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.
The evening advances, then withdraws again
Leaving our cups and books like islands on the floor.
- Hugo Williams
Normal people – and Watson would never dare to class Holmes in this category, because lord knows he would not fit – would want to maintain some distance after whatever their conversation last night was. Normal people would feel awkward and uncomfortable and maybe even a little embarrassed, and so they would avoid each other after a conversation such as that. Watson is not even sure that he can call it a conversation at all, but he has had arguments with Holmes in the past and they had far more shouting and clean-cut objectives in them. All he really knows is that he does not want to see Holmes until his stomach has stopped clenching.
He especially does not want to see Holmes at six in the morning, looming over Watson’s bed looking far too awake considering how much he drank last night. Watson had rather more wine at his dinner party than was at all sensible in an attempt to try and combat the way his mind felt the need to repeat every last one of Holmes’ words over and over, and his head is thumping. In fact, it is entirely possible that he is still a little drunk.
“Wake up,” Holmes says, too brightly and too loud.
If he were more awake Watson would hit him. As it is, he just blinks stupidly.
“We have a case,” Holmes announces.
Oh, no. No, Watson is not doing this. He needs to sleep and he needs to get some distance and neither of those things can be achieved if he is dragged along to whatever crime scene Holmes is looking so very enthusiastic about.
“You have a case,” he mumbles, and endeavours to pull the blankets over his head. Holmes grabs them from his hands and pulls them away.
“We have a case,” he corrects. “A startlingly vicious murder, apparently; you’ll like it.”
Watson frowns at his choice of words. “I won’t like it,” he protests. “I’m not depraved, Holmes.”
Holmes sighs, raising his eyes heavenward as though Watson is being the unreasonable one here. “You will be interested,” he says, sounding long-suffering. “And you don’t have patients this morning, so you are entirely unencumbered to come with me.”
“I deliberately ensured I would not have patients this morning so I could get some sleep,” Watson replies, a groan settling itself around his words. “And you are the famous detective here, I am just the doctor you drag along with you so someone can step in and be tactful before you are slapped by the suspects, the witnesses or the police.”
That is not quite true and they both know it, but right now Watson is willing to make it be the truth, if it makes Holmes go away and lets him go back to sleep. Or, more accurately, drifting in an out of uneasy unconsciousness, but that will do for the moment. But Holmes is still standing there looking expectant, as though he cannot understand why Watson is so reluctant to leave with him, and for the umpteenth time Watson wishes that Holmes were capable of emotions like an ordinary person. It is not that Holmes is without feeling – far from it, much as he may try to hide it and pretend otherwise – but he is incapable of things like embarrassment on anything other than an intellectual level and this – whatever this is – is not something that can be rationalised or organised on an intellectual level. Watson knows this; God knows he has tried.
It seems that Watson cannot do anything that will make Holmes want to avoid him, and while maybe he will get some kind of masochistic comfort out of that in the future, right now it makes him feel nothing but despair.
“Is there anything I can say that will make you go away?” Watson asks, without the barest shred of hope in his voice.
Holmes appears to be actually considering this, head tipped to one side slightly. “No,” he says at last. “No, I don’t believe any of the responses you are considering will make me leave.” His expression becomes a little more focused. “In any case, Watson, you don’t actually want me to leave.”
Oh, so Holmes is aware that last night happened. Watson was rather wondering. He tries to search for words but realises that it is not so much a problem of how to say anything, but a problem of not knowing what he wants to say in the first place. He swallows, and reflects that he is really not getting out of this.
“All right,” he murmurs, and comes out tightly between his teeth, “all right, let me get dressed.”
“Good man,” Holmes says brightly, and practically bounces out of the room. Watson contemplates rolling over and trying to go back to sleep, but knows that it would be futile. Holmes would probably get Gladstone in – it would not be the first time – and Watson would like to start his day without being leapt on with as much enthusiasm as their dog can muster (admittedly, this is not much; Gladstone can be as lethargic as Holmes at times, and Watson occasionally wonders if there is something about his friend that is catching). Sighing, he pushes himself out of bed and learns that he is, unfortunately, not still drunk, because if he were he would not have a headache thumping insistently behind his eyes. There is nothing about today that is going to be easy, but then life with Holmes is rarely easy and yet he will never back away. He cannot back away.
With this in mind, Watson endeavours to repress his irritation, confusion and stinging infatuation, and goes to find some clothing.
Things go back to their version of normal far too quickly; possibly, Watson reflects a little bitterly, because there is already so much that they are not talking about that adding one more evening and one sharp accusation to the list is not really a hardship. In moments when he feels less angry and helpless, though, he tries to look at the whole silly situation through Holmes’ logical eyes rather than his own; he cannot be trusted, is in far too deep. Holmes can look at things with a clarity that most people cannot, and Watson strives to gaze at it all from the outside looking in, rather than from the inside looking out, because inside it is far too blurry and claustrophobic and confusing and it has got him nowhere.
Holmes understands that this is important, and Watson can see this. It is in the moments when they are alone and the silence is not quite as easy as it once was, it is in the thoughtful looks Holmes throws him when they are both willing to pretend Watson is not looking, it is in the way his words spill from him in a way that seems more considered than usual. Watson almost wishes that Holmes could dismiss it, that they could ignore whatever it is stringing between them – because Watson would really like to believe that he is the only one here with his emotions hanging helplessly in the balance, but he is perfectly aware that Holmes, whatever he does or does not feel, is invested in this too – and yet knows that that would be impossible. They have always acknowledged Watson’s inevitable fixation, even if it has only been by mutually ignoring it.
In any case, in spite of the occasional moments that remind Watson that, very slowly and mostly far beneath the surface, things are changing, they muddle along as they always do. They track down the murderer within a few days, and their names make the paper though their pictures do not. Watson keeps the article, clipped carefully out and pasted in a book that he keeps in the lowest corner of his bookshelf. After that, things follow their usual routine. Holmes fires a bullet through the mantelpiece and tries to call it a scientific investigation and not something dreamed up in the realms of boredom, Gladstone is subjected to some kind of medical experimentation but comes out the other side of his drug-induced stupor in perfectly reasonable spirits, and there is a particularly interesting time when Holmes elects to do some kind of research (his word, certainly not Watson’s) which mainly seems to involve drinking enough whisky to kill a normal person, and then he falls all the way down the stairs and breaks a vase.
Watson thanks God that Mrs Hudson is visiting her sister at the moment, and practically drags Holmes back up the staircase to assess the damage. He is, of course, unsettlingly drunk and seems more interested in the results of whatever experiment this was supposed to be than the fact he has sliced his hand open on a shard of the vase – which Watson is hoping that Mrs Hudson is not attached to – which is not surprising. Watson tuts as he fetches water to clean the cut with and Holmes calls him an old woman a couple of times in a fond tone of voice. Watson sits in the chair beside him and carefully bandages up the wound, even though he knows that Holmes will not listen to him and will not keep it clean or dry or even covered up, because little trifling things like physical injuries and the proper care and attention of them are not things that factor importantly in Holmes’ world.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me I want this,” he remarks after a while, working on the assumption that Holmes will not remember most of this come the morning.
“Of course you do,” Holmes responds, eyes shut, sounding sleepy. “You want all of it, and when you stop pretending that you don’t you’ll be a lot happier, Watson.”
“I’m not going to pretend to be happy about the fact it is two-thirty in the morning and you could have broken your neck,” Watson half-snaps, though he cannot summon up enough real frustration in his tone. He sighs, and realises that he is still holding Holmes’ hurt hand in both of his. He thinks about letting go, but makes no move to. “Still, I’m interested in how you’re going to justify this as research.” Holmes huffs a soft sigh, the kind he gives when he is feeling put-upon and believes Watson should have figured this out for himself. Watson has privately labelled it the Isolated Genius sigh, and it always grates. “Go on,” he says after a long moment when Holmes says nothing, “justify yourself.”
Holmes opens his eyes again and, after a couple of false starts, manages to focus on Watson. “The man they have accused of the Lofting murders was supposedly incredibly inebriated when they found him covered in the blood of the victims,” he begins.
The Loftings were a respectable enough family found slain in their beds three days ago. The supposed murderer was found sitting on the front steps, hands drenched in blood; case open and shut in everyone else’s eyes. Not in Holmes’, of course; Watson supposes he should have expected this.
“It’s not your case,” Watson points out, without much hope of being acknowledged.
“They found a bottle of whisky in the man’s overcoat,” Holmes continues, voice a curious mixture of competent and wavering, “and so it can be assumed he drank the majority of it the night he committed the murders. The Loftings’ bedrooms were on the top floor of their house. I was merely trying to establish whether he would, in his inebriated state, have been able to climb the stairs and kill the family.”
Watson swallows the urge to tell Holmes that that was a particularly stupid idea, and that if he was still insistent on going ahead with it he should at least have mentioned it to Watson so he could... well, Watson is not really sure what he could have done to prevent or aid this, but being left out still stings.
“People have different tolerances to alcohol, Holmes,” is all he says aloud.
“Yes,” Holmes agrees, “but no one has a greater tolerance to alcohol than I.”
This is possibly true; in any case, no matter how much he drinks, Holmes’ mind remains far sharper than an ordinary sober person’s. Watson occasionally finds himself wondering what it would take for Holmes’ brain to slow even slightly, but suspects that whatever Holmes would need to take would kill him.
“You certainly practice enough,” he sighs, and somehow manages to make it sound less of an accusation than he means to.
Holmes ignores him – or perhaps does not hear; either is plausible right now – and continues: “In any case, in my professional opinion, he would have been far too drunk to climb the stairs without noticeable accident. He is innocent.”
“How nice,” Watson says, without much conviction.
“We must contact Lestrade without delay,” Holmes adds. “There is not a minute to lose.”
“There are many minutes to lose,” Watson counters. “You cannot stand right now: Lestrade will not listen to you. And he will not thank you for waking him at this time of the morning.” Holmes scowls, a petulant expression crossing his face. “We will contact Scotland Yard later,” Watson continues in his most placating tone. “When it is daylight and you have become a little more sober.”
Holmes sighs, but he does look tired and his eyes are half-closed already. His back will not thank him when he awakes, sprawled uncomfortably in the armchair as he is, but Watson does not feel capable of getting Holmes into bed without accidentally breaking several more fragile things. Holmes looks to where their hands are still joined, and an unreadable smile spreads softly across his mouth before his eyes close completely and he drifts into some approximation of sleep.
Watson sits and watches him for a moment, thinking every permutation of how is it even possible to be a genius and an utter moron at the same time? and pretending he does not have a fond half-smile on his own face. Holmes shifts a little when Watson finally lays his bandaged hand back in his lap but does not regain consciousness; Watson doubts Holmes will awake much before this time tomorrow, given how much whisky he has consumed. Still, he gets up and locates Holmes’ dressing gown, laying it over him in lieu of a blanket, before he himself goes to get some rest.
He does not let Holmes’ soft you want all of it drift around his mind and keep him from sleeping. Well, not for longer than half an hour, anyway.
India and Afghanistan changed him, that much is certain. Watson cannot say whether it was for better or for worse, or even when the change was wrought and how deeply it extends. It has been so long – a lifetime, it feels like, a lifetime or two or even three – since medical school, since the days when he thought the worst was merely the drip of a patient’s blood on an operating table. He learned, of course, during war, that the gush of blood when you have no operating table and you are coated up to the elbows in dirt and gore is far worse, and you cannot learn that without fundamentally altering. He is not hard, not impenetrable; he does not have screamingly vicious nightmares of dying comrades and bullet wounds; the ache in his leg and the twinge in his shoulder are occasional, unimportant encumbrances in his daily life. And yet there are pieces of him that left for the wars and that did not come back.
You leave pieces of yourself throughout the world, Watson has learned, trails of emotion and thought that remain behind you. He is still not entirely sure how much of himself he left behind in Afghanistan when they finally shipped him home, leg still swathed in bandages and barely alive from exhaustion and every last sickness his body saw fit to contract. And he does not yet know how much of himself he has given to Baker Street, to this life he fell into because nothing else would have him.
He took rooms with Holmes in spite of barely knowing him – a name in the papers, a man he had only met on a handful of occasions, a man who had intimidated him in a draughty hallway once by telling him that he knew what Watson would not even acknowledge to himself – because he was tired of living in a hotel and feeling as though his entire existence was temporary. Watson can barely remember what their home in Baker Street looked like in those early days; it was much more empty and open and less cluttered and all of the walls and ceilings were intact. He almost feels sorry for the house at times; it is subjected to just as much abuse as Gladstone and no one ever speaks up for it, just sighs when another window pane is shattered or the holes in the wall need plastering.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Holmes saved him, because he did not; Watson did that for himself, refused to cave in to sickness and exhaustion and despair, pulled together a life back in England when he returned to his home country with nothing. But, still, he can acknowledge what Holmes did for him; allowing him to help on cases, saying nothing when Watson came home and made announcements such as I’ve bought a dog (lord knows what he thought he was achieving, and he would feel guilty about bringing Gladstone into this environment, but he is glad for their dog’s existence and anyway, at the time, he did not know what Holmes was going to do to the poor thing), taking away and looking after his money so he could not gamble it all away, distracting him from fits of melancholia that threatened to swallow him whole. Watson began a new life in Baker Street with Holmes; a new life that he could never have predicted years ago when he was at medical school and had such different hopes for the world. It is not a life he could have imagined in the thick of war either; this entirely unexpected path of the mind. Nonetheless, now he is on it and embedded in this existence, he cannot imagine living any other way.
When he attempts to look at himself through Holmes’ eyes, analysing his every last emotion to its origins, Watson supposes it would be inevitable for him to fall in love with Holmes, to assume that his feelings of admiration and gratitude would spill over into something far more complex. And he can accept the truth in that statement, much as it stings to do so, because living with Holmes has also burned away most of his ability to delude himself. There are so many lies in the world already; why should Watson add to them? In any case, he can accept that part of it is thanks and relief and sheer proximity, but to label it solely as those things would be to cheapen it, to deny his emotions their full rein, to make it all seem like something that can be explained away and forgotten.
Watson will not pretend that living with Holmes and loving him at the same time is easy, or that it has not caused him considerable pain at certain times, but he would not go without the experience for the world. He does not want it forgotten; does not want it analysed and tossed aside as something crossed off a list. He wants it to remain as something that matters, even if it is only to him, and maybe that is what will remain long behind him in Baker Street. Maybe that is the part of him that has spread itself into the battered and bruised walls, the part of him that Afghanistan could not kill, although it tried its hardest.
Watson pretends to read the paper – there is no mention of either himself or Holmes in it today; they have been without a case for too long – and pretends not to watch Holmes dashing from one end of the room to the other, muttering to himself at a rate far faster than Watson can follow, hands and face liberally splashed with ink. Holmes’ boots thud loudly on the floorboards, scattering loose papers and broken glass, and Watson sighs and turns the page.
“Lord Rossiter’s daughter appears to have disappeared,” Watson observes quietly a few minutes later, when Holmes has stopped rushing from table to table and is stood staring intently at the bullet hole in their mantelpiece as though he has never seen it before.
Holmes turns to face him, surprise on his features. “Watson!” he exclaims, as though they have met quite by chance in the street. “How long have you been there?”
Watson does not look up from the article; his sigh makes the edges of the newspaper flutter. “Three and a half hours, Holmes,” he responds lightly. “We had a rather enlightening discussion about teacups and Mrs Hudson’s attempts to poison you with them scarcely forty minutes ago, remember?”
There are the broken remains of a teacup in the fireplace; Watson is really rather glad Mrs Hudson knows them well enough not to bring the best china in at the moment.
Holmes frowns and rubs a hand across his face, leaving another streak of black ink behind. “That was today?”
“It was,” Watson agrees. “And before you ask: no, you are not currently aware what day it is.” He turns his attention back to the paper. “Lord Rossiter’s daughter?”
“Ran away with a soldier,” Holmes responds distractedly. “They’re probably in Brighton right now with his regiment. You should inform Lestrade.”
Watson swallows his smile before responding: “That’s Pride and Prejudice, Holmes.”
“Ah.” Holmes scribbles down something on a piece of paper on the table nearest him. He finally looks up. “Stable boy, then, if there has been no ransom note. She has run away with the stable boy and they will be married and deeply unhappy. There is nothing more destructive than an imprudent match, Watson.”
“Indeed,” Watson murmurs dryly, and swallows the sting he gets from the words because he knows that Holmes is not making a personal remark about him. Holmes is distinctly uncertain about his own identity about the moment, let alone Watson’s, so nothing he says at the moment should really be taken into account.
He reads another three pages of the paper while Holmes murmurs intently to himself as he continues to write; lord knows what is going through his head right now, but Watson catches the words Austen and dowry and Hastings and decides he has no interest in hearing Holmes’ entire chain of thought. He does, however, decide that he will keep an eye on the Rossiter case and see how events unfold. Watson has a suspicion that Holmes is probably correct, despite not knowing any of the facts of the case and not being in anything even loosely resembling his right mind at the moment. After all, Holmes is brilliant even when he is only a hair’s breadth from actual insanity.
“My violin!” Holmes says abruptly, straightening up and looking around as though the instrument will suddenly leap up and announce itself from behind a chair. Watson’s grip on the newspaper tightens slightly. Holmes continues to look confused, a scowl tumbling across his features. “My violin appears to have disappeared, Watson.”
“Has it?” Watson asks neutrally.
Holmes’ bloody instrument is currently concealed in a box beneath Watson’s bed; it took rather a lot of subterfuge to get it from the room, but Mrs Hudson begged him to do something and Watson’s nerves were in shreds as well by that point, so he was quite prepared to do whatever was necessary to separate Holmes and his tuneless plucking of strings.
“It has vanished,” Holmes announces, “we must begin an investigation immediately.”
“Must we?” Watson asks softly. Resigning himself, he closes the paper, folds it, and places it neatly in his lap. “Perhaps it has run off with the stable boy,” he suggests.
“You are being facetious, Watson,” Holmes observes, in his this is a clue tone. Technically, it is a clue, but Holmes will not be focused long enough to follow it up. “We have no stable boy, and if we did, my violin would have the good taste not to run away with him.” Watson tips his hat back a little, and patiently waits for Holmes to remember his initial point. “You are being facetious, which implies that you know the whereabouts of my violin.”
“You played it for eight hours continuously,” Watson responds, “at which point I distracted you with afternoon tea. I don’t know what became of it after you leant it ever so precariously against the coal scuttle.”
“I played it for eight hours?” Holmes echoes, sounding confused. “I’m sure I would remember that.”
Watson settles his hands on top of the newspaper. “I doubt it,” he says. “You have been awake for nearly five days straight, after all.”
“Oh.” Holmes runs a hand through his hair, which is sticking straight up from his head as though he has been electrocuted. Watson notes a tear in Holmes’ sleeve and wonders when and how he acquired it; still, at least Holmes is wearing his own shirt for once. Watson has had quite enough of his clothing ruined by Holmes and his insane schemes. “Have I given a reason for this, old chap?”
“You wrote it on a piece of paper that is over there somewhere,” Watson replies, indicating the dozens of pieces of paper spilt on the floor. “I suspect it made sense to you initially.”
Holmes flops into the armchair beside him, scrutinising him carefully. “You should be angry with me,” he says. “You should be being outraged and anxious and other adjectives of a concerned nature. I have probably caused myself untold damage and you are usually rather cross about that sort of thing.”
“I am,” Watson agrees. “I’m doing an experiment.”
Holmes looks almost hurt. “In not caring about me?” he enquires.
Watson sighs. “I have been sat in here with you for the better part of five days, Holmes,” he says. “You have not hurt anyone and have not yet hurt yourself, so I think I am doing a perfectly adequate job of caring about you.”
“You are leaving me to my own devices?” Holmes asks, though his eyes are alight, as though he has figured something out. He probably has; he usually has.
“I’m experimenting with not being angry,” Watson says. “I’m rather enjoying it.”
“I see.” Holmes probably does see, given the smile that’s widening over his mouth, but he is in no fit state to elaborate. Watson smiles back at him for just a moment too long, and then unfolds the paper again. After a minute, Holmes gets back up and walks over to his bookshelves on what is probably some kind of hallucinated whim.
They have had this conversation twice so far; Watson wonders how many more times they will need to have it before Holmes finally falls asleep.
It takes a drugged cup of tea – Watson is a doctor, after all; Holmes is not the only one with access to chemicals with interesting side effects – to get Holmes to go to sleep, and Watson only intervenes because Holmes discovers that it is Friday and remembers that they have tickets to Cosí fan Tutte tonight, and refuses to listen to Watson when he points out in increasingly loud and less subtle ways that perhaps Holmes is not in a fit state to attend the opera. He is nearly to the door, half-wearing a waistcoat that does not belong to either of them – Watson does not want to know where and how it was acquired – when the sedative finally kicks in, and it takes some quick work on Watson’s part to prevent Holmes from colliding with the hat stand as his knees give way. He is then faced with the unenviable task of dragging Holmes back up the stairs again and putting him to bed, but at least they are not causing a public scandal of some description at the opera house, and Mrs Hudson’s expression of fond relief is almost a reward in itself.
Holmes sleeps for the better part of the next two days. Lord Rossiter’s daughter turns up, having actually run away with the stable boy (much to Watson’s quiet amusement and her father’s reported horror) and the newspapers have a delighted field day. Watson’s patients comment favourably on how quiet the house is, and he almost feels guilty because the peacefulness will not last; it never does. And, finally, against all the odds, Watson has realised that he does not want it to.
That may not seem like an important thing, it may only seem like a small observational thought, but the first thing Watson learned upon moving into Baker Street (other than to duck immediately when told to) was that the little details are the most important. And this one? This one could be everything.
Watson bides his time on this one, keeps it to himself until he thinks that Holmes is in a mind to receive it. They have a case that is wrapped up in a day and a half – an open-and-shut case of theft that pretends to be far more interesting than it is, and when Holmes points this out in a loud tone of voice Watson can almost hear Lestrade’s teeth grinding – and Holmes gives every sign of being busy and happy and not at all tangled up in his own head. Watson likes him like this, likes it when it is easy and he does not have hold together their world in Baker Street. And yet. And yet.
It is a wet evening, raindrops thudding against the windows, and they have drawn the curtains and closed themselves inside. It is Mrs Hudson’s night off; she left with a number of anxious backwards glances, as though suspicious that the current state of peace cannot last and Holmes will blow the house up in her absence unless Watson is extremely vigilant. They have made their poor landlady rather paranoid over the last couple of years, Watson reflects; but not entirely without good reason. She takes the messes and mysterious noises and blind destruction and unsociable and unsuitable habits in her stride, and Watson knows many people who would not do that. Mrs Hudson, too, has become quietly fond of Holmes’ eccentricities; it seems to be an inevitability.
The dying fire is the only light in the room and Holmes is sprawled comfortably in an armchair reading the newspaper by its soft glow. His skin looks almost golden and Watson has to keep forcing himself to pay attention to the medical journal currently lying in his lap. He has read the same paragraph six times in the last ten minutes, and not one word has permeated his brain. It seems that the matter is hopeless.
Finally, he decides he may as well say something; he will have no peace of mind until he does, and it is always nice to remind Holmes that he is not the only one with the answers.
“I don’t want you not to be you,” he says quietly, and Holmes’ head snaps up. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
Holmes’ smile is fond and a little amused. “You’re lucky I am intelligent enough to unravel that thought.”
“Holmes.” The name breaks a little in his mouth. Watson does not know what he is saying; what he is trying to say. Still, he cannot be playful right now, cannot bat words back and forth until meaning tips out almost incidentally and certainly unintentionally. Holmes must see this on his face, because his expression softens a little. It is entirely impossible to know what he is thinking, but this is nothing new and is something Watson has become accustomed to.
“Yes,” Holmes says quietly, and his expression is the carefully sombre one he uses for things that actually matter; cases of brutal murder and abduction , Irene Adler. Maybe Watson, sometimes, when he is lucky. “Yes, that’s it.”
The medical journal slips off Watson’s lap to lie among the other papers on the floor. “Then that’s what I want from you, isn’t it?”
Holmes hesitates, just a fraction of a second. “What is?” he asks, but Watson knows that he is not asking the question because he does not know the answer; he wants to know if Watson knows the answer. Always so careful, and it must be difficult to be Holmes; knowing almost everything there is to know about everyone, but never sure what they themselves know. It must be tiring.
Watson’s nerves nearly fail him, but they have come this far and until he comes clean and says it aloud, their lives will never quite return to normal. There will always be this, left unsaid and simmering beneath the surface.
“I want you,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper, “I want you and every last inch of your failings, your flaws and your ridiculous bad habits.”
Holmes says nothing, and after a moment Watson realises that he has managed to surprise him. This is always an achievement; it is nigh-on impossible to surprise Holmes, who seems to know almost everything before it actually happens. But right now Holmes is staring at him, dark eyes wide, and does not seem to have any words at all. Watson does not know how long the breathless moment of silence lasts; his chest feels so tight that he cannot breathe and when his fingers curl into his palm he realises he is trembling. Eventually, he forces himself to move.
“I need some air,” he says, pushing himself to his feet, the barest hint of an excuse. “It’s stuffy in here.”
He has scarcely taken two steps towards the door when Holmes’ hand lands on his shoulder and he spins him around. Watson opens his mouth to speak without any idea what to actually say, and then there is no need to say anything because Holmes’ hand slides up from his shoulder to curl over the back of his neck, and he pulls him down, finally, oh God, finally, into a kiss.
For a few seconds it is surreal; completely surreal to be here, Holmes’ mouth sealed to his, his fingertips hard against the nape of his neck. And then Watson forgets all about the strangeness of finally getting what he has craved for far longer than he can ever admit and focuses instead on the warm heat of Holmes’ mouth, the strength of the body pressed against his; cataloguing details, he realises in shock. Cataloguing and listing details as though this were a case, as though he is actually going to record this in a story later and does not want to forget a single thing.
Watson clenches a hand in Holmes’ – mercifully clean for once – hair, learning the texture of Holmes’ teeth with his tongue. Holmes half-pushes him, Watson stumbles back, and the backs of his thighs hit a table, sending something fragile to crash on the floor. Watson hears it smash distantly, as though it is a long way away, pulling Holmes closer and not even hesitating for a second to look at the damage. Right now, he does not care if they broken a priceless, irreplaceable artefact or even Mrs Hudson’s favourite tea set, as long as Holmes is stood between his open thighs, teeth catching Watson’s lower lip.
They part for breath, foreheads pressed together, and Watson keeps his eyes closed because it is almost too much. He has lived so long with this claustrophobic longing that for it to be actualised is almost more than he can stand, though of course he can and will stand it. Oh, God, will he stand it.
Holmes presses a soft kiss to Watson’s lips, pulling away before Watson can deepen it, adding another kiss to the corner of his mouth and then trailing a line of them up Watson’s jaw. Watson hears a soft moan escape him and Holmes’ hand slides up into his hair, thumb stroking the nape of his neck in a way that makes him shiver. Holmes repeats the motion, adding another kiss just beneath Watson’s ear, and that is when the moment shatters, when reality skids back in.
Watson knows Holmes well, far too well in fact, and he knows his habits. He can hear Holmes’ breathing, now, pressed this close; the desperation of earlier has faded to be replaced with something far more even, far more thoughtful. Holmes is thinking about this, Watson realises; he is thinking through his every move, intently figuring out exactly what Watson wants. Passion has vanished; in its place is something almost clinical, detached. It is ridiculous that Holmes is dropping feather-light kisses along Watson’s neck and yet Watson has realised that Holmes has slipped away; Holmes is no longer thinking of him as Watson, but as merely as a body that needs to be pleasured, with a list of points that can be crossed off as each one is achieved.
He briefly wonders if this is something Irene had to deal with.
Now he has realised this, Watson cannot continue. He cannot sit here and have Holmes calculate what he wants. This should be instinctive, exploratory, and it is not.
“I’m not one of your bloody experiments,” Watson gasps out.
Holmes stiffens immediately, and pulls back enough for them to be able to look at each other in the half light. “I know that.”
“No, you don’t.” Watson can hear desperation in his tone. “You’re analysing what you think I’ll want. You’re not here with me, you’re in some fucking box in your head ticking things off as you try them and using them as calculations for your next action. You know you are.”
The worst part, the very worst part, is that Watson knows that Holmes is not doing it intentionally. It is just the way he is; even in the throes of what ought to be passion, his clinical, scientific mind is still whirring away. He is like a machine, and Watson already knew this, and finds himself wondering how he thought it could be any different.
Anger is paling, starting to be replaced with humiliation. Holmes can somehow work out exactly where Watson wants him to touch him and how and yet Watson cannot even distract Holmes from his own thoughts for more than a minute. He feels stripped naked, feels stupid, feels like a puppet being dragged about by an unintentional puppet master. And Holmes is not helping, standing there wordlessly, eyes wide with something that might be guilt or shock or regret or resignation; Watson honestly cannot tell.
“I can’t do this,” Watson says, breathless, and when he pushes Holmes back the other man goes without argument, stumbling a little. “I just- I just can’t.”
He wrenches the door open, hands shaking.
“Watson!” Holmes shouts urgently behind him but Watson does not look back, cannot look back. “John!”
Watson pauses long enough to take his coat, hat and cane from the hatstand, and then walks out into the pouring rain, slamming the front door behind him.
Despite spending more of his time chasing after criminals than really befits a doctor, and more of his life than is really healthy looking after the day to day aspects of Holmes’ life that his mind, working on several levels above an ordinary person’s, somehow fails to notice, Watson has still managed to maintain a few friendships outside of Baker Street. It is to one of these friends that he goes now: a bachelor and a doctor who will not mind Watson banging on his door at eight-thirty at night and asking for sanctuary in his spare room. Well, Watson will probably not use the actual word ‘sanctuary’ in his request; it will give entirely the wrong impression. Or perhaps too much of the right one.
“That nutter finally blown the house down, then?” his friend asks good-naturedly, not batting an eyelid at Watson’s abrupt appearance or distinct lack of overnight bag. There is almost the sense that he has been waiting for this to happen, for Watson to crack and run from Holmes. He distantly wonders if his other friends have been waiting for this too, but the thought makes him feel distinctly nauseous and he abandons it only half-formed.
“Something like that,” Watson mumbles, and follows him upstairs.
It takes two days for Watson to muster the courage and conviction to return to Baker Street. He does contemplate not returning at all; running for his life and his sanity and never looking back. But he could not do that; not to himself and not to Holmes. Even if things are ridiculous and broken and far too tense between them, Watson cannot leave him, cannot leave the life he has formed behind, just for the sake of his shattered pride. In any case, he has neglected his practice for too long and he has patients this morning, and Mrs Hudson is probably at her wits’ end by now. So it is in a borrowed shirt and with more than a sense of trepidation that Watson gets a hansom back home and stands on the steps for a long moment, looking up at the lantern painted with 221b. He glances up at the windows, but cannot tell if Holmes is looking out or not, if he is watching Watson’s moment of indecision.
Finally, he unlocks the front door and walks in. Everything looks as clean and neat and tidy as it always does and Watson feels for a minute as though he has been away a lot longer than a mere two days and three nights. At least the house is still standing; he thanks heaven for small mercies.
“Doctor!” Mrs Hudson looks helplessly relieved that he has returned, and throws her arms around him in a gesture that is probably improper and undignified and right now Watson does not care, just hugs her back. “Thank heavens you’ve returned,” she adds finally, letting go of him and straightening her composure again.
“What’s he done?” Watson asks, resignation in his voice, aware that he is at least partially responsible for whatever horrors Holmes has been inflicting on Mrs Hudson over the last couple of days.
“Nothing,” Mrs Hudson responds. When Watson frowns, she continues: “Nothing at all. He’s locked himself in his room and hasn’t come out. When I try and get him to let me in he yells something dreadful.”
“I’ll sort it out,” Watson promises, though part of him is wondering whether he can.
He knocks sharply on the door, and his stomach turns over when, for just a little too long, Holmes does not reply. Holmes must know he has returned; he will be able to tell from Watson’s gait on the stairs, will have heard the cab draw up and will have created appropriate conclusions. Holmes cannot ignore him; Holmes has never ignored him. Watson bangs again on the door.
“Open up now, Holmes, or I swear to God I’ll break the door down!”
After a moment, there is a fumbling with the lock and Holmes wan face appears, graced with a slightly sheepish smile. “No need for violence, old boy.”
He looks more worn than Watson has ever seen him, and he does not know how to react. Words once again fail him and they stand there – Holmes cut in half by the door, Watson hesitating in the hallway – and just stare at each other. Finally, Holmes steps back, pulling the door the rest of the way open, and allows Watson in.
The room is in more of a state than usual, papers lying every which way, books cracked open and left haphazardly around as though tossed aside when their contents proved to be uninspiring. One table has been swept entirely clear, random objects scattered across the floor, and the whole room is thick with pipe smoke, suffocating and airless. The curtains are still closed, leaving the whole space dingy and dark. There are two clear lines through the papers on the floor, as though Holmes has been pacing long enough to kick the debris out of the way, and Watson takes a moment to look around at the carnage before finally turning to look at Holmes.
His friend appears to be very tired, but he is also horribly, damnably sober. This is important, Watson thinks; this is far too important. He is enveloped in his dressing gown, hair a messy, uncombed shock, but he appears fine until Watson glances down and notes a mess of bruising not quite hidden by Holmes’ sleeve.
“Sit down,” he says quietly, steel threaded through his tone, though he can hear the concern in his voice and if he can then that means Holmes definitely can. Holmes, obedient for once in his life, settles himself in one of the armchairs. He twitches slightly when Watson perches himself on the chair arm, taking Holmes’ bruised hand, fingers quivering, but although they both notice it neither of them mention it. Watson examines Holmes’ hand carefully, pressing down on the scraped knuckles with a little too much attention to detail.
“What did you punch?” he asks, careful to keep his voice light, nonchalant.
“The mantelpiece,” Holmes replies, tone matter-of-fact. “It is remarkably solid, by the way. I was impressed by the craftsmanship.”
“What’s remarkable is that you have not broken your hand,” Watson tells him, and a sting of worry slips into the words. He does not add I do not see why you feel the need to hurt yourself, because that would be a lie. It is what Holmes does; when things are complex and uncontrollable on an emotional level, Holmes sorts them out in his mind with physical pain. Normally, he goes to the Punchbowl, forces out his anger on other people, comes homes bloody-mouthed and calmer. He has not done that in this incidence and Watson is relieved; Holmes is in a far better state than he expected to find him. And perhaps that should hurt, except that Watson is endeavouring to be calm about this whole situation or it will drive him mad.
Holmes is watching him carefully, eyes narrowed, and Watson does not particularly want to know what he is thinking right now. “That isn’t your shirt,” Holmes observes at last, as Watson concludes that the mantelpiece has caused no lasting damage, and certainly no damage that requires medical attention which is, if nothing else, a novelty.
“No,” Watson agrees. “But then I did leave here with nothing to wear, and it’s always nice to bring new clothes back, if we’re going to continue with this damned barter system.” He manages a smile. “Where did you get that waistcoat you were trying to wear to the opera from?”
Holmes ignores the question. “That is not a new shirt,” he observes. “The top button fell off at some point and has been sewn back on by someone with apparently no working knowledge of needlework and with thread of just the wrong shade of cream.”
Watson is responsible for all the mending in the house – Mrs Hudson is put-upon enough as it is – and therefore feels that Holmes should not really be in a position to comment on needlework at all. Still, he shrugs. “Well,” he says, “I’m sure the state of the buttons will cease to matter when you steal it from me sometime next week and blow something up all over it.”
There is the sound of the front door opening again; Watson assumes that his patients have begun to arrive. Holmes must realise this too, as Watson lets go of his injured hand, because his expression suddenly takes on an urgent air.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Watson replies calmly, his voice a study in steadiness. “I don’t ever want to talk about it, all right?”
Holmes looks troubled, but after a moment concedes: “all right.”
There are footsteps on the stairs; Watson can hear Mrs Hudson’s voice and the lower register of whoever his first patient of the day is (he has clean forgotten, but he supposes he will find out in a moment).
Watson presses a kiss to Holmes’ temple. “Everything can be analysed but that doesn’t mean everything should be,” he whispers against Holmes’ hair before he stands up. It is the only thing he will say on the matter; he is determined that it will be. “I would tidy up in here a little before we let Mrs Hudson in,” he advises. “She’ll have a fit otherwise.”
“Everything is where it ought to be,” Holmes says with calm confidence.
It is not, and they both know it; they exchange something approaching real, genuine smiles before Watson leaves, telling himself that things will somehow all be fine. Somehow.
It is easier than Watson expected it to be. He supposes that nothing all that much has changed between them, for all the ridiculous embarrassing complications that they have manufactured, and Holmes is showing an impressive amount of self-restraint that Watson was not previously sure he possessed. Watson can tell that Holmes wants to analyse what happened between them, wants to pick it apart and talk it over until every last angle has been made blindingly, painfully clear to both of them, but he can also see that it would upset Watson if he did, and for once he is taking someone else’s feelings into account. It is both surprising and comforting; a welcome reminder that Holmes is not as detached and inhuman as he frequently seems to be. Watson needs that at the moment; every time he recalls Holmes’ entirely too steady hands on his skin it makes his stomach clench, his teeth grit. The memory has not healed over yet; it is still raw enough to sting when touched.
Watson is probably over-thinking all of this to the point of insanity; over-thinking this to the point of Holmes, but he cannot stop himself. For his part, Holmes is silent more often, contemplative more often, eyes fixed on the ceiling and mind a thousand miles away. There is an edge between them now, an edge that cannot be cleanly defined and that they are both pointedly ignoring, but which makes its presence known from time to time anyway.
It has been a long day of seeing patients and pretending to be interested in psychosomatic medical conditions thought up by bored widows with nothing better to do with their time and desperate for any kind of attention, and Watson has been patient and smiling and has ordered Mrs Hudson to make enough tea to hydrate an army – and he would know, after all – and right now all he wants to do is collapse by the fire with the newspaper and some quiet and possibly some kind of alcohol. Gladstone opens his eyes long enough to give Watson a look that is a curious mixture of disdainful and hopeless – Watson is sure that other people’s dogs do not look this weary on such a regular basis – and he sighs, mentally waving goodbye to an evening of any sort of peace.
At first glance, the room appears to be empty; Holmes is nowhere to be seen, but this does not mean he is not here. Holmes is given to disappearing into weird corners, his mind so preoccupied with its higher levels of thought that he does not even notice what is happening to his body; Watson has found him lying beneath his sofa, sitting on top of his bookcases, seated half-out of the window with his feet resting on the outer ledge. One day Holmes is going to inadvertently kill himself just from his inadvisable choices of seating, but it is one of the many, many things that Watson really cannot be bothered to argue through in the vain hope of getting his friend to stop. Today, he follows the rustling sound of paper and finds Holmes sitting beneath one of the tables, the contents of a file spread open on the floor around him. On top of the table are the charred remains of what was possibly an experiment of some description; broken glass, ashes, and some of Holmes’ densely-written notes, the only words of which he can actually read are does not work! (which currently looks fairly self-evident). Watson hesitates, and then sits down beside Holmes, careful not to accidentally hit his head on the edge of the table.
“Dare I ask?”
“Fumes were lesser down here,” Holmes replies distractedly. He has charcoal smudged on one cheek and his fingers are stained with chemicals.
“Oh good,” Watson says dryly. “Should I be worried about what I’ve inhaled? Are my lungs going to start disintegrating? Because I was going to take my watch in for mending, but if I only have days to live I won’t bother.”
“The fumes should have dissipated by now,” Holmes responds, eyes still on the papers in front of him. After a moment, he turns one of them over, moves it to the back of the file. “I can mend your watch.”
“No, you can’t,” Watson tells him.
“I could,” Holmes protests. “It is simply a case of memory and observation, both of which I excel at, if I may point it out.”
“That carriage clock in my room never did work again,” Watson cannot help reminding him. “Not that I was particularly emotionally attached to it, but-”
“I was inexperienced,” Holmes interrupts.
“That was six months ago,” Watson says, “And you haven’t fixed any more timepieces since then. You are still inexperienced and possibly delirious-”
“-I am not delirious-”
“-delirious from inhaling whatever you were exploding in here earlier, so I think I will just take my watch to someone who knows what they’re doing.”
“You don’t trust me?” Holmes finally looks at him, a scowl settling over his mouth.
“With my life? Yes. In a heartbeat. With my father’s watch? Never. Not at all. No. Not in a million years.”
Holmes appears to consider this for a long moment, face mostly hidden in shadow. “All right then,” he says at last. “I suppose it is a job best left to the professionals.” The way he says professionals makes it sound as though he is saying child-murderers, and Watson looks down at the file on the floor in front of them to hide his smile. The smile drips off a moment later when he realises just whose file it actually is.
The authorities are never going to ask Holmes to hunt Irene Adler down, and even if they do she will calmly evade all of them and escape, along with whatever precious materials happen to be around at the time and having swiftly shattered Holmes’ heart, or at least the closest approximation of it she can manage. Nonetheless, Holmes keeps the file diligently; Watson cannot tell if Holmes is lying to himself or to him, and is unsure which option upsets him more.
“Adler’s keeping herself busy,” he observes, and almost winces at how bitter his tone is; Holmes can read every one of his emotions as it is, without Watson being quite so painfully obvious.
“She does appear to be, yes,” Holmes agrees neutrally, not looking at him. Watson contemplates just getting out from underneath the table and leaving him to his obsession with an unattainable woman expressed through dozens of bits of paper and too many newspaper cuttings, but that smacks too much of jealousy and he cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, he leans a little into Holmes’ shoulder to look at the latest newspaper cutting, and pretends not to notice Holmes’ whole body stiffen momentarily.
“What’s she done now?” he asks, feigning interest because he has nothing else left to him.
“She is engaged to a member of the nouveau riche,” Holmes responds, indicating a scrap of newspaper. There is an illustration on it of someone who could possibly be Irene Adler; Watson has not seen her in a considerable amount of time and it is a lamentably poor print.
“It won’t last six months,” Watson remarks, “and I bet she gets the better part of the divorce settlement.”
“Irene gets the better part of any settlement,” Holmes murmurs, half to himself, and offers Watson a hint of a smile. “Do you say that as a betting man?”
“I am not putting money on how long it takes Adler to ditch this poor bastard,” Watson says, and is pleased at how light he manages to keep his voice.
“Probably just as well,” Holmes says, and his smile is unreadable.
They sit in companionable silence for a while longer; Watson’s shoulders begin to complain from being hunched beneath the table for so long, and he has lost all feeling in his legs, but he does not move.
“You could do this in an armchair,” he points out after a while. “Unless you were lying to me about the probably fatal fumes having dispersed by now.”
Holmes looks affronted. “I would never poison you, dear boy.”
“Well, not intentionally,” Watson replies, smiling to soften the words.
“Not even unintentionally,” Holmes tells him.
“Not even you can control accidents, Holmes,” Watson says. “You may have astonishing powers of deduction and observation, but you are not actually superhuman.”
“Not yet, anyway,” Holmes replies, but he is grinning. “I like it under here,” he adds after a moment, “it is... intimate.”
“It is uncomfortable,” Watson tells him, and for a moment thinks that maybe they are not actually talking about their seating arrangement. But all of this is too stupid and too close to think about right now, so he shifts a little and does not continue.
Mrs Hudson told them that it was like living with children when she came in and found them both beneath the table, but brought them tea anyway. Watson moves to an armchair eventually, when his leg begins to twinge too hard to be ignored, and reads the tattered remains of the newspaper with Gladstone sitting on his feet and growling occasionally. He wonders whether Holmes accidentally poisoned their dog earlier when he was busy filling the room with smoke and toxins, but does not ask; Gladstone seems his usual bad-tempered self so if he has been drugged it does not seem to have had any ill-effects, or, at least, none that were not there already.
When he has sorted out Adler’s file to his own satisfaction – the articles and pictures are not chronologically arranged or even put into categories that seem to make logical sense to anyone but him – Holmes drifts aimlessly around the room for a while, humming to himself and flicking through his books, occasionally jotting things down on the notes from his failed experiment of earlier. Night falls ever more steadily, hours ticking by on the clock on the mantelpiece that they have miraculously not managed to damage yet, and Watson waits for the inevitable.
Eventually, when Holmes has apparently lost interest in researching whatever it was that made those lovely scorch marks all over their table, he closes all the books and leaves them piled about – Watson makes a mental note of where they are, because Holmes will inevitably ask him later about their whereabouts and it is always nice if one of them knows the answer – before heading towards his room.
“Take my shirt off before you leave,” Watson calls, not looking up from the newspaper. “It’s still reasonably new. Go in one of yours.”
Holmes’ smile is bordering on proud, but Watson is not using great skills of deduction; he just knows Holmes far too well. He is a creature of habit, after all; though the habits are ever so destructive and it is frequently difficult to predict when Holmes will decide to indulge in one. Not now, though. Now, it is only too obvious.
“I was just going to do that,” Holmes responds, and it might possibly be the truth. It might not be. Either way, when he walks back into the room a few minutes later he is wearing his own shirt; Watson can tell this by a chemical burn on the left sleeve. Watson has laid the paper aside, and is staring into the flames of the fire.
“Would you like to come?” Holmes asks, and Watson decides that he is imagining the trace of hesitation in Holmes’ tone. Wishful thinking, or something like that. Holmes knows every last thread in social interaction, often gets caught up on the fine details rather than the matter at hand, but even so, he does not do awkward. Oh, he does uncomfortable, yes, but that is another matter entirely.
“Wouldn’t mind,” Watson responds, carefully nonchalant, and gets up, pretending that his leg is not still stinging from prolonged contact with their hard wooden floor. He indulges Holmes in too many of his whims, it is true; but then Holmes is brilliant in all things, even his eccentricities, and Watson would never dream of trying to temper him. He does his best to keep Holmes alive, but he will never allow himself to clip Holmes’ wings. He does not know how he would even begin to try.
They are halfway down the stairs before he says: “you know, you don’t have to do this.”
“I like to keep myself fit,” Holmes replies steadily, “and it’s always good to keep in practice. Who knows who we shall confront in a dark alley one night?”
“Right,” Watson says expressionlessly, “of course.”
He waits until they are in a cab and several streets away before he says: “you don’t actually think that I believe you, do you?”
Holmes’ face is barely visible in the darkness, but Watson thinks that he sees a flash of a smile as they pass a lamppost. “No, of course not. I’d think less of you if I thought you did.”
Watson closes his eyes momentarily, leans his head back against the seat. “Always nice to know,” he says on a sigh.
The Punchbowl is crowded, the sound a physical presence lying over the top of everything else. It smells of sweat and dirt and blood and alcohol and humanity, and as always when he first walks in, Watson has to swallow against a rush of bile in his throat. Holmes appears cheerfully unaffected, nodding acquaintance to a few of the men in the room before weaving his way to the bar. He is far more comfortable here than Watson is; probably because Watson still feels the bite of shame every time he walks in. It is probable that Holmes can feel shame; but he is exceptionally good at not showing it, at acting as though his actions will never cause him the briefest moment of embarrassment. In any case, Holmes was not the one who tried to throw his life away like a used betting slip in here, nothing left to lose and nothing at all to gain. At least, Watson watches Holmes lean sinuously against the bar and laugh a raw laugh and does not think that is what Holmes is trying to do.
Watson knows more of the people who spend their lives in the Punchbowl than he wants to admit, exchanges a few words with the men who know him solely as Doctor, because he might have originally come here with the intention of falling between the cracks of his life but he is not stupid. Contemplating whether he wants a drink of viciously acidic alcohol while he waits, Watson reflects that perhaps there is a reason why Holmes does not demand his presence every time he comes here; Watson has to make the decision to return to the Punchbowl for himself, has to go because he has made that choice, not because Holmes has dragged him.
The realisation makes something inside him twist that he did not notice it earlier. That he let himself think it was Holmes being selfish and shutting him out when it fact it was Holmes looking after him in the only ways he knows how to. The thought burns too hard, low down in Watson’s stomach, and he bites the inside of his mouth. Sometimes he has to remind himself that Holmes is not the only one in Baker Street with desperate inner demons fighting for control.
He places his usual bet almost in a trance, backing Holmes heavily because he knows he will not lose. There are days when Holmes lets himself lose, when he staggers home bloody and breathless and quietly shattered for Watson to piece him back together with recriminations made all the more harsh because he is scared, but Watson does not think it is as bad as all that right now. Yes, Irene Adler is making her presence far too felt in their lives, is carving her reputation through Europe in a way that seems specifically designed to capture Holmes’ attention and he cannot quite make himself cope with it in any way that does not involve violence; but Watson does not think that Holmes is trying to get himself hurt tonight. Whether he actually will or not remains to be seen, but with Holmes half of it is about intention, about the thoughts behind the actions rather than the actions themselves.
It is difficult to be certain, but Watson thinks that he saw Holmes boxing before he ever met him in polite company. That part of his life is too shadowed with alcohol and misery for anything to be sure, but you do not see Holmes fight and forget it in a hurry. And Watson thinks he saw him, brilliant and laughing and dark-haired and impossible, take a man apart with three perfect blows. It cost him nearly a week’s rent at the hotel and he did not eat for three days afterwards to try and make up for the loss, but it was worth it, worth it just to see that perfect level of expertise. There is something beautiful in it, in the grace of the harsh movements.
There is no trace of ennui when Holmes is fighting, no hint at the all-consuming boredom that has him drugging Gladstone and setting innocent items of furniture ablaze. Watson watches him duck and weave, fists moving almost faster than the eye can follow, and finds it impossible to believe that they sat on the floor and drank tea together earlier in the evening, bickering over something mundane like whose fault it was that Watson’s good shirt was torn at the elbow. Holmes’ black hair is stuck flat to his head with sweat, his skin is gleaming and his eyes have the fixed, flat look of a machine; concentrating so hard that he is on another plane of thought altogether. His opponent gets one good punch in, sending Holmes reeling back with his nose dripping blood; Watson attempts a diagnosis from his place at the back of the baying audience, and does not think it is broken, which is probably a good thing, if only because Holmes would be petulant and unbearable about the whole thing and sooner or later he is going to do something so unrespectable that Mrs Hudson will ask them to leave. Holmes laughs, mouth and teeth streamed with scarlet, and applauds the man he is fighting; Watson knows that it is a genuine form of congratulation, that Holmes is impressed the man has managed to get one over on him, but he also knows that Holmes’ opponent sees it as purely mocking and sarcastic, and rage descends over his thickset features. Not that this matters; Holmes is too steady to be distracted by emotion and Watson can see that he is calculating his next move, working out what he must do. It sends an unpleasant shiver through Watson’s stomach, because it is the very expression Holmes wore two weeks ago, mouth wet and red from Watson’s kisses.
He turns away automatically, swallowing to stem the immediate, frantic flow of regret and misery and helpless, desperate anger with both himself and Holmes, and it is a moment before he can look back to the fight. When he does, he realises that Holmes is watching him; although Watson is stood at the back and almost out of sight, Holmes has spotted him and his dark gaze burns concern through the room, as though they are the only two people in it and all Watson can hear is a curious roaring that blocks out the yells and cheers of the people around him. It is a strange moment, one that leaves Watson feeling oddly breathless and confused, but he can see Holmes’ opponent has lost patience and is reaching for Holmes, intending to catch him off-guard. Watson raises a significant eyebrow in warning and Holmes ducks in time, rolling in the sandy dirt and back on his feet a moment later, grinning in a way that is nearly ugly. He gets in two swift shots to the man’s sternum before turning his head and throwing a wink at Watson so fast he knows he is the only one to spot it.
Watson’s smile is pleased and rueful and disbelieving, but Holmes pays for the moment of distraction; the man throws him bodily against the wooden side of the ring and Holmes’ movement to block him is too late; Watson hears Holmes swear sharply between his teeth and as he straightens up Watson can see the unnatural hang of Holmes’ arm and thinks, with a sort of shocked clarity: the bloody man has dislocated his bloody shoulder, followed by: he never bloody learns, does he? Holmes, to his credit, kicks his opponent’s legs out from beneath him and briskly finishes him off with a sharp elbow to his temple, leaving him crumpled in the dirt.
It takes both of them in the dingy little room upstairs to get Holmes’ shoulder back into its socket; Holmes makes helpless animalistic noises and Watson is trembling and pretending that he is not. He recites in his head, over and over, you are a stupid man, you are a fucking stupid man, but he says nothing aloud. He makes a makeshift sling for Holmes out of his own tie, though he knows that Holmes will ignore this sooner or later, and does not blame Holmes as he sits there taking swigs out of a bottle of lord knows what. Finally, Watson cleans the crusting blood from Holmes’ face, pleased to note his nose has stopped bleeding.
Candlelight glances golden off Holmes’ eyelashes and he watches Watson with utter faith, seated on a rickety chair with Watson stood over him. It almost seems as though he is waiting for something, but Watson does not know if he can give it to him. He does not think that it is really his place to be angry, much as he would like to be.
“Irene Adler is not worth this,” Watson murmurs finally, because someone has to say it.
Holmes does not reply; just slides a shaky hand into Watson’s hair and pulls him into a kiss. It lasts barely a moment before Holmes lets go of him; Watson can taste blood on his lips and it is not his own.
“I’m not worth it either,” he hears himself saying.
“I rather think that’s for me to decide, don’t you?” There’s amusement in Holmes’ words, but a hidden sharpness beneath them. Watson’s guts clench.
“Don’t you dare make this my fault. Don’t you even dare.”
Holmes smiles softly up at him, candlelight striping his face. “You should go home, Watson. I would really like to be drunker than I am at this moment in time and you will only stand there being awkward and making me feel guilty. I promise that I will see myself safely home.”
Watson should stay, but he does not want to and Holmes really does not want him to either. He takes a breath. “Promise me.”
He is at the door when Holmes says thank you, dear Watson, voice so soft he almost does not catch it. He does not look back because he knows that he was not meant to hear it, and determinedly leaves the Punchbowl, leaving his winnings behind.
In the early hours of the morning, drifting in and out of an uneasy sleep, Watson can hear Holmes playing the violin. He does not think that Holmes should be playing at all, given the state his shoulder is in, and he is about to bang on the wall and point out discordantly playing random notes at inhuman hours is in no way endearing, whatever Holmes wants to believe, when he realises that Holmes is not doing that. Half-asleep, it takes Watson a moment to place the tune; Mendelssohn’s Lieder and he vaguely recalls he may once have told Holmes that it was his favourite.
Watson lets the melody, played absolutely perfectly, lull him back to sleep. When he next wakes up, the rooms are silent, and he almost wonders whether he dreamed it.
Holmes is fast asleep on his tiger skin rug when Watson peeps in to check on him the next morning, cheek pillowed on its snarling head, body covered over with his ratty dressing gown that Watson would sincerely like to either burn or examine because it is probably infested with hundreds of interesting and horrific diseases. He looks much more vulnerable and much less crazy in sleep, lying on his right side with his left arm curled protectively against him. The makeshift sling Watson made him is unsurprisingly gone, but his tie is wrapped around Holmes’ bruised fingers, clutched tight. It is going to be creased beyond what even Mrs Hudson’s greatest efforts with an iron can repair and he really rather liked that tie; still, he smiles a rueful little smile and does not try to reclaim it. He considers waking Holmes up and trying to persuade him to sleep in bed, because the floor will not be good for his injured body, but the fact that Holmes is asleep at all is currently a miracle and so Watson decides not to, pulling the curtains closed a little more firmly to keep the sunlight from crawling in.
Watson has a quiet morning with patients, trying not to pay any attention at all the ominous silence from next door; he has become so accustomed to listening to and excusing the strange noises that Holmes makes next door that their absence is horribly unsettling. He would like to think that Holmes is still fast asleep, but that seems like almost too much to hope for.
At lunchtime, he walks into the room to find Holmes holding court with a surprising amount of attempted dignity given that he is still laid out on the tiger rug, gesturing with his right arm at a bemused and incredulous Mrs Hudson.
“...And I absolutely require crumpets right now,” he is explaining, as though this is a matter of life and death and one little mistake could prove fatal. “With butter and jam.” His mouth twists. “Blackcurrant jam,” he decides after a moment. “It is of the utmost importance.”
Mrs Hudson looks as though she would quite like to start laughing, but this urge is tempered by just how awful Holmes looks right now. He is looking particularly wan and battered and martyred and Watson is surprised by how much this irritates him when he considers that Holmes did this to himself. It was an accident, but an accident that Holmes halfway engineered; he does not go to the Punchbowl, after all, thinking he will come home unscathed. One day he will come back with a shattered ribcage or some burst and battered internal organs or brain damage and then Watson does not know what they will do.
“And tea,” Holmes adds. “Lots of tea.”
Watson exchanges a significant look with Mrs Hudson as she passes him, one that expresses a great deal of exhausted fellow-feeling, and then goes to sit in a chair and talk to Holmes.
“You could say please,” he points out, “when you’re making poor Mrs Hudson follow your crazed whims.”
“It’s not a crazed whim,” Holmes protests, looking affronted, “My life needs crumpets in it. Many crumpets.”
Watson is tired and his anxiety has formed a physical knot in his stomach, and he has really had enough of all of this.
“No one’s life needs crumpets in it,” he says, with all the authority of his medical degree and his unfailingly steady hands.
There is an edge in Holmes’ voice when he next speaks, an edge that is almost but not quite hidden, and although Watson catches it he is not sure he is meant to. “I think I am the one who can tell what my life needs most.”
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you,” Watson agrees, and the edge in his own voice is naked in the daylight, blazing just a little too sharp, “but this is one of those rare incidences where you’d be wrong.”
Holmes pretends that he never makes mistakes but they both know that he does, from time to time, though Watson does not record them for posterity and they are both far more comfortable in pretending that Holmes is frequently ridiculous but utterly infallible.
“And who do you think knows what’s best for me?” Holmes demands, almost failing in his effort to keep his tone light. “Nanny, perhaps? Or maybe you think you do, Doctor Watson?”
The way Holmes spits doctor is the last straw. “You have so much self-awareness that you’ve come out the other side and now you are deluding yourself,” Watson tells him, voice shaking just a little.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Holmes informs him stiffly, pushing himself to his feet, dressing gown dropping to the floor. “You are overtired-”
“Stop it,” Watson snaps. “You cannot blame words you do not want to hear on exhaustion, Holmes, and ignore the truth.”
“And what is the truth?” Holmes demands. Watson hesitates just a moment too long, fingers curling over the arms of his chair, aware that if he stands too this will no longer be bickering but a real, genuine argument. “Go on, Watson, I’d be fascinated to hear what you think the truth of the matter is.”
“Your problem,” Watson half-snarls, annoyed by the condescension in Holmes’ tone, and he should stop this, he really should, “is that you think emotion is optional.”
He has wounded something in Holmes, he can see the minute the words have spilled from his mouth. Something flickers in Holmes’ dark eyes, a nerve of some kind has been hit.
“No, I don’t,” Holmes replies, voice barely steady as though clinging to the last shreds of dignity. “But I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Watson hears himself laughing, ugly and bitter. “Of course, because only the great Sherlock Holmes can understand anything. The rest of us just stumble about like savages in the darkness with no comprehension of anything or anyone.”
He has pushed himself to his feet at some point, anger and anxiety and helplessness mixing within him. He has no idea how to put a stop to this and part of him does not even want to.
“You think that of me?” Holmes asks, and his tone is entirely unreadable.
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes when Watson is tired and bitter and lonely, yes. But he does not think of Holmes that way and never has. He should say this, try and calm this down while there is still time to.
“Can you honestly tell me that I am wrong?” His voice is so cold he does not even recognise it as his own.
Holmes studies him in silence for a moment, dark eyes roving over his face. Watson is breathing too hard, fingers curled into his palms. Holmes is too much like a diamond: cold and hard and too-brilliant and you will cut yourself if you get too close. Watson forces himself not to look away, not to flush under that critical stare.
“That’s not what we’re arguing about,” he says at last.
Watson honestly wants to punch him. “I am sick and tired of picking up the little bloody pieces of you that crawl back from your experiments and your cases and your lethargy and your disdain for humanity. I am weary and scared and you claim you know what you are doing but you don’t and last night you let a man dislocate your shoulder because you were bored. That is what we are arguing about, Holmes, and it is perfectly logical and perfectly evident.”
Holmes is sneering at him the way that he sneers at Lestrade when the inspector is saying something Holmes considers particularly incorrect and facile. He has never looked at Watson that way and it turns his stomach to ice.
“No,” Holmes tells him, “no, we are arguing because you want something from me that I am not yet capable of giving you – though I wish that I were – and you resent me because of it.”
“Holmes, don’t be-”
“You resent me-”
“No, I don’t!” Watson’s shout startles them both. “If I resented you don’t you think I would get out of here while I could?”
“And go where?” Holmes counters. There is a horrible, draining pause. “I cannot give you what you want and so you are looking for excuses to be angry at me about it without seeming to be unreasonable.”
That hurts, that cuts somewhere deep down and he does not know how to make it stop bleeding.
“Fuck you, Holmes.” Watson’s voice has gone soft, exhaustion colouring it. “Fuck you, all right?”
Holmes’ posture is rigid, his expression painfully bland. “That is the problem, is it not?”
“No.” Watson passes a hand over his face, takes a deep breath as he considers his words. “You watch me and observe me and make mental notes and you think you know me.”
“I do know you,” Holmes interjects, certain and just a little haughty.
“You do not,” Watson snaps back. “You like to think you do, but you do not know what it is like to be me.”
His words cut through the room and leave them both silent, aware that they are on distinctly unsteady ground and a push of one way or another could bring all of it crashing down around their ears.
Holmes is the first to move, taking himself over to an armchair over by the window, settling himself in it and picking up a random book.
“What are you doing?” Watson asks, his voice barely above a whisper.
Holmes does not look up. “I am waiting for my crumpets,” he responds calmly, “and then I shall wait for you to forgive me.” His gaze flickers to meet Watson’s for a moment. “You always do.”
Watson wants to throw something at his head. He wants to scream, actually scream, until this no longer aches the way it does. He wants to snarl something like don’t count on it, not this time.
Instead, he turns and leaves to see more patients, slamming the door harder than is at all necessary, and hearing something probably important shatter behind him.
In the middle of the afternoon, in between patients, Mrs Hudson brings Watson a plate of crumpets of his own, and a pot of tea. He scrapes up something approaching a smile for her, and waits until she’s gone before sitting down at his desk and taking a bite out of one. It tastes too sweet in his mouth, disintegrating around his teeth and he puts it hastily back on the plate. Watson is not being a good doctor at the moment; far too snappish, not nearly sympathetic enough, and he knows on another day he will have to apologise to all of his regulars, make up some headache or family crisis that would cause him to be legitimately bad-tempered.
The crumpets go into his wastepaper basket – he will find a way to excuse this to Mrs Hudson later – and Watson contemplates adding liberal measures of the brandy he pretends not to keep in the bottom drawer of his desk to the teapot, before deciding that Holmes has had enough from him today without taking away the last pieces of his respectability too. No one is going to take those, he has fought too hard and too long to let them go now. He sips at the tea as it goes cold, trying not to think about Holmes, about his harsh cruel words, about his facial expressions, about every last thing Watson should really not have said aloud.
Watson lets his head drop into his hands, massages his temples in an attempt to assuage the insistent, thudding pulse there. This is messier than any argument they have ever had in the past; at least in the past they were concerned about concealing the other emotions that flickered darkly behind their words. Now, all of it is out in the open, naked and raw and ugly and painful. Sooner or later, he will have more patients, will have to pick himself up and put himself together and get through the rest of the day. Right now, though, he has five minutes in which to quietly despair.
A slight movement has him raising his head; Mrs Hudson or a patient would have announced themselves, Gladstone would already be trying to eat his crumpets out of the bin or be lying pathetically on the rug looking martyred (and doing a better job than Holmes ever has; possibly because Gladstone has never asked to be drugged with experimental concoctions by a bored scientific genius; at least, not to Watson’s knowledge). He does not see Holmes – his friend is too quick for that – but nonetheless he knows he has been being watched, and the thought makes him grit his teeth. Holmes has never understood the meaning of distance, or of personal space – he was stealing Watson’s clothing and walking in on him in the bathroom within a week of them moving in together – but that does not stop Watson from occasionally hating that he cannot ever have a moment of privacy.
Slowly, he straightens his posture, stretching out his shoulders which hurt from the tension and from having been hunched so long. He stands up, moving to stand by his window and look down onto Baker Street, cheerfully bustling and everyone oblivious to what happens behind cold brick and glass. Because he is listening for it, he hears the soft click of the door to the adjoining room, and resists the childish urge to go and wedge a chair beneath the handle to prevent Holmes from coming out and spying on him again.
A few moments later, he hears the first strains of Holmes’ violin coming through the wall; something by Chopin, he thinks, played so mournfully and sadly it is just long disjointed notes, barely melodious at all.
Something inside him snaps; Watson throws a medical dictionary at the wall dividing the room into two. It makes a satisfying thump and then falls to the floor, spine broken.
“You’ve hurt your shoulder,” he shouts, “you shouldn’t be playing the violin unless you want to make it worse.”
There is a defiant, messy squeak of the strings, and then silence. After a moment, Watson allows himself a smile.
The room is dark when he finally returns to it, fire barely burning and curtains closed against the twilight. Watson sighs and goes about lighting the lamps before anything else; he has had his fill of ambiguity and half-light. This done, he looks around to discover Holmes draped across the sofa, looking particularly tragic and tired, a heavy book lying in his lap. He does not look at Watson, does not look up at all. The violin is lying on a table nearby, and Watson refuses to think that it is wearing an expression of reproach because it is, after all, just a violin. After a moment of contemplation, he walks over to Holmes.
“Move your feet,” he says softly, making a conscious effort to keep harshness from his voice, and Holmes obediently folds his legs up enough to allow Watson to sit on the other end of the sofa. The table next to this end is covered in the day’s post, left unopened, and Watson helps himself to a letter, trying not to let his hands shake as he rips it open.
“Have you forgiven me yet?” Holmes asks as Watson peruses the contents.
“Not yet,” Watson replies. “But I have reached the point where I no longer want to throw things at you, so I feel I can return to a room that contains both you and fragile objects.”
“You broke a vase,” Holmes tells him. “When you the slammed the door earlier.”
“Ah.” Watson turns the letter over; he can solve the case himself, so it will not do for Holmes. Maybe if he is feeling benevolent tomorrow he will reply to the letter and tell Mrs Raines just where her husband keeps disappearing off to; or perhaps he will leave her in blissful ignorance. “Did we like the vase?”
“Not particularly,” Holmes replies. “It was that one with badly-painted begonias on it that was a present from your aunt. Or my aunt.” He looks thoughtful. “One of our aunts anyway. Do we have aunts?”
Watson feels amusement curling his mouth, in spite of it all. “Well, we’d better hope we do, or else the vase was part of some giant plot to bring you down.”
They exchange smiles at the thought and then Watson reaches for more post, tearing another envelope open. Yet another tiresome case of stolen property that is never as interesting as it first appears to be.
“Have you forgiven me now?” Holmes asks after a few minutes.
Watson sighs. “No, Holmes. But nor would I like to continue our argument.”
Holmes nods. “I think we have sufficiently injured each other’s feelings for one day.” When Watson says nothing, he adds: “of course, you could say something like I did not know you had feelings to be injured in the first place and we can continue from there.”
“No,” Watson murmurs, “no, old boy, I’m not going to say that.”
“Probably just as well,” Holmes says after the pause threatens to become even more uncomfortable, “we will only break something nanny is attached to, and then we will find ourselves on the streets with nothing but our charming personalities to protect us.”
“In that case we had better be on our best behaviour,” Watson tells him.
Holmes raises an amused eyebrow. “I believe you are casting dreadful aspersions on both our characters there.”
“Not both of them,” Watson replies, “just yours.”
“Ah,” Holmes says, “well, that’s quite all right then.”
He pushes himself into a sitting position, feet braced against Watson’s thigh (while Watson tries very hard not to notice because, for one thing, now is not the time) and reaches for something on a nearby table before drawing his arm back, wincing. Watson sighs.
“I wish you could decide whether you want to be an invalid or not.”
Holmes smiles softly, but when he speaks he says: “You have no idea what I want. Though, in your defence, apparently I have no idea what you want.”
Part of the reason that Holmes is a detective is that he cannot let things lie, he cannot wait until they have become cloudier and they sting less; it is a wonderful attribute in an investigation, and rather inconvenient the rest of the time.
“Yes,” Watson agrees quietly. “That does rather appear to be the current state of affairs.”
He peruses a few more letters before deciding that there really is not anything to entertain Holmes with, and then looks again at his companion. Holmes is staring into the fire, thoughts clearly miles away from the cluttered room in Baker Street. Watson almost leaves him to it, but then notices the way Holmes’ left arm is still lying limp in his lap and supposes he should check on the injuries from the Punchbowl, just to make sure. It would be very remiss of him to leave Holmes to his own devices when he is actually hurt.
Watson reaches out, lays a careful hand on Holmes’ arm, just below the elbow, and waits. After a minute or two, Holmes’ eyelids flutter and he comes back into the room, attention recaptured with no need for shouting. Watson refined this method out of necessity; Holmes spends far too much time running around inside his own thoughts, and if Baker Street is full of holes and explosions and battered furniture Watson rather dreads to think what the inside of Holmes’ head must be like. In any case, it is best to be able to get him back from wherever he has drifted off to without having to resort to shouting and shaking.
“I need to check on your injuries,” he explains, and helps Holmes pull his – still bloodstained – shirt over his head.
Most of Holmes’ shoulder is dark purple with bruising and his chest is covered in random little marks, showing just what a beating Holmes took last night. Watson takes care to be gentle when checking that they definitely got Holmes’ shoulder back into its socket; he can see the tension in Holmes’ jaw, clenched tightly against the pain and without thinking Watson reaches out to touch. Holmes’ stubble is rough against his fingers and Watson can feel the pulse in his neck against his fingers; Holmes’ heart is beating slightly too hard and slightly too fast and when he swallows Watson feels that click of muscle as well.
Holmes closes his eyes, head bowing, and Watson’s hand slips. He curls his fingers into his palm and brings it back to his own lap, aware that he is not helping matters.
“Are we going to need to have another argument?” Holmes asks, still not looking at him.
“No,” Watson responds, voice barely above a whisper. “No.” He sighs, looks down to where their legs are pressed together, looks at the scant distance between them, and wonders why this is not as easy as it looks like it ought to be.
After a moment, Holmes says: “Watson?” He sounds almost wary, almost cautious.
Watson raises his head, and blurts: “I want you as you are, but you do not want me as you are, and that would destroy me, Sherlock.”
Holmes actually looks stunned and Watson reflects that he really is very tired and still short-tempered and it was about time someone actually told the truth. Besides, Holmes always says that he cannot come to a conclusion if he is not given data, and now Watson has given him data. He has given him probably too much data and really if they are going to deal with any of this it would be best to leave it all alone and eventually forget about it, but at least it has been said now.
After a moment of draining silence, when Holmes does not seem to be able to say anything at all – he neither agrees with nor denies Watson’s words, and that in itself is very telling – Watson decides he needs an early night. Offering Holmes a smile and a pat on the knee he stands up, walks over to the door.
Hesitating, he says: “I liked the Mendelssohn by the way. Thank you.”
Holmes still says nothing and Watson cannot bring himself to turn around. He sighs, and, after a moment, leaves the room, careful to close the door softly behind him.
It was a gradual process, falling in love with Sherlock Holmes. Watson did not suddenly look at him one morning over breakfast – partially because they are rarely up in time to have breakfast together or even to have breakfast at all – and feel his heart shudder into his mouth. He did not glance up from a dead body at Holmes’ thoughtful expression and feel all the pieces of the puzzle tumble into place. He did not even walk into a room to find Holmes lounging in an armchair wearing Watson’s clothes as though he owned them and think that perhaps, in some way, he did. No, it was a slow progression that took a great deal of time and Watson did not even notice that it was happening until it was much too late to turn back.
He almost cannot remember agreeing to move in with Holmes, when his life was at its lowest point and gambling away all his possessions and most of his soul followed by a graceless suicide was looking like the most appealing of his options; presumably there was a conversation of some description, an offer or suggestion of some kind made. He had met Holmes a couple of times in the company of mutual acquaintances – acquaintances which he has, for the most part, failed to keep; living with Holmes really can be distracting and all-consuming – and possibly seen him fight in the Punchbowl, but he was more in awe of him than anything else. Wary, too, since after only a couple of dinners Holmes had squirreled out what Watson then thought of as his darkest secret and displayed it for him in a cramped, airless hallway, smiling benignly all the time. People like that can never be reassuring.
Falling into helping Holmes with cases is much easier to recall. Watson had known Holmes’ name from the papers – though not his face; Holmes is ceaselessly careful in that one aspect of his life – and so had thought he knew what he was getting into. He did not, and from time to time he looks back and laughs at his own naïveté. He could not know, could not have even guessed, that Holmes’ life contained as much destruction as it did deconstruction, that his belongings would be ‘borrowed’ and promptly broken in a search for some kind of truth that always lead to the right place in the end although no one but Holmes could follow its trajectory accurately.
Watson had found Holmes doing a particularly noisy dissection at four in the morning that seemed to involve dropping things far too much – with hindsight, Watson can guess that Holmes wanted to wake him up and get him involved, but that is only because he has a much better working knowledge of Holmes’ methods now – and before he knew it was finishing the dissection himself and giving Holmes ideas as to where the unfortunate dead man might have worked. It seemed logical when Holmes offered to take him with him to these places; Watson might as well see the case through, after all. And then before he knew it he was regularly accompanying Holmes to crime scenes and inappropriate drinking dens and so forth, and Holmes said everything he was thinking aloud in long streams of barely-comprehensible logic, and Watson began to learn about his methods and thought processes and he finally realised he was making deductions of his own, utilising Holmes’ teachings.
He could love Holmes for his mind and leave it at that; Holmes’ mind is startlingly impressive and consistently surprising, and he is clearly more brilliant than most people alive. When Holmes has a case it is like pieces of a shell have cracked off him, leaving him dazzling and bewitching and more brightly lit than he ever usually is. And yet Watson is not solely enamoured of his radiant mind, or else he might have burned his passions out within a few months in Baker Street. Instead, though, Watson found that living with Holmes did not create an existence centred around stalking criminals and composing hopelessly complicated symphonies all the time. Instead, he found himself liking the quiet moments over the newspaper and toast, Gladstone grumbling away to himself beneath one of their chairs, having conversations that batted between them like a game of tennis, both of them careful not to let it drop, passing words to each other in a way that was as natural as breathing. He liked the amused look of a private joke that Holmes gave him over his tinted glasses when the police had once again done something ridiculous that might set them back five minutes but which would never prevent them from solving the case. He liked the fact that Holmes sometimes listened to him when he said stop or do you really think you should? when he would never listen to anyone else who said it.
There was no real moment of stomach-churning realisation, no split-second when Watson looked at Holmes and realised that his admiration and affection had passed into something far more needy and deep. He was not watching Holmes box at the Punchbowl when he found himself following a streak of sweat down Holmes’ spine with far too avid attention – though he has done that on more than one occasion, if he is honest with himself – and although they have walked in on each other in various states of undress on numerous occasions – Holmes does this rather more than Watson does; he really has yet to get the hang of knocking – there was never a defining moment of lust that changed the way he thought about Holmes. In fact, when it comes to gathering facts, there is a woeful lack of them regarding Watson’s developing feelings for Holmes. Whenever it was that he finally knew, it was as though he had always known; it was so screamingly evident that he wondered that everyone did not already know. And then, of course, came the time of terror and anxiety that everyone did already know and were plotting his downfall accordingly.
Now, it is Holmes himself who is the primary problem; Watson cannot work out if this is an improvement or not.
For nearly a fortnight they tiptoe around each other with an unusual degree of care. People who come into contact with them on a regular basis – well, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade, in any case – are clearly disconcerted about the delicate way the two of them are addressing each other, the conversation that does not sing as easily as it used to, the two of them walking a little out of step when previously they matched each other perfectly. They do not spend their evenings annoying each other good-naturedly in front of the fire and do not spend the majority of their waking minutes in each other’s company as they are usually wont to do.
There is a trip to the opera – Rigoletto – and Holmes appears from getting himself ready dressed solely in his own clothes for the first time in as long as Watson can remember. There is something almost disconcerting about it, if only because Watson has become accustomed to working out what it is that Holmes has stolen from him and then calculating the possibilities of retrieving it whenever he sees him. They make uncomfortable small talk in the interval over champagne, as though they are strangers who have never met each other before, and Watson wonders just what it was about this particular argument that got them the distance that they could never achieve before. He knows that there was a time when he would have given anything to get Holmes to give him some peace and quiet, time to lick his wounds, but now is not it and he aches from proximity and confusion.
Even in the privacy of their own rooms, when it is just the two of them, their companionship is fractured, uncomfortable. There are times when they are in their shirtsleeves reading through the post and cheerfully mocking the people who write to Holmes for help but who have solved their own crimes in their written accounts and have not even noticed, when they are laughing together as they always did and it feels perfectly natural. Then there are times when the silence is oppressive, awkward, but neither of them can work out how to break it; or perhaps it is that Watson does not know how to and Holmes is choosing not to. Holmes seems to spend more time in reverie than usual, drifting off on long trains of thought that have him distracted for hours, surfacing only when Watson gently prompts him to eat or the newspaper arrives or a new thought strikes him and he feels the need to start playing with chemicals again.
Towards the end of what has probably been the worst fortnight of Watson’s life – and that includes the two weeks in Afghanistan when they wanted to cut his leg off because they could not remove the shrapnel, and then they thought there was no point cutting it off because he was so clearly going to die anyway, and then he contracted such a high fever that he was screaming for what was apparently days – a case finally becomes interesting enough to intrigue Holmes. Jewellery theft and smuggling that does not bear Irene Adler’s fingerprints – thank God, because that is really the last thing Watson needs right now – and that has Scotland Yard scratching its head in helpless confusion. Not that this is anything particularly unusual, but even Holmes cannot solve the case in his customary ten minutes when Lestrade details it to him and so they find themselves busy once more.
The case makes communication much easier, because in discussing evidence and possibilities and suspects they can both pretend that things are normal without making it feel unnatural, without tension straining and snapping between them. Holmes leads them on a trail through filthy warehouses and run-down pubs, and Watson is pleased that his shoulder has been healing so well because Holmes’ usual brand of clever and roundabout but nonetheless abrasive questioning is, sooner or later, going to get him attacked.
As it turns out, Watson is not quite right about this, but he does not find that out for another two days.
A particularly flawless necklace of emeralds has been stolen from a Mrs Raleigh and she is quite insistent that she get it back. Holmes, having wandered around her bedroom asking personal questions (and having been slapped by a maidservant downstairs for asking even more personal questions, while Watson stood back attempting to work out whether he wanted to laugh or to put a stop to Holmes’ blithe insolence) and found a set of muddied footprints, is confident that they are making headway. After dragging Watson to a neighbourhood of gambling and drinking dens that he would really rather not be in – he has been here before, after all, at a rather different point in his life – Holmes asks some questions, licks some grit off his fingers and makes approving noises, and announces that he knows the name of the gang who are orchestrating the thefts and can name their meeting place for tonight.
All of which has lead to the two of them standing in an alley, shivering in the cold, waiting beneath the window of a pub. The general public were all forced out of here an hour ago so that this meeting could take place; it is impossible to make out individual voices in the hubbub drifting through the thin glass, but Holmes remains confident that at least one member will leave early, which tells Watson that Holmes probably knows more than he is letting on. In any case, they must wait until said member leaves, and then follow him, and, in Holmes’ words, ‘twist his arm’. Watson has a horrible suspicion that Holmes means this literally and is not looking forward to it; it is enough to know that they are both capable of breaking a man’s arm with an unsettlingly low level of effort without them actually having to do it.
Watson thrusts his hands further into the pockets of his coat, shivering. He is wearing one of Holmes’ shirts – most of his are being laundered, and the others have been stolen by Holmes, who was experimenting with mercury before this case arrived and all his clothing turned out to be surprisingly flammable – and it is a little too broad across the shoulders. He itches to say something (they are making too much noise in the pub for anyone outside to be overheard, provided they whisper), but he cannot think of anything to say but to complain that he is losing all feeling in his extremities, and that feels a little too much like stating the obvious.
“I should have let you do this on your own,” he murmurs at last, breath misting in the air in front of him. “I could be safe and warm by the fire right now, with brandy and a newspaper and possibly some kind of tobacco.”
Holmes smiles; it is barely possibly to see him, poorly illuminated as they are by the light spilling through the grimy windows of the buildings around them. “You would not be enjoying yourself,” he responds softly, “you would be worrying in that endearing mother hen way that you have.”
This is all too true, but Watson would like to pretend that it is not. “Or perhaps I would be tucked up in bed,” he continues. “And you could be contracting hypothermia all on your own.”
“You would not like nursing me through hypothermia,” Holmes reminds him softly. “And really, Watson, you have done this many times before; you should know by now that we must be quiet.”
“They can’t hear us,” Watson hisses, irritating rising at Holmes’ patronising tone. “I am freezing my extremities off for you, the least you can manage is half a conversation.”
Holmes moves from standing beside him to standing in front of him, face hidden almost completely in shadow.
“I want you to be quiet, and you want to be warm,” he whispers, so soft Watson can barely hear him. “For once, I can at least think of a solution that will enable us both to get what we want.”
Watson opens his mouth to demand clarification but Holmes seals their lips together before he can get one syllable out. The warmth of Holmes’ mouth against his is startling, and Watson is about to stop him because they could be seen when he remembers that no, they cannot; it is dark as dark out here and there is no one around; they will hear anyone who leaves the pub, and that at point they will have a chase on their hands. This cannot end well, it can only end in ruination, but Watson honestly cannot stop himself from kissing Holmes back, taking out every last moment of frustration and loneliness and misery from the last few weeks in his teeth against Holmes’ lips, his numb fingers curling and clenching in Holmes’ hair.
Barely aware what he is doing, Watson catches Holmes off-guard, turning the two of them around so that Holmes is slammed against the brick wall behind them, pinned in place with Watson’s thigh between both of his. Watson feels Holmes gasp into his mouth, something that sounds like a swallowed moan, and he can feel the first stirrings of Holmes’ interest against his hip. He holds Holmes harder against the wall, one hand curling a little too hard over Holmes’ waist, kissing him so hard his mouth is starting to hurt, lips sore and bruised. Holmes’ breathing is desperate and irregular, hungry hands skidding down Watson’s back; one cups his arse, trying to pull him closer though there is not a fraction of an inch between them. It is stupid and reckless for them to be doing this here and now, after two weeks of living as almost strangers, and Watson is going to tell Holmes this, tell him the moment he can think clearly enough to take a deep breath and move away.
Watson can hardly breathe, can feel Holmes shivering against him and it cannot entirely be the cold weather, and even when they have parted for breath they are still pressed close enough for their lips to collide almost accidentally on any exhalation. Holmes lets out a soft sound that is almost like a whimper as Watson shifts his thigh higher between Holmes’ and this is not the place or the time but Watson does not know how to stop this and apparently neither does Holmes and he presses their lips together for another stinging, consuming kiss.
At first, Watson does not register the hurried footsteps, the sound of a hearty cough in the cold night air, and then he realises what the sounds mean. Another second passes, in which Holmes tries fruitlessly to drag him closer, as though he wants them both to occupy the same space in the universe, become one, and Watson realises that their man has left the pub and they need to get after him. He waits for Holmes to move, and then, with a rush of shock that he cannot quite comprehend, realises that he has distracted Holmes so much that Holmes has completely missed their man leaving.
Later, he is going to dwell on this fact with something that might be astonishment and might be horror, but right now they have a criminal to follow.
Watson pulls away from Holmes as quickly as he can; the footsteps of their man are already fading and they are running out of time.
“He’s gone,” he manages, voice ragged and breathless, and starts running. After a moment he hears Holmes curse and start running after him, but Watson knows he does not have time to wait for Holmes. He pounds through the maze of streets, following footprints on the ground and the faint sound ahead of him.
It appears that Watson has not been quiet enough; he rounds a corner to find the criminal they have been chasing waiting for him with a nasty smile that glints in the moonlight, but what glints more is the long silver knife in his hand. Watson tries to move but skidding to a halt has made him ungainly and the blade plunges into his chest. Choking, he stumbles back, feeling warm blood flooding inside the inside of his coat. As he takes a sharp elbow to the temple and falls to the ground, his last semi-conscious thought is that at least this is Holmes’ shirt for once.
There’s blood on the ground, mixed with dirt and sand, thickly crimson and glittering and he had never seen blood like that before he came out here; there was something clinical about it at medical school, something wholesome and life-giving about it and here it is merely tragic and ugly and vicious, seeping out and lost too often. He does not know if the blood is his own or not; he cannot feel his body and his ears are ringing, full of shouts and screams and his own voice is ripping out of his chest in endless gasps and strings of words, desperate, meaningless babble. He thinks he is running; thinks something is holding him back, catching him, throwing him to the ground, preventing him from moving. Someone is sobbing, he thinks, and he wants to help them but there are harsh rough explosions rattling around them and the constant spitting of Gatling guns, hails of bullets screaming through flesh and he no longer knows why he is here or what he did to deserve this, to end up in hell on earth with heat and bodies and agony his constant companions. He swallows around a mouthful of blood and sand and tries to crawl, though his body feels as though it is made of lead and his fingers are scraped raw. He looks down, and his leg is a mess of blood and tattered cloth and split flesh. He wants to be sick at the sight, bile rising in his throat, and in that moment, in that exact moment, John Watson knows that he is going to die.
Watson sits bolt upright in bed and all he can hear is a wordless, roaring shout that goes on and on and on without wavering or stopping for breath. He is surrounded by the sound but cannot see its source, and cannot work out where it is coming from or why no one has tried to stop it. After a moment, he realises with a shock that it is coming from him.
There are hands on his shoulders, strong, firm hands, and a voice saying urgently into his ear: “Watson, Watson old boy, hush, or you’ll get nanny in here.”
Watson takes a breath, throat raw, lungs burning, and in the moment it takes to do that his surroundings become clearer to him. He draws in another shuddering breath and looks around at the familiar room, filled with clutter and dimly lit by lowered lamps, but certainly devoid of corpses and gunfire. He takes another breath, unable to stop shaking. He is in his own room, his own bed, his own nightshirt if the lack of burns and patches is anything to go by, and Holmes is knelt beside him on the mattress with his hands clenched firmly enough on Watson’s shoulders for it to hurt.
“It’s all right,” Holmes tells him quietly, eyes hidden in shadow, “you’re all right, dear boy, although you may have woken up half the street.” What Watson can see of his smile is awkward, crooked.
He allows Holmes to push him back down into the pillows; his body feels embarrassingly weak and heavy.
“You’ve given me laudanum,” he manages, frowning. His voice feels thick in his mouth, as though still choked by the sand of his dreams. “Have you started experimenting on me instead of Gladstone?”
“Good God, no!” Holmes’ voice is harsh, too loud, and Watson thinks he may have hurt him but the world is unsteady around him and he lets his eyes shut. “You were given laudanum because you needed it,” Holmes continues, softer.
Watson would like to demand more, to discover if he has an injury or not, to find out just why he is bed-ridden and filled with opiates and why Holmes cannot quite look at him, but all of it seems a little beyond him right now and without really even noticing it he slips back into uneasy slumber.
When he next awakes from a wash of dark cruel dreams he cannot quite define, pain is starting to seep into his being. It takes a while to make his eyes open and stay open, and a little longer to piece his thoughts together. Holmes is sat on a chair by the window, wreathed in pipe smoke and watching Watson silently but intently. It hurts when Watson breathes, an ache deep enough to permeate his entire chest, and his thoughts are scattered like debris; he cannot hold onto any of them for long.
“What happened?” he asks at last, and his voice does not sound like his own. It sounds distant, wavering, and his eyes slip shut again.
After a moment a cool hand presses against his forehead, and then fingers press to the pulse point in his neck. Watson sucks in a ragged breath and finally notes that his heart is beating much too hard. That fades into insignificance when he realises a moment later that Holmes is trembling, actually physically trembling.
“What happened?” he repeats, the words spilling from him, barely articulated. “Damn it, Holmes-”
“Doctors really do make the worst patients,” Holmes tells him, voice pitched low with an attempt at amusement, and something cool and wet is pressed to Watson’s forehead. He can feel water trickling down his face, soothing and cold. “I’ve been told not to fuss you, Watson, and if you’re going to fret I will get nanny in here to make disapproving faces.”
Watson takes a few breaths and lets the coolness sink through him, unclenches his hands from the sheets. Pain is still lingering around him, sharp and indefinable. “I’ve been hurt,” he says at last.
“You remember?” Holmes asks, and though his voice is still soft there is a sharpness to it.
“Not yet,” Watson replies. He exhales slowly; the cloth is removed momentarily and then returned to his forehead, sodden once more. “So... a head injury. And possibly something more, if I’ve been given laudanum. I also appear to have a slight fever. And you are worried about me, so my injury must have been quite serious.”
“Excellently deduced,” Holmes says dryly, though his voice cracks in the middle. “Your skills really are developing very impressively.”
“Am I out of the woods yet?” Watson asks, risking opening his eyes. Holmes is sat half over him, keeping the compress against his head, eyes pits of anxiety, jaw set firm. There is pause before Holmes answers, a pause that would probably worry Watson but the world is swaying around him and everything seems very far away.
“I have been told that you are,” Holmes says at last. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Watson closes his eyes again. “That’s good.”
The cloth is removed and he can hear the splash as Holmes wets it again before pressing it cool against Watson’s throat, water soaking into his nightshirt. He sighs, grateful for the coolness seeping through him.
“You’re surprisingly good at this,” he observes, words creaking in his mouth. “You shouldn’t be. You should be offering me... cocaine and prostitutes or something.”
He hears Holmes laugh, ragged and tired. “I know your feelings regarding my seven percent solution,” he says, “and I would not hire you prostitutes in any situation, let alone this one. You must be quite delirious, Watson.”
“I am,” Watson agrees, and already the edges of consciousness are starting to tip. He can feel himself dropping away from the room, away from Holmes. “Why wouldn’t you?” His voice is scarcely above a whisper.
When he speaks, Holmes has leaned so close that Watson can feel Holmes’ mouth brushing his ear with every word. “Well, for one thing, my dear fellow, I would be inescapably jealous.”
His smile hurts as he tumbles back into unconsciousness.
Delirium has uncurled its claws when Watson next awakes, and the window behind Holmes is full of the pink of sunrise. Holmes is reading, eyes carefully fixed on the pages of a book in his lap, but Watson knows he is paying keen attention to him nonetheless.
“I was stabbed, wasn’t I.” It is not a question and Watson hears calm resignation in his tone as he says it. His is voice is stronger and pain is running thick through him.
“You were,” Holmes agrees, voice utterly emotionless, though it takes him two tries to turn a page over.
“Did you catch him?” Watson asks. “Did you get a chance to question him?”
Holmes keeps his eyes on the book. “No. I was... somewhat distracted.” He clears his throat. “Lestrade and half of Scotland Yard are out looking, so we may be safely guaranteed that he will not be found.”
Watson brings a hand up to his face, kneads his sore eyes. “I’m sorry, Holmes.”
The book falls to the floor with a bang that slices right through Watson’s head, and he opens his eyes to find Holmes is on his feet, staring incredulously at him.
“You’re going to apologise for this?” he demands. “Really? You are stabbed after being dragged on an investigation by me because I could not run fast enough and you want to apologise to me?”
Watson sighs, but he knows Holmes well enough to know that the anger is masking other emotions, so does not try to argue back. “Don’t shout at me.”
“I’m not shouting at you.”
“Yes, you are. And that definitely goes under the category of ‘fussing’ me, which whichever doctor you had stitch me up undoubtedly told you not to do.” Holmes makes a face, so Watson swiftly adds: “he was right, by the way. Doctors other than me can have valid opinions, Holmes.”
He presses a hand to his chest and can feel the thick bandaging beneath it. He’s immediately curious to see the damage, see what has been done to him. And, whatever he may have just told Holmes, he wants to assess the state of his stitches, check that they have been done right.
“You do realise you are negating everything you just said,” Holmes tells him, a trace of real amusement skimming over his features. He comes over to the bed and frowns at Watson until he obediently lets his hands drop back to his sides. He fidgets with a loose thread in his covers, and notes that Holmes still cannot quite look right at him. His gaze skips over Watson, never meeting his eyes.
“You should go and get some rest,” Watson suggests. “I’m fine.”
Holmes raises an incredulous eyebrow. “I am slightly concerned as to your definition of ‘fine’, Watson,” he says. “In any case, if I leave here I will come back to find that you have taken out all of your stitches and are attempting to re-do them yourself. As a matter of professional integrity or some other nonsense.”
Watson considers saying I think you are confusing me with you, but decides against it in the end. It has been a long night for both of them.
“You need to sleep,” he says instead.
“I have proven that I can go several days without sleep,” Holmes protests.
“Yes, you have,” Watson agrees. “But I am currently in no fit state to look after you.”
“I do not need looking after,” Holmes protests.
Watson, even though he knows it will hurt his chest, laughs. The pain is really quite excruciating, but he doesn’t stop and Holmes glares at him.
“First you try to say sorry for being stabbed and then you try to ask me to leave – I do believe you would apologise to your own murderer for taking too long to die, Watson,” he says, annoyance flickering across his features.
Watson feels something sting at that, but he is not entirely sure what and so decides not to retaliate.
“Someone has to mother you; it is a full time job, and not one I can neglect simply because I am somewhat incapacitated.”
Holmes scoffs at this, though Watson thinks he is aware of the truth anyway. Holmes can wilfully ignore the truth, if he so wishes, but he is at least aware that it is the truth.
“You need more laudanum,” Holmes tells him, though there is regret edging his tone. Watson opens his mouth to protest but Holmes continues: “I was told to give you some later this morning. I waited until you woke up so you would know, but since you have implicitly instructed me to obey the instructions of doctors other than yourself...”
Watson thinks about arguing but decides that at least he can use this to his benefit. “I will take the laudanum if you get some sleep,” he says, carefully the laying the offer out.
Holmes studies him for a long moment, the first rays of sunlight glittering off his tousled hair, and Watson notices just how tired he looks. He also notices, for the first time, that the front of Holmes’ white shirt is almost entirely stained reddish-brown, clearly from blood that has dried recently. His immediate thought is that Holmes has been hurt somehow and that, like the foolhardy idiot he can so frequently be, he has ignored his own wound in favour of tending to Watson, but a another moment’s scrutiny makes Watson realise that the blood Holmes is covered in is his. It is a disconcerting thought and a confusing one, and he decides to fold it up and put it somewhere for later perusal when he is in something resembling his right mind.
“Very well,” Holmes says, clipped, and Watson will never tell Holmes just how much he resembles a sulking child when he does not get his own way or when he is forced to compromise.
Watson pushes himself up against the pillows –there seem to be far too many pillows in his bed, far more pillows than he recalls actually owning – and resigns himself to more hours of helpless confusion. It is how laudanum takes him, has always taken him, and he would much prefer to grind his teeth to powder than willingly drink it but can tell that he probably needs it. In any case, Holmes is relentlessly stubborn and will not rest until he has forced Watson to medicate himself, so he has little choice in the matter.
Holmes hands him the laudanum bottle and watches him with far too much interest as Watson swallows a mouthful, calculating how much he is drinking as he does so. Holmes’ unblinking stare is disconcerting, but Watson knows that if the roles were reversed – and, indeed, when their roles have been reversed – he has watched Holmes equally intently, terrified that if he looks away or blinks Holmes’ condition will become much worse. He grimaces at the bitter taste, swallowing hard, and lets himself slide back under the blankets again. It will not take long for the opiates to take effect and curl their cruel fingers into his senses, and he sighs.
“Now to uphold your end of the bargain.”
Holmes sits back down in his chair, putting his feet up. “I will sleep when you do,” he tells Watson, sounding as though Watson has given him a most unreasonable request.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Holmes,” Watson says, “you cannot sleep in that chair.”
It is not like the worn and long-suffering armchairs in the other room; this is a straight-backed wooden chair that Watson tends to use to lay his clothes out over, and he knows from experience that it is wickedly uncomfortable. He is quietly impressed that Holmes has lasted this long in it.
“It will be quite adequate,” Holmes responds, and Watson is sure he is saying it just to be contrary.
“There is room enough for both of us here,” he hears himself say, and when he blinks he can feel the world starting to soften, melt, waver.
Holmes looks both surprised and amused. “You are really quite forward when under the influence, Watson,” he observes.
Watson smiles. “I have stitches and we are both exhausted, Holmes,” he replies, “believe me when I say that, for once, I have absolutely no wish to proposition you.”
Holmes’ smile slips, just a little, but he covers it well and Watson decides to pretend not to notice.
He wants to say more, wants to order Holmes to go to sleep and ignore stupid things like propriety and the apparent awkwardness between them that has not quite faded, but exhaustion and opiate-induced drowsiness are tugging at his eyelids and he lets himself go.
When he awakes, half-terrified, from more vivid and vicious dreams about his war experiences, the room is full of golden sunlight and he cannot see a thing; it is all too blurred and he groans, angry with the drugs and with his mind for combining together to create such a circus of horrors. His breathing is uneven, erratic – another side-effect of laudanum, part of his mind manages to acknowledge – and he can feel his heart pounding as around him bullets fly and men fall to their deaths in dust and dirt.
A warm, calloused hand slides over his and locks their fingers together. “You’re safe,” a voice says, and Watson clings to it, his own breathing too harsh and loud in his own ears. “You are safe, Watson.”
Even later, when he awakes again, Watson finds Holmes lying fully dressed on top of the covers beside him, face relaxed as it only ever is in slumber, though a frown is still etched between his eyebrows. He looks down and discovers that their hands are still entwined, and though he knows it will not last it is this image that Watson holds securely in his mind as sleep overwhelms him once more.
Watson wakes alone in the middle of the afternoon, a slight indentation in the pillow beside him the only indication that Holmes was ever there, and fights the momentary twist of disappointment in his stomach because of course nothing different could occur in this situation. His chest is aching but his head is quite clear and on the whole he is inclined to think that he has had far worse and this has rather been blown out of proportion. After all, he and Holmes have got themselves injured on numerous occasions and a knife in the chest that managed to miss both his lungs and his heart is, quite frankly, very little to worry about. Perhaps other people do not see the world this way, but then other people have not lived through the things that Watson has lived through and he is hardier than he will ever reveal. Oh, not necessarily with regards to other people, but certainly when it comes to himself.
A soft knock at the door has him sitting up in the bed and trying, against all reason, to make himself presentable.
Mrs Hudson appears with a tray laden with various food products, her face drawn and weary. She stands in the doorway and just looks at him for a long moment, and Watson belatedly recalls that Holmes is not the only person who has had to deal with his injury.
“You are both stupid fools,” Mrs Hudson tells him quietly, a shake of emotion in her voice; it is the first time she has done anything other than look wearily amused at their antics and Watson is still surprised she has not yet asked them to leave.
“I know,” Watson replies, fingers tightening against the covers for a moment.
Mrs Hudson smiles slightly. “I’m glad it’s not worse, doctor,” she tells him, tone much lighter, and brings the tray over to the bed. “You need to eat something.”
The idea of eating something does not appeal, but Watson can see the merit in it and obediently reaches for the teapot, ignoring the string of pain this uncurls in his chest, and pours himself a cup. Mrs Hudson watches him with steely motherly eyes, and Watson vaguely wonders if he himself looks like that at times, stood over Holmes ordering him to eat or sleep or leave the house just for an hour. The thought makes him swallow a smile and he takes a sip of tea to hide it.
The door has been left open and Watson can hear the tuneless scraping of a violin bow across the strings; the sound sets his teeth on edge.
“He’s been at it for over an hour,” Mrs Hudson tells him, tone radiating exhaustion and disapproval.
“Haven’t you asked him to stop?” Watson asks, taking another mouthful of the slightly too hot tea.
“I thought about it,” Mrs Hudson replies softly. “But I think he needs it.” She glares at Watson again, tone turning back to ice. “He was scared dreadfully when they carried you in here this morning. Covered in blood and wouldn’t say a word to me; Inspector Lestrade had to tell me what had happened. Mr Holmes was shouting at anyone and everyone; I thought he was going to punch the poor doctor.”
The tea turns sour in his mouth; Watson almost chokes on it.
“It was unintentional,” he says, and belatedly realises what a ridiculous thing it is to say.
Mrs Hudson’s mouth smoothes into a smile. “Well, I should certainly hope so. I’ll leave you to your breakfast, doctor.”
“Thank you,” he tells her, and she gives him another smile before she leaves, closing the door behind her and cutting off the worst of Holmes’ violin playing. Watson can still hear it if he strains his ears, and listens to the sound with rising guilt. He endeavours to eat the toast made so carefully for him, but it tastes of ashes in his mouth and fatigue is still clinging to him. It is also possible he has a concussion; details of last night are sloshing around incoherently in his head and remembers most of it in brief, bright flashes; his breath misting cold before him as he and Holmes waited outside the pub, the glint of metal on the blade of a knife that shone crimson in the moonlight before his world faded to black.
Tea splashes over the sides of the cup and into the saucer as he tries to put it back down. He feels a little nauseous and his head is thumping insistently, and the laudanum has not entirely worn off because the world is still shining too brightly, as though polished to a high gloss.
The door bangs open and cooling tea spills across the sheets. “You’re awake,” Holmes announces, as though this is a great deduction.
“It would appear so,” Watson responds, trying to work out if tea will stain the bed linens and if he actually cares. “Afternoon, old chap.”
Holmes frowns as though someone should have informed him of this fact, closing the door behind him and coming over to perch on the edge of the bed. He absently steals a piece of cold toast, pulling it to pieces before he eats it in small bites.
“You have quite ruined my shirt,” he remarks. “It was my best shirt as well.”
Watson smiles at that. “You don’t have a best shirt, Holmes, you have my best shirts. Or you did, anyhow, before you set them alight.”
“Well, I may have accidentally incinerated a couple of your shirts, but you have bled over two of mine in one night, and one of them has the most ghastly hole in it. Really, Watson, you are supposed to be the responsible one.” Holmes is still avoiding his gaze, but his tone is light enough.
“Terribly remiss of me,” Watson agrees. Something occurs to him. “I suppose I shall have to get a new coat as well. Unless...?”
“No,” Holmes tells him. “That also has a rather inconvenient hole in it. I believe Mrs Hudson has already thrown it away. She did look rather anxious, poor thing.”
Holmes says it almost dismissively; Watson decides not to bring up Mrs Hudson’s version of events this morning, since it will not really achieve very much.
“Bugger,” he says instead.
The corner of Holmes’ mouth twitches; Watson cannot tell if it is a hint of a smile or not. Holmes has ruined probably dozens of his shirts over time, Watson reasons that it is only fair that he is allowed to ruin two in return.
“I’ll leave you to rest, old boy,” Holmes says, dropping the day’s newspaper on the cover for him and picking the tray, spilling yet more tea and Mrs Hudson will probably forget fairly soon that she was genuinely worried for Watson’s welfare for a while and will go back to quietly resenting them in an affectionate way.
Watson smiles and says nothing and stares at the door for a moment too long after it closes.
“Absolutely not,” Watson says, though he is clinging partially to the wall and partially to Holmes in order to keep himself upright. His legs are quaking and aching and shivering and he is disgusted at how weak he feels.
“You are not being rational, Watson,” Holmes informs him. He sounds a little breathless, but then Watson is leaning on him rather too hard, and getting him to the bathroom is proving to be quite the undertaking.
“No,” Watson says, and his tone is too sharp, “but I rather think I can be forgiven for that right now, don’t you?”
“All the more reason for you to allow me to help you,” Holmes replies, voice infuriatingly calm.
“I don’t need help,” Watson snaps, “I’m not an invalid.”
“Yes, you are,” Holmes replies, still too steady. “You are very much an invalid and if you were to drown in our bathtub it would not only be a rather ridiculous way to die after all that you have survived, but it would also be terribly inconvenient for me.” He considers this, as they take a few more agonisingly slow steps down the landing. “I also imagine Mrs Hudson would be quite put-out.”
Watson sighs. “Yes, I imagine she probably would be,” he agrees. “For one thing, you would never remember to pay the rent on time.”
“No,” Holmes says, as they finally reach the bathroom, “but neither would I gamble it away.”
“That was twice,” Watson protests, too tired and distracted for Holmes’ words to cut.
“At least three times, unless we count that time with the cockfight and the moonshine-”
“Point taken,” Watson interrupts. “And that was mostly your fault, anyway.”
Holmes gives something approaching a soft laugh but does not reply, sliding out from beneath Watson’s arm. Watson wavers but does not fall, catching his hand against the wall hard enough to sting. His legs are just about strong enough to hold him and that is a relief.
“You can go back to creating that anaesthetic you thought of in the early hours of the morning watch the effects laudanum had on me,” Watson tells him with a little more certainty than he feels. There is a flicker of surprise in Holmes’ eyes before looks almost gratified. “I know you, Holmes,” Watson says.
“You don’t,” Holmes tells him simply, presumably recalling what Watson said those weeks ago. You do not know what it is like to be me. “But I suppose you are incredibly well-acquainted with my habits.”
“I am,” Watson agrees. He is hesitating, trying not to look at the bathtub full of gently steaming water. His mind is battling between asking Holmes for his help and asking him to leave, and at the moment he is tipped towards making him go and be in another room. There is enough awkward tension between them as it is without them adding this into the equation. Holmes follows his gaze and Watsons knows immediately that he is aware of everything that he is thinking, as though the words were inked carefully onto his forehead.
“I thought I was supposed to be the mother hen here,” he says, with an attempt at a smile.
“Well,” Holmes replies, “you know what I say about routine.”
“That you like it?”
Holmes smiles too. “Yes. Or that it stagnates the mind. Either will do.”
“I will be sure to let you know if I drown,” Watson says.
“Please do,” Holmes replies. “It would be best to have as much notice as possible so that I can choose what pretty poem I’m going to read at your funeral. It will have flowers in it, I suspect, and some kind of overblown metaphor involving a sunset and perhaps some kind of small woodland animal.”
Watson blinks. “Well,” he says at last, “I’m glad to hear that. It sounds very touching and melodramatic and I’m sure you will look very dashing wearing my best suit as you read it. But please leave, Holmes.”
Holmes pauses at the door. “I’d rather you didn’t drown, Watson,” he says. “I’m not particularly fond of poetry, especially not the ones containing overblown metaphors involving sunsets.”
“I know,” Watson tells him, and: “I’ll try.”
Left alone, he takes his time peeling his nightshirt off and unwinding the bandages from around his chest. The wound is ugly but neatly stitched, he must admit, and it will heal cleanly to a tidy scar. He has far worse scarring and has had far less professional medical care than this; he will have to find out the doctor’s name from someone and send him a telegram of thanks, or something similar.
The bathwater is warm without being too warm and the feel of sinking into it is quite simply heavenly. Watson reclines his aching and tired body in the water, washing off dirt and sweat and even blood – he seems to have it everywhere, for such a tidy wound it bled a lot – and letting out a long, slow breath. He should probably have help, he reflects detachedly, as warm water flows over the gash and the pain is so immediately excruciating he has to bite his teeth together to keep from shouting aloud – and he is ignoring all the medical instructions he would undoubtedly give someone else, but Watson is always careful with other people’s health and never with his own. It is something he has calmly come to terms with.
Watson is just starting to relax when the bathroom door bangs open. “Christ, Holmes!” he exclaims before he can stop himself. “What-”
Holmes does not reply, instead coming over and sitting on the (wet) floor beside the bathtub, putting him immediately on eye level with Watson. “I had a question.”
“Of course you did,” Watson murmurs, deciding against being outraged. Holmes has, after all, been doing this for as long as he has known him. He waits a moment, and when Holmes is unforthcoming, he adds: “well, what was the question?”
“I wanted to ensure you did not have a concussion,” Holmes tells him. “So I want to ask you what you recall of last night.”
It sounds a reasonable enough request, but Watson looks at Holmes and for the first time is absolutely certain that he is lying. He is not sure how he knows this, but he does.
“Is this a trick question?”
“No, old chap.” That, at least, seems to be genuine. “What do you remember?”
Watson hesitates, and then decides the simplest way to working out what Holmes actually wants is to give him what he appears to want and then work from there. He obediently shuffles his cracked memories into some sort of order.
“We stood in the cold for hours outside a pub waiting to question one of the men inside. He came out and we ran after him, and I managed to overtake you and so it was me who was cornered and me who got the rather uncomfortable knife in the chest.” Holmes’ expression does not flicker or waver in any way, but nonetheless there is something in his eyes that makes a curl of unease unfold in Watson’s stomach. “What?” he asks.
Holmes shakes his head. “Nothing at all. It’s all there, present and correct.” He smiles and it is not quite right, not quite genuine. Still, Watson has related everything he can remember from last night and cannot think what else would have happened. “No damage sustained at all.”
“Well, that’s good,” Watson says slowly, unable to read Holmes’ expression adequately.
“It is,” Holmes agrees, pushing himself to his feet. “I’ll leave you to it, old chap.”
Watson spends most of the rest of his bath searching through his indistinct memories for something else, something he has missed. He finds nothing except a building headache. It is with care that he gets out and dries himself off, wraps his chest up in clean bandages and dresses slowly and stiffly in fresh clothes. Finally, he starts to feel a little more human, and makes his way back along the landing to their main room. The curtains are wide open but the room is empty; Holmes is nowhere to be found. Watson is not entirely surprised about this and so sits himself down in an armchair, letting his head tip back, sighing into the silence.
After a while, Gladstone waddles his way over and stares at Watson in that slightly reproachful, slightly disdainful way that he has.
“Did you miss me?” Watson asks. “Worry about me at all?”
Gladstone continues to stare unenthusiastically at him, though when Watson lets a hand flop over the side of the chair he does move nearer and consent to having his head stroked.
“You should worry,” Watson tells him. “If I wasn’t here, Holmes would kill you. Unintentionally, mind, but he would.”
Gladstone grunts, unimpressed, and wanders off. Watson swallows a laugh that hurts his chest and slouches a little more in the chair, closing his eyes.
He wakes to find the room dark but for one lamp still burning, and discovers that someone has covered him in a blanket. There is a note pinned to it:
You are a damned fool, Watson, and if I did this so soon after an injury you would be being very tyrannical and disapproving.
“I would,” Watson agrees aloud, but he is too warm and too sleepy to attempt to go back to bed; he closes his eyes and slips back into slumber.
Two days later Watson finds himself seeing patients again, even though he knows he should not be doing anything more strenuous than sitting by the fire reading the papers and eating toast. He, too, should be laid out on the tiger rug imperiously ordering crumpets and making Mrs Hudson miserable with impetuous demands. Instead, he is smiling at retired naval captains and assuring elderly women that he can help with their nervous disorders, doing everything without a single crack in his professional demeanour, though he moves a little slower than normal and is conscious and careful of the constant ache in his chest. After all, it is one thing to be irresponsible, and one thing to be reckless. The last thing he needs is to split his stitches and bleed through yet another shirt in front of a horrified patient.
It is a relief that Holmes does not try to stop him in this. He gives Watson occasional we both know you are being foolish looks from time to time, but makes no effort to prevent him from slowly but steadily returning to his normal life. This is a relief; Watson thinks he would drive himself half mad if confined to bed rest; in fact he knows he would, because he had far more tyrannical doctors when recovering from sickness in Afghanistan, and the weeks before he was deemed well enough to be shipped back to England are loose swirls of confusion and exhaustion. Part of that can be blamed on his illness, on his raging fevers, but not all of it; John Watson has always been a man of action, of trying to accomplish things, and lying flat on his back counting cracks in the paint on the ceiling is enough to break him completely.
Mrs Hudson does not outwardly fuss, but she does cook all of Watson’s favourite meals and brings him tea on a more regular basis and shoots him little anxious looks from the corner of her eye when she thinks he is not looking. Watson is grateful for this, and more conscious than he has ever been that Baker Street contains more than just him and Holmes, more than them and their little world of injury and destruction. Their little world that is much too small and much too tight and Watson reflects that they will destroy each other eventually. It is the only way that their relationship can end; mutual annihilation and perhaps that should worry him or scare him but instead it is almost reassuring.
In any case, Watson reaches a decision watching Holmes dash out the door on the trail of a clue from the jewel theft cases that are still raging on about them, flatly refusing to allow Watson to accompany him because he is ‘recuperating’. Holmes does not use the word liability but Watson thinks he can hear it anyway and it stings. He sits and broods for longer than he thinks is really acceptable, and finally concludes that something must be done, otherwise all they will continue to do is hurt each other. There is a friendship in amongst these tangled wants and needs and confusions and grey areas, a real friendship that should not be strangled just because Watson apparently does not know how or when to stop pushing and Holmes chooses not to or does not know how to stop him. Sooner or later it will shatter under the pressure and Watson cannot lose his greatest friend. He must do whatever it takes to keep their friendship alive and breathing, no matter what the cost, no matter what must be cut free and tossed by the wayside.
He can never have Sherlock Holmes, that much is certain. Not because he does not want him, and not even because Holmes does not want him in return, but because there is too much that must be sacrificed. Watson wants Holmes in all his damaged, half-insane, half-genius state, but Holmes would have to learn too much, things Watson cannot teach him, in order to concede enough to Watson anything at all. Almost involuntarily, Watson closes his eyes and thinks of the last time Holmes kissed him, bloody-mouthed, at the Punchbowl, exhausted pain switching off enough of Holmes’ thought processes to make him vulnerable. Watson cannot ask Holmes to be physically injured or psychologically impaired all the time to maintain any sort of a relationship, and the idea that he could ever distract Holmes from himself when Holmes is in his right mind is laughable, ludicrous, and farcical.
There is only one option left to him: Watson must let all hopes of ever having Holmes for himself go. He must step back and stop pushing for something that they can never have; Watson is asking Holmes for things that he cannot give him, however much he may want to, and it is not fair on either of them. It is a door they have tried to open only to find it booby-trapped with explosives, and it is best to leave that door closed, with however many regrets that may linger behind, than to force it open and hurt them both. That is the truth of the matter of course; Watson entertains the possibility that he is drawing these conclusions utterly selfishly but he is always brutally honest with himself – Holmes has left him with no choice in the matter all, and it sometimes puzzles Watson that he does not resent him more for that – and he knows he is trying to protect Holmes as much as he is trying to protect himself. They need each other, and this fact will not alter, will not waver. They need each other but they will destroy each other if they continue down this path.
With that in mind, and finding that the fire has died, Watson pushes himself to his feet. He is tired, more tired than he had anticipated, and he supposes that there really is more in bed rest than just driving patients to boredom and despair. He should, really, wait for Holmes to get back, sit and make noises in the right places as Holmes relates what he has found, persuade him to eat something and maybe sleep for a few hours. But Watson knows himself too well and he also does not trust himself. Does not trust himself to be in the same room as Sherlock Holmes and stick to his new resolution. It is best for both of them and he knows this, but nonetheless he knows his resolve could crumble, could melt like wax before a candle flame, and it is important – it is vital – that it does not.
He takes himself off to bed, since he really does need the rest, and drifts into an uneasy sleep of cloying and confusing dreams. Watson is unsure of the time when he is awoken by the front door slamming downstairs; it is late, in any case, and he wonders what Holmes has been doing in the few hours since he practically ran from the house after sifting through a pile of papers and muttering how could I have failed to notice this before? to himself. He is almost about to get out of bed and ask Holmes before he remembers that he must not, and sinks back against his pillows, chest throbbing with pain. He must keep a clear head, and does not wish to take any more anaesthetics than he has to.
Part of Watson is hoping that Holmes will come and find him anyway – it would be the first time by a long shot – and tell him about the case in great excruciating detail, perched on the end of Watson’s bed and gesturing by lamplight. It has happened over and over again in the past and while Watson is resolute that he will not go and find Holmes he is helpless if Holmes comes to find him then it is a different matter entirely.
Watson hears a door close on the landing and lets out a breath he was not aware he was holding. He should go back to sleep, he knows – he needs the rest – but nonetheless lies awake for much too long, counting his own breaths in the darkness.
Calling it recuperation and relying on Holmes’ not-exactly-bottomless medical knowledge so that he will not think it a lie, Watson starts spending increasing periods of time outside of Baker Street. He takes himself for bracing walks; he tries to drag Gladstone on a few of them, but their dog merely makes annoyed growling noises and refuses to walk after about five streets – Watson is becoming increasingly concerned that Holmes has done something to Gladstone in order to make him the dog version of himself – and so he is forced to give up that idea and so goes walking alone. He returns to clubs he has neglected and rekindles old acquaintances with fellow doctors, spends afternoons discussing medical journals and sipping brandy. He accepts dinner invitations with friends and spends more time in hotel dining rooms than he really wants to, though at least in this company he does not have second-guess his every word. In fact, the true downside of talking to all these people is that they all read the newspapers and all of them quiz him on his ‘hobby’ of helping Sherlock Holmes; Watson recounts some of more public and lurid crimes until he wants to bite his own tongue out from boredom and loss.
Holmes must know what Watson is doing because even if the complexities of human nature occasionally seem to confuse him he does at least comprehend them. Still, he does not call Watson up on it and Watson is grateful for this; they have had too many frank conversations recently that have left them both blistered. In fact, he is seeing little enough of Holmes as it is; the jewel thief case is apparently getting more convoluted by the day, with officers from Scotland Yard trailing up and down their steps daily, with messages from Lestrade and news of yet more new developments, and on top of this Holmes gets distracted by the murder of three young women and the disappearance of their respective fiancés, flitting between the two cases like a butterfly. When he is at home, Watson sits in an armchair and watches Holmes plucking distractedly at his violin, theories spilling from his mouth in long contemplative strings, and cannot help but notice that any offers of assistance he makes are politely but repeatedly rebuffed.
“I’m not made of glass, Holmes,” he points out late one night, having come back from a particularly long dinner party, rather the worse for wine and for having been trapped into conversation with the most dull governess he has ever met. Catherine, with a droning voice and nothing to say for herself, though her features were pretty enough, and Watson catches himself in shock as he realises that he is analysing her as dismissively as Holmes would in his situation. “I can help you with reconnaissance, at least. I am unlikely to get a knife in the chest twice in the same month.”
“I thank you for your offer, Watson, but I really have no need of your assistance,” Holmes responds calmly, with a brittle politeness that jars.
“Holmes, for God’s sake-” he begins, but Holmes cuts him off.
“You smell overwhelmingly of lilacs,” he remarks, tone a study in nonchalance and therefore immediately suspicious. “Perfume, I believe, unless you have been rolling around in a florist, and I find that unlikely.”
“I know what you’re insinuating,” Watson replies, “and I will not allow you to distract me.”
“Well, you have made that perfectly obvious,” Holmes says, tone much too sharp.
Watson takes a steadying breath before he responds. “The perfume scent is because I was sat beside a woman at dinner wearing far too much of it,” he says, trying to keep his voice calm.
“And when will you start courting this one?” Holmes asks, not even attempting to conceal the acid in his tone. “At least you will have learned from past mistakes by now.”
“You cannot think me so callous, Holmes,” Watson snaps. “You cannot.”
“You owe me nothing,” Holmes points out. “You are entirely unencumbered to do as you wish and I am passing no judgement on you whatsoever.”
“I do not drift through this world picking things up and flinging them back down again when I lose interest,” Watson snaps, and it comes out far more accusatory than he means it to.
Holmes fixes him with an unwavering stare. “We are not having this conversation, Watson.”
“Why not?” Watson demands.
“Because I know everything that you are going to say and I know everything that I will say in reply and I know who will walk out and slam the door behind them at the end and so nothing can be achieved by us actually going through it all; it will be half an hour wasted and probably another vase broken.”
“And what about me?”
“What about you?” Holmes frowns.
“I don’t know every last syllable of this argument,” Watson says, “don’t you think it would be beneficial for me, at least?”
“No,” Holmes says simply. “I don’t.”
He walks past Watson, grabbing his battered fedora from where it is lying amid a mess of papers.
“Where are you going?” Watson demands. Holmes does not reply; Watson follows him out. “Where are you going, Holmes?”
“I have another lead on this murder case to investigate,” Holmes says stiffly, not looking at him, “as I was explaining to you before you decided to make it all about you.”
The injustice hurts and Watson is almost frightened by how intense his anger is. “I hope that’s true,” he says. “If you’re going to the Punchbowl I will have the locks changed and you can sleep on the bloody street.”
Holmes looks almost amused. “I have all your money locked in my drawer, Watson,” he says, “good luck.”
It takes every ounce of self-control that Watson has not to throw something down the stairs after him; instead he stalks off to his own room and spends a while kicking innocent items of furniture until his heart rate slows and shame begins to creep in. He walks back into their main room, to its clutter and confusion, and throws himself discontentedly into an armchair. He spends a while trying to construct some kind of apology, until his eyes light on a supper tray that Mrs Hudson presumably delivered to Holmes. The food on it is cold, congealing, and utterly untouched. Holmes frequently misses meals, especially when caught up in cases, but nonetheless something about the sight settles uneasily in Watson’s stomach.
The rooms become ever more untidy as Holmes whirls through them, scattering books and papers and newspaper clippings and files and abandoned thoughts to be left haphazardly behind for Watson to trip over. Mrs Hudson has given up even suggesting that perhaps she could help tidy up; Holmes merely gave her the everything is in its proper place, I know where everything is speech, and she shook her head and left him to it. After wrapping up the murder case – the fiancés were in fact all the same man, who had conned the girls out of enough money and then killed them all to cover his tracks; though of course, not thoroughly enough, and Watson understands he is to hang next month – Holmes ties himself up with two separate cases of missing persons and one of a young woman who fears her brother is being blackmailed. Watson considers telling him that what Holmes is doing is not only burning the candle at both ends but doing his best to make it light in the middle as well and that this cannot in any way end well, but although Holmes is as cheerful and civil as he ever is there a sharpness to him that Watson is loathe to try and touch.
He does not know if Holmes resents him for trying to step back so that he can repair their friendship before it is too late; he does not know if Holmes is even aware that this is the reason Watson is trying to keep his distance. He would like to talk about it, for once, would like to list his emotions for Holmes to sift through and make of them what he will, but neither of them seem to be in the same room for long enough, and in any case Watson needs to build up his courage before speaking, needs time and quiet and those things are currently conspicuously absent from Baker Street. Their home is barely and badly controlled chaos, slamming doors and occasional shifting smiles as they pass each other by.
One afternoon Watson finds a table full of cracked glass and spilt powder, and it reminds him of something he had almost forgotten. When Holmes returns later, eyes too bright and focused to be reassuring, Watson manages to catch him.
“What happened to that anaesthetic you were working on?”
Holmes looks confused. “Anaesthetic?”
“The one you were thinking off the night I got-” Watson picks his word carefully “-hurt.”
A frown flickers across Holmes’ face, before he says: “I finished that ages ago, Watson. It is all perfectly refined and Gladstone was quite happy to assist me in my endeavours, and it will be available to utilise the next time we encounter someone who has been injured.”
Watson has become so used to Holmes bursting in on him at all hours of the day and night to explain his latest achievements that he did not even entertain the possibility that Holmes would choose not to tell him anything. That is what they do; Holmes deduces what Watson has spent the day doing, whether Watson wants him to or not, and then tells Watson every inch of his own day, once again whether Watson wants him to or not, and that has always been the way things go in Baker Street. Watson’s stomach swiftly turns to ice and he realises that, hypocritical as it may be, he is hurt by Holmes’ omission. He probably has not earned the right to hear about Holmes’ experiments, given how little time he has really spent in Baker Street in the last couple of weeks, and how little they have actually spoken to each other of late, but that does not mean it does not ache anyway.
This was not what Watson wanted or intended, and he wonders if Holmes knows this and how he will tell him that he is brutally mistaken in a way that Holmes will understand.
“You didn’t tell me,” he says, and is ashamed of how weak his voice sounds.
Holmes looks momentarily confused, and then scrapes up a smile that makes him look nothing short of gaunt and exhausted. “I have been rather busy of late, Watson,” he points out, “and so have you.”
Watson is quietly impressed at how little accusation actually tumbles into the sentence, and swallows awkwardly.
“Have I done something to offend you, Holmes?”
He can think of at least four things off the top of his head but he knows Holmes will also be thinking of those things and so will dismiss them as something Watson would not need to ask about.
“No,” Holmes replies, and when he meets Watson’s gaze his eyes are impossibly dark; the pupils so large they have eaten away the iris, and they are glittering in a way that does not look at all healthy. “No, nothing I haven’t already forgiven you for.”
“We always forgive each other,” Holmes points out, his gaze dropping to the mess on the table. He begins to shuffle the pieces of broken glass together into a pile, movements jerky and distracted. “I forgive you for all the wrongs you do to me and you forgive me for all the wrongs I’ve done you.”
He does not look at Watson as he says this, and one of his hands slips, glass cutting his palm. Although Watson knows it is nothing more than a scratch, he catches Holmes’ hand anyway. It is cold, and now they are touching Watson can feel how hard Holmes is trembling. He looks at his friend, really looks at him, studies him in the weak sunlight drifting through the dirty windows and realises just how wan and sick Holmes really looks. Holmes keeps his gaze on the table, mouth thin.
“God knows what you’ve poisoned yourself with,” Watson mutters, pretending his attention is still on the cut. Holmes will know that it is not, but sometimes it is easier to play out a charade than always stick faithfully to the truth. He sighs. “Well, at least it isn’t very deep.”
Holmes makes to pull his hand back; Watson does not let go. Holmes raises his head, and Watson takes care to catch his eye before saying: “when was the last time you ate?” Holmes opens his mouth and Watson adds: “don’t lie to me, or I’ll go and ask Mrs Hudson. She probably knows your eating habits better than you do.”
“I’m incredibly busy,” Holmes half-snaps, though his eyes shine with something like guilt; a child caught somewhere they should not be. Holmes does not often speak of his childhood, just drops random phrases into conversation, but Watson imagines that this expression is one that Holmes wore almost interminably growing up.
“Holmes,” Watson says quietly, “we both know that that is not going to excuse whatever the answer is, you may as well just tell me.”
“I don’t remember,” Holmes tells him. When Watson opens his mouth, Holmes adds swiftly: “not the exact number of days, in any case.”
“Days?” Watson repeats, warm anger sweeping through him. “You have not eaten for days?”
Holmes is scowling now and he tugs his hand back with a little too much force. Watson contemplates his options, and decides that they have argued enough of late and that it has not helped anything.
“Go and change,” he says.
Holmes’ eyes narrow. “Why?”
“I’m taking you out for lunch,” Watson responds calmly. “Clearly we are going to have to dine together at regular times until you learn to do it yourself again.”
Holmes just stares at him, and Watson stands perfectly still and lets himself be analysed. He sees something soften in Holmes’ expression after a moment, and realises that now, in this moment, Holmes has finally understood. Finally comprehended all that Watson is trying to achieve, and does not resent him for it.
“I do not have any decent shirts left,” Holmes responds, a flicker of a smile appearing at the corner of his mouth.
“No,” Watson agrees, “but you do still have plenty of mine – yes, Holmes, I have realised that, funnily enough – and those should be sufficient. We will go and have lunch, and you can tell me all about your cases and also how you came to sprain two of your fingers.”
“Ah, you did notice that then,” Holmes says, looking a mixture of sheepish and amused. “Your observational skills are really rather impressive.”
“They’re not,” Watson replies, “but my medical skills certainly are.”
Holmes smiles at him, the first real, genuine smile that Watson has seen from him in some time, and goes to change his shirt.
Left alone, Watson hefts out a sigh and tells himself that this will all get easier. He looks around the room and two bottles catch his eye. They are stood side by side on the mantelpiece, half-hidden in the clutter, and Watson grits his teeth. He is used to Holmes keeping one bottle of his seven percent solution there, but two is a new development, and one that does fill him with optimism. He walks over, kicking books and papers out of his way, and picks them both up. They are both sealed, clearly unopened, and Watson knows that he should be reassured by this, but he is not. He is not at all.
Holmes returns a few minutes later, reasonably well-dressed though he is hardly the picture of health, and greets Watson with another smile that Watson did not realise how much he missed until now.
“Shall we go?”
When Holmes reaches for his coat, his shirtsleeve – fixed around his wrist with cufflinks that Watson is vaguely sure used to belong to him – hitches up a little, revealing a purple bruise on the inside of Holmes’ arm. Given the number of accidents Holmes gets himself into, this is not surprising or unlikely, but something in Watson’s brain lights up with unease. Holmes shrugs his coat on, pulling the cuffs of his shirt carefully – too carefully – into place.
“Yes, let’s go,” Watson hears himself say, with a smile of his own, picking up his coat and hat. “You can pay,” he adds.
Holmes laughs, and for a few moments Watson allows himself to pretend that everything in the world is absolutely fine.
The lamp left on, the curtains letting in the light.
These things were promises. No doubt we will come back to them.
– Hugo Williams
One of the things that Watson learned almost immediately after moving in with Holmes is that Holmes knows people everywhere. He has contacts among the aristocracy and the beggars on the street, among policeman and among criminals, and does not seem to notice any particular difference between any of these types of people. As Holmes has his web of contacts stretching out through London, it is very easy for him to acquire anything and everything that he might possibly decide that he wants or needs, whether it is something tiny, a passing whim, whether it is cocaine, whether it is contentious blackmail material. Watson is no longer surprised at what Holmes can get his hands on anymore.
Therefore, he does not bat an eyelid when Holmes drops two tickets to Don Carlo onto the table between their plates, before walking across to leave his coat and hat across one of their chairs. He is two hours late for lunch, but this is not an unusual occurrence, and Watson has been quietly waiting, immersed in a medical journal. This performance of Don Carlo has been sold out for some time and Watson is not aware of even mentioning that he wanted to go, but nonetheless Holmes has procured tickets. Holmes has contacts in the Royal Opera House – it is where he acquires most of his make-up for his disguises from – and all he has to do is mention that he would like to go to a performance to immediately get a box for it, so Watson knows he should not really be as impressed by this as he is, but nonetheless, while Holmes has his back to him, Watson feels a naked, delighted grin flicker over his face.
“You’re late,” he remarks, fighting to keep his voice steady.
“I am,” Holmes agrees cheerfully, pulling his scarf from his neck and dropping it on top of his coat and fedora before coming to join Watson at the table. “I had a few enquiries to follow up and they were really so tiresome, Watson, you have no idea.” He looks at Watson’s untouched lunch. “You could have eaten without me.”
“I could have,” Watson replies, putting his medical journal aside, “but then I would not have been here when you got back, and then you would not have eaten lunch at all, and I would not have been able to ask you how your cases are progressing.”
“I might have eaten lunch,” Holmes suggests without much conviction, picking up his knife and fork. “In any case, I thought you had patients this afternoon?”
“I am indisposed,” Watson tells him, voice carefully neutral. “They have all rescheduled for tomorrow afternoon.”
“Ah,” Holmes says, looking momentarily surprised. “I see.”
They eat at least one meal a day together, two when it can be arranged. Holmes fussed and scoffed the first couple of days, calling Watson hopelessly interfering and mother hen and overreacting and other phrases of that ilk, but they both know that if Watson did not sit down with Holmes and regularly remind him to eat then he would go days at a time without nourishment, and a dazzling intellect is not a replacement for actual food, no matter how many times Holmes may try to convince Watson of this. In any case, it is also a chance to connect; with Holmes still taking on more cases than is at all advisable and still refusing Watson’s assistance, and Watson tending to patients and trying to tend to friendships outside of Baker Street – superfluous though they may seem to him – it would be much too easy to become strangers. Strangers sharing the same space and drifting past each other. Watson cannot let that happen, will not let that happen, and so they eat meals together every day, no matter how late Holmes is or how many patients Watson has to reschedule. Some things, after all, are important.
“Don Carlo,” Watson remarks, keeping his voice light but knowing Holmes can read his true delight in a hundred little tells that spill across his features. “Tonight, I see.”
“Well,” Holmes says, “I am quite fond of Verdi and the Italian translation is very good.”
“I hear it is,” Watson agrees, noting the little pleased smile flickering around Holmes’ mouth. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to steal one of my jackets?”
“We have a barter system,” Holmes reminds him.
“I thought I wasn’t allowed to wear any more of your clothes since I bled all over your shirts,” Watson remarks. His stitches have been removed and his chest no longer hurts and the gash has healed to an ugly pink streak that cannot even begin to compete with the scars he carried back from the wars. One little incident, swept beneath the rug and no longer able to bother him, though Watson seems to find it easier to talk about it than Holmes does. He supposes it is because he spent the majority of that night unconscious or half out of mind on laudanum, while Holmes was stuck awake worrying about him. Holmes does still seems to be holding himself responsible for Watson getting hurt, and Watson has been unable to convince him otherwise or to find out just why Holmes has such a strong conviction that the blame lies with him.
Holmes shrugs easily enough. “That is no reason to imply that I am somehow stealing your clothing unfairly.”
This is exactly what Holmes is doing, and, in fact, what Holmes has always done, but Watson has never had the energy to point this out. In any case, he minds less than he says he does, and although he does need to find somewhere to hide certain items of clothing he would like not to be ruined by Holmes and his increasingly eccentric experiments, he has never begrudged Holmes anything, really, let alone his clothes.
“You wear my clothes and do not give me anything in return,” Watson points out with a smirk. His lunch is cold but not actually that bad, and in any case it is not the first time that he has had to eaten Mrs Hudson’s cookery long after it has cooled down – Holmes is occasionally punctual, but usually only to prove a point or to be spiteful – and it is generally delicious whatever is temperature. “That does sound rather like theft to me.”
“No jury would ever convict me,” Holmes says dismissively, though his eyes are lit with amusement.
“I know,” Watson replies, “but no jury will ever convict you of anything. You are too clever for that.”
This is something that has always been evident. Holmes may not know the entire legal system inside out but he does know crime better than perhaps anyone; it is not just a lack of modesty on Holmes’ side or blind infatuation on Watson’s that makes them both aware that if Holmes wished, he could commit any crime he chose, no matter how nefarious or cruel or immoral, and cover his tracks absolutely perfectly. He would probably investigate it himself, leading Lestrade and the rest of Scotland Yard a merry twisting dance, and would cap it all off with getting someone else convicted and hung, and Watson would probably end up being the attending physician. It is a circumstance that will hopefully never happen, but its possibility has always been there.
Holmes’ smile turns a little smug as he eats. Watson cannot help but notice that Holmes’ cuffs are still perfectly in place; normally he rolls his sleeves up when they are in the privacy of their own home, relaxed and safe from the eyes of the rest of the world. They both do, shirts untucked, sleeves unbuttoned, braces hanging loose behind them, waistcoats left forgotten. It is one of the pleasures of their home life; this seclusion from polite society and all of its conventions. It occurs to Watson that he has not seen Holmes’ arms in some weeks, and this is not a good sign. It is not a good sign at all. Immediately, his eyes dart to the bottles of seven percent solution on the mantelpiece, but they do not appear to have moved at all. He should be comforted by this, but he is not. Holmes is clever, after all, even if that word seems too inadequate and cheap to describe his intellect, and he is certainly not above misleading Watson and possibly even himself.
Watson notes that Holmes has followed his gaze and is also looking at the mantelpiece.
“If you’re worried about the bullet hole I’m sure we could have someone fix it,” he says.
For a moment, Watson is honestly not sure if Holmes is serious or not, if he is trying to lead Watson away from a conversation he does not want to have, or if he genuinely thinks that Watson is worried about some of the meaningless destruction that has taken place in here all in the name of discovery. It would do better under the name of procrastination, Watson feels, but Holmes always takes immediate offence to that.
“I’m sure we could,” he agrees, and lets his gaze drop so that he does not have to look at Holmes’ expression and try and second-guess it. “In any case, thank you for getting the tickets.”
“I was owed a favour,” Holmes says, tone light and nonchalant, “and I know that it was something you wanted to see.”
Watson does look at him when he hears that, and Holmes gives him the smug grin he saves for moments of triumph, much like this one. “We have not been to see Don Carlo before,” Holmes tells him, “and I noted how disappointed you looked when last we were in Covent Garden and you saw the sold out posters.”
“Thank you,” Watson says again, and he wonders if he has ever been more grateful for his friend’s deductive abilities.
In the hansom on the way back to Baker Street Holmes is quiet, fingers twitching in his lap. Watson does not know much about playing the violin – watching Holmes is not much help as Holmes seems to spend more time plucking distractedly at the strings than actually playing, as such – but he can imagine that Holmes is already playing certain arias in his mind, fingertips pressed to an imaginary violin.
“Did you want me to identify more with Carlos or with Posa?” Watson asks at last, because he might as well, smiling to soften the words.
At the centre of Don Carlo is a love story, of course, a man unable to be with the woman he loves and the ways he suffers because of it. There is gut wrenching music and a suitably tragic and unhappy ending of twisting desperation and gorgeous love songs of pain and separation. But there is also a friendship, two men who love each other and would die for each other – until one of them actually does – and their harmonies and arias are just as beautiful as any sung between Carlos and Elisabeth. Neither he nor Holmes are as naive and idealistic as Carlos and Posa, but nonetheless there are parallels, and Watson finds himself wondering if Holmes’ choice of opera had an ulterior motive. Even as he thinks this, he realises that he does not mind if it did.
“I suppose I’m Posa,” he says, answering his own question, “though you do not pine after an unattainable woman, but rather unattainable answers.”
Holmes turns to look him, surprise on his features. “Posa dies for Carlos,” he points out.
“I imagine I’ll die for you at some point,” Watson replies, and belatedly realises he may have had a little too much champagne in the intervals. It is a four hour opera; there were many intervals. Holmes’ eyes widen, his expression almost impossible to read in the darkness inside the cab. “I mean, I won’t set out to do it, but it will probably happen and there are, after all, far worse reasons to die.”
“You’re being ridiculous, Watson,” Holmes snaps, steel in his tone, and his gaze turns out of one of the windows. “You won’t die for me.”
“I’ve already been stabbed this month,” Watson sighs, “which was not so much for you and wasn’t even caused by you, but was nonetheless in your vicinity and on your stakeout, so sooner or later helping you with your cases is going to end in tragedy of some description.”
Holmes’ jaw has tensed and he keeps his gaze straight ahead, refusing to look at Watson. “You’re drunk,” he says, tone cold.
“And judging by the size of your pupils I don’t want to think about exactly what’s in your body right now,” Watson returns calmly, “through I trust that it improved your enjoyment of the music. And you will notice that there have been no recriminations on my half at all and that we have had a lovely evening.”
“We were having a lovely evening,” Holmes corrects him, and then he sighs. “Your powers of observation are ceaselessly surprising, Watson.”
“I see more than you think I do,” Watson tells him, a little stung, “though I may not always be able to put it together.”
“Well, that is plainly obvious,” Holmes mutters, and in the half-light his smile appears a little rueful. There is an uncomfortable pause where Holmes does not look at him and Watson tries to work out just what it is that he is missing. There is something, he knows, in the way Holmes looks at him sometimes, in the cryptic sentences he drops occasionally and refuses to ever define. He thinks it stems back to the night he was hurt; things were awkward before then, uncomfortable and disjointed. They are not quite back to normal yet, but things are different between them in a way that Watson cannot define and Holmes will not define, and he only wishes he knew what it was that he does not know. If he should have noticed it, if it is staring him hopelessly in the face and he just keeps looking through it.
Knowing him, he probably is.
After a moment, Holmes turns to him and gives a smile that is a little more real. “In any case, we’re having a lovely evening.”
“We are,” Watson agrees, returning the smile, because they are; even if they are both currently under the influence and somehow still missing a connection.
Watson is just drunk enough to consider leaning forward and kissing Holmes, pushing him back against the seat and sharing the sweet taste of expensive champagne in his own mouth. But past experience stops him, much as he wishes that it would not; recollections of Holmes’ calculating expression when faced with Watson’s bare passion, and the soft bloody kiss in the Punchbowl that Holmes barely seemed aware he was bestowing. And – but those are the only times they have kissed, and Watson has his pride and the last shreds of his sanity to cling to. But as they look at each other, lit solely by the stripes of lamp posts they pass, Watson does entertain the possibility for a few drawn out seconds, no matter his strong resolution that Holmes will never be anything more than his friend and that that will be enough.
In any case, before he has absolutely reached a decision, the cab stops at Baker Street and they have to get out. Watson gets out first and wonders if he imagines the heavy sigh from behind him. Holmes pays the cab driver – Watson still does not carry money himself, though he wants to believe that one day he will be able to without fear that he will lose it all foolishly – while Watson climbs the stairs to the front door, pleased that he is not drunk enough to be unsteady on his feet.
“I should get some rest,” he remarks when they are both safely inside, “I have all those patients I rescheduled to see tomorrow.”
“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Holmes tells him quietly.
“I did,” Watson replies simply. He looks at Holmes, tidy for once in his jacket and shirt, a top hat angled a little rakishly on his head, and once again reminds himself that he has a resolution. “Thank you, Holmes,” he says, genuine and soft.
“You are quite welcome,” Holmes tells him. “Sleep well, Posa.”
Watson laughs and wonders how much truth there was in I will die for you. The words settle in his stomach like lead and he reflects that in the morning without champagne bubbles beneath his skin he will probably want to hurt himself for saying those words aloud, especially to Holmes.
As he lies awake in bed, he can hear the soft strains of Holmes’ violin through the wall, singing its way through half-remembered parts of the opera, sweeping beautifully along, and Watson eventually drifts off to sleep cradled in the melody.
Even if Watson had only recently moved in with Holmes and therefore did not know his methods, his temperament or even how to take little details and use them to piece together the bigger picture, he would be able to spot the signs a mile off. He cannot work out if he is angry or not that Holmes is not even bothering to be discreet; his eyes are permanently glittering and he is constantly alight with brittle bright mania, speaking almost too fast to follow at times, and if he is sleeping it is not at times discernable to Watson. He leaves Holmes to it because it is simpler just to pick up the pieces afterwards than to try and stop things breaking in the first place. In any case, he knows Holmes will lash out if he tries to suggest to him that what he is doing is stupid and reckless; after all, it is not as if Holmes does not already know this.
The bottles of seven percent solution on the mantelpiece remain untouched and sealed, but Watson has worked out by now that they are simply a ruse on Holmes’ part, left there in the hope of misleading him. Holmes is keeping the drug that he is actually using somewhere else. Watson does occasionally search through their untidy and cluttered rooms in the hope of finding the bottles that Holmes really is using, if only so that he can know what he is up against, but he has no luck. He is not really surprised about this. Holmes knows far too much about hiding things from the rest of the world.
Holmes has continued with the case of the jewel thieves, and he informs Watson at dinner one night that the net is finally closing in; he and Scotland Yard are laying a trap and the gang will be caught in the next few days.
“I want to come with you,” Watson says.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Holmes replies, suddenly intently fascinated in his dinner.
“I am tired of being treated as an invalid,” Watson replies, “or someone who is incapable of taking care of themselves. I am not scared of being hurt, so you should not be scared of me being hurt. I don’t want to be shut out any more, Holmes.”
Holmes is silent for a long moment. At last, he sighs. “All right,” he says. “You will need your revolver and I get to say ‘I told you so’ if you are injured.”
“You may say it as many times as you like,” Watson promises. “You may say it over and over again as I lie in my laudanum-crazed dreams. And I will probably not punch you.”
“We can use my new anaesthetic,” Holmes says, looking suddenly cheerful.
“Would you like me to get hurt?” Watson offers. “You experimented on Gladstone, I suppose you might want to test it on me too?”
“Don’t be facetious,” Holmes tells him, but he is smiling a little. “It will be good to have you with me.” He half mutters this, gaze on his cutlery, and he clears his throat immediately after saying it.
Watson looks down at his own plate, suddenly immensely intrigued by his own food. “I look forward to it,” he says.
They discuss innocuous topics for the rest of the meal, and Watson watches Holmes’ hands shaking, the hollowness in his dark eyes, and wonders just how much of a problem this is becoming. Holmes’ sleeves are still resolutely rolled down, and Watson finds himself trying to work out if Holmes honestly believes that he is hiding this from him, because he is really not.
The next night finds them out in the freezing cold night air down at the docks. Some jewels are supposedly being shipped and although they left an hour ago, the jewel thieves do not know this. The gang are due to come down here tonight at the original shipping time, and Scotland Yard will be waiting for them when they do.
Holmes is brightly excited, and Watson knows that this, at least, is a natural emotion, one that has not been artificially induced by Holmes’ boredom and melancholy and subsequent addictions. Watson, too, has that feeling curling in his stomach that he only gets when they are on the verge of apprehending a criminal, the twists of excitement and adrenalin that remind him it will be extremely difficult to ever have a life that is calm and quiet and that does not regularly involve nights running through the streets of London after dangerous and vicious individuals.
Back against the wall of a warehouse, Watson checks his revolver for the umpteenth time, finding that it is still fully loaded and ready for use. Holmes is stood beside him, absolutely still, eyes staring out into the darkness. This reminds Watson of last time, standing outside the pub with their breath like smoke in front of them, shivering and cold. It was darker then, though, whereas the moon is clear and bright tonight, glistening above them. Holmes’ profile is tipped silver when Watson looks at him, eyelashes cutting dark shadows across his cheeks.
“When do Scotland Yard get here?” he asks, mouth barely moving.
“A few minutes,” Holmes responds, checking his pocket watch, quietly closing it and tucking it back into his pocket. “And our friends should be here a few minutes after that.”
“So we’re early then?” Watson asks.
“Plans can go wrong,” Holmes points out, “and while I would rather not face them all alone, we are at least both wearing your shirts this time round.”
“We are?” Watson frowns. “When did I agree to this?”
“Oh, you didn’t,” Holmes assures him, “but I believe that, after last time, it is really only fair.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Watson whispers back. “You’ve set fire to at least ten of my shirts.”
“At least that was in pursuit of something productive,” Holmes counters. “My shirts were simply ruined by you running a little faster than me, which is far more of a waste.” There are footsteps nearby; they both flatten themselves harder against the wall and exchange glances.
It’s only the police arriving; they spread themselves out and the feeling of excited anticipation grows in Watson’s stomach. He glances at Holmes to find that Holmes is already looking at him, watching him with what looks like careful scrutiny. Watson wants to ask for clarification, but the need for silence has arisen, with scant minutes until their targets arrive, and so he must remain quiet.
Quiet. For a split second, Watson thinks Holmes is about to – he shakes his head to rid himself of the idea, but just for a moment he honestly thought Holmes was to kiss him. He has no clue where he got that thought from and is immediately embarrassed, but...
He is spared further dwelling on this by the sound of more footsteps, of men with lanterns and low voices, and chaos immediately descends. The police appear from their hiding places, all whistles and noise and Lestrade bawling at the thieves that they have been caught. Watson and Holmes wait on the edges to catch stragglers, to catch the ones who think they will be able to run away. There are always one or two who think that they can run away when they cannot. In this case they are waiting, fists curled and revolvers ready; Watson cracks his knuckles on a man’s cheek, sends him down spitting his own teeth, stamps on his hand as he reaches for a weapon. A policeman is at his side in a moment to cuff the swearing, bleeding thief and drag him away. He takes down two more men, suddenly aware that he has lost sight of Holmes, and goes looking for his friend.
Holmes has an unconscious man at his feet and is currently in the process of beating up another one. The thief has dropped a gun and several coins and a long knife... Watson’s heart almost stops when he sees the weapon, recognising it instinctively as the one that was plunged into his chest only a few weeks ago. Which means the man Holmes is apparently trying to beat to a pulp is the man who stabbed Watson. He has mixed feelings about this situation, but the man is clearly unarmed and is now unable to fight back, and apparently Holmes does not care about this one little bit.
“Stop it,” Watson orders, voice low and even. “Holmes, he’s had enough.”
“I told him I was going to beat seven kinds of shit out of him,” Holmes responds, words clipped and sharp and eerily calm. “I’ve only found five so far.”
There is the unmistakable sound of a jaw breaking, and the man screams. Watson makes a decision and dives for Holmes, grabbing him by the arms and pulling him back. The bloody thief falls to the ground, moaning, and Watson swiftly kicks the weapons out of his reach, though the man looks barely capable of staying conscious right now, let alone trying to fight back. Holmes struggles for a moment but Watson does not let go.
“He’d had enough,” Watson repeats. “You don’t need to get in trouble for using unnecessary force.”
“Watson,” Holmes begins hotly, “he was-”
“I know,” Watson interrupts. “Holmes, I know.”
Holmes twists in his grip, turning around to face Watson. His cheek is cut, his nose is bloody, teeth stained red, and there is a naked fire in his eyes that Watson has not seen before.
“We’re going home,” he says firmly. “Lestrade and his men can finish up here.”
Holmes looks at Watson for a moment and then down the cringing man bleeding onto the ground a few feet away, and nods. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I think that would be a good idea.”
They do not speak in the hansom, or even really look at each other. Watson’s mind is working too fast, and brief flashes of moonlight and Holmes’ dark eyes keep colliding in his thoughts. There is a memory there, he thinks, only it is fragmented like a partially-burned photograph and it keeps sliding between his hands like wet soap. He thinks and thinks and prods at the scattered pieces of the memory that may or may not be a fantasy or a dream or a trick of the light until he begins to feel like a dog chasing his own tail, and his head is thumping.
He patches Holmes up by the fireside, cleaning the cut on his face and providing him with gauze to hold against his nose to try and staunch the flow of blood.
“I’m not a damsel in distress,” Watson murmurs at last.
Holmes smiles, and then winces. At least his nose has stopped bleeding, and Watson lays down his right hand with its cut and bruised knuckles. “I never thought for one moment you were, dear boy.”
“Well, you were certainly doing a good job of trying to knock out all the teeth of the man who attacked me,” Watson points out, struggling to keep his voice light. “I don’t need you to defend me like that.”
Holmes catches his gaze; there is something in his eyes that Watson has not seen since that night, since he was delirious in his bed with Holmes trying to get his temperature down. “You did not have you find you, Watson,” he says quietly, voice utterly calm. “You did not have to find you lying covered in your own blood in an alley while a man stood over you with a knife. It was very dark that night, if you recall, and for a moment it was rather difficult to tell if you were still alive.” Watson feels all the breath leave his lungs, ice flowing through his limbs. “I did not attack him for you,” Holmes adds a moment later, his voice barely above a whisper.
Watson does not know what to say, cannot find any words at all. Holmes offers him a smile that does not reach his eyes and pushes himself to his feet.
“I’m going to bed,” he says, and then abruptly holds out a hand. “Nice working with you again, dear boy.”
Watson shakes his hand, noticing that they both have matching sets of damaged knuckles. “Nice working with you too.”
They stand there like that for a moment too long; eventually Holmes pulls his hand free. He looks as though he would like to say something to Watson but in the end just scrapes together a meagre approximation of a smile, smacks his hand against Watson’s shoulder, and leaves the room.
Silence is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Holmes continues to take on more cases than he really should, though at least he is now allowing Watson to help him with the workload. Watson realises just how much he has missed helping Holmes to unravel mysteries and he knows that Holmes has missed having him along; Holmes’ increasingly long monologues on every little detail that crosses their path show him that. After all, who else will listen to Holmes pontificate on his own genius without losing interest in moments? Watson remains fascinated, no matter how well he comes to know Holmes and no matter how much patience he loses with the man. Holmes’ mind is still a shining and beautiful thing that Watson cannot help but be drawn to, a moth to a flame.
With the details flooding the newspapers, Watson begins to write a heavily edited account of their adventures with the jewel thieves. Certain details can be left in – the stakeouts, Watson’s own injury, the eventual capture at the docks – but Watson cannot think of a way of writing I came upon Holmes attempting to beat ‘seven kinds of shit’ – in his own words – out of the scoundrel who had stabbed me without making the narrative take on a rather different tone.
It has been a quiet evening; they ate dinner together, discussing their latest cases and a couple of rather scandalous stories that appeared in the newspaper today, and then Watson retired to write and left Holmes scribbling away industriously about a new chemical he is thinking about developing. Watson goes back through his notebook and begins to record the first cases of theft that brought the whole thing to Holmes’ attention, continues through various ridiculously domestic scenes in which Holmes deduces where the thieves will be while they sit in armchairs by the fire (Watson leaves out the fact that these were the only conversations they were actually having in those weeks), and writes about how cold their stakeout was. He is normally quite good at remembering conversations and most of the dialogue in his scribbling is true enough to life, perhaps edited for expletives or to make Holmes look a little less like a maniac. But that whole night is full of fog and a little wavering, but he does his best to fill in the gaps anyway. They discussed how cold it was, he recalls, and Holmes wanted him to be quiet-
Watson closes his eyes, massaging his temples, and tries to slot the pieces back together. Holmes wanted him to be quiet and they looked at each other in moonlight and... he gasps, pieces flowing together. Still indistinct, still desperately confusing, but Holmes’ mouth closed over his in that alley in the darkness and that was why Watson was ahead of Holmes in the chase. He knows this with absolute certainty, though the proof is absent, lost to the grey expanses of head injury.
His pen has leaked ink into a huge wet blot on the page and Watson does not care. The memory is fragile, warped by concussion, and he realises that Holmes lied to him when he said that Watson had forgotten nothing from that night. Watson forgot something important, and he needs to know the truth. He knows, if he directly confronts Holmes, he will be able to get the truth from him. And he needs to; God, he needs to.
He opens the wall that divides his practice from the main room and walks through. Holmes is sitting on the floor, firelight illuminating his features, and he is staring unblinkingly upwards at their damaged ceiling. Watson, filled with an emotion he cannot define or name, does not bother to follow his eye line. There is something about Holmes’ almost unnatural stillness, something about the way he is just sitting there, that fills Watson with something like fury and something like dread and something like disappointment. He closes the wall again, and the banging noise makes Holmes get to his feet.
“Watson!” he says. “What-”
Watson does not want to let him finish. Anger is filling him, replacing whatever he was feeling earlier, and he strides over. Watson looks into Holmes’ too-bright eyes, and silence no longer appeals to him. Pretending not to see, trying not to make it his problem, letting Holmes lie humiliatingly badly to him; he cannot take it anymore.
“Roll up your sleeves.”
“My dear fellow-”
“Roll up your sleeves right now.” Watson is spitting the words between his teeth, anxiety and fury mingling in them, and Holmes seems to realise that now is not the time to negotiate. Slow, reluctant, looking wronged and martyred, he undoes his cufflinks and turns up the sleeves of his shirt. Watson’s shirt, he notes dispassionately; nothing belongs solely to him anymore, Holmes has taken all of it, or perhaps he handed it over without even noticing.
The insides of Holmes’ arms are a mess of needle pricks and deep purple bruises, bright and ugly and vivid. Watson forced himself to grow used to Holmes’ occasional use of cocaine when it all came out in the first place, but this is not anything approaching an occasional use. This is something far darker and far more messy and it almost turns his stomach. He does not know whether he wants to cry or to scream or to hit Holmes for being such a great fool.
He is speechless, he realises, recriminations shrivelling in his mouth. Watson cannot find anything to say at all, struck dumb by the black and mauve marks that streak up and down Holmes’ forearms. Holmes looks at him and does not seem to know what to say either.
“There are not words for how stupid you’re being,” Watson says at last, tone hushed. “And you know how stupid you’re being and I cannot comprehend how you can do this. I cannot.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” Holmes replies. He does not sound accusing; simply sad. Watson does not have time for Holmes’ sadness, for his ideas of isolated genius, right now. He looks away from him and sees the empty and half-filled bottles of seven percent solution lying, half hidden beneath a footstool. There is no subtlety to this, no elegance, and pure desperate devastated fury spreads through Watson.
“You bloody idiot,” he half-shouts, and Holmes flinches.
Watson sees red, grabbing one full bottle of seven percent solution and throwing it against the wall, where it shatters, spilling the liquid cocaine everywhere. They stare at each other for moment in which the sound seems to echo and magnify and fill the room, and then Holmes punches him, the movement clearly purely instinctive, fist connecting hard with Watson’s chin. His head snaps back and he stumbles. Watson reaches for Holmes, dragging him close with fingers cruelly tight around Holmes’ arm. Holmes is tensed for a blow but Watson kisses him instead, kisses him with all the fear he has, hot and enraged and terrified of losing Holmes to his own demons.
Holmes responds swiftly, kissing back with just as much anger and frustration, bruised arms wrapping around Watson’s neck and dragging him closer. They stagger back a step, knocking an entire table over with such a racket it is a surprise Mrs Hudson does not try to come and find what on earth they are up to, and crash past the wreckage to the sofa. Watson pushes Holmes down, covering him with his own body, hands shaking against Holmes’ chest.
“Watson,” Holmes murmurs between stinging, biting kisses, “Watson-”
His hands are pushing insistently at Watson’s shoulders which he ignores until Holmes manages to catch his scar from the war – probably intentionally – and his sharp pained intake of breath is enough to clear his mind a little.
“Watson,” Holmes says urgently, mouth swollen red and eyes pure black, and Watson hears what he is really saying, which is stop.
“We can’t do this now,” Watson murmurs, realisation sinking in. Holmes figured this out quicker than he did, which is not surprising, but it is perfectly plain that they cannot do this right now. Not with Holmes so desperately under the influence and Watson literally shaking with rage. “I’m too angry. I could quite happily pound you into this sofa until either it or you collapses; I don’t mind which.”
Holmes shivers beneath him. “Neither do I,” he says quietly, and then closes his eyes, swallowing hard. “We really can’t do this, Watson.”
It takes a great deal of willpower for Watson to push himself up and off the sofa. Holmes sits up, looking beautifully dishevelled, and then Watson notices, once again, the rows of drug-induced bruises. He forces himself to breathe, to swallow yet more helpless anger, and tries to think rationally about this. Something clicks, and he suddenly realises everything, the missing pieces that were staring him in the face all along.
“It really wasn’t your fault,” he says quietly. “You think that I nearly died and it was your fault. But it wasn’t.”
“Leave it, Watson.” Holmes’ voice is halfway between a plea and an order.
“You think because you kissed me you almost got me killed,” Watson says. “But I’m not blaming you and you need to stop blaming yourself.”
Holmes stares at him, wide-eyed. “You remember?” His voice is barely above a whisper.
“It has finally come back to me,” Watson says. “Well, some of it anyway. Head injuries can do that to a person.” He fixes Holmes with a firm stare. “And you told me that my memory of that night was perfect.”
Holmes seems to be looking for words and has not found any. Tonight has been too full of striking each other dumb and Watson is very tired and a little confused and maybe, underneath it all, a little hopeful.
“I’m going to bed,” he says. “I will have this conversation with you when you are in your right mind, or whatever approximation of that we can get you to.” He steps closer, curling a hand under Holmes’ chin and tilting it up so that Holmes will look at him. “I was fine. I am fine. And you must stop blaming yourself.”
“You cannot make me stop,” Holmes murmurs, but there is an easing in his voice.
“Oh believe me, I will have a good try,” Watson promises. He pauses at the door. “In any case, I hear that scars are thought rather dashing. I should probably be thanking you.”
Holmes looks reluctant, but a smile creeps across his mouth. “You are quite mad, Watson.”
“I wouldn’t still live here if I weren’t,” Watson responds. “Goodnight, Holmes.”
Watson does not see Holmes until the middle of the next afternoon; he has patients and the silence from next door – occasionally punctuated by the sounds of moving furniture and towers of books crashing to the floor – is slightly ominous. Nonetheless, Mrs Hudson goes not come running in, begging him to intervene, so he assumes that whatever Holmes is or is not doing is not dangerous and is not about to bring the house crashing down around their ears – which is always a nice change. When he has finished assuring a woman that her son has a slight fever but most certainly does not have some kind of horrible life-threatening disease, Watson finally goes to find out what Holmes is up to.
The curtains are open for once, brightly illuminating the mess, long streams of dust motes caught in the winter sunlight. The table they knocked over yesterday – Watson feels a blush rushing to his cheeks just at the thought – has been righted, books and papers rearranged on top of it, and while the room continues to look as though a library and a junk shop had a fight to the death and then both exploded, it also looks as though it has been tidied, just a little. There is order in the centre of the chaos; it shows in the way books and papers have been piled, in the distinct absence of half-drunk cups of tea or broken glassware and spilled unidentifiable chemicals.
Holmes himself has drifted off to sleep on the sofa, breathing softly and deeply, one limp arm dangling off the edge. His sleeves are rolled up – Watson smiles almost ruefully and once again considers getting a lock on his wardrobe – and in daylight the bruises look even worse, startlingly dark against Holmes’ skin. Watson swallows, teeth gritting, and wonders once again just what it is in Holmes that has such a desperate urge to destroy itself.
Further investigation reveals that the bottles of cocaine have disappeared, both from the mantelpiece and from beneath the footstool, and the broken remains of the bottle Watson threw last night have been cleared away, a slight stain on the wallpaper the only indication it occurred at all. He remembers the heat of his fury from last night and is not ashamed of himself in the slightest – it is all very well for Holmes to indulge in his chosen vices, but this no longer counts as indulging and if he does not try to stop Holmes from spiralling into a pit of his own creating then no one else will – but he is surprised to find how little of that emotion remains behind now. There is only weariness and pity and guilt and sadness. Watson thinks that, on the whole, he preferred the anger. But he cannot stay angry with Holmes, has never managed to stay angry with Holmes, and one day this will probably turn out to be a problem.
Irene Adler’s photograph is still standing in its frame, glass repaired from the last time Holmes decided that he hated Irene Adler more than anyone else in the world ever and then changed his mind back again. Watson understands Holmes’ fixation with Adler easily enough: her mind can keep up with Holmes’ and she has no scruples whatsoever, which meshes rather nicely with Holmes’ decision to ignore anything and everything that gets in the way of him thinking and doing whatever he pleases, and on top of all of this she has proven herself the victor on more than one occasion, which is such a rare occurrence with Holmes that she must be fascinating for sheer novelty value. And she is, of course, incredibly beautiful in a dangerous sort of way, which should of course be taken into account. Still, he thinks he knows the truth behind all of it, which is that Holmes is inevitably drawn to those who will hurt him, who will put him into the most painful and difficult of situations.
Watson smiles almost ruefully and reflects that, for all the good he attempts to do, he cannot quite exempt himself from this category.
A slight change in Holmes’ breathing tells him that his friend has woken up and Watson turns around. Holmes looks ruffled and sleepy and a little paler than usual, though something in his eyes lights when he catches sight of Watson.
“I suppose you didn’t eat lunch,” Watson says.
“No, mother hen, I didn’t,” Holmes agrees cheerfully. “But, in all fairness, I should point out that you didn’t either, so you cannot begin to toss accusations about.”
“Point taken,” Watson sighs. “I suppose we should ask Mrs Hudson to bring something.”
“I’ll do that,” Holmes tells him. “By the way, I was reading your latest account of our adventures; I found it very scintillating.”
“It wasn’t finished and it was locked away in my room,” Watson says, “do you really have no idea what privacy means?”
“Of course I don’t,” Holmes scoffs, “I thought we’d established that some years ago.”
Watson rolls his eyes. “You tell Mrs Hudson that we would like some lunch. I’m going to go and find out just how much damage you’ve created.”
Holmes smiles, just a little, but Watson cannot make sense of it and so just turns and leaves. His room is as tidy as ever and his notebooks are still safely locked away, clearly untouched. He frowns, trying to work out why Holmes would deliberately manipulate him into coming back here, when he notices that there are several bottles, empty and in various permutations of full, lined up on his windowsill. As far as he can tell, all of Holmes’ seven percent solution is here, in Watson’s safekeeping.
Watson stands and stares at the bottles until his eyes blur, until his heart rate slows down. Only then does he return to Holmes. He is stood by the window, tinkering with a table full of jars and naked flames and other things only destined to end in tragedy and new marks on their ceiling.
“Nanny grumbled rather a lot but she is bringing us lunch,” Holmes informs him cheerfully. “Are you all right, old boy, you look rather pale.”
“I’m fine,” Watson replies, a crack in his voice. He picks up the day’s newspaper, abandoned on a table, and goes to sit down near the window. “I think I probably need to eat something.”
“Of course you must,” Holmes says, “one of us has to set a good example, Watson.”
Watson smiles. “I suppose that is my task,” he remarks, “since you are so frequently the very definition of ‘inadvisable’.”
Holmes laughs softly, eyes fixed on whatever he it is he is trying to develop at the moment, and Watson looks away from the ugly purple bruises that are so very stark in daylight and instead opens the paper.
After about ten minutes of comfortable silence, he says: “do you think it will help?”
Holmes is silent for so long that Watson is not even sure that he can hear him. “I don’t know,” he says at last. “We shall have to find out.”
“If there’s anything I can do to help-” Watson begins, but Holmes cuts him off.
“You cannot try and ease every aspect of my life, Watson,” he tells him, soft and firm. “You would grow to hate me and I cannot have that.”
Watson opens his mouth to protest but Holmes, as usual, has found the truth at the heart of the situation and spilled it out for everyone else to see.
“You will tell me if you need anything, though?” Watson asks. When Holmes frowns, he adds: “as a doctor, not as your friend.”
Holmes considers this. “Yes,” he says at last, “I will.”
Watson returns to his newspaper, to the ridiculous scandals fascinating English society at the moment and to his little hobby of counting how many times Holmes has been referenced (and, to a lesser extent, how many times he is referenced; he is not a narcissist, but there is something gratifying in seeing his name in print). After another moment, Holmes murmurs:
“You do realise I am not going to stop, don’t you? Not altogether, at any rate.”
Watson swallows, does not look up. “I know,” he replies. “And I am sure that on another day I will give you a terribly long lecture on how irresponsible you are and how you have a brilliant mind that should not be tainted with chemicals.”
“Not today?” Holmes asks.
“Today, I am just relieved,” Watson responds. “The recriminations can and will come later.”
Mrs Hudson brings them food a short while later, laying it out over the table. Holmes is murmuring to himself, engrossed in his experiment, and Watson keeps reading the paper, remembering to look up and thank Mrs Hudson before she leaves. In a moment, he will have to drag Holmes back into mundane real world, mother him into eating, if that is what it takes, but for the moment he is quite content to sit in their study and listen to him work as he has done so many times before.
There is the sound of glass breaking, and Holmes swears. Gladstone, seated under a table, growls softly. Watson does not bother to look; it is a sight he has seen too many times already.
“I appear to be on fire,” Holmes says after a moment, sounding both amused and surprised.
Watson turns the page. A member of the aristocracy has just become engaged, and her pretty face grins up at him. “I imagine there’s a vase with some water in it somewhere in here,” he suggests. “And I’m calling off the barter system.”
“That is unreasonable,” Holmes tells him, and then murmurs: “ah.” He has clearly spotted a likely-looking vase, and stumbles across the room to it. When Watson finally raises his head, Holmes has smoke rising from his shirt sleeve, but he does seem mercifully undamaged and there are no longer any actual flames.
“Shirts do not grow on trees, Holmes,” Watson cannot help but point out. “And we are not quite made of money yet. I imagine my practice will suffer if I have to start seeing patients in various states of undress because I no longer have enough clothes to dress myself in the morning.”
They both look at each other and burst out laughing.
The bruises decorating Holmes’ arms fade from purple-black to a nasty greenish-yellow that make him look as though he has contracted some kind of rare skin disease. True to his word, he does not ask Watson for help and Watson does not offer it, though he does sit up half the night with Holmes at times, distracting him with conversation, and he takes even more care than usual to persuade Holmes to eat. He is not sure whether Holmes’ dependence can ever be removed entirely – for one thing, Holmes would not want to give it up completely – but they have to get it manageable for the sake of Holmes’ sanity, if nothing else.
They do not speak of that night, though the table they knocked to the floor has a chip on the corner and the wallpaper is stained from Watson throwing a bottle at it and he spends more time than is at all sensible or healthy thinking about the warmth of Holmes’ body beneath his. Watson does not know how to bring it up, to ask if it was an effect of the cocaine or not, to try it again when they are both halfway sane and halfway sober and if it is something that Holmes even still wants. Watson has lived with Holmes for a long time and knows all about Holmes’ obsessions and passing fancies; the only things he has ever seemed consistently interested in are his violin, his cocaine and Irene Adler. Well, and Watson, of course, but even so Watson wonders if that is because he has become as much a part of Holmes’ routine as his dressing gown has, if he is merely a necessity in Holmes’ life that he chooses not to do without.
For all that he can be laughably transparent at times, Holmes is really an impossible man to read.
So Watson consigns himself to silence and to waiting and to hopeless confusion, and convinces himself day by day that he can live like this forever, if needs be, that it does not hurt in the slightest and that this state of existence is perfectly bearable.
A wet evening finds them by the fireside, Holmes engrossed in a book and Watson doing some writing of his own. The night outside the pub, cold brick against his back, complaining to Holmes about the cold weather.
“I should have let you do this on your own,” I said, watching my breath misting in front of me. “I could be safe and warm by the fire right now, with brandy and a newspaper and possibly some kind of tobacco.”
His memories from thereon out begin to grow hazy, but Watson knows he will probably make up some dialogue anyway. After a while, he looks up to find that Holmes is leant almost comically sideways in his chair, staring intently at what Watson is writing. He immediately feels self-conscious.
“Well,” he begins, “am I getting it right?”
“I can think of a few alterations I would make,” Holmes says lightly.
Watson holds out his notebook and pen. “If you think you can do a better job...”
Holmes takes the items from him and puts them down haphazardly on the nearest table. “If you would permit me to show you?”
Bemused, Watson sits back in his chair. “Go ahead, old boy.”
Holmes moves quickly, leaving his own chair and coming to lean over Watson’s. Hands on the arms, and leant much too close. Watson feels his heart beat just a little faster.
“Your memories of that night are not quite accurate,” Holmes informs him quietly, “and it would be a dreadful shame for your story to be incorrect.”
“Dreadful,” Watson agrees. “What exactly have I missed?”
“You expressed some irritation at my asking you to be quiet,” Holmes replies. “I admit, I was a little patronising, but I too was cold. Still, I did not wish our mission to be compromised, so I had to find a way to persuade you to stay quiet.”
Watson meets Holmes’ eyes and sees that they are not tinged with drugs or alcohol or pain or even cold sharp analysis. They are staring at him as though they can see through to his soul and they are not repulsed by the sight in the slightest.
“A logical choice of action,” he says, the words falling thoughtlessly.
“I thought so,” Holmes agrees. He is so close Watson can feel his breath against his face. “So I told you that you were cold and I needed you to be silent, and that we could find a happy solution to both of these problems. You opened your mouth to ask for classification – just as you are doing now in fact – and I proceeded to demonstrate my plan.”
“And what was your plan?” Watson asks, halfway breathless and he would not look away from Holmes’ gaze now if you held a gun to his head.
“Allow me to demonstrate,” Holmes murmurs, and one of his hands moves from the arm of the chair to the back of Watson’s neck as he pulls him into a kiss.
It is a slow kiss, warm and thorough, as Holmes explores his mouth with as thorough an investigation as he gives in any other aspect of his life; lingering over the details. Deep and warm and luscious; there is nothing hurried about it and Holmes makes no move to break it, fingers running through the back of Watson’s hair, lips utterly certain against his. When they finally draw apart Holmes moves hardly any distance at all, so close that he is a little blurry when Watson tries to look directly at him.
“I am never going to be able to put that in my story,” Watson says softly.
Holmes does not reply; he draws back a little more, seems to realise just how awkwardly he is leant over Watson and moves, shifting so he is knelt between Watson’s legs.
“John Watson,” he says, quiet but firm, “if you do not give me another chance I fear I may be forced to do something drastic.”
“Oh, right,” Watson replies, feeling a smile twisting his mouth, “because you never normally do drastic things.”
“I am perfectly serious,” Holmes tells him.
“I know,” Watson replies. “I know. But- God- Holmes.” He reaches towards him, cupping Holmes’ cheek in his palm. “I’m not Adler,” he says, with something approaching desperation. “I don’t have the capacity to outsmart you at every turn-”
Holmes catches his hand, covers it with his own. “But, my dearest Watson, you can confuse me. You can confuse me excessively.”
It should not sound like a declaration of love; it should not sound like a promise. But Watson does know Holmes, probably better than the detective even knows that he does, and he knows that this is not a confession to be tossed aside lightly. It should not be underestimated in the slightest.
He has hesitated a moment too long and he hates the expression of nervousness crossing Holmes’ features, so Watson does the only thing he can think of to do, and gives Holmes his answer with another kiss.
It is deeper this time, less gentle, and with a twist in his stomach Watson realises that there really is no going back now, that this is really happening now and nothing can stop it. Well, nothing short of the house falling down – which is less of a ridiculous idea than it initially seems, given the numerous injustices Baker Street has suffered over the years; it is quite frankly astounding that it is still standing – and for a moment he almost cannot believe that he is still awake and that this is not a desperate fantasy born of too many hours of loneliness and longing.
“Now you’re the one whose thoughts are distracting him,” Holmes murmurs, though his voice is amused, not accusatory, pressing a warm kiss to Watson’s lower lip. “All kinds of people manage this sort of thing without any difficulties at all, surely we can’t both be too intellectual to accomplish it?”
Watson hears himself laugh. “No, dear boy, that’s exactly what we are, far too intellectual to manage what everyone else in the world does without a second thought.” He captures Holmes’ mouth again, threading fingers into the dark wild expanse of his hair, teeth nipping at Holmes’ lower lip in a way that makes the other man moan. “I blame you for this, of course,” Watson whispers when they part for breath.
Holmes’ smirk is beatific. “Of course.”
“I’m sure I used to be far better at this before I met you,” Watson continues conversationally, spreading a string of kisses from Holmes’ lips across his jaw, fingers still tight in Holmes’ hair. “Before you none of this required any sort of analysis at all.”
“I’m sure it didn’t,” Holmes agrees, hands busying themselves with the buttons of Watson’s shirt, fingers leaving warm trails against his bare skin. “I’m sure it was all quite instinctive.”
“Oh, it was,” Watson agrees, using his grip on Holmes’ hair to tip his head back a little, leaning to nip at Holmes’ throat in a way that makes the other man shiver, hands slipping from Watson’s shirt. “Never had to give it a second thought,” he adds, mouth against Holmes’ neck. He can feel the other man’s pulse racing against his lips, and his mouth spreads into a grin that he knows Holmes can feel.
“Clearly we shall have to try harder,” Holmes replies, a gratifying hitch in his voice, hands returning to the buttons of Watson’s shirt.
“Try harder not to think?” Watson asks quietly, hearing laughter shiver in his voice.
“So it would seem,” Holmes replies, easing the final button free of its hole and pushing the entirety of Watson’s shirt back over his shoulders. “It may be quite a challenge, but I believe us equal to it.”
Watson shrugs, helping Holmes pull his shirt free from his arms, over his wrists, before returning his hand to Holmes’ hair and dragging their mouths back together again. It is messier now, all tongues and teeth and harsh gasps of breath; Watson sits up in the chair, forcing Holmes up onto his knees to follow him, skidding his free hand down Holmes’ chest to pull his shirt free of his trousers. His hand slides under it, spreading against the warmth of Holmes’ ribcage, and Holmes hisses.
“Is this helping?” Watson asks against Holmes’ mouth.
“I believe it is,” Holmes responds, whose own hands are clenched on Watson’s bare shoulders as though someone might drag them apart at any moment, hard enough that there will probably be bruises tomorrow. “I’m sure if we work at it-”
Watson seals their mouths together, crushing the words completely, sliding his hands up Holmes’ chest and pushing. It takes no effort at all; Holmes puts up no resistance at all and a moment later finds Watson knelt over Holmes, who looks up at him with a wicked grin.
“I do love it when you take the initiative, Watson,” he says, all white teeth and amusement, and Watson’s knee will not be thanking him in the morning and right now he does not care in the slightest. Holmes’ hair is dark against the hearth rug and dying firelight flickers across his features.
“Shut up,” Watson says, and swallows Holmes’ laughter whole.
Holmes’ hands slide down his spine, fingers playing across his skin as though across the neck of a violin; Watson wonders just what Holmes thinks he playing, or if this is the equivalent of tuneless string plucking, and he does not care which it is. Holmes’ thigh insinuates itself between his knees, pressing itself upwards until Watson gasps helplessly into Holmes’ mouth, grinding against his thigh, helpless to stop himself. Holmes’ hands spread flat against his back, exploring scars and muscle and probably reading a hundred stories Watson never meant to tell or does not even remember.
“So tell me what this means, then,” he murmurs, forcing himself to sit back a little, shifting against Holmes’ hips in a way that makes the other man squirm. “Tell me what you’re learning about me.” As he speaks, he works on the buttons of the shirt Holmes is wearing – another one of Watson’s, if he is any judge, though his clothing rarely remains his long enough for him to recognise it again when he sees Holmes wearing it; for all he knows, Holmes has no clothing of his own whatsoever – exposing skin that is tinged golden in the firelight. “You cannot make your mind stop making connections so I imagine you have deduced a dozen new things about me; I may as well hear them.”
“Watson,” Holmes says, sounding a little exasperated, “do you not recall the first time we met? When you asked me to tell you the truth about you and you did not like it at all?”
“That wasn’t the first time we met,” Watson replies, undoing the last button. Holmes sits up a little to help him remove it, and Watson is gratified by almost entirely healed bruises on Holmes’ forearms, bringing the right one to his mouth to press kisses along Holmes’ wrist.
“Well, no,” Holmes agrees, eyes closing. “If you want to be accurate about it, the first time we met was when you saw me box at the Punchbowl and your eyes nearly fell out of your head. Of course, you were rather drunk at the time-”
“You remember that?” Watson asks, mouth at Holmes’ elbow.
“You remember that?” Holmes looks a little surprised, but recovers quickly. “In any case, this is neither the place nor the time, so I shall simply say that I have learned I am going to have to hide all of your shirts so that you are forced to stay like this all the time, and secondly, that if you do not remove more of your clothing rather soon I will not be responsible for my actions.”
Watson smirks but does not reply, mouth tracing a line along Holmes’ collarbone. Holmes is all sinewy muscle, a little thinner than he should be because he insists on not taking care of himself, but Watson is not thinking about that right now. Now, all he think about is the scent of Holmes’ skin, the knee shifting tantalisingly between his thighs, the noise Holmes makes low in his throat when he bites down and then smoothes over the pain with his tongue. He continues a slow, exploratory path downwards, thinking of the dozens of times he has watched Holmes half-stripped and sweating in the boxing ring and has wanted to do this, wanted to map every inch of his chest and claim it for himself. He takes Holmes’ left nipple in his mouth, sucking it and then lightly scraping his teeth against the skin, and Holmes sucks in a sharp breath, letting out a mangled mixture of Watson and God. His fingers skim the back of Watson’s hair, distracted, but Watson does not stop, sucking harder until Holmes starts shifting beneath him, desperate arousal pressed against Watson’s stomach.
“Please,” Holmes hisses, breathless, but all Watson does is move his attention to Holmes’ other nipple, laving it with his tongue and enjoying the way Holmes’ back arches with want. His own erection is almost painful, trapped inside his trousers, but he would not rush this for the world. “Watson, you are the most ridiculous tease that ever walked this earth-”
Watson bites down and finds that there is, gratifyingly, a way to shut Sherlock Holmes up. Of course, it might be rather awkward doing this in public, but at least he has found a solution. Holmes whimpers and Watson almost takes pity on him, mouthing his way down Holmes’ chest, fingers skimming along his ribcage, pressing wet kisses down his quivering stomach and then pausing, looking up at Holmes with a grin. Holmes’ pupils are dilated with arousal for once, mouth red and shining in the poor light, dark hair sticking up from his head in a messy tangle from Watson’s fingers. He looks debauched and beautiful and Watson cannot undo the fly of Holmes’ trousers fast enough, freeing the hot, thick length of his erection and a wrapping a hand around it. Holmes’ eyes slip closed, head tipping back, and Watson looks at the long column of his throat, marked red in places from Watson’s own teeth and he shifts, sitting up to kiss Holmes’ mouth again as he pulls at his cock with long, even strokes, swiping his thumb over the head and feeling pre-come slick against his skin. Holmes moans helplessly, the vibrations against Watson’s teeth, and his own erection jumps in his trousers.
“Watson,” Holmes breathes, his own hand scrabbling insistently at the fastenings of Watson’s trousers, and Watson knows then that he will never again be able to hear Holmes say his name without hearing this, without hearing it shiver brokenly off Holmes’ tongue in this moment by the dying fire. Holmes manages to undo the buttons, hand slipping inside and Watson lets out a groan as Holmes grips his cock, fingers curling around it. They match each other’s rhythm for an endless minute, foreheads pressed together and breathing each other’s air. “Watson,” Holmes murmurs again, a thousand wants slipping out along with his name.
“Tell me what you want,” Watson replies, “I can’t- I can’t deduce it right now.” He can barely think right now, Holmes tugging insistently at his cock, precome smudging with his fingertips.
Holmes reaches with his free hand into the pocket of his trousers, drawing out a round, flat tin, warm from being so close to his skin, and gives it to Watson. Watson looks at the tin and then at Holmes and something like incredulity rushes through him.
“You planned this,” he says accusingly, accompanying the words with a long drag of his hand that has Holmes moaning. “You bloody well planned this.”
“I did not,” Holmes replies, looking indignant. “I hoped. I prepared. I did not plan because you, John Watson, are ridiculously hard to predict.”
“You started this evening with the intent to seduce me,” Watson says, amusement colouring his voice.
“And it worked rather well, I might add,” Holmes points out. “Now, really, Watson, must you torment me much longer?”
“You deserve to be tormented for much longer,” Watson mutters, but he does not mean it and they both know it. He sits back, laying the tin carefully at the edge of the rug, and moves to divest both himself and Holmes of their remaining clothing, leaving it all in an untidy heap. It is almost overwhelming, the two of them stripped naked together, and although it is a sight Watson has seen before, helping Holmes when he was drunk or injured or some unholy combination of the two, never before was it ever laid out for his own benefit.
“Watson...” Holmes’ voice is urgent, desperate.
“Just admiring the view,” Watson responds, stroking a finger over Holmes’ hipbone and smiling at the shiver this provokes. “You can’t blame me.”
“There will be plenty of opportunities for sightseeing,” Holmes all but snaps.
Watson laughs, reaching for the tin. “You’re very demanding,” he remarks, “I have no idea why I’m surprised.” He opens it, coating his fingers with the slick salve he finds inside. He has a suspicion that Holmes stole this from his medical bag, but decides he will worry about this sometime in the future. “I like the sound of the future sightseeing opportunities,” he adds, and pushes Holmes’ legs apart.
Holmes gasps when Watson slides the first finger inside him, pressing slowly but steadily deeper. He crooks it, looking for the spot inside Holmes that should make him- Holmes’ hips buck, a groan escaping between his teeth, and Watson grins in triumph and sweeps his fingertip over it again.
“Watson, please,” Holmes breathes, ragged, and Watson slides his finger out only to push two in, scissoring them carefully apart. His own need is becoming rather insistent now and he has to remind himself that it will not feel good in the morning if he has hurt Holmes by rushing this and also he will have to be the doctor who patches Holmes up. Holmes gets hurt often enough without Watson helping him. He risks a third finger and Holmes squirms, control apparently in shreds.
Watson pulls his fingers free and hastily smothers his own cock in lubricant, aware of Holmes’ hungry gaze on him. All thoughts of what his knees and thighs will feel like later flee his mind as he pushes Holmes’ legs further apart and Holmes obediently bends them up towards his chest, spreading himself open and vulnerable for Watson. The thought sends large sections of his mind utterly blank, and Watson kneels over Holmes, carefully guiding himself inside him. He takes it too slow for both of them, slipping inch by inch inside as Holmes’ breathing cracks and shatters and Watson’s hands are pressed flat to the floor on either side of Holmes’ head. He is shaking so hard with arousal that he can barely hold himself upright and Holmes is so hot and tight around him that it steals every breath Watson has within him.
Sherlock Holmes with all his dazzling intellect and habit of keeping everyone at arms’ length is spread out beneath him, eyes wide and glassy, and the realisation almost makes Watson come on the spot. He grits his teeth, taking a breath, stilling within him. Holmes’ unfocused gaze finally comes to rest on him, and his eyes narrow.
“Watson, if you do not move right now, I swear to God I shall get my nose broken next time I go to the Punchbowl, and then I shall find a way to contract pneumonia. And you shall have to be my attending physician, and-”
Words seem to fail him as Watson draws slowly out and slams back in.
“I shall refer you to any or all of the doctors at my club,” Watson gasps breathlessly, “and most of them do not have nearly so charming a bedside manner as I do. None of them will have any patience for your nonsense whatsoever.”
Holmes looks as affronted as he can with his legs wrapping around Watson’s hips and his breath rushing out of him in desperate pants. “You have no patience for my nonsense.”
Watson slams back in, altering his angle slightly and knowing that he catches Holmes’ prostate from the sharp fuck, Watson that spills almost unconsciously from Holmes’ mouth.
“I have far too much patience for your nonsense,” he responds, “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Holmes curls a hand over the back of Watson’s neck and pulls him down into a brutal kiss. When they part, he gasps: “this is not nonsense, Watson.”
“No,” Watson agrees, breathless, “no it is not.”
It is messy and far too fast; Watson slamming hard into Holmes and Holmes shifting his hips to meet his every thrust, nails scraping Watson’s shoulders and there is no sound in the room but their desperate, jagged breathing. It cannot last long and it does not; Holmes wraps a hand around his cock and tugs it awkwardly between them, loose expletives and gasps of Watson’s name spilling from his mouth, and it is not long before he clenches around Watson, spilling hotly between them. Watson thrusts a few more times before he also feels himself coming, an airless exclamation of Holmes falling from his lips as his orgasm rushes through him.
He comes back to himself to find Holmes laughing into his shoulder. “Dear boy, you’re crushing me.”
“That’s gratitude for you,” Watson mutters without malice. He shifts, his cock slipping free of Holmes, who hisses softly. He collapses beside Holmes, too warm and tired to move any further. Holmes smiles at him, face almost entirely hidden in shadow, eyes sparkling. He leans in and bestows a soft kiss on Watson’s lips, curiously chaste given the circumstances, and for once between them, there are no words at all that need to be said. Watson smiles into the darkness, and his eyes drift closed.
When Watson awakes, he cannot work out where he is for a long, confused second. He is not in his own bed, that is certain, and he appears to be lying on the floor because all of his muscles are screaming at him. The room is mostly dark, but the sunlight that illuminates the ceiling reveals burns and bullet holes and stains, and in that moment Watson knows exactly where he is. Looking sideways, he can see Holmes is fast asleep, body a warm presence beside him, face entirely calm for once. They are both lying underneath what appears to be Holmes’ dressing gown; Watson is not entirely sure when this happened, but he is grateful nonetheless. For a while Watson merely lies and watches Holmes sleep, and it makes the ache spreading through him utterly worth it.
Eventually, careful not to wake Holmes, he slides out from underneath the dressing gown and gathers together his rumpled clothes, slipping back into his shirt and trousers. He needs a bath – his stomach and chest are splashed with Holmes’ come – but right now he is more concerned that Mrs Hudson is possibly going to want to come in here sometime soon and while they are in no way presentable at least one of them can be clothed in this situation. He walks over to step behind the curtains and look out on Baker Street, bathed in winter sunlight and more beautiful than Watson has ever seen it.
A soft tapping at the door makes him step back into the gloom of the room, and he hurries across to open it. Mrs Hudson looks surprised and Watson decides he does not want to think about what he looks like right now.
“Are you all right, doctor?” Mrs Hudson asks.
“Fine,” Watson replies quickly, “thank you.” He is holding the door barely ajar, careful to hide the room from view. Mrs Hudson frowns. “He’s in one of his moods,” Watson adds quickly; it has worked surprisingly well as an excuse in the past.
Mrs Hudson’s face is immediately filled with understanding, though her eyes remain shrewd; Watson honestly cannot tell if he is fooling her or not. “Shall I bring some breakfast?” she asks.
Watson suddenly realises that he is absolutely starving. “That would be lovely,” he says, “thank you.”
He closes the door behind her and turns around to find that Holmes is still asleep, a little heap beneath his dressing gown. Watson smiles and goes to open the curtains. He fills the room with light, smiling as it makes Holmes twitch and instinctively try to hide further beneath the makeshift blanket. Finally, Holmes uncurls himself, sitting upright, dressing gown pooling around his waist, hair a messy shock.
“Good morning,” Watson says, “you look gorgeous. Mrs Hudson is bringing us breakfast; you should get up.”
Holmes looks thoughtful. “You could tell her I am indisposed and I could stay here,” he responds.
“I already told her you were indisposed,” Watson replies. “I needed an excuse for my appearance.”
Holmes scrutinises him for a moment. “You do look rather ravished,” he says after a moment. “I’d be quite jealous, but for the obvious.”
Watson smirks and walks across to him; Holmes stands up, the dressing gown falling off completely, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world to wrap his hands around Holmes’ waist and draw him into a kiss. There is something about this, about Holmes stark naked and Watson fully clothed, that uncurls a ribbon of hunger in Watson’s stomach, and he forcibly pulls away.
“Mrs Hudson is bringing us breakfast,” he says, as much to remind himself as Holmes. “She cannot walk in on this.”
“She will, sooner or later,” Holmes responds pragmatically. “We might as well get it out of the way.”
“No,” Watson insists, letting go of Holmes reluctantly and taking a step back. “You should put some clothes on,” he adds.
“A man is free to do as he likes in his own home,” Holmes tells him cheerfully, though a knock at the door has him grabbing the dressing gown and slipping it on. Watson walks over to answer the door, and to receive the tray from a smiling but faintly concerned-looking Mrs Hudson. After he kicks the door closed behind him, he turns to find Holmes has removed the dressing gown again and he is standing with his back to Watson, apparently intently fascinated in the mantelpiece.
Watson almost drops the tray. He had not thought of the consequences of fucking Holmes on the hearth rug, but he evidence is there this morning; reddened swathes of carpet burn decorate Holmes’ back and buttocks, long brilliant marks making what happened last night appear only too evident.
“Don’t they hurt?” he asks. “My God, Holmes-”
“I rather like it,” Holmes replies, shifting his shoulders and turning around. “New experience and all that. Of course, I will have no objections at all if you’d like to kiss them better later, but right now I’d really like a cup of tea.”
Watson carefully carries the tray over, weaving his way through the books and papers on the floor. He makes to put it on a table, but Holmes shakes his head, indicating the much-abused hearth rug. “Put it here.”
Watson frowns. “What?”
Holmes sits down, still naked, and grins up at him. “I rather feel like a picnic. Don’t you?”
“This is ridiculous,” Watson says.
“So you have no objections to doing all kinds of unspeakable and illegal things to me on this rug but you won’t eat your breakfast?” Holmes asks, looking amused. “Your priorities are really most intriguing, Doctor Watson.”
He can never deny Holmes anything; Watson obediently carries the tray over, laying it beside Holmes before sitting down. Holmes gives him a significant look.
“I am not having a naked picnic with you in our living room,” he hisses.
Holmes shrugs, reaching for the teapot. “Suit yourself.”
Ten minutes later, of course, Watson is wearing nothing but his cravat and allowing Holmes to feed him grapes, but he supposes that it was inevitable.
“We are going to have to set this rug on fire,” he remarks. Holmes looks amused.
The rug has gathered several different kinds of unseemly stains, from tea to semen, and Watson does not think Mrs Hudson will appreciate this. Watson points this out. “We will have to pretend one of your experiments got out of hand.”
“I never thought I’d see the day you were encouraging me to ignite our rooms,” Holmes remarks, smiling, “you really are full of surprises, Watson.”
So it would seem, Watson thinks, but all he does is smile back and accept another grape.
A week later finds them down at the docks; a case of a missing husband that Holmes has got himself cheerfully caught up in and Watson has been dragged along for the ride, as ever. He has patients waiting for him and no matter how many times he says this, Holmes blithely ignores him and continues an epic monologue that began with what an imbecile Lestrade is, passed briefly through the terribly telling traits of bloodstains, dallied for a moment on Watson’s sexual prowess – phrased in vague and insinuating terms as they are in public, after all – until Watson threatened to go home, and is now focusing mainly on what you can tell from a footprint in mud.
“I really do have a lot of patients this afternoon, Holmes,” Watson points out without much hope, as Holmes fiddles with his lockpicks, trying to break into an apparently empty warehouse that may or may not hold a clue. He really is hopeless with lockpicks, Watson reflects, and eventually takes pity on him, kicking the door down. Holmes grins, and Watson realises that was what Holmes wanted all along. He is still shamelessly manipulative, after all.
“I might be injured if you left,” Holmes says. “I might lie in the dark for hours with no one at all to help me.”
“You’re not very good at emotional blackmail,” Watson tells him. Holmes merely holds the door open for him, looking expectant. “You are ridiculous,” Watson adds. “I hate you. And I hope you die in there in a horrible fashion.”
Holmes blows him a kiss, eyes full of laughter as he walks inside. “That’s the spirit.”