oh you guys. i have been embroiled in such an abusive relationship with this story. the really long ones tend to do that to me; a month into the writing of it, i forget why i wanted to write it in the first place. i hammered it into mostly the right shape, i think. it's difficult to say.
anyway, it's holmes/watson, 37693 words, rated NC-17. i wash my hands of it now.
first second third fourth
Mistakes of Our Youth
By Candle Beck
On Tuesday, Watson comes for his post.
Holmes has it waiting for him, a tidy impersonal stack on the small table near the front door. There are fingerprints on the envelopes, but they are at least unopened. Watson tucks the post inside his coat, and looks up the stairs, hesitating with his hand on the doorknob.
He shouldn't. He swore he wouldn't, in point of fact, and Watson is usually quite faithful to the vows he makes of himself, but perhaps this was too much to ask. It has been six days since he last saw Holmes, and that is a new record.
Heavy-legged, he climbs the stairs to their rooms, a strange airy fog filling his head as if he were thousands of feet higher than he is. The bullet wound in his shoulder, half-healed now, throbs incessantly. There is a strong sense of foreboding in Watson's chest, but he has grown adept at ignoring that.
Holmes is in the sitting room. He's smoking his pipe by the window, and he doesn't look over when Watson enters. Standing silently at the door, Watson takes a moment to study his old friend, and finds Holmes somewhat thinner and darker around the eyes, but in no way the wreck of a man he might have expected.
Watson is somewhat affronted by this, and he knows that's the wrong thing to feel.
"Good afternoon, Holmes," Watson says, soft-voiced.
"Good afternoon, Doctor," Holmes answers without a flinch. He glances at Watson, and then back to the window. "You've found your post, I presume."
"I have, thank you."
Silence falls like a stone. Holmes smokes with mindless grace, his body bent in the chair with a spill of cold English sunlight pouring over him. Three of his fingers are still splinted, held at stiff crooked angles. Watson realises that he is staring, and pulls his gaze down to the floor.
"I. I hope you are well," Watson says to his shoes. His face is flushed, his stomach knotting. It is guilt, he's sure of it. It's just the worst strain of guilt that God has ever unleashed on man.
"A kind hope, and I thank you."
Watson's spine stiffens. He wants Holmes to look at him. It's difficult to plead for forgiveness when Holmes won't even look at him.
At that thought, Watson's head wrenches to the side, shaking it off briskly because that's not what he's doing--it's not. Watson is only here to get his post.
"I will write the post with my new address, and won't need to trouble you again," Watson hears himself saying. Things seem to echo, but that's likely just the weight of the moment.
Holmes tips his chin, affixes that regal look to his face. His eyes stay trained on the street below, but something about the set of his mouth lets Watson know that Holmes's mind is moving through far greater realities.
"Do as you must," Holmes says, fatally distracted. "Good day, Doctor Watson."
Watson's throat clicks as he swallows, staring at Holmes with a sinking feeling in his stomach, that godawful drag that does nothing but ache for his friend. His conscience issues an immediate order--leave--but Watson is able to linger a moment or two longer, eyes running over Holmes with pitiful hunger, storing away pieces of him for later lucubration. The doctor steps backwards out of the room, one hand pressed to the pad of letters in his coat, feeble protection should he be shot in the heart. In this state of mind, all kinds of catastrophe seem concretely possible.
Walking back down the stairs is a trial on the scale of peine forte et dure, all the breath crushed out of Watson's chest and his ribs splintering. He forces his mind to stay on the facts, the visible evidence. His lungs are filling, his eyes are open. His pulse is thundering in his veins because he is alive; he is surviving, no matter if it feels entirely otherwise.
Watson reminds himself violently, it is over. He reminds himself, it has to be over.
The hotel is depressing on first sight, and worse the longer he looks at it. Shutters hang crooked like blackened teeth over the windows. The floorboards whine at every step, as if below his feet there is a platoon of starving orphans crying up through the cracks.
Watson keeps his hat pulled down low over his eyes, ignoring the torporific lumps of the drunks in the gutter, and makes it up to his room, where he bolts the door against the wicked world. He tosses the post on the table and wrangles out of his coat and shirt, at last relieved of the burden of decency. He performs a perfunctory check on the bandages wrapped around his shoulder, the bullet wound like a small grasping mouth--it's healing as well as can be expected. His mind turns down dark corners as he puts his shirt back on and pours himself a dram of cheap gin, lights a cigarette.
It's been six days since he left Baker Street. Six days alone in the faceless reaches of the city, six nights clammed up in this dreary hotel room in the Strand, watching the hooked ale-coloured moon move across the sky. Sleep has become just another absent friend alongside Holmes and sobriety and reason. Watson is acquiring quite the collection.
Holmes, and the man's aspect surfaces in Watson's mind like a white napkin in cloudy water. The imperial angle of Holmes's head, his chipped-marble wrist bent just so, rough shadow on his cheek and restless circles bruising his eyes, and Watson wishes he had never gone up those seventeen steps. He should have taken his post and left in that same instant. He should have known it would affect him adversely; he did know. He did not care.
Watson sets his glass down on the sideboard and takes his head in his hand, rubbing hard at his temple. It has not been an easy week. Everything is discordant and wrong in the Strand, the shops not what he expects to see when he leaves the house, the sky tainted a vaguely improper shade of blue. Watson has been short of temper, snapping at flower girls on the street, swiping curs away with the brass tip of his cane catching the sunlight. He cannot work and he cannot summon enthusiasm for any but the simplest of interactions with the outside world, and he cannot stop thinking about Sherlock Holmes.
"It will pass," Watson tells himself, in the low tone that is reserved almost exclusively for prayers.
Watson came in wet from the rain, and Holmes was instantly stricken by distraction, and he thought, this must not stand.
He glared at the doctor. Watson was slapping his hat against his knee to rid it of the worst of the wet, complaining about the primordial condition of the streets. His face shone, scrubbed clean, and his hands stood out like pale scraps of lace.
"It's hardly civilised out there," Watson finished, hanging up his sodden coat and turning with military crispness.
Holmes's bad mood deepened, eyes set hard on the slick line of Watson's jaw, the jagged uneven plain of his hair once he'd run a hand absently through it. Slow-gathering heat in Holmes's stomach, and he viciously shoved it aside.
"Do you mind?" Holmes asked, letting acid burn away at the edge of his voice. "I was most profitably engaged before you came tromping in and disrupted me."
Watson rolled his eyes, and stripped out of his jacket. "One of those days, is it?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean." Holmes scowled at the newspaper he was holding before him, pitifully akin to a shield. He hated it when Watson acted like Holmes was the transparent one.
Wearing a smirk that made him look all of thirteen years old, Watson sat down in his usual chair, thumbing through the short stack of post that Mrs Hudson had left on the table. Holmes watched him secretly, in feints and flickers and glances, marking the clever play of his fingers over the envelopes, the casual look of contentment that infected Watson whenever the two of them were both in the same room and not bleeding.
Holmes's skin tightened, and he clenched his teeth, stared sightlessly down at his newspaper. This deep wrenching feeling, this somehow overpowering weakness that required only the proximity his dearest friend--he couldn't stand it. He wouldn't.
Watson finished perusing the post, and settled back in the chair, unfolding his legs to stretch across the carpet. Holmes bit his tongue. His head was full of curses.
"Will you join me for dinner tonight?" Watson asked him, and Holmes immediately said, "No," and then rose to his feet and left the room.
It was cold, perhaps even cruel. Watson made a cut-off sound that seemed more angry than hurt, and that was probably for the best. Holmes retreated to his bedroom, closed and locked the door behind him.
This was insufferable. It would not leave him be. Everywhere he turned these days, there was the doctor, stalwart and golden and smirking, the scent of his cigarettes lingering in the room after he'd left it. Holmes was haunted, beset with spirits. The vast recesses of his mind were crowded with ephemera, pointless trivia. Watson kept a single blue handkerchief among his white ones--a remembrance of his mother. Watson always took a sip of tea before having a sandwich. Watson's leg pained him more in the mornings, and on Sundays. Watson read the newspaper and whistled unconsciously at startling reports; the tone was a bell-clear middle C.
It was all too much. Holmes let his forehead come to rest on the wood of the door, and began to formulate a plan.
It had come upon Holmes two months ago. Two months and three days, if one was in the mood for specificity, and they had been in Whitehall, wasting breath explicating the basics of criminal investigation to Scotland Yard's finest. It was a night of absolutely no consequence at all.
Watson had been in particularly fine form, underscoring Holmes's blatant contempt with a more subtle, genial version of his own. They were both bloodied, battered in minor ways, and Watson held a handkerchief to the gash over his eyebrow, his eyes sparkling beneath the shadow of his hand. Holmes's gaze kept snagging on his friend, and it was frustrating: there was nothing to learn there, just Watson like every other night in recent history, so why should his attention be so diverted?
Every time Holmes looked at Watson, he found Watson looking back, and he wondered if perhaps the doctor knew something he didn't. It seemed exceedingly unlikely.
On the street, in the stygian gloom between the wicking gaslights, Watson's leg had given out. He sagged abruptly into Holmes, and Holmes propped him up on instinct, his hands finding sure holds on Watson's shoulder and hip.
"Ah," Watson said, and his chin brushed Holmes's cheek. "Beg pardon, dear fellow. Seem to have misjudged my limits just a tad."
Holmes made a disgruntled sound, feeling odd and out of sorts as he slung Watson's arm over his shoulders and took his weight. Watson was heavy, long-limbed and too warm, impossibly awkward. He smelled like cigarettes and blood and sweat, simple everyday smells. Holmes's head was spinning, and he ordered it to quit, distantly baffled.
He had carried Watson in that way to the brighter streets, and found them a cab. Watson slumped in the seat, his bad knee a hard knot against Holmes's own, and smiled at him, sweet and soporific.
"Thank you," Watson said. "I'll be fit again tomorrow, never fear."
"Yes, of course," was what Holmes meant to say, but his voice wasn't working. He was staring at the collapsed line of Watson's body, the bruises rising on his face, the place where their legs were pressed together. Holmes felt drunk, suddenly delirious as if he hadn't slept in days.
"All right, old boy?" Watson asked, and leaned forward, tapping at Holmes's knee.
Holmes went still and mindless for exactly two seconds, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, his throat as dry as sand. There was a feeling like a cabinet of delftware crashing in his chest, the radiating sprawl of a million shattering pieces. It had been unmistakable.
Holmes had closed his hand into a fist and told his friend with a lovely false smile, "As right as rain, my dear Watson."
But of course that had been a lie. Two months had passed, and it was still a lie. Something had happened to Holmes's vision that night, and now he could only see Watson in the lowest of ways, stripped and panting, mouth open, skin flushed. The idea was pervasive, every night and every morning when Holmes first woke up, every time he closed his eyes there was Watson, craning back and opening his blue eyes wide.
Frankly, it was horrifying. It had derailed Holmes's whole life.
But he was working towards a solution now, and that was always a copacetic place to find himself. Holmes set to it like any other case, first and foremost laying out the facts, because without facts you were no more than an animal.
As it stood: Holmes wanted to take the doctor to bed with unnerving fervour. Intricate observation led him to believe that Watson would not be entirely against such an eventuality, and further, that getting him to admit same would be the true challenge of the day. Watson had always cleaved rather closely to the ideal of a Victorian gentleman, at least in his own mind--it was a bad habit, but Holmes was fairly sure he could break him of it.
Holmes had fought this thing and that did not work. His best efforts had shattered apart like waves on the rocks; for a lesser man it would have been disheartening. Luckily, Holmes was the sort to thrive under adversity. He had come to the conclusion that the only way out was through.
Liquor, he decided at last, watching helplessly as Watson leaned in the block of sunlight falling through the window and smoked a cigarette, bare-headed with his sleeves rolled up and his hip cocked just the slightest bit. It physically hurt to look at him, but that was no matter; Holmes had always had an exceptionally high tolerance for pain.
First and foremost, Holmes thought giddily. A great deal of liquor.
Somewhat shockingly, this addle-brained plan actually worked.
There wasn't much plan to it, Holmes was forced to concede. He had brought home a bottle of Dunmill Scotch whiskey, the same moss-green label that had borne silent witness to so much of young John Watson's family life, and announced to the doctor without preamble:
"You're getting drunk tonight."
Watson lowered his newspaper, lifted an eyebrow. "Am I?"
"Naturally, naturally." Holmes was busy at the sideboard, hands flashing with glass and ice. "You would not suffer me to drink alone, I'm sure."
"I suppose I would not," Watson answered, accepting a glass from Holmes and inspecting it against the light like a found jewel. "My father's brand."
"Is it?" Holmes kept his face angled down, his tone clean of mischief. "Quelle coincidence."
Watson would be giving him a look of faint exasperation, Holmes knew. Watson would be weighing his options, sipping at the whiskey, remembering the smell of his father as he was carried to bed. Holmes watered his own drink, came to sit in the chair opposite Watson's.
"To the queen," Holmes offered, his glass at a gentlemanly angle. Watson obligingly clinked his against it, murmuring in echo, "The queen."
And so they began. The night spooled out before them, the moon on the rise as a reversed mirror for the descending level of the whiskey.
It was a delicate operation, Holmes thought several hours later, his head a shifting morass of battling thoughts. Great care must be taken, the proper foundations laid, the path swept clear. It wasn't a small subject to broach, encompassing as it did various degrees of criminality and supposed moral decay--one couldn't simply jump the gate. There was a procedure to the thing, surely. There was some alchemic formula that he could derive, the secret to creating gold.
He looked over at Watson, who appeared to have melted into the settee. The doctor's waistcoat was tugged askew, his legs strewn before him. Watson gave him a crooked inebriated smile, and a gear slipped out of place in Holmes's mind, and he heard himself asking:
"What is your opinion of sodomy, my dear man?"
Watson laughed, an abrupt bark, and then he looked closer at Holmes, and laughed a great deal more. Holmes slumped back in his chair, curling his hand over his china and scowling. There was a superfluity of reactions he might have predicted from Watson, and open mockery was rather emphatically not on the list.
"Really, Watson. Your humour is no more developed than a third form schoolboy's," Holmes said, hitting the perfect pitch of toothless scorn.
Laughter tapering off, Watson inflicted a grin on Holmes, wide untidy grin that stirred a small riot in the detective's stomach.
"You should give a fellow some warning," Watson said.
"That doesn't sound nearly as efficient."
"Yes, because heaven forbid you make absurd comments with anything but the utmost economy."
Holmes busied his hands with his pipe and a pack of shag that crumbled like old leaves between his fingers. There was a seasick feeling yawing within him, a sense of things going swiftly and irrevocably wrong. Holmes would have liked to blame it on the drunk.
"It's not absurd," he said, and made himself look at Watson because it would mean something different if he didn't.
Watson still had the traces of laughter on his face, in the easy curve of his mouth, his eyes blurry and searching. He gave Holmes a long moment of his regard, and the detective remained still for the inspection, keeping his gaze level on his friend. There was something like a cyclone happening in Holmes's chest, but his face was straight and that was enough for now.
"You are in earnest," Watson said, and it sounded like he'd meant it to be a question. Holmes allowed his head the slightest affirmative incline, and Watson's eyes narrowed, his throat ducking under a hard swallow.
"If I may refine your question somewhat," Watson said slowly, with evident care. "Are we speaking generally or specifically?"
Eyebrows hiking, mouth smirking almost against his will, Holmes propped his elbow on the chair and his chin on his hand. He tapped his finger against his cheek thoughtfully, gave Watson a briefly hooded look.
"We are speaking of whichever you'd prefer to address," Holmes told him.
"Clever boy. Makes it rather neatly my fault should the conversation go awry, eh?"
"Most things are your fault anyway."
That had been said without thought (Watson had that entirely disturbing effect on him from time to time), and immediately Holmes wished he could draw it back. Watson's face opened, surprise clearing away the clouded suspicion, and he looked very drunk for a moment.
"Are you," Watson began, and then stopped. He blinked a few times, as if trying to bring Holmes into focus. "What are you asking me?"
Holmes fidgeted, scratched a hand through his hair. He couldn't seem to catch his breath.
"I am asking for your opinion on a common sin," Holmes said, only slightly choked. He closed his hand into a fist under his chin. "I am asking you specifically."
His eyes did not move from Watson's face. They were drunk because Watson knew no artifice when he was drunk, wore no masks and told no lies, and Holmes needed him like that at this moment. The detective needed to see it.
There was shock, certainly, in the desperately high set of Watson's eyebrows, the small voiceless shapes his mouth made, and paralysing tension locking the doctor in place, his hand gripping his knee tightly enough to leech the blood from his knuckles. There was something vast and dark shifting in his eyes, a flush rising on his neck.
Holmes bit the inside of his lip, and got to his feet. He just stood there for a moment, not eyeing Watson so much as the distance between them. It was surpassingly strange, Holmes thought amid a reddening fog, that five feet of space could mean so very much.
"Would you like a warning for what I am about to do?" Holmes asked, and he did not recognise his voice.
Watson's eyes widened, an instant of blue disbelief passing through his expression. He stared up at Holmes, and mutely shook his head.
A wire tripped inside of Holmes; a string snapped; a rush of heat almost blinded him. The five feet vanished and then he had one knee up on the settee and Watson's head held in his hands, thumbs tipping his face up. Watson's lips parted, conscious thought gone from his hazy lust-black gaze, and Holmes kissed him with vicious strength, deep and then deeper still. The doctor gave beneath him so kindly, his fingers tight on Holmes's hips, his tongue in Holmes's mouth, offering reckless things.
The only way out is through, Holmes remembered briefly before Watson's hands slid up into his shirt and he rather lost his train of thought. Holmes climbed on top of his friend, ungainly in his haste, his hands clattering on Watson's shoulders. Watson said his name, said it like a moan, and wrapped his arms around Holmes, pulled him down into his waiting body.
So, yes, as Watson bit a line of kisses up Holmes's throat and thumbed open the first button on his trousers, yes, Holmes would call this particular experiment a resounding success.
Three weeks after he leaves Baker Street, Watson is almost killed in Clapham.
He's at the cards again, and he plays beyond his limits, stripped piece by piece. His cufflinks are one of the first things to go, and his cuffs poke out of his pocket, thick white curls like the plumage of some exotic bird. The last time he saw his watch, it was being dragged away on its chain across the scarred table, showing nine minutes before two in the morning like a pair of beseeching arms lifted to the sky.
For reasons that are best left unexplored, Watson cannot stop placing bets. It's all numbers, chances flitting past like moths, beautiful redemption for a hand or two and then that strappado jerk back to the fugue state of defeat. The symbols on the cards smear together and lose their meaning until they're no better than the hieroglyphs of an extinct jungle empire. Watson is leagues underwater. When the call comes to him again, he offers his shoes to the pot.
They throw him out, at that point. It is raining, because it rains every day in London now, and Watson is soaked to the bone within three minutes. There is a certain abandon in being as wet as possible, a sudden freedom to stomp in puddles. Watson is drunk, of course.
It is a mile or two back to his hotel. Cabs jangle past, cruel taunts for a man who is merely thankful to be in possession of footwear. Cabs are no use anymore, anyway, Watson thinks. Twice, he's absently given his destination as Baker Street before choking in mortification and hastily correcting himself. Even when he gets it right, he spends the whole ride wanting to bang his cane on the roof and shout up to the driver that he's going in the wrong direction entirely. No, cabs are out for the foreseeable future. It is no great hardship.
A child runs out into the street.
She is wearing a plain white shift, and seems to glow through the pluvial murk. Watson's mind swirls with the fairy stories his grandmother used to tell him, the wings hidden in the shine of pure light. He staggers forward, his bad leg buckling.
The girl is crying piteously, hunched down over her knees in the churned mud of the city street with her arms folded around her head, and Watson moves towards her, spooked and bewildered and acting on instinct.
"Are you hurt, my girl," he says, not slurring too badly, and the girl peers out at him from the acute angle of her bent arm, leaking terrified eyes the colour of weak tea. There are bruises on her thin forearms, formed in rows that tell the story of a big man's wrenching grip.
Behind them, there is a shout, a near-roar, and Watson turns to see a big man storming out into the street, apoplectic with rage. One look is enough to convict him; the small child's pealing shriek is only weight on the scale. The doctor stands, almost misplaces his balance. He puts himself in the man's path until the gauzy veil of the rain is the only thing separating them, and Watson wishes he had his revolver on him.
"Stop where you are, sir," Watson says with the air of utterly justified authority that he learned from watching the world's only consulting detective.
It doesn't work as well for him. The man does not stop so much as he continues stalking forward, and then twists his hands in Watson's sodden coat and shoves him aside. Watson slews, sticking in the ordure and muck and nearly falling. The girl is screaming, "Go away, go away," kicking like a spastic as the man reaches for her.
"Shut yer mouth, get back inside," he snarls, seizing the girl by her abused forearms and hauling her up.
"Here now," Watson shouts, and brandishes his cane like a sabre. Foolhardy heroism swans through him. "Release the child and leave off this despicable display."
One huge hand pinched around the back of the girl's neck, the man turns on Watson, showing a black-toothed sneer. His features are prognathous, bottom-heavy in a way that causes his whole face to seem to sag.
"It's a family matter, and nothing to do with you," the man says. "You'd best stand aside."
Drunk on several different things, rain spilling down his face, Watson scoffs. "I'm meant to fear retribution from a man cowardly enough to practise his fists on an undefended child? I fear that there are certain holes in your logic."
It's a challenge; it's a dare. The man takes him up on it without hesitation, ploughing a fist into Watson's chin and snapping his head back. Watson comes back swinging, cracking his cane into the man's jaw and following with a few hard jabs to the ribs. It's going well for a moment, the man dazed and stumbling, the girl covering her face with both hands, crouched in her white shift like a pearl in the street.
Then the man, wholly by luck, lands a kick directly on the scar tissue mutilating Watson's bad leg, and the doctor cries out, falls to one knee. Agony wracks his body, the sick twist of nausea corrupting his stomach. The man weaves his hands together and swings like a batsman, serving Watson a devastating blow that sends him into the mud.
Then there is a boot on the back of his head, grinding his face down. Then Watson can't breathe. The rain falls like bones rattling, a curtain of darkling sound. The little girl is screaming in the background, and Watson wishes she would stop.
You are going to die like this, a small voice would like him to know. You are going to die right here in the rain, murdered by badly timed chivalry. No one is coming to save you. Your last breath with be of London mud, and when they bring your corpse to Baker Street, Holmes will know the street by the filth on your face, and perhaps someday he will come to stand quietly on this place, this place where you are going to die.
And then, blessedly, Watson loses consciousness, collapses full-scale into the black.
Hours later, he wakes up in gaol.
He's lying in a heap with several other unfortunates, the gin reek bright and silvery in his nose, his head abuzz with pain. Watson extracts himself from the drunk pile, gets shakily to his feet. The inebriates shift and resettle around his absence, snoring like a chorus of enraged bees.
The cell is cramped and almost lightless; the barred window high overhead lets in a grey haze courtesy of the milky sun. Watson recognises his surroundings, having come to pick up Holmes more than once. A memory flashes through his mind, Holmes against the wall and asleep, curled around his knees, and Watson kneeling beside him, touching his thumb to the detective's forehead and humming a reveille under his breath until Holmes came blinking awake.
Watson ruthlessly puts that aside. He limps up to the cell door (his cane has been no doubt lost forever), and shouts for a guard. The man appears, bored and horse-faced, tapping his billy club arhythmically on the iron bars.
"What's all this then?" the guard asks. "You've two hours still before you'll get any food."
Watson straightens, pulls his shoulders into a semblance of dignity. He is discoloured by the ugly foundations of the city, his clothes fit for the ashcan, but he affects a certain familiar imperiousness, making his eyes narrow and sharp.
"I would like to know the charges on which I'm being held, Constable."
"Found you drunk in the street, didn't we? Hardly a proper place for a gentleman, I'd say."
"I was not drunk," Watson protests, and that is somehow a lie and the truth at the same time. "I had been accosted, there, there--there was a little girl."
He stops, touching his head lightly. It's becoming fuzzy, the scum-tainted rain and the evil-minded man with his jaw as heavy as an anchor, his hateful piggish eyes. Watson remembers lying face down in the mud, certain that he was going to die.
"I assume I owe a bond," Watson says, changing tack.
"Aye, you do."
"If you would permit me to wire my bank-" and Watson stops. The dwindling funds in his account have been set aside to pay for another month in the hotel. This next month, Watson has decided, is when he will recover himself, return to work at St. Bart's, find someplace else to live. Recent events have seen him become dissolute and useless, it's true, but there has always been a deadline on it. He cannot post bond with that money.
A frozen hand closes around his heart, a wave of self-pity flooding through him like ichor as he considers his predicament. He feels more an orphan at this moment than he did holding the telegram that reported his father's death. He feels bereft, abandoned, quite permanently alone.
Watson swallows, wrapping his hands around the bars. The constable regards him impassively, arms crossed with the club dangling.
"Never mind," Watson says fast. "Not the bank, not--never mind that. I need to send a wire to Baker Street."
Just saying the name causes a trill in Watson's chest. The constable huffs out an irascible sigh, greatly put upon, and Watson hastens to assure, "I will of course make it worth your while."
That greases things considerably. The constable fetches a telegram pad and Watson draws a blank when asked to dictate, his mind stuttering and clogged with sand. He loses several seconds speculating on what Holmes might be doing at this moment, whether he will even come, and the constable brings him back with an impatient harrumph.
Watson rubs a hand over his face, and says, "Incarcerated in Clapham, stop. Innocent, stop. Come if you can, stop. J.W. Stop."
The constable leaves and Watson watches him go, rewriting the telegram in his mind over and over again, riddled with a nauseating doubt. He retreats to the back of the cell, crouching under the window with his hands clasped and washed in the weak coat of sunlight.
In the drunk pile there is a man afflicted with a fairly advanced case of jaundice, his snoring mouth showing teeth the colour of tar and moss, and Watson trains his mind to finding a diagnosis for him. He immerses himself in pathology and science, long words with Latinate definitions, and he doesn't calculate how long it might take for Holmes to receive and respond to the wire. Watson does what he can to avoid thinking about his friend at all, because every time he does, he grows more certain that Holmes is not coming.
It is seven hours later. Watson is sitting against a wall, knees folded in and his head on his arms. He's in a thick doze, not quite asleep, and when they call his name from the gate it becomes a part of the scene playing out behind his eyelids, and he does not stir. Subsequently, he takes a boot to the ribs, and winches his eyes open to find another aggravated constable glaring at him.
"Do you want to leave or don't you?" The constable stands, a hostile, his baton ticking against his leg with casual intimidation. Watson scrambles to his feet, holding his ribs with one hand and restlessly smoothing his hair with the other.
"The charges have been dropped?" Watson asks with an imbecilic note of hope.
The constable laughs. "Aye, and your mum's the queen. Come along, I don't have all day."
Watson follows him out of the prison with its walls that seem to be concentrated grime, and there at the sergeant's desk, leaning on his elbow and making snide comments about every copper who comes close enough, is Sherlock Holmes.
Watson doesn't understand it. He drifts up to his friend, and stands there for a moment as Holmes finishes a particularly involved bit of calumny. Watson's legs feel as heavy as soaked sand, his bones stiff and brittle. He worries that he might pitch forward onto the floor, but it's good to see Holmes again all the same.
The detective turns to him, a magisterial lift to his eyebrow. Watson gives him a little half-smile. Holmes looks tired, and manic, and older than when Watson saw him last. His eyes are nerve-wracking, faster than Watson can ever remember, flashing and riveting and sucking up information until the doctor feels depleted, slit open and drained dry.
"Holmes," Watson says, and the name feels strange in his mouth, slippery and elusive.
Holmes flinches, blinks wide and turns on his heel. He stalks out of the police station and Watson is left to hurry after him, limping heavily and hunching his shoulders like a true villain, a twisted king.
Out in the street, London hustles on with all the verve and heartlessness that several million people can muster. Holmes is standing on the kerb, his head bowed as he works to light his pipe in the stinging wind. The match flame winks, licks against his fingers. Watson comes to stand before him, shaky and dazed. Holmes glances at him and it feels like getting hit with a miniscule silver dart. Watson thinks with a vague sense of hysteria that Holmes has drawn first blood.
"You look quite well for a hardened criminal," Holmes says. The orange flame of his pipe breathes for him, his teeth showing as he exhales smoke.
"Yes," Watson responds, feeling stymied, caught on the neat curl of Holmes's hand around the bowl of the pipe, secret and encrypted like the inside of a conch shell.
"Well," Holmes said, and then nothing.
Watson stands dumbly, waiting for Holmes to finish his thought, because Holmes is not the type to fill silences with trite verbiage meant to dispel awkwardness rather that actually advance the cause of human development in any way. Watson has endured several lectures and one ink-blotted monograph on that very subject, as coincidence would have it.
But Holmes is quiet now, reduced to the ordinary doubt and clumsiness that so characterises the human condition. Watson shifts his weight, and hears himself saying with a strange lightish tone to his voice:
"I did not think that you would come."
The pipe pulls out of Holmes's mouth, smoke wreathing around his head, and he gives Watson a look that seems like surprise, but Watson doesn't feel he can trust anything his brain has to say just now.
"I apologise if my tardiness caused you any inconvenience," Holmes tells him, and he might be talking to a particularly offensive client.
Watson wants to shake him, slap him, something equally as melodramatic. You have slept in my bed, Watson wants to say, retreat back into the solid stone of facts, the crenels and battlements that Holmes has shown him how to construct. You have put your mouth on every inch of my body, and rolled onto your stomach for me, and held me gasping and overcome. I was present at those moments and you were as well. That world existed and so did we.
"It's of no matter," Watson says instead, because he has been very well-trained.
Holmes turns and lifts his arm to hail a cab, shouting, "Ho there," and then looks back at Watson and says, "I assume you can find your own way home."
An immediate rush of negation bolts through Watson. His mind, his heart, every measurable part of him all insist, do not let him go, like every good day he'll know for the rest of his life will vanish when Holmes does.
And then Watson remembers all over again, with the fatalistic kind of detachment that has become de riguer: Holmes is not the one who left.
"I don't deserve your generosity," Watson says quickly, as Holmes puts his hand on the cab door.
The detective sends another glance his way, and this once is almost reluctant, strained and unwilling. There are scabs over Holmes's knuckles, and a faint ring of yellowish green around one eye, the back end of a week-long healing process. Watson wants to hear the story, hear how the other fellow was dismantled and disarmed.
"You may pay me back at your convenience," Holmes says.
"Of course," Watson says softly.
Holmes fidgets, and Watson thinks again how unique it is to see Holmes disconcerted, dragged down to the same petty awkward level as the rest of the world.
"Well," Holmes says again, and as he hears himself an expression of absolute baffled fury clenches his jaw, fists his hands. Holmes hates this moment, Watson understands. He would prefer to be anywhere else at any other point in his life, and that sobers Watson, saddens him in an existential kind of way.
"I do thank you, Holmes," Watson says, intending it to stand for many things. "I don't--I could think of no one else who would come. I'm sure it was your inclination to avoid any chance of encountering me-"
An abrupt snort of laughter interrupts Watson and ruins the hard set of Holmes's mouth. He gives Watson a look of impatient disbelief; Holmes can't stand it when the doctor fails to grasp the obvious.
"I believe I can safely say that it has never been my inclination to avoid encountering you," Holmes tells him. "I thought I had been especially clear on that particular point."
Watson cuts his eyes away because it's difficult to keep looking at Holmes when Holmes is looking like that. Watson touches his dirty hair self-consciously, sparing a nostalgic thought for his hat, which has been lost somewhere in the course of this long night.
"I just mean--with the prison, and the bond . . ." Watson trails off. He doesn't know what he wants to say.
Holmes's eyes sharpen on him like a lion priming its claws. They are standing three feet apart in front of the Clapham precinct of the London Metropolitan Police, and Watson bears Holmes's close inspection, fighting this sense that the two of them are all that's left of the world.
"You have not been well," Holmes reports in a voice quiet enough to feel dangerous.
Watson shrugs, and folds his hands behind his back. "Surely that can be no more than you predicted."
"For myself, certainly," Holmes says. "I was not the one who wished to interfere with the status quo. You, however, most vehemently desired our present circumstances, which I find interesting in the light of the fact that I just got you out of gaol. Tell me, my dear doctor, are events unfolding as you expected?"
There is no answer to that, of course. Watson's mouth works like dying fish, and his fingers open and close at his sides, and he doesn't say anything. Holmes smirks, a shadow lurking under his chin, and turns himself once again to the business of flagging down a cab. Watson stands watching the detective. He soaks up what he can for the long dark weeks ahead, the specific concave shape of Holmes's nose and the hopeful curve of his eyebrows, the corvine sweep of his hair. In the back of Watson's mind there is a sneaking awareness, as black and inescapable as his knowledge that someday he will die: Holmes is in love with him still. Holmes wants him and hates him and loves him; that is how this business works.
Watson starts to say, "I'm sorry," but he stops himself because he has said that enough for ten lifetimes and anyway, Holmes has told him that he would risk a blow if he uttered the words one more time.
Instead, Watson tells his detective, "I am still your friend, Holmes," and it rings hollow. Holmes scoffs without turning around.
"Thank you for your friendship, Watson," Holmes says, managing to make it sound like the most vicious of curses. Watson winces, and turns away. "Allow me to bid you good night."
A cab has pulled up next to Holmes, its ursine driver scratching meditatively at the black bristle of his beard. Holmes reaches for the door and Watson experiences another visceral burst of refusal--do not let him go--and says fast without giving it proper thought:
"I do miss you, you know."
Holmes stops his climb into the cab, and some childlike part of Watson cheers in a most unseemly manner, although mostly he is suffused with mortification. They are standing on the sidewalk. There is a police station behind them. The potential for scandal crawls across his skin; he might as well have interwoven his fingers with Holmes's, or stroked his hand over the man's hair.
Holmes is stiff as he turns, his lip carved into a sneer. Watson experiences the repellant sensation of being regarded by Sherlock Holmes as an adversary, a foe to be outthought, outmanned, and annihilated.
"Then you are either a fool or a flagellant," Holmes tells him. "You may see me whenever you wish."
"May I?" Watson asks.
The sneer on Holmes's face warps, curdles and wrenches inward. Watson shivers from the cold lucidity of it, like microscopic slivers of ice slithering under his collar.
"I have told you," Holmes says with the frustrated patience of a slow child's mother. "I am best served when you are with me. You chose to disregard that, but the fact of the matter has not changed. It's somewhat insulting that you think it would, but I'll forgive it considering how many other fatal missteps you've made recently. It simply pales in comparison, you understand."
Watson looks down, his face heating. He is very aware of the police station at his back, the felonious nature of every look Holmes gives him. Written in Holmes's gaze is the day that they spent ensconced in Watson's narrow bed, his cramped garret room where the air was hot and rare, snickering because Holmes was so slick with sweat that the doctor could not keep a grip on his hips. They laughed at how Holmes's breath whistled and wheezed through his nose when he was tending to Watson with his mouth. Once while Watson was actually inside him, pressed to Holmes's back with his knees inside his friend's, Holmes started humming an especially lurid sea shanty featuring a comely young cook's boy, and they both got to giggling so badly Watson couldn't even stay hard, and he didn't care. Holmes limp and gasping with laughter was just as good.
Every moment of that day is in the detective's eyes, every time he looks at Watson. Holmes looks at him in precisely the same way. Watson has been on his own for almost a month now, and he's been experiencing it more strongly as of late.
"Perhaps I will, then," Watson says to the ordure and refuse of the gutter. "Call on you, I mean. If it would not be an imposition, of course."
Holmes just looks at him for a long moment, in the viscid fly-filled light of the tarnished streetlamps. He says, "No, Watson, it would not be an imposition. That is not what it would be."
And then he jerks his eyes away from the doctor, and with a snap in his voice he directs the driver to that well-known address, and all but scrambles into the cab. Watson barely has time to lift his hand before Holmes is rattling away, steam pouring out of the horse's bridled mouth and big muscles moving in his flanks.
At once, Watson feels deserted, a soldier left miles behind the lines. He pulls his jacket tighter and rounds his shoulders, unconsciously becoming smaller. The street shifts into dark and cold around him; the sun is going down again.
Watson resolves himself to at least make it home, and then he remembers that the word has no real meaning anymore.
Once they'd established the new world order, it took Watson all of two days before he had Holmes bent over the side of the settee.
Holmes's forehead was against the smooth leather, which was heated from his breath and felt almost like skin, at once sticky and slick. His shirt was half-open and shoved up under his arms, rough bits of cloth finding their way inside his mouth. All down the length of his bared back he could feel Watson's hands, restive and jerky with hunger, mapping the long muscles and the flex of Holmes's ribcage, dragging his thumb hard up the knobbed line of Holmes's spine.
Watson was good at this, Holmes noted, the thought gauzy and inconsequential. The doctor found a proper grip on Holmes's hip and shoulder, held him fast against the settee. He bent to mouth at the space between Holmes's shoulder blades and murmured, "Ready, old boy?"
Holmes nodded as best he could, frantic with his face squeaking on the leather. His mouth was open and panting, his hand clawing at the edge of the cushion, and his mind had distilled down to a single stream of awareness: Watson at his back, Watson easing into him and groaning, Watson sinking deeper and laying himself down on Holmes's back, surrounding him.
It was quick and hard and spectacular. Watson's body moved like it was built for this alone, each stroke impossibly deep, each one better than the last, and meanwhile his mouth was on the side of Holmes's throat, the rasp of his moustache and the heat of his tongue. Holmes began to cry out, overcome, and Watson slipped his fingers into his mouth. Holmes didn't know why it affected him so strongly, Watson's rough fingertips on his tongue, but he lost track of things after that.
Afterwards, after they had both stopped shaking, Watson levered himself up, rustling as he tidied his clothes, tucked his shirt back in. Holmes was still draped over the settee, feet on the floor and trousers around his knees, hauling in deep ragged breaths of leather. His mind felt like a carnival afire, his body raw and untrustworthy,
Watson disappeared into the lavatory for a moment and then reemerged, neatly put together, a calm look on his face. He poured two glasses of brandy and left one near Holmes's chair, took the other to his own. The doctor sat down, lit a cigarette, and said, "Not that I mind the view, but are you planning to stay like that for the rest of the afternoon?"
Holmes grunted, and rolled off the settee onto the carpet. He struggled to pull his underclothes and trousers back up, and then gave up the rest as a bad job. He sprawled on the floor, shirt wrenched around his torso and missing buttons, and gazed up at the bullet holes in the ceiling with starry eyes, trying to catch his breath. In his peripheral vision he could see Watson smiling stupidly down at his newspaper.
That was just the first time.
As it turned out, the good Doctor Watson was something of a savant when it came to the art of depravity. When he was on his knees, the world came to a stop. When he had Holmes bent double under him, every potential thought vanished like ash in a hurricane. When Watson had his hands on him, Holmes was good for nothing else.
So here was the thing that would ruin him, at long last. Here was the problem that couldn't be solved. Holmes hadn't been able to stop wanting Watson, and now he had him and it was just as the detective had feared: nothing had changed. It had only gotten worse. Holmes was still distracted, anxious and short-tempered and unreliable. Watson was still too much in his mind, the doctor's armies claiming great stretches of territory and moving ever westward. Holmes would be entirely overrun one day soon, the gleaming cities he'd so sedulously constructed reduced to rubble and ruin.
This was why he'd fought his attraction to his friend, why he had become somewhat unhinged in the effort. The plan (oh that long-ago plan) had been to allow himself one night of the doctor, just one night with both of them drunk enough to ignore it in the morning, and those life-consuming questions (what did Watson taste like, how did the skin under his clothes feel, how might he sound) would finally have answers, and Holmes would be satisfied with that, content.
It was laughable, really, desperate and naive. One time was never going to be enough. Holmes was never going to be satisfied. He was going to want all of Watson every day, forever and ever, as long as they both still drew breath. He understood that now, the vast inevitable scale of the thing, and it was faintly petrifying, but in general Holmes was adjusting.
Holmes woke up to find Watson asleep in his bed, arguing mutedly with the pillows. They spent whole evenings on the sitting room floor, drinking before the fire and scrapping like boys because they knew how it would end. Watson liked to put Holmes flat on his back and straddle his legs, use his hands alone bring him off, slowly and with profound care, eyes locked on his detective, absorbing every shudder and gasp, every time Holmes stammered out his name. Watson liked to play Holmes, draw symphonies out of him. Holmes had no control over any of it, which should have bothered him a great deal more than it did.
Sometimes when Watson looked at him, Holmes's face went red for no good reason. He took to stealing Watson's shirts just because it pleased him to see the crease of annoyance form between the doctor's fine eyebrows. Once a week or so, Holmes woke up with Watson's head between his legs, his perfect mouth already working. The sky beyond their draped windows was more blue than it had ever been. The polluted air outside tasted sweet for the first time in Holmes's long memory.
It was an altogether fascinating feeling, the detective decided. He assumed the sudden onslaught of exquisitely good sexual activity had released some kind of natural narcotic into his bloodstream, something along the lines of adrenaline. Holmes was not inexperienced in any individual act that Watson might try, but it was still a list of firsts. First time under the covers of an actual bed. First time in the daylight. First time without being drunk or chemically altered. First time with the same person for the second time. First time the act took hours. First time he couldn't speak afterwards.
So, yes, the phenomenon was new to Holmes.
But he was, in this as with all other things, an exceptionally quick study.
They took a case a short time after the evolution of their camaraderie.
It was a simple burglary, a duchess's jewels vanished, and usually Holmes didn't trouble himself for the aristocracy, but he needed funds for a new microscope, and so they set their feet for Knightsbridge. It was a standard London spring, hard blue sky and wind, treacherous devil wind stealing hats and blowing coats as wide as wings.
Watson remarked upon the loveliness of the day and Holmes vetoed the weather as a topic of conversation because they were not so intellectually stagnant just yet. Instead, they discussed the explosion of Krakatoa, and what kind of dog they would get if they were going to get a dog.
It was casual. They sized up the animals they spotted on the street, debated names and breeds. Watson had a preference for the muttiest types, the ugly bruisers and battle-scarred bulldogs rummaging in the trash behind the café. Neither of them had ever owned a pet, and in some obscure way Holmes felt that bonded them together.
"Of course, you'd treat the poor creature abysmally," Watson said. His cane clicked jauntily against the paving stones. "Never feed it, never take it out for walks."
"I am fairly certain that I could come up with more inventive abuses than those."
Watson rolled his eyes. He was smiling. "Naturally."
"Not that I would, of course. You do me a grave disservice suggesting otherwise, but I am graciously willing to overlook it."
"Ah, thank you, Holmes," Watson said. His smile tugged bigger. "I'm sure I don't deserve your tolerance."
Holmes was staring at his friend, and his shoulder slammed into a tradesman heading the opposite direction. Holmes stumbled, caught his balance, and Watson put a hand on his arm.
"Steady on, old boy," Watson said, the two of them an island in the river of passerby.
Holmes was staring at him still. Watson stood out like watercolour in a newsprint-grey world, and Holmes thought, this is one of those moments. He recognised it as it was happening, a careful kind of awe unfolding inside him.
"Let's go back home," Holmes said, and edged that direction, nudging into Watson.
"What?" the doctor laughed. "What about the duchess?"
"Sod the duchess," Holmes said cheerfully, and Watson snorted, grinned widely.
"You've already solved the case, haven't you?"
"Halfway through reading the letter, in fact." Holmes took his friend's arm, steered him through the crowd.
"So why, pray tell, did you have us walking to Knightsbridge?"
Watson was not resisting at all, going where Holmes led him, still smiling. Holmes's heart was beating very fast, as if they were in the middle of a chase, and he kept thinking how singular it was, how all-encompassing. He couldn't find the edges of this thing; it just kept going.
"Because it's a lovely day, Watson," Holmes said. "You commented on it yourself."
"I did, indeed. And yet here we are, moving speedily home."
"It'll be lovely at home too," Holmes said distractedly, thinking about how he was going to have Watson strip bare to the waist and then ask him to get on his knees.
"Holmes!" Watson said, still laughing a little bit. His eyes were lit up, deadly blue. It was almost irritating how good-looking he was. "What has come over you?"
Holmes checked the street, wound a hand in Watson's collar and pulled him close, whispering in his ear:
"I require your undivided attention. First we must find a locking door."
As close as he was, he could feel the flush rise on Watson's face, hear the small sound as the doctor swallowed hard. Holmes thrilled to see what he could do to his friend with nothing more than words. Watson shot him a look, wicked and full of promise, and told him solemnly, "I am at your service."
So they went home. Through the door, Holmes's hands adhered to Watson, under his jacket to his hips, the cotton slide of shirt against his back. They were on the stairs and kissing already, clumsy and at awkward angles but still good, still very good. Watson's mouth moved urgently against his own, one hand buried in Holmes's hair. It was graceless, exultant, the two of them on their knees at the top of the stairs, pressed together as tightly as their arms could bear.
Astounding world, Holmes thought in a fleeting moment of coherence. Watson bent him backwards, pressed him down to the carpet. Holmes felt the muscles in his back stretch, the flat heat of Watson's body against his own. An oblong patch of the sky was visible through the window on the landing, and out there birds were crying, omnibuses clattering like tin cans on a string. Out there everything persisted just as it always had, but for Sherlock Holmes doors had been flung open, curtains thrown back. Light poured through him and he could see it all so clearly now.
An hour or so later, Holmes left Watson asleep in the bed they'd finally achieved after several engrossing detours, and went into his study to compose a missive to the duchess. He sat at the desk, picking bits of lint off the sleeve of his dressing gown and gazing idly out the window. Fancy bits of palaver threaded together in his mind; the duchess would be upset that he had missed their appointment, but easily appeased by some flattery and the location of her missing jewels.
Holmes wrote half the letter, and then paused to fill and light his pipe. He blew smoke rings out the window. He felt exceedingly good, fit perfectly inside his skin. His thoughts drifted back to Watson, the bare curve of his shoulder, the uneven hitch in his breathing when Holmes had him in his mouth. The scar tissue on the doctor's leg tasted different from the unharmed skin around it. There was a thumb-sized patch on the back of his leg where hair didn't grow. Holmes wished to know everything there was to know about Watson's body. He fantasised momentarily about some horrendous explosion that would strike him deaf and blind, and he would learn to recognise Watson by touch alone.
People passed in the street below and Holmes watched them with an absently clinical eye. Men escorted women, tipped their hats to each other, tapped their canes on the stones. A slow realisation bloomed in Holmes's gut, and he looked down at the half-finished letter, smirking slightly. The case could have been solved from their sitting room; indeed, it had been. There had been no need to leave the house at all, but Holmes had walked them halfway to Knightsbridge because he had wanted to see Watson in the street, in the sunlight. He had wanted everyone else to see too. He had wanted to walk beside his friend and let all of London bear witness.
"Dangerous," Holmes muttered under his breath, but he knew he was smiling a little. Again, he searched for the edges of this thing that had lodged inside him, and again, it stretched as far as he could reach.
Watson stumbled out of Holmes's bedroom yawning and struggling to do up his shirt buttons. He squinted at Holmes, looking bemused and appealingly mussed.
"You shouldn't let me fall asleep in the middle of the day," Watson said as he collapsed into the other chair, leaning hard on his hand. "It wreaks utter havoc on my equilibrium."
"Your equilibrium looks fine from here." Holmes gave him a comical leer, and a tired smile fixed on Watson's mouth.
"What a charming devil you are," Watson said, and slumped further in the chair, letting his eyes drift shut.
Holmes watched him shamelessly. There was a loose thread trailing from Watson's shirt sleeve. There was a fresh mark on his throat, the slow-colouring shape of Holmes's mouth. Watson was unstrung, his body in a rumpled bow, his feet bare. He was half-asleep again already, his breath drawing heavy.
So, Holmes thought, and then for a long time nothing else came to him. His eyes played happily over his friend. His mind flickered and leapt, alighting nowhere for longer than an instant. Lines of poetry that he'd inadvertently memorised as a boy resurfaced, new comprehension making them shine like gold. Watson sighed, and shifted his weight, the heel of his hand sliding up his cheek. Holmes found himself holding his breath until Watson was at peace again.
It was almost disappointing, Holmes decided, although he knew disappointing was not the right word. A lifetime of uninterrupted exceptionality had led him to believe that he was immune to the prosaic emotional ailments of mankind, but that was hubris to a Promethean degree. Worse than that, it was illogical.
Now the great detective had righted himself, at long last. Now he knew that Sherlock Holmes's heart worked just like everyone else's.