Sherlock Holmes was a
who seldom took exercise for exercise's sake. Few
men were capable of greater muscular effort, and he was undoubtedly one
finest boxers of his weight that I have ever seen; but he looked upon
bodily exertion as a waste of energy, and he seldom bestirred himself
where there was some professional object to be served. Then he was
untiring and indefatigable. That he should have kept himself in
such circumstances is remarkable, but his diet was usually of the
his habits were simple to the verge of austerity. Save for the
of cocaine, he had no vices, and he only turned to the drug as a
against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers
The storm grew far worse the following day, raging and howling. All of London seemed to have suddenly been transported to the middle of an ocean squall. It confined us to our rooms, the wind strengthening all the while as we ate our supper and Mrs Hudson cleared the dishes.
When she picked up the coffee service, an errant spoon slid from one end of the tray to the other. Watson's hand shot out to grip the edge of the table, the knuckles turning white beneath the brown.
"What is it, Doctor?" Mrs. Hudson breathed in some surprise.
"He's likely rather miffed that I've just accidentally kicked him in the shin beneath the table," I said quickly, making an apologetic face. "Very sorry, Doctor. And if I've bruised your leg badly, I shall consider you my concertmaster in the violin realm for the remainder of the evening."
"Do be more careful, Mr. Holmes," Mrs. Hudson clucked. She is a woman possessed of three assets, any one of which would have endeared her to me: a steady nature, a good heart, and a house with extremely reasonable rates. She likes the Doctor immensely, and shows it through undisguised affection. She may possibly like me too, but if so she shows it through near-constant chiding, for which I can hardly blame her. I am responsible for the string of rogues arriving at her doorstep at all hours.
When she had gone, my eyes flicked back to Watson, though I was very careful to keep my usual neutral calm. I had seen this before, and many times. He was breathing more rapidly. His cheeks had lost a bit of their colour. The purely blue eyes were looking at the table, and then again not at the table at all. Watson has a surgeon's hands, far wider than mine and more deliberate, though none the less handsome and capable for that--but they were trembling slightly, and I could read his mind when he looked down at them: Stop your shivering, damn you, or you'll never hold a scalpel again. It's bad enough you aren't symmetrical any longer, and often enough in pain, without this. Stop shivering or you'll always be this way, a useless invalid afraid of spoons. Stop shivering or he'll know you for a coward.
John Watson is the single bravest man I have ever seen, and the nerve it must have taken for him to continue steadily on day after day, watching his friends die purposelessly and helpless to stop it though it was his duty to stop it, steals my breath away. I would deliver him a twenty-one gun salute every morning if I thought we could retain the roof over our heads despite the noise of the exercise. But nothing sets off Watson's bull pup of a temper faster than evidence of his own trauma.
"Do you want to tell me?" I asked softly.
He gritted his teeth. Then he blew his breath out and let go of the table.
"Thank you," he sighed. "For taking the blame."
"No thanks needed."
"I am sorry she thought it your fault, however."
Watson knows I loathe it when he apologizes for a display of his nerves. And I do loathe it, with everything in me--he is a war veteran, and ought to be given his own parade, not be forced to enact a series of shamefaced apologies over trifles. Because he knows I loathe it, he has stopped begging my pardon for the attack itself and has funneled the urge to apologize afterward into new channels. I am sorry if I hurt your arm, gripping it so. I am sorry we missed our train. I am sorry that woman thought you had frightened me. I am sorry I ripped your sleeve edge. I am sorry I spilled your tea. I am sorry she thought it your fault.
I don't loathe it any less, but when I lose my own temper as a consequence, we are hardly better off, are we?
"She'll forgive me," I shrugged. "And she tremendously likes scolding me, after all. You've done her a favour."
"There was a howitzer," he said, pressed his index finger and his thumb into his eyes, "and when they shifted its direction to kill another dozen or so people, it sounded--well. You heard what it sounded like."
I had. I got up and went to his chair. Leaning down, I caught the hand rubbing his eyes with one of my own and kissed his brow.
"I meant what I said about the concert. What shall it be?" I inquired.
If I love Watson for anything other than his own merits, it is for the way he looks at me when I play the violin. He is unmusical himself, but his appreciation of music is profound, and his appreciation of mine heart-stoppingly endearing. The fact that I can lull him to sleep with my tunes brings no shame, only pride I've afforded him some relief, and when I play songs while desirous of his remaining awake, he sits back and watches me as if I am some sort of miracle. Playing the violin felt like a cheap whore's trick with some of my former swains, and admittedly like a happy talent with others, but with Watson it is different. With Watson, everything is different.
"What's the Mendelssohn sonata you play so brilliantly?" he asked, a little shyly.
"All of them," I teased him.
I went for my Strad and pulled it gently from its case. It is my fondest inanimate possession in all the world. My Strad is not the violin my father gave me when I was six and he was still fond of me, nor the cheap interim replacement I bought from a pawnbroker when my first was ruined, but something separate and wonderful and mine.
"You mean the one written for Ferdinand David?" I asked.
"No, much earlier, but just as--"
"Opus four in F minor," I said, lifting my bow.
I played a series of quick scales to warm my fingers, testing and tuning, and within seconds I could see from the corner of my eye Watson's hands had ceased trembling. Marvelous. I had done it again, and in record time. I had hardly begun the piece when I heard through the door our downstairs bell ringing.
"Who would venture out on such a night?" I wondered as steps approached us and I lowered the instrument.
Dr. Watson, entirely himself again, walked across the room and opened the door. When it swung wide, my brother Mycroft Holmes stood within it, taking up nearly the entire space. I set my fiddle on the table.
"Mr. Holmes," Watson said in considerable surprise. And then warmly, "Do come in, sir. I was deeply sorry to hear of your recent loss."
My brother did come in, dripping with moisture. He set his soaking hat on the table and brushed his long hands over his sleeves. What the devil Mycroft could be doing in our rooms I could not guess, but I supposed it to bode ill for me. Not because my brother has ever in his life wished me harm--on the contrary--but considering the recent loss Dr. Watson spoke of, his sudden presence was altogether alarming. Mycroft is a creature whose relations with the world are tenuous, based on a series of severe rules to lessen the approach of any type of chaos. Mycroft detests chaos, having had his fill of it. That is why he rises every morning at precisely half-past six, eats the same breakfast, takes an omnibus to his billet in Whitehall because he was never given an allowance any more than I was, eats at the same pub around the corner, takes the same omnibus home to the London Bridge area, and works until he is ready for bed at midnight. He never varies, never wavers. That would tempt chaos. And chaos, above all other things, is evil to my brother. I felt a pinch of alarm to see him, his heavy jaw drooping and his brilliant eyes lined.
"Brother Mycroft," I said. "What brings you here?"
His grey eyes looked up and down and all around him. He had never set foot in Baker Street before, not even during the business with Mr. Melas. He walked inside, wearing tweeds grown decidedly shabby at the elbows, and sank into an armchair.
"Thank you, Doctor Watson. This is a very nice set of rooms, Sherlock," he added to me. "It suits you. God knows it suits you better than some of the other establishments."
My previous living arrangements had not all met with my brother's approval.
"Mais dis-moi, comment vas -tu?" I asked him, very worried.
"Assez bien, je pense, mais en fait je ne sais pas. Tres mal, peut-etre. Et toi, petit frere?"
He need hardly have asked how I was, I realized when I noticed the bizarre linguistic tic I had fallen into at the merest sight of my elder brother, and hastily switched the conversation back to English.
"Fit as a fiddle. Speaking of fiddles, I was beginning a violin sonata. Would you care to hear it?"
"Sherlock, despite the fact that your entire vast self-regard could easily be based on your violin talents alone and still be legitimate, I am here for a purpose."
"Is anything the matter?"
Idiot, I thought to myself an instant later. You confounded idiot. Why can you not ask the sort of questions and make the sort of remarks that any normal human being would find appropriate?
"One could say that," he replied dryly, one finger over his lips.
My brother owns a much less extreme version of the dramatic widow's peak hairline that I do, but the top of Mycroft's was beginning to thin, and his temples were greying, I recognized in considerable surprise. I uttered a silent prayer that his appearance was not a prophecy of my own in seven years. My friend the Doctor liked to grip my wealth of hair in certain situations, and I hardly enjoyed it any less than he did.
"Then why have you come? I'm delighted to see you, as ever, but unannounced calls do not often fall within your repertoire, brother mine."
Someone who knew me less well might have been confused. Someone who knew me less well might have said, But didn't you get the telegram? Haven't you heard the news? Not my brother. To my brother, I am made of glass when to most other men aside from the Doctor, I readily admit myself a bit of a cipher. He knew exactly what I was doing, and there was a part of me--a very tiny part--that hated the sensation.
"I have sought you out in light of the recent death of our father," he sighed, coming straight to the point. "I needed to speak with you, and I--well, I wanted to see you."
"What's the trouble, then?" I asked. I was aware in the corner of my eye that Watson's concern had snapped back to full attention and was aimed squarely at me as he stood between his armchair and the desk. I would deal with that later.
"Beyond the fact of a lost life, nothing," Mycroft said curtly. "But you have always been a very quick study, Sherlock. It would pain me to think you are losing your remarkable capacity for rational inference. Can you truly not know why I am here?"
He was baiting me, which usually worked. But I stood firm. "I haven't the slightest idea."
Mycroft wrinkled his nose and stared back at me evaluatively, as he has done since I was born. "I will grant you a broad hint, as you seem to have inexplicably grown much stupider than the last occasion when I had the pleasure of your company. The train ride back to our family seat is only two hours, as you know."
"What have I to do with train rides of any length, Mycroft?"
"It would please me very much if you would attend the memorial services with me," he said.
I very nearly laughed, but the spasm caught in my throat. I was attempting to look mildly surprised. As it was, I must have looked as if I had just been requested to fly. Watson, bless him for an utterly good fellow, crossed his arms and fell to waiting, palpably waiting, to see whether I needed his help. A hand on my shoulder, a caress in private, a matter-of-fact word where it was necessary: these things Watson considers it his sworn duty to provide. My own sworn duty, of course, is to disallow him to tax his fragile nerves over so poor a subject as me.
"I fear I am already occupied. When did you say it was?" I inquired.
"I did not, and I must warn you that your attempts at humour are questionable in these circumstances," Mycroft returned in a tone arid as the desert.
"I was not joking. That did not even resemble a joke. Whenever it is, you can rely on me to be elsewhere."
"It's tomorrow afternoon. Sherlock, perhaps you misunderstand me," he insisted. I was grateful he was seated, for he was looking a bit pale about the edges and I didn't know if our floor could absorb the shock should he fall over. "I do not ask you to join me for his sake. Can you suppose I do not hold your best interests at heart?"
"No, but I can suppose you entirely ignorant of what my best interests are."
It was unfair, I know. Watson knew it too and his eyes darkened, but he held his tongue.
Mycroft, sitting back in the armchair, steepled his fingers together. I ought to have known better than to goad him, for a barb is as good as a calming tonic to my supremely detached brother. He might avoid chaos like the plague, but when he once encounters sharp opposition, no one on the planet is better equipped to ignore it. He looked quite sedate and studious again. I moved to correct my error at once.
"Mycroft, I fear I must ask you to pretend you are here in order to hear an altogether charming early opus by Mendelssohn, as interpreted by your beloved musician sibling, sipping passable if inexpensive brandy while the storm rages without. That is why you are here, is it not? Brandy, Mendelssohn, and fraternal company. Tell me that is why you are here," I requested fervently.
"The funeral will be an occasion for you to see your cousins," he observed doggedly.
"Our cousins," I corrected him, walking to the sideboard to pour myself an enormous whiskey. "Whom you despise."
"Some of them are intolerable, but others merely aloof. You would like Remy Verner immensely if you--"
"Remy Verner once untied thirty minutes' worth of wretchedly painful bandaging for the grim pleasure of seeing my arm well and truly fractured, despite my vocal protests."
"At least he had a reason for it. He is studying to be a physician." Mycroft smiled. He was amused at this, but I failed to join him. Remy Verner is at best a philistine and at worst a bully.
"The scent of pine," Watson said softly to himself. He was not addressing anyone, merely looking thoughtfully at the carpet.
It was an abrupt shift, but an understandable one. I comprehended him at once. The Doctor was remembering the occasion when I'd told him I loathed the smell of fresh pine because during the terribly harrowing riding accident which had broken my arm as a child, I had landed in a mass of the low-lying stuff. Mycroft, however, and to my utter dismay, pursed his lips and shot Watson a keen look.
"He told you about that?"
"I'm sorry?" Watson returned to himself. "Do you mean the riding accident? Yes, he mentioned it."
"Well, I never," my brother drawled. He owns a horridly cutting drawl when he wishes. I know where he got it from, too. And I was not attending the culprit's funeral services.
"Leave it alone," I suggested.
"No, I am only pleased--it is high time you learned your life need not be a complete mystery to your friends."
"You yourself would spend all of your days in complete silence if only you could," I said, seething. "I only regret that poverty prevents you, for surely your conversations at Whitehall are merely a calculated effort to retain your billet."
"That may well be true, but I am genuinely glad to see you are growing better able to speak of--"
"Stop it," I demanded, my fingers working.
Watson frowned and pushed himself off the desk where he had been leaning. "I am terribly sorry to have mentioned a personal and painful subject," he said quietly. "I would be happy to leave if you both prefer to talk in private."
"Stay," I said, without thinking very clearly.
Mycroft was growing more bemused by the second. "But...oh, for Heaven's sake, Sherlock, have you told him about your many escape attempts or haven't you?"
I had not.
I had told Watson about the accident, but never that my reason for riding in that direction--towards the woods--in the first place was in order to quit my father's establishment permanently at age twelve. I try to place myself in a good light where the Doctor is concerned. And it was a source of great personal embarrassment to me that I had not succeeded until the age of sixteen, despite numerous trial runs which had ended in my being once again dragged back in disgrace. The initial attempt with broken arm inclusive had been one of the least bearable episodes. Subsequent efforts, however, were tinged with their own scarlet marks of agony, upon reflection.
"We needn't speak of it at all," Watson said quickly, resting his hand upon my shoulder. "Forgive my clumsiness."
Then Mycroft knew. He probably knew beforehand, if I am honest. He must have had an inkling during that business with the Greek interpreter. But he certainly knew then, by God. I read as much on his jowl-laden face, still examining me as if I were a lab specimen. I saw Mycroft's dark brows twitch and his grotesquely clever, faraway, leaden-coloured eyes flash, and the deduction was finished almost before he realized what steps he had taken to arrive at his conclusion. I could have spelled them out for him myself:
1) First premise: my brother Sherlock is and forever has been the queerest youth ever to plague the sodomites of Great Britain with his attentions.
2) Second premise: my brother does not share details of his childhood with his acquaintances, which prompts his peers to find him distant and unapproachable.
3) New evidence: Dr. Watson does not find Sherlock unapproachable. When dismayed at mention of his childhood, Dr. Watson actually moved to comfort my sibling. Thus...
4) Dr. Watson finds Sherlock's happiness directly relevant to his own.
5) Conclusion: the Doctor and my brother are lovers in addition to being flat-mates.
"I didn't mean to upset you," Mycroft said more gently. A smile was haunting his lower face. I didn't know whether to love or hate him for it, so I decided to postpone the decision for later.
"You haven't upset me." I returned to the sideboard for more whiskey in a belated effort to escape poor Watson's hand and regretted its loss at once.
"Of course I haven't. Doctor, if I spoke upon a subject which discomforts you, you likewise have my apologies," Mycroft added with a sigh, drawing a flipper of a hand across his sagging face. He always looks so when I lie to him through my teeth. No one can make my brother appear exhausted more quickly than I can.
Watson nodded once, with the air of benign interest and graciousness so peculiar to him. Then he immediately returned to watching my calm disintegrate with his wonderfully molded mouth tensed in sympathy. For my part, sipping at a fresh drink with longing visions of clarifying needles dancing across my eyes, I was furious. How dare my brother walk into my home--our home, Watson's and mine--and deduce I had taken a lover? My friend was surely only so calm because he had not noticed Mycroft's sudden sordid internal revelation.
"Sherlock, will you not reconsider coming to the services? I ask for the sake of your mental health, my boy. It would add a certain punctuational period to your relations with Father, you know," Mycroft persisted.
"The period at the end of that sentence, and I mean sentence in the sense of a prison term, came when I left home. You are years too late to witness it, brother mine," I said icily.
"I ask you to join me nevertheless."
"And I am answering you clearly. I have no intention of complying."
"Perhaps you would be reminded of good experiences in his company when you speak with our extended--"
"If I want to be reminded of Father, I'll lock myself in the garret without food or ask Dr. Watson here to come after me with one of our sturdier walking sticks," I replied sweetly. "Or would you prefer I kept the latter pastime within the Holmes family, now you are lord of the manor? I can wire you the next time I deserve such a session. Surely one day I will eventually learn the principle that running is a very bad decision in the short term, should you care to carry on our Father's life's work."
My brother paled. With his face so drained of colour, he looked more like me, though my flat refusal to depend upon the all too dangerous concept of frequent, easily come by meals made our body shapes entirely dissimilar. His pallor told me my arrow had flown straight to its mark. I was instantly sorry for it. We were past help, he and I, but I cursed my tongue when I recognized I'd pained him so. I care straight through to my core for my brother, and I am a very great deal like him. But that only means we can hurt one another all the deeper, I am afraid.
"You sounded just like him when you said that, you know," Mycroft answered absently, looking at his watch. "Exactly the tone I recall, down to the last charmingly venomous syllable. You were always a viciously good mimic, my dear boy. Well done."
"Please," I whispered. "I never meant to--"
"On the contrary. You did mean to. I was there too, you know, Sherlock," he added, looking back up at me. He no longer sounded as suave as we always did, only desperately tired. "I cannot argue that my experience was comparable, but being a bystander was its own level of hell. I tried."
"Mycroft, I know you tried." My fists were clenched, and I relaxed them. "And you need never have risked so much for me, I know that as well. But I can fend for myself."
What must the Doctor have thought of me, I wonder now? His tanned, boyishly handsome face was carved of sandstone and the blue eyes were directed very carefully at my waistcoat pocket rather than my face. His perfectly molded ears, the ears that often mistake slight scrapes and clatters for the remembered sounds of horrifying battle plains, were barely flushed along with his cheekbones. I had never in my life held such a wretched conversation with my brother, and there stood the Doctor, watching two grown gentlemen slice each other to ribbons.
"I think, Mr. Holmes, that I'll join your brother in a drink," Watson said at length. "Should you care for one?"
Mycroft looked at Watson as if he had forgotten my friend was in the room. "No, thank you," he replied. "I must be going."
"My dear Mycroft, please tell me you'll forget what I said," I pleaded as my enormous sibling hoisted his form out of our armchair and turned away, walking to the door.
"Will you come to the services with me in the morning?" Mycroft inquired, pausing with his watch in his hand once more. My brother is obsessed with knowing the exact time. Another quirk and no worse than some of mine, I supposed, and the comfort of seeing the gesture made me long for him to forgive me. But not at so high a cost.
"He hated me," I said simply. "I will not go."
Mycroft plucked his hat from the table nearest the door to the hall, shaking his great grizzled head sadly. "He never hated you. He hated anything that reminded him of her, and you are like her portrait. You produced rather the opposite effect in me, you ought to know," he added. "I was grateful to you for it. It was a very great pleasure seeing you again, Dr. Watson. I hope on the next occasion I encounter Sherlock, he shall be in your company."
I did not see my brother put on his hat and leave, his ponderous and melancholy steps proceeding down our seventeen stair treads, because I was looking desperately out the bow window. I am nothing like my mother. She was a graceful creature, incisive and whimsical, fragile and slender with pale ivory skin and a crown of black waves. She inspired affection in everyone around her, was brilliant and charming and honeyed with strangers, fiercely loyal to her friends. A fiercely loyal child would never have abandoned her language simply because his father had decided to knock the habit out of him. As it was, I held out for six months speaking nothing whatsoever but French before I caved in the face of inventive opposition I no longer care to recall. The mirror shows me for who I truly am, a man with an aquiline nose like a carrion bird's and chilling slate eyes. And, as Mycroft reminded me, a cruel turn of phrase. I haven't even inherited her vices, let alone her virtues--should I have been blessed with her shortcomings, I would be assured of never plaguing Watson with troubles beyond being perennially ten minutes late and smudged with oil paints and charcoal. I am punctual to a fault and clean to the point of obsession. My vices are all my father's, and I will never forgive him for that.
John Watson said my surname three times before my eerie silence changed his tactics. "Sherlock," he attempted, though he never calls me that without a feverish constellation of lustful sweat strewn across his brow. He knows I don't like my own name. It quite startled me.
I turned to him. He was holding another whiskey, a modest one this time, and was proffering it to me. My friend's increasingly healthy bronze glow had turned visibly grey, and his lips seemed carved in marble.
"Thank you." I drained it. It was not whiskey I wanted. But syringes are not objects to wave in front of the Doctor, and my poverty compelled me to hide mine rather than simply get a new one at a chemist's on every occasion, dosing myself in a forgiving alleyway.
"Remy Verner sounds a terrible candidate for a physician," he observed with a note of wryness.
"I am far harder on Remy than he deserves, now he is grown," I confessed. "But he was an unbearable youth."
I knew he was not really thinking of Remy. Neither was I. But how could he as a gentleman pose the query, Excuse me--I know we have yet to learn a great many things about one another--but how did your mother die, and what happened to your family as a result? As it happens, Dr. Watson knew of another approach.
"What do you want of me?" he asked calmly. "Anything from drawing a bath for two to challenging Remy Verner to a duel falls within my purview."
I could have said literally anything else and gotten a better result. For a moment, he looked very nearly angry, and then he merely brushed his fingertips over the edge of his moustache once and shook his head.
"Holmes, if you wish to be alone, or to go after your brother, I understand completely. But so long as I am here, I would appreciate it if--"
"But I am fine, though of course I regret having spoken in such a ghastly way. Forgive me."
"You need not apologize. Only tell me what it is that you require."
"A few minutes in peace and a good night's sleep, my boy." I smiled at him, honest and open. I can smile like that on command whenever I please, because the mere fact of him makes me so grateful it is nearly painful.
"Stop doing this," he whispered. "For my sake." I could see the expression, plain as day writ between his brows. Listen to yourself.
"It's for your sake I am doing it in the first place."
"No, it isn't," he cried. "I don't want your deference, or your self-abnegation, or your formalities. I want you. How can you pretend you are doing this for me?"
"Do you really want to know all about it, Watson?" It was the sickly courteous voice again, the one I hated hearing again on every occasion it emerged from my turncoat lips, and the one I had already used to shove poor Mycroft out into the tempest. "Do you really want me to describe, in vivid detail, what precisely is involved when grief drives your father into a permanent irrational rage? Because, my dear Doctor, you see before you something of an embodied idee fixe."
It was not so every day, of course. On the contrary. The times after I'd run off were oddly the best periods, following whatever rage he inflicted upon me for the affront of escaping. Then he would be horridly calm, staring at me from the end of the long table while Mycroft held his breath against chaos, talking of my horses and my chemistry studies and my violin. Asking whether the music lessons which were the light of my life ought not to be five times a week instead of four. As if to say he was sorry. As if to convince me to stay. Within three months, I would have ruined it all with a badly timed joke or an overly graceful flick of my hand. He didn't call me an abomination against the laws of Nature until the age of fifteen, but by then I had already stomached more than enough. I had memorized all the newspapers in the garret, after all, and never thought to re-stock it in secret. Stocking the garret would have altogether broken my pride.
Watson was beginning to look ill. "I never asked for a description. But I can't understand you, and I--"
"Press on the crack hard enough, and just what do you think you would get, John? Answer me that," I growled.
He only shook his head. "I love you. I love you, and you needn't shield me. Beyond that, I don't know what to say."
The storm was screaming and beating against the window. If I had wanted to go after my brother, I would have caught my death without spending precious funds on the cab to his lodgings. It was a positively equinoctial gale, the entire spring store of rain flinging itself against the glass while the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney.
Then we both heard the faint chime of the bell.
"Your brother has returned," Watson said softly. "Shall I fetch him?"
"He has not returned," I responded. "He is gone. What I said to him was inexcusable, surely you realize that. I only hope it was not unforgivable as well. Whoever that is, I can promise you it isn't Mycroft Holmes."
"Some friend of yours, perhaps?"
"Do you recall the number of friends I possess save for you, John Watson?"
"The same as for myself," he sighed. "Barring you, I have none."
He would have a hundred friends, if he spent less time with me. Lestrade, for instance, is forever inviting him to pubs for billiards with a hopeful little expression on his rat's face. It almost makes me like Lestrade to see him do it. Anyone who is smitten by the Doctor is bound to be on my good side, up to a point--Lestrade sleeps with women, of course, which neatly illustrates the point to which I refer. But his sleeping with women does not prevent his beady brown eyes lighting up when he sees I am with the Doctor and not alone. He longs almost palpably for my boy to like him. Sometimes he even refrains from making jokes at my expense, now he has noticed Watson does not care for them. He once made the Doctor laugh by remarking that a thief he had recently caught had left a trail so obvious Sherlock Holmes could have followed it blind, drunk, and sound asleep, and when Watson's small bout of merriment had ended, Lestrade did not stop smiling for the next ten minutes. I may begin encouraging aforementioned pub excursions. Watson is the sort of man who ought to have hundreds of friends, and Lestrade is a very good sort even if a talentless bulldog born without an imagination. Only I am the sort who ought to have one.
I see that my pen prefers to ramble on about Geoffrey Lestrade, of all the confounded people in all the world, rather than the man who did in fact walk through our door that night. God help me. God help me and God forgive me, for I know not what else to write.
I cannot forget him. Ever. I will never forget a single word John Openshaw said to me, or a single detail of that desperately young, vaguely handsome face. To begin with, he reminded me vividly of a former lover with whom I had lived for some time after moving to London. Reginald Asquith is his name, but that is of no consequence except to say that they possessed the same slightly built, bookish air and the same precise, gentle, delicate, intelligent turn of phrase. This man was younger than Reggie and myself, only a little past twenty rather than nearing his thirtieth year, meticulous and feminine, and he was bowed down with trouble. I latched onto his woes in the space of a heartbeat, for the most purely selfish of all self-serving reasons. I wanted to forget mine.
John Openshaw had a pair of pince-nez, and he raised them to his eyes. I can hardly bear to recall it. But if that is not my penance, what is? Shall I set down everything he said to me? Beginning with "I apologize," for he could see I was in distress myself, and ending with "I shall take your advice in every particular?"
I cannot. God help me, I can't. They are seared on my brain without my writing them, the lord knows. What was relevant, as it happened, was that he was in a dreadful fix and had come to me to save him. The more fool John Openshaw.
"I cannot begin to grasp it, Mr. Holmes," he said to me as water streamed from his umbrella in the corner, "but I fear I must tell you my life has recently been threatened. I have begun receiving hostile notes. The envelopes all contain the most bizarre token imaginable--a group of five dried orange pips, and in addition threats penned on the inner paper in the most vile terms. Every time the token is the same, and when I shake the paper five withered pips fall out. Have you ever in your studies or career heard of such a thing?"
I was, I admit, only half-listening even though I thought I was giving him my full attention. But at these words my head lifted. I asked him to tell me more, tell me everything about his family, his past, and his friends that could account for such a strange signal.
"I have not the first clue, Mr. Holmes," he protested helplessly, spreading his hands. "At first I thought it a cruel joke. But they have increased in virulence and frequency since, daring to suggest the writer will murder me in cold blood."
"Have you altered your habits recently?" I asked. "Begun a new position? Witnessed a crime? Hired a new servant? Come into an inheritance, perhaps?"
"Nothing like it. My life goes on as it always has: quietly, save for these terrifying interruptions. My family was most respectable, and I cannot account for the sudden appearance of these evil notes in any way. My uncle, granted, spent a good deal of his time in America as a youth and doubtless made enemies during the time he spent there during the reconstruction of the Southern states following his service as a Colonel in the American Civil War. But Mr. Holmes, why now? Why me?"
I listened. I asked further questions. Then I asked still more, attending to Openshaw's answers while I pictured my elder brother lumbering home aboard an omnibus, or perhaps forgoing gaslight for a night to justify having taken a cab.
"I have felt so helpless," he concluded. "I know perhaps this is merely an elaborate prank, but nonetheless I feel like one of those poor rabbits when the snake is writhing towards it."
"Have you seen the police?"
"Yes, of course. But they listened to my story with a smile. I am convinced that the inspector has formed the opinion that the letters are all practical jokes."
"You have no further evidence, I suppose, than that which you have placed before us--no suggestive detail which might help us?"
"Nothing. What shall I do?"
"The first consideration is to remove the pressing danger which threatens you. We would be fools to assume these letters mere pranks before we gain any evidence to support that theory--and if they are pranks, then so much the better, and we'll have lost nothing for our caution. I myself will come down in the morning and search your house. I shall interview the servants, perhaps have a word with one or two of your neighbours, for it would be most unsafe to doubt that you are in real peril. I trust you are armed? Very good. I must emphasize to you that before I have had the chance to look further into these threats you cannot possibly guard yourself too closely. Tomorrow I shall set to work upon your case."
Tomorrow. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. If ever a tale was told by an idiot, it is the one I am recording now.
John Openshaw wrote his address for me, but I did not open the scribbled note. I placed it instead in my waistcoat pocket. Something about orange pips, dried ones, nagged at me. Something I could not recall. He thanked me, and thanked Watson. He shook our hands.
My friend sat in silence, staring into the fire. One of his masculine surgeon's hands was curled into a gentle fist now, and rested against his mouth. I went for my violin, feeling that if I did not pick up my beautiful Strad right then and there, I truly would find myself ripping at the seams.
"Let us," I whispered to Watson, "forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellow-men. Please. You asked what I wanted, and I ask only that of you."
"I'm sorry, my dear fellow," he said quietly.
"Why?" The whiskey was beginning to buzz in my head a little, but I did not think that the reason I failed to follow him. I raised my bow in an arc that felt like home.
"For the day you have passed. It was not my doing, but I regret your suffering it. Tomorrow will be better."
He has never in his life been more wrong.
I have no intention of setting anything down save the barest of facts regarding the following three days. I am not proud of them, of any of my actions, but that is not the reason. I simply would stop writing here and now if I required myself to employ adjectives and adverbs. And so much of it was repeated ad nauseum, horribly the same from moment to moment. So here is what happened.
On the following morning, when I was sitting with the Doctor in the midst of London's residual clouds finishing breakfast, I stood up to find my frock coat and the jotted down address Openshaw had left me and Watson's voice arrested me. "Holmes," he cried out. Then he stopped. "You are too late," he told me. I asked him how it was done. John Openshaw, apparently, had drowned the night before in the river near Waterloo Bridge. Just after I had promised to help him tomorrow.
I told Watson I had no time to lose, in that case, and would he please remain here while I rushed to tell Lestrade all I knew so that the evidence the official police had gathered would be a more complete picture. He didn't want to stay behind, but I spent not an instant listening to him as I pulled on my coat. I asked him please to wire my brother repeated apologies for me while I was gone, even if he would not receive them until he returned from the country, saying it would ease my mind, and that stifled his protests.
At around the same time my father's funeral proceedings were beginning far from London, I stepped into a chemist's and purchased a large amount of morphine. I had not kept that particular drug in the flat since Watson and I fell into each other's arms six months back and he had confessed it tempted his own addictive urges. He had grown to crave morphine after he was injured in battle, but had rid himself of the habit. Nevertheless, I purchased it, along with a new syringe. I...
God in Heaven, even without descriptors this is like slicing off my own fingers one by one.
I put the morphine in my coat and went to the Yard, demanding to see Lestrade. When I was admitted to his office, he told me at once to sit down.
"Mr. Holmes, are you feeling all right?" he inquired. His narrow face was as squeezed as if he had just eaten a lemon. In retrospect, perhaps he was truly concerned. I imagine I looked like a ghoul. "Would you like some coffee?"
I refused the coffee. I told him everything about John Openshaw, repeated everything John Openshaw had said to me verbatim, while he neatly took notes and glanced up at me from time to time with the face of a worried terrier.
"Thank you for having brought this to my attention, Mr. Holmes. I take it you will want to accompany me to this poor fellow's house at once?"
I tossed the paper with the address on his desk. "I have taken myself off the case. Imbeciles ought not to fancy themselves amateur crime-solvers."
That shocked him as much as anything I have ever said. Had I been in the humour for it, it would doubtless have been greatly amusing.
"Why on earth would you say such a thing, Mr. Holmes?"
"Because I am the imbecile and you are the policeman. Now, start policing. Find his killer or killers and bring them to justice."
"Do not expect me to make a further hash of this than I have already. He came to me for help, and I sent him away to his death. Those are facts, not theories for you to piss and whinge over. Find the killer, Lestrade. Or killers. Find them right this very moment. Please, just go. I know you can do it. Solve the crime without me."
"You ought to--"
"I ought to have protected John Openshaw instead of acting so negligently I may as well have murdered him myself."
Lestrade turned paler. Then he reached out a slim hand to me. He was either grasping at my hand or was about to grip my shoulder. But I turned around without taking it and walked to the door as I felt his fingers brush my sleeve.
"Find them," I repeated. "Find them before I decide to make a second hole in the river in as many days."
When I reached a dark alley near the most private egress from the Yard, I took off my coat, leaned against the brick, and rolled up my sleeve. It was approximately the right time for my father's descent to the land of worms by then, so I thought of the injection grimly as a toast to his health. Then I went home.
For the first day, I locked myself in my room. After Watson had knocked it down, that seemed melodramatic, so I hid the morphine in the clean part of the plumbing in the water closet. I shall skip the ensuing two days, for they were at best repetitive and at worst Hell on earth. I was no longer a consulting detective and no longer a son. No longer a beloved younger brother, doubtless, for Mycroft had not returned the Doctor's telegrams. No longer a lover, probably, because at literally any moment John Watson would have had enough and would leave never to return.
Or so I supposed. But he did not seem to be going anywhere. In fact, it grew more and more difficult to hide myself away from him, more and more difficult to keep him from finding the morphine, more and more of a challenge to respond effectively that I did not want him to see me like this and he should please go away and return when I was feeling more myself and could speak with him properly, now there's a good fellow. I begged him not to worry and I begged him to leave me alone. I begged him to leave my room, begged for silence and patience and solitude. I told him I would be better soon. Better, more balanced, more grounded. I meant that soon I would be in fit condition for him to set his deep blue eyes on me. Soon I would be worthy of him. I believed it, too, or a part of me did.
Another part knew that as certain as the earth was spinning, Nature abhors a vacuum. If something happened to me, John Watson would find someone capable of understanding him. And while I detested the thought of that eventuality, I admittedly did appear to be hastening it along.
It was on the third day that I began wondering if I was much harming myself. Mortally harming myself, should my course run straight, for it had been days since I'd eaten. I thought about the question for nearly two hours. I couldn't seem to care about the conclusion, however. Night fell, but I failed to notice. My fire went out, and I ignored that too. The room was still warm, after all. At midnight, I fetched the morphine from its new hiding place within the gouged out hole inside a stack of old newspapers and shot myself full of the luxurious poison for the sixth time that day. For some reason, I took off all my clothing like a penitent and lay pale and bare in the cooling atmosphere for nearly an hour. And now I must describe things again. Everything, every tiny detail must be set down.
I was curled up on my bed, staring at the trickle of blood flowing from my arm. When Watson came inside the room, he saw it too, and his face fell into a pained, drooping mask.
I have said elsewhere that John Watson's emotions are written plainly all over his features, but I was being overly simplistic. When he is vexed with the world around him or in physical pain, you would never know it to look at him save for a tiny line of worry which rests almost invisibly between his brows. He can also look at me in public with a blandly fond expression I find as amusing as it is necessary for our continued secrecy. However, when he is very, very worried, and he is worried about me, he cannot begin to hide it.
I supposed he would leave me alone again. Perhaps storm off in disgust. But he kicked his slippers away and stripped until he was as bare as I, coming to kneel behind my curled form. Bending over my body, he lifted my arm and set his lips to the tiny wound, cleaning it with his gentle tongue.
"Why are you here?" I whispered.
"You know why." He returned my arm to its curved resting place on the sheet and lay down behind me, his head resting on his cupped hand above my brow as he drew his legs into my own.
"I don't." I laughed silently. "I honestly don't. And even if I did, I couldn't feel it. Not since I killed him."
"You did not kill Openshaw, Holmes," Watson said sternly. "A vile murderer did. Dear God, love--"
"Do you know what I thought, when it happened?" I asked. "What must he think of me? That's what I thought. Not my God, John Openshaw is dead, I must mourn my client or avenge him. I thought, what will John Watson think of me now? I suppose that might amuse you to know. What do you think, seeing me like this?"
"I think you justly deserving of your clients' trust, as I ever have." He sounded sincere. "I also think you are riding yourself to death, and for a number of reasons."
"Yes, that might have been the point."
He let his upper torso collapse as he drew his arm across my chest and held it there, pulling me to him like some sort of preciously wrapped bundle in a bitter gale. When I felt his face against the back of my neck, it was instantly wet with either his lips or his tears or both.
"What is it?" I mouthed numbly.
It was five minutes at the least of him trembling ever so slightly, clutching me under his arm with his length curled against mine, before he answered.
"Nothing frightens me more than this," he said at last, his lips drifting over the nape of my neck. "Nothing. Please come back to me."
It took me all that time to realize fully, in the stupor of my grief mixed with the blinding piercing all-at-once visibility provided by copious morphine, that I had actually made John Watson far more upset than I had ever before known him. I do not say "ever before seen him," because I still lay with his front curled against my back--but he was cracking, clearly, and I was the one with the hammer in my hand. My thoughts were moving too slowly, and then again they rushed past in blinding washes of speeding colour.
I was still pondering what to say when he left me, heading for his dressing gown and the door.
I staggered to my feet, gripping at my own robe, my head made of nothing but pure spring air and lightning flashes. "John."
He was out the door already. I hurried after him, and caught his upper arm in the half-light of the sitting room fireplace. He twisted away from me angrily and we stood there, both of us nearly naked, and I knowing that I had just done something very stupid.
"John, I'm sorry," I gasped.
I reached for him again, and he caught my wrist in his clenched fingers. He stood there, breathing furiously, holding my limb at arm's length like a spear.
"What are you sorry for?" he snarled. "If you can tell me what you are sorry for, Sherlock Holmes, I will be very surprised. For instance, are you sorry that you have been robbed over and over, of every good thing you always deserved, and that it has happened again? I am sorry for that myself, with everything I am. Or are you sorry for taking the one single thing on earth I need above life itself, the thing I adore, the one good thing I own, and treating it like a refuse heap? Because that is what you are doing. And by God, my love, you should be sorry for it."
He let go of me, but his blue eyes never faltered. "You'll be dead at this rate in a few days, a week perhaps. I was nearly so far gone myself once, but you know all that. Never mind. It doesn't matter now. I'll have some morphine at least, if I can no longer have you," he said flatly. Then he turned to go.
Whatever I did, it was madness, pure and simple. I can recall my mind saying very clearly to me that John Watson could not be allowed any morphine, for it could kill him, and then that I was a blazing hypocrite, and then that I did not care. Conscious thought departed, but I know I clutched at his arm once more before everything fell to ruins. I may have mentioned elsewhere that Watson's prior life experiences left him profoundly skilled at hand to hand combat, and my own instincts are hardly less good. When I came to myself, we were both flat on the carpet locked in violent combat, neither of us winning. There was so much pain everywhere that it was even beginning to break through the morphine, and I couldn't bear to think what I had done to my friend in an effort to save him from what amounted to the threat of self-annihilation. There was blood on my gashed lip, and blood flowing over Watson's eye, and my arm had started trickling again, and my jaw seemed very bruised.
It ended with my pinning him back against the floor with my entire body weight against him, face to face and still grappling viciously. He stopped. On the moment he ceased struggling, I came back to my senses, though far too late.
"You would be right to leave me," I confessed desperately. "But I beg you to stay."
"There you are. God, there you are. That's the first time you've actually looked at me in days," he whispered. "I was beginning to think you'd never see me again."
"I couldn't look at you." My voice sounded strangely hoarse. "I would never drag you down with me, never expose you to anything so ugly. I was using everything I had to stay afloat as it was. I was using the last of my resources."
"But can't you use me?" he pleaded, a catch in his throat. "It would hardly be fair, my using you up so freely every day, if you never used me in return. You're everything I want, but there is almost nothing left of you."
When I kissed him, I could taste my own blood in my mouth. The pain was at last sharp enough to cut through the effects of the injection, and I was deliriously grateful. I had not felt a thing apart from dull worthless nothing for three days, and now I was prone over my friend marking his warm skin with my cooling blood. My groin was alive when it had not been before, pressing along his hip bone, and all I could think was that I didn't want to use him, didn't want him to become like my other vices, there when I needed him and neglected on the instant I was marginally happy.
He was pulling me against him with both hands, one at my backside and the other clutched deep in my hair.
"It isn't that I needed you," he moaned when my split lip moved to redden his throat. "It's that you needed me, and you never came."
Something broke apart then, I know it. Nothing visible, and my entire body was still lit like an electric eel, but suddenly I knew there was nothing in the world that could drag me out of this mire if I did not open him up and take what he was giving me. My right hand was everywhere I could find his warmth as I supported myself on my left elbow, searching his flanks and his chest, needing like a wastrel's fix to find the key to this mysterious stranger who had one day walked into my life and senselessly remained there. The carpet was rough and dug into my shin, his back, as we searched for each other without any guide. His skin was warm to the touch and better than anything I have ever felt in my life.
"Why should you be hurt when I refused to take from you?" I wondered brokenly. "Shouldn't you be grateful I refused?"
"Not when what I was offering you was love."
Such a delicate concept, and yet resilient as a spider's thread. Had I truly been so mindless as to refuse it when it was in front of me? I had thought he would only consent to stay if I resolved to give myself to him always, never guessing he may have felt rejected by my own self-reliance. That same self-reliance, of course, was digging a hole deep in my left arm and growing more untenable by the instant. But love--of the three elements with claim to some permanence, I had lost my faith long ago and only indulged in hope when I thought I could bear to see it shattered. Of the greatest of these, love, I knew practically nothing.
"Stop thinking," he gasped. "For the love of holiness and all that is pure in the world, stop thinking. I did not give myself to you so that you could set me on a shelf and polish me every morning, damn it. I am here to be used. Now, for mercy's sake use me. Stop thinking."
Things progressed very quickly after that. No so quickly that I did not satisfy myself of his safety, for if I ever hurt him I would probably walk off a bridge. But we both know what we're doing, he and I, and it was not my hands which pulled me into him with all the forcefulness of a suicide's knife blade, nor was I the first to cry out. Something to do with the morphine allowed me to hover above us for one brief moment, watching myself arcing my hips and tasting his breast. But not for long. Before, I had only ever wanted to make him forget his own name so that I could be the one to give it back to him. I had wanted to be the sole keeper of it. Now I was nothing, not even myself anymore.
I wonder sometimes what would have happened to me if he had not come into my room that night. Or if he had not left me soon after, and thereby startled me into sentience. I don't know that I would be dead, but neither do I know the opposite. And I think that part of what we were doing locked together in intercourse was as holy as it ever was, and that part was now horribly human, proving to myself that I was alive at all.
I can honestly state that a habit for good or ill formed by fucking people for your room and board is that the act is no longer about you. Putting a cock in your mouth, however sweet it is, is a task with an ulterior motive, and fingering a lover until he is crying for your length is the same sort of self-satisfying professional skill which a jockey feels riding or a captain feels when his ship safely docks. I can grip a man so he thinks for a moment he loves me and might even say so, beat a man so delicately that he begs for another taste of the crop, taste everything he gives me and then place it in his mouth again so beautifully that he thinks I am blessing him with the elixir of life. I did those things because I liked to do them, but also because I could never go home. It was pleasurable for a certainty to provide such services, but not a gift. Always a payment. Never a gift. With John Watson, sex is never a payment, but even so it had been a gift to him and not to me. That was what made making love to the Doctor that night so alien to me, what made me ache at the thought I was using him and then still more pained at the fact I had no choice.
My strength was so sapped while nevertheless artificially bolstered that I was employing nearly all my energy by the end. It would have been utterly heartbreaking to treat him so, rutting on the floor the way a drowning man swims, but he was rising to meet me every time, and the name I'd forgotten I had was on his lips. The name my father had given me, thinking it distinguished. But somehow, in the Doctor's mouth, it was a sweet word and not a bitter one. He was saying it like an incantation as we both approached the edge, and one meant to keep me here. When I finished at last, shuddering as if the climax had been torn from me, he reached down and gripped himself roughly to bring his own ache to a swift end.
I think I'm right in saying it was the saddest sex in the world.
made it back to my bedroom
with the intention of
burying ourselves in coverlets, my entire body was trembling as I
turned on my
lamp. Watson was doing little better. But he did
find a wet cloth
and some iodine tincture and bring both to bed with us, cleaning the
cut on my
lip and the puncture in my arm with the reverent expression it takes
an hour to lose after le petit mort. I
stole them from him as
quickly as humanly possible and held the rag to his bleeding
could tell which blood was his and which was mine. We both
wretched, I knew, and I was crashing into the free fall of lost hopes
a side effect of the morphine wearing off. But I was myself
least. I was here.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
His lips tensed, but he did not answer. I don't suppose there was any answer to give me.
"Say something," I pleaded. "Say I haven't hurt you too terribly. Or say that I have, and that you can never forgive me for it, and you'll find someone better. You were mad to say you would take morphine if you couldn't have me any longer--there are a thousand men in London who would probably kill me in cold blood for a chance at your regard, though none of them could love you more."
At this, he only smiled very sadly and, his eyes drifting away, he shook his head.
"Say anything at all, John Watson. I can't bear it."
"I wonder if you could help me with a word alternative for svelte," my boy whispered.
God in Heaven, where had this creature come from? The day I begin to understand him, the smallest piece of him, will be the day I merit having him near me. There were millions of possible answers to his request, by the way. Skinny. Bony. Emaciated. But I could not have loved that man more if I'd had two hearts instead of one, and so I tried to please him.
"Slender," I sighed.
"I was beginning to lean towards lissome." His voice was cracked and dry, but steady. "What do you think of it?"
"You forget gaunt," I murmured. Complimenting myself had grown too harrowing. "And I am not a tree limb. Now, give me one for bronzed."
"Good Lord, love," he muttered with a half-smile. "At least svelte is a compliment. Swarthy."
"Try again. And it is a compliment."
"Will tawny do, then?"
No, I decided, tawny would not do. It sounded like the mane of a wild creature. And while he was my own wild creature, his sun-kissed hair was very well tamed habitually. I ran my fingers through it as I wiped the last of the blood away, and his eyes fell shut at the touch. Thank God. It was merely a scratch, nothing more. He'd given me worse, which was a blessing.
"Burnished," I announced. Like an idol resting in a king's alcove.
"You're barking mad," he said with a world of affection in his voice. "I am not an oil lamp."
My throat closed. "John, you know that if I only could treat you better, I would, do you not?"
He thought for a long time about that.
"I cannot be without you," he said finally. "What's done is done. How being with you affects me is your own affair. But in any case, you're quite wrong--you treat me splendidly, better than anyone I've ever been with. You're wonderful. You open cab doors, and caress my aches away, and refill my coffee cup, and buy concert tickets when you cannot afford them, and I never wonder whether or not you love me. It's the way you treat yourself that flays me to the bone."
"I'm sorry," I said, my voice breaking badly.
"For what are you sorry now?"
"For using myself up so freely. For using you at all. I hate myself for what I just did to you, John. I hate it."
"Why? Because it was for yourself, for once in all your days?" he asked softly. "Because it was you scraping your bow across your violin strings when you're in agony, and for once not an entire opus played for my benefit? Do you truly think I require a sonata on every occasion?"
Whether he requires it or not, that is what he deserves, and I make it my habit to use every man according to his deserts. The notion that I could ever use him otherwise was what was wounding me so terribly.
"I don't know."
"Do you suppose I prefer you alive to make use of me, to be near me and to need me, or dead by yourself?" he asked pointedly.
"I only know that was the saddest thing I've ever done."
"I asked you to."
"That doesn't make it right."
"Love and right are different words, Sherlock Holmes," he said. "You've a splendid vocabulary. Puzzle out the difference. I requested you use me for whatever you needed. And you're quite mistaken if you think I didn't want it because I was angry, didn't want you because you were in pain. I wanted it very badly. For Heaven's sake, to hear you talk, anyone would think you forced me."
"That's what it felt like," I confessed as my head fell into my hands. "I've never been forced in my life, much less dreamed of forcing anyone else, but that's what it felt like."
The morphine's loss had pushed me so far from myself I could feel tears flowing into my eyes. Soon enough they were on my hands instead. Then there were arms around me and he was pushing me back, laying me down on the bed, arranging us so my head was on his good shoulder with all his limbs encircling my body.
"Not to me," he said fiercely. "That's not what it felt like to me. I may not know what events marked your life before we met, but I know who and what you are. I know your heart, and you are incapable of such an act. It was still hallowed, whether you believe me or not."
He was wrong about that, but he was correct in a half-sense. The only hallowed thing on our sitting room floor that terrible night had been John Watson himself.
"I wish I could tell you everything about all of it," I said in despair. "I don't mean to keep secrets from you, and you already know I am this way for a reason. But even if you desired to hear it in full detail--and you don't want that, not if you know what's good for you--I could never even bring myself to try."
I thought he might have been angry at me when he failed to respond right away, but then his hand stoked over my back.
"You could tell me in French," he murmured, nearly blinding me with one of his all too frequent moments of shining insight. I could feel the words vibrating below my cheek and within his chest. "I wouldn't understand a word of it."
And that is exactly what I did.
I told him, without his comprehending me in the slightest, that my mother had died during childbirth when I was eight. I told him that my sister Violet, the very idea of whom I had loved from the beginning and whose continuing presence might well have saved us all from hell, had died one year later. They were both buried in the chapel grounds beyond the edge of the estate. And I told him, though it was excruciating, what had happened afterward.
But I also informed John Watson of many other things, told him stories that were both sad and wonderfully happy. For instance, I told him all about Reginald "Reggie" Asquith, a ridiculously rich, pale, slender, rather fragile russet-haired young man with whom I lived for sixteen months. I never fell in love with Reggie, but I think in retrospect he had badly wanted me to. I called him Spots in private, in reference to the outlandish streak of flushed skin that would appear on his chest in our more vigourous moments. Reggie lived his entire erotic life around a single sex fantasy, which hinged upon his being sent to the headmaster's office for having been caught masturbating in the back of the classroom. And apparently--before meeting me--he had never encountered a masterful young buck who was capable of reproducing the crucial Newcastle accent of the Head.
Whether or not this little scene of Reggie's was based partly in fact I never knew, but he brought such a wealth of sublimely filthy detail to the drama that I confess I had grown rather suspicious as time passed. He lived in a beautiful suite in Pall Mall, and without ever blinking he paid for an outrageously expensive round of emergency dentistry when a scoundrel named Matthews knocked out my left canine in Charing Cross station. What was more, he ordered the cook to bring me my favourite soups, and laughed sadly when I swore to repay him, and never once complained while I was busy getting my dashing good looks back. Living free of charge with Reggie never hurt my pride, but a gentleman does like to pay his own medical bills. When he moved to the countryside to manage his family holdings, I was not heartbroken when I refused to leave London, though I believe Reggie may have been. But I did miss him tremendously.
I told him about Lord Harry Rogers, too--rather the antithesis of Reggie, if truth be told. Harry was a stunning tall blond with a smart little moustache who resided in a great house in London with his elderly, infirm uncle. We made an absurdly striking couple. He imagined mistakenly that he loved me (aloud, more's the pity) whenever he approached the verge of completion, and threw me out on my ear after four months. I had made the mild suggestion to him that the other virile young men he kept inviting into my--his, of course--our bed were beginning to impair my sleep a bit, and that most nights of the week I preferred him alone. I also may have mentioned a preference to be allowed more choice in the matter, rather than his presenting these strapping lads to me as if bringing home a procession of generally unwanted if well-wrapped Christmas presents. "Here you are, darling," Harry would say. "I've brought you something choice this evening, you see. What would you like to do with him? Isn't he perfect?" Generally, the man in question was indeed rather perfect, not to mention eager to play. And so I would expend an anxious mixture of deduction and instinct puzzling out just what Harry and the new fellow wanted me to get up to that evening.
When my mild suggestions bore scant fruit, I said flatly one day I was through with such things for the time being. Every single pleasure center in my entire anatomy was weary, including my brain. Harry disagreed with me. Then I recall saying--in my father's voice, no less--that I may not have liked my nose as passionately as everyone else seemed to, but I was yet keen to keep it intact, thank you very much, and preferred not to die a noseless sore-covered lunatic. Harry replied that he had never seen such ingratitude, and suggested I see how long I could stay free from syphilis as a rent boy specializing in multiple partners before tossing me to the kerb.
That abrupt dismissal had pushed me into the seemingly waiting arms of one Sydney Livingstone-Blair, a blueblood and a talented barrister, who positively could not orgasm without my feet being somehow involved in the process, and who decided that while my clothing was all very well for 1875, he was going to add a number of touches more along the lines of the 1880 sensibility, and then paid for an entire new wardrobe. One which, as Sydney put it, made me look more the musician-intellectual I was.
I will always remember Sydney fondly because one day as we were walking together through Covent Garden, my eyes fell upon the sheen of finely polished wood. I had an appalling violin at the time, the worst sort of secondhand fiddle, Harry having thrown my violin after me into the street and dashed it to pieces. When I saw the arc of the wood sitting on that shabby table, I knew it was a Stradivarius, and it was in my hands within seconds.
The kindly old Jew broker asked me to play it. He said he would never sell the instrument to a man who did not deserve it, and thus I must be put to the test. Four other men had tried to buy it that very morning, he assured me, for it was valuable and nominally priced, but he was only selling it because he had developed arthritis in his hands and he felt that an instrument like his should be played brilliantly and often. I played a Christoph Gluck interlude I had significantly altered, and a gypsy waltz, and halfway through the waltz the broker announced he would sell it to me. I paid for the violin, but I saw Sydney leave ten more pounds on the old Jew's table as we walked away. He said to me, when he had caught me up, that he had never seen me look at anyone the way I'd looked at that violin. It was sad, Sydney told me, but he knew I would never look at him that way. He fell madly in love with a Scottish poet some two weeks later and I was left on my own again. But I was tremendously happy for Sydney. He wanted very much to be adored, and he deserved it.
I told Watson about having been sick with worry at the thought I may have had to quit my blood-related researches because I could afford neither my temporary Montague Street digs nor lab fees without a new benefactor or a new case, and then suddenly I had done it: I had invented a reagent precipitated by haemoglobin and nothing else. I thought I could do it, but thinking I can and accomplishing such a feat of chemistry are very different things. I had never been so happy in all my days, I thought in that instant. I had succeeded, at last, and all on my own.
Then Stamford walked through the lab door with a new fellow I had never seen about the campus before. The new chap was thin and looked unwell, for there were dreadful bags beneath the bluest eyes I had ever seen in my life. He held one arm stiffly, in a pained and unnatural manner, but everything else about him was purest grace--the way one foot strode firmly in front of the other, the way his frank, sculpted mouth smiled in genuine interest in his surroundings, the way his hand came up easily and steadily to grip mine, the way his ocean-blue eyes flicked to my own hands and were amused by the fact they were covered in plasters. His face was thinned in the way illness can sometimes wear upon a man's countenance, but he was unquestionably beautiful. Not in the way I am chiseled and wicked-looking, but beautiful like a Caravaggio. And whereas he had probably been merely a staggering work of art before his ordeal, now he was absurdly fine-featured but with a compelling past. The sun had darkened his skin so much that he was unmistakably an Afghan War veteran, but he had been introduced as a doctor. That explained the fact that the lines around his laughing eyes were both kind and very sad. His hair was bleached nearly blond at the tips, and his neatly trimmed moustache accentuated the wonderful expressiveness of his mouth. The oddly perfect man before me smelled of clove-infused aftershave and fine woolen clothing that did not fit him at all, along with goodwill and weariness and a little bit of regret. And when either I or Stamford spoke, he listened: he listened with his ears, his neck, his head, his spine, his blue eyes, and his entire consciousness. John Watson listened with all his heart. I wanted to know that man better more than anything.
"Did you say my name, just now?" he wondered. Still listening even though he could not fathom a word of it save for those belonging uniquely to him--still marking my syllables, his idly caressing hand stopping.
"I said I wanted to know you better when first I saw you. You were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," I said in English.
"What a very strange coincidence," he murmured.
And then I fell fast into an exhausted slumber.
I have never hated anything in my life as much as the sun that streamed through my window the following afternoon when I awoke. It cut through my head like an axe. I was alone in bed, still unclothed, but the opposite side was yet warm. Anxious, I placed my hand over the pillow. Eight minutes he'd been gone, ten at most. Sitting up, I wondered suddenly if I was going to be ill in my own bed, which would have marked a new low point for a man already well accustomed to striking bedrock. I crossed my legs and hung my head down to see if the room might stop swaying like a ship's deck for a moment.
I heard footsteps. Watson came into my room with a tea tray, having no need to nudge my door with his toe, as it was still off its hinges. Doubtless he had locked the sitting room door instead at some point the night before. Or then again, perhaps not. Perhaps Mrs. Hudson now knew me a depraved sexual freak as well as an utter nuisance. I did not feel like asking. My friend wore a dressing gown over his shirt and trousers, but he had not bothered with collar or cuffs or waistcoat. I could see no sign of the cut on his brow, for his hair was sweeping over it. I think, when all is said and done, that was much for the better. As for the rest of him, he looked very tired, the way he had looked the morning after suffering a brief relapse of fever about six months previous. But his eyes were brightly optimistic, and struck me sharply as the rays from my window.
"Merciful Heavens, you look appalling," he told me affably. He sat down carefully on the bed, setting the tray before my crossed legs. "Part of that seems to be my fault, of course, but perhaps you'll do me the kindness of recalling you were pinning me in a first-rate wrestling hold at the time. Nevertheless, I am deeply sorry. I hope you will forgive me. Though it did seem to rouse your spirits a little, for which I refuse to apologize. If I pour you tea, do you suppose you'll keep it down?"
"No," I muttered. "I suppose nothing. Suppositions are yet beyond my ken."
"Then we'll embrace the element of surprise."
It was a miracle of no small order I managed to grip the teacup without spilling it in my own lap. I count it amongst my greatest victories, next to my chemical process for blood tracing.
"I found the morphine, finally," he said, taking a sip of Darjeeling for himself.
"No, I didn't take it. It has departed with the dustman by this time."
"Then thank Christ for both large and small mercies, respectively."
"That was very clever--gouging holes in subsequent layers of newspaper and then stacking them back together to form a hiding place. After you fell asleep at last, it took me nearly an hour to find. I would never have found it at all if your syringe had not been resting atop the stack."
"I didn't want you to find it, you see."
"I know. Hypocrite."
"That is the least of my sins, John Watson. The very least of them."
He looked at me. Too much blue, too much sunshine, too much honesty. I dropped my head again.
"It was not your fault."
"How on earth can you say that?"
"Very easily, seeing as it's true. He came here looking for help, yes, but you advised him utmost caution and he failed to follow your orders. What could he have been thinking to allow himself to be decoyed down to the Embankment, where he would not at least have the safety of the crowd? They must be cunning devils, whoever they are. And even had you been with him, Holmes, you will never know what might have happened. Perhaps I might have lost you in his defense. Who can say? All I know is that no one save you would ever have given his story near so much credit for betraying genuine danger."
I dared to glance back up again. How such a compassionate spirit ever landed inside the body of a demigod is beyond my ability to grasp, but how he ended up in my bed is a still greater puzzle.
"You have the most peculiar look on your face," he smiled.
"I was just wondering whether it would be worth splitting my lip open again to kiss you until you can feel it down to the tips of your fingers."
The smile broadened, but he shook his head. "I am weary of seeing you bleeding. Do you want your correspondence? I was too ill with worry to open any of it for you."
I sorted through the telegrams and envelopes he handed me. One looked strange--it was not postmarked, and the paper was of an odd grain. I opened it and five orange pips fell out. The words "YOU HAVE BOTH BEEN WARNED BEFORE YOUR GOD" were marked in block capitals on the inner flap.
"That," Watson said slowly, "does not appear to be a prank."
Hastily, I handed him the threat and looked for more. There were two, each stuffed with pips, progressing in an easily deduced chronology despite their lack of postmark. One read, "TO HIDE AWAY FROM A WARNING UNHEEDED TEMPTS THE WRATH OF THE ALMIGHTY," which struck me as terrible syntax but made its point clear, and the next, "YOUR FINAL HOUR IS AT HAND." And when I opened my telegrams they were all from Lestrade, and were all attempts to lure me back into the business of tracking criminals. I knew two things from looking at the envelopes with the pips inside: one, they were stuffed and written on by a man who had completely lost his mind. And two, we were in a terrible fix.
"What are we to do about this?" my friend wondered with serene calm. "Holmes, hand me that teacup before you ruin three days of your own mail."
I was taking very deep breaths. Not because I was frightened of the blackguards or blackguard who had murdered John Openshaw, but because I was livid and severely nauseated and now entertaining the idea of standing up. I did not know how that last item was likely to go. But it was undoubtedly necessary.
"Doctor, I need you to do three things for me. Right now."
"I am here to command," he said gravely.
"Please find my clothes, first of all, any of my clothes you like, and bring them over here. I know you prefer the task of taking them off to putting them on, and I've no intention of rendering you a manservant, but--"
"Do you know, the position of your manservant would be one I would seriously consider taking," he interrupted me. He set both our cups on the tray and rose, heading for my wardrobe with an impish smile on his face. "I would be achingly curious to learn what sort of services you required of me in the guise of a gentleman's personal gentleman. And next?"
"Wire Lestrade and tell him to meet me here as soon as ever he can. I don't know if I can walk very far yet, but he's never minded coming to me."
"Done," he said, pulling from the rack a grey French suit which Sydney had purchased for me (for approximately the same figure which I had thus far spent in rent at Baker Street living with Watson). Draping the jacket and trousers over his arm, he searched for more items on hangers and in drawers.
"You won't like the third," I warned him, looking up at him with what I hoped was all my heart mirrored within my features.
Watson hesitated before pulling down a clean white shirt. Then his eyes flared. "You want your cocaine, don't you?"
"I want to be able to stand up without losing my stomach out my throat," I said, shaking my head as determinedly as I could without its falling off. "I want to find Openshaw's killer without getting myself killed. I want to protect you without fainting away five steps from my bed. I want to set it right, and I--"
"If I find your cocaine and bring it to you, will you vow to me to eat something on the instant it takes effect?"
It was not perfect. But if I lost a meal, it would be a small price to pay for what was really a gesture of good faith.
"I will eat whatever you put in front of me, until such time as it decides to come up again."
"It won't," he sighed. "You're right about the cocaine. If we give you enough of a dose, you ought to be perfectly functional. Here are your clothes. Should I help you into them first, or wire Lestrade?"
"I love you. You are God's most perfect creature. Wire Lestrade, and then come back to laugh at how far I've managed to get. Recall while you are wiring Lestrade I love you. And fetch your revolver on your way back in here."
"Remind me," he said whilst leaning down to kiss the side of my mouth that was not gashed apart, "what I am to recall while wiring Lestrade?"
"I love you."
"It's the most outrageous thing I can conceive," he murmured, laughing to himself. He shook his head ruefully as he made for the door. "The fact that anyone who had you previously let you go is a source of constant confusion for me. Bless them all, anyway, but there shan't be others. I myself am a man of sense."
When Lestrade arrived, I was ready for him. Watson had decided, and I heartily agreed with him, that it had been a mistake to make my clothing the first order of business; a hot bath--after the cocaine but prior to the clothing, with the Doctor's assistance--had much restored me. I am deeply preoccupied with cleanliness, after all, and thus afterward I was nearly myself again. Or perhaps I ought to say that I was as much myself as I could appear given that I looked as if I had gone five rounds and refrained from food for three days. Which was just about right.
No, strike that from the record--I thought I looked myself again, but Lestrade knew otherwise. He came striding through the door wearing a self-righteous, purposeful little frown and then stopped short at the sight of me, sitting at the dining table having just finished the most cold-heartedly wicked bowl of soup ever made. Lestrade took in my face, and then my dismembered doorway, and then he did the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen. It was an act that has caused me substantively to reevaluate his entire character. He did nothing. He folded his hands over each other in front of him and glanced at the Doctor.
"I'd the devil's own time getting a cab or I would have been here sooner," he said after clearing his throat. "Doctor, your note sounded urgent. These scoundrels of the orange pips have struck again, have they?"
"They must have traced Openshaw here," Watson nodded, shaking Lestrade's hand when it was offered him. He exchanged a grateful glance with me that our good inspector seemed so disinterested in unhinged doors. "Perhaps anyone who tried to help him is now fair game."
"So, Mr. Holmes," Lestrade continued, "I take it--"
"That I have returned to active practice, that I have not passed a pleasant interim of time since last I saw you, and that we are to get to the bottom of this posthaste after sharing everything we know of the subject?" I interrupted for efficiency's sake.
"That, yes," he said smoothly. "In addition, I take it there's still tea in that pot, is what I'd been about to say. Left my own hot and steaming on my desk."
That quirked a smile onto my face before I'd the chance to arrest it. Watson stifled a snort of laughter and sat down after pulling a chair adjacent to me out for the Inspector. We all hovered together over the distressingly plain envelope as Lestrade poured more tea and outlined for me what he had learned in my absence.
Predictably, he had learned nearly nothing. No physical evidence of any kind linked a suspect to the bridge on the night in question. No witnesses. Openshaw had been robbed, but only afterward and in a secondary sense--his watch had turned up in the hands of a known scavenger who had foolishly tried to fence it the next day. The scavenger, when brought in for questioning, recalled nothing out of the ordinary. Only a corpse, still warm, looking out over the water. And still less could we fathom a motive. No one had a reason to hate John Openshaw--he lived quietly, as he had said, and his neighbours in the rolling country beyond London liked him heartily.
"I wonder," sighed Lestrade after an hour talking of absent evidence. We three still huddled about the table, but had switched the tea out for warm brandy.
"It's a good start," I could not help but sniff.
"The weather, you see," he continued placidly. "The night in question. It was coming down sheets. You remember it, Dr. Watson? Worst storm I've seen in three years, and I was out in it myself. I couldn't see my hand before my face, let alone ten feet in front of me. Now, you're surmising, Mr. Holmes, that Openshaw was followed here when the killer discovered your home and your involvement. I agree with you. But what I mean to say is, how? How, when cabs were scarcely running and the streets were black as pitch?"
Then the flash happened. It often is so with me, when I see the threads begin to weave themselves into perfect patterns. Orange pips. The storm. The countryside. My pageboy.
I gasped out, "Billy!"
He was not there to hear me, of course, so the Doctor and Inspector watched me as I stumbled to the bell, ringing it violently. They exchanged quizzical glances, but neither spoke. They knew my agitation in earnest. In another two minutes, Billy stood before us, and in my excitement over grasping a discrepancy, I barely noticed I was standing on the carpet to interrogate the lad, no longer crouched like an invalid in a chair.
"Billy, these envelopes," I said to him, holding them up. "They were hand-delivered, yes?"
"That's just so, sir," he nodded. He appeared to think the business of my face a mere matter of course, taking into account my assumed involvement in every worthwhile adventure under the sun. Thankfully he seemed not to have noticed I had not left the house in days. "From a beggar boy first. Like as not someone offered him a few pence, I'm thinkin'. Then a different beggar boy, then a scullery maid."
"When the beggar boy delivered the first of these letters, was it on the night of the storm? Or perhaps the night afterward?"
He frowned, his rosy little lips contracting in a conscious imitation--I realized to my horror--of me. Thank the lord the Doctor is here as well, or we should have a miniature severe Bohemian sleuth on our hands within two years.
"I was through with my work scrubbin' out the pantry floor when I got called to the service entrance and took that first envelope, Mr. Holmes. The night before the storm, it was. Tuesday evening."
Just after we had returned home from Norbury. Just as I thought. For I now recalled, to my deep frustration, I had not checked my correspondence at all since my father had died. But I had seen the first envelope appear. It had sat there, communing with dust. Nevertheless, here was a clue. The pieces were still clattering against one another, but now I knew where to look to find my answers. We had thought the threat recent because it was not postmarked and we associated it so vibrantly with Openshaw, but these were far muddier waters.
Pips. Dried orange pips, my brain insisted. Five of them.
"Hold on just a minute, Mr. Holmes," Lestrade said, joining me before Billy. "How could you have been threatened for your involvement with a man you hadn't yet met?"
"Impossible," Watson said from the table, staring into space as he offered his own version of my speech patterns. "We were threatened, therefore, for another reason."
"Thank you very much, Billy," I said, reaching down to shake his hand whilst palming him a coin. "You have been of invaluable assistance in this particular matter. Rest assured I shall not forget it."
He turned an endearing shade of pink. "No more than my duty, Mr. Holmes. What I'm supposin' is, when a fellow works for an employer what mixes with dangerous elements, a hero to the city as it were, one likes to keep the wits sharp."
"Very wise," said Lestrade. He was not smirking. But he was trying so hard not to smirk that it amounted to exactly the same thing. He knew it, and I knew it, and he knew that I knew it. That was why he was not-smirking.
I endeavored to sink into the floor and then thought better of it. The impossible lad turned to go, sixpence resting in his pocket. I turned back to my associates. There was nothing to be done about Billy for the moment, our lives were in danger, and I wanted to live to hear Lestrade's twitting me on the subject.
"Lestrade, would you be so good as to pull out your notes and describe for me the late Mr. Openshaw's entire household staff? Never mind that they gave you nothing useful. I want you to describe them physically."
He sat down in Watson's chair, pointedly not looking about for his notebook as he linked his fingers. "Certainly, Mr. Holmes. Butler is one Harrington, elderly, Sussex descent, nearsighted, favors the sweets if his girth is any guide."
"The cook--Mrs. Marble, partial to a sherry or three before dinner but otherwise harmless, gaunt woman, fifty-two, Irish by her accent, husband died early and left her without means."
"Go on," I murmured, staring doggedly at the rug. I lit a cigarette, pacing slowly.
"Housekeeper a bit more interesting, I suppose. One Miss Olivia Washington, descendant of Openshaw's uncle's former cook, now deceased, I take it. She was a little girl when her mother decided to accept the job overseas, and when she grew up, she stayed on at the house. Negro descent, hailed from Georgia, I believe. Next is--"
"Miss Washington," I grated out. "She's beautiful, is she not?"
Lestrade coloured a bit, but the look faded rapidly. "Uncommonly so. She also is the only servant living in a room off the main hallway in an upstairs part of the central house, rather than in the servants' wing. There may well have been an understanding between her and Openshaw. But the other servants displayed not the least bit of bad feeling on the subject, so I paid it no mind. As for Miss Washington, no one is more distraught by Openshaw's death. She isn't guilty of a thing, Mr. Holmes, if that's what you're on about. She's nigh inconsolable."
"But Openshaw's neighbours, servants, friends--they know of this closeness which existed between Miss Washington and her employer? Is it gossiped about in public?"
"Of course it is. But very good-naturedly. She has a charming disposition, by all accounts, and the community seems universally fond of her. Tell the truth, I was halfway to fond of her myself by the time I'd finished questioning her. She's a charitable soul, I take it, always baking for celebrations and carrying soup to invalids. Everyone who meets her is quite taken by her. Mr. Holmes, I assure you Miss Washington has nothing whatever to do with Openshaw's death."
"Lestrade, you are both right and utterly wrong."
"Holmes," Watson said urgently, "what are you driving at?"
"Have you never," I answered, "heard of the Ku Klux Klan?"
My brain had at last clicked back to life, you see.
Which made me now the object of some heavy scrutiny. Lestrade and Watson were staring at me not because of the words, which were nonsense to anyone in Britain save a criminologist and I was the only one in the room, but because I was gripping blindly for my scarf and throwing on my coat and tossing the barely smoked cigarette into the grate and generally making ready to fly through the door.
"No," Lestrade confessed as he reached for his own peacoat. "Should I have--"
"Lestrade, you must stay here," I gasped, whirling about. "Watson, you as well. Please. I am going to creep out the back way over the area fence and ask a very important favour of my elder brother. Get your guns out, the two of you, and set them where you can easily reach them. That is, Lestrade, if you are amenable to staying until I return. I can move invisibly out of the house, and a depraved monomaniac has been waiting all this while for us to expose ourselves. Should you attempt to join me, either of you, we would be at deepest risk beyond these walls. It's a blessing I've not set foot outdoors in three days. Allow me to speak with Mycroft, Doctor, and then on my return I shall explain it all to you and to Lestrade."
"I don't like it, Holmes," Watson said sternly.
"There is not one moment to lose, but everything hinges on my going alone on a very brief leg to London Bridge and back again. Trust me, and you shall not have cause to regret it. And Lestrade, I ask only that you remain here."
Every single atom of feeling I could muster was begging Geoffrey Lestrade in that moment. Begging him from his dull brown hair past his dull petite features over his dull tweed waistcoat down to his dull brown boots. That irritating mouse of a man absolutely had to guard my home in my absence or I could never leave it. Please, the particles of my being were chanting. Stay here with him. Keep him safe. He is fearless, but that is no guarantee of his continued good health. And you may be utterly plain-minded, but you are also alert and practical and dogged. Please. At the same time, I could not very well make clear why Watson's safety meant quite so much to me, so the pleading look turned in an instant into the fervor of a request between professionals. Doubtless the effect was bizarre.
Inspector Lestrade considered my face for a brief time. Then he nodded. He crossed his arms in a way that meant "yes," and had served the purpose since the day I met him. "I'll be happy to wait for you, Mr. Holmes. Two are better than one. I wish you'd see the same advice applied to yourself, but--"
"It doesn't in this case," I promised. "Never has a case suited the maxim less. Lestrade, tell me, what was the address John Openshaw gave me for his residence? I fear I never read it."
"He lived in his uncle's fine estate, out in the countryside near Norbury," the Inspector answered in considerable surprise.
"Norbury?" Watson exclaimed.
"Of course he did. Goodbye, gentlemen," I called from the landing. "I shall see you in not more than three hours."
"Holmes," Watson said in a dangerous voice. "Let me--"
"No. I will return, and with all speed."
It was a vow, not a statement. And he knew it as such. What was more, my friend trusts me to command him when the circumstances warrant my unique skills and no other. I love him as heartily for that as I do all the rest of it. I waited for John Watson to nod his agreement, just the fraction of a second necessary for him to know that I desired his accord and would return unharmed, and then I ran down the stairs, through the back area under the plane trees, and out into the night, my face hid under a scarf.
fell at some point during my
shabbiness of my brother's neighbourhood quite depresses me, and more
night. This distaste robbed me of the hesitation I would
felt in confronting him again with such a nasty display of temper still
conscience. I rang the bell without a second thought, and
staring at my hand, hoping against hope that perhaps I had dreamed the
episode--that I had in fact never made the implication that my brother
ever enjoy applying something heavy to my hide for a lark.
Mycroft was a long time coming to his door. When he saw me, he stepped back without any expression whatsoever. It must have been challenging, my face looking the way it did, but he is still more self-possessed than I am.
"How was the funeral?" I inquired.
"Sad. Poorly attended. Difficult. What are you doing here?"
"I need your help," I said.
That raised an eyebrow. "Do you indeed? I had supposed you were past all that, now I am--'lord of the manor,' was it?"
I winced. I deserved whatever I got from Mycroft, and I knew it. But there were lives at stake and one of them was mine. One of them was even more important than that.
"I've fallen afoul of some rather interesting characters," I confessed to him.
"Well, it was only a matter of time, wasn't it? Let us be practical. The way you carry on."
"No, not homosexual. Interesting. Violent. Mycroft, I need you. Please."
He sighed somewhere deep in his bulky chest and consulted the time on his watch. The answer he received from the pocket timepiece vexed him considerably, and he scowled at it in a cold fury. "You look a fright, you know. You'll terrify my fellow impoverished tenants. Are you going to come inside, Sherlock, or shall I continue standing here in my open doorway at an angle clearly inviting you in for a while longer?"
"I didn't suppose you'd want me...in," I whispered.
"For pity's sake, dear child, come inside before I collapse on my feet."
I did. He lumbered back to his desk, a shabby piece of abused wood covered in papers and three candles. He was working by candlelight again, and clearly on a number of differing projects. Mycroft loathes candlelight, for it makes his eyes tired, but he also abhors wasting funds by way of gas. When I peered down at the papers curiously, he dropped a huge atlas over the top of them and glared at me, nodding in the direction of an adjacent chair. I made an effort to look as if sitting in it had been my own idea and then crossed my legs. He was not fooled.
"It's ridiculous, really," he told me dourly. "I am a subordinate with no ambitions of any kind, will receive neither honour nor title, collect a pitiful yearly salary, and yet see the floodgates of information they have opened to your humble sibling. Should I like, I may orchestrate a coup. Every department has taken to passing me their problems, as if I can shear through Gordian knots."
"I'd wager you can."
"Flattery will accomplish you nothing whatsoever, young man. What have you done?"
I told him, ending with the words "Ku Klux Klan."
He whistled. "You sound in a pretty fix. Do please tell me you have taken precautions in getting here?"
"Of course I have, but I need to know where this villain has come from. I suspect he arrived in the wake of Effie Munro's daughter Lucy, for I received the first warning following that case, but I need to know passenger manifestos to be certain. They arrived on a barque called the Lone Star. That much I can manage tomorrow when the offices open, but only you can use your Whitehall contacts to identify any known or suspected Klansmen. My strong inclination is to infer that a Klansman from the same vessel, quite clearly a madman to boot, followed Lucy Hebron to Norbury when he questioned why she was traveling with a white nursemaid, but then was immediately distracted by an even greater affront to his sensibilities in a nearby household. John Openshaw had a housekeeper of African descent. Beautiful, from what I'm told. Whether they were living in sin together or not is beside the point--to a vengeful maniac, even the indication meant death. Better to prevent what he perceived as Effie Munro's crime than to dwell on a well-guarded little girl. And now, you see, he has diverted his very single-minded attention to your younger brother, who orchestrated the reconciliation between the diversely ancestored members of the Munro household. He may perhaps even have realized Openshaw consulted me. The scoundrel considers me a nemesis. I need you to pick a likely suspect or two from a list of names for me by consulting the American police."
Mycroft was nodding gravely, scratching notes in his drunken crab script in the margin of a document on the edge of his desk. "You'll wire me the passenger list?"
"As soon as ever I can."
"Where is your Dr. Watson?"
"At home, with a loaded gun in his hand and a police inspector at his elbow. I must get back to him."
"I should say you must. I'll alert the proper channels that there has recently landed a very unsavoury element, and on the moment I hear word from the authorities in America, you can rely on my immediate telegram."
"Thank you for helping me," I breathed. "I didn't suppose--"
"When have I ever refused you help without your asking, let alone your asking twice?" he retorted disgustedly. "Your regard for my sympathetic character knows no bounds, does it?"
"After what I said, it seemed a great deal to ask."
His face softened. "We cannot help who we are, Sherlock, only what we do and how often. And I assure you that nothing you are capable of doing could cost you my fraternity. In any event, wiring America on the subject of Klansmen will be thrilling in comparison to my current vast roster of duties. It may perhaps prove the most enjoyable thing I have ever done for you. I cannot claim to have enjoyed stealing the garret key and smuggling you raw carrots and leftover meat pies."
I felt a damnable lump rising in my throat and forced it back down where it belonged. "I still hate raw carrots and meat pies," I admitted.
"As I should have done in your place."
"I never thanked you properly. I think if you had not been there, I may have lost my mind as thoroughly as Father had."
"You've no need to thank me for anything," he replied quietly. "You've never needed to thank me. You've only a lifelong obligation to perform regular maintenance on the project I started--that is to say, your upkeep. What the devil have you been doing with yourself, Sherlock? I would not be exaggerating to state that you look more than half dead."
"Only just half," I attempted with what must have been a ghastly smile, but I had forgotten my lip was split and winced at the end of it.
No one can sigh more deeply than my brother, and that was one of his finest efforts.
"You realize, all joking aside, that anyone who dares to lay a hand on you for the rest of our lives has me to answer to, don't you? Now, who hit you?"
I hesitated, and the sigh was repeated with the addition of uncrossed arms and his hands passing up and down his heavy face.
"I'll try better, Mycroft," I promised him. "I couldn't truthfully say that yesterday, but now--I spoke with my friend, you see. The Doctor. And I'll try. To...to take more care with myself."
"Your friend," Mycroft mused. He steepled his fingers. "I rather like your friend. He seems steady. He is twice the man that most of your other...attachments have been. With noted exceptions. Please tell me your lip has nothing to--"
"For the love of God, Mycroft, I'm an invert, not a masochist," I countered emphatically. "I've known several masochists, and trust me, you are not looking at one."
"Sherlock, as compelling as an account of the masochists you have known--doubtless in the Biblical sense, I am under no illusions on the subject--would prove, I only meant to confirm he is good to you."
"He's miraculous," I murmured. "The only one I've ever met who treats me as well as you do."
He nodded. "Go back to him, then. Wire me the instant you've news."
On my way to the door, I stopped. I had just come to a realization. And as it happened, it was a rather shameful one.
"Mycroft, would it have been very much easier for you if I had accompanied you to the ceremony?"
He considered. When he did, I had my answer, and I cursed myself for the seven hundredth time that week. But nevertheless I waited for his reply. He dragged himself up and walked over to me.
"I should never have asked you, petit frere," he concluded. "And in retrospect, no, it would not have. I should have been obliged to keep you well and calm and away from Remy Verner's throat. He asked after you, by the way. He wants to treat you to a meal at his surgeons' club. You ought to take him up on it, get a little of your own back."
He looks so much older than I. My grey eyes are often enough cutting as metal, and I know it, but my brother's are swiftly fading to charcoal. Mycroft was born on the Continent, a full seven years before me, and although we never speak of it I believe there were several miscarriages my mother survived between he and I and between my sister and myself. She was only thirty-two when they placed her in the ground. But seven years does not account for Mycroft's looks. Somehow privation turned me into a marble-hewn youth, still the image of myself at twenty-one, while my brother grows prematurely withered for all his bulk. The war against chaos damages a person.
"I don't know how to protect you in turn," I confessed. "But I would like to have said that I tried. I could not have accompanied you, but I'm very sorry for it."
"Don't be sorry," he smiled, putting both his long arms round my shoulders sadly. "I don't want you to be sorry, you must understand. Just be well, so that I can see it."
I clung to my brother for a long moment, a shamefully passionate moment, and then I left without a word. By the time I had run most of the way back to the well-lit roads, the fact that the two men I loved best in the world could be so good to me had settled under my skin, and was no longer burning in my eyes like smoke from a structure fire.
I came in the back way again, scraping my shin on the fence as I scaled it, and then crept round the scullery to the darkened staircase. I was not, I repeat, afraid of a man who had clearly only managed to kill another after having lured him down to the Embankment. But I had no notion of where the villain was hiding, after all, or whether he had procured accomplices, and still worse I had no evidence against the invisible fiend as of yet. Setting my foot on the stair, I glanced upward. The shadowy figure of the Doctor, having heard me enter with senses honed by battlefields, stood in the doorway to the sitting room with a gun gripped lightly in his fingers.
"It's only me," I mouthed softly, raising a hand.
"Of course it's you." His rich, slightly Scottish voice fell upon my ears like the crimson leaves which blanket Regent's Park in the autumn. "I think I can recognize my own flatmate in the dark."
He did not mean the flatmate portion. That was for Lestrade's benefit, who now crowded behind him. But he did mean the my own segment of the sentence, and when I looked up at him gratefully, he knew I had understood.
The state of the sitting room told me several things as they stepped aside to allow me through the door.
There was a deck of cards on the dining table, stacked but recently used. Two new glasses had made an appearance, and an empty bottle of Beaune sat upon the sideboard. Books had left the shelves and been discussed on the indented settee cushions. But the room was not the only evidence at hand. What was still more telling--telling to an almost unholy degree of obtuseness--was that Lestrade's tie had left his neck behind a little. He had loosened it. In my house, no less.
I turned my face to the sideboard to hide my exhausted smile and fetched out another bottle and a third glass. Leave John Watson alone for two hours, and the man will form a fast friendship. I had thought as much. He seemed to have fallen into a warm companionship with me in about five minutes, after all, and had once covered my share of the rent without even idly wondering whether I'd bring him off in exchange for it. The man trusts his fellows. Now I just had to make certain I left him to his own devices more often among worthy men. That would be wretchedly difficult for an arrogant narcissist like me, but worth it to see him happy.
"Tell us, my dear fellow," Watson said when I had a drink in my hand, "what is going on?"
We sat down, Watson in his chair and Lestrade and I on the sofa, and I told them all about it. I began with the Ku Klux Klan, which organization I had studied as part of my general researches, moved on to our despised efforts on behalf of Lucy Hebron, and ended with the suggestion that I had become, along with the Doctor and for the second unwelcome time in my life, an idee fixe.
"First thing in the morning you must go to the naval offices and send the passenger manifesto from last arrival of the barque Lone Star to my brother," I finished to Lestrade. "He'll determine who the culprit is likeliest to be, or so I hope. When we've an idea who we're looking for..."
"We look for him," Watson finished coolly, draining his wine. "Lestrade, when Mr. Mycroft Holmes wires you back in the morning or early afternoon, we'll hope to see you here?"
"Of course, Dr. Watson," Lestrade smiled. Then his smile faded, and his squeezed-together face with its close-set eyes darkened a little. I asked myself why, but nothing came to mind.
"Then good night to you, Inspector. I'm very grateful for the company you provided. And I assure you, my own aunt would never have suffered such a pleasurable offer to be wasted, maiden or no."
Lestrade laughed conspiratorially at this bizarre private joke, looking as if Watson had just handed the lonely little ferret a pearl beyond price, nodded to us both, and departed. It was a swift and unnecessary exit. What was more, he had looked...not frightened, not that exactly, but concerned somehow, as if he needed to be elsewhere very badly. I turned to stare at the Doctor, my eyes wondering what had just happened as the firelight played over the planes of his cheekbones.
"Look at your hands," he said quietly.
I did. They were twitching and every so often jumping slightly, and the very moment I saw them the pain of morphine's absence hit my entire torso like a freight train. I felt myself turning the colour of my own eyes. My insides were twisting violently, and whereas I had thought the room warm enough a moment ago, now that I knew my own condition it was suddenly deathly cold.
"In that case, I don't blame him," I gasped. "He suffers enough at my hands without being forced to watch a degenerate go through morphine withdrawal."
Watson was already returning from my bedroom by that time, with my morocco case in his hands. The one I had hidden away from his sight for six months, and which I had been forced to bid him fetch for me so that I could accomplish the feat of rising from my bed that afternoon. His steady, professional hands were already opening it, already preparing a dose of the cocaine I kept in ready supply as I looked at him miserably.
"You aren't a degenerate," he smiled. "Or at least, Lestrade doesn't think so. And neither do I. You really are a bit hard on people at times, you know, Holmes. Under all that bluster, I believe the Inspector admires you."
"I'm hard on everyone," I sighed. "To every man his just deserts. I don't enjoy it any more than Lestrade does. As you pointed out, I subject myself to the same treatment and come off the worse for it."
"How I manage to rate so highly is utterly beyond me, then."
"I know it is. That's a part of the reason. A fraction, but there you are."
"In any case, it wasn't him I was protecting. You would have noticed sooner or later when you came down from your mental flight of logical inference that you were shaking like a leaf, and what I'm doing now would have mortified you much more than the Inspector."
"What it is you're doing, then?" I asked in disbelief as he rolled up my sleeve.
"Preventing you from entering the throes of full morphine withdrawal until after your life is no longer threatened by another element entirely," he replied with a sort of sad, calm resignation. "One threat to your life at a time."
I couldn't watch him do it. I tried to, for I've no fear of needles by this time, but the act was a grotesque one. It took him only a little longer to find a good vein in all that mess than it would have taken me, for he is an excellent doctor.
And I knew why he refused to use my right arm, though it would have been twenty times easier. He wanted that one unblemished. Pure.
I only wished I could have known what he was thinking as he penetrated me in a way he never had before, deftly pushing the little piston home with the ease of long practice. I had only ever done such a thing to myself, in solitude. Even earlier that afternoon, I had insisted on going about the act alone. Within a few seconds, the labyrinth my stomach had twisted itself into lessened to a mere maze. And in another few seconds, I understood a tiny fraction of John Watson for the very first time. I may as well say the skies opened. It was a heavenly sensation which had nothing to do with the drug. For he had previously been a weightless cipher I had been frantically trying to keep within my grasp--but that act, in that moment, I at last understood, even if it was only a fragment of him. I opened my eyes again. I wanted to see the man who loved me so profoundly he would actually give me a dose of a substance he despised. He was only a foot away from my face, kneeling on the carpet before me to give the injection, returning the syringe to the case.
"Do you recall when you were ill with fever, and I wanted nothing on earth more than to learn a way to fix it?" I asked. "That night before we first came together, when I wanted like nothing I'd ever wanted to ease your pain?"
Lids blinked over the blue for a moment as he set the case on the table, and then his hands came down to grip my knees. "I didn't know you felt quite that way at the time. I should never have let you return downstairs. But in any case...yes?"
"That's what you look like now. The way I felt."
My friend leaned forward until our lips met. It was a gentle kiss. He didn't want to do the cut any further damage. But it proved none the less heady for its softness, the way champagne is none the less potent for being half air. Our lips and breath tangled together with no thought of deepening it, for it was already perfect as it was.
It lasted longer than any kiss of that nature I had ever experienced. When he finally drew back an inch, Watson smiled. "And do you recall what you promised me, when I teasingly doubted my nerves could stand the degree of pleasure you were planning to inflict on my person?"
I nodded. I remembered it as if it were five minutes previous. I remembered because I had wanted to tell him how I felt about him without telling him I loved him, for fear it would drive the poor man straight out the door.
"Well, now it is my turn," my boy announced, standing up. "I will take care of you."
"Where are you going?"
"Come with me, love, I want to show you something."
Watson took me back to my bedroom. He brought his service revolver with him and placed it on the bedside table. He helped me with buttons, and folded my waistcoat over a chair, and built up the fire until it was blazing, and for once I felt not the slightest bit of guilt over such gestures. Sydney, bless him, had used to like to spend quite elaborate care over my person--my wardrobe proclaims as much--but his appreciation of disrobing me stemmed from his own desires for me. They were kindly, but a river that flowed in one direction. I never felt I deserved them, for I didn't love him and he knew it.
We lay down together, without any clothing separating our bodies, and then he placed his hands on me.
He ran his hands over my face first, a pale feather of a touch, and then over my neck and my shoulders, over my ribs and my stomach. The Doctor drew his fingertips down my sides and over my jutting hipbones and skimmed the depression of lower abdominal muscle of which I had always been rather proud in secret. He stroked across my thighs and my hips and my calves, and when he had caressed every single part of me save that which he'd now awakened, he returned to my face and began again with his lips. My friend tenderly opened his mouth and explored it all anew, my chest and my flanks and my forearms right down to the fingertips, over which he lingered to give himself a small reward, as he is always slightly preoccupied by my hands. He laved his tongue over my fingers each in turn, and then moved with reluctance back up my arms to spend five minutes in the hollow of my neck. And by some miracle, I felt no need to be anything other than what I was--a boneless, breathless creature lying on my back doing nothing save tremble occasionally and feel the warmth of his tongue traveling over my the crook of my elbow and the lobe of my ear. It was the best comfort I could have imagined. Better than I could have imagined, unless I had been the one trying to comfort him.
I was very nearly asleep when he did take me in his mouth. So near to it, in fact, that I never consciously noticed my hand moving to rest against his cheek, feeling the motion and the contrast of soft against hard, skin sheathing firm solidity versus the skin of the pliant lips surrounding it. Then I came back to myself a little. I gently pushed my index finger into his mouth alongside my cock, and winced with the aching pleasure of being pleased for no other reason than that he wanted to. When my finger breached his lips, his tongue twirling slowly around the newcomer, he moved the hand that wasn't cradling the base of my shaft down his own body. I lost sight of it, but he must have gathered the moisture from the tip of his own member, for he shuddered slightly and then his wet fingers were searching under my sac and downward--not entering me, not yet, only slowly caressing the way he had done with the rest of my body, taking his time, and I buried a moan in the back of my throat.
I could feel my spine sparking into a long cord of light when he did press a single finger within, and from the sound I recall making, he knew I wanted more. So he continued, over many long minutes. He continued, with his mouth and his two hands and three fingers, until I gasped for air and stopped him, all my own fingers in that golden hair.
He looked up at me, lips reddened and eyes darkly glittering. I knew I had the strength of will and energy and motion for exactly two things: one movement and one word. For once in my adult life, I was not going to be able to whisper elaborate sweet nothings and throw my knees with abandon around anyone's neck, no matter how badly I might have desired to do so. And in the totality of my exhaustion, I was able to forgive myself for it. So I said, "John," meaning only "please," and then I turned myself onto my stomach and closed my eyes once more.
He entered me at the same unhurried pace. He lowered his chest against my back and his lips against my ear. When he failed to move at first, giving me time, I could feel his heartbeat against my shoulder blades. I was matched, filled, fed, utterly owned, and it was perfect. And what he said, when he began to thrust with easy, firm, loving strokes, was the last thing I would have ever expected.
"This much love," he said. "This amount of infinite care. I wanted to show you what you feel like."
My eyes flew open, and then flinched shut again. I was deeply thankful that he was not in the mood to play games. For there aren't any words for what I felt in that moment, let alone clever synonyms. And what a relief it was to know there were no words for it. I hadn't the mind left to say any aloud. There were other gentle sounds I was making, doubtless. I was expending no effort to silence myself. I trust, looking back on it, that he knew what each and every one of them meant, for they were all about him, and no one has ever listened to me better in my life.
He has stamina, the Doctor I love, and so he gave me what felt like a very long time of the sweetest lovemaking he had to offer. Which is to say, the sweetest in many nations and very likely seven separate continents. It was the oddest sexual experience of my life in that there was nothing of wound-up tension or hunger in it, no mental self-admonitions to hold back or to increase, for the sensation was flowing over me in steady waves and I could not have either enhanced or ruined it even had I been able to try. When he stiffened at last, crying something inarticulate and eternal against the back of my neck as he sped up for a few final strokes of passion, I was in such a state of aching bliss as I have never experienced. As if I were weightless and soaring and burning and falling all at once. The sort of state I always endeavored to produce in others. And just when I began to fear he was what was holding me together and that I had better warn him to stay where he was or I would come unraveled, he gently withdrew, and pulled me back over, and took me deep down in his throat. It was only a moment before I died, grasping softly at his face as I did, catching a glimpse of the hallowed country which some people think lies beyond ours.
As for what that felt like...
There are limits, I have found, to words. But not to love. In any event, not to his.
I was improved the next morning, but by no means well. I no longer felt as if cramping was doubling me over when the cocaine began to wear off, but the nausea had not abated and neither had the worst headache of my existence. So I took another shot of twelve percent solution, wondering whether I had been the most inept man on earth to have started taking such things in the first place. Then I recalled what my mood had been like when I did first try narcotics and decided to be a trifle easier on myself.
Lestrade was good as his word, and so was my brother. That afternoon at around two o'clock, the Inspector arrived to report that one Mr. James Calhoun, according to the police department of Savannah, Georgia, was both an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan and wanted (not very badly, I gathered) for the suspected murder of three Negro men; he was also wanted (rather more pointedly) for vandalism, arson, and theft. He had thus determined to flee his country for the Motherland, but had been allowed to slip through the authorities' fingers when the ship docked. Setting aside my thoughts on the subject of police departments in Georgia, the three of us moved along to the copied description Mycroft had obtained. James Calhoun was five foot seven, brown haired, with a small cleft in a narrow chin and dark, widely set eyes. His arms were long, and his skin tanned by long years in the southern sun.
"Now we find him," Watson said grimly, tossing the end of a cigar into the fireplace. "How do you propose to go about it, Holmes?"
We were interrupted when Billy rushed through the door without knocking, nearly tumbling over when he reached the rug, brandishing a fresh envelope.
"By Heaven, that will make it easier," Lestrade remarked. "He is in the immediate vicinity, at least."
Billy shook his head, panting, as he handed me the evil missive. "It was half-wedged under the carpet in the front foyer, sir. Must have been shoved under the door early this mornin'."
The sight of the message turned my blood cold, as five dried orange pips spilled onto my carpet. "YOUR COWARDICE AVAILS YOU NOTHING: GOD'S WORK GOES FORTH NONETHELESS."
"What can that mean?" Lestrade wondered, reading over my shoulder.
"Norbury," I breathed. "It means--dear God, don't let it mean--Watson, run for a cab. Now."
His face blanched in comprehension as he rushed to do as I asked. Lestrade said nothing, but strode to wrap his scarf around his neck and checked his pistol for ammunition. And for the second time in as many days, I threw my coat over my shoulders, curious to know just how far I could get before collapsing. All the while devoutly praying that whatever Providence had given me insight also desired me to stop that monster before any more innocent people died before their time.
The clouds above us were uniformly wet and sodden, but declining to rain in actual fact, when we reached the station. I was sick with apprehension, but I can fortunately school my mind when I please, and I think the only evidence of my distress was my complete silence. Watson departed to purchase the three of us tickets, for we'd a harrowing twenty minutes to wait for the train to depart. Lestrade and I took seats on an empty wooden bench. My eyes glided over the tracks, the outbuildings of the station, the brickwork, the pavement at our feet, the grey sky, all the while refusing to think about how ill I felt, both with worry and with drug symptoms. Then suddenly a small wrapped piece of what appeared to be candy entered my peripheral vision. I turned to Lestrade, endeavoring to look as blankly supercilious as ever.
"It's ginger," he explained. "Take it. It'll help."
I was in absolutely no position to scowl at that prim little runt, but scowl I did. "What on earth do you--"
"Mr. Holmes, I am a police inspector. I can see things, both obvious and more subtle things, and I'm not stupid. You don't think me stupid, come to that. When you come to the Yard wanting something, your feet walk toward my office for a reason."
He was right. Lestrade has never been stupid. Only overly pragmatic and repellently average. He lacks not for brains, nor for memory. The other thing Lestrade lacks not is compassion, which is why I rubbed at my eyes in exhausted, vexed, guilty capitulation rather than accepting the peace offering to my errant stomach. "But why should you--"
"Mr. Holmes, I think I should tell you something." He brushed his small fingers over his fastidious lips, and then moved them to his sharp chin briefly. Then he clasped both hands in his lap. I was about to comment on this ridiculous performance when he at last decided to risk speech. "You, Mr. Holmes, are not an easy man to know. Neither, and I beg your pardon, are you an easy man to like. But I will say this also: you are the sort of man one meets only once in a lifetime. And you are not the sort of man I am willing to lose, on behalf of the city of London, Scotland Yard, your flatmate, and yes, even myself. Now, take the damn ginger."
He held it up again. I gaped at him for several seconds. Then I did as he asked, my fingers closing round the tiny token. I placed it in my pocket, but it was a finely wrought compromise.
"Who was it?" I asked when we had spent a few minutes in a stunningly companionable silence.
"My uncle," he shrugged. "Nothing to do with the law, of course, but a crime against Nature nevertheless. He died with a pipe in his hand and a Lascar at his elbow, but whatever you're taking doesn't seem to be brightening your complexion much either."
"Morphine," I admitted, shocking myself. "No, it doesn't. And in any event, I think we all know I was pale enough to begin with."
"Hmm." He crossed his arms, agreeing with me, watching a freight car being unhitched from a line thirty or forty yards away. "Well, I won't ask your reasons for dosing yourself. They're probably good. I just hope you have still better ones for stopping."
As if on cue, the Doctor reappeared, tapping the tickets against his palm. He sat down on my left-hand side.
"You've a medical ally," I said dryly. "The Inspector here was just offering his skills as nursemaid."
"Thank you." The Doctor sounded unsurprised, and continued to address Lestrade without looking at him, perfectly at ease, staring out at the trains. "Although I haven't the means to pay you, my good Inspector. Perhaps a system of barter might be arranged."
"We'll hash out the details later," Lestrade returned complacently.
And I was left wondering when their camaraderie had advanced to the point that they enjoyed talking over me as if I were a coat rack. But I forgave them soon enough. As the subject at hand was me, after all, it was rather endearing in spite of its strangeness.
The journey to Norbury was a blur, save for the fact trains are not pleasant for men in the state I had placed myself. The rushing of the trees past the windows was ungodly enough without the rocking, and the stale tobacco scents, and the fact I had nowhere to hide. It was a positive relief for at least three seconds when we alighted at the now-familiar station and I begun running with all my speed toward Mr. Grant Munro's residence, the Doctor and the Inspector close behind. A relief until I recognized that running, an activity which comes very naturally to me, did not come nearly so naturally to me when thus impaired.
My heart, which was pounding ineffectively and laced with poisonous substances, fell straight through the earth when I saw the Munro residence. All the lights were blazing, in the middle of the day. The front door was gaping open. The maid I recognized from before sat on the front porch bravely trying not to weep into her apron. That beautiful glowing house that Watson and I had for a few moments stood staring at in simple human gratitude for goodness had been turned on its head, and I could only desperately hope its neck was not yet broken. I staggered up to the servant girl with an unspoken question on my face.
"She's gone missing, sir," the maid moaned. "Miss Lucy. Every man we can find has gone to the Openshaw house to arm themselves, and then they're going to search--"
I ran back to the road without a word. My ears, blood, and brain were all buzzing relentlessly, but I am the best tracker I have ever encountered in my life, and I knew what I was looking for, and I had only one conscious thought: God help me to survive long enough to accomplish the thing, because if I fail this time it will finish the job I started four days ago.
Watson and Lestrade said nothing, only wheeled about and followed me. I slowed my pace, but not by much. I headed away from the station, further into the privacy of the woodland. It was not a guess, it was a sound decision based on probabilities, but sodding Christ it felt like a guess nevertheless, because the road gave no trace of footmarks. My eyes scanned the dirt, the bracken, the trees, the mushrooms, the mosses, the clover, the--
There. A minuscule hanging branch, broken. The wood within the bark still wet and yellowed. She'd been kicking up a stir, so much was clear.
Racing through the woods that early evening, my eyes on the ground and the foliage while my friends--I apparently possessed two friends now, double my previous figure--kept close on my heels was one of the hardest things I have ever managed in my life. And I have managed a large number of very difficult, very important things, I now realize. I escaped from home. I attended University. I survived Lord Harry Rogers when I thought my heart quite cracked. I set myself up as an independent consulting detective. But none of my previous successes mattered just then, as I nimbly--how did I manage it?--leapt over tree roots and dead undergrowth. The spring twilight was fast falling, and the wind was in my hair, my hat having been lost many, many yards back. Then I reached a clearing.
There was a man in the broad, grassy, open space of meadow, and a little girl, and a noose hanging over a tree limb.
"If you touch her, I will shoot you where you stand," I managed, my gun already in my hand.
James Calhoun looked precisely as my brother had described him save for one additional remarkable feature: his eyes were wholly, recognizably evil. Or perhaps they were only so soulless in that instant, and to me. Standing straight, his hand darted toward his coat pocket.
Watson's shot hit his arm, I know, because Watson is the best marksman of any of us and that is precisely the sort of thing he would do. It was either Lestrade or I who pierced his heart, and either Lestrade or I who punctured his ribcage. I never bothered with finding the bullets, so we will never know the answer, he and I. I think, now we are friends, we both prefer it that way.
I don't remember a single second of what happened afterward, but John Watson told me, and I have no reason not to trust him. I dropped my gun, and he picked it up for me. I went straight to Lucy Hebron and lifted her in my arms. She was shaking uncontrollably, sliding from terror into shock. And by his account, which must be right, I carried her slowly out of that monstrous clearing, telling her in my most hypnotic tone of voice that she was safe. And when that failed to do as much good as I wished it to, when she kept quaking without tears during that strange steady walk out of the woods, it seems I began singing to her. Very softly, but not at all inaudibly. In French, no less. I don't know any other lullabies, after all, so I suppose that's perfectly logical. The Doctor said he never knew I could sing before. I can, of course, in a smooth ringing tenor, but I never do, and that explains his surprise. Why would I sing when I own a Stradivarius? And it seems when I stepped out of the woods and onto the road again, Lucy was no longer convulsing but only weeping softly, which Watson agreed was both a miracle and a profound improvement. I never did set her down. I passed her straight to her haggard stepfather Mr. Grant Munro, standing in the road near the house with a large group of friends and servants, when he dropped his rifle and ran to me. Lestrade, Watson said, took my boy by the arm and told him to get me home as quick as he could. Lestrade said that he planned to take my statement later, and that he would remain in Norbury, and contact all the proper authorities and see to the body of James Calhoun, and that he would say the fatal bullet was undoubtedly his own. Geoffrey Lestrade did every single one of those things. And the next moment I recall is being on a train bound for London, in a private car, with the Doctor's hand wound tight into mine and resting in my lap.
It was four more days before the morphine was completely out of my system and cocaine was approaching its previous status as a necessary but recreational--non-medicinal--device. Those four days were unpleasant, but Watson made them bearable. He also wired Brother Mycroft that we were both safe and the threat permanently dispatched. Lestrade, who seems despite his manners to be one of the single most useful people I know, wrote my statement himself. The Munros dispatched me a lengthy and entirely too sentimental thank you letter, with a bottle of champagne I could not have afforded even if I had pawned my entire wardrobe and my violin. I ordered Mrs. Hudson to chill it and opened it that very evening, which the Doctor protested but which I thought eminently practical. I wanted to share expensive champagne with the Doctor, and there he was. My usual stomach had returned to me. He had hung my door back on its hinges, which was surely cause for several toasts. Life is transient. Why wait?
The next morning, Billy knocked at the sitting room door in his ostentatious way and then entered, carrying a wire. I asked Watson, out of habit, to read it.
"Your brother wants to see you," he reported. "Today, this afternoon if possible, at his lodgings."
We took a leisurely lunch together and then set off, walking for a few pleasant miles before hailing a cab. But as we approached the door of my brother's shabby-genteel boarding house near London Bridge, I began to sense that something was utterly wrong. There were movers bustling about, carrying draped furniture down the stairs and depositing it with no great care in a waiting lorry. My hands turned cold when I spied Mycroft's wardrobe.
He was leaving me.
He was going back to that wretched hulking house, with its horrible damp grounds and its mildewed outer hallways and its drafty fireplaces. He couldn't, I thought with all the panic of a child. No, no, no. He couldn't leave.
I had always assumed my brother had taken up residence in London following the completion of his studies so that he would be able to glare dourly at me from a closer distance. I was already here, after all, taking sporadic courses at University when I could scrape the money together, and sleeping with snidely droll fops for the use of their beds. My brother found a position at Whitehall where he was steadily relied upon if not well paid, and every so often he would demand to know whether I was alive. I would meet him on the University grounds or else in a coffee shop or at his lodgings for dinner, and he would set in quietly drilling me. When you are studying, are you making certain your mind is fully focused? Have you given any real thought to the practical side of this so-called independent consulting detective enterprise? Where do you reside this month, I wonder? Please tell me you are living discreetly enough for your own good, if not his? You do realize if I ever see you in a green carnation, I shall cause you no end of trouble? I am not overly familiar with the subject, I grant you, but there have been advancements in the realm of protective sheepskin, or so I hear--do you know of them? Are you safe, my dear boy?
He couldn't leave. Who would ever ask me such ghastly questions again if he left?
I swallowed hard when I caught the Doctor staring at me and hurried up the stairs past a workman descending with an umbrella stand under his arm. My brother stood in the exact center of his carpet overseeing things.
"For Heaven's sake, do be careful with that box of paperwork," he called out after one of his hirelings. "They are not the sort of documents which can be allowed to fly away. Here, leave it. I shall carry that down myself. Ah, Sherlock," he remarked. "Thank you for coming. Happy to see you, Dr. Watson."
Watson had stepped into the room after me, neatly dodging a traveling desk. "Likewise, Mr. Holmes. You seem in the midst of a change of lodgings."
"Couldn't be helped, now my circumstances have altered somewhat," Mycroft sighed. "It's a terrible expense and bother, not to mention an utter drain on my energy, but look at these rooms. They aren't fit for a factory chandler."
He was right, I thought as I looked around me. I had always known them to be plain. But my brother could never bear the thought of taking a fellow lodger, and so he made what sacrifices were necessary in order to live alone. How could a crumbling pile of a house in the middle of the woods be any better, I wondered desperately.
"Sherlock, you appear rather green," Mycroft remarked. "I would offer you a chair, but there are none left. Have you caught a touch of influenza?"
"No," I sniffed, "although I appreciate your concern. How long has this great shift been in the works?"
"Ever since Father died, I suppose," he shrugged. "When you were offered the chance to share a charming flat in Baker Street, with numerous improved amenities, did you not jump to claim your good fortune?"
I could not credit it at first, but he actually winked at John Watson. The act was nearly inconceivable. I felt myself beginning to turn purple, and then faded back to white again when I recognized he would no longer be anywhere near enough to approve or disapprove of my deviant sex partners. Watson, once he had absorbed the ramifications of the aforementioned wink, had the gall to laugh. With his entire body, as usual.
"I cannot speak for your brother, but I myself was in dreadful lodgings," he said evenly, suppressing a grin as he leaned his back against the bare wallpaper. "Baker Street was a marked improvement in every conceivable way."
"Delighted to hear it. Sherlock, what is wrong with you? Shall I summon an ambulance?"
I could not believe he did not understand what was troubling me. I had one brother, one relation, one family member, one, and he was leaving me for a rotting mansion filled with wretched memories.
"Mycroft," I began. But my voice sounded wrong, so I stopped.
"Sherlock," he replied, and waited.
I swallowed again. If he wanted to leave, it was his business, and after all I had preferred to be a reliable free tumble in the hay rather than live in similar places. Trading sex for room and board was not always a complete travesty, in my experience, but I could not see my fastidious, monkish brother taking a similar route. I was willing to do a great many things that surely he was not, and I could truthfully claim to have enjoyed most of them. It only hurt me that he was going where I would never follow him. It did not seem fraternal to depart for the one place in the world I would never set foot in again. I held out my hand.
"Goodbye, Mycroft," I said as steadily as I could. "I don't know when I shall see you again, but in the meanwhile I wish you all the luck in the world."
"All the luck in the world?" he asked, shaking my hand soberly with his eyebrows raised to their highest height. "Will it prove so long a period that I require so much luck? Are you leaving London, perchance?"
My hand froze. "You are moving away from here. You inherited the estate."
"Which I am selling." He was trying not to smirk at me. "I've taken lodgings in Pall Mall. I've always loved Pall Mall. I can practically see Whitehall from there. Four great, airy rooms, and all to myself. Why are you laughing so, my dear brother?"
I couldn't answer him. I was laughing so hard that I had to lean forward with my hands on my knees for a moment. When I looked up at him, the Doctor was laughing too, although audibly and not because he had been fooled. He was laughing because it had been so long since he had seen me that happy.
"You truly imagined I would return to that godforsaken manor?" Mycroft asked me wryly. "For Heaven's sake make a logical inference or two, my boy. If I were moving to the countryside, would I have wrapped my settee in a single layer of burlap? Have you any observational skills whatsoever?"
"No," I gasped, trying to stop laughing. "I haven't. Why did you want to see me, then, if you are only moving to Pall Mall?"
He walked over to the box of paperwork sitting on the floor and labouriously went down on one knee. "There are some things pertaining to the estate we must settle."
"I'm not touching a scrap of it," I smiled, attempting to get my breath back. "As you reap the rewards, so you perform the labour, my dear Mycroft."
"You don't quite understand," he sighed, heaving himself up again. "He's bequeathed you six thousand pounds."
Six thousand pounds.
I ought to have responded, but I seemed to have forgotten the whole of the English language apart from the word no. That was the one word I could recall which meant, that isn't possible, stop lying to me, whatever cause could you have to invent such a cruel joke, it cannot be so. So I heard myself breathing, "No."
"Oh, yes," Mycroft drawled. "And it amounts to nearly all the securities, once I have liquidated them. When I sell the house and all the properties, I shall still come out the winner, my boy, but I trust you will not begrudge me. If you ever need more, you have only to ask for it. But you see, as you have never possessed quite this much money before, I plan to keep the split uneven in case you prove a wretched manager. I very much doubt that will happen, as you are somewhat intelligent, but call it a whim on my part. I cannot give you more nearly so easily if you already have half."
I was not listening to him. I was thinking about two things instead.
First, I was thinking what it would mean to have six thousand pounds. I would live off the interest. I would take only those cases which presented remarkable features of interest, making no exceptions. I would charge fixed, reasonable rates so that the poor could consult me as easily as the rich. I would turn away from cases of no benefit to my mind. And the Doctor. Dinners at Simpson's and oysters for tea, and we'd go to the opera whenever we pleased. For Heaven's sake, I was composing half-rhymed couplets about it. With the meals I was planning for him, he would have no choice but to gain ten more pounds. But we would never leave Baker Street while we worked as private agents, never, for we had earned that space and it was ours. We could work for just exactly as long as we liked until we were middle-aged, provided he still loved me, and then retire to someplace ridiculous like Sussex and take up absurd hobbies. I would send Wiggins to University when he was old enough, and Billy too, and Cartwright, and none of them would ever take off all their clothing for penury's sake, as I had done. I could be of real benefit to the boys--almost a father, but without the element of fear. I would buy Mrs. Hudson new carpeting. I would find Reggie Asquith in Yorkshire and pay him for my dental work. I would live.
I was also thinking about the will. And about my father. And I was struggling not to drift apart in tiny separate pieces.
"It's all right, my boy," Mycroft said simply. "Steady on. Shall I read it to you? It's very brief."
He commenced in the middle. "'I do hereby beneath all properties, securities, land holdings, furnishings, and other residue of the Holmes estate to my elder son Mycroft Holmes, with a single exception: that he provide in either cash or cheque the single payment of six thousand pounds to my younger son, Sherlock Holmes, with the intent that he use the sum to set himself up in the path he sees fit.'"
I could not breathe. "He disinherited me. You saw him do it. For having pronounced cote du veau correctly, or else for putting sachets of dried chamomile in my dresser drawers, I cannot recall. Do you remember? It was just after he called me a vile little buggerer, I believe."
"Well, clearly he un-disinherited you," Mycroft observed testily. "Watch your language, petit frere, for mercy's sake. You were not born in a Limehouse dockyard, wheresoever you choose to pass your time as an adult and whatsoever leisure activities you choose to revel in. I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in my dwelling, even if it is bereft of furniture. Particularly as regards yourself."
(I would pay a small fortune--and I now have one--to be able to recall just what Watson looked like during this portion of the conversation. I do understand that my brother and I, for various reasons, are...unnaturally frank with one another. And as I recall, apart from the wretched fight, Watson had never seen us in action. He had certainly never seen us bandy the subject of casual sodomy as if it were a shuttlecock. The wink had been so well received that I wonder if he was amused by it. His expression, however, is regrettably lost to time.)
"I always watch my language, and very carefully," I snapped. "My tongue is merely adhering to facts. I'm simply quoting our father, who art in...hell, I can only assume, unhallowed be his name."
"Heaven or hell, he left you a large sum of money. And do not accuse me of forgery. I should simply have given you half if this were not already set down."
I heard Watson returning from the outer hallway, not having realized he'd left. He hoisted a cane-backed chair in his hands, the one I had seen on the landing. He set it down with an expression which brooked no argument. "Sit," he ordered.
I did. I think my limbs were shaking rather badly. I cannot recall.
"But why?" I whispered, almost inaudibly. I could feel both of Watson's hands on my shoulders.
"Perhaps because he loved Mother, and you're nearly an exact copy of her," Mycroft suggested tonelessly. "Perhaps because he was sorry to have caused you any harm. Which do you prefer?"
I thought it over.
"I don't know."
"Well, you are allowed your choice of them," he shrugged. "I need your signature on these legal documents. Here, and just there. Take them with you, for I've lost my pens already. You can send them back to me by courier."
Ridiculous alternative explanations were filtering through my head. Because he supposed a queer more likely to carry on the family name than a celibate--two men having sex at least involves ejaculate, after all, however improbable conception might prove. Because he was coerced by a new lover. Because six thousand pounds is nearly, though only nearly, the proper recompense for having left a person huddled in the corner like a kicked dog on too many occasions. Because he was afraid of hell. Because when he dragged me home all those many times, it was due to his having missed me. Because his mind finally snapped.
Watson eventually took the papers from Mycroft and put them in his inner pocket, seeing that I was sitting perfectly still.
"Thank you, Mycroft," I said dazedly. "I suppose we ought to leave you to it."
"Very considerate of you," he smiled as I rose to my feet. "I hope to see you within the fortnight at Pall Mall. I cannot tell you how gratified this financial freedom makes me. It feels as if all my fondest desires are within my grasp. Perhaps I shall found my own club in which the members are expressly forbidden to speak to one another, and commence spending all my time there. Oh, and Doctor Watson?"
We were halfway to the door. "Mr. Holmes?" he answered warmly.
"Do try not to tire of Sherlock for some little period, if you find it possible. He very nearly told me a few minutes ago that he would miss me terribly if I left London. He quite failed at the end, but you saw how close he came to it. I cannot help but think your influence is positive."
Watson, smiling wistfully, replied, "If you will pardon my saying so, your brother is much more likely to tire of my company than I of his, I assure you, Mr. Holmes."
I looked down at Watson's sun-faded brown head from my greater height. Then I looked across at my brother on an identical plane. He was staring at me with an amused twist to his thin lips. He has watched me in just such a fashion ever since first I came into the world, and he is the only one who can claim so any longer. And there are several excellent reasons for him to hate me, including the trouble I have caused him, but he refuses to entertain a one of them. He is one of the best men I know.
"I would miss you terribly if you left London, brother mine," I said. I meant every word.
"Dear me," he smiled. "You are not getting more than six thousand pounds unless you need it, petit frere, or years from now you are discovered to have been very prudent with the initial sum. Now, run along."
When we reached the outdoors, four of the workmen would have certainly trampled me with a dining service had John Watson not dragged me out of harm's way. We walked away from Mycroft's old habitat, breathing London air in silence. I don't know how long we walked. I always know where I am, but in a wondrous city like London, I do not always know where I am going. My friend could probably hear my mind working, so furiously was it clanging between my ears, but he said nothing, only allowed me some peace.
I vaguely recall his leading us into a cafe. Then I believe we sat at a friendly wooden table off in the corner where no one could possibly hear us. Two pints of ale appeared in front of us, and I have no idea how they came to be there. Then Watson spoke, and I snapped out of my dazed state.
"Are you all right, my dear fellow?"
I thought about it long and hard. And against every one of my screaming instincts replied, "No, I'm not all right in the slightest just now. But I think very possibly I will be later. When I've had a little time."
Dr. Watson smiled very slightly, but it was a smile with such an intensity of affection that he may as well have been beaming at me. He leaned toward me and rested his elbows on either side of his glass. "I have something important to say to you."
What more wretched, panic-inducing words exist in any language under the sun? And since I am a supremely composed person, I think I only lifted an eyebrow, but Watson knows me rather well and interpreted it correctly.
"No, no, dearest, it has nothing to do with you." His smile faded into a rueful frown at one corner of his full mouth, tugging his moustache toward his ear. It was altogether new, and the most endearing expression I had ever seen, but before I could fully bask in it, it settled into a pensive look I knew rather better. "Well, it does have to do with you, but it has rather more to do with me. You see, I think I ought to warn you that my health is improving considerably. I cannot say with any truth that I am like myself again, but I am growing steadily to be like...like whatever new person I shall eventually become. It's growing closer. I am far less panicked, and less ill, and less confused, and a very great deal of the credit for that goes to you. I shall never be able to repay you for what you have done for me, especially since you don't understand what you've done for me and would never believe me if I tried to convince you." He looked down, suddenly rather abashed, with the muscles surrounding his eyes constricting uncomfortably. This expression was, shockingly, also new. Before I could so much as begin to document that look, he declared with purposeful smoothness, "I am grateful to you. I will always be grateful, to the end of my days. But now that I am feeling so much better, I think you ought to know that you are no longer the one who makes all the rules."
I blinked at him.
"You make most of the rules," he said wryly. "And within the scope of certain of your...talents, you may feel free still to make all of them, as I've never objected to a single thing you've ever enacted upon...ever enacted, in that sense. But I've a few rules of my own, now. They're very simple. No more morphine. No more starving. No more martyrdom. No matter how well-intentioned. Cocaine vexes me greatly, but we'll cross that bridge later. Having a slight appetite is acceptable, for I know you can't help it, but three days without food is not. And if you ever again punish yourself the way you did a few days ago, no matter how genuinely guilty you feel, you will wish you had not. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
"I..." I was forced to swallow, as I seemed to have forgotten the way to begin a proper sentence steadily.
Watson took a sip of his beer, which allowed me more time. But all I managed to stammer was, "Why the devil are you telling me this now?"
"Very simple. Now, you don't need to live with anyone unless you desire to do so. For the very first time, from what I understand, in your entire adult life. Two things have changed monumentally for you in the past hour, Sherlock Holmes: financial independence, and voluntarily complied-with rules. You will always, God willing, have the former, but you may take or leave the latter."
I can hardly fathom, recalling it now, how the look on his sweet, weathered, still-boyish face could possibly have been so very vulnerable. What he was asking me was no more than what my brother had asked--to be well, and not sorry, so that he could see it. It meant he loved me. It was no threat or ultimatum, nothing he ought to have worried over no matter how masterful or (incredibly, unfathomably) wealthy I happened to be. But as I have already said, the man suffers from several bizarre misconceptions. Or perhaps we were so accustomed to having no money that having money had thrown his nerves into some disorder. I still don't know. I haven't the smallest notion. Ninety-five percent of him, at present accounting, is a complete mystery to me. But I already loved him and honoured him, so it was no great sacrifice to obey him as well.
"If you are willing to continue living with me now I'm financially solvent, I am willing to obey the rules you've set out," I answered him. "Obedience is...not a strong suit with me. But I accept."
He blew out a long breath and then drew a hand gently across his brows, smiling all the while. "Thank you. I feared I would offend you."
"On the contrary."
"I was really quite concerned I might."
"Watson, you may not be an invalid any longer, but I'm beginning to think you might be a lunatic."
He threw his head back and laughed so hard he would have drawn looks in our direction had the room not been so dark and so full. When he could breathe again, he joked, "I ought to have pressed my advantage rather further, I see."
I shrugged. "Well, if you should think of any other precepts you'd like me to obey, do apprise me of them."
His eyes glinted. "Shall I?"
"If you promise to continue on as my flatmate, certainly." I took a sip of the beer, but found I wanted something else far more. I rose to my feet and held out a hand.
"Come with me, my dear fellow. Come home."
That was a week ago this Friday. And today, just after taking a small dose of cocaine, I found the latest manuscript. Sherlock Holmes was a man who seldom took exercise for exercise's sake. And I could not comprehend it, and then I was confounded by it, and then it distressed me so badly that I took the second dose of cocaine. And now, standing in my bedroom staring at the blasted thing with my sleeve rolled neatly down again, I can hear Watson stirring in the bed behind me.
"Oh," he says softly. "I forgot I left that there. It isn't quite...finished."
"Did you intend to hide it?" I inquire, sharper than I mean to.
"No, of course not. But one doesn't like to see unfinished projects bandied about."
I tap my long fingers on it for a moment. Then I give in to temptation or frustration and demand to know just what is this object I've stumbled across. And why have so many other tales in Watson's handwriting begun popping up near the butter dish? What does he want me to say about them? He looks immediately defensive, as he has every right to do. Sitting up, Watson draws the sheets over his lap and makes an effort to appear more dignified, more perceptive, and less sleepy.
"I meant for it to be a short story. I mean, they're all short stories. I think...well, perhaps I'm wrong, but I need a new profession, you see. I have no intention of being either a ghastly doctor or a professional invalid. My writing has been said to be...quite good, Holmes. Maybe publishable. In essence, that document in your hand is the story of what befell us in Norbury."
Regrettably, I glare daggers at him.
"In essence, it's nothing of the kind. Had you just said 'in form,' or 'in name,' you would have a point, but in essence, this is a complete fabrication."
"Holmes, I--I didn't mean to anger you with my portrayal of your character," he says, visibly hurt. "I'll--"
"My character is perfectly fine. I've a sense of humour, or I'd have long ago passed out of the world. And when you tease me, I know how well you are faring, dear chap. The rest is what troubles me."
"But the rest is quite good!" he protests, now entirely vexed at me. "The mystery holds together, and the descriptions, and--Holmes, you've read other of my drafts before now and never been this critical. I need not publish an account of failure if--"
"My pride is such, Watson, that publishing an account of my failure could not possibly even dent it. You could publish a brief account of me failing as your initial offering and I would not even blink. Put it anywhere. Put it in the Strand, for all I care."
"No, please, I insist. Write me down an ass, have me beaten by a society female if you so desire, and then shout it to all the world in a family magazine."
"Lower your voice," he pleads. "If not my portrayal of you--and I do apologize for the twitting, if it in any way irks you--then what is wrong with them?"
"You aren't in them!" I cry. I lift the papers and then drop them to the table again. Then I walk forward and kneel onto the bed, advancing until we are mere inches apart. I want to understand this, and I want him to grasp the question. "Where are you? You say this is publishable. That several of them are. I agree with you. I have every admiration for what could be a very lucrative new career for you. But think about it, darling--people will surely tire of hearing so much about me exclusively."
His lips purse, and a line forms between his brows. "As much of myself as I wish to be in them is there."
"Do you really suppose I wish to spend time describing myself, love? I am not as I used to be. I am very, very changed, though you are in no position to recognize it. I was another man once. I cannot pretend otherwise, and you know it."
"You change everything else about the ways things actually happened. I am the only remotely recognizable figure in them. And I love you. Why can you not--"
He flinches. "I change them as I please, I admit, but it would kill me to write, 'the heartily healthy and sound Dr. John Watson darted up his seventeen foyer steps to take his tea.' Do not ask me to do such a thing."
"But why do you write them this way at all?" I plead with him. "I need to know."
"There are two reasons. One, when I was in the war..." he clears his throat. "I wrote in a journal about my day to day hardships. I changed the endings as it suited my pleasure. Take for example the case of a battle in which we had been routed, or a soldier who died screaming for his mother. I changed them. The battle was won with miraculously few casualties, and the soldier lived, and I recorded in my diary that I mailed a letter for him to his kin saying he would be returning home within the month. It was the Afghan War that made me begin altering stories. I grew used to relying on it, as a way of making my days less black. Along with the morphine, as you know."
I am numb with fear already. For him to doctor our facts means they are harrowing, surely, and that he wishes not to remember us as we truly are. I can understand why, but nevertheless it cuts deeply. When he sees my expression, he reaches for my hand and kisses it, tender and slow, on my palm. He sets it down on his breastbone.
"The other reason is that men like us must take precautions. I wish to publicize your remarkable talents, but I can hardly be very literal about us, can I, no matter how your consulting firm might benefit from a bit of press? Perhaps twenty or thirty years from now, someone from the Force may notice that two bachelors have been residing happily together all their lives. Fifty years from now, suspicions may run still higher. Questions could easily arise, you see. We need a proper smokescreen."
And now I've done it. Again. There is so much cocaine trickling through my system that I could put my head through a window. Why would I ruin a moment like this, if he means what I think he does? Why can I not discern what percentage of my pulse galloping and my eyes dimming is chemical, and what is my natural reaction to the most wonderful thing anyone has ever said to me? Why have I impaired myself to the point that I know he can see it, and still worse that I cannot answer him with any elegance? I am so astounded that I say the first thing which enters my head.
"Do you know, John Watson, I would marry you if only I could," I whisper.
He laughs gaily. He still has my hand, so he does not brush his own hair back this time. But the laugh is nevertheless with his entire being, as it always is, and in a voice as deep and polished as antique wood, and his blue eyes close for a moment.
"You don't need to marry me for our relations to be...well, hallowed, my dear fellow," he says. "But if you asked, I would certainly say yes. Sod my short stories. You're rich, you know."
I laugh at that, right along with him. The word sounds ridiculous when applied to me. I am still thinking of all the freedoms it will give me, and the strange way my father seems to have set me free of him of his own volition.
"Let us just assume I am married to you, and leave it at that," he suggests. "What will be your first extravagance now you are a wedded man of considerable means?"
"I've been entertaining the most delicious fantasies of bursting in upon Reggie without an appointment and handing him the ten quid I owe him," I say thoughtlessly. "He would blush to the tips of his ears at the sight of me, which would be enormously amusing."
"Who is Reggie?" the Doctor smiles. "An old flame of yours, perhaps?"
I freeze for a moment. And then it is all--in spite of everything that has ever happened to me--so absurdly simple.
"Did I never tell you of Reginald 'Spots' Asquith?"
"I don't think so."
I have, of course, but in French. I can't very well expect him to recall something he could not even understand.
"Have you ever heard my Newcastle accent?"
His eyes narrow in amusement. "Your Edinburgh is splendid, as are your Liverpool and your Welsh and your American. But Newcastle--no, I don't believe I have. Why do you ask? Was this fellow Mr. Asquith from Newcastle?"
"He didn't sound it. But thereby hangs a sordid tale of crime and punishment," I grin. "And a tale in which I have enacted a starring role literally hundreds of times. I could never decide whether my favourite line he'd written for the part was, 'You know why you are here, Mr. Asquith, and we complete the projects we begin at this institution, so I'll thank you to get on your knees and finish while I watch you at work,' or else perhaps, 'Now, just reach back and spread yourself, Mr. Asquith, and you shall properly thank me for your chastisement.'"
"Good lord," he marvels, his sculpted jaw dropping. "Your Newcastle accent is first-rate. And I don't blame you. They are...profoundly compelling, the both of them. Might I ask, if I have a thorough grasp of the situation and will not offend you, which of his lines you most enjoyed?"
Considering, I remark, "I suppose the request, 'I beg that you give me an additional twenty with your hand, sir, as my shameful crime seems too personal to finish with the cane,' always struck me as rather inspired."
The Doctor is laughing helplessly, and now his hand at last rises to grip at his hair in disbelief. "Inspired? It's unparalleled genius."
"That wasn't the half of it. The real story involved a good deal more in the way of atmosphere and stage properties."
I tell it to him. He laughs in all the right places, every one of the moments which privately used to bring me nearly to tears with amusement at my poor lover's expense, and remarks that what Reggie lacked in imaginative variety, he seemed to have made up for in the initial superb quality of the scene, and roundly congratulates him. He says he would enjoy meeting him, but if I suspected it might conceivably make Reggie uncomfortable or cause him any pain that I ought to go alone to return his ten pounds. Then he asks me if I suppose I can prove inventive enough to somehow deflower (in technique or positioning) my none-too-virginal spouse, and gives me ten minutes to think it over.
I have come to the conclusion recently that even if I am not now--nor ever shall be--all right, with considerable effort I can yet be very happy. I shall require three things at minimum for this scheme to work, or all will fall to pieces: I shall need cases to keep my mind occupied, and my brother to stay in London, and the Doctor in my bed. But I am going to make every attempt to keep those three factors present, and as for the rest, I shall do what I can. I am wondering now whether lowering my cocaine solution to seven or eight percent, and forever refraining from the habit whenever there is a case to keep me focused, might be the beginning of an atonement for the life of John Openshaw. And even if it is not, it would be a gesture of my great sorrow, at the same time as it would please the Doctor. I shall ask him about it, when all is clear in my head. He does seem, as surprising as it is, to think himself likely to remain with me, so I do not suffer for lack of time to think it through.
That is the one paramount blessing upon which all the rest hinges, I know--John Watson is my religion, my avocation, my single hallowed addiction. And merely writing his name, seeing the letters as they are formed by the pen in my hand, is enough to make all the rest of it disappear.
Wait a moment.
He never said so. But...now I think I may know why there is so much of me in his stories. Perhaps. Though to believe for good and all he truly feels that way about me would be...life-altering. I cannot really suppose he has done the same thing that I just have? Can I?
Well, bless his fictions, then. He can write me down all he likes, and if it's my name he needs, he can have it. He can own it for the rest of his days. It was never of any use to me, after all.