Summary: Holmes decides it is time to stop lying to themselves and one another about the true nature of their feelings. He lays a harmless little trap for his friend, and himself ends up trapped far more thoroughly.
Warnings: slash, implied sexual situations, implied period-typical homophobia, mention of drug abuse
Disclaimer: I don't own Sherlock Holmes, or anything related. I do not get money for writing this.
Down the Garden Path
I had been sitting in my armchair long enough for the pipe to grow cold again in my hand.
The case that drew me out into the precipitation in the early morning resolved itself with but the barest of my interventions. Ordinarily my mind would have begun to digest itself after an entire afternoon of unmedicated idleness, but today I was nearly anxious with anticipation.
While I had watched two young (oh so stupid) people throw their lives away over the size of a girl's dowry, it occurred to me that I had no more excuses for delay; soon enough I might have found that I had thrown my own opportunities away for the sake of dithering.
It seemed a less than providential day, but my determination had firmed over hours spent considering possible actions and their potential consequences.
When the time came, I was well-prepared.
The sequence of sounds was familiar, like a song I had already played a thousand times, the thrum of violin strings so intrinsic that I could think of other matters while my fingers hands by themselves. The rhythm remained the same – the thump of the doctor's bag being semi-gently deposited on the lowest stair; the patter of the cane; the scuff of shoes; the rustle of fabric. The cane and bag were picked up again and there was the clack-thud-creak, clack-thud-creak as the stairs were ascended.
No jingle of keys. Watson knew I was home; admittedly, that wasn't a difficult deduction despite the fact that I had not bothered with lighting beyond the warm red glow from the hearth.
The door opened and the medical bag was deposited on the table, prepared for tomorrow, when the good doctor would take stock of his supplies and replenish those depleted by his today's efforts. I set my by now cold pipe down just as he turned.
"Holmes!" he exclaimed, startled into raising his voice a tad louder than he otherwise would at this hour of the evening.
I tacitly bade him sit down; he ignored me, settling his cane against the side of his armchair and then moving toward the fire to first warm his hands and then remove his thoroughly wet boots.
I watched him carefully crouch, minding his bad leg. It pained him – the temperatures outside sank with every day as November took hold of London – and the vision of him in pain helped further solidify my resolve.
It was time. If I were a more careful man, or one with less confidence in myself and in Watson, I would have waited for a warmer month to set up this ambush. As things stood, I did not entertain the slightest worry that he would succumb to fear and attempt to flee from me.
"Devil of a weather out there," Watson said, grinning up at me from his crouch. He was unworried. His cheeks pinked; his hands reddened, or at least so it seemed in the firelight. "I wager it'll snow tonight."
His leg did tend to forecast the weather with commendable accuracy; moreover, one of the patients he had visited today was Mrs Hershey (a droplet of apricot jam caught in his mustache), whose arthritis was yet more accurate.
"It will melt by mid-morning," I mused.
He had yet to notice anything unusual. Oh, but then, I did not actually expect him to realise today was any different than every other autumn evening at Baker Street until he was well and truly caught in my trap. Still, how oblivious did one have to be? I despised small talk; I only ever willingly spoke upon the topic of weather when it was relevant to a case. Yet, if I were working on a case, I would have been smoking. The pipe lay, unlit, upon the closest shelf of the cabinet. The smell of tobacco smoke still hung in the air, but only because it was far too cold and wet outside to open the window.
Furthermore, I was sitting in the dark; I often do when I am concentrating on a problem and cease to perceive the outside world – and yet, were that the case, I certainly would not have engaged in such a mundane exchange of words with my flatmate.
"Have I disrupted your train of thought, barging in like that?" Watson inquired, relocating from the carpet to his armchair, thus sacrificing a degree of heat for a measure of comfort.
My treacherous heart skipped a beat. My equally treacherous mouth stretched in a small yet damnably fond smile. "Not utterly oblivious, then," I muttered, buoyed by the knowledge that Watson accepted many of my less-than-harsh criticisms as compliments.
A singular man.
"Not as such," I answered his question. "I merely allowed myself to once again head down a much-travelled track. A barely conscionable indulgence, to wit."
Watson laughed, sinking deeper into the upholstery, unselfconscious as if he were unaware of my eyes watching him (undeniably) indecently. "Shall I leave you to it, or would you like company on your journey, Holmes?"
Would I like company? He was jesting, yet even in jest the question sounded utterly absurd.
I was not a man generally appreciative of company, yet here I sat in the centre of a web I had spun to catch myself a friend dearer than a polite man would dare intimate. The fire crackled; Watson rubbed his hands together to conserve the regained warmth, and my mind followed the silky thread of the webbing.
When Watson returned to England, his prospects were somewhat bleak.
His army pension did not constitute sufficient funds for life in London. Given his skills as a physician, he had not harboured existential fears, but his options had seemed limited to the life of a country doctor – safe and honourable, but less than comfortable, and ultimately boring.
Then – and here the story gained contours that were far more familiar if one used a different set of pronouns – he had met a well-established man. That was to say, myself. I had inherited a sizeable estate, which I was never particularly inclined to maintain. I was even less inclined to marry and procure heirs for my wealth (and watch them kill one another for the size of a dowry, for sanity's sake). I, frankly, never expected that I would meet a person whom I would be able to tolerate for a prolonged time – much less one that would find me tolerable in return.
Watson had come to live with me. While he still worked, his contribution to our (mostly shared) funds was unneeded, and he without qualms enjoined his fortune, and his life, with mine.
Did it not sound so very familiar? So very banal – only the utter lack of people's imagination saved poor Watson from being a target of envy of so many young women, who could but dream to marry so clearly above their station.
"I dare say the stroll will quickly become much less familiar, should I have the pleasure of your company."
Watson's so-far contentedly drowsy gaze sharpened within the swing of a pendulum.
"Ha," I said, pleased. "You do, indeed, listen to me."
"Often, and with great relish, my friend," he replied, offering all the right words in all the right places, akin to an actor repeating the lines of his character exactly as they were written in the script. An easy, rote, oft-practiced performance. "I have never known you to lack an interesting subject to expound upon."
Such as the weather? I was tempted to retort, but that would put more distance between myself and my goal, and I found that I was out of patience.
I traced the edge of my teeth with my tongue, giving myself the time to decide on the exact sentence I would use to breach our virgin terra incognita. I was quite looking forward to the dragons – or, rather, the dragon. I believed the singular would be much more descriptive in our little foray into cartography.
"Watson," I cut him off, uninterested in his half-formed ideas and preemptive gainsays.
I knew what he would say. We will be killed, Holmes – surely you must know? We will die. Lestrade will spit on our gallows to try and protect himself, but his colleagues at the Yard will still point fingers at him for being the one to have trusted us. It is not worth the risk.
I shook my head. No, I was adding far too much of my voice to this imaginary Watson. For one, Watson would not have as much immediate foresight as to consider Lestrade's future. For another, Watson's attitude toward risk was hardly one of avoidance. We both possessed the uncanny ability to worry each other with our respective tendency to throw ourselves into danger. It was a new day, and this danger had hung around the edges of our home for so long that it had grown into the very walls of it. We were already living in it – there was no sense in not facing it.
"I believe it is about the highest time to retire for the night," the doctor announced, and attempted to rise from his armchair.
I could not have that. "So quick to withdraw your offer of company, my dear Watson?"
He paused with his cane braced against the floor, but posterior still firmly planted in the armchair. He was not the type to beg – not even with me, who was protected from his more vehement tactics of negotiation by virtue of his regard for me – but there was a mute plea for clemency in his expression.
How sad, I thought, to see that. He, who knows me better than almost anyone has failed to see what should have been obvious to him. Have I not spent sleepless nights at his bedside when he contracted chickenpox and then promptly pneumonia as well? Have I not ceased frequenting the opium dens upon his insistence? Have I not made it clear time and again that I prize his well-being above the success of my investigations?
More fool had I been to not account for his tragic adherence to the illusion of normality. So busy was he attempting to conceal his emotions that he had entirely failed to notice they were reciprocated.
"I have never known you to take back your word, once given," I told him, perhaps underhandedly, if the surge of anger in his expression was a sign. He misunderstood – again. I was not going to abuse his offer of simple companionship by misinterpreting it to mean companionship of a much more complicated sort.
The novel part was to come now.
If only he would let some of the tension drain from his frame.
"Years and years of affection, Watson." I shook my head to indicate mild vexation. "Yes, the English language lends itself to understatement and hyperbole, and in the end hardly anyone says what they mean, and yet – do you imagine I ever addressed you as 'my dear' and not meant it?"
I could tell the very moment he grasped the implied meaning of my rhetorical question. Anger and fear gave way to awe, and then, slowly, to a peculiar amalgamation of sadness, disbelief and mad hope. He looked away from me, out of the window, where there was but an empty street and the lights of gas lamps reflected in the puddles. His voice was hoarse and tight when he spoke.
"It was – I confess – something I always took as an alm, Holmes. Worthless to you, fit to throw away, and at the same time to me a treasure; something to keep me warm and fed for another day."
"Ah." Couched in such terms, I found my previous patience to have been a mistake. I should endeavour to not repeat it in the future. "I tend to account for the absolute blindness and obduracy of people over the course of the day, and still am blinded by sentiment myself. Sometimes, I allow myself to forget how little you perceive." Poor fool, if he managed to somehow miss how essential he is to me. "It is, indeed, unfair of me to elevate you upon a pedestal in such a way."
"It always strikes me hard when I disappoint you, Holmes," he confessed. Then he braced himself and turned back to face me. "It would be kinder of you to underestimate me, and let me see you pleasantly surprised once in a very long while."
"Kinder?" It was all I could do but scoff.
"Oh, very well!" Watson huffed, thumping his cane idly against the worn rug beneath the armchairs. "I am in the end not as naïve as to genuinely expect any such quality of you."
I steepled my fingers and touched their tips to my chin. "That, my good man, is your own claim to extraordinariness. Understated, as ever, but to me it has gradually become indispensable, I fear. As I said. Years and years of affection. And, while we are being bold and honest, years and years of desire as well."
Blood drained from Watson's face. For a prolonged while of silence disturbed only by the crackle of wood consumed by fire in our shared hearth, he looked pale as a ghost and I, indeed, readied myself to tend to him in case he should lose consciousness. He was a hardy man, Captain Watson, and I had never seen him succumb to mere emotion, but then – I had to account for how woefully unprepared he had been to admit to himself what I could read in his demeanour as easily as if it were a newspaper headline.
He had lived for nigh on a decade under one roof with me and sought out just enough outside entanglements to pass for a confirmed bachelor rather than invite suspicion of the cursive confirmed bachelor. It would be an inaccurate label for him, I know, but few others would bother with such distinction. No one could begrudge Watson the right to bestow any amount of affection upon any person lucky enough to be chosen by him, yet the identity of the object of his desire hung over him as the Sword of Damocles, and he – brave and unyielding – never bowed his head to the threat.
I felt keenly how unworthy I was of regard of such purity – yes, purity, for no talk of sin could ever persuade anyone of sense that sheer love could in any way be tainted.
There was no sin.
"If you would kindly stop imagining your ruin, Watson," I said, a little pithy, a little bitter – he would trust me with his life and the lives of innocents, but not with his heart? I did not need to be a doctor to understand that the heart was indispensable to one's life.
Witness me attempting to finally clarify the position of mine.
Had we not dithered long enough?
"We have done much that would be seen as wrong," the good doctor said, still pale and shaky – the tremor in his hand seemed particularly pronounced at the moment – yet not making a move to escape the conversation. "Even illegal.
Right then, I imagined, the window of opportunity slammed shut. From then on, neither of us could simply leave the room and tomorrow pretend that none of this had occurred.
I could feel a weight fall off me as if the burden of secrecy and denial had been physical. Breathing became easier, and I felt like smiling. I did not do so, of course – Watson was already far too close to the edge, and anything he could erroneously interpret as mockery would unnecessarily frighten him.
"Much," he repeated. "For most of it we had damn good reasons, and I feel that even if the judges at Old Bailey would sentence us harshly, in God's eyes we shall be granted absolution." He hung his head then, bowed down finally, defeated.
I sank to my knees in front of his chair – quite involuntarily, I grant, following some odd instinct that evolution must have embedded in my very marrow. I lowered myself to a level beneath his in a very literal manner (I had long since discovered that metaphorically that was impossible for me) to let him feel safer. Perhaps let him feel admired. I did admire many of his deeds and his character traits, even though he allowed himself to be bogged down by convention and social niceties and routinely invited condescension.
Watson blinked. I caught his gaze. He was very confused. Positively befuddled.
"Holmes," he pleaded with me, and yet the terrifying vulnerability did not stop him from being sincere, "what you suggest is criminal. I speak not of murder or treason. We do not risk only prison – there would be so much shame."
"Downright humiliation," I agreed, nodding my head. I felt satisfied with the conclusion I knew we were going to come to.
"Then why would you hazard even speaking of it?!" he cried, and then flinched at the volume of his voice. His hand clutched the grip of his cane so hard that his knuckles paled to bony off-white.
He was, in that instance, utterly distraught, and yet unquestionably the loveliest man I had ever set eyes upon. Not the most beautiful one, granted, nor the one with the most impressive physique, and yet his features were dearer to me that the entire London Library.
"I find there is very little risk," I said. My tone of voice was infected by the relief spreading through me together with lifeblood, and it made his expression close off – I was completely right about the danger of perception of mockery. I hastened to continue: "I observed and deduced enough of your feelings and private resolutions to feel safe in your presence, regardless of what I disclosed of mine. I allowed for errors – for changes of heart, if the turn of phrase is permissible, despite its horrible triteness and anatomical inaccuracy-"
Quite against his will, Watson chuckled. The mirth drained away quickly; nevertheless, I took the opportunity to touch him. Nothing immediately scandalous – I did not wish him to run now any more than I had wished it minutes earlier – merely his patella. I traced its edge with the knuckle of my middle finger, and fancied I could feel his pulse through the thick corduroy fabric of his trousers.
"Yet here we are, my dear Watson. Years later, still living together, still bound together by bonds invisible and untouchable and yet undeniable. Would you deny them?"
I stared upwards at him, imploring. The manipulation came to me as naturally as the kneeling position ere – come to think of it, it was the same brand of creative prompting. Watson ever needed to be led, to the solutions of cases and to the finish lines of thinking processes and, indeed, down the garden path.
The gaze did what it was meant to do.
"No," Watson whispered, closing his eyes.
I watched his face crumple before he hid it in his hands, cane clattering to the floor. Such a hapless position did not suit him in the least.
I reached out to hold his wrists in my hands and pulled. This time I felt his pulse clearly – oh so very clearly, elevated and insistent. My heart treacherously sped to keep up with him.
What a role reversal! Up until now, it had always been him striving to keep up with me.
Oh, how mesmerising love was turning out to be.
"Let us not hold one another hostage," I spoke in a low yet insistent voice. "Let us instead simply… hold one another." It was a pretty wordplay for him – he appreciated wordplays – but I took care to imbue it with meaning. I could manipulate him, but he always noticed when I pretended.
My dear Watson. No, that was not good enough. Not anymore.
"John," I said, and my breath caught in my chest. I had not expected- I could not have imagined. If there had been an illicit thrill to it, or even a swelling of sentiment, that would have made sense.
However, in that instance I saw a slightly different man sit in Watson's armchair. He wore the same face and, had he spoken, the voice would have been perfectly familiar, but I suddenly noticed the heat emanating from his skin, and realised the exact location of his bed. I could feel the would-be ghost of touch of his palms to my back, fingers idly stroking (tickling) over my vertebrae, despite the knowledge that none of this had yet happened. The veins in his wrists pulsed under my fingers, in time with his heart's rapid ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.
"John," I repeated.
It was all I could do to not laugh at myself. Had I thought I was confident? Had I thought I was self-assured? The fool who in his folly thought he was the wise man? I dedicated my life to science and never felt but scorn for those writers and poets who insisted on bemoaning their fates at length. Admittedly, if they felt anything nearly as magnetic and cancerous as I did, their complaints were warranted (if not, perhaps, their need to inflict them upon the rest of the population).
John – this odd new person in our flat – freed his hands from my grip, easy as an afterthought. He traced the line of my nose with the pad of his thumb. No one had ever done that, in my memory. My nose is… functional, if I had to select an adjective. It had never been a subject of such tactile study.
Then John's touch reached my mouth and the pressure against my lips lit the fire of greed below my stomach.
I needed to know who this new man was. I had to learn his smell and taste, had to catalogue his touches. It would be an experiment. A series of experiments. It would be a project, and my perfectionism would not allow me to be anything but thorough in my research, and it would take me years.
He still said nothing, but he was watching my face closely. Whatever he saw, I would have ordinarily found it a source of great trepidation, but trapped in his presence by this new fascination I was content to remand myself into his care.
"John," I said with newly acquired ownership of the name, lips quirking into a shallow smile. Ah, so this was the opportunity. This was the motive, and this the culprit, and here he was, caught and brought to his knees by Doctor John Watson. Well, he was ready to accept his sentence.
"How quaint," John mused, leaning closer to me. "Such a tiny thing, if you think about it. And yet a privilege that seems to change everything. Does the air in this room feel different to you, too?"
It did. Even the thin carpet over hard wood under my knees felt different. I felt different, and I had hitherto been my most dependable certainty in this world.
"Tell me I may," he demanded, taking his turn in this odd game. "I am not a heathen like you, my friend, and I will have your permission first."
I chuckled, drugged by simple elation. A moment later I nearly choked on the laughter, as John's nails scraped along a sinew in my throat. I imagined his teeth there, clamping down just hard enough to hurt.
Practicality dictated that we be furtive in our own home.
"Do take me to bed, John," I ordered. No half-way measures; no indecisiveness. The body was a thing, and this one was mine, so it was entirely my decision who would be allowed to use it, and in what way. I was presently partial to the idea of stripping it of all clothing and putting it into John's hands.
Yes, that sounded marvellous.
"I should warn you that I have no idea what to do," John confessed, rising to his feet and pulling me up with him. He showed signs of both trepidation (steady hands, rigidly controlled breathing, narrowing of eyes) and amusement (a quirk of lips, a frankly playful nudge to my ribs in lieu of a verbal prompt). He was perhaps not lying, but certainly dissembling. He was, after all, a physician, and not entirely void of imagination.
"I must admit that my knowledge is rather… theoretical," I admitted. Our hands found each other and clasped in mutual reassurance. Our eyes met. "We are two intelligent men. Surely we can figure it out?"
He put two fingers under the joint on my jaw, thumb lightly brushing against the tip of my chin – exactly as I had seen him touch women in the past – and it was wholly ridiculous, since I stood significantly taller than him.
Nonetheless, I leaned in.
His hold on my jaw effectively prevented me from moving closer than he allowed.
"I will have your permission first," he repeated. "Indeed, Sherlock, I shall have your surrender. After all, you offered it in word already. You may as well offer it in deed."
I stepped away – hand tightening around his, our palms hot against each other – and led him to my bedroom. There I disrobed and sat at the edge of my bed (I was cold, but it was only momentary, and then I would be warmer for the rest of the winter than I ever was before) and I looked up at him, wondering if there would be a necessity for guile here, or if perhaps this was one piece of something older than civilisation (older than Christianity) that had remained untainted for men (and women, obviously) such as us.
If the myth of love was true (and it was – I could feel its rot spreading from the inside of my skull where it infected my previously so superior brain, to the tips of my toes, the usefulness of which was debatable) then perhaps so was the myth of happiness.
The hypothesis had been formulated. And now-
"John," I said, watching the square yards of skin revealed in the faint gas-lamp light from the street, and then taking him into my embrace, warm – hot – to touch, the thief of breath, the murderer of sense. "My dear John…"
-now was the time for research. I had the rest of my life to fail to disprove this hypothesis.