John took Hamish through the Porthaven door to fetch them more food. No matter what the soldier had eaten, the doctor lingering in John's veins refused to sit by and watch as the young apprentice filled himself with dry bread and eggs. The market stretched along the harbour. Only a few steps away from the stalls, John could see the glistening blue of the sea, the fishermen hauling their catch up to the market, and the boats bobbing up and down, painted with bright colours. Hamish grumbled the entire time.
'I don't like potatoes,' he growled as John paid for a sack of them and a good amount of vegetables.
John smiled at him sweetly. 'Well I do,' he replied.
'I don't like parsnips.'
Well I do.'
'I don't like fish.'
'Well I do.'
There was a resounding bang behind them. A young woman cried out, dropping her basket of fresh haddock. The dead fish landed on the cobbled street with a sickening splat. John stared down into their lifeless eyes. Suddenly he remembered the taste of soot, and the same look in a young man's eyes. Suddenly there was smoke on the wind, a cruel trick of his mind. He shivered.
'Look!' cried one of the fishermen in his boats. 'They're back. The army is back!'
John turned, a leaden fist forming heavily in his gut. It wasn't his imagination after all - there was ash in the sky, raining down in soft, swirling patterns. Through the harbour, hulls groaning from the heat of the roaring flames, warships returned. Dark plumes of smoke rose into the sky, swathing the warships in darkness. Men screamed as the fire ate through their uniform, while the lucky majority dove off into the water. The fishing boats that were not tied up at the pier circled the struggling soldiers, fishermen dragging them out of the sea. John's keen eyes caught dark slashes of red on the men's uniforms. The ghosts of hoarse cries echoed in his ears. He pulled Hamish closer to his side.
'We should go back,' John advised quietly.
Hamish shrugged him off, eyes bright. 'No, I want to see,' he insisted.
It seemed he was not the only one excited by the scene. A crowd gathered at the docks, chattering and waving as though what lay before them was an announcement of success instead of a garish display of defeat. John's stomach turned. He averted his eyes from the enthusiastic crowd, turning them instead towards the abandoned market.
Then he saw it: a black hollow of dark magic, whispering of tentacles and jagged teeth, dressed in a ridiculous pink-and-blue pinstripe suit, wearing a cheery straw hat. People moved around the creature obliviously, too captivated by the scene of ash and smoke before them. It also explained why John could not smell him, his senses smothered by the falling ash in the sky and the roaring heat of the burning ships in the pier. But he could feel the creature and its familiar, treacle-thick magic. He had felt the same darkness when he had first met Sherlock, when he had been rescued from the King's soldiers.
John tapped Hamish on the elbow and nodded at the conjured thing. The boy's blue eyes widened with fear. He clutched onto John's hand. 'The Witch of the Waste is looking for us,' he whispered. 'We have to go back.'
They slipped away into the crowd started to descend into full-blown panic. John the soldier recognised it. Once the pounding of one's heart faded, all one was left with was the bitter taste of cold ash in one's mouth, and the coagulating blood on one's hand. It was easy to glorify something when it wasn't real, and there weren't corpses floating in the water.
Soon the Witch of the Waste's creature was lost in the screams and wails. Hamish opened the door to the Castle quickly, motioning for John to follow. As John stepped through the door, he glanced behind him. Paper fell from the sky in stacked sheets, drifting amongst the curling ash. A soldier barked out orders to ignore the leaflets. John extended his hand, catching one as it fell. The language was beyond his understanding, he had never been required to learn any other but that of his Kingdom and his medicine, but the picture was of a middle-aged, handsome man with a gentle smile, dressed smartly in a white uniform, neat silver medals pinned onto his front.
'John, come on,' cried Hamish desperately.
The leaflet drifted out of John's hand as he was pulled through the doorway. The dial swung away from the Porthaven door, and the sounds of screaming died away. John stared at the door, unable to silence the visions in his head of dying boys in blue uniforms, drowning in the oil-polluted sea. His shoulder burned with agony. He bent his head against the hard wooden door, closed his eyes, and tried to breathe.
And beside him, foot perched on a stair, Hamish gripped his arm in a fiercely protective embrace.
It was Hamish that told the wizard in the end, not Mrs Hudson. John was absent, worn out from a day of fiercely chasing insects out of Hamish's filthy bedroom, curled up in the corner of the boys room. The tension had drifted from his lined, weary face, and his chest moved gently up and down as he snored lightly. There were no nightmares plaguing the good soldier. Perhaps it had something to do with how far into the Waste the Castle had hobbled, due to Mrs Hudson's fluttering panic at the mention of Sherlock's enemy searching for them. Perhaps it had more to do with the fact that Hamish had brewed sweet-smelling tea for the kind old man, and that despite his youth, the apprentice was far more skilled in alleviating curses than he would ever let on.
Sherlock listened to Hamish's tale in silence, his fingers pressed against his lips, his eyes dark and withdrawn. Dark feathers glistened behind his ears, half-covered by the softly curling locks, but they were visible nonetheless.
'You did not sense the Morphling,' Sherlock frowned.
Hamish shook his head, averting his eyes in shame.
The wizard tapped his foot against the polished floorboards. 'I would expect no less of Moriarty,' he remarked, grinning wickedly. 'He set up wards so we would not sense his pet.'
There was a brief silence as the wizard and his apprentice considered the danger they would now face as their enemies closed in.
'He's very powerful, isn't he?' Hamish said quietly, glancing upwards.
Sherlock smiled. 'Oh yes, he certainly is. Moriarty has no idea what we have on our side.' The wizard leaned back in his chair, the light of the slumbering fire-demon dancing on his angular features. His silver eyes flashed with delight. John is so much more than a simple Sensitive. But we'll never let him know that.'
As far as John understood, they were never to go back to Porthaven or Kingsbury again. Sherlock seemed set on putting as much distance between his romping Castle of hissing gears and creaking joints, and general civilisation as possible. John didn't mind all too much. It was what he set out to do in the first place, when he discarded his scalpel and dreams of dark-haired boys dying the mud. Out here, where the sky and the hills seem to drift into one mist-shrouded shape, his dreams were filled with the light perfume of lowers, and the giggling hush of a stream.
Time passed in an abstract murmur. The Waste was no longer the harsh wilderness John had braved into. As the castle walked, its great cogs would creak and groan, and smoke spewed into the air in great puffs. John would stand on one of the back balconies. They were so far up now that the clouds almost touched the grassy hills as they drifted by, and the air was beautifully pure and cold. John felt a happiness deep in his bones that was indescribable, something like golden syrup dancing in his joints. The witchfire didn't even sting. For all he cared, he was twenty again, and there had never even been a war.
'You are absolutely spectacular, Mrs Hudson!' he called down, jubilant.
She giggled, and a puff of pink smoke shot into the air above them before dissipating into a fading glittering in the sky.
Even Sherlock seemed in a better mood. For all the demons in the Waste, he was actually eating. Sometimes, when they would stop by great clearings where deep pools of water slipped into the depths of these slumbering mountains, he would draw bright lights out of his fingertips and shoot them into the night sky. Golden showers would explode around the wizard, his apprentice, and his unlikely Sensitive, reflections dancing across the water in flashing ripples. John would remark how much they were like stars falling, to which Sherlock would respond with a sad smile. Sometimes, on these nights, after Hamish had fallen asleep on the soft grass, the soldier and the wizard would sit together and talk quietly of wars past, of household demons, and fairytales that no one could remember.
Sometimes, just sometimes, John's hair would soften into a warm, honey colour, the lines on his face would disappear, and his voice would be rich with happiness. And if that were the case, then perhaps Sherlock's eyes would stray closer to the secret place where John's neck met his shoulder, or his thin lips, or even the delicate scars lacing the doctor's knuckles, and he would forget the whirring of his mind and the gleaming brilliance of his magic.
The heap of a mess Sherlock insisted on calling a castle had four bathrooms altogether, each as horribly filthy as the next. Thankfully, the foul odours commonly found in such horrors are absent. Instead, the faint aroma of pine, citrus, and lemongrass clung to the walls. John thought he smelt an undertone of alcohol - not the booze one used to smother oneself in, but the sort one used to clean wounds. It would not be beyond a wizard to attain one or two wounds, especially not one so infamous.
It took all day, but the four health hazards were finally transformed into clean bathrooms.
Sherlock, however, was not quite as pleased.
'These were experiments!' he whined, jabbing a finger accusingly at the first bathroom. 'I needed to know the result of a potion when combined with the effects of an over-heated -'
'Do you ever take baths?' John interrupted, folding his arms over his chest. He had spent so much time away from the reality where Sherlock was a great and terrible wizard. He existed in the universe where the great wizard was nothing more than a spoilt brat. 'Do you like being clean, Sherlock? No, don't answer that question. My Sensitive powers are telling me you're going to come up with some snide retort.'
The blonde wizard stared at him, mouth agape in shock.
John rolled his eyes. 'Just take a bath,' he ordered. 'I'll get Mrs Hudson to run the hot water.' He glanced at the greasy, stringy state of Sherlock's hair. 'And wash your hair,' he added. And with that, he turned on his heel and left, leaving a furious wizard in his wake.
An hour later and the bathroom door was locked, and the sound of running water and a low voice humming was heard.
'He actually listened to you,' Hamish frowned suspiciously.
Mrs Hudson stopped chewing on a log for a moment to titter with laughter, her topmost flames spurting forth green and red sparks. 'He smelt horrible,' she giggled. 'It was about time someone made him see sense.'
The young apprentice couldn't help but smile at that remark. 'He always stinks when he's obsessed with a case,' he admitted.
'What case?' John asked, bemused. 'We've been out here for months. There's nothing for him to work on.'
'Oh, he's always working,' Mrs Hudson huffed.
Their conversation was interrupted by a blood-curdling scream. John leapt to his feet, hand instinctively reaching for a knife at his hip - he would find none there, but John the soldier had worn one all his life - blocking Hamish from harm with his body. Heavy footfalls pounded down the stairs from the rooms above, the scream rising into a wailing. A towel loosely wrapped around his waist, hands fisted in his now bright orange hair, thundered the Great wizard Sherlock, producing the most ridiculous amount of noise John had ever heard. John's body relaxed instantly.
'My hair!' the wizard was shrieking. 'Look what you've done with your meddling and your cleaning and your moving my perfect experiments and my perfect potions.' He threw himself dramatically onto a chair, burying his head in his hands. 'My persona is ruined because of you,' he mourned.
'It's a lovely colour,' Hamish grinned devilishly. John threw a glare at the boy.
Sherlock produced a garbled moan. His hair shivered once and darkened into thick, black curls. 'Ruined,' he muttered.'
'Look, that looks fine,' John frowned, getting mildly irritated with the theatrics. 'Just like Hamish's hair. Isn't that alright now? What makes you so obsessed about being blonde anyhow?'
The wizard lifted his wintery eyes to glare angrily at John. 'How can you be such an idiot!' he growled. 'Obvious. Obvious. Blonde is the most common hair colour associated with beauty.' He cursed, the words heavy with rancid black magic. 'I must be beautiful, do you understand? I must be beautiful. I have no purpose if I am not beautiful.' As he spoke, thick slime pooled out of his pores, concealing his body. John tried to reach for his shoulder to comfort him, but his hand stung with the bitterness of the wizard's magic.
The room darkened. Shadows rippled across the walls, forming angular eyes and wide, howling mouths. The smell of it was suffocating, sharp and acidic and too much like sulphur burning into John's skin.
'Sherlock, this isn't decent,' exclaimed Mrs Hudson, cowering behind her pile of firewood.
The wizard's eyes were blank. The silme oozed so thick, his fine features were barely visible. The howling rose into a shrieking, and the shadows grew bigger and bigger and bigger. Insects the sizes of large birds slithered across the floor. Hamish watched them dart out the door and down the stairs in faint interest.
'He's calling the dark spirits,' he informed John casually. 'Sherlock throws tantrums a lot. The last time he did, it was because his sock index got messed up.'
Something snapped inside John, something which had wavered since the day his life had been shattered into a million pieces and burned with witchfire. He had marched through this stupid sodding curse like a good soldier, he had borne the disintegration of his life's purpose, and he had exiled himself to this wilderness with this madman and his sodding vanity.
'You're a spoiled brat, Sherlock,' he hissed, jabbing his finger in the incoherent wizard's direction. 'All you care about is your little experiments and your hair and all the little things that you want to be perfect. You think you don't have a purpose? What about me? I'm stupid, and ugly, and useless, so you can just sod off!' He blinked, shocked at his words. His eyes stung sharply, but he would not cry. Not here, not now. He stormed out of the flat, out the door, and into the night and its relentless downpour.