Behind his mask, Sherlock rolled his eyes.
Midnight had just struck, and the high-pitched, hysterical chatter in the Weiße Maus dropped to a low drone. Throughout the room the guests turned at their café tables, clutching their cocktails, eyes wide. They were a host of black and white masks, all trained on the tiny stage.
It was unnerving, reflected Sherlock: the ravening of modern Berliners for dramatics.
Young girls came on, three and three from either side of the stage, weaving snake-like as they walked. They were powdered pale, bare breasts and throats and blank faces. Against the purple velvet of the curtains they looked like death. They wove round each other: a complex geometry of white thighs and black suspenders with teeth that bit into black stockings and laddered them all the way down. The audience buzzed, diverted.
Sherlock, however, was bored.
When the clock had struck, the pudgy Cockney in the ill-fitting suit—the man he and John had tailed down the Friedrichstraße and through the carved wooden doors of the Weiße Maus—had been on the very verge of handing Mycroft’s documents to his contact. (Useful, the masks, for more than one kind of visitor.) Now the idiot was transfixed. Documents and conversation forgotten, he watched the girls form a line at the front of the stage.
The man leaned forward in his chair. Sherlock caught the barest glimpse of a white envelope sticking up against the shadow of his inside jacket pocket. If the fool would just reach in and—but no. No, he was gaping at the stage, where (Sherlock spared a glance) the girls in their line were leaning and leaning, bending acutely forward at the ankle yet still holding themselves balanced. Their bare breasts dangled above the front tables, pale against their pinstriped half-waistcoats. Behind them stood a seventh woman, her foot resting on the backside of one of the centre girls. The Englishman’s mouth lolled open. He looked, thought Sherlock, absolutely farcical.
Sherlock snorted; smiled behind his hand. He leaned across the table to share his amusement with John, getting as far as whispering ‘Mr. Hennings seems to be,’ but John—.
John Watson was not amused, Sherlock realised. Not bored, either.
His mouth wasn’t lolling open like Mr. Hennings’s, but beneath the black mask his jaw was clenched. He was pursing his lips into a narrow line, in the way he did when Sherlock was teasing him. When John was keeping himself from responding but he was—he was wanting to. A cold, sickly flame coiled low in Sherlock’s stomach, which was—ridiculous. Surely.
He looked back at their quarry—still, like John, riveted on the performance—and then over at the stage. The line of girls had parted in the middle to reveal the seventh woman. She was older, late twenties perhaps. There were layers of cheap dye in her dark-red hair; she’d a slick, bloody heart of a mouth. She was wearing a small monkey on her shoulder, a mess of kohl around her eyes, and nothing else at all—and she stood now at the edge of the stage, glaring at the audience with one hand snaked between her legs. The piano chuckled and and trombone moaned.
Sherlock slid his eyes back across the table, looking aslant through the mask’s eyeholes.
John’s chin was tilted up; his lips still pursed. The low light made flickering shadows in the divot of his winged collar, along the tiny triangle of exposed neck. John swallowed; his Adam’s apple bobbed. Sherlock could just make out the dull pink scrape under his jaw where John, a week ago, had nicked himself shaving, and Sherlock had tipped John’s head up and bent his own knees, and kissed John’s skin clean with his tongue.
John swallowed again, which was too soon. His eyes hadn’t left the stage. Sherlock turned his head back, incredulous.
This woman? This—there was a flyer on the café table—this Fräulein Berber, this so-called ‘Priestess of Depravity’? Surely she was no temptation. She was corpse-pale, and bone-thin, and looked as if she hated everyone in the room with a fierce, personal hatred. Granted, he thought (she was reaching her heel up to touch the back of her head, the monkey settling in the curve of her lower back), she was not without talent. But her hands clenched like claws, and when she reached her left arm out to her side, anyone could see the bruised mass of needle tracks beneath her thick powder. Sherlock felt hot, restless.
He squirmed in his seat. Three years in John’s bed, and he seldom felt, anymore, this sick, swooping fear. Those awful days in Paris in ’21, Sherlock had been…lain waste. But now he felt something like—like anger, he realised, remembering for the first time in minutes to spare a glance for Mr. Hennings. (Stationary. Moronic.) Perhaps, Sherlock thought, with a kind of nauseated dignity, John missed women, longed for the female form. A stab of disbelief, a wash of fear: but it was possible. But surely there were a dozen women in the room at this very moment, more attractive than the sad harpy on stage. John deserved better.
John had better.
Now the dancer was swaying, enveloped in her own undulating arms. John’s mask moved with each movement. And John’s hands: they were clenching, and unclenching, unconscious in his lap. To see it was like a punch to Sherlock’s gut. That was his, that motion. It was what they did, those hands, when they wanted to reach out. When they wanted to touch. Sherlock stared at the side of John’s face, demanding, and John could usually feel it even across a room, but now his gaze never flickered away from the dancer. His broad hands still tensed and twitched on his thighs.
Sherlock breathed out, slow. He squinted at Fräulein Berber, trying to quash the rise of bile in his throat. John, his John: what did he see?
Objectively speaking, then, Sherlock thought the dancer’s motion might have been genuinely affecting—had it not been for the monkey. One shoulder would dip too low, and the little creature would scurry across the dancer’s back to the other side, chattering in alarm, only to reverse the action when she changed position a few seconds later. The dance’s melancholia only exaggerated the comic effect. Isolated guffaws were breaking out, from the north corner and from one of the tables in front. Sherlock took a savage satisfaction in joining them. John’s eyes finally left the stage to dart over; even through the mask they were reproachful, annoyed.
Sherlock felt a growl coalescing in his chest. This wasn’t like Paris, he thought, hot now with fury. And Sherlock didn’t always understand these things, they weren’t his area, but they had—had agreed. And yet John was reproachful, when Sherlock was sitting right here; John was scowling because Sherlock had laughed at this strange new—new paramour whom John had apparently
‘Verpiss dich!’ came a voice, cutting and nasal from the stage. Sherlock’s head snapped around; he was tempted to tear off his mask. A glance to the right: Hennings sitting up in his seat, looking doltish. A scan to the left: the ‘Priestess of Depravity’ had stepped off the stage and onto the front table, the source of the loudest heckling. As Sherlock watched, the dancer drew back her bare foot and kicked out, and the heckler’s whisky glass careened into his chest. He leapt up, brown liquid soaking his white shirtfront.
‘Du Hurensohn!’ She was shouting still, now directly above the man’s head. Her mouth was drawn back in a snarl over sharp-looking teeth; there were dull bruises on her thighs. ‘Deine Mutter geht auf den Strich, du Miststück!’ she shouted, weaving on the table, and spat in his face.
Sherlock glanced back over. His stomach dropped. John’s mask dangled from his hand, and he looked stricken with something oddly akin to grief. The growl in Sherlock’s chest was expanding into a roar when John said—something. Sherlock had to blink, and breathe, and demand John repeat himself before he could understand.
‘Mr. Hennings,’ said John again, with a pointed look past the Priestess’s table to where Hennings had grabbed his contact’s lapel and was leading him toward the door, whispering feverishly in his ear.
Sherlock rose to his feet just as the sound of shattering glass erupted from the front table. His eyes on Hennings, he could still deduce what was happening to his back. Two men were pulling the idiot woman off the table, one jerking her to the floor and the other barking out ‘Jetzt reicht's aber, Schnauze, verdammt nochmal!’ as she kicked out at them both. Sherlock straightened. He tipped his head toward the door, but when he turned to follow Hennings John put a hand on his shoulder.
‘You can handle him, Holmes?’ John murmured, and Sherlock cocked an eyebrow. John grimaced. ‘Yes, all right, in your sleep, with one hand tied,’ he said. ‘Go on, then, I’ll be along.’
And Sherlock’s stomach was too knotted to speak. So he pulled away and slipped off after Hennings, John’s hand squeezing his shoulder before it slid from under John’s palm. He turned once, just before he crossed the threshold: John was crouched over the prone form of Fräulein Berber; his hand encircled her wrist.
Sherlock snarled, and turned, and glided down the Friedrichstraße after dumpy George Hennings and his baggy suit.
Jesus, thought John, leaning against the wall. Perhaps he was getting too old for this.
Two in the morning: bruised by fists, and by ladies’ high heels, and by a highball glass hurled at his head. Having dragged himself and his bad leg back through Potsdamer Platz and the Lennestraße, skirting the dark Tiergarten to arrive, bedraggled, on the wide front steps of the Brandenburger Hof. He spared a moment of gratitude to Mycroft for the sheer Prussian opulence of the place after such a night. When Sherlock had his way they were generally closeted away in a grimy attic under someone’s eaves. But, John thought, trailing up the stairs to the third floor: when the pound stood against the Mark at one to over a billion, it was only right to invest. They had the whole hotel practically to themselves.
John hadn’t caught Sherlock up. He, Sherlock, was still off somewhere, no doubt tying up the loose ends of Mr. Hennings’s fate in his broken but imperious German. John paused on the landing, smiling to himself; then exhaled and resumed the climb.
His key stuck in the lock. He had to jimmy it and shoulder the door open, so that he half-fell inside when it finally gave. He stumbled; stubbed his toe on a bronze doorstop in the shape of a hunting dog; cursed tiredly under his breath. All his things were damp. They skidded on his skin as he tried to pull them off. He draped his shirt and suit jacket over the back of the armchair, staggering toward the bathroom as he tugged off his vest.
They hadn’t had a chance, earlier, to look the room over completely, what with running off after Hennings. When John pushed the door open he froze for a moment, his vest pulled halfway up his torso and his mouth open. Dead centre, gleaming copper and raised up like an altar in some kind of blue-and-silver temple, was the largest bathtub John had ever seen.
‘Christ,’ he muttered to himself, shuffling into the room and tugging his vest the rest of the way over his head. ‘It’ll take twenty minutes just to fill the thing.’
So he opened the taps—off toward one end, unusual—and puttered around the palatial washroom. His mind wandered, calming to the rhythm of tugging off his socks and trousers, and to the rush of water against metal.
Sherlock had been in fine form tonight, John thought, absently uncapping a vial of bath oil and sniffing at it. (Lavender.) He’d been subdued, for - well, months and months, after Paris. John had hated it. But the past year he’d been—as John remembered him. Scathing and cocksure, and tonight he’d burned, perhaps, a little brighter yet. John shook the little smile off his face.
He sat in the steam on the lip of the giant tub, and watched the water rise. After a time, he closed the taps. The plink-plink of the last drips echoed off tile.
In the rippling silence John lowered himself into the water. For half a minute, as the heat leeched into his muscles and lapped at his skin, he didn’t think at all.
Then came the heavy sound of the door being shouldered open, and shoved closed.
‘Holmes?’ John called. Ice clinked in a glass from the other room. John put one hand on the copper rim to pull himself to a sitting position in the steaming water. ‘Did you sort it all out with the Polizei?’ he called. ‘I didn’t expect you back so soon.’
No response from the other room. But in a moment Sherlock appeared in the doorway, long fingers clasped around a tumbler of what looked like whisky. He’d removed his shoes and suit jacket. His top shirt buttons were undone. His bow tie hung loose on either side of his neck, which would normally inspire thoughts of tasting the sweat at his clavicle, except that right now Sherlock looked—
He looked off, thought John. He was slouching as if relaxed but his neck was tensed. And his eyes were strange, and hard, and shining.
‘I’m surprised to find you here, Watson,’ said Sherlock, leaning in the doorway in his artful, rumpled tailoring. John felt suddenly very naked.
‘What the—where else would I be?’
Sherlock narrowed his eyes. ‘You seemed very intent on providing assistance to Fräulein Berber.’
‘Oh,’ said John, grimacing and closing his eyes for a moment. He hadn’t particularly wanted to think about her. ‘Well. There wasn’t much I could do, really. She seemed to hate me exactly as much as she hated everyone else.’
‘Ah,’ said Sherlock. He made a show of strolling languidly to the sink, and peering in the mirror. ‘I suppose that would explain it.’ There was something low and sickly in his voice.
A sudden jolt of fear; John sat up straighter. ‘What are you—what’s happened to you?’ he said. Thinking of the scattered hypodermics when he’d helped the manager carry the girl backstage. Perhaps agreeing to come to Berlin—
‘Why you would have left her side so soon, I mean. I should have realised, she’d sent you away. You were never one for a “quick in and out,” as they say.’
‘Pardon? I—’ John’s brain was lagging, still stuck on the silver brooch where Fräulein Berber had kept her white powder.
’It’s fine, it’s only,’ said Sherlock, waving a casual hand, ‘The ‘Priestess of Depravity’ was an unusual choice, for you, wasn’t she. Wholesome John Watson, medical doctor. I would hardly have predicted—’
‘Fräulein Ber—you think I—’ said John, finally catching on. But Sherlock had slammed his tumbler down on the back of the blue-and-silver sink and spun about, launching himself across the room and over the lip of the tub. And then he was on top of John in the water, white cuffs plunged in up to the wrists. Pressed black trousers caged John’s legs, and Sherlock was biting fiercely at his lips and his cheeks and his wet neck, and choking out ‘No,’ against John’s mouth, ‘I don’t think, I observe.’
‘Gng,’ John tried to say, but here was no breath in his shocked lungs.
‘And what if she’d hated you less, then?’ Sherlock snarled, grinding himself down against John in the water, tightening his fingers on John’s chest and shoving at him. ‘Where would you be now if she’d really quite liked you?’
‘Sherlock, I never—I wouldn’t, again—’ John panted, trying to speak around the writhing mass of limbs and teeth on top of him, but every time he opened his mouth it was full of Sherlock’s frantic tongue. Sherlock was making desperate whining noises, kissing and sucking at John’s lips. He was also rutting fully clothed against John’s naked hips, and John was getting traitorously hard from it but Sherlock apparently believed something—incredible, which meant that John had to—he had to—
‘For God’s sake,’ John muttered, wrenching his head away hard. In the instant of surprise following, he hooked one ankle around Sherlock’s ankle, braced himself against the side of the tub, and heaved them both around. A wave of steaming water crashed over the copper lip onto the blue-and-silver floor.
When it settled, Sherlock was soaked through, stunned on his back in the bath, breathing dangerously fast.
‘Sherlock,’ said John. Sherlock whimpered and tried to thrash about, but John was straddling his hips, pinning his shoulders to the back of the tub. Sherlock wouldn’t look at him. ‘Sherlock,’ John repeated, stern, and grabbed Sherlock’s chin to force his face toward John’s face. Sherlock’s eyes were wide and wild, and still refusing to meet John’s, so John bent and kissed him, hard, no tongues for a long minute until he felt Sherlock’s breath even out, until Sherlock was present there, under his hands.
And when Sherlock finally softened, when he finally breathed into the kiss, it was like something in John’s chest just—burst. Sherlock was here, right here, warm and breakable and slippery to hold, and oh God but John wanted to engulf him. You, he thought wildly, you, and some obscure part of him tried to draw back but instead he was surging forward, hollowing his cheeks, sucking the very air out of Sherlock’s mouth.
Sherlock was starting to shake underneath him and John’s bad shoulder was trembling from holding him up, but he couldn’t, couldn’t stop. He was fisting one hand convulsively in the soaked cotton of Sherlock’s shirt. Twining his tongue against Sherlock’s tongue, pushing, pleading. Hitching his cock, bare and aching, against Sherlock’s clothed stomach, and oh it was driving him mad, that warm, wet cotton fretting his skin, with Sherlock shaking underneath it. Sherlock’s hands were grabbing at John anywhere they could reach. Sherlock’s legs scrabbled for purchase on the slick wet copper at his back.
It was only to gasp air that John pulled back, pinning Sherlock against the back of the tub again when he followed John’s mouth.
‘Listen to me,’ John said, as Sherlock gasped and blinked away the drips of water falling from John’s hair. ‘You’re being, being insane, and I just—Christ—’ as Sherlock bucked up under him, ‘—how could I look at some stranger when you—’
‘—But you did,’ Sherlock said, like it was being torn out of his throat, ‘you don’t, normally, but you looked at her all evening and moved your hands,’ as he pushed up to suck, hard, on John’s collarbone, ‘and we agreed,’ he said, breaking away, ‘we agreed, you’re—’
‘Not like that, I wasn’t—Jesus,’ because Sherlock had grabbed his hips and was pulling them against his curling torso as if John should fuck Sherlock’s entire clothed body.
‘I just need to—’ John said, and shook his head, and pushed back hard on Sherlock’s shoulders so Sherlock’s back slammed against hammered copper. John squeezed his eyes shut. He had even composed the words to explain, to rectify all this, but then he opened them to a Sherlock flushed and open-mouthed, with the loose dark ends of his hair dripping onto a shirt now torn at the shoulder, and what came out of John’s mouth in a snarl was ‘Oh bloody Christ I want you.’
‘Yes,’ Sherlock growled, between clenched teeth. He looked ready to bite, held back by John’s hands.
John groaned, and then, ‘It’s only—,’ but he was already sliding down Sherlock’s body, already fumbling and tugging at wet trouser flies. He could feel Sherlock, hard and straining where the black wool was plastered against him.
‘Later,’ Sherlock said, and then, lifting his hips out of the water so that John could jerk the layers of wet wool and silk and cotton down his thighs, tipped his head back and cursed. A mass of fabric slipped over the side of the tub, and hit the tile with a squelching smack.
‘Later,’ breathed John in unthinking agreement, eyes on a level with Sherlock’s still-raised hips and the lovely flushed curve of his cock against his stomach. Then John’s hands cupped Sherlock’s arched backside and pushed, sliding Sherlock’s spine along the lip of the tub until he was sitting upright there, one sodden sock still on his foot in the water, and John was kneeling between his legs in the bath, sucking rivulets of water off his thighs.
‘God, you impossible—how could you think,’ John said, low and frantic, his knees hard on the warm copper. ‘How could you think,’ he said again before words all devolved into a hum, John sucking a starving bruise onto Sherlock’s inner thigh, and Sherlock above him keening for it.
John had been out of the water longer. Sherlock’s skin under John’s hands was impossibly hot, and John’s fingers skidded over damp skin. The only part of John as warm as Sherlock’s skin was the inside of his mouth, and it was sucking, and biting, and trying, trying desperately to mate heat to heat.
‘John,’ Sherlock was panting, above him, his hands in John’s hair, ‘John, let me down, let me down, I want you inside me—’
And John, saying ‘Yes, oh god,’ scrambled backwards, remembering about the lavender bath oil. The bath was like traversing a damned lake to leave Sherlock and get to the other side of it, and then his hands were clumsy and knocked most of the ablutions off their fussy little shelf.
Sherlock had started to slide back down into the water, but John put his hands on Sherlock’s knees and pushed him back up, spilling lavender oil all over everything.
‘Let me, just—’ John said, pulling Sherlock’s hips forward, just his tailbone braced on the copper lip, ‘—we will, god, we will, but I—’ sliding a slick hand between Sherlock’s braced and trembling legs, ‘—I need you in my mouth, I—’ pressing two fingertips against the entrance to Sherlock’s body, ‘—Christ, I want a throatful of you,’ and finally, finally, he had the warm, wet weight of Sherlock pressing his tongue down in his mouth, and his slippery crossed fingers inside Sherlock up to the knuckle, and oh, bliss, fucking bliss.
Sherlock was chanting something above him, something like yours, John, please, please. Sherlock’s arms were bearing his weight, holding him up on the copper lip, but his hands kept twitching and starting, and trying to reach out for John’s head between Sherlock’s legs. Every time he let go Sherlock would slip minutely before he caught himself and pulled back up, his eyes riveted on John’s head. Each slip forced him, for a bare moment, unexpectedly deeper into John’s mouth, and each time John’s eyes would slam shut, and he would moan around Sherlock’s cock and push into Sherlock harder with his fingers, and under the flush from the bathwater Sherlock was sweating.
‘I can’t,’ Sherlock gasped at last, ‘I have to, I have to feel you John, please, with my hands, I have to touch you.’ So John pulled off, and pulled his fingers free and lifted Sherlock down off the tub’s rim, down into his lap, his hands under Sherlock’s thighs. Sherlock folded his legs around John’s hips like a vise, whining in the back of his throat and bending to kiss, to kiss at John’s hair and his face. John held himself steady with an oil-slick hand, utterly unable to keep from bucking up into Sherlock as Sherlock sank down, tight around him in the water.
And John moaned and put out his arms to grip the sides for grounding, for balance, because Sherlock’s hands were sliding, greedy and shaking, over John’s shoulders and his neck and through his hair. He was rocking slightly against John, shivery and overwhelmed; he kept opening his mouth to speak, and every time he did it was like the thread of John’s body pulled taut.
‘Fuck, oh,’ breathed Sherlock, and John’s hips jerked, immediate but shallow, and they both moaned.
Sherlock rocked, rocked, the water lapping at their waists.
‘Hard,’ breathed Sherlock, and without thought John hitched his hips. His own mouth opened and he said ‘You know that when I—’ and Sherlock rocked, and said ‘Fuck up, fuck up,’ and John swore, and fucked up into him the best he could like this, with what little leverage he had.
Rocking. Pressure. Radiating heat. Words pooling in John’s throat.
‘You know all I saw when I looked at that girl—’ said John, though he knew they’d said later and this was perhaps the worst possible time.
‘Don’t—’ said Sherlock, ‘keep—keep—.’ John’s hips tried to jerk up again, teasing, insufficient, out of his control.
Sherlock was rocking against him harder now, quicker, something desperate again in his hands in John’s hair. John bit his lip to be quiet.
Rocking. Heat. Quiet, quiet. Sliding, against.
Sherlock was biting his, too, but he was still moaning through his teeth like he couldn’t help it. And then ‘John,’ he said, ‘keep—keep fucking me, keep—hard, just never—don’t stop, just—’ and it was all John could take. He growled and threw himself backward, breaking through Sherlock’s locked calves, his hands reaching up to grab onto the the opposite rim of the bath,his neck wedged against the taps. Which was three kinds of painful at least, but at last, at last he had leverage to thrust up into Sherlock hard, and oh, glorious. And the floodgates opened.
‘All I saw,’ he gasped, planting his feet and slamming up into Sherlock’s body, ‘when I looked at her,’ letting go with one hand and wrapping it around Sherlock’s length, ‘was you.’
For a horrible moment Sherlock stopped moving entirely. Then he moaned and put out his hands to balance, and dropped his head so that John said, in a low rush, ‘You, with just a bit less murder or—’ he thrust up again, and Sherlock whined, ‘—less luck, or without someone to—’ his hand rough on Sherlock’s wet cock, ‘to dry you out now and then and—‘
‘You,’ said Sherlock, his voice rough, ‘without you—’
‘—to hound you when you’re hateful and—oh god I’m so—’ muscles tightening, contracting around him, ‘yes, come off, Sherlock, now, now, now,’ so that Sherlock threw his head back and sobbed at the ceiling, welling warm into the warm water as John pushed up once more into him and shook, arched and beating.
John couldn’t lie down in the water, after, so he sat back up into Sherlock’s arms. He was wrecked, and panting; he dropped his head on Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock kissed his hair. He wanted to sleep for a week.
Sherlock’s breath evened out, slowly; John felt, more than heard, the bare exhalation of Sherlock’s ‘Christ, John,’ and he smiled, exhausted, against Sherlock’s skin.
He was startled, a minute later, to feel Sherlock’s shoulders shaking. He pulled back, looked up in mild alarm.
‘What is it?’ he mumbled. He'd half-expected tears. But Sherlock was chuckling, and took a hand off John’s waist to wave it at the room around them.
John turned his head, and his lip quirked up as well.
The entire floor was flooded. There were glass shards all around the sink from where Sherlock had—had he really?—shattered his whisky glass, and whisky still dripped down the porcelain basin to pool at the base of the stand. The floor was littered with tiny soaps and little glass toiletry bottles, some of which had broken open to disgorge their contents into the flood. John’s trousers, still folded on the toilet, were soaked through; Sherlock’s clothes were massed in a sodden heap next to the tub. What little water remained inside the bath was cloudy-dark and lavender-smelling, and on the surface, near the drain, floated a black silk bow tie.
‘Fairly, er,’ John said, struggling to keep a straight face, ‘fairly well destroyed then,’ and Sherlock’s chuckles erupted into unrestrained laughter.
‘Well,’ continued John, running a hand through his hair, giggles threatening at the back of his throat, ‘anything worth doing, and all that,’ at which he could no longer keep from laughing, full-throated. He leaned forward again, shaking into Sherlock’s shaking chest, and thinking how the feel of Sherlock’s warm laughter against him was the best thing he knew.