The Narrator

By Candle Beck

You make your way home from Mad Ryan's in a daze, blinking like a newborn in the overbearing sunlight. Your pockets are empty, your hat filthy with ash and dust, but you are not thinking about the picture you must present. Red birds chirrup around you like broken bells, the sky scudded with castle-coloured clouds.

Dice ricochet through your mind, echoing. You pause at the corner to let an omnibus pass, and take the moment to lean hard on your cane, covering your eyes with your hand. You realise with asthenic dismay that you've lost one of your gloves, fingers cold and gritty on your face.

Holmes is not home, and you send up a prayer of thanks for small favours, collapsing by stages onto the settee. There you sit, hands as limp as fishes on your knees, and you stare at the empty maw of the fireplace.

You've had too much to drink. You've lost so much money in the past four hours that it makes you dizzy. It makes you sick. The day is young yet, the light heavy on the sanguine chaos of the Oriental rug, and you feel terribly out of character.

It's not clear how long you sit there cataleptic, wide-eyed and mute. The room pitches faintly side to side, a cork on the river. You are trying not to think about what you've done.

Then Holmes has returned, the door slamming triumphantly below, and you listen to him bellowing for Mrs Hudson, briskly ordering tea as soon as the dear lady can possibly manage, and then Holmes is thundering up the steps, and at once, your heart is in your throat.

You don't want him to see you like this, and you curse yourself for staying in the room.

Holmes comes in like a cheerful hurricane. He is already talking, pulling off his scarf and coat and flipping his hat across the room to land neatly on his desk, his mouth running like water. You struggle to comprehend, feeling like you're covered in the wreckage of Babel's famed tower.

"-it'll be a month at the least before he re-emerges in search of vindication," Holmes is saying, taking a seat beside you. "Should I disappear without forewarning after such an interval, you may feel free to be concerned."

You blink, and you force a swallow past the thick obstruction in your throat. There are bruises on Holmes's face, his lower lip outsized and shiny. His knuckles are still bleeding, spots of carmine maculating the filthy white of his shirt. He looks incredibly good to you.

"You were fighting?" you say, and you hadn't meant for it to be a question.

Holmes doesn't look at you, peeling open the first of four evening editions he'd brought in with him. "Winning, my dear man, I was winning. And you were at the tables, losing."

You flinch; you do not know why you still flinch.

"That would be an accurate summation," you say carefully. Your hands are in fists on your legs.

"Hmm," Holmes say, by all appearances immersed in the newspaper already. One of his eyes is swelling shut even as you watch.

"I should tend to your injuries," you say. You want to help him, do right by him, give him a reason to forgive you.

"They are insignificant," Holmes answers dismissively, bends down the corner of the paper to give you a caustic look. "And I prefer my doctors to be somewhat closer to sober, as a general rule."

You flinch again, and you are furious with yourself for the span of a second. Holmes's eyebrow quirks, knowing and darkly amused, and you scowl at him, hating everything about this day. Holmes smiles, insufferable, that corrupting sideways smile of his that itches under your skin.

Mrs Hudson arrives with the tea, and Holmes badgers her effortlessly, the familiar look of martyrdom tightening her features. You nod and smile and speak your thanks, your glance skidding just past her because you do not wish to make eye contact. You despise nothing so much as the fact that other people are able to see you.

But soon enough the landlady is gone and it's just the two of you again. The tips of your fingers become tender and red against the heated china of the cup, and you don't pick it up because your hands are still not to be trusted. Holmes is reading his paper, slurping tea like a child.

Miserable, wishing to get it over with, you say in a stilted voice, "I'm afraid I must trespass on your kindness again as regards the rent."

Holmes's lip curls in a faint smirk, and he answers gallantly, "An invited guest cannot trespass."

You are grateful to him for saying so, but still your face burns dully. "I hope you can accept my sincere and humb-"

"No, stop there." Holmes rattles his paper sharply, and you are cut off, taken aback. "Keep your apologies, if you would. You'll have much more need of them some other day."

"I will pay you back," you vow, determined even if makes your friend's mouth twist with bizarre displeasure. "Every penny of it."

"Of course," Holmes says, and buries his head in the newspaper. You are abandoned, dismissed, reading the frenzied headlines instead of his face.

You go up to your room a minute or two later, not bothering to beg his leave. You need to wash your face, clean out your mouth. You need to be wearing any clothes other than these that you're wearing now. You want to strip it all off, all the way down to flesh and bone, and find some other skin, something that might fit you as it should.

(break)

The desultory notes you have been keeping about Holmes's cases have been coalescing slowly into legitimate stories, and you have marked that there is one man ever at the detective's side, sturdy and competent and as faithful as a starved mutt to the first hand that feeds him. This man, the good doctor, has the same name as you, your two aspects twinned and indistinguishable. He sleeps in your bed; he drinks your tea at breakfast.

And yet somehow, the John Watson who so valiantly occupies your journals is completely unrecognisable to you.

Holmes says it's unconscious self-censorship. He says that you have created a version of yourself that is not a lie so much as a lie of omission, or possibly, a whole parade of them.

"He embodies the elements of yourself that you consider the most admirable," Holmes tells him, "and he eschews the negatives. He is you, Watson--he's you once you've been robbed of all your entertaining qualities and polished to a high shine. Rather dull chap, really."

This is Holmes attempting to be kind. It is difficult for you to divine whether or not he has been successful, a welter of disputatious feelings roiling inside you. You never seem to have just one reaction when Sherlock Holmes is involved.

But you accept his interpretation of your stories because he is the only person who has read them, and because he is Holmes, and there can be no task more perfectly suited to him.

You write for him, which you likely always did but now it is deliberate, painstaking. You write, He stood stoop-shouldered, the weight of a mick hartley on his back, and that is a joke that only your detective will comprehend. You spend twenty minutes intricately recapturing some minor interaction that passed between you, something about the trees of the park at sunset, crookedly stretching shadow fingers creeping nearer and Holmes saying, "It was a beautiful day, Watson, wasn't it?"

It is exceedingly important to you that this time in your life be documented. You think 'documented' rather than 'memorialised' because Holmes is not dead yet, although someday, almost certainly too soon, he will be. The knowledge that Holmes fully expects to die young is not the only thing that pushes your pen across the page, though it is the most macabre. It's going to come back to haunt you, you know. You try not to think about the nights you will spend in your waning years, bent and grey-haired and reading these shoddy books of yours over and over in search of him.

It is a crucial element of your nature, is the thrust of the argument. The world revolves around you in all its glory and decay, and your head fills up with ways to describe it. With an open journal before you, you are neither the Watson on the page nor the one in the sitting room listening to Holmes torture his violin through the wall. You are another man entirely, or to be more precise, you are hardly a man at all. You are only your hand and the pen, the ink and the paper. You are built wholly out of words.

For all of that, you are sick to death of writing in the first person.

It's lonely, isolating. The doctor in your stories does not understand his Holmes at all; he can never get close enough, trapped in his own perspective. He does not know the regard Holmes has for him, seeing only cyphers and masks in the looks the detective gives him. He thinks of himself as an acolyte, a devotee at the foot of a marble pedestal, and he wonders sometimes if Holmes can even see him from way up there. These things pain him, you can tell, though he does hide it fairly well. You can read between the lines.

You wish you could help this righteous shadow of what you might have been. You wish you could tell him what his Holmes thinks when their eyes meet. You wish to break him out of the cage you have put him in, the suffocating weight of I.

You wish endlessly, hopelessly, for an omniscient third.

(break)

Coming home broke again, drunk again, although at least it's closer to midnight than noon, this time. You are in marginally better shape, your stride not much more lopsided than usual, feeling rather more anarchistic than depressed. You want to get into a brawl, break windows, set something ablaze.

You are going home to pick a fight with Holmes.

He is nothing if not amenable to your plan. He has been at the cocaine again, black-eyed and sweating faintly, and his eyes awash with gleeful malice when you stumble into the room.

"Good evening, Doctor," Holmes says, his smile canine and parlous.

"Good evening," you reply, your eyes narrowing. "You're spending your time productively, I see."

"Indeed. And you've been to Mad Ryan's again."

You do not like hearing the name on Holmes's lips. Mad Ryan's is a pit, a degenerate enclave of anomie in the basement of a Limehouse tavern. The walls have an uliginous slick feel, the fetor of the rivermen never less than consuming. It's one thing for Holmes to know about your abominable weakness, and another thing entirely for him to know that your addiction takes you to such despicable places.

"A mere diversion," you say, trying to sound lofty and unconcerned.

Holmes's eyebrows twitch eloquently. He is scratching restlessly at the inside of his wrist, drawing pale red marks across the skin.

"I trust your ventures were profitable," Holmes says, and you can't help the disbelieving bark of a laugh that startles out of you.

"Oh, of course." You shoot him a delirious grin, nauseated and swaying on your feet. "When are they ever not?"

Holmes smirks. His leg jogs in a fast rhythm. You can almost hear the sprint of his heartbeat from where you stand.

"I think you are as much in need of a new case as I am, Watson."

You scoff, belatedly remembering to strip off your coat and sit down in your chair. "That hardly seems likely. How many holes have you put in your arm today, by the way?"

"Enough to accomplish the goal," Holmes replies, unfazed. "How much money did you lose?"

"Enough to accomplish the goal," you parrot, showing a cruel slice of a smile.

"Is your goal to become mired even deeper in debt to me? If so: top marks, my dear boy."

"Please don't call me that," you say, even though you actually quite like it when Holmes chooses that particular sobriquet. You are feeling contrary, self-destructive. "I have asked you for nothing."

"My apologies," Holmes says, altogether too bright for your fragile state. "Our history led me to infer that you were leading up to it."

"I was not," you reply stoutly, though you no longer have enough money to buy tobacco tomorrow--you smoke too much, anyway.

"Foolish of me to assume," Holmes says airily. He is rubbing distractedly at the inside of his elbow, and peeking from under his rolled-up sleeve you can see minute bruises, tiny vampire bites.

You do nothing more than watch him for a few long moments. He does not stop moving, not for an instant, pattering fingers, jumping knee, hair a cinder wreck from his hand snagging through it. There are hollows carved into his cheeks, a sheen on his forehead, his eyes fierce and dark and lovely.

You came in looking for a fight, but you had forgotten that Holmes wins every one. Your mind is sluggish from drink, a dragging crawl in your stomach making you fear that you'll be ill before the night ends, and you cannot keep up with Holmes when you're like this.

"Will you sleep?" you ask him, trusting that he will see the surrender on your face.

He tips his head to the side and pulls his lower lip between his teeth. The circles under his eyes are like thumbprints of char.

"Doubtful."

"You'll make a long day of tomorrow."

Holmes's hand flits like a ghost. "Every day is a long day."

You nod, saying nothing though your chest strains with profound agreement. Slouching into your chair, you rest your head on your hand, exhaustion seeping through in a dilatory way. You regard your friend wearily as he fumbles to pack shag into his pipe. His fingers are shaking.

Between the two of you, you think, there might be the makings of one half-moral man. You suffer your plagues and he suffers his, and neither of you is interested in being healed. You and Holmes are accomplices, co-conspirators, ceaselessly protecting the other from everything but himself. A descent as abject as this one deserves good company, at the very least.

This train of thought saps you of what little strength remains. You exhale, and push yourself to your feet. Holmes looks up from his pipe, smoke writhing thinly around his head.

"I'm to bed," you say. You are listing, the line of your body at an acute angle to the floor.

"Mind yourself on the steps," Holmes tells you off-hand.

"Thank you, Holmes, I shall," you say dryly. You look down into his bloodshot black-rimmed eyes, the muscle flickering wildly in his jaw. "If your heart rate rises to above 200 beats per minute, do come and wake me so I might endeavour to save your life."

Holmes grins at you, smoke snaking from between his teeth. "You are a treasure beyond price, old boy."

You itch to push your hand over his hair, shape the wreck of it into some semblance of propriety. You want to jerk open the first few buttons of his shirt and bare the pale lines of his collarbones to the lamplight. You want to do awful things to him.

Instead you say, "Good night, Holmes," and you retreat.

From your garret room you can hear Holmes begin to play his violin, maddening too-fast tempo and nonetheless deeply moving. You sit fully dressed on the edge of the bed, listening in a stupor, and eventually you fall asleep like that. Your dreams are full of red-eyed demons, and somewhere nearby Holmes is roaming the forest with an enchanted sword.

(break)

You cannot write of what Holmes has come to mean to you.

Those words do not exist.

The detective is right in identifying the Watson on the page as your paragon, your sinless doppelganger. You have relieved the good doctor of your mortification and despair, the perverse thoughts that have infiltrated every moment of your day. He does not look at his Holmes with anything other than a fraternal affection tinged with poorly concealed reverence. He does not take the picture of Holmes's curved mouth and battered eyes into his room at night, into his bed and his own hand.

That is only you.

You are not in command of your mind, your desires, your constant tics and flinches in Holmes's presence, but you do retain dominion over what is written. On these pages you have repaired all that is wretched and ugly in your existence. You have created a London clean and romantic, a consulting detective heartlessly brilliant, and a mild-mannered doctor who steadfastly narrates his own life so that his friend's might be remembered. You love this ersatz world of yours. You yearn for it like a refugee who has been driven thousands of miles from home.

Sometimes it is a curse to be able to write as you do.

On this lesser planet, you have tea and toast with Holmes and pretend you are not staring at the line of his throat disappearing into his dressing gown. You have dinner out and the shine of the silver cannot catch your eye because you are already rapt; your attention is entirely claimed. You banter and spar with Holmes; you ridicule him because he needs it, and you take his abuse because you need it too. This friendship of yours is everyday, life and death, here to the ends of the earth. It is all the best clich├ęs.

It's also the secret of these stories of yours--it's what makes them go. In your perfect London with its helpful street urchins and conveniently lit alleyways, there thrives a friendship to rival all of history, a pair of men who quietly mean the world to each other, and it makes you feel as if you should be writing epic poems instead.

The doctor and the detective are the beating heart you've scribbled down on these pages. You might have written academic papers on the cases Holmes has solved, kept it all terribly scientific, treatises on deduction for those who aspire to such an exclusive profession, but you did not do that. You couldn't.

You need to describe Holmes, the way he drapes himself across furniture and holds his pipe like it's an extension of his hand, the angle of his specific grin and the savage gleam that coruscates in his eyes when he's got his teeth into something. He is the only thing you think about, honestly, a vast enveloping roar of Holmes and Holmes and Holmes, and you have to set it down on paper, let it bleed blackly out of your hand--otherwise it will eat you alive.

The good doctor looks with different eyes than you do, of course. He is an innocent, no matter that he shares your bloody history, he is not much more than a hero-worshipping boy in the presence of Sherlock Holmes. The doctor's respect is eminently respectable.

You think about Holmes saying that the Watson on the page is you as you wish to be, and you wonder what it would be like not to feel like this anymore. It's akin to wondering what it would be like to live on the moon.

So you sit a half-dozen feet away from Holmes and you write about him leaping from rooftop to rooftop, and you write about him recognising a certain brand of tobacco from the ash, and you write about him bare-knuckled and demolishing a man twice his size. You sneak glances at him and your stomach twists with want and you look down and you write.

No matter what else happens, you write.

(break)

This time, you let it get a tad out of hand.

There is something in the air tonight, something brittle and sharp like bottled rage, and you walk swiftly from the Underground stop to Mad Ryan's, trying to outpace it. It's even worse once you're inside, buzzing visibly on everyone's scruffed dirty face, and then you pay your two shillings to be let into the pit, and sink down to the next level of hell.

You start off on a bad streak, and in one corner a fistfight breaks out. Someone gets a broken bottle shoved in his face, and he is dragged out screaming, soaked in blood. You are emboldened by the thought that other men are having worse nights than you are, and you double your bets.

It pays off. Soon your coat is full of notes, crepitating with every breath you take. The dice fall as you bid them, and the cards love you tonight, every hand you play as charmed as a snake. You smoke your throat dry and drink to cure it, and everything in the room gains a melted aspect.

You are drunk now, and you are unforgivably thickheaded when you are drunk, just like your brother and your father before you, all the irrevocable damage done to your name. You get into a game with a stranger, a massive-shouldered career seaman, his face florid and his dimensions acromegalic. He speaks in a slurring mess of a Taffy accent, and you only understand about half of what he says, but you take his money anyway.

He's not pleased by that. He snatches your cards up from the table and throws them at you, cursing in his barbaric tongue, and you think unChristianly that he sounds like a dog.

Idiotically, you feel compelled to share that with the man.

"Quit barking at me, you Welsh mutt," you tell him, and his face turns an amazing aubergine colour, and then a ham-sized fist is careening towards your skull.

You duck it, instinct moving your body back and down. The Welshman overbalances and you shove the table into him, sending him crashing into a group of black-handed dockworkers playing dead man's eye. The coins in the dockworkers' pot spray across the floor and the more desperate of the men scrum after them, elbows flying. With shocking suddenness, the altercation explodes.

Someone swings a chair at you; it might have been the Welshman, but you can't say for sure. You can't trouble yourself to tell one troglodyte from another, at this point in the going. The chair strikes you hard on the head, and you fall to the floor, which is disgusting and smells godawful. Pain vibrates through you, your skull feeling cracked. People are trodding heavily on your hands and legs.

Then a white-haired septuagenarian sailor is crouching at your side and laying hands on you, hauling you out of the fray. You clutch his arms and pedal weakly at the ground, trying to help. The brawl is a charybdis, sucking every man in the room into its vortex.

The old man forces you to your feet, using the wall to brace your back. He squints at you from under heavy salt-coloured eyebrows, mouth hidden in a dirty beard. "Can ye walk?"

"Walk?" you repeat, bewildered. You are gripping the front of the old man's pea coat, feeling the pelagic grit scrape your palms.

"Aye, sir, walk," the old man says, and leads you by the elbow up the sagging steps to the tavern and the cool sweet air beyond it. You stagger and pitch violently forward a few times, but the old man does not let you topple.

Under the murky gaslights, you press your hand to where the chair laid into you, and find your hair sticky with blood.

"Oh," you say, blinking at your palm. "Am I hurt?"

"Aye, sir," the old man says, one hand still curled fast around your arm. "But it's nothing too severe."

"Are you--are you taking me to a doctor?" and then you add for no good reason, "I am a doctor."

"Bully for you, sir." There is a wry tone in the old man's voice, and it tugs at you, scratches at the back of your mind. "I'm taking you home."

"Oh," you say again, and allow yourself to be led another half-block before it occurs to you to ask, "How do you know where I live?"

The old man stops then, and looks both ways down the street before meeting your eyes with a mischievous grin that takes forty years off him. You are weaving on your feet, staring at him, and without warning he peels off his beard and mustache, the thick caterpillars over his eyes, and it is a transubstantiation no less miraculous than water into wine or bread into flesh: he is Holmes again.

Your legs give out.

It's a combination of things, inebriation and shock and head trauma, and then a crippling (more crippling) burst of shame, as you realise suddenly that Holmes was there, at your back all night long watching you in your most degenerate state. It's like a house has collapsed with you inside, and you are buried under rubble now.

You are falling, so Holmes catches you. Of course.

His hands hook hard under your arms and your chest crashes into his, this stunningly physical moment that vibrates through your whole body. Your cane rattles into the narrow cobblestones of the street, and you hold on to your friend tightly because you don't want to fall. Your head swirls, packed with steam and the terrible heat of Holmes when he is so near.

"Ho, boy," Holmes says softly, hushing the little hiccups you did not even notice coming out of you. "You're all right."

You are not; it is beyond belief how very much you are not.

With all your strength, you push away from Holmes, put him at arm's length and keep him there. You drag the wig of dirty white hair off his head and he is his wholly dark self again.

"Goddamn it, Holmes," you say in a gnarled tone. "What are you doing here?"

Holmes shrugs, his eyes skipping the way they do when he's deciding which particular lie to tell.

"Same thing I do everywhere else," Holmes tells you, and your lip curls viciously in a sneer.

"An actual answer, if you would please. Have you developed a taste for the tables as well?"

That would be just the thing, you think in a flurry of hysterical giddiness, Holmes to the gambling pit and you to the cocaine bottle or the boxing ring (they would probably damage you with roughly equivalent severity, though each would take a different form). The two of you could share your self-immolations, trade them back and forth like boys playing marbles. At times it feels as if you and Holmes are adjacent black holes, each striving to pull the other down with him.

Holmes shows the joyless smile he reserves for the duller members of Scotland Yard, and tells you, "No, I believe your claim is rather firmly staked in that area. I wouldn't dare to intrude."

You would like to hit him, and you are at exactly the right level of drunk where you could and would probably escape culpability, but you want your answer first.

"Have you become so bored that I must serve as your new case?"

For whatever obscure Holmesian reason, that makes him laugh. It's abrupt, his face open with incredulity for a moment, eyebrows high and outraged. The gaslight or pub light or moonlight or whatever it might be catches across Holmes's features, limning him in gold as his wide eyes shine like wet obsidian. He looks not of this world, a seraphic conception from some alien race.

You take half a step back, shaken. Holmes says with a knife's edge on his smile:

"You are not a new case, Watson."

For the longest time, you can only stare at him. Your anger drains out of you like a severed artery, leaving you feeling strange and shivery and unsure. Holmes is looking right back, that faint constant dare scrawled across his expression.

"You follow me," you say slowly, exhaling it. "What. What is the mystery you are trying to solve?"

Something flashes across Holmes's face. It's too quick to read, and then he crashes a gate down and he is back to being sardonic, carelessly superior.

"Here, keep yourself upright for a moment, there's a good lad," he says, and steps into the street to retrieve your cane and return it to you with a typical flourish before he takes your elbow in a matron's firm grip. "That's quite enough of this charming neighbourhood for one night, wouldn't you say? If you can make it as far as Bromley Street, I believe a cab might be acquired to return us to our proper stratum."

Holmes leads you down the street towards the building cacophony of the main road. You stumble trying to keep up, thankful for Holmes's guiding hand but you'll never tell him that. You cannot fix on a single thought, your mind overtaken by rioters and outlaws. A great deal has happened in the last few minutes, and you're sure you'll be able to grasp it all any moment now.

On Bromley Street, a horse with a broken leg shrieks in that gut-wrenching animal way as the driver thumbs bullets into his revolver. The man is crying silently and everyone who passes by is pretending they can't see him.

(break)

You try to put that night down on paper a day later. It is already becoming diffuse, gauzy and incomplete, unbearably significant, and you want it written so that you can sort it properly. The concussion you have suffered is no excuse, nor the exhaustion it has brought down or the palsy that seems to have infected your right hand. You brace your wrist with your left, and force the pen down on the page.

But the words are gone today.

You conjure up the Aligherian stench of Mad Ryan's, the men's meaty faces benighted with unkempt beards, and there is the spectre of Holmes in the corner now, white-haired and hunched into a claw, watching your every move. You close your eyes and bring back the harsh exchange on the street, struggling for anger and doing all you can not to remember the solidity of Holmes's body against yours for those few seconds when he held all your weight.

Nothing sticks. It's terribly fragile at the best of times, one ill-chosen word, one purple phrase too heavily weighted, and it falls apart like a net of cobwebs. It falls apart again and again. Each moment slides away from you like oil on rain.

The Watson on the page will not act out this scene for you. You have made him bleed and weep and crawl and beg, but here is where he draws the line.

You know you should not blame him. The good doctor has a much more genteel gambling problem than you do, losing his money in well-lit leather-bound clubs with butlers in tails bringing drinks on silver trays, and he makes it look almost respectable. He wouldn't last ten minutes in Mad Ryan's.

It's disconcerting, all the same, to find him in revolt against you. This Watson has always trusted the dictates of your hand implicitly, because you are his father, or you are him, or he is you, or something. He is your better part, and so you have sent him on righteous adventures only, always ensuring that he arrives just in time to save Holmes's life, and in this way the good doctor has become a minor hero on his own, and you feel he is thankful for that. But his faith in you is not as blind as a creator might hope.

He will not go to Limehouse. He remains installed in Baker Street with Holmes tinkering away at his beakers in the background. The good doctor is safe here, and comfortable, and if he tips his head just so, he can see his detective out of the corner of his eye, singed but whole. The doctor's detective is humming a fugue from Bach, eating a biscuit left over from tea, and Watson is defiantly at peace.

This is what should have happened, you know. This is what he is trying to tell you, your guileless facsimile with his pale blue eyes as big as sovereigns. He is earnest and sincere because this Watson is never anything but deathly sincere, and he wants you to know:

This is how it is meant to be.

You do not love Holmes as you should. In your stories there is something pure and untouched between the cold detective and his dear doctor, their windows lambent late into the night as they share the space of a single room, their arms linked on a long walk through the park at the first show of spring. There is a simplicity to it, an elegance and a grace, and you have none of those things. You have shirts ruined by bloodstains, and too many scars, and a best friend who has mutilated and maimed the man you used to be. You have less than thirty pounds to your name.

Your steadfast shadow self wants you to know that the world doesn't have to be this way, but you will not listen to him. You still your hand, lift it away from the page where it has been scrawling drivel about Holmes's eyes.

So you will not write today.

Your head hurts a great deal, anyway.

(break)

The day wastes away as you doze fitfully in the patches of milky light that drift across your bed. The knot on your head gifts you with phantasmagoric dreams that remind you of a morphine stupor. There are herds of crimson oliphants as big as ships with yellow saurian eyes, thundering through the streets of London and tearing it down house by house, and only Holmes can stop it, but he's out to sea, in disguise and unidentifiable. You are paddling a small rowboat up the Thames, shouting for him until you lose your voice, and then you wake up.

It is pitch dark. You are sprawled at a skewed angle across the bed and it takes you long minutes of inept fumbling to find and light the gas-lamp on the little table. There are masses of damp cotton stuffed into your skull, keeping you stoppered, thwarted. You stagger downstairs.

Holmes is gone. The Dutch clock on the mantle informs you that it is almost one in the morning. There is a limited number of places that he could be, but you've determined not to dwell on it.

There is a cold meal still under its silver hood on the table, and you sit down to it, feeling absurdly like a widow just come down from her walk as you pull your dressing gown tighter around you. It is so quiet. The clinking of fork and plate reverberates, keeps you spooked and on edge.

Your head is still not quite right. You are thinking somewhat less than linearly, memories flitting by and warping into fantasies, the heated morass of your baser levels. Holmes appears in all his incarnations, scintillating and starved and caught in a burst of laughter, and you imagine sliding your hands under his open collar, fingers spread out wide on the high plane of his chest. You imagine putting your mouth at the place where his leg meets his body, and closing a hand in his hair to pull his head back, and laying yourself across his back, teeth on the nape of his neck.

You are in a haze so thick and pervasive it feels narcotic, and so naturally that is the moment Holmes chooses to return.

Lost in the moment, you do not hear him mounting the seventeen steps. The door is flung open with a bang, and you shout, you jerk back and almost fall out of your chair. The shock throbs in you, your pulse wrenched up to a pace that makes it difficult to breathe.

Holmes is laughing at you.

He is also bleeding fairly seriously. He leans heavily on the door, eyebrow split open and painting one side of his face in gory red, his ear smashed and hugely swollen. There is blood on his teeth, his eyes lit up white with pain and adrenaline.

"All right, enough of your gawking," Holmes manages, waving you forward with an impatient hand. "Come to my aid, old boy."

You rise like he stuck a coin in you. The fork slides out of your hand to fall on the carpet with a dim thud. Your detective has been beaten halfway to Hell and he hangs on to the door with stiff arms, plainly staving off total collapse. The two of you have a tacit agreement about this kind of thing, parallel missions to ensure that the other does not spend too much of his life passed out on the ground.

Holmes collapses on you, instead, his face burying in your shoulder, and you bite your tongue hard. You manage not to gasp or groan, but Christ in Heaven, it's a near thing.

You drag him over to the lamp where you can see better and roll him out on the carpet. He moans and whines, hisses at the iodine and curses as you stitch up the gash in his head. You have a knee on his shoulder to keep him still, and you can feel him tensing beneath you every time you push the needle through his skin.

Holmes's cheek and jaw bear darkening bruises, ominous protrusions, and you ask, "Is anything fractured, can you tell?" You are glad to have a technical subject to discuss.

"Bent but not broken," Holmes says in a mumble, his eyes upturned to your face.

Discomfited and drunk on how near he is, you put your hand on his throat and tip his head slightly towards the light, saying low, "Hold still."

He blinks, his eyes never leaving your face. Your fingers stroke under his jaw, skate down to the hollow of his throat. You watch this happen as if it is someone else's hand. When Holmes swallows, you can feel it against your palm.

"Who did this to you? It's too late for the fights," you whisper. You are not sure why you're whispering.

Holmes manages to lift the eyebrow that hasn't been split open, but it still tugs at the stitches, and you put your thumb to the edge of his hiked brow, pull it back down. He glowers from under your hand, but schools his face in a less damaging expression.

"I was set upon by youths," Holmes says with typically immutable dignity.

It's your turn to raise an eyebrow. "You were set upon by youths?"

"Yes, my dear echo, youths. All dispatched from the street if not the earth, you'll be happy to hear. They only managed a few lucky blows before their inevitable defeat."

You don't think you believe him. There are no signs that he is lying, but of course that doesn't mean a thing. You press your lips together and tie off the suture, and then forfeit your handkerchief to the task of carefully dabbing Holmes's face clean of blood. Your fingertips brush down his cheek, touching the corner of his mouth, and neither of you mentions that.

"You could not be set upon without being aware of it well in advance. Did you go out intending to pick a fight?" you ask. Holmes's head twitches minutely.

"Youths, Watson," he insists, his voice scraping. "I was accosted."

"I think you're lying," you tell him.

He startles, his eyes latching on to yours with a crack that you can almost hear. Holmes is used to you letting him get away with everything, but maybe that's the problem.

A moment of silence strings out between you that feels like energy crystallised and as fragile as spun sugar. You stare at each other. Your bloody fingers are curled against his face.

"Well," Holmes says on a breath. "We all have our tragic flaws, I suppose."

"Yes," you answer, and then you bend your head and press your lips to the deepest bruise on his face.

Holmes jerks and gasps and it's not pain. His hand clutches at your shoulder, and he does not push you away. Your mouth drags down his throat, sweet rasp and coppery salt taste until you are dizzy from it. You lick at him desperately for a few seconds, hard pull of your tongue over rough skin, and Holmes makes a trapped high-pitched sound that shivers down your spine.

"Holmes," you mumble, your nose tucked against the thunder of his pulse. Your hands rend his shirt apart, popping buttons to scatter like seeds. You stroke down his chest and stomach and he pants, a smashed groan wrenched out of him.

You close your eyes because you cannot see him; your life is over if you see Holmes like this. His hand gripping your shoulder is the only place where he is touching you. His chest jumps at the drift of your palms, and there are weak sore places over his ribs, tremulous muscles in his stomach. The heat bleeding from his skin has taken over your mind like a vanishing fog.

"I cannot," you gasp, and you don't know precisely what you mean by that. You set your mouth to the perfect stony curve of his collarbone, sucking a kinder bruise onto his skin.

Holmes tightens his hold on your shoulder and then his hand slides up into your hair, and you shudder like a leaf, pressing your cheek to his chest.

"You can," Holmes says in a ravaged voice, and then, "Please," and you muffle a moan with his body, drawing your hands down his sides and pushing up on your good knee.

Your detective lies beneath you, flushed and sybaritic, his eyes heavy-black with lust. Awed, you both watch your hands working his flies open, his hips flinching towards you. He is hard already, steam-hot and wanting through his smallclothes as you shape your hand around him. A groan spurs out of his chest, and he cranes his head up, attaches his mouth to the underside of your jaw, sharp and wet and jolting through you. You grind your hips into his thigh, stroking him off slowly through the soft damp fabric.

"Ah God," Holmes moans against your throat, and then suddenly his hands are on either side of your head and he is pulling your mouth to his. That first kiss is the filthiest one you have ever known, open and ragged and laced with desperation. Holmes bites your tongue, sucks on your lower lip, and your vision glitters with pale silver stars.

"You must," Holmes barely manages, and then, "Watson," gasped against your lips, and then he is pulsing under your hand, heat soaking into his smalls. He throws his head back, crying out, and his fingers clench in your hair. His whole body draws as tight as a bow, and then shivers to pieces beneath you.

Your face is hidden in his throat again, your hips riding his thigh steadily and without shame. The goodness of it has overrun your better sensibilities and you don't care about the picture you must be making. You mouth frantic kisses down Holmes's neck and slip your fingers under his smalls, curiously learning the feel of him as he twitches and softens.

Holmes makes an indistinguishable sound at that, kind of choked and astonished, and murmurs your name. He curls his arm around your shoulders and lifts his thigh so you'll have a better angle to thrust against him. Bolts of white heat rip through you. You whimper and gnaw at his shoulder, and he cards his fingers through your hair, says your name again, as if it's the only word he can remember.

You finish only seconds later, a great hand shoving you off a towering cliff and down you go, and down and down and down. You fall for what feels like hours, your body flooded with weightless pleasure, your mind cut loose, a lost balloon.

When you regain your senses, you find you are still sprawled out fully dressed on top of your best friend, who is staring up at you with a brand-new kind of calculation in his eyes. With a groan, you roll off him and flop onto your back, breathing hoarsely.

The two of you lie there side by side for a few minutes, recovering. The ceiling is pockmarked with bullet holes and oblong scorch marks, a chalybeous overlay of chemical stains.

Eventually you say, "Well," and that's all. Your hand itches on the carpet; you wish you had a pen.

Holmes tips his head to the side to look at you. You cannot decipher his expression and you think it must be the bruises, this latest mask of his.

"Well," Holmes says agreeably. Then he smiles at you.

Your heart stops. You don't move as he pushes carefully into a sitting position, hissing quietly under his breath. He fixes his trousers and shrugs off his ruined shirt, rises from the floor and offers you a hand up. You clasp his wrist without thought, and he puts you on your feet.

You sway there for a second, blinking at him. He smirks, bare-chested and still slightly flushed, a cool sheen of sweat all over him. You are not supposed to see him like this, not supposed to want him like this, battered and used and standing before you like a wicked heart-thief of a prince, but you are the lesser John Watson and the devil take you, because you do.

You always will.

(break)

Nothing will change, is what you have written.

You stare down at it as if it were hieroglyphics rather than your own slanted hand. It's the first thing that came to your mind today, three days after you touched Holmes for the first time, something your hand had placed on the page before you had even settled fully in the chair. It is not the beginning of a story, because you never write in the future tense.

The flat is quiet around you, though Holmes is here too, shut up in his room doing God knows what (silence is so much more terrifying than chaos where Holmes is concerned), and you smoke a methodical cigarette, watching the riverine smoke weave through the thick air.

When you pick up your pen again, you understand what the first sentence means.

You are writing a letter to the man on the page. The good doctor. You are writing this letter because you fear you have betrayed him. He wanted to see you in his world, living to the beat of his sturdier heart, that clean white love burning like a torch for Holmes, distant and eternal and unimpeachable, empyrean, and instead you've made it into this common thing, a cheap tawdry kind of love that makes animals of men.

But you write to him:

Nothing will change.

It is not me that the world will remember. I will not put words to this thing into which I have devolved because it does not deserve it; it does not deserve the ink or the paper or the slightest portion of my strength. I am not so overcome by my base urges that I need to see them written and therefore made true. Equally compelling, I would not think to burden you with any of it, old friend.

I do not know precisely when you and I began to diverge, or if indeed we ever were the same man, but you must take my word that I will try to keep you as whole as you are now, with as few of my defects and deficiencies as possible. You are the John Watson that I cannot be, and it is of utmost importance that you go on like that, that you continue to exist even if it is only on the page.

Your Holmes needs you, and so does mine. No matter what becomes of me, dear Watson, you must live to tell the tale.

And then your hand stops, and lays the pen carefully down. You stand and walk over to the window, lighting another cigarette. Down on the street, a cart has overturned and covered the cobblestones in small golden apples. Two men are in the gutter arguing about who caused the accident as scummy little boys and horses filch pieces of fruit, and you watch them blankly, fingering the bite mark on your neck in an absent way.

The creak of Holmes's door stirs you, and you look back to see him come into the room. He looks vaguely wild-eyed, hands atremble and the handkerchief tied around the crook of his elbow again.

"Ah, Watson," he says, as if it were a rare pleasure to find you standing at the sitting room window.

"Good afternoon," you say with absurd formality considering that sixteen hours ago he had your prick in his mouth.

He comes to stand next to you at the window, casts an uninterested look at the scene before tugging you out of public view. Pressing you to the bookshelf with his hands on your shoulders, Holmes says with a smile like a twisted knife:

"Deduce my reasons for coming in here, would you?"

You lift an eyebrow, cataloging the amplified heat in his too-black eyes, the nervous way he rubs his hands against your shoulders. You lay your hand across the side of his neck and his pulse sings under your palm.

"You were bored," you say, and mention nothing about the cocaine coursing through him.

"Indeed, indeed I was." Holmes grins, cups your face in his hand for a brief second before his fingers dart up to muss the careful set of your hair. "What should we do about that?"

You give him a smile in return, that mindless joy blooming in your chest again, that suicidal part of you that does not care what is or is not supposed to be, only that Holmes is yours at last.

You slide to your knees so gracefully it feels like a sigh, a long exhale. Hands hooking in his trouser pockets, you rest your chin on his belt and turn your eyes up to him. His fingers slide through your hair, curve around the back of your head, and he smiles down at you, doomed and so happy it breaks your heart to see.

Closing your eyes, you untuck and push up Holmes's shirt so you can press your face to his stomach. Your moustache raises goosebumps and you move your mouth across his warm pebbly skin, licking them away. You swear that you will remember this feeling, this one moment, and you wish with everything in you that such a thing could be written down.

THE END