Gods and Kings
By Candle Beck
The catalyst met the compound and green sparks erupted like caught fireworks, and then Watson came into the room.
"Holmes, what on earth," the doctor remarked, unimpressed.
Holmes waved a quieting hand at him, hissing between his teeth. He was half-standing with one knee bent on the seat of the chair, intently studying the chemical reaction as it snapped and bit at the glass of the jar. It was precisely as he had predicted, mesmerisingly bright and frantic with loosed energy. Holmes bent his head, took a careful sniff of the thin rising smoke, and became suddenly dizzy. He swayed backwards, caught himself on the edge of the table.
"Keep your face out of it, at the very least. Exhibit the vaguest shred of self-preservation, would you please?" Watson sounded aggrieved and bored, and Holmes turned to shoot him a watery-eyed glare.
"You are impeding the progress of science, sir, and I would ask that you desist," Holmes said. He noticed the spot of ink of Watson's sleeve and thought that he must be writing more of those endless letters of his.
Watson rolled his eyes. He was going through the stack of newspapers that had collected over the course of the week at the foot of Holmes's chair. Holmes watched for a moment and understood that Watson was looking for that article about asylum conditions that he had read bits aloud from over breakfast a few days before. He was writing his sister the nurse, then.
"If the progress of science is dependent on you, then surely there can be no fault in minding your welfare where you yourself will not," Watson said.
Holmes crossed his arms over his chest. "And thus both I and the progress of science are to be made dependent on you? I am not suffused with great confidence at that thought, my dear fellow."
There was a smile playing at the edges Watson's mouth, though his eyes stayed down, hands moving swiftly through the papers. The back of Holmes's neck felt hot, but that happened sometimes around the doctor; Holmes knew why, but it was one of the very few things about which he didn't allow himself to think.
"You underestimate me," Watson said plainly. Holmes laughed once, a harsh-seeming sound.
Watson moved his shoulders in a shrug. "Think as you will; I know you can do naught else."
Then Watson glanced up and his face changed abruptly, blue eyes going wide and surprise cleaning the expression off his face. Holmes's whole body tensed, but Watson only sighed with the weight of a century behind it.
"Holmes. Your desk is on fire."
So it was. Holmes spun and the heat hit him square in the face, flames eating wildly across his notes and references. He shouted, grabbing for his books. Both of his shirtsleeves caught fire, which was a calculated loss; shirts were infinitely easier to replace than seventeenth century Italian chemistry texts. Holmes raised his voice near to a howl, cursing Watson with all his strength.
Watson took it all in stride, as was his wont. He materialised at Holmes's side and efficiently smothered his smouldering shirtsleeves with the detective's coat, then turned his attention to the desk. Watson slapped the flames down to a size small enough to douse with the ewer of water Holmes kept on the sideboard. The smoke bled into Watson's eyes until they were bright red.
Holmes stood aside in the charred sleeves of his shirt, black flakes drifting like filthy snow to the carpet. He observed Watson destroying his coat, twists of his hair coming unstuck, a fine sheen of sweat on his face.
"This is entirely your fault, you realise," Holmes told him. He tried to roll his sleeve back and it disintegrated in his hand.
Watson looked over at him, a smudge of soot like fingerprints on his forehead. His eyebrows were up, his cheeks bright, and he was giving Holmes a familiar look of indignant consternation backed with damnably immovable affection.
"Your logic in arriving at that conclusion is no doubt daedalian and beyond argument," Watson said. He smoothed back a lock of hair with his wrist.
"You know me so well," Holmes said, meaning for it to sound like a sneer but he must have had smoke in his lungs because it came out rough instead.
"Indeed I do," Watson said, and tossed Holmes's ruined coat at him. "And for reasons passing understanding I remain in your company." Watson sighed theatrically. "I do not know what you would do without me, my dear man."
Holmes opened his mouth and found, to his utter astonishment, that he had nothing at all to say.
After a certain point in a footchase, every alleyway in London looked exactly the same.
Despite such a handicap, Holmes knew where they were to the slightest detail, recognised the names of every tavern and shop and church, every stunted Gypsy girl selling flowers in the streets. They'd cut through the Byzantine snarl of Covent Garden, run most of the way to Marlyebone in the stinging rain, skidding around wet corners. The man (barely worth the name, really, fifteen years if he was a day) they were chasing had robbed and killed an old man in the City a fortnight ago. Though the killing had by all accounts been largely accidental (one brief savage shove, and the grandfather had fallen hard, and that was enough), neither Holmes nor Watson had any intention of letting him live one hour longer under the open sky.
Watson was several strides behind. He was making a series of small gasping sounds of agony that set Holmes's teeth on edge. His mind buzzed with weariness and anxiety. It was the fault of the rain, the wretched chill. It was this blackguard before them who would not give up running.
The villain darted into a tenement that sprawled like a rat's nest, the walls shredded and soft. Holmes threw a look over his shoulder and Watson had fallen back, one hand jammed against his hip, where the old pain gathered most heavily. Watson's head was thrown back, his face wrenched. Holmes couldn't wait for him.
The first set of stairs were so old they felt carved out of cheese, giving alarmingly under Holmes's feet. There were muddy bootprints to follow, the faint hollowing thud of the man sprinting through the building. Holmes felt that he had been on this chase for days now, weeks. From far behind Watson shouted his name, and only in Holmes's mind did it echo.
Up, and up, around this corner and then that, and Holmes was listening to his own heaving breaths, distantly figuring how much longer he could physically maintain this pace. His thoughts flashed back to Watson, and he experienced an absurdly belated spike of irritation that five years ago someone had put a bullet into the good doctor, and now Holmes was obliged to dash through this dank bit of hell all alone.
It was the quickest moment of distraction, and that too was enough.
Holmes came around a corner blind, and took a knife in his shoulder. He felt the muscle rip open, felt the blade fetch up against bone with a stomach-turning squeal. Holmes staggered and dropped to one knee, immediately suffering a tremendous punch between the eyes, an explosion of white stars and huge gaping blanks in his brain.
"Let me be!" the villain cried, and he sounded near tears, quite terribly young. He was backing away down the hall, begging Holmes, "Please sir, just let me be," and Holmes thought that he was no kind of murderer at all, just an unlucky boy who had killed someone.
Holmes jerked the knife out of his shoulder, the sick feel of metal sliding against raw flesh, and steadied himself on the splintery wall. His head cleared and from his knees he whipped the knife overhand into the back of the villain's thigh.
That proved a dauntingly effective method of ending the pursuit. The man writhed and wept, clutching his leg, rolling his face on the floor. Holmes crawled over and collapsed against the wall in position to kick the villain if he tried anything smart, and screwed one fist against the wound in his shoulder to staunch the blood. Holmes tipped his head back on the wall and exhaled raggedly, and waited for Watson to come.
The villain was remanded into the sporadically capable hands of London's constabulary, Holmes's shoulder thoroughly cleaned and bound, and then he and Watson took a hansom cab back to Baker Street. It was still raining. Watson's hands were dead white from the cold, and Holmes eyed him as he rubbed his fingers together. They had no pressing cause for conversation, and so shared a compatible silence.
Watson struggled climbing out of the hansom once they'd arrived home. It was nearly imperceptible, a tightness to his movements and his arm flexing as he gripped the roof for balance, carefully testing his bad leg on the pavement. Holmes took a moment to badger the driver over his fee, talking circles around the man as he gaped and fumed and stuttered, and Watson slowly made his way up the few steps to their door.
Once ensconced, fire kindled and kettle on, Holmes leaned his head on his hand and said, "You do not look well, my friend."
Watson made a dismissive gesture, sunk into the sofa so deeply it was like his bones had been converted to liquid. "A characteristic we hold in twain, sir, but fear not: sleep is the oldest of cures."
Holmes narrowed his eyes. "The differing degrees of pain and enervation on your face are clearly distinguishable to me, you must know this. You've exercised your leg beyond its limits."
"I believe I had company in that endeavour."
"Yes, up until the moment that company direly required your presence," Holmes said. "Having a knife buried in one's shoulder engenders a rather all-encompassing regard for those of your vaunted profession, Doctor."
"And yet you bled alone," Watson finished for him, self-recrimination briefly tainting his voice. "Truly, an abhorrent night for us both. My apologies, Holmes, I shall retire."
Watson hefted himself to his feet as if there were a bale of hay upon his back. He just stood for a moment, leaning heavily on his cane, evidently working up his strength for the stairs.
Everything about his posture gnawed at Holmes, frissons of heated annoyance skittering through his veins. Watson looked so tired. Holmes wanted to snap at him to stand like a man, damn it. He wanted to sling Watson's arm around his shoulders and haul him to his room bodily, because heaven knew Watson was only going to do himself further damage.
"You are of no use to me hobbled," Holmes said, meaning for it to cut and seeing by the tic in Watson's cheek that he had succeeded.
Watson said nothing for a moment, and Holmes watched him avidly, cataloguing the slow angry flush that crept up Watson's neck, the dim pulse beating in his temple. There was a shamefully destructive glee itching in Holmes now, wondering how much harder he could push, how much more Watson would bear.
Watson met his eyes steadily. Watson knew this game. He played it as he was meant to, cool and unaffected, but Holmes knew Watson never actually forgave him for it.
Bending a genteel bow, Watson said smoothly, "Then I shall be of no use to you, and see if that better suits my talents. Good night, dear fellow."
He left Holmes sitting by the fire. Holmes considered Watson calling him 'dear fellow' in that silvered tone of voice, and decided that he would rather be stabbed again.
It had now been four days since Holmes last slept.
Time had the consistency of soft dough, stretching and then bunching, rolling over on itself and showing slight tears across the surface. Holmes was writing a frantic treatise on the intricate mathematical achievements of Mendelssohn's earlier symphonies, ink decorating his hands and wrists like spots of plague. His mind was alight, saturated with ideas and words, great numbing blocks of words that tumbled out exquisitely phrased under his hand. Holmes had an exceptional faith in the language, the power of words set together just so, a surety that everything that could be felt, could be said.
Dark yellow candles burned low, guttering. There was a full moon but the air over London was too material to allow its light more than a muted nacreous glow. When Holmes reached for the ink pot, his hand was thrown up huge and monstrous in shadow on the wall. There was a dark handkerchief tied around the small hole in the crook of his arm, and he tugged at it absently every few minutes.
He heard the faded tap of Watson's shoes in the hallway, and then a moment of extended silence as the doctor used his army training to ease open the door and slip into the room.
"Yes, Watson, what can I do for you?" Holmes asked without turning around.
There was a slight huff as Watson abandoned his delusions of stealth, and he replied, "You could eat something."
"Ah, not just now, m'boy, I had a bit of bread left over from supper only a moment ago."
"Forgive me for being contrary, but I'm afraid you didn't eat supper either."
Holmes shot Watson a glare over his shoulder, neck feeling tender with the motion, sore the way everything felt sore after better than a week of sustained consciousness. Watson was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, his gray suit so neat and clean, hair shining like pale polished wood, and Holmes's gaze caught, stuttered. Holmes's heart was beating arrhythmically and far too fast, but for once that had nothing to do with Watson.
"I'll eat when I so choose, you incorrigible nag, as I have done for the entirety of my adult life. Now if you would please leave me to my work-"
"No," Watson said, too easy and with an odd line of steel running underneath. "You have been too long within, and I have missed your conversation. Come have a drink with me, my dear man."
Immediately Holmes replied, "I thank you, no." His hands were shaking like leaves in a gale; he wished Watson would leave.
"I am wounded, sir," Watson said. "It would be most grievous to hear that you had grown weary of my companionship."
The edge of Holmes's mouth twisted upwards in what might have been a smile. He felt hollow and terribly weak, his bones made of the thinnest glass, fed on nothing but cocaine and tea for a day and a half. He'd been stripped, scoured. He was miles above now, absconded to a crystalline place where he could tolerate no bright lights or happy sounds, no beautiful insistent doctors come to call. He wished he had locked the door.
"You may as well fear my growing wings," Holmes said. "I am merely tired."
Watson scoffed, eyes set on Holmes with so hard and ominous a gleam. Holmes was shaking inside as well as out, striving to quell his nerves but his body obeyed him no longer.
"Tiredness is not one of the known effects of your seven percent solution, Holmes. Quite the opposite, in point of fact."
Holmes flinched, and cursed himself. Of course Watson knew; of course Watson had always known. It was one of the vast unexplored countries that lay between the two of them, a shadowland. Holmes was not accustomed to hearing it spoke so plainly, clean of revulsion or bitterness.
"It is not the moment, but the accumulation," Holmes said. He heard the threadiness in his voice, each breath a painful rasp through his scraped-dry throat. "For the first hour you feel like a god, the next hour like a king, and down it goes. I am many hours in, you see, and many years before that. I have become the basest kind of creature, and it is exhausting."
Watson's face betrayed all, as it ever did. His eyebrows crumpled with dismay, his mouth shrinking. He took a step towards Holmes and Holmes lifted a forestalling hand. He swallowed against nothing at all, shook his head and looked away out the window.
"There is nothing for it, Doctor."
Watson would hear none of that, moving for Holmes again and saying, "You have yet to try--if you would just let me help you-"
"You misunderstand," Holmes said gently enough, though his skin felt frayed and his thoughts rusted into jagged edges. "I do not wish for a cure. My addiction is my own, and I will not let you deprive me of it."
"For the love of Christ, Holmes, why not?" Watson cried, overcome.
Holmes lifted his chin, pulled his shoulders up straight. He looked at his dearest friend, told him truthfully, "Because four days ago I was a god, and then a king. And so shall I be again."
Watson made a sound of stricken fury, throttled and wordless. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, his perfect face pleading at Holmes but Holmes was in no mood for mercy, neither for himself nor any good-hearted man. Watson had to understand: these things were borne in the blood.
"I'll leave you to it, then," Watson said, reckless and shot through with bloody-minded anger. "This empty kingdom and your pretty little suicide, whatever other horrors you love so well--they are freely yours."
"I have not asked for your permission," Holmes said sharply, feeling terribly put-upon.
"No, only my blind lenience, and the, the impossible acceptance that someday I might walk into this room and find you dead on the floor. Please, please try to conjure that scene. Please try to imagine the black course my life would take from that day."
Watson stopped short, his face flushed and knotted. He had said too much, Holmes could tell, more than he'd meant. Watson's shoulders stiffened, his hands flying to meet behind his back. He cleared his throat, looking away.
"If you are tired then I pray you sleep," Watson said woodenly, and then turned on his heel and left the room.
Holmes stared at the dark doorframe for a long moment, his fingers itching at the handkerchief around his arm. On the crimson and gold carpet, he saw a ghost of himself lying cold and still, and Watson falling to his knees beside Holmes's body, saying his name and then begging and then screaming. It existed like a Platonic ideal in his mind, complete to the last detail.
Holmes opened the lid of his carved wooden box, laid his fingers carefully on the bent glass of the syringe and vials. His heart fluttered like a crippled bird, and he untied the handkerchief, rubbed his fingertips at the tender bruised veins inside his elbow.
Just as always, Holmes knew that he didn't need it. And just as always, he took it anyway.
Doctor Watson began to remove himself.
A subtle chill had broken out like hoarfrost between them, a silence that did not sit easily but instead fidgeted and clawed. Watson poured himself a cup of tea without pouring one for Holmes. He scraped the crusts of his toast into the rubbish bin instead of leaving them for the detective to gnaw as he finished reading the early editions. He did not come listen to Holmes play his violin late in the evening, and the room echoed strangely without him in it, the music never quite as it should have been.
It was punishment, Holmes knew. It had been a fortnight since Holmes had traded cocaine for morphine and slept a solid nineteen hours before waking and immediately eating everything in the house. He had been restored, as he always was. Strength welled up in his body and the telescopic focus drained out of his eyes, the light no longer a threat to him. His mind slowed to its usual clamouring roar, and things were as they had ever been.
But Watson didn't care. He had constructed a wall between them, or not a wall precisely, for Holmes watched him still, but a great thick window, bulletproof and insurmountable. Watson treated Holmes like a slightly distasteful acquaintance with whom he had the misfortune to be involved on a daily basis, one of the manifold minor aggravations that the world levied against the righteous. Holmes was tolerated with a sheen of formality, a distant expression fixed on Watson's face.
It was not an enviable state of affairs.
Holmes took a case that was beneath his talents, simple blackmail with the usual scrim of vengeance. He set about his investigation without telling Watson, jamming his hat low on his head and quitting Baker Street while the man was still abed. Holmes left him no note. If the good doctor wished them to be cordial strangers sharing a flat, so be it.
The case turned out as expected, small people inflicting small evils on each other, each certain that he was blameless. The extorted lord had not let his daughter marry the bastard son of his business partner. The daughter and the bastard son had stolen damning evidence of miscreance from their fathers' papers, met in green parks and tiny rooms to plan their crime, their glorious escape. It was one of the older stories associated with humankind, and Holmes found it thunderously dull.
Things livened up marginally towards the end. The bastard son put up an admirable fight when confronted with the lord and Holmes and several of London's finest. The walls took the impact of most of his bullets, but one lucky shot lanced across the side of Holmes's throat, opening a shallow trench that swiftly warmed his collar with blood.
Adrenaline flooded through him, a second wave multitudes more profound than the first. Holmes tackled the bastard son, thrust his arm against the man's windpipe and choked him until he surrendered. Holmes rolled away once the constables had hands on him, and bent his head back to feel the wound on his neck pull and throb. It didn't hurt. It was hot, and bright, and very real. Blood soaked into his shirt and it stuck to his skin.
By the time they arrived at Scotland Yard, the bleeding had stopped. Holmes cleaned and patched the injury himself in the cramped washroom, gave his statement and then left through the back exit. The rush was almost all the way gone already, his muscles wrung out and his mind jittery with nothing specific to focus on.
The flat appeared silent and empty but there were recent signs of Watson everywhere, his tobacco scenting the air, a cup and saucer beside his favoured chair, tea spoon still wet. Holmes found the door to his study shut as he had left it, but the light that glowed beneath was another matter entirely.
Holmes walked along the edge of the wall where the floorboards didn't creak, pushed open the door without a sound. Watson was seated at Holmes's desk, rifling through the disordered spills of paper and books that spread like a cancer throughout the room. He didn't notice when Holmes came in, running an agitated hand through his hair again and again.
Holmes watched for a long moment, leaning there in the doorway. It had been two days since he'd left. Two days and seven hours without word, and here Watson was at his desk, wrist-deep in search of him.
"There is something of a system to it, you know," Holmes said. Watson's head snapped up. "Or there was, before you got at it."
Watson shot to his feet, a teetering stack of paper cascading down to the floor. "Where in seven hells have you been?" he shouted without preamble.
Holmes pulled off his gloves, marking the hectic flush leaping into Watson's face, the blue-quartz glitter of his eyes caught between murderous and elated.
"Plying my trade, sir, where else?"
"You have taken a case without me-" Watson began, chest filling with indignation, and Holmes didn't want to hear it, cut him off.
"I have, yes. Taken it, and solved it, and rid London of one more scoundrel in a tide of thousands. It may shock you to learn, my dear Watson, that I am largely considered quite capable in that regard."
Watson came storming around the desk and for a moment the adrenaline pulsed through Holmes again, thinking that Watson would strike him, that necessary impact of skin on skin. But Watson stopped short, fists balled but kept low. Holmes saw a breath catch in Watson's lungs.
"You are hurt."
Holmes had almost forgotten. He waved a casual hand. "''tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door,'" he said regally.
Eyes narrowing, Watson came towards him. "You might have chosen a more encouraging character to quote."
"Ah, everyone dies in that play," Holmes replied. He tipped his head slightly to give Watson a look at that plaster affixed to his neck. "The blood is old," Holmes told him quietly. "You can see I have done myself no lasting damage."
Watson's eyes flashed once more, his lips thinning under his moustache. A jolt went through Holmes, a pernicious awareness of how very deep the bond between them went.
"I have not yet spent my anger, Holmes," Watson said. "I suffered under the impression that we were to be partners in this venture. I need not be constantly at your side, but surely I am due the courtesy of disclosure, at the very least."
Holmes shrugged, looked away. The great curse of life was this mind of his. Nothing ever stayed concealed. Holmes understood what he was doing to a painstaking degree, shoving Watson aside because then Watson would not be in love with him, and if Watson wasn't in love, it wouldn't matter anymore that Holmes was. Holmes thought it fascinating that he could know this so clearly, and yet persist.
"I did not wish to cause you distress," Holmes said, lying. "You have seemed--preoccupied, these past weeks."
"And what were my reasons for preoccupation, I wonder?" Watson asked caustically. "Surely it had nothing to do with you."
"What would you ask of me?" Holmes demanded, fallen back on defence because Watson was so frighteningly close to him. "You never spoke of it, so how was I to know?"
"Because you know everything," Watson cried, and suddenly his hands were on Holmes's shoulders and he was shoving the detective into the wall. Watson's palms fit perfectly in the spaces formed under his collarbones, his elegant fingers pressing into Holmes's blood-soaked shirt.
They both froze, shocked at where they'd found themselves. The pressure of Watson's hands immediately lessened, but he did not let go. He did not move away, close enough to Holmes that a deep breath would have brought them together. Holmes stared, rapt. He could see how Watson's mouth shivered and twisted and fought for control. Watson's head was bowed slightly, his eyes shut.
"You do know," Watson said in a whisper. "You know what you do to me. I am sure of it."
One of Holmes's hands alit upon Watson's hip, and a small tremor ran through the doctor's body. Holmes curled his fingers to a tighter grip, told him hoarsely, "Yes, I know."
"So, so," and Watson struggled, swallowing fast. "You mustn't abandon me. You mustn't come home bloody and try me so. I can't allow it."
Holmes nudged at Watson's face with his own, touched his mouth faintly to the line of Watson's jaw. Watson sucked in a breath between his teeth, and Holmes's head spun wildly, a riot of possibilities.
"I promise nothing," Holmes said against Watson's cheek.
Watson made a crazed little laugh. His hand slid up from Holmes's shoulder to the uninjured side of his neck, fingers rough on the rattle of Holmes's pulse. "You are designed to break me, are you not?"
"Oh no, my dear man," Holmes said on an eager sigh. "The only victim here will be me."
He pulled Watson to him then, kissed him on the mouth. Watson fit against him so neat and easy, every piece clicking into place, and for a long stunning moment Holmes let himself imagine that it was because they were meant to be.