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Bel Canto

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When the last of the wealthy patrons leave, John takes up his medical bag and makes his way backstage. His rounds are cursory tonight, a simple rap of the knuckles against one of the many wooden supports and the call of “Maintenance.” A general cry comes back: one twisted ankle in the second act and nothing more. John dealt with that particular dancer hours ago, but he checks on her condition nonetheless. On his way farther backstage, he slips Mrs Hudson’s evening soother into the dance mistress’s hand. My hip, she mouths apologetically, and John nods. Despite the incredible heat of the lights, stage and chandelier both, the complaints of autumn are coming on. John’s shoulder can feel it too.

In the tumult following the night’s performance, it’s an easy matter to slip away from the ordered chaos. Down this hall, down that, down the stairs two levels into the basement, and then duck around the barrels beneath the stairs. Between the casks and the wooden wall, there is enough space for a reasonably sized man. Though blind in the dark, he feels for the latch easily enough tonight. He slides through the small door, careful not to brush his knees against the dirty floor. Once in, he secures it behind himself.

He sets down his bag and fishes out his matches from the inner pocket of his jacket. When struck, the match shines upon the waiting lamp, and John lights this in turn. The passageway is brick and stone, cool enough in the stale air to be a relief after the blaze of fire and tightly packed human bodies above.

Hefting up his bag, he walks. He walks for some time. His footsteps echo ahead, a deliberate warning.

At the final turn, another source of light becomes apparent, flickers of candlelight visible beneath a wooden door.

John knocks. “Mr Vernet,” he calls.

“Doctor,” is the man’s even response. The deep rumble rises from the patch of light shining on John’s shoes.

“Permission to enter.”

With a dismissive sigh: “Granted.”

John enters.

Inside, there is a man. The man stands before a thick, heavily engraved desk, part of its surface raised and slanting. Upon the desk, paper and ink stand at attention, illuminated by candle and reflecting mirror. The man’s suit is a solid black, his waistcoat grey, and the mask that covers nearly the entirety of his face is porcelain white beneath his dark, untamed curls. His bottom lip and chin are visible, but nothing more. Holding the neck in one hand and planting the bottom of the instrument against his hip, the man carries a violin.

“No,” John says immediately. “Put that down.”

“No,” Vernet replies. Despite the French name, his drawled refusal is unmistakeably English. Whatever the man’s true surname is, it can’t be Vernet. After all, John’s been told as much.

“Two weeks,” John says, setting his lamp upon one of the two tables, the less cluttered of the surfaces. The room isn’t terribly large, though what it lacks in width and length, it certainly makes up for in height. “That’s all I asked. None of that until I take the stitches out.”

“You’re taking them out tonight,” Vernet counters.

“Or redoing them, if you’ve torn anything open,” John threatens.

Vernet sighs and sets his violin into its case with more care than even a loving mother takes with her infant. He flexes his left hand in a way John doesn’t like.

John sets his things up at the table, sitting upon the one seat with a cushion. He gestures to the other man without looking up from his materials. Best to keep an eye on a flame, even that of a candle, when holding scissors into it. “Give it here.”

With simultaneous grudging refusal and nonchalant acceptance, Vernet approaches to perch in the chair adjacent to John’s. He shrugs off his jacket en route and drapes it on the back of the chair.

“Feet on the floor,” John instructs. “Unless you’d rather fall over while I pull thread out of you. I’m sure that won’t hurt too badly.”

Vernet’s feet drop to the floor with the flash of impeccably shined leather. He rolls up his sleeve nearly to the elbow and lays his arm upon the table. “I’m starting to see why Havill chose you.”

John raises an eyebrow at the mention of the manager.

“I hadn’t thought an army doctor would do well in an opera house,” Vernet muses as John inspects the healing skin of his palm and forearm. “Not an incorrect assumption on my part, of course: simply a lack of one.”

“Shouting, heat, long periods of waiting between the chaos.” John eases the thin scissors into position and makes the first snip. “Nothing out of the usual, and everyone is much less likely to die. It’s relaxing, to be honest.”

“You don’t find them too high-strung?”

John grins a little.

“What?” Vernet asks.

“Nothing,” John says. “It’s just a bit funny when someone panics over the Opera Ghost, these days. Seems strange to pitch a fuss over a dead man in the attic when we’ve a living one in the basement.”

Vernet’s mouth twitches. It’s all of the man’s face that John knows or is likely to ever know. From what John knows of Vernet’s contract, the Earl has made his position very clear on that matter. “Superstition is always absurd,” Vernet agrees, his voice a low, amused rumble. Not for the first time, John suspects the man’s mouth was left half uncovered for John’s peace of mind as well as Vernet’s ease of breathing: if John had never seen that bottom lip move, he would have sworn Vernet’s voice came directly from the man’s chest like the purr of a large, exotic cat. “I don’t mind staying down here if it means avoiding such nonsense.”

John shakes his head, easing out the thread from Vernet’s forearm with care, using the scissors as tweezers. It’s healing nicely. The wrist and palm, however, have seen strain in the past two weeks. “But are you living here or haunting here?” John asks.

Although the mask shades his eyes, Vernet’s gaze bites into John’s face. “You haven’t seen me in shadow. Mrs Hudson says I look very much a ghost in the dark.”

A white face floating above black? In the dark, yes, easily enough mistaken for an apparition. The mask covers all but a diamond of skin, nose to chin exposed. With Vernet’s pale skin lost to shadow, his image might resemble a screaming skull. Might. “I know a living man from a dead one,” John answers dryly.

“With my health in your hands, I should hope so,” Vernet replies.

John grins a bit more. “You’re flesh and blood, all right. And a few other things besides.” That’s the forearm finished. “Uncurl your fingers.” He prods here and there, inspecting, squeezing gently to check for colour. “I told you to leave it be.”

“Two weeks without my violin?” Eyebrows must raise beneath that mask. “Are you mad?”

“Of the two of us,” John answers, as slow and careful with his words as he is with his scissors, “which is living in the basement of an opera house on the condition of absolute anonymity?”

“You have no musical passion.” Vernet states this much the same way John’s father once told Harriet she was going to Hell. Resignation rules his voice, that and the fading hope for the possibility of something better.

“And you have no common sense,” John replies.

“It’s hardly a priority.”

“Right. Then the next time you fall in the dark and break your lamp, I imagine you’ll plant your arm on the glass again. If Mrs Hudson didn’t know you were down here, you might have lost the hand.”

Vernet pulls a face, or so his shoulders and the cant of his head imply. There’s only so much John can infer from a single lip and a chin. “It wasn’t so terrible.”

“No, not having an infection isn’t terrible at all,” John agrees. “Let’s keep it that way, shall we?”

“Yes, Doctor,” Vernet replies, duty incarnate.

In a feat of incredible suspension of disbelief, John decides to accept that as sincere. He puts away his scissors and almost closes his medical bag before he remembers. “Ah, right. Here you are.”

Motionless, Vernet conveys a sense of blinking or staring. The low light does much to hide his eyes. It’s one of the two, but certainly surprise at the newspaper in John’s hand.

“You said you missed the daily paper,” John prompts.

“I did.” Vernet doesn’t move to take it, frozen in the midst of rolling down his sleeve. The doubt in his voice turns the statement into a question.

“When I checked on you last week.”

“I know when I said it,” Vernet corrects quickly. For all the rapidity of his mouth, his body remains unmoving.

A moment longer of holding out the paper, and John sets it upon the table. Maybe Vernet dislikes the Telegraph. He snaps his bag shut. “If that’s all...?”

“Yes, yes, fine,” Vernet dismisses. He inspects the skin of his palm. “Permanent scarring, you said?”

“Keeping it out of sunlight will help, and I can see you’re doing a fine job of that already.”

Vernet laughs, a sharp, sudden sound. “Then you agree: my living arrangement has its benefits.”

John laughs as well, though it may be a sigh in disguise. “It’s good to see there are some.” He stands and takes up his bag. “Are there any others?” he can’t help but ask.

“Anonymity prevents financial liability,” Vernet supplies. “When every lost prop is blamed on a ghost, it would be unwise to put a name and a face to the man in the basement.”

“So that actually is for your benefit.”

“I’d hardly put up with it, otherwise.” Despite his cultured tones, Vernet leaves John with a very distinct impression of having rolled his eyes.

As one of them has to pretend to belong to polite society, John keeps his expression as bland as he can make it. Even so, he’s absolutely certain that Vernet is grinning with his eyes.

John holds out his right hand and says, “I won’t keep you from your composing any longer.”

Vernet stands. His fingers are cool, his palm dry. His grip is firm in a way that makes John’s firmer. “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

Vernet doesn’t release his hand.

“Something the matter?” John asks.

“You’re an army doctor,” Vernet muses. “Ex-army, invalided. Where did you serve?”

“Can I have my hand back, please?”

Vernet releases him. “Where did you serve? India, was it? You must have been young for it.”

“Somewhat,” John allows. “I’m sorry, is this important?”

Vernet bites his lip and looks to the grand desk. “Yes, I think it is. A firsthand account would be invaluable to my work.”

“To your opera?”

“Yes,” Vernet states. “It would be. I can approximate emotion, but I prefer not to imagine it. You may have noticed that source material is somewhat difficult to come by.”

“Is your opera set in India?”

“Alexandria, but I’m sure the general themes will translate.”

“Themes?”

“Combat, duty, loss...” Vernet lists with a wave of the hand. “Basic descriptions translate poorly to music. I need something more in-depth, more detailed.”

“I’m not sure how I could help you,” John answers slowly.

“Wait,” Vernet bids him, crossing the small room to reclaim his violin. “Listen. Tell me who this is.”

John frowns at the curious instruction, but Vernet begins to play. The first stroke of the bow fills the room from floor to vaulted ceiling with authoritative sound. Masterful and grand, the theme makes itself clear within moments. With the answer on his lips and his heart abruptly pounding, John doesn’t dare interrupt as Vernet rocks with the motions of his playing. Rolled only loosely, his sleeve falls to the crook of his elbow, his left forearm bare, tendons visible in their efforts.

When Vernet stops, it is as abrupt and jarring as a missing stair. “Well?” he demands.

“An idealised general,” John responds immediately.

“Idealised?”

John nods. “Grand and strong, but not really... real.”

“But a young soldier’s idea of his general? Provided the general had a strong reputation.”

John laughs with the truth of it. “That. Exactly that, yes.”

Vernet hums, rich and deep. “And this?” He launches into what John initially mistakes for the same piece, but the differences rapidly grow clear. A change of key and triumph turns to tragedy. The tempo changes, warping the phrase from adoration into disgust. The volume falls where before it had risen.

When Vernet stops, John applauds. Between only the two of them, the motion is small and stupid. John stops quickly, but Vernet bows with a flourish and a wide grin.

“That was incredible,” John says. “That is exactly what disillusionment with the army feels like.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.” Without hesitation, yes.

Vernet nods, mouth set in a thoughtful line.

“Are you sure you need the help?” John asks.

“I prefer undertaking tasks with the proper research.”

“It sounds as if you’ve managed well so far.” A gross understatement.

“I want it to be better,” Vernet states. “It can be and it should be.”

“You honestly think my input could make a difference?”

Vernet nods. The mask doesn’t quite stay still upon his face, dipping down with the bob of his head. It’s a poor fit, a scavenged prop, but it is more efficient than the bag Vernet had worn over his head upon his first encounter with John. What incredible nerve, sitting blind while a stranger pushed a needle through his skin. With the hand holding his bow, Vernet adjusts the mask.

“Then I’ll help,” John promises. “But, ah...” John checks his pocket watch. Nearly midnight. “Not tonight, I’m afraid.” Not if he’s to avoid being locked in for the night.

“When can you return?”

“Tomorrow morning,” John says. “Midmorning, perhaps. Say, half ten?”

“Half ten,” Vernet agrees, violin cocked against his hip.

“Until then.” John leaves with an odd sort of amusement. The sound of violin music follows him, echoing through the passage until the steady rhythm of John’s footsteps is enough to drown out the fading melody.



When John speaks, Vernet becomes a statue. Focused and still, as if he were carved into position. As if John’s chair had been deliberately set before the figure of a man intent beyond belief, forcing John to bear the brunt of unmoving, unseen eyes. After an initial question, Vernet never speaks, never moves until John can find no more words and falls into silence.

It is disconcerting in the extreme and followed, given time, by the scornful prompting of “Is that all?”

It is not all. John proves it with biting words and a sharp temper before he can think better of it, and Vernet’s answering grin prevents any apology on John’s part. When John finishes explaining for the second time, for the first full time, what it feels like to have a friend die beneath his hands, Vernet nods and stands.

Provoked beyond manners, John snaps at him, and then the man lifts his violin and begins to play.

John becomes the statue.

Vernet comes alive.

The man walks into the melody, and though he stumbles, he soon begins to run. Harsh strides, hard strokes, the sound of restrained panic strangling the heart. He wanders, running toward and from, strings shrieking with each misstep before they sing the voiceless terror of heavy duty in mortal hands.

He concludes only to begin again, to begin anew. Variation upon variation fills the air between them, and John realises through his own disbelief in Vernet’s reality, that Vernet is watching him still. It’s nigh impossible to tell through the mask, through the rocking of the man’s body as his violin plays him, but Vernet keeps his face turned toward John’s, fixed while his feet shuffle and his fingers fly.

A refrain repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and upon hearing it for what may be the fifth or the fiftieth time, John nods. Yes. Yes, Vernet has it.

With that, Vernet tears the violin from his shoulder, fingers tight about its wooden neck. The cut-off note dies strangled. “Good?” Vernet demands.

“Yes,” John says, and says again. “Yes, that was... yes.” Breathless. There’s no air in the room, only music.

“What you felt,” Vernet prompts.

“It’s close.”

“I want exact.”

“God. I think it would kill me.”

“Good,” Vernet answers, vicious in his enthusiasm. “That’s what music ought to do.”

Heart pounding, John sags in his chair as if he’d been standing for hours, not sitting for barely one. He hurts in the centre of his chest, somewhere along the lungs that has no right to shake.

“This will be sufficient for now,” Vernet continues, striding to his desk. He sets down the violin and takes up the pen. Brave man, to compose with a pen. “Working with you will obviously cause drastic rewriting of the score, but it can’t be helped.”

John nods. “Does it help?” His voice is an odd rasp and strangely teary. He clears his throat.

Vernet’s lips quirk, but his bowed head doesn’t lift. He writes quickly and responds almost absently. “I’ll show you the difference once it’s settled.”

“Settled? Is that different than being finished?”

Vernet doesn’t respond.

John waits.

Vernet continues writing, the scratch of his pen so small and quiet in the unfilled space.

“I’ll be off, then,” John says pointedly.

Again, no response.

John picks up his bag and leaves a copy of the day’s newspaper beside the sleeping violin.



A fortnight later, Mrs Hudson tugs at John’s sleeve, a subtle motion behind their backs.

“I’m sorry,” John murmurs. “I can’t do anything else for your hip.”

“Not that, dear,” she answers. “He wants to see you.”

“He?”

“He,” she confirms, and John abruptly understands.

“Health or music?” John asks.

Mrs Hudson smiles, eyes crinkling. “With him, I couldn’t say there’s any difference.”

Something not unlike a smile tugs at the corner of John’s mouth. It feels the same, at any rate. “Mrs Hudson, could I ask you something?”

“That depends on what it is,” she answers plainly.

“If he’s been down there for only two months, why have people claimed to see an opera ghost for decades?”

Mrs Hudson’s look turns pitying. “He’s hardly the opera ghost, dear. We thought he’d be mistaken for the ghost if he were found, that’s all. Not that it’s likely anyone will find him, but it’s best not to take chances.”

Feeling his perception of her shift, John blinks. “But... surely you don’t believe in this ghost?” Mrs Hudson has always been one of the reasonable ones here, too experienced to be so high-strung.

“Dr Watson, I have been with this opera house nearly my entire life,” she reminds him. “We haven’t always had a doctor on hand. Of course there’s a ghost in here. What kind of opera house would we be without one? Why do you think we leave the ghost light out at night?”

John considers his answer only to ask instead, “Have you finished with the morning paper?”



The second session is much the same as the first. John speaks, Vernet needles him, and John snaps back. Before John can wholly lose his temper, Vernet snatches up his violin and produces thunderous rage, notes bellowing from a minimum of two strings at once. It takes John aback, sets him in surprise and keeps him there.

Vernet plays on, merging the theme of the general with this new dose of rage, and it spans the gap from idealisation to disillusionment, to utter bitterness.

Only when Vernet stops can John breathe. The air is stale and unmoving, he reminds himself. Too little air, and that was magnificent.

“Have you, um. Was any of that written down before?”

“Improvisation,” Vernet replies distractedly, exchanging violin for pen. “I knew the shape, but not the substance.”

“And you can remember enough of it to set it down?”

“If you’d stop speaking.”

John closes his mouth, cross until he realises the preservation of that music is dependent upon his silence. Abruptly, sitting still and quiet becomes a protective duty.

Vernet hums softly as he writes, a sound that grows into wordless singing, the vocalisation of a melody, a repeated melody, the individual pieces of a harmony. He stops, repeats, rephrases, holding a musical debate with himself. The sound is never loud enough for John to make out how skilled a singer Vernet is. Though more contained than his fluid bow strokes, the motions of his writing are no less impassioned. He tilts his head and beckons oddly with his left hand, listening to what John realises is an imaginary orchestra, section by section.

When Vernet shows no sign of stopping in the near future, John stands as quietly as he can and picks up his case.

“No,” Vernet says without looking up. “Stay. I need you.” Words without inflexion contrast strangely with the music beneath his breath.

John sits. He checks his pocket watch. “I’ll be missed in half an hour.”

Vernet hums and continues without looking up.

John sits. For a while, he simply clasps his hands together and looks at the rug, at the banality of the sparse furniture of the room. Then, wincing at the sound it makes, he pulls the second-hand newspaper from his bag. He reads.

“Doctor.”

“Hm?”

“It’s been half an hour.”

John checks his watch. “Right. Thank you.” He picks up his bag and replaces it with the newspaper.

“This will take two days,” Vernet continues, bowed over his desk. “Return in three.”

John’s feet press into the floor. His back straightens.

Vernet looks up. “What?”

“Writing a general does not make you my superior officer,” John replies. And neither do the refined tones of the man’s deep voice, not without a name behind them.

Vernet stares at him, the stillness of his gaze implied by his frozen mouth.

John waits.

“No,” Vernet murmurs. “It does not.” His lips quirk. “Will you return in three days?”

“No,” John says. “Sunday’s my day off. I’ll be in on Monday.”

“Fine,” Vernet says and promptly resumes ignoring him.

John leaves him the newspaper anyway.



“How are you getting food?” John asks.

“Not relevant,” Vernet dismisses. “Now, about the ships--”

“When your doctor asks after your diet, you answer him.”

Vernet looks at him oddly. It’s only in the tilt of his head, but John knows it well by now. “Since when are you my doctor?”

John looks pointedly at Vernet’s left hand.

“You were my doctor, granted,” Vernet allows.

“Still am.”

“I wasn’t aware it was a continuing condition.”

“It is,” John says. “At least until you get another one. We’re a bit scarce on the ground in opera house basements. Secret passages too, those are always a bit of a stretch. Terrible for cultivating a practice if no one can find you.”

Vernet rolls his eyes. “Are you finished?”

“I can keep going,” John promises.

“Mrs Hudson provides for me. We have an arrangement.” Vernet gestures toward an adjoining passage. “When she can’t come down, there’s enough in tins.”

“And water?”

“I have enough.”

Clean water.”

Again, Doctor: I have enough. Are you pestering me for a reason, or are you so easily distracted?”

“Ships mean supply problems,” John answers.

With those few words, Vernet’s scorn turns to rapt attention. “I see.”

“Put that on top of cramped living, too much combined body heat and too little air, and it can get messy.”

“How messy?”

“Messy enough I’d say you could set an entire opera on a ship full of soldiers, only I’ve no idea where the ballet would have room to turn around in.”

Vernet laughs, a silent lift of his grinning mouth. Questions follow, and John speaks until he risks being missed up above. Though it matters relatively little if he isn’t standing by during orchestra rehearsals, the ballet is another matter.

“But I haven’t-!” Vernet gestures furtively toward his violin.

“We’ll have to time it better,” John answers.

“Fine,” Vernet grumbles, and a childish piece of John’s heart sulks with him. “Thursday?”

“Thursday.” John takes the newspaper from his bag and leaves it in the same spot. There’s no trace to be seen of the paper’s previous fellows. This time when John leaves, music follows him out, agitated in its enclosed, airless space. It’s quite good, even if John tenses to hear it. When he closes the concealed door on the tunnels, the abrupt darkness and silence has a sinister edge to it. He shivers at the cold and climbs the stairs somewhat more quickly than necessary.

Thursday brings much the same. The walk inside plays tricks on his imagination, but the company is more than ample compensation for his discomfort. Vernet cuts him off early to snatch up his violin. He plays with his eyes forever on John’s face, his music subject to whatever chastisement and guidance can be found in John’s furrowed brow or wandering attention. Should John lose focus for as much as a second, Vernet responds with a drastic sforzando to startle him back into the moment. Vernet’s expectations for his audience are exacting, wearying, exhausting, but his musical endeavours seldom deserve less from their listener.

John leaves to the scratching of Vernet’s pen that day. He does the same on Monday, and the Thursday after that. On each occasion, he arrives somewhat earlier and leaves slightly later. Visit by visit, the worst of the war, the worst of the army, the worst of his own mind is dragged out of him by this man. His guilt and fears turn into melodies no less harsh or demanding. If anything, they worsen when aired aloud, exaggerated into dramatic form, but Vernet breaks them as he would horses. The worst terror grows responsive to Vernet’s slim hands until, at last, it is tamed.

Lighter and heavier at once, John finds himself loath to leave. Regardless of his focus at his desk, Vernet’s gaze begins to snap to John when their limited time expires. It’s an odd friendship, to be certain, but John would no longer hesitate in calling it such.

“I’m ready to write the libretto for the first act,” Vernet announces as John stands. “Or I will be, once I’ve finished with this.”

“I’m not sure how I could help you with that.”

“Do you speak Italian?”

“No,” John replies. “Latin helps me understand a bit, but no.”

“In that case, don’t bother me until I’m finished.”

The blunt dismissal cuts. “Ah.”

Vernet rolls his eyes. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

Rather than answer, Vernet says, “Once I finish, I’ll play you the first act. As much as it can be played on violin.”

Mollified, John struggles for a proper response of his own. Rather than find one, he asks, “How long has the first act taken? You’d already been down here for two months when we met.” At this rate, they’ll be at this for years. The thought of it fails to intimidate.

Vernet shakes his head. “I’ve put aside the vast majority of my initial work. This is better.”

“So you’ve composed an act in, what, a month?”

Vernet shrugs. “The Barber of Seville took Rossini thirteen days.”

“That one’s fairly short, though,” John points out. Though John knows very little about opera, he pays very close attention to the length of each performance. Honestly, he has little choice but to pay attention. John quite likes the Barber of Seville: it has only two acts.

“In the last thirty years, Verdi has composed twenty-five operas. That’s not taking into account his other works.”

“Is that what you’re trying to match?” John asks.

“It seems abruptly possible,” Vernet replies, a smile touching his lips.

As happens so often in the other man’s company, John stands somewhat taller.

“I’ll send word once I’m ready,” Vernet promises. “Until then, I may forget how to speak in English.”

John laughs and Vernet grins in reply.

“Fair enough,” John says. He comes close and offers his hand.

Vernet takes it, his touch cool. “Until then.”

“Take care.”



The first two days pass as per usual, but upon the third, the urge to walk down into the basement takes hold of John’s feet. He resists mid-motion, turning around and setting himself back on his usual rounds. There are throats to be cared for, infected blisters to see to. Every stable feature of John’s life remains, but so does the siren call of the violin deep beneath the floorboards.

Fortunately, a matter of interest soon arises. The resulting flood of gossip through the opera house clogs John’s ears, too petty and ordinary for all that it concerns an Earl. Or the Earl, as the denizens of the opera house refer to him. The Earl, as he is the owner of the opera house. Neither the Earl nor his family have been seen in the opera house since his mother died a few years ago, but they make their return tonight.

“It’s a very sweet story,” Mrs Hudson tells him. “A bit much, but sweet. When the Earl was still a Viscount, his mother loved the opera. That was her favourite box up there, Box Five. That one there.”

John knows it well enough. It’s the single box he’ll never have to pay a professional visit to. “The one no one ever uses.”

“You’ve never seen it used?”

“She’d stopped attending by the time I was hired,” John reminds her.

“I keep forgetting. I always think you’ve been here so much longer.”

“You were saying about Box Five?”

“The Countess wanted it reserved for her, but there was some sort of complication.”

John’s eyebrows lift. “That’s why the Earl bought the opera house?”

“It is!”

In the lack of any otherwise respectful response, John falls back on banality. “She must have been an amazing woman.”

“The Countess? Oh, she was,” Mrs Hudson replies. “From what I understand, her first love of the arts was painting, but we snuck our way in too.” There’s no lack of pride in her voice or upon her features. “She was the niece of some French painter. I can’t remember which one. There are two paintings of his in the lobby, the ones with the battle scenes.”

“Even so,” John says. “Buying an entire opera house?”

“It is a bit silly, isn’t it? But sweet. Though it was an amazing fuss at the time. The old owner wasn’t keen to let go. Stubborn man, terrible temper. Irish, you know. Now if he came back to haunt us, I wouldn’t be surprised.” She sighs and pointedly lifts her voice toward the other occupants of the stage. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see about the trapdoor entrance for the second act. We can’t have skirts getting stuck in it again.”

“It wasn’t my fault, I swear,” one of the dancers cries immediately. “Everyone knows the ghost loves making you fall.”

“Like with the banister last week!” another of the girls pipes up.

Before he can get pulled into that superstitious mess, John wishes them well and continues on. Though absolutely everything must be perfect tonight for the owner’s pleasure, the focus of the opera house is, as always, upon the performance as opposed to the individuals performing. Ultimately, John stands down and takes his dinner. If there’s any night for a patron to injure themselves or fall ill, it would be tonight. Unlike other pieces of opera house superstition, this is one worth warding against.



The usher who comes to fetch him is flushed with sweat. Hardly an uncommon appearance in the opera once the lights are lit, but hardly an encouraging one, particularly when it’s the head usher.

“Box Five,” Hopkins reports, and John’s body moves without conscious thought. “A baroness, a guest of the Earl’s, she’s collapsed, sir.”

“Not the ghost, then?” John responds, trying to joke, and Hopkins laughs weakly.

John walks quickly, but he does not run. There is a place for decorum, even in a potential emergency, and a potential emergency is no time to start a panic. That said, John can walk very quickly.

Upon his arrival, he finds the door already open and immediately notes that the curtains have been drawn. The remaining light in the box is from the two gaslights, one on either side of the box, but this is sufficient to see that the woman in question has regained consciousness.

John nods to the three men also in the box, bowing slightly to the group rather than revealing he isn’t certain which of them is the Earl. In his four years of employment here, he’s seen the man twice before and ought to have been paying more attention. The medical bag and his professional bearing are often enough to see him through what would otherwise be breaches of courtesy, provided his services are at all called for. “My lords,” he greets, certain that where there is the Baroness, there is her husband the Baron. Having followed him into the crammed space, the usher will have to handle public relations for the moment.

“Your Ladyship,” he says, kneeling at the side of her chair, “I am a doctor. Can you describe your symptoms?”

“It’s the heat,” she says, and indeed, the sleeves of her dress are soaked through with sweat, her face shining with damp as well as embarrassment. “I couldn’t breathe.”

“The lights are very hot,” John agrees. “If your dress can allow for it, I recommend lying down with raised feet. The manager has a sofa in his office that will serve. It’s much cooler in there.” As he says this, he looks up to the other men in the room and sees the oldest nodding permission. With the barriers of decorum so often falling to medical necessity, women are at times tricky patients, and noblewomen even more so. So allowed, John looks to the hovering usher and instructs: “The manager’s office, bring water and a cloth.”

The oldest man present is evidently the Baron, and he helps John assist the Baroness downstairs. The Earl and the third man follow behind, the Earl engaging the husband in a flawless flow of chitchat the entire way. It’s a calming tactic, an effective one, and John makes a note to thank the Earl later. Or praise him, as that might prove more appropriate.

The manager’s office is unlocked, the manager present. The Earl greets Mr Havill with the warmth of an old school friend. Reassurances abound on all sides, and John escorts his patient to the promised sofa. Once her feet are raised and a cool compress is administered, John takes her pulse and checks her breathing. When certain of the full extent of the problem, John speaks with the Baron in quiet tones regarding the dangers of too tight corsets. Mr Havill adds that they will have absolute privacy in his office. It is agreed, and all other parties exit the room. John assures the couple that he will be directly outside in the unlikely event further measures are called for, and the Baroness attempts to assure both of them that her fainting spell has truly passed.

Outside the office, John closes the door firmly behind him and smiles politely as Mr Havill performs the belated introductions.

“My lord, this is our house doctor, Dr Watson. Dr Watson, may I present Lord Holmes and his brother, Mr Sherlock Holmes.”

“How fortunate Mr Havill keeps you at hand, Doctor,” Lord Holmes remarks. A tall man rendered taller still by the slim cut of his lapels, he would utterly dominate the hallway were it not for the presence of his fractionally shorter brother. The resemblance between the two is noticeable only in the sharpness of their features and the silent intensity of their pale eyes. Both could be handsome, should the mood strike them.

“Mr Havill is a man of sensible precautions, my lord,” John replies with a slight bow, medical bag in his left hand.

“Of which I am well aware.” Lord Holmes grants Mr Havill a look of unmistakeable approval. Beside and slightly behind him, his brother simply looks bored.

With a small proud smile, Mr Havill says, “I do hope--”

A scream pierces the air. Not a cry of terror from one voice alone, but a massive shout penetrating through the very walls. All traces of colour vanish from Mr Havill’s already pale face.

“Excuse me, my lord,” John says to the Earl. “I believe my services are needed elsewhere.” He delivers this mid-stride, the Earl following on his heels.

John is first into the theatre, no mean feat when contending with the Earl’s long strides and the rush of the fleeing crowd. He pushes through, leading with the medical bag, and the source of the panic is immediately clear, kicking and jerking above the stage. And, more importantly, swinging.

The aisles are packed, and there’s no way for John to cross the orchestra pit in time. Already, the stagehands hurriedly close the curtain. John bullies back to the doors, apologising rapidly, and then he runs. Around to the back, to the wings, and he struggles to find a way through the crowd of dancers rushing in. While the audience may appreciate an emergency distraction in front of the curtain, John doesn’t in the slightest.

“Let the doctor through!” a man shouts from behind John, and that does help.

John reaches the stage just as the body is being lowered, still thrashing at the ends.

“Joe’s already dead, Doc!” calls the stage manager, another John, surname Green.

“The knot’s in the wrong spot!” John answers, speaking loudly but calmly. “Get him down!”

He helps lower the body, immediately pulling at the noose, and Green steps in to cut it. Joseph Harrison had only had the barest of a chance, only that because of the swinging and the knot placement, but not chance enough.

They lower Harrison’s body to the stage.

“Can’t believe he hung himself,” Green mutters.

Hanged,” interjects another man.

John looks over his shoulder to discover Mr Holmes has followed him.

“Moreover,” Mr Holmes continues, “I believe the doctor disagrees with you.”

Green looks to John with confusion.

“Was there anyone up there with him?” John asks, pointing up to the catwalks. “Anyone near him at all?”

Green’s expression hardens. “No idea.”

“Find out, will you?” John asks.

“You’d better believe I will,” Green replies.

“Good man.” John claps him briefly on the shoulder. He kneels and sees to the body, but it’s already clear by the distortion to the neck and face, not to mention the stink of shit and piss. Even so, he feels for the pulse and holds his open pocket watch over the dead man’s mouth. When he checks the glass for fogging, he checks the time. Ten forty-eight. The fall was roughly at ten forty-two.

As John stands, a wheeled table rattles forward, one Miss Hooper at the helm. “Props table,” she explains. “I took everything off and put a sheet over it.”

“Excellent thinking,” John says. “Give it here.”

They quickly lay the sheet down and John rolls the body on with as much dignity as he can muster. Though multiple stagehands come near for the duty, Mr Holmes grasps the other side of the sheet and joins them in hefting Harrison’s remains onto the table. They wheel him away with all due haste.

John pulls one of the stagehands aside. “Jamison, he has a sister here, doesn’t he? Didn’t he?”

“Oh, God.” Jamison nods, rubbing a hand over his face. “Lucy. Seamstress in the back.”

“Do you know where? She’ll need to be told.”

“I’ll do it,” Jamison volunteers. “I was his friend, I...”

“Was he a man with debts?” Mr Holmes breaks in. John does a double-take at finding him still present.

“He, what?”

“Joseph Harrison,” Mr Holmes prompts.

“We’ll know that shortly,” John interrupts. “For now, Miss Harrison: try to find her before the news sets her into a panic. God knows it’s hard enough to hear without the entire place in an uproar.”

Jamison nods and leaves. John stays with the body and a growing sense of unease. He turns back to the Earl’s brother and explains, “Finding a potential motive must come after the damage control. If it really is a suicide--”

“But you don’t think it is,” Mr Holmes interrupts. His voice has a light quality to it, too intent to be frivolous and yet oddly at play. It’s light without turning nasal, the sort of voice that floats gently atop the tongue. “Why?”

John looks around the crowded back hall, the cramped space. “Not here.”

They move the body out of the way, beneath one of the many wooden staircases.

Mr Holmes looks at him expectantly. “Well, Doctor?”

“It wasn’t a straight drop,” John replies. “The knot was on the wrong side, it was too much rope and too old a rope. If it had been a straight drop, a fall of that height would have taken his head off. Not to mention, the knot was at the back of his neck, not on the left side.”

“What makes this murder rather than an inept suicide?” Mr Holmes asks.

“Harrison loved a good hanging. A lot of the boys do.” John shakes his head. “He would have done it better. More than that, he would have done it somewhere else.”

“Some like a grand showing off,” Mr Holmes counters. “What could be grander?”

“His sister still works here,” John says. “Fairly close, from what I know. I don’t think he’d risk her well-being this way.”

“That’s a matter of expertise as a doctor?”

“As a brother,” John corrects. The face Mr Holmes makes immediately gives John cause to wonder if he’s gone too far. “But perhaps that’s sentiment.”

“Your... younger sister?” Mr Holmes ventures.

“Dead,” John confirms. He looks at the sheet-covered body. “At any rate, I need to get back out there. If there’s been any fainting or trampling in the stalls, there might be something I can actually do.” He waves down a stagehand and entrusts the keeping of the body to him for the time being. Holmes follows him nearly all the way out, then catches at his arm.

“What are you going to tell my brother?” Mr Holmes asks.

John blinks at him.

Mr Holmes gazes back with steady blue eyes.

“Beg pardon?” John asks.

“What are you going to tell my brother?” Mr Holmes repeats, and it’s possible that his voice is higher and lighter than it had seemed. The urgency of the statement had made the tone uncanny in a way John can’t quite place.

“That it looks like a terribly performed suicide, but we will make certain whether that was the case.”

“That was a death with a statement, Doctor,” Mr Holmes replies. “Too long a straight fall and the head pops off. He managed to swing instead.”

“And yet there was no one up there with him,” John counters, no longer certain what he thinks.

“But did you see how it looked?” Mr Holmes asks. “Perfectly centred. Beyond the flailing about, of course, but centred on the stage. It was a dramatic statement. Could you hear the music through the walls? He fell at the peak of a crescendo.”

“Either Harrison wanted to say this place was killing him, or someone wanted to make a showy murder, is that it?” John asks.

“Or a showy threat,” Mr Holmes replies. “It’s not every night the opera house owner is present. The timing is suspect.”

John has to give him that. “Would your lord brother respect it more coming from you or from a doctor?”

Mr Holmes considers it. “Both of us.”

John nods and follows him.



When John returns the following morning, the rumour mill of the opera house has already spun a thousand tales, at least twelve of them worthy of the stage itself. One of the twelve tells of suicide due to debts, though no one can agree on how they were accrued. The other eleven, of course, pertain to the opera ghost. On whether the opera ghost killed him outright or drove him to suicide, opinions differ.

Though Lord Holmes has instructed he write should anything come to his attention, John wouldn’t bother mentioning this mess of hearsay to Mr Havill, let alone the Earl.

Mrs Hudson, however, is a different story.

“I’m worried about Vernet,” John confides.

“Why would—Oh, don’t even think it!” she dismisses immediately. “He’d not that kind of a man. Shame on you, John Watson.”

“No, I don’t—I think if he were seen, he could be mistaken for the opera ghost,” John says. “He could get hurt.”

Mrs Hudson’s expression softens immediately. She pats his arm. “No one is going to see him.”

“What if he has to come out for some reason?” John asks. “He’s already had one emergency.”

“I’ll speak with him,” she promises.

“Thank you.” He nearly turns to go. “Has, um. Has he said how the libretto is coming along?”

“He hasn’t. Do you want me to ask?”

He nearly says no. “If it’s not any trouble.”

“It isn’t, dear.”

“Thank you.”

“Any time, Dr Watson.”



Over the next week, Mrs Hudson makes a point of catching his eye and shaking her head once daily. John can accept this. He has enough to do. Fortunately, some responsibilities disappear when Harrison’s death is confirmed as a suicide on the day his debt collectors appear to harass his sister. With that mystery as settled as it will ever be, life resumes as normal.



Mrs Hudson catches his eye, smiles, and nods.

Before John can slip away, she draws him aside and mentions in a pitched voice, “As much as I appreciate it, dear, you really don’t need to be at hand for this rehearsal. Some days, the girls do best without an audience.”

“I see,” John says as the younger dancers giggle. “How long do you think the rehearsal will last?”

“Oh, an hour at the very least,” she replies, patting him on the arm.

John squeezes her hand and exits quietly. He stops only once upon the way. Within minutes, he stands at the top of a very specific stairwell and walks down it at an entirely unhurried pace. As there is no one at its bottom, he ducks around the back, behind the barrels, and opens the secret door by feel. He enters, strikes a match, and lights the waiting lantern.

The walk to Vernet’s chamber stretches an absurd distance, and John turns the wrong way twice, certain he’s already gone too far. Has the path always been so long? Upon rounding the last corner and finally seeing light, he stands straighter and walks slower. Over the sounds of his own footsteps, he can hear nothing from Vernet.

Inside, John finds the man not at his desk but instead leaning against the table with one hip. With his mask firmly in place, Vernet obviously expected John to come today, and yet he doesn’t look up. Instead, he simply rosins his bow, a rhythmic scraping soft and slow.

John smiles. “Afternoon.”

“Ah,” Vernet remarks. The single rumbling syllable is an entire comment in itself. “Doctor.”

“How’s the libretto?”

Vernet shrugs with one shoulder. Scrape, scrape, bow over rosin. “Oh, it’s superb.”

“And the first act?”

“Absolutely marvellous.”

“And how are you?”

“Completely exhausted,” Vernet responds, the first serious word, rather than simply an overdramatic one.

“I see,” John says. “Then you’ll hardly want to play it right now.” He nearly manages to turn around before Vernet tucks the violin beneath his chin.

“I never said that, Doctor.” He points to John’s chair with a flourish of the bow.

John opens his medical bag upon the table and withdraws the recently acquired newspaper. This too, he sets upon the table, lest he forget to do so when he leaves. He sits.

Vernet tilts his head as if to ask, Are you done?

John folds his hands in his lap and smiles just politely enough to be rude.

Vernet lifts his bow, bringing hair to strings. He closes his eyes, and with one long pull of an arching wrist, he begins to play.

Chapter Text

“I don’t think that’s possible,” John says, frowning.

“Of course it’s possible,” Vernet insists. “I’m doing it, therefore it’s possible.”

Uncertain whether to marvel or berate, John replies, “You can’t rewrite Antony and Cleopatra without a love story. The entire point of the plot is the love story. He’s torn between love and duty.”

“Whereas Antony’s men are torn between loyalty to their wayward general and to their emperor,” Vernet counters. “They’re trapped between personal loyalty and their greater duty. Why focus on Antony?”

“It’s still a love story.”

“Which has been relocated mercifully to the background.”

John mulls it over and shakes his head. “When an audience shows up for Antony and Cleopatra, it’s not for the political intrigue.”

“How terribly unfortunate. I’m sick to death of idiots wondering if this strange feeling is love. It’s annoying at best. No, insipid. At its pinnacle, it’s insipid. I refuse to write the music, let alone the libretto.”

John shakes his head.

“What now?”

“Are all of the soldiers bachelors?” John asks.

“Unlikely.”

“Then put that in there when they’re singing about whether to mutiny and leave or commit treason and stay.”

Vernet frowns at him, arms crossed, one hand raised in mid-gesture, a questioning palm. “What for?”

“How’s this for an argument,” John offers. “They can stay and let their general know true love after years with a cold, arranged match, or they can go home to their own families, who they miss and might never see again. There’s your split loyalty for you.”

“Ah,” Vernet murmurs. “The men staying with Antony will be the romantic idiots.”

John sighs. “Not exactly what I had in mind, but fine.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know,” John says. “There’s something tragic about a naive little bastard willing to die so his general can be in love. You’ve already written the naive little bastard.”

Vernet looks askance at him. Not for the first time, John has to remind himself that for all the talk of the army, Vernet is very much an upper class civilian and, as such, pretends not to swear.

“Anyway,” John says, “that character is the clear pick for the courtship subplot. He can be in love with love instead.”

“That would be incredibly annoying.”

“He’s already slated to die, isn’t he?”

“Horrifically, yes. Act four, final scene.”

“Then wouldn’t it be more satisfying if you wanted to kill him?”

Judging by Vernet’s surprised laugh, John’s aim struck true. Vernet’s subsequent grin is somewhat terrifying to witness and John can’t even see all of it. “It would be, yes.”

“You’ll leave the house in tears, won’t you?”

Vernet stares at him oddly. John can see it in the tilt of his head and the set of his mouth. “How else will I know I’ve succeeded?” Vernet asks.

“Ticket sales?” John suggests. “Repeated attendances? How long people keep humming the songs?”

“Possibly the humming.”

“Be a bit difficult to check up on.”

“Obviously. Hence the desire for immediate tears.”

John laughs a little and shakes his head, marvelling.

“What?” Vernet demands, voice growing sharp.

“Nothing,” John says.

Don’t.”

Although he wasn’t moving, John freezes at the sharp tone. “What?”

“If there is one thing I cannot stand, it’s having my questions dismissed.”

“Even if the answer isn’t particularly important?” He tries for a bit of a smile, but Vernet won’t have it.

“Even then.”

“All right,” John says.

Vernet pointedly waits.

John says nothing.

“And?” Vernet prompts.

“And I dislike being snapped at for protecting the privacy of my own mind,” John answers.

With a twist of his lips, Vernet settles into an unmistakable sulk.

John waits for a few moments before checking his watch. “I need to leave soon. Is there anything opera-related you want to ask?”

True to form, the return to his work pulls Vernet back to a more sociable mien. “You should know that the second act will require greater input from you.”

“I thought combat wasn’t until act three.”

“It isn’t,” Vernet replies. “As I’ve said, though I easily imitate emotion, I prefer not to imagine it.”

John nods slowly.

“That being the case, my attempts at the second act thus far have been shallow compared to the first act. Noticeably so. Much of emotional content is foreign.”

“Torn loyalties?” John asks, thinking of the unrelenting dedication of this man to his music.

Vernet grins. “Hardly.” He shakes his head, sobering. “No, the rest of it.”

“Could you be more specific?”

“Homesickness,” Vernet answers without hesitation.

“You’ve never been homesick?”

“Never. I’m not sentimental towards locations.”

“Are you certain?” John asks. “Why come specifically here? I’d assumed there was some tie between you and this place.”

Vernet shrugs with a toss of his head. “I focus here. Music is close and isolation is easy. It’s an ideal location. I don’t care about places, Doctor. I care about what I can do there.”

“You can’t... I don’t know... pretend that soldiers feel about their homes and families the way you feel about being denied a place to compose?”

Vernet scoffs.

“I happen to dislike having my questions dismissed as well,” John mentions, his tone lighter than his mood.

“I don’t see how separation from a place or person could result in comparable mental anguish.”

“Ah,” John says. “That explains why you won’t keep the love story.”

“Meaning?”

“You’ve never been in love and don’t know how to fake it,” John supplies. “Not to the degree of veracity your opera requires.”

Where another man would take offence, Vernet glows with pride. “For which I consider myself fortunate.”

John slips his hand back into his pocket. He keeps letting time slip away, needs to check. “How so?”

Vernet’s head tilts slightly. “So asks the widower?”

John puts his watch away with no recollection of having read the time. “You... Sorry, did Mrs Hudson tell you?”

“No,” Vernet replies.

“Then...?”

“You speak with the authority of a married man, save for the obvious fact that you do not have a wife who looks after your clothes. Unlikely you’d have a careless or inattentive wife: you have careful, attentive habits which would inspire a similar response or drive you into resentment of her. You aren’t resentful, so you’re obviously not estranged or divorced. You’re wistful. Dead then, and some years, too. The colour of your cravat alone tells me it’s been longer than two.”

The air is thin rather than simply stale. John can’t breathe it.

Vernet’s lips twitch. “Good: I’m right.”

“I, yes.” His pulse throbs in his fingertips, fills up his throat. “Sorry, you got all of that from my clothing?” He hasn’t dressed in mourning in well over two years, nearly three, so how could that be?

“And your manner,” Vernet confirms.

“I see,” John says. “How, erm. How obvious? Is it.”

“To me, everything is obvious.”

“No, but.” John shakes his head. “Sorry, I need to go.” He checks his watch again, goes through the show of it. He stands, then snatches up his bag. “Yes, I definitely need to go.”

“Doctor?”

The uncharacteristic hesitancy registers, but the need to move is much too strong. “We’ll have to skip to the music more quickly next time,” John apologises. He turns to go, and Vernet catches his sleeve. The man’s silence rings incredibly loud.

“I observe details,” Vernet says abruptly. “I see them and I know what they imply. Most people are hardly so intelligent.” Not obvious, Vernet means beneath the arrogance. It isn’t obvious.

“Are you...” John turns to look at him. “Are you trying to reassure me?”

Vernet’s grip on his coat sleeve doesn’t waver. Neither does his gaze.

John twitches his mouth into the best expression he can muster. He opens his medical bag and takes out the newspaper. “Nearly forgot,” he says.

Vernet accepts it, releasing him. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” John says.

Vernet’s lips pull to the side. “As I said: careful and attentive.”

John laughs, an awkward puff of breath. “Terrible for a doctor to be otherwise,” he says, or something along those lines. The words spill out in a jumble he can only hope is more articulate to the ear than it felt in the mouth. He makes his apologies and leaves with the uncomfortable certainty of having acted an idiot before a genius.



Care and attention are in great demand in the opera house above. The first of the autumn ills begins to make its way through the dancers’ dormitory, which means it rapidly passes to every stagehand fortunate enough to enjoy the affection of a ballerina.

Every year, John nearly mutters to himself. Every year, this happens, and John’s allies in this fight are limited. An exacting teacher, Mrs Hudson is a force of sanity among the opera house staff: when John tells her which dancers absolutely must be kept away from the rest, Mrs Hudson never insists they dance through their fevers.

“We can’t have you falling during the performance! Now if we’re down in numbers, we need to change the routine. Everyone, back in line. Not you, dear, I can see you shaking already. Off you go, take care of the others.”

As a stage manager, however, Green’s standards of efficiency are somewhat different. Unfortunately for Green and conveniently for John, the stagehands are less likely to ignore severe pain than the dancers are. Only slightly less, but they sway more. Whether it’s alcohol or flu flushing their faces is another question entirely, but Green has the lot of them ostensibly scared into sobriety, at least when on duty.

With the older designers in bed, Miss Hooper has somehow taken over costuming. No one is quite sure how, least of all Miss Hooper.

“I offered to do a few things,” she tries to explain to John. “Then I handed a few things off, and now everything thinks I know what I’m doing.”

“But you do know what you’re doing,” John reminds her.

“I know,” she says, “but I’m not actually in charge of any of it. I’m following the designs and hoping, mostly.”

“We can ask Mr Havill to give you leeway until everyone’s back on their feet,” John says. “Doctor’s orders: calling in the reinforcements.”

“Oh, no,” Miss Hooper replies immediately. “I don’t want to usurp. That’s the last thing I want to do. This is fine. Or, well. No, it’s fine.”

“Or what?” John asks.

She bites her lip. “It’s a reasonable concern, but I don’t want it to sound silly.”

John nods, keeping his silence.

She proceeds to chewing on her lip. “A lot of it is tempers and, well. We all know Lucy Harrison. I mean, we all work with her. A lot of us... Don’t, please don’t pass this on, but a lot of us chipped in to help her start paying off her brother’s debts. It’s pulled tempers every which way, and this all might be someone acting out because of it. Resentful, I think? At least, I hope so, because I can’t think of any other reason.”

“Acting out how?” John asks.

“I don’t...” She visibly steels herself before looking him straight in the eye. “I’m not pointing fingers, I don’t know who, but someone has been stealing.”

“Have you told Mr Havill?”

She shakes her head. “He’ll think it’s Lucy. Everyone knows she needs money now. I know it’s not her.”

“How?” John asks. “Not that I don’t believe you, but I’d trust a reason.”

“She’s distraught,” Miss Hooper says frankly. “We have to coax her to work. Some of the older women tried yelling, but that makes her shut down completely. I can’t imagine her having the energy to sneak anything away. It doesn’t seem possible.”

John nods. “Does anyone else come to mind? Anyone who might want Miss Harrison blamed?”

“No,” she replies instantly. “Anyone who loaned her money needs to see her clear her debts to get their money back, don’t they? Getting her fired wouldn’t help.”

The more he speaks with her, the more understandable her de facto leadership becomes. “So that’s no suspects at all?”

“Not unless the opera ghost wants furs,” she replies. “We don’t use them very often—none of the shows this season call for them—but some of them are missing.”

“Sorry, but I thought the leads had their own personal wardrobes, not communal.”

“No, that’s possible. It’s made me frantic trying to track down an inventory, but it’s not just the furs. I only noticed them when I started worrying. They’re most valuable of what’s gone so far.”

“What else is missing?”

“None of the jewellery. That’s kept separate, thank goodness. But satin and lace as well. Not clothing either: cloth.”

“Would it fetch a good price?” John asks.

Clearly wishing she could do otherwise, Miss Hooper nods.

“You need to report this,” John tells her.

“I know,” Miss Hooper says. “But everything is so chaotic and we’ve finally a team where everyone is lovely. Everyone. That never happens. I don’t want to see anyone fired.”

“Everything is chaotic, and that’s why we need management to come in and make absolutely certain what’s been stolen,” John says. “If management can’t find anything stolen, no one is fired.”

“Unless it’s for sloppy recordkeeping.”

“Unless that,” John allows.

Miss Hooper shudders, pulling her arms tight around herself. Heat is strange in the opera house, warm with bodies and yet cold with the season. “Any chance we could get away with blaming the ghost?” Miss Hooper asks helplessly.

“The banister on the west rear stairs pulled loose today,” John says. “Five people took a tumble. He’s already been thoroughly blamed for that, I’m afraid.”

“Maybe he’s been very busy.”

“Maybe.”

A moment of resigned silence longer and Miss Hooper rubs her arms before somehow filling her mouth with a smile. “I’m sorry to keep you for so long. I’ll be sure to speak with Mr Havill. Please don’t bother yourself.”

John nods to her, manners rather than agreement. “Try to keep warm.”

“You, too.”



“What else could you learn from watching people?” John asks.

In between slowly turning a tuning peg, Vernet plucks at the strings of his violin. He frowns every time, each instance a smaller frown than the last.

“The way you saw about Mary and me,” John reminds him. “Can you identify people besides widowers?”

“Of course I could,” Vernet replies. “Anything that leaves a physical trace through repetition can be consistently observed.”

“Could you spot a thief?”

“Of what?”

“Sorry?”

“A thief of what? Different specialities would cause different traces,” Vernet explains, adjusting a lower peg.

“Someone’s stealing from the costumers,” John tells him. “Furs, satin, and lace. How would you find that thief?”

“No.”

John blinks at the flat refusal. He was only after a bit of advice. “You can’t do it?”

“You’re distracting me from my work, Doctor,” Vernet tells him. “If you are here to assist, you are welcome. If not, you know the way out.” With that, he plucks the strings once more. “There. Now, where did we leave off—Where are you going?”

John sets down the newspaper and snaps his bag shut. “As you said,” John replies. “I know the way out.”

Vernet stares at him, the dark holes of his mask incredulous by design.

“Good afternoon,” John bids him. Intending to light his lantern, he strikes a match, and Vernet promptly blows it out.

“Fine, I’ll think about it,” Vernet allows. “Not right now. Our time is too limited for that.”

“People could lose their jobs over this,” John tells him.

“So?”

“I know you can’t see it down here, but winter is coming on,” John reminds him. “This isn’t a good time to be homeless.”

“Are you really so concerned over a pack of seamstresses?”

“Yes,” John says. His tone brooks no argument.

Vernet sprawls back in his chair, draping himself as if the unforgiving wood were plush leather. His eyes roam across John’s face and observe his posture. “You enjoy thinking of yourself as a protector,” Vernet muses.

“You enjoy thinking of yourself as a genius.”

“A pastime shared by geniuses and idiots alike, sadly, but I am of the former.”

“You’re still wrong,” John tells him.

“Am I?”

“Yes. I happen to think of myself as decent man. That means I have to act like one.”

Vernet laughs. “Not true in the slightest. How many self-proclaimed ‘decent men’ have you met?”

“You’d be surprised,” John says.

“I really wouldn’t.”

“How many were actually decent,” John says. “You’d be surprised.”

Vernet sets his violin upon the table. He leans forward, elbows upon his knees, and his untamed curls tumble over his concealed brow. “Do you think me a decent man?”

John begins to reply, then hesitates.

“Ah.” Vernet smirks. “We diagnose the problem.”

“You’re not offended.”

Vernet laughs. “You encounter a masked man living in an opera house basement who refuses to tell you his name, and you actually consider the possibility that he’s a decent man. You assume it until proven otherwise.”

“Is that a problem?”

“It’s very strange,” Vernet replies.

“So says the masked man in the basement,” John counters.

Vernet grins. “What better expert?”

John tries and fails to keep from smiling in return. “Amazing you could find a mask for such an inflated head.”

“It’s still somewhat loose,” Vernet replies. He presses on the mask and it noticeably shifts. “Room to grow.”

“You won’t be able to fit through doorways.”

“A risk I am more than willing to take,” Vernet assures him and takes back up his instrument. He puts hair to string. “Now, we were at the mutiny...”

“The start of it.” John leans forward eagerly, and they begin.



Before anything can come of asking Vernet about the missing materials, two of the seamstresses are sacked after a bolt of silk vanishes. Miss Hooper is beside herself with guilt. The thefts stop, but that’s no guarantee that the culprit was fired. Everyone knows it’s possible that the thief is still present and simply waiting for the attention to fade.

Matters only grow worse when a horse is stolen from the stables. All of the stable hands are fired and investigated by the police, but the horse is never recovered. Suspicion once turned against the opera ghost begins to turn inward, and John counts himself fortunate to be outside the fierce tangle of gossip. Now when he slips away to the basement, he does so as carefully as possible.

“It wasn’t them,” Vernet tells him when next they meet.

“It wasn’t... You mean the seamstresses?”

Vernet rolls his eyes, the motion clear in the toss of his head, an unspoken obviously clinging to his lips.

“How do you know?” John asks. “Mrs Hudson could have told you who was fired, but how do you know they were innocent?”

“Because neither of the women had a way of conveying the larger stolen items out of the opera house,” Vernet answers simply. “If they were clever about it, perhaps.”

“But how do you know? I mean, have you gone up and looked?” John hadn’t asked him to venture out, only to devise a way of searching. Guilt and pleasure mingle.

“Of course I have. It was hardly difficult. I walk quietly in the dark. I was able to get a good look around at night.” He says this as if having seen the workplace in shadows has revealed to him what daylight upon the women themselves could not.

Rather than say this, John chooses the argument he stands a chance at winning. “That’s not safe, you know. Everyone’s eager to start blaming the opera ghost again, after this mess. They’re getting scared. They still are, actually, after Joseph Harrison. If someone sees you, they might attack you. No one trying to hurt a ghost is going to use restraint.”

Vernet looks thoughtful. “Would anyone actually try to do that?”

“If there’s one thing the army taught me,” John says, “it’s that people are stupid enough to attack anything.”

That brings out Vernet’s grin. Good. The expression is a bit silly for all its brilliance, and it reveals more of him to John than the mask ought to allow. “And yet they’re still decent until proven otherwise?”

“The philosophical debate can keep,” John replies. “Just promise me I won’t have to patch you up any more than I have already.”

Vernet’s grin does something at once strange and very pleasant. It fades rapidly into sobriety. “I’ve no intention of coming to harm. I went because you asked me to look. I hardly plan on doing so again. The sequence I’m working on this week is rather long: I’d much rather focus on that.”

“Oh,” John says. He struggles for words. “Do, ah. Do you ever go up? At any other time? Mrs Hudson would be horrified.”

“I go outside on occasion. A brisk walk and a warm meal are a tedious change of pace, but they’re sometimes called for. The mask is required only as long as I remain inside and risk being seen, you see. Beyond that, I’ve watched the performances from time to time.”

“You have?” John asks. “From where?”

“Perhaps I’ll show you someday,” Vernet muses. “Provided there are no other interruptions this week.”

It dangles before him, such an obvious treat and an obvious bribe, and still John says, “I’d like that.”



The cold leads to a marked drop in fainting. If it weren’t for the fever still circulating about the opera house, John would have little to do. Remarkable how keeping an eye on a legion of dancers, singers, stagehands and craftspeople can become little to do. He’s not explicitly paid to look after anyone beyond the performers and the patrons, but Mr Havill has seen the benefit of letting John keep busy.

Busy is precisely what John needs. The urge to slip away to the basement grows much too great as act after act of opera drags on. Knowing that Vernet is composing a particularly long sequence this week and needs to maintain strict focus does little to dampen the urge. If John hadn’t promised to remain away, he would be downstairs in an instant. He’d like to claim professionalism also plays a part, but he’s increasingly less certain.

In any case, promise or caution, his choice to remain aboveground serves him well. Once again, the head usher comes to summon him to Box Five. “No emergency, Dr Watson,” Hopkins is quick to assure him. “The Earl requested your presence just in case.”

“Then I’ll hardly keep him waiting,” John replies, taking up his medical bag and tucking his newspaper inside it.

Inside Box Five, the gaslights are extinguished, treating John to a view of four silhouettes. Three of the four turn, and John recognizes his patient and her husband from the Earl’s last visit. Polite greetings abound.

“She was feeling faint,” the Baron informs him quietly.

“Quite right, my lord,” John replies.

There is a small, fussing argument between the Baron and the Baroness outside of which John carefully remains. The Earl smoothes it over, the velvet of his tone hinting at the metal it disguises. He directs Hopkins to place the newly fetched chair beside his brother rather than the Baroness. Assured that John will not be hovering in the expectation of her collapse, the Baroness accepts this arrangement. John sits at that far left of the box, the Baroness at the far right, and the Earl maintains the dominant, centre position he would have otherwise had to surrender to the Baron. John is simply relieved to sit down.

Beside him, the Earl’s brother continues to not pay the rest of them any heed whatsoever. Sitting tall with folded hands, his slick hair as sleek as the lines of his jacket and just as black, Mr Sherlock Holmes has set aside his expression of perpetual boredom. His eyes remain fixed upon the stage as the contralto gives way to the soprano. His mouth turns down slightly, the faintest touch of displeasure, and his blue eyes flick to John’s face.

John immediately looks elsewhere. The brunt of Mr Holmes’ gaze remains heavy against his cheek, as easily felt as an accusatory fingertip. John keeps his own eyes on the stage. In time, the sense of being pushed through strength of will fades away.

The soprano’s aria ends and the audience applauds. Immediately after, murmuring rises from the seats, the simple background chatter of so many bodies in so finite a space. Far to John’s right, the Earl and the Baron begin to discuss something in lowered tones.

Risking another glance to Mr Holmes, John finds the man’s expression has reset to its default of boredom. Irritation as well, although John couldn’t say why he finds this obvious until Mr Holmes speaks.

“Don’t talk,” Mr Holmes bids him.

“I was hardly about to,” John replies, somewhat surprised.

Mr Holmes looks at him, a quick check of the eyes before the actual inspection of John’s features. The hard line of Mr Holmes’ mouth doesn’t soften any more than diamond could, but it lessens in the severity of its cut.

John nods at him in return, and they both return their gazes to the stage. The temptation to peek at Mr Holmes remains, although John isn’t sure why. The man has an interesting bone structure and varies from odd to attractive with every glance.

The night passes slowly but without incident. Both the Baron and the Earl thank him for his time. The Baroness is clearly embarrassed beneath her good manners, and John thanks her for treating him to such a fine seat. Her husband takes better to the joke than she does, but John has learned to expect such a reaction by now. John finds himself escorting the party through the queue of the coat check and is somewhat at a loss when the Baron and Baroness depart but the Earl and his brother remain.

“Doctor, where might I find Mr Havill at this hour?” the Earl inquires.

“In his office, my lord,” John replies. “Failing that, he may be speaking with the talent in their dressing rooms.”

“I see,” the Earl replies. “Should you encounter Mr Havill, inform him that I expect him in his office.”

“My lord.” John is hardly an errand boy. Even so, it’s impossible for him to have attended to wealthy patrons over four years without becoming inured to the occasional foray as a messenger.

Much to John’s surprise, when the Earl sets off to Mr Havill’s office, Mr Holmes remains at John’s side. Torn between the manners of staying and the obligatory post-performance check, John hesitates before Mr Holmes interrupts his thoughts.

“The talent, you said.”

“Beg pardon?”

“To whom were you referring?” Mr Holmes asks. Perhaps it’s his posture that turns the act of standing into a form of confrontation. Perhaps it’s his height. “When you said ‘the talent,’ who did you have in mind?”

Backing away from the edges of an obvious conversational trap, John answers, “I don’t know very much about opera, I’m afraid.”

“But you were referring to specific individuals,” Mr Holmes insists. He gestures with his hat as he speaks, the coat draped over his left arm swaying with the motion. “You would hardly give my lord brother vague directions, would you?”

“No, sir, I would not.”

The deference does little to please him. In fact, it accomplishes the opposite. “Then,” Mr Holmes asks, “to whom were you referring?”

John opens his mouth and speaks the words: “Whoever Mr Havill feels he must pay in compliments as well as currency.”

“Whomever,” Mr Holmes corrects, his warmest word yet and true warmth at that.

“Whomever,” John agrees. With that, they fall into an easy rapport. Holmes has very precise views of the opera house’s current singers and, in response to John’s claims of ignorance, sets about educating John on the flaws of each. Vast amounts of it can only be speculation, describing blemishes of character rather than technique, but the majority reflects what John has heard from many of the dancers and stagehands. Much of what Holmes says flirts with rudeness, and John struggles to keep from laughing when that flirtation goes too far.

Belatedly, John realises their talk has delayed his compliance with the Earl’s request. He apologises promptly in the attempt to excuse himself, but Mr Holmes simply follows him. As John checks each dressing room in the guise of his typical rounds, Mr Holmes hastens the process by dint of his own presence, quite the reverse from what John would have expected. The only true delay occurs with the appearance of Mrs Hudson.

“Sherlock!” she cries, a cooing exclamation.

“Mrs Hudson!” Mr Holmes replies. The pair embraces gently, a tableau of absolute fondness. He kisses her cheek, and she smoothes his lapels over the vivid purple of his silk waistcoat. “It’s been much too long,” Mr Holmes tells her.

She laughs, absolutely delighted, and John feels himself smile reflexively.

“It’s always lovely to see you out and about,” Mrs Hudson says, prompting a quiet chuckle from Mr Holmes. Mrs Hudson belatedly notices John and looks between the two of them with sudden confusion.

“Mycroft sent Dr Watson to fetch Mr Havill,” Mr Holmes explains. “I thought I’d tag along and steal a visit.”

“Mr Havill already returned to his office,” Mrs Hudson says. “At least, I think so.”

“Ah,” Mr Holmes says. “There you are, Doctor. Released from duty.”

“From that duty, sir,” John agrees. “Thank you for the company.”

“Of course,” Mr Holmes replies. He offers John his hand, and the warmth of his eyes extends to his grip.

“If you’ll excuse me. Sir. Madam.”

They part ways, and John makes his rounds. The process is time-consuming tonight, the weakness of illness having taken its toll on dancers and singers alike. Though reluctant to do so, John waits until Mr Holmes is gone before he returns to Mrs Hudson and hands over her nightly soother. Still referring to the man by his Christian name, she tells him Mr Holmes left some time ago.

Even so, when John returns to the lobby, he finds Mr Havill walking Lord and Mr Holmes to the door. They quiet at John’s approach, then set the barrier of manners between them. John holds the door for them. As they exit, Mr Holmes does not allow his gaze to be caught, his expression once again that of a man bored beyond restraint. John pretends not to notice, and if he doesn’t notice, he certainly doesn’t mind.



There you are,” Vernet snaps.

John sets his bag down, marvelling at the other man’s appearance. “What happened to your head?”

Arms akimbo, hands indignant upon his waist, Vernet glares at him. “What?”

John gestures around his own head, attempting to convey the absolute mess of curls. Though Vernet’s hair is forever unrestrained, today it has escaped whatever small amount of order it once possessed. The dishevelled pile falls over his mask, creating the illusion of smooth porcelain merging into flesh.

Vernet scoffs and flings himself into his chair. He languishes there, lips in a pout above his freshly shaved chin.

John raises an eyebrow. “Something the matter?”

“Everything.”

“Everything?”

Everything.”

“You poor thing,” John says. “How absolutely terrible.”

“You’re mocking me.”

John picks up his chair with a grunt and carries it to Vernet’s desk. He sits across from him. “At this point, it’s easier than not mocking you.”

“You’re of no help whatsoever.” Quite possibly, Vernet rolls his eyes as he says this. The unreliability of candlelight upon the mask impedes John’s ability to observe. He thinks Vernet’s eyes are blue but can never be certain.

“Problems composing?”

“Is there anything else that could bother me?” Vernet demands.

“Your violin could have broken,” John answers reasonably.

Vernet freezes. “Don’t ever say that,” he commands, voice harsh and flat. “I would sooner lose my leg.”

“That is a terrible thing to say to your doctor.”

“That which is true is often terrible.”

John considers him for a moment. “It’s the libretto, isn’t it?”

“The basis behind your assumption?”

“You’re more melodramatic when you focus on dialogue,” John replies. “And the last time you told me not to come, you were working on the libretto.”

“Too true,” Vernet says.

“What’s the problem?”

Vernet scowls. “I can’t write the romantic idiot without it becoming a blatant parody.”

John laughs. “Somehow, I’m not surprised.”

“Were you a romantic idiot when you were younger?”

“Not usually,” John says. “I could talk a girl into bed easily enough, but that’s hardly the same thing.”

“Ah,” Vernet says, shifting his careless sprawl into attentive lounging. “You’re a scoundrel.”

“I used to be,” John says, not without some trace of shame.

“And then you were reformed by love, is that it?”

John laughs. “No.” He laughs again. “God, no.”

“Then what?”

“I was shot.” John touches his left shoulder with his right hand. “There.”

“Your priorities changed.”

John nods.

“What was the difference?” Vernet prompts. “Pleasure to necessity?”

“Maybe. I was a wreck. An infection set in. That was worse than the bullet, I think. It’s no joke that doctors make terrible patients.”

“And yet you’re not the sort of man to settle for a nursemaid. It wasn’t simple practicality. It was sentiment.”

“Sentiment, yes,” John allows.

Vernet leans forward, head tilted, hands folded.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have anything more for you,” John says.

“You do,” Vernet says. “War changed your views on love. How?”

John sits back and thinks. Vernet’s agitation distracts him, but Vernet calms himself when he realises this is the case. He attempts to calm himself, at least, becoming amusing rather than irksome.

“It changed me,” John says, given time. “Before, I was... Well, I was better to look at, frankly. Never tall, but certainly strong. I left England as a doctor to become a soldier and returned a cripple. The fever was bad. It comes back, sometimes. It was frequent then.”

“You wanted a woman who wouldn’t be put off by fever or diminished appearance.”

John’s lips quirk. “I didn’t want anyone at all. It wasn’t a case of reframing my wants or being practical. None of that.”

Vernet looks at him oddly. “What else is there?”

“There was Mary,” John says. “I suppose I could tell you why we worked, but it wasn’t anything I thought out in advance. Neither of us thought it out in advance, I don’t think.”

“We’ll start with how it worked.”

“Right. Well, I alternated between being functional and being pathetic. If she’d been of a mind to coddle me the entire time, it would have ended immediately. Even if she’d taken care of me during the relapses and still fussed when I was well, that would have...” John trails off with a grimace.

“She respected your pride.”

“More easily than breathing,” John agrees. “And I was, well. At the beginning. I think I was afraid of breaking her somehow.”

“You? I’ve seen your temper, Doctor, and it directs inward. Unless she pried it out of you.”

John shakes his head. “I don’t mean hitting her. I would never mean hitting her.”

“Hence my surprise. What did you mean?”

“The strain? Probably that.”

“You married a wilting flower?”

John laughs. “No. Hardly that. She was a gem, not a flower. She--”

“Wait,” Vernet bids him, hurriedly reaching for his pen and drawing paper toward him. “I need to write that down.”

“Sorry?”

“Gem, not flower. That was good, worth using.” The ink takes a moment, as does finding a clean surface to write upon.

“Are you writing an opera or a biography?” John asks.

“You’ll recognize no blatant version of yourself,” Vernet assures him.

“What about a version that isn’t blatant?”

Vernet simply grins at him. “You were saying?”

“I’ve decided to switch metaphors, actually.”

“Just to vex me?”

“Only mostly,” John replies. “But, no, Mary, she changed. When nothing in particular was going on, she was worth worrying over. She was warm and bright, but she always gave the impression that a stiff wind would blow out her candle.

Except,” John continues, “when there actually was a stiff wind. If anyone else was in need, she would become a lighthouse. Once--”

“Hold on.” Vernet writes that down as well. “You’re on sparkling form today. You should be poetic more often. Particularly anything pertaining to naval battles. That would be better.” He urges John to tell him more, and the balance of confidences between them would be absurd even upon weighted scales.

“I’m curious,” John says, changing subjects. “You’re writing an opera, you’re living in an opera house where I work, and it’s fully possible that I will someday hear this opera performed and immediately learn your real name. You’re taking direct quotes from me now. If the plot weren’t enough, I’d recognise that.”

“Not in Italian,” Vernet replies.

“Fine. Possibly not in Italian. But I know the themes and the plot. You’ve arranged it so the female lead never enters until the third act. There’s nothing else like it.”

“Untrue. The soprano playing Cleopatra doesn’t enter until the third act. The female lead is present from the first act.”

“You mean the contralto playing the young soldier?” John asks.

“Obviously.”

“But she’s a contralto.”

“But still the female lead,” Vernet argues.

“Playing a man.”

“At what point does that stop her from being the female lead? She’s hardly the male lead.”

“That’s what I mean,” John says. “There’s nothing else like this. Even if I never see it performed, I know I’ll hear about it.”

“Provided something so daring is given a chance.”

“I know next to nothing about opera, and even I know this is extraordinary.” John leans forward. “It will be performed. I will hear about it. I will learn your identity.”

“And at that time, I will no longer be under contract to keep my identity secret,” Vernet replies. “Provided all goes well.”

“How do you mean?”

“Mrs Hudson tells me the thefts have continued. If a mysterious man is found in these passages in a time of theft, blame falls upon the mysterious man. Simple enough. If that man is then linked to anyone in charge of the opera house above, it casts a stain upon that management.”

“But that assumes you’re guilty,” John argues.

“Doctor, tell me, when the horse vanished, were any of the stable hands found guilty?”

“No.”

“No,” Vernet agrees. “Suspicion is enough to try one in a court of one’s peers.”

“And if the thefts were cleared up?” John asks.

“I highly doubt the stable hands would be rehired. Even if they didn’t steal the horse, they didn’t prevent its theft.”

John shakes his head. “If all the thefts were cleared up and there was no blame to fall on you, what then?”

Vernet mutters something in a single syllable.

“Sorry?” John prompts.

“I would still be under contract not to reveal myself. I’m already treading the line, Doctor.”

“And you can’t work anywhere else?”

“There’s nowhere else I would prefer, and I’d hardly switch simply to satisfy your curiosity.”

John lifts his hands. “I’m not pressing. I’m simply saying it’s inevitable.”

“In time, given permission and my relocation elsewhere, I might consider telling you myself.”

“Really?” John asks.

“Possibly in the far future. But it bothers you now.”

“You can’t stand letting a question go unanswered,” John reminds him. “If you’d lasted this long without learning my name, you’d be writhing by now.”

“How fortunate our roles are not reversed,” Vernet remarks dryly.

John crosses his arms.

Vernet waits.

John waits longer.

“Is this too intimate?” Vernet asks.

“Not with a friend,” John allows.

“And a man who won’t share his name is merely a stranger, is that it?”

John hesitates.

“Well?” Vernet demands.

“I wouldn’t call you a stranger.”

“But not a friend.”

“You’re a strange sort of friend,” John says. “The like of which I hope no one has ever known before.”

The severity of Vernet’s frown lessens, the expression softening at the corners. “Then why not get back to the work?”

“You can play me what you have so far and explain the scenes to me,” John agrees. “I’ll tell you where it sounds off.”

“I know where it sounds off.”

“Then you’ll enjoy having me agree with you.”

Vernet smiles at that. He smoothes the expression down as soon as it crosses his face, instead feigning petulance. “Fine.” He brings out his violin, and John settles back in his chair. “It’s not at all good enough for a formal presentation,” he warns. “I simply wasn’t able to work on it to any satisfactory degree.”

“That’s fine,” John says.

“It really isn’t.”

“Vernet,” John says, standing, insistent. “It’s going to be. It’s going to be amazing.”

Vernet shakes his head. “But it isn’t yet.”

“But that’s what I’m for,” John says. “Aren’t I?”

“In a way,” Vernet allows. “However--”

“No,” John says. “Let me hear it. I was the one who pushed to put the love themes in. Whatever goes wrong with them is obviously my fault.”

A pause and Vernet agrees, “Obviously.” At last, his eyes hesitant upon John’s face, they return to work.

Chapter Text

“No,” John urges. “No, we can do this. Come on, it’s all right.”

Face against his desk, arms draped over the back of his own head, Vernet groans. The deep rumble echoes off the walls and the high ceiling. Limp, his hands droop, dipping pale fingertips into dark curls.

John sighs, comes around to the other side, and seizes Vernet’s chair low on its back. He hauls man and chair backward with a terrible scraping sound. Vernet startles to his feet, shouting at him, and John immediately grips him by the elbow. He drags the taller man into the centre of the room, the pair of them now wholly encompassed within the circle of candlelight.

“You don’t need to rewrite everything,” John tells him. “It’s all right. I asked around the orchestra, and they all say this is normal. Don’t scrap it.”

“But it would burn so nicely.”

John crosses his arms. “None of that.”

“But it’s all so stupid. And I wrote it! How did I write something so stupid?”

“Words in songs always sound stupid,” John says. “That must mean you’re doing it right.”

Vernet sulks at him, wrapping his long arms about himself. His fingers curl about his elbows, starkly pale against the dark fabric. There’s something of a chill to the tunnels today, though not enough for Vernet to fuss over his violin instead of his opera.

“Tell me the story,” John says.

“You already know the story.”

“Tell it to me again.”

Vernet fiddles with a cufflink.

“Act one,” John prompts.

“Antony returns to Alexandria, newly married to Octavia,” Vernet recites dully. “The soldiers are relieved. More glory, more fighting, so on, so on, until Antony goes back to Cleopatra. The commanders can’t upstage their general by outperforming him and pull themselves back on their missions from Rome. Tension among the troops, talk of turning against Rome. End act one.”

“Good. Act two.”

“More talk of turning against Rome. Torn loyalties. Young soldier joins mutiny in crucial role. Captain talks him out of it. Come morning, they’re all to be deployed at sea despite better strength on land. Promise of Cleopatra’s eighty ships to come. Doubts abound as to whether this promise will be kept. End act two.”

“Act three.”

“We’re still on act two,” Vernet says, hands now indignant upon his hips.

“Tell me act three anyway.”

“Naval battle.”

“What about the naval battle?” John asks.

“Antony and Cleopatra are at the heads of their respective fleets,” Vernet answers, ruffling his hair as he turns away. He begins to pace a short circuit. “Grand moment of splendour for Cleopatra. Antony joins in or was already singing, I haven’t decided which yet. The Roman theme keeps cutting them off.” His quick motions imitate flute and drum in quick succession, fluttering beside his face before dropping into a rapid tap before his stomach. “Cleopatra flees the naval battle, all is lost. The commander dies in the arms of the young soldier he kept from mutinying. End act three.”

“Excellent. Act four?”

Vernet whirls to face him and says with absolute satisfaction: “Everyone dies.”

“And don’t you want to kill everyone off?”

“Doctor, we’ve established how rhetorical your question is.”

“Exactly,” John says. “Which means we need to work through act two first.”

“I hate act two.”

“Then change it,” John says. “Or write it or edit it. Do something. You’ve sulked for weeks.”

“Only two,” Vernet mutters.

“Weeks, yes,” John says.

Vernet pouts. The mask turns the expression absolutely ridiculous.

John’s mouth twitches. “Fine. How about a break?”

“I don’t want a break.”

“You don’t want to do this either,” John reminds him. He takes up his lantern and lights it with one of the many candles littering the tables. “Blow those out. We’re going for a walk.”

“And where exactly would we be going?”

“I haven’t had a chance to explore the tunnels,” John says. “I’d like the tour, please.”

Vernet doesn’t move. “They’re tunnels.”

“I’ve noticed.” John sets about blowing out the candles on his own. Eventually, with no small sigh, Vernet joins him, pursing his lips and making no attempt to disguise his poor mood. Candle by candle, the small chamber fades into darkness until the sole source of light is the single lantern.

That done, John opens the door and pointedly waits until Vernet joins him. Nearly lost in shadow, the mask and the white shock of Vernet’s shirt are the only visible pieces of the man. Lantern in his left hand, John offers Vernet his opposite elbow.

Sighing yet again, Vernet links his arm with John’s. “It’s very little of a walk and the air is poor.”

“What a lovely tour it is already.”

“Part of it smells of urine and faeces.”

“How reminiscent of the army. Stop, you’ll make me homesick.”

A small huff of breath beside his ear: not quite a laugh, but close.

They walk. The tunnels are just wide enough for them to move abreast with linked arms. It strikes John strangely, this proof of the slimness of Vernet’s frame, the shock of tangible, sustained contact. Vernet isn’t a man who ought to have a defined shape. He’s a creature of motion and gesticulation, constant only in his changes. The human body is something John knows well, but Vernet’s form, like his moods, is too mercurial to confidently touch.

“Where did they come from?” John asks. His voice echoes dully, interrupting the rhythm of their synced footsteps. “They must have been built for a reason.”

“Construction for an Underground line,” Vernet replies. “There were plans to have an entrance leading immediately outside of the opera house. In exchange for the increased foot traffic, the owner allowed construction.”

“But the plans fell through?”

“Almost literally,” Vernet answers. “Flooding from the Thames, structural instability... the list goes on.”

Before them, a corner. They attempt to turn and the narrowing width of the passage forces them to abandon their illusion of a casual stroll. Rats scamper away from them, then creep back to the edge of the lantern light.

“How far does it go?” John asks.

“Not very. That way merely leads down to the flooded portion. Unless you’d rather smell the Thames...”

“I do enough of that already,” John replies.

They turn around, and this time, Vernet offers his arm.

John switches the lantern from one hand to the other before linking arms. “I told you a walk would do you good. A change of pace.”

“If that was an intentional pun, we’re never doing this again,” Vernet replies.

“Beg pardon?”

“Ah, it wasn’t. Good.”

They return to Vernet’s chamber, and Vernet withdraws the newspaper from John’s medical bag without permission or prompting. For his part, John lights one of the smaller candles with the lantern’s flame and sets about returning the room to its proper state.

“You’re going to ruin your eyesight,” John warns, not for the first time.

When Vernet doesn’t respond with his typical “Yes, Doctor,” John looks up from the task at hand. Frozen, Vernet seems to be staring at the far wall.

“Problem?” John asks.

“I need more reference material,” Vernet answers without moving.

“And...?”

Vernet’s gaze snaps to John’s face. “What are you doing tonight?”

“I’m on duty,” John answers.

Vernet slinks forward, feigning disinterest with the angle of his head. The rest of his body betrays his intent. His feet and hips point where his face does not. For all his hands adjust the candles upon his desk, his focus is unquestionably John. “Yes, but you’re not actually busy.”

“Whatever you’re planning: no.”

“I haven’t said what it is!” Vernet protests.

“No, but if it involves me shirking my job more than I already am--”

“It will be fine.”

“Oh, God help me, it does.”

“Come to Box Five tonight,” Vernet urges.

“Right, and be sacked by morning.”

Vernet shakes his head. “You won’t be sacked.”

“No good plan ever started with ‘you won’t be sacked’.”

Vernet leans in, the angles of his body utterly beseeching.

“There’s no use making that face when I can’t see most of it,” John points out.

“Come to Box Five. You’ll know I’ll be there even if you aren’t.” Low and warm, his voice glistens with temptation. This close, the man is magnetic.

John leans back, arms folded across his chest. “Why is it so important you see tonight’s opera?”

“I told you: reference material. I need to hear other voices. And instruments, real ones, not simply the sounds inside my head.”

That shouldn’t sound so reasonable. “But if you’re caught—or even if you’re only seen--”

“I haven’t been so far.”

John fights down the urge to shake him. “The entire building is paranoid over thefts. The last thing we need is a masked man strolling about.”

“You were the one to instigate the strolling, Doctor.”

“Sneaking about,” John rephrases. “Down here is one thing, but up there’s another.”

Vernet hovers closer, as if about to smooth his palms down John’s upper arms. He clearly thinks better of it, and his hands circle in an abortive soothing motion. Comforting to know that John isn’t the only one tempted to shake the other into cooperating.

John stands his ground.

Shaking his head, Vernet pulls back. “When you change your mind, you know where I’ll be.”

“It’s a terrible idea,” John warns.

Vernet flaps a dismissive hand at him. “One I’ve already executed perfectly. On multiple occasions, no less. If you’re so worried, you can come.”

“No, thank you,” John replies. “I’ll be on duty. With my job.”

“As you are right now?”

“I’m on my lunch break, actually.” Mrs Hudson has been kind in her scheduling of ballet rehearsals, but John is still pressed for time down below. He checks his watch. “Or, rather, I was. Best be getting back.”

Vernet groans. “But we haven’t accomplished anything.”

“Goodbye,” John bids him, stepping pointedly around Vernet to return to his bag. “And please don’t do anything stupid.”

“Obviously not.”

“I mean it.”

“As do I,” Vernet replies, so confident John almost believes him. “I’ll see you later tonight.”

“No you won’t.”

Vernet simply smiles.



By the second act, John is writhing. Inwardly, of course, only inwardly, but writhing nonetheless. Attendance is somewhat low tonight, lowering the oppressive heat of the theatre into something manageable. If anyone collapses, it won’t be from heat. If it’s not from heat, the opera house can’t be blamed.

With this in mind, John tucks away his yellowback novel and takes a walk. This walk happens to lead upstairs. The curved hall stretches in both directions, doors set into the inner wall at regular intervals. The door to Box Five is no different than any of the others. In the middle of the second act, no one is up and about. There’s not even an usher in sight.

The door handle is cool to the touch. It turns noiselessly, but the slightest press inward immediately brings heightened sound through the door. John slips through quickly and closes the door, securing himself in the dark. The box curtains haven’t been drawn, the thick cloth dully glowing red from the chandelier beyond. Against that backdrop, John sees a shape.

“Vernet?” John whispers.

With a sharp motion, the shape gestures for John to sit.

With careful steps and searching hands, John encounters a chair. He edges between it and another, feeling the arms of the chairs, and sits.

The other man shifts closer, his breath soft and nearly cool in the stuffy box. “You’re late,” Vernet whispers into his ear. His upper arm presses against John’s shoulder.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” John answers.

“No one will check inside,” Vernet promises. “As long as no one sees you exiting. Duck out during an aria, and no one will ever be the wiser.” Low and hushed, his words are damnably reasonable. “We’ve over three acts remaining. No need to rush.”

“I’m not staying for the rest of the performance.” That would be hours.

“No?”

“No. I only wanted to see if you were actually in here.”

“And so you’ve seen,” Vernet murmurs. He turns his face toward the closed curtains. “You’re free to leave, Doctor.”

Keeping a tight rein over his volume if not his temper, John asks, “Then why did you ask me here in the first place?”

“Hm?” Distracted already.

“What was the point of me being here?”

“Your presence is conducive to thought,” Vernet replies.

Outside, a solo ends and the audience applauds. The buzz of human voices rises shortly thereafter. The risk of speaking temporarily decreases.

John considers leaving, considers questioning. He decides against both.

Vernet’s gaze is a solid weight in the dark. As is his approval.

John waits, straining his ears for anything that sounds at all close to Vernet’s opera, but Vernet’s creation and tonight’s performance seem to have nothing in common.

He waits and he wonders. The music meanders through melancholy before bursting into triumph. Unwitting overexposure to opera has taught John little about the subject, but it has dulled his ability to sit through long stretches of music. Excluding Vernet’s sessions upon his violin, of course. The lecture of the opera proves alienating when compared to the conversations of a soldier and a violinist. Eventually, he leans close and asks, “What are you listening for?”

Something pale and cool brushes across John’s nose: Vernet’s mask as the man turns his head toward John’s whisper. They both pull back only to stop upon feeling the other move. The resulting stalemate lasts short a moment, long enough for John to taste Vernet’s breath. John eases back farther.

“You’re interrupting,” Vernet accuses mildly.

“Explain how this is helping,” John doesn’t quite ask.

“Hearing an orchestra with my ears varies from creating one within my mind.”

“Because all the parts are playing at once?”

Vernet scoffs softly. “Because it’s flawed. And it interacts with space and must compete with the audience speaking over it.” By his disdainful tone, it’s clear no errant thought has ever dared to do such a thing to the orchestra within Vernet’s head.

“You can really hear music?”

Absolutely mocking, Vernet’s silence pierces the dark better than any facial expression ever could.

“When there’s none playing,” John amends, an unspoken insult tacked on at the end.

“You can’t?”

John shakes his head, the sound audible in the shift of his collar against the skin of his neck.

“Can you hear phrases?” Vernet asks.

Musical sentences, he means. “When there’s music playing, yes.”

“Tell me when the next phrase begins and ends.”

“All right.” John waits for it, head tilted, eyes focused on the curtain. “Now,” he whispers after a noticeable breath. His tiny amount of exposure to the clarinet taught him well the need for breathing. He follows the phrase as well as he can and repeats, “Now,” when he thinks the moment has come.

Vernet hums softly rather than praise or berate. The neutrality is by far the more unnerving result. “Can you hear the individual parts?” Vernet asks.

“You mean instruments?”

An audible roll of the eyes. “No, I mean parts.”

John tries. He closes his eyes and strains his ears. He nods.

“How many?”

“I... have no idea,” John admits. He readies himself for Vernet’s inevitable smugness only to realise the stiffness beside him is disappointment. “Could you walk me through them?”

“Possibly,” Vernet allows. Then: “Give me your arm.”

By now, John knows better than to ask the man what for. He simply lifts his right arm from the armrest and offers it to Vernet as if embarking upon a stroll. Vernet takes it in an entirely different manner, drawing John’s elbow against his own upper arm, his long fingers curled about John’s cuff. John allows it, too intrigued to do otherwise. When Vernet’s fingertips settle along the back of John’s wrist, their spacing artfully deliberate, the position becomes clear: John’s forearm will substitute for a violin, his wrist for the fingerboard, his down-facing palm the scroll.

At first, Vernet merely taps the beats against the back of John’s wrist. Once John’s head begins to nod, as if of its own accord, Vernet begins to play. In the heat of the box, his hands have lost their characteristic coolness but maintain their graceful control. His fingertips tap out a flawless dance, his movement leading the music rather than following. They tremble a vibrato into John’s skin.

“The violin part,” Vernet clarifies needlessly, shifting his hand up John’s arm as the pitch of the instruments below rises. Jacket and shirtsleeves diffuse sensation, but there is no doubting Vernet’s continuing precision.

“You’ve memorised it,” John whispers.

“Obviously. Can you distinguish it now?”

John nods.

With that, Vernet’s hand slips back to John’s wrist with a sudden glide, its movements much changed. Vernet hooks his thumb against John’s cuff, pushing it up John’s wrist a negligible amount, and John has the sudden urge to remove his jacket and roll up his sleeve for the man.

“Viola?” John guesses instead.

“Wrong.”

John listens, closing his eyes and wetting his lips. The position of his arm says string instrument, but is that what Vernet is copying? He listens and he thinks. He whispers, “Flute?”

“Yes. Much better.” Vernet plays him the remainder of the second act, on him and for him. John’s shoulder aches from the odd position no matter how he tries to pretend otherwise, and it’s with regret that he stops their game.

A second game begins with the third act, or perhaps a more difficult lesson.

“Your turn, Doctor.” Vernet offers his palm, upturned upon his armrest. “Show me what you hear.”

John rubs the heel of his hand against the thigh of his trousers, knowing the action futile. Although John sweats little in what passes for heat in England, the test leaves him unduly nervous in his eagerness to please. He plants his elbow against his own armrest. His fingers descend to encounter skin in the dark. A rough pattern scrapes his fingertips amid the relative softness, and John recognises the marks of sutures sown by his own hand. He shifts his touch higher, away from the line of scarring and the accompanying needle marks.

In an act of cowardice, he chooses the percussion first and taps the obvious result into Vernet’s palm. When the dramatic drumbeats no longer need to support the male singer’s voice, John hesitates through the actress’s verse, his forearm against Vernet’s, his fingers posed above the man’s hand. John waits for the return of the drums and is shortly rewarded with a rousing section. A two-fingered tap serves for the faster portion.

At the next round of applause, John stops. Vernet catches his fingers before he can begin again. A firm squeeze, then withdrawal of contact. It doesn’t feel like a rebuke, but a small confused portion of John’s chest was hoping for more obvious praise.

“What now?” John asks, eyes on the side of his face.

“Follow on your own,” Vernet instructs.

John closes his eyes once more and complies. The mental strain of observation requires more endurance than casual listening to an opera ever could. Whenever his mind attempts to wander, Vernet nudges John’s knee with his own. How the man keeps reading John’s mind, John will never know.

By the end of the third act, he’s absolutely exhausted. Exhausted and warm in the dark box. He begins to focus on Vernet’s breathing rather than the music and is pleased to find that Vernet can’t tell which sounds John attends to, only whether John’s ears are attentive. The sound is nigh silent for all that it’s close. Steady. Soft. John shifts lower in the comfort of his seat. He drifts.

Firm warmth touches his shoulder. Incongruous chills flicker down his back, a prickling cascade of sensation.

“Doctor,” Vernet whispers, very much in John’s ear.

“Mm?”

“Act five is nearly over.”

John blinks his eyes open. “What? When...?”

“You fell asleep in the middle of the fourth act. I don’t blame you. The repetition was tedious.”

“I, I need to...” John gestures to the door behind them.

“Mm,” Vernet agrees. “You should be able to slip out unobserved during the next five minutes.”

“How close is it to the end?”

“Another half hour, provided the soprano stops dragging out every note,” Vernet answers with an audible sneer. “She’s wreaked havoc on the tempo.”

John nods absently, patting his pockets before he remembers that what he’s looking for is his medical bag, and that lies between his feet. “I’ll be going, then.”

“Mm,” Vernet hums a second time.

John picks up his bag and stands. He doesn’t groan at the stiffness in his neck or back, though he does come close. He offers Vernet his hand, and Vernet shakes it without standing. John creeps to the door, listens first, opens it gently, and makes a quick check before venturing fully outside. He closes the door behind him as quietly as he can. The last he sees of Vernet that night is a silhouette in the dark, head bowed, hands steepled.



“It’s still not good enough,” Vernet rages two days later, pacing belowground.

“It will be,” John says. He doesn’t look up from his newspaper.

“It won’t.”

“It will be.”



A second horse is stolen from the opera house stables. All of the new stable hands are promptly fired, and the stable master resigns.

The police investigate. They discover nothing.

After three days of fruitless searches in and around the opera house, a very annoyed Mr Sherlock Holmes comes to call on his brother’s behalf. Mr Holmes appears to aid and hinder the investigation in equal measure. The venom in the man’s voice is nothing short of remarkable, and John finds himself reframing his mental picture of the man. The charm of Mr Holmes’ arrogance vanishes in the absence of his good mood.

The distraction Mr Holmes provides could prove useful, however. John has spent the past three days putting off a visit to Vernet lest he bring the police down upon the man. His drive to protect his friend will make any attempt to slip away to him much too obvious. John knows how his body resonates with purpose when he’s worried. He takes the dilemma to Mrs Hudson—surely she’s been down to make sure Vernet has a daily meal—but discovers Mr Holmes in her company.

“There you are!” Mrs Hudson greets John, jarringly cheerful beneath the miasma of irritation permeating the opera house. Where anyone else in the situation would seize onto John as a form of escape, Mrs Hudson simply draws him into the conversation. Mr Holmes’ greeting is curt in the extreme. Entirely unaffected by Mr Holmes’ blatant temper, Mrs Hudson squeezes Mr Holmes’ arm. “It’s almost lunchtime,” she informs Mr Holmes. “Much less chance of being overheard outside, too.”

“A reasonable point,” Mr Holmes acknowledges.

“Sorry, what’s this?” John asks.

“Dr Watson, you speak with effectively every individual in the opera house, do you not?” Mr Holmes asks.

“I do, sir.”

“On a regular basis?”

“It varies on the individual,” John replies. “But yes, fairly regular.”

Mr Holmes nods. “Excellent. I need to borrow you. Meet me in the lobby in...” He checks his pocket watch, a shine of metal and glass nestled in the curve of his fingers. “Twenty minutes.”

“I’ll tell Mr Havill if he asks where you’ve gone,” Mrs Hudson volunteers. “It’s for the investigation: he certainly won’t mind.” The offer of help denies John an excuse to back out. Though he has a few throats to see to, as well as a few cases of the unmentionables, it’s nothing dire enough to require immediate attention.

“Thank you, Mrs Hudson,” John replies.

“Don’t mention it, dear,” she says. “This way, I know everyone is going to have lunch.” She gives Mr Holmes a distinct look upon the emphasised word. While Mr Holmes responds like a sullen nephew to a favourite aunt, John has an inkling that Mrs Hudson is truly referring to Vernet.

Abruptly, a luncheon with an irate Mr Holmes is a tolerable prospect. “If I start, I might be here for hours,” John tells Mr Holmes. “Shall we? Unless you’ve something else to keep you.”

Something between smile and scowl curls at the corner of Mr Holmes’ mouth. He gestures toward the way John had come. “By all means.”

They make their goodbyes to Mrs Hudson. When Mr Holmes turns his back, Mrs Hudson winks at John. John bites the inside of his cheek, following Mr Holmes out.



With two shrill whistles, Mr Holmes summons them a hansom cab and gestures for John to climb in first. John complies wordlessly, shaking out the back of his overcoat before he sits. The cab shifts as Mr Holmes joins him. Mr Holmes turns to the hatch behind their heads and gives the cabdriver the address of the Gloriana, a nearby restaurant. The folding doors of the cab close over their legs, keeping out a small part of the autumn chill.

“You haven’t been there before,” Mr Holmes observes as the horse pulls the cab away from the kerb and into the damp fog. He adjusts his overcoat over his long legs, a fall of black fabric over black fabric arranged by hands sheathed in black leather. Without the colour of his cravat visible, Mr Holmes ought to be much too pale, and yet it suits him. With little warmth in his cheeks and less still in his eyes, his pallor resembles carved marble rather than illness. Curious, the way this man’s attractiveness waxes.

“Is that a yes or a no, Dr Watson?” Holmes asks, irritation plain in his voice. It’s harsher today and familiar for it, though John isn’t certain when he’d personally heard Mr Holmes berating someone this morning.

“I haven’t been, no,” John replies after a moment of hurried remembrance. His words fade into the fog, disappearing into the vanished boundaries of the street. They can see to the next hansom before them and no farther. The open nature of the cab grants them no scenery today. Beyond each other, there is nothing left to look at.

John keeps his gaze straight ahead and his expression mild.

“Is there another establishment nearby you frequent?” Mr Holmes asks.

“No, not particularly.” A lie, but the cramped cafe John lunches at would hardly be suitable for the Earl’s brother. Silence presses in, or perhaps that’s Mr Holmes’ gaze. “I’m sure it’s an excellent choice,” John adds. “I’ve heard the name mentioned before. As it pertains to the restaurant, I mean.” As opposed to Queen Elizabeth.

“You don’t often dine out with company,” Mr Holmes says rather than asks.

“I’ve little need to,” John says. “My occupation keeps me for odd hours.”

“Mr Havill said he hired you for the sake of the singers and the more fragile patrons.”

“That’s correct.”

“Mrs Hudson tells me you treat a far greater number than that.”

“The dancers need to be able to dance, Mr Holmes.”

“I agree,” Mr Holmes replies. “That’s an obvious tautology. A seamstress’ fever and a stagehand’s clap are much less obvious.”

“I’d like to know what your point is, sir,” John says as politely as he still can.

“You enjoy making work for yourself, and you’re desperately bored,” Mr Holmes answers. Beneath the glistening damp sheen of his top hat, Mr Holmes’s eyes put the grey of the fog to shame. The charming man of their last meeting has returned, voice as light and engaging as a spring breeze. “I can help with both,” Mr Holmes promises him.

The cab turns a corner in the haze, a heart-stopping motion that pushes John toward the aristocrat. Their arms press at the elbows. John drags his gaze from Mr Holmes to stare into the fog, certain they’ll strike an object—or worse, a person—but the turn passes uneventfully. John shifts back fully to his side of the small cab. The tiny amount of air between them quickly turns cold.

“You mean,” John says, mind stumbling, “you want my assistance in the investigation. More than simply telling you any suspicious behaviour I’d noticed.”

Mr Holmes’ mouth pulls to the side, the left side, and though John can only see the right, he recognises a smile when it’s directly before his eyes. “Precisely,” Holmes says.

“In what way am I qualified?” John asks.

“Uniquely,” Holmes replies. “You’re familiar with nearly the entire population of the opera house. You’re respected but not inaccessible. Your occupation involves asking invasive questions. You’re altruistic to a degree I would be hard pressed to find elsewhere.”

“Meaning you can’t find anyone else willing to do it,” John gathers.

Holmes laughs. Rather, he exhales through a grin, but the expression clearly catches him by surprise. It suits him much too well. “I don’t need to find anyone else,” Holmes says. “I have you.”

Nervous pleasure churns John’s stomach. “I want the thief caught, but I won’t spy on my patients. If the information is relevant, I’ll pass it on, but only then. Do no harm. That’s the first rule.”

Holmes nods. Whether the motion is agreement or dismissal is a mystery. “I’ll explain the details over lunch.”



With the weather keeping most patrons away, John and Holmes are next to alone in the large room. Holmes takes the chair with its heavy back to the remainder of the room, leaving John the position of his preference. While Holmes takes a cursory scan over the menu, John forcibly pulls his gaze away from the man. There’s enough else to look at without staring at a freckle above his incongruously pale eyebrows.

The dining room of the restaurant ought to be a light, airy affair, but the fog outside the tall windows renders the space dreary, almost underwater in a way mere rain would struggle to accomplish. The walls are white, their trim gold, setting a colour scheme echoed by the pristine tablecloths and the lacquer upon the plates.

The waiter appears before John is ready. Holmes orders coffee for himself and, at John’s hesitation, suggests a specific sort of tea to John that John agrees to. John promptly forgets its name. John recovers well enough to order his meal. His voice and hands remain flawlessly steady as he hands back the menu.

Spreading his napkin over his lap, Mr Holmes asks, “What are the popular theories in the opera house?”

“Regarding the thefts?” John mirrors him, smoothing his napkin over his thighs. “Some finger pointing, some talk of the opera ghost. Nothing too surprising.”

Mr Holmes leans against the high back of his chair, fingers steepled. He prods at John with question after question, sorting each theory by individual, each individual by occupation, each occupation by its physical placement within the opera house. John speaks until his mouth threatens to go dry, but by then, his tea has cooled to a tolerable heat.

Upon the arrival of their main course, Mr Holmes turns from interrogator to narrator, detailing the entire situation as it currently stands. It is respectable for the Earl to own an opera house when that opera house is successful and free of unusual scandal. A rash of thefts undermines the credibility with which patrons will entrust even their coats and cloaks to the cloakroom. “Mycroft hardly wants to fire Eric, but should the horses continue to vanish, the man may need to resign.”

“I beg your pardon, I’m not sure who...”

“Mr Eric Havill,” Mr Holmes clarifies. “He and Mycroft were at school together.”

“Ah.” John drops his gaze to his plate and searches for any remains of chicken beneath the sauce. He finds only greens.

“The relationship is now problematic,” Mr Holmes says, watching John rather than eating his own meal. Such has been his manner since his plate was set in front of him. He holds his fork and knife without applying them.

“How so?”

“Presently, Mr Havill is ultimately responsible for failing to prevent these thefts. The failure is his. My lord brother could wash his hands of Mr Havill should matters continue in this vein. Moreover, he would be right to.”

“But sentiment holds him back,” John concludes.

Mr Holmes’ mouth startles into a grin. “You don’t know my brother.”

“Not sentiment?”

“No, never.” Mr Holmes leans forward. He scans the mirror on the wall behind John’s head and lowers his voice. “As of this moment, you are sworn to secrecy. Do you understand?”

John nods, setting down knife and fork. He folds his hands in his lap. “I understand.”

“We have received letters,” Mr Holmes informs him. “Not by post, not by hand. Mr Havill finds them in a locked drawer of his desk in his locked office. The envelopes are addressed to my brother in a man’s handwriting with a good pen. As for the letters themselves, the words are always cut from a newspaper, though the newspaper in question varies.

“The content is fairly consistent from letter to letter. The writer promises three things. First, an escalation of thievery. Second, further violence. Third, my brother’s destruction. We assume he plans to accomplish the third by a combination of the first and second.”

“Further violence?” John asks. “I don’t—wait. Joseph Harrison?”

“Incredibly dramatic for a suicide, yes,” Mr Holmes replies. “As a warning to an entire opera house, very concise: death shall descend upon you. The first letter arrived only after the death was officially declared a suicide.”

John leans forward, frowning. “Does he want anything else? Beyond your lord brother’s destruction.”

“Money,” Mr Holmes answers. “I believe the thefts will continue to escalate in target and frequency until the amount stolen equals the amount demanded.”

“How much?” John asks.

“Twenty thousand pounds.”

John whistles softly at the sum. Two horses is barely a start. Surely the paintings in the lobby will follow.

“Per month,” Mr Holmes adds.

“That... He can’t possibly expect that sum. Not monthly. A quarter of a million pounds in a year?”

“A full million in four years, two months, yes. Obviously not a demand which inspires obedience.”

“Obviously not,” John echoes. “But if the thefts do continue to that amount, the opera house will run out of things to steal.”

“At which point, I believe our options are property damage and fatal accidents.”

“How long do you think it will be until then?”

“Never, provided we catch him,” Mr Holmes replies. “Now, as to what I was saying about Mr Havill’s problematic friendship with my brother. The letters appear in Mr Havill’s desk without warning and with no sign of forced entry. The simplest solution is that Mr Havill is attempting to extort an absurd amount of money from my brother while playing the victim.”

“You’re sure he isn’t?”

“Exceedingly. My brother is a very discriminating man, Dr Watson. But we’ve no concrete proof of his innocence.”

“You haven’t taken this to the police?”

“The thefts, yes. The letters, however, have been viewed as a hoax, particularly since Harrison’s murder was declared a suicide.”

They pause as the waiter returns to freshen the coffee and tea.

“Why would the police ignore the letters?” John asks when the waiter departs. “That’s substantial evidence.”

“Because all of them have been signed by the opera ghost,” Mr Holmes answers.

“The... opera ghost.”

“Yes.”

“That...”

“I’m aware of the absurdity,” Mr Holmes states.

“It would be easy to pin the blame on anyone, that way,” John says. “Everyone already blames the ghost for anything that goes wrong. The, er, ‘real’ ghost. The one we’ve always had. If word got out, we’d have a witch hunt on our hands.” Superstition and gossip in close corridors are a terrible combination.

“Which is why you must tell no one,” Mr Holmes says.

“Of course,” John promises. “But with the ‘ghost’ so set on destroying the opera house, do you really believe he’s coming from inside?”

“I don’t,” Mr Holmes replies. “However, I see no point in drawing attention to our extorter when he’s clearly looking for a public scandal.”

“No, of course not.”

Mr Holmes nods. “Do you have any further questions?”

John thinks for a moment, looking into his tea. “When is the next payment due?”

“The last was due on Monday, when the second horse was stolen. Whether the next month has thefts or violence in store remains to be seen.”

And so Mr Holmes recruits a doctor. “Accidents do happen,” John says. “I know what the usual damage is, but if someone falls down the stairs, I won’t be able to determine if they were shoved.”

“But the victims will speak with you,” Mr Holmes counters. “Moreover, you’ll listen to them. It could be anyone in the opera house. The thefts began small, cloth before horses. I imagine the deaths will follow that pattern as well. A debtor of a stagehand followed by a seamstress, perhaps. And then a dancer. Then a singer. Or patrons, for a more visible scandal.”

John nods. “Should I contact you directly? Or report to Mr Havill.”

“You’ll contact me,” Mr Holmes confirms. “Give your letter to Mrs Hudson in a sealed, unaddressed envelope. She writes to me regularly. If our ghost has eyes outside the opera house as well as within, that correspondence will still appear perfectly normal.”

“You think it’s more than one man?”

Mr Holmes nods. “He’s exhibited an incredibly diverse skill set. If one man, he’s too extraordinary to be believed. The thefts of the horses, for example, must be two man jobs. At the very least.”

“I still don’t understand how no one saw the horses go,” John says. “Or heard, for that matter.”

“That’s not for you to worry about. Focus on the people.”

“Even more so than usual, sir,” John promises. Upon that reminder, his eyes fall to Mr Holmes’ plate, still largely full.

Mr Holmes follows his gaze but doesn’t reach for his long abandoned silverware. “If that’s all?”

“Ah, yes.”

Mr Holmes signals to the waiter, then prevents John from paying. “I consider it a business expense,” Mr Holmes states as the waiter goes to bring him his change. There’s an underlying quip in the curve of his lips, the joke of business and a gentleman of Holmes’ stature in combination. John immediately decides to pay for the next hansom. Holmes’ lips quirk further, and beneath his gaze, John can feel his mind fall open like the covers of a book.

They don their hats and coats, pull on their gloves, and venture out into the fog.



A full week after the second horse theft, John finally finds a safe moment to venture into the tunnels. Mrs Hudson had warned him away until after the police and Mr Holmes departed late Saturday night, and John had spent his Sunday in a state of overeager anticipation.

John isn’t the only one. He doesn’t reach Vernet’s door before the man throws it open, startling John to no end.

“Jesus Christ!”

“I heard your footsteps: you should have heard mine. Come in!” He promptly pulls John inside, hand first at John’s elbow before Vernet grips him by the upper arms. “It’s finished! Act two is finished! Some editing required, of course, but it’s all there, Doctor.”

“That’s brilliant!” John exclaims, attempting without success to put down his medical bag. “Hold on, hold on, let me--”

“It’s done,” Vernet crows, releasing him. He spins on the ball of one foot, hands thrown into the air, jacket flaring out with the motion. One hand darts to his face mid-spin to hold the mask in place. “Oh, it’s wonderful!”

John smiles helplessly as Vernet adjusts the mask over his features. As soon as John deposits his bag upon the table, Vernet seizes him by the arms a second time to whirl him about en route to a chair.

“Sit, sit! Listen to it now, listen, listen!”

John laughs. “I will,” he promises, mouth already aching with affection.

Vernet gathers up the papers strewn across the second table and arranges them into a new order upon his slanted desk. That done, he spins away to fetch his instrument. “It’s absolutely brilliant, Doctor.”

“What happened?”

A distracted noise as Vernet tunes his violin: “Hm?”

“Your breakthrough?” John asks.

“I took a break,” Vernet replies. “It worked.”

“Next time I tell you to take one, will you?”

“What? No. I’ll protest every step of the way.” Giddy and matter of fact at once, Vernet grins at him. “Now listen. Close your eyes and listen.”

John listens, but he does not close his eyes. Vernet is a creature of drama and gesticulation, and even when his soul is converted to sound, the performance of his body mesmerises. The speed of his fingers, the controlled tremble of his wrist, the sweet curve of his neck as his violin plays him; all compels sight.

Vernet punctuates this private concert with transitions such as “And then!” or “With this playing over that” or “Imagine a bass drum when I tap my foot” or “What about this way, do you prefer this way?” He demands for John to name the plot of each scene as he plays it sans libretto. John responds as best he’s able, applauds in more places than it’s called for, and permits himself to simply bask in his admiration of the man.

“And there it is,” Vernet concludes all too soon, although his playing must have lasted for the better part of an hour.

“What about the libretto?” John asks.

“Finished as well,” Vernet replies, slinging his instrument down from his shoulder. He checks the sudden movement and sets the bow into its case with gentle reverence. He whisks out a cloth and begins to clean the white rosin dust from his instrument. “We’re ready for act three.”

“But the libretto was where you were stuck.”

“Yes, and?”

“And I’d like to hear it,” John answers, still half-smiling. Vernet hadn’t sung the libretto of the first act for him either. John hadn’t pressed at the time, but after the fuss of this act, he’d like to hear it.

Vernet shakes his head. “No good.”

“What? Why not?”

“The lack of adequate singers, for a start.”

“You manage to play the essence of each act on one instrument,” John reasons. “Why not with one voice?”

“Because mine is hardly adequate,” Vernet replies, abruptly on the edge of snapping. “Stop asking.”

“All right, all right.” John shifts in his seat. “Could you simply say it? In English.”

Vernet purses his lips into a sullen wrinkle. “All opera sounds idiotic in English. Even simply spoken, it’s atrocious.”

John sits up straight, folds his hands in his lap, and lifts his chin.

“If you’re determined to wait, you’ll wait a long time,” Vernet warns.

“If it’s stupid, it’s my fault,” John reminds him.

“If it’s stupid, I’ll still sound stupid.”

“And I’ll still know better,” John counters.

Vernet glares at him.

John allows his overabundance of eagerness to show.

Vernet sighs, looking away. “One scene. You can have one scene.”

“Which was the one you were stuck on? The bit where the young soldier is about to signal the mutiny forward, but then his commanding officer talks him out of it?”

Vernet groans. “That’s the one you want to hear?”

“Yes,” John answers. “Definitely that one.”

Vernet tucks his violin away, stows the cloth, and closes the case. He fastens it shut, his back turned toward John. “Fine. But we act it out.”

“All right.” John stands.

“Come here.” Vernet beckons him over. He begins to pull his gloves on against the chamber’s chill. This truncates his gesticulations greatly. “The entry door is stage left. The door to my second room is stage right. The desk is the orchestra pit. Understand?”

“Understood.”

“Good. The young soldier enters from stage right. No, don’t go in: just stand at the door and come back to centre stage.”

John does so, uncertain of how to stand. He’s abruptly certain Vernet only decided to act out the scene to make John even more uncomfortable than Vernet is.

“The soldier sings a reprise of the earlier song used to convert him to the mutineers’ cause. In short: my body cries for Rome, the rock that forms my bones, the stone within my spine. How can I stand without you, my home, my strength? I long for you, for my life to come. Here, fantasy is but air. Though I may breathe it, I cannot capture it within my lungs. All escapes. Sand shifts beneath my feet, and beneath Antony’s also. If all know my general cannot stand, then can I not escape blame for his fall?”

For this part, John closes his eyes, trying to match the words to the well-remembered theme. The English rhythm makes the comparison a difficult mental exercise. He tilts his head as he listens, his ears distantly registering Vernet’s motions as he circles in the small room.

“Song ends suddenly with the captain’s entrance. The audience doesn’t see him, nor does the soldier. The officer springs out behind him, like so.”

John startles at the sudden contact, a perfectly natural response to a hand about his neck. Vernet presses against his back, right hand cradling John’s throat. His other hand swipes across John’s front and pulls John’s jacket back to his hip. Vernet’s palm presses there, heavier than the leather-clad hold around John’s neck.

“Hand at the throat to prevent a cry,” Vernet rumbles into John’s left ear. “Hand on the sword hilt to prevent a counterattack. Is that effective blocking?”

John nods, throat thick. He can still talk. He’s certain of that. It’s simply the suddenness of the position which forbids his lungs from pulling in air.

“The captain warns: cry out and die. I know what you’re attempting. Life does not lie that way. Be true to me once more and live.” Vernet shifts his grip on John’s neck, his thumb below John’s ear. Though his fingertips remain along John’s jaw, Vernet’s palm slides so slightly southward, permitting reply. “His theme plays for his lines, then merges with the reprise for the soldier’s portion.

“The soldier protests innocence, but the captain contradicts, quoting the overheard mutiny plans back to him. Again, the same theme as the mutiny reprise. The captain asks if he can trust the soldier should he let him go. The soldier admits uncertainty. Transition into the captain’s theme.” Vernet hums the familiar melody.

Though he can hear perfectly well, John tilts his head, angling his ear. The motion rubs dark leather against his skin, over his jumping pulse.

“What are your thoughts thus far?” Vernet asks. His voice is the same as it always is when they speak like this, absolutely hungering for feedback.

“Good scene,” John manages to say. He clears his throat, blaming his tone on Vernet’s hand. “Good tension. But I’d still prefer it sung. How it’s intended, after all.”

Vernet groans, much too loud for having his mouth so close to John’s ear. John manages not to jerk away at the noise, but only just. “I loathe singing for an audience,” Vernet protests.

“I’m not an audience. I’m your assistant.”

Vernet scoffs. “You’re always my audience.” He taps his fingertips against John’s jaw, as if having forgotten something. The touch is oddly companionable, as if Vernet thinks no more of touching John than he would of touching himself. “Ah, yes, the captain’s solo. This sounds much better in Italian. Fits the measure. It’s also three times longer when sung.”

“I consider myself warned,” John replies.

“The captain’s part: do not mistake the foundations of your bones for Caesar’s rule. For though your bones are of Caesar’s land, they are not Caesar’s. Caesar cannot bid you to stand, though Antony may bid you to die. For it is Antony who owns your heart.” Here, Vernet’s hand slides from John’s neck to his chest, solid pressure against his waistcoat. His throat quickly grows cold in the absence of that touch.

“We are of a kind,” Vernet continues as the captain, “and so I know you. I have dreamt your dreams and struggled your life, and I know they lead to Antony. The comforting touch of Lady Rome is a touch you never shall know, but take Duty as your wife, and Glory shall be your daughter, Honour your son, and Antony grandfather of Honour and Glory both. For though the splendours of Egypt pass out of us with every breath, so do we inhale them yet again. Do not hold your breath, but breathe, and live. You say you cannot stand without your home, yet there is no life without air. Stay and live, and wed your duty as I have married mine. Seek no greater love, for there shall be none. What say you to me?”

John’s heart races, ears straining, and Vernet releases him. Vernet releases him and presses on John’s shoulder until John turns, clumsy, to face him. Vernet turns them farther, spinning them both in a half-circle to exchange positions.

“I say ‘yes’,” Vernet states, his back as straight as a soldier’s, his voice as proud as a fool’s. “I say I will fight with you, and for you, and I will not again be pulled astray. Should stone crumble and my bones be pulled from my limbs, I will cry out, but I shall still breathe. And should it be my last, I shall breathe it for Antony.”

Silence rings in the wake of his voice. A hushed tingling settles through John’s limbs. The music plays on inside his mind.

“I can hear it,” John realises. “The, the violin, I can...” He points from the case to his own head. “I can hear it.”

Softly, Vernet smiles. “Good.”

“Very good,” John says. “Extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.” His entire body feels as if it’s trembling, and the sensation refuses to fade. He rubs his hand over his face, laughing. “God, if this is a botched mutiny, the battle scene is going to be... I won’t have the words. I mean that.”

Shifting on the balls of his feet, Vernet preens.

“It’s really only a matter of time,” John says.

“I know,” Vernet agrees, blissful. He rushes forward, grips John gleefully by the shoulders. “It’s never been so simple!”

John laughs, filled up by the other man’s giddy burst. Vernet spins him about again, and they stumble about, so terribly pleased with themselves, so terribly pleased with Vernet. John swears to himself, swears and swears again, that whatever it takes to push the world back, to keep the investigations of the opera house above from disturbing this man, he will do. He fears for Vernet’s safety, though never for his innocence. To look on this happiness and think of it stripped away is a form of torture in itself.

“Doctor?” Vernet asks, smile fading at the edges.

“I need to return to work,” John says with all the mournfulness such a statement requires. He squeezes Vernet’s hands, catching leather clad fingers as Vernet drops them from John’s shoulders. “Enjoy act three.”

“A naval battle, Doctor! Antony and Cleopatra’s one duet!”

“And the first significant death?” John asks and immediately wishes he hadn’t. Thoughts of Joseph Harrison are too fresh, worries for Vernet too near. If a stagehand is easy prey, what of the anonymous man in the basement?

Vernet hums with satisfaction, oblivious to John’s concerns or perhaps ignoring them. “Off you go, Doctor. I should have something to show you by the time you return.”

“You’d better,” John warns.

Vernet grins and waves him on into the world above.

Chapter Text

It’s not unusual for anyone to take a tumble down the stairs. It’s not unheard of for anyone to break an arm or leg doing this.

Three in a week, however, is a bit much.

None of the unlucky trio is fit for work. Accordingly, John interviews them as much as is possible before they can be laid off. Two are stagehands. One is a dancer. All three fall without witnesses, a rarity in itself within the crowded opera house. All three, upon privacy and John asking, admit to having felt they weren’t alone during the incident. The second stagehand even claims to have been pushed. Remarkable, the information one can glean in exchange for setting a bone or three.

“Misfortunes fall in threes,” Mrs Hudson assures him. “Not so literally, usually, but it’s true.”

“Been meaning to have some of the boys look at those stairs,” Mr Green says while checking up on his stagehands. Soon to be former stagehands, but Green takes the second man aside to promise the return of his job upon recovery.

Realising that superstition and practicality have dismissed the incidents as accidents, John takes two courses of action. First, he reports to Mr Holmes via letter. Second, he speaks with Molly Hooper.

“I already have everyone working in pairs,” Miss Hooper explains. “Then I told everyone to be sure they’re with someone until Mr Green has the stairs repaired. Is that too much? I don’t want to be paranoid, but the way everyone is falling...”

“It’s precisely the safety measure I wanted to speak with you about,” John replies. “You’ve shown good initiative. See that it spreads, won’t you? I don’t want anyone else out in the cold with winter coming. It’s for everyone’s sake.”

Miss Hooper shudders. “No, I will.”

John gives her the best smile he can muster. “I’m sure it will be fine once the repairs are finished.”

Miss Hooper nods, an answer clinging to her closed lips.

“Is something else the matter?” John asks.

“It’s silly,” Miss Hooper says.

“Good,” John says. “I’ve had too much seriousness lately.”

Miss Hooper hesitates, then says, “Sometimes, it feels as if I’m being watched. I’m one of the last to turn in for the night, you know. Well, no, you don’t know, but I am. It’s probably the creaking and the atmosphere, really. I’ve looked around, and no one’s ever there.” She twitches a smile. “I said it was silly.”

“Has the feeling worsened lately?” John asks.

Miss Hooper nods shyly. “Since Joe Harrison died. It’s like the opera house has another ghost now.” She tries to play it as a joke, but it falls terribly flat. She clears her throat. “Anyway.”

“If it worsens,” John says.

“I’m just being silly,” Miss Hooper interrupts.

“Miss Hooper,” John says, slightly louder than before, and certainly more firmly, “as your doctor, I am telling you that if this worsens, you’re to tell me. Yes?”

Miss Hooper bites her lip and nods.

“I used to be in the army,” John says, trying and admittedly failing to reassure her. He hardly wants to tell the woman her sanity is unsound. “Feelings like this do count, sometimes. Mind you, the cause of much paranoia once turned out to be a stealthy monkey, but we did catch the pest before it ruined all the supplies.”

As always, the monkey story brings out a smile, however slight. “I’ll tell you if I see anyone swinging from the rafters,” Miss Hooper promises.

“Good,” John says. “And you might want to find a large net.”

A bit of a giggle there and John grins back. It’s hardly his best flirt, but under the circumstances, that’s for the best. They part ways soon after. John changes his rounds somewhat, keeping in the company of others, and he is very careful on the stairs.



Mr Holmes writes back promptly. His is the fluid, effortless style of a man who has never had to force his right hand and neglect his left. Mr Holmes has sent the names of the injured to a police inspector who seems to owe him a favour. It’s not the policeman’s division, Mr Holmes clarifies, not unless Harrison’s death can be proven as a murder, but his man will have a word with the potential victims. He already has another man looking into the thefts.

Mrs Hudson delivers this letter into John’s medical bag. For an instant, she looks as if she wants to say something more but thinks better of it. Too many other people about, John assumes. When he tries to ask her about it later, she’s forgotten.



“...but the counterpoint, that is where it shines. By assigning the instruments to the different sides of the battle, the two halves of the orchestra will compete with one another. Somewhat limiting, rather simple, but effective here, and—You’re not paying attention.”

John blinks a bit, certain Vernet had been halfway across the room a moment ago. “Beg your pardon?”

“You’re not paying attention,” Vernet repeats, an accusation of the ultimate crime.

“Sorry,” John says and sits up straighter. “You were saying?”

“You don’t want to pay attention,” Vernet continues. His frown dominates his face, is all John knows of his face. “Why don’t you want to pay attention?”

“That’s not it.”

An indignant demand: “Do you have something better to think about?”

John can’t prevent his laughter. “Worse, actually,” he confesses. “There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it, though.”

Vernet groans, gesturing at John as if to shake him. “Then why waste your time?”

“Because battles put me on edge,” John says easily enough.

“But mine is meant to do that.”

“I don’t mean yours.”

“Exactly the problem!” Vernet replies. “What could possibly compete with mine?”

John grins despite himself. “Your ego ought to be aggravating. I’ve no idea how you manage it.”

“Doctor, I am trying to be productive.”

John apologises to little result, and Vernet flaunts his wounded pride as if preening. He plays the prima donna so well that it would be a shame not to indulge him. John continues his apologies until positively saccharine and chokes on his own tongue as Vernet reaches undiscovered heights of self-parody. His hair flops about with each dramatic turn, an eternally tumbling crown. John breaks character first, laughing helplessly, and Vernet crows with his victory.

“Now tell me,” Vernet instructs, practically diving into his chair next to John’s. Impossibly, he lands in a languid sprawl.

“It’s not something I ought to bother you with,” John demurs.

Vernet’s head turns, tilting in question. “Bother? No, I could use this.” He sits properly then leans forward, close to aggressive. “A battle, you said, putting you on edge. Something has happened that reminds you of your combat days. Out with it.”

“There’s been a slew of falls,” John replies. “It’s not important: there are always falls.”

“But these have been serious,” Vernet continues for him. “Injuries requiring your attention. You’ve observed pain and blood recently.”

“Pain and blood don’t bother me,” John says. “I’d be a terrible doctor if they did.”

“Ah,” Vernet says.

“What?”

“Helplessness. And anticipation.”

“Could you not actually do that right now?” John asks.

“Because I’m exacerbating it?”

John hesitates, then nods.

Vernet grins. “Good. What’s the worst of it?”

John fights down a groan. “You’re a terrible friend.”

Vernet’s grin flickers.

His earlier discomfort dwarfed, John rubs at his face. “Um. God, let’s see.” He closes his eyes to think but needs do little more than blink. “Ah. Mm.”

The tilt to Vernet’s head implies furrowed brows. His shoulders project his interest, centred upon John and yet holding back. Waiting. Observing. Determining whether John will find the words on his own.

“When you know the people around you might die, it changes how you think about them,” John says. Simply that and nothing more, because no matter how familiar the sentiment is between his hands, the phrasing of it slips between his fingers. Upon realising that Miss Hooper may be injured or killed, he realised the importance of her wellbeing, of her ability to function and keep those around her functioning. She is a peg holding the planks to the frame. In this way, an acquaintance becomes a priority.

The sentiment is softer to Mrs Hudson, padded where it presses down upon his shoulders. For all her superstitions, Mrs Hudson will never see any “opera ghost” as harmful.

When John thinks of Vernet in that context...

He prefers not to think, and therefore he doesn’t.

“Yes?” Vernet prompts. “Go on.”

“I’m trying to think of something usable,” John prevaricates. “No, um. The chain of command means protecting your superiors for the sake of the whole, but sometimes the people holding everything together aren’t in the chain where they rightly should be.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes.”

“You’re deeply uncomfortable,” Vernet states.

There’s no use in denying it. “Will you play your violin?” John asks instead. “Please.”

“How frequently does it still affect you?” Vernet asks. “Your war experience was years ago.”

John shakes his head.

“No, it was years ago,” Vernet insists.

“It was, but... That doesn’t matter.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” Morbid fascination fills the well of Vernet’s deep voice, black and bottomless. “How frequently does it still affect you?”

“How frequently does having learned to read affect you?” John counters.

“I, what?” Vernet peers at him in the dim light, candlelight flickering into the holes of his mask. The eyes within are a deep gleam, perhaps blue.

It was the first thought to have come to mind, but now that it’s said, John stands by it. “I learned to see things, and now I can’t stop seeing them. It’s the same basic idea.”

Vernet nods slowly, fingers steepled. “You see danger. No, that’s not right. You enjoy risk. Danger is a guilty pleasure for you. The problem is your helplessness when not confronted with an immediate task. This is why you prefer treating injury over illness. Your success rate is better. I’m fairly certain. Ah, yes. Your wife died of illness, didn’t she? Not something you’d advertise as a doctor, obviously, but your reactions and overbearing air of personal responsibility--”

“Shut up,” John says. “Right there.”

“But--”

“No. If you want to talk about the war, fine. That’s relevant, that will help, that’s fine. But this is off-limits. If you don’t accept that, I leave,” John tells him. “Is that clear?”

Vernet pauses for a moment before saying, “You’re overreacting.”

John stands, reaching for his medical bag, and Vernet catches his wrist. John glares down at him. Vernet doesn’t let go.

“You were agitated before you arrived,” Vernet states, his tone aggravatingly reasonable. He doesn’t move, stable in his forward lean. “I’m hardly insulting your late wife. I’m not stupid enough to ridicule you for the innate limitations of medicine. Now calm down. We’ve work to do.”

“You’ve work to do,” John counters. “I need to be back aboveground.”

“Already?” It’s all too easy to imagine the raised eyebrows behind his mask.

“Yes,” John says and promptly twists his wrist out of Vernet’s grip. “At the rate the accidents are happening, there’s doubtlessly a skull I need to patch together by now.”

“Doctor,” Vernet begins, but John cuts him off.

“I’ll see you in a few days. Good afternoon.”

“Is it really?” Vernet asks dryly, but John’s already out the door.



By the time John is willing to give ground, several days have passed. Before John can make good on his intentions, Mrs Hudson takes him aside and quietly says, “None of that downstairs business for a few days. He says he’s much too busy.”

“Oh,” John says. He hovers for a moment before asking, “How is he?”

“Having a bit of a sulk, dear,” Mrs Hudson replies. “Don’t worry, he’s often like that.”

“How, um, how long...?”

Mrs Hudson simply pats his arm. “Not your fault. He’ll come around.”

“All right,” John says, not without misgivings.

He returns to waiting and continues on, feigning normalcy.



“Dr Watson,” Hopkins calls. “I think there might be a problem, sir.”

John stands, tucking away his novel with steady hands. “One of the patrons?”

Hopkins shakes his head. “Not quite, sir.”

John frowns and Hopkins explains.

The “Not Quite” is situated upstairs in the curving hall, his face drawn, eyes closed, and back to the wall. Beside him, the door to Box Five is closed. John waves Hopkins away before approaching.

“Mr Holmes,” John greets mildly.

“Dr Watson,” Mr Holmes replies.

“I take it you’re not enjoying the performance.”

“I’m not here for the performance.” Mr Holmes makes no attempt to disguise his bitterness. “I’m here to be gawked at.”

John looks up and down the hall. He looks back to Mr Holmes to find the man has at least opened his eyes. “Begging your pardon, sir,” John says, “but you’re not doing a very good job of it.”

Mr Holmes’ mouth twitches. The motion draws John’s gaze, oddly arresting. “I’ve endured the first act. Isn’t that enough?”

“Is there a problem with the box?”

“There is a problem with my brother,” Mr Holmes says, the word a curse.

“Perhaps we ought to discuss this in private,” John suggests, reaching toward the door to Box Five.

Mr Holmes shakes his head. “That’s not private.”

John releases the handle. “You’ve company.”

“Not of my choosing,” Mr Holmes confirms, his volume possibly such as to be heard inside the box.

“Somewhere else, then.”

“Box Ten is empty tonight,” Mr Holmes says.

John nods. They walk together, their matching footsteps in beat with the music. Upon realising this, John smiles involuntarily. Mr Holmes looks at him oddly, then at their feet, and smiles in turn. In conjunction with a bowed head, the expression seems sheepish as well as delighted. How strange, to need to look up at a boyish smile.

He nearly walks past the door to Box Ten, but Holmes is more aware of their surroundings than John is. Mr Holmes opens the door and beckons John inside. John locates a chair and sits before Mr Holmes closes the door, plunging them into semi-darkness. Mr Holmes picks his path with care before settling down next to John with a satisfied sigh. “Much better,” Mr Holmes murmurs.

John watches him against the red backdrop of the curtain. Agitated and restless, certainly, but slowly quieting. His immaculate hair turns his outline sleek and terribly composed. Or restrained. Certainly restrained.

“If your company inquires as to where you’ve gone, would you be willing to blame a headache?” John asks. “The heat and the lights can have that effect.”

“Making excuses for me, Dr Watson?”

“Only if you’d like some.”

“That would be... convenient,” Holmes acknowledges.

“Whatever I can do,” John says.

Holmes looks at him curiously. “You actually mean that.”

“I’d hardly offer otherwise.”

Holmes’ inspection of his face persists. John becomes jarringly aware of the heat in the booth.

“Are you looking into something tonight?” John asks.

“Being looked at,” Holmes says. “Projecting the illusion of stability. Reassuring idiots.”

John bites down a grin. “Kind of you to think of them.”

“Mycroft’s idea, not mine.”

“And he had other plans, I take it.”

Holmes scoffs, a bitter sound that does little to clarify.

For a short time, they sit without speaking. John’s content to do so until Holmes begins to fidget.

“Any progress on the horses?” John asks.

“A theory,” Holmes responds immediately. “It would require some coordination and one complicit stableman per horse, but they could have been smuggled out via cab.”

John blinks at him. “A horse inside a cab.”

Pulling the cab, obviously. The cabbie drives in. The horses are exchanged when no one’s looking. The cabbie drives away. When he sends someone to fetch the original horse, no one raises a fuss over letting the strange animal go.”

John mulls that over. It seems exceptionally implausible. “And you’ve thought of this because there were two strange horses?”

“Each time, yes. Old nags, nothing more.”

“Then there’s a cabbie or two out there with a very fine horse right now,” John replies. “Have you contacted the agencies?”

“Nothing unusual there. There wouldn’t be if the horses were switched back later.”

“It still seems a stretch,” John says.

“And yet it’s the only solution that makes sense. More importantly, it’s easy enough to guard against. If it’s an incorrect theory, we’ll find out soon enough.”

John nods. “Supposing the thief turns to other targets?”

“Oh, he doubtlessly will,” Holmes replies, a chuckle beneath his voice.

John stares at him, then immediately attempts not to. “You sound as if you’re enjoying this.”

“He’ll try to escalate,” Holmes replies. “The stables are an easy target. The interior of the opera house, much less so. Once we know he’s inside, we’ll be able to track him that much better.”

“Then you don’t believe the injuries are linked?” John asks.

“I don’t believe we can prove the link,” Holmes answers. “Tying it all together, that’s what is called for. It’s only a matter of time, Dr Watson. Until then, we give no indication anything has gone awry. It’s what our ghost wants, and I won’t play into his hands.”

“Then shouldn’t you return to being gawked at?”

“God, no,” Holmes says with a shudder. “There’s only so much Mycroft can force me to do in one sitting.” With a sudden resolve, he stands and draws open the curtain, the half closer to the stage. He quickly works out the lines of sight and positions his chair slightly farther back than before. “There we are. Have you heard our contralto? She’s remarkable. All of her roles are wasted on her.”

John follows the change of topic much as he had the change of seating. It takes him a moment, but he’s able to respond. “Miss Adler?” She’s the only contralto singing tonight, he’s nearly certain.

“Mm.”

Looking out the gap in the curtain, John locates what appears to be the most attractive man upon the stage. He has to lean somewhat into Holmes’ space, but Holmes doesn’t seem to mind. John leans hard on his armrest and he can feel the contact through layers of cloth when their sleeves touch.

“I wouldn’t say ‘wasted’,” John muses. “If any woman can make so convincing a man, it seems a shame to stop her.”

“Not quite my meaning,” Holmes replies.

Finding Holmes’ gaze upon his face, John shifts back. “What do you mean?”

“When the villain is a better singer than the heroine, it does encourage one to pull for the wrong side,” Holmes explains.

Is she the villain of this opera? John wonders but doesn’t ask. Many of the patrons find his lack of knowledge appalling where opera is involved. As already John’s forgotten the name of tonight’s performance, that reaction is regrettably deserved.

“It’s a simple matter of assigning set roles to particular vocal ranges,” Holmes continues.

“It seems a convention made to be broken,” John says, thinking of Vernet’s intentions.

“You agree?” Though his tone remains mild, surprise shines blue in his eyes. They’d seemed green in the hall, or perhaps John is misremembering. Perhaps it’s the lighting.

“Is there a reason to disagree?” John asks. If his ignorance will out, he might as well claim it boldly.

“Tradition,” Holmes replies, a terrible lightness forced into his voice. “Expectation, convention, habit. Clinging to the established order is very typical. Those who vary and succeed are exceptions, and those who vary and fail were doomed from the start.” He smiles a grimace out toward the stage.

It doesn’t take a clever man to realise Holmes is no longer speaking of opera. What of, however, John has no idea.

“But there are those who vary and succeed,” John counters all the same.

The brunt of Holmes’ attention shifts to John. His focus has physical weight, stones pressed upon the chest to crush out a man’s breath. John meets his gaze only because it seems cowardly not to. Though sitting in fine surroundings and wearing clothing even finer, Holmes gazes at him with something ragged behind his eyes, something rough and worn that turns his attention into a demand.

“Aren’t there?” John asks. His voice holds steady. “I don’t know much of opera, but you said there were.”

Holmes’ mouth twitches, and there is something almost uncanny in the motion. John finds himself staring before he can prevent it. When he matches Holmes’ gaze once more, the man’s eyes are unmistakably green. A matter of lighting, then, and proximity.

John clears his throat and looks away. “I ought to check outside. Be certain no one else has come down with a terrible headache.”

“And leave me defenceless?” Holmes asks. “How callous of you.”

Half out of his seat, John immediately sits back down. The words catch him, not the toying tone. “You think the opera ghost will attack you?”

Holmes rolls his eyes. “I’m hardly near a staircase.” If he intends this as a joke, it’s certainly not a good one.

“Then what?” John asks.

“I’ve not finished avoiding my company at the moment,” Holmes replies. “Or ever, for that matter.”

“I’ll inform them you’re having a much needed moment of rest,” John says. “Otherwise--” He catches himself just in time to keep from insulting his social better. “I’m sure they’re worried.”

“Otherwise I’ll offend them,” Holmes concludes in John’s original tract. “Which I wholly intend to do, now with the plausible deniability your assistance offers.”

Though John hardly voices the question, his entire face configures itself to ask “Why?”

“Because the Viscount has a sister and she does not yet find me odious,” Holmes replies. “I refuse to return until I’ve rectified this.”

John can’t help but stare at him. Holmes is a difficult man not to stare at. “I... don’t follow,” John admits.

“I have no nephews,” Holmes replies succinctly, his light voice soured.

And as his brother’s heir, he must have sons, the logic follows. “I see,” John says.

“Do you?”

“There are easier ways of rejecting a woman,” John says. “If you’d like me to suggest a few--”

“I prefer to offend the brother,” Holmes replies. “Simpler. Hurts his pride to encourage his sister, and the sister has enough sense to be uninterested. Unfortunate. That nearly makes her an appealing prospect.”

“Do you do this often?” John asks, more incredulous in tone than he ought to allow himself. “Beg pardon, sir. I mean, we’ve a madman pretending to be a ghost and threatening your brother. That seems excuse enough to back out.”

“Whereas attending indicates that the largest problem in my life continues to be Mycroft’s efforts to marry me off.” At once annoyed and pleased with himself, Holmes shifts in his chair, turning to face John more fully. “To those who matter most, everything appears absolutely normal.”

When put that way, it seems very reasonable. “In that case,” John says, once again easing out of his chair, “I ought to keep to my habits as well.” His movements are slow and resist completion.

“Tell that usher where to find you,” Holmes counters. “There’s little sense in you being on alert. The ghost hasn’t threatened to harm any of the patrons until next month.”

John hesitates.

“Problem?”

The news of the ghost or Holmes’ own habits? One topic seems more pressing than the other, and it isn’t the one it should be. “I was under the impression you preferred to watch alone.”

Holmes raises an eyebrow. “From what evidence?”

“Your dislike of watching with company,” John replies, far blunter than he ought to be.

As expected, the comment pleases Holmes. “If there is something worth hearing, I expect to hear it.”

“And if there isn’t, you don’t mind my chatter.”

Holmes blinks, then laughs quietly. “I mind useless chatter,” he allows.

John takes it as a well-intentioned warning. “I’ll tell the usher,” John decides, too long positioned on the edge of his seat. He still doesn’t move, not until Holmes’ eyes shine their approval.

John exits quietly. He informs Hopkins that he’ll be keeping Mr Holmes company in Box Ten. Nonetheless, he should be notified immediately should any of the patrons require medical attention. Hopkins readily agrees and asks after Mr Holmes’ health with the same sort of concern the regular patrons reserve for their favourite soprano. John lies more easily than expected, and Hopkins nearly departs to inform the occupants of Box Five. John stops him and instead informs Holmes’ company himself. The brother is more annoyed than the sister, but both listen patiently as John speaks of the effects of heat and loud sound on a body suffering from dehydration. The sister mentions that Holmes barely touched his dinner. She has a pleasant voice to match her face and bearing. John sincerely thanks her for this information before making his own excuses and exiting.

“You told the Viscount,” Holmes accuses the moment John returns.

“Why on Earth would you think that?” John asks.

“The length of time you were gone,” Holmes replies flatly.

John sits beside him without qualms. “If you have a headache, that’s an early evening and a quiet ride home.”

Holmes considers this. “Fine.”

Recognising grudging thanks when he hears it, John returns his gaze toward the stage. Rather, the amount of the stage he can see through the curtain. The actors sing on and are followed by a short bout of ballet. John’s mind wanders.

“I can feel you thinking,” Holmes murmurs. The raised lilt to his voice acutely conveys his annoyance.

“If you’d rather sit alone,” John begins sincerely, but Holmes cuts him off with a raised hand.

“You’ve a question. Ask it.”

“It’s impertinent,” John warns.

A smile curls at the corner of Holmes’ mouth like the tip of a cat’s tail. “All the better.”

“Are you against marriage or against the candidates for it?” The Viscount’s sister had seemed perfectly lovely, though first opinions of women with chestnut curls piled high are always somewhat biased. Still, she’d responded practically to the news of another’s condition, and that is a trait John admires wherever he finds it.

“Both,” Holmes replies. He sighs, absolutely bored. “Is that all?”

“Have you considered courting a decoy?” John suggests. “Someone tolerable who doesn’t want to marry you.”

“No one wants to marry me,” Holmes replies. “I’ve ensured that much. They want to marry the title I’m posed to inherit.” His bitterness is the reverse of a regular man’s, scorning the interest rather than the cause.

John hums and Holmes’ gaze snaps to John’s face.

“What?” Holmes asks. “You’ve had a thought. What?”

“Well,” John says, “how often would you need to fake a courtship?”

“With luck, not until the New Year’s Masquerade,” Holmes replies.

“Not until the end of next month, then.”

“But you have a candidate in mind now, don’t you?” Holmes demands.

“It’s a bit ridiculous,” John warns.

“Tell me,” Holmes insists.

“Miss Adler,” John says. “It’s a match no one would encourage you to pursue, and beyond Mrs Hudson, she’s the only woman I’ve ever heard you speak well of.”

Holmes considers him much the way he might a dog reciting poetry: as if John’s words are in themselves remarkable, but John is entirely lacking in intellect.

“I have it on good authority she would never seek commitment but would enjoy the public attention,” John adds.

“On what authority?”

“Good authority,” John repeats and will say no more. He is a doctor, and this is an opera house. He treats sore throats and cases of the unmentionables in disproportionate numbers and, as such, always makes a point of treating the source of the unmentionables as well. In Miss Adler’s case, the source was a harpist by the name of Miss Norton. This information had only been procured through the careful mention of John’s late sister. Whether Miss Adler had observed his guilt or merely his desire to help, she’d let him do his job.

That bout had been over a year ago. With no relapses, all evidence points toward a continuing exclusive relationship. Few will voice displeasure within the opera house itself, but the general public admires Miss Adler too much not to wonder at her lack of beau.

Though John says none of this, Holmes nods as if considering a detailed argument. “Or,” Holmes says, “you could attend the masquerade this year and announce my inevitable headache.”

The suggestion takes John by surprise. “You’re set against any female company?”

Holmes grimaces. “Even a connoisseur can drown in wine.”

It’s hardly a metaphor John needs to hear while still thinking of women like Harry. He reaches for a reply only to be interrupted by a terrible noise from outside the box. The noise repeats, as if a giant frog were belching, and the orchestra stumbles.

He and Holmes stare at each other, and then stare out the curtain.

Tonight’s diva stands upon the stage, nervously twisting back and forth in the silence of the orchestra and the murmuring of the audience. She leans forward to say something to the conductor, and the music resumes at a previous point. The murmuring of the audience quiets in anticipation only for another ghastly croak to escape the soprano’s throat. Laughter and concern erupts from the audience in unequal amounts. Horrified, the soprano flees from the stage.

“Excuse me,” John says, grabbing up his medical bag as he stands. “I’m needed backstage.”

Holmes agrees and follows him. By the time they arrive backstage, a replacement is already being rushed into costume while a short ballet stalls for time. John attempts to see to the soprano, but no amount of brandishing his medical bag will force the woman’s indignant husband to permit him inside the dressing room. John turns to Holmes to borrow his societal clout only to realise Holmes has vanished somewhere. It isn’t until the soprano calms down that John can see to her, and by then, untold amounts of tears and panic have already taken their toll on the woman’s throat.

Unexpectedly, Holmes reappears at John’s elbow. “Madam,” Holmes asks the soprano, “is this yours?” He holds a glass vial with a small spraying attachment, not unlike a certain variety of perfume bottles.

“That’s for my throat,” the soprano rasps, reaching for the bottle.

Holmes withholds it. “If your husband would be so kind,” he says, and promptly sprays the husband in the mouth, opened in the beginnings of a question.

“What is the meaning of this?” the husband demands through his sputtering. “Who--” His words break apart into a horrible, hoarse creak.

“I thought as much,” Holmes remarks. He hands the bottle to the husband. “That will be all.” Holmes promptly walks away, shutting the dressing room door behind him.

“It’s been tampered with!” the soprano exclaims, or attempts to exclaim.

Abandoned to his charge, John musters an expression of absolute patience. He musters it for quite some time. The tampering is obvious, the culprit less so. The soprano attempts to tell him a list of her rivals and will only be silenced when John urges her not to risk any damage to her throat. The false ghost, John wants to and cannot say. Unable to warn the woman of the true perpetrator, he navigates uneasily until both singer and husband agree to speak with Mr Havill after their recoveries. John is sure to explain who Holmes is before the pair curses his name to an irreparable degree.

By the time John can convince them he’s no longer called for, the night’s performance is nearly over. John considers returning to Box Ten only to spy Holmes exiting Miss Adler’s dressing room. That will certainly vex the Viscount and his sister.

“Was she in?” John asks.

Holmes shakes his head. “Scouting out the territory. Your plan should prove feasible, though I’ll still require your presence.”

“Beg pardon?” John asks, thoroughly lost after his high-strung ordeal.

“The masquerade,” Holmes replies as if this ought to be perfectly obvious.

“I wasn’t invited,” John explains.

“As of now, you are.” His brisk manner brooks no complaints or denial. “Accompany Mrs Hudson. She’s permitted a guest.”

“Shouldn’t she be asked first?” John asks. It’s entirely rhetorical and yet leads to Holmes setting off purposefully, his long legs performing the silent, almost bouncing stride so common to the stagehands. Unable to copy those quiet footsteps, John follows much more slowly.

“Oh, that would be lovely,” Mrs Hudson agrees just as John catches up with Holmes. “It’s been years since I had someone to coordinate a costume with. My husband, you know.”

Just like that, John has plans for New Year’s Eve.

Eventually, John does manage to take Holmes aside. “What about the ghost?” John demands. “The one choking the singers, do you have any course of action?”

“Yes,” Holmes says. “Last month he took our property, this month he is trying to destroy our performances, and next month he threatens to kill. The New Year’s Masquerade is our most lavish event, and I’ve procured a doctor to stand guard over our beloved dance mistress.” He squeezes John’s shoulder and keeps his hand there. “The rest will follow. I’ve time to arrange it.”

Surprised, John nods.

“Satisfied?” Holmes asks, the question curling with confident amusement.

“Do you ever do anything for one reason?” John asks.

“Just one?”

“Yes.”

“That seems terribly inefficient,” Holmes replies dryly.

John laughs despite himself.

Holmes squeezes John’s shoulder a second time before releasing him. The warmth of the contact is recognised only by the chill of its absence. “You’re a wonderfully convenient ally, Dr Watson. I’d like to see more of you.”

“I can arrange that,” John promises.

Holmes’ eyes positively sparkle, grey in the dim hall. What colour might they be in daylight? “Wonderfully convenient,” Holmes repeats.

John nearly offers to bring his gun to the masquerade, then thinks better of it. But he wants to promise something, something more. It is much too important that Holmes trust him, admire him, and John will gladly allow Holmes to choose his test or challenge. He has the absurd urge to run a gauntlet or battle a dragon.

Instead, John merely shakes his hand and bids him goodnight.



The following morning, he catches himself humming the mutiny theme. He doesn’t recognise it at first, not until hanging up his hat and coat at the opera house. But then: oh.

Vernet. When was the last time he’d seen Vernet? At least two weeks. Possibly longer. Nearly three. How did he let that happen?

When he asks Mrs Hudson, she hesitates before telling him Vernet must be busy. John thanks her and moves on. Possibly too quickly. He’s disappointed to find the stairway busy at this time of day, annoyed with himself for being out of place so obviously. He bides his time until after midday before finally venturing down.

The lantern is where it should be, reassuring in its presence. Though likely left out for Mrs Hudson, John can pretend the courtesy is extended to him as well. He lights it and ventures down the tunnel. He tries to recall what they’d fought over and can’t. John hadn’t been paying attention to the opera, and Vernet had said something stupid about Mary. He thinks that’s the case. He’s no longer certain why it’s kept him away. Stubbornness and pride, he can only conclude, though more on Vernet’s part than his own.

When he reaches what ought to be the right spot, he stops in confusion. Absolutely no light shines through the cracks between warping door and aging frame. John opens the door with his heart in his throat and finds the chamber absolutely dark, every candle unlit. The wax is cool and hard to the touch. Vernet is gone. Where?

John searches the chamber, the desk first and the composition upon it. Tiny, cramped handwriting fills the margins, indecipherable to John’s eyes, but the notes and staffs are clear. Sheets upon sheets of music remain in the chamber.

With that realisation, the air isn’t quite so thin. Vernet would never leave this, not permanently. He has merely stepped out. Working by only the light of his lantern, John seeks Vernet’s violin but finds that missing, case and all. He checks under the desk and atop the two tables. Spying a lump beneath paper, he shifts one ink-stained sheet and promptly feels the world tilt.

Staring up from the table, eyes emptier than any human gaze, Vernet’s mask lies abandoned among the papers.

His hand rises to his own face, to his cheeks and nose. He can’t pull his gaze away from the mask, from where porcelain ought to transition abruptly into skin. It’s merely a mask, not Vernet’s face, and yet seeing the one without the other is more painful than seeing an amputee denied his prosthesis.

The porcelain is cool to the touch. It’s smooth and lifeless, the face of an uncanny doll without Vernet to support it. When lifted, it’s heavier than it should be, lighter than expected. John sets down the lantern and turns the mask over in its light. He studies the band, black and easily tightened. He touches the inner surface between the bits of padding and nearly startles at its coolness, identical to the chill of its exterior. It shouldn’t be a surprise, and yet it sits poorly. This is his friend’s face: a dead object.

For a moment, for a strange moment, it occurs to John that he could put the mask on himself. He could feel the differences between their features, the size of their heads, the slopes of their noses. While the exterior of the mask may disguise the shape of Vernet’s face, the padding underneath contains ample evidence. Though curiosity pulls at him like a biting gust, the sense of invasion repels him.

He turns the mask over to look at it from the outer side, the proper side, and it is slightly less like holding a piece of his friend’s shattered skull. He tries to put it down. He fails.

Too much time passes before he remembers the unused door, the second door of the chamber. He reminds himself that it is afternoon, that all the lights are unlit, and that Vernet neglects himself for the sake of his music. For the first time, John takes the door by its handle and softly pushes it open.

With the lantern on the table, he’s blocking his own light. He fetches the lantern and enters, mask in his left hand, lamp in his right.

The space is very small. There is a Saratoga trunk to the right, likely containing clothing. Clothing certainly lies draped over it, Vernet’s trousers, shirt and jacket. Next to this, a stack of cans, unopened, and a pile of yet more, empty. He finds the violin case before him, a pair of shoes huddled against it like two pups with their mother. They lie at the foot of what must be a small cot beneath its bed curtains. Rather than a wooden frame, a pair of hooks keeps the cloth suspended from the ceiling. The cloth is red and gold and faded, a cross between the fort of a dreaming child and the abode of a successful beggar.

Though the room has a strong odour, the scent is musty and sour, the result of dust and dirty cans. There’s nothing rotted, no stink of infection or cloying sweetness of sickness.

John holds his breath. He strains to listen. The curtain is thick enough to keep in heat, it must be, and so it must be thick enough to hide the soft sound of breathing. Vernet is simply asleep. At nearly one in the afternoon, Vernet must simply be asleep.

He nearly approaches the bed before the mask in his hand grows heavy with consequence. He checks his progress.

“Vernet,” he calls softly. And louder: “Vernet.”

He hears a shifting noise, the slide of cloth on cloth, and the knot within his stomach eases.

“Vernet, are you all right?”

Vernet groans, a low sound, and the knot immediately tightens in a fresh configuration.

Hovering on the edge of action, John eases forward, raising the lantern to indicate his presence.

“What are you doing here?” Vernet grumbles, his words muffled through cloth and perhaps against it.

“It’s one in the afternoon,” John states.

“Doctor, unless you’ve decided to become a clock, you haven’t answered my question.”

“I’m visiting you,” John says. “Which should be obvious. I thought you might want to work on your battle scene. Unless you’ve finished it, in which case I thought you might want to play it.”

There’s no reply for a moment. A slow rustling follows the stillness, then a waking stretch. The bed curtain shifts as the blankets within press against it. The cot creaks.

“Afternoon, you said,” Vernet half-states, half-asks. By the location of his voice, he’s still lying down.

“Yes.”

Impossibly deep, another low groan rumbles from the back of Vernet’s throat. “I worked late last night,” he explains.

“Should I leave you to your rest?”

“No,” Vernet replies in put upon tones. “I’m awake. I’ll stay that way.”

“Sorry,” John says. “I shouldn’t have--”

“My mask is in the other room. On the closer table, somewhat buried.”

“I have it here.”

“Do you?” Two casual words, and the weight of John’s presumption crashes upon his shoulders.

“Here,” John repeats. He steps forward, offering the mask to draping cloth.

The bed curtain bunches, pulled up from the floor, and Vernet’s hand slides out beneath it. The bed curtains hold back his sleeve, catch it, revealing wrist and forearm. His palm upturned as if bidding John to inspect the lasting scar, Vernet beckons. “Give it here.”

John does so.

Vernet retracts his hand. The cot creaks as he shifts upon it.

“I’m sorry,” John tells him, sincere.

“For waking me, for rifling through my belongings, or for storming off in a huff?”

John flushes. He says, “Yes.”

Vernet chuckles, a sound that hardly guarantees forgiveness. He draws back the bed curtains and ducks his head against the light. Tousled beyond belief, his hair falls over his forehead, over his ears and hidden cheek. The mask suits him, is irrevocably his face in John’s mind, and yet the urge to reach out and remove it has never before curled John’s fingers. Such an act would void Vernet’s contract, of course. Such an act would irrevocably end their friendship, sending Vernet from the opera house and John from whatever good graces he retains. And yet John wants to do it.

“You were worried,” Vernet states. He sits with his legs drawn up beneath his nightshirt, arms encircling his knees. His toes peek out beneath the grey cloth before tucking beneath the blanket.

“I was surprised,” John corrects. “I’ve never come in without the candles lit.”

“And so you worried.”

“Are you against all of your friends showing concern for your wellbeing, or is it only me?” John asks.

“Yes.”

John’s frown only causes Vernet to grin.

“As I’ve said: your sense of personal responsibility is absurd.” The insult is stated with clear affection, but John bristles nonetheless.

“Have you honestly waited three weeks to fling the same argument in my face?”

“Hardly. You do understand you’ve no responsibility for my behaviour?”

“I do,” John says.

“Then?”

“If someone crept in and bludgeoned you to death before I had a turn at it, I’d be very disappointed,” John replies.

Perhaps Vernet’s lips twitch. Perhaps it’s an effect of the lantern light. “Is this typical in ex-army doctors?”

“Sorry?”

“An elevated interest in the wellbeing of those around you. It’s as if any injury suffered by someone under your protection is a personal attack. Is that an army mentality?”

“I don’t do that.”

Vernet’s amusement is plain in the tilt of his mask.

“I don’t,” John insists.

“Then how do you behave towards those under your protection?” Vernet asks.

“Not like that,” John begins, then stops.

“Yes?”

“I’ve walked into some sort of verbal trap, but I’m not sure what,” John admits.

“You admit that there are individuals you consider under your protection,” Vernet replies. “Not simply the patients who come to you, but anyone your position will allow you to approach.” He tucks his legs beneath him, two quick flashes of shin that disappear once more beneath his nightshirt.

“Not anyone,” John says, and it feels like lying.

Vernet simply watches him. Though a creature of curiosity, he shows no sign of passing judgement. “Am I right?” he asks, sounding like a child who wants his well-earned prize.

“There are some people I dislike, you realise.”

“Does that matter?” Vernet asks.

No. Not in the slightest.

John’s sigh is nearly a groan. “Are you always right?”

Vernet grins, bright and sharp. “Almost always.”

A second sigh. “Something I’ll adapt to, no doubt.”

Vernet’s expression twitches, changes. The curve of his lips turns strange when soft, unfamiliar. When John frowns in concern, Vernet shakes his head and lifts a hand. “Doubtlessly,” Vernet agrees.

John ought to retreat, ought to let him dress himself, but he hesitates. “Is it a problem?” he asks. The protectiveness.

“I don’t need the light to dress by,” Vernet replies, answering the wrong question.

“I don’t mean the lantern.” He hovers on the edge of properly asking.

“It’s not a problem,” Vernet says with an impatient wave of the hand. “Now leave so I can get dressed.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Vernet snaps. “I’m cold. Move. We’ve work to catch up on.”

“I’ll leave the light,” John says and does so. He closes the door behind him on his way into the main chamber, shutting himself into darkness. He reaches for the table, then leans against it. John is a protective man, always has been. By any consideration, Vernet is a man worth protecting. There’s nothing unusual in John’s intentions, save for perhaps their intensity. But Vernet is a man to inspire intensity. It’s a skill of Vernet’s, yet another talent he possesses in abundance. He’s a remarkable man, and the exceptional can be exceptions in many ways.

Listening to the slide of cloth on skin beyond the closed door, John tells himself this until he believes it.

Chapter Text

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!” With 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.

Chapter Text

John runs downstairs, through a side hall, and comes out on the stage. He navigates far more quickly through the chaos backstage than he ever could through the fleeing swarm from the boxes and stalls. Upon emerging into the glare and heat of the stage lights, he hesitates, momentarily thwarted by the instrument-filled moat that is the orchestra pit.

“That way down!” Miss Adler shouts over the din, a sudden presence at his side. She points to the way around the pit, hidden behind the gaslights.

John’s off again in an instant. He shouts “Hot water and bandages!” over his shoulder with no idea if anyone is about to comply.

Racing into the house, John encounters few human obstructions, most having already fled. The few that remain are wounded and walking, and that means John has no pressing business with them. They call out to him anyway, one man going so far as to trail him closely, both begging and threatening John to take care of his bleeding arm.

John shouts at the man—he’ll never remember exactly what—and he darts to those still trapped beneath the chandelier. The fires are mostly out, the hot wax spilt, the metal frame bent and broken around shattered glass and strewn crystal. It fell directly into the centre section of seats, hitting the maximum number of people but leaving the aisles clear.

There are still people under there, huddled between the seats, beneath the chandelier. John calls out all who can still move: it’s impossible to tell who is cowering for safety and who has been knocked unconscious. For those who can move, he orders all those too shaken to help to sit by the pit. A woman who ought to be a nurse takes charge of the pair of men with broken legs, both men conscious but trapped in position. Her quiet will shames them into silence, a true blessing.

In total, there are three unconscious, one dead. Of those unconscious, two are bleeding profusely from limbs. One has cracked her head on an armrest, the dent not immediately visible through her elaborate hairstyle but blood apparent in her ear.

Bandages appear when he exhausts those in his medical bag. “Do you need splints?” Molly Hooper asks, depositing a bag of cloth scraps. “Sorry, no, of course you need splints: how long?”

Were his hands not covered in blood, he would have cupped her face and kissed her. He specifies and she runs off, skirts hitched high.

By now, volunteers have filled the void left by the escaping audience. John directs where he can, distributes what supplies are at hand. Miss Hooper returns in a rush, arms full of bits of wood the carpenters will have to do without.

“Help me with his leg,” John instructs. Entirely without apology, he rips the man’s trouser leg open with his penknife.

Miss Hooper complies better than the patient does, but she becomes distracted while wrapping cloth about the splint as padding.

“Miss Hooper,” John prompts, but she continues to stare over John’s head, eyes wide.

“Ghost,” she says weakly.

John jerks around immediately, eyes on the ceiling to catch sight of the chandelier-dropper.

“In the Earl’s box!” Miss Hooper adds.

Oh God. John’s eyes snap to Box Five, to the curtain pulled aside there. He sees only a glimpse of the pale, porcelain face before Vernet tugs the curtain closed.

Miss Hooper gasps. “Did you see--”

“Patient first,” John interrupts. He keeps the patients as their primary focus, instructing their volunteers to monitor the breathing of the unconscious trio. Even so, once the murmuring begins, it can’t be stopped: a ghost, everyone begins to whisper. There was a ghost.

An usher runs out and returns at a slower pace to report that there was no one in the box.

“But was the seat warm?” a patron asks.

“Why would a ghost be warm?”

“A man would be! Of course it wasn’t a ghost.”

This continues on, John unable to stop it. All he can do is keep working, keep checking, keep hoping Vernet has slipped away from the box as successfully as he’d entered it.

“I checked the seats,” the usher reports, breathing hard at his second return. “I think two of them had been sat in! The antimacassars weren’t as clean as they should have been. Pomade on one, a loose hair on the other.” He holds up a dark, curling strand as evidence.

“What, a ghost and his lady friend?” a patron asks.

John nearly swallows his tongue.

“Then there was really someone up there!”

“Then the box wasn’t cleaned properly,” John corrects. “It’s reserved for the owner’s family. The cleaning staff skips over it when they’re not expected. I’ll have to have a word with the maid. Right now, we do have more pressing concerns.” He nods pointedly to the chandelier still collapsed across the crushed seats.

“Doctor, I think this man has stopped breathing!” one of the volunteers interrupts, and John’s pressing concerns become much more pressing.



Afterward, after those capable of leaving depart, after the ambulance arrives an hour after they could have used it, after the hearse takes the two bodies away, after all the trauma one evening can contain, Mr Havill summons John for a talk. John makes him wait, but only so John can wash the blood off his hands and forearms.

“How did you know?” Mr Havill asks. He has a police inspector with him, a fellow of equal height to Mr Havill but with far more grey in his hair.

“I didn’t,” John says. “I had a bad feeling after this morning.”

“This morning?” the inspector prompts.

John nods and delivers the story he’d pieced together while washing. “A stagehand slipped in a puddle upstairs. Except the puddle was too far from the window and the wall wasn’t wet. It was the kind of puddle you track in, not let in. That didn’t occur to me until later, not until I heard the end of act two and remembered Harrison hanging.”

“You think our ‘ghost’ entered from the roof?” Mr Havill asks.

John nods. “I think he was out there, hiding. Maybe he smuggled himself in the early morning and stayed until the rain drove him inside.” John’s eyes widen. “Maybe that’s where he is now. We need to--”

“The police have already seen to it,” Mr Havill interrupts. “Inspector Lestrade’s men have thoroughly inspected the mechanism and the surrounding area.”

“Including the roof?” John asks the inspector.

“Including the roof,” Inspector Lestrade confirms. “Raining out now, though. No signs of footprints, no sign of damp beyond the usual.”

“But it was tampered with?” John asks. “It wasn’t just an accident?”

“Whoever did that wanted to do a fair amount of damage,” Inspector Lestrade says. “Definitely not an accident.”

Inexplicably, John relaxes. It’s official, then. Good. Finally. “So the police will be taking over.”

Inspector Lestrade nods. “There will be a full investigation.”

“Which won’t interfere with the repairs, I hope,” Mr Havill chimes in.

Inspector Lestrade and Mr Havill discuss their respective priorities. John stands politely by, faced with the realisation that he’ll be out of work through the remainder of the year. He reminds himself that Vernet was already returning to his true home for that time and John wouldn’t have seen him anyway. When put like that, he’s only being deprived of time with Mrs Hudson.

“I’ve heard some talk about ghosts tonight,” Inspector Lestrade says. That’s John’s cue to pay closer attention. “Not just the threats, but an alleged sighting before my men and I arrived.”

“The seamstress, Mrs Hooper, I believe,” Mr Havill says.

“Miss Hooper,” John corrects.

“By the sound of it,” Inspector Lestrade says, “she thought you’d seen it too, Dr Watson.”

“I know she thought she saw something,” John says. “Hard to tell, though, with the chandelier on the floor. Not much light left. The box definitely looked dark.” He nearly says something about nasty shocks and sudden exposure to corpses, but Miss Hooper had kept her head much too well for that to be a plausible excuse.

“I see,” Inspector Lestrade says. “Thank you for your time tonight, Doctor.”

“Of course,” John says. He bids the inspector and Mr Havill a good night. Then, highly aware of the number of policemen in the building, he proceeds directly to the cloakroom for his things. He can’t check on Vernet without bringing the police down on him. He can’t risk seeking out Mrs Hudson in case she’s gone to Vernet, can’t risk making her disappearance so obvious.

He puts on his coat, gloves, and hat in the lobby. His eyes stick on the replacement painting, then on the battle scene opposite it across the room. See you next year, John mouths to the Vernet before exiting. He closes the door behind him, wondering how long it takes for a chandelier to be built or repaired.



It takes less than two days for John to start missing the opera house. Not the music or the effects, certainly not the smell or the heat, but the opera house itself. The endless minor disasters, the soaring personalities, the raucous laughter, the sense of struggling toward something greater than themselves yet infinitely more ephemeral.

God, he’s starting to sound like he’s writing a libretto. Maybe he should take down some notes and send them to Vernet. Keep them for Vernet, rather. No address to send letters to.

He does find an address for Mr Holmes, at least. Now that the police investigation is publically known, he sees no reason to send his letters through Mrs Hudson. Furthermore, as the public also knows John was the one to introduce Mr Holmes to Miss Adler, John has a simple enough excuse for corresponding with an earl’s brother. Not that John needs an excuse, not after Holmes introduced him as “my friend, Doctor Watson” when they’d roamed the lobby together. He tells himself this several times.

At any rate, once John begins writing to Holmes, it’s difficult to stop. In case someone threatens to sue, John writes a full report of the injuries which had befallen the patrons. With twenty-three injured and two dead thus far, John fills more sheets of paper than he intends to. He copies down most of his letter to send to both Mr Havill and Inspector Lestrade.

After, he’s left with the uncomfortable feeling that his attempt at friendly correspondence is doomed to remain a military-esque report. He tries to pad the end of the letter with more sociable content. He flatters himself that he vaguely succeeds, but a paragraph or two about Miss Adler can hardly counter pages of an injury log. He adds a few concerns over the New Year’s Masquerade only to find that a very counterproductive tactic. Ultimately, he inquires into Holmes’ holiday plans, polite questions couched in well wishes.

Before the letter can grow even more absurd in size, John posts it. Afterward, he has a small lunch and attempts to pass the afternoon by catching up on his medical journals.

He receives a reply the following morning. Accepting his telegram, John knows the response contained within will be a brief one. Rather than open it at once, John sets it down upon his desk and putters about until anticipation begins to turn into irritation. It isn’t possible for Holmes to have done more than thank John for the information or perhaps to tell John that the report wasn’t particularly relevant to the investigation.

Holmes’ reply is indeed short and to the point, though not in the way John had expected. Instead of finding a curt dismissal, John reads: Tonight, the Gloriana, eight o’clock. Come regardless of convenience. SH

John promptly informs his cook he won’t be needing dinner that evening.

That night, he leaves his home early and arrives with time to spare. He stands somewhat uncomfortably in the front hall, his hat and gloves already stowed away in the cloakroom with his dripping coat. The urge to inspect his suit in one of the many mirrors rises as the minutes crawl by. The short walk from cab to restaurant was enough to put dampness into his socks.

Mr Holmes arrives at eight o’clock exactly, stepping through the doors with the lightest sheen of rainwater upon his shoulders and the crown of his top hat. His long coat is nearly dry, his shoes still glossy. He must have disembarked from his carriage immediately in front of the restaurant. Upon seeing John, Holmes’ eyes crinkle though his lips remain static.

“Not very early, I hope,” Holmes remarks, peeling his gloves off with a slow tug upon each fingertip. The leather relinquishes his hands only to be tucked into his pocket. Holmes rolls his shoulders as he removes his long, black coat, the cream lining sliding smoothly down his arms and pulling at the cut of his jacket. The sumptuous purple of his waistcoat ripples with the motion. This movement of colour rather than cloth draws the eye down his silver cravat to the matching buttons upon the waistcoat.

“Ah, no,” John belatedly thinks to say. He closes his mouth immediately after, not trusting himself to be articulate, not while Holmes is presenting his public veneer. The polish on the man makes communication far too slippery a feat.

Holmes entrusts his belongings to the cloakroom before gesturing John forward. “Shall we?”

A blur of time follows. The height of Holmes’ nape before him as they are led to their table. The sudden blaze of pain in John’s shoulder as he spreads his napkin across his lap. The absolute confidence of Holmes’ voice as he orders for both of them without as much as a glance at a menu.

When their waiter departs, the sounds of the other restaurant patrons fill the space between them, quiet murmurs, soft laughter, the scrape of silverware. Their waiter returns. There is wine. John can only try not to drink it too quickly.

“Your correspondence was particularly thorough yesterday,” Holmes notes. “Except in one regard, though I’m hardly surprised you didn’t bother with it.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” John replies.

“The costume mistress claims to have seen some sort of shape after the chandelier fell. A phantom-like figure.” Holmes eyes John. “She seems to believe you saw it as well.”

“She said she saw something,” John replies.

“And you saw?”

“I had a man with a crushed patella in front of me,” John says without hesitation. “I saw blunt force trauma.”

Holmes’ lips quirk. “I recall. As I said, your correspondence was particularly thorough.”

“Do you think what Molly saw could be significant?” John asks.

“‘Molly’?” Holmes echoes with a furrowed brow.

“Miss Hooper. Beg your pardon: Miss Hooper.” He has no idea where the slip came from.

“Is that the way of it?” Holmes asks. “I admit, I had wondered why a skilled surgeon would remain on to wave smelling salts beneath powdered noses.”

“What? No. Not at all. We’ve only begun speaking regularly over the past few months.”

“Then what?”

Very consciously, John doesn’t fiddle with the stem of his wine glass. “The opera house is a difficult place to leave.” The people, the rush. The occasional panic before the nightly triumph. Small battles are all John has left. He rarely thinks of how very little the opera house reminds him of Mary these days.

Holmes nods, understanding better than John had hoped he would. “Very difficult. Tell me, what brought you to us in the first place? Your skills are obviously wasted.”

“I don’t see it that way.”

“Then you’re blind. You could easily have a more profitable, more respectable practice, yet you choose to remain the caretaker of sore throats and sprained ankles.” Holmes wrinkles his nose at the idea.

“You think it’s beneath me.”

“It obviously is. Three nights ago, you responded as an army doctor, not a nursemaid. I’ve a detailed report on my desk to prove it.”

While the compliment is clear, so too is the insult. “Is Miss Adler beneath me?” John asks.

That captures Holmes’ attention, sharp and bright.

“Or Mrs Hudson,” John adds. “Her hip pains her terribly most nights. Is that beneath me?”

“That’s not the point,” Holmes dismisses.

“It is, actually.”

In the resulting silence, the waiter returns with their starters.

John eats quietly. Holmes watches him with a loud gaze.

“Is there a problem, sir?” John asks, his tone sliding towards deference.

Holmes waves his right hand, dismissing John’s concerns. Something about his fingers tugs at John’s mind, a pull John ignores rather than resists. Holmes replies, “You haven’t said why you took the position.”

“Just a whim.”

“A whim lasting four years.”

“I suppose you’re right,” John says with a slight smile. “If I’d known I’d stay for so long, I likely wouldn’t have come.”

Holmes doesn’t reply, still waiting.

“I was looking for something small at the time.”

“You’re at the opera house most days from midmorning to well into the evening,” Holmes replies, a question in his eyes.

“I started looking for something bigger.”

“Now that you’re caring for every soul in the building and investigating our ghostly vandal, are you still looking?”

“No,” John answers without thinking. Immediately, he wants to take it back. He blinks, amazed at how a word so truthful in his mind can be so dishonest upon his lips.

Holmes’ eyebrows flick upwards. “I see.”

John fights the urge to look down, to look away. Hiding behind his meal would be as foolish as an animal stooping to drink while its natural predator watches from across a narrow stream.

Instead, John asks, “Problem?”

“Are you terribly bored?”

“No, not at all.” That, at least, comes out honest. “The opera house--”

“Not at the opera house. Currently, are you bored?”

John smiles at him, pointed yet polite. “Not currently.”

Holmes neither smiles nor frowns. His eyes gleam with a low, satisfied burn that alters his stationary expression entirely. He wears his arrogance across his shoulders as if a mantle upon his cloak, a heavy weight of deliberate embroidery effortlessly carried. Perhaps Holmes is a creature of fascination by his nature, perhaps by his own design. Regardless of the cause, Holmes exudes his own personal gravity. John cannot wonder at being pulled into orbit. He can see the logic in Holmes’ choice of a soldier, just as he can see the sense in gauging John’s willingness to abandon an imposed holiday.

The jarring intimacy drops away the moment he realises that Holmes is, as always, playing a double game. Abruptly amused, John bites his lip to muffle a giggle. “You could simply tell me what you want me to do.”

Holmes looks nearly offended. “I’m hardly your commanding officer.”

“Of course not. I would wait for orders then, not ask for them.” He makes another cut into his lamb. Not the main he would have chosen but remarkably agreeable and a perfect complement to the wine.

“If you’ve enough to fill your time, I’ll hardly insist,” Holmes demurs.

John waits for the inevitable addendum. It never comes. He watches Holmes push the contents of his plate about, attempts not to stare on the rare occasion Holmes samples a morsel. John wonders, dreads, whether Holmes will return to their first topic of conversation: Miss Hooper’s glimpse of Vernet.

What had that idiot been thinking? Knowing enough to warn John against the crash to come, yet stupid enough to stand with the curtain drawn? John could understand looking out at the sound of the crash, but to have been staring so long after displays exceptionally poor judgment. John had already treated those most likely to die by that point. How long could that have been, twenty minutes after the fall? Half an hour? The eternity of treatment skews time.

Had Vernet thought it would have been safe to look by then? Checking the progress of those below to ascertain the safety of leaving the box, perhaps. He had certainly made a quick escape. Miss Hooper’s sighting could have occurred at a sudden motion on Vernet’s part, at the very moment he opened the curtain. It could have been only a moment, a single stupid moment.

Or, whispers a hated corner of John’s mind, perhaps Vernet had never seen so much blood before. Perhaps he’d opened the curtain a safe amount before being struck with horror, his mind numbing and pushing him on to stare. John’s stomach churns with the thought.

Vernet will simply exorcise the carnage into his opera. That’s what he’ll do, the same as he’s done with John’s memories of war and disaster. He’ll filter that night through string and hair into stunned surprise and a fierce response.

John tries to picture this process outside the opera house basement and fails. Not because of the lack of a setting, but because of the impossibility of visualising him from the front without his mask. Even from behind, John wants to imagine his hair in disorder, restrained only by the strap of the mask, barely contained.

The chime of glass upon china shakes John from his ruminations. He blinks at Holmes, utterly uncertain whether Holmes had knocked his glass against his plate intentionally. When Holmes meets his gaze over the lip of his wine glass, the answer is a resounding yes.

John’s smile is small, more cursory than apologetic. “I was under the impression you invited me here for a reason, Mr Holmes.”

“Oh?” Holmes sets down his glass as John lifts his own.

“Actually, what with it being you, several reasons. Presumably stacked upon each other with another one hiding under the table.”

Holmes permits his pleasure to make a home in his lips and eyes.

“Go on, then,” John urges. “Supposing I were terribly bored and wished to be of assistance, what would I be doing?”

“Nothing too strenuous. While the opera house is closed, it’s a good time to see who’s profiting the most from it.”

“As in, professional rivalries?”

“It may also be a matter of patronage.”

John thinks this over. “You mean, someone could seek to ruin your lord brother in any of a number of ways, so they must have picked the opera house for a reason?” It seems utterly obvious the moment John utters it.

Holmes nods. “Precisely. If he’s attacking the opera house, he may have other targets than Mycroft. If he’s already acted against them, we can begin ruling out suspects.”

“If your lord brother is the only target,” John begins.

“Then I’ll have wasted a number of your afternoons and evenings,” Holmes replies. He raises an eyebrow. “Is that an acceptable risk?”

John nearly answers that any time spent in Holmes’ company could never be considered a waste. Lest Holmes think him a hanger-on, John restrains his eagerness. Instead, he replies, “Very acceptable.”

“Excellent.” Holmes leans back in his chair and steeples his fingers. “If you can, speak to the staff about conditions under the guise of seeking a second option should the opera house ultimately close. You’ve permission to discuss whatever details of our conundrum you feel may loosen tongues. The gossip mongers have already been set loose days ago: I’m certain nothing you would say could cause us harm.”

“Of course.” John comes close to asking “And what will you be doing?” before he fully realises that Holmes will not be accompanying him. Which ought to have been readily apparent from the outset. John must be tired.

Holmes reaches into an inner jacket pocket and withdraws an envelope. He sets it upon the table. “Your funds and schedule.”

John nods and tucks it away inside his jacket without looking at the contents. “How should I notify you if I find anything important?”

“Arrange a meeting by telegram,” Holmes instructs. “I would prefer to carry this out in person. As far as anyone is concerned, you’re merely passing the time until the opera house reopens.”

“Simple enough.” It’s certainly a better means of passing the time than John had mustered on his own.

“Any further questions?”

“Not quite related, but is the New Year’s Masquerade still on?”

Holmes nearly rolls his eyes. “Of course. It’s held in the lobby, not in the stalls.”

“I imagine the police aren’t thrilled to hear that.”

“A certain inspector is eager to lay a trap,” Holmes replies. “I see no reason to prevent him.”

“Inspector Lestrade?”

“Mm, yes. He’s actually somewhat competent.”

John fights down a laugh. “Does that count as high praise?”

An impish light shines in Holmes’ eyes. “It might.”

“Such a standard to aspire to,” John muses and drinks from his glass.

“I have faith in your abilities.”

The resulting flush of pleasure is entirely out of proportion, a sure sign that John ought to put his glass right back where he found it. John does so. “Is, ah. Is there anyone else you’ve set on this track?”

“No one,” Holmes replies.

Again, the flush of pleasure. Again, the ridiculous pride. Abruptly, John wishes for more, for something more difficult. A true challenge. Absolute nonsense, of course: though being a patron of the arts is no insurmountable burden, the odds of uncovering crucial information might be exceptionally low. Best not ask after the complex when the simple may prove too difficult to accomplish. “I’ll do what I can,” John promises.

Holmes smiles, his eyes sharp over cheekbones sharper still. Though attractive, the expression is not quite benign. John has the sense of a net wrapping about him and slowly drawing tight. He makes no attempt to resist. If anything, he sits taller in his chair for the sensation. When Holmes’ smile widens, a thrill pierces him.

“I expected nothing less,” Holmes murmurs. John is struck by the familiarity of his lips, the angle of his jaw. He busies himself with knife and fork for an excuse to look away from the effect of candlelight upon Holmes’ skin.

Holmes continues speaking into John’s silence, his light voice filling the empty space as naturally as a creek enters its pond. His topics vary between this and that, his focus on physical curiosities rather than people. He sounds nearly like a scientist and not at all like the gossips of the opera house. He is sharp and witty and dreadfully intelligent. As Holmes reveals his enthusiasms, conversing with him takes on the same sort of terrified giddiness that petting a lion might provide.

John takes dessert and coffee despite wanting neither. Holmes does the same despite having barely touched his meal. When the conversation dwindles, they simply sit, taking turns sipping increasingly cold coffee. The evening draws to an obvious close.

Unlike their previous meal here, Holmes makes no protest when John moves to pay their bill. “For last time,” John explains, ignoring the hole this will leave in his pocket, and Holmes murmurs, “Of course.” They collect their belongings from the cloakroom. With his hat on, Holmes looms ever taller.

They exit to the street and Holmes hails them a cab. “You’re on my way,” Holmes explains, following John into the hansom. At each corner of the small ceiling above them, a lamp shines against the night’s chill and the evening’s smoke. They spread the blanket across their laps and sit somewhat closer than daytime travel necessitates. Their shoulders knock together before pressing comfortably. Something inside John begins to sing regardless of how he tamps it down.

The ride lasts a remarkably short time at this hour. John steps down onto the pavement reluctant to face the chill alone. For all of a moment, he wonders if he could invite Holmes inside, perhaps offer him a nightcap. He dismisses the thought immediately. Though his home is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s hardly something to be shown off either. Certainly not to an earl’s heir.

“Good night,” John says instead.

“Good night,” Holmes replies.

The cab rides on, pulling away before vanishing into the fog. The lamps disappear last of all. John shakes himself out of his reverie. He unlocks his door and heads inside.



He doesn’t check the contents of the envelope until the morning. Within, he finds a guide of performance times and locations, a price listed next to each explaining the sum of money accompanying it. The rather surprising sum John finds the moment he counts it. He checks the guide all the way to the end to find two additional listings.

First, a generous rate of pay accompanies the words “for your time and assistance.”

Second, the final entry reads “for dinner” and is accompanied by a number so precise it can only be the exact cost of Holmes’ portion.

John stares at it, utterly befuddled, before he begins to giggle. How in the world...? Remarkable. Absurd, but remarkable.

Though Holmes has made no requests upon John’s time until the following day, John’s good spirits refuse to flag even into the evening.



So begins his December project. Much to his surprise, the rumour-gathering proves easier than attendance itself. Before the first play finishes its first act, John discovers that any form of entertainment without Vernet whispering biting judgement into John’s ear is, frankly, entertainment not worth watching. The next time, John comes with paper and pencil and leaves with pencil shavings on his trouser legs. Notes as well, all of the thoughts and stage spectacles which he absolutely mustn’t forget to tell Vernet.

Though he attends plays, concerts, operas—even a pair of indoor circuses—he finds no rumours of tampering or deadly disruption. For a man as practiced at speaking with stagehands as John is, he knows that all signs point to their opera house as being the sole target of their phantom. Try as John might, he can find no one with a recent story that can compare to the disaster of the chandelier.

At the end of the first week, John receives a telegram. It says only Anything? SH

John replies in kind: Nothing. JW

The response: Tedious. SH

John laughs at that. Though Holmes is delightful in his way, the rest of John’s correspondence is considerably longer. Several of the wounded from the opera house have made inquiries of Mr Havill for John’s address. Not for the first time—though the first time in at least a year—John has serious thoughts of a small, private practice outside of the opera house. He tentatively schedules a few appointments around his reconnaissance work, largely in the mornings.

With the Masquerade still on, John keeps in touch with both Mrs Hudson and his tailor. Their costumes are progressing nicely and ought to be finished in time. Mrs Hudson writes to him on a variety of subjects, and it takes a great deal of restraint to refrain from asking her about Vernet. How is he, where is he, is he safe and well? After Inspector Lestrade’s interest in Miss Hooper’s glimpse, John has some cause to feel concern.

Unfortunately, that concern only underscores the importance of never mentioning Vernet’s existence, much less his presence beneath the opera house. Too much about Vernet is much too suspicious. Though John trusts him with—has trusted him with—the most intimate of confessions, John knows the police would be far less willing to accept Vernet as an innocent bystander. Particularly as the tunnels appear to open in more locations than the opera house basement.

It’s a jarring realisation in the extreme, the thought that he’s withholding crucial information from the police. For one long afternoon, his stomach twists in guilt before he remembers Vernet’s contract. The Earl knows about the tunnels. The police must have already been informed.

What does that mean for Vernet’s belongings? For the second-hand furniture with its wood coated by ever more wax? For the countless papers and the tins of food and the humble cot of a bed? That dank, sunless chamber is very much Vernet’s home. John finds he wouldn’t see it disturbed for the world, a sentiment he must quickly qualify. People have died. Of course John would see it disturbed: he simply knows there would be no point in it.

He hopes Vernet took all of his manuscript with him. Those papers are precious beyond belief. If John would be distraught to lose them, he can’t imagine what Vernet’s response would be. Forced into watching other performances, other operas, John increasingly finds the cleverness in Vernet’s work.

The use of a contralto, for example. John knows the visual gags, the titillation of a brief grope when a male character encounters another, should that other be played by a woman. He’s seen disrobing scenes and the flash of a breast. Vernet’s opera offers none of this. Nor does it need to. The recollection of the thwarted mutiny plays on in John’s mind, the mixing themes, the unrelenting force of Vernet’s presence behind him upon acting out the scene. Though their positions had been combative, John abruptly comprehends another layer to the scenario.

It’s a seduction. A naive man seduced by glory, by dreams of loyalty rather than loyalty itself. In a scene between men, such as between himself and Vernet, the idea of a seduction is absurd. But should either man be, in actuality, a woman, this additional meaning has context within which to take root. It isn’t even inappropriate, rendered both non-sexual and appropriately sexual by the melding of the genders.

In January, John will be able to tell Vernet that he’s realised this. In January, John will helplessly ramble at Vernet about the man’s own brilliance, too long kept without a means of diffusing his admiration. Vernet is a veritable genius, a fact only underscored when John at last discovers through playbill after playbill that it is effectively unheard of for a composer to write his own libretto, or a librettist his score. Three months and nearly a complete opera. A true genius.

Unable to tell anyone and at a loss without Vernet to speak to or prod at, John sends a telegram inviting Holmes to dinner instead. He makes sure the request isn’t an urgent one, but Holmes arranges a time and place for them that very night. John has no idea how. Though the Swan is far closer to John’s home than the Gloriana will ever claim to be, it also demands reservations weeks in advance. Let it forever be known that Mr Sherlock Holmes is a man of influence and resources.

“I’m afraid I’ve found remarkably little,” John admits soon after they’ve exchanged greetings but before they’ve been seated, still being led to their table. It’s a quick, nervous moment, a pre-emptive apology for wasting Holmes’ time.

“I’d expected as much,” Holmes replies, brushing John’s concerns neatly aside. As he had both times previously, Holmes takes the seat with its back angled toward the room. Still uncertain whether Holmes positions himself for John’s benefit, John gratefully sinks into the other chair. Holmes orders their drinks before John so much as spreads his napkin across his lap.

“If you didn’t expect me to find anything,” John begins.

“If I’d sent a man of slipshod habits, I’d never have trusted his conclusion,” Holmes replies. “Now I can be certain that my brother is the sole target.”

John’s irritation dissipates instantly. “And if the matter is personal rather than professional...”

“Yes, our field of suspects narrows considerably.” Holmes grins, ridiculous and hopeful.

John grins back helplessly. He wants to shake Holmes’ hand and clap him on the shoulder. Instead, he clasps his hands upon his lap, banishing them beneath the table. “Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll be able to infiltrate your lord brother’s social circles as easily.”

Holmes shudders, the motion understated and restrained. “Consider yourself fortunate.” Already, his face is a mask of boredom. He looks much as John first met him, now lacking the veneer of courtesy.

John laughs a quiet and unexpected giggle. He bites his lip, about to apologise, but Holmes’ expression entirely changes once again. The boredom and distaste falls away to reveal a flicker of amusement.

“Is that what you’ve been doing, then?” John asks. “Socialising?”

“Whenever it proves unavoidable.”

“You poor man.”

“It’s horrid,” Holmes agrees.

“A true wonder you’re still alive.”

“I may not survive Christmas.”

“Oh dear.” Impossible to bury his smile in his wine glass, but John makes the attempt, if only for a moment.

“I do have one traditional method of self-preservation. Some measure of escape is possible.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Rubbish weather for funerals this time of year. Rains the day through, but the ground is still much too hard.”

Holmes makes a face as if having choked upon laughter. With great restraint, John keeps from giggling. It’s not usually such a problem. They grin at each other for a moment before John looks down. He can still feel the warm weight of Holmes’ gaze upon his face.

“And your plans?” Holmes asks.

John blinks up at him, uncertain as to what he means. “I suppose I can try to die in the summer, but it’s not something I particularly think about.”

That startles Holmes into a laugh, a real, audible one. It’s deeper than John would have expected from his speaking voice, nearly a rumble. “Christmas, Dr Watson. Our holiday next week.”

“I’ve never been one for large gatherings,” John says.

“A quiet affair.”

“Quite.” The sounds of the fire and his own breathing for the most part, occasionally punctuated by the crinkle of a turning page.

Holmes considers him much too long, his gaze residing on the surface of John’s face and periodically penetrating deeper.

“Something the matter?” John asks, daring pity, absolutely challenging it.

“I ask too many requests of you,” Holmes begins, feigning the signs of convincing hesitance. While Holmes carries off the motions well enough, John can’t think for a moment Holmes could experience the feeling.

“Playing coy doesn’t suit you.” John sets down knife and fork. He folds his hands. “What needs doing?”

“Typically, I visit Mrs Hudson each year. She and my mother were very close—it’s something of a tradition.”

“Is that your traditional escape?”

Holmes nods. “Mine alone. I’d often a few days of it and stay in her son’s old rooms. Mycroft has his commitments to his daughters and an absurd number of extended relations. In light of events this year, he may attempt to hold me to those same commitments. Tedious in the extreme, but my concern remains with Mrs Hudson. She’s very understanding, but it has been a day for only the two of us for quite some time.”

“You mean, she might be on her own,” John summarises.

“In a house of considerable size,” Holmes confirms. “Her husband passed away while I was still at school, and her son moved to America. Florida, I believe.”

“I’ll write to her and ask for a visit,” John promises.

“Only if your plans permit.”

“I’m certain they do.”

A smile touches Holmes’ lips, lovely and not at all foolish. Its unexpected sincerity could break the heart. Just as quickly, Holmes wraps his public persona around himself anew. His thanks are polite words only, all traces of sentiment tightly bottled away. What sort of a man might Holmes be if unburdened from that restraint? If Holmes could be untucked, unbuttoned, unlaced, who would be left? John has to wonder.

They converse sparingly as they dine, theirs a companionable silence. His motions those of diligence rather than hunger, Holmes eats little. A pity, as the food is excellent, the wine perfectly suited. The lack of conversation isn’t a problem until the meal begins drawing to a close. As Holmes deserves some sort of report on John’s theatre-going experiences, John makes mention of the more interesting pieces. He gravitates towards the aspects that left him itching to speak with Vernet. Holmes appears at least moderately interested, which John knows to take as a compliment.

The more John speaks, the more he imagines Vernet’s dramatic reactions, the absolute dismissals of visual spectacle and the rapt fascination for the mechanisms behind it. John responds to unasked questions, elaborating upon the music without Holmes prompting. Though restraining his own enthusiasm, John carries on in this vein through dessert and coffee.

Only when Holmes surreptitiously checks the time beneath the table does John relent. The sudden horror that Holmes has merely been enduring his company arises. Even when Holmes invites John to resume his tale, the trepidation remains. John checks the time as well and feels his eyes widen. A quick look around the restaurant proves that they have once again remained longer than the crowd.

“Time to turn in, I think,” John says.

Holmes nearly disagrees, a supremely satisfying sight.

“I, ah.” John hesitates without knowing why. “I have a patient in the morning, actually.”

“I see,” Holmes says. For a man encouraging John to take on more than the small lot he’s settled for, he doesn’t seem pleased by this news.

Even so, Holmes pays for their meal tonight, a neat sum that John takes careful note of. Neither mentions the envelope from their previous dinner. John certainly doesn’t mention that he has the same envelope waiting in his coat pocket.

As they reclaim their winter garments from the cloakroom, John checks the contents of the envelope by feel. He’d overestimated the amount intentionally, and now he quietly removes the excess until the envelope contains approximately half the cost of their meal. The only challenge lies in smuggling it into Holmes’ coat. To his own surprise, he pulls off that manoeuvre as smoothly as any pickpocket by offering to assist Holmes with the garment. Much easier to fill a pocket before the coat is worn. Certainly much easier to do with Holmes’ back turned. John slides the coat up Holmes’ arms, his hands resting a moment upon Holmes’ deceptively thin shoulders.

Tonight, Holmes had arrived in his own carriage which, he explains, is the reason he’d checked the time at the table. He bids John to wait with him for the horses to be readied. John gladly complies. He offers John a ride home. John readily accepts. Holmes gestures John inside. John takes the rear-facing seat. A small lantern hangs from the ceiling, their sole source of light with the curtains closed in the carriage windows. Even so, the enclosed space seems brighter than the street outside with its lamps.

Holmes takes his turn to dominate the conversation and places John within a willing enthrallment. Holmes details the performances of the opera house’s past, the clever pieces of machinery invented when he was but a boy. He describes Mrs Hudson in her prime, an artist whose movements would put even Miss Adler’s voice to shame were the two ever forced to directly compare.

When the carriage hits a bump, they nearly knock heads, so closely have they leaned forward. Holmes catches John by the shoulders; John catches himself on Holmes’ knees. Holmes’ eyes are a deep blue, the dilation of his pupils growing noticeable as John blocks out the light. He has a freckle just above his left eyebrow. John pulls back with a nervous laugh, prompting, “You were saying?”

Their conversation is far from finished when they arrive at John’s address. As if making up for his relative silence over dinner, Holmes now sets his best self forward. Mindful of the driver out in the cold and that there is nowhere for the carriage to wait but here on the street, John refrains from inviting Holmes inside. The temptation remains.

Ultimately, it’s the cold that decides them. Absently working his arm, John cracks his shoulder.

“Inside,” Holmes bids him. “We’ll continue this another time.” Not we must or we should. Simply we will.

“Another time,” John agrees.

Neither of them moves.

“Is there anything else?” John asks. “That needs to be done.”

Holmes smiles faintly. “Is there anything I could ask of you that you’d refuse?”

“Nothing you would ask.” John is certain of it. “...Is there something?”

“Nothing within your power to perform, sadly,” Holmes answers.

“Oh. I thought you were about to say something. My mistake.”

“I was, actually,” Holmes corrects.

“Oh?” John sits up straighter.

Holmes pauses before he asks, “Your patient tomorrow: continuing contact with a victim of our chandelier?”

“The father of a witness,” John replies, certain this is far from the question Holmes intended to ask. “Apparently the chap refuses to see anyone except ‘an army sawbones.’ Word of me seems to have spread.”

“I see.” Holmes’ face is a mask of neutrality. “Good night, Dr Watson.”

“Good night, Mr Holmes.”

Stomach twisting at the dismissal, John opens the door and steps out into the cold. He climbs his front steps before the carriage door opens a second time. Holmes unfolds himself from the carriage, impossibly long legs sliding free from the constraints of his greatcoat. “Dr Watson!”

“Yes?”

“Your hat.” Holmes holds it out.

Embarrassed, John descends the few stairs while Holmes steps forward. They don’t quite collide as they nearly did in the carriage, but there is an instant where they are of a height. With the carriage lanterns setting a halo about his head, Holmes hands him his hat.

“Thank you.” For an instant, they both hold it, a pair of gloved hands on the brim.

Holmes may smile in the dark, his exact expression too difficult to see. “Of course.”

Without another word, Holmes effectively bounds away and closets himself up in the carriage. John stares, bewildered, as the carriage pulls away. He puts his hat on and something stiff immediately makes contact with the top of his head.

Removing his hat immediately, he fails to catch the something, instead dropping it onto his front steps. As Holmes’ carriage disappears into the fog, John stoops to pick up the envelope. By now somewhat battered, its contents haven’t altered a whit since its last moment in John’s hand.

Shaking his head and terribly amused, John unlocks his door and turns in for the night.



Mrs Hudson takes extremely well to the Christmas plans. Over the course of a few letters, they decide to attend mass together on both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. For convenience’s sake, it’s decided that John will spend the night on Christmas Eve in her son’s old rooms. When John arrives somewhat early that day, she welcomes him with open arms. Within short order, Mrs Hudson and her maid settle John in. She doesn’t typically use the upstairs sitting room—too much trouble for her hip—but she repeatedly states how good it is to have someone using the space again.

Though the day consists of little more than church, dinner and reading silently together into the late evening, it is by far the best Christmas Eve John has had in four years.

The holiday only improves come morning. Warm food and warm stories start them off before their return to church. Warm stories even accompany them, Mrs Hudson only too delighted to bestow details of Holmes’ childhood upon him.

“He would never want to leave, you know. I’ve never known a boy so talented at sneaking backstage, not even my George. You could turn around and lose him, and there he’d be, hiding in the wings, tucked out of the way. Drove his poor mother to distraction. I remember a year when Mycroft tried to keep him in line. Failed terribly, I’m sure you can imagine.”

“He wouldn’t fall in line even for you?” John asks.

Mrs Hudson’s gaze is distant as they walk, her smile fond. It turns impish before she replies: “Only if I let him hide behind me first.”

That startles a laugh out of John. Mrs Hudson joins in until they both sigh, content. The mood lasts through mass and well into lunch.

“I was wondering,” John ventures at that point.

“Yes, dear?”

“About Vernet. In the coming year, I mean.”

Mrs Hudson’s expression turns strange, uncertain. “What do you mean?”

John leans back in his chair to look around the corner, checking that the maid isn’t in sight. He lowers his voice all the same. “Sneaking into the basement while the police search for some sort of corporeal opera ghost. It seems much too risky.”

“He’ll be back,” Mrs Hudson says.

“Has he told you that?”

She nods.

John’s good mood vanishes. If Vernet communicates with her outside of the opera house, she must know his true name. She must know his face.

Mrs Hudson frowns. “You’re not in contact with him? I was so certain you were.”

They ought to be. It frustrates John endlessly that they aren’t. A brief moment with the man is all he wants. It is Christmas Day and with Mrs Hudson’s hip, there will be no further walking today. Even with Regent’s Park so near Mrs Hudson’s home, John won’t be so rude as to set out for a walk on his own. He would only spend the time cursing his missing friend. “Beyond Mr Havill and Mr Holmes, you’re the only person I’ve been in regular contact with since the chandelier fell.”

“Oh,” Mrs Hudson says, eyes wide, as if realising a source of terrible sadness.

Unable to face pity, not today, not from her, John quickly turns the topic to his new patients. Mrs Hudson listens politely, if not attentively, and they move on from there. By mutual decision, it is time to open presents.

His gift to her is a pendant that had taken a great deal of searching. Though intended for her masquerade costume, the sheer effort in locating a golden trident necklace had turned the gift into a labour of love. Mrs Hudson coos over it before pronouncing it perfect. “I wasn’t looking forward to carrying a real one,” she admits with a chortle.

“Very symbolic for Britannia to carry a heavy weight, but perhaps another time. There’s already the shield to consider.”

She smiles at that. “Don’t worry about that. I found a shawl with a flag pattern.”

“Oh, brilliant!”

She fetches it to show him, as well as the mask that will serve as her helmet, a golden complement to his own silver. He’s left his at home, as well as his red and white tunic.

“Now if we could only find you a spear pin before New Year’s,” she muses. “Saint George has a spear.”

“I could possibly find a sword.”

“A sword pin?”

“No, a sword.” Miss Hooper promised to smuggle him one from the props table, but that had been before the chandelier crash. He has no idea whether the plan has held.

“Ah! Even better.” Mrs Hudson puts her masquerade things away and returns to the sitting room before John permits himself to reach for the remaining presents upon the table. Plural presents, he knows, because anyone who was ever a child in a doctor’s family knows the appearance of stacked, wrapped books. There are two, individually wrapped and bound together with a ribbon.

The first is a novel, not a history or a textbook. It’s new, unfamiliar in title.

“You’re always reading at the opera house,” Mrs Hudson explains.

John smiles and thanks her. He knows he’s difficult to shop for. Mary had berated him for it every year before managing perfectly all the same.

The second book is not a book but a journal. The supple leather cover folds about the smooth sheets within and can be tied shut. The heft is lovely, the scent perfect.

“This is... Thank you,” John says.

She beams at him. If she’s surprised at John’s degree of sincerity, she doesn’t show it.

They settle in for an afternoon warm before the fire upstairs, John reading to her from his new book. The sun begins to set by half three. More lamps, more fuel to the fire, and with the approach of dark at four o’clock John resigns himself to a day without Holmes as well as Vernet.

Five o’clock proves him wrong. A knock comes from the door. John and Mrs Hudson immediately rush to the window like a pair of children, peering down into the glow of streetlamps and carriage lanterns.

Mrs Hudson’s maid answers the door. Almost immediately after, footsteps race up the stairs, at least two steps at a time. Holmes bounds into the room, still wearing his gloves and as happy as John as ever seen him.

“The upstairs sitting room, Mrs Hudson? It must be Christmas!” Holmes exclaims, practically bouncing where he stands.

John smiles back, unable not to. Holmes’ immense joy renders John stupid and voiceless.

“Ooh, ooh, what’s happened?” Mrs Hudson asks, darting in to hug Holmes about the waist. He kisses her loudly upon the cheek. “Have they caught the vandal?”

“Better!” Holmes holds her out as if about to break into dance. “I’m to be an uncle again. My dear sister-in-law is expecting.”

“And healthy, I hope,” John hears himself say rather than “Congratulations.”

“She already has a physician, Dr Watson, but thank you for offering,” Holmes replies, a twinkle in his eyes and a grin on his lips. “Everything seems stable enough to risk the announcement. Ah, my earldom for a nephew! We can only hope the third time truly is a charm.” He tugs off his gloves and hands them over to Mrs Hudson’s maid who is already holding Holmes’ coat and hat. “Thank you, Eliza. Let Billy sit in the kitchen, won’t you? If you don’t woo him away with food, he may never leave the horses. There’s something in the carriage, should still be warm.”

“Yes, Mr Holmes,” Eliza murmurs before quickly returning downstairs.

“Oh, Sherlock, you shouldn’t have.” Mrs Hudson pets his arm appreciatively all the same. John’s stomach certainly pays close attention to the mention of something warm.

“Of course I should have,” Holmes counters. “This must be celebrated, Mrs Hudson. How could I do that at home?”

They all laugh, carried along more by Holmes’ exuberance than the jest. The moment the sound escapes John’s mouth, the sentiment strikes him as terribly sad, but Holmes permits no moment for thought, busily asking them about their day thus far.

They don’t sit, Holmes being incapable of it. Though he curtails his motions, he nevertheless seems about to fly away, some ever-constant weight upon his shoulders at last removed. The deep burgundy of his silk waistcoat shimmers with his movements, shining in the firelight like his sleek hair.

Though John wracks his mind to remember another instance, he quickly grows certain: this is the happiest he has ever seen Holmes. Not unguarded, not even now, not even among friends and friends alone, but happy. Holmes’ speech and movements are forever polished, forever deliberate. To expect them to be otherwise would be to expect refined sugar to reform into the rough cane.

Although blatantly present, Holmes’ veneer tonight is at least a clear one. His wit seems effortless, his charm innate, his generosity immense. For Mrs Hudson, there is a music box, beautiful wood with a crystal inlay. Rather than cylinders, it operates on metal discs.

Mrs Hudson is smitten instantly, and they listen to a chiming version of Moonlight Sonata before Mrs Hudson discovers a disc with a waltz upon it. She takes both John and Holmes for a sweeping dance about the room, John first and Holmes second. Where John’s steps were painstaking, Holmes’ are fluid, but Mrs Hudson outshines the pair of them without a second thought, a lithe whirl of a purple dress.

The supper Eliza brings out is no less a gift. Roasted duck and honeyed turnips, mince pies and mulled wine, this and more; they tuck in with gusto. Mrs Hudson sits at one side and the men across from each other, no one certain who is seated at the head of the square table.

Afterward, they settle down to digest, listening to the fire, sleepily broaching one old story after another. Mrs Hudson absolutely insists John tell the story about the thieving monkeys taking off with British supplies. John complies with perhaps more enthusiasm than necessary, but the mulled wine was very good and there always seems to be more eggnog in his cup.

The storytelling shifts onto Holmes only momentarily. “My life is far too closeted to compare with either of yours,” he explains. “I’ve done absolutely nothing.” He passes the honour onto Mrs Hudson.

Mrs Hudson, it seems, has done absolutely everything. She speaks of circuses and dancing halls, ballet schools and theatres. The focus of her tales meanders here and there, punctuated by sounds of her own amusement. The wait is worth the conclusions, the abrupt turns and unexpected jokes. She tells them about her late husband, about her son in Florida.

When she begins to grow melancholy rather than wistful, Holmes starts up with a story about the development of the music discs in Germany, a recent innovation of the past year. He seems to know a great deal about his purchase and speaks of it with fascination, not pride. John begins to look guiltily at the trident pendant about Mrs Hudson’s neck. Found within London, that piece of jewellery is a far cry from an import from the Continent.

Holmes notices this, because of course Holmes notices. He compliments her upon it. He doesn’t ask if it’s new, merely states that it is.

“It’s from our good doctor here,” Mrs Hudson responds, proud enough to make John’s ears burn. “For the Masquerade.”

Holmes barely pauses to think before stating, “You’re attending as Britannia.”

Mrs Hudson reaches across the sofa to swat at him. “You ruin all the surprises.”

“I’ll keep mine secret,” Holmes promises.

“And mine,” John adds. He’s fairly certain nothing present will give him away.

Holmes looks at him. “Saint George.”

Sherlock,” Mrs Hudson scolds.

Holmes merely laughs until Mrs Hudson laughs with him.

“Very nearly Saint George,” John answers. “I’m currently unarmed. A spear seems too dangerous. I suppose I’ll need to find a sword to borrow in the coming week.”

“Use one of mine,” Holmes replies.

“Really?”

“Of course.” There’s nothing gracious about his reply. To be gracious, he would have to be aware of his own generosity. This response is unthinking and sure, nearly instinctual in a way that warms.

“I... Thank you.”

Holmes clearly thinks nothing of it. He brings the conversation to roam yet again. He and Mrs Hudson knock it back and forth like children with a favoured ball. Listening and taking idle sips from his glass, John lets the warmth seep over him, through him. It’s the company more than the fire, but he can hardly imagine a more perfect sitting room. His armchair is deep. Content, he sinks into it. His eyes drift shut, heavy with food and drink.

He opens them at an abrupt silence. For one disorienting moment, he believes Holmes and Mrs Hudson have vanished. He sits upright, becomes dizzy, and promptly sinks back down a second time. He’d fallen asleep. As the world continues to wobble, he realises he’s also a bit drunk. Just a bit. But he’s happy, not like how Harry was, so it’s all right.

He lets his head loll back a bit, listening for his host. Voices from the hall, yes. Hushed voices. They think him asleep. Kind of them. John curls up a bit more in his armchair. He jolts awake at one indecipherable utterance, irrationally convinced the voice is Vernet’s, not Holmes’. But of course it can’t be. A moment later, Holmes’ voice resumes normally, as light as it ever was.

John’s heart slows, allowing restfulness to come over him once more. As if determined to be contrary, his ears adjust enough to catch snippets of conversation, just enough to keep him too interested to sleep.

“...still haven’t told him, Sherlock.”

“You’re perfectly aware...”

“...hardly fair to the poor man...”

“I’ve asked Mycroft,” Holmes says, his volume rising in agitation. “Beyond that, my hands are tied. What more do you want from me?”

Mrs Hudson shushes him gently. They continue on in whispers, and John slowly drops back toward slumber. He doesn’t wake again until the clock chimes nine. Alarmed at having overstayed his welcome, he wakes with an apology behind his teeth, nearly upon his lips, but Mrs Hudson simply looks up from her card game with Holmes and smiles.

“I should have warned you about the eggnog,” she apologises. “I prefer it with a bit of a kick.”

“’s nice,” John mumbles, resisting the urge to wipe at his face. “’s very nice.”

Holmes laughs quietly.

“It’s, um.” John closes his eyes and opens them again. This doesn’t make keeping them open any easier than before. “Drat. Um. It’s late. I should...”

“I’ll take you home,” Holmes says.

“Oh, oh no, I couldn’t, couldn’t ask...”

“No, I don’t believe you could either.” Amusement hangs onto Holmes’ voice, drips from his lips. He removed his jacket while John slept. Firelight stains his crisp shirt orange, puts a reflected flame in the burgundy of his waistcoat. He’s pristine, achingly untouched. “Your things are already in the carriage. We debated waking you for the past half hour or so.”

“You looked like you needed it,” Mrs Hudson explains.

Hunching over his knees, John rubs at his face. “Might be best to go Holmes. Home. I meant home.” He tries to sink into the floor but experiences only sad failure.

“Holmes to home?” Holmes suggests.

“But not Holmes to the Holmes home,” Mrs Hudson adds.

The mortification only deepens. It fades somewhat as they make their goodbyes, then dissipates when Mrs Hudson says, “This was lovely, nearly having all my boys home.” Holmes kisses her on the cheek for that. Not trusting his coordination or his breath, John merely hugs her.

John has to cling a bit to Holmes’ side as they brave the stairs down to the foyer. If he clings a bit more than strictly necessary, then he is drunk, Holmes is warm, and the stairs are dangerous. His coat and gloves are perfectly manageable, but Holmes helps him with these regardless of how John protests. John succeeds at manoeuvring outside and onto the pavement under his own power. When they turn around to wave up at Mrs Hudson in her window, he does sway a bit. Holmes rights him with a quick arm around his waist.

The warm touch remains warm in the carriage. Holmes isn’t at all soft, entirely bone beneath expensive fabric. But warm. He is warm. His arm was nice about John’s back and is now pleasant against John’s side.

All is slow and quiet, the sounds of hooves and breathing. John leans his head back, eyes closed. Much too soon, the carriage stops.

“No bumps this time,” John mumbles.

“Mm. Pity.”

John giggles. Holmes sounds so honest in his disappointment.

In climbing out of the carriage, John needs to hold onto Holmes more than he’d like. Standing, looking down at the still-seated Holmes, John wonders vaguely what would happen should his knees simply give out. If he could sit down in the centre of the carriage and lay his head in Holmes’ lap and simply sleep.

Probably not.

Best not risk it.

Holmes escorts him outside, then up his steps, then through the door. He even picks up John’s keys when John drops them. He’s such a nice man when he’s being a nice man.

It’s possible John says this aloud. Holmes is certainly amused enough, at least before he takes in the chill of the house.

“It’s freezing in here.” Holmes strips John of his coat all the same.

“Empty since yesterday,” John mumbles, holding still.

“Where’s your maid?”

John blinks at him oddly. “Martha’s home with her mum, where else?”

Holmes sighs and lights the small lamp on the entryway table. He picks it up. “Come on.”

John navigates the stairs with care and Holmes’ hand at the small of his back. He knocks into the doorframe on the way into his bedroom. It takes him a moment to realise he’s left Holmes in the hall. “S’all right,” he calls, trying to find another light.

Holmes enters slowly, respectful rather than tentative. John adores him for that, utterly adores him. Holmes surveys the bedroom, the dresser and the closet, the desk by the window.

“Is everything in your house over five years old?” Holmes asks. “Besides that bed.”

John tilts his head and the rest of his body tilts with it. He bought the bed after Mary died, their old one much too large. He sits down on it before he falls. “I...” He tries to think. He nods. “Yes.”

“You and your wife slept in the same bed?” As if this is some strange feat.

“Yes?”

“My parents never did,” Holmes explains. “My brother and his wife don’t.”

“You could.” He fumbles at the laces of his shoes.

Holmes sets the lamp on the bedside table and kneels, knocking John’s hands away. Where John had struggled, Holmes makes quick work. Impressive with Holmes still wearing his gloves. “I’ll never marry,” Holmes tells him, moving to the other shoe.

Holmes’ hat has vanished somewhere. His revealed neck is pale and lovely. His hair has some curl to it, even beneath the pomade. It curls at his nape and behind his ears. Across the floorboards of John’s bedroom, Holmes’ long coat is a dark puddle.

“You could,” John repeats, mind unwittingly full of Holmes and Miss Adler and bed sheets.

“Even if it’s another niece.” Holmes looks up at John as if this is about to mean something, but John becomes lost in the angles of his face, in the soft curve of his eyelashes against his pale cheek. “Never.”

John nearly asks how he can be so certain, but another thought jangles up through his sodden brain first. “Your sister,” John asks, abruptly urgent. “Is she, is she all right?”

“She’s fine,” Holmes says. “She’s never miscarried before.” He says it so smoothly, as if he knows what’s in John’s mind, as if he truly knows about Mary when John never talks about the end, never tells. Holmes eases one shoe off and then the other. He remains kneeling on the floor, fingers encircling one of John’s sock-clad ankles. The leather feels strange through the cloth. Unfamiliar, but not unpleasant.

John sighs. He sags a bit and unbuttons his jacket.

Holmes stands.

Halfway through shrugging out of his jacket, John stares groggily at his chest. John looks up at his face and asks, “Will you sit?”

Holmes sits beside him. His weight shifts the tilt of the mattress. Slowly, they settle against each other. John’s jacket winds up folded over the footboard.

“I shouldn’t be drunk,” John mumbles.

“No. We’ll try again when you’re sober.”

That doesn’t make much sense, so John ignores it. “Harry used to be drunk. So drunk.”

“Which was it that killed her?” Holmes asks. “The drink or the cold?”

“Love.”

“No one dies of love, Doctor.”

John shakes his heavy head, closes his heavier eyes. “My sister did.” Holmes’ shoulder is at a lovely height, perfect for John’s cheek. John wonders vaguely whether this could still be construed as brotherly. Wonders whether Holmes will tell him to move.

Holmes doesn’t tell him to move. Instead, he asks, “What was his name?”

“Who?”

“Your sister was in love with...?”

“Clara,” John supplies. Then, stomach lurching, corrects, “Clarence. Meant Clarence. Some, um. Some man named Clarence.” When Holmes doesn’t question this, John sighs with the relief of a lie well told. He snuffles a bit farther into Holmes’ shoulder. “You smell like mince pies.”

Holmes shakes against him, an amused vibration. His arm wraps about John’s waist. John could die content here and now, though he’d want to see Vernet first.

“I want,” John begins to say. He stops.

“Yes?”

John shakes his head, cheek rubbing against Holmes’ coat, stubble scraping fabric.

“What do you want for Christmas, Doctor?” Holmes asks.

John shakes his head, more emphatic than before. “What d’you want?”

“You know what I want. I’ve been patient.”

Oh: to not have to inherit. Of course.

“Though I must say,” Holmes adds. “I’m thoroughly enjoying the chase.”

John hums his agreement. He likes investigating.

“But what do you want?” Holmes asks. He asks as if it matters.

John giggles a bit because it’s silly. He says it’s silly and Holmes says to tell him anyway. “I want to hear my best friend sing,” John confides. “Silly.”

For a long lovely moment, Holmes holds him a bit tighter than necessary, a bit tighter than strictly makes sense. Then he eases away. “You should go to sleep.”

John flops down without Holmes beside him. Holmes takes up the lamp and does something at the fireplace until it stops being quite so dark, though still just as cold. Bone tired, John struggles beneath the blankets still dressed. He lies curled on his side. He’s nearly asleep when the mattress shifts beneath him.

“Holmes?” he asks.

Sitting in the curve of John’s legs and chest, Holmes looks down at his own hands. He toys with his left glove. “There’s something I need to tell you,” Holmes says. “I need my brother’s permission first. He’s a tyrant and a bully, you see, and he cuts me off if he thinks I’m being too foolish.”

John struggles to follow Holmes’ meaning, squinting up at him. “Are you? Foolish.”

“No. Not this time.”

John nods against his pillows, eyes once again closing. The heat in the room has already risen. It’s lovely. Holmes is lovely.

“I’ll tell you at the Masquerade,” Holmes promises. His hand presses against John’s shoulder, enough to be felt, not enough to hurt. Perhaps he hesitates. Maybe he lingers. Ultimately, he stands. “Good night, Watson.”

John hums quietly. Content beyond measure, he falls asleep before Holmes’ footsteps so much as reach the door.

Chapter Text

On his way to pick up Mrs Hudson from Baker Street, John looks like a right idiot. He can only be grateful for the shelter a growler provides, the closed carriage hiding him from public view. Is there anything more moronic in appearance than being alone in fancy dress? John’s uncertain but heavily leaning toward the negative.

Such a good decision in hindsight, not bringing a spear. Bad enough being ridiculous without being a ridiculous menace. He supposes he is a bit of a menace tonight, but not quite in such an obvious way.

He leaves his mask upon the seat as he collects Mrs Hudson from her door. His coat falls over most of his outfit, for which he is thankful. Mrs Hudson’s outerwear does the same, the long black cloak falling over her white dress with elegance and dignity even as she giggles. He really ought to have left the gauntlets in the carriage.

“You look so uncomfortable.” She pats his arm fondly. “Don’t worry, that will fade. You’re not used to fancy dress, are you?”

“I’ve never been much for it,” he answers, handing her up into the carriage. They settle side by side in the back, their masks sitting across from them. Both are helmets with visors, hers gold with a red plume, his silver with none.

As the carriage pulls away from the kerb, Mrs Hudson unpins something from the underside of her cloak. “Turn here,” she prompts.

John does. He opens his coat when she tuts and holds still as she pins on a silver broach, its shape that of a spear over a shield.

“There. Oh, wait, should it be at a different angle...? Hm, let’s see.”

Grinning a bit, John holds still as Mrs Hudson sorts out the final touches. The spear fixes to the white of his tunic, left of the red, central stripe. John’s belt over the tunic is wide and red, the same shade as the vertical stripe, and that completes the cross on this Saint George. His trousers and boots are plain enough in cut, but the metallic shimmer of his trousers is frankly embarrassing. The shirt beneath the tunic is much the same. The gauntlets are primarily leather, pieces of metal fixed along the back of the hands and fingers. They’re light, a borrowed stage prop Miss Hooper said wouldn’t be missed. They’re slightly too large, however, intended for a man larger than John. He imagines he’ll remove them soon enough, possibly sticking them through his tunic belt.

He doesn’t see Mrs Hudson’s costume in full until they arrive at the opera house. Tonight, the building shines with light, all aglow from within and without. The streetlamps beat back the evening fog. Lights from the roof as well as the windows illuminate the opera house facade, turning its familiar face into that of a more attractive stranger.

Inside, the lobby shines with tinsel and the good candles. The marble floor has been polished to within an inch of its life, and that is the least of the visible preparations. There are flowers, actual flowers, a true hothouse indulgence at this time of year.

Helmets on, Mrs Hudson and John wait in the cloakroom queue. It gives John time to look about. Though he’s attended the backstage festivities in other years, the drunken revelry in narrow wooden halls pales in comparison to this. Everyone about them is elaborately disguised, impeccably dressed. The only comparison seems to be the growing inebriation. Masked ushers play the parts of waiters, weaving through the crowd with trays laden with cups and morsels.

Above the grand staircase, the conductor stands in the main balcony wearing the horns and fleece of a golden ram. Mr Johnson’s motions direct the musicians positioned over the main door, situated on the wrap-around balcony over the lobby. His position is clearly intended to draw attention, a reminder of the quality of music which will accompany the Masquerade all evening. Such a reminder is hardly necessary. The sound is rich and full.

Though the evening is still young, the dancing is already underway across the lobby floor. John tries to catch sight of a familiar shape, if not a familiar face, and finds himself at a loss. Domino masks across the eyes, half masks down to the lips, full masks concealing the entire face, animal masks contorting the features: all prevent John from any sort of immediate recognition. Perhaps some of them are police. If John can’t tell, he sincerely hopes the same is true of their phantom.

Handing over his coat at last, John takes advantage of the moment to surreptitiously adjust the item tucked beneath his regular belt, beneath his tunic and red belt but over his shirt. Perhaps bringing along his revolver wasn’t the most prudent course of action—if his bullets did damage to the marble, he’d never be able to pay for repairs—but the risks inherent in leaving it at home seemed larger than those of bringing it.

Adjusting her shawl over her shoulders, Mrs Hudson doesn’t seem to notice. She has little in the way of sleeves, her flowing white dress elegant in its simplicity. Toga-like and belted in gold high above her natural waist, the outfit makes her every inch Britannia. The shawl serves in the stead of a shield, blue with white and red stripes. Her trident pendant glitters on its gold rope about her neck. When she grins out at him through visor of her plumed helm, the sense of timeless dignity somewhat abates, leaving beloved Mrs Hudson standing beside him once more.

“I’ve no idea what you’re so embarrassed about,” she chides, taking his arm. “You’re very handsome, Dr Watson. Let’s see where Sherlock’s off to: he did promise you that sword.”

The search proves more entertaining than fruitful. They ooh and ahh over more elaborate costumes and laugh at the clever. At the sight of a plain white mask, John nearly gives himself whiplash. On the second glance, the mask is clearly the wrong shape, covering too little of the cheeks and forehead. What’s more, the man wearing it is a healthy, robust weight.

After that, John simply can’t stop looking. The conviction seizes him, absolutely irrational, that Vernet must be in attendance. How could it be possible for so many masked faces to be within one building and none of them belong to Vernet? This line of thought hardly makes sense, but the absurdity of the emotion does little to prevent John from feeling it. There’s a fellow dressed as Red Death with a skull mask and flaming scarlet cape, but while his flair matches Vernet’s, his height falls sadly short.

Mrs Hudson pats his arm in obvious understanding. For an instant, a flitter of what might be guilt crosses her features, but surely that’s the visor distorting an expression of concern.

“Is he all right?” John asks softly, a question he’s not permitted himself to ask for nearly an entire month.

She nearly sighs, and John recognises that combination of sad resignation and fondness from his own heart. “He’s quite all right,” Mrs Hudson promises. “You’ll see for yourself soon enough, dear.”

John’s gaze snaps out over the crowd immediately, seeking the tall men, the thin men, the tall, thin men.

“Later,” Mrs Hudson adds.

Early January, John knows. Early January, Vernet had said. New Year’s Eve is hardly that. Rather than press, John asks her about how the chandelier repairs are coming along. Quite well, it seems, but she shushes him: that announcement is meant to come later tonight.

The current song ends, and the dancers turn to applaud the conductor and the musicians in turn. Securing his helmet with his left hand, John peers up at the violinists, then at the conductor. No, still no. Though the ram’s head thoroughly disguises the conductor’s features, the man’s gestures are entirely wrong as he starts up the next waltz. It’s Mr Johnson after all. When Mrs Hudson pulls John into the whirling crowd of dancers, John has no complaints, only distractions.

One dance is all they have time for. Possibly for the best with Mrs Hudson’s hip to be considered. When this waltz concludes, the following pause stretches distinctly longer than the others, certainly longer than the applause lasts.

“Oh, there he is,” Mrs Hudson murmurs to John. “He doesn’t usually come in with his brother.”

John turns to the grand staircase in time to see a party of four descending the stairs. Costumed as the sun, the Earl’s face is largely obscured by his mask, but the moon beside him is too petite to be Miss Adler and must therefore be the Countess. The structure of her dress conceals well any signs of her condition. It must not be public news yet.

Behind the Earl and Countess follow Holmes and Miss Adler. When the Earl stands at the landing of the staircase, clearly about to give a bit of a speech, his moon remains in orbit. His brother does not. Holmes and Miss Adler move aside to stand by the marble railing, her arm threaded through his.

The Earl speaks words of welcome, but John’s attention has already been thoroughly captured. Holmes dresses in black tonight, black with ample nuance and no relief. The satin of his waistcoat gleams darkly against the coal of his linen shirt. A fleck of silver is apparent in his cravat, silk and black. What the silver pin is, John cannot say from his position at the bottom of the stairs.

Another glint of silver comes from his hand where fingers gloved in black leather curl about the head of an ebony walking stick. Holmes wears a cape over his jacket, trimmed with feather rather than fur at each shoulder. The cape matches the mask, a black domino with something of a beak. The well-fitting mask reveals much of his pale face, turning the sight of his skin shocking. From the top of the mask, dark plumage forms a small crest over his sleek hair. Were it not for this flamboyance, his outfit would appear as one of deep mourning.

In comparison to Holmes’ dark shine, Miss Adler emits an eerie glow, ethereal in white. With her double-tiered dress thirty years out of fashion and her mask painted with waxen features, she’s clearly meant to appear dated, ghostly. Seen jointly, their theme becomes clear: the Raven and Lost Lenore. Had John not earlier seen the Red Death walking about, the Edgar Allan Poe reference might have been lost upon him.

Without warning, Miss Adler looks him directly in the eyes and smiles.

John nods politely, then shifts his gaze to the Earl. This happens to be the moment where the Earl concludes speaking, and John is left with a sense that he ought to have paid better attention.

“Oh, that’s lovely, isn’t it?” Mrs Hudson asks, clearly rhetorical.

“Ah, yes,” John says. She means Holmes and Adler’s joint costume, doesn’t she?

“It’ll be good to get back to work,” Mrs Hudson continues. Apparently the speech touched on the new chandelier.

“What day did he say that was?”

Mrs Hudson gives him an odd look through her visor. “The third of January.”

“I meant day of the week,” John corrects before working through his calendar aloud. Mrs Hudson seems to accept this.

Before John can make any more verbal missteps in the relative safety of Mrs Hudson’s company, Holmes and Miss Adler descend the steps to join them. Polite greetings are exchanged. When John and Holmes fail to do more than stare at each other, Miss Adler and Mrs Hudson seize hold of the conversation on their own. Something about the choreography of a ballet John doesn’t think he’s heard of, but it’s a topic Mrs Hudson takes to fondly once Miss Adler asks after it.

From under his fitted mask, Holmes flicks a smile in John’s direction. John returns it. The silver cravat pin is a bird in flight. Possibly a raven. It’s still difficult to tell. The buttons upon his waistcoat appear to be jet. Designed specifically for this costume, or something elaborately dark already in Holmes’ wardrobe? John wonders.

“I tucked the sword away in one of the back halls,” Holmes murmurs.

“Oh!” He wasn’t staring too intently, was he? “Ah, thank you.” His stomach turns over. “Where...?”

Holmes gestures slightly with his cane. “Shall we?”

“No, you shan’t,” Mrs Hudson interrupts. She looks to Miss Adler. “Once he vanishes, he never comes back.”

Very much amused, Miss Adler looks at John rather than Holmes. “Oh, I hardly mind. Do what you like with him.”

“But he so seldom complies,” John replies, thinking of the envelope still upon his dresser. Somewhat crinkled around the edges by now, but he’ll manage to slip it onto Holmes’ person at some point in the future.

As it so often is, Miss Adler’s grin is absolutely wicked. She curls her hand about Holmes’ elbow. “I’m certain we could make him between the two of us.”

The raven mask is much too small to disguise the flush blooming across Holmes’ cheeks, let alone the pink rising up his neck. He no longer appears quite so aristocratically pale, and yet it’s remarkably fetching. Holmes clears his throat. “I believe I owe Mrs Hudson a dance first.”

“Yes you do!” Mrs Hudson agrees. She accepts his arm from Miss Adler. John accepts Holmes’ cane. The head of it is, of course, a silver raven.

“I don’t suppose...?” John looks at Miss Adler with a question in his eyes. When she shakes her head against a dance, he sighs in relief.

“I’d much rather we talk,” she says and takes his arm as if his limb is his leash.

“You seem to be enjoying yourself with Holmes,” John says.

“He’s so easy to tease. If it weren’t so delightful, it’d be an absolute waste. He doesn’t have your shameless ways of flirtation, Dr Watson.”

“That’s more a case of losing shame than gaining flirtation,” John replies, pleased to see her grin.

“You simply must teach him how.”

“I’ll do my best.”

They look at the costumes of those dancing past, their words those of quiet praise or quieter mockery. Miss Adler has no difficulty recognising the individuals behind the masks, a skill John wonders at.

“How do you see through them so well?” John asks after she identifies Mr Havill behind a full mask.

“I hardly need to see through them,” she replies, eyes upon the crowd. “A disguise is a remarkable self-portrait, don’t you agree?”

“I’m not sure I do.”

She points him toward the Earl. “All of us in orbit about him?”

John laughs. “Too true. But what about you?”

“What about me?” She gestures down her body, then back to her mask.

John dissects the literary allusion. “Ah. The unattainable woman. Much sought, much pined-after, but forever lost to man.”

Miss Adler’s raised eyebrow is more cutting than any accusation of John taking the piss ever could be.

“I’m hardly a saint,” John explains, indicating the red cross over his tunic.

“But you would love to slay dragons, wouldn’t you,” she muses.

When they’d first met, such a comment would have disturbed him. By now, her perceptiveness hardly flusters him. He hums something noncommittal.

Still dancing, Mrs Hudson and Holmes rotate in their direction, Mrs Hudson so small and delicate in Holmes’ arms that John is nearly concerned. Holmes’ costume is just as attractive from behind as it is the front, the cut of his jacket stylishly short above the waist, his cape fluttering with his movements.

“Mrs Hudson needs no explanation, but what of Holmes?” John asks Miss Adler.

“Really? I’d have thought that would be obvious.” A smile plays at her lips.

“Not to me.”

“He’s a giant preening bird.”

John laughs. It’s so absurdly true. Beak, feathers and posture combine into the perfect articulation of that masterful arrogance. “Oh, God, I can’t stop seeing it now.” He knows why he didn’t see it before, however. Holmes normally loathes being stared at by large numbers. Perhaps it’s the pretence of anonymity that brings out this side of him.

When Holmes and Mrs Hudson rejoin them, both flushed and smiling, John manages to keep from laughing. It’s a close struggle. Holmes’ eyes linger on John’s face before John remembers to return the cane to him. The gauntlets make him slightly clumsy, an effect only worsened by the festive atmosphere. Holmes hardly seems to mind.

“Now, if Mrs Hudson finds it acceptable,” Holmes remarks, “I expect to vanish.”

“Your vanishing, yes. Your stealing our John, no,” Mrs Hudson replies, a playful hand on John’s arm.

“What if he promises to return me?” John asks.

“I don’t,” Holmes answers bluntly. “That defies the point of vanishing.”

“That defies of the point of adding a sword to my outfit, then.”

Holmes sighs. “Yes, yes, you can come back later and let Mrs Hudson show you off.”

“We’ll entertain ourselves in the meanwhile,” Miss Adler promises. “It’s been ages since I’ve had someone to discuss politics with. Now off you go.”

Mrs Hudson passes from John’s arm to link her elbow with Miss Adler’s. “We’ll get along nicely, I think,” she says, patting Miss Adler’s hand.

Holmes steers John away before John can be tempted into the conversation. He thinks he knows their initial topic from the newspaper, but he must have read the matter with only half his mind. Too distracted by the attempt to remember the specifics, he doesn’t realise just how far away from the party Holmes is leading him until Holmes opens a door to the backstage area.

“You stored it back here?”

“I didn’t want anyone happening over it,” Holmes answers with a hushed voice. He gestures John forward. John finds his way through the darkness with an outstretched hand, navigating toward the glow of the ghost light upon the stage. Its sphere of illumination is small, turning all beyond the pit to shadow.

“This seems excessive!” John calls back into the dark.

Holmes has rendered himself practically invisible, black on black on black. Only the shine of his buttons and the gleam of feathers separate him from shadow. “Here we are,” he says, holding the sheathed sword. Where he picked it up or how he located it, John has no idea. “The slit in your tunic ought to be high enough that it can attach to your belt beneath.”

“Ah, thank you.”

John holds out his hand, but Holmes steps close, a creature of dark refinement. He has recently chewed mint, the scent lingering on his breath. “Allow me.”

“Ah,” John says. His head nods permission as his mind shudders to a stop. Beneath the scent of mint lies a heady cologne, reminding the nose of old books, the pleasing smoke of a crackling wood fire, and soft, deep leather cushions.

“Lift your tunic for me.”

John does so, bunching the fabric high. He tries not to think about how ridiculous his trousers must look, even in such little light. He remembers the helmet and promptly surrenders any hope of dignity.

Holmes makes quick, efficient work of it, the backs of his leather-clad fingers bumping against John’s shirt, his waist. As closely as he stands, it’s still a wonder he can see the task at hand. Belt shifting about his hips, pulled by the additional weight of the rapier, John holds his body as still as possible, abruptly concerned for the weapon already tucked behind his belt. He reaches behind himself to hold it in place and hopes Holmes won’t notice.

“There,” Holmes says, releasing him. When he pulls away, the air turns noticeably colder. “How does it sit?”

“Well.” His eyes having adjusted, John looks out into the house, out and up. The space is remarkable, empty, a skeleton awaiting its flesh. The curtains of the boxes slumber like so many closed eyes. “The new chandelier,” he notes.

“Nearly identical to the old one.” Standing at John’s side, he strikes a fearsome profile, harsh and majestic. A self-portrait, indeed.

“But more difficult to tamper with, I hope?”

Holmes hums. “Would you care to see the new arrangement?” He gestures to the shadows above the house.

For an instant, John thinks of Mrs Hudson. In the next instant, he thinks of how perfectly capable she is of amusing herself. Miss Adler hardly merits a concern on that front.

“I would, thank you.”

They locate a small lamp and light it with matches. There would be something sacrilegious about using the ghost light for such a mundane task. His steps confident, Holmes leads the way with the flame in his hand. He leaves his cane behind. He never hesitates in direction, never falters when navigating the low beams that begin to interfere with their progress.

“How much time have you spent up here?” John wonders aloud, careful to keep the sword and hilt from hitting anything. It takes some growing accustomed to.

“Recently? Next to none.”

“And not recently?”

“Several decades ago, as frequently as I could escape my brother’s eye. The dimensions of the place have changed considerably.”

John laughs quietly, a low chuckle that doesn’t much sound like him. He clears his throat.

They reach the great chain and the mechanism holding the chandelier aloft. Holmes explains the additional safety measures, the lock and key required, and so on. The sound of his voice is pleasant, light and soft, the way spring rain ought to be. It falls away into the darkness before and below them, swallowed by the whisper of music heard even up so close to the ceiling.

When Holmes finishes speaking, he seems to expect some answer. Lacking it, John asks instead, “Supposing someone tried to drop this one, how would they go about it?”

Holmes seems pleased to convey his thoughts on the matter. There are but two ways in and out to the lowering mechanism and the great chain, all of them leading back toward the way they’d come. Easily enough watched.

“Shall we circle around the other way, then?” John suggests.

Perhaps Holmes’ expression flickers. Perhaps the lamp does. “Are you forever on duty, Watson?”

“Not forever,” John answers, smoothing seriousness over a grin. “Every so often, I have a bit of a lie-in.”

“Do you, now?”

“Yes. Sometimes as late as six o’clock.”

Holmes ducks his head, his lips pulled in the stupidest of grins. Boyish and idiotic, a remarkable impression of a young fool.

“This way?” John prompts, pointing. Entirely rhetorical.

“This way.” Holmes leads him. He’s careful to hold the lamp so both of them might see where to set their feet, a considerate matter indeed when they reach the access stairway. As they descend, there’s some light through the old window, though very little.

Struck by sudden insight, John halts.

Holmes turns to face him, a question on his lips, and John points at the window.

“There. That. Can that open?” Even as John asks this, he strips off his gauntlets and tucks them through the red belt. He tries the grimy window and it opens smoothly. Not a creak, not a protest. “I know for a fact no one oils this window.”

“The puddle before the chandelier fell,” Holmes adds, present on John’s page, on his exact paragraph, upon his very word.

“That’s how no one sees him,” John realises.

“Each time he causes an accident, he escapes out the nearest window,” Holmes continues. “Or even returns inside, should the rain put him in danger of falling.”

“No one noticed a puddle here,” John says.

Holmes immediately drops to a crouch, holding the lamp low. John bends down to look as much as he can manage with the sword on his hip. “No signs of water damage,” Holmes says. “Not so much as a droplet. Check the window.”

“For?”

“Stick your head out and have a look around.”

“Right.” John opens the window as far as it will go, breathing in what passes for fresh London air. He deposits his helmet on to the stairs. With that secure, he sticks his head out and twists, thoroughly off-balance. His gun at the small of his back only makes the whole thing more awkward, to say nothing of the sword. Holmes secures him, a hand on John’s side to keep him from tumbling down the staircase with his head still out a window.

“There’s an overhang,” John reports, pulling back inside. “I don’t think we’d have any water in through this window unless the wind were blowing in this exact direction.”

“Or he could have snuck in through the other window, left his puddle there and proceeded here once he was dry.” Holmes closes the window one-handed. “Do you think you could fit through here?”

“It’s wider than I am, but not by much,” John answers. “I’ve no idea how I’d manoeuvre. If you want me to try that--”

“Hardly.”

“That’s a relief.”

Holmes nods, a flash of black feathers. “There’s no sense in you trying. We’re looking for someone highly skilled, practised.”

“What, a professional burglar?”

“Not quite what I had in mind, no. We need a better look at the walls from the outside.” Holmes takes a step before stopping, nearly making John walk into him. “Don’t forget that.” Holmes gestures to John’s helmet with the lamp.

“Right, thanks.” John grabs it up and follows Holmes down the stairs and through a narrow wooden corridor, the site of one of the major falls in November. Good God, it’s enough to make the ridiculous seem plausible.

Walking between beams, smelling paint and sweat and infused smoke, John matches his steps to Holmes’. His ears strain for sound other than those of their movements, of breath and rustling cloth. At an unexpected creak, John seizes Holmes by the arm. Holmes freezes on the spot. John’s free hand settles on his revolver. Neither of them breathes.

For a long, slow moment, silence reigns.

As gently as he can, John releases him. “Sorry,” he whispers.

Holmes nods curtly but otherwise does not move.

John remains stationary as well.

Nothing happens. Nothing continues to happen. At last, Holmes nods a second time. He resumes his previous stride. Fighting the urge to drag Holmes away to a well-illuminated room full of masked policemen, John follows more closely than before.

Holmes opens the door to the balcony portion of the roof, and they exit beneath a brumous sky. The streetlamps set the fog beneath them aglow but fail to reach higher. The winter clouds form a grey barrier against the light of the street and opera house both. John pulls his gauntlets back on, their leather of some use against the chill.

Ripping his mask off, Holmes strides to the edge of the roof. He sets down both mask and lamp upon the stone railing there before standing in front of the light and gazing up at the opera house. Alert and still, he makes a study of the walls. Even with the feathered cape, he is remarkably as John first truly remembers him: a man of aristocratic features and morbid fascination, a man watching a stagehand hang upon a rope.

John moves to stand at his side, helmet in his hands. The face of the opera house is elaborately carved. It would provide ample handholds to any skilled climber.

“Can you see?” Holmes asks, moving forward. He points up and around, directing John’s gaze. “There are paths between the windows, if one is sure of foot.” When he moves too close to the edge, John catches him by the arm once again.

“I can see it,” John says. “Is there anything else we need before we tell the police?”

“A footprint would be lovely.”

“Anything else?” Too much rain this December, and it’s been weeks since the opera house was open to business and therefore attacks.

“Do you suppose he could also climb down from here?” Holmes leans over the edge. “Theoretically possible. He’d be hidden within the dark and the fog.”

“You don’t think he’s coming in through below? Or even the front door?”

“The front door is always a risk...”

“But...?”

“That’s not dramatic enough.”

John nearly laughs. “Not everything has to be dramatic.”

“Everything else in his pattern is,” Holmes counters. “The timing of the hanging and the chandelier crash, for a start. The horse thefts were a feat of slight-of-hand. The injuries among the staff have played into common superstition. If it’s not suitably dramatic, it won’t be done.”

“Then you think it’s a theatre type? A theatre type who climbs, so... an acrobat?”

“The puppet master is hardly going to be the one climbing,” Holmes dismisses. “The cabbie had a plan from someone. Our climber—possibly an acrobat, yes—our climber must also have his orders.”

“Yes, but it would still make the puppet master a theatre type,” John argues.

Holmes looks at him oddly. “How do you mean?”

John returns the look in full. “Who else in the world thinks like that?”

“Not army men, by your implication.”

“Not particularly, no.”

Holmes shrugs a bit as if not particularly bothered. He leaves John’s side to return to the lamp. He checks his pocket watch in its light. “Ah, we still have plenty of time.”

“Sorry?” John half-follows, half-hovers. He folds his arms over his front, fighting down shivers when the wind picks up.

His cape billowing out behind him, Holmes leans in close, his eyes shining. “A masquerade on New Year’s Eve? On the most significant midnight of the year, a room full of society’s finest will unmask themselves. How could he possibly resist?”

“He wouldn’t be the only one enjoying himself,” John notes.

Holmes smirks. “I doubt we’d be alone in our enjoyment. Or do you bring a firearm to every party?”

John could choke on his tongue. He nearly does. Instead he says, “Only the dull ones.”

Holmes laughs, a startled, delighted sound that tugs on John’s heart first, his mind second. John frowns, confused without reason to be.

“I promise an exciting finish to the evening,” Holmes replies. “One way or another.”

John laughs as well. “Ought I to be frightened?”

Playing his hesitation for show, Holmes pauses a falsely ponderous moment before shaking his head. Though charming, this too strikes John oddly. It’s nearly as if Holmes is doing an impression of someone else, and yet the motions are sincere.

“Is, um.” John wets his lips. The moisture dries almost instantly in the cold. “Is something else the matter?”

Holmes’ hesitation becomes jarringly real.

John blinks and stands straighter, his shoulder protesting. “Beg pardon. If you’d rather not--”

“I’d rather,” Holmes interrupts.

Nodding, John waits rather than presses. An unconscious movement, his hands move to fold behind his back. His left hand hits the hilt of Holmes’ sword on the way. His right hand holds his helmet. His arms tremble with a shiver. It’s as much Holmes’ intent gaze as it is the chill.

“How much do you remember of Christmas?” Holmes asks.

“I remember impressively strong eggnog, for the most part,” John admits.

“Mrs Hudson has led a remarkable life. Her liver reflects this. What else, Watson?”

“I... imagine we began to refer to each other more informally.”

Holmes nods. Though dressed as a raven, he gazes as a hawk.

“You brought me home. After that, it’s all a touch dreamlike.”

“In what way?”

In many ways. He knows from the morning that Holmes lit him a fire. He thinks he remembers Holmes removing his shoes, kneeling upon the cold floor. Though the sight is clear in his mind, it doesn’t seem real. “In that I don’t remember it clearly. I’ve never been a moody drunk, only a sleepy one.”

“I said there was something I needed to tell you. Do you remember that?”

John fiddles with the helmet behind his back. He forces himself to stop. “You... You needed to ask your lord brother first.”

Holmes nods. “I have. As loath as I am to ask permission, I do have it.”

“Should you--” John shivers. “Should you be saying it out here? The breeze might carry.”

“Yes,” Holmes says, the word oddly detached. Then: “Yes! Yes, inside.” He takes up the lantern and his mask. They close the door securely behind them. Though the air inside isn’t warm enough to make the contrast burn, the lack of wind is an obvious blessing. John still carries his chilled helmet rather than putting it back on. Holmes does the same with his mask.

Biting down any sound of complaint at the ache of his shoulder, John follows Holmes silently until he realises the man’s destination. Does Holmes truly not know how little privacy that would afford them?

“Where are you going?” John whispers.

“A box,” Holmes answers.

John stops immediately.

Holmes walks nearly five paces before turning around. The lamp flickers with his motion. “Problem?”

“Not the best place to be if you don’t want to be overheard tonight.”

Holmes frowns as if mystified.

John clears his throat out of delicacy.

Holmes’ frown deepens.

“Many of them will already be in use,” John explains. “In much the same way I imagine members of the staff are occupying several of the dressing rooms.”

Holmes blinks very slowly. A flush crawls up his throat.

“Unless you’d rather overhear some very intimate proceedings, I suggest somewhere else.”

“Privacy would be... Ah, this way.” Holmes walks quickly away. John fancies even his ears are red.

Holmes leads them back down to the stage area. Rather than approach the ghost light, Holmes keeps to the wings. “Close the door,” he whispers to John, and John does so more by feel than by sight. With the grand drape down, more light comes from Holmes’ lamp than the ghost light. Holmes dims it before setting it and his mask down on a tall stool by the side wall. He moves to stand between the backdrop and a groundrow. A leg curtain falls behind the groundrow, and it is this curtain to which Holmes gestures.

“Here,” Holmes whispers. If the background behind him weren’t that of a spring sky, Holmes would vanish into shadow. The lamp shines faintly along one side of him, his other half as dark as the unknowable side of the moon.

Intrigued, John complies. He leaves his helmet behind to stand with his back to the leg curtain, to the row of leg curtains and the grand drape, to the house beyond. The hanging fabric stirs when the sheath brushes against it.

“Can we be overheard?” John asks. The stage is meant to amplify sound, not conceal it.

Holmes shakes his head. “The curtain is very effective. I have to ask you to keep your voice low.”

John nods. Only the boxes high above ought to be occupied, and those have their own curtains drawn, their own sounds, soft and sighing. They ought not to be overheard and, if overheard, may be ignored for better, sweeter things.

Possibly thinking of the same, Holmes radiates discomfort. John tries to imagine Holmes’ reaction if they had drawn close enough to hear the wet, straining sounds of lovemaking from within the boxes. Perhaps his face would have turned a scarlet to match the box curtains. Perhaps he would have steadfastly carried on, appearing just as pained as he does now.

“There are two matters I am compelled to share with you,” Holmes begins. “Knowledge of the second is contingent upon your acceptance of the first. This is a matter of safety. Of mine and, by extension, my brother’s. Do you understand?”

Not in the slightest. “Yes,” John answers nonetheless, “but if it would be safer not to tell me, I feel you ought not to tell me.”

“This confidence is already drastically overdue, Watson.”

“Drastically?”

Holmes nods curtly. Sharp tension lines his body, nearly trembles within him.

“Then I accept the first. Whatever you need me for, yes.” When Holmes fails to relax in the slightest, clearly doubting John’s word, John asks, “How long has this been a problem?”

“Not a problem.” Holmes’ whisper is harsh. “A problem for Mycroft, not for me.”

John nods gently, willing to guide Holmes through his agitation. Compared to Vernet’s raging doubts over his score and libretto, this can hardly present a difficulty. “He refused you permission until recently?”

“I... lacked evidence to sway him. He refused to trust you.”

“What changed his mind?”

Holmes slips into the explanation with sudden ease. “On paper, you appear a quiet man. Your history here suggests you took the position out of grief and a desire for distraction. You permitted the opera house to consume you, as is its wont. You appeared content to remain static: loyal to the concept of the joint-enterprise of the stage, but truly attached to only a few.”

Voice barely a whisper, Holmes leans in closer, assuring John’s understanding of his words, if not his greater meaning. His cologne is distracting. “You prefer not to discuss your past and grow agitated when pressed beyond your self-imposed limits. Initially, I thought this was grief and you trapped within it. Or guilt, perhaps. But I was wrong. You live in your unchanging home without suffocation and think of your wife’s ghost with fondness, not loyalty: it is neither grief nor guilt.

“It is a hatred of pity. Cloying sympathy is anathema to you. It took me until Christmas to see that. I apologise for the delay.”

“I still don’t understand,” John whispers. “How does any of this impact your lord brother?”

“Only through me.” Holmes leans closer still, enough for John to feel the heat of his breath. The scent of mint has largely abated, but what is left is pleasant for more than merely its warmth. John’s mouth waters. He thinks fleetingly, irrationally, of indoor herb gardens and the way Holmes fingers might look plucking soft leaves from a sprig.

Holmes’ height and proximity bid John’s chin to rise, his head to tilt. Holmes’ face is little more than shadow in the dark, recognisable only through the prominence of his cheekbones and the angle of his jaw.

“To have you at all grief-ridden or guilt-bound would be... inconvenient.”

“To what--” John turns his head and clears his throat, surprised by his own sudden rasp. “To what end?”

“To whatever end.”

Too afraid of reaching the wrong conclusion, John’s mind shies away from his first resulting thought. “I... ah. What, er.” John wets his lips. “What particular destination do you have in mind?” He ignores his breathless voice. He attempts a smile.

Holmes looks down. Not at John’s mouth but at his own hands, clasped low between their bodies. Visible only by the sheen upon the leather, their grip is tight and slowly relinquished. The right hand rises. Holmes’ hand navigates the low barrier of the sword hilt before hovering over John’s arm, circling from elbow to forearm.

Holmes’ fingers dip between John’s arm and his side. They dip deeply, sliding between layers of fabric until Holmes’ palm lies against the curve of John’s ribcage. John continues to stare, to watch Holmes’ forearm even as he feels gloved fingers curl into him. All movement of his body has been claimed by his pounding heart. There is nothing left for any other part of him.

“I know you want me,” Holmes murmurs, “but will you have me?”

There is a kiss on those lips, one which would prove as easily claimed as rain upon an upturned face. There is warmth and good work and an earl-to-be willing to kneel at his feet. There is an increasingly crinkled envelope upon John’s bedroom dresser. There is so terribly much to be held in the darkness. There is so terribly little that may ever know sunlight.

“I don’t think I can,” John whispers.

Holmes releases his breath in a rush, nearly laughing in incomprehensive relief. “You can.” He presses his lips to John’s temple. “You can and you may. We’ve Mycroft’s permission, practically his blessing. For him, that’s much the same thing.”

His kisses to John’s skin are clumsy, rushed, so desperate is their sincerity. They demand John turn his face and answer them in kind. They demand John never move again and remain a stationary target to their tender onslaught.

John could. So very easily. He could look up. As simple as that. Instead, he shakes his head and feels as if he may die.

“No?” Holmes asks, indulgent and amused. “There are no barriers, John. Only discretion. We are each more than capable of that.”

“And if your nephew is born a niece?” John tries to pull back, but his hands traitorously remain anchored on Holmes’ hips. His back presses against the curtain. As Holmes pursues him, the fabric ripples and gives way, enveloping them in a soft, shifting alcove.

“I told you, I’ll never marry.” Holmes presses their foreheads together rather than seeking John’s mouth, a respite John mentally welcomes and physically resents. His body has no complaints, no need for sanity. Though terribly warm, he shivers at the touch of leather curling against his cheek. With that, the line of John’s trousers becomes absolutely ruined.

John shakes his head against Holmes’ brow, his palm. “Not even for your nieces? Not even if your brother cuts you off?”

“I’ve thought this through,” Holmes answers, irritation creeping into his quiet tone. His light voice grows tight.

“All right,” John whispers softly. “Then what will you do if it’s a girl and your brother cuts you off? You’d take poorly to being a kept man.”

“I’ve some investments. I’m hardly destitute.”

“How often would we see each other? On what pretences?”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what, being reasonable?”

“We’ll find a way around it,” Holmes insists.

John shies away into the curtain. Guilt boils through his stomach, the fumes of it rising into his mouth. “I don’t...”

“You don’t what?” Holmes’ eyes narrow. “You don’t want to. You--” His hand jerks back from John’s face. “These aren’t concerns. They’re excuses.”

“I’m sorry,” John whispers.

“You’re sorry.”

“Yes.”

“And for what, pray tell, are you sorry?” Holmes practically spits the word, his voice never rising in volume.

For wanting someone else, John doesn’t say. Instead, John ducks his head and begins to free his belt of Holmes’ sword. Holmes stands before him without a word, without a sound, but so very far from silent. Not even the darkness can conceal the shaking of his hands or the contortion of his features.

Rather than risk handing it over, John leans down to the side and sets the sword upon the stage. He stands slowly, carefully. They no longer touch in any way.

“Tell me, Dr Watson,” Holmes bids him. “How far does your amenable nature serve? How many acts of perversion would you allow me to commit before disgust overcame your compliance?”

“I’m not disgusted. I...” There ought to be words for this. Surely they exist. “You’re a very attractive man. I stopped thinking.”

Holmes’ lip curls. “You didn’t. Not for one instant.”

“I was confused.”

“By what?”

“This not being all in my head,” John explains.

“You’re an extremely unobservant man.”

“Oh, good, we agree.”

A flippant response, a stupid response, and Holmes’ resulting rage is well-deserved. Such a wordless, towering rage. It blazes through his eyes and brings his tall stature to tremble. To look up at his face is to gaze upon the heights of a cliff when the ground begins to quake. John braces for a blow that never falls.

“Go,” Holmes growls.

John escapes from the curtain’s embrace, nearly tripping over the painted scenery of the wooden groundrow. The ghost light half blinds him as he emerges from behind the grand drape. His footsteps resound against the stage, against the stairs, and John is around the pit before he realises he’s left his helmet. It lies at the base of the stool with Holmes’ mask upon it.

With a quiet, unintentional curse, John stops. There’s no rejoining the Masquerade without his helmet. He thinks for a moment of hiding in one of the halls, but Holmes might also choose to hide there. He can’t remain in the house either, not with Holmes still upon the stage.

At the sound of footsteps upon the stage, John turns and immediately ducks behind the pit wall. His helmet smacks against the other side. John waits a moment, uncertain Holmes isn’t about to throw the sword at him as well. Rising slowly from his crouch, he peers over the pit wall.

Holmes glares down at him with tense shoulders and fisted hands. Proud even now, especially now, he holds his chin high. The cold footlights decorate the stage before him, as if reality willingly embroiders itself to better display Sherlock Holmes.

John is almost sick to recognise the moment for what it is: another opening, another chance. John can change his mind. He can apologise, can fall upon his knees and throw caution away with even more force than Holmes mustered on his helmet. Regardless of any observers from above, the opportunity beckons. John can do this, and Holmes will still have him.

Instead, eyes on the floor, John walks to the small gate in the pit wall, reaches inside, and unfastens the latch. He finds his helmet. He doesn’t inspect it, doesn’t put it on. He merely takes it and exits the pit. Turning to latch the gate behind him, he looks up. He knows he shouldn’t and he does it all the same.

Holmes is unreadable from this angle, the ghost light transformed into a halo, Holmes into a silhouette. John shifts to the side until he can make out Holmes’ face.

“What?” Holmes snaps.

Willing himself into the living embodiment of an apology, John shakes his head.

“If you’ve a question, ask it.”

Considering the number of policemen in the lobby and Holmes’ prominence upon the stage, that would be foolish in the extreme.

At the first sign of John’s continuing silence, Holmes bristles all the worse.

“You said two matters,” John mumbles as quietly as he can.

“I said knowledge of the second was contingent upon acceptance of the first.”

“Oh.”

Oh,” Holmes mocks, arms folded across his chest.

John’s mind stumbles, repeating, wondering at a secret that could require acceptance of Holmes’ proclivities. A matter of safety. Inversion is a matter of safety, but what could possibly compound upon that?

The answer comes upon him with full and terrifying force. It falls from his lips in the merest whisper, a statement to be contradicted, an idea to be torn to shreds: “You’re in love with me.”

Holmes doesn’t reply, but his answer is plain. It resides in the fall of his arms to his sides, in the step backward into the light. It lives openly upon Holmes’ features in surprise and devastation. In no hyperbolic terms, the very moment Holmes’ heart shatters upon the stage is unavoidably, inescapably visible.

John’s first instinct is to step forward, to rush forward. To sweep the pieces up and assemble them between his hands. If he could press them together until they fused anew, if he could breathe upon broken flesh and mend it through heat alone, he would. Most readily, he would.

He steps forward, and his friend shatters in full.

Holmes does not shout or cry or find another object to throw. He does not gain in volume. Instead, he mutes himself. He becomes utterly, terribly silent in a way John has never before known him. He does not tell John to go. He doesn’t say anything at all.

“My mistake,” John whispers, because clearly it was. Because that was not something to be said, and because whatever pride Holmes retains ought to be salvaged.

Holmes continues to stand, utterly wordless. His mouth trembles. Be it from the force of a shout or the repression of tears, John doesn’t remain to discover. Helmet in hand, John turns and walks quickly up the long stretch of aisle. When he reaches the door, he risks a glance, but Holmes is already gone.

Chapter Text

The guests dance on inside the lobby. Bright masks and whirling colours spin to lively music. The heat and humidity of the lobby coaxes dancers to pant and strings to come untuned. So late in the evening, wine has loosened tongues, bringing laughter to bubble forth from concealed mouths.

John pulls his helmet down as far as it will reach, covering his nose and no lower. The helmet’s retained chill cannot blot out the heat that still clings to John’s brow, the warmth pressed there by another man’s lips. He straightens his tunic and adjusts his gauntlets. With a tall spine and even steps, he ventures in. He keeps an eye on the men not dancing. Surely these must be the policemen.

A flash of white in the crowd draws his eye, but the mask is white on one side and black on the other. John’s stomach clenches into a tighter and tighter ball. The vision leaves him with a persistent idea. Surely the tunnels below the opera house are unoccupied. There must be space, empty and cold, waiting for a man to creep into its depths and curl about himself.

The thought tempts. The escape beckons. John’s feet do not follow, not when he can expect to find only silence. He needs the violin as a penitent needs the confession box. He needs to blot out his memory and repair his broken friend. The impossibility of both mocks him.

Lacking any other source of familiarity or comfort, he seeks out Mrs Hudson. A pair of dancers stumbles past him, giggling as they support each other. The man slides his hand along the woman’s rear and she tugs him toward the staircase, toward the boxes. John ignores them. He attempts to recall his earlier amusement at the boxes’ mistreatment, but the thought sours.

“Lose your sword, Dr Watson?” Miss Adler inquires, appearing at John’s side out of the colourful multitude. The white of her dress cuts against the whirling hues, ivory against sea glass.

“What?” Blank. Flustered. Both at once.

Her eyes flick across his surface like a stone across a pond. Ripples spread in her wake, his veneer disturbed. Her waxen mask conceals all but those eyes. They widen in accusation. “Did you really?”

“I didn’t lose it.”

“Then you returned it,” she replies. Her voice imbues the topic with no importance whatsoever. Her eyes, sparkling with intrigue, do the opposite.

“It didn’t fit me.” Too long, he ought to add. Some detail about restriction of moment and the tip striking the floor. The lies stick in his throat and there die.

“I see.” Possibly, she smiles behind her mask. She may not. He doesn’t think it a benign expression for one moment. “How terribly remiss of Mr Holmes.”

“An honest mistake.”

“How gracious of you to forgive him.”

“You knew,” John half-asks, half-states.

“I know many things, Dr Watson. You must be more specific.”

“About... about the fit.”

“We estimated the length together,” she replies coolly. Her mask offers no judgement. Her eyes do the opposite. “I dislike being wrong. Hardly as much as Mr Holmes does, of course.”

“I’m aware,” John says. “Please excuse me.”

She regards him for a silent moment, the force of her presence sufficient to erase the sounds of the musicians above. “It nearly fit,” she observes.

John wets his lips. “A lovely sword, but much too heavy for my stature.”

“A pity.” She turns her face toward the dancers, permitting John to breathe once again. “There ends the entirety of our dinner conversation. Such a fun game while it lasted.”

“Please stop.”

The arch of her neck, her raised chin, conveys not the slightest amount of sympathy. She stands as if inconvenienced by a footman and doesn’t pursue when John walks away.

He takes shelter by one of the walls only to realise he stands by the replacement painting for the stolen Vernet. He closes his eyes to the oil waterfall, focusing instead upon the music filling the lobby. Too lively to soothe, it may serve to distract. Recollections of his own behaviour bubble up through his mind at a boil: his eagerness to please, his desperation to impress. He’d fallen prey to the man’s magnetism enough that Holmes must have thought him enraptured by his charms.

For a moment, John considers seeking Mrs Hudson again amid the throng. They might leave early. He can claim the thought of danger at midnight, drawing so close, compelled him to remove Mrs Hudson from the opera house. The instant he sees her, this thought flies from his head. Britannia stands with the sun and moon, Mrs Hudson engaged by the Earl and Countess.

The Earl will know, John realises. The instant he sees John, the Earl will know and John will become a danger to him. A small danger, something inconsequential, a threat easily and quickly snuffed out. John may lose his position for this, if not more. Is that why Holmes had taken an interest in John’s outside practise? God, how long has this night been in the planning?

The urges arises to seek Holmes out, to fall to his knees as bid, to take the man to bed if not to heart. But that thought is self-preservation, not sentiment, and John does not follow it.

Instead, he waits for midnight. Without a pocket watch on him, John locates a fellow who must be a police officer. The man behind the silver weasel mask checks the time often enough. Moreover, John recognises his bearing.

“Mr Lestrade?” John asks on a hunch.

Though no verbal reply is forthcoming, the movement of the mask indicates recognition.

“Dr Watson,” John self-introduces. “We’ve spoken before.”

“Dr Watson, yes,” Inspector Lestrade replies. “Good evening.”

“Good evening.” John mimes a motion of pulling a watch from a waistcoat and Inspector Lestrade wordlessly complies.

They do not speak further and do not need to. Their joint vigil begins at nearly half eleven. Twenty minutes slowly pass.

Ten minutes from midnight, Holmes sweeps into the lobby. His strides are light and even. Beneath the beak of his mask, his mouth forms an easy line. He looks only ahead, eyes never scanning the crowd or wavering in purpose. Without a single feather ruffled, he plucks Miss Adler from a small circle of women and compels her to dance with him. He takes care with his cane and yet more care with his partner. Bodies tense within their gracefulness, motions sharp between their fluidity, the pair joins together in rhythm. He leads in true passion and she plays at a swoon. He is shadow against her starlight. This is the final dance, the last before midnight and unmasking, the last before the great countdown to a new year.

The Earl and the Countess take this final dance as well, their motions sedate though not devoid of a private affection. Inspector Lestrade scans the crowd as the final minute approaches. With a nod, John leaves his side to seek out Mrs Hudson. Her height enhanced by the red plumage of her helmet, she ought to be easily seen, but John’s gaze catches first upon the Red Death with his large hat and even greater plumage.

Unlike the other skull masks in the room, his is anatomically correct, rendered lovingly to scale. He sports even a working mandible, the bone perhaps glued to his own jaw. In John’s moment of distracted fascination, the Red Death begins to move, a purposeful stride toward the grand staircase. The embroidery upon his cape reads “Touch me not! I am Red Death stalking abroad!” and many make way before him with a laugh.

Theatrics at midnight. Deadly theatrics, and nothing in this room fits that description half so well as that man.

John looks for Inspector Lestrade only to discover he’s lost the policeman amid the whirl of the dancers. Lacking that support, John weaves through the crowd only to lose valuable time keeping out of Holmes’ sight. The Red Death climbs the staircase to the landing where the stairs split to the right and left. Above him, the conductor brings the last dance to a close. Standing at Mr Johnson’s side, Mr Havill waves down to the guests, a pocket watch in his other hand.

Before John can do more than set foot upon the bottom stair, Mr Havill cries out, “Ladies and gentlemen! We are but a minute away from the New Year! I would like to say a few short words—”

A blast of flame erupts from the balcony floor without warning.

The guests scream, some in horror, some in uncomprehending delight. Scorched behind a wall of fire, Mr Havill and Mr Johnson cry out for water in thin, breathless voices.

Silence!” bellows the Red Death.

Much of the hall freezes. John does not. He charges up the stairs through the crouched guests cowering upon them. With a flash of a skeletal hand, the Red Death flings a hard, small ball at him, and the front of John’s tunic promptly flares with heat. The guests scream anew, but John’s revolver is already in his hand, his mind detached from all else but his aim. He levels the revolver at the skeletal mask and stares into eyes dark and narrow with fury.

A fresh blaze blasts up from their feet. John falls back, covering his face. The flame abates in but an instant, and with that, the Red Death has vanished. Behind John, below him, he hears Inspector Lestrade cry out, “Find the skeleton!”

John stares blankly for only an instant before yanking the tunic over his head, the red belt burnt through. The heat sears his neck. Someone flings water at him, a sudden shock of dampness. His helmet clatters to the floor before he flings the tunic atop it. He slaps at his chest before being hit by a second dose of water.

“All right, Doctor?” a familiar voice asks behind a servant’s gilded mask and livery. The servant in question holds an empty vase, hothouse flowers strewn at his feet. A second vase lies shattered upon the blooms.

“Fine, Hopkins,” John gasps, dripping and breathless. As if to prove him wrong, his knees give out. John makes a desperate stumble toward the railing before collapsing onto the marble landing. Hopkins rushes to his side, his eyes filled with concern, his hands filled with a vase. Behind Hopkins, policemen swarm and guests swoon.

Something bubbles up John’s throat and sneaks out in a giddy, snickering laugh. His face contorts and his shoulders shake. His chest is still overly warm and his rear is increasingly damp from the puddle in which he now sits.

“Dr Watson?” Hopkins sets down the vase.

“Happy New Year, Hopkins,” John gasps, grabbing at his hand. Wet and blackened, John’s gauntlets leave a dark smear across Hopkins’ white gloves.

“Happy New Year,” Hopkins replies. He sounds pained. John laughs all the harder.

John comes back to himself with an abrupt snap of worry. “What about the others?” he asks.

“Mr Havill and Mr Johnson are being seen to,” Hopkins promises.

“There’s another doctor in the house?”

Perfectly serious in his assessment, Hopkins replies, “I’m not sure, sir, but there are more vases.”

John manages to say “God, I hope there’s another doctor” before dissolving into shaking and hiccupping giggles. The laughter negates John’s further attempts at speaking. It lasts even after Mrs Hudson appears with John’s coat in her arms.

She urges John up from the damp marble before wrapping his coat about him. “You’ll catch your death like that.” Perhaps it’s not meant as a joke, but John finds it difficult to hear as anything else. Mrs Hudson pats John on the back, a soothing touch. “We ought to put you to bed, dear.”

Hopkins vanishes for an instant to reappear with a small flask. “Brandy, sir. Please don’t ask where I found it.”

John accepts it gladly. “Thank you.” He feels a touch steadier on his feet for it, though not for long. He picks up the remains of his costume to find them much more charred than anticipated. Knowing theatrical devices, he’d expected the flame to be more flash than heat. The silver pin from Mrs Hudson has turned black and singes his hand at a tentative touch. He slips his revolver into his coat pocket and makes a mental note to clean and dry it before bed.

“Mrs Hudson, if you wouldn’t mind,” John says, “I’d like to see you home.”

She takes his arm and holds it more supportively than John would prefer. “That sounds like a lovely idea.”

It would be, were Holmes not positioned unmasked between the stairway and the main door. As if realising the barrier he presents, Holmes stands firm, motionless at his brother’s side.

John hesitates, then proceeds. They do not seek each other’s gazes. They pass without acknowledgement. John and Mrs Hudson are nearly to the door before Inspector Lestrade calls, “Dr Watson! I need to take your statement.”

“Tomorrow, Inspector,” Mrs Hudson chides. “The poor man’s been set on fire.”

“Of course.” Lacking a hat, Inspector Lestrade tips the mask now worn upon the top of his head. “Ten o’clock, Scotland Yard, if you’d be so kind.”

“I’ll be there,” John promises. “Good evening.” He realises he’s left his helmet upon the stairs. Entirely beyond caring, John averts his gaze from the side of Holmes’ impassive face and takes his leave. This time, the helmet remains unthrown.



Mrs Hudson looks out the carriage window with a sigh. “Quite a night.”

John hums softly. In the cold, the light burns upon his neck make themselves keenly felt. They sting in a manner reminiscent of his conscience.

A creature of untold understanding, Mrs Hudson pats his knee. How much does she know?

The question resides upon his tongue for the remainder of the ride. When they arrive at Mrs Hudson’s address, John swallows it down. Whether Mrs Hudson knows, it’s a secret she would hardly betray. He bids her a quiet good night and a Happy New Year.

John retires to bed immediately upon returning home, bidding the returned Martha a good evening. The wonder that she is, his maid has already warmed the bricks and applied them appropriately to his bed. On New Year’s Eve, no less. Reading his unsociable and somewhat burnt mood, she even refrains from asking what in the world happened to him. He distracts himself for a moment, thinking that perhaps he should give her every Christmas off.

That line of thought only lasts until he closes the door and sits upon his bed. He thinks of untying his shoes only to think of Holmes kneeling on the floor. When he closes his eyes against the image, he sees it all the more sharply. When he opens them, he sees the envelope upon his dresser resting between the two photographs there displayed. Mary on one side, Harry on the other, John featured in both. On the left, he wears his wedding suit. On the right, a far younger man wears John’s uniform and a terrible moustache.

John rises. Refusing to be haunted, he gently lays the photographs down, one atop of other, and conceals the envelope between them. This helps somewhat. While standing, he unlaces his shoes with success. He toes them off and does not think for an instant of leather gloves. He doesn’t dream of them either.



“And you had the revolver on you throughout the entirety of the evening?” Inspector Lestrade asks.

John nods. “Mr Holmes seemed to expect some trouble.”

“For good reason.”

Inspector Lestrade’s questions continue, largely centring about John’s direct confrontation with the Red Death. When he asks about John’s earlier activity that evening, John simply replies that he and Mr Holmes had been searching for any dangers toward the new chandelier. He begins to share the theory about entry from above, but Lestrade interrupts: he’s already heard it from Mr Holmes. John’s contribution appears to have gone unmentioned. John feigns neither surprise nor offended pride.

After leaving Scotland Yard, John treats himself to a light lunch. The solitary meal is hardly unlike the hundreds of others John has taken for the past years of his life. Nevertheless, he finds it immensely unsatisfying.

He rattles about his day in this uncertain state. His collar agitates the burns upon his neck. He longs for the fourth, for the opera house to be reopened in full. Surely Mr Havill and the Earl won’t cower to such aggression. With that in mind, John sets his revolver and kit into his medical bag. Hardly a tool he’d ever thought he’d need at the opera house. Belatedly, John realises they might have heard their ghost’s demands from the mouth of his newest puppet if John had simply let him speak. Too late to go back and ask the fellow now.



When he falls asleep that night, he falls with a sense of fumbling. Of feeling for walls in the darkness. His mind walks through flickering, shifting halls where every passerby wears Vernet’s face. The only door gives way into the house, the fallen chandelier across the seats and Holmes upon the stage. Flames from the chandelier catch upon the seats. Smoke spreads, rises.

“Get out!” cries a woman’s voice. John whirls about to see Miss Hooper in Box Five with Vernet at her side. “Dr Watson, get out!” she shouts, her voice still wrong. It’s his maid’s voice, it’s Martha’s voice, and John startles awake to find his bedroom filled with smoke.

He’s on in his feet in a disoriented instant, crouched low and already coughing. Somewhere in that motion, he shoves his bare feet into his shoes with all the unconscious control of a soldier waking at a nocturnal raid. Martha continues to shout for him.

“I’m awake!” he cries. “Martha, run!”

He hears nothing more from her and can only hope it a sign of obedience. He seizes his photographs, flings them into his medical bag, and rushes, doubled-over, to the door. The wood emits palpable heat, and the handle threatens to burn before he can so much as touch it. Light from below: a flicker from beneath the door.

“The window,” he mutters to himself, coughing. “The window, come on.” If their acrobat can, then so can he. He throws open the sash and smoke rushes out. Leaning out, John estimates the drop to street level with watering eyes. Thank God he doesn’t sleep more than a single flight up.

He coughs out his curses, then drops his medical bag out first. It hits his front steps and rolls down, a clear hint that a straight jump onto that surface may mean broken ankles, if not legs. For one mad moment, he contemplates tying the bed sheets into rope. No time, and he hardly trusts it.

His limbs begin to tremble before he can climb out the window. He forces himself forward all the same only to clutch at the wood as a coughing fit seizes him. Legs out first. He needs his legs out first. If he can hang down from the sill, it won’t be such a drop.

There. Legs out.

Lying on the sill, the wood digging into his stomach, this entire operation strikes him as a terribly poor idea. Not as poor as waiting for his door to give way, but a terribly poor idea all the same. His pyjama shirt rides up as he slowly slips.

Feet searching for purchase and finding none, John lowers himself until the sill digs into his armpits. Arms shaking, he eases down an increment before his arms give way entirely. He hangs in the air but a moment before his feet hit the steps. With no hope of balance, he falls down the front stairs, nearly striking his head upon the wrought iron railing.

Air. Knocked out of him. Air, and coughing. He curls onto his side, coughing and gasping in turns. He dry heaves noisily over the pavement. As if through thick fog, a bell rings the alarm.

Martha, he thinks distantly. Where is she?

Feet appear in front of him, then knees, then the worried face of his neighbour as the man drags him away from the remains of his front door.

“My bag,” John rasps. Mary’s photograph. Harry’s.

“My daughter has it, Dr Watson,” Mr Turner replies.

Together, they stagger to the street. Of the small herd gathered in the street, only the neighbours from across the street are dressed. When one of these spectators offers John a blanket, it seems only fair to sling it round Martha’s trembling shoulders. “Thank you,” John manages between the coughs. “For waking me.”

“Thanks for Christmas with my mum, sir,” she answers, tugging the blanket tightly about herself. She pulls her brown braid out from beneath the fabric, then shivers. John’s afraid she’ll have a great deal more time with her mother shortly, but he doesn’t say it.

The fire brigade arrives soon enough to save the neighbouring houses but little more. “Arson,” says one fireman. As the sun rises, he goes on to explain how the fire was set, but all John can think of are the burns upon his own neck and the revolver within his bag.



Mrs Hudson’s maid opens the door. To her credit, Eliza only stares at them somewhat. It can’t be every morning a man turns up on her doorstep in a borrowed, ill-fitting overcoat and dirty pyjamas, reeking of smoke, and accompanied by a sooty young woman wrapped in a blanket. The reddened eyes and nostrils might also appear somewhat alarming.

“Dr Watson,” John rasps. “I was here for Christmas. Is Mrs Hudson in?”

“She is, Dr Watson,” Eliza replies. “Would you and your... would you both care to wait in the sitting room?”

“That would be lovely,” John says. Beside him, Martha coughs, a rough, unintentional sound. “Tea would also be lovely,” John adds in the dwindling remains of his voice. “Lemon and honey, if you have it.”

Eliza shows them to the sitting room before bringing the tea. With John sporting something of a limp from his fall, the progress is slow. Mrs Hudson joins them soon after, or rather, she pops in long enough to cry, “Oh, you poor dears!” She quickly vanishes before reappearing with a purple dress. She deposits this into Martha’s arms. “We can’t have you freezing in that blanket!”

“I’ve my nightgown, ma’am,” Martha says, but Mrs Hudson will not be deterred until there are hot baths and even John has been forced into yet more borrowed clothing. Though Mrs Hudson’s husband wasn’t much taller than John, he was certainly wider, but it’s a better than wandering about dressed for bed.

So begins his stay at Mrs Hudson’s home. They quickly agree he’ll return to her son’s old bedroom. The attic bedroom will go to Martha until she has a dress and coat of her own to wear on the train to her father’s house. The first two days pass with both of them off of their feet as much as possible, throats sore and heads aching. On the third day, the fourth day of the month, the opera house reopens. John only remains in bed due to a stern talking to and sheer exhaustion.

He sleeps and wakes fitfully. He blames the shortness of breath and the tenderness of his throat. That night, when Mrs Hudson returns home at an hour only appropriate for an opera house employee, John is conscious for her return. Martha may be asleep, and good thing too: her train home is in the morning.

“Mrs Hudson,” John whispers, descending the stairs with a careful hand on the railing. His borrowed housecoat is too large and therefore perfectly warm.

“Dr Watson!” She smiles distractedly. “You ought to be in bed, dear.”

He shakes his head. “Was anyone else burnt down?”

She hesitates. The fear in his heart must escape to his face, for she swiftly adds, “No. No one else.”

“Then...?”

“There... There was a new note.” She visibly frets over his reaction before relenting. “It said: ‘Any who dares interrupt my work shall have it visited upon him.’”

“Is that so?” John says. “What a guest. Remind me not to invite skeletons into my home in the future.”

She doesn’t smile at that as much as he wishes she would. So terribly difficult to make light when absolute seriousness gazes back at him.

John permits his own smile to fall. “I’ll go to the police tomorrow. Perhaps a hotel.”

“A hotel? Dr Watson—”

“You’ve been more than kind, but Martha’s leaving in the morning and my tailor dropped off two suits for me yesterday. If at all possible, I should leave.”

“Dr Watson, if you believe the police aren’t already watching this house, the smoke must have blinded you.” She shakes her stern head. “You aren’t going anywhere unless it’s back to bed!”

“I’m returning to work tomorrow.”

“Only if you return to bed tonight. Don’t think I can’t hear your breathing. And your poor leg! You’re moving so stiffly.”

“I’ll pace myself,” he promises. “It would be good for morale to show everyone I’m alive and well.” He coughs fit to rip up his throat and has the grace to look abashed. “Mostly well.”

“You really ought to wait a few more days, dear. Mr Havill understands.”

“I swear, I’ll pace myself. I’ll fuss after no one. I’ll sit in the house and watch rehearsal all day.” As this offering entirely fails to please her, he amends, “All afternoon.” This fails as well. “Late afternoon.”

“Well...”

“I’ll do nothing to compromise my health.” He states an old thought as if it has suddenly come upon him: “I might go downstairs. I find the atmosphere calming. Very secure. I’ve missed it.”

“Downstairs?” Mrs Hudson asks, an odd quality to her voice. Afraid her maid will overhear?

John descends the remaining stairs and whispers, “Vernet’s cellar.”

Though there is barely any space for it to perform such a feat, her face falls farther. “Oh, John.”

In a very similar manner, John’s stomach plummets. “What’s happened? Have the police found it? Do they think he’s the ghost?”

She shakes her head. “We’re afraid it’s only a matter of time. It’s all being removed.”

John holds on all the more tightly to the railing. Words thoroughly escape him. All removed? The tables, that desk? The papers, Vernet must have taken with him rather than risking to rats and damp, but surely everything else remains? All but the Saratoga trunk and the empty tins. And the violin. Of course the violin would follow him home. Has Vernet’s mask been left cold upon a table, its whiteness lost among so many snuffed candles?

“By whom?” he asks.

Mrs Hudson looks at him oddly.

“Who is removing the, the everything?”

She raises a hand to forestall him. “You shouldn’t go down there tomorrow.”

“Will the police be watching?”

“Yes,” she says. “Yes, that’s right.”

Too quickly said. “What’s the other reason?”

She looks down at her folded hands. She lifts her eyes to his face. “If you parted on good terms, it would be best to keep it that way. He’s extremely agitated. He wants no company whatsoever.”

The loss of his space, John understands. “Oh.”

“I know you’d prefer to see him again,” Mrs Hudson begins, and the reality of the situation smacks John across the face.

He will never see Vernet again. After tomorrow, he—No. No. The opera will be performed. John will hear of it and track Vernet down. If not that opera, then another. He would know Vernet’s style anywhere. Any opera written and composed by a single man, for that matter, unless Vernet takes two pen names. How many years could such a search take?

The answer is readily apparent. Too long. Much too long to withstand.

“It would only end in shouting, the way he is now,” Mrs Hudson says.

Perhaps so. But better certainty now than doubt for an untold time to come. No matter how harsh that certainty.

“You’re right, Mrs Hudson,” John says, decided. He turns and climbs the stairs. “I ought to be resting.”

“Dr Watson!”

“Goodnight, Mrs Hudson!”

 

In the morning, he escorts Martha to the train station. It may be better said that a police officer escorts John and Martha to the train station. The kind treatment nearly undoes poor Martha. John hardly has the heart to admit that Mrs Hudson wouldn’t permit him out of the house for any other reason. He may have hidden his medical bag atop Martha’s luggage.

“There will be an officer waiting for you down the line,” Inspector Dimmock promises her. Though none find John’s former maid particularly important within the context of the opera house disasters, no one denies that an attack on John may spread to her. Any who dares interrupt my work shall have it visited upon him, their ghost had written, and Martha had saved John’s life the night of that retribution. With luck, any suspicious movement to follow her out of London will be noticed by the police.

They part ways with well wishes before Inspector Dimmock accompanies John to the opera house. John frets through the hansom ride only for Dimmock to leave him at the opera house doors. He thanks the officer before quickly entering. He deposits his coat and hat in the cloakroom only to be enveloped in a flurry of attention upon his return to the lobby. Before he can fend off the onslaught of relief, concern, and rumour, Mr Havill appears. They discuss John’s health, his home, his current arrangement, and all manner of things before John’s voice wears.

“Mrs Hudson had warned you wouldn’t be up to snuff,” Mr Havill says.

“I’m hardly unfit for duty, sir.”

Mr Havill smiles blandly. “Never let it be said that you are.”

Inwardly writhing, John survives until the early afternoon. His recent scrape with death forces John into unwanted attention and fuss. With the matinee underway, his chance finally arrives. He excuses himself from the moderately soothing company of Miss Hooper, avoids Mrs Hudson on his way down through the building, and slips at last beneath what has become his favourite staircase.

No lantern waits for him behind the secret door, but John has come prepared with matches. He lights the first and walks by its faint glow before realising a trail of dropped matches should hardly be left to Vernet’s door. From then on, he walks in darkness, one hand upon the wall, the other tight about the handles of his bag. His steps turn to round, crescent motions, feeling out the floor before confidently settling. Less confidently as his leg begins to ache. So walking, the journey drags on.

At last, he sees the shine beneath the awaited door. He hears motions from within, rough and agitated.

Steeling himself with a long breath, the musty air tickling his throat, John knocks.

“Go away!” Vernet shouts. “I am busy, Mrs Hudson!”

“I’m not Mrs Hudson!” John answers. The way his leg pains him, however, he might as well be.

There is a loud silence. There is a loud crash of motion, Vernet doubtlessly scrambling for his mask. When the motion finishes, John opens the door and willingly limps into the lion’s den.

“Get out!” Vernet stabs at the doorway with his finger. Hair wild, he stands between a single table and the remains of his desk, disassembled and broken into rough pieces upon the floor. All the light in the small, high chamber comes from the candles upon the sole remaining table. For the first time in the months John has known this room, not a single paper adorns table or floor. Even Vernet’s violin has vanished. No longer a home, the space is now little more than an anonymous cellar.

Something sticks in John’s throat. The memory of soot, perhaps. “Christ, you’ve been busy.”

“Get out.” Vernet gestures a second time, more emphatic than before. “I don’t want you here. Leave.”

“If you’re throwing these in the flooded tunnel, I can help,” John offers. Until his leg gives out, at least. “You wouldn’t need to break the table apart to carry it.”

“I don’t want your help,” Vernet spits. “Do you have any idea what harm your ‘help’ has already done?”

That’s hardly fair. “If you hadn’t pulled the box curtain back, no one would have seen you!”

“Do you think I care about being seen?” Vernet flings his hands down in wild gesticulation. “Do you think anything matters except the work?”

“I’m sorry you have to leave. But you still have your opera, that hasn’t—”

“Do I?” Vernet demands, thrashing the air. “My opera? Do I have it?”

“You—where is it?”

“It’s ruined!” Beneath the rage, Vernet bellows his absolute distress. “Months wasted! The score, the libretto—everything!”

No. Hand on the cool wall, John leans heavily. He can’t seem to breathe. “What happened?”

“Your help.”

“I don’t... It’s not, not burnt? Or moulded, or... The papers are untouched?”

“And the opera ruined,” Vernet confirms. “Months of living underground and for what? For nothing!”

“It can’t be ruined.” John sets down his medical bag and edges farther into the room. “You still have it. You can still finish it.”

“It can’t be finished. Don’t you see that?” He throws his arms wide. “It’s over!”

“You can write somewhere else. I know you don’t want to—”

“But I’ll have to now, won’t I?” Vernet concludes for him, his voice a low, mocking threat. “This place is ruined now.”

“The police won’t always be about.”

“No, of course not! They’ll be long gone before the taint of your ‘help’ fades.”

“What the hell have I done wrong?” John demands, raging forward. Vernet backs away from him, a hand seeking the wall before his shoes hit against it. The distance galls John worse than any words could. “You asked for my help! Those were your questions, your interviews. Do you think I told you my nightmares for my own amusement? I—”

A spasm of coughing takes him. He steps back, turning his head to the side, into his shoulder, and raises a palm toward Vernet.

Vernet waits for the moment the coughing stops, then immediately speaks over John. “That is entirely the problem. The shaping may be mine, but the content is yours. It is no longer my opera. You are too much inside to be removed. I want you out, I cannot get you out, and therefore, I must be rid of you.

“In short: leave.”

Not at all swayed by this semblance of reason, John stands his ground. “I don’t speak Italian,” he says, counting upon his fingers. “I don’t write music. Beyond one exceptionally ill-fated attempt at the clarinet, I don’t play music either. I can’t sing. I don’t even particularly enjoy opera.” He switches hands. “You composed it. You wrote it down. You arranged the libretto. You lived in a disused tunnel for months for it. You researched. That’s all. Research. A treatise on cardiac arrest is hardly owned by the corpse.”

“None of that matters,” Vernet states. His mask gleams in the candlelight as he turns his face away. “Get out.”

John doesn’t move. John cannot move.

Vernet rounds on him in an instant. “Leave!”

“You can still finish it.”

“There is no point in completing a pile of garbage, Doctor. At any stage of completion, it is already a pile of garbage.”

“You can’t possibly think that.” Protective rage and true indignation are merely brothers, not identical twins. John knows the one from the other. If John ever had a life’s work, he might defend it like this. “I’ve seen you dance around in circles at your own score.”

“What does it matter? You don’t even care for opera!”

“Well,” John says tentatively, “you don’t finish it, I’ll never find you again.”

“At last,” Vernet replies, “a silver lining.”

John storms out. Without a word, without a thought, John storms out into the dark tunnel. Almost immediately, he returns. Pressing forward in the attempt to drive John out, Vernet stops mid-step before they can collide. His curls flop over his forehead, a darling motion that shatters John’s rage.

He fists his hands to prevent their shaking. “If you’re intent to be rid of me, there’s no use in my keeping silent.”

“You’ll tell the police on me, is that it?” Vernet looms tall in the flickering light.

“Don’t be an arse.” John smiles at the thought, actually smiles at the absurdity. “And don’t be stupid. It doesn’t suit you.”

“If it’s not a threat, I can hardly see the importance of anything you might have to say.”

“That is the most irrational...” John checks his speech, stops himself from walking down that path. If Vernet thinks himself under attack while the police scour the opera house for a masked phantom, then it’s not without reason. The fear of the police is legitimate. The fear of betrayal, however, is itself a betrayal.

“I’ve lied to the police for you,” John tells him. “The police, Inspector Lestrade, Mr Havill... The woman who saw you thinks she’s going mad around the edges because of the doubt I put in her head. I lied to a very dear friend for you. So whatever the hell you think I’ve done to attack you—”

“I don’t care,” Vernet interrupts. “Get out.”

“Not until I’ve said my piece.”

Vernet groans, stomping away across the remains of his desk. “I don’t care!” He ruffles his hair into disorder even more wild. Another groan. “Say it as quickly as you can, then leave.”

“You’re my best friend,” John says. “You’re the most brilliant, bizarre, volatile, terrifyingly intelligent man I’ve ever met. I have told you, in detail, things I’ve never so much as mentioned to anyone else, save for those who lived them with me. And sometimes not even them. I trust you, you tit, for whatever that’s worth. I spent a month waiting to see you.”

“You can’t guilt me into behaving.”

“I’d never expect to. But I did spend a month waiting to see you.”

“And here I am!” Vernet turns with a flourish. “Now leave.”

John shakes his head. “I need to say—”

“Then say it,” Vernet snaps.

“I love you.”

Vernet freezes for all of an instant. A heartbeat later, he tears through John like a train through a paper wall. “Oh, what a good man to love his friends! How terribly sweet! What a touching tale. ‘Stop this cruelty—I love you!’ Touching, indeed.”

“I’m in love with you,” John corrects, mouth dry, his voice a rasp. “I know the difference.”

“Your joke isn’t amusing, Doctor.”

With planted feet and lifted chin, John stands firm. There is nothing Vernet can do to him worse than what silence, the necessity of silence, would inflict upon him. “I wanted you with me on Christmas. I was going to invite you to a walk in the park, single-file, and swear to never turn round. I, I wrote down a list of everything I wished to speak with you about, all through December.” Roughness rises through his throat and, sandpaper-like, scrapes against all his words. He pauses only in the attempt to cough it out, a useless effort.

“I attended a masquerade,” he continues. “I thought every white mask I saw would stop my heart, but there were no tall men in white masks. Well over a hundred guests present and I know that. Jesus Christ, I know how many were half-white. Eight. Five white on the left side, three on the right.

“And I, God. You’ve no idea what I walked away from. Vernet, I am stupidly, absurdly loyal to you.”

“Be quiet!” Vernet storms toward him but stops beyond John’s reach. Bits of the desk crack beneath his feet. “You don’t even know who I am!” The deep roar of his voice echoes from the ceiling and walls.

John waits for more, waits for the rest of it. He waits for something other than the heaving of Vernet’s slim chest, than the colour rising up his pale throat. He waits for Vernet’s trembling fists to fly, for his acidic tongue to bite.

When nothing befalls him, John answers in the remains of his voice, “I know your character. That has nothing to do with your name. And I hardly fell in love with your face.” He smiles weakly.

Vernet turns away, hands gripping his hair. He cuts an agonised shape, his form cast in flickering shadows against the wall. “What did I do?” he asks, voice low and rough. Exactly the sort of tone used for innocent matters which have taken a criminal turn.

“The bit where the captain stops the soldier from joining the mutiny,” John says. Wrapping himself about John and whispering Italian in his ear. “Did you intentionally write that as a seduction?”

“No,” Vernet answers without hesitation. He does not turn around. He does not look at John.

“...Oh.” His voice is little more than a croak. He clears his throat. “Then it was all in my head.” Backwards. He’d had the two of them backwards the entire time. “I—” He coughs again. “I apologise. Well... thank you. For saying so. And, ah. I’ll, I’ll go.”

Vernet shifts. Slightly, so slightly. “It wasn’t written as a seduction.” Immensely soft and nearly strained, his voice caresses John’s ears rather than lashing at them.

Thickly, John swallows. “Was it... acted as one?”

No reply comes from Vernet. No sound from his lips, no motion of his head. His body as static as the rounded features of his mask, Vernet stands before him as a statue.

The first step sends a fresh ache through John’s leg. The second and third do not. He navigates the remains of the desk to stand behind Vernet. To touch his elbow, nothing more. To touch his sleeve without daring to grip.

As if a violin string upon a slipping peg, the tension in Vernet’s arm unwinds, loosens, its trembling pitch fading into silence.

John relinquishes the fabric for the sake of reaching for his hand, but the loss of contact startles Vernet into turning, a rush of anxiety in the harshness of his breath. John catches his hand. He does so poorly, his right hand curling around the back of Vernet’s left. John sets his thumb against Vernet’s palm, against the scar of their joint making. Vernet’s flingers close about his thumb immediately, painfully hard.

Beneath the curve of the mask lies the half-hidden curve of Vernet’s jaw, pale skin peppered with stubble. Though Vernet averts his face, he drifts forward as John shifts closer. Rough and strange, Vernet’s skin welcomes John’s lips, soft and yielding over hard bone. Vernet’s answering sigh puffs against John’s cheek.

“Yes?” John rasps, hoarse for more reasons than he can name.

With an impatient groan, Vernet seizes John by the lapel and presses their mouths together. Their noses knock, skin and porcelain. Rough and solid, the motion knows only desperation before John eases it into tenderness. Vernet’s mouth is soft and warm. His lips taste of cold air and a startled gasp. His tongue tastes of tinned peaches.

John releases Vernet’s hand to better twine his arms about narrow shoulders. Vernet drags him closer, closer still, their bodies straining against the difference between their heights. Their feet shuffle, step upon each other. Their knees bump.

Each new angle of their mouths forces John’s nose into Vernet’s mask. No amount of adjusting can overcome this. Only light, brushing kisses will serve, but those do not suffice. In search of more, John reaches up for thick, dark curls only for Vernet’s hands to clamp about his wrists.

“Don’t,” Vernet gasps, tearing his mouth away. He presses a porcelain brow against John’s heated skin. “It’s inconvenient, but it stays.”

John’s eyes cross in the attempt to make out the colour of Vernet’s. Blue? Dark blue? His eyes are but shadow and gleam. “I wasn’t...”

“Then what?” The wary accusation would offend were it not so delectable.

John mumbles something about his hair.

Vernet’s vicelike grip relents but does not relinquish him. He chuckles, low and rumbling. “What about my hair?”

“I won’t know until you let me touch it, will I?” John counters.

Vernet rumbles all the deeper, a hum of liquid pleasure. He releases one of John’s wrists to hold his mask in place. “Go on, then,” he whispers in a needlessly sultry dare.

John kisses him first, deep and slow. He draws Vernet’s lower lip gently between his teeth before treating it with fleeting flicks of the tongue. Though this provokes little response from Vernet, it leads to Vernet replicating the motion upon John’s mouth in short order. Clutching at the back of Vernet’s jacket, his other hand buried in dark curls, John largely maintains his balance. Largely.

Vernet’s lips travel across John’s cheek, his jaw, his throat. Open-mouthed kisses hover above John’s collar. John’s gasps echo off the ceiling, pain and pleasure twining as stubble scrapes against the healed burns on his neck. And, God, teeth.

“No marks...!” He tugs at Vernet’s hair harder than intended, but Vernet only groans against his skin. The mask knocks against John’s jaw.

Fine.” Petulant and sullen.

John dips his head to kiss Vernet’s pout. “I can only stay until the end of the matinee. Have to be seen after that.”

Vernet nips at his mouth before promptly shoving his hands into John’s jacket pockets. John startles under the touch, but Vernet merely frowns. “Where’s your watch?”

“Don’t have one.”

“You do, I’ve seen it.”

“It’s, ah. Broken,” John answers. Melted, he means. He attempts another kiss only for his nose to botch it up against the mask. Though open from nose to chin at the width of Vernet’s mouth, such space is hardly enough for John’s purposes. Being poked in the cheek by the porcelain nose is hardly a thrill either.

Vernet pulls back with a wry twist of the lips. He pulls out his own perfectly functional watch, keeping it carefully cradled in his hand. “We’ve two hours before you’ll be missed.”

“Two?” The future at once stretches and looms, infinite and instant.

“Perhaps two and a half, though we’ll need to make you presentable.” Vernet tucks his watch away. He leans in, the slide of his mouth lovely and soft before John pulls back.

“What then?” John asks.

Quite possibly, Vernet rolls his eyes. “Then we straighten your jacket and hope your flush recedes.” Again, he pursues.

John lifts a hand, forestalling distracting kisses only to have them visited upon his fingers. He shivers, staring. Each fingertip receives its share of tender affection. “And after that, when will I see you again?”

Vernet certainly rolls his eyes this time. “Really, Doctor? Two hours to use me as you will, and that is your first thought?”

“Maybe if you hadn’t started off with ‘I never want to see you again’—”

Vernet releases him immediately.

John catches his hand. “I want more than two hours. That’s all I meant.”

“What do you want?”

John draws Vernet back to him. He takes in the tall form, the inescapable masculinity, the ever-wild hair. “To be near you,” he begins. “Often, if possible.”

Vernet sets his lips against John’s forehead. Framed by his mask, his lips buzz there as he asks, “How would you accomplish this?”

“I’m looking for new accommodations. We might be neighbours. Failing that,” he adds at Vernet’s dismissive amusement, “if you don’t have accommodations of your own in London, it’s hardly unheard of for an artist or musician to need a flatmate.”

For far too long a moment, Vernet’s mouth remains motionless against his skin. “You want to live together.”

“Maybe? Someday. If it’s to be all or nothing, I want all.”

“And what would we tell people, hm?”

“Oh, I don’t know. ‘He perpetually needs an audience while composing, and I enjoy the violin. Yes, that composer. No, you can’t have free tickets.’ Seems simple enough.” He turns his head to kiss Vernet’s throat, to brush his lips over a racing pulse.

Vernet’s hands cup John’s neck, thumbs before his ears. He forces John back to better stare at him, to better beg him with half unseen eyes. “You mean it now.”

“Later, too,” John promises, annoyed by his doubt. “It’s not a way I’ve lived before, but I’m certainly willing to attempt it.”

“I need you to stop talking.”

“I need you to trust me.”

Vernet lunges forward, silencing John with his mouth. Hard, angry, Vernet presses for dominance, for domination. He bites and controls, dizzyingly harsh. A new method of kissing entirely, and John welcomes it. Perhaps this viciousness ought to threaten, but it only arouses. He holds tight even as he melts beneath the onslaught, his hands tangled in Vernet’s curls, securing that mouth all the tighter against his own. He answers in kind, enjoying the tussle.

John’s eagerness only serves to enrage Vernet more. Muttered insults double as broken endearments. “You unobservant--!” He relinquishes his hold on John’s neck and face to snatch John’s hands down from his hair. A finger snags on the mask’s band, dragging porcelain features down. For an instant, John catches sight of a forehead of mere flesh over bone.

Then Vernet shoves him back and rights the mask over his face.

Panting, they stand apart.

“I wasn’t going to,” John swears. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

Vernet doesn’t seem to hear him. “You’re in love with a fantasy,” he states, his musical voice turned flat and bare. “You don’t see it, but it ends the moment this comes off.” He touches his mask.

John’s mouth twitches. “You can’t be that ugly.”

“I’m being serious, Doctor.”

“So am I. What is it, boils? A terrible burn? Scarred by acid? Freckles?”

Vernet groans. “Who do you think I am outside of this room? Tell me, Doctor, have you ever considered that?”

“I know you hate it.” John presses back into Vernet’s space. “I know that whatever comforts you have elsewhere don’t compare to your music. I think you must have trouble focusing or maybe trouble finding time alone. You... have a family, but not one of your own making. You’re well-educated and love the arts. You...” His voice fading, he clears his throat. “You said once that you can imitate emotion but you can’t imagine it. I don’t think that’s true. You’re unrestrained here. You’re, you’ve pent up everything. Outside, I mean.”

“An entirely different man,” Vernet confirms. He folds his arms between them, two slim lines of a barrier.

“Maybe you act like one. Personally, I’m still betting on an arrogant, self-absorbed prick who hates sitting still unless it’s for his music.”

“Doctor—”

“As well as a genius, a master violinist, and the most passionate man I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet.” His sore throat utterly ruins the moment of sincerity. Painfully, he coughs against his sleeve.

Vernet drifts closer. His hand settles upon John’s elbow, under it, a cautious motion of support.

“Not contagious,” John rasps.

“Smoke inhalation so seldom is. Is the damage permanent?”

John shrugs a little, unsure. “You heard?”

Vernet nods. He touches John’s face where John had nicked himself with his new razor. “A broken watch and a new suit, not fitted: you lost the entirety of your bedroom. The rest of the house as well, I’d imagine. Though your medical bag is heavier than usual. Was that all you saved?”

“Nearly.” John’s hands return to Vernet’s lapels. “Can we not talk about that right now?” A little more talking will do his voice in entirely.

“No more talking,” Vernet agrees. Hardly what John meant, but he fails to protest when Vernet leans down. John rises on tiptoe to kiss a porcelain nose. Vernet’s laugh is little more than a surprised exhale. John treasures it all the same.

“One moment,” Vernet murmurs. He pulls away from John with lingering touches, a slow, sumptuous extraction. “I’ve had a thought. My coat’s in the back room.” His tone dries John’s mouth in a way that has nothing to do with soot and everything with heat.

Vernet is hardly gone before he reappears in the doorway. A long black scarf hangs from his hand. It sways as Vernet draws closer.

Lifting his face, John closes his eyes. He grins at Vernet’s sharp inhale, but his grin melts into seriousness at the first touch of cashmere against his skin. Softly, deftly, Vernet winds the fabric about his head, over his eyes. The flickering red of candlelight against his eyelids recedes into warm darkness. The scarf draws tighter as Vernet secures it. Truly, an innovative use for a scarf pin.

“Can you see at all?”

John shakes his head.

Vernet’s hands lift from his skin. For a moment: silence. John forgets to exhale, and he doesn’t hear Vernet breathe.

A footstep, Vernet’s, and a second. The long presence before John moves toward the table. Vernet’s back is turned, must be.

A swift motion, the scrape of sleeves against the body: Vernet’s hands rise to his face.

In the eternal silence to follow, John turns to track him, strains to hear him. At last, a sound, lower than expected. A soft click.

The mask is on the table.

John reaches blindly, his hand stretched toward the quiver of tension that is his friend. Vernet takes him by the wrist before taking him by the mouth. The taste of tinned peaches has long since faded. All that remains is the man.

Every sigh of breath and whisper of fabric expands to fill the chamber. The wet sounds of their lips, the low rumble in Vernet’s chest, the soft surrender of cloth as John slides his hands against Vernet’s waistcoat, beneath his jacket; all of these capture John’s ears, his absolute attention.

Already low upon John’s back, Vernet’s hands drift lower still, fingertips toying with the slit in John’s jacket. Cool air slips beneath as the flap rises. John shivers beneath his hands, presses into his kisses. “Oh, God.”

Even lower now, Vernet’s hands. No rough grab, no crass squeeze, but a slow caress of fingertips until his palms cup. He draws John against him, shifting his weight, his stance. Trailing kisses across skin and cashmere, Vernet murmurs something John fails to hear over his own moan. Heat, heat against his front, heat pressing back, hot and firm beneath tented trousers.

“Fucking Christ.” He drops his forehead against Vernet’s shoulder, biting hard on his lip.

“None of that.” Vernet’s hand sweeps up his spine to pull at the back of his collar. “If I didn’t want to see you, I’d have blown out the candles.”

John’s fingers dig into Vernet’s hips.

“Oh, do you like that? Fumbling in the dark.”

“I’m there already,” John gasps.

Low and indulgent, Vernet chuckles against his ear. “Shall I join you?”

“Please.” With sight stolen, all that remains is touch and taste, sound and smell. The darkness heightens each sensation until Vernet could overwhelm with a whisper. Could and does.

“One moment, Doctor.” For a second time, Vernet peels their bodies apart, a momentary and agonising separation. His footsteps are quick, certain. One soft puff of breath follows another. The scent of warm wax is overcome by the whiff of smoke.

Involuntary, John tenses.

“Candles only,” Vernet assures him. “We’re not on fire.”

“Don’t be an arse.”

Another puff of breath. The last one. The smallest trace of heat vanishes before Vernet returns to warm him. “Ever the invincible soldier.” Vernet whispers now, caught in the softening effect of darkness. “Has it been since your army days?”

Too busy finding Vernet’s lines beneath his jacket, John fails to follow. Lines and, oh, that is a very fine curve, a lovely arse indeed. “What?”

Vernet’s teeth scrape down John’s nose, a light scrape and a light nip to the tip. “Your wild youth, Doctor. How many men among the women?” His voice darkens with a jealous edge.

John snickers, then giggles. He feels rather than sees the incredulous expression inches from his own face and innately knows it must be exquisite. He laughs until he coughs, until his body is shuddering and Vernet rubbing his back. Vernet pulls him close to better unfasten the scarf, as if this will promote better breathing. He drapes the cloth over John’s shoulders. John blinks his eyes against the darkness without success. Underground, there is no light whatsoever.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Vernet remarks dryly. That nearly sets John off again, though it jangles his nerves with thoughts of Holmes.

“None,” John rasps.

“You never acted?”

“Never wanted.”

“...No one?” Vernet asks, remarkably offended for someone who ought to be flattered. “No one ever?”

“Not compared to you,” John says, defensive, and Vernet responds to this very positively, very thoroughly.

Breathless, lips bruised, face burning from the drag of stubble, John can only endure the onslaught for so long. Vernet takes time to cool, spends a lifetime mapping John’s face with fingers and lips. Long before John can take his turn, his leg tires and threatens to give way. Vernet sets him against the table to lean, never pausing. Any attempt to reciprocate immediately results in firm hands about his wrists and a scolding tongue against his lips.

“Let me,” Vernet murmurs each time. A sweet gift to give, John gives it freely. A lingering eternity of kisses and caresses whet his appetite, but they do not satisfy his hunger. There’s only so long anyone could be expected to remain passive with Vernet theirs to touch.

“My turn,” John eventually has to insist.

Another reach, another restraining hold. Nothing playful remains in Vernet’s grip. “Don’t.”

“All right. I’m sorry.” He lets his hands settle on Vernet’s shoulders, then brings them down to his waist. “I’m sorry.” Voice failing him, he tucks his face against Vernet’s neck and mouths the words there. John can wait. He knows he can wait. But, God, does he want. He clasps his arms about Vernet’s middle, hands warm between waistcoat and jacket.

Vernet sets his chin against the side of John’s head, undeterred by the pomade. He grips tightly, too tightly, and no touch or kiss can ease his tension. Vernet seems fit to break apart beneath his hands and lips, his confidence given way to something tremulous and tender. They stand this way for much too long, precious minutes falling away with John unable to reclaim or reassure. Such a strange thing to attempt, holding someone so much taller than himself. Thin but solid, and so remarkably present in his anxiety. A small eternity passes.

Much too soon, Vernet pulls back, smoothing his scarf over John’s shoulders. His hand dips beneath John’s jacket to filch his matches. “Need to check the time.”

John shakes his head in the darkness. “No,” he whispers. “Not in the least.” He knows all too well how rapidly time escapes in Vernet’s company.

Soft lips press against his forehead. Vernet turns his back and scrapes a match alight. The sudden light, even shielded by Vernet’s body, makes John’s eyes water. He hears the click of a watch opening. A moment later, Vernet shakes out the match. “Forty or so minutes left.”

“Of the two hours?”

“Yes.”

John’s stomach plummets. They’ve lingered even more than intended. His bruised lips confirm it. He reaches in the dark. Vernet’s hand finds his cheek and they kiss hard and deep. John forces himself to break away before he’ll have no alternative but to return above while still completely rumpled.

“I’ll come back during the evening showing,” John whispers.

“Mm. We’ll discuss the logistics then.”

“You... Yes?”

“Discuss,” Vernet repeats, a wary word, but John hardly cares.

“However long you need. Just promise me I’ll see you again. Swear you won’t vanish.”

Vernet presses another kiss against John’s forehead. He remains there and sighs.

“Vernet?”

“You’ll see me again,” Vernet answers with more resignation than John can stand. “I promise.”

“But—”

“I’ve had a few thoughts about act four,” Vernet interrupts.

John blinks. His eyelashes brush against Vernet’s chin. In the dark, there’s no need to hide his grin. “Not ruined, then?”

“As if your idiocy could dampen my genius. I’m merely stuck on the libretto again. Any attempt to write only put your voice in my head going round and round. You’ve no idea how annoying it was. Or perhaps you have.”

John steps on his foot.

Vernet chuckles, a warm purr against his skin. “In any case, it stalled my progress considerably. However, if your company is not to be denied to me after all, we must make up for lost time.”

“‘Denied’ to you? You were the one doing the denying.”

“I may have been overly anxious,” Vernet admits.

John knows an apology when he hears one, especially one made precious by its rarity. “Will further reassurance be necessary?”

“Yes,” Vernet replies instantly. “Give it here.” The tip of his nose slides against John’s. His breath heats John’s lips anew.

“I want to live with you,” John says. “I’m tired of a quiet house. I know you come with noise and I want that.”

The attempted kiss stops before it can begin.

“Would you be willing?” John asks.

“I’m willing,” Vernet replies, and the words audibly cost him.

“That’s all I ask.” He gives Vernet his awaited kiss, but Vernet pulls away with his typical abrupt passion.

“We’re running out of time to work. And you must become slightly less dishevelled. A waste, but a necessary one.”

Uncertain whether to gape or laugh, John keeps his hands on Vernet’s back as Vernet reaches around him toward the table. A light scraping sound, the mask over wood. He feels rather than hears Vernet settle the mask over his own features. Vernet strikes another match and relights the candles.

John slips around his side to find reddened lips and hair more disorderly than he’s ever known it. Vernet’s jacket is rumpled from John’s hands. White and pristine, only the mask remains unaltered.

Vernet eyes him in turn before straightening John’s cravat and collar. He smoothes John down and tucks him into place. He pulls John away from the table and circles about him once, twice, hands trailing. With long, expressive fingers, he makes a few vague flicking motions at John’s hair. “Presentable.”

John gestures to his own neck. Vernet inspects him for marks, peering much more closely than necessary. He turns John this way and that to better catch the light. With a grin, John claps Vernet’s scarred hand in his and settles a palm against his trim waist.

Vernet laughs, a startled sound that takes some tension with it. Some, only some. “Music first, Doctor. Dancing later, perhaps.”

Is his violin in the back room with his coat? John’s eyes flick to the door.

“Act four,” Vernet whispers in his ear. “Curtain opens. Chorus of soldiers, fresh from their defeat at sea.”

With no further warning, Vernet begins to sing. Softly at first, strained Italian full of grief and anguish. Vernet draws back, growing in volume with each word, each phrase, and John permits him the space. As if the man himself were one great instrument, Vernet’s voice soars to the heights of the ceiling before swooping low, before plunging, biting.

The music turns to combative terror, a protest of the heart. If this was what Vernet had trapped in his mind for a month, John can and readily does forgive their earlier spat. To hear him at last, John might forgive anything. Vernet sings with his eyes fixed upon John’s face, his gaze utterly immobile as his arms gesture, hands open wide and beckoning.

John knows this theme, the song of a thwarted mutiny, the theme of a man who would follow his captain rather than his home. Shivers race up his spine, prickle along his back as Vernet’s voice brings his body to resonate in enchanted sympathy.

The opening of the act merges into the drama of one scene and the next. Vernet is an army, the Egyptian court. He is one man, several. He is, for one moment, unmistakeably Cleopatra. His pitch rises to unexpected heights, a range of notes John would expect from a piano, not from a man. He articulates a duet, conveying general and soldier each in their turn with little more than the motions of his hands and the nuance of his voice, perfect and clear and shining.

He cuts off rather than concludes, a puppet cut from the strings of his music.

As his heart pounds, John slowly remembers how to breathe.

For the first time in an untold age, Vernet looks away from him. He clears his throat. “It needs work.”

“God, I love you.”

Vernet nearly laughs. He ducks his head, at any rate, and he checks his watch. “You’ll be late, Doctor.”

John can’t seem to move. “Then you’d best kiss me quickly.”

Vernet complies, pinning his scarf in place about John’s neck as he does. He pulls away with a sharp turn of the head. “Go. Before you’re missed.”

“I have to be gone before I’m missed,” John counters, wearing out his voice for a good cause.

With a roll of his eyes, Vernet physically guides John to the door and puts the medical bag into his hand. “You will be,” Vernet promises. He returns John’s matches. “Now go.”

John kisses him a final time before venturing out. His leg aches from the hours spent standing, leaning, trembling, but he’ll be able to sit down soon enough. With infinite care, he opens the hidden door and ducks through it without dirtying his trousers. He nearly falls. Regretfully, achingly, he unpins the scarf and secrets it away in his medical bag.

Climbing up the stairs leads to a surprising amount of pain. Upon encountering Miss Hooper and her untold, if not unforeseen, concern for his condition, he explains that he was forced to sit down in a removed location, nothing more. Exercise on the stairs has done him more harm than good, he’s afraid. He apologises profusely as she reminds him of the recent attempt on his life. She offers to procure him a cane from the props. He declines.

Mrs Hudson, it’s clear, knows where he’s been. She says nothing where others can hear. Being a fully grown man and as brave as he will ever be, John decides that discretion is the better part of valour. He’ll avoid her until matters with Vernet are settled. Does she think poorly of him for this, so soon after Holmes? Does she know the extent of Holmes’ wishes toward him, let alone John’s toward Vernet? Unable to discern any of these answers, John keeps his distance. He’ll doubtlessly pay for it on the ride home.

The hours pass with agonising slowness, a quick dinner here, an excruciating wait there. When the opera begins, John takes up his usual position in the hall, awaiting a patron to turn patient. His hand remains on his medical bag, against the scarf inside. At long last, after the beginning of the second act, John escapes.

Limping worse than the morning after the fire, he braves the staircase into the basement. Now unable to handle his bag and matches at once while keeping a hand on the wall, John abandons the bag by the secret door. He waves out each match as it’s about to burn him, keeping the extinguished ends in his hand against the wall.

When he returns to Vernet’s shut door, no light shines from beneath. With no small grin, John shakes out the match, knocks, and enters.

“Hello again,” he calls as firmly as his throat will allow. The words echo oddly, as if the chamber has grown larger. “Vernet?”

Vernet?” the room cries in return.

John strikes a fresh match and holds it high. His pinprick of light shines in a cold chamber devoid of furniture, music, and man. It soon singes his fingers and, with a shaking breath, he blows it out.

Chapter Text

Mrs Hudson sits beside him in the growler without speaking. Eyes closed in unfeigned exhaustion, John can’t stop thinking. His mind returns to the tunnel, to its bends and openings, to the flooded section with broken segments of furniture peeking above the water’s surface. All accomplished within the span of a few hours. All gone.

The tunnels branch off in more directions than simply that, but John’s leg had forbidden a full exploration. It aches now in the cold of night and the rattling of the carriage. God, it aches. His leg and his shoulder join forces, paining him with no respite.

“Why today?” John asks. He doesn’t specify.

“There might be another attack tomorrow,” Mrs Hudson answers without hesitation. Good to know she pays such close attention to him tonight. “Today, now, if it’s after midnight.”

“It is.” The sixth of January. “Is there some significance to Epiphany?”

“It’s--” And here she hesitates. “It’s Sherlock’s birthday.”

“Then he and the Earl will be attending tomorrow night?” he asks, strictly as a concern for safety. “Well, tonight, now.”

“And the police.”

John nods, picturing it. “Better prepared than on New Year’s Eve, I hope.”

Mrs Hudson pats his arm. “And with somewhat less fire.”

Something like a laugh shakes up through John’s throat. It hurts. “Only somewhat less. Might be a bit cold, otherwise.”

“I’d much rather you simply wear a scarf, dear.”

As quickly as it had come, the laugh fades away. John clears his throat. “I’ll simply stay inside, then.”

An eternity later, they arrive home. John pays the cabbie, wishes him goodnight, and helps Mrs Hudson to the door in a pained, two-person hobble. “I don’t like winter very much,” Mrs Hudson remarks once inside.

“No, nor do I.” As Mrs Hudson instructs her maid to go to bed earlier, John hangs up his own coat. He takes Mrs Hudson’s and does the same. “I think I’ll turn in.”

“Good night.”

“Yes, good night.”

Mrs Hudson bites her lip.

John pauses with one foot on the stairs, his weight on his good leg. “Is there a problem, Mrs Hudson?”

“It’s none of my business, dear.”

“Thank you.”

She nods.

He manages two steps up the stairs before he has to stop. “Did you—Sorry, did you know he was cross with me? Yesterday, when you told me not to go down.”

“With creative types, it can be so hard to tell.” Her words aren’t an apology, but her expression certainly is. “With the passionate ones, it can boil up in any direction. My husband was like that.”

“How--” John swallows. “How well do you know him?”

“My husband?”

“Vernet.”

“What’s he done?” Mrs Hudson asks.

“Run off. But--”

“The police are coming to search. He had to run off.” Dismissive if kind, her words entirely miss the point.

“They weren’t coming tonight. Not until morning. He didn’t have to just... leave.” John stops himself before he can say something regrettable. “I’m sorry, I ought to...” He gestures vaguely up the stairs.

“Good night, dear.”

“Good night, Mrs Hudson.” Medical bag heavy in his hand, he begins to climb.

“...John, dear?”

For the second time, he stops and turns, looking over his arm on the railing.

“We’ve all sorts, you know,” she says. “The theatre’s lovely for that.”

His grip on the railing tightens. “Foreigners aplenty.” He could add something about the visiting divas but doesn’t. The words dry up in his mouth.

“All sorts,” she repeats. “I nearly forget, sometimes, what the world outside is like. Much less friendly.”

“It’s very different.” He stands there for a moment, then taps his fingers upon the handrail. He looks at his hand rather than regard his leg. “Anyway.”

She sets her fingertips on the top of the banister. It’s not quite a prayer position, not quite like Vernet in his rare moments of stillness.

“I don’t want to say anything rash,” John admits.

“Would it still be rash over breakfast?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Maybe you’ll know in the morning.”

“I hope so. Good night. Again.”

Small yet unwavering, she smiles beautifully. “Good night, dear.”

John nods and goes to bed.



Over breakfast, he says, “I might return to private practice.”

Mrs Hudson responds to that by pouring him more tea.

“I’ve a few patients now outside of the opera house. I’ve written in regards to my current living situation, but I think at least two plan to stay with me,” John continues. “I could have a go of it, at least. Not entirely sure where, though. I need to find somewhere to live, that’s first on the list.”

She nods along as he speaks. “There’s room upstairs.”

“Oh, no, I meant living on a permanent basis.”

“I don’t see why not,” Mrs Hudson replies. “It’s so much space. Too much space for me, really, but I’m much too attached. I tried letting it out, oh, a decade ago, but it ended poorly. I can be a landlady, dear, but I’m not a housekeeper.”

“I could live here?” John asks. “Really?”

“You could use the sitting room upstairs for your patients. I’m out all day: it wouldn’t bother me at all.”

“Mrs Hudson, you are a saint.”

She makes an affectionate, appreciative sound, not at all the noise of someone who knows how entirely serious John is. “It’s nice to have company.”

“It is,” John agrees immediately. “It absolutely is. You’re entirely right.”

“I was going to insist on it anyway, until the police catch the Red Death. Not the plague, I mean, the man in the costume.”

“The opera ghost.”

“Not the real opera ghost. But it is much easier for the police to keep an eye on both of us at once.”

“True,” John agrees, ignoring the implication that there is a real opera ghost. If Mrs Hudson could be argued out of superstition, John imagines Holmes would have managed it years before. “Let’s wait on making it official until the arsonist is behind bars, yes?”

“Might be for the best.”

“Mm.”

Even so, John carefully returns to his bedroom upstairs soon after. Truly his bedroom now. He opens his medical bag and finally removes his two photographs. His hand touches cloth in the process; he ignores this. When he sets the framed photographs upon the disused desk, a crinkled envelope flutters to the ground.

“Christ.” Beyond taking the money out of it, he hasn’t looked at it since before the fire. He really ought to toss it. He’s hardly giving it back to Holmes at this point.

Instead, with no small effort, he picks it up and sets it in front of Harry’s photograph. A good contrast, that, and something worth remembering. Holmes won’t die from it, and neither will John.

His revolver, on the other hand, he leaves in his medical bag. There are worse threats tonight than mere heartache.



“Mr Havill, sir, could I have a word?”

Seated at his desk, papers before him, Mr Havill gestures him forward. “Dr Watson! Do come in.” He indicates the chair in front of his desk.

John closes the office door behind him. When he sits, he does his utmost not to wince. Even so, his movements aren’t as smooth as he’d like. Perhaps he ought to give in and accept that cane from Miss Hooper. He oughtn’t be surprised she’s already found one for him. Forcing his mind to remain on task, John engages in the absolute minimum of pleasantries with his employer.

“This is hardly a social visit, is it?” Mr Havill asks.

“No, sir.”

“More bad news, eh? Let me have it.”

John sits at attention, insofar as this is possible. “In light of my recent injuries, I’m afraid I’m no longer sufficiently mobile for this position.”

Mr Havill’s response is one of inexplicable relief. “Your interpretation of your post has always been much more mobile than called for. If you would prefer a stationary location, by all means. One position during the performances for our patrons, another backstage if you intend to continue aiding the performers.”

“I don’t intend to, sir. I would like to resign. I plan to cultivate a private practice,” John explains. “I have accommodations as well. As much as I’ve enjoyed my time here, I feel it’s time to leave. Please consider this my two weeks’ notice.” A wheeze slips into his voice, an audible sign of his condition.

“I see. We will catch this menace, Dr Watson. I do hope you believe that.”

“It’s not the danger, sir.”

Mr Havill’s eyebrows rise. “You come to me a week since the day a madman set you ablaze and you tell me it’s not the danger? I don’t fault you for leaving any more than I find you lacking in courage. It’s downright sensible of you. I simply wish to assure you we will catch the monster who has done this to you.”

“Thank you, sir,” John answers. He clears his throat. “I’m glad you understand.”

Mr Havill nods. “I’ll have to find a replacement if I’m to have any peace of mind. I hope you won’t mind assisting the search.”

“Not at all, sir.”

“Excellent. Thank you, Watson.”

John smiles reflexively, then attempts to stand.

“Oh, one more thing.”

John sits back down.

“Tonight’s performance. You’re aware we expect trouble?”

“Because of Mr Holmes’ birthday, yes.”

“Yes. Troubling business. The police are willing to help us, but only so far. Limited personnel. I’ve our people on alert against anything strange or anyone unknown, for all the good it’s done us. Tell me, do you still have that pistol from the Masquerade?”

“Revolver, sir. Yes.” John indicates his medical bag.

“Good man.”

“Will this be part of my new, stationary position?” John asks.

“In part. We believe you may remain a target yourself. As such, it would be best to have you under protection. Any other night and I might risk sending you home, but if the ghost is to attack the Earl or his brother, well.” He pauses, the look of a man with friends in danger. “I hope you see why it would be best to keep you at hand.”

“I understand.” Though if something happens and Holmes needs patching up, the man may choose to die before accepting treatment. “Where should I be stationed?”

“In Box Five, of course,” Mr Havill answers. “I understand you’re a personal friend of Mr Holmes. Inspector Lestrade is as well and will be joining you three.”

“Us three?” John echoes.

Mr Havill looks at him curiously. “The Earl, Mr Holmes, and you, of course.”

“Yes, I... Is that wise? Three targets all in one box? Shouldn’t we be separated, for safety’s sake?”

“Hardly enough manpower for it. Should everything go well, Box Five will simply appear to be a small celebration. Should it not, you and Inspector Lestrade are each armed.”

“I see,” John says. “Is the Countess attending?”

“Safe at home.”

“Oh. Good.” John in the box with an enraged invert, the fully informed brother of the aforementioned, and a police officer. All while a ghost with a vast pyrotechnical skill set takes exception with them. Surely, this will end well.

“Something the matter?” Mr Havill asks.

“I, um. My leg and all. If I’m to be sitting for extended periods, it would be best if I was able to elevate it.”

“Tell Hopkins. He’ll fetch something for you. Is that all?”

“Yes, sir,” John says. He stands without flinching. “Thank you, sir.”



“Miss Hooper, I think I’ll take that cane after all.”

She takes one look at him and says, “Oh, God, sit down.”

John does, gladly.



Shortly before the house opens, John idly contemplates the grand staircase. Marble, yes, but not steep. If a man were to, say, bodily fling himself down a stone staircase, this one might be quite nice.

He fails to muster either the nerve or the cowardice in time. One of the two. Perhaps both. At any rate, he leans heavily upon his borrowed cane, standing next to Mr Havill in the lobby.

Inspector Lestrade arrives first. He moves with a brisk efficiency that puts John’s soul at ease and his stance at attention. It doesn’t last terribly long, partially because of his leg, but primarily because of the two Holmes brothers checking their coats.

“Eric, good evening!” the Earl exclaims to Mr Havill. His gaze sweeps over John with no overt sign of hostility, but John’s stomach plunges all the same.

“Mycroft, hello!” The pair shakes hands warmly. By accident or design, their cravats and waistcoats nearly match, yellow to yellow and blue to blue.

Silver cravat gleaming above his purple waistcoat, Holmes stands at his brother’s side, eyes firmly on Mr Havill, then Inspector Lestrade. He looks at John only for a moment during the round of greetings and pleasantries.

“Happy Birthday,” John risks.

“Thank you,” Mr Holmes answers. Hands at his sides, he holds himself aloof despite his proximity. Like much of his arrogance, the sight is charming indeed. John batters down the guilt this thought provokes: noticing reality is no crime.

Inspector Lestrade gestures up the stairs. “Shall we?”

“Yes,” Mr Holmes agrees instantly.

Inspector Lestrade stoops and picks up John’s medical bag. John reaches for it. Inspector Lestrade shakes his head. “Stairs first.”

“Will you be joining us, Dr Watson?” Lord Holmes asks, each word as polished and deliberate as the cut marble of the floor.

“With the inspector holding my things hostage, I’m not sure I have any choice.” He attempts a smile as well as the joke and fears he accomplishes neither.

“Best to have everyone under guard who needs to be,” Mr Havill says in a low voice.

“Quite,” Mr Holmes agrees. Then, louder, voice so terribly light, he says, “This is turning into rather the party.” He starts up the stairs, Mr Havill at his side. Lestrade takes up the rear behind John, leaving Lord Holmes to walk beside John over the course of his slow, painful climb.

John does his best not to look at anyone. Particularly straight forward at Mr Holmes’ bum. How impossible a thing it ought to be, for one man to be at once so abandoned by his lover and so guilty of his own small disloyalties.

“Mrs Hudson has a new tenant, I hear,” Lord Holmes remarks.

“Until this matter is over, my lord,” John agrees. “It would be a pity to move somewhere else only for that to burn down as well.”

“Very. How fortunate the police have been willing to extend their protection to Mrs Hudson’s residence. My brother is very fond of her, you know.”

“For good reason.”

“Yes. It would be a shame were anything to interfere with my brother’s ability to visit her.” Lord Holmes’ eyes are much too like his brother’s in that moment, their colour a piercing, indeterminate blue-grey.

Before him, he sees Mr Holmes’ shoulders tense, his left hand a fist held against the side of his thigh. John forces his leg to move faster. “Nothing will be settled until the opera ghost is caught, I’m afraid, my lord.”

“Something to look forward to,” Lord Holmes muses.

They reach the top. Inspector Lestrade doesn’t return John’s bag and John doesn’t have it in him to protest. He barely has it in him to reach Box Five. Someone, most likely Hopkins, has set an ottoman before the chair against the right wall. With John’s seat decided for him, he sits heavily, careful not to groan or flinch. He prays the inspector will sit beside him, but to no avail.

For the second time that evening, John finds himself next to the Earl. Mr Holmes sits next to his brother. Inspector Lestrade returns John’s bag to him before taking the final chair between Mr Holmes and the left wall.

“Revolver ready?” Inspector Lestrade asks. He leans forward slightly to see John around the Holmes brothers.

“Ah, yes.” John sets his medical bag on his lap rather than the floor, not trusting his ability to bend over. His revolver rests beneath a bed of soft black cashmere. An easy task, practised to the point of instinct, the act loading his gun calms him. His hands grow steadier for it.

“What a handsome scarf,” Lord Holmes remarks, his gaze lowered just so into John’s medical bag.

John’s stomach plummets through his chair. His eyes remain on his revolver. “Thank you.” Be it handsome or not, he’s looked at the scarf as little as possible.

“I do hope you aren’t cold.”

“Not presently, my lord.” Though his heart pounds, his hands remain steady. He closes his bag and sets it down, then nudges it beneath the ottoman with his left foot.

Mr Holmes mutters something to his brother. At first thinking it incomprehensible due to volume, John quickly realises his words are in fact French. Lord Holmes responds in smooth Italian. His answer involves some sort of joke, one Mr Holmes fails to find amusing. John can’t see Inspector Lestrade or his reaction to this. For John’s part, he sits back in his chair, his leg elevated, his sight of the stage somewhat impaired by his distance from the box’s low front wall.

An eternity later, the opera begins. With Mr Holmes’ focus upon the stage, Lord Holmes’ presence lessens in its severity. If nothing else, John becomes slightly less paranoid that Lord Holmes knows exactly from whom and where that scarf had come. He becomes slightly less anxious that Mr Holmes will somehow see the token and know what to make of it. John certainly doesn’t know what the scarf means.

A parting gift? A memento, a reminder? A pledge to remain until John returned, simply to convince John to leave?

There lies the crux of the matter. Vernet had wanted him gone from the first moment John arrived yesterday afternoon. He’d attempted to chase John away in no uncertain terms. But then their inexplicable rift had vanished, lost amid so many acts of affection.

John may know the touches of women far better than he knows the touches of men, but he knows first and foremost the touch of a lover from that of a dalliance. He knows the reverence for the broken, the care for the beautiful, and he knows—he wants to know—that Vernet’s intentions align with his own. Their wishes align, perhaps. Wish and intent, hope and plan; these are but cousins.

When a man promises to discuss logistics only to vanish, is that his side of the discussion? Is it a refusal or an act of cowardice? Is there anything that could have possibly driven Vernet away from the spot, save for John himself?

John has no idea. A night and a day of wondering and trying not to wonder, of missing him and cursing him, and John still cannot hazard a guess. John’s one certainty: somewhere in the world, there is a tall, thin Englishman, fluent in Italian and missing his scarf. Perhaps he was in London last night. Perhaps he had a bit of money on him and stayed at a hotel before taking a morning train away, or perhaps he took the train as quickly as he could. Is his family surprised to see him again so soon? Does his family know what he does?

Brothers and sisters, of course, this family. An elderly parent or two. Nephews and nieces. Surely this is what Vernet meant when he said he would be returning to his family for the holidays. He couldn’t mean anything else. He’d told John in no uncertain terms that he’d never loved a woman.

Love and marriage are two distinct spheres, whispers a voice from an unwanted corner of John’s mind. Not all women are Mary. Obligation, wedlock, money, anything: any motive may support a marriage.

John shifts his aching leg and tells himself he’s being an idiot. Vernet promised they’d see each other again. With no time limit asked or assigned, surely John ought to last longer than one day before labelling the man an adulterer. If anything, the danger lies in another category. If Vernet is an established invert, then there must have been other men. In the past. Please, in the past.

He wonders if Vernet had ever sung for the others.

John wonders if he’s special. He flatters himself that he is, rejects the notion, then promptly embraces it anew. He turns it over within his mind until a particularly loud round of applause startles him from his thoughts. The end of the first act, only that.

No intermission, not yet, but there’s a short, music-filled pause while the sets are changed. Inspector Lestrade occupies Mr Holmes’ time by asking what in the world just happened. Holmes’ explanation is pithy and quick, devastatingly blunt in the most amusing of ways. John chokes on a laugh and coughs instead, a rattling wheeze sneaking back into his lungs.

“All right over there?” Inspector Lestrade asks.

John clears his throat. “Fine, thank you.”

When Lestrade asks Holmes to continue his explanation, Holmes tells him to read his programme.

Not at all subtle and clearly not intending to be, the Earl eyes him. John is achingly aware of what Lord Holmes sees: a man close to forty, one arm stiff, one leg injured, perpetually short of breath. Clothed in new, hasty suits and sporting a borrowed cane. A man who will accept his brother’s confidences and reject his advances, a man considered worthy of neither.

Lord Holmes tilts his head slightly, a low turn at the corner of his mouth. His eyes state a remarkably clear message in three parts. First, that John is not at all wanted in the booth. Second, that John shall be ruined should he ever breathe word of Mr Holmes’ proclivities. Third, that John may expect retaliation on behalf of his brother’s heart.

In reply, John looks longingly toward the door, sadly at his leg, and gestures vaguely toward his revolver. He stays because he cannot go, and because he might do some good.

Lord Holmes does not blink. He does, however, give the impression that John is still alive only because Lord Holmes deigns to permit it.

John sits with a touch more tension after that.

Act two begins. John has never been happier to watch an opera, with the exception of Vernet’s. Which isn’t precisely the thought he needs at the moment, but it’s already much too late. Between the music, Box Five, Vernet, the disdainful Earl, it’s all much too much. John suffers through the second act with both hands tight in his lap in the attempt to hold shut his heart. He flexes his leg for the sake of circulation. The strain drains him beyond all plausible limits.

It’s only three acts tonight, he reminds himself. Not four, not five. Only the three.

Then, like the opposite of a miracle but no less hoped for, the star soprano croaks like a frog.

“Someone left her drinking water exposed again,” John says with a bit of a sigh. The music stops and restarts at the beginning of the song, a method of pushing through the croaking that has yet to ever work. At the second croak, Mr Havill appears on stage as the soprano makes way for her understudy. The handover is smooth in the extreme. John looks at the box door in the vague expectation of Hopkins coming to fetch him.

“Look!” Mr Holmes points upward.

“The chandelier again?” Inspector Lestrade asks.

“No, behind it! Don’t you see him?”

“There’s a man,” John agrees, leaning forward, revolver in hand. “Around the edge of the walk, near the chandelier mechanism. Is that...?”

“Skull mask,” Holmes confirms.

Inspector Lestrade leans forward as well. “My lord, Mr Holmes, kindly press yourselves against the walls.”

Before either of the Holmes brothers can protest, comply, or ignore Inspector Lestrade, a voice from above booms out, “Ladies and gentlemen! I welcome you to my theatre! I’ve a very important announcement for you all!”

Lestrade stands and pushes Holmes down by the shoulders.

Especially for you, my lord!” the man from above adds. “Hello, Box Five!” He waves. “Quite frankly, it’s a pity we didn’t have a chance to speak sooner. I was so looking forward to our chat at the Masquerade! What fun we were going to have!

“And then Doctor Watson had to go and spoil it! Shame on you, Doctor. Shame, shame, shame. You can’t even die correctly! How’re the new rooms? Warm enough for you?” He throws his hand out and a blaze of fire shoots from his palm toward the chandelier. Patrons scream below.

John’s left hand grabs at the arm of his chair, his right clenched about his revolver. His left hand shakes, or perhaps his heart does. It’s loud in his ears, his heart.

Silence!” the man above bellows. Red Death, yes, the same voice, the very same. “Speaking of moving house, my dears, I do believe it’s time,” the man above continues, voice loud yet smooth. “Your time in my opera house is at an end. I’ve been patient, I’ve been nice, but I’m afraid daddy’s had enough now...!

“Consider this your final warning. No more letters, no more cautions. I will burn the very heart from this theatre. Renounce your claim or pay the price.”

With that, another blaze of fire flares up and the man vanishes. John’s eyes remain fixed upon the spot, upon the scorch marks. He smells smoke.

Distantly, John hears the panic below. Even more distantly, he hears Inspector Lestrade speak, rushed words full of purpose. Strange, that Inspector Lestrade should sound so distant from so close by.

A flash of red in front of his eyes and John panics, his body frozen save for where it trembles. More sound, a roar of it. Everything tilts and blurs. Gray smoke swirls before his eyes. By the time it clears, his collar-ends have come undone, his tie loosened, and the aftertaste of brandy tingles upon his lips and tongue. Holding John’s medicinal flask, Holmes bends over John’s chair. Behind him, the box’s red curtain has been pulled shut.

“What?” John asks thickly.

“You were shaking,” Holmes explains, his eyes very wide.

The past tense is wrong, very wrong. John forces his hand to unclench around his revolver before he shoots himself or Holmes. John touches his bared neck with trembling fingers, where Holmes must have unfastened him.

“I didn’t--” Holmes begins, cutting himself off when John pulls his cravat looser and gasps for air.

John tries to wave him off, simply breathing, trying to breathe. He turns his face against the back of the chair, twisted in his seat, oddly fallen in his seat. Terribly heavy, his eyelids fall shut. Against his arm, the gentle pressure of a hand rests, tender and familiar.

He startles at the touch, ill and panicked and dizzy. “Ver--” He blinks up and Holmes stares down, eyes as gray and unreadable as a full moon. John coughs and hacks, trembling, broken, absolutely falling to pieces and unable to stop. He’s not crying. He’s almost certain he’s not crying, thank God. He can still smell smoke, why can he still smell smoke?

“What was that?” Holmes asks, a high edge to his voice. “What did you say?” He presses the flask to John’s lips and John struggles to drink until the coughing subsides. John tries to take the flask, but his left hand trembles against Holmes’ right.

“Very dizzy,” John rasps. He forces himself to sit up. He can at least slump away from Holmes rather than toward him. “Do you smell smoke?”

“Smoke bombs in the house. It’s being taken care of.” Holmes sits on the ottoman, his hip against the side of John’s shin. “The audience panicked and fled. They interfered with the police, no doubt. Mycroft is taking as much control of the situation as can be found, but it’s nearly certain the ghost escaped.”

For the first time, John notices that they are, in fact, alone in the box. This new weight rests upon the already broken bridge of John’s nerves and promptly falls through. “He’s going to kill me, isn’t he.” It’s no question, merely a cold truth shuddering beneath John’s chest.

“He may try.” John needn’t look at Holmes’ face to know his expression: the casual defiance, the edge of fury peeking out beneath his detached veneer. There’s another note in Holmes’ voice tonight, one John doesn’t know, one he doesn’t wish to know.

Faced with Holmes’ new possessiveness, John replies dryly, “Third time’s the charm, and all that.”

“Yes: we’ll catch him.” Holmes grips him by the shin, a hard hold that triggers a flinch.

“Please let go.” John’s voice is thin.

“Doctor--”

“No, it hurts.”

Holmes releases him. “Then why are you walking on it?”

“Army doctor.” His rasped answer clearly leaves Holmes unsatisfied. “Civilian doctors tell you to sit down, stay, rest up. Army doctors see to it you can walk and then make you.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Yes.” John turns his face against the chair back and closes his eyes. The sound of his own breathing, audible and strained, annoys him. Everything about his body annoys him. Humiliation wells up from his gut. It’s not simply Holmes who has seen him like this, but the Earl and Inspector Lestrade as well.

John hears Holmes stand. He feels the shift in the ottoman and the loss of heat by his leg. A murmur of shifting cloth precedes a new whiff of smoke. Immediately, John sits at attention, moving his leg to the floor.

Peering out, Holmes stands at the curtain. “Very nearly empty now. Demands for refunds are well underway, I’d imagine.” He wrinkles his nose, perhaps at the smell, perhaps at the thought of speaking with so many irate people.

Rather than put his gun away, John tucks it behind his waistband, beneath his jacket. He pulls his medical bag out from beneath the ottoman and grips his cane. When he stands, the world wavers before holding firm. His knees do the same. Blinded by a rush of blackness, John blinks away the dark and the fizzling colours before he dares to move.

“A swift recovery,” Holmes observes over his shoulder. His tone could transform lakes into deserts.

“I need to be away from the smoke.” He lifts his chin, indicating his throat.

Holmes’ eyes trace the distance between them. “Only from the smoke?”

John hesitates. “I’m... not certain.”

Holmes’ attitude shifts. The harsh stiffness of his limbs gives way to limberness. He draws the curtain shut in a fluid motion and turns to face John fully. “Of what, dare I ask, are you uncertain?”

“Are we still friends?” John asks.

A curious light comes into Holmes’ eyes, a startled, bewildered shine. “Your opinion on the matter?”

John strains to articulate the mess within his mind. Ultimately, he sighs in exhaustion. “My opinion is that, if you want to throw anything else at me, I’d prefer you to wait until I can dodge.”

“Meaning, if I restrain myself, we are still friends.” Holmes narrows his eyes slightly but otherwise barely moves as he twists John’s words. “I may fling myself at you as long as you can step neatly out of the way, how kind.”

“That’s not—no.” His thoughts muddle themselves before his tongue ever has a chance at them. “I only meant, well, helmets.”

“Why not me?” Holmes asks.

Capable of nothing else, John stares at him with his mouth agape.

“Why am I so absurd a possibility?” Holmes demands.

“You... I...” He works his mouth a bit until it begins to speak without conscious thought guiding it. “The madman who set my person and my house on fire just threatened my life and smoke bombed the building, and this is what you want to talk about while the police are still running about?”

“Yes,” Holmes replies with a harsh nod. He doesn’t step forward, but his presence crowds against John all the same.

John becomes inescapably aware he can’t open the door while holding both his medical bag and his cane.

“Do you intend to avoid me?” Holmes asks. “My opportunities to learn the truth of the matter are much diminished.”

“‘Truth of the matter’,” John echoes. He adjusts his grip on his cane, his leg protesting their standoff. A small spasm in his thigh joins the ache.

“Your excuses on New Year’s Eve: was there a true reason against me among them?”

“Frankly, you have terrible timing.”

“You mean, there’s someone else,” Holmes says, the jealous, perceptive arse. “An issue of timing, is that all?”

“I mean you shouldn’t do these things when surrounded by the police.” God, Holmes is exhausting.

“You may have noticed they’re busy at the moment.” He lowers his volume all the same. “Is there a reason you declined? You said yourself you find me attractive. Is it my position? The uncertainty? What excludes me, specifically?”

The veneer of Holmes’ manners has at last lifted. Beneath, agony and agitation writhe like cramping muscles under the skin. Holmes’ expression grows ever sharper on the whetstone of his emotions.

John attempts to hold his gaze. He fails. The undisguised sentiment is too much to bear. Silence stretches and John cannot answer.

“...In answer to your earlier question,” Holmes continues, “we... ought to remain friends. Do you agree?”

John nods. He doesn’t attempt eye contact.

Frustration outweighs the pain in Holmes’ silence.

John looks at the door.

“Doctor--”

“I’m going to fall down soon,” John warns.

Holmes presses into his space, never once breaking the boundaries of propriety, never touching. The force of his eyes is enough. The reaction brimming within John’s body is enough, even in his weakened state. Damn the man’s cologne.

Holmes reaches past him and opens the door. The line of his arm is oddly soft, his chest welcoming despite its narrowness. John’s jangled nerves demand soothing, and it is perhaps to the benefit of all that Hopkins stands immediately outside the box door.

“All clear, sir,” Hopkins informs Holmes. Standing guard? How long? Has he heard anything?

“Excellent,” Holmes replies, seeming to find nothing distressing in Hopkins’ presence. “See Dr Watson out.” His hand strays to John’s back, out of Hopkin’s sight, and presses against the hidden firearm. Just barely, John keeps from jumping out of his own skin. Holmes nods, a small mark of approval. “Where’s my lord brother?”

“With Mr Havill in his office, sir.”

“Thank you, Hopkins.”

“Of course, sir,” Hopkins says. “Could I carry that for you, Dr Watson?”

John relents and lets him. He does not, however, accept Holmes’ arm. Out of pride, of course, just the pride. If Holmes thinks otherwise, he hides it behind seemingly guileless eyes. A few moments later, Holmes takes the stairs to the lobby faster than John could ever hope to.

It’s all a bit of a blur after that, exhaustion tugging at his mind. Hopkins hands him off to Mrs Hudson and a police sergeant before darting away to check on Miss Hooper. John falls asleep in the carriage home and wakes to the faces of Mrs Hudson and the sergeant both.

A number of pleasantries and reassurances later, John goes to bed and falls instantly into a restless, twitching slumber. He startles awake in the morning only to recognise Eliza’s silhouette. With a stumbling tongue, he thanks her for lighting the fire and promptly collapses back to sleep.



He receives word by telegram that he’s not to return to work. It’s from Mr Havill, thankfully, not either one of the Holmes brothers.

John sends a telegram in reply, asking whether this applies to today or for the remainder of his two weeks. He receives his answer shortly before lunch. It applies until the scent of smoke can be expunged from the opera house.

Pained and restless, John attempts to make the best of it. He reads and sleeps and tries to remain stationary. He stares at Mary’s photograph on his desk, overcome by a strange, sullen longing. Not for the softness of her hands or the cadence of her voice, but for the quirk of her lips when John betrays a flaw in his own perception.

“That doesn’t seem quite right,” she would tell him. And he would say, “It doesn’t, does it?” And she would ask and he would answer until some sense was found, unless she struck a nerve and John stormed off. If John stormed off, he’d return with apologies. If it were all right, she would kiss him and say so. If it weren’t, she would do the same but withhold the kiss, and hadn’t that taken months to catch on to. In either case, she would keep pressing at the problem until it gave way at her persistence, as most things had the good sense to do.

John wonders what she would make of this. The ghost as well as Holmes and Vernet, but mostly Holmes and Vernet.

He snorts a little, knowing the answer. She would have glared at the pair of them and taken pains to remind all involved just who John was married to. And why. Oh, would there be that reason why. The many reasons.

As pleasant a thought as that is, it hardly helps him now. The more John thinks of it, the more his stomach clenches. No, that pleasant thought is fantasy and fantasy alone. Though she’d accepted John’s explanation of Harry with some nervousness, John has a crushing sense of just how well Mary would have taken word that Harry wasn’t singular in the family. However much Mary had claimed to enjoy her marriage to a pervert, she hadn’t meant the word in that sense.

For perhaps the first time in the history of the world, John wishes he could have spoken with his sister about this. The sense of hiding, the terror at the prospect of being found out. Confessions of love, once terrifying in their own right, become nothing short of horrific in this new context. John could ruin Holmes, he knows. He has no proof, but rumours are easily enough set in circulation. John could destroy him utterly, reputation as well as heart. What an immensely unfair gamble.

The same applies to John through Vernet. Whoever and wherever Vernet is, the man knows John in his entirety. But Vernet cannot reveal his acquaintance with John without breaking his contract. This, John trusts more than his own feelings on the matter. For all John would be willing to swear that Vernet would never betray him, John would have also been willing to bet the remains of his home that Vernet would still be in his chamber when John returned to him.

That was two nights ago, only that. A handful of hours spent with the man after a month of waiting, and now two days removed, affection wrestles with resentment. If John could know, that would be the end of the debate, the wondering. Is a telegram really too much to ask? Not a letter, no handwritten clue in Vernet’s tight scrawl, but a telegram. Some word, any word. Be it wait for me or a blunt move on, John could act. Instead, he listens to his strained loyalty buckling under the weight of injured pride.

John doesn’t know how Holmes can bear it. How the rage of a week ago could soften into the tender care of last night. Is that the difference of not leading a man on? Of stating a difficult no rather than playing into an easy yes? John had hardly dared to hope their friendship might be salvageable. Or had Holmes cared for him out of instinct and concern, his anger circumstantially set aside? Their subsequent argument must have ruined that reprieve. When they next see each other, Holmes might not be so forgiving.

Then again, he might be. John swallows thickly, recalling the frustrated longing in Holmes’ eyes. Holmes might be very forgiving indeed, should John be willing to make it up to him. John looks at the crinkled envelope beneath his photographs and sighs. He wonders if Holmes will invite him to dine out again. He wonders if there’s a way to accept without an implicit promise of more.

He wonders if Holmes might force the issue. If Holmes might draw close until his cologne fills up John’s head, then John might hold still as Holmes takes the matter out of his hands. Holmes might lift that heavy weight of consequence and set it, temporarily, aside. He might press his lips to John’s temple as he had upon the stage, suffuse him with the knowledge of being securely, unwaveringly loved. John might let it wrap about him as the curtain had.

That might last minutes or days, however long it took for Holmes’ unrequited passions to transform into a towering rage. Or, worse, it might persist longer still, Holmes certain to the last of a hollow, empty space in John’s heart, unaware that the loneliness stems from a heart full, not empty.

And should Vernet return, what then? Even with the man unannounced, John would know Vernet’s voice anywhere. And the gesticulations, of course. If Vernet were enthused enough, John could spot him from a block away. Closer, John knows the exact lines of him without the shorthand of his face. John would go to him instantly, if only to punch him, and he knows beyond doubt he would stay to kiss the bruise better. How would Holmes react to discover he’d played the placeholder? Beyond poorly, of course. Of course poorly. He was already jealous last night, as if John had been disloyal to him.

John’s stomach lurches with sudden realisation. December. All of December. The lunches, the telegrams. Their game with the envelope, practically an act of flirtation. Holmes sending John off to watch entertainment after entertainment through his period of enforced boredom. John’s list of everything he wished to tell Vernet and sharing the topics with Holmes instead, unable to wait. Holmes asking him to keep Mrs Hudson company but joining them on Christmas all the same.

Holmes had manoeuvred John into doing everything he wanted, simply by asking John’s help. He’d taken John to shows in Box Five, to the circus, to dinner, to the loveliest Christmas John’s had in years. Christ, the Masquerade. Even that. When had he received that invitation? November? Late October? He can’t remember any longer and his calendar is ash. He only remembers the prompting to accompany Mrs Hudson and Holmes’ insistence on attending with his own disinterested companion.

The magnitude of Holmes’ courting becomes utterly, devastatingly clear. And John had gone along with every piece of it, grateful for the distraction, the temporary relief, like a starving man filling his stomach with water. John groans, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

He stares blankly at the wall for a bit, rummaging through his own memories for a distraction. He finds calming scenes and attempts to relive them, if only for a moment. Vernet composing, Vernet paused between the bouts of writing, at once hurried and achingly careful.

He’d touched John that way. Like some rushed goodbye where all John had seen were beginnings. Had Vernet planned even then to run?

Unable to withstand his own thoughts any longer, John forces himself to his feet. He staggers to the window and sits there to watch the sunset through to its end. After, it is very nearly four in the afternoon. Mrs Hudson might be home in eight or so hours.

John settles in for a long wait.



Mrs Hudson returns well before midnight and very close to tears. She tells him of the crashing backdrops, the broken fly system, the swarms of moths in the wardrobes. Disasters everywhere, and the singers threatening to quit. Only the divas thus far, and that’s nearly par for the course, but it’s only going to worsen.

“If it weren’t for the threats last night, I doubt the police would believe these aren’t accidents.” She cradles her hands about her teacup, skin and china equally frail and veined with blue. “So many all at once, and you can still see it in their eyes. They’ll tell it to you, even! ‘These things do happen, my dear.’” She rolls her eyes. “Yes they do: when someone is making them happen.”

“Are we any closer to knowing who?” John asks.

“A man,” she says. “A corporeal one, I’ve no doubt. One who seems to think the opera house is his.”

“That might be part of the persona,” John points out. “‘Look at me, the great big ghost. I’m haunting here, get out.’”

She shakes her head. “Sherlock thinks there’s something there. He’s going through all the employee records. They’re hardly thorough—too many stagehands and dancers come and gone—but anyone with enough skill to carry off this scheme ought to have been remarked upon.”

John ponders this. “How many people connected with the opera house might hold a grudge against Lord Holmes?”

“Most would be against Mr Havill, I would have thought.”

“I know. That’s what makes it so curious.”

They sit and regard their tea.

“What about the old owner?” John asks.

“Oh, he must be dead by now,” Mrs Hudson answers. “If he isn’t, he’s hardly spry enough to go slipping through windows.”

“But alive enough to hire an acrobat for it,” John says.

“And the Red Death as well? Keep everything nice and sinister while staying out of it? Seems a bit strange.”

John frowns. “Keeping safely out of the way is strange?”

“It’s not dramatic enough,” Mrs Hudson replies with conviction. “You don’t see all that flashy business with the fire with someone who doesn’t want the limelight. I can’t begin to tell you how many conceited idiots I’ve known, John Watson, but I know one when I see one.”

“Just because he’s the star of the show doesn’t make him the composer.”

“Maybe,” she says, not at all with conviction.

They regard their tea a while longer.

“More trouble to come tomorrow, no doubt,” Mrs Hudson remarks. She sighs. “It’s so good to have something to look forward to.”

John nearly chokes on his tea.

“You’re not really going to resign, are you?” Mrs Hudson asks.

“I’m leaning against it now,” John admits.

“Good. Better to not be overhasty.”

“But I might need the week until I’m fit for walking. Stairs especially.”

Mrs Hudson reaches out and gives his wrist a warm squeeze. He releases his cup to meet her palm with his. He nods. They let go.

“...Is Mr Holmes all right?” John asks.

Mrs Hudson smoothes down the pristine tablecloth. Though her eyes worry, her lips are fond. “Sherlock’s always been a complicated boy.”

“He turned thirty-five yesterday.”

“It’s a long time to be a complicated boy, you must admit.”

John laughs a bit at that. “Agreed.” He sobers slowly, not quite sure what to say.

“Are you still angry with him?” she asks.

John blinks at her. “Sorry? I’m not, I’m not angry. That’s not, no.”

“I know it’s hardly my place and he’s asked me to stay out of it, but I can’t help feeling responsible.”

“About... not warning me, you mean?” John asks.

“Something like that.” She smoothes the tablecloth down until it needs smoothing. “I keep forgetting you’re not really from theatre. It’s so silly. But it is important, remaining respectable.”

“I know.”

She shakes her head. “It’s worse for him.”

John waits for her to fix the tablecloth, certain she has more to say.

“When he was little,” she says, “he never wanted to go home. He’d slip backstage and hide somewhere. We’d find him in the most unlikely places and he’d refuse to crawl out. That’s how his mother and I met, you know. She was an admirer already, but coaxing out her son for her cemented it.

“Anyway, what I mean to say is, the hiding places all had something in common. Wherever he was, Signor Varesi would be nearby. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. Big Italian man, exceptional voice. He was our leading man for years. Sherlock adored him. He’d sit through any performance, no matter how long, provided Signor Varesi had the lead. Mycroft would barely put up with it and he was at least, oh, ten or eleven when their mother first took them.”

“How old was Holmes?”

“He must have been, hm, four, I’d say, at the start. Young enough that it ought to have been a disaster. When he started hiding, we thought he was bored, but he was always so quiet and out of the way.

“Where was I? Oh, yes, Signor Varesi. One day, I couldn’t find Sherlock. I tried all the usual spots, and then I went to Signor Varesi’s dressing room. Signor Varesi was already inside with his assistant.” She makes a face of remembered panic. “He and his assistant were very close, you see, and not in a way the Countess would have approved of.

“I knocked on the door and warned him that I thought a child was inside. His assistant, what was his name. Something like Angelo, one of those Italian names. His assistant opened the door right up and let me in. When I found Sherlock in the wardrobe, oh goodness. They were so worried. Had no idea what to do with him. They started trying to explain how men in Italy behave differently than men in England. We were all so worried what he would tell the Countess.

“But Sherlock, he...” She closes her eyes and sighs. Shakes her head. “He asked Signor Varesi if he would take Sherlock back to Italy with him.”

“How much later was this?” John asks, staring despite his best intentions. “He must have been at least, I don’t know, fourteen?” That’s still young enough to hide in a wardrobe.

“He was five,” Mrs Hudson replies. “He explained it all very neatly for a five year old. For anyone, I imagine. His mother had told him he’d fall in love when he was older, and he thought this meant he needed to go somewhere where it was allowed.”

“Christ.”

“Signor Veresi explained. He was kind about it. I remember, oh, this is embarrassing. I tried to ask Sherlock if this wasn’t simply him being impressionable. Signor Veresi was his hero. But Sherlock stood right up and told me, ‘I like him because he’s like me. And his voice is pleasant, even if he’s flat sometimes in the upper ranges.’ Something like that. But certainly the first part.”

“What happened after?”

“Signor Veresi laughed. Then he took Sherlock back to the Countess and told her Sherlock had asked for Italian lessons. He said his assistant wasn’t busy during the shows. It worked surprisingly well. And don’t you dare tell me it was dangerous to leave that boy alone with them.”

“I wasn’t about to,” John lies.

“They made the opera house the best home he’s ever had, as far as I’m concerned,” Mrs Hudson states. “But an earl’s heir needs to be respectable.”

“And that’s why you didn’t tell me. About him. In advance, I mean.”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I couldn’t risk being wrong.”

He reaches out and squeezes her hand.

She squeezes back. For an instant, she seems to have something more to say, but all she tells him is, “I ought to turn in for the night.”

“Good night, Mrs Hudson.”

“Good night, dear.”



The so-called accidents continue as John’s leg heals. Each night, Mrs Hudson returns home with a new piece of a horror story. Some nights, she returns at the usual time. Other nights, she’s early or late, depending on the particular catastrophe of the day.

For John’s part, he listens closely and performs his leg exercises more thoroughly than is perhaps wise. At last, a week after his moment of panic in Box Five, John returns to the opera house. Though he needs the cane, he doesn’t need it quite so badly. He manages the front stairs easily enough without Mrs Hudson’s help and quickly navigates to Mr Havill’s office alone.

“About my resignation, sir,” John begins.

“If you’re not taking it back...” Mr Havill warns.

“I’m taking it back.”

“Thank God. We’ve enough problems keeping everyone else. All the newer stagehands have already quit.”

John grins a bit. “Then I’d best go reassure them, shouldn’t I?”

“Or something else entirely,” Mr Havill suggests dryly. “We could use a dash of Captain Watson today. Scare some sense into them.”

“Yes, sir.”

Before John can duck out of his office, Mr Havill adds, “If you see Mr Holmes, tell him Inspector Lestrade left a note for him.”

“Mr Holmes is here?”

“Unless he’s already left. He does forget to make his goodbyes on occasion.”

“I’ll be sure to tell him,” John promises. Provided John sees him. The man is probably searching the roofs or inspecting the rafters.

Medical bag in hand, John doesn’t take the quickest route backstage. After Mrs Hudson’s depictions of the havoc wreaked upon the opera house, a look at the house is much called for. When he enters, nothing seems very out of place. There are repair men fighting with the backdrops and the fly system, but the seating areas themselves look all right. A faint whiff of smoke here and there, but nothing enough to alarm him.

John walks down the aisle toward the stage. The footlights have yet to be lit and the only light upon the stage is from the chandelier overhead. As the backdrop jerkily rises, catching here and there, it leaves the feet of those behind it still in shadow, though visible. Two men, one obviously Mr Green in the midst of managing his stage. Green shouts at the fly operator, berating him for the uneven lifting. The backdrop continues rising. The line of light follows at a short distance, touching the men’s feet when the backdrop reveals knees, touching knees when shadowy waists become visible.

At the waist, John recognises him. At the sight of the waist, John’s stomach drops to the floor the way his medical bag nearly does.

His mouth dries up and he stops walking and he thinks, he wonders, oh God, could Vernet possibly work here now? As what, what could he possibly... Has Mr Johnson quit? Do they need a new conductor?

The backdrop continues to rise, slowly permitting light to fall on a pair of familiar, gesticulating hands. No, hand, only the right one, the left self-consciously at his side. The scar, concealing it.

With a surge of affection, John teaches his feet how to move once again. He limps down the aisle with increased speed, a giggle growing at the back of his throat that he absolutely cannot let out. There he is. Oh God, there he is. Look at him.

The backdrop halts yet again. Green shouts at someone in the wings. Beside him, a taller, much thinner man turns to see the target of Green’s ire. Cleanly dressed and neatly pressed but Vernet, absolutely Vernet. John would know that stage-turn anywhere, the flare of motion in those long legs.

The backdrop lifts higher still before stopping with a terrible, not at all good noise.

John stops as well, mind rebelling against his eyes.

The light reaches the man’s mouth, his nose, falling and rising this inch as the backdrop sways. The rest of the man’s head is held in shadow, but not lost in it.

John doesn’t understand.

He doesn’t, he doesn’t understand. What, what is... Who is...

That is Vernet’s chin, his neck, his body. That is Vernet. The backdrop rises higher, jerking, fighting this ascent. Beneath it stands a different man, the same man.

Beneath it stands Sherlock Holmes.

Chapter Text

“The problem lies with the pulley, not the rope,” Holmes says to Green. He does not gesture, yet his body remains open toward the house in the semblance of stage blocking. John hears his voice, sees his restrained movements, and still the impression of Vernet persists. It pervades his senses, filling his eyes and confusing his ears.

Cousins, whispers some desperate corner of John’s mind. Vernet the painter, the great-uncle. Vernet the composer, a cousin. Cousins, must be cousins, must be.

A flimsy hope, a paper-thin explanation, and John piles his entire weight atop it in the vain attempt to keep from falling. The men are related or John is entirely delusional. Must be. He had been mistaken. He had seen what he wished to see. He needs more rest.

“Dr Watson!” calls out a familiar voice, a female voice, and John nearly topples over at the distraction. Involuntary, his face twitches into a smile, the automatic reaction of anyone being so happily greeted. Miss Hooper emerges from the wings, a large pair of scissors in one hand. “I thought you quit!”

“And then I got bored,” John answers. He winks at her, abruptly desperate to enrage Holmes.

Both Miss Hooper and Green laugh. There is no sound from Holmes. Instead, the weight of Holmes’ gaze strikes against the side of John’s face, and John does not look. He does not look, he will not look, there is absolutely no reason to look. In going around the pit and climbing up the stairs, John has to keep his attention on the stairs. He does so.

“Good afternoon,” says Holmes. The voice is Holmes’, certainly Holmes’. There is no mistaking it for anything else. No other man can sound so polished and dismissive at once.

“Afternoon,” John replies, addressing his words to Holmes’ forehead. Holmes’ forehead is entirely devoid of curls, his dark hair sleekly restrained by pomade. Is his hair darker than Vernet’s? With shadow on one man and pomade on the other, it’s impossible to tell. “Mr Havill has a note for you.”

“More of that death threat nonsense, no doubt,” Green says.

“I wouldn’t worry,” John says, gesturing to Miss Hooper’s scissors. “Miss Hooper is well-armed.”

Miss Hooper giggles, a higher pitch than her usual. She quickly holds the scissors behind her back, one hand on the handle, the other wrapped around the blades.

Holmes turns to Green. He holds his left hand at his side, palm toward his leg. “Is that the last of the pranks?”

“That we know of yet, sir. It’s already a sizable list.”

“That doesn’t mean it can’t grow.”

“Oh, trust me, sir, I am well aware.”

With a curt nod to them all, Holmes makes his exit out through the opposite wing. His pace, his gait as he enters the shadows, these are his own. His outline, however, is not. John stares until Holmes is out of sight.

“Doc,” Green begins.

“I’m fine.” Only his mind breaking in two, just that. He’s fine.

“I’m glad to hear it. I--”

“What’s this about death threats?” John interrupts.

Green looks at him with tired brown eyes and John abruptly remembers the days when the man’s hair and eye colours were nearly the same. Good, yes, focus on that, keep focusing. Keep going. For the love of God, don’t think of anything else. He can look at Green’s grey hairs while growing some of his own.

“Against Lord Holmes, against Mr Holmes, against the singers...” Green lists. “Against anyone the audience might come to see, in other words. Makes me glad to be backstage, frankly. Though Mr Havill’s had some of it directed towards him, too. And you, but we’d hoped that might clear up with you gone.”

“I can’t let you louts have all the fun without me, can I?”

“With all due respect, Doc, you might want to give it a try.”

“Already did,” John says. He knows better now. He won’t be chased out, not by ghost nor phantom and not by anyone else, no matter whom. He turns to Miss Hooper. “And I wasn’t joking, Miss Hooper. Quite frankly, I think it’s time the ladies up in costuming learned how to stab ghosts. Before we have another Joe Harrison on our hands.”

“If we can find a minute between replacing the destroyed costumes,” Miss Hooper replies without hesitation. “Most of the younger girls have quit, any of them that could afford to. The older women are having enough trouble sewing in the cold without adding ghost fights into the mix.”

“What’s happened to the heating?” John directs the question more towards Green.

“Nearly exploded,” Green answers with a bit of a shrug. “It’s been that kind of week.”

“That sounds about right,” John says faintly.

“Do you need to sit down?” Miss Hooper asks.

“No. Yes. Actually, yes.”

Miss Hooper darts away and returns with a stool. John half sits, half leans.

“Thank you.”

“Are you sure you want to be here?” Green asks.

John nods. “I’ll buck up in a moment.”

Green raises his palms. “No rush.”

John nods a bit more. “Death threats? You said something about that.”

Green lowers his voice and steps closer. He looks unduly concerned until John recalls he’s already asked. “Against management and the talent,” Green repeats anyway.

“Lots of nasty surprises, too,” Miss Hooper adds, sounding increasingly concerned over John. “Dead rats in the bouquets last night.”

“Christ.”

Green laughs a little. “Said much worse than that last night.”

“I can imagine,” John agrees dryly.

The conversation-turned-report continues on in this vein for a short while, but with John’s attention obviously frayed, Green leaves off, citing more work than he has time for. For Miss Hooper’s part, she takes him by the elbow and he follows somewhat blankly.

“How about an actual chair?” she asks.

“That would be nice,” John says. They head backstage, upstairs, back to the workshop areas. When John enters, a flurry of greetings and exclamations of relief pour out. He responds distractedly until Miss Hooper sits him down.

“Everyone back to work!” Miss Hooper calls out, polite but firm.

“Just need a moment,” he says weakly.

He gets one. A long one. He spends it trying not to think. The thought he has to think is much too large, one formidable block of a concept that cracks the doorframe of his mind and strains at the walls.

Vernet.

Vernet... wasn’t.

He sees Holmes upon the stage and he sees Vernet, sees the two of them impossibly overlaid. Except he can’t have. Because... because Vernet is taller, isn’t he? Or is that the hair, untamed curls resulting in the illusion of increased height?

Skin tone, then. But no, both men are pale and John has never seen both in the same lighting. Box Five is the only space John has ever known the two to overlap and the box is quite different with the curtains closed and the gaslight extinguished.

Clothing, surely a difference there. Holmes has access to clean clothes and a fine wardrobe. Plain and somewhat rumpled, Vernet lives out of a Saratoga trunk. Except any man would be plain and rumpled, living out of a Saratoga trunk.

The voice, then, obviously the voice. The voice decides it completely. John has observed a moment of freakish similarity, but nothing more. He mistook one tall, thin man for another. He saw who he hoped to see.

And yet he’d expected Holmes. He’d expected to see Holmes, and yet he’d seen Vernet in him instead. Perhaps that’s simply a sign of desperation and longing. Or lack of sleep. Lack of sleep is a valid option.

All right. Good. Very good, a solid reason, the voice. Except for Vernet’s vocal range. Like a piano, that one. Not that this means anything. Of course it doesn’t mean anything.

Is that why Vernet resisted singing?

No, no, stop this. Stop thinking. Stop it, it’s fine. After all, what kind of absurd, overdramatic lunatic would...

No.

No.

Abruptly choking, John coughs in the lint-filled air. He makes his apologies to Miss Hooper and thanks her for the moment of calm. He’s not actually sure what her reply is. He exits. He finds a spot to stand by a railing and breathes a bit easier. He loosens his collar.

He can’t actually be considering this. He can’t actually.

Leaning on railing and cane in equal measure, John stands there as long as he can, not considering.



The day drags on. John begins to consider it.

By evening, it’s bizarrely inevitable. It shouldn’t be, really. There should never be a moment when inspection of two messy, utterly distinct friendships results in the conclusion that this is a single relationship, disastrously muddled. And yet, well. And yet, there he is. Disastrously muddled.

He thinks, almost happily, that perhaps he’s going mad. It’s a very manageable sort of madness, an understandable sort. In the past month, he’s been set on fire, forced to jump out of his burning house, lost nearly everything he’s ever owned, received threats from a deranged ghost, and had his world entirely upset by two men. It’s almost an act of simplification, combining the two. John no longer has to wonder where Vernet’s gone. The agonised wait lasted barely a week. That’s some sort of a relief.

Relief, but then complication. Because that is an absurd deception. Absurd and lengthy, and forcing Mrs Hudson into the role of co-conspirator. Neither Holmes nor Vernet could be so cruel as to do that to her. It would explain the sense of guilt about her, of course, but it... ah. It would, wouldn’t it? Mrs Hudson keeps her promises, even the absurd ones.

Sitting on call with a borrowed yellowback novel, John keeps running his eyes over the page. A temporary distraction, it only lasts a minute before he surrenders to the demands of his own mind. He thinks:

Vernet is a gentleman with immense musical passion and distaste for conventional romance. Holmes is a gentleman with musical interest and immense loathing for conventional romance.

Vernet writes operas in Italian with starring roles for contraltos. Holmes learned Italian as a boy and has marked interest in a specific contralto.

Vernet lived in the opera house tunnels with constricting permission from the Earl. Holmes confessed his intentions with the same constricting permission.

Two matters, John remembers. Two matters, Holmes had said.

It is, he reflects, a very good thing he’s already sitting down.



During the night’s performance, one of the trap doors snaps open in the middle of a ballet. No fewer than three of the dancers take a tumble, one down the chute and two over each other in the attempt to keep from falling in. The injury count comes in at one ankle sprained, one broken, various scrapes on all, and three torn dresses.

One of the stagehands carries the fallen ballerina out from beneath the stage, the poor girl weeping over her ruined career. John does what he can, nearly grateful she’s more distraught over her future than her current pain. She’s extremely cooperative and never cries out.

Mrs Hudson comes to hold her dancer’s hand. “This doesn’t have to be the end, dear. It’s going to be all right.” She passes the girl a handkerchief.

“Are you sure?” She looks between Mrs Hudson and John.

“If we can keep the swelling down and make certain it stays realigned properly,” John says. “There’s a chance.” They’ve been keeping bits of metal on the roof to carry the chill inside, wrapped in scraps of cloth. It’s hardly the most efficient method of keeping an injury cool, but it’s the most inexpensive anyone could think of.

The rest of the night is spent expecting worse, but worse never comes. “Waiting for the other shoe to drop,” John mutters to Green, standing backstage to be close to the next disaster.

“Waiting for the cobbler to fling it, you mean.”

“That, too. How the hell is he setting this all up?” There’s never anyone about, never anyone running away, never the same stagehands present for the disasters. Everything is set up to fail well in advance.

“Don’t know about you, mate,” Green says, “but I’m spending the night in the wings. Told the wife this morning and she packed me off with everything except a tent. Until this is over, I’m living here.”

“What about the carpenters? They live up back, don’t they?”

“Got a number of us staying now. All men I can trust.”

“You might as well bring the dancers into it, too,” John says. “We’ve two who won’t be good for anything except sitting guard. We might as well use them.” It’s continued employment for the girls, at any rate. As much as John hates telling Mr Havill who needs to be sacked, he hates it all the worse when it’s the girls. Especially in winter.

“Doesn’t seem right, bringing the women into it.”

“As far as I can tell, they’ve already been thoroughly brought.”

Green tilts his head at that before nodding. “Fair enough. Suppose they could get out a good loud scream if they saw anything.”

John tightens his grip on his cane. “Or bludgeon the ghost with crutches, either one. Do you want me with you?”

“We should be all right for tonight,” Green says.

“Look, this morning was just--”

Green holds up a hand. “If we’re to keep the ghost off the stage, we’ll need a rotation to guard it. Another night, Doc.”

John nods. “I’ll be ready.”

Green claps him on the shoulder, the good shoulder, and John sorely misses the days when all men were so straightforward.



“Are you all right, dear?”

“Hm? Yes, fine.” John looks out the growler window at the streetlamps. The ride home passes in silence.

When they say goodnight, the guilt clings to her. It’s an odd sort of confirmation, or perhaps it isn’t. John’s not sure what to do about it.

He sleeps through strange dreams. In the morning, he orders his thoughts. Over breakfast, he says, “It’s all right.”

Mrs Hudson looks up from the tablecloth where she’s been smoothing it down again. “Sorry?”

“Not, um.” John lowers his gaze. “Not telling me Vernet’s real name. It’s him I want to hear it from, so. Not your fault. It’s all right.”

“Oh, John.”

“It’s all right,” he repeats. “Really, it is.”

“What if--”

“Even if anything.” He looks her in the eyes for that, needs to. “I know you promised not to tell, and that’s fine.”

She visibly wavers on the edge of telling him, but if she confesses it, she’ll certainly tell Holmes. John can’t, won’t speak to Holmes. Not yet. He doesn’t know what he could say. He has far too many wounds to lick first.

“I’m not sure I even want to hear it,” John says. Mrs Hudson nods and that settles the issue.



“Nothing last night, as far as I could tell,” Green announces later that morning. It’s a small gathering, only the senior staff, but the group seems a crowd inside Mr Havill’s office. “The stage hasn’t been tampered with, sir.”

“And the house?” Mr Havill prompts.

“None of the boys saw anyone, for what it’s worth. If there’s anything wrong with the seats, I’d expect it to be in the boxes, not in the stalls.”

Mr Havill nods. “And backstage?”

“Not enough eyes for that, sir. We can watch the stage and the house, but the hallways, the workshops, the dressing rooms... It’s too large a space, sir. We already know watching the entrances doesn’t work. He’s sneaking in some other way.”

“We could find other willing eyes,” John suggests.

“Eyes we can trust?” Mr Havill asks. “We’re running low on those as it is.”

“I could take watch, sir,” Miss Hooper volunteers. Next to her, Hopkins nods. “Some of the women are willing to stay, too. We could recruit the husbands?”

“Men we don’t know,” Mr Havill says.

“With all due respect, sir,” says Green, “we ‘barely know’ any of the stagehands before they’re hired and even a loyal man can be bought in a pinch. Unless the police are about to step up, we need more men.”

“The police are already doing all they can,” Mrs Hudson reminds him. “There’s more in this city than just us.”

“Dr Watson, how many army contacts do you still have?” Mr Havill asks.

“My address book went with the house, sir,” John says. “I could try to track down a few, but we’re well out of touch.”

“The musicians might bring in family members,” Mr Johnson suggests. “Just a start is better than nothing.”

“I’m sure the other ushers wouldn’t mind being called in for a late shift, sir,” Hopkins adds. “Offer a promotion to anyone who catches the ghost and we’ll have the problem solved overnight.”

“As long as nothing goes wrong with the stage or house tonight, I’ll consider extending the venture,” Mr Havill replies.

“And backstage, sir?” Green asks.

“There, we take our chances.”



They scour the boxes. They inspect every seat in the house. They check the pit, the trapdoors, the flies, the stage lights. They secure the doors, the windows, every entrance to the roof. John sneaks down to the secret door beneath the staircase only to find this entryway to the tunnels boarded up.

That night, ushers stand guard against patrons straying from the house. The doormen keep careful watch. The staff in the cloakroom pats down the collected coats and cloaks in case of further smoke bombs.

They wait and they wait, and nothing goes awry. At the end of the performance, the opera house tenses as a united whole, straining to hear the approach of disaster beneath the roar of applause.

And yet, nothing.

The audience departs. Slowly, the staff exhales. Some with nervous laughter, some with fear straining the shapes of their eyes, they gather together before keeping guard anew. Green bunks down in Mr Havill’s office for the night and locks himself in. John and Hopkins sit upon the stage with the ghost light at their backs. More watchful eyes wait in the wings.

The heat from the night’s performance dissipates all too soon. As John’s shoulder begins to ache with the cold, he stands and moves closer to the ghost light, certain to keep his gaze directed outward.

“Sorry, sir, but I don’t like having your shadow over it all,” Hopkins says.

“Fair enough,” John says and sits back down on the edge of the stage. He still has the scarf in his medical bag, he realises. Pushed down to the bottom by now, but he does have it. After a moment of indecision, he shifts forward and drops down into the pit. He stumbles through the landing but refuses to return for his cane.

“Dr Watson?”

“I’m getting my coat from the cloakroom. Won’t be a minute.”

“No, sir,” Hopkins says immediately. He hops down beside John, landing much more limberly. The dexterity doesn’t seem fair: Hopkins can’t be any more than six or so years younger than him. “I’ll fetch it. I can’t let you go in good conscience.”

John sighs. “Same to you. We’re in pairs tonight.” He turns and calls back into the wings, closing his eyes against the ghost light, “One of you mind the house for a minute! We’re getting coats.” He doesn’t much need to lift his voice: the house is fiendishly silent.

“Could you bring mine, sir?” one man responds. He emerges onto the stage, shielding his eyes with one hand. Jamison? Yes, that’s Jamison. “Blue scarf in the left pocket.”

“Mine ought to be next to it!” adds the second of the pair, Beaumont.

“Right!” Hopkins says. “If we don’t come back, you send someone after us.” The joke falls terribly flat.

John and Hopkins exit the pit, easing their way around chairs and music stands. Their shadows stretching far into the aisle before them, they walk toward the doors to the lobby on quiet feet, shoes muffled on the carpet.

Hopkins opens the door and slips protectively in front of John. Excessive, certainly, but warming. They listen carefully before walking out as quietly as they can. Hopkins lights a match in the dark, the light small and faint in the marble lobby. Flickers of orange against white stone guide their way to the cloakroom. His imagination overactive, John looks up at the high expanse of ceiling, seeking a face amid the balcony banisters. Nothing there, of course nothing, and yet the futile urge to look remains. Even a mouse can sound like a madman in the dark.

They enter the cloakroom. Hopkins lights another match, checks a drawer beneath the closed window and empty counter, and procures a candle. A steadier light, the candle flame dances less but hardly stands still. Quick about it, John pulls on his coat and shifts his revolver from the small of his back to his coat pocket. As he does so, Hopkins finds his coat and those of Jamison and Beaumont. John takes the candle to let Hopkins put on his coat. The rustling of cloth slithers through the night’s silence, jarringly loud.

By mutual, unspoken accord, they freeze. They listen. They nod at each other in the fragile light. Hopkins opens the door gently, gently. Candle in one hand, revolver in the other, John steps outside.

Nothing. Of course nothing.

They stand still and silent all the same, the candlelight licking up the walls. Holding the pair of extra coats, Hopkins nods toward the way they’d come.

John shakes his head. He nods toward the other side of the lobby and mouths a single word: Painting.

Hopkins’ eyes widen. He nods.

John walks without bothering for stealth. There’s no chance of it. He holds a candle in a nearly pitch room, the windows high above providing little starlight beneath the London smog. His footsteps aren’t terribly loud, only in comparison to the silence, and then John stops abruptly. His footsteps echo. The echo stops. The hesitation of John’s fading limp remains constant in footsteps and echoes both.

Following at a much more careful pace, Hopkins draws near. John raises an eyebrow at him. More than an echo? Hopkins shakes his head. Just an echo.

Even so, John checks on the remaining Vernet painting. He sees the outline of the frame first, merely the outline, a faded spot on the wall.

“It’s there!” Hopkins points to a shape on the floor.

“Oh, thank God.” It’s facedown. Stolen from the frame or merely in the process? “Check on it,” John instructs, turning around, aiming his firearm in a slow circle.

Hopkins approaches the painting quickly and John trains his revolver on the shadows closest to him. When nothing jumps out at Hopkins, John approaches as well. He stands over Hopkins as the man kneels down to inspect the damage.

“Still here, sir,” Hopkins reports with a sigh. “It’s still nailed to the stretch bar, but it’s barely attached to the frame.”

“Can we carry it back to the stage like that?” John asks. With four of them to guard it, that will be the safest place. Locking it into Mr Havill’s office with Green would simply put Green in danger on his own.

“If we wrap the coats around it, I think so. We’ll have to carry it upright.”

“Can you do it on your own? Without damaging it?”

“I think so.”

“In your own time,” John assures him, voice and hands steady.

Hopkins bundles up the Vernet with care. He cradles it to his chest, securing it with his chin. Though he vibrates with energy, defenceless in the dark, his breathing remains a calm, controlled rhythm.

“Keep close,” John instructs. A statement rather than a whisper, his words beat back the oppressive stillness from above.

Hopkins does as told, nearly bumping against him as they move. John puts himself between Hopkins and the majority of the room, keeps Hopkins between himself and the wall. Nearly holding their breaths, they leave the shelter of the wall and cross beneath the grand staircase to the house door.

With Hopkins hugging the swaddled painting, opening the door falls to John. Refusing to pocket his gun, John bites the end of the candle and keeps staring out into the lobby. Melted wax drips onto the marble as he opens the door behind him. Once Hopkins slips inside, John quickly follows. He shuts the door. His mouth tastes of wax and he nearly burns his fingers removing the candle from between his teeth.

Long, nervous strides carry Hopkins down the aisle, well ahead of John. John hurries after, each row of seats another row of shadows he must pass. After their venture into the lobby, the ghost light nearly blinds him.

“What’s that, then?” Beaumont asks.

“Bad news,” Hopkins answers.

“Ghost in the lobby,” John explains, following Hopkins around the pit and mounting the stairs. His leg doesn’t like the stairs at all. He needs to sit again soon, very soon. He blows out the candle, but not before he’s dripped wax on the stage. Green will be annoyed. “No one leaves the stage again, all right? We watch the doors, we watch the catwalks, and we have one person keeping a hand on that at all times.”

“That?” Beaumont asks.

Hopkins carefully removes the coats. John nearly helps him, but that would mean relinquishing his revolver.

“If he’s in the lobby,” Jamison begins from somewhere in the wings.

“Then we’ll know where to search in the morning,” John interrupts. “We do not chase this man, not if it means leaving the stage abandoned. We don’t know what kind of traps he’s laid out there.”

“What about the other paintings in the lobby?” Beaumont asks.

“None of the others were painted by the Earl’s uncle.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, oh. They might be vandalised or stolen, but this one, we save. We know we’re not alone. It’s too vulnerable a position, carrying paintings in the dark.”

“It really is,” Hopkins confirms.

“Begging pardon, sir, but we could sit out in the lobby just as easily as in here,” Beaumont insists.

John shakes his head. “There are paintings upstairs as well as down. Impossible to keep an eye on all of them. It’s enough of a challenge watching this place with four men, and this is the priority. Back to your position, Beaumont.”

With some grudging hesitation, Beaumont complies, bringing Jamison his coat. Hopkins returns to his spot at the edge of the stage, his back to the ghost light. For his own part, John sits on the stage, eyes on his surroundings, a hand on the painting’s frame.

Every creak of the building and scurry of a rat sets their nerves jumping. Once, near four in the morning, a creaking beneath the stage has John pointing his revolver at the trap door for long minutes, Hopkins checking nervously over his shoulder.

At long last, dawn arrives. Mr Havill follows on its heels, bids them all a good morning, and sends them home to sleep. Stubborn to the last, John remains on the stage with the painting until Mr Havill escorts him and it to his office. John explains the evidence of their intruder last night as Mr Havill unlocks the door.

Inside, a bleary-eyed Green reports the office undisturbed. They stow away the painting with care and Mr Havill promises to wire the Earl immediately. Only with that promise does John consent to return home.



He sleeps through the morning and most of the afternoon before Eliza knocks at his bedroom door. “Dr Watson, you said to wake you,” she reminds him from the hallway.

“Right, yes, thank you,” he calls back. He sits up feeling groggy and a bit ill, his stomach empty and acidic. Supper first, opera house after. He doesn’t lose much time in dressing and eating, all told. After a cold night of insufficient movement, his leg aches terribly. He’s forced to take up his cane once more.

Even in his compromised condition, he arrives at the opera house well before the house opens for the night’s performance. The Vernet painting has been reinstalled to its proper location. They’ll be moving it each night, John imagines, but he sees the sense in it. Keeping it on the wall is a much needed symbol of defiance.

“He was in here last night,” a smooth voice says from behind him.

John doesn’t startle, but he turns around more quickly than is perhaps best for his leg. “Good evening, my lord.”

“Quite.” His own cane clearly for show, the Earl regards his painting. “Tell me, what did you see?”

John provides a full report, detailing his progress with Hopkins from the second house door toward the cloakroom and over to the painting. “It was the second night we were covering the stage. It wasn’t difficult to imagine he’d change targets.”

“Then where tonight?” the Earl muses. Though he likely means to wonder where the ghost will strike overnight, John’s mind leaps to another track.

“I’ll have Hopkins inspect Box Five before the performance.”

The Earl shows his teeth. To be called a smile, it would have to reach his eyes. This motion barely touches his nose. “Your concern is noted, Doctor, but measures have already been put into place.”

“I’m glad to hear it, my lord.” John fixes his mouth in a polite shape. “If you’ll excuse me, I ought to see how everyone is faring after the matinee.”

“Tell me, Dr Watson,” the Earl says before John can so much as turn to go. “Are you armed?”

“I am, my lord.”

“But you are not standing guard over us tonight?”

“No, my lord.”

That seems to please him. “Will you be keeping watch frequently?”

“I’d planned to alternate nights, my lord. Perhaps every third night.”

“I see. That will be all.” His bored expression is the mirror of his brother’s.

John very nearly hesitates. He almost considers saying something more, words pertaining to Mr Holmes or the masked man formerly in the basement. He comes close to asking where Mr Holmes currently is, for the sake of better avoiding him and not throwing blunt objects at each other’s heads.

Instead, John departs as steadily as he can. Having had time to consider it, he’d prefer to keep this job.



For the second night in a row, the performance passes without incident or injury. Beyond the three smoke bombs discovered before the matinee, there’s exceptionally little sign of tampering. The ghost’s goals last night clearly centred about the painting.

Even with the ghost’s last attack rendered ineffectual, John has two patients that night. Two patrons, both suffering from nerves and the heat. Mr Havill berates the ushers after the performance, charging them to keep a lighter, less paranoid atmosphere. “How are we to keep the seats filled with the audience terrified?” he demands.

John stands at Mr Havill’s side in his office, looking straight ahead and keeping all feelings of awkwardness to himself. Being held up as an example of good conduct now is hardly the pleasure it might be in any other scenario. Hopkins looks as if he’d rather be dead than face Mr Havill.

“A game.”

As one man, Mr Havill, John and the ushers turn towards the office door, now open. John shifts his weight, ostensibly for better use of his cane, more practically to have Hopkins’ head block his sightline.

Mr Havill asks, “Would you care to repeat that, Mr Holmes?”

“Turn it into a game,” Holmes answers. The light quality to his voice grates at John’s ears, upon his nerves. “Make a farce of it. All of London knows how ‘haunted’ we are by now. There lies our advantage. We incorporate him into the performances. Any dancer in a skull mask will do. If the audience laughs, it destroys their fear as well as his pride.”

Mr Havill nods along. “It might even be a draw. ‘Now featuring: the Opera Ghost.’”

Holmes shifts in the doorway and John lowers his gaze to Hopkins’ shoulder. “We can start with a quick ballet at the end of intermission.”

“An excellent thought. Thank you, Mr Holmes. I’ll speak with Mrs Hudson shortly. Is your lord brother still present?”

“Departed for the night, I’m afraid,” Holmes replies, his tone conveying nothing akin to fear.

The Earl gone without Holmes? John frowns. He makes unwitting eye contact.

“Until morning, I’m at your disposal,” Holmes continues, looking to Mr Havill once more.

“Thank you, Mr Holmes.” Mr Havill proceeds to list those of the ushers who will be staying the night with Mr Holmes. “I’m certain that none of you will disappoint me,” he adds. With that, they are dismissed. John lingers in the office before Mr Havill directs a very pointed glance at him. Forced into the hall, John encounters Holmes.

“Heading home?” Holmes asks, falling into step with him. Trying to, certainly. John’s limp prevents their strides from syncing. It also prevents John from outdistancing him. Holmes walks on John’s left. Unfortunately, the medical bag is a flimsier barrier between them than the cane would be.

“Yes,” John answers, intentionally wheezing. His throat has recovered from the fire by now, but any escape from conversation will do.

“I’ll fetch Mrs Hudson. You should wait in the lobby.”

John shakes his head.

Holmes grips his arm.

John flinches.

It isn’t a small flinch. It isn’t subtle. It’s a full-body motion of tension and rage. It is absolute silence in the mouth and shouting in the throat.

Holmes releases him.

Neither moves.

“Your shoulder is paining you,” Holmes states, more compromise than observation. His voice is soft, controlled. His expression is doubtlessly neutral, his hurt only visible in the reproof of his eyes. John does not need to look at him to see this.

“It is,” John allows. He fixes his gaze down the hall. “If you’ll excuse me, sir.”

John limps away.

Holmes doesn’t follow.



He let that man touch him. He let that man touch him. John hasn’t simply been played for a fool, flinging himself at a man who doesn’t exist. He’s been mislead and spun about and used.

He’d already rejected Holmes. He’d shied away from his advances and made more than suitable apologies. He’d refused every last chance Holmes had offered him, chance after chance and none of them wanted.

And then, oh no, that wasn’t the end of it. Holmes knew exactly what he was doing, blindfolding John in the dark. Catching John’s hands and dragging them down before John could feel the shape of his face or touch those damnable cheekbones. Wrapping the semblance of intimacy about him like so much black cashmere.

There it is, isn’t it? That inexplicable I feel like I know you, that sense of haven’t we met before? They bloody well had, hadn’t they? That’s as explicable as it gets. The obsession, the fantasies, the compulsive picking at man and mystery both; it’s all rubbish. Every last piece of it, complete and utter nonsense. Vernet is nothing more than a lie circling round inside John’s mind. Never existed. Never happened.

Except for the snogging, of course. Two hours in the dark, sucking on the wrong man’s tongue. Squeezing a man’s bum and feeling the heat of his lust rub against his stomach, like some kind of shirtlifter.

Christ, John needs a bath. He needs to be scrubbed down to his bones, if possible. He’ll tell Eliza the hot water is for his old war wound. For last night out in the cold, for that matter. He’ll sit in the tub until the ache eases and he won’t think at all. He’ll sit and not think and he’ll stop mourning this ridiculous vision of a man who isn’t and was never real.



In the morning, he drags himself awake from a fitful, dreaming sleep. His body aches with tension and longs to fuck, angry and vicious. He fails to take care of it, his mind shifting in directions too volatile to explore.

Breakfast is a bleary, agitated affair. Mrs Hudson makes the mistake of asking after him and he nearly bites her head off. Immediately, profusely, he apologises. She doesn’t pat his hand and she doesn’t tell him it’s all right.

“We’re all nervous,” she says instead, and she doesn’t call him dear.

John apologises a second time before keeping his mouth shut.

They spend the rest of breakfast in silence and pass the cab ride to the opera house in much the same way. There’s no sign of Holmes, a small blessing. A better blessing still, John’s limp abates as motion and the heat of the opera house warm it. Tentatively, he returns the cane to Miss Hooper.

“More use than I meant to have from it,” he admits.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” she asks. When he frowns, possibly glares, she simply says, “If the ghost steals it, you’re on your own.”

The sound strange in his throat, John laughs. Not quite a twinge or the beginnings of a cough, but perhaps a small sign of continuing damage. Another reason to avoid Holmes, should he be smoking.

“Is sewing up people very different than cloth?” Miss Hooper asks without prompting.

John attempts to pull his eyebrows down from the ceiling. “There’s a bit more thrashing and flinching. Blood flow can be an issue. And sterilizing. You have to sterilize first. Leave a bit of a spot for the pus to drain out, too.”

She nods a bit. “Do you think I’d be any good at it?”

“We’re not closing down.” She’d make a fine nurse, but they can’t afford to lose her now.

“I know,” she says. “But if people get hurt again like the last time, I want to do more than tie bandages.”

For one mad moment, John considers proposing. It would solve so many problems, except for the fact that it wouldn’t at all. Instead, he starts to explain to a very attentive audience, Miss Hooper nodding and clearly doing her best to memorise everything he says.

“And that’s it, more or less,” John concludes.

Miss Hooper thanks him and returns nearly immediately to her work and the intricacies of her workshop, off to check up on those within. This quickly, he is no longer needed. As carefully as he can, John manages to walk away unaided.



“Are you staying on tonight?” Green asks during intermission.

“I suppose so.” Holmes stayed last night, so tonight ought to be clear. “Yes, I’ll be here.” John only wishes he’d thought to take a nap at some point.

“How’s your head for heights? Hopkins is rubbish.”

“If you want me on the catwalk in the dark, my head is absolutely terrible.”

“We’re trying to cover more of the back hallways,” Green explains. “If you can handle the stairs, that’s where I want you.”

“That’ll be fine.”

Green nods and they fall silent, waiting for the first of the ghost-mocking ballets to take the stage. A dancer in black cloak, trousers, and skull mask menaces through the number before becoming distracted by the other dancers’ skirts. So enamoured, their false phantom falls through the open trap door. The audience greets the number with gasps and subsequent laughter, but though the mood in the house lifts, the consequences loom.

“We’re in for it tonight,” Green mutters. John couldn’t agree more.



John takes up his position that night with steady nerves, a lamp, and his revolver comfortably in hand. He has a chair at the corner of the hall, his back and left side to the walls. Ahead and to the right is the railing around this level. It’s practically scaffolding, much of the floor space used for prop storage. Walking, not running, will be called for. Easy enough to take a tumble or to send someone flying.

This high up, the building creaks. It shifts and groans, old joints cracking. Difficult not to grow a bit jumpy. Very good that they’re taking shifts tonight. His partner for the next few hours is a stage technician by the name of West. New fellow but quiet and careful, the sort of fellow who knows he doesn’t look like a born Englishman and is cautious about it. He and John take turns standing. Westy proves himself a fine chap, and John sits for longer than is properly his due. Hours later, their relief arrives.

“Thank you, Mr West. That will be all.”

John’s mind refuses. It refutes the evidence of eyes and ears, because Holmes must have gone home, Holmes must have left, Holmes cannot possibly be cornering him in a shadowy hall in the middle of a stakeout. Holmes absolutely cannot be doing this, except for the obvious fact that he can and is.

Westy leaves with the old lamp, its oil running low. Keeping an eye on the shadows as they bend in the light, John watches him go. Surely the ghost will jump out at Westy and everyone will give chase instead of simply standing here for hours on end in the dark. Instead, Westy reaches the stairs without molestation.

“We’re meant to go in pairs.” Far from the rebuke John would prefer to give, this whisper will have to do.

Holmes shrugs, arms wrapped around himself despite his thick coat. Instead of a scarf, he wears his collar turned high. “We’ve an uneven number tonight.” His voice remains terribly light, nearly a mocking pitch, absolutely grating in comparison to Vernet’s false thrum. Remarkable range, but then, John already knew that.

“Very strange. It was even when I last checked. If it’s from loss of numbers, someone should have fetched me.”

“Addition, Doctor.”

The wood creaks above them. John looks up. They wait a silent moment. No further creaking comes.

“If he tries to leave through the roof, he’ll have to pass by us or Jamison and McConnell,” Holmes reminds him.

“I know that, thanks.” He’s only been standing here thinking that for hours. He tucks his gloveless right hand into his coat pocket alongside his revolver. After a short pause, he tucks his gloved left away as well, his tight fist too obvious.

“Now you’re angry with me.” An unspoken tutting accompanies his words. Thirty-five and yet to have his nose broken for him: only a lord’s brother could get away with that.

Wanting to shout and rage, John keeps his voice lowered. “He wants both of us dead. Putting a pair of targets out here wasn’t exactly good thinking.”

“We’d be bait anywhere, separately or together.”

“With all due respect, I’d prefer to be bait with reinforcements somewhat closer.” John turns away. “Put the lamp under the chair. Can’t adjust to the dark with that shining in your eyes.”

Holmes complies. The floorboards announce the shifting of his weight. The air stirs.

The sensation of breath on the back of John’s head must be imaginary, but John tenses from it all the same. “Your line of sight is that way,” John instructs. He points without looking.

“I know.”

John returns his hand to his pocket. He stares into the dark. They mute themselves, their silence far from quiet.

“You’re angry with me,” Holmes murmurs. His words stroke up John’s neck towards his ear, as delicate as the tendrils of a climbing vine upon worn stone. Assisted by a gentle breath, they brush against him, seeking cracks John once would have widened willingly.

John steels himself with no small sense of self-disgust. “Says the man who threw a helmet at my head.”

“You’re more concerned with being cornered.”

Christ. He nearly turns around at that. “If you know you’re doing it, why are you doing it?”

Holmes presses forward. The floorboards creak. “I need to speak with you.”

“‘Need’ is a strong word.”

“It is,” Holmes agrees.

Oh, good God. Not now. “Can this wait? At all? Until the sun is up or there are slightly fewer murderers in the opera house?”

“I’ll speak quietly.”

“Mr Holmes--”

Don’t.” The floorboards groan. The back of John’s neck prickles.

John turns around instinctually, Holmes much too close to his back. John takes a step away, pressing his shoulder against the wall so the lamplight doesn’t shine directly behind Holmes. He still can’t make out Holmes’ expression and he doesn’t much care to. “I know what you’re going to say and this isn’t the time for it,” John whispers. “So lay off.”

Holmes crowds closer, the exact way one shouldn’t toward a cornered man with a gun. “You really don’t.”

There’s no stopping him, is there? “Go on, then,” John challenges, practically hissing to keep from shouting. “Surprise me.”

“Gladly.” With an irritable flair, Holmes tugs off his left glove finger by finger before thrusting his palm out for inspection.

“Yes, and?”

Holmes stares at him.

John lifts his chin and waits, arms crossed.

“You didn’t look,” Holmes prompts.

John looks. In the faint lamplight, the scar is visible, stretching up onto Holmes’ palm from under his cuff. It’s healed well, very well. John repeats, “Yes, and?”

“...I’m not sure you understand--”

“No, you might consider doing the voice as well, just in case I actually am that stupid!” His whisper rises before he cuts it off. “I am meant to be stupid, aren’t I? Some bumbling idiot who can’t tell when one man is two!”

“When it takes you half a year to catch on, yes!” Holmes’ voice drops as his volume rises.

“Would you keep it down?”

“I’m not shouting. You’re shouting.” Still lowering in pitch, a descent as controlled as any stroll down the grand staircase.

“This is my whispering voice!” John protests.

Holmes scoffs. “A stage whisper, maybe.”

John clamps his mouth shut and glares instead of yelling.

“What now, hm?” Vernet’s voice, entirely Vernet’s. His face a smudge against the dark, the lines blur. “You’re angry, so you won’t listen?”

“To what?”

“An explanation, obviously.”

“You mean,” John whispers, “how your lord brother is so concerned you’ll cause the family embarrassment that he completely contains you? And in exchange he lets you do absurd things like live in the basement on the condition that no one knows it’s you. Is that what you mean?

“Or do you mean your lord brother is afraid I’ll confirm you were the ghost in Box Five the night the chandelier dropped? Because it would be very easy to cast suspicion on you, wouldn’t it? After all, the police are looking for an overdramatic puppet master with a vendetta against your brother. Throw a mask on you and put you in the tunnels for a few months and it’s a perfect match.

“So, no, obviously your lord brother wouldn’t let you tell me unless he was certain of my loyalty. Or my assured mutual destruction, rather. Sodomy does tend to have that effect.” John twitches his mouth into a polite shape, his hands folded behind his back. “Is that the explanation you want me to hear?”

Holmes shifts closer only to retreat, a small, swaying motion that sets the floorboards creaking. “If you understand,” he asks in his false, low voice, “why are you still angry?”

“You... What the hell is wrong with you?”

Holmes sighs. “I’d give you the list, but I’d much rather yours. Your complaints are...?”

“My complaints.”

“Grievances.”

John closes his eyes. He exhales. “No. No, sod this. I’ve had enough.”

Holmes crowds closer. He speaks in the barest whisper. “You said you loved me for my character.”

A nervous giggle wells up in John’s throat. He has to turn away to laugh into his sleeve. “Christ, did I say that? Jesus.” He steps away and stands with his hands upon the railing, the wood cold and solid against his palms regardless of his glove. He ought to put the other back on. No need to shoot anyone just yet. For a moment, he simply drops his head and giggles as quietly as he can. “I already feel like an idiot: you can stop now, really.”

“You said--”

I said?” God, John can’t even look at him. He turns his face away at the creak of Holmes’ motion. Christ, can’t the man hold still for one moment? “What I said? You said we’d discuss the logistics, that’s what you said.”

“John-!”

John has time enough to snap, “Don’t start,” before he realises what’s wrong.

He turns with a curse, grabbing his revolver out of his coat pocket, but it’s already too late. He’s never done a poorer job of keeping his guard up in his life.

“Let him go,” John orders, “or I will kill you.”

Hands tugging at the scarlet loop about his neck, Holmes gasps rattling breaths through a mouth as wide open as his terrified eyes. The man behind him is smaller, much, and uses Holmes as a shield against John’s revolver. The man is strong. When Holmes falls to his knees, the man drops with him to keep Holmes as a barrier. Between Holmes and the wooden corner beam, John can’t get a clear shot.

“I said, let him go.”

“Drop the gun,” the strangler replies.

“You’ll still kill him if I do.” Holmes has already begun to sag.

“Drop the gun. Over the rail.”

John nearly hesitates. He holds his revolver over the railing.

The strangler permits Holmes one gasping breath before tightening his grasp anew. “Drop the gun.”

John leans over the railing, straightens his arm, and fires twice around the corner beam, aiming low.

The strangler shouts, struck or grazed, and the instinct to hold his wound overpowers his grip on Holmes. Holmes crumples forward in an unbroken fall, nearly striking his head on the wall. He blocks out most of the lamp light, but it still shines where John needs it.

More startled than hurt, the strangler leaps to his feet and John fires a third time, a fourth. The strangler drops, a puppet with his strings cut. John steps over Holmes, floor space limited in the tight corner, and aims his revolver down at the strangler’s back. Behind him, he can hear the reassuring sound of Holmes’s desperate breaths.

“Tell me who sent you and I won’t kill you,” John promises. “I’m a doctor. It might not be too late. Tell me who sent you.”

Beneath Holmes’ loud breaths and the distant shouting growing nearer, John hears a dripping noise. John touches the man’s back, his damp coat. A slow rise and fall, but little more. John finds the point of entry. He summons a mental diagram.

“Oh,” John says.

The dying man says nothing.

“I could make it quick. Tell who sent you, and I’ll stop the pain.”

No response.

John retreats to where Holmes is attempting to breathe on all fours and picks up the strange lasso from the floor. He takes it to the strangler and secures the man’s hands behind his back. He returns to Holmes a second time and sits down in the chair, revolver still pointed on the strangler. He looks down at Holmes as if at a man very far away.

“Lie down on your back. You’ll breathe easier. Lie down or stand, really. No sense being hunched over.”

Holmes flops onto his back. He stares up at John as if through a haze. John really ought to inspect Holmes’ neck. Instead John sits with his palm cupped, trying not to drip another man’s blood anywhere.

Mere moments later, Green arrives with Jamison and Beaumont in tow. “What the hell happened?” Green demands. He catches sight of Holmes on the floorboards. “Mr Holmes!”

Holmes waves a hand almost lazily. “Fine,” he rasps, his voice trapped in its lower register.

“He was trying to leave this way,” John reports, explaining the obvious. He means to stand up, but he can’t seem to make his legs obey. “Could I have a handkerchief? Sorry, it’s just... well.” He shows Green his bloody palm. Green wrinkles his nose and hands his handkerchief over.

Jamison inspects the body. Beaumont holds a lantern over him. Jamison holds something up, a bunched bit of fabric that proves to be an empty cloth sack.

Green swears. “Whatever he brought in, it’s already in place.”

Holmes sits up with a sagging head, constricting his airway in a manner that makes John uncomfortable. A short struggle more and Holmes stands, tall and swaying. He touches the corner beam for support. “We search with first light. Everywhere.”

John nods and, in the company of so many observers, has no choice but to stand alongside Holmes once more. “In the morning,” John promises.

A general murmur of agreement rises from the stagehands and Green. Behind them, through the floorboards, the corpse continues to drip into the darkness below.

Chapter Text

As Green enters Mr Havill’s office, those already gathered turn to him in unison. “Anything?” Mr Havill asks.

Green shakes his head. “Nothing, sir.”

Mr Havill looks around the room, eyes travelling from Green to John, over Jamison, Beaumont and Westy. He takes in Hopkins and Miss Hooper by the door, and Mrs Hudson beside Holmes. Mr Johnson fidgets with his pocket watch by the window.

“That’s everyone,” Mr Havill says. He closes his eyes for a solid moment before resuming where he’d left off. “We’ll repeat the search once the rest of the staff arrives. For those of you here from last night, I’d advise breakfast and a strong coffee. Take your rest while you can, gentlemen.” He looks pointedly at Holmes.

Holmes doesn’t return his glance, if only because Holmes lies upon Mr Havill’s sofa like so many of John’s previous aristocratic patrons. A noose is a far different method of suffocation than a corset and there is no further loosening of clothing that would improve Holmes’ breathing. Too high to be hidden by his collar, the forming bruise about his neck breaks the pallor of his skin with a mottled purple. Though each breath must pain him, Holmes betrays no sign. The sofa supports him from crown to mid-thigh, his feet flat upon the floor.

Mrs Hudson sits next to his head, her hand upon his shoulder. “We should get you something to drink, dear.”

Holmes clears his throat, but his voice remains low. “Water. Any alcohol will put me right to sleep.”

Sleep isn’t a bad idea. John nearly says so, but Miss Hooper steps forward first.

“I’ll bring you a glass, sir,” she volunteers, leaving John’s side. She nods to Mr Havill on her way out.

Before she can exit, Green instructs, “Jamison, stay with her. No one goes alone until we know what’s been hidden.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Mr Havill confirms. “He’s made liberal use of fire in the past. We must prepare for the worst.”

“Mr Havill, will my girls be expected to join in the search?” Mrs Hudson asks. “And the boys, for that matter. We’re running low on our numbers as it is.”

“Anyone who appears on stage is given priority,” Mr Havill answers. “The musicians as well, Mr Johnson, and you. Mr Hopkins, the ushers will simply have to do their best. Any man who cannot comply with the dress code will be kept out of sight.”

“Very fair, sir,” Hopkins replies.

Further discussion blends in John’s ears, his vision blurring slightly. He squeezes his eyes shut and forces them open, exhaustion creeping in. Green gives him a slight nod.

“Mr Havill, sir, I think we’ll take your advice and get that breakfast,” John interjects when the proper pause arises.

Mr Havill gestures them out. Green and Hopkins follow on John’s heels. As they exit, Miss Hooper reappears with Holmes’ water. Hopkins lingers for the sake of holding the door open for her, and John and Green wait for Hopkins. Having only arrived this morning, Miss Hooper won’t be accompanying them out, but it takes John a distracted moment to remember this as Holmes sits up and thanks Miss Hooper for the glass. Exhaustion providing fierce inertia, John pulls himself away to follow Green and Hopkins. Westy and Beaumont trail after them.

Stagehands and ushers stand gathered in the lobby, the seamstresses and two injured dancers carefully to the side. Green gives the signal to move out and, as one stumbling horde, they exit the building with their hats pulled down and collars pulled up. Hiding yawns behind gloved hands, the troop staggers down the street before invading a small cafe. They install the dancers at the table closest to the door. This concern addressed, the rest of them promptly pack themselves in wherever they may fit, disturbing several men with half-full plates and unseating a small bootblack. The boy complains loudly and receives a swat for his trouble.

Green tugs at John’s elbow and nods toward the corner. John snags Hopkins in turn. They sit pressed knee to knee, John cramped in the corner chair, but they all have seats. Others are less fortunate.

By the time their coffee arrives, John and Green have nearly nodded off. Hopkins prods John, John prods Green, and they accept their coffee with heartfelt thanks.

“Was that the first time, Dr Watson?” Hopkins asks.

John blinks at him blearily.

“That you, well. That you killed someone.”

John shakes his head.

“I don’t, I don’t mean unintentionally as a doctor, I mean...”

“I know what you mean.”

“Beg pardon,” Hopkins replies. “Must be more tired than I thought, asking you something like that.”

“It’s a normal enough question.” He sips his coffee and promptly burns his tongue.

“How much of an accent on him?” Green asks.

“Hm?”

“The Chinese strangler.”

“Oh,” John says. “Not much. I honestly didn’t notice one.” He’d been much too busy fearing for Holmes’ life. He’d had no idea the acrobat wasn’t English until they’d rolled his corpse over.

“So we’re looking at the child of immigrants,” Green concludes.

John considers that. He nearly mentions that Miss Adler is, in fact, from New Jersey and no one would ever know this to hear her. “Maybe.”

“Westy sounds British.” Hopkins gestures toward the table closest to the door, Westy with his back to the cold entrance and Lucy Harrison leaning close to him. “Then again, his father’s from Yorkshire, I think.”

“I’m more interested in who the strangler knew, honestly.” John risks another sip of his coffee. “Still have the puppet master out there. Just a bit more important.”

Green laughs. “True.”

They sit and drink, listening to the others talk. The tale of the strangler attacking Holmes grows and grows until John thinks he might be ill. He blames the state of his stomach on the greasy food and bitter coffee.

“Do you think that’s the only one, sir?” Hopkins asks Green.

“Only what?”

“The only phantom,” Hopkins says. “I know we’ve the puppet master out there, but it’s the puppets who come to bother us.”

“Probably not.” Green grimaces. “We’re not finished keeping watch just yet.”

“He wasn’t the Red Death from New Year’s,” John says. “Red Death was taller than me. The voice was different too.” Not that different voices mean much, as it turns out. “The entire attitude was different. Red Death would have threatened me personally.”

Green pats him on the shoulder. “You’re such a charmer.”

“I suppose he could keep on hiring more ghosts,” Hopkins muses. “We should write to the circuses and such. Warn them to keep track of their acrobats.”

Green gives him an odd look. “Or else what?”

“Or else they’ll be accessory to the attempted murder of an earl’s brother and heir,” Hopkins says. “That’s just a bit of warning.”

“Showing weakness, though,” Green says. “Don’t much want to advertise it.”

Hopkins shrugs, cradling his coffee cup to the table. “That’s up to Mr Havill and the Earl, I suppose.”

John finishes eating first, then simply sits with his cooling cup between his hands. In a moment of paranoia, he checks under his nails for blood and finds none. He leans back in his chair until his head rests against the spot where the walls meet. He closes his eyes.

Much too soon, Green nudges him. “Doc, your girl’s at the door. Looks like she needs you.”

John frowns at him. “My...? Oh. We’re not... never mind.” He tries to stand, but Hopkins won’t budge his chair, staring not at John but toward Miss Hooper at the door. “Excuse me.”

Hopkins startles. “You’re not what, sir?” he asks, his wide eyes red with exhaustion. “You and Miss Hooper, you’re not...?”

“No,” John says, frowning. “Excuse me.” He manages to slip around Hopkins with coat and hat in hand. Navigating around the rest of the crowd is a challenge, but he succeeds and joins Miss Hooper at the door.

They exit without exchanging a word. He keeps up easily with her long strides until his thigh begins to twinge out a warning.

“How urgent?” John asks. “Sorry, it’s just.” He indicates his leg.

“Mr Holmes started vomiting. Is that a normal reaction to being strangled?”

“It might be a stress reaction.” It would be Holmes, wouldn’t it? The stomach acid can’t be doing his throat any favours. “Did he send you for me?”

Molly shakes her head. “Mrs Hudson did. Mr Holmes kept insisting he didn’t need a doctor, but he looked really panicked.”

“Do you know what he’s vomiting?” Holmes hasn’t eaten since yesterday.

“The water first, then some dry heaving. He was sort of curled up in a ball when I left.”

John increases his pace, grateful that it’s not far. “He needs to be taken home. Mr Havill’s office is no place for him in his condition.”

“Mrs Hudson wanted to be sure he was fit for travel first.”

“He ought to be. And once he’s home, he ought to stay home. None of this keeping watch two nights running nonsense. Bad enough Green keeps at it, but at least he’s not been strangled on top of everything else. Holmes needs to go home and stay there.”

“Are you... Sorry, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” John snaps.

Miss Hooper doesn’t so much as blink. “Because you don’t sound fine.”

“I’m fine, so it doesn’t matter what I sound like.”

“All right,” she says. “It’s just, you killed a man to save your friend and now he’s not doing so well. So I worried.”

“I’m fine.”

“Good,” Miss Hooper says. Her voice is no more or less gentle than it ever is.

They walk a bit faster.

He opens the opera house door for her. She thanks him. Having no reason to stay together, they part ways. John can’t help but feel a coward for wishing her a shield.

In Mr Havill’s office, Holmes is obviously worse than he was when John left him, now curled on his side rather than stretched on his back. His colour is poor, his eyes closed. Two consecutive nights of standing guard explains the exhaustion, but this is worse even than that. The strain of the attack has placed him in a pitiful state. Still, it’s hardly a surprise Holmes held himself together until after they left. Holmes does seem the sort to keep from breaking until he has a moment for it, preferably a solitary one.

John looks to Mrs Hudson, standing close by with a worried expression. Mr Havill is off seeing to something else, it seems, leaving only the three of them. Asleep? John mouths.

She shakes her head. With that, Holmes begins to cough. Not a bad sort of cough, nothing wrong with the lungs. Merely a pathetic cough, it shakes his shoulders but little else of his torso.

“When did the vomiting begin?” John asks Mrs Hudson.

“About, oh, twenty minutes or so. At least half an hour after you left.”

“Any food or drink?”

“Only the water,” Mrs Hudson replies. “We didn’t think it would be wise to have him eat anything solid, not so soon after the strangling.”

“I’m awake. Stop talking around me.” Rough and shredded, Holmes’ voice is worse than before.

John comes close to rolling his eyes. “If you don’t want to rest your throat, be my guest.”

Mrs Hudson hugs her arms about her middle. “Boys,” she chides.

“Will you take him home?” John asks.

“Is he all right to be taken home?” Mrs Hudson looks at him as if John is supposed to do something besides stand in the doorway and avoid touching Holmes.

“He’s more all right to be taken than to stay. For all we know, a bomb could be set to go off at any minute.”

Holmes says something that sounds like “smoke bomb” but John’s not listening.

“I’ll take him,” Mrs Hudson agrees.

“Thank you.” John hesitates in the doorway, manners dictating he say something further. He reaches and finds nothing.

Holmes may or may not make a crack at John’s bedside manner. It’s some sort of grumble, but John hesitates to reply to anything Holmes says involving beds.

With an awkward sort of nod, John exits, leaving the door shut tight behind him.



With Holmes removed, John breathes easier. Only slightly easier, but when scouring a very large building filled with a bewildering assortment of props and scenery pieces, any piece of improvement counts.

Regardless of how long they search, they find nothing blatantly sinister, nothing malignant or threatening. A pile of possible suspects develops, but all items are cleared of suspicion under Green’s watchful gaze. It unnerves them all without exception. John begins to think that killing one of their phantoms has only lead to fear of a new, real ghost.

Tensions only ratchet higher when the matinee begins. Then, as if to be utterly perverse, they exhale a collective sigh of relief when the dancers begin to vomit backstage. As the girls stay in cramped arrangements with one another and this is January, it’s not terribly unexpected. Perhaps Holmes caught this morning’s sickness from them.

“I don’t suppose you’ve had much to eat today,” John says to one of the girls as he checks her for fever. Flushed and clammy where she isn’t terribly pale, yes, but her temperature isn’t elevated enough to be worrisome.

The girl in question shakes her head miserably. Her first name is Violet, he thinks, but without a last name, he’s not sure how to address her.

John frowns. “No?”

“I had a bit of a sip from Jamison’s flask,” she admits. “Just to warm me up, that’s all.”

“Just a sip?”

She flushes. “He pours a bit in a mug and we pass it around. Please don’t tell. I know it’s not good on an empty stomach, but we’re all so cold.”

John promises he won’t, as long as it doesn’t prove relevant. After, he immediately goes to Jamison. Either the girls are giving the illness to each other, or Jamison passed it along to them. “How’re you feeling?”

Jamison blinks at him. “Fine, sir. Something the matter?”

John looks about to make sure Green isn’t nearby before leaning in close. “Have you done any drinking from that flask of yours today?”

To his credit, Jamison doesn’t play dumb. “Only a nip for the cold, sir.”

“A nip or two?”

Jamison moves his lips in the shape of a smile.

“But you’re feeling fine?”

“Perfectly sober, I promise. I promise on my job, in fact.” Of course he does. Green won’t allow for anything else.

“I see,” John says. “Thank you.”

“Is this about the sickness?”

“I’ll get back to you on that.” Not spreading from Jamison, then. Vomiting, cramps, and terrible pallor, these are the signs to look for. Some of the girls seem a bit confused as well, but everyone’s nerves are wearing thin by this point.

John seeks out Green only to discover he has a new patient. “Christ, not you too.”

Green swears into his bucket, looking a fright.

“You need to go home,” John tells him.

Green shakes his head with a tiny, delicate motion.

“Headache too?”

A groan serves as confirmation.

“I’ll get you some water,” John says. He returns as quickly as he can and sits with Green through tentative sips. It’s still a touch warm from time spent boiling in the kitchen. Green barely manages half the glass before vomiting it up. The noise Green makes afterward is more exhaustion than frustration, but that isn’t saying much. “However much you can keep down,” John urges. “You’re losing too many fluids.”

“I’ll be fine if I lie down,” Green protests.

“No, I’m taking you home.” It takes some insisting, but John gets Green into a hansom. They bump and jostle through the streets to Green’s house in time for lunch, which John has and Green does not. Mrs Green sends her husband straight up to bed and alternates between feeding John and interrogating him.

By the time John returns to the opera house, there are ten more cases. He starts writing down names, the list growing too long for even his memory.

Less than half an hour after teatime, John receives word that Mr Havill has taken ill as well. John finds him in his office, bent over a small bin, his tea and half-finished cake still on the desk.

“When did the symptoms begin?” John asks him.

“Ten or so minutes,” Mr Havill guesses. He washes his mouth out with more of his tea. “It came on quickly.”

“Can you describe the last twenty minutes for me, sir?”

With a weary, strained voice, Mr Havill complies. He points to the letters on his desk he was reading, to the tea he was having, to the cake he can’t bear to finish now.

“One moment, sir,” John says, an idea pulling together. “I need to find two assistants.”

Jamison and Beaumont come without question at the promise of food. “What’s this?” Mr Havill asks upon the entrance of the two stagehands.

“Our brave volunteers are here to test a theory,” John explains all three of them. “One will have cake, one will have tea. If I am right, one may suffer brief food poisoning, courtesy of the ghost. If I’m wrong, they’ll have enjoyed your tea and cake, sir.”

Jamison and Beaumont exchanges glances, no doubt discouraged by the sight of Mr Havill and his bin.

“Sick leave with pay,” Mr Havill promises. “And something to each of you for your trouble regardless.”

“Yes, sir,” Beaumont says cheerfully. He steps forward and helps himself to the cake.

With his usual swagger, Jamison takes the cup of tea and downs it. Within five minutes, he and Mr Havill are sharing the bin.

“Thank you, Mr Jamison,” John says sincerely. He gives his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You’ve been a great help.”



The water for the tea was boiled in the kitchen, the same as the water John had brought Green and Miss Hooper had brought Holmes. John brings Beaumont downstairs and instructs him to drink directly from the pot. They monitor him mouthful after mouthful, but half an hour passes without Beaumont’s stomach turning.

“Maybe the chap with the poison is still alive,” Beaumont suggests. “He tampered with the tea after it left the kitchen.”

“I don’t know,” John says, mulling it over.

The matter of Jamison’s flask and the ill dancers is another confounding issue. That certainly wasn’t water. The strangler must have poisoned multiple sources, but how poison the dancers without poisoning Jamison in the same attempt? For that matter, the flask must have been on Jamison’s person the entire time last night. Surely the strangler wasn’t so deft as to manage a poisoning under those conditions. John can’t make head or tail of it.



A blanket order goes across the opera house. No one is permitted to drink anything that they did not carry in upon their own person. No one is to share drinks. It’s already much too late for the dancers and far too late for the singers. Everyone from Miss Adler to the star soprano spends the early evening turning pale and running to a bucket. Though the matinee was able to limp through to the end, tonight’s show is cancelled. They simply have no cast.

“He beat us dead.” Hopkins shakes his head, his eyes disbelieving. “It doesn’t make any sense, but he did.”

“We’ll sort it out tomorrow,” John assures him. “It has to fade.”

“What if another one sneaks in tonight?” Hopkins asks. “I went to ask Mr Havill, but he’s gone home.”

“Green too.”

Hopkins fights down a pained noise for them both. “Well... I’d better get back to refunding tickets.”

“Mm. I’ll rest up. Taking watch again tonight.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea, sir?” Hopkins asks immediately. “You’re the only doctor we have. If you’re exhausted tomorrow, I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

John hesitates before nodding. “You’re right, Hopkins. I’ll speak to the rest, then head home.”

They nod and part ways.



With so many to look after, John arrives home separately from Mrs Hudson. She’s already had her late dinner, but some has been set out for him.

“I’m almost afraid to eat,” he admits.

Mrs Hudson smiles faintly. “Eliza’s cooking is nothing to be afraid of.”

John attempts a similar expression. He eats. She sits across from him. They don’t make conversation. John finishes his dinner and waits for Eliza to take his plate away. Only once they’re alone does he ask, “Did he speak to you about it?”

The well-known guilt fills her features.

“I’ve known for a few days,” John continues. “I had a hunch, at least, but I didn’t want to risk it.”

“I’m sorry.”

John shakes his head as if this will hold his anger back. “You promised not to tell.”

“It still seems a stupid promise not to have broken,” she says.

“A stupid promise to the owner of your workplace.”

She laughs a bit nervously at that and John feels an arse for having mentioned it. They shift in their seats, John straightening his jacket.

“What do you want to ask, dear?”

John shakes his head. “I don’t... I just want to be rid of him, really. I’ve had enough.”

“He’s always had terrible impulse control. Never thinks things through until after he has both feet in it.”

“Sorry, are we talking about the same man?” John leans forward with a frown. “This is Mr Sherlock ‘Ten Plans At Once’ Holmes we’re talking about.”

“It’s how he gets out of the trouble he’s put himself in,” Mrs Hudson explains.

“Not very well, apparently.”

“He was trying not to upset you. I know it didn’t work out that way.”

“You mean, if I’d been easier to control, his plan to control me wouldn’t seem so horrible?”

Mrs Hudson clearly hasn’t considered it this way before. Just as clearly, the thought upsets her. “He’s thoughtless and lonely. He didn’t intend for it to...” She bites her lip, avoiding John’s eyes to instead look at his shoulder.

“Well, if he didn’t intend to, that’s all right, isn’t it. Perfectly acceptable. I only wish that extended to my profession. I can’t tell you the trouble I’ve had, killing people I didn’t intend to.”

Instead of taking offence or making excuses, Mrs Hudson does a very curious thing. She says, “Oh, oh you poor dear.” She stands up. She comes around the small table, leans down, and hugs him about his shoulders. Being touched is the last thing he wants, so the way his arms rise to wrap about her back must be some permutation of his good manners. She pulls back before he has a chance to properly adjust.

“Is it really so bad as that?” she asks. “Vernet isn’t dead, John. Sherlock didn’t kill him.”

Something in John shakes that has no business shaking in front of anyone, let alone in front of Mrs Hudson. “I know that.” A man who isn’t real can’t be killed, merely stolen. He’s ruined and gone, nothing more than a cold mask abandoned upon a table.

“You need time, dear. Trust me on that. At my age, I’m an expert.”

John attempts a smile and she hugs him again. Her shoulders are thin under his hands, jarringly fragile.

“I think I’ll go to bed,” he says.

“Oh, what was I thinking? You must be exhausted. Yes, off you go.” She fusses with the shoulder of his jacket, smoothing it as if John were a tablecloth.

He stands, looks her directly and deliberately in the eye, and says, “You do know I’m not angry with you.”

Her mouth falls into a sad shape. “I would be furious with me.”

“You’re a very difficult woman to be furious with, Mrs Hudson.”

Though John has never heard a guilty chortle before, that is precisely the sound she makes. “Then I must be very talented.”

“Immeasurably.” He kisses her on the cheek, the sort of peck that strains the neck forward while pulling the shoulders back. “Good night.”

“Good night.”



With Mr Havill and Green ill, the chain of command flounders about onto the backs of Mr Johnson, Mrs Hudson, Hopkins, and Miss Hooper. Mr Johnson retains control of the music, from orchestra to choir. Mrs Hudson has her dancers and enough clout to boss the stagehands about despite Beaumont’s status as assistant stage manager. Hopkins has performed nearly every odd job in the house over his time here, and he orders his remaining ushers and ticket sellers to emulate this feat. Miss Hooper vacillates between a flustered air and a manner of competence, but she seems to have everything well in hand.

As for John, he’s kept busy as the remaining staff begins to drop as well. Though everyone is under strict orders to consume only what they have personally brought in with them, the poisoning continues. It arises without any discernible pattern. Very rapidly, John reaches the conclusion that once any one person has begun to vomit, there is nothing for it but to send the individual home.

Though the matinee is already cancelled, they quickly realize there’s no other option but to change the entertainment of the night to a basic ballet, nothing more. Hopkins fusses over the refunds until John begins to feel grateful for his own lot.

Through unanimous, spontaneous agreement, they wind up in Mr Havill’s office shortly before the ballet to hold an emergency meeting. “We can’t go on like this,” Mr Johnson announces.

“Dr Watson is working to find the cause,” Miss Hooper says, looking anxiously towards John. “Once everyone stops being sick--”

“It won’t matter,” Mr Johnson interrupts. “Our lead singers have already quit.”

“What, all of them?” Hopkins asks.

Mr Johnson nods. “It’s the final straw. There are rumbles of discontent even in the best of times, but now, oh, now it’s very bad indeed. They’re gone. They’ll be snatched up in an instant, I’m sure. There will be no getting them back.”

“Who do we have left?” Mrs Hudson asks.

Mr Johnson gives the list, but it’s very short. John is distantly pleased to hear Miss Adler hasn’t left them yet. She hasn’t been in today, but it’s still a small piece of good news. “I’m holding auditions for the chorus girls tonight,” Mr Johnson adds. “One or two might be ready to take that leap up, but it’s going to be a risky business.”

“At least the advancement might convince them to stay,” Mrs Hudson says.

“We can hope,” Mr Johnson agrees. “We need more men as well. That’s going to be an issue.”

The clock in the office chimes.

“House to open in fifteen minutes,” Hopkins announces.

Mr Johnson sighs and shares a pointed look with Mrs Hudson. They leave with Hopkins, each to their station. Miss Hooper remains, sitting on the sofa with a sigh. She nods at the cushion beside her and John sits as well. For a moment, they enjoy the dull silence of being exhausted with another, equally exhausted person.

“It’s liquid,” John says. “I’m sure of that much. Not a powder.”

Miss Hooper doesn’t lift her head from its lean against the sofa back. She doesn’t even open her eyes. “Because of Mr Holmes?”

“He was the first. It wasn’t related to trauma after all.”

“But the water was fine?”

“It was. I checked it myself. Beaumont drank it.”

Miss Hooper forces herself awake and aware. “Did you check the water from his glass? Mr Holmes’, I mean.”

John shakes his head. “Already taken away by the time I realized it wasn’t only him. Other glasses, yes, but those were already confirmed contaminated when I--”

“What was that?”

John stops and listens. His hand goes for his medical bag, for the pistol within, and his eyes fix on the door.

“No,” she says, catching him by the elbow. “What was it you said? Contaminated? You think he put the poison on the cups?”

John stares at her as an immense mental weight collides with his brain. “Oh, God. I’m an idiot.”

“Sorry?”

“You’re right. It’s not the drink that has been poisoned. It’s the cups.”

She frowns a bit. “You really think the ghost went about the entire opera house and poisoned all the cups?”

Put that way, it sounds mental—and therefore perfectly in keeping with the ghost’s plans. “It wouldn’t have to be all of them. And I don’t think it matters how ridiculous the method is when the result is this effective.”

Tentatively, she nods.

With a small groan, John forces himself to stand. “Come on. We’re going to test this.”

Her expression wary, Miss Hooper remains seated. “How?”

“You drink directly from the pot before and after I fill a glass. I drink the glass, and we see if either of us is vomiting in half an hour.”

“If you’re right, you’ll be out of commission for a few days,” Miss Hooper points out.

“If I’m right, we won’t need me to be in commission for a few days,” John counters.

A moment of consideration passes before Miss Hooper nods and stands.

Ten minutes later, John begins to feel it. Twenty-three minutes after drinking from the glass, he vomits into a bucket. Miss Hooper does not.

John returns home early that night, but when Mrs Hudson joins him, she assures him that everyone has been notified to bring a new cup from home. John groans out his victory, as satisfied and sick as any drunken soldier.



By the following afternoon, John feels nearly human again. He makes the mistake of attempting something thicker than broth and grudgingly confines himself to bed for the remainder of the day.

When Mrs Hudson returns in the evening—“Only a ballet again, dear, and then a bit of a concert.”—he joins her downstairs to attempt a weak cup of tea.

“Any new cases?” he asks.

“None. Everyone’s recovering to one degree or another.” She pours the tea before it’s had so much as a minute to steep. John wrinkles his nose to see her smile. It doesn’t work.

He warms his hands about his cup. “How badly are we off?”

Mrs Hudson very nearly hesitates before she sighs. “Very badly. There’s been some talk about concerts and ballets or renting the space to a theatre troupe.”

“Jesus bloody Christ. It’s that—sorry—it’s that bad?”

“Prayers in short form, dear. I understand. But it’s very difficult to have an opera without anyone singing it.”

John sips his watery, tea-tinged milk. “He’s going to keep attacking. Regardless of how we cope, there’s going to be something else. I’m amazed he hasn’t blown the place up yet.”

“At this rate, he might not need to. The new chandelier took a chunk out of the coffers, and being closed nearly all of December hardly helped. We need new talent and can’t afford to attract it.” She shakes her head, tired in a way John’s never before known her. Years of ballet and coaching, years of cold nights and long stairs against her hip, and she has never seemed so exhausted. “Unless we can pull something together soon, this could be the end.”

“There must be something,” John says, if only to say it. Though he puts all his hope into the platitude, the sound of it is still empty.

“It’s not the end of the world. I’m, I’m well off here. I’ve a lovely house and I’ve saved. You’ll build up your practice.” She nods as if hoping to turn motion into conviction. “We’ll be all right.”

“We will,” John promises.

“It won’t be the same, of course,” she continues. “Smaller. Quieter. That’s not so bad. And no more of those cold rides home at night. I’ve never liked those. No more girls complaining about their feet, no more hitting the stagehands for lifting skirts, no more nonsense.”

“It doesn’t have to be the end. Maybe another opera house--”

“Don’t you dare say that, John Watson. Don’t you dare.” She blinks back the shine in her eyes, the line of her mouth crumbling. “You know I can’t start again at my age.”

“Maybe the rest will be able to find work,” he says instead. “And maybe, sometimes, we could go out and see them.”

She presses her mouth tightly shut until it stops trembling. She takes long, slow breaths. She nods. “I’d like that,” she says, and that’s when she begins to cry.

He hands her his handkerchief, and she takes cloth and hand both. They hold tight. John looks at the floor and ceiling in turn. When Mrs Hudson recovers, they both clear their throats and Mrs Hudson pours them more tea. She forgets that John’s cup ought to be weak enough to fall in combat against an unarmed toddler. John drinks it anyway, stomach ache be damned.



“Are you sure you should be up?” Miss Hooper asks, falling in beside him on the way to Mr Havill’s office.

John raises his eyebrows. “Hello to you too.”

“No, really,” she says.

“I’ll be better for keeping active.” As long as he paces himself and doesn’t stand up too quickly, he ought to be fine. There’s only so much a man can do on so little food.

Miss Hooper sighs. “I wish everyone wouldn’t keep saying that.”

“Everyone?” If someone else is being an idiot, John is obligated to browbeat them.

“You, Stanley, and Mr Holmes.”

“Oh,” John says. It takes him a moment to remember that Stanley is Hopkin’s Christian name, but John has other priorities. “Mr Holmes is up already?” And presumably in Mr Havill’s office.

“You’re one to talk, with him poisoned only a day before you.”

“On top of a strangling. And I knew what I was doing. He kept drinking even after the vomiting started.” Which John had encouraged, but he can’t feel poorly over that in any way other than professionally.

They quiet down as they turn the corner to see Mr Johnson and Green entering the office. Green’s still living up to his name around the edges of his face, but it would take someone stronger than John to keep him down.

All enter the office. Inside, Mrs Hudson and Hopkins wait in front of Mr Havill’s desk. Mr Havill stands behind his desk, the Earl beside him. Behind them, Holmes leans against the side of a bookcase. Though Holmes’ body proclaims boredom, his eyes are a challenge John avoids.

“Eric, sit down,” Lord Holmes cajoles Mr Havill. “I refuse to be collapsed upon.”

Mr Havill sits.

“Mr Johnson,” Lord Holmes continues, “tell me, do we have a cast?”

“An incomplete one, my lord. Perhaps with some time, I could say otherwise.”

As the reports continue, the outlook turns increasingly grim. Though there have been no further incursions, the damage has been done. Though the strangler has been traced back to the Black Lotus Circus, none of the other members have admitted to knowing the man’s second occupation. They know the man needed money for his sister’s immigration fees but little else. So far, their best lead has come to nothing.

Worst of all, after their poor record of staying open in the past two months, their audience no longer trusts them. Mocking the ghost could only revive their reputation so far, but killing a man before stopping performances can hardly fill the seats. The projections for how long they’ll be able to stay open are two months at the absolute longest.

Never explicitly stated, an implication fills the room: the opera house has become more of a liability than a keepsake for Lord Holmes. It may yet be sold rather than simply closed, but any potential buyer would be harassed in turn. If the buyer went unmolested, he would immediately be investigated by the police. The entire business has become disreputable down to the core.

“If anyone has any suggestions for drawing out the ghost, now is the time,” Lord Holmes instructs.

The force of the resulting silence is matched only by the strength of their collective urge to avoid eye contact.

“Anyone?” Lord Holmes asks.

“We can keep watch for the next attempt on the opera house, my lord,” Green answers, uncharacteristically tentative. “We’ve not seen anything yet, but we might catch the next man alive.” His gaze flickers to John for an instant.

Mr Holmes makes a soft, disparaging sound. “Why attack us again?” he asks, the lightness of his voice failing him. He sounds like a parody of his brother. “We’re already crippled.”

“It’s a use of resources we can no longer afford,” Mr Havill adds. “It pains me to say so, but there we have it.”

“Excuse me,” Miss Hooper says. “Sorry. My lord, I was wondering if you believe the man in the Red Death costume—the one who threatened again on Mr Holmes’ birthday—if you think he’s the puppet master.”

“Whether he is or not, we would do well to catch him. Do you have any further thoughts, Miss Hooper, or only questions?”

Miss Hooper nods. “He comes out on important occasions, my lord. So... we could have another important occasion. And then lock all of the exits.”

Mr Johnson takes a far less optimistic view. “We’ve very little bait left to put into a trap. No cast, no opera... Beyond another ballet dedicated to mocking him, I’m not sure what we could attempt.”

“Mocking him is no good,” Green interjects. “He’ll only send someone new to punish us.”

“Instead of coming to ruin it on his own?” Mrs Hudson asks.

“That’s only if the Red Death is the puppet master,” Mr Havill says.

“As long as we catch him, sir, does it matter who comes to ruin whatever this event is?” Hopkins asks.

“It matters,” Lord Holmes says. “We can cut to the end or we can linger. I would greatly prefer the first.”

The debate continues on, an exchange that tugs at each ear before turning around upon itself. Tracking it, John’s gaze slides across the room. Though Holmes remains silent, John’s eyes catch upon him. There, they attempt to linger.

“We need to appeal to his sense of drama,” Holmes states, startling John into looking away. “Something not simply to be destroyed, but destroyed personally. He would need to regret not being here in person.”

“I agree, sir,” says Mr Johnson, “but we haven’t a cast to stage such a feat.”

John looks at Mr Johnson sharply. “What kind of feat could we stage?”

“Beg pardon?”

“We don’t have an entire cast, but we do have portions of one. What parts do we still have? Please, maestro, remind me.”

As Mr Johnson begins his list, John looks to Holmes. Nonplussed, Mr Johnson addresses his short recitation to Holmes. All the attention in the room turns upon Holmes. Holmes’ gaze, however, rests squarely upon John. For the moment, John can bear it.

When Mr Johnson concludes, John asks Holmes, “Is that enough?”

Holmes merely stares at him.

The Earl looks between them and captures his brother’s gaze with some effort. “Is it?”

Holmes’ eyes snap to the Earl’s. Though Holmes’ face barely contorts in sullen anger, John recognises a sentiment he had often heard in Vernet’s voice.

“Is what enough?” Hopkins whispers to John.

John shakes his head and mouths Not now.

“My brother and I need a moment alone,” the Earl announces, still locked in his staring contest. “Everyone, if you would be so kind.”

Mystified but obedient, the staff complies. Caught between questions waiting for him in the hall and the ire of the Holmes brothers in the office, John stops to hold the door for Mr Havill.

“The lead role is played by...?” Lord Holmes prompts his brother.

“Miss Adler,” Mr Holmes mutters.

“Dr Watson,” the Earl says. He doesn’t look at John. “If you would be so kind as to fetch Miss Adler? She is here, isn’t she?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Bring her. Explain on the way, but make no promises as to her salary.”

“Yes, my lord,” John repeats. As he closes the door to the office, all those crowded in the hall stare at him with curious faces.

Before anyone gets out a question, Mr Havill pushes on John’s back, urging him onward. “She’s in her dressing room, I believe, preparing for tonight’s concert.”

John nods. “Thank you, sir.” He sets off quickly, leaving, just for a moment, their prying eyes behind.

Chapter Text

“The Earl wants to speak with you,” John announces through the door. A prolonged pause follows before Miss Adler responds.

“Is that our maintenance man? Come in, I could use you.”

He has no doubt she means that in a very literal sense. He complies all the same. At the sight of Miss Adler behind her folding screen, he closes the door behind him. “I’m afraid it’s rather urgent.”

Visible above the chin, she lifts her eyes to the ceiling, an unmistakable if silent curse regarding his stupidity. “Then I’ll need you to do up my back, won’t I?” Holding the back of her dress shut behind her, she comes around the folding screen and turns with a great rustling of cloth. Blue and layered and lovely, the dress is complicated enough in design that John lacks the vocabulary to name the specific parts. Buttons, he knows. A long, fiddly row of them that turns his fingers clumsy and awkward.

“Sorry,” he apologises. “Out of practice.” Though Mary had only ever had the two dresses with this sort of back. She’d preferred laces over buttons.

“Urgent, you said?” Her hair shifts as she turns her head, looking over her shoulder.

“When the Earl calls for you, it’s always urgent,” John says slowly, focusing on keeping a professional manner. Buttoning a woman up is much the same as stitching one, except with much more smooth skin and a noticeable absence of blood and pain.

“I can’t imagine what he would want with me now.” She gathers her lower hanging tresses out of the path of the buttons. “You’ve done a thorough job of ending his brother’s little game.”

Whatever her aim, she fails to draw blood with such a comment. He steadily nears the top of the row. “I didn’t realise the ‘little game’ involved you so deeply.”

She peers over her shoulder, a frown enhancing her features rather than marring them. “That was entirely the point.”

John frowns in turn, but he finishes buttoning up the dress. It seems excessively complicated, putting so many buttons out of reach. How in the world had she planned on doing it up by herself?

His eyes widen and his stomach plummets. “Would, erm.”

“It’s urgent, yes. I heard you.” She gestures towards the door.

John stands his ground, abruptly certain. “Miss Norton is behind your folding screen, isn’t she? You’ve been trying to distract me from it.”

The consummate actress, Miss Adler feigns very convincing surprise at the question. Normally John wouldn’t ask, normally John wouldn’t press, but there is only so long he can stand to be played as someone else’s little game.

“Good afternoon, Miss Norton,” John calls.

A small pause. “Good afternoon,” Miss Norton replies from behind the screen. “I promise I’m not eavesdropping.” Her audible nervousness ruins his moment of petty victory.

To Miss Adler, John mouths, How much does she know?

“Kate keeps my secrets,” Miss Alder answers, which is no answer at all. She checks herself in the long mirror upon the back of the dressing room door.

“Is it more terrible news?” Miss Norton asks. Her voice comes from the edge of the folding screen now, as if she were fighting the urge to peek out.

John hesitates, but Lord Holmes had said to explain on the way. “We’re to perform a new opera and Miss Adler is to play the lead.”

Miss Adler begins to laugh, a haughty, dismissive sound. Then she looks into John’s eyes and immediately falls silent. The expression upon her features twists and melts, straining from doubt toward belief. Hesitation blocks this path, the surety of a cruel jest.

“It’s no joke,” John says. “The lead part is a trouser role.”

“Who would write an opera to star a contralto?”

Though the composer ought to be obvious, John answers “Sherlock Holmes” all the same.

A noise escapes from behind the folding screen and Miss Norton appears, her state of dress impeccable but her hair entirely dishevelled. Freshly released from her usual braid, it tumbles into a snarl. “He’s written you an opera?

“Darling, he’s written me a role.” Miss Adler’s low tone soothes before striking at John. “Tell me, Dr Watson, what are the specifics of this opera?”

“A variation on Antony and Cleopatra, focusing on the formerly Roman soldiers. You’d be the young soldier who survives his captain and takes charge at the end of act three, when the captain dies in his arms.”

A smile plays about Miss Adler’s lips, but even this cannot out-dazzle the sudden light in her eyes. “And is the captain a baritone?”

“I, yes, I believe so.”

Miss Adler looks to Miss Norton as if to indicate that all is well, but this piece of information only compels Miss Norton’s frown to deepen. “He’s not being very subtle, Irene. We both know Mr Holmes fancies you as a man.”

“As a man, yes, but not, I think, as a soldier.” Her gaze settles upon John’s face in a languid inspection. “We’d both look dreadful with moustaches, I’m afraid.”

Precisely why John shaved his off years ago. “Sorry, why is the baritone important?”

“Mr Holmes is a baritone.” Miss Norton makes a futile attempt to smooth back her hair. Ultimately, she settles for containing it behind her shoulders.

With a small shake of her head, Miss Adler returns to her to murmur something. Each fits into the space of the other like a book onto its shelf, like a picture within its frame. Though the women do not touch, the compulsion to look away takes John by the eyes. He averts his gaze to the floor.

“Go on then,” Miss Norton urges quietly. “I’ve always wanted to see you showered with roses.”

“It could be dangerous,” John warns the rug. “The opera ghost enjoys his arson.”

Though Miss Adler doesn’t laugh, light mockery fills her voice. “Every opera house has a ghost. No other contralto has a leading role. Lead on, Dr Watson.”

They bid Miss Norton a quick farewell and exit into the hall.

“You don’t lock the door,” he notes.

“What’s life without a little risk?”

They turn the corner. “I wasn’t kidding about the ghost coming after you.”

“I’ll move my valuables and beware of smoke bombs.”

“Not funny.”

“Most plans aren’t,” she agrees.

It will be too late to ask by the time they reach Mr Havill’s office, too late in the crowded hallway before his door. This ought to act as a restraint upon John’s tongue, but still he says, “I thought Mr Holmes was a tenor.”

“Baritone,” she corrects. “His range is wasted on him.”

His range? She knows his range. But she can’t possibly. Has he sung for her? He would have to have sung for her, for her to know his range. Why on Earth would Holmes sing for her? He’d only sung for John to distract him. Only after months of asking and prodding had he given in for John. Only after shoving his tongue down John’s throat and fondling his arse, only after rubbing his clothed prick across John’s front, only then had Holmes sung for John. Holmes had done it to overwhelm John. He’d kept John off his balance even if he hadn’t quite kicked John’s legs out from under him.

There is nothing in all the world that could put Miss Adler off-balance, let alone keep her there. That being the case, why sing for her? And what the hell is “fancying her as a man” supposed to mean? As a man fancies a woman, surely, but Holmes doesn’t fancy women. Or perhaps he does, women as well as men.

But of course he doesn’t. The issue over creating an heir wouldn’t exist if Holmes fancied women. If Miss Adler were some sort of exception then, that would be different.

It isn’t impossible. Obviously, John doesn’t fancy men. Two men seemed a trend, but one man is an exception at best. One man under dubious conditions, at that. John must have recognised Vernet in Holmes with some forgotten, voiceless corner of his mind. The intimacy of their conversations in the candlelight must have bled through. And then, in turn, John must have recognised Holmes in Vernet. In each case, he’d thought he’d known the man more deeply than was otherwise explainable. Now he knows better. Now he sees the exception for what it was.

Though John ought to have known Holmes wasn’t above playing with his head, John certainly knows Miss Adler enjoys that variety of game. Perhaps that’s what bends Holmes toward her. It would make for a surprisingly neat business. Except for Miss Norton, of course. Terrible for the poor woman’s heart to be caught up in this mess.

Before John can ask Miss Adler anything ill-timed and socially impertinent, they reach the small gathering of senior staff outside Mr Havill’s office. Miss Adler knocks twice upon the door and enters at the sound of the Earl’s voice. Everyone else remains in the hallway.

A light touch at John’s elbow startles him from his thoughts. He blinks down into earnest eyes.

“Has Mr Holmes really written her an opera?” Miss Hooper asks.

John frowns. “Who told you that?”

“I know I’m not supposed to tell,” Mrs Hudson says, “but it seemed so obvious that’s what they want to try.” Though her words are apologetic, her voice and face shine with pride. “Is that what is it, John?”

John doesn’t quite hesitate before he nods, but he feels as if he’s supposed to. “It’s not finished. I mean, it nearly is, but act four is incomplete.”

Mr Johnson’s eyebrows rise. “Who is he collaborating with?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Who is the composer?” Mr Johnson asks.

“Uh,” John says, because Vernet is no answer at all. That would be, as it always was, a lie.

“He does try to keep it private,” Mrs Hudson quickly says. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“What’s the setting?” Molly asks. “I don’t know how many new costumes we can make at this point.”

“Alexandria, the end of Cleopatra’s reign.”

“Egypt, thirty years before the birth of Jesus Christ.” Molly chews on her lip. “We can do that. I think.” Beside her, Hopkins nods encouragingly. “I think we can do that. We have a few dresses we might be able to swap around...”

“Somehow, I don’t think that will be a problem,” John assures her.

“That isn’t the problem at all,” Mr Havill agrees. “If it isn’t complete, I can hardly see how we can attempt it. All the opera ghost will have to do is stand back and not interrupt the performance.”

“I’m sure we could put something together,” Mr Johnson says. “As long as we supply an ending, the opera ghost should try to attack. He might, at least.”

“With Mr Holmes putting his libretto up as bait, he ought to,” says Green.

Mrs Hudson makes a noise of disagreement. “His opera.”

“He wrote the score, then?” Mr Johnson asks, the ever-present furrows in his brow deepening. “Who is the librettist?”

“He wrote all of it,” Mrs Hudson says.

There is a slight pause.

“...Again,” Mr Havill says, “it may be in the opera ghost’s benefit to simply stand back and wait.”

“What are you saying?” Mrs Hudson asks in the tone of a woman who knows exactly what’s being said.

“Mr Holmes has an excellent ear,” Mr Johnson begins. “However, an opera written for a--”

“He didn’t write it for her,” John interrupts. “He simply... wrote it.”

“Even so,” Mr Johnson replies.

“It’s extraordinary,” John continues, undeterred. “If we can manage to stage it, it will work. If the ghost doesn’t interrupt us on the premiere, he’ll have to on the second night.”

“Dr Watson, considering your area of expertise,” Mr Johnson begins.

“Considering that opera typically bores me to tears, I’d say my endorsement ought to count for something.”

Mr Havill clears his throat. “Gentlemen. Nothing has yet been decided.”

A sullen, highly unprofessional silence fills the hall. As the minutes slowly pass, they tilt their heads toward the office door. At last, it opens.

“Everyone inside,” Lord Holmes instructs. “We’re about to be very busy.” He smiles at Mr Johnson and Mrs Hudson, but, as John reaches the door, says, “Dr Watson, surely someone is in need of you elsewhere.”

John nearly swallows his tongue. “Of course, my lord.”

“Very good,” Lord Holmes replies. With that, he vanishes from the doorway. Miss Hooper looks back at John uncertainly until John nods. With an apologetic look that promises news to come, Hopkins closes the door.



In the flurry of planning that follows, it is Miss Hooper, not Hopkins, who keeps John informed. He makes the mistake of telling her that a light load makes him restless and, as a direct result, is handed a threaded needle. The seamstresses were among those hit hardest by the poisoning, a fate Miss Hooper seems to have escaped by forgetting to eat.

“Roman soldiers are easy enough,” Miss Hooper explains. “We just need more of them than we’ve had before. If we’re very, very quick, we might be able to go up within the week.”

“Let’s hope February is an improvement.”

“Hard for this year to get any worse,” she agrees before immediately knocking upon the wooden table. Even the practical workers in a theatre are full of superstition. “Anyway, Mr Holmes is having copies made of the existing material tonight and tomorrow. Rehearsal ought to begin tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s quick.”

“Needs to be.” She leans in close, dropping her voice. “Honestly, I’m more worried about the opera being finished than the rehearsals starting.”

John arranges his features into an expression of polite interest.

“Mr Holmes looked a bit ill, honestly. Nervous. I think it’s because Mr Johnson doubts him. You could tell how it hurt him.” She wears a soft, sad sort of frown. “It’s not really fair, making him give it up like this.”

John nearly pricks himself. “Sorry? ‘Give it up’?” This is what Holmes has always wanted. “He’s having it staged.”

“To be ruined,” Miss Hooper replies. “We’re going to be advertising it as his so the ghost will have to ruin it.” The slightest hint of amusement, as if trying to cheer John up: “Mr Holmes wants to put an advertisement in the paper telling the ghost that Box Five has been reserved for him.”

His stomach sinks. “That could end terribly.”

“Sort of the point, though,” Miss Hooper says.

John nods and they work on in silence.



That night, he returns home early and attempts to wait up for Mrs Hudson. When the hours turn from large to small, he retires to bed with his mind still full of questions.

His luck proves better in the morning. Despite her late night, Mrs Hudson is up early. John finds her working at the breakfast table, paper before her and pencil in hand.

“Is that how you sort out the choreography?” John asks, taking his seat.

Mrs Hudson hums. “Only the outline of the idea so far. Sherlock was very specific about the naval battle. We’ll have the boats upstage and the soldiers downstage—or are they sailors here? The men, at any rate, they’ll be here, like so on each side. The Egyptian men ought to be the most visible, of course, so the stage looks positively desolate when they leave. You see, Cleopatra’s ship enters here with Antony’s below it. When she leaves, he turns to follow and, oh, I love this bit! It’s not a stage turn. No, he’ll turn his back on his men. And the audience, but I like that somehow, for this. He completely ignores everyone to chase after her.”

“It’s very fitting,” John agrees, looking for an opening in her monologue.

“I can’t do the finer work until I hear the orchestra play it, but I mostly know what each part ought to sound like.”

“It’s still not finished, though,” John says. “I mean. I thought it wasn’t finished. The fourth act.”

“Sherlock’s doing his best,” she assures him. “He’s a bit stuck here and there, but he’ll have something in time.”

“Will it work?” he asks.

“Which part? The performance or the trap?”

“The performance,” John says. “Rushed like this, set up to fail, it’s not... Is it going to become one of those haunted scores that no one will touch?”

“We can only hope not, dear. That’s what the police will be there for.”

That’s what they were there for at the Masquerade, John doesn’t say. Instead, he agrees, “We can hope.”



“Are we late?” John asks, handing Mrs Hudson down from the carriage. He pays the cabbie before following Mrs Hudson up the opera house stairs.

“They should only be just starting,” Mrs Hudson assures him. In through the front doors, across the lobby, and as John opens the door to the house, the sounds of an orchestra tuning reach them. Mrs Hudson smiles. “Oh, good.”

They slip inside and John follows Mrs Hudson down the aisle, carrying her writing case as well as his medical bag. Upon finding a particular row in the stalls, Mrs Hudson edges between the seats before sitting down with a remarkable sense of purpose. John sits beside her and helps her with the writing case.

“Oh, no, I always start with pencil, dear. Here we are.” She sets up the small folding desk across the armrests of her seat. “First thoughts, you know.”

“I thought you’d already heard parts of it,” John half-asks.

“Show anyone before it’s finished?” Mrs Hudson smiles as if John has intentionally told a joke. “I’m still amazed he’s let this much go. He’s hidden himself away somewhere with act four, though. No one’s allowed to see. That’s going to be a problem if he can’t complete it quickly.”

John frowns a bit, but the orchestra finishes tuning and Mr Johnson directs the musicians into silence. Mrs Hudson smoothes her paper down on the writing desk and waits, pencil carefully in hand.

Mr Johnson lifts his hands, wrists arched upward and frozen upon the cusp of true motion. The instruments rise. A pause, as if for breath. For the brass and woodwinds, perhaps it is. One of Mr Johnson’s hands begins to tap in midair, a quick marching rhythm that the soles of John’s feet recognise faster than his eyes do.

Leaning forward in a slight bow, Mr Johnson nods with the downbeat, and so the overture begins. Once lifted by a single violin, the familiar strain bursts into the air with the force of strings, of mallets, of human breath. The idealised general leads on once more, a figure so far removed into John’s past that he had been nearly forgotten.

The general falters with a key change and the young soldier struggles on in his wake all the same. Here the song of home, here the longing for Rome, and there the captain, as steady and measured in his theme as he is in his character. The song of the mutiny blazes up against him only to falter and fall, and the sound of it pulls John underground, down into the tunnels. His mind stands in the abandoned chamber amidst shadows framed by candlelight.

The naval battle arrives too soon and drags John with it. Though the nature of the fugue was well-explained to him in the darkness, such a piece cannot be performed upon a single instrument. For the first time, he sees as well as hears the battle, observes the clamour of the woodwinds against the clamour of the brass. Assaults of sound surge from both sides of the pit, each firing into the other and seeking to wound.

The battle rages in a brief, complicated swirl, a number of the musicians audibly fumbling their parts. Mr Johnson spurs them on, and Cleopatra takes flight with her ships in tow. In the resulting tumult, the mutiny looms anew. For the second time, the steady captain stands tall and firm, his stable rhythm unifying the whole of the orchestra before, without warning, he falters. He falls with the pounding of drums and leaping warning of a piccolo.

With this shortest moment of foreshadowing, the overture flies away from sorrow and into warlike grief. Desperation mounts, the thrum of it shaking through John’s seat and into his bones. With the assaults of the closing act rising to their fever pitch, the overture concludes with fearsome crescendo, pulling John forward in his seat despite his knowledge of the end, despite his knowledge of its entirety.

“Good God,” whispers an unexpected voice from behind them.

John twists about in his seat to find Mr Havill sitting behind Mrs Hudson. How Mr Havill snuck in without John noticing is an utter mystery.

“That is extraordinary,” Mr Havill continues, breathless. “Dr Watson, I understand your confidence now.”

Before the stage, Mr Johnson directs his orchestra to a previous page and the battle begins anew, stumbling over itself in fresh missteps.

“Provided we can practice quickly enough,” Mr Havill amends. “Do you know his progress on act four?”

“He’s over halfway finished with the score, sir,” John answers, the words leaving his mouth before his mind has time to batter Holmes’ name against Vernet’s mask. “I think he already has all of the themes he needs—they were all in the overture, as far as I can tell—but he’ll be fitting them together in different ways for act four. Honestly, it’s not the score we have to worry about. The libretto always gives him the most trouble.”

“A week’s worth of trouble?”

“Less, I’d say, provided he’s, um.” John’s gaze lifts reflexively upward, seeking out the closed curtains of Box Five. “Sorry, provided he’s... Ah, no, I’ve lost that thought, I’m afraid.” A lie, but provided he’s anything like Vernet is hardly an answer.

“When did he tell you this?” Mrs Hudson asks, a concerned sort of frown hovering about the far side of her face where Mr Havill can’t see it.

“Around his birthday.” The day before, John’s sure she’ll realise.

“Before the poisonings, after the fire?”

John nods.

“Has he had much progress since then?” Mr Havill asks.

“I, er. I think he’s stagnated somewhat. What with the night watches and the poisoning.”

Mrs Hudson shifts in her seat to look down at her much-marked paper. Though her posture remains as flawless as ever, her expression is very sad. Behind her, Mr Havill very fortunately doesn’t notice. Nor will he, provided John can keep the guilt from his features.

“Presently, I’m letting Mr Holmes use my office to work in,” Mr Havill says. “Lord Holmes claims his brother will be able to work faster under these conditions, but I would like my office back.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” John replies. “I’m sure he understands the inconvenience.” And is ignoring the consequences anyway.

“If he’s willing to share his work with you,” Mr Havill begins.

“Ah,” John interrupts. “Ah, uh, no. Sorry, sir. If he’s working on the libretto, the worst thing I could do would be to pop in and speak English near him.”

Mr Havill nods as if this is a fair point. Perhaps he thinks John still privy to Holmes’ creative secrets. To be fair, it would be an easy assumption. “Understandable, Dr Watson.” He looks past John and Mrs Hudson toward the orchestra as Mr Johnson begins the first act. “I must say, I’m much more confident, hearing this. Please don’t pass this on, but it’s hardly a time to appear desperate.”

“It isn’t at all, sir,” John agrees. “If anything, I’d say this is a show of confidence.”

Mr Havill hums his agreement. For a long moment, they continue listening.

With Mr Havill behind him, John can’t slip away into memory the way the music coaxes him to. It tempts and beckons, reminding him of when even his nightmares were useful, when the worst memory inside his head had a purpose beyond torment. Horrors he’d never been able to burden Mary with, regardless of how she’d asked; these he gave freely to a stranger in the dark. He’s not sure how, honestly, only that Vernet had told him what his opera needed and John had responded in the only way that made sense at the time.

When Mr Havill rises, John turns to acknowledge him. Busy with her choreography, Mrs Hudson writes on, oblivious.

“Oh, Dr Watson. To be clear, you aren’t technically on-duty.” Mr Havill’s expression does not quite contain an apology. “With the poisoning cleared up and no patrons in sight, there’s exceeding little sense in providing you with a shift today. Not until the dancers’ feet are at risk once more. With rehearsal fully underway, perhaps then.”

“I understand,” John says. His house might be gone, but his bank account is untouched. He doesn’t particularly mind, comfortable enough in his new living situation. “I thought I’d keep Mrs Hudson company.”

“By all means.”

They say their short goodbyes before Mr Havill departs. John folds his hands in his lap. He listens to familiar music turned strange by its many layers, like an old story told with the wrong voice.

“Is he a baritone?” John asks Mrs Hudson.

“Mr Havill?” she asks, without looking up.

“No, Holmes.”

Mrs Hudson’s hand stalls upon her lap desk. “John,” she says kindly, “if you want to let go, you ought to let go.”

“That’s not, no. I’m not... I wasn’t. Really. It’s something Miss Adler mentioned yesterday. And what with him using two different voices, I was wondering.”

Mrs Hudson frowns at him curiously. “Two different voices?”

“He was deeper when he was pretending to be Vernet.”

Mrs Hudson mouths these words, repeating them as if to better divine their meaning. Honest puzzlement dominates her features. “He was more relaxed, if that’s what you mean.”

“I... what? No, I mean his voice was substantially deeper. By a lot.”

“He was more relaxed,” Mrs Hudson repeats. To her, this is clearly the same as what John is saying, which makes absolutely no sense at all. “His voice goes up when he’s uncomfortable, always has. Though ‘uncomfortable’ might be too strong a word. Pressured? When he thinks he has to be polite.”

“It was hardly accidental.” It couldn’t have been, not with such consistent, different voices. One light and polished, the other dark and ragged: there’s no other answer. “He was doing it intentionally. For months.”

Mrs Hudson looks back and forth between her paper and the stage. John knows he’s making her deeply uncomfortable, but he can’t seem to stop.

“It’s bizarre, that’s all. I honestly have no idea what his real speaking voice is. And how did no one else notice? ‘Mr Holmes’ voice just jumped up an octave, I wonder what that’s about.’ Did no one really notice?”

“John Watson, this is neither the time nor place,” Mrs Hudson chides. “And I already told you, that’s his polite voice. He started doing it to mock Mycroft when he was younger, and now he talks like that to everyone.”

But not to Mrs Hudson or Miss Adler, it seems, and not as a masked man in the basement.

“I’m sorry, but I’m busy at the moment. You know we need to work quickly.”

“I know,” John says. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t—I’ll stop forcing you between us. I should know better.”

Mrs Hudson pats his hand, but she does it distractedly. “Thank you, dear.”

John nods, forcing himself silent. He lasts as long as he can before the music is too much. Lovely and absolutely wrenching, it reaches too far into him. It’s been too much inside of him from the beginning.

He reminds himself that he is not, after all, on duty today. He reminds himself that there is no sense in barging into Mr Havill’s office and interrupting Holmes’ work. There will be time enough for arguments once the opera is finished and the ghost captured.

Before he can do anything too foolish, he makes his excuses to Mrs Hudson and heads out for an early lunch. He doesn’t return.



The day drags on in a restless, unending haze. He has nothing to do. He no longer owns any books. His backlog of medical journals shall never be caught up on. Not that he was likely to get around to that anyway, but he had been intending to for months.

The weather is too terrible to stay outside for any length of time, regardless of how his restless legs long for a walk. With the cold rain and biting wind, the short distance from hansom to front door is miserable enough. He wastes the day away with this and that, but before Mrs Hudson returns, he retires to bed. He can hear her when she comes in. He thinks of going down and thinks better of it. Holmes may tear her between the two of them, but John will do no such thing.

With that vicious thought, John rolls over and attempts to sleep. He attempts for a very long time.



The following day is worse than the one before, but the day after that, the rehearsals are well-underway in all regards. With the dancers in motion and the singers exercising their voices, John at last has cause to be on call.

For a few hours, John sits in the stalls, watching an imaginary drama take physical form. Mrs Hudson knows what she’s doing with the choreography. The movement of the dancers reminds John of something he’s certain he’s seen before, but knows he never has. He recognises the motions of Vernet’s hands, the tight whirling motions of his enthusiasm. Not for the first time, John wonders how well Mrs Hudson knows the inside of Vernet’s head. Of Holmes’, he means.

John enjoys watching this rehearsal more than he can remember watching any other. He’s unreasonably disappointed when Mrs Hudson calls for a break and Mr Johnson agrees.

At loose ends, John wanders backstage and up into the workshops. He has to keep out of the way, which he does. Miss Hooper is pleased to see him for all of the half-minute she has to spare, but after that, John bids a hasty retreat. There is truly nowhere he won’t be underfoot, save for the house.

He’d forgotten how it used to be like this. Those days before there was an underground chamber to disappear to, how had he lived? An inability to remember idle hours hardly means that time didn’t exist. He’d frittered it away through one method or another, but what were those methods? His feet demand he rise and descend the stairs to a secret door. Had they demanded something else before, or had he been content to sit in a stupor when his services were unneeded?

It annoys him not to know. He checks his new watch, checks it and checks it, but time does not pass. Neither does the urge to do something.

He takes a walk. Not outside, not into that gloom, but a walk about the opera house lobby. He looks at the paintings. He looks at the architecture and attempts to summon the interest men are meant to exhibit when left alone to look at architecture.

When his eyes grow bored, his feet move on. They carry him with a fresh sense of purpose, stopping before a door, and his hand rises to knock out a quick series of taps.

“Yes?” calls a light, detested voice.

John enters Mr Havill’s office and shuts the door behind him.

Holmes sits at the desk, the usual orderliness of its surface replaced by a clutter of paper, pen and ink. Behind him, his jacket adorns the chair, his abandoned cravat across it. In waistcoat and shirtsleeves, Holmes scratches away at his score with his collar unbuttoned and his hair a mess. Agitated fingers have raked deep lines through the pomade-sleeked strands of his hair. The open violin case sits against the base of a cabinet, the instrument prepared, the bow ready. A dusting of rosin coats the strings and body between the bridge and fingerboard.

Holmes doesn’t look up. “I didn’t tell you to come inside.”

John’s mouth works, a futile motion. He fists his hands and pushes through the shock of finding Holmes this way. “There will never be a good time to ask, so I might as well ask now. Why did you do it?”

With deliberate fuss, Holmes dips his pen into the ink. “You’ll have to be more precise, Doctor. I’m afraid I’ve done many things.”

“I understand the composing in the basement. That bit, fine. You’re absurd, I understand that. I don’t understand why you would play both sides.”

“Both sides of what?”

“Why the hell did you approach me as you?” John demands. He storms forward as close as he can without kicking the desk. He might kick it if Holmes won’t look at him. “You were stuck as, as Vernet, so, yes, fine. But anything else, that’s not you being blown about by the winds of fate. You can’t simply pass the blame onto your lord brother for that. You knew what you were doing. You knew you were lying to me from both sides.”

Holmes lifts his eyes from the paper, the better to mock John as an idiot. “You think I approached you?”

“Yes! What else could you call it?”

Holmes groans as if John is the one entirely missing the point. Once dropped, his voice remains in its lower register. “You wanted to help. You were eager for the work.”

“What are you—I’m not talking about the work.”

“No?” As if this is the only conceivable option.

“No.”

“Then you acknowledge the investigation as necessary,” Holmes concludes. He turns his eyes forcefully to the desk’s surface. “I see no sense in discussing anything else.”

Arms crossed over his chest, John stares at him. “Oh,” he says. “That’s what we’re doing. Nothing to talk about, nothing to dwell on, move along, there’s a good chap.”

“You do so love being a good chap,” Holmes agrees, his pitch sweeping upward into false pleasantness. His polite voice, John’s foot. “A truly good chap would close the door on his way out.”

“I’ll leave when you answer the question.”

Holmes groans yet again before gesturing to his papers with twin sharp, chopping motions. “I have work to do. Surely you of all people will understand that.”

John leans forward and blocks his light.

“You are currently delaying the plan you yourself proposed to catch the opera ghost.” Though Holmes’ remark is nearly idle, he avoids John’s gaze. “Well done. You’re a marvel of efficiency.”

John holds firm. “We can argue for an hour, or you can tell me what in the world you were thinking. Your choice.”

“It hardly matters when you won’t listen either way.” As if John is the one being purposefully obtuse and obstinate.

“Spell it out for me. Use small words. As monosyllabic as you like, by all means.”

“You were the obvious choice for the investigation. Your behaviour was markedly different. I interpreted the change incorrectly.”

“Sorry,” John says. “I might be missing something, but what part of my behaviour told you to lie to me for half a year?”

Holmes looks up only to frown at him. “That was always the arrangement. No, don’t interrupt—it was. We discussed it. I couldn’t tell you. You accepted this. Never in a long term sense, but you were willing to accept it.”

“That direction of it, yes,” John agrees. “This direction of it, no.”

“What direction?”

“You,” John says. “As... you. You approached me like a stranger.”

Slowly, Holmes’ head tilts. “We just agreed I couldn’t tell you.”

“Then you shouldn’t have approached me!”

Holmes nearly gapes at him. “The investigation was necessary. We agreed not two minutes ago.”

John stares back. “I don’t mean the investigation. I mean the Masquerade. And Christmas.”

If anything, Holmes’ confusion only worsens. “You mean sending you to keep Mrs Hudson company?” He must be feigning ignorance. It’s so obvious John could almost laugh.

“I mean your proposition on the stage and, and taking off my shoes.”

Holmes’ expression hardens, stone-like. “Ah. You believe my primary motive to be buggery.”

Though John feels his face flushing, he doesn’t disagree. He doesn’t look away.

“You’re wrong, of course. My primary motive is the work, Doctor,” Holmes tells him, and in that moment, his voice is entirely Vernet’s. “It is always the work. I would have thought you’d remember that. Sadly, overestimating you seems to be a habit of mine.” His manner, his ire, his form: all is wholly Vernet’s.

“Then why did you say yes?” John doesn’t specify and hardly needs to. His hands are shaking, fisted at his sides.

“Oh, why did I catch you when you flung yourself at me? Hm, I haven’t the foggiest. Clearly, I should have stomped on your heart and thrown it back at you. Would that have been kinder? Is that what it’s called when one acts contrary to one’s interests?”

“What about a warning?” John demands.

“A warning for what?” Holmes throws himself backward in Mr Havill’s chair in an agitated sprawl. His upturned palms demand answers. “‘Look out, we’re both about to get precisely what we want, except you’re too stupid to see that!’ Is that what you want? And it is want, not wanted. I gave you your warnings. You brushed them aside. I told you that you loved a fantasy, and you insisted you loved my character. You’d no idea what it was then and know even less now, but you insisted.

“What is it you wish to chastise me for, hm? Failing to recognise the abysmal risk that is Dr John Watson? You’re perfectly content to fling yourself at a masked stranger in the basement, but I, oh no, I am too odious. A deranged dreamer is well and good, but only if he comes free of entanglements. Or, God forbid, wealth and breeding. Can’t have that.”

“Maybe, just maybe, it’s because you’re a controlling arse.”

Holmes rolls his eyes. “I corner you once—”

“You had me running about all December!” A month of entertainments and outings in the guise of work.

“Oh dear, how dare I give you something useful to do. You’re right: I’m a complete and utter villain. How terribly cruel of me to predict your behavioural patterns. I’m sure you put up with having nothing to do today for nearly an hour before you came to bother me.”

Nearly half an hour, but John is hardly about to correct him. Even so, it must show on his face. Holmes’ answering smile is too ugly to deserve the name.

“You were at loose ends and came running back to me,” Holmes muses. His smirk grows into a sneer. “How vexing for you.”

John tries to breathe, tries to shout, and accomplishes nothing.

“We’ll revert,” Holmes proposes. “You’d rather jump off a bridge than go without purpose. That’s unchanged. I need to finish this. Also unchanged.”

“What are you asking?”

“I am telling you to sit down and be quiet.” Holmes picks up his pen, its ink long since dried on its nib.

“I refuse.”

“Fine. Leave. Off you go.”

John hesitates, abruptly trapped with the realisation that, whichever way John turns, Holmes can only win.

“You’ll spend the rest of the day wandering about in the hope that someone will need you. Unlikely with the acrobat killed and no replacement evident. Unless the death threats toward the singers come true in the next few hours, there is absolutely nothing for you out there.”

Knowing that Holmes is baiting him does nothing to defend John against his logic. Knowing what Holmes wants from him is no help either. “You’re writing the bit at the end where the young soldier is cornered and scared. The part where he regrets ever trusting the captain at all.”

“Before being horrifically killed, yes.”

It’s no threat, only a crisp confirmation. Even so, it rings false.

“I thought he was going to die hopeful,” John says. That’s what Vernet had said. “He’s supposed to have another change of heart before he dies.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Holmes answers. “I’ve seen enough changes of heart lately, haven’t you?”

John nearly goes to the door. He should. He ought to.

Instead, he sits down.

Holmes neither blinks nor stares at him, but his confused flicker of a gaze is enough for John to feel pleased with himself.

“The old ending was better,” John says. “The variety made it more of a kick in the teeth.”

This time, Holmes stares. He inhales, filling his lungs as another man might load a cannon. Then, without warning, his eyes widen, and he scrambles for one sheet of paper buried beneath the others. He sets to his task without a single word, let alone another attack.

John waits a moment, unsure when the flurry will end. As it continues on, he simply sits and watches. His stomach twists and turns over as if digesting something he oughtn’t to have eaten. If an accident does occur, he thinks Mrs Hudson might know to look for him here. He isn’t certain.

The longer Holmes writes, the more his attention recedes from the room. The windows behind him spill less light than a smattering of candles. The table before him only exists to hold his materials. Holmes only lifts his gaze to John in order to stare through him. Vernet might have done the same, once. The ill-fitting mask had made it impossible to tell.

As the minutes pass and the clock ticks ever onward, a familiar, slightly manic energy creeps over Holmes. It wraps about his head, tilting it, before seizing his hands and bidding them to set down their pen. The first motions of conducting chop the air. As Holmes’ lips silently move, his gesticulating hands smooth their course. The sequence is long and yet distinct: each time Holmes is forced to repeat it, John sees a precise reproduction of what has come before.

Once, only once, Holmes groans and drags his hands through his hair. With a smear of pomade upon his fingers, he surfaces from his composing trance long enough to wipe it off on his trousers. His curls struggle to fall free. One flops over his forehead. Though Holmes ignores this, John can’t help his staring.

While hardly the most inappropriate behaviour John’s exhibited toward him, the staring grows awkward and strange. John has to look down, look away, and still his gaze snaps back to where Holmes is so completely inside his own world. Unheard music bids his dark head to nod a steady beat while his fingers tap an entirely different rhythm. He mouths the words, repeating and repeating as he sets them into ink.

Realising that his back aches, John shifts in his borrowed chair. His shoulder clicks. He stands to stretch.

The tapping ceases as Holmes reaches toward him without looking. “Almost finished.”

“I was just--”

“Almost finished.” The two words spill into each other as if pulled out of him with a great, rushed effort.

John sits.

The writing continues, the composing, the scratching of the pen. What sort of nerve does it take, to compose in pen? What characteristic arrogance.

The almost drags on. Ten minutes. Twenty. John’s stomach clenches and growls. He can’t remember when he last ate. He’s been in here all afternoon.

The pen stops scratching.

John looks up.

Holmes shifts through his papers, his eyes scanning down each page. “Oh,” he says, a soft, surprised sound.

“What is it?” John asks.

The search continues. Carefully handling one sheet, Holmes studies the drying ink. “It’s finished.”

John stands. As if he would be able to tell by looking, he comes to the desk to see. The ink still gleams, but the gleam settles. Even upside-down, the variable quality of the writing is obvious. Here Vernet’s cramped scrawl, there Holmes’ pristine cursive, the transitions between the two gradual where they aren’t abrupt.

They wait for the ink to dry. Then, carefully, Holmes stacks the papers into a neat pile. His hands remain set upon it, securing it to the desk, holding it tight until its existence becomes certain.

With a slow lift of the head, Holmes looks up at him. A single question dominates his eyes, his mouth, the set of his jaw, darkened with a natural shadow. “I...” His deep voice falters, lifts. “What do I do now?”

“You give this to Mr Johnson,” John says. “Copies must be made.”

“Yes,” Holmes says. His gaze falls to the paper beneath his hands. “Yes.”

“And then you must go and eat something,” John continues.

Holmes frowns.

“Mr Johnson, then dinner,” John repeats.

After a small pause, Holmes nods. He stands with a great cracking of his back. His eyes return to the desk, return and return again even as he sets the violin away. His violin, John supposes. The same careful touch, the same hands upon the wood. Yes, his violin.

Once Holmes secures the case, he secures the score. Lost and small despite his great height, he turns to John. “The Gloriana? For dinner.”

“I’m not giving you dietary requirements. I’m only telling you to eat.”

“Hardly what I meant, Doctor,” Holmes replies.

John holds his gaze. “I know what you meant.”

Holmes says nothing, instead looking down at his opus.

John opens the door for him, and Holmes exits without another word.

Chapter Text

Rehearsals rattle forward at a breakneck speed. Opening night looms closer day by day, impossibly near. The choir stumbles through their words, the dancers through their steps, and every day, Holmes looks one step closer to murdering someone.

John stands back, well out of firing range. He’s far too occupied with a new sort of busywork, assuring their principle singers that no one has poisoned them anew. Hypochondria has run rampant enough since the induced epidemic, but with every threatening letter that slips through to their cast, the paranoia increases.

Placating becomes the order of the day, assurances and reassurances that they will remain safe. As long as everyone holds together, the phantom will be caught at the première. As long as the line holds, the plan may continue. While the cast and orchestra rehearse, so do the police.

Three days before opening, the line breaks. A struggling chorus girl leaves her tiny role, only that, but it opens the gate. Once fear turns to action, there is no stopping it. Mr Havil bribes the leads into staying, but they lose Cleopatra even so. More in character than they’d bargained for, their Antony flees after her. An uproar sweeps through the remaining members of the opera house, the crew taking the actors’ flights particularly bitterly.

As per usual, the only person who is unrelentingly optimistic is Miss Hooper. “I’ve brought in a friend for the emergency auditions today,” she tells John over a very quick lunch at the neighbouring café. There’s only so long anyone can remain trapped inside the opera house and retain their sanity. “Well, I say a friend. I mean, he’s, um. Well, he’s more of an acquaintance, really. But he can sing, at least.”

“Anything else?” She looks far too furtive for him not to ask.

Her smile turns guilty. “He’s the perfect size for the costume, and I don’t want to do it again.”

For the first time that day, John laughs a little. “What’s his name?”

“Mr James Zucco.”

“From Italy?”

“I’m not sure,” she admits. “No accent, but I know he speaks it.”

That’s more than a good deal of their remaining cast can claim. “Good luck to Mr Zucco, then.”

Molly nods. They sit for a moment longer before she sighs. “I just don’t want to have to change the costume again.” Another sigh nearly escapes before she visibly perks herself up. “Sorry, I shouldn’t complain. Ready to go?”

They pay and leave. Other members of the theatre staff rise to follow, reminding John of nervous herd animals. Everyone keeps close, even on the street. John and Hopkins frame Molly automatically.



After a long day of assuring everyone that no one is dying, John sits down in the growler with a groan. Though Mrs Hudson tuts at him, she hardly looks any better.

“What’s the verdict?” John asks.

“We have our Antony. He’s quite the job in front of him, two days to learn all those lines. Thank goodness it’s a fairly minor role. And everyone else but Cleopatra has an understudy now.”

That’s certainly good news, to a point. Whether it’s the strain of rushed rehearsals or actual illness setting in, Signor Valeri has been looking poorly, and they do need their captain for the show. “What about Cleopatra?”

“Well... She only has that one duet, doesn’t she? Very minor role.”

A minor role, but one that must be nothing short of magnificent. “We don’t have one, do we.”

“...Perhaps Cleopatra could flee the naval battle early? Without singing?”

“Oh, God.”

Mrs Hudson sighs. “It doesn’t look good, does it?”

“Have you ever pulled through worse?”

“Oh, I’m sure we have,” Mrs Hudson says. “I can’t remember anything off the top of my head. Still, there must have been something.”

They say nothing more for the rest of the ride. Only once John’s paid the cabbie and they’ve warmed themselves up inside the house does John ask, “Have you heard anything about the police search?”

“A number of dead ends, from what I’ve heard,” she replies. “They’ve looked into the old owner and anyone else who was interested in buying at the time. So far, no luck.”

“What about... Sorry, what was the old owner’s name? His family.”

“Mr O’Connell. He didn’t have much in the way of family. No children, so that’s everyone there dead. No, I think they’re right about it being another potential buyer.”

“Long time to wait,” John says.

“It is a bit, isn’t it?” Mrs Hudson agrees. “But that’s assuming his goal is to get the opera house back and not just extort money.”

John frowns. “I thought we were a bit past that point.”

“Oh, no,” Mrs Hudson says. “The opera ghost is still writing, you know. Everything goes away for twenty thousand pounds.” She wrinkles her nose at that. “That buys only month, of course, and it’s hardly as if the opera house could afford that now even if we wanted to.”

It doesn’t make much sense from where John’s standing. “Why break a piggy bank you still want to use?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he likes breaking things. He certainly seems to.”

“I’ll give you that.”

They discuss matters a bit more before yawns take them both. They smile tightly at each other and pointedly ignore that John must ask her this information because Holmes will no longer tell him. Or perhaps Holmes would, if John were to ask.

In any case, they say goodnight and go to bed.



Holmes is dangerous to look at.

Holmes is particularly dangerous to look at in public settings.

Naturally, Holmes is also impossible to look away from. John cannot tell if it is better or worse that this problem does not belong to him alone. All of the opera house not otherwise engaged has turned out to see whether opening night must be delayed. Auditions for Cleopatra drag on, a second day and an exhausted supply of singers ahead of them. John and Green have good seats down toward the front, close enough to watch Holmes and Mr Johnson as well as the hapless singers. Once selected, the woman in question will have little more than a full day before taking the stage tomorrow night.

While Mr Johnson makes notes at his temporary desk before the pit, Holmes stands and paces. On rare occasions, he stands still. The cry of “Next!” comes from him twice as often as it does from Mr Johnson, but Mr Johnson never disagrees.

Once and only once, Mr Johnson tells a woman not to leave. Her voice is lovely enough to John’s ears, and it might be possible for her to look the part. He gives her the sheet music for Cleopatra and bids her to show the extent of her memory.

“As a last resort,” Holmes agrees, if this can be called agreement.

“If possible, sir,” Mr Johnson says to Holmes, “I would devise a way around having a Cleopatra. Her role may need to be silent.”

Arms folded, Holmes chews on his lip. His tense body is once again Vernet’s. There are lines in his hair from where he’s raked his fingers through. “I’ve considered that.”

Beside John, Green whispers, “The two of you still on the outs?”

John startles and stares. “What?”

“Can’t say I blame you,” Green continues. “If a man ever befriended me to get at a girl, I’d be right annoyed too.”

“I don’t mind having introduced him to Miss Adler,” John lies.

“Then you’re a bigger man than I am.” Green looks over to where Mr Johnson and Holmes are in quiet discussion over some piece of sheet music. “Man owes you his life as well as his girl and goes around cutting you for a week. Poor manners on that one.”

John nearly defends Holmes—it’s hardly as if either of them wants to acknowledge the other when they pass in the halls—but he cannot trust he won’t say too much. Instead, he settles for, “Everyone’s rude when they’re on edge. Everything will settle down soon.”

“You keep telling yourself that, Doc,” Green answers. “I’ll be right here, not believing you.”

“You’re only annoyed because he keeps interfering backstage.”

Green grunts. “It’s not right, him barging in and sticking his nose everywhere. It’s my bloody stage. He comes out, sees everything halfway finished, and throws a strop. Gentlemen are patrons for a reason, you know.”

“I know,” says John. This agreement is permission enough for Green to list, quietly, his long score of grievances against Holmes. It’s not meant to be amusing, not at all, but John bites his cheek to nod and grumble along. Because, yes, of course Holmes has exacting, absurd standards for his vision. Of course he’s constantly bothering everyone. He doesn’t simply think he knows best, he knows he knows best and expects everyone else to fall in line. His frustration and agitation are only to be expected. The music is perfect inside his head, after all, and the musicians in the pit and upon the stage are fallible.

Eventually, even Green’s complaints run dry. They watch a few more auditions before Green sighs and nearly stands. “Oh,” he says instead. “Before I forget.”

“Hm?”

“Best keep an eye on your girl,” Green tells him. “That new Antony’s taken an interest. The Zucco fellow.”

John stares at him blankly. It takes him a moment. “Miss Hooper isn’t my girl.”

“If you don’t make your move soon, she’s going to stay that way. You’re painful to watch, you know.”

“Only to annoy you,” John promises.

“Oh, piss off. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Green stands. “Best get back to work while the terror’s distracted.”

John lifts a hand in parting. He stays in his seat, but there’s not much more to watch. Miss Adler pops in to catch the last of the auditions and her silent, casual entrance is better than their would-be Cleopatra’s entire song. John’s far from the only one to turn to watch her. Holmes and Mr Johnson do as well, and Holmes’ eyes grow wide.

“Could you do both parts?” Holmes calls to her.

“What?” Mr Johnson shakes his head at the idea immediately. “Of course she couldn’t.”

“Her role and Cleopatra’s don’t overlap,” Holmes argues. “A fast enough costume change is all we need.”

“Mr Holmes, while I appreciate your respect for Miss Adler’s talent—”

“Have you appreciated anyone else’s talent today, Maestro?” Holmes asks. “If you have, kindly say so. Otherwise, I believe our options are clear.”

Mr Johnson hesitates, then sighs. “Miss Adler, if you’d be willing to sing the part? Though I believe it may be pushing the limits of your range.”

Drawing near, Miss Adler smiles as she accepts the sheet music. Though John can only see the expression from the side, it’s still enough. Frankly, that Mr Johnson doesn’t back down immediately is a credit to his character and his nerve.

Miss Adler takes to the stage. A rustling fills the air as every last person scattered through the house sits up straighter in their seat. She stands tall. The rustling stops, everyone holding still and silent. She glances over the sheet music as she might a newspaper she has already read. Then, with a soft motion of her hand, she gestures to the pianist as if he were her dearest friend.

“Would you prefer to warm up first?” he asks. She smiles no, and the pianist begins.

The introduction plays, the merest outline of the naval battle upon their incomplete stage. Miss Adler sings, and then there are ships. There are ships riding the sea, ships ridden in turn by their proud queen. She sings of her strength and the sound of it is her beauty. Where the soprano would soar, the contralto must drop, and yet this mars nothing. The flight of her voice doesn’t fall, but swoops, darting down between the waves before rising again above the foam.

And then: the falter, the fear by design. Though she sings alone, the space for Antony is clear. Absent Antony’s silence resounds against her cry. Her terror is plain, her strength tested, and as she retreats, she merely steps backward, and backward, and back again, and yet she takes her ships with her. Cleopatra flees with one final clap of terror, and only Miss Adler remains.

The pianist finishes. The house stands in silence. Holmes glows, euphoric, enraptured, as if Miss Adler were his music made incarnate. John can’t seem to breathe.

Mr Johnson clears his throat. “Well, then.” He looks at Holmes. After a somewhat conspicuous pause, Holmes returns his gaze. “How quickly can you make revisions?”

“Very,” Holmes replies. His voice is rough and deep.

“Right,” Mr Johnson says. “Someone had best inform the costume mistress.”



At the thought of yet more adjustments, Miss Hooper looks like she’s about to cry. At least, that’s what John assumes she’s talking about with Mr Zucco. He doesn’t seem to be a very forceful man, which Miss Hooper likely finds comforting.

Attempting not to intrude as he passes by in the slim hallway, John is still struck by a pang of annoyance. Green’s not right, of course he’s not right, but that is still John’s position, as it were. He is the comforter. He is the one who catches at frantic hands, holds them tight, and says, Explain it to me again. He is the one who keeps a level tone while asking What do you need to do next? Though not technically his job, it’s still his task, a duty between friends, and to be kicked to the side while some singer takes his place is somewhat insulting.

It’s a new kind of helplessness and it cannot be borne. What, exactly, is he to do now? There is so much to be done, and all John is capable of is reassuring another singer that they are not about to be killed. Having been subject to arson twice, John finds his patience exhausted when consoling those afraid of mere letters. After all the fuss, it’s almost a relief that something might be physically wrong with Signor Valeri. John’s mind flitters away to a more pressing itch regardless of how he tries to stop it.

“I’m sure I could help with that,” Mr Zucco volunteers loudly behind him. John turns around before realising Mr Zucco is speaking to Miss Hooper.

“Are you sure it won’t be a problem?”

“No, not at all!”

John fists his hand tighter about the handles of his medical bag. He thinks inappropriately violent thoughts until the urge to act upon them fades.

This is ridiculous. This is utterly and completely ridiculous, and he needs to stop thinking about it because he’s getting worked up. He’s getting so worked up, there’s a physical pain in his chest, a horrible, breathless squeezing.

And that song, that stupid song keeps going around in his head, around and around in his head and he doesn’t even know the lyrics properly because they’re in Italian. It’s not even meant to be a significant role, Cleopatra or not. It’s a guest spot for a diva with a cold. Impressive in name and suspense, for the majesty rather than magnitude of the part. It’s nothing so amazing, and the substitution was a logical choice besides. Hardly a gift. Hardly another gift, it would be more appropriate to say.

Besides, it’s hardly as if what everyone is saying is true. Holmes didn’t write her an opera. Holmes doesn’t write for anyone besides himself. John’s seen him at it, has seen the way Holmes is driven forward, run absolutely ragged by the forces inside his own mind. The idea of Holmes composing for any other reason than to appease those demons is absurd. If no one else sees this, that’s only because they’ve never seen him in the grip of his work. They don’t know any better.

There’s a difference between finding inspiration and dedicating a work to that muse. A large, obvious difference. How many paintings are there dedicated to bowls of fruit? None, that’s how many. Miss Adler is a singer and a lovely one, and should Holmes’ eyes caress her as his fingers do his violin, so be it. Should he marvel at her rendition of his score, then his appreciation is for himself as well as her. Any act of admiration is one of ego by default, and Holmes has ego to spare. Of course his admiration should be so blatant.

If John had been present at the first instance Holmes had heard his score performed, John would have seen the same expression of worship. If diluted over an entire orchestra rather than condensed upon one woman, that expression would be only appropriate. Expected, even. It’s much the same thing, orchestra and singer, and therefore nothing to make a fuss over. Holmes is simply pleased with the culmination, the approaching conclusion.

At any rate, if Holmes were pleased with a muse, that would hardly be Miss Adler. Not that John was ever much of a muse. No, John was a primary resource, but he was a good one. He’d never been able to see Vernet’s full expression while he’d spoken of the army and India and all the death infection can bring after the battle. John hadn’t been much for eye contact during those talks. Even so, he had never doubted the absolute focus trained upon him in those moments. Every pain revisited, every fear relived, every pointless moment he’d ever endured had finally proven itself useful. So many useless, paralyzing memories abruptly given purpose.

Had Holmes looked at him like that, then? Had it all been the unending analysis, or had there been awe?

There’s a foolish question. Of course not. However much Holmes may have appreciated a firsthand account, John’s merit came later. The pushing and the prodding, the cajoling and the calming: that must have been where it began for Holmes. The work came first, for John as well as Holmes, and perhaps that is what Holmes saw in him.

Still. Useless to wonder about now. Especially when he has a job to do. He knocks on the dressing room door and calls for Signor Valeri by name. Valeri responds in an exhausted baritone. Though his colouring is poor, his temperature is fine. John urges him to rest and hydrate, but Valeri takes offense when John suggests he take something for his nerves. Valeri snaps and does not apologise, but after years in a high-strung environment, John takes little note of it.



“Tomorrow night,” Mrs Hudson keeps saying. “I can’t believe it. Tomorrow night.”

“He’s confirmed he’s coming, hasn’t he?” John checks.

“The ghost is coming and the police are ready.”

“You’re sure?”

She nods and finally offers a new tidbit. “They put an ad in the paper offering him a box and he accepted.”

“Oh, good. That’s not an obvious trap at all.”

Mrs Hudson laughs nervously, which is more than John can do. They sit for a bit longer at the table, fighting back yawns. John rolls his shoulder, clicking it. Their tea has gone cold with time, or perhaps Mrs Hudson has truly put that much whiskey in. It does take the edge off quite nicely. He highly doubts he’ll fall asleep tonight any other way.

“Tomorrow night,” Mrs Hudson says again. “I can’t believe it.”

“God, I hope this works.”

“The opera or the trap?” she asks.

“Both?” He nods. “Both.”

“We might only have one or the other,” she warns.

“I know.” He turns his teacup around as if studying the repeating blue pattern. He isn’t. “I’d take the trap. Apologise to the patrons and then assure them everything will return to normal.”

Mrs Hudson hums a sound like a smile, if a faint one. “That would be nice. Still, if the opera isn’t well-received... I do worry. It would break his heart, poor thing.”

John takes a fresh interest in his teacup.

Belatedly, Mrs Hudson realises what she’s said. “Oh! Oh, I didn’t, of course I didn’t--”

“It’s fine,” John says firmly. “I think I’ll head up. Big day tomorrow.”

“Yes,” she says. “Quite right. I should get to bed myself.”

“Good night, Mrs Hudson.”

“Good night, John,” she answers, and there’s an apology in it.

John does his best not to dwell as he changes for bed, but it’s a difficult matter to put from his mind. He imagines Holmes sitting up in Box Five with his brother, the pair of them protected by any number of policemen. Should this opera fail, will Holmes be permitted more time to hide away from society for his work? There’s enough desperation to him already without adding any more.

Shaking his head at himself, John extinguishes the lights. He climbs into bed. Once on his back, he hisses at the slow release of tension in his spine. The pain prevents sleep, but it does not prevent thought.

Perhaps, and only perhaps, John should have gone to dinner. Except he shouldn’t have. Of course he shouldn’t have.

And yet, what if that was the last chance? It’s bizarre thought in light of the sheer number of times Holmes has thrown an invitation into his lap, but there’s merit to it. Holmes had been exhausted and visibly disoriented. Drained by his work, he’d reached to John out of habit. While alert, he’d been a creature of hostility and avoidance, as if he was the one who had been wronged. Rejected, certainly, but not wronged. Not lied to.

“You said you loved me for my character,” echoes accusing memory. Except that’s not fair. John hadn’t known it. He’d never had the chance, not a real chance. He’d spoken without possessing the facts, and if Holmes insists upon holding this against him, so be it.

If that last invitation to dinner is truly the last, that’s fine. That’s for the best, honestly. What sort of life could he possibly have with Holmes? Holmes, who is two-faced in the most literal of ways, a veritable Janus. Even if he could make Holmes swear all he said was true, what then? It would still be a life doomed to the shadows. To be held, he must be hidden, and to resign himself to such silence is beyond bearing. All too keenly, he finally understands his late sister.

He’s hardly giving anything up in relinquishing Holmes. Though he might ache for the violin to turn fresh nightmares into melody, there’s little else. He’ll never miss opera, though it was an unexpected joy to work on it together. Someone else will have to push Holmes through his moments of frantic insecurity. Good luck to them, whoever they are. It’s certainly not going to be Miss Adler.

John sighs and rolls over. He shuts his eyes tighter against an inexplicable urge to pace.

He’s giving up a friend. There is that. A selfish, arrogant, commanding friend with no sense of boundaries and a quick and clever tongue. As in, as in speaking. As in wit. Though the other sense certainly applies, John refuses to dwell on it. He’s just going to lie here, in his bed, and not think about that.

He rolls over to face the other way, and he does not stop thinking. If anything, the thinking grows worse. He thinks of Holmes pressing against him through his trousers, waits for the instinctual revulsion, and finds nothing. Rather, he finds the opposite of revulsion. His body no longer seems to care that those kisses came from Holmes in disguise. Christ, this is hopeless.

In an act of betrayal, his mind continues forward. What if Holmes hadn’t stalled him with music? In the small room behind the main chamber, had the bed still stood? Little more than a cot with curtains, yes, but a bed all the same.

An unwitting smile pulls at his face as he relives the memory of absurd bedhead in the early afternoon. The afternoon he’d gone down and found the candles cold, the mask up the table, this moment is emblazoned upon his mind beyond any hope of purging. The fear of Vernet being gone, of something having befallen him, had been strong even then. Almost laughably so, considering how everything has turned out. No, there’d been no reason for concern that afternoon. Vernet had simply overworked himself in the timeless, endless night of the tunnels.

Except... no. That’s wrong. That was after yet another of their countless arguments, though John can’t recall what that particular one was about. He does remember the separation. He’d been hoping to see him too much to forget that gap entirely, or the way Holmes had filled it. He’d been annoyed at Holmes, even, for keeping him away from the tunnels. Holmes had stayed late to be certain John left the opera house before him.

Which means, in the cot... Of course it was Holmes in the cot. Vernet without his mask is Holmes, and the mask was in John’s hand. But Holmes must have rushed about all night for the investigation only to hurry back to a subterranean cot. What other absurd manoeuvres had he pulled off in order to obey his brother’s command?

It is staggering, certainly. A man a heartbeat away from being an earl, sleeping in those conditions and eating out of tins. What sort of idiot does that? Bad enough that a mere gentleman would make the attempt. And running back and forth, the utter strain of keeping his lives separate, what kind of absurd dedication does that require? And all for a bloody opera.

With a terrible sinking sensation, John realises he knows Holmes’ character. It is as magnificent as it is imbecilic.

John rolls onto his back to better stare at the ceiling. Slowly, as if buttoning a coat, he fits one side of his recollections against the other, sliding the prominent details through the gaps in his knowledge. There is an envelope in the drawer of John’s borrowed desk, and John had pressed his money into Vernet’s palm long before Holmes began paying for John’s meals out. He recalls Vernet’s unprovoked rage after his rejection of Holmes, and Holmes’ uncharacteristic forgiveness after John’s acceptance of Vernet. One man, just the one, struggling and stupid under the weight of two lives.

If Holmes had seen the way out, matters might have ended differently. The path is so infuriatingly simple. Would it have killed him to ask John to wait? Was there some reason why he couldn’t have been there when John returned and explained he needed time to unravel the complexities of his situation? He could have warned John that he would be terribly furious. He could have told John to wait until early autumn, until after his niece or nephew is born. It could have been framed as a terribly sentimental gesture, waiting until the anniversary of their first meeting.

It would have been a long wait, to be certain. They’d have written to each other in the interim, or would they have? Letters filled with a cramped scrawl rather than a flowing script, yes, this is possible. Would the strain have driven Mrs Hudson to tears, or would she have been relieved at the greater plan? John hopes the second.

Then, after half a year of never seeing Vernet and remaining politely distant with Holmes, John would receive a letter instructing him to choose a restaurant and reminding him to hold onto his temper. John would select a destination with alacrity and laugh at the thought of being angry for anything beyond the delay.

The moment of truth would arrive unexpectedly. Unable to resist the drama of a delayed arrival, Holmes would enter once John was already seated. With unflappable charm, Holmes would sit down across from him while John fumbled for an excuse to make Holmes leave, lest Vernet see John at an occupied table and believe him disloyal.

Holmes would reveal himself quietly but dramatically. Perhaps he’d pass John a slip of paper with a note, something along the lines of Don’t be furious, I did warn you. Perhaps he’d offer John his healed palm and insist until John saw the faded scar. Perhaps he’d simply let his voice drop low and say, “I’m glad you waited.”

John would be startled and furious, but the public setting would be enough to keep him quiet. Holmes could continue, saying something like, “I thought it best to address your concerns from the Masquerade” before updating John on the developments in his life, his family, his music. After months of warnings, John would be better prepared. His anger might last all the way into the salad course and fade entirely before dessert.

After that, John isn’t sure. But something would have happened, something different than their current stalemate. They’d climb into a hansom cab after, shoulder to shoulder, hands hidden below the doors closed over their legs. They’d return to 221 Baker Street first and let Mrs Hudson know everything was sorted. She’d be relieved, absolutely overjoyed. Then, Holmes would ask John whatever had become of his scarf and follow John up to his bedroom when he went to fetch it. What followed would be complicated, certainly, but John would do his utmost to guard them from society while guiding Holmes through his music. There are worse lives.

They could have had this. If Holmes hadn’t run off that night after a few sweet kisses, they could have had this.

Gone, now. Supposing that offer of dinner was Holmes’ final attempt, gone for good.

John rolls over one final time and falls asleep wishing he’d said yes.



In the morning, he puts the envelope in his medical bag atop his gun. He has no idea what to do with it, but perhaps he’ll think of something before the première. The scarf couldn’t possibly fit inside the envelope, but what about the scarf pin? No, too ambiguous. The scarf itself is too much of a declaration, besides. He can hardly wear it. After its previous usage, that would be far too crass.

There must be something else, something small. John’s hardly about to ask Holmes to leap into his arms. Not to mention, Holmes must have learned to stop leaping by now. John simply needs a first step, a notification of impending forgiveness. And it must be before the opera opens. After, and it might be mistaken as a form of fleeting praise. Or worse, as a reward, as if John were a prize to be given out based on merit or consolation. No, it must be before.

After a long moment of hesitation, he tucks the scarf away into his medical bag as well. Something will come to him before tonight. Best to be prepared for whatever it is.



Naturally, John’s formative plans are torn to shreds within an instant of walking through the opera house doors. Hopkins pauses only a moment to say hello to Mrs Hudson before giving John a look that portends absolute doom.

“Where’s the problem?” John asks.

Hopkins twitches his mouth in the shape of an apology. “Signor Valeri’s dressing room. He’s locked himself in.”

That’s much more histrionic than John would expect from Valeri, but an actor is an actor. Still, the timing of it is terrible and far from what John would have deemed normal for the man. “I’m not sure what you expect me to do, Hopkins.”

“Well,” Hopkins says, abruptly very tactful indeed, “you’re better at calming people than, well. Than some others might be.”

“Ah,” John says and follows him.

The first thing John hears in the back hallway is the yelling. This would be typical enough backstage if the voice didn’t belong to Mr Johnson. As John and Hopkins round the corner, they spot the crowd gathered about Valeri’s door. It would be difficult to miss in the slim hall, and impossible to avoid.

“I couldn’t find the key, sirs,” Hopkins calls over the onlookers. People shuffle to the sides as best as they can to let Hopkins and John through. “But I did find Dr Watson.”

“Lovely,” Holmes remarks dryly beside Mr Johnson. “And can Dr Watson pick locks?”

“Not in the slightest,” John says. “But I can clear a hallway. Hopkins, I’m certain Mr Havill can find use for so many idle hands—be sure to remember names, won’t you?” He raises his voice as he says the last, and for one magnificent moment, John feels tall. A side effect of military posture and a gaggle of stagehands backing off while feigning indifference, no doubt. John looks pointedly at the stragglers until they at least pretend to simply be standing in the hallway rather than snooping. One of the men, Mr Zucco, may actually have an excuse. Most singers hovering behind Mr Johnson are not present by choice.

“We’re meant to be rehearsing the naval battle,” Mr Johnson explains. “We have our Antony--” he gestures to Mr Zucco “—and Cleopatra is already dressed and waiting. But unless Signor Valeri will come out...”

“May I try?” John asks. He directs this question to Holmes as well as Mr Johnson, looking between the two.

Holmes gestures to the door in clear challenge. Mr Johnson pleads with his eyes.

John knocks lightly on the door. “Maintenance!” he calls cheerfully.

Holmes scoffs, turning away, but Signor Valeri does answer.

“I won’t come out!”

“Perfectly all right,” John answers, shoulder against the wall, speaking to where the door meets its frame.

There is a loud silence from behind the door.

“Would you mind company?” John asks.

Mr Johnson gestures furiously at him as well as at the pocket watch in his hand.

Get the understudy, John mouths to Hopkins. Hopkins sets off immediately.

Holmes shakes his head. He’s terrible, he mouths with a wrinkled nose.

Rather than asking the point of a terrible understudy, John knocks lightly on the door once more. “Signor Valeri? Would you mind if I came inside? Only me, just to sit.”

“They want me to come out! I will not come out!” His voice is much closer than previously.

“Mr Johnson will rehearse the scene with your understudy. Could I come in?”

Valeri’s silence is an unsteady one. His breathing is much too loud, incredibly audible now that he’s approached the door.

“Signor, if I can describe your condition, will you permit me inside?” John asks. He keeps his head bowed, one ear toward the door, and this points his gaze to Holmes shoes. He closes his eyes, much too aware of Holmes’ ever-watching eyes.

“I am not ill!” Valeri shouts with a desperate, shaking rage. “I have been threatened! Myself, my family, our lives have been threatened, and each time, the police fail to catch this monster. I will not be killed for my art! I will not set this opera above my children!”

“No one is going to kill you, Signor Valeri,” John replies in a steady voice.

“I die in the third act! Where better for him to kill me?”

“No one is going to kill you, Signor,” John repeats slowly.

Hopkins returns with the understudy in tow, a Mr Montaine. With a sigh, Mr Johnson signals to Mr Zucco and they set off toward the stage. Holmes looks as if the world is ending and does not budge from his spot in the hall. When the interested crowd attempts to reassemble itself by piecemeal, Holmes glares at them until they duck away once more.

“I understand that it’s looming,” John continues. “The danger is very real. I know. I’ve been set on fire twice and had to jump out a window. Believe me, I know. But he is not going to kill you tonight. He tried to kill Mr Havill and Mr Johnson at the Masquerade, but they’re still alive. He tried to kill me twice, and I am alive. He tried to kill Mr Holmes, and Mr Holmes here is alive. Whatever he says, he is not very good at killing people.

“I, however, am very good at killing people, Signor Valeri, and our phantom is already down one assassin. His only assassin, as far as we’ve seen, and I can promise you that he is very dead. If there is another, he will also be very dead.”

“Dead does not matter to a ghost. He’s coming tonight.” Valeri’s panicked certainty is unshakeable, though John would wager the man himself is trembling.

“Yes, he is,” John says. “Because we’ve called him to a trap. But he is not a ghost. A ghost wouldn’t be threatened by a gun.”

Holmes checks his pocket watch and attempts to show John the time. John waves him off, steadfastly not looking at him. If John looks, he will falter.

“He is only a man,” John continues, “and men are very good at teaching others to be afraid of them. That’s all this is. He has been teaching us fear. You were observant enough to learn. That’s all. It’s not cowardice. It’s not the end of all things. It’s learned fear.”

“My life has been threatened, Dr Watson. This is not fear. This is sanity!”

That’s a terribly fair point. “And this is a danger that will not end until we catch him, and we need the opera to catch him. As I understand it, your understudy is terrible.” He looks to Holmes as he says this, and Holmes nods with conviction. “If this is going to end, we need your help to end it. Your family doesn’t have to live in fear, Signor.”

“Nor must my children live without a father. I refuse.”

“You do realise your position is at stake?” Holmes demands.

“At a doomed opera house, yes! I will not go out!”

Holmes strikes the door.

Valeri lets out a terrified squeak, but the door remains shut.

Holmes lifts his hand a second time, and John catches him by the wrist. Holmes’ eyes could nail him to the door, but John holds firm.

“Not helping,” John says quietly.

“You’re doing little better.” Holmes twists his hand free, wrenching John’s arm. John flinches, the pain sharp into his shoulder, but Holmes’ face contains nothing of an apology, only viciousness. “Unless you’d care to shoot the lock.”

Inside the dressing room, Valeri audibly staggers back from the door.

John rolls his eyes, tightens his grip on his medical bag and speaks loudly to the doorframe. “If you withdraw from the production, your protection is likewise withdrawn. Have you considered that?”

Silence, but a silence even Holmes is listening to.

“We’re going to leave now,” John continues. “If you want to come out and do your part, by all means. Otherwise, it would be helpful to have the costume back. Your choice.” With that, he steps away and gestures to Holmes to follow him.

Scowling, Holmes does. “A promising start and a pathetic end: you keep to your patterns well.”

“Mm, with insurmountable idiots in the middle,” John retorts and immediately regrets.

“A doctor routinely bested by idiots. Is that why you’re so good at killing people, then?”

“No,” John says tightly. “The gun helps. Understandable you forgot that part. You were rather busy being strangled at the time.”

Holmes storms past him. Though Holmes’ face is frozen, John knows the curve of his shoulders. He knows those shoulders better than any face.

“Holmes.” John doesn’t catch at his arm, but he nearly does. The hall is largely abandoned with rehearsal once again underway. If they keep their voices down, it might be safe. Though far from private, the opera house is a very particular sort of public space.

What?” Holmes snaps, whirling about.

So much for lowered voices. John searches for something that could be loudly said, anything. “Is the understudy really that terrible?”

“Atrocious,” Holmes answers without hesitation. “We’re dead in the water. Valeri was passable, but Montaine is a drowned cat. Half the time, he sings with his throat. If the role were in French, his diction might be halfway understandable, but his Italian is utter gibberish. There’s a chance the audience might not leave before the first intermission, but it’s the same chance they’ll all be tone deaf.”

“Well,” John says slowly, “at least that will make the phantom easy to spot.”

“Why come now?” Holmes demands, rounding on him. John’s heel hits the wall as he backs against it. John can retreat or be headbutted, and Holmes stands much too closely all the same. “Hm? Why bother when we’ve already ruined ourselves? There’s no point!”

“Of course there’s a point--”

“There isn’t!” Holmes lifts his hands, recalls the pomade in his hair just in time, and clenches a fist on either side of his head. “The stage may have come together, the orchestra is as far along as it is ever going to get, and none of this is going to save my opera when that idiot takes the stage. Put him anywhere near Irene and he is hopelessly outmatched. But opposite her? Good God! He’ll vanish into the scenery!”

“At least no one will see him, then.”

For an instant, the threat of one of those shaking fists falling upon John turns terribly real. “Is everything a joke to you?”

John shakes his head, eyes averted. A vein stands out in Holmes’ neck beside a freckle. John averts his eyes a bit more. “Sorry.”

“Are you?” Rhetorical, almost darkly amused at John’s expense.

John nods all the same.

As if realising their proximity for the first time, Holmes stops leaning forward. He doesn’t step back, but the effect is comparable. When he drops his arms, a cage door effectively opens.

“I thought the line would hold,” John says to the buttons of Holmes’ waistcoat.

“The line.”

John nods.

Holmes scoffs. “Do you think you’re still in India, Doctor?”

John flexes his hand, adjusting his grip on his bag. He lifts his chin before he can lift his eyes. Holmes’ are a cold green. Or blue. A shadow falling across half his face, the colour is split, as if the force of Holmes’ gaze cannot be expressed by one set of eyes alone. It’s so appropriate, John very nearly smiles.

“I thought I was in an opera house where a singer was brave enough to sing,” John answers. “That’s not usually a problem.”

“It is tonight.”

“Today,” he corrects. “It’s not even noon yet.”

“Yes, thank you. Plenty of time for the rest of it to fall apart.”

“No,” John says. “No. Plenty of time for Miss Adler to bludgeon Signor Valeri back onstage.”

“Won’t work. Already tried. Years of exposure dulled the effect.”

“But it’s not as if he’s immune.” No one’s immune. “Wait, is he?”

Holmes visibly suppresses a sigh. “Immune enough.”

“Christ, he really is on the edge of a breakdown.”

An odd sound catches in Holmes’ throat, muffled behind closed lips, but John recognises it instantly. He’s missed it.

“That wasn’t a joke,” John says in a tone of surety designed to provoke giggles. “She could order a corpse to move, and it would.”

“If she could make one sing, we’d have a better chance,” Holmes says.

John laughs. “No, corpses have notoriously poor timing.”

“Always late, I assume.”

John dares a grin, amazed by the sheer warmth of Holmes when he’s forgotten to be ice. “How’d you guess?”

Abruptly, Holmes remembers his chill. He pulls his mouth into a harsh line as if chastising it for finding John amusing. Then he glares at John for staring at his mouth.

John leans somewhat harder against the wall, increasing the distance between their faces from six inches to perhaps seven.

Holmes steps backward, an unspoken accusation across his features. This is patently unfair. The unfailing magnetism between their bodies is hardly John’s fault, and Holmes is the idiot wearing cologne.

Sounds from the stage invade their brittle silence. Holmes turns his head and scowls, but at least he aims the expression away from John. “Lovely. Another moron to shout at.”

Until that moment, John hadn’t realised he’d never heard Montaine as other than part of a chorus. “Oh... dear.”

“Now do you understand?” Holmes demands. “That is what you’ve reduced my opera to.”

Though the words lash, they don’t sting, too absurd to strike home. “How the hell is this my fault? Signor Valeri--”

“It wasn’t ready! It wasn’t even finished, but no, let’s fling it like bait into a trap in the hopes a beast will gnaw on it. These are the worst conditions for a première I’ve ever heard of. It’s going to flop from lack of preparation and a surfeit of idiocy, but the form will be blamed for the failure. It will be denounced as the work of a besotted idiot. Do you understand what this appears to be? Not a break in convention, but an ill-devised attempt to lift a skirt!”

“Then they’re all idiots,” John says, voice low in the attempt to hush Holmes. “And if it saves the opera house, won’t it be worth it?”

“‘If’,” Holmes spits. “Improbable success bought by certain failure?” He shakes his head. “A forced gamble is hardly ‘worth it’.”

“‘Forced’?”

“Between your public announcement and Mycroft, do you think I had any choice in this? Even Mrs Hudson has taken your side. If my work must be a sacrificial lamb, then so be it!”

“Not all of your work. You’ll write more--”

“Oh, then it’s all fine, isn’t it? I can write more. Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll write more. Months in a basement eating out of tins and listening to the nightmares of a broken soldier, no, of course none of that matters. I’ll go and repeat the entire process, shall I? I’m sure none of it was terribly agonising--”

John doesn’t quite touch Holmes’ lapel. His hand hovers, his arm barely fitting in the slot of air between their chests. Even so, he does not touch. The motion, the possibility of touch is enough to click Holmes’ jaw shut.

“You’ll write more,” John repeats as calmly as he’s able. “Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything that could prevent you. There will be another opera. And another one. An absurd number of them, I’m sure. Enough that another one will be staged, and another after that. This isn’t the end of your work. And Montaine can’t ruin the score. Maybe the critics won’t take you well as a librettist, but you’ll still be recognised as a composer. That’s a start. You don’t have to be both right away.”

Holmes turns his face away, the vein in his neck prominently on display. He stands very still, tense beyond shaking.

“I mean,” John says, “I know you’re both, but... One is a good start.”

“All or nothing.” Holmes’ words are quiet, nearly as if he means for John not to hear them. “I’m sick to death of being divided.”

Strange, the obvious thoughts John has never thought of. Belatedly, John lowers his hand without touching Holmes. He curls his fingers into a tight fist before he can reach anew. “That’s fair.”

“Oh, is it?” Holmes drawls. “Your standards do change so very rapidly.”

“Shut up.” It comes out much more fond than he intends.

Holmes’ eyes narrow as if John has just laid down an obvious trap. “I don’t have time for this.”

“Why, do you need to have a shout at Mr Montaine for a bit?”

“Yes, actually.”

“Good. Have fun.”

Holmes stares at him. “What the hell are you playing at now?”

“I don’t really play,” John says. “I just blunder around in different directions.”

“Then I’ll take my leave before you change course yet again.” He pulls away, dragging against the gravity which binds them, and it is this visible resistance that bids John to pursue.

“Vernet-!” John chokes on the word a moment too late. Holmes rounds on him in an instant. This would be a perfect moment for the floor to collapse beneath John. Honestly, there will never be a moment more perfect. Why couldn’t he have stood on a trapdoor? “I, fuck. Um.”

“And there it is,” Holmes declares, invading John’s space once more. “The rationale behind the change: the fantasy has returned!”

“That’s not--”

“Hasn’t it? How is it that nothing do is sufficient? You needed work, I brought you work. Real work, not hand-holding in the basement, and you were pleased to be of use. I--” His voice drops. “I was as blatant as any man could dare to be.”

“Damn opaque, you mean,” John counters. “Just tell me what the hell you want and we can--”

“How many times are we to re-enact this scene, Doctor? Hm? This would be at least the second cycle. You reject and you plead, and I have had enough of your inconsistencies.”

My inconsistencies?”

“Your variable views on my character.”

“Yes, because you’re not at all variable yourself.” John lowers his voice, whispering harshly in Holmes’ face. “Or does ‘we’ll discuss the logistics’ always mean ‘I’ll swan off and leave you to an empty room, then watch you run around in circles for weeks’? Normally that sort of thing means ‘I’ll be here when you get back,’ so you’ll forgive me for being confused.”

“As confusion is your default state, I forgive you readily,” Holmes snaps. “Fortunately for you, there are worse idiots then even you currently requiring my attention.” With that, Holmes rips himself away.

Breathless, John seizes him by the arm. “Why the hell did you leave?” he demands of Holmes’ turned shoulder.

“You were in love with a phantom. There was no point in staying.”

John tightens his grip on Holmes’ elbow, but still the man refuses to look at him, glaring elsewhere. “And was there a fucking point in leaving?”

“I panicked,” Holmes snaps. He tears his arm from John’s grip with an abrupt turn. “Happy?”

John opens his mouth in the desperate attempt to find a response. No sound emerges.

Colour riding high on his neck and cheeks, Holmes storms away without another word.

John’s legs shake the moment Holmes vanishes from sight. His legs shake, his heart pounds, and he leans against the wall, attempting to breathe. Breathe first, then think. That’s not the end of it—can’t be the end of it—but John needs to breathe. Breathe and think and wonder.

After John has time to breathe, he takes the other way around to find a seat in the house. If Holmes appears calmer after having his shout at Montaine, John will return to him and try again.

Even with his long detour down into the stalls, John seems to have arrived in the middle of the shout. Already settled into a prime spot, Green gestures to John to come join him. Quite abruptly, John realises why no one had interrupted his conversation with Holmes: they’d been much too absorbed in the train wreck that is Mr Montaine as a Roman captain.

A tall man, Montaine is nearly Holmes’ height and considerably more than his width. Like Miss Adler, this will be his first great role. Unlike Miss Adler, he doesn’t deserve it in the slightest. This becomes all too clear as the rehearsal flops and flounders around him.

“We’re doomed,” Green tells John.

“Blunt,” John chastises.

“Refuse to face the facts, and truth will think you rude. We’re doomed.”

The orchestra plays and promptly drowns Montaine out. Whether this is a blessing or a curse is up for debate, and John and Green discuss this between themselves. As Holmes draws closer and closer to losing his temper, the entire house waits like silent, breathless stone. The odds of having a civil conversation with Holmes today shrink by the minute. Holmes’ voice is still high, still feigning fine manners and a steady temperament, but it will only be a matter of time.

The cracks deepen. Even Miss Adler looks close to snapping. Too unfamiliar, Mr Zucco is more difficult to read, but he requires thankfully little correction for his lines as Antony. He defers to Holmes beautifully. Montaine requires correction nearly every other word.

At last, Holmes berates Montaine too far. A complete idiot, Montaine rises to the ample bait. “If sir would like me to follow his example, perhaps sir should set it,” Montaine challenges. He clearly thinks he’s called Holmes’ bluff of expertise, but even this show of arrogance cannot survive in the face of Holmes’ ego.

Without a word, Holmes gestures Montaine to the side, takes his place and nods to Mr Johnson in the pit. Mr Johnson doesn’t move. Holmes nods a second time. Even from behind, Mr Johnson clearly suppresses a sigh before his hands rouse the orchestra from their temporary rest. Opening chords, now excessively familiar, rise into the air yet again.

Holmes stands at attention. His posture transforms him into someone else, a weary soldier who will never fall. His body sturdy, his feet planted, his form is a reflection of his will. His loyalty cannot be questioned, his moral compass immune to any tempting loadstone. His expression turns stoic and strange, his mouth a stubborn, dedicated line.

Holmes opens his mouth and his voice renders his body insignificant. His posture is magnificent, his bearing that of a captain who ought to be a general, who ought to be a king; and yet compared to his voice, this is nothing.

There are drums in his voice, drums and blood. Driving foreign words deep into flesh, the steady rhythm of a brave heart supports the libretto. His diction cuts, pristine and harsh, as sharp as any officer’s sword. He sings of battle, and he sings against death. Though his voice fills the house, he aims his body directly at Montaine as if to slash him to the bone.

Trumpets blare and Holmes blazes above them. John notes, in a vague and distant way, that Green’s mouth is hanging open. Though wide-eyed, Mr Zucco joins in on cue, Antony urging his men forward in battle. Holmes’ part begins to echo Mr Zucco’s in a relay of commands, immediate sharpness to detached fluidity. In turn, Zucco’s stance mirrors Holmes’.

The orchestra heralds Cleopatra herself, and Miss Adler soars above them both. Though all three share their pride, she alone eludes the battle, confrontational in her withdrawal rather than her advance. Their voices twine and mingle, and the drums echo beneath John’s skin. The words keep their secrets from John’s ears, but the music, their faces, the lines of their bodies; these reveal all.

Miss Adler finishes first, stepping back as her part ends, as her boat would take flight. For a short time, too short a time, the general and the captain sing on without the queen. Then Antony too takes flight, and Holmes’ voice is abruptly insufficient in its solitude. He is a single tree before the axe, one man before the sword, and it matters little how mighty he may be.

The captain’s theme rises, quickens, dragging Holmes to the top of his range. For an instant, his grandeur would rival any king, any emperor. Then, mid-phrase, he cuts off with a pained shout and the orchestra plays the rest of the line without him. John takes to his feet, terrified, before he realises this is deliberate effect. This is the captain’s death, harsh and sudden and terrible. Still bound by the structure of the captain’s commands, the battle swarms on without him.

Come tonight, this scene will unfold with wooden frames dreaming themselves into a fleet. There will be dancers and a chorus, and the chaos will be incredible. There will be costumes, the changes rapid, and when Miss Adler rushes to the captain’s side, she will be a soldier instead of a queen. This morning, she is something in between, and she takes Holmes’ weight with an arm about his back. When she sings, she sings the captain’s theme in a soldier’s voice, so much higher, so much younger. She holds him up against her, tall and brave and trembling, and Holmes’ limp non-response to her voice proves him dead.

The scene, the act, closes upon her voice and hers alone, though tonight the chorus will join her. This morning, there is only her, and she is more than enough alone. The orchestra announces the terror of defeat. With a thunderous clap, all falls silent.

Not a breath, not a whisper, not a brush of cloth upon cloth disturbs the charged air. Then, slowly, as if with a great struggle, Holmes lifts his face from the curve of her neck. He lives once more.

Applause rips through the house in a giddy rush. A piercing whistle jabs into John’s ear, but, standing beside him, Green offers no apology. Unable to do otherwise, they clap until their heated palms ache.

“Did you know he could do that?” Green whispers into John’s ear.

“Somewhat?” John answers. He’d thought Vernet’s voice had filled the chamber because of the acoustics. Perhaps the small space had merely held him back.

Upon the stage, Mr Zucco stares at Holmes as if having never seen him before. A private smile plays about Miss Adler’s mouth. In the pit, the musicians murmur to one another.

Turning to Montaine, Holmes says in the most acidic tone John has ever heard, “Your example. Follow it.”

If there was any colour left in Montaine’s face, the remainder immediately drains. “I,” he says, and nothing more.

“He can’t,” Miss Adler finishes for Montaine.

Holmes checks his pocket watch. “We have nine hours remaining to make him.”

Mr Zucco clears his throat.

Miss Adler seems to have very much the same idea.

In fact, the entire house seems to have very much the same idea.

“Mr Holmes,” Mr Johnson begins. “If you’re fully committed to this production going forward...”

“What are you suggesting,” Holmes says. He does not ask it.

“Looks like your girl’s stuck stitching yet again,” Green mutters to John.

“She’s going to cry,” John agrees without thinking. “Nine hours. Christ.”

“I can’t possibly,” Holmes says upon the stage.

“You can possibly,” Miss Adler disagrees. “In fact, you’re the only one left who can possibly.”

Holmes looks at Mr Johnson as if for help. “Maestro?”

Mr Johnson hesitates before answering, “The lady has a point. And a good one.”

“My lord brother would have everyone sacked,” Holmes says flatly.

“We’re all about to lose our jobs anyway,” Mr Johnson replies. “Mr Montaine, I’m sorry, but the role is simply too much for you.”

“It is,” Montaine agrees, his face now scarlet. “Excuse me.” He practically flees the stage.

“Come back here!” Holmes bellows after him.

Miss Adler catches Holmes by the arm. Though her touch is light and her grip loose, her hold upon him is fast. She says something softly, her eyes locked with his, and something more than words passes between them. Though Holmes’ expression remains stony, hers flowers. John remembers with a jolt that Miss Norton is in the pit at her harp, that Miss Norton can see all of this, and yes, this sudden fury is on Miss Norton’s behalf.

Holmes shakes his arm free. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll do it.”

Chapter Text

The performance rushes closer. Practiced chaos abounds. All the workers of the opera house whirl about each other to keep from colliding in narrow halls or between tables laden with props and tools and bits of costume. John’s steps in this dance are something of a waltz: two tiny steps forward and then a large step out of the way, holding his medical bag in the place of a partner.

A small emergency nearly erupts when one of the dancers vomits, but his symptoms don’t match those of major poisoning, merely food poisoning. Waves of terror escape before John can contain them, but a fair amount of shouting does the dancers good. Perhaps berating the man as an idiot for eating suspect egg salad is a touch harsh, but the resulting laughter puts a damper on the fear.

As the afternoon gives way into evening, the police take up their posts about the opera house. Clearly exhausted beyond all patience, Inspector Lestrade seizes upon John in passing.

“He’s not actually planning to perform, is he?”

“He’s more or less our only option at this point, sir,” John replies.

Inspector Lestrade’s arms remain crossed as his eyebrows rise. “You’re not serious.”

“I wish I weren’t. Still, it’d be a shame not to have bait in the trap you’ve been so kind as to set up.”

Inspector Lestrade doesn’t quite glare at him, but it’s close. “The Earl will try to call it off the moment he hears.”

“Does an earl have any actual power over a police officer?” John asks in his most innocent of voices.

“Legal or actual, Doctor?” Inspector Lestrade counters. “For that matter, have you met him?”

“Touché.”

They stand for a bit, then Inspector Lestrade sighs. “Where is he?”

“The Earl?”

“No, the boffin-turned-actor. Where’s he off to in this mess?”

“I think he’s having his costume sewn onto him,” John says, not entirely sure how jokingly he means it. He gives directions up toward the main sewing room. “If not, well, normally I’d tell you to try his dressing room, but I don’t think he has one of those yet.” Signor Valeri is still holed up in the one that would have been Holmes’.

“See if he does, would you? He’s gone and scrapped the entire protection plan without telling anyone. Putting himself out on the stage, he could get himself killed.”

“You’ll think of something,” John says with more hope than certainty.

“I’d damn well better, pardon my French.”

John lifts his medical bag pointedly. “I’ve still my gun.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised to hear it, but I am glad. I’ll send someone to tell you if we need you.”

“Yes, sir,” John says.

Inspector Lestrade glances down at John’s feet, snapped together as they are in old habit. He nods to John with more respect than before, and he was respectful, if exasperated, to begin with.

They part ways. John weaves his way through the back halls to the dressing rooms. He knocks and he calls and he asks more than a few people whether Holmes has a dressing room or not. No one seems quite certain.

“I think he’s in the third one,” Beaumont says. His face scrunches from the effort of thinking through the chaos.

“I thought Zucco was in that one,” Jamison disagrees.

“Thanks, you’re a wonderful help,” John says. The two curse at him in passably good cheer as John sets off. He knocks on the third one.

“Hello?” Zucco answers the door. Though they’ve an hour before the house opens, their Antony is already partially dressed for his role. His trousers clash oddly with the Roman uniform, but it wouldn’t do for the man’s legs to freeze off before he takes to the stage. His face has yet to be painted.

“Sorry to bother you,” John says.

“Oh, not at all,” says Zucco. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I don’t suppose you’d know if Mr Holmes has a dressing room?” John asks.

“I do! We’re sharing this one.” At John’s surprised blink, Zucco explains, “It doesn’t seem right, putting any of the lead roles into one of the common dressing rooms, and I was already in here before Signor Valeri barricaded himself into the other private one. There is the remaining lady’s dressing room, now that we’re without a star soprano, but that seems indecorous somehow.”

Easily recognising the chatter of another soul at loose ends, John nods along.

“Was there a message you wanted to give him?” Zucco asks.

“Merely trying to find him,” John lies. “If you see him, please tell him Inspector Lestrade is looking for him.”

Zucco smiles, but not in the way John would expect Antony to smile. Prettily done, this is a smile aimed to endear, to please, to flatter. “He’s very much in demand, isn’t he?” Zucco’s voice lifts slightly, just slightly, and suddenly, the nagging feeling in the back of John’s head resolves into clarity: Zucco is an invert.

John doesn’t twitch or recoil, but it is possible he betrays his realisation all the same. Zucco simply laughs with the fine humour of a man who knows his position is, for now, secure.

“I think the inspector simply wants to know where to store Holmes in case of emergency,” John replies.

“A fair concern.” Much more seriously, Zucco asks, “Might I be stored away in case of emergency as well?”

“I think you might,” John says, “but separate locations might be better.”

Zucco lifts his eyebrows as if granting John opportunity to explain this separation. Silently asking what he has done wrong, Zucco turns his expression piteous. “You’re very protective of your friend, aren’t you, Dr Watson?” He lilts over the word friend in a way John dislikes immensely.

“If the army taught me anything, Mr Zucco, it was to look out for my superiors,” John answers.

In what might be apology, Zucco nods. “I hope it serves us well tonight.” He smiles again, this time far more honestly. “He truly is a remarkable composer. I didn’t see that coming in the slightest. Not that I auditioned entirely without hope, but oh. This is something special.”

“It is. Though I’m not sure how well the audience will appreciate its uniqueness.”

Zucco waves a dismissive hand. “Stupid, ordinary people. I wouldn’t bother with them. They lack vision.”

“They do buy tickets,” John points out.

Zucco wrinkles his nose in the craftsman’s distaste of the layman. As if at a sudden thought, he brightens. “The word in the wings is that you were privy to the creative process.”

“I don’t know about that,” John says. He tries to excuse himself, but Zucco jumps in too quickly and so thwarts John’s fundamentally British core.

“I heard one of the stagehands say you were closeted with him in Mr Havill’s office when he was finishing the score.”

“He prefers to have someone else in the room,” John explains.

“Is that someone very often you?” Zucco asks. “That would explain much.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Mr Holmes assumes your posture for the role.” Zucco looks at him curiously. “Or didn’t you realise?”

John stares, then blinks a few times, then desperately holds in what could have become a very strange noise indeed. He clears his throat, smoothes his expression down before it can take on a giddy appearance, and calmly states, “He doesn’t do that.” He knows what Holmes looked like in the role of the captain, and he looked nothing at all like John. He was much too magnificent for that.

“He did earlier.” Zucco’s smile was that of a man who knows he knows better and, furthermore, intends for everyone else to know this as well. “I saw you when you tried to draw out Signor Valeri. Exceptional military posture. Mr Holmes was clearly emulating you.”

“Well,” John says. A stupidly fond expression keeps trying to climb onto his face. “You know. Inspiration from anywhere, that’s what makes an artist.”

“It’s certainly made him,” Zucco agrees. Though it might make another man appear sarcastic, Zucco’s emphasis only underscores the sincerity of his praise.

“It certainly has.”

“Do you know how long he’s been composing? He seems remarkably practiced for this to be his first public work.”

“I’m not sure. I imagine it’s a long-term passion.”

Zucco grins a bit. “Long-term traditionally describes the writing of an opera.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” John says. “After all, Holmes slapped this one together in half a year.”

Zucco’s eyebrows rise, his grin wiped away.

John grins in return. “He’s very quick.”

“Then is this his first opera? Are there others? I hope you don’t mind my asking. It’s very exciting.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” John says, well-warmed to the topic. Besides, he has little else to do before the première, beyond staying out of the way. If Inspector Lestrade hasn’t come around to find Holmes here, he must have already found Holmes elsewhere.

John gladly answers what Zucco asks, and he finds himself very nearly relaxed for the first time that day. He’s hardly about to go inside the dressing room with Zucco, but little harm can come from conversing in the doorway. Invert or not, Zucco’s interest in Holmes does appear to be primarily professional, even at times bordering on hero worship.

Rather than disgust John, this reminds him of Hopkins’ awe toward Holmes. It must be so easy for a younger man to be caught up in Holmes’ personality and dignity. The fellow has fallen into a trap of gentility and doesn’t even know it, poor sod.

Upon hearing that Holmes has completed only the one opera, Zucco looks absolutely pained. When John explains how Holmes has often thwarted himself through his own perfectionism, Zucco nods understandingly. At no point does Zucco listen to John’s tales of Holmes’ process with anything less than fascination.

In an abruptly anxious turn, Zucco asks, “You don’t think he would stop composing, do you?”

John tilts his head slightly, frowning. “I think he could be caught under a rockslide and carry on humming. What do you mean?”

“This opera house and Miss Adler,” Zucco says. “They’re clearly significant to his work. If the opera house was to close or Miss Adler to leave for better prospects...” He trails off, his dread plain on his face. Here is a man who wants to sing something magnificent, and go on singing something magnificent.

“Holmes would go on writing.”

“You’re certain?”

“Absolutely,” John says without hesitation. “I’ve never known anyone more passionate about his art.”

“Not even Miss Adler?”

“Not even her.”

Zucco whistles, low and appreciative.

“He’ll keep writing, whatever happens tonight,” John promises. “Disaster or triumph.”

“That’s a relief,” Zucco says, nodding repeatedly. “I can’t tell you how much, Dr Watson.”

“I’m glad. Still, let’s aim for triumph, shall we?”

Zucco grins. “Of course. I never aim for anything else.”

“Just be certain you don’t run off after Cleopatra or something.”

Zucco finds this joke far more amusing than John would credit it being. “I’ll be very careful about that.”

“That’s all we ask. I’ll leave you to rest your voice.”

Rather than reply aloud, Zucco salutes smartly, if incorrectly. They part ways there, Zucco retreating into his shared dressing room. John picks up his medical bag only to realise he doesn’t actually have anywhere he needs to be. He adjusts his grip and adjusts it again. He starts walking, if only to prevent himself from going back and becoming a conversational leech.

Holmes is, apparently, the new rugby. Given half a chance and a willing bystander, John would prattle on about him endlessly. His face aches a bit from what he’s done already. Has he been smiling so much? Christ. In front of an invert is one thing, but there are police in the building.

It ought to be a sobering thought, but it does nothing to dampen John’s remarkably high spirits. Because that was happiness. Actual, solid happiness, simply from talking about the idiot.

God, there’s a thought. A strange, foreign thought, but there it is: John could be happy. Odd, the sort of things that tumble into one’s brain in the middle of a bunch of agitated stagehands. Hell of a risk to stake on a man that infuriating.

Still, there’s nothing he can do about it until after the show. With that in mind, he goes off to track down Inspector Lestrade and see if he can make himself useful. Failing that, he finds a newspaper.



The house opens with a surge of heat and noise. Bodies rumble up the stairs and stroll down into the stalls. Seats fill. Curtains sway in the boxes until the gloved hands of ushers secure them neatly in place. The john lights the footlights as the opening moment draws ever nearer. In the sudden increase of warmth from flame and human form, the orchestra tunes and tunes again, waves of discord growing sweet. The murmur of voices rises and falls, accompanied by the rustling of cloth and the fluttering of fans.

Rather than continuing to watch from the house door and block everyone’s way, John retreats to the lobby to breathe. Immediately, the air temperature drops. The doors are open, patrons still filing in with various levels of excitement and dread. While far from the gala première Holmes’ opera deserves, it remains a far better turnout than they could have expected under these conditions.

Said conditions include the policemen framing the doors as if, at any moment, all the doormen will be under arrest. The patrons’ reactions range from frightened to reassured, but very few turn back.

“Dr Watson, there you are!”

John turns and smiles reflexively at Hopkins and the shining buttons of his uniform. “Here I am. We’re not sold out, are we?”

Hopkins grins. “Closer to it than expected. I’m sure we will be tomorrow night.” He simply stands there for a moment, still grinning, but now very deliberately.

“Christ, what’s wrong now?”

“Nothing,” Hopkins says, his voice rising sharply in pitch. “I mean, the Earl is... Well, he’s here. In the box. Box Five.”

“I know where the Earl sits.”

“Yes... Well.” Hopkins doesn’t quite wring his hands, but he does fiddle with his gloves. “He’s been asking Inspector Lestrade, you see. So the inspector told me to find you.”

John’s stomach drops through the floor. “The Earl’s asking after me?”

“Well... no.” Hopkins visibly forces himself to stop adjusting his gloves. “Inspector Lestrade wants you nearby in case the ghost goes after you again.”

“Then what was that about the Earl?”

“He’s asking after his brother.”

Oh, God. “He thinks it’s my fault his brother’s turned into an actor?”

Hopkins hesitates.

The penny drops. “No one’s told him anything, have they?”

“Inspector Lestrade told him Mr Holmes has been working on the opera and... And that the Earl will see his brother when the opera starts.”

John swears quietly, Hopkins shushes him, and a passing patron glares at them all the same.

“Sorry, madam,” John and Hopkins apologise in unison. They quickly relocate, Hopkins trying to bring John to Box Five, John trying to go anywhere else.

“Would he stop the opera?” Hopkins asks.

“I hope not.”

They exchange a nervous glance at John’s vast understatement.

“Once the police lock the doors, it ought to be too late to call it off,” John reasons.

“About the door-locking,” Hopkins says.

“Yes?”

“If the ghost likes to set buildings on fire and we’re locking all the doors and windows, aren’t we playing into his hands? I know the policemen are at all the exits, but they won’t want to let anyone out in case the ghost escapes.”

“Hopkins,” John says.

“Yes?” says Hopkins.

“Find a fire axe.”

“You don’t actually have the authority to tell me to do that, sir.”

“I know,” John says. “You can blame it on me anyway.”

“Thank you, sir.” Hopkins nervous smile makes him appear younger than ever, although John’s certain the fellow is in his thirties.

“Anything else I need to watch out for?” John asks.

Hopkins hesitates.

“All right, out with it,” John orders.

“Not meaning to be impertinent, sir, and I know you said you and Miss Hooper weren’t an item, but I’m worried with Mr Zucco about, and I would never want to see you hurt, sir, I would never, and Mr Zucco and she seem a bit closer than expected—”

“He’s not interested in her,” John says bluntly, “and you can worry about asking her to lunch tomorrow, not tonight, understand? We need you focused.”

“I--” Hopkins gapes before nodding quickly. “Yes, sir.”

With that, they arrive outside of Box Five. Hopkins knocks. They enter. Inside, the Earl sits next to Inspector Lestrade. The Countess is absent, presumably due to her delicate condition.

“Doctor,” Lord Holmes greets.

“My lord,” John replies. “Good evening.”

The Earl looks at Hopkins.

Hopkins leaves.

When the door clicks shut, the Earl asks, “I don’t suppose you’ll deny my brother has taken to the stage?”

“I will not, my lord.”

“It was my understanding you not only had a baritone for the role, but an understudy after him.”

John folds his hands behind his back. He spreads his weight evenly, though his leg gives a bit of a twinge at it. “One quit. The other was an embarrassment.”

Lord Holmes does not stand and does not need to stand in order to look down at John. “I would rather some fool be an embarrassment than my brother a disgrace.”

“Begging your pardon, my lord,” John says, doing no such thing, “but we need a show worth ruining.”

“And is my brother ‘worth ruining’?” Lord Holmes demands in a measured voice.

“His performance will be,” John promises.

“I don’t care about his performance.”

“Your brother does,” John says. “I apologise for the embarrassment your brother’s involvement with theatre may cause your family, but Mr Havill is in charge of casting decisions. I have no say in this matter whatsoever.”

“Speak to him,” Lord Holmes orders.

“I can bring Mr Havill--”

“Speak to my brother,” Lord Holmes corrects.

“If I could see any point in doing so, my lord, I would. Unfortunately, I have never set my will against your brother’s with any sort of success. He is a very determined man.”

Lord Holmes narrows his eyes. Beside him, Inspector Lestrade does his absolute best to sink into the woodwork. Beyond them, through the open curtains, the stalls are nearly full. The orchestra sits at attention in the pit, ready to rise to their maestro’s command.

John squares his shoulders and continues, “If your lordship wishes to put a stop to the opera, that option remains. Again, I’ve never successfully set my will against your brother’s, but I’m certain your lordship is more capable in that regard.”

“You are prepared for my brother to become a laughingstock.”

“I am prepared for anything but that.”

“Then see to your preparations,” Lord Holmes bids him.

Before John can devise a suitable response, the overture begins. Lord Holmes turns in his seat to look out into the house, down to the orchestra, and John understands a crucial detail so crucial, so obvious, and so very sad.

“Is this your lordship’s first time hearing it?” John asks needlessly, his voice lowered in deference to the music.

The first hush of the audience reaches even Box Five. A moment passes before Lord Holmes answers in a whisper. “I’ve heard snatches.”

“I think your lordship will be pleasantly surprised.”

Lord Holmes says nothing. He simply sits and listens and gestures for John to sit. John obeys, taking his position on Lord Holmes’ right. Lord Holmes is, as always, centred within his box. His focus shifts utterly from John to the orchestra. When the overture reaches the battle theme, the Earl nearly stops breathing.

The overture finishes to applause. The grand drape parts. The opera takes its first breath and comes alive. Rehearsal was but a shadow fallen in advance: the true form is here.

Roman soldiers loiter in their barracks. The prologue rings out from their throats, setting a foreign story that would escape John entirely if he didn’t know it by heart. He ignores the Italian and listens instead to the orchestra. Their general is gone to Rome, their general has married the emperor’s sister, and now, their general has returned. They sing of Antony and Rome and the bonds between. They sing of Alexandria and Egypt and the unending charms of Cleopatra. They sing of their general’s resolve, of his good name, of their great pride in him.

There in the barracks, a young soldier steps forward, tall and slight in build. The orchestra soars under him to lift him up in praise of his general. His voice glows with the innocent pride that only naivety can bring. He is convincing in the extreme and it takes John a moment to realise, yes, that is Miss Adler.

A bit of dancing follows, not as silly as it could have been, and the soldiers fall into line in anticipation of their general’s entrance. The orchestra heralds his approach and yet the man who enters is not Antony at all, a fact immediately recognisable in the soldiers’ disappointment. Their captain has come in their general’s place.

John has a strange moment of panic before he can detect any trace of Holmes beneath this new persona. He knows the voice but cannot see the man. This is someone else, someone dedicated to cause and country. He stands in absolute control of his body, his motions commanding in their quiet nature. He emanates unquestionable strength and would do so even without the sword upon his hip. The weapon is secondary to the man, or perhaps an inevitable extension of him. His report, though sung, maintains the tight rhythm of pertinent briefing. His simple presence turns the crowd of dancers into an assembly of soldiers standing at attention, if only because they would dare be nothing else for him.

The weight of the Earl’s gaze presses against the side of John’s face.

“He’s not terribly recognisable,” John whispers.

“Not as himself,” the Earl replies in a murmur.

John looks at him with a question in his eyes, but Lord Holmes gives no further explanation.

The opera continues inexorably on. Minor mishap leads to disorder, punctuated by the first of Miss Adler’s solos. The other soldiers sing of their loves left at home, but she focuses instead on some grand ideal that John feels rather than understands. Where John’s comprehension of Italian dwindles down to nothing, the music supports the meaning.

Changes in the choreography are obvious, but only because John knows where to look for them. At no point is the captain called upon to dance. Though Miss Adler’s young soldier may join in the ranks for tense drills, Holmes’ captain remains detached. He stands often in parade rest. There and only there does John recognise Holmes’ performance as mimicry.

After the nearly a full act of questioning whether their perfect general will stay true to his new wife, the inevitable announcement comes. Though surely the entire audience sees it coming, though they must have known the story’s end before they ever set foot in the house, gasps escape open mouths at the news. Antony has betrayed his new wife, and her brother Octavius Caesar by extension.

The curtain draws shut to tremendous applause. His face impassive, his hands far from still, the Earl keeps his gaze on the stage.

“How many acts to this?” Inspector Lestrade asks.

“Four,” John says. “But all of act three is a naval battle and act four is everyone dying.”

“What’s act two?”

“All the soldiers realise they can either be traitors to Rome or deserters from Antony’s army.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad,” says Inspector Lestrade.

“No, it’s quite good,” says John.

“It is quite good,” Lord Holmes says quietly, as if he still hasn’t made up his mind. “Unconventional, perhaps.”

“Unconventional in good ways, I’ve found,” John says.

“Do people still die singing?” Inspector Lestrade asks.

“Some, but Mr Holmes made certain to kill those soldiers in ways that permit singing. Respiratory systems remain intact and unblocked. Some parts cut off at the singer’s death. It’s really quite clever.”

“He consulted you...?” Lord Holmes nearly asks.

“We have very odd conversations,” John replies.

Lestrade laughs. “I’d say!”

A knock comes at the door. Lestrade rises, his hand bidding Lord Holmes and John to remain still. Lestrade opens the door, nods, and says, “Begging your pardon, your lordship.” He steps out to speak to one of his officers and closes the door behind him.

John fixes his gaze straight ahead and does not look at the Earl. The Earl does not give John such courtesy. By the power of Lord Holmes’ eyes alone, John’s cheek is slowly flayed open, picked apart down to the bone.

Eventually, John risks saying, “I don’t think it will be a problem for your family, my lord. I can barely recognise your lordship’s brother, and no one knows he has a voice like that on him.”

“Very few do,” the Lord Holmes allows.

“...He emulates you,” John says in an attempt to placate. “Vocally. When he’s on his best behaviour.”

“Better behaviour, I’m sure you mean.”

“If your lordship says so.” John ducks his head, but the deferential movement turns defensive.

“I once told him his voice resembled that of his Italian instructor,” Lord Holmes states. “My dear brother has publically imitated me ever since.”

John frowns. “I’m not sure I understand, my lord.”

Lord Holmes looks at him sceptically but says no more, leaving John with the sense that he’s been handed a key but cannot see the lock. Italian instructor... Ah.

“...His Italian instructor was a baritone and an invert, was he not?” When the Earl responds in neither the positive nor the negative, John boldly continues, “Your brother tries not to sound like him, lest he be found an invert himself.”

The Earl’s reply takes a moment to come and is directed toward the stage, soft in volume and hard in tone. “He was never one for singing in public. Even in private, we’ve heard nothing out of him since our mother passed away.”

“I’m sorry,” John says.

Lord Holmes very nearly rolls his eyes. He’s never looked more like his brother. “Hardly the part for which you owe and apology.”

John moves his lips in the attempt to make gritted teeth look like a smile. He never for a moment imagines he succeeds.

“You disagree over the matter?” Lord Holmes asks in a voice civil as a civil war.

Seeing the break almost at its end, John glances back to the door, but Lestrade does not return. John has a small, irrational hope that Hopkins might come and break down the door with his fire axe.

“Two matters, I think your lordship means,” John says pointedly.

Lord Holmes looks at him fully, a frown pinching his mouth. There’s a question in Lord Holmes’ eyes, but John can’t for the life of him make out what it is.

John holds Lord Holmes’ gaze for as long as he dares before venturing the question, “Does your lordship recollect what I’m referring to?”

Lord Holmes’ face remains blank.

Temper held tight in his hand, John says, “The blackmail attempt.”

Very slowly, Lord Holmes blinks.

“That... wasn’t your lordship’s idea?”

“Dr Watson, are you accusing my brother of attempted blackmail?” Lord Holmes glances back at the door in a very real reminder that Inspector Lestrade may return to them at any moment.

“He admitted to it,” John whispers.

“After prompting?”

“Well, yes.”

“If I or my brother were inclined toward blackmail, Dr Watson, you would be in very dire trouble. As you are merely in great trouble, you may rest assured that neither I nor my brother will sink to such depths.”

“...I don’t understand.”

“Two matters, you said?”

“Your lordship’s brother said two,” John says. “His... goals between us, and his chamber downstairs.” When the Earl simply looks at him, John continues with extreme discomfort, “He refused to tell me the second unless I approved of his goals for the first.”

Lord Holmes closes his eyes with the air of a man who would greatly like to strangle an absent party. “Meaning,” Lord Holmes says, “he refused to reveal his eccentricities until you promised his eccentricities wouldn’t matter.”

“...Ah,” John says. “Possibly.”

Lord Holmes shakes his head, eyes raised to the ceiling. John has never seen a man so clearly despair of another’s ineptitude.

Before John can ask anything further, another knock raps against the door, and Lestrade enters.

“Welcome back, Inspector,” Lord Holmes drawls, nonchalant once more. “You’re just in time.”

Lestrade nods respectfully, and the second act begins soon after he takes his seat. The audience’s chatter fades away at the first note.

The act focuses more on the young soldier being swayed from Antony’s side to that of the mutineers. John’s interest wanes accordingly and he grows increasingly aware that the time for the ghost to strike draws ever closer. The audience is clearly invested, and outrage is sure to follow should anything go awry.

Miss Adler thrives as the focal point. Knowing it was one thing, but seeing it is another: the entirety of the opera hinges on her performance. The very number of seats sold tonight was dependent upon her presence. She is their one attraction left, and for good reason. Her young soldier is perfect in his confliction, honest in his doubt, heartbreaking in his loyalty. So very delayed in this realisation, he at last thinks of himself. Whichever choice, he fears his fate to come.

Her solo is exquisite. The audience leans forward, the rustling of cloth filling in for the absence of breath. Thunderous applause follows, absolutely thunderous as the young soldier decides to side with the mutineers.

Too late, John realises what follows. Holmes’ voice seared the scene into his heart months ago. John watches in growing dread as the young soldier creeps away to join the mutineers only to be caught by the waiting captain.

Amid the many layers of the orchestra, the line of the violins reveals itself to John’s ears. He knows it. He could never forget it. John braces himself for the seduction, for the sight of Holmes making love to another man in Italian.

It never comes.

Adler’s resistance transforms seduction into begging, weakens command into negotiation. Holmes’ arguments, though handsomely sung, fall by the wayside. He releases Adler because Adler cannot be held, because the force to contain could never successfully be used to control. The power of Adler’s silent will elevates the soldier to the level of his superior officer, the pair equal in determination despite their separate stations.

Holmes sings of glory and honour, of home and loyalty, of life and breath. Where his arguments fail, his passion sways. When Adler acquiesces, it is no submission, but an alignment of purposes. The young soldier sings his sombre words of loyalty. His pledge resounds from Alexandria into London. The orchestra crescendos beneath his honesty and brings it, and the act, to its conclusion.

If the applause had been wild before, that is nothing compared to what happens as the curtain draws shut for intermission. The crash of so many clapping hands, the roar of so many praising voices; it shakes the house itself. The vibration takes hold of John down to the bones, to the marrow. Beside him sits the Earl in stunned silence, his expression strange and too tender to look upon.

John excuses himself quietly. Lestrade looks at him askance and John states aloud his need for the toilet. “Don’t worry,” he adds, glancing down pointedly to the medical bag forever in his hand. “I’m armed.”

Mind whirling, blood thrumming, he sets out in a daze. While intermission lasts, he slips through the back halls until he finds an open bit of table space. He opens his medical bag, draws out the much battered envelope, and carefully unfolds it, breaking the dried glue without tearing the paper. He retrieves a pencil from his bag as well, angles his body to better be out of the stagehands’ way, and tries to think.

Although it may surprise you to read this, I do not intend to shout at you, John writes slowly. He winces at the formal tone but cannot risk setting anything informal to paper. In fact, I have intended several times to make amends but seem incapable of it. I apologise for my temper, which rivals your own. If possible, I would like to speak with you without any shouting whatsoever. Failing that, I would like to speak with you. Should you wish it, I am prepared to converse solely through letters. If you no longer wish to work collaboratively or discuss logistics to that effect, I will be neither surprised nor offended.

All too aware that intermission is running out, he hurriedly signs I remain, faithfully, your doctor, JHW.

He reads it over twice to be sure of what he’s done before folding it up carefully. It refuses to stick shut. With no other way of sealing it, he dives back into his medical bag and pulls out the silver scarf pin. The process involves very carefully piercing, but he manages it. The end result is a letter folded back into a crumpled, pinned shut envelope. Holmes will either find it immensely endearing or laugh John out of the building.

Before he can stop himself, he sets off to Holmes’ joint dressing room. Along the way, he withdraws this afternoon’s newspaper from his medical bag as well. He folds the newspaper in half and sticks the envelope inside. The rationale has less to do with sentiment than it does to do with the sheer number of policemen John passes.

At the dressing room, John learns Holmes is already waiting in the wings, but Zucco doesn’t ask why John has rushed in for the sole purpose of dropping off a newspaper. Zucco clearly wants one last moment of peace, so John exits without any chatting. A very quick walk puts John back in Box Five just before intermission ends, but only just.

“I was starting to worry,” Inspector Lestrade chides him.

“Sorry.”

“He wouldn’t have appreciated the interruption,” Lord Holmes says without warning.

Either unshakeable or exhausted past use, John’s nerves don’t jump in the slightest. “Precisely the reason I didn’t bother him,” John lies, taking his seat.

The music resumes, the curtain parts, and they fall silent in the box.

The battle begins. Not the beginning as stories and songs would say battles begin, but as battles truly begin: with the wait. The oppressive silence reigns over forced merriment. Commanding officers bludgeon their troops with sobriety, with discipline, with words made into lashes. Here rises the straining tension that makes men eager to kill, if only to escape the unending pressure of waiting. Here is a condensed form of madness, controlled and crafted, a tool to shape the wills of many into the weapon of one man. Here are John’s nightmares made music, and he watches them with a strange detachment, with the mixed revulsion and pride a mother might feel toward her murderer son.

The conflict flares at last into tangible, visible form. The audience gasps with relief before horror takes them anew. The ships amaze, immense shapes of slim wood painted with false depth. They break and sink, dancers floating away with the wreckage.

Amid the confusion, the captain stands tall. He is a lighthouse upon the sea, the one piece of stability, and his presence forces the eye to anxiously roam for the young soldier, so surely the young soldier must already be dead. Even knowing Irene’s male role will survive until the end of the opera, John discovers himself anxious. The young soldier is away in the wings, transformed into the much anticipated Cleopatra. Before her must come Antony, but before Antony appears, the captain must begin their song alone.

John waits for it and waits for it, a rising shiver in his soul. If any moment were to be interrupted, it would be this one. Beside John, Lord Holmes grows noticeably nervous, his hands clenched tight atop the box’s front wall. A glance past him to Inspector Lestrade reveals an active search across the audience, the music ignored for the sake of safety.

With Inspector Lestrade on the lookout, John commits his focus to the stage with little guilt. He knows the turn the music is taking. He knows what is about to begin.

Holmes sings. He does not sing upon the stage, for the stage is a deck from which he sings upon the sea. Hearts beat hot blood until drums beat behind them, and Holmes’ words drive the battle even deeper into flesh. Holmes flings a hand high, heralding the coming of the long absent general, here at last. Trumpets blare as Antony’s ship enters past one flowing curtain.

Antony stands tall at the bow, tall but not yet triumphant. He stands and he sings, and the captain echoes the commands of his general against their joint foe. The tide turns upon the Romans as the orchestra sets itself to its very limits for the sake of summoning Cleopatra.

Her ship enters behind Antony’s. Taller than Antony’s, Egyptian rather than Roman, the ship carries upon it a curious figurehead where there ought to be none. John squints at it, confused as to the last minute set change. A moment of wondering and his ears register the absence in the music.

“Oh, God,” whispers Lord Holmes.

Devoid of Cleopatra’s part, the song remains a duet. Holmes and Zucco look up. Though the orchestra plays on, their voices halt, Zucco’s with a scream, Holmes’ with utter silence. Dancers collide with Holmes. His back turns fully to the audience and, beyond to catch the next dancer who stumbles against him, he does not move.

The alarm spreads through the audience before it reaches the pit. The battle falls from orchestrated fury and into cacophonous disorder. A woman screams, just one woman in the pit because there is only one.

Irene!” screams Kate Norton from her harp. “Someone cut her down! Someone do something!”

The audience riots. Screaming, shouting, the patrons scramble to flee. The dancers scatter into the wings, tripping over groundrows as they go. Zucco leaps from his ship to seize the motionless Holmes by the wrist and drag him behind the closing curtain.

Medical bag forever in hand, John darts out of the box before he has a moment to think or before the others have a chance to stop him. He runs. The press of bodies grows too great. He shoves instead. He shoves and he slips around and beside and through, and when he reaches the stage, they’ve cut down the figurehead from Cleopatra’s prow. The police part at the sight of John’s raised medical bag.

“It can’t be her,” Miss Norton cries. Green struggles without success to hold her back. “Is it really her?”

For one ghastly moment, John cannot tell. Beneath the bloating and discoloration, her sharp features remain, like swords hanging upon a wall, but John has never known her to be so removed from battle, to have been set aside. Cloaked in a shroud of skirts and devoid of her posture, this body is only a corpse. Some bodies retain traces of the soul, but not so for Miss Adler. Without her breath, she is gone.

Someone has already removed the noose, but, irreversible, the results of strangulation persist. There is absolutely nothing John can do.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“We’re finished,” Green says, gutted. “Bastard’s stabbed us in the heart.”

Miss Norton twists free from him to collapse at the corpse’s side. She clutches at a limp, pale hand. “She’s still warm! Dr Watson, do something!”

“Her throat is crushed,” John tells her softly, firmly.

“But she’s still warm!”

John looks for a pulse to appease her. He finds nothing. “I’m sorry.”

Miss Norton hits him then, two uncoordinated fists against his shoulder. She strikes his good shoulder and does him little harm, but it isn’t for a lack of trying. John catches her hands. He pulls her up to stand. Miss Norton begins to weep. Mrs Hudson rushes forward and bundles the shaking woman up in a tearful embrace.

“Hysterics at a time like this,” Beaumont disparages, and John hauls him one across the face without thinking. Beamounts head snaps to the side and he staggers. “Jesus fuck!”

An officer drags John back in an instant. He looks familiar. “Keep your sodding head, Doctor! Where are Holmes and Zucco?”

Breathing heavily, shaking, John takes a strange, echoing moment to respond. “Dimmock? Dimmock, I don’t know. Oh God, he’ll be going after them next, won’t he?”

“Exactly why we need to find them,” Inspector Dimmock snaps.

“They went back to their dressing room,” Beaumont says, clutching at his bleeding nose. He glares at John through his fingers.

“Holmes looked in bad shape,” pipes in one of the dancers. “Zucco had to drag him.”

“Show me the way,” Dimmock orders the dancer. The pair is off in an instant.

Beaumont comes back at John just as quickly. “The fuck was that for!”

“Insult a mourner and I turn your mum into one. Are we clear?”

“Fucking Christ.” Beaumount wipes blood off his chin with the back of his hand. “You’re a sodding doctor!”

“You’re not really helping, dears,” Mrs Hudson says over them, still rubbing Miss Norton’s shaking back.

Perhaps a longer moment passes or perhaps it’s only a second. Time turns strange during a crisis. It feels instantaneous. Mrs Hudson chastises them and then the cry goes up:

“They’re missing!”

“The ghost has them!”

“Someone find them!”

“What in the blazes...?” Green asks as John’s stomach drops away entirely.

“Holmes and Zucco aren’t in their dressing room,” John says. Who else are worth raising this panic over?

Everyone upon the stage looks down at the remains of Irene Adler.

“Fuck,” curses Green. “They weren’t half bad, either.”

“They’re not dead yet!” John’s volume rises as his hands turn to trembling fists. “We have a ghost and two men to find! Everyone move!”

A manhunt ensues within an instant, but John can’t seem to join it. He simply stands between Miss Adler’s lover and Miss Adler’s corpse. He thinks of Valeri’s terror, of the man still barricaded into his dressing room. He makes the mistake of looking at Miss Norton. His mind turns blank. The night Mary died comes alive. The night Harry died. He wonders, distantly, if Clara can help Miss Norton through this. He wonders who will help him through this.

“Dr Watson!”

John blinks dumbly at Miss Hooper. Despite the very obvious answer, he very nearly asks her what’s wrong.

She stops a moment to catch her breath. Looking at Mrs Hudson and the distraught Miss Norton, Miss Hooper gestures him toward the wing. Once there, she searches about frantically.

“What are you looking for?” John asks.

“I can prove it,” Miss Hooper swears. She too is on the verge of tears. “If you just let me, I can show you.”

“Hold on, stop.” He catches her by the shoulders. “Prove what?”

“It was Jim. I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault he was here, I’m so, so sorry. And I’m not hysterical, I promise, I’m not, I’m just really, really sorry and no one will listen! I tried to find Stanley—he has a fire axe—”

John squeezes her shoulders. “Breathe.”

She breathes.

“What’s going on?” John asks. “Who’s Jim?”

“Jim Zucco! It was him.”

John stares at her blankly. Then he turns his head, looks at the corpse, and looks back to Miss Hooper.

“He volunteered to help Irene with her costume change,” Molly says. “I didn’t see the harm in it on account of him being so, you know, and we had to have her change in the wings and the police were meant to keep everyone else out, so she should have been safe!”

“Breathe,” John says again.

Miss Hooper breathes. “It had to have been Jim. He was the one who was supposed to help her up onto her ship. There wouldn’t be time, would there? Between their entrances. Because either he killed her or she was killed in front of him or she was killed really quickly after he came out on stage.”

“We think he has Holmes,” John says.

“I know!” she shouts. “That’s why the police need to listen to me! They’re going to find him and treat him like a victim! He could be holding Mr Holmes hostage.”

“If he’s holding Mr Holmes hostage, I think the police will know to shoot him,” John says. “Failing that, I will know to shoot him.”

Though considerably paler than she was but a moment ago, Miss Hooper nods. “The police are at all the doors and they’ve locked all the windows, too. They’re going to find him eventually. I’m just scared they’ll try to take him somewhere else for safety and he’ll get away.”

“We’ll tell the Earl,” John says. “Or we’ll tell Mrs Hudson and she’ll tell the Earl. He’ll listen to her.”

Miss Hooper exhales heavily. “All right. All right. Good. I really am sorry.”

“Not your fault. None of us saw it coming. I spoke with him earlier and—oh. God. He was very interested in Holmes.”

John and Miss Hooper stare at each other for a moment before darting back to Mrs Hudson. They hurriedly draw her away from Miss Norton, as not to upset her further, and Miss Hooper explains in a semi-coherent rush.

Mrs Hudson’s eyes grow very wide indeed, but she keeps her head as only Mrs Hudson can. “I’ll find Mycroft,” she promises. “John, you check the tunnels.”

“The what?” Miss Hooper asks.

John frowns. “Why would he go down there?”

“Because that’s where he hides,” Mrs Hudson says, “and if he’s being forced to show Zucco a way out, he’ll take the tunnels.”

“Right,” John says. He pulls his revolver from his medical bag and leaves the bag upon the stage.

“I’ll go with you,” Miss Hooper says. “I brought the pointy scissors.”

“Could you use them on him?” John asks. “If you had to.”

Miss Hooper visibly hesitates before she pulls the scissors from a skirt pocket and hands them to John. “They’ll be better against a noose than a gun would be.”

“Thank you,” John says. “Now against my better judgement, I’m going to run with these. Find the Earl and Inspector Lestrade, and if I don’t come back, you’ll know where Zucco is.”

“Be careful!” Miss Hooper calls after him.

John spares no time for a reply. With all possible speed, he races to the basements beneath the opera house. There, the entrance below the stairs, formerly boarded up, has been forced open anew. Heart in his throat and gun in his hand, John ducks through the door and ventures into the darkness.

Chapter Text


His feet know the way regardless of the dark. Revolver in one hand, the other tracing the wall, he follows the turns until the guidance of memory is exhausted. Standing in the tunnel, he fishes out his matches, hissing as his knuckles brush against the inside of his jacket. He lights a match and assures himself of his bearings. Vernet’s chambers are on his right.

He listens at the door to the chambers but hears nothing. Before he shakes out his match, he glances at his knuckles, the skin red and scraped. It takes him a moment of venturing forward to remember punching Beaumont. He has other things on his mind.

Going forward into the dark, his footsteps echo. They’ll hear him coming regardless of what he does. He can only hope it won’t force Zucco’s hand. Any man who commits murder in cold blood can only be more dangerous with his back against the wall.

The tunnel turns. The butt of his revolver in his mouth, John lights a few more matches to check his course. There are forks as well as turns, and John has only been this way once before. He starts down one fork, uncertain, and rats scatter out of his way. A few steps farther and he turns back. He sets down the other fork and no rats flee from his path, already frightened away before him. At the next fork, there are no animals present in either direction.

Following the sounds of water and the stench of filth, John presses on with his heart in his mouth alongside his gun. When his jaw aches, he gives in and pockets it for the sake of his light. Without a hand cupped around the flame, it goes right out. He berates himself with every step for not taking a lantern. If he has to fire, he’ll have to drop his matchbox or his match. Either way, he’ll soon be left in the dark. Any shot will have to count.

More echoes from ahead now, though those might be only his own, distorted by the tunnels. He sees it in this moment of doubt: a skid mark in the slime. Someone slipped here. And there, on the wall: the slide of a hand against the grime and mould. And there, ahead, even better: someone brushed his arm here. It’s metal, a metal bar in the wall, a strange and rusted feature in this tunnel of stone and brick and concrete.

A moment of peering at it explains the mystery. This was to be a gate. John passes through it and the tunnel widens immediately. No, not widens. It opens into a great chamber. He lifts his tiny light as high as he dares. To his right, a wide doorway set into the long wall. Before him, unknown space. To his left, the darkness looms even further. The stink fights its way into nostrils he’d thought desensitized.

He steps into the new chamber with an unexpected splash. Freezing water instantly floods into his shoes. He swears once, reflexively, and the curse echoes off wall and water until he might as well have shouted. The profanity drowns out the trickling and dripping of water. He tries to take a step forward but the water merely sloshes, well over his ankles.

The echo changes, distorts, a curse deformed into a laugh. Inexcusable seconds pass before John realises this is no trick of the tunnels but a true laugh at his expense.

“Look, my dear: we have a guest!”

Zucco’s voice echoes through the great chamber, bouncing off the walls until it might come from any direction at all. Knowing it can’t be from his right or behind him, John performs a quarter turn to his left, revolver aimed chest high into the darkness beyond the reach of his tiny, flickering light. He adjusts his fingers, the tips of them close to singed.

“I had hoped you would come,” Zucco continues, his voice dripping from a thousand sodden bricks. “I must say, you’ve made my night so much easier.”

“Let him go,” John speaks quietly into the dark. Their words mingle in the damp air, but John’s die first.

Zucco laughs. “The pet defends the master. How sweet!”

“John, run!”

The shout anchors John instantly. He pinpoints the source. Holmes is far, far to the left of the entrance John had used, and John would wager much that Zucco is close beside him.

“Let me see him,” John orders.

“Be my guest, Doctor. By all means, come closer.”

John’s match burns out. He drops it and the last red glow vanishes with a tiny hiss. “You didn’t come this far in the dark,” John says. “Light your lantern.”

“Hmmm... No. I don’t think I will.”

“Good,” John says. “The longer you keep standing there, the longer the police have to find the exits.”

Zucco giggles, a high-pitch noise doubtlessly calculated to disorient. It bounds off the ceiling and John looks up automatically before Zucco says, “No, I don’t think that will happen either.”

“If Holmes knows them, his brother does, and he’ll have told the police by now.”

“I’m sure he has. I’m also sure the police are just a bit busy with the great big fire upstairs.”

“You left a bomb in the opera house,” John half-assumes, half-realises.

“What, did you think I wouldn’t?” Zucco’s voice comes abruptly from John’s right. John fights down the urge to aim his gun on the far wall. “I’ll admit, it is a disappointment you keep surviving. You’re very annoying.”

“So’s arson.”

Zucco laughs as if delighted. Holmes remains silent.

“Holmes?” John calls. “Are you all right?” Is there a noose about his neck or a gun trained upon his back?

“Fine,” Holmes says, one word and one alone, regardless of how it echoes. John waits for more, aches for more, and then Holmes adds, “Don’t shoot. The curvature of the tunnel will cause a ricochet, and it’s not unheard of for bullets to bounce off of water.”

John doesn’t lower his revolver for a moment. “Zucco, let him go.”

“You can’t possibly believe that’s my real name.”

“I don’t care what your name is. Let him go.”

“Watson, go back,” Holmes instructs in a thin voice. “I have the situation under control. Go back.”

“Which does he have on you?” John asks. “Gun or knife?”

He hears a sharp inhalation and sloshes forward without thinking. The freezing damp splashes up to his knees.

“John, no! Go back. Exit the platform the same way you came in.”

Platform? John mouths. His eyes widen as he realises where he is, as he realises what the large archway on his right had been when he entered. That was the Underground tunnel itself, not another path for foot traffic. This is the loading platform. What John had mistaken for a great, rectangular room with a submerged floor is actually a great, rectangular room with a sudden, gaping drop hidden beneath black, glassy water.

Zucco needs Holmes to guide him out. Holmes will need light to guide him out. If Zucco has light, John can shoot him. As long as they remain in the dark, they remain stalemated—unless Zucco decides to hurt Holmes. Perhaps John can stall Zucco here until the police manage to track them down, but if there is a knife to Holmes’ back and ricochet is a danger, John’s not sure he wants to risk the police.

Considering all of these things, John makes his choice.

He shifts back toward the wall. He keeps his left hand out toward the wall. His fingertips find damp stone. If he glides his foot forward, still underwater, it still makes noise, but much less noise.

To cover the sound, he calls out, “What is your real name, then? You’ve burnt down my house and my workplace now—I’d like something in return.”

“Oh, I’m just Jim,” Zucco answers, his voice lilting rapidly into an Irish accent. “After all, I might let you live after this, for a bit. Be a shame to let you know.”

“O’Brien, Moriarty, or MacDonald,” Holmes rattles off. “The former owner, Mr O’Connell, had no legitimate children, but he did have an eye for Irish chorus girls. The moment they would begin to show, he would sack them.”

Zucco laughs. “Oh, good! And how long have you been working on that?”

“When I realised how strange it was for someone to seek revenge on a patron who swooped in and saved this opera house. The more I dug into the records, the more mismanagement I found. Mycroft paid your father off handsomely. More handsomely than he deserved, is that it?”

The longer Holmes keeps talking, the longer John has before his silence arouses suspicion or his voice gives his position away. The closer John creeps, the better an idea he gathers of where Zucco is. Not too much farther ahead. He hopes. He thinks.

“He drank himself to death with it before I could kill him,” Zucco explains, his tone bordering on conversational. Without warning, his honeyed voice breaks into a roar: “I had to go all the way to Australia!”

The shout echoes. Hand on the wall guiding him, John eases forward in the din. His hand finds metal, the bars of another gate, another barrier set into the wall.

“I imagine you were transported there easily enough,” Holmes quips. “Returning must have been the issue.”

“Oh, I hate boats, Mr Holmes.” Zucco’s voice laughs down at them from every angle. “For some reason, being on them is always absolute murder.”

Holmes grows very, very quiet. John’s sloshing turns abruptly audible. Faint, but audible. John keeps his breathing steady, free of gasps or cursing.

“You didn’t need to kill her,” Holmes says, voice low.

“Technically, I don’t need to kill anyone, but where’s the fun in that? Oh, no, no, no. Don’t be boring. I’ve only kept you alive because you’re not boring. You wouldn’t want to spoil that now, would you?”

A loud splash and Zucco laughs. Holmes hisses in the dark, presumably from having fetid water splashed at him, but the water and laughter echo wildly over him.

Under the cover of this noise, John sloshes forward to where he thinks Holmes is, revolver still aimed torso-high.

“A childish murderer, how quaint.”

Zucco splashes again, unexpectedly close, and the water smacks against John’s knees. “There he is!” Zucco shouts.

John turns toward his voice, turns and turns again, unable to see, unable to shoot, and then, with a rough scrape down the entirety of his face, a rope seizes about his neck. Zucco grunts and the rope drags John backward, banging him against a metal gate and pulling inexorably upward.

John grabs at the noose. The frantic splashing of his legs swallows the sound of his revolver dropping into the water. His back hits again against the gate, a metal bar above his head serving as a pulley.

“John!” Holmes shouts.

Red spots flare in the darkness, blooming inside John’s eyes. Forced high, straining on tiptoe, John chokes on his little remaining air. The rough rope digs into his neck as if set on burrowing through his skin to reach his very spine. Grabbing at the rope over his head only tightens the knot, but he realises this all too belatedly.

“We are going to discuss this very quickly, Mr Holmes,” Zucco states, cold and calm and another man entirely. “Same deal, new incentive.”

“John, stop thrashing!” Against Zucco’s chill, Holmes is heated panic, and John is all too willing to join him.

John grabs at the gate, tries to climb it, but Zucco takes out the slack as quickly as John can claim it. Each inch he climbs only creates a longer fall when his arms give out. His feet no longer brushing the floor, his arm on the gate giving out, John struggles to free the scissors from his inner coat pocket.

“Go on,” Zucco urges. “You can save him. It isn’t difficult.”

“Yes!” Holmes spits. “Yes, fine!”

Zucco adds a few inches of slack and John drops back into the water. He manages one rattling gasp before Zucco hauls the line tight once more. Just barely, John doesn’t drop the scissors.

“You do realise there’s a flaw in the plan now?” Zucco asks.

“Only one?” Holmes counters dryly. His returned poise gives John something to hold onto. His voice, even echoing as it does in the darkness, is a well-known comfort. Vernet in the dark. Always Vernet in the dark.

One miniscule sip of air at a time, John continues to breathe. Then, his hand shaking, he eases the scissors open and reaches above his head.

“The way out was worth the letter,” Zucco says, and John’s heart begins to pound even more wildly in his throat against the rope. He’d thought there was nothing incriminating in the letter. He’d made certain of it, or he’d thought he had. God, what if he hadn’t?

“Buy his freedom with my own,” Zucco continues. “A simple exchange. Now, what is the rest of his life worth to you?”

“If you want to stick me in a basement and force me to write for you, I can promise it won’t work. Believe me, I have tried that before.”

In the darkness there is the pause and impatient sigh of a man rolling his eyes. For that pause, John stops his slow, ineffectual sawing. “Your opera would say otherwise,” Zucco says.

“Dr Watson happens to be integral to my process. Therefore, strangling him to death would be counterproductive in the extreme.”

“Mm, I don’t think so. I will say, I did like the idea of hiding you away and letting your brother think you dead. Such a shame we have a witness now.” The rope tightens once more, and John digs the edge of the blade into the rope. “I don’t like that. I don’t like it at all, my dear.”

The blade catches, begins to pull down with John’s weight beneath it. He’ll shave the rope at this rate, not cut through it. He keeps trying anyway, straining for breath and knowing it will still come to nothing. Holding the scissors open means holding a blade and handle both in one hand, and the edge cuts into his skin.

Holmes steps forward.

“Ah, ah,” Zucco chides. “No. You stay where you are. I only need one hand for him. Unlike your precious soldier, I still have my gun.”

“You won’t shoot me,” Holmes says. He does not step forward again.

“I won’t want to shoot you,” Zucco allows. “I didn’t want to kill Miss Adler either, but I’m sure you understand there are simply some things an artist must do for his art. To destroy anything, you must take out its heart, do you understand? To destroy your opera house, remove Miss Adler. To destroy your brother? Here you are.”

“You don’t know my brother very well.”

Zucco tugs on the rope, jerking John higher and into an involuntary thrash. “I’m willing to take that risk.”

Zucco says something more, but John’s attention wanders as colours bloom into the dark, a rosy and violet swirl. Twitching, trembling, John’s arm tries to fall. His hand hurts. He might be bleeding, the blade in his palm. He thinks he’s bleeding. This is a terrible place for an open wound. Can’t get it wet. Infection.

Vernet’s voice in the dark. Holmes’. Theirs, his.

John’s arm fights to fall. His fingers twitch about the scissors.

Another tug on the rope and he feels it, he feels the tear, the pulling away. Relief hovers out of sight in the endless subterranean night.

“What’s this?” Zucco shouts into John’s haze. “What have you done now?”

John crashes to his knees. A wave of cold floods his trousers, startling him as close to consciousness as he can climb. Did the rope snap? A renewed tug on his neck answers this question in the negative. Zucco let him fall. Why...? To force him to stand anew or die in the attempt?

A hand finds his in the dark, his bleeding hand wrapped tight about the scissors. A hand smaller than his own, weaker than his own, and yet it pulls the scissors away from him with absolute ease. John’s arm falls and, once dropped, refuses to again be raised. The fingers of his other hand attempt without success to work their way beneath the noose. Tingling and uncoordinated, they’re far too large.

“A pair of scissors?” Zucco asks. “Really, Doctor? Ugh, you’ve bled all over them!” He tsks and pulls, and John staggers back to his feet, swinging and swaying. He hears the scissors snap shut. He hears the rapid splashes of movement. He hears these things without registering them, and then he falls back to the submerged floor, his knees blazing in pain against the tile.

Dazed, confused, lights pulsing before his eyes, John hugs his hand against his chest. Can’t get it wet. Infection. He remembers air almost as an afterthought. He pulls and fumbles, the pounding in his head almost overpowering the sounds of splashing, of thrashing.

Holmes, Zucco. Grappling. John tries to stand, tries to help, and can only continue to kneel. Even that, he only just manages. Water hits his face as the pair struggles, unseen.

Blackness looms behind darkness, a rounder, deceptively warm blackness against the cold dark. John keeps fumbling at the noose. He pulls the knot to the front, holds it beneath his chin, and manages to work it looser. Not loose, but looser.

Air. A sip of it. A mouthful in this vacuum.

Light blazes, a sudden burst of light between eye and eyelid, between John and utter blaskness. His head swims. His left hand, his non-bleeding hand, searches the water at his side. His fingers touch tile rather than his revolver.

A joint shout heralds a loud splash before him. Again, water strikes his face. He tightens his injured hand on his waistcoat. Gunpowder, he thinks sluggishly. His gunpowder will be wet. Can’t shoot. Can’t help.

Wobbling on his knees, sitting on his legs, he listens for the fight only to realise he can’t. He can’t hear it. Splashes echo, but only splashes, small ones now.

He is damnably slow to piece the sounds together: they’ve fallen. Off the platform, into the void. An occasional slap hits the water. John hears someone break the surface, hears a single, desperate gasp, and hears no more.

The gasp echoes, echoes, and dies.

Off the walls, off the arched ceiling, off the water, John’s harsh breathing returns to him, filling up his straining ears. His pounding heart hides any subtler sounds. He breathes and waits, body shaking, mind numb.

Inch by reluctant inch, he pulls the noose off his head. He looks to the water, to the gap between the platforms, although he can see nothing.

He hears it instead. The abrupt, flailing splash. The heaving gasp.

John sits and he shakes with shivers and strain, and he waits, noose in hand, to know which one it is.

“John...!”

John tosses him the noose. It falls short, pathetically so, but when John reaches for the other end of the rope, he feels it grow taut. The pulley effect of the metal gate is the only reason he has enough strength to act as ballast to Holmes.

“Are you all right?” Holmes demands. “Tell me, are you all right?”

Holmes crashes into him in the dark, his knee hitting John’s shoulder, and a wet slap of cloth hits John’s cheek. John frowns, utterly confused, only to realise what this is.

He begins to giggle.

He cannot stop. He cannot breathe, but he cannot stop.

Ice cold and dripping, Holmes’ hands go to his neck, to the sides of his face, and back to his neck. The spreading damp seeps into John’s collar. “Can you breathe? What’s wrong?”

In reply, John reaches up with a shaking hand and tugs at Holmes’ costume. The giggles continue.

At first stunned into silence, Holmes too begins to laugh. It’s a quiet sound, a nearly silent snicker. It is, without question, the most charming, most comforting, warmest sound Holmes has ever made, be it through voice or bow. John loves it utterly. There is nothing to do but to love it utterly.

“Suitably dramatic attire for being blackmailed by an arsonist,” Holmes says by means of explanation. “By which I mean, he didn’t let us stop and change. Greatcoats only, but I’m afraid mine is waterlogged at the moment.”

John rasps in his attempt to respond. He nods instead, but it comes out as more of a lolling than a deliberate nodding. It must, because Holmes holds his head still for him. John shudders involuntarily in the cold, clammy grip.

“Do you still have matches?” Holmes asks.

John nods again, his head shifting between Holmes’ palms. Holmes’ fingers curl against his scalp. John’s hand fumbles into his pocket. His matchbox is wet on one side, but, a minor miracle under the circumstances, the match heads all lie upon the other side.

His hands shake together, the right stinging terribly across the palm, and Holmes takes the matches from him when John fails to light them. Holmes strikes a match. The sudden light blazes between them, absolutely blinding. Even once John blinks his eyes clear, Holmes’ face remains half-shadow, rendered all the stranger by the remains of greasepaint and water.

John forces out his question in a rough mumble.

“I’m looking for it,” Holmes says, as if this is an answer. He hands John the matchbox and, the tiny light in one hand, gropes about beneath the water with the other. “Ah! Your revolver.”

John accepts it with a nod and somehow manages to pocket it. He repeats his question.

“He’s dead,” Holmes says, as if John couldn’t ascertain that for himself by the distinct lack of anyone else surfacing from the water.

John shakes his head. He tugs on the front of Holmes’ Roman uniform. The match goes out with a hiss as Holmes brings his ear to John’s mouth.

“Are you all right?” John manages.

Holmes pulls back and lights another match. He holds the flame higher this time, and John jerks his head back, squinting reflexively. Holmes peers at him oddly before stating, “I’m fine.”

“Didn’t hurt you?”

“Only threatened,” Holmes replies.

John nods, relieved and so abruptly drained. He could collapse on Holmes. He wants to. He wants to lie down. If this involved something other than putting his entire body in a freezing, dirty puddle, he would.

Holmes’ free hand returns to John’s shoulder. This is how John knows he was swaying. He only feels dizzy in hindsight.

“You’re bleeding,” Holmes says, as if this is a terrible and dire circumstance.

Letting go of his waistcoat, John shows Holmes his hand. Holmes brings the match near. It’s not that bad. Some stitching required. He wiggles his fingers, just in case, and they all respond. Not as well as they should, but none of him responds as well as it should.

Holmes touches John’s chest rather than his palm. “Is all the blood from your hand?”

Nearly falling forward, John nods. Holmes shifts accordingly. John sinks against Holmes’ side. He forces himself to keep his head up, to keep his airway open. Breathing is as sublime as it is exhausting.

The match burns out. Holmes doesn’t light another. All turns to quiet, two men breathing in the dark.

“We need to dry off,” Holmes whispers eventually. John may have fallen asleep on him, or perhaps he only drifted. “I’m freezing. Can you stand?”

“Letter,” John mumbles. “Blackmail?”

“What?”

“He said, a letter.”

“Still on his body, I’m afraid,” Holmes replies. “It should be quite illegible by now, or will be by the time anyone fishes him out. Come here, stand.” Somehow, they stagger onto their feet. John wraps an arm about Holmes’ shoulder. Holmes lights another match and finds his bearings. “I’ve no idea what you were thinking,” Holmes adds as they stagger off.

“What was thinking?”

“Writing anything down, let alone leaving it out in the open.”

In a newspaper, John doesn’t have time to correct.

“He was going to show it to the police if they caught him, you realise,” Holmes continues. “I could hardly take it back from him while at gunpoint, so I agreed to show him the way out in exchange for it.”

“Show them what?” John rasps.

Holmes groans. “Your letter!”

“Did he even let you read it?”

“I saw it! You used the envelope, you used my scarf pin--”

“And I wrote ‘sorry I shouted’.”

Holmes very nearly drops him. As it is, they stumble at the step into drier tunnels and Holmes has to light another match. “You wrote what?”

Blinking at both the flame and the question, John asks, “Did I need to write anything?” The materials had no significance to anyone but him and Holmes.

Holmes stares at him in the flickering, infinitesimal light. “You... He bluffed.” Holmes takes so long to process this that he singes his fingers. Another match lit, Holmes says in a tone of dull despair and possible apology, “I’m an idiot.”

John nods. The motion is at last enough to exhaust his neck. Spent, he drops his head on Holmes’ shoulder. Holmes gathers him tighter against his side.

“I’ll never write you anything incriminating,” John whispers with effort.

“But you will write to me.”

Pressed so close, a nod could be mistaken for a nuzzle. John risks the motion all the same.

Holmes breathes as if he has only now surfaced from beneath the water. “And...if I were to visit Mrs Hudson on occasion?”

“I’d like to talk about that without bombs above us,” John says. His cold arms must be frozen around Holmes’ torso. It will be difficult to drag Holmes to safety at this rate.

“Was he lying about that, too, I wonder...? I suppose the ambient temperature will tell us.” With that, Holmes resumes his slow, careful shuffling. He shivers against John, so terribly underdressed for anywhere outside of the hot stage lights.

Staggering, supporting one another, they force themselves through an endless journey. Hope reshapes echoes into more promising sounds. They are nearly at Holmes’ old rooms before any of those promises are fulfilled.

“Holmes! Dr Watson!”

“Here!” Holmes shouts. “Here, Inspector!”

Inspector Lestrade rounds the corner with a pair of lamps and three policemen. Flanked by Hopkins and his fire axe, Miss Hooper follows on their heels. Lestrade swears at the sight of them. Miss Hooper immediately says “I’ll fetch a blanket!” and vanishes with one of the lanterns. With a worried wave to John, Hopkins vanishes after her.

“What happened?” Inspector Lestrade asks.

“Self-defence,” Holmes responds. He presents John in his bloody waistcoat as if as evidence. John comes close to falling down.

Lestrade eyes the tunnel behind them for a moment. “Dead?” he asks John.

John nods.

Lestrade nods back. “Let’s get you both upstairs.”

“No bomb?” Holmes asks.

“A few fires, but we did have the brigade standing by,” Lestrade answers.

John very nearly collapses, perhaps with relief, perhaps with simple exhaustion, and Holmes clutches him upright.

One of the officers steps forward. “I can take him, sir.”

“Let Dr Watson have his pride, Sergeant,” Holmes snaps, renewing his grip on John all the tighter. His hold nevertheless remains weak.

“It’s all right,” John says. Frankly, he could be carried out at this point and not mind.

Holmes doesn’t move as John leaves his side. Inspector Lestrade moves instead and takes hold of Holmes.

“Mrs Hudson will want to see you when you recover,” John adds as the sergeant takes him by the arm. John droops against the officer despite his best efforts.

“I’ll stop by,” Holmes agrees, sagging against Lestrade. Relief rivals the exhaustion in his voice.

Dripping less and bleeding lighter, they continue on into the world above.

Chapter Text

For the sake of moving the summer heat, John opens the window to the London smog. He goes so far as to stick his head out, desperate for a bit of breeze. Beneath his waistcoat, his shirt sticks to his skin and pulls with each movement. Down on the pavement, Jamison waves up at him with a small, cheerful salute. John returns it before ducking back inside.

Walking away from the window, he shucks his cravat and collar and unbuttons his cuffs. Better. Off with the waistcoat. Better still.

“Yoo-hoo!” Mrs Hudson knocks on the door frame. “He was the last of the day, then?” she asks with a look to the discarded waistcoat on the armchair.

John resists the resulting urge to tidy. Instead, he simply says, “I’ve the afternoon off.” It’s by coincidence, not by design, but it is good to know he’ll have the evening free to celebrate or commiserate with Holmes, whichever is required. Private practice involves far fewer hours than the opera house demanded. He very nearly enjoys that now, but it might have something to do with his improved social life. John glances at the sofa and Mrs Hudson smiles.

“Oh, go on,” she says, taking a seat. “What’s the news?”

“You first. Any word?”

She shakes her head. “Nothing since the first telegram. As far as I know, the ‘child in progress’ is still in progress.”

“Perhaps Holmes simply isn’t allowed to send any further telegrams after writing that.”

Mrs Hudson laughs. “I wouldn’t put it past Mycroft.” She claps her hands on her lap. “Now you. How is everyone? Did you ask after Mr Johnson?”

“Sorry,” John says. “I knew I was forgetting someone. Next time, you ought to sit in and ask directly. There’s too many to keep track of.”

“I was going to, dear, but with Jamison...” She makes a pitying face.

“It wasn’t the unmentionables this time,” John says. Doctor-patient confidentiality only goes so far when everyone already knows.

“Oh, good,” Mrs Hudson says. “It’s about time something else was wrong with him. What about everyone else?”

Counting them off on his fingers, John talks about the theatre where Green is already chafing in his position as an assistant stage manager. Green will either supplant the stage manager soon or find yet another theatre. John mentions the bits he’s heard about the carpenters and the tiny snatches he knows of the seamstresses. Mrs Hudson keeps in touch with her favourite dancers on her own, and so John doesn’t attempt to tell her anything new on that front. Instead, he adds the bits he’s gleaned about the pit members from Miss Norton, as relayed by Clara. He doesn’t mention Clara’s most recent remarks as to how Miss Norton has been coping with her grief, but he knows Mrs Hudson can recognise fellow widows when she hears about them.

Rather than dwell on the renovation of the former opera house since its sale, he saves the best piece of news for last. “We’ll have another wedding to go to next year,” he reports. “It looks like Hopkins has followed Westy’s example.”

Though John had been pleasantly surprised, Mrs Hudson doesn’t bat an eye. Delighted, absolutely delighted, but not taken aback in the slightest. “It’s about time,” she says instead. “I was starting to think Hopkins would never ask Molly.”

John blinks a bit. “I thought it was only recent.”

Mrs Hudson’s face does something very kind, and very pitying. “John, dear,” she says, “you do miss these things sometimes.”

Adjusting his braces over his shoulders, John doesn’t try to deny it. “They’re planning on next June,” he says instead. “We might be invited, but I don’t know yet. I do still owe her that pair of scissors: she might hold it against me.”

They chat for a while longer, Mrs Hudson reminiscing about her wedding until John mentions a few details about his own. Only a knock at the door downstairs saves John from recollecting the entirety of it to her.

Despite her hip, she manages to rush to the window far more quickly than John could ever manage it.

“Telegram?” he asks, already halfway to the stairs. With Mrs Hudson home these days, she’s had little need for a maid, but it does mean John has to answer the door.

“A bit more than that.” She turns to look back at him. “He doesn’t waste any time, does he?”

“Christ, what’s he done now?” John joins her at the window. Together, they look down at the hot pavement and the impatient man upon it. More significantly, they look at the Saratoga trunk on the pavement and the violin case and folio in the man’s arms. Behind him, the empty growler pulls away into the street.

“Holmes!” John shouts down.

Holmes nods up at them. “Come help!”

John’s feet pound down the stairs much in the manner of his heart. He reaches the bottom, very nearly stumbles in taking hold of the door, and John’s mouth manages to say “Good afternoon” without any conscious prompting from his otherwise occupied mind.

The occupant of his mind—soon to be occupant of this building—stands framed in the doorway, a light flush across his otherwise pale cheeks. Sweat helps his hair escape from the confinement of pomade, each escaping curl hinting at the wealth of energy about to be unleashed. Though they have certainly tried these past months, no number of letters or telegrams could ever replicate the full effect of the man’s presence. The occasional dinner helped, but their time has been limited, restrained, and agonisingly public.

“You’re early,” John says.

Holmes arches one eyebrow. “Problem?”

John shakes his head and forces some moisture back into his mouth. “No.”

“Oh, oh, what’s that?” Mrs Hudson asks from above John’s shoulder, still on the stairs. Belatedly, John makes way for her.

“Rubbish,” Holmes replies. “Little more than nonsense I needed out of my head. It’s not finished, but you can read it.” He hands the folio to Mrs Hudson with great care despite his words. The violin case, he sets down inside the foyer rather than hand it to John. His voice leaps up to a polite tone as he says, “Watson, if you could assist me.”

John follows him outside and together they manage to lift the trunk. “I’ll walk backward. Better for the stairs.”

In they go and up they go, John holding low and Holmes holding high. Despite the tight fit, they manage to round the turn on the stairs without mishap. Their coordination only fumbles at the top of the stairs as John attempts to turn for the next flight. Holmes angles them elsewhere, and John laughs as he’s backed into his bedroom.

“No,” John tells him, though his grin undermines his words. “This is my room. You are upstairs.”

Holmes feigns utter confusion. “But I’ve always stayed down here in the past.” The slightest pout extends his bottom lip. “And this is very heavy.”

They set the trunk down in the gap between John’s bed and desk. John wipes his sweaty hands on his trousers. Holmes straightens, re-establishing his full height after being so stooped by the great weight.

“When we agreed on ‘after the baby is born,’ I didn’t think you meant ‘within three hours’,” John says.

“I am much too noisy,” Holmes says. Relaxed and private, his voice rumbles up from his chest. “My work entirely disturbs the mother’s much needed rest.”

“What a shame.”

“It truly is.”

“Mm,” John hums, his tongue attempting to moisten his dry lips.

Holmes hums back at him. The trunk between their feet is as good as a chasm. It had better be, or John will leap across it, open door or not. They stand in this way for a moment far more wordless than silent. Lips quirked, Holmes slips free of his summer jacket and tosses it on John’s bed. John takes in that sight before eyeing the open door with speculation.

A grin in his gaze and a flirt in his lips, Holmes unbuttons his collar. “Is it always so hot in here?”

“It’s even worse at night,” John replies in a tone of absolute seriousness. “Stay in here and I’ve no doubt you’ll be sleeping naked.”

A flush crawls up Holmes’ neck, but he doesn’t look away for an instant. His voice, however, leaps up attentively before settling. “Perhaps I ought to move upstairs and leave you the privilege.”

“I’m sure we’ll sort something out,” John says.

“I’m sure we will,” Holmes agrees.

“How, um.” John swallows. He taps his fingers against the back of his hand, his body having assumed parade rest for the occasion. “How long of an arrangement, do you think?”

Holmes pretends to calculate the answer. He pretends very obviously, and John nearly snatches up Holmes’ jacket to chuck it at his head.

“Boy or girl?” John asks.

Holmes grins. With his whole face, with his entire body, Holmes grins.

John’s mouth nearly breaks his cheeks returning the sentiment.

“They’ve decided to christen him after Father,” Holmes says. “Havelock, because we don’t have nearly enough absurd names in the family.”

“That’s...” John says.

“Yes,” says Holmes.

John clasps his hands behind his back, fingers nervously entwined. “Then you’ll be staying? For... ah.”

“For however long,” Holmes agrees. “Provided that’s--”

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.” Emphatic, he nods.

“Well,” Holmes says. “Good.”

“How, um...?” John gestures about the room.

“One of us upstairs, officially. Considering our relative positions, it does make more sense for you to take the upstairs room. Still, as we’ll initially present my living here as temporary, a case could be made for my being installed upstairs.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” John says. “Mrs Hudson has a lovely basement.”

Holmes glares at him. “The setting is secondary to the company, I’ve come to realise.”

“Then what was the folio you handed to Mrs Hudson?”

“Drivel.” Holmes waves a dismissive hand. “I told you, I needed it out of my head.”

“But what--”

“Would you bring up my violin?” Holmes asks. His eyes flick down John, eyeing a body startled into stillness, and, as if to confirm he truly means his permission, he nods.

“I... All right,” John says. They circle about the trunk as John exits the room, each twitching his hands away from the other. Descending the stairs, John tries to decide whether he expects Holmes to be placing his clothing in John’s closet or rummaging through John’s desk in search of their saved, shared correspondence. Holmes will want to see how creased each page is, how worn about the edges. Though hardly love letters in composition, they have been rendered such through their treatment.

Downstairs, John sees no sign of Mrs Hudson but hears a fair amount of giggling from the direction of her sitting room. He follows the noise and pokes his head in. “Mrs Hudson?”

Sitting with the score across her lap, Mrs Hudson looks up with a poorly suppressed smile. “Does he want it back now?” she asks. “It’s so delightfully silly.”

Eyebrows rising up to his forehead, John says, “No. Just wondered where you were off to.”

“I’m in here,” Mrs Hudson says, “and I plan to have a nice sit and a read while you boys get everything sorted.”

“Thank you,” John says and ducks out before the mortification can set in. With great care, he retrieves the violin case from the foyer. It’s far heavier than he’d assumed, a fitting incongruity. He carries it upstairs as he might a sleeping child.

As he draws near the top, he hears the distinct sounds of Holmes in motion. Almost tentative, he enters to find the trunk and his closet open. Gently, John sets the violin case down upon the foot of his bed, where he’d last seen Holmes’ jacket. He spots the garment, now hanging alongside one of his own.

Without turning to face him, Holmes straightens the hangers. His squared shoulders remain centred on the closet. Revealed to nearly the elbow by his rolled shirtsleeves, his forearms strike a pale contrast against the black hanging jackets.

John navigates around the trunk to reach his desk. He opens two of the drawers and begins shifting the contents of one into the other. When he looks up from his work, Holmes is already looking back at him. “Supposing you want a drawer,” John says. “Thought I might move this desk upstairs. I ought to move most of my things up.”

“Move them tomorrow,” Holmes says.

“I don’t mind. I don’t have that much.”

“I know,” Holmes says. He hangs another suit next to the first, slowly occupying the empty space John never did find the time to fill. “Move them tomorrow.”

In silent agreement, John watches him work, watches the fluid bending and folding and sorting. He looks for the rhythm, finds the patterns, and slips in as if to a stately dance. They find their balance, Holmes griping when John touches his socks but laughing outright when John promptly tosses his pants back into the trunk. It’s his small laugh, of course, the nearly silent chuckle behind the boyish grin.

It reminds John enough to ask, “What did Mrs Hudson find so funny in your libretto?”

“Oh, is she reading it?”

“Mm.”

Holmes shrugs, but there’s a touch of red to his ears. “It’s a farce. It’s meant to amuse. It’s far less likely to be declared a haunted work if the audience laughs.”

“A farce,” John repeats. “What language is it in? I didn’t think Mrs Hudson was fluent in Italian.”

Very pointedly, Holmes sets his socks in their correct order. “French.”

As realisation dawns, so does John’s grin. “You mean, it’s a French farce?”

“No, it’s a farce in French.”

“Is it a French farce?” John asks. “With mistaken identities and absurd disguises and everyone falling in love with everyone else?”

Holmes glowers at him. “It wouldn’t leave my head.”

“You wrote a bedroom farce,” John says, convinced and unrepentant. “Does it end with them happily living in sin?”

“Married, actually,” Holmes answers flatly. “It’s two acts of busywork, nothing more. Husband and wife attempt to cheat on each other at a masquerade ball and sleep with each other without realising it. They confess their guilt by the end of act two, the mistake comes unravelled, everyone laughs, and there it ends. It bears no resemblance to anything other than every farce to ever come before it.”

“I’m sure,” John says.

“You’re lying.”

“Not even very well,” John agrees.

Holmes rolls his eyes. “The husband is an Englishman named Clarence and his wife is Henriette.”

John’s grin freezes. His eyes struggle toward something strange and stinging, but John blinks it back as Holmes goes about unpacking. John searches for the appropriate words. There are none. He searches for them anyway.

“I need more space for my shirts,” Holmes complains.

Clearing his throat, John moves his own shirts to his desk chair. They’ll be fine there for the interim. He returns to the Saratoga trunk and checks for what little remains in the drawers inside. His hand touches something cool in the heat of the room, and his fingers twitch into a curl. He touches it again, a light brush of the knuckles. He lifts it.

“Sherlock,” he says.

Holmes turns. Their blue shifting into a wary grey, his eyes fall to the white porcelain in John’s hand. “Yes?” Holmes asks, his volume low, his pitch somewhere between low familiarity and high bluster.

“You do realise I was joking about the basement, don’t you?”

“It’s not for composing,” Holmes says.

“No?”

Holmes shakes his head.

John sets the mask delicately upon the violin case. Just as carefully, he says, “I’m sure your scarf is somewhere around here too.”

More visibly than before, Holmes’ chest rises and falls. “Window,” he whispers.

“...Right. Yes.” John pulls the curtains shut. Faint sunlight makes the journey through them, but only just. Behind him, Holmes closes the door. John turns around. Holmes’ legs devour the distance between them in three long strides.

John looks up at Holmes, at Holmes’ mouth and eyes and the smile between them both, and he opens his arms to better welcome a narrow chest against his own. Arms tight about each other’s shoulders, they simply hold on. Cheek against neck, they breathe. The solidity of Holmes is a remarkable thing. As is his cologne.

Slowly, they ease back. A heartbeat passes. Their breath mingles. Their noses touch.

John cups his hands about a neck unblemished by bruise or burn of rope. He leans up, and Holmes leans down. They lean into each other. Holmes’ mouth is warm and soft and all things longed for.

Low and deep, Holmes rumbles. The sensation tickles John’s lips and leaves them tingling, or perhaps that’s the sensation of an afternoon’s stubble. He searches to discover which but soon forgets what he was thinking about. Holmes’ mouth upon his neck is far more interesting. Then again, Holmes’ clavicle is even more interesting than that. The oppressive heat of the room makes full, sustained contact uncomfortable, but John has never been one to mind flushed skin beneath his lips.

John flatters himself that Holmes’ legs give way. Certainly, Holmes’ abrupt seat on the bed takes John delightfully by surprise.

“Careful,” Holmes cautions, one hand steadying the mask atop the violin case. The other hand draws John in by his braces. John leans in to kiss him, but though Holmes doesn’t stop pulling, Holmes similarly refuses to lie down.

“What the hell are you doing?” John giggles against his mouth.

“Sit on my lap.”

John laughs. “No.”

Holmes pouts.

“No lap sitting,” John tells him firmly.

“What if it were less sitting and more straddling?” Holmes proposes.

“Then you’re an idiot,” John says. “Or you haven’t done this since you were twenty, or both. Because,” he continues over Holmes’ forming protest, “my knees won’t allow that kind of nonsense.”

“Ah. Fine.” Holmes tugs John down to sit next to him instead. “Curse my love of older men,” he mutters against John’s mouth.

A braver man might have corrected Holmes to the singular form. Braver, or perhaps more insecure. John is perfectly content as he is, and happy enough to hear music besides. It takes him much too long a moment to realise that this is not simple association inside his mind, but an actual sound.

“What is that?” John asks.

“The music box I gave her for Christmas,” Holmes explains. “Mrs Hudson wants to know if she can interrupt.”

John can’t match his optimism. “Or we’re being too loud.”

Holmes hums in the negative. He slides his gaze down John’s chest as he ought to with his hand. “You’ve been very quiet.”

“So you’re saying you did nothing to be noisy about?”

Holmes simply looks at him.

John lifts his chin in a dare.

Holmes narrows his eyes.

Outside in the sitting room, the music stops. A short moment later, a waltz replaces it.

Between their mouths, the words later and yes and tonight whisper themselves without need for a voice. Two nearly imperceptible nods, and they do what they can to put each other back into the semblance of order. By the time John can count himself as confident, the waltz has nearly run its course.

John opens the door. Behind him, Holmes stows the mask away in their dresser. When they enter the sitting room, Mrs Hudson feigns playful surprise. She sits on the sofa, the music box on the coffee table before her.

“Everything sorted?” she asks.

“I’ll be moving my things upstairs,” John answers.

“Sherlock, do help him,” Mrs Hudson says. To John, she adds, “The floor is much better up there, you know. No creaking at all. No draughts either, very good walls.”

Very much catching her drift, John nods along.

“Excellent to know,” Holmes adds, appearing at John’s side. His presence doesn’t startle. The touch of his hand on the small of John’s back does. John looks up at him sharply, but Holmes’ gaze is on Mrs Hudson, and hers on Holmes.

“Oh,” says Mrs Hudson, her hands clasped in her lap like a girl’s. The sound is one of joy rather the realisation. “Oh...!” She stands and hugs them both together, her thin arms mustering all the strength of a disciplined ballerina. “You’ll be fighting before the week is out, but I don’t care!”

“Vigorously debating,” Holmes corrects.

John laughs despite himself and hugs her back as hard as he dares. His heart pounds on harder and faster than it ought, but a rush of affection soon fills the void left by nervousness. Holmes’ hand remains precisely where it is throughout the exchange, a light passenger along John’s spine.

Holmes drops his hand only when they move to the sofa, the gesture too much in sight of the windows. By unspoken agreement, they sit with knee against knee. Listening to Holmes speak of his new nephew to Mrs Hudson, John thinks it might take them as long as two weeks for an argument. Discussing logistics via letter has helped. Perhaps they’ll continue that practice. Perhaps John will only ever know what the hell has just happened by watching Holmes’ latest opera. Perhaps any number of things may happen.

For now, John sits comfortably in his home and listens to the rise and fall of a well-loved voice.