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11/24/2021 02:56 PM 

An Ordeal of Patience

Summary:

Mycroft Holmes has found a home aboard the Lydia. He's happy sailing the Caribbean seas with his younger brother, Sherlock, and his spouse, the dashing pirate captain Gregory. But their happiness may be lost forever when some of the crew, including Gregory, are exposed to the plague. Sherlock wants to take action; Mycroft knows how that could cost them all. Knowing there is nothing he can do, can he sit and wait while his entire life may already be destroyed?

 

 

 

The afternoon sun is hot on Mycroft's back. The grey sea around them rolls in slow, gentle swells and the light breeze catches in the sails. They're close enough to shore to hear the squawks of seagulls.

Mycroft has his sketchbook open on his lap, but the page is empty. At the moment, he's quite content to watch over the deck and enjoy the lazy heat of the day.

Active as ever, Sherlock is up in the rigging, stepping lightly along the yardarms, ignoring the wind catching at his dark hair. John Watson's beside him, constant as a shadow.

Mycroft finds his attention wandering back to the stern railing, where Gregory has paused in his inspection to talk to the men. There's a handful of the crew gathered around, drawn to Gregory's easy manners. The wind brings a snatch of laughter, but Mycroft can't make out the conversation.

Mycroft is content to sit back and observe, unnoticed, but Gregory glances over at the quarterdeck and smiles when he catches Mycroft watching. Such a bright joyous smile, for something as small as Mycroft's attention.

Mycroft nods in return, pleased and bashful, before turning his attention back to the pastels in his fingers.

***

Shipboard life is a reassuring pattern of routines, large and small. They sail the shipping routes, stopping merchant vessels when the opportunity arises and seizing goods without injury if they can. They go ashore every month or so for provisions, visiting different island ports as they go. Twice a year they leave the ship in dry dock and clean her down, scraping her hull and fixing anything else that needs it.

Under the wide, blue skies of the Caribbean, there's no such thing as an icy winter. The year swings between endless summer days and the storm season, lashing rain and furious winds that they wait out in port. It's an interesting sight to come into those tiny island towns and find another five pirate ships in the harbour, everyone waiting out the bad weather and sharing tales.

Most of the year, there’s only the Lydia and the endless blue horizon surrounding them. It's slow, easy days of activity, men going about their jobs with friendly chatter and nights of sea shanties with the sound of Sherlock's violin dancing in the air.

Mycroft's own days have a comfortable pattern. He sleeps late, enjoys a solitary breakfast without the need for conversation, then goes above deck to check their speed and direction. And if Gregory leans in close, murmurs, “Good morning, Fancy,” with a warm hand on Mycroft's wrist or lower back, that's another part of the comforting routine.

After charting their location, Mycroft usually spends the rest of the morning in the navigation room. He'll work with ink and rulers, carefully copying maps until the day grows swelteringly warm. Then he'll collect his sketchbook and pastels, and spend afternoons on the quarterdeck.

He will draw if he fancies it, but just as often, he'll sit and observe. Use it as an excuse to watch Gregory perform his duties. The natural way he accepts command, the canny way he takes care of his ship and crew, the satisfied glint in his eyes as he looks out at the clear skies. Mycroft has an embarrassing number of sketches of Gregory standing on deck, collar loose and hat tilted against the sun, looking every inch the dashing pirate captain.

He has other sketches as well. Quick drawings of Gregory's strong hands, the calluses along his fingers and the fine white scar across the back of his right hand. Hands that Mycroft knows intimately, hands that have held him safe, that have petted his hair as he fell asleep, that have skimmed over his hips or gripped tightly as Gregory guided them into the same rhythm.

He has sketches of Gregory sleeping, drawn from memory, and one detailed drawing of Gregory spread across their bed, modesty barely maintained by a sheet. It had been something of a joke, that if Mycroft was going to stare he might as well draw it, but it had ended with Gregory lying there by candlelight, letting Mycroft memorize every detail, every stretch of muscle and bone. The expression on Gregory's face had been so fond and indulgent, worth memorising and immortalising; Mycroft had done his best to capture it.

***

It is a life of comfortable routines, so Mycroft thinks nothing of the ship stopping for provisions. It's a small town on a small island, and the harbour contains nothing but fishing boats. They're stopping for fresh water and flour, but if there are other fresh provisions available, Gregory may negotiate a price and come back for extra gold. Those kind of negotiations can take hours.

Mycroft spends the morning inside the cabin, reading a French book on geometry, a rare find in the last town they visited. He's been aboard the Lydia for close to two years now, but the only obvious change is inside this cabin.

Where Gregory's quarters used to contain simple necessities, there are now muslin tablecloths and narrow shelves of books. Fine cotton sheets on the bed and embroidered cushions to sit comfortably when reading. Velvet curtains over the window to soften the early morning light and a delicately carved box holding the few heirlooms Mycroft owns.

It makes for a strange mix of practicality and indulgence, but Gregory has never objected when Mycroft returns from selling one his copied maps with a new purchase bundled under his arm. He doesn't spend all of his profits -- two-thirds of them are set aside for the day Sherlock chooses to leave -- but he has always enjoyed his comforts.

It's early afternoon before Mycroft rouses himself from his book and heads above deck. There are a few men working the sails and a small circle at the far end of the deck, checking over ropes and cackling over ribald tales. Williams is standing on the quarterdeck, squinting in the sunshine. There's a tension across his shoulders that catches Mycroft's attention.

“Good afternoon, Mr Williams,” Mycroft says, nodding as he climbs the steps.

Williams gives a tight nod in reply. “Mr Holmes.”

“Is all well?”

“Captain should have been back by now,” he says, voice low enough that it won't carry to the crew.

Williams isn't one to worry without reason, and a small delay is hardly a concern. Mycroft doesn't let himself frown where the men could see. “There's something more. What else?”

“The fishing boats haven't moved. Not since this morning,” Williams says, carefully looking over at the town roofs hiding amongst the trees, “and I doubt they all fish at night.”

Mycroft takes a deep breath. His eyesight might not be as sharp as Watson's but he can't see any proof of the boats being moved in the last few days. There could be a celebration, there could be a perfectly benign explanation but his first thought is most likely.

He's heard the rumours of entire towns lost to the plague, but nothing this far east. Nothing on this island. Very, very quietly he asks, “Quarantine?”

Williams keeps his gaze on the shoreline. His face doesn't give anything away. “Could be.”

If it is, if their landing party stumbled into the midst of illness, anyone they send to investigate will be infected too. All they can do is wait.

***

Mycroft may have to wait, but he doesn't have to be idle. After scanning the rigging and realising Watson and Sherlock aren't up there, he heads to the infirmary. Plague and influenza have similar symptoms; what eases one may assist with the other.

He knocks at the door, but there's no answer. Pushing the door open quietly, he finds Sherlock bent over a magnifying glass, using tweezers to separate fibres.

“I'm busy,” Sherlock says, not even looking up.

“So I see,” Mycroft replies, rolling his eyes at Sherlock's typical lack of manners. “I'm here to enlist Mr Watson's help.”

“Then you'll have to wait.”

“Unacceptable.”

Now, Sherlock turns away from his distraction. There's sunkissed colour to his cheeks and a bright gleam to his grey eyes: a life of piracy doesn't just agree with him, it positively favours him. Sherlock's dark hair is pulled back with a slender ribbon at the nape of his neck, a dark blue ribbon adorned with Watson's precise needlework, Mycroft notices. The silver scrolls and red blossoms match the work on Sherlock's coat.

“Whether or not it suits you, Mycroft, you'll have to wait. John's gone ashore to purchase fresh bandages.”

“He accompanied the captain?” Mycroft asks voice cool and even despite the sudden turmoil of his thoughts. Now that Doctor White has left them, Watson is their only physician. If he's taken ill, it reduces everyone else's chance at survival.

Mycroft should ask Sherlock to help, to prepare something to assist with the symptoms, but he's loathe to tell Sherlock bad news before it's certain. If it's untrue, he'll upset Sherlock for no reason; if it's true, knowing now won't make it any easier to bear.

***

Now that he's looking for it, Mycroft can't help but notice the lack of activity on the dock. The boats are all trapped in their moorings and the only noise comes from the waves around them and the gulls overhead.

He wants to believe that something unfortunate but manageable happened -- perhaps a member of the crew broke his leg and they're having trouble carrying him back to the rowboat -- but that hope dwindles with every minute that passes by. The dock remains empty, and it seems inevitable that the worst has happened.

Mycroft can't help wondering if he could have avoided this situation. Would he have noticed the pattern sooner if he'd woken earlier? If he'd made the effort to see Gregory off this morning, would he have spotted the suspicious lack of activity and stopped Gregory leaving the ship?

He'll never know.

The next hour passes slowly. Watching the still and silent dock achieves nothing, so Mycroft goes to the navigation room, evaluating the courses open to them and charting the one that will make it easiest to return to this island. They need fresh water, irrespective of when the captain returns.

He busies himself in the storeroom, checking over Williams’ hastily scrawled figures and confirming their remaining provisions. They have enough fresh water to sail to the next island, enough to even allow them to stay here for a few extra days.

There's a rap on the door. Mycroft opens it to find Sampson, an older sailor with a strong grip, a weakness for playing cards and blond hair so sun-bleached it might as well be white.

“Yes?” Mycroft asks and Sampson shifts his weight awkwardly.

“Mr Williams asked that you come on deck, sir.” He doesn't meet Mycroft's eyes as he says it, keeps his gaze averted as he tries not to share the bad news.

One of the landing party has returned. It must be as they feared. If it had been any other delay, Williams would have got the men on board the Lydia and sent for Mycroft later. “Thank you,” Mycroft says and follows the man above decks.

He steps out into the sunshine and takes a deep breath of fresh air, and then makes himself look towards the stern railing. There are men gathered there, including Williams and Sherlock, but Mycroft's height allows him to see over most of their heads, to see the small fishing boat floating midway between the Lydia and the dock.

Mycroft wishes they were closer, but he accepts the logic: too close might be too tempting. One of the men might panic and try to swim to the ship.

He can make out Gregory's hat and coat, but his face is in shadow. Beside him, Watson squints up at the sun, making him look angry.

Above them, on the single mast of the boat, there are naval flags flying. The message is simple. Plague ship. Quarantine.

Mycroft presses his fingers to his lips before he can free the shocked gasp that wants to escape. It wouldn't do any good. He could yell, but it's unlikely they'd hear him.

He can't say what makes him reach out, but he grabs the back of Sherlock's coat just as Sherlock lurches forward, gripping at the railing as if he'd dive overboard. It unbalances them both, making Sherlock stumble while Mycroft topples backwards, landing heavily on the wooden deck. Mycroft sits there in shock for a moment, his mortification outweighing the dull ache of his backside.

For once, Sherlock looks equally stunned. He stares at Mycroft, and then slowly offers Mycroft a helping hand to get back on his feet. The momentary madness seems to have passed.

Gregory will find this hilarious when Mycroft tells him; he can almost hear Gregory laughing at the tale. The thought flits across Mycroft's mind, quickly followed by the realisation that it's optimistic to believe he'll ever talk to Gregory again. Not every exposure leads to death, but the balance of probability is not in Gregory's favour.

“The flags,” Sherlock says. “We can use the flags to communicate. Must be why they took that boat.”

It makes sense. The rowboats they use don't have masts. They certainly don't have the collection of naval flags required for basic communication. Gregory has probably spent the last few hours searching for a way to tell them without risking the rest of the crew being infected.

For a moment, Mycroft wishes he had married a cowardly man rather than such a clever one. Right now, he'd prefer a spouse who sent his men into danger and stayed safely behind.

Sherlock's already halfway up the rigging, climbing to the first yardarm to make changing flags faster. He flies the quarantine flag in return and then time and days.

The answer is two followed by one, but Mycroft could have told him that. Standard naval procedure is three weeks since the last sign of infection. There were nine men in the landing party; they could be gone for months.

Gregory yells at his men, and the flags are brought down. The next ones raised are provisions fully stocked so they must have found food and lodgings ashore.

Medicine, Sherlock messages, and the reply is low. Not that they have any safe way to transport anything. Sherlock's next question -- number of men sick -- has a reassuring reply of none.

Mycroft knows the coded meaning of every naval flag, but they are unfortunately practical. There is no combination that can beg Gregory to be careful, to return safely to him. There is no combination to tell Gregory that he is Mycroft's true north, that if he falls Mycroft will be left directionless and lost.

None of that can be said in Sherlock's final combination: message understood. Mycroft doubts there's any value to saying it anyway. Gregory will do his best and Mycroft's feelings on the matter won't have any impact on the outcome.

***

There's a worried hush as they watch the small boat sail back to the dock. It's safely moored and then there's one last change made to the flags.

Quarantine. Two. One.

A visual countdown. A sign that the men can all see. They stand around the Lydia staring at it, no one quite daring to hope. No one willing to give voice to doubts. They stand watching those nine men walk along the docks’ wooden boards and then out of sight towards the town.

“Mr Holmes, Sherlock, Travers, Dougherty, Spate,” Williams says, loud enough to carry. “In the navigation room, if you please.”

Sherlock shoots Mycroft a questioning glance, but Mycroft shakes his head. He doesn't know what this discussion will entail.

The first thing Williams says once the door is closed behind them is: “We'll need to have the men vote for a new captain.”

“I beg your pardon,” Mycroft says, sharp enough that even Sherlock gives him a disapproving glance.

“The ship needs a captain.”

“The ship has a captain,” Mycroft says coldly.

“Not on board,” Williams replies. “We don't sail without a captain.”

“A temporary measure.” Travers rubs a hand over his short-cropped black curls. “Until the Captain's back.”

Mycroft looks from one man to another, realising he is being told this information. They are not asking his opinion or his permission; they are informing him of what will happen. “If you have already settled on the action, why am I here?”

“Because a new captain deserves all the rights and responsibilities of the role,” Williams says.

For a terribly long moment, Mycroft doesn't understand. And then he sees it too clearly. “Including the captain's cabin,” he says slowly, stomach roiling at the idea that anyone could replace Gregory, could stand in his place on the quarterdeck and sleep in his bed, that the Lydia would go on sailing without even missing him. The possibility that it could be true is horrifying.

“As sailing master, you'll have your own cabin,” Williams assures him quickly, misreading Mycroft's discomfort entirely. “But that's the captain's quarters.”

He may hate the idea of moving from that comfortable cabin, but this is the way it's done. Privileges such as private rooms are allocated by responsibility. As much as Mycroft would prefer to stay, he knows Gregory would follow the spirit of the charter.

He remembers Gregory saying, “You can't apply rules to everyone if you pick and choose when they apply.” Gregory believes in equality for all.

So Mycroft agrees and allows himself to be shown to his new quarters.

***

Mycroft understands the logic of the situation. A ship is as much her crew as her sails. Her sails need every mast, rope and pulley to work as they should. In the same way, individual men may be replaceable but a crew needs specific roles filled. The men need to know what their jobs are and who has the right to give them orders.

Mycroft understands it. He doesn't like the necessity of gathering his things and moving to one of the smaller berths, but he understands it. The room, such as it is, is barely two steps wide and three long. There is no window in the wooden wall and even worse, there is no bed, just a hammock hanging to one side and a set of drawers on the other. It smells musty from disuse.

The Lydia is not a large ship. There are private quarters for the captain, the quartermaster, the doctor and the carpenter. The rest of the men sleep in the shared space below deck. Mycroft had wondered where an extra room would be found.

“Ah,” Sherlock says, over Mycroft's shoulder. “They used to store the ropes and canvas in here.”

Mycroft glances over at Sherlock. He's a month shy of eighteen now, only an inch or so from Mycroft's height with a slender strength from spending equal hours hauling ropes and standing over journals, noting the results of his experiments. He knows his way around the ship and is welcome among the crew, and even Mycroft can't pretend he is still a child. Still immature in some ways, still prone to wild flights of heedless enthusiasm, but Sherlock is a young man.

If the worst should happen, if the Lydia sails under a new captain, Mycroft will not have to sleep in a hammock forever. A few months to be sure Sherlock is settled, and then Mycroft could find somewhere else.

Somewhere more comfortable and civilized. Somewhere steady and uneventful. Somewhere he will not be reminded of Gregory at every turn.

But that is only a possibility. For now, he will deal with the immediate problem: the manic gleam in Sherlock's eyes, the twitchiness he's let show since Watson rowed back to dock with the rest of the quarantined men. He's kept Sherlock by his side since the meeting, unsure of what Sherlock will do if left alone. Luckily, moving Mycroft's books and belongings -- and Gregory's -- has been a good way to keep them occupied and together.

Mycroft could be wrong. He can't always gauge his brother's reactions, and part of him wonders if worrying about Sherlock is simply a way to manage his own fears. It is strangely familiar to keep a weather eye over Sherlock and arrange the practicalities, ignoring his own future as much as possible.

He feels as if he's sixteen again, his parents not yet buried. It's that same numb hollow weight, that suspicion that everything will change, that life will never be as joyful as it once was. That the only useful thing he can do is be practical, so he shall be. He shall move his belongings, and watch over Sherlock, and do whatever he must. He will go up on deck to vote for a new captain and he will try not to dwell on things he has no power to change.

***

Mycroft doesn't care who gets elected captain. His feelings on the matter are simple: not one of them is Gregory, therefore none of them should be captain. The next morning, he votes for Spate because it's easy to see how the men look to him for a guiding word, and Mycroft would rather be seen as one of the majority in this instance.

Sherlock raises his hand for Travers but mutters under his breath that not one of them could read a map. “I'd be a better captain,” he mutters, low enough for only Mycroft to hear.

“Do you want to be?”

Sherlock's face brightens in interest and then his expression falls as he glances towards shore. That yes, being a pirate captain appeals to him but no, not without his closest friend at his side. Mycroft understands the sentiment all too well.

Over at the dock, the flags on the fishing boat have been changed to quarantine and two nil. They're counting down the quarantine for all to see: twenty days remaining.

Sherlock notices the direction of his gaze and repeats the same words he's been telling both of them since last night. “John would have noticed the illness. He wouldn't let them touch anything. This quarantine is a preventative measure, nothing more.”

Mycroft finds it less reassuring every time Sherlock says it.

***

Mycroft attempts to climb into the hammock that night but it's an awkward affair. Every rise and fall of the ship makes the hammock swing, makes Mycroft's fingers claw tightly into the material's edge to make sure he doesn't fall out.

It doesn't encourage a good night's rest. After the first bell, Mycroft climbs out and lights his lantern. He studies the hammock for a few long minutes, tracing the knots and ropes that keep it steady.

His knots may not be up to Sherlock's standards, but he understands the theory well enough. He unties the hammock and then ties each corner to the railing, pulling it into a firm rectangle of canvas a foot above the floor.

When he lies on it, there's far less give to the fabric. It's firm beneath him and low enough that he doesn't fear falling. As long as he lies carefully, it doesn't dip enough for him to feel the unforgiving floorboards beneath him.

His sleep is restless.

He's used to Gregory's bed. He's used to Gregory's warm arms around him and the low, rumbling breaths as he sleeps. He's used to the smell of Gregory on his sheets and the warmth of him. When Mycroft has restless nights, Gregory will pull him close and press a kiss to his shoulder or his forehead, wherever he can reach. There will be a quiet whisper, “Hush, Fancy, back to sleep,” and arms holding him tight and safe.

Mycroft feels his throat close up at the memory. At the thought...

There is a chance it might never happen again. And there is nothing he can do to change it.

To stop himself stewing in that miserable thought, he gets dressed and goes above deck. The crew is quiet at night, only a few men keeping watch while she's anchored outside port. It's still dark, dawn a few hours off, and Mycroft carefully picks his way to the starboard railing.

There's a light on the dock. A lantern and the dark silhouette of a man sitting beside it. Mycroft pulls out a spyglass -- tries not to think of Gregory giving it to him on his last birthday, laughing at the strangeness of a sailing master without his own spyglass -- and focuses it on the dock.

He wants the figure to be Gregory. He wants to know Gregory is restless and missing him in equal measure. But it's Smythe sitting there, staring at the hands crossed in his lap.

Mycroft slides the spyglass closed and puts it away. He allows three deep breaths and then returns to his cabin, determined to take what sleep he can manage.

***

A sharp rap on the door drags him out of vague, anxious dreams. It comes again, this time with a voice calling, “Mr Holmes?”

“Yes?” Mycroft calls back, rubbing at gritty eyes.

“Captain said to tell you breakfast is being served in the captain's cabin.”

Mycroft remembers his manners enough to thank the messenger. He dresses calmly and reminds himself that Spate was elected captain. The cabin is his to with as he wishes. Mycroft has no right to be annoyed if it becomes a thoroughfare for the entire crew.

Mycroft is the last to breakfast. Williams and Spate are sitting down, plates half empty. The carpenter is picking at his ship's biscuit, crumbling it between his fingers. Sherlock's plate is untouched.

Mycroft raises an eyebrow at his younger brother, and Sherlock frowns. “I'm here in John's stead,” Sherlock says, clearly not pleased about it. “Closest we have to a doctor right now.”

It's an officer's mess, Mycroft realises. A place for the men with private rooms to eat and share company. Williams is relaxed, at ease as he reaches across the table to pour more tea into his cup. The kind of heedless familiarity that says he's eaten breakfast here before. He used to eat here frequently.

Not while Mycroft's been on board. For as long as Mycroft's slept in this cabin, it's been a quiet oasis from the ever-present company on the ship. When they meet other pirates at sea, Gregory may have their captains and quartermasters here for dinner, but otherwise, it's a sanctum. A quiet shared space, where only he and Gregory were allowed.

Mycroft's taken it for granted. He never realised that Gregory had changed customs on the Lydia to give him that privacy. Gregory could have ordered that he rise early, that he dress every morning for breakfast with select members of his crew, and Mycroft would have had no choice but to agree.

Instead, Gregory forced the compromises upon his crew. For a moment, Mycroft misses Gregory with a sharp ache.

Mycroft cuts his breakfast into small, manageable bites and then chews thoroughly. He's barely hungry but it gives him something solid to focus on. Until Williams breaks the silence.

“We've got a week's worth of fresh water on board.”

It's not a surprise. It's the reason they stopped at this island.

Neither is it a surprise when Spate adds, “Mr Holmes, we'll need a chart plotted to the next island.”

Before Mycroft can reply, Sherlock says, “We can't leave them.”

“We need fresh water,” Williams says.

“I won't leave them,” Sherlock insists and Mycroft can see it too easily: Sherlock staying behind, refusing to go. How long would it be before Sherlock rowed over to Watson and Gregory? It's unacceptable.

“They have provisions,” Mycroft says, “including fresh water. We will perish before they return if we do not restock our water supplies.”

***

Sherlock's far from happy with the decision but he doesn't argue it further. Not in front of the others, at least. “You can't honestly believe that--”

“Close the door,” Mycroft says as Sherlock follows him into the navigation room. “Have some discretion.”

Sherlock glares at him, and then stalks over to the door and shuts it firmly. “We can't leave them. You can't think that's the right thing to do.”

When Mycroft finishes unrolling the map and weighing it down to the table, he looks up. His brother is the very image of an impassioned lover: hair unkempt, colour high on his cheeks, eyes bright and determined. Sherlock has always had a passionate nature and thought nothing of showing every extreme of feeling.

Mycroft is too tired to deal with Sherlock's extremes. “We'll return before their quarantine is over.”

“And if something should happen while we're gone?”

“What difference will it make?” Mycroft asks wearily. “If we're three days away or floating out of port, either way, there is nothing we can do but wait for news.”

“What will your dear captain think when he sees the Lydia leave port?” Sherlock's tone is snide and it's meant to cut, but it's a badly aimed attack. Gregory is an essentially practical man: he wouldn’t expect the ship to stay and run out of provisions.

“He'll think we're getting water. He won't thank us if his crew die of thirst waiting for him. Watson won't thank you for that, either.”

Sherlock flinches. Mycroft hadn't intended the words to hurt. He'd only wanted to remind Sherlock that there are responsibilities to the ship's crew, things that need to be done and will make more of a difference than standing around worrying. “You signed the charter, brother mine. You can't abandon the ship when it suits you.”

Sherlock trails a finger along the map, his nail scraping along the coastline of this island. He doesn't look up. “How can you be so cold? You married him. How can you talk as if this is a simple inconvenience?”

There are too many answers to that question. Because it has always been Mycroft's nature to hold his emotions tightly guarded. Because high strung feelings and melodrama have never actually solved a problem. Because if he allows himself to discuss how this feels, there is a mortifying possibility that he will cry in front of his younger brother.

But none of those would help in any way, so he forces his own annoyance down and says, “I would prefer there was water waiting for Gregory when he returns.”

***

Mycroft finds himself remembering last May when Gregory caught ship's fever. He'd been restricted to bed rest for days and spent most of it sleeping, so Mycroft charted courses for Williams and sat on deck sketching, constantly aware of Gregory's absence.

This journey feels the same, but Mycroft can't excuse himself to go knock on the cabin door, to ensure Gregory drinks enough tea and doesn't kick the blankets off. To run his fingers through the silver strands at Gregory’s temples, to open the window and tidy the room until Gregory rolls his eyes, begging him to get some fresh air and stop fussing.

They take the most direct route possible, with Mycroft meticulously checking their headings every half hour, insisting they correct every time they start to veer off course. It still takes days to arrive at their destination: an unpopulated island with a river close to shore. Easy access to water and no chance of further infection.

The next day is swallowed by simple logistics. Taking smaller barrels to the river, filling them, rowing them back to the ship to fill the large casks of water, returning and repeating until the casks are full. Sherlock is on every team of men sent out, hurrying everyone and keeping their pace swift. Mycroft stays on the Lydia, ensuring the storeroom remains organised.

As soon as that last full cask is hoisted in the storeroom, Mycroft would raise anchor and return, but the new captain orders them to stay and wait out the coming storm.

There's a miserable day of rain thundering against the deck, every man lurking below decks to avoid the downpour. Mycroft stays in his cabin, back to the wall and knees drawn up, reading books by a flickering candle. The unsteady light gives him a headache halfway through the day, so Mycroft blows out the candle and closes his eyes, lets his mind drift with the steady noise of pouring rain.

The last time it rained like this… The last time they were in harbour, anchored for the storm season. Most of the men were on shore, the majority in the inns and brothels near the docks, and Gregory had made sure everything was lashed down before retiring for the night.

He'd stepped into their cabin dripping wet, and it had been a combined effort to peel the sodden clothes from his skin, to hang the heavy coat and breeches around the cabin to dry.

Admittedly, by the time they got to Gregory's cotton shirt, he probably could have done it without help. But Gregory stood there -- the white fabric translucent and clinging to the firm lines of his chest, showing the dark shadow of chest hair beneath -- Gregory stood there and grinned at him, holding out his wrists for Mycroft to free.

Mycroft can remember pulling apart the laces at the cuffs and then sliding his hands down Gregory's hips and the outside of his thighs, the cold, wet cotton and the chill of the skin underneath. He'd taken his time catching the end of the shirt and dragging it up, past Gregory's chest and shoulders, over his head.

“I should fetch a towel,” Mycroft said as Gregory stepped closer, as Gregory's cold hand wrapped around the back of his neck.

“You should warm me up.” Words whispered right against his lips, their meaning obvious.

“I should do both,” Mycroft replied, taking a few quick steps away and returning with a towel as quickly as he was able. He wrapped it around Gregory, rubbing his hands along the plane of Gregory's back, quick firm movements to warm the skin.

Shaking his head, Gregory wrapped his arms around Mycroft's shoulders, dragging him in for a kiss. “Not what I meant, Fancy,” he murmured gently. Another kiss, and then he said, “Take me to bed, dear husband,” exploiting the warmth that bloomed in Mycroft's chest every time he used that phrase.

Really, Mycroft had no choice but to climb beneath the covers and warm every inch of skin he could reach.

***

Mycroft is not a religious man. He's never seen any proof of a great creator and he's never seen the sense in believing something unsupported by logic and fact. Yet when he wakes in the middle of the night with the ship creaking as she sails, as he lies in that uncomfortable hammock and misses Gregory -- the heat of his body, the scent of his skin, the weight of an arm across Mycroft's chest -- he finds himself reciting the prayers of his childhood. The words echo with an instinctive pattern, familiar and known, even if he doesn't believe.

It distracts him from his fears. The constant worry that when they return to the island, that the flags will still show twenty-one days. The naval rule is three weeks after the last infection. Gregory was a midshipman; he knows those rules are too important to risk breaking. If a man falls sick, he will restart the count and wait out the days.

Mycroft doubts Sherlock will bear it. He's seen the supply of herbs Sherlock gathered at their last stop. He's seen the deepening shadows beneath Sherlock's eyes as he spends days working on decks and nights extracting oils and powders to fill Watson's infirmary stocks.

Since Watson became the ship's doctor and gained his own room with its own small bed, Sherlock's hammock moved there as well. As far as Mycroft can see, there's no sign that Sherlock has gone back to that shared room for any longer than it takes to change clothes.

He worries that Sherlock's tiredness will make him misstep in the rigging, that he'll fall, that it will be a disaster without a doctor on board. He worries that they'll return to the port to find the flags have changed, to find they must wait another three weeks. He worries the flags could say something worse, could say that Watson is infected. He knows that all the logic in the world would not sway Sherlock. If there is any immunity from exposure, from years spent in these environs, he and Sherlock would be the least protected, but Sherlock won't care. If Watson is ill, nothing short of incarceration will stop Sherlock from going to his friend.

If Watson is dead, Mycroft has no idea how Sherlock will respond. The idea fills him with dread. A shapeless fog of worry that he will be incapable of comforting Sherlock, that he will be useless in the face of such deeply felt grief.

It is his greatest fear. It feels disloyal. His greatest fear should be Gregory's death, but the consequences of that are easier to foresee. The crew would mourn him but elect a new captain; Sherlock would miss him as a captain and shipmate, but the men around him would share that grief and let it show. Mycroft knows himself well enough to know that he would be practical. That he would be hollow and sad, lesser without Gregory's warmth and bright smiles, but he could continue as necessary. He could teach another man to read the charts. Could ask Sherlock to review the work and check for errors. Could find somewhere small and quiet, a cottage on the edge of some island town, and live a small, quiet life. Given enough time and solitude, even a shattered heart must eventually mend.

It's far from ideal, but it's a workable plan, a ready contingency. He could bear it and might be able to keep his composure. But to see Sherlock distraught and be unable to help? Or even worse, to stay on the ship and wait as Sherlock succumbed to illness, to wait for news that Sherlock, Gregory and Watson had all been buried? He doesn't know where he'd start if something so terrible were to happen.

So he recites prayers. He lies awake at night and translates them into Greek, French and Latin. He makes himself focus on each and every word until the swaying of the ship rocks him back to sleep.

***

There's a worried silence on deck as they come around the coast. The Lydia is usually alive with the sound of chatter and laughter, men yelling to each other across the rigging or talking as they haul ropes or scrub the decks. This quiet is uneasy as if the entire crew are tiptoeing about their duties, waiting for the spotter's call from the mast. Of course, Sherlock is clinging to highest point on the main mast, leaning forward as if an extra inch will let him make out the flags flying in port.

If everything has gone miraculously well, the flags will signal twelve days remaining. If the number is higher than that, someone has fallen sick.

Mycroft can't bring himself to look so he sits on the quarterdeck, back to the growing green shape of the island. His sketchbook is open but he hasn't made a mark. His fingers are clenched too tightly to draw anything but scribbles. He glances over at the wooden stairs leading down to the navigation room below them. He could go down there, could unroll a map and pretend to mark their progress. He could hide from the terribly unsubtle glances directed at him by the men as if he somehow knows more than they do.

He's as uninformed as the rest of the crew and like them, unable to do anything about it. They have no choice but to wait.

At that last curve of land, where lush green slopes meet a steep rocky drop to the sea, Mycroft stands up. He means to go below. He wants to avoid whatever news is waiting. If Gregory's already succumbed to illness, he wants as much time as he can have before he has to acknowledge the fact. But his legs won't move. He's locked into place as the Lydia sails closer, as the sheltered bay resolves into a usable dock and the blurs on the water become small fishing vessels.

He can't bring himself to look at the flags, but the call is echoed down from the mast. “Two flags!” yells someone. “Twelve days of quarantine!”

There's a rousing cheer all around Mycroft but he barely hears it. He's too busy pulling out his spyglass to see for himself. To check the flags: Quarantine. One. Two.

Mycroft falls clumsily back onto his seat. His hands tremble from the sudden release of tension. He can almost taste the relief on the back of his tongue: thick and sour as bad milk.

He forces a few slow, deep breaths to regain his equilibrium before anyone else sees.

***

Twelve days is a long time for a ship as large as the Lydia to stay in such an exposed port, but neither Williams nor Spate suggest leaving. “If we see other sails, we might have no choice,” Spate says, “but we'll stay here as long as we can.”

After a few days of idleness, Williams sets the men to repairing rope and replacing worn blocks. The carpenter is kept constantly busy. Mycroft keeps himself busy in the navigation room, copying maps. There are times when he sits in a chair and closes his eyes for a moment, only to wake a few hours later, stiff and sore.

Those are the nights he'll wander on deck, spyglass in hand, and search for the flags flying above that fishing boat. Usually, it's too dark to make out their meaning but the crew watches them all day. He would have heard their reactions if it had changed for the worse.

He only checks for the faint security of knowing those flags still fly. To remind himself that Gregory is still there, that all is well, that this long stretch of endless waiting is the best possible scenario.

Tonight, there's a lantern burning on the dock and a dark figure sitting beside it. No hat on his head and shoulders slumped as if he's contemplating the dark water below his feet.

Even with his spyglass, Mycroft can't recognise the man. His head is tilted into shadow and the yellow lantern light catches brightly at his temples. Mycroft could tell himself that it's Gregory, that this is a sign of devotion, but he knows that Gregory wouldn't abandon his men to their thoughts at a time like this. He would sit vigil with them, would talk to them and keep morale high. He would not sneak off in the middle of the night.

The figure raises his head and the light reveals Watson's boyish face. He's unfolding something from his hands, a white cotton handkerchief. He holds it up to the light and it shows two dark lines running along and across, separating the white fabric into nine squares.

He pins a smaller, darker piece of fabric behind the middle square, shading it black-blue. Mycroft watches his face, watches him grin and nod, and then pull another bit of cloth, a lighter linen. He pins that to another square, then holds the fabric up. Nine squares: one dark and one showing as a beige shadow. Watson lowers the fabric, adds another dark square and holds it up for someone to see.

Mycroft looks along the deck and finds Sherlock on the quarterdeck, lantern beside him and his own collection of fabrics. He has a duplicate of Watson's squares. It's clear from Sherlock's grin that it's a game, not a form of communication.

Mycroft watches them for a moment. Observes their open smiles and Sherlock's pleased bow of defeat when he allows Watson to win the first game.

He retires to bed before Sherlock sees him.

***

The days pass slowly but Mycroft does what he can to fill them. The longer he keeps himself occupied, the less time he has to notice how much he misses Gregory. It's an acute and sharp feeling, an ache below and beneath his ribs. It's a cold draft along his back when Gregory's not there to hold him; the growing tension in his shoulders as the flags count the remaining days: nine, then seven, then four. It's the quality of silence at night when there should be the slow, regular breaths of another.

Those are the nights he can't sleep, the nights he creeps up on deck and stands in the shadows, watching Sherlock by his lantern. There is a bitter twist of something Mycroft fears is jealousy for his younger brother. Jealousy is an ugly, petty emotion that does no good. He doesn't want to indulge it, but he hasn't seen Gregory's handsome face in over two weeks and there's Sherlock, playing games with Watson every night.

It doesn't help that Sherlock is becoming increasingly belligerent during daylight hours. He has the reassurance of seeing Watson every night, yet increasingly spends his time in the infirmary, muttering over various glass vials and snapping at anyone who distracts him.

Mycroft tries to be patient. Tries to remember that Sherlock has always had a passionate nature, changeable as the ocean and impossible to tame. He can be navigated with care, so Mycroft does his best to stay calm while Sherlock's mood grows darker.

But when he finds Sherlock stacking a rowboat with bags and crates, his own spare clothes peeking from a sack, Mycroft has no temperance left.

“What sort of fool are you?” Mycroft demands, words hissed in anger. “Return those items at once.”

It's two bells into middle watch, and the deck is dark and almost empty. There are sailors on watch up in the rigging, and a few men playing cards in the navigation room, but the rest of the crew are asleep while they're anchored.

On any other ship, Sherlock leaving in the middle of the night would be an act of desertion. Here, it's merely an act of extreme stupidity. It's obvious that Sherlock will head straight for the deck, straight to John Watson.

“I haven't stolen anything,” Sherlock replies sharply. “I gathered the ingredients for the medicines and I've paid for the food.”

He has the nerve to turn his back to Mycroft, bending over bags to lower something else into the small boat. Mycroft reaches out and yanks at Sherlock's elbow. It's only Sherlock's surprise that allows him to be turned.

“You will not leave, Sherlock. You will not break quarantine.”

“You can't stop me,” Sherlock says, using both hands to shove Mycroft backwards, to leave him stumbling for a few clumsy steps. “If you want to stay onboard, timid and cowering,” Sherlock says, eyes narrowed and pulling himself up to his full height, “go ahead.”

“There are four more days of quarantine.”

“And no one has fallen ill. The risk is negligible.”

“It is still a risk,” Mycroft replies, stunned by Sherlock's willing shortsightedness. By the reckless selfishness of his impulsive plan. “If you break quarantine, we'll have to wait another three weeks. All of us.”

“I’ll be there and back before dawn,” Sherlock replies smugly. “No one needs to know.”

Sometimes Mycroft knows his brothers too well. He knows that Sherrinford's sweetest smiles heralded something unpleasant; he knows that Sherlock only sounds smug when he's already proved a theory. “How many times have you been over there?” Mycroft asks carefully, waiting for the answer before he considers the danger brought onboard.

He's read reports from plague ships, entire naval crews defeated by miserable, suffering deaths. He's heard admirals bicker over the economies of war: if the risk of losing a new crew to contagion was worse than the cost of burning an entire ship.

Sherlock knows him too. He hears Mycroft's tone and leans back, ducking his head. He suddenly looks every inch his eighteen years, an overgrown boy playing at adulthood. “Only once. I left provisions on the dock. I didn't talk to anyone. I didn't risk infection.”

Mycroft glances at the boat. The moonlight catches on the white cuffs of Sherlock's spare shirts. Spare clothes would not be necessary if he planned to return before he was missed. “Unload the boat.”

Sherlock looks around the dark and empty deck, calculating his options. As much as he wants to row towards Watson, Mycroft would only have to raise his voice to have men come running. Men have been known to panic and take crazy chances under the spectre of the plague; Sherlock would end up in the brig until Gregory returns.

Mycroft allows Sherlock a few moments to think his actions through to their most likely end, and then says, “I'll help you carry it back to Watson's room.”

***

In all likelihood, Sherlock won't attempt anything so reckless again but Mycroft dislikes taking unnecessary chances. When they get to the doctor's room, Mycroft closes the door behind them. He looks around the room, from the narrow bed against one wall, the drawers and desk against the opposite wall, and the hammock hanging between them. The bed hasn't been touched in weeks.

Sherlock frowns as Mycroft sits on the bed. “What are you doing?”

“Ensuring you don't suffer from another lapse of judgment.”

“You can't stay here.” Sherlock sounds offended by the very idea. Mycroft doesn't care in the least.

“Until Watson returns, I will.”

Sherlock shakes his head, dark curls a disagreeable riot. “No.”

“Sherlock, this is not a negotiation,” Mycroft says plainly. “This is a parole. Either I stay with you and ensure you don't do anything egregiously idiotic, or I tell Williams and you spend the next three days in the brig.”

“You wouldn't,” Sherlock says and he almost sounds certain. During their childhood, Mycroft was the one who protected Sherlock from consequences, who made sure things were fixed before anyone else knew about them. He's never betrayed Sherlock's confidences and he's never threatened to tell any source of authority.

“To keep you safe,” Mycroft says, uncomfortable with the sentiment but forcing himself to meet Sherlock's eyes, “I will.”

Sherlock stares at him as if he simply doesn't believe Mycroft. It takes a few minutes of silence before he recognises that Mycroft is serious.

“No one's fallen ill yet,” Sherlock mutters sullenly.

“Then waiting a few more days is a sensible precaution.”

“Sensible,” Sherlock scoffs, pulling off his coat with sharp, irritated movements. “How lucky the captain is to marry such a sensible man.”

Mycroft ignores the jibe and removes his shoes. He sits up on the bed, back to the wall, and draws his knees to his chest. He watches Sherlock climb into the hammock half dressed and prepares himself for a sleepless night.

***

In the dark, Mycroft's attention drifts with the sound of waves and ship's bells marking time. He leans against the wall, sitting up to try to keep himself alert. A good precaution when he hears the rustle of fabric and the soft sound of socked footfalls.

“Back to bed, Sherlock,” Mycroft says firmly and the footfalls stop.

“I want another blanket,” Sherlock says, lying graciously.

In the dark, Mycroft can make out the darker shape of Sherlock. He pulls a blanket off Watson's bed and pushes it into Sherlock's hands. “Now, back to bed.”

Sherlock snatches it and climbs back into the hammock in one easy movement. “You can't stay here as my prison guard. You have to sleep.”

“I'll sleep when you're on deck,” Mycroft replies because he is more than capable of standing watch over Sherlock if it is required. As a short-term solution, it is vastly better than dealing with the crew's reactions or the lack of trust that might result.

In the darkness, he hears Sherlock twist and turn. There's only another hour to dawn and then there will be too much light for Sherlock's foolish idea. Hopefully, Sherlock will see sense in the morning. He only needs to distract Sherlock long enough...

“Watson has eight siblings.”

“Five brothers, three sisters,” Sherlock says and then rattles off their names. Possibly in chronological order. “Did you think John hadn't told me?”

Mycroft pinches the bridge of his nose. He wasn't looking for a fight. “Gregory has an older sister, with three children of her own. He had two younger brothers but they both died of influenza as children.”

“And your point, Mycroft?”

“We are lucky to have each other.” Sherlock snorts in mockery, so Mycroft takes a deep breath and forces the words out. “I would do anything I could to keep you safe.”

“As long as it doesn't inconvenience you.”

“That is unfair.”

“You were happy enough to leave so you could be master of your own estate. I don't recall any brotherly sentiment back then.”

Mycroft wants to object. It was years ago and surely Sherlock can't still be angry over that supposed betrayal. At the time, he hadn't wanted Sherlock to feel guilty for something beyond his control. Now… There's no reason to keep it a secret now. “It was all I could do to keep you safe,” he says softly.

“After a season of balls,” Sherlock says derisively, knowing that Mycroft had hated attending them as much as Sherlock had mocked them, “you had no suitors in London. Your only offer came from the colonies, and that had nothing to do with me.”

“Sherrinford,” Mycroft says but his throat closes around the name. Like a child afraid of summoning a ghost, he hasn't uttered that name on this ship. Perhap there isn’t any value in telling Sherlock now...

But Sherlock is up and out of his hammock, a shadow looming over the bed. “Sherrinford, what?”

“If I had refused,” Mycroft says slowly, words whispered in the dark, “Sherrinford said he would accept on your behalf.”

Mycroft doesn't say any more. He doesn't need to spell the situation out to Sherlock. Short of running away and being disinherited, Sherlock wouldn't have been able to refuse. Not while his legal guardian agreed to the marriage.

Sherlock sits on the other end of Watson's small bed. Legs folded beneath him, he leans back against the wall, not touching Mycroft in any way. “On the Imperium, there were stories about Magnussen,” he says slowly, awkwardly. “He wouldn't have been a kind husband.”

“Agreed.” If there is one thing Gregory has always been, it's kind. Not something Mycroft expected to find within his marriage but all the more precious for it.

“I came after you anyway,” Sherlock says and Mycroft hears the unspoken rebuke: you could have told me.

In hindsight, Sherlock's right. He should have. He would have, if he'd been capable of conceiving the life they've found, a life that pleases them both. “It was a failure of imagination,” Mycroft confesses. “Every option I considered presumed one of us would be unhappy.”

In the darkness, Mycroft holds his knees to his chest. Outside, the waves are a comforting susurrus. There's a sigh and then fabric moving as Sherlock shifts backwards on the bed.

Finally, Sherlock says, “Impulsive plans aren't always wrong.”

His plan to follow Mycroft into a life of piracy was little more than a whim. It was a sudden and ill-considered plan, yet Mycroft is grateful for it. He dreads what his life would have been without Sherlock's unforeseen arrival.

“Not always,” Mycroft allows. “But right now, everyone is well and we only need wait a few more days. Rushing to action just for the sake of doing something will not help.”

Perhaps this is a conversation suited to the dark. If they could see each other, Mycroft would dissect Sherlock's every expression and try to guess his meaning before he spoke. He wouldn't listen as closely to what Sherlock chooses to say.

“Not all of us find it so easy to be patient.”

Easy. The idea that the last few weeks have been easy is ludicrous. Mycroft spends all night missing Gregory and all day trying to keep busy, trying to forget that Gregory is not here. “The most difficult thing is doing nothing. Knowing that there is nothing you can do, there is no contingency plan that will help if the worst happens. Knowing that all you can do is sit and wait, hoping that each day's news is good. There is nothing easy about it.”

After that uncomfortable confession, they call a silent truce. Each of them sit on opposite ends of Watson's bed, waiting for dawn.

***

Mycroft wakes hours after dawn, leaning uncomfortably against the wooden wall. Sherlock is curled up in a similarly awkward position at the foot of the bed. He has one shoulder pressed to the wall, legs bent sideways to fit on the mattress, head hanging forward.

Mycroft moves by inches, shifting gently off the bed to not wake Sherlock. He has to hold onto the wall when he finally stands, wait for the feeling to return to his left foot. He could wake Sherlock, escort him above deck where the rest of the crew could watch over him, but it's daylight. Sherlock couldn't leave the ship without being spotted, and Sherlock has been looking tired. Even energetic young men need some sleep.

So Mycroft folds back the blankets on the bed. He slowly reaches for Sherlock's shoulders, applying gentle pressure until Sherlock turns away from the wall and down to the mattress. He's still in the middle of the bed but it's bound to be more comfortable lying down.

As Mycroft pulls the blankets over Sherlock, Sherlock's fingers grab his wrist. “John?” Sherlock rumbles, still mostly asleep. Sherlock sounds defenceless, soft and trusting in a way he never is.

Once again, Mycroft desperately hopes that Watson returns. He swallows past the catch in his throat to whisper, “Back to sleep, Sherlock,” and Sherlock grumbles something in reply and rolls over.

***

By unspoken agreement, Mycroft returns to Watson's room that night. At first watch, Sherlock gets up to go on deck and Mycroft follows. He stays in the shadows, out of sight as Sherlock stands by his lantern, playing his game of coloured squares with Watson. It's the first time Sherlock's smiled all day.

Afterwards, they go back to Watson's room. Mycroft takes the bed, Sherlock takes the hammock.

They do the same the next night, but Sherlock breaks the silence when they're both trying to sleep. “Don't tell John. That I… He wouldn't approve of breaking quarantine.”

Mycroft could extract a promise or a favour. Could hold it as blackmail for the next time Sherlock is difficult. The idea is both practical and abhorrent. “You listened to reason. There's no need for Watson to know.”

“He'll know you were sleeping in his bed.”

“Easily explained,” Mycroft replies. “Tell him three weeks was too long sleeping in a hammock.”

“Too long?” Sherlock asks, confused. Clearly, Watson hasn't told him of Mycroft's great antipathy towards hammocks.

“Watson can explain the context to you later.”

***

He spends one more night in Watson's bed but it's far from restful. It's the last night of quarantine and Mycroft finds sleep elusive. He desperately wants it to be tomorrow. He wants to be back in his bed, back in their cabin. He wants Gregory's arms around him and Gregory mumbling, “Back to sleep, Fancy.”

But since he can't have that -- not tonight, not yet -- he lies in the dark and mentally reviews their current stores, their position, the first things they'll need to restock and the island towns most likely to sell to them. He listens to the bells above calling the time and Sherlock's steady breaths, waiting for the night to pass.

“Can't sleep?” Sherlock asks. The hammock hangs in front of the window, the moonlight cut in two by the curve of fabric.

Mycroft sighs. The answer is obvious.

“How can three weeks seem so long?” Sherlock complains.

Mycroft stares at the wooden ceiling above him. “Because misery stretches minutes into hours.” It is overly sentimental but the hour is late.

The waves below lap against the side of the ship. Eventually, Sherlock says, “John will be back tomorrow.” His tone is definitive; Mycroft doesn't know which one of them he's trying to convince.

“The quarantine started at noon,” Mycroft reminds him. “They won't return until the afternoon.”

***

The sun burns down brightly. Mycroft should be wearing his hat. He can feel the heat burning the side of his neck, but he doesn't fetch it. He can't bear leaving the deck.

On the water below, a rowboat with nine men -- nine healthy men -- comes steadily closer. Watson yells out the strokes and the oars splash into the water, across and down, up and back. Mycroft's watching for the wide brim of Gregory's hat, the weathered green of his coat.

Gregory's sitting at the back of the boat, head tilted against the sun. Mycroft can't see his face or read his expression, but it's definitely him.

When the boat comes close to the Lydia, Mycroft steps back. The men need to get through. The crew throw down ladders for men to climb and ropes to pull the rowboat out of the water. There's a cheer as the first man climbs on board -- Mattson, Mycroft believes -- and far too much backslapping and handshaking. It keeps a crowd pressed around the ladder and delays the next man.

There are four more men, and then Watson's boyish grin appears. Sherlock elbows past the throng to get to the front, to lean forward and offer Watson a steadying hand to pull him up to the deck

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KNIGHTHOOD.

 

Watson laughs, stumbling to his feet. The first thing he does is throw both arms around Sherlock's shoulders and pull him into an enthusiastic embrace. Sherlock's expression is shocked but he clings back just as hard.

“You're mad,” Watson laughs into Sherlock's shoulder. “Rowing all that way for a game? Utterly mad.”

“What else was I supposed to do?” Sherlock asks, releasing Watson with a wide grin. “Play with Mycroft?”

“Better that than taking stupid risks,” Watson mutters, but he sounds rather pleased by it. “Come on,” he says and leads Sherlock away from the ladder so other men can climb up. Mycroft loses them in the crowd, but he catches a dark head of curls disappear down the steps leading below decks.

Mycroft's shaking his head at the obviousness of their affection, and then he catches Gregory's dark eyes over the edge of the deck. Mycroft has a moment to catalogue his impressions -- pleased smile, tired eyes, cheeks pale: Gregory has spent much time indoors but hasn't slept well -- then Gregory winks at him and climbs up.

Mycroft stays where he is. He watches Gregory shake Williams’ hand and exchange a few words, watches him nod and grin, and call half of the crew by name. He's the captain again. He'll need to be informed about their provisions; he'll need to discuss their location with Williams, agree on the Lydia's next destination. He'll probably head straight for the navigation room to talk in private; Mycroft has time to slip downstairs and fetch his hat. Then he'll return. Best to stay on the deck, make sure he's close at hand if a course needs to be charted.

Mycroft takes a step away from the crowd, but a hand on his wrist stops him.

One glance and he sees it's a familiar hand. A strong, steady hand, tanned to a hazelnut brown with calluses on the base of the thumb and along the middle fingers. A hand that holds him carefully, with more patience and kindness than Mycroft has ever deserved.

“Going somewhere, Fancy?”

Mycroft looks up and finds Gregory smiling. Bright and joyous, and everything that has been missing from the Lydia for weeks.

“My hat,” Mycroft says and Gregory's brows rise. “I was going to fetch my hat.”

It is probably the least romantic greeting a married couple has ever exchanged. Mycroft should say something else. Something charming. Something emotional.

Mycroft has missed Gregory terribly. He has spent lonesome nights listening to the ship creak with longing. He has missed Gregory with every fibre of his soul, down to the marrow of his bones. But he has never been a poet. Gregory is back now and there are practicalities to consider. “Go talk to Williams. I'll return to the deck if you need a course charted.”

Gregory tilts his head. He presses his lips together as if he's trying not to smile. “I have a better idea. We'll go below decks, find some privacy.”

If Mycroft were his younger brother, prone to wild declarations and impetuous actions, he'd throw his arms around Gregory. He'd press kisses to his upturned face, press his lips to Gregory's cheeks, his jaw, his mouth and not care who sees.

But Mycroft is not that man. He is painfully aware of the dozens of eyes upon them, the men behind Gregory elbowing each other and muttering overfamiliar jokes about their captain. “You have responsibilities to the ship. Even if it's inconvenient.”

“She has a captain,” Gregory replies cheekily. “I'll resume my position in the morning. The ship will be fine until then.”

“Are you certain?”

“Three weeks, Fancy,” he says, thumb dragging across the soft skin at the inside of Mycroft's wrist. It sends a shiver of heat down Mycroft's spine. “The ship can wait another night. I can't.”

“You can't?” Mycroft asks doubtfully.

“I can barely wait another minute.” Gregory uses the hand on Mycroft's wrist to pull him closer. He leans up to whisper in Mycroft's ear, “Take me to bed, dear husband.”

***

Below decks, Mycroft has to press a hand to Gregory's elbow, stop him from walking to the captain's cabin from habit. “Spate remains captain until tomorrow?” he asks Gregory and Gregory nods.

It takes a moment to sink in, then Gregory frowns ruefully. “Captain's cabin. I didn't think of that.”

“This way,” Mycroft says and leads them to his own smaller room.

He steps inside and finds the lantern by feel. In the dim yellow light, the cabin looks smaller and emptier than usual. There's something grim about the low hanging hammock and the bare chest of drawers.

“Oh,” Gregory says and Mycroft wonders if he's regretting delaying his return to his duties. It might be better to do the work now and be able to sleep in his own bed tonight.

Mycroft turns to suggest as much and finds Gregory fighting a grin. Rather unsuccessfully. “What is it?”

“Three weeks without a bed? Oh, Fancy,” Gregory says, lips twitching. “How you've suffered!”

“Don't be so ridiculous,” Mycroft chides and Gregory laughs at him. “I am capable of adapting to a change in circumstances.”

Gregory manages to get his smile under control. “I didn't think of it. Next time we stop, I'll have the carpenter build a bed in here.”

Mycroft waves away the offer. “There's no point.”

“No? Growing fond of hammocks?”

“Certainly not,” Mycroft replies firmly. “But it would be a waste. I wouldn't stay on the Lydia without you.”

Gregory takes a step into the room, closing the door behind him. He cups Mycroft's cheek in his hand, and then there's the light brush of his thumb across the bow of Mycroft's lip.

It makes Mycroft close his eyes against the wave of yearning. As much as his heart has missed Gregory, his body has equally missed Gregory's touch. Has missed being held and caressed, wanted and beloved.

“You know there'd be a place for you here, if you wanted to stay.”

Mycroft blinks his eyes open, needing a second to add context to Gregory's words. He means on the Lydia, he means if something should happen to him. “I couldn't bear it,” Mycroft confesses. “Remembering you here and…”

“And?”

Mycroft slides his hands under Gregory's coat, spreads his fingers across the warm cotton at his sides. “Without you, the Lydia is merely a ship. It wouldn't be home.”

There's a sharply drawn breath and then Gregory guides their lips together. It's a familiar kiss, a greeting and a reassurance. Familiar as the feel of Gregory's back beneath his hungry fingers, familiar as the sharp pull of Gregory's hand in his hair.

They try to remember each other through kisses, hands searching for those known places. For the gasp Gregory gives as Mycroft digs his fingers into the muscles of his thigh; for the helpless way Mycroft freezes when Gregory drags his earlobe between sharp teeth. For the way they fit together as if the last few weeks had never happened.

Mycroft doesn't want new. He doesn't want exciting or unique. He wants Gregory. Gregory who knows how to touch him, how to make him shiver from a kiss to his wrist. How to make him feel safe and wanted. Make him forget the rest of the world entirely. He wants to sink into Gregory's kisses and never emerge.

He wants to trace Gregory's golden skin, prove that nothing has changed.

He wants to take Gregory to bed and map every crease of skin, every curve of muscle. He wants to suck bruises and stake his claim. “Take me to bed,” he whispers between kisses.

He feels Gregory’s low chuckle against his neck. “Easier said than done, Fancy.”

Mycroft pulls back to frown at him and then sees the hammock hanging low beside them. He can sleep on it, yes, and two of them might be able to fit if no one tries to turn in their sleep. But any particularly strenuous activities would end in overbalancing and falling to the floor.

“That is unfortunate,” Mycroft says, glancing around the room to the old chest of drawers. It might take someone’s weight if he cleared all of his books from the top of it. Or perhaps pressed against the wall would work better, although Mycroft prefers not having to concentrate on keeping his balance while Gregory drives him to distraction. “Or we could wait until tomorrow?”

“Three weeks,” Gregory replies, eyes dark and sinful. He nuzzles under the curve of Mycroft's jaw, and Mycroft's even missed the smell of him.

He's missed this. Missed closing his eyes and losing himself in sensation. Closing the door and locking the rest of the world away, safe and sound in Gregory's arms. He runs fingers down the worn stitching of Gregory's coat. “Take this off,” he says, knowing Gregory will. Knowing Gregory will give him anything he wants, anything he asks for, sometimes things Mycroft doesn't even know how to ask for.

“Clothes off,” Gregory agrees, shucking his coat quickly and then unbuckling his shoes. “You too.”

Mycroft stops staring. He has to turn his back to make his fingers cooperate, to remove his coat, waistcoat and cravat and place them neatly in drawers. Shoes, stockings and breeches follow, and then finally his shirt. He leaves the shirt over his trunk, lying loose in case he needs to dress in a hurry.

When he turns around, Gregory is spreading blankets on the floor. He's bent at the waist, utterly naked and breathtaking. His skin varies from pale golden hips to the deep brown of his hands. There are old scars scattered across his body -- some white and faded, some pink and newer -- but they make his beauty real. The imperfections that prove Gregory isn't a fevered dream, isn't an artist's interpretation of the masculine ideal. He has lived and hurt and laughed, he has fought and loved.

Mycroft loves him as a whole and loves him in details. He loves the generosity of his nature and the crease at his elbows, the sparse hair on his strong thighs and the broad shoulders that carry the weight of command easily.

Mycroft's only point of comparison is his love for Sherlock, who he loves for their shared past, who he loves despite their differing natures. There is no despite for Gregory, no part of Gregory he doesn't love wholeheartedly. He has no reservations, no doubts, no tiny corner of his heart squirrelled safely away, untouched and unaffected. If something should happen to Gregory, his entire heart would shatter. There is no part of him that wouldn't feel the loss.

“Fancy?” Gregory says softly, and Mycroft realises he's been caught staring. “Come here.”

Mycroft doesn't move. “I love you,” he says, but it sounds small and clichéd. Inadequate for the breadth and depth of the feelings caught beneath his breastbone.

Sitting on the blankets, bare legs stretched out, Gregory smiles and pats the floor beside him. “Come here,” he says again.

Gingerly, Mycroft kneels beside him, hands folded across his lap in a pale imitation of modesty.

Gregory catches his left hand, presses a warm, wet kiss to the palm. “I adore you,” he says fervently, pressing another kiss, “and even knowing you were here and safe, I missed you. Believe me, Fancy, I will do everything I can to avoid that happening again.”

Mycroft knows the promise is unrealistic -- Gregory can't control the world -- but he appreciates the sentiment. “Everything?”

“Yes. Now come here,” Gregory says, pulling Mycroft until he's straddling Gregory's thighs. Bracing himself on one hand, Gregory wraps his other arm around Mycroft, holding him close. Chest to chest, pressed together with nothing between them but warm skin. Mycroft settles his thighs to either side of Gregory's hips and wraps his arms around Gregory's shoulders, burying his face in Gregory's neck.

“Let me show you how much I've missed you,” Gregory says, voice filled with promise.

***

Mycroft can admit that a hammock is more comfortable than sleeping on the floor, but he has misgivings about the two of them fitting in it. Gregory offers to hang a second hammock but that appeals even less than the floor. After so long apart, Mycroft wants to fall asleep in Gregory's arms, not listen to him sleep on the other side of the room.

So they carefully climb into the single hammock. Necessity forces them to sleep curled around each other, the canvas dipping and rolling them both to the middle. Mycroft wakes a few times in the night, hammock swinging and bells calling out the hours, but he quickly falls back asleep, tucked against Gregory's chest.

He wakes that way as well: bare legs tangled together, his nightshirt twisted around him, and Gregory holding him close. Gregory's still sleeping, so Mycroft lies there, warm and safe, drifting to the sounds of waves.

***

The next day the Lydia is awash with activity. Anchors hoisted and sails unfurled, everyone ready to leave this cursed island behind them. There's a cheer when Gregory steps on the quarterdeck.

Gregory spends an hour talking to Williams, reviewing provisions and discussing the most profitable waters this time of year. They set sail west as soon as Mycroft has charted their course.

Once they're sailing, Mycroft moves his belongings back to the captain's cabin. All of Gregory's clothes are exactly as they were left, nothing disturbed and Mycroft's thankful for that small consideration. He only has to move his own clothes and books. Once everything is back where it belongs, he picks up his sketchbook and pastels, items he's barely touched in the previous weeks, and heads above deck.

He passes Sherlock and Watson on the starboard side, standing shoulder to shoulder as if they'd never been separated. He nods to them both as he passes, and gets a nod from Watson and a roll of his brother's eyes.

Sherlock turns to tell Watson something, and Mycroft spots the deep red mark on his neck. Circular. Bruised to dark blue around the edges. In the bite pattern of a human mouth, Mycroft realises. The shape of Watson's incisors.

Mycroft turns his head away quickly lest Sherlock notice his startled reaction.

He quickly climbs the steps to the quarterdeck and finds Gregory waiting for him, one hand held out. He takes the offered support, still stunned at the sudden knowledge.

“Are you well?” Gregory asks courteously, but Mycroft can only stare and blink at him. “Fancy?”

“Sherlock,” Mycroft says faintly. “His neck.”

“His neck?”

“Watson,” Mycroft manages, still stunned at the thought of his brother -- his baby brother -- and anything of this nature.

Gregory watches them over Mycroft's shoulder. “What about them?”

The worst part is that Mycroft didn’t realise. Oh, he understood the two of them were fast friends, rarely found far from each other’s company, but not… Even thinking the word lovers seems too much. An adult concept that can’t possibly apply to his little brother.

“He's…” A child, Mycroft wants to say but that's not true. Mycroft may always think of him at six, eight or ten years old, but he's not a child any longer. “And Watson…”

Gregory looks over again, dark lashes narrowed as he looks more carefully. “Oh,” he says with a note of surprise. “Good for them.”

“How long has that been going on?” Mycroft demands. The idea that he’s overlooked this for weeks or months is unpardonable. He should have been watching over Sherlock more closely. He would have if he’d recognised the true risk of heartbreak.

Gregory presses his lips together and gives him a mildly censorious look. Mycroft nods, acknowledging that his tone was a little too sharp. “I wasn’t aware,” he says in explanation and apology.

“It’s only new, Fancy.” Gregory steps closer, the back of his hand grazing Mycroft’s. “John spent most nights telling stories of Sherlock, of how clever he is, how amazing, but nothing that suggested they were intimate.”

“You’re certain?”

Gregory’s observations in this arena are more reliable than Mycroft’s own. Mycroft has always found numbers and charts easier to decipher than matters of the heart. In hindsight, he should have spent more time keeping Sherlock occupied but he can’t change the past. He’ll simply keep it in mind in future.

And make sure he does not open Watson’s door without knocking. Intellectual acknowledgement is enough; he does not need to see proof of the situation.

“One more night of those stories, I might have tried swimming to the Lydia,” Gregory says quietly, fond and exasperated. “He thinks Sherlock hung the moon and the stars.”

Gregory's smile is gentle and his eyes are kind, and for a moment, Mycroft is overwhelmingly grateful for him.

He stretches his fingers out, catches Gregory’s hand in his. This is home: Gregory beside him, the rolling deck beneath his feet, fresh breeze on his face. Mycroft turns to face the deck and sees Sherlock and Watson climbing the rigging, scaling the ropes easily. As if not a thing had changed.

As if everything is as it should be.

Posted on Nov 24th 2021 - 3:12 PM

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