Watson sighs when the door swings open with no one there and Holmes’ voice announces: “Watson, I have found a way to make myself invisible!”
Although, obviously, Watson can’t see him, he imagines an appropriately melodramatic arm gesture to accompany the words. He stares at the air where Holmes presumably is for a moment.
“That’s nice,” he says. “Have you found a way to make yourself visible again yet?”
There is a very long pause. “...no,” Holmes says at last, sounding irritated that Watson has pointed this out.
“Right. Jolly good.” He looks back down at the newspaper in his lap. After a while, he looks back up again, and then realises he has no way of knowing if Holmes has gone anywhere or not. “Are you still there?” There is no sound at all. Watson frowns. “Holmes?” Still no reply. “Holmes?” When there is still no sound, he exhales loudly and looks down at the newspaper. “Idiot,” he mutters.
“Actually, Watson,” Holmes’ disembodied voice replies, sounding affronted, “I think you’ll find I am a genius. Who else could have achieved this?”
“Well, no one,” Watson concedes, smirking in Holmes’ general direction because he fell for it, “and it is very impressive. On the other hand, Holmes, you are now actually invisible with no way of turning yourself back.”
“Ah,” Holmes says. A moment later, the door to his study opens and then slams closed.
Watson starts laughing, possibly with a hint of hysteria in it, until it occurs to him that Holmes is going to be invisible for the foreseeable future, which is going to make life at Baker Street until now look like a picnic, and suddenly the humour drops right out of the situation.
“I haven’t seen much of Mister Holmes around lately,” Mrs Hudson remarks two days later, concern flickering across her face. “Is he all right?”
“Oh, yes,” Watson says, much too quickly. Mrs Hudson knows them far too well and she immediately looks suspicious. “I mean, he’s decided he’s going to write a book,” he continues, improvising wildly. “So he’s shut himself up to work on it. I hardly see him at the moment.”
“Right,” Mrs Hudson says, looking unconvinced. Living with Holmes really does make you paranoid, Watson reflects. “Well, as long as he’s not trying to blow up the furniture,” she sighs at last, picking up the empty tea tray.
Shortly after the door closes, Holmes’ unmistakable laughter echoes from the armchair beside Watson. Watson turns his head so fast he almost gives himself whiplash. “How long have you been there? I thought you were in your room!”
“I’m going to write a book?” Holmes sounds incredulous. “Really, Watson, you’d think by now you would be a better liar.”
“And what was I supposed to say?” Watson demands. “I can’t tell her the truth, can I?”
“I don’t see why not,” Holmes tells him. Watson can hear him shrugging; over the last couple of days he has learned that he knows Holmes so well that even without seeing him he can deduce every last one of his mannerisms when he is talking. He would suspect that this tells him he has been spending too much time in Holmes’ company, but he knew that already.
“You have made yourself invisible,” Watson reminds him. “She would be terrified. Any sane person would be terrified.”
“You’re not terrified,” Holmes accuses.
“That is because someone has to be the sensible one here,” Watson points out, “and given that you spent half of yesterday standing on the street corner trying to snatch people’s hats off without them noticing, I think we can safely say that it is not you.”
There is a sulky silence from Holmes’ armchair. Watson waits two minutes and when Holmes still says nothing, he ventures: “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It was a scientific experiment,” Holmes protests.
Watson sighs. “Yes, and you also got three new hats out of it. Very irresponsible, of course.”
He imagines he can hear Holmes smile.
Watson is in the process of taking Mrs Forbes’ pulse and smiling at her in a reassuring manner when he feels a sharp poke to the side of his head. Behind his grin, his teeth grit.
“I have not heard much from your associate today,” Mrs Forbes remarks, glancing nervously in the direction of Holmes’ study. Watson does not blame her; all his patients have become accustomed to noisy explosions coming from next door.
“He is out,” Watson lies, emphasizing the out. It does no good; a moment later he is prodded from the other side. He closes his eyes for a long moment, reminding himself that he does not want to look certifiably insane in front of someone who is paying for him to treat them and so he cannot afford to react.
As he continues to examine Mrs Forbes he pointedly ignores the objects floating around his office: books flying apparently unaided from side to side, his medical equipment being rearranged, random sheets of paper being waved to and fro in a way clearly designed to distract him. Watson pretends not to notice any of it, though his knuckles are going white against the edge of his desk.
Mrs Forbes looks worriedly at the anatomical statues on his windowsill. “Were they arranged that way a moment ago?” she asks worriedly, eyes narrowed.
Watson takes a deep, calming breath. “Yes,” he assures her with a smile that has probably become a grimace. “Yes, they were.”
Mrs Forbes looks troubled and Watson endeavours not to look at the piece of paper currently being waved behind her head; the piece of paper with a single word in Holmes’ scrawling script written on it. Hypochondria. Watson knows this, but since she was widowed Mrs Forbes has not had a lot in her life and so he will humour her as much as he can. He waits until she has left - promising to return at the same time next week - before turning around to confront his apparently-empty office.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asks, exasperation clear in his voice. “I suppose you were bored.”
“I wanted to see what you were like as a doctor when you were not nagging someone for getting themselves hurt,” Holmes replies, defiant.
Watson closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, attempting to ward off a migraine already well in progress. He sighs. “Did you learn anything?”
If he keeps his eyes shut, he can pretend that Holmes is perfectly visible and that this madness is not happening. “Nothing I did not already know,” Holmes replies, a curious softness to his tone. Watson’s eyes open at that, but of course he cannot see Holmes or even attempt to read his shuttered facial expressions so the exercise is futile. He decides to deal with this at a later date, and instead focus on the matter at hand.
“You can’t stay here,” he says. “I have work to do, and I’m sorry that you’re bored, but perhaps you wouldn’t be bored if you were visible and able to hold conversations with people.”
“I have no interest in people at all,” Holmes responds, words clipped with the disdain he spares for the outside world.
“Well then,” Watson shrugs, “you can have no interest in me and you can go.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Holmes tells him, “you are not people, Watson.”
Ordinary, Watson is pleased and flattered about this. Right now, he rather wishes that he were. “Go away, Holmes.” He walks over to the door and holds it open. “Out.” After a long moment, he adds: “I know you’re still here. Out.”
There is a huffy sigh and he feels the air ripple as Holmes brushes past him. Watson swiftly closes the door, resisting the urge to lock it behind him.
His bedroom is dark, sliced through with shafts of moonlight between the curtains. It has been a long evening but not a bad one; Watson is finally becoming used to having long conversations with a man he cannot see, a teacup or wine glass floating in mid-air often the only indication of Holmes’ position at all. The whole study stinks of smoke and acrid chemicals and there are cracked glass vessels everywhere, as Holmes fruitlessly attempts to turn himself back. Watson is not normally a man who shies away from any thought, no matter how unpleasant, but he finds himself unwilling to contemplate what will happen if Holmes never returns to normal. It will, at least, save them the trouble of trying to keep Holmes’ picture out of the newspapers, but on the other hand Watson dreads to think what would happen if this became public knowledge. It would lead to paranoia, he knows, and he cannot help but think that people would want Holmes hunted down, contained, and possibly worse.
Watson pushes those bleak thoughts away, pulling too roughly at his tie. It is hard, harder than he’ll ever admit to Holmes. He is trying to keep up a facade of bored frustration because he does not want to let his worries slip out for Holmes to analyse and study like specimens. His fingers fumble over the buttons of his waistcoat and he swallows awkwardly. Watson is tired, he decides, and so he is not to blame for the increasingly bleak line of his thoughts and in the morning perhaps this situation will have returned to being mildly amusing and utterly ridiculous and implausible, rather than gruelling and no good at all for his nerves. In any case, Watson will never admit that he misses Holmes, misses having his friend around, rather than this shadow with Holmes’ voice that plays his violin and brushes Watson’s arm in the same way he always has done, but with nothing to look at. Watson misses eye contact and smiling at each other and a dozen other tiny things he never contemplated when he had them.
Well, perhaps that is a lie, but in any case he contemplated them much less.
He leaves his dressing gown over a chair and starts unbuttoning his shirt, dragging it down over his shoulders, finally letting it crumple into a heap on the floor. For a moment, Watson thinks he hears a sharp intake of breath behind him, but of course when he turns around there’s nothing at all there. The small mirror nailed to the wall reveals him, skin bare and streaked with silver light, scar tissue from the war melded into shadow, but no one at all.
“Holmes?” he asks, soft and low, but there is no response. No response at all.
Watson cannot tell if this is paranoia or wishful thinking, and pulls his nightshirt over his head, skin still prickling as though he is being watched. But his door is shut and locked and he left Holmes in the living room and so he must be imagining things. He must be.
It takes him a long time to fall asleep.
“I’m sorry Mr Holmes can’t be here in person,” Watson says to the trembling young man requesting Holmes’ detective services. He just about manages not to cast a dark glare of this is all your fault to the corner where Holmes is sitting. Well, where Holmes was sitting, the last Watson was aware of his whereabouts, and once again he curses how inconvenient the invisibility has become, now his initial anxieties and fears have worn off. Holmes is no nearer to developing an antidote, or has possibly lost interest in developing an antidote, and has resorted to doing the things he normally does when bored and holed up in his rooms, only now Watson cannot see him to try and stop him. “His illness is quite infectious, but if you give me the details of the case I will relay them to him.”
The man continues to look distressed and wring his hands, and Watson resists to tell him that, of the two of them, he is at least more reassuring and the least likely to start analysing the man himself and tell him unpalatable truths.
“My name is Henry Lockhart,” he begins at last, and pours out a tale relating to his new fiancée, who has disappeared and is possibly at the heart of a blackmail scandal, and Watson listens very hard and makes notes and does not look over at the corner where a ribbon of pipe smoke is beginning to appear.
Watson sends Henry Lockhart off with as many reassurances as he can, shuts the door behind him, and turns to look at Holmes. The trail of pipe smoke has moved over to one of the windows, lingering in the air like the path of a ghost, though at least Watson has a vague idea of Holmes’ whereabouts.
“Well?” he asks.
“The girl has run off to Paris with his best friend,” Holmes responds, sounding bored. “At this moment in time, I cannot say I blame her.”
“She’s clever, I’ll give her that,” Holmes adds, the smoke drifting towards the table where Irene Adler’s photograph is kept. Watson feels his teeth grit, almost of their own accord, and sincerely hopes Holmes is distracted enough not to notice. “But not quite clever enough.”
“So how are we going to tell Mr Lockhart this?” he asks. “Since you are currently still lamentably out of sight.”
“Telegram?” Holmes suggests, tone distant.
“He cannot be told this via telegram, Holmes,” Watson half-snaps. He never ceases to be amazed at how Holmes can understand every shred of human emotion and yet not comprehend it in the slightest. The difference between seeing the steps up to their rooms and knowing that there are seventeen of them. “It is rather distressing news.”
Holmes sighs heavily, though something about it rings false. “Well, you will have to make an appointment with him and tell him. I will continue to suffer from whatever terribly infectious disease you have seen fit to diagnose me with.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Watson says, suddenly realising something that had not occurred to him until now. “You have an excuse not to interact with the outside world now. You can continue to do whatever you wish, and you don’t even have to talk to people.”
“I talk to you,” Holmes protests.
“You’ve already told me that I do not count as people,” Watson reminds him, and wonders exactly what will happen if he really honestly becomes the only person in Holmes’ life. It can feel like that, some days, but at least Holmes ordinarily communicates with Mrs Hudson and Lestrade and the men he beats to a pulp at the Punchbowl and clients of various kinds. Now, he only communicates with Watson, and if this continues, it really could drive them both mad. “Holmes, are you even trying to find an antidote?”
“Yes!” Holmes responds, but there is a defensive edge to his tone, and Watson thinks that he is lying. He’s got much better at reading Holmes since he lost the ability to see him, at learning what slight changes in tone mean.
He opens his mouth to reply, and realises that despair and frustration are welling up within him. Instead, he turns around and leaves, slamming the door swiftly behind him to prevent Holmes from following him without his knowledge. He takes his coat, hat and cane from the hatstand in the hall, and walks out without even glancing back. There would be no point, after all.
In the middle of St James’s park, a hand catches his elbow. Watson turns to look, but there is no one there and he sighs, glancing quickly around before hissing:
“You followed me.”
“Of course I did,” Holmes responds, sounding a little breathless. “You might slow down a little, old boy.”
“I didn’t want company,” Watson informs him tightly. “And I would really like not to be seen talking to myself.”
“There is no one around to see,” Holmes assures him. “Really, Watson, what is the matter with you?”
“I am tired,” Watson grits out, careful to keep his tone low and not to look too much like he is talking to anyone. “I am tired and you are invisible and making no effort to do anything about it and sooner or later it is all going to become very messy and it’s already hopelessly ridiculous.”
He does not add I am half-convinced that you are following me around the rooms, if only because Holmes does not need to know that he is driving himself insane with wanting and yet not wanting it at the same time. Holmes is probably too busily sneakily drugging Gladstone – who is rather unimpressed with the whole business, and growls anytime Holmes says anything – to bother with hiding in Watson’s room or creeping in while Watson is having a bath or any of the other places he has suddenly felt he is being watched.
“You are tired,” Holmes agrees, and his tone says I am sorry though his words do not. “Come on.” His hand grasps Watson’s elbow more firmly and Watson finds he is being lead along the path, though he tries desperately not to look like it. After all, he does not need to gain a reputation for insanity.
“Where are we going?” he demands softly, trying not to move his lips.
“To get a hansom home,” Holmes responds, as though it should be obvious. He sighs, and Holmes sounds rather tired too. “I shall start looking for an antidote in the morning.”
“Thank you,” Watson says quietly, and then they don’t speak at all.
Holmes sits beside him in the cab, warmth pressed all along one side of Watson’s body at least telling him that he is there, though when the carriage jostles them his hand brushes the curve of Holmes’ elbow. The bare curve of Holmes’ elbow, his mind supplies, and even though he knows he should not Watson moves his hand deliberately, following the line of skin up Holmes’ arm, over his shoulder. Watson feels and hears Holmes inhale sharply, and pulls his hand away.
He almost does not want to ask, but he does not have much choice. Pitching his voice low, he says, a little hesitantly: “Do I want to know exactly what you’re wearing right now?”
“No,” Holmes supplies swiftly. “I was not expecting to leave the house, after all, and propriety does not matter if people cannot see you.”
A dozen delicious and inappropriate images flash through Watson’s mind. He pulls himself together, letting the doctor in him take over because the rest of him is not currently capable of speech. “Are you at least wearing shoes?”
Holmes laughs, and Watson realises that he has managed to surprise him. “Yes, Watson, I am wearing shoes. And a hat,” he adds.
Further questions press themselves against Watson’s tongue but none of them are at all suitable. He swallows. “Well,” he says, “I suppose we must thank heaven for small mercies.”
He pays the cab driver – pleased that he has only been charged as one person, for once – and walks up the steps to the door. Holmes brushes past him, a slide of naked skin against the back of Watson’s hand, and he swallows hard, tormented by all that he cannot see but can imagine. God, can he imagine it.
Watson largely avoids the study for the next few days, as it is generally full of fire and smoke and spilled chemicals as Holmes stays true to his words and endeavours to find a way to return himself to full visibility. Watson sees patients and lies through his teeth to Mrs Hudson and even goes to Mr Lockhart’s house and gives him the fiancée-has-run-away-to-Paris news in as kind a tone as he can manage. As days pass, he finds himself increasingly impatient for Holmes to cure himself; he finds that he misses him too much, wants to see the way his eyes soften when he smiles, the furrows in his brow as he thinks. The little details Watson drank like water when they were before him, but now he is parched, starved of them, and finally coming to realise just how much he misses them.
Reading the newspaper in the bathtub, he almost jumps out of his skin when the door opens, dropping the paper into the water.
“Holmes!” he hisses. “What are- what are you doing in here?”
“I just wanted to let you know that experiment number forty-one is a failure,” Holmes’ voice tells him, echoing off the walls, making it impossible to pinpoint where he is.
“I can see that,” Watson half-snaps, still startled. “Well, I cannot see that, which is really the same thing.”
“You wanted to kept informed,” Holmes replies, a hint of a snap in his tone.
“Yes, but...” Watson trails off, staring wildly around the room. “I am sick of having no bloody idea where you are,” he groans, water sloshing everywhere as he crosses protective arms over his chest. The newspaper is disintegrating in the soapy water. “Get out, Holmes.”
The door slams closed, and Watson glances warily around but of course there is nothing to see. Most of him is certain that Holmes has not left, but he does not think he has the energy to insist that he leave. Instead, he splashes soap across himself, washing as fast as he can, and then stands up in the tub, water sheeting down his body. Part of him hopes that Holmes can see this, revenge for the restless night Watson spent wondering just how much time Holmes spent barely-dressed as he is, after all, impossible to see. It makes all conversations Watson has with him awkward, as he pictures Holmes wearing his hat or his shoes or maybe his scarf but nothing else at all.
Holmes talks brightly and loudly when Watson eventually returns to the study, fully-clothed, damp hair curling a little as it dries. Watson is not fooled for a moment.
Two white handprints are floating in the air. Watson stands in the doorway and stares at them for a moment; in front of the mirror Holmes uses for putting on his various disguises, thick, white hands are moving intently. There are pots of make-up and skin cream open next to the mirror, and as Watson watches a slick streak of white paint appear in the air, bending as though following invisible contours.
Realisation hits him even as he gasps out: “what are you doing?”
“You expressed irritation at not being able to see where I am,” Holmes responds, sounding distracted. “So I am merely removing that problem.”
Holmes’ palms are covered in skin paint, Watson realises, white theatrical make-up, and he is smudging it over his face. The familiar features are beginning to emerge; Holmes’ stubble is raised beneath the make-up, the sharp lines of his cheekbones, the curves of his lips. His eyes remain blank sockets, of course, somewhat eerie until Holmes puts on his black glasses with their round lenses. It is a parody of Holmes, one formed of shining white wax, but it is Holmes at last.
Watson walks closer, distracted as Holmes’ jaw begins to emerge, smothered in paint.
“Have you found a cure yet?” he asks softly, voice catching in his throat in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with the question.
“It must distil overnight,” Holmes replies. “I do not know. I thought this might help in the meantime.”
He continues to slather make-up down his neck and Watson watches, utterly fascinated, as though someone is carving Holmes out of marble. Inhuman, yes, there is no warmth of flesh implied by the stark curve of Holmes’ Adam’s apple, but there is something bewitching about it. He walks up directly behind Holmes, who does not falter in his work. It is incredible, after almost a month, to see Holmes again, even this ridiculous imitation of him.
“Let me help,” he says, reaching to dip his fingers into a pot of paint, the texture greasy and smooth. Holmes seems startled for a moment, then tips his head to one side to allow Watson to apply a thick smear of paint down the side of his neck, tendons appearing beneath the skin. Holmes may look clinical but he does not feel it; his skin is warm and smooth beneath Watson’s fingers, and he smudges more paint onto his hand, sliding it down to reveal the bare dip of Holmes’ collarbone. He can feel the pulse beneath the skin, the hammering of Holmes’ heart, and his steady doctor’s hands are not quite so steady any more.
He takes a step back. “Perhaps you should finish this,” he says, “or perhaps it’s not the best of ideas. After all, you’d need a lot of paint, it could be a waste.” Words are falling thoughtlessly from his mouth, just a little helpless.
“Watson,” Holmes says, and it is unnerving to be able to see his facial expression for once. “Watson, are you quite all right?”
“Yes,” Watson says, though he isn’t, taking a step back. “I have patients,” he adds, almost desperate, paint smudging the door handle as he backs out.
Watson closes his bedroom door and locks it automatically behind him. He has spent the day with his patients, spent the evening at a club drinking brandy with fellow doctors, trying to ignore the feeling of Holmes’ bare skin beneath his hands, the desire he must not think about. After all, Holmes may become visible again tomorrow, and then none of this will really matter anymore anyway.
“You have been avoiding me,” Holmes’ voice says, harsh, accusing.
“I haven’t been avoiding you,” Watson says automatically.
“And now you’re lying poorly,” Holmes adds.
Watson looks at the door and then at his dark bedroom, unable to work out just where Holmes is. “Have you been waiting for me?”
“For some time, yes,” Holmes says.
Watson swallows, and it sounds much too loud. “You washed the paint off,” he says inanely, trying to keep himself calm.
“I did,” Holmes agrees. “There did not seem to be much point in it if you were not around.”
“I suppose not,” Watson murmurs. “Is your cure ready yet?”
“I will not know until the morning,” Holmes reminds him. His voice has drifted closer, though all Watson can see is the moonlight. “As you already knew. You seem nervous, Watson.”
“I’m startled,” Watson says, and it is only half of a lie. “It is very hard, not knowing where you are, and you appearing inexplicably from time to time.”
“That certainly sounds plausible,” Holmes agrees, and his voice is pressing ever closer. “I rather thought there was a different reason for your nervousness.”
“Really?” Watson’s voice is admirably steady and he congratulates himself for it, for holding onto the last thin line of his reserve.
“I rather thought it might be something to do with your urge to do this.” Holmes’ voice is so close Watson can feel breath against his face and the moment the words have been said, a mouth presses against his.
“Holmes-” Watson begins, but the name is swallowed in Holmes’ mouth against his. He cannot stop himself from kissing back, from reaching for contact though he still cannot see anything. Holmes’ body materialises under his hands, a warm expanse of skin.
“Do I want to know exactly what you’re wearing right now?” he whispers, Holmes’ bare hips cradled in his hands.
“That would be an erroneous question,” Holmes responds softly.
“Why?” Watson asks.
“Because, as you have probably gathered, Watson, I am not wearing anything at all...”
Watson cannot believe that the guttural sound of want that escapes his lips actually came from him, but Holmes kisses him again and it is lost in the contact, in Holmes’ hands against his shoulders. Without thinking, Watson opens his eyes, and all he can see is the moonlight. He takes a step back, letting go abruptly. He thinks he hears Holmes stumble a little, but of course he cannot tell.
“This is disconcerting,” he says desperately. “I can’t-”
Holmes is silent for a moment, and then says: “I believe I have the solution.”
The top drawer of Watson’s dresser scrapes open, and various items of clothing tumble carelessly out of it onto the floor. Eventually, a scarf is drawn out, one Holmes likes to steal but which Watson recently managed to reclaim. Watson stands absolutely still as the scarf – presumably still in Holmes’ grasp – floats across the room and then covers his eyes completely, knotted tightly behind his head as a blindfold. Holmes’ hands come back to his arms, almost tentative. “Better?” he asks quietly.
Watson imagines that he can see Holmes in front of him, really see him, and when Holmes pulls him back into a kiss Watson focuses solely on the contact, and it is no longer disconcerting in the slightest.
The bed is empty when Watson wakes up in the morning and drags the scarf away from his eyes. There is an indentation in the other pillow, the sheets are still rumpled, but there does not appear to be anyone at all there. He reaches tentatively over to the other side of the mattress, but there really is no one there. Something that is almost a grimace and almost a smile spreads across his mouth and he gets up, going to get dressed and tidy his clothes back into the dresser.
The study is full of sunlight when he walks in, and a stream of pipe smoke gives Watson some idea where Holmes is.
“Morning, dear boy,” Holmes says brightly. “I had to get up and try my latest cure.”
“And has it worked?” Watson asks.
“I cannot tell yet,” Holmes responds, “but it tasted vile.”
Watson sits in the armchair adjacent to the one Holmes is currently occupying, and stares intently at the air. Eventually, he realises he can see Holmes’ fingers, curled around the bowl of his pipe.
“You’re starting to reappear,” he says, relief and delight mingling in his tone.
Holmes’ fingers wiggle and flex in the air, still looking a little ghostly but definitely more solid and real than they have been in a month. “So it would seem,” he says, voice steady but there is definitely an undercurrent of pleasure.
“So,” Watson says, something occurring to him, “I suppose you had better go and get dressed.”
Holmes laughs, but stops abruptly after a moment. “Yes,” he agrees, sounding a little surprised, “I suppose I better had.”