The Offensive of Charm and Fire
By Candle Beck
London, March 1887
There was a fire at Baker Street.
As one might expect, it was entirely Sherlock Holmes's fault.
Watson came home to find the fire brigade's shiny black carriages outside the flat, Mrs Hudson in the street clutching Gladstone to her chest, and coaly smoke trickling out of the upstairs windows. There was an elapsed period of panic because his landlady did not know where Holmes was, hadn't heard him leave before she'd smelled the smoke, and fear poured through Watson so cold and pure it felt like his blood was crystallising, but the firemen found no clever charred corpse and so the doctor was able to breathe again.
The report came down that the sitting room was largely destroyed. The fire had begun at Holmes's desk, chemicals and carelessly strewn papers in treacherous proximity, and it had scorched the walls, murdered a dozen or so books. Gladstone, nudging against Watson's ankles, kept coughing in his squat bullish way, ducking and shaking his head.
Watson stood in the street among the gawping canaille, watching the smoke eke out into the sky, and Holmes materialised at his shoulder, calmly packing tobacco into his pipe and commenting on the unseasonable mildness of the weather. Watson startled, and hollered at him, and cast terrible aspersions upon his character. Holmes smoked and squinted at his friend, cheerfully enduring his abuse.
Holmes was not overly disturbed to discover blackened windows and firemen where he had left his undisturbed home. He explained that the odds had always been rather in favour of one of his chemical experiments going awry, and that it was psychologically beneficial to adopt a sanguine attitude about such matters. Watson called him a lunatic. Holmes asked if that was his medical opinion. They got to bickering, and Gladstone barked froggishly up at them, and some street urchin climbed up on the fire brigade's carriage and began clanging the big silver bell, and chaos reigned for a glorious little while.
Eventually one of the firemen interrupted them. He said that the flat would be unlivable for at least a week, and that they would be well served finding a hotel for the duration. Watson paced around haranguing Holmes for awhile longer as Holmes placidly smoked his pipe and parried his barbs without visible effort.
It was infuriating. Every time Watson had cause to fear Holmes dead, even just for a minute, the terror took hours to seep away from under his skin, and he was short-tempered, frayed and scratchy-hot under his collar. Holmes could at least have the decency to look vaguely affected.
Watson gave up on him, threw his hands up and went to Mrs Hudson with an intractable scowl on his face that she returned in kind, a companionable sort of distress bonding them together for the moment. Ash left dark striated patches in the air, and the whole street breathed of a forest burning, that metal-tinged carbonised earth smell.
Mrs Hudson noted that Holmes had created a rather more substantial mess than was his standard, and then they arrived at the prompt concurrence that whatever the legendary powers of his mind, the detective sometimes had all the sense of a donkey.
They came to practicalities. Mrs Hudson would stay with her sister in New Cross, Holmes and Watson to a cheap hotel that abided dogs as Mrs Hudson's nieces suffered acute canine-related allergies. Watson expressed his apologies for the trouble and Mrs Hudson waved them away, saying that they had both chosen to live with the man and so had no one else to blame. This sounded like no less than God's own truth, and Watson left her feeling better about some things and worse about others.
He didn't speak to Holmes in the cab that took them to the St. Regis, an old favourite. It wasn't safe to engage Holmes in such close quarters, a fact Watson had learned through hard experience. Holmes sat against the window and watched him, that lighthouse gleam in his eye, and Watson clenched his back teeth, wondering what the hell was wrong with him that this man, this man of all the men in the world was the one he had chosen to love the most.
And Watson reminded himself, you never chose.
Rooms at the hotel cost more than they expected, more than the results of both their pockets turned out, and of course it was a Sunday and all the banks closed, and Watson really didn't want to pawn his father's watch again so soon after the last time, and Holmes knew that just by looking at him.
They got just the one room. Watson didn't feel it needed to be stated aloud that Holmes would be the one sleeping on the floor. Animals of any sort were strictly prohibited, and so they smuggled Gladstone in inside a carpet bag that also contained the bottle of Scotch that was the only item Holmes specifically asked the fire brigade to retrieve for them. Watson carried the bag in both arms, dreaming up wild excuses to explain any possible barking.
Holmes stayed quiet until they were behind a locked door, then said with no preamble, "I frightened you."
Watson set the carpet bag down and unsnapped its brass clasps, the dog's head popping out. Watson rubbed Gladstone's ears, not looking up. "Mrs Hudson could not say whether you were in the house or not."
"And how much time elapsed before the fire brigade informed you that there was no sign of a body?"
"I don't--ten minutes, perhaps. Fifteen." It had been more like a lifetime or two, but Watson didn't see any point in mentioning that.
Holmes nodded, an everyday calculation whirring in his eyes as he studied Watson.
"My apologies, dear fellow," Holmes said, and he sounded absolutely sincere--it shook Watson, made him flinch.
"Are you--are you apologising for the fire or the fact that I thought you were dead?"
"Whichever you'd prefer," Holmes said, a distinct air of nonchalance in his voice that twisted Watson's stomach.
"That's not quite how it works, Holmes," Watson attempted to tell him, but Holmes was bored with the conversation already and exploring the room, the view outside the window, the cryptic verses carved in the bedposts.
"Come, Watson, consider the positives. Consider the catastrophes that have not befallen us. The flat will be fine, the dog is as odiferous and unperturbed as ever. This room may not have all the charms of home, but how many of our unfortunate fellow citizens will find themselves obliged to make a bed of the bare ground tonight? Our blessings would seem to be beyond counting."
Watson rolled his eyes, and took off his coat to hang on the wall's bent hook. He walked the length of the room and it was no more than six good paces. Holmes was ever in arm's reach. Watson sighed. He turned a page of his mind over and resigned himself to the night, the maddening proximity.
Holmes, reading the situation as astutely as ever, swiftly broke out the liquor. Watson was still edgy, and he appreciated the glass in his hand, the way it made everything appear more convivial. They sat in the two cane-backed chairs with the small table between them, the window near at hand with its picture of the pristine night sky, the albumen of the moon on a steady rise.
"Now, Doctor Watson," Holmes said in cultured professorial tones. "To what shall we raise our glasses?"
Watson angled his wrist, the whiskey on a slant. "To the Metropolitan Fire Brigade."
"And the heroes thereby employed." They clinked and drank, but Holmes wasn't done, keeping his elbow bent and his glass on offer. "To the adventures of the day."
Watson hesitated, and then grudgingly toasted it, taking the smallest sip through his scowl. Holmes smirked at him, leaned back in his chair. The wood whined, creaking against his weight.
"You know it pains me to cause you any inconvenience," Holmes said, and Watson snorted his disbelief, which was efficiently ignored by the great detective. "But surely you can admit that this brief interlude won't be such a trial. The company can hardly be improved upon, after all."
"A week confined with you in a small room, what could possibly go wrong?"
Holmes smiled, something concealed in it. "That's the spirit, old boy. Stiff upper lip and so forth."
There was no winning with him. A pernicious warmth spread through Watson, the itch of sweat breaking out on the back of his neck. Holmes had that look about him tonight, that look he'd had all too often recently, hooded eyes glinting with an entirely different kind of speculation than was his usual. It made Watson leery, side-eyed and anxious.
"Cards?" the doctor offered, wishing to steer the conversation into calmer waters.
"Certainly," Holmes said, a monarch granting some trifling concession. "I shan't take any of your wagers, though."
"I don't believe I've proposed any," Watson answered with a momentary edge. He reached for his coat, and took the deck of cards from the inside pocket, glancing quickly at his friend as he did so. Holmes lifted his eyebrow all of a quarter of an inch, and didn't say anything.
They settled into a game of the two-player variation on whist that Holmes had come up with shortly after they had taken digs together. Watson always lost terribly, and suspected that Holmes was withholding some intricacies of play from him, but he didn't complain. It seemed somehow unsporting.
The whiskey smoothed out Watson's rough edges, set him adrift on a warm-watered sea. He began to smile at his friend, and laugh at Holmes's jokes, and forget that the detective had almost burned down their house. The cards spun past. Gladstone was asleep on his foot, sprawled as heavy as a sandbag.
"You look thirsty," Holmes said, and refilled Watson's glass. Watson thanked him, and Holmes leaned his chin on his hand, showing the doctor half a smile. Watson smiled back, lightheaded and endeared to his friend almost beyond words, no matter what trouble he had brought down. Watson was blind to certain things; he loved his friend in all the worst ways. He watched Holmes expel a tight bit of air through his teeth, something shuttered in his eyes.
"Does the whiskey agree with you?" Watson asked. He licked at the rim of his glass and saw Holmes's gaze drop briefly to his mouth.
"Quite," Holmes said, distracted.
"You usually tend more to the brandy."
"Variety, my dear boy, it's an immutable song."
Holmes rattled his fingers on the table. His eyes darted, as quick as jackrabbits, from the window to Watson's face and back again. It couldn't be nerves--it was never nerves with Holmes--and it scratched at Watson, made him feel like they were being watched.
"I should tell you," Watson said, cradling his glass like the last egg of a dying species. "If my journals were among the casualties of the conflagration, you and I will be having an abrupt chat conducted largely via fisticuffs."
A crooked-finger wave of Holmes's hand dismissed that. "Your journals are unharmed."
"How could you know that?"
"I have my methods," the detective told him, which was not new information. Watson rolled his eyes.
"In ordinary circumstances, I would of course trust you implicitly. Today, however, you have set my home on fire."
Holmes looked up sharply, keen quiet calculation on his face. Watson suffered a slight jolt, Holmes's attention electric in and of itself, sparking shocks against his skin. Their gazes stuck together for an arrested moment, and then it was too much, and Watson looked away. He was startled by the view out the window, the low decrepit street and alien buildings.
"So we have at last discovered what it takes to shake your fidelity," Holmes said. It sounded like there was something beneath what he said out loud.
Watson eyed him. The whiskey was softening his thoughts, faint smothering cloud filling up the space inside his skull.
"I wouldn't call it shaken," Watson said. "Perhaps vaguely disturbed."
Steepling his fingers, Holmes showed another slippery half-smile, regarding his friend as he would a criminal swearing his innocence with blood still wet on his hands. Watson suffered a tightening chill in his stomach, this snagging sense that something unprecedented was happening just under the surface of what he could see.
"All right," Holmes said, more to himself than Watson. His eyes flashed, suddenly made of steel. "Query, Watson."
"Recognised," Watson said.
"It's an unfortunate side effect of the civilising instincts of man," Holmes said. "Morality, I mean. These largely arbitrary definitions of what is good and what is wicked, this overwhelming surfeit of rules--and does it not strike you as strange that with all the intellectual advancements and innovations of the past centuries, we still live our lives according to the dictates of a book written several millennia ago?"
Watson blinked. "The Bible?"
"Of course the Bible. What other book has caused half as much trouble?"
Thirty years of religious conditioning clenched Watson's back teeth. "You shouldn't speak of it with such-"
"Bollocks," Holmes said. "It's just paper and ink. It's just words."
"You've never been particularly devout," Holmes cut him off, arrowing a look at Watson that slid easily under his skin. "Wherefore this sudden offence?"
"I, I'm not-" Watson stammered, and stopped. He hated appearing slow-witted, never quite free of the scars left by a childhood stutter. With sincere effort, he straightened his thoughts, carefully tasted each word before he said it. "I suppose I'm playing the Devil's advocate."
Watson shifted his weight, hot-faced and very aware of Holmes's gaze scratching against his walls. "I don't--is there something specific you would like me to say?"
Holmes started to speak, and then his mouth snapped shut. It was unlike him, a hesitation that rested awkwardly on his expression. He shook his head, and Watson noticed with something like amazement that Holmes's hand was clenched in a fist on his knee.
"I am not phrasing this properly," Holmes muttered, a frustrated theatre director's tone in it. "Religion was not the direction from which I should have approached."
"Approached what?" and Watson heard the off-key frenzied edge in his voice, winced inwardly.
"Give me a moment, Watson, would you please!"
Holmes's hand flew to his forehead, rubbing hard and leaving smudges of ink from the newspaper. His eyes were scrunched shut, intense concentration screwed into his features. Watson stared, flabbergasted and thinking that they both must be far drunker than he had supposed.
A long moment passed, and the look on Holmes's face became steadily more sciential. He pushed his fingers across his mouth and studied Watson like he was behind laboratory glass. Watson's limbs twitched with akathisia, the heel of his boot scraping on the floor.
"Let's put morality aside for the nonce," Holmes said at last.
Watson nodded, tried a regular smile. "Hardly the first time you've made that request of me."
"Breaking the law has nothing to do with morality, I think you'll find. Leave that to the philosophers, though--I wish to ask you something."
Immediately, Watson tensed. "What?"
"There's no need to look so nervous," Holmes said, and his voice shook so slightly only his dearest friend would have been able to hear it.
For the life of him, Watson could not stop staring at Holmes, his every flicker and tic, every half-finished smile that crossed his face. He had never seen his friend so anxious, not with a gun held to his head, not once during the three hellish days they had thought he might be fatally poisoned. Watson wasn't nervous as much as he was baffled beyond belief, wondering what could have Holmes in such a state.
"Of, of course you may ask me anything," Watson managed.
Holmes tipped his head slightly, a cynical curl to his lip for a moment before he blanked his expression and said:
"Here it is then: it has recently come to my attention that I am deeply and irrecoverably in love with you. And I wondered how you thought this turn of events might affect the partnership."
And then: silence.
Utter silence, though Watson knew it should not be that way. He should be able to hear Gladstone snoring under the table and the splintered verbigeration filtering from the street through the open window. But it was snow white in his mind and empty, so quiet it almost echoed.
Holmes was watching him like a shipwreck survivor scanning the horizon for boats, parched and manic about the eyes, deathly still. Watson felt pinned to the chair, nails through his feet and wrists. He gazed at Holmes, swallowing hard as possible responses jockeyed for space in his mind.
"Is this a psychological experiment?" Watson asked, choked. "Are you--did you only wish to see my reaction?"
Outrage flitted through Holmes's eyes, and he said at once, unmistakably, "No."
Watson leaned forward over the table, jerky and sudden. His heart was in his throat. "Swear to me that you are in earnest."
Holmes didn't even pause to take a breath.
"I swear to you. On my honour. On my life. It's all yours anyway."
That was more than enough, more than the good doctor could bear. In one move he was up from his chair and reaching across the table to grasp Holmes's shirt and drag him up. They were kissing in the space of a single moment, half a thought, Watson's mouth slanting across Holmes's and finding the sweetest angle. Holmes's teeth scraped against Watson's lower lip and dizzying heat flooded up Watson's spine.
They broke for breath and Holmes used the moment to shove the table aside, a spill of cards and a shatter of glass and neither of them paid it any mind. Holmes pushed Watson up against the wall, leaned heavily with his forearms flat on the doctor's chest, their mouths inches apart.
"Watson," Holmes breathed out, and there was a question in it, something very much like a plea.
Watson wanted to laugh. He hooked an arm around Holmes's shoulders and rested their foreheads together, told him in a rush, "Of course, of course I do, look at you-" and then Holmes was kissing him again and the rest of it faded to insignificance.
Later, they lay in a disordered heap on the bed, Holmes half on top of Watson as the doctor smoked a slow joyful cigarette. The rutilant light from the gas-lamp painted them in colours like a photograph, sepia and black and gray. There was something tremendously oneiric about the moment, empyreal and surreal, the soft rustle of Holmes's breath on his shoulder.
A thought occurred to Watson as he watched the smoke twist up from the end of his cigarette. He slipped his hand up Holmes's bare back, said without much question in his voice:
"You started the fire intentionally, didn't you?"
Holmes's body flinched minutely against Watson's, and his mouth curved into a tangible smile.
"I've invented a new form of guncotton," the detective mumbled against Watson's shoulder. "Produces a great deal of smoke, but little in the way of actual flame."
"The fire brigade said the flat would be unlivable for a week."
Holmes made a humming sound, his hand sliding over Watson's hip. "There is a possibility that they were paid off."
"Holmes," and Watson was laughing already, a skipping ascent happening in his chest, "why?"
Pushing up on his elbow, Holmes hovered over him, his hand drifting close to Watson's face and then brushing down the length of his throat instead. There was a betraying light in Holmes's eyes, his mouth soft and swollen and used. Watson arched up into him, the subtlest lift of his spine.
"If you had responded differently," Holmes told him, hoarse and honest, "I did not want it to happen in our home."
Watson touched his fingers to Holmes's collarbone. "You knew I would say yes."
Holmes smiled, tired and happy at the edges of his eyes, and shook his head. "No, I didn't."
He kissed Watson, brought their mouths together and then laid his head back down on his friend's shoulder as Watson's hand came up naturally to wind in his hair.
Watson felt the flicker of Holmes's eyelashes as he closed his eyes, and then the warm brush of breath as Holmes told him, "I prayed for it, though," and Watson's heart stopped, but only for a moment.