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It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn

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“I'm getting married.”

(Pause.)

“I need to learn how to dance.”

He feels strange saying it. All of it. Three months ago, none of those words had ever even crossed his mind—at least not in that order. But then he'd met her, and... things had happened. (Nothing ever happens.) And she wants to marry him. And she wants him to know how to dance.

He presses his mobile firmly against his left ear and stares at the table in front of him. He's in her kitchen, but she isn't home, and he's strangely grateful; he doesn't want anyone to hear him having this conversation except the woman on the other end of the line.

“Do you have any experience?”

The voice is husky and smooth, and he feels summarily judged. He squirms, and ignores the twinge in his shoulder with practiced ease. “No,” he says. “None. None at all.”

“And what style of dance are you interested in learning?” The woman's voice is amused now, and he doesn't know why, and he blushes as he sits here by himself in his fiancée's kitchen.

I'm not interested,” he says automatically, and then, realizing how that sounds, hurries to correct himself. “Sorry. I mean—it's my fiancée. She wants me to... She wants me to dance with her at our wedding, and I have no idea... I've got a bad leg, and I can't just throw myself out there and... Um. Whatever you do at a wedding. Just... waltzing, I guess.”

“I see.” A distinct laugh. “What's your name?”

He hesitates. For a split second he feels an absurd, wild urge to give a false title; to make up a completely new identity for himself, to go into these lessons (which are sure to be embarrassing and disastrous) for who he really is, as someone who might have a chance at moving and living with ease. He doesn't.

“John,” he says, scratching at the chipped varnish of her tabletop. “John Watson.”

****

John met her at a pub, which was unusual. He didn't meet people at pubs. He went into pubs and had a pint or two, kept his head down, and left. But she was pretty and talked to him and bought him a drink, and then never left.

Her name is Mary Morstan, and she is a tidal wave.

Somehow, in three months, she's managed to lure him out of his small flat at least three times a week. Managed to get him to eat things that aren't frozen dinners for once. Managed to kiss him, and then bed him, and then get herself engaged to him, and he feels like his feet haven't touched the ground once since she smiled at him across that dirty pub.

They don't even live together. He assumes that they'll probably remedy that eventually, although they haven't discussed it yet.

A tidal wave.

****

“I like you,” she'd said. She was laying on her couch, and John had just walked in and tossed his jacket on the back of the chair. He'd stopped, his cane squeaking on the hardwood floor, and just looked at her. Looked at her blond hair, short and soft against her head, looked at her eyes, wide and guileless, and he'd realized something.

“I like you, too,” he'd said.

“I'm pretty sure I'm in love with you,” Mary had continued, and she had laughed a little bit, even though John hadn't seen anything funny about the statement. “And I want to get married before I'm forty.”

John had licked his lips and tried to assign his thoughts to words, but before he had time, she was talking again.

“You're kind, and intelligent, and kind of hot—” She'd winked. He'd shifted from his right foot to his left foot and then back— “and you make me feel special. So we might as well.”

“Are you asking me to marry you?” he'd asked, even though he knew.

She'd repeated herself. “We might as well.”

****

He's a doctor and she's a nurse, and people are amused by that, even though they both work at different places. He's forty-one and she's thirty-nine and both of them are fairly sure they had at least one class together back in uni but they can't really remember, which amuses people as well. She's bright and beautiful and loud. He's a shadow, a wall, quiet and unnoticeable, but somehow, she noticed him.

People don't mention that.

****

They'd been at dinner. Someplace cheap and unremarkable that John can't remember the name of, now; someplace where the tablecloths were plastic, and there was a film of dirt caked in the cracks of the linoleum floors. Mary was eating something with chicken it it, and she'd had a forkful of it on the way to her lips when she'd said casually, “I want you to learn how to dance.”

John had scooted his chair in closer to the table, just to bide him time. “Why?” he'd finally asked, when a more expressive sentence wasn't forthcoming.

Her smile is sparkling and compelling, and it pulls him in and sucks him under. She'd flashed it at him, then, and it had seemed like the brightest thing in the dingy restaurant. “Because I've always fancied dancing at my wedding, and that can't happen if you don't know how to follow a beat, can it?”

A smile, small and unconvinced, on his own lips. “Can barely walk,” he'd said, gesturing self-deprecatingly at his cane, which leaned against the table between them. “I'm sure I can't dance.”

She winked. “That's what lessons are for. If the instructor is worth their price, you'll learn how to fucking fly, John.”

He'd been briefly uncomfortable at the mention of money, namely because that was something he didn't have a lot of, but Mary's father did. Clearly Mr. Morstan was going to be the financier of these lessons. “Flying is for things with wings,” he'd said mildly, watching her dig around in her purse.

She straightened, a business card held limply between her first finger and her thumb, and passed it across to him. It was black with white lettering, simple and classy in design, and the light from the ceiling had caught on it, reflecting in a flash.

“Call them,” Mary had said. “And set up lessons. Whenever you'd like.”

That'll be never, he'd thought.

But here he is.

****

“Hello, John Watson,” the woman says. Her voice trips evenly over the vowels of the sentence: amusement still evident, though halfheartedly disguised. “My name is Ms. Adler.”

He nods, staring down at the glossy business card on Mary's table. Adler's School of Classical Dance, it reads. “Lovely to meet you,” John says, his manners kicking in. His mum would be so proud.

She laughs outright this time. “Is it? Well. Good. I see your name here in our system, Mr. Watson. Six weeks of lessons already paid for. Will this Friday at four work for you?”

He scans his mind desperately at the hope that something will come up, but of course nothing does. He only works on Fridays if nobody else can, and it's not as if he has social plans. Something icy and sinuous twists in his gut as he says, “Friday will be fine.” He wonders if he should make a bad joke about the lessons being paid for already; something light and droll, something to lift this shroud of utter embarrassment that has descended upon him; wonders if he even can. “My fiancée's dad...” he says, and then promptly shuts up, letting his head fall forward to rest on the cool wood of the kitchen table. She doesn't give a damn about your fiancée's dad.

“Yes,” she says. “See you then, Mr. Watson.”

The line clicks dead.

He lifts his head and takes the mobile away from his ear. The screen is cracked, a jagged line that crosses diagonally from the top left corner to the bottom right. He can't remember how it happened.

The kitchen echoes when he speaks. “See you then.”

****

Friday passes in a steel-grey blur. He forces himself not to think about it.

It's raining when John limps the short distance from the door of his flat to the taxi pulling up at the curb, but he keeps his chin tucked to his chest and ignores it studiously. As he climbs into the cab (his right leg hitching stiffly as he works it over the elevation) he gives the address of where he's going without looking down at the business card that’s clutched like a lifeline in his left hand, and realizes he's memorized what's on it.

God, he thinks, but doesn't finish the sentence, not even in his own head. He shuts the door with more force than necessary.

John doesn't remember exactly when he started sitting bolt upright in taxis—his back not touching the seat, his feet placed evenly apart on the floor, his hands gripping the cane that he lays across his lap at even intervals—although it probably began right after Afghanistan. Right after the bullet in his shoulder that catapulted him back to London, and messed with his leg, screwed with his mind. He only knows that it's unfathomable, now, to even think about leaning back, to think about relaxing. Everything in him rebels at the idea of letting down his guard, even just long enough to cross London. He is a spring, coiled tight and small, ready to shoot open at the slightest hint of danger.

(This is a terrible idea—)

Unreachable.

Wary.

Bored. So fucking bored.

The afternoon is dark, and the rain that splatters onto the windows of the taxi is silty with the muck and mud of London's quagmire of streets. John turns his head to the left. Watches the nondescript array of buildings crawl by, the nondescript array of people darting down sidewalks with umbrellas and newspapers over their heads.

Bring an umbrella, Mary had said to him on the phone that morning. Looks like rain.

He'd agreed, and then promptly forgotten.

(What the hell do I even wear to a dance class? He'd debated it for what felt like hours, feeling ridiculous, standing in the middle of his bedroom and staring at his wardrobe, all the drawers pulled out a few inches so he could see the contents. In the end, he'd settled on trousers and an oatmeal jumper, the same thing he wore almost every day. He wasn't going to be doing the splits at his own bloody wedding, as far as he knew, and so jeans would have to suffice.)

The cabbie pulls up in front of a tall building, all dark concrete and huge windows and wide steps, and John's chest feels like it's trying to turn itself inside out. Adler's School of Classical Dance is emblazoned on a large white sign hung above the door, the black letters etched in a tasteful cursive font that only serves to reinforce how very out of place John is here. Doing... this.

He pays the fare with shaking fingers, and waits until the cabbie has pulled away before he attempts to mount the steps. He needs this moment for himself; a moment alone with his shame and his cane.

The double doors are heavy and tall, the steel handle is cold in John's sweating palm. He wrestles with the door for a moment, his cane getting caught, and by the time he's finally inside, his breath is already short, his heart already racing.

God. He can't do this. Can't—

“Can I help you?”

The words are chipper and friendly, and entirely unwelcome. He looks up (knows he's scowling; doesn't give a damn) and a pair of brown eyes meets his above a waist-high counter. A young woman sits on a stool behind it, her hair pulled up tightly in a smooth bun, arms crossed at the wrists and draped over her knees. She's smiling, a little nervously, and her eyes dart to the computer on her right.

“Hello,” John nods, feeling slightly bad about his scowl in the face of all of this nervous innocence. “Sorry. Er, I'm John Watson. I'm supposed to be having a private lesson here at four...”

The woman smiles with her lips closed, and recognition lights up her eyes. “Oh, you're John!” she says. John panics briefly. He doesn't know her, does he? But her next words abate her fear. “We were all wondering what you'd be like.” She blushes, realizing what she's said. “Oh. Oh, dear, I'm sorry—“

“It's fine,” John says. He tries to smile at her, but suspects it just makes him look ill. “It's probably not every day you all get a client in his early forties who can't walk without one of these—” He lifts his cane briefly, waves it around with a sardonic lift of an eyebrow— “but still wants to dance anyway. I'd wonder too, if I were you.”

Her smile widens a little, but her blush doesn't go away as she slides off of her stool and comes around the counter to where he's still standing, pressed against the doors. “I'm Molly Hooper, one of the instructors here,” she says, holding out a hand. He takes it, shaking it firmly. “It's nice to finally put a face to the legend.”

John's own smile doesn't widen, but it takes on a layer of genuineness that he hadn't expected to wear today.

“Right this way, John,” Molly says, turning lightly on her heel and leading him through the lobby (which he sees now is painted in light grey and accented with black and light pink, a few black and white photos of various dancers in positions of varying gravity-defying quality, and three or four uncomfortable looking chairs lined up against the wall) and out another door in the back of the open room.

When he was a kid, his mother used to make her own jam in the summer when days were long and there was nothing else to do. His knees feel like that now, as he follows Molly down a long hallway, peering into the windows of wide classrooms that are lined on either side. She stops at one at the end of the hall, opening the door and letting it swing back on hinges that don't make a sound.

“Here you are,” she says, propping it open with her hip as John walks in before her.

The room is huge and full of fluorescent light; the floor is paneled with wood of a honeyed shade, glossy, and his cane slips a little bit as he moves; there are mirrors on every available bit of wall space, and it makes John sick at his stomach when he looks up and sees hundreds upon hundreds of Johns and Mollys, stretching back into infinity. There's a piano in one corner, also big, also glossy, but dark, and it reflects John's image, too. There's a CD player sitting on top of the piano, which strikes him as disrespectful, although he can't say why.

“Just wait here,” Molly says, and he's positive that that was a flash of pity in her eyes. An apology. For leaving him alone without a teacher, or for the whole bloody thing? The jelly knees aren't getting any better. “Your instructor will be in in a moment.” She smiles at him again, tight and nervous and sorry, and he nods jerkily as she leaves. He stares at the door until the soft sounds of her trainers fade away.

John wanders into the middle of the room, his steps loud and echoing in the total silence. His fingers itch to dig his mobile out of his pocket and dial Mary, to tell her that he can't do this and that he hopes dancing doesn't make it or break it, and if it does, he's most definitely breaking it. But then he thinks about her shiny smile and her warm skin and the way she pins him down with her eyes, and he knows that even if he managed to leave, she'd just trundle him back here.

A tidal wave.

He catches sight of movement out in the hall in one of the infinite mirrors and turns slowly, setting his shoulders. Setting his jaw. Here goes everything—

The door flies open and hits the wall with a bang, rattling the mirrors that surround John, and it takes every bit of military training he has not to jump when a hurricane blows into the room. It's tall and pale and svelte, and advancing rapidly.

John's heart beats fast, fast, fast.

He doesn't know—

Stop.

Not bored now, are you.

“You're a man,” he says, because it's true, and the truth seems valuable in this moment. The hurricane is a fucking man, and he's fucking huge, and he's looming over John and pinning him with eyes that feel like pale comets when they brush his skin. He has a nest of inky curls somewhere on that head that's floating about a foot above John's, and he's wearing something black and clinging that makes him look like a ghost, and John is pretty sure that if he reached up and touched one of those cheekbones, his hand would come away bloody.

The man raises one of his eyebrows in an impossibly elegant gesture, and John despairs. “Problem?” he asks, his voice a rumble of thunder across sandy planes.

Breathe. “No.” Goddamn fucking knees won't hold me up— “I just didn't expect...”

“Well,” the man says. “Neither did I.”

“Oh, you haven't been talking about me with the others?” John asks promptly, the words shooting out of him before he has a chance to consider the implications. Of course this man—this hurricane—hadn't been talking about John. There's nothing to talk about, really.

“Afghanistan or Iraq?” the man asks, and it's such a huge jump in topics that John just stares for a moment. The man is gazing levelly back. There is a layer of cool, almost reluctant interest in those eyes; John feels a tug in his sternum, hard and unexpected and entirely foreign.

“How did you...” He trails away.

“Afghanistan,” the man says, and John wants to hand him a phone book and have him read every word aloud, just to hear his voice, “or Iraq?”

There is a challenge in those words.

(Nothing happens to me.)

John has never been able to stand down from a challenge.

(Something’s happening now.)

“Afghanistan.” He takes a step closer. “Tell me how you knew.” It isn't a request.

“You're a doctor, too,” the man adds. “An army doctor, to be precise. You are forty-one years old, and recently engaged to a woman you've only just met—risky move, that, but you can't walk away from a bit of risk, can you? Never have been able to, and especially not since that bullet you took to the shoulder discharged you—”

“What,” says John, his voice about three octaves lower than it had been seconds ago, “the hell.”

The man doesn't falter. “You are nursing a limp that your therapist considers psychosomatic—she's right about this, although not about much else, so you should consider another—”

“She's bloody useless,” says John, agreeing even though he doesn't really want to.

“—and you are unambiguously bored.”

“Not right now I'm not.”

The man takes a step nearer to John, and leans in much closer than is considered socially acceptable. “You have never danced before. You thought you were willing to learn for this woman, but now you're doubting yourself—no, don't glare at me like that, you know I'm right.”

John stops glaring. The man is, in fact, right.

“You are financially unstable, and resent the fact that your fiancé's father is emphatically not, and you suffer from PTSD, and right now...” Hurricane takes a pause, his breath heavy. He's been talking almost faster than John can comprehend, and so his shortness of breath can be attributed to that. John, however, has no such excuse. “You're wishing you'd brought your gun instead of leaving it at home, because you rather fancy shooting me in the head.”

John has stopped glaring, yes, but he hasn't stopped staring. He's pretty sure his mouth might be hanging open just the slightest bit. “That,” he says, “was amazing.”

The man standing before him blinks. He appears entirely taken aback, and John feels briefly, alarmingly triumphant. He knows, somehow, that surprising this man is not an easy thing to do. “That's not what people usually say,” the man finally says, and that avalanche of a voice, that swath of flocked velvet, is soft and somehow small.

John finds himself grinning. No idea why. Feels good. “What do people normally say?”

The very corner of the man's pale, pale pink lips lifts in a minuscule smile; an acknowledgment... an expression of gratitude? “Piss off,” he says wryly.

A beat.

John laughs first, probably simply because he hasn't done in so long, and his chest aches with the unfamiliarity of it. It isn't an unpleasant ache.

The tall man joins in, his laughter just as deep as his voice but almost silent, and John wants to lean in closer so he doesn't miss a second of it.

“John Watson,” says John, offering his hand for the man to shake. He does so, and his fingers are softer than silk. “But you probably already knew that.”

Comets shoot their way into John's eyes. He's utterly dazzled, and he doesn't give a damn.

“Sherlock Holmes. And yes. I did.”