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It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehab. He tries not to remember that.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

It's as simple as that.

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

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

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

He should probably calm down.

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

John Watson.

Nope. Never him.

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

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

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

Not interested at all?

I wouldn't say that.

Whatever you do at a wedding.

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

*****

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

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

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

Bored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so he's a dick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No limp.

“Did you...?”

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

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

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

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

*****

“Relax.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherlock is charmed. Even more so than before.

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” John asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing. Brilliant. Fantastic.

Beautiful.

(Whatever you do at a wedding.)

“Thank you, John.”

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