A/N: This fic was written for (thus brought to you by) the brute force of LJ's SherlockKink Meme.
"I love you," Watson told him, saying it aloud for the first time, and Holmes said hmm? without looking up from the evening edition.
Watson stood waiting in silence for a moment, braced against the cluttered table. Nothing escaped Holmes, especially when said in a direct manner from a scant meter away. Watson nearly did not trouble himself to repeat the phrase, but the sight of Holmes nude in his ridiculous chair - still cooling from his exertions over Watson's prone body - infuriated him.
In the weeks since their partnership had become more, Holmes had made an army's effort to deter Watson from efforts to reach Holmes in places beyond touch. Deftly elusive, he frequently had Watson neatly pushed aside before Watson could even realize it had been done. Yet, for all his rigid logic and stolid rhetoric, Watson remained unconvinced that Holmes was as he portrayed himself: cool, unfettered by emotion, separate from the longings of the world.
It had begun with the most basic of partnerships. Watson had extended this brotherhood to Holmes, and while Holmes had twitched at the sight of Watson's injuries and rained pain upon his injurers, when it came to Watson's heartfelt thanks Holmes would only assure him that he was essential to the practice. A faithful assistant. An invaluable companion.
"But our companionship does not touch you as it touches me," Watson would demand, and Holmes would invariably tilt his head, squinting.
"I greatly benefit, and am therefore grateful," he would say. "Is that not what you mean?"
Watson would scan Holmes' face for a hint of fakery: in hopes, perhaps, that it was all a front, put on to avoid the filth of emotion. But there was nothing.
Watson had next extended friendship, and while Holmes was loathe to let him leave his side, while he would jubilantly reciprocate Watson's praise of his character, he would not return Watson's more dear sentiments.
"You bring me such joy," Watson had crowed, late into the night and both of them having drunk copiously. "You are essential to my happiness; no-one has even been more necessary to me." Holmes had stared directly into his face, and Watson's breath stopped in the hope that this might be the moment of Holmes' undoing. He'd leaned unconsciously toward the detective, and Holmes had seen it.
"You think that drunkenness will unearth something in me," Holmes had said, suddenly disappointed.
"Not unearth; merely bring to light," Watson had said, disappointed as well. Holmes had looked down at the table. After a moment, Watson had put his hand on Holmes' forearm. "I mean nothing by it," he'd lied.
"Of course," Holmes lied back.
Finally, Watson had offered his body, and he had found Holmes to be astonishingly willing and remarkably responsive. Holmes' delight had enchanted Watson, who, with each ecstatic encounter, had convinced himself that the foundations of tenderness were building within Holmes to the point where they should break the surface of his placid illusion. Watson had been so certain - feeling Holmes' lithe body tighten and release, tasting pipe tobacco secondhand, hearing moans reverberating through the thin wood of the violin still tucked beneath Holmes' chin - that there could be no facsimile for that sort of joy.
On one particularly exuberant night, Watson had lifted his mouth to Holmes' neck and muttered triumphantly, "You see, Holmes? I have found you after all."
Holmes' sweat-soaked gaze had focused soberly on the wall, his exuberant motions stalled. Watson had been unnerved by the pause.
"This...curiosity in which you persist..." Holmes had muttered, grazing Watson's abraded lips with his tongue. "Has it fueled this? Do you continue with me only to prove me wrong about my own nature?"
"You have fueled this in me, not some mere curiosity," Watson had said, biting Holmes' shoulder. But his mouth had lost its nerve; the weak bite had felt like exposure and denial. Holmes had responded with a quick, hard, upward thrust.
"It is your body I enjoy here," Holmes had gritted, as certain as he'd ever sounded. "Whatever your motivations it will manifest no differently to me."
And so it had come to be that Watson's forthright I love you was all he'd had left, and he'd offered it when he'd felt himself to be most vulnerable to its power: when he'd needed to hear it such that he felt he could wait no longer.
It was for this reason that Holmes' lack of response - his quiet hum over the evening headlines - put Watson entirely on edge.
"You've heard me," Watson demanded, gripping the table's edge. Holmes went still for a moment, then sighed heavily and let the paper fall to the floor. Staring at the smudged newsprint, he spoke quietly.
"You have been at me for months," he said. "What is it that you hope to encounter?" Watson's face flinched in piqued frustration.
"You!," he said, "it is you that I desire, not some abacus of fact and deceit! I have witnessed you respond to me, in word and deed and deed," he spat, narrowing his eyes pointedly at Holmes' bare, no-longer-erect penis, "and yet you deny it!"
"I have denied nothing," Holmes responded heavily. "I have praised our kinship beyond measure. I speak with naught but admiration for your person and wish openly for your well-being. I admit to nothing less than the exultation of which your carnal skill is deserving. What response do you so desperately wish to foist upon me?"
"Return my sentiment!"
"You wish me to tell you that I harbour love for you. Of course I do."
"No, Holmes, none of that wordplay," Watson demanded. "I do not mean a brotherly love. I mean that I love you, wholeheartedly and with all the accompanying emotion." He made the dreaded word sharp as a knife, that it might slide between Holmes' ribs to wound him where nothing else had succeeded.
"Ah," Holmes said. Watson could feel that he was attempting to temper his care-naught attitude for Watson's sake. "Watson," he said, "you know it is not my nature to experience the heights of feeling that come so naturally to you."
"To the world, Holmes, not just I," Watson cried. Holmes was watching Watson raptly, now, and as Watson grew more distraught, compassion worried Holmes' face.
"You are dear to me," Holmes said. "I truly wish to put your mind at ease. Perhaps I have overlooked some detail of this matter. Let me engage you."
Watson's eyebrows raised.
"Define the condition," Holmes went on, "and if I am in accordance, I will absolutely confess. I will confess it a thousand times over." Holmes looked reproachfully at Watson. "Is that agreeable to you, Watson?"
"What is agreeable to you is unheard of to all but myself," Watson said, and Holmes understood it as acquiescence. Watson stepped toward Holmes and thought for a long moment, his face furrowed deeply in thought. Finally he laid out his first term.
"The condition," he began, "is that one is drawn to another, as if by irresistible force."
"I am indeed drawn to you," Holmes said, "and I am in turn drawn to Moriarty and Adler. Challenge and intrigue are as irresistible to me as anything in the world."
"Then also it is to be satisfied by one, as by no other," Watson said.
"I find that this is true of nearly every person with whom I associate," Holmes countered. "I draw from each the resources that only they may provide."
"I desire you sexually to the exclusion of all other."
Holmes smiled, but barely. "I am of a similar mind," he muttered, "but do you never desire another?"
"That is not the point," Watson protested. "I would be your companion for all time."
"And I you," Holmes said, "but that hardly is left unexplained by sexual attraction and our exceeding comfort with one another."
"I feel for you as I never have for anyone," Watson said, his voice rising.
"And before you embroiled yourself in your first sexual debacle, you had never met anyone for whom you felt that way. Each exploration yields its own frontiers."
Watson paused, frustrated. "Holmes, you must know that this is not a game to me; I must beg you not to treat it as such," he said despondently. Holmes shook his head.
"I regret if I have implied that it is as such to me," he said.
There was a lengthy silence between them. Watson slumped against the mantle.
"The condition is...incalculable," he said finally, his voice nearly inaudible. "I cannot explain it. I am certain of it, but I cannot explain it."
Holmes simply looked on.
"I have my answer, regardless," Watson muttered.
"You have decided I do not love you," Holmes stated. Watson peered at him heavily.
"Yes, that is my conclusion, Holmes," he said stiffly. Irritated. Defeated. He had given all away and would get nothing near its value in return. "If you had evidence to the contrary, you would yield, as a man of logic."
"Yet, you are mistaken," Holmes said quietly. "As usual, you have alighted on a solution without all facts in order." A glare from Watson gentled his tone. "It is not that I do not love you. It is that I do not love." At this Watson looked severely depressed.
"That is meant to placate me?" he asked. "I cannot believe...that this man, whom I so adore..." He trailed off into spite. Holmes swallowed ruefully; sadness welled in him, but he could not, would not soothe his companion with lies.
"I assure you that if I loved, I would love you," Holmes spoke. Watson rubbed his face.
"As a man of logic, you cannot make such definitive predictions," Watson mocked.
"There is nothing I feel, nor have ever felt, that I have not at one time felt for you."
"What of the depths of resentment?" Watson said angrily.
"Upon your dalliances with Mary."
"When I believed you to have died and thus left me forever."
And here, Holmes paused. "When, in the midst of our sexual engagement, I was caused momentarily to believe that the act that was a ploy, a cheap and facetious maneuver to elicit from me an intangible pledge that you simply cannot do without, without which I am undesirable, incomplete and otherwise inhuman - the pursuit of which you will not let go."
Watson set his hard expression against his shame. "My desire for you is genuine," he said. "You've not been used, Holmes."
"I know," Holmes said. "Had I deduced otherwise I would not have continued." Holmes steepled his fingertips together, resting his elbows on the velvet arms of his chair. His head bowed for several moments: lips pursed, eyelids fluttered, and then he turned once more to Watson.
"Watson," he said. Watson warily met his gaze once more. "You exhaust me."
Watson huffed and turned to leave. Holmes spoke clearly over the aggravated scuff of his footsteps. "The work of interpreting you, endeavoring to understand your every thought and feeling, is exhausting."
When Watson did not stop, Holmes rose from his chair and followed the doctor, still naked, out into the hall.
"And yet, though I understand nearly nothing of you, with you I feel I am not alone."
Watson hesitated at the threshold of his quarters.
"Not in the way I would stand alone in a room, but in the way I stand with no other in the world. Aside from you, Watson."
Watson's hand fell from the latch on his door.
"The reason defies me, yet the fact remains."
"Let reason preserve you, Holmes," Watson whispered into the high-ceilinged hall. "When you name it, call on me then."
He pulled the latch and disappeared into his room, leaving Holmes in the hall, staring after him into the silent dark.