The Other Way of the World

By Candle Beck

Something had happened.

Holmes arrived home in wet clothes one night, shaking with his hands and face as white as bone. Watson saw him only briefly, coming out of his room and down the first few steps with his friend's name bright in his mouth, for they had not seen each other in a fortnight. His voice arrested as he got a look at Holmes, thinking with a quizzical detachment that would have made the detective proud: it's not raining.

At the creak of Watson's foot on the step, Holmes flicked his gaze up and it made the breath stick in Watson's lungs because Holmes's eyes were pits, bullet wounds, hard and tar-black and devastated.

"What-" Watson began, fear settling like a cold cloth around his heart, and Holmes looked as if the sound of Watson's voice was physically damaging, so he swallowed back whatever he had meant to say next. The detective disappeared into the sitting room, and a moment later Watson heard the door to his bedroom slam shut.

Finding himself at a total loss, Watson followed him. He stopped before Holmes's door, lifted his fist to knock but then hesitation jogged through him, and he stepped back. Holmes didn't want to see him. That had been made plain.

Watson took the seat by the window, nudging at the glass to allow in some of the sweet antipluvial night air, and he lit a cigarette. He cast a long eye at the door to Holmes's room, wondering how long he would have to wait.

(break)

Inside, Holmes was pacing.

It was ten and a half strides, door to window. His hands were buried in his hair, still cold and slick from the river. There was a lump as big as an egg where the the man had hit him with the brick. He was holding his head together.

"You should have turned him," Holmes mumbled, and he flinched, yanked at his hair. "Stop it."

The man, think about the man. He was of Italian extraction, kinky hair, black olive eyes, so think about that. Think about his scars and tattoos; he'd been to sea, obviously, his arm branded by the French Navy at least ten years before, that piratical snake etched in black, and the slabs of muscle across his shoulders, his hands horny and thick with calluses, spoke to his recent employment as a stevedore, and so it would be the docks next, the docks at sunrise with the ships plangently mourning the night, the flags run up blood-red and weightless and you should have turned him.

Holmes came to the window again and leant his forehead on the thin glass. His chest hitched on a forgotten breath. One fist softly found the wall, and he gazed down at the street, drinking in the people and dissecting the shabby miseries of their infinitesimal lives. The pursuit felt compulsive, desperate. Dark secrets piled up like rotting wood in his mind.

From the other room, he could smell the smoke of Watson's cigarette. Holmes closed his eyes and did what he could to concentrate on that alone.

(break)

Watson had been taken out of town by a minor lord who'd had the bad form to contract a nasty case of influenza while at his country estate, and more than enough money to bring his favourite doctor to him. It was a largely thankless chore, and it would take two full weeks of Watson's life before all was said and done, but when he returned they would be able to afford restaurants again. An altogether acceptable trade, the good doctor felt.

He had left Holmes well enough, preoccupied with the germinal stages of an intricate chemical experiment, and sent him three telegrams (the last had been rather more blunt than the previous: DO YOU YET LIVE STOP), and heard nothing from him, not a word. This was far from atypical, of course, and Watson had not been genuinely worried. Upon his return to the capital, he had purchased a newspaper from a lad outside the train station and ascertained that Holmes was not dead, dying, or incarcerated, but instead "consulting" (read: manipulating to act as his own personal brute squad) with Scotland Yard on investigations into the kidnapping of the Marquess of Northampton's son.

The world as defined by Sherlock Holmes had continued spinning in Watson's absence. There was a certain comfort in that, a surety that things were as they should have been. Watson depended on Holmes like he depended on gravity.

And this vision of the detective pallid and dripping on the carpet, the gouges where his eyes had been, it unbalanced Watson. He was destabilised, out of sorts, looking down at his feet to ensure the ground was still there. It had been thirteen hours since Holmes had vanished behind a locked door.

Mrs Hudson brought lunch and Watson stood, his bad knee sighing dimly with pain. He thanked her, a courteous bend to his spine, and wasted minutes on useless pleasantries before asking, "Has he given you much trouble, my dear lady?"

She pressed the heel of her hand to an escaping tendril of hair, smoothing it back. Her face was pinched, threads of tension at the corners of her eyes and mouth.

"We're both extremely pleased to see you home, I'm sure," Mrs Hudson said circumspectly.

Watson sighed. "Indeed," he murmured. He gave the landlady an apologetic half-smile. "Do you happen to know where the case took him last night? He came in in quite a state."

Mrs Hudson's lip curled, a look like the scrape of a rasp on her face. "You have been gone too long, Doctor, if you think that he would share such confidences with me."

"Indeed," Watson said again, feeling dull. Mrs Hudson left and Watson fiddled with his tea spoon for a moment before rising and going to Holmes's door.

"Holmes," Watson called through the wood. "Will you eat?"

There was no answer. Watson leaned close, almost brushing his ear on the door. He could hear nothing, and the text of his last telegram surfaced in his mind like ill-formed corpses afloat on the sea--do you yet live.

He turned away. His fingers brushed the cool metal of the knob, and then he let the contact break. Watson went back to his lunch, a quiet gnawing worry taking up the space in the back of his mind. He resolved that he would stay in this room until Holmes emerged, no matter how long it might take.

(break)

Holmes was no longer in Baker Street.

He had left many hours before, crawling out the small bevelled lavatory window and down the coal chute to the blackened alley. He did not wish to explain himself to his friend, and he knew Watson would not let him leave peacefully otherwise. Holmes could not see him now.

So he was at the docks. There was a furze of salt and grime on everything, scratchy splintered boards under his feet. The men hauling crates and ropes did not pay him any attention, air shooting out of them in strained grunts, hands squamate and swollen overlarge.

Holmes moved through the melee, hat pulled low over the dyspeptic look on his face. He was looking for a match to the tattoo the man had worn on his arm, a crimson-eyed ouroboros circling a dark star. A pirate's mark, and it had been familiar in the distant way that most things were familiar to Holmes; the name Corsica drifted through his mind like a faraway song.

There was a shout to his left, and Holmes's head snagged to see a man who'd torn his hand open on a sharp bit of metal, fresh blood spilling off his palm. Something constricted in Holmes's chest, a furious glaze casting across his vision.

Blood on the floor. That boy with his empty senseless face, his fluttering blue-milk eyes, the bones of his fingers broken and moving sickly under the skin as Holmes cut him free of his bonds. The blood, all over the floor.

"Stop it," Holmes whispered, clenching his hand in his pocket tightly enough to imprint crescent-moon bruises on his palm. He needed to find that tattoo. That snake choking on its own tail, that darkest of stars. He needed to keep moving.

The mugient excesses of the docks filtered into steam and roar as Holmes walked. He forced his mind open, folderol and the metallic cries of industry clamouring for space. He let the flood of sensory data overwhelm him until it was not facts anymore, not reality, but only endless sound, enough sound to make it silence.

(break)

A boy came with the evening edition as the sun began its long slide down the declivity of the sky, and the front page screamed murder.

The son of the Marquess of Northampton was dead. His body had been found in a cheap tavern room near Blackfriars, fourteen years old and never having known a day of privation or hardship until the last week of his life, when the imbalance had been mercilessly redressed.

Watson took meticulous notes, scribbled bewildered questions in the margins. He was operating in a state of functional shock; Holmes had been hired to return the boy safe home, and instead the headlines ran red. It felt like a paradox, a terrifying impossibility come to be.

There wasn't enough information in the newspaper story, all obscured rumour and hysterical supposition, and Watson set it aside. He rose to his feet, tugging his waistcoat straight and tucking a bit of shirt back under his belt as he went to Holmes's door and leaned his ear close once again.

Nothingness spoke eloquently through the barrier. Watson rested his forehead on the wood for a single moment, then moved back and rapped his knuckles hard.

"Holmes, I've seen the papers. Are you all right?"

Nothing. Watson held his breath to make sure.

He tried again. "I'm truly sorry, my dear man. I do not doubt that you expended every effort in aid of the boy."

The door remained impassive, as blank as a cataract. Watson's hand was spread out on the wood, his index finger tapping noiselessly. He wondered if Holmes had taken to the bottle, and then he wondered which bottle. The picture of Holmes with a seeping hole in his arm and lifeless stones for eyes flitted through Watson's mind, as real and vibrant as a fever dream.

"Holmes," Watson said, and briefly considered how much of his time he spent calling to Holmes through doors. "There's no need to discuss it if you'd rather not, but would you mind answering me, at least?"

And nothing. Slippery tendrils of fear wound around Watson's spine.

"I know your habits too well to take your silence with equanimity," Watson told the door. "Please, Holmes."

Under normal circumstances, Watson saying 'please' was a shibboleth, a golden key, the final straw for Sherlock Holmes, but there was no luck in the world today, and silence reigned.

Watson stepped back, his hands squeezing into fists. His breath was coming fast and ragged.

"I'm kicking in your door now, old boy," he called, giddy strength squirrelling through his body. "I won't be blamed for it, either."

The doctor suited action to word, the door crashing inwards with a crack like a rifle shot, a bristling splinter of wood. The room was empty, the lavatory window standing open like an accusation. Watson found Holmes's smudged fingerprints on the glass, and for some reason it felt like the worst kind of betrayal.

(break)

The docks gained him nothing, and Holmes made his way along the muddy river path, the great dome of St Paul's hovering like an enormous grey silk moon to his left. He hadn't eaten in two days and it was starting to show, a growing hollow feeling inside. Holmes shoved the ache aside, thinking that he would eat after he found the man with the tattoo, or pass out trying. The carrot and the stick, Holmes thought in exhaustion.

He came upon a crumbling wall of brick, a dead dog lying stiff-legged in a wet patch of refuse, and Holmes stopped, closed his eyes for a second. Breathing deep, he recognised the mephitic smell of brine and sulphur, the particular smoke from the meat-curing shop in the next street. This was the place.

Holmes had been only half-conscious at the time, dragged by his collar with his boots scraping long tracks in the muck. The man with the tattoo had hit him with a brick, hauled him through the dirty streets, and rolled him into the river. The shock of the gelid water brought his senses shrieking back to him, and so he had survived, but that fact wasn't helping him a tremendous amount right now.

For better than two hours, Holmes scoured every inch of the area, searching for the slightest sign. The hem of his coat dipped into the mud as he crouched down, geometric circles caked on the knees of his trousers when he lost his balance and tipped forward.

There was blood on the bricks, four long marks made by a human hand, by Holmes's hand. He set his fingers to the claret stains, saw how they matched his shattered nails and the scabbed broken skin at the tips. The moment reoccurred in Holmes's mind: he had surfaced from the haze of pain, the man's hands wrenched in his collar, and understood what was happening to him almost at once, clawing for the bricks and feeling his nail peel off as if it were made of wax.

Holmes shuddered, and said under his breath, "Quiet, old boy." His hand throbbed like a broken heart, and he wished Watson were here with him, only for a moment but with enough power that he was nearly overcome.

He shoved his hand into his hair, twisted hard. Agony burred through his head, the outsized lump on his skull jumping to life, and Holmes gritted his teeth, rode it out. Watson's company was the other thing he was not permitted until he had found the man with the tattoo.

At the embankment over which Holmes had been dumped, there was more of his blood, and a scrap of filthy woolen cloth. Holmes tested it with his fingers, and saw a flash of his hand hooking in the villain's coat pocket as he was tipped over the side, the vertiginous strength of gravity clutching at him. Holmes brought the ragged square close to his face, sniffing and squinting, and that was powder and beetroot, the smell of a woman's makeup.

Holmes pushed the pocket into his own pocket, and turned away from the river. He went looking for an actress or a whore.

(break)

Watson arrived at Scotland Yard just as night took full control of the sky. Boys on stilts came down the streets carrying torches to ignite the gaslights, strange macabre sight like creatures from another planet awkwardly invading. Whitehall was otherwise dim and hushed, the great clock of Westminster gazing like a cat's eye across the City.

Inside it was all dark-suited constables with shiny gold on their collars. Several recognised Watson and called to him, hail fellow well met, but he had no time for them. He moved directly for the sergeant's desk, and demanded to see Inspector Lestrade.

Lestrade emerged to meet Watson, a resigned expression on his face.

"I do not know where he is," Lestrade said before Watson could speak.

"What happened?" Watson asked, and his voice cracked, and he was awash with self-disgust for a moment.

Lestrade sighed, looking grizzled and old. "You've heard about Northampton's boy?"

"Yes, of course. How--was he there?"

They went into Lestrade's small office and took their seats. Lestrade steepled his fingers, mouth pinched within his trim beard. The solemn look on his face scared Watson as badly as anything that had happened so far.

"Holmes found the boy," Lestrade told him. "It took him longer than he expected, and he was--you know his manner when he becomes frustrated."

Watson nodded, dry-mouthed, filling in the gaps. Holmes had not slept more than a few hours at a stretch for days. Holmes had stopped sparing time to eat. Watson could imagine it to the last detail.

"He found the boy," Lestrade said again, and stopped. His gaze danced away from Watson's for a moment, then locked back into place. "The boy was still alive when Holmes found him, Doctor."

Shaking his head, Watson said, "I don't understand," but he knew that he should, that he could if he'd just try. His heart felt like it was shrinking.

Lestrade exhaled, aggrieved. "The villain was in the room when Holmes broke in--I told him to inform me before he intended to move, but of course he paid no heed--the man was in the room, and he fled, and Holmes. Holmes went after him."

"Yes, yes of course he did-"

"He left the boy, Watson," Lestrade said. "Cut his bonds and left him barely conscious and bleeding on the floor."

Watson's head continued to shake because surely the good inspector was mistaken. Even for a man like Holmes, there were untravelled countries, black continents that he would never attempt to cross. No matter how little sleep he'd had, how starved and obsessed he'd become, there were still things that Sherlock Holmes would not do.

Discomfited to an extreme, Lestrade pulled a hand over his beard, finished in a fast formal tone:

"Holmes was beaten by the villain and thrown in the river, but he managed to extricate himself and return to the room where the boy was being held. He gave a constable the alert, and the lads and I met him there. He was pressing the boy's chest but it was too late. The boy--Philip, I should say--he had been stabbed in the back. It was not a swift death."

Lestrade paused, and angled his chin at Watson. "Do you understand now?"

Watson nodded mechanically, numbness seeping across his skin. His mouth felt weak, untrustworthy. If he spoke he would say something unforgivable.

The manner in which Lestrade regarded him was almost shaming. Watson screwed his fist against his knee, the movement hidden by the edge of the desk. His body trembled with the urge to run.

"Whatever my own reservations about the man and his methods, no one can deny the good works he's done," Lestrade told him. "And I do not wish to blame him for the boy's death. This. This is a black time for us all."

Watson stood on watery legs. "Thank you, Inspector," he said woodenly. "I must take my leave of you now."

Lestrade nodded, saddened. "Of course. Godspeed, Watson."

And so the doctor escaped back into the great city, his mind alight with the face of his absent friend.

(break)

Holmes visited a number of brothels in the vicinity of Blackfriars, looking for a woman who knew of a man with a ouroboros tattoo. Each interview required a nominal fee and soon Holmes's ready money was exhausted. Holding morality to be somewhat cheap at this point, he applied the art of the pickpocket to a well-fed gentleman, and went on with his investigation.

In the fourth house of ill-repute, Holmes was at last rewarded. She was a spotty girl with a thin fox's face, watchful clever eyes not too dulled by the reek of opium that surrounded her. Her body in its narrow white shift asked obscene questions, the wings of her shoulders like knives.

For the tenth time, Holmes described the man and his self-consuming tattoo, the words stiff and rote in his mouth. A buzzing pain hovered in the back of his mind.

The whore said, "Aye, I know him," and Holmes's head snapped up, clarity rushing through him.

"What is his name?"

She gave him a long look, the dilapidated gears of her brain squealing. "Why do ye want to know?"

Holmes recognised the scrofulous malice lurking in her eyes, the vicious thrill of hopeful violence. He told her, "I intend to kill him."

A faint pleased look crossed her face, her lips twisting into a barb. "Good enough for me, love."

The man's name was Melchiori. He had been in London for one month, having been summarily run off of the Italian merchant vessel that had brought him to England's grey shores. The tattoo he had acquired in the company of a band of Corsican pirates, famed for their barbarity. He would show up at the brothel at irregular intervals, flush with money and cruel-handed, sharp-toothed, wanting honest cries and whimpers of pain where other men looked for her feigned pleasure. The whore hated him, desperately and soullessly, but her decisions in these matters were not her own.

She turned over all she knew of him to Holmes, and made the detective swear that when he found the villain, he would take his time.

(break)

From Scotland Yard, Watson set out for the Blackfriars tavern where the unfortunate boy had been found. He had no stable plan, his thoughts weltering, storming and riotous like an army whose leaders had been slaughtered. All that could occupy Watson was the vision of Holmes pressing the dead boy's chest, shivering and soaked from the river.

The tavern was shuttered and barred, a forbidding notice from the constabulary nailed to the door. Watson went around back, put his hat to a window and punched it through the prinkling glass. He climbed in, slipped on a greasy counter and fell hard onto the floor.

Now he was in a fair deal of physical pain on top of everything else, the old wounds speaking up with petulant volume like bad-tempered children who had been ignored too long. Watson's hands shook as he rummaged for a candle in the drawer, and he held fast to his cane, limped up the stairs to the rooms.

Holmes would have been able to decipher a week's history from the dust in the hallway, the scuff marks and scorches on the doors, but they were different men. Gold fingers of candlelight and shadow wicked along the walls. Watson opened every door without ceremony, until he found the room with the trail of blood on the floor.

And then he froze. His hand dug into the burnished doorknob, his body sagging in a paroxysm of horrified dismay.

There was so much blood.

There was a pool by the wall, darkened to a black lake by the passage of a day, and stretching out from it like a banner unfurled was a long streak the colour of dulled ruby. The streak was as thick as a young man, and beside it crawled the flared shape of a grasping hand. Philip had managed to drag himself almost all the way to the door.

Watson closed his eyes and reminded himself that he had seen unholy things before. The destroyed women in that cave in Afghanistan. The pile of amputated limbs that they had built outside the hospital tent at Maiwand. The small boy with half his face eaten away by acid in that factory near Southwark, his single wide blinking brown eye. After a moment, the old memories were enough to banish the terror before him now, and Watson felt his composure return.

He forced himself into the room, candle held before him as a shield. Holmes would have burst in, banking as he ever did on the element of surprise, and the villain would have sprung into action, flying for whatever secondary escape route he'd devised. Holmes had gone to Philip and cut his bonds, left him there on the floor. The scene played out behind Watson's eyes, concrete in every breath and sob, every drop of blood spilled. Watson could see it; he could feel it. This was how Sherlock Holmes lived every day of his life, bound in the straits of such a crippling awareness, and at that moment Watson would have given what was left of his leg to relieve his friend of this ravening curse.

The doctor moved to the window in a trance, and saw that the drainpipe had been ripped from its fittings, bending out from the building like the fragile trunk of a willow tree. Watson closed his eyes and saw Holmes dangling as the pipe folded down under his weight, his feet kicking for balance.

Down Holmes had gone, and so down went Watson too.

(break)

Holmes's search took him into the lower rungs of the East End. The fox-faced girl had given him a catalog of things that Melchiori had mentioned, common haunts and proclivities, and Holmes knitted them together into a skein of the man's everyday routine, and from there extrapolated where he would most likely scarper when his luck turned sour. It would be a favourite pub, of course, someplace secure and familiar where he could get food and drink without having to show his face outside, a small room in poor condition where he would fancy himself as well-concealed as a rat in its hole.

These deductions stood out like illuminated signposts, drawing Holmes onward. He was blind to the hustle of the street, the broken slabs of pavement rising hard under his boots. He was tired, fuzzy silver lining the edges of his vision because tired was perhaps a bit of an understatement. Heaviness dragged at him, a blanket of soft steel laid across his shoulders, but he pushed through it, kept moving. Holmes knew if he passed out in this part of town, he'd wake up dead.

Someone called his name. Holmes tripped over his feet, barely caught his balance. His head whipped around and there was a constable coming up the block behind him, one hand hailing.

Badly off his guard, Holmes straightened, forced his eyes to come into focus. He set his mouth in a standard sneer, because he did not have time for this.

"My dear Constable Nelson, surely you have erred in your navigation tonight. Whitechapel is not the safest place for your kind, or hadn't you heard?"

The constable huffed out a breath, but he was not new to Sherlock Holmes and so rightly ignored him.

"Inspector Lestrade requests your presence at the Yard, sir."

"Naturally he does. Unfortunately I am engaged at the moment, and so I must bid you farewell."

Holmes turned smartly but the constable caught his elbow and the detective went still. Only one man in the world was allowed to grab him like that.

"Remove your hand," he said, the words misshapen in his throat.

The constable complied at once, but he had Holmes's attention and that was enough for his purposes.

"Every man on the beat tonight has orders to keep an eye out for you," the constable told him. "The inspector would know what you've discovered about Philip Townshend's murderer."

"He would know, if he had the competence to do his job himself rather than forever wringing my brain. Send him my regrets, would you? Good lad."

Holmes turned to go again, and Nelson tossed a hook into his back, saying, "Your doctor is among those in search of you, Mister Holmes."

Holmes faltered, hesitated. His mind filled like a balloon with the image of Watson limping through the filthy streets, teeth gritted around Holmes's name. A twisting painful thing happened in the detective's stomach, but he squashed it down to nothing because he needed to concentrate, he needed to focus. Melchiori was somewhere ahead of him, that sick black heart that Holmes would crush between his hands, and he couldn't allow himself to become distracted.

"I wish him luck," Holmes said like it was ripped out of him. "Good night, Constable."

Nelson let him go that time, muttering an expected oath at Holmes's back. Holmes ducked around the first corner he came to, feeling hunted even though that was backwards. It was all wrong.

(break)

Watson stumbled upon Holmes's trail almost entirely by chance.

His concentration was fused into a beam of light, as forward-thinking as a shot arrow. Somewhere ahead of him was his damaged friend, and somehow Watson had to find him, and that was all that mattered.

Out of the slack open mouth of an alley, a pair of hands latched hold of him, dragged him into the dark. Watson staggered on his bad leg and would have fallen had he not been jerked upright my his assailant.

"Yer in the wrong part of town, toff," said the man, grinning with black teeth, smashed porcine eyes buried in his dirty face. "Ye must pay the toll." He held a ragged length of blade in his hand, moving to press it under the doctor's chin, but Watson would have none of that.

In a clean motion, he yanked himself back and to the side, let his arm come sweeping up, cracking his cane into the man's face and abruptly shattering his nose. The makeshift blade scraped along Watson's throat but it was shallow, insignificant, and then the weapon clattered to the ground. The man choked on half a shout, both hands to his face, and Watson walloped him again, the hard knob finding the man's temple and sending him to the ground in a boneless collapse.

Watson exhaled. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to the short seeping wound in his neck, checked the man's pulse without much interest either way. The felon lived still, and so Watson came out of the alley to locate a constable who could haul the man away.

The constable he found was named Nelson.

Much later, Watson would wonder at the coincidence, the disparate snaking lives brought together so briefly and with such great impact. Watson had never been a devout man, and Holmes would surely call it superstitious folly, but when it was very late at night he would be certain that there had been an eye on the two of them at that moment, an Eye. Someone had been keeping watch.

(break)

Holmes assembled a rough tradesman disguise from the random detritus cached in his coat, pulled his hat low over his eyes and affected a limp, slouching into the tavern. No one paid him any attention as he took a seat in the corner where he could see down the hallway of rooms for let. He struck a match alight with his thumbnail and nursed his pipe, feeling scoured and covered in skin thinner than smoke.

A period of minutes went past. Holmes observed the movements of the barkeep, the single harried waitress, the sparse yabbering crowd. There was a card game going on to one side, and the man with the Breton accent was cheating. The two sullen-looking youths playing darts were engaged in a guilt-ridden homosexual relationship that could end in nothing but violence. The old man with his face in his hands had lost his mind to syphilis.

This was certainly the place, Holmes decided. The fox-faced girl had named it as Melchiori's favourite, the only address he might call home, but more than that was the feel, the villain's ghost snarling just beyond where Holmes could see.

He touched his fingers lightly to the lump on the side of his head. Last night's fight was in kaleidoscopic splinters in his mind, single blows remembered out of sequence, fractured cries echoing and redoubling in his mind. Somehow Melchiori had knocked Holmes to his knees, and then the brick, that blunt thud of stone on skull, and then blackness.

It infuriated Holmes beyond the telling of it. He couldn't abide losing.

A boy came in wearing a butcher's apron that hung on him like a musselman's long tunic and bearing a covered plate of food that leaked steam. Holmes tracked the plate to the bar where it was surrendered for a few coins, and then the waitress took it down the hallway to the rooms.

She rapped on the third door down, and Holmes watched the changed light spill over her as the door was inched open, an arm emerging to accept the plate. From where Holmes sat, he could see the dark ink spoiling the arm, the hard black circle of snake.

Holmes let out a slow careful breath. He set his pipe down on the table and noticed absently that his hands were shaking. His head felt dizzy and light, his body made of nothing more than breath. The pieces of his plan slotted into place, and he got to his feet.

The first thing he needed was a diversion.

(break)

Constable Nelson took Watson back to the spot where he had encountered Sherlock Holmes, and pointed out the direction in which he had gone, and Watson barely took the time to thank him before rushing onward.

Adrenaline took him over like a possession, a demon sinking into his blood. He was close; he could feel it. Holmes had walked this street, peered into these same battered shops. His afterimage flickered before Watson, an underdeveloped photograph.

Watson was not thinking about what would happen when he found his friend. He required data, evidence. He needed to see how badly Holmes was injured, how long it had been since he had slept, how much blood he had on his hands, and then he would be able to determine his next move. Holmes was always telling him, never act in advance of the facts.

The dense pain in his leg had receded like a battling tide, waiting for him just off-shore. His shoulder felt pounded like raw meat, supporting too much weight on the trembling strut of his cane, but he wasn't concerned with anything physical just now.

Then ahead of him, a hansom cab burst into flames.

Watson stopped dead, blinking in detached disbelief. It seemed that nothing would stay reasonable tonight, the fell caprices of the world overwhelming and devoid of all sense.

A nebula of shouts filled the air from all directions. Humanoid black shadows tumbled out of the sagging buildings, shoe leather scraping on the stones. Watson's instincts clicked on finally, and he ran for the fire, a jolting staggering wreck on his bad leg but what could he do about it?

"Hallo!" he shouted into the loose gathering that had formed around the flaming cab. "Does anyone need a doctor?"

There was a general rumble to the negative. An older man, his mouth hidden in a flocculent beard, sidled close to tell him, "Wasn't anybody inside. That's her driver there," with a nod to a red-faced man who was currently bellowing curses at the sky.

Watson shook his head, dreadfully confused. "How did this happen?"

"It was that dark fellow," a ratty-looking woman answered from his other side, arms crossed like stone gates over his chest. "I seen him mischieving about just before the flames took. Looked a right scoundrel, he did."

Watson's skin tightened. He whirled around, shouldering out of the crowd with his eyes scanning feverishly. Every face took extra scrutiny because who knew what mask Holmes might have affixed.

He should have known, of course. Holmes had told him a thousand times: there were no real coincidences in the world.

He reeled to a stop near an emptied tavern, and bent over his knees, wilfully trying to stop his heart from thumping so hard. His vision shivered into focus and he saw before him on the grimy step a crushed box of matches. It did not register with Watson for a long moment, because it was something he saw every day of his life, because it was Holmes's brand.

The doctor jerked his spine straight, his white eyes staring furiously through the tavern's open door, the abandoned tension of the knocked-over chairs. He screamed once, mindless, "Holmes!" and then he was running again.

(break)

The accelerant had been a bottle of cheap whiskey nicked from behind the bar. Holmes had hunched and skulked around the cab like a horse thief, using the last seven matches in the box to set it alight at strategic points. He sank back into the shadows, watching the flames catch around the liquor-soaked wooden frame, the fire roaring suddenly huge, a blast of heat rolling through the street.

People began pouring out of the tavern, clangourous voices echoing between the rows. Holmes pressed his back to the wall, his face bent back into the darkness of the alley, and waited until he saw the hulking barkeep stamp out with the rest before slipping through the door.

Holmes kicked a chair over and snapped off one of its legs for a cudgel, feeling basely satisfied by the splintered heft of it in his hand. He stalked into the hallway, his mind flooded with red savagery. He was going to beat a man to death. He felt primeval, as brutally powerful as an old god. Action hummed through his body.

Just before he lifted his knee to kick in the door, he heard Watson's voice, screaming his name. It stopped him.

It stopped everything.

(break)

Holmes was there, halfway down the hallway with a makeshift club in his hand. Holmes was there, turned to blink dumbly at Watson, his eyes still black and deadened, his face still glowing pale with despair.

Watson had to put a hand to the wall to brace himself, his legs suddenly made of air. He said Holmes's name again but there was nothing behind it, and it fell soundless in the space between them.

They stood there for a moment, rocks in a pounding river, and then Watson urged his body to motion, and moved to his friend's side. He carefully laid his hand on Holmes's arm.

"Have you found him?" Watson asked, hushed and unsteady.

Holmes nodded his head trancelike, his foggy gaze stuck on Watson's face. The blunt force of shock in Holmes's expression made Watson feel like the detective had thought him dead, looking at him now as if Watson had risen from the grave.

"He is within," Holmes said, a faint angle of his head indicating the door.

As subtly as he could, Watson tugged Holmes away, walking softly backwards down the hallway. "We must inform the police."

Holmes stopped, boot heels scraping, and jerked his arm out of Watson's hold. His throat ducked several times as he swallowed, and Watson noted the track of dried blood on the side of his neck running from under Holmes's hair to disappear in his shirt collar.

"Leave the police," Holmes said. "Leave him to me."

Watson shook his head, glancing down at Holmes's hand gripped whitely around the club. Fear had lodged itself behind Watson's ribs like an evil second heart that pumped ichor and acid.

"It's the rope for him anyway," Watson told his friend. "He'll be just as dead if you apprehend him legally."

A black look flashed through Holmes's eyes, and Watson tensed as if for a physical blow, the muscles of his back petrifying into stone. Holmes was more than half mad, this lunatic quest burning all through him.

"Death is only the last of the punishments he deserves," Holmes said, his voice a sharp hissing thing. "The boy he killed was not given the blessing of a quick demise, nor one so civil as the end of a rope. He was left bleeding on the floor, and I will see his murderer suffer the same."

Holmes turned back to the door and Watson grabbed his shoulders, pulled him back. Holmes lost his balance and would have lost his feet if not for Watson steadying him, and worry plucked at the doctor, seeing how weak and shaky Holmes was, how very near to falling down.

"Unhand me," Holmes said, a strained note in his voice. He wasn't looking at Watson, his face turned down and away.

"I cannot let you do this," Watson told him.

"You have no say in the matter."

"I do, by God." Watson tightened his grip on his friend. "Your body and mind are yours to use or ruin as you see fit, but your soul is my responsibility."

The grandeur of the statement stilled them. A small spastic gasp ran through Holmes, and his gaze flew to Watson's for the briefest glance. Holmes's eyes were depthless, an enervated plea echoing on his face. He looked more boy than man, but that was only for a moment.

"Come away," Watson said in a tone softer than cotton. "You are very tired, my friend."

Holmes's body sagged, and he leaned into Watson, closing his eyes. "Yes."

"Then come away."

Watson stepped backwards, drawing his detective with him. Watson's heart was beating in unwieldy thumps, an admixture of terror and bizarre elation spiralling through him. He wanted to take Holmes to Baker Street, and press him into bed. He wanted to barricade the door and hammer the windows shut, empty the immediate world of everyone but the two of them. He wanted to solder a thin chain to stretch between them so that he would never lose track of Holmes again.

(break)

Holmes let Watson lead him away from Melchiori's room, a mantle of obeisance resting uneasily on him. His brain felt disjointed, lying sideways inside his skull like an upset bookshelf, his thoughts piled broken-spined on the floor. He had a very bad headache; he'd had this headache all day long, but it was impossible to suppress now that Watson was here and it was quiet.

Watson was here. The adrenaline was pouring out of Holmes, sucking strength from his arms and legs, and the feeling that was left in its place was hollowing and fearful. Holmes kept his eyes locked on the good doctor, the single clear point in a world of haze. He wanted to grab hold of his friend, the full strength of his arms around him, cling to him like they were shipwreck survivors set adrift in freezing waters on a small broken piece of deck.

There were several bobbies already gathered outside the tavern, overseeing the operation to extinguish the burning cab, and Watson went up to the highest ranked, waving his hand to scatter the smoke and ashy black flakes that filled the air. Holmes slumped on the wall, thinking for a second that he might pass out. The chair leg slipped free from his hand, clattered on the paving stones.

Melchiori did not come easy. Holmes roused to the sound of his struggles, his spat-out Italian curses, and together with Watson and a trio of constables they subdued the villain, stripped him of weapons and locked his wrists in a pair of darbies. Melchiori lay on his stomach, his snarling mouth against the dirty floor.

Holmes tipped his head to the side, studying him like a particularly intriguing insect. "Doctor," he said in a rasp. "Don't look."

Watson said, "Wait," but Holmes would not. He kicked Melchiori hard in the back of the head, driving his face into the floor and sending a crimson burst of blood out his nose. The villain went limp, insensible, his shattered nose pressed flat. A small pool of red spread out around him, and Holmes let out a long stuttering breath.

He turned back to the doctor and constables, his head on fire with renewed pain, his shaking hands buried in coat pockets. The policemen were leery, hands curled protectively around their cudgels as they regarded Holmes like an unpredictable madman, which was not wholly unreasonable. Watson had his fists clenched, his mouth set in a rigid shape. His eyes were so blue that they made Holmes dizzy. His vision sparkled, began to disintegrate.

"It was necessary," Holmes explained woozily. He let his eyes flutter closed, a piceous wave crashing down on him from above. He was about to lose consciousness and so he said, "Watson," to ensure that he would not wake up alone.

(break)

Watson took his detective home.

Holmes had a knot on the side of his head that likely bespoke concussion. The thin membrane over his eyes flickered, his kinetic dreams mewed up, encrypted. Watson held up his slumping insensate body in the cab, an arm around Holmes's shoulders, Holmes's head dipping and bumping his chin.

Watson kept pressing his fingers under Holmes's jaw, sliding his thumb down Holmes's rough cheek. His friend's pulse was thready, distractingly present, and Watson found it again and again, touching the concealed beat of Holmes's heart like a talisman.

Holmes resurfaced as Watson wrestled him out of the cab. He jerked in Watson's hold, an instinct towards flight drawing his muscles taut. Watson stiffened his arms in resistance, letting Holmes twist against him ineffectually.

"Settle, settle, it's all right," Watson said under his breath, and Holmes mumbled his name, his head lolling as heavy as a sack of flour on Watson's shoulder. "Yes, Holmes, it's me, I have you. It's all right now."

The gentling sounds appealed to Watson, soft edgeless shapes in his mouth, so he continued to murmur and cajole as he half-carried Holmes into 221B. Holmes woke up enough to get himself up the seventeen steps, and then they were in the sitting room and Watson deposited his friend on the settee, where Holmes slouched, strings cut and legs akimbo. Watson straightened, and his hands itched for Holmes, but he held back. He went to pour himself a drink.

When Holmes awoke, Watson thought, things would regain their solidity, the concrete nature of reality reasserting itself. This shaded half-world would not stand the detective's scrutiny, and once Holmes could see clearly again, then Watson would too. There was light on the other side of this, or so the doctor had to believe. It had been an exceedingly difficult adventure.

Watson yawned into the glass, more tired than he realised. He sat down next to Holmes's untidy form and let his head fall back, his eyes closing as sweetly as clover. Watson let out a long graduated sigh, feeling the endless day seep out of his body. He could hear Holmes breathing beside him and it poured into the empty space in his chest like cool clear water, like a witnessed miracle.

(break)

Holmes was dreaming of Corsica.

The pictures in his mind were of medieval fortresses on long shores, cliffs and ragged juts of stone, the ocean water a chemical blue colour reminiscent of verdigris. Holmes was sitting on a beach of pale skin-like sand. He was barefoot, his trousers rolled up like a kid's, and the wind pushed his hair hard to the side.

Holmes was comfortable and warm, watching the narrow-bodied boats slip through the waves like blades. He knew where he was in numbers, latitude and longitude, so many miles from London, so many feet away from the ocean. He knew it was Corsica even though that was a place he had never been.

Away on a cliff, Watson was waving at him. Holmes squinted to see him standing like a punctuation mark against the sky, and he wished for Watson to be nearer and in the next breath Watson was, sitting beside him on the beach with his toes dug into the sand. Watson put his chin on his knees and smiled at his friend, and it was such a perfect thing that it startled Holmes awake.

He was home. Baker Street fell into being around him, the placement of the walls and the clutter packing every vertical surface. He was on the settee, his head throbbing like an echoless pit, and Watson was asleep beside him, a glass of brandy balanced on his knee with limp precarious fingers.

Holmes subsumed the ache in his head, buried it in a tide of observation. He studied Watson, the dirt on his cuffs and the matchlight burns at the tips of his fingers, the stain of old blood on his trousers. Holmes wove together the noctivagant narrative of Watson's night, everywhere he'd been and everything he'd seen, and once the detective had that set in his mind, he just looked awhile longer.

Watson was ordinary, and remarkable, and impossible. He was a knight as a child would conceive it, brave and righteous and true with hair of gold, eyes blue as the sky. Sometimes Watson hardly even seemed real. Holmes wanted to break him open and study every piece. He wanted to bring Watson forcibly into the physical world, down to his own wretched level, and the thought sent a frisson of heat through him. Holmes carefully lifted the glass off Watson's knee and finished the drink himself, considering his friend over the curved rim.

Eventually Holmes set the glass aside and nudged Watson.

"Doctor."

Watson's face creased as he frowned in his sleep, rolling his face away from Holmes. Holmes half-smiled, poked him harder. "Watson. John Watson, wake up."

A shimmer passed over Watson's face, that blur of returning awareness, and his eyes blinked open. Holmes watched avidly as Watson first just lay there smiling at him vaguely, and then clarity swept across his face and he sat up, reaching for Holmes.

"Are you all right?" Watson asked, and Holmes thought, no, but he didn't say it.

He kissed Watson instead.

(break)

Watson closed his eyes and kissed him back.

It was only for a moment or two or five. Holmes's hand rose and settled lightly on the side of Watson's face, his raw fingertips brushing on Watson's temple, the slightest pressure to keep Watson tilted into him. Watson was conscious of the heat scratching in his stomach, and the rough drag of Holmes's mouth against his own, and the goosebumps racing across his skin, and then all the clues fell into order and he realised what he was doing. He ripped away from Holmes, a gasp torn between them.

"Holmes," Watson said, a frenzied question in it. Holmes still had a hand bent on his face, and Watson took his wrist but didn't pull him away.

"You must allow me this," Holmes said. He sounded hurried and dark, a corrupted edge to his voice that made want curl thickly in Watson's stomach. "I know I am not--I know you feel as I do."

Before Watson could answer, Holmes leaned forward and kissed him again, kissed him hard with his tongue swiping in, Holmes's teeth catching on the underside of his lip. Watson jerked, a shocking burst of arousal pulling through him. His hands were twisted in Holmes's filthy shirt, and somehow he managed to push him away.

"Don't, don't," Watson stammered, fingers convulsing, head afire. "Why are you-"

"You know why," Holmes interrupted, a brilliant certainty glowing in his face. His lidded eyes were locked on Watson's mouth. "It's been between us, every day of our acquaintance--every minute. I would simply prefer to acknowledge it, for once."

Watson was shaking his head even though it was true, of course it was true. Holmes was insane and he was a genius and somewhere between the two he was the most beautiful thing Watson had ever seen, and that wasn't something you mentioned in polite society. It stopped the breath in his throat to hear Holmes say it so plainly now, the taste of him still sharp and unfamiliar on Watson's lips.

"Why now?" Watson asked. His voice was like splinters.

Holmes's hand slipped to the back of Watson's neck, wild flashes of calculation skittering through his eyes. "I have had an appalling week. I am attempting to remedy that."

He swayed in again, but Watson's mind was clearing and he was able to press Holmes back.

"You, you have concussion. You are in no condition-"

Holmes laughed, a crooked humourless thing that smuggled a chill up Watson's spine. "Some hours ago you laid claim to my soul, and now a bump on the head is enough to deter you? O faithless man," and Holmes darted in to steal a kiss off him, a surprise attack.

Heat stained Watson's face, his mouth feeling swollen, and he stared at his hands fisted in Holmes's shirt so he would not have to look at the man himself.

"Any other epithet I will take from you, but there is no justice in that one," Watson said quietly.

There was a pause. Holmes's fingers moved thoughtfully through Watson's short hair, sending subtle trembles through his body. Watson wanted to close his eyes, but he knew he could not trust Holmes if he did.

"You're right," Holmes told him, and tipped forward, touching his forehead to Watson's with the utmost care. "Will you forgive me?"

Watson broke then, a tangible feeling like a harpstring snapping in his chest as he lifted his chin, fit his mouth against Holmes's and kissed him, and kissed him, and kissed him. He curled his hands in Holmes's hair and bore him down on the settee, covering Holmes's body with his own and kissing him until they were both weak and starry-eyed and breathless.

(break)

There was no air. Watson was on top of him, weighing him down. Holmes had one leg pulled up and half-bent around his friend's back. His hands on Watson's face tried to guide him to a better angle, but the doctor would have none of that, kissing Holmes deeply and without grace. Holmes licked against Watson's tongue, pressing up slow and intentional with his hips.

Watson hissed in a breath, and thrust back against him, and Holmes felt him hard through his clothes. A maddening rush of heat went through Holmes, skittering along the knife edges of his nerves, and for a moment he was senseless, just a body moving and drugged by desire. One hand spread out wide on Watson's neck, Holmes pulled his head back and affixed his mouth to the wild running pulse in his jaw, and it made Watson groan.

Holmes sucked a bruise just where Watson's collar would cover, and then lifted his head.

"What will you do?" Holmes asked, sounding distant and eager to his own ears.

Watson looked down at him with a wonderfully complex expression on his face. His hands were bunched up on Holmes's chest, knuckles stony and round, eyes blown black with desire. He hesitated, hovering above, and said in a hoarse tone, "Anything you wish."

A shiver rattled through Holmes, and his eyes went wide. He was not used to his body reacting with so little input from his mind. Watson saw his look and smirked, lowered his head to nip at Holmes's jaw.

"What shall I do for you?" Watson whispered, low and full of promise, and Holmes shivered again, his back arching.

"There are--many things," Holmes managed, his mind a useless wreck. His hands pulled Watson's waistcoat open and tugged his shirt free of his belt, slid underneath to find warm skin, and then they were both shivering.

"Name one," Watson said, and Holmes had to close his eyes, fiercely marshalling his control.

"Watson," he said, teeth gritted. "I must ask you to stop talking."

Watson grinned, unutterably wicked man. "Must you?"

It was somehow terrifying. Watson was letting him do this, and that was one of the impossible things, like the moon falling out of the sky or the ocean turning to dust. Watson was more than just letting him, bitten-lip and joyful as he flushed and ran his hands over Holmes's body. Watson wanted him in the same way that Holmes had always wanted him, hard against each other and laughing, and that fact struck an off-key note in the detective; instinct told him that it did not belong.

Holmes hooked his leg firmly around Watson's hips, and rolled them so the doctor was pressed against the back of the settee and Holmes was pressed against his friend. Watson's shirt was rucked up, half the buttons popped off, and Holmes couldn't stop staring at the pale spread of his hands on Watson's chest, how strange and out of place they seemed. His fingers iced across the top of Watson's trousers and Watson bit back a gasp, the muscles in his stomach trembling.

"Please," Watson said, voice cracking, and Holmes buried his face in his friend's neck, knowing that he did not deserve this. His fingers worked Watson's flies open, pushed inside where Watson was stiff and hot and aching. Holmes took hold of him with his eyes closed, his mouth open against bare skin, and Watson's moan vibrated on his lips.

(break)

There was not room enough in Watson's body for the wave of sensation that broke over him at the touch of Holmes's hand. Eyes pasted shut, he moaned helplessly, and rocked his hips into Holmes's grip, and did not care about the picture he must be making.

Holmes was bringing him off slowly, long careful strokes with his thumb rolling over top. He was learning Watson, playing him into a symphony of groans and cut-off oaths, and Watson felt like he was being dismantled, broken down piece by piece. Holmes's lips moved silently against his throat, keeping count, and Watson thought that he would like to go to his knees for this man. He would like Holmes to have him in every way.

Watson had one hand in Holmes's hair, cupped around the base of his skull. His other hand was restless and grasping, moving over Holmes's back and down the sturdy curve of his shoulder, feeling the rhythmic tension of Holmes's arm. All the while his hips kept rocking, dizzying bursts of heat scattering through him. The world was Holmes's hand around him, and Holmes's mouth on his throat, and Holmes's legs against his own, this too-small settee with the frayed silk threads at its edges and nothing else.

He finished suddenly, without warning. His fingers clenched in Holmes's hair as he came wet over the detective's hand, and Holmes choked on a breath as if shocked. For a long minute, Watson knew only pleasure and peace, an elysian field stretching before him under a powder blue sky.

Then he regained his better senses, and processed the warmth of Holmes against him, Holmes's hands still curious under his clothes.

"My dear fellow," Watson said, his voice rusty and stupefied. He ran a disbelieving hand down the back of Holmes's head.

Holmes sighed, and kissed Watson's collarbone, and pushed away from him. The detective sat up, gingerly cradling his head. He was turned away from Watson, and the doctor fixed his trousers, levered up to rest his chin on the back of Holmes's shoulder.

"Allow me to repay that debt," Watson said into Holmes's ear, and slipped an arm around his friend's waist. Holmes shivered, some sort of conditioned response, and put his hand on Watson's arm, stilling him.

"I. I do not require-" and then Holmes stopped short, a strange hitch in his chest.

Watson rubbed his face on Holmes's shoulder, breathing deep of his friend's muddled scent, tobacco and char and river water and blood. A growing sense of calm had lodged in Watson, and he was able to appreciate the smallest elements of the moment, the coarseness of Holmes's hair against his forehead and the slick feel of shirt buttons like pebbles under his fingers.

"I wish to do you a kindness," Watson murmured, and kissed the back of Holmes's neck.

Holmes pulled away from him. He got to his feet and stood with his back to Watson, his shoulders as hard as a bridge. Watson blinked up at his friend, a confounded fog settling over him. Things made much less sense when he didn't have his hands on Holmes.

"Thank you, Doctor," Holmes said tonelessly, setting loose a frozen spider to skitter along Watson's nerves. "But I believe I will retire. It. It has been a very long day."

To the doctor's astonishment, Holmes moved for his bedroom, which was still sporting its splintered door. In a blink, Watson was on his feet and across the room, barring the passage with his arm. Bewilderment worked through him like a narcotic, making him slow and stupid.

"You would leave me?" Watson asked, disbelief rife in his voice. "Now?"

Holmes shook his head, but he was not looking at his friend. "A man is owed his night's rest."

"Not when he has just made criminals of himself and his dearest friend," Watson said sharply. "I should think the guilt would prove a rather substantive distraction."

It was a ploy, and a good one. An irascible shadow passed across Holmes's face, and he met Watson's eyes with a furious lost gaze. The doctor's heartbeat quickened, knowing he would have the fight he wanted.

(break)

Holmes spoke without thinking.

"I have made you into nothing you were not before."

And he marvelled at his own stupidity, a rather novel sensation. Watson laughed out loud, his face bright with jeering malice for an instant. Holmes grimaced, fisted his hand at his side. Watson was still too close to him.

"I won't waste the breath needed to refute you there, old boy," Watson told him, a tinny sound to the familiar endearment. "I'm sure you know even better than I the extent of the changes I have suffered under your companionship."

"Suffered, now?" Holmes said, too quick again, too damned quick. "I would consider you much improved."

"Oh yes, I am quite, what with my increasing experience in the areas of housebreaking and fisticuffs and now evidently sodomy."

Watson's mouth warped horrifically around the word, and Holmes flinched like he'd been slapped, a bolt of antsy heat scraping through him. He couldn't help the images that flickered through his mind, Watson bent over the side of the bed with Holmes's hand on the back of his neck, Watson's legs over Holmes's shoulders, and he had to look away, swallowing hard.

"I, I," Holmes attempted, and he didn't know what was wrong with him, every good word having absconded to higher ground. "I would never presume-"

"You already have, Holmes. You have presumed far beyond what a gentleman's conscience might bear."

Holmes jerked his head up, a shredded-wire smile on his face. "It's a happy thing neither of us can claim that title, then."

Watson stepped forward, closing the space between them to an inch or less. It was unambiguous, startling in the intensity of its effect. A breath stuck in Holmes's lungs, a heartbeat stalled in his chest so that his blood felt thinned, watered-down. Holmes's body understood everything about Watson's proximity, unsatisfied and yearning, his back itchy-hot under his shirt. What his skin wanted was Watson's skin.

"If we are not gentlemen, then I may speak plain," Watson said in that roughened low tone that did such awful things to Holmes. "You are not currently in your right state of mind. In your right state of mind, you would not reject me."

"In my right state of mind, I never would have touched you in the first place," Holmes said, brittle and cutting.

Watson's eyebrows flicked that away dismissively. He leaned closer to Holmes, one hand on the doorframe above the detective's shoulder.

"You would still desire the privilege," Watson told him without a shred of doubt. Holmes kept quiet, his face dull red. "And it would still already be yours."

Holmes looked up in shock, and Watson kissed him. His head thunked against the door and Watson tasted deeply of his mouth before pulling away as quickly as he'd come. Holmes noticed that his hands were on Watson's hips, traitorous fingers curled tight.

"All right?" Watson asked. His hand slipped through Holmes's hair, snagging and soothing.

Holmes shook his head, but he was leaning into Watson, his mouth aching from not having the doctor's upon it. Watson was looking at him softly, singularly, like all the world had paused for the two of them, and Holmes could not see that, he could not bear it.

He said too fast, too loud, "I did not turn him."

A slow blink was Watson's first response, and then, "I beg your pardon?"

A mad laugh scrabbled in Holmes's throat but he choked it back. "The boy. The unlucky Philip Townshend. I had not--I did not expect to find him there. I had tracked Melchiori to that room but I believed the boy was being held somewhere farther out of town. I was chasing Melchiori, do you see?"

Holmes had a hard grip on Watson's elbow, and Watson nodded silently, eyes watchful and wide.

"And when I came in, I saw him bound on the floor, and Melchiori was going out the window. I did not, I, I cut the boy's bonds and he woke up, he, he. He was awake, Watson. I checked his head, and I felt his arms and legs for fractures, but I did not turn him. I did not see the wound in his back, and the blood--I observed the blood but I did not see. It was so much. Too much, and I. I was thinking about Melchiori. I was trying to deduce the direction in which he would run, and the boy was awake, he was conscious. I told him I would return for him, and then I left him there, I left."

The final word broke on his tongue. Holmes dug his fingers into Watson's arm because his legs were shaky, his whole being throbbing with remorse. Watson made a faraway sound, almost a hush, but Holmes was not looking at him anymore.

"I was certain he would live," Holmes said hoarsely. "I was certain I would be back in time."

"Holmes," Watson said, pressing his hand to Holmes's cheek. The gesture spooked Holmes, and he shook it off, drawing away from his friend.

"So you see," Holmes continued, blind now and hardly recognising his own voice. "I do not deserve you tonight. And I--if we are speaking plain, I do not deserve you at all. That is only a fact. We must leave this thing here."

He wrenched himself away from his friend. Watson said his name again, in that insupportable way that Watson always said his name, like they spoke two separate languages and that was their single common word; it had to stand for everything.

Holmes wished to be away from here. The room had become suffocating, overfull with cries and curses, all the dreadful things that had passed between them. He slipped into his bedroom and saw that Watson had kicked in his door, which was unfortunate but not much of a surprise. The doctor had always had a temper.

Holmes sat on the edge of the bed, clasping his hands between his knees and ordering his extremities to cease shaking, his heart to slow to a more sustainable rate. In the corner of his eye, he could see Watson leaning in the doorway, watching him. It made invisible ants crawl on the back of Holmes's neck, his mind obsessively showing him a heat-soaked memory of Watson pressing him onto his back and kissing him like he would never stop.

Closing his eyes, Holmes pushed a hand into his own hair and twisted hard, whispering beneath the gasp of pain, "Stop it."

(break)

Watson was stuck against the doorframe, and for a long moment all he could do was watch.

Moving with the tardigrade care of an old man, Holmes pulled the braces off his shoulders, his back in a sorrowful curve. He jerked at his hair a few more times, that odd tic of his that tugged at something in Watson too, and took off his belt and boots. Holmes was pretending Watson wasn't there, and Watson did not like the feeling at all.

Holmes thumbed open the buttons of his shirt and shrugged it off, sat there in his undershirt for a moment with his head bowed. Watson looked at the clean line of Holmes's neck disappearing into the black chaos of his hair, and he thought that it must have been days and days since his friend last slept.

Watson stepped out of Holmes's bedroom, and went to turn down the lamps and lock the sitting room door. He stripped out of his waistcoat and shirt as he did, leaving them fallen like leaves on the carpet. Fearful anticipation rioted in his chest, his heart sounding a rataplan.

Holmes had his head in his hands when Watson returned to the room, but he looked up as the doctor entered, a momentary expression of surprise immediately banished. Holmes registered Watson's change in attire with a wary lowering of his eyebrows.

"What are you doing?" Holmes asked, aiming for that casual authority he wielded so well but missing badly in the tumult of the moment.

"I would apologise about your door, but that would be disingenuous, as I am not actually sorry," Watson said. "I'll call someone in about it tomorrow."

He sat down next to Holmes's on the edge of the bed and began picking at his shoelaces. Holmes stared at him, clearly suspecting a trick.

"Hang the door," the detective snapped. "Please explain what you're doing right now."

"I am removing my shoes," Watson replied.

"Do not toy with me, man," Holmes said fast, his voice rising on a jagged scale. He was panicked, Watson realised. It was strangely comforting to think: at least they were together in this as well.

"Lie down, Holmes," Watson told him, and stood to turn down the lamp. Holmes became ethereal in the muddy light, his eyes like wet ink, his mouth a flawless shape. He did not move, and so Watson took his shoulders and pushed him down on the bed.

"Don't-" Holmes began, pitched high with tension, but Watson wasn't interested in anything that started with that.

"I shall do as I please," the doctor told his friend, and climbed over him to the other side of the bed.

Holmes gaped at him for a moment, and then said in a reined-in tone, "Watson, get out of my bed."

"Thank you, but I'm quite comfortable."

Watson punched the pillow into a more amenable shape, and ignored the scattershot feeling of anxiety pumping through him. He risked a glance and Holmes was staring at him, baffled, sick with exhaustion and strain.

"Are your faculties impaired?" Holmes asked. "Did your hearing lapse when I said we must leave this?"

"No, I heard you very well. I did not in any way agree, of course, but I did hear you."

"You cannot just, just insinuate yourself," Holmes said, blustering, striving for some level ground on which to fight.

Heart in his mouth, Watson rolled up to his knees, swiftly straddling Holmes's body and riding out the compulsive buck of his hips. Holmes's hands came up to grab Watson's arms, and Watson braced to be thrown off, but it never happened. Holmes was shaking, his noiseless mouth open.

Watson told him, "You will not save every life."

Holmes stiffened, and Watson stroked a hand down his throat, calming and keeping him from bolting. Everything felt incredibly delicate, just now.

"On occasion, the outcome will not be as you've predicted it," Watson continued, watching a dark storm batter in Holmes's eyes. "Some of your schemes, Holmes, some small number of them are going to fail spectacularly."

He couldn't help himself, running his fingers down the neat line of Holmes's nose, scuffing his knuckles over the detective's rough cheek. Holmes made a vaguely strangled sound, staring at him with a blackening gaze.

"This is the way of the world," Watson said, secretive and hushed. "No man is allowed more than his meagre share of perfection. It does not make you any less than what you are."

Holmes's face twisted, and he turned his head aside, the muscle in his jaw flickering with tension. Watson curved his hand around Holmes's chin and drew his attention back; he didn't feel wholly visible unless Holmes's eyes were on him.

"And you must understand," Watson said, a hitch of breath interrupting him. "It does not matter if you deserve me--though of course you do, you bloody great idiot, what an utterly absurd thing to think--it doesn't matter, it's irrelevant. I am already yours. I am going to fix your door and sleep in your bed and follow you into every danger, because I am yours. And that. That is the other way of the world."

Watson stopped, hauled in a ragged breath. Holmes had gone still beneath him, wide-eyed. A fraught moment passed, the span of seconds between lighting the fuse and hearing the deafening roar of a cannon. Watson became self-conscious of his position, his knees pressing into Holmes's sides, but he did not move. It seemed unspeakably important that he not move.

"You are a fool," Holmes said. Watson flinched, a spasm of dark feeling rattling through him.

"I know that."

Holmes shook his head, a frantic light growing in his eyes. "You are a fool," he said again, harder and with all the surety he could summon, and then he reached up and took Watson's face in his hands, pulled him down into a kiss that went on and on, through the straits and trials of this world and into the next.

(break)

Holmes woke up under the doctor's arm.

Sunlight fell in distorted patches across the floor, hosting a miasmata of dust motes like minute fairies dancing. Out the window, a shard of the sky showed crystalline and clear over the slanted tarred roofs, fleeced of clouds. Holmes's head hurt a great deal less than it had. The weight of Watson's arm over his waist was strange and not entirely welcome.

Holmes shifted, and felt the moment Watson awoke, the slight tightening across his whole body. Watson's eyes came open, foggy and oceanic and blinking dumbly like a blind man seeing the colour blue for the first time.

"Good morning," Watson said, and did not move his arm.

Closing a solid fist in the sheets, Holmes said by rote, "And to you."

Watson yawned, bumped his head into Holmes's shoulder. They were both still wearing their trousers, lying atop the blankets like children sent for a midday nap. Watson radiated heat, his hair a mess of tawny spikes, his arm barred across Holmes's stomach.

"It is early yet," Watson said in a sleep-muffled tone. He curled a hand around Holmes's hip, tugged him closer. "We might sleep a few hours more."

"Lazy," Holmes said, speaking as if from a script. Watson smiled, unconcerned.

"I can hardly be blamed for that."

Holmes shifted again. He wanted to get up, escape this room. He wanted a cup of tea and a pipe and the chair by the window. He did not want Watson beside him because someday Watson would not be.

"That brain of yours is an absolute curse, you know," Watson told him. Holmes chanced a look at him and Watson's eyes were closed. He was still smiling, the faintest curve.

"I am aware that there are disadvantages," Holmes answered. He sounded hollow, stunned.

"It will be the great work of my life," Watson mumbled absently. His hand on Holmes's hip felt like the only thing connecting them to the material world. "It will take years, likely decades. On my deathbed they will ask of what was I most proud, and I will tell them that I knew Sherlock Holmes."

A sinking feeling happened in Holmes's stomach. He closed his eyes against the tyranny of the light, and found that his arm had slipped around Watson, his hand moving slow on the doctor's back. Watson sighed against his neck, content and already half-asleep again.

All the mysteries in the world, Holmes thought in a daze, all the secrets and riddles and cryptograms, and nothing could compare to this. Some things were too vast, too inarguable. The ocean required no explanation. It simply was, as it had always been, and with Watson against him in the gathering strength of the morning, Holmes understood at last that they had both drowned long ago.

THE END