Author's Notes:This will be a full length AU fic and will be posted up here as I finish and my lovely, amazing beta kathecello cleans them up! This is currently very low teen but the ratings will go up further along. Warnings for the whole story: general adult themes, swearing, mentions of child abuse, violence and graphic sex.
How to Build a Heart out of Ashes: Changeling
John changed for the first time in the middle of his sixth form literature class, taking everyone, including himself, by surprise. There was thought to be some genetic influence, but he was the only one in his immediate family who had made the Change. His mum said that his granddad had been an ermine, but there hadn't been any Changelings in the family since, until John. Also, he was at sixth form, a sixth former in his last spring term,and honestly that just didn't happen. Children almost always made the Change between ages nine to fourteen. John was seventeen! Nobody had even taken into consideration the possibility of him being a Changeling, albeit a late blooming one.
Yet here he was, in Mrs. Hardin's Introduction to Classic Literature, desks and chairs scattered around him, his classmates looking at him with shock, with awe, with fear and some with hate. Here he crouched, bristling and confused, as he felt fur rise on his hackles and a whine leak from his throat. His ears were flattened back and his tail was tucked; John was scared, too. What was happening to him?
Later it would be explained to John that this first change process was one of the biggest causes of prejudice against Changelings. Normally the human mind is completely and totally dominant over the animal instincts, and even in shifted form Changelings retain composure and awareness. However, the first time is different—with the shock and the sudden radical change in… well, everything, children tended to react instinctively. Very, very rarely was anyone ever injured when a child Changed, but there was often a lot a growling, fanfare, barking, chirping, flying, fleeing, or hiding.
John Watson, for his part, cowered in confusion until the class could be cleared away, a standard process when a student changed during school. Then he paced on four paws, sense of smell becoming overpowering, and he waited, telling himself that the school councillor would soon come to collect him. That was how it worked. He'd seen it before, once in primary and twice in secondary school. It took longer than it did in primary or secondary schools, though, where it was expected, and faculty were well prepared. The teachers at colleges were only really aware of this process in theory, but finally Mrs. Caulking came shuffling into the room with a bright orange blanket and began to talk him through the process of shifting back—how it could take some time, but if John focused he would shift back soon enough. She was right. He took no more than a minute to change back, and the poor woman gave him that garish blanket to cover himself with. John thought this process must be so much less awkward with ten-year-olds than with a boy about to come of age—it had to be, because this was nearly unbearable.
Then came the worst, most uncomfortable walk down a hallway that John ever had to endure in the entirety of his admittedly short life. He tried to salvage his trousers, tee-shirt, or even his shoes, for Christ's sake, but the first Change was certainly violent and explosive. There were only shreds of cloth and rubber soles left. So instead John walked down the hall of his respectable college with nothing but that garish, orange blanket covering his naked body. He avoided eye contact with everyone he'd ever known, and with each step he forced himself to accept the fact that they were lost to him now; that nice girl, Daisy, in his biology class, his rugby mates, and even a few childhood friends. He would write to them, his closest friends at least, but life at an Institute hardly made nurturing old ties easy. John knew it would never be the same, as did they. His peers silently said their goodbyes to the Normal that was John Watson, waving away the Changeling that took his place.
In the councillor's office more procedure was to be followed. He sat in the scratchy chair, all the more prickly against his bare calves where the blanket didn't cover, and he waited as Mrs. Caulking called his parents. He stared as her shiny brass name plate without really reading it while she explained to his parents what happened. He wasn't really worried about them. He may be the only Changeling in his family, but his parents weren't the sort of prejudiced folk that got away with far too much in this supposedly civilized age. They were simple, down to earth. They would accept John for what he was, fur, fangs, and all. His sister might give him more grief, maliciously or not, that would push the boundaries of what he could handle right now, but when weren't he and Harry at each other's throats?
Then Mrs. Caulking made one other call to a hotline, created so schools could report Changes. John nervously tried to trace one line of wood grain on the woman's polished desk, but he kept losing the thing in the exposed knots. After a conversation about John's student record and a number of other things that went in one of John's ears and out the other, Mrs. Caulking set the receiver down with a click that seemed to resound around the room. Finally, John worked up the courage to look up and meet his fate.
"So…" his voice was rough. John cleared his throat before trying again. "So, where am I…?"
He held her eyes, determined not to look away.
"The Baker Institute," she said.
She said more, about how the school had an amazing science program, about the gorgeous campus, the well funded facilities, and that there was a rugby team there. He forced each comment into his mind, replacing details of his old life one by one. There was no use in regret, or in rejecting his fate. It was out of his reach. All he could do now was look ahead, so John Watson closed his eyes, imagining a beautiful school in the countryside where he would soon live.
There were parts of the Baker Institute that matched John's expectations. It was indeed in the countryside. All the Institutes were. Young Changelings needed space to shift and to move. If they didn't shift semi-frequently they got… uncomfortable, or worse. The biggest building was at the very centre of the campus, and was indeed old and impressive. It was massive and its walls were made of stone bricks, often perforated by elaborate stainglass windows that glinted dimly under the overcast sky, colourful patches on grayscale. The corbels under the hulking parapets were carved into growling shapes of multitutes of beasts—lions, eagles, wovles, serpents and more. They must have been detailed but they were too high up for John to make out more than their basic forms. Sprires rose from both the parapets as well as the towers that rose from the major corners of the building. There were other buildings scattered around it with simpler styling, still classic but far less grandiose. There was a another very large building that John could see on his right, still stonework but but slightly more modern. From the little John had to go on, the rows of small windows, the students milling about with footballs in the yard near it, he guessed that those must be the dormitories.
However, John wasn't completely unsurprised. On the opposite side of the campus, only just visible behind the grand main hall, were buildings that looked much more modern. They were all glass, white and concrete, the kind meant to take advantage of natural lighting.
The driver of the car had picked John up late that morning from the train station, along with most of his worldly possessions. Luckily John was never much of a hoarder of useless things, so it wasn't too hard to pack efficiently. Currently, John stood awkwardly on the edge of a large roundabout that allowed cars to pull up close to the center building. He glanced up at the big silver sign above the enormous black double doors that led into the building. It read 'The Baker Institute' and then underneath in smaller letters 'Baker Grand Hall'. There was a plaque underneath that read, Iuncti mutamus, iuncti crescimus. He made a mental note to ask what it meant. It was just one more question to add to an impossibly long list.
There were other students rushing around and a few people that looked like they must be teachers. The students all wore surprisingly nice uniforms—much better than the misshapen things that John and his schoolmates wore at all of his previous schools. The jackets were well structured, black, and had thin silver trim. The girls wore knee length skirts and knee high socks. Their shirts were crisp white, and their ties were black with stripes of silver and another color—either yellow, purple, red or blue. John wasn't quite sure what it meant.
Nobody seemed to notice one boy, lost and new. John wondered if it was because newcomers were so common—they'd have to be with numbers like this; John had never seen so many Changelings in his life… not that he would know the difference in adults he supposed—or perhaps it was just that nobody thought John was new at all, not at his age.
However, John was finally noticed. Well, spotted was more accurate, as it seemed these people had come to meet him. A man with dark hair and a blazer led the group. Following him was a young man, close to John's own age, but with unusual silver-grey hair. It wasn't odd for some charactaristics of a Changeling's shift form to be reflected in their human form. John wondered what his shift form looked like to make his hair go prematurely silver like that. A few other students lingered curiously behind the pair in front.
When they got close enough, the dark-haired man greeted him.
"John H. Watson, I presume?" he asked with a friendly smile, extending his hand.
John nodded and shook his hand.
"My name is Dr. Mortimer. We spoke on the phone," he introduced himself.
John lightly returned his smile, still too nervous to put his whole heart into it. A few days ago John had indeed spoken to Dr. Mortimer over the phone. He had called to explain the process of transferring into the Baker Institute and to give him an overview of what to expect from the process. He was a psychiatrist and the Institute's councillor.
"How was the trip?" Dr. Mortimer asked, obviously trying to make John feel comfortable and welcome, something John didn't mind in the slightest.
"It was good. I thought I was going to have to take a taxi from the station with all of my things, so the car was great," John answered with a polite smile.
Dr. Mortimer nodded and smiled.
"We try and make the transition as easy as possible," he said as he waved the silver haired boy forward.
John noted that his tie had red stripes.
"This is Greg Lestrade, sixth form. He is a key member in our student guard," Dr. Mortimer said.
At John's questioning glance Greg spoke up.
"It sort of… a student police force on campus, like they have at some universities. We stop bullying, track down vandals, you know, escort students across campus at night if they call a hotline," Greg explained, hands in his pockets, casually pushing his unbuttoned jacket back.
John nodded, digesting his answer.
"Anyway," Dr. Mortimer cut in before John had to think of what to say to that, "Greg here is going to show you the campus and, later this evening, the forest. Due to your… atypical circumstances I would like it if you would come and see me within the next week so we can talk about how you're settling in."
"Okay," John said, "Thank you."
"I'll leave him in your capable hands, Greg," Dr. Mortimer said just before he turned and went back into the large building they'd just emerged from.
"Right then," Greg said, clapping his hands together, "Where to start?"
John awkwardly glanced back at the boxes and duffles stacked on the side of the road behind him.
"What about my things?" John asked, and Greg smiled.
He nodded his head towards the small group of students that had trailed behind him and Dr. Mortimer.
"That's what these lads are here for. They'll take your stuff up to your room, and it'll be there for you when we finish," Greg explained, and then he looked around as if trying to make a decision. "Lets just pick a direction and go."
"Oh," John said. "Right then."
He found himself smiling. He liked Greg, and while it was obvious by his lack of practice as a tour guide that they were making special arangements for John's special circumstances, the silver haired boy wasn't making John feel awkward in the slightest.
"So, this is the main building, Baker Hall. This is where all the primary and secondary kids have school, as well as most of the sixth form," Greg explained, looking back at the hulking building. "The organisation in there is rubbish; expect to be lost for at least the first week in there."
"Noted, leave early for classes. So what's the motto?" John asked.
Greg stuck his hands into his pockets again and looked up at the shiny plaque.
"Ah, Iunctum mutatio, iunctum crescio… It means, 'Together we change, together we grow'," he explained.
"Fitting," John said.
"That it is," Greg laughed. "So what's your shift?"
Shift was the casual term for a Changeling's animal form, the shape they shifted to—the beast in their heart.
"Umm… Timber wolf," John said after a brief hesitation.
He wasn't used to saying it yet. He knew he would get there, but right now it was crazy to think that he could change into a sharp toothed predator at will. Plus, he knew it was a part of him, a part of him he could never deny. A pleased grin split over Greg's face.
"That's great!" he said. "German Shepherd myself. Was worried I'd have to show another little skittish thing around the woods, but you'll keep up just fine."
Greg walked him all over campus. He showed him the primary student dorms and the other class buildings. There was even a tiny student hospital on campus, as the Baker Institute was famous for its medical programs. When they approached the modern-looking buildings that John had spotted behind Baker Hall earlier Greg explained that they were the science buildings, put in only in the last year or so in attempt to be more eco-friendly.
As Greg talked, a girl with mousy hair and an awkward rush to her steps exited the building. When Greg spotted her he stopped and called her name.
She glanced up, taking a moment to recognize Greg before changing her course to meet them. She wore the same red coloured tie as Greg did.
"John, this is Molly Hooper," Greg said, indicating the young woman. "She's in the same year as us and a biology student, medical focus, just like you. Molly, this is John Watson. You'll probably see each other in classes."
Back home they filled out questionnaires at the beginning of every school year that took into account their student records as well as their intended plans. They were used for many things, one of which was for Insitute placement. John had decided years ago that he wanted to be a doctor—and accepted the fact that he would probably have to promise himself to the military to pay for school, but now that he was at an Institute… Well, they were miraculously funded. John had no idea why, but he wouldn't have to worry about managing to pay for medical school now. There were certainly benefits to making the change, John had to admit.
"Hello," Molly said politely, dropping her eyes shyly.
"Hi," John said.
"John's new," Greg explained, and even timid Molly glanced up at him questioningly.
He was so old to be a new change. He wondered how long he would be subjected to those looks. Not that he could do anything about it. John just smiled, tyring to pretend it wasn't as big a deal as everyone knew it was.
They said goodbye to Molly and continued on their tour, making their way in the general direction of the forest that seemed to back up to campus. They passed a set of apartment style dorms that pressed up against the woods on their way. Greg called it "B Wing" and explained these were mostly used by the older university students and even by a few junior teachers and professors.
"So what do those colours on all your ties mean?" John asked as he saw a younger girl with purple stripes pass them by.
"Oh!" Greg said, as though he was already have supposed to tell him but forgot. "They indicate what level of schooling you're in. There's yellow for primary, purple for secondary, red for sixth form, and blue for the Uni kids."
John nodded, and now that he was paying attention he easily saw the age collections within the colours.
Greg began to loop back towards the main buildings, and as they turned around one of the forest-side corners of Baker Hall John almost ran smack into another student. The young man had his nose buried in a heavy volume and hadn't been looking where he was going. As he dodged, John's elbow clipped the corner of the thick book, and it began to tumble from the boy's hands. John had always been gifted with good reflexes, so he caught the book without much effort.
"Sorry," John said automatically as he went to hand the book back to its owner.
The boy was tall and pale, with curly, dark brown hair and piercing blue, almond-shaped eyes that now regarded John carefully. There was... something there, something gleaming in his eyes like thousands of silver, miniature cogs on the inside of the finest, most complex clock, locked and turning at light speed. John's breath caught in his throat.
The boy wasn't wearing any tie at all. He cautiously reached out to take the book back, and cocked his head lightly to the side, eyes settled on John.
"New," he stated, his voice low and dark, the finality of a complete assessment ringing in his tone as he stared.
Then the boy took the proffered text and swept past.
John stood, a little shell-shocked for a second. What the hell was all that?
"Who was that?" John amended his question.
Greg shook his head, watching the boy go.
"That… is Sherlock Holmes," he explained, but John could tell there was more to say on the subject.
Greg idicated that they should keep walking, and continued.
"He's an odd one. He's a sixth form, but he's been here longer than any of us. He came to the Baker Institute when he was only five years old," Greg said, brows furrowed.
Shifting at five years was just as unheard of as John's seventeen. John smiled.
"So he's as strange as me then," John said.
Greg just laughed.
"Oh, you are completely, one hundred percent normal in comparison to Sherlock Holmes," Greg said before his smile slipped away into a more thoughtful expression.
"What does that mean?" John asked as they approached the dormitories John noticed on the way in.
"Like I said, he's been here so long… Yet not a single person knows what his shift is. Not anybody I've talked to at least. He is really clever; anyone who's ever had a class with him would know—I mean honestly he's a genius, but he doesn't talk to people if he can help it, and he never slip-shifts. And he doesn't have friends," Greg finished.
John was new to Changeling culture, but even he knew that you learned someone's shift form almost as a form of greeting, as already shown by Greg not but an hour ago. Most of the Changelings John had ever had a conversation with supplied the information willingly, even to Normals, and he assumed they would be even more free with their own kind. So for someone to have never revealed it… And to never slip-shift?
Slip-shifting was the occurrence of a Changeling unintentionally shifting, and it was very common among new or young Changelings as Dr. Mortimer had explained to John over the phone. It could even happent to adult Changelings if they didn't get a chance to exercise their shift forms for long enough.
"Huh…" John said as he twisted his neck to see if he could catch another glimpse of the boy who was even stranger than himself, but he was long gone.
"This is A Wing!" Greg said as they stopped in front of the dormitory.
"This is the home of most secondary and sixth form students. I live on the third floor."
Greg led them inside the building and paused, glacing around before he spotted two people walking in their direction. One was a young woman with frizzy, curled brown hair and the other was a boy who looked like he smelled something sour.
"Sally, Anderson!" he called to get their attention. "Have you seen Mrs. Hudson?"
"Probably in her office around this time," the girl, Sally, said cooly.
Greg thanked them and turned down the corridor on his right, John in tow.
"Sally and Anderson are on the Student Guard with me," Greg explained without John having to ask.
The building was rather nice, John noted, as they walked past rooms and lounges. Some of the doors to rooms were left open, and John could see that they were small but not unbearably so. Also, every room he'd seen so far had been a single. That was unusual. Any of the dormitories he'd seen at the universities he'd visited last fall were primarily two to a room. John thought perhaps they could just afford it at the Institutes, as they were surprisingly well funded.
Once or twice he even caught sight of what he assumed to be a shifted Changeling; a cat and a weasel streaking through the hallways, a cheetah lounging on a bed. It was all very strange.
They reached a windowed door at the end of the hallway, and Greg knocked lightly before entering.
"Mrs. Hudson? I've brought someone to see you," Greg said with a fondness in his voice that told John he liked the woman they were about to meet.
A little lady looked up from behind a desk, and at the sight of John and Greg she smiled warmly.
"Oh, hello, darling. You must be John?" she asked as she rose stiffly.
"Yes," John said.
"Well, I'll leave you in Mrs. Hudson's capable hands," Greg said, flashing a smile in her direction.
"Oh, shoo, you," she said good naturedly.
"John, I'll come by sometime after dinner, and we can go into the forest. How are you feeling?" he asked, and John knew what he meant.
"I'm okay. I shifted last night," John says.
"Good, good," Greg said before he disappeared around the doorframe.
"Greg's a good boy," Mrs. Hudson said warmly when he was gone.
John just nodded, not really knowing how to add to that.
"Right now, first we'll take your measurments, and then we'll show you to your room. Some of the folks with the Student Guard brought up your things a while ago so they're already there," she explained.
"Measurements?" John asked.
"For your uniform, darling," Mrs. Hudson explained.
Oh, so that's why the Baker Institute uniforms didn't look like absolute rubbish—measuring.
"If you grow out of it at any time just go down to the student shop in Baker Hall, and they'll fix you up. You can pick up your uniforms there tomorrow morning as well. I'll give you directions," she said helpfully.
That hit John a little bit like a low blow. He wished he was going to get taller, but if his family history had anything to say about the subject, it was unlikely at best.
As Mrs. Hudson measured she prattled on, and by the time she finished John learned that she was the housing coodinator of both A and B Wings and that she lived in B Wing herself. Also, she was highly grateful she wasn't running the primary dorms anymore—trying to keep primary schoolers with the ability to change into animals at will in line was akin to herding cats… Sometimes it was actually herding cats.
"Ready to see your room?" Mrs. Hudson asked when she was finished, and John nodded.
She led him up the stair after stair until they finally reached the top floor, floor six. John did not envy the members of the Student Guard who had to carry all his things up those stairs. Once in the hallway, Mrs. Hudson only led him past a couple of doors before stopping in front of a door marked 614A. She fiddled with some keys before turning the lock and allowing him to walk in.
It wasn't any thing special. A good sized window was set into the far wall; out it he could see Baker Grand Hall. There was a writing desk, and a simple twin bed, where his boxes and bags were currently stacked. There was a large wardrobe on the right wall as well. It wasn't huge, defintely smaller than his room at home, but it wasn't cramped. He could be more than comfortable here.
"Why are they all singles?" the question slipped out of its own accord.
"Well… Changelings often shift in their sleep or just find it more comfortable to sleep shifted, and, well, sometimes pajamas can get uncomfortable…" she said, attempting subtlety.
John got the message . They all had singles so it wouldn't be awkward for Changelings to sleep in the nude if they chose to shift. The thought almost made John giggle. In fact, it did.
"That's enough, dearest," Mrs. Hudson chastised, but there was a smile on her face.
"Hello, Mrs. Hudson," John heard a voice behind him say.
When he turned he saw a boy, who must have been close to his age, with glasses and a plump frame. He was even shorter than John was, he couldn't help but notice.
"Oh, hello, dear," Mrs. Hudson greeted. "How are you?"
"Good, good," he said, jovially. "And you?"
"Fine, darling," she said. "Oh, Mike, this is John, John Watson. He's just moving in."
Mike looked him over once before smiling and extending his hand.
"Nice to meet you," he said. "I'm down at the end of the hall, second to last on the right. I hope you have better luck with your next door neighbors than I have."
John cocked his head to the side in question.
He didn't miss the way Mrs. Hudson's lip twitched at Mike's words.
"Mike's next door neighbor has interesting sleep habits is all," she said.
"Plays that violin at all hours of the night, he does…" Mike said, looking wary. "And where do the explosions keep coming from?"
John was totally lost, but Mrs. Hudson just chuckled.
"I'll see what I can do about the violin," Mrs. Hudson assured Mike. "Oh, and John, here are your keys. The ridged one is for the dorm and the other is for the building."
"Thanks," John said sincerely.
"Do you need anything else, darling? A cup of tea to help you settle in?" she asked.
"A cuppa would be lovely," John said.
"Well, just this once… I'm not your housekeeper," she rambled on as she turned to go back the way they'd come, and John disappeared into his new room.
He shut the door and took a deep breath through his nose. This was going well. He was doing well. He let himself rest against the door for a moment. Then, deliberately, he pushed himself into the room and towards the boxes, and John Watson began to unpack his life.
People were dull—horrifyingly so. Every day people woke up, went about their buisiness, interacted with other dreadfully boring people, went home, and went to sleep, only to get up the next morning and do it all over again. Even Changelings, for all their mystery and inexplicable uniqueness, were basically uninteresting. They followed the same routines and interacted in the same disgustingly unexciting ways.
The irritated shrieking of a violin split the evening air. A bow flexed in frustration. Why were they all so dull?
Only once in a blue moon was there a spark, something new, something different, something interesting. But even those were no more than fleeting distractions from the monotony. The origin of the flame was always quickly deduced, and without the fuel of mystery it stuttered and flickered out, leaving only the tedious darkness once again. This is why Sherlock Holmes dedicated his life to tracking down those little sparks of the unknown, of brilliance, and taming each one…because what else did life have to offer him?
His frustration came to a—very loud—crecendo before an agonized wail cut into his musings.
"Jesus CHRIST. I'm begging you, Holmes!" a desperate voice pressed through the wall. "I have coursework due tomorrow!"
With a sigh that would have made anyone believe that he was the one being inconvenienced, the dark haired youth set his well cared-for violin on his bedspread. Sherlock's mood was only further reduced by his growing awareness of the tugging sensation in is stomach—a little twist, an itch. He hadn't changed in a few days, not even in sleep. Well, he hadn't exactly slept much in those past couple days either.
With one more heavy sigh, Sherlock resigned himself to the inevitability of a trip into the forest that evening. It's not that Sherlock disliked being a Changeling, quite the contrary, actually. It was one more thing that set him apart from the blundering masses, and sometimes there was a soothing clarity that came from from the predatory mind of his shift, when his brain was always swirling so frantically. It also provided heightened senses that had been useful to Sherlock on more than one occasion. It was simply an inconvenient to cater to in addition to his other bodily needs. Less inconvenient than sleep though…
When Sherlock reached the field that separated the inner campus and the forest, he beelined towards the changing room at the very end of the long line of booths that allowed Changelings to store their clothes and shift before entering the woods. Each one was about the size of a large powder room so that those with larger shift forms could change comfortably. One side had a door with a sliding sign that marked the booth as vacant or in use. Inside were coat hooks, a low bench, and a bin to put clothes in. There were also a series of rigged hangers, like little hooks susupend at different levels on the wall with an pressure-release, that allowed students to slip into their markers, the collars that distinguished the students from wild animals to avoid accidents, once they were shifted, but Sherlock couldn't be bothered with those.
Sherlock claimed the very last booth in the row, just as he always did; it was only a few dozen meters away from the treeline. He slid the sign over to read "in use." Inside he undid his scarf, removed his jacket, and hung them both up on the coathook before undressing completely and placing his neatly folded garments into the storage bin.
Then the lanky, pale adolescent disappeared, and in his place stood a lithe beast with fur like midnight and eyes like ice. He padded smoothly forward, cautiously nosing through the curtain that separated him from the forest. Nobody noticed the shadow that was Sherlock Holmes as he slipped out into the twilight and under the shading trees.