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These Things Were Promises

Chapter Text

We are drifting you and I,
As far from one another as the young heroes
Of these two novels we have just laid down.
For that is happiness: to wander alone
Surrounded by the same moon, whose tides remind us of ourselves,
Our distances, and what we leave behind.

– Hugo Williams

When Margaret announces that she no longer wishes to associate with him and that she is really very sorry, she at least has the decency to claim that it is all down to her squeamishness and therefore inability to ever become a doctor’s wife, and she does not mention Sherlock Holmes at all. While of course everything she says is a lie, Watson finds himself grateful for the omission and immediately labels Margaret as better-bred than Emma, Lucy and Catherine, none of whom had any compunctions about listing all the reasons why Sherlock Holmes is a horrible, tiresome (little) man and how they could not stand to be acquainted with someone who was willing to consort with such a maniac. It is all admiration when they first meet him, having seen his picture in the papers and heard all the stories of him foiling various nefarious crimes, but women quickly lose patience with Holmes, with being calmly and casually insulted at formal dinners, with Watson missing appointment after appointment to be dragged around London to a number of increasingly inappropriate places.

“What did she call me this time?” Holmes calls down the stairs when Watson returns to the house, feet dragging reluctantly with every step because the conversation he has just had is going to be nothing compared to the conversation he is about to have. Holmes is leant over the banisters, bottle of spirits in one hand, and Watson would be irritated that Holmes knew what Margaret was planning despite having only met her twice when Watson himself had no idea at all, except that Holmes knows every time. Every single bloody time.

Watson contemplates turning around and walking back out into the unforgiving evening, but he never does. Instead, he leaves his hat and coat on the hall table – Mrs Hudson will give him a reproachful look later, but right now he does not care – and obediently trudges up the stairs, teeth gritting of their own accord.

“Was it creatively insulting?” Holmes asks far too eagerly, “or merely a reiteration of all the unsubstantiated London gossip that she will earnestly pretend she has not heard?”

There is, unfortunately, nothing that can be achieved from turning and running. Watson reaches the top of the stairs and follows Holmes into his dark and cluttered study.

“She didn’t say anything about you at all, actually,” he says, throwing himself into an armchair beside the dying fire and taking a quick moment to examine Holmes. They have not had a case in three weeks and Holmes is starting to crack; he is evidently already drunk and will be scrutinising this whole debacle with far more, well, scrutiny than Watson would really like him to as a result. “She said it was me.”

“Maybe it’s always you, dear boy,” Holmes suggests cheerfully, uncorking the bottle with his teeth and dropping into the adjacent arm chair. “Perhaps I am merely an excuse they use not to hurt your feelings.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Watson snaps. “Of course it’s you. It’s always you.” He accepts a glass of the unidentified spirit and swallows it whole; it burns on the way down and he grimaces. “You are single-handedly ruining any chance I might have at a normal relationship.” He does not sound nearly angry enough and tells himself he will really have to work on that in future.

Holmes pours him another glass. “If you actually cared you would move out,” he observes.

Watson has no reply to that and they both know it. He sighs – the heavy, world-weary sigh of resignation that he only ever gets out on these occasions – and sips at his drink. It is foul, the potent stuff Holmes always produces when Watson’s ladyfriend du jour decides that she has had enough of the whole farcical situation and walks away, and he sometimes wonders why his disappointment does not seem to warrant a rare vintage wine. He will never ask Holmes; Holmes will probably have a perfectly logical-sounding reason and Watson has no great wish to hear it. He will not like it; that much is certain.

=

There is nothing that escapes Holmes; it may take him a little while to put it all together but he does not miss a thing. You cannot lie to him, even unconsciously. In consequence, Watson has had to take a brutal course in being honest with himself, in knowing everything he can about his own thoughts and emotions, so nothing Holmes says will ever be a surprise. It stung, at first, but he has got better at it with time.

Back when they were still getting to know each other, back when Sherlock Holmes was exciting rather than the thorn in Watson’s side that he is rather more fond of than he will ever confess, he did not know that Holmes is as good as he is. He thought, then, that Holmes was human, was capable of being deceived or of missing something. After all, you do not meet someone and immediately assume that they can see every last thought you have ever had, including the ones you were not even aware you were thinking. In any case, it only took one conversation to prove to him that Holmes had already stripped Watson naked, formed his conclusions and put him back together again when they had only known each other a few scant weeks.

He has not underestimated him since.

Watson said something stupid, something he knows now you should never say to Holmes, but he did not know that then. He did not know that to say any permutation of tell me something about myself is to sign your own death warrant, to tighten the noose around your own neck, and to fall through the trap door entirely of your own volition. He did not know and so he said it, a light phrase of conversation tossed in Holmes’ direction after a dinner party at a mutual acquaintance’s.

Holmes fixed him with a considering look, more for the theatrics than for anything else but Watson only knows that with hindsight.

“Something about yourself that you already know, or something that you don’t?”

There was a garrotte-wire of a threat beneath the words, a wire Watson could not see because he was not looking for it. Still, Holmes’ reply was enough to make any form of playfulness die an immediate painful death, was enough to take all of the air out of the narrow hallway and tell Watson that if he did not tread carefully he could be faced with all kinds of unpleasant truths.

When he said nothing, Holmes flicked imaginary lint from his sleeve and began in a tone as light as light could be as though he were simply discussing the weather: “Well, Doctor Watson, there’s a certain Major who comes up from time to time in many of your anecdotes from the war – not often enough to arouse suspicion, of course, you’re too careful for that – but nonetheless your feelings regarding him are perfectly plain.”

Watson felt as though his stomach had disappeared, replaced with granite and ice. After a moment that could have lasted mere seconds or whole hours, he managed:

“I already knew that about myself.”

His voice did not shake nearly as much as he thought it should and he thanked God for his nerves, which had not been shot to pieces in the war and therefore would never fail him.

Holmes’ mouth flickered into a soft smile with nothing accusing or smug about it. “Oh, I know.” The implication that he knew other things about Watson, other secrets that lingered darkly in the back of his mind that Watson himself was not even aware of, glittered on his features.

That night, Watson swore to himself he would never go near Sherlock Holmes again; he was far too dangerous. From time to time, he genuinely wishes that he had kept his resolve.

=

Watson wakes up in what he is going to hope is the morning still sprawled in the armchair, Holmes’ dressing gown thrown over him in lieu of a blanket. It smells of gunpowder and tobacco and strong drink and he wrinkles his nose in distaste. The simple movement is painful, as though all the muscles in his face have stopped working, and an attempt to get up immediately reveals to Watson that he is not going to be going anywhere any time soon. The room is still dark, the curtains firmly closed with the barest chinks of daylight attempting to creep in but giving up within a few feet, and he cannot see Holmes anywhere.

It feels like his head is actually corroding. Given Holmes’ usual choice of beverages and their rather dubious brewing origins, Watson is not going to rule out this possibility. Gritting his teeth, which feel as though they want to part company with his gums, he manages to lever himself into a more upright sitting position, though the room spins around him and his hands are shaking. He blows a long breath out, swallowing nausea and irritation in equal measure.

“You’re awake.” Holmes’ voice floats through the darkened room towards him. Watson turns his head sharply and immediately regrets the movement. “Afternoon, old chap.”

Afternoon? Oh God. Watson grimaces. “I had patients this morning,” he says, his voice a dry croak.

“Mrs Hudson told them you were indisposed,” Holmes responds. He sounds far too composed and cheerful, but then Watson supposes that Holmes is far better at all this and is far more accustomed to it than he is. Watson narrows his eyes, squinting through the gloom, and can just about make out Holmes’ gleaming shirtsleeves in a corner near some bookcases. “They were very understanding and have all rescheduled for a few days’ time when you should have recovered from your incapacitating cold.”

Watson contemplates this for a moment. His thoughts feel as though they are drifting through molasses, heavy and aimless. “And where are we to get the rent money from in the meantime?” he enquires, hearing the slightest trace of acid in his tone.

Holmes wanders into his field of vision, still in yesterday’s clothes and hair a wild mess. “Well, we have the means to acquire it this time,” he points out, “unlike other months when a series of inadvisable decisions have caused it to fall into other men’s pockets. I am sure it will all iron itself out.”

His tone is light and far from accusatory but Watson still flinches at the memories of past indiscretions. They sting more than usual, since his self-esteem has crumbled to pieces from Margaret’s attempt at a conciliatory speech. Unable to look at Holmes, Watson’s gaze slides to a clock ticking away in a sea of papers on the nearest table; it is, apparently, three o’clock. A day wasted, and every inch of him aches.

“No wonder I lose friendships through knowing you,” Watson mutters, too much bitterness in his tone. “I don’t know how you could have thought this would be a good idea.”

Holmes laughs and throws himself into the other armchair. In the half-light, his eyes are darker than usual and entirely unreadable.

“This is what we do,” he says. “When the poor girl you have been foisting your attentions on decides that she would rather be elsewhere you come back here, blame me, we drink copious amounts of my alcohol, you cast quite frankly slanderous aspersions on my character and then you fall asleep. Later, you mourn the death of the relationship for a little less time than you really ought and we go back to normal.” Watson says nothing in reply, just stares at him for a long second. Holmes grins, a sudden flash of teeth, and adds: “It’s your routine, dear boy. I like routine.”

“No you don’t,” Watson can’t help but reply. “You say it stagnates the mind.”

“Do I?” Holmes sounds almost surprised. “Well, I suppose it certainly sounds like something I would say.” He stands up, immediately dismissive of the conversation. “Shall we see if Nanny can provide us with breakfast?”

“It’s three in the afternoon,” Watson feels compelled to point out.

“Late luncheon then,” Holmes says, unabashed, and makes his way through the gloom towards the door.

Watson leans back a little more in his chair, covering his aching eyes with one hand, and cannot help the half-smile that breaks out in spite of it all. Holmes opens the door and white light spills into the room, illuminating the chaos of Holmes’ own creation, and no doubt revealing the disgraceful condition Watson himself is in; unwashed, unshaven, unkempt, pallid, red-eyed and reeking of spirits. Still, it is a state of affairs that Mrs Hudson is only too acquainted with and her tired but entirely non-judgemental sigh when Holmes asks for nutrition of some description to be brought to his room brings a rueful laugh to Watson’s mouth.

And that is that. The affair is never brought up again.

=

Watson walks into Holmes’ room, finding his friend beside the fire, pipe clenched between his teeth, newspaper spread crackling across his lap. Holmes looks up, cheerful enquiry on his face, and offers him a smile.

“What’s the matter, old boy?”

“The thing is,” Watson says, “the thing is, Holmes, I am completely and hopelessly in love with you.”

There is a long, quiet pause where neither of them say anything and there are no sounds from the street below.

Holmes tips his head to one side. “Yes, I see how that could be problematic.”

Watson’s eyes snap open.

You cannot live with Holmes, cannot spend as much time around Holmes as Watson does without learning some of his methods. It is not second nature to him; he does not look at something and feel his mind light up, a thousand cogs turning faster than is visible, evidence and truth appearing seemingly instantaneously. Nonetheless, his analytical skills have improved tenfold and he has learned how to visualise and map out potential scenarios. Most of the time, the scenes he pictures relate to the case at hand; where would the criminals have walked, what would have been said, how would the fatal blows have been dealt. Possible conversations unfolding and unravelling in front of him.

Watson occasionally plans out conversations with patients, if he has bad news to deliver; pausing as he gazes down at Baker Street below he works out what he will say, how he will say it, what the patient will reply, how he will respond to their queries, their anxieties. Holmes’ influence has made him good at reading people, at working out exactly what his patients will say.

He cannot ever work out how a conversation with Holmes will go, no matter how carefully he tries to plan it. Holmes is predictable in that he defies prediction; it is impossible to guess how he will react to anything or if he will react at all.

The thing is, I am completely and hopelessly in love with you.

Yes, I see how that could be problematic.

It seems that even in his imagination, Watson cannot make Holmes be anything other than what he is. Even in the wildest fantastical realms of his mind, Watson cannot bend Holmes to his will. Cannot make him reply with anything other than hard, emotionless logic.

Staring the sliver of moonlight that always creeps between his curtains no matter how forcibly he closes them, Watson gazes up at his bedroom ceiling with the sheets clenched in his hands.

Yes, I see how that could be problematic.

Watson sighs heavily, the sound too loud in the empty room. “Bugger.”

=

Unlike Holmes, who has found altogether far too many unhealthy ways to fill up his copious amounts of free time and has therefore probably orchestrated the beginning of his own spiral into madness, Watson cannot find entertainment in lying around on a sofa accompanied only by his own thoughts. He has patients and from time to time there are cases and keeping Holmes from dying through inactivity and absent-mindedness and an astonishing lack of self-preservation takes up more of his time than he really wants to admit, but there are still a number of afternoons of nothingness stretching out into eternity.

It was what started him writing in the first place; that, and the fact such a large part of his life is so completely unbelievable he has to record it for posterity, just so that in future years he will be able to read back through them and convince himself that, yes, all of it really happened. Inelegant scribblings that he is simultaneously proud and awkward about, faithfully recounting the various crimes that he and Holmes have been caught up in. There have been times when they have fared better than others and there have been a few cases that left Watson with the strong urge to punch his friend in the face, but nonetheless they have made his life a fascinating patchwork of excitement that he thought he would never have again after his honourable discharge from the army, and so he writes them all down, every last detail.

Nothing can be kept secret from Holmes and Watson’s writing is no exception; Holmes figured it out in an embarrassingly short period of time and, after he had finished laughing at him, has become rather enamoured of the idea. Watson tried to hide his notebooks at first, not wishing to feed Holmes’ inherent narcissism any further, but he quickly realised that that was impossible when he came home one afternoon to find Holmes had calmly levered up the floorboards in Watson’s room and was sitting there reading amongst the carnage, chuckling to himself and writing something in the margin in black fountain pen. Now he hands his stories over when he has finished so Holmes can read them and pretend to be critical and judgemental while his eyes sparkle from having his ego stroked so very expertly. Holmes may think himself above humanity in many ways and may be able to analyse any given emotion to the truth behind it but he’s still as proud of his accomplishments as the next man.

One afternoon when Holmes has shut himself in his room with occasional Mysterious Noises that Watson is under no circumstances going to investigate forming an almost soothing accompaniment, he sits down at his desk, newspaper articles and his notebook of jottings spread around him, and begins to record a case they had three months ago. Gladstone settles himself to sleep on Watson’s feet, occasionally grunting when there is the sound of something breaking next door, and as his pen scratches over the pages Watson is entirely consumed by the sense of calm he only feels when immersed in the inconceivable ludicrousness of his daily life.

As always, bits and pieces of his domestic life slip into the narrative; dinners and afternoon walks and trips to the theatre and petty arguments over Holmes’ inherent untidiness slot themselves around the edges of the story, framing it into looking like they live a cosy little existence of crime fighting and easy (and ever so slightly homoerotic) camaraderie. Oh, there are things he leaves out; drunken evenings, weeks when Holmes refuses to leave the house and lies under his sofa under the influence of God knows what talking at a hundred miles an hour about things that only make sense to him, nights when Watson has to drag him, bleeding, from disreputable public houses with his knuckles bruised to hell from boxing, days when they will not even talk to each other after stupid squabbles that cut too deep and dragged each other’s worst flaws into the light. As with everything, there are times when being friends with Holmes that are easier than others, and times when it is messy, ugly hell, and Watson cannot ever picture himself leaving.

Watson knows that he is spending a little too long expounding on Holmes’ brilliance on piecing together the clues in this particular mystery, and wishes that he could reign himself in before his emotions are spilled too brightly onto the page. He worries the inside of his lower lip between his teeth and scratches out a couple of adjectives so hard his pen bites through the paper, reminding himself that putting the full extent of his frustrated, blind admiration into words to be read by the object of said admiration is a foolish and ultimately masochistic idea. He is so caught up in his own thoughts that he does not even notice that the sounds of things crashing and shattering next door has stopped.

He almost jumps out of his skin when Holmes’ thin fingers curl over his shoulders and Holmes himself leans over Watson to look at his notebook.

“It isn’t finished,” Watson says over the startled pounding of his heart.

“I was there,” Holmes points out. “Don’t worry; the ending has already been spoiled for me.”

Watson smiles and tries to ignore the sound of Holmes wandering around his room, picking things up and putting them back down again in the wrong places, as he continues to write down just how Holmes deduced the murderer from some frankly circumstantial evidence and a cigar butt. Watson is learning the skills of observation himself, but no one’s mind moves at the pace that Holmes’ does.

This time around, he is not as startled when Holmes leans back over his shoulders, a warm weight smelling of smoke and Watson does not want to know what he has been doing with his afternoon.

“Are you writing about how handsome I am?” Holmes enquires cheerfully, mouth too close to Watson’s ear.

If he were the sort of person who blushed, Watson suspects he would be blushing now, though there is no reason for it at all. As it is, he simply swallows a little too hard and blots the end of his sentence.

“I am writing about your incredible modesty,” Watson responds dryly.

When Holmes laughs it is crushed too close and it feels too intimate, intimate enough for Watson to grit his teeth. Beneath the desk, Gladstone shifts and growls.

“There is no such thing as modesty,” Holmes informs him. “It’s just a tiresome character trait thought up and feigned by people with nothing else to recommend them.”

“That’s damning,” Watson remarks.

“It’s the truth, of course it’s damning,” Holmes says. There’s silence as he reads, and Watson sincerely hopes he cannot decipher the messy traces of the obliterated adjectives. “Not one word about how handsome I am,” Holmes says after a moment. “I’m disappointed, I’m sure there’s space for something complimentary.”

“Vanity is not attractive,” Watson informs him, “and besides, this is supposed to be a truthful account of events.”

Holmes laughs and straightens up, hands slipping from Watson’s shoulders, and Watson determinedly does not miss the contact in the slightest.

“I need to borrow one of your shirts,” Holmes announces.

Watson has never got anything that he lent Holmes back, but he does not begrudge the loss of his belongings, though he suspects he should. He does not ask why Holmes needs his clothing; he is sure the answer will become evident in time.

“Go ahead,” he says, and listens to Holmes cross the hall to his bedroom before something occurs to him and he calls: “Not the blue one!” after him.

Early evening, when his hand is cramped from writing and his fingers are sufficiently ink-stained, Watson opens his wardrobe to discover all his shirts still hanging there intact except for, as he suspected, the blue one.

It is a problem, of course, that Watson cannot even bring himself to be angry about this.

=

Holmes knows. He has to know. Watson is still not entirely sure why he has chosen not to bring it up, though he has spent more time than he is comfortable thinking about it. He cannot work out whether Holmes is exercising some form of previously undisclosed discretion, or if he is under the impression that Watson does not know and so is misguidedly trying to protect him from his own inconvenient emotions.

Watson thinks that by now he knows almost as much about himself as Holmes knows about him, but he also thinks that Holmes does not know this. It would all be a lot easier if they could have a frank conversation, but they never will, Watson can tell this. Besides, he cannot shake the niggling thought that Holmes is aware of more, can see thoughts in Watson’s head that he has somehow not noticed, thoughts that will negate the feelings he believes he has for Holmes or, at the very least, make them into something slightly different. It is impossible to tell what Holmes sees when he looks at another human being, and on the whole Watson thinks he is grateful for this; he thinks the world through Sherlock Holmes’ eyes is too bright and too tangled and too ugly and it would not be comprehensible to anyone who was halfway sane.

Well, it is entirely possible that Watson is no longer even halfway sane any more, but that is not a notion to dwell on.

In any case, Watson tries his hardest not to be screamingly obvious about the fact he’s enamoured of his best friend, tries to be discreet enough that it is at least hidden from ordinary people, people who cannot read the secrets and habits of a lifetime in half a smile and three sentences that initially appear innocuous until it turns out that the choice of verbs is really ever so telling. He and Holmes are getting along famously with denial, with pretending Watson does not have intensely inappropriate (not to mention illegal) feelings for the man he lives with, and Watson is always honest with himself because he has no choice but that does not stop him from doing his best to believe that Holmes does not know. That the brilliant detective who knows everything about everyone has somehow accidentally slipped up and failed to interpret Watson’s devotion accurately. It is a nice fantasy, in any case, and has gone a long way to preventing him losing his mind from frustration and anxiety.

None of this is helped, of course, by the fact Watson is one of only a few thin lines standing between Holmes and complete and utter insanity. Without him, Watson knows that Holmes would almost certainly be dead by now. Holmes needs someone who can say things like it’s been three days and I know you think what you’re doing is going to revolutionise medical science forever, and who’s to say it won’t, but really, don’t you think it’s about time you ate something? or I know that you are bored and the world has nothing to interest you and the Royal Opera House is showing nothing but Puccini and you have made your feelings regarding him abundantly clear on a number of occasions, but please, leave the cocaine alone for one night or even the man has sent you death-threats and while obviously you cannot take this lying down and you must track him down and bring him to justice, nonetheless, can’t you sit down for ten minutes and formulate a plan of some description rather than running straight out into the rain and, no doubt, into a trap? Holmes listens to him, really listens to him, and that scares Watson sometimes: that his words of wisdom can hold Holmes still when nothing else will. The problem, or rather, one of the many problems, is that Holmes genuinely really actually needs Watson and so Watson will never be able to leave, even if he could pluck up the courage to and shatter his own heart in the process. He cannot leave Holmes, because God knows what would happen to him but it would not be pretty and it would probably be fatal as well.

He cannot hate Holmes for this, cannot resent him, though he supposes he should. In fact, most of the emotions Watson feels towards Holmes are tangled with the feelings he suspects he should have, since all he can really feel for Holmes is this ridiculous admiring infatuation and a sort of indescribable, niggling irritation that spills over into frustrated fear when Holmes does something dangerous and stupid all in the name of progress. He does not mind the strange, meandering course his emotions have taken over the past few years, but it is really rather inconvenient nonetheless.

=

The glass of Irene Adler’s photograph is cracked, and Watson once again thanks his acquired powers of observation for giving him adequate warning. On the table beside the photograph are two copies of the same newspaper article, one immaculate, one with words underlined in blue and splashed with what Watson is really hoping is red ink. He skims his eyes over the annotated article, noting it describes a con pulled in Russia; a falsified marriage, a lady thief, missing jewels and, worse, missing legal documents. The description of the suspect does not match Irene and her name is not mentioned. Nonetheless, Holmes has spotted something in the story, in the methods of the criminal, and he is probably right. He usually is. Watson grimaces; beside the articles are a pearl earring, a knife and some shards of porcelain that were probably once a teacup. Mrs Hudson will not be pleased, but then she rarely is and they have all become accustomed to this state of affairs.

The curtains are wide open and after a moment of looking around at the mess, Watson locates Holmes. His friend is lying on the floorboards, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the ceiling. Watson glances upwards and learns that a new chemical stain, two new bullet pocks and a new scorch mark have arrived since the last time he looked; Holmes’ ceiling is a battlefield commemorating wars long forgotten and he will never be able to move out of Baker Street because no one will ever want to inherit this room and the abysmal state it is in. Watson looks back at Holmes and notes the man has not yet moved.

“Are you dead?” he asks, hearing weariness in his tone.

After a long moment, Holmes’ eyes close and open again. “It would appear not,” Holmes replies, voice a rough slide.

Not for lack of trying, Watson reflects, but elects not to say it aloud. He walks over to where Holmes is lying, surrounded by sheets of paper covered in his illegible crazed hand and eases himself to the floor beside him. Holmes’ eyes, pupils blown so wide the iris is barely visible, do not waver from the spot on the ceiling he has been staring at for God knows how long. Watson can see the needle mark on Holmes’ arm, the tiny pink dot over the vein and swallows a sigh and a recrimination that Holmes will not listen to anyway. Slightly more interesting is the mostly-empty bottle of absinthe leaking onto the floorboards, lying half-hidden beneath an ottoman.

“Looks like you had quite a party here,” he remarks, keeping his tone light. “I’m sorry I didn’t get an invitation.”

Irene Adler broke Holmes, and Watson only knows half of it, things he has gleaned from not-quite-conversations he has had with Holmes when one or both of them have been under the influence, little things Holmes has dropped unconsciously or not. She is an obsession of Holmes’, one that always ends in situations like this.

Holmes blinks again, eyes unwavering, and does not respond. Watson has no idea how far away Holmes still is, how deeply the drugs and alcohol are still affecting him.

“You could try something different next time,” he offers after a long moment.

Holmes hefts out a breath between his teeth that is not nearly collected enough to be a sigh, and his eyes drift shut. “I like routine.”

“You really don’t,” Watson reminds him. “And you could do something different the next time Adler resurfaces; we’ve had two years of this, surely it’s time to experiment with new things. Move forward, you know?”

Finally, Holmes cracks one eye open and turns his unfocused gaze on Watson. “Character development is overrated.”

Watson laughs before he can stop himself and remember that he is meant to be being reproachful, and the corner of Holmes’ mouth flickers a little. He closes his eye again. Watson studies his gaunt friend for a while, noting the absinthe stained irrevocably green down the front of the otherwise crisp white shirt. The strangely familiar crisp white shirt. The crisp white shirt that Watson bought only two weeks ago.

“I am putting a lock on my wardrobe,” he sighs.

Holmes’ brow furrows momentarily. “We have a barter system,” he mutters.

They do, in theory. Mostly, it involves Holmes stealing Watson’s clothes without asking or even mentioning it to him and ruining them in a variety of unlikely situations, forcing Watson to wear Holmes’ clothes until replacements can be purchased because patients do tend to flinch away rather when their physician turns up wearing shirts stained with mysterious unidentified chemicals or torn to pieces or covered in burns and scorches.

“We do,” he accedes. “Still, I’m not sure which part of putting yourself into a chemical coma really required you to take my best shirt. You could just as easily have done it in that shirt you’ve been wearing in here for most of the week; it’s not as though you had an audience.”

Holmes opens his eyes and frowns at Watson as though it should be obvious. “That would have lacked dignity,” he enunciates, sounding surprised that Watson did not realise this.

“Right,” Watson says, hearing amusement and sarcasm mingling sharply in his voice, “because of course this is ever so dignified.”

Holmes returns his gaze to the ceiling and whatever it is he thinks he is seeing that that is so very fascinating.

“Would you like to punch me?” he offers after a moment, tone as light as if he were offering Watson another cup of tea.

Watson considers this. “I’ll be all right,” he says, “you’ll be in enough pain when all this wears off, I don’t feel the need to add to it.”

Holmes’ lips purse slightly and his left hand gropes across the floor, fingers finally clenching in Watson’s sleeve. “You’re a good man, Watson,” he decides. His fingers are cold against the inside of Watson’s wrist.

“Come and bang on my door when you’re yourself again,” Watson offers. “I won’t help you with the after-effects of mixing absinthe and lying motionless on a wooden floor for at least ten hours, and then we’ll be even.”

“Sounds fair,” Holmes agrees, hand slipping back to the floor as Watson pushes himself to his feet.

He looks over his shoulder when he reaches the door; Holmes has not moved and is still staring unseeingly at an innocuous scorch mark on the ceiling. Watson bites down something that is not quite a smile, and quietly closes the door behind him.

=

When he first came home from Afghanistan with a wounded shoulder, a leg that would never quite work right again, and his mental and physical health horribly fractured and fragile, Watson filled in his existence with what he could find. He had no one to hold him close and tell him that everything would be all right; so he spent his days in delirious, aimless boredom, in gambling away what income he had, and in hating every second of his existence but unable to work out exactly what it was that he needed.

He sometimes wonders if that is what it feels like to be Sherlock Holmes, only a hundred times worse and with a thousand other thought processes threaded through it. When cases have been solved, they are left with great voids of nothingness that Holmes can never successfully fill.

His sleep is abruptly broken by the sound of Holmes’ violin bow creaking and screeching over the strings of Holmes’ violin and soundly murdering one of Watson’s favourite tunes. He groans and rolls onto his side, pulling the pillow over his head in an attempt to drown out the noise, but the scratchy notes penetrate anyway, each last one scraping down Watson’s spine and pulling his nerves to shreds before he is forced to fumble for his dressing down and go next door.

It is four o’clock in the morning,” Watson groans, pushing open the door. “Why can’t you be like a normal person?”

Holmes is seated in his armchair, which has been pulled in front of the blazing fire, back to Watson; all he can see of his friend is the curve of his wrist, fingers pressed to the strings of his violin.

“Normality is boredom by another name, Watson,” Holmes replies, sounding weary and not entirely sober. This is nothing new; Holmes is actually sober a lot less often than people realise. He sighs, plays a few more discordant notes. “Is this going to be a new habit of yours, walking into people’s rooms unannounced? Nanny will be pleased.”

Watson sighs, closing the door behind him. “I think we can dispense with formalities at this Godforsaken hour.”

Holmes’ hand twitches on the neck of his violin; Watson can see what looks like a bandage holding two of Holmes’ fingers together and immediately forgets to be irritated about his interrupted sleep. Instead, he hurries over, stepping between his friend and the fire.

The damage momentarily steals the breath from his chest. “You fool,” he says, voice choked to a harsh whisper, “you bloody fool. What were you thinking?”

Holmes does not react to the rebuke, merely stares up at Watson as though confused and slightly hurt by Watson’s anger. His wide-eyed innocent stare is marred somewhat by the impressive bruise rising around his left eye, halfway to swelling it closed. His cheek is cut, his mouth bloody, and when Watson looks down he learns that Holmes has abandoned his shirt somewhere, braces loose against his bruised skin.

“You have winnings on the table,” Holmes informs him, as though this will somehow make it all better. One of the violin strings is broken and his ribs are stained purple from blood beneath the skin. Watson swallows anger and bile in equal measure. “I placed a bet for you.”

Watson wants to ask why Holmes did not take him with him to the Punchbowl as he normally does, why he felt the need to go tonight, why he did not admit defeat before he was beaten to a pulp, but he knows now is not the time to ask these things. Later, yes; but not now.

“I don’t care about the money,” he mutters, the words mostly lost to concern. “I could punch you myself for this.”

Holmes attempts a smile that looks like it hurts. “Well, dear boy, you could give me a black eye on the right hand side, even up my face a little.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Watson grits. “You could be seriously hurt.”

“I’m not.” Holmes sounds unconcerned. “There was a physician, he checked. Two fractured ribs, a broken finger and some rather extensive bruising, nothing more to it.”

Watson squashes down the immediate jealousy he feels at the thought of another doctor examining Holmes – that is his job, after all – and kneels down in front of Holmes. “Excuse me if I don’t take the word of whatever drunkard with a modicum of half-remembered medical knowledge you managed to find in a boxing ring.”

Holmes sighs in a martyred fashion – which is a little rich, Watson reflects – but puts his violin down and lets Watson examine him anyway, poking carefully at the bruises and pretending his hands are not shaking in the slightest. He has spent too many hours of his life watching boxing, throwing away money he did not have to spare on bets, watching men punch out each other’s teeth and telling himself it was something to fill his life with. It was not, and he knows that now, though he still feels the draw of the ring more often than he would like. Holmes goes for an entirely different reason, strips himself bare and splits his knuckles in what he calls scientific research but which Watson suspects is really something far darker and more twisted than either he or Holmes will ever acknowledge.

“Well, will I live?” Holmes asks after a while, looking down at Watson with an attempt at amusement quirking his bloodstained lips.

“Yes,” Watson replies, tone a little too sharp.

“Don’t be angry with me,” Holmes says, voice a mixture of pleading and coaxing.

Watson’s leg is starting to twinge, knelt between Holmes’ thighs as he is, but he does not move.

“You’re making it very easy right now,” he informs him.

Don’t be angry with me,” Holmes repeats, left hand coming to rest against Watson’s cheek. His fingers are cold and the bandage is scratchy against Watson’s face, but he does not pull away.

“You are an idiot,” Watson mutters, thumb skimming the damaged skin beneath Holmes’ left eye in what he is barely pretending is a professional fashion.

Please,” Holmes murmurs, voice barely audible. “Stop it.”

He is in pain and he is tired and he is probably more drunk than is really advisable, and Watson watches as Holmes closes both eyes, tipping the slight distance between them and resting their foreheads together. Watson inhales and Holmes’ hand twitches on his cheek.

Watson does not know how long they remain like that. They do not kiss; there are still too many barriers, too much left unspoken and unexplained for that. They just hesitate and breathe, air tickling each other’s lips in a way that is intimate and soft but they cannot bring themselves to touch and eventually Holmes pulls away, dark eyes unreadable.

“Get some sleep,” Watson advises, and pushes himself to his feet, joints cracking and complaining.

Holmes says nothing, eyes narrowed as though he is thinking hard about something, trying to solve some kind of puzzle. Watson carefully does not look back as he returns to his own room to try and get some more rest himself. After a while, the disordered plucking of violin strings starts up again. Watson grimaces but does not get up again; the worst part is that Holmes actually does know how to play the violin, he just chooses not to.

It should not matter; it is one moment that is like too many that have occurred in the past. But Watson folds over the memory in his mind and bookmarks it anyway, treasures the recollection of the moment as though it were a true kiss; after all, it might as well have been.

=

There is always a certain trace of relief in Watson’s demeanour when Holmes finally finds a case that interests him and they suddenly have more in their lives than Holmes’ all-consuming boredom and its vicious negative effects. Holmes is a different man when on the trail of a criminal, leant more towards the genius side of the spectrum rather than the madman side. He is brilliant to watch, brilliant to follow, mind moving blindingly fast. He is no longer petulant, no longer absent-minded to the point of destruction, no longer fond of circular conversations that leave everyone taking part exhausted and stinging. Holmes is wonderful when given stimulus and Watson can never tear himself away when they are on a case, no matter what he really should be doing with his time.

Case in point: Watson has a lunch appointment with some old friends in less than half an hour, and he really ought to be at home making himself presentable for a table at The Grand. But he is not. Instead, they are down at the docks trying to track down a jewel thief who has managed to be just unpredictable enough to intrigue Holmes. When he first came back from the war and drifted his aimless, painful existence around London Watson never pictured that the new life he would create for himself would lead to places like this, situations like this. The air is cold and he watches men unloading crates of tea while Holmes cheerfully quizzes a foreman. The man is attempting to be evasive but Holmes is good at evasive and at getting the information he wants by looking as innocent as possible and asking seemingly unrelated questions. Watson curls the hand not clenched around the head of his cane in his pocket and, as he is a betting man after all, wagers with himself on how long it will take Holmes to gain the information he is looking for.

Two minutes and thirty-eight seconds later Holmes is at his side, something like satisfaction dark in his eyes. Watson has lost his own bet by eight whole seconds but does not mention it.

“Come along,” he says; there’s a hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth, as though he knows exactly what Watson is thinking, what Watson was doing to pass the time, and deliberately took a little longer than was strictly necessary to interrogate the foreman. It is, of course, possible and, since Holmes is involved, probable. Watson thinks about saying that he has to leave now, but reasons that he can spare Holmes a few more minutes.

They make their way through the crowded streets; it is a bitterly cold day and Watson’s leg is aching, but he says nothing and wonders if he has fooled Holmes. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between what Holmes cannot see and what he is choosing not to see for the sake of some kind of misplaced pity. Or perhaps Watson is grateful for the pity after all; there are some conversations he would rather not have, not now or ever. It is enough that Holmes knows every last one of Watson’s weaknesses without them having to discuss them at great, excruciating length.

Watson lets Holmes break them into the warehouse they’ve been directed to; it would be quicker to kick through the door but even the thought of it makes his muscles ache so he watches Holmes fumble with the lockpicks. Holmes is surprisingly bad with lockpicks, given how much of his life revolves around breaking into places he really should not be, and normally Watson puts him out of his misery but he cannot face it today and Holmes shoots him a look that may be close to concern, though he says nothing. It takes far too long but eventually the door swings open, revealing a dark, empty space stinking of mould.

“Well,” Watson says, “what an enjoyable wild goose chase this is turning out to be.” He clicks open his pocket watch; if he leaves now, he can skirt the edges of fashionably late. He raises his head to tell Holmes this and finds the man has already walked into the warehouse and is looking around, head tipped to one side and hands shoved into his pockets. Sighing, Watson braces himself against the stench and walks inside too.

“I have a lunch appointment,” Watson says loudly, trying to break through Holmes’ reverie, fishing a handkerchief out of his pocket and clapping it over his nose and mouth.

“Yes, Watson, you have mentioned it several times today,” Holmes replies, tone entirely unconcerned, either ignoring the I should be leaving now undercurrent to Watson’s words or too wrapped up in his cognitive processes to notice it.

Watson sighs. “So I need to be going, Holmes.”

Holmes makes a vague, noncommittal sound and starts kicking at the dust on one area of the floor before kneeling down with a trace of a grimace of pain, and tucking two of his fingers into what initially looks like an ordinary knot in the wood but which levers up a trap door. He gives a soft hum of satisfaction and stands up, brushing grit from his palms. Watson eyes the dark space revealed with some trepidation; it smells like someone died down there and a corpse is probably the most appealing of the things they could find.

“Would you like to go first or second?” Holmes asks brightly, bending to pick up an abandoned lantern with two panes of glass shattered and examining the candle inside.

“I have to go to lunch,” Watson reminds him.

Holmes fixes him with that unwavering gaze and Watson is immediately warned that Holmes is about to analyse him as brutally as he does any suspect, and he will not like any of what Holmes has to say.

“If you go to luncheon now, you will be very late and spend at least half the meal feeling uncomfortable as a result of your tardiness. You will be asked impertinent questions about the cases we have worked on and will be forced to formulate polite answers while your patience is increasingly tried. Perhaps there is a woman there whose acquaintance you are hoping to make; but she will inevitably turn out to be boring and will indubitably throw wine at one or both of us at a dinner party of some description in the future should you decide that you can overlook her lack of conversation or, indeed, any form of intelligent thought. All of which will lead to you appearing in my rooms with your tail between your legs having gambled away the rent because she has decided to break off the romantic entanglement and you will consume vast amounts of my spirits and you will wake up with quite a headache, all because you decided to attend lunch today.” He smiles slightly. “In any case, they are serving quail at The Grand today, which never agrees with your digestion.”

Watson suspects that if he had a glass of wine in his hand at this moment in time, he would throw it in Holmes’ face; some of that must leak into his expression because Holmes’ smile widens just perceptibly. It does not help that Holmes is correct on every count, as he always is.

Holmes strikes a match and lights the remains of the candle in the broken lantern. “First or second?” he repeats.

“Have I mentioned lately that I strongly dislike you?” Watson asks. He hesitates, sighs. “Second.”

“I’m merely saving you the cost of laundering another stained shirt and a headache,” Holmes tells him, stepping onto the unsafe-looking staircase revealed by the trapdoor. “It’s all for your own good, old chap.”

“You are ridiculous,” Watson mutters, walking over to join Holmes as his friend disappears down into the dark. “I hate you. And I hope you die down there in a horrible fashion.”

Holmes looks over his shoulder and grins, his teeth a white sliver in the flickering light. “That’s the spirit.”

=

If he particularly wanted to, Watson has no doubt that Holmes could have the country on its knees. His skills of manipulation and deduction would stand him in perfect stead to start his own illegal underground operations and he would be able to run rings around the police with perfect ease. In fact, he already does; Holmes is really only two boring afternoons, a little violence and some misplaced arrogance away from being a criminal himself. He seems terribly smugly pleased about this fact although Watson cannot help but think it is all going to backfire horribly, sooner or later.

He is supposed to be checking on the lingering remains of Holmes’ latest bout of boxing injuries – he has a few minutes until his next patient – to ensure that his friend’s inability to sit still and do nothing (unless he is drugged, in which case he can stay in one place for months) has not caused any grievous permanent damage. What he is actually doing is sitting in an armchair with Gladstone growling against his calf while Holmes does his best to set the rooms on fire. Well, that is not Holmes’ specific objective, but that is what the inevitable result will be. Watson is not trying to stop him because he knows from past experience that he will unsuccessful, but he has ensured that there is a bucket full of water within reach and he has left his jacket in his own room so he will not stink of toxic smoke when he has to return to pretending to be a respectable doctor who in no way lives with a destructive madman.

“Unlike some people I could mention, I don’t have all the time in the world,” Watson murmurs.

Holmes spares him a pointed glare – “my dear fellow, this is of the utmost importance” – before he turns back around to pouring chemicals into a beaker perched precariously over a Bunsen burner, occasionally glancing down at sheets of paper covered in his spidery scrawl. Watson cannot remember whether Holmes explained what he is trying to do or not, but does not try to ask for clarification.

“And just a little more...” Holmes mutters to himself, pouring something poisonously green in and promptly exploding the lot.

It is testament to how common an occurrence this is that Gladstone does not even flinch, merely makes a small unimpressed noise and slumps a little harder against Watson’s leg. Sometimes Watson worries that they have permanently psychologically disturbed the dog by making him live in this house full of explosions, gunshots, spontaneous fires and intentionally drugged food, but even if they have it is far too late to undo the damage now. Gladstone is probably happy. They have had him since he was a puppy; he does not know any different.

Watson sighs and picks a piece of charred paper out of his hair. “Happy now?”

All Holmes says is: “...interesting.”

They look at each other for a moment, fighting to see who will crack and laugh first. Holmes’ eyes are dancing, face streaked with charcoal, and Watson suspects he is going to have to make himself acquainted with some soap and a towel before he can see any more patients.

Watson waits for Holmes’ famed skills of observation to kick in, but it becomes apparent that they are not going to and he is going to have to point it out himself.

“You do realise you’re on fire, don’t you?”

“Ah.” Holmes looks thoughtfully at his flaming shoulder for a long moment as though trying to analyse the fire and discover its darkest secret. “It’s all right; it’s your waistcoat.”

Watson feels his smile twist slightly. “Of course it is.” Holmes continues to look at the fire as though it is suddenly going to start talking and reveal its role in a crime and it occurs to Watson that he is going to need to put it out because Holmes is not going to. This whole situation is already utterly ridiculous so he does not feel in any way guilty about picking up his bucket of precautionary water and tipping the whole thing straight over Holmes’ head.

There is a lingering, wet silence.

“I suppose I should say thank you,” Holmes says at last, hair plastered flat to his head, rivulets of water running down his cheeks, smoke rising from his clothes. He looks ridiculous and in a moment Watson is going to burst out laughing.

“Yes,” he says softly, the words coming from somewhere not quite conscious, “I suppose you should.”

They are standing as close together as it is possible to be without Watson’s shoes being dripped on and even Gladstone is completely, uncharacteristically silent in the breathless moment of hush that follows. Watson does not know what he is doing, what he is thinking about doing, but soon it does not matter because Mrs Hudson interrupts with a soft knock at the door.

“Mr Trevelyan is here to see you, doctor,” she says, without batting an eyelid at the quietly smouldering remains of Holmes’ failed experiment or at Holmes’ sodden state. Watson occasionally wonders if maybe they have psychologically disturbed Mrs Hudson too, but at least she has the option of asking them to leave.

Relief and disappointment wash through Watson simultaneously, and he pulls himself together. “I’ll leave you to clear this up,” he tells Holmes, stepping back and heading for the door. “You’re going to be the death of both of us, you know,” he calls over his shoulder.

Holmes’ laughter follows him into the hall.

=

Watson has a dinner party to attend. Holmes has removed the tape from his now-healed finger and rather less of a bottle of brandy than he had forty-five minutes ago. Evenings like this never end well, and Watson does not blame Gladstone for taking refuge in the cupboard under the stairs, or Mrs Hudson for pulling an impressive vanishing act.

“You shouldn’t go, you know,” Holmes informs him. He is gazing into the fire as though it contains the secrets of the universe – and considering that this is Holmes, it is entirely possible it does – and tapping his thumbnail against his teeth in a way that is deeply irritating.

“Well,” Watson says, attempting to make his voice light, “you’ve stopped setting things on fire, so clearly I’ll have to leave the house to get some entertainment.”

There is not the slightest hint of a smile on Holmes’ mouth from Watson’s attempt at teasing and that is never a good sign. He does not turn his attention from the hearth, brows furrowed in thought.

“I’m going, Holmes,” Watson adds after a moment, breaking a silence so taut it physically hurts. “I cannot miss every appointment I make, you know. I have a life of my own.”

There is a strange possessiveness to Holmes; he has acquaintances and a brother he does not regularly communicate with but who exists anyway, and Irene Adler and all her mess, but Watson does seem to be his only actual friend. Holmes does not seem to need people the way ordinary people do – sometimes Watson thinks his role in Holmes’ mind could be adequately filled by Gladstone, who is uncannily good at making noises in the right places when Holmes is speaking – but nonetheless he is very protective of Watson. He has not yet worked out if he is endeared or unsettled by this, but he does know that it does not mean the level of emotional attachment that it would in someone else. It is something Watson came to terms with a long time ago, three in the morning, listening to Holmes plucking listlessly at his violin on the other side of the wall.

“You won’t enjoy yourself,” Holmes prophesises.

Watson grits his teeth and spends a moment breathing before he replies. “That’s really none of your business, is it?”

Holmes studies the coal scuttle for a minute before adding: “You won’t like her. Whichever girl your friends think you should set up house with.”

If this could be mistaken for ordinary jealousy, then Watson would probably react with something other than anger. But Holmes is complicated and improbable and very difficult to interpret and there is too much going on in here that Watson is not privy to.

“If you don’t want me to go, Holmes, then bloody well say so,” he snarls. “Stop being so ridiculously passive-aggressive.”

Holmes gazes at him for so long that it makes Watson uncomfortable, eyes reading a hundred stories on each inch of Watson’s skin, and he feels awkward under such intense scrutiny. Holmes is looking at him as though he has never seen him before, as though he is looking for something in Watson that he has never looked for before.

“You want me to be less passive-aggressive?”

“I want you to come out and say what you mean,” Watson snaps.

Holmes turns back to face the fire, immediately dismissive. “You don’t know what you want from me.” His tone is sharply significant and Watson feels as though he has been punched in the stomach. The bullet that shattered his shoulder years ago had much the same effect, he recalls distantly.

“Holmes...” He gathers his thoughts, attempts to speak again. “Do you know what I want?”

“Yes.” Holmes’ answer is simple and to the point, though he still refuses to look at Watson. The room is full of a different sort of tension to the kind that filled it scant minutes ago; Watson feels helpless, still in shock that they are really having this conversation after these years of silence and denial.

After a moment, Watson ventures two steps closer to Holmes’ chair.

“Well, shouldn’t you tell me?”

Holmes’ smile is surprisingly gentle and just a little sorrowful as he looks up at him. “I think this is one of those things a man should find out for himself.”

For a moment, Watson wants to tell Holmes that he is inhuman, just sitting there with his calm demeanour, discussing this as though they are talking about two complete strangers rather than themselves. He wants to hit him; he feels the fingers of his right hand curling hard into his palm. He turns and leaves instead. The air in the hall feels too cold, biting at his lungs as he takes great deep desperate breaths of it.

“God help me,” he mutters.

“I don’t really think God is going to want to help you now...” Holmes calls.

The man has a point, and a rueful smile twists Watson’s mouth. He could go back into that room, compare his feelings with what Holmes has observed, see if they can reconcile the two into a solution to all of this. Maybe he should. But not tonight. He straightens his collar and hurries down the stairs, trying his hardest not to think about what he is leaving behind him.