy enough – now what?”

“Did you manage to grasp the meaning of all the symbols in the reply?” Mycroft asked, looking honestly curious.

“Not really,” John admitted. “I could get what was referring to the porridge I had, and I'm going to assume that the tree and the cornucopia are referring to the cup of tea I had, but I don't see how.”

“But you were able to determine which symbols indicated the porridge?”

John shrugged. “It was kind of obvious.”

Mycroft an agreeable noise, looking pensive. “Now, try asking it...what Sherlock got me for my birthday this year.”

“Oh, really!” Sherlock scoffed, and Raniel bared his teeth at Mycroft.

Intrigued, John bent back to the alethiometer. He twisted the first dial until the hand rested on the symbol of a puppet, because Mycroft was a puppetmaster if there ever was one. The next symbol he chose was the hourglass, because that meant time, and he supposed it could mean 'birthday'. John debated over what symbol best fit Sherlock, but in the end he chose the thunderbolt, because he'd never met anyone more like a force of nature.

The thin needle whirled, spinning through the symbols of the baby, globe, snake, sword, garden, the alpha and omega, bird, dolphin and finally the bull, before it began the cycle all over again.

John stared blankly, wondering how anyone ever made sense out of all this. He couldn't see what the symbols meant, let alone how they related to Mycroft's birthday present – it made no sense at all.

But then, John started to see.

He started to see how the baby could refer to difficulty, how the globe could refer to the government or maybe politics...

It was like squinting at the outline of a landscape through mist – you saw shapes and blurred images – and as you kept staring and trying to determine what you were looking at, a breeze blew the mist away, revealing the world around you bit by bit until it was as clear as day.

John and Amarisa shared a glance, then burst out laughing.

“What's so funny?” Sherlock asked, looking bewildered.

“If that's your idea of a birthday present, never get us one!” Amarisa wheezed.

Mycroft had gone completely, unnaturally still. “What do you think the alethiometer said?”

“That Sherlock broke into your office and left a dissected frog on your desk? As an obscure reference to your difficulties with international health policy?” John hazarded. “Was that not right?”

“No, it was right,” Mycroft said, and his voice was actually faint and tremulous. “Perfectly correct, in fact.”

John became aware Sherlock had gone completely silent, he and Raniel staring at John and his wolfdog with an expression that could really only be described as 'bug-eyed'.

John took in the expressions of shock worn by everyone in the room, and could only sigh. “This is another thing people aren't supposed to do, isn't it?”

--

The first thing Mycroft did was have John ask several rather obscure questions, just in case his comprehension of the alethiometer was a fluke.

It wasn't.

It was true that some people were better at alethiometer reading than others. Some had an almost instinctive grasp of the symbols, could ask questions much more quickly and get the answers within a day or so...but Mycroft had never seen anything like this. There was no hesitation, no pause for interpretation – John asked, the alethiometer spun, and John knew.

Mycroft's best time was eight hours between the asking the question and the final translation. But perhaps that was the key difference; John was reading, not translating.

Mycroft had suspected John might have hidden talents, but he'd never thought one of those talents would be reading an alethiometer as quickly and effortlessly as a children's book.

Once, back when the Magesterium ruled, there had been the rumour of a girl who could read the alethiometer without books. Mycroft wondered if it looked anything like this.

It wasn't that John's eyes went out of focus as he waited for the alethiometer's answer – quite the opposite. It was as though he and his dæmon focused so intently on the alethiometer that everything else disappeared, and he always blinked when he looked up from it, as though rising from a trance.

There were few things Mycroft feared, and even fewer that he didn't understand, but this...this was sending a cool sweat running down his back.

He could see fear in Sherlock's eyes too. Not of John – his brother probably only felt vindicated at this new proof of John's uniqueness – but because Sherlock knew what this meant, knew how valuable a tool John had suddenly become.

A man with an unprecedented level of sensitivity was intriguing, but hardly of consequence. But a man who could read the alethiometer was a prize people would happily kill to control.

Chapter Text

Sherlock and Raniel watched John and Amarisa read the alethiometer, and tried very hard not to betray their fear.

Sherlock couldn’t deny that some part of them was almost excited – they knew that John Watson and his dæmon were completely unique, and now they had proof – but that was muted and drowned by a feeling only comparable to seeing John covered in explosives.

If even a vague rumour of John’s ability slipped past these walls, he would be sought by innumerable people across the globe.  People who wanted to manipulate him, coerce him, would do whatever it took to sway him to their cause…people who would kill him if he refused, rather than see him work against them.

Mycroft tested it, of course, over and over again.  Asking ever-more complex questions, with answers John could not possibly have known but delivered nevertheless, and never in the hesitant, unsure tone of someone who was waiting to see if they’d guessed correctly.  His voice was always steady, confident, as sure of his replies as if Mycroft had been quizzing him on anatomy.

Whatever question he was asked, John could answer, provided he had the alethiometer in his hands.  The alethiometer seemed to work via a physical connection – it was no good Mycroft holding it and simply reading out the symbols.  Sherlock would be fascinated if he wasn’t so nervous.

Not that it wasn’t eerie.  Sherlock and Raniel prided themselves on being fascinated by subjects that made ‘normal’ people uncomfortable, but it was still unnerving.  John and Amarisa looked like they were drugged each time they read the alethiometer; their breathing slowed, becoming almost meditative, and their eyes became sharp and very focused, but almost somehow…distant.  As though what they were focusing on wasn’t visible to any eyes but their own.

The necessity of John’s physical connection with the device told Sherlock and his dæmon that this was something much deeper than just having good instincts.  It said that something was happening on a level they weren’t aware of, that there was some kind of connection between John and the alethiometer, a strange channel of communication that only he could tune in to.

Finally, John asked the question that had stymied Mycroft and Mummy and everyone at the dinner table last night – who was Moriarty.

The symbols were the same – glancing over John’s shoulder, Sherlock and Raniel could determine that.  The same sequence that had been completely incomprehensible last night, but that John was now absorbing as if someone were speaking the meaning in clear, concise English.

Then John blinked as though coming out of a deep reverie, and Amarisa shook her head as if she were trying to clear it.  She leaned against John’s leg as her human rubbed at her eyes, and Sherlock suddenly wondered if reading the alethiometer exhausted them in some way.

Raniel made a soft, chirruping sound of concern, skittering down Sherlock’s sleeve to the arm of the sofa.  He nudged Amarisa’s muzzle with his nose, butting his head against her whiskers, and the wolfdog licked him under the chin.

“Moriarty and Carl Powers were half-brothers,” John said, sounding weary.  “Moriarty’s conception was something of an experiment – his mother’s clan wanted a child who was a British citizen, and they were also hoping he’d be highly sensitive to Stanislaus particles.  Moriarty’s father was a sensitive as well, you see.  They were disappointed with the sensitivity thing, but if they wanted him to be a British citizen, he had to spend time in the country.  Which was how Moriarty and Carl Powers came into contact in the first place.”

Of course, the clan would have needed a child that was a British citizen to have any hope of establishing them in the government…but why had sensitivity been deemed important?  Had they hoped to get a child with something like John’s talent?

John rubbed briefly at his temples as though he had a migraine

“Are you all right?” Sherlock asked.

“Fine,” John said quickly.  “It just…kind of takes a bit out of you, you know?”

Amarisa licked at her human’s hand soothingly, and John dragged his fingers through her ruff.  They looked tired, like they’d been up for days following Sherlock and Raniel through London as opposed to fiddling with a temperamental bit of metal.

The fact that they know so little about the alethiometer’s function only increases Sherlock’s worry.  Given John’s obvious gift with it, it seemed likely that it was indeed connected to Stanislaus particles.  But how?  Was John’s exhaustion just a product of the strange state of concentration he slipped into, or did the alethiometer somehow feed off its reader?

“Well, I think that’s enough for now, in any case,” Mycroft announced, trying to look calm and composed even though Sherlock could tell he’d been genuinely rattled for the first time in over ten years.  “Thank you for your efforts, John.”

Sherlock was rather irritated that Mycroft managed to make a feat never achieved by anyone in living memory sound as though John had merely spent the morning organising an office.  But Mycroft was leaving, so he didn’t say anything that might make his brother actually want to respond.  Raniel’s lip curled over his sharp teeth, of course, but the dæmon stayed silent until the door shut.

“He’ll want to tell Mummy and Father himself,” the polecat scoffed.  “And make the announcement as dramatic as possible, of course.”

Amarisa laughed, and John’s face adopted the set, focused expression he used when he was amused but trying not to show it.

“What?” Raniel asked, the beginnings of indignation creeping into his voice.

Amarisa nuzzled him fondly behind the ears, chuffing softly.  “It’s always rich to hear one of you critise the other for being dramatic.”

Sherlock opened his mouth to point out – loudly – that Mycroft was much, much worse than he could ever dream of being, but instead found himself sighing softly as Amarisa rubbed the thin fur of her chin over Raniel’s head, licking gently at his neck.  Raniel made soft, contented noises and arched his back.  John smiled at their dæmons, and then abruptly yawned, Amarisa following her human, red tongue curling.

“It sounds lazy, considering I just got up a few hours ago, but I kind of want a nap,” John admitted.

Raniel and Amarisa were still gently nuzzling each other and John leaned back into the sofa and closed his eyes, his expression relaxed and peaceful.  The lines on his forehead were gradually smoothing out, and Sherlock didn’t bother resisting the urge to lean over and follow them with his fingers while they could still be seen.

John made a contented noise in the back of his throat, turning into the touch without even opening his eyes, and for no reason he could fathom, Sherlock felt his breath stutter in his throat.

He’d wanted to follow Mycroft, to be there when he and Mummy discussed the alethiometer…but Raniel seemed perfectly content to groom the fur around Amarisa’s face, and Sherlock didn’t feel like watching Mycroft’s theatrics. 

Staying with John was a much more sensible option.

“What’s it like?” Raniel asked, looking up at John.  “Reading the alethiometer, I mean?”

John frowned slightly, looking as though he was mentally searching for the right word.  “It’s…strange,” he eventually settled on.  “It’s a bit like switching between mindsets – like when you proofread English and then have to do maths.  It’s like my brain is somehow switching between gears.”

“It’s tiring,” Amarisa muttered, sighing softly as John scratched at the base of her ear.  Then the wolfdog laughed.  “Kind of fun, though – it’s…interesting.”

John grinned at Raniel and tugged at his dæmon’s ruff, and all in all looked very blasé for a man who had just demonstrated a skill thought to be purely mythical.

“You don’t seem very frightened,” Sherlock pointed out.

“Should I be?” John asked, the easy smile not leaving his face for a moment.  “Though I must admit – given how surprised your brother seemed – for a minute or two I was half-expecting men in black to come take me away to a lab somewhere.”

“We wouldn’t let that happen!” Raniel said, indignant.

“I can’t help but notice you didn’t say Mycroft wasn’t capable of that,” Amarisa pointed out, her mouth open in her dog-grin.

John suddenly sobered, and not for the first time it struck Sherlock just how attractive it was to see John go from ‘genial, sunny-natured doctor’ to ‘sharp, calculating soldier’.  Amarisa’s dog-grin had vanished from her face, her mouth closed and ears swivelled to catch their conversation, her eyes alert and focused and with a kind of cunning dogs never displayed.  It was like some kind of invisible switch had been flicked.

That fact that it wasn’t even as conscious as a switch – to John and Amarisa, it was just what came naturally – made it all the more thrilling.

“In all seriousness, we do have some idea of what a problem this is going to be,” John said, the beginnings of a frown creasing his face.  “The alethiometer itself isn’t very frightening – a little eerie, maybe, but it’s hard to be frightened of it, you know?”

Sherlock and Raniel didn’t know, but they refrained from interrupting.

“I doubt we can really know how many people want someone who can read an alethiometer and what they’d do to get them, but…” John shook his head.  “But I can imagine, and what I imagine isn’t pleasant.”

“No one else will find out,” Sherlock assured him.  “It will never leave this house.”

“You can’t actually guarantee that,” John pointed out.  “And if I’m going to be doing this on a regular basis-”

Raniel looked as horrified as Sherlock felt.  “You can’t possibly be thinking of-”

“Using my talents to help people?” John finished, glancing down at the polecat.

“You’re an idiot!” Sherlock spat reflexively.  He could see it all unfolding in his head – John would use the alethiometer whenever it seemed to be needed, even when it wasn’t needed, and stories about his talent would leak out because that was what inevitably happened when someone demonstrated such a unique skill often enough, that was simply human nature, and then people would want him out of the way…

“It won’t be nearly as useful as you imagine!” Raniel was all-but shrieking.  “You have to be very careful to ask the right questions, as even a tiny difference would-”

“Calm down,” Amarisa said firmly, lightly nipping the back of Raniel’s neck.  “We’re not going to be stupid about it.  We’re not going to pick up the alethiometer over every little idle mystery – just the important ones.”

Sherlock and Raniel shared a dubious glance, and privately wondered what John and Amarisa’s definition of ‘important’ was.

--

John could admit he’d been rather excited to learn he could read the alethiometer.  After all, it had been the first real proof that he and Amarisa would be useful in the fight against Moriarty, that they could contribute something besides being Sherlock and Raniel’s bodyguards – not that they didn’t need bodyguards (and sometimes, babysitters) but it was nice to be playing a larger role than protection and intimidation.

Mycroft had tested them over and over again, and John and his dæmon might have resented it if they hadn’t been able to see just how much their reading unsettled Mycroft.  And that was when their bubble of pleased pride had started to deflate.

Because Mycroft was looking at them the way most people looked at them when they first realised Amarisa was a wolfdog.  Surprise, puzzlement, and just a hint of fear.

Dinner had been an exercise in endurance.  John knew that Grayson and Aeliana and the other witches had only been curious, with perhaps a bit of awe alongside, but having everyone staring at them had given them unpleasant flashbacks to high school when Amarisa had first settled.  Back when they’d felt like freaks, as though what they were – not what they were doing, but what they were – was somehow wrong and unnatural.

Sherlock and Raniel obviously knew something was wrong – Sherlock kept a hand on his leg through the entire meal, eating one-handed, and Raniel curled himself around Amarisa’s foreleg like a very small and aggressive guard dog.

Still, John and his dæmon escaped as soon as they could, back to the room they shared with Sherlock and Raniel.  He had a shower, brushed his teeth and Amarisa’s fur, and tried not to think too hard on the implications of…anything.

“It feels weird,” Amarisa whispered, hopping up into John’s lap as soon as he sat on the bed.

She was so large she was more draped across John’s lap than sitting on it, but John had always found it comforting.

He knew what his dæmon was talking about, of course.  They’d gone their whole lives without feeling like they were anything particularly extraordinary, and to suddenly discover that they could do something thought to be only legend…well, it was unsettling.  It was almost like they’d never really known themselves, and that wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

John scratched the wolfdog’s ears, trying to be comforting, and they both spent fifteen minutes wondering how one awkward dinner could send them right back to being an insecure teenager with a just-settled dæmon.

Then Sherlock and Raniel walked in.

“Do you think we’re a freak?” Amarisa blurted out before they’d even closed the door.

Raniel’s tail twitched, but Sherlock didn’t even blink. 

“Yes,” he said, bluntly and completely without inflection, the same way he recited facts about a case.

Amarisa went stiff, her hackles rising automatically, and John tried to smother what he knew was a ridiculous feeling of sudden, unexpected hurt.  But he had to remember that to Sherlock, freak was probably a compliment, right?

“The definition of ‘freak’ is something that is markedly unusual or irregular,” Sherlock continued, already opening his laptop and not even looking at John and his dæmon.  “So yes, I’d certainly say you’re a freak.  You’re also unusual, exceptional, unparalleled, atypical, unique-”

John suspected that Sherlock probably had about twelve other similes lined up, but as soon as ‘exceptional’ had come out of his mouth, Amarisa had hopped off her human’s lap, John had shuffled over to Sherlock’s little corner of the bed, and kissed him.

John had intended to keep it light and as non-distracting as possible – a bit of spontaneous affection never hurt anyone – but his fingers, coming up around Sherlock’s nape, brushed against Raniel’s tail.  The shock of contact was like an electric current running straight up his arm, along with the kind of warm, relieved pleasure you felt when you opened the door to your home after a long and tiring day.

Sherlock gave a shuddery sort of sigh and the polecat moaned in pleasure, his grip on his human’s shoulder relaxing so quickly he actually fell off the side.  John automatically moved his arms around Sherlock to catch the dæmon in his hands, and the full-body contact made both Raniel and his human go completely limp, the polecat mewling softly.  John lowered Raniel to the bed, where Amarisa licked and nuzzled him.  He was planning on leaning back, on giving Sherlock a bit of breathing space, but as soon as he started to move away Sherlock practically tackled him, flattening him to the bed and crawling on top of him.

If anyone else had tried that without advance warning, they’d have been on the floor nursing a broken wrist, at the very least.  But with Sherlock, John’s only instinct was to pull him closer.  He put his lips to the hollow of Sherlock’s collarbones to coax that little breathy whimper out of him that got John’s cock responding like he was a horny teenager.

Amarisa whined with pleasure somewhere near the foot of the bed, and Sherlock seemed to take that as some sort of cue to begin wrestling with the buttons of John’s shirt.  Not quite sure if this was actually going to lead to sex or just some very heavy petting, John nonetheless applied himself to returning the favour – starting from the bottom so he could slip his hands up Sherlock’s tight shirt and rub his thumbs against the undersides of Sherlock’s nipples.

He’d expected some sort of reciprocal groping as soon as his shirt was undone, but Sherlock merely attacked his pants, as if he needed to have John naked as quickly as possible.  John wondered if he was imagining the shades of desperation in Sherlock’s kisses, the way his hands kept skimming John’s body as if checking for some kind of injury, the way his mouth was set and his eyes were hard, as though he was preparing for a blow.

On a hunch, he flicked a glance towards Raniel and Amarisa, and saw the polecat licking and nuzzling feverishly at his dæmon’s muzzle as Amarisa tried to calm him.

And John realised that he and Amarisa had frightened them.  Again.  But this time, their fright had nothing to do with Moriarty and everything to do with John and Amarisa themselves.  John and his dæmon weren’t stupid – they had an idea of what people would be willing to do to guarantee the services of someone who could read the alethiometer.  Or to remove him from playing field altogether.

Suspecting that addressing Sherlock and his dæmon’s concerns verbally would only make them close down and retreat, John settled for wrapping an arm around Sherlock and simply holding him close, his other hand coaxing Sherlock’s lips away from his neck and back up to his mouth.  He kept the kisses soft and undemanding, feeling tension slowly bleed out of Sherlock’s shoulders.

But he didn’t want Sherlock relaxing too much, so he dropped the hand from Sherlock’s face and instead reached for his belt buckle.  He managed to undo it one-handed, which John couldn’t help feeling smug about – such a feat of dexterity was something to be proud of when you’d managed it with Sherlock sucking on your tongue at the same time.

Sherlock leaned back to remove his trousers, and John was relieved the tight, almost grim expression had been replaced by Sherlock’s most dangerous smile.  He looked fully prepared to pounce on John like some kind of hunting cat, but John held up a hand.

“Hang on, there’s something I want to get.”

But he had to get up off the bed to find his suitcase, and even though Sherlock hadn’t touched his cock he was still so hard it was almost embarrassing.  Not to mention a bit uncomfortable, and he dug hastily through his folded clothes, trying to remember where he’d put the lube…

“Side pocket, in the plastic bag with my shampoo,” Amarisa prompted lazily, her eyes thin golden slits as Raniel rubbed his nose against the base of her ear.

John found it right where she said it would be, of course, and returned to the bed feeling absurdly triumphant.

Sherlock didn’t show any reaction to spotting the lube – but then again, this was Sherlock, and he probably knew what John had been about the moment he’d said he had to get something.

At that thought, John couldn’t help but smile.

“You might have to patient for a little bit,” he said as he climbed back on the bed.  “Shocking concept, I know, but it’s been a while since I’ve done this.”

“I know how to be patient!” Sherlock objected.

John snorted and Amarisa gave a soft ‘whuff’ of amusement.

“What’s so funny?” Raniel asked, sounding indignant.

“Patient?  You?” Amarisa snickered.  “You shot at the wall just because you were bored.”

“That was different,” Sherlock insisted, with the kind of lofty dignity that usually got him his way at crime scenes, but was difficult to pull off when he was stark naked and very obviously aroused.

John made a disbelieving noise, and then told himself not to laugh because that would only tense his muscles.  He opened the lube, prepared to slick his fingers up, but Sherlock snatched it from him with surprising speed.

Then he hesitated, seeming to belatedly realise this was something he should probably ask for.  “Can I-?”

“Yes.”  John knew he was grinning as he lay back, and made no effort to hide it.

It might have been his imagination, but Sherlock seemed a little uncertain.  “Are you sure you want-?”

“You to fuck me?” John finished.  “That would be nice, yes.  If you’d like.”

Amarisa chortled loudly, as amused as her human was, but Sherlock didn’t even seem to notice the sound – he was busy staring at John with the intensity he usually reserved for dead bodies.  Perhaps John should have been a little unnerved, but if Sherlock’s scrutiny had bothered him, he wouldn’t have lasted a week in Baker Street.  As it was, he often found it oddly flattering, that some part of Sherlock’s fantastic brain seemed to consider him as intriguing as serial suicides.

“Is this your preference?” Sherlock asked eventually, sounding honestly curious.  “Do you have a preference?”

John shrugged.  “Not really.  Depends what I’m in the mood for.”

Sherlock made a considering sort of noise, rubbing the lube on his fingers.  John opened his legs as Sherlock moved between them, and the first touch of cool wetness between his thighs made him shiver.  Sherlock was slow and careful, drawing slippery circles on John’s sensitive flesh as he watched John’s face, his tongue occasionally darting out to wet his lips as though enthralled by whatever he was seeing.

When one long finger finally did probe inside, John took a deep breath to contain the urge to clench down around it.  He couldn’t contain his soft moan, though, and he watched goose bumps prickle across Sherlock’s arms in response to that sound.

“You’re very tight,” Sherlock muttered, a small furrow of concern appearing in his brow as he darted a glance down John’s body.

“I told you, it’s been a while,” John panted, trying to form coherent sentences past the burning pleasure and slight ache of penetration and god it had really been far too long…

Amarisa whined, low and long, echoing her human’s need.

Sherlock was still frowning, and the finger inside John hadn’t moved an inch.  “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“That’s sweet, Sherlock,” John managed through gritted teeth, trying to suppress the urge to rock his hips up.  “But I’m a lot sturdier than you seem to believe.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened with indignation.  “I am not sweet.”

Amarisa snorted again, her mouth open and panting.  “We don’t believe you, you know.  You just don’t want us to tell everyone at the MET you’re really a big teddy bear when it comes down to it.”

Raniel – nipping at the side of her muzzle – suddenly reared back in horror.  “You wouldn’t dare!”

“No, I wouldn’t,” John agreed ruefully.  “But only because they’d think I’d gone stark raving mad and have me sectioned.”

Sherlock’s eyebrows lowered, but he finally deigned to actually move his finger, and if he made any kind of rejoinder John couldn’t hear it over his own stuttered, splintering groan.

John knew a lot of men didn’t like anal sex, but he’d never been one of them.  He was telling the truth when he said he had no particular preference – for him, sex was sex, no matter the positions – but it had been a little over three years since he’d been on the receiving end, so to speak, and he’d kind of missed it.

Though he’d like it better if Sherlock could get a move on.  John certainly appreciated slow and thorough preparation, but Sherlock’s seemed interminable.  John had to growl ‘come on!’ at him twice before he even added a second finger, and he was fairly certain Sherlock was deliberately avoiding his prostate.  John swore the way he’d learned in the army – loudly, vociferously and with real heart in it – as he wiggled his hips and ground down onto Sherlock’s fingers, trying to find the right angle.

Of course, that only seemed to encourage Sherlock, and the fifth time he pulled his fingers away when they were just shy of exactly where John wanted them, Amarisa’s growl echoed her human’s frustration.

“If you don't get a move on,” John hissed, his voice sounding like he’d swallowed bitumen.  “I swear I'm going to-”

“Strangle us?” Raniel finished, sounding breathless.

“Not one of our kinks, thanks,” Amarisa quipped.  “But I’m pretty sure if Sherlock doesn’t get a move on, John’s going to turn the tables and see how he likes it.”

John felt an urge to point out that he and Sherlock were still in the room, thanks, but Sherlock curled his fingers and oh Christ yes, finally!

“That's singularly non-threatening,” Sherlock remarked to John’s dæmon – and having him talking to Amarisa with his fingers still inside John shouldn’t be anywhere near as hot as John’s libido apparently decided it was.  “After all, to be a threat, the prospect has to be something distasteful or unpleasant.”

John made a frankly embarrassing noise as Sherlock’s fingers twisted, dragging over his prostate and just like that, Sherlock’s attention was riveted on him again.

“Are you ever going to get a move on?” John managed to gasp.  “Or are you trying to find out if I can come from prostate stimulation alone?”

“Can you?” Sherlock asked, looking intrigued.

John supposed he should have known better than to give him ideas.

Amarisa, picking up on his alarm, stammered out a denial.  “No, we can’t – it won’t work!”

Sherlock looked speculative, but almost strangely excited.  “I think you’re lying.  I don’t think you know if you can or not.”

“Oh, god,” John groaned.

“Though I suppose that’s an experiment for another time,” Sherlock allowed, and John might have believed his pretence of disinterest if he hadn’t been able to see Sherlock’s cock throbbing in time with his pulse.

Sherlock withdrew his fingers, smearing the leftover lube on his own cock, then seemed to hesitate.  “Are you-?”

“I’m ready, I’m sure, for Christ’s sake, just fuck me!” John hissed, only barely managing to rein himself in enough not to shout.

Sherlock laughed, but he was looking strangely enchanted – the way small children did when they saw the hired Santas at shopping centres.

John decided that Sherlock had dictated the pace for long enough.  He hooked an arm around Sherlock’s shoulders and a leg around his hip, and with a lithe twist he hadn’t been entirely sure he was still capable of, flipped them over until he was on top of Sherlock, pinning him to the mattress.

He hadn’t intended it to be enticing, but Sherlock’s pupils dilated even further, and his mouth opened.

“Most people don’t find that kind of thing arousing,” John pointed out, feeling mischievous.

“Most people are idiots.”  Sherlock’s voice was hoarse and his eyes skimmed John’s body as John leaned back to straddle him.

John grinned and rocked on top of Sherlock, deliberately sliding their cocks together and sending hot pleasure crawling up his spine.  He was half-tempted to just keep doing this until they both came, but it was only a vague impulse next to the burning need to be fucked.

He slid forward, reaching back to take hold of Sherlock’s cock, grinning when Sherlock took a slightly harder breath than usual, as though trying to control the urge to groan.  Of course, then John just had to work his hand for a moment or two, just until Sherlock moaned and his hips jerked.  Just until they’d established that Sherlock wasn’t the only one who could tease.

Sherlock scowled, and pinched one of John’s nipples in revenge.  It made his cock twitch, but even the unexpected burst of pleasure couldn’t keep John from chuckling softly.

Confident he was still slick and open from Sherlock’s earlier attentions, John lined them up, steadied himself with a hand on Sherlock’s chest, and pressed down.

John spared a sliver of brain power to feel smug over the way Sherlock choked and spasmodically clutched at his hips, but he was mostly absorbed with the feeling of Sherlock filling him up, his own body stretching to accommodate.  It ached, but it was a pleasant sort of ache, like walking home after a long run.  He took several deep breaths to help himself adjust – and feeling Sherlock literally shaking beneath him with the effort to keep still wasn’t helping – then carefully rose up a few inches and dropped down.

The tip of Sherlock’s cock dragged across his prostate, making his muscles clench and pulling shivery sparks of pleasure through him.  Sherlock’s hips twitched upward, too sharply to be strictly voluntary, and John would have laughed if he had the breath.  As it was the sound he made was more like ‘oh Christ, yes’.

Sherlock’s eyes were closed, and he was muttering something in a low whisper, almost under his breath.  John’s rhythm slowed automatically as he tried to catch it.

“Chlorine, argon, potassium-”

“Are you reciting the periodic table?” John asked.

Sherlock froze, but his eyes didn’t open.  “Maybe.”

“Why?”

“It’s been proven that thinking of something mundane and monotonous can hold off orgasm,” Sherlock said, opening his eyes to give John his best ‘isn’t it obvious?’ expression.

John grinned, feeling a sneaking sense of flattery.  “Don’t want this to end too soon, then?”

“You look like you’re enjoying yourself.”  Sherlock’s voice was dry, but lacked any kind of bite.

At that, John finally did laugh, which turned almost instantly into a choking gasp that matched Sherlock’s as the spasms of his abdomen rocked Sherlock’s cock inside him.  Already in a rather precarious position, the unexpected rush of pleasure overbalanced John, and only his quick reflexes allowed him to catch himself before Sherlock broke his nose against his collarbone.

His scarred shoulder protested, and John grimaced, holding his position until the ache eased.

“Note to self,” he muttered.  “No more laughing during sex.”

He heard Amarisa and Raniel giggling, and glanced over to where they were sprawled on the bed, Raniel wound around Amarisa’s neck like a scarf.

“And you two can shut it,” he grumbled, trying to push himself back into his original position.

He placed his hands on the sheet on either side of Sherlock’s hips to brace himself, but his shoulder was still throbbing, and he knew it wasn’t up to taking his weight for a while yet.

“Fuck,” he muttered, without any real heat.  “Hang on a minute, we’ll need to switch.”

“Your shoulder,” Sherlock stated.

Of course he knew what was wrong.  He’d probably known John’s arm wouldn’t take the strain even before John had propped himself back up.

They both hissed as John shifted off Sherlock’s cock, and there followed a lot of wiggling and awkward shifting as they changed positions.  John spread his legs to let Sherlock slide between them, feeling Sherlock’s gaze land on the scar tissue on his shoulder and trying not to squirm.

He found himself feeling almost embarrassed.  Sherlock was the first person he’d had sex with since the injury, and even though he wasn’t self-conscious about it – he’d been shot with a barbed arrow, after all, and the scar wasn’t anything more than the side-effect of living through it – it was different when it cramped or twinged, when it hampered him…

Sherlock kept staring at him – probably knowing exactly what was running through his mind – and John was opening his mouth to ask if they could get back down to business when Sherlock moved.

He placed his hands on either side of John’s chest, leaned down, and kissed John’s shoulder, pressing his lips against the thick knot of tissue where the arrow had entered his flesh.  It was quick and chaste – John had barely registered the kiss before it was over – and so unexpectedly tender that John was left gaping.

Sherlock scowled slightly at the flabbergasted expression on John’s face, like a poker player who’d tipped their hand.  He grabbed hold of John’s leg, hoisting it up and sliding back into him in one long, smooth thrust that had John throwing his head back and choking on air, his flagging arousal coming back full-force.

If Sherlock had thought getting back to sex would derail John’s thoughts, then mission fucking accomplished.

Sherlock was moving faster and harder than John had, and John was barely able to catch his breath from one perfect jolt across his prostate before the next drove into him.  He turned his head to the side, trying to catch his breath, and caught a glimpse of Raniel and Amarisa, entwined on the bed and doing what with humans would be called kissing – their noses were touching, both of them inhaling the others’ scent as their tongues kept darting out to touch and lick.

A breathy moan from Sherlock made John turn back, to find Sherlock staring down at him, mouth open, eyes bright and burning and desperate, and at that sight John simply had to reach down and stroke himself.

Something moved in the corner of his vision, and then Amarisa and Raniel were beside them, looking mischievous.  John’s pleasure-hazed brain barely had time to wonder what they were doing before the dæmons moved, Raniel burrowing against the side of John’s neck and nipping the corner of his jaw as Amarisa nuzzled into the crook of Sherlock’s shoulder, licking across his throat.

Touching your lover’s dæmon was one thing.  Touching your lover’s dæmon while you were in the middle of sex was something else entirely.  John’s heart suddenly felt far too big for his chest, pleasure and love rising inside him like a tidal wave.

John hurtled into orgasm.  He was dimly aware of Sherlock crying out and jerking above him, of himself clutching onto the back of Sherlock’s neck, but they weren’t given much of a chance to recover.  Raniel and Amarisa kept licking and nuzzling through the aftershocks, even as Sherlock’s madly stuttering hips kept sending sparks of stimulation across wild nerves.

When the dæmons finally backed off, Sherlock was resting heavily against John’s chest, their legs tangled awkwardly and their hands clutching onto each other so hard John was sure they’d be wearing bruises in the morning.  He felt empty and unpleasantly sticky, and usually at this point he’d be moving to clean himself up but he just felt…exhausted.  Like a wrung-out sponge

He peeled his arms from around Sherlock, and they fell back against the bed like they were stuffed with straw.  He felt Amarisa nuzzle his palm, nosing his left arm so it was in a better position for his shoulder, but she didn’t lie against him – not when they were both so overheated.  Raniel had moved around John’s other side, and was nosing sweat-damp hair from Sherlock’s face.

“That…” John managed to pant out, glaring at the wolfdog.  “Was a dirty trick.”

Amarisa grinned her wolf-grin and Raniel chittered softly, both dæmons obviously pleased with themselves.

Sherlock, of course, had a very different opinion to John. “That was fascinating!  Our orgasms were nearly simultaneous, and with enough coordination it might be possible to get them to coincide precisely!  Of course, we’d need to practice-”

“Now?” John asked, feeling a jolt of alarm.  It had been fantastic and mind-blowing, yes – no one was disputing that – but touching each other’s dæmons during sex was so intense he didn’t think his heart could take it on a regular basis.

“Of course not,” Sherlock snorted.  “Later though – possibly in the morning.”

John wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get it up for the rest of the week, and Sherlock was planning to do that again in a little over nine hours?

John did the only he thing he could do – he laughed, and gave Sherlock a sloppy, uncoordinated kiss on the lips.

Sherlock blinked.  “What was that for?”

“You’re an absolute nutter,” John murmured.

“You love me in spite of it, though.”  Sherlock said, sounding wonderfully confident of his pronouncement.

“It’s part of what I love about you,” John corrected, squeezing Sherlock’s hand.  “You’re an utterly mad bastard, but god help me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sherlock – in a display of energy John found baffling – sat up and leaned over him, his expression wild and hungry and almost triumphant as he kissed him fiercely.  John wasn’t really able to do much but lean up to him, one hand bracketing Sherlock’s jaw.

It was savage and possessive, the kind of kiss that said ‘you’re mine’, and that John might have resented if he hadn’t known it went both ways.

Sherlock slid off the bed – and John was pleased to see him stagger a little when his feet hit the floor – and moved into the bathroom.  He heard the sound of a tap being turned on, and a few moments later a slightly-damp Sherlock came out with a washcloth.

“Aw, look at you being all considerate,” Amarisa cooed.

“You can make the trip to the bathroom next time,” Sherlock muttered, handing the wet cloth to John.

“I was shot with death-spells,” John mock-complained.  “And I’m older than you, and feeble.”

Raniel burst into laughter.  “Feeble?”

Amarisa nudged him sharply, rolling him onto his belly.  “That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”

John was busy cleaning himself up, so the brief touch to his scarred shoulder came as a surprise.  He stilled, half-wondering if Sherlock was going to poke and prod, but he just traced the outline, so lightly it almost tickled.

“It hurts at times, but it doesn’t seem to restrict your movements,” Sherlock commented, fingers still wandering over the ridged tissue.  “Unusual for a shoulder injury.”

John shrugged with the shoulder Sherlock wasn’t exploring.  “I had so many healing spells laid on me I wouldn’t have been surprised if my appendix grew back.”

Sherlock showed no signs of stopping his examination, which might have been flattering under other circumstances, but John was exhausted and really wanted to sleep.

“Hang on a second,” he muttered, wiggling beneath the blanket and making himself comfortable.  “All right, poke and prod all you want, but don't be surprised if I drift off.”

Amarisa laughed, which turned into a yawn as she stretched out beside him on the bed.  John rubbed the ear closest to him, and left his hand on her head.

Now that he'd been given permission to explore, John half-expected Sherlock to get a bit rougher in his examination – to poke and prod, as John had offered.  But the contact stayed light and tentative, all the way up to the moment when John drifted off to sleep.

--

Sherlock wasn't quite sure why he'd started tracing John's scar, but since he'd been given permission, he wasn't about to stop.

It wasn't as though the formation of John's scar was terribly unique, but Sherlock thought his own mixed reactions to it were rather fascinating.  Often, the scar was almost appealing – it was physical proof that John had courage and strength to outlast even a death-spell, evidence that he was extraordinary enough that a clan of witches had reason to fear him, a relic of the events that had brought John back to London and thus into Sherlock's life.  But on the other hand, it was a reminder that witches still sought his death, that he was in danger, and sometimes – like just now – it caused him pain.

The wound didn't seem to have restricted motion in John's shoulder overmuch, and Sherlock wasn't sure how much of that should be credited to his mother's healing spells and how much to the exercise routine John followed diligently every day to rebuild muscles and keep the join flexible.

Amarisa was staring at him, her golden eyes hazy and unfocused with her human's sleepiness, and Raniel butted her under the chin, rubbing himself against her like a cat.  The wolfdog yawned, red tongue curling in on itself amidst sharp white teeth, and rested her head between her forepaws, careful not to dislodge the hand John had curled around her head.

John was already asleep – he could drop off remarkably quickly if he was truly exhausted, regardless of distractions, and Sherlock wondered if John was still feeling the effects of reading the alethiometer.

“What's it like?” he asked Amarisa.

She turned a tired, puzzled glance on him, clearly not understanding.

“Reading the alethiometer,” Raniel prompted, clarifying for his human.  “It seemed to really tire you out.”

“I can't really explain it,” Amarisa sighed.  “It's like when you concentrate on something for a long time, and you get tired, because your brains working so hard, you know?  Well, you two probably don't know...”

She was cut off by another yawn.

“And you're always sure what it's saying?” Sherlock couldn't help asking.  “Nothing ever seems hazy, or unclear?”

“If we know the answer, it gets a bit weird,” Amarisa admitted.  “Like what we're expecting is muddying the waters or something.  It works better when we have no idea what it's going to say, maybe because we're more...open to the answer that way, or something?”

She laughed – a soft, whuffing sound, almost a whisper so she wouldn't wake John.  “It's kind of funny – this is probably what it's like for you two.  It seems so obvious and easy to us, and no one else seems to get it.”

A pause, and the wolfdog nuzzled Raniel as though seeking reassurance. 

“I wonder if this is why we're their destruction,” she mused quietly.

Her words made something unpleasantly close to fear coil through Sherlock's chest like barbed wire – cold and sharp.  Raniel pressed closer to Amarisa, curling around her muzzle as though he could somehow defend her.

Logically, Sherlock knew it was exceedingly unlikely for Moriarty to have learned that John could read the alethiometer in so short a time, but it wasn't impossible, and the thought of Moriarty out there, knowing that John could do this...

With that in mind, Sherlock reached for his laptop.

--

“Morning,” John's voice was a sleepy rasp and Sherlock turned, just for the pleasure of seeing John's face wonderfully rumpled with fatigue, his eyes squinting and bleary.

“Morning,” Raniel practically chirped, nudging the still-dozing Amarisa sharply.

Sherlock could see John take in the laptop, his position against the headboard…

“Did you get any sleep at all?”

Raniel laughed.  “I told you that would be the first thing he’d ask.”

“No, you said it would be the first thing he’d say,” Sherlock pointed out.  “The first thing he said was ‘morning’.”

“It’s far too early for you two to debate technicalities,” Amarisa grumbled, her back arching as she stretched.

Raniel sniffed disdainfully.  “We’re not debating technicalities, we’re merely-”

Amarisa growled in irritation, but the sound was soft and low and not nearly as threatening as it could have been.

“You’re slower in the mornings, aren’t you?” Sherlock observed.  “Especially when you’ve just woken up.”

“Just because your brain works perfectly all the time doesn’t mean you have to show off,” John muttered, in what Sherlock suspected was meant to be a sour tone but was rather spoiled by the soft smile on his face.

He and Amarisa wandered into the bathroom – and wandered was really the best way to describe it, both of them taking hesitant steps as though unsure of the precise direction, sometimes veering slightly off course when they blinked or yawned.  The soft click-clack of the wolfdog’s blunt nails on tiles was a familiar sound, as was the sight of John splashing water on his face, and nothing about the scene was particularly riveting except for the fact that John hadn’t paused to put on any clothes.

Sherlock was no stranger to nudity, true, but there was something fascinating about the way John moved when he was naked – or, more accurately, the way Sherlock could see him move when he was naked.  The muscles on his back were particularly well-defined, and watching him stretch was like watching water running over stones.

Sometimes, Sherlock wanted to take skin scrapings and blood samples and peer at them under his microscope and analyse DNA until he located the genetic marker or cellular anomaly that made John…the way he was.  Because there had to be something, didn’t there?  Some hidden chemical or gene that explained why John had grabbed Sherlock’s attention and fascination even before he’d realized how unique John’s sensitivity was.

But Sherlock was self-aware enough to realize that people didn’t ask their lover for DNA samples – at least, not right away.  Maybe for their anniversary…

It was a pity his dæmon wasn’t quite as controlled.

“Can we take some of your epithelial cells?” Raniel asked eagerly.

Sherlock barely had time to be horrified before John was turning around, his expression puzzled but not repulsed.  Amarisa’s tongue was lolling out in her dog-grin, and while she wasn’t actually laughing she looked like she was close to it.

“If you like,” John said affably.  “Any particular preference where they’re from, or would the traditional cotton swab on the inside of my cheek do?”

Perhaps someday John would stop surprising him.  But Sherlock didn’t see that day coming anytime soon.

--

John had expected Mycroft to demand he use the alethiometer again, so he hadn’t been in the least surprised when the elder Holmes brother approached him after he’d finished breakfast.  He was tempted to ask just how Mycroft had known he’d finished eating, but held himself back – he wanted to at least believe he wasn’t being monitored at all times.

This time though, he was tackling something of more substance than the prophecy; Mycroft wanted him to try to use the alethiometer to determine exactly which people in the government were helping Moriarty.  It was slow work, largely because John had to flip through each person’s file until he knew enough about them to hold a clear picture of them in his mind and figure out which symbol could refer to them when he was asking the question.

John couldn’t deny that reading the alethiometer was wearying…but they did realize he could still hear them, didn’t they?

“If you even think about using John as one of your tools, Mycroft…” Sherlock hissed from the next room, his threat sounding as serious and vicious as the one he’d delivered to Moriarty.

John looked down at Amarisa.  “Surely they realize that even if I didn’t hear them, you would?”

Amarisa’s tongue lolled and her eyes laughed, her dog-grin firmly in place.

“We don’t think very clearly when you’re being threatened,” Raniel remarked from his spot on the sofa arm.

And if Sherlock’s dæmon was still in the room with them, meaning that there wasn’t more than a few feet between him and Sherlock, surely that meant his human would know they’d be overheard?

“Is he trying to make some kind of point?” John asked, squinting at the closed door that was really doing very little to muffle the conversation.

“I know John,” Sherlock was saying, voice still strangely intense.  “And he will wear himself out if he thinks it’s for a good cause-”

“He says that like it’s a bad thing,” John observed.

“It should be,” the polecat groused.  “You’re far too willing to risk your life for a cause that’s even halfway good or noble…”  The emphasis he gave to ‘good’ and ‘noble’ made them sound like synonyms for ‘disgusting’ and ‘horrifying’.  “And sometimes it’s like you don’t even care if your idiotic bravery got you killed-”

“I wouldn’t say we don’t care,” Amarisa interrupted.  “The thought of dying isn’t appealing to us.”

She glanced up at her human, and John nodded in agreement.  “It’s more that we accept some things are more important than our life – that’s just the way the world works.”

Raniel looked irritated.  “Clearly the proponents of the selfish gene theory have never met you.”

John had a few witty replies to that, but decided not to mention them – Sherlock and Raniel were awfully sensitive when it came to his and Amarisa’s safety.  Amarisa nuzzled Raniel under the chin, trying to be comforting, and the polecat licked her nose.

“My trust in the alethiometer has not increased just because we’ve found a reader, Sherlock,” Mycroft was saying, and John tilted his head closer to the door, intrigued.

“I’m using John now, of course,” Mycroft went on, as though John was a handy tool he’d picked up in the garden shed.  “But only because we’re feeling the press of time, and John gets us very rapid answers.  I will be seeking far more solid proof before I make any moves of my own.  The alethiometer is not to be trusted.”

John felt almost offended, but supposed his reading would look very strange to Mycroft and Sherlock.  From their point of view, he twiddled a few dials, stared at the alethiometer for a few minutes, then announced what it had told him like he was pulling it out of thin air.  They couldn’t feel the unquestioning certainty that he felt, the sure knowledge that this was right, this was truth, so they probably couldn’t help being skeptical.

“Do you think Moriarty knows?” he wondered aloud, staring down at the alethiometer.

“He can’t!” Raniel said, a little too hastily for John’s peace of mind.

“We know he has an alethiometer of his own,” John pointed out.  “At least, I’m sure we can assume the alethiometer that whats-her-name, General Shan, was reading and that we never found is connected to Moriarty somehow.  When Mycroft starts picking off his spies, he’s going to want to know how they were found out, and…”

He shrugged, hoping the gesture conveyed the inevitability of it all.  It was really only a matter of time before Moriarty asked a question that had ‘John Watson can read the alethiometer’ as part of the answer.  Moriarty would find out, the only question was when.  And then what?  John suspected the only reason he and Amarisa had escaped the pool alive was that Moriarty hadn’t thought them worth bothering about.  If that changed, if he found that the prophecy referred to both him and Sherlock (and even in his head, that sounded strange, that a prophecy referred to him), John had a feeling the patronizing tolerance Moriarty had shown him would vanish.

Would he just try to kill them outright?  Or would his goal be capture, to experiment and vivisect until he found out how John was doing this, until he found a way to stop him?

For some reason, John thought of the Maystadt Guillotine, and shivered.

Chapter Text

“Hungry?” John asked as he dug some bread, cheese and ham out of the Holmes’ gigantic kitchen.

He wasn’t getting his hopes up, but it never hurt to ask.

“Working!” Sherlock snapped. 

John rolled his eyes at Amarisa, and his dæmon whuffed softly in amusement.

“You know,” John went on in a conversational tone as he fixed himself a ham and cheese sandwich.  “I can cite several convincing studies on the detrimental affect hunger has on concentration and memory retention.”

“What would be the point?” Raniel snorted.  “None of them were studying us.”

John laughed – he couldn’t help it – and Amarisa gave the polecat a pointed nudge with her muzzle.

“Sometimes I think we’ve found the borders of your ego, and then you go and remind us that your ego apparently has no limits,” she sniffed.  “Are you really suggesting you’re so unique as to merit entirely new studies?”

“Of course,” Raniel said, sounding genuinely surprised she’d ever thought otherwise.

He and Sherlock were in front of a laptop – a different laptop from the one in their room, and John wondered if the whole family was as enamoured of computers as Sherlock was.

“What are you looking at?” Amarisa asked.

It was a mark of how large she was that she didn’t need to put her front paws up on the table to be level with Raniel.

“The financial records of Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain,” Sherlock answered, his voice clipped.

If that abrupt tone had come from anyone else, John and his dæmon would have assumed they’d done something to offend them.  But that was just Sherlock – he always got snappy when he was busy.  The fact that he’d answered at all meant that he was eager to include them in the investigation.

“Anything interesting?” John asked, taking his plate and sandwich and positioning himself so he could look over Sherlock’s shoulder.

“The usual eclectic combination of shares and stocks,” Raniel sniffed, resting his chin on Amarisa’s muzzle in a rather proprietary gesture.  “But there’s a common thread – over half of the companies own overseas mines or smelting factories.  Largely iron and titanium, but some tungsten, tin, manganese and copper as well.”

John was opening his mouth to ask ‘why’, when Amarisa suddenly moved, her ears pricking and her nose swinging out from underneath Raniel’s head to point at the door.

A moment later, Mycroft walked in, with Tehayla on his shoulder.

“Moriarty is gone,” he pronounced, not bothering with any kind of greeting or prelude.

John was grateful that years in the army had suppressed his startle reflex until it was only a rapid blink.  Amarisa padded to his side, and he reached down to curl his fingers in her fur.

“What?” Sherlock snapped.  “He can’t be gone.”

“’Gone’?” John repeated.  “As in, run off?”

“Yes, John,” Raniel hissed.  “Gone as in ‘run off’, if that’s how you want to put it.”

Amarisa cocked her head, staring the polecat and his human.  “Seriously?”

“Mycroft is never anything but serious,” Raniel snorted.

“But no big dramatic showdown, no final confrontation, not even an attempt to find out how we knew about his spies?” John wondered.  “Doesn’t seem his style.”

“It’s not,” Sherlock muttered, his eyes getting that hyper-focused look they always wore when he was picking at a case.  “Which means that it was a deliberate retreat – we didn’t scare him off, he chose to leave.  But why?”

Mycroft smiled in a way that always made John wonder if it was deliberately tailored to seem as insincere as possible.  “Well, I’ll leave that to you – I have some housecleaning to do.”

John watched the door shut behind him, and Amarisa wondered aloud, “Is ‘housecleaning’ some kind of euphemism for interrogating Moriarty’s spies?”

“Very likely,” Raniel said.  “Mycroft always says he’s housecleaning whenever he suspects a leak.”

Amarisa snickered, and though John shot her a disapproving look he couldn’t stop his lip from twitching.

“But why?” Sherlock suddenly burst out.

John frowned.  “Why housecleaning?”

“No, not the housecleaning – try to keep up!  There was no reason for Moriarty to withdraw at such an early stage, no reason not to try to fight for this organisation that will supposedly hand him the keys to Great Britain when needed…unless, for whatever reason, Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain was not his mainstay, but then what was?”

Sherlock’s fingers drummed on the arm of the chair for a moment, and Raniel’s tail flicked.

“We need to speak to the Gyptians!” Sherlock declared, leaping to his feet as though his legs were spring-loaded.

“We do?” Amarisa echoed.  “Why?”

“Boats!” Sherlock exclaimed, scooping Raniel up and practically running out of the room.

Amarisa growled in exasperation, and John sighed.  “Sometimes, I wish they were quite so melodramatic.”

At least he’d managed to eat half his sandwich.

--

Sherlock knew he rarely drove – cabs were so much more efficient, never had to worry about parking – but he still didn’t think the sight of him behind the wheel merited the flabbergasted expression on John’s face.

“You can drive?” Amarisa said as she clambered into the backseat, disbelief in her voice.

“Of course we can drive,” Raniel snorted.  “How else would we get out here for the Christmas parties?”

John grinned wryly.  “I just figured you teleported.”

“Astounding as some of my skills may seem, I have not yet managed to master teleportation,” Sherlock drawled, feeling ridiculously charmed.

“Can we get a move on?” Amarisa asked, her ears pricked towards the house and her tail stiff.

Sherlock could feel his eyes narrowing.  “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s ‘wrong’, per se,” John muttered, looking furtive.  “But the alethiometer is still in my pocket, and I think your brother might object when he finds it missing.”

Raniel laughed as Sherlock started the car and sped down the driveway.  John and Amarisa kept glancing over their shoulders as though worried Mycroft was about to come flying out after them.

“He probably won’t notice it’s been taken for at least three hours,” Sherlock offered.  “He and Mummy have been busy.”

“Yeah, I noticed Tamsyn and Hasna had kind of disappeared,” Amarisa mused.  “Witch business?”

“Relocating some artefact that one of Moriarty’s spies in the Consul was showing a bit too much interest in,” Raniel sniffed.

John frowned.  “Should we be worried?  Granted, Moriarty with a witch artefact doesn’t sounding as terrifying as Moriarty with the Maystadt Guillotine, but still.”

“Hardly,” Sherlock scoffed.  “Witch artefacts never have working spells on them – they’re far too old.  They are valued for the history behind them, not because they do anything of use.”

“So why is it a problem if Moriarty’s interested in it?” John wondered.

“Wait, wait!” Amarisa broke in.  “I think I remember Hasna saying something about this in Afghanistan.  Remember, when we were discussing the Crusades and the myth of the Holy Grail?”

“Oh, yeah,” John nodded.  “Didn’t she say something about how a witch clan’s status is linked to how many artefacts they hold?”

“Exactly!” Amarisa exclaimed.  “So having one stolen would mean losing a lot of face.”

Raniel chuffed in irritation.  “Pointless game-playing, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”

“It wouldn’t surprise you?” John echoed, looking bewildered.  “You mean you don’t actually know?”

“Why should I?” Sherlock pointed out. 

“The politics of witch clans have very little to do with crime,” Raniel added.  “And when they do…”

“Mycroft never lets us, and I quote, ‘meddle in clan affairs’,” Sherlock spat.

It didn’t rankle much, given that politics was more about subterfuge and diplomacy than actual crime, but there had been that case five years ago with that Greek translator that had looked so interesting

“He says we’re not diplomatic enough,” Raniel grumbled.

John’s face contorted, as though he was trying to hide a smile, and Amarisa made the soft, muffled whines that denoted smothered laughter in a wolfdog.

“What’s so funny?” Raniel growled.

“You’re many things, but diplomatic is certainly not one of them,” John grinned.

Sherlock was trying to determine whether that was an insult (and if so, what should be done about it), when Amarisa spoke up.

“We don’t blame you – we’ve never seen much merit in the ‘keep your enemies closer’ thing.”

But in spite of their cheer, the mention of Mycroft had made them edgy again, and it was only when the house vanished around the bend that John dug his hand into his coat pocket and produced the alethiometer.

“Any particular reason you took that?” Raniel asked.  “Annoying Mycroft is a perfectly valid reason in and of itself, of course, but was there anything else?”

“I don’t really know,” John mused, staring at the thirty-six symbols and the ever-moving needle.  “It sounds ridiculous – it’s just a hunk of metal, it’s not like it has feelings – but I feel as though it…likes me, or something.  And that I should keep it with me.”

It did sound ridiculous, and if anyone else had said that, Sherlock would have sneered at them.  But aside from the fact that this was John and Amarisa, he knew that John and his dæmon seemed to possess an awareness that other people simply…didn’t.  As though they existed on some kind of higher plane, separate from the rest of humanity – even from Sherlock and Raniel.

Most of the time, thinking about that produced a strange feeling of mingled excitement and triumph.  But sometimes – like now – Sherlock found some wistful part of himself wishing he could see what John saw.

Raniel – previously draped across Sherlock’s lap – climbed his human’s shirt and jumped into the backseat, landing next to Amarisa.  The sound seemed to shake John and the wolfdog out of some sort of reverie.

“So,” John said, tucking the alethiometer away again.  “Gyptians – why?”

“Moriarty retreated, yes?” Sherlock began.  “So clearly, his insipid little organisation wasn’t important to him, but we need to find out if it hid anything of importance.  He’s left the country, but what did he take with him?”

“And if you want big things moved quickly and anonymously, you use the waterways,” Raniel piped up from where he was snuggled between Amarisa’s forelegs.  “He probably wouldn’t have hired actual Gyptians, but they make it their business to know everything that happens on the water.”

“So if there have been any new boats around, they’ll know about it,” John finished.  “Brilliant.”

John had called him ‘brilliant’ and the various synonyms thereof so many times that even Sherlock had lost count.  So it was completely ridiculous that the strange flush of pleasure those compliments gave him had yet to abate.  A glance in the rear-view mirror showed him Raniel had turned away in embarrassment to groom his fur.

Sherlock made himself snort.  “Hardly.  If he’s fleeing the country, he won’t want to be encumbered with anything not strictly necessary – he’s far more likely to have moved money electronically and anonymously.”

“Still, it can’t hurt to check,” Amarisa said philosophically.  “Do you want us to ask the alethiometer?”

“Probably not the best idea,” her human cut in.  “The alethiometer can be very literal, remember?  And with only three hands to structure the question, it’s difficult to be very specific.  We ask it what Moriarty took with him, I bet we’ll get what he actually physically carried with him – like, say, a toothbrush and a change of clothes.”

Raniel made a noncommittal humming noise, then wriggled into the thick hair that covered Amarisa’s chest and rested his head on her paw.

--

The main problem with driving a car to London was that you then had to find somewhere to park it.  Sherlock decided to head to the MET, largely because there were always a few spaces open there and he could easily talk his way in.

“You’re sure your brother’s not going to have me arrested?” John asked abruptly, his fingers curled over the pocket that contained the alethiometer.

“Doubtful,” Raniel replied, gazing out the window with Amarisa.  “He hasn’t had us arrested yet.”

Amarisa looked down at the polecat.  “You know, if you were anyone else, we’d probably ask why he’d want to arrest you.”

John chuckled; a sign that he was amused, but still worried.  When John was truly happy he giggled like a prepubescent child – a high-pitched, breathless sound Sherlock found ridiculously endearing.

“What’s wrong?” Raniel asked, fixing his eyes on John.

“It’s just…taking the alethiometer was an impulse,” John shrugged.  “I don’t usually listen to impulses about things like that.  So now some part of me is wondering if this thing can somehow control people.”

Amarisa made a strange, uncertain noise – part growl, part whine.

“On the contrary, I think taking it was a sensible idea,” Sherlock cut in.  “We are essentially at war with Moriarty, with all the dangers that implies.  The alethiometer is a powerful weapon in that war, one that only you can use – what would have been the point of leaving it with my brother?”

Though Sherlock could admit he and Raniel would have been happier if John and Amarisa stayed at the house with three witches on hand to protect them.  But they couldn’t trust that John and Amarisa’s noble impulses wouldn’t lead them into ill-advised self-sacrifice if the house was attacked – at least this way, they could keep an eye on them.

Sherlock was broken out of his thoughts by the sound of John’s giggle – no chuckle this time, but an actual giggle.  “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” John grinned, reaching behind him to rub his dæmon’s ears.  “I was just thinking that you always know how to cheer me up, and wondering what that says about my sanity.”

Sherlock had a full second to absorb that before Amarisa – obviously recognising their surroundings – asked, “Hey, are we going to see Lestrade?”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Sherlock said shortly, turning the car into the car park.

“Then why are you pulling into the MET carpark?”

“Because I know there’s always a space or two available.”

John giggled again, and Amarisa whuffed in amusement as Sherlock pulled into the first available space.

“He does still need our statements, though,” John pointed out as he opened the door to let Amarisa jump down.

“So?” Sherlock snorted, letting his own dæmon take his customary place on his shoulder.

“So I’m not going to make his already difficult job more miserable just because you’re impatient,” John said, he and Amarisa already making for the entrance.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Raniel squeaked indignantly.

“To see Lestrade,” Amarisa replied, looking mischievous as she grinned her dog-grin.  “You coming?”

As if she and John knew the worry that lurked at the back of Sherlock’s and Raniel’s mind, the thought that maybe – with their government spies being ferreted out and Moriarty on the run – the witches would be willing to risk striking the wolfdog and her human down, regardless of Mycroft’s power and influence.

“That’s cheating,” Raniel grumbled as he and Sherlock followed them.

Sherlock agreed.

“I’ll make it up to you,” John tossed over his shoulder, with a grin and wink.

Sherlock had never seen the point of innuendo (if you were talking about sex, why not say so outright?) but looking at the teasing, almost daring expression on John’s face, like he was sharing a secret, Sherlock thought he could begin to grasp the appeal.

The grin Amarisa was wearing now was closer to a wolf’s than a dog’s.

--

Lestrade was surveying the neat pile of paperwork on his desk and wondering if he could somehow procrastinate for another hour or so.

Zarania shot him a sharp glare, and snapped her beak at him.  “No you don’t – we promised we’d get the desk tidy today.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Lestrade grumbled.

Times like these – times of politics and bureaucracy, everyone wondering just how long a self-proclaimed ‘master criminal’ had been around and why no one had noticed it before – drove him quite close to regretting his promotion.

He glanced up, letting his eyes skim the desks outside his office, hoping for some kind of problem or even an emergency that would need his immediate attention and justify abandoning the desk for another day…

When he saw John and Amarisa step out of the elevator, closely followed by Sherlock and Raniel, Lestrade had to work hard to keep the grin off his face.  He allowed himself a little snicker of relief, swiftly followed by a soft sigh of resignation – taking Sherlock’s statement was always a nightmare – and was composed by the time John opened his office door.

Usually he sent one of his people to take statements, but dealing with Sherlock was a very cruel and unusual punishment, and none of them had done anything to deserve it.  At least, not recently.

“Hi,” John greeted, sounding sheepish.

“Hello, Zarania,” Amarisa said, looking up at the falcon on her perch and wagging her tail.

Lestrade could admit he’d been curious when he’d learned Amarisa was a wolfdog, curious enough to look into it.  He and Zarania had learned about wolf-exclusive behaviours and dog-exclusive behaviours, that wolfdogs could mix and match them, and it had made them wonder if it was natural for Amarisa to wag her tail, or if she did it because people expected her to.

It had also made them wonder why having a wolf dæmon was supposed to be a bad thing.  Sure, everything they read was filled with words like ‘apex predator’ and ‘specialised hunter’, but it was just as liberally sprinkled with ‘social’, ‘pack-oriented’ and ‘protective’.  Wolves were one of the few animals that formed monogamous mating pairs, and were even known to drive away bears when they were defending their den or offspring.

People usually held up the vicious Tartar warriors as an example of why people with wolf dæmons were to be feared, along with Genghis Khan and his dæmon Kalazhad.  And there was certainly something to those stories – both the Tartars and Genghis Khan had committed terrible atrocities.  But there were two sides to every story, and people often forgot that the Tartars had been so feared because of the strong sense of community and loyalty that held them together, that drove each man to fight for his friends and brothers rather than himself.  Before they set out to found the largest contiguous empire in recorded history, Genghis Khan and Kalazhad rose from starvation and poverty to unite clans that had been warring for centuries.  Lestrade wondered idly how the man would have coped with Anderson and Sherlock.

Perhaps people with wolf dæmons were fierce and frightening…but only to those they considered enemies.

“How are you two holding up?” Lestrade asked, taking in Sherlock and John with a policeman’s eye.

Sherlock looked disgruntled, but that was the expression he usually wore whenever he was in the station.  But this time, it had an extra edge of irritation to it, and judging by the way Raniel was frowning at Amarisa, Lestrade was willing to bet Sherlock had never had any intention of coming down and giving his statement.  He shared an amused glance with his falcon dæmon, and turned his attention to John.

In many ways, John and Amarisa were actually harder to read than Sherlock and Raniel.  They were certainly more expressive than the consulting detective and his dæmon (you could practically track John’s thoughts by the contortions his face made), but that was only superficial – if John and Amarisa actually decided to hide what they were feeling, be it fear or irritation or sorrow, you’d never even suspect something was wrong.

After all, just look at the way Amarisa behaved.  She was always polite and welcoming, deliberately down-playing the wolf side of herself so as not to put other dæmons on edge, and she let other dæmons touch her…but the only dæmon Lestrade and Zarania had ever seen her actually reach out to was Raniel.  John and Amarisa seemed very personable, very open, but they let you as close as they wanted and no further.

Right now, John looked a little embarrassed, his eyes somehow managing to convey the fact that he was very sorry for the delay in taking their statements and making Lestrade’s job that much more complicated without saying a word…but that was all Lestrade could read.  If John and his dæmon were shaken after being strapped to a bomb or nervous at the prospect of being hunted by a witch clan, there was no sign.

“We’re doing alright,” John grinned.  “I think.”

“You think?”

“Well, I’m not sure how you’re meant to ‘hold up’ when you find out you’re the subject of a prophecy.  Whenever someone mentions it I still get the urge to tell them to pull the other one.”

Lestrade couldn’t deny he was curious.  “What is the prophecy, can I ask?”

“He will walk the fringes and his dæmon will set him apart,” Sherlock said, the first time he’d spoken.  “He will find a home with the outcasts and his soul will be unique.  A witch will raise him and the witches will protect him.  He will forge his own path and he will answer his country's call.  Loneliness will know him, death will touch him, he will see what others are blind to and he will know what others cannot see.  And he will be our destruction.  And he will be our downfall.”

Some parts sounded almost nonsensical, but it sent a small wave of goosebumps up Lestrade’s arms, nevertheless.  Zarania ruffled her feathers and shifted on her perch, a sure sign she was agitated.

“You know,” Lestrade said slowly.  “If it was anyone else, I’d laugh, but knowing you two are the subject of a witch prophecy makes a disturbing amount of sense.”

John chuckled.  “Is that a compliment or a criticism?”

“It can’t be both?”

Amarisa made a chortling sound of amusement, and John ruffled her fur with the backs of his fingers.  Lestrade was fairly certain he even heard Raniel muffle a snigger in Sherlock’s collar.

“So…” Lestrade announced, trying to get them back on track.  “Statements?”

“I am complying under protest-” Sherlock began, and Lestrade snorted as Zarania screeched in laughter.

“Not any different from the usual, then.”

“It’s a ridiculous rigmarole,” Sherlock snapped.  “You already know what happened-”

“They don’t know everything that happened, Sherlock,” John interrupted.  “But hey – points for the alliteration of ‘ridiculous rigmarole’.”

Sherlock scowled, but the effect was rather ruined by the way Raniel was making little squeaky giggles through his teeth.

--

In the end, John and Amarisa had given their statement first, hoping to lead by example.  Which they doubted would work on Sherlock and Raniel, but they could at least try.

They had debated over whether or not to tell Lestrade about Moriarty touching Amarisa.  John could admit their first impulse had been to keep it a secret – being violated like that was deeply personal, and it wasn’t easy to talk about – but if Lestrade and his people had even the slightest chance of encountering Moriarty, they needed to know what he was capable of.

Mycroft had said Moriarty had fled Britain, but John could admit he was rather disinclined to trust that.  Wouldn’t it be in Moriarty’s best interests to let them think that he’d gone, but keep working behind the scenes and just try to keep a much lower profile?

Granted, since no one had even known he’d existed before he started playing this game with Sherlock, John and Amarisa weren’t sure how it was possible for him to keep a lower profile, but they weren’t letting their lack of imagination deter their theory.  Sherlock and Raniel seemed to agree that Moriarty had left the country, but John and his dæmon couldn’t shake the fear that Moriarty was playing with them, that he was watching them, that they’d turn around and he’d just be there.

When they were finished, they waited outside the office while Sherlock gave his statement (one they were both sure would include far too many references to the supposed incompetence of the police), and every time a short, dark-haired man in a suit walked by John couldn’t stop himself from tensing.  Amarisa was leaning against his legs, and the fur on her neck bristled every time she caught a whiff of strong cologne.

John and the wolfdog were aware they were being paranoid, but felt they had good reason to be.

The door clicked open, producing a disgruntled Sherlock and Raniel and an exasperated Lestrade.

“We’re done,” Lestrade announced, with the long-suffering sigh possessed by all policemen who had to work with Sherlock.  “Now for Christ’s sake, take him back to wherever you two were hiding.”

John laughed, not surprised that Sherlock had managed to sour Lestrade’s mood within twenty minutes.  Moriarty had scared him, and Sherlock got snippy and vicious when he was scared.

You were the one pestering us to further your foolish bureaucracy,” Sherlock sniffed as Raniel’s nose wrinkled, as though in disgust.

With that last cut delivered, Sherlock strode away, making a beeline for the elevator.

But John and Amarisa lingered.

“Sorry about…” John waved an arm in Sherlock’s general direction, hoping it would convey his meaning.  “It’s just that-”

“I know, Moriarty scared the shit out of him,” Lestrade interrupted bluntly.  He was looking at John, but Zarania was focused intently on the retreating forms of Sherlock and Raniel.

John shrugged.  “Wasn’t quite how I was going to put it, but you’re right.”

“Come on, John!” Sherlock called, sounding as frustrated as if John and Amarisa were holding up a particularly spectacular chase.

John rolled his eyes, and Amarisa made a soft, chortling sound of amusement.

“Sorry, got to go save the world,” John quipped.

“Or Sherlock, which is a probably a lot more difficult,” Lestrade snorted, before suddenly sobering.  “Be careful, all right?”

John nodded, refraining from mentioning that he and Amarisa were nervous enough – they didn’t need Lestrade’s warning – then jogged to catch up with Sherlock and Raniel.

“What were you talking about?” the polecat asked as soon as the elevator doors closed.

“Just a friendly warning to watch our backs,” John replied.  “This prophecy business has him worried.”

“And it doesn’t have you worried?” Sherlock snapped.

“Of course it does,” Amarisa huffed.  “But we’re used to being in danger – it’s different when you’re safe, and someone else is in the firing line.”

Sherlock made the kind of noise that indicated he was mulling that statement over, but John caught the way Raniel shifted his grip on Sherlock’s collar, as though uncomfortable.  They might like to pretend they didn’t know what it was like to worry about someone else, but he and Amarisa knew better.

“So, is Lestrade going to investigate those mines?” John asked as they made their way out of New Scotland Yard and into clouded daylight.

Sherlock didn’t say anything.

“We didn’t tell him about the mines,” Raniel admitted.

What?” Amarisa barked.  “Why?”

John rubbed his forehead, and took a moment to reflect that he should have mentioned them in his own statement.  But Sherlock had known more about them, and he and Amarisa had just assumed Sherlock would be the one to tell Lestrade…

John supposed they should have known better than to assume anything with regards to Sherlock and Raniel.

“He doesn’t need to know,” Sherlock said in the kind of lofty tone that seemed to imply mere mortals could not understand his thought processes.

“Sherlock…” Amarisa growled softly, giving him a stern look.

“Well, think about it!” Raniel protested, sounding indignant.  “If he wants to investigate, he has to tell the rest of his team, doesn’t he?  And police are the worst gossips.”

John felt like protesting on Lestrade’s behalf, but he knew the polecat was right – police investigation depended upon a lot of people knowing exactly what was going on.  And considering the vast network of spies Moriarty had possessed in the government, it wasn’t exactly a stretch to assume he had police working for him as well.  So perhaps it was a good idea to keep what little information they had to themselves, for a while at least.

“Fair point,” John said at last.  “So where are we going to find the Gyptians at this time of day?”

--

It turned out that at this time of the day, most Gyptians not at work would be found moored at a nice waterfront pub.  As usual, Sherlock seemed to know where every single one was, and chose the ones his contacts frequented.

They didn’t find Marge Costa this time (which was a little disappointing – she and her husband had been very friendly) but instead a tall, well-built man with tattoos, red hair, and a goat dæmon.  Sherlock and Raniel went to greet him but John and Amarisa hung back, unable to quell the need to keep their eyes on the door, to keep track of the various exits.

“This isn’t healthy,” Amarisa muttered.  “This is twice now we’ve been obsessed with checking people’s faces and I can’t seem to stop sniffing the air, trying to pick up the scent of his goons.”

“I don’t think we’ll enjoy public places for the next week or so,” John sighed, reaching down to rub the wolfdog’s ears.  “Though I suppose it could have been worse.”

Amarisa’s giggle was strained and nervous, but it was a giggle nevertheless.  “Really, if all we take away from…that…is a bit of anxiety around strangers, we’re getting off very lightly.”

John put his hand in his pocket, feeling the weight of the alethiometer.  The metal was warm against his fingers, but then, it had never truly felt cold.  Perhaps because the first time he’d touched it had been in a large, heated room, and now it had been tucked in his pocket for hours and was undoubtedly warmed by his body heat…but he couldn’t help but think it was something more.  He felt that same, dim stirring that he did the first time he touched the alethiometer, the feel of something acknowledging him, waiting for a request.

Amarisa knew what he was doing of course – her golden eyes were fixed on the pocket containing the alethiometer, and the hair along her back was beginning to prickle.

“It feels strange, doesn’t it?” she whispered.  “Almost like it’s alive.”

John nodded absently, still running his fingers over the warm gold.  It was actually a rather unsettling concept – John and his dæmon were the practical sort, used to dealing with what they could see or feel, and this was a bit more mystical than they were used to.

Later, John and Amarisa were never entirely sure what drove them to do it.  Maybe the alethiometer was alive and wanted to be asked questions.  Maybe pocketing it had made them feel bold.  Or maybe, with Sherlock and Raniel putting the pieces together and getting important information, they just wanted to be useful.

A glance at his dæmon showed she was thinking the same thing he did.  John slowly sank to the ground, like a drunk who’d lost his coordination, and Amarisa moved in front of him, laying across his legs to block the alethiometer from view as John pulled it from his pocket.

He turned the three dials, barely even needing to glance at the alethiometer – it was like he could feel where each symbol was – holding the question in his mind as clearly as he could.

What does Moriarty want?

The constantly-spinning needle began to whirl more purposefully, stopping at the symbols for power, control, and…

And John had no idea what the last symbols referred to.  Well, he knew what they were saying, but he’d never heard of…whatever that was before.

Sherlock and Raniel abruptly reappeared, and John hastily stowed the alethiometer away before rising to his feet.

“Anything useful?” he asked as they stepped out onto the street.

“We’ll see,” Sherlock said, with the preoccupied look that meant he’d been given a new fact and was wondering how it fit with the rest of the case.

Usually, John would be pestering him for details right now, but there was a more important question on his mind.

“Sherlock, have you ever heard of something called a ‘god killer’?”

--

Sherlock and Raniel prided themselves on knowing everything they needed to know to solve crimes.  The solar system wasn’t important to crime solving, so they didn’t care about it.  Witch artefacts had never been important to crime solving, so they’d never learned anything about them.

In the car on the way back, they came to the conclusion that they were beginning to regret the latter.

“And you’re sure that’s what it was saying?” Raniel asked, his claws tense and tight in Amarisa’s fur as Sherlock heroically refrained from cursing at the slow-moving traffic in front of them.

“Of course I’m sure,” John said, one hand in his pocket and undoubtedly curled around the alethiometer.  “I’m pretty definite on the ‘god killer’ part, I just have no idea what that is.”

“Neither do we,” Raniel admitted.  “But we’re pretty sure it’s a witch artefact, possibly the very one they were so worried about this morning.”

Amarisa cocked her head.  “Really?  Any particular reason for this theory?”

“Oh, come on!” Sherlock snapped.  “Moriarty wants something called ‘god killer’ and at least one of his spies made an effort to discover the location of an artefact?  Seems a bit coincidental, doesn’t it?”

John and his dæmon said nothing, but his lips thinned and Amarisa’s ears flattened.

The drive back to the Holmes house was almost silent, Sherlock processing what he’d learned and exploring the ramifications.

They had assumed Moriarty’s goal was the same as the witch clan that had birthed him, the same as Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain – foolish; he of all people should have known better.

Raymond Coram had told him some Gyptians had been tasked with moving stores of metal – actual, physical stores of metal, not stashes of drugs or smuggled humans.  It wasn’t what Sherlock and Raniel had been expecting, because taking metal over the more obvious black market trades suggested either that Moriarty was building an armoury, or that he was attempting to hire armoured bears.

The bears seemed more likely, but they were reluctant to assume anything after this little revelation.

So, metal supplies (possibly to recruit armoured bears), and a desire for something called a ‘god killer’ which was possibly a witch artefact.  And the theft of the Maystadt Guillotine as well.  But what did they add up to?

Raniel hissed and squirmed, sharing Sherlock’s frustration – it was absolutely infuriating to have all the pieces, yet be unsure what kind of pattern they made.  Something told them that all the threads were right there in front of them, they just needed to tug them in the right way…

And they didn’t know which way to pull them without knowing what Moriarty hoped to achieve by acquiring the ‘god killer’.

“Did you ask the alethiometer what a ‘god killer’ was?” Raniel suddenly piped up.

John nodded.  “It just kept giving us circular answers – ‘the god killer is the god killer’ and variations thereof.  We must not be asking the right questions.”

“We even tried asking what the god killer does, as opposed to what it is,” Amarisa offered.  “But we didn’t really understand the answer – the alethiometer seemed to be telling us that it was something used to ‘move through worlds’.  But that’s the most sense we could get out of it.”

“Move through worlds,” Sherlock repeated.  “So is it some kind of universal passport among witches?  The equivalent of an all-access keycard?”

“Do witches have passports?” John mused.

The question was apparently addressed solely to his dæmon, but Raniel chittered in surprised amusement.

“It’s a valid question!” Amarisa protested, indignant enough to nip at the polecat’s ear.  “I mean, we know that they move between countries, so do they have passports to get through airports and across borders?  Is there some kind of witch equivalent that identifies their clan, the way passports identify your country?”

“And I bet if it’s magical, it’s probably hard to fake,” John went on, clearly warming to the subject.  “So maybe whatever Moriarty wants is like psychic paper, or something.”

“Just what is psychic paper?” Sherlock asked, feeling a bit snappish – he never liked feeling ignorant.

John grinned, seemingly amused by Sherlock’s frustration.  “Just something from the telly.”

Well, that was acceptable, then – Sherlock and Raniel refused to pollute their hard drive with ‘popular culture’ unless strictly necessary, as in the Connie Prince murder.

“But then why would they call it a ‘god killer’?” Raniel pointed out.

“The most lethal thing a passport could give you would be a really bad papercut,” agreed Amarisa, wrinkling her nose.

John went back to looking out the window, but not before Sherlock saw a frown beginning to etch itself in his face.

--

John and Amarisa had been feeling uncomfortable ever since they’d read the alethiometer – the same prickling, anxious/afraid feeling that gnawed in their gut while they waited for an enemy attack in Afghanistan.  The sense that this was the calm before the storm, and that said storm promised to be big.

At least Aeliana was still home – John and Amarisa had been worried that she would have left with the others.

They’d been half-expecting Mycroft to rain holy hell (well, maybe more like frosty disapproval) on them for taking the alethiometer, but it didn’t look like anyone had missed it.  Probably too busy ‘cleaning house’, as Mycroft had said.

They’d been planning to ask what a god killer was as soon as they walked in the door, but Aeliana spoke first.

“The artefact Moriarty’s spy knew about?  It was determined to be a fake half an hour ago,” she said bluntly.

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, and John stifled a resigned sigh.

“Of course it was,” Amarisa muttered, low enough for only John to hear.

“And now we have no idea how long ago it was stolen,” John replied.  Then, frowning as a sudden thought struck him, raised his voice, “It hasn’t been a fake all along, has it?  I mean, the artefact was authentic at one point, right?  And how do they tell?”

“It was originally authentic, yes,” Aeliana sighed.

For a moment her hand seemed to twitch, the way John had seen nervous patients do when they wanted to reach for their dæmon but didn’t want to show how nervous they were.  But of course Nostrepheus was nowhere near – he had gone with Hasna and Tamsyn.

For the first time, John wondered if those people who separated from their dæmons ever regretted that they had.  Of course it gave them extra mobility, it meant they didn’t have to worry about any limitations their dæmons might have…but did they ever get lonely?  Did they ever miss the constant companionship, the knowledge that wherever you went, your dæmon went with you?  What did they feel when they instinctively reached for support in times of stress or crisis and their dæmon wasn’t there?

“It used to be different, you know,” Aeliana said, her voice distant.  “Witches never used to bother about artefacts – they were communal property, and one clan couldn’t be said to ‘own’ anything.  But there was a…war many years ago, and the witch clans started to become divided.  And then when humans rose in power and technology, when they used that technology to scour the cliff-ghasts from the face of the Earth, some witches didn’t mind, and others…did.  Suddenly witches from different clans could be as remote as humans from different countries, and possession of artefacts took on new importance.”

“So what was this artefact supposed to do?” Sherlock asked, sounding impatient.  “And does it have any connection with something called a ‘god killer’?”

Aeliana went very still.  “Where did you hear that word?”

“I asked the alethiometer what Moriarty wanted,” John explained.  “And it said he wanted the god killer, which is supposed to help him move between worlds.”

John had the very strong impression that if Aeliana had been anyone else, she would have sat down very abruptly.  As it was, she only squared her shoulder and titled her chin, but that sign of shock in a centuries-old witch had John reaching down to twist his fingers in Amarisa’s ruff and relieve his anxiety.

“The artefact I am talking about, the one that we must assume Moriarty stole, is known among the witches as Æsahættr – the translation of which is god killer – and among humans as the Subtle Knife.  We don’t know how the knife was made, but one side is sharp enough to slice through any material presented to it, even a bear’s sky-armour.  And the other side can open holes in whatever it is that binds and separates realities – parallel universes, as you would call them.”

To say John was surprised would have been something of an understatement.  The thought of something like that in Moriarty’s hands brought ‘horrifying’ to whole new levels.  Amarisa bristled, a low growl rumbling through her chest and John rubbed at her ears as Raniel made low, crooning chitter of reassurance.

“And Moriarty probably has it…” Sherlock said slowly, articulating his thoughts the way he did when he and Raniel were thinking in a hundred different directions at once and needed to focus themselves.

“How did your clan end up with that?” John couldn’t help asking.  “I mean, it sounds like something that’s far too dangerous for anyone to have, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Some might say the same about a man who can read the alethiometer,” Aeliana quipped.  “But you’re probably right – I think every clan would have fought us for the knife…if it had still worked.”

“So it’s broken?” John tried to clarify.  “Moriarty won’t be able to use it?”

Aeliana nodded, and John wondered if the relief he suspected everyone could see on his face was half as strong as what he was actually feeling.

“I won’t bore you with the details,” Aeliana continued.  “But the last bearer of the knife came to the same conclusion you did, John, and shattered it.  While the shards are probably still unnervingly sharp, the knife cannot cut between the worlds unless it is whole.”

John nodded – it made about as much sense as anything else.

Aeliana cocked her head, for a moment looking very much like her owl dæmon.  “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this point, but you seem to be absorbing the news about the knife very well.  I expected a bit of disbelief, at the very least.”

“Well, don’t most physicists agree parallel worlds exist?” John shrugged.  “And besides, I’m the object of an ancient prophecy and apparently have a magical ability to read a device that always tells the truth – I think my bar for ‘unbelieveable’ has been raised several notches in the last few days.”

Aeliana smiled.  “I suppose so.  As for how the knife came to us…originally, the bearer took it back to his home, for he wasn’t born of this world.  But the holes it made between the worlds were still open, thousands upon thousands on them.  While some…people…agreed to journey across the worlds and close them, it was to be a very lengthy process, and I’m sure many are still open to this day.”

Aeliana had put a curious emphasis to the word ‘people’, but John filed that away as something to think about later.  “So the bearer came back.”

The witch shook her head.  “His granddaughter did, with the shards of the knife.  She entrusted the shards to my clan, and asked us to keep them safe.”

“And then she went home?”

“Unfortunately, no.  She never managed to find the hole through which she’d entered – those kinds of openings can be temperamental.  You can know where it is to within five feet, and still not manage to go through it.  And people rarely last more than ten years in a world not their own; she died when was thirty-five.  We never learned why she came, but some of the things she said, the fact that she was carrying the knife shards with her…I’ve always believed that her crossing into this world was unintentional, an accidental sidestep as she was fleeing from something in her world.”

“How do you know this?” John couldn’t help asking.  “I mean, it doesn’t sound like most of this is common knowledge, even among witches.  Or is your clan just really good at keeping secrets?”

“My aunt, the previous clan queen, told me,” Aeliana related with a fond smile.  “Serafina Pekkala was said to have witnessed these events herself.”

“I just can’t understand why!” Sherlock suddenly burst out.

John and Amarisa didn’t so much as twitch – they were used to these sorts of outbursts after Raniel and his human had spent some time wandering off in their own mind.  Aeliana only smiled and shook her head with the fond exasperation only a mother was capable of.

“Why what?” John asked.

“Why does he want the knife?  Not for its cutting ability, surely – nowadays, lasers can take care of what simple blades can’t.  So does he want to move between worlds?  But to what purpose?”

John shrugged, and even Amarisa rolled her shoulders.

“We’ll leave that to you,” he said to Sherlock.  “I think my psyche’s disturbed enough without trying to get into Moriarty’s head.”

Sherlock made a dismissive, sweeping gesture that over their relationship John had learned to translate as ‘I’m busy thinking, go do whatever you have to’.

John nodded even though he knew neither Sherlock or Raniel would see it, and he and Amarisa made their way down the hall, trying to remember how to get to the library.

They had a hunch.  It was a very vague hunch, true, but strong enough that they wanted to talk to Grayson and Samieyah rather than dismiss it out of hand.  And the library was where they thought Sherlock’s father was most likely to be found.

Sure enough, as soon as they entered the library they saw the golden osprey dæmon perched on one of those high-back leather chairs that probably cost a full year of John’s salary.  Usually, that kind of casually displayed wealth would make John wary and self-conscious, but Aelina and Grayson were just so unconcerned and nice about it that he and his dæmon had never felt the need to stand on ceremony.

John couldn’t help but smile when he came around the chair and saw Grayson engrossed in a Nature journal.  Samieyah’s head rose from where it had been leaning over her human’s shoulder to look at them, and Grayson glanced up as his dæmon did.

“John,” he greeted, smiling with every appearance of welcome.  “How did it go?”

John shrugged.  “We got some information that apparently means something to Sherlock, but I can’t figure it out.”

Grayson nodded, and Samieyah sighed, as though in resignation.  “I understand completely – I only barely understand Aeliana when she starts talking about her clan.  Witch politics go completely over my head.”

Then he sobered abruptly.  “But I’m not entirely blind to the troubles of this…” he made a frustrated gesture, “…situation.  My son and my wife are in real danger, aren’t they?”

John’s first instinct was to lie, to mouth some empty reassurance, but he was stopped by the hard light in Grayson’s eyes, the tension in Samieyah’s claws where they gripped the chair.  They weren’t stupid, and they were telling him not to treat them as such.

“Yes, they are,” John admitted.

Grayson made a humming sound, the sort of noise Sherlock made when he was thinking; he even steepled his fingers in the same way.  In spite of the rather grim line of conversation, John felt his lips twitch as Amarisa’s tail wagged.

“You’re a soldier, John,” Grayson said, apropos of nothing.  “I’d wager you have good instincts for danger.  And you’ve been in the thick of this from the very beginning.  Tell me truly – how bad do you think this is going to get?”

John glanced down at Amarisa, seeing in the wolfdog’s yellow eyes the same dread and determination he was feeling.  “If these kinds of actions had been perpetuated by a foreign government, not a single man, we’d probably be gearing up for World War Three.”

Samieyah made a low noise of distress, her feathers ruffling and shivering.  Grayson raised his hand and ran the backs of his fingers over her chest in a soothing gesture.

Even if honesty was what he’d been asked for, John couldn’t help feeling guilty that he’d made them so worried. 

“I promise you, I’ll do everything I can to protect Sherlock,” he assured them.

It was a promise easily given because frankly, John and Amarisa had been planning on doing exactly that.

Grayson’s lips twitched, as though he wanted to smile but didn’t think the mood was right for it.  “I don’t think my son would appreciate that sentiment.”

John shrugged.  “Tough.”

At that Grayson did smile, though it was only for a moment.  He dropped his eyes back to the journal in his lap, but Samieyah pinned them with a gaze so intent that John had to take a moment to assure himself that ospreys did not have X-ray vision.

At least now he knew where Mycroft had learned that disturbingly penetrating gaze.

“I’m given to understand you may be in just as much danger as Sherlock and Aeliana,” Grayson said slowly.  “Perhaps more, given your…talents.”

It was John’s turn to drop his eyes as Amarisa’s hackles rose.  He hated that they still felt the need to hide whenever someone said anything about them being ‘special’ or ‘different’, but a lifetime of caution couldn’t be unlearned in a few weeks.  And John and his dæmon’s previous experience told them that being branded as unique made people back away, not come closer.

It was different with witches and bears in Afghanistan because there was a strange kind of comradeship in all of them being regarded as unusual by the rest of the humans.  It had let John feel comfortable with them, allowed him to ask questions about their lives and cultures without worrying about being intrusive, or feeling defensive when they turned that same scrutiny on him.

But when other humans did it?  It left John and Amarisa feeling marked.

Grayson seemed to realise John was uncomfortable.  “But you haven’t come here to listen to depressing reiterations of facts you’re already aware of, have you?”

“What do you know about the Maystadt Guillotine?” John asked.

Grayson blinked, but otherwise didn’t react, though Samieyah bated nervously.  “Nothing pleasant.”

“You know we think Moriarty might have stolen one.  I want to know if you can think of any reason why.”

Grayson extended his arm to his dæmon, and Samieyah gripped it, careful not to scratch him with her claws as he lowered her to rest on the arm of the chair, rather than the back.  He left his hand on the golden feathers of her back, and John felt Amarisa press herself against his legs as his fingers tightened in her dark fur.

It was almost reflexive to clutch at your dæmon when you were discussing intercision, like when an actor was bloodily disfigured on the telly and you found yourself clutching at the site of the injury.  You needed reassurance that you were still whole – that your own dæmon was there and that no one would ever part you.

“Everything we know about intercision comes from the notes maintained by those scientists and doctors that worked in the concentration camps,” Grayson began.  “It’s true that the Magesterium experimented with severing children in a place the witches refer to as Bolvangar, but almost none of that so-called ‘research’ survived its destruction.”

“But what can you gain by intercision?” John asked, feeling vaguely ill even as he spoke.  “I mean, from what I know and what I’ve seen, intercision just seems to result in an…empty person and dæmon.  They have no interest in anything, like mindless automatons-”

“Exactly,” Grayson broke in.  “Mindless.  A severed person will agree to anything, perform any task set to them without question or complaint.  We do not know what changes at the moment of intercision, but we do know that severed people have no will of their own, so they seem to adopt the will of whoever is around them, accept the directions of whoever commands them.”

So if Moriarty wanted to create an army of mindless slaves, intercision was the way to do it.  But the thought didn’t sit right with John – Moriarty didn’t seem to have any problem manipulating people into doing his own bidding without them even knowing it, so why would he need slaves?

“Is there anything else?” he asked.  “I mean, Moriarty doesn’t seem the type to need slaves.”

Grayson shrugged but Samieyah twisted her head to peer into her human’s face, yellow eyes intent and prodding, as if urging him to remember something.

“Although…” he said slowly.  “This was never proved or confirmed, but…are you aware of the mysterious circumstances regarding Lord Asriel’s disappearance?”

John shook his head, but the name jogged something in his memory.  “Asriel…any relation to the Asriel procedure?”

Grayson nodded once.  “He invented the method of treating film so Stanislaus particles would show on the photograph.  He disappeared around the time the Magesterium established the General Oblation Board and first became a little shaky in their position.  He wasn’t the only one, to be sure, but…as I said, this was never proved…”

Amarisa gave an exasperated growl, expressing her and John’s frustration and Grayson cut himself off.

“There was always a theory floated around that Asriel had crossed into another world,” he said eventually.  “He’d been discussing research into such before he disappeared, claiming that the Aurora borealis was a place where the divide between the worlds was thin.  Aeliana told me that this much was true, but she doesn’t know about the last part.”

“What last part?” John wondered.

“The part where it was suggested that he broke the barrier between the worlds with the energy released when the bond between human and dæmon is severed.  He believed that intercision results in an enormous outpouring of energy at the moment of severing which, if harnessed, can potentially create a gateway between the worlds.”

Something told John this was more likely than the slave-army.  If Moriarty had stolen that artefact – what had Aeliana called it, the Subtle Knife? – to try to cross between the worlds, it made sense that he’d explore other means of opening up those gateways as well.  But to what purpose?

What did Moriarty want that he couldn’t find in this world?

Chapter Text

John and Amarisa thanked Grayson and Samieyah for their help, and left the library quickly – Sherlock and Aeliana needed to know about this as quickly as possible.

Provided they could find the way back to the entry hall where they’d left them.  To find the library, they’d ended up going through the kitchen, a room full of computers and another that looked like a huge version of the lab Sherlock was always trying to establish in their flat.

“Stupid, oversized mansion,” John muttered.  “No wonder Sherlock can hold that map of London in his head like that – he had plenty of practice growing up.”

“Like you’re ever lost with me around,” Amarisa snorted.  “I can always follow our backtrail.”

“You only perfected that when we were seventeen,” John pointed out.  “We got lost plenty of times before then.”

“It’s difficult to follow a trail when the scent I’m trying to follow is all around me!”

“I’m not criticising,” John grinned.  “Just making a point.”

The moment of levity passed quickly, as their thoughts were inevitably dragged back to what Grayson had told them.

“Well, at the least the ‘crossing between worlds theory’ has been pretty much confirmed,” John commented as they made their way through the kitchen.  “I mean, I don’t think it’s coincidence that Moriarty has two…things…that can be used to open up a doorway to another world.”

“How do you think that works?” his dæmon wondered.  “Crossing over?”

Then – as suddenly as a slap – both she and John were giggling.

“That sounds like some kind of TV show about psychics,” John snorted, then pressed his lips together.  “And I have no idea how it would work, and given what Grayson said, I don’t think he really knows either.”

“He said there was a lot of energy involved, like breaking a barrier…” Amarisa mused, leaving her train of thought hanging.

John’s fingers brushed the top of her head.  “I guess that makes sense, for there to be some kind of barrier – I mean, if the physicists are right and there are an infinite number of parallel universes where everything that can happen does happen somewhere, then there’d have to be something keeping us from bleeding over into all the other universes, right?”

But what kind of barrier needed the energy of an intercision to break it?

“Ask the alethiometer how long Moriarty’s had the knife,” Amarisa ordered abruptly.

“Right now?”

She nipped the edge of his palm in remonstration.  “Yes, right now.”

John had been planning on asking that question after they told Sherlock and Raniel the information Grayson had offered, but he supposed it couldn’t hurt to do it now.

It felt strange to sit down in the middle of the hallway, but it wasn’t as though anyone was going to care.  Amarisa put her head over his shoulder as he turned the dials, trying to empty his mind of every thought but the question; how long has Moriarty had the knife?

The answer came within moments, as it always did.  The theft was recent and the shards were still in transit – they wouldn’t reach Moriarty for another two days.

Amarisa snorted at that, nudging her human’s chin.  “Can you imagine his face when he finds out that the witches weren’t lying and the knife’s really broken?”

John giggled, and reflected – not for the first time – that it wasn’t only Sherlock and Raniel who possessed an inappropriate sense of humour.  While he was fairly certain Moriarty knew the knife was in pieces, he doubted he knew it could no longer be used to pass between worlds.  And imagining the look of yes, surprise, on his face when he found out was certainly amusing.  He was almost tempted to ask the alethiometer what he’d do, but he refrained.

It was strange, but every time he used the alethiometer John felt that he shouldn’t ask too many questions.  It was like meeting some wise sage – you only asked them things that were really important, and didn’t want to bother them trivialities.  It wasn’t logical, but then neither was his ability to read the alethiometer, so John felt justified in trusting his instincts on this.

Which meant important questions only – no asking about embarrassing stories from Sherlock and Raniel’s childhood.  More’s the pity.

So John asked his next question; where is Moriarty going? 

The needle spun, stopping on the helmet, the owl, the crucible, the globe, the garden, the anchor, the apple, the thunderbolt and the baby.

So, Moriarty was going to Svalbard – to where Asriel had first opened the portal to another world through the Aurora borealis.  He believed that even though the portal was now sealed, the act of opening it had somehow weakened…whatever it was that kept the worlds from bleeding into each other, which would make it easier to open another there.

John wasn’t quite sure it worked like that, and the alethiometer hadn’t said it did – just that Moriarty believed that.  So he asked another question – can Moriarty repair the knife?

Again, the answer was clear; he couldn’t.  Only one person could repair the knife…and here, it got a little foggy.  It seemed to imply that the knife somehow chose a bearer, and that this person would be the only one capable of repairing it.

“The idea that a lump of metal can choose anything is rather unnerving,” John commented, tucking the alethiometer away and putting his hand on Amarisa’s back to help himself stand.

Amarisa nosed his fingers companionably.  “When held up against someone reading a supposedly inscrutable instrument that always tells the truth and seems to know everything and a way to move between parallel universes, that probably shouldn’t be the part that concerns you.”

“But the parallel universes make sense,” John protested.  “Or partly, at least – they’ve been hypothesised about for years, anyway.  But the idea that this god-killer knife-thing can choose its bearer is in the same category as me reading the alethiometer.”

“Weird and creepy without anything approaching a rational explanation?”

“Exactly!”

Amarisa laughed and then shook herself, as though trying to shake away their heavy speculation.  “Well, I guess this is the part where we tell Sherlock and Raniel the good news.”

--

When they found Sherlock and Raniel again, Aeliana was gone and had been replaced by Mycroft, who was looking…well, not angry, because Mycroft’s expressions were never as extreme as angry – displeased, more like.  Tehayla was perched on his shoulder, dark eyes fierce as she glared down at Amarisa.

“I believe you have something that does not belong you,” he said, just a hint of warning in his voice as his eyes fixed on John.

Tehayla clacked her beak sharply

Amarisa bristled, her lips peeling back to show her teeth, but she didn’t actually growl – Raniel did that for her, the polecat bristling on Sherlock’s shoulder.

“Yeah, well done,” John sighed, letting his dæmon express his irritation.  “I took the alethiometer with me – I figured you would have noticed before now, actually.”

“Hand it over, please,” Mycroft ordered, holding out his hand.  “And if this incident is not repeated, we won’t have to involve various authorities who possess less of a sense of humour than I do.”

This time Amarisa did growl and John felt his eyes narrow.  He could understand why Mycroft was angry – they’d stolen it, after all, fair cop – but they hated implied threats.  If Mycroft wanted to frighten them, he could damn well say so plainly. 

“It’s not like you could have made any use of it!” Sherlock snapped.

“And I actually found out something useful,” John offered.  “The knife hasn’t reached Moriarty yet – he knows it’s in pieces, but he doesn’t know it can’t take him to other worlds anymore.  He won’t get it for two days, apparently.”

“So we have some time at least,” Mycroft said quietly, in the kind of tone that implied he was only vocalising his thoughts for the sake of the lesser minds around him.

“And Moriarty’s heading to Svalbard,” John adds.  “We were right about him trying to cross between the worlds – he thinks that Lord Asriel moved between the worlds at Svalbard, and he’s hoping he can re-open whatever seam or door or gateway Asriel used.”

“We knew he was likely hiring armoured bears,” Mycroft observed.  “Still, I suppose it’s beneficial to have tentative confirmation.”

Mycroft glanced at him, and John was struck all over again by how much the other man just didn’t trust the alethiometer.  The man would believe it about witch prophecies and other nebulous concepts, but as soon as it strayed into the territory of concrete fact, he became painfully suspicious.

John tried to tell himself it was only fair – if some guy claimed to know the answer to everything by twiddling a few dials and staring really hard at a fancy piece of clockwork he’d probably think they were crazy – but it still felt like a deliberate slight against him.  And it didn’t make him any happier about giving the alethiometer back.  It felt like he was handing over his gun when he put it in Mycroft’s hand.  In fact, it felt worse – when he’d turned in his gun after his discharge, he’d been able to buy another on the black market.  But he couldn’t get another alethiometer.

Sherlock frowned, clearly picking up on John’s disquiet. 

“What do you know about Svalbard?” Raniel asked John.

Amarisa whuffed softly in amusement, and John reflected it was very typical of Sherlock and his dæmon to attempt to be comforting by interrogating them to take their minds off it.

“We know what we learned in school,” John offered.  “And some things Ragnvald told us.  Svalbard is populated entirely with bears – there used to be some humans, but the bear population eventually got too large.  Things were kind of tense for a while, politically speaking, but eventually there was a treaty drawn up that gave them claim to the entire island.  It’s their homeland, even though there are some bear settlements in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia – basically anywhere that’s cold enough for them to be comfortable.  They used to be one consolidated group, but they split into clans-”

“Ragnvald lives close to the original fortress,” Amarisa cut in.  “But that’s because he’s big royalty; descended from Iorek Brynison.”

Sherlock seemed to recognise the name.  “The bear you befriended in Afghanistan?”

John nodded. 

“He was sent to fight even though he’s royalty?”

“Bears have a different view of royalty than we do.  You still need to prove you’re worthy of the throne and if you can’t, it goes to someone else.”

“Bears have their own language,” Amarisa continued.  “With some words in it that are linked to Old Norse.  But humans literally can’t speak it – don’t have the right vocal chords, and some of the sounds are below the average range of human hearing.  So most bears speak a second or third language, depending on the humans they’re most commonly in contact with.”

“Oh, and they’re having a problem with a shortage of sky iron,” John remembered.

“That’s interesting,” Sherlock mused quietly.  “Especially considering what Moriarty took with him.”

John frowned.  “All that metal stuff?  You think he’s going to play on their need for sky iron somehow?”

Raniel wrinkled his nose.  “Possibly.”

“But surely any metal he got his hands on couldn’t have been sky iron?”

“True,” Sherlock conceded.  “He could have procured some, but certainly not in the quantities the Gyptians reported.” 

“So why is the metal important?” Raniel wondered, sounding half-irritated, half-pleased that he and his human couldn’t immediately figure it out.

Mycroft had tucked the alethiometer away and was leaving – he obviously had no interest in listening to John and Sherlock re-iterate information he probably knew already – but at the doorway to the dining room he paused and glanced back.

“By the way, Hasna returned with news that the enemy clan is withdrawing, and they are heading north.”

“Why are they still supporting him?” Sherlock asked, in the kind of tone that said he and Raniel were off in their own little world.  “Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain was their goal, their path towards repealing some of the more restrictive laws, so why are they still following him now that he’s abandoned that plan?”

“He might be deceiving them on that point,” Raniel pointed out.  “Or he could have told them it fell through and he’s presenting this attempt to breach another world as an alternate plan.”

Amarisa wrinkled up her muzzle like she’d smelled something rotten.  “So he’s telling them they could go to a world where they could follow their own rules the way they used to?”

“Exactly!” Raniel squealed.

He leaned down from Sherlock’s shoulder as though trying to touch the wolfdog, tail waving in an attempt to keep his balance.  Amarisa obligingly rose to her hind legs so they could touch noses, giving Raniel’s chin a swift lick as she did so.

“So everything’s heading north,” John summarised.  “Or at least, it seems that way.  So I guess I should pack warm, huh?”

Sherlock avoided his eyes, and Raniel squirmed on his human’s shoulder, pretending to be absorbed in straightening Sherlock’s collar with his front paws.

Low-grade anger began to simmer in John’s gut, and Amarisa growled.

“We are going with you, you realise,” John said, in the kind of voice he’d often used on his subordinates in both the army and the operating room.  The kind of voice that said this was exactly what was going to happen because the laws of the universe wouldn’t allow anything else.

“You’d be safer if you-” Sherlock began, but John cut him off.

“No, you don’t get to play that card.  You know me, Sherlock, and you know being safe is the last thing I care about.”

“That’s the problem!” Raniel exploded.  “You’re never careful, never!  You stride into danger like no one would care if you got hurt, you try to save everyone else before yourself and you need to stop that!”

Sherlock wasn’t saying anything, but he was tense and staring at the wall over John’s shoulder, one hand clenched tightly in his dæmon’s fur.

John and Amarisa had a good idea where this was coming from. 

“This alethiometer thing is really freaking you out, isn’t it?” Amarisa remarked.

“We’re not ‘freaking out’,” Sherlock spat, as horrified as if the wofdog had accused them of being boring.  “We are merely expressing perfectly legitimate concern over the entirely unique talent you’ve manifested.”

“Sometimes I think we could make a graph,” Amarisa commented to John.  “How many multi-syllable words they use in relation to how annoyed or worried they are and how desperate they are to hide it.”

John didn’t look at his dæmon, still studying Sherlock and Raniel.  “You weren’t this bad when we went back to London, so what…oh.”

And just like that, John understood.  London was Sherlock and Raniel’s domain – in London, they had contacts and knowledge and could face anything.  Subconsciously, London was their security blanket, and in spite of what happened at the pool, they believed that they could protect John and Amarisa there, or at least keep the alethiometer reading a secret.  But there was no map of Svalbard in Sherlock’s head, the bears didn’t owe him any favours, and there was no safety net.

The fact that it was Moriarty they were dealing with probably wasn’t helping either.  John had a feeling Sherlock and Raniel weren’t good at coping with the people they loved being in danger.  They’d tried to send him and Amarisa away before confronting Moriarty, after all – which John was still feeling a little insulted about – but it showed that Sherlock and his dæmon really didn’t like putting John and Amarisa in risky situations.

It was different with incidental danger during a case; Sherlock was so confident in his home turf and had such trust in his and John’s abilities that he rarely became truly worried.  But Moriarty was clever the way Sherlock was clever, which meant Sherlock and Raniel were worried and unsure, at least a little.  That was probably why they’d tried to get John and Amarisa out of the way in the first place.

“We can look after ourselves,” John said quietly.  “I’m not going to lie and tell you we’ll be fine, because we really don’t know that, but I can promise you that Amarisa and I don’t die easy.”

Sherlock’s gaze flicked to John’s shoulder and hip, obviously picturing the scars beneath his clothes, the remnants of the death spells that Aeliana had saved him from, and Raniel made a soft sound of distress.

John moved close, sliding an arm around Sherlock’s waist as Amarisa leaned in against the detective’s legs, letting him feel her body heat through his clothing.  With a quick glance around to ensure no one was watching, John dared to reach up and run his fingers over Raniel’s head, scratching through the white fur in reassurance.

Raniel melted, mewling and pushing his head against John’s fingers.  Sherlock’s stiff spine suddenly bowed, leaning into John and Amarisa, one of his hands fisting in John’s jacket like a child trying to prevent his favourite teddy bear being taken away.

John gave Raniel one last caress behind the ear, then lifted his hand away and down to Sherlock’s arm.

“Besides, look on the bright side,” Amarisa said.  “As long as we’ve got this dangerous talent, we’ll be using it as much as we can.  And we’re pretty sure it’s something Moriarty doesn’t have on his side because if he did…”

“If he did, his ‘game’ would have ended in victory long ago,” Sherlock finished wryly.

John grinned.  “Exactly.  And now I’m going to see a witch about a battle plan.”

He kissed the corner of Sherlock’s jaw, soft and fond and – in spite of their previous discussion – feeling almost painfully optimistic.  Amarisa nudged Sherlock’s hip affectionately, and then followed him out the door.

As soon as it closed behind them, John paused, looking at the long hallway and the dozens of doors that led off it.

As often happened, his dæmon said exactly what he was thinking.  “Do you think we can find Hasna in this house without directions?”

--

Sherlock and Raniel knew that idea of leaving John and Amarisa behind was foolish.  Even leaving aside their various useful skills, they were so determinedly loyal they’d simply follow Sherlock and Raniel to the north on their own if they had to.  At this point, even an attempt to break ties wouldn’t make them stay – to get them to remain in England, Sherlock and Raniel would have to do something stupidly drastic like fake their own death or…actually, Sherlock couldn’t think of any other way.  John and his dæmon were simply just that stubborn; the immovable object and unstoppable force by turns, whatever was needed at the time.

People who called Sherlock impossible had clearly never seen John when he was set on a course of action.

“At least the clan will probably be too busy trying to go to another world to bother about him,” Raniel offered as they made their way to the library.

Sherlock sneered.  “Probably isn’t good enough.”

“I know that,” his dæmon huffed.  “But if Moriarty’s still convinced the prophecy refers to us alone-”

“Assuming his own alethiometer hasn’t told him otherwise.”

“He never felt the need to consult it about the prophecy before.  He was confident it was us.”

“That could have changed,” Sherlock pointed out.

Raniel fell silent, and Sherlock knew what the polecat was thinking – not just because Raniel was his dæmon, but because it had been on their mind since John had first read the alethiometer.

John had used the device to uncover Moriarty’s motives, the position and purpose of the so-called god killer and the identity of his spies.  The first two might pass unnoticed, but Moriarty had to be wondering why and how so many of his network were being apprehended so quickly.  And he’d undoubtedly use his own alethiometer.

It was only a matter of time before Moriarty learned that John could read the alethiometer.  He might know already.

Which was why they were seeking out Mummy.

They found Aeliana in the library with Grayson – as they’d expected – bent over a book and talking.

“We’re heading north,” Sherlock informed them.  Because why would anyone waste time when they had news to impart?

“I know.”  Grayson didn’t blink, but Samieyah shifted on the back of his chair, bating nervously.

That was news to Sherlock.  “You do?”

“John came to talk to me,” Grayson shrugged.  “He wanted to clarify certain points.”

The tone of his voice was approving – Grayson appreciated curiosity and inquisitiveness.

Aeliana was frowning.  “Are you sure?”

Sherlock knew she wasn’t asking if she was sure they needed to go north, but if they were sure whatever needed to be done couldn’t be done from here.

So he settled for saying, “We have to.”

Granted, he’d prefer it not be ‘we’ – Sherlock and Raniel would prefer John and Amarisa were never within fifty miles of Moriarty ever again – but they would bow to necessity. 

He knew his parents would understand he meant it.  Sherlock was a scientist, as his father was, and they never committed to an uncompromising statement unless they were without doubt.

Now to address his second purpose in locating them.  “Can you arrange a talisman for John?”

Sherlock knew many people believed he and his dæmon were socially tone-deaf, but he was aware of the usual conventions and boundaries – they just didn’t see the point in bothering with them.  There were some things he respected, however: not touching other people’s dæmons, and not asking witches about talismans.

Talismans were only made for someone the witch cared deeply about, and Sherlock had never heard of one being made on request.  They were spontaneous gestures, prompted by the depth of affection a witch felt for a human, and to ask for one was…well, not good.

But this was John and Amarisa, and they needed to be protected.

Sherlock’s own talisman was still at Baker Street, a simple silver watch tucked into a drawer in his bedroom (silver being one of the few metals witches could successfully enchant).  He rarely felt the need to draw on its protection, though admittedly John and Amarisa’s presence had a hand in its complete absence from his person since he moved into Baker Street – it was amazing what having someone willing to kill for you could do to your sense of safety.

Perhaps to a dangerous extent, considering it hadn’t even crossed his mind to bring the talisman to the pool.

Aeliana tilted her head to the side in a manner Sherlock suspected she’d picked up from her dæmon, and he hoped his mother wasn’t about to become angry or embarrassed at his line of questioning.

He felt Raniel huff softly in relief when Aeliana smiled.  “There’s a talisman ready for John – Hasna made one.”

Jealousy was irrational and foolish, Sherlock and Raniel knew that.  So why did they feel it?  John and Amarisa wasn’t the type to be unfaithful, and judging by the behaviour of herself and her dæmon Hasna would never pursue him, so then why did they feel this prickling resentment that the witch could do something for John that they couldn’t?

Grayson’s face was drawn and pinched, and Samieyah hopped from her perch on the back of the chair to the arm of it, unfurling one large golden wing to curve around her human’s neck and head.  Grayson’s fingers curled in the thick feathers of her chest, and Sherlock wondered if his father wanted to go with them.

Grayson obviously knew that he’d be no use there, but did that make it any easier to remain behind?  This was the second time Sherlock’s father had watched his family go into danger, and Sherlock doubted he and Raniel would have had the strength to do the same.  They couldn’t contemplate letting John and Amarisa go into danger alone.

Aeliana slid her fingers into his husband’s hand with a strange expression of resignation.  But then, she would be resigned, at least to the idea of being left behind – barring accident or catastrophe, witches outlived their husbands and sons for hundreds of years.

Raniel made a soft, chirruping sound that mixed sympathy and regret, and curled himself tighter into Sherlock’s neck. 

Sometimes Sherlock could almost convince himself that there was no point in pursuing Moriarty, that they should leave it to Mycroft and the police of the country he was fleeing to.  But he and Raniel knew better – Moriarty would run rings around any ordinary policeman, and even extraordinary ones.  Mycroft needed to look after his own arena, sweep out Moriarty’s spies and the lingering remnants of the web; it couldn’t catch and suck the life out of anyone anymore, but a web without the spider could still entangle.  And when Moriarty learned the god killer was broken, he’d be desperate; Sherlock and Raniel had to go, to be able to see the immediate consequences of Moriarty’s actions and have a chance of outmanoeuvring him.

“You…you will be careful, won’t you?” Grayson said quietly.

Sherlock was tempted to say that he was always careful – and he was, no matter what John and Amarisa said, he never did anything without considering the consequences – but this was his father, so he only nodded, and Raniel actually bobbed his head along with his human.

Then they went in search of John and Amarisa, locating them in one of the many drawing rooms.  Hasna was with them – likely she’d decided to return since the god killer she had Tamsyn had been charged with relocating had been replaced with a fake.

For a moment Sherlock thought John was reading the alethiometer again, until he realised it was an antique gold pocket watch cupped in the doctor’s hand.  Amarisa was nosing at it, and John was ghosting his fingers over the surface, raising and lowering his hand over it like he was testing the consistency of the air.

John was grinning.  “I can feel it.  The spell,” he clarified, like there’d been some confusion.

Hasna was sitting across from him, smiling in a fondly indulgent way at John’s child-like glee.  An albatross dæmon was also present, perched on the side table – as Hasna’s dæmon was a swan, this must have been some other witch’s dæmon, come to relay news.

John glanced up and met Sherlock’s eyes, and his smile turned soft and fond in a way that made Raniel shiver on his human’s shoulder.

“Raniel,” Amarisa said, going to the door to greet them.

Raniel leapt from Sherlock’s shoulder and landed neatly on the wolfdog’s back, nipping playfully at her ear.  Amarisa trotted back to her human with her passenger and Sherlock followed.

“Look at this,” John enthused.  “Hasna made me a talisman – this’ll protect me as long as I’m carrying it.  Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

The albatross dæmon laughed softly, and though Sherlock didn’t possess John’s talent for reading dæmons, he thought it sounded affectionate.

“Oh, by the way Sherlock, this is Percila,” John said, gesturing to the albatross.  “She’s Tamsyn’s dæmon.”

“The one you said came to visit you in Baker Street,” Raniel nodded, resting his chin between Amarisa’s ears even as she placed her head on John’s leg.

“Our enemies are retreating into the north,” Percila pronounced, sounding pleased.  “It was foolish of them to attack a clan that hadn’t wronged them – no one will support them now.”

“Though I don’t suppose that will matter, if they intend to go to another world,” Hasna pointed out.

“Remember when everything was just scouting patrols or retrieval missions?” John asked, apparently addressing the remark to his dæmon. 

“Everything was so much simpler back then,” Amarisa sighed.

Percila laughed, and Hasna smiled.  “Back when you served with armoured bears and were getting shot by death-spells?”

“I do miss Ragnvald,” John said, as if that were the only part of her sentence worth commenting on.

Sherlock felt distinctly put-out – he hated not being informed about things John had done.  “I thought you were medical personnel.”

John nodded.  “Usually.  But we did scouting patrols as well, because of Amarisa.”

“Not to boast, but I’ve got a very good nose,” the wolfdog finished.  “I could sniff out IEDs, enemy scouts, other kinds of traps…I was very good at it, too.”

“Didn’t you see those military recruitment ads?” John added.  “They started a couple of years ago, asking for people who had dæmons with a good sense of smell?”

Raniel sniffed contemptuously, burrowing his face into the dense fur of Amarisa’s ruff.  “Boring.”

“I suppose that went the way of the solar system, did it?” John sighed.  “But I guess I can understand this one – who the army was recruiting doesn’t have much relevance to being a consulting detective.”

Amarisa giggled softly, and John tucked the talisman away.  “And on that note, I think it’s time for some afternoon tea.”

Raniel’s back arched as if he was about to jump from Amarisa’s back, but John glared at him in a way that had probably frozen an entire squad in their tracks.  “And the two of you are coming with us – you haven’t eaten at all today.”

Sherlock knew better than to admit to that, at least outright.  “How do you know?  We could have just had lunch.”

“Could have, but you didn’t,” Amarisa practically chirped.

“I know you don’t want to have an actual meal because you think it’ll slow your brain down, but it’s just not healthy to go an entire day without eating,” John was saying as they made their way to the kitchen.  “Could you just…I don’t know, have a piece of bread?  I’ll be happy with a piece of bread.  Or some biscuits. ”

“We’re actually planning on eating dinner tonight,” Raniel muttered, nipping Amarisa’s ear again.

John blinked, his muted version of a double-take.  “Really?”

“Surely you haven’t failed to notice I’ve eaten dinner every night we’ve been here.”

“Well, yeah, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about living with you it’s that you’re unpredictable.”

“I suppose it makes sense, though,” Amarisa mused.  “If the dinner on offer here is the same quality every night-” the wolfdog made a low, throaty noise that Sherlock had previously only heard when Raniel was licking at her muzzle, “-it’s no surprise you’d want to eat it.”

Dæmons didn’t need to eat, of course, but they could if they wanted to, and they could gain pleasure from it.  Hot or exhausted dæmons wouldn’t feel thirsty, but a few swallows of cool water would give them some relief.  Dæmons didn’t feel hungry, but some of them ate particularly tasty morsels anyway, just to experience it.

Raniel had never bothered with eating – Sherlock had to, but his dæmon didn’t want to be subjected to it – but John and Amarisa were different.  If John was trying something new for the first time, or something that tasted particularly good, he’d offer some to Amarisa.  The wolfdog seemed to prefer savoury flavours over sweet, and she usually didn’t want anything more than a little taste, but Sherlock had once seen John and his dæmon split a sorbet almost completely equally between them.  It had been in Angelo’s, and Amarisa and her human had taken alternate bites of the lemon-lime ice until it was entirely gone.

Even now, as John dug custard creams out of the pantry, he held one biscuit between his thumb and forefinger and held it out to his dæmon with the unconscious ease of ingrained habit.  Amarisa huffed in refusal, and John didn’t pause, didn’t even blink as he raised the biscuit an inch or so to offer it to the polecat perched her back.

He did it all without even a glance at Sherlock for permission, as if offering Sherlock’s dæmon food was as natural as offering it to Amarisa.

Raniel, of course, had no interest in eating and wrinkled up his nose at it.  So, without a trace of offence or self-consciousness, John took a bite out of the biscuit himself while he waited for the kettle to boil.

“You offered Raniel food,” Sherlock stated.

John nodded.  “Yeah, I know you don’t like proper meals, but you always seem up for sweets, so I thought…is it alright?”

“It’s fine,” Raniel said quickly.

John stared at Raniel with a small furrow between his brow, the way he did when he suspected something had slipped by him and he wanted to work it out.  Amarisa couldn’t stare at the dæmon on top of her head, so she settled for staring at Sherlock, golden eyes sharp and biting.

Sherlock wondered vaguely if this was what other people felt when he and Raniel stared at them.  Was this why they objected?  Because they felt as if he was peeling back the layers of skin and bone and seeing the chemical signals and neural patterning that constructed every thought?

If so, they were idiots because this was marvellous!

John and Amarisa blinked in complete unison, then smiled as though they understood it had been a stupid question.

Treating Raniel like he treated Amarisa, behaving as if Sherlock were merely an extension of John and vice versa, would always be alright.

--

It had been a long day, so John was glad to go to bed a few hours after dinner, leaving Sherlock and Raniel still in the library, pouring over what was supposedly a copy of Lord Asriel’s notes and muttering to each other.  Amarisa curled beside him and he pulled the blankets over them both, idly wondering if Sherlock and Raniel would return for some sleep (or some sex) or if they planned to spend the whole night in the library.

When a sharp nudge woke John in darkness, his first through was that Sherlock had decided to come to bed after all.  He blinked and fumbled in the blankets for a moment before his fingers found Amarisa’s muzzle.  His dæmon growled softly in warning, laying a heavy paw over his arm.

“Shhh,” Amarisa whispered.  “Someone’s coming.”

Sure enough, he could hear soft footsteps in the hallway, approaching the door.

John didn’t bother asking who it was.  If the wolfdog had thought it necessary to wake him up, it clearly wasn’t a scent she recognised.  At least waking up in the darkness meant his eyes adjusted quickly.  Moving as silently as he could, John slid from the bed and grasped the lamp on the bedside table, following the cord to the wall and quietly unplugging it.

It wasn’t his gun, but it would do.

The footsteps stopped outside the door and John held himself poised, the lamp half-raised with Amarisa at his side, ready to attack as soon as they entered.

If this was some new ally that Sherlock had sent to wake them up, they were going to feel really stupid.

The door swung open, and John brought the lamp down.

He ended up hitting a tall woman across the arm she’d raised to defend herself with.  Amarisa snarled – the blood-curdling snarl she reserved for when they or the people they loved were in genuine danger – and lunged upward, snapping at the hummingbird dæmon that had launched itself from the woman’s shoulder.

The intruder recovered quickly though.  As John stepped in close to press his advantage – shouting in an effort to wake up the rest of the house – she threw some kind of powder into the air, and her dæmon used its wings to gust it into John’s face.  It felt like fine ash or soot and smelled like potpourri, but John could feel the spell hanging off it and he automatically shut his eyes.

When he opened them, he couldn’t see a thing.  It was like that moment just after the lights shut off in a previously brightly-lit room – the second where you genuinely couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.

But John didn’t have time to panic.  Give that he hadn’t heard Amarisa whine in pain or yelp in surprise he was going to assume his dæmon was unaffected, so he took another swing with the lamp in the hopes that their attacker hadn’t had enough time to move her head from where he’d last seen it.  The crack of impact reverberated up his arm and in his ears, but from the sound John could tell she’d raised her arm again and he hadn’t managed to catch her head.

The fact that the lamp was torn out of his hand almost immediately afterwards was also a big clue that the witch wasn’t incapacitated.  At least, John was going to go ahead and assume she was a witch – the bird dæmon wasn’t a tell, not really, but if human women could strike people instantly blind with handfuls of mysterious powder John was sure he’d have heard about it.  She’d obviously got him with some kind of spell –the talisman would have helped with that, but John had left it on the bedside table like an idiot.

At least he was wearing boxers.  Not that they would be much help, but fighting for your life naked added an extra edge of indignity to the whole thing.

Knowing that he’d be entirely lost as soon as the witch moved away, John stepped forward and tackled blindly.  They went down in an uncoordinated heap, the lamp clipping the side of John’s temple as they fell.  He grabbed at what he thought was a wrist and yanked, hoping the witch didn’t have a good angle to get him in the groin.

A knee hit him in the thigh and John twisted automatically, hooking his leg around an ankle and hoping entangling the witch’s legs with his would be enough to keep him from getting kicked in any painful areas.  Using the grip on his attacker’s wrist as a vague gauge of the location of her other arm, John lashed out but ended up with a handful of what felt like hair.

There was a high, frantic trill of panic that told him Amarisa had grabbed the hummingbird, and in the moment when the witch’s body went momentarily lax with her dæmon’s pain, John used his grip on her hair to drive her head into the floor.

She went limp, but John wasn’t about to trust that.

“Is she out?” he asked Amarisa.

There was a sound like a cough and a soft thump that John took to mean Amarisa had dealt with the witch’s dæmon.  Then, “Yeah, she’s down.  Are you-”

“Yes, I’m blind,” John confirmed, carefully freeing his limbs from the tangle and scrambling to his feet.  “Which I’m really hoping is temporary.  We need-”

“To get out of here, right!”

He felt Amarisa’s shoulder bump pointedly against his legs, and John wound his fingers tightly in the wolfdog’s ruff, right where the fur was the thickest.  The fingers of his right hand, so his dominant hand was free.  He’d learned to shoot right-handed, of course (it was a requirement, unless you wanted spent shell casings flying across your face), but everything else – punching, blocking, writing and the like – was done left-handed.

Amarisa led him back to the bed and he felt the muscles in her neck and back bunch and coil as she picked something off the bedside table.  John held out his left hand and felt cool metal drop into it, round and heavy – the talisman Hasna had made for him.  He traced his fingers along the chain until he found the larger ring at the end and pulled the links through it to make a loop.  John lifted his hand from Amarisa’s neck – fighting back an instinctive flash of fear as he was left disoriented and truly feeling his lack of sight for the first time – and slid his fingers and wrist through the loop so the watch dangled from his wrist like a bracelet.  At least this way, it would stop or at least mediate any other spells that might be cast on him.

He put his hand back on Amarisa with relief, clenching his fingers in her fur again.

He’d like to get dressed, but John knew they couldn’t spare the time.  At least one enemy had already infiltrated the house – there could be others.  And they could be going after Sherlock even now.

He felt Amarisa’s chest expand as she inhaled deeply. 

“There’s someone in the hall,” she whispered.

“Think they heard us yelling?”

“Don’t know – I didn’t smell them before, so they weren’t waiting outside.”

The door was still open, so Amarisa led John behind it, tucking them both out of the immediate line of sight to the hallway.

There was a crash from what he thought was downstairs – it was hard to pinpoint – and it sounded like glass and wood, like some heavy cabinet had fallen over.  There was a shout that John identified as Aeliana, and he quelled the urge to run recklessly out into the house; it was almost physically painful, but if there was one thing the army had taught him it was that rushing in without a plan did much more damage than sitting back and waiting for the right moment.

It took thirty seconds before John began to hear footsteps.  They were soft but hurried, like someone was trying to stay quiet but had a schedule to keep.  He pressed his left hand against the door, readying himself to shove it forward if they tried to enter his room.

He was completely still, concentrating on keeping his breathing as silent as possible when he felt it; the tell-tale aura of magic that never felt like anything else.  It was like a temperature change or a shift in air pressure, but somehow entirely unique.

The footsteps hesitated outside his open door, then – probably as they spotted the unconscious witch on the floor – turned sharply and hurried into the room.

He felt Amarisa rear up on her hind legs, obviously putting her front paws on the door and shoving it forward.  There was a sharp crack of impact, and John didn’t hesitate.  Letting his dæmon lead, they ducked around the door and made for the open hallway.

“Arm up!” Amarisa yelled.

John obeyed, his hand automatically making a fist to ensure it would be more difficult to break his fingers.  Something hit his arm – wood, or something like wood – and slid off his elbow.  The spell was clearly imbued in whatever the weapon was – it was a strong one, his skin was practically tingling with it – and John twisted his arm, trying to snatch it.

His fingers closed around what felt like a club.  It was definitely wood and vaguely cylindrical, with a diameter that fit comfortably in his palm.  John pulled, and was rather surprised when the weapon was surrendered.  It was much easier than he thought it would be, like they weren’t prepared, and they hadn’t hit him nearly as hard as they could have.  So maybe whatever spell was on the wood was meant to incapacitate him somehow and the talisman had protected him?

Either way, John wasn’t waiting around to find out.  He shoved hard with the end of the club, and caught what might have been a shoulder or part of an arm – there was an accompanying cry, anyway, and a thud that suggested his attacker had been driven back against the wall.  He kept his fingers clenched in Amarisa’s fur as the wolfdog bounded onwards, out into the hallway and turning a sharp left.

Before, John had real difficulty remembering the layout of the house, but now he could feel the map unfolding in his mind, with details of furniture and window orientation he hadn’t even known he’d registered.  Danger always cleared John’s head, made him eliminate the extraneous details and focus like a laser.

There was a shout from behind him but John wasn’t going to risk engaging again and only quickened his pace. 

“Stairs!”

Their progress down the stairs was more tripping then running, and John was quite sure he would have broken his neck if not for Amarisa’s guidance.  He heard the loud twang of a bowstring and he ducked on instinct, surprised when he felt a rush of air past his shins – who tried to shoot someone in the leg?

Obviously, someone who was trying to cripple him, not kill him.  Coupled with the fact that the powder had blinded him instead of suffocating him or burning his face off or something equally unpleasant, John thought it safe to assume the purpose of this excursion was to capture, not kill.  But why?

Amarisa turned sharply, dragging John into a room (he thought it was that big place that had all the china) and then left through another door into the dining room.

“Think we lost them?” he whispered.

“For a while, at least,” Amarisa panted.

“Right.”

Then John took a deep breath and did something he’d never tried before – he tried to consciously feel for other spells.

It was like waiting for the slight shift in air pressure that signalled the breath or movement of an enemy soldier.  He held himself completely still, barely breathing, and tried to somehow feel his way through the darkness surrounding him.

John was never sure if it was the fact that he was blind and his other senses were trying to compensate, or that this was the first time he was actively trying to use his sensitivity, but he began to feel something.  The most over-powering ‘signal’ came from the wood clenched in his hand, but as soon as looked past that…

It was like the spark of a match in darkness, or the blast of chill air from a fridge.  He could feel the magic clinging to the witch he’d just evaded (or maybe that was spells clinging to something she was holding or wearing), and he could tell she was still stalking through the hallway – she hadn’t seen him duck into the room.  But there was another pinpoint of magic, what felt like two or three rooms over, and another above his head, at a slight angle, like the magic was several rooms over from his bedroom.

Well, he and Amarisa couldn’t afford to wait around until someone stumbled across them.

“Ready?” his dæmon whispered.

“Ready.”

Then they moved.

--

Sherlock knew something was wrong as soon as he heard the library door open.

Raniel sniffed the air, and Sherlock felt him bristle, the polecat’s white fur rising against his neck and chin.

Really, the flicker at the corner of his eye wasn’t a warning – it was redundant.

Sherlock ducked away, feeling Raniel’s claws dig into his shirt as an arrow flew over his head and slammed into a bookshelf at the level of his throat.

The witch – brunette, less than one hundred years old, no dæmon in sight but it was obviously a songbird of some kind – realised she wouldn’t have time to nock another arrow and cast her bow aside as Sherlock lunged.  His right hand folded into a fist, planning to catch her across the jaw and hopefully put her into a headlock.

She was stronger than he’d suspected.  Faster too.  The witch raised her arm to block the blow and grabbed Sherlock’s wrist, yanking him forward.  He broke her grip and twisted away – never close with someone who wanted you to close – and he felt Raniel let go of his collar and jump free of the scuffle.

That was when John entered the library in only his boxers, one hand holding a short cylinder of wood that bore a passing resemblance to a nightstick, the other resting on Amarisa’s neck, the wolfdog bristling and snarling at his side.

Dæmons tended to stay out of fights, except when they were personal enough to drive the dæmons themselves to attack each other.  Dæmons had often fought on the battlefield, true, but that was before war became the purview of guns and grenades and tanks rather than close and personal attacks with maces and swords.  Yet Amarisa always stood beside John when they felt they were in danger, braced as if preparing for an attack, and Sherlock and Raniel often wondered if it was a hold-over from their schoolyard days.

Dæmons often fought as children – it was a common sight in a playground to see dæmons scuffling, flickering through shapes as quickly as they could.  Victory often went to the most imaginative child, the quickest-thinker, the one whose dæmon could shift the fastest, the one with the quickest mind and reflexes (Raniel had been undefeated).  But after they settled, it became a different story.  They still felt the need to compete, but in different ways – bird dæmons swiped and dive-bombed others, rodents nipped and bit, lizards and amphibians used tongues and claws, snakes hissed and danced, flying insects tried to out-manoeuvre others, induce them to slam into walls or doors or windows.

Fish and worms and the like were at something of a disadvantage, but people with predator dæmons liked to fight, liked them clawing and biting at each other in tired dominance rituals that after high school they deemed too childish.  How many boys and girls with a leopard dæmon or a coyote or a bear wanted to fight Amarisa?  How many took on the small, shy boy and his enormous black shadow?

And how many walked away with a bruised and beaten dæmon?

“Five eleven, standing!” Amarisa yelled.

Sherlock had a moment in which to wonder why she’d said that before John swung, tapping the witch over the head with his weapon.  And it was a tap, compared to the kind of blow John was capable of delivering.  It shouldn’t have knocked her unconscious – dazed her, maybe, if they were lucky – but she dropped to the ground as if she’d been shot.

“I don’t know what spell that is, but this is really handy,” John commented, swinging his club.  “Sherlock, Raniel, are you-”

“Fine,” the polecat interrupted, hurrying over to rise up on his hind legs and push his face against Amarisa’s chin.

Amarisa ducked her head to fuss over him, nudging and licking his face and neck, but Sherlock noticed she didn’t step away from John.  John had clearly been roused from sleep, judging by his state of undress, but at least he’d remembered to take the talisman (it glinted comfortingly from his wrist).  There was a red mark on his arm, the type that would turn into a bruise in twenty-four hours, but he didn’t seem to have any serious injuries…

Then Sherlock realised John’s eyes weren’t focused on him.  They weren’t focused on anything; they were roving aimlessly, the way people did when they were trying to locate something important in a clutter of useless detail…

Or when they were trying to locate a light source in darkness.  He remembered what Amarisa had said, calling out the witch’s approximate height and position…

It wasn’t fear that shot up Sherlock’s spine – he was calm and in control, and he was most certainly not frightened.  “You’re-”

John nodded. “Yeah, blind as a bat.  Except not really, because bats can see.”

“Blind as a mole, maybe?” Amarisa offered.  “The witch that attacked us – the first one – threw something in his face.”

They both sounded far too unconcerned for Sherlock’s liking. 

“The first one?” Raniel echoed.  “Explain, now!”

At least his dæmon could be trusted to get to the heart of the matter.

“We woke up when we heard someone in the hallway,” John said.  “Turned out to be a witch, and we unfortunately gave her the opportunity to throw a handful of powder that clearly had a spell on it.  Next thing we know, I’m blind and relying on Risa to find my way around.  Got attacked by another witch, and managed to take this off her-” John waved the stick, as if it wasn’t perfectly obvious that was what he was referring to.  “And it’s really handy; knocks people out pretty much instantly – we’ve got three others down already.  Your Mum was having a spot of trouble in…okay, I have no idea what room that was, but she’s gone to find everyone else.”

Blinded?  Temporary, it had to be, but how could it penetrate the talisman?  Effectiveness of talismans worked via the strength of the maker’s feelings, and if Hasna had made it…

Sherlock glared.  Which would be lost on John, but Amarisa’s eyes worked perfectly well.  “You didn’t pick it up, did you?  The talisman was right there, and you didn’t think to pick it up until you’d already been blinded.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” John huffed.  “But when we’re under attack, we naturally think of being shot instead of having a spell cast on us!”

Raniel snorted.  “If you’re blind, what are you doing here?”

“I followed your scent,” Amarisa said, grinning her dog-grin.  “We wanted to be sure you two were okay.”  She looked down at Raniel with a mock-severe expression.  “You know, normal people call for help when they’re being attacked.”

“That’s not what I meant,” the polecat grumped (though he submitted to Amarisa nuzzling his ears).  “Why did you rush out waving your little stick instead of raising the alarm?”

“Hey, I yelled!” John offered.

Raniel snorted.  “From the other side of the house?”

Amarisa swatted him gently.  “We came to help.”

“Of course you did,” Sherlock sighed.  Because of course they did.  Blinded and already assaulted, of course they came to help.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.  God forbid you show a sense of self-preservation.”

“Well, they couldn’t hide from me, could they?” John pointed out.  “Witches tend to have spelled objects on them, and we found out that when I’m actually trying to sense those things my range is about…ten metres?  Maybe fifteen?  Not very impressive, really, but-”

“Oh yes,” Raniel scoffed.  “Terribly unimpressive from a skill that’s not meant to have range in the first place.”

Sherlock made sure his footsteps were loud and clear, so John didn’t flinch or startle when he put his hand on his shoulder.

John grinned – still looking far too calm for someone who was blind (temporarily!) – and slowly extended his arm until his fingers bumped Sherlock’s chest.  He trailed them up over Sherlock’s shirt and neck, cupping his jaw before leaning and kissing him.  It wasn’t deep, but it wasn’t exactly chaste, either; close-mouthed but hard and with a tiny flicker of tongue.  Sherlock had the feeling this was the sort of kiss John would deliver when the danger was over and he was feeling affectionate.

“We thought Mycroft could stop attacks like this,” Amarisa remarked.  “Or at least be warned about them?  Though come to think of it, Aeliana never said exactly how he’d prevent attacks-”

Sherlock interrupted.  “Moriarty has proven we’re dealing with someone Mycroft’s unprepared for.”

Usually he’d be feeling smug about that.  But Moriarty was different – he wasn’t another point scored in the endless duel with his brother, he was a genuine threat to John and Amarisa.  And other people as well, obviously, but Sherlock and Raniel found that less concerning.

Though this incident had showed them that Moriarty might also be a genuine threat to their parents, which wouldn’t be tolerated either.

“But why attack now?” John went on.  “Moriarty’s been working with them all along, and I thought he was having far too much fun to kill you.  And even if he wanted to get rid of us, the witches weren’t actually trying to kill us, were they, Risa?”

“Those arrows were never aimed above the knee,” the wolfdog confirmed.

She obviously hadn’t noticed the one lodged in the bookcase, well above knee-height – probably too preoccupied looking out for her temporarily-blind human.  So they’d shot to kill with Sherlock and Raniel, but not John and Amarisa?

“And this stick knocks people out but doesn’t actually hurt them,” John added.  “Well, besides the whole ‘hitting people with a stick’ bit.  I mean, Aeliana said death spells were pretty much once in a lifetime deals, but still-”

“Maybe they needed to take us alive?  Except that other witch was certainly trying to kill Aeliana, so maybe they don’t want other witches alive?”

“Probably too much trouble.”

Raniel leaned against Amarisa’s legs as she debated with her human, staring into Sherlock’s eyes.  They could only think of one explanation for why witches would try to take John alive, but no one else.

They’d always known it was only a matter of time…but somehow, they’d still expected it to be longer.  They’d thought they had more time to anticipate Moriarty’s move, more time to plan, to persuade John and Amarisa to put their safety above the cause for what must be the first time in their lives.

They’d probably never know exactly how Moriarty had found out, what questions he’d asked, how long until he’d believed the interpretation…but they knew what he’d discovered.

Moriarty knew John could read the alethiometer.

It was the only explanation.  Moriarty had been so dismissive of John at the pool; even though his clan knew about the prophecy, he’d been so utterly convinced John was nothing remarkable he wouldn’t mention him at all to a raiding party, let alone instruct them not to kill him.  And the witches had tried to kill him once before – they wouldn’t stay their hands for any reason of their own.

But at the same time, Sherlock knew that wasn’t all of it, not quite.  If Moriarty feared John’s ability to read the alethiometer, killing him was a guarantee that threat would be removed.  But instead, the witches had tried to subdue John – blinding him to make him easier to overcome, carrying a spelled object that would force him into unconsciousness, trying to put an arrow through his leg so he couldn’t run.

Moriarty had told them to bring John and Amarisa alive.  Which meant that he had a use for them.

Sherlock hadn’t been the type to develop fidgets or nervous affectations (no matter what John claimed) but now he could see the appeal of them, some mindless repetitive task to settle his nerves before he informed John and Amarisa that Moriarty knew what they could do and wanted it for his own use. 

But then Hasna entered, blinking a little at the sight of John in his boxers (Raniel bristled and wrapped himself possessively around Amarisa’s foreleg) and announced, “The house is clear, and there are no more sentries waiting outside.”

“Looks like you missed most of the excitement,” John grinned in Sherlock’s general direction.

He turned his head towards Hasna’s voice even though he didn’t quite manage to face her, as though he was trying to acknowledge her presence as best he could without his eyesight and without actually touching her.

Of course, Sherlock and Raniel knew ‘the excitement’, as John had put it, was only beginning.  This raid might have been unsuccessful but there would be others – if Moriarty wanted John and Amarisa, he wouldn’t rest until he had them.

It seemed Hasna had finally noticed there was a problem.  “John, you’re-”

“Yeah, one of the witches blinded me with some kind of spell.  I’ll probably need your help with that.”

“Of course.”  Hasna’s expression changed, suddenly turning serious.  “Do you have the alethiometer?”

There was an urgency in her voice that arrested Sherlock’s attention instantly.  John had clearly noticed as well, because he frowned and his hand tightened in Amarisa’s fur.

“No, Mycroft took it somewhere, why?”

But Hasna had gone pale, and Sherlock knew what she was about to say.

“It’s not where it should be – it’s gone missing.”

Amarisa made a strange sound, half-growl and half-sigh.  Raniel turned his head into her chest, rubbing the side of his face against her sternum, glancing at Sherlock from the corner of his eye.

Apparently the raid wasn’t as unsuccessful as they’d first assumed.

Hasna looked nervous – understandably so, if Moriarty’s clan could attempt a kidnapping in this house, could sneak in and snatch an alethiometer from under their noses – but John, accustomed to take every blow life could throw at him, only sighed and pinched his eyes shut.

“Well, we’ll have to deal with that, then,” he said.  “But first I need to get dressed – I’m freezing.”

--