Yes, we are immediately ret-conning the Conan Doyle canon Watson/Holmes origin story. You know the movies are gonna do it too.
This Day to the Ending of the World
By Candle Beck
The prime minister knelt before his queen and pledged to her, "We will clear Central Asia of Muscovites and drive them into the Caspian Sea," and fifteen months later John Watson nearly died in Afghanistan.
No one quite understood what they were doing there, the natives and Crusaders both. Everybody he met was locked in a defensive stance, skittish at the edges. It was chaos and then stillness, boredom and terror and despair set on a yanking gear that slung the world back and forth. Watson remembered dirt roads and houses made of mud and alien green plants with purple flowers that sprung insistently from splits in the rocks. He remembered a fine layer of dust on everything like the coaled air that blackened all of Yorkshire. He remembered boys playing football in a burnt-out village, still carrying ashes in their black hair.
The enemy came from nowhere. From hell, some of the regulars liked to say, rising up from below the earth itself. Watson awoke to gunfire and men screaming. He always slept in his boots, his Lancaster a cold weight in his belt. He'd been trained, drilled until his reactions were not his own but simple instinct, and without pause he took up his satchel and ran for the action. In safer climes, Watson was the sort to rise foggily, banishing vestiges of sleep only after a cuppa and a biscuit, but the war had cured him of that.
The war had cured him of a lot of things. He'd borne witness unholy sights, men cut in half and still alive, little children burning as their mothers shrieked, the streets full of beheaded dogs, and now Watson was made of steel, quite cold and unfeeling, quite beyond it all.
Three men died, though it took almost twenty hours for the last to finally give himself over. Watson pulled musket balls out of the bodies so that they might be buried whole, unburdened, and then he slumped over the table for a long moment, his forehead flat on the wood and his breath coming fast, almost panicked. It overcame him sometimes, the futility of the whole endeavour. There were more dead bodies than living ones in this room. Alexander the Great might have stood on this precise spot two millennia ago, in the dark midst of his own endless war.
Watson recovered himself rather quickly, all things considered. This was his life for the moment. This was the duty a man owed to his country, his own heart. At night he read his pocket book of iHenry V/i over and over again, trying to make walls out of the words.
The local people lived as if word of Jesus Christ and the subsequent eighteen centuries had never reached them. They raised goats and forced thin crops from the ground, walked hours every day to fetch water from the river. The Russians had recruited an army of savages outfitted with fifty year old muskets, lances spattered with rust, and most of them had a starved vulpine look whenever Watson caught a glimpse, men stripped down to the basest level. It didn't seem possible that an empire with a never-setting sun could be fighting such a war.
But so they were. So they did.
Nineteen days shy of a year since he'd left London, Watson was playing cards by torchlight with a pair of soldiers and the cook, who'd lost two fingers on his right hand at some point before Watson had met him. Watson was winning, a steady growing pile of crowns in front of him. The men were telling stories about women and Watson was laughing where he was supposed to, wishing they had brandy in this godforsaken country, and then there was a sharp crack and the side of the cook's head exploded.
Watson was sitting right next to him. A shock of warm and wet hit his face, and his mind went gibbering far away rather than acknowledge that it was blood he was feeling, slicking his cheek, curving around his jaw, blood and those heavy bits were most certainly parts of the man's brain, his memory perhaps, all that he had ever seen.
Watson couldn't let himself think about that.
He scrambled backwards, dimly hearing the soldiers shouting, the cleaner sound of rifle fire. He was going to run; he didn't care if it made him a coward. He couldn't be here anymore.
But then something ripped into his back, something scorching, made wholly out of pain and spreading through him like a drug. Watson pitched forward on his knees and thought vaguely, iI've been shot/i, and it seemed such a strange thing to think.
He was crawling. His hands in the dirt, his knees already scraped bloody, and Watson was sick at the very idea, crawling like a criminal or a whipped dog, as if he were no kind of man at all. Watson made fists and tried to push himself up but it didn't work; the bullet in his back felt heavier than all the iron on a ship of the line. It pinned him, held him down.
They came for him after three hundred and forty-seven seconds, every one of which Watson counted in order to stay conscious. He could feel how the back of his plain blue coat (all the buttons sliced off because that was the regulars' idea of a joke on the fancy-boy doctor) was soaking up ever more blood, and it frightened him beyond the telling of it, knowing in perfect detail what his body was going through. Shock, extensive blood loss. Organ damage, shattered ribs and a punctured lung quite possible. It was becoming terribly difficult to breathe.
Watson wasn't even crawling anymore, just lying there breathing dirt and fighting only to keep his eyes open. It occurred to him that this was going to be a horrible death, petty and filthy and devoid of any honour whatsoever, and then he was angry, and then blackly sad. And then the first lieutenant, bleeding heavily from his head and wearing the crazed look of just having killed a man or two, was hunched over him, a weighty hand on Watson's shoulder as he shouted for aid. Watson blinked up at his newfound saviour, thinking he should tell the man not to bother. Everything hurt so much. Watson didn't want to live in a world where things could hurt so much.
He passed out on the stretcher, woke up two days later in a roughly assembled field hospital, dirty-white tent over a floor of sawdust and the two long rows of beds holding men in various states of mutilation, drooping curtains hung around the ones who wouldn't stop screaming. Watson spent weeks in that place. Almost two months, and by the end of it he could walk again, albeit cane in hand but that was hardly an inconvenience for a man of his station.
His honourable discharge from Her Majesty's medical corps proceeded with all the grandeur and pomp of the British Empire, but Watson wasn't terribly impressed by that kind of thing anymore. He hadn't slept a night through since waking up in the hospital. Every night the cook's head exploded, Watson's face suddenly hot with blood. Every night Watson jerked awake sweating, aware that he would suffer these nightmares the rest of his life.
Watson went home. Overland to Palestine, and then on to the first ship sailing west, the long hours of early summer spent lying flat out on the deck, wishing the thick Mediterranean sunlight would melt over him and heal the damage that had been done to his body, the sneering cynical form that had taken hold of his face. Watson just wanted to get home. It seemed like a pitifully small thing to ask, just to stand in the place where he had once lived.
England was just as he had left her. Watson fell upon the city of London with a rapaciously unstable joy, stayed drunk for a fortnight and came out of it five hundred pounds ahead on wagers, living like a wild young prince in a hotel in the West End. He learned that he could get girls whenever he wanted and he didn't even have to pay; a full smile and a meal afterwards accomplished the trick almost every time. He didn't take advantage of it too often, though. He wasn't in the mood for girls.
Watson took to the fights. He didn't strip his own shirt, never called out a challenge. He skulked around the corners, beyond the murky gaslights, slim and well-dressed enough to pass for a gentleman on the streets but in here he acted a different part. He laid money down on every fight, won often enough to garner a certain respectful air. The men who came to recognise him called him Mister Grey. Watson didn't know why.
He watched the fights with a clinical mien, sizing up each man like a labeled specimen: ibricklayer, two metres, fifteen stone/i. He read old broken bones and torn muscles in limps, a folded arm kept protectively close to the chest. He could see damning fear as clear as a stripe of crimson paint on the man's face. Watson didn't always bet on the biggest fellow. He was looking for something else in the ones he would show the favour of his faith; it was hard to define.
There was money to be had all around, and liquor and music and friends of every sort, but eventually the shine wore off. No matter how much Watson drank, his back still hurt in the morning, a deep echoing ache that made him walk like an old man, leaning hard on his cane for the first hour or so before he loosened up. His mother and sisters called on him determinedly, veering in a most distressing fashion from fawning compassion to abject disapprobation at his current debauched state. Watson bore it with a martyr's patience until the afternoon his mother had called him utterly useless over tea, and that stung. That stuck with him.
He straightened up. The war was inalterable, Watson knew. It was a piece of history like all the other billions of pieces of history, and what had happened in that faraway hell, this cold stony place that had formed inside him, it didn't mean anything to anyone but him. The war wasn't an excuse.
Watson told himself, iyou live in this world and this world alone./i He told himself, iyou live in this world or you don't live at all,/i and after several days of the deepest contemplation he decided he would stay the course for now.
Watson stopped drinking before dark. He cut his trips to the fights down to once a week, though he was still drawn to the electric scent of sweat and blood, pale skin flushing and clouding darkly as fists came down upon it, the fold of damp money into his hand. But respectable doctors didn't spend their time at the fights and that was what Watson was going to be from now on.
He let his sisters drag him to a few balls, talked and bowed properly and soon enough he had a small clientele of compulsively nervous women whose fingers never left their pearls. The women were not physically ill in any way, though they remained convinced that every headache bespoke a fatal cancer. It was easier money even than gambling, and Watson did not complain.
Several years passed in this way. He made something of a name for himself. Everyone just loved that young Doctor Watson.
His circumstances were precisely as they were meant to be, a fine set of rooms not far from Hyde Park, two silent servants coming and going like spectres, bringing tea and biscuits and brandy and shoes shined with such diligence he could make out his own features in the gleam. He belonged to several clubs and was never at a lack for company when he desired it. He played billiards and cards in chummy rooms with leather chairs and fireplaces, not for anything like real money but just to keep his hand in a bit, ensure that he could still deconstruct every man who took him up on it. Watson loved that feeling, that quick hot sense that he was going to win, that he was ibetter/i. It wasn't really about the money at all.
Times changed and moustaches came into vogue, and Watson dutifully followed the trend, found it rather suited him and determined to keep his face just so until prevailing winds stirred him elsewhere. He developed a way of smiling that made people stutter and lose their train of thought, blinking helplessly fast like fish on dry land. It was the strangest weapon Watson had ever employed.
For the most part he managed well enough. It was perhaps still a role that he was playing, but it fit him like a second skin by now. There was still an unfathomable sadness in the amorphous thing commonly known as his soul, a sunken pit that infuriated him as much as it hurt because it wasn't iphysical/i, so how could he be expected to fix it? Merely keeping it off his face was a near-herculean task.
Every aspect of his life appeared quite ideal from the outside. Watson marvelled at that, thinking it beyond credulity that other people might envy him.
Then, in the spring, the son of one of his patients was kidnapped.
Watson awoke gasping, already stiff with fear because men were shouting, great pounding blasts all around him and the dirt in his mouth, the heavy blood on his face. He fell out of his bed onto the floor, lay there shaking for a long moment.
His mind cleared, let him hear his valet in the hallway, calling through the front windows to ask the matter. The scene crystallized, some servant sent to fetch the doctor and assailing the door, only fists on wood and nothing more, no gunshots, no blood or brains. Watson got unsteadily to his feet, primarily so he would not be found in such a state, and hurried into his dressing gown, smoothing his hair back with both trembling hands. Watson pocketed them immediately when his valet came to his bedroom door to tell him there was an emergency with the Lady Samuel Burnham, something about her boy.
The Burnham lad was seven, blond and wiry and ever peering down from the tops of trees. Watson had gotten in the habit of stopping by the confectioner's on his way to the estate, occasionally helped the boy with his maths when his governess was gossiping with the maids in the kitchens. He rode over alone, hatless in the wind and he'd forgotten his gloves, his hands lobster-red by the time he arrived but he didn't care.
Lady Burnham threw the door open herself, her face blotchy from weeping and her hair tugging free of its constraints, immediate evidence of how unorthodox the night had become in this household. Her face collapsed upon seeing the doctor but he could not find fault in it. He bowed, the handle of his bag in both hands, and offered his services in any way needed.
They needed him most desperately, it seemed, to calm the woman down. Lord Burnham met Watson briefly, forehead snagged with worry, clasped his wrist and leaned in to whisper his brief instructions ("quiet her") before retreating to huddle with the several black-hatted constables who had beaten Watson to the scene.
Lady Burnham was in tears on the settee, a saturated handkerchief in her hand that Watson gently removed and replaced with his dry one. He murmured vaguely reassuring things to her and got her to concentrate on breathing evenly and not those great grasping sobs that threatened her lungs so. A maid fetched hot water with lemon and Watson poured in a mild sedative, urged her to drink, promising her that her son would be found.
The bell at the front door echoed again, and the lady made an aborted move to rush for it, but Watson weighted a hand on her shoulder, begged her rest. The lady had chewed off the paint on her lips, the powder smeared by tears. Watson thought that she looked like a blind man's dream of beauty.
Moved by her suddenly, Watson said with a tender note in his voice, "Please, my lady, there is nothing you can do to help now."
Watson's eyes flew to the newcomer, a dark-haired disreputable sort with a a twisted almost-smile on his face. Watson lifted his eyebrows.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Beg all you want, my dear fellow, you'll not be satisfied," the man said, whipping his coat off and into the arms of the butler as if he were a lord himself. He came straight towards Watson and the lady on the settee, and Watson flinched backwards, unconsciously bracing himself.
"Now, if you can summon the composure," the man said to Lady Burnham. "Who put the boy to bed?"
The woman pressed Watson's handkerchief to the ruined skin under her eyes. "I did, I said his prayers with him because at times he forgets the words. It was just as every night."
"And was he acting outwardly odd at all? Particularly sleepy, perhaps?" The man waited a moment and then snapped his fingers at his side. "Come, come, every second we sit here dwelling on the basics, your boy gets farther away."
Lady Burnham made a choked sound and Watson stood immediately.
"Show your respect, sir," Watson said, levelling a battle glare at the man with his flashing black-seeming eyes, the fine sweeps of his brows, that wicked smirk tacked onto his face. "This woman's plight must provoke only our compassion and obedience."
"Who, who, who is this person?" The man turned to Lord Burnham and the policemen, lifting his hands in supplication. "He is interfering, gentlemen. Be good lads and clap him in irons, would you?"
"Now, Detective," a sergeant said, and several pieces clicked into place for Watson. "Let the man do his job, which is to look after the good lady, and I'm sure he'll let you do yours. Isn't that so, Doctor?"
Watson fidgeted, his arms crossed over his chest and his fingers curled against his ribs, but eventually nodded curtly and said, "Quite," sitting down again.
The detective smiled openly for a split second, shooting Watson a triumphant look rife with bravado, like they were small boys playing at kings in the backyards. Watson was silenced, disconcerted but interested, at least, wanting to see where this was going. The man had the most extraordinary eyes.
He resumed questioning the lady but tempered his tone, the thinnest consolation but it eased something in Watson none the less. Lady Burnham described the evening routine in minute detail, and then Holmes went to peruse the boy's room and read the ransom note that had been left on his pillow.
The detective came back downstairs and took a seat in the salon, sipping from the offered cup of tea and saying, "Is this truly what you called me in a panic about, Burnham?"
"Don't play your infernal games with me, Holmes," and then Watson had that, and he thought to himself, iholmes/i. "Can you solve the mystery?"
"Good God, it's not a imystery/i," Holmes said, rolling his eyes back.
"The boy vanished without a trace, sir," the youngest of the three constables piped up. "No damage to the doors or windows, no sign he tried to fight them off."
"That iis/i a trace. That is all evidence of incredible import. Are you being purposefully dense? Burnham, did you invite these people solely to acerbate me? Is this some sort of monstrous joke on your part?"
"All right," Watson broke in, annoyed. "If you know where Timothy is, you are bound by conscience and basic human decency to aid these parents in his return."
Holmes hiked one eyebrow, gave Watson a long look that peeled back the top layer of his skin. "Your hypothesis presupposes the presence of both a conscience and basic human decency."
Watson smiled coldly and it felt like a sneer. "I should mention that if the slightest abuse is visited upon him that you might have prevented, I'll be forced to dedicate myself to your annihilation."
Holmes clinked his china cup down, high emphatic note ringing. "And there we are! The fear impulse is a much more reliable vein to tap than the moral one--do try to remember that lesson. As your reward, I can tell you that the boy was taken by that ginger maid who let me in, the one with the bad cough. He's most likely being held in the home of one of her friends or family members, hopefully not whoever it is gave her the consumption. Oh, and the ransom money is to pay for that miracle cure they've been advertising in the circulars. Pure rubbish, of course, but you know the things people will try when they get desperate."
Holmes paused, cocked his head to the side. He gave Watson an encouraging look, clever and narrow-eyed, and said, "Do you suppose that's enough to get an investigation going, Doctor?"
Watson opened his mouth to fire back a reply but to his astonishment every word danced maddeningly just out of reach. He'd been struck dumb, and the fact that that had even ihappened/i to him set him back several more lengths. He turned to Lord Burnham and the constables, imploring them for help.
"You're talking rot, Holmes," Burnham said, but the underside of his voice was all uncertainty and brief glimmers of hope.
The detective shrugged, his face suddenly impassive, uncaring. "As you say, my lord."
"Wait," Watson heard himself saying, and he was surprised, but carried on with it. "Explain yourself, man. How could you know that after so cursory an examination of the facts?"
Holmes looked at Watson and it felt like a physical touch, making Watson shiver for the barest of moments. His hand tightened around the head of his cane, thumb tucked up hard against the silver.
"I always have been rather quick on the draw," Holmes said apologetically, and proceeded to delineate the crooked well-knit courses of his logic. The culprit would be someone within the house, he asserted, someone Timothy would recognise and not struggle against, and the coincidence of the maid showing early signs of consumption while the ransom note specified the price of the so-called cure was no coincidence at all, of course, coincidences not actually existing within human states of affair. Holmes told it like a story, and Watson couldn't take his eyes off him.
The girl was fetched from the kitchens and she stood wanly save for the bright fear flush springing across her cheekbones. Her hands were twisted in her apron and her throat trembled as she tried not to cough. Watson noticed that the girl couldn't look at Lady Burnham, her face tilted down and away.
Holmes strode right up to her, peppering her with questions and thinly veiled insults until she was a cringing mess and freshly penitent.
"I wouldna hurt him," the girl insisted, crying and red-faced and biting her lower lip. "He'll come home just as right as rain, just a little adventure for him, little holiday like. I, I ihad/i to, for my brother."
"Of course, your brother. The tubercular one, yes? Bad piece of luck, that." Holmes looked back at the constables. "She'll take you to the boy now. He'll have been tolerably well cared for, if I'm not greatly mistaken."
The men in blue came forward, looming over the slight girl and closing in like falling cliffs. Watson watched her eyes grow huge with caught despair, and then his view was blocked. He cleared his throat, glanced at Holmes and found the detective staring at him, frank and unashamedly dissecting. Watson's skin tightened, a hot scratchy feel in his stomach.
He turned back to Lady Burnham. "My lady, is there any way I can be of further assistance?"
She blinked up at him from eyes as red as fireworks, her hands flitting like slow crippled ghosts. The sedative had set in, taking her miles underground.
"Oh, no, no, Doctor, do not--do not think to trouble yourself."
Watson cut her a small bow, turned to her husband. "Please allow me to examine your son upon his return, Lord Burnham."
"Yes, quite," Burnham said, distracted as the constables set heavy hands on the maid's shoulders and guided her resolutely from the room, the lord following a step behind. After a moment Lady Burnham rose as well and drifted in the direction of the stairs, murmuring something about a terrible headache. Watson and Holmes were left alone in the salon, a length of fine Oriental carpet between them.
Watson cleared his throat, and crossed to the bar, the liquor shining like muted firelight, a beacon. Holmes was still watching him, studying, and it made Watson overly conscious of his movements, the angle at which he held his shoulders.
"Would you be so kind as to fix me a drink, Doctor?" Holmes said, and Watson's body tensed against his will again. He didn't know what it was about Holmes's voice that caused such a reaction in him.
"Certainly," Watson replied formally, and let his hands work as mindless as a machine. He brought both over to Holmes, juggling them slightly to keep his cane in one hand.
They drank to the queen, and then Holmes said, "Tell me your name."
Watson went still, watchful. "John Watson."
"Rather pedestrian, if I may be frank," Holmes said, but Watson didn't feel its sting.
"Is there some benefit to ostentation?"
Holmes flashed a smile. "I've never found it so. Why do you use that cane?"
"It. It is the style-"
"Nonsense. It's your back, yes? You sit in a manner particular to men who have been shot from behind, a federation in whose ranks I'll surely join you before long, but no matter--what is the story you do not tell people?"
Watson was taken aback, his hand throttled around his glass, throat feeling slick. "That part of my life is behind me, sir. I do not squander my time in unhappy remembrance."
Holmes snorted. "A valiant effort, I'm sure."
"It is as it is," Watson said, stiff wires running through his voice and bones. He yawned suddenly, his face stretching out. "Pray forgive me, Mister Holmes, I am not fit company at this hour."
"Yes, well, no man is without flaw." Holmes kept looking at him. It made Warson aware of every centimeter of visible skin. "You haven't answered my question, sir."
"No," Watson agreed. "It was nothing that concerns you, if I'm recollecting accurately."
"My dear Doctor Watson," Holmes said, leaning forward with a conspiratorial grin playing at the corners of his mouth again. "I ought to be the judge of that, don't you think?"
They were not friends at the end of that night, but they were far away from strangers. An amiable tension grew between them as they waited together, sitting a dozen paces apart in slippery silk chairs, and they exchanged quick barbs on the state of Watson's wrinkled coat, the quality of Holmes's tobacco. Holmes deftly extracted Watson's general opinion on politics and religion and Watson recognised what he was doing, acceded to it without remark. It felt like a small concession, something he could easily afford to give the man. Watson rubbed his knuckles across his chin, watching Holmes watching him.
Timothy Burnham was brought home safe just before dawn, and Watson parted from the detective in front of the grand estate, the misty rose-coloured light falling on the dead winter grass. Breath poured whitely from Holmes's mouth as he shook Watson's hand and said something cryptic about things that never happen just once. Watson was too tired to do the work of deciphering it.
It should have ended there but then Watson found himself asking around about Holmes, minor inquiries at certain bars where the dark corners for some reason brought the detective's face to mind. He was entirely unsurprised to find that everyone had heard of Sherlock Holmes. Everyone had a story to tell.
Holmes never said anything that wasn't a lie. There were a dozen discrete life stories attributed to the man, each more decadent and fanciful than the last, each with a perfect hero's story arc etched across it. Watson had read half of them in books, and it amused him to think that he and Holmes evidently shared a taste in literature.
Holmes was possibly the smartest man who'd ever lived. Every riddle, every puzzle, every vanished soul in this big grey city--Holmes could solve them all. He could look at a man and at once see his sins and deceptions, the spidery black things that scratched inside his heart. There were some people who said Sherlock Holmes could read minds, but Watson knew that couldn't be true.
Watson slipped back into his old bad habits, pubs and card games and lurking at the edges of the fights watching the men with fire-eyed intensity. The barkeep at the Red Lion in Picadilly had told him that Holmes fought sometimes, employing a flailing Chinaman style that lost him as many fights as it won. Watson experienced a taut sensation in his chest at the thought of it, Holmes stripped to the waist and run slick with sweat and blood, and then he felt like someone had a hand on his throat. He went to the fights in terrified anticipation of what he might see.
It was not more than a month since they'd met, Sherlock Holmes still just a madly embellished rumour, a ghost, and then he showed up on Watson's front step covered in his own blood.
It was the middle of the night again. Watson wasn't asleep this time, just in from a pub as a matter of fact, and he'd sent his man away because it made him uncomfortable to interact with people in such an unpredictable state. The low thrum of the door bell caught him while disrobing and he threw a dressing gown over his bare shoulders, opened the door in his stocking feet.
Holmes was slumped against the frame of the door, smiling dazedly up at Watson as the warm yellow light washed over him.
"Dreadfully sorry, old boy," Holmes said, jovial and strained. His shirt was wet and viscerally red, the hair on one side of his head matted with blood and impossibly black. "I seem to have encountered another misfortune."
And then he lost consciousness, pitching forward into Watson's half-outstretched arms. Holmes was hot to the touch, heavy as Watson dragged him into the kitchen and laid him out flat on the floor. Holmes's face was smoothed by his reverie, the clean skin of his forehead shining pale between black hair and the shock of red. Watson pumped out a pan of water and cleaned Holmes's face and head as best he could, found the deep gash, gaping like a mouth and Watson pressed his rag-covered hand over it, hid it from the air. Holmes moaned in his sleep, faintly twisting away from the weight of Watson's hand.
Holmes took a score of stitches and half of Watson's ready store of laudanum to stay under for the whole operation. Crooked lines of blood ran across the floor to collect along the baseboard. Watson's knees were tender and bruising from kneeling on the fine Spanish tile for so long, his fingers sticky from holding Holmes's hair back to see what he was doing.
Watson stared at Holmes unabashedly, convinced that at some point he would see enough and no longer suffer such a mortifying fascination. He wondered who had made this tear in Holmes's head, what Holmes had done to deserve it.
Holmes came to on the sofa in Watson's study, groaning under his breath and lifting a hand to his bandaged head. Watson was drinking tea at the desk, cataloguing the lines that etched across Holmes's face when he frowned.
Without opening his eyes, Holmes said, "Watson?"
Watson carefully set down his cup. "Yes, Holmes."
Holmes said nothing more, but the pained set of his mouth eased somewhat. Several minutes went by, each second falling like a grain of sand. Holmes didn't move, but Watson could tell he was still awake. He wondered if Holmes's famed powers of deduction could show him a picture of a room that he had never seen before, just by listening to the quality of the silence for a few minutes.
"You've taken a number of stitches," Watson said eventually, wanting to hear Holmes's voice again. "I don't suppose you can tell me what happened to you."
"You are a bloody awful interrogator," Holmes told him.
"This isn't an interrogation."
"Not much of one, that's certain enough." Holmes snuck a look at Watson from under his eyelashes. "It was just a case, at any rate. An unfortunate confluence of events that fortunately transpired within mere blocks of your capable hands. No cause to worry, I've seen worse."
Watson made a scoffing sound of disbelief but he didn't argue. Holmes was still so pale, the chill clinging to him as his heart struggled to replenish what he'd lost. They were quiet, listening to the fire pop.
Eventually Holmes said, "You've been inquiring about me, Doctor."
A twitch jerked up Watson's arm and his teaspoon tinged against the china of the saucer. He flicked his eyes at Holmes and found the detective gazing back, speculative and unhurried.
"Have I?" Watson said, stalling. Holmes smirked.
"You mustn't continue to equivocate once you've been caught in a lie, Watson; the time has come to avail yourself of a new strategy."
Watson tipped his head to the side slightly. "Have you any suggestions?"
Holmes's smirk grew and took on a more honest shape, his eyes cracking open. "Redirecting the conversation seems to be working wonders for you thus far."
"Indeed? I hadn't noticed."
"Do not fear my disapproval," Holmes said, voice distractingly low. "I would certainly never tell a man not to indulge his curiosities, and I must admit I took the occasion to make several inquiries of my own."
Watson went very still, taking his hand off the tea cup and laying it down silently on the desk.
"And how did that reward you?" Watson asked, expending an immeasurable portion of control to keep his voice toneless.
Holmes shrugged, laid out on the sofa in an untidy sprawl, one hand feeling cautiously under the bandage, learning the lay of the stitches in his head.
"With naught of interest. The young doctor has a sterling record ministering to the hypochondriac wives of the aristocracy, as one might expect considering the only thing his patients suffer from is a lack of sustained male attention. Behind him stands a respectable family and a proper education, a fine patriotic stint serving in Her Majesty's medical corps--you really are quite a catch, Watson."
Watson glared at him, not liking the seasick feeling Holmes had put into his stomach. He felt cut apart and labeled, pinned to a bit of paper in a laboratory somewhere.
"I do not like this game, Mister Holmes."
Holmes pushed up on an elbow, his eyes firing, intensely dark. "That is your first error, because it is never a igame/i. You must make every effort to remember that."
Taken aback, Watson blinked at him, eyes stuck on the sharp contrast between the white bandage and Holmes's black hair. He swallowed, fisted a hand on his knee under the desk.
"Take care," Watson said roughly. "You'll undo all the work I've put in."
Holmes looked at him searchingly for a moment, then lay back down, setting his head gingerly on the pillow. He sighed, the mild groan of someone in chronic pain.
"I would not wish that," Holmes said, the sly bravado gone from his voice at last. "It is a very kind thing you've done for me tonight, Doctor Watson. It is not--I could not name many men who would do the same, and I--it is with all sincerity that I thank you."
Watson could not answer for a moment, his breath held hostage and his throat closed tight as a drum. Heat rose to his face and he couldn't look at Holmes, directing his eyes instead to the white bandage, glowing in the dim. Watson cleared his throat.
"You must say no more about it," he said in a willfully steady tone. He reached for his medicine bag, buried his hands inside in the pretence of looking for something. He could feel Holmes watching him again, clear as a hand laid softly across his face.
Watson stood up, his hands unconsciously opening and closing at his sides. "I believe I'll have some more tea. Is there anything I can get you? A tonic for your head perhaps?"
"My head is fine." Holmes sat up carefully, one hand cupped protectively over his stitches. "You've sewn me up tight, nothing to leak out or shake free. But tarry a moment, would you?" Holmes said as Watson made to leave the room.
Watson hesitated, set his cup and saucer down on the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. He still wasn't looking directly at Holmes, his pulse jumping under his skin.
"It was providence that chased me into your neighbourhood tonight, Watson. Recent events have rather stridently brought to my attention the fact that I might be well-served in acquiring a, a," and here Holmes stopped, words running dry on him and a comical look of surprise momentarily colonising his features. He touched the bandage over the wound in his head once more, as if he could tease out the right expression with his fingertips.
"A compatriot," he settled on finally, leaning over his knees and peering up at Watson. "Someone on whose discretion and loyalty I can depend to the utmost. It's delicate work I'm involved in, you understand, with an obvious risk of injury, and so if such a man also happens to be a physician of uncommon skill, that is only to the good, wouldn't you say?"
Watson felt slightly dazed, his hands closing into fists under his arms. He shook his head almost at once.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but I must decline your generous offer."
Holmes was affronted. "Your lack of manners is deplorable, my dear man; please allow me to finish."
But Watson wouldn't hear any more. "There is nothing you can say, Mister Holmes."
"There is ialways/i something I can say, Doctor Watson."
Watson's lips twitched, wanting to smile but he would not permit it. He bent in the smallest bow, saying, "I do not doubt it. Alas, I am not meant for grand adventure."
Holmes snorted, flicked a dismissive hand at Watson. His eyes were accusatory and vaguely wounded, tracking the doctor's every move like a starving lion.
"You are merely frightened," Holmes said bluntly. "You've had experience with adventure before, and found it did not suit you."
"Yes," Watson said, wanting nothing more than for the conversation to be at an end. "Is that not reason enough for me to refuse you?"
"No, by God, it is nowhere inear/i reason enough." Holmes scowled at him. "As you've said yourself, your past is behind you, where it rightly belongs. You may now proceed."
Musket fire rang in Watson's ears for a moment, but he blocked it out with sonatas running chaotically, triple-fast. He welded his mind to this place and time, the desk behind him and the waning moon through the window, this low-lit room that felt smaller for every minute Holmes occupied its space.
Watson went on the offensive.
"It escapes me how your surety in me is so well-founded, when our acquaintance is nascent at best. How does a man of your esteemed intellect purport to discover loyalty in our ignorance of each other, I wonder?"
Holmes made a sound like a laugh, fingers rattling on his knees as if he were hearing pianos in his head as well. He looked at Watson with a specific angle to his eyebrows, a particular lift at the edge of his mouth. It was a familiar look, that boyish look of mischief that Holmes was always tipping in Watson's direction, an eternal goad. It made Watson's mouth go as dry as dust.
"You may trust that my esteemed intellect is what brought me to this conclusion," Holmes said. "I do not approach you lightly."
Watson spread out his hands, unarmed and defenseless, exasperated. "On the basis of what? The few hours we happened to pass one night in the same room? The idle questions I laid around town, out of nothing but the simplest curiosity? Because you know my family and where I went to school? We might have met on the train. You really must do better than that, Holmes."
The strangest thing happened then. A shadow passed over Holmes's face and his eyes went so dark they made Watson feel like he was falling, and then Holmes stood, crossed the brief distance between them. Watson's breath caught in his throat. His heart thundered as if it would batter free of his ribcage. Holmes stopped just short, stood too close in front of him.
"It's a question of logic, you see," Holmes said, a rasp stirring in his voice. "I act as the facts dictate."
Watson used all his power to remain still, fighting off flinches like gnats, his eyes locked on Holmes's. He wanted to step back but he couldn't; it would look like capitulation. Holmes was wearing one of Watson's shirts in exchange for his gory one, and Watson could smell his own cologne in the air.
"And which facts speak to you?" Watson asked.
"You are a great deal more clever than you let on," Holmes told him. "You are faultlessly polite because you do not respect most of the people by whom you are surrounded. You travel confidently at every level of society. You make money off the nobility and the scrabbling masses with equal dexterity. You have put twenty perfect stitches into my head, which I did not even feel. And when I wished to find you, I found that you had been looking for me."
The air was gone from Watson's lungs, and for a moment he could only stare. Holmes watched him with expert attention, and Watson thought how easily he could reach out, put a hand on Holmes's side, the smallest drag to bring their bodies together. He understood with painful clarity that Holmes would allow it; Holmes wanted it too.
"I think that you and I might do very well together, Watson," Holmes confided, almost a whisper. "And, as it happens, I am never wrong."
Without thought, Watson wrapped his fingers around Holmes's arm, saw Holmes's eyes widen, his lips curving on a smile. Watson swayed forward, lowering his eyes and breathing shallowly through his mouth. Holmes's hands came up to curl in the fabric of Watson's dressing gown.
"Ah, yes," Holmes said. "There was one other thing."
And then Holmes kissed him, pressed their bodies together with a sudden shock of heat. Watson gasped against his mouth, felt Holmes licking against his tongue and it made his whole body shake. Holmes slid a hand around the back of Watson's head, held him in place, one leg hard between both of Watson's.
After an unforgivably long hesitation, Watson remembered to break away.
"Holmes," he tried to say, but he was panting. He was still rocking down onto Holmes's thigh, helpless to stop. "We can't-"
Holmes bit at the line of his throat. "And yet we shall. Quite remarkable of us."
Watson shook his head, striving to see straight through the fog of desire. His hands clutched at Holmes's shoulders, forcefully pushed him back.
"This is not-" Watson cut himself off, caught off-guard by Holmes's brightly eager face, his eyes blown pure black, his mouth red and bitten. Watson forgot for an instant what he'd meant to say, and then he stumbled upon it again. "This will not convince me to accept your proposal."
"No, of course not," Holmes said, distracted. His hands were at the belt of Watson's robe and Watson was not fighting him off. Holmes's hands were so quick. "I would not think you so cheap, sir."
Watson let his head fall back, laughed breathlessly at the ceiling. Holmes's hands were on his bare chest, Holmes's mouth open and learning the shapes of Watson's collarbones. Heat bloomed between them, every place they were touching skin to skin.
"And it does not mean that I trust you," Watson said, folding his hand around the back of Holmes's neck, just under the white strip of bandage.
Holmes nodded, scratched his rough chin on Watson's shoulder. "That's only wise. I've been told I'm a bad bet."
He pushed Watson's trousers off his hips, carefully bent him backwards over the desk. Watson arched, chest and stomach pulled taut. Holmes's teeth and tongue left searing places, slick patches of skin, moving in a steady downward direction. Watson shivered, clutched at Holmes's shoulders as if he would fall without the support.
Watson chanced a look down and saw Holmes on his knees, mouth opened low on his stomach, eyes turned reverently upwards. Watson dropped his head back at once, moaned carelessly. Holmes made a happy half-laughing sound, fitting his thumbs into the dents of Watson's hips.
"You are a sight to behold," Holmes told him. "I intend to keep you for a very long while."
Watson meant to respond to that, object most strenuously to being claimed like a stray mutt, but then Holmes's mouth was on him and everything was gone in a blast of white. Watson cried out, reached blindly to grasp Holmes's hand on his stomach. Holmes twined their fingers together, letting Watson sink into his mouth by centimeters. Watson was breathing in harsh rags, mumbling Holmes's name.
It was the single best sensation he had ever known, and it did not take him much time to finish. Abruptly, his legs gave like jelly beneath him and he slithered to the floor, leaning heavily into Holmes's body. Watson rolled his forehead on Holmes's shoulder, sucking in the comfortable scent of his own cologne. Holmes ran his hands down Watson's bare back, iced over the scar a bullet had left long ago.
Holmes played Watson's spine like it was made of ivory. "Are you quite sure you won't reconsider?"
Watson managed a weak laugh, levering himself off Holmes's shoulder to give him a look. "Persistence must be paramount in a detective's virtues."
"It is indeed," Holmes said, deftly flicking open the first few buttons of his shirt and pulling it over his head, minding the bandage. Watson licked his lips unconsciously, eyeing the lines of muscle in Holmes's arms, well-formed shoulders and the smooth edge of his throat. He reached out, touched Holmes's skin with his fingertips. Holmes hissed, slid forward into him.
"I do appreciate your--dedication." Watson swallowed hard, glanced up at Holmes and his ever-watching eyes. He flattened his hands slowly on Holmes's chest. "I do not know what I've done to warrant such attentions."
"You fascinate me," Holmes said like a confession, his breath coming unevenly and his skin fever-hot. "I cannot tell you why."
Holmes twisted under Watson's hands, climbed into his lap and bore him down to the rug, leaned over him like an angel made of coal and snow. Holmes touched his thumb to Watson's mouth, told him with something strangely akin to sorrow, "You will not leave my mind, Doctor."
Watson bent his head up and kissed him, a simpler way to say, iyes i know/i. Holmes sank down into him, pressed Watson down so heavily he could not tell which pounding heart was his. One of Holmes's hands was on his face. Watson did not know how long a feeling like this was supposed to last.
The next morning, Watson made tea and Holmes burned the toast, and they ate in an effortlessly companionable silence. Watson's back twinged as he bent to light the stove, and he made a small sound of pain that caught Holmes's attention, his fine eyebrows leaping.
"It's of no concern," Watson said, smiling slightly at him. "It happened a long time ago."
Holmes harrumphed, turned back to the Times. Watson studied him, his sleep-maddened hair and lovely ink-blackened fingers pattering across the table top. At that moment it occurred to Watson that though there were terrible things in the world, there was also Holmes.
Three months later Watson packed up his flat and moved into the detective's rooms on Baker Street. Forever afterwards, Holmes would wonder what had taken him so long.
Endnotes: Title's from the St. Crispin's Day speech. That's a slightly altered Benjamin Disraeli quote in the first sentence. Thanks to the Wik, which is also to blame for pretty much all of my half-assed Victorian Era research.
Also, I kinda tried to Britishize it! Spelling-wise, I mean. I probably missed a ton of stuff, feel free to point it out, my fine English friends.
why not, because of hte war?
. . . i never told you i was in a war.
no, indeed. you wear it as a hairshirt, and heaven defend anyone who actually acknowledges it.
"It's not-" and Watson forcefully stopped himself, thought about the right way to say it.
they hook up and then decide they're better as partners for now but hten they move in together and watson's like, wait a minute, this is a GRAND HOLMESIAN PLOT. and then it ends.