"The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is" – Hugh Macleod
"You are leaving."
He hadn't quite meant for those words to slip from his mouth. Certainly, they had been clanging around in his cranium for quite some time; the last few minutes especially, sitting in not-quite-companionable silence at the small, circular table in their shared kitchen (shared, obviously, for the unwashed dishes and half-eaten food on one side and the impeccable, somewhat unreasonable tidiness of the other). There was no special occurrence or cause for uneasiness: just breakfast, Watson at his coffee (stiff, black, no crème, no sugar) and Holmes at his porridge (plain, lumpy, messily made) and biscuits (drowning in syrup). Nothing odd, nothing unusual. Shuffle of the morning paper in Watson's hand, the scrape of silverware against ceramic as Holmes tried to push his breakfast around into more aesthetically pleasing lumps.
Perhaps there was cause for concern there, though. It might have been a trigger, albeit a subtle one. That Watson was fully engrossed in the paper, not even giving a half-disdainful glance at Holmes' less-than-healthy morning meal, not that customary "I suppose I don't have to tell you what that's doing to your teeth" look in regards to the maple-smothered biscuits. Not even a crack or comment about the state of his (poor, abused, wiry) body, which was in desperate need of a shower and clean clothing (or at least clothing absent of bloodstains). No, he was much too absorbed in the paper, and not even an interesting paper (no crimes, no suspicious activity, Holmes' had already checked). Though Watson's face was calm, collected, and mildly enthused, he could have hardly been that intrigued by the press of that particular morning. There probably would have been more to read in the dregs of Holmes' tea, left out since yesterday noontime when he'd taken it; if Holmes' knew Watson, the man was probably skimming over the articles with only mild comprehension, losing his thoughts more in his coffee than in the words on the cheaply printed pages.
Which brought Holmes around to the second issue at hand: the coffee. Though he himself had often sufficed on little more than a dab of tea and a few noms of toast for breakfast, Watson was a doctor, and as such very well informed on the importance of the morning meal (which he took great pains to impress upon Holmes most every other day when the slighter man neglected to fashion any kind of extravagant meal). Watson was to be seen with an agreeable and nutritious pair or trio of foodstuffs: eggs, omelets, toast with jam, fruit (when it was available), porridge, oats, muffins, quiche, scones- accompanied generally by coffee, tea, or sometimes a glass of milk.
And today? Just coffee. Not really breakfast, just the precursor. Which obviously meant that he was getting breakfast elsewhere. The choice of simply indulging in coffee suggested that a) there would be no coffee wherever he ended up dining, or b) that the coffee would be far more expensive than their cheap (but equitable) brand. If the latter, then he would be dining at a restaurant among sophisticated company; if the former, he would be dining at someone's home, most likely a female's (who would be quite aware of the staining effects of coffee upon the teeth). As Watson was not the sleuth, but the accomplice, it would hardly make sense for him to be meeting with a client to discuss a case (as it would likewise make little sense for Watson to meet one of his own patients outside his office/quarters). As such, it was apparent that Watson would be dining with Mary.
Something in Holmes' gut clenched at that thought. Ah, Mary. Pretty-but-plain, smart-but-simple, intelligent-but-dull Mary Morstan. Not interesting as a specimen, but in her ability to captivate the attention and time of the good doctor to no end. Once a crack, now a hole in the floor. Mary the moon, constantly pulling Watson any way she wished. Consequentially, away from Holmes and the apartment at 221 B Baker Street. Mary the Gorgon. The charmless enchantress. The one Watson was leaving for.
And Holmes had stared across the white-and-blue checkered tablecloth at Watson, breakfast all but cold and forgotten save for the spoon he pushed through his porridge, unable to think any other lucid thought. You are leaving. Going. Departing. Vanishing. Leaving nothing but ephemeral warmth in your seat.
And no, he really hadn't intended to say any of those words out loud; but he let them roll out anyway, the last syllable hanging like extra flesh off the edge of his lower lip. -ing, sticking like tar to his mouth.
Watson, who had been using both his coffee and paper to shield his conscience from Holmes' despondent stare, looked up, surprise flitting across his face, eyebrows raising.
Holmes swallowed. "You are leaving."
Setting down his coffee (but the not the paper, dispensing of the sword but not the shield) and nodded, expression somewhat mystified. "Yes . . . but not for another fifteen minutes."
"It is nearly nine. Are ladies customary to receiving breakfast so late?"
Watson knew better than to be surprised at Holmes' deduction. He also heard the edge in the detective's words, singing like the murmur of a teakettle prior to eruption. Watson shrugged carefully. "I am not sure. I do not question the ways of women; I simply do as I'm prodded."
Ah. Domestic obedience."Best course of action, in all probability." The level, guileless response, punctuated by more scraping of metal against white ceramic.
Watson, unable to keep himself fully engaged in either his coffee or the paper any long, finally folded the news and set it down next to his drink. He sat back in the rickety wooden chair, suspender straps straining slightly against the starch white fabric of his shirt as he crossed his arms over his chest. The mouth beneath the neat mustache settled into an unreadable expression. Holmes' saw all of this without looking up, continuing to torture and mutilate his porridge.
Watson watched him, the scroop of the spoon and the bowl grating to his ears. His brow dipped as he surveyed his friend across the kitchen, mouth forming into a frown.
"You'd rather I not go."
Holmes barely raised an eyebrow, still not looking up. Giving up on the depressing lump that was his porridge, he reached for his fork and took another stab at his biscuits. Unenthusiastically, he brought a small bit to his mouth. "Nonsense," he murmured around the sugary mush.
It was Watson's turn to raise a brow. "Is it?"
Finally, Holmes looked up at Watson, allowing himself a small, but eager sweep across the doctor's impeccable countenance (the trousers showing creases from their pristine folding, the simple but professional white collared shirt, fitting so well over the slightly muscular torso, top button casually undone to expose a fraction of collarbone, tie hanging loosely around his neck) before settling determinedly on his face (fresh and expertly groomed, not a whisker out of place). His eyes felt heavy, taking his friend in.
"Of course. It is not any business of mine what kind of female company you fill your time with. I am hardly going to stop you from doing as you please."
Watson let the words sit for a few seconds. "But you do not like Mary."
It was one of the first times in his life that Holmes came to appreciate the potential value of diplomacy. "I have only met her a handful of times, Watson. Even I can hardly pass judgment upon her, given our scant acquaintance."
Watson almost snorted at this, a flicker of annoyance brewing in his empty gut. "It has hardly stopped you before, Holmes- "
"Women are as much a mystery to me as to you, dear Watson. But since I am at least aware of how very cunning they are, it would not surprise me if Ms. Morstan were hiding some vastly redeemable qualities under her veneer of simpering womanish charm- which in itself could be seen as something of a redeemable quality, since you yourself are so smitten by it-"
"Mary is not 'simpering'-" Watson began irritably.
"All women are simpering, dear Watson, especially in regards to the men they amuse themselves with."
Watson sat up straight, uncrossing his arms. "Amuse- you think Mary is toying with me, is that it?"
Holmes dropped his fork with a clank. "Of course. That is what courtship is by its very nature, no? Toying. Playing. Coyly pressing boundaries, subtly groping for control- "
"Your reasoning and deductions are biased, Holmes. Not all women are like Irenata-"
"No," Holmes agreed. "Just most of them. Ms. Morstan does not appear to me to be any different- "
"- and you can use her first name, you know- you have after all, 'met her a handful of times'- "
"- but as I said, the company you keep in your leisure is not any business of mine, as long as it does not interfere with our work," Holmes finished. "You may have your dalliances, dear Watson. Every man is allowed his weaknesses and small pleasures."
Across the table, Watson was purpling (a rather unattractive shade, actually; Holmes made a mental note to tell the doctor later that puce was not his best color). A vein under his chin, sidling along his neck, was beginning to strain against the skin, and his jaw had hardened like granite. His grey eyes were narrowed in anger.
"Mary is more than just a 'dalliance'. And she certainly isn't a 'small pleasure', as you so eloquently put it."
"The amount of pleasure she gives you is also none of my business, although I would remind you that when most men refer to females as their 'kept' woman, they do not generally restrict their activities to just that one: a little variation might do you-"
Surprising himself, Sherlock winced. He was positive he'd heard clay breaking at the sound and force of Watson's voice. The apartment itself seemed to cower, growing dead silent.
An awkward, ringing paused bloomed like blood from an open lesion in front of them. It reverberated in the small kitchen, making Watson's head throb.
Then, in a voice that somehow managed to be both matter-of-fact and quietly demure, Holmes replied, eyes lowered:-
"I would advise you no to shout, Watson. We get so many complaints about unwarranted noise already. It would hardly do to provoke any more."
Holmes knew as soon as the words left him that this was, in every way, the incorrect thing to say. It was callous and inappropriate, unfeeling, mocking, and cold- all the things John regularly criticized him for.
Thus, the severity and barely-concealed anger with which Watson conducted his next movements came as absolutely no surprise to him. He watched as the other man, after an extended silence, stood stiffly from his chair, pushed it back into the table with utmost control (so careful not to exert an iota of force more than necessary), and picked up his coat where it had been draped on the back of the chair. Carefully keeping his eyes away, Watson shrugged into his coat and reached for his cane, leaning patiently against the table.
"I am leaving to have breakfast with Mary," he announced, as though the subject had not been broached (as if the heated discourse of the last few minutes had not transpired). He continued to avert his eyes from Holmes, talking instead to the tablecloth (or perhaps his abandoned newspaper, or coffee cup, or vacant chair; Holmes wasn't sure which). "Afterwards, I am going to run some errands and visit a few bedridden patients. Do you need anything while I am out?"
Holmes' throat felt hollow. "No, no. I am well enough equipped as I am."
Watson scoffed. "I'm certain."
Reaching across the table, Holmes plucked up the paper that Watson had set down. He slid a finger between the pages, turning to no particular section and laying it carefully open, fully aware of Watson watching him in fuming silence. He glanced up at the doctor briefly.
"Don't dally; your bonny lass has never had much patience for your undue tardiness."
Watson opened his mouth as if to utter a withering reply. . .
But he said nothing. Instead, he closed it wordlessly. Sherlock felt what could only be relief slide through him like a swig of bourbon, warm, sweet-painful. More words would have meant for a longer fight, would have meant that John would linger. . . .
For once- perhaps for the first time in his life- Sherlock did not have the energy or willpower to argue.
He kept his eyes on the paper and listened to the sounds of Watson ambling out, cane in hand, coats rustling. Listened to the slam of the front door and the thunder of Watson's limping steps down the stairs.
Seconds ticked by.
The flat screamed with its own stillness.
Forgetting entirely about the paper, Holmes leaned back in his chair, pulling both his pipe and tobacco out of his trouser pocket. He packed in the tobacco and, striking a match on the bottom of his shoe, lit the pipe, taking a long drag to kindle the embers. He exhaled.
"Is it so wrong of me?" he asked softly.
Is it so inhuman and illogical that I fear you leaving?
Is it so cold and selfish to want to keep you?
The white-tiled walls of the kitchen glare at him from all directions, pale and angry and silent.
Holmes glared back at them. Took another slow drag.