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Steam and Strings

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It’s the steam that keeps him coming back. It relaxes Sherlock’s muscles. His shoulders go tense after a long day, his biceps and triceps ache, and muscles of his hands and fingers twinge with every movement. The steam in the sauna seeps into his skin and washes away all that pain.

There’s a low moan from the bench opposite him. Sherlock cracks open an eyelid to see a young man (runner, obviously) bending over the lap of an older, but still fit, man on the bench beside him. Both had let their towels drop to the floor and the older man has a hand wrapped around the back of the younger one’s head, urging him down even farther.

Sherlock lets his eyelid slide closed again. Well, the steam and the ambiance are what kept him coming back. Public saunas and baths without a ridiculous membership fee are hard to find, and everyone here is discreet. The baths attract mostly men who are athletic which, if Sherlock were in a mood to seek intimate company, is exactly what he would look for. They also tend to be far enough from his own social and professional circle that his privacy is virtually guaranteed.

A longer moan, deeper and muffled by flesh, stretches out in the sauna.

Sherlock opens both eyes now. The runner has straddled his lover’s lap and is stroking both of them in one hand while they kiss. At least three other men in the darkened sauna are also having sex. The sound of skin against skin has a rhythm to it, where hips met and flesh smack together. Sweat drips from Sherlock’s soaked curls in counterpoint to the music of sex around him.

Well, when in the bathhouse. Sherlock pushes his towel away from his waist and wraps long, calloused fingers around his hardening prick. This is just another form of the physical and mental relaxation that he seeks here. Rarely does Sherlock reach out in the dark to another man, but he does take matters into his own hands as it were. Voyeurism is encouraged in the more public rooms, and he is ever so good at observing.

He stretches his long legs out in front of himself, and his toes bump against another man’s ankle. Sherlock nearly pulls back, not wanting to invite outside attention tonight, but then he looks.

The man is compact, not overly muscular but toned, with sandy hair and wide hands. He’s nervous. Obviously new to the establishment, and maybe to bathhouses in general. He licks his lips nervously and glances from Sherlock stroking his own cock to a couple stretched out sucking each other off on the floor. Sherlock leaves his foot where it rest against the man’s ankle.

It’s an invitation but not an aggressive one.

Sherlock lets the noise of other people’s comings and goings push him closer and closer to the edge. His hips flex and the ball of his foot presses against the stranger’s ankle as his thighs tighten and bunch. The stranger watches him, towel tented but firmly in place across his lap. Sherlock ends up jerking himself to completion watching the stranger watch him, gradually becoming oblivious to the chorus of sex around him.

He stays stretched out, sweat and come and steam sliding down his chest and belly, for a few long moments. This is the most relaxed Sherlock has felt in ages. He wipes the wet mess from his skin, drops his towel to the floor, and strides past the stranger entirely naked.

Sherlock soaks for a few moments in one of cool water pools before finding his locker and redressing. The stranger never follows.

But that’s all right. Sherlock’s orgasm had temporarily driven all maddening thoughts of Locatelli's Caprice in D major from his mind. They had plagued him all day. Now all that bothers him is that the sauna had been too dark for him to tell if the stranger’s eyes were blue or brown while they watched him come.

***************
“This is intolerable. I won’t play it.”

Sherlock crashes the music stand to the floor with a carelessly out thrown hand. Loose papers scatter and Mrs. Hudson jumps, then retreats down the stairs. He’ll apologize later. He’ll play her something upbeat this evening.

Lestrade sighs dramatically from his spot on the chair. He had sat there, watching as Sherlock pick his way through this new composition. It was appalling. Sherlock had no idea why Lestrade remained so crushingly optimistic about Sherlock’s reactions to the orchestral pieces Lestrade brought him. Sherlock’s best reaction to date had been a begrudging “This will be fine.”

“Well, you have to play it. We’ve already announced it as debuting at our Christmas gala.” Lestrade hoisted himself from the chair and stood in front of the cold hearth.

Sherlock’s jaw drops in outrage. Why bother to bring him the piece before the rest of the orchestra if he had no say in whether or not they played it? “Un-announce it.”

“Yeah, that’s not exactly how that works.”

Sherlock snatches a single page of the sheet music from where it teeters, perched on the edge of the coffee table. “This is insipid. It lacks any originality. A child could play this. A stupid child.”

Lestrade doesn’t interrupt his rant. So he continues, pouring out all his boredom and frustration onto Lestrade and his terrible decisions managing and conducting his orchestra. He keeps going until he feels wrung out and collapses on the sofa with his dressing gown pulled tight around his torso.

Sherlock listens to Lestrade stand stock still for a full minute, give another dramatic sigh, and then move across the flat. “First section rehearsal is in two weeks!” he calls back as he trots down the stairs.

Sherlock shatters a mostly-empty tea cup by pitching it against the door frame, even though he knows Lestrade is long gone.

***************
Learning his new piece wasn’t causing Sherlock’s muscles to knot and twist, but the strain of not bashing his head into the wall certainly was. He sunk down into the pool until warmth lapped at his chin. Soaking in the warm pool allowed the body to acclimate to hotter temperatures before entering the sauna. It also allowed an up close and personal view of those that prefered to fuck in water instead of steam.

Sherlock blocked out the splashing and the groaning, along with the unimaginative composition back on his music stand in Baker Street. His mind played over Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major instead. Something technically interesting but that he had mastered long ago. It was as relaxing to his mind as the water was to his body. His fingers tapped out the fingerings against the side of the pool.

Neither the concerto or the symphony of sex around him was enough to hold his attention for long. Sherlock opened his eyes, resolved to try the sauna for a more relaxing experience, but instead saw his mysterious stranger easing into the pool.

The man is naked but obviously not entirely comfortable with it. He stops only partly into the pool and sits on the wide cement stairs. The water circles his waist. There’s a couple on the opposite side of the bottom stair. The stranger watches them halfheartedly.

Sherlock knows when someone is trying to go unnoticed. When they are watching someone while hoping not to be seen. He stretches his arms out along the edge of the pool behind his shoulders, letting his pale biceps turn toward his stranger. He keeps his eyes half closed and watches the man glance back and forth between the amorous couple, across the pool at the other men, and then to him. Sherlock lets him suffer, stealing glances and never fully relaxing on the cement step, for long minutes.

The stranger licks his lips in quick, short movements and Sherlock has never liked the phrase “played like a damn fiddle” but sometimes it’s appropriate.

Sherlock kicks away from the side of the pool. His arms cut the water in front of him as he glides toward the stairs. The stranger’s knees fall open and Sherlock stops between them, a hand on each one and resting on his knees in the water. He pushes on the stranger’s knees, easing him up a step so that the water only reaches his thighs and his half-hard cock bobs along the surface.

He bends his neck, takes the stranger into his mouth. There’s a sharp intake of breath above but no words. The man’s cock grows in his mouth above the waterline and in his hand below it. He strokes as he sucks and twirls his tongue along the crown and across the slit. The water is warm and his own balls hang heavy and buoyant between his parted knees.

Sherlock loses himself to the rhythm of it. To the melody of sucking a stranger’s cock in a crowded bath while other men watch. Strangely, he’s only vaguely aware of the other men in the water and those walking past the warm pool to the other amenities and dark nooks and crannies in the bath house. The world has narrowed down to just him, to just his work as he brings off the oddly compelling man who is out of his depth more figuratively than literally.

The only thing that pulls Sherlock out of his isolated reflection is the man’s hands settling on the back of his head to push him deeper. Sherlock looks up and finds the stranger watching him. His eyes are wide, mouth hanging open, and his breath comes in great huffs that play across Sherlock’s fringe. His fingers dig into Sherlock’s damp curls and Sherlock gets back to work with new determination.

He feels the lingering desire of the stranger’s gaze and he dips his head lower, until his nose touches the water. The stranger raises his hips, giving Sherlock another inch or two he can work into his mouth. Sherlock’s hands slide from the stranger’s knees to grip his hips, to urge him to thrust in and out.

The water makes small splashes that undoubtedly draw more attention to them. Sherlock doesn’t care. He is focused and dedicated in a way he hasn’t been in some time. The stranger’s gaze ignited something low in his gut on a direct line to his lips and his cock. It’s almost unheard of to find actual passion here.

Sherlock gets a warning in the form of a tightened grasp on the back of his head and a stuttering breath. The stranger tries to pull back, to pull out, and Sherlock assumes it’s only out of politeness. That’s unnecessary. Sherlock pushes his palms flat against the man’s hips, holding him in place and swallows down as much of his cock as he can without drowning. There’s a soft exhalation of “Christ” above him as the man shoots across his tongue and down his throat.

He rises from the water, walking up the stairs and out of the pool without even bothering to wipe a hand across his mouth. The stranger grabs his wrist and Sherlock pauses, water only reaching his knees and his own hard cock arching out from his belly.

“I’m John.”

Sherlock laughs. He can’t help it really. “Of course you are.”

‘John’ licks his lips like he would like to reciprocate but Sherlock has a piece to practice. He feels like music again.

Sherlock may not believe that’s the man’s name, but it’s irrelevant anyway. He now knows that his eyes are blue and not brown, that he has a fascinating and ugly starburst scar on his left shoulder, and that the callouses on the pads of his fingers feel like the tiny half-moon roughness one acquires from frequently playing on woodwind ring-keys.

***************
The first section rehearsal goes shockingly well. It’s just the violins in the morning, then they get to take a few hours off while the violas and cellos rehearse on their own. They come together in the afternoon, along with the contrabass.

It wasn’t perfect, obviously. Cues were missed and tempo is lost in trickier places, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with some work. Sherlock loves the work. The beauty of breaking down a composition, even one as uninspired as their new piece, into its parts and then bringing it back together again in harmony.

There is one thing he’s not pleased with.

“Molly shouldn’t be first chair.”

Lestrade doesn’t look at him. He shoots a quick glance toward Molly, packing up her violin and chatting with a second violin who sits in the row behind her. He looks back to his notes before responding. “And I suppose you should be first chair instead?”

“Of course I should.”

“No.”

“You can’t possibly think she’s a better violinist than I am.”

Lestrade rubs a hand across his forehead in a way that means he is exasperated and tired and dangerously close to yelling. “Sherlock, you are a musical genius. You play beautifully. But you cannot be first chair. Molly is a fine first chair. She does more for section morale than you ever would. This isn’t the London Symphony; there’s more to who gets to be first chair than just who plays the best.”

Sherlock’s blood boils. All of the calming effects of a day of musical, even if rudimentary, work are gone. “Well, for once, you’re absolutely right. This isn’t the London Symphony.”

Lestrade finally looks away from the chicken scratch he’s been scrawling across musical bars. The bite in Sherlock’s tone forces him too. “Why don’t you give them a call and see if they need another first violin then?”

“None of the other orchestras will take me!” Sherlock bellows.

Molly has stopped chatting with the second violin. The cellists who haven’t already left are staring at him. Their eyes are all full of pity for Lestrade and confusion about why Sherlock is still here in the first place.

Lestrade matches Sherlock’s shouting. “Yeah, cocaine withdrawal makes for shaky hands. Terrible trait in a violinist.”

His hands are shaking now and it has nothing to do with cocaine. It’s been years since he’s touched it and Lestrade knows it. But Lestrade only knows it because he was the only conductor in London that would give a newly-clean Sherlock a chance.

Any number of stinging retorts come to Sherlock’s mind. He could talk about Lestrade’s wife’s infidelity or the man’s incompetence as a conductor, but instead he grabs his violin case and storms out with a graceful flare of his coat.

He has a text message before he reaches Baker Street.

From: G Lestrade
Work off that attitude and come back on Friday for woodwind auditions.

It’s as close to an apology as he will get. Or that he wants, really.

***************
Waiting the rest of the week does not go well. Inactivity grates at Sherlock’s nerves with the tenacity of a terrier. It grows to a point where he can’t escape it even with music. Not with the drech he’ll be playing for the Christmas gala or the pieces he’s been working on on his own. Not even with composing.

Back to the baths it is. Maybe the steam can at least hide how tedious life is.

When he’s damp and flushed from the warm water pool, he makes his way to the steam room. He takes a towel, folded over his arm, to sit on. More out of concern for himself than for any politeness toward others.

He chooses the largest of the steam rooms. Maybe quantity of stimulation will overrule any lack of quality he’s sure to find here.

Or maybe it won’t be so bad afterall. Through the steam, on a high riser in the far corner, Sherlock spots blue eyes and a starburst scar. He threads his way over the benches, past men who reach for him, to join the ‘John’ in the corner.

It’s darker up here and the steam hangs around their heads. Sherlock insinuates himself next to the man. ‘John’ is taking up the corner, his shoulders each resting on a different wall. Sherlock’s hip presses against ‘John’s’ thigh.

“Come here often then?”

“Usually there’s no talking in a place like this.”

‘John’ smiles a bit and Sherlock watches the spread of his lips more than he watches the slight thickening of his cock. “I’ll try to remember that.”

They sit quietly for a few moments and Sherlock finds ‘John’s’ presence infinitely less boring than being alone. But quiet contemplating, even with excellent company, isn’t what he came here for.

Sherlock lets his hand rub across his belly, fingers scratch low through his pubic hair before sliding wide and ghosting down his thigh. His hand traces back up, cupping his balls for a moment this time, before settling back on his stomach.

‘John’ is watching him when Sherlock looks up. He keeps ‘John’s’ gaze as he trails his hand down again and wraps his palm around his cock. The humidity in the room gives enough constant moisture to let the skin slide smoothly.

‘John’ breaks their stare and lets his eyes fall to Sherlock’s hardening cock. Good. That’s what Sherlock wanted. It gives him freedom to examine ‘John’s’ blonde-grey-brown hair and the pucker of the scar on his shoulder without interference.

Sherlock’s breathing speeds up, his cock grows harder, and he looks his fill.

He keeps looking until ‘John’ closes his own fist over Sherlock’s erection. Sherlock’s hand falls away, his hips jump, and he bites back a moan. His eyes snap to ‘John’s’ and he finds the other man smiling. Not the fake, flirtatious so many other men employ while at the baths but something aggressive and far more genuine.

Sherlock has to look away. Instead he watches himself wrap a hand around ‘John’s’ cock and stroke it, teasing the partially hard head to peek from the foreskin. They fall into an easy rhythm. It’s not rushed, nor is it languorous. There’s more to it than just a handjob between near-strangers in a dark bathhouse. It feels charged somehow. Sherlock can’t look back to ‘John’s’ face. His eyes are too deep and too blue. Instead, Sherlock lets his gaze pinball back and forth between their hands and cocks.

It’s not long before ‘John’ stiffens. Come shoots out across Sherlock’s knuckles on his last upstroke and his glides back down to the root of ‘John’s’ cock, spreading the mess with him. He’s reluctant to let go, but loosens his fingers so the softening weight of ‘John’s’ cock rests in his hand.

‘John’s’ hand momentarily tightens on Sherlock’s erection when he comes but he quickly resumes his rhythm. Sherlock lets himself relax into it, starts fucking ‘John’s’ fist with deep thrusts of his hips. He feels every millimeter of ‘John’s’ sweaty skin against his own. Feels the difference in the warmth provided by the air around them and the warmth of flesh against flesh.

Sherlock feels his orgasm approaching, starting to build deep within his gut and making his legs tremble. He also feels ‘John’s’ lips press against his neck. He whimpers, trying to stay quiet. They’ve managed to avoid much unwanted attention and voyeurism in their dark corner and Sherlock would prefer to keep it that way. Then ‘John’ licks a trail of sweat from the side of his throat. Sherlock groans, a deep, reverberating sound that seems to fill the room. Damn being quiet.

‘John’ huffs a laugh and Sherlock simultaneously tries to push his neck into ‘John’s’ mouth and thrust his cock through ‘John’s’ hand. It ends with Sherlock half sprawled across ‘John’s’ lap with his legs thrown out at odd angles and come cooling on his belly. ‘John’s’ hand lies across his thigh and even in the dim lighting Sherlock can see the contrast of his skin tones.

“Afghanistan or Iraq?”

‘John’ stiffens for a split second but his hand doesn’t move. “I thought you said there was no talking?” His voice is close to Sherlock’s ear and Sherlock stretches his neck into it.

“You were military. Invalided home because of -” Sherlock knocks his head back against the scar on ‘John’s’ shoulder. “Tan line that stops at the wrist and neck but wounded so you were in combat which means Afghanistan or Iraq.”

“Amazing.”

“Hmmmm. That’s not what people usually say.” His post-orgasmic lassitude is wearing off. He’s not restless again but he’s already thinking of the other things he could be doing.

“What do people usually say?”

“Piss off.”

‘John’ giggles, actually giggles and Sherlock sit up out of his lap. He wipes down with the towel that long ago fell the floor and is already standing when ‘John’ speaks again.

“My name really is John, though.”

Sherlock doesn’t dignify that with a response. Instead, he makes it down one riser before another fact about ‘John’ slots into place. His hands, his callouses. Sherlock whirls around.

“You play the oboe. Often, and fairly well.”

‘John’ smirks at him, leaned back and glistening with sweat and steam. “Do I? Not many people play the oboe so seems like an odd guess.”

“I never guess.” Sherlock stares him down for a moment longer, looking for anything he’s missed but it’s shockingly hard to read a naked man. “I know every musician in London.”

“Well, I did just get back.” ‘John’ tips his chin to the scar on his shoulder before rising and wrapping a towel around his waist. It would look ridiculous on any other man in the room, this unnecessary nod to propriety, but the white of the towel against the golden glow of his slick skin looks good. Very good. He startles Sherlock out of staring by speaking again. “We’ve broken the no talking rule. Why don’t we break the ‘don’t go to dinner with a casual shag’ rule too?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Dinner? Dinner is boring.” He twirls, which is much harder to pull off while naked, and clears the risers two at time until he hits the floor. He doesn’t turn back and ‘John’ doesn’t follow him to the locker room or out of the bathhouse.

Sherlock’s almost sorry about that.

***************
Lestrade texts Sherlock multiple times leading up to the woodwind auditions on Friday. The man barely lets Sherlock out of his sight even though it’s been ages since Sherlock’s had a relapse. If Lestrade really wanted to make sure Sherlock was kept occupied, he’d make sure the orchestra played something more complicated than their current line up. Music occupied his mind and his mind was best when occupied.

Auditions did not occupy his mind; they bored him. Lestrade’s orchestra was third rate at best and barely paid its musicians a living wage. They attracted the talent one would expect with that reputation. Unless Lestrade found a talented junkie, like Sherlock, or a moderately-talented but self-conscious musician, like Molly, auditions were likely to be excruciating.

Sherlock would skip them entirely if he didn’t think Lestrade would march the whole damn circus right into his sitting room.

Lestrade starts with the flutes, which Sherlock hates. They sound thin and screechy, but at least there aren't any piccolos today. They also hear two struggling oboists and Sherlock hates them even more.
But the time Lestrade calls for the clarinets, Sherlock would kill a man for a cigarette.

The first clarinet is bad but not as offensive as the flutes had been. Sherlock has his head tipped back against the auditorium seat, eyes closed, and slouched as low as he can go before bumping his knees into the row in front of him.

“Watson, John. Clarinet.”

That voice makes his sit straight up and lock eyes with the stage.

It was the clarinet, not the bloody oboe.

The stage lights are up and John doesn’t see him. Lestrade gives John permission to go ahead and Sherlock holds his breathe.

John plays a piece of Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto. It’s a novel choice for an audition for a classical orchestra. It’s tight and crisp and, even without the trumpets, still clearly rings of the 1940s. John plays well and Sherlock feels a knot unfurl in his chest. He really didn’t want to hate the man’s music.

Before John has released the last note, Sherlock is up, climbing over the seats to get to the stage. Lestrade grabs his ankle to tug him back.

“Hire this one. He’s loyal. You won’t lose him to another orchestra or a better paying day job. He’s pulling an Army pension so he can survive on what you’ll pay him.”

Lestrade doesn’t drop his ankle. “How do you know that?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Sherlock yanks his leg free from Lestrade and continue to walk over the seatbacks until meets John at the bottom of the stage stairs.

John stops in front of him, just a foot away and just a shade too close for friendly company. His knuckles turn white on the handle of his clarinet cases.

Sherlock extends his hand for lack of any other way to say ‘hello’. “Sherlock Holmes, first violin.”

John takes his hand in a strong, warm grip. Those ring key callouses brushed against his wrist. “John Watson, Captain, Corps of Army Music.”

Sherlock drops his hand in shock. “You were in the band? They don’t shoot the band!”

“I guess they didn’t like my rendition of Rule Britannia.”

Sherlock laughs. It reverberates from deep within his chest until it rumbles free from his throat. It feels like the first genuine laugh he’s had in ages. John matches him with glittering eyes and that same slow smirk he wore at the baths.

Oh, and the baths are an excellent memory.

Sherlock licks his lips, still watching John’s smile. An idea strikes him. The mixing of the calm, hot relaxation of the steam and the exhilaration he feels with violin strings under his fingers and the orchestra swelling around him. And those feelings mix in John.

“Dinner?”

“Starving.”

John’s giggle bubbles out as they leave the darkened auditorium and it sounds like music.