For your reading pleasure, I’ve written new Sherlock fanfic. This is inspired by “The Sign of Three” and contains spoilers through that episode, so I’ll put what follows under a cut to spare unspoilt eyes
Title: Three-Quarter Time
Words: 2,395 + Notes
Rating: Teen for vaguest discussions of sex (nothing explicit)
Beta: Linda Hoyland
Summary: In which Sherlock teaches John to waltz and tries to adjust to the changing tempo of their relationship. Spoilers for S03E02.
Sherlock thrummed his fingers distractedly on the table, the poor excuse for tea cooling in the mug in front of him. “Harry?” he asked.
“New job in Edinburgh,” John’s voice informed him through the phone. “New life. I’ll be half-surprised if she turns up for the ceremony.”
“Stamford, then,” Sherlock suggested. “Surely he must have learned to dance before his own – ”
But John shook his head. “Anne’s a QA, or was. I met her once in Kandahar, actually, though I couldn’t place her in a crowd if not for Mike. He married her in the month before she was deployed – quiet family affair, from what he said. I’m sure he didn’t have time to learn.”
Sherlock mentally ran through a list of all the people they knew. Lestrade? Ridiculous; the man hardly knew his minuet from his Macarena, and in any event he wasn’t returning Sherlock’s texts. Molly? She did have the advantage of being female, but he had never told John about her role in the incident two years ago, and he wasn’t quite sure he trusted the two of them alone together. Did he and John really know so few people? “Mrs. Hudson?” he ventured at last, but shook his head almost immediately. That would be cruel; she would most likely insist that John stay for tea, and even Sherlock was not so daft as to subject a man planning his wedding to her tender mercies.
“Sherlock, you’re my best man.”
“I am well aware,” Sherlock said, schooling his face to keep his annoyance from showing. He knew all too well; the unwritten speech that role compelled him to deliver largely explained the bevy of linen swans now covering every available surface of 221B’s sitting room. “But you said nothing about dancing when I agreed to do it.”
John sighed. Not good, then; this was an honor, not a negotiation. “More to the point,” John continued, “you’re my best friend, and the poshest bloke I know.” He took a swig of his tea, giving Sherlock time to absorb those words. “If you’re not willing, I could sign up for lessons somewhere and learn the basic steps beside men I’ve never met before, but I thought if anyone – ”
“No,” Sherlock said, knowing his disgust at the very idea showed plainly on his face. “No. Of course.” Put like that, his reticence did seem more than a little odd. The fact that Sherlock had spent a lifetime hiding his love of dance so that the boys he thought of as friends (now he knew better, after John) would have one less reason to label him a freak – they’d cross that bridge when they came to it, if they ever did. John needed him.
He considered risking another sip of tea but opted for a cigarette instead. Technically illegal, but the café was deserted at this hour, and the proprietor could hardly object; sagging skin under the eyes, yellow stain around between forefinger and middle finger, clear signs of a longterm habit. He tried to avoid John’s frown but trusted he wouldn’t want to change the subject. Sherlock almost wished he would; in Krakow, cigarettes had been easier to come by than nicotine patches, less conspicuous, but why he hadn’t quit once back in London… Still, just now, he wanted the cigarette more.
“That won’t do at all,” he said at last. “And you are correct: I did learn the steps as a child. Drop by Baker Street when you’re passing and I’ll do what I can.”
John nodded, pointedly refusing to look at the cigarettes Sherlock held between his fingers. “Tonight?”
“No, I’ve a client. Tomorrow?” He took another long drag on his cigarette as John nodded agreement and, deciding not to press his luck unduly, stamped the cigarette out against his tea-saucer.
“I’ll bring a takeaway,” John volunteered. Sherlock suspected operant conditioning, a reward for putting out the cigarette, but he also found himself appreciating the thought.
“Curry.” Then, remembering a rather painful attempt to teach Mycroft the foxtrot, he added: “And bring soft-soled shoes.”
“One two three, two two three, three two three, four two – ”
“Sherlock,” John broke in, dropping his hand from Sherlock’s shoulder. “This isn’t working.”
Sherlock cocked an eyebrow, trying to work out what John meant. “I let you lead.”
“What?” John asked. “Of course you… you’re teaching me to lead, remember?” Shaking his head, he motioned over to the stereo “No, I meant the music. I can’t quite work myself past it.”
“You shouldn’t ‘work yourself past it’, you’re supposed to dance to it,” Sherlock pointed out. ‘And it’s only for a rehearsal, not your actual wedding.’
“But Tchaikovsky?” John insisted. “The Nutcracker, of all things? I feel about eight years old, listening to this piece.”
“‘The ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ is a highly respected waltz, John, and I dare you to find a more staid – boring, really, but suited to your purposes – rendition than the Berliner Philharmoniker. The fact that you imagine it played out by a march of wooden soldiers – ”
“Nutcrackers,” John corrected. “Fairies, actually.” He sighed. “That doesn’t matter. The only thing I know about Tchaikovsky’s ballet is that my parents insisted on taking Harry and me to see it year after year, for reasons beyond me, and for much more understandable ones, Harry would pass the time throwing scraps of paper at the back of my head. Can’t you find something else?”
“Next time,” Sherlock said dismissively as he placed John’s hand back on his shoulder. “You’re doing well, but your steps forward sometimes go wide. Look at my feet and aim for the place I step back from.” Listening to the music to catch the beat again, he began tapping it out against John’s shoulder. “Wait two three, wait two three, wait two three, now two three.”
John’s steps were much less clumsy this time. Mechanical, perhaps, but that had been the whole point of choosing the Tchaikovsky. He could almost feel the reliable rhythm of a military march, altered to accommodate the three-quarter time of the waltz but undeniable all the same. Was that just the Tchaikovsky, then, or would John be this mechanical no matter what the tune? There was that not good again. “You’re not marching on parade,” he said. “You’re celebrating your marriage to the woman you love. Presenting her as your wife to your friends and hers. Smile.” Sherlock recalled the recent case at Aspley House, and the ridiculous guard’s-hat he’d worn so as not to call attention to himself. “Or do you prefer marching? Perhaps Bainbridge could loan you his hat for the occasion.”
“Don’t mention the unsolved ones,” John chastised, but Sherlock caught the way his lips twitched in a badly-suppressed smile. His steps eased into something more resembling a natural cadence. That was good for a start, at least.
Sherlock looked pointedly at where John held his arm. “Your hand’s slipping,” he said. “Let your thumb and forefinger rest two inches from my elbow, as near as you can manage.” On they danced, for ten more bars until Sherlock felt John begin tense again. Very well; if instructions wouldn’t work, he would try for humor. “Shall I twirl you?”
John grinned widely at that, a smile Sherlock hadn’t seen in entirely too long, and his overly tight grip on Sherlock’s arm eased a little. Sherlock’s thumb still gently traced the path a conductor’s baton might make, but it was more half-conscious habit than guidance; just now, John hardly needed it. On his shoulder, John’s hand seemed more like a caress than the deadweight it had been earlier: more like the steady warmth he’d come to rely on in those years before St. Bart’s, which wisdom told Sherlock not to count on again as a steady companion, but which he was more than willing to welcome when it made its appearance. “One two three, two two three,” John repeated to himself, his breath almost dancing across Sherlock’s cheeks in a tantalizing facsimile of affection. Could it be genuine, even now? “Three two three, four two – ”
Behind them a door creaked, and Sherlock let his hand drop from John’s shoulder as Mrs. Hudson stepped into the room. “Yoo-hoo,” she called in her sing-song voice. Taking in the scene before her, she smirked to herself. “Shame on you, Doctor Watson,” she said in mock-seriousness “Lying to me like that, after all we’ve been through. ”
John blinked at that. “Lying?” If John couldn’t see it, however, Sherlock certainly could: the high color of John’s cheeks and the smile still ghosting across his lips; the way Sherlock had broken contact so quickly on her arrival. John would be married in three weeks’ time and was honorable to a fault; Mrs. Hudson couldn’t possibly think they’d actually been doing anything improper. But confirmation bias was a powerful urge, Sherlock knew, and he could easily see how she might see signs of a past relationship that transcended the platonic.
Sherlock couldn’t quite let the opportunity pass. “He’s not actually gay, you know.”
John looked down at his hand placed almost lovingly at his arm and let go. “I’m really not – oh, sod it. Sherlock was teaching me to waltz, for my first dance with Mary. Who will be my wife.”
Mrs. Hudson set down the Tesco’s carrier bags inside the door. “It takes all sorts, dear. Give a thought to Mary, though.” Turning to Sherlock, she added, “I’ll leave you boys to it, but there’s frozen potatoes in the second bag. Do put them away before they thaw.”
Once she’d left John sank into the chair Sherlock still thought of as his, ran his hands distractedly through his hair, and laughed. Not just laughed; he giggled. “That was ridiculous.”
Of a sudden Sherlock remembered a race across the rooftops of London after a suspected serial killer, the “Welcome to London,” and the return to Baker Street, the adrenaline and sheer joy he now recognized as the natural consequence of having someone at his side. Not just someone but this someone. Mrs. Hudson’s earlier words, of how marriage changed everything, clanged around his head. Turning the stereo off, he took his own seat. “The most ridiculous thing you’ve ever done?” he asked.
“Hardly,” John said. “Even that night hardly makes the top ten, these days. The Geek Interpreter, that hiker and the boomerang, to say nothing of the helicopter ride to Buckingham Palace and you turning up in your bedsheets.” He pressed his lips together, for some reason dedicated to keeping a rein on himself, before giving up the pretense and rolling his head back against the chair, laughing. “To say nothing of that damned collar you wore to Irene Adler’s house… Tonight, though. Tonight I’ll remember.”
Those should be happy memories, Sherlock thought, but somehow each mention struck him like a body-blow. Between the clinic and his new wife, John would surely have even less time for what were increasingly becoming Sherlock’s cases than he did now, and even that was too little. Would he truly put himself in harm’s way? Would Mary encourage him, even allow him? Sherlock could scarcely imagine it. He understood why John thought it ridiculous, that after all the denials and the dates and now the coming wedding, something so innocent as a dance lesson might strike Mrs. Hudson as proof positive that they hadn’t needed the extra bedroom after all.
It was ridiculous: ridiculous to think that a shared bed could bring him closer to John than seeing him kill for him, and be willing to die for him, and then for John to see his way past both St. Bart’s and those thoughtless first apologies. Such a love might be different, but it could hardly be closer. Could it? Sherlock realized what an idiot he’d been on that point. Brain the size of a planet, perhaps (a line from some book John liked to quote at him; he’d never read it) but he could be thoroughly daft about the things that truly mattered. It might have precluded John building a new life with Mary. What room would be left for him in three weeks’ time? John took so naturally to the straight two-beat march, but Sherlock guessed he would always struggle with three-quarter time.
“Sherlock, when did the cigarettes start?” John was looking down at the ashtray he’d stolen from Buckingham Palace, the residue of old cigarette-ash lining its side.
“The Mayans,” he answered cheekily. And falsely; Mayans were cigars, with cigarettes coming much later. But he knew that was hardly John’s point, and deciding subterfuge was a foolhardy tactic just now, he fell back on the story he’d devised at the café. “Krakow. Easier to come by than nicotine patches.”
“And why haven’t you quit again? Have you tried?”
“I’ve been a little preoccupied,” Sherlock answered. “I have a friend, a best friend, getting married. Perhaps you’ve heard?”
John pressed his lips together again, this time more seriously. A grimace. “I wish you’d try.”
Sherlock nodded at that, promising he would manage it by the wedding. And he would. It seemed a small thing, the very definition of trivia in light of that deadline. Still, John had asked, so Sherlock would manage it. They settled into an amiable silence and after a while Sherlock went into the kitchen to put away the groceries and put the kettle on for tea.
When he came back with the tray loaded with the tea service (so John could prepare his own cup; penance for Baskerville transmuted into habit), he smiled gently to himself. John sat reading the paper but with his free hand he traced out the path of the conductor’s baton with his forefinger. One two three, two two three. His left foot moved through the air where it was propped up on the ottoman, walking through the foot motions he and John had practiced. It was awkward, still, but improving. He might take to three-quarter time yet.
Perhaps not. Probably not. And Sherlock knew that even if he did, the metaphor his mind had strung together was something else entirely. He could see the difference between learning to waltz and balancing a wife and a friend as well as anyone. Still, just this once and until he was proven wrong, Sherlock would choose hope.
Besides, two-four was dull.
My thanks to Linda Hoyland for the beta.
This story is inspired by the above moment at the end of “The Sign of Three” (Sherlock BBC S03E2). Some moments simply demand elabortion. The story contains an almost excessive number of quotes and references to dialogue from TSOT and earlier Sherlock episodes, for which I have relied upon Ariane DeVere’s transcripts.
While I enjoy reading Johnlock fiction, I wanted this story to fit as tightly as possible within the BBC canon so I’ve opted for gen rather than slash. That said, I’ve tried to make clear how definitive a role this friendship might play in John’s life and how functionally similar that could be to a romance. The friendship may survive, but I believe John’s marriage will change things between him and Sherlock in substantive ways that Sherlock couldn’t help but feel as a loss, even if he’s glad for John’s happiness. However you view their relationship, I do hope you think this story does justice to the shift our boys have to navigate at this juncture.
For those without musical training, three-quarters and two-four refer to the number of notes in each bar, a basic unit of the song that in many cases establishes its basic tempo and rhythm. Songs with a two-four signature have two quarter notes (or four eighth notes) per bar, lending themselves to a left-right walking beat. Because of this, many marches are in two-four, such as Franz Schubert’s Military March. Three-quarters lends itself to the more lilting rhythm of a waltz, including the iconic Tchaikovsky piece as well as Sherlock’s composition.