John is determined.
This year will be different. He isn't going to let the incident affect his life anymore. It had happened nine months ago, it was time to get over it.
He's going to move back into the Gryffindor dorm. He is, he is. He's a fifth year now he can't sleep in his own cordoned off bedroom because he has pathetic nightmares. He'll be taking his O.W.Ls at the end of the year; he's damn well not going to wimp out, crying off due to illness.
It's not as if he's actually ill, really, the twinge in his leg is nothing, and yes, he has a hideous scar on his shoulder but the physical therapy he's been doing over summer has meant that he has managed to strengthen his muscles. He might even make it back onto the Quidditch team; they've been doing abysmally since John has been unable to fulfil his role as keeper. And he's been doing really well getting back to the old John Watson, the Quidditch keeper and good friend, rather than the shadowy stranger he had become after the events of the Yule Ball.
He's learnt, more or less, how to suppress the worst of the dreams. Lavender, Salvia sclarea and various other herbs in warm possets with honey before bed, listening to soft, soothing music or reading particularly dull books on potions or arithmancy usually help him to drift off into an untroubled rest.
Sometimes, however, nothing helps. There are spells which send people mad but nothing which can drive someone sane. Nothing which can stop the terrible onslaught of memories in a magical, yet still very human mind.
He dreams of the insults, of the taunts, and of the deep darkness which the Dementor's kiss unveiled. These dreams are nothing like the velvet veil of sleep, the half remembered slumbers which drifts like clouds through his mind, behind his closed eyes. These dreams, these nightmares rip through his sleeping mind like the beasts they are named for, tearing at peacefulness with hooves of fire. And he remembers everything he went through while that foul creature held him down and tried to remove his soul. He remembers the pain, the loss, the knowledge that if he survived he would be a mere shell of his former self and the crushing certainty that death would be a sweeter result. He still does not quite understand how he survived that night more or less intact, even as broken and wounded as he was. Or how they found him unconscious in a dungeon, when he'd been attacked on a ground floor corridor.
The worst part though is not the nightmares: the swirling hideousness of having his every weakness exposed, every failing highlighted, every tiny fault examined, critiqued and denounced by his nearest and dearest is bearable, because he always wakes. And knows that Harry would never be that cruel, that his parents do love him, that his friends do value him... and then he remembers the words of one person, one former friend, spoken to him not while under the Dementor's terrible spell, but under his own steam, spoken apparently from the very heart. And he is hurt once again by the cruelly crafted arrows and stinging barbs of the words uttered to him in complete sincerity. All the progress he makes during in the daylight hours seems to shrink away into the darkness, leaving him weak and injured, gasping for breath like a wounded animal, the pain in his shoulder tweaking, his leg spasming, his eyes leaking with remembered horror. Those nights were getting less and less frequent but they still happen with an alarming regularity.
On those nights John has no chance of getting back to sleep so he has to turn on the lights and dig out a text book, loose himself in mind numbing academia. Still the extra reading means he's going to have a head start on this year's curriculum.
Still, despite the nightmares, John's feeling cautiously optimistic as he steps off the Hogwarts Express and onto the rickety platform at Hogsmeade Station, flanked by Sally and Mike. They locate their trunks, owls and friends and John feels like its old times again, even if he does get the occasional sideways glance from people, most of them a little more nervous of him than they had been nine months ago. But pretty soon things ease, people relaxing, forgetting themselves, telling jokes.
Things aren't quite as they were; John doesn't even attempt to be the gregarious one at the centre of the group anymore, but the encouraging smiles that Sally and Mike give him on the sly show that he's on the mend at least. Yes, things are going to be better this year, he thinks, as the familiar turrets and twisted rooftops of Hogwarts. He feels anticipation and a sense of homecoming rather than fear, and his spirits are buoyed further upwards.
Heading down the corridor to see the Gryffindor head of house to try and persuade her to let him to move out of his solitary room and back to the dorm he is actually smiling, actually glad to be back at school.
Then he turns a corner and walks slap bang into Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes who is now a Slytherin fifth year.
Sherlock Holmes, the boy whom he hasn't so much as exchanged a polite greeting with in nine months.
Sherlock Holmes John's former best friend.
Sherlock has apparently grown another three inches this summer. His skin, although still pale has a slight golden sheen which indicates another summer with his Grandparents in France. His hair is a little longer and he has grown into his ungainly limbs, his shoulders broadening slightly, his torso tapering to his incredibly narrow waist. In short even in his school uniform Sherlock looks like the elegant, otherworldly creature John always suspected he was.
John has to remind himself that this boy is most definitely not his friend anymore, if he ever truly was. It wasn't like his friends in Gryffindor and the other two houses hadn't warned him against befriending Sherlock. He wished he'd listened.
And not because Sherlock had been so cruel to him nor because Sherlock had abandoned him for all those weeks while he was convalescing. It wasn't even because Sherlock had all but completely ignored him once John had returned to Hogwarts after his extended stay in St. Mungo's.
Really, what bothered John were the memories of their friendship. The hours they'd spent together talking and laughing, the letters they wrote in the holidays, working together for lessons or to discover the truth around Carl Powers's death: they had practically lived in each other's pockets for months.
And it's the knowledge that none of that meant anything to Sherlock which hurts. Sometimes, in his more cynical moments John thinks that Sherlock might possibly have faked their entire friendship for his own amusement. Perhaps he was even laughing about it behind John's back. Most of the time John just thinks that Sherlock reached the conclusion that their friendship was pointless when John wasn't of use to him. Why make the effort with an invalided Quidditch player, a fifteen year old who suffers from nightmares? The logical yet painful conclusion was that for Sherlock there was no reason to bother with him anymore.
Standing in the corridor the other boy seems rooted to the spot, his expression is wary and he doesn't quite meet John's eyes.
"Good," John thinks, somewhat hollowly. Sherlock doesn't have the right to look John in the eye anymore. In fact, he doesn't have the right to be in the same corridor as John anymore.
John narrows his eyes at the other boy and has the mildly bitter satisfaction of seeing Sherlock wince and dip his head, before John neatly sidesteps him and stalks off.
He hopes, rather fruitlessly, that Sherlock hasn't noticed his limp as he walks away whilst gritting his teeth against a pain which isn't actually there but still feels very real.
Sherlock watches John walk away, noting the stiffness in his spine, the way he favours one leg when he walks. Even in a quick glance Sherlock had seen that John looked both healthier than he had done before the summer break but still not his old self: there were dark smudges under his eyes belying sleepless nights, quite possibly nightmares. Sherlock tells himself he's noticing these things distantly, like a magic-botanist making notes on the properties of herbs. However, the ache in his chest tells him he's doing nothing of the sort: John hurts and in turn that hurts Sherlock.
Sherlock knows that John has reason to be suffering. A lesser person would have been destroyed by that terrible night. John sees himself as weakened by it, Sherlock knows that much. He can't see the incredible strength he's employed to keep himself together; he can only see the ways in which he is not as strong as before, what he lacks rather than all he possesses. Sherlock watched from a safe distance as John got steadily better after his return to school. He will have to keep away knowing that to make an overture now would only be rebuffed. And quite rightly, as far as John is concerned. Sherlock had abandoned him during his time of need. The damage Sherlock had done to their friendship during the Yule Ball was only compounded by Sherlock's silence after John's ordeal.
And it isn't like Sherlock can tell John why he avoided him, why he continues to avoid him. Why it's for John's own good.
So no matter how much Sherlock wants to run down the corridor, grab John by his (good) arm and explain everything, beg forgiveness, throw his arms around John's shoulders, he simply can't. He has to keep John safe and the truth will only hurt him. Then there's always the chance that John won't believe him, that he'll shrug Sherlock off and walk away, believing all the rumours about Sherlock's cold hearted ways.
Sherlock watches the corner of the drafty stone corridor, the one John had disappeared around just a few moments before, with regret roiling in his chest, bitterness in his throat. He doesn't know how he'll cope if every meeting with John Watson from now on will involve that level of hostility. He cannot forget the way he and John used to interact, the easy camaraderie, the joy he felt at having a friend.
With a heart as heavy and empty as a disused iron cauldron Sherlock turns and walks towards the library, to spend the afternoon alone.
Nine Months earlier; the night of the Yule Ball....
It's Mycroft who notices it first. He was in the process of getting himself and Irene some punch when a distinct chill hit him, cooling the air immediately around him. He realises, very quickly, that this is no ordinary blast of air, as if someone has opened the door to allow the wintry weather of outside to permeate the relatively warm atmosphere of the Great Hall. No, this was something different in the extreme, something he hadn't felt in a long while. Not since the last time he was at Azkaban prison, visiting his father.
He abandons the punch and goes immediately to where he'd last seen Sherlock, looking pensive, chatting with Irene. He's still there, now looking rather miserable, as Irene is talking to him. Good, his brother and his cousin are alright, at least for now. He'd hate to have to explain to his aunt and his step-uncle if anything happened to Irene, he can't imagine his mother's reaction if Sherlock got hurt. But they aren't safe, no one is if Mycroft's perception is correct. Fear clutches at his heart but he swallows it down.
Mycroft needs to find the headmaster, and quickly. He sprints through the crowded hall.
Through the cold and darkness, John can hear a voice...
...Harry's shouting again, she's always so angry, but now she's angry with John... "Stop trying to make friends with me! You've got all your freaky friends at your bloody special school, don't you? Why'd you always have to make peace with everyone John? It makes you a boring little drip..." she sneers, turning to leave despite John calling her...
"Spread out, search the school, quickly!" the headmaster hisses at the assembled group of teachers.
Mycroft stands with them, listening to the rudimentary, slightly desperate plan. All around them the dance is carrying on, young people dancing, laughing, talking, none of them feeling the creeping melancholy and distinct chill that Mycroft had become attuned to, after many years. He shudders even as he nods and pulls out his wand, hoping against hope that they stop them in time.
John drifts again, the cold swallowing him up.
"... just so disappointed in you John, you aren't studying hard enough! Letting us all down..." His mum's face drifts in front of his eyes, upset and angry. He reaches out to her but she turns away.
His father is stony faced, no it speaking. He also turns away from John, disdain written deep in his expression.
John's throat constricts with sorrow, he reaches out, screams for his parents to help him. They don't listen. They don't even hear.
Sherlock's eyes scan the room and settle on Sarah who is a lone figure against a stone pillar: John hasn't returned yet. She looks rather impatient and slightly annoyed: it has been half an hour since John went to the loo. Or since John told her he was going to the loo and Sherlock had followed him, argued with him and then verbally eviscerated him.
Clenching his jaw in an effort to stop a cringe of embarrassment and shame he tunes back in to Irene, who is currently telling him how embarrassed and ashamed he should be of himself.
"You're a real piece of work, you know that, Holmes?" Irene says, poking him hard enough in the arm to actually make him wince in pain.
"Yes, I'm starting to realise that and as soon as he returns I intend to apologise, on bended knee if I have to, now stop- ow!- doing that!" Sherlock hisses, after Irene gives him a fierce jab in the ribs with a pointed fingernail.
"You don't have to propose to him, dummy. Just treat him nice." Irene folds her arms and gives him her fiercest look. Sherlock withers a bit inside. The fierce look on Irene's face fades and she touches his cheek, lightly, with her fingertips, a pacifying motion.
"Hey, it'll be alright you know. I'm sure he'll forgive you...he's known you for months, right? He must know you're kind of a dick."
"That's very reassuring, thank you."
Irene shrugs and then frowns. "Hey...where'd you brother go?"
A quick glance around the crowded hall reveals that Mycroft is indeed absent from the dance as well as the majority of the faculty who had been acting as chaperones; the teachers who are left look...unsettled.
If there's one thing Sherlock has always been good at its jumping to the right conclusion. Something bad has clearly happened...outside of the Great Hall. Panic rises in him and he hopes, desperately, that for the first time in his life his deduction is completely wrong.
"Help! Please, someone!"
Mycroft hears the voice from down the corridor and sets off at a run, the head of Slytherin and another teacher, the new potions master at his heels. They round the corner and find a young woman on the freezing stone floor, a nasty cut marring her forehead.
"They took him!"she screams, her French accent more pronounced with distress, heavily distorting her words. "I tried, that... that thing had him and then the men came and-" she gasps.
Ever the gentleman, Mycroft has already wrapped his suit jacket around the girl's shaking shoulders.
"It's alright, you're safe now." says the potions master, in a vaguely soothing, mostly patronising manner.
"I know I'm safe, you fool! It's John who isn't safe, it's John you have to find! They didn't want anything to do with me!"she shouts, shaking with righteous anger now. What Mycroft had misinterpreted as fear for her own life he now recognises as a fierce determination to save another.
Then the name sinks in. John. Mycroft feels as close to panic as he ever has. Sherlock's friend. The Gryffindor Quidditch player. The nice boy who writes to Sherlock in the holidays. The boy he'd chatted to only a few weeks before, and the only person on the planet outside of his family who seems capable of accepting Sherlock for who is.
The boy who was absent from the Great Hall.
"You have to find him! The Dementor-"
Mycroft doesn't hear much more. He knew as soon as he'd felt the cloying fingers of darkness in the atmosphere, the prevailing coldness that had nothing to do with the weather. It could only be a Dementor.
"Do you have any idea where they took him?" Mycroft asks the girl. He realises that he probably barked the question at her considering the way her head whips round. The looks he is receiving from the teachers suggest he was none to gentle about it. But there simply isn't time for social niceties: there is every chance John is dying as they speak.
"...I think one of the men said something about 'down below'... they hit me with a concussive spell and I passed out, I'm so sorry." For the first time her strength wavers and her voice breaks: she looks forlorn and achingly young. "He saved my life."
Mycroft nods his thanks then apparates immediately to the dungeons, the only place 'down below' in regards to that particular corridor. The lack of wisdom in going it alone will only hit him later.
There seem to me more people than ever, laughing, dancing and generally acting as useless, fleshy blockades as Sherlock makes his way through the crowd, pushing towards the doors. He has to get out of here, he has to find John. The impending sense of danger, that John is at risk, simply won't leave him alone.
Finally Sherlock reaches the doors: they are locked. Sherlock shakes the large iron handles in frustration before pulling out his wand.
"Alohomora." he whispers fervently.
Nothing happens. There's a stronger enchantment on the doors than a simple lock and key. Nervous heat prickles on Sherlock's forehead and under his arms: something bad has happened, that is for certain now. Everyone was locked in the Great Hall for safety: John was locked out, therefore he was unsafe. In danger.
"Sherlock?" Irene is right behind him, looking confused.
"I need to get out." he says shortly.
"What? Why?" Irene pulls at the handles as well, making the same ineffectual rattling as Sherlock had.
"Look around." Sherlock doesn't need to give a further explanation. A few seconds later Irene gasps. It gives Sherlock no satisfaction that he managed to work something out before his cousin: the conclusions they have both come to could be horrifying. Could be deadly.
As Sherlock imagined he might, the headmaster appears at their side, looking palely determined.
"Sherlock, come away from the doors."
"Why are we locked in? What's happening?" Sherlock hisses.
"John is out there, now tell me what is happening."
The headmaster shuts his eyes and for a second he doesn't look like an old wizard, he looks like an ancient man, frail and helpless. When he opens his eyes his expression is steely, inscrutable, but Sherlock has seen the shocking fragility underneath: however much Sherlock respects the man, he is no longer the powerful wizard he was ten, even five years before.
"I'm not entirely sure what is happening, Sherlock, but your brother..." the headmaster pauses, blinks again, looks away, "Your brother intimated that he felt the presence of a Dementor."
Sherlock's sneering face drifts into John's unconscious, the words heightened by the Dementor's kiss: John feels his life dripping away from him, like a pipe with a slow leak, like blood dripping from an open wound. He's dying and all he can hear are Sherlock's mocking words, his parent's disapproval, Harry's bitterness. He's dying... dying...dying...
"Call it off now. I don't think Johnny's in any fit state to put up a fight, are you, Johnny?"
The ache, the dreadful, interminable chill of death has been lifted, but John is left unbearably weak. He can barely lift his head to discover the source of the strange, lilting voice with a strong accent which John thinks is Irish. It's an almost kind voice, in a way, if it wasn't for the obvious, bitingly sarcastic undertone.
"Come on now, you can do better than that. Don't you want to look me in the eye, hmm?"
Fingers under his chin, and John's lolling head is forced up. He screws his eyes shut against the sudden, intrusive flare of a flaming torch, but not before catching the sketchy outline of someone in front of him.
"Ah, ah, ah, eyes forward, dear." says the voice, a light, bright contrast to the sharp dig of thumb and fingers at John's jaw. Nails scratch John's cheek and the jolt of sharp pain forces his eyes open.
"Oh look now, bright eyed and bushytailed, wide awake again." John's eyes begin to focus and he can make out a slash of white. After a moment the whiteness reveals itself as two rows of sharp teeth, grinning at him, illuminated by the torchlight.
"Maybe bushytailed was a bit of an overstatement. Oh well, can't have everything." The supporting hand with its razor sharp nails disappears and John's head drops forward again.
"Moran, string him up." Commands the man with the teeth.
Brutally strong hands grip John's hips and he is hoisted into the air. His body screamed in reaction: apparently he'd curled himself into a ball while attempting to protect himself from the Dementor and the sudden, jerking movement sends jolts of agony through his being. Stinging lactic acid froths in his muscles as the person, presumably 'Moran', shackles his wrists, pressing him hard against the freezing cold wall. John bites his lip, but he can't help a little mewl of pain as Moran yanks his arms about.
He is dimly aware that he must be in the school's dungeon, but he has no idea how he got here. Apparently whilst he was under the Dementor's spell John had been moved. A sudden memory of Dominique sends a burst of worry through him.
The man with the teeth suddenly lets out a high, screeching laugh, full of delight.
"Oh, John, you are so precious! Nice to know that chivalry isn't dead, is that one of the requirements to get into Gryffindor now? Honestly, aren't you sweet, worrying about that little ginger piece while you're here at death's door!"
His head is lifted again, this time by a different, even less gentle hand. Moran's fingers are rougher and larger, capturing John's entire chin in his grip. When John's opens his eyes he gets his first proper view of the man with the teeth.
He's short, probably the same height as John, with large liquid eyes. They are the most instantly noticeable and disturbing part of the man's face: deep and dark they are utterly dead. The grin on the man's face is fixed but his eyes tell of no mirth.
"Hello John. That little bitch is fine, by the way. Do you know who I am?"
John can only blink, his vocal chords don't seem to be working. As the torment in his body subsides anxiety finally seems to be kicking in. He's being held, weak as a newborn kitten against his will by someone who seems quite mad and who can apparently control a Dementor. John can still feel the creature's presence, but it is distant now, having apparently drifted away to another part of the dungeon after being released from its duties.
"My name is James Moriarty. Do you know me now, my dear?"
John feels his eyes widen as shock washes through him. James Moriarty, the boy who orchestrated the murder of Carl Powers .Squinting, John gets a clearer image of Moriarty's face and realises he is a lot younger than John had first thought, only a few years older than John himself.
"Oh, I see you do know me. Good. And I suppose you're wondering why I've brought you here, hm? Why I've had to hurt you?"
Gathering his will, John's mouth opens. "Wha-hy?" his voice is a mere creak, like a rusty hinge but Moriarty hears him.
That same hooting laughter, the same dead eyes.
"It speaks, Moran, did you hear?"
Moran chuckles, and John attempts to shoot a sidelong look at him, but he is standing out of John's line of vision, his long arm holding John's head so he faces forwards.
"I've brought you here because you've been causing trouble. Messing about. Getting involved in my business." Now Moriarty's voice is flat, toneless. Threatening to spark out at any moment.
"You see, what interests me in this dreary place is one thing and one thing only. Sherlock Holmes. And make no mistake, I'm sure I'll dazzle him just as much as he dazzles me. But for some unfathomable reason," Moriarty's voice begin to rise, his lilting accent becoming harsh, brittle, "he seems to have become infatuated with some dull little Quidditch player. That's you, John by the way. You'd probably be able to work that out for yourself though." Condescension is rife in Moriarty's tirade.
"And while I was prepared to tolerate you and eliminate you at a more crucial moment, I find myself getting more annoyed." Suddenly Moriarty is the one gripping John's chin, and John has no idea why he'd thought Moran the harsher of the pair: Moriarty holds his jaw like he would happily break it or crush it into diamonds.
"You don't deserve him. He deserves someone with a mind to match his own, not you, some idiotic sportsman, some cretinous popular fool. I can't have him fall in love with the like of you." As John's foggy brain tries desperately to assimilate what Moriarty is saying, the man lets go of his chin by thrusting his head backwards. The back of John's skull connects with the solid stone of the wall, fingers of pain threading their way through John's head, making it throb.
John can't stop himself from whimpering.
"Oh in pain already are we? I'm just getting started. And Johnny? I want you to remember one thing: this is all Sherlock Holmes's fault."
Through slanted eyes John can see Moriarty pulling his wand from his cloak. He tries to brace himself as the wand is pointed at him.
"Crucio." Moriarty calmly utters.
The spell hits John in his left shoulder. In the first second of the spell entire world explodes in light made from fire, a thousand swords stab through John's soul, his body contorts into a twisted, agony filled parody of what it once was.
His first scream is heard even in the Great Hall.