There was the one time, very early in their partnership, where Watson–still new to this entire business and prone to overexcitement even now–had panicked at the sound of people approaching and shoved them both into a closet that was entirely too narrow to fit two grown men.
And yet, somehow, fit they did: miraculously so, with Holmes’ cheek smashed against Watson’s own and everything intolerably close. The good doctor had shaved that morning and nicked himself once (the dog’s fault: Gladstone was not especially given to barking, but one of Holmes’ concoctions–meant to silence the voice–had induced the most alarming series of hiccups that had startled Watson’s normally rock-steady hand); the stink of opium smoke was in his hair from their earlier visit to a particular den. His coat had been freshly-laundered as of the morning, but damp and stinking of river muck now. The contact only served to emphasize the discomfort of wet clothes, clammy and itchy in all the places where they pressed together. All of this paired with the doctor’s excited breathing as they waited for their unexpected interruption to pass made the experience most discomforting. Holmes disliked touch and avoided it where he could, and this from a stranger was all the worse.
Watson, damn his eyes, never once noticed. Once the footsteps passed, he’d spilled them both from their narrow hiding-space, eyes dilated and cheeks flushed. Ah, Holmes remembered thinking, here was a man for whom danger could become an excitement, and the lure of the chase could become an addiction. Perhaps, with proper training (for one: Holmes was not some rag doll to be tossed around willy-nilly for the sake of Watson’s delicate nerves), he would make an acceptable–if very occasional–partner. Holmes straightened his shirt and mustered what dignity he still had left to him, and returned to his lock-picking.
“If you would, please, your finger–here,” Holmes said. He did not wait for Watson’s reply, but instead reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist, dragging it over. To his delight, he didn’t have to actually coax Watson’s hand into the proper position; the doctor willingly places his index finger over the complex knot that Holmes is attempting to tie. The package will be sent as a present for a young lady that Holmes is courting for information about her father’s smuggling business; he does think the red ribbon is the perfect touch.
Under his hand, Watson’s skin was warm and dry, with a faint residue from his soap. (His fingers, later, would smell faintly of pine and rosemary.) His pulse beat steadily under the thin skin of his wrist; he laughed, and his breath, close to Holmes’ ear, smelled of his pipe tobacco. “Really, Holmes, do you think this will work? Miss Hargreaves is supposed to be notoriously difficult to impress.”
“Ah, but that is the challenge, then, isn’t it!” Holmes finished his knot with a flourish, which drags his fingers briefly against Watson’s sleeve. “I shall have to be so impressive that she cannot help it.”
Watson laughed again, and whatever he said in reply was tinged with sardonic good humor; Holmes made a humming sound of agreement–his actual words did not matter in this case–and watched the sunlight slanting into Watson’s hair.
The first time Watson caught him with the seven percent solution, he thought it was a dream at first: the light coming in through the window framed his dear friend, and though he was a man of science and of facts and learning–it was not very difficult to mistake the man’s appearence as something close to divine. He reached out with a drowsy languid slowness–or it seemed as such, anyway; the drug dulled the edge of his normally too-acute senses and allowed him to experience the world as he thought others must–and found his fingers brushing against the solid warmth of Watson’s collar. It felt surprisingly real, so he pressed harder, considering the sharp edge of bone softened under skin: an instrument finer than his own violin, that was the human body!
“Holmes,” Watson said, and he sounded too disappointed to be a hallucination–not that Holmes was terribly given to those, and so, he supposed, this must be real. His hand was taken and laid gently aside; he wondered a little at how he mourned the loss of contact. How far things had come, from that first uncomfortable time!
After Watson left, still disappointed and never looking back, Holmes sat until the sun had taken herself to bed, rubbing his fingers together and wondering at how touching Watson felt so much like another part of himself.
He woke before he opened his eyes. It took a moment to catalogue where he was: the stink of bodies and smoke, the sound of metal clinking and crisp booted footsteps across cobblestones and he thought ah, the police yard. His cheek was pressed against a hard warm surface, overlaid with linen and imbued with the smells of tobacco and antiseptic.
Ah, he thought, Watson.
He let his head fall forward and opened his eyes.
“For you,” he said. “You lost the other ring, didn’t you? I’ve noticed–you’ve been rather despondant, and checking your pockets for anything else you might pawn off, while all your belongings are packed and your checkbook is still in my desk.”
Watson’s eyes were steady, and there was a brightness in them that was unnerving. Holmes found he could not meet them for long. “Holmes …”
“Call it an apology,” he said. His lips twitched and pressed, not quite making it to a smile. “For my previous behavior. I suppose I’ve been rather dreadful, haven’t I?”
“Absolutely wretched,” Watson agreed, in the same even tone. “But that doesn’t explain how–”
“Just take it,” Holmes said. He grabbed Watson’s wrist and firmly pressed the ring against his friend’s palm, folding those long fingers firmly over their new burden. He can feel the faint healing scars from the explosion–Watson’s hands had mostly been spared, but there had been some gashes across the solid knuckles as well. His skin was cooler than normal to the touch: good, no infection. His inital doctor after the explosion might have been horrid, but there were none better than Watson himself, in Holmes’ opinion. “Give it to your Mary, and be glad with my blessing.”
“I am, as I have always been, grateful for your friendship,” says Sherlock Holmes. He clasps Watson’s hand with a firm grasp of his own, and his smile is a real thing–tiny, tremulous, and perhaps not something he himself is aware of, but Watson sees it, and recognizes it for what it is. “Do not doubt that, whatever else may happen.”
Long seconds pass without Holmes growing uneasy or snatching his hand away; that in itself is so unusual that Watson does not protest his friend’s strange behavior: he stands still, instead, and allows himself to be studied, as if he were one of those criminials that Holmes chases down–as if he were a case to crack open. He waits and waits and waits, and finally he is the one who pulls back and lets go, says that he must tell Mary where they are going, especially as it will be longer than simply a day for this particular case. Holmes nods and does not protest, but he watches Watson go the whole way; outside on the street, he glances up and sees he is still being watched.
Weeks later, at the funeral, he stares at the empty casket that is being lowered into the earth, and wonders why he ever retracted his hand.