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|Author's Website:||The Rag and Bone Shop|
|Pairing:||Sherlock Holmes / John Watson|
|Author's Disclaimer:||They don't belong to me...|
|Author's Notes:||A Holmes/Watson vignette, taking place a short while before "The Final Problem".
Feedback is always welcome.
|Series/Sequel:||Prequel to "Left"|
"The good thing about grief is that you get sick of it."
-- Carolyn Hux
I am not sure why I agreed to come here tonight. Of course, it would have been rude to refuse -- this is, after all, the third invitation to dinner Watson has issued me -- but social niceties have rarely concerned me. I was certainly not eager to acquaint myself with the security and disgustingly conventional bliss of my friend's wedded life, so why did I, at last, capitulate?
Sitting in the drawing room afterward, drawing quietly on a cigar, I can only conclude that it was the look in his eyes that impelled me here, to where I least want to be. It was an offended look -- worse, a suspicious one; why would I, his dear friend who had stood beside him through danger and even his wedding, not dine at his house? Watson, though not the most astute of mortals, is nevertheless capable of coming up with the right questions on occasion. And for someone like me, who seeks forever to hide, questions are dangerous, even if they never lead to answers. Far better to allay suspicions before they can seriously take root. One dreadful evening is not too great a sacrifice.
I tell myself this and yet, as I look at Mrs. Watson seated so calmly across from me, I cannot quite believe it. If being with her around Watson is difficult, being alone with her promises to be insupportable. I had not lied when I told Watson I thought her an admirable woman; so I did at the time; so, I suppose, I do now. But I am quite capable of hating admirable people. I have never been one of them, after all.
"I am sure John will be back shortly," she says after a moment of uncomfortable silence, obviously fishing for conversation. Yet another reason I loathe social evenings: the impetus to talk, talk, talk, even when there is so obviously nothing that can be said. Her husband, my friend, has left us for a few moments to chide his clumsy maid over some unimportant matter, leaving two adversaries to face each other on a most uncertain field.
...Adversaries. I suppose that is how I think of Mary Watson and myself. But would she agree with me? And can one truly be an adversary, if one is already defeated? I confess that the semantics of the English language are well beyond my grasp tonight.
"No doubt," I reply in my most languid tone, taking another draw on the cigar. "Ever the dutiful one, your husband." (Why did I say that? I determined not to punish myself. Am I...)
The smile she gives me has knives in it. If we are indeed enemies, she is a formidable one, I think. "Oh, he has his unconventional moments, Mr. Holmes, as well you know," she says lightly. "How many proper British husbands, do you think, leave their homes and practices to go gallivanting across the country with a consulting detective at a moment's notice?" Her laugh is natural and pleasant enough, if one does not know what is behind it.
I give her a smile of my own. I have been told it is charming -- by her husband's stories, actually. "Not enough, Mrs. Watson, not nearly enough. I am convinced that it is only by such irrational action that the members of my sex will be able to withstand the charms of yours. How else can the proper British husband throw off such a pleasant yoke?" On the surface it is an apposite bon mot, even a gallantry. Only the greatest of adventures could draw Watson away from such a charming woman and a charming life!
And beneath: only I can draw Watson away. She hears it as well as I do, and her cheeks flush just a bit. It could easily be excused as the warmth of the fire.
"It was through such irrational actions, Mr. Holmes, that you helped me so much," she replies, widening her eyes with every evidence of sincerity. "It was through them that you brought John to me. I do not believe either of us will ever be able to repay you for that. His assistance to you on these... little matters seems such a small price."
A hit, a palpable hit. I am wounded by that one, and she knows it too. I pretend I do not see the gleam of triumph in her eyes, pretend that I do not wish I had never laid eyes on her, pretend that those "little matters" do not make up my entire life. "You must know you owe me nothing. To see dear old Watson content is worth any small effort I may have exerted on your behalf. Indeed, I confess that one of my chief pleasures after a case is in explaining the minutiae to him; in seeing his delighted understanding of what seemed previously inexplicable."
"He has often referred to you as his teacher..."
A teacher? Is that truly how he -- "And of course," I continue doggedly, as if she had said nothing, "the time I occasionally spend with him, off and on, is most enjoyable. A delightful man, John Watson. Yes, thoroughly good company." I even smile a bit smugly, for effect.
Ah, how will you deal with that, my beauty? I see her eyes go wide again, but with shock, the flush on her cheeks dying into pallor. I feel a moment of insane triumph that my little insinuation, though patently untrue, has repaid her in some small way for the pain of betrayal I suffer every day.
Then her eyes narrow ever so slightly, and I know she has called my bluff. I am, however, still lamentably unprepared for her next words.
"I am so glad of it," she says demurely, looking at me through lowered lashes, a snake about to strike. "I tell you, Mr. Holmes, from what John says of you I... may I be frank? I worry for you. Such a dangerous life -- and a lonely one! Always having to be on guard; always having to be so terribly clever about everything... no, I am certain I cannot imagine doing it myself. Of course, I am most fortunate that I do not have to." She laughs a little while I blink, attempting to figure where she is leading me with all these words. No place I want to go, I am sure, but there is no help for it. Where the devil is Watson?
"No, I am most happy here with my own small, uneventful existence, with my own dear man," she continues. "Though frankly -- I still may be frank, mayn't I, Mr. Holmes? -- frankly, I do hope you... start taking better care of yourself. I tell you freely I shudder from some of the stories John tells me of your exploits! The one with that snake and the bell-pull -- oh! How I was frightened! And..." her voice lowers a little, "what he mentions in the stories about your... habits."
I can feel my arm twitch at that, the small puncture wounds in the crook of my elbow suddenly throbbing unceremoniously to life. Of course she knows about my "habits." Watson puts it all in The Strand so that the whole world may learn of the dangers of cocaine, of the depths to which it has sunk a brilliant mind. Why shouldn't she know? What harm can it do me, except that this beautiful, dangerous creature is sitting there, completely unassailable, and I am here with my every weakness suddenly exposed?
"He worries so much about that, Mr. Holmes. You know what a soft heart he has. Why, sometimes he even takes in patients pro deo. I venture to say that there is no excess in the human condition that cannot move our dear John to the sweetest pity." She looks sorrowfully at me.
Pity. I hear that ugly word, and all that it implies, and briefly consider strangling her where she sits. A most impractical solution, of course, and one hardly likely to endear me to Watson in its execution. And in any case she would still have won a clear and complete victory.
Though how could I have imagined it otherwise? I knew from the start how this conversation must go, should we ever have it. I can sit here armed with all the genius and cynicism and innuendo I like, and at the end of the day she is still his wife. His wife, whom I myself so carelessly delivered right into his arms. I can feel my teeth starting to clench, and instantly relax my jaw into what I hope is an insolent smile; but I really have nothing to say.
"Halloa, what's this? Sorry it took so long. Having a pleasant chat?"
That voice is -- was -- often my solace; now it only shreds my nerves. Watson enters the room, an apologetic smile on his face. I find it interesting that he looks at me before his wife, but that is the smallest matter. He is waiting for some kind of reaction, though he can hardly know what I am currently suffering, what his wife has disclosed. I almost -- almost -- make the amateur's error of smiling to cover my confusion. But smiles come to me with difficulty even at the best of times, and any such I managed to produce now would look so ghastly even Watson could see through it in a trice. I relax instead, and raise one sardonic eyebrow. "I trust the poor girl is suitably chastised?"
Completely at his ease, Watson shakes his head ruefully, before moving to sit down on the divan next to his blushing bride. "I really don't know what we're going to do with that child."
He is obviously pleased as punch: his two favourite people in the world are sitting here with him, amicable as anything after a very nice dinner, speaking -- what are we going to do about that child? -- almost as if we are all one household, instead of different warring factions. If I were not so suddenly miserable the idea would tickle me immensely, especially as I can see it irritates his wife. "I shall find someone else, John," she says in a conciliatory way, effectively shunting me out once again.
"Well, there's no hurry, I suppose," he says with a smile, taking a brandy from the tray. "My! A superb meal, Mary, once again. Holmes maintains I've put on -- what was it, seven and a half pounds? -- since our marriage, and I confess I can well believe him."
"I would say by this time it has risen to eight," I murmur, concentrating almost fiercely on the smoke curling into the air from my cigar. Really, this is intolerable. Am I truly expected to sit here smoking, drinking and making small talk while my body digests and my brain shudders itself to a near-halt? I find it most irritating, I find it most--
I find myself quite, quite absurd.
Making sure that my gaze is hooded and impenetrable, I glance from Watson to his wife, and back again. He is happy, undeniably so. Blissful, in fact. He loves his dear girl. And pities me.
I know she said it to hurt me; but I also know it to be true. Self-deception is occasionally a habit of mine, and a far more dangerous one than cocaine, but I flatter myself that I can see truth when it is right under my nose. I interest John Watson; he likes me; we are friends. But I am something he cannot understand, something not from his comfortable world, and the closest he will ever want to get is by accompanying me on our "little matters" and observing me from the outside, as a scientist might observe a new species of animal. A comparison he would loyally and heroically protest, but that would not make it false. What does he make of my strange, lonely nature? Attributes it, as far as I can tell from his writings, to some defect of mine, to some decision he thinks I have made to re-create myself as a human brain without a heart. Useful to society, in my way, and undoubtedly fascinating, but -- so terribly sad. A caution to all other souls.
How could I have allowed myself to care for this man? A good man, but not an extraordinary one; at any rate, apparently not good enough. At the very least, a little too inclined to pity. But I did allow it. And it is far too late to stop now. Sometime when I was -- inconceivably! -- not paying attention, he made himself essential. My cases are not now complete unless he is part of them, or at least hears about them later, as if only his acknowledgement makes them -- me? -- real. I find myself getting bored in the sitting-room of Baker Street, when before I could be alone in the most perfect contentment for hours. There is no one to listen to my violin. There is no one to lecture me about cocaine. There is no one to care if I...
Oh my God, I am going mad.
"Holmes? Are you all right?" His voice radiates concern, as his little woman tries not to smile at me, and I try not to think now about what that concern really means. Instead I glance again at my cigar and think for the first time in my life about giving up smoking. It really cannot be good for me; in fact, it seems I cannot now take a breath without an aching pain in my lungs.
"I'm terribly sorry, old fellow," I say as lightly as I can manage, rising slowly to my feet and feeling very, very old. "I can't think what's come over me, but I'm dead on my feet. I can only attribute it to the odd sensation of a completely full stomach."
He laughs at that, as I knew he would, and his wife contributes a delicate chuckle. "True enough. An earmite couldn't live on what you eat, Holmes." Yes, I am odd, am I not, Watson? "Would you like to lie down for a moment?"
With you? What would you say if I asked that, old friend? "My dear boy, I wouldn't dream of imposing. No, no, I'm quite well. I think I shall just thank you for the lovely evening," which was less lovely than my last dental appointment, "and call a cab to toddle me on home."
Despite my reassurances, or perhaps because of them, he is all concern, leading me to the doorway with a solicitous hand on my elbow, a hand that later helps me with my coat, waving the unfortunate maid away. Through it all he makes murmuring noises that I eventually manage to identify as words, about having to do this again sometime, how splendid it was to see me again, he'll have to stop by Baker Street more often.
I am strangling with the need for escape. Not just from this house. From this intolerable Thing, this -- this life with him as a supporting actor. I do not, let me make assurances, contemplate anything so absurd and defeatist as suicide; I had far rather, I think, go out in service to my country, or at least to my own principles. As I bundle into the cab and rap on the ceiling to the driver, the sharp syllables of my cane suggest a name to me. Mor. Ri. Art...
Of course. What else? Moriarty -- morte. Ever since I first ran afoul of the professor, those two words have formed an association in my mind. Now I begin to see why. Bless the old devil, he shall be more helpful to me than he knows.
I have most of my nets around him, unknown to any but me; it will be a simple matter to loose one or two so that the man himself may escape. And then, who could possibly pursue him but the eminent Sherlock Holmes? Or be pursued by him, perhaps. It would be interesting, at last, to be the hunted one. To have someone... seek me. For whatever reason.
It is certain that Moriarty, at least, will have no pity on me.
That, anyway, is Option One. Option Two is to simply leave this cursed place and make a new life somewhere else, where I shall never see Paddington Street again. In my black frame of mind I do admit that this is less appealing, but as I seem fated to be a survivor I must take it into account. There are too many variables in this equation, but often they sort themselves out. I shall simply take action, and then await events.
A distressingly muddled business I am hurling myself into, but at the core of it is a hard certainty: I cannot do this any longer. Not without him, not with her, not as myself. I am tired of it all, tired of going through each day as if I have a constant burn or bruise that does not heal. I am tired of having a broken heart.
Watson really has been a ruinous thing. It would have been kind of Fate to have given me some warning that day in St. Bart's, but then I suppose Fate has dealt with me reasonably enough concerning other matters.
The carriage rattles on into the night, and I continue to make my plans. They are a welcome distraction.
One way or another, I must get out of here.
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