Word Count: ~2000
Summary: If the words you spoke appeared on your skin, would you be more careful of what you say? Magical realism AU.
Beta: My gratitude and adoration belongs to tymewyse. All mistakes are my own.
Disclaimer: Do not own, or lease.
Author Notes: Credits for quotes can be found at the end of this work. This was inspired by this picture, that I found on Pinterest of all places.
“Where do the words go
when we have said them?” – Margaret Atwood
“You can read them. You can read their Stories,” John says, fists pressed into his thighs.
Sherlock frowns. “Words are so small as to be practically illegible in any normal, native speaker. Besides, they’re often meaningless. A distraction. I observe their actions, their habits, and I deduce from that.”
John lets out a breath. He looks at his own left arm with That was amazing. Of course it was. It was extraordinary. It was quite extraordinary. What do people normally say? and, a little below, You don't have a girlfriend then? Alright. Do you have a boyfriend? Which is fine, by the way. So you got a boyfriend? Right. Okay. You're unattached. Like me. Fine. Good. No. I'm not asking. No. I'm just saying, it's all fine. He cringes.
“The Words can be taken out of context,” Sherlock continues, “even within the Story. Look at my right hand.”
He holds it out for John’s perusal, dangerously close to the soy sauce. There, directly beneath his thumb, is new writing. He takes Sherlock’s hand in his own and leans close to read, I'm not implying anything. I'm sure Sally came round for a nice little chat and just happened to stay over. And I assume she scrubbed your floor, going by the state of her knees.
Sherlock gives John a moment and then says, imperiously, “And what might you deduce from that?”
“Well,” John answers, “that you’re a complete prat, actually.”
There is a pause; John clenches his fists tighter, presses them harder against his jeans. And then Sherlock chuckles.
“Perhaps not the best example, then,” he says, eyes glinting.
Their food comes, steaming on top of large plates, and the subject is dropped in favor of Sherlock’s deductions of the other patrons.
He was twelve when he met Elizabeth, who had the sky at night on her chest, surrounded by the rest of her Story. It wasn’t a very remarkable phrase, something said in passing, but it was scrawled in vermillion, brilliant in a black sea.
“Why’s it red?” John had asked her.
“Because I wanted it to be.”
John had kissed her on the front porch of her parents’ house.
He had kissed Alex, too, years later, for the sloping script of to the craving in my bones.
“It’s Yeats,” Alex had whispered. “A poem, like.”
“And how’d you get it like that?” John asked, palm pressed against the Words on Alex’s shin.
“I said them, and it just happened.”
They fascinated him, these Variations, and for a time he sought out lovers that had them; jewel tones and unique fonts. They were few, and he was young.
The English Words were a fact of life for John, as immutable as hair color or the shapes of noses. He had never thought much about them until he was deployed in Afghanistan with its unfamiliar landscapes and cultures. There, the people had Words, too, but the Arabic was written in soft sienna against sun-warmed skin, its sweeps and whorls like the waves of an ocean; seductive and exotic, and forbidding in John’s lack of understanding.
He watched the Words appear, watched as they formed Stories that he had no hope of reading – they seemed gentle to his untrained eye, no matter the tone of voice or disposition of the speaker.
He learned a little bit of Pashto, picked it up on patrols and from friendly informants and from the local children as they played. He repeated them, over and over and over. He whispered them when he was on watch late at night, muttered them under his breath as he bandaged minor cuts and doled out the standard medications, used them in conversation whenever he could manage, but they only ever filled his skin with squat, neat black letters – familiar and yet made strange by the foreign Words they tried to represent.
When they met, Sherlock had told John that there were stretches of days when he wouldn’t speak at all, and for the first few months, John hadn’t believed him.
That was before the past five days, when silence cloaked the flat only to be interrupted by the low notes of Sherlock’s violin or the garbled throat-clearing John did just to break the quiet when it became too uncomfortable.
It was fascinating, though, to watch the inky black disappear from Sherlock’s body. It retracted slowly, receding across his hands and up his arms and down his neck, over his feet and past his calves, until it was all hidden beneath his soft pyjamas and silk dressing gown. John wondered if it had faded from his thighs, his chest, his stomach, too; wondered until his hands began to twitch and ache with the desire to remove the fabric and see for himself – to run the tips of his fingers over pale, unmarked skin.
It makes him think of monastic brotherhoods with their vows of silence – the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Trappists – and how their mute worship might be reflected; their skin always as clean and fragile as fresh sheets of vellum.
“What was your first Word?” he asks every night.
Sherlock ignores him until his silence has ended, and then when he does answer, he says, “I deleted it.”
John frowns. “There must be a picture – everyone has a picture of their first.”
“I suppose you’re rather proud of your first Word – what was it? Something inane, like ‘Mummy’?”
“‘Puppy,’ actually. And it’s not – I’m not proud of it. Just curious what yours might have been. Probably something ridiculous. Like ‘tibia’ or something.”
Sherlock stares at him.
John’s own Words had always been the simple, standard font. Black and evenly spaced, as though he had been seized by a printing press, like most of the people he had met. Still, he was surprised to see such uniformity on Sherlock. He’d half expected the graceful arabesques of one hundred different languages, in as many different shades, standing out in sharp contrast against their pale canvas.
He often finds himself staring, his mouth dry, as though such anomalies might be hidden in the secret places; the inside of Sherlock’s thigh, the small of his back, the curve of his arse. He is shocked when he begins to think of pressing his lips against these illusory Words, more shocked when he imagines what they might say.
“I can feel you thinking,” Sherlock grumbles, the long line of his back presented to the rest of the room as he lies on the sofa. “It’s hateful. Do it elsewhere.”
The sky is thick with darkness when they finally get home, their bones heavy and their hearts still racing from the chase that had culminated in the capture of two notorious blackmailers.
One of the women they had caught had Words written in a deep forest green down the length of bare arm and, while Sherlock had seemed to pay it no mind, the image stuck with John.
Although it is so late, although he should be sleeping and encouraging Sherlock to do the same, he heads straight for the kitchen to make tea. He pulls two cups from the cabinet and sets them down, roughly, against the countertop. They make a satisfying thump that he would appreciate more if he were angry rather than simply exhausted.
The water in the electric kettle boils over quickly – he loses track of time staring at the corner of the refrigerator, deep in thought; perhaps it wasn’t very quick at all – and he pours it into the cups before bringing them to the sofa.
Sherlock is sprawled across it, a small stack of photographs against his chest, his eyes closed.
“Teabags, John,” he says as John places the cups.
Sherlock slides open one eye. “Teabags. You’ve forgotten them. Are you ill?”
“How did you know I – oh, sod it. Sorry.”
When John returns, Sherlock is sitting and staring at him, his brow slightly furrowed by the half-frown.
“Something is bothering you.”
John sits, says, “No, not – yeah, actually. Yeah. The woman with Variations –?”
“Ah. It’s nothing more than a trick of genetics. I can get no more information about an individual from that than I can from webbed toes or green eyes. Words are meaningless, Stories even more so. They can be crafted, altered, or deleted simply enough.”
The Words fill up the curve of Sherlock’s neck and disappear beneath the collar of his coat as he rattles off the history of the dead man on the floor of the bar. John has stopped listening long ago – instead, he watches as they appear and solidify, his eyes tracing their progress.
The deep silence suddenly hits him, his mind light-years away, and he looks up. Sherlock is staring at him, his mouth slightly open as he exhales a soft “Oh.” And then he moves on, coat swirling around him.
John swallows roughly, closes his eyes for a moment, and then follows after him.
When they kiss, when their lips press together for the first time, John wraps his hand around Sherlock’s neck where the Words are, where the Story of the dead man and the Story of Sherlock interlink. He can feel Sherlock’s pulse, and it is as though the Words themselves are throbbing with life.
It had been unexpected, this kiss. When they had returned to the flat, rain-soaked and cold and unsuccessful, Sherlock had shucked his coat and stormed away to his room. John had thought, had hoped, that he hadn’t revealed too much at the crime scene. There was a chance that Sherlock hadn’t even noticed – a small chance, but it existed.
And then, while John had been cleaning up the previous day’s breakfast dishes, Sherlock had marched into the kitchen, forced John to turn around, and kissed him.
John’s hands were still soapy then, but now they are merely wet where they press against Sherlock’s skin and up into his hair. The edge of the sink digs into his back. The air is stuffy, too hot, too much to try to breathe in, and anyway, he has no desire to tear his mouth away.
“Please,” Sherlock whispers against his lips. “Please.”
The Words appear across his right cheek, just beneath a heavy-lidded eye, and John gasps a “Yes” that is barely a word at all, and wonders where it will show up on him.
John’s name is burned against Sherlock’s clavicle, down his chest, circling his left nipple, against the thin skin over the bones of his ribs. It is a litany of JohnJohnJohnJohnJohn without rest or stop, just as the voice in his ear had been – rushed, fluttery, heated.
He traces his own name over and over, writing it there himself as if it might solidify the intangible something that fizzes in his chest.
Sherlock’s name is on John’s shoulder, right over the scar tissue, in a deep purple.
He drags a finger along that lettering, even though he knows that there is nothing new to feel. He also knows that, in time, it will fade as all Words do. As he drifts off to sleep, his hand stuck between Sherlock’s head and a sofa cushion, he hopes it might stay for a while.
The line of Yeats’ poetry is from “A First Confession”
I long for truth, and yet
I cannot stay from that
My better self disowns,
For a man's attention
Brings such satisfaction
To the craving in my bones.
The quotes, in order, are:
"The Paper Burns, But the Words Fly Free." Akiba Ben Joseph
"All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time." Ernest Hemingway
"Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words." Rumi
"He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music." James Joyce
"When they're gone out of his head, these words, they'll be gone, everywhere, forever. As if they had never been." Margaret Atwood
"Ah, words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away." John Clare
"A word is dead when it's been said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day." Emily Dickenson
"The true poem rests between the words." Vanna Bonta
"One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them." Hart Crane
"We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable." Neil Gaiman