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a wise man's hell

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There are times, especially when a case has gone badly wrong, that the presence of Dr. John Watson can be absolutely intolerable to Holmes.

At these times, he knows himself to be the most abandoned creature on earth, beyond any excuse. Watson's resolute loyalty and indefatigable kindness have been the saving of Holmes, more than once. In truth, he is the finest man Holmes has ever known.

But Holmes had only been trying to economize on expenses when he had invited Watson to Baker Street. He had not sought out a paragon to install in his chambers and illuminate his own failings by contrast. Or—for that matter—to rummage surreptitiously through his belongings and keep careful note of the quantity of cocaine stored away.

Holmes had never lied to Watson about the drugs, after all. And he does not require a guardian. Or a doctor.

*

He steps from the narrow lane through the low door and immediately feels a relaxation that has nothing to do with the harshly-perfumed smoke that hangs in the air.

He must admit, he rather likes the opium den. It is one of the most honest places he knows in London. (Brothels might be the same. He would not know.) Not that its denizens are so very honest; a drug-fiend in the grip of his madness will say or do almost anything to get that which he requires. But the sight of them all together, ranged in bunks, open and shameless in their surrender to desire—that seems to speak more of the truth of the human condition than anything he sees in politer society.

It is the kind of place to which virtuous, respectable, upright John Watson would never, ever come.

Mr. Wu's expression does not change when Holmes informs him of his requirements. It has never occurred to Holmes to wonder what Wu thinks of him until now. Perhaps he does not care at all. Holmes has heard that the Chinese have words for foreigners that they use amongst themselves, none of them complimentary. He welcomes the thought of someone indifferent standing watch over his dallyings with self-destruction.

The room is pleasantly warm; the lodgings, appealingly shabby. Holmes removes his jacket and stretches out on the bed. The pipe will come soon. In the meantime, he looks at the low ceiling and wonders if this is what it is like to lie in a coffin.

*

The fog of opium is thick and sweet. Holmes dreams of his rooms at Cambridge. His ankle is injured, and Victor Trevor comes to see him, awkwardly and charmingly apologetic. Even the little bulldog who started the whole trouble seems somewhat abashed, and comes forward to nuzzle his hand. He is swimming in an unfamiliar element, and it threatens to dissolve him.

He should welcome dissolution, he has thought in the past, but this state is better than dissolution itself. It is the moment before, when one feels the tensions that lash together the consciousness loosen, hanging suspended at the edge of delicious oblivion without yet being lost in it. The very instant of relaxation, prolonged indefinitely.

Someone is speaking to him, or perhaps to another in the same room. Someone is removing his shirt, carefully, as if not to touch more of him than is necessary. Still, the touch feels infinitely tender.

It is of no moment; he does not care.

*

Some time later—even he does not know how much later—he becomes aware that Watson is in the room. His jacket is off and his sleeves turned up. Not realizing that Holmes can see him, he is gazing at him sorrowfully.

He should not be grieved. It's such a pity, and so unnecessary, with the pipe to hand.

"Watson," he begins to say, but his mouth is too dry.

Watson starts. "Holmes."

He takes a cup of water from the little table and offers it to Holmes, who sips to humor him. His thoughts are beginning to collect themselves again; he can once more apply his mind to a particular point; and thus it suddenly comes home to him that Watson has come.

Somehow Watson has followed him here, even here, and Holmes thinks that he might well be exasperated by it, if the opium were still not softening the edges of his world. Instead, he feels a suffusion of good-will at the man's loyalty. He must be sickened and horrified by the place in which he finds himself, but his hand is steady and his face gives no sign.

"There was no need for you to come, Watson," he says gently. "I know what I am about."

Watson looks around the low room. "Do you, Holmes?"

He nods. The opium makes a prickle under his skin, and he drags his hand along his chest, oddly unashamed. Watson's eyes track the gesture, and Holmes explains, "The opium causes a tingling under the skin. Quite distinctive. Nothing at all like heroin."

Watson winces. "And its effect on your faculties?"

"Just as desired, my dear Watson. Just as desired."

"It makes you happy, then?"

"Better still; it makes me indifferent."

Watson is still watching him closely. His face is coloring. "Is indifference truly what you desire, then?"

Reckless with the relaxation of the drug, Holmes almost says something he very much should not. He wonders, idly, how Watson would react; how he might stiffen and pale and draw away. He would blame it on the opium, no doubt, and, if Holmes were never to mention it again, might even "forgive" him for the hasty words.

So he lets the moment go, and says only, "Yes."

"Indifference is for the brute animals," Watson responds, suddenly heated. "You would be a lesser man if you did not care what became of that young lady. You should not seek to destroy your finest qualities because they pain you."

Holmes sighs. "The lady of the house will be here soon with another pipe, Watson. I would not pain you by having you witness an act of which you so disapprove."

"I wish our life made you happy," Watson said, as if he were speaking to himself. "I wish I had the power to comfort you."

He is speaking to himself, yes, but his eyes linger, still, on Holmes's exposed chest and throat. And time slows, even more, as Holmes works backwards from the signs—more than he'd recognized, before—to the conclusion.

Ah, doctor, he thinks, you have a weakness of your very own, that has drawn you to this wretched place, too.

The thought is almost as much of a rush as the pipe. The pipe, however, kindly makes its appearance on cue, in the hands of the younger Miss Wu. Watson sees it, and goes stiff and formal.

"Well, as it seems there is nothing for me to do here," he says, rising, "I shall be off."

"Watson," he says, letting his head drop back so that his throat is more visible, "do stay."

He does not pretend that he will be able to partake of more than one pleasure in these rooms, but the knowledge that he is not alone in his temptations will make the yielding all the sweeter.