[personal profile] wave_of_sorrow
Title: Rise And Fall
Author: [livejournal.com profile] wave_of_sorrow
Beta(s): [livejournal.com profile] jenlee1 and [livejournal.com profile] shadowsofapen
Character(s)/Pairing(s): John Watson, John Watson/Mary Morstan, Sherlock Holmes/John Watson (UST)
Verse: '09!movie
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 7,344
Disclaimer: Don't own. Don't claim. No money being made.
Summary: Of sins and virtues, sinners and saints, and trying to do the right thing.
Spoilers/Warnings: some spoilers for the book canon (FINA, EMPT), minor character death, vague mentions of drug (ab)use, angst, ridiculously long sentences, happy endings that simply do not come.
A/N: The bits at the beginning and end are taken from the poem The Tyger by William Blake. The title plays on the quote by Shakespeare, "Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall." There are two more Shakespeare quotes in the fic itself, both italicalized and from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Troilus And Cressida, respectively.

This was written for [livejournal.com profile] thebetterangels as part of the fic auction hosted on [livejournal.com profile] waltzmatildah 's journal. I'm terribly sorry this took so long, I hope you enjoy it nonetheless!

I would like to thank my two wonderful betas, [livejournal.com profile] jenlee1 and [livejournal.com profile] shadowsofapen , who both did an amazing job. Thank you so much, darlings! I also feel that I should mention, though they tried their best to beat those commas into submission I snuck a few back in when they weren't looking. Any remaining mistakes are entirely mine.

Last but definitely not least, I want to thank the amazing [livejournal.com profile] blacktablet who put the idea in my head, held my hand through writing it, tolerated my panicked emails, gave me inspiration and encouragement, and without whom, frankly, this would never have been written. A large portion of this is entirely thanks to her genius, though she may not always have known she was inspiring me at the time.

Before this turns into even more of an Oscar accpetance speech, here's the fic. As always, comments, constructive criticism and feedback of any kind would be very much appreciated!



Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


:::::::

Temptation.


It’s the smell of smoke and sweat and cheap whiskey, layered with adrenaline and spilled beer, biting and cloying and sticking to the back of his throat no matter how much bad lager he drinks. It’s the beat of his heart against his ribcage and the blood rushing in his ears. It’s the dealing of cards, red and black, kings and queens and aces and nothing at all. It’s the roll of the dice and that one breathless moment where anything is possible --anything.

It’s everything he thinks he ought to feel when presented with full lips and soft curves and smiles full of promise, and so he tells himself he does.

But, if he’s completely honest with himself – and while Watson admits that he has many flaws, he prides himself on dishonesty not being one of them – there is only one other thing that makes his heart beat just a little too fast and his breath come just a little too quick.

It’s in the way Holmes sometimes looks at him with an unlit pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth and the reflection of the fire flickering in his eyes and turning them into pools of red-orange flame. It’s in his smile, crooked and knowing and showing too many teeth, and in his chuckle, low and throaty and far too intimate. It’s in the brushing of shoulders and the bumping of knees and that noise Holmes makes when Watson digs his fingers into the one muscle in his neck that keeps knotting.

It’s everything he thinks he shouldn’t feel, and so he gambles most of his pension away and spends the rest on drink before stumbling home and slurring apologies at Holmes, who simply winds an arm around his waist and murmurs it’s alright, old boy and I’ve got you as they trudge up the stairs.

And it’s in that as well; in the rubbing of Holmes’s thumb into the flesh of his waist and the smell of his hair and the warmth of his skin bleeding through both their clothes and making Watson lean into him just a fraction more. But most of all, it’s in the tilting of Holmes’s head when he tucks Watson in and that one moment where the room almost ceases its spinning and their lips almost meet -- almost.

It’s the memory of his grandmother’s voice, covered in dust and time and saying the worst of all sins, John, is giving in to temptation, that always and without exception makes him close his eyes and turn his head away.

:::::::

Abstinence.


Her lips are soft and she tastes of wine and the quiet sigh that flutters out of her mouth in a fragile imitation of a moan makes him push her away and bite back a curse.

“John?” she whispers, and her cheeks are pink and her hair shines like frozen gold in the pale moonlight and Watson thinks her beautiful, surreal and drenched in cold light as she is.

“I’m sorry, Mary,” he says, and he is.

She nods and her breath is still too fast and too shallow and he can almost see the corset dig into her flesh and grind bone into bone until she feels trapped in her own skin.

A tear rolls down her cheek and catches the starlight and she makes no move to wipe it away and so he goes to her and catches her fluttering hands in his; little white doves cupped in his palms, their bones fragile and their skin feather-soft where it scrapes against his.

“Mary,” he says, because he doesn’t know what else to say.

The seconds go by, tick-tocking away and slipping through the spaces between their fingers and onto the floor.

“I simply do not wish to do anything you might regret later,” Watson says eventually. “I respect you and your honour too much for that.”

She smiles a trembling smile, fragile and watery, and lifts their hands to kiss his knuckles.

“I love you,” she whispers like it’s a secret, and pours the words into his cupped palms.

“I love you too,” he says, and he does.

:::::::

Pride.


The first real snow is falling, freezing the ground and bleeding through Watson’s trousers and into his skin and crunching beneath Holmes’s shoes.

“How did you find me?” he asks, and it’s not angry; it just sounds tired and sad.

“You come here every Thursday,” Holmes says and sniffs and clasps his hands behind his back. “I suspect that is because she – ” He stops abruptly, frowns and looks away.

“Because she died on a Thursday,” Watson finishes for him, his voice deliberately empty.

“Yes,” Holmes agrees and draws little patterns in the snow with the toe of his boot, dragging cold dirt and dead grass across clean white.

Silence stretches between them, broken only by the sound of breath fogging in the frozen air and snowflakes falling, and for a second Watson almost forgets that he isn’t alone and lets out a shuddering sigh.

’The course of true love never did run smooth’, old chap,” Holmes says to the white sky and bounces on the balls of his feet, once, and Watson’s neck snaps in the still air as he turns it too quickly, but Holmes doesn’t look at him.

“Why did you come here, Holmes?”

“A case,” Holmes says, and just for a moment Watson can almost believe that the past five years never happened, that heroes live forever and that Mary Morstan never died.

He gets up slowly and winces as his leg protests and ignores the hand, frostbitten and red from the cold, that Holmes offers him. They walk from the graveyard together and do not link their arms.

Later, when his leg gives way beneath him and he slips on sleet-slick cobblestones and Holmes catches his elbow, steadies him with worry creasing his brow and pursing his lips, Watson hisses, “Let go. I don’t need your help, Holmes.”

And so Holmes drops the subject and clenches his jaw and watches Watson limp along gracelessly as wet crystals gather on the brims of their hats.

:::::::

Gluttony.


To Holmes food is a necessity and, at times and when he is on a case, a nuisance.

To Watson it is something to relish and, every so often, thoroughly indulge in.

It’s the taste of rich, dark chocolate and potent wine, of good brandy and fresh oranges, of too-sweet cake and meat so tender it seems to melt in his mouth, sliding over his tongue and making his eyes close and an almost sexual moan escape from between his lips.

It’s the smell of caramelized sugar and strong coffee, of freshly cut basil and French onion soup, of still-warm bread and spilled vinegar, filling his nose and making him lick his lips in anticipation and saliva pool in his mouth.

It’s the feel of honey sticking to his lips and cloying his throat, of the ruby red juice of a pomegranate slipping from the corners of his mouth and trickling down his chin, of steam rising from a dish and the sinking of a fork into a steak.

It’s the sound of teeth biting into a crunchy apple and cutlery clinking against china, of tongues sliding over spoons and knives spreading butter on toast, of sucking the white flesh of an oyster into one’s mouth and the sensual sighs when taste buds encounter something particularly exquisite.

It’s the sight of fresh scones in the morning and strawberry jam, of artfully arranged dishes in expensive restaurants and wine-stained lips, of molten chocolate and condensation sliding down the elegant neck of a bottle and pink tongues darting out to lick sated mouths.

There is, perhaps, a sexual element to this that, had he the opportunity, Watson would like to explore further. Over-priced champagne bubbling against milky skin and sugar-rimmed navels; golden honey trickling down the inside of a thigh and pink nipples peeking out from under whipped cream; olive oil and rough sea salt sliding and scratching over a back and cool wine trickling from one mouth into the other, dripping and running and pooling above fragile collarbones.

He never gets the chance, though, and so he confines those pleasures solely to the dining room and tries, even as he gets older and fat begins to cling to his middle, to remember a chubby boy who worked hard to become a handsome man.

:::::::

Patience.


Smoke and darkness fill the sitting room and the few stray slithers of late afternoon sunlight that sneak through the drapes, heavy and warm, cut through the thick air and across Holmes’s throat as he lies sprawled on the settee and, vaguely, the writer in Watson wonders whether Holmes would truly bleed molten gold, though he already knows the answer to that.

Old case files and broken china and slips of paper shredded beyond recognition litter the floor and, beyond a slight grimace as he sees the black ink that pools on his desk and dripdripdrips over the edge and onto the carpet, Watson doesn’t comment.

He crouches down beside Holmes and his pulse is quick and shallow, like hummingbird’s wings against the pads of Watson’s fingers, and beyond a sound that gets stuck in his throat, a sound that might have meant something, Holmes doesn’t react. His sleeve is still rolled up and the puncture marks in the crook of his elbow, painted there in red and blue and purple, form eerie constellations, tempt Watson to play connect-the-dots on Holmes’s skin but no matter what he does, no matter how clean and rational the lines, the big picture doesn’t make any sense.

Holmes’s eyes flutter open, then, more iris than pupil even in this darkness and for a moment, Watson catches a glimpse of the great heart as well as the great brain, sees the cog-wheels of his mind turn and judder, sees unfathomable pain and profound sadness in eyes that are normally unreadable. And in the half-light, with tendrils of smoke swirling and curling around their spinning heads, Watson sees a mind that knows too much and comprehends too much and a heart that feels too much and too deeply, and must thus profess to feel nothing at all.

He rests his head on Holmes’s chest and hears no clang of iron or hiss of steam; hears blood rush and muscles squeeze and pump and smack together wetly and realizes that Holmes, for all that he is hewn in rough stone, unbreakable and untameable as the roaring sea, is no god, is human, can bleed.

The sound Holmes tries to make, his lips forming wordless shapes, says all the things neither of them has any words for, that no combination of consonants and vowels can express, and instinctively, Watson takes his hand and lets him hold tight and squash breakable bones together and squeeze past the point of pain as he whispers I know.

Watson stays with him like that for a long time, enveloped in smoke and words unspoken and feelings unvoiced and silent understanding, and watches the last remnants of the sun recede and slip away and leave them in the dark, stays there until their breaths have synchronized and their heartbeats almost aligned.

:::::::

Wrath.


It’s another morning in April with the sun peeking through the clouds and the last of the winter’s chill still clinging to the air and Holmes’s smile, all teeth and tired lines around his mouth, is like hitting the bottom of a well Watson doesn’t remember falling into.

“You died,” he whispers and chokes on the words, barely catching himself against his desk.

Holmes’s smile fades and concern settles into the unfamiliar lines between his eyebrows and the cold hand he puts on Watson’s shoulder makes both of them flinch.

“There, there, old boy,” he murmurs and his voice is still the same and Watson thinks that, perhaps, it shouldn’t be. “Just breathe, that’s it.”

“You died,” Watson whispers again and does not look at Holmes.

“Watson,” Holmes says and the rest is lost in the crunch of knuckles grinding into his jaw and the blob of bright red he spits onto the carpet.

“You died,” Watson hisses and his knuckles are split where they caught on Holmes’s teeth.

“Watson, you must understand,” Holmes tries, hands held out awkwardly as he wavers between asking for forgiveness and shielding his body.

“The hell I must,” Watson shouts and his voice ricochets off the walls, its echo soundless, as blood trickles from the corner of Holmes’s mouth. “I mourned you. I stood by your grave and mourned you.”

“I did what I did only to protect you,” Holmes says and there is a bitterness in his words that Watson cannot quite place. “It was for your—“

The vase only misses Holmes’s head because he ducks just in time to let it shatter and break against the door and, for the first time since Holmes has revealed himself, Watson sees the darkness in his eyes and the circles underneath them, notices the trembling of his hands and the stiffness of his limbs.

Watson sees these things and finds himself wishing he could chase the shadows of years apart, the ghosts of words unspoken, away, but realizes that he can’t.

“You died,” he says again, and Holmes flinches. “I don’t care how you did this or why you did it, because you died.”

The remnants of his disguise are still clinging to Holmes’s face and his skin is darker and his hair, greyed and aged like the rest of him, sticks up at gravity-defying angles and, for all that he looks the same as ever, this is not the Sherlock Holmes Watson once knew. And it’s easier that way, believing that this isn’t Holmes.

And so he clenches his jaw and grinds out, “Get out.”

“Wa—“

“Get out.”

“Very well, old boy,” Holmes says, and his voice is frayed and thick with defeat and the smile he forces is painful to look at and it crinkles the corners of his eyes in all the wrong ways. “You know where to find me, should you change your mind.”

Shards of glass crunch under the soles of his shoes and he closes the door with a soft click and leaves Watson alone with broken glass and distant, roaring waterfalls to slam his already aching fist into the wall.

:::::::

Diligence.


Money is not something he has very much of and this has been so for as long as he can remember. His family is not a rich one – his father a hard-working man and his mother a kind woman, taking care of him and his brother as best they can – and so affording his studies poses a bit of a challenge.

He’s a good student, though, and what he lacks in resources he more than makes up for with discipline and eagerness.

He isn’t the best in his class and he doesn’t exceed all the professors’ expectations, but he cares more than the others and he works harder than they do too, and he only half-does these things because he has to.

And so he becomes a good doctor and his patients will trust him and like him and he’ll meet a man who will appreciate him more than anyone else, though he won’t ever say it, not really, and none of that matters yet when bullets fly around him and his friends are bleeding and dying and nobody ever told him it would be like this.

And he gets through that as well, through trying to save comrades and failing to save comrades, through the pain and through the blood and the iron taste in his mouth, and when he gets shot, he breathes through it until it’s over.

And then he wakes up and can barely walk and everything is white-hot agony and, somewhere, dimly, he realizes he’ll work through that, too.

:::::::

Kindness.


“John,” she whispers, and her voice is scraped raw.

“I’m here,” he says, rubbing his eyes, and takes her hand and her fingers are cold and restless against his palm. “Would you like some water?”

She nods and he helps her sit up, holds the glass to her chapped lips and rubs in circular motions at the base of her skull as she drinks and winces with every swallow.

“Thank you,” she says when they have her settled again and it dissolves into a harsh coughing fit, shaking her thin shoulders and making her torso curl inwards in an instinctive and vain attempt at protection.

Her breath is ragged and wet, rattles and bubbles in her chest, and he wishes he could do more than rub between her shoulder blades and let her squeeze his hand and watch her slip away.

She grimaces and presses the heel of her hand against her sternum, rubs a few times, closes her eyes and lets her head fall back against the pillows. She looks terribly fragile and otherworldly, carved out of marble and moonlight, with the candlelight flickering over her features, throwing eerie shadows over her sunken cheeks and protruding collarbones, and her ribs poking through her nightgown. Blindly she reaches out and takes his hand again, her shaking fingers fitting perfectly into the spaces between his.

“John,” she says again, her eyes fluttering open in a blinding flash of summer skies and cornflowers, of cold rain and her laughter dissolving into the night air. “Will you do something for me?”

“Mary,” he says, and his voice sounds strange and the tear that drops onto the back of his hand startles him.

“Shh,” she says, and cups his cheek and the bones of her hand dig into his flesh. “It’s alright.”

He shakes his head, stubbornly, and squeezes her hand and fears he will crush her bones and snap her thrumming wrists in two.

“It’s alright,” she repeats, and thumbs a tear away and follows its saltwater path back to his eyes, lets his bottom lashes brush against the pad of her finger. “It’s going to be alright.”

He kisses her palm, damp and icy against his lips, and speaks against her skin, “You know that I would do anything for you.”

“Thank you,” she says simply, her eyes flicking back and forth between his, as if she were unsure which one to focus on.

She pats the bed beside her and he climbs in, rests his head on her chest and listens to her fluttering heart, loses count of its beats and believes that they might just never stop.

“When?” he asks into the space between her breasts.

“You’ll know when,” she says and runs her fingers through his hair.

He doesn’t think he will, but then she wakes up one morning and looks at him and all he can think is, now.

His hands are steady and tying the tourniquet around her thin arm is easy and slipping the needle into her vein is easier still and before he can think about what he is doing, it’s already over. His hands begin to shake, then, and she catches them in her own, much smaller ones, bone-white and waxen against his skin.

“I love you,” he whispers and chokes on the words.

“I know,” she says and smiles at him, and it isn’t a sunny smile and it splits the dry skin of her bottom lip and there’s blood in the cracks between her teeth.

He brushes her hair back from her clammy forehead and kisses her mouth, tasting salt and iron and the end, and he lies down on the bed with her and gathers her up in his arms, light and crystalline, shards of breaking glass shifting under her skin, and listens to her rattling breaths until they stop.

:::::::

Envy.


The train shudders and jerks and Watson fancies he can feel the grinding of gears under his feet and his huff is hidden in the crackling of an angrily folded newspaper and a hiss of steam and Holmes still shoots him a look, eyebrows lowering significantly, before turning his attention back to the landscape that swishes by in a blur of green.

Watson’s frown doesn’t fade for the entire duration of the train ride and it doesn’t fade when Lestrade meets them at the station, looking grim and soaked to the bone, and it only deepens when he crouches down and brushes wet hair out of the dead girl’s face. Vaguely he thinks that she’s beautiful and that, perhaps if her lips weren’t blue and if her heart was still pumping blood through her veins and into her cheeks, he could write entire sonnets on her skin.

And perhaps he’s doing it entirely wrong, perhaps he should write sonnets on her blue lips and her frozen skin and broken bones and her blood chasing down the street on rain-slick cobblestones and when they’re warming up at a local inn and one of the constables remarks on the article that seems to follow Watson everywhere, he mumbles into his pint, “I didn’t think that Wilde fellow was that great of a writer.”

Holmes looks up at him over his peculiar glasses that he’s neglected to take off even after nightfall and inside and grins at him and it’s unguarded and crooked and with perfect sweetness he says, “I do infinitely prefer your romantic drivel over his.”

And it’s only then, when he snorts so hard beer comes out his nose and Holmes is chuckling low in his throat and looking pleased, that it occurs to Watson that this has nothing to do with the appreciation of his writing.

:::::::

Chastity.


His lips are shiny and his grin is unhinged and just this side of mad and it isn’t kind and it isn’t happy and it makes Watson take another step back, his own breath sounding too harsh and too loud.

“Watson.” Holmes’s voice is all gravel and sand and late nights, too many cigarettes and too much whiskey and too little sleep, and it makes Watson ache for the primal, dirty grind of hips and the painful mashing of mouths.

“Holmes, we can’t,” he says instead and his voice is steadier than he’d expected it to be.

Holmes takes a step closer, careful and deliberate and entirely too much like a great cat stalking its prey, and says nothing. His eyes flick down to Watson’s neck and Watson can still feel the hot wetness of Holmes’s mouth there, the sting and burn etched into his skin in a perfect impression of Holmes’s teeth.

“You want this,” Holmes says after a while, and it isn’t a question and it isn’t a guess, because Holmes doesn’t ask and Holmes doesn’t guess.

“We can’t do this.”

“But you want to.”

“That—you, I,” he closes his eyes and breathes deeply and does not open them again as he goes on. “Whether we want this or not is irrelevant. We simply cannot do this, Holmes. It is wrong.”

Holmes barks out a laugh, bitter and scraped raw, and crowds Watson against the door and slams his fist into the wood next to his face when Watson says, “For God’s sake, Holmes, it’s against the law!”

“Sod the bloody law!” he growls, ragged fingernails scraping and skidding over the wooden surface of the door as his other hand is heavy on Watson’s shoulder, burning through the fabric of his shirt and scorching already scarred tissue. “Sod the bloody law,” he says again, more slowly and all the more vicious for it.

“Alright, sod the law, then!” Watson hisses at him, and grabs his upper arms and digs his fingers in until he knows it must hurt. “That doesn’t make it right. This is a, a sin,” he says and the word makes him frown and Holmes’s eyes blaze.

“Greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, sloth, envy and pride,” Holmes says lowly, grinding and tearing the words between his teeth and spitting them out, “Are quite simply the most common and potent motivators known to mankind. Nothing more and nothing less.”

The flickering fire throws the angles of Holmes’s face into stark contrast, all sun-warmed gold and black shadows, flames dancing in his pupils and, for a quicksilver moment, he is all rough jaw and mad hair and hellfire, turns into the devil, and then he pushes Watson away, makes him stagger and gasp, and is Holmes again.

And sometimes we are devils to ourselves,” Holmes rasps, looking awfully small and terribly old and more tired than ever, “when we will tempt the frailty of our powers, presuming their changeful potency.

The metronome ticking of the hallway clock counts down to too late and by the time Watson realizes this, Holmes has already turned away.

Watson sees the way he packs his pipe for the dismissal that it is and straightens his clothing, clears his throat and, when Holmes still doesn’t look at him, turns to leave.

“One more thing, doctor,” Holmes says and speaks to the fire, “There is no such thing as right or wrong. There is only that which you do, and that which you do not do.” He flicks his eyes up to Watson’s face for a second and adds, “I do believe you’ve made it quite clear as to what this is.”

Watson swallows and shifts the grip he has on his cane and says nothing.

“Give my best to Miss Morstan.”

“I will,” Watson whispers and leaves and doesn’t stop when he hears Holmes’s pipe crash and break against the other side of the door.

:::::::

Liberality.


It’s a rare hot summer day and the air is heavy and humid and he can hear the bees buzzing around nearby as he lies on his back in the open field. It smells of hot earth and grass and he’s too young to truly cherish the moment and he won’t remember it once he’s gone to war and become a doctor and moved to London.

Just as he won’t remember the name of the boy who lives next door and has even less money than his family does and likes to play with him.

They’re reckless and careless and laughing freely and it’s only natural that he shares the sweets his mother snuck him earlier.

:::::::

Greed.


It doesn’t change nearly as much as they thought it would - the wedding.

Watson’s still there when Holmes has a case and he’s still there when Holmes is shooting bullets into the wall and he’s still there when Holmes is curled up under the settee and drawing lines in the dust with ragged fingernails. He stays well into the night and runs off for days on end when his assistance is required and leaves his practice in the capable hands of a colleague and Mary with a hasty kiss to the cheek.

There are moments when they both forget that Watson has a new home now and that they’re not Holmes and Watson anymore, not really, anyway, and then Watson will run his fingers over his well-brushed hat and remember why his shoes are polished and why his waistcoat isn’t missing buttons and then he’ll leave and they’ll both know he’ll be back and they’ll both act like they don’t.

Mary never says anything and perhaps that’s simply because she loves him enough to grant him that freedom, or perhaps it’s because she realizes that it’s not her place to deny her husband anything, or perhaps it’s simply because she knows him well enough to know he’ll come back to her just as he always goes back to Holmes.

She’s his lighthouse, his harbour in the tempest that is Holmes, and she puts solid ground beneath his feet when their little boat threatens to topple over and his stomach lurches and Holmes laughs, mad and reckless. And, like every good sailor, he keeps coming back to her, if only to reassure himself that she is indeed unchanging and eternal before plunging into dark seas.

He’s secure in the belief that the both of them will always be there and so he flits back and forth between them and takes the best of both worlds and believes it’ll always be that way, because seas don’t cease their raging and lighthouses don’t stop guiding sailors home.

:::::::

Lust.


His skin shines oily-slick in the dim light of the gas lamps and the sharp smell of sweat and blood is heavy in the air and, almost for emphasis, he spits to the side, spatters of crimson turning to brown muck on the floor of the boxing ring. The doctor in Watson winces as Holmes licks his split lip and offers his opponent a blood-drenched grin, mad and reckless and showing a cracked tooth.

And Holmes is all sinews and angles, all razor-sharp grace and unpredictable movements, ducking and laughing and dealing his blows in bursts of ruthless violence, morbid joy bubbling up from his throat.

The crowd cheers and all it sees is an above-average fighter, skilled but not particularly so, and even that doesn’t matter because he is too daring and not calculating enough, missing the right moment to hit by a fraction and only barely avoiding the other man’s fist, getting more clumsy and more careless by the second.

Watson, on the other hand, sees the way Holmes moves and doesn’t move for what it is, because he knows that when Sherlock Holmes bleeds it is only because he wants to bleed and when Sherlock Holmes loses it is only because he never even intended to win.

And so he recognizes the rehearsed, the schemed quality of Holmes’s movements; sees how precisely calculated the angle of his head is and how he counts down to the last possible second to reel back and avoid a fractured nose; sees how he deliberately miscalculates the momentum of his own blows and tenses his body in preparation long before his combatant moves in.

It’s all bones crunching and snapping and grinding, wet skin slapping together and ripping and bleeding, grunts and shouts and gasps, primal and raw and dirty, adrenaline and alcohol and blood; it is a game played by two kinds of men: those who know no fear because they have yet to realize the frailty of life and those who know fear, have seen death and have forgotten that they too can bleed.

Droplets of sweat skid down Holmes’s spine and roll down the column of his throat, revealing lines of pale skin underneath the dirt and drying blood, and his hands are balled into loose fists, their knuckles unmarred and clean, and Watson waits for him to prepare for the dramatic last move, but he never does.

The following blows come in quick succession and with increasing intensity, thrown haphazardly and without discernable pattern, easy to counter and easier still to avoid, but Holmes takes them with small grunts and gasps of pain, blood-coloured spit flying from his mouth and his skin splitting and bruising before he even hits the ground.

For a moment he just lies there and pants harshly and then he drags himself up by the side of the ring, his muscles straining and bulging, and he refuses to let Watson steady him, leaves him to follow him upstairs instead.

Holmes flops down onto the uncomfortable bed and Watson closes and locks the door behind them, muffling the sounds of violence and excitement from below, lights a candle and realizes that its flame does very little in way of keeping all this darkness at bay.

He kneels beside Holmes and grimaces as his leg gives a painful throb before he can manoeuvre it into a more comfortable position. Warm candlelight flickers over Holmes’s skin, bruised and scarred and bleeding and covered in the results of violence and indifference and punishment, and Watson scowls at knuckles that do not require bandaging.

“I’ve always been careful not to damage my hands,” Holmes mumbles, his voice low and hoarse.

“Well, you should be more careful with the rest of you,” Watson says, and the words are sharp and accusing, “You can only die twice, you know.”

Holmes’s laugh is raw and unhappy and not much of a laugh at all and it opens the split in his lip again and it makes Watson wince.

“Oh, my dear, dear Watson,” he says and turns his face to look at him and says no more.

The candle sputters and goes out, sparks of bright light exploding in Holmes’s eyes before darkness takes them, and what little moonlight sneaks through the dirty window makes cuts and bruises shift on Holmes’s skin, turns raised, white scars into maps, though where they lead Watson does not know.

And for the smallest of moments, the interval between striking a match and the flaring of its flame, they both believe Watson is going to kiss him.

:::::::

Sloth.


Holmes rubs his hands together briskly and shoots him a quick smile, one that is unguarded and short-lived and, as Watson has come to realize, one of those he never quite seems to be aware of. It is a smile he has only given Watson on four occasions in over ten times as many years and it deepens the lines around his eyes and around his mouth and it doesn’t make him look younger, but it makes him look less old.

And it reminds Watson of a Holmes that frowned less and hurt less and smiled less and, out of the blue, said let’s move away and I want to live somewhere where I can taste the salt of the sea. His hands were restless and they formed abstract shapes in the warm air between the settee and Watson’s chair, throwing trembling shadows against the walls and, as he always had and perhaps always would, Watson said whatever you want.

They’re more restless now – his hands. Ever moving, ever working, ever gripping; bee-stung and chemical-stained, scarred and rough, their skin now paper-thin and cracked, fingers unsteady and slow and still they’re shaping thoughts in the air and conducting unwritten symphonies in the dead of night. They are more fragile now, though, and less flexible and Watson will sometimes catch Holmes scowling at them and then hide them in his lap.

Today he doesn’t hide them, not when he can clasp them behind his back and lay them on Watson’s arm and grip Watson’s hand during their daily seaside stroll. His free hand flutters and twists in the air, emphasising his points and sculpting the case’s solution in the fresh spring air and Watson nods and Watson smiles and doesn’t say anything and Holmes stops in his tracks and looks at him.

“I solved this case decades ago, didn’t I?” he asks, and his voice is small and his eyes are bright and frightened and the seagulls’ cries make him twitch and frown.

For a moment, Watson contemplates simply acting as though this was 1879 and no war and no death, faked and real and metaphorical, lay between them, contemplates sitting Holmes down and explaining it all and not touching him, because that always upset him. He contemplates these things and weighs the odds and remembers a hundred days spent trying to make Holmes understand only to have him forget again and a hundred more spent lying and all those in between.

And Watson looks at Holmes and sees the lines on his face, those that he witnessed appearing and those that will always be just a little unfamiliar, and wants to brush them away or perhaps let them be washed away by the sea and hates the way Holmes’s eyes have clouded over. He knows that it’s silly and pointless and he still wishes he could chase the confusion and the hurt and the fear away.

And so he says, “It’s alright, old boy,” and squeezes Holmes’s hand.

Holmes looks at him for several moments and the wind ruffles his grey hair and the cold waves almost splash against their feet, take sand and broken shells with them and leave sea foam clinging to their boots, and then Holmes doesn’t quite nod and doesn’t quite smile and links their hands and his fingers don’t quite fit into the spaces between Watson’s.

And Watson thinks that perhaps, perhaps they’re too old and perhaps there’s too much between them and perhaps this is all they’ll ever have and perhaps that’s all anybody can ask for.

When he breathes in, he can almost taste the salt of the sea.

:::::::

Humility.


His uniform feels tight and stiff and the medals pinned to his chest weigh heavily and his hands are cold and wet and he tightens his grip on his cane until his knuckles turn white and the handle leaves indentations on his palm.

“I don’t think this is such a good idea, Holmes.”

Holmes stops tying his cravat and turns to him and frowns, “If you don’t want to go, you only have to say so.”

“Alright,” Watson says, and absentmindedly tugs at his collar. “I don’t want to go.”

“Nonsense!” Holmes snorts, and goes back to tying his cravat.

Watson blinks and opens and closes his mouth a few times before he sputters, “Excuse me? I thought you said—“

“I said,” Holmes interrupts him, raising his voice above Watson’s and raises himself up on his toes with a bossy kind of air, “that if you didn’t want to go to that reunion, you only had to say so. I never once said that your saying it would change anything.”

“Holmes.” Watson pinches the bridge of his nose and breathes deeply and deliberately. “You are utterly impossible, do you know that?”

Holmes beams at him and bounces slightly with poorly contained energy, “Thank you, Watson.”

And it’s all so ridiculous that he just has to laugh, if only to keep from punching Holmes, and Holmes smiles and walks over to him and lays a hand on his bad shoulder and Watson would call it coincidence, but nothing ever is with Holmes. Neither of them says anything and Holmes barely rubs his thumb over Watson’s shoulder, shifts starched fabric over shredded skin, and Watson knows that he can read all the insecurities and doubts in his eyes and finds that he has no desire to hide them.

“If you like I can pretend to be daft,” Holmes offers at last, barely hiding a grin. “Perhaps they’ll start to believe you’re the brilliant one and I’m merely a figment of your vivid imagination. They wouldn’t even be entirely wrong,” he adds and squeezes Watson’s arm.

Watson laughs and blushes and says, “Oh, shush.”

:::::::

Repulsion.


“Look at them, Watson,” he says, and sneers as he looks out the window, pipe clenched between his teeth. “Insignificant little bugs, swarming the streets like drones in a beehive, each one more ordinary and mindless than the last, believing to serve some greater purpose, though they fail to comprehend it.”

He turns away with a faint noise of disgust and Watson briefly flicks his eyes up from his newspaper and mumbles, “I thought you liked bees.”

Holmes rounds upon him, all wild hair and bared teeth, slams his fist onto the table and hisses, “Goddamnit, Watson. I cannot stand this dull routine. Breathing, eating, sleeping – it bores me to death.”

“I’m sure that, should you choose to cease doing these things, they shall kill you much faster,” Watson says and tries to pretend to read the paper and, when he can hear Holmes grind his teeth, adds, “Cheer up, man! I’m sure a case will come up before long.”

Holmes laughs, then, and it’s all wrong, harsh and hopeless, and that he pours himself a glass of whiskey and chugs it back in one go, making a face, speaks volumes, but Watson finds himself unable to read them and so he scowls his disapproval instead. Holmes returns to the window, then, and frowns deeply, little particles of dust rising from his tattered dressing gown to dance in the bright morning sun.

“A little evil, a little death,” he’s saying and the sunlight floods his ashen face and there are circles painted underneath his tired eyes in blue and black. “Is that really too much to ask for?” Absently he rubs at the inside of his forearm, shifting the fabric of his clothing over the skin. “It isn’t as though they wouldn’t deserve it. Sinners,” he spits at the people below and they are none the wiser.

“Sinners, Holmes? Really?” Watson asks and finally abandons the morning news in favour of pinching the bridge of his nose. “You don’t even know these innocent people and they certainly don’t deserve misfortune simply because you are bored.”

“Hah!” Holmes flops down into his armchair and throws his head back and his laughter is harsh and barking. “There are no innocent people to be found on this Earth, doctor. Saints are an illusion, for everybody sins. Perhaps not always knowingly or willingly and sometimes even in an attempt to do the right thing, but that makes little difference.”

Watson scowls more deeply and fidgets in his chair and doesn’t know what to say.

Holmes is silent for a moment and his eyes are far away, unfocused and seeing things Watson cannot yet begin to imagine, and it hardens his face, etches deep lines like scars into his forehead and they do not fade when his eyes refocus.

“But that isn’t what I meant,” he says, and the edges of his voice are blunter now. “Subjectivity, error, blindness – the original sins, the real sins, that is what I am talking about, Watson.” He sucks on his pipe and Watson isn’t entirely certain if he realizes that it is unlit. “All these petty people with their petty crimes committed for their petty reasons,” he murmurs, staring into the fireplace, “and they never even realize how inconsequential they are.”

Two parallel lines form between Watson’s eyebrows, carving themselves just a little more deeply into his skin with every frown, like seawater into a cliff, and before he can stop himself he says, “People are not inconsequential, Holmes. On the whole a single person may not mean much, but that person may mean the world to someone. What we do and what we feel does matter, you know.”

Holmes snorts and Watson is almost grateful that he is so caught up in his own, personal darkness that he is momentarily blind, just another common sinner like the rest of humanity.

“You should stop trying to find meaning in life and death. I can assure you, you will find none. People are born and they live and then they die. Sometimes too early and sometimes too late and sometimes not quickly enough, but they die and the most they can hope for is that at least that is not ordinary.”

They,” Watson repeats and his features distort briefly in a grimace of vague disgust. “You speak as though you weren’t human.”

“Perhaps I’m not,” Holmes says and looks at him, his face wiped clean of emotion and expression, and runs the stem of his pipe along his bottom lip. “Did you yourself not call me a machine, cold and reasoning? A brain without a heart? Perhaps I truly am made of iron, no more than a series of poorly-oiled cogwheels that never cease their turning.”

And later that day the evening sun hangs low and heavy in the sky and the last of its golden beams catch something in Holmes’s eyes and for a second Watson can see the iron, hard and unforgiving, turn in his irises and Holmes is all wire and gears shifting under his skin as he throws his head back to grind out a laugh.

:::::::

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
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wave_of_sorrow

September 2011

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