Wednesday, January 6th
There were warm lips at the back of his neck. His curls shivered under the gusts of air John blew there with each small breath. A kiss, placed gently at his nape.
Sherlock, standing in the center of their private studio at Baker Street and gazing up at the grey light flooding through the windows, turned slowly. His arms came up and closed automatically around John, who was staring up at him with all his typical concern, all his unusual excitement and nerves. John came down from on tiptoe, eyes never leaving his own.
"Ready?" John asked. Sherlock was still staring down the length of his arms. They'd come up like phantom limbs. None of this, he thought, watching the subtle shift of John's weight in the circle of his embrace, belonged to him.
Sherlock spied the suitcase at John's side and the other held tight in his hand, and nodded.
John's forehead creased, and he looked as if he were about to say something. But no words came. Sherlock mirrored him, tilting his head slightly to get a better look at John, searching his face for the truths he could always, always find hidden in those expressive lines. "Are you?" he asked eventually.
The creases smoothed. John set the other bag on the floor, then that hand came up to Sherlock's neck, his fingers curving over the spot where his lips had been only moments before. Sherlock was gladly pulled in, meeting him for the kiss with his eyes screwed shut.
"Now I am," he heard, when John pulled back, and opened his eyes to John's smile.
It had made sense to meet here, though they wouldn't have time to practice before the cab would arrive and take them to the train. From there the train would send them off to Paris, Paris would find them rushing to Sherlock's audition at the opera house itself, and beyond that - well, anything after would be a tense limbo, a waiting game before the results of his audition came through. The time for practices and rehearsals had, indeed, come to an end.
But perhaps, time enough for a warm-up.
"You know," Sherlock said, breaking away to shuck his coat and scarf. "Train trips make me restless."
John crossed his arms. "I'm not having sex with you here, Sherlock. Or on the train," he added after a moment of thought. Sherlock only rolled his eyes, continuing to step out of his shoes and strip off his shirt.
"La ville de l'amour, indeed," he said, amused, his smile only broadening at the flush that rose on John's neck when he spoke the French with ease. Shirtless, no less - in their short time together he'd learned just a bit about John's affinity for Sherlock's bare chest.
Interesting, that Sherlock could already place that flush patterning John's among the multitude of others. His stomach twisted itself into a knot at the thought, and his smile dropped.
Hoping John couldn't see the tremor in his fingers, he beckoned John over to the barre. "A warm-up, John. That's all I meant."
John came slowly, coaxed over to the barre by the rhythmic movements that had first brought them together: first position, the heels tucked close, the back curved and relaxed, chest high, head up, arms low. His fingers gripped the barre and his other hand fluted wide, up, down. One foot, skating out over the floor. It was geometry, it was music; together they were art.
And when John joined him, it might have been astronomy, the two of them like gods painting constellations across an oakwood sky. The movement of the stars eternal. Each point, connected, only to vanish with the next breath and its new and careful steps.
He only noticed he was laughing when John pointed it out. "The quadrivium," he said, in answer. "Arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. An entire classical education in dance. Well, minus the trivium."
John was silent. Then, between a tendu and a plie, he said, honestly, "I have no idea what that means, Mister Public School."
Sherlock huffed. Over his shoulder, he said, "The trivium was rhetoric and logic in the pantheon of study. All this time we've been learning everything but how to speak. And the foundations of a philosophy course, I suppose, but I thought the former more apt, considering what you told me about our ability to speak in dance."
One, two, three… breathe, repeat. Like the three words unsaid, that wouldn't be said. Not by him, at least.
This silence was far more stretched and weighted, and over time Sherlock became aware of the fact that John was no longer moving with him in time. He looked behind him to see John staring down at the floor. His eyes came upwards to meet Sherlock's, and it seemed the blues and hazels of his gaze were at war, just as the thoughts behind them.
"Apt, yeah." John said, and he heaved in a breath, his shoulders set. "Sherlock, I really need to say -"
Sherlock's heart, already beating strangely fast from the look on John's face, nearly stopped in surprise. His head whipped around at the greeting, to see someone struggling through the door. "Mrs. Hudson?" he said incredulously. John, looking equally shocked, caught his gaze.
Sherlock looked quickly away. "Mrs. Hudson's the landlady," he said, by way of explanation, but it was all he could get out before she enveloped him in a hug and the delicate, familiar fragrance of rosewater and balsam. But he couldn't relax into it, not when John was still looking at him like that.
"My, you're looking well," she said appreciatively, giving him an extra squeeze as she looked up from his chest. She winked, in a manner she likely thought was covert but really wasn't, not at all. Her eyes strayed over to John before widening. "And this must be your young man!"
"Partner, yes, my… partner…" Sherlock said, at a loss, watching as John was taken into those arms as well. Still stronger than they looked, Sherlock noted, even after all these years.
Over her shoulder, John's eyes were wide, his face gone pale. "Mrs. Hudson," he said at length. "Not… not the Emma Hudson, surely…?"
Her eyes twinkled, no less dull for their years. "The very same. It really is just Mrs. Hudson now, though."
John's gaze sliced over to Sherlock. Sherlock frowned. "How is it you knew Mrs. Hudson but you had no idea who I was?"
John gave a defensive little shrug. Mrs. Hudson, watching the proceedings, smiled secretly and decided to rescue him. "'Fraid I'm not here for long, though - neither are you, really, what with that big audition today, loves. When do you leave?"
Sherlock glanced quickly at his watch. "About five minutes, actually, if the London transit system is to be trusted."
"Ooh, glad I decided to pop in early, then. I'll be needing that key back -" Sherlock was already moving off, tearing himself away from their small circle to rifle through his belongings. He took the envelope from his coat pocket and whisked around to hand it back.
She shook it a little, tilting her head up at him. "And it contains all the -"
"Key, lease papers, my signature, yes," he finished.
"Have to be sure, you understand." She gave a little sigh, looking around the wide room for herself. "I do wish you didn't have to leave it, Sherlock. You've been a good tennant."
John snorted at that, and Sherlock kicked him lightly in the shin while Mrs. Hudson's back was still turned.
"It was nice, the old place still getting some use. The developers will probably have at it now. A funny row of offices will be here before you know it," she said, once she'd come back around to face them. But she shrugged, the momentary melancholy falling from her shoulders like an old cloak, and gave a tittering little laugh. "C'est la vie."
"Indeed." Sherlock wished it were that easy, to shake the strange, hollow sensations that stole over him in the wake of her words. It had never, he thought, catching sight of John's downturned face in the corner of his eye, been a problem before.
"Well, goodbye, Mrs. Hudson," Sherlock said, when no one had made any move to speak for a sufficient amount of time. Go away now, he hoped it said, very clearly.
Perhaps too clearly. "Sherlock," John muttered, nudging into his side.
But Mrs. Hudson laughed again, waving her hands. "Never one for goodbyes, he was. Come on, give us one more hug. Who knows when I'll see you again?" With a small sigh, he allowed - briefly - his eyes to close, his memories of comfort and safety to rise up around him her well-remembered hands.
John wasn't smiling when he came up, but there was something gone soft in the dark, dark blue of his gaze.
"Lovely to meet you," John said, stepping in. The hand he held out was disregarded for another hug as well - one he returned with much more ease.
"Thank you for dancing with my Sherlock," she said under her breath, and patted his upper arm. "We always knew he had it in him, didn't we?"
The corner of John's mouth tugged upwards, as he flicked a glance aside at Sherlock. "Always."
Something in the word caused him to flinch. He stepped quickly away from John, feigning rummaging further in his luggage, but all the while he could barely move for the shaking in his hands. What was wrong with him?
They watched him in a strained silence. "Of course, dear," Mrs. Hudson said at last, but it sounded like a question. Behind her, Sherlock closed his eyes.
A loud horn from outside cut through their conversation, much to his relief. He turned to see Mrs. Hudson clasping her hands before her chest. "That'll be your taxi. Break a leg, and I expect tickets to your first performance."
"I haven't even -"
"Now, now," she tutted, already moving away. "Don't do that, it's bad luck."
Sherlock looked to John, who shrugged. "She's right," he agreed, but he was grinning. He gave Sherlock another nudge, this one far gentler than before. Sherlock shrugged away, but John didn't seem to notice. "Come on, let's go."
They grabbed their suitcases and, waving their final goodbyes, moved for the door.
"I can't believe you never told me that your-landlady-Mrs.-Hudson is the same as famous-ballerina-Mrs.-Hudson," John hissed through his teeth as they were leaving. "I remember watching her on the telly when I was a kid, jesus."
At his side, Sherlock shrugged. "There are many things," he said slowly, "that I don't tell you."
John's footsteps hesitated, but only for a second. Then he pushed resolutely on ahead.
But as John moved out the door, Sherlock took a moment to look back. Mrs. Hudson was standing in the middle of the room, looking up at the ceiling. In all that empty grey space, with the light and shadow falling down around her, she seemed very small. Sherlock wondered, for a moment, what John had seen all those times he'd walked into the room and seen Sherlock in much the same position. If Sherlock had also seemed very small.
Mrs. Hudson caught his eye. "Why," he asked, voice booming between them for all the words felt very small, "did you stop dancing?"
The hint of a smile spread over her lips. "You'll find out," she answered. "One day. We all do."
Before he could ask for a better answer, the horn was honking again, John was yelling back at him about train schedules, and Mrs. Hudson was turning away.
Curled into the chair, his knees wedged up against the seatback in front of him - because apparently the trains had never before imagined such a concept as legroom - Sherlock should not have been comfortable. But the rhythmic rocking of the car was like the low undertones of music, and John's shoulder was warm and soft against his head, and he fell asleep tracing out their audition's choreography over the back of John's hand.
But John was nudging him into wakefulness what seemed like only moments later. "Five minutes," he murmured, brushing his lips through Sherlock's hair. "Almost there."
"You shouldn't have let me sleep," he mumbled, eyes still closed as he relaxed in the warm and pleasant darkness. "I'll be groggy for our - for my audition."
A chuckle from up above. "People can't actually go 24 hours without sleep and be fine. And I know for a fact you didn't sleep much at all last night."
Sherlock made a grumbly noise and lifted his head, peering out blearily at the city. They'd left behind grey London for a rainier day in Paris, and as the train whisked by it was impossible to see much beyond the fog and drab buildings and wet streaks glazing the windows.
"Have you ever been to Paris before?" Sherlock asked, and leaned his head against John's.
John leaned back. "Cheekbone-y bastard," he muttered, and then, "No. My first time. Thank you."
Sherlock rolled his neck, squinting up at John with sharp eyes. "Thank me?"
Beneath his head, John's shoulders lifted in a small shrug. "All expenses paid trip to Paris? I never would have had a reason without you."
Sherlock snorted. "You've performed all over the world."
"D.C., Boston and a short stint in Barcelona don't really count as 'all over the world.'"
"I've never been to D.C. or Boston."
"Yes, so it would seem like a whole new world to you, wouldn't it?" John mused. He smoothed Sherlock's hair back from his forehead, letting it fall limply back into place before he did it again. Sherlock blew out a breath at him, and John snorted before leaning down to kiss him.
As soon as John's lips met his, it was as if he'd stolen all the warmth, all the comfort of darkness. A chill slid down his spine instead, and he remembered just what this was, just what they were counting down to as the train began to slow, slow, slow into the station.
You don't, Lestrade's words came flooding back to him, want to lose something like that.
Sherlock's eyes flew open as John leaned away, but he was still caught with John's hands on the side of his face. He knew those hands, he thought, and the care those worn thumbs took in tracing his cheekbones, his nose, was almost painful.
"I'll show you all my favorite spots in D.C.," John said, bringing their foreheads together. "Right down the street from the competition there's this one 'English-style pub,' they call it, but the fish and chips aren't half bad. I can't wait to see you with grease all over your face and crumbs on your fingers."
Sherlock's eyes flitted downwards as John's chuckle warmed his face. His hands were fisted in the sides of John's jacket, the knuckles gone white, as if his grip there were the only thing keeping him being tossed side to side by the rumbling of the train over tracks.
As it slowed, their destination having arrived, he released John with a simple flex of his fingers. John was looking at him again, in that way that sent the cold creeping in even underneath his heavy coat. He stood, buttoning it up to his chin.
"Come on," he said stiffly. "The rain's going to worsen the traffic."
John's smile faded, slowly, and it seemed to draw even more of the color from the city in its wake. "Okay," he said. And then he repeated, as if to himself, "Okay."
Sherlock stepped off the train into Paris streets and heaved in a lungful of smoky, ancient air. With John still struggling behind him, their cases in hand, he took a minute to close his eyes and allowed himself a rare moment of fancy:
He was arriving in Paris. He had been accepted into the ballet he'd been dreaming of for so long. The city was whirling indifferently by, there was music and talk and the sound of tires on wet streets, and Sherlock was just another of its number - but tonight he would dance in front of thousands, would be the someone he'd dreamed of being. He would breathe in the air of early morning and then again the air of evening, and he would wake up to do it all again, again, again, with dance in every step, until he'd been lost to time and this dream of Paris ancient as the air.
And through it all he was alone, he was alone.
Sherlock opened his eyes. The city whirled indifferently by.
And then Sherlock made the slowest turn of his life. John was stepping out of the train, looking around with wide eyes that, when the light touched them, fractured into colors unnamed, unknown. They were eyes that soon fell to Sherlock. His face bloomed with a smile, beautiful and honest and entirely his own.
And Sherlock knew. He smiled back around the fissures gaping wide somewhere deep inside his chest, and he knew exactly what he had to do.
Sherlock had become quieter and quieter the longer their journey persisted. John was used to his silences - they'd gone entire rehearsals where Sherlock, his narrow face frowning in concentration, hadn't spoken a word. But there was something different about this, John knew. He could see it every time he glanced across the cab.
Sherlock being silent was not the same as Sherlock being quiet, and this was Sherlock gone quiet. He was folded into himself like some sort of abyss, there in his charcoal coat with only the edges of his messy hair peeking above the collar. All his energy, all the sparking light of his eyes and his being that infuriated and captivated John in turns - it had all drained down to this, to a Sherlock who tracked the paths of raindrops on the windows and was biting his lip white.
The only other space larger than the one Sherlock now inhabited, John reckoned, was the one resting in the gulf between them.
John put out his hand, resting it tentatively over Sherlock's.
Sherlock did nothing so obvious as drag it away, but John could feel the tremors running under his skin.
John could feel his face drawing down, settling into stone. Perhaps it was just Sherlock's form of nerves. Maybe, he hoped desperately, that was it. John was certainly nervous, and this wasn't even his audition.
But, for all that Sherlock could be sensitive to the compliments and critiques alike that John had showered over him on any number of occasions, he'd never known him to be anything but utterly confident in his abilities as a dancer. No, and something in John's gut told him, brutal and cold - this was different.
For a long time, John mirrored Sherlock's position. Their hands were the one tentative connection, warmth in the midst of all this cold and all this dark.
And then John spoke, softly, without saying a world.
He feathered his fingers over Sherlock's, spreading them palm to back of hand. He could feel Sherlock still. Processing.
Encouraged, he then slipped his fingers around, cupping the side of Sherlock's hand. He flipped Sherlock's hand and drew a thumb down the line of his palm. In reflex, Sherlock's fingers flared.
John stopped, just to rest in the weight of the response. Yes.
Sherlock's head had turned fractionally back to him, away from the foggy window. He was breathing in shallow, even rhythms.
John's fingers, where they were tapered against the tendon's in Sherlock's hand, tapped out a beat. Twitching, Sherlock's fingers had no choice but to do the same pattern.
John folded his own hand over Sherlock's and then smoothed it upwards, laying the fingers flat. Then he touched their fingertips together - index, middle, ring, pinky.
Of its own accord, Sherlock's thumb reached up, seeking the thin point of contact with John's. As their thumbs touched, John dragged his eyes upwards to see Sherlock, staring at him so intensely he might as well have been trying to stare inside him.
"What," Sherlock asked, "are you doing?"
John wet his lips with his tongue. "Dancing."
Sherlock shook his head, just slightly. "No."
Looking back down at their hands again, John let a soft sigh slip out. And then he let the fingers still steepled against Sherlock's fall to their side. They landed in the spaces between each of Sherlock's spindly fingers, and the both of their hands naturally locked into place. Intertwined and solid. He saw, from the corner of his eye, Sherlock sharply drop his head.
He gave a thin pant of breath as he involuntarily squeezed John's hand.
And when he lifted his eyes, bright and so open John thought his heart would break with it, he took his other hand and danced it over the side of Sherlock's face, till it rested safely against his cheek. "I'm trying to tell you something." His eyes dropped to Sherlock's lips, to the thumb pressed beneath the shadow of his cheekbones, went back to hold his gaze. "Do you understand?"
John wouldn't get a real answer until they were only seconds away from Sherlock's audition. The cab had brought them to the Palais Garnier, they'd been ushered too quickly through the jaw-dropping foyer with its ornate red and gold furnishings, up one side of its double-staircase and down, down, down again into the dressing rooms, and from there to backstage - and all the while Sherlock had been poised on the breath of words that wouldn't seem to come.
He'd walked up behind Sherlock as he was peeking through the curtains - watching the last performers and drafting a checklist of all they'd done wrong, no doubt.
As Sherlock peeked through the curtains, the light spilled across him, waterfalling down the bare line of his back. It fell into the shadows and was lost, just as every supple, muscular curve of his glowing skin was cast into sharp relief. John caught his breath.
He watched Sherlock stretch, flex, then descend into a plié, all the while dappled in the blinding stage lights. His eyes never strayed from whatever Sherlock watched, out there beyond the velvet curtains separating them from -
Well, John thought, his eyes flicking up to Sherlock again, lost in his own thoughts as he was. Separating them from everything.
In dance, John could always be certain that, when Sherlock ran ahead, John would be there to catch him. In anything else, not so much. Sometimes Sherlock understood things so much faster than he did.
He threw his shoulders back, regarding Sherlock for one long moment, capturing the memory of genius at the apex of its element. And then he stepped forward and laid a hand on his back, catching up at last.
"You okay?" he said, asking a very different question. Sherlock was warm to the touch, so very alive. There were very few moments in which it was more obvious how human, how alive, Sherlock Holmes had become than in the moments he was with John just as they were here and now.
Sherlock had turned and was looking at him, his face expressionless but something moving intensely in that gaze. And then it was as if all of him relaxed as one. A smile unfurled across his face, and it was, John thought, far, far too sad for a man about to get everything he'd ever wanted.
Sherlock dove forward, murmuring "Yes," and clumsily pressed those downturned, desperate lips to John's forehead. He held him there with a hand to the back of John's skull as if John would disappear the moment he let go. His throat tight, John brought his other hand to the back of Sherlock's neck and breathed quietly against Sherlock's neck. Faint sweat, tobacco, resin - same as ever.
He felt Sherlock's hands sliding away, coming up instead to crush John's chest to his own, almost clinging. John found it difficult to breathe, but didn't say so. There were more important things.
Sherlock finally released him, almost on a gasp, when an attendant came by to let them know they would soon be called on. But he was still looking at John. Like before in the cab, John held out his hand. But he knew what answer he was waiting for.
Sherlock's fingers slipped between his own, and they waited.
The judges dismissing the last performers. The shuffling of paper, scratching of pens.
The rise of the curtain.
They strode forward on quiet feet, the wooden blocks in Sherlock's pointe shoes clicking dully on the stage. Once at center, they stopped.
"Sherlock Holmes? Qui est votre cavalier?"
The voice boomed down around them, its source impossible to find in the impenetrable black of the theatre. But Sherlock's voice rang out clearly, lancing through the darkness with a quiet confidence.
"Oui. Je danserai avec John Watson."
Someone coughed. More papers were rifled. In the silence, John stared straight ahead beside him, his arms relaxed, taking quiet breaths in and out. Sherlock fought down a ridiculous urge to smile.
And wasn't that ridiculous in itself, he thought, as the smile faded. Because John made him want to smile, and here he was, about to dance with John, about to do the one thing that made him happiest of all, and all he could feel was -
"We've asked you to prepare a pas de deux. Do you know why?" came a different voice, speaking in English.
Sherlock's eyes slipped shut.
A partnered dance, and the irony of it was that all he could feel was the moment of losing the grip of a partner's hand. Spinning out into the dark. All he could feel was loss.
"Obviously," he bit out at last. He saw John's head drop from the corner of his eye, shaking wearily from side to side. But he was smiling. This one, bright thing in all the dark.
With every beat of his heart - racing, now - he knew what had been decided, knew what he had to do. Their question caused it to stumble in its furious pace. He didn't dare answer, not when he knew that would be like grinding it into the dirt beneath his heel.
There was another short silence, and then a sigh warbled towards them. "Care to humor us with an explanation?"
He closed his eyes, sighed, snapped them open. "I imagine you're aware of my reputation. That, combined with the complexity, the art, of the pas de deux all on its own, and what it would allow me to demonstrate, is probably -"
"Mr. Holmes," interrupted a third voice, English but accented thickly Parisian. "I think what my colleague is trying to ask is more: what have you learned?"
Again: obvious. They wanted to know he could be trusted. They wanted to see that he'd changed, he thought desperately. They wanted -
John, laughing at him as they spun down from that first carry, the first one they'd ever done together. The yellow-glass glitter of a sunset over John's hands, as they pushed him, prodded him into positions for the hundredth, thousandth time in their determination. Shoulders strong enough to frame him in the air lying soft and vulnerable on cotton sheets, in the clutch of sleep. John, standing there now, questions in the very air around him but still constantly at Sherlock's side. Still constant.
"I have learned," he said, as the onslaught of images burned away like ash in his mind, "what it means to have a partner, and to be a partner. And how much more it means to dance with someone than to dance alone." There. The ash now out on his tongue.
Sherlock was too busy staring at John to bother listening to the intervening stillness. His attention returned with another drawn out sigh from one of the judges. "Very well, Mr. Holmes. Whenever you're ready."
Neither of them needed to say a word.
John let go of his hand and left the stage to Sherlock.
He was alone.
Sherlock turned, lifting his face to the warmth of the stagelights like something in bloom.
He flared his arms toward the ceilings far above, arced like parallel sails waiting for a moment of pale wind, his face downcast.
He paused in a perfect silence. He breathed. Was still.
And then with the opening trio of notes, he began. His legs firmly in place, his arms outstretched: he reached for things only he could see, lingering up there in the dark. The music beckoned, pulled at him, spurred him along as it grew. Under its hands he began the series of entrechats, legs flitting in a quick back-and-forth beneath him. He landed softly and immediately struck out, bold arm extended before him as he thrust himself into the piquéturns.
Each turn in the chain was bigger than the last, three in quick succession, and then the pattern repeated. A grand man alone on a wide, grand stage - but it was as if Sherlock were waiting for something; this was the hesitation, the quickening pace of the heart in knowing just what was to come. He could feel it in the way they'd shaped the piece. His own heart began to pound in sympathy, and then -
A thrill arced through him as the second line erupted. On cue, he swept upwards from the waist, and there, of course, there was John, for the moment of pursuit.
From opposite ends of the stage, their hands, fingers flared, reached for one another.
The look on John's face - desperation, longing, need - was breathtaking.
Sherlock inhaled sharply and cast himself away, a series of small steps that led again into the three turn combination. He could hear John coming closer, launching into the turns with him in careful mirror. No longer a private dark, this was a shared space, shared song, two lonely people now broaching a shared existence.
Sherlock folded gracefully to one knee, the other leg extended out before him. He leaned over it, halving his body as his extended arms fleetingly touching the stage, before he once again leaned back -
John had stepped forward and, as the music intensified and Sherlock let himself fall, caught him about his torso. Together they sprung upwards, Sherlock unwinding to his full height with one knee tucked in tight. But sinking back into the circle of one of John's arms, Sherlock was balanced only on the toes of his own foot and the biceps, triceps folded firmly against his back.
For the first time he turned his head and caught one of John's downcast eyes, lit sapphire beneath the stagelights, and relaxed into the hold completely. Briefly, John's fingers flexed against his spine.
This was something so much more intimate than shared space.
The next beat came fast - John levered Sherlock back to upright and almost immediately Sherlock switched his feet: the folded leg straightened, the other swept upwards into an arabesque, and one arm reached forward with the other stretched back. Flawlessly aligned. John's hands kept him steady, steadier still as the leg curved behind John's back. Attitude derrière, elongated as John's hands on his waist allowed him to lever lower, low enough to nearly sweep the ground with his long fingers.
He came up and was left alone, John suddenly tearing himself away for his tour jeté. Sherlock watched the solid ripple of his thighs as John rocketed into a jump, turning in midair while his legs kicked and split wide. A moment of pure triumph. His gentle, one-footed landing found him staring at Sherlock, the same expression naked on his face, his arms held wide open as he sunk to one knee.
Come to me.
Choreography willing or not, there was hardly a choice. Sherlock was chasing after him, the pursued to become the pursuer. Because that was what they had done, wasn't it, he realized as he began the turns into a small leap, ending with his hands on John's proffered forearm.
And when he turned to find that same steady strength behind him, the hands on his waist as daring and as firm as the first time, precious in the last, there was no doubt: they had choreographed a seduction, and no one danced it better than they did. Sherlock succumbed.
A pain that had nothing to do with his feet or the straining muscles of a body well-trained unfurled beneath his chest as he realized what was coming: these were the steps borrowed from what they had practiced that first time he'd slipped into John's class. These were the two small steps together, the supported lift, faint imprints of something wary and bright left in traces behind them. Laughter, the laughter of burgeoning friendship. John had thought him rather mad the first time, he supposed.
But how he'd laughed.
He rose from a tilt, switching to grasp John's other hand, arms outstretched. They were a tentative link between them as they began careful, tandem movements. Predator and prey become two circling predators each, he'd described during one practice. John's eyes never left his own as he struck forward in quiet, broad paces. A breath between each one, Sherlock stepping back in parallels - always the same distance between them.
And now he had to grow it, he thought, as John pulled him in almost impossibly close for the partnered steps, just before Sherlock would strike out on his own again. This fleeting moment of togetherness before -
John's eyelashes against his cheek. A whisk of hand along the small of his back. Sherlock's breath in the space of John's before John gently turned him around and they took off.
John's hands at his waist levered him into the air, Sherlock's legs pressed wide in splits: great leaps he could never accomplish on his own, as John set him down carefully only to send them off in the other direction. Down into the fold he went as one knee touched the ground, foot splayed at an elegant horizontal before him, but again John helped him back to standing, leading them backwards with purpose once more.
This was it, he thought now desperately. John's eyes were fast on his; Sherlock could almost hear his thoughts as they counted their paces, could almost feel the shaking in those worn hands where they were still stuck fast together.
Sherlock's character was the one to break away. His uncertainty had made itself present in every shimmering moment Sherlock found the choreography leading him away from John and out into the dark on his own. He was the one who resisted, evaded and took. So now he spun, spun away, moving dangerously close to the edge of the stage.
And this was the moment even John would not pull him back. A choice being given, and John's quiet stance never wavering at the far end of the distance between them.
The moment of conflict: Sherlock erupted in motion. A demonstration of technical skill, certainly, these were grand battements with his leg kicked high and sissone fermée in its leaping back and forth all for a tour de force, worked in for the benefit of Sherlock's performance.
But the wedding of this mastery of mind with the baring of soul - that was dance.
I do not have to pretend.
The plastered smiles of his youth, the frozen stiffness of his ribs like wintry iron bars around any fiery warmth he might have called his own - those were gone now, gone entirely, Sherlock erupting with song and joy. Each extension was an exaltation, each step a relief.
He turned back to John at the end. Decided. Arms outstretched.
Inside his ribs, something had set itself ablaze, was going up in flames.
And John came to him, flowering over in a series of his own modest combinations. Forest meeting fire, John's steady trunk against his back and the two of them preparing for the lift they'd practiced what seemed years, eons before.
How easy it was to paint agony in the guise of ecstasy as John thrust him upwards above his head, as if Sherlock were no burden at all.
Because even as he found the stage the music was building, tumbling over itself in a rush of madness toward the end. And they'd chosen a beginning for their end, sweet union marked by unison and quiet, partnered steps, but Sherlock was stuck with the sudden realization that it was nowhere near enough. This had been fight for affection, tooth and nail insinuating itself between the gentle codes of the pas de deux in its original form, desperate chase followed by more desperate love.
It wasn't big enough.
And John, he knew, was so very, very big.
When he came out of the final set of turns, he rotated one step farther than anything they'd ever practiced. John's surprise was only evident in his eyebrows, rising just the slightest as Sherlock came back. "Deviation," he breathed.
Sherlock breathed back, "Trust me."
Sherlock might have been whispering and he might have communicated through the partial pressures of hands, but it didn't matter: I will leap forward, you carry me down to the stage, he said, and John did. Again, the other side. Now the both of us at center stage, three steps forward each, cross forward then behind. Turn to me. Meet me.
In everything you are.
Sherlock was running, running to the opposite side of the stage in a smooth dancer's stride, breath loud in his ears.
John stood, posed and frozen, at the other end.
Sherlock's arm extended with a flourish. His heart, pounding madly in his chest.
They had no time for hesitation. The climax was shaking itself from his bones, gathering in the floor beneath them, in the space to be breached. And this was the very last thing, the only thing, that Sherlock could give to John before he took everything else away.
John extended right back.
This, the moment of surrender.
Sherlock inhaled. Closed his eyes. Then he was running forward and leaping, feet leaving the ground in a powerful ascent, soaring through the air.
No running leaps, John had said.
And now, now this was John catching him, these were the utterly steady, entirely honest arms keeping him upright, glorious and spectacular and right. And here was John's face before him as John lowered him, their chests pressed tight together, Sherlock's arms shaking around his head, shoulders, spine as if he couldn't decide where to touch, and all the while John's grip around his hips ensuring he was held entirely whole and secure on his journey back to the floor.
They breathed the same air, mouths open and gasping, still tucked close. But the song wasn't over - with an effort, John nudged him around, taking hold of both their hands and spreading them wide from their bodies. He rolled him into the partnered steps they'd planned before, John circling his stationary spin in a promenade that devolved into the graceful, linear stretch of Sherlock's leg behind him to his torso and the arm thrown to the audience.
Then Sherlock struck out again, the three piqué turns and their repeat, to parallel the beginning. And then the supported pirouettes, his arms in a first rising to fifth as John spun him faster, faster, faster, Sherlock never wavering on his powerful toes.
And then he unfolded, leaning back in John's embrace with one arm lying back across his shoulders. A final flourish of their hands curved above their heads - still reaching for one another - for the final beat, and then a triumphant, awestruck silence.
Sherlock couldn't stop his chest from heaving in a shuddering breath. John's face was flushed, his bare chest and upper arms patterned in a faint rose. Where he was braced against Sherlock's arm, slick with sweat, Sherlock's skin had turned that same red, little fingertips of warmth between them. Sherlock felt that if he looked up to their other intermingling hands above their heads, they would be on fire.
John's eyes, though, were glacial and still.
Sherlock wanted to kiss him, to breathe him, to consume him The world ending in fire and ice both.
Instead, they dropped to standing. The bowed. Finished.
It was all over.
Numb, Sherlock lifted his head to the darkness.
Silence again. Interminable and bleak. Then, "Thank you, Mr. Holmes. You'll have our decision by the end of the week."
Sherlock gave a brief nod, and then the two of them were escorted offstage by one of the attendants.
Back in the dressing room, Sherlock sat down gingerly. His legs felt boneless. The first twinges of pain were beginning to shoot up from his feet, but he ignored them. He sat, hands hanging between his spread knees. They were trembling.
Somehow still able to move, John was frenetic energy before him. Their positions, Sherlock would have thought wryly, at any other moment, oddly exchanged.
Now, though. Now.
Sherlock's thoughts were blazing, at any moment now they'd speed up even faster than he could understand, putting thought into action before he could stop it, which, of course, he couldn't be allowed, he had to go through with this and it had to be perfect or it wouldn't work at all -
"That was fantastic! Christ, the leap, it felt like you were shaking apart in my arms. And my catch wasn't half bad, I have to say. I can't believe we - But oh, those turns - gorgeous, you were gorgeous."
And then John was on his knees before him, suddenly filling his vision, blue eyes and warm hands. "That was it, you realize? There's no way you didn't make it?" He pressed his lips fiercely to the back of Sherlock's hand. Sherlock could feel him smiling.
How typical of John, not to realize that had nothing to do with Sherlock. Nothing, he thought, thinking of John's oak-steady support, at all.
Sherlock swallowed. "I know," he rasped, just as John crushed them together, his fists curled tightly against Sherlock's back.
"I'm so proud of you, love. So very proud." He laughed. He was so happy. "Happy birthday."
Sherlock's hands skittered over his bare back, uncertain where to rest, while his eyes stared unseeingly ahead. He knew every part of John so intimately now that as his hands skated over the flesh he could tell, yes, here is where he likes to be touched so lightly it's barely touch at all, and here are the nine freckles clustered like the Pleiades.
You know just where to press.
Sherlock took a deep breath. His hands went firm, solid against John. Memorizing. And then he pushed him away.
"You can stop touching me now."
John froze. Slowly, he drew back. He raised an eyebrow. "O-kay," he said, still slow. The brightness lingered in his eyes, but the longer he stared at Sherlock, the faster it seemed to fade. "A little sensitive after a dance, are we?" he tried playfully.
"No," he bit out.
Now John frowned. "I just wanted-"
"I know what you wanted," Sherlock snapped. Abruptly he rose, pushing past John to the opposite side of the room. He held his hands in front of him to disguise their shaking, and even though his feet were aching he forced himself to stay standing at the far end, spine straight.
His heart was rattling around in his ribcage, pressing up against his bones in a panic. "You wanted," he said again, under the cloying rush of it in his ears, "to touch greatness, the way you always have."
His only answer was a long, heavy silence. He pushed on. "But, you know, I realized as we were dancing. Those complaints you voiced at the beginning - they were all right. Because the only reason you'd want to touch greatness is if you had none yourself."
He willed himself to anger, turning on John. "Your injury, your age; yes, those kept you from it, but you can't blame them for a lack of talent. I sought you out all those weeks ago because I was desperate, and you suited fine. But this just won't do now. Not in Paris. I'll have a reputation to uphold, though I suppose I'd be willing to continue our association in secret. On a sexual level only, you understand, as you are good for something there."
John started like he'd been slapped. He swallowed, his jaw clenched, and asked, "What are you talking about?"
Sherlock barked a laugh. "That's just what I'm talking about. I don't need an idiot tailing behind me, dragging me down."
John gave a minute shake of his head. "No, I mean - I don't believe you. You, or any of that other shite."
"Have you ever known me to be anything but truthful before?"
"No, but I do know you better than this," John said, and now a harshness had crept into his tone. But it shifted, something vulnerable flying over his face before he steeled himself against it. "I know I do."
Sherlock smiled, saw John flinch. "Perhaps you're wrong."
"No, I'm not!" John exploded, and then he immediately balked, passing a hand over his face and shrinking. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to shout at you, I just -"
For a long moment he stood with one hand on his hip, the other shading his eyes, breathing hard. "I don't know what you're playing at, but don't pretend you can lie to me, not after that dance we just did. I know you, Sherlock Holmes, I love you, and I know that bloody well terrifies you but you can bloody well deal with it, because at the moment I'm fairly terrified myself."
He laughed. This time, it was as if all the happiness had been stolen from the sound, and it rang hollow in their ears. "How did we even get here?"
Sherlock kept his mouth shut.
When John spoke next, it was soft and resigned. "You do this sometimes, where you throw me for a loop and I don't know what - I don't ever know what you want from me."
"Nothing," Sherlock found himself saying.
And it was true. Nothing but for John to be, to exist, in as close a proximity to Sherlock as possible. Sherlock couldn't want anything from him - John had already given him everything.
That was the problem.
With the flicker of hurt across John's face, though, Sherlock knew John had taken it the only way he'd meant him to.
"Let me get this straight, then. After working together non-stop for the past four weeks, after being together for the last two, you think we should just - stop?"
"After everything we worked for, you just… were you ever even planning on coming to Internationals?"
Sherlock's gaze darted quickly away. "I'll still honor our deal."
John smiled, grim. "That's all this is to you, then? A deal?"
Sherlock's words, thrown back at him after all this time, caused his head to shoot up. Looking at John he knew, just knew, that John would never believe him - not in that way of knowing he had, in his ability to read people by all the little details hovering about them in their mundanities, like being able to tell the origin of a ballerina's training from her muscle tone or the age of a dancer from his leotard, but in the way other people knew things, silly little things like I love you from the way two people moved together, or You are breaking in my heart in the way they moved apart.
This, John couldn't do by himself. All it would require of Sherlock would be his turning away.
He almost laughed at himself, sharp and bitter. 'All,' like it was the easiest thing in the world. He looked at John, very long and very hard. Just like this. Then, slowly, he blinked, and turned his back.
"Sherlock," John tried. He heard a tentative step forward, then a step back.
Sherlock said nothing.
He closed his eyes.
John gave another of those empty little laughs. "You always do this. You can't even just talk to me. Fine, I just - Should I… do you even want me to stay, or -?"
Sherlock shrugged. John swallowed.
"Sherlock," he said again. Sherlock refused to call it begging. John couldn't be allowed to beg.
Get angry, he pleaded. Stop being flattered, he'd said once to John, and be bold. Be brave. Sherlock had never felt more like a coward than with John cowering behind him now, when he could almost hear the way John's shoulders were slumped forward and his hands, which would be twisted into fists at his side, would come to unfurl, weak and empty, the air about him humming with resignation.
"This isn't you," John said finally. "And I don't know what's happened, or what's happening." He coughed, clearing the rasp from his throat. "I don't think I ever will, not unless you tell me. But I'm not going to force you. I do know you, Sherlock, know you because I've danced with you, and I know it's impossible to stop you and just as impossible to hold you back. So, if that's what you want. If this is really… I'll just… go."
It was almost a question. Sherlock refused to let his head drop like a nod of affirmation.
He could hear John moving around behind him, in the stale silence that followed. Grabbing his things, moving gingerly into his coat sleeves, the shuffling slide of his feet.
Slowly, he became aware of the hand on his back. Warm, strong, but resting like something fragile and delicate between Sherlock's shoulderblades, that could flit away at the slightest of words.
"I'd like it if you came back to me," said John, and his voice sounded choked and wet.
"I," Sherlock said eventually, once he'd gained control of his own speech, "will see you in D.C."
A faint rustling. John was nodding. "Thank you," he said, and inhaled deeply, just before the touch vanished and quick steps carried John Watson out the door and out of his life.
The room sang with stillness.
Sherlock took in a measured breath, then another, allowing them to draw up his spine. Gingerly, he walked back to the bench. If he'd felt numb before, he didn't know what to call this feeling now.
His rubbery fingers struggled with the laces of his pointe shoes. When they at last gave way, they revealed cracked skin, blood seeping through where the fabric had chafed, his toes turning an ugly red where the wood had rubbed them too raw.
It didn't hurt at all.
Sherlock allowed his mangled feet to drop back to the floor and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes, and the pain in his chest unfurled like someone dancing in the dark.
Palais Garnier - the opera house where the Paris Opera Ballet performs
piqué turns - traveling turns done on one leg, pointed forwards in quick succession, while the other is bent and pointed toward the opposite knee.
Attitude derrière - one leg supports while the other is lifted in a certain direction at a 90-degree angle; derrière is what identifies this attitude's direction as being behind the body
tour jeté - a leap characterized by its start on one foot and the half-turn done whilst in the air to land on the other foot.
tour de force - demonstration of technical skill with a series of complicated, interesting steps
grand battements - the raising of the working leg, held straight, high above the head while the hips remain quiet and steady to give the impression of supple ease.
sissone fermée - a quick, springing leap characterized by its start on two feet in the plié position and the throwing of the working leg in any direction to land on the supporting leg in a mirroring demi plié
promenade - the dancer turns slowly on one foot with the other raised in an attitude, arabseque, or other definition position. In pas de deux, the partner often assists with the turn while the other is en pointe