The next day passed with infuriating slowness. Sherlock found himself being poked and prodded all morning by the tailor, who was fitting him for a new suit and wedding cloak. Fittings, in Sherlock's experience, were always tetchy affairs. He hated being touched by someone he barely knew, hated standing still and quiet for long moments, hated having his limbs manipulated here and there. The entirety of the thing made his skin itch.
Luncheon was no better. He, Irene, Mycroft, and Mummy were feasted in a small private hall, so that they could make judgments upon the catering and decide what would be served at the wedding. It was excruciatingly tedious. The cook brought out plate after plate of tiny servings of lamb and duck and roast pork and fatted calf, stewed vegetables, sweet juicy cuts of fruit, crusty bread, veined and crumbling cheese, and so many different types of cakes and pastries Sherlock simply ceased counting. Mummy nibbled delicately, and Irene ate with slow but obvious pleasure. Mycroft looked as though he'd been granted his dying wish. Sherlock, however, merely poked at whatever new confection was set in front of him and frowned.
There was a pleasant moment after luncheon, when Sherlock met with the royal musicians and discussed which pieces they would be playing during the ceremony and at the party afterward. Mummy had given him a list of approved music for the ceremony itself, but she'd said nothing of the party. Sherlock picked out the darkest pieces he could think of. War music, funereal themes that dragged their way through somber notes second by aching second. Solemn fugues; mournful sonatas. The musicians gave each other worried looks as he recited his preferences, but they noted them down all the same. No doubt they'd take the list to Mycroft for approval, but Sherlock didn't mind. At worst, he heaped upon his brother one more needless irritation. At best, he ensured that the "celebration" of his detested nuptials would be the depressing affair it was meant to be.
Then it was back to the tedium: another fitting, this time for the clothes he would be wearing during his and Irene's honeymoon holiday to the seaside. After that he was made to "rub elbows" with seemingly every idiotic buffoon the realm had to offer at a yet another party (this one thrown in honor of Irene's presence at court). The pantheon of grinning, stupid faces made the vein in Sherlock's forehead pulse dangerously. He kept scanning the room, hoping to catch sight of his little captain, but to no avail. John wasn't there.
And some dark voice seemed to whisper in his ear the longer John abstained from the party: Do you blame him? He's likely bedding Lord Lestrade's son this very moment. The images his mind conjured (dusky, dreamlike, skin and mouths and fluttering eyelashes) made his stomach clench. Worse were the knowing glances Mycroft kept shooting at him, the subtle smirks and the contented sighs. When he could take it no longer, Sherlock dragged Mycroft away from the throngs of people by his elbow and tugged him into a secluded corner. "Why do you keep looking at me like that?" he demanded, his eyes blazing.
Mycroft smoothed the arm of his jacket with a little wrinkle of his nose. "I'm certain I don't know what you mean."
"I'm certain you do." Sherlock stepped closer, searching Mycroft's face. "You know something. Something to do with me. What is it?"
"Honestly, Sherlock," Mycroft said chidingly. "Your proclivity towards theatrics is exhausting." He considered his fingernails for a second. "Of course, were I the topic of all the castle gossip, no doubt I would be equally tiresome. One hears certain things, Sherlock, about you and Captain Watson."
"Boring," Sherlock declared, waving the rumors away with his thin fingers.
Mycroft shrugged. "Perhaps. However, I have it on good authority that not all such rumors are without merit."
Sherlock's mouth went dry. "Irrelevant," he managed, his cool countenance not quite enough to fool his brother. "John is an honorable man. Now that Irene is here..."
"John," sneered Mycroft. "Dear lord, will you listen to yourself? You sound like a love-besotted child. Thank the gods the captain himself proved easily distractable."
Everything inside Sherlock seemed to tense at once. "Elaborate. Now."
Mycroft laughed and swished his wine around in its glass. "I only meant that his tryst with the Lestrade boy should be considered fortuitous, brother mine. Don't let it upset you so. Especially not when there are so many other things to be concerned with right now, like whelping a little princeling with your new bride. Or keeping your hands clean of my affairs." He leaned in and dropped his voice. "I know what you and Watson are doing, this little man-hunt for Lord Moriarty. It stops tonight, or I will find yet another way to distract your common-born whore. Understood?"
"He had agreed to accompany me on my walk tonight," Sherlock said stiffly. "Nothing more."
For a long moment Mycroft watched his brother's face, his steely eyes narrowed. Then he pursed his lips and let out a huff of air. "You always were such a little fool, Sherlock," he sighed. "Carry on if you must, but don't say I didn't warn you. War is a dangerous game."
Finally. Sherlock greeted the falling darkness with closed eyes and a thudding heart. His nerves were high, the highest they'd been since he and John had first met. He'd even taken a draught of soothing poppy juice that afternoon. He hadn't tasted a drop of the stuff in months. But John was bedding Lestrade and Mycroft was watching everything- everything- and his wedding was in days and the buzzing in his head was growing louder and louder and louder until it drowned out all coherent thought and left Sherlock exhausted and angry.
The poppy juice had lent things a sweet quality, though. Sherlock felt calm, swept clean. He could face anything so long as his mind wasn't buzzing like a disturbed beehive, he was sure of that.
Checking his attire in the mirror, Sherlock let his gaze travel up to his face. He looked thin, even thinner perhaps than usual, and his skin was especially pale. Two anti-moons, blue-black and hollow, graced the skin beneath his eyes. His irises were thin, his pupils wide. Not a prince, he thought. A corpse. He swept his hand down the front of his shirt, let out a breath, and turned to find his cloak.
John met him in the anterior garden, standing in his usual place, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders shrugged. He looked so small, the little captain, and Sherlock was struck with the urge to take him away from Mycroft's clutches and the wretched palace and all that idiotic drivel that constituted life at court. He wanted to hoard John for himself, but more importantly he wanted to preserve the things that made John indubitably good. Already Sherlock could see the effects of court and of Sherlock's own wretchedness corrupting John, diluting him, wearing him away. But where could they possibly go? Neither man was free.
Eventually John noticed Sherlock watching him, the little catch of breath in his throat betraying his surprise. "Your Highness," he said, tipping slightly at the waist.
Something cold settled in Sherlock's stomach. "Captain."
John gave him half a smile and gestured towards the garden wall. "Shall we?"
"Tonight," Sherlock said, holding out his arm, "I thought we'd exit from the front gates."
Quirking his eyebrow, John's smile blossomed. "The front gates, eh?" He shook his head, chuckling, and looped his arm through Sherlock's. "As you wish."