?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

The Art of Disguise

Various ways to hide in plain sight.





The Art of Disguise


With the bleeding stopped and Holmes' heart beating again, there's little he can do. Watson props his friend's legs up on a hay bale, slides in behind him so that Holmes is dozing against his chest rather than the cold slats of the boxcar, and covers them both with his coat. As he tucks the collar in around his friend's shoulders, he lays all four fingertips against the side of his throat.

"Watson," Holmes mumbles, chiding, but Watson does not remove his hand.

All the way to Switzerland Watson keeps his fingers flush against that thready pulse, and tries not to dwell on the fact that he can feel the grey chill of his friend's skin through both their shirts.

At Reichenbach he sends Sim and Tamas ahead to warn Mycroft of their arrival and trudges along behind, with his friend's left arm draped across the back of his neck. They start out strong, but it's less than five minutes before Holmes is stumbling, dragging his feet in the snow and clutching Watson round the shoulders with a desperate strength. For his part Watson regrets losing his cane. At times he is supporting nearly all of Holmes' weight, bad leg locked at the knee and shaking helplessly beneath him.

Finally, inevitably, they collapse in the snow. Holmes is panting angrily, as though his body's weakness is a personal affront. Harsh, furious bursts of air. They crystallize into a fog of tiny ice-daggers, and it swirls explosively as Holmes grits his teeth and levers himself to his feet.

He moves much too fast. Watson sees the sudden spark of panic in his friend's eyes, the confused way he throws out one hand to steady himself, and lunges just in time. He cannot seize him under the arms, not with that shoulder, and so he is compelled to dip his knees and catch Holmes round the waist; it's a clumsy, off-balanced maneuver, and ends with both of them in a snowdrift. By the time they hit the ground Holmes is doubled over in his lap retching helplessly, although nothing but a thin trickle of water comes up. Watson recalls his own stomach-churning dizziness following the blood loss at Maiwand. He presses his chest into Holmes' heaving back, settles his chin in the dip of his good shoulder. "All right," he breathes, firmly. "All right, old fellow. Steady."

Sim finally returns with Mycroft's sleigh and driver, the muffled hiss of the runners strange to Watson's ears in comparison to the clopping and creaking of a London cab. Snow darts from beneath the horses' hooves in short white squirts like churned butter. They halt steaming in the cold and Sim leaps down to help, the bottom eight inches of her skirt dark and sodden with snow. Once they've wrestled Holmes into the seat and buried him in furs the sleigh heaves forward in a graceful curve; Watson closes his eyes to a rush of cold air and jingling harness, and then they've arrived. Holmes flatly refuses to be carried, so Watson drags the good arm back over his shoulders and limps to the door.

Inside the chalet is all rustic furniture and wood the colour of dark honey. The whitewashed ceilings have gone a creamy dove-grey from woodsmoke; there are heavy, brocaded drapes on the windows, and candlelight seems to pool in the corners. Snow puddles rapidly about their boots as they pause in the hallway, Holmes' limp hair plastered to his chalky forehead. Watson's breath is loud in his own ears. For a moment his vision wavers, head gone blank and hollow under the notion of safety.

"Sherlock," someone says, on an exhaled breath.

Watson has never imagined that he could be so glad to lay eyes on Mycroft Holmes. The man hovers stiff and formal in a side doorway, eyes fixed on the corner of blood-blackened cloth visible where Watson's overlarge coat gaps at Holmes' neck. "I see you've been getting into trouble again," he says. From his tone of voice he might be greeting an acquaintance at a garden party, but there is a tinge of grey in his face. "Dr. Watson--"

Mycroft waves to indicate a spare bedroom, and the slow underwater daze of relief snaps back into focus, shunted aside with the efficiency of muscle memory. Watson bulls past the other man. "I need hot water, bandages -- sterile if possible -- carbolic soap if you have it, alcohol if you don't," he fires off. "And get me something for him to eat."

"I'm afraid he won't--"

"Then I'll force it down his throat," Watson snaps over his shoulder, more fiercely than he intends.

Holmes laughs weakly in his ear, barely more than a huff of air. "Temper, temper."

Mycroft barks orders to the scurrying servants while Watson shoulders through the door and deposits his friend on the bed, cricking his neck to slide out from beneath Holmes' good arm, propping his back against the headboard. Before removing the coat draped across his friend's shoulders, Watson finds that he has to shake out his hand; his fingers are numb with cold and stiff with the effort of clutching Holmes around the ribs. Bending down, he lifts Holmes' mud-spattered legs onto the white bedding, filthy boots and all, and covers them with the coat.

"The sheets will be ruined," Holmes observes, inconsequentially. It's so unlike him that Watson, halfway through the rote motions of rolling up his sleeves, stutters to a halt. He looks down. Holmes is slumped back against the headboard, not with his habitual careless ease but looking as though he lacks the strength to hold himself upright. Hollow cheeks. Pits gouged beneath his eyes. Watson can see every pound of the stone or so that Holmes has lost in recent months, and it strikes him suddenly that there is grey in his friend's hair: just a few flecks, at the temples, like a spattering of snowflakes on the black surface of the Thames. It seems like yesterday that Stamford was introducing them at the hospital. Holmes was twenty-seven, then. It wasn't yesterday -- it's been ten years -- but his friend, by most measures, is still a young man. He oughtn't look like this.

"Hang the sheets," Watson snarls.

Holmes' gaze flicks upward, then softens. "All right, Watson," he says, eyelids fluttering shut. "Don't look so scared."

Watson does not reply. He wants his medical bag or just a roll of bandages, something with which to busy his hands. It is important, in disguise, Holmes told him once, holding forth with relish from an outlandish perch on the back of an armchair, never to neglect the importance of props, Watson. He wonders where the servants have got to.

"Really, mother hen." Holmes' voice is sharp. "It's not as bad as all that."

"Let's not form theories without facts," Watson mutters, and one corner of Holmes' mouth tilts faintly.

As though in answer to his thoughts, a trim, efficient young man peers around the door, a pitcher of steaming water in his hand and a pair of hesitant faces at his back. Watson gestures to the night table. The servants deposit their supplies in a neat flurry of motion and evaporate from the room, door snicking shut behind them. Watson strips out of his waistcoat and lathers the soap halfway up his forearms, discovering a veritable colony of fresh wounds in his skin: a burst of tiny scratches across the back of one hand, abraded flesh ground through with grit, a raw patch at the base of his thumb where he grasped the hot barrel of a rifle. The carbolic smarts and stabs, familiar and grounding. The water is almost too hot. It leaves his skin feeling stripped and tight, and Watson hums his approval.

"Don't trouble yourself, Watson. The bandage is perfectly adequate."

He feels as though he has been abruptly arrested in the act of plummeting forward, brain and body jerking to a painful stop. He turns to Holmes, voice flat. "You cannot possibly be serious."

"I assure you--"

"This is not up for discussion."

Holmes looks uncomfortable. Watson sighs, kneading the bridge of his nose. "That shoulder needs examining."

"I've told you that I am fine, I don't see why--"

"Consider it a compliment to your acting ability," Watson snaps. "I've seen you ignore injuries that should have made it impossible to stand, much less lie through your teeth about your condition. You can't stand, half an hour ago you were heaving your guts out into the snow--"

Holmes draws his infuriating superiority about him like a cloak. "Perhaps if you left off your infernal nursemaiding and allowed a man to rest--"

"For God's sake, Holmes. I've never seen anyone so stubborn."

"I can only conclude that you have an unnatural fear of reflective surfaces."

"Funny," Watson growls. "If I am, it's fortunate for you. Sometimes I believe my stubbornness is the only thing keeping you alive."

"Indeed."

After all the times he has despaired of winning an argument with Holmes, it is perversely upsetting to hear his friend agree with him. There is a weighty silence. "You must take better care," Watson says.

"I will find that considerably easier to do when James Moriarty is behind bars."

"Or at the end of a rope," Watson says, with a satisfaction that is probably unbecoming in a man who has taken the Hippocratic Oath. He lowers his voice. "You nearly -- you died, Holmes. You stopped breathing. I couldn't find a pulse."

Holmes breaks into what might be termed a wicked smirk, if one chose to charitably ignore his sickly complexion and trembling lips. "We have seen once before that your inability to find a pulse does not necessarily indicate--"

"Stop." Watson jerks away from the friendly teasing as though he has been struck.

Holmes bites his lip. "I do apologize," he says, after a moment.

"Don't apologize." Watson clenches his eyelids, holds up one open palm. "Just -- stop. Please. Not now, Holmes."

For all his talk of logic, it is this last, least reasoned argument that seems to win Holmes over. "All right," he says, and lays motionless under Watson's hand as he begins to remove the gypsy disguise.

As he peels back the layers of blood-crusted clothing Holmes throws him a wry, cockeyed smile, but his eyes skitter off Watson's face like marbles on a wood floor. He is very quiet, very still. When Watson finally makes to slide the shirt from his shoulders, however, he jerks and clutches a handful of fabric to his chest.

Holmes is not shy. He habitually lounges about Baker Street in naught but a precariously tied dressing gown, but now he yanks his shirt closed as though he cannot bear to be seen in his own skin. Watson looks up swiftly, alarmed. "Are you hurt elsewhere?"

"I--" Holmes' fingers tighten convulsively. He glances down at them as though bewildered how they came to be there. "No." Drops his hand. Watson reaches for the shirt, tugs gently when the cloth sticks. He pours a generous glass of brandy and nudges it into Holmes' hand.

"This is going to hurt."

"I imagine so," Holmes says, and closes his eyes.

Watson inches his fingers between the shirt and Holmes' skin, flexing the muscles of his hand, trying to loosen the congealed blood without pressure or prying. If he hadn't patched his friend up a hundred times before he might even believe he has succeeded, but by now Watson knows where to look; Holmes has near-perfect control over his features but very expressive hands, and at the first feather touch he flinches in his fingers. Watson discards the ruined clothing and leans in to look at the damage with dread curdling in his gut.

The bleeding has stopped, though that's partially because Holmes hasn't much blood left in him. His shoulder and chest are already beginning to swell and bruise a hideous mottled black. His flesh gapes horribly, like the slack jaw of a corpse, ragged edges drawn back by the tautness of his skin to reveal the torn muscle underneath. Watson feels sick.

It's an ugly wound, but that isn't the trouble. He saw terrible things in the army: amputations without ether, eviscerated boys clutching desperately at their own entrails, flies crawling into the mouths of still-living men as they pleaded for water. He has seen men maimed and mutilated, seen the damage bullets and bayonets exact as a spiteful toll upon survivors. John Watson has long believed any romantic notions about violence in war buried in the sands of Afghanistan. But this - this is not the handiwork of a soldier who aims blindly at his faceless, charging enemies and pulls the trigger. This is calculated sadism, and the screams of a defenceless man the intended result.

His friend is watching him from under shadowed lids, wary, exhausted eyes peering up through the veil of his lashes. "You are too good a man, my dear Watson," Holmes murmurs.

It makes him inexplicably angry. "Too good. Because I cannot fathom how anyone could contemplate--"

"I would not have it pain you so."

His throat constricts. "Be still," he says, and reaches for the water basin.

It takes a long time. The wound is mercifully free of dirt and debris, but at one point Watson has to pick cloth fibres out with his fingers while Holmes mangles a double handful of the bedsheets. With each desperate clench of his fists, Watson can see the exposed muscles of his shoulder contract. He works in silence.

When he dips a fresh cloth in the soapy water and begins to scrub, Holmes pants a curse that sounds like it's been scraped from his unwilling throat with someone's fingernails. Watson sets his jaw. He can be angry and it will sharpen his vision, steady his hands. What he cannot do is think about the way Holmes looked on the train, a fragile bundle of old clothes tossed aside on the dirty floor of a boxcar.

He can hear the way that Holmes tries to swallow his own ragged breaths, see his abdominal muscles jerking and shuddering with the effort. There are beads of sweat at his friend's hairline.

"What did Moriarty want?" Watson asks. He finds that he wants to know, is greedy for details that will stoke his growing fury. More importantly, however, he wants to get Holmes talking. Take his mind off the merciless teeth of the carbolic.

"Information," Holmes says. His voice is rigid, but steady as iron.

"What about?"

"The telegram you sent. He wished to know the intended recipient."

"What was the music for?"

Holmes laughs. It's an ugly sound. "His own amusement."

Watson breathes deeply through his nose. In. Out. He glances again at Holmes' shoulder and - as he never did in war - has to swallow hard against the urge to look away.

It's a terrible place for a wound. The jezail bullet that nearly killed him in Afghanistan struck in almost exactly the same spot; Holmes is lucky that the hook did not puncture an artery or (just a few inches inward, four fingers'-width of space between life and death) a lung. Or perhaps not. Moriarty needed him to talk, after all, and probably ensured that the injury was placed where it would not be fatal, at least not immediately - only agonising. Watson abandons that line of thought as rapidly as possible.

It's calming, methodically cleaning the sticky blood from Holmes' skin, discarding rag after rag as they become saturated with red. Familiar. It allows him to cease being John Watson, friend of Sherlock Holmes, and become Dr. Watson: army surgeon. It's not difficult to become absorbed in the process of professionally analyzing the damage, trying to predict, with detached curiosity, whether his patient will ever regain full use of the arm.

It's much harder to contemplate Holmes struggling to lift a violin bow past his chin.

He starts wrapping the injury with the cool white bandages, and some of the tension trickles out of Holmes’ frame. He feels relieved himself. It's easier to look at smooth clean cotton than the raw crater in his friend's shoulder. Watson pulls the final knot snug, turns a critical eye on his work. “There,” he says, with a tired sigh of approval. “Once we’ve found you a new shirt, I’ll put it in a sling.” There is a thick smear of blood marring Holmes’ bottom lip, and now that the worst is taken care of Watson finds that it offends him. He wets a fresh cloth. Leans over to blot the mark away.

Holmes shies from his hand, then stills, focusing resolutely on the bedspread. "Apologies," he says.

It troubles him that Holmes is so solicitous, as though Watson is the one who is hurt. He is accustomed to Holmes' grumbling in protest of his doctoring, but not this strange slack submission, the furtive way he will not meet Watson's eyes.

And yet, when he reaches once more to wipe up the blood, Holmes jerks back. "It's nothing."

"Let me--"

"I say it's nothing." Holmes slaps his hand away. "I bit my tongue. Nothing more."

"You're certain? That's an awful lot of blood for--"

Holmes looks past him, muscles bunching in his jaw. "Yes, well. I was attempting to silence -- to be silent. It was unsuccessful." His voice turns harsh, brittle with self-contempt. "As you heard."

Watson's stomach rolls. He recalls the heartrending pitch of Holmes' screams, his reluctance to let Watson see the wound. Holmes loathes any sign of weakness in himself.

It has not occurred to Watson, before this moment, that there could have been any other motive for broadcasting those screams than to draw him out of hiding for Moran. Now he reflects that he has underestimated both Moriarty's cleverness and his cruelty. Because this is the source of his friend's strange behaviour, the truth hiding under shabby, hastily donned layers of humour and irritable bravado. Holmes is not merely exhausted and in pain; Holmes is humiliated.

And it is that, finally, which pushes his simmering anger to the boiling point. Moriarty not only inflicted these appalling injuries, but caused Holmes to feel ashamed of himself. Ashamed, because he could not keep silent in the face of what was no doubt viciously inventive torture (to make Holmes of all men scream that way, dear God in heaven)--

He turns away and braces his palms against the table, head hanging down, breathing hard through his nose. "Personal friend of the prime minister," he snarls.

"Well," Holmes jokes, "deplorable judgment of character is not a desirable trait in a political leader, but he's hardly the first."

Watson does not reply. His hands are shaking. He used to perform unanaesthetised surgeries in Afghanistan with firm, commanding fingers, and then return to his tent and hold an open book in front of his eyes until the words stopped rattling enough for him to read. The reaction will pass; it always does.

His hands are still shaking.

“Watson?”

Holmes’ voice is small. Timid. Sherlock Holmes is not meant to sound that way.

"Watson."

"Leave me alone," he rasps.

"You needn't be so angry on my account, old chap."

Watson narrowly avoids shattering the nearest glass to hand. The effort of self-control vibrates through his voice. "And you would be so indifferent, would you, if it were me?"

Holmes turns chalk-white. "That would not - that will never happen," he says hoarsely.

"You would find it so damned disgraceful, if you had heard me screaming as though I were being torn apart?"

Holmes flinches. "Be reasonable, Watson."

"No," he rages. "You be reasonable."

"I wasn't being torn apart," Holmes says, "I--"

"No?" Watson turns an aggressive glare on Holmes' shoulder. "Because he seems to have made an excellent try at doing precisely that." Watson takes a deep breath, struggling to rein in his misplaced excess of temper. He doesn't want to argue. "I'm sorry, Holmes, you cannot ask me not to be angry. Not as your doctor, and not as your friend. We needn't speak of it any longer if you don't wish to, but--"

"Your concern for my delicate constitution is touching, but hardly necessary," Holmes sneers, flushing. "I assure you--"

Heat blazes up in Watson's face. "It's got nothing to do with your delicate constitution, or lack thereof!" he shouts. "If you had been forced to sit and listen while I was brutalised by a madman you might--"

What little colour is left in Holmes' face drains so quickly that Watson honestly fears he is going to faint or vomit. Immediately he reaches for his friend, devouring rage snuffed out by medical instinct, and Holmes actually strikes him: bats down Watson's wrist with a hard blow from the heel of his hand, reflexive as a counterattack in the ring. "Damn you!" Holmes gasps, "I forbid you to speculate on a scenario which is sheer impossibility!"

Watson draws back, staring, and Holmes makes a helpless, angry little noise and turns away. His back heaves as though he's been sprinting. Watson studies him with undisguised astonishment. It is stunningly out of character for his friend to be so visibly shaken by a mere suggestion.

"Are you all right?" he blurts stupidly.

Holmes sags back against the pillows, eyes falling shut, strength sapped by his quick burst of feverish fury. His jaw is clenched. "Get out," he says, without inflection.

"Oh, for God's sake--"

"I wish to rest," Holmes says. The upper range of his voice is eerily soft, worn-out with screaming, but he still manages to sound devastatingly imperious. The words crack like a whip.

That alone would not intimidate him, but there is the note of a plea alongside the high-handedness. And of course he wants to rest; Watson knows through brutal personal experience what that sort of blood loss does to a man. It will be months before Holmes' manic energy returns in anything but uncertain stops and starts. He can't begin to imagine how they will manage to bring Moriarty to justice dogged by that relentless, draining weakness, the sort to leave a man wan and tottering like a wet newborn fawn after a walk of twenty yards. Watson scrubs a hand across his eyes, feeling them sting with exhaustion. He wants to go home.

Instead he stands and pulls off his friend's boots, wordlessly yanks down and rearranges the blankets. Holmes stiffens when he slips an arm behind his shoulders, but Watson merely slides him downward, adjusting the pillows. Holmes is still shirtless beneath the sheets, so Watson drapes his overcoat on top. The tweed stinks of stale gunpowder. It can't be helped.

After shutting the door Watson vacillates in the hall. He ought to locate something for Holmes to eat. Instead he finds himself sitting on the floor, braced inside the doorframe with his knees drawn up. He wonders where Simza and her friend have got to, if they need medical attention. Wonders if Holmes is really sleeping. He can picture the man lying stiffly on the bed, eyes flickering while he rearranges his face; Watson has watched him do it countless times, squinting into the mirror in Baker Street, tugging at his clothes to put the finishing touches on a disguise. He ought to stand up and find Holmes a clean shirt. He ought to see Mycroft, determine whether the peace summit will be called off. Watson drops his temple against the door, ear pressed to the wood. He is asleep within sixty seconds.

Watson wakes a scant ten minutes later, bad leg cramping ferociously. Nonetheless he scrambles to get his weight on it, claws for his revolver when he perceives the shadow of a man stooping over him. "There is another bedroom, Dr. Watson," Mycroft says, and he sags back against the door, heart thumping.

"No," Watson murmurs roughly, "I didn't intend - that is--" he pauses, scrubbing sleep from his eyes. "You brought soup."

"I'll allow you to ensure that he actually ingests some of it."

"He always says that you prefer to leave the bulk of the labour to others," Watson says, with a wryness born of exhaustion.

Mycroft only smiles passively. "Yes, Sherlock inherited all the energy in the family, and I'm afraid he's been neck-deep in trouble ever since. How is he, doctor?"

Watson blinks himself awake with an effort. He has met Mycroft only a handful of times, and he's never actually heard the man ask a question that he doesn't already know the answer to. Now there is something sharp and searching in his eyes in spite of his detached tone and lax expression. "Not well," he says, grimly. "But out of danger, for the present."

"I can of course gather that the injury was received from a sharp object and caused a good deal of blood loss, but--"

"Moriarty tortured him," Watson says baldly. "I'm not precisely sure how and I don't expect he'll ever tell me, but when I found him he had an industrial hook in his shoulder."

There is a pause. "I see," Mycroft says, with his usual air of bland disinterest, but a muscle twitches in the corner of his eye and Watson likes him better than he ever has.

Holmes is asleep when they step in, curled protectively around his bandaged shoulder, such slack dead weight that for a wild instant Watson searches to be sure his chest is moving. He's never seen Holmes so still. The relaxation of his facial muscles ought to look peaceful, but it only serves to highlight the pallor of his skin, the shadows bruised along the sharp unhealthy edges of his cheekbones. The bottom corner of his lip is still crusted with blood. Watson can hear him say I was attempting to be silent, visualise Holmes screaming around the self-imposed gag of a bitten tongue. Enough, he orders himself, dry-mouthed. Holmes has made it abundantly clear that he wants neither Watson's sympathy nor his righteous anger.

His friend twitches awake almost immediately, sleep-muddied gaze darting about the room. "Watson," he slurs. "I fear I've been something of a nuisance."

"You are the worst patient on earth," Watson says, mildly, "but I forgive you." Holmes favours him with a lost, lopsided grin. It's so unguarded that Watson nearly turns away; in his experience Holmes normally snaps instantly from sleep into consciousness, his inhumanly sharp senses on full alert. Seeing him fumble feels voyeuristic. "Wake up, Holmes," he says instead, glancing down.

"I expect you'll turn your nose up at it, but I've had the cook prepare a broth," Mycroft says. He closes the door behind him. "Do try to eat some. I've had a telegram from Mrs. Watson, as well." He turns a winning smile in Watson's direction. "Don't worry, Dr. Watson, she's perfectly safe."

"Of course she is - why wouldn't she be?"

That's when Holmes, who has dragged himself upright with a hazy grimace, makes a mistake. "Mycroft," he hisses, and Watson's blood runs cold.

He rounds on Holmes. "Why wouldn't she be?"

Holmes looks far more awake, suddenly. "You heard Mycroft, she's perfectly safe."

The soothing sincerity of Holmes' tone informs him that the time is right for panic. "Why is she in danger? Holmes, what have you done?"

"Apart from earning the ire of a dangerous criminal mastermind? Nothing whatsoever," Holmes says, acidly.

"But what does that have to do with Mary?"

Mycroft's head swivels incredulously towards his younger brother. "I expect you to eat that, Sherly," he says, and backs out of the room.

The silence is deafening. Watson narrows his eyes, steps to the foot of the bed. "Tell me that my wife is safe."

"No," Holmes spits. "But she's as safe as possible, under the circumstances."

Watson's head is pounding. The sound of his own pulse thumps in his ears and jangles along his nerves; his fingers twitch irrationally towards Holmes' neatly wrapped shoulder. He wants to untie twenty minutes worth of bandaging just to be sure that he has not missed something. He wants to fly back to London and ensure that Mary is so thoroughly surrounded by safeguards that she can barely move. He wants to deposit Holmes in the furthest corner of a locked room in a locked house surrounded by armed guards, and keep him there until the terrible wound has healed. He wants to press a revolver to Moriarty's forehead and feel the gun recoil when he pulls the trigger.

"Holmes," he says, dangerously, "if there's something you haven't told me--"

"I have told you. As ever, you see but do not observe," Holmes says.

"Damn it--"

"On the train," his friend snaps. "No, not that train, your train, the one to Brighton. Moriarty's men. They weren't there for me."

Watson draws up short. He remembers hearing Holmes say that amidst the confusion, wind roaring in his ears as they clung to the side of the carriage. It hadn't made any sense. "I don't--"

Holmes tries to pull a smile and manages a hideous grimace. His eyes are wild; he looks trapped, but his voice is calm. "Immediately after your wedding, I received an invitation to the Professor's office. Our interview proved most enlightening in a number of ways, one of them being the information that he intended to--" Holmes' jaw works briefly. "'Send his regards to the happy couple.'"

The unpleasant image of Holmes and Moriarty circling one another like wolves while he blissfully embarked on his honeymoon is pushed aside by confusion. "Why would..."

"For God's sake," Holmes mutters desperately, and suddenly Watson understands.

Holmes is still clutching at his shirt, snatching at bits of tattered cloth to cover a raw and gaping vulnerability. Dressing himself in brilliance and glittering scorn. Watson doesn't know why it surprises him. Holmes has always been the master of disguise.

"...Because he knew," Watson says in a hush, feeling the answer to his own question take slow shape in his mouth, "that there was no better way to threaten you."

Holmes only looks at him, rigidly blank.

Watson sits down heavily. "Good God."

His friend shifts, fingers jerking in nervous little starts. "I did intend to tell you," he says. "But--"

"If one of us is to apologize," Watson says fervently, "it ought not be you." Holmes has been even more manic than usual on this case, feverish as a violin string tuned too high, provoking the sharp edge of Watson's temper. He recalls the stark white of Holmes' face when Watson suggested that their situations might have been reversed at the factory in Heilbronn. His friend's ferocious denial that such a thing could ever happen. With chagrin, Watson recognizes that what he has taken for gratingly cavalier behaviour is fear held ruthlessly in check. He shakes his head. "He's been threatening us to make you drop the case."

"You must understand," Holmes says, brusque and rapid as gunfire. "If I could have prevented - it was already too late."

"I don't--"

"He'd have killed you out of spite," Holmes says fiercely. "I could have told him I'd never interfere with him again and it wouldn't have made a whit of difference. I assure you, Watson, if--"

"Holmes." Watson has to raise his voice to cut the other man off. "You needn't justify anything; I don't blame you. You're not responsible for the actions of a madman."

His friend's face twists. "Am I not? He'd think you unworthy of his notice if not for me." Holmes pauses, looks him dead in the eye with the defiant self-loathing of a man who wants to be punished. "I goaded him," he says, lip curling.

Watson actually laughs. "That's the grand deduction of the world's foremost detective? A murderer tries to commit murder, and it must be your fault? Of course you goaded him, you unrelenting narcissist, I never for a moment expected you hadn't. It doesn't make you accountable for his conduct. That's appallingly self-centred even for you, Holmes."

His friend looks wrong-footed - so, in classic Holmes fashion, he elects to ignore Watson's statement entirely. "Mary will be safe," he says abruptly, voice hard. "I promise. You both will."

Watson sighs. "And what about you, old boy?"

"I'll be fine."

"You're not fine now."

There is a long pause. Holmes stares at him, lips parted, and then swallows. He makes an impatient face. "It's merely an injury - a serious one, I admit, but it will heal. Thanks to you." He tips his chin at Watson in acknowledgement, gives a jerky smile. "Don't fuss, mother hen."

He could leave it there. No doubt Holmes expects him to; they have existed alongside one another for ten years speaking this insular dialect of meaningless jibes and eloquent silences. Holmes politely averts his eyes when London's raw damp makes Watson limp and grimace, slows his stride and carefully covers Watson's right side in a fight and otherwise pretends not to notice. Watson, in return, does not poke at the threadbare places in the various personas Holmes wears. Does not ask - when, for instance, years of believing his friend a kinless orphan were turned on their head by the discovery that he had a brother living within walking distance of Baker Street - Holmes, why have you never spoken of your family? Does not say things like tell me or allow yourself to grieve when he watches a blood-spotted handkerchief ripple away on the icy Channel wind. He has always appreciated Holmes' behaviour towards his own wounds too much to do otherwise.

And yet.

"I'm not speaking about the injury," Watson says, voice low.

Holmes pulls his facial muscles into an amiably puzzled expression, but the fingers of his left hand are tugging at a loose thread in the coverlet. Watson runs a hand through his hair. "For the love of...I was an army doctor, Holmes," he bursts out. "Can you understand that? Any man will scream when he is in terrible pain. There is no shame in it."

Watson cringes before he has even finished, certain that he is going to be thrown out again. To his surprise, however, Holmes finally speaks, still looking down at his lap. "Clearly he thought there was, or he would not have ensured that everyone could hear it."

The words are very, very quiet, carefully uninflected, full of measured logic. Watson aches to hear them. "That says a very great deal about him," he growls, "but nothing whatsoever about you. There was one man in that room whose actions made him worthy of contempt, and his name is not Sherlock Holmes."

Holmes raises his head with a jerk. Blinks dumbly at him.

"I was there," Watson says. "No one with an ounce of humanity could have heard that and felt censure for anyone but the man responsible." He lays a tentative hand on the pillows behind Holmes' neck, not touching his friend but trying to communicate through proximity. "You have nothing to be ashamed of."

Holmes falls silent. After a moment he swings his legs out from under the bedclothes so that he is seated on the edge of the mattress. Watson makes a disapproving noise, tucks his coat around Holmes' bare torso. The wool smells of sweet hot metal and burnt earth; they hover in the shadow of that scent, elbow to elbow, eyes fixed on the snow drifting down past the windowpanes.

"Well," Holmes finally says, without looking at him. But he does not seem to have an idea of how to go on. The snowflakes float through the night as though it is a viscous liquid, the dark so thick it buoys them up.

"Everything you've done--" Watson makes a pensive gesture. "Thank you," he murmurs, and Holmes turns to look at him.

"My dear Watson," he says, with a gentle lift of one eyebrow, "whatever for?"

Watson blinks hard. Hesitantly, he rests the heel of his hand on the bedcovers behind Holmes' hip, and his friend relaxes very slightly back against his arm. His knee brushes Watson's.

They sit watching the snow, between the bookends of their scarred shoulders, and do not speak.


Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
le_froufrou
Sep. 18th, 2012 12:17 pm (UTC)
I've already flailed over on the kinkmeme, but I wanted to flail here too:

I think your writing is beautiful, and I'm looking forward to reading more of your work!
blackwoolsocks
Sep. 22nd, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
Your flailing is immensely appreciated. Thanks so much!
ancalime8301
Dec. 20th, 2012 12:28 pm (UTC)
I <3 this fic so very much. :)
blackwoolsocks
Dec. 20th, 2012 10:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you so very much for saying so!
med_cat
Dec. 22nd, 2012 09:28 pm (UTC)
IC and well-written :) Looking forward to more of your work, and you could post this on watsons_woes, I'd say, if you haven't already...
blackwoolsocks
Dec. 28th, 2012 02:30 am (UTC)
Thanks! It's fun trying to make these two comfort each other while remaining stuffy and stoic, so I'm glad you think I succeeded.

I figured Holmes got the worst of it in this one, but if you think it works maybe I will post it over there.
med_cat
Dec. 30th, 2012 12:35 am (UTC)
I think it'd work, Watson came in for some of it; you can PM the mods to be sure before posting :)
livejournal
Jan. 2nd, 2014 05:04 am (UTC)
3 podfic- Star Trek AOS, Sherlock Holmes (Downey Films), Marvel Ultimates
User narutootaku referenced to your post from 3 podfic- Star Trek AOS, Sherlock Holmes (Downey Films), Marvel Ultimates saying: [...] Title: The Art of Disguise [...]
used_songs
Jul. 5th, 2016 02:37 am (UTC)
I just discovered this - it's beautiful! I love how understated it is.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )