A hand snakes its way around his waist and the nobleman whispers in his ear, “You know that it isn’t possible to hide yourself from me, sir.”
John feels his pulse quicken in his head but does not react. He has stopped trying to throw the stranger over his shoulders or trying to stab him with a fork after the first two encounters. Now at the third ball, John has expected this.
“Wasn’t trying,” John replies drily, tugging at his collar. He does not even try to remove the proprietary arm that has now pulled him closer. “You’d probably deduce the first twenty places I would try without even blinking. No point.”
The nobleman snorts, draping his other arm across John’s chest. If they were seen, it would be a scandalous sight and the Holmes family would be disgraced for who knows how long. But the second Holmes son has little care for his already ruined reputation and John is nothing more than the town doctor who was once a soldier. He’s only here for one reason and has no care for what the nobility think.
Still, they’re hidden behind the velvet curtains, just before the balcony in their formal wear. John can see pits and pieces of the ballroom when he strains his neck. Molly is pretty and blushing in her flowing red gown, twirling in the arms of her dream prince.
“Look at them, Watson,” Lord Holmes hisses against his hair. “Waltzing around to the same predictable music, dancing the same courting rituals, trying to mate with the richest bachelors…It’s so boring that it’s disgusting.”
“Right,” John sighs, though he does lean back a little against the nobleman’s hold. “Just don’t out another serial killer or prostitution ring among the guests for the third night in the row. I don’t think Prince Gregory appreciates it very much. You’re giving him sleepless nights.”
“Nonsense, if anything the ball is giving his brain something to do. And if your matchmaking skills have anything to say, he’s in love,” Holmes spits out the word as if it’s a curse, “and ridiculously pleased with the result.”
“Oh,” For some reason John cannot fathom, he feels strangely disappointed with the younger Holmes’ view on romance. But it’s just as well. He doesn’t think that Lord Sherlock Holmes is capable of sentimentalities like courting someone.
It’s fine. Really, it is.
“Just one more night of this and I can disappear from this,” John murmurs. “Just one more night.”
Holmes tenses behind him and turns John so that they are facing each other. John hates (and loves) being under his scrutiny. It feels like he can hide nothing.
“What nonsense are you speaking of now, Doctor?”
John frowns. “Just that I won’t see you anymore after this. I mean, nobles can’t associate with the lower class, not normally.”
Besides, he wonders, why would a brilliant man (a noble, no less) like Holmes ever want a broken soldier like him?
The first time they meet, John is sneaking Molly into the Prince’s ball. Molly is a sweet girl who lives with her stepparents, the Andersons. She deserves a good time and when she is forbidden from attending the biggest celebration in decades, John decides (fuck it all) that she should go anyways.
He’s always been the odd one in the village. His patients whisper about his nightly terrors, they jeer at his limp and the way he dresses. Most of the time, he’s unseen by anyone. Unless they have an appointment, where they listen to John’s every word, no one bothers with him except for Molly.
John wants her to be happy. So he uses his savings to buy the finest cloth he can and sews a dress. He had been working on it for weeks since the ball was announced, hoping that she would like it as a gift. So it’s just as well when John yanks his cane forward, steals his neighbour’s horse and carriage and climbs through Molly’s window that they are whisked off to the ball.
Molly is terrified and refuses to go anywhere near the steps once they arrive. The palace is huge with towering walls and brightly coloured flags in the air. Molly feels inadequate next to the other ladies so John decides to chaperone her.
“At least you’ll have one dance,” he assures her, “though it won’t be much of one, with my coat and dress.”
He’s wearing his favoured jumper, trousers and a nice long coat that he wore in his military days (before he was shot, before he watched Murray die, before, before, before…) It’s not much of a wardrobe but it suits him. He doesn’t think that the nobility will like it very much.
“Doctor John Watson,” Molly gasps and she takes his hand, meeting his eyes with the determination he adores so much, “it will always be an honour to dance with you. You are worth more than any other man I’ve met.”
John, blushing, says, “Tell that to the Prince later.”
They smile at the joke and step towards the gates.
Once there, they are overwhelmed by the music, the crowds, the gossip and all of the stares. John hears the scattered whispers of “a village doctor?” and “who is that woman? She is rather stunning… wait…” Uncomfortable, John shifts on his feet and offers his arm to Molly. They dance clumsily to three waltzes before John has to excuse himself for his leg.
He doesn’t want to leave Molly alone but as soon as they step away from the dance floor, a humble looking gentleman steps tentatively beside her. John sees the nervous smile, the silver hair and thinks, that’s the prince…! Before the only son of the Lestrade family asks for a dance with Molly. Stunned and red, Molly accepts.
“Daughter of the local village’s undertaker, I understand?” Someone says behind him.
John spins around and sees a young man, taller than average with willowy limbs. The man’s eyes are sharp, as if they can see into John’s soul. John doesn’t even notice the man’s pale features, or the aristocratic black clothes or even the head of unruly, curly hair. Only the eyes, that’s what catches him first.
“It’s obvious that you’re a doctor, of course. Invalided by the war against Bohemia? Shot in the shoulder, not sure which. I’m sure that the pain in your leg is all in your head. You’ve a brother as well, but you don’t like talking to him.”
His mouth drops slightly (in awe) and John steps back. “Do I know you?”
“No. But you should. I suppose you’re a doctor for the gentry if you don’t recognize my face. I certainly haven’t seen you around before, I would have noticed,” the last statement is said with a strange lilt of the voice.
“How do you know that?” John wonders.
And then the nobleman speaks. He tells John everything about his life from the state of his clothes to the calluses on his fingers, from the state of his hair to the way he stands against his limp. John can’t even process the spirited explanations without thinking he’s brilliant and that’s amazing.
He tells the other man so and the nobleman actually looks pleasantly surprised.
“Really? That isn’t what the nobles usually say, or even the servants.”
“Well what do they normally say?”
“In complicated and flowery alliteration, piss off.”
They share a smile and that’s when the nobleman says, “Come with me, let’s go uncover a serial killer.”
Just as John is about to ask what he is talking about, the nobleman tugs his arm possessively, adding, “Don’t be dull now, Doctor, Lestrade will be a complete gentleman with your lady.”
“She’s not my lady and who are you anyways?”
He smirks (and it takes the argument out of John), “Sherlock Holmes. A pleasure.”
They do end up catching a serial killer. One of the barons, of the Hope family, experimenting in drugs and feeding them to any stray nobles or gentry they could find. John finds Holmes about to taste the potion himself and so John grabs a crossbow and shoots the crazed baron in the throat.
Later, after the King and Queen have dismissed the guests and the Prince has yelled at Holmes
(“Are you going to punish me for outing a crime?”
“You could have done that earlier! I know you must have known what Hope was hope to for weeks. Why would you even do that, Sherlock? It’s an important celebration, for diplomacy!”
“Oh, a way to barter you off to worthy marriage prospects. How boring. Go marry the undertaker’s daughter, at least she’s somewhat interesting. She likes corpses.”
Needless to say, Prince Gregory turned red, turning towards John (who had been standing there wondering why he was still here) and snapping, “Who are you, anyways?”
But before John could answer, Holmes had put an arm around him, “He’s my doctor.”
Well, John could live with that cover story.)
The second ball involves Holmes surprising him from behind as soon as Molly is swept away by the prince. John nearly stabs him with a fork that he was holding at the time and instead of looking angry at him for trying to harm a noble, Holmes appears exhilarated.
“Oh how fascinating! I wonder if I could hone reflexive instincts in such a way as to incapacitate my brother?”
John doesn’t have time to answer, because, of course, the younger Holmes has a prostitution ring to uncover and the fallout is even worse between the royal family.
(He begins to think that Lord Sherlock Holmes keeps these mysteries to himself, until he is so thoroughly bored that he has to go solve them.)
But it doesn’t stop John from following after him, shouting and joking and berating him, feeling everything light up when he is swept up in this madman’s air.
John’s back is pressed against the wall and he blinks, because he has no idea how this turn of events has happened.
Holmes is staring at him, so intensely that John feels he’ll be cut up, studied from the inside, every organ, every vein until that gaze is satisfied. He fights back a shiver and glares with all his might.
“Lord Holmes, what is this all about—?”
John blinks, “Sorry, what?”
“It’s Sherlock,” Holmes growls. “My name is Sherlock, John and I have no intention of letting you walk away from this ball to disappear forever. I’ll come find you, John, and we’ll have marvelous adventures together.”
He doesn’t know what to say.
“But… you’re… what about…?”
“I don’t care what the family thinks. Mycroft is enough to carry on the line and I’m not meant to be stuck in a castle all day. It’s tedious,” Holmes (no, Sherlock) scoffs, pressing their foreheads together.
“Shut up, John, you’re thinking too loudly,” Sherlock says against his forehead, and then he leans down and kisses him.
Afterwards, Molly will ask why John is missing his shoe, why his clothes are all messy and as the doctor turns ripe red as a cherry, Sherlock will smirk, hovering close and mouthing out deductions about Prince Gregory’s inevitable proposal.