A/N: Still on the sherlockbbc_fic meme... admitting to authorship whenever the Magic 8-ball says 'yes, definitely'... May have to change my mind about that method.
Prompt: When John is 17, he wishes goblins would come take his annoying little sister away.
When John is 37, he wishes the Goblin King would come take him away.
(Yes, Sherlock is Jareth.)
...You'd think a prompt that basically boiled down to 'Sherlock is the Goblin King' would be filled with hilarity and crack. But no, apparently not.
"God, sometimes I just wish the goblins would come and take you away!"
"Well," says a bored voice. "Haven't you ever heard the phrase 'be careful what you wish for'?"
At seventeen, John shows no sign of the man he will be. He is just a boy, frustrated with being the glue that holds his family together, the thin thread (strong as silk) that tries to bind what fell apart long ago.
His mother tells him stories between her sobs, nails an iron horseshoe above the door, leaves milk out for the brownies and used to circle his crib with salt to keep away their nastier cousins - though why she feeds one type of goblin and fears the other, John doesn't know.
"Take care of Harriet," she says, and John does. Even though he resents it and her (he's only three years older and it shouldn't be his job), he takes care of Harry, because if he doesn't nobody else will.
But sometimes, oh, sometimes-
Maybe he shouldn't be surprised the image of the Goblin King shifts in his head; trickery and illusion are, after all, the Fair Folk's speciality.
John is pretty sure that the first time he saw him, when he came to take Harry, he was tall with neat black hair, thin to the point of emaciation, grey-eyed and hook-nosed, dressed in what was probably the height of fashion, back in the Victorian era.
Then he thinks, no, that's not right, has a very clear image of dark curls and superior smirk, expensive modern suit and flaring coat.
The hands are always the same, though, slender and long-fingered, the hands of a violinist. John is always going to remember how something had twisted low in his belly at the sight of them waving away his words like smoke from a fire. It's just another of those things he is never going to talk about.
(He's not sure which iteration the riding crop belongs to.
He's a little afraid to guess.)
"I can't take what isn't freely offered," the Goblin King says mildly. "So it's really quite a good thing that you're the head of the family."
"I'm seventeen," John hears himself say (anger so bitter-old it tastes like resignation).
"So?" The King says. He leans close and whispers family secrets in John's ear, plucks them from the air or the despair in John's eyes, it doesn't matter. "Your father is a pathetic man," he says, "a drunk and a fool, a dead weight upon your family, save when he wakes and is something worse, thinks he can solve every problem he makes with his fists."
Gloved hands flex and tap the air an inch away from John's cheek; fingers spread to cover a bruise long gone.
"Your mother is weak as moonshine, a pale reflection of all she used to be before she married your father, absent in spirit if not in presence. In her head, she leaves you, flees to the highlands she was born in. So it falls to you to be the head of the household, the one with the power and when you wished, I listened."
"You didn't have to-" John starts to say, and the Goblin King laughs, like John has suddenly managed to get the joke.
"Exactly," he says, and the next instant John stands alone in the dark.
"God, John," Harry snaps. "Stop being an overprotective arsehole and let me live my own life!"
"I'm not being overprotective," John snaps back.
"Oh please! You act like any minute somebody could just come along and snatch me away!"
But they could, he wants to say.
(You asked that the child be taken-)
"Mum says the Fair Folk like games," John says.
"Why bother?" sighs the Goblin King. "You're not intelligent enough to best me."
"I don't need to be intelligent, I need to be smart."
The Goblin King turns, looks at him properly for the first time, studying him as if to take him apart.
"I challenge you," John says, and his voice hardly shakes at all.
The Goblin King grins, bright and sudden, and it's like everything John's been waiting for, all he's ever sought - it was hidden there, just waiting.
"Very well," he says, in a deep, satisfied voice, and John shivers and tells himself it's fear. "You have thirteen hours to solve the labyrinth."
"I must confess, I didn't expect you to get even this far."
John doesn't start. Much. "Do you normally follow mortals through your labyrinth?"
"I'm bored," says the King. "You're marginally more interesting than the goblins."
"Thanks for that," John says. "What's so interesting about me?"
"Your strength," the King says. "Your stubbornness. Your refusal to accept that you lost the moment you began. Who knows?"
"Haven't you ever heard the saying?" John says.
"Pride comes before a fall?"
"Never," says the King, sounds amused. "I'm always right, my dear Watson."
"Yeah? Well, I'm going to finish this bloody maze, get my sister back, and right before I go, I'm going to whisper my birthplace in your ear, and the next time you think you've got everything figured out, you're going to remember my voice and think again."
"Oh, I'd love to see you try."
I was bored. But now I'm not. Perhaps I'll keep you.
John is friendly and personable and he knows the lore. His help is freely offered, but he expects help in exchange. It's only fair.
He pays attention to what is said, because he knows the Folk can't lie, but they can twist the truth so thoroughly it looks like one.
Steadily, he makes his path.
To know a true name is to have power - the power to control, to destroy, to free yourself of a bargain unwisely made.
But a name freely given means more still, and so the Goblin King can say 'John Watson' and John does not catch his breath. There is a piece missing, and the King knows it by the way John can ignore him and keep walking.
His mother was always so careful about when she used his middle name to call him in from the dark.
(The King is the Land, and the Land is the King, all the labyrinth and all its creatures. One of them says a name in John's hearing, a name that touches John inside, like a perfect violin piece, played just for him.
The King is the Land - the name is freely given.)
The King tosses fruit at him when he hears his stomach growling, reels off a list of facts tracking back time to when John last ate.
"Brilliant," John says honestly, to the King's startled bemusement, but he doesn't eat, though he's sure it would be the best thing he'd ever taste in his life.
(For the rest of his life he will dream of peaches and gold-skinned apples, tying him to a realm beneath the earth.)
"I'm so sorry, Johnny," his mother whimpers, the day before he's posted to Afghanistan. "So sorry."
He hasn't the heart to tell her he hasn't been Johnny to anyone but her since he was seventeen.
"For what?" John says, his smile easy and unconcerned, his eyes deep and still. The rock in the storm, is John Watson, and nobody ever sees how restless he is beneath his calm, always changing, seeking a grander adventure.
"I've failed. I didn't protect you. Something has marked you - it's in your eyes," she whispers.
(Look at what I'm offering you! You want to stay in that boring world? Alone, unappreciated, torn down bit by bit every day until there's nothing left? All you've ever wanted, John, it's right here!)
"I can't go to the crossroads for you, Johnny. There's no one to hold you fast."
("They'll turn me in your arms, lady, into an esk and adder, but hold me fast, and fear me not-"
"Stop filling his head with such nonsense, Moira!"
There was a scream, and yelling, and the sound of flesh meeting flesh, and John closed his eyes and went away, telling himself that one day he would meet someone who would be willing to hold on to him no matter what he changed into-
He would say, "Let me go, or hold fast," so that if they wanted - if they weren't -
It had to be a choice.
They would laugh as if he'd said nothing, as if it wasn't even a question, and hold him tight.)
"It's alright," he tells his mother, tucks her greying hair back behind her ear and knows she doesn't believe him. "Some of us like to change."
No matter how far he runs, how much he changes he cannot escape -
Say your right words, hisses a voice in his memory.
He's pretty sure he doesn't want to.
(His mother called him uncanny; his fellow soldiers call him lucky. A little bit mad, of course, but you never met a luckier bastard than John Watson.
His mother would have called it the luck of the Fair Folk if she'd heard, and begged him never to look at the things that could be seen out of the corner of his eye, because Sight is not a gift they ever intend to give, they will always want to take it back, if they have to pluck out his eyes to do so.)
He can feel something pressing on him. Memory, or fate, or something equally heavy.
He thinks he's going to die.
He's okay with that, he decides. His sister no longer needs his protection, their parents are dead and returned to the earth. He's okay with it because he's never found what he's been seeking, doesn't even know what it is, really.
When he's shot, it's almost a relief.
Say your right words, insists that so familiar voice. John flails, paws at the dirt, his uninjured arm turning an unusually distinct blood spatter in the shape of an owl into just another smear of red.
"I wish," he breathes, just before the world goes dark.