The Greek Problem
By Candle Beck
The man in the blue waistcoat levelled the revolver at Holmes's face, and all Watson thought was, here we are again.
Holmes said, "Am I meant to be frightened?"
The man cocked his weapon, hard sound like fingerbones snapping. Watson twitched, standing in a puddle in this filthy alley and ruining his shoes. He eyed the distance separating him from the man in the blue waistcoat, the steady line of his raised arm. Watson needed at most two seconds of distraction.
"Aye, if you're as smart as they say," the man said. "You're near the gates of Hell, Holmes, I know you can feel it."
"You know nothing," Holmes replied, sounding almost bored. Watson smothered a powerful urge to throttle him.
The man in the blue waistcoat stepped forward and set the barrel of the revolver against Holmes's forehead. A breath stuck in Watson's lungs, a moment that felt bizarrely like awe. He wasn't close enough anymore. Holmes's eyes darted over to Watson, catching his gaze like a bolt of light in the dim, and Watson read adrenaline and calculation, a mad atavistic shape to the detective's mouth.
"Last words, sir," the man in the blue waistcoat said, evidently relishing every moment, building to his crescendo.
"Oh, heavens me," Holmes said, a mock flutter making his voice high and uneven. "I repent of all my sins! Bring this poor soul home, Lord!"
"Holmes, for God's sake," Watson muttered.
"Don't interrupt a man's last words, Watson. Did they teach you nothing in that army of yours?"
"Oi," the man in the blue waistcoat snarled. "There's bullets enough for you too-" and he only glanced at Watson, for less than an instant, less than a blink, and Holmes was moving, a black-coated whirl knocking the man's arm away and then slamming the side of his hand into his throat. Watson heard the airless popping sound of a windpipe giving, and then Holmes served a vicious kick to the man's kneecap and he went down, choking and writhing in pain.
Holmes wasn't even breathing hard. He bent his fingers backwards to crack the knuckles, prodded his toe at the man in the blue waistcoat with mild curiosity. The man groaned and rolled around some more.
Holmes looked over at Watson, an expectant look on his face. Watson sighed, deeply tired.
"That was unforgivably careless of you."
Holmes immediately struck the tone of a wronged man. "I have vanquished our foe, and you choose to insult me. Your friendship is a cold comfort at times, old boy."
Watson shook his head, strode to the mouth of the alley to scan the streets for a conveniently placed bobby. He heard Holmes coming after him, and Watson enjoyed the feeling of being the one followed for once.
"Surely you were not seriously concerned?" Holmes scoffed, bumping Watson's shoulder with his own. "You know I always have a plan."
"Your plans tend to wreak more havoc than blind panic ever could."
"Ah, thank you, Watson, that's kind of you to say." Holmes rocked on his heels, the rush of triumph tangibly emanating from him. "It's a lovely night, wouldn't you agree? I certainly am pleased that we're both still alive."
Watson blew out a breath, shaking his head again. He was starting to smile and he knew it; he could tell by how Holmes's expression shifted and gave slightly.
There was a smudge of black grease on Holmes's forehead, a small half-moon shape where the man had pressed the cold barrel to skin and bone. Watson tugged his handkerchief free of his pocket and carefully wiped the imperfection away. Holmes stood unquestioning, watching him through lowered eyelashes.
"This is all getting rather routine," Watson said quietly. Holmes inclined his head to the side, a curious look on his face. Watson folded his handkerchief with tight edges, continued, "These near-death experiences of ours. We seem to end up bleeding in alleys overmuch. I can't help but feel that we must be drinking the dregs of our luck."
Holmes answered immediately, "It has nothing to do with luck. We survive these situations due to a host of comprehensively rational reasons, which I usually do not bother to explicate for you because I have far more fruitful things to do with my time, as is particularly true after I've nearly been shuffled off this mortal coil by some treacherous villain."
"Are you quite finished?" Watson asked, a comforting sense of irritation settling through him.
Holmes paused for a second, eyes steadily deconstructing his friend. "For the moment."
"Excellent. You're talking utter nonsense, but let's finish this business and get home. Then you can concoct more opportunities to have a gun placed to your head."
At that, Holmes grinned, clapped a hand on Watson's shoulder. Watson's stomach turned over slowly, and he observed Holmes hazily, as though from afar. Holmes looked half his age when he smiled like that.
"You speak of my own heart," Holmes said, flattening his free hand on his chest and somehow making his eyes shine.
And Watson was thinking, better yours than mine.
It had not begun like this.
Holmes had in no way intended to take Watson into his confidences. In those first early weeks he had kept cool and aloof, an unfailing host but never a friend. The door to his study remained shut every night, occasional wild-fingered violin music striving and bleeding through the wall to reach Watson sitting silent and still in the next room. They passed each other in the hallway, coming and going at the front door with a cordial finger touched to each's hat brim and the slightest nod serving as their only acknowledgments.
But then one night Watson lost a breathtaking amount of money over a card table and came home reeling, disastrously drunk. He didn't trust his hands with a flint and so staggered through the dark sitting room, an activity that ended predictably with an upset end table, a shattered teapot, and a former army surgeon sprawled out on his back with the wind knocked out of him.
Watson blinked at the swirling mass of shadows above him. He fought for breath, both hands flat on his chest, and wished with helpless fervour that he could somehow erase the whole of this night, just cut one infinitesimal piece out of the fabric of time and set it aflame as an effigy.
Gold light appeared in the corner of his eye, and then Holmes was there, saying something that Watson barely had the wherewithal to comprehend--"Ah, well done, you've broken that horrid teapot"--and coming to crouch next to his supine form, setting his candle on the seat of the chair.
Watson couldn't speak. He still couldn't breathe. He entreated Holmes with his eyes, his fishing mouth.
Holmes shook his head, but he was smiling. He patted Watson on the shoulder, dusky light catching on the line of his jaw.
"It's somewhat encouraging to think that even a man of your admirable character can be brought low, Doctor. I mean no offence, of course."
Watson hiked his eyebrows sceptically. Holmes busied himself plucking broken bits of china off the rug, saying off-hand, "You've been relieved of your watch and chain. How much else did you lose tonight, I wonder?"
Watson wasn't going to tell him that. He couldn't even let the number recur in his own mind, shying away from it as he did from his worst memories of the war. He stared up at the ceiling, his lungs shrivelled and frayed from abuse.
Holmes made a huffing noise, and Watson thought he was likely unaccustomed to having his questions ignored. Watson filed that away to be later employed, and carefully pushed himself up to a sitting position. His head dipped and spun lazily, blood-rushed. Holmes was watching him closely, his mouth thin.
"Naturally no man is without his vices, but I do hope this isn't a regular habit of yours. I fear only for the rent, you understand."
Watson sighed, letting his head hang down. He was still considerably drunk, the room rocking slowly and bringing to mind boats on the river.
"I am entirely in control of the situation," Watson said, and Holmes was quiet for a moment before answering, "I never doubted it, my dear man."
Then Holmes stood and offered Watson his hand, set him on his feet again. Watson swayed, a thin tree in a bad storm. He bade Holmes good night, attempting a clumsy bow that tugged the corner of the detective's mouth into a smirk. Watson stumbled up the narrow steps to his room and fell face first onto the bed, asleep in his coat and shoes and all, his dreams alight with falling golden coins and Holmes stretching out his upturned hat, trying to catch them.
After that night, matters progressed rather rapidly. For one thing, they began to drink together, the fastest way Watson knew to a sound friendship.
Holmes was as remarkable drunk as he was sober. He spoke in great unwieldy paragraphs, let his hands fly like maddened birds. He started leaning close with brandy dense on his breath, his eyebrows urging Watson to some mysterious reaction. Holmes liked to tell stories, and all the better if they were true and starring his own self. Watson, as it turned out, liked to listen.
And then over the course of a month that felt like three days, Holmes came home shot in the leg, caught a fever, recovered, relapsed, recovered again, refused to give up the case, tried to sneak out of the house and was caught, and finally, let Watson come with him.
Watson remembered almost everything about that night. The unflagging adrenaline had carved it into his mind: Holmes limping in a shabby coat and slouching hat, and muddy yellow gaslights above the street, and the thieves' house like a witch's cottage in a fairy tale, hunched and thatched and coloured in shades of ash. There was a brief ferocious fight in the cramped hallway, and at one point Holmes's leg gave out and threw him to the floor, and Watson was not prepared for the jolt of undiluted fear that went through him at the sight.
But against all obstacles and odds, they had emerged victorious, and even relatively unscathed. They both limped out of the witch house under their own power, and the cool damp air of the London night tasted miraculous to Watson, better than any liquor.
Holmes took off his hat to roll around his fingertips, making it dance and twirl. He was all but dragging his sore leg behind him, his breath slightly ragged from the pain, but he looked exceptionally pleased with the world. His face showed a stirring flush when he passed beneath a streetlamp, and Watson walked blind down the street, not watching where he was going because he was watching Holmes.
After that, they took to spending every waking hour in each other's company. Watson's day didn't start until he was seated across from his friend at the breakfast table, enjoying the graceful bend of Holmes's pale wrist as he poured the tea. He couldn't get to sleep without having heard Holmes say, "Until the morn, my dear fellow."
Watson felt that there were several things amiss about how entirely this had overtaken him. It was distinctly out of character, all this running about after criminals and punching men in decrepit houses and such. Watson followed Holmes without question or hesitation, delivered his welfare over to the detective despite a total lack of cause, and he wasn't the sort for that kind of thing, either.
Of greater magnitude than these substantial dislocations was the plain fact that Watson didn't care about any of it. He hadn't much liked the person he'd been before he met Sherlock Holmes. It was no sacrifice to see that man gone.
They had been living at the same address for several years now. Holmes's flights of madness and obsession, his wretched habits and self-destructive tendencies, had gone from very nearly intolerable to merely exasperating, and Watson was aware that nothing in the man's behaviour had actually changed. It was Holmes's observer who had taken the brunt of their growing intimacy. It was the detective's vigilant witness, keeping a less trustworthy narrative by the day.
Sometimes Watson dreamed of his life before, and in the morning he remembered it as an alien planet, dull and dry and airless. Every time he looked at Holmes, he felt like he'd just woken up from years asleep.
A case arrived in their sitting room in the person of Matthew Shaw, a callow-looking fellow in an expensive coat that dripped dirty rainwater onto the rug as he hung it on the rack. Everything he wore was well-made, but dishevelled, stained and beset with wrinkles, save the bright spot of his pocket square, lilac-coloured and lined with delicate white thread. He spoke in the rarefied tones of the young and rich, holding his damp bowler hat in his hand, but his voice gave out from time to time, showing the restrained panic hidden just beneath.
His maid had disappeared. She had been in her customary place four days ago, Shaw told them, bowing out of the room after being dismissed for the night, and no one had seen her since.
Holmes was uniformly uninterested, smoking in the impatient way he had, rapping his knuckle on the bowl of the pipe. He slouched against the arm of the chair, his body in a bent sprawl.
Holmes broke in on the young man's frayed monologue, saying, "Perhaps she has secured more favourable employment," as if sharing a fact as baldly obvious as the colour of the sky.
Shaw shook his head urgently, his forelock shivering like a small flag. "She isn't the sort to leave without notice, sir."
"Know her rather well, do you?"
Shaw flinched, one hand flying unconsciously to his waistcoat, and Watson shot Holmes a look, a short warning not to overplay his hand. Holmes's mouth curled, half a smirk, and then his attention flipped back to the young man.
"I, I can certainly attest to her respect for and adherence to a professional code, as her employer," Shaw said, fumbling. "And of course I've spoken to the rest of the staff and heard nothing that would indicate she has been seeking options abroad, nor that she was in any way discontent."
"Yes, but who can really divine the finer emotions of these lower classes?" Holmes tapped his pipe meditatively on his palm. "Perhaps in their own company they enjoy a more metaphysical discourse, but I must confess I've never seen evidence of it myself. Difficult to parse the depths of existence when you can hardly speak the Queen's English, eh?"
Shaw's spine went as rigid as a rod. He glared at Holmes, bloody-minded, and said in a hard clipped voice, "I cannot agree, sir. Kate's intellect is quite the equal of her domestic skills, and perhaps an even greater asset."
Holmes tossed a cocky grin at his friend the doctor. "What say ye, Watson? I'm leaning towards a secret marriage, but will you give me odds?"
Watson only shook his head, turning his eyes down to his cup of tea. A tiny smile played on his mouth, but it wasn't good to give Holmes too much encouragement.
"What?" Shaw said, all the colour dropping out of his face. "What did you say?"
Holmes looked back at the young man, annoyed and flapping his hand. "It's perfectly evident that you've married the girl, Mister Shaw. Your abject demeanour alone is enough to conclude that she is not merely an employee to you. It's a common enough condition, I'm sure, no matter the prevailing social mores. If we delve further, we find that despite your general state of deshabille, your pocket square is clean and cared for, the style and shade plainly marking it as a gift from a sweetheart, which I can only assume you are carrying as the proverbial torch. Also, your hair is combed as a wife would like it. And for heaven's sake, man, quit touching the wedding ring in your waistcoat pocket. All you're doing is bringing it to my attention."
Ashen, Shaw stumbled back, gaping at Holmes with that familiar look of half-terrified shock. Watson sighed, got to his feet and went to the young man. He took Shaw's arm and led him to the settee, sitting him down and fetching him a drink. Shaw's hands were shaking, and he folded them both around the snifter, hunching into his shoulders. Watson lit a cigarette, watching Shaw and aware that Holmes was watching him.
"You must excuse my colleague," Watson said by rote.
"I beg your pardon," Holmes said, narrowing his eyes at Watson. "Every word out of his mouth has been a lie, and yet you don't ask me to excuse him."
Watson lifted an eyebrow. He and Holmes had a brief fierce argument without speaking (don't be a prat--don't tell me what to do), and then Watson said, "Not every word. No matter who she is to him, the girl is still missing."
"Yes," Shaw said, and then to Watson's extreme discomfort he began quietly to cry.
"She's gone," Shaw said, choked. "I've been to every place she's ever set foot, and every street she's ever named in idle conversation. I've spoken to everyone, and there, there's nothing."
He buried his face in his hands. Watson scowled murderously at Holmes, tugged out his handkerchief to offer the distraught young man. Watson kept his eyes discreetly turned away, knowing he would not wish to be seen in such a state.
Holmes, of course, had no such reservations, and stared avidly, like an alien scientist conducting an experiment on the extremes of human emotion. Watson gave his friend a sidelong look, eyeing Holmes's fingers lightly resting on his cheek.
Shaw composed himself after not much longer, abashed as he handed Watson's handkerchief back to him. Shaw pressed his hair back with both hands, and looked at the detective with red-rimmed eyes, his mouth weak, terror-struck.
"My apologies," he said stiffly. "I have had an extremely trying week."
Holmes sat up, thumping his foot on the floor. "Originally it was four days, and now a week? Prevarication is quite a habit with you, Mister Shaw, is it not?"
Shaw twisted his hands between his knees, turned his sore eyes to the rain-streaked grey morning outside the windows. "We had quarrelled," he said softly. "I cannot--I do not remember how it began, but it became quite fractious, and then I saw that I had made her cry. Of course I immediately made what peace I could, as I would not cause her pain for all the gold in California, but she said that she would prefer a few nights without my company. She attended me as always during the day, but she would not--she did not look at me with the eyes of a wife. Once again she was simply a maid."
Shaw covered his eyes again, and Waton grimaced, wishing the man would master himself already. Shaw was clearly in the same camp, and quickly scrubbed his hands across his face before locking them tight together. He forcefully brought his gaze back to Holmes, his jaw tense as he clenched his teeth against the buffeting emotions.
"You must believe that I am not typically so . . . affected," Shaw told them.
"Of course not," Watson replied diplomatically.
"Oh, I don't know about that, Watson. He takes to it rather naturally, doesn't he?"
"Holmes," Watson sighed as Matthew Shaw cringed back. Holmes waved a dismissive hand, flicking Watson a darkly unreadable look. The detective had become interested despite himself, and Watson smiled inwardly. He'd always savoured the rare occasions when Holmes's over-quick suppositions didn't bear fruit.
"So you quarrelled," Holmes said, leaning forward over his knees. "And after several days outside of your affections, she vanished."
"She has never been outside of my affections," said the heartbroken young man on the settee.
Holmes waved that away as well. "I speak merely of her own perceptions. After a row with her lover, a woman has a tendency to read rejection in unadorned formality."
Matthew Shaw's face thinned, his mouth shrinking. He pulled the plain gold wedding band out of his waistcoat pocket and deliberately slid it onto its proper finger, saying icily, "I am not her lover, sir. I am her husband, and she knows there is nothing she could do that would cause me to reject her."
"Ah, 'twould be lovely to think so," Holmes said. "But alas, the female heart is a vast and unknowable country. Watson has some stories along those lines, don't you, old boy?" Holmes didn't wait for Watson to respond (not that Watson was planning to), continuing, "There are innumerable catalysts that might have spurred her departure. It may even have been to spare you the inevitable scandal and disgrace. How long did you really expect your secret to remain undiscovered?"
"Two years," Shaw said without hesitation. Holmes blinked, the only sign that he'd been taken off-guard.
"That's unusually specific."
Shaw nodded his head, anxiously rolling the ring around his finger. "We do not intend to remain in London. Nor, indeed, in any part of this antiquated empire. We are bound for America, where the circumstances of a person's birth are properly understood to be insignificant. Two years is the time I'll need to save enough to start my practise over--I am a solicitor, you know."
"Yes, obviously," Holmes said, impatient. "Who else knows of your plans to emigrate?"
"Not a soul." Shaw cut his eyes down and away, and Watson watched Holmes's face tic with irritation, the edge of his jaw becoming as hard as stone.
"Mister Shaw, this tendency of yours towards mistruth is quite distressing. I believe it shall render me unable to accept your case."
"No," Shaw said too quick, his eyes widening. "Please--Kate told her mother. At my most fervent request, she did not reveal the secret of our marriage, but did disclose her intentions for a new life. My mother-in-law has a sincere terror of the colonies--she believes them to be populated by nothing but blackguards and vicious savages--and Kate knew it would take many months for the idea to become palatable to her. That is the truth, I swear it."
"And why did you attempt to obscure it?"
Shaw swallowed. "She hates me, as I'm sure you'll find. She tells horror stories, but you must give them no credence."
"I happen to rather enjoy horror stories," Holmes said. He glanced at Watson and Watson crossed his arms over his chest, a small warm feeling in him because Holmes had that faint smile on his face, the one he saved for his friend alone.
"Well, Doctor?" Holmes asked.
Watson shrugged his shoulders, noncommittal. Holmes didn't need his input or blessing, a fact they both knew all too well. He only asked to make sure Watson was paying attention, the same motivation behind the tiny pokes and jabs he was always delivering to his friend's ribs.
Unaware of this, Shaw raised his bloodshot eyes to Watson imploringly. "Please, sir," he whispered. "I am utterly lost without her."
Watson studied the young man, thinking that he looked familiar, but not in the sense of them having met before. The expression on his face was what tugged at Watson, an open look of heartsick pain. Watson knew that look; he'd last seen it in his own shaving mirror, not twelve hours ago.
"Take the case, Holmes," Watson said without looking at his friend.
There was a pause, a bright spring of hope welling in Shaw's eyes, and then Holmes said as if he couldn't care a whit, "As you wish, Watson."
At once, Matthew Shaw began to weep again, something closer to relief. Watson gave him the handkerchief back, and lit another cigarette. His throat hurt, but that didn't trouble him as much as certain other things.
There had been a specific moment in the fourth month of their fragile acquaintance when Watson's regard for Holmes gained a sinister edge.
They were in a house that had been set aflame. Watson was a bit uncertain as to the sequence of events, having been struck on the head twice in the past half hour, but there had no doubt been great villainy involved. He regained consciousness on the floor, his chest polluted with hot black smoke. Watson blinked his eyes open, feeling like the lids had been ripped off, and saw Holmes using a cudgel to swiftly dispatch a hulking lout. Big charred pieces of the rafters were falling down all around the detective, and his left coat sleeve appeared to have been burnt away to the elbow, filthy white shirt underneath ripped and seared.
"Bloody hell," Watson groaned. His hands went to his head, where sweat and blood and ash made a thin grime.
"Watson!" Holmes shouted, sounding almost joyful, and Watson hoped that was just his head injury misleading him.
Holmes came to him, grabbed hold of his shoulders and hauled him to his feet. Holmes's eyes shone wild and white through the thick shifting black.
"Steady on, old boy," Holmes said as Watson swayed. His hands flicked across Watson's head, checking for any urgent wounds, but most of the blood on the doctor belonged to another man.
Holmes pushed Watson ahead of him out of the disintegrating house, steering him by his shoulders. Watson was thankful for it, wracked by a ceaseless cough that made his head spin. He wasn't getting enough air. Holmes was the only sure thing in this terrible place.
The air outside tasted sweeter than honey, as clean as the sea. Watson went reeling into the street and he would have tumbled headlong but for Holmes's hand gripping the back of his coat. Behind them the house howled, crackling and gnashing within the consuming flames.
Watson caught his breath, heaving massive draughts into his lungs until he could think linearly again. Holmes was laughing madly beside him, a high ringing sound against the fire.
Watson shoved him, an uncharacteristic burst of unplanned physicality. "There are two unconscious men in there," he said in a raw voice.
"Three, actually." Holmes barely had control of himself, sniggers and impudent smirks jerking out of him. "All of whom were trying to kill us only a moment ago, and all of whom would have happily watched us burn, had the cards fallen otherwise. We must at least return the courtesy."
An anemic aftershock of a cough rattled through Watson. He pressed a hand to his chest, feeling the shudder of his heart through gritty cloth. His jacket and shirt and waistcoat were all irreparable, and Watson was more bothered by that than he wanted to admit. He hated appearing such a wreck.
Holmes took hold of Watson's elbow and guided him away from the burning house. Watson stumbled along, easily led.
"I've no interest in spending the next several hours of my life uselessly engaged with the Yardies," Holmes said. "I assume you have no objections?"
Watson coughed. Holmes smiled, most probably amused at the doctor's disrepair. Watson's lungs felt like they'd been pulped, his head vibrating with pain.
"Onwards to Baker Street," Holmes said, a robust note of triumph in his smoke-scoured voice. His hand remained firm on Watson's arm though Watson could keep himself upright now. "And thence: biscuits, and brandy, and cigars. Our rewards may be humble, but they are no less savoured for that."
Looking back over his shoulder, Watson saw the roof of the house collapse with a wooden groan, spewing out a wave of sparks and smoke. A rolling heat cloud passed through the two of them, and Watson thought about the three men inside, almost certainly dead now. He wondered if their escaping souls would be trapped in the smoke.
Holmes pulled him around the corner. It was dark on this new street, quieter and less infernal. Watson could hear Holmes humming under his breath, some mawkish sonata. Holmes was glowing, radiating feverish glee with his eyes lit up like guys on Bonfire Night.
"There is something wrong with you, Holmes," Watson said. Holmes shook his head, shot him a grin.
"Again, my dear man, you underestimate. There are many things wrong with me."
"You're having a great deal of fun right now, aren't you?"
"I am!" Holmes tugged Watson close, their shoulders bumping together. "I've made a study of adrenaline, you know, and the various substances that claim to approximate its effects on the mind and body. Nothing really comes close, as I'm sure you'll be unsurprised to hear. There's no feeling in the world like nearly being violently murdered."
"Good Lord," Watson said, but it came out wrong, too rough and too full of staggered awe.
Holmes grinned at him, gaslight as thin and golden as lacquer on his face. He was almost painfully beautiful for the briefest moment, joy pouring out of him, and Watson felt it hit him like a gloved punch square in the stomach.
"It was a wonderful fight," Holmes told him. "I thoroughly appreciated your company."
Watson answered without thought, "Anytime, old boy," and it was already too late for him. He was staring at Holmes's clever mouth, his fine pale cheek under black ash, and thinking about putting his hands under the detective's coat, opening his waistcoat and shirt and finding skin.
Watson took his arm out of Holmes's hand and pushed the thought away. For a long moment his mind was echoes and emptiness, like the single image of Holmes on his knees with a thumb holding his mouth open had eradicated every other idea that Watson might have had.
He regained what little composure he still had, and gave Holmes a simple-looking smile. Watson's head throbbed, his split lip swelling up and it was possible that he had a broken finger, but Watson knew what Holmes was talking about, all of a sudden: this was a greater feeling than any he'd ever known.
Nothing at all changed between them. Watson wouldn't allow it. It was of critical importance to him that his friendship with Sherlock Holmes remain sheltered, undisturbed.
They had breakfast in their dressing gowns, eating toast off the same plate, trading newspapers back and forth. They met with potential clients together, ever since Holmes realised that fewer people stormed out in gravely offended huffs that way. Watson had a manner of explaining Holmes to strangers that lessened their desire to see him with pistols at dawn, his role split between interpreter and apologist. Holmes solved the mysteries and Watson made sure no one shot him in the back. Holmes almost always seemed in danger of being shot in the back. Late at night, they still got drunk sometimes.
Watson could not afford to have any of this taken away from him.
So he walled off the part of himself that was captivated by Holmes's eyebrows, and the scraping edge to his voice as he made some fanciful threat, and his smooth shoulders, and his cursed mouth--Watson locked it all away. He was a friend to Holmes, and a colleague, and a physician, and at times a younger brother in a vaguely disquieting way, and that was as much as he could ever be. There was nothing to be done about the manner in which the world worked.
Watson amorphously thought of it as his Greek problem. It wasn't entirely unprecedented; the good doctor had attended public school, after all. But whatever happened between thin schoolboy sheets wasn't the same as what was happening to him now. It hadn't felt like a genuine sin all those years ago, nor a fatal weakness, not like it did now.
His stomach twisted when Holmes came into the room. His heart flared like a storm on the sun every time the detective smirked at him. He told Holmes to comb his hair because it drove him mad to see it wild and begging for fingers. He followed Holmes everywhere.
There was nothing to be done about any of it.
Matthew Shaw took them to his polished set of rooms near Hyde Park, and Holmes made a quick tour of the place, poking at the ashtrays and sticking his hand in every pocket of every coat the man owned. Holmes hummed, mumbled under his breath as Watson trailed him room to room, leaning heavily on his cane; it had been an increasingly difficult week for his leg.
Holmes came to a stop where they had entered, and ordered Shaw to bring him the servants. Shaw rang the bell and Watson took a seat on the silk-cushioned bench by the door, letting the wall take most of his weight. Holmes gave him a look.
"Hup hup, Watson. We've only just begun."
Watson looked at him blandly, stretching his bad leg out in front of him. He didn't answer, because that was the thing that bothered Holmes the most.
The servants assembled, another maid, a cook, and a valet all in crisp uniforms and with eyes on the floor. Holmes sent Shaw into the other room, saying as he hustled the man out, "No one tells the truth in front of their sole provider, I'm sure you understand, there's a good fellow."
Holmes turned back on the small group, his eyes fairly gleaming in eagerness, and Watson tipped his head back on the wall, loosing a long sigh. Holmes loved nothing in the world so much as having a ready audience.
Swiftly, Holmes ascertained that everyone in the household knew Kate was sleeping with the master, but none of them had any idea about the marriage. Kate had never been terribly sociable with the rest of the staff--"she reads," the other maid reported as if it were a disfiguring flaw. She spent all her days off with her mother, or at least, that was always the story with which she returned. For a fortnight before she'd vanished, Kate had been feeling poorly, stomach-sick and often too tired to more than half-finish a task. None of them had seen her leave the night she'd disappeared, but Kate had always been the last one out of the house (the rare times when she did actually leave), and so no one had thought anything of it. That was the best they could tell him.
It seemed to be enough for Holmes. His fingers danced against his waistcoat, a small extension of his flickering mind.
"Ladies and gentleman, I thank you," Holmes said, bending a slight bow. Holmes chose to embrace civility and ceremony at the oddest times. "You have been invaluable."
Holmes dismissed the servants and called for Shaw. He came to stand near Watson's shoulder, ever distracting.
Shaw, more frazzled by the minute, emerged wringing his hands, his lower lip chewed ragged, almost bloody. An uncomfortable pit formed in Watson's stomach as he saw how catastrophically a man could be altered by nothing more than the dictates of his own heart.
"Your staff has proven most helpful, Mister Shaw," Holmes said. Watson glanced up at him, struck by the clean line of Holmes's neck from this angle.
"Do you know where she is?" Shaw asked, his tone almost prayerful.
"I have an idea, which is really the best you can hope for right now."
"Please, what, what can I do? What are you going to do now?"
Holmes rubbed his chin, shot the man an annoyed look. "I am going to continue the investigation, naturally. Would you like to hear the rates again?"
Shaw blanched, shook his head overly fast. "No, no, of course not, you--you must proceed with all haste, and any funds you require, of course."
Holmes's lips curled, his eyebrows up. He tipped his weight towards Watson, gave him a small nudge the meaning of which Watson could not divine. Watson allotted too much of his attention to the press of Holmes's arm against his own, and missed whatever the detective was actually saying.
Wilfully, Watson jerked his eyes to the wreck of Matthew Shaw's face, and his mind swam clear.
"You must contact me as soon as you discover anything," Shaw was saying, voice atremble. "I shan't sleep, nor leave this room, so any message will be sure to find me."
Holmes shot Watson a blackly exasperated look, hiding it behind a cough. "As you say, Mister Shaw," Holmes muttered, and then hooked his hand around Watson's elbow and ungraciously pulled him to his feet. "We'll take our leave of you now."
Watson shook out of Holmes's hold, irritated. Shaw came forward to press their hands with perfervid strength, wishing them godspeed several times each. Watson found himself flinching at the wide-eyed plea on Shaw's narrow face, the unending corrosion of despair.
They hastened to the street. The day was darkling, the sun a rich copper colour against the slate and tar of the rooftops. A chill had set in the air, creeping with skinny fingers under the collar of Watson's coat.
"Tell me, Watson," Holmes said in that careless tone that he affected when he meant to take Watson off his guard. "What other doctors do you know who suffer your same affliction?"
Watson missed a step, jolting forward before catching himself on his cane. His leg ached badly enough that Holmes's question seemed clear, though bizarre and somewhat unsettling. Watson didn't like to think that it was so obvious when he was in pain.
"I know several other doctors who've been shot, both in the service and since, although of course no two injuries are identical."
Holmes laughed once, a bark of surprise. He grabbed Watson's shoulder (always, Holmes found ways to touch him--it never stopped), and Watson wished he wouldn't. He was having enough trouble bearing his own weight.
"Ah, no, that is not quite the direction my thoughts had taken," Holmes said. He gave Watson an intent look. "But I beg your pardon, my friend, for you seem overworked."
"I'm fine," Watson answered immediately, and bit his teeth together. Holmes looked doubtful.
"Your dedication is, as always, deeply gratifying," Holmes said, bowing his head towards Watson's, a curl at the edge of his mouth. "You should return to Baker Street and rest your leg."
"It's interesting that you would mention that, as I seem to recall saying I was fine." Watson shrugged Holmes's hand off, glared at him lowly. "You might trust my judgement."
"You might display some worthy of it," Holmes shot back, and Watson didn't know why he let himself get into these brief duels with Holmes; he was winless for years now.
Watson tried to limp less obviously. He said, "What affliction did you mean if not my leg?"
Holmes gave him a darkly knowing look, but accepted the subject change because it was what he'd wanted to talk about in the first place.
"I meant nothing physical, but instead that particular moral weakness that overcomes you from time to time. The parimutuel, the cards, all those lost watch chains of yours-" Holmes cut himself off, eyeing Watson. "You'll forgive the presumption, I trust?"
Watson had to laugh at that, waving his hand cavalierly. "I forgive everything else."
Holmes grinned, clapped Watson's shoulder. "Good man."
Knowing he should move away, Watson shifted closer to his friend. The cold and exercise had put lovely colour into Holmes's face.
"You wish to know of other doctors who lay wagers?"
Holmes nodded assuredly. "Those with poor records at it, ideally."
"May I ask why?"
"Clearly--you just did."
Holmes fired an impish grin in Watson's direction. Watson sighed, secretly shielding a warm place inside him from the stinging wind.
"Yes, Holmes, you're very clever. Please answer the question."
"I'd really prefer to keep the suspense intact," Holmes said seriously. Watson rolled his eyes.
"I won't provide incriminating information about my colleagues without knowing why."
"Were it anyone else asking, that would be terribly noble, but I'd hope you know me well enough to trust that my motives are of the purest temper."
Watson hiked his eyebrows. "I know you well enough not to trust you at all."
"Yes, well." Holmes harrumphed, pocketing his hands. "If you must know, I'm looking for a doctor who might have impetus to explore financial opportunities outside the strict boundaries of the law."
Watson stopped. Holmes got several steps farther before turning with a huff, narrowing his eyes at the doctor. The fuliginous orange light of the industrial city cast soft shadows on Holmes's face, etching him like a cameo.
"What do you think happened to the girl?" Watson asked, not really wanting to hear it.
Holmes's mouth shrank down, and he looked away, presenting his profile. Watson stared at Holmes helplessly, nailed in place.
"I think she was with child," Holmes said, and then he walked on.
Watson stood for a moment longer, his mind full of depravities, swatches of guilt and regret. He had to hurry to catch up with Holmes because Watson didn't know where they were going. He didn't even know where they were.
It would have been the height of arrogance for Watson to assume that he'd managed to conceal the Greek problem from the smartest man he'd ever met. Watson was not humble by nature, but living with Sherlock Holmes tended to put the doctor's limits into rather sharp relief.
Watson thought it impossible that Holmes hadn't sorted it out by now. It wasn't as if Watson were hiding it well. He caught himself gazing at the detective a half-dozen times a day, a book forgotten in his hand as Holmes bent over his violin, the music reforming him, moulding him as if his clay were still wet. Watson couldn't sit through a cup of tea with Holmes without being dramatically sidetracked by his friend's tendency to suck absently on his spoon while reading the paper. Watson was always snagging his head to the side, jerking to his feet and leaving the room too suddenly. He was always biting the inside of his lip and forcing his face to stay still, his hands in unforgiving fists. It was profoundly disheartening for Watson to see himself like this. He could only imagine what it was like for Holmes.
Holmes studied him without surcease, a tight feeling ever-crawling on the back of Watson's neck, in the pit of his stomach. It was largely habit on Holmes's part, Watson knew. The detective did nothing so well as he watched. Often humanity seemed a mesmeric cavalcade set into motion for his own diversion, and nothing more.
At his darker moments, Watson thought that Holmes must see the Greek problem in the same way, a clever plot twist that made Watson that much more entertaining. Holmes nudged at Watson, stood too close, smiled when the doctor came into the room, and Watson couldn't shake the sense that Holmes was just prodding for his inevitable reactions, like boys throwing sticks at apes in the zoo. Watson imagined himself as a jimcrack man, dancing spastically every time Holmes hit the button.
But rarely was that black mood sustained. Holmes would do something unexpected like pull an apple out of his pocket just as Watson was thinking he might faint of hunger, or fix him a perfect cup of tea without Watson having to ask, or once, quite memorably, brandishing his violin like a broadsword and saying imperiously, "I have composed a song for you, my dear boy."
And Watson would be rendered speechless, breathless. Watson would stare. Holmes was a cynosure, a polestar, the point around which all else revolved. Watson was merely caught in his orbit. He was helpless.
They had never spoken of it, although once Watson thought they had come close.
It had been a night of the most ordinary semblance. They were installed in their customary places in the sitting room, snifters at hand and well-used already. The bottle of brandy on the sideboard gleamed, clear glass down to the shallow remains. Outside the windows, the standard London rain filled the world with a calming susurrus.
Holmes was laughing at something Watson had said. It was only seconds ago, but Watson couldn't properly remember what the jibe had been, his thoughts muddled and insoluble. With a foolish smile affixed to his face, he avidly noted how Holmes's eyes were scrunched up, his finely-made mouth open. Watson took fast sips of his brandy, wanting more of this feeling.
"Quite right, Watson," Holmes said on a chortle, reining his careless laughter. "Your wit is considerably improved by drink, isn't it?"
Watson shook his head, still with that imbecilic look on his face. "I believe it is more a case of drink improving your humour."
"Possibly, possibly." Holmes leaned forward, snaring Watson with his eyes like traps. "May I ask you something, Doctor?"
The formality disconcerted Watson, and he tipped his head to the side, saying, "It is not like you to ask permission; should I be concerned?"
Holmes smiled briefly. "I would discourage that." Watson nodded, lifted his hand in acquiescence. Holmes asked him: "Are you enjoying our circumstances here?"
Watson blinked, answered immediately, "Very much so, yes."
"Beyond just the physical accommodations," Holmes pressed. "I am aware that my various habits and activities can be a trifle . . . distracting."
"A trifle," Watson agreed dryly, thinking about Holmes bleeding in the entryway with a lunatic grin on his face, and Holmes butchering Vivaldi at three in the morning, and Holmes accidentally setting the rug on fire that one time.
"Of course you endure it with unsurpassed grace," Holmes said, waving his hand as if that hardly needed to be said. "But surely this lifestyle is not the one you envisioned when agreeing to take digs with me."
Watson gave Holmes a sideways smirk, and stood up. His knees popped like faraway gunshots, and he stumped without his cane the short distance to the sideboard, taking Holmes's glass as he passed.
"I do not believe I envisioned anything, really," Watson said, pouring each of them half of the remaining liquor. "I was merely content to have found a split rent."
"I intended to run you out after a few months, did you know that?"
Watson was dumbstruck for a moment. "I. I did not."
Holmes nodded, accepting the snifter back from Watson and cradling it neatly in his hand. His gaze was frankly dissecting, and Watson stayed on his feet, uncomfortable.
"As a general rule, my financial well-being oscillates between feast and famine," Holmes told him. "Suffering the latter at the time, I found it imperative to acquire a fellow lodger to secure these rooms. Once my situation bettered itself, I thought to drive you off and have the place to myself."
Watson ignored the collapsing feeling in his chest, and said, "That wouldn't have been very gentlemanly of you, Holmes."
Holmes snorted. "There are surely things I care about less than that, but for the life of me I can't recall a single one."
"And how would you have effected such an eviction, anyway? These rooms are as much mine as they are yours."
A charged moment passed before Holmes answered, his eyes lidded and drunkenly intent.
"Actually," Holmes said eventually, speaking from behind the glass. "My strategy was to behave much as I do now, which, as we've established, you do not particularly mind. It would be confounding if I still wished to be rid of you."
Watson experienced a jolt, a small explosive detonating in his stomach, and he hurriedly doused it with brandy. His throat burned, his eyes prickling with momentary tears.
"My apologies for disrupting your plans," Watson said, sounding close to normal.
Holmes flipped a dismissive hand. "It's in the past, my dear man, quite deeply in the past. I've found myself rather endeared to your endless supply of tolerance, as you can imagine."
Holmes gave him a specific smile, tired and drunk and almost boyish at the edges, and Watson felt that damnable heat bloom in his stomach again. He looked away, threw his gaze out the rain-streaked window. He swallowed, his throat clicking audibly, and he thought direly that Holmes would be able to read years of his life from that single half-instant.
There was another pause, electric and gut-wrenching, and then Holmes said in a light tone:
"I wonder what would make a man like you put up with a man like me."
Holmes said it like he didn't care, like it didn't matter. He said it like everyone in the room should already know the answer.
Watson was frozen, his feet locked in place. He didn't look at Holmes because he couldn't; Holmes would see.
Moments later, Holmes finished his drink with a dramatic cock of his wrist, then rose and announced his designs on sleep. Watson barely managed a civil goodnight to him, darting his eyes like a criminal, choking on his words. Once Holmes was gone, Watson stood with his fingertips on the window glass, faint smudges of grey fog traced around the edges. He worked on breathing, searching for the cat's-eye moon amidst the smoke and coal of the sky.
That was as close as Holmes had ever come to acknowledging Watson's blatant condition, and Watson wasn't even sure that was what he'd been doing. They had both been very drunk, more than he'd realised at the time. Sometimes Holmes just talked, just took his mind out for a stroll in quips and subtextual barbs; it didn't always mean what it seemed.
At the time Matthew Shaw came into their lives, it had been going on for years, this devastating third affliction of his. Watson had wanted Holmes longer than he'd been in the army, longer than university, and now it was all so familiar, schooling his face and looking away when Holmes smiled, modulating his voice into something urbane and caustic, perfecting his careless smirk. Watson had the mantle of a different man that he slipped on like a beggar's ragged coat, hiding in plain sight the way Holmes preferred.
He should have left. Watson had spent months in distant torment thinking that he couldn't in good conscience live with a man who excited these reactions in him. It wasn't safe. It wasn't right.
But Holmes came into his bedroom too early on a Sunday morning, dressing gown loose enough at the neck that Watson could see a shard of the bare skin of his chest. Holmes lay down across the foot of Watson's bed, folding his hands behind his head and saying as if it were news that could not wait:
"It rained again last night, Watson."
Watson, burrowed under the bedcovers in his nightshirt and nothing else, pushed his feet into Holmes's side, soles a perfect fit to the detective's ribs, and answered, "Thank you, Holmes, that's good to know."
Again, Watson was right back where he'd begun, utterly mad for Holmes and utterly mad in general and nothing, just nothing to be done. The sun poured through the curtains Holmes had opened, gold light falling over the two of them like grace made tangible, and Watson was so happy for a moment that he felt like his chest would burst from the pressure.
And so on they went.
Watson made Holmes stop for a plain supper of meat pies near Charing Cross before allowing him to take up the case again. Holmes had that skittish distractible look on his face that meant he was just two or three hours from arriving at a satisfactory conclusion to his current mystery. With the prize so close, the grandeur of Holmes's mind dispensed with things such as food and sleep; they were inconsequential, pesky flies haunting the shadows. It fell to Watson to ensure his body remained as strong as its master.
Holmes did not speak a word of the vanished Kate Shaw. He expounded voluminously on the recent parliamentary corruption scandal, and recounted the personal histories of every man in the room, and painstakingly described for Watson the divers mistakes the cook had made in preparing their meal. Watson hummed the appropriate responses to keep Holmes talking, effortlessly giving the detective his captive audience.
It was all exceedingly typical. Watson waited until they were in the street again, shouldering between the bustling farrago of the London citizenry, before asking where they were going.
"Stepney," Holmes told him. "I suppose a hansom would be in order, hm? Would you mind, dear fellow?"
Watson did the business of procuring a cab, and once they were jostling within asked his friend, "Am I permitted to know whose acquaintance we will be making?"
Tapping his fingers on his knee, Holmes shot Watson a hooded look. "Mrs Christopher Durley."
Watson scanned the poorly organised files of his brain. "Ought I know that name?"
"Yes, if you'd been paying attention--but I know how that can be a trial for you."
Long-suffering, Watson sighed. "Must you?"
"Indeed, I must." Holmes grinned, and it was almost worth the abuse. "But let's not dwell on our shortcomings. Mrs Durley is the mother of our lost Kate."
"Ah. Mister Shaw would not be pleased to hear that she was our destination."
"Which is why I neglected to inform him," Holmes said. "Our client is not built for handling stress, I've noticed."
"His wife is missing," Watson felt obliged to say in the man's defence. Holmes flipped his hand, brushing that aside.
"All the more reason to maintain his faculties so that he might be able to aid in her safe return. When I've been kidnapped by ruffians, do you quail and fret and weep in front of strangers? No, of course you don't, because you are not a useless person."
Watson was taken so far aback he felt like he'd been left in the street, in the hansom's dissipating cloud of dust. He stared out the window at the clatter and ring of the city, the froth on the mouths of the horses and the pale swatches of hands emerging from encrusted rags, and willed his mind to calm.
"Our situation is not precisely analogous to the Shaws'," Watson said, measuring the words.
"Is it not?" Holmes asked, innocent. They might have been discussing the tax system.
Watson shifted, folded one gloved hand around his cane. "I am responsible for your well-being both as a physician and an accomplice to the more perilous aspects of your nature. I bore similar burdens for other men in wartime, but that duty is not the same as the regard a husband should have for his wife."
Holmes looked at him for a moment that felt like a loaded gun pressed to Watson's forehead. There was always a great deal to be seen on Holmes's face, in every flicker of eyebrow and crimp of mouth, but Watson had never had any success in translation.
Holmes tipped his head at a slightly deferent angle. "I thank you for bestowing me with such a . . . soldierly respect. It is comforting to know that you can separate out your affection for me as the hazards of the moment dictate."
Watson was once again struck dumb. He gave Holmes a shockingly unguarded look, wide eyes and broken lines across his brow, thinking in a flood of confounded disbelief intense enough to be mistaken for anger: what?
He could no more separate out his affection than he could separate his right half from his left and go on living. His affection for Sherlock Holmes was the foundation of everything John Watson had become. It wasn't fathomable that Holmes didn't know that.
Watson turned to look out the window again. It felt like there were barbs in his throat, and he said, "It is uncharitable to speak ill of Mister Shaw when he is in the midst of the worst week he will ever endure."
And then nothing. The silence stretched on, as Watson regulated his breathing, counted the boats on the river. The steep roofs and black doorways of Stepney appeared, everything coved over with a furze of coaly air.
Long after Watson had stopped listening for it, Holmes said:
"Perhaps you're right,"
and Watson's hand clenched around the solid wood of his cane, squeezed it hard enough that his fingers became stiff and achey.
Mrs Durley lived above the tavern her husband had owned before being kicked in the head by a horse back in '73. The seamy, over-used look of the place prompted Watson to note that it had been a miracle the daughter had found a respectable service position, to which Holmes replied, "Wasn't so very respectable a position, though, was it?" and Watson surprised them both by laughing out loud.
Watson didn't know what Holmes said to the bartender to get the widow down from her room, but soon enough she was before them, a heavy-bodied woman with hair the colour of cheap tarnished silver, a certain tragic air about her in the way she held her shoulders.
Holmes bowed, courtesy shivering over his frame. "Thank you for seeing us, madam."
"That bastard Shaw sent you, dinn't he?" she replied with venom laced through her tone.
Watson was startled, but he got a closer look at her and saw the blood vessel burst in one eye, tingeing it a vivid red, and knew that she had been weeping. He forgave her her tongue.
"He did," Holmes said, evidently seeing no profit in dissemblance. "He is most desirous of locating your daughter."
"Aye, I can imagine what he desires," she spat. "What of my desire to see him pilloried, and stoned, and shot?"
Holmes blinked once. "It seems rather ardent, indeed."
"I would drop the trap myself," the woman muttered, plainly picturing Shaw in the gallows. "I would kick him while he hanged."
Watson edged closer to Holmes, eyeing the room to make sure no one was paying undue attention to their conversation. He didn't like all this talk about violent death.
"I pray you forgive me, my dear lady, if I ask the source of your vexations with the young man. He has in our dealings appeared quite dedicated to your Kate."
Mrs Durley's mouth warped in a sneer, and it occurred to Watson in a baffling flash that she was drunk. It was almost frightening.
"His guilt might appear like many things, but it doesn't change how unlawfully he has used her, my poor poor girl."
One of Holmes's eyebrows quirked, and he shot a look at Watson out of the corner of his eye.
"Unlawfully, you say?"
"Is there another way for an animal like that?"
"Well," and Holmes coughed delicately. He was playing the whole scene like a concerto, directing it to its inevitable climax. "I have some news that you might find slightly disconcerting. Shall we sit?"
They took a small table, Watson taking the chair with the best view of the whole room. Holmes leaned forward, his face open and effective, imparting a grave piece of wisdom. Watson stole wincing looks at him, the inside of his cheek bitten protectively between his teeth.
"Madam," Holmes said. "Matthew Shaw has married your daughter."
She would not believe it. She laughed in his face, and clutched a loop of prayer beads in her hands, her thumb rubbing hard at the smooth-carved cross. She called Matthew Shaw worse names than Watson had heard in the whole of his army career; evidently there were benefits to living as a barmaid for thirty years. Holmes nodded, solemn and understanding. Watson ordered a beer and then changed it to Scotch, thinking he might need the strength.
Holmes told her, "This is no kind of way to find out about your child's nuptials, I know. Would that I could tell you otherwise, but I have seen the ring myself, not to mention the man's face, which wears but a single fixed expression, and one with which I have some experience. He is a husband, Mrs Durley, who fears his wife is dead. It is actually terribly specific. Unmistakable."
He paused, and Watson realised that he was holding his breath. Mrs Durley was shaking her head, her mouth a fierce trembling thing, tears standing clear as lake water in her eyes.
"I would never presume to cause you such a shock, but I need you to know that our intentions are of the noblest kind. And you must tell me, my dear woman: how does Kate fare?"
She broke, half-crying, and put her hand to her face. Watson automatically tugged his handkerchief free and passed it over to her, while Holmes graced him with an absently fond look. Mrs Durley pulled herself under control swiftly, her voice thick as she answered:
"Very poorly, sir."
Holmes nodded gravely. "It is a lucky thing that we are here, then," he told her, something distinctly kind in his voice. "You may rest your troubles on us, Mrs Durley, for you see: this is my friend the good Doctor Watson."
Twenty-three minutes later, they found Kate Shaw.
As to the question of whether Holmes suffered from any concurrent problem of Greek origin, Watson did not dare think of it.
He did not dare hope.
Watson did know the doctor, as it turned out, mainly due to the man's reputation for dipsomania, which had derailed an originally promising career into middle-class piecemeal work. His abilities had deteriorated as his vices overcame him, as was immediately apparent, and the descent had taken its physical toll in the cartilaginous mass of his whiskey-reddened nose, his ever-shaking hands.
The man let them in only after Mrs Durley shoved him aside and forged the way herself. The doctor immediately vanished from the premises, but he would be found easily enough, Watson knew; his type could never stay away from a table for long.
Kate was stricken with fever and had been for three days. She was insensible in the doctor's back bedroom, sheets that had once been white now stained yellow with sweat. Her mother went immediately to her side, took her limp wrist and folded the prayer beads between their two hands.
"She burns, Doctor," Mrs Durley said, her voice cracked but steady. "She does not know me when she opens her eyes."
Watson got to work at once, although it was apparent at once that his efforts would be in vain. They had come too late. He attended to the young woman faithfully, listening with half an ear as Holmes questioned her mother on seemingly minor details, undoubtedly resolving the last few dangling questions of the case.
The procedure to remove the child had been done with baffling incompetence, the resulting infection exactly what Watson would have predicted had he witnessed the operation himself. If the fever had been as high as this for as long as Mrs Durley claimed, the girl's mind was likely already gone, which could only be a blessing. Watson dribbled water between her cracked lips, pressed cold cloths to her face and throat and chest, watching the whites of her eyes flutter behind her shivering eyelids. Her breath hitched and staggered, her body debilitated by trembling.
Watson straightened, looked over his shoulder at the detective and Kate's mother.
"Send for her husband."
Mrs Durley's face contorted, but Holmes only gave Watson a knowing look, tipped his head to the side obligingly. Holmes called for the house page, and Watson rolled his sleeves up to his elbows. He looked at the mother, a knot in his throat because surely anyone could see that the girl was dying.
Holmes came hovering on the other side of the bed. He kneaded his hands together, eyes thin as he watched Watson work. Holmes would not be overly disturbed if the girl died, Watson knew. He had only been hired to locate her.
Half an hour passed, the girl weaker and hotter every second, and Mrs Durley called her name in a soft voice until she could no longer speak through the tears. The woman left the room, her hands over her face, and Watson thought that that was only right; no mother should have to bear witness to their child's death. Then Matthew Shaw thundered in, his coat misbuttoned and askew, his hatless hair a snarled wreck. He spared no word for the detective or the doctor, but instead rushed to Kate's side. Shaw said her name prayerfully, set his hand to her forehead in the tenderest way.
"Here now, give her some air," Watson said, going to pull Shaw's hand away but the man elbowed viciously into Watson's ribs, robbing him of his breath. Gasping, he reached for Shaw again, furious, but Holmes had him then, tugging him away from the bed.
Leaning close, Holmes whispered into Watson's ear, "Let him be, Watson; there is nothing else he can do."
Watson shook his head automatically, but he knew Holmes was telling the truth. Kate was shrivelling before their eyes, eaten away by a fever not unlike the one that had almost killed Watson a half-decade ago on a distant planet. Holmes's fingers were curled around his arm, keeping him in place, and Watson thought that it was kind of Holmes to take the decision out of his hands.
They huddled together in the corner of the room, Holmes watching without shame and Watson somewhat more circumspect. Shaw had one of Kate's hands between both of his own, touching his lips to the place where they were joined.
"We should leave them," Watson said, his voice hoarse.
"She might yet need your skills," Holmes said without looking away from the mournful scene on the bed. Shaw pressed Kate's open hand to his cheek, begging her, "Wake up, my darling, I've found you."
"She will not. You know she will not," Watson replied. He touched Holmes's shoulder, drew the detective's eyes to him. "This is not a moment that needs witnesses."
Holmes glanced back at the couple on the bed, Shaw resting his head on his wife's side, telling her, "I came as soon as I could, I couldn't breathe when you were gone." Holmes's mouth had a funny shape to it, an alien dark scrim underlying his eyes.
"Quite right, Watson," Holmes said, and then, oddly, he reached out and fiddled with his friend's collar for a second before letting his hand fall.
Watson went to Shaw, put a steadying hand on his shoulder and told him in a low voice, "We will leave you now, Mister Shaw. I'm sure there are things you wish to say to your wife."
Shaw understood his meaning at once. He made a sound halfway between a cry and a moan, his face loose and his eyes white with fear. He grabbed Watson's arm and pleaded with him, "No, Doctor, please," and Watson had to jerk away, had to step a few careful feet back.
"I'm sorry," Watson said, hating the dull rote nature of it, the futility of the sentiment. "We're both so terribly sorry."
Then he left with Holmes, his heart pounding hard and his throat feeling coated in fine powdered glass. Behind him, he could hear Matthew Shaw crying again, and Watson shut the door with no small sense of relief.
Watson leaned against the wall in the hallway, breathing out carefully. Holmes was standing restlessly, shifting his weight back and forth and brushing his fingertips on the coarse material of his coat. If there had been room, he would have been pacing. He would have been watching Watson just the same.
"He waited too long," Holmes said. "If he'd only come to me yesterday."
Watson shook his head. He had no intention of regretting things the two of them could not change. "How did you know she'd already had the operation, and was in such straits?"
"The formidable Mrs Durley, as a matter of fact. What I mentioned about the singularity of husbands with endangered wives is the rule for mothers with endangered children, as well. The cross on her prayer beads had its paint worn almost all the way off where she has been kissing it during her prayers, which have no doubt been constant. That strength of devotion is generally only expended for the dying."
Holmes paused, and looked away down the hallway before continuing almost absently:
"She was at the least most definitely loved."
A chill shuddered through Watson, and he honestly wasn't sure if it was brought on by what Holmes had said, or the fact that he'd said it in the past tense.
Watson dove swiftly into his ready reserves of frustration, not liking the vague sorrow of his friend's face. "Why would she expose herself to such a risk? A married woman, in trouble by her own husband--it is unconscionable, Holmes."
Holmes shook his head, resting his weight on his shoulder. "It's two years before they can orchestrate their escape, and no way to explain a sudden child before that time. She believed she was protecting them--their dream of America."
Holmes stopped again, gave Watson a destructively dark look, exhaustion carved at his edges.
"It is another brainless thing that someone has done for love," Holmes told him.
That struck Watson like a cudgel in the chest, breathtaking blow. He flattened his hand on the rough wood of the wall, braced as if against a strong wind. His eyes he locked on the floor because he could not let Holmes see him completely at this moment.
Holmes was right, as always Holmes was right, but he'd still managed to miss the point. Everything about the endeavour was brainless. People died for love and they killed for it; they came through jungles and across deserts and over the highest city walls. Nothing on this earth made less sense than a man in love. Nothing acted with less reason or prudence. You are driven from within, Watson thought. You are animated by a heartbeat not your own. There were no limits to it, and no words. To a man in love, there was no such thing as the mind.
Watson's fingers formed a soft claw. He heard the creak of floorboards as Holmes stepped near, and his back stiffened.
"You mustn't let it weigh on you," Holmes told him low, touching his hand to the bend of Watson's elbow. "You have done all you could."
And Watson thought like a spear of light: no I haven't.
He moved in the space of a breath, a graceless spin that brought Holmes's shoulders under his hands, Holmes pressed up against the wall just as Watson had always wanted him.
Holmes sucked in a hard piece of air, his whole body going taut and electric as a wire. Watson held him in place with no undue effort, and that was because Holmes was allowing it. Holmes's eyes were slashes of tar, Watson's shadow fallen all over him.
"You need," Watson began, and then faltered, his thumb brushing along the side of Holmes's neck. Holmes was staring at him, a gate down over his expression, and Watson wanted to put his hands on his friend's face, shape a smile of his own making.
"You need to understand," Watson said haltingly, "what it's like for the rest of us."
A flicker of white ripped through Holmes's very dark eyes, and his mouth lost its tension for a bare moment. Holmes blinked.
"Be more specific," Holmes said, his voice all gravel and reined-in urgency.
Watson swallowed hard. His forearms were against Holmes's chest, their bodies separated by perhaps an inch, perhaps less. Watson could smell the tobacco and rain on Holmes. He could feel him, head to toe.
"We do not think, Holmes," Watson told him. "We do not plan or scheme or, or, or prepare, not for any of it. When a person is in love, that is all they are. And you--you should be able to see that."
Holmes's eyes went as big as saucers, the crumpled lines of his brow smoothing out. He looked as if he'd just watched the night sky snap back to blue, purely astonished and wearing a small boy's expression. His hand came up, setting lightly on Watson's hip, and Watson shook, closed his eyes against the force of it.
"I see it," Holmes said, very near a whisper. "I did not know if you did as well."
A strangled laugh made its way out of Watson. He tipped forward, touching his forehead to Holmes's and just resting there for a moment.
"Protecting me from myself again, were you?" Watson asked in a rasp. His fingers curled carefully around Holmes's neck, his palm scraping on bare skin and making them both shiver.
"You do seem to require it from time to time." Holmes's voice was strange and high. He lifted his chin and his mouth almost brushed against Watson's jaw. "But you--you seem quite aware of our situation, at present."
Watson opened his eyes, drew back enough to get a look at Holmes's face. His heart ached from beating so hard. Holmes was so very close, his throat so warm under Watson's hand.
"It's ours?" Watson asked, sounding impossibly dim. "I mean, it's not just--you are afflicted as well?"
His voice broke, and he hadn't meant for that to happen. Holmes's eyes darkened somehow further as he tightened the grip he had on Watson's hip, and Watson's whole body tensed in anticipation, and then Matthew Shaw screamed from the other room.
His wife was dead.
The doctor swiftly removed himself from the detective and let the veil of formality drop down over his features again. The hallway was alive suddenly, an angered beehive as the servants hovered and Mrs Durley reeled down the hall, weeping. The door was thrown open and Shaw was revealed, prostrate on Kate's deathbed, a keening moan like a threnody wrenched out of his body.
Watson had to turn away for a moment, putting his hand over his eyes. It was too much, a blinding overexposure. Holmes's rough voice echoed in his head, the warmth of Holmes's skin under his hand. There was a terrifying joy building in Watson's chest, and in the other room Shaw was sobbing, pleading, "Breathe, please, breathe, my only love."
Being the only remotely capable person in the house at that moment, and having a natural inclination towards it anyway, Holmes promptly took control of the room. He separated Shaw from his wife's body and gave him a strong shot of whiskey before letting the young man collapse against the wall, gaping in beggared disbelief. Holmes had the maid fetch a clean sheet to wrap Kate in, and sent the page to fetch a bobby as he interviewed the household as to their master's favoured haunts.
Watson stood aside, mechanically fixing a sleeping draught for Mrs Durley. He watched Holmes deal with the constabulary with that constant edge of contempt on everything he said, and he watched the late Kate Shaw be wrapped in the shroud, her face already waxen, disappearing last.
Soon enough it was done. Holmes set the coppers on the criminal doctor, enlisting one to make sure Shaw got home, and then to stay up in his sitting room until the night had passed and the man was not dead by his own hand. The bobby was less than enthused, until Holmes produced a rattling palmful of the most convincing lucre.
Then Holmes had Watson's arm once more, and dragged him to the kerb, the caliginous dank of the East End crowding around them. Holmes hailed a cab, and to Watson's quiet elation they were once again alone.
Holmes sat opposite Watson, as he typically did, but seemingly without thought he let his knee rest against his friend's, their legs crossed like swords. Watson looked at Holmes openly, as much as he wanted to, and his face was stained red, his collar itchy and hot.
Holmes bent a very slight smile. "That is a most charming expression you're wearing, Watson."
Watson leaned forward, laid his fingers on Holmes's knee with careful intent. Holmes twitched, jerked back against the seat. His eyes arrested Watson's, dug into him.
"You have not answered my question," Watson said. He could still taste adrenaline, smell Holmes's tobacco from inches away.
Holmes blinked. Then he grinned.
"Come, my dear man. You know I can't bear to let you have any fun on your own."
And then, because you lose your mind along with your heart, Holmes leaned forward and kissed Watson on the mouth, one hand closing in his coat collar, tongue pressing in immediately.
The cab's window was open, and all of London asleep beyond it. Watson knocked Holmes's hat off his head and buried his hands in the man's hair, and kissed him as if the river were on fire, the Tower crumbling, the world ending.
For the two of them it came as instinct.
Watson remembered the first time Holmes shrugged his shirt off and sank to his knees, the first time Holmes's mouth met his stomach, the first time Holmes slid his hand up the inside of Watson's thigh, how easy it all seemed, how thoughtlessly well-designed. Holmes's palm fit Watson's ribs just perfectly. The scrape of Holmes's teeth on his thumb made Watson's life flash before his eyes. Everything Holmes did felt essential, like his body wasn't complete without Holmes's hands on him.
He had Holmes bent over the arm of the sofa, and flat on his back on the carpet, and against the bookshelves with Holmes's grasping hands pulling down first editions like a bruising rain. Watson learnt the feel of Holmes's legs hooked over his shoulders, and the roll of Holmes's head in his hand as Holmes fought to get his mouth on skin. He learnt how Holmes's body tightened and gave around him, the taste of the sweat on his shoulder blades, the painless digging heat of Holmes's teeth into his fingers, the palm of his hand. Watson studied him like a map of Heaven, until he knew everything down to the calculating expression Holmes wore even in the deepest sleep, and how Holmes woke up pressing insistently into whatever warmth there was.
Now when they got drunk, Holmes slumped across the sofa and grinned messily at Watson, calling him, "lovely boy," and every few minutes demanding a kiss.
Once, Watson asked him, "Did you really think I was so dull as to miss my own devotion to you?"
Holmes smirked, holding a match for the doctor to light his cigarette and then sliding his arm back around Watson's bare chest. "Well, you had managed to miss my devotion to you, which, let us be fair, is a rather prominent feature of my personality. I thought perhaps your perceptions were flawed due to the emotionality of the issue."
Watson rested his hand on Holmes's leg, felt the detective's chin scrape against his temple. "I could not believe that you would ever-"
His voice cracked, but Holmes loved him, and so he interrupted, "Hush, Watson," slowly pulling his open hand across the doctor's side.
Eventually, Watson confessed to it all, every tormented moment and guilt-ridden fantasy, and Holmes soaked it up, his eyes avid and recording. Holmes wanted to know everything about Watson, every small cruelty, every murdered thought and fleeting hope, every one of the petty trivial days that had made up his life before he'd met Sherlock Holmes. Holmes wanted to be an expert in Watson; he wanted to be fluent. Watson handed himself over without qualm.
Several months passed, and fate found them boarding a ship bound for America. They were tailing a pair of jewel thieves passing themselves off as the children of nouveau riche industrialists. Holmes had wanted to go in disguise but Watson thought that was just pointless theatrics (the jewel thieves had never even seen them before), and said he would allow a phoney accent at most.
Holmes was somewhat put out, but Watson had gone to his knees between the detective's legs in the cab on their way to the docks, and thus inspired Holmes to a rather more compliant humour.
Holmes was soft-lidded as they stepped onto the sun-stroked main deck, his hands absently pawing at Watson, brushing his shoulder, the small of his back. Watson shooed him away, a clean spot of heat melting in his stomach. He hid his smile, narrow-eyed against the sun.
"Mind yourself, sir," Watson said low. Holmes mumbled back, "I'll mind you," which did not make sense, and Watson wanted to kiss him.
Then Holmes was straightening suddenly, his hand firm on Watson's back. Watson looked to see the ship's captain approaching, glad-handing his way through the shuffling crowds.
"We must make a good impression on him, Watson," Holmes said into the doctor's ear. "The allegiance of the captain is the key to any ship."
"What are our names?" Watson asked at once, but it was not fast enough, the captain already upon them. He bowed most courteously to them both.
"Good morning, gentlemen. I am Captain Perry, quite thrilled to make your acquaintance. I trust you have found your accommodations suitable?"
Holmes took the captain's hand in a vigorous shake, saying in a flawlessly rounded accent, "A pleasure, a pleasure I'm sure, and what a lovely ship, sir, I cannot begin to say. My name is Adelphos Constantine and this is my brother Philemon."
He tossed his arm around Watson's shoulders, and Watson saw a beautiful grin break on the detective's face as Holmes continued joyfully, "We hail from Greece."