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the island of conclusions

The Silver Answer 1/2 (Holmes/Watson fic)

the island of conclusions

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The Silver Answer 1/2 (Holmes/Watson fic)

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sepia H/W
Author: ariadnes_string
Title: The Silver Answer 1/2
Rating: light R
Warnings: n/a
Summary: A chance encounter with a mesmerist has unexpected consequences for Holmes and Watson.
Word Count: 11,170 (both parts)
Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit.

Read in two parts on LJ, or in a single post on AO3 or DW

a/n: This fic is a version of ACD’s own story, The Parasite, remixed for Holmes/Watson.
a/n: Title and epigraph from EBB
a/n: Written for the hw09_exchange.
a/n: A huge thank you to my inestimable beta, calamitycrow, not just for the usual beta things, but for all the extra hand-holding that is for some reason attendant on me writing Holmes/Watson fic.

…a mystic shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove…
Guess now who holds thee?...Death, I said, but there
The silver answer rang…not Death but Love.




The Silver Answer

1.

For once, it was Watson in disguise. He tugged surreptitiously at the tight, scratchy collar of his shirt, and cursed Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes, of course, had been invited to Richardson Smythe’s party in his own identity and under his own name. He’d accepted with alacrity: the party offered the perfect opportunity to gather information on Loudon Smythe, the wealthy banker’s impecunious nephew, and the chief suspect in the blackmail case they were investigating.

But when Holmes had learned that additional serving men were being hired on for the night, he’d decided that hearing the talk below stairs would also be invaluable. And that Watson was just the man for the job. The doctor was sure Holmes had made the decision as much to irk him as to further the case.

“Don’t be absurd,” the detective had said when Watson aired his suspicions, nimble fingers securing the fake nose to Watson’s face, “I would never ask you do something so against your natural inclinations unless it were absolutely vital to our inquiries.” Holmes’s face had been utterly serious, but Watson could have sworn that laughter lurked behind his eyes.

And so here he was, a bottle of expensive champagne in his hand, a fine cloth napkin folded over his arm, hovering with affected subservience at the edges of a room filled with financial elite of London and their wives. He scanned the crowd for Holmes, located him in the middle of a circle of richly clothed society matrons, heads all inclined towards him like a bunch of gaudy day lilies, hanging on his every word. Mrs. Smythe herself, beautiful, and much younger than the middle-aged banker, stood closest to the detective, laughing in a way that showed off the graceful line of her alabaster throat. Holmes was laughing along with her, although Watson could read the tell-tale signs of tension in his body, signs probably invisible to anyone else. The doctor's lips quirked in a tiny smile; there was some satisfaction in knowing that he was not the only one discomfited by the ostentatious display of bourgeois wealth.

Watson shifted from foot to foot wearily, his bad leg starting to ache. His upper lip tickled, and he had to resist the sudden urge to sneeze. It was as if he could still feel Holmes’s fingers on his face, combing dark dye into his hair and mustache, deftly rearranging things so that Watson no longer looked anything like himself. Holmes enjoyed nothing better than putting together a disguise, even for someone else; he'd leaned so close to Watson in his ministrations, fussing with his hair and face, that the doctor had been able to smell the trace of chemicals and sweat on his skin, faint under the overpowering scent of tobacco, been able to feel Holmes’s breath on his cheek. The memory made him flush, and he was relieved to spy an empty glass. He moved to fill it.

"My friends," Richardson Smythe called out, tapping his glass for quiet, "thank you all for coming tonight." The host was a tall man, with a magnificent belly, a little red in the face from drink at this point in the evening. "As you know," he continued, looking pleased with himself, "this party is in honor of our recently arrived cousin from the West Indies, Mr. Penclosa." Watson had not, in fact, known this, and he hated to think what Holmes’s failure to tell him about this Mr. Penclosa meant. Something annoying, no doubt.

Smythe beckoned the guest of honor into the center of the room. He was not what Watson expected: in his imagination, residents of the West Indies were always strong-looking men, bronzed by the sun. Mr. Penclosa was neither: he was middle-aged and pale, frail even, his reliance on a sturdy crutch making him list a little to the left. He was altogether unprepossessing, until he looked up. Watson caught a glimpse of extraordinary green-gold eyes—fierce as a wildcat’s, almost predatory.

"Among his many virtues,” Smythe intoned, “Our dear cousin is a renowned hypnotist, supremely gifted with mesmeric powers." The room collectively drew its breath, rustled with anticipation. Mr. Penclosa stood impassively through the introduction, though his hands twisted a little on his crutch. "What’s more," Smyth announced, “he has agreed to provide a small demonstration of his talents for us tonight. He only needs a volunteer, and he will show us marvelous things.”

The buzz in the room grew louder, as the guests whispered excitedly, urging each other to step forward.

"I would prefer the volunteer be a skeptic," Penclosa added, his voice soft, almost diffident. "Believers can be so susceptible. It does not make for a good test of my abilities."

One of the women near Holmes, tall and thin in a green dress that did little to accentuate her charms, suddenly called out, "Why, then Mr. Holmes should be your volunteer. Surely he’s the most skeptical and disbelieving of us all." Her voice was slightly shrill, as if she could not quite believe her own boldness.

Watson saw Holmes start to demur, raise his hands and back away. But then the mesmerist swung towards him, fixing him with the feline gaze that belied his mild exterior, and said, "Oh yes, Mr. Holmes—if you would consent to be my test subject, it would be a worthy challenge, something that would convince so many if I succeeded."

His voice was mild, deferent, but there was something disconcerting about it, some slight strangeness of tone or emphasis. Nothing Watson could put his finger on, but that raised his hackles, set his alarms bells ringing.

Holmes, to his dismay, now had a familiar look on his face, the one he wore before going up against a much larger opponent at the Punchbowl, before injecting another dose of his 7% solution. The one he wore when he couldn’t stop himself from seeking the thrill, the danger. Watson wanted very badly to intercede, to physically pull Holmes away from this seemingly harmless man whose very presence somehow aroused all the doctor's deepest suspicions.

But he had promised Holmes he would not break character, would not reveal their connection. The whole investigation would be jeopardized if he did—weeks of work and Holmes’s reputation thrown to the wind. So he steeled himself to remain silent, trying to convince himself that Holmes would have some instinct for self-preservation.

"I’d be delighted to volunteer," Holmes was saying, with his patented smugness and aplomb. "How would you like me to arrange myself?"

Another round of excited murmurs and a scattering of applause rose from the assembled onlookers. Smythe looked like the cat who had eaten the canary—thrilled to have such a meeting of superstition and reason in his house.

Penclosa led the way to a chaise lounge that had obviously been placed especially for that purpose. Holmes lay down upon it.

"Are you quite comfortable, sir?" Penclosa asked, with exaggerated humility.

Watson forced his hands to unclench around the neck of the champagne bottle—he was close to breaking it.

"Quite comfortable," Holmes replied calmly, "pray begin. What would you have me do?"

"Nothing at all," the mesmerist said, "simply put yourself at ease and watch me carefully."

The excited murmurs of the onlookers gradually died down. Penclosa perched beside Holmes on the settee and passed his hands through the air in front of the detective’s face—once, twice, three times. He did not touch him, and there was nothing threatening in the gesture, and yet with each pass the little man seemed to expand, to take on an added weight and heft, until his presence dominated the room. It must have been a trick of the light, but his eyes also began to take on an unnatural glow, to shine more preternaturally green.

The first three times the mesmerist waved his hands in front of Holmes’s face, the detective remained unmoved—regarding the older man with his habitual amusement at the follies of the credulous. At the fourth pass, however, his eyes fluttered shut, and at the fifth, his whole face went slack, awareness leaving it altogether.

Watson tensed, the hand not holding the bottle involuntarily curling into a fist, every muscle ready to intervene against an as-yet-unknown threat. But he did not abandon his role, did not make a sound, he was sure of it.

Nevertheless, in some eldritch way, the mesmerist seemed to sense his reaction. Those awful, uncanny eyes swept across the crowd, seeking something, and then honed in on him, hidden as he was on the edge of the room, behind his serving man’s get-up. The gaze was uncanny in its fierce, knowing, directness; Watson was sure it pierced right through his flimsy disguise, knew all about his connection to the man on the settee.

He thought he knew now how the butterfly felt, its wings stretched wide and pinned on the specimen table.

After an endless moment in which Watson had to use all his willpower not to turn around and simply bolt, Penclosa gave the slightest of smiles, as if he’d gathered all the information he needed, and turned back to the somnolent Holmes, gazing just as intensely at him for a moment.

Rather than continuing his experiment, however, Penclosa simply snapped his fingers. "Wake," he said, in a quiet, firm voice, and Holmes did, his eyes snapping open immediately. The detective shook his head slightly, as if rousing from an unplanned nap, and tilted his head quizzically as the mesmerist. A buzz of disappointment started to rise from the assembled guests.

"My apologies," Mr. Penclosa said, "I cannot continue. The force of will, of personality, is too strong here; my powers cannot prevail against it." Holmes made a droll face, shrugged charmingly, obviously enjoying the backhanded compliment. The mesmerist drew a trembling hand across his brow. "I fear I have exhausted my strength for the evening," he said, "if you’ll forgive me, I’ll retire now. Perhaps in a day or two, we can try again…" He shuffled out of the room, Mr. Smythe dancing anxious attendance behind him. Holmes stood, straightened his waistcoat, and, very faintly, smirked.

The crowd sighed its collective disappointment, shrugged its collective shoulders and returned to the serious business of gossiping and flirting, eating and drinking. Watson was kept busy refilling glasses, and then ferrying used glasses to the kitchens below stairs.

As he worked, however, he tried to glean what information he could about the mesmerist from the guests' whispered remarks.

"What balderdash," scoffed one elderly gentleman under his breath.

"….yes, very ill," a dowager murmured, "he's not expected to make the return journey…such a shame…."

"…unnatural…," said a young man, "not that I'd believe of word of it…but still…."

But he could pick up nothing substantial, nothing concrete,

He hoped Holmes was making some headway with their actual case, the one that had brought them here in the first place. He was beginning to believe that his own role really had been designed primarily for Holmes’s amusement—he'd certainly been no use on that end—when, on his last trip down to the kitchen, laden with a heavy tray of glassware, he heard raised voices through the door to the alley behind the house.

Carefully, he put down his burden, silently eased his way over to the door. He could make out just a sliver of the scene outside, but it was enough to confirm their suspicions. Louden Smythe was engaged in a raucous argument with a burly man even Watson could identify as a leading member of London’s criminal underworld. He grinned in satisfaction, the more disturbing events of the night momentarily forgotten.

++++++

When he finally returned to Baker Street, weary from a long night of menial labor broken only by his unaccountable anxiety over Holmes’s encounter with the mesmerist, he found the detective there before him. He was happily ensconced in his favorite chair, wearing his dressing gown, and just filling a pipe.

Quickly, he told Holmes what he had seen.

Holmes let out a delighted bark of laughter. "We have him now," he said, "fine work, old boy."

Watson ducked his head, unwilling to show how much the compliment pleased him. Holmes seemed his usual self: confident, alert, satisfied that an investigation was finally starting to come together.

"And you?" Watson asked, curious, "Are you quite well?"

Holmes gave him a quizzical look. "Yes, of course, Watson," he said, "never better."

"The mesmerist, Mr.Penclosa," Watson pressed, "did his, er, games—they didn’t affect you, did they?"

"Don’t be foolish," Holmes said, regarding him with amusement, "did you not hear him? He could make no headway against my magnificent will. And of course he couldn’t—such powers of the mind don’t exist. Don’t tell me you believe in that tripe."

"No, no, of course not," Watson assured him hastily, "I just—" He wanted to say something about the man’s eyes, how they had seem to look right through him, but he didn’t know how to begin.

"Glad to hear it," Holmes said, "now go and take off that ridiculous nose."

2

With the information they had gathered, Loudon Smythe and the blackmail case were dispatched with ease. There then followed a period of relative calm while they waited for a new investigation to present itself. Watson saw to his patients; Holmes revised his second monograph on the tattoo arts of the South Sea Islanders.

One morning, a little over a week after the event, Watson was hastily finishing a cup of tea before his first appointment of the day, when Holmes appeared in the sitting room. This was unusual enough: when they weren’t working together, they tended to keep quite different hours—Watson rising early for his professional duties, Holmes burning the midnight oil in his arcane studies, sleeping through the morning. Watson’s first thought was that Holmes had not gone to bed at all; his hair was unkempt, there were dark smudges under his eyes, and his hand, when he sat heavily across from Watson at the small breakfast table and reached for the teapot, visibly shook.

This in itself as not surprising—Holmes at loose ends between cases was rarely a pretty sight, his health wrecked between the Scylla of the boxing ring, and the Charybdis of the cocaine bottle. No—what was unusual was what happened next.

"Rough night?" Watson asked, expecting a lengthy account of either pugilistic encounters or philosophical musings.

"Wouldn’t know," Holmes shrugged, "Slept through it." He reached for a piece of toast, started to butter it, and then lost interest.

Watson stared. Granted, many of Holmes’s pursuits were things that most men would keep secret. The detective, however, had never been ashamed of what were commonly called vices, and usually liked to regale Watson with his adventures in exquisite (or excruciating) detail.

"My dear fellow," the doctor said, annoyed, "you don’t look as if you’ve slept a wink."

Holmes shrugged again, gave the toast one last disdainful look, pulled his dressing gown around him, and retreated into his own room.

Watson looked after him, strangely discomfited by the exchange. He shook his head at the closed door, refusing to give in to anxiety. Holmes was a grown man. He might have partaken in any number of activities he simply did not choose to share with his fellow-lodger. Indeed, it occurred to him, it was quite possible that Watson had overestimated the depth of their friendship—had mistaken cohabitation and frequent collaboration for a deeper intimacy.

He shook his head again to clear it, and went to meet his patient.

++++++

On the second day, Watson gave up any pretense of not being concerned.

Holmes appeared at the same early hour, looking, if anything, worse than before. There was a grey tinge to his pallor, his movements sluggish, as if he were underwater. He stared down at the breakfast things as if he had forgotten what food was for, and Watson tried to remember the last time he’d actually seen him eat.

"Holmes," he said cautiously, not wanting to drive him away again, "are you unwell?"

"Hmmn?" Holmes said, peering at him as if from a great distance.

"Are you ill?" Watson pressed.

At that, the detective mustered a ghost of a smile, "No, no," he said, "perhaps a trifle fatigued. Although I can’t think why—I slept soundly all night." He frowned at a spot behind Watson’s right shoulder, as if genuinely confused by the contradiction.

++++++

On the third day, rather than pursue the same unilluminating conversation, Watson took refuge in professionalism. When a decidedly worse-for-wear Holmes appeared, he rose silently, gathered his medical bag from the hall table, slung his stethoscope around his neck, and glowered at the detective until he looked up blearily from his tea.

"Watson?" Holmes said, puzzled.

"Holmes," he replied, tucking his concern away behind his sternest bedside manner. "I am not merely your investigational dogsbody; I am also your doctor. And if you are not over-indulging in your usual pursuits, or visiting your regular unsavory haunts, then you are most certainly sickening for something. I suggest we arrest its progress before it becomes too entrenched."

Holmes’s tired face assumed a trace of its characteristic smirk. "Why, Dr. Watson," he said, "you can be quite commanding when you choose. I cannot withstand you." He leaned back in his chair, mockingly offering himself for examination.

Watson refused to be goaded. He merely harrumpfed and laid his palm on Holmes’s forehead--slightly clammy, but cool enough. He slid two fingers across Holmes’s wrist, keeping his gaze determinedly on his watch. The skin under his hands felt thin and fragile, but the pulse was strong and regular, only slightly quicker than normal.

"Breathe," he ordered, lowering Holmes's dressing gown from his shoulders, pressing his stethoscope against his chest and back. His lungs, too, were clear.

"Well, what say you, doctor?' Holmes asked when he was done. "Will you give me a clean bill of health?"

Watson frowned at him. "The fact that I can find no obvious symptom does not mean that contagion is not still lurking somewhere." He sounded officious even to his own ears, but he had a point to make. "I would advise you to be particularly careful of your health for the next few days: get plentiful rest—"

"But I have been resting!" Holmes interrupted, striking an uncharacteristically plaintive note.

Watson ignored his words. "—and nourishment," he concluded, and glared at Holmes until the detective picked up the piece of toast in front of him and bit into it. He ate the whole thing with a great show of faux relish and enjoyment, but Watson took the return of his usual stroppiness to be good sign, and tried to convince himself that all would be well.

++++++

It was late when Watson returned to Baker Street that night—well after midnight. One of his patients had undergone emergency surgery, and he had remained at the hospital until he was sure she was out of danger. He dragged himself up the stairs, limping more heavily than usual, and divested himself of his coat in the hall, thinking only of getting into bed.

As he passed the doorway to Holmes’s room, however, he paused. Here was an opportunity to ascertain whether Holmes really was sleeping through the nights as he claimed, of judging the quality of his sleep. And yet entering each others’ rooms uninvited was not something they habitually did, no matter what the time of day: it was a breach of etiquette at best, an invasion of privacy at worst. Thinking better of the act, Watson started towards his own rooms. But the image of Holmes’s wan face refused to leave him. He turned, threw decorum to the winds, and eased open the blessedly unlocked door of Holmes room.

The detective was not there.

Shaken, Watson stopped in the doorway. This was worse than he’d feared. The bed had not been slept in; Holmes’s hat and coat were gone from their customary hook. He took a deep breath, the knowledge that Holmes really had been lying to him, really had been keeping secrets, striking him with unexpected force. It was a relief when the hurt was buried under a wave of anger: anger at his friend for jeopardizing his health doing—doing whatever it was he was doing. Anger at himself for caring about what Holmes was getting up to at night without him

He stalked out, barely managing to restrain himself from slamming the door behind him. If Holmes were going to behave this way, Watson would jolly well leave him to his fate.

Once in his own room, however, sleep would not come. He undressed, lay down, but could not force his eyes to close until he heard the well-known footfalls of the stairs signally that Holmes had returned from his nocturnal wanderings.

+++++

Watson managed to maintain his disinterested façade the next morning, albeit with some difficulty. An ill-looking Holmes plowed his way through breakfast, determinedly giving a show of good health. The clear effort it cost him to chew and swallow every mouthful tugged at the doctor’s sympathies, but Watson kept his face impassive, reminding himself not to overstep the newly revealed limits of their friendship.

He was still reminding himself of those limits as he readied himself for bed that night. He would not stay up listening for the detective’s departure, he told himself sternly, one shoe off, the other in his hand. Holmes was responsible for his own actions—deleterious to his health as they might be. If he did not choose to bring Watson into his confidence, well then Watson would have to abide by that choice.

And yet he found himself sitting on his bed in his stocking feet, wide awake, waiting for the telltale creak of the door.

When he heard it, he was on his feet in a flash, all his good intentions forgotten. It did not matter what Holmes thought, he decided swiftly, he was involved in something that was causing him harm, whether he realized it or not. It was Watson’s bounden duty to intervene. He would do the same for any colleague, any associate, no matter how casual, he assured himself.

Watson grabbed his coat on his way out the door, but left his cane behind—too cumbersome. The October night was chill, murky, a yellow tinge to the dark presaging a real London fog. Despite the gloom, however, Watson caught sight of Holmes almost immediately—his dark figure passing in and out of the dim glow of the gas lamps. The detective was moving steadily—not fast, not slow—but unerringly, with a kind of single-minded purpose, ignoring the solicitations of streetwalkers and the other denizens of the night as though he followed some pre-determined path.

Watson tried to stick to the shadows, but the fact that the detective did not notice him only confirmed just how off his game Holmes was. Stealth was not Watson’s forte. His old war injury gave him a distinctive gait he could not hide, and he had never been able to learn the knack of melting into his surroundings. On any ordinary day—or night—Holmes would have been instantly aware that Watson was behind him. Not tonight. Tonight, he was oblivious.

Spurred on by this new evidence of his friend’s debilitated state, Watson followed. He was surprised to find that Holmes’s route led them not into the less-salubrious areas of London, as he had half-expected, but towards the city’s more well-to-do districts. So it wasn’t fighting, or drugs, or even gambling that Holmes was after. What could it be? A tryst with some society beauty? It seemed unlikely, and yet Holmes was acting so far out of character that anything was possible.

The streets widened; the buildings grew more grand, marble porticos and wide bow windows flauntingly proclaiming their occupants' wealth. Finally, Holmes paused in front of a particularly imposing edifice and let himself in through a door that had obviously been left unlocked and unattended for just this purpose. Watson took refuge in the recessed entryway of a house across the way, and sagged against the wall in astonishment. He knew this place. No. 4 Cadogan Place: the home of Richardson Smythe.

So it was a tryst. But with whom? With the young wife who had been so attentive at the party? She seemed the only likely possibility—and adultery would certainly explain Holmes’s secretiveness. The knowledge, for some reason, hit Watson like a blow; he had to breathe very carefully for a moment until he could think again. He should turn around now and go home, he knew he should: if Holmes chose to fritter away his health on secret, romantic dalliances it was truly none of Watson’s concern.

And yet he stayed.

After a few minutes, a light came on in one of the upstairs rooms facing the street. A figure appeared at the window to draw the curtain, and in the instant before it did so, Watson recognized the slight, hunched, unmistakable silhouette, not of Mrs. Smythe, but of Mr. Penclosa.

He nearly gasped. What possible business could Holmes, who had so scathingly dismissed his claim to mental powers, have with the mesmerist? Unless-- An altogether darker possibility presented itself to Watson. Unless their brief encounter had not been as inconsequential as it seemed. Unless, despite his denials, the mesmerist had managed to implant some suggestion, some compulsion, in Holmes during the short time he had been insensible. A compulsion that had drawn the detective to him even all these days later.

The very thought made Watson a little sick, but he refused to allow himself to contemplate what purpose Penclosa might have had for such a summoning. After a brief internal debate, he decided against simply storming the quiet house and dragging Holmes away. It was possible—just barely possible—that he was there of his own accord. Instead, the doctor squared his shoulders, planted his feet, and resolved to wait.

++++++

And wait he did. For hours. Until the dank, foggy night seemed to penetrate his very bones and the old wound in his leg started to protest with fiery spasms of pain. But he couldn’t leave: he was rooted to the spot—paralyzed perhaps—committed to seeing the potentially sordid events of the night through to the end.

A bare hour or so before dawn, Holmes emerged, as calmly and unhurriedly as he had entered. He appeared composed, his face serene, as if nothing untoward had occurred. And yet, Watson thought, peering at him more closely, that wasn’t quite true: Holmes looked too composed, too unruffled. In his normal state, the detective was always just a tiny bit disheveled, a tuft of hair awry, a button undone, a wrinkle unsmoothed. This Holmes was pressed and polished, almost as if—Watson shuddered at the thought—almost as if someone had tidied him up before sending him out the door.

He had half-decided to simply trail Holmes back to Baker Street, to leave matters to the morning. But now Watson changed his mind. As soon as they had gotten three or four blocks from the Smythe residence, he quickened his pace, caught up with the detective.

"Holmes," he said urgently, laying a hand on his arm, "Holmes—" Watson paused, unsure of what to say, how to explain why he was abruptly hailing his friend in the nearly deserted, pre-dawn streets.

Holmes swung around to face him, but slowly, as if he were still moving through a dream. For one long, terrible, moment, he stared at Watson blankly, as if he’d never seen him before in his life.

Then, all at once, his calm fell away. He sucked in a long, ragged gulp of air as every muscle in his body tensed, and his eyes came suddenly, feverishly, alive.

"Watson—" he said, and the doctor felt a wave of relief at the recognition in his voice, "I—Are we? How—?" Holmes scanned Watson and their surrounding, clearly frantically trying to figure where he was and how he had gotten there. Watson caught his shoulders between his hands.

"Steady on, old boy," he said, "you’ve spent half the night at the home of Richardson Smythe," he said, trying to hold Holmes’s wandering gaze with his own, pitching his voice to pierce his confusion, “closeted, I believe, with his visiting cousin, Mr. Penclosa."

"What?” Holmes exclaimed, looking genuinely aghast at this information, "You must be mistaken. I have no connection to that horrid man." The name itself seemed to send a shudder through him.

"I assure you," Watson said, "I have followed you all night," –things had gone too far for him to be ashamed of his actions now—"and you have just come from there. I believe you have visited there every night this week. Have you no memory of it?"

"None at all," Holmes sounded shaken, "If you say I was there, I believe you, but I have no recollection of it myself."

"But surely you must have some idea," Watson insisted, "What does he want with you, night after night?" The doctor struggled with an irrational urge to shake his friend until the truth spilled out.

Holmes looked at him, and there was something so lost, so confused, so far from his usual razor-sharp acuity in his face, that all the irritation drained out of Watson, leaving only sympathy behind.

"I--," Holmes said haltingly, "I—I don’t know—I—" His face lost what little color it had, and he sagged in Watson’s grip, his knees buckling beneath him.

Watson held on tighter, put a supporting hand on Holmes’s chest, carrying most of his weight for a moment, even though his bad leg screamed at the added burden. A few shaky breaths, however, and Holmes was able to get his feet under him again.

"I’m sorry," the detective whispered, eyes cast down, "I don’t know what’s come over me. I don’t seem to be able to think." It might have been the saddest thing Watson had ever heard him say.

"Don’t worry," Watson said gently, convinced that Holmes would crumple to the ground if he let go of his arm, "I know it won’t be up to your usual standard, but I expect I can do the thinking for both of us for a little while. Let’s get you home and into bed. "

++++++

Miraculously, despite the late—or rather, early—hour, Watson was able to find a hansom. Holmes fell asleep within thirty seconds of climbing inside it, and hardly woke when they arrived at Baker Street. It took a good deal of pushing and prodding, but Watson was able to shepherd him up the stairs and into bed, where he lay in a deep, unmoving slumber.

Watson quelled the ridiculous impulse to stand vigil at Holmes's bedside—surely he would not try to leave again that night. And yet he could not make himself go upstairs to his own room. He compromised by stretching out on the sofa in the sitting room, his jacket over his chest, his aching leg propped up on cushions. And if he pushed a chair in front of the door, and made sure his service revolver was ready to hand, who could blame him? It had been a long night.

part two

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