FIC: A Tide That Does Not Turn, H/W UST; PG13. For spacemutineer

Jul 22, 2012 13:21

Title: A Tide That Does Not Turn

Author: tweedisgood

Pairing: Holmes/Watson UST

Rating: PG13 for references to getting it on. No actual getting it on. Sorry.

Word count: ~3,500

Notes: Not beta'd. Contains internalised late 19th century homophobia, probably. Gift fic for spacemutineer: Holmesian, founder of the inspired 60 for 60 project (sherlock60) and all round good egg. She wanted Doctor Watson and Scientist Holmes, h/c, UST and angst. Hope you enjoy, m'dear.

A tap was running furiously in the kitchen as I came in through the door of 221b, shaking out my umbrella. That alone ought to have alerted me to an odd state of affairs, for Mrs Hudson was away and the substitute housekeeper kept strict hours. It was ten o'clock in the evening and she was long gone, as was the maid. It would not have particularly surprised me had she shaken the dust of the house from off her feet as she went. Certainly she was loud enough in her wonderment at how Mrs Hudson stood “all this nonsense”, not to mention “that man”, for a moment.

Holmes, who regarded even the temporary imposition of regular hours as a personal affront, had been forced, with me, to dine at seven sharp and when I had a call from a patient that took me off before dessert, he had already begun to set up his chemical equipment for a lengthy experiment. I should have been more observant: there, Holmes, I admit it. I failed to enquire as to the precise identity of the jar of cloudy white crystals that he was just tipping into a pan of water as I picked up my medical bag. On the other hand, there was a distinct possibility that had I enquired, he might have prevaricated with, distracted or simply lied to me. He cannot endure being fussed over.

“I am not one of your idiot patients; be off and heal the sick, and leave the healthy to their work,” would have been his answer.

Well, my friend, now you are both: my patient, and an idiot. A beloved idiot, to be sure, but still the most boneheaded, infuriating, disobedient and truculent patient a physician was ever cursed with.

When I opened the sitting room door, a foul smell assaulted my senses and amid the usual clutter, a more specific devastation was apparent. Across Holmes' laboratory table a trail of broken glass, adorned with the rotting corpse of a huge rat, pointed a stinking, glittering finger to the dripping pool of liquid that was burning a slow hole in the Turkey rug just where Homes had evidently been sitting, if the stool that had been cast aside onto the floor was any guide. His bedroom door was flung open. I chanced my boot soles and my stomach contents by edging past the table to see if he was in there, but all I could see was his water jug smashed on the carpet and the basin, empty, on the washstand.

Then I thought of running water and took the stairs two at a time down to the kitchen. He was standing, still in his laboratory coat, his teeth bared and his tongue cursing through them, holding his left arm under the strong stream of water. His shirt-sleeve was in tatters and flapped like a rainy Monday's washing away from the livid red burn disfiguring the inside of his forearm from heel of hand to elbow.

“Holmes, what -”

“Hot lye,” he managed before clenching his jaw shut again and turning the tap on further with his good hand. I thanked goodness, as I imagine did he, for modern mains and decent water pressure. He studiously ignored my angry demands to know what in heaven's name he thought he was doing, playing with industrial caustic, alone in an upstairs sitting room. Instead he looked alternately to the ceiling in silent supplication to the god of incautious scientists, then at his arm with a characteristic detached curiosity as he observed the fury of catalysis calm to a fine and widespread crop of blisters.

“Don't,” I ordered him as, at last, he moved to shut off the water. “How long since the spill?”

“Twenty minutes by that clock,” he nodded over at Mrs Hudson's Christmas gift from us both in the winter of '84, still telling the hours proudly in ruby mahogany. “Perhaps two minutes upstairs beforehand.”

“Give it at least ten more.” I was glad of his gift of concentration. Many another might have thought the job done after a far shorter time. Lye must be washed and washed away until the skin is restored to its natural condition of slight acidity, lest it continue to burn long after the first contact with the agent is past.

“I suppose I must now submit to being doused with flour, buttered like a crumpet, or some other such wholesome remedy,” Holmes sighed, once the ten minutes were up and he was tucking what was left of his sleeve into the rolled up cuff of the lab coat, hissing with pain at even the smallest movement.

“Keep the arm elevated. I am not an old wife to carry such tales.”

I did not fail to note the amused quirk of his mouth as he considered contradicting me. He had often complained that he might as well be married as put up with the amount of nagging I persisted in over every domestic trifle.

It was, in all the circumstances, a dangerous line of argument. Holmes, in that way he had of dismissing inconvenient emotions in himself and others, remained resolutely, determinedly blind to the change in atmosphere since his return to Baker Street in the Spring of 1894, and mine not long after.

I fell in love once, in a day, in an hour, in the garden of Pondicherry Lodge. It was a true love: sanctioned by society, welcomed by our friends (at least, the most part of them), crowned with holy matrimony, my bride on my arm coming out of church, remembered with public mourning and acknowledged pain. Two years more and I am fickle indeed, or so I seem to myself, for I have stumbled and fallen again, in a decade, in a handful of days , in a lifetime.

This love, just as true, must never be mentioned - not to society, for it draws back in horror, heaps shame and disgrace on such loves and all those loving and loved; not to friends, who would shun me and worse, him, all innocent: I would not have him harmed by my wandering heart and greedy, dark desires. Should my beloved die, though I carry him on my shoulder into church, I must weep into an empty pillow in the dead of night for love lost, for by day I am, I will have been, his friend and nothing more. Nothing more.

I cannot even tell him. Him, in fact, least of all. I think of his face, were I to confess myself, to sing out my soul to him whom my mind and body worship as no man should worship another man, and I am sick with a cold dread. Keep silent; in silence is safety and his continued friendship. There is warmth enough by the cosy hearth. Do not jump into the fire, Doctor, however fascinating the flames. You will burn to ash.

And in the meantime, he is burned, and submits with ill grace to your doctoring.

The latest wisdom, and my own experience - for within a half-mile of my Paddington practice were a dye workshop and a tannery - was to avoid coating the burn, whether with wheatflour, carron oil, or anything else liable to introduce infection. Infection was what we medical men feared above all: still do as I write this, thirty years of safety and a lifetime in between. The man who can conquer infection will need to spend the rest of his life in front of a never-ending line of doctors wanting to shake his hand.

He had been trying to render down the dead rat to its bones to prove some theory he had that it, rather than sabotage, might have been responsible for the curious marks found on the live rail cable, whose failure had nearly caused a fatal crash on the City and South London underground railway. It seemed only this particular corpse would do - it being of the requisite size and found in a nearby tunnel.

The prospect of saving scores of lives from some future, similar calamity was, for Holmes, an unanswerable retort to my protests that he was a fool to risk his own for a mere experiment. The notion that some other man might do the same service, in a well-appointed facility with colleagues on hand in case of accident, cut no ice with him.

“They commissioned me to find the culprit. I am a scientist, not a contractor.”

I felt shame that I, a healer, might wish danger to fall on any man even to spare Holmes. Not quite enough shame, however, to stop that wish fighting its way to the surface of my mind many times in the next few days.

We began fairly well. He allowed me to strip off his wet clothes, dress the wound in clean gauze and wrap him tenderly in a blanket that he had to hold closed with one hand, leaving only the affected limb uncovered and raised according to my strict precept. Then he sat, glowering, for some minutes in front of his bedroom mirror until I understood and combed his hair back to neatness for him. The glower became a scowl as he began to rehearse how much of his daily habit relied on not just one but a pair of functioning arms.

“Good God, I will have to be dressed, and shaved, have my pipe filled, leave my fiddle idle,” his voice rose to peevish pitch, “not be able to do any work. Insufferable!”

Did I ever mention that Holmes is a prophet? A prophet who fulfils his own predictions, for “insufferable” was just the word for him in the days after. I was a hopeless, Cupid-cursed lover indeed, that a kind word would have brought me to my knees and a stream of complaint and insult brought me ever to his side. I could dull his pain but never his tongue: immobilise a limb but never still his restless mind.

Nothing was as he liked it, which is to say, nothing was completely within his control. Some tasks he could do alone, laboriously shifting knife and fork from hand to hand at meals, dressing his lower limbs one-armed and wriggling, bathing so long as he sat, as he put it, “eternally signalling that I am drowning, or asking permission of teacher with my hand aloft”, for I had seen immersion in baths wreak havoc with healing wounds and implored him not to put it under the water. The perfectly clean body is certainly a start; but it is not at all the same as an aseptic one.

Others he experimented with: using the coal-tongs to light his pipe took him too near the fire and made his wounds smart; a safety match required two hands, which I supplied. Not our barber nor myself have, apparently, “so much skill as a trout” in delivering a close shave but since, with only one working hand, neither did Holmes, he submitted to being “unkempt in the privacy of my own quarters” by letting me do it.

Worst of all, he would not leave the dressing be: he must keep trying to peer under it to observe the changes in colour and texture of the blisters, seeing if any had burst and speculating on the pattern of scarring he might expect. When I caught him sizing up the worst of them with one end of a tape measure held in his teeth and shouted at him, he claimed that it was perfectly ethical to use oneself as an observational subject, since consent could be assumed in advance. It was a valuable opportunity to add to his knowledge of occupational signatures:

“After all, how many poisoners began as amateur chemists?”

I felt compelled to deliver a lecture on the dangers of interfering with open injuries, which frightened me far more than it did him. He believes himself indestructible; I have seen a patient who fell into brambles die raving from septic shock.

I pored over medical texts and journals for my own profession's collected wisdom on proper treatment. Some swore by iodine, some railed against it. Nitrate of silver I had used for other lesions but not on so large an area of skin. Time and again, it came back to two things: avoid infection and hope for the best.

In India, doctors are priests and priests, healers. Many gods, many routes to being well. In England, though we give our lip service to one God, our hearts believe in luck, in love, in hope and sometimes, in our doctor. Many times, patients have thanked me for curing them from the outside when all I did was watch with them until health worked its way to the surface, layer by layer.

I have watched few as closely as I watched Holmes, inspecting him morning, noon and night like a hanging haunch of venison - looking, touching, smelling. A spot of fever in his cheeks, a sheen of sweat on his brow, the whiff of a poison deadlier than cocaine lurking in the blue veins of that wiry arm, strong as steel cable and lily white as a Lucknow lady's: these were the devils of my religion, and I was as vigilant against them as any armoured saint.

On the fourth day, as I sniffed at his wrist like a truffle hound, I felt his fingers twitch against my jaw. One moment, one movement more - dangerous, forbidden, he must not close his hand until he is whole, and I must not dream of this even once he is - and he might have cradled my cheek in his palm. When my breath caught and our eyes met, as they did, he might have seen, might have observed: might have given, to feed my starving dreams, a smile of soft-blooming he did not, only a quizzical lift of one eyebrow and a quiet: “Doctor?”

No, Holmes, nothing is wrong: at least, not with you. I begin to think everything is the matter with me. The friend that was, that should be to you - he is all shot through now with new colours, new wants - to heal you, yes, but to break you, too; to keep you spotless and to sully you: for if you are not as pure as the sovereigns in my pocket, I'll give them all to the beggar in Marylebone churchyard.

You desire no-one, nothing beyond exact knowledge and the crunch of an insoluble problem as it shatters under your boot heel. No woman has undone you, button by button, stroke by stroke, heard your voice hushed with heat, hoarse from base pleasures, high and clear as a bell at the moment of crisis, sighing afterwards, sleepy-satisfied. Never.

No boy at school traded with you - a frigging for fagging duties excused, a suck for a Sunday prep handed in late. You were not even at school, toiling instead under a granite Scots tutor who scarcely knew what a pearl he had been given to polish. If he, or some Cambridge Professor of Greek, had offered a guiding hand to polish you, a pearl-pale adolescent on the cusp of manhood, you would have turned from them with a cold word. “Unnatural?” No, for nature permits it. “Criminal?” True, but you have your own, less conventional, estimation of crime.

“Commonplace.” Yes, that would be it. Neither disgusting nor alluring, merely of no interest.

Just so, would you turn from me now - “et tu, Watson?” - if, as you sit before me on your bed, naked to the waist, rebelliously compliant, I dared slide my hand from collarbone to navel, caressing the muscles of your belly, the planes of those narrow, thoroughbred flanks, counting ribs stroke by stroke, coaxing a response, dry-mouthed, undone by my thoughts...

Instead, I fasten you up, button by button, into a clean white shirt each morning. I make you as presentable as a gentleman may be sans cuffs, sans frock coat, sans impenetrable dignity, sans

“...anything useful to do!”

Two weeks gone, and he was driving himself - and the household - mad. His arm itched constantly; as the last eschars flaked away, he pretended to adjust his rolled up shirtsleeve at the mirror so that he could turn his back on me and worry at them. The raw flesh underneath began to weep and bleed and I shouted at him again as I re-dressed it and made him wear a sling. He wore it - dubbing me an hysterical nursemaid, but nonetheless he wore it. I dimly recall some threat to tie him to his bedstead if he did not.

He might have done such work as did not require that he leave the house properly dressed, but by sheer, contrary luck only letters from Lancashire and Leicester, Devon and Dundee, came begging his aid. Lestrade dropped by, but as he wished only to enquire after my friend's health and brought no diversion, he was sent away with the proverbial flea in his ear. Only afterwards did Holmes think to apologise, and to the wrong person.

“I suppose I ought to have been more gracious, Watson. It was good of him. Yet I find myself so infernally bored. I am convinced that hell is not a lake of fire and brimstone but a grey city whose equally grey citizens eternally wait for some event that never occurs.”

If there is such a thing as tempting fate, Sherlock Holmes must surely hold an advanced degree in the subject. The morning after, he complained of feeling generally unwell and of tenderness in the left armpit. I took off the gauze on his forearm knowing what I would see: an angry, red rim of infection had formed around the largest burn. His meddling had borne rotten fruit.

With other patients I could perhaps have hidden my fear, but not from him. Besides, I wanted him to feel it: my anger at his carelessness and my knowledge that he was, for all the will to be otherwise, no more than other men - with a body that could disobey to the point of deserting him altogether.

If I thought my fear might render him meek, I was wrong. He would not have it. He fought me all the way - would not go to bed, would not lay aside his pipe and cigarettes, resisted the sponge and the bottle of brandy. Only when I found him slumped in a faint over an untouched lunch did he surrender. There was a flicker of emotion in his rolling eyes as I lifted him from his chair. Apology, gratitude, or mere exasperation? Probably the last.

I stayed another day and two nights by his bedside: sponging, cooling, feeding sips of water, opening windows, shutting doors, watching. Waiting. Waiting to see which way the tide would turn. All the paintings of sickbeds, all the night-watches in novels, all the doctor's visits I have made to people for whom I cared, but did not love as I love Holmes, as I loved my wife: all of them are true and yet none of them say it all. Until it is you, and your beloved, you can only be a voyeur of the pornography of someone else's pain.

Then this morning, before dawn, he stirred. Thinner than ever, his throat too dry for much speech, bruised shadows under his eyes - but those eyes were clear and bright, the fever had ebbed away. He put out his hand and cradled my cheek in his palm, easily, as if he did it every day. In a story about another man, about another friendship - the sort they sell on Holywell Street and charge an extra shilling for literary pretensions and a happy ending for lonely inverts who love their unsuspecting friend - a look of soft-blooming affection would have followed; a stumbling confession of mutual devotion would have concluded with shy, honeyed kisses and the sweeter promise of more when he was well.

Sherlock Holmes is not that man and we are not those friends. He is a tide that does not turn. He patted my cheek once, as one giving to an old servant or a precocious child his awkward, but genuine, regard, then clapped me on the shoulder at half his strength (oh, still strong enough to strangle my absurd daydreams).

“Good old Watson.”


sherlock holmes, fic

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