He’d stepped out to breathe. The ballroom, such as it was, had been filled to bursting with people. Most of the ground floor had not been spared the overflow—it had been lost to multitudes of brightly coloured gowns, the rumble of many eager, pleasant conversations in off-beat synchronisation, and the over-bright haze of too-many lamps that all lent themselves to the air of semi-organised chaos that had been bestowed upon the manor. Someone had clearly expected far fewer people to accept their invitations; they’d chosen poorly in that gamble. Not that Professor James Moriarty had higher expectations for his mood if only slightly less people had arrived. As an admitted misanthrope, his patience would invariably be tried either way.
Which was what found him outside, sitting on the stair to a lower level of the terrace in relative silence. In contrast to the golden fever dream of the manor beside him, the grounds were dark and cool. The chill night air functioned as both a balm and a restorative, rousing him better than a coffee might have. If he’d bothered to look, the grounds would have spread out before him—featureless black velvet rising into thick trees, bereft of untamed nature. Instead he kept his eyes on the silver-flecked tapestry far above. It hadn’t been a purposeful distraction—Moriarty had watched Jupiter’s progression across the sky with a mild, unfocused interest, casually checking his mental notes on its previous position; from there his attention had been drawn to Auriga’s dim halo and then to Cassiopeia's distinctive glower. He’d meant to go back inside an hour ago. A desire to go home was the predominant reason to remind himself of that goal now.
He had begun to consider the virtues of returning briefly to the festivities, genuinely attempting to rouse himself, when Holmes stepped outside. (He’d noticed him earlier in the evening, deep in the midst of pestering his brother at the side of a sitting room, and he’d immediately stepped out of the room before he could begin to form some means of addressing him. Tonight didn’t feel like a night that would gift him the patience to endure Sherlock Holmes in a tantrum.) With nowhere to go, Moriarty felt himself pause; he sat back some and watched. Holmes looked less severe, less guarded, when he thought he was alone. Less of a meddling detective and more like a man. There was a lethargic slump to his shoulders and he seemed somehow rumpled despite the precision of his suit. Yet his posture remained rigidly formal as, with graceful fingers, he fished out his cigarette case, retrieved a single cigarette, and lit up—and when he inhaled for the first time it was, as a poet might have put it, with the unwavering eagerness of a sinner falling into the arms of a saint.
Holmes inadvertently turned toward him as he began to tuck away the case. It was futile to hope he wouldn’t notice him—obvious in the tension that swept over him, pushing the tiredness away until he looked nearly ready to do something foolish. Moriarty had perhaps a second to hope that Holmes would elect to go back inside—or to content himself with standing on the far side of the balcony, seething—before he began to make his way toward him. He braced exhaustedly for the incoming tirade…
...and instead found Holmes’s cigarette case extended in offering when he’d reached him.
“Have one. The blend lacks complexity, but it is...comfortable.”
Moriarty allowed his gaze to flick over Holmes’s face before returning to the case. He took one and let Holmes light it for him. “I was under the impression you had threats and baseless assumptions you intended to make.”
“I could accuse you of filling your pockets with the silverware, Professor, if that is more to your liking,” Holmes said, sitting beside him. “But I would find the disingenuous nature of it appalling on any other terms.”
“It would not be worthy of you. Your skill,” Holmes amended, his tone suggested that his words were less of an insult than usual.
Moriarty suppressed the urge to smile. At least Holmes felt he had some standards, even if Holmes’s generous descriptions of what might be achieved by those standards was usually a grave annoyance.
They smoked together, briefly unhindered by words. It was companionable, lacking in expectations. Peaceful. A few threads of faint music slipped tenuously from the manor as Moriarty’s gaze returned to the heavens. His thoughts remained on his companion. Stray pieces of observation that might’ve threatened to become an internal monologue if they both weren’t running on forty-two hours of missed sleep and whatever dregs of post-work adrenaline they could cling to.
“Do you dance?” Holmes enquired, finally breaking the silence as he flicked the meagre remains of his cigarette onto the lower terrace.
“Only when I have occasion to.” By which he meant a general no.
“A ball isn’t the occasion for a dance?”
“The ball is not for us,” he gently chided, choosing to neatly side step Holmes’s bemusement.
It had been their deadline; when the Marchioness had wanted her troubles solved by. Inviting them was only a necessary politeness. He glanced at Holmes out of the corner of his eye, feeling himself pause once more. There were times when Holmes’s stare felt like too much—too evaluating, too focused, too sure of what he might find. No, that there would be something to find. He let himself be studied as he stubbed out his own cigarette.
“Then you won’t object to dancing with me.”
A twitch of a flinch jolted two of Moriarty’s fingers, the only giveaway to his emotional state. Surprise, followed by a bright flash of amusement, began to swell into a chuckle that died in his lungs as he realised Holmes was serious. Something twisted sharp in his gut, spearing up into a dull ache in the vicinity of his diaphragm. For a moment he could only stare back at him. Moriarty forced his oddly dry throat to swallow. Felt a bitter breath slip past his lips.
“Is this another of your tricks, Holmes?” It had to be, didn’t it? There was nothing for him to gain by—
That was likely true. If there was nothing to be earned from a dance, then there was no point to a jest, either. Which meant Holmes wanted to dance with him. Somehow that was more frightening than any other possibility. While he could admit that he harboured an open affection for his once-friend, privately hoping it might one day seem less baseless, it was quite one thing to feel an emotion towards someone and yet another to actively do something that might bring that emotion out into light. That didn’t change the fact that he intended to agree—would have agreed, even if it had been a joke—but it did lend an odd solemnity to his tone as he murmured his assent and rose to his feet.
Holmes watched him a moment longer, gaze sharp and intent, before standing and following him down the stair.
The lower terrace was swathed in darkness, too far from the manor’s lights but not far enough to be illuminated by what little moonlight remained. A surreal sense of this-isn’t-really-happening seemed to tug at the edges of the moment, barely noticeable if he didn’t focus on it, as they, with awkward formality, took up positions. Holmes’s hand was (warm, light, and surprisingly gentle) more worn than Moriarty had recalled through their brief handshakes as they took each other’s hands. Moriarty waited as they lingered, identifying the distant music as reminiscent of a waltz as their grips settled and they began to move—
—both stepping forward to crash into each other with soft exhalations of alarm. (Or perhaps something stronger, in less gentlemanly terms.)
They frowned at each other, amusement lurking just under the affected consternation as they both stepped back, dropping hold of the other.
“We should coordinate.”
“Quite so,” came Holmes’s agreement.
As though anticipating a test of trustworthiness, neither moved to lead. Very well. Moriarty sighed. Collecting himself, he extended a hand to his companion. “May I?”
Holmes regarded him another moment before placing his hand atop Moriarty’s. “If you must.” He appeared neither annoyed nor surprised by the question. Instead, he simply stepped forward and set his other hand atop Moriarty’s shoulder. “I can admit I failed to anticipate that you may have preferences given your apparent lack of interest in the subject.”
Moriarty’s hand settled comfortably at the middle of Holmes’s back. “I have warned you of your tendency to assume a position without sufficient evidence. Mind your feet.”
He felt more than saw the brief glare Holmes levelled in his direction before they stepped lightly into movement. They waltzed in a loose arc, slightly more sedate than the Viennese interpretation of the dance that the distant music suggested was filling the ballroom. Whatever rebuke or bit of ice Moriarty had subconsciously prepared himself for never came. Instead they merely glided over the terrace stones, silent and oddly graceful. Moriarty felt Holmes’s hand flex a little in his own, a seemingly subconscious gesture, but it was impossible to say the reason for it when he glanced at him from the corner of his eye. After all, Holmes’s stare was pointedly fixed somewhere over his shoulder as if in mockery of proper dancing etiquette and it was unlikely he’d elect to share whatever thoughts currently occupied him.
Ignoring the prerequisite twirl that was supposed to fall at the end of their arc, Moriarty guided them forward and into the next steps. His mind felt oddly full of buzzing—hurried analyses racing against each other in a barely coherent hum; noting the warmth and strength of Holmes’s hands, the fluidity of his movements as he allowed himself to be led. The conflicted flicker in his eyes that turned to a small movement in his throat as his eyes finally met Moriarty’s.
“Have you had practice recently?” he asked, if only to distract from the breath caught on the back of his tongue.
Holmes hesitated a beat too long, gaze shifting away. “No.”
“Then I must commend you upon the sudden appearance of your natural skill,” Moriarty said, his sarcasm only evident in the affected neutrality of his tone. It only served to earn him another questioning stare.
There was something uncomfortable in this—the enforced distance made more obvious by their own mental barriers, by the gap borne of history and by everything said, unsaid, and longed-to-be-said between them; impossible to breach in an instant and yet...and yet only more successful in drawing attention to the fact that they could cross it if only they wanted to. He does. Has, ever since Holmes ended their friendship. And the oft-repressed desire to be closer, in Moriarty’s opinion, did not lend itself well to a dance, regardless of the intentions behind it.
He refused to indulge it. He would push no closer than what Holmes seemed to allow.
“The longer I think on it, the less I know what to make of you,” Holmes confided, contemplation owning his words where one might have expected reluctance.
Moriarty turned his head, carefully attempting to search his expression. “I would hope, after so many years of study, you might come to understand that the dissonance is merely the difference between myself and how you choose to interpret me.”
Holmes appeared to think briefly upon it before shaking his head. “No. But I will concede you’ve made less an effort in your usual forms of deviltry lately.”
“What would you call it, Professor? When you, as you have referred to your work, have occasionally stepped beyond the bounds of legality?”
Refusing to be cowed by his knowing look, Moriarty considered the question. “I would refer to it as seeking additional government funding.”
Holmes snorted, unexpectedly amused. Surprise flashed over his features, dilated his pupils and pressed a faint flush to his cheeks. But he kept Moriarty’s gaze, allowing him to catalogue the reaction as he saw fit. In turn, Moriarty allowed him his pride, electing not to comment even as he committed the expression to memory—for later academic study, of course.
“I assume you view all such indiscretions under similar terms?” Holmes eventually said.
He felt himself pause once more, mind wavering. What, precisely, did Holmes consider indiscretions? “Elucidate.”
“Law-breaking, naturally, in its many forms.”
Ah. “I had hoped you meant something less trite.”
Holmes raised a brow. “Such as?”
His eyes flicked down to Holmes’s lips without his permission, cataloguing the amusement lingering upon them even before he’d realised he’d done so. Moriarty forced his gaze upwards again. “Mischief.”
It was Moriarty’s turn to raise a brow as he guided them into the last few steps of their arc. “I doubt anyone in your acquaintance would deny your predilection with mischief.”
Holmes’s expression shifted into one of affected affront, entirely lacking the usual weight of his annoyance. It didn’t last very long.
Both wrapped in the other’s focus, they took the end-of-arc twirl too quickly. The ground lurched away from them. They fumbled, tightening their hold on the other as though it would keep them from crashing to the ground. Tripping and stumbling, they barely managed to slow to a stop.
“See now, Professor? Deviltry,” Holmes teased, relief and amusement drenching his words.
Moriarty allowed a gentle huff of laughter in response, though relief had no part in it. They stood too close, all but pressing into each other. Holmes’s fingers clutched too-tightly in the shoulder of Moriarty’s jacket; moulded against each other from their effort not to fall over. He could feel every breath Holmes took shuddering through his own chest, slowly evening out until they nearly matched.
He was aware that he should move away, decide either to dance or to end this now. For both their sakes—if anyone happened across them, clinging to each other in a pseudo-embrace, it could make things...difficult, regardless of how true the assumptions wouldn’t be. But he couldn’t seem to move.
Holmes’s pulse thudded against his palm as his hand shifted. Breath warm and soft as it washed over his neck, tickling at his collar. He swallowed. Yes, he should move away. Any second now.
Holmes was the one to coax them back into motion. He hadn’t bothered to untangle his fingers from Moriarty’s jacket nor had he made any effort to step back. Instead he remained close, thoroughly ignoring the limitations of propriety. The tops of their thighs brushed with every step; a steady warmth settling in their chests where they pressed into each other. Moriarty realised his hand had slipped low, resting just above the base of Holmes’s spine. His fingers subconsciously twitched again, indecisive. A light shiver ran through Holmes.
They danced, gently swaying. Oblivious to the outside world as if nothing else existed; as if there was nowhere else they’d rather be. Every breath felt tight in Moriarty’s chest. They weren’t truly waltzing anymore. Just moving together, slowly matching each other’s rhythm. Peaceful in a way he hadn’t anticipated.
Holmes’s breath rushed out, warm and quick, against his neck. He turned a little further into Moriarty, their cheeks briefly grazing. “There is—” He paused, a verbal torrent unspoken but audibly frozen in the back of his throat as he seemed to weigh whatever it was he intended to say against some (to Moriarty’s understanding, at least) unknowable, looming thought. He swallowed. “Never mind.”
Interesting. “Go on.”
“Sherlock.” Moriarty had meant it to sound chastising—a tone he’d perfected, the slightly annoyed snap of a professor to his student—but it came out wrong. Too breathlessly soft on the first syllable, too rough on the second.
He felt as a brief flash of tension swept through Holmes, tightening the muscles beneath his fingers for less than a second.
Silence fell, like a poorly laid tablecloth, over them. Holmes gave his words another moment to parse before, in a nonchalant tone that indicated he’d actually intended to talk about something else, he murmured, “The Marchioness recently acquired a new chessboard; in the library.”
“I have seen it; opulently garish. I thought it looked barely functional.”
“Quite.” They swayed, Holmes’s grip shifting in his own. “Do you still play? I recall that you were exceptional.”
A small smile tugged at the corner of Moriarty’s mouth. “High praise,” he said, unable to keep affectionate warmth from dripping into his voice, “from you.”
Holmes responded with a gentle huff of something that was desperately attempting to be laughter. It washed warm and light over Moriarty’s neck, shivering under his collar. He immediately had to resist the urge to...well, it didn’t matter, he decided. It was one thing to want this man, to have wanted him for longer and more indecently than he would ever care to mention aloud. But there were limits. And he was content with this moment as it was, without the overwhelming probability of ruining their dance.
(Not that Moriarty particularly expected his interests, if acted upon, to matter. Holmes had always been too suspicious; too willing to assume the worst. If he allowed himself to give any thought to it he was certain he could map out the ensuing accusations with painful clarity.)
“My transportation is occupied with the buffet,” Holmes finally said as if to excuse his conduct. But he hadn’t loosened his grip on Moriarty’s jacket, nor had he made any effort to put a more casual distance between them—to dance properly instead of...this—and the excuse sounded feeble at best. “Perhaps...when we’ve concluded this dance, you’ll join me for a game.”
It was a wonderful mental image. To spend another hour or so together, bantering without the weight of genuine accusations between them. Or, perhaps, to silently enjoy the gentle comfort of another mind, so like his own, nearby. To allow himself a night of being quietly infatuated with this ridiculous man, with nothing to dissuade him from feeling thus. Wonderful. Foolish. Extremely unwise. He didn’t want to think about that just yet.
“I would consider it.” He turned slightly toward him, nose brushing Holmes’s cheek lightly. A not-yet kiss. “Ask me when the dance is over.”