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This Is Your Song

Chapter Text

And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me

The greatest thing you'll ever learn
is just to love and be loved in return

 

Red windmill blades flashed in the corner of the eye. Slowly spinning, round and round. The blades passed hypnotically across the window frame, garish lights behind the dirty glass, stark against the dull, dusty summer air. They used to keep turning no matter what transpired in the foreground. On and on.

The Moulin Rouge. A nightclub, a dance hall, a bordello. A kingdom of night-time pleasures, a feast of colours erupting when the sun set. A sea of glimmering eyes like diamonds, uncut and raw, a place where the rich and powerful came to play with the young and beautiful creatures of the underworld.

The most beautiful of all these was the man I loved. He was the brightest burning, the star of the Moulin Rouge. He was the sharpest edge, and they called him the Sparkling Diamond. He sang like an angel, he danced like the devil, he sold his love to men.

The windmill is unmoving, now. The moon makes the crumbling shapes of the nightclub into a lifeless grey scale outside my window. The light shines in all the way to the darkest corner where I'm sitting. Greeting me, asking me to tell this story.

My typewriter shines in the moonlight. I push slowly at the line space lever. The carriage rattles when it slides to the right. The space within the type guide is empty, white and vast, and I need to fill it. I need to say it, if there are ever going to be any words following these. It is the one thing I do not want to tell, and the one thing that I have to.

The typewriter dings, quiet and friendly, and I push the lever back again.

The man I loved, my best friend… is dead.

 


 

I first came to Paris one year ago. It was 1895, the transient summer of change. I wish I had tried to hold on to it, and perhaps it wouldn't have left me so fast. I didn't realise how 1895 would slip through my fingers and be forever gone. At the time, I thought I had seen the worst of the world, and every day that wasn't as heavy as the one before, was a day I spent mindlessly following the breeze, careful not to think too much.

I had recently been positioned in Afghanistan, where I worked in the army as a surgeon. As a young man just out of university, I was filled to the brim with possibilities, intent and success. The army showed me things that even the strongest man could not face without his stomach turning, and perhaps that should have made me turn away. But in the middle of the horrifying war, I found a home with bonds stronger than ties of blood, where every man became my brother, and a few once in a while my ephemeral lover.

The position in the army provided me with adventure and purpose, and I was immortal right up to the day when my shoulder was ripped apart by a bullet.

After a lengthy stay at the hospital where a persistent fever almost took me, I was so weak that I was promptly sent back to England. I found London had greyed in my absence, and now it was only rain-striped air and hidden faces under colourless umbrellas. I had no one, and nothing to do, and so I was free as air – or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be. I rented a small room that nonetheless seemed too big for my sparse set of clothes, my cane and my shrunken soul.

I was so old, those first months back in London. I looked young to the world, and that made me feel terribly isolated, all alone inside a body supported heavily on a cane and with a hand too unsteady for surgery. It had taken so little time to turn from a hopeful medical student with a blooming creativity into this hopeless shell of a man.

I tried to find the old fighting spirit in me, fumbling for meaning in the life that came after living. My career was over, and I didn't have a single friend left in the great, vast city. Acquaintances from my university years seemed bleak and uninteresting after the shocking intimacy of the army, and the thought of them still walking the London streets made me feel even more lonely. The only thing left that had ever brought me true joy was poetry, the thing that had swarmed out of me in the times when I didn't have the luxury of sitting down to capture it properly.

Now that I did have the time, I bought a typewriter, sacrificing the quality of my food that month. But the words that once came so easily now seemed lost. I couldn't bring myself to write about the war, and nothing else was real enough to be worth mentioning.

I shudder to think what would have become of me, had I not heard someone call my name when I crossed the park one morning in the early summer. Or had I followed my first instinct and walked on, pretending to be someone who didn't answer to the name John Watson. But at the second call, I did turn, and found Michael Stamford standing behind me. The surprise of seeing him in London lowered my guard enough for me to feel actual joy, and I agreed to have dinner with him.

Stamford had lived next door to me during my first years at university, and he had been a close friend of mine at the time. We were technically on the same course, though he rarely made an appearance, lacking the discipline for medical studies. Instead, he would spend every evening playing his piano. He had quite the talent for composing, and I greatly enjoyed hearing the notes in my walls when I was reading late at night.

Unsurprisingly, Stamford never completed his degree. The last I'd heard, he had moved to France to pursue his artistic dreams. Paris was the centre of the bohemian world, with musicians, painters, actors and writers, and Stamford had travelled there to be a part of it. He was now in London to visit his ill mother, but was soon to return to France. He had made friends with some theatre people, and was hoping to finally direct a musical for them.

When we sat together at the dinner table, we both stared at a changed man; I didn't like to dwell on what he saw, but I saw a person whose soul had found nourishment and space to bloom. He spoke about Paris in his ordinary, calm manner, but his eyes had a new lustre and I could see the joy hiding in the corner of his mouth.

Seeing him like this struck something in me, something that shimmered, something that ached. And though it had been many years since we last spent time together, Stamford saw it instantly, and he knew.

“It is possible, you know”, he said to me. “That dream of creating something. You should follow me back there, John – bring your typewriter.”

“I can't even write any more.” I tried to make it sound light, but couldn't bring myself to meet his eyes.

“In Paris, you will. You'll meet other artists who would be delighted to work with you, and then the inspiration will come.”

“Come on. Who would want to work with me?”

Stamford's hidden smile became more smug, as if I had just told him a joke that was obvious only to him.

“What?” I said, but he wouldn't answer. And perhaps I would have shrugged the whole thing off, if not for the lingering memory of piano in my walls. After we parted that evening, a melody rose to my consciousness, one that I would have thought I'd forgotten. It was one of Stamford's own compositions, one that never failed to seize me. Whatever I was doing, when he started playing that song, I had to drop my hands, lower my head and listen. I often wished I was able to make those notes into black letters in my worn notebook. That's how I save the things that are precious to me, that's how I make everything real.

I had never managed it, but I hadn't stopped trying until the day I left the notebook behind for a gun.

Less than a week later, I found myself in Montmartre, Paris, my life once more disrupted and even poorer than before. Stamford had helped to get me a place in his building; a shabby room across the street from an infamous brothel. In the corner of my eye, the blades of a fake windmill with electric red lights kept turning, teasingly reminding me that just around the corner there was party and life happening. Meanwhile, I stared at my still pathetically blank page, fingers hovering just above the keys of my unused typewriter.

I felt foolish for thinking that things could be different. But Stamford wouldn't let me sink back into my depression in peace, instead persisting in dragging me up to the surface over and over. He showed me the city – well, the neighbourhood, as I couldn't get far on my bad leg – and he dragged me into his own flat for tea he'd brought from England. When I refused to come, he settled on playing for me from the other side of the wall. Those evenings were the best.

They still are.

One night, he lured me out to have drinks with him and a couple of his friends. I felt achingly lonely in the dingy pub despite the friendly company. They were young and brimming with energy and passion, and though currently frustrated with the musical they were working on, they were undamaged people.

Not that they cared about the fact that I so obviously wasn't. Gregory seemed to like me instantly, and I could tell at the first look into his eyes that he was a good man. His loose, off-white shirt and black braces was an outfit similar to my own, and he had a checked flat cap that made him look boyish and honest. He sat beside me, including me in their circle simply by the welcoming angle of his body and the occasional friendly slap on my good shoulder.

Molly was out of breath, her cheeks burning with indignation. She was speaking rapidly in French, syllables stumbling through her displeasure, and she frequently turned to me even though I didn't know what she was talking about.

“He's not what he said he would be. He's not. I mean, it would be fine, we're all nervous, we're all trying different things, but he just won't listen. As an ensemble, John, we should all work together, shouldn't we?”

I cleared my throat. “Yeah, that's reasonable, yes.”

“Right!” Molly exclaimed, gesturing towards me to prove her point to the others. “And I tried to talk to him, no disrespect – I was polite, wasn't I?”

“You couldn't have said it in a better way”, Gregory agreed.

“No, I just tried to ask him, do you think a nun would say this about a hill?”

She looked at me, her black eyes round and big, the nervous energy making her lips twitch as if unsure whether to smile. “Say what?” I asked politely, mostly because those eyes seemed like the kind that could be flooded with tears in no time.

The hills animate with the euphonious symphonies of descant”, she sang with a mocking voice, the syllables much too many for the notes.

I pursed my lips in an attempt to hide my smile, because really, that was words from the man they'd trusted to write their play? “It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, no.”

“See”, Stamford chipped in, pointing at me. “John's a writer, he knows what he's talking about.”

“Well this is going to be a complete disaster”, Gregory said. “We have to present this to the financier tomorrow. I don't want to come to Mycroft Holmes with something not worth his time.”

He had a way of saying that name: Mycroft Holmes. I would soon find out that a respectful dread enveloped this name nearly every time it was uttered. In fact, there is only one person who ever spat the name as if it tasted horribly on his tongue.

“We need to polish the script”, Stamford said. “What if we change it to: The hills are vital intoning the descant?”

I cringed involuntarily, and though Stamford wasn't looking at me, there was that smug smile hidden in the corners of his eyes.

The hills-” Molly started, but Gregory spoke over her:

The hills are incarnate with symphonic melodies.

“No”, Stamford said, “the hills-

Before I could think, and because I couldn't stand hearing Stamford come up with something even worse, I spoke.

The hills are alive with the sound of music.

Stamford and Gregory fell silent, and Molly did a little jump in her chair, turning to me with a squeak. “Oh. It fits perfectly!”

“That's actually beautiful”, Gregory said, slapping his warm hand onto my shoulder and keeping it there.

“How would it continue?” Molly asked, her dark eyes big with hope. I got swept along with the creative spirit when she hummed the melody strand for me. I hummed it quietly to myself, not used to singing publicly.

I cleared my throat and spoke: “With songs they have sung for a thousand years?

“Yes!” Molly turned to Stamford. “Write it down!”

Out of nowhere, a script came to lie on the table.

“John, what do you think about this line?” Stamford asked, showing me the piece of text that had led to a row with the writer that same afternoon. The writing really was poor, and I could easily see what needed to be done to improve it. I wasn't thinking about what I was doing, but the others seemed stunned by the words that came out of my mouth.

“Where did you get that from?” Molly asked in awe, while Stamford hastily scribbled down my words.

“I don't know”, I said, surprised by the sudden attention, “I just… pull it down from the air. It's all… it's all right here.” I made a vague gesture in the air above the table with an eloquence that shouldn't have impressed anyone.

“This man is a genius”, Gregory said. “We've got to have him. Michael, this is exactly the tone we were hoping for in the script.”

Stamford didn't answer, he only smiled wider, and I suddenly had the suspicion that this wasn't all such a coincidence after all.

Gregory turned to me. “Mycroft Holmes is looking to set up a musical at the Moulin Rouge.”

“Moulin Rouge, the brothel?”

“Oh, it's so much more than a brothel. The numbers they perform there…” Gregory shook his head. “It's world-class musical, is what it is. Or could be, if they had more money to spend on that kind of acting talent. Holmes runs that place very carefully – I don't know where he finds those girls and boys.”

“And now he has an investor”, Stamford said. “I honestly don't want to be there if Holmes has to shut down the project not because of lack of money, but lack of talent in our group.”

“That's what I'm telling you!” Gregory said. “With John, we could write a truly bohemian show, we could make a modern musical in the spirit of truth, beauty, freedom and love-”

I let out a half-laugh. “What, you want to ditch your writer for me? No.”

“Oh, he's garbage!” Gregory said. “Nobody likes him anyway.”

“But I haven't written anything in years. There are only blank pages strewn over my flat.”

“Honestly, that's still better than this.” Gregory gestured to the script on the table.

I had to agree with him. When I met Stamford's eyes, I saw the silent message in them: Do you realise what you just did? Looking back, I saw. I had just spent half an hour creating poetry. And people had cared.

Throwing myself into a project like this would be rash and stupid – in other words, exactly the kind of thing I have never been able to back away from.

But Molly's lip had an unhappy crease. “It's not that I doubt you, John, but… I'm sorry, but have you ever written anything like this before? It's just, Holmes will never agree.”

“Don't worry”, Stamford said with a nod, “we'll convince him.”

“How?” Molly asked.

Stamford sat back in his chair, folding his hands on his round belly, and with the face of a man throwing his ace onto the table, he spoke one word.

 


 

The empty air in my room fills with the quiet tapping of keys hitting the paper. The white sheet looks blue in the moonlight, and the black little letters look at once tentative and final. The worn keys greet my fingertips the way a bed greets the exhausted. Before today, I had not written one word since I walked out of the Moulin Rouge for the last time.

I don't know when I last ate. I know it's been weeks since I shaved. I've been sitting curled into the corner of my room, my breath struggling, my heartbeats tired. The typewriter has been sitting in the opposite corner, solid and indifferent. It never did care how I hovered around it, twisting in agony over where to start.

It surprises me, how easily the words come to me tonight.

All words but one. If only the reader could see the way my fingers shake over that name. If they could sense the way my eyes fill with tears when I look at its beautiful shape on the paper. If they had any idea how long it takes me to bring myself to type it.

But I need to, because I promised. This is a story about love, therefore this is a story about him. So I swallow, I raise my chin, and I type the name that Stamford told me for the first time in that dirty pub in Montmartre:

 


 

“Sherlock.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The French are glad to die for love
They delight in fighting duels
But I prefer a man who lives
And gives expensive jewels

 

Electric light bulbs. Red velvet. Then: explosion of rainbows. The whole spectrum of light mingling in skirts twirling across the vast dance floor.

From the outside, the Moulin Rouge looked like a pulsing heart in the middle of the grey and worn village. The beating of deep bass seeping out from the walls quivered in the gut, and through the glass doors the red vestibule promised heat and passion. The curtain fringes of gold created an illusion of glamour and fortune.

When you stepped through the vestibule, you were stripped of the coldness of peripheral life. The red walls protected from the mundane and tragic, promising never-ending life and a rush like stirring blood.

And in the heart of the heart, on the dark wood of the dance floor, lived a pulsing prism. Red silk gloves reaching the elbows, orange and yellow hair flowing like spring brooks over bare shoulders, green skirts with blue insides flashing in the cancan dance, indigo stockings and violet lingerie exposed. Pale skin, dark skin, girls, boys, everything in between. Young, old, slim, fat, dwarves, tattooed, innocent, indecent, dancing wildly, hovering quietly.

Music beat the air into waves, pumping through the arteries and veins, the hidden spaces and secret gateways around the dance floor. There, somewhere, stood Mycroft Holmes, unmoving, unseen, leaning on his black umbrella. You never knew when he was gone, you never knew when he was there, but everyone knew that he saw everything. His presence was felt constantly like a density in the air.

It made the colourful creatures feel safe, although they clearly weren't.

It made the men from the outside feel special, belonging to the group that understands things that these underworld people don't. They called Holmes' girls and boys his Diamond Dogs.

Those men were sharp in black and white. Suits, shirts, hats, gloves. Shining black shoes. Eyes wide, mouths ajar, hands reaching out to touch silky fabric and skin. They consumed the colours presented to them like a buffet, they had a right to everything they found pretty. The Diamond Dogs laughed when they were played with, and the men rode on the most potent high of all: power.

I looked like them the first time I visited the Moulin Rouge. I was dressed in Gregory's best suit; sharp angles of a black jacket over a crisp white shirt. My new friends had deemed everything I owned too shabby for a poetry reading with Sherlock, the apple of Holmes' eye. Stamford had arranged a private meeting for me with the top name of the Moulin Rouge – the obvious actor for the leading role in the musical. I was going to read my poetry to him, and he was going to be astounded by my genius and insist to Holmes that I write their show.

It was common knowledge that the only way to Holmes was through Sherlock. Holmes ruled over the Moulin Rouge with his hand steady as iron and his face a mask of ice. Nobody knew why it was that Sherlock could break through the ice. But everybody knew the price of one night with Holmes' jewel, the Sparkling Diamond.

“That's insane”, I said when Gregory told me on our way there.

“They wouldn't be able to charge that much if he wasn't worth it”, he answered. Just then, we passed a skinny woman in the shadows of a vault, and she slid the strap of her tacky dress off her shoulder in invitation. I lowered my eyes to the cobblestones, wishing I hadn't seen her filthy skin and the way she turned her eyes away. I had never paid for love, and had no intention of ever doing so.

But I did enjoy the cancan. It's hard not to get swept away by the illusion of a carefree world when you're in the dance hall of the Moulin Rouge, even when you know that the people dancing for you are anything but carefree. Stamford was as happily comfortable as I've ever seen him, and Gregory and Molly were spirited and high, laughing in my ears. They were twirled away onto the dance floor by colourful girls, and I was left alone, standing by the wall. I was looking at the dancers, trying to guess who Sherlock might be, but the dance floor was crowded with girls, girls, girls with colours stark against the black suits amongst them.

I had been up all night, abrading my fingertips on the letter keys. With the pressure of a looming audition, I had willed the words to flood out of me. And flood they did, finally – like water, like blood.

All I had to do now was soldier through the poetry reading with this unknown prince of Holmes', pretending to know what I was doing.

It surprised me how much I wanted this job. I wanted this new life, one where I was not ex-captain Watson who was broken by the war, but the penniless artist John who didn't need anything but his typewriter and enough scraps of food to survive. I wanted to blend into the motley group of bohemians and be one of them because I had talent – because I, just as they, could seize a whiff of air and extract the poetry hidden in it. Stamford was the only one who knew that I was far more educated than all of them together, and no one else asked about my past. It gave me the illusion of having been given a brand new life, and I desperately wanted to keep it.

The Diamond Dogs were moving in intricate patterns over the floor before me, singing scandalous words. They would swarm towards the suits by the walls, enticing the men into playing with them. A blonde girl approached me with a sly smile, not stopping when I tried to look away. She squirmed to show off her cleavage, fixing me with sharp, grey eyes, presenting her neck under her short-cut hair when she tilted her head this way and that, like a reptile. She tugged at my hand to get me to dance with her, laughing at nothing.

I gripped my cane tightly and shook my head. The magic of the red Moulin Rouge vestibule wasn't enough to strip off my limp. The woman got a mean glint in her eyes when she moved away, still turned to me.

The room looked like chaos, but it was a carefully designed one. I understood this when there was a sudden break in the harmony; a flash of bright pink when a dancer broke through the quivering choreography, running for the exit. No one so much as turned their head, but I saw it when one of the suited men walked calmly in the same direction. He looked ageless and unyielding, walking as if counting on everything moving out of his way.

Something about the contrast between the panicked, pink-feathered escape and the calm, confident stroll, made my guts stir with unease. But I lost sight of the man when the music suddenly silenced, the lights dimmed, and a rain of silver confetti fell over us in quiet grace.

Every head was tilted back, every body on the floor turned toward the middle, white shirts under parted jackets shining up at the lonely figure underneath the ceiling.

A man was sitting on a trapeze, a single spotlight making the smoke around him white and the silver in the air glisten. His long legs were artfully bent, his smooth skin white under the large squares of his black net stockings, disappearing into a pair of stilettos sharp as knives. He was dressed in a petite top that left his slim shoulders bare and revealed his navel and the artful curve of his lower back, and a pair of tiny shorts that left the whole length of his thighs exposed. The clothes were glistening as if they were made, not of fabric, but of a thousand jewels clinging to his skin. His face lay in shadow from the top hat on his head, only an earring sparkling underneath the brim. The curve of a blood-red mouth stood out against the black and silver of his image. The blue light made his pale skin glow like a diamond.

The room was hushed. The only sound was a whisper breathed across the floor: Sherlock.

I was already bereft of my breath when a single voice floated from above, deep and secretive.

The French are glad to die for love”, he sang slowly, and I was lost.

I would have ripped my way through a horde of men with guns, I would have silenced the rush of blood in my ears, quelled a sea of thundering applause, held my heart in my bare hands and watched it die, just to hear that voice sing.

It was smooth through the haunting melody: “They delight in fighting duels…

But someone else was to meet Sherlock that night. Someone lurking in the darkest shadow of the room, a thorn driven through the Moulin Rouge heart. Someone watching the singing man with his unblinking, dead eyes fixed on the vulnerable skin of Sherlock's core. Someone who could afford far more than one night alone with the sparkling man above.

But I prefer a man who lives –” Sherlock drew an audible, delicate breath, causing my lungs to suck in a gasp with him. “– and gives expensive…

There was a sudden smile hiding in his voice and the trapeze started to lower. Light bulbs were lit across the hall, one by one, and Sherlock tipped his head back, stretching his arm out gracefully behind him when he muttered the last word:

“Jewels.”

In the shadow, the side of duke Moriarty's mouth lifted in a humourless smile.

The brass band started playing on the stage, the trapeze was lowering in wide circles, and the audience was whistling and reaching up to touch Sherlock's outstretched hand. When he started singing again, his tone had changed with the quickening beat; the dreamlike smoothness was gone, and in its place was a confident ferocity.

He sang through the crowd, playfully scattering touches and air-kisses around him wherever he went, and I could finally see him properly. He moved with flawless grace, in control of every single atom in his body, an entire lack of self-consciousness despite his state of undress. His hipbones caught my eye and held it, visible above the low waistband of his shorts, the V disappearing enticingly under the spangle. His hairless legs virtually never ended, and when he moved them, the tight fabric of the shorts hugged his backside in a way that elicited a little moan back in my throat. The top hat looked wrong combined with his nearly naked appearance, his dark hair hidden under it.

Once, I got a glimpse of his face. His features were shockingly sharp; cheekbones that could draw blood from a caressing hand; exaggerated Cupid's bow painted with crimson lipstick; and his eyes, highlighted with sooty black. They pierced through me across the room like an electric shock, clear and cutting and brighter than anything.

I could swear that he was looking at me, and that he was seeing things I had kept secret for my whole life.

The moment bent, an exception to the laws of time. When it ended, Sherlock's smile was smug. He dashed his arm out to throw away a rose that someone tried to hand him – the poor young man paled, and then blushed intensely, under the stare of Sherlock's eyes. Sherlock reached out with both hands and shoved at the lapels of the boy's suit with a fast, practised movement, making the jacket slide off his shoulders. Then he turned his back and went on to the next man trying to get a handful of any part of Sherlock's body.

When Sherlock's song came to an end, and he stopped dancing, it was like a spell releasing its hold on my lungs, letting me draw a few harsh breaths through my dry throat. Sherlock disappeared in a wall of cancan skirts, the brass band started playing something else, and I finally had the presence of mind to close my mouth, glancing around in embarrassment to see if anyone had watched me. I must have looked brainless.

And what a blissful existence that had been, because now that my brain was back in the works, I remembered that I was soon to meet that sparkling creature all alone. That I was here to impress him. I, boring and broken John Watson, was here to impress him, a king, no, a god of performance, with my unpractised poetry.

I craned my neck, looking for Stamford, but the whole room was a whirl of dancing bodies. I tried to make myself invisible so I wouldn't be asked onto the dance floor again, clutching the dead weight of my hateful cane. The colours had become too vivid, the music too loud, the suit too hot.

Suddenly the air stilled around me. The room was still spinning fast, but I had been wrapped up in a bubble of peace, where the music was distant and the colours were just an unimportant blur. Someone was standing behind me.

I can't tell you how I knew. But every hair on my back was standing at attention at the presence of a silent body, and when I felt a hot exhalation graze my neck, the presence was confirmed. It made me strangely calm; where other people tremble in the face of excitement, thrill and threat, I become rock-steady.

The mouth behind me was close enough for me to hear the breathing, and I swallowed. Inexplicably, I thought I recognised the breath as Sherlock's.

Something made me keep my head turned straight forward. Military training, perhaps. My shoulders were ready as a soldier, my chin was high and solid. The first touch was against my tensed-up neck; the tip of a nose softly ghosting over my skin. I shivered, parting my lips slightly to breathe through my mouth. The stranger behind stayed with their face close to my neck, making my skin hot and cold in pace with their breathing. I made an involuntary sound, and the stranger huffed a silent laugh against my skin.

A hand appeared at my hand, lacing our fingers together. When our joined hands came to rest across my chest, I automatically leaned back into the warm body behind me. The other arm snaked around my waist as the flat chest of a man pressed against my back.

I closed my eyes, telling myself that it wasn't him. Why would he have sought me out, of all the potent men in this room? The tall man behind me swayed slightly to the music, hips moving sensually, and I moved together with him, letting the lively warmth and the heady scent of another body guide me. He let go of my hand to press his palm against my solar plexus. I made to turn around then, but his arms tightened to forbid me.

I glanced down at the long, bare, masculine arms holding me, leading me in a slow dance on the spot. I couldn't keep my eyes from closing. His fingertips nestled their way into my shirt between the buttons, touching bare skin. A moan leaked into my breath. In answer, there was a deep, gravelly hum just behind my ear.

My eyes flew open and I spun around. I had only heard him sing one single time, and already I would recognise that voice anywhere.

The eyes staring back at me had the strangest colour I'd ever seen. They were pale and burning all at once, boring into me as if trying to hypnotise me into never looking at anything else ever again. I wouldn't have been surprised if when I looked away there were still two spots on my retina, as if I'd been staring into two suns.

The only thing that could possibly distract me from Sherlock's eyes in that moment was Sherlock's mouth. His lips were full and perfectly shaped in an asymmetric way that begged for exploration, painted thickly with a stark red that was mesmerising when his mouth moved. Under my eyes, it twisted into a knowing smile, and suddenly I was spun onto the dance floor.

 


 

In my memory, everyone in the hall faded until they were air. The vast dance floor was ours alone.

Moving had never been so effortless. Sherlock was strong and demanding, yet light as a fairy in my arms. He led me across the floor and my feet followed him easily, as if they had just been waiting for him to come and show me the way.

His eyes were fixed on mine as if a magnetic field locked our pupils together. His were wide, black holes for me to tumble into. A string of something more burning than electricity connected us, a band of gold between our eyes more palpable than anything else in the room.

Silent words passed between us. I didn't understand them, I only knew that they were vitally important.

It scared me to death. My heart was terrorising my breastbone, but all it meant was that my posture straightened and my muscles grew fiercely strong. I couldn't look away.

He whirled me through the hall, his soft hand cradling mine, his arm around the small of my back keeping me close. My hand touched his bare waist and flinched away as if burned on the hot skin. Instead I pressed my palm against the stiff, sharp-edged fabric of his glittery top. When he let go and spun before me, his head whipped around fast, eyes trained on me. Sometimes he would do a dip in my arms, coming back up with a grunt that shook my core.

Violent breathing, slick sweat, humid scent of skin. Things of secrecy that should be concealed within a bedroom.

I don't think I will ever be a skilled enough poet to properly capture a dance with Sherlock. It's like filling my arms with something that they have always emptily reached out for and never found. It's like fusing with another body, finding that it moves the same way as mine does as if they belong together. It's like flying.

God, I miss flying.

 


 

It only lasted a few minutes. Before I knew it, we were off the floor and my back was pressed against a wall. Sherlock was looming over me, slowly bending his head down. When his face was too close for him to keep his intense gaze on me, his eyelids half-closed. My lungs struggled to keep working normally, failing miserably as shallow gasps slid between my lips. His mouth hovered an inch from mine, I could feel his air against my lips, could almost taste his delicious breath. And then he pulled back, flashing me a wicked smile, and turned to leave.

My brain was effectively wiped clean, but my hand shot out on instinct, grabbing his hand. To my surprise, he actually turned back around. He didn't smile any more. He looked young, eyeing me with quiet vigilance.

Keeping my eyes fixed on him, I raised his hand, bowed my head and pressed a lingering kiss to it.

When I straightened, the confident dancer from before was entirely gone. His lips were an uncertain line, a red wound on his pale face, and his wide eyes had something fearful in them, insecure from inside the hard lines of his make-up. I only saw it for a split second before he turned again, hand slipping out of my grasp, and in a moment all the other dancers flooded back onto the floor and hid Sherlock from me.

I looked around, feeling confusedly out of place. To my left I discovered Stamford, watching me knowingly. I opened my mouth to speak, but then he raised his arm, handing me my cane.

“Found this on the floor”, he said, laughter hidden in his voice. “Must have forgotten it when you danced.”

My mouth never closed, jaw stupidly slack when I accepted the cane from him. I shifted on my feet, for a moment forgetting which leg it was that usually didn't hold my weight.

It was my right. And its veins were pulsing with heat and its muscles were strong, and all I wanted to do was run, run in circles on the hardwood floor, run until I flew again.

The music changed back into Sherlock's song. I spun around and saw Sherlock sitting on his trapeze in the middle of the room, slowly being hoisted into the air. He sang as if his whole body were his lungs, his voice demanded that everyone listen and no one resist. I stared up at him and had no idea what had just happened. I only knew that my heart was counting every beat until I was going to see him again.

Everyone was cheering, and I wanted them all to go away. I wanted Sherlock to look at me, to acknowledge that I was the one he had chosen to dance with, that he had eaten me with his eyes, that he had looked at me without filter. But Sherlock didn't look down. He was high up under the ceiling, an untouchable gemstone floating in the spotlight. His voice gathered strength to deliver the last note and the music made a pause before the explosion of the final chord.

But in the brief silence, there was a loud gasp from above.

The sound sliced through me like a knife. The whole dance floor was still entranced by the performance, trembling in anticipation of the climax, apparently not seeing what I saw; how Sherlock's head tipped back, how his chest heaved. The suits lifted their arms, urging on the explosion of the ending, but Sherlock didn't sing. His hands slipped on the trapeze ropes, he tipped backwards, and he fell.

There was a horrible silence broken only by a single voice yelling Sherlock's name. His clothes glistened like a falling star when he neared the empty circle of the hard floor beneath him.

A heavy grunt, and a moment of time standing still. In the middle of the floor stood Gregory, eyes wide with shock, and Sherlock caught limply in his arms.

The suits were quiet as though they were dead. The unforgiving truth of human fragility didn't belong inside the thick walls of the Moulin Rouge. Only one person moved; one of the older dancers, a woman in an elegant purple dress, with a thin veil of curly, dark blonde hair falling over her forehead. Her whisper when she reached Gregory was loud in the large silence:

“Come this way, dear.”

They made their way through the suits to one of the side doors. Sherlock's arms dangled over his head at an uncomfortable angle. His hat had fallen from his head, making him look strangely naked with his black hair slicked back to expose his unconscious face.

It wasn't until they were out of sight that I felt the soreness in my vocal cords, and realised that I had been the one screaming.

 


 

Gregory's arms ached under Sherlock's weight when he followed the purple-dressed Martha through the hallway. She waved impatiently at the girls standing in her way, until they reached the door to Sherlock's dressing room. Leaned against the wall stood the woman with the short, blonde hair who had tried to get me to dance. The glint in her eyes was hard as she watched Sherlock's slack face.

“Don't know if Moriarty's going to get his money's worth tonight”, she said.

“Oh, don't be unkind, Mary”, Martha snapped.

Gregory carefully laid Sherlock on the bed, turning him on his side to allow him to breathe.

“Thank you, dear”, Martha said. “Now get out of my way.” Gregory immediately backed to the wall, joining the little group of curious bystanders.

The older woman leaned over the unconscious man on the bed, and when she stroked her hand over his oily hair, he started moving, gasping and coughing. He opened his eyes, rapidly wandering between the faces hovering above him, rare confusion glazing his always so sharp eyes. The whites in them were red, he was panting uncontrollably and on his forehead lay huge pearls of sweat.

His eyes landed on Martha, blinking until she came into focus. She smiled at him, trying with all her might not to look worried. “There's my boy”, she whispered.

He tried to answer, but instead a coughing fit overtook him, and Martha placed a handkerchief over his mouth.

“These absurd costumes”, he got out, fighting not to let his panting breaths become coughs.

“Just a little fainting spell”, Martha said with a smile and a dismissive shake of her head.

The door banged against the wall when the stage manager arrived, a skinny man with a perpetually disgusted face. “All right, you girls”, he said in a nasal voice, “get back out front and make those gents thirsty.” He stopped before Martha, not bothering with so much as a glance at Sherlock. “Problems?”

“Nothing for you to be worrying about”, Martha said coldly.

“Let's not stand around, then.”

The manager disappeared with the girls in tow, Gregory slipping out with one last look at Sherlock. He was coughing again, the whole of his nearly-naked body convulsing with the strength of it.

When he finally sank back into the pillows, and Martha removed the handkerchief from his mouth, there was a wet spot of bright red on the white cotton.

 

Chapter Text

It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside
I'm not one of those who can easily hide
I don't have much money, but boy if I did
I'd buy a big house where we both could live

 

The Moulin Rouge kept spinning, spinning along with the windmill blades. Nothing could ever stop it. The music exploded in the main hall, fast drums and breathless brass, the dancers smiled and wiggled and the terrifying fall was forgotten.

In his cluttered dressing room, Sherlock's face twitched in pain. He closed his eyes to escape his reflection in the dirty mirror, trying to keep in little moans when the corset increasingly pressed in on his lungs.

“Are you letting your sweet curls loose for Moriarty?” Martha said, her voice calm though her hands were forceful, lacing his black corset with sharp, decisive tugs.

Sherlock opened his eyes and swallowed decisively, bending further over his dressing table with hands in his hair. “Mm”, he agreed, gently loosening his hair from its slicked-back style, “he wants something young and fresh for him to control. It's either that or to be controlled for rich men like him. This one has been in touch with Mycroft for some time to negotiate their collaboration, and he has visited our shows, though never ventured onto the dance floor or interacted with the workers. If he were a man desperate for someone to take charge and tell him what to do, he would have already paid for a night with any one of us. But Moriarty isn't yet a customer; instead he has observed the dancers on stage, and he has chosen the Diamond Dog that he wishes to own.”

Martha chuckled. “You know how to take them, don't you”, she said fondly. Sherlock grunted at the next, impossibly tight tug. He refused to have another coughing fit.

“It will have to be a contrast between innocent and provocative – boyish hair, coy manners, and then the black suspender belt, the lace stockings, and the long negligee. A blushing bride”, he said ironically, then considered. “In black.”

“Oh, you will be lethal, dear. An actor like you, Moriarty will never realise who owns who.”

Sherlock smiled, something small and real, until the door opened and his expression changed into a sneer. A tall man strode into the dressing room, wearing a grey three-piece suit with a blood-red tie. He held his large nose high, giving off an air of superior indifference, and in his hand he held a folded black umbrella for no apparent reason – I, for one, have never seen him step outside the Moulin Rouge.

“All is well, I take it”, Holmes said smoothly. He put the tip of the umbrella at the floor, leaning slightly on it.

“Of course.” Sherlock didn't meet his eyes in the mirror, instead kept his focus firmly at the styling of his hair.

“I need your best game tonight. If you-”

“Can't you see I'm getting ready?”

Holmes eyed the handle of his umbrella, twisting it slightly. “I was merely concerned.”

“You can fix any damage to my image.”

Something flashed across the face of Holmes; a shadow of another kind of concern, one that had more to do with a breakable body tumbling towards a hardwood floor than with the opinion of faceless suits with money in their fists. But Holmes wouldn't name it, and Sherlock missed it.

“Duke Moriarty has the means to spend a minor fortune on this show”, Holmes said instead. “I cannot exaggerate how important he is to the progress of the Moulin Rouge. We simply cannot fail in keeping his interest.”

Sherlock glanced disdainfully at Holmes in the mirror. “He's getting a night with me – please.”

“All finished”, Martha said with a last tug on the unforgiving knot of his corset. “Should I fetch you the outfit?”

“Thank you, Martha”, Sherlock almost smiled. She was the only person he ever thanked, at least up until then.

“We are all relying on you, Sherlock”, Holmes said. Sherlock rolled his eyes. “If he invests, I will be able to transform the Moulin Rouge into a theatre, and I can put you on stage with a real show, with a real audience. With a patron like him, you could become-”

“-'a real actor'”, Sherlock filled in dismissively. “Yes, so you say.”

“Oh Sherlock”, Martha said when she came back with an armful of black lace, “it's such an exciting time for you. As talented as you are, it's nothing less than you deserve.”

“I know. And Mycroft knows it, so really, I don't know why he is so obsessed with this particular duke…”

“Sherlock, I cannot fix everything.” Holmes' voice had turned sharp. “If we lose this chance, there is no guarantee that I can get you another-”

“What's this, are we suddenly being modest?” Sherlock's eyes narrowed mockingly.

“I need you to take this seriously, Sherlock.”

“What makes you think I'm not?”

Martha hung the thin lace of the negligee over Sherlock's bare shoulders. Sherlock eyed his hair critically in the mirror, fingers flying to correct little imperfections. Holmes watched them, on the verge of saying something more, but he changed his mind.

“He was there during your number”, he said instead, weighing on his heels.

Sherlock smirked at his own reflection. “Good.”

“Will have seen your dance with that soldier, too.”

“Mm, groundwork. Is he the type to fall for such a display?”

“I think it's safe to assume that you have his attention. You probably devastated the soldier too in the process – let go of his cane for a dance with you.”

Sherlock dropped his hands, finally satisfied with his hair. “Psychosomatic limp”, he said, meeting his own eyes in the glass.

“Obvious.”

Sherlock turned, looking straight at Holmes for the first time. “See, I'm in top form.” He threw his arms out, showing off his slim form with the pronounced waist under the black veil of lace. “Happy?”

Turning back to his mirror, he picked up a lipstick from the table. He started to redo the make-up smeared during his fainting spell and pretended to ignore Holmes, who stood in silence, contemplating his words.

“I have set up the elephant chamber for you”, he said in the end, unspoken words in his breath. Sherlock didn't acknowledge him. Holmes watched him for a few more seconds, then left with a quiet: “Good luck.”

 


 

The notorious elephant. A giant stucco animal that stood in the courtyard of the Moulin Rouge, almost as tall as the windmill itself. All windows had red glass, glowing seductively to lead the mind to scandalous fantasies about what might take place inside.

At the very front, covering the head of the elephant, was a golden ornament with the large opening shaped as a heart. Inside, the walls of the chamber were red. There was an excess of heavy crimson curtains, drapes of golden fringes, paintings and exotic arts, musical instruments, candles, Persian carpets, crystal chandeliers; a heavy mix of romantic and erotic.

I was standing by the large opening at the front of the head. The view was framed by the golden heart-shaped hole that started by my feet and stretched over my head. From there, the whole of Paris was stark in its contrasts of darkness and glow, of colours and black. The air was cool and the electricity was hot, grazing my fingertips when I moved. I had been graced with the finest room of the entire Moulin Rouge for my poetry reading with Sherlock, and never had the night been so vibrantly alive as when I stood there, waiting for him to arrive.

I had my back to the chamber, the nearly suffocating décor and the large bed with covers and pillows in red and gold. Staring at it didn't help when I tried to prepare myself for seeing Sherlock again. Instead I was looking out over the Moulin Rouge garden. The jangle of the partying people sounded faded and distant from far below, but the rhythm of the night still permeated the elephant. The back of the windmill glowed in red, and behind it, against the clean dark blue of the sky, I could see the tall building where I lived. My window at the top looked small, deserted and insignificant, the red blades obscuring it at every turn.

It was strange, looking from the outside at the little cell where I was sealed off from everything remotely lively. I wasn't quite sure how I suddenly found myself in this exotic chamber, a room the opposite of my flat in every respect. Even more baffling, I was weighing my cane in both hands, wondering what to do with it.

The climb up the spiral staircase inside the elephant's leg had been effortless. I may even have jogged a bit, just to savour the wonderful feeling of working quadriceps, gluteals and hamstrings. Standing in the fairy-tale room, the throne of the Moulin Rouge, I felt foolish holding a useless cane. I put it down on the floor, leaning it against the wall just by the edge of the heart, to keep myself from fidgeting with it. Then I stepped back to the middle of the opening, forcing myself to stand as still as a soldier can.

The door behind me opened, and I automatically straightened my spine further. My hand didn't tremble at all when I turned around, every fibre of me prepared. Still, Sherlock's appearance threw me off for a second.

I hadn't expected him to be dressed in a black corset, with tiny pearl buttons running down the front all the way to where it ended just below the parting of his legs. I hadn't expected all the lace; the transparent black negligee that was long enough to graze the floor; the silk stockings that were attached to the corset with suspenders, leaving the top of his thighs enticingly bare. I hadn't expected his hair to be a shock of perfect, black curls when he didn't hide it under a hat.

He did not look like someone who had nearly fallen to his death but one hour before. He looked too gorgeous to be alive in the first place. His sharp features were even more cutting with the shadows highlighted by his black garments, and his crimson mouth outshone the red velvet in the room.

I cleared my throat and tried for a simple friendly smile. “Bonjour.

Sherlock's eyes narrowed as the golden door fell shut behind him. His sharp gaze raked over me for a quick confirmation of what was already obvious to him; that I was not the rich and powerful duke he was supposed to meet and seduce. I was a penniless, retired army doctor who could never afford even an hour with him, all dressed up as a wealthy man.

Bonjour”, Sherlock answered, eyeing me intently.

“Are you all right?” I said in French. I wanted to ask more – had they called for a doctor, what had he said, what was his name – but it wasn't my place.

“Obviously.”

“Good.”

Sherlock paused for another second, weighing his options. He briefly considered alerting Mycroft that the Moriarty meeting was going awry – but where would be the fun in that? He was both affronted that this penniless soldier tried to get a session with him without paying – as if he was not worth the money, which he was – and a little impressed that someone had gone to these lengths for him. Getting rid of a powerful man like Moriarty for a night in his bed was something that no one had attempted before.

No, Mycroft would straighten things out with Moriarty later. For now, a nice payback would be appropriate. He wondered what he had to do to make the rude army man embarrassed and uncomfortable enough to leave by his own volition.

Sherlock studied me with his head tilted to the side, doing the quick read he did with his every client. This soldier was the type to enjoy an adventure and a challenge; he sought a partner with a mind of their own, someone to argue with and be driven mad by and respect; he had never been with a prostitute and probably hoped not to be reminded that that's what Sherlock was – a puppet formed to fit his needs; he was obviously attracted to Sherlock, as was clear especially during the dance; it was something romantic that had hooked him, something that almost felt real – something that had even made it challenging for Sherlock to keep the distancing veil over his eyes.

So the soldier was here to get more of the limp-curing man who had seduced him on the dance floor? Well, then that was the opposite of what he was going to get.

“So”, I said, “are you ready to begin?”

Sherlock's head straightened and the inquiring look in his eyes disappeared. “I'm always ready”, he drawled, words heavy with meaning. His voice was lazily submissive, not at all what I'd imagined from the fierce man on the dance floor.

I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Good”, I repeated like a fool.

He sauntered into the room, hips swaying excessively, pursing his lips to draw attention to the stark red of his lipstick. I couldn't for the life of me understand why he would dress like that for my audition, but I kept my eyes steadily on his face.

“I assume you want some supper?” He stopped by the small table where a shining silver service stood. “A little champagne?” His tone was bordering on mocking around the last word, clearly expecting I would jump at the offer.

He turned from me to lift the bottle from the ice bucket, and I hoped I wasn't being rude: “If you don't mind, I'd rather just get it over and done with.”

He put the bottle back down with a clank, shoulders rising and falling with a deliberate breath. When he turned to me, he had composed his expression to an exaggerated sultry smile, one eyebrow arched. “Perfect.” Never breaking his gaze on me, he went over to the bed and lay down, his negligee falling open over his smooth legs. “Come here, then, and get it over and done with.”

I frowned at him. There was something off about him, something in the way he moved that I didn't recognise at all. He looked up at me from the bed with docile eyes, his lips still obviously pursed.

“I, er… I'd prefer to do it standing.”

“Oh”, he said, taken aback, and made to rise from the bed.

“No, you don't have to stand.” He froze, staring at me. “I mean, it- it's quite long. I don't want you to be uncomfortable.”

His eyes were wide, his brain working fast. “I will be whatever you want me to be.”

I swallowed, clenching and unclenching my fists, feeling very lonely on the luxurious carpet. “Well, I hope you'll like what I do. It's quite… different, I suppose. Might feel a bit strange at first, but- but if you're open, you might enjoy it.”

His lips twisted in what could pass as a smile, but mostly made him look disgusted. “I'm always 'open'.”

There was a moment's awkward silence. “Right.” I nodded once, pretending not to hear his innuendo. “Excuse me.”

I turned my back, closed my eyes and willed my voice to be steady. But it didn't matter, because I couldn't remember a single word I'd written.

“Would you mind getting on with it?” Sherlock said behind me. “I have another client after you.”

I looked at him again, wondering how I'd managed to ruin my audition before I'd even started. I must look a complete fool to this angelic, strange man. “I'm sorry”, I said, a self-deprecating laugh escaping me. “I guess I'm nervous.”

Sherlock heaved a great sigh. “Whenever you're ready, then.” He stretched out on the bed, bending one knee on the covers to open up his thighs. He extended one arm towards me, letting the hand hang limply over the side of the bed, and placed his other hand on the corset just beside his crotch. He looked like a dead heap of black lace and white skin in the sea of red velvet pillows. His head rolled to the side, lips parted indecently, his face passive and expressionless. But his eyes were sharp and bright, a fresh blue-green well right in the middle of the suffocating crimson of the elephant chamber.

Our eyes met. And there, I could see the dazzling mind of Sherlock simmering just below the surface of what I suddenly knew was nothing more than an act. I didn't know why he was acting, but I did remember his naked face when I kissed his hand. He hadn't been prepared for the intimacy between us, and I dared to guess it had frightened him.

If he felt the need to put me at a distance now, I still couldn't let that ruin my chance at this job. I focused on the clear shimmer of his irises.

It's a little bit funny”, I spoke in English.

“What is?” he drawled, still in French. His bland voice fitted poorly with his alert gaze.

This feeling inside”, I went on, reaching for words as I went. “I'm not one of those who- who can easily hide. Is- is that what you want?” I added in French.

“Oh, yes.” His voice dropped and his eyes sparkled. “Naughty poetry, this is what I want. Ohh-” His head tipped back, and his open mouth took on a little smile.

I don't have much money”, I continued, “but boy, if I did,
I'd buy a big house where we both could live…

I trailed off. Sherlock's hands were roaming over his own body, hips squirming, and he was moaning loudly while I spoke. “Oooh, yes… that's terrific…

I tried to ignore him, earnestly continuing my poem.

If I was a sculptor
but then again, no

“Oh my God, that's- ohhhhh-”

Or a man who makes potions
in a travelling show

At this point, Sherlock was rolling around so violently that he fell off the bed, his moans far louder than my words. “Oh, oh, oh – oh no, don't stop!”

I know it's not much-” I was practically yelling now, but so was Sherlock.

“Give me more! Yes!

But it's the best I can do.

“Oh, naughty! Don't stop! Please, keep- aaah-” He crawled over the floor, grabbing a soft carpet and wrapping it around himself messily. “More! Say it-”

My gift is my song”, I shouted, but at that point I could have left the room without Sherlock noticing, he was so caught up in his moaning performance.

“Oh, God! So dirty! I need more! Yes!”

“… and this one's for you”, I ended quietly to myself. I watched Sherlock rolling around ungracefully on the floor, half-hidden by the carpet, screaming on top of his lungs. I found myself smiling helplessly at the ridiculous display.

“Oh! Oh! Yes! Yes!

There was nothing for it. I needed to make him listen.

He was so occupied by his own antics that he didn't see me coming. When he rolled onto his back, I pounced on him, grabbing his wrists and pinning them to the floor by his head. He stopped screaming in surprise, his mouth shutting with a snap. The carpet fell off him, and he blinked up at me where I hovered over him on my hands and knees – not touching, but crowding him completely.

We stared at one another. Every trace of his supposed ecstasy was gone from his face. Instead he looked at me in defiance, almost mockery. I ignored that, because to see his eyes up close again was just as consuming as I remembered. Everything that is and can be in the world, I thought – intelligence and life and soul – must be at its highest concentration right in these eyes.

It wasn't until I opened my mouth that I realised that the poem I'd just fabricated, had been following a melody in my head. It was Stamford's composition, the one that had kept me company during my university years and never left me since.

I am no musician. I can't compose, and my voice isn't trained to sing. Not that I never do – in Afghanistan, when I was working all night, all alone with far too many patients, then I would sing. Quietly, simply, just to fill the silence with something that maybe, hopefully, could comfort someone who woke up when they wished they hadn't. In any case, I did sometimes comfort myself with the familiar sound of my own voice in my head – a reminder that I was alive, and who I was.

In the Moulin Rouge elephant, standing on all fours over Sherlock with his slim wrists in my hands, staring at him and willing him to listen to me, I sang. Quietly, simply, I placed words upon the notes.

And you can tell everybody
this is your song
It may be quite simple, but
now that it's done
Hope you don't mind
I hope you don't mind
that I put down in words
How wonderful life is
now you're in the world

My song was imperfect, but I had Sherlock's full attention. He didn't blink once, and I never looked away. When I fell silent, he kept gazing at me, his expression unreadable.

Finally he spoke, and his voice was lower now. Crisp consonants and deep vowels pouring through diphthongs, something that curled up in my own diaphragm and made it glow in a way I wasn't sure was all pleasant.

“Afghanistan or Burma?”

I blinked. “Sorry?”

“Which was it” – good Lord, his voice was deeper than any other – “Afghanistan or Burma?”

There was a silence, before I rediscovered my voice. “Afghanistan. Sorry, why do you-”

I was interrupted by Sherlock shoving me backwards to get out of my now limp grip. He sat back against the bed, and his eyes were hard enough to burn holes into me. With a thrill I realised that I'd done it – I had broken through the façade. Every trace of servility was gone from his face, and his body language reminded me much more of the man from the dance. I wondered how anyone could look so dignified and in control in such exposing clothes, leaning back with limbs carelessly sprawling. But Sherlock did; he looked terrifyingly assertive.

“Clearly, you're an English army doctor recently invalided home from service. Your left arm has been injured and you have a psychosomatic limp – or perhaps I should say had.” He smirked at this and barely paused for breath before he plunged on: “You have no money, no occupation, and barely any friends. You moved to Paris three – or closer to four weeks ago, in the hope that life would be less dull here than in London. Upon noticing that this is not the case, you have sought out the Moulin Rouge, borrowing or perhaps stealing a suit in order to pass as a wealthy man and be treated as such. However, the suit fits you poorly – it is too tight over the shoulders and too long in the sleeves. It's obvious that it isn't your own – in fact everything in your appearance tells me you're a penniless army doctor and not a duke.”

He spoke so quickly that I could barely keep up with him. “A duke?” I asked stupidly.

He paid me no mind, voice sharp with contempt when he continued: “You are too poor to pay for me properly, so instead you try to steal the night from Moriarty. Did you plan your scheme before you got here, or was it the dance that did it?”

“Hang on, who's Moriarty? I don't have a scheme, I'm here to audition for writing your play. Stamford said he'd arranged-”

“Stamford?” Sherlock's eyes had widened, his arrogant confidence leaking off him.

“Oh, God.” I felt my face heat with mortification. “You never heard about me, did you? You thought I was… oh, God.”

Sherlock suddenly rose from the floor. “If you didn't get rid of Moriarty, then where is he?” He darted across the room in a flurry of black lace, opened the door and immediately closed it again. Whirling towards me, he didn't have time for more than a panicked: “Hide!”

 

Chapter Text

So exciting, the audience will stomp and cheer
So delighting, it will run for fifty years
So exciting, we'll make them laugh, we'll make them cry
So delighting – and in the end should someone die?

 

I ducked behind the supper table a moment before the door opened again.

“Sherlock, are you decent for Moriarty?” a smooth voice asked.

“Oh, of course.” Sherlock's voice sounded higher again, lacking the core-shaking vibrations. “Monsieur, I have been expecting you.”

“Apologies”, a third man casually said. “I had an… urgent business to attend to.” There was something disconcerting in the complete lack of emotion in the statement, inducing a slight pause where no one seemed to know what to say.

All I could see beneath the hem of the tablecloth was four pairs of feet; three of them in hard, polished shoes, with suit trousers in grey, dark blue and black respectively. The grey ones moved minutely, a small rock back on the heels, the tip of an umbrella digging into the floor beside them. The blue and the black stood steady. The fourth pair of feet, clad in high heels and black stockings, shifted when Sherlock casually posed, hip tilted to the side, one leg bending slightly.

“Moriarty”, he said, “how wonderful of you to take time out of your busy schedule to visit.”

The blue suit took a step forward into the room, the voice taking on a crooning quality: “I fear the pleasure will be entirely mine, darling.”

“I will leave you two to get better acquainted”, the first voice said. The umbrella lifted from the floor and the grey suit moved, closing the door behind him and the silent black suit.

I tried not to move. My crouch behind the table was uncomfortable at best, but there was no space for even a breath of a movement when Moriarty strode forward. His shoes thumped heavily on the Persian carpet. There was a loaded silence, and I held my breath until Sherlock exclaimed:

“Oh! Let me take your hat.”

Thank you”, Moriarty said pointedly. Sherlock gave a breathy half-laugh when he took the hat from Moriarty's hand, then sat on the edge of the bed on the opposite side of the room, carelessly putting the hat down behind him.

Moriarty walked slowly through the room, examining the interior with disinterested attention. My body was stiff with adrenalin, it sharpened my senses and made me acutely aware of Moriarty's every movement. Sherlock cleared his throat, shifting on the bed and trying to make Moriarty turn to him instead. When Moriarty came closer to the table, Sherlock hurriedly spoke:

“What do you think of our elephant, Moriarty? Not as grand as your grounds, I'm sure.”

Moriarty stopped on the floor, speaking with exaggerated thoughtfulness. “Not sure if there is an elephant in the room, or if it's just that the room is an elephant.” I didn't like his tone, the way I couldn't tell if he was mocking or serious.

Sherlock gave that fake half-laugh again, rising from the bed. “Perhaps both”, he said flirtatiously.

Moriarty hummed absently. Sherlock walked slowly towards him, feet close together and hips swinging, but Moriarty turned away from him. He resumed his aimless stroll around the chamber, completely owning the silence that held both Sherlock and me trapped.

“How wonderful of you to take an interest in our little show”, Sherlock said.

“Oh, yes”, Moriarty said, sounding bored. “Very exciting.”

“With you involved, I am confident we could create something truly spectacular. I almost dare guarantee that it will please your eye.”

“Tonight's performances were very pretty”, Moriarty said, flat and toneless. He looked at Sherlock fully for the first time since he entered, as if just remembering something. “You must be in need of refreshment after your exertions on the stage.”

He turned to the table, and I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Don't!” Sherlock blurted, making Moriarty look back at him in mild surprise. Sherlock tried to smooth his voice when he frantically improvised: “… you… just… love our view?”

There was a pause in which all that was heard was my beating heart.

“Charming”, Moriarty said indifferently.

“It's the sort of scenery that should be appreciated together, don't you think? Would you… would you care to join me?” Sherlock sounded shy, walking over towards the heart-shaped opening.

“Best appreciated with a champagne flute in hand, I'm sure.”

“Oh!” Sherlock shouted, once again halting Moriarty's turn towards my hiding place. “Moriarty, let me just say… You- you look quite dashing. Sorry, it's just… I have certainly never encountered anyone with such an air of authority and power.”

“It would be surprising if you had.” There was a slight smile in Moriarty's silky voice.

“Quite. You will forgive me if I am slightly intimidated in the presence of such a man.” Sherlock's voice was throaty and panting. The man who asked me if I had been stationed in Afghanistan or in Burma had been altogether exchanged for this ingratiating person; not even the voice was the same.

“Darling”, Moriarty crooned, “then let me pour you a drink to take the edge off.”

“Wait, let me just, first, let me…”

I glanced at the door behind me. Its golden solidity was much too far away, and Moriarty was standing right in the middle of the room. There was no way I could get out of there if Moriarty wasn't thoroughly distracted – or, preferably, gone.

Sherlock had come close to Moriarty now, and there was the whisper of hands over fabric. A breathy little “oh…” from Sherlock, and compact silence from Moriarty.

“Like the feel of a proper suit, do you, darling?”

“Oh, yes. This one is quite something else, Moriarty.”

I couldn't see what they were doing, but I heard the rustle of fabric and Sherlock's loud breathing. Just when I started to wonder if he had managed to distract Moriarty enough for me to take a chance at escaping, Moriarty took a step back.

“Champagne first”, he sing-songed tantalisingly.

“No- It's a little bit funny”, Sherlock blurted in English.

Moriarty turned back to him, champagne forgotten.

At the sound of my own poetry, I couldn't resist a peek over the table surface. Sherlock's eyes were wide, his face furiously concentrated.

“Funny?” Moriarty prompted. He had his hands in his pockets and his back to me.

Sherlock stuttered and threw me a desperate glance. “This feeling inside”, I mouthed.

This… feeling… inside”, Sherlock repeated, trying to watch me without being obvious about it. “I'm not one of those… who can easily… hide.

He looked at me, glanced at the door and then back at Moriarty, starting to walk slowly towards him. I realised that he finally had Moriarty's attention, and I slowly, quietly rose to my feet behind his back. I winced every time the fabric of my clothes shifted – it would be crazy if we got away with this; a third person standing right there on the floor and not being discovered.

I don't have much money”, Sherlock went on, “but if I did…” I started to back carefully towards the door, inwardly cursing Gregory's hard-soled shoes. “I'd buy a big house where we both could live.

I could see how this had distracted Moriarty from the champagne on the table. If anyone knew how to use their voice to entrance people, how to wrap the poetry around their every movement, how to align it with the look on their face, it was Sherlock. Especially when he started singing.

With a thrill, I realised that he remembered both the melody and the exact words.

I hope you don't mind
I hope you don't mind
that I put down in words

Hearing my words in his deep baritone made it impossible to look away from his face.

How wonderful life is
now you're in the world

He glanced at me while he sang, his face hovering inside Moriarty's personal space. I was at the door now, thanking God for the well-oiled handle when I twisted it. I looked over my shoulder and froze.

In the hallway stood a man in a black suit; the same man I had seen chasing the pink feathers off the dance floor.

“Oh”, Moriarty was breathing inside the room. “Beautiful. Bless you!” His voice sounded even more disconcerting like this, riding some emotion that didn't sound like genuine admiration to me, but something dark and intangible.

The man in the hallway had not seen me, but there was no way I could sneak out the door without him noticing me. I winced when the door closed again with a quiet snap, me still trapped inside the chamber.

“Ah!” Sherlock cried to cover up the sound. “Oh, Moriarty, do you realise what you're doing to me?”

Before Moriarty could answer, Sherlock grabbed the lapels of his suit and tugged him violently forward. He dragged him along until they hit the bed and toppled down onto it, Sherlock on his back and Moriarty on top of him. “I can't wait any more”, Sherlock whined breathlessly. “Take me!”

I stood exposed before the door, watching Moriarty shift to pin Sherlock's wrists to the bed. The movement was far too quick for a man taken by surprise, as if Moriarty had only waited for a moment to take control of Sherlock's body. “So innocent and adorable”, he purred. “I bet you have never been touched so you could feel it.”

“Not like this”, Sherlock moaned, tipping his head back.

Moriarty bent his knees to straddle Sherlock's hips. Then he lowered his head over Sherlock's exposed pale throat, inhaling loudly. “Such a little virgin”, he murmured against his flesh.

“If you want me to be”, Sherlock whispered. I was stuck on the carpet, watching the scene on the bed. My throat tightened with nausea at the way Moriarty breathed Sherlock's body in through his open mouth.

“You are”, he said darkly, “until you've had me.”

Sherlock was back to his extravagant moaning, and I realised I didn't have long to find a hiding spot. Moriarty was fully in control of their position on the bed and he could change it at any time.

“Yes – touch me!” Sherlock's gaze locked with mine as I tiptoed across the carpet, Moriarty's face pressed into his throat. Sherlock's eyes were furiously blazing, and he jerked his head to the side, indicating a curtain near the heart-shaped opening at the front. “Oooh, yes… that's terrific”, he moaned, just as he had done when I read my poem to him.

It made me pause in the middle of a step towards the curtain. I looked back at Sherlock, his ecstatic voice contrasting his frantically alert expression. There would be no getting out of here until Moriarty was finished.

There was no way I was letting them put me through that.

I remained standing in the middle of the carpet, turning fully to Sherlock on the bed and folding my arms over my chest. Sherlock's eyes looked capable of killing, and would have made a lesser person scramble to comply. But I had stood face to face with worse weapons.

Gaze still fixed on me, Sherlock said: “Wait, wait, we should – we should wait.” He raised one eyebrow at me. I nodded at him, quickly slipping behind the curtain at last.

“We should wait?” Moriarty said, his tone like too-strong honey.

“Yes, you're right, we must wait.” Sherlock sat up. “Until the opening night.”

“Is that so?” Moriarty sounded almost amused. I found that I would have preferred it if he sounded upset and disappointed.

“Mm, yes. The power in you scares me, Moriarty. I want to savour it. I want to long for it until I'm desperate for you.”

“Darling, you have desperately needed me since you were fourteen and made your first… exchange.”

There was a beat; this meant something to Sherlock, something that he hadn't expected Moriarty to know. But he quickly regained his composure, rising from the bed and pulling Moriarty with him. “Yes, but I want to enter the stage on the opening night, filled with anticipatory dread, thinking about what you will do to me when the curtain falls.” He led Moriarty towards the door while he spoke and opened it for him.

On the threshold, Moriarty turned to him one last time. “It will be beyond your imagination, Virgin. Daddy promises!” The door shut behind him.

I stepped out from behind the curtain to a Sherlock with eyes flashing in fury.

“Do you have any idea how disastrous it would have been if you were found?” His voice was low and flat now, lacking the smarmy quality I had already come to hate.

“I'm sorry”, I said, “but I didn't know he would come here. I was told there was a private meeting arranged between us.”

“You could have hidden sooner! This was an important encounter that I now have had to cut short because-”

“What, and I should have stood there all night, listening to that creep ravishing you?”

Sherlock's eyes narrowed disdainfully. “Oh, really?”

“What?” I said defensively.

“Jealousy? How pedestrian. What makes you think you have a right to that?”

“I'm not jealous”, my voice got higher, “I just don't think that man was very pleasant!”

“Spare me the charity”, Sherlock scoffed. “This is what I'm paid for – it's why I have money when you don't.”

“And you didn't find anything off-putting with what just happened in here?”

“I don't care about what happens in here. If you do, then you are certainly in the wrong place.”

I shook my head and rubbed a hand over my eyes. “I just wanted to write a show for you, Sherlock.”

“Yes, well, we'll see if there is a show to write now that you have scared off the investor!”

I was so focused on Sherlock alone that I didn't realise how close to each other we had come to stand. Not until the golden door opened again.

“Sorry! I forgot my hat-”, Moriarty's voice said, and Sherlock and I didn't have time to do more than look up before the man stood in the doorway.

The scene froze. Sherlock and I stared at him with big, guilty eyes, Sherlock's hand still hanging in the air in the middle of an angry gesture. For the first time I got a look at Moriarty. He was standing stock still, steady on both feet, the lines of his dark-blue suit precise and his hands calm in his trouser pockets. His black hair was slicked back with shiny oil, and he had a shadow of a stubble over his jaw and upper lip. His face looked dead when he silently watched us. For a moment, I have no idea how long, we were all locked in a stalemate, an unmoving triangle in the middle of the busy nightclub.

The first point in the triangle to move was Moriarty. His expression transformed into something confused and hurt, startlingly different from the complete lack of expression a second before. “What's this?” he asked in distress. His eyes darted between Sherlock and me. “Are you seeing someone behind my back?”

“Moriarty!” Sherlock exclaimed, taking a step back from me. “Good that you're back. Allow me to introduce you to the writer.”

“The writer?”

At Moriarty's shoulder, the man in the black suit was hovering. I realised he must be Moriarty's manservant – and I didn't like the combination of this fact, the dramatic pink-feathered flight and the “urgent business” Moriarty had attended to. Now, while Moriarty still looked confused, the dead and indifferent gaze was instead worn by the man behind him.

“Yes of course, the writer”, Sherlock said, plastering a smile onto his face. “We were just reading the script.”

Moriarty's gaze flitted over to me. I nodded, trying to look less caught out and more professional.

“At this hour?” Moriarty asked mildly. His eyes were dark and bottomless, solidly fixed on my face.

“Creative inspiration abides by no laws”, Sherlock said, now speaking rapidly. “When I sang that song to you before, I suddenly realised the true meaning of the words. You, Moriarty, you filled me with such inspiration that I called for the writer, for an emergency script reading.”

“And the writer was just nearby”, Moriarty said, eyes still trained on me. “What luck.” He stepped into the room and the door fell shut behind him, leaving the black suit outside.

I cleared my throat. “Yeah, I was just, you know…”

“Enjoying the belly dancers next door”, Sherlock filled in.

“Right”, I nodded. “Lucky, that.”

“My, oh my, you must be one wealthy writer to afford such a luxurious pastime.”

“I-”

I was saved by the door flying open once more. Holmes slid into the room with a tight smile and a hard grip on the handle of his folded umbrella.

“Moriarty, I am most terribly sorry-”

“Mycroft, you made it”, Sherlock interrupted, swiftly striding across the room. “Good, I have already told Moriarty about the emergency script reading.” He didn't stop until he stood right in front of Holmes, his face not visible to anyone else.

“The emergency script reading”, Holmes repeated blandly, looking back at Sherlock calmly. Behind his superior nonchalance, an intensity was hidden in his eyes.

“Mm, to incorporate Moriarty's artistic idea.”

Holmes' gaze shifted to Moriarty, giving him a broad, insincere smile. “Well, I'm sure Audrey will be only too delighted-”

I cleared my throat loudly. “It's not Audrey's work.”

“The cat's out of the bag, Mycroft”, Sherlock filled in. “It's all right, Moriarty is already a big fan of our new writer's work, isn't that right, Moriarty?” He threw a flirtatious smile over his shoulder at Moriarty before turning back to Holmes: “That's why he's so keen to invest.”

Hours of conversation seemed to pass between their eyes in a few seconds.

“Excellent”, Holmes said, then turned away. “How pleasing that you have already made the acquaintance of-” I mouthed my name at him, and he continued with barely a pause: “-John. I'm sure you cannot blame me for trying to hide him away.”

The corner of Moriarty's mouth lifted minutely. “I'm way ahead of you, Holmes.” His voice was back to indifference and his eyes were unsettling black pools.

“Yes”, Holmes said, undeterred. “Why don't you and I go to my office to peruse the paper work?”

Moriarty stared at him for a moment, not making the slightest movement towards the door. The moment stretched until the silence became unnatural, and I found myself setting my jaw and squaring my shoulders not to fidget. When Moriarty finally spoke, he didn't move a muscle, just settling the question in the tense air with his hollow voice:

“What's the story?”

I glanced quickly between Sherlock and Holmes, licking my lips, then cursing myself as I knew it was one of my tells.

“Excuse me?” Holmes said, face revealing nothing.

Moriarty cocked his head at him. “Shouldn't the investor know the story? Before he decides to… grace some underworld show-folk with his sexy money?”

“Oh, yes. Of course.” Holmes smiled again. I wished he would stop; it made him look terrifying. It got even worse when he turned to me. “John, why don't you do the honours?”

Holmes looked expectant and slightly disapproving – he already disliked me, it seemed, but at the moment he didn't have much choice but to put the fate of his show in my hands. Moriarty looked entirely uninterested in what I had to say, and yet, he was the one who would judge if anything I said was worthy.

I turned my gaze to Sherlock, who had something almost pleading in his eyes. I understood perfectly well what was on the line for him. A singer, a dancer, an actor like him, trapped on the dance floor of a brothel. He needed a show that would allow him to shine in all his grace and dignity, and by God, I was going to give it to him.

“It's a love story.”

Three pairs of sceptical eyes. Holmes, bland and bored. Moriarty, amused and condescending.

And Sherlock. Sharp and intense.

“It's about love, overcoming all obstacles.”

Sherlock broke eye contact. My hollow chest ached to be filled with a story; with something true, something beautiful, something free. I not only wanted, I needed to create a world where hands did not get ruined by tremors, where people did not get their spirit shot out of them, where clumsy canes were left behind. Where you could rely upon something as elusive as love.

I looked around the excessively decorated room for inspiration, barely having time to evaluate whether my ideas were good. An Indian elephant sculpture by the piano in the corner; it would do.

“There's this dancer”, I said. “He's the most beautiful dancer in all of India.” Sherlock still refused to look at me. “But his kingdom is invaded by an evil maharajah. The Maharajah has his eyes set on the Hindu Dancer, and he wants to conquer him and make him his own.”

At this point I caught Holmes' eye, and he nodded silently to me to continue. I relaxed a bit; perhaps I could pull this off after all.

“In order to save his kingdom, the Hindu Dancer has to seduce the Evil Maharajah. But on the night of the seduction, the Maharajah is occupied with an execution, to accomplish his evil ways. Instead, the Dancer happens upon a young woman, a penniless wr-” I quickly swept my gaze around the room, seeing a sitar in a corner. “-a penniless sitar-player. He hears her play, and he can't help falling in love with her.”

One of Sherlock's eyebrows twitched upwards, but he wouldn't look at me. Moriarty, on the other hand, clicked his tongue and playfully shook his head. “Boy, that can't be good for him.”

“It's dangerous, yes”, I said. “He tries to fight it, but he can't resist her. She is the first person he has ever met who sees beyond the act that he constantly has to put on for the men who use him. And she is immediately and helplessly in love with him, too.”

“Adorable”, Moriarty said. “What happens next?”

“The Penniless Sitar-Player and the Hindu Dancer have to hide their love from the Evil Maharajah. The Maharajah still wants the Dancer, so they come up with lie after lie to keep the Dancer from having to spend the nights with him.”

“And the Evil Maharajah allows it?” Moriarty asked mildly.

“Well, what they don't realise is that the Maharajah knows what is going on and lets it happen.” I was struck by inspiration now. The story was laying itself out for me like a path, and I only needed to follow it. “The Maharajah's soul is very dark indeed. He isn't satisfied with just having the Hindu Dancer as his own; he wants to destroy him single-handedly, he wants there to be nothing left in the Dancer's world but the Maharajah himself. He wants to be so deeply hated that the hate turns into love – then he will truly own the Hindu Dancer in every way. So the Maharajah lets him conduct his love affair with the Sitar-Player, because he believes love to be a weakness that will wear the Dancer down. He believes this will ultimately be the weapon that allows him to conquer the Dancer.”

“Interesting”, Moriarty smiled. At this point I couldn't afford thinking his smile unsettling – I was so close to getting this job. “And what happens in the end?”

“The Maharajah conducts his evil plan to pull the Dancer and the Sitar-Player apart. But he doesn't realise how strong their love is, and in the end, the Dancer hears her song, and he can't stay away from her.”

Sherlock was finally looking at me now. I looked back at his pale eyes, what seemed like the only two spots of light in the whole room. They drew me in, making me want to understand everything that I could see stirring in them.

I didn't realise how long and intimate our eye contact had been until Moriarty's voice pulled us out of it, an English sentence with a heavy French accent: “It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside.

I cleared my throat. “Yes, that's the song, right. It helps them flee the Evil Maharajah. The Hindu Dancer realises that love stands above everything, and he chooses the Penniless Sitar-Player.”

I was quite happy with my story. But Moriarty pulled his eyebrows together in an exaggerated expression of just remembering something. “But then”, he said, “then what happens to the Hindu Dancer's kingdom?”

Holmes' face was a mask of indifference, but his eyes never left me. “It is now severely threatened, due to the Dancer's choice”, I said. “But it was in fact a corrupted kingdom that used and abused people like him. The Evil Maharajah takes the kingdom down, but the Hindu Dancer and the Penniless Sitar-Player are now free to live in art and in love”, I finished.

“Well, that's a relief”, Moriarty said. “And then in the end, should someone… die?”

There was a twinkle in his black irises. I looked him steadily in the eye. “No. No one dies. They live together forever.”

“Forever? Seems a bit… excessive.”

“Well. This will be an extravagant show. Musical numbers with dozens of dancers, bright colours, the most talented singers of the Moulin Rouge. Sherlock here will play the Hindu Dancer, and Molly Hooper will play the Penniless Sitar-Player. Their duets will be heartbreaking, their love story will be very touching, and in between there will be spectacular cancan scenes.”

“It will be the show of the new century”, Holmes finally interposed. “It will include every talent we have among our Moulin Rouge dancers; fire-eaters, muscle men, contortionists, courtesans – and it will all be powered with electricity. The modern, bohemian spirit will make it popular in a city such as Paris. I dare say that with your involvement, Moriarty, this show may run for decades.”

We all looked at Moriarty with bated breath. He drew out the moment, pursing his lips and pulling his brows together, folding his arms across his chest and tapping at his chin. He was fully aware of holding everything we dreamed of in his hands.

Finally, he unfolded his arms and gave us his verdict.

“Generally, I like it.”

The tension left me in a loud breath like a silent laugh. I looked at Sherlock, and my breath caught in my chest when he met my eyes with the first genuine smile he had ever given me.

 

Chapter Text

I was made for loving you, baby
You were made for loving me

The only way of loving me, baby
is to pay a lovely fee

 

My walls quivered with deep bass. The unrelenting, dark rhythm accompanied the incessant murmur of raised voices from upstairs. The ceiling squeaked and groaned under the drunken dancing of too many feet in too small a space.

Holmes had an investor. The Bohemians had a show. Stamford, Gregory and Molly had all knocked on my door in turn, trying to drag me with them to the celebrations in Stamford's flat. I had declined, telling them I needed to write – and I really did, as the first script reading was tomorrow, and I hadn't produced a single line apart from the song.

How wonderful life is now you're in the world. The words looked back at me from the mostly empty paper in my typewriter.

I rose from my wooden chair, stepping out onto the narrow balcony outside my window. A bottle crashed loudly somewhere above me, followed by shrieking laughter. The summer air smelled like raw night, tobacco, spilled liquor and sex.

The Moulin Rouge was a red beacon across the street. The turn of the blades was silent but powerful, overseeing the parties and sinful meetings of Montmartre. It was beautiful against the dark-blue sky, and I watched it for a while, looking for the poetry in it.

Unable to help myself, I glanced past the turning blades to the large elephant in the courtyard. It looked mythical and exotic with its ornamented tusks and ears, its helmet of gold with the heart-shaped opening gleaming dimly in the blue darkness. A small balcony on the elephant's back promised a gorgeous view of the night city, and I wondered if Sherlock ever went up there.

Lights were shining from the red-tinted windows in the enormous belly, but the chamber in the head was dark now. I tried to see something through the heart-opening, but all I got was a glimpse of the interior glowing softly with the lights from the ground below and the mill itself. I wanted to go back in there. I didn't feel finished. Yes, I had gotten the job which was all I should really ask for – but in the process, something else seemed to have started, something that frighteningly felt as important as the work, if not more.

On the street below, the entrance of the nightclub opened. A group of people streamed out of the vestibule. They were glowing with the magical red of the heart that held them, before they stepped too far onto the street and their shimmer was swallowed by the decadent night. Most of them were women – Moulin Rouge dancers still in their dresses from before, laughing loudly as they went, clinging to each other until they were one large, unsteady being. But two of them walked separately from the others: one dark-haired woman with more bare skin than clothes, keeping a firm grip on the wrist of a man walking half a step behind her.

The air stilled in my lungs. The man was dressed ordinarily in a white shirt and dark trousers, and at this distance it was difficult to tell if it was him. But those curls. They were hard to miss even from the fourth floor.

The group disappeared into the door of my building. I went back to my typewriter and tried to focus, but I kept listening for a low timbre in the laughs from upstairs. I kept imagining Sherlock there, talking and drinking and… what would he be like at a party? Would he be the Sparkling Diamond with flirty smiles and throaty voice, or would he be the man with the piercing stare who had asked me about Afghanistan, when he had no reason to know I was an ex-soldier?

Finally, I lifted my fingers from where they rested lightly upon the letter keys and rose from my chair. I hoisted my braces up onto my shoulders, glanced in the mirror to see that my hair was all right, ignored the nervously hopeful look in my own eyes and left the flat.

 


 

Stamford's rooms were chaotic. In one end, there was still a set piece from the abandoned play by the previous writer, and flimsy props and instruments were lying around, thoroughly ignored by the partying people stumbling around them. The colourful Moulin Rouge dresses looked tacky in the light from a naked light bulb in the ceiling, and everyone was too deep into their bottles to notice the clutter and dirt. The floor was stained with beverages and the air was hazy with tobacco smoke.

The music was too loud. You won't fool the children of the revolution, a man hoarsely sang, and Stamford and Molly danced merrily together in the middle of the floor. I saw Gregory standing by the balcony window, leaning into a woman with his hands in near-indecent places. He wasn't the only one; two women in the corner had their tongues down each other's throats and their hands in very indecent places, not nearly as discreet as they probably imagined they were.

By the far wall, alone and with a tumbler in his hand, stood Sherlock. Where everything and everyone else in the room was dazed and blurry around the edges, he was crystal clear in hard angles of black and white. Black suit trousers cut perfectly around his narrow hips, white shirt clinging to his slim chest, black braces, rolled-up sleeves, white forearms and hands, one curled around his glass, one fisted in his pocket. The straight line of a white throat, the slice of cheekbones casting dark shadows over his face, sharp black make-up around the eyes, and an irresistible tousle of black curls. His eyes were almost too sharp to endure even when he wasn't looking at me.

I stood in the doorway for a while, watching him and wondering how many times, and in how many shapes, his beauty would fill my chest until there was no room for breathing.

He hadn't seen me yet. He was watching the people dancing, looking bored. There was an empty space around him, as if everyone knew that it was best not to approach this man.

When I started to make my way across the room, he saw me. His eyes were unreadable during the second they met mine, and then he left his spot, walking away. I cursed the drunken people stumbling across my path, afraid that he would slip out the door before I could reach him.

In my haste, I bumped into a woman with short, blonde hair. She nearly lost her balance when I collided with her back, and she turned around, her body pressed against me.

“Well, well”, she said, eyes trailing from my face down the open collar of my shirt and then back up. “Hello again.”

When she smiled, I recognised the dancer who had tried to invite me onto the dance floor before. Before, when I still needed my cane; before, when I had never seen a glimpse of Sherlock – it already seemed as if that had been another John Watson.

“Hello”, I smiled politely, looking over her shoulder to Sherlock's retreating figure. His back moved beautifully under the braces as he walked.

“I'm Mary.”

“John”, I said absently. Across the room, Sherlock was thrown off-balance by someone dancing, and he accidentally disturbed the two women kissing in the corner.

“Oh, you're John!” Mary exclaimed. “Our hero of the night!”

The women in the corner broke apart. One of them might have been the brunette I'd seen dragging Sherlock into the house. When she saw him, she threw her long, pale arm across his shoulders and gave him a wide, lipstick-thick smile. He looked somewhat pained, not smiling back, and the woman whose hand had just been under the hem of the brunette's short skirt looked put out. The brunette didn't seem to notice or care, just said something to Sherlock that he answered with an uncomfortable grimace of a smile.

Mary was still talking to me. “Managed to charm Holmes, that rich Moriarty, and the greatest snob of the Moulin Rouge, I heard.” I forced myself to look back at her. “I can't wait to hear your poetry.” She winked at me.

I cleared my throat. “Well, I'm happy to be involved. Just hope you'll like what I do.”

“I'm sure I will”, she said, stepping closer to me. Sherlock was still being held up by the woman, but he squirmed under her arm, and once, he cast a furtive glance at me. In a hurry to get away from me, then – that wouldn't do.

“I'm sorry”, I told Mary, “but there's someone I need to talk to.”

She followed my gaze. “Oh, don't waste your time”, she scoffed. “Sherlock can't talk about anything other than his own greatness.” Then there was that sultry smile again. “I think I can come up with a much better use of your time tonight.”

I smiled and tried to look kind. “I'm sorry”, I said, just when Sherlock managed to duck out of the brunette's grasp. He headed for the door, and I left Mary and followed him.

When I got out of Stamford's flat, I saw a glimpse of Sherlock running down the stairs, disappearing around a corner of the staircase. “Sherlock!” I called, but the only answer I got was the clatter of hard soles against the stone stairs. I ran after him, and saw him when he passed my door on the floor below.

“Sherlock, wait!” I called again, just when he was about to start on the next flight of stairs.

He paused on the landing, his shoulders heaving once under his white dress shirt. Then he turned. “What?” He was scowling, his whole body radiating disapproval, his eyes full of disdain. I suddenly felt stupid.

“Sorry”, I said, “I- I just wanted to thank you. You know, for helping me get the job.”

“Oh.” He pressed his still painted lips together. “Yes. Of course. Not that I had much choice, but… you are not entirely incompetent.” His voice was deep and his articulation was efficient and unapologetic.

I frowned. “Um… thanks?”

“You're welcome.” He raised his eyebrows, smiled sarcastically and then turned to leave.

“Wait!” I said, and he looked at me questioningly. I was normally good at this, but it had never seemed as important as it did now, and I found nervousness tangling up my thoughts. “So… This is my door.” I gestured to the worn-off paint beside me, refusing to fidget just because I had given him such a bad line.

His lips twitched minutely, and he threw a look at the door. “It's not much to brag about.”

I huffed a laugh, looking down at the floor by my feet. “I'll be honest, it's not much better inside, but… I have tea – proper, British tea.”

“Good for you.”

“I mean, do you want to come in?”

He raised an eyebrow. “You can't afford that.”

“No, no, I just mean… to have some tea.” I smiled at him. I had it on good authority that I had a charming, disarming smile, and it had been a great asset more than once. “You could tell me how you knew I was a soldier. At the time, I assumed Stamford had told you, but you didn't know anything about me, did you? Except you did.”

Sherlock's mouth twisted condescendingly. “To have some tea. So now you're actually trying to steal a night with me.”

“I'm not, Sherlock”, I told him seriously. “I'm not about to do anything you don't want to do.”

“But you do want me – don't lie to me, there's no point.”

I would have been foolish trying to lie in front of those penetrating eyes. Well, if he wanted to be up-front about it, I could do that. I spread my hands out from my sides in a helpless gesture. “Yeah, I want you. I'd be crazy not to, you're the most interesting and beautiful human being I've ever met-” I spoke quickly, hurrying ahead when Sherlock's eyebrows rose. “But I don't want to have you because I'm paying you.”

“That's the only way of having me, sorry.” His tone was callous. “Anyway, I should go. Big day tomorrow.”

Once more, he turned to leave. But I couldn't bear the thought of watching his handsome back moving away from me, dissolving into darkness on the pavement below my window, the night swallowing him as if nobody would miss him or even notice he was absent.

Before he'd taken more than two steps down the stairs I caught up with him, halting him with a hand on his upper arm. “Sherlock – please. Stay for a bit. Just talk to me.”

He looked up at me, and when he spoke, his voice was low and intimate. “John, you don't actually like me.”

Stupidly, I hadn't counted on him remembering my name. Hearing him say it, as if he had already called my name a thousand times, made something slowly unfold in my gut. “No, I- I actually do.”

“You like the illusion of me, yes. It's not real, John.”

He looked up at me from a forest of black lashes. The sooty make-up made him look harsh and intimidating from a distance, but up close, his eyes were shimmering and alive.

“Yes it is”, I said, holding his gaze. “It's not about the daring clothes or the- the sultry act, or even the performance, if that's what you think. I like you. I think- I think we could like each other.”

“Well”, he said dismissively, “I do not like anyone, and you will despise me soon enough. Everyone does.” He leaned his back against the wall of the staircase and looked away with his chin held high.

“I won't.”

He turned back to me, and his voice became strangely harsh. “You have no idea what you're talking about, John.”

“Well, then show me. Let me in. You're the star of the show I'm writing, we're going to spend a lot of time together anyway. Might as well get to know each other.”

“I have no interest in knowing you.”

I stared stubbornly into his cold eyes. I was about to play my ace, and he knew it. “What about the dance?”

“I dance with men every night”, he immediately countered.

“But there was something… there was something there. Don't look at me like I'm crazy because I know you felt it too. Christ, I haven't even needed my cane since that dance.”

A malicious glint sparked in his eyes. “I only danced with you to prove a point.”

I frowned. “What point?”

He turned fully to me, resting only his shoulder against the wall. “I noticed that your limp was psychosomatic. I wanted to test my theory and see if you would be able to use your leg when distracted enough. Any emotion you imagine between us was simply acting on my part, in order to get you riled up enough to forget about your leg. It's what I do, John; it's my job.”

I cleared my throat and looked down. I was unprepared for the sting. I didn't want to lose the memory of the magic in our dance, but it was too late – Sherlock had already said it, and the high I had been riding from that moment was gone.

“It felt awfully real, is all I'm saying.”

Sherlock was silent for a beat. His voice was just a tiny bit softer when he spoke again. “I'm a prostitute, John. I'm paid to give men precisely what they want, and make them believe it's real.”

“Yeah.” I tried to smile and shrug. “I guess someone like you wouldn't fall for a scarred, penniless man like me.”

Sherlock scoffed. “Don't be absurd, I wouldn't fall for anyone.”

“What's so absurd about that?”

“I do not succumb to matters of sentiment. It's a chemical defect found among the weak.”

He said it off-handedly, as if it were the most simple truth of the universe. I stared at him incredulously.

“No, it's not.”

“No?” he repeated with narrowed eyes. “Oh, you are as naive as your little plot for our show would suggest. I imagine you believe love to be magical and poetic – but in fact, it's simple chemistry, and one that is very destructive. In the end, love is just a game, and you will lose if you let your heart rule your brain.”

I looked at his face, turned upwards to me, arrogant and somewhat triumphant, as if he was sure that he had scandalised me enough to be repulsed. But to me, his words only led me to a simple conclusion:

“You've never been in love, then.”

“Of course not”, he scoffed. “All that matters to me is the work. If I don't stay focused, I will never be anything more than a whore on the streets. I care about music and acting, I care about learning and perfecting, thinking and calculating; caring about people is a severe disadvantage.”

His voice was haughty and cold, but his words spoke of something else. There was something naked in his eyes, and before I could stop myself, I was thinking out loud.

“You're scared”, I murmured, and he frowned. “I think you weren't prepared for what happened between us on the dance floor, and it scared you.”

He smiled condescendingly. “John, please. I distance myself from any emotion; I do not get scared.”

“I wouldn't play games with you, Sherlock”, I said, ignoring him. “I wouldn't be like that.”

He looked into my eyes for a second more, then he suddenly rose up one stair, putting us at the same height.

“You were surprised that I asked you about Afghanistan.”

I was thrown off-kilter by the subject change, and by the sudden proximity. “Um- yes, how did you know?”

“I didn't know, I noticed. Your haircut, the way you hold yourself, says military, but you are of a medical type – so army doctor, obvious. You have just come home from the tropics, as your face is tanned, which is not the natural tint of your skin, as your wrists are fair.” He was speaking rapidly, barely pausing for breath. “You have undergone hardship and sickness, as your haggard face says clearly, not to mention the stiff way in which you hold your left arm. That is most likely when you also acquired your bad leg. However, when you stand, you support your weight evenly on both legs and your cane sits loosely in your hand, as if you've forgotten about your limp. Add to this the fact that you can be distracted enough to let go of your cane and dance flawlessly – the limp is psychosomatic. A psychosomatic limp says the original circumstances of the injury were traumatic. Wounded in action, then. English army doctor, wounded in action, suntan – Afghanistan or Burma.”

My gaze dropped to his lips when he spoke. I was used to French by now, but when it tumbled out of his mouth I thought that the language must be made for his velvety voice specifically. I tore my gaze back to his eyes, and found my own mouth hanging open. I closed it to swallow before I asked:

“How could you know about how long I've been in Paris, and that I don't have any…?” I trailed off, but Sherlock clearly remembered the rest.

“Rough estimation based on your accent. No money or occupation? Well, English retired soldiers don't make any more money than French ones do, and your injured arm would prevent you from doing doctor's work. No friends? A man like you, seeking the thrill and terror of war, forced to return home with nothing to do – you suffer from depression. Moving to Paris wasn't something you planned for a long time, as your plan was staying in the army – no, moving was a rash decision, so likely you don't have any friends in London keeping you there. You haven't been in Paris long enough to make any significant number of new ones either, due to your depression holding you back. I was obviously wrong about you stealing a suit to pass for a rich duke, but that does not mean I was wrong about the fact that you find existence terribly dull and are searching for something that will fill it with meaning. This is why you wanted the job so badly, and why you forced away your writer's block in order to get it. See, there is nothing you can hide from me.”

He closed his mouth and stared defiantly at me. I pursed my lips and tried to process what I had just witnessed, but it was something so out of this world that I could do no more than nod in defeat.

I was completely lost to this man.

“That… was amazing.”

A frown flickered across his face. “What?”

“Extraordinary.” I nodded again, at a loss for words, ordinary and mortal as I was. “Quite… extraordinary.”

“Are you joking?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.

I frowned back at him. “Of course not. I've never heard anything so brilliant!”

“That's not…” His eyes flickered away, then back to me again. “That's not what you're supposed to say. No one wants…”

“No one wants what?” My eyes dropped to his mouth again. His red lips looked edible.

“No one wants me once I've done that.” For a moment, he looked vulnerable, just like he had when I'd kissed his hand on the dance floor. I held his gaze, and I couldn't help lifting my hand, lightly touching his jaw with a few of my fingertips.

“Then no one has ever deserved you.”

His breath hitched. He was standing still as a statue, breathing silent and fast as I leaned in closer. I could feel his fluttering breath on my lips, I could almost smell the skin beside his nose. When he didn't move away, my lips parted and I moved closer still. His eyelashes fluttered, eyes almost shutting.

Then he abruptly broke away and stormed down the stairs. He didn't look back even once.

I closed my eyes and let my forehead fall against the wall. I was dizzy and my heart was racing. With my eyes closed, it felt as though he was still there; his tousled curls just inches from my fingertips, the warmth from his neck heating my palm.

I wanted to taste his breath. I wanted to gather this unbelievable creature into my arms and hold him, give him whatever he needed. I wanted to hear him saying my name again.

I opened my eyes to force the moment away. Even now, I'm still afraid to close them. He's so near, sometimes, just barely out of reach, his lips quivering, waiting for my kiss. It kills me not to give it to him.

I went back inside my door, and straight to my typewriter. I started to write, forgetting the noise, forgetting the night until a ray of sunlight across my full page told me that morning had come.

 

Chapter Text

Love lifts us up where we belong
Where eagles fly on a mountain high

Love makes us act like we are fools
Throw our lives away for one happy day

 

The sun is rising over Paris. The sky is tinted with orange and pink. The thin sheets of cloud are just letting the rays of light through, allowing it to glow on the rooftops. A single horse pulls a carriage over the cobblestones on the street below my window, the clatter of the hooves and rattle of the wheels crisp in the brisk morning air.

I have been writing all night. I couldn't bring myself to stop once I'd started. The tapping of the keys that sounded fateful through the first chapter of our story has lightened in pace with the day. Now it sounds homely and calm. The ruins outside my window don't look as grim in the soft morning light, and the emptiness within my walls isn't so unforgiving when I'm surrounded by papers upon papers filled with Sherlock's name.

I know it's only temporary. I know I have to take a break, and all the months that I try to avoid by going back to the start will creep back into my history. But writing has made me hungry for the first time in… I don't know how long. So I'm going to find something to eat, and then, I need to sleep.

One year ago, on the morning of the first rehearsal at the Moulin Rouge, I didn't have time to sleep. As now, I had stayed up all night writing, and when dawn crept up on me, I left my flat to visit Stamford upstairs.

 


 

Stamford's flat was about as decent as you'd expect it to be after the previous night. It reeked of stale alcohol and sweat, and there were bottles everywhere. I happened upon the sleeping forms of both Molly and Gregory before I reached the balcony where Stamford sat, watching the city awakening.

Wordlessly, I dumped the sheets of paper in his lap and sat down beside him. I got lost in the hypnotic turn of the windmill blades while Stamford read through my script. The lights were out at the Moulin Rouge, but the blades kept turning, reminding us that the mill was alive though it was asleep.

“Do you have music for this?”

I glanced at the paper in his hand. “It's yours. The one you composed at university.” I hummed the chorus, and he slowly grinned.

“Come on, let's try it.”

Molly and Gregory woke up to Stamford's soft piano and his low humming words. The familiar notes that I hadn't heard in so many years made me feel calm and sure. The sleep deprivation and the satisfaction at having created something chased any nervousness away. I handed my friends glasses of water and they quietly accepted, no one wanting to interrupt the music that held the room in its gentle hands.

When the sunlight was sharper and the sound of the city no longer awkward and clumsy after sleep, Stamford stopped playing.

“John, this is the beginning of something amazing”, he said, and Molly beamed at me. “Let's go.”

We went together across the street. The vestibule of the Moulin Rouge wasn't glowing at this hour, and there was no one there to open the door for us. The golden handles were cold and the doors heavy. We went through the windmill and passed the mighty elephant standing quietly in the courtyard, the red windows now unlit.

Yesterday's adventure felt unreal in the white daylight. The magical creature I had met inside this strange building seemed to belong in fairy-tales. It was hard to imagine he would actually be inside the stage building in the back – perhaps he didn't exist at all unless it was dark.

But he was there. We entered the dance hall, which might as well have been a wholly different room from the night before. Where the dark hardwood floor had seemed blank and polished yesterday, the light now revealed scrapes of wear criss-crossing it. A number of chairs were haphazardly placed on it, and sitting on them were yesterday's dancers, now clad in less-revealing clothes. I spotted him immediately, my eyes automatically seeking the back of a curly head. He was dressed in a full suit today, black and fitted.

I tried to catch Sherlock's eye when I found myself a chair, but he didn't look at me. He didn't look anywhere besides the stage, where a few people were working to rearrange the musical instruments from the previous night.

When the clock struck ten, Holmes glided through a stage door to stand in the middle of the stage. He was dressed the same way as when I'd last seen him, right down to his umbrella, and he looked just as tastefully bored. The murmur of voices in the room quieted immediately.

“Welcome”, Holmes said blandly and with a painful imitation of an easy smile, “to the first day of rehearsals. I am certain that you have all been informed of Duke Moriarty agreeing to invest in our show, making it possible for us to transform the Moulin Rouge into a theatre.”

Molly started clapping her hands, but Holmes' face didn't so much as twitch to acknowledge it. When no one else joined in the applause, she awkwardly stopped, trapping her hands between her knees.

“Moriarty himself has been forced to undertake an unexpected journey”, Holmes continued. “As he left the city late last night, we have not had the opportunity to finalise the paperwork. However, I assure you that he is quite enthusiastic regarding the potential of the show, and there is every reason to assume that an agreement will be reached without any trouble. I see no reason not to start the rehearsals as planned, so that we may keep to the schedule. The show must go on.”

He smiled again, this time with an effort to make it genuine, which only made him look ominous.

“So, without further ado. Michael, why don't you…” He looked at Stamford and waved his umbrella, “… take it away.”

Stamford cleared his throat and rose from his chair, making his way onto the stage with the script under his arm.

I couldn't help but smile seeing Stamford step into the director part. It was a good thing that he had dropped out of university, because this was clearly where he belonged. His eyes were gleaming when he led the script reading – and when the actors started reading my lines out loud, I understood how he felt. All of a sudden, everything that I had kept confined in my head and heart ever since I wrote my first poem materialised before me. It became real in the shape of Gregory's imposing impression of the Evil Maharajah, Molly's sincere Penniless Sitar-Player, and Sherlock… His deep voice poured melted chocolate into my words, making me blush faintly every time we reached the Hindu Dancer's lines.

The first day, he steadfastly avoided my eyes. His suit made him look posh, such a contrast to his indecent clothing of the night before, and even to his casual look at the party when no suit jacket had covered his braces. The thin shirt under his jacket was light grey, making his eyes bright and clear. He looked clean and composed. It made me want to smell his exposed neck to see if it would smell of soap or of him, I wanted to dishevel him until he didn't look so composed any more.

I tried to stop looking. He had rejected me. I wasn't going to push him to change his mind, not even with his actions and his gaze telling a different story from his words. But I couldn't help glancing at him, trying to see if he still had those braces on under the jacket when he shifted in his chair.

The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”, Molly read, marking the end of what I had written so far.

The circle of actors broke into a round of spontaneous applause, and I looked up, finding them all turned to me. I nodded solemnly, accepting the praise I still hadn't learned to expect.

Out of the corner of my eye, I finally saw Sherlock's face turning to me. Afraid to break the spell, I didn't look back, and I couldn't see the look on his face. When I finally caved and turned to him, he quickly looked away.

 


 

After that first script reading, I was feeling optimistic about the production. Everyone was on board with the script, everyone seemed happy. So when Sherlock suddenly crowded my personal space with a dark scowl, I was unprepared for his displeasure.

He was looming over me, taking advantage of his height even without the high heels. “Why isn't there a number for me in the script?” he demanded.

“Sorry?” He was standing so close. My traitorous gaze flicked down to his full lips, tastefully painted with a discreet red, the only make-up he wore today. His mouth hardened to a thin line, and I looked back up into his eyes.

“You haven't included a performance for my character. I am the star of this production, I should be properly introduced with a dance number showcasing me.”

“Oh, that. You know this is just a draft for the beginning of the show.”

“Yes, I know that”, he smiled condescendingly. “But I can't assume you will be any different from the imbeciles in the music section, now can I? I always have to do everything myself.”

He nearly spat on me when he spoke. I ignored his tone.

“Well, actually, I didn't include it because I wanted to discuss it with you first. I was thinking we could use one of your usual numbers. Depending on which one we choose for the presentation, it will shape your character differently, so, you know. I wanted to check if you have some thoughts on that? I know I've only seen one of your numbers, but I think that one would work pretty well.”

He blinked at me. “Sparkling Diamonds?”

“Yeah.” I pinched my nose. “Do you want to do your entrance with it?”

He stared at me for a few moments. His scowl lessened but his face was still hard and sullen. “Fine”, he finally said.

I smiled at him. “Brilliant. We might need to change the choreography a bit, but-”

I decide what changes need to be made”, he interrupted.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Well, you need to work that out with your choreographer, don't you.”

Sherlock sighed impatiently. “He's an idiot.”

At this point, my smile was far too fond. “I promise, I won't let him do anything that doesn't make you breathtaking”, I said, regretting it the moment I felt the words shape on my tongue.

He looked at me as if wanting to say something more, searching my face in frustration when he didn't find what he hoped for. Finally, he grunted and turned away, swiftly striding across the dance floor. Even his walk looked like a dance.

He didn't turn up in the dining area during the coffee break. My eyes kept wandering of their own accord, and I was sitting on the edge of my seat like a fool. I don't know what I was preparing to do if he did come there – being ready to spring off my chair in an instant would probably not be of great use. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to relax, knowing he could enter the room at any moment. I didn't want to miss it, that hushed grace of his movements.

When I came back to the dance hall, my eyes were still searching. They didn't rest until they found a head of perfect curls and a pale, sharp profile. Sherlock was sitting in one of the alcoves on the side with the script in his lap. He was reading it with a look of intense concentration, one slender hand absently stroking his bottom lip.

As soon as I had found him, I forced myself to look away. When I crossed the floor to the stage, I felt oddly self-conscious, prepared for the possibility that he might watch me when I walked.

A half-moon of stairs led up to the stage. I climbed them to join Stamford, already sitting by the piano, and Molly, standing on the other side of it. She was vibrating with excited energy.

“This song is so lovely, John”, she said while I took a seat next to Stamford. “It's an honour to perform it.”

“Thank you”, I smiled. “Couldn't have done it without Stamford's brilliant composition.”

“Ready to start?” Stamford asked, and Molly nodded, breathing in deeply and relaxing her shoulders as she exhaled.

The first notes from the piano echoed beautifully in the large room. Molly raised her chin and started singing, her tone thin and clear.

It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside…

I smiled when I heard in her voice that she truly did appreciate the song. It was the first time we tried Your Song with her, and we got sucked into the work the way you do when you're skirting the edges of something grand. The work floated upon the distinctive notes of Stamford's piano, flowed with Molly's lovely voice, progressed slowly but surely. The scene almost shaped itself under our hands.

I was so caught up in the work that it was a while before I glanced up. I was surprised to see Sherlock still sitting in his alcove. I had assumed he would leave once we started, that our rehearsal was distracting if he wanted to memorise his lines. Maybe he was seized by the same calm as I always was by these notes.

Maybe he knew who the you in the song was.

I shrugged off that thought. It wouldn't be surprising if the genius knew that I had been up all night writing poetry with him in mind, but I shouldn't assume that this meant anything to him.

His hand dropped from his lips to turn the page, and I caught a small smile on his face. It was a private one, making him look softer around the edges. He looked divine, as if lit up by a secret sun in the dim alcove. Flawless and impossible to reach.

 


 

The second day, I went over to the Moulin Rouge with a spring in my step. I wanted more time with Sherlock, to see him act, to see him smile. Yes, he had been difficult to get to the day before, but I was hoping that I had passed some test and earned his respect.

But when we got to work, there was not a trace of that genuine smile on Sherlock's face. I started to wonder if I had imagined it altogether, when Sherlock slowly but surely turned out to be the most arrogant and blatantly rude man I had ever met. Indeed, he didn't trust anyone besides himself to do their job properly. He insulted the musicians, he ignored the other actors, he scoffed at his directions, and as often as he could, he unleashed a flood of brutal deductions about the stage manager. Anderson seemed just as taken aback every time it happened, as if he still doubted Sherlock's skills even though this was a daily occurrence. It made him look as though he had a piece of lemon perpetually stuck in his airways, and I often found myself fighting not to show my amusement. Sherlock had no qualms about showing his, however.

He had barely said a word to me since rehearsals started. And when he did, the words were cuttingly cold. Most of the time he ignored me so completely that I might as well have been air, not even a shadow in his peripheral vision. Sometimes, I had the fleeting feeling of someone watching me, but when I turned around Sherlock's face was a stone statue, never turned to me.

He didn't join the rest of us for food that day either. I kept glancing around while Gregory took me to sit with a pair of Moulin Rouge dancers, now actors in the show. One of them was Mary, smiling widely and holding my gaze for too long. The other was a brunette wearing something that might as well have been an outfit for her night-time job, and she turned to smile at me with stark red lips.

“I do not believe we have met”, she said, delicately extending her hand to me. “I'm Irene – and you're John, our own penniless writer.”

I was a bit taken aback by her choice of adjective, but I smiled back and took her hand briefly. “Nice to meet you, Irene.” I recognised her now. She was the woman who had dragged Sherlock to the party and barely allowed him to leave it.

Impressively, I lasted about half the meal before I gave in and asked her.

“Do you know where Sherlock is? I haven't seen him since rehearsal.”

“Oh, Sherlock”, Irene smirked. “He doesn't eat.”

I frowned. “He really should.”

“He claims he focuses better when he doesn't have to 'digest'”, Irene said, mockingly quoting him. When I opened my mouth, she cut me off: “Don't waste your time trying to understand him, John.”

Mary rolled her eyes in agreement. “Doesn't deserve the leading role, if you ask me.”

“I'm not asking you”, I said tightly.

Mary and Irene left the table soon after that. They excused themselves to go and prepare for their dance rehearsal that afternoon, and I smiled when I bade them farewell, but I was not sad to see them go.

I set my typewriter up at a small table in the coffee room. Stamford sat next to me, scribbling notes in the margins while I added pages to the script. I was in a foul mood, and it didn't help that I couldn't seem to write without imagining the dissatisfied frown on Sherlock's forehead. That frown was all I had been looking at all morning, and it made me second-guess every word choice.

I despised myself for being insecure. Why did I suddenly need Sherlock's approval, when I had the respect of every other person in the production?

We hadn't been sitting there for long before a door banged open and Sherlock's choreographer stormed out, tears in his eyes. I watched him hurry out of the building and raised my eyebrows at Stamford.

“Yeah, he's always like that”, Stamford said.

“The choreographer?”

“Sherlock. Impossible to work with. He's the best, and he knows it. Thinks it makes everyone else stupid.”

Stamford didn't sound nearly as vicious as the dancers did when talking about Sherlock. Still, I sounded more defensive than intended when I answered him.

“I think everyone else is pretty stupid when compared to him. I'm fairly sure he's a genius.”

“He's a brilliant artist, that's for sure.”

“No, I don't mean just that. His mind… he's an actual genius.” I studied my fingertips lightly stroking the space key on my typewriter, not wanting to show the insecurities shining through my eyes. “I don't know what he's doing in a place like this. This show…”

“This show is going to be spectacular”, Stamford said, eyeing me until I looked up.

He knew what I was thinking. After a moment, I broke eye contact and admitted it.

“Sherlock certainly doesn't seem to think that. And he knows his stuff.”

Stamford shook his head. “Like I said, this is normal Sherlock behaviour.”

I wasn't so sure. But on the third day, during our next rehearsal of Your Song, I realised that Sherlock's studious displeasure was all an act.

“Stop, stop!” he shouted in the middle of the song. Beside him on the stage, Molly's mouth snapped shut and she looked worriedly at him. The orchestra kept playing a few measures before trailing off, one by one.

“Stamford, what imbecile did you allow to arrange the backing instruments?” Sherlock demanded. Molly looked relieved at not being the target of his antics.

A thin, bald man hesitantly rose from his seat in the music section. “Er, it's my arrangement”, he bravely ventured.

“Are you stupid, deaf or just lacking in all that even vaguely resembles talent? Where are the strings in this composition?!” The composer just stared at him, and Sherlock raged on. “This is an obvious string-band piece, perhaps a trumpet in the chorus at the most, and you go stomping all over this piece of art with a clumsy trombone? We might as well have let Anderson do the arrangement!”

“Hey!” Anderson shouted, ignored by everyone.

Sherlock was terrifying like this, all impeccable suit and blazing eyes, tongue sharper than a knife. The composer looked pale and he glanced at Stamford and me for support. He wasn't going to get it from me.

“I- I intended to-”, the bald man begun.

“You are clearly too stupid for this job”, Sherlock interrupted. “Is there anyone else with at least two brain cells that we can put on this?”

Sherlock turned to Stamford, and in doing so, accidentally caught my eye. I was trying my damnedest not to smile. This piece of art, is what he said, furious with someone he thought was tainting my work.

He saw my thoughts on my face, and he blushed faintly at what he'd let slip.

Before anyone could speak, a side door opened and Holmes came in. Sherlock groaned as the suited man slid across the dance floor, hard shoes against shiny wood. “Not you.”

“It has come to my notice that you are having difficulties behaving, Sherlock”, Holmes said, stopping below the stage.

“No, I am trying to save this production from being drowned under the ineptitude of your employees.”

“Sherlock, you know that is not how it works.” It was the first time I heard anything resembling human emotion in Holmes' voice. In fact, Sherlock is the only one I've seen push his buttons enough for the ice exterior to slip. “You have to cooperate with the rest of the ensemble for this production to succeed.”

“But they're so dull”, Sherlock whined, losing some of his intimidating air.

“You are being juvenile”, Holmes hissed. “If you keep behaving like this, you will never become a real actor.”

Sherlock was visibly vibrating with annoyance. He plastered an insincere smile onto his face. “Thank you for your insightful advice”, he said, slowly and sourly. “While you're here, could you do me the favour of firing that man over there? It would so simplify our work.”

He pointed at the poor composer, who had taken a seat and was looking very small in it.

“Sherlock”, Holmes warned.

“Mycroft”, Sherlock spat back.

Holmes stared into Sherlock's eyes. Sherlock stared back, an eyebrow twitching. Holmes tipped his head back a fraction, Sherlock rolled his eyes, and Holmes' mouth twisted to the side. I had no way of guessing what they communicated to each other through this, but it was unsettling. I wondered how long they'd had this silent understanding, and why they had needed to develop it.

In the end it was Holmes who broke eye contact, striding out of the room without another word. Sherlock's smile was small and smug.

“Right”, Stamford said. “Let's take it from the top, then.”

“Why?” Sherlock scowled. “What's the point in rehearsing when we will only have to redo it all?”

And that was enough of that. I rose from my chair and folded my arms across my chest, trying to take up as much space as I could with my short build. “It's not your call, Sherlock.”

His blazing eyes turned to me the way a hawk fixes its gaze on its prey. “Oh, of course”, he sneered. It was the first time he had looked at me at all that day, and my skin was tingling as though physically touched by his gaze. “The ex-soldier who has never worked with art of any kind knows more about musical compositions than me, star dancer of the Moulin Rouge.”

“That's not what I'm saying”, I calmly replied. I walked up the stairs to the stage, never breaking eye contact. Finally, finally he was looking at me, he didn't even blink.

“If there is anything deserving of contempt”, he said, “it's an artist with a marginal talent who destroys his own work by trying to be more spectacular than he actually is. I suppose you're perfectly happy with drowning out your own words with that blaring trombone-”

“No, I agree with you”, I interrupted. “Strings will work beautifully with this song.”

I stopped before him. He looked at me in silence.

“What's this really about, then, Sherlock?”

He automatically scowled and spat a haughty: “I loathe repeating myself-”

“You want violins with Your Song”, I interrupted.

We both went still when the last two words didn't sound like a song title at all. I pressed my lips together, too late to call back the elephant in the room. Sherlock nodded mutely.

“Well, the composers are going to work very hard to find the perfect arrangement for this number. Not right now, because now we need to continue the rehearsal in order to keep to the schedule.” I pointed at him. “You are going to learn your lines and listen to Stamford's directions. And in the break, you are going to eat something.”

He opened his mouth to argue.

“Doctor's orders.”

His eyes narrowed. “You are not a doctor here.”

“I'm a doctor where I'm needed.”

“I don't need you, John.”

“I know you don't”, I murmured.

The room was quiet. We looked at each other, the air between us a palpable, vibrating thing that made my heart beat faster. The moment drew out a second too long, and I became abruptly aware of how close we were standing to each other.

“Okay?” I whispered.

He swallowed. Then he nodded again, his eyes darting quickly between my eyes.

“Okay. Shall we take it from the top now?” I asked softly.

“I still think this arrangement is an abomination”, he muttered.

I huffed in amusement. “I know.” I shook my head at the floor, then peeked up at him with a smile.

For a second I could see him battling a smile of his own.

 

Chapter Text

You'd think that people would have had enough
of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people want to fill the world
with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that, I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again

 

On the fourth day of rehearsals, Sherlock was doing his best to be as unpleasant to me as he was to everyone else. But unlike everyone else, I saw through it now.

What I saw was a fascinating contradiction. His eyes were knife-sharp, taking in so much more than anyone else could, but they also leaked so much more of himself out for the world to see. His hair was forever impeccably styled, but the curls were arranged in a way that made him look boyish and young. He was pale as a marble statue, making him look hard and unforgiving, yet it also made his epidermis look thin; drawing attention to his veins and guts and heart hiding just beneath the surface, poorly protected by his white skin.

He wore his suit like armour, his chin high like a soldier, as though he needed to be prepared for battle even in the privacy of our rehearsals. And battle he did; towering tall above everyone in the room, forcing us to bend our necks to meet his eyes, he demolished all of us with his words. His voice was unrelenting, yet it was smooth like honey and deep enough to caress my very bones.

I caught him glancing at me with a shy expression on his open face, and I barely had time to blink before he opened his mouth for a brutal blow. I looked back at him, struck by the battle on his face between the soft and the hard, the curious and the unyielding, the admiring and the malicious. Or I passed him in a hallway, smiling at him with a greeting that only served to make him narrow his eyes. He paused for a second, but instead of greeting me back, he spat a deduction about the tragic state of my breakfast that morning.

I couldn't bring myself to be offended. “How did you know that?” I asked, a small smile playing around my lips.

He blinked owlishly at me, at a loss in the face of my unpredictable reaction. When he laid out his train of reasoning for me, I shook my head in awe.

“That's incredible, Sherlock”, I said honestly.

He blushed faintly, opening his mouth a few times. I smiled at him in encouragement, but in the end he only left without another word. There was something adorable in the way he fumbled for ways to agitate me, only to be completely disarmed by a simple, friendly smile.

During the rehearsal, I kept catching his glances my way. When they were too obvious, he tried to throw me off by saying something scathing. I didn't let it get to me, and the others looked at me in undisguised admiration. They wondered what it was that made me, an ordinary and quite boring man, stand stable as a rock under Sherlock's onslaught.

Every time Sherlock and I looked at each other, some quiet understanding seemed to pass between us. It was ironic, as I didn't understand it at all. Sherlock looked annoyed when we shared one of those looks; his lips pressed together, he set his jaw and fired an insult that made me snort. Then he would storm off, not joining the rest of us for the coffee break. Typical.

“John! Over here!”

“Oh, hi, Mary.”

“Come and join me, will you?”

“Of course, let me just get my coffee.”

I poured my cup, and when I turned around Mary was waving needlessly from the little round table she had chosen. I shrugged at Gregory when I passed an empty chair at his table and went over to her. She seemed to have decided that she and I were friends, always making sure to be close to me whenever we had a break.

When I sat down with a polite smile, she smirked and leaned over the table, offering me a view into her neckline. “I like you in a waistcoat.”

“Oh.” I glanced down at myself stupidly, and the fairly worn black waistcoat I had put on over one of my regular off-white shirts. “Um, thanks.”

Her smile grew wider and she giggled silently, putting a hand on my forearm resting on the table.

“Really, Mary?” A deep voice made her jerk and pull her hand back. “You couldn't be bothered to change into a fresh suspender belt after yesterday's client?”

Her face turned to stone when she looked up at Sherlock, who had paused by our table.

He turned to me with a sarcastic: “Enjoy”, before he sauntered away with a small smirk.

Mary's face was red when she looked back at me. “I-”

“It's not my business”, I interrupted her, holding my palms up to halt her.

“He's lying. How would he even know such a thing?”

I smiled despite myself. “I guess that's just Sherlock”, I shrugged. Mary looked murderous, and I returned my attention to my coffee.

 


 

It is remarkable, how fast I got used to smiling again. Busy as I was with the script, I didn't really notice it happening. I was caught up in the new adventure, moving with purpose and anticipation in a way I hadn't since I was shipped out to Afghanistan.

The novelty of a challenge has never failed to capture me. My blood starts moving through my veins with purpose, my muscles settle into a warm, prepared state, my lungs breathe evenly. I'm the most reliable when I'm just a little bit out of my depth. That was what the first week at the Moulin Rouge was like for me, and it made me calm.

With the script crowding my brain, eager to be freed by the typewriter's keys, I didn't have time to be depressed. I didn't have time to pay any mind to the occasional ache in my bad leg. The cane remained lying in a corner of my flat.

I was no longer afraid to look at myself and find the broken shell of a soldier. When I looked into the mirror above my cracked sink, I sometimes tried to see what Sherlock saw. I put my hair in order in the morning thinking military haircut. The line of my clean-shaven jaw; the way you hold yourself. Were there things he had seen but not mentioned? What about my eyes? They stared back at me from the glass, wide and blue and curious. They had changed; they certainly hadn't looked this clear when Sherlock first looked into them.

I wondered if my choice of clothing told Sherlock something. It probably did. Probably braces meant I had slept on my right side that night, and waistcoat meant left side, or something like that. The thought was oddly comforting. It was as if by seeing me, by really observing me, Sherlock had made me real. He had made John Watson into something that made sense to me, and the foggy lines of my tired, young body were turned crystal clear. For the first time since the war, I could trust that something I did might matter, one way or another.

Right then, what mattered the most was the show, for me as well as for everyone else involved. I was working every waking moment. When I wasn't overseeing rehearsals, or discussing choreography, costume and characterisation, or writing until I could feel the tapping of the keys make dents in my bones, I was upstairs in Stamford's flat. We could talk about the script for hours on end. The friendship we had shared at university was brought back to life, and it was strengthened by the special bond that only a shared passion can create.

With every passing day, I felt more at home at the Moulin Rouge. The contrasts of the extravagant and the worn was charming, and the motley ensemble of optimistic people was interesting to work with. People were having genuine fun with the scenes I was placing them in, and seeing it all come to life before my eyes was one of the more beautiful experiences I'd had.

I was starting to believe that the stroke of luck that had landed me this job wasn't luck at all. I actually knew what I was doing. It was intoxicating.

I was at ease even sitting in the fancy dining room connected to Holmes' office. That was where the pre-production meetings were held – and the fifth day of rehearsals started with an interruption of one such meeting.

Holmes, Stamford, Anderson, the composers and I were in Holmes' dining room when the door banged open. Sherlock came storming in, his charcoal coat whirling like wind and his shock of curls a hurricane.

“Sherlock”, Holmes greeted him mildly. “This is pre-production; we don't need the actors here.”

“Please”, Sherlock scoffed. “It's obvious that you can't do anything without me.”

He was elegant in that long coat, fitting snugly around his thin body. His waist was accentuated, the sleeves clung to his arms like a second skin, and he wore the collar upturned, highlighting his sharp cheekbones. He held his face carefully behind it like a shield – but a glance in my direction made him look vulnerable anyway.

I smiled at him. “Here, sit with me.” I drew out a chair for him.

“He shouldn't be allowed here”, Anderson protested.

Holmes passed a hand over his eyes. “Just let him stay.”

I patted the seat beside me. Sherlock huffed in annoyance and stalked over to it without removing his coat, sinking low into the seat and folding his arms. “Let's just continue”, I said to the others.

They all glanced warily at Sherlock – all but Holmes, who proceeded to ignore him completely – but Sherlock just sat in his chair, glaring as the meeting continued. His body radiated restless energy, channelled in his scowl and his exaggerated silent displeasure at everything that was said.

I think there was something about my stillness that calmed him, and made him sit through the meeting quietly. Most of my attention was on keeping my shoulders relaxed and my voice calm, wrapping Sherlock up in an atmosphere of ease, and not staring at the crimson lipstick on his pouting bottom lip.

After a while, he leaned in to me. I ducked my head when he put his mouth close to my ear. “See how Mycroft's umbrella is furled the wrong way?” he murmured, smooth French tickling fine hairs.

I glanced at Holmes. His black umbrella was leaning against his chair. I frowned and shook my head – how on earth would I notice such a thing?

“There's a stain on it that he's trying to hide”, Sherlock whispered. “He lost it yesterday, and it ended up witnessing an encounter between Mary and her client – tragically, something unspeakable happened to it.”

I laughed silently at this, raising my fist to my mouth, trying to mask it as a cough. I glanced at Sherlock out of the corner of my eye. He was trying hard not to smile.

For the duration of the meeting, he kept leaning in to whisper deductions about the men around the table. I was too amazed by his sharp mind to tell him to stop, and his pleased expression every time I laughed was one I suddenly couldn't do without.

Perhaps we could be friends. I wanted to be. He was strangely charming in all his brusque honesty, and he was hilarious. No one else seemed to get it, but he had begun to notice that I did.

Yes, if I could earn the friendship of this remarkable human being, that would do just fine.

But then in the afternoon, I passed through the hallway lined with doors to the dancers' dressing rooms. The door to the one Sherlock shared with a few others was ajar when I approached. I heard his voice from inside, and I stopped before I reached the door.

You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs”, he said. A quiet cough, and then again, voice a bit softer: “Would have had enough of silly love songs.

I held my breath. He was trying out my words, and I didn't want to miss anything, not a single nuance of his voice.

Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs.

I closed my eyes. His voice poured through the hallway, curled around me like a sensual embrace.

Silly love songs.” His prosody changed. “Silly love songs- No.” My chest ached unexpectedly when he intoned the words in a way that was far too Sherlock.

I wanted more. Alone in the darkened hallway, only his voice as a witness, I had no choice but admitting to myself that I wanted so, so much more than friendship.

With silly-” He was cut off by a door opening inside his room. “Oh. Hello.”

“Sherlock, dear.” I couldn't quite place the other voice, belonging to an older woman. “Are you reading your lines?”

“Yes.”

“Are they agreeing with you? Here, I have brought a little something from the kitchen.”

“Thank you, Martha.” His voice was warm in a way I had never heard it be. Then it suddenly changed into something urgent. “You have a new client tonight.”

“Oh. Yes.”

“Who is he?”

“He's not a regular. I don't know what he looks like.”

There was a brief pause. “I'll speak to Mycroft”, Sherlock said tensely.

“Don't worry-”

“I don't”, Sherlock snapped, “as I decide whether he gets to see you.”

Another pause. “Thank you, my boy.”

I had forgotten where I was heading. Not wanting to eavesdrop any more on an obviously intimate conversation, I turned around and left the same way I came.

 


 

By the sixth day, everyone knew that there was one person in the whole production who could actually work with Sherlock. When I didn't work on the script, I worked as an interpreter for Sherlockian.

“John, please.” It was Molly, leaning over my shoulder and urgently whispering in my ear. “The clarinettist is about to start crying.”

“Oh, shit, he will set off the flautist too.”

“I know.”

I rose from my typewriter table, stopped to pick up a pastry, then hurried after Molly into the dance hall.

“John, there you are!” Gregory called from stage. “Sherlock refuses to do this dialogue if the clarinettist doesn't turn the other way.”

I snorted. “What's going on, Sherlock?” I asked as I approached the stage.

He whirled at me. “His beard puts me off – he hasn't shaved this morning, which indicates that he-”

“All right, I don't need to hear it.” I climbed up the stairs and marched towards Sherlock. “Not right now, anyway”, I whispered when I was close enough to be heard only by him. His mouth twisted involuntarily before he could get control over it. I shoved the pastry into his hand. “Eat.”

He scowled. “Why?”

“Because you're cranky and need to elevate your blood sugar.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“John!”

“Eat.”

I folded my arms over my chest, waiting. He arranged his beautiful, smooth face into as deep a scowl as he could manage, but I stood my ground, staring at him. With a pout, he finally ate the pastry.

“Go away”, he muttered when he was done, but there was no sting to it.

I smiled. “I'll see you later”, I said softly.

He didn't smile back, but that didn't matter when his eyes shone and shimmered at me.

I climbed off the stage, but I lingered in the doorway to watch the progression of the rehearsal. There was colour returning to Sherlock's cheeks, and when Stamford gave him a direction, he followed it without comment. When no one was taking any notice of me, I allowed my gaze to follow his movements across the stage. He was wearing a black shirt, and he had thrown his suit jacket onto the floor at some point. The shirt was slightly damp along the spine, and he had opened one button too many. That should be illegal with a shirt like that, on a man like him.

As if his looks weren't enough for him to completely own the stage, his acting was outstanding. When he stepped into the Hindu Dancer, he was unrecognisable. His unspoken love for the Penniless Sitar-Player was a heartbreakingly real thing, right there on stage. I couldn't stop staring at him, my mouth hanging open. Unbidden fantasies occupied my brain, imaginings of what it would be like to have him close, warm with activity and smelling of fresh sweat.

Not until he cast me a glance did I catch myself, curse myself, and leave the room.

 


 

“Are you joining me for supper?”

I looked up from my typewriter to see Mary leaning against my table. You would think by the way she asked me that I had ever accepted this sort of offer from her.

“Sorry, no. Got to finish the scene for tomorrow.”

“Ah. Another time, then.”

I nodded at her, then got back to work. She lingered for a moment before she disappeared, leaving me alone in the room.

The next time I became aware of my surroundings, it had become dark outside. I had written several new scenes, and I just needed to polish them up a bit before packing the typewriter in its case and heading home. But then the door opened and in came a woman with curly, dark-blonde hair in a knot.

“Oh, hello dear”, she smiled, before walking up to the big table where there was still coffee and baguettes left from that afternoon.

I looked her over, finally placing the voice. She wasn't in the production, but I had seen her on the periphery of the rehearsals. “You're Martha.”

She looked up in surprise. “Quite right, John.”

“Sherlock's friend.”

She smiled. “Yes. Don't tell him.”

I smiled back. “I think he knows.”

“Oh, yes, but that's a secret, isn't it? Just like it's a secret that you are his friend, too.”

I huffed a laugh. “Well, I hope I am.”

“You certainly are.”

I wanted to ask her how she knew, if Sherlock had been talking about me, but couldn't find a way to do that without sounding pathetic.

Martha grabbed a baguette and started to slice it up.

“That for him, by any chance?” I asked her. She winked at me, and I laughed. “I'm glad. He never eats with us. Good to know that someone is making sure he eats at all.”

“He's a stubborn boy”, Martha said fondly. “Making friends was never easy for him, and unfortunately he is widely misunderstood around here. Eating with such people would ruin one's appetite, don't you think?”

“Yeah, I'm sure it would.”

“Can I make you something while I'm at it?” she asked, reaching for the butter.

“Piece of that bread would be lovely, thank you.”

She started spreading the baguette. “Such a sweet dear, Sherlock is”, she went on. “Heart of gold, truly. Does his best not to let it show. But he would do anything to help people who need him, though even then, you need to look long and hard to see past all that…” She cocked her head, mimicking a sour expression. “Didn't fool me, back when he saved my life.”

“He saved your life?” I repeated. “Thank you”, I added when she came over to my table and put the bread in front of me. She sat down in the other chair.

“Oh, yes. Many years ago now. The early Moulin Rouge days. I had a regular who was causing me trouble. Violent man, you see, John. Quite sadistic.” I sat back in my chair without having touched the food, my stomach suddenly turning. “Instead of growing bored, the way most of them do, it only got worse.”

“Couldn't you turn him away? Tell someone…?”

“Oh, no”, she waved a hand. “Who would concern themselves with an old courtesan like me? But, Sherlock did. He tried to speak to Holmes, as I can recall, but his hands were tied. Sherlock, bright thing, did not give up, however.”

“What did he do?”

“He started investigating the man in secret. Using disguises, acting, puzzling it all together in his brilliant mind, I don't know how he did it all… but he managed to get a lot of information. Some of it about illegal activities. Nasty business, very nasty. Sherlock sent an anonymous tip to the police, complete with proof and everything. They locked the man up. Abuse of a simple courtesan didn't concern them, but murder did quite effectively catch their interest.”

I stared at her, not knowing what to say. Not once during her story did a shadow darken her face, or her voice betray the gravity of what she told me. The smile was never far from her purple-painted lips, and it nearly broke my heart.

“Sherlock poured everything he had into his investigation”, Martha continued. “He was my only hope; if it wasn't for that boy, I'm sure I wouldn't have gotten away this lightly. Now all I have is a hip and a reluctance to court gingers.”

“You still work?” I tried not to sound too upset.

She scrunched up her nose with an adorable smile. “Oh, only a little. A woman my age isn't what most clients are looking for, but once in a while one comes along. No, I mostly help out behind the scenes these days, do some dances if they aren't too wild. Help Sherlock get dressed and make sure he eats.”

I smiled faintly. “I'm happy that he has you.”

 


 

Once, a few months ago, there was a knock on my door. I took far too long to answer – I was not in a good state that morning – but when I did, I found a paper bag of baked goods. I really don't know who in Paris would leave me those if not her – Stamford would have barged into my flat regardless of my state, so it wasn't him.

It made me think of her grief. How she might be the only person who shares even a fraction of my despair. It makes me ache to see her, and it makes me want to hide where she can never find me.

I haven't seen Martha since I walked out of the Moulin Rouge doors for the last time. I don't know where I would find her. Sometimes I worry about her. But then I think of Sherlock who knew her so well, who really saw her just as she saw him. And he would say I'm stupid to worry. He would say that if there is anyone who can survive in this world, it's Martha Hudson.

 

Chapter Text

We could be heroes forever and ever
We can be heroes
Just because I will always love you
I can't help loving you

 

By the seventh day, my heart was constantly pounding. Something as fragile as it was strong had settled in my gut, reminding me of its existence every time I drew air into my lungs. My chest tried to expand beyond the confines of my ribcage. It was a floating feeling, not all that pleasant.

I locked eyes with Sherlock the second I entered the dance hall. We both tore our gazes away immediately. But however hard I tried, I couldn't get my body to move independently; instead, it moved in constant awareness of where Sherlock was, always angled towards him, always taking him in.

Sherlock was fidgeting. He kept forgetting his lines and didn't hear when people talked to him (although that wasn't very unusual). Couldn't be still for more than a second. He really looked exactly the way I felt.

Later, when that day had come to an end, when I hurried into my building and threw myself onto my bed with hands already on my fly, I would be certain that my life had just changed forever. But now, looking at it in the large shapes that hindsight creates, I see that it was entirely unavoidable. My life changed the moment my eyes met Sherlock's for the first time, and everything that happened after was as inevitable as dawn and dusk.

That morning, I tried to do some writing in the rehearsal room. But it was impossible when Sherlock was on stage, undoing the button of his suit jacket and showing off more of his red silk shirt. When I caught myself staring for the tenth time, lips embarrassingly parted, I gave up and set up the typewriter at my usual table in the coffee room.

One of the musicians burst in, panting.

“Sherlock?” I asked, preparing to go and soothe whatever fit he was throwing. I had known it would only be a matter of time, and I pretended I hadn't been looking forward to it.

“No, it's Molly. She fell on the stairs. You're a doctor, no?”

I hurried after the man back to the dance hall. Molly and Sherlock were on stage; Molly sitting on the floor clutching her ankle, Sherlock looking up at the ceiling as if praying for patience.

“It's a sprain”, I established upon examining her. “You need to rest; lie down with your foot high, put some ice on it. I'll help you to your dressing room.”

“Oh, for God's sake!” Sherlock erupted. “I don't have time for this!”

I looked up at him calmly. “This isn't about you, Sherlock. She's injured.”

“I need to rehearse this scene!” Sherlock turned to Stamford below the stage.

“We'll find someone to read the part”, Stamford said. “John, can you do it?”

“John?” Sherlock scowled before I could answer. “No. He needs to help Molly.”

“Someone else can follow her. John knows the script, he's our best man.”

“But he's not-”

“I don't mind, Sherlock”, I interrupted. “I know the script by heart, it's not a problem.” Sherlock's jaw clenched hard, making the angles of his face even sharper. “What scene is it?”

Sherlock averted his eyes.

“It's the first kiss scene”, Stamford said.

I looked at him, then back at Sherlock. “Oh.”

“It's the dialogue before the kiss scene”, Sherlock bit out.

“Fine.” I cleared my throat, then cleared it again. Stamford found someone to support Molly when she left the room, and Sherlock and I stood awkwardly on stage, not looking at each other. I wished I didn't know the script by heart, so that I could busy myself with reading it.

“Right”, Stamford said, turning to us and leaning forward in his chair. “Sherlock, why don't you take it from Listen.”

I finally looked over at Sherlock. He was warm from rehearsing and had thrown his suit jacket into a corner again, and his curls were slightly more wild than they were in the mornings. His crimson shirt made the pale skin of his exposed clavicles look positively edible. The luxurious silk fell around him as if loving his frame. The colour matched his lips.

Listen”, he said, looking at his feet before looking up at me, “I'm a prostitute. I make people believe what they want to believe.” His voice was different; softer, lacking that cutting edge of his own voice, but just as deep and strong.

I spoke Molly's first line, resolutely ignoring the fact that the inspiration for these words was me. “Silly of me, to think that you could fall in love with someone like me.

Sherlock gave an awkward, short laugh, looking away. “I can't fall in love with anyone.

Can't fall in love? But a life without love, that's terrible!

He nearly spoke over me: “No, being on the street, that's terrible.

No!

It was remarkably easy to move through the scene together. We each knew, after just those few lines, that we could trust the other. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stamford lean back in his chair. I expected him to interrupt us at some point, to tell us how to move during our dialogue, but he kept silent. I took a step closer to Sherlock and continued:

Love is like oxygen.

What?

Love is a many-splendoured thing, love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!

I smiled playfully, and his mouth twitched as if trying not to smile back.

And what about food? Shelter? Love is just a game.

Speaking as the Hindu Dancer, those words were softer, not as contemptuous. Still, I felt too much like myself when I looked into his eyes and gave the Penniless Sitar-Player's answer.

Not real love. Not our love.

He turned on his heel, walking a few steps away and teasing me nonchalantly over his shoulder: “The only way of loving me, is to pay a lovely fee.

It was intoxicating, being with him on stage when he embodied my words. What he did with them was so much more than I could have imagined when I wrote them. It must take tremendous work, yet seemed effortless – and so, I followed him effortlessly over the stage.

Don't leave me this way! I can't survive without your sweet love.

He stopped on top of the stairs, staring out over the imagined audience. I couldn't see his face, but I was barely breathing, because I knew what line came next, and I knew how he spoke it.

You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.

I didn't hide the smile in my voice. “I look around me and I see it isn't so.” I drew closer to him, and he continued as if he didn't hear me.

Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs.

I stopped just behind his back, close enough to feel the electricity from his skin through the thin silk of his shirt. His smell was humid, tinged with fresh sweat.

And what's wrong with that?” I murmured in his ear. He turned his face over his shoulder, quietly looking into my eyes. The tendons of his long throat stood out. “I'd like to know.” His eyes dropped to my lips.

It wasn't in the script, but it was perfect. I leaned in slowly, lowering my eyes. His lips parted on cue, as if the weight of my gaze did it. Then he tore himself away.

I heard Stamford release a long-held breath. I ignored the reminder that I was on stage, not taking my eyes off Sherlock. I ran after him and continued the scene:

Love lifts us up where we belong, where eagles fly on a mountain high!

He let me chase him, refusing to look back at me. “Love makes us act like we are fools – throw our lives away for one happy day.

We could be heroes!” He turned around, and I stopped a couple of metres behind him. “Just for one day.

Suddenly he sounded unsure and vulnerable. “You will be mean”, he said, and though I knew he was acting, my heart still clenched. I took a step forward, reaching a hand out.

No, I won't.

And I will drink all the time.” Even as he said it, he mirrored my step, as though he couldn't help it.

We should be lovers.

We can't do that.” His voice was quiet, and I walked close enough to grab his hand.

We should be lovers, and that's a fact.

He watched our hands. They were loosely entwined, my thumb caressing the back of his hand. He looked as if he had never seen anyone touch another person in that way.

I was close enough to hear his breathing now. It was quick and shallow. We both knew perfectly well what the script was leading us to.

Though nothing would keep us together…” he said, and the step he took towards me was infinitely small, but it was there.

We could steal time…” I murmured, raising my face to him.

“… just for one day”, he finished, and finally met my eyes.

I wasn't sure if the anticipation and dread I saw in them were a part of the act or not. I moved my face closer until I could feel his breath as a quivering butterfly on my lips.

I reached out with my free hand, letting it slide up the side of his neck briefly. His skin was hot and sticky with sweat. I grazed my thumb along his cheekbone, and his eyelids fluttered once. This close, his eyes were swimming with blue, green and grey.

I parted my lips, and his eyes dropped to them.

“And then we kiss”, I breathed.

His whole body swayed closer a fraction, almost landing on my lips as if by accident. His lips twitched, and then he swayed back again.

I stepped away.

“Jesus Christ, boys!” The spell was brutally broken when Stamford clapped his large hands together. “That was intense. We'll keep all of that, Jesus.”

I smiled awkwardly, again having forgotten he was there. Sherlock was blinking rapidly beside me, looking dazed, almost confused.

“You okay?”

He almost flinched when he realised I was talking to him. “Me? Fine. Good. Obviously.”

“Shall we take it from the top, then?” Stamford said.

“No, I got what I needed”, Sherlock said. “We'll continue tomorrow.” I rolled my eyes at his shameless assumption of the role of director. “Good day.”

He dashed off, disappearing through the nearest door. His forgotten jacket lay in a heap on the floor.

 


 

I sat by my typewriter, fingers resolutely on the keys. I steadily ignored the way my insides were swirling, floating, aching, but it didn't help.

The rehearsals were finished for the day, and the coffee room was empty. People were bustling about in the adjacent rooms and halls, preparing to go home or, if the Moulin Rouge was their home, to spend the evening in more comfortable attire. Some were changing into corsets and suspenders for their night clients, hurrying across the courtyard to the windmill in front.

My head snapped up when a long-legged figure crossed the room. Sherlock was still in his red silk shirt – which I hoped meant that he wasn't about to go and seduce some faceless man for money.

He was holding a familiar bundle of papers. He didn't so much as glance at me when he passed me by, but there was something in the way he subtly increased his pace that made me further examine the script in his hand. The myriad of notes on the front page were written with a pen I recognised.

“Sherlock!” I called after him, just when he was out the door. I swore under my breath and rose to follow him.

At the end of the hallway, I saw him slip through a door. I called after him again, and the silence was a guilty one; that was decidedly not his room.

When I entered, he was standing in front of a bookcase in a cramped office. I had never been in there, but the thick binders, the cluttered desk and the suit hanging in the corner told me all I needed to know.

“This is Anderson's office.”

“Astute observation, John”, Sherlock said absent-mindedly, rising on his toes and reaching for a massive book on the top shelf.

The sound of his voice made me relax. It was like a sigh of relief, my body thanking me for finally being in the same room as Sherlock. There were his curls, and the outline of his chest visible through his shirt, and his high cheekbones and sparkling eyes – and everything was right with the world.

“You shouldn't be in here.” I shouldn't either – I shouldn't feel so at ease in Anderson's office, just because I was in there with this madman.

“You're in sparkling form.” Sherlock let the book land on the desk with a dull thud that made dust skitter across the tabletop.

It was a family Bible, of all books.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked. He opened the cover without answering, turning the thin pages quickly. I was about to ask again when suddenly there was a large gap in the pages. The middle of the papers, the area where the text was written, was cut out, leaving a neat hollow square in the middle of the book. “How did you know that was there?”

“Don't be daft, John, I made it. Obviously.” Sherlock grabbed the script to the show, and started making it into a roll.

“You've stolen Anderson's script”, I stated. “You know he needs that for rehearsals tomorrow.”

“Oh, he will find it eventually.” Sherlock placed the paper roll in the hollow of the Bible. It fitted perfectly.

“You've planned this, then.” I couldn't keep the smile from my voice.

“Of course. I did the cutting last night.” He closed the book. It showed no trace of containing anything other than God's words.

“Oh, I really shouldn't let you do this”, I said, shaking my head.

“Come on, you think this is funny. For all that he wants us to believe him to be a good, moral person standing above all the rest of us, he has never opened this book – not once.”

“And now he will know that you know that”, I finished for him, earning a flash of a wicked smile. I snorted. “That is really petty, you know.”

Sherlock went back to the shelf. He was still without his jacket, and I made a feeble effort not to look at the way his body stretched under the thin silk when he reached to put the Bible back.

He turned around. “Well? Will you give me away?”

I followed him out of the room. “I think it's safest not to put myself in the middle of your war with Anderson.”

Sherlock smirked. “Oh, I think you just picked a side.”

In that moment, a strident voice cut the air. “Hey! Were you two in my office?!”

I looked up. All I could see was Sherlock's face, inches from mine, his eyes gleaming and his smile thrilled. “Run”, he said.

And I did.

 


 

Sherlock knew the Moulin Rouge better than anyone. Better than a curious child who has explored all the spaces to make them into a fantasy world, better than a controlling owner who prides himself on knowing everything that goes on in the halls. Sherlock knew it all.

He sprinted through narrow halls, knocking into people in his way without so much as an apologetic look, leaving any politeness for me to take care of when I followed a second after him. He burst into cluttered dressing rooms, tore his way through costume cupboards, rushed up staircases to run recklessly across unstable wooden attic floors.

“Stop them!” Anderson shouted breathlessly behind us. He was impressively persistent. I suppose his office was sacred for him; it was a status marker, distinguishing him from the simple prostitutes.

“Come on, John!” Sherlock shouted over his shoulder. I was right behind him, cursing and panting. He didn't need to beckon me; he'd never need to. I was always there.

Running with Sherlock was like dancing with him. It stopped mattering why I was running. What mattered was Sherlock, beautiful and fierce, running as if his life depended on it, as though he couldn't live if he didn't get to run. When I followed him, I remembered how easy running had once been. I remembered my early army days, I remembered playing sports at university, I remembered being a child, running, running, running as if my energy could never run out.

I could tell, just from watching his back, that it was like that for Sherlock too. When he ran, he was joyful. When he ran, he was alive.

Suddenly, he took off sharply to the left, ducking under a staircase. I followed him through the dirty space, looking up in surprise at where we had ended up. I knew this room; it was close to the entrance and the dance hall.

Sherlock finally stopped, slumping against the wall with his hand on his stomach.

“How did we end up here?” I panted, leaning forward with hands on my thighs.

He waved a hand dismissively. “Short cuts. They're everywhere.” He coughed, then flashed a smug grin. “At least for me, they are”, he added.

I shook my head and smiled. “Always have to excel at everything?”

“What other point is there to anything?”

I snorted. His eyes lingered on my face, and there was a silent laugh in his smile.

“Think Anderson is done chasing us?” I asked.

“For now. Until he discovers-”

They've stolen my script!” The nasal voice echoed in the dance hall close by.

“Got your breath back?” Sherlock asked, his voice a low, secret timbre.

“Ready when you are.”

Sherlock dashed off again, this time leading me out through the main entrance and across the courtyard. The red light bulbs covering the windmill were all glowing, the turning blades groaning above us when we ran into the building. I threw a glance over my shoulder just in time to see the doors to the stage building open at the other end of the courtyard. I didn't stay to see if it was Anderson before I followed Sherlock into the depths of the mill.

While the stage building had closed its regular schedule of dance performances during the show rehearsals, the windmill was still fully in business. Before this day, I hadn't seen more of it than the hall I passed through to get to the courtyard. This was where the suited men were welcomed by the half-naked mistresses of the night.

The air was thick and heavy in there, the scents in the air were too sweet. Everything moved a little bit slower in the halls of the mill, a little bit heavier.

Sherlock, of course, had no respect for this. He kept running, leading me to the upper floors, sometimes flinging a door open for another of his short cuts. I had to run so fast to keep up with him that I didn't have time to become uncomfortable by the decor of the rooms we passed through.

“Hurry up!” he shouted. There was something precious in the way he ran as fast as ever he could but never turned to make sure I was following him; he trusted me to run after him anywhere he would take me. He was showing me his Moulin Rouge, and I slipped in behind him as if there had always been a vacant spot for me there.

He threw a new door open, and I was halfway through the room before I realised it wasn't empty. On the floor stood Irene, clad in black lace and holding a riding crop, and on the bed lay a man, naked and tied to the headboard. He stared at Sherlock and me, and I stared at Sherlock too, because that seemed like the safest place to look for the time being.

Sherlock reached the door in the opposite side of the room, and looked back at the man. “Welcome to the Moulin Rouge”, he smiled, then dashed off. I stumbled out after him before either of those two had regained enough composure to speak. I was giggling despite myself. Sherlock glanced at me, something like a low, breathy chuckle in his throat while he kept jogging down another corridor. “They're not going to like that”, he muttered. “Better get out of here.”

He was right; when we ran through the vestibule, the indignant shouts behind us indicated that the guards already knew that we had disturbed a client. We didn't stop to check, running back out into the courtyard.

“The elephant, John!” Sherlock called, and disappeared into the door by the foot.

Sherlock knew exactly what rooms would be deserted at that hour. He led me into the depth of the elephant, through short cuts and strange angles behind curtains. Coming from a different direction, it took me a while to realise where I was when we burst into the head chamber.

The lights were out. The darkness within the chamber had a red shade from the crimson textiles. I could only just discern the shapes of the furniture; the piano and the Indian elephant sculpture; the red sofa and the bed. The ornamented gold with the heart-shaped hole in the front was softly reflecting light from the mill and from the light bulbs in the garden.

Sherlock hurried over to the opening, carefully leaning out and scanning the ground below. “I think we got rid of them”, he panted, leaning back into the room and collapsing with a shoulder against the wall.

“Good.” I stopped beside him, too out of breath to properly speak. “That was ridiculous”, I managed, clutching my side.

I looked up at him. His cheeks were flushed after the run, like the red drapes around us, like the silk of his shirt. His eyes were glistening like the golden ornament behind him. When they met mine, it was as if something broke loose on his face. His smile was radiant, and I couldn't help grinning back when I saw it.

“You're mad”, I stated and shook my head.

“Says the man who invaded Afghanistan.”

I tipped over to support myself on the wall when my muscles almost gave out – my giggles sounded strange without enough air in my lungs. Sherlock started chuckling, a deep, quivering thing. Beautiful and rare, like the man himself.

In that moment, it really felt as if we were heroes. We were on top of the world.

Our breathing was loud in the half-darkness. Our laughter drew us into one another, and I found myself leaning towards his hot, heaving shoulders. I breathed in the sound of his quiet laugh until I could feel it inside my own chest. He bowed his head, chuckling down at his feet, and his heavy breaths brushed my face. I lost the sense of how close I was standing, the fast rush of my blood making me feel light-headed and surreal.

His head bowed deeper, his quiet chuckle hot on my cheek. I swayed closer by accident, he turned, and then his lips were on mine.

Everything stopped for a second; laughter silencing, breath halting. His closed mouth pressing earnestly against mine was all there was.

I heaved in a breath through my nose. My head spun from the rush of Sherlock coming in with the air. He pulled back to gasp out a breath, then came back, and back again. Over and over, he kissed me, taking deep breaths in between.

The kisses were like his laugh; inevitable, unrestrained, joyful. I fell into him, my laughter now transformed into giddy kisses on his bottom lip.

Sherlock's lips are the softest I have ever kissed. They are another part of the Sherlock contradiction; the words his mouth forms can be hard as rock, precise and unrelenting, but under my lips his mouth felt smooth and pliant, yielding to my every move.

I tentatively reached out, unable to believe this was really happening. My fingers touched his waist like a question. He ended the kiss and whispered to me, the smooth French brushing against my moistened lips:

“You're going to be bad for business, I can tell.”

His lips parted just before mine in a puff of hot breath. I opened my mouth, and there was nothing tentative about the way he kissed me then. The scent of him became the sweetest taste in my mouth, and I put my hands firmly on his waist, holding the thin silk and the hot skin underneath. He wrapped his arms around my neck and stepped in closer, pressing the length of his body against mine while he deepened the kiss.

I was holding the most precious, the most essential and breakable thing in my hands. Of all the men in Paris, Sherlock chose to kiss me. Because he wanted to be close, to feel me, because he wanted me to feel him.

The hot muscles and damp skin after our flight through the Moulin Rouge reminded of something erotic, and our already panting breaths spurred us on. The sensation of his hardness increasingly pressing against my stomach made me fight in vain to get him closer to me, closer than possible. His breathing grew louder, almost voiced.

He grabbed my braces, drawing me with him when he leaned back against the wall, his feet wide apart. I stepped in between his legs, gasping when I could feel his erection against my own. Sherlock tipped his head back with a broken-off sob. He was trembling faintly, his hips moving restlessly between my pelvis and the wall. He bit his lip as if fighting not to make a sound.

I slowly kissed the pale throat offered to me. The breath kept stopping in his chest before rushing out with barely-voiced sounds. The lighter my kisses, the more his hips squirmed. Hands fumbled with clothes; he slipped one of the braces from my shoulder, undid a few buttons of my shirt before he could bend down and suck at my trapezius muscle. I tugged his shirt out of his trousers, sneaking my hands in under it, and when I brushed over a nipple, a whimper escaped him louder than the ones before.

I suddenly remembered that we were standing right next to the opening of the elephant, within earshot of anyone standing below. I kissed him to muffle his next sound when I moved my thumb in circles.

He lifted his right leg to hook it around my hip, his pelvis bucking forward in a helpless repeated motion. I held his leg in place with my elbow, my hand sliding in underneath to caress the back and inside of his thigh. He panted into my mouth, hands clutching my back. His whole body was tensing up, and he was losing all co-ordination; his movement felt lost, his kisses felt almost scared.

I slid my hand to his backside, tugging him towards me. “Go on”, I breathed into his mouth. “Whatever you want.”

His leg tightened around my waist. “Just-” His breath stuttered. “Kiss me.”

His pelvis was still moving, small, rhythmic thrusts that he didn't even seem aware of making. He was making tiny sounds into my mouth, words trying to break loose, stifled before I could more than guess what they might be.

Cl(oser)

H(old me)

I('m close)

Jo(hn)

His movements became frantic, and all his desperate sounds were so tiny, as if he wasn't prepared for everything he was feeling and didn't know what to do with it. I tried to pull back to whisper reassuring words, but he refused to stop kissing me. I kept my grip firm on the back of his thigh, and when he shuddered and stilled, the fingers of my other hand involuntarily dug into his pectoral.

“John”, he whispered brokenly, face contorted as though he was crying.

“Sher-”, was all I managed, overwhelmed by being trusted with his surrender.

Sherlock remained still for a long moment, his eyes screwed shut. I kissed his face over and over, trying to entice him into looking up at me. I stroked his breastbone, light fingers over his slightly sticky skin. His breathing evened out, and mine kept pace with his.

He lowered his leg to the floor. “I'm sorry”, he mumbled.

“Hey”, I said quietly with my nose pressed to his cheek. “Don't be sorry. You're wonderful.”

I drew back to rest my nose against his, and he slowly opened his eyes. There was bravery in them for looking at me in that moment.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I want to hold you.” I slid my hand into his hair. The thick curls swallowed my fingers just as I had dreamed they would. “Do you want me to hold you?”

His eyes flickered between mine. “But-”

“Just- If you want to. Just kiss me.”

He swallowed, searching my eyes for another moment. Then he leaned forward and let me melt into his mouth. I wrapped him up in my arms, savouring the feeling of his limbs liquid after orgasm.

I let myself get lost in a slow exploration of his hair, his cheeks and jaw, his neck and his chest, not caring about my trousers getting uncomfortable again. He gradually became less careful about the sounds he let loose, humming when I softly sucked on his bottom lip, sighing when I scraped my nails through his hair.

After an eternity much too short, he ended the kisses and leaned his forehead against mine.

“You have to go.”

I drew back a fraction to look into his eyes. They were unreadable in the dark. I tried to think of something to say, but everything seemed either too grand or too insignificant.

“No one must see you”, he added quietly.

“Okay.”

Every cell of my body protested when I stepped back. Sherlock looked delicious with his crimson shirt halfway undone and his curls a mess, his pale skin showing a lovely blush. He studied me for a second and then stepped forward, putting my hair into some semblance of order with light fingers. His touch made me shiver, and one look between us was all it took to fall back into each other's arms, mouths open wide against one another. I was heated and finding it hard to think when he broke it off again, muttering “Really”, and started to redo my shirt buttons.

“Right. Sorry”, I murmured, clumsily helping him get me properly dressed. A tiny smile tugged on one corner of his lips. I didn't dare kiss it.

Slipping the braces back onto my shoulder, I took a step back. The space between us could be felt like a physical thing, and I could almost see him eye it.

“Goodbye, then”, I said. Unable to stop myself, I reached out for his hand. His eyes followed me intently when I raised it to my lips, kissing the back of it, closing my eyes against the feeling of his skin.

“See you tomorrow”, I whispered.

He nodded mutely. I let go of his hand, and he already looked lonely, standing in the red darkness of the elephant with hair in disarray and a blush still decorating his cheekbones.

I forced myself to turn my back and walk out.

 

Chapter Text

If I was a sculptor, but then again, no
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show
I know it's not much, but it's the best I can do
My gift is my song and this one's for you

 

How wonderful life was, now Sherlock was in the world. I lay awake late into the night, staring at the ceiling, heart pounding in my chest. My skin smelled like him.

In my mind's eye, I kept replaying every detail I could remember, holding on to them, burning them into the structure of my brain. The hint of his voice in his heavy breaths. The crease between his brows, the painful pleasure on his face. The mole under his jaw. Despite the uncertainty of what had happened between us, I felt a certainty in my very bones.

I fell asleep without a care in the world.

It hurts less than I thought it would, to write all that down. Sherlock was right, of course he was. Even when… even in a moment like that, he was right. There is a way for me to keep him with me. I have made that night in the elephant immortal, and though it's not nearly enough, I have time. I will write down everything that would be a sin to forget.

Of course, not everything will be so beautiful to relive.

The blades have stopped turning. This night is blue and cold, and the moonlight is harsh against the ruins across the street. The façade that once shone with mystery and possibility is now no more than dust and decay. There are large holes in the roof of the windmill.

No bulbs are alight on the mill and none on the large sign above the locked-up entrance. The M, the O and the R are hanging askew.

Those crooked letters coming loose seem to make it certain. The Moulin Rouge is dead.

The windows have been dark for so long now that you can barely even imagine light in them. Although it hasn't been so very long since the Moulin Rouge was alive, it's as if nobody remembers anything other than these blighted shapes of a ghostly, abandoned bordello. When I look down into the dusty courtyard, it doesn't seem real that there once was a giant elephant there, majestically glowing with the lights of the night.

The flicker of untainted joy was brief, for me as well as for Sherlock. Perhaps Sherlock never got to feel it at all; he knew about the politics of the underworld, he knew that he was not free, even before everything that happened. As for myself, I had one night of bliss before a thorn was driven into it, barely noticeable at first, but digging deeper.

Because on the eighth day, Moriarty came back.

 


 

“The conversion of the Moulin Rouge into a theatre will be very expensive, Holmes.” Moriarty sat slouching in a chair before Holmes' oversized desk. His voice was drawling and his gaze was wandering over the tasteful artwork on the office walls. The red blades flashed outside the window behind Holmes himself.

Holmes inclined his head, leaning forward in his chair. “A considerable sum, yes. We are quite grateful-”

“Yes, yes, everyone is grateful and happy, aren't they. Boring.” His eyes lingered on a poster for a Sparkling Diamond show, featuring a beautiful drawing of Sherlock on his trapeze. “In return I want access to the Gothic tower every night.” He looked over Holmes' shoulder to the window. The grey stone castle stood across the courtyard, its high windows reflecting the clouded morning sky, keeping the interior secret. “And every night at eight”, Moriarty added, “your cherished little Virgin will be sent to me.”

Holmes' eyebrows rose. “Pardon?”

“The Sparkling Diamond.” Moriarty drew out the words as if sucking on a sweet.

“Sherlock.” Their eyes met. Moriarty's were black and emotionless, much like Holmes tried to keep his own. “I- I am certain that can be arranged.”

“As am I, Holmes. It's all in the contract.” Moriarty reached into his portfolio and put a piece of thick paper on the blank hardwood desk. Holmes drew the sheet closer to him with his fingertips. “Oh, and naturally I shall require some security. I shall require the deeds to the Moulin Rouge.”

Holmes' eyebrows shot up to his hairline, and he picked up the contract, eyes glued to the print.

“Moriarty”, Holmes begun, finally tearing his eyes away and glancing up at the man. “I believe that there are other ways to-”

“What?” Moriarty interrupted. “Other ways to stage your precious little show? Other ways to make your darling Virgin into something more than a dirty whore?”

Holmes leaned back in his chair, setting the contract down. “There are other investors.”

“Don't imagine me a naive man, Holmes. You have no other investors, and you have already started the production. You have already spent money, haven't you – money you don't have. Not without me.”

Moriarty didn't blink, barely stopped to breathe when he spoke. His face was like stone, and his eyes were black wells, settled on Holmes' face and refusing to leave.

“I shall hold the deeds to the Moulin Rouge. And if there are any complications, my manservant Moran will deal with it in the only language you underworld show-folk understand.”

The third person in the room suddenly shifted in the shadows. His hand moved to cover the gun in his belt, but it was a redundant gesture for Mycroft Holmes.

Holmes forced a smile, not designed to convince anyone. “I cannot imagine what sort of complications those would be, Moriarty.”

“Good boy.” There was a dull sparkle somewhere in Moriarty's eye. “I knew you would see it from my perspective.”

Holmes picked up his heavy fountain pen. The nib screeched as he scratched his signature into the fibres of the paper.

 


 

When I got to the Moulin Rouge that day, it was nearly noon. I had finally fallen asleep with the sun carefully pouring sunlight into my room, little by little. Waking up, my heart was so full of words I couldn't get to the typewriter fast enough, but I also couldn't wait any longer to see Sherlock again. I hurried across the courtyard and into the dance hall.

Nearly all the dancers were in the middle of a rehearsal. It was one of the cancan numbers, one where the main characters were off-stage. Stamford, Molly and Gregory sat in an alcove bent over a script. In the middle of the floor stood some chairs, with a few people watching the progress on stage.

If not for that head of inky curls, I would almost have failed to recognise him. I hadn't seen him in anything other than suits since that first night, but today, Sherlock wore a purple dress. It hugged his slim figure so tightly that he could barely breathe in it. There were white buttons down the whole front, and the stiff collar was open to show off his collarbones and long throat. The shoulders of the dress were angular, making him look strait-laced, but the straight-cut skirt ended indecently high on his thighs.

He was sitting with his back straight and his silk stocking-clad legs neatly folded, the polished high heels on his foot dangling over the floor. The slim sleeves of the dress reached just below his elbows, and he held his arms close to his body, hands in his lap. His posture was unfamiliar; subdued, small; his body slightly angled toward the suited man sitting on the chair next to him.

When I approached, I recognised Moriarty. They were watching the rehearsal on stage, both looking bored. Sherlock's eyes were sharply painted with black, which made him look unapproachable and frail at the same time. He didn't move a muscle when I passed them by, not even a flicker of his eyes. Something undefinable in the air between their two bodies made me stop myself from walking up to greet him.

The rooms seemed darker that day. Something stifling and grim radiated from the sharp suit among us. Smiles faltered when they stumbled into Moriarty's proximity.

The whole day went by and Sherlock didn't look at me once. I never saw him speak to Moriarty, I didn't even see them touch. But the fact that he never left the duke's side made it quite clear where he belonged.

My insides felt like a wrestling bout between my heart and my guts. Part of me was afraid that it was all over, that Sherlock was done with me. But then I remembered the way he looked at me. The way he fought to stay silent, and how shocked the sounds that slipped through were. The way he laughed against me. I remembered our first dance and the way he held me, only to dismiss it as an act later.

I had been right that time. I had to be right about this too.

 


 

High heels clicked against the hardwood dance floor when Sherlock hurried through the room, his long coat billowing unbuttoned around the purple dress. He was alone for the first time that day, but by the looks of it, he wouldn't be for much longer.

Stopping him felt like getting in the way of a hurricane, but as a soldier I was taught how to ignore the reckless nature of my actions in high-pressure situations. I shot out a hand to grasp his elbow when he blew past me.

“Sherlock!”

He made a little pirouette, turning on the spot with his eyes on my hand. Then he looked up at me from a frame of black eyeliner and mascara.

“Um, hi.” Christ, I had already forgotten how overwhelming it was to stand under the spotlight of those eyes. “I- I've been thinking. About what you said. You know, about the palace scene.”

His eyes narrowed, but he didn't speak.

“You're right, the characterisation of the Hindu Dancer needs some work there”, I continued. “I'm not quite sure what direction to take it in, though. So I was thinking, since you know him best… maybe you can help me getting the voice right?”

His eyes flicked back and forth between mine, then he cleared his throat. “I suppose I could.” It was the first words he had spoken to me since the elephant, and the rough vibrations of it made me shiver. “I should be able to schedule a meeting tomorrow morning-”

“I need to finish it before tomorrow.”

His mouth closed, and he watched me for a second. “I have plans tonight.”

“Yes.” I stared back into his eyes. “I'm asking you to change them.”

Our eye contact was a physical presence in the room. Someone passed us by, and I realised I was still holding on to his elbow. I dropped my hand.

“For the work”, I added.

The corner of his mouth twitched. “For the work”, he repeated. He held my gaze for a moment longer, then he turned away. “Irene!” he shouted.

Irene looked up from where she was sitting by the wall, changing out of her dance shoes.

“Tell Mycroft I have to work tonight. He will let Moriarty know I can't make it.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Tell him yourself.”

“Can't. No time.” Irene simply went back to her shoelaces, but Sherlock went on: “If the message doesn't get through, Moriarty will not be pleased. Might tear up the contract.” She paused her hands again, shooting him a glare which he answered with a smirk. “Come on, John”, he said and went for the door.

I had to fight hard not to smile at the familiar words in his clipped tone.

Apparently, we were heading for my flat. We walked quietly through the windmill vestibule and onto the street. I was acutely aware of his body moving beside mine, face half-hidden behind the high, upturned coat collar. The twilight made the sky a deep-sea blue and made Sherlock's figure shadowy and thrilling. I was constantly on the border of an embarrassing blush, remembering how wrecked this now perfectly composed man had been in my arms just one day prior.

I led the way up the stairs, feeling my body shift into military posture under the stress of having Sherlock right behind me. His steps were quiet despite the high heels.

Opening the door to my flat, I cursed myself for not having so much as done the dishes before I left that morning. Sherlock let the door fall closed behind him and remained standing, his eyes sweeping systematically over my room, irises flickering back and forth. I wanted to know what he saw. Supposedly he saw everything.

“Right”, I said, awkwardly clasping my hands together, immediately letting them fall to my sides again. “Should we get started then? I'll just clear the…” I gestured to the table where I kept my typewriter, the surface covered with heaps of pages. I turned my back to try to tidy up, buying myself a respite from Sherlock's scrutiny.

“No”, he said.

“What?” I turned around. Sherlock had started unbuttoning his coat, looking back at me calmly. “You, uh…” I tried not to look at his neck when the collar parted around it. “You want some tea first?”

The coat slid off his shoulders, and he carefully hung it on the hook by the door. I couldn't resist glancing down when his back was turned; the tight skirt cut a perfect shape for his backside.

He turned back to me. “No.”

His voice was an intimate song. His head was lowered and he looked up at me from under millions of heavy black lashes. The fabric of his dress had a lustre to it, shifting with his movements. The dark purple made him look like sex.

I took a few steps closer. “What do you want, then?” I asked quietly.

He arched an eyebrow and opened his mouth, a cocky smile lifting one corner of it, but I cut him off before he could speak.

“No, don't give me the practised act.”

His mouth closed. I took two more steps and I was inside his personal space, looking up into his pale eyes.

“You know exactly what I want to hear, don't you?” I murmured. “You've deduced it from the creases on my shirt or the way I arrange the pages on my desk – that's what you do, that's your job.”

His face was expressionless, watching me, waiting.

“You're not at work now, Sherlock. Are you?”

A brief pause, then he shook his head minutely.

“Don't tell me what I want, then”, I said. “Tell me what you want.”

I held my breath, carefully watching his face. He was still motionless, only his eyelids fluttering now and again. It was strange how the characteristics of his make-up changed with his mood; when he was confident, it made him look hard and untouchable, but when he was uncertain and out of his depth, he looked infinitely vulnerable under the heavy smears of black around his eyes.

“Hold me”, he finally whispered, the soft words barely making it past his lips.

Oh, my Sherlock.

The simple request hit me painfully in the chest. My eyes fell closed when I gathered him into my arms. The fabric of his dress was stiff and cold under my hands. I pressed my palms against his back, feeling for proof of warm skin under the thick garment. He burrowed his face into my neck, somehow managing to make himself small despite his height.

“This good?” I asked, putting my nose against his neck.

He shook his head, curls tickling my jaw. “Closer.”

A breath rushed out of me and I tightened my arms, letting my hands roam over his back, feeling his spine all the way up to the lock in the nape of his neck, down to his tailbone, my fingertips pressing harder so he would feel it through the stiff material of the dress. He made a short sound in the back of his throat, brushing his parted lips lightly across my skin.

I went up on my toes to stroke his hair with my cheek, then back down to feel his smooth cheek against mine. My breath speeded up at the smell of the skin below his ear. The embrace had turned into something else while I wasn't paying attention, our bodies moving slightly against each other, our hands caressing firmly over backs and shoulders and arms.

The first kiss, we fell into. His upper lip passed by my open mouth, and I nipped at it, suddenly finding myself with the tip of his tongue past the seam of my lips. I was suddenly too hot, our mouths opening lazily and without restraint, inviting each other deeper, deeper.

“Hold me closer”, he gasped, and I smiled when I captured his mouth again.

I was going to take my time now. All the time in the world was mine.

I tightened my arms around his ribcage hard enough to feel his lungs trying to expand against them. When I kissed him again, he swayed on his feet, and I remembered that he was still in his heels.

“Your feet must be tired”, I murmured, pressing my nose into a hard cheekbone.

“Hmm.”

I kissed his jaw, then the skin underneath. “Do you want to do something about that?”

His head fell back and he straightened, leaving me level with the dip between his collarbones. I touched my tongue to his skin. “Take them off”, he said.

I pulled him with me, sitting him down on the edge of my single bed. The old springs creaked under his weight, and the steel bar of my headboard was certainly not much compared to the elephant chamber. I gave him an apologetic look when I crouched down before him, but he didn't even see it, leaning on his hands behind him with his head tipped back. I realised that I was stroking his calf with both hands.

His silk stockings were so soft, I couldn't resist putting my cheek to his inner thigh to feel them. His hips arched upward a bit and his breath stuttered. Encouraged, I put my mouth against the thin fabric, breathing into it. He made a breathy sound above me. By the time I had gotten his shoes off, my face was at the hem of his skirt and his breath came in short gasps. I massaged his soft, stocking-clad feet while I tilted my face forward, the bridge of my nose bumping the lowest button of his dress, and I inhaled deeply. The scent of his hidden arousal made my head foggy and we moaned at the same time.

“I-”

“Yeah?”

“John.”

He seemed not to be aware of the way he said my name. His eyes were half-closed, his mouth slack.

“What do you want?” I gently asked.

His eyelids lifted. “Take off my stockings.”

I slid my hands up the outside of his long legs. I could barely fit under the skirt, it was so tight. I found the waistband of his stockings and lingerie, hooked my fingers inside them and slowly slid them down. His hips lifted obscenely to help, his bulge visible under the shimmering purple. I watched the black silk reveal inch upon inch of his pale legs, kissing lightly when I saw a mole too beautiful to leave alone. Then I saw another, almost hidden in the shadows of his upper thighs, and had to kiss that one as well.

He whimpered above me.

I raised my gaze through my lashes. “I feel like there's something else you want.” I reached for the lowest button of his dress.

“Oh”, he breathed. “Ah, yes, I want-”

I only had to undo two of the buttons to reach him. He fell back onto his elbows with a groan at the first touch of my lips. I opened up slowly, tasting him and the sweet bead of liquid he had already released.

“More”, he sighed, but I wanted to take my time. I didn't want to be so fast and determined that I missed the nuances of his reactions under me. Because Christ, he was responsive. Even without pace, without purpose on my part, he was squirming and grasping the covers tightly in his fists.

It was quiet in the room. He was audibly trying not to make a sound – I couldn't even hear his breath any longer. There were only the soft sounds of my mouth on his cock, and the sighs I couldn't help making myself.

He shifted, a hand letting go of the covers to grab my shoulder. “Hold me”, he said in the whimper he had fought to keep in.

I lay down on top of him, but he had barely wrapped his arms around me before he scoffed in displeasure.

“What's with all the clothes?”

I laughed quietly. “Not sure, to be honest. I'm very warm.”

I rose onto my knees and Sherlock scooted back on the bed, working swiftly on the buttons of my shirt while I undid my trousers. When we got to his dress, neither of us had any patience left with the miles and miles of small buttons, and he ripped most of them.

The thick fabric parted around his white chest. He sat up to let his arms slide out of the sleeves, and all that was left was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen, bared in my bed. I followed him back down onto the covers, already kissing with open mouths.

I remember I was surprised, even that first time I held him properly against my skin, at how thin he was. How could a person who took up so much space in every room he entered, be so slight in my arms? His protruding ribs felt vulnerable under my skimming hands, making me want to kiss them to somehow protect them.

“Hold me closer”, he kept saying in his intoxicating French. His nails dug into my shoulder blades and I shifted my pelvis, making our naked cocks touch. I groaned with a combination of relief and agony at the pleasure. “Closer”, he gasped.

“Not sure that's possible”, I panted.

He drew back his head, meeting my eyes. “John, you know it's possible.”

I lost my breath at the look in his eyes; wild and determined, burningly present. He parted his legs to wrap around my hips.

I shook my head. “Not like that. Other way around.”

A shadow flickered across his face when he lowered his legs again and made to turn around, but I stopped him, lifting myself up briefly to come back with my knees on either side of his hips. His eyes widened when I lowered my pelvis, trapping his cock underneath.

“Don't you want to-”

“What do you want?” I interrupted.

He looked back and forth between my eyes, and when I shifted on top of him, his eyes slammed shut. “Anything”, he said, the word nothing more than a breath.

“Then I want it like this”, I whispered.

He was right, of course; he always is. I was more used to being on top, and I did want. But I didn't want to do what everyone else did to him every night, intruding and taking as if it didn't matter what they gave back.

So in the end, it was me lowering myself onto him. He watched me with drooping eyelids. His jaw hung loose, asymmetrical lips looking lush, and his brows were twitching, fighting not to let his eyes close. My hands dug into his pectorals, his hands were clenching and unclenching on my hips.

I had forgotten how sweet the sting was. How consuming the pressure. When I was flush against his hips, I remained still for a moment, dropping my head and closing my eyes around the overwhelming pleasure. I could feel every inch of him, burning inside me, spreading through me.

“Sherlock”, I said brokenly.

“I-” He cut off with a low groan when I started moving. “Oh, John, I…”

“Yes”, I whispered, because though neither of us knew how that sentence was going to end, I understood.

I moved without haste, savouring the feeling, finding all the right angles and indulging in them, my head tipped back and my eyes closed. He lay still beneath me, his breathing growing ragged, choking in his throat. When I finally set up a slow, shallow rhythm, he practically whined.

“John.” It was a plea, and I smiled breathlessly, glancing down to see his teeth digging into his lower lip.

“Come on”, I soothed him, sliding off and lying on my back, pulling him with me. He fumbled to line up his cock again, and I moaned when the pressure returned. “Come on, Sherlock.”

When he started thrusting, he quickly lost control. He kept gasping my name, his pace quickening, and there was something so touching in that; that he remembered my name when he was out of his mind with desire. I could only answer with helpless whimpers. He climaxed with his mouth latched onto my throat, smothered sounds trying to escape him, and he had barely caught his breath again before his hand was on me.

“Oh, please”, I heard myself whisper, the tension gathering quickly in my lower body when he stroked me. He kissed my gaping mouth, sucking my lip, and I was done for.

 


 

Afterwards, we lay side by side on top of the covers. Our hands were touching, but I didn't dare take his properly. There was a question on the tip of my tongue that I didn't know how to ask.

Sherlock still heard it in my breath. “Whatever it is, just say it.” His voice was drowsy and content.

“I was just wondering how busy you are. You know, now that you're working on the show.”

I could hear the arched eyebrow in his reply. “About as busy as you are, I would think.”

“Hm. So, are you- are you also seeing clients?”

“Not since rehearsals started, no.”

“Okay.”

He shivered then, the sweat on our skin cooling us down. I sat up and pulled down the covers, hope glowing in my stomach when he let me tuck them around us. I curled up on my side, watching the side of his face.

“What about you?” he asked, not looking at me.

“Me?”

“Are you seeing…?”

“Seriously?”

“What?”

“I thought you were a genius.”

He glanced at me. “Not even Mary?”

Mary?

There was a tiny smirk in the corner of his mouth. “Okay, then.”

I kept watching him, my hope growing stronger. “Will you come back tomorrow night?”

He stared at the ceiling. I couldn't read his expression, but not because he was guarding it, only because he was deep in his thoughts.

“Yes.”

My heartbeat quickened, and I leaned forward to place a soft kiss at the corner of his mouth. It twitched upwards under my touch, and I wrapped my arm around him.

“Stay tonight”, I whispered.

“Yes.” The word resonated through his body straight into mine.

 


 

The air is shockingly cold in my room. I didn't notice until I stopped writing. The end of that scene came too suddenly, the memory ending and leaving me cruelly behind.

God help me, I was so sucked into the moment that I forgot.

I forgot. For how many minutes? Hours? I can't tell how long I've been sitting here. I didn't even savour it, the bliss of oblivion.

But I read through my words now and I suddenly realise that I wrote “is”.

He always is.

He always is.

He always was.

 

Chapter Text

Sat on the roof, and I kicked off the moss
Well some of these verses, well, they got me quite cross
But the sun's been kind while I wrote this song
It's for people like you that keep it turned on

 

I woke up when the first ray of sunlight hit the windowsill. Sherlock was curled up in front of me, his forehead against my breastbone, still asleep. My arm was slung over his waist and my nose was in his silky hair.

The air in my flat was easy, shimmering with untold stories. It was one of those moments when I knew that if I sat down at my typewriter, writing would be effortless; simply a matter of plucking those stories from the air and letting my hands shape them.

When Sherlock finally started to stir, I had already been writing for an hour. I glanced over when I heard the sheets rustle, and caught his closed-eyed smile, just the briefest softening on his features.

“Good morning”, I said when he sat up and started to look around for his clothes.

“Indeed.” His voice was raw and deep with sleep. I tried not to stare, but when he busied himself with rolling the stockings up his legs, I took the opportunity to take in the sleepy Sherlock. His hair was even more irresistible like this, untamed curls sticking out in every direction.

He glanced up, catching my eye. “I think you ruined my dress.”

I snorted. “Me? You're the one who ripped the buttons.”

He picked up the purple dress from the floor, holding it up for me to see. “It's got stains of lubrication all over it.”

I almost didn't giggle. “Sorry.”

“No you're not.”

“Borrow something of mine.”

He rose from the bed, and I watched his handsome back as he walked across the floor. He clearly didn't need help to find out where I kept my shirts, so I went back to writing, relishing the sounds of a man moving in my room while I worked. When I next looked up, he was wearing an oversized shirt that reached below his pelvis.

“That's a nightshirt”, I told him.

“Obviously.” He rolled his eyes. “Nothing else will fit.” He shrugged into his long coat, hiding the shirt underneath, and crouched to put on his shoes. When he straightened, his eyes met mine. “What?” he asked, and I realised I was smiling stupidly.

“Nothing, I just-” I looked at the sheet of paper in my typewriter to avoid his gaze. “I like knowing what you're hiding under there, that's all.”

“Hm. You mean knowing I'm hiding something of yours under here.”

“Maybe.”

I glanced up. He was looking around as if to see if he had forgotten something, but I saw that he was trying to hide a smile.

“Well, I'll see you at rehearsal”, he said with feigned nonchalance.

“Wait.” I stood and walked over to him, where he stood by the door in his tight coat and high heels, looking decadent and softly beautiful like a morning after. When I took a gentle hold of his lapels, he let me see his smile.

I went up on my toes to kiss him lightly, then dropped down and smiled back. “See you.”

 


 

The dance hall was looking more and more like a theatre. Days went by in a creative chaos. Acrobats in practice clothes rehearsed moves in the corners, musicians stared at the sheet music and abraded their instruments, and the actors rarely got a break. I was writing more than I ever had before, inspiration making my words solid and glowing like diamonds.

Those rehearsal days were a blur of typewriter-key clatter and Sherlock's soft mouth. Everything was so wonderful that it also seemed easy. When Sherlock's burning eyes tracked me across the room, it felt as though we were invincible. It didn't occur to me that someone could see, and I wouldn't have been too bothered to care if they did; there was no way anything could be stronger than the intensity of his gaze on me. I could beat anything with it.

He didn't go to the Gothic tower the following night either. Or the one after that. The clock struck eight, and Sherlock was spread out on my bed, hands gripping the metal headboard, irises rolled back in his head.

When he was in my bed, he was as silent as he could manage to be. There was no yelling, no extravagant moans, only smothered sounds that he seemed almost embarrassed to make, only offered to me. The most important thing in the world was to be worthy of that trust in everything I did for him. Even after only a few days, I put Sherlock before everything else.

It was almost too easy for the young writer and the lead actor to invent perfectly legitimate reasons to spend time together.

“Sherlock, I've been drafting a new scene. It's- it's where the Hindu Dancer and the Penniless Sitar-Player meet in their secret hiding place and- and sing a duet. It would be helpful if you wanted to read out the Dancer's lines to me, I could make sure that I've-”

“Of course. Follow me.” Sherlock strode away towards the door without even glancing at the costume assistant who had been working with him.

My feet barely touched the ground when I walked through the Moulin Rouge halls behind Sherlock, scripts in our hands, smiling politely at those we passed by. Yes, even he smiled, and it was reckless, really, because he'd never done so before. I loved it. And then he opened a door, pushed me into an empty room and swallowed my breath with his kisses.

We flew apart when the door handle was pushed down. Mary looked us over, and I tried to be discreet when wiping his lipstick off my face.

“Moriarty's manservant is looking for you”, she said to Sherlock.

He rolled his eyes. “Dull.”

“You're supposed to be at the Gothic tower tonight. Pretty sure that's your job.”

“Oh, but Mary, we have so much to do” – I hid my smirk behind my hand and he was quick to add: “So much work! Be a doll and let Mycroft know.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she glanced at me in disdain before closing the door.

“You know she's just going to lead the guy here”, I said to Sherlock.

He smiled wickedly. “Good thing I know the Moulin Rouge so well, then.” And he took me on another crazy race through his secret pathways, ending it in a breathless heap on my bed.

Sherlock was so happy, in those days. He was like a white sun, blinding with his sharp beauty and raw joy. He watched me as if I were the sun in the room, he said my name at every opportunity, and his back was so straight, his chin so high. As soon as we were alone in a room, he was melting into my arms, lips already hanging open for me to claim, needy sounds lurking in the back of his throat.

“I'm not taking your little message to Holmes tonight, Sherlock.” Irene put her hands on her sides. “You have to go to Moriarty, isn't it in the contract?”

“Oh, my darling Irene, so many lines to learn. Been trilling them over and over.”

To be fair, Sherlock did practise his lines with me. He learned them best when he was sprawled on my bed, dressed in his blue silk dressing gown, listening to the clatter of my typewriter. Sherlock was beautiful always, but I think this was the Sherlock I adored the most – the one who was sated and calm, whose make-up had slipped off and whose hair was mussed, who had left his favourite dressing gown in my flat for moments like these. He muttered under his breath when he read the script, a crease of concentration between his dark eyebrows, and he was mine. This Sherlock was only for me.

“What are you writing?”

“The ending”, I said absently, my fingers not pausing their dance on the keys.

“Is it heartbreaking?”

“Of course.”

“Does love conquer all?”

“Always.”

“Sounds boring.”

I looked up at the teasing light playing in his eyes. “It's actually quite genius.”

He rolled his eyes. “Only one genius in this room, John.”

“Want me to prove it to you?” I said, even though I knew the whole act was just a way to make me read it out and pay him attention.

“Go ahead.” He sunk back onto the pillow propped up against the headboard.

“Right, well, the Evil Maharajah finally understands how deep their love is, and he uses his final weapon to pull them apart. He forces the Hindu Dancer to make the Penniless Sitar-Player think he doesn't love her. She is led to believe that it was all an act, that he was courting her as the prostitute he is.” Sherlock's face was soft when he watched me getting excited over the scene I had just written. “Thank you for curing me of my ridiculous obsession with love, says the Sitar-Player. She throws money at his feet, and turns to leave the kingdom forever.”

“Oh, but-”, he said, “the greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.” His tone was still teasing, but he looked at me as though I hung the stars.

“Exactly. That's what the Dancer finally understands. So he calls her back, and they live happily ever after.”

“Predictable.”

“It's romantic.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Sentiment is a chemical defect.”

He was laughing even before I reached him, holding up his script as a useless shield when I launched for him.

“Stop!” he screamed when I tickled him, writhing under me, gasping with laughter.

“Say it's romantic!”

“No!”

“Say it!”

John!

“Close, but not quite.”

He growled and grabbed my wrists, keeping them against his chest when he lifted his head from the mattress to kiss me. The fact that I was straddling his nearly naked hips, and that both of us were already out of breath, quickly acquired a new meaning.

I had just gotten him out of the blue silk when there was a knock on the door.

Our kiss broke and we stared at each other. The colour was high on Sherlock's cheekbones and his hair was a complete tangle. How loud had we been? Our laughter must have been heard by some of the neighbours, if not all.

The knock came again. “Hide!” I whispered and clambered off the bed, hurrying to the door, making sure the state of my trousers wasn't too indecent.

It was Stamford standing in the hallway, expression smug when he glanced past me into the flat. “Evening, John.”

“Hello. Er. Do you need something? I was just in the middle of- writing the-”

“Yeah, sorry to bother you, but is Sherlock here?”

“Sherlock? Why would he- why would he be here?”

Stamford shrugged, trying to look innocent, the bastard. “Just thought he might. Thought maybe I heard him.”

“Ah. Well. No. I-”

“Um, are you sure?” Stamford's gaze was fixed on something behind my back, and I guiltily turned around.

On my bed, the blanket was like a small mountain covering a suspicious shape curled up under it.

“Sherlock, that's you, isn't it?” Stamford said, trying admirably not to laugh.

The blanket mountain shifted, and the edge was lifted to reveal Sherlock's scowling face. “Michael”, he greeted the man coolly, which would have made much more of an impression had he not still been red in his face, and hiding under a blanket on all fours.

“Hi Sherlock”, there was laughter in Stamford's voice now, “sorry to bother you, but I'm upstairs working on your new number. I was wondering if the two of you have some time to spare and can come up and try it with me?”

“Of course”, Sherlock said, trying hard to sound business-like enough to preserve his dignity. “We will be right there.”

Stamford looked at my blushing face, his eyebrows only twitching a little bit in amusement, before he left and closed the door behind him.

Sherlock's eyes met mine, and at once we were howling with laughter again.

“You're the most ridiculous man!” I gasped, collapsing onto the bed next to him. “Why did you hide there?!

“There was no time!” he defended himself, trying to untangle himself from the sheets.

“Then lie flat, not with your arse in the air!”

“I was caught off-guard!”

I laughed even harder at his fruitless squirming, placing myself on top of him to trap him further in the blankets. I love you. The words choked off my laugh, making my breath stutter when I managed to keep them in, almost too late.

His laughter morphed into a cough. When he had calmed, he looked up at me gravely.

“You trust him.”

“Yeah.” I smiled softly. “Stamford's on our team.”

Sherlock still looked wary, but he nodded. “Let's go.”

He trusted my judgement enough to walk up the flight of stairs to Stamford's flat wearing his dressing gown. And it was one of the most perfect things I have ever seen, Sherlock sitting next to Stamford by the piano, looking soft and private, singing One Day I'll Fly Away with his gaze lost in the view outside the window. The red lights from the windmill blades passed over his face, barely touching his skin but giving it a warm glow. Occasionally he looked over at me. I sat by a table and tried to breathe, tried to do anything resembling what the writer should do during a session like this.

After some time, the door opened and in came Gregory and Molly. Sherlock's eyes flickered to me, and I gave him a tiny, reassuring nod before standing up to greet them. The practice session turned slowly into a party when bottles were opened and glasses clinked. Sherlock was looking increasingly surprised at the kindness he was shown by the others, eyes again searching mine. I smiled back at him, wanting to crush him into my arms and tell him he was allowed this, wanting to give him the world until he believed it was truly his.

When he rose to get another bottle from the kitchen, I thought I could see his sung words in the folds of the blue silk, his voice serene and sincere.

I follow the night
Can't stand the light
When will I begin
to live again?

I had to go after him.

I reached out and put my hands lightly on his waist, letting my nose graze the warmed silk on his shoulder.

“John…” he breathed, turning to face me.

I raised my chin. “Yeah”, I whispered against his mouth.

“We're not alone.”

“They can't see us in here.” He let me sneak a sweet taste of his bottom lip, a heavy breath gusting out through his nose onto my cheek.

We didn't stay for long after that. The look they all gave us when we left told me we hadn't needed to keep up the pretence of heading for different beds. Sherlock looked befuddled at the way they wished him goodnight, using his name as though he was a friend.

“They do see you as a friend”, I told him when we walked down the stairs.

“I don't have friends”, he protested.

“You have plenty.”

“But- how? I'm horrible to them.”

I shrugged when I reached the landing. “That doesn't work on some people.”

He turned around before my door. “Don't I know it”, he murmured.

I laughed silently. “You're stuck with me, you know.”

His eyes were shining softly in the dim hallway. “I know.”

We didn't put the light on when we entered my flat. The darkness seemed to prompt silence; silent kisses, silent caresses, silent shaky breaths. Silk rustled softly when it pooled at our feet, and Sherlock's naked body was standing tall and hot in the middle of our sanctuary.

He took my hand gently and led me to the bed, carefully undressing me before helping me down. I couldn't see his face as I lay on the mattress, only the silhouette of his curls and his slender shoulder against the window.

He bent to kiss my chest, so slowly, as though certain this night would go on and on, the sun never coming up to disturb him.

I hissed when he slipped lower on the bed.

“You know you don't have to do that”, I whispered.

“Yes”, he breathed into my hipbone. His sensuous French curled deep in my belly: “I want to, John. Let me have you, John.”

I whimpered, the sound sudden and shockingly high in our quiet bubble of darkness. Then the tip of his tongue took a careful taste of me, and I did it again.

“Christ, Sherlock, I…” The words were barely breaths, but he heard them.

“John”, was his answer, and the rest of it was without words.

When I dared to glance down, his eyes were closed, eyelids smooth with pleasure. I slid my hands lightly through his hair, lifting the fringe that half-hid him from me, loosely draping his curls over my fingers. His mouth opened further then, taking me in deeper, and the beauty of his face in that moment was almost too much to bear.

I looked at him until I couldn't control myself any longer, my eyes screwing shut and my head falling back, breath cold and harsh in the back of my throat.

When he crawled back up on the bed and I wrapped my hand around him, he was so rigid he must have been aching.

“Oh God, you're so hard from that…”

“Yes”, he whispered brokenly, unsure whether he should be ashamed of the fact.

I moved my hand to make him stop thinking, and he grabbed my wrist to speed me up. He soon didn't remember anything but my name.

 


 

Oh, Maharajah, how can you doubt my devotion? You must know the effect you have on me.

Sherlock was alone in his dressing room. I was in a meeting with the composers that morning, and the ensemble was enjoying their coffee break.

Sherlock did not eat. Never inside the Moulin Rouge, and hardly outside it either. It was slowly getting more difficult for me to entice him to it. At the time, I attributed it to stress and nerves.

That's not what it was.

Sherlock sat with his chair turned towards the dirty window. Weak sunlight got through the glass, but nothing else did.

You must know the effect you have on me. You make me feel like a virgin. Touched for the very first time.

His beautiful voice was sugary and dulled in the room crowded with dresses and corsets, not even half of them his own.

Like a virgin.

“I need you to go to the tower tonight.”

He had not heard the footsteps, but then again, Holmes had a penchant for dramatically sudden appearances.

Sherlock didn't turn his head. “Can't.” His voice dropped back to its normal, clipped nature.

“Sherlock.” Holmes walked into the room, stopping next to his chair. “You know it's in the contract.”

Sherlock glanced up at him. “You signed that contract. Knowing full well that the demand is unreasonable. I need the evenings to work.” He made a gesture over the script on his lap.

“I had no choice but to sign. If we do not oblige Moriarty, the whole show is in jeopardy.”

Sherlock didn't miss a beat. “Likewise, if I do not perform perfectly in this show, it will not succeed. And if the show doesn't succeed, Moriarty will have wasted his money anyway.”

Holmes stared into Sherlock's eyes without blinking. “He does not see it that way. He made a specific request of seeing you every night at eight, and a man such as he is used to getting what he asks for. Without him supporting you, you will be nothing.”

“But he is supporting me. He is preparing a new dressing room for me as we speak.” Sherlock smiled confidently. “All that money he invests in the show? He appreciates art just as much as I do. I'm certain he recognises that the work is the most important thing.”

Holmes paused, looking conflicted.

“And if you are wrong in your deduction?” he carefully asked.

“I'm never wrong. Why else would he bother with all this?”

Sherlock rose from his chair, letting the script fall onto the seat with a decisive snap. With his back turned, he missed the pained expression on Holmes' face.

“Take one night off, Sherlock. Just to keep him happy.”

Sherlock pivoted on the spot. “One night off?” His eyes narrowed. “What you're asking is that I work every night, only that I spend more time on the work that I don't actually care about.”

“You don't have the luxury of choosing between types of work. Remember what you are.” Holmes' eyes were hard, and for a moment, Sherlock's were not. Holmes lowered his chin, gaze intent on Sherlock's face. “What is this about, Sherlock?”

Not much got past Holmes, but there was one actor great enough to fool him. Sherlock scowled, arranging his rudest expression onto his features. “The work”, he answered. “It's all that matters to me. I will not become a real actor if I spend the nights as a whore.”

Holmes smiled his joyless smile, his soft voice almost dangerous. “Yes, you will. In fact, Moriarty might be your only chance at a different life.”

Sherlock's stare was hard, but before he could answer, there was a timid knock on the open door.

Martha appeared in the doorway. “Sorry to intrude, but I was sent to tell you that your new dressing room is ready.”

Sherlock grinned triumphantly at Holmes and followed her out the door.

“Eight o'clock, Sherlock”, Holmes called after him.

“Tomorrow, perhaps”, Sherlock tossed back over his shoulder.

When he was out of sight, Holmes sank down onto the vacated chair. For just a moment, he allowed himself to put his elbows on his knees and hide his face in his hands.

 

Chapter Text

So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do
You see I've forgotten if they're green or they're blue
Anyway the thing is, what I really mean
Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen

 

“Martha, have you seen Sherlock?”

Martha smiled at me. “I would imagine he's still in his new dressing room.”

“New dressing room?” I glanced at the clock on the coffee room wall. “He's needed on stage for the next rehearsal, and I was hoping to run a few things by him first.”

She winked. “I'll show you the way.”

We walked past the room that he'd shared with three of the girls – dirty, messy, tacky as ever. Martha led me through another hallway, one that was quieter and emptier, until we reached a closed door with an ornamented sign on it. Sherlock's name was painted there in curly letters, red against gold.

Martha left with another wink, and I knocked on the dark wood before I opened the door.

The room was larger than the last dressing room, but it was obviously furnished for one person only. There were spotless mirrors hanging on the walls, dressing tables overflowing with expensive-looking bottles and jars, and a large walk-in closet for Sherlock's costumes. A bed was half-hidden behind heavy, cream-coloured drapes, and there was a bolstered chair in red satin. There were small tables and pedestals with sculptures and picture frames, and on every available surface, there were bouquets of fresh red roses.

Sherlock was standing by a dressing table, looking into its round mirror and applying rouge to his cheeks. His suit jacket was tossed onto the bed, leaving a midnight-blue shirt and a pair of braces that framed his back beautifully.

His eyes met mine in the mirror and he spun around. “John!” he smiled.

I closed the door behind me. “Hi. Wow. This all yours?”

His smile was so wide that his teeth showed. “All mine. I am the star.”

I laughed. His excitement was contagious. “Don't I know it.”

I walked over for a brief kiss. I had barely pulled back before he started talking, his French so fast I could barely keep up, gesturing to the particulars of the room. When he showed me the brands of his new make-up, my eyebrows rose.

“Holmes certainly put a lot of assets into just one of his employees”, I commented.

“Oh, this was Moriarty”, Sherlock said dismissively.

I paused. “Moriarty?”

“Yes, of course. He is the one investing in my acting career.”

I frowned. “Is that really what he's investing in?” I eyed all the roses. Sherlock didn't answer – maybe he didn't hear, absorbed as he was by a jewellery box. I tried again: “I just- I don't like that man.”

Sherlock looked up. “Why? He's pouring money into the project that is literally your sustenance.”

“Yeah, well I still think he's… He gives me a bad feeling.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “A feeling. Oh my.”

“No, I'm serious. I think we need to be careful with him.”

He scoffed. “Moriarty is the one who makes all of this possible. Yesterday I was crowded into a dressing room together with the brainless whores, and today I have this.”

His voice was cold, leaking through my skin and making me stiff and ill at ease.

“So this – a room full of expensive stuff that marks you as better than everyone else – that's what's important to you?”

Performing is important to me.” Every trace of a smile was gone from his face, and I recognised the hard and arrogant man from the stairwell after the party that first night. “I told you before; all I care about is the work. Music, art, acting. It is the only thing that lights a spark in this dull existence.”

I pressed my lips together. “The only thing.”

“My mind is constantly overloaded with data, millions of details that you can't see. I need a distraction, I need the work. I need the success of this production more than you can comprehend.”

“And you'd do anything to get that, would you.”

“Obviously.”

I nodded to myself, fighting not to let on how upset I was. “And why is Moriarty doing this for you?”

“He knows what it is to be surrounded by idiots. He knows boredom. He knows the cure.”

I gave a short, bitter laugh. “Well I hope you'll be very happy together.”

He frowned at me, uncomprehending. “Don't be an idiot.”

“Don't you see what he's doing?” I exploded, gesturing around the room. “He's trying to buy you.”

“John, please. No need to get all jealous because of some flowers.”

“I'm not jealous!” I yelled, refusing to back down even when I heard the blatant lie in my own voice. “I just think you should consider where all this stuff is coming from.”

Sherlock's face was shut down. “Moriarty is doing me no harm. All he does is support me. If you don't want to witness my success, you might as well get out.”

“Fine.”

I turned without hesitation, heading for the door. I was halfway out of it when I lost the grasp on my dignity, paused, and half-turned. I didn't look at him when I asked:

“When you said the only thing, did you… Do you…” I sighed. “Never mind.”

I went out and closed the door behind me.

 


 

But I prefer a man who gives expensive jewels.

I was sitting on an uncomfortable chair next to Stamford, leaning forward with elbows on my knees, trying to get away from my own twisting guts.

“Could you step forward a bit”, Stamford said, “allow Gregory to pass behind you? Yes, there, that's good. Take it from the line again, Sherlock.”

But I prefer a man who gives expensive jewels.

I clenched my jaw. Did I have to write that bloody line into the show?

“Gregory, I need you to walk slower. Look at him, you want to have him, you want to conquer him – yes, that's it, okay Sherlock, go again.”

A deep breath made Sherlock's broad shoulders rise and fall, the braces straining over his chest.

But I prefer a man who gives- No, this is stupid. Stupid.

Stamford looked up in surprise for a second, then fell back into his chair, defeated. “What's stupid.” It wasn't a question, but Sherlock was happy to answer.

“The dialogue doesn't flow! This scene doesn't keep with the pace and tone of the rest of the script. I can't speak these words.”

I raised my chin, looking up at him on the stage. “It's your job to speak the words I write for you.”

He looked like a thundercloud, his scowl as dark as the blue of his shirt. “I am going to rewrite this scene”, he announced.

“You can't do that”, I answered him calmly, ignoring the stab in my stomach when our eyes met. “If you want to, we can look it over together, but-”

“Fine”, he snapped, already on his way down the stage stairs. “We will do it now.” He marched over the floor, passing my chair without even glancing my direction. “Come on, John.”

Those three words. They ensnared me and held me tight, pulling me after him wherever he went. The air left my lungs in a rush. He was acting, I realised. My tongue darted out to wet my lips before I could stop it. I hoped I was even half as good at acting as he was when I turned to Stamford, telling him to move on to the next scene without us while I tried to handle Sherlock's antics. Then I hurried after him across the dance floor, praying that no one could see the hope in my step.

We were quiet when we walked across the courtyard. My fist was twitching by my thigh, clenching and splaying the fingers in turn. I tried to catch Sherlock's eye, but he stared straight ahead, walking half a step before me.

I followed him into the windmill and out onto the street on the other side. “The flat?” I asked in surprise. It was only afternoon; he usually didn't come over until evening.

“Come on, John”, was all he said, and he opened the door to my building.

A thrill went through me. Sherlock went first on the staircase, allowing me a devastating view of his behind working under tight suit trousers. When we reached the fourth floor, he yanked my door open and pulled me inside. He closed the door behind me in the same movement that crowded me against it, his mouth hot on mine before I had so much as taken a breath.

Up until then, our adventures in my bed had been restricted to nights only. The stolen kisses that had seen daylight had all been kept within the walls of the Moulin Rouge, easily and often interrupted. Here in my room, everything was quiet except for us, the whole space ours to claim. It felt so wonderfully wrong, indulging in filthy kisses with afternoon sun begilding the window frame.

When I undressed him, every pore of his skin was exposed for me to see, every nuance of the blush spreading from his cheeks down over his chest, every tiny facial muscle that twitched with want. He let me see it all.

I remember that it felt as though the walls could see us, taking in and keeping our secret for us. Looking out over my room now, I can almost see us still here, stumbling naked to the bed, beyond feeling self-conscious about the vulgarity of it all.

He didn't say anything about our argument earlier, and I didn't either – somehow, this was enough. His skin, spread broad under my palms without any garment to interrupt it, was a wordless promise. I kissed him deeply, he tilted his head to accommodate me.

He broke the kiss and sat up. I made to follow him, but he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. I was lying on my side on top of the covers, and he shuffled around to lie back down with his head in the opposite direction. I didn't have time for coherent thought before he scooted closer to me, his erection pushing against my mouth. My lips fell open and I instinctively started sucking, relishing the tiny moan from somewhere below me.

His face nuzzled in between my thighs at first, moving upwards as his cock slid in and out of my mouth. Then his tongue was on my root, lapping its way up along my shaft. I gripped his hip, fingertips digging in.

It felt almost unbearably good; his lush mouth sliding around me, the velvety skin of Sherlock on my tongue, the proof of his desire hot and hard. I couldn't stop moaning around him, and I had to let go to gasp for air when he gently suckled at me. I forced myself to dive back in, seized with a need to take him with me.

A long finger briefly joined my cock in his mouth, then his hand slid in between my thighs. I unashamedly raised my knee to let him slide his finger into me. I broke away for a long, helpless moan when his fingertip pressed just there. His mouth kept caressing me, and I shoved him back into mine, all finesse gone. Then his finger slid over that spot again, and my head fell back.

“I can't-” I gasped. I pressed my face into the crease of his thigh, breathing hard, kissing his shaft with open mouth when I could achieve enough presence of mind to do so. “I'm sorry, you- You're so- oh-”

He hummed around me, a deeply pleased sound.

“Ohhh, more-” I begged, and his mouth immediately speeded up, finger pressing hard inside me.

When I couldn't do anything other than gape, he shoved his cock back into my mouth, thrusting shallowly. Though I was beyond coordinating any pleasure for him, fluid leaked out of him onto my tongue. It was so hot, the way he took what he needed and gave me everything.

I forgot everything about keeping quiet when I came, the loud moans floating through the daylight.

As soon as I could breathe again, I swallowed him down.

 


 

Afterwards, he was lying in my arms, back pressed against me. He was cooling fast under a layer of sweat, so I put us under the covers, stroking his chest and his arms to keep him warm.

“Do you know I wanted to hold you like this from the moment I saw you?” I murmured into the delicate skin of his neck, not really expecting an answer.

“Yes”, he said, because of course he would. Then he amended: “Well, I'm not sure I could have imagined… this, specifically.”

I lifted my face on the pillow. A lock tickled my nose. “You thought I only wanted the sex?” I softly asked.

“Men typically do.”

I strewed a string of kisses onto his neck and shoulders. “You should always have this”, I mumbled. “You're wonderful.”

He wriggled back closer to me.

“I did see something…”, he started after a while. “There was something different. Something didn't quite add up.”

“What, the first night?”

“Mm. You were a contradiction. A puzzle I could not solve in a glance. That is unusual, you know.”

I stroked his neck with the tip of my nose. “Is that why you danced with me?”

“You were clearly the most interesting person in the room. Less dull than all the thirsty, rich suits grabbing for anything within reach.”

“I thought it was because of my limp.”

“Well. Also true, but perhaps partly a… justification.”

“You had to justify dancing with me?”

His tone grew huffy: “I couldn't very well admit that I was attracted to you.”

I giggled in his hair. Couldn't resist repeating his words. “You were attracted to me.”

He scoffed, but there was no bite to it. We silenced for a while, my fingers keeping up their slow paths across his torso. When he spoke again, his voice was serious.

“I just wanted… to know. What you were like. If you really were different, or if you were just like them.”

I pressed my palm over his heart, feeling its reassuring beat. “I saw at once that you were different. I couldn't wait to find out how.” The sun was setting now, and the words were easier to say in the growing dark. “Then you turned out to be the most brilliant person, the best man I've ever known.”

My breathing was slightly irregular with the honesty of my words, and I tried to control it so he wouldn't know.

“I am not those things”, he said quietly.

It hurt me that he truly believed that, but I chose to let it go for now. “Well, you can't tell without knowing the people I've known, can you?

He chuckled. “True.”

I reached up and put a hand in his hair. He sighed in pleasure and melted deeper into the mattress.

“And what about me?” I asked, carding through his hair. “Did I disappoint?”

“No.” His voice was liquid and quiet. “You were even more remarkable than I suspected. Which was precisely why I knew I should not have danced with you.”

The lights across the street flickered on. A path of red from the windmill blades moved over my wall.

“And do you regret it?”

“No”, he whispered.

 


 

I watched their backs from a corner of the hall. It was the first any of us had seen of Moriarty in weeks – he hadn't visited since that day when I first took Sherlock home with me. His expression as he watched the rehearsal was bored, bordering on disgusted.

Sherlock, on a chair beside him, hadn't bothered dressing up for him this time. He wore his suit over a red shirt – the same shirt that he had worn the first time he kissed me. Feeling my gaze on his neck, he turned his head. His eyes were glowing, a secret smile hiding somewhere in the heat of them, before he quickly turned back.

I reined in my smile before I walked up to them, crouching behind their chairs. “Excuse me, Sherlock.”

Sherlock turned again, acting coolly surprised to see me.

“I haven't quite finished writing that new scene”, I went on. In the corner of my eye, I saw Moriarty slowly turn his face to me, but I didn't allow myself to check his expression. “You know, the… Will The Lovers Be Meeting At The Sitar-Player's Humble Abode-scene. I was wondering if I could work on it with you later tonight?”

Sherlock watched me, amused glint in his eyes, but Moriarty was first to answer.

“Sherlock is quite busy tonight, I'm afraid.”

Sherlock's eyes flicked between us, his mouth opening and a small frown appearing on his forehead.

“Oh. It's not important.” I rose to my feet. “It can wait until tomorrow.”

Sherlock stared at me in outrage. “Oh, how dare you?” He got up from his chair. “It cannot wait until tomorrow. The Lovers Meet At The Sitar-Player's Humble Abode-scene is the most important in the production. We will work on it tonight until I'm completely satisfied.”

I struggled not to smile at the innuendo. My acting abilities really were nowhere near Sherlock's mastery; he was haughty and snappy, nothing revealing what our plans for tonight were.

Moriarty, inexplicably, broke out in a slow smile. His wide, black eyes made it look manic. “Really?” he said, his voice surprised and amused and much too high. “You're turning down the magnificent supper I've arranged for you in the Gothic tower?”

“Of course not, Moriarty.” Sherlock turned to him with a smile that was a bit too cold. “We will have it tomorrow.”

Moriarty kept his gaze, the smile melting off his face as he spoke. “I will hold you to that promise… Virgin.” At the last word, there wasn't a trace of a smile on his face, the nickname spat out as if it tasted bad.

And oh, it did.

Sherlock nodded stiffly at him. “Excuse me.” He turned on his heel and walked in the direction of his dressing room.

Moriarty looked after him, then slowly turned to me. His face didn't give anything away; a blank, dark mask, a dead stare.

I tried not to look like a man who had just been chosen, once more, by the most dreamlike creature walking the earth. “I'm sorry”, I offered, and walked out of the building.

Moriarty's eyes felt like electricity on my back.

 


 

I entered the elephant, just as Sherlock had told me to that morning. The chamber was empty, illuminated by the sun standing low in the sky.

“Sherlock?” I said quietly.

There was no answer, though I heard something above me. I went to the golden heart-shaped ornament at the front, for the first time peering up at the stairs rising to the sides. I stepped onto them, climbing the side of the elephant's head. I realised how incredibly high this animal really was when the ground stretched out below me, only a thin handrail there to ensure my safety.

Sherlock was standing inside the small balcony on the elephant's back. It was made out of four golden poles, crimson curtains draped around them, holding up a small, pointed roof. He looked at me when I took the last step on the stairs, reaching out to me in silence. I crossed the elephant's back, taking his hand and stepping into the balcony beside him.

“I wanted to show you”, he murmured, wrapping his arms around me from behind.

I looked up and let out a sigh of reverence. The autumn had come upon us, and the afternoon sky was high and clear, a light blue that seemed to expand further up than it ever had before. It had been obscured by clouds for days on end, but today the sun was there, glittering on the golden handrails at the sides of the elephant's back. The air was crisp and clean, like breathing in the high sky and the pale sunlight.

Paris lay outstretched by the elephant's feet, set on fire by yellow and red trees. It was beautiful, crisp and unashamedly colourful, vast and whirring with life. We were a part of it, so small at the centre of the busy city, and at the same time we were closed off, safe in the small balcony, in the small haven of one another's arms.

Sherlock's cheek settled against mine. “My Paris”, he whispered.

I put my hands upon his, wrapped around my waist, and thought, My Sherlock.

And he was, in the ways that mattered.

But not in every way.

 


 

“May I?” Moriarty's voice was toneless and disinterested as he stood in the doorway to Holmes' office.

Holmes hid his surprise, gesturing to a chair. “Please.”

Moriarty ignored him, taking the opposite chair. Holmes held himself impassive as he himself sat down in the discarded chair.

“How can I help you, Moriarty?”

“I need to change the contract”, Moriarty said thoughtfully, not looking at him.

Holmes' eyebrows lifted. “Change the contract?”

“Yes. There is a clause to be added.”

There was a silence that Holmes eventually had to break.

“And what clause would that be, Moriarty?”

“One that binds the Virgin to me.” Moriarty finally looked at Holmes. “Exclusively.”

Holmes breathed in and breathed out, once.

“It is not common practice to make such a change to an agreement that has already been reached.”

“Perhaps not”, Moriarty said, leaning back in his chair. “But we will make it regardless.” He lowered his head, looking dangerously from under his lashes. “Or have you forgotten I am the one holding the deeds to the Moulin Rouge?”

“Certainly not.”

“The Virgin will be mine.” In his eyes, the grey castle outside the window towered, holding everything that could be and everything that would; holding cold rocks and icy jewels, holding pale skin and suffocating dresses, holding sprawled limbs and pale eyes turning away for some small escape.

“With all due respect”, Holmes tried, “this seems to be great lengths to go-”

“Do remember that I have been kind enough not to bring up the fact that he has not fulfilled his duties to me so far. Not once.” Moriarty's voice was calm. “I'm not a jealous man, I just-” – and his voice turned to a scream so suddenly that Holmes jumped: “-don't like other people touching my things!

His face was monstrous, his voice still echoing without sound in the office. They stared at each other, Moriarty not even blinking, until Holmes finally spoke.

“I understand completely, Moriarty.”

Moriarty's face lit with an almost childish smile. “Good!”

I wasn't there in the room. But for the sake of humanity, for the sake of goodness, for the sake of love and brotherhood, I sincerely hope that Holmes' hand at least trembled when he signed that second contract.

 

Chapter Text

One day I'll fly away
Leave all this to yesterday
What more could your love do for me?
When will love be through with me?

 

The red entrance below opened a fraction and a tall figure hurried across the street. His hair was hidden under a black hat, but even in the darkness I recognised his gait and his characteristic coat. He was out of breath when he burst into my room minutes later, shrugging off his outerwear.

“You're late”, I said when I walked up to him, giving him a quick kiss. “Everything all right?”

Sherlock coughed, catching his breath. “Fine. Just Mycroft being insufferable.”

“Yeah? He tried to make you stay?”

“Mm. Gave me a speech on how a change in the contract reinforces the need for me to-”

“Change in the contract?”

Sherlock turned away to hang up his coat. “Moriarty came to see him about it today”, he said distractedly. “He has, as of now, exclusive ownership of me.” He spun on his heel, spreading his hands ironically to the sides to show himself off.

I felt as if something was stuck in my throat. “Exclusive ownership?

“John, it doesn't matter. You know me; I don't care about the rules.”

I watched him when he crossed the floor. “Still, it matters. You- you're a human being, for Christ's sake.”

He looked at me in slight reproach. “Don't get all philosophical over this. The only practical consequence is that we need to be more careful than previously.”

He stopped by the window, looking out over the rooftops, or perhaps at his own reflection. I watched his back, the red silk, the black braces.

“No”, I said. “No, this will only get worse.”

“Well, there is nothing we can do about it, so let's just-”

“We could leave.”

He turned, face twisted in a scowl. “What?”

“We could leave the Moulin Rouge.” When I spoke the words, I felt them releasing something that had been painfully tied in my guts. My vision cleared at the possibilities, and what had only been a vague hope before I spoke now seemed like the most obvious solution.

But Sherlock simply turned back to the window. “Don't be over-dramatic.”

“No, I mean it. This is shit, the way they're treating you, the way we-” I stepped closer to him, trying to make him look at me. “We are good together, Sherlock. There's no reason why we shouldn't be allowed to be together. But Moriarty – he will just keep trying to force us apart.”

Sherlock crossed his arms over his chest and sneered at me. “And where do you propose we go?”

“I don't know. Anywhere.”

“Oh, that's a grand plan indeed.”

“Stop it. I haven't thought it through yet, all right, I-”

“Clearly”, he cut me off, taking a few steps away from me and leaning against the wall. “Neither you nor I have money to sustain ourselves.”

“We could get money. Somehow. I could find some writing work, maybe even some doctoring – and you, you could be a detective.”

“What?” he scoffed.

“I'm serious”, I said, refusing to let his display get to me. “You're a genius, Sherlock. Martha told me about how you put her abuser in jail. That's incredible, Sherlock. Simply incredible.” He looked at me in silence, and I tried a small smile. “The police needs you.”

He shook his head briskly as if to get rid of my words. “The police doesn't listen to me, John. The only reason I accomplished that was that I worked undercover and sent the tip anonymously. I didn't get any recognition, and I certainly didn't get any money.”

“But you could. I honestly believe you could.” I stepped forward, trying to close the distance he had created. “You could be so much, Sherlock. If you gave it time, I know-”

“No, you don't know.” He turned away, hiding his face. “No one would want to have anything to do with someone like me. The Moulin Rouge is what I have; here I'm protected.”

“But you're not”, I insisted to his back. “You're being sold – neither Holmes nor you have the faintest idea what Moriarty intends to do to you, and yet you're just signed off to him, no questions asked. That's not protection, Sherlock.”

“It's better than the alternative.”

He pushed himself off the wall, pacing in my crowded room. I nodded to myself.

“Living with me”, I said.

“Living on the street”, he said sharply, stopping in the middle of the floor and finally looking at me.

“No, it's not”, I said calmly.

“No?” His face was at once terrifying. “And what gives you the right to say that? Have you ever lived on the street?”

Suddenly I wished he wasn't looking at me any more.

“No.”

“I have. I've been living the better part of my life on the street. And if it weren't for the Moulin Rouge, I would still be there, or – more likely – I would be dead.”

He was tall and defiant, holding himself high so as not to look lonely and small in the centre of my battered floorboards.

“What-” I started, but couldn't bring myself to voice a question. “When-”

His voice was softer when he spoke again. “My parents were gone. I can't even remember them. Never had a home besides the gutters of Paris. I was fourteen when I first tried drugs – I don't know what took me so long, really.”

I raised my hand to my face, pressing thumb and forefinger against my eye sockets.

“I don't remember much of what followed”, Sherlock went on. “I had no money, I needed the drugs. All I could offer was my body, so I did.”

I dropped my hand and shook my head at the floor. “You were just a kid.” I looked up at him, and he shrugged.

They certainly didn't care about that. Nor did I. By the time I was seventeen, I always knew how to get what I needed. And what I needed turned out to be enough to nearly kill me.”

“You took an overdose.” I tried to keep my voice level and doctor-like, even with my stomach rising to my throat.

“And Mycroft found me”, Sherlock confirmed. “He offered me a spot at his newly-founded nightclub, to protect me and help me to an acting career, if I stopped taking the drugs. You see, I don't need your pity, John. I have a roof above my head, I have nice clothes, and I have an opportunity to become a real actor. That's important to me, it's- it's important.”

“I know it is”, I said quietly.

His mouth fell closed, and he stared into my eyes. We were frozen in place, my room turned to unforgiving ice around us. The only warmth was the connection between our eyes, like a living thing vibrating between us.

I was the one to break the silence. “And- and did you… I mean, are you-”

“I have been clean since I moved here.”

I nodded, my burning eyes dropping to the floor.

“I don't know what to say. I'm- so grateful that you survived.” I looked at him in the hope that he would see how much I meant that. He didn't move, just stood his ground, stoic and breakable in the middle of the room. “But I don't think this is the only way, Sherlock. We have each other now, and I won't let anything happen to you. You don't need the Moulin Rouge to become a star – you're a great actor, you can-”

“John, how can you be so naive?” he interrupted fiercely. “Don't you think I've tried? Don't you think I've been working all my life to be able to do something that matters to me? I tried to do it by myself, learned to read, stole books from libraries, studied what I was passionate about. Science, arts, performance – I was so stubborn, I couldn't bring myself to do what my brother did. But-”

“You had a brother?”

He fell silent, briefly biting his lips.

“Have.”

I cocked my head. “Where is he now?”

He eyed me, a measuring gaze, before he tensed his arms over his chest, puffing up his shoulders to make them look broader.

“It's Mycroft.” The name was like a slap. He knew it would be, but he ignored it, repeated it. “Mycroft is my brother.”

“Mycroft Holmes?”

“Yes.”

“How-” I didn't bother to keep my voice calm any more, the pitch rising when I spoke. “How can he do that? How can he sell- ?!”

“To save me!” Sherlock exploded, arms flying out to his sides. “He has always tried to save me. First, he tried to show me how to work our way up in society, to 'become someone'.” His face twisted in disgust at the words. “But I loathed him for sucking up and changing himself just to get money and status. I couldn't do it, I couldn't be so… false.”

His face was a deep scowl, and he must have thought that it hid him well, but it didn't. Not at all. Seeing him tell this story for the first and only time was like seeing right into him, bloody guts and battered heart, and it was unbearable.

“I left him at fourteen”, he went on. “I was so certain that I could do it my way. My genius was enough, I thought, and if I studied science, I could be a detective. My acting talent was enough and I would soon find myself famous. Well, look how it turned out; Mycroft had enough assets to found the Moulin Rouge, and I became a drug addict too high to notice being fucked.”

I was vibrating with restrained anger. “So he hired you at his brothel, so he would make the profit from you being fucked.”

“He hired me to give me a chance at becoming a real actor.”

“No, he's using you!” I finally yelled. “He's your brother and he's using you. You're the Sparkling Diamond, you're the one who cashes in money for him. He exploits your brilliance so he'll climb higher in society, selling his own little brother to anyone with a fat enough wallet!”

“It doesn't matter, John.” His face involuntarily contorted in a twisted smile. “I don't care about selling my body – it's just a tool. The brain is what counts, everything else is transport.”

I shook my head, my eyes prickling. “How can you even say that?”

“All I care about is the-”

“No, it's not!” The sheer volume of my voice made him swallow his words. “Sherlock, it's not. I know you. I've seen you. You know it, and you know that I know it.”

We stared at each other in the following silence. A map of everything we had done was suddenly superimposed on my flat, our bodies imprinted all over it; all the places where I had held him, where he had whimpered against my skin, where he had surrendered everything that he always held on to so tightly. He saw it too, because he didn't look outraged any longer, he only looked frightened. I wanted to walk up to him, to save him from the cruel open space in the middle of the floor, to hide him in my arms. Soon, I promised myself, soon I will.

“You deserve so much more, Sherlock”, I said, trying to put the embrace into my words instead. “You deserve everything. You're a beautiful, brave human being. We could leave all this, we could leave right now-”

But Sherlock's eyes narrowed. “Right now?” he repeated. “And what about the show?”

“I don't care.” I held his gaze and refused to blink. “Sherlock. I don't care about the show.”

His lips twisted in disdain. “Well, I do. If you cannot see that-”

“Yeah? What are you going to threaten me with? Because I do see that, Sherlock, and you know I do. You're just picking a fight to drive me away-”

I'm picking a fight?” he cut in, laughing without humour.

“I'm only trying to say that we can be together! What is it about that prospect that scares you so much?!” I was yelling again, as if that would make him listen. “I'm not like them, Sherlock, you said so yourself – I'm different, I won't hurt you, I won't abuse you or abandon you-”

“This isn't about you!” Sherlock roared.

The force of his voice swept the room clean, bereaving it of every other sound. The silence pressed against my ears in the emptiness that followed.

“No”, I finally said, voice calm and barely audible. “I know. This is about you. It's about how you don't think you're good enough to live true to your heart.”

“John-” he tried to interrupt, but I spoke over him:

“It breaks me to see that.”

He looked at me for a few silent beats. With no energy left to fight, he simply said: “You have no idea what you're talking about”, and turned away to get his coat.

“No, don't go.” I followed him to the door, praying that he would look at me. “Please don't go. Please talk to me.”

He hastily put his coat on and opened the door. But he halted in the doorway, half-turning, showing me the sharp profile of his face.

“Goodnight, John.”

 


 

On a stale summer day, the city looks pale and dulled. The overcast sky leaks bright grey onto the streets of Paris, making the cobblestones below my attic window drab. My walls become an undefined, dirty white, and the red lights of the Moulin Rouge across the street are permanently out. The world seems deserted now the doors to the brothel are locked, and the windmill that rises above the entrance looks lonely. It looked even more so before, back when the blades were always turning aimlessly. When the elephant still stood in the courtyard, it seemed dusty in the daylight. You could see, then, the tackiness of the golden ornament covering the head.

But when the city was swept up in the sharp air and colours of autumn, and when darkness conquered the sky and seeped into the alleys of Montmartre, electric lights began to glow. The windmill was bestrewn with red light bulbs, the blades glowed and turned into a hypnotic advert, the Moulin Rouge started its pulsing beats and beckoned every pedestrian to come in and play.

Back then, the golden heart-opening on the elephant's head attracted the eye alluringly in the darkness. A glimpse of the softly glowing interior spoke of love and secrets. Back then, there was a man moving inside; as if he were the one bringing life to the buildings, to the city, to the night.

I follow the night…

Sherlock's lonely, clear voice was drowned out by the wild Paris nightlife. Yet it was the only thing to be heard, sung on a whole different frequency from any other sound.

Can't stand the light.

I couldn't hear him from across the street, but I could see the notes in his slow movements in the head chamber. From my table at the window I watched his dark silhouette, framed by the golden heart.

He looked as if he belonged in the artful, exotic interior, with his perfect, porcelain skin, his sculpted lips in bright red, the protruding bones of his cheeks and clavicles, his jewel eyes. The red silk of his shirt melded with the glowing windmill before him.

When will I begin to live again?

I tried to focus on writing. But my hand was trembling, clenching muscles refusing to release. Our argument was still echoing between the walls, and I never wrote in the evenings without Sherlock in my room. I kept getting lost in the view outside my window, unable to stop wondering how he was doing, and how he planned to spend his night if not in my bed.

I was slightly ashamed that I kept making sure that the lights in the Gothic tower were out.

One day I'll fly away
Leave all this to yesterday

I could sense him watching me.

Not wanting to pressure him, I tried to keep my eyes on my typewriter instead of watching him.

He leaned against the gold, staring out at the lights outside, murmuring the song just to ground himself with the vibrations in his own chest.

What more could your love do for me?
When will love be through with me?

He pushed off the wall and climbed the stairs hastily. Trying to get away from the memory of two bodies pressed against each other in that very spot, trying to get away from the words he placed in the still air of the chamber. Singing to himself – stupid.

The view from the elephant's back was different now than it had been earlier in the day, when he had shown me the Paris autumn; the colours of the leaves were invisible now. Now everything was black or white; darkness or electric light. The Moulin Rouge was the red heart in the middle, and he was the centre of it.

His home. Where he belonged. Where he had power over his destiny and where he had no power at all.

The cold wind hit him in the face, cooling his thin silk clothes. He spread his arms, and with the blowing wind it was almost like flying. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to want it. He willed the wind to sweep my words away, to keep his heart hard and stiff.

He leaned his head back, closing his eyes against stars that weren't visible anyway. His chest was heaving, trembling, open and fragile, so easy to crush.

Why live life from dream to dream
and dread the day when dreaming ends?

He sat down inside the balcony, hugging his knees with his arms. I saw him, a red sign in the dark, he was the heart of everything I knew. He saw me too, the profile of an unassuming writer, a glowing light in the window that was so small, and yet so important, yet ruining everything.

One day I'll fly away”, he mouthed to himself, hugging his knees tighter.

He didn't move, just stared into the night and the furtive city, tears forming in his eyes by the wind.

Fly, fly away.

When I finally gave up on writing, as well as on the secret hope that he would come back that night, he was still sitting motionless in the elephant balcony.

 


 

Next morning, there was frost on my window when I woke up. The room was freezing, and it didn't help that my bed was only holding one body. I stepped barefooted on the draughty floor and went to the window, half-expecting to see Sherlock still sitting there on the elephant's back.

It was grey and empty without him.

I got dressed in my new suit that day. Holmes had invited a journalist to cover our upcoming show, and we had all been ordered to dress for the occasion. The pay from my writing work had permitted me to buy a suit of my own, one that fitted me better than Gregory's. I chose my newest and whitest shirt to go with it and buttoned the black jacket over the braces.

When I smoothed down my hair, Sherlock's voice said military haircut in my ear. I closed my eyes briefly and waited in vain for the anxious twist in my stomach to pass.

It got worse when I arrived at the Moulin Rouge. It wasn't only the journalist that was visiting that day; Moriarty was there again. His hand rested on the small of Sherlock's back when I first spotted them.

I avoided them as well as I could for the rest of the day. Not once did I permit my eyes to land on Sherlock, but that didn't mean that I didn't see him constantly, lurking in the edges of my vision. He was dressed just like me, in his best suit, all sharp black lines hugging him flatteringly, and a crisp white shirt underneath. He kept the jacket on all day.

It was late in the afternoon when I felt his eyes on me. I didn't look up at first, cowardly, dragging out the moment when I had to face whatever was between us now. But I could sense his eyes coming back to me, and I couldn't resist for very long.

I could have cried at the sight of him. It was ridiculous, how much I had missed looking into those eyes during the few hours I'd been without them. His face wasn't unrelenting and hard as I'd feared it would be; instead it was tentative, almost shy. His eyebrows twitched upwards, barely noticeably, and he jerked his head minutely to the side. I lowered my chin a bit, holding his gaze.

He turned to Moriarty then, smiling and saying something apologetic, and then he swanned away. He didn't turn to make sure I was following, but of course he didn't have to.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor a dozen seconds after him, too nervous to feel the prickling sensation of Moriarty's eyes on me. When I entered the corridor upstairs I saw a door shut. I opened it and found Sherlock standing in a cupboard that was nearly empty, except for some cleaning supplies standing in a corner and looking lost.

I closed the door behind me. There was a small window near the ceiling, letting the last grey daylight in. I wished he had chosen a larger room; in there, I could barely move, and the space between our bodies was intimately narrow. There was nowhere else for me to look than at Sherlock, and he was staring at me as if completely unaware of how unsettling his gaze could be. His hands were clasped behind his back, and he looked perfectly formal in his black-and-white clothing – but I could sense the thrilling smell of him in the small space.

Downstairs, at that moment, Holmes glided into the theatre, nose high, eyes sweeping over the working bodies. His umbrella swung from his hand.

Sherlock opened his mouth, pausing for a drawn-out moment before he decided what to say. “You haven't invited me home tonight.”

I looked between his eyes, unsure how to answer. There was something new in his face, something serious and determined.

“I didn't know if you wanted to come with me”, I finally said.

“Of course I want to come with you.”

We managed to stay serious for almost one second, but I saw the twinkle in his eye when he heard the innuendo, and I couldn't help laughing. We tried to quiet our giggles, leaning forward to each other, foreheads touching. At once, my hands were at his waist and his arms were resting on my shoulders. I felt his body shake with silent laughter, dissipating the tension between us as if it had been nothing more than smoke.

“Holmes.” The owner turned to find Moriarty standing behind him on the former dance floor, his mouth a grim line.

“Moriarty.” Holmes smiled stiffly. “What a pleasant surprise.” He took a small step to the side to dodge an acrobat executing a complicated somersault.

In the cupboard, we scarcely heard anything from the rehearsals nearby. The small room amplified our breathing in our ears. When our laughter ceased, Sherlock was gazing at me from under his lashes.

“Don't look at me like that”, I murmured, “we're not at home.”

“Does it matter?” he crooned, bending forward to kiss my neck.

“Sherlock…” I sighed, already too warm for my suit. “We shouldn't-”

“Hmmm”, he hummed against my skin, stepping in to put his body flush against mine. When I felt his desire against my stomach, there was no turning back for me. I didn't care that we were in an unlocked cupboard right in the middle of the Moulin Rouge, with Moriarty and Holmes both creeping in the halls.

I should have cared. But in that moment, all that mattered was that Sherlock was devastating in his formal attire, clean and sharp. His skin was hot and alive above his collar. The indecent bulge in his trousers was a secret that only I had access to.

“I do hope that you find amusement in our little rehearsals”, Holmes said politely. “Naturally, everything is arranged for that special supper in the Gothic tower tonight.”

“Eat it yourself, Holmes. The Virgin doesn't want it.”

I opened the button on Sherlock's suit jacket, sliding my palms across his chest, under his hidden braces, hearing his shaky exhale when I skimmed past his nipples. He kissed me, his mouth immediately open, soft and filthy, his hands grasping at my thighs.

I shouldn't make a mess of Sherlock's hair. But when I slid my hands into it and he moaned quietly, it felt worth it. He grabbed my lapels, drawing me closer, and I ground my hips against his. “John”, he slurred with my upper lip between his. “I want you, I want you…” I kissed the words to an end, but he pulled back, leaning down to put his lips against my ear to let me hear everything he meant. “John, I want you.”

“Nonsense”, Holmes said, “Sherlock has looked forward to this night immensely. It is, assuredly, all that he has wanted.”

Sherlock dropped his forehead to my cushioned shoulder and his hands to my fly. I made a bitten-off sound in the back of my throat when he pulled me out, and I scrambled for something to hold on to on the coarse back of his suit jacket. His shoulder blades protruded under the thick fabric.

We both gasped when his cock joined mine in his fist, clinging to each other, each hoping that the other would keep us upright. I closed my hand over his, and together we started to move.

“I understand an obsession, Holmes.” Moriarty's voice was round and heavy. “His work is important to him. Quite right. But he's always at it with that writer…

Moriarty paused, letting the word sink in before continuing.

“If I don't see him tonight, I might well leave.”

Holmes' eyes were slightly too wide. “No, I'll insist that Sherlock takes the night off.”

Two fully dressed bodies moving against each other in waves – sharply cut suit jackets – open trousers – mouths hanging open, feverish kisses cold from sucking in air – white shirts dangerously close to being stained – hot necks releasing scent and sweat – hips pushing into joined fists – sliding together – heat rising in cheeks – staggering and grasping and arching – “Sher-

Sherlock's head was thrown back, and it was increasingly hard for him not to moan. I dropped my mouth to his throat, gasping for air, both of us losing coordination, fumbling, trembling, grinding. “Come on, John.” His voice was rough and deep.

“Sherlock Holmes”, I whispered shakily back. For the first time, I felt him explode under my hands at the same time as I did.

The cupboard was filled to the brim with panting, humid breath. His breaths were mine and mine were his, drawn heavily from each other's cheeks, chins and mouths.

“All right”, Moriarty said, face severe. “Eight o'clock, then.”

 

Chapter Text

If I should die this very moment
I wouldn't fear
For I've never known completeness
like being here
Wrapped in the warmth of you
Loving every breath of you

 

“So you'll come tonight?”

Sherlock kept walking for a few more steps until he passed a curtain-draped pole. When he was hidden from the dance floor below the balcony, he turned.

“Yes”, he said, voice deep and seductive, eyes searing into mine.

I kissed him to the sound of the rehearsal close by, made reckless and bold by the hormonal cocktail surging through my blood since our cupboard encounter.

“What time?”

He smiled at my impatience, and I smiled back, playfully rubbing my nose against his, making him giggle.

“Eight o'clock.”

I sucked at his bottom lip, still swollen from my kisses. “Promise?” I peppered his cheeks with tiny pecks, and the blush that still hadn't disappeared from his cheeks deepened.

“Yes”, he laughed. “Go!”

I took a step back and grinned at him.

I didn't realise it was the last time I would see him look so light and careless. But nonetheless I must have savoured it, because I can still remember his face with crystal clarity. That uncomplicated joy in his smile, and his eyes radiant when looking at me.

I slipped away down the hallway to gather my things and go home for the day. My muscles were liquid and my senses were dulled. I had gotten away with having sex right there at work; there was no stopping us. I didn't even look up to see if anyone was watching me.

Sherlock walked across the balcony in the opposite direction, still helplessly grinning to himself. But his smile froze in an instant and he halted when he found someone standing before him. A shadow solid and black, with the sharp tip of an umbrella digging into the hallway carpet.

“Have you lost your mind?”

Sherlock's eyes went wide at Holmes' grim tone. He opened his mouth to speak, but Holmes wasn't finished.

“Moriarty holds the deeds to the Moulin Rouge. He has exclusive right to your sexual services. He's spending a fortune on you, he wants to make you a star. Here's your one chance at becoming someone, and all you have to do is court this duke.”

Sherlock moved his mouth to speak several times, but he felt too small to find his voice. Suddenly he was a little boy again, disappointing his older brother and doing everything wrong, wrong, wrong. Even though he tried not to care about that, he also never liked being told off.

Holmes' voice became as close to a growl as it ever had been: “And you are dallying with the writer.”

Sherlock pulled himself together to act, scoffed in mockery. “Mycroft, don't be ridiculous.”

Holmes tipped his head dangerously to the side. “Oh, you think you can hide from me, do you? Slip into a cupboard and engage in explicitly forbidden activities, without being noticed by me.”

Sherlock's façade slipped and his face hardened. He couldn't resist getting a jab back: “Well, it certainly took you long enough”, he spat. Next second, he could have bitten off his own tongue.

“I see.” Holmes' lip twisted in disgust. “An ongoing affair. Oh Sherlock, it's the first rule; don't get involved. And yet, even you lose your head over an infatuation like all the other brainless-”

“It's not an infatuation”, Sherlock bit out.

“No”, Holmes agreed, “it's nothing.” His voice was calm and smooth again, his eyes small and lifeless. “Go to the boy and tell him it's over.” Sherlock turned his face away. “Moriarty is expecting you in the tower at eight.”

Sherlock's face crumpled for just a moment, but it was enough for Holmes to catch it. He looked at Sherlock for another second, but offered no consolation before he turned away.

Sherlock closed his eyes.

It had always been a dream that couldn't last. He would lose his John one way or the other, and had he allowed himself to think about it, he would have expected it sooner than this.

He just hadn't counted on how much it would change him. The day before, he'd had the chance to leave when things got too serious. But he had sat on the elephant's back, watching the night advance, and for the first time in more than a decade, he had felt true. He felt everything that he had ruthlessly locked away when he first fell into the simple oblivion of beguiling substances. And he had let himself feel it, and want it, and believe that he deserved something that was real.

Sherlock walked aimlessly through the halls, every second churning in his gut and moving him closer to eight o'clock. In the tower, servants were preparing supper, and in my flat, I was lighting candles.

Instinct told him to choose the tower. Mycroft said so. Mycroft's words weighed so heavily. There was still that little brother's eagerness for approval, that despair in getting it so very seldom. All his life, Sherlock had loathed himself for it. But no matter how many times he spat Mycroft's name and insisted that he was in charge of his own life, he had never managed to free himself of the weight of Mycroft's words.

But there was a small voice lodged somewhere behind his breastbone, quiet but clear, undemanding but persistent. It sang of safety and completeness. It sang of warmth and calm. It sang of softly stroking fingertips and beautiful breaths.

It sang of the end, because at the very core of it all, in the quiet shimmer behind the breastbone, the soul always knows. It sang of me, unwashed hair and overgrown beard, dirty vest and braces, moonlight on my typewriter and face in my hands. It sang of him, dipping backwards in a sea of rose petals to the sound of distant applause.

It sang that it was all right, that there was nothing to fear, if he stayed where he was supposed to be.

To change everything; it ached. To admit that he, Sherlock Holmes, priding himself on his rationality, was prepared to stay in a dream and fight the invincible. To admit that he, Sherlock Holmes, could love and be loved in return. It ached, and he rubbed his breastbone hard, coughing a bit against the hurt.

He paused by a mirror on the wall, staring at himself without recognising the look on his own face. He wasn't supposed to want this. He was supposed to get out the moment it got complicated.

He was running out of air.

He stared at himself and tried to raise his chin, imagined changing into a dress and walking to the tower. He had walked that way to so many strange men before and it had never mattered. But this time, he kept seeing my face, and had to close his eyes again.

The ache in his chest was searing. Suddenly, he heard himself gasp for breath. Sharp wheezes cutting his ears but no oxygen in his lungs.

He coughed, but he could barely get enough air to do so.

At once, there was the paralysing terror of illness; the fear that it would last forever, that the merciless claws of the cough would from now on always hold his lungs. He put a hand on the wall, leaning against it and trying to get the cough under control. But he was choking, he couldn't breathe.

He raised his eyes back to the mirror, catching the panic on his own pale face, coughing until his lungs felt destroyed. Those dark stains on the glass, they could be blood – but his vision was blurring.

He tried to look at his reflection and seek support. No one else was there, and he was seconds from losing consciousness.

I am a doctor. I should have known.

I should have thought twice about that cough he had.

I should have caught his slow but sure loss of weight, how every rib could easily be counted, how his wrists were nothing in my hands. I should have questioned why he never wanted to eat, not assumed it was common Sherlockian stubbornness.

I should have noticed that he woke at night in a cold sweat, or that chills shot through him even in the warm cocoon of my blankets. I should have seen how exhausted he was, pushing himself ruthlessly through the rehearsals, sweat shining on his forehead in big drops. I should have seen the fever in his eyes.

I am a doctor. I should have known that a force darker than jealousy, and stronger than love, had begun to take hold of Sherlock.

Sherlock fell with a last panicked gasp for breath. He could not be awoken minutes later when he was found with his arms awkwardly sprawled and his cheek pressed to the carpet.

 


 

Holmes' spyglass was trained on the high windows of the Gothic tower.

Moriarty walked across the cold stone floor, correcting the setting on the long supper table.

I was standing on my balcony, staring over at the Moulin Rouge and trying not to worry, not yet.

The windmill blades turned as though nothing could stop them.

“Where is he?” Holmes muttered, and he left his office to hurry to the stage building.

When he entered Sherlock's dressing room, Sherlock was lying on the bed. Whoever had helped carry him there had been chased away by Martha. She had managed to get him out of his suit and into a soft dressing gown; faint pink over his pale, almost grey skin. He was drenched in sweat, and his lips were almost as blanched as his complexion.

An elderly doctor was sitting at the edge of the bed, leaning over Sherlock's lifeless body. The right sleeve of the dressing gown was rolled up to expose the crook of his arm, and the doctor was drawing his blood. The air in the room stood still, smelling of illness and fear.

Holmes stopped in the middle of the room, watching the scene from a distance. Martha was dabbing Sherlock's forehead with endless care, the doctor worked in grave silence.

“What happened?”

Martha didn't look at Holmes. “He just fainted.” Her voice was thin and she shook her head. “We don't know.” She visibly abstained from looking at the doctor and whatever she would be able to read on his face.

“Do you think he'll be up and about tonight?” Holmes asked the doctor.

The old man turned to look at him, speaking in hushed tones. “Tomorrow morning at the earliest.”

Before Holmes could answer, there were hurried steps in the hallway. Anderson burst into the room, and without sensing the atmosphere, he spoke in a panic as soon as he saw Holmes.

“Moriarty is leaving!”

 


 

Where Sherlock had underestimated the rich duke, Holmes knew exactly what he was dealing with. Where Sherlock had miscalculated Moriarty's motives, Holmes had been aware of them from the start. Where Sherlock had missed the fact that he was in the middle of a dangerous game, Holmes knew how to play.

It wasn't about the show, it never had been.

It was about overpowering the brightest mind of Paris. It was about claiming the fairest body on the stages of the night. It was about capturing the most precious jewel and ensnaring it in the tightest leash. It was about holding the ropes loosely to make him believe he had escaped, it was about allowing him to relax and expose his vulnerable chest, and then tugging the leash violently in his weakest moment.

It was about becoming the king, to win adoration and fear where at the beginning there was confident arrogance. It was about owning Sherlock Holmes so completely that he would want to be owned, heedless of whether it was a God or a Devil ruling over him. Moriarty would be his saviour and his destructor all at once, freeing him from his darkness at the price of his soul.

Where Sherlock had thought Moriarty wanted something young and fresh to control, what he really wanted was something sharp and clever to conquer. Holmes knew this, and so he knew what to say.

Sherlock's supposed wish to wait until the opening night was elegant in its symmetry and drama. Sherlock's realisation that none of his previous encounters could compare to what Moriarty would do to him – that he was in fact a virgin until Moriarty claimed him – was irresistible to the duke. Sherlock's fear that he wouldn't get through the last weeks of rehearsal once Moriarty had deflowered him, was just what Moriarty planned for him to feel. And Sherlock's fantasy of seeing Moriarty in the front row on the opening night, feeling his eyes on him the entire time, being owned and trapped and knowing that he would be invaded that very night… was in fact Moriarty's fantasy.

Holmes played the game well. Even under Moriarty's motionless stare, he went on and on about Sherlock's devotion, knowing how to tempt the duke's weak spots. Moriarty played the game even better. He saw the dread under Holmes' diplomatic mask and deduced that the owner had finally caught on. Holmes knew about me.

It was clear to Moriarty that at this point, Holmes had forbidden Sherlock to keep seeing the writer. What was not clear was whether Sherlock had obeyed. If he had, it meant that the game was progressing, and Sherlock was slowly becoming Moriarty's. But if he had gone to the penniless writer's humble abode that night, then it was time for Moriarty to deploy a much less pleasant strategy.

As they spoke, the door to the tower opened. Holmes' mouth shut when Moriarty's manservant Moran walked quietly across the floor to whisper in his employer's ear.

Sherlock was indeed at the Moulin Rouge that night, his presence confirmed by Moran himself.

Moriarty straightened under the new information, and Holmes held his breath.

“Then, I suppose…” Moriarty drawled. “I will see you at the dress rehearsal, Holmes.” He didn't blink, and it made him look inhuman. “Send my love to my Virgin.”

Holmes tipped his chin minutely.

 


 

The dressing room was grazed by the faint light of the rising sun, still below the horizon. Sherlock's eyes moved erratically behind closed eyelids. Sweat shone on his forehead no matter how many times Martha wiped it clean.

They were standing away from the bed; Martha, Holmes, and the doctor with his black hat and his serious eyes.

“Monsieur Holmes”, he said, hushed and careful. Martha stared at him, afraid to move. He continued without preamble, knowing that there was no way to lessen the blow, nothing to do other than to keep his voice gentle. “Sherlock is dying. He has consumption.”

Martha let out a tiny sound, covering her mouth with her hand.

Holmes' face hollowed. The untouchable man of ice melted away when he slowly turned his head, staring with trepidation at the weakened body on the bed. At once, Mycroft Holmes was more human than anyone had known him to be in years. His pale skin was grey and haggard, as if exhaustion crept in his very bone marrow. His eyes, always so guarded, were naked and deep. Whether it was grief or love that tormented him more, no one could tell.

“My little brother is dying?”

The doctor lowered his head, silently deploring that there was nothing he could do. He left them watching Sherlock, neither Martha nor Mycroft able to look away. In the still innocence of Sherlock's sleeping face, in the wild, inky curls, in the pouting lower lip, Mycroft could never quite rid himself of the image of the little boy, curious and trusting. His slender pickpocket hands reaching for books rather than food. His rapt eyes, big and blue, flying over pages while ignoring his brother's prompts to eat. The flush on his face when Mycroft had said something right, something that made Sherlock decide he was worthy of an endless lecture on Sherlock's latest passion. The scowl on his forehead when Mycroft proved himself not to be worthy, more and more often as they got older.

That meagre body, just barely containing its breakable heart, sleeping on dirty cobblestones, safe for only as long as Mycroft could ensure it. Every time he disappeared, every time he came back, every time he danced confidently and every time he smiled insecurely, Mycroft's ribcage threatened to crack right open. He could never keep up, he could never understand, he could never do enough. How do you protect something that is too good for this world?

Sherlock's face was smooth for the moment, the fever wiping all his sharp edges away. He already looked oblivious, beyond knowing or caring about the sorrow of those he was about to leave behind.

When the first sunlight brutally struck the city, Holmes turned to Martha. His eyes were still large and blank. His slim shoulders carried all the weight of the world.

“He mustn't know. The show must go on.”

She looked at him in disbelief, her mouth thinning and her forehead crinkling. She said nothing.

When Sherlock finally woke, only Martha was there. He surveyed the room; the angle of the light, the dirty cloths, the soaked sheets he lay in. He coughed, and she gave him a brave smile and forced a light comment.

They looked at each other, Sherlock waiting, Martha withholding.

He closed his eyes again, not quite managing to smooth the crease between his eyebrows.

“You can go now.”

A flicker of pain twitched across Martha's face, but she obeyed without a word.

When the door shut, he stood on weak legs, pulled the sweat-smelling dressing gown closer around himself and walked to the large mirror on the wall.

He stood motionless before his reflection. His skin was transparent, the rings under his eyes were bruises. His lips were pale and cracked.

The man in the mirror didn't offer any more clarity, didn't show any other clues, didn't reach any different conclusion.

He was twenty-six years old, and he was going to die.

 


 

When he finally came through the door to my flat, Sherlock had washed the evidence of his fever away. His hair was clean, stark red lipstick put a splash of colour on his white face, and thin black make-up lines around his eyes hid the exhaustion lingering there.

I was still awake, fingers resting on my typewriter keys without any words coming forth. I rose reflexively when he entered, walking up to him without knowing what to say.

There was something in his face; I did glimpse it beneath the makeup. Something sad, such a contrast to the giggling man in the hallways. The corners of his mouth were heavy – but his eyes shone. They raked over me, and before I could ask him anything, he took me into his arms and kissed me with a passion that made me instantly forget my doubts.

He scrambled to undress, his fingers frenzied over buttons. We were soon entirely naked, and he immediately wrapped his arms tight around me, holding me in an iron grip.

My worries of the night were drowned in the fast wave of arousal. I could feel Sherlock's intense focus like touch on my skin, and in his searing kisses his single-minded determination. He lay on his back, his long legs wrapping around my waist and locking me there.

“You this time”, he whispered into my ear, his fist grasping the back of my head, fingertips digging into my scalp. “Please.”

Sherlock didn't usually beg me in bed, and the urgency of it almost frightened me. I lifted my head to look at him.

“Are you sure?”

His eyes were wild, pupils huge, and it sent a surge of pleasure through me. He couldn't lie still, his pelvis shifting against me, his head lolling back and forth on the pillow, fingers clenching in my flesh.

“Please”, he repeated, gazing at me, breathing the words like a secret. “I need to feel that I'm yours.”

I was kissing him before I was entirely aware of what he was saying, and when my brain caught up, I screwed my eyes shut. I love you. The words rose to my tongue again, and had I not been deep in his mouth I wouldn't have been able to hold them in. If I didn't find a way to still my heart in my chest, it might burst.

When he took me in, his head was thrown back, mouth gaping. He was still, except for the way his folded legs trembled under my hands. I could barely bear to keep my eyes open, overwhelmed by the privilege of being allowed inside him. He was so warm, making room for me, and he held me so tightly.

“You…” I trailed off, not even finding poetry to tell him how I felt. “Sherlock-”

“John”, he hummed, and his strained voice sounded relieved, a soft moan of pleasure escaping him. “More.”

I pushed all the way in, breath stuttering, hands coming up to grasp his. He twined our fingers together and held on tightly, straining his neck to raise his head and kiss me.

“Does it feel good?” My voice leaked into my whisper by the strain not to move and finish too early.

“H- aaaah, feels incredible, plea- move in me-”

His breaths were a steady stream of my whispered name when I set up a rhythm. His eyes closed in bliss. I watched him as the tension built in his pelvis, as my name dissolved into wordless moans.

“More- Harder-”

I drove into him until he forgot everything else, everyone else, until his pleasure was all there was in the world. When he climaxed, there were the hues of a smile on his face. I followed him, and for the moment it was enough.

 


 

The flat was silent. Sherlock's arms were heavy on my back. The sweat made our skin stick together, and his semen was drying between us. I disentangled myself from his arms, and he readily let me go. His eyes were closed. I left him on the bed and went to clean up and get dressed.

When the sun was no longer tentative, bathing my room in golden light, I was sitting at my typewriter.

All night, the Penniless Sitar-Player had waited. And now, for the first time, she felt the cold stab of jealousy.

Sherlock was sitting up against the headboard, wearing his blue dressing gown. His arm was curled protectively over his chest and he kept his eyes averted. He coughed.

His lungs must have ached and burned and demanded a heavier cough than that. He must have controlled himself carefully, not to give it away to me. It must have hurt.

“Where were you last night?”

Even though he was sitting in my crumpled bed, dressed only in thin silk, traces of me still inside him, he felt so far away. His face was closed, nothing left of the burning urgency from before. Everything that had felt so easy when we were connected, now felt hard and unforgiving.

“I was unwell.”

Had I not been blinded by my gnawing suspicions, I might have listened to him and asked him more. But instead I rose from my chair, moving to sit on the side of the bed, and said:

“Don't lie to me, Sherlock.”

I tried to reach for him, but he shifted away, putting his feet on the floor on the opposite side of the bed.

“We have to end it.”

He was looking out the window at the beautiful morning. The gold of the sun rested in his dark curls. My stomach twisted painfully.

“Everyone knows”, he went on. “Mycroft knows.”

I shook my head. “I don't give a shit about what Mycroft Holmes thinks.”

“Sooner or later Moriarty will find out too.”

“I don't care about him either.”

He gave a short sigh through his nose, close to a scoff. “Things don't work that way, John.”

He rose from the bed and went to the window, leaning against the wall with his back to me.

“On the opening night, I have to sleep with Moriarty.” At once, I was furious with him for pausing to think, for voicing what we both knew but pretended we didn't. He said it, and there was no going back from it. “You will be jealous. You will go out of your mind.”

“No.” I swallowed hard. “No, I promise. I won't get jealous.”

He glanced at me over his shoulder, a reproachful look on his face. Then he went to put on his clothes.

“Sherlock, please.”

“It's too dangerous.”

“Since when do you care about what's dangerous?”

I tried to catch his eye, but he avoided it, keeping his real reasons hidden. “We have to end it”, he repeated, because what good would it do me to keep risking everything by seeing him, only to be destroyed when he died?

I turned away when he shed his dressing gown, unable to stand the sight of his beautiful body. When I heard him put on his shoes, I looked over at him again. He sat on the edge of the bed, which was still a complete mess from our last encounter.

It couldn't have been the last, it just couldn't.

“Sherlock.” I tried to collect myself to deliver something calm. “I won't ask you to leave with me again. But we can do this, here, somehow. Because… You should know-”

“John, don't”, he cut me off sharply, looking up at me from under his brows.

“What?”

“Don't make this harder.” He went back to tying his laces, tugging violently.

“It's too late for that.” I was trembling faintly, my throat closing up.

“It was doomed from the start, John.” His voice was soft but determined. “This was always the probable outcome. We both knew it all along.” He straightened and looked at me. “I cannot be with you.”

He rose from the bed and went to get his coat. When he turned back to the room, I was standing right behind him, so close that he was unable to hide.

“What about what you want?” I asked.

He looked back at me for a long moment. He didn't speak. But his eyes were slowly becoming wet, filled with bottomless sadness. In that moment, his face was open again, as if letting me pour into him so he could save as much as possible of me, before he turned away.

I stopped him with a gentle hand on his elbow, and he paused to allow me a last kiss to his painted lips. A breath shuddered out of him when we parted.

He didn't look into my eyes again, and he didn't say anything else before he let the door fall shut behind him. And that lack of connection was what made me realise that it had happened. In the shift from one moment into the next – the shift from the tender press of lips into pulling back, damp skin clinging for just a second – he had ended us.

 

Chapter Text

Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place
Suddenly it moves with such a perfect grace
Suddenly my life doesn't seem such a waste
It all revolves around you

 

I almost didn't finish this story.

I don't know how many days it's been since I wrote the previous chapter, as the nights blur together in sorrow and alcohol. If I had to guess, I'd say a week, maybe more. I was sure that I was done trying to do this.

But at some point, I noticed that Stamford was in my room. Don't know how long he'd been here. It was probably him who had put me on the bed and covered me with a blanket, because I don't think I've gone to bed voluntarily in ages.

I was aching and raw, and I snapped at him for being here, said I prefer it when he's just a piano in my walls. “No offence”, he said, “but it's obvious you need more than a piano piece.”

“What, a blanket?”

“And a razor.”

I ignored him. He stayed anyway, and he should get credit for that, really, because the smell must have been awful in here. Eventually he approached me – bravely, I might add – and gave me a glass of water, which I accepted without looking at him.

He told me it will get better.

“What if I don't want it to get better?” I meant to sound angry and dangerous, but instead I sounded twisted up and close to tears.

“It doesn't mean you'll forget him.”

As I was looking away to hide my wet eyes, it took me a while to realise that he was sitting at the table by the typewriter. This unfinished script lay by his elbow.

“It's great, John”, he told me softly. “I didn't mean to look at it, but once I'd started I honestly couldn't stop.”

“I won't finish it.” My voice was airless and tired.

“But it's your chance at keeping him. Wasn't that why he asked you to do it?”

I cried then, very quietly and for very long. Stamford didn't move or speak, but he stayed until I was finished.

“The bastard”, I muttered at last, and sniffed when I hardly recognised my thick, ragged voice. “Always has to have his way. Even when he's gone.”

“Well, that's Sherlock for you”, Stamford smiled faintly.

And it is. So here I am. Still haven't touched that razor, but I did change clothes. Not anything decent, really, just a vest with an old waistcoat thrown over it, but at least I don't smell now. My rooms are filled with a deep golden morning light, just like it was that agonising morning last autumn… and I am going to finish our story.

 


 

When the door shut behind Sherlock, I put my palms against it, bowing my head between my arms. I could feel his absence like a hole in my belly, and I was shocked by the intensity of it, the physical sensation of loss. The pain was enough to make me surrender and admit to myself that this was something I had never felt before.

I had never loved. Not really. I had already suspected this, because nothing ever seemed to stick, not before Sherlock. Well, practising medicine did, and doing good in the army. Poetry, I have loved that for as long as I can remember. But caring for another human being enough to give them everything? I've certainly tried, but they have all slipped my mind when I wasn't paying attention. I've hoped I was in love, but it was now blatantly obvious that I never had been.

Because this, this was love, and nothing even came close to it.

I straightened, turned on the spot and marched over to my typewriter. I sat down, I rested my fingertips on the keys, and I looked around. The window to the balcony was open, and a breeze rustled the thin curtains, making the sun's gold dance on my walls.

Never knew I could feel like this
Like I've never seen the sky before

The words came hesitantly at first, but grew more certain with the reassuring sound of pattering keys.

Want to vanish inside your kiss

My room grew brighter and the golden sun turned white. I wrote and wrote, barely looking up from my typewriter until every word had found its place. Then I ripped the sheet out and took it with me upstairs.

The door was unlocked. I was in luck; Stamford had finished work early that day.

“I need your help”, I told him, and handed him the page.

He glanced over the first verse, then looked up at me.

“Rehearsals were a nightmare today. Should I ask?”

Even without him mentioning Sherlock's name, the implication was like a punch. He must have read it on my face, because I didn't need to answer before he winced and said:

“Oh, that bad?”

“Stamford, I need this song to be perfect.”

We worked all afternoon, all evening, and half into the night. Stamford didn't complain, and he didn't fail me. He didn't ask, but still somehow understood what needed to be done. His hands shaped the most lovely melody and chords, and I sat beside him on his piano stool, singing the words until they felt right. At the darkest hour, we fell asleep in his living room.

I woke early with a start, immediately getting up to straighten myself out. I didn't allow myself a single moment's pause to think, even less to feel. Stamford and I walked across the street to the Moulin Rouge to prepare earlier than usual.

The windmill was empty, as was the courtyard and the hallway before the theatre. When we were outside the door to the dance hall, however, I could hear singing from inside. I raised my eyebrows at Stamford, and carefully pushed the door open.

A woman's voice echoed through the large, empty hall. A kiss on the hand may be quite continental… I shifted in the doorway to see Mary dancing across the floor, her song confident and vain. She was doing Sherlock's exact number, I recognised, the Sparkling Diamonds version from my very first night at the Moulin Rouge. Every move was there, down to the loud air-kiss after the chorus.

Which was when she caught sight of Stamford and me. She froze, her song cutting off at an awkward point. Her cheeks went red.

“Morning, Mary”, I said pleasantly, entering the hall.

She stared back at me for a second as if daring me to say something, but then changed her mind and averted her eyes. She hurried out of the hall without a word.

“Well”, Stamford said when we walked over to the stage. “I suppose she is at least the second choice, if Sherlock weren't here.”

“She could never do what Sherlock does.”

We sat at the piano on stage. The words and the notes had settled overnight, and it calmed my nerves a bit. But when the first actors arrived some time later, I was still so anxious that I couldn't sit down. I paced in front of the piano, staying furiously focused on what I needed to do.

Sherlock arrived less than a minute before the rehearsal started. No matter how heavy his make-up, it didn't hide the exhaustion radiating from him. However graceful his movements, it was evident that he was keeping himself upright through sheer force of will. He didn't look anyone in the eye when he climbed onto the stage. Untouchable, tall and proud.

Sherlock took a seat in the circle of chairs that I had arranged for the actors and musicians. To see him move and breathe and not be mine hurt even more than I was prepared for. I forced myself to stand still beside the piano, and cleared my throat.

“Er, good morning, folks.” Sherlock lowered his gaze onto the floor. I refused to get distracted. “So, Stamford and I have a last addition to the script. It will be quite a big number, and most of you will be involved, though the duet is sung by Molly and- and Sherlock. It's quite new, so it's not finalised, but we will start practising today. Stamford will work on the arrangements with you and I will finish the ending of the show. I should have it ready in a few days.”

I glanced at Stamford who sat behind the piano. The corner of his lip ticked up in encouragement.

“Yeah. So.” My left hand clenched against my thigh, and I peeled it open. “In this new scene, the Penniless Sitar-Player writes a secret song for the Hindu Dancer.” I kept my gaze straight ahead, not daring to look at Sherlock even out of the corner of my eye. “So- so that no matter what's happening, no matter how bad things get, whenever they sing it or whistle it or hum it, then- then they remember their love.”

I drew a shaky breath and looked at Stamford again.

“Let's do this”, I muttered.

He lifted his hands and started playing. The first notes were soft and slow, almost tentative, but they were a stable enough foundation when I filled my lungs and started singing.

Never knew I could feel like this…

At first, I didn't dare look at anyone in my audience. This was not something I did. My voice had never filled such a large theatre, never claimed the attention of a group of people, especially show folk. I refused to think about that, to think about anything other than making my voice carry the words.

Listen to my heart, can you hear it sing?
Telling me to give you everything

There was a slight tremble on the highest note, but my voice didn't break. I braved a look at their faces, and I could see that I held their attention.

Seasons may change, winter to spring…

A slight pause. Stamford's fingers picked at light notes and draped the room in a shimmering morning light. I finally looked at Sherlock. He was looking straight back at me, expression unreadable behind the make-up – but his eyes, they didn't miss anything. I looked at him defiantly when I delivered the end of the verse:

But I love you
until the end of time.

Sherlock blinked his gaze back to the floor. But I was growing more confident, my voice getting steadier through the beautiful melody and Stamford's delicate accompaniment.

Come what may
Come what may
I will love you until my dying day

Sherlock looked up again, his eyes at once young and a hundred years old, his lips shakily parting around a silent breath.

I smiled when I sang the end of the song. I no longer cared about any imperfections in my voice, didn't care about anything besides making my song heard.

 


 

I spent the rest of the day back in my flat, working on the ending. I couldn't stand to work over at the Moulin Rouge, hearing Sherlock practise the song I had written for him. I forced myself not to think of anything but the work, and I pretended not to wait for a knock on my door. But the sun sank closer to the rooftops, and with it, my heart sank into my stomach. The light faded along with my hope.

There was no knock. In the end, he simply stepped into my room.

I rose from my chair. Sherlock leaned against the doorway for a second, watching my tentative steps towards him, then he let the door shut behind him. He was tall in a pair of black stiletto boots, with high shafts that disappeared under the hem of his tightly buttoned coat.

His eyes were intent on my face when I stopped before him, uncertain. My left hand made a fist at my side and he saw it immediately, reaching out to carefully seal his hand over mine. His thumb swept over my knuckles, a soft touch that made my cramping muscles relax.

We both watched his pale thumb on my tanned skin, and when I looked back up at him, there was a pained wrinkle on his forehead.

“John”, he whispered. I shuddered at the sound of my name.

“Sherlock”, I answered. When he looked up, his eyes were misty.

“John, I shouldn't have- I shouldn't. John.”

“Yes?”

“I don't want to-” His voice cut off and he raised his other hand, tracing one of the braces across my chest, following the path with his eyes. “I miss you”, he breathed. “I don't want it to end.”

I trapped his hand against my chest, closed my eyes and leaned forward until I felt his forehead meeting mine.

“I'm sorry”, he said. I shut my eyes tighter. It was so rare to hear him say that. “Will you-”

“Yeah”, I sighed as I gathered him into my arms. “Of course, yeah.” He did that thing where he fitted himself into the crook of my neck, though his height should have made it impossible. All the tension drained out of me when I felt his body against mine again. “Come what may”, I whispered.

He drew a careful breath. Then he turned his head, his warm cheek grazing mine.

“I love you”, he murmured into my ear.

“Oh, God.” I slid my hand into his hair and grabbed it. Even anchoring myself to his body, it didn't feel real that someone like me was standing like this with someone like him, being told words like those. “My Sherlock.”

He pulled back, fingers going to his coat buttons. He held my gaze when he parted the heavy fabric, revealing the off-white oversized shirt he wore underneath. I felt my eyes widen; it was the shirt he had borrowed from me that first morning. He wore it without trousers underneath, the hem reaching below his pelvis. The boots ended almost halfway up his thighs, leaving a stretch of smooth skin bare on top of his legs.

“Yes”, he said. “I am yours, John.”

I put my hands on his waist, sliding them under the open coat and pulling him in. Through two cotton shirts, I could feel the warmth and solidity of his chest against me. Of their own accord, my hands found their way to the spaces where they fit so well; his shoulder blades, the nape of his neck, the dip of his spine. His body was so familiar at this point, so right against me that I could have wept. I squeezed him closer to me, needing to feel how real he was.

I kissed him, a weak sound of relief in my throat. He tasted like outside air and coffee.

His coat soon slid forgotten to the floor. My hands roamed over his back, the soft excessive fabric of the shirt moving over his firm muscles. He tilted his head, kissing me deeper. I dipped my hand to move it up under the hem of the shirt, and groaned when there was nothing but skin to greet me.

“Do you not-” I panted against his mouth.

“I hoped I wouldn't need any”, he rumbled, seductively low.

I stroked my hand over his bare backside, up the length of his spine. His skin was dry and hot. I slid my hands down again, almost too distracted by his indecent state of dress to notice him working on my belt. His flesh was so soft under my hands, so perfectly shaped for my palms, that it pained me; I couldn't find a way to get enough of it.

As soon as he had rid me of my trousers, he sat me down on the edge of the bed, straddling my thighs without bothering to remove his high boots. I rested my hands on top of his bare upper thighs, my head tipping back in pleasure when his groin came into contact with mine. He claimed my offered mouth, kissing me with single-minded determination, arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders to press me against his chest.

He broke the kiss long enough to pull off my shirt, but I didn't manage more than undo the top buttons of his. At the point where he rose slightly on his knees, bringing his entrance to the tip of my cock, he was sweating in his clothes, the roots of his hair damp under my fingers.

His lipstick had worn off, the natural pink of his mouth matching the flush on his high cheeks. His eyes were closed, forehead creased, lips parted, when he lowered himself onto me. “Ohhh, John”, he mouthed, clasping his hands behind my neck, bringing our wet foreheads together.

“Sherlock”, I gasped, my hands roaming fast all over him, unable to decide how to hold him in a way that would allow me to keep him. “I-”

He moaned loudly when he was fully seated against me, staying in place for a moment. I could feel his heartbeat around me, and suddenly it was impossible not to say it.

“I love you”, I whispered.

“Yes”, he sighed, letting his head fall down into a clumsy kiss. “I'm sorry.”

“It's okay.” I stroked a curl from his sweaty forehead. “It's okay, love.”

His face twisted, and he moved his hips a bit. “Say that again.”

“My love.” I smiled. “My only love.”

He opened his eyes, staring into mine when he started to move.

He was so beautiful in the light from the setting sun. The way he was sweating in my shirt, his slim waist completely disappearing inside the wide fabric. The way his thigh muscles worked above the high shafts of his boots. The way his face was smooth with relieved bliss, the way he moved to take his pleasure from me inside him. The way he didn't hold anything back, no sigh, no sound, and no words. He let them all spill out when he neared the end, praising me and promising me and loving me.

I could barely hold myself back until I felt him clamp down around me. In my release, I almost cried in relief. I had gotten him back. I sang to him, and he heard me.

“I love you”, I heard myself whisper into his sweat-soaked neck collar. “I don't think I've ever loved before you.”

Never knew I could feel like this?” he murmured, the vibrations of it pouring through my naked skin.

I smiled around the painful constriction in my chest that always came with hearing him recite my words. “Want to vanish inside your kiss.

He leaned down, carefully placing his lips against mine. “Every day I love you more and more.” His mouth brushed mine with every word.

I leaned back until his face came into focus. “Stay, Sherlock.”

For the fraction of a second, his smile was sad. But then it evolved into a smirk: “If you get me out of these blasted boots before they stick to me permanently.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, sorry.”

When I had freed him of the boots, I bundled him up under my blankets, tangling both our hands together on the sheets between us until you couldn't tell one from the other.

“So”, I said, looking into his eyes. “This got complicated, huh.”

“Indeed.” He looked at our hands and leaned forward to gently kiss a finger. “Apparently, I cannot be without you now.”

“You don't have to.”

It was a bold promise. Some days I think how stupid it was to promise something I so obviously couldn't keep. But then, some days, I believe that perhaps I did keep this promise. Perhaps there is a way for him to be with me now, even if I cannot be with him.

“Did rehearsals go well?” I asked him.

He hummed. “The arrangement is a bit raw around the edges-”

“-which is understandable, as we wrote this song last night-”

“-and you know what happens when the clarinettist tries to improvise-”

“-which he won't have to, as soon as the arrangement is done-”

“-but the piece is… quite. Well. Beautiful.” He averted his eyes. “It works well with our voices.”

“I'm sure”, I smiled.

He bit his lip, considering whether to speak.

“Thank you”, he finally said.

I grinned. “You're welcome, love.”

He blushed faintly, and then briskly took a breath to break the moment. “Were you working when I arrived?” he asked.

“Yeah. Fitting the song with the ending. It's all falling into place.”

“May I see?”

I rose from the bed and pulled on my trousers, quickly hoisting the braces onto my shoulders without bothering with a shirt underneath. I grabbed the newest bundle of papers and got back to the bed, sitting down at Sherlock's feet.

We didn't leave the flat for two days. We hardly left the bed. At times, it was covered with written pages, passing between us as we worked on the script together. At times, it was a sea of tangled sheets and naked skin. I hadn't known it could be like that. I could never have imagined how when we were kneeling to embrace each other, slowly breathing together and stroking barely-there traces onto each other's backs, that the lingering touch of his lips to my shoulder could be felt right into the centre of my soul.

It was remarkable to get to see Sherlock Holmes when he didn't hide. His eyes were soft without make-up and his face was open to me. When I stood by the foot of the bed, leaning back against the table, wearing his silk dressing gown and reading him a poem from my notebook… then he gazed up at me with unveiled adoration, chin resting in his hands and legs bent at the knees, feet swaying softly in the air. He looked so young, and I felt young, all the extra weight of my army years falling away from me.

At night, he asked me to sing our song to him. And I did, quietly, so that only he would hear me. He rested his head on my chest, listening to my song from inside of me. If I felt something wet on my chest, I simply held him closer, stroking his hair until he fell asleep.

I didn't realise the enormity of what he was still hiding from me. There have been times when I've been furious with him for not telling me and giving me the chance to console him. But I think that it was enough for him to be with me; to have me hold him like that, to hear me whisper my love into his hair. I think he would be upset with me if he found out that I believe I wasn't there for him, even if I didn't know it myself.

He wanted me to know that there's nothing more I could have done. This – what we had those last days – was all he asked of me and all I could give.

I keep telling myself that over and over.

 


 

Back at the Moulin Rouge, we were thrown into the intense chaos of last rehearsal week. The shapes and colours of the stage were settling into something grand and exotic. Costumes were being mass-produced, dances were practised in large scale, all bodies moving as one. The musical arrangers worked hard with Stamford to embellish my songs with the perfect instruments.

The whole show was coming together, my carefully chiselled script playing itself over and over right before me. It was an unearthly experience to see it so palpable and real, and to stand on the floor, knowing that in a few days it would be covered with rows upon rows of chairs, filled with people decked in their finery coming to be entertained. And Sherlock… seeing Sherlock on stage was magical.

The grand number of the production was being shaped around us, every arranger and musician working to make Come What May the unforgettable masterpiece of the show. The Sitar-Player's and the Dancer's secret song had everything, starting with an achingly sweet duet and building into a mighty climax with every singer on-stage, surrounding and adoring the lovers in the centre.

It felt as though they were doing it all for us. Sherlock stood right on stage, smiling at me and singing that he would love me until his dying day, and he looked like a birthday child, glowing and happy and special. I smiled back at him, singing along with Molly and not caring in the slightest who saw the way I looked at him.

Again, I should have.

There were eyes on us. Spiteful eyes, evil eyes.

At the dress rehearsal, everyone was working themselves into a sweat to put it all together perfectly for one single person. Moriarty sat alone in the middle of the former dance floor. He was unmoving, watching the show with his usual mild disinterest; only when Sherlock was on stage did something spark in his eyes.

The greatest thing you'll ever learn”, Molly called out, “is just to love and be loved in return.

I smiled proudly, but at the floor, someone sneaked up behind Moriarty's chair.

“This ending is silly”, Mary scoffed in his ear.

He hummed vaguely without turning to see who it was. “Not at all”, he said. “This whole show is silly.”

“But it doesn't make any sense, does it?” Mary went on, folding her arms across her chest. “The Maharajah offers the Dancer everything, but the stupid Dancer throws it away to be with the Penniless Writer.”

Moriarty's eyes turned to her fast as a reptile. It only took him half a second to read on Mary's face what had been blatantly obvious to everyone during the last rehearsal week.

“Oops!” she gasped, clasping her hand to her mouth in mock horror. “I mean Sitar-Player.”

She tilted her head at him, giving him a smile that was almost one of pride. Then she went away, leaving Moriarty with his eyes going between Sherlock on stage and the writer beside it.

Come what may!

Everyone was singing. Sherlock and Molly stood before each other, arms stretched out, voices gleaming above the orchestra: “Come what may!

Stamford and I sang too, raising our arms as if to carry the production through the last explosive seconds.

I will love you until my dying day!

The orchestra played the last crescendo, cutting off dramatically. As soon as the music silenced, everyone turned to the one person in the audience, eagerly waiting for his applause.

Moriarty was standing in front of his chair. His face was sinister, and he held his hands clasped behind his back. He didn't move.

When the silence was growing uncomfortable, there were hard steps on the floor, and Holmes appeared from one of the shadowed alcoves.

“Magnificent”, he said, aiming a cramped smile towards the stage. “Good work.” He stopped and turned to Moriarty. “I trust that you find your generous offer has been well used.”

“You have certainly been… ambitious, Holmes.” Moriarty's face took on an exaggerated frown. “However. I must say. I'm not sure about the ending.”

I glanced at Stamford, seeing my own irritation reflected on his face. On stage, Sherlock folded his arms impatiently across his chest. He had just executed a brilliant performance and expected praise.

Holmes' eyebrows rose in mild interest. “The ending?”

“Yes, of course”, Moriarty drawled. “The Dancer wants to rise from the underworld; he wants money, fame, a lifetime of security. Yet he throws his only chance away for this tragic Sitar-Player. It's a fairy-tale. It's boring. In reality, power wins.” Moriarty gave one of his manic smiles, and I frowned in disgust. “Once the Sitar-Player is done with the Dancer, she will leave him with nothing. The Maharajah, meanwhile, can fulfil every single wish the Dancer's ever had. It has to be changed, Holmes. The Dancer chooses the Maharajah in the end.”

I had never felt such contempt for any human being as I did in that moment. I was perfectly aware of how little I had to offer Sherlock. And somewhere, in a dark corner of my mind, I resented myself for it. He was made for posh clothes and fancy rooms, he was made for diamonds. Dazzling intellect and ruthless success. Everything that I was not.

But that didn't matter. I furiously stomped down the rising jealousy; this wasn't about that. It was about something that Moriarty hadn't even taken into account.

I opened my mouth to argue, but Gregory was faster.

“But, sorry”, he called from the stage. He was standing on the side in his Maharajah costume. “With all due respect, that doesn't fit with the bohemian spirit that this whole show is about.”

“I don't care!” Moriarty screamed, so suddenly that every person in the room flinched. His face was a battlefield of ire. “Why shouldn't the Dancer choose the Maharajah?!”

“Because he doesn't love you!” I yelled back.

Someone dropped a maraca onto the floor. It echoed in the suddenly deadly-silent room.

Moriarty's black eyes fixed on me as if seeing me for the first time. My stomach turned over, bile rising in my throat.

“Him”, I said weakly, but I couldn't take it back, I couldn't crawl back into the shadows and hide under the illusion of an unassuming poor man. “He doesn't love him.”

I saw it in Moriarty's eyes, that he finally looked and saw the soldier. He saw something of what Sherlock saw. He saw something deep and consuming between us that it was too late to quell. And he knew that he had made a mistake in allowing me in his game for so long.

“I see”, he said very quietly, looking back to the stage. “It's all about love.”

Sherlock's eyes were wide despite his efforts to act nonchalant. He lifted his chin defiantly under Moriarty's scrutiny.

“Holmes”, Moriarty said, not looking away from the beautiful man on stage. His face was tilted down, his gaze at Sherlock from under his lashes predatory and dangerous. “This ending will be rewritten. The Dancer will choose the Maharajah. And there will be no secret song.”

I looked at Holmes and saw that for quite possibly the first time in his life, he was rendered speechless.

“Moriarty”, he finally said. “The opening is tomorrow night. It would be quite impossible to change the ending now.”

Moriarty slowly turned his head. His threatening eyes now bored into Holmes, who visibly paled. And then, there was a voice cutting through the thick tension.

“Mycroft.” I looked over at Sherlock. His face was blank now, his arms dropped to his sides. “Is this how you treat your investor?” he scoffed.

Every pair of eyes in the room were trained on him. Every breath was held when he slowly started to make his way towards the stage stairs.

“The silly writers let their imagination run away with them.” Sherlock's lips curled in disdain.

It was so good a performance, so close to the Sherlock he had once tried to fool me that he was, that I felt an irrational twist of worry. He sauntered down the stairs, exaggerating the movement of his hips from side to side when he slowly drew closer to Moriarty.

“Now why don't you and I”, he murmured seductively, “have a little supper.” He stopped in front of Moriarty, tilting his head to make himself look smaller. “And then afterwards…” His voice was hushed as if trying to be private, but everyone in the room could hear him. “… we can let Mycroft know how we would prefer the story to end.”

They stared at each other, the space between them intimately narrow. They made a good pair, I thought, and hated myself for thinking it. Sherlock's exotic Hindu Dancer dress was like a decoration to Moriarty's expensive suit. Their eyes were equally intense; Sherlock's bright and piercing, Moriarty's dark and unrelenting.

Moriarty's gaze raked over his face, and then flicked over to me. A violent tremor shot through my left hand. The floor was tilting beneath my feet and the air was too thin for breathing, when I turned my back to leave them alone.

 

Chapter Text

Why does my heart cry?
Feelings I can't fight
You're free to leave me
But just don't deceive me
And please believe me
when I say I love you

 

I knew I shouldn't be there.

There were rustling clothes, rushed steps and a hurried “Thank you, Martha”. Sherlock burst out of his dressing room, tall and royal in a black velvet dress.

I should have stayed home, but it turned out I couldn't stand to.

“Sherlock.”

He froze for a second, then turned. His eyes were wary, pleading with me not to say it. My jaw muscles hurt when they clenched.

“I don't want you to sleep with him.”

Sherlock swallowed and blinked hard, but otherwise didn't let his face betray anything. “I have no choice.”

I squared my shoulders so I wouldn't fall apart. My body was wound tight to keep the straight posture. “Yes, you have.” I stared him in the eye, but my voice almost failed me.

A pair of girls went by in the far end of the hallway, laughing loudly. Sherlock glanced nervously at them, and I took a step back into the shadows until they had passed. Then he looked back at me, and he looked naked, his bare shoulders and his big eyes exposed.

“John, you don't know half of what is going on here. Stop being an idiot.”

The insult didn't hold any bite, and I just shook my head at him.

“You know that doesn't work on me, Sherlock Holmes.”

He stepped closer then, his face shifting into frightening focus. “Not only does Moriarty own my sexual favours; he also holds the deeds to the Moulin Rouge.” I lowered my head, shaking it at the floor. “He will destroy everything if I don't go to him.”

I met his eyes again, still shaking my head. I had planned on reasoning logically with him, but I no longer remembered what to say. My throat was tightly closed, refusing to let my voice through.

“It's for us”, he whispered urgently.

“No”, I rasped. “It's not.”

“If he tears the Moulin Rouge down, do you realise what will happen? To you? You need this job, John. Writing is what made you-”

“No, it wasn't the writing”, I cut him off. “It-”

My stoic walls were quickly falling apart. I was losing control over my carefully set face. Sherlock's eyes were softening, and it almost made it worse.

“John. You promised me you wouldn't get jealous.”

“I'm not, I just-”, I wheezed.

Sherlock took a last step forward, pressing his forehead against mine as if trying to push reason into my brain. “It changes nothing”, he murmured. His piercing eyes were all I could see.

I couldn't stand it, I had to break his gaze. He pulled back, glancing down the hallway.

“He's waiting.”

He took a step away, but my hand shot out to grab his. My face was turned to the floor to hide the battle on my features.

“Please”, I said, meaning to sound reasonable. I sounded close to tears.

“John…” he murmured. “Please trust me.” I screwed my eyes shut. “Trust me”, he repeated.

He slowly leaned down, brushing his smooth cheek against mine ever so softly. I could barely breathe, but I heard his breath in my ear, steady and familiar. When he sang, his voice was so quiet it nearly disappeared in the air.

Come what may…

I exhaled shakily, and he repeated the words in only the hint of a breath. Come what may.

He gradually pulled back, keeping his face close to mine. I could feel his gaze burning on my eyelids, waiting for me to look up. It took me a long moment to bring myself to do it.

It was my Sherlock looking back at me. Although his make-up was hard, his face was softly shining with the light I'd only seen when he was alone with me. My eyes wandered over his face, taking him in, hoping to keep him.

“Come what may”, I finally said.

He nodded and tried to smile. I looked into his eyes one last time, and realised that he was waiting for me to go this time. I was the one who had to make the decision.

There was a big hole in my ribcage when I turned away. It let the cold wind in to storm around my heart as I released him.

Sherlock's stoic mask fell the moment no one was looking. He was tired to the bones, so tired that he felt it carve hollows into his cheeks and circles under his eyes. He felt the fever rising. He watched me walk away, taking with me the haven of my embrace, and his eyes slammed shut.

He never let me see. Always had to be strong and beautiful, even when on the inside he was crumpling and burning. He comforted me, but didn't ask anyone to comfort him when he was sent to a man who wanted to consume him. He went to the tower alone, and he went to save us all.

 


 

The Gothic tower was bluish in the sharp moonlight. The stone façade was cold. There was a weak light shining from the high windows in the upstairs dining hall.

The doors to the balcony were open, and on the threshold stood Moriarty. The moon made the side of his midnight-blue suit white. The shadows were long and dark on the floor. Everything was in blue, black and cold white, except for the red windmill blades outside the windows.

Sherlock stepped inside with an air of finality. There was no light flirting this time, no funny tricks. His black dress reached the floor, with a slit on the side of the skirt showing off his stocking-clad leg. His face was concealed by a black veil, and his head was tipped back.

Moriarty turned to him. They stared at each other, the contact sharp and cold like the moonlight.

“Good evening”, Sherlock whispered, the harsh sound echoing between stone walls. “I hope I have not kept you waiting.”

Moriarty watched when Sherlock raised his arms, covered in long black gloves, to slowly remove the veil. Sherlock's skin shone with a bluish glow, and his lipstick was purple in the darkness. There were pearls of feverish sweat covering his face.

His hands trailed down his sides, all the while staring back at Moriarty, both their faces severe.

For our part, we could do nothing but wait. The theatre hall was dimly lit, a cave of warm red, brown and gold. The dance floor was a vast black hole. Actors, dancers and musicians sat in the alcoves along the side. Everyone could feel it; how very close we were to losing it all. We all depended on Sherlock, giving the performance of a lifetime under a pair of malicious eyes and malevolent hands.

I sat down beside Gregory in one of the alcoves. He had made his way through several glasses of absinthe already, and he wordlessly handed me one. I brutally downed it all in one go, my face twisting.

Someone slept on the floor, someone busied themselves by reading a script or sheet music. Most sat in silence, someone coughed, but covered it quickly with their hand. When high heels clicked loudly on the floor, they seemed to break some secret rule of silence.

A hand grabbed my shoulder, pushing me back against the backrest, and Mary dropped into my lap.

“Don't worry, Shakespeare!” Her sharp voice echoed in the subdued room. “You'll get your endin'!” She smiled widely with wicked eyes and leaned in. Her breath smelled sourly of alcohol. “Once Moriarty gets his… end… in.

I reacted too fast for thought, violently pushing her off me. As if everyone had been waiting for the tension in the room to snap, there were immediately several arms there. They captured Mary before she could fall to the floor, and hooked around my abdomen before I could come after her.

“You stay away from me”, I spat, fighting the arms trapping me without knowing why.

“John, take it easy.” It was Gregory's voice in my ear.

“Get off”, I growled. Mary was led away by Irene, both of them looking at me over their shoulders with contempt.

“When you stop it, I will”, Gregory answered.

I let my arms fall to my sides. With the motion of surrender, all power drained out of me. I was panting hard, and my left hand spasmed. Gregory slowly let me go. When I looked around, every pair of eyes in the theatre were trained on me.

The foolish man who fell in love with a man who sold himself.

In the tower, the flames in the fireplace did little to warm the raw air. Sherlock stepped in front of the fire, soaking up what little heat he could get. His dress bared the upper part of his back, exposing his protruding bones, making him look sick in the cold light. Moriarty stood behind him, following his every move, hanging onto his every word.

“The writer has a ridiculous obsession with me.” Sherlock absent-mindedly removed one of his long gloves, acutely aware of Moriarty devouring the sight. “I can't go anywhere without him following me around like a dog begging for attention. It would be adorable if it weren't so tedious.” He laughed lightly.

“But those are pretty words he writes”, Moriarty said mildly. “Bewitching. No?”

Sherlock's heart beat fast as a frightened bird's as he paced in front of the fireplace. My fate, his fate, and the fate of the entire Moulin Rouge were dependent on how well he played this part, and he felt the weight of it every second. His lip curled.

“Oh, yes”, he agreed. “He is talented, which is of course why I indulge his fantasy. We need him.” He stopped and looked over at Moriarty from under his lashes, and his voice dropped into a purr as he took off the other glove. “But only until tomorrow night.”

 


 

A sinister chord rang out from the piano in the theatre. A fiddle joined, the bow cutting deep into the strings in a woeful prelude. Two women walked out of a shadowed alcove onto the dance floor, all alone on the dark wooden sea.

Irene was lit by a white stage light that made her black topknot shine. Molly took a position in front of her, with a tense distance of untrodden floorboards between them. The music trembled and quaked. Irene and Molly shifted minutely. All eyes were on them, and the musicians looked up, curious, prepared to play a game. When they started up a powerful tango beat, Irene and Molly each took a hard step on the floor.

First, there was desire. The two women circled each other, drawing nearer for each step, until they were close enough to touch. Hands reached out, hovering inches above naked skin, heads leaning in without making contact. Gazes never breaking.

A cane clattering to the floor, a lean body pressed up against me. Fingers tingling to reach out and touch, daring escapes, him leading, me following. Reckless giggles.

A long supper table in a cold room, a suited man on one end, a man with naked shoulders on the other. A mile of exotic food between them, champagne cooling in an ice-bucket, silverware reflecting on the blank surface of the table.

Then, passion. Irene's hand slapped against Molly's above their heads, twirling the girl in front of her. Molly's wide, red skirt flew and stood out against Irene's black corset dress. Molly let herself fall handlessly into Irene's arms, I fell helplessly into Sherlock's, Sherlock opened his mouth for Moriarty's kiss.

Then, suspicion. Irene grabbed Molly's wrist. Men sneaked along the edges of their dance floor, eyeing the couple. Molly saw them, and Irene saw Molly, tugging at her arm to get her attention back.

A man in my bed dressed in his favourite dressing gown wasn't enough to reassure me. A contract legally binding a prostitute to a rich duke didn't reassure him. Jealousy, anger, betrayal.

Irene tore at Molly's wrist to make her follow, and Molly's face twisted in real pain. The music built, shoes scraped loudly on the floor, Molly was forced down on her knees. Sherlock left despite my desperate pleading and Moriarty's eyes were blacker than the starless sky. When love is for the highest bidder, there can be no trust; without trust, there is no love. Jealousy will blacken your mind, wind through your guts, ravage your heart. Jealousy will drive you mad.

Irene tossed Molly to the side, finally letting go. Molly grasped her battered wrist.

The lurking men spilled onto the dance floor, one of them capturing Molly for his turn at the tango. Two others moved around them. They stole her from each others' embraces, walked her across the floor, twirled her away to keep her for a moment, pulled her in and buried their faces in her neck. One of them grasped her waist and lifted her up high, her chest opened and her head thrown back in a smiling, silent scream, offering her to the night.

As more people filled the dance floor, I couldn't stand still any longer. There was a large circle around me that nobody dared to tread, not even Mary. I paced along the edges of the floor, but watching the tango wasn't enough to distract me from imagining.

His eyes upon your face.

Sherlock lit up by the moon like a spotlight. Moriarty in the shadows at the other end of the table. Sherlock smiling flirtatiously, trying to look small and stupid. Moriarty pulling his chair back and rising slowly, Sherlock's smile faltering.

His hand upon your hand.

Sherlock's shallow breaths. Moriarty slowly walking along the length of the table. Sherlock picking up a handkerchief and discreetly coughing into it. Moriarty putting his arm across the back of Sherlock's chair, slowly bending down, Sherlock flinching when his face came too near.

His lips caress your skin.

All that naked skin on display, owned by law not by Sherlock himself, but by the man hungrily grazing his gaping mouth across the sensitive neck. Moriarty's tongue invading Sherlock's mouth, Sherlock allowing it, allowing it, allowing it, his eyes open and hollow.

It's more than I can stand.

The doors to the theatre hall were open to let the cold night in. Beyond the dancing couples now filling the dance floor, I could see the castle rise above the elephant. An endless, unyielding wall, miles of stone to shut me out. I tried not to look at the taunting firelight from inside the tower, but my eyes betrayed me. The nausea was building in my stomach.

He wasn't supposed to be with anyone but me.

“You need me.” Moriarty's words grazed Sherlock's shoulder and made his skin prickle. “Or you're nothing.” Sherlock stifled a cough, masking it as a gasp. “We're just alike, you and I. Have you worked it out yet?”

“Worked out… what?” Sherlock's fingers dug into the velvet seat of the divan by the fireplace, grounding him.

“I know you're clever, Sherlock.” The name was like a curse in Moriarty's mouth. “Question is… do you realise that I am, too?”

Moriarty lifted his face from Sherlock's neck, meeting his gaze. Sherlock kept the frown away from his face.

“Of course. A brilliant duke such as-”

“Ahh”, Moriarty interrupted with a smile, “you still don't get it.”

Sherlock smiled back, unsure of what else to do. But it was far too late for him to dull the alert glint in his eyes and hide it from Moriarty. He leaned back in the divan, and Moriarty followed his movement. He took Sherlock's bottom lip between his teeth and released it slowly.

“You will transform from a dirty cancan-dancer into an actor, because of me. I hold every possibility for you in my hands. I can make you a star. I can consume you until you stop craving drugs and start craving me.” Moriarty laughed a little, eyes big and delirious. “See? I am your match, Virgin. I can open any doors for you, or I can make you fall. That's what you like, isn't it, honey? I'm Mr Sex.”

Sherlock's eyes were fixed on Moriarty's torso, avoiding those black eyes. He traced the sharp lines of the suit with cold fingers.

“Yes”, he whispered. “I've known it from the moment I saw you. I have been looking for you my whole life.”

“You must be aching for me. Poor Virgin. Everyone competing for you to satisfy their boring fantasies, playing romance, playing love. Aren't ordinary people adorable?”

Sherlock's eyes flicked briefly to Moriarty's face. “You like to see them competing.”

“Good, very good. I've been watching you for a long time, Virgin.” Moriarty traced a thumb along Sherlock's mouth, smudging his lipstick towards his chin. “And I've always known who is going to win.”

He reached past Sherlock and picked up a jewellery box. It opened with a creak, revealing a necklace made out of a hundred small diamonds. Sherlock exhaled in real shock at the sight of the treasure.

Standing before the mirror, Sherlock stared into his own lifeless eyes as Moriarty fastened the heavy necklace around his throat. It fitted snugly, almost choking him, and the diamonds fell down in a cascade decorating his upper chest.

“Accept it”, Moriarty breathed behind him, “as a gift from this maharajah to his dancer.”

The sparkling diamonds trapped Sherlock's voice. He didn't get a word out in response.

The music in the theatre hall was unrelenting. The dance was made out of sharp turns, brutal steps, vicious spins. I made my way between the couples, eyes glued to the tower no matter how hard I tried to look away. I wanted to scream in pain, but if I did, I knew I would lose it. Instead I fought to keep calm, to keep the blistering jealousy inside the weak borders of my flesh. The dramatic music and dance around me was at once hateful and satisfying, channelling the war that was tearing me apart inside while I had to remain still.

I was there in the tower with them, and everything I saw and heard was the truth. What was my humble song in comparison to a hundred diamonds decorating Sherlock's beautiful neck? I couldn't blame him if he changed his mind.

Just as long as I didn't have to stand alone at the foot of the castle, waiting while my beloved was betraying me with another man inside.

The courtyard was dimly lit, the elephant dark and silent. My feet rustled the dry leaves covering the ground. I felt like the smallest man on earth when I stopped beneath the tower, shivering behind my upturned collar, hands balled into tight fists in my pockets. Slowly I raised my head.

They were standing on the balcony. Sherlock's pale shoulders and diamond necklace shone against the stone façade and the cold night sky. Moriarty stood behind him, face pressed into Sherlock's neck, spine and shoulder blades, stealing warmth that Sherlock couldn't spare.

My own ragged breathing was deafening in my ears. Sherlock was otherworldly, all high cheekbones and perfect curls, marble skin and expensive jewels. When he stood in the high tower in the arms of Paris' most powerful man, it was so obvious to me that he could never be mine. I must be a fool, writing poetry and songs and a whole bloody show for a man I was never meant to have.

But then he looked down. And although the distance was too far for me to see his face, I could sense his gaze on me. I felt it, soft and tender. When Moriarty couldn't see his face, there was the hint of a smile around his eyes. Something warm that contrasted with the coldness of the night, the lights, and the man behind him.

Come what may…

I heard his deep voice through my harsh breaths, quiet and sure. In the night of tango dancing, of cold gemstones, of black sickness in my chest, it was the only thing that was real.

I will love you until my dying day.

“Stop.”

The word tore itself free from Sherlock's throat. In the trembling silence that followed, all that could be heard was the groan of the turning windmill blades.

Moriarty stilled. “Stop?”

He shifted behind him. Sherlock screwed his eyes shut in childish hope that it would prevent Moriarty from spotting me on the ground below.

“Oh, I see.” Moriarty's voice leaked venomously into his whisper. “It's our very own Penniless Sitar-Player.”

Sherlock's breathing quickened fast, making him cough when he broke away. I saw him when he twisted out of Moriarty's embrace and hurried back inside the hall.

Moriarty remained on the balcony for another second. His eyes on me were frightening even from that distance. Then he turned and followed Sherlock inside with an eerie calm, closing the balcony doors behind him.

I felt the sound of those shutting doors like a punch to the gut. Numbly, I started walking, heading for the windmill and the exit.

Sherlock spun around inside, frantically searching for an excuse. “My dear Moriarty-”

Silence!” Moriarty screamed. It was terrifying in the hushed, echoing hall. He lurched forward and grabbed Sherlock's wrist, twisting it and forcing Sherlock down onto his knees. “You think you can fool me?” Moriarty hissed. “You think you can do that?”

Sherlock's eyes were big. He tried to wrench out of Moriarty's grasp, but Moriarty only tightened his grip.

“You think you can run after that funny little writer like a lovesick teenager without me knowing? You think you're the one who decides how far you can take your 'secret affair', and not me?”

Sherlock silently shook his head, trying to speak but only managing sharp, panting breaths. Moriarty shook his head back at him.

“In the end, you're just as stupid as everyone else. Letting love grind you down.”

Moriarty reached out with his free hand and nudged two fingers under the tight necklace around Sherlock's neck.

“There's no such thing as secrets. I own your secrets.”

His fingers inched down between the necklace and Sherlock's throat, making it even tighter. Sherlock could feel every single diamond dig into tender skin. His mouth opened, sucking in air through his closing windpipe. Involuntary tears formed in his eyes.

“The genius of the Moulin Rouge still hasn't realised that I will have you. There's no escaping me.”

Sherlock's eyes screwed shut when the necklace choked him. The sharp gems cut his throat in an ornamental pattern before it broke. Jewels clattered to the floor. Sherlock drew a painful breath, and then came the punch. He fell onto the diamonds on the cold stone.

On the ground below, I paused when I reached the windmill.

I kept seeing Moriarty's dead stare before me. The way he had shut the doors behind him. And finally it hit me that the black cocktail in my guts didn't matter right now. I was not the victim of this night.

I licked my lips in a moment of indecision. “Damn it”, I murmured, and hurried back across the courtyard.

Once I'd started to move, I instinctively knew that I needed to be faster. It was like a clock jolting to life inside me, ticking loudly and telling me that every second was critical. I was back in the army, where I would just know when something wasn't right. What Sherlock did with deductions, I did with a fine-tuned sense of where I was needed. I tore the door to the castle open, and only spent a second eyeing the two staircases before randomly choosing one.

What followed is a nightmarish fog in my memory. At this point, I have dreamed so many times of the empty castle that night, so now I can't discern reality from it. In my mind, the building seems so huge and so empty that as soon as I enter it, I become the only human left in the world.

All there was were my own panting breaths echoing from the stone walls. The ticking seconds were deafening inside my head.

And all the while, a scene of horror played out in the tower, exploding in my mind as I ran up the stairs.

Sherlock running. Moriarty right behind him when he rounded the long table. Plates falling onto the floor, vases tipped over.

The stairs were endless, leading nowhere. I ran through empty hallways, looking for the entrance to the tower. The minutes ticked away, wasted and useless and hurting my Sherlock.

Finally, I had to conclude that I had chosen the wrong stairwell.

Moriarty grabbing Sherlock's arms. Roughly pulling him in. Sherlock gasping and scrambling to get away.

I whispered Sherlock's name under my breath when I turned and hurried back down. Moriarty was too calm. His movements were too sure. They were all alone. Starting up the other stairwell, my body was thrumming with my frantic heartbeat. The dying fire. The satin four-poster bed in the far end of the hall. Sherlock trembling on the floor when understanding that he couldn't escape.

My breaths were only a steady stream of Sherlock's name; a mockery of my own voice, a silent curse and a prayer mixing with the blood pounding in my ears.

At the second flight of stairs, I heard him scream.

I have never felt so uselessly slow as when I hurled myself up the last stairs. When I finally slammed into Moran, he was as surprised as I was. I didn't have time to think, not even to remember the gun I had seen in his belt. But it didn't matter, because he didn't have a chance to recover before I knocked him to the floor, the storm inside me pouring into a precise punch. I only spared a second to confirm his lost consciousness before I raced on to the door.

When I burst into the hall, it was filled with Sherlock's terrifying shouts. Diamonds were scattered everywhere, gleaming maliciously in the moonlight. Sherlock's velvet dress was tossed to the side.

“No”, he sobbed when Moriarty threw him down onto the bed.

That's when my fist hit Moriarty's temple. He collapsed onto the hard floor, mouth slightly ajar.

Sherlock lay on the mattress, exposed in only corset and stockings, head turned away and eyes screwed shut.

“Sherlock!” I cried.

He opened his eyes with a gasp. “John?” He sat up, looking around as if he couldn't remember where he was. When he saw Moriarty on the floor by my feet, his face crumpled. “John”, he gasped again, tears wetting his cheeks, shoulders heaving in violent sobs.

“Sherlock”, I breathed, crawling onto the bed on my knees and gathering him into my arms. He clutched me, muscles trembling with the effort, and buried his drenched face in my shoulder.

“John, I couldn't”, he wept. “I couldn't do it. I saw you there and I- I couldn't do it.”

I closed my eyes and held him tighter, tears spilling onto my cheeks. “It's okay, Sherlock”, I whispered.

“John, I love you.” His whole body was convulsing with uncontrollable sobs.

“Okay.” I hid my mouth in his damp hair, whispering into it. “Okay.”

“Take me out of here”, he gasped.

“I will.”

“Please take me out of here!”

I pulled back and put my hands on his cheeks. “Look at me. Sherlock.”

He tipped his head back. His wrecked face shone dully with sweat and tears.

“You're safe now, love”, I told him fiercely. “I'm going to take you home, and I will not let anything happen to you, do you understand me?”

He blinked, and the raw edge of desperation disappeared from his eyes. He nodded.

I led him out of the hall. When we ran into a frightened servant I barked at him to give us his coat. I carefully wrapped it around Sherlock's shaking shoulders and held my arm protectively around his back, all the way home. He kept his head down as we walked, tears still silently streaming down his face.

 

Chapter Text

I was a fool to believe
A fool to believe
It all ends today
Yes it all ends today

 

Sherlock was sitting on the table in my flat, his back turned to the windmill blades behind the window. His eyes were shut, and the tears on his face were dry.

I was holding a damp cloth against his swollen cheek, filled with ice from the ice-bucket in the tower. My other hand ran carefully through his hair, over and over.

We were silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, it was without opening his eyes.

“I don't want to pretend any more.” His voice was thick with congestion.

I kept stroking his hair. “Then you don't have to.”

He looked up at me. “The opening is tomorrow. I have to do his ending.” A sob racked through him as an aftershock to his violent crying.

“Not if we leave.”

He didn't immediately react, just kept looking at me with tired eyes.

I stroked his cheek lightly with the back of my forefinger. “Don't do this to yourself, Sherlock. Please.” I leaned forward and pressed my lips to his forehead. It tasted strongly of salt. “We can leave tonight”, I mumbled against his skin. “Please say you'll come with me.”

I couldn't bring myself to pull back and look at his face, so afraid of what he would say. For a moment, he didn't move. But then his hands came up to hold on to my upper arms, and his head tipped back. His eyes were red-rimmed but dry.

“All right”, he murmured. “All right.”

He looked so sad. But when he saw my relief, a tiny smile found the edges of his mouth.

I leaned in to kiss him, a victorious kiss, because everything would be okay now. He kissed me back so earnestly, inhaling deeply as if finally finding a source of oxygen for his deteriorating lungs.

I drew back. “Let's go over and pack.”

“No, I'll go alone.” He hopped down from the table.

“But what if-”

“It's less risk that I get caught if I'm on my own. I know all the secret spaces, John. It's all right.”

“Okay.” I nodded to myself, trying to convince myself that it was. “Okay. I'll be waiting here.” He grabbed the waiter's coat from where he had tossed it onto the bed earlier. “Sherlock, I love you.”

He turned back to me and took me into his arms. He kissed me hard, holding me firmly in place with both hands on the sides of my face.

“Are you sure-” I started in a break for air.

“John, I'm all right.” He cupped my jaw, looking into my eyes. His marvellous verdigris irises seemed to shift and shimmer. “I have you.”

 


 

Moriarty's face was pale and wet from the melting icepack pressed to his temple. The moonlight made him look like a ghost. His expression lacked any emotion or pain, his eyes were completely colourless.

There were steps of hard shoes, the outline of a folded umbrella swinging back and forth. Holmes stopped with his grave face hidden in the shadows. “Let me speak to him.”

“And if he doesn't listen to you?”

The impeccable suit shifted, the tip of the umbrella dug into the floor.

Moriarty nearly smiled. “Good boy.”

 


 

Sherlock's slender fingers flew over his dressing table, carelessly throwing things into a handbag. His hands were shaking in their hurry. He was still wearing his corset from the tower, and the hairs on his arms were rising when cold air met fever-sweat.

When he glanced into the mirror, he gasped and dropped the bottle he was holding. Holmes stood motionless in the doorway, watching him.

“Forgive the intrusion, brother dear.” He stepped inside and closed the door behind him.

Sherlock quickly recovered from the surprise. He hurried over to the closet and pulled out a dressing gown to cover his nakedness. “You're wasting your time, Mycroft”, he said without looking at Holmes.

“Don't be rash, Sherlock. Let's remain logical and think about what you stand to lose.”

“I am.” Sherlock stopped in front of the mirror, tying his robe closed.

Holmes' eyebrows rose. He rocked on his heels. “Moriarty wasn't too happy.”

Sherlock almost didn't flinch at his name. “I don't care.”

“He holds your entire future in his hands.”

Sherlock finally whirled around, facing Holmes. “Don't pretend that's what you care about”, he spat. “You care about the future of the Moulin Rouge.”

“Those are not conflicting interests. If you succeed, the Moulin Rouge succeeds, and vice versa. I'm seeing to what is best for everyone.”

“Not for me!”

“You have always been my highest priority, Sherlock.”

Sherlock's eyes narrowed. His view of his brother was steadily changing, and it hurt. “Either you're lying to me, or you have in fact never understood me.”

“So what are you going to do?” Holmes snapped. “Leave the Moulin Rouge? Remember what happened before I saved you from the streets, Sherlock.”

“I'm not a child any more, Mycroft.”

“Could have fooled me. I warned you, Sherlock.” Holmes tipped his chin down reproachfully. “Don't get involved.”

Sherlock shook his head minutely. “You don't have the faintest idea what you're asking of me.”

Holmes sighed, the way you do when speaking to an obtuse child. Sherlock's face was stone when he stared back at his brother.

“Listen, Sherlock, I understand. You got attached. You've always had that tendency, I know. I've always tried to save you from it-”

Why?” Sherlock cut in. “Why did you need me to be like you, when I so clearly wasn't?”

“To protect you, of course. To avoid your ripping yourself apart over a fanciful dream. You seem to forget how it always ends with disappointment, but I have seen you through every defeat. I know what inevitably happens.”

“Not with John.”

“He has no money. No means to take care of you. Eventually you will tire of him, not to mention that he will tire of you. Then you will have nothing.”

Sherlock's jaw muscles worked hard. “You're wrong.”

“So that is your plan, then?” Holmes almost smiled, as if in curious inquiry, but his condescending eyes destroyed the display. “You are going to take off right before the opening night? Throw away everything we have worked for, you and I, our whole lives.”

Sherlock laughed without humour. “Don't try to make it sound like we are equals now, Mycroft. You have never viewed me that way.”

“I am your big brother. I needed to take care of you.”

Sherlock scoffed and looked away. “You know, I used to think that you could fix anything. But I was wrong the whole time, wasn't I?” When he looked back at Holmes, his eyes were hard. “You're just another weak man, jumping at any opportunity to use others for status and wealth.”

“You certainly had no problem with that when you relied on me fixing every problem you had.”

“Well, you did a poor job of that, didn't you?”

On cue, Holmes' gaze swept over Sherlock's face and the slight swelling on his left cheek. Sherlock's spine straightened in grim satisfaction. Holmes looked away.

“Without the lead actor, there is no show”, he said mildly. “Do you realise what you are doing to the Moulin Rouge?”

Sherlock turned back to the mirror, starting to sculpt his errant curls. “I never cared about the Moulin Rouge.”

“Oh, of course. The great Sherlock Holmes only cares about his own career, and has no regard at all for what brought it to him.”

“Because it's not worth it!” Sherlock said with a sharp glance at Holmes in the mirror glass.

“Ungrateful boy”, Holmes spat. “I have built this entire show around you. I found you a patron who will do anything for you. In return, I only ask that you do your job.”

Sherlock suddenly turned, fixing Holmes with his eyes. “You knew.”

Holmes hid his guilt well, but not well enough for Sherlock. “What?”

“Oh my God”, Sherlock breathed. “You knew, and you didn't warn me. No, it's worse than that. You knew, and you allowed it. You could have turned him down, but no, you wanted that money. So you gave me to him to play his games, and you didn't even warn me.”

Holmes' mouth had turned into a thin line, making Sherlock's stomach roll with nausea at the confirmation that he was right.

“I tried”, Holmes said. “I've tried to tell you that your faith in me is too great. And I hoped that perhaps I was wrong about Moriarty. You needed someone to sponsor your career, he was interested in you-”

“But he wasn't just interested, was he? No, he was obsessed. Oh, I have been so stupid!” Sherlock's hands came up to tug at his hair, and he barely heard Holmes pleading with him.

“We don't have the luxury of choosing! I couldn't afford to say no.”

“How dare you claim to protect me?” Sherlock's voice was dark and loud.

Holmes raised his hands, palms out in a soothing gesture. “Sherlock. Let's calm down. I am your brother and I know you better than anyone.” He smiled faintly. “Look at you. Look how close you are to becoming the star you were always meant to be. Just look at where you are.” He gestured around to the large dressing room.

The room felt like a jail cell belonging to Duke Moriarty. In a roil of furious disgust, Sherlock grabbed a sculpture from the closest pedestal and smashed it onto the floor. It broke into shards and dust.

“What are you doing?” Holmes growled.

“I don't need you any more!” Sherlock yelled. He threw off his dressing gown and grabbed for his coat instead. “All my life you've hated me for not being like you, until I started hating myself too! I thought I was the weak one, but it's you, Mycroft, because you know nothing about art and love.” He furiously buttoned his coat and raised the collar with a snap. “But John loves me.” His voice was a snarl. “He loves me. And I don't care what you think of that, because I don't need you now.”

He snatched up his half-filled handbag.

“You can't leave”, Holmes said quietly.

Sherlock walked up to him, leaning in close and answering with a voice as quiet as it was fierce. “You don't get to decide any more.”

Holmes looked down at the toes of his shoes for a moment. Then he raised his head again, sad determination on his face.

“Sherlock.” His voice was hushed, as if standing by a bedside, afraid of disturbing the peace but knowing he was about to. “You're dying, Sherlock.”

“I know!” Sherlock exploded. Holmes staggered back slightly from the sheer force of his voice. “Do you think I don't recognise the symptoms of consumption?” Sherlock's fury almost hid the flood of tears in his eyes.

They stared at one another. Sherlock was breathing heavily, not quite managing to hide the pain of betrayal on his face. There was something soft in Holmes' eyes, something aching to reach out and comfort. Instead, he chose to stand his ground.

“If you go”, he said softly, “all you will give John is a corpse on the street.”

Sherlock drew a trembling breath. “I'm well aware.”

“So, if you love him… how can you do that to him?”

“Selfish, I know.” Sherlock had to turn away to answer. “I'd rather die on the street with John than at the Moulin Rouge with Moriarty.”

There was a long silence. Maybe there was some part of Sherlock still hoping for restitution; if not Holmes' blessing, then at least his apology. Holmes must know exactly what had happened in the tower. The evidence was everywhere.

But Holmes inspected his brother's face, finding he had used every angle of persuasion. Only one remained.

“The show must go on”, Holmes said so softly that it almost didn't sound.

“You can't make us stay.” Sherlock stared at him with his jaw defiantly set. Holmes only looked back at him sadly.

“Perhaps I cannot.” He took a step backwards. “I am sorry.”

He opened the door and stepped out. Sherlock frowned at the empty doorway.

But then he recoiled when another man filled the space.

“Don't worry, darling”, Moriarty said tonelessly, face blank and hands in his pockets. “I'm not going to touch you.”

Sherlock's back hit the far wall before he was even aware of backing. He stared at Moriarty without blinking until his eyes stung.

Moriarty seemed unaware of the tension. He calmly stepped into the dressing room, looking around with his studiously bored indifference, absent-mindedly shutting the door behind him.

“Well”, he said, inspecting the pictures on the wall even as he addressed Sherlock. “Here we are at last. You and me, my little Virgin, and our problem – the final problem.”

“Why are you here?” Sherlock breathed, and he wasn't aware of saying it out loud until Moriarty answered him.

“Your brother was concerned. He thought you might harbour some fantasies of escaping.” He pressed his lips together and shook his head in mock reproach. “Holmes might be hesitant to go to certain lengths to protect what's important. But he can recognise a man who doesn't have such scruples.”

Sherlock's horror was visible on his face, and Moriarty caught it in a glance.

“Relax, he doesn't know what I have in store for you. You will be hearing it first; I wanted it to be special! No, he just trusts me to get certain things done. He's grateful, unlike some others.”

The broken sculpture on the floor crunched under Moriarty's hard shoes. He stopped in the middle of the mess and raised his face, finally looking at Sherlock straight on. Sherlock fought not to reveal his trembling. His breath was ragged in his throat, his lungs hurting with the effort not to start hyperventilating.

“I have made this show everything it is”, Moriarty went on. “And tomorrow you will play me the true version.” He smiled, a hollow, horrible grimace. “Be honest, you're just a tiny bit pleased.”

Sherlock frowned. “What, with the ending?”

“With me. With finding your equal. If only you had realised it.” Moriarty dragged a hand over his face as if in agony. “That was a disappointment. And now I've beaten you. You know what? In the end it was easy.”

Moriarty walked aimlessly through the room. Sherlock moved in counterpoint with him, always keeping as much distance as he possibly could, never taking his eyes off Moriarty. His body was screaming with the need for Moriarty to leave, but Moriarty only kept talking as if he had all the time in the world.

“You underestimated me from the start. Thought I was just another rich duke, didn't you? I knew you'd fall for it. That's your weakness; you always think you're the most clever one. Now, shall we finish the game?”

Moriarty turned to him. Sherlock's voice was so much weaker than he wanted it to be when he answered.

“This is not a game.”

“It would be if you started playing!” Moriarty's voice was loud and shrill in contrast to Sherlock's. “Don't be so boring – I already told you I'm not going to touch you. Well. Not yet.” He slowly walked closer to Sherlock, crossing the empty floor between them. “You're going to fall, Virgin. But don't be scared. Falling is just like flying except there's a more permanent destination.”

He stopped right before Sherlock. The edge of the table behind Sherlock dug into his lower back in his efforts to keep a distance.

“I owe you a fall”, Moriarty said quietly. Though he was much shorter, he seemed big and imposing when his gaze raked over Sherlock, taking everything in as if it was all his.

Sherlock grabbed the edge of the dressing table until his fingers whitened. “You think you can make me fall for you?”

Moriarty smiled. “Oh, I never cared about that. As you will soon know, it's not the fall that kills you – it's the landing.” The smile ran off his face frighteningly fast. “I will own you. I will own you until you don't know the difference between hate and love.”

Their faces were so close that Sherlock could smell Moriarty's breath. He pulled back as far as he could, fighting the nausea. His lungs were frozen around a broken breath, preventing him from getting a word out.

“It's starting tomorrow.” Moriarty bared his teeth while he spoke. “You will walk onto the stage in front of hundreds of people, and you will complete my story.”

Finally, Moriarty took a step back. Sherlock shakily released his breath.

“You think you rule the world”, he said very quietly, and if his voice shook, he ignored it. “You might rule this one, but you are foolish to believe it means you rule me.”

His piercing eyes were enough to make anyone nervous, but not this man. Moriarty enjoyed it, he basked in it, he met the stare straight on.

“Fine, if you're going to be like that, let me give you a little extra incentive.” Sherlock frowned. Moriarty's eyes were shining, and he savoured the last moments of being the only one who knew. Then he lowered his voice as if delivering the most delicious punchline. “If you don't do my ending and come to me when the curtain falls, your little friend will die.”

The scowl disappeared from Sherlock's face along with the colour on his cheeks. His lips shook around an involuntary word. “John.”

“It's been a long time since Moran got to use his gun”, Moriarty half-smiled, and his voice was like a haunting melody. “Don't worry; it doesn't mean he's out of practice. If he sees the writer set foot in the Moulin Rouge ever again…” He lurched forward, suddenly screaming: “Bang!

Sherlock started, his eyes wide, breathing as if he was running. “You're insane!”

Moriarty smiled around a frown. “You're just getting that now? Not much of a genius, after all.”

Sherlock shook his head. “It won't work. You can't keep John away from here.”

Moriarty's face showed nothing but delight. “But you can.”

“He knows what you did to me”, Sherlock snarled. “He will fight for me.”

Unless…

“Unless…? Oh.” Sherlock's eyes turned hollow and his face still, when the missing pieces finally fell into place. “Unless he believes I don't love him.”

Moriarty's gaze devoured Sherlock's crushed expression. “I told you how this ends.”

It was so clear, now, what the game had been. Moriarty allowing Sherlock to conduct his love affair, only to attain a weapon strong enough to destroy Sherlock completely. Had Sherlock been a little less arrogant and a little more observant, he might have seen it earlier. It was obvious; elegant, even. But for the first time in his life, Sherlock didn't like knowing.

“You can't even begin to imagine how far my power reaches, Virgin. Wherever you go, I will find you. You can hide; you can run; you can go wherever you like; but nothing is going to prevent my man from pulling the trigger.”

“Unless I make John believe it was all a lie, and give myself to you.”

“You've got to admit that's sexier. Oh, if you only knew what I have in store for you.”

Sherlock swallowed down a fresh wave of nausea. Moriarty smirked when he saw it.

“Well, I'd better be off. You have so much to do! Better go see the writer before the rehearsal in the morning.” He smiled and reached out both hands as if to touch. Sherlock froze, standing so still that his muscles hurt. Moriarty's palms hovered mere inches above his arms, stroking through the air, never touching, as if savouring a trophy. “Can't wait for the new ending.”

Moriarty turned and walked unhurriedly to the door. He left it open when he stepped out.

Sherlock's breath was still in his throat as he listened to the sauntering steps disappearing. Moriarty's presence lingered in the room, as if he might come back at any time.

Sherlock staggered over to the door and closed it. As soon as he was truly alone, he broke out into a coughing fit. He made it to the red satin chair before his legs gave out, and he put his head between his knees, fighting for breath. His hands made desperate fists in his hair.

The coughing slowly subsided, but Sherlock's breath was still loud in the empty room. His brain felt overheated with how furiously it worked to find a way out – or it might have been the fever.

But there was no other way. And really, he had known it all along. He had known it his whole life. Creatures of the underworld couldn't afford to love.

He didn't look up when the door opened; he could hear who it was. Martha silently walked over to him. She crouched beside the chair and gently pried his cramping fingers from the mess of curls. Sherlock slowly straightened, keeping his eyes closed. Martha exhaled a soft sound at the sight of his face, cradling his hands in both of hers.

Sherlock was silently crying, tears continuously spilling out of his eyes to blend with the sweat from his fever. Martha watched him, not knowing what to say, or perhaps knowing that there was nothing to be said.

“I have to send John away”, Sherlock finally whispered.

Martha squeezed his hands. Tears rose to her eyes that Sherlock didn't see.

Sherlock pulled one hand out of her grasp to grab a handkerchief. He coughed violently into it. When he lowered it to his lap, they both stared at the red spot on the white cotton.

“His life is the only one that matters.” Sherlock's rasping voice was nearly unrecognisable. “I have no time left, anyway.”

“Oh, my boy”, Martha breathed.

Sherlock's brows drew together in pain, and the tears ran steadily down his face. “You should have said something.”

A tear broke lose from Martha's eye and fell down her cheek. “Yes.”

Sherlock closed his eyes again. They sat like that until the fever had subsided, the tears had stilled, and the sun was rising on the last day.

 

Chapter Text

Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on

I'll top the bill, I'll earn the kill
I have to find the will
to carry on with the show

 

Dawn was breaking. The sun was low outside the theatre, casting warm light onto the transformation happening inside.

Holmes glided through the halls, inspecting the activity. Women sat in rows and sewed the last stitches on the costumes. Men worked on the stage, building wing flats, while others arranged rows of chairs on the former dance floor. Anderson stood with a group of composers and tried to finish the new ending in a rush, before the actors came in for rehearsal.

Holmes stopped by the doors to the theatre, watching the building of the stage. The air felt palpable, filled with the inevitability of the audience that would soon step into our private bubble. Dressed-up strangers coming to devour our work of love.

Sherlock stood before the three-piece mirror in his dressing room. He was fully dressed in his slim coat, a black top hat, and gloves. His make-up was thick, making his face intimidating with hard black eyes, ghostly white skin, and blood-red lips. He dabbed at his chin with a handkerchief to wipe away a stubborn, stray tear.

Three images of Sherlock Holmes stood before him, one in each mirror. They all lived in the same brutal reality, they were all preparing for cruelty, about to go and break the only heart that had ever been true to them. They lifted their hands to pull down the veil attached to the brim of the hat. Their faces were cast in shadow behind the thin net, but the eyes still glinted with unshed tears.

Sherlock met the gaze of the middle image. He silently pleaded with the reflection, and the reflection silently pleaded with him, to make it stop somehow, to find another way. But the only thing they could do was stand straight in the suffocating corset, hold their head high and refuse to cry.

Everyone parted before him when he walked through the hallway. He opened the golden doors to the stage, stepping out into the spotlight, and when he reached the stairs, the red curtain fell closed heavily behind him. His steps down the stairs and through the aisle between the chairs were those of a man walking to his execution.

The sun was still so low on the horizon that it shone straight onto his face. It exposed all his exhaustion, his guilt and his desperate determination, all the lines on his young face and all the imperfections in his mask. He paused by the last row of seats, dropping his head and closing his eyes to avoid the gaze of Holmes, who stood by the back wall leaning on his umbrella.

Sherlock took a breath. This was the last moment that he was allowed to be weak. From this moment, Sherlock Holmes would be no more. From then on, he would be a puppet dancing around on stage and a toy to be played with. He would be dead, while still pathetically breathing.

It shouldn't matter for a man who was about to die anyway, he told himself. It shouldn't make a difference whether the first thing to die was the only part of himself that felt alive. One thing stood above all, and that was to save the life of John Watson.

It was a sacrifice unlike any other, and one I would never have asked for. Sherlock must have known this. But all that it meant was that his performance had to be impeccable, or else I would not let him go.

Sherlock slowly raised his head, piece by piece putting together the act. Holmes watched him, his eyes wide and expressionless, his mouth sad. Sherlock's red-rimmed eyes slid open. He drew another breath through his nose, and at once he had changed. His chin was raised, his head slightly cocked to the side in careless indifference. His face was closed and hard.

He walked out of the doors and over the courtyard with confident steps. The coat swirled dramatically around his ankles. He walked like the god he was, owning every place on earth and every heart in Paris, not caring if he crushed them under the hard soles of his shoes.

 


 

I stood at the window in my flat, waiting. The red lights on the windmill had just gone out, the turning blades groaning audibly in the still morning. My suitcase was packed and ready, waiting on top of my neatly-made bed.

I was growing more anxious by the minute. Sherlock had been gone for hours.

The door was wrenched open behind me. I turned around to see Sherlock standing motionlessly in the doorway. My gaze swept over him; the tightly buttoned coat, the intimidating raised collar, the gloves hiding the soft skin of his hands. I couldn't make sense of his expression behind the thin veil, but the stiff set of his shoulders and the absence of a bag immediately told me something was wrong.

Sherlock stared back at me, hand still on the doorknob. The new softness to his face was abruptly gone, the sharp angles now taking over.

There was a strange silence between us.

“You okay?” I finally asked.

“I'm staying at the Moulin Rouge.” His tone was curt, a sharpness cutting around his beautiful dark voice. It hurt, though I couldn't pinpoint why.

“What's going on?” I wondered why I felt like I couldn't walk up to him and brush my fingers underneath his jaw, the only exposed piece of skin on his body.

“The opening is tonight”, he said practically, clipping the consonants. “And afterwards, I have a client.”

I narrowed my eyes, waiting for further explanation, but that seemed to be all. I finally stepped closer to him, crossing the floor on legs that suddenly ached. “But-”

“The work is the most important thing to me. That's the way it is and always has been.” He dipped his head slightly, looking at me. His eyes didn't shy away, and they had both the colour and coldness of ice. “I will do anything to become an actor.”

The implication poured like cold poison into my body, my heart pumping it out to spread further through my limbs. “What?”

“Try not to take it personally”, he said callously.

I stared at him, trying to fit what he was saying into reality. It made no sense.

“Why are you saying this?” Even I could hear the panic in the outer edges of my voice.

“You knew what I was.”

I shook my head, and my tone was low and fierce when I spoke. “Okay, shut up, Sherlock, shut up.” I walked closer to him, struggling to meet his gaze properly behind the veil. “Last night, when I found you in the tower… everything we said-”

“John, I'm a prostitute.” Sherlock took a step past me into my room, effectively breaking our gaze. “What makes me better than everyone else is my ability to deduce what men want, and use my acting skills to give them exactly that.”

I gritted my teeth in fury while he spoke, still shaking my head.

“No. All right, stop it now.” I followed him, forcing him to look at me.

“I don't expect you to understand.” He curled his lip condescendingly. “You're a romantic, but I am not. The Moulin Rouge is my home, and Moriarty offers me everything I have ever dreamed of. If I leave, I have nothing. Nobody can rise from a life on the streets.”

I held his gaze. “You could.”

For just a moment, his hard mask seemed to crack. A small sound escaped him, something between a laugh and a sob. He bowed his head, but when he looked up again, there was no compassion on his face.

“It's not real”, he said, and his voice didn't waver. “It was just a trick.”

Every hour we had shared hung in the air between us. They shivered when we watched each other through them. Every time he'd laughed, every time he'd said my name, every time his eyes had shone because he was looking at me. My legs nearly gave out.

“No. No, there's something the matter.” He turned away again, but I grabbed his arm, forcing him to face me. “Tell me what it is.” His eyes squeezed shut ever so briefly, and I shook him in a desperate effort to get through. “Tell me the truth!”

His eyes flew open. “The truth?” he gritted out. I shivered at the chilly determination on his face, suddenly so close. All I could do was nod mutely. “The truth is”, he said slowly, articulating every word, “that I am the Hindu Dancer. And I choose the Maharajah.” The air was punched out of me. “That's how the story really ends”, he said quietly.

While I gasped for another breath, Sherlock lingered for a moment. How long, I couldn't say. He watched my face hollowing out, he watched my eyes as my life crashed before me. For just a second, he allowed himself to take me in, etching my image into his mind.

“Goodbye, John.”

He took a step back, and I regained control over my voice.

“No, don't-” I blurted, but he had already turned around, his feet flying fast and quiet over the stairs. The coat flared out behind him like dark wings.

 


 

There was a crash of thunder, followed by the whisper of rain on the window panes. My panting breaths fused with the storm in my ears. Another loud crash and I collapsed forward, catching myself on the door post, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes shut. It hurt so badly that it felt like a physical injury. I clutched my chest, and my mouth hung open around an agonised moan.

When the entrance door fell shut downstairs, I was jolted into action. My feet were moving down the stairs before I had made a conscious decision to follow Sherlock, instinct forbidding me to let him go.

The street was already a river of heavy raindrops. The buildings were grey, the red lights were out, the blades spun and didn't care that the world had just ended. The Moulin Rouge entrance was empty.

Sherlock!” I screamed with a voice I didn't recognise, torn from the bottom of my soul.

I am certain that he heard me. He was crossing the courtyard behind the windmill. He walked steadily despite the rain pounding on his shoulders, despite his numb legs, despite being a dead man. He heard me, and all he did was blink slowly and force his body to keep moving away from me.

Sherlock!

The cloud cover made the morning look like night. I thought I could see a light in the window of the Gothic tower. I thought I could see Duke Moriarty step into the dining hall and close the balcony doors behind him, a victorious sneer on his face.

Lightning exposed the Moulin Rouge's black-and-white shapes. The trees lost their colour, the last leaf was torn from its branch by the vicious wind. Sherlock went to his dressing room to prepare for the last rehearsal. His face was a mess of tears, sweat and rain, worn-off lipstick and tortured eyes.

“Sherlock”, I whispered, my voice having run out. He wasn't coming back. The realisation made my leg almost give out underneath me when I went for the windmill entrance.

Suddenly there were people there. Two strong men, catching me and forcing me back.

“No, let me come through!” I struggled, but my limbs wouldn't move as they should. “Please… Sherlock-”

A large fist crashed into my cheek, and when they let me go, I fell onto the wet cobblestones outside my own building.

I cannot accurately recall what happened after. There were kind and firm hands, stable shoulders, and stumbling over stairs. There was my bed, and someone arranging me into recovery position, discarding my soaked vest and trousers. There was a blanket, and then nothing but the sound of the waning rain.

 


 

Stamford was not directing the new ending. Gregory and Molly had to rehearse it, but my old friend was with me, repeatedly making cups of tea and trying to force them into my cold hands. I kept refusing.

“Things aren't always as they seem, John.”

I was sitting up against the hard steel of my headboard, staring into thin air. I tried to move as little as possible, because when I did move, the pain was excruciating. It felt as though I had an actual open wound in my chest.

“Things are exactly the way they seem.” I tried to sound collected, but my voice shook from the strain to remain absolutely still.

Stamford sat on my chair, looking at me with a compassion that was unbearable to see.

“John, people may see him as a cold, calculating machine, whose only goal is to trick men into giving him what he wants. But we both know that's not the true Sherlock.”

“Don't say his name.” My breaths were short and painful.

“He has just been waiting for someone like you.”

I actually laughed at that, a hollow, frightening sound. “Yeah, someone talented enough to write him his breakthrough show, and stupid enough to fall for his lies.”

“No.” Stamford slowly shook his head. “No, someone who sees him and loves him for who he is.”

“He doesn't know anything about love, though”, I said, the end of the sentence fading into merely a breath.

“Oh, but I've seen him too, John. He knows about love, and I think he always has. If only because he's been longing for it, with every fibre of his being.”

I closed my eyes, but opened them again when I only saw Sherlock's face before me. Shy eyes following me from across a dance floor.

“Go away, Stamford”, I said tonelessly. “Leave me alone.”

“He loves you, John. I know he loves you.”

I refused to so much as glance at Stamford. “Go away”, I repeated, a warning hidden in my low voice. Stamford didn't move, and at once the pain clawed up through my throat, choking me and making my fists clench. “Go away!” I yelled.

He wasn't prepared. He flinched, and for a terrible, blessed second I felt grim satisfaction instead of agony. Stamford got up, grabbed his coat and left.

But the thing with Michael Stamford is that he always comes back. For some reason, he won't let this broken old soldier drown in his misery. God knows why.

There are days when I wonder why anyone would bother with me. I have seen so many wars now, wars without winners and losers, with only wounds and corpses. It does things to a person. It sucks the life right out of you, if you're not careful.

Sitting on my narrow bed that day, I was certain that Sherlock could never love me. I was too plain, too ordinary, had too many ugly scars. I recalled him kissing the marred skin on my left shoulder, and I was humiliated to have bought the lie.

Even though it had all been an act, I kept imagining Sherlock's blissed-out face as if it meant something. And then I imagined it again in the arms of another man. For a moment, I thought I was going to throw up.

It meant nothing. I'd seen Sherlock's work; I knew what he could do. He could take on any role, and there wouldn't be a single gap where Sherlock Holmes shone through. He could transform himself completely, he was a master of every tiny muscle in his body and on his face.

And the worst thing was that he was right. I couldn't say I hadn't been warned. I had seen him at his coldest, the calculating glint in his eye and the malicious words out his mouth. I had known from the start that acting was what he did, and he had proven to me exactly how good he was at giving men what he deduced they wanted. He had presented me with a man so perfect for me that I couldn't even have dreamt it up. I should have known it was too good to be true.

I should have known, and deep inside I had known, that someone like him wouldn't want someone like me. Sherlock belonged with the stars. Not with grey, mortal ex-soldiers.

I sat on my bed for hours, cold down to the bones.

Stamford did give me space that day. I kept waiting for him to play the piano and make it all worse, but he didn't. He didn't have to, because I heard it anyway. I expected the joyous notes of Your Song, or the soft intro to Come What May, and my heart stirred with what it recognised as true.

I miss you. I don't want it to end.”

 


 

He's always there in the way I need, Stamford. Still is. He checks in on me though I snap and yell. He bought my typewriter back for me even when I was convinced that I would never get out of bed again, let alone write.

And last time he was here, he brought someone with him.

I was grateful that I had bothered with a shirt beneath the waistcoat yesterday, when Martha Hudson stepped into my flat. She had to endure the beard, though.

I would never have invited her myself. I feared that the grief would be too much to bear if hers were added to mine. But the moment I saw her, a vice around my chest released. I crossed the room and took her into my arms without a word.

“Oh, John”, she sniffled, already wetting my shoulder with her tears.

After a long time, when I pulled back and looked at her, I saw it in her eyes.

He lives in her, too.

I leaned in and kissed her cheek in pure gratitude. I suppose I hadn't realised how worried I had been that she too would be gone by now.

Stamford was standing by the far wall with hands folded behind his back, examining all the sheets of paper that I had pinned there since his last visit.

“You're writing again.”

I sheepishly scratched my neck. “Yeah. I decided to finish the story. And then… well.” I shrugged.

Martha joined Stamford by the wall that is almost entirely covered with poems and short stories. Since Stamford talked me into finishing this script, I've found myself inspired to write other things, too. It baffles me, the way the words keep melding under my hands. It's been so long since I felt the pure joy of it, but now, I think I do.

“I only have two chapters left”, I told them, gesturing to the thick bundle of papers beside my typewriter.

Martha's gaze lingered on the top page, taking in all the Sherlocks on it.

“May I read it? When you are finished?”

I smiled, a surprisingly effortless smile, one that felt soft and kind on my face. “Yeah.”

I won't lie. Writing these last chapters pains me more than I could ever express. But I think this is what allows me to create poetry again. I used to think I wouldn't ever be able to write without Sherlock, and I think in a way that's still true. But through writing our story, it's as though I'm absorbing him, saving him inside of me. That way, every time I write, he's always with me.

 


 

And now, only the last, fateful hours remain.

I sat on my bed and watched the stormy day elapse outside my window. The time for the show's opening came and passed.

I wanted to shut out what Stamford had said about Sherlock. But he had filled me with doubt. And there was only one way to be sure.

I rose from the bed, changing into a fresh shirt. I hoisted the braces onto my shoulders while staring into the mirror above the cracked sink. My jaw was set hard when I quickly put my damp hair in order. The lines of my face made me once again look like the damaged soldier who had been invalided home from war not that long ago. Somehow, that comforted me.

I put on my coat, grabbed my typewriter and headed out. The money I exchanged it for was filthy like the darkening streets of Montmartre.

Those streets felt like home now. I was another figure in a dark alley, money in my pocket and sin in my mind, being beckoned by the unlucky girls who were too numbed to shiver in their revealing dresses. The pulsing, glowing, red heart in the middle of Montmartre was what we all orbited around, longed for, prayed for.

I didn't even spare a glance of kindness at the girls begging for my money. There was nothing left that I cared about, apart from finding out if Sherlock was telling the truth. I had to know. So I returned to the Moulin Rouge, one last time.

 

Chapter Text

And there's no mountain too high, no river too wide
Sing out this song and I'll be there by your side
Storm clouds may gather and stars may collide
But I love you until the end of time

 

Electric light bulbs. Red velvet. Then: explosion of rainbows. The whole spectrum of light mingling in skirts twirling across the stage.

From the outside, the Moulin Rouge looked like a pulsing heart in the middle of the grey and worn village. Through the glass doors the red vestibule promised heat and passion, and the curtain fringes of gold created an illusion of glamour and fortune. The beating of deep bass seeping out from the walls quivered in the gut. It taunted pedestrians with the magnificent musical taking place inside, reminding everyone of what they missed.

In the heart of the heart, the large theatre, lived a pulsing prism. Red curtains framing the stage, orange brassieres revealing smooth bellies, yellow gold ornaments on clothes and jewelled crowns, green and blue spotlights, indigo painted skin and violet skirts swirling in exotic dance. The Diamond Dogs were more fierce, more precise, more breathtaking than ever. They sang, voices high and dark and rough and clear; they danced, moving lithely and sensually and wildly and slowly; they told a story, and the joy of telling it was like explosions all over the stage.

The former dance floor was a sea with rows upon rows of suited men, sharp in black and white. Suits, shirts, hats, gloves. Shining black shoes. Eyes wide, mouths ajar, they consumed the colours presented to them like a buffet. None of them had ever seen anything quite like this.

In the front row sat Mycroft Holmes, unmoving, unmoved, grasping his black umbrella. The seat beside him was occupied by a huge bouquet of white roses, and next to the flowers sat Duke Moriarty. Their presence was felt constantly like a density in the air.

The orchestra was playing as one man, flawless and sincere. Music beat the air into waves, pumping through the arteries and veins, the hidden spaces and secret gateways around the theatre hall. The floor beneath my feet vibrated when I sneaked into the building, choosing the unknown pathways Sherlock had shown me. I made it to the far end of the building without being seen.

In a corner behind the stage a suited man stood and smoked a cigar. He looked ageless and unyielding, the bearing of a man who has a right to be anywhere and everywhere. And although I had knocked him out the night before, Moran didn't have a scratch on his face.

I pressed myself hastily against the wall, backing into the shadows the second Moran's head turned. He strolled over towards me as if he had all the time in the world. I managed to slip away just before he saw me, crouching beneath a wooden scaffold and making my way deeper into the theatre.

On stage, Mary was in the middle of her grand act. Her voice was high and sharp, singing foreign words, and she was bouncing like a puppet on a string. Acrobats floated in the air above her, backup dancers behind her moved in perfect synchronisation. The stage was such an onslaught of colour, movement and music that the cheering audience didn't stand a chance of catching every detail of the magnificent performance.

Suddenly, the dancers ducked away and the lights dimmed, reduced to a single cold blue spotlight. There, in the middle of the stage, the Hindu Dancer appeared. His clothes were glistening as if they were made, not of fabric, but of a thousand jewels clinging to his skin. His eyes and lips were dark, his curls were sinful. A crown of thin silver chains rested across his forehead and formed a metal plume around the back of his head. The blue light made his pale skin glow like a diamond. He walked forward with enviable confidence, knowing that he was the most beautiful dancer in the whole world, knowing that he had earned every gemstone that decorated him.

Just for a moment, Sherlock's stride paused and his posture yielded. His hand shot up involuntarily to clutch his chest as he gasped for breath. At once, he was mortal and vulnerable in front of the relentless suits. The music hesitated, the dancers faltered, and Holmes' eyes flashed in fear from the front row. But then the moment passed, Sherlock's painted lips curled in a cocky smile, his arms reached sensuously up above his head and he started to sing.

Kiss, hand, diamonds best friend
Kiss, grand, diamonds best friend
Men cold, girls old
And we all lose our charms in the end

It was haunting and dark. The blue spotlight bathed everything in coldness, making Sherlock look like ice. The number was borrowed from his Sparkling Diamonds act, but this one had a deep beat and sinister melody, and Sherlock's eyes were completely dead.

The Hindu Dancer was surrounded by worshipping peasants. He was raised into the light, and there stood Gregory in the Maharajah's attire, holding up the expensive diamond necklace. It was even tighter now from being put back together after Moriarty broke it. The lock snapped shut around Sherlock's throat, and he was carried to the front of the stage. Gregory advanced behind him, wrapping his arms possessively around Sherlock's gaunt body.

“He's mine”, the Evil Maharajah spoke. Reflections from Sherlock's necklace danced across Moriarty's hungry face.

 


 

Noise from the stage travelled all the way to Sherlock's dressing room. His cue was still far away. He was changing costumes, but his numb fingers slipped uselessly on the fastenings.

“It's all right, dear”, Martha soothed him. Her hands contradicted her calm tone, moving quickly over him to help. “You just leave that to me, there you go.”

Sherlock gave up on the clothes and raised a handkerchief to his mouth. He coughed into the stained fabric, his thumb already smeared with blood from his last attack. He could barely hold himself upright from the force of the cough while Martha tied the last corset closed.

“Here, my darling boy.” She came around with a small vial, holding it up before him. “A bit more, for me…”

Sherlock tipped his head back and pressed his eyelids together, swallowing the bitter medicine.

Martha took a step back, looking him over. He was dressed in white for the finale; a corset with golden ornaments left his shoulders bare, showing off Moriarty's diamond necklace. He wore a pair of small, white shorts, hugging the shape of him tightly and exposing his long legs. Thin, golden chains were attached to the fabric, hanging around his legs as a suggestion of a skirt. His head was still burdened by the Hindu crown. He was absolutely beautiful, but he also looked as though he wouldn't be able to carry the heavy jewels much longer.

They both knew it. But they both knew he had to.

“Just stunning, dear. You go on apply some of that lipstick again – I'll sneak a peek at the stage.”

“Mm”, Sherlock managed, still breathing heavily from the cough. Martha subtly lingered to make sure he was stable before she left.

I saw her walk by.

I was making my way through towards Sherlock's dressing room, hiding as well as I could, but with Moran never far away. From the stage, I heard Gregory and Molly speaking. They were doing the new scenes now, and I didn't know when Sherlock was supposed to enter. I also didn't care.

When I stepped into his open doorway, I had the bitter satisfaction of seeing him jump. He spun around fast, as if not believing the image of me in his mirror. His eyes were wide in naked terror.

It was as if I had already forgotten what he looked like. My image of him had become distorted by the ugly thoughts I had been thinking about him during the day. Now, when I saw him again in his rare moment of panic, I was reminded of the man I knew and loved. He was no demon; he was a human being, with asymmetrical lips and a mole on the shoulder, eyes that changed colour with the shifting light.

It had been easier when he was a demon.

I remained in the doorway for a second. I had to make myself breathe in and breathe out with exaggerated control, to conceal the chaos in my guts and keep my face soldier-stoic. I stared at him, daring him to look away.

He didn't. He regained his composure rapidly, raising his chin defiantly. But I could see his chest rising and falling fast. When I advanced into the room, he nearly backed into the mirror as though terrified that I would touch him.

I found a sort of chilly comfort in knowing that I was built for moments like these. The soldier in me wouldn't waver. I knew before I spoke that my voice would be calmer than ever, for it has only ever been quite that low and dangerous when I've been in the midst of a battle.

“I've come to pay my bill.”

Sherlock stared back at me impassively. A muscle in the corner of his mouth shifted, but his control was so tight that I couldn't discern what it meant. His eyes hid every emotion when he brushed past me.

“You shouldn't be here, John.” He didn't bother to look at me any more. “Just leave”, he added over his shoulder when he entered the hallway.

My jaw clenched. The heartbreak had morphed into icy anger. Resolution set in my stomach like cold poison.

I went after him into the hallway. He couldn't move properly in those clothes; I was so much faster. He grunted when I grabbed his arm, forcing him to turn and face me.

“You made me believe that you loved me. Hm?” I stared defiantly into his eyes, refusing to let my vulnerability break our gaze. “So I should pay you, right?”

He closed his eyes for a brief second. “John, don't.”

He tore himself out of my grasp and hurried blindly away. I followed close behind him, speaking into his ear through gritted teeth.

“Clever you. You did your job so very well. Why shouldn't I pay like everyone else does, hm?”

He tried to shake me off, but I wouldn't let him. I had nothing left to lose. I have been to war, but this was the day when I finally felt as if I stood at the edge of the world, its end staring me in the eye.

Sherlock turned around. His eyes had a hard edge, that intense quality that always seemed to burn holes into me right down to my soul. “John, there's no point! Just leave.”

When he went on and turned a corner, there were other people there. I hardly noticed them, unable to see anything besides Sherlock's fleeing back. They all noticed us, though; it was hard not to.

Somewhere in the hallways, Moran heard the turmoil and made his way towards it.

“Why won't you let me pay?” I growled, not caring about who heard me. “It wasn't real, right?”

“Oh, boys”, Martha worried, suddenly coming up behind me. “He's got to get on the stage!”

I barely heard her. Sherlock stopped again, and his cold mask was entirely gone now. He looked infinitely vulnerable with his slim waist trapped in the corset, acres of bare, white skin under the diamonds, and eyes big and fearful. “Go”, he said, low and desperate.

“No.” My resolute voice started to fail me, becoming frail around the edges. “Tell me you don't love me.”

Martha had given up talking to us, instead finding Anderson. He came running, trying to get hold of me to pull me off Sherlock. I easily shook him off, pushing him to the ground. At the other end of the hallway, in the direction where Sherlock was fleeing, Moran appeared.

Sherlock cried out, abruptly halting and turning to me, trying to push me the other way. “Go!”

“Let me pay!” I was close to yelling. My voice broke in the middle, all the military command gone from it.

“Please, John!” There were tears on Sherlock's face now, but I was beyond being able to stop.

“Tell me you don't love me!”

Sherlock looked over his shoulder in panic, seeing Moran raise the gun. “No”, he pleaded, “John”, tears drawing stripes in his stage powder.

He pushed at me, shielding me with his body. I grabbed his shaking hands, refusing to let him get away, unable to stop crying out those words. “Let me pay! Tell me you don't love me!”

Sherlock's knees gave out. I was beyond myself, nothing quite registering. In the periphery of my vision, I saw the outline of a familiarly black and hard object drawing closer to me, aimed at my head. But at that moment, a pair of doors beside us opened.

I hadn't realised that we were standing right behind the stage doors. Not until there was suddenly a white spotlight blinding my eyes. Beyond it, I could sense the expanse of a vast space filled with hundreds of attentive people.

Moran quickly jumped to the side, hiding from the audience behind the back wall. Sherlock and I, however, were framed by the golden stage doors at the very top of the stage. We were frozen in place, Sherlock on his knees and me bent over him, hands grasping each other. A gasping sob broke loose from Sherlock's lungs as an afterthought.

The light was so strong that I couldn't see properly at first. But in time with the growing silence, my eyes adjusted. I could see the black-and-white mass that was the audience. Gregory stood to the left on the stage in his Maharajah attire, looking at us in shock. The musicians did too, pure dread on their faces. In the first row, Holmes' face was pale as death and Moriarty's dark as night.

The great silence was starting to be disturbed by the confused shiftings of the audience. A murmur started somewhere in the middle, steadily spreading to all sides.

“Ha!” Gregory suddenly called out. His voice rang alone in the large hall. No one else moved. “I am not fooled!” he went on. “She may have adopted a disguise, and dressed herself like a man to escape my mighty power. But my eyes do not lie! For it is she – the Penniless Sitar-Player!”

There was a relieved sigh from the audience, along with a few single claps of applause.

“Driven mad by jealousy!” Gregory added, and the applause died.

Before the stage, the conductor moved. The musicians tentatively started playing the heartbreak music composed for the ending. Apprehension on their faces, the Diamond Dogs in the background started slowly dancing.

I had written this scene myself. I knew how it went.

I straightened, starting down the stairs onto the main stage. Sherlock tried to follow suit, but his legs wouldn't carry him, and he fell down the last stair. I didn't reach out to steady him. He caught himself on his hands, landing on his stomach on the stage to a subdued gasp from the audience. He coughed weakly, remaining where he lay.

I slowly advanced on the stage that had been my living room for such a long time. Here was where Sherlock had smiled at me, here was where I had sung for him. Here was where we had put together the scenes that I had written with Sherlock half-naked in my bed. The hard soles of my shoes against the golden stage floor echoed through the theatre when the music diminished in preparation for my speech.

Moriarty was staring unwavering at me. His face seemed to hold nothing but those dark eyes, like black holes consuming every light in the room. It was the first time we looked at each other and each really knew the other. Until he saw me there, he had gravely miscalculated my strength. And though I'd had a premonition about his, I never actually guessed that the allure of his power and assets would be enough to make Sherlock choose him in the end.

In the war, I learned that the only way to be truly crushed is to close your eyes and turn away when you are beaten. It is the only thing I know how to do; to stare destruction in the eye, even when I know that it will leave me hollowed out and soulless. So I stared back at Moriarty, just as steadily.

“This man is yours now”, I said with a gesture to the dancer lying on the floor. I could hear Sherlock's little gasps for breath, but I didn't care about that when I reached into my pocket. My face twisted painfully as I looked down at the man I loved and threw a bunch of banknotes at him.

Sherlock flinched when the money landed beside him. He seemed to shrink into himself on the floor, all his self-assurance and superiority gone as if it had never been there.

My voice growled loudly in the theatre, bouncing around the walls. “I've paid my whore.”

Deadly silence followed upon my words. I almost smiled. I owned this silence, and from some dark and twisted place inside, I enjoyed it.

Sherlock looked up at me from the heap of money; small, filthy and breakable in his white corset and red-rimmed eyes. He was silently pleading with me not to continue. But he kept his face turned up all the same, prepared to take every hit right to his face, as if believing he deserved nothing better than this. A bunch of soiled banknotes. Cursed diamonds digging into his throat.

“I owe you nothing.” I spoke quietly now, intended only for him. Everyone in the large theatre seemed to hold their breath, everyone could hear me. “And you are nothing to me.”

Sherlock's eyes held so much pain that I had to look away. The ridiculous stage I was standing on, this audience that I had done everything for. It was all so beautiful, what we had created together; it was perfect. And now, it held the end of my world. My mouth pulled into a hateful smile, a substitute for the crying and screaming that raged inside me. My words were bitter, only just concealing the pain lodged in my throat.

The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.” I looked down at the man at my feet one last time. All I could manage was a harsh whisper. “But you will never know that, will you.”

With that, I walked to the bottom stairs of the stage. It was all dead silent when I descended them. Before the front row, I stopped for a moment, for the evil duke and the penniless writer to share another look. I forced myself to look into the blackness of Moriarty's eyes, going down like a soldier.

I started walking again, slowly passing through the audience. They were all looking at me, but I didn't look back. I stared at the doors in front of me, the entrance to the theatre. Through the windows above, I could see the turning red blades. They went on and on, implacable.

Though I am a soldier, though I am a doctor, and though I am a poet, I don't know much about death. Could he feel it, in his body or in his soul, how little time there was left? Be that as it may; Sherlock watched my retreating back, and he couldn't let this be the ending. A few months back, he would have been able to; he would have agreed that love was something he would never learn.

But that was before he had allowed himself to be seen. That was before he had stood on top of the world, feeling the wind blow into his face and let himself imagine flying. That was before he had opened up his chest for me and let me cradle his heart in my hands, exposing every beat of life inside him for me.

My words hurt him more than I could have guessed. Because however brief his time here was, it wasn't too late for him yet. He couldn't leave without me knowing that he did know.

And so the cold, calculating machine, the careless drug addict, the cheap whore and the expensive prostitute, the selfish actor and the cruel lover, the dying man, used his last strength to raise himself from the floor. He straightened in front of the audience even when it made his chest burn. He let them see everything. His exposed skin, his shining tears, his withering lungs. His face was afraid and unsure in a way Sherlock Holmes prided himself on never being.

Never knew”, he sang into the great silence, the song breaking in a sob. His voice was brittle and thick with tears. He sniffed and tried again: “I could feel… like this.

I didn't turn. But my feet had stopped walking without me telling them to. I held still not to miss a single sound.

Sherlock was gaining strength, having made his decision, having made it through the first line. “It's like I've never seen the sky before.

I told myself to keep walking. That man had broken me. It was over. It was time to go.

Want to vanish inside your kiss…” His voice was sweet as if sung in the privacy of a bedroom, cradling a lover's head to his chest.

Again, I stopped. The words tugged on a space within my heart I'd barely known existed.

Every day I'm loving you more and more.

When I heard his slight change of phrasing in the line, I finally turned.

Sherlock stood alone in the middle of the stage. His face was open and soft, his arms hung to his sides. He didn't hide anything, nor did he exaggerate for the sake of the show. There was nothing but Sherlock Holmes, standing in front of this audience of strangers, the whole Moulin Rouge ensemble, his brother and the duke who owned him, telling me that he had, in fact, learned to love and to be loved in return.

When he continued, the conductor rose his baton, and the orchestra started playing gently to his words.

Listen to my heart, can you hear it sing?
Come back to me, and forgive everything

Once again, Sherlock altered the words. He made them even more true, showing me that he meant them for us, for me, for now. He held the last tone, his beautiful voice filling all the space in the hall and in my chest. He broke off in a gasp for air, folding forwards in pain. But he straightened again, his voice hoarse but still more clear than anything:

Seasons may change, winter to spring…

I held my breath. Soft strings were playing, preluding his next words, creating a gentle bed for them to lie upon. Sherlock looked at me across the hall, seeing no one but me in the wide sea of people.

“I love you”, he whispered. My mouth twisted, and the tears finally rose to my eyes. He continued the line in quiet song, all the while holding my gaze. “Till the end of time.

He fell silent, nodding imperceptibly at me. There was something bright on his features, almost a smile. He had done what he could, and he must have been so relieved to let go. He had challenged everything he had learned and everything he had once decided that he should be. He had done it before all of his Paris, and it might as well have been before the whole world.

It was my turn now.

Hyper aware of the mass of strangers surrounding me, I drew a breath.

Come what may”, I sang tentatively. There was the rustle of clothes when the audience turned in their seats to see me.

On stage, Sherlock exhaled in a quiet laugh of relief. He closed his eyes for a second, an aching smile on his face, before he looked up at me again. The love in his eyes was unmistakeable. I grew bolder, and the next time I sang my voice was stronger.

Come what may”, I repeated. I started to walk back towards the stage, and once I had begun, my steps sped up. “I will love you until my dying day.

Somewhere behind me, hidden by flats and drapes, Moran was trying to find a clear path to aim. Both Sherlock and I were unaware of him creeping around the edges; all I could think about was reaching the stage. When I started the chorus again, Sherlock joined in the song.

I took the stairs two at a time, and Sherlock waited for me right on top of them. “Come what may”, he sang as he reached out for me, grabbing my hands and pulling them to his chest.

As soon as I was there with him, the audience disappeared. Sherlock's eyes fell closed and he leaned forward, his forehead resting against mine. I blinked hard to get rid of the tears swimming in my eyes, needing to see him properly.

I will love you”, he sang, and his nose nuzzled against mine, breathing me in.

When I had my Sherlock in my arms, it was unthinkable that I had believed even for a second that this wasn't real. Nothing I had ever seen in the world was real except for this.

Until my dying day”, I sang, looking into his eyes. His lips wobbled in a teary smile.

By the end of the chorus, I heard the click of a safety behind me. But before I could turn around, there was a loud bang, and suddenly a group of dancers flooded the stage. It wasn't scripted, but they started moving in synchronisation as if it was. One of them waved frantically at the conductor to give them music.

I had no idea what was going on. But right then, I was the centre of the entire show, and I couldn't find out what it was they were all trying to cover. I searched Sherlock's eyes, and he squeezed my hands. Look at me. Sing with me.

And I did. I had written this song from the core of my heart, and I had seen it rehearsed a hundred times. I easily fell into Molly's part. Sherlock kept me close, and that was enough to calm me and let go of whatever was going on around us. The way he didn't quite manage to keep his eyes off me made it easy to stay focused on him and him only.

Though we were singing our duet right in front of Moriarty, neither of us had a look to spare for him. It was as though he wasn't important any more. As if he never had been. But he was sitting next to a bouquet with dozens of roses, and he was being publicly disobeyed and humiliated. When he saw his plan crash and crumble before him, the penniless writer ruining his game, he was prepared to take me out right there on the stage.

But the Diamond Dogs wouldn't let that happen.

The whole ensemble was scrambling to prevent Moran from taking the shot. Backstage, Martha bumped into him so that he lost his aim, Molly on a balcony threw a sack at him so that he dropped the gun, and when the weapon slid onto the stage floor, Irene kicked it away with a dance move. The tumult continued right on stage, hidden in the myriads of swirling skirts, shaking tambourines and leaping acrobats.

Moran never got a chance to aim. But somehow, the gun ended up flying through the air, landing on the floor just below the stage.

All Moriarty had to do was rise from his seat, step into the aisle and pick it up.

The song was building towards the ending, a choir backing us in our duet, drums making our every word final and sure. Moriarty raised the gun, aiming with a manic look on his face.

He was stopped by a punch to the nose, forceful enough to make him stagger backwards and fall. Before him stood Mycroft Holmes, looking shocked at what he had done. The gun flew through the theatre, shattering a window and disappearing into the Paris night.

Moriarty stayed on the floor, until two guards appeared at Holmes' signal. They hoisted him up and held him firmly around his upper arms, walking him towards the exit.

Sherlock and I barely noticed.

Never in a million years would I have imagined myself singing in front of hundreds of people in the grand finale of an exuberant musical. But standing there beside Sherlock, resting on the beautiful harmonies he added to my voice, holding his hand, I was not afraid. It was the easiest thing in the world to open my heart and lungs and let everything out.

Come what may!

Sherlock looked immortal in his happiness. His skin was aglow with it, and his voice filled the theatre, sounding more clear and full than ever before. Never had I seen him so unguarded, not even asleep in my bed. This was Sherlock letting go of everything, telling the world who he was, and doing it as if it was easy.

I have never been more proud of him. And never in my life have I felt more honoured than when this remarkable, impossible man looked at me like that, sang to me like that, gave everything up for me as he did on that stage.

Come what may!

Everyone was on stage. Everyone danced around us. When they grabbed our legs and lifted us up, a confetti rain of rose petals exploded in the air. We were carried in slow circles around one another, enthroned above everyone else.

Sherlock was incandescent when we came to the climax of the song. He didn't need fuel, he didn't need air. He stood tall with music, with love, and with joy.

I will love you until my dying day!

The dancers carried us towards one another. The music swelled, Sherlock's face cracked in a victorious smile, and we reached out for each other. Just as we met in the middle, the last chord proudly rang out, and the red curtain fell closed.

 

Chapter Text

The greatest thing
you'll ever learn
is just to love
and be loved in return

 

The applause was thunderous.

We stood in the half-dark behind the curtain, for a moment not moving, just listening in awe to the erupting audience on the other side. Sherlock and I were in the middle, grasping each other's hands. Dancers in Hindu dresses surrounding us, still holding their poses from the last seconds in the spotlight. Rose petals raining over us.

When I turned to Sherlock, he looked overwhelmed. I remember that. Looking up at him, feeling my own face about to burst in a giddy grin, and seeing him so moved by what we just did that he couldn't smile, couldn't speak. He just looked at me in awed disbelief.

As though he couldn't believe that he had just performed a real show, with a real audience, as a real actor, and was rewarded with this applause. As though it were a miracle that I had come back to sing with him. As though I couldn't possibly be real.

The dancers and actors broke their poses. They smiled back at me when I looked around, some victoriously tilting their heads up to let the soft petals kiss their powdered cheeks.

We made it. The audience was whistling, stomping and cheering. Holmes appeared behind the curtain with the closest thing to a real smile I've ever seen on his face.

“Stand by for curtain call!” Anderson shouted. “Dancers, positions, please!”

I turned back to Sherlock. He was still panting hard from our song. His eyes were glassy. When he saw my triumphant happiness, he couldn't help a faint smile, though it seemed to cost him valuable strength.

I kissed him. My lips were stretched in a foolish smile, making the kiss clumsy and silly. The world was roaring with hundreds of people applauding us.

Sherlock's lips were mine to kiss, again, and we owned the world.

I took his hand, walking back from the heavy drapes to get into curtain-call position. I spotted Molly in her Penniless Sitar-Player outfit, waving at me to get into position beside her. I shrugged at her in a wordless apology for hijacking her part, and she shrugged back, smiling. Stamford stood beside her with a smug expression on his face, as if everything that just took place on the stage was entirely his doing. And, well, it was.

Sherlock didn't look away from me once. It seemed he couldn't afford to miss a single breath of me.

 


 

I will always remember that moment as the happiest of my life. My lungs were sung out and my heart was soaring. I breathed as if I'd just been running through each and every secret hallway behind a madman, doubled over with laughter. My blood was singing in my veins like it did when I fled behind Sherlock into the dark elephant and kissed him for the first time. Around me stood my motley family, having bared their souls before an audience to live out what I had written for them. And in my hand I held the greatest treasure I could ever hope to find.

In that moment, I could see my whole life with crystal clarity. All I knew about the world was us, and it was all that was needed. There was no defeating us.

Moments like those are so fleeting. No matter how tightly you hold them, they pass.

It's almost finished, now. The script is spread out around me on my narrow bed. On the pages, I can see a sea of red and white rose petals, I can see the back of heavy red curtains, I can see Sherlock dressed in white and gold. Remembering joy hurts a thousand times more than remembering pain.

But if I don't – if I refuse to remember this one moment – I think I will stop being John Watson. And if I don't, I fear that Sherlock Holmes will cease to exist. I can barely live in a world in which he is dead – if he disappeared entirely, I think I would too.

I thought we were going to live forever. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, when I go back to that pure joy, I still think we can. Because such a moment of clarity must somehow be true. When you know something so deep in your soul that it becomes a part of who you are, it can't be an illusion.

But I of all people should know that heaven and hell lie close to one another. I have been in hell and stumbled straight into heaven, nothing in between to prepare me for the transition. I had given up on goodness, but found an angel hidden in the sinful underworld of a foreign land, disguised as a demon.

And I have gone from heaven back into hell in the blink of an eye. It almost seems inevitable that such a perfect moment is precisely when it would all end.

 


 

Sherlock's hand slipped out of mine.

I turned around, still with that stupid smile on my face. Sherlock stood unsteadily on the stage floor, head tipped back, mouth gaping. His gasp was sharp enough to slice through my skin.

“Sherlock!” My arms were around him the second he lost his balance. He was heavy and I wasn't prepared; I almost dropped him. His head was dipping backwards, and I clumsily lowered him onto the floor, kneeling and holding him in my arms. “Sherlock, what's the matter? Sherlock?”

Sherlock coughed. It was uncoordinated and ugly, ripping itself from his chest and bringing his lungs with it. I tried to stabilise him, but he was so heavy and so weak; he couldn't hold his own head up. His arm fell out at an awkward angle, hand dangling above the floor.

When I got a look at his face, my insides turned cold.

I had seen that face before. It was the face of surrender to unspeakable storms raging inside a mortal body. The hue of his skin was sickly pale. His beautiful, sparkling eyes were unnaturally wide, too much white showing around the irises, the colour lurid in the sharp stage light.

“Sherlock”, I whispered. He couldn't answer, fighting for breath. Horrible choking sounds emerged from his throat, wrapping the room in terror, making everyone halt.

When Sherlock's head lolled to the side, the light fell on his mouth. I gasped when I realised that the red streak in the corner of his mouth wasn't lipstick. It was the same colour, but when I touched it with trembling fingers, blood clung to my skin.

“Oh, God, no”, I groaned.

Everything had stopped around us. We were alone in the middle of the stage, and everyone stood frozen around the edges, staring at Sherlock's limp body in the middle of the rose-petal sea.

“Hold the curtain”, I could hear Holmes somewhere behind me. “Fetch the doctor.”

I'm his doctor”, I snarled to the side. Turning back to Sherlock, I pleaded with him. “Tell me, love, tell me what's wrong. I'll make it better. Let me-”

“I'm sorry”, Sherlock said. His voice was barely there, and it stuttered with his ragged breaths. “John. I'm sorry.”

“Shh”, I whispered, because the earnest apology was too rare and too real. I didn't want to know what he was sorry for. “It's all right, love. It's all right.”

“There's nothing-” He cut himself off, wincing in pain. “-you could have done.”

This is the man that everyone thought was a heartless machine. How far he had evolved from the time when he pronounced himself incapable of emotion and empathy, when even in that moment, he knew that this would haunt me. With his precious last breaths, he wanted to make sure that I wouldn't be in pain.

“I… have…” Sherlock coughed helplessly into my shoulder. Blood stained the white cotton of my shirt. “Consumption.” His voice was gravelly deep.

“No”, I moaned. “No, please.”

My mind was reeling, going over the facts of the diagnosis, looking for something useful in my years of medical studies. What good were they if I couldn't save this man? But I knew what consumption meant. I had seen it take more people than I care to remember.

Sherlock was shivering in my arms. I looked at him, and I have never felt so useless in my life.

“John.” His face was taking up my whole vision, ghostly pale, covered in pearls of sweat. “Hold me.” He whimpered in pain. When he spoke again, he had no voice, and his lips shook around the fragile words. “Hold me.”

On his face was that same lost vulnerability as when he stood in my room for the first time, asking only this of me. My face twisted when I pulled him up to my chest, wrapping my arms around him as tightly as I could.

“Please”, I slurred into his hair. His curls were damp with sweat. The Hindu crown was hard and unforgiving against my cheek. “You'll be all right. You'll be all right.”

I was hardly aware of speaking until he answered.

“So will you.”

His words squeezed so hard around my heart that tears finally formed in my eyes. “Not without you.”

“Yes. Promise me.”

The urgency in his voice provoked another coughing fit. I felt his fragile body convulse in my arms, about to rip itself apart. I cradled his skull in my hand, trying to get him into a position which freed his airways.

“I need you”, I whispered. I pulled my head back, looking down at him. “Sherlock, I love you.”

A tear fell from my eye onto his cheek. It trickled over his cheekbone as if to reflect his sorrow as well as mine. For the moment he didn't have enough strength to cry himself; instead, he was smiling faintly.

“John.” He looked as if he wanted to say more. But it was enough, really, the way he said my name.

A frown appeared on his forehead when his breath cut off. My own windpipe closed up in terror when I watched him struggle to do something as traitorously simple as breathing. I would have given him my own breath if I knew how, but all I could do was breathe his name.

“Please”, Sherlock gritted out, “will you do this for me?”

“Do what?”

His face swam through the sheen of tears in my eyes. I tried to blink them away. It seemed vital to stay focused on him, as if I could make him stay through sheer force of will. If I could only hold him tightly enough, if I could only see him properly, he would stay.

He was so present, he was so much more real than anything else – there was no way that it could all disappear like smoke through my fingers. Not now. Not yet. Oh God, we weren't done yet.

“Keep-” His wheezing breaths must have hurt. “Writing.” I shook my head, a fresh wave of tears rising to my eyes. But he wasn't finished. “For me.”

“I can't”, I cried quietly.

And this is when it truly dawned on me. He was saying goodbye.

“Yes.” His hand came up to stroke my cheek. But his fingers were cold and shaking, landing clumsily on the side of my face. “John. Write our story.”

I was still shaking my head. Not a sound got through the thick lump lodged in my throat.

“Yes”, he insisted. The frown was fading from his face, his expression getting absent, his eyes unfocused. “Please. I want- to stay with you.”

I blinked. My tears poured down onto my cheeks, hurrying to my chin. Sherlock looked up at me, and he was smiling again. His breathing calmed. There was a relieved sound in it even as he choked for breath, because he had said all he needed to say. His eyes were warm, seeing nothing but me.

And I will do anything for him. I had defied suited men with guns to have him, if only for this fleeting moment with him in my arms. Everything was unimportant beside him; the rush of blood silenced in my ears, the applauding audience faded away.

I nodded.

Relief smoothed Sherlock's face further, his mouth falling open into a wider smile. He looked happy, and he looked complete. As if he had all that he ever wanted, as if it didn't matter that he only had it for such a short moment in his life. I could see it, plain as day, that he wasn't afraid. All his pain had left him and had instead lodged in my own chest. It was a large black hole expanding inside me until I was the one whimpering in agony.

I leaned down, pressing my trembling mouth onto his. He met me weakly, just a soft welcome resting on his lips. The kiss tasted of salt. Lipstick. Iron. Sherlock.

When I pulled back, he didn't really see me through his open eyes. His loud breaths subsided slowly. A shadow moved over his eyes, covering his soulful irises in darkness.

The ensemble stood around us with grim faces. Holmes' eyes were naked and crushed. Gregory lifted his hands slowly to take off his Maharajah turban. Everyone was quiet, allowing only my strangled sobs to sound. I was shaking all over, my body stiffening and refusing to live on and make space for this new reality.

“Jesus, no”, I dimly heard myself groan. “God, no.”

I looked at Sherlock's face, but Sherlock wasn't there any more. I could feel him being torn away from me, as if my heart were being physically ripped out of my chest. I nearly screamed in sheer pain. Tears were flooding my face, and I rocked back and forth, holding his body close to me, as if soothing him, as if lulling him to sleep.

I was all alone on the stage, I was all alone in the world. It was just me, futilely holding on to what I had already lost. I was nothing in the rose-petal sea, and as it spread around me, I got smaller. Just a dot on the ground.

Up, up, up above on a balcony stood two stagehands by the curtain ropes, looking down onto the stage floor in frozen trepidation. The red and white petals, Sherlock's body still dressed in Moriarty's diamonds, the red blood on my white shoulder.

Up, up, up he flew, and the audience was clapping on the other side of the curtain. They loved it, they loved him, they wanted more, more, more!

Up, up, and away, and it was snowing outside. The first snow, sparkling and pure, covered the streets and rooftops of Montmartre. A lone figure in a sharp suit walked slowly across the courtyard, destroying the snow with his steps. He stopped, there was a flame in the cold, and soon the elephant was burning. Fire shot out of broken windows, flames spewed up into the sky.

Away, away from the turning blades, groaning their final verse. Fly, fly away.

 


 

Days turned into weeks.

Weeks turned into months.

And then, one not-so-very-special day, I went to my typewriter. I sat down, and I wrote our story. A story about a time, a story about a place. A story about a lonely man with a forgotten voice, a story about a beautiful dancer with a forgotten heart, a story about what they found and what they lost.

I am a soldier, a doctor and a poet. I have skirted the edges of death in the hot sand of Afghanistan, and I have fought it in sterile hospital rooms, saving those who should have been taken. I have held my heart in my bare hands and watched it die with the last breath of my beloved. And yet, I still don't know much about death.

But above all things, this is a story about love. And love, I do know. I have learned something great, something that transcends all else.

There is a love that defies everything. There is a love without laws, and a love without limits. There is a love that knows no borders, not even those of time, of life and death. There is a love that will live forever.

Sherlock Holmes, wherever you are. You thought you weren't a good man, but let me tell you this. You are the best and the wisest man that I have ever known. I was so alone, and I owe you so much. Even now, you keep saving me. You asked me to write, as if you couldn't stand leaving without knowing that I would still be John Watson. So I will write, for you.

It's all I've ever had to offer in return, after all. I was asked to write a show about truth, beauty, freedom and love, and if I succeeded, it's only because you are true, you are beautiful. You are free now, and I love you so much. This is your song.

The beginning doesn't seem like the beginning, and this ending is not the end. Sherlock and I are a golden thread running through the weave of time, and our story slots into a much larger one, one too great for us to see. When I close my eyes and go back to the stage, to singing Come What May with Sherlock for an audience of hundreds, I can feel it in every cell of my body; that our love is one permanent thing in a changeable universe.

We will meet again. Tonight, tomorrow, in the notes from Stamford's piano, in the eyes of Martha, between the smudged lines on these pages. In other stories, told by me, told by others. In parallel worlds, in the future, in the past. We will always meet, and we will always love one another.

Sometimes I mourn how transient our time together was. Sometimes I regret not holding on tighter, and I blame myself for not making it last longer. Sometimes I think that those days are gone forever.

But they're not. Because though the world explodes, our love will survive. Because it is always 1895.

The end.