Watson returned to Baker Street at a quarter to five, through streets sliding into shadow as the public lamp-lighters made their rounds. Holmes was not in their shared sitting room, nor was he in his bedroom.
Mrs Hudson had prepared a mutton pie for their supper, and Watson waited for some time, hoping that Holmes would return from his excursion, but to no avail. Holmes had been out since early afternoon, Mrs Hudson said. He had left abruptly with no message as to his plans for the evening meal, after a prolonged session playing the violin.
“He were torturing that poor instrument, Doctor. Worst I ever heard,” she confided to Watson. “Sounded like cats were fighting upstairs.”
“Ah,” said Watson, biting his lip. “That’s…never a good sign, is it?”
Mrs Hudson frowned and shook her head. “No, indeed. Mr Holmes has been troubled ever since…well, you know, Doctor.”
She trailed off, and Watson nodded. He did indeed know.
It had not seemed an important case at first, and would never feature in Watson’s literary efforts. All cases were intrinsically interesting of course or Holmes would not trouble himself with them, but when the outcome was bad, the last thing Watson wanted was to furnish any further reminders of failure and tragedy, grist for Holmes’ bouts of self-flagellation. Sadly, another of these melancholic involutions seemed to be underway, despite Watson’s best efforts to distract his friend.
Diverting his attention with the pleasures of the flesh had proved singularly ineffective, Watson thought, grimly, pacing the sitting room and fretting about Holmes’ absence. Holmes had engaged in the act mechanically but had remained inward-focussed, distracted. After a couple of unsatisfying bouts, Watson had desisted, deciding to let time heal what he, apparently, could not. He hated it when Holmes shut him out, but accepted that sometimes his friend could not accept help from others, even from John Watson.
It was a week since they had discovered Marguerite Frobisher’s lifeless body, dead by her own hand in the shabby rooms she had rented while consulting Holmes about her uncle’s attempts to deprive her of her inheritance. Had it been murder by the much-maligned uncle, Holmes would have been less affected. Give him clear-cut case, a villain to apprehend and bring to justice, and he was more able to tolerate life’s vicissitudes. But no, they had talked with the uncle and with Marguerite’s brother and sister and the family solicitor, and when all the evidence was collected it was clear that the poor girl was deluded. Her sister said that she had become increasingly paranoid after being jilted by her fiancé the previous year, and they were at their wits’ end. No remedies from the family doctor had assisted and incarceration in an asylum looked unavoidable. A sad case, made worse when Marguerite had reacted so vehemently to Holmes’ gentle explanation that he could find no case against her uncle or any of her relatives. The distraught young woman had left Baker Street in a rage, and the next day they were called to her rooms by Lestrade, to find that she had exsanguinated after taking a fruit knife to her wrists. She had left a brief note accusing Holmes: “You have betrayed me, as have all my erstwhile family”.
Holmes of course took this to heart and blamed himself, wondering aloud whether he should have humoured her, or broken the news to her in some other way. Watson had tried to remonstrate with him, saying that Marguerite had been quite irrational and would probably have acted to harm herself no matter what they did. It made little difference. Holmes sank into introspective gloom and surreptitious checks on his cache told Watson that he was using the cocaine again, every day. At least, thank Christ, he had not yet resorted to morphine.
It was the nature of the girl’s death that most troubled Watson. His friend had in the past come close to taking that final step himself, and although he had assured Watson that he would not abandon him, would not commit that final betrayal, still, at times like these, Watson was gripped by anxiety.
He paced and fretted and finally, feeling that if he remained indoors for a second longer he would explode like a grenade, put on his coat and hat and went out into the night.
Two blocks along the cold, damp pavement Watson came to his senses. There was no point in wandering aimlessly; Holmes would not be discovered this way. Watson stopped short, and removed his hat, rubbing his forehead in vexation. He had just resolved to return to their rooms when a dark shape flitted out of a nearby alleyway.
Watson gripped his swordstick, but the shadowy figure was too small to be a threat. Was it? Yes, it was Norris, one of the Irregulars and something of a lieutenant to Wiggins, their leader.
“Is that you, Norris?”
“Aye, guv’nor, I was comin’ for you. Wiggins sent me.”
“Wiggins? But why?”
“We ’ad news of Mr ’olmes, sir. One o’ them Chinee from Limehouse put the word out.”
“Holmes? You know of his whereabouts? You must tell me at once, for I am gravely concerned.”
“I’m to show you the way, guv’nor, Wiggins said.”
“Right then, find us a hansom, there’s a good lad.”
The street urchin ran off and returned soon after with a cabbie clopping along in tow. The driver had not allowed the boy into his cab, understandably, but Watson explained that Norris was required to guide them, and smoothed the way with a tip. They both clambered up into the hansom and Norris pointed them towards the Limehouse district.
They finally drew to a halt in a narrow, twisting street, little more than an alley. There was a foul stench of rot laced with something exotic, and the air was damp and misty from the nearby Thames. Watson paid off the driver, who refused to wait.
Wiggins was leaning against the soot-encrusted wall, half hidden in shadow. He stepped forward. “Evenin’, Doctor.”
“Wiggins – you have news of Mr Holmes?”
“Aye, sir, I reckon so. The owner of this ’ere establishment is a Chinee, name of Wu. ’E owes Mr ’olmes a favour and he put word out on the street that Mr ’olmes was in ’ere and in need of ’elp. So I sent Norris to fetch you.”
“You did very well. I can manage from here, Wiggins, but I am most indebted to you.” Watson pressed some silver into the lad’s grubby hand, and stilled the inevitable protest. “No, no. I will not need further assistance, I promise. Get yourselves in out of the cold night as quickly as you may.”
He knew the boys were curious and would cheerfully have accompanied him, but it was not a case with which they could assist, not a suitable adventure. He did not want them seeing what lay within, neither the sordid ranks of wasted addicts nor Holmes among them, likely in a state of drugged stupor by this time. Watson reflected bitterly that his relief that Holmes had eschewed morphine in favour of his more usual cocaine had been sadly premature. He turned to the dark steps leading down from the narrow archway and steeled himself, trying not to let his overactive imagination call up notions of Orpheus descending into Hades to seek Eurydice.
Feeling his way down the steps in the near-dark, Watson came to an ill-lit antechamber where a tall, thin oriental dressed in a long, dark blue coat with a high collar was waiting. The man bowed his head.
Watson nodded in return. “Mr Wu?”
“I am Wu.” The man eyed Watson impassively. “You are here for Mr Holmes?” Incongruously, he had only a slight accent. Indeed, he sounded to have had some education.
“I am. Is he…” Watson paused, unsure what to ask, “…in a fit state to accompany me to our home?”
Wu pursed his lips and frowned. “He is unharmed, but sleeping. He has had two pipes.” He cast a sharp look at Watson. “He sought oblivion and we provided it. I owe him a debt, however, as he brought the killer of my sister’s husband to justice some years ago. It would do his reputation no good to be found here, so I had him placed in a private room, and sent for you.”
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness,” said Watson, bowing his head in turn. “May I see him?”
Wu turned on his heel and led Watson past a door beyond which lay glimpses of bodies curled insensible on mattresses. Watson shuddered. They paused by a door at the passageway’s end, and Wu pushed it open. Inside, an elderly Chinese woman squatted against the wall. The room was small, warmed by a brazier and lit, barely, by a single gas lamp. A grimy window high in the wall opened onto the river. A heap of quilts formed a low bed at one side, and Holmes lay there, pale and immobile in his shirtsleeves. His hair fell lank across his brow, and his collar was half detached.
Watson gave a low cry and knelt beside his friend, taking his pulse and rolling up an eyelid to check the reaction. Thank God, he was merely sleeping, and indeed protested Watson’s attentions with a slurred moan, trying to roll away. Watson shook Holmes’ shoulder, attempting to rouse him, but he had lapsed back into a stupor and did not stir again.
“You will not get a hansom to stop here at this hour,” murmured Wu, who had remained by the door. “He will awaken by dawn, when the streets will still be quiet.”
“I shall stay with him,” said Watson, firmly.
“As you wish.” Wu inclined his head again. “As I said, my family owes Mr Holmes a debt. There will be no charge for the pipes, and we will bring you tea.” He leaned down to the old woman and snapped out an order in the rapid-fire language Watson had heard at the bedside of his rare Chinese patients. The woman scurried away down the passage.
“Thank you. I…I am grateful for your help.” Watson turned back to Holmes, feeling again for the beat of blood beneath his ear. It was reassuringly steady.
“He may feel unwell when he wakes. I will have a bowl brought, and water, should you need it.”
Watson nodded, and smiled politely, privately thinking that although he would wash Holmes in water from a pump in this district, neither of them would be drinking it. The tea would suffice. Wu bowed again and backed away, out the doorway.
Holmes was sweaty, so Watson took the towel and a bowl of warm water provided by the servant woman on her return, and wiped his face and neck. The tea, a good-sized pot with two small porcelain cups, had been placed on a low bamboo table. As soon as they were left alone, Watson turned the key in the lock and stretched out on the bed beside Holmes. He took his friend’s limp hand and brushed back a lock of hair.
“Idiot,” he muttered. Holmes remained insensible. Watson sighed, and fought back a yawn. He must not fall asleep himself, not with Holmes in this state.
He poured himself a cup of the fragrant tea in an attempt to stay alert. The room was, thank goodness, relatively clean, and smelled largely of the musty rugs covering the floor, and of incense. An altar of some sort was against the far wall, but Watson did not examine it closely.
He decided to make his friend more comfortable, unbuttoning his shirt and then, finding it damp with sweat, removing it to air and sponging Holmes down with the towel. He was very pale, his chest moving almost imperceptibly with shallow respirations. Watson checked his pulse again: still strong. It was warm and stuffy, so Watson removed his own coat and shoes, draping the clothing over a battered screen in the corner.
He fought sleep for an hour, checking on Holmes regularly, and sipping at the tea. Finally, Holmes groaned and shifted, swallowing with difficulty. His eyelids fluttered.
“Sit up a little,” murmured Watson, bringing a cup of tea to his lips. Holmes swallowed, then opened his eyes a little, brow creasing in confusion.
“Watson? What are you…?”
“Hush, I’ve been watching over you. Not that you deserve it. Of all the foolish…”
Holmes lay quiet on the pillow, gazing up at him with heavy-lidded eyes. “How did you find me?”
“I’d like to say I deduced your whereabouts, but no. Wu was concerned, he sent for me. The Irregulars helped.” Holmes frowned and Watson laid a hand on his arm. “No, no-one saw you in this state, only me. And Wu and the staff here, of course, but I’ll wager they’ve seen far worse.” Watson felt Holmes’ forehead: it was cool and a little clammy. “How do you feel?”
Holmes shut his eyes again. “Peaceful. S’like a dream.” He lifted a languid hand and scratched idly at his chest, stretching like a cat. “A better dream, now that you’re here.”
“Flattery will get you absolutely nowhere,” Watson lied, colouring a little. He was, in fact, fascinated to see Holmes in this relaxed, uninhibited state. Fascinated and horrified: it was so unlike his friend’s usual tight control. His sharp mind and lean body generally emanated a sense of tightly-wound energy, of banked tension. Now, he was boneless and drowsy. Dissipated, thought Watson, grasping the term’s true meaning for the first time.
“Odd stuff, opium,” murmured Holmes, eyes still closed. “Not at all like morphine. Makes my skin itch, but everything feels…good, ’specially scratching.” He ran a hand slowly down his chest. His fingers curled and splayed, curled and splayed, like a cat, kneading.
Watson swallowed. Christ. He lay on one elbow alongside Holmes, reaching up to run a hand through his hair, combing it with his fingers. Holmes’ mouth opened and he pressed up into the caress. Watson scratched his scalp and Holmes moaned, shivering pleasurably. Watson bent down and licked along his lips. They tasted bitter but still of Holmes, who opened his mouth and let Watson in, whimpering in the back of his throat as Watson pushed his tongue inside, rolling on top of Holmes and holding his face in both hands as he kissed him deeply.
Holmes was never this passive, this open. It stirred something fierce in Watson, partly the anger he still felt, partly a primitive response to Holmes’ drowsy submission. Watson bit his way down Holmes’ neck, tasting sweat, and again, something bitter. Holmes arched, offering himself with a moan. His hands fluttered weakly on the quilts. Watson was overcome by the helpless sensuality, filled with the need to set his mouth to every part of that narrow, perfect chest, small nipples firming under his lips as Holmes writhed lazily.
“S’good…” Holmes stretched his arms back above his head, and lifted his hips. His eyes were closed, face blissful. “Please…” he slurred, “please…want your mouth…”
Watson buried his face in Holmes’ belly and thrust his hand into his groin, pressing the heel of his palm against his cock. Dear God, he might not survive this. With trembling fingers he undid Holmes’ trousers and removed them, then his underwear and socks. Holmes immediately let his legs fall open. His cock was half hard.
Scrambling to his feet, Watson struggled to divest himself of the rest of his clothing. Turning back to the bed, he found Holmes was caressing his own cock with loose, lazy pulls, hips rising a little with each stroke. His eyes were still closed and his legs were splayed open, one languid arm bent up behind his head. Watson swallowed a groan and fell to his knees, straddling him, brushing away Holmes’ fingers. He took both their cocks in hand and stroked them together, feeling the slickness as he rubbed his thumb across Holmes’ glans, then his own. Holmes made a wordless noise, stretching both arms back above his head again, and arching up off the bed.
“Johhn…” Holmes whispered on an exhalation. “Please…put your mouth on me…”
“Oh God,” said Watson brokenly, and fell on him, sliding the now-hard cock into his mouth and moaning around it as Holmes writhed and whimpered. He sucked hungrily, rubbing his tongue against the vein along the underside and sliding his hand in between Holmes’ legs to cradle his balls and stroke further back, teasing the puckered opening. Usually it was tight and required careful preparation, but tonight Watson found his finger sliding into that hot, sweet passage with no resistance. They both moaned, and Holmes arched up off the bed again and spent in his mouth, cock spurting against Watson’s lips and dripping onto his stomach as he mouthed the head, licking Holmes through his climax. Bitter and musky, like the taste of opium in his mouth.
Watson slicked his fingers on Holmes’ belly, and used his other hand to raise his thigh. As he slid wet fingers inside, a slurred whisper trickled down from where Holmes had thrown an arm across his face.
“For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk th’ milk of Paradise.” Holmes lapsed back into unconsciousness, his face soft.
Watson lifted Holmes’ completely limp legs and folded him back upon himself. Amazing how relaxed he was, a distant part of his brain marvelled. He slicked himself up with more semen and pressed inside. Holmes opened around him and he sank in so deeply that for a moment he thought the hot, welcoming slide would go on forever. The breath left his body in a gasping rush.
“I doubt…Coleridge…meant that by the ‘milk of Paradise’” he rasped, then his brain shut down entirely and he gave way to the urgent need to thrust, and again to thrust, deeper, faster, God and yes, harder and more, because Holmes was so open, so pliant, just taking it, lying there so loose and soft and sleepy and yesyesyes, oh Jesus, yes. Watson spasmed, hips jerking wildly as pleasure slammed up from his knees and consumed him.
Some hours later they awoke. Watson pushed back some quilts and retrieved his pocket watch to check the time by the dim, flickering gaslight. Half past five.
They finished their tea, and Watson cleaned Holmes carefully, dipping the towel into the bowl of water. Holmes watched him calmly, no longer near-comatose but still unusually quiet.
Watson set the bowl aside and eased himself in beside Holmes, bending down to kiss him. Still a faint bitterness, but of over-brewed tea, not the drug.
“Are you through the worst?” he asked, eyeing Holmes’s pale, relaxed face.
“Yes, I am significantly more at peace with the world, thanks to you. I am sorry to have frightened you, Watson.” Holmes put a hand up and caressed Watson’s cheek, apologetic.
“I am in no position to claim moral superiority,” murmured Watson, closing his eyelids as Holmes’ fingers brushed across them. “I took shameful advantage of your impaired state last night. You were just so…” He stared down at Holmes, who smiled wickedly and stretched, still catlike, still so tempting. “Yes, that. Do not push me beyond my limits, or I will be forced to ravish you again and we will never escape this less than salubrious establishment. I want to go home, Holmes.”
“And so we shall.” Holmes pulled him in for a kiss then got up, retrieving their scattered clothing and dusting it off. They dressed, then slipped out past the room of sleepers, where braziers still burned and pipes glowed here and there. The sweet, mousy stench of opium was thick around them and Watson was suddenly desperate to escape into the open air.
Despite the early hour, Mr Wu was waiting at the foot of the stairs. Holmes drew him aside, speaking softly, and something changed hands. Then they were up the narrow steps and emerging into the grimy alley. It was not fresh, but in contrast to the foetid den below, the London air smelled to Watson like the seaside. He inhaled deeply as they walked to the nearest hansom rank.
In the cab, Watson turned to Holmes. “What were you doing with Wu, by the stairs?”
Holmes extracted a paper-wrapped lump from his pocket. “Buying this. Opium.” He gazed evenly at Watson. “I will need it again at some point, we both know it. Next time, we can at least be degenerate in the comfort of our own home. It works well, taken orally. Is there really any difference between this and the laudanum freely prescribed by doctors for the ills of society?”
Watson glowered at him. “I prescribe very little laudanum on such grounds. Only for pain.”
“Yes, precisely,” said Holmes.