Actions

Work Header

It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Chapter Text

“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.”

Chapter Text

When Ms. Adler told him he would be the one teaching Mr. John Watson how to 'do whatever you do at a wedding' for six bloody weeks, he'd almost quit. Sherlock Holmes, dance instructor and Consulting Detective, does not associate with amateurs in any facet of his life, and this—this went well beyond the field of amateur and drifted into complete-idiocy-territory.

But he'd needed the money. Still needs it. The idiots down at New Scotland Yard don't particularly enjoy listening to him, not even Lestrade, and it isn't as if volunteer detective work pays all that much. It's been a while since he's had a student (Molly says it's because he refuses to teach anyone who isn't at least semi-professional, but he finds that ludicrous) and he would rather shut his own head in an oven than ask Mycroft for anything, and so he'd taken the job, fully expecting to hate every second of it.

He's starting to expect it a little less.

Because John Watson is interesting.

Retired army doctor, discharged after a bullet to the shoulder, psychosomatic limp related to psychological trauma brought on by his time in the war, an intermittent tremor in his dominant hand, and an all-consuming longing for excitement, danger, exhilaration. His story is told in the folds of his ugly jumper, the way he wears his ashy hair (cut close to his head in a standard military style grown slightly long from months of civilian life) the tan line on his wrists and the mud on the tip of his cane. Sherlock reads these things about John Watson like he's a book, and yet...

And yet—

And yet there's something about him. Something hidden behind a carefully neutral face. Something masked with stiff shoulders and a tilt of the head and tired eyes. Sherlock can sense all the things about this man that he can't deduce, but that's just it, isn't it: he can't deduce them.

“Sherlock Holmes,” Doctor Watson says now, testing out the nuances and contours of Sherlock's name with an anthurium pink tongue that darts in a distracting manner. He blinks, and it's slightly longer than a blink should be, and he rakes Sherlock with his eyes when he opens them again. “Odd name, if you don't mind me saying. Girl's name, isn't it?”

Sherlock tilts his own head, tipping it slightly to the left, and is alarmed when he feel his lips tugging into a smile. He's charmed by this short, invalided army doctor; charmed and unsettled and interested. “My parents care neither for cultural norms nor gender stereotypes, and none of that was different when naming their children,” he says. The words come out cold and almost dismissive, but John Watson grins at him anyway.

“Right then, Mr. Holmes—”

“Sherlock.”

(Why did he say that? He shouldn't have said that. That was one of those times that he should have kept his mouth shut—)

“Sherlock.” And there's that thing again. That thing that's flashing behind John's eyes, even as he does what Sherlock asks. That thing that Sherlock can't understand. “Right then, Sherlock. Mind telling me how the fuck you knew any of that?”

He doesn't know why he says it. Maybe it's because he hasn't spoken to anyone not completely dull in what feels like years; maybe it's because the last time he turned up at a crime scene, Lestrade actually let him solve it, and he's feeling cocky; maybe it's because John hasn't laughed or scoffed or threatened to punch him; maybe it's John's magnetic allure that pulls it out of him. “I'm a Consulting Detective,” he says, shrugging in a movement that's close enough to being humble to startle him. “It's my job to notice things like that.”

John's breath is coming quickly, and it takes Sherlock a few moments to realize that his is, too. And they haven't even moved.

“Consulting Detective?” John asks. Sherlock notices (smugly) (because he was right about that) that he's barely even leaning on his cane. It rests in his right hand, and Sherlock sort of wants to just kick it away and see what happens.

“Only one in the world,” Sherlock says. He lets pride seep through his words. “Invented the job.”

“And here I thought you were going to teach me how to dance.”

“Who says I can't do both?”

“Oh,” says John, and he's shaking his head a little bit: back and forth, back and forth, as if there's something he doesn't quite understand but he's excited about it. “Oh, god.”

(You are unambiguously bored.)

(Not right now I'm not.)

Sherlock turns his back smoothly on John and watches him in one of the mirrors. John pivots on one heel. He follows Sherlock with his eyes as he crosses to the CD player and switches it on, and there's something unashamedly impressed in those eyes that sets off blooms of heat across Sherlock's cheeks.

The music that flows from the machine is dark and heated, a violin's scarlet tones soaring and looping through a melodic waltz. Sherlock turns it down so as to be better heard.

“Dancing,” he says, turning back to face his student and leaning his hips against the cool lacquer of the piano as he does so, “is—”

A buzz, sharp and startling at his hips.

He must look shocked (shocked? He hasn't been shocked in years. He's too distracted by this small, kind of angry man to be considered normal) because John gives him an amused look and points eloquently at the waistband of Sherlock's leggings, where his iPhone is tucked.

Ignore it.

“Sorry.” (Why is he saying sorry? Sherlock Holmes doesn't apologize.) “Ignore it.”

John jerks his head in a friendly nod.

“As I was saying—”

A knock at the door, not insistent, but loud enough to be commanding. Annoyed (everyone knows not to interrupt his lessons unless the building is in danger of exploding and there's no one there to diffuse the bomb), Sherlock makes some sort of noise in the back of his throat and glares at the door, invective already on his lips—

Molly is standing on the other side of that door, looking pale and nervous as usual, and Sherlock would ignore the knocking if it were just her, but behind her shoulder—

(He shouldn't be this excited. It's a bit pathetic, really, and doesn't give one single damn.)

—is Detective Inspector Lestrade.

His arms are crossed and he's obviously uncomfortable and reluctant, but he's here, where Sherlock works, which means he needs something from him.

Sherlock is across the room with the door open in under three seconds.

“Yes?” he snaps. One must keep up appearances, after all.

“Sorry to interrupt, Sherlock,” Molly says, and dear lord, the girl is actually wringing her hands. “But he's with the police, and he said he needed you, and I thought—”

“Yes, yes, it's fine, Molly,” Sherlock says in a rush, flapping his hand at her. “What is it, Detective Inspector? As you can see I'm a bit tied up at the moment.”

Lestrade's eyes slide over Sherlock's shoulder briefly to flick over John, and Sherlock doesn't miss the slight widening of them: disbelief, if he isn't mistaken. Which he never is.

(John Watson. A surprise to everyone who meets him.)

“Sorry, Sherlock, but I think you'll like this one. It's a—”

“Double homicide—two women, romantically entangled, twenty-seven and twenty-nine—behind The Golden Lentil, a popular restaurant for vegan people between the ages of twenty-one and thirty,” Sherlock rushes to speak over him. “Yes, no need for the obvious details.”

Molly's mouth is hanging open, and she stares between Lestrade and Sherlock in disbelief. Despite the urgency of the situation, Lestrade spares her a grim smile. “Good, innit he?”

“I don't—”

“I'll be right down,” Sherlock says, talking over her. He's already shutting the door. “Let me get dressed.”

“Need a lift?”

“Cab,” Sherlock responds simply, and shuts the door with a firm bang.

He waits, hand on the knob, head bowed, until Molly and Lestrade are both out of sight and earshot, and then he turns around and jumps high into the air, head throw back. “Yes!” he shouts, closing his eyes in bliss for a moment. Oh, it's Christmas. He knew those idiots would come around to his way of thinking eventually, he knew they'd realize they needed him—

“Bit of a happy reaction to realizing two women have been murdered, isn't it?”

Sherlock's eyes fly open. John is standing right where Sherlock left him, but instead of looking horrified at Sherlock's enthusiasm or even scowling, he's almost... grinning. Sherlock feels an answering grin on his face.

“Sorry, Doctor Watson—”

“John,” John interjects cheekily.

“Sorry, John, but I believe our lesson will have to be cut short today.” Sherlock strides across the room, eyes locked with John's blue ones, and switches off the CD player. “I'll make sure your soon-to-be father-in-law gets a refund—” Then, at the look John sends his way— “or maybe I won't...”

“No,” says John. Agreeable. And as Sherlock blusters back across the room, as he opens the door—the infinite Johns around him are oddly forlorn.

They could part ways right now. John could go to his girlfriend and Sherlock could go to his corpses, and then seven days could pass, and they could try this again.

No.

Sherlock turns around. Stalks slowly back to his student, and lets his hands hang at his thighs.

“You're a doctor,” he says. “In fact, you're an army doctor.”

John limps forward. “Yes.”

“Any good?”

The answer is immediate. “Very good.”

“Seen a lot of injuries, then,” Sherlock says in a low tone. “Violent deaths.”

John's chin lifts a centimeter. “Mm. Yes.”

“Bit of trouble, too, I bet,” Sherlock says, and he hopes this isn't the worst idea that he's ever had. He hopes it very, very much.

“Of course, yes,” John answers, his voice quiet, almost fervent. “Enough for a lifetime.” And then, as if an afterthought, “Far too much.”

Sherlock raises an eyebrows. John's eyes flicker to his lips and then back up (or maybe it's just wishful thinking. Or maybe it's just thinking) and the next words roll off of Sherlock's tongue as easily as his own name does. “Wanna see some more?”

John surges forward before he even opens his mouth, and Sherlock moves with him like a piece of iron drawn to a magnet. “Oh god yes.”

****

Sherlock loves to dance. He loves the exaltation that comes with being the fastest, the strongest, the most beautiful, the lightest, the best. He loves the music thrumming through his bones. He loves pushing his vessel to its breaking point, his muscles quivering and screaming with exhaustion, sweat pooling in the hollows of his body, and then pushing just a bit more. He loves crashing at the end of a grueling rehearsal, class, show, letting his body go and becoming dead to the world before he gets back up and does it all over again.

He feels like this when he's deducing a murder. The thrill of the chase, the blood pumping through his veins. Even though when dancing his mind shuts off and when deducing his mind is working in overdrive, there's something lyrical and carnal at the core of both of these things that Sherlock is inexorably drawn to.

For once, though, it's the thought of someone who's very much alive that's igniting him like this.

He feels jittery in the cab as it winds through London's sunset-lit streets, his legs bouncing up and down in time with the whir of his thoughts. He's never brought someone to a crime scene before. Of course, he's never been sought out and invited to a crime scene before; at least not so openly. But even so, the addition of John (John, whom he's only known for half a bloody hour) feels bigger than even Sherlock can comprehend.

“So,” John says. Sherlock cuts a glance at him out of the corner of his eyes: he's seated almost rigidly in his seat, cane placed across his lap, everything about him at careful right angles. He's looking out his own window, and what little orange light of the sky that manages to peek through the tall buildings makes him glow. “I take it murder is your specialty, then?”

Sherlock props his elbow in the windowsill. He has changed into his usual pedestrian clothing: suit, belstaff, scarf. “It's the most interesting,” he says. “I don't lend my services for anything less than a four.”

That got the man's interest. John turns to him, and Sherlock forces himself not to meet his gaze. “A four? A four on what? The scale of how gruesome some innocent person's death is?”

Oh.

Oh.

He shouldn't have said that. That was a bit not good. Sherlock glances at John again from under his eyelashes, and notes the tension that has settled in his shoulders. He's a humanitarian, John Watson; his sense of justice is obviously one of the largest things about him. A pang of regret shoots through Sherlock's abdomen.

“Not gruesome,” he says, rushing to explain despite himself. “Interesting. Complicated. Difficult. Of course I don't want anyone to be murdered—” Okay, that isn't strictly true, but for some bizarre reason he wants John Watson to stay, and apparently he'll say almost anything to make that happen— “but if they're going to be, it should be entertaining at the very least...”

John is smiling at him, now, suddenly. Mystified, entertained (fond) (wait) (no, not fond) (they don't know each other, it can't possibly be fond) (get it together, Holmes) but not reprimanding. “Relax,” he says. “I don't think you're the killer. I just find it... well, endearing, if we're being honest, and at this point I think we are.”

“You find it endearing that I have a scale for... Oh, how did you put it... 'How gruesome some innocent person's death is'?”

John shrugs. “Well, at least now we know we're both nutters.”

****

John is kneeling next to the youngest victim, appraising the stab wound at the juncture of her neck and shoulder with a critical eye. A pool of dark, thick blood surrounds her and her companion, and he's careful not to come into contact with it.

Respectful, Sherlock thinks.

“Well, obviously they both bled to death,” he says. He seems to sense the retort on the tip of Sherlock's tongue, for he glances up, gives him a flat, quelling look, and continues speaking. “But it's also obvious that they died at least six hours ago, and if Sherman here is telling the truth—” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the young, queasy looking man who's standing halfway behind Lestrade, keeping his eyes fixed anywhere but on the two bodies stretched out in the dirt alleyway— “and he really found them an hour ago after multiple trips out here all day without seeing anything, then we can assume—”

“That they were brought here after death by the killer. Yes, but why?” Sherlock grouses, one hand on his hip. He gestures expansively at the corpses, a jerky movement that causes Sherman to flinch. “Why drag two dead, bleeding women across London in the middle of the day and dump them behind a relatively high-end restaurant for anyone to find?”

“We've already talked to everyone who was here today—” Lestrade begins.

“I want to talk to them again,” Sherlock says.

“No way in hell,” Sally Donovan (annoying, jealous, unimportant) pipes up, but Lestrade cuts her off.

“Fine,” he says. “Don't be an arse about it.”

Sherlock nods once, then marches around the bodies and opens the black door that leads into the club. He raises his eyebrows at John, still crouched next to one of the dead women. “Coming?” he asks, surprising even himself.

But John just stands, leaning heavily on his cane to get up off of the ground. “Alright,” he agrees, and makes to follow Sherlock—

“No way in hell,” Sally begins again, looking back and forth between Sherlock, John, and Lestrade like they're all insane. Her eyes come to settle on the Detective Inspector. “Are you seriously letting both of them in there, unsupervised, to interrogate a bunch of innocent people? We don't even know this Watson bloke; he could be the murderer, for all we know.”

John stops. Lifts one hand in a kind of silent peacemaking gesture. “It's fine. Sorry. I don't have to go in. He just brought me along because I'm a doctor—”

“John comes,” Sherlock snarls, “or I abandon you all to this case, and it never gets solved.”

He doesn't know why he's so vehement. It's a risky move; Lestrade and his team have every advantage in this situation, and even if they're all a bunch of bumbling fools, they could easily ban him from solving another case ever again. But not having John, even though he's never had John before, just seems fundamentally wrong.

Lestrade scrubs a hand over his face. “Sally,” he sighs, and Sherlock can tell that it takes a lot for the man just to force these next words out. “He's our best hope. C'mon.”

Sally laughs, and it's sharp and caustic and entirely without humor. Disbelieving. “Fine. Fine, let the freak and his boyfriend in. See if I care.” She turns, but Sherlock has already looked away from her. She is utterly unimportant.

“I can vouch for John,” Sherlock says to Lestrade. “He isn't a murderer.”

Lestrade looks almost grimmer than Sherlock has ever seen him look. “Just solve it,” he says.

Sherlock can't help his smirk. “That's always the plan, Detective Inspector.”

He turns back to John, and sees that he has the door open already and is waiting for Sherlock expectantly. They walk through, Sherlock leading the way, and emerge into a relatively clean kitchen. It's all stainless steel and shining linoleum, and it's rife with scents: sesame oil, onions, tempeh, cumin... It's devoid of any people, which doesn't surprise Sherlock. The owner closed his establishment for the day as soon as the bodies were discovered, which Sherlock is grateful for. The less people there are, the more room he has to work.

“You don't know I'm not the murderer,” John says, startling Sherlock in the middle of his inspection of a panini press.

Sherlock turns. John is standing in front of the double doors leading out into the main floor of the restaurant, where the rest of the staff is no doubt gathered. He's leaning against the countertop with one hip, his arms crossed over his chest.

“Oh, please,” Sherlock scoffs. “What possible motive would you have to kill two women at least a decade your junior, and then dump them outside of this restaurant? Besides, your alibi checks out. You were in a taxi on the way to the studio an hour ago.”

“I could have had someone dump them for me. A friend, maybe, or a... henchman.”

Sherlock tilts his head. “If you had 'friends' or 'henchmen', you wouldn't be so fantastically bored.”

John grins at him, and lets his arms drop. “Alright, fine. I didn't do it. But I still don't know...” He seems uncomfortable asking his next question. “Why do you want me here? Are you sure it's a good idea?”

“You can always leave,” Sherlock says.

(Blood pumping through his veins.)

John stares at him a moment, and seems to come to a conclusion. “Right,” he says. “Well, fuck that.”

And he pushes open the door.

****

“On my cue,” says Sherlock on a whisper, “follow me, fast as you can. And stay close.”

It is thirty minutes later. Somehow, in the course of those thirty minutes, they have managed to interrogate all six staff members of the Golden Lentil, dash a few blocks down and interrogate the owner at his flat, get themselves stuck in the middle of a knife fight between the said owner and his brother (brother, Sherlock had thought. Of course it was the brother. Should have seen that at the beginning) and escape the flat through an open window. Currently they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, in the empty doorway of a long-closed Pizza Express listening to the raised voices of both men.

“Are you recording this?” John whispers back instead of answering. He moves his hand just barely in the direction of the voices, one of which happens to be engaged in a rather detailed confession. A cry for forgiveness, Sherlock assumes, although if the continued threats of the Golden Lentil's owner are anything to go off of, not a very effective one. “Because I feel like you should be recording this.”

“We'll use the owner as a witness,” Sherlock breathes back. His heart is stuttering in the confines of his heavy coat, and it seems ten times louder than it usually does. “Now, John, run.

They do.

****

“... A longstanding feud between the two men, resulting in the shoddiest murder and subsequent set-up that I've ever seen,” Sherlock drawls.

“Didn't think it was so shoddy when you first got here,” John mumbles glibly from his position next to Sherlock's elbow. Both arms are crossed over his chest, and he gives Sherlock a properly innocent look when Sherlock scowls at him.

Lestrade sighs. He does that a lot. “Right. Well, thank you. Both of you. That was... That was amazing.” He turns to John. “We're used to that sort of thing from Sherlock, but...”

John's arms fall away from his chest, and his smile is huge. Just like it's been all evening. “Oh, I didn't do anything. Just ran after him and offered moral support.”

Lestrade smiles back. “Well, either way, thanks, mate. It was nice having someone to tone him down a notch,” he says, jerking his chin in Sherlock's direction.

John blinks. “What do you mean—”

“Yes, alright, you're very welcome, Lestrade,” Sherlock interjects, grabbing John by the elbow and marching him away from the crime scene and towards the street. “You know where to find me when you need me again.”

John waits until they've reached the end of the alley before he speaks, watching Sherlock hail a cab with an expression on his face that Sherlock can't decipher. “It really was, you know.”

Sherlock lets his hand fall. Turns to face John completely. “Was what?”

John's features take on a look of awe, and Sherlock feels heat suffuse his own body gently, from the top of his head to his toes. “Amazing,” John says quietly. “Fantastic. It was—you were...” He shakes his head as if at a loss for words. “You, Sherlock Holmes, are brilliant.”

Sherlock wants to say many things, and they're all swirling about in his head in a disorganized way that he can't stand, and instead he just smiles softly and asks: “Dinner?”

And John's smile is just as small, just as warm. “Starving.”

Chapter Text

The restaurant is tiny, cramped, and goldenly lit. John and Sherlock are seated at the tiniest, cramped-est, goldenly-est lit corner at a table that's about the width of a chair and draped in a plastic checkered tablecloth, their knees nearly touching.

A waiter comes by, and John gives him his order first, surprised to find that he's ravenous. He hasn't been since he was wounded; everything has been dim and somehow dulled, the edges of every aspect of his life smoothed and blurred. But now there's been this night, hasn't there? Yes. This night: with its tinny, acerbic scent of blood, and its bitter revenge, and its breathless, burning dash down dark alleyways and crowded streets, and its light eyes and its cheekbones... and.

Well.

Well, the point is, John could probably eat a small village right now, and so he orders chicken chow mein with a big, stupid smile on his face and an eager rumble in his stomach.

The waiter turns to Sherlock, pad open and ready to take the man's order, but Sherlock waves him away with an elegantly dismissive gesture.

John frowns. Jerks his hand at the waiter, calling him back.

“You aren't eating?” John asks Sherlock.

Sherlock meets his eyes across the table. “No,” he says simply.

And here's the thing about John: he has just gone from being probably the most sedentary bloke in all of London to first chasing, then running, from a murderer, all in the space of one night, and this naturally excites him. A lot. His heart is still racing. He's still sweating. His knees hurt like hell, and so does his shoulder, and he doesn't give a damn, and he's feeling ridiculously, uninhibitedly brave. So he does something that probably he shouldn't do, but definitely does anyway: he speaks.

“Yeah you are,” he says, and turns to the waiter. “He'll have the same as me,” he says, because he didn't take the time to really consider his words.

Sherlock is spluttering a bit, and it makes John feel good. That someone that... That ethereal can splutter. He wonders what else he can do.

“No,” Sherlock finally manages. “No, I will not have the same as you! I will not have anything—”

“Like hell you won't,” John says. He's using his Captain Watson voice, he realizes. Sharp, deep, commanding, and he's grinning as Sherlock glares. The waiter looks extremely conflicted.

Sherlock opens and closes his mouth a few times in the face of this, and finally says with indignation, “You are not my mummy!”

And it's so ridiculous—so bloody ridiculous—this big, whip-smart, adult man, sitting across from John and complaining with such a look of infantile indignation on his face. His eyes are narrowed spitefully, his pink mouth opened in an almost-pout, both of his palms resting flat against the red-and-white surface of their table, and John hasn't laughed this hard in months.

“If I might suggest our—” the waiter ventures bravely, but Sherlock cuts him of with a sharp flash of those aluminum eyes.

“I will have,” he says in a low, seething tone, shooting John a glare, “one spring roll. One.

“That wasn't so hard, was it?” John grins, leaning back in his chair as the waiter nods and scurries away. Sherlock crosses his arms over his chest and says nothing, but John can see the hint of an answering smile tugging at the man's lips.

*****

The food is good. Great.

The company is even better.

John feels as if time is suspended. As if he and Sherlock are existing in a golden bubble of unguarded laughter and lingering exhilaration, separate and stationary from everything and everyone else. Immobile. Unending. Sherlock makes a joke; John laughs. His sides hurt, feel like they're pressing in on his lungs, and breathing becomes an impossibility, a thought pushed to the back of his mind. There are more important things to do right now. Things like watch, and listen, and answer, and exist.

The waiter comes back, and presents them with two fortune cookies, placing them on the table between Sherlock's mostly-full plate and John's empty one. John picks one up, the clear plastic wrapper crinkling between his fingers, and smiles at Sherlock across the table.

“Tell me what it says,” John commands. He settles back in his chair, tearing the wrapping open and holding the golden cookie in the hollow of his palm.

Sherlock sits up a little in his chair, his pale, up-swept eyes flickering from John's face, to the cookie, and back again. He's taken his coat off, and John is amused to see that he's wearing an expensive suit and an obscenely tight white shirt underneath. “That's impossible given the lack of proper informa—”

“Go on,” John says, and he wonders if he's flirting, and he wonders if he should stop. “Deduce it.”

Sherlock hesitates, long fingers worrying at the wrapper of his own cookie, which he snatches up slowly. “It says...” he begins, a little line of concentration appearing at the top of his nose, “that... that...” Suddenly his face clears, and he shoots John a smile that nearly blinds him, wide and dazzling and insufferably cocksure. “It says that a devastatingly attractive man has just entered your life, and that he will not only teach you to love dancing, but—” And here Sherlock stands, and John follows him with his eyes as he extends one arm with a flourish, presenting a man who must have just entered the restaurant. After a second, John recognizes him as D.I. Lestrade from earlier, and he barely has time to wonder why he's here before Lestrade hands something to Sherlock—

“He'll teach you to run.”

He's holding John's cane. Sherlock is holding John's cane.

Sherlock's expression is smug but somehow tenuous, as if he's nervous. Nervous, John thinks. His mind is running in loops, circling over and over the events of this remarkable evening in record time. Nervous. Why would he be nervous? John meets his eyes, aware that his mouth is hanging open. They stare at each other for a moment, before something bubbles up in John, and his face breaks into a smile so wide his cheeks hurt.

He stands (appreciating Sherlock’s answering beam, all traces of insecurity vanished) and crosses to where Sherlock and Lestrade stand, not a trace of his former limp in his steady steps. He takes the cane from Sherlock. Weighs it in his hand. “Bloody hell,” he says.

*****

“What did your fortune really say?”

Crack.

Crumble.

“The fortune you seek is in another cookie.”

A sniff.

“Mine was better.”

“Yeah. Yeah it was. True, too.”

(Fuck. Definitely flirting.)

****

“And how did it go?”

He's standing on her doorstep, hands in his pockets. He wonders if—when—she'll notice. Notice that his life has just been flipped upside down and backwards in... God, had it only been two hours? Notice that the man she's supposed to marry, the one with the limp and the tremor and the paranoia, now has none of those things. Notice that he hasn't actually done any dancing at all.

(Take that, Mr. Morstan.)

“Good,” he says, but he thinks: amazing, fantastic, brilliant. He still feels odd and unbalanced and jittery and high as a kite, and he can feel his grin remaining, slotted firmly in place.

She smiles at him, and steps back, letting him in. Shuts the door behind him. “I told you it wouldn't be all that bad,” she says, a teasing lilt to her tone as she glances over her shoulder at him and mounts the steps. “You worry too much.”

John stands at the bottom of the steps and watches her walk away. His smile drops away abruptly; the remainder of his buoyant mood draining out of him until he feels hollow and stiff once more.

She hadn't noticed.

****

She hadn't noticed.

John is lying next to her in the dark, and the rasp of her steady breath seems gratingly loud in the small, quiet space. He's flat on his back, arms straight, palms facing down on top of the blanket that's pulled up to his chest. There's about half a meter of empty mattress between them, and he doesn't shift closer.

He shouldn't care, not really. She hadn't watched him walk up the steps, and they'd just sat down after entering the flat, so it wasn't like she had much of a chance to see him moving, but—

But—

But how could she not see how different he is? God, he can feel it, feel the change running through his blood and wrapping around his bones and shining out through his pores. He remembers, now, the bolt of adrenaline that had shot through his chest when he'd seen that flash of a hastily drawn knife. He hadn't hesitated, hadn't even thought, he'd just jumped, grabbing Sherlock by the arm and dragging him through the nearest window, only realizing to hope for something to soften their landing once they were already mid-flight. (Luckily there had been a dumpster, and it'd only been a first-floor window, or else the evening could have ended very differently for all of them.) That must have been when he had left his cane. That spurt of action, of purpose, consuming him and somehow healing him—although he isn't sure if it's the healthiest way to make a recovery.

He smiles up at the dark ceiling now. He's never going back to his therapist again. Health be damned.

John wonders if Sherlock knew he wouldn't need his cane after this; if maybe he'd somehow predicted it with that obviously brilliant mind of his, had set all of this up so John would be a better dance student, so that he'd be able to move more easily—but no. No, he doesn't think so. Because there had been that flash of uncertainty, hadn't there, half hidden in Sherlock's grey eyes, and it had spoken of hope and spontaneity and things unplanned.

He'll teach you to run.

“You did,” John whispers to the ceiling, thinking of Sherlock's prediction for what would be inside his fortune cookie. This strange, magic, oddball of a man had literally exploded into his life, dragged him along in an adventure of the kind that John only ever read about in the newspaper days after they'd happened, and they had run.

And he'd only just met him.

John turns over on his right side, facing away from Mary, and silently wishes that next Friday was tomorrow.

*****

“Oh my god, John!”

It's the next morning. John is pulling on his coat, preparing to go into work, and she's just exited her bedroom, a yawn stretching her features. She stops dead and stares at him, hand falling to her side, and he feels a peculiar ember of a feeling igniting in his chest.

It feels like anger.

“Your cane!”

She's barefooted. Her pyjama bottoms have tiny flowers on them, and she's wearing a grey t-shirt that hugs the curve of her waist and breasts and makes them appear soft. Her short hair is messy but somehow still artful, and she's wide-eyed and beautiful and confused and John is angry.

It wasn't a question, what she said. So he doesn't offer an answer. He nods at her, turns to go, but he's sucked backwards by the undertow of her voice.

“Where is it?”

He turns around. “It's with my dance instructor,” he says. He's not lying, not exactly: it is with Sherlock, only he feel strange calling the man his dance instructor, since they didn't attempt even one step of dancing.

“Your dance instructor?” She furrows her eyebrows, and stifles another yawn with the back of one small hand. “Why does she have it? And why don't you need it?”

John shifts from foot to foot, even though he knows that's one of his tells. Although she probably hasn't noticed that, either. “I guess I just needed to... Needed to move. We're... We're trying it out for a week, just to see how it goes.”

He doesn't know why he feels the need to blur the truth like this, to omit things until the whole account seems as normal as it can get. Why can't Mary know that his dance instructor is a man? Why can't Mary know that his dance instructor is a beautiful man who solves crimes and cures the psychosomatic ailments of invalided army doctors? He knows only that he does feel this need, and he isn't willing to examine the reasons behind that fact just yet.

She still seems confused, but when she doesn't ask him anything else over the next ten seconds, John nods at her again and leaves.

Chapter Text

“And how did our sad little army friend's lesson go, love?”

Sherlock stops in the middle of the hallway but doesn't turn around. He'd thought he could sneak past her—she's teaching a class, for Christ's sake—but clearly Ms. Adler is not one to be deterred by previous obligations.

He sighs. He knew that. He'd just hoped...

“He wasn't sad,” (a lie) “he wasn't little,” (also a lie) “and he isn't our friend.” (Definitely not a lie.)

“That just leaves army, then,” Ms. Adler points out, amusement evident in her husky tone, and with another sigh, he turns to face her.

She's leaning her elegant body against the doorway she's stood in, hands on her hips, head tilted to the side as she regards him. Her long legs are encased in black leg warmers, tapering off into a pair of pink ballet slippers that are worn almost grey at the tips. True to form, she is wearing a black leotard that hugs her slender curves and dives daringly in both the front and back; her lips are painted red, and her hair is pulled smoothly into a knot just above the nape of her neck. There's a faint smile on those scarlet lips, and if either of them were anyone else Sherlock would guess that she was using all of this to get information from him. However, neither of them is interested in... that sort of thing. At least not with each other.

“Don't you have a class to attend to?” Sherlock snaps, gesturing into the room behind her where a group of eight or nine fools are attempting a set of poorly executed pliés at the barres.

She glances over her shoulder. “Oh, them?” Irene turns back to Sherlock, one eyebrow raised in a mockery of the expression that he frequently adopts. “Idiots,” she says, in a mimicking tone that rumbles low in her throat. “Anyway, I'd much rather talk about our Captain Watson,” she says in her normal voice. “So spill. Did he run away in terror?”

“Irene,” Sherlock grinds out, shifting his heavy dance bag from hand to hand as the straps cut into his palms—bloody shoes weighing fifty stone— “do not insult yourself like this. You are an insufferable busybody, and I'm sure Molly's told you everything that happened over tea and those diet biscuits you have in your office, so please—” And here he pulls himself up to his full height, and tries his very best to loom— “leave me alone.

“You had better watch it, young man,” Irene drawls coyly, prodding him in the chest with one long-nailed finger. There's something flinty and unyielding in her eyes. “I can sack you faster than you can say 'Ms. Adler, I have a raging military kink,' and then where would you be? Out on the streets where I found you, alone and ignored just like before.”

Her words hit closer to home than she'd intended them to—or possibly not. She looks entirely unapologetic as he flinches before he can stop himself, and as his looming flags, he can tell she's doing everything within her power not to laugh.

She isn't a nice woman. He doesn't know why he stays on.

(Another lie. Full of them this morning, isn't he? He knows exactly why he stays on. He needs this—the dancing, the music, and, less romantically, the money. And he respects Irene, even if he doesn't exactly like her. She's like him, isn't she? An arsehole, but a force to be reckoned with.)

“He's depressed and bored and angry,” Sherlock begins, wondering for half a second whether he's talking about John or himself. “And he's going to be a terrible dancer.”

There. He supplied her with information without stooping so low as to actually give her everything she wants. Her expression doesn't shift, but she does tilt her head slowly, emphatically, towards the other shoulder. “Not interested at all?” she asks smoothly.

Sherlock thinks of the shift in John Watson's breathing pattern, the hitch of excitement coming across at the sight of the corpses; thinks of a slim black cane lying on the table back at Sherlock's flat, thrusted upon Sherlock in a split-second decision; thinks of the look on John's face when Lestrade had shown up with it in hand, and the doctor had realized that he'd run across London without its assistance. “I wouldn't say that,” he replies carefully. It isn't a lie at all. John had been very interested in many aspects of last night; just not the dancing.

Amusement again; stronger this time, enough to stretch out a smile. “'Whatever you do at a wedding,'” she quotes deliberately.

She goes back to the class, leaving Sherlock in the hallway alone.

*****

He'd been young and cocky and high when he'd stumbled into Adler's School of Dance, pockets of his sweatshirt empty. He still doesn't know what made him go in. He certainly hadn't been in any state to; it'd been one of those highs that's like riding a wave, the current pushing him up and up and up until the wave sucked him under and battered him with its pummeling force.

He can still remember it now. The sweet, grating song of cocaine in his veins. The way the rest of the world sharpened into something ultraviolet and infinitely cruel. Everything sharper, and shriveling.

Perhaps it had been a memory of long days spent in a small studio with an elderly woman and an out of tune piano; maybe a more recent one, his days at uni, a sweltering room that smelled of sweat and leather and rosin, the feeling of smoothed wood under his feet, a twinge of muscles sharper and more real than anything else; probably it had been all of these recollections and more that had sent him up the steps of the dance school on a cloud. Sent him through the doors, sent him past Molly and her protestations and into an empty studio.

He'd danced. He still remembers that. He hadn't been so high that he couldn't dance.

He isn't sure that that's even possible, and it haunts him. The urge to find out.

The rest of that day is a high-definition blur in his mind. He remembers Irene, a slim black shadow in the doorway. He remembers that there had been no music—remembers the absence of that, like a screaming white square, and the aching wrongness that had settled in him—just his heartbeat, loud and accelerated in the drum of his ear.

He remembers nothing, next. A great stretch of it.

And then Mycroft, a decay, a blight, and a twist of nausea. Coldness, then blackness, then sickness, lasting longer than the human race has been on this earth.

Rehab. He tries not to remember that.

Irene had come to visit him. She'd taken one of those hard, white plastic chairs that only ever appear in places of impermanence (hospitals, nursing home gardens, beach houses that rest empty half the year) and pulled it up next to him as he sat still, staring out the window of his room. He hadn't looked at her. Hadn't said a word. Hadn't needed to.

She'd offered him an ultimatum. Stay clean for six months, and she'd hire him. Stay clean while he worked for her, and he could stay on.

She'd left without hearing his answer, but eight months later on a warm August day he'd shown up in her office, and she'd smiled and put him to work.

It's been four years. He's still here.

*****

Sherlock gets there an hour early on Friday, and doesn't bother making up lies as to why. He wants to see John Watson walk in.

It's as simple as that.

The room is empty and still as he props his back against the mirror offering him the best view of the door to wait. He can hear muffled piano music from one of the classrooms a few doors down, and the run of Irene's voice above it as she counts out the timing of what sounds like a particularly difficult exercise out loud to her class.

Probably isn't. Probably they're just imbeciles.

The room smells slightly spicy, an ambiguous scent that wafts every few minutes out of the air fresheners in the hall. The whole building smells like this; it used to annoy him, but now that he's grown used to it, it almost relaxes him. Calms him down.

He should probably calm down.

Sherlock has taught men how to dance before. All forms: ballet, ballroom, even (once) (stupidly) branching out into tap. All kinds of men, too: gay men and straight men, men who don't know and men who don't care, men whose hands stay put firmly in place and men whose hands wander... But he's never taught a man that he couldn't peg completely (or at least to his own satisfaction) within the first five minutes of meeting him face to face. He's never taught this man.

John Watson.

Nope. Never him.

Sherlock catches a glimpse of himself in the mirrored wall and blinks. He has on a pair of black leggings, the fabric tight and clinging to the muscled planes of his legs. The black tights that he wears underneath are visible at his ankles, disappearing once more into the tops of his leather ballroom oxfords—simple, sleek lace-up things with a soft suede sole advantageous for executing quick steps and turns without leaving scuff marks on the Marley. It's the top half of himself that catches Sherlock's eye, however, and he stares, vaguely puzzled.

Usually he wears a form-fitting t-shirt to the studio; something in either black or white, depending on whether he would be teaching or taking classes that day. Today, however, his shirt is dark blue, a color that he is sort of subconsciously aware suits him, and one that he's positive he's never worn to dance in in his life. It sets off the subtle shades of blue in his eyes, makes his hair inkier, his skin a wash of palest cream. The capped sleeves hug his biceps, the narrow fit accentuates the triangle of his waist.

Was it that same subconscious that prompted him to don this shirt before he came, or was it simply a fluke?

Not interested at all?

I wouldn't say that.

Whatever you do at a wedding.

Sherlock's skin feels tight and hot and he looks away from his image in the mirror, suddenly ashamed, although he doesn't have the words to say why.

*****

When the sound of footsteps at last echo down the hall, they are seven minutes and thirty-three seconds late, they are rushed, and they are uneven.

Sherlock's feet propel him into the center of the room, and he stops moving just as John Watson shoves open the door.

He doesn't look like he did last week, and he looks exactly like he did last week at the same time. Sherlock's mind waffles for half a second, wavers, and then it clicks, clear and precise and sharp as the edge of a broken glass: John looks like he did at the beginning. Before the murder and the running and the Chinese. He looks tight and pale. Weary. On guard.

Bored.

He's favoring one leg a bit, and there's a rueful tremor that flashes down his left hand.

“Wrong,” Sherlock says. The word surfaces on his tongue, and it falls out of his mouth to sit flat and gelatinous on the floor between them before he can abort it. He shakes his head, and adds fuel to the fire by repeating it. “Wrong.”

John doesn't ask him what he means. He limps through the doorway with his mouth pressed into a flat line, and stops half a yard away from Sherlock. Both of his palms are upturned slightly, his elbows bent. What can you do?

“Run,” Sherlock snaps in answer to the silently asked question, annoyed. (Frustrated.) (Disappointed?) John's gaze is steady. “Chase. Lead. Follow. Come to a bloody ballroom dancing lesson.”

“Couldn't do any of that,” John says. His voice is steady, too; overcompensating for the weakness in his limbs. “Can only do that on Fridays at four.”

Sherlock forces himself to peel the anger-frustration-annoyance off of himself. He doesn't know this man. He doesn't know John. And so he has no right to pass judgment as he is; he has no right to feel anything more that professional interest in his lessons and blah blah blah. He clenches his back teeth together and reflects that knowing all of this doesn't really help, because here he is still, wanting to take John by the hand and drag him out into the maze of London streets in chase of... something.

“It's a good thing a week only has seven days then,” Sherlock says. He turns his back on John and presses play on the stereo. “Or else you'd be in a wheelchair by now.”

He's aware that he isn't being nice—but the alternative is clamming up completely, and between the two options, a lack of the former is statistically less likely to drive John away than an excess of the latter. Also, Sherlock has an idea.

And so he's a dick.

“Maybe next week,” he says, jabbing inelegantly with one finger at the fast-forward button until the song that he's looking for pours out of the speakers, “you'll come back with one of those walkers that the infirm utilize. Or better yet, you won't bother to come back at all—”

“Now listen here, you enormous, posh arse.”

Sherlock starts. Did John just... did John just growl at him? He lifts his eyes, catches sight of John in the mirror above his shoulder—he did. He growled. Something uncomfortable and strangely pleasant shivers deep in Sherlock's stomach, and he turns around to face the unexpectedly fierce man, leaning back against the piano for support.

There are two spots of color high on John's cheeks, like someone took their thumbs and pressed them into the soft pillows of flesh on either side of his face until they left a mark. His shoulders are squared, but they aren't stiff, and he looks ever bit the soldier—the Captain—as he somehow manages to look down his nose at Sherlock despite being several inches shorter.

“I don't want to be here,” he says, his voice low. “I don't want to learn how to dance, I don't want get up and embarrass myself in front of every single bloody person at my bloody wedding, I don't care if I ever know the name of one single dance move as long as I live, I don't want any of this.” He's been stalking ever closer to Sherlock as he speaks, and Sherlock is feeling cornered and small against the piano when John finally stops moving. His feet are set wide apart. His hands are steady. “So you, sir, will be polite to me, and you will not give me shit, and you will treat me with respect as long as I stand here in this classroom with you and give you my money. Do you understand?”

Sherlock does understand. But because Sherlock is Sherlock and not what anyone would call sane, instead of confirming this, he says as he cowers, “It isn't your money,” and looks at John haughtily, and generally just continues to give as much shit as he possibly can. “It's your future father-in-law's money. So technically, you can never show up to another one of these lessons and it won't affect me at all, because I'm going to get paid whether you're here or not.”

John has both eyebrows raised. Because his hands are tucked firmly behind his back and not swinging anywhere near the vicinity of Sherlock's face, Sherlock continues on.

“Now, John. As a little exercise, I'd like you to just take a jaunt about the room.” He waves one hand airily, indicating the open floor behind John in the hopes of coaxing him out there. Sherlock does have a point to prove after all.

“I don't jaunt,” John says firmly. He stares up at Sherlock from under half-lidded eyes. He doesn't seem angry anymore, which just makes Sherlock smug. He knew it...

“Stroll, then,” Sherlock amends. “Trot. Amble. Saunter. Plod. Trek. Stride—”

“Yeah, yeah, ok,” John says through a cloudy sigh, turning on his heel and making a great show of crossing the room. “Maybe lay off the thesaurus, yeah?” he mutters, making eye contact with Sherlock in a panel of mirror as he circles the floor. “That was exhausting.”

“If you find that exhausting then you'll never make it through a lesson with me,” Sherlock says pleasantly as he watches John walk smoothly around the room. He's feeling quite cheerful, suddenly; it's one of the loveliest feelings in the world, he thinks, when one is proven right. “What a lovely, even gait you have there, John. Effortless, some might say.”

John is walking unconsciously in time with strains of music floating from the stereo. He gives Sherlock a completely unimpressed look, then watches himself in the mirror. There's an obvious reluctance in him to do so; his eyes lag after his head turns. “What the hell are you on about—Oh. Oh. Well.”

He stops moving, then starts again, watching his legs.

No limp.

“Did you...?”

Sherlock knows what he wants to say (of course he does) but he keeps his mouth closed and lets John work it out on his own. Better that way.

John circles again, faster this time, and pauses across from Sherlock at the apex of the classroom. He faces himself in the mirror; chews the inside of his cheek so that his lips purse; nods sharply at his reflection in a kind of salute.

“You just infuriated the limp out of me,” he says to Sherlock carefully. It's a hedging, questing statement, as if John doesn't really believe it himself. “First it's murder, and then it's anger—” He breaks off and laughs, a brief, fierce huff of a noise, and doesn't finish his statement.

“John Watson,” Sherlock says instead of answering. He knows he must look unbearably smug—ah, yes, there it is, his reflection flashing in a self-satisfied way at him—but he doesn't care, because he was right. “Would you like to dance?”

*****

“Relax.”

John looks at him like he's just suggested John attempt a series of cartwheels down the hallway: eyebrows up, mouth open just a little bit (smudge of tongue) (John Watson's tongue is fascinating) eyes saying clearly, 'you absolute nutter.'

“Wait. I don't have it yet—” John begins, but Sherlock cuts him off.

“We've just spent twenty minutes going over the box step. Come, John. Time to touch me.”

It comes out sounding... Well, honestly it sounds simply lewd when Sherlock says it like that, doesn't it, but Sherlock hurries to brush the moment aside, not even lingering on the faint touch of pink he sees bloom on John's cheeks. Probably just exertion, anyway.

“I don't...” John hesitates, hands sort of floating at his sides indecisively—

Sherlock makes a noise of impatience in the back of his throat and grabs John's right hand. He lifts it between them, shaking it slightly as he glares at John. “Your partner is not a bomb waiting to explode, John,” he says intently. He pulls John forward and tugs John's hand until his arm is wrapped around Sherlock's rib cage, hand resting on his left scapula. “Nothing bad is going to happen if you touch them.”

(John's palm is warm through the thin cotton of Sherlock's shirt. Sherlock can feel it, radiating through him like a miniature sun, and he wants to gather all of John to his chest to see if the rest of him is as glowingly hot as his hand.)

“You are the man,” Sherlock says, placing left hand on John's shoulder and joining their two free hands in a lifted position so that together, their arms make a sort of circle (warm, warm, warm), “and as such, you'll lead—”

John's head jerks up, his eyes meeting Sherlock's in panic. “Lead? What? Why? How? I don't—”

“One, two, three.” Sherlock begins counting to the music, drowning out John's words of protest. “One, two, three, one, two, three—it's like I just showed you, John, the box step—yes, there you go—well, sort of... One, two three...”

And they're moving. Slowly, disjointedly, and with rather the cadence and rhythm of a newborn foal, but moving nonetheless. It's more than Sherlock thought they would achieve today, to be certain; more than he thought they'd achieve in several lessons, if he's being completely honest. John is staring down at their feet but he somehow manages to step on Sherlock's toes anyway. His form is weak and droopy. The top of his head bobs ever closer to Sherlock, face. His soft hair tickles Sherlock's nose.

Sherlock is charmed. Even more so than before.

John revolves Sherlock with a bit too much enthusiasm, and he stumbles back into the piano, jostling the stereo perched on top. “Shit, sorry,” John mutters. His right hand slides down to Sherlock's waist in a seemingly unconscious motion as he works to right them both, and that tongue darts out to wet his bottom lip, eyes affixed firmly on their feet in his attempt to avoid another tangle.

Sherlock is glad for John's distraction; he's entirely unable to speak. John's hand is solid and yet somehow gentle on Sherlock's waist, and his thumb is kind-of-sort-of stroking at the very bottom of Sherlock's rib cage, and John smells good, he realizes suddenly, like tea and wool and a tiny bit of sweat, and—

Sherlock makes a garbled noise and pulls out of John's arms, taking a few steps backwards until he's right back against the piano. “Music,” he says, blinking quickly. He catches images of John through his lashes like a series of snapshots: arms falling to his sides. Surprise loosening his features, and then, in the next one, confusion tightening them back up. Everything beige and warm and faintly pink.

“Excuse me?” John asks.

“Music. I—I need to change the music.” Sherlock reaches behind him blindly, jabs at one of the buttons on the stereo, and the next track comes on. This one is faster, beginning with a fierce series of pizzicato notes that ascend to stratospherical heights before plunging into a sharp, heated melody. The music tugs at something in Sherlock's chest and he itches to exchange his ballroom oxfords for his black leather slippers, and to saut de chat across the room on the crescendo that he knows is coming.

John makes a noise of approval in the back of his throat. Sherlock looks at him, faintly pleased.

“Pretty,” John says in answer to the inquisitive look. He gestures vaguely at the stereo. “The song.”

“Thank you,” Sherlock says before he has time to consider his words.

But John—clever John—catches him. He smiles. “You—that's you? Playing?”

He's blushing. Why? John hasn't said anything remarkably admiring, not really. His praise hadn't even been as effusive as some people Sherlock has come across—and yet, the tips of Sherlock's ears grow warm first, and then that warmth spreads to his cheeks, his neck, his chest.

Good lord. He hasn't flushed like this since he was eight years old.

“Um,” says Sherlock, and that makes it worse. He's usually so articulate. (Verbose, if one asked Mycroft, which one never would.) He shakes his head a little in the hopes that the action will dispel a little of the swollen, glowing heat that's draped over him in a thick layer. “Um, that is, yes. I do. Play.”

“It's really good, Sherlock.” (You're really good, Sherlock thinks, and then wonders what he means by that. John hasn't displayed a talent for anything other than making Sherlock feel funny.) “Beautiful.”

Beautiful.

Sherlock makes a flapping motion with both of his hands. “It's nothing,” he says, and tries to hide the secret smile he can feel slipping up.

John's smile is softer than before. “It's not nothing. It's...” He hesitates. Decides not to say whatever it had been that he was going to say.

Sherlock really really wants to know what it had been that he was going to say.

“I don't recognize this,” John says instead with a tilt of his head. Not that I would, the tilt says, but the sardonic grin urges Sherlock to pipe up.

“You wouldn't,” he says. He steps closer to John, both hands clasped at the small of his back. “It's my own. I composed it.”

John smiles like he knew that already, but obliges Sherlock with words anyway. “Amazing,” he says.

Amazing. Brilliant. Fantastic.

Beautiful.

(Whatever you do at a wedding.)

“Thank you, John.”

Sherlock tucks his chin and takes John in his arms once more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

John gets the call on a Wednesday.

He's walking home from the clinic, hands shoved deep in his pockets, the collar of his jacket turned up to protect the back of his neck from the chilly mist of rain rising from the pavement in corporeal wafts. It has been a long day; it's flu season, and the citizens of London—all runny noses and rattling coughs—are loath to let him forget it. He keeps his head down, his shoulders hunched, and thinks longingly of the tea awaiting him back at his flat.

When his phone rings, he jumps, pats at the thing where it's wedged in his pocket, and then ignores it completely. He's not about to turn back around and be forced to look down even one more throat today, citizens of London be damned. He's off his shift—the end. Period. Full-fucking-stop. Bloody understaffed fools—

Brrrring. Brrrring.

They wouldn't call twice, would they? The clinic? Unlikely. Mary, then, probably wanting dinner.

John ignores it.

Brrrrrrriiiiinnngg—

“Bollocks,” he mutters, and fishes it out of his pocket, squinting at the screen.

Unknown number.

The words glare up at him, whitewhitewhite, and for some reason that John can't fathom, he answers.

“Hello?”

“John.” The voice is deep, almost soft, and familiar. John stops in the middle of the sidewalk and lets the late evening foot traffic flow around him in swells.

“Who is this?” he asks, careful to keep his tone beige and neutral. His faceless stranger tone. His invalid, living-off-a-dwindling-army-pension tone.

“Sherlock Holmes,” says the voice—Sherlock. Sherlock. Sherlock—and John presses the cool plastic of his mobile hard against his ear and cheek as if the action will somehow bring Sherlock through the line and to him. “You may remember me as the man who once dragged you across London to look at corpses—”

“Yeah, of course I remember you,” John interrupts, grinning a little. “Don't remember giving you my number, though.”

He waits, expecting (hoping for) a snappy retort from the other end of the line, but instead there is only silence.

No... No, not silence. There's the muffled, irregular sound of breathing, as if Sherlock has been running very far and very fast. John furrows his brow. There is a hitch, a catch, a hesitancy to that breath.

Pain.

“Sherlock?” John is moving, pushing his way through people and toward the street before his brain catches up with his actions. “Sherlock, are you ok?”

“John—” There it is, that flinch in his tone, turning John's name into two separate and brittle syllables— “You're a doctor?”

“Yeah, Sherlock, I am. Do you need a doctor? Do you need me?”

“John—” A gasp, then a grunt, and then a sharp inhale like the squaring of shoulders. Like a preparation. “John, I have just been very lightly stabbed and I am inquiring of your services in remedying that.”

John has already hailed a cab; he realizes this only after he's thrown himself into it, back slamming hard into the threadbare seats.

“Where are you?” he barks, motioning at the cabby to drive. Move move move move—

“221 Baker Street,” Sherlock answers promptly.

“221 Baker Street,” John recites to the cabby in a rush. His heart is beating fast, and he can feel its throb in his temples. “As quickly as you can.”

“What?” Sherlock asks, and this more than anything terrifies John. The dull confusion in Sherlock's usually-so-confident tone.

“Cab,” says John, trying to calm his tone. “I'm in a cab. Sherlock, you need to go to a hospital—”

“Absolutely not!”

The words are sharp, and louder than anything else John has heard come out of Sherlock today. Alright, John thinks, feeling his spine straighten as a rush of adrenaline courses through. This is fine; stabbing is fine. He was an army doctor, for god's sake. He's sewn men back together who'd taken bullets to the bowels, he can deal with this without the assistance of a couple of London nurses. Into battle, then.

“Fine,” he says, mentally going over what he's going to need to fix this. “Where at?”

“Upper right arm,” Sherlock responds without having to ask John what he means. His voice is fainter now, and whether that is due to blood loss or simply altered distance from his cell, John feels another thrill anyway. “Usually patch myself up, but—” A quickly muffled gasp— “I can't reach—”

“How deep?”

“It was a light stabbing, John—”

John clenches his teeth together and leans forward in his seat. He's tapping his right hand on the handle of the door percussively, and the rhythm is fast and almost soothing. “How. Deep?”

Sherlock's voice is sullen, blending poorly with the pain. “Deep enough for stitches.”

John nods at nothing in particular. “Right. Ok. Keep pressure on it—”

“I'm not an idiot—”

“Says the man who just got stabbed in the sodding arm,” John all but shouts, and the cabby raises his eyebrows at John in the mirror. John ignores him with well-practiced ease.

“Alright, ok, sorry, just—I'm here, I think.”

“Mrs. Hudson will show you up,” Sherlock says, and before John can get another word in, he's gone.

“Bloody hell,” John grunts. He pays the fare hurriedly and dashes to the door of the building next to an establishment branded Speedy's Cafe. He lifts the knocker and lets it fall.

Almost immediately the door opens, revealing a small, dithering sort of woman that John really can't be arsed to examine too thoroughly at this moment in time. “Sherlock? Does he live here? He asked me to come by. It's important.”

The woman's face brightens, her mouth rounding into an O, and she places the tips of both hand's fingers against her plum-colored lips. “Sherlock asked you to come? Oh my! Oh, isn't this just wonderful news! And who are you?”

John swallows uncomfortably and wonders if it would be too rude simply to push past her and scour the flat until he finds the man himself. “I'm Doctor John Watson, and I think Sherlock needs to see me—”

At once the woman (Mrs. Hudson, he presumes) drops all fluttering behaviors and steps smartly out of his way. “He's right upstairs,” she says. “Oh, what has that boy gotten himself into? Always rushing about.” She watches John as he takes the stairs two at a time. “Keep him safe, Doctor Watson,” she calls up after him.

John gives her an half-hearted salute and opens the door to 221B without bothering to knock.

He doesn't see Sherlock immediately, too caught up in the details of what has to be the strangest flat he's ever seen.

It's a small, almost cramped space, made even more so by the sheer volume of stuff covering every surface. There's more furniture than he can find any reason for, the combination of wallpapers and upholstery fabrics and rugs are frankly garish, and anywhere that one can conceive of putting a book, someone has put a book. There is—is that really... Good lord, it is—there's a human skull perched jauntily on the mantelpiece, its empty sockets round, blank orbs. A violin stand, loaded with sheet music, dwells in one corner.

John falls in love.

“Good evening, Doctor Watson.”

Sherlock is lounging in a one of two big, comfortable-looking armchairs, a pair of impeccably tailored trousers on those legs—legs that are stretched out before him as far as the eye can see. His head is tilted up against the back of his chair, and in the soft, warm light of this flat, his skin takes on an otherworldly sheen, enhanced by the film of sweat that glistens on his brow. He regards John from under half-lidded eyes, and if it weren't for the fact that Sherlock is currently holding a very bloody flannel to his slashed arm, then John might...

(Stop.)

“Jesus, Sherlock.” John doesn't mean for it to come out on a groan, but really, who can blame him? Here he is, standing in the flat of a man who—who (John can literally feel his brain flailing) who looks like that, watching him sit like that, and watching him bleed, and also he isn't wearing a shirt, and also John is one hundred percent positive that he's going to need to stitch him up.

“Hello,” Sherlock says, and he's grinning, the utter bastard. “Sorry about the mess; blood's messy, but I'm sure you...” He shrugs languidly in lieu of wasting air on speaking, and John snaps into action.

“Med kit?” John asks, crossing the room.

“'There,” Sherlock mumbles, hitching his head at the table to his left. “Already disinfected myself and blah blah...”

John turns, viewing the heap of medical supplies spilled out over the table top. “Rather more well stocked than most people's at home kits,” John remarks as he opens one of the packets that holds a pre-sterilized needle with suture thread attached.

“'M not most people,” murmurs Sherlock, and gives John a smile from under his lashes that's almost coy. John feels the need to clear his throat. Multiple times.

“Right, well, no, I suppose you're not,” he babbles as he lifts the soiled flannel from Sherlock's arm. He regains his composure, however, when the gash comes into view.

It's about seven centimeters long, beginning just under his armpit and running down the inside of his bicep in a long, glaring line. It's a clean slice, thankfully, but deep, and personally John doesn't see anything light about it, although he refrains from saying so.

John swears and leans across Sherlock to set the flannel down on the table. The bleeding has mostly stopped by now, he sees, but judging by the sodden state of the flannel and the limp state of Sherlock, that doesn't mean he hadn't lost a lot of blood.

“What the hell happened to you?” John asks as he cleans the cut. It's perfunctory, and he isn't about to take the word of a woozy consulting detective-come-dance instructor when the man said he'd already cleaned it himself.

Sherlock lets out a sharp hiss between his teeth and stiffens fractionally in his chair, both legs pulling in towards him until his feet are sat flat on the floor. His long, pale hands curl into tight fists which he presses into his thighs.

“Didn't agree with a man that I—that I—that I should've,” Sherlock slurs. His words are very obviously purposefully enigmatic, but are also somehow loose and a little bit blurred, and his tone is soft.

“So you were a pompous arse and it got you attacked, is that it?” John probes with a gently jocular tone. It's an attempt to distract Sherlock from the pain, but as soon as John slips his needle into Sherlock's agitated flesh he knows it won't work. Sherlock is hyper-aware of the whole world and all its intricacies; why shouldn't he be just that aware of his own pain as well?

“Ok,” John soothes as Sherlock surges forward, laying one hand automatically on the crown of his head like John would with a small child afraid of their jab. Sherlock's breath catches and he stills, although the tension in his bare shoulders does not abate. “It's alright, you're ok.”

“I know I am,” Sherlock snaps, voice irritated, but John pays him no mind because Sherlock leans into his palm like a cat seeking a scratch between the ears as soon as John begins the next stitch.

It's a long process, made longer by the bizarre conviction John feels that he must not hurt this man. There's something fragile and broken about Sherlock that John can't quite name, as if he's a glass that's been shattered and then shoddily glued back together again, and John finds himself handling the man as gently as he can, even as he stitches up his skin.

He doesn't normally feel this way about patients, John doesn't—but then again, the patients that he's been treating since Afghanistan have all been mundane cases: flu, sprained ankles, gout. The last time he'd had to patch anyone up who had a wound as severe as this one, there had been gunfire just a few meters away from where he was stood, and he'd been wrist-deep in the leg of a man he'd never seen before in his life and hadn't seen since.

“Almost done,” John murmurs as he tugs at the needle, watching the folds of pallid skin come together with the assistance of thick black thread. He realizes that he's carding his fingers through Sherlock's curls, and that they're astoundingly soft, and—John leans just the slightest bit closer, on the pretense of knotting the thread, which he conveniently actually has to do—that over the faintly metal scent of blood, they smell very, very good.

(Tea, maybe, and tobacco, and sage, and...)

John snips the needle away, leaving the smallest tail of thread that he can manage without cutting the knot, and then places the scissors and needle blindly on the arm of Sherlock's chair without moving. He did a good job, he notices, admiring his handiwork. Twelve perfectly even stitches, lined up in a row like so many tally marks.

“All done,” he says softly. He brings his other hand up and traces a faint line beside the cut with one finger. Sherlock makes a soft noise, almost imperceptible if John hadn't been as close as he is, or as completely still, and a shiver runs through him.

“Thank you, John,” he whispers. His head is bowed, and John can see nothing but the delicate edge of one cheekbone, the feathering of dark lashes, the suggestion of peony lips.

John wants to see all of him.

John takes his hand away.

“‘Course,” he responds brusquely, stepping back and away, back, back, until he's almost across the sitting room. Sherlock is watching him with unreachable grey eyes and he's stiffened in his chair again, even though the pain should be mostly abated. “Just—I'll just make some tea, yeah?” John asks, jerking a thumb behind him in indication of the kitchen.

Sherlock's expression doesn't change, not precisely, but it does shift, going from something closed off and unreadable to something slightly wider, slightly freer. “Oh,” he says, his voice still so low that John can barely hear it. “Tea. Yes. Third cupboard on the right.”

The kitchen is a bloody mess. The table is swamped with lab equipment: microscope, countless vials and beakers, a few petri dishes full of questionable substances. John finds a veritable mountain of half-empty tea boxes and bags of unlabeled loose leaf that he decides, after a moment of curious hesitation, not to touch, hidden away in the cabinet Sherlock had indicated. There are mugs stacked in the sink, brownish rings marring their rims, and John washes two of them, deciding after he sees what looks like a jar of dead beetles next to the toaster that that's safer than snooping around the other cabinets in this kitchen. He selects a nice chamomile tea for both of them—Sherlock could use something to calm down after this, and if John's being honest, he isn't exactly completely relaxed, himself—and switches on the kettle.

“There's milk in the fridge.”

John almost jumps, but he's sick of doing that around Sherlock, so he stands his ground firmly and turns around to face Sherlock like he wasn't just scared out of his skin. “You,” John says, pointing at him, “should not be standing up.”

Sherlock is holding onto one of the kitchen chairs with white-knuckled fingers, and the tendons in his arm flare as he takes a firmer grip. His skin is parchment, pulled tight against his bones. Looking at the taller man with a doctor's eye, John can see that he's too thin—he runs his gaze along Sherlock's pale torso, counting every last rib as it presents itself clearly, and lets himself linger at the shadowed valleys and peaks of his neck and shoulders and clavicle—but when John looks at him now with the simple, uncalculated gaze of a human being, he feels a tug in his abdomen that cannot be attributed to clinical concern.

He's lithe and sinewy and sleek, Sherlock Holmes. John admires the gentle slope of his biceps, the powerful, commanding set of those shoulders—shoulders that somehow manage to be both narrow and yet somehow more well-defined than many men John had known in the army. Sherlock's torso, bare still, and presented to John without the blur of injury in the way, is a wonder: it is slender, and John might go as far even to say feminine, in its build—except, no. No, not feminine at all, John decides suddenly. There are muscles defined on this glorious man that John didn't even know existed. John wants to take his hands and press them flat against Sherlock's chest, to feel the strong heart that he knows is beating there, just under those layers of warm skin and muscle and prominent bone. He wants to slide his hands down, to run them over the concave of Sherlock's stomach, to grip his waist and nestle his thumbs in that dip there at his hipbones, and then to lean in, to—to—to—

John wants to—

Beautiful, his brains says, over and over again. He's short circuiting, and he doesn't care. Beautiful.

“Needed to tell you about the milk,” Sherlock says, and just like that, John is snapped out of his hazy reverie. The reality is that this man has just lost quite a lot of blood and John has no business ogling him here in his kitchen.

John has no business ogling him anywhere.

“Sit,” he says, not yet trusting himself to be able to make noises with multiple syllables without his voice simply dying away. When Sherlock doesn't budge, simply stands with his feet close together and his eyes heavy and sways like an obstinate sapling, John takes his wrist and maneuvers him before a chair. “Sit,” John says again. He uses his other hand and presses lightly on Sherlock's shoulders and the man drops into the chair like a sack of rocks, keeping his gaze trained on John.

“Good,” John says, nonsense words that fill the space between them and probe tenderly at the palpable air. “Thank you.”

“Why are you thanking me, John?” Sherlock asks quietly. John is still holding his wrist, and Sherlock's skin is warm and taut beneath his fingers. He places Sherlock's hand gently in his lap and turns toward the whistling kettle.

“Tea's done,” John says in lieu of answering. He can feel Sherlock's eyes boring a hole between his shoulders blades and the intensity of it makes his hands shake. He lifts the mugs carefully, relishing the moist, cloying steam against his hands and neck, placing one mug before himself and passing one across the cluttered table. Sherlock takes it silently, and his hands and face are grateful.

“Milk,” John says. He opens the fridge, takes a brief but impacting sweep of the contents therein, and then slams the door shut so hard that the whole kitchen rattles. John stares down at his feet. He tells himself to breathe deeply. He opens the refrigerator once more.

Yes. Just as he'd thought.

On the top shelf, nestled in cozily next to a jar of olives and half a brick of molded cheese, is a human head.

It's a young, male looking human head. The skin is a bit blueish—the lips, particularly, have turned an almost indigo color—and the cheeks and eye sockets are sunken and hollowed, and the head is noticeably lacking the rest of its person, but it does own a rather nice mess of blond curls, and John chooses to concentrate on this, because he's shooting for optimism, here.

“Sherlock,” he says carefully. The cold air from the fridge is chilling his skin. “I just thought you might like to know that there is part of a human in your fridge.”

“Experiment,” Sherlock answers him shortly.

“Yes,” John says. With effort, he peels his eyes away from the moldy visage and instead hunts for the milk. There's half a pint in the door pocket. “And sorry for this, but as a doctor I just have to ask; was it legally obtained?”

Sherlock's answer is swift, and John is more grateful than he previously thought was humanly possible. “Yes of course, I'm not stupid,” Sherlock says, and John breathes a sigh of relief. It wasn't, he reflects, like he was actually going to do anything if Sherlock had admitted to getting the head through less-than-legal means, and that thought is a bit scary. John grabs the milk and wanders back to the table. An even scarier thought is that he isn't really put off by anything that's happened this evening; in fact, he feels more energized than he has all day—all week—and sort of uncomfortably fond.

Shit, John thinks as he settles into the chair across from Sherlock's. He pours a conservative amount of milk into his own tea, and then a much more liberal glug into Sherlock's, and then meets Sherlock's eyes across the table.

There is half a second where John thinks Shit, again, only more forcefully, but then Sherlock's face does something marvelous.

It crinkles.

All over. The corners of his eyes, in large, deep brackets in his cheeks; he even develops about thrice the amount of chins as he tucks his normal one close to his chest and just beams at John. There's a low, almost inaudible rumbling sound coming from somewhere, and John realizes it's Sherlock's laugh, and feels a higher, answering one bubbling up in his own chest. They break into peals of heady guffaws, and John bends almost in half, leaning against the table for support.

“Christ,” John says when he can breathe again, and he wipes at his eyes with the sleeve of his jumper. “Christ. This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever done.”

Sherlock picks up his cup of tea and continues to smile at John over the rim. “And you invaded Afghanistan.”

“That wasn't just me,” John points out reasonably, and Sherlock laughs again, taking a sip of his tea. He swallows; his expression changes, his face smoothing in all its previously crinkly places and getting one single line across the tip of his nose; a look of abject disgust comes over his features and he chokes on the liquid that's sliding down his gullet, setting the cup down forcefully on the table and hacking and gasping like he's been poisoned.

“What in the name of god did you just feed me?” Sherlock splutters. He looks up at John like John has just admitted to murdering Sherlock's whole family behind his back.

“It's chamomile,” John says, amused in spite of Sherlock's horror—or perhaps because of it. “It's to help you sleep.”

“I don't sleep,” Sherlock hisses, “and I certainly do not ingest that—that—” He waves at the cup with his uninjured arm, the long limb flinging about wildly— “that garbage. Honestly, John.”

“Oh really?” John drawls, taking a long drink of his own tea. “Maybe you don't usually sleep, but I'll also hedge a bet that you don't usually get stabbed in the arm and the neglect to see a proper doctor—”

“You're a proper doctor.”

“—so you're bloody well sleeping tonight. In fact, you're going to drink all of that right now—don't give me that look, Sherlock Holmes; you asked me to come over and help you, so that's what I'm going to do—yes that's right, swallow it all down—good boy—and now you're going to stand, and you're going to go lay on that sofa, and I'm going to stay here until you aren't conscious.”

“When I asked you to come,” Sherlock seethes, spitting the words out from between his teeth even as he drains his mug with a grimace, “I did not expect you to be so much of a bother, Doctor Watson.”

“That's your problem, mate,” John says cheerfully. “Come on, up you get.” And then he adds cheekily, “Doctor's orders.”

*****

In the end, John gets Sherlock out of his chair, forces him to go into the bedroom and change into pyjamas, and then practically manhandles him onto the sofa where John rather unceremoniously throws a blanket on top of his head and tells him to “Close your eyes and think of calm things. Like waves. Or tea.”

John turns the telly on (he figures that he's just spent the past twenty minutes seeing to it that Sherlock Holmes doesn't bleed out, so at the very least he's earned television privileges), surfing the channels until he finds a dull cooking show that he can put on a low volume while Sherlock lounges with his eyes stubbornly open and John putters about the sitting room, cleaning up the absolute mess that they've left everywhere.

Sherlock keeps up a stream of increasingly sleepy sounding commentary from his vantage point on the sofa, most of which John doesn't bother responding to. It's mostly things like, “I solved a case and was brilliant, do you want to know about it,” and “don't touch that you idiot,” but as the evening wears on there are longer and longer spaces of silence between these remarks. After about twenty minutes has gone by without a slurred insult, John feels it is safe to check and see if the git is finally sleeping. He turns off the telly and crosses the room to stand over the sofa.

Sherlock is curled on his side like a gangly comma. His knees are pulled up to his chest (now covered in a grey t-shirt), his injured arm wrapped gingerly around them. The cut is vivid and pink on that stretch of milk-colored skin. His cheek is pillowed on one the hand of his other arm, and with his dark lashes feathered down over his cheeks like that, he looks years younger.

John's chest is sore.

“I'm glad you came,” Sherlock says suddenly. His eyes are still closed, and John is grateful for this. He finds himself smiling, and it is the private, gentle, fragile sort of smile that one wants to bundle up and hide from public view. A wash of tenderness overcomes John; he's warm and brimming with it, and he wants to curl up in that armchair over there, and watch Sherlock, and never leave.

“Me too,” John answers him simply.

It is silent in 221B Baker Street save for the tick of the clock on the mantelpiece. Into this silence, Sherlock Holmes smiles, privately, gently, fragile, and he lets John Watson see.

Chapter Text

Sherlock notices people.

Most don't think he does. Most think he only notices the negative space around humans (the mud on a bootheel, the blood on a lintel, the key to the code hidden in the silt of London) and uses that to his advantage, bends the reality around him until it suits his needs, and stays purposefully blind to anyone with a pulse. He's alright with that. Honestly. He is. Prefers it, actually.

But it isn't true.

Sometimes it's a collar bone, stretched long and smooth above the neck of a shirt, that catches his attention. It could be the edge of a wrist, the tilt of a jaw. Forearms, brushed lightly with hair, shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows. A pair of legs, crossed at the ankle, denim straining against knees. Blue eyes, dark and shadowed and fierce and vulnerable, their gaze steady and fixed.

It's never everything. Ultimately, Sherlock is always dissatisfied with the rest of a person, if he even lets himself get close to them at all. (He's hugely disappointed in humanity; has been ever since he was a child, when the true nature of the world was presented to him in the form of the cruel words of the adults around him, and the crueler words of his peers.) And so he keeps a purposeful distance. Allows himself to admire bits and pieces from afar, but never lets himself near enough to get an idea of the whole. The inevitably cruel, disappointing whole.

This eye for detail has served him well in his professions—both as a consulting detective and a dance instructor. Both jobs call for a keen, critical eye, a mind that can catalog and diagnose and, to a certain extent, admire. He finds them satisfying, too, these jobs: intellectually and aesthetically, if not precisely emotionally.

All this is to say that Sherlock Holmes is well-practiced in holding people at a distance and admiring from afar. He is no stranger to denying himself the comfort of a living, breathing person close enough to him that he can feel the muscles of their arms pressed against his, and smell of the tangy musk of exertion at the nape of their neck...

(Tchaikovsky; loud, stirring, strangely delicate. Sherlock is arrested with visions of lithe women in petal-pink tulle, twirling on a stage lit like a star, their arms stretched so high into the air that it's as if their fingertips brushed the sky.)

John Watson.

John.

John.

Different.

Isn't he?

Yes.

And Sherlock is scared. (Presses John close to his chest, smiles when he doesn't pull away and instead leads Sherlock with a firm and steady hand around the room.) Because he doesn't know why.

*****

“You won't drop me.”

John isn't touching Sherlock anymore. John is standing as stiff as a board, his palms pressed into the denim encasing his thighs. John is watching Sherlock carefully, and his tongue flicks across his lips anxiously. He waits long enough to answer that he's blinked twice by the time the words leave his mouth, his pale gold eyelashes shuttering up-and-down-up-and-down.

John is doubtful. “You can't know that.”

“John,” Sherlock huffs at him. “I've taught countless brainless, limp-noodle-armed plebeians how to do this and not a single one of them has ever dropped me. Surely you, who are superior to them in every conceivable way, will manage just fine.”

John has taken on a sort of stunned expression that Sherlock takes to mean he still isn't convinced.

“Perhaps a demonstration will convince you, then?” Sherlock sighs, and before John can answer he opens the door and pops his head into the hallway. “Irene or Molly, I need your assistance, please!” Sherlock calls out into the empty space. A few doors down, the music flowing out of one of the rooms (Don Quixote, Esmeralda variation, Sherlock thinks—he hears a tambourine) stops abruptly in the middle of a phrase. Irene emerges, her porcelain skin not even the slightest bit flushed.

(He's always wondered if maybe she's some sort of cold-blooded reptile in a woman's skin; or if she has an illness, psychological or otherwise, preventing blood from running to her cheeks. It's eerie, the way she never seems to get embarrassed.)

“What is it, love?” she asks him, already advancing down the hallway.

“Deduce it,” Sherlock snaps back at her, and with a throaty laugh she follows him into the studio.

Oh,” Irene drawls as soon as she spots John standing, alert and upright, in the centre of the room. “Oh, I see.” She pastes her most beautiful smile across those ruby lips and crosses to John with one hand extended, her pointe shoes echoing with a faint tap against the floor. “Doctor John Watson, I presume?”

“I—er, yeah.” John's tongue (beautiful tongue) trips and tangles over the incredibly simple sentence he utters. He takes Irene's hand in his and shakes it firmly, and he's staring at her, openly and unabashedly.

Sherlock is angry, suddenly. It is sharp and hard and stabs.

“Ms. Adler,” Irene says to John, and why is she looking at him like that, she's gay, she shouldn't be looking at him like that, doesn't she know that he's Sherlock's to devour with his eyes, Sherlock's to touch—

“Lovely to meet you,” John responds automatically. He extricates his hand from her grip and wipes both palms on his trousers, no trace of a smile hanging anywhere about his person. Sherlock is glad glad glad.

Irene laughs again, that ironic thing that sometimes Sherlock finds he can laugh along with, but now simply makes his skin crawl. “Such a polite boy,” she says, even though John has to be at least ten years older than her. “Such a shame that you're stuck in here with Mr. Holmes. He's horrible, that one, isn't he? I would have given you a different instructor but the rest were all booked up. No one wants to be railed at by Sherlock when they're just trying to learn.”

And right before Sherlock's eyes, John... shifts.

Nothing about him changes, not really; he's still the same attractive man, but as soon as Irene says that first thing (horrible) John's strong-looking shoulders take on an intimidating set instead of appearing just aesthetically pleasing. His usually wide-spaced stance is domineering, offended, offensive, legs straight and strong and preparatory. His hands pull into fists. His spine is a long, invincible column. He smiles, but it isn't a nice smile, and he only uses half of his mouth, and Sherlock suddenly realizes that John must have been an absolutely, terrifyingly formidable soldier.

“Then they're idiots,” John says, his tone slightly low, slightly gruff.

“Pardon me?” Irene asks, with the general air of someone having the time of their life.

“The people that don't want to dance with him,” John says, still in that same tone of voice. He isn't looking at Sherlock and Sherlock is glad, because he can feel his cheeks burning. “If they think he's anything other than lovely, they're fucking idiots.”

“Oh, I see!” repeats Irene, sounding positively delighted. She turns fully around to face Sherlock, her eyebrows sky high.

“Don't be tacky,” Sherlock says. There's a glowing ball of warmth in his chest, spreading slowly but surely to the rest of him, and he doesn't think anyone has ever said anything nicer about him than John just did, and he wants Irene to be gone. “Demonstrate a waltz dip with me,” Sherlock instructs in a tone that sounds a little bit unsteady, even to himself. “John doesn't want to drop me and he needs to see how it's done.”

Irene's smile doesn't fade but she stays blessedly silent and allows Sherlock to manipulate her into taking the proper posture.

It's fairly simple, and they've danced together enough times that their bodies sync together effortlessly, no matter the step they're attempting. Sherlock braces her back and ribs with his arm, and she drapes herself elegantly over it.

“Oh, for god’s sake,” Sherlock grumbles when she arches her back much farther than anyone at a wedding ever would, the crown of her head nearly brushing the floor. Sherlock catches John's eye over her and tries to look reassuring as he hauls Irene back to a standing position. “You won't have to dip me that far,” Sherlock tells him, shaking Irene's cloying grip off of his arm to the accompaniment of her laugh.

“Does your fiancée dance, Doctor Watson?” asks Irene in a falsely casual tone, and Sherlock stiffens, looking away from John.

God. Fiancée. He needs to remember that she exists. (Glow fading now, turning hard and cold.) He needs to remember that John belongs to this woman (this woman that John never mentions) and that Sherlock has no business devouring him with his eyes, and liking the feel of John's hands on his body, and blushing when John looks at him and says beautiful things about him. He needs to remember that John isn't... He isn't...

He needs to remember that John isn't his.

“Yes,” John says simply. “Mary dances.”

Mary. A plain name for a woman who is obviously anything but (for how could someone that is less than amazing-brilliant-fantastic be allowed to have John Watson as their own? It isn't possible. It isn't), and Sherlock has never realized before how very much he dislikes the moniker. It makes his skin feel tight and hot across his bones, makes his stomach queasy.

(He can see her in his mind’s eye.) (She is a dark brown stain in the John wing of his Mind Palace, bodiless and faceless, but visible nonetheless.) (And he has never realized before that he even had a John wing. A whole wing. A whole wing for someone he's not even known for a month. Sherlock aches to fill it.)

“I'm sure she's a beautiful woman,” Irene says.

“Yes,” John says again. Like he's reciting facts. Sherlock dares to glance at him; John is staring at his face, concern evident, and the image is superimposed with one from a few days ago: John, standing above him, his fingers in Sherlock's hair, his needle pricking and tugging at Sherlock's arm. Sherlock raises his hand to rub absently at that wound, raised in ridges under the cloth of his shirt, but no longer painful.

He wonders; if he gets hurt enough times, will John come and never go away?

And then immediately: stupid.

“Well, show me what you've learned, then,” Irene says, stepping back a little bit and folding her slim arms across her chest. There is a tilt to her chin that suggests she doesn't really think this plan will work and so Sherlock takes advantage of it, snapping out of his daze and herding her out of the classroom as quickly as he possibly can.

At the doorway she throws a look at Sherlock from under her eyelashes. “He's a handsome lad,” she says, full-voiced. “You could have done much, much worse. So could Mary.”

“There are clumps,” Sherlock says, slowly and pointedly, “in your mascara.”

And then he shuts the door with a bang before she can say anything more.

He's a little bit afraid to turn around and look at John, and this bothers him, because he shouldn't be afraid—he shouldn't be anything. He should be indifferent, and yet he isn't, not at all, and it happened so quickly, this state of non-indifference, that he feels like his atoms have been pulled apart and strung about with the fastness of it and—

“You are, you know.”

John's voice is quiet, the unyielding iron of it abandoned now that any immediate threat (any immediate threat to Sherlock) (he was defending Sherlock) is gone. Sherlock doesn't immediately comprehend that John had formed words; just that this tone is soft and golden-warm, and that it fills him from his toes to his head like earlier. The John-glow. It's uncomfortably pleasant. He squirms a little. Sherlock isn't used to people talking to him like that. Usually they sound like they're seconds away from knocking him upside the head. With a chair.

He turns around.

“I... am what?”

John's arms are folded across his chest, but at Sherlock's question he loosens them, lets them hang at his sides in an unconscious display of neutrality. Or no—not neutrality. Friendliness. Understanding? Fondness.

“Lovely.” John is so matter-of-fact, so boldfaced, so blatantly honest that the blush on Sherlock's face (and ears and neck and chest and lower, lower) feels absurd. John smiles a little bit and Sherlock gravitates toward him without realizing it, like a moth pulled to a flame. “I wasn't making that shit up.”

“No one would ever accuse you of that,” Sherlock murmurs. He stops just a few centimeters away from John; keeps his hands in tight fists at his sides so he won't reach out and touch.

The song echoing from the stereo ends, and there are five seconds of pure silence. John stares at Sherlock, and Sherlock stares at John, and Sherlock thinks suddenly that eye contact with John Watson is even more intimate than sex, and that he could very easily get lost in that navy gaze, and that he is really doing a tremendously horrible job of remembering that Mary exists.

The next song starts. Johns lips are doing a tiny, subtle, half-parted smiling thing that makes Sherlock's stomach feel... squiggly. “Teach me how to do it, then,” John says, indicating at the empty space between the two of them with one hand.

“Right,” Sherlock says. “OK.” (The song is Chopin's Nocturne No. 2 in C Sharp Minor and Sherlock can remember when he recorded it. Alone in his sitting room, curled in his enormous chair, playing as loud as he could to drown the deafening silence all around him. The feeling of that silence is a distant memory now.) He steps forward so that he and John are almost touching and lifts his hands, placing one on John's shoulder. John takes the other one in his own, brings his opposite hand up and rests it firmly against Sherlock's back.

“Assume the correct posture,” Sherlock says, even though they've just done that. His brain feels slow and foggy, a foreign state of being. “Good, John. Now, lunge on your left leg—yes, like that. No—John! What have I told you? Your arms—”

“—are the coat hangers of life. I remember,” John answers dutifully, lunging with surprising grace. “What next?”

“Keep your back straight,” Sherlock instructs as he himself extends one leg forward and sinks the other one in a deep bend. “And get a firm grip across my back; it's the only support I have.”

John complies, sliding the palm of his hand across Sherlock's upper back as they sink into the movement together. It's surprisingly graceful for a man who couldn't even walk without a cane a few weeks ago and Sherlock says so, staring up at John and squeezing his hand lightly.

John laughs; it's a lovely sound. “Well, I've had a good teacher, haven't I?”

“The best,” Sherlock answers with a grin. “You had nothing to worry about earlier.”

“I suppose I didn't.”

On some unspoken cue they stand again, using the leverage of John's lunge to reach an upright position. Without missing a beat, John pulls Sherlock into a languid waltz once more; Sherlock closes his eyes, lets himself be led, and the room spins with them.

Chapter Text

John spends the days that aren't Fridays sort of guiltily hoping, with the civilian part of him, that Sherlock will get himself stabbed again, and John can come back. Back to that god-awful, amazing-brilliant-fantastic flat, full of soft, pretty, Sherlock Holmes. The army doctor part of John recognizes that this is probably (definitely) not ethical, but he keeps his mobile close nevertheless.

And then the Fridays come, and things are good again. Great, even.

John is a good student, Sherlock says, easily adaptable and quick on his feet (“Must be the military training,” Sherlock had said, and John had just smiled and dipped him fast and relished his surprised burst of laughter) although John's inclined to think that it's more due to his fantastic instructor than any talent on his part. Nevertheless, they soon move onto things other than the waltz: one week it's the foxtrot, with its smooth motions and its four-quarter rhythm, and the rumba, which John was not good at (something about the turns always messed with his thought process) all in one lesson. They're going to try to attempt a tango this week and John—as he enters the studio, calling a greeting to Molly on his way to Sherlock's classroom—is less nervous and more resigned. He's discovered, over the course of these lessons, that trying to change the will of Sherlock Holmes is about the most fruitless thing a person can do.

No stopping a hurricane, after all.

John lets himself into the hallway, glancing through the windows of classroom doors as he goes. He spots Irene Adler alone in an empty room, apparently without a class for this hour at least, working furiously at something that's fast and jagged and up on the tips of her shoes, blind to everything except her sweating reflection. He doesn't pause to watch her; her comments about Sherlock still rankle, even after this time has passed, and her gaze had been altogether too keen for his liking. There are a few rooms full of young looking children in black leotards and pink tights, their hair in tight buns, presided over by people with backs like fire pokers, and piano music tinkles out from underneath the door.

John smiles when he spots a young boy in a white t-shirt trip over his own feet as he lands a jump. Did Sherlock look like that when he was young, John wonders, or was he immediately just flawlessly perfect at dancing? He rather suspects the latter.

When John reaches Sherlock's classroom, there is a a full-bodied, crimson melody bleeding thickly into the hallway, and he stops.

There is a flush climbing up his neck, and he doesn't know why.

The tones are round and intimate; raw violins, an easy, syncopated drum, a lilting flute. And Sherlock is in that room, and Sherlock is in that room with his eyes closed and his arms up, and Sherlock is in that room with his eyes closed and his arms up and dancing the tango by himself—

And something niggling and smacking of an epiphany is flashing dimly in the back of John's mind. He pushes it aside hastily—thoughts for another moment; there is nothing for this moment but him—and pushes the door open with equal eagerness.

Sherlock doesn't hear him. The music is loud, swelling. John shuts the door softly and leans back against it, his head resting tipped back to the cool glass; he watches, and his heart beats in time with the music.

Sherlock's form is perfect, but then that isn't surprising. He holds himself like he's walking on a tightrope and he's not at all afraid of falling, lifted up and yet somehow grounded, alert and languid and effortless all at the same time. His feet are doing something that John, unfamiliar with the vernacular, can only describe as flicking: one leg bends at the knee, calf and ankle flicking to wrap briefly around the other leg before it unwraps with equal speed and he launches into a turn, tight and sharp. He takes steps like he's walking through water, his toes dragging the floor with a light scraping noise, and sometimes, occasionally, Sherlock will lift a hand and stroke himself; his cheek, the side of his neck, the curve of his rib cage, the jut of his hips... and his head will cant back, just like that, his chin will lift to the sky and his neck will be exposed, a long, pale length of unmarred flesh—

He takes John's breath away.

As the music draws to a close (a textured grate of horsehair bow across metal strings, a scaling upslide of flute notes) Sherlock ends in a deep lunge, his hands and arms cupped before him as if to cradle someone to him, and his chest heaves under the dark blue v-neck he's wearing. There is nothing but the sound of Sherlock's ragged breathing interrupting the silence that ensues, and John sort of wants to keep it this way. This room of infinite Sherlocks, sweat between his shoulder blades, at his temples, his usually perfectly coiffedhair standing up in disarray, his mouth open in a quiet gasp.

But it ends, as all things do. Sherlock catches sight of John and straightens easily, not a hint of embarrassment anywhere about him. And why should there be, John thinks, as Sherlock gives him that slight smile and crosses to the corner of the room where a black leather messenger bag is sitting. He's bloody gorgeous; if John looked like that, could move like that, he'd want anyone who had eyes to see him, too.

“That looked” (amazing) (brilliant) (fantastic) (sexy as hell) “way too hard for me.”

Sherlock draws a stainless steel water bottle from his bag and uncaps it, bringing it to his lips and taking a long drink as his eyes meet John's. John swallows just as Sherlock swallows, and when the bottle leaves Sherlock's lips, they're parted in a larger smile. “Nonsense,” he says in his liquid baritone. “Ye of little faith. I've taught you how to waltz, haven't I, and you never thought you could manage so much as that.”

“You're the one managing me,” John says. It isn't a good line—it's a fucking awful line—but that's ok, because John isn't going for flirtatious... is he? He pushes himself off of the door, noting the way his hips move first. He grins slightly when Sherlock fumbles with his bottle; there's a definite swagger in John's step, and Sherlock's eyes are wide, his pupils blown enormous and dark. Well. Maybe he is going for flirtatious, because he's really enjoying this, and there's nothing about it that's exactly chaste feeling.

“Alright, Sherlock Holmes,” John says, taking the water bottle out of Sherlock's hands and screwing the cap on tightly with a deft flick of his wrist. “Teach me how to tango.”

*****

This one.

This one is the best one.

Every line of their bodies meet. Nothing separates their flesh but the thinnest layer of cotton, and John can feel the fevered heat of Sherlock coming off of him in waves; he pulls it into him, relishes it.

The tango is just as sensual as the music had promised it would be. It is low, long; fast in places, so fast that John is weirdly dizzy with it, and yet he never feels out of control. How could he, wrapped up in Sherlock Holmes as he is, and carried along in the ebb and flow of his limbs?

Their faces are closer than they've ever been before, they're almost cheek-to-cheek, and sometimes when John tips his head a certain way Sherlock's disorderly curls brush his temple like a silky caress. Sherlock's eyes are closed again, and as much as John is in love with the feeling of being swept up in his arms, he wants to step away and watch like he did earlier; to stand pressed against the wall, Sherlock in the middle of the room, and drink him up with his eyes. Because they only have one more class after this one, and he's never going to get another chance to look again.

But when he finally thinks he's going to pull away, John finds that he can't. And he can't decide if it's brave or if it isn't, staying here with his chest pressing against Sherlock's, with his olfactory system filled to the brim with that uniquely Sherlock scent. It feels a little bit like a promise and a little bit like a lie, and John closes his eyes, too.

There is a soaring, earthy strain of the violin.

John has never seen Sherlock play.

*****

Six o'clock. Time to go, and he doesn't want to, and so he lingers in the doorway, and Sherlock lets him.

“Solve any crimes lately?” John asks. It's probably the most stupid thing he's ever said, but Sherlock doesn't really look like he's listening anyway. The man is standing close to the piano with his eyes on John; they are wide, and his lashes are dark, and clumped a little bit with sweat. The tango still hovers about him in the set of his shoulders and the expression on his face, and John grips the handle of the door hard.

“Dinner?” Sherlock blurts. It's the last thing John had expected him to say, and, going off of the way Sherlock's mouth is sort of hanging open, it's the last thing Sherlock had expected to say as well—but he's obviously not going to take it back. He shuts his jaw with a click, and John watches as he draws up and into himself, as if preparing for rejection.

John's mouth begins to open before his brain catches up but it doesn't really matter: it isn't like John has any other friends that would want him to go out—

Friends. Friend. Is that what this man has become to John? Startled, John thinks that yes, he really has—and yet he really hasn't, at the same time. John has never felt this way around any friends he's had before; John has never felt this way around anyonebefore. Not any of his girlfriends or boyfriends. Not his army mates, not his friends from before Afghanistan, not—not Mary. But then again, John has never held anyone like this; an embrace so intimate and so unified and so sensually rhythmic that it almost feels like sex. Maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe it is the fact that every Friday at four o'clock, John and Sherlock hold each other and spin around the room, that has acquainted them so deeply so fast. Maybe that's why Sherlock Holmes is the most vivid thing that John has ever known, burning bright and hot in the forefront of John's mind since that very first day they met.

“... John?” Sherlock chances tentatively when John doesn't speak.

“Of course,” John rushes to say, realizing with not a small amount of surprise that Sherlock actually thinks he's going to say no. It's a totally preposterous thought; how could anyone deny Sherlock anything? “Yeah, of course. Dinner sounds great. I'll just...” He gestures at an unspecific place behind himself with one hand. “Wait out here, yeah?”

Sherlock nods, the muscles of his neck tight. A tiny grin flickers at the edges of his pink lips, and the back of John's throat feels hot and dry like a furnace, and he has to leave the room.

*****

Sherlock leads the way and John follows, the two of them operating in a pattern that has become as familiar to John as the path he takes every day to work, or the grooves that line his own face. Inside the cab they are quiet, watching each other out of the corner of their eyes and making it just obvious enough that John, at least, isn't sure if it's an accident or not. Once, Sherlock's mercurial gaze catches on the edge of John's, snags; they stay locked there, until the space between them feels vast and solid and warm, and even then John looks away first, and there is warmth pooling in places that it should not be.

The evening air is crisp as they exit the cab. John watches Sherlock pull that ridiculous coat tighter about himself and wants to laugh, and when Sherlock glances at him over his shoulder with a grin, John does. It feels good; freeing, almost, to stand here on the pavement at six twenty-three on a Friday evening with Sherlock Holmes at his side, in front of a warm, glowing little restaurant, and laugh.

“Come, John,” Sherlock says, and John follows him into the restaurant with the remains of a smile on his lips.

John's ears are met with the pleasant buzz of well-sated conversation as soon as his feet cross the threshold. A man bustles over to Sherlock and him, his smile wide, his laugh a gong. “Sherlock!” he exclaims, and takes one of Sherlock's slim hands in both of his own, shaking it up and down with incredible enthusiasm.

“Angelo,” Sherlock responds. His tone is clipped, but there's the idea of pleasure hanging about that mouth, and his eyes crinkle a bit as Angelo leads them over to a table in the quieter corner of the small restaurant.

“Anything on the menu, whatever you want, free,” Angelo insists, hustling Sherlock into the booth. He shoots John a wink that can only be described—disturbingly—as saucy. “On the house, for you and your date.”

John's heart stutters in his chest, and his eyes snap to meet Sherlock's over the table top.

He's frozen, Sherlock is, his coat half off, his right arm still tangled in one of the sleeves. Angelo is nattering on obliviously about something in the background—murder, housebreaking, maybe. Sherlock's eyes are fixed unblinkingly on John's face, and John doesn't even think Sherlock's breathing for a second until suddenly, like a whoosh of air being squeezed from a bellow, he absolutely is,his chest heaving up and down at an unnatural speed under his tight aubergine shirt.

John slides across the bench seat that wraps around the table with slow, deliberate movements, keeping his eyes on Sherlock. He stops just a few centimeters away from him (Sherlock's breath, warm and uneven on John's cheeks) and then slowly, slowly, John lifts his hands and pulls the coat off of Sherlock completely.

“Breathe,” John instructs, then, because Sherlock's already doing that, he's just doing it wrong, adds, “slower.”

Sherlock tries, John can tell, and he wants to take his face between his palms and pull him forward until their foreheads rest against each other. John smiles at him (a heartbeat, loud and thundering in his ears, and who does it belong to?) and Sherlock swallows hard, and he doesn't look away, and he doesn't look away.

“He said—” Sherlock begins, but then Angelo appears again (John wasn't aware that he had ever left) carrying, of all things, a candle. The man winks again, taking in the two of them sitting pressed together on the bench with an encompassing smile.

“A candle,” Angelo says. He leans across the table and places it directly in between John and Sherlock. “More romantic that way.” And as he backs away, he gives John a blatant thumbs up.

Sherlock tries again. “He said—”

John turns to him. “I know what he said,” John says. He's surprised by his own voice; lower than usual, textured, and almost embarrassingly wanting, but that surprise quickly turns into perverse satisfaction at the sight of the pretty blush spreading across Sherlock's—his date's—stratospheric cheekbones.

“Oh,” Sherlock whispers. His face softens just the slightest bit around the edges, like a watercolor painting, all muted tones under the soft light of the hanging lamps above them; when he tilts his head a little bit to the right, the lamp behind him turns his fluff of curls into a golden halo, rendering him as some sort of glowing fresco painted on the ceiling of a church. Whatever religion they practice there, John thinks as he stares, he wants to convert to it immediately.

“Yeah,” John says. He stays where he is, the whole left side of his body pressed against Sherlock's lean warmth. “Oh.” He smiles a little bit and taps the menu at Sherlock's place setting. “Eat,” he instructs, and Sherlock picks up the menu dutifully, scanning the pages with downturned eyes.

The epiphany tries to come back. John shoves it away again.

*****

Sherlock is more animated than John has ever seen him on this night. More so even than that first day—that day of murder and running and beating hearts. They've separated once again on the bench to give their arms room to move as they eat, but Sherlock leans towards John as far as the table will allow, his face bright with expression as he regales John with tale after tale of crimes he's seen and solved.

“Even though those idiots at the Met almost never listen to me,” Sherlock finishes, shoveling a fork full of gnocchi dripping in a pesto sauce into his mouth. John has to smile; it's surprisingly nice seeing Sherlock eat a full meal, and not complain about it one time. Nice to know he'll do it, and not starve himself to death.

“Don't know why,” John says, taking a bit of his own meal. He wasn't paying attention when Angelo had taken their orders (too distracted by the heady scent rolling off of Sherlock in droves to pay attention to things like reading menus) and he'd let Sherlock order for him, so he's very pleasantly surprised: it's a simple fettuccine alfredo in a sauce that's so good John wants to swim in it, with an unconventional heat to the whole thing that's to die for. John makes a mental note to remember this restaurant. “You're obviously the smartest person in all of England; possibly the world. If you ask me, they're just threatened by you.”

John looks up in time to catch the pleased look on Sherlock's face, and the flush of scarlet that accompanies it, before Sherlock ducks his head. He feels warm, although it could be due to the wine they're drinking.

John very seriously doubts that it's due to the wine they're drinking.

“Yes, well,” Sherlock mumbles, taking a sip out of his own glass in the middle of his sentence. It's a plea for time to formulate a response; John knows those moves. “You're probably right.”

“Of course I am.” John is warming to the subject now. “If they let you solve every case, pretty soon they'd be out of a job, and you'd be running this city.” He grins at Sherlock, dabbing at his mouth with a white linen napkin. “Can't have that, can they?”

Sherlock's eyes are starry and unfocused, the candle flame dancing in the center of his obsidian pupils as he gazes softly at John. “No,” he says. “No, I suppose they can't.”

They finish their meal in relative quiet, exchanging looks over the tabletop that feel louder than words. Angelo brings them plates of rich tiramisu and coffee in tiny, warm cups that look ridiculous cradled in Sherlock's large hands, like toy boats bobbing up and down in a bathtub, and John tries to formulate a way he can ask Sherlock to do this again without scaring him off.

He's about to just come out and say it (and Sherlock can tell; his eyebrows are raised expectantly, he's smiling with a nervousness that makes him almost adorable) when John's phone rings.

Both of them jump; guilt floods through John, hot and fast and soggy, and he can't explain why, and he fumbles for his mobile in the pocket of his jacket. It's Mary. He stares at the screen for one second, two, three—

“Answer it, for god's sake,” Sherlock snaps, and, like a puppet, John does.

“John.” Her tone is cheerful, and makes him itch. “Where are you?”

“Oh, I'm just...” He trails off, knowing she'll pick up his sentence, and she does.

“Want to come over, love? I've ordered curry and I thought we could watch one of those films you like...”

She keeps talking, but John stops listening, watching Sherlock in the warm half-light that suddenly seems taboo. The guilt is growing inside of John, and he is horrified: what has he been doing? Following Sherlock here to this intimate place, and perpetuating that intimacy with all the blasé attitude of someone who knows exactly what he's doing, when in reality, he hasn't put a single thought into any of his actions since he saw Sherlock dancing by himself through that window.

John makes noncommittal noises until Mary hangs up with the impression that he's going to join her, and then slowly lowers his phone away from his ear, feeling caught out and embarrassed.

“I—”

“Go, John.” Sherlock is tracing patterns in the leftover tiramisu on his plate with his fork, and he isn't looking at John. His shoulders are hovering somewhere around his ears. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have kept you.” He laughs, but it is short and harsh and scrapes John's ears. “I forgot about her. Silly me.”

“I—well, she was at work, and—and no, god, Sherlock, don't apologize, this was...” John stops. This was what? Wonderful? Kind of romantic in a weird way? Sherlock finally looks up at him then, and John almost blurts something extremely incriminating. Instead he finishes lamely, “nice.”

“Nice,” Sherlock repeats. He lays his fork down carefully, aligning it perfectly with the edge of his plate. “Not the adjective I would have chosen.”

What would you have chosen, Sherlock?John thinks, even as he stands and gathers his jacket, his mobile. Sherlock tilts his head up and watches John, and again, John has the feeling that Sherlock knows exactly what he's thinking.

“Goodnight, Sherlock,” John says.

*****

The next Friday, they do not talk. They arrive at the door of their classroom at the same time, and they go in, and Sherlock presses play on the stereo, and they dance. Every dance that John has learned so far, on a loop; starting with the waltz (slow, fragile, and the dip is exquisite and John almost lowers Sherlock to the floor right then and there) and ending with the tango (he can feel Sherlock's heartbeat, fast against his own).

Every move they make feels like a goodbye.

When the music stops they stay still, pressed against each other from torso to palms to thighs, the smell of clean, mingled sweat permeating the air. Oh, John's mind says, standing there with his eyes closed and his arms full of something otherworldly. You like him a lot, I think.

Somehow, impossibly, he leaves anyway.

*****

Two days later, he's stretched out along a cold mattress (not his own) when the epiphany he's been trying to have for quite a while now hits him, and the gist of it is this: he's in bed next to the wrong person.

He sits up fast, and Mary blinks up at him in the shadowy darkness. “Mary,” he says.

She turns onto her back.

“I'm not in love with you.”

The words sit, light and buoyant now that they are free, above them. John laughs; he feels slightly hysterical, and very, very good.

“I know that,” Mary answers.

“I don't want to get married to you.”

There is a pause, in which John stares down at her, and she stares up at him; she doesn't look surprised, or even particularly upset, and in this moment, he feels more affection for her than he ever has.

Finally she simply sighs, and turns back onto her side. “We'd have been miserable anyway,” she mumbles.

“Yes.” He nods, climbs out of the bed, and shoves his bare feet into his shoes. Slings on his jacket over his pyjamas. “Goodbye,” he says. “Thank you for not being an arse.”

“You owe my dad for those dance lessons, you fucker,” she mumbles half-heartedly, and he grins the whole way out of the flat and into the street.

Chapter Text

Sherlock is curled in the kitchen chair, knees pulled up to his chest, toes hanging over the wooden lip of the seat as he contemplates whether or not it's a good idea to open the plastic container of three-year-old cow tongues sitting before him at the table. On one hand, they've been refrigerated. On the other, refrigeration doesn't do jack shit for the smell after a few months, let alone years. Normally he wouldn't care about that sort of thing, but Mrs. Hudson made him biscuits this morning which he grudgingly will admit was kind, and she does hate to come up into a flat smelling of tomb, so maybe he'll put it off until he can get to the morgue—

There is a knock at his door.

Sherlock sits up straight, his feet landing on the floor with a very soft thud. (Cold beneath his toes. Must remember socks.) He stands, abandoning the tongues for a later time, and pads quietly over to the door. He grabs the knob and simply waits, considering.

It could be Lestrade, come with a case; only Lestrade always texts first even if Sherlock doesn't answer, and he's had his phone with him all day and hasn't gotten any notifications. It could be Mrs. Hudson—No. Of course not, Hudders never knocks. It can't be Mycroft because Sherlock doesn't smell cake and betrayal, and Molly and Irene don't even know where he lives. He doesn't really know anyone else who would have a) the want, b) the need, or c) the means to come to his flat except John—

(Heart surges up into his throat; tight and inconvenient.)

John.

Sherlock takes a deep breath through his nose and opens his door fast, like he's peeling off a plaster. Only after the door is open does he realize that his eyes are closed, and he keeps them that way, because he's scared and he doesn't want to be disappointed; if he can't see Not-John, then they don't exist, he reasons with toddler-like logic.

Not-John coughs lightly, and Sherlock can hear the smile in his voice. His eyes fly open.

It is. It's him. John. John Watson. Standing there on Sherlock's landing in a pair of ugly plaid pyjamas and worn-out trainers, his black jacket with the elbow patches slung over a grey t-shirt that is rumpled and wrinkled. John's hair is messy, sticking up in tufts in the back, and there is the crease of a pillow on one of his warm, rosy cheeks. His eyes are blue, blue, blue, dark like the ocean at night, and Sherlock wants to grab him, and pull him close, and—and consume him.

“It's four in the morning,” Sherlock says. His voice sounds hoarse and gritty and a bit nervous. (He thinks, wildly, of the cow tongues sitting on his kitchen table, and has a sudden idea: open them outside.) And then, “And you are here. Not sleeping in your bed.”

John's smile is so big and so wide that Sherlock is anxious; how did he put it there? He needs to know, because he wants to do it again, today, tomorrow, and every day after that. “Yeah,” John says. He steps into the flat without being invited and suddenly he is flush up against Sherlock's chest, and he smells of toothpaste, and it's cinnamon instead of the standard mint, and he would wouldn't he? “You're not sleeping in yours either, though. So.”

“I'm thinking about cow tongues,” Sherlock says breathlessly.

John shakes his head minutely. Wets his lips. “You don't look like you're thinking about cow tongues.”

“I'm not.”

“Neither am I.”

John kisses him.

And for a moment Sherlock is too stunned to move. Simply stands there, his eyes wide open, his arms gripped at his sides by John's strong hands, his closed mouth pressed right up against John's; and John's lips are so soft. Like velvet, and warm, too, and—

John pulls away (not good) (not good at all) just far enough to look Sherlock in the eyes. He's hesitant all of a sudden, and careful, like he thinks what he's doing isn't the most wonderful, the most fabulous, the most amazing-brilliant-fantastic thing ever to have happened to Sherlock Holmes in the whole course of his sorry life. John is going to back away. He's going to take his warm hands off of Sherlock's body, his warm (precious) (invaluable) (infinitely loved) presence out of Sherlock's flat, and he's going to go back to her, to Mary, and Sherlock is never going to see him again. This is (absolutely) (unmitigatedly) Sherlock's last chance; he needs to make it count.

“John,” he says, and hopes that that word conveys the millions of things he has to say to this man as he cups John's face in his hands, and seals their lips together again.

He closes his eyes this time. Slides his hands down from cheeks to neck to shoulders and grips for dear life as John expands the kiss, making it hot and wet and slippery and filthy. One of John's hands is full of Sherlock's curls, another of his arse; Sherlock moans into John's mouth as John walks him backwards, maneuvering him with an expert hand around various items of furniture until (somehow) (how did they get here) (he doesn't remember making that many turns) Sherlock's knees come up against the edge of the sofa and John bears down on him, landing on top of Sherlock in a position that should be uncomfortable, but instead only makes Sherlock more needy. More desperate.

“Oh my god,” John groans into his mouth. Sherlock inhales the words, swallows them. They taste of John. “Why the fuck didn't I have this idea sooner—god, Sherlock—”

John takes his talented mouth away and Sherlock moans, trying to recapture it with his own, but then—oh—then John kisses him once, hot and open-mouthed on the juncture where his collarbone meets the base of his neck, and Sherlock scrabbles with his fingers at John's sleeve, his hair, his shirt.

“John,” he pants. John licks a solid, steady stripe up the right side of Sherlock's neck, stopping to gnaw lightly at Sherlock's jaw; the action shoots sensation straight into Sherlock's groin. “John—please—do you think we need quite so much clothing—”

“Right,” John says, and sits back so that he is straddling Sherlock with his knees on either side of the other man's slim hips. His cheeks are flushed dark, his lips kiss-swollen, and he is the most beautiful thing that Sherlock has ever seen. “Half a moment,” he murmurs as he quickly strips of his jacket, tossing it onto the floor. His shoes come next (untied, they slip right off) and then, finally, with a teasing grin beamed down at Sherlock, John's grabs the neck of his t-shirt and, with one fluid moment that makes Sherlock dizzy, he pulls it off and over his head.

John surges back down towards Sherlock, but Sherlock stops him with a hand on his chest.

(His heart is beating very, very fast. Because of Sherlock. Sherlock did that to him.)

“Wait, John,” Sherlock breathes. “Just… please. Let me look at you.”

John pauses above him, then slowly sits back on his knees. He lets his hands come to rest lightly on Sherlock's stomach, his shoulders just a little bit stooped, and Sherlock drinks him in with his eyes.

He is broad and solid and compact, and it is obvious that he was a soldier; he's toned without being intimidating, just commanding enough to be devastatingly arousing. His skin is the color of the purest honey in this light, and Sherlock wants to lick every inch of him, taste every bit of John-taste until it is the only thing on his palate. It would be especially potent, this John-taste, in the hollows of his collar bones, and at the back of his neck where ash-colored hair grows in a silky inverted triangle; Sherlock would be insensate with it.

But none of this in any way compares to the absolute glory of John's scar.

It's a firework of red veins and pink indentations; a rose, blooming outward from a slightly shiny center on John's shoulder, it's petals unfurling in shades of angered flesh; a map, charting the life and times and trials of one John Watson, detailing the path that led him to one Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock lets the fingers of one hand trace gently at the marred skin, and he feels something like a sob in the back of his throat as he meets John's eyes. There's only one word to describe this man:

Beautiful.”

John shivers, his lips parted. “Sherlock,” he whispers, and catches himself on his elbows so that he hovers above Sherlock. He rains kisses down upon the man beneath him; on his nose, his chin, both cheeks, his eyelids, and finally, slowly and languidly and hungrily, his lips. Sherlock is making entirely undignified noises in the back of his throat. John is eating them up like they are made of sugar.

John sits back again, just far enough that Sherlock can't reach his mouth without sitting up. The expression on his face is half-dazed, half-reverent, and Sherlock thinks he might just come right now from the sight of it. “I…” John's hands lift the bottom of Sherlock's own t-shirt, slide underneath the fabric and knead at his stomach. Sherlock whines, long and high and entirely unstoppable in the back of his throat, and John groans. “Can I…” John begins, pulling at Sherlock's shirt until he sits up, and then helping him take it off with gentle hands. “Can I touch you?”

Sherlock falls back bonelessly against the arm of the sofa. “Please,” he begs.

John does.

And he takes his fucking time, too, lingering just above the waistband of Sherlock's pyjamas before letting one hand drift under and down—

—down—

—down—

When John touches him (warm, slightly calloused fingers, gentle and rough in all the right ways) Sherlock becomes aware of two things. That this, with John, is a form of dancing; and that now, in this moment, John is undoubtedly the one teaching.

Sherlock's lower back arches up off of the cushions beneath him as a cry escapes his lips. He is made of stardust, he is made of flames, he is standing on an empty stage in an empty theater with only John, and the music that surrounds them is transcendental and raw.

“John. Jo—god, yes, yes, John—”

“Yes, love, you're beautiful. You're bloody gorgeous, did I ever tell you that?”

John is guiding Sherlock's body and Sherlock's soul through these steps with a hand that is talented and steady and sure; he is showing Sherlock how to bound and how to balance and how to stretch and that is is ok to turn his mind off, to succumb to this performance of light and bliss that they are joined in.

Sherlock gasps, and his hands find John's hair, gripping and tugging and yanking. “John,” he gasps. “Yes.”

“Sherlock,” John answers. (Hand is steady and rhythmic even as the rocking of Sherlock's hips becomes erratic and uncontrolled.) “You are amazing.” Voice low. Hot. Panting. “Fantastic. Brilliant.”

John.”

A growl.“Mine.”

Sherlock's whole body moves, bends and arches and bows as white-hot bliss of a strength that he has never known floods through him. Someone is yelling and someone is sobbing and someone is murmuring his name over and over again, like a prayer, and John catches him as he collapses back down again, tucking him close to his bare chest so that they are flesh-to-flesh.

Sherlock is whole. Sherlock is empty. Sherlock is a thin layer of flesh, filled with liquid gold and euphoria, and John is holding him like he's made of precious metal, the warm dryness of his lips still chanting Sherlock, Sherlock against Sherlock's neck, and Sherlock is never, ever moving again.

But then John shifts atop Sherlock. It's a slight movement, not even a restless one, but it doesn't take a consulting detective to feel the evidence of John's need pressing into Sherlock's thigh with quiet insistence. Sherlock licks his lips, and nuzzles at the top of John's head lazily with his nose and he wraps his arms loosely around his waist.

“John,” he breathes softly. “Come here.”

John lifts his head. His eyes are fever-bright and wide, and there are teeth marks in his lips. He raises himself onto his elbows once more, looking down at Sherlock with such a look of total adoration that Sherlock nearly cannot breathe, and he can't help from sitting up a little and flicking his tongue along the sweaty line of a one collarbone, collecting the salty-sweet taste of John onto his tongue. John makes a keening noise in the back of his throat; his arms buckle, and it is Sherlock's turn to catch him, Sherlock's turn to roll both of them carefully so they do not topple off of the sofa and onto the floor, Sherlock's turn to touch John and taste John, all of John, to make John scream until he can't move or breathe or even think.

He wants to record the sound of John whimpering his name and dance to it until he dies.

*****

It is later, and they haven't moved. They are one unit on the sofa, a warm, sated, messy tangle of limbs that have melted and fused together. One breath, one body, one heart.

They are lying on their sides now, and Sherlock's face is pressed into the melty hollow of John's throat, held there by John's strong arms. Sherlock has never been more thankful for the fact that he has a wide sofa.

But there is something small and shriveled and ugly that has creeped into Sherlock's mind: it's a kernel of guilt.

It doesn't seem consistent with the image of John Watson that he would be unfaithful; that he would leave the woman he is engaged to for a man—his dance instructor, no less—and do… what they have just done. John is bored with Mary, yes, but he isn't without morals, he isn't cruel. Sherlock knows this as surely as he knows his own name. However John has been sleeping in her bed (the faint scent of rose laundry powder that had lingered on him when he first arrived and has now been thoroughly worn away) as recently as an hour and a half ago.

Sherlock's heart sinks. He doesn't know what to do. He loves this man—has done almost since the moment they laid eyes on each other—and he would do anything for him, but it will be hard to always be the second option. Be the side-piece, the colloquially labeled 'other woman.' It would… it would hurt.

“John,” Sherlock whispers. He tugs John a little bit closer to him, as if that will combat the unhappiness of what he's about to say. His throat feels dry, like all the sands of Afghanistan are sitting in a dune on his esophagus. In the end, he can only utter one word, and it sounds like defeat. “Mary.”

John goes still against him, and Sherlock mourns. This is the end, then. John is going to leave for good now, even though Sherlock tried—oh, how he tried. Sherlock feels firm, moist heat against his eyelids and he tries to sit up, tries to pull away, but—

“Mary,” John is saying softly, gently into the top of Sherlock's head as he strokes long strokes up and down Sherlock's spine, “is over. Done. I… I guess I didn't tell you.” John gives a brief chuff of laughter, and the curls on top of Sherlock's head ruffle with his sweet breath. “Sorry. I was a bit distracted, as you know. I just… I woke up tonight, and I just knew.

Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut tightly, and smiles into John's skin. “What did you know?” he asks John in a whisper.

“You, Sherlock.” There is a smile in John's voice, too, and it is precious and soft and infinite. “It's you or no one for me. Always will be, I think. I—hell, I probably shouldn't say this, but, well, we did just have mind boggling sex—I think I'm probably definitely in love with you. I mean, all of you. I'm in love with the way you dance. I'm in love with the way you smile at me. I'm in love with that look you give me when you think I'm being an idiot. I'm in love with that curl right there—” John tugs on one of Sherlock's curls gently— “I'm in love with the way you yell at people, I'm in love with how fucking brilliant you are, I'm in love with your recklessness, and the kindness you show me, and your choice in restaurants, and even your bloody hell-hole of a flat. I'm in love with you, and not her, not any of her. So I had to come here.” John's gone grows slightly hesitant. “I hope that's ok.”

Sherlock has never been good with words; often what he says is sharp and cutting, slicing people to the quick when he meant only to scold, scaring people away forever when all he wanted was friendship. He doesn't have that priceless talent of effortless communication, that gift of poetry that falls off of his tongue. But when he kisses John, kisses John with every last particle in his body, he knows that his words have been delivered as clearly as he if he had yelled them straight into John's ears.

I love you, too, John Watson. Every last bit of you.