Title: A Terribly Poor Understanding of Love
Author: Candle Beck
Word Count: 12988
Spoilers/warnings: Not a one.
a href="."and enough of this/a
My battle against run-on sentences is a lifelong affair, you know. It is also freakin' trench warfare sometimes. Also there are multiple simultaneous perspectives, which is a thing that I have never been able to do to my satisfaction: that goddamn omniscient third. I tried, I tried.
A Terribly Poor Understanding of Love
By Candle Beck
Four days after his marriage, John Watson came to call on his old friend Sherlock Holmes.
They had tea. They discussed the weather, the density of the yellow pea soup fog drowning the city. The conversation lagged at several moments, and between them long silences grew like jungle vines, wrapping around their ankles, binding their wrists to the chairs. Holmes moved in small precise ways, his fingers light on his cup and saucer, betraying nothing. Watson didn't quite meet his eyes.
It was a formality-this useless drinking of tea. Watson was still quite angry with him. He spoke through thin lips, teeth showing with bare-bones savagery. Watson did not wish to be here. His wife had sent him.
Watson invited Holmes to dinner sometime over the weekend, and Holmes declined with a modicum of grace, claiming that he had a case. That was a lie, and one of which they were both frightfully aware. Watson pulled his hat brim through his fingers and said, "Well," and Holmes looked out the window, smoking his pipe.
Watson left. They didn't see each other for another three weeks.
Holmes had come to the wedding.
He had been drunk.
There he was in the ragged coat that was not his best, frayed edges and pocket half-torn, standing at the back of the church with his eyes wild and black. Watson was shimmering and still with anger. His hand was a metal cuff around Holmes's wrist.
"How dare you," Watson said in a dangerous voice.
Holmes smiled at him. He liked the look of Watson in his wedding suit, all stitched together and arranged like a portrait. Watson looked complete. There was nothing missing.
"To your love," Holmes said. His free hand raised in an empty toast. "To the lovely and the beloved."
The cuff of Watson's hand tightened. The smell of cheap gin formed a silvery cloud around the detective, his mad liquor-soft face. Watson wanted to hit him. He wanted to reshape Holmes's features with his bare hands.
"You should not have come," Watson said. He released Holmes's arm, and Holmes swayed faintly. "If this is how you would present yourself-"
"It is. This is how-" and Holmes stopped, because he was drunk. His thoughts were woven and impenetrable. Watson was so angry he was shaking.
"Then you may leave," the doctor informed him. He turned away from Holmes, the clench of his jaw like iron. Watson's skin hummed under his fine suit. "I won't have you sully this day."
Holmes pasted a careless smile on his face. It felt like there was ice crumbling inside him, a million tiny freezing points of pain. He bent in half a bow.
"As you wish, old boy."
Holmes left Watson standing at the back of the church. Watson watched him go, aware that he had been expertly played. Turning away, Watson faced the empty shined-wood rows of church and the woman waiting for him. He took a deep breath, and smiled.
Mary was beautiful, the simplest love Watson had ever known. She reached for him in her sleep. Every day, the doctor fell prey to a different pocky girl selling flowers in the street, his hands bright with pansies or sallow roses, bowler hat tipped at a particularly husbandly angle as he strode home through the streets of London. She was always waiting for him, turning to him with a smile and a smooth cheek. Watson became a stupid grinning boy in her presence. It was an exquisite feeling.
If he loved her, she must be clever. At breakfast she asked him, "How has Mister Holmes been faring, I wonder?"
Watson swallowed his toast. "Well enough, I suppose."
"You haven't seen him?"
"Not for a fortnight."
Mary made a small sound, a settling hum that hid no accusations, no suspicion or contempt. There was nothing like judgement in her. She cared for Holmes because John did, although hers was admittedly a theoretical sort of affection where her husband's was grossly actual.
Watson turned his mind down kinder alleys. He laid his hand across his wife's on the table, because it was allowed him. She smiled, and the world brightened.
Holmes collapsed on the front step of Cavendish Place, losing consciousness just before his hand found the bell pull. Four hours later the quiet house awakened to the cries of the maid who had gone out to empty the ash bin in the street.
Watson had been dreaming about the war. He was jarred into awareness, his heart beating terror-fast. At once there was Mary, wide-eyed and tense beside him, soft rabbit pulse under her skin-she must be kept safe. That was the first rule. A broken girl's voice was calling for him from beyond the door, "Doctor Watson, oh Doctor Watson please," and Watson stumbled to his feet, reaching for his dressing gown.
"Stay," he said to Mary.
She sat up, her face calm and eyes glittering. John set his hands to her shoulders before she could insist.
"Stay, my love."
She subsided. She promised him a reckoning without words, and John touched her face, hurried away.
There was Holmes on the front step. One side of his face was black with blood, as if he'd been lying in ink. His eyebrow was split open, and Watson knelt beside him, brushing his fingers over the seam in Holmes's skin and fitfully imagining what might lie beneath.
Holmes awoke several minutes later on the sofa in the sitting room. Opening his eyes felt like ripping off tags of flesh, and the first thing he saw was Watson setting his hand to his wife's hip and guiding her out of the room, murmuring something that Holmes was never meant to hear.
The detective closed his eyes again, wilfully courting oblivion. It was the safer place to be.
When asked, Holmes said that he had been injured in the capture of a band of noted counterfeiters ("that's a pun, Watson, if you'll notice") who had graduated abruptly to attempted murder upon being cornered. There had been cudgels involved at various points. Justice prevailed, of course, and what was life without adventure?
Watson remained stoic, unsympathetic in the extreme. He had stitched Holmes's eyebrow closed and cleaned the blood off his face. Now the doctor felt faintly seasick, sensing bad things in store for the day.
"I can only pray you'll forgive my intrusion into your connubial bliss," Holmes said.
Watson packed his suture kit away. His hands were stiff, thick-fingered. "Surely there are other doctors in this city."
"Several thousand, by my count." Holmes smiled, lazy and winning. "I would not settle for less than the best, of course."
A curling heat wound itself through Watson's stomach. Holmes watched him like a pacing wolf. Watson stood up, his nerves alight.
"I have appointments," he said, and left without waiting for Holmes's response.
Holmes stared at the last place that Watson had been. His fingers dusted across the stitches in his head. Outside, birds cried and horse hoofs met the stones. In here, it was entirely quiet.
Several hours later, Mary appeared. Even her knock on the door was gentle and irreproachable. Holmes had determined that he would despise her. He had promised himself.
She came carrying sandwiches, her wedding band clinking against the silver tray. The kindly suffering smile with which she graced Holmes might have been borrowed from a Madonna.
"You seem much improved, Mister Holmes."
Holmes eyed her, his face half a scowl. He did not answer. Nothing disconcerted propriety more than the refusal to indulge it.
Mary set the tray down and took a seat, folding her hands together on her lap. Holmes shot her a hateful look that Mary did not miss. She wanted a sandwich but was obliged to wait on her guest. The day was stultifying, impossibly dull save for the man in her sitting room.
Desiring a reaction, Mary said, "John loves you very well."
She was rewarded; Holmes was on his feet and out of the room in the space of a moment. Mary sighed, and took a sandwich, listening for the faraway slam of the front door.
Watson thought of Holmes all day. He saw his patients and accomplished his tasks with all due efficiency. He was distant and smiling, rubbing his palm on his trousers a thousand times, old nervous habit.
It was familiar. This preoccupation had come over him like a relapse of fever, the way his body heated and his mind became soft. Every piece of skin he stitched was Holmes's skin. His fingertips were numb, useless. He kept dropping things.
Watson wrote scripts in his head, a consecution of possible scenes playing out behind his eyes. Holmes would be sore, his temper stilled and diluted. He would be contrite, chastened, and admit that these bloody dawn visits had no place in the respectable home Watson was attempting to forge with the lovely woman he had talked into marrying him.
"You cannot bring the sins of the world into this house," Watson whispered to the neatly ordered row of medicine bottles in the cabinet. There was a small bitter satisfaction in the sound of the words in the empty air.
The good doctor returned home earlier than was usual. Mary met him with a kiss at the door. She took his hat and told him, "He has gone, my darling."
A fleeting pain washed through Watson. It was put aside. He smiled at his wife, and said, "Just you and me for supper, then."
Mary fashioned a smile to match his. Her husband's eyes retreated from her, vanished behind distant mountains, and she did not say a word.
Holmes came home to Baker Street, Watson's stitches bristling over his eye. In the post, there were three letters soliciting his professional aid. Holmes did not bother opening the envelopes, sent wires to all three petitioners with his acceptance. It might do for a few hours work, at least.
There was pale green mould fuzzing over a half-eaten apple set down near the window. It had been an experiment. Holmes could not remember the specifics; he suspected that whatever his objectives, he had failed.
Mrs Hudson had left a tray for tea. The biscuits were stale and crumbled like dirt in his mouth. Holmes ate until he wasn't dizzy, until the white spots shrank away from his vision. Then he sat in his chair and stuffed shag into his pipe with one dirty thumb. His head filled up with smoke.
Holmes closed his eyes. He was tired, and in a fair amount of pain. He needed work, puzzles and petty mysteries and small betrayals. He hated this room with its bullet-pocked walls and scorched ceiling, the loose arm of Watson's chair on which he used to lean as he scribbled his notes on their cases. Holmes thought that he would likely burn that chair. He thought that he did not miss Watson, not remotely.
It was coming easier to him. The silence of the house, the dust that Mrs Hudson never let settle on the stairs up the Watson's room, the empty sideways list of the chair across from him-Holmes was almost wholly inured by now.
He would sleep for a little while. If he was truly the genius that everyone said he was, he would be able to train his mind away from certain dreams. It would be like learning Chinese while he slept. If it could be done, then surely Holmes was the man to do it.
Watson sat down at the writing desk that Mary had had delivered to Cavendish Place as a surprise for him. It was brand new, the brassy shine still agleam. Watson found a natural place for his free hand to rest, his thumb itching at the edge. In a month there would be a splintery bald spot scratched there; in a year it would be a chunk dug out of the wood.
There was a piece of blank paper in front of him. Three pens were arranged in parallel lines. Watson was not comfortable in his chair, shifting and adjusting with small wooden sighs.
He couldn't write. He composed awkward half-finished paragraphs that described sunlight at morning, and dark-handed scoundrels dying slowly in alleys, and the rolling view out of a train window. He wrote his friend's name, wrote, Holmes stood, and then he had to stop. Nothing more would come.
Mary was on the sofa, reading a small book with a blue cover. She glanced up every time John made an unconscious noise of rough frustration, every time his pen jerked angrily over the page, scratching out some bit of prose that did not meet his standards. When he caught her eye, Watson remembered to smile, and she smiled softly back.
There was nothing for him here. The piece of paper had been slashed and maimed, bleeding ink. John pressed the nib to the page and allowed a piceous lake to seep out and swallow Holmes's name. Then he set his pen down and crumpled up the paper, threw it in the grate. He came to sit beside his wife. She took his hand though it was black-spattered.
"I cannot-" Watson started, and then stopped himself. He looked at her, vaguely ashamed.
Mary was as serene as the highest part of the sky. Her milk-pale hand was warm over his ruined one. She told him, "It will get better," and turned the next page in her book.
Mary visited Baker Street later in the week. It was a light-consuming day, a thick sky that sucked up the sun and left long ashy shadows on everything. Everyone on the street looked half-asleep.
Mrs Hudson took her up the seventeen steps. Holmes was in one of his moods, eschewing food and sociality. He shouted something through the door that was plainly derogatory, though unintelligible. Mrs Hudson ignored him, and Mary followed her lead.
Holmes did not stand when Mary came into the room. He greeted her with a sneer layered by civility, and she went on her guard.
She invited him to dinner. He laughed at her. It angered her, a rock dropping in her stomach, but she smiled back, as if they were on the same side of the joke.
"Come, Mister Holmes. My husband misses your company, and I am bound to seek his happiness in all things."
Potential responses, each more vicious than the last, clouded Holmes's mind. He could eviscerate her. He could make her cry.
Holmes said, "I am greatly occupied with my work at present, Mrs Watson."
He did not spit the name. It was a near thing, though.
She gave him a cool look, having heard the venom he had swallowed. "I pray you change your mind. Good day, Mister Holmes."
He did not answer. He did not look at her. Mary went back out into the chilled grey non-light, the slow-moving equine traffic. The ground seemed loose and untrustworthy beneath her feet. She did not glance back to see Holmes watching her go from his window.
Mary thought of the drifting at-sea expression on her husband's face, and hardened her shoulders, striding as proudly as any man. She was certain she was doing the right thing.
Mary told him, "He suffers from the lack of you."
Watson dropped his fork. It hit the china with a sound like marbles being thrown against a mirror. Watson startled, his skeleton momentarily rattled. He examined himself with swift diligence, confounded by his reactions.
His voice dried up. Mary waited for him. She sliced small squares out of her meal. John began again.
"He can't have told you that."
"No. It is not the kind of thing that needs to be said."
Mary's face remained clean of duplicity. It was difficult for Watson to stop scouring his wife's words for every sinister nuance, every shielded cruelty. Not everyone wielded conversation as a weapon.
Watson stared down at his half-finished plate. He wound his fingers together under the table, his thoughts resting heavily on the stunning young lunatic he had met all those years ago.
"He does not respect you," Watson said without looking up. "Neither does he respect our home. I can forgive him all his other defects, but not that one."
The hard expression on John's face caused a chill to curl through Mary. There was a particular story that she had read as a girl that was ever on her mind these days, the story of the nymph who had been named Echo, and had her heart broken, and became an echo. And her vain true love, withering away to nothing as he gazed in dumb wonder at his reflection in the water. The shadow and the flower existing in the same forest and yet rent from each other, set apart forever and ever. Learning the man who was her husband, Mary had come to realise that there were all different kinds of grief in this world.
"You suffer as well, John," Mary told him.
Watson bit the inside of his cheek. His face slowly turned the colour of ash, his nerveless fingers wrenched together. He wished to say, who could suffer with such a charming wife to call his own? He wished to say something jesting and easily affectionate. She deserved it. She deserved so much more.
"I love you," Watson said helplessly.
Mary was surprised, meeting his wide eyes with a crack, and then they both looked away, hot-faced and oddly mortified.
A stolen coat of arms was one of the minor nonsense cases that Holmes had inflicted upon himself. He stood in the ludicrously extravagant foyer of the Earl of Northbrook, pressing his teeth into his tongue. The Earl, with his florid fat-featured face bordered by thick ovine sideburns, had taken eleven minutes so far to relate the thousand-year history of the coat of arms. If he was to be believed (and he emphatically was not) the painted shield that had been borne into battle by three separate kings.
It took the full strength of Holmes's will to remain rooted to the spot. The detective had determined the location of the shield approximately forty-seven seconds after the Earl had been introduced (one of his bastard children would soon be absconding to perhaps America but more likely Australia, plotting the heinous crime of claiming to be his father's son), and now Holmes was just whiling away the time.
The Earl was muddling through the reign of the Tudors. Holmes idly contemplated what the man would look like with a lockpick jammed into his eye. The Earl's yellow teeth snapped at the ends of words. Holmes wasn't listening except in the way that he was always listening.
Just now, Holmes thought, Watson would be meeting his wife for lunch. He would be stepping through the door, and in the same move he would take off his hat and lean in to peck a kiss on Mary's cheek. She would help him out of his coat, and press her fingers down on the ruff of hair that stuck up from the crown of Watson's head. Holmes thought about nothing but that boyish tuft of hair for long minutes. He had never tried to press it down himself. It seemed like the worst kind of oversight.
"Well, Mister Holmes?"
Holmes jolted back into the moment. He focussed his gaze on the Earl and a flood of contempt washed through him. There was nothing redeeming this situation. Holmes was in the mood to burn down all the estates, topple the statues, fell the Monument.
"Lord Northbrook, I wish I could apologise," Holmes said. He kept his tone light and regretful, knowing that only words mattered, and people never listened closely enough.
Northbrook's face creased with concentration. Holmes put his hat back on, slanting the brim low over his eyes.
"All my best to your family," Holmes said, and opened the door, let himself out into the day.
At his back, the Earl shouted, the guttural roar of a furiously engorged jungle beast, hippopotamus or water buffalo or something in that area. Holmes didn't care about him, nor whatever consequences there may be. The sun was bright and hard-shining off the puddles in the street, grimy arcs of rainbow caught in the glitterine light. Holmes didn't care about any of this.
So he went back home-the building that now occupied that particular space, anyway.
Watson passed a man on the street who tipped his head to the side in greeting. It made Watson's innards wrench violently; that specific angle of neck belonged to Holmes.
There were dozens of moments like that scattered throughout his day. All over the city there were men wearing Holmes's hats, his collarless shirts, his scarred hands. The detective glared with eyes that were the wrong colour. He spoke in the ironic lilt of every half-grown newsboy. Watson was exhausted from being so accosted.
He walked on through the pearlescent morning. Outwardly, he was staid and calm. He wondered what Holmes was doing right now, and cursed himself. Leaving Baker Street was supposed to heal him of these abominable distractions.
It had been a stupid thing to think. Watson had been enraptured by his friend for years and years. He had only been married for four months. These things took time.
Time, Watson mouthed up at a fading streetlamp, thinking of it like a prayer.
Mary awoke to John saying Holmes's name in his sleep.
The shocking thing was how terribly unshocked she was.
In the morning, she sat across from him over gently steaming cups of tea. John was muzzy-eyed, mostly asleep still. The line of his collar was stiff and white against his throat. His shoulders were held in such a way that Mary had a brief thought of small tin soldiers ranked so straight and bright in toy shop windows.
She told him, "I fear that I am watching the greatest friendship I have ever witnessed disintegrate due to mutual inaction."
Watson's body tensed before his mind fully processed her meaning. He set down his cup of tea with delicate precision. It was a long moment before he decided what he would say.
"Your compassion is beyond my scope. I don't have the same capacity for forgiveness, I'm afraid."
That was risible, and Mary allowed herself a light laugh, an affectionate smile bent in his direction. "Really, John? And what of the past decade of your life? Are his habits so changed?"
Watson scrambled for a place to set his feet. "I'm the one who has changed."
He reached for her hand. She gracefully eluded him, her clean blue gaze arresting any further attempts.
"Then you should not punish him for it," Mary said.
And she left it there. Watson was speechless, his hand fallen limp on the table between the sugar and cream. Mary lifted her tea to her lips, and let a small amount of time pass before asking her husband what he would like to do today.
Holmes was in the process of being brutally beaten.
He had signed up for the privilege, and so couldn't complain. He took an elbow to the jaw. He took a chopping blow to the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and the pain made his vision sparkle.
The man he was fighting had six inches and a hundred pounds on him. His fists were as big as bread loaves. Holmes was bleeding from his mouth and his nose. He couldn't feel the left half of his face.
The crowd roared, their indistinguishable faces contorted until they seemed a pack of hyenas. Holmes couldn't concentrate. His body reacted on a split-second delay. His opponent slammed an uppercut that sent Holmes flying into the side of the ring. Holmes collapsed on the floor, coughing blood, his face scratching at the sawdust.
"That's it, he's done," someone was saying.
Holmes jammed his fists under his body, jerking himself upright. He wasn't done, nowhere near.
And then a hand on his shoulder, holding him down, and Watson saying, "You're done, old boy."
Holmes looked up, and swooned.
Watson took him to the room Holmes kept above the Punchbowl.
Holmes was a slack weight on his shoulder, a hot-breathing mouth. The reek of gin seeped through his pores, mixed unfavourably with the biting smell of blood. Watson was afflicted by a violent mix of emotion, anger and relief and sorrow and limitless devotion all clamouring for space inside.
The great detective rubbed his face on Watson's shoulder. It seemed a dream. Holmes was surely lying unconscious on a dirty floor somewhere, lost in such a cruel lovely reverie.
Watson levered him onto the cot. He stood above Holmes with his neat suit disheveled and slightly askew. The ruff of hair that stuck out of his head beckoned to Holmes, inviting his restive fingers.
"You look like hell," Watson told him plainly.
Holmes nodded. "That makes a great deal of sense."
"Have you lost any teeth?"
"None that I'll miss," Holmes answered, questing with his tongue at the bloody insides of his mouth. Watson was staring at him like a starving man showed food.
"Wherefore the gladiator of old?" Watson asked. He sounded somewhat breathless. "You don't usually lose to this crowd."
"I was not losing." Holmes shot him a look like a jagged piece of ice. "What are you doing here, Doctor?"
That was certainly the question of the hour. Watson's eyes darted away. He looked at Holmes's bare chest, shining under the dim light, and then swiftly to the window. Watson's throat ducked as he swallowed.
"This is the night you like to fight," Watson said. It seemed obvious, intolerably thick-headed.
"And you have come to watch the carnage."
"No," and Watson was honestly affronted by the very idea. "Don't. Don't assume such heartlessness in me. It's not, and I, I'm not-"
Watson forced himself to stop talking. His teeth dug into the inside of his lip. Holmes gazed up at him with a searching expression, his left eye swelling shut even as the doctor watched. He wanted to put his hands on Holmes's face, wished that his fingers might be made of ice and thus able to do some good.
"You are a curiosity to me, Watson," Holmes said in a toneless voice.
"I do not mean to be," Watson said quietly.
"And yet here we are." A rush of blood swept from one end of Holmes's brain to the other. Cottony starbursts overtook his sight like cataracts, and he breathed out sharply through his nose. "I beg your pardon, my dear fellow. I think it would be best if I lie down now."
And like a string had been cut, down he went. Watson jerked forward as if he would catch his hands under Holmes's back, cradle the loll of his head in one broad palm, lay him gently down. But Watson hesitated at the final moment. Holmes crashed into the cot. He grasped weakly at his own face. Watson said his name a few times. He hovered his hand over Holmes's limp form.
It was very late. Watson stripped off his jacket, unhooked his collar, and pulled a chair up alongside Holmes's bed. He let his shoulders fall, crossed his arms over his chest, and closed his eyes.
Holmes dreamt of railroad tracks laid at the bottom of the sea, whole trains swallowed by whales. Watson was there, seaweed in his hair, beryl floating clothes. Holmes kept trying to push him towards the surface, the shattered pieces of gold light, but Watson was very heavy and would not go easily.
Awareness came in the form of a huge gasp. The air shocked Holmes's lungs. His head felt blown apart.
The smell of the room gave it away before Holmes had his eyes open. Yeast and beer and sweat and blood, mould and rat droppings, so this was his room above the Punchbowl. His skull felt dented because it very likely had been.
Holmes winched open his eyes and there was Watson, slumped and asleep in a chair beside the bed. The sight of him took the breath out of Holmes.
He stared at his friend for a long moment. His muddle of thoughts sharpened and solidified. Here was the man Sherlock Holmes esteemed above all others. Here was the life Holmes would give his own to save. It seemed ludicrous. It seemed utterly insupportable.
The detective got silently to his feet. In a bundle by the door he found his shirt and shoes. He slipped out into the hallway without disturbing Watson, and dressed as quietly as a child sneaking out after dark.
An unfamiliar feeling tilted uncomfortably in Holmes as he set out into the night. It took him half a mile to identify it as cowardice, and then he turned on his heel and strode back to the Punchbowl, eyes alight and mouth atremble, but by then Watson was already long gone.
"He does not care for me as I care for him," Watson told his wife.
Mary did not believe him. She hummed in place of an answer. They were seated in adjacent chairs in the sitting room, a fine rose-coloured evening. A book rested unread in Watson's hands; Mary's fingers moved like clever spiders over her knitting.
Watson took his time, staring out the window. He said, "I have shown myself willing to do anything for him-anything. He knows that. He uses it against me."
A quick glance in Mary's direction like testing the water, and Watson's eyes skipped back to the rooftops and ravens. He thumbed through the pages of his book.
"He has turned the strength of his affection for me into contempt," Watson said. His tongue felt as dry as ash.
Mary exhaled softly. She marvelled at how a man as smart as her John could misread a situation so abjectly.
"It isn't contempt, John," she told him. She kept her voice as soft and clean as fresh linen. "You have hurt him. How many people in this world even have that ability?"
Watson didn't answer; it was unnecessary. Mary went on, eyes downcast and demure, "I believe he has a terribly poor understanding of love, my darling. If you have given a part of your devotion to me, then logic tells him that there is less for him to claim."
A chill forced itself up Watson's spine. He thought of Holmes that night at the Punchbowl, reeling and blinded by the blood in his eyes, collapsed on the cot like a soldier after a yearlong siege. He thought of how opening his eyes to that empty room had felt like waking up inside a coffin.
"Of course you're right," Watson murmured, and then nothing more. Some topics were better suited to silence.
In the early spring, Mary left to visit her sister in Devonshire. It was only meant to be a week, her talk in the days leading up to it full of green vibrance and moss spilling over the cart paths. She invited her husband to join her, but in such a way that they both knew he was meant to decline. Mary had not seen her sister or her children since the wedding. It had been six months and sometimes it seemed as if the world were no larger than Cavendish Place, and all its sunlight lay banked and waiting for John to come home at the end of the day.
So they would have a week without each other. John had kissed her goodbye twenty times at least. The giddy infatuated blush did not fade from Mary's cheek until she was well out of the city.
Watson watched her train diminish into the horizon, and then left the station. Twenty-two minutes ago, in the carriage en route, Mary had touched his face and told him, "I wonder if you will take my example, and also return yourself to those that you miss."
Watson had stammered something nonsensical. He was already in an out of kilter mood. The lonely week yawned before him, quiet meals and a cold bed; he was in no condition to think about Sherlock Holmes.
It was a futile strategy from the start. Watson came home alone, and a day passed that became two and then three. Time became blurred and unreliable, faces and moments smeared as if the paint weren't quite dry. Watson slept very little. Small neat stitches of his life began to unravel. Holmes's beaten face reoccurred whenever he closed his eyes.
So, on the fourth night, Watson set out to get drunk.
As usual, Holmes was three steps ahead. He had been drunk since teatime.
There had been some middling rationale behind it, originally. Holmes had been engaged by a dock owner who suspected that a smuggling ring was being run out of his warehouse. Holmes was on reconnaissance in some swampy riverside pub, deeply immersed in character and attempting to make some particularly unsavoury friends.
It was all in a day's work. Somehow two hours and too many pints of dark beer passed in the wave of his hand as he regaled a table with some fantastical tale of dismemberment and intrigue. Holmes was heavy-eyed and sneeringly gregarious, because that was the part he was playing. He felt soaked in a subcutaneous way, his muscles themselves weighted and dragging.
Holmes took himself away from the pub once he heard the Mancunian accent he'd affected begin to slur and fall apart at the edges. It was barely dinnertime and he was already ruined for the night. It had been pointless. He hadn't learned anything new.
Dark thoughts occupied him mercilessly as he cut through the slick stone pathways of the city. Holmes was at a treacherous place in the drunk, that held-breath feeling of fragile clarity. He defined what had happened to him, the truth at last. He picked up the individual shards of his heart, held them up to the gaslight and watched them shine like glass.
It was something less than coincidence that found him only blocks from Cavendish Place. It was something far less than wise, but Holmes still stumbled to the home of his dearest friend. He lay down on Watson's front step, and folded his hands over his chest.
Everything was spinning.
There was a moment, as Watson first came upon his one-time friend lying in a stupor on his doorstep, when he thought perhaps this would be the end of it. In the shadows and unreliable moonlight, he couldn't tell if Holmes was breathing until he was close enough to touch.
A scene played out behind Watson's eyes, Holmes's funeral with all of London turned out in black, bearing crepe flowers. Silent faces and bare heads, hats in hand as the methodical procession trod down the road. Watson would be drunk, he knew. Drunker than Holmes had been at the good doctor's wedding, drunker than he was now.
But Holmes lived still. Watson prodded a toe into his side. A hitching half-groan sound, and Holmes's liquor-swollen eyes fluttered open.
"Watson," Holmes said, and then, "my dear."
It was backwards. Nothing was making sense. Watson held out his hand to Holmes because when a man had fallen, you offered them a hand up. It was as unthinking as his next breath.
Holmes gripped his wrist. Solid contact made them both swallow a sudden gasp. All of Watson's strength went into the pull, and Holmes came to his feet feeling like the whole world had righted itself around him, rather than the other way around.
"You may as well come in," Watson said in the tone of a man speaking to the judge about to sentence him to hang.
Holmes's eyes drank up Watson. His mind felt bruised, hairline fractures in areas that were impossible to see.
They went inside. Watson swayed in the hallway, reaching for the wall. Holmes tried to put his feet in the precise places that Watson had put his. The doctor clawed his collar off his neck. Holmes stared at the steep revealed line of his throat.
Predictable tension filled the quiet between them as they stepped into the sitting room. There was no stack of letters shivering and impaled by a jackknife on the mantle. There were no bullet holes in the wall or smoke stains on the ceiling. This was just another room.
Watson stood with his back to Holmes, one hand clasped on the back of his neck. Holmes lingered by the door, hiding his hands deep in his pockets. He watched Watson to the exclusion of all else.
"You must pardon me," Watson said without turning to look at him. "I'm afraid I have had a very long night."
There was something wrong with Holmes's brain. There was something wrong down in the heart of him, in the marrow. He took hold of Watson's shoulders and turned him, and then pressed forward. He covered Watson's mouth with his own and did not let him go.
Stupid, unacceptably stupid. Holmes spent the night on the floor of the sitting room. He watched the unblemished ceiling for hours, tracing the shadows, the pall of drenched moonlight.
There was no hope of sleep. Sleep was reserved for innocent men and not thrice-damned fools. Holmes counted his fingers, worked out long mathematical equations in his head. Alcohol seeped out of his pores, clouded stickily over his skin. He relived that moment, that single instant of Watson's mouth under his. Shock and heat and suddenly Watson's lips became soft, open, and a split second later Holmes was being shoved away.
Over and over again. Holmes was a madman suffering from a madman's unilateral perspective. He kissed Watson a thousand times that night. He put his hands on the doctor's shoulders and turned him around, over and over and over again.
And then he was being shoved away.
Holmes flinched, fingers jerking on his stomach. He thought that he should leave. He should have left immediately, taken Watson's shove and allowed it to fly him out the door, down the steps, away away.
Watson had said, "It, it's all right. You're drunk," as if those two things had anything to do with each other.
Watson had said, "Just, please, just stay. We'll speak in the morning." His eyes huge and glassy blue, his hands brought up protectively between them, and Holmes couldn't look at him. He felt like he'd been shot.
So here he was on the floor. Holmes tasted his lips, searching. Through the wall, he could hear the irregular whine of the floorboards as Watson paced. Holmes fixed his gaze on the window. In the morning, Watson had said. It's all right, Watson had said.
Holmes laid his forearm over his eyes. He intended to leave. Soon, very soon, in only a minute, just as soon as he felt like he could stand. Clearly, plainly, inarguably, retreating in disgrace was the only thing left to be done.
Watson walked a half-dozen miles between the walls of his bedroom that night, or his leg felt like it, anyway. He paced until he was no longer a loose-minded inebriate, until the lines of the world were crisp and unmoving once again. Sobriety was his grail tonight, his only prayer. It shone like Eldorado on the horizon. Once sober, Watson was sure, he would understand what had overcome Holmes. What that had meant.
The creeping rise of the sun, earlier every day, found him poleaxed by exhaustion and slumping into the chair by the window where Mary liked to read in the good morning light. The drunk was fading at last, the tide sinking back and leaving bare crags in its wake. Watson twitched with guilt, and bafflement, and a weird nervy elation that hummed under his skin like fever.
On the other side of the wall, Holmes's eyes were closed and they were pressed against each other shoulder to knee, kissing like every horrid melodrama that had ever been staged. Watson suffered second-hand flashes, fluorescent photographic afterimages that stirred his blood like minor static shocks. It was a side effect of the proximity, no doubt.
Watson put his head in his hands. Dogs were barking in the alley below his window. It was a fight, most probably. There was a scent in the air that suggested bloodshed was imminent.
And enough of this, Holmes decided at some point during that interminable night.
He had not left and he could not leave. This alien room had everything he needed to survive; it had Watson breathing on the other side of the wall. Holmes was as smart as they said he was, as wise as every legend. He understood the things that had happened to him-the nature of the loss that he had endured.
So, enough of it. Enough of these brief spotlit moments, these fractured conversations and undercover looks traded like missives across battle lines. Enough of miscommunication and spates of furious silence, every long night when neither of them had slept. Enough of everything under the surface, enough of it all.
No one could live like this.
In the morning, Watson had said, and "yes," Holmes whispered under his breath, lying there on an unfamiliar floor, "the morning."
The day broke.
Watson emerged as dressed as he could be, collar and cuffs and shoes as shiny as sunlit mirrors. The knot in his tie was perfectly formed, small and hard in the vague shape of a heart. Holmes's eyes flew to him immediately, tiny dark birds flitting through the room. Watson cleared his throat, and rubbed his palm on his thigh.
"Good morning, Holmes."
Infuriating impossible man. Holmes hollowed his cheek, taking a piece of flesh between his back teeth. The detective was sitting against the wall, legs crossed before him. The circles under his eyes made them look like wells, dense and cold and black.
"Good morning, Watson."
A fidget, a twitch of the muscle in Watson's jaw as he smoothed back his hair with his palm and came to sit in his customary chair. Their gazes aligned for a single instant. They both thought very sharply and suddenly of that moment the night before, the turn of Watson's shoulders in Holmes's hands, the fit of their mouths. Quickly, they looked away. Colour rose from Watson's collar. Holmes's skin flashed with gooseflesh.
An extremely dense silence came into being. Watson tried not to think about the slow-twisting heat in his stomach. Holmes stared at him openly as long as Watson didn't look back.
Then a string snapped. Watson said, "Holmes, why-" and Holmes hissed between his teeth, "Quiet, quiet." Watson was struck, badly hurt for an instant before an apologetic knock came at the sitting room door. Watson jerked in surprise, knocking a book off the side table as he stood too fast. He felt huge, ungainly. Holmes was staring up at him, his lips slightly parted.
It was a serving girl at the door, burdened with tea and toast. She startled and blinked widely at Holmes on the floor. Watson waved a hand, distracted and impatient. He said, "My friend Mister Holmes. Leave that, please." He wanted her gone.
Holmes waited until the door had shut behind her and her footsteps had retreated to the back of the house, before saying with all the ease he could muster, "You had a question for me, I believe?"
Watson froze with his hand halfway to the kettle. He pulled his lower lip quickly between his teeth.
"Would you like some tea?"
Typical, Holmes thought, and exhaled through his nose. "Thank you, I would."
Tea was a fine distraction. Watson watched his hands working. His face was stained bright red, and he was depressingly aware of it.
Holmes waited. He looked at Watson as if one of them were about to be led off to the gallows-as if it were his last chance. Watson was put together so well. Even his limp made sense, made him so perfectly damaged, and Holmes was not thinking clearly. His heart was beating very fast.
Watson brought him his tea on a saucer, bending slightly at the waist to hand it to him. Holmes touched Watson's fingers as he took it and the doctor's eyes flicked to his, bright and startled and lovely, just terribly lovely in every way. Holmes said:
"I'm sure you're wondering why I kissed you last night."
Watson's whole body jerked. It was a lucky thing that the china was out of his hands already. He spent an infinitesimal moment aghast at Holmes's audacity, but that was always the first thing to pass.
The doctor stepped back from Holmes carefully. He pushed his palm at his leg, affected the blankest expression he could manage.
"I do not place great significance on the things you do while under the influence of alcohol."
"Perhaps you should."
"What. What are you doing?" Watson asked, weak-voiced.
Holmes clutched his cup and saucer, thinking of talismans and lifelines and desperate things like that. He swallowed hard.
"I am trying to tell you," Holmes said, and stopped. A breath had caught in his throat. Watson stared at him with a mad rabble in his eyes, nailed to the spot. Holmes held himself as if ready to absorb a blow, and told his friend:
"I have not yet found a limit to the things I want from you. It is most perplexing."
Eyes gone very wide, mind gone very still, Watson only gazed down at him for the longest minute. The wind had been knocked out of Watson. The room seemed indecently small all of a sudden, the world outside very far away. They might have been on a cave on Mars for all that Watson could care for the rest of humanity.
Some small part of the doctor wondered insistently why he was so surprised. Surely the idea had occurred to him before. He had imagined dying for Holmes-the potentially fatal happenstances of their day-to-day life together had made it an inevitable morbid fantasy-and that kind of devotion surely asked very basic questions about why and how, and how much.
Watson had not spoken. Holmes sat in the posture of a man fallen into a deep cavern, waiting for death with two broken legs. His head rested back against the wall, his throat on display. His eyes on Watson were flat and heavily lidded.
"These months without you, Doctor-when you have been such a rare occurrence, so very-so very removed from me-"
Holmes's voice caught, cracked tellingly like a raw youth, and he was disgusted with himself. Enough, he thought, and then again, fiercely: enough.
"It is not the life that I would prefer," Holmes continued shortly. "Worse luck for me, of course. I recognise that your priorities have changed, and your heart has been given to another, and I don't-I would not expect you to, to-"
"To what?" Watson broke in, shaken by Holmes's plain discomfiture and the enormity of the moment. "Leave Mary for you?"
Holmes reacted as if stung. His teeth clicked together. "My dear fellow, please restrain yourself from finishing my sentences. You happen to be atrociously bad at it."
Watson's hands closed into fists at his sides. "What would you have me do?"
"Stay quiet and listen, for one," Holmes snapped back. Adrenaline was being fed back and forth between them, tingeing the air. "As I was attempting to express, I would not ask such a thing of you. Because I know you could not. You would not be-it would be out of character."
A pause, and Holmes gripped his ankle tight, thumbnail against the bone to keep his mind from disintegrating into despair and panic and a dozen other complementary catastrophes. His neck was beginning to ache from looking up at Watson from this angle.
"The situation is therefore irresolvable. Irreversible. I have tried to stay away from you but that has proven difficult. Last night, I. I cannot explain what came over me last night."
That last bit was the only flat-out lie. Watson heard it, his eyebrows flinching upwards, but he said nothing. He didn't want to hear Holmes define it either.
"It is unfortunate," Holmes said as if describing a ruined meal. "I take full blame, of course. You deserved to know."
And then he went quiet. His thumbnail had dug a deep indigo half-moon into the pale skin of his ankle. Still he kept his eyes on Watson because it seemed like the last measure of a man: head up, eyes forward. Holmes's mouth felt sore and ill-used from so much confession. It left an awful taste behind.
Watson stood gazing down at him. His hands hung loosely at his sides, and there was a look on his face that was more bemusement than anything else.
"And what," Watson began, and trailed off. He blinked at Holmes, feeling like there was a trap closing around him. "What would you have me do with this revelation?"
"What you will. Whatever you like."
"That, that is not," and Watson stopped again. His thoughts were jammed and incomprehensible. Holmes just sat there, a lump against the wall, his face made into ramparts against which Watson was meant to batter himself apart.
"Why would you tell me that?" Watson asked.
Holmes shrugged, looked away. "As I said: you deserved to know."
"To what purpose?" Watson's feet were anxious beneath him, his colour rising. "If, if the situation is irresolvable-if you cannot fix it-why would you-you never act without a reason."
The doctor heard the halting uncertainty in his own voice, and it made him ill. He was aware once more of the heated curl in his stomach, and now it was deadly, sematic. It was a symptom of something ominous and unexplored localised around Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes was silent for a moment. He felt unstable, weary and eroded. He didn't like the way Watson was looking at him.
"I thought perhaps that our time together had engendered in you some respect for deductive logic. Perhaps you would be grateful to hear that there is at least a motivation for my behaviour."
Watson tipped his head to the side. His expression was fractured by disbelief. He spoke too quickly, without thinking.
"An illegal and immoral motivation, yes, Holmes, I am quite grateful to hear that."
Holmes's eyes sparked. His lip sneered. "You do not consider it immoral, and it is not white of you to feign otherwise."
Watson opened his mouth, and then shut it. They both knew Holmes was right. Watson was not disgusted. He was not offended. Not every emotion rabbling under his skin was identifiable, but those, at least, were blessedly absent.
"What would you have me do?" Watson asked again. Desperation cracked in his voice. "I love my wife."
"I am aware of that."
Holmes jerked his hand through the air, cutting him off. His lungs felt withered, desiccated, oxygen and better intentions leaking out of him. The detective stared somewhere to the left of Watson's shoulder.
"I do not expect anything from you," Holmes said. "This information need not change your life in any way. I believe I should go."
But he did not move. He felt anchored to the floor, small anvils bound to his limbs. He stared up at Watson in exhaustion.
Watson took a step towards him unconsciously. He realised what he was doing and stopped, and then felt foolish beyond words. He extended a hand to Holmes. Holmes regarded it like a poisonous snake, but took hold and allowed Watson to pull him up.
They swayed briefly together. Blood rushed into Holmes's head. Watson's rough hand in his own made him dizzy, and then it was removed. Holmes felt chilled. He felt ashamed, and there was no feeling he despised more.
"You make everything so difficult," Watson said in a whisper.
Holmes nodded. He could admit to these lesser sins with no hesitation.
Watson stole a glance at him. He rubbed his palm on his trousers. They were standing very close to each other-too close by any reasonable measure.
"What will you do?" Watson asked.
It was a fine question. Holmes's potential courses spooled out in front of him like river roads, muddy and murky and impossible to navigate. He sighed.
"I don't know."
Hearing Holmes say that rendered them both speechless for a moment. There was a sense that the language had been corrupted, infiltrated, like every word that passed between them carried four or five meanings beyond the given. Holmes's fingers scratched and rattled on the wall. Watson's stricken blue eyes combed over him, pulling out the individual pieces and laying them bare.
"Back to Baker Street," Holmes said, voice dropped low like a secret. "And to whatever petty crimes present themselves to me, whatever momentary distractions. I, I pass the days well enough. The nights are really not worth discussing. I assume that this sort of recovery requires time, like any injury, and so it shall have. You don't need to worry about me."
Holmes paused, his chest hitching. He did not mention that it had been six months and still the wound bled freely. Watson was close enough that he could make out the tense flutter of Holmes's eyelashes as he blinked. The doctor felt as though he'd been hollowed out, rendered as steep and devoid as a chasm. Holmes dropped words into him and he echoed.
"So," the detective said. "Allow me to leave you to your life. Your so very lovely life-it's all quite beyond my ken."
Watson kissed him then.
As fast as their first, as unexpected, sudden world-stopping press of lips against his own, sudden rip of heat from the pit of his stomach. Watson did not put his hands on Holmes's shoulders, nor his face, nor slid into his hair. He kissed his friend close-mouthed, his teeth barely hinted at, and Holmes was shivering, just barely kissing him back.
Watson pulled back. He was stunned. Holmes's face dismantled, became liquid-dark eyes and ready mouth. The great detective looked immensely young, wide-open with some kind of awe.
"I do not wish for you to leave me," Watson said hoarsely.
Holmes stared at him. "Why not?"
It wasn't the sort of thing one could easily put into words. Watson's blood screamed in his veins. He had enjoyed kissing Holmes a great deal, the doctor was realising in a stupefied wave. He very much wanted to do it again.
And then: Mary. Her name lit up with guilt and outrage, her face smiling sweetly at him from every corner of this room. Watson winced. He bent away from his friend, exhaling cautiously through his mouth.
"You-you are not the only one in such straits," Watson said, hating the vague breathlessness in his voice. "But I. We. I cannot have the things I want from you."
It was only semantics, the barest defence, but Holmes could not help telling him, "You can, actually. At any time you desire. Any place."
That flush on Watson's face was new; it was specific colour not unlike early roses. Holmes memorised it dutifully, and meanwhile indulged in the small dirty thrill of making such bald advances to the single most unsuitable person in the entire history of the world. Holmes was in freefall. He was at least trying to enjoy the trip.
Watson shook his head. "I stood before an altar and pledged myself to her for life, Holmes."
"Yes thank you, I was there."
"You were not," and they both froze at the vehemence in Watson's voice. It was like a rock thrown through the window, an abrupt and indiscriminate reminder of the potential for violence.
A moment passed.
Holmes swallowed with an audible click. He wished he had done several things differently, but set that aside. Remorse had no practical use, absolutely none.
"So you wish for me to stay away from you," Holmes said. He didn't bother disguising it as a question. "The temptation is too great for you to risk the gauntlet. I wonder why that should become the case so shortly after you've married your darling wife."
"You may leave her out of it, Holmes, or you may leave here at once," Watson said, steel thread woven through it.
Holmes's face was hot, a headache blooming like a blighted flower behind his eye. He wanted to touch Watson with every inch of his skin, and Watson returned the sentiment. They had not stepped apart to any noticeable degree. Holmes's back was still to the wall, half of Watson's shadow blocked across his body.
"You brought her up first, I believe," Holmes said. And then, insanely, "Kiss me again, would you?"
Watson's eyes went wide. "No, no Holmes."
"That's illogical, you see," and Holmes was speaking too fast, near-babbling. "You would steal for me and lie for me, betray any other man in this world if he turned on me first. You would die in my service, I know, but more to the point, you would kill for me, and you have, you have. Watson."
Surrendering to the ungodly pull the doctor had on him, Holmes twisted a hand in his suit, marring the clean tucked lines, making Watson's mouth fall slightly open. The space between them was closing slowly to zero.
"You have committed so many sins in my name," Holmes continued, an appalling strain of desperation coating every word. "If you would go to hell for loyalty-for God's sake, man, go for love as well."
Watson kissed him to make him stop talking. He kissed him because there was no other option remaining. Holmes fell into him, a wild relieved gasp breaking between them and then smothered, swallowed, consumed. Watson pressed hard against him, his hands sunk into Holmes's hair. Holmes licked into Watson's mouth, felt his soft tongue moving against his own. Holmes's legs were weak, happy to have a wall at his back. He dug his fingers into Watson's hip.
Several long minutes slipped past without either of them noticing. The room seemed quiet but it was not. They were breathing hard, panting raggedly whenever they came apart. Holmes was a steam engine in Watson's ear, a furnace poured into a man and wrapped around him. Watson's fingers scraped through his friend's hair, the grit and the slick silky feel of clean underneath. Watson could taste adrenaline like old pennies, feel the heavy push of arousal under his skin. He didn't want to take his hands off Holmes-not ever again.
Holmes tore his mouth away. He sucked at the air. His eyes were huge and black-looking, maddened.
"I, I," he said. His tongue caught; his voice wasn't working. Holmes succumbed to an ancient desire and pressed down the contumacious ruff of hair that was always sticking out of Watson's head. He tested the weight and fold of it, learned it forevermore. The detective swallowed, deeply moved.
"Come," Watson whispered. His nose brushed Holmes's cheek, and then he was moving away. Holmes followed him in a daze, his mouth swollen and his body distracted by everything.
Watson locked the door and let fall the drapes. He was a shadow among denser shadows. His hand was in Holmes's, their fingers linked together.
Watson sat Holmes down on the settee and then sank to his knees before him. Holmes stared, fascinated beyond words. Two careful doctor's hands smoothed down his legs.
"Watson," Holmes said for no other reason than to hear it. Watson's mouth bent in a small smile, and he bent his head to press a kiss to the inside of Holmes's knee. Holmes threaded a hand over Watson's hair, his heartbeat thick and bright and fast in his mouth.
"You are truly," Watson began, and then he stopped himself. He rested his face on Holmes's leg, and sighed.
Holmes was trembling. His skin burned and begged. It was an impossible moment. Watson's breath was warm, insinuating under the thin layer of his trousers. Holmes could not think in straight lines. He could hardly think at all.
"Please," Holmes managed.
His hand slipped to Watson's cheek as the doctor lifted his head. Holmes moved his thumb over Watson's mouth. He said again, coarse nothing of a voice, "Please."
Watson let Holmes pull his lower lip askew. He set his hands on Holmes's flies, feeling the instinctive jerk of Holmes's legs against him. It was the work of half a minute to get Holmes's trousers opened and his shirt peeled back, and then Watson was staring at the spread of his hand on Holmes's stomach, the strange difference between their two skins. Watson was staring at his wedding band, and wondering if the spot felt colder to Holmes than the rest of his hand.
The doctor put that out of his mind. It served no purpose, not anymore. Watson shifted closer on his knees, his bad leg a dim reminder of pain. Holmes's hand cupped around the back of his head, tugging him forward, and Watson went easily, eagerly. Watson pressed the palm of his hand to the flat soft place between Holmes's stomach and leg, and took him in his mouth. He felt Holmes become fully hard on his tongue, and the sensation was like nothing Watson had ever known.
Holmes's head fell back. He was aware of Watson's mouth moving on him, the heated pressure of Watson's hand, and then nothing. His mind rollicked and rioted. He should be seeing this, should force his eyes open so he could watch Watson kneeling with his head between Holmes's legs, his mouth so sinfully at work, but that thought was ephemeral, fleeting. Holmes stroked his hand through Watson's hair, his fingers shaking, and said for the third time, "Please."
So this is what you want, Watson thought in a lust-drunk haze. He was holding Holmes down with one hand on his chest. The detective's narrow form writhed faintly beneath him, his hips shuddering. This is what you want, Watson thought, and sucked Holmes further into his mouth. This was lovely, Holmes's hand on the back of his head, Holmes's shaking legs against his sides. Watson squeezed his eyes shut, overtaken.
Holmes finished only minutes later. He called Watson's name. Then the doctor was climbing into his lap, arms slung haphazardly around Holmes's neck. Holmes was dumb, satiated and dangerously warm under his skin. Watson pressed his open mouth to Holmes's face, his slack mouth. Holmes barely mastered himself enough to get a hand inside Watson's trousers, and then it was embarrassingly quick, three quick pulls and suddenly his fingers were wet.
Watson groaned low. The tension in him uncoiled abruptly, and he sagged into Holmes's body. Holmes wrapped both arms around his back. He buried his face in Watson's shoulder.
A concatenation of moments passed, each improving on the one that came before. Holmes was aware of the weight of his friend on top of him, the difficulty they were both having with breathing, the blur of love and regret filling the slight spaces between them. Watson's temple was against his own.
Holmes closed his eyes, and held on.
Some days later, Mary came home on a devastatingly deep spring morning, the park in bloom and the trees bent like supplicants over the paths. Yellow and blue flowers burst in unpredictable flowerfalls from the street-carts. Gentlemen tipped their hats at her as she alit from the cab that had taken her from the train station.
Looking up at the stolid grey facade of her home, Mary sighed contentedly. Devonshire had been agreeable in every particular, her sister a delight, her nephews a blessing, but now that she had returned, it all seemed terribly far away.
She did not bother calling for a boy to help her with her luggage. Sufficiency bubbled in her, energy and animation strengthening her arms, and she mounted the front steps, pushed open her own front door. The house breathed with quiet anticipation. The house girl emerged wringing her hands in her apron. She curtsied her greeting and stood, obeisant eyes cast down.
"I trust Doctor Watson has fared well in my absence," Mary said.
The girl glanced up, a sharp rabbity look on her face. "Yes, mum."
"Is he in? I'd hoped to see him before he left for his practise."
"Yes, mum. He has Mister Holmes with him now."
Mary stopped, and then she inclined her head to the side. "Does he? How lovely."
She sent the girl away with her luggage. Brazen sunlight sketched soft-lined shapes on the high shine of the floorboards. The door to the sitting room was slightly ajar, a murmur of voices winding together like thread on a loom. Mary stood in the hallway for a moment, listening. She heard Holmes say, "You can't doubt it, old boy," and she heard her husband snort with quiet laughter.
Mary pushed the door open. Holmes stood by the window, outlined by glass and flooded with light. John was sitting in his chair, smoking a cigarette with his wrist at an acute angle.
The two men looked up in the same instant. They were one mind in two bodies-one soul, perhaps. Their eyes were wide in exactly the same way. It caused Mary's heart to make a slow turn in her chest.
Mary drew her hat off. Her lips curved in the slightest smile, and she said with every measure of joy light in her voice:
"My darling, I'm home."