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05 May 2013 @ 06:33 pm
Fic: Bel Canto - 5/16 (BBC Sherlock)  
Title: Bel Canto
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: 6.7k out of 123.5ishk
Betas: vyctori, seijichan, lifeonmars
Disclaimer: Do not own.
Summary: After years of waiting for wealthy patrons to faint, Dr John Watson discovers a far more interesting patient in the opera house basement. (AU through a Phantom of the Opera lens.)
Warnings: Violence, internalized homophobia, eventual character death

Op. 20, No. 1
Op. 20, No. 2
Op. 20, No. 3
Op. 20, No. 4
Op. 20, No. 5
Op. 20, No. 6

Op. 20, No. 7
Op. 20, No. 8
Op. 20, No. 9
Op. 20, No. 10
Op. 20, No. 11
Op. 20, No. 12
Op. 20, No. 13
Op. 20, No. 14
Op. 20, No. 15
Op. 20, No. 16




By the end of November, John has set eleven bones and had strong words with a concussed stagehand. The stagehand subsequently dies in his sleep. Though this is the worst fate to befall an individual that month, the opera house is far more concerned with its singers. Even visiting stars aren’t immune to the croaking spells and, strangers to the opera house, they shun John’s attempts to lend assistance.

Naturally, the usual number of rope burns and pulled muscles continues unabated. Then there are the winter troubles to cope with. Drunkenness and the spread of unmentionables result from attempts for warmth as well as entertainment. Those more susceptible to the cold take ill, and John is faced with the unpleasant duty of deciding who is fit to work and who ought to be let go.

Throughout, he reports diligently to Holmes. He reads each of Holmes’ replies with the utmost care, often several times. Holmes has managed to recover both horses, news that John hears first within the opera house. He doesn’t hear the specifics in the opera house, however, not even a word pertaining to Holmes. Holmes merely states in his letter that he had a few good eyes on the streets to aid the recovery.

Holmes’ letter regarding the horses does provide some modicum of detail. The thief in question was indeed a cabbie. Once the horses were found with new owners, they were tracked back to the seller, and from there to the cabbie.

By the time the cabbie’s name is known, the man is already dead of an aneurysm. He’d been an older man and left behind a significantly younger widow and two small children. The wife knew of the plot’s profits before she knew of the plot itself. According to Holmes, Mrs Hope believes that the horse switching tactic was devised by someone other than her husband. Something about Mr Hope’s ability to master many a slight-of-hand trick but an inability to invent them.

Holmes doesn’t specify how the horses were reclaimed once found. Nor does he elaborate on his eyes in the street or how Hope’s family was treated when discovered. In any event, the horses have been returned and will return to their accustomed places onstage.

Somewhere in this process of horse recovery, Holmes notified Mr Havill of John’s involvement on Holmes’ behalf. Mr Havill has little to ask of John or to tell him. If anything, Mr Havill simply seems relieved to have someone else apprised of the situation. When a painting is stolen from the front lobby, they share a wordless moment of commiseration before moving into action.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to tell. Mr Havill is a man of great and sustained composure. He requests John now report directly on the matter to him, and John complies. Beyond what Mr Havill needs to know of his employees’ health, there is regrettably little to mention.

Despite this lack, John’s letters to Holmes remain a noticeable length. Amid the business of Holmes’ letters, there is also an unexpected thread of delight. Having spent significant time repelling prospective brides, Holmes confesses to be at a loss as to how to approach Miss Adler. John gives what advice he can with a strange sort of trepidation.

It’s an unusual task, coaching a man to pretend to court a woman. It’s not dishonest, not with Miss Adler uninterested and undeceived, but something in it sets John on edge. Perhaps it’s the effect the charade might have on Miss Norton. He’s almost certain this is why he regrets suggesting the plan. He can only hope he won’t be held accountable for any poor outcomes.

John has more than half a mind to warn Holmes away from the plan, but the next time he encounters Holmes, it’s clearly too late.

“You called for me, Mr Holmes?” John asks. The question is entirely rhetorical, but the bouquet of flowers in Box Five makes intelligent conversation surprisingly difficult.

When Holmes turns to look at him, John nearly adds the forgotten “sir” to that question. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth.

“Come sit,” Holmes bids him. He indicates the unoccupied seat to his left with a nod of his head.

John slips inside the box, closing the door softly behind him. Excluding the flowers, they have no other company tonight. Through the wide curtains, they can see and be seen. When John sits next to Holmes, he can’t help but note the eyes in the audience that rise to observe them.

“This is what you meant by being gawked at, isn’t it?” John asks.

“Oh, this is nothing,” Holmes dismisses.

Eventually, attention from below turns away. It’s highly disconcerting while it lasts.

“Is there something you wanted to discuss?” John asks.

“You’re introducing me to Miss Adler after the performance.”

John’s eyebrows shoot up. He consciously lowers them. “I see.”

“You have reservations.” Holmes’ tone clearly indicates that John’s qualms won’t deter him.

“I’m not entirely certain how to go about it,” John replies.

“Simple introductions, Dr Watson,” Holmes says. “Hardly difficult.”

John believes otherwise but doesn’t contest this. “And you wanted me here so people will ask and discover the introduction.”

Holmes beams at him, a condescending smile that crinkles his eyes. “Precisely.” The expression comes and goes in a flash. It turns his handsome features unexpectedly ridiculous. “What?”

“Nothing,” John says. The amusement won’t be banished from his voice.

“What? The more inappropriate, the better. Tell me.”

“Nothing,” John repeats. “I simply wouldn’t smile at Miss Adler like that if I were you.”

“Are you insulting me?” Holmes asks mildly.

“I’m encouraging you to play to your advantages,” John replies.

“And what do you suggest?”

“You’re remarkably charming when arrogant,” John says. He immediately wants to hit himself. “By which I mean, you, ah. You possess an impregnable confidence that would make a less deserving man appear ridiculous.” God, that’s hardly better. “But it suits you.”

“Arrogance suits me?”

“Not... precisely. But false modesty certainly wouldn’t.”

“So I’m immodest,” Holmes concludes. The tilt of his head encourages John on into verbal traps of his own making.

“You have an air of capability that would be nonsensical to deny.” Is that inoffensive? It ought to be. He prays it is.

“An air of it? Gas and no substance?”

Any moment now, Hopkins will come to fetch him over an emergency. Any moment now. Surely, he must. It’s incredibly hot in here: someone must be fainting somewhere.

“You’re very masterful.” Blindly, John attempts to guide the topic to safer ground. “Miss Adler respects strength of character. I’m sure you’d make the optimal impression that way.”

“The pinnacle of my character is overbearing arrogance?”

“The pinnacle of your character is perfectly charming, and I’m going to stop talking now.”

“Perhaps that’s for the best,” Holmes agrees. A smug smile touches his lips, curling their edges. Grand and devastating, Holmes demonstrates the exact effect John so failed to describe. Unease creeps into John’s stomach like damp into a basement: perhaps Miss Adler won’t be unmoved by Holmes’ charms after all.

John forces his gaze to the stage. With no small struggle, he keeps it there.

The music plays on. As the opera continues, the tension of John’s idiocy fades into the tension of the narrative. Slowly, John permits himself to relax, but he doesn’t look at Holmes. He’ll make his excuses at intermission, claim he’ll check in with Hopkins and then simply hide himself away somewhere he can’t be heard saying terribly stupid things.

At intermission, Holmes stands before John can. “Dr Watson, there’s something I’d like to show you.”

“I, yes.”

Holmes smiles, benign, gracious, and blatantly aware of it. For an instant, John is certain Holmes is about to offer his arm, but they proceed into the hall with a casual distance between their shoulders. Holmes leads him downstairs into the lobby. His angular face changes from intent to politely bored as he nods at acquaintances among the patrons. Holmes seems to have a specific destination in mind. To John, Holmes’ agitation at each socially obligated delay is palpable. When he speaks, his voice is as light and level as always, but this is hardly what John marvels at.

“My friend, Dr Watson,” Holmes says with each new introduction. With a quick smile, John becomes a simple excuse for Holmes to move on from any group that would try to detain him. Even so, the sincerity of the introduction is obvious, nearly jarring to hear from a man as wrapped in persona as Holmes is.

Despite these small pauses for small talk, they reach Holmes’ destination before the end of intermission. “Are you familiar with the painting which hung here?” Holmes asks, indicating the replacement.

“It... was a battle scene, wasn’t it?” John looks across to the far side of the lobby. “Much like that one. The same painter?”

Regarding the landscape of the replacement painting, Holmes nods. “Correct on both accounts. It was mine.”

John marvels at him. “You painted them?”

Holmes’ double-take is enough to disabuse John of that notion. “I’m hardly my great-uncle. I inherited the one which hung here. The one across the lobby is my brother’s. We kept them here because it pleased our mother.”

“The painter was her uncle?”

“Mm, yes. Quite skilled with battle scenes.” His expression toward the landscape is terribly noble, the sort of face better suited to marble and canvas than fallible flesh. At once saddened and angered, grieving and yet determined to retaliate with precision. Above soft lips and sharp cheekbones, his eyes project a restrained passion. Without looking at John, Holmes asks, “Are you familiar with Vernet?”

John’s heart attempts to stop. Failing that, it races against the confines of his ribs, beating upon its cage. “Familiar...?”

“Have you seen paintings of his beyond these two?”

“Paintings... of your great-uncle’s. Ah. No. No, I haven’t.” He clasps his hands behind his back to steady them. Quite skilled with battle scenes. That arse. He lowers his voice. “Are you concerned for your lord brother’s painting? It seems the obvious next target.”

If Holmes notices John’s abrupt faintness, he gives no indication. “It is. Mine was situated on the left, Mycroft’s on the right. It’s an attack on the family, building toward his target.”

“How do you think he smuggled it out?”

Just as Holmes opens his mouth to reply, the bell rings, signalling the end of intermission. “A conversation certainly to be continued in private.”

John returns with him to the box, eager to have Holmes’ opinion. Holmes does not disappoint, but then, John hardly imagines Holmes ever could.



“One piece of advice,” John cautions outside Miss Adler’s door.

“Are you certain I’ll need it?” Holmes asks.

“Be certain you go down fighting.”

Holmes looks at him oddly but doesn’t seem concerned. He’ll learn.

John knocks on the dressing room door and calls, “Maintenance!”

From behind the door comes a light laugh, audible only because John was waiting for it. “No repairs required, Doctor!”

“We can’t have you croaking,” he cautions.

“Oh, fine then.” As if John’s spoiling her fun, but she’ll indulge him. “Come in!”

John enters, his head respectfully bowed the way that makes her smile. “Good evening, Miss Adler.”

Although the scent of paint remains in the air, she’s already removed her stage makeup. She meets his gaze in the mirror and smiles wickedly. “You’ve brought a surprise.” She rises and turns in one smooth motion, more dancer than singer in that instant. Though her face is unadorned, her hair remains twisted into a knot at the base of her head and she still wears her costume. The cut of her breeches and waistcoat is, in a word, exquisite. In another word: indecent. Her smile is even more so. “Hello, surprise.”

Standing behind John in the doorway, Holmes makes a series of garbled noises. He recovers more rapidly than most but still too slowly to prevent Miss Adler’s rich, rolling laugh. Delighted and calculated in equal amounts, the sound has clearly been perfected to reduce grown men into shy, enamoured children. Though several years of exposure have lessened its effect on John, Holmes has no such defence.

In hindsight, John shouldn’t be surprised at the sense of throwing a lamb into a lion pit. Holmes, it seems, is not immune to every woman after all.

John matches Miss Adler’s smile with his own. “Miss Adler, may I introduce my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes.” He gestures to Holmes, stepping aside.

“Good evening, Miss Adler,” Holmes manages. He doesn’t know how to hold flowers. This is blatantly clear and surprisingly awkward.

Miss Adler’s expression turns charitable, generous. “Good evening, Mr Holmes.” She turns deliberately fond eyes on John. “I believe the good doctor was about to give me a seeing to. Please, stay. I do love to see a professional at work, don’t you?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have attended tonight,” Holmes replies, immediately drawing Miss Adler’s gaze back to him. Good man. Holmes closes the door behind him. He sets the flowers down upon the nearest table, putting the previous flora there to shame. “You’ve a remarkable voice, Miss Adler.”

“Thank you.” Her voice lands lower upon the scale than expected, further blurring the line between handsome woman and beautiful youth.

Colour stains Holmes’ cheeks, the same soft pink as his lips. That was a danger to this plan John had failed to predict. Half of the audience and all of the stagehands were already besotted. Why hadn’t John thought Holmes might follow suit?

“Dr Watson,” Miss Adler prompts. She returns to her dressing table and sits, as that is where the lighting is best. John complies and the check is cursory.

John tsks. “You’ve been smoking.”

“How can you tell?”

“Because you’ve been smoking.”

“But no sign of croaking yet,” she says. “I’m well ahead of the crowd.”

His expression is suitably harassed, just the way she enjoys it. “I’d very much like to keep it that way.”

She strokes his arm pityingly, an act of indulgent mockery.

Holmes clears his throat.

Miss Adler turns to smile up at Holmes, absolutely winning. “Mr Holmes is right, Doctor. I’ve kept you from your duties much too long. You needn’t drag him about: I’m sure Mr Holmes will be quite comfortable here.”

The sheer gall of it would be astonishing were John unacquainted with her, but no, he cannot summon surprise at the contralto speaking for an earl’s brother. The trap of her phrasing is plain, as she clearly intends it to be. Holmes’ intent is obvious, but should he stay as intended, it will be an act of her will, not his.

“I’m sure I will be,” Holmes states, gaze firm, voice deeper than John expects.

Holmes would be the taller of the pair even were Miss Adler standing, but though his posture remains commanding, hers is that of a seated judge. Words and meaning palpably struggle to shift, a contest of wills John can do little to interrupt.

“Where should I meet you?” John asks Holmes.

Holmes doesn’t look at him, eyes locked with Miss Adler’s. “Here will be fine.”

“I’m sure it will be,” Miss Adler purrs. “And do take your time, Doctor.”

John exits with as much grace as he can muster, not that he believes either of them truly notices his departure. No, that’s not quite true: Miss Adler enjoys an audience much too keenly. With John absent, it must be slightly less like abandoning a lamb to a lioness. If it ends terribly, at least that’s John’s sense of foreboding explained.

He neither hurries nor rushes the remainder of his duties. Exceptionally little time passes all the same. Beyond the suspicious accidents, there are fewer regular mishaps these days. Too many are too on their guards. Tonight, there isn’t as much as a sprained ankle requiring his attention.

For a moment, he dithers about backstage. He debates the merits of simply leaving Holmes and returning home for the evening. Holmes and Miss Adler have either bonded enormously by now or are about to kill each other. In neither case does John think Holmes would forgive interference. A little more time perhaps.

He’ll slip down to see Vernet, he decides. Though it was one of their regular days for it, he hadn’t been able to make their usual time earlier. Mrs Hudson had waylaid him with new fears regarding her old hip. Talking her through them somehow led into discussing their costumes for the New Year’s Masquerade, and abruptly, it was much too late to venture downstairs.

He’s nearly to the stairs when Mrs Hudson reappears. She catches him by the elbow, her expression fond. “I went down during the show,” she says. “Fast asleep. Exhausted, poor dear. He works himself much too hard.”

“Oh.” Disappointment is easily kept from his face, but not his voice. “Is he eating all right?”

Mrs Hudson sighs. No other sound has ever captured loving exasperation so well. “Hardly as well as he should be, but he shan’t starve.”

“Good. I’m glad.”

“You should get some rest too, dear. He’s not the only one who works too hard.” She pats his arm. The piece of warmth reminds his body of home comforts. It reminds him that he’s tired and that two affectionate touches in one day is more than his body can understand.

“I’m about to go,” he promises.

They bid each other good night. With slow steps, John returns to Miss Adler’s dressing room, half expecting to find Holmes standing outside the door looking positively harassed. Encountering no such sight, his stomach turns over. He knocks and waits for permission.

“Is that Dr Watson?” Miss Adler calls.

“It is.”

“Come in!” she bids him, and John does so.

The sight hits him before the scent. Both Holmes and Miss Adler lean against the polished bureau on the right side of the room, elbows upon the top, forearms lying upon the wood. Each echoes the stance of the other, charged for all its semblance of casualness. Waistcoat removed, Miss Adler has shrugged off her braces and rolled up her shirtsleeves. Their tableau is of a masculine intimacy, circumventing propriety and thwarting the division of the sexes.

Though Miss Adler turns to face John, she leaves her left hand upon the bureau, not quite touching Holmes’ right. In her free hand, she holds one of the cigars John knows she keeps hidden away for special occasions. Beneath that pungent smoke drifts the sharpness of Holmes’ cigarette. When she turns, Holmes’ gaze drops to the motion of her hips, the sway of her hanging braces more profane than any skirt could aspire to be.

“For God’s sake, could you at least pretend to listen to me?” John demands. “What kind of musician sets their instrument on fire?”

She smiles over her shoulder at Holmes. “I told you it would drive him to distraction.”

Mouth pressed shut in silent amusement, Holmes holds down a laugh with no attempt at subtlety.

John sighs. “If you’re finished?”

Miss Adler only smiles the wider. “Oh, I’m certainly not.”

“I’d love to return when you are, but I’m about to head for home.”

Holmes stubs out his cigarette on an ashtray atop the bureau. “I’ll join you.”

Miss Adler shakes her head, looking at John as if he’s spoiled her fun. John doesn’t buy it for an instant. He smiles back when she bids, “Good night, gentlemen.”

“Miss Adler.”

John exits first and Holmes follows after only a short pause, after something passes between the two. Holmes closes the door securely behind him. They walk through the hall without speaking. Neither breathes hard, but the sense of cooling down after a footrace remains.

“Did she agree?” John asks. “To the Masquerade?”

Holmes nods. “After some...negotiation, yes.” His facial expression is difficult to read, much too controlled.

“Are you still in favour of the idea?”

“Yes.” Holmes replies without hesitation. The scents of cigar smoke and flowers cling to him. “More so by the minute, I find.”

“Oh.”

“Tell me, do you warn everyone to ‘go down fighting’?”

“No. I typically stand back and watch men walk face first into walls. It’s good fun.” And not a joke.

Holmes’ lips quirk. “That would be amusing.”

“A cautionary tale.”

Holmes scoffs. “I consider myself warned.”

Fighting back the urge to chasten him, John keeps silent.

“Are you worried, Dr Watson?”

John looks up into his amused gaze. “I’m not sure filling the lobby with masked faces is the best idea, currently.”

For an instant, John expects Holmes to broach the topic John was actually thinking. Instead, Holmes replies, “We’ve over four weeks to put the remaining measures in place. And I refuse to give in to his demands. Nothing will be cancelled, especially not the Masquerade.”

“By remaining measures, you mean...?”

Holmes leans down, adjusting his stride to better have access to John’s ear. “Filling the lobby with masked policemen, for a start.”

That startles a laugh from him. “Ah.”

“Ah,” Holmes agrees.

In the lobby, they retrieve their hats and coats from the cloakroom and are nearly the last to do so for the night. Holmes pulls on his gloves while gazing into the middle distance. He doesn’t look at John again until after he’s pulled on his opera cape. “Will you be ready in time?”

John blinks at him, hat in gloved hand. “I’m ready to leave now.”

“For the Masquerade.”

“Oh.” Costumes. “Ah, yes. I think so,” John lies. “Mrs Hudson and I are coordinating.”

“As what?”

John shakes his head. “That would be telling.”

Holmes sighs. “Fine.”

They exit the opera house together, stepping into the low dark fog, brown with fumes where it drifts low between the gas lamps. Even at this late hour, a few cabs remain outside the opera house in hopes of stragglers.

Holmes gestures him toward the first cab. “After you.”

“I might be on your way.” Or slightly out of his way.

“Where do you live?” Upon hearing John’s address, Holmes shakes his head. “Wrong direction, I’m afraid. Good night, Dr Watson.”

“Good night.”

Holmes turns away before John can shake his hand, leaving John to climb into the hansom alone. The doors close over his legs, the cab pulls away from the kerb, and there is no way of looking back.



“Miss Hooper, could I have a word?"

“Is there a problem?”

“No, not at all.” He shifts on his feet. “Well, no. There’s no serious problem.”

Miss Hooper relaxes somewhat. “Something I could help with?”

“I hope so. I’ve never been to the New Year’s Masquerade before, and, well. I’m cutting it close as it is.”

She flashes him a bright smile. “What do you need?” She hums and nods along as John explains before promptly suggesting the exact same costume, except entirely different. The brilliant news is, Miss Hooper’s version ought to actually work.



“Surprise doesn’t fit.” John shakes his head, standing firm on this.

Vernet shakes his head harder, his curls flopping. “Their general abandons them to chase after his lover. If the men aren’t surprised by this, why would they follow Antony in the first place?”

“They were hoping,” John says. “They know he fancies her. They know he might abandon them for her. They definitely don’t trust her to stay. So they have to be hoping.”

“That sounds more like hopeless loyalty than the alternative.”

John shrugs. “A bit.”

“Odd, this soon after an attempted mutiny.”

John frowns. Vernet frowns as well. They both glare at the sheet music.

“The munity was stopped by making it clear that their loyalty to Antony is more important than Antony’s loyalty to them,” John reasons.

“Then not quite surprise at being abandoned...”

“No, it’s more of a thankless duty.”

Vernet hums, then pulls the papers toward him. “I think I know where to begin the changes.” Head bowed, he sets to work with pencil rather than pen.

John waits a moment, then a moment longer. “This is really the climax of it, isn’t it?”

A delayed response: “What?”

“Everything falls apart with this scene. After this, it’s just people dying in interesting ways.”

“And?” He gestures with his left hand, the motions as abrupt as his tone.

“Is that what you want to be known for? Battle scenes.”

Vernet hums.

John waits.

Vernet keeps writing.

“This is the bit where you mock me for taking two months to understand a joke, Vernet.”

“Three,” Vernet corrects without looking up.

John smiles at that. He sits down, takes out a newspaper from his medical bag, and settles in for a read. He rolls his left shoulder absently, resulting in the usual clicking, popping noise. It’s been a slow day up above and there’s little left to read. He doesn’t mind finishing early. There are worse things than sitting in the company of a friend.

Mouth shaping Italian words, Vernet doesn’t seem to notice the attention. He straightens from his work not to gesticulate wildly, but to conduct. Head tilted, listening to something beyond John’s imagination let alone his hearing, Vernet gestures toward sections of the room with one hand while the other paints a fluid count upon the air. He leans into it, growing, rousing, bidding his future orchestra to play for him. The image strikes John’s mind and holds his heart: months from now, perhaps years from now, musicians will sit down before their sheet music for the first time, and Vernet’s gestures will still guide their motions, still shape their sound.

Here and now, however, the music remains silent. Vernet’s breathing is trapped in the rhythm of his hands, but the shaped words upon his lips have no voice behind them, never any voice. John breathes with him, willing him, just once, to sing.

He knows Vernet never does, but John never truly stops hoping.



Holmes attends the opera again the following week. He’s lovely company, except for the fact that he expects John to sit through yet more opera with him. There is really only so much opera that anyone can reasonably handle. John is increasingly of the opinion that this amount is smaller than one full opera.

“Something the matter?”

John shakes his head.

“You’re distracted tonight.” Holmes states it as fact, but he doesn’t sound offended.

“I’ve simply seen it before.” Witnessed the rehearsals, heard the music through the walls, patched up the dancers, and so on.

“You’ve been moving your shoulder oddly.”

“I hadn’t realised.” It’s not a conscious habit, and he does try not to.

“Is there a reason it makes that sound?”

“There’s a hole through it. A small hole,” he adds. “Nothing to worry about.”

“How small?”

John curls his forefinger into a nearly closed circle against his thumb. “It started off about so small. Closed up nicely.”

“Bullet-sized.” Holmes’ raised eyebrow turns it into a question.

John nods, eyes on the stage. Though unusually tempted, he refrains from specifying the exact calibre.

When Holmes doesn’t respond further, John risks a glance. Holmes meets his gaze with undisguised fascination.

“It only hurts in the winter,” John says. He looks pointedly to the singers, signifying an end to the conversation that Holmes doesn’t accept.

“Do you need anything?”

“Sorry?”

“For your shoulder.”

“I’m fine.”

The remainder of the opera is a struggle not to yawn, fall asleep, or crack his shoulder. It’s a remarkably long performance. Finally, the orchestra plays the final measure. Applause rolls through the theatre. Holmes rises to go, and John rises with him. When John attempts to part ways in the lobby, Holmes catches John’s arm, holding him secure against the press of the exiting crowds.

“Where are you going?” The thought of John simply leaving clearly offends Holmes.

“This is the direction I usually take.” He has his rounds to make, after all.

“But this way is quicker to get to her—Ah. You’re not coming.”

John stares at him. “Why would I be?”

This is a question Holmes has clearly not asked himself.

John tries not to frown. “I left you without a chaperone last week.” A joke, but the only reason Holmes’ hesitation makes sense. “Bit late to worry about it now.”

“You were a convenient conversational topic,” Holmes explains.

Dear God. “Fortunately, I can be that from anywhere.”

Holmes’ disapproval of that answer is palpable.

“I’m sorry, but I am on duty right now,” John says.

“You spared a moment last week.”

John stares at him. “I introduced you last week. Listen, if she thinks you need someone to hide behind, you’ll never hear the end of it.”

Holmes’ face hardens. “I don’t.”

“I’m afraid you’ll need to make that obvious.”

“Fine.” He releases John’s arm like a child relinquishing a toy.

They part ways there.



There’s another fall before the week is out, but this one is a true accident. Some idiot leaves one of the upper windows open, rainwater comes in, and the inevitable occurs. No lasting damage expected except what’s already been self-inflicted upon the man’s lungs. Though the stagehand protests he merely left the window unlocked, not open, between his smoking breaks, John’s patience is exhausted within seconds. Beyond that source of annoyance, the incident is almost reassuringly normal.



The third time Vernet shouts at him in ten minutes, John reaches over and snaps the band of his mask against the back of his head.

“What was that for?” Vernet demands.

“If you’re going to treat me like an arse, I might as well be one.”

Vernet glares at him before the tension visibly eases in his shoulders. It doesn’t leave, not remotely, but it does lessen. “A break?”

“Good idea. A walk?” There’s enough nervous energy in Vernet that movement wouldn’t go amiss.

Pacing back and forth, Vernet shakes his head.

“You’re going for one already.”

Vernet stops pacing for all of a moment, then resumes. “It’s nearly finished. The naval battle is the most difficult, and then every other theme has already been established. It’s a simple matter of reprisal and the libretto.”

“I know. You’re doing well.”

An angry ruffle of the hair. “It could be finished by January. Late January, practically February.”

“But that’s wonderful. I mean, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” It’s close to a groan. “And then I stop living in an abandoned tunnel and sleep in my own bed, yes, I understand that!” Which each echoing word, his gestures grow more frantic. “All the rest of it, that returns, every single day full of it.” He crosses his arms over his chest, forcibly restraining his hands. He takes in a long shaking breath. “But I won’t be sponsored to write the next one until this one takes off. It’s a necessary wait.”

John stands to the side, quiet and wondering. Finally, he says, “Let’s sneak into Box Five tonight.”

Vernet looks at him. He turns his head and turns his body, and his whole focus settles on John.

“Do you want to?” John asks.

“Yes.”

“Good.” John looks about the chamber, at the many candles and smothering atmosphere. “Can you leave here and end up somewhere else than the staircase? Somewhere outside the opera house?”

“Why are you asking?”

“Because you should go for a walk outside,” John says. “Take that thing off before it gives you a headache worse than you have already.”

“I’m fine.”

“No you’re not. If you were, you’d have blamed the headache on me.”

Vernet glares at him. Even unable to see his eyes, John knows it’s a glare.

“You should go for that walk,” John repeats. “Go out, eat a hot meal for once, and then we’ll watch the opera tonight.”

“I don’t have any money on me.”

John rolls his eyes and reaches into his inner jacket pocket.

“Doctor--”

“If I can’t think of what to get you for Christmas, don’t pay me back,” John interrupts. He has a plan rather than a gift, but a vague and strange plan, poorly thought-out and likely to be odd in the execution. It isn’t much, merely the thought of a walk together. They might agree to meet somewhere out in the city, and John might agree to walk in front of Vernet and never turn around. Hardly an intimate social outing, but John wants it.

He’s already decided to give the maid the day off to spend with her ailing mother, and the cook he shares with his neighbours will have her hands full with the couple’s extended family, same as last year and the year before. John hardly minds or, rather, he knows he won’t mind after the day has passed. This year, he’ll set away enough reading material. No more of the same old mistake.

A new mistake might be interesting. Supposing they keep the curtains closed, there’s no one to wonder at a masked man in his parlour. Hardly the most festive celebration, but simply the thought of Vernet in his home makes the space seem less empty. That would be much better than a walk, the eternal temptation of turning around, of looking. Anyone attempting to lead Orpheus must risk the same folly.

Vernet stares at him. “You what?”

“Have no idea what to get you for Christmas.” When Vernet utterly fails to respond, John adds, “Christmas, that thing we have every year?”

“I know what it is.”

“Just checking.” He presses the coins into Vernet’s cold hand.

“Don’t--”

John closes his hands around Vernet’s. “Indulge me. I don’t often have an evening out with a friend.”

“Blatant manipulation doesn’t suit you, Doctor.”

John smiles. “No, but blunt truth does.”

Vernet may arch an eyebrow, but it’s impossible to tell. “You plan on bludgeoning me into it.” Not a question.

“I’m very good at it,” John answers all the same.

Vernet sighs in grudging acknowledgement of John’s victory.

“Box Five, then?”

“Oh, all right.”

John grins. “Good. I’ll see you later.”

After an agonising wait, he does. In the middle of the first act and with only minimal guilt, he slips away into Box Five. Here, Vernet is a spectacle even from behind, his unkempt hair forever distinctive. How he slips into the box without anyone noticing, John will never know.

“Feeling better?” John whispers once he closes the door.

Vernet grunts, the noise of a man pointedly ignoring the quality of his doctor’s suggestions.

John sits next to him, intentionally knocking elbows. Vernet knocks back. They fight for control of the armrests until there’s a noise from the hall. They freeze, upper arms pressed, forearms straining. The noise passes. Vernet immediately shoves at John’s arm.

John fights to keep a neutral expression. “You must be feeling better. You’re a complete arse.”

“Your bedside manner is atrocious.”

“Do you see a bed? Because I don’t.”

He only sees Vernet’s twitch of a smile because he’s looking for it. They settle down, listening to the music through the closed curtain as always. John lets his mind wander, lets his head fall back against the antimacassar. He nearly drops off more than once, but Vernet makes a noise of derision in time.

“I’ve had a thought,” John begins. It’s possible Vernet will want to speak through this portion but just as possible that Vernet will want to listen for the sake of mocking it.

“Only the one?”

A different target of mockery, then. “That I care to share, at any rate. I was thinking, if you’re going to be stuck here for Christmas--”

“I’m not.”

“No, I know you can leave, but--” A light touch on the back of his hand silences him.

“I’ve been called home.”

“You’ve... what?” John leans toward him. “For good?”

“No.” Quickly, then horrified: “God, no. Just for the holidays.”

“Oh.” John’s stomach has no cause for remaining so sunken. There’s nothing to worry about, let alone panic over. “That’s good. Isn’t it?”

Vernet scowls. “Hardly.”

“You... really don’t want to go back.”

Elbow planted on the armrest, Vernet curls his fingers against the cheek of his mask. “What was your first indication?”

“You pitching a fit downstairs, honestly.”

“That was hardly a fit.”

“You’ve an impressive standard of fits, then.”

Vernet makes an almost amused sound. He’s very close in the near-dark. Not for the first time, John wonders if Vernet’s vision is suffering. The mask hardly permits him spectacles.

“You’ll be back when?” John asks.

“Early January.”

“Oh.” It’s not so bad. John ought to say that: it’s not so bad. He can’t seem to. “When are you leaving?”

“As late as possible,” Vernet promises. John nearly reaches to squeeze his hand. It’s an odd impulse, thwarted from lack of access rather than abundance of restraint. “What was your thought?”

“Hm?”

“You had a plan for if I’d been staying,” Vernet prompts.

John shakes his head. “Nothing detailed.”

“You had a vague plan,” Vernet prompts.

John smiles a bit, the way one does at a joke. The walk. Somehow smuggling Vernet into his home without looking at the man, somehow preventing his neighbours from seeing his unmasked face. Discovering exactly how many brandies it would take until Vernet was willing to sing. Happy thoughts, all, but he puts them aside.

“Hardly important,” John says. He hopes the solo outside will serve as a distraction.

“Yes, but now I’m curious.” No such luck.

“I didn’t like the thought of you alone in the basement, that’s all.”

“I have my music,” Vernet says, so offended that John laughs. Vernet scowls and stops leaning toward John, dropping his hand from face to armrest.

John covers the back of Vernet’s hand with his palm, a warm squeeze. “I know.” He returns his hands to his lap, folded. “It was just a thought.”

“The eternally concerned doctor.”

“Not true.”

Vernet tsks. “All evidence points to the contrary.”

“Not true,” he insists. “Today I had a patient I wanted to throttle.”

“Besides me? Should I be jealous?”

John laughs. “The idiot let a leak in. Left one of the upper windows open for a smoking break, then slipped on the water and nearly cracked his skull.”

Vernet looks at him sharply. “Which of the upper windows?”

“Sorry?”

“Which window, Doctor?”

John frowns. “One of the upper ones. Overlooking the roof, I think. Why?”

“Then how did the leak get in?”

“The window was open...?”

“Wrong,” Vernet snaps. “Where was the puddle in conjunction with the window?”

“In front of it.”

“Directly in front of it? Touching the wall? Was the wall even wet? Any signs of water damage?”

John tries to think but can’t. “I...” He hadn’t been looking.

“Doctor, go.” Vernet stands and drags John from his chair. “Warn Mr Havill. Something’s about to happen. I don’t know what, but it is.”

“What? Warn him how?”

“Your soldierly instinct, overheard gossip, anything—make something up! Do not mention me.” He shoves John’s medical bag into his hands. “I imagine you’ll need this.”

“Vernet--”

“If I’m wrong, mock me later,” Vernet argues. He grips John by the shoulders. His voice blocks out all other sounds. There is no eternally chattering audience; there is no soprano singing the act to a grand conclusion; there is only the frantic edge of a genius’s warning. “Now move.”

John obeys, darting out into the hall with Vernet’s hand pushing at his back. The door to Box Five closes behind him, and John walks much too quickly to find Hopkins.

“Where’s Mr Havill?” John demands.

“Box Eight,” Hopkins replies without hesitation, his duties as head usher for some reason detailing a personal directory. “Is something the matter--”

John’s already walking away, close to jogging, and Hopkins follows in something close to alarm.

“The manager’s with guests, Dr Watson!” Hopkins warns. “Are you certain--”

“Yes,” John interrupts, anything but sure. Time slows down as his heart races, and he reaches Box Eight before the soprano finishes her aria. John opens the door without knocking, a breach of protocol in the extreme.

“Dr Watson!” Mr Havill exclaims, turning in his seat. “What is--”

Too late. Mute, numb, John points out between the parted curtains, points at the sway of lights that never sway. He points at the hanging arrangement of crystal and light, the mass of metal and fire and dripping, disturbed candle wax. The immense weight of the chandelier, suspended over the audience below.

“Oh, God,” Mr Havill whispers.

The chandelier drops, the crash like lightning, the screams an eternity.




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I kid you not, after I finished writing this chapter, my computer's fan broke. Immediately after. It was roaring its last as I saved the completed chapter. It was terrifying. Appropriate, though.
 
 
 
Misanthropic Anthropologist: pleasedcall_me_ishmael on April 6th, 2013 12:39 am (UTC)
DFGJHSDKFGJSDHFGKSFKGSL
fiction, fiction, fictionbendingsignpost on April 12th, 2013 11:56 pm (UTC)
XDDDD
limpfligquirkies on April 6th, 2013 02:26 am (UTC)
So much tension! I'd been utterly enthralled by the fantastic dialogue and layered, nuanced relationships (the Adler bits were particularly delicious) and was utterly unprepared for the big finale. *bites nails*
fiction, fiction, fictionbendingsignpost on April 12th, 2013 11:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks! (God, I love writing her so much. Holding her thought processes in my head makes it feel like it's going to explode.)

Edited at 2013-04-12 11:56 pm (UTC)
illereynillereyn on April 6th, 2013 10:07 am (UTC)
dun Dun DUN!!!!

Great work, I love all the subtextual hints, and Sherlock vs Irene mindgames.

fiction, fiction, fictionbendingsignpost on April 12th, 2013 11:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
rifleman_s: Sherlock & John BWrifleman_s on April 7th, 2013 04:11 pm (UTC)
“Arrogance suits me?”
“Not... precisely. But false modesty certainly wouldn’t.””


I very much enjoyed the conversations and banter in this chapter - the serious in conjunction with the lighthearted.

I was intrigued by John’s ideas for Christmas – too bad they’ve been thwarted (for the moment anyway).

And what a terrible cliffhanger (very spooky about your fan, too – a parallel to the plot you’re creating!).
fiction, fiction, fictionbendingsignpost on April 12th, 2013 11:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks!

(That's not even the weirdest parallel. I will reveal the freakier ones as they occurred, don't want to spoil the story.)
labellecreationlabellecreation on May 20th, 2013 11:26 am (UTC)
May be odd to make this a reply to this, but first off this story is breathtaking, you have done it again to me and I thought The Stranger at the Gate (which btw I recently promoted in relation to a video on Youtube where Sherlock was a vampire and people were asking for Vampfic!) was delicious, now here I am lost in the excitement of the opera and hearing that violin in my head!

Now, why I reply: My best mate and I have a phrase for what happens when life seems to echo fiction. Coincidental Collide. It's something I have frequently come across while writing my own fics. It's a very spooky feeling- ESPECIALLY when the coincidence- like a fan breaking- seems such an obscure yet integrally linked one.
Courtneysiennis on April 12th, 2013 01:35 am (UTC)
Just started reading this lovely story this morning, and I'm so addicted! I love the interactions between John & Sherlock (and John/Vernet ;D). I love the jealousy when John brings Sherlock to Adler and how he refuses to think of it as jealousy.

Your writing is always fantastic, and this is no exception. Very excited to read more!
fiction, fiction, fictionbendingsignpost on April 12th, 2013 11:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you! And there is totally no reason for John to feel jealous, what are you talking about.

You've very good timing, as an update will be posted within the hour.