readily admit that I am not at my best in
I never am,
unfortunately. It hurts me deeply to recall, however, just
beneath myself I managed to sink in the summer of 1891.
Not on my own behalf, either. On behalf of the people who don't deserve to suffer for my sins. This chronicle is about what my family deserves, and what John Watson and Mycroft Holmes got instead, and the ways in which seeking justice can go terribly, terribly wrong. It's also about cowardice, in a sense, and bravery in another. To this very day I don't know which. Perhaps I'll never find out--of the people who know me best, one never broached the subject, one cast a decisive vote for cowardly, and the other announced me bravery in human form. But whichever it was, black or white or grey, I am to blame.
And yet, not all of it was my fault.
Well, I shall be as careful as I can, and who can say? Perhaps when I'm through, I'll know whether I am a knight or a knave. That would certainly be interesting information to have at my disposal.
At the time of which I speak, for a period of many months, I had been in active pursuit--one might in fact call it steady harassment--of one Professor James Moriarty, former mathematics chair and the most villainous blot of evil it has ever been my duty to eradicate from
But I am an arrogant devil, along with a very lengthy list of other faults, and as I say, high summer and I do not agree with one another in the slightest.
It was a blazing hot day in August. The entirely of London was like an oven, and the glare of sunlight on the yellow paint of Camden House across the road that morning before we departed to meet with Lestrade was painful to the eye.
I have often wondered whether or not, in evolutionary terms, the colour of a man's eyes affects his interaction with light itself. For instance, men who are born in sun-scorched
In any case, I was miserable that afternoon, soaking the shirt beneath my waistcoat when I had already soaked the shirt below that one. I am a man of rainstorms and of dark buildings looming gloomily through the fogs in winter. And even apart from the weather, now we were on a train platform.
Train stations are no hardship. I love them, in fact. Usually I am never so happy as I am at the very centre of five millions of people, with all my deductive filaments stretching out and running through them. But there were so many visible people on that occasion, and I could see not only what they were doing but who they were, my brain beating out Warehouse Nightwatchman--Baker--Recently Widowed--Jockey--Mail Clerk--Behind in His Rent as the sweat trickled down the back of my neck and my head commenced pounding. I was too uncomfortable and too out of sorts to stop looking at people. Or to stop seeing them, rather. Looking at them, letting them glide across my eyes like raindrops down a pane, would have been far preferable.
I stopped seeing the people, therefore, in favour of seeing Watson. I shook the collar flap of my pale grey summer suit briefly, shifted my long legs, and glanced at him where he sat with a newspaper on the bench beside me.
At first, I will swear on a Bible, I only thought he looked so placidly cool sitting there. A thermometer at ninety is no hardship to him. John Watson does not mind the apex of summertime's myriad torments. Not a bit of it. He looked as if he were seated in an icehouse. His hair was shining through the surrounding atmospheric brilliance in a way my eyes announced molten gold, but his head being on fire perturbed him not in the slightest. It fascinated me. Everything about him does, after all.
After a few moments, he dropped the paper between us with a small sigh and gave me a perfunctory smile. His eyes wandered off again. I followed what they were doing, idly, so as to filter out all the rest of the rabble. Watson was staring at a man a few yards from us awaiting the train's boarding whistle just as we were, associative thoughts trickling through my friend's mind. I could almost hear them. It was a pretty little exercise in reasoning, and I was just beginning to relax at last, using it to exclude the rest of the world.
I had followed his reverie for two or three minutes before a shrill whistle blast pierced every individual nerve in my body. It was all I could do not to hiss back at it like an enraged cat.
"Where have you put the tickets?" I asked Watson.
"What?" he said, glancing back at me as his blue eyes re-focused.
I loathe repeating myself. I abhor it absolutely. I don't know why, but the reason is probably repellently selfish. If I had to repeat myself, then Watson was not listening to me, and if he was not listening to me (he is an exceptionally rapt listener, the most engaged I have ever spoken with), then there was something more important on his mind. And what is more important than me? There, now I've set it down, I do not believe it is quite so simply arrogant as all that. Narcissism is part of it, but then so is elegance, and so is efficiency, and so is mere taste. But in any case, my ridiculous hatred of repeating myself quite sealed my fate on that occasion.
"The tickets, the tickets," I said impatiently. "You are right, war does seem a most preposterous way of settling a dispute, but surely you can spare a thought for the practicalities of rail travel."
Watson's mouth fell open in shock. "What is this, Holmes?"
"You were reading an article about the life and letters of Henry Ward Beecher just now, which altered your mood enough to cause you to put down the newspaper," I explained. "You looked out across the platform with a distant expression, recalling yourself the incidents of
My friend reached into his inner frock coat pocket.
"Your hand stole toward your old wound--" I began to finish.
"Here is your ticket," Watson returned furiously. "What you do with it I leave to you, but my preference is that you keep me quite out of the picture. Now, get the hell out of my mind."
Then he was striding toward the nearest passenger car and climbing its metal steps and I was left for a moment to reflect on the ever-absorbing topic of my shortcomings.
They are many.
Sighing, I rose and headed likewise for the steaming locomotive. My friend had already disappeared. It took me ten minutes to find him when I had boarded the train.
Watson reclined with his legs crossed, reading the same newspaper, sitting in the corner of a small private room with dull brown-gold curtains, two narrow plush seats, a pleasant little window showing (at present) the slats of a boxcar, and an air of cheerful ill-use. I sat across from him. Tentatively. It would not have been out of character for him to have fled to a new compartment himself just then, now I'd arrived. Had Lestrade not summoned us both to Croydon, the Doctor might have abandoned me for his club for remainder of the day by that time. It would hardly have been the first such occurrence. But we were both needed and he looked comfortable there, though the angry little flush had not left his sculpted cheekbones.
I cleared my throat. He ignored me.
I parted my lips to say something.
"If you ever," Watson informed me in a voice like frozen nails, baldly not-looking-up from what I recalled by virtue of having read the same paper earlier was an article on salmon fishing, "expose my innermost thoughts to all the world in the middle of a packed train platform simply because you are irritable and bored again, you will rue the day, Sherlock Holmes."
"I had just been about to express very similar sentiments," I said helpfully. "Not, however, couched in the hypothetical. I will never expose your innermost thoughts to all the world in the middle of a packed train platform again. I hope you will forgive me for the first occasion."
I leant back against the brush of the thick fabric with one finger over my lips, thinking.
"Please?" I attempted. Simplicity itself, from time to time, will do the trick.
Not on that afternoon.
"Watson, would it improve my standing if I mention that I was only looking at you because it had grown unbearable to look at anyone else, and it is over ninety degrees, and I feel as if my cravat has melted down my shirtfront?"
"No," he replied. "Would it improve your under-standing if I were to mention that I wasn't even aware of what sort of ghastly things I was reflecting over before you barged into my brain like a runaway hansom?"
"Yes, it would."
The Doctor shook his head in exasperation before he recognized he was meant to be ignoring me entirely and thus stopped. As if an afterthought, he added, "What call a man so perceptive as yourself could have to blazon the contents of my mind for the benefit of a public railway station...the question entirely baffles me."
"My darling, you could have been thinking of weather patterns over the
"I do not think myself an overly hard man," the Doctor said slowly.
No, the you're the kindest I've encountered, but with the fastest temper I have ever seen on any creature save a trained mastiff, I supplied in my head.
"Far from it," I voiced.
"But the more you keep talking, 'darling' or no 'darling,' the more I want to throw you off this train."
There were days in my younger life when that tone would have sent me reeling as if from the final blow in a boxing match dealt by a contender thirty pounds heavier than me. Not visibly, of course. Oh, no. Visibly, I am a whirring mechanical device. I am a toy made of gears and metal skin notable only for my immense size. I've long been composed of bits of unsanded clockwork to scrape a finger over and draw blood. But in my twenties, that fight would have sent my heart thudding dangerously. I had never known anyone like him, after all.
Did men of his kind disappear immediately following such statements? Were there any other such men from which to base a comparative study?
There were not, as it happened. Not that I had found. Therein lay the danger. I knew when the likes of reckless and impatient me would be maddened beyond tolerance by my own foolishness, but what about the likes of the best man in London? I was no longer navigating such an icy frozen lake, however. I was not anymore about to fall through mercurial cracks. In 1891, nearly a decade after we had commenced an affair which still left me daily speechless--and could no longer technically be termed an affair at all, since we had long ago titled the arrangement permanent--I merely wondered which sort of relief would be the best for all concerned. I was thirty-seven and less apt to suppose John Watson would book the first transatlantic ticket he could lay hands on and begin a medical practice in
Watching him be disgusted with me, however, makes my breastbone ache.
1. If he meant what he said about throwing me off the train, poor soul, I would leave. Once I'd left, I would find a private spot and take a dose of the 7% cocaine solution resting in my pocket and thus forget about the fact that I felt like a melting wax candle. I would take the pretty, sharp little device and find a good vein in the appalling moonscape of my left arm, and send liquid distraction rushing through my blood. He, meanwhile, would be angry at me for ten more minutes whilst pretending to read the newspaper, and then he would worry. He would find me in the dining car looking quite like myself but another version entirely, and he would then--having recognized all my edges were pleasing and razor-smooth and chemical--inevitably feel as if his temper had done me harm, no matter how insufferable I had been. He would forget I had provoked him. Then he would be miserable because he felt guilty, and when I was the one who was insufferable in the first place, and then indulged in an addiction he loathes for good reason in the second place.
2. If he thought he meant what he said but did not realize he was only riding out the last peaks of a wholly justifiable flare-up of profound annoyance, I would stay. And I would distract him. Thereby distracting myself. Then he would not feel guilty and I would not feel wrong.
Better. If it worked.
How had I distracted him the last time I made him furious, I wondered?
Ah, yes. That had been the result of my informing him that if I had wanted a supremely grating sound to announce to me it was time for a hearty meal every hour, I should have purchased a cuckoo clock and certainly not have expected any lover of mine to debase himself to such a menial task so very frequently. His reply to that had been that he'd only wanted to inform me I would be dining alone for the foreseeable future, supposing I ever elected to dine at all, ever again. I had sent eight dozen extremely costly cabbage roses in the wildest hues imaginable round to his club with a very feminine tilt to my normally quite bold handwriting and the appellation, "To the only feast I am able to concentrate upon with any constancy," leaving the signature blank.
When he'd arrived home with them in tow, he'd asked very affectionately please if I would refrain from bankrupting us whilst simultaneously ruining his good name amongst his billiards partners. I had timed the entire apology so that on the instant he reached our sitting room, I should be midway through a sandwich of no mean size. That meant that I could then be distracted by him, and the proper joy at his return, and not have to finish the damn thing. He knows perfectly well why my eating habits are so bizarre.
It had worked. But I was not about to find any cabbage roses on board a commuter train. Something else, then. I had once several years ago performed Bach's Air on the G String so ethereally for him, and entirely for him, and he knew it, that he had managed to forgive the fact that I had set one of his notebooks--two thirds full of his charmingly clean handwriting, and much of that very good indeed--on fire. But I didn't have my fiddle. What else?
"I only called you 'my darling' because that's what you are," I commented.
He rubbed his fingers over those ridiculously blue eyes of his as if I was asking him to admit to armed robbery or confess himself a murderer, wincing slightly because (let us be honest) I was still talking. Apparently the only thing worse than being a violent criminal was being the darling of the consulting detective opposite his knees. I quite understood his feelings on the subject.
"I feel as if I should make amends," I suggested.
The train began to pull away from the station. Slowly, inexorably, we were getting further afield from the teeming crowd which had begun to make my eyes water. Granted, many of them were on board the train, but I didn't mind them when they were out of my sight. And it was cooler in the shade. And Watson was looking at his newspaper still, but the affectation was becoming more pointed and less natural--less as if he wanted to ignore me and more as if he ought.
"There ought to be a penance, don't you think?" I persisted.
Ah, there it was. A blue eye--only one of them, crowned by a terribly tilted amber eyebrow--glaring at me from over the newspaper.
"I mean to say, there are several ways in which I might make it up to you. Should you allow me to atone for my sins."
Watson slapped the two halves of the paper together as if to say, "Since you will not allow me to read this article at this very moment, its relevance will be forever lost to the mists of salmon fishing history," dropped it beside him for the second time, and linked his hands over the bend of his knee. But that was all to the good. That was another sort of anger, the red clay and not the brittle shale, the sort I could bend to my will more effectively.
"Let me guess," he retorted. "Of these 'several ways,' which of them does ot involve sexual relations?"
I thought it over. Just for the sake of fairness.
"None," I concluded. "They all involve you coming off in high style."
The cobalt eyes rolled up to check the condition of the traincar ceiling and then fell back to me again. We were picking up speed, the engine chugging gamely. The slats of the boxcar outside the window already were replaced by shimmering hot iron tracks and further distant walls of brick.
"Holmes," my friend said very clearly, "let me understand you. You wish to favour me with your attentions--your presently unwanted attentions, I might add--and I am to believe that this is some sort of sacrifice on your part. A penance, you called it. Knowing you as I do, I am meant to believe that, for example, you could fellate me in a private train compartment and not enjoy it in the slightest."
I viciously bit back a maverick smile which would have gotten me nowhere. He often makes me laugh when he is enraged at me, but on the one occasion I ever showed it, he sent my teacup smashing into the fireplace. He felt very bad about that, afterward. It was Mrs. Hudson's teacup, after all.
"Do you know, my dear boy, I find that likelihood just as difficult to credit as do you."
"It would be rather more of a penance if I myself were to abstain from...ultimately enjoying myself, you'll grant?"
Watson began to speak again and then stopped to think about it. He wasn't any less angry, mind. But now he was angry and also intrigued. I was careful not to react to this development, however.
"A solo and not a duet. You take my meaning, I think."
"Unreciprocated," he mused coolly.
"Quite so. And you're altogether right about...well, as a matter of fact, I think I would have to use my hands exclusively," I murmured, glancing at them in all appropriate modesty.
Which is to say, none whatsoever. They really are rather fine, if I do say so myself.
For a moment, I mused over the advantages of flirtatiously lighting a cigarette versus the disadvantages of having to find a place to put it out when once I'd cornered him finally. No cigarette, I decided when I glanced over at him again. I'd set the upholstery on fire in a narrow little compartment like this and ruin it all.
All at once, John Watson made my cornering possibilities a thousand times easier. As suave as you please, he stood up, walked over to the sliding door, checked its curtain for cracks, and then turned the lock. I was flush against his broad back in an instant, soundless as I glided over the carpeting. I placed both my palms over his chest, dropping my lips to the spot where his dark blond hair ends--curling just barely to the right as it becomes the smooth curve of his spine. I'd used to think, when he had first returned from the War, that his hair would deepen all the way back to brown, but it never did. And despite the hats one wears out of doors, by August, he always looks as if he's only just arrived from sandy climes. Tasting him, my mouth open a fraction, I slid my hands down to either side of his snug hipbones.
"I take this as a yes."
"Do you ever stop talking?"
I ought to, but the answer is no. I ghosted one hand over his flies, delicately flicking them open, followed by loosening his underthings. When I'd done so, I left them alone a while longer. His collar needed to be gone, in the first place, and so did his cravat. The man was not about to kiss me, not by a very long shot, and if he wanted me to stop speaking, I was going to have to do something else with my tongue. Preferably something engaging.
Soon enough I had my friend marginally undressed to my liking, and I flipped him round so his back gently struck the door, sliding one of my knees tight between his legs. There, I had him pinned, and of his own volition. A premature rush of happy triumph washed through me. I had every confidence that this was going to go as I planned it--that is, with the maximum of pleasure for him, and the minimal involvement for me, so that when it was all over I might recover a little easier. I was not about to finish him and then spend the next twenty minutes fighting a raging erection, I thought, not using only my hands and not if I focused hard enough. The more fool Sherlock Holmes.
Watson's gaze met mine, looking up at me with his head to the dark curtain fabric. His lips weren't smiling, but his eyes were.
Vengeance, they said, is mine.
Possibly, I was in a very great deal of trouble.
I was about to ask as much, but I wasn't meant to be conversing. So I ducked my face under his strongly cut jawline instead, smelling all the sweetness of summer honey and clean linen on his tanned skin as I caressed him with my mouth. Slipping my hand into his open small clothes, I brushed my fingertips against smooth flesh. But not with any pressure, not yet. I waited, following his pulse with my tongue as I fit my other palm to his cheek. There was a signal, of sorts, though he didn't know it perhaps, and I was waiting for it. I waited longer, barely drawing my thumbnail half an inch down his face. Still waiting, I airily cupped my palm around his stiffening skin.
There. My friend's warm hands came up to rest comfortably near the region of my kidneys, just behind my hips. And I was so glad over the awaited companionable concession that when I squeezed him, loving the already hardening but silken feel of him in my fingers, I forgot I wasn't supposed to be talking.
"I truly never meant to vex you, you know. On my honour."
I pulled experimentally, more of a drag and only a glancing caress, shifting my grip. There is a technique to such things, as there is to everything. Begin too fast, and you'll only achieve discomfort. Begin too slow, and irritated impatience fogs the brain of the subject. Begin just right, and you can turn a grown man into a rag doll with one hand tied behind your back. It was this last that I was going for, as carefully as I could. And I am very good at it. After a little while, I moved my lips to his ear, gentling and then whispering.
"I haven't had you in a train car in months. I can't begin to think why. You're irresistible in train cars, are you aware of that? What were we thinking of?"
"That might have been an oversight on our part," he owned breathily, "but you are not going to have me on this occasion either, remember?"
"Yes, of course I do, that's the bargain. I don't care."
Monumental lie, as it turned out, but I had supposed I meant it.
Pressing my knee further up into his thighs, I sucked a bruise onto his neck at the same time I tightened my grip on him, unmoving but still making nearly a fist. He drew in a sharp breath. His collar would cover the lovely flush of purple, and really, thinking about its being there while in Croydon with Lestrade would be some consolation for the one-sided nature of our present activity, I thought. Not to mention, he likes it when I own him. At least, when he likes me, he likes being a prized possession. And I was lucky on that occasion, for he didn't object, just dropped his head to watch me with eyes growing more lustful by the second.
Then he began his assault.
"Do you know, there are times I do feel like punishing you. And I am glad you proposed the idea of a penance, because now is one of those times."
I knew that already, but hearing it was rather stirring. Finding him wanting enough by that point, resigned to desiring me and leaping at my touch, I set a steadier pace, resting my other elbow lightly on his shoulder where I could pass my fingertips over his hair and his absolutely impossible cheekbones. I raised the knee between his legs a fraction further. Deliriously pleased he was speaking with me voluntarily--and because I trust him entirely, and therefore can blithely talk of penances with him without tensing--I walked open-eyed into a bear trap.
"I cannot say that I blame you in the slightest, and am therefore open to suggestions."
"Are you?" he drawled. The region around the fresh bruise was growing rosy-coloured, and I bent my neck to lap at it. "Well, there are any number of options to consider. I know you make the rules, but you do not make--"
"All of the rules," I agreed, drawing my fingertips over his brow.
"Precisely. Yes, there," he added quickly, tightening his grip on my body when I dragged my thumb over the tip of him, where he was only beginning to be wet. "And so, if we were at home, I might take other measures than this. With your permission, of course."
"Of course. The first measure being?"
"Well," he answered, his breath steadily quickening, "first we would lock the door of the sitting room and go to the sideboard where that rather nice French brandy bottle is sitting. There is enough for two glasses left in it. We would finish those, I very much like that brand."
This was not sounding like much of a chastisement. "So far, I am amenable. But I don't quite follow."
"What I need, you see, is the glass stopper, the very elegantly shaped glass stopper with the groove and the rounded top. And because I am feeling charitable today, I would slick it with oil very nicely, and only require you to carry it inside you under your clothing as we go on about our business for say...an hour or two, perhaps."
I am proud to report that this suggestion did nothing to alter the pace of my hand. I am proud of nothing else, however, within the realm of self-control. My eyelids were fluttering quite involuntarily as I stared at him, and a sprinkling of sweat appeared at the back of my neck.
As for controlling my own arousal, the subject may be safely forgotten at this point.
"An hour," I repeated. "Or two."
When I repeat something voluntarily, it is only ever for one reason: I have been thrown entirely off my balance. Watson peered right into my face, still not smiling. Inside, however, I could practically hear him laughing uproariously.
"That's what I said, yes." He smiled sweetly, and then looked down at the motion of my hand again. "And there is one little errand I'd require you to run for me in the meanwhile. I have a great deal to do, and need to drop something off at the post office. You'd have to go in my stead."
"We have a page boy, Watson."
Even in my own ears, the response was less than brilliant. And rather weakly voiced, at that.
"I'm aware of his existence, thank you. But I'd really rather it was you."
I swallowed, my throat working so hard that he certainly noticed. "And then, when I return, the penance is over?"
"Oh, no, not by far. When you return, we lock the sitting room door again, and I strip you of all your clothing with the exception of your shirt and trousers."
"Why?" There was a quaver of passion running thick through this question, I'll not attempt to prevaricate over it.
"Because then I would take you into the bedroom and I'd sit at the edge of the bed. I'd unfasten your trousers, and very slowly pull them down. I'd do the same with your underclothes. And then I'd have you across the bed over my knee, I think, because there are more activities than merely the one you're currently performing which can be accomplished better with hands alone."
"Do you know, I actually think I'd let you, too, which is--absolutely astonishing to me." I hid the laugh that I wasn't sure was welcome at the edge of his shirt collar. Meanwhile, my cock was twitching violently. "That is amazing, but nevertheless a fact. I'd let you. Punish me, that is. That shocks me to no end."
"Why should it shock you? I love you, and you've been despicable." He was smiling openly by now, I could hear him, and so I didn't dare to look up at laughing blue eyes and panting lips slightly parted. Vengeance, I had realized by that time, was delighting him a great deal. And I couldn't risk ruining it. So I watched my thumb press slick and firm over the top of his length again, as I shifted my pace to harder strokes which echoed a brightly cadenced Hayden tempo in my head. I need not report in further detail that I was in considerable distress by this point, in the sexual sense, wishing only that my clothes were less well tailored when usually I am quite glad of the fact.
"Are we still dealing with questionable uses for liquor stoppers at this point?" I wondered with a tone like walking a tightrope.
"I haven't decided, actually."
"Fair enough. How long?"
"Ten or fifteen minutes, I should think. I'd want all that lovely white skin of yours good and pink. And you'd have to ask me for it, as I've no desire to go against your wishes entirely. Yes, I think an explicit request for some discipline would be in order. It would need to be in accordance with your will that I was giving you a proper warming."
I wasn't at all certain that I had much of a will left by this point. "Thank you for your candour, as well as for your consideration. You're a very sympathetic sort of fellow."
"Well, I do my best to be."
"And so, I take it that after you've hand-spanked me like an eight year old to your satisfaction, that would be the...climax of the drama, as it were."
"You're forgetting that I'm a doctor. God, yes, like that," he breathed, blindly moving his marvelously calloused hands to my neck.
"Whatever does a medical degree have to do with the subject at hand?"
"I'd be required--ah." Watson dropped his head back, fighting for air. "I cannot do any lasting harm."
"But you wouldn't have harmed me in the first place. That sort of thing is gone in an hour, I've done it myself a hundred times. It's quite safe."
"Yes, I'm aware of your awareness. But the tenets of my profession are very strict. So after the liquor stopper and the hand-spanking you like a bare-arsed eight year old, I should be required by code of honour to kiss it all better."
He opened blueblack eyes to look at me. "For a very, very long time."
"Mother of God," I swore, though she didn't have anything whatsoever to do with the absolutely shameless, occasionally indulged in, wonderful thing he was proposing. My head hit the door rather hard. Someone outside must have heard it, because Watson called out clearly, "Help me with this steamer case, will you?" and then a shadow passed by the crack above the carpet. I couldn't breathe right, there were stars in my vision, my flesh unfortunately was so hard as to be painful by now, and I couldn't even beg him for mercy, as I deserved every minute of it.
"You've hit your head," he observed, breathless but very pleased. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." My voice came out high as a kitten's.
"You're not doing this quite right, you know," he added, his own voice rusted-over with lust.
I pried my eyes open and glanced down. "I--but it looks as if I am."
"No, I need your other hand rather badly, dear heart."
Well, I was delighted to oblige him, and he had just called me dear heart, so my life needn't be over at thirty-seven, which was gratifying, but I misunderstood him. I was sliding my free hand down his waist and over his hip when he whispered a little not that and pulled it back again, raising it to his lips. I watched him with my jaw gaping open as he pulled my middle and ring fingers into his mouth.
That Watson likes my hands, I am well aware. That he likes them tremendously, I am certain. That he likes to kneel on our carpet with me on the settee and play with one of them in his mouth for half an hour at a time before I lose all patience and drag him off to bed, I can recall with perfect clarity. But the idea that he would be wicked enough to suck on one of them finger by long finger, moaning slightly as he pulled the longest into the shaft of his very talented throat, with no relief whatever on the horizon on my part...that sort of deviousness had not yet occurred to me.
My fingertips are almost as sensitive as my groin. I felt wetness and life and veins and the most heady sense of speech, yes, yes, this is where he speaks to you, this is where it emerges sounding like polished beechwood and thick coffee and
I let out a string of choked expletives, and I know a great many. These were in French, and a few in German, because German--though unmusical--is the most expressive of all languages. Meanwhile, between my friend fellating my hand and the images that were still dancing in front of my closed eyelids, I rather lost track of what I was doing. Fortunately, Watson did not. Several seconds later, he'd whipped a kerchief from his pocket and covered my fist with his own, shaking in a few sharp bursts and biting down a yell on my knuckles as damp spilled over my hand.
I didn't begrudge him the bite. The bite was most useful. It helped me wrench my eyes open and see him with his cheeks gorgeously flushed and his head tipped back, strong neck gasping for oxygen and my fingers slowly trailing out of his mouth. And then I lost several seconds, because I couldn't think anymore. Watson was all right, he was steady and the aftershocks were over, he was fine, and so I turned around and collapsed face-up along the entire length of the seat. My knee flopped against the back, and my arm fell over my eyes.
This, I thought, is the erection of your entire life. What a waste.
Long seconds passed. Terrible, deeply amusing seconds that felt like hours. It seemed criminal not to make any use of a particular portion of my anatomy just then, like shutting a Strad away in a glass case forevermore, or facing a Rembrandt against the wall, but what could I do? Meanwhile, I wondered if anyone had ever conducted a medical study in which a man died of blood loss to his brain due to unjustified hubris and having his fingers worshiped with a born hedonist's tongue. In the midst of that hilarious but very sharply focused agony, I felt someone move to hover over me. I opened my eyes a slit. Watson was kneeling in front of the seat on the floor, trying very nearly as hard as I was not to laugh, but less able to disguise the fact than I am. He slid one hand over my belly and the other into my hair.
"Nearly halfway to Croydon," he sang sweetly to me. "And how are you?"
"I'll keep," I managed. "You're touching me."
"Yes," he said innocently. "You don't generally mind."
"I'm not generally in a state of arousal bordering on a medical abnormality with absolutely no relief in sight." I allowed a small smile to cross my lips.
"It's true, I've never seen you like this before," he allowed contentedly, rubbing his hand over my clothed stomach in a way that ought to have been soothing and...most decidedly was not. "Your irises have all but disappeared, for example, and I must admit it's very dashing. But at any rate, I thank you for your efforts. That was really not an unpleasant way to pass the last ten minutes."
"Delighted to hear it."
"Why are your eyelids quivering?"
"You," I hissed in reply. "You. That is the short answer."
"And the long?"
"You," I repeated with an effort, "are still touching me."
"That was not a very long answer after all. Did you know that you're breathing through your mouth and not your nose? Why should that be, I wonder?"
"God damn it, Doctor, if you don't let me alone this instant, you will be directly responsible for a heart attack, and as we've already discussed, primum non nocere, if I'm not mistaken."
"Very true. Suppose I told you I wouldn't mind if you found you had to...excuse yourself from the compartment for a few minutes?"
"I am a gentleman of my word and will do nothing of the kind. You've won, all right? You take the prize. Step away from your consulting detective."
"Why is your neck flushing so when you haven't even been--"
"Sod it all, darling, get your hands off me!" I ordered desperately, laughing in earnest because I had absolutely no choice in the matter.
"If that's what you want," he grinned in return. "But I must first make certain you're in no medical danger."
When he pulled open my trouser front, I am not ashamed to admit that it required biting my lip so hard I felt a starburst of pain to keep from making any sound. John Watson, meanwhile, only stared with an air of professional interest at what he'd revealed. I could take about five seconds of that without objecting, and no more.
"Jesus Christ, John, you've had your fun," I said none too steadily.
"That is one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in my life. Speaking as a doctor, of course."
"Of course. Thank you."
"Not that I fail to appreciate it under more usual circumstances. I do. I mean only to observe that it is excelling itself, when it generally gives exceptional service."
"It has been said to possess a certain natural flair, I warrant you, for which you can direct your appreciation to either
"Your concept of the quality of mercy is very ungenerous," my friend remarked just before lowering his face with his lips parted.
When a fellow takes you in his mouth in that fashion, all at once to the utter limit and no lead-in save raw desire, I have learned--thanks entirely to that afternoon, come to think of it--that it is best not to be in a public venue. As it happened, the train braked with a very convenient shriek of metal at the same time I bit down on my entire forearm, tasting dust and finely woven linen amidst the muffled cry. Stopping with a slow drag of his lips, my friend looked back at me.
"You're welcome," he said pleasantly. "But it isn't only for you. Knowing me as you do, you don't suppose I could fellate you in a private train compartment and not enjoy it in the slightest, do you?"
"For the love of Heaven," I panted. "Keep enjoying it, then. Please."
"I will, thank you. You're rather irresistible like th--"
"Bloody hell, you'll be the death of me," I gasped out.
I didn't have time to say anything more after that. The Doctor stifled a warm laugh and bent down to finish what he'd started.
I tangled my fingers in his hair, curious in the only surviving portion of my brain whether this was going to take less than five movements of my friend's lips and throat, or between five and ten. I honestly cannot recall the answer to the aforementioned question, however, for ten or fifteen seconds later he sent his fingertips between my open lips and I felt a ferociously happy ache suddenly leaving my hipbones. I was dying, just a little, and his mouth was sweet and warm. My remaining vision went white, erased by paroxysm, and my bones came unmoored. The train went away, the steady sound of the wheels and the intermittent hiss and scream of the brakes, and I could have sworn that the sound of thunder replaced them. In a few more minutes I realized that was because a thunderstorm had indeed broken, but had it been the rush of pure thick pleasure alone, I'd not have been half surprised.
Afterward, I lay there. Quite paralyzed. Dizzy and in love and happily stunned.
"Your eyelids have stopped twitching," I heard my friend saying several long moments later as his hand set my trousers to rights.
I opened my mouth to say have they? Nothing was functioning at quite that level yet, however.
Then the Doctor slowly, tenderly kissed me.
There I was lingering in his mouth, only a trace of myself but enough to spur the thought He has forgiven me so many times by now. How many is it? Is it because he knows I will never make it up to him that he never allows me to try? And then I thought nothing but only slid my tongue over his, drunk with a mixture of gratitude and a tiny kernel of self-satisfaction.
I'll keep trying, I thought as he pulled away, opening my eyes to see his face above mine with his lips blushed and slick. He'll forgive me everything too quickly, and he'll stop me before I make it up to him, but that is the benefit in being mechanical. I am built for one purpose. And I'll keep trying.
Watson was gazing at me so intently, and from three inches away, that it was ironic for a moment when he inquired, "What on earth are you staring so ravenously at? You have been privy to this view for ages."
"You're glowing," I breathed, mystified.
And it was raining. I could hear it, the happy patter I like so well and that calms my brain so wonderfully, drumming against the roof of the train. Everything on earth, for a single moment, was wonderful.
"Odd," he whispered, his lips and the soft brush of his moustache traveling across my cheek. "I never thought of myself as luminous."
He was. He was a lighthouse without whom I would long since have cracked to bits against the shoreline. How much simpler it would all have been if he were a lighthouse in fact, I thought, and I a hollow-boned traveler much too small to ever harm him as I had half an hour before.
"I wish I were a bird, circling round you."
"What?" he said with a smile. "That was too soft for me to catch."
Pausing, I thought back over the conversation and rather predictably heard Je voudrais etre un oiseau qui tourne autour de toi. That was always marginally embarrassing, for all I couldn't help it. At least the tic allows me to rephrase ridiculous endearments so as to make some sense. And while Watson hasn't managed to spend nearly a decade in my company without picking up an admirable modicum of French, he's very shy about speaking it to me, and I myself have to state things clear for him to follow them perfectly, because I speak it Parisian-fashion and absurdly quickly. So I switched back to the Queen's English.
"You're my one fixed point," I told him instead. "Everything else is the wine-red sea."
"I'm not so steady as all that, though." Thinking a moment, a wistful expression crossed his eyes like ragged clouds dragging across the sunlight. "You know that by this time. I very much wish I could be, for your sake, but I'm not. Do you know why I was so angry with you, just now?"
"You're not angry with me," I drawled in positively schoolboyish triumph, pulling my index finger down his cheek. "You aren't, you aren't. Ha! You said was, and so you no longer are. You've forgiven me. You have, look at you. Kiss me again at once. Kiss me until the train stops."
"I was angry because at times," he continued steadily, "I don't know that I have any secrets from you until you tell them to me. But by that point...the secret is ruined, isn't it?"
He had a pained look about the space above his nose, intermingled with a baffled sort of fondness. It was a vivid glimpse into what living with me must surely be like, and the eeriest part was how familiar it seemed, though I had never heard it before. I have to live with myself, after all, and that existence has been very tempestuous. There are no secrets from me. There are only things whispered, things spoken aloud, things screamed, and things echoed unawares. No silences. There are not ever, never are there, never shall there be, any silences. My inability to predict what John Watson would do next, my ardent incomprehension of him, would never protect him from all that howling din. I knew his mind before he did. I knew every fold and cell and secret. It did not matter that I failed to understand them all--that didn't shield him in the slightest. I simply hadn't realized it before that afternoon.
"Poor fellow," I said softly, my eyes shutting, wishing I were anyone else in the world. "It wouldn't be the first thing I've ruined."
"No, no. Oh, don't take it that way." My friend's breath hovered closer, over the delicate skin of my closed eyelids. "Come back, come back. You ruined me for anyone else. That was the very first thing you ruined. Now, kiss me again, at once. Kiss me until the train stops."
entire shower of
rain fell while we were in the train, and the heat was far less
Croydon than in town. I'd sent on a wire so that Lestrade, as
dapper, as dull, as brown-tweeded, and as ferret-like as ever, was
us at the station. A walk of five minutes took us to
"I'm glad the pair of you are here," Lestrade said quietly. "This is a bad business, and one I think you'll recognize."
Miss Cushing, I ought to say, had been sent a pair of freshly severed human ears. I'll grant it was an unusual circumstance, but unfortunately it was not an unprecedented one.
"Whatever has this spinster done to irk the Professor?" I wondered, half to myself.
For the man was ruthless, and had a standing army of equally ruthless characters ready to carry out any ghastly act he could conceive. One of them, and a favourite choice of theirs when the gang had been crossed, was to murder their victim in cold blood and then to send the ears to either the offending party or the next of kin. Depending upon whether they thought it more effective to murder a key player or the loved one of such, whether they could find anyone who mattered more to the supposed traitor than the person's own life.
There is a reason I meant to rid
"I can't imagine, but this time there may have been some mistake," Lestrade answered. "Just through here, gentlemen, and we'll get to the bottom of it all."
Miss Cushing was sitting in the front room. "They are in the outhouse, those dreadful things," she said to Inspector Lestrade as we entered. "I wish you would take them away altogether."
"So I shall, Miss Cushing. I only kept them here until my friend, Mr. Holmes, should have seen them in your presence."
"Why in my presence, sir?"
"In case he wished to ask any questions."
"What is the use of asking me questions when I tell you I know nothing whatever about it?"
"Quite so, madam," I said, placating her. I exchanged a glace with Lestrade. Clearly the woman was not lying, and just as clearly, some mistake had been made about the business. Her words were not those of a lady living in fear of her life, not a bit of it. The Inspector raised an eyebrow with his arms crossed, agreeing with me. So we wasted no more time with Miss Cushing, but went all three of us to the small shed in the narrow garden where the ears resided in their cardboard box.
"Ready to determine who precisely is dead this time?" Inspector Lestrade sighed.
He went in and brought the object out, with a piece of brown paper and some string. There was a bench at the end of the path, and we all sat down while I examined, one by one, the articles he had handed me. I held the string up to my nose.
"This string is exceedingly interesting," I remarked. Then--because I actually did suspect he could manage it, on my honour I did--I passed it over. "What do you make of this string, Lestrade?"
"It has been tarred."
"Yes," I drawled, "and?"
"And nothing. It is a tarred piece of string."
I winced. "Has it been cut with scissors, perhaps? Would it having been cut with scissors be of any importance to us?"
"I cannot see the importance."
"No, I suppose it was rather optimistic of me to think that you could. Watson?"
He peered at it. "Well, it's having been cut has left the knot intact."
"Bravo, my dear boy," I said pleasantly. I will admit it, there is a thrill involved each and every time, calling him mine in public. I'd just done it two seconds ago, and already I wanted to do it again. Realizing that I was probably beaming at Watson in a rather ardent fashion just then, my eyes shifted back to Lestrade. But he wasn't looking at us suddenly, brushing something off his coat sleeve, which was a lucky coincidence.
"This knot is of a peculiar character," I mused.
I rattled off a string of other deductions, my voice high and quick--the smell of coffee, initial misspelling of Croydon, handwriting, salt, et cetera. Seeing Watson in the corner of my eye all the while. He really had forgiven me. There was nothing but admiration lurking under the blue now. I then moved on to the main event.
"Oh, God," I exclaimed in stark horror when I saw them. Two ears fresh cut, and each an abomination.
"Yes, I know," said Lestrade tiredly. "I had hoped that it was one murder victim as well. But you have observed, of course, that the ears are not a pair."
"Lestrade, do at least try, for the sake of my nerves if nothing else, to open your eyes to other details than that which would be utterly obvious to a child of three, and a very slow child at that. This is Alec Fairbairn's ear."
"Good God," Watson muttered, passing his hand over his eyes.
Alec Fairbairn, Heaven rest him, had agreed to serve as a witness at the upcoming trial of James Moriarty and his amoral cohorts. Not any longer, apparently. We were closing our nets ever tighter, but actual witnesses, either of the crimes themselves or defectors from the Professor's organization, were very few and far between. That is because they had no desire to be killed, and then to have their ears shipped by post to their loved ones. And Alec Fairbairn's ear had been sunburned, discoloured, pierced, with a little nautical earring of red coral through it. I'd know it anywhere. It was the one I was looking at now.
Lestrade groaned. "Damn it all to hell, we needed--"
"We needed Alec Fairbairn," I snapped. "I know. I know. For the love of Christ, will you say something other than the obvious?"
"Holmes," Watson interrupted me, with a comforting hand on my arm. "Of all the people on earth, it isn't Lestrade's fault. It isn't your fault either. All right? Where did Alec Fairbairn reside?"
"He was staying for the moment in
Silently, badly shaken though I certainly wasn't showing it, I took the other ear out of the box. It was shaped ominously like Miss Cushing's, with a shortened pinna, a broad curve of the upper lobe, and a convolution of the inner cartilage. In all essentials, it was the same ear.
"I was talking with Alec Fairbairn just the other day, after he gave his initial report at the Yard," Watson said with an enormous depth of quiet sadness. "It was while we were waiting for the pair of you to finish consulting with the solicitor. He was engaged to be married, you know. He told me all about her. Her name was Mary, I believe, but he never mentioned her surname."
"It was Cushing," I said dully. "It must have been. Just look at the thing."
I dropped the box at my feet. Really, I just let it slip through my fingers, unable to hold it any longer. The three of us sat there, knee to knee, wholly awed by the maliciousness of the world. I rubbed my hand over my face. It was the quickest-solved crime in the history of the world, and I could derive no pleasure from the fact.
Watson reached into his thin jacket and pulled three cigarettes out of his case. It is something that the three of us do together--cigarettes are communal property, a pipe passed by a thoughtful native Indian from hand to hand in a circle. My friend began to light them one by one, passing them down. And because I was by that time vaguely sorry I'd snapped at the Inspector for no reason other than my own frustration, I passed the first to him instead of taking it for myself. He nodded as I held it out with two fingers. Taking the next from Watson, I leaned back against the wall behind the bench with my friends at my elbows, wondering what had given Alec Fairbairn away and whether or not it might conceivably have been my fault. Watson's knee knocked quite hard against mine a second later, and I turned to see his eyes on my face.
Stop it, they ordered, his lips pressed together firmly.
I tried to comply. And he was right. It doesn't do, in a battle, to dwell on casualties.
"Why should he have killed her too?" Lestrade asked a few minutes later in a furious, wavering voice. "It's monstrous. Fairbairn, that's a matter of war, but you don't kill women in a war."
"Sometimes you do, if you're low enough," Watson said with a barely perceivable shudder.
"Well, that sort ought to be lined up and shot, for my money."
I liked Lestrade very much suddenly and dropped a hand to his narrow shoulder, pressing it.
"I'll have him," I swore. "On my honour, I'll have him. Mark my words, Lestrade, I will take these curs down with my bare hands if I have to. I'll have him."
"You will. And we will help you," Watson added flatly.
"You will," Lestrade agreed, standing up and retrieving the box, which had spilled a bit of salt on the ground. Terrible luck, that, but I paid it no mind because I suppose myself a man of logic. I am only correct about seventy percent of the time, however, and I ought to have known I needed all the luck I could get. "It's just about the only thing that gets me to sleep at nights. God knows thinking over Patterson's most recent bout of hysterics isn't much of a comfort day to day. Thank you for coming, gentlemen. I'll be in touch."
Lestrade went inside to tell Miss Cushing that a mad thug--with no known address, whose face we had never seen, and who left behind him no witnesses--had in all likelihood murdered her sister. I sat on the bench with Watson still, cursing the loss of Alec Fairbairn and a girl who probably never did the world any harm.
"I understand that you're low about this," Watson said kindly, "but he knew the risk."
"I know. We'll avenge them both, my dear fellow. As you said, we'll have them. The sooner the better."
"God help us, so we will."
I couldn't take his hand just then, but I rested my own on my knee and then touched it against his. It wasn't as good. But it almost was. It was something.
"It's rather wonderful, you know," he added with a strange little smile.
"What about this is even remotely wonderful?" I demanded, at a complete loss.
"Watching you be amazing." He stood up. "Take me back to
"The rain it raineth every day, my good man."
"Up. Come along with you."
I went. He has me on an invisible leash, and I haven't even the strength to be ashamed of it. We walked to the station arm in arm through the newly dampened mud.
"Watson," I said on the train platform back to
"Holmes," said he.
"I have no wish to offend you ever again," I said slowly.
My friend started laughing.
"And yet..." I added.
He laughed still harder, lifting his hat slightly so he could run his fingers through his hair. He was so beautiful that day. I love to think on it.
"I rather outdid myself earlier, did I not?" he grinned, glancing at me shyly.
"You did indeed."
"But you've already paid for your crime of this morning."
"It's a decided shame, but all too true."
"I don't know what to tell you." Then Watson tilted his head and pretended to think briefly. It was a very charming angle, one that said, one moment, I am on to something. "You know, you were rather needlessly rude to Lestrade earlier."
I snapped my fingers eagerly. "I was! And Watson, I am often needlessly rude to Lestrade. I do try my best to use every man as he deserves, and Lestrade simply irritates me so profoundly that I use him much worse. It's appalling. I don't think it can be countenanced any longer. What are you going to do about it?"
"We ought to try to mend your behavior somehow," he agreed, chest shaking with suppressed laughter.
"I cannot agree more. I have one question, however."
"What is that?"
"Do you really have an errand at the post office?"
"I really do," he gasped, helpless with mirth, the sunlight clean and bright on his face.
And he did, too. More's the pity. I do reside in
Were we not happy? Were we not beautifully, achingly happy? Did we not love each other out of all proportion, and were we not wildly out of all control, and were we not splendid at it? Were we not made to navigate a love that turned a pair of matched addicts into dry-eyed madmen, ever seeking out the next fix of the other? Were we not enough, and yet never enough? Wasn't it a lucky thing that we both knew so well how to navigate the deadly rapids of compulsion?
I am older now, so much older. I am very, very old indeed. And thinking about that day, and what happened next, still awes me. We were both so ruined and so fragile and desperate. I with my darkness and my drugs, he with his memories and his wounds. But when we were together, we were champions. I am nearly seventy years old now, and just beginning to fathom what happened to us.
Were we not miraculous? Were we not right?
And I had already made the worst enemy that any man has ever known.
It began in earnest two days later.
Watson and I were walking from Picadilly towards the Yard, not caring much about distance or time, the sunlight pale and crisp on our faces and the heat faded to a manageable summer's embrace. I was turning back to him, having just neatly avoided tripping over a length of coiled rope in the middle of the pavement, a question on my lips. In retrospect, I think I had wanted to ask him whether we were meeting with Patterson or Lestrade, for I hadn't bothered to read the telegram. I'm not certain.
It all happened so quickly.
One second, my head was twisting in reverse to address my friend. And then a shoulder jostled me. Another did the same, and then another. None of it seeming deliberate, but each instance moved me sideways and a little forwards. I registered a Punch and Judy show with a wild crowd of children surrounding it, and then a tree with a fence round its trunk, and then workmen offloading hay into a hostelry, and then I can hardly explain what took place. I was the eye of a small storm, being carried on its whims God knew where.
I was pushed, literally pushed, by a governess with two charges. I was shoved to the side by a carman. None of it could directly be termed rudeness, for they all seemed to be avoiding their own minor pedestrian calamities, so I hadn't even the intelligence to shout at anyone, or to fight, for I was trapped in a tide pool. It swirled around me, growing deeper by the instant. And what could I have done? Flailed out with a heavy walking stick at complete strangers who seemed to be themselves hassled by invisible forces? And so very many of them--a lab technician, a stevedore, a stockbroker, a clerk, a street cleaner, a nurse, a lady in a feathered hat, her drab companion.
And then, to my very great surprise, I was alone. In the center of the road. With a vehicle careening towards me, horses foaming spittle over their bits, hooves flying ever closer to my head.
It was feet from me. Everyone else had disappeared. I was a dead man, I thought, with a twist in my brain which said what a painfully dull way to meet your demise this is.
Then something made of flesh and bone hit my torso with the weight of a full grown man, and I was knocked to the cobbles. The two-horse van screamed by, the driver cursing.
Hoof beats. Wheels shrieking. Stones. Feet pounding against stones. The crack of a whip.
I sat up, gasping. I'd landed with my arm thrown against a fire plug, the wind knocked out of me completely. What a vexing thing it is that getting the wind knocked out of you is not a manageable circumstance. Not a man in the world can control that particular situation. My diaphragm had taken over completely when I wanted my brain at the helm, and I cursed myself for it. I needed to breathe, breathe now, needed to think.
Professor Moriarty had just tried to murder me.
And at the very minimum, I surmised as I wheezed into my dirty palms, trying to get my lungs back under my jurisdiction, thirty people had been involved. I knew it. I'd done that sort of thing myself in a quite different context, to Irene Alder. Staging a street scene is no easy trick.
Thirty-six people, I amended, closing my eyes. Exactly thirty-six. Dear God.
Where was Watson? He'd saved me. He'd thrown himself into the street, and here I was, alive. Where was he? He'd not have landed far from me. I looked about for him, triumph on my face, because I was alive and he had managed it. I was joyous, gloating over his audacity, his speed, and I--
I saw him.
There is a perfect system by which I can remain calm when every instinct in my body is shrieking. It is a very simple one, and yet one I need not use often. I am such an oddly constructed creature, and have been forced to learn to master myself so completely, that horrors along the lines of gunfights and snakes trailing along bell-pulls and hounds whose jowls have been dipped in phosphorus don't much trouble me. Adventures of that sort can be dealt with more or less automatically, the adrenaline channeled into speed and agility, with never much thought of creeping fear. This skill makes me look cold, I know, but it makes me effective, and anyway I am cold, and anyway I can't help it. It would be a lie to say I'm not frightened of anything. It would equally be a lie to say that keeping my head is difficult for me.
But every once in a while--and this occasion qualified with shining colours--I can only keep stoic because of my flawless system, which can be summarized in six one-syllable words:
He needs you to be calm.
Watson had hit his temple on the kerb, so much I could see, and his face was white and morbidly motionless. I struggled to my feet, and then, recovering myself rather better, I slid gracefully over to him, where he lay on his side in the straw and the bits of old newspaper, practically under a stopped cart filled with flour bags. It wasn't that I thought he was dead, not even then. I myself was dazed from being knocked so hard to the ground, but I am a master of deductive reasoning and before I even checked his pulse, I could see his chest moving. He was stunned, that was all, and had given himself a good knock to the head. Worse had happened to both of us dozens of times.
And yet, that image--his cheek to the ground while passersby above us stopped to gape and chatter--guided every single one of my later actions. Without perceivable exception.
I knelt down with my knees a bit apart, carefully pulling him up into the curve of my left arm so I was half holding him. There. Yes, he was breathing, and not with any difficulty either.
"Watson," I tried. "All right, old fellow?"
If I had wondered whether he was unconscious or merely disoriented, I had my answer. Gently, I undid the knot of his cravat one-handed, a trick learnt initially to be practiced in another sort of situation altogether, I admit it. I pulled it off. I checked the pulse at his neck.
"That were a regular demon of a runaway carriage," a youth offered in helpful Cockney. A little crowd was developing behind him, shaking their fists at errant cabmen and devilish omnibus drivers. "A right demon, and it were headed straight as an arrow for your 'ead, sir."
"Rouse yourself, Watson. You've become a hero to the masses." Looking up, I winked at the boy, holding a sack of apples, and he grinned. "Run for a doctor, lad, and there's money in it for you."
"Is the good gentleman breathing?" a young woman asked who looked as if she very much wanted to faint, and thus divert some attention to her own noble person, and its curvaceous attributes.
"He's fine. My dear boy, you are alarming the ladies."
He was breathing, his pulse was steady, why wasn't this working? Yanking out my handkerchief, I pressed it to the side of his head very softly. It was only an inch where the skin was split, but head wounds bleed in a ridiculous fashion, and it was all over my left coat sleeve by that time. Rethinking, I folded the cloth in quarters against his waistcoat, and then applied a bit more force. He flinched, but not in his face--in his fingers, which twitched and then went still. What did that mean? Why were his nerves disordered? What part of his wonderfully curious and perceptive mind had been bruised within his skull, which particular piece of him had been taken away from the both of us?
He. Needs. You. To. Be. Calm.
"Doctor," I called softly. "I am rather in need of your medical advice just now."
Nothing. I pressed the cloth to the wound again, and this time his hands didn't even spasm, not for a moment. I pulled him up a bit further into my lap, wondering how quick a study the apple boy was at finding physicians.
"Dashed if that chap didn't save your life!"
I looked up, but only for an instant. Banker, gambles on dogfights when his wife gives him trouble, generally wins, uses the money to give her a spree.
"I've never seen the likes of it, never! He ought to be given a medal. Cool as you please, what? Wouldn't surprise me if he was a military sort of bloke, running into the path of a spooked horse like that."
"He is," I said.
"What, do you know each other?"
I gritted my teeth.
He needs to speak to you, my brain said, he needs to open his eyes and speak to you right this very instant. If we were at home, and the doors were closed, and for some ghastly reason he had hurt himself in this fashion, I could be much more effective, I thought. I could say anything I liked. I could do anything I liked. But we were in a public road, not at home, and he was already more or less in my arms, and there are sodomy laws in
"I say, do you know each other?" the banker insisted.
"Yes, we work together," I said at last, a sick feeling growing in the pit of my stomach. Trusting the dampening cloth to stay on his temple, I tugged at one of his eyelids with my thumb. Blank, uncomprehending blue. The other was the same, and his pupils were matched but oddly wide. What did that mean? Which segment of his mind had been jarred so badly that he couldn't see me when his eyes were open? Brains are delicate things, not to be tampered with. What part was missing that meant the whole of him could make me no response?
"Well, then, ought we to call for anyone? I mean to say, he may want us to call for someone, yes? I'd happily be of some use and contact his family. His wife, perhaps?"
I was shocked that I stopped, but I did. I blinked, furious with myself.
Do it, Sherlock Holmes, he's only a mindless twit of a banker you'll never see again. Say it like you mean it.
"He isn't married," I finished easily.
Which was a lie of the most earth-shattering depth of proportions. He has been married in spirit since a little over six months after we first slept together.
Such a thing had never happened to me before, in any polite, casual conversation. It felt like snapping my violin bow in half, but I said it. I found my own reaction bizarre. It felt like nothing I had ever felt before. I think very possibly it felt like a forced conversion, or recanting the sordid suggestion that the earth went round the sun while standing in chains before the Inquisition. It was also a wholly inconvenient time for such quibbles.
Why should I care about such a trifle? Why, when he was senseless on the cobblestones?
I've an answer, now. Because I am a very dull-witted sort, when all is said and done.
"Career military then, eh? Alone in the world?"
"Not precisely. Watson, you're beginning to worry me, my good man. Come, now. Watson."
If I call him John, will anyone notice? I mused as the panic started clawing at my back. This ghastly worm of a banker, for instance. Is that the sort of thing he would notice?
Names are a rather peculiar subject. For a brief instant, let us take Lestrade as an example: there is a new officer of the Yard who tends to follow us about, one I suspect may actually be rather bright, but who shows alarming levels of hero-worship when in my company. Lestrade--who has never once in his life failed to give me my title, nor to give Watson his--calls the poor pup
"John, wake up," I pleaded quietly. "Please."
And why was I doing it? That really was the moment when all logic abandoned me. How very selfish I was being, and how very, very wrong the world was. I wanted so badly to...the list ran from burying my face in his hair to telling him that wheresoever he was, I was here, and he must come back. Meanwhile, what an imbecile I was being. It isn't dangerous to be rendered unconscious without having a concussion, and it isn't necessary that a man knocked cold respond to you within five minutes. That was only something I needed. And I could have needed it all I liked at home, however insanely, but I'd forgotten I was in an open street, apparently.
Not a forgivable offense, under our circumstances. Not on the sodomy front, and not on the James Moriarty front either.
Here is what I ought to have done, and what might well have saved us considerable trouble: I ought to have expressed some concern for the man who had saved me, who was known by Moriarty's gang to be a friend of mine, made certain he was all right if not yet conscious, and then stood with the crowd on the street corner waiting for medical help, grousing about the hazards of public transit. Or else bundled him into a cab and taken him to
"I 'ave him, sir!" came a screaming announcement from my left. "Here he is, ready as you please to do some doctoring!"
A doctor of about fifty-five wearing a black morning coat despite the mild weather knelt down beside me, opening his bag.
"I don't think he has a concussion," I reported coolly. "His pupils are even, and as for his other vital signs, they're all quite normal. As you can see, though, he took a very solid blow to the head."
"Then you've done all you could, and we'll have him awake in no time," the doctor nodded. "You have him steady enough there. Try not to lose your grip on him."
As the physician, who really did mean well, pulled out a vial of smelling salts, it occurred to me to tell him that the day I lost my grip on John Watson would be the same day I ended at the bottom of the Thames, but it was actually none of his business. So I held my tongue. He waved the little glass container about under my friend's nose for an instant and it hit my highly sensitive olfactory organ at the same time, causing me to blink rapidly.
Watson's lids fluttered. He flinched a bit, feeling the pain in his head. Flinched in his eye muscles and his jawline. Not in his fingers. The way anyone would flinch, while awake. Then his eyes flew fully open with a start. He saw me soon enough, focusing with an effort, and the muscles in his back I hadn't even noticed were tense before relaxed ever so slightly. He opened his lips.
"No, no, steady on, my dear fellow," I interrupted. "You're all right. You decided to come between me and a runaway carriage."
"Did I?" he asked, struggling to sit up. I let him. It was better that way, anyhow.
"It's more than possible I'm only speaking to you because you did," I answered.
I couldn't touch him when I said it, either. I can't find a metaphor for that. Nor a word. Every good, forbidden thing compounded a thousand times into necessary, impossible. Watson breathed deeply a few times, trying to get his bearings back.
"That's a relief, then, that I...I seem to have been successful."
I couldn't look at that Doctor anymore. Not without violating his needing me calm.
"Thank you," I said to the other doctor, the older one, pressing money into his hand. The street urchin stepped up obediently and I gave him the same amount, which raised the physician's eyebrows and caused the boy to run off with a holler of triumph.
"He's all right!" the fluttery young lady cried, and the crowd broke into scattered clapping as it began to disburse.
"Fine stock, that," the banker announced as he tipped his hat to me. "A model British citizen. You'll be all right getting him to his home? He'll be seen to?"
I set it here officially: the most utterly useless man in Earth's history. At times, even still, I should like to seek him out and tell him so.
"Oh, quite. He has a mistress there who rather dotes on him. All is well, good sir."
The banker was rather shocked by that remark. Or at least, his eyebrows were. But then he shrugged, and smiled at me, and tipped his hat again, and walked off into the crowd. I wondered whether it was a valid emotion to want to punch the poor man in the jaw. But everyone was leaving now, with nothing left to stare at, so it didn't much matter.
"My God, what a horrible spectacle I'm making," Watson muttered. He dabbed the cloth gingerly at his temple. "Does this need stitches?"
"Two or three."
"Then you can manage it, can't you?"
"Why did you just brag to that chap about my conquests?"
"I honestly don't know. Watson, I have a feeling we need to depart the scene of the...accident."
I helped him to stand. It made him dizzy, so I kept my grip on his arm, brushing straw off his suit gently. Looking around me, I saw that everything had returned to normal. As if nothing untoward or indeed life-threatening had ever happened. Seeing another cab coming down the street, I whistled for it. We were not going to the Yard in that condition, not on Lestrade's or Patterson's life, not until I had cleaned off my spouse's head, was rather less gory-looking myself, and had managed to think through the situation. I'd wire them. They could wait. Watson needed three stitches, probably, not two, and--
"Oh, I see," he said. "My mistress. Yes, of course."
"I gave you a fright, didn't I? I'm sorry."
Handing him up into the cab, I followed, and banged the door flap shut rather harder than I'd meant to after calling our address up to the driver.
"You did. Apology accepted. Watson?"
"Has anyone ever asked you if you were married?"
Watson blinked, adjusted the cloth on his head, and then glanced over at me. "Yes, of course. Colleagues, generally. Men at the club, men at the Yard, female clients. Why?" A smile appeared. "No one ever asks you that, do they? You're too extraordinary for them to even pose the question. That's marvelous, I never realized that strangers never question you on the same topic."
Of course they don't. They don't suppose any human being could bear me for the requisite length of time. So I scoffed at him, feeling at once the luxury involved in scoffing at John Watson. Who was fine, would be fine, and wasn't even slurring his words or proving clumsy with his motor control or failing to tease me. He'd be fine.
"Naturally I ought to have deduced that, when your many obvious charms are taken into account, it would be for you a much more popular question. What do you tell them?"
"That my life is just as I want it, my career very important, and that I am as married as I ever wish to be."
It was well done. Married as I ever wish to be. I liked it tremendously. Watson is much cleverer than I am, on occasion. I don't begrudge him the victories, rather enjoy them, in fact. I felt a bit better, and the colour was coming back into his face, and I could sense that mine was probably matching him, for I felt far less fragile and panicked and unfocused. Married as I ever wish to be. A very good job, all round. I contented myself with it. I set about purposefully contenting myself as we rattled home. Lies need not peel the skin off one's shoulders after all, I thought.
"That doesn't meant I shouldn't prefer to say yes," my friend added quietly, looking out the opposite window.
That very afternoon, James Moriarty appeared in our parlour.
Watson was upstairs, sleeping in his quieter bedroom, after having vowed to me three times that he hadn't a concussion and that all he needed was a good brief sleep of an hour or two and a strong headache powder. Naturally, I'd no wish to deny him either one, so long as they were safe. We'd visit the Yard when he was rested. So I'd let him wander off to recover, his head neatly dressed, and switched my bloodied coat with a thin dressing gown, and then our door opened and Professor Moriarty stood before me.
My nerves are fairly proof, but I must confess to a start to see him standing there on my threshold. He was extremely tall and thin, his forehead domed out in a white curve, and his two eyes were deeply sunken in his head. Underneath his air of being clean-shaven and aesthetic-looking, he gave every impression of lurking physical power. He peered at me with great curiosity in his puckered eyes.
"What a wonder it is," he mused. "Absolutely incredible. That you, a genius of the first water, should have so much less frontal development than I expected. It is a dangerous habit to finger loaded firearms in the pocket of one's dressing gown."
"And habits are so very difficult to break," I replied, keeping my finger on the trigger.
He smiled, tilting his head in a reptilian fashion. "You evidently don't know me."
"On the contrary, I think it is fairly evident that I do. You, sir, have a very great deal to answer for. Including the fact that you've already attempted to murder me once today."
"Oh, hardly that," he demurred. "Had I wanted to murder you, you would be dead. I left you a little window, and you escaped. I am sorry about the Doctor's head, of course. How is he?"
My stomach formed into a hard, cold stone as I gazed at him. So that is what he was doing, I thought, he was testing our respective loyalties, and you walked right into it. It was unspeakably witless on my part, to have given us away in that fashion, absolutely beyond the pale. And there was nothing I could say in return, nothing which would not serve to confirm his very accurate suspicions. My friend had half shown our hand by throwing himself in front of a deadly charging vehicle, after all. And I'd done the rest. I could only change the subject, fingering a loaded pistol and wondering if Watson would mind me killing a man in cold blood on our carpet. I thought he would, so I refrained, but I ought to have done it then and there.
It was a mistake I still regret. Not simply shooting the sick bastard and then explaining things to the Yard later. Everyone would have benefited from my slip into dispassionate murder. Everyone.
"Are you here to warn me off?" I asked instead.
"No. All that I have to say has already crossed your mind."
"Then possibly my answer has crossed yours."
"You stand fast," he smiled.
"Then I should not warn you off, Mr. Holmes. I should say what I came here to say, having almost killed the pair of you and confirmed a little theory of mine."
"Why did you almost kill me?" I inquired. "Why did you not kill me and have done with it?"
He rubbed his white lizard fingers together. It was repulsive but very compelling. Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a memorandum-book upon which he'd scribbled some dates. The Professor's eyes narrowed as he read the lines.
"You crossed my path on the fourth of January," said he. "I need not describe for you the ensuing interim, for doubtless you recall it perfectly well. I find myself now, in midsummer, absolutely hampered in my plans. And yet, you live. You wish to know why."
Moriarty replaced the little notepad and clasped his hands behind his back. "I am fascinated by you, Mr. Holmes. By your brain. Your brain is the most remarkable brain I have ever encountered, it has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be a grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure. Thus there is but one conclusion to be drawn. You must come and work for me, Mr. Holmes."
I swallowed a laugh. "You cannot be serious."
"On the contrary, I am perfectly serious. I always say what I mean, Mr. Holmes. How could I have built an empire so vast otherwise? Whensoever I speak, I mean nothing more and nothing less. Count upon that, sir, and I think you do, for you have seen evidence of such. I would never lie to you. You have become a veritable obsession for me--could I then destroy you out of hand? Even if it meant my own safety? Say that you will end this senseless animosity. We could rule
I shifted my grip on the pistol. He was right about one thing--I believed every word he said, for I knew this much about the man. That falsehoods were the one vice he never indulged in, that he would murder an entire hospital ward if he said he would, and would alternately protect a widow to her dying day if such was his decision. I didn't believe in his opinions, but I believed wholeheartedly in his veracity.
"You are out of your mind," I hissed. "I am nothing like you."
"No?" He smirked, sitting on the arm of the sofa. "You never grow weary of the sea of stupidity all around you? Never tire of dolts who cannot think beyond what their next meal shall consist of? You never surmise, I could have all this to myself if only I wished it? You do. I can see that you do. We are the same man, Mr. Holmes, and you are fighting needlessly. We are unlike all the others. And we have certain...needs. Which is it for you, I wonder? Morphine? Cocaine?"
I couldn't answer him, instead coming out from behind the desk with my revolver trained on his heart.
"It used to be laudanum, for me, to allow me to sleep at nights," he continued, his head oscillating ever so slightly as he turned to peer at my bookshelves. "To erase the sensation that I am the only one of my kind, a race unto myself, absolutely and utterly alone. You've never felt that way, you say? No, you say nothing, because you don't want to give me the pleasure of calling you a liar."
"Even so, I would never work for you. There isn't any logic in the argument that I should follow you simply because you recognize something familiar in my intellect."
"You don't want power, then? I desire power solely for myself, I admit, but you...you could use it for anything. Anyone. That doctor of yours, for example."
Walking up to Moriarty, I pulled the gun out of my pocket. I needed it visible between us, a symbol of absolute determination.
"If you touch so much as one hair on his head, so help me God, it is all off," I growled. "I won't wait until Monday, I won't care a whit that all the little fish dart hither and thither out of my net. You'll never see me coming, either. Touch him and I will shoot you without warning, though a window, and I will walk away, and you will be dead. I vow to you that nothing could stop me."
"I believe you," he said pleasantly. "And so, for the time being--until Monday, Mr. Holmes, Monday being the subject of this conversation at heart--he is entirely safe. But I am offering you a choice. On the one hand, you can work for me. And I vow to you in return that I will compel you to work for me if there is no other way, I do so love a challenge. Work for me, be my intellectual muse, and I will give you everything you desire. You will be treasured, sir, a precious brother in arms. I am, as I say, completely preoccupied by you."
"And on the other hand?"
"Refuse my generous offer, and you will regret it. But you will regret it much more if you remain in
"Just how do you plan to go about doing that?" I scoffed.
Moriarty smiled benevolently at me. "I wonder if you know, Mr. Holmes, how many operatives I employ across the globe. In
"You shan't have it," I answered.
James Moriarty seemed almost to pity me for a moment. "You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden underfoot."
"I am afraid that in the pleasure of this conversation I am neglecting business of importance which awaits me elsewhere."
He went to the door. A cold rage was burning in his eyes now, like nothing I'd ever seen before. It was an anger which defied depth and obliterated the concept of mercy. I truly had disappointed him, I thought wildly. Professor James Moriarty had honestly supposed me so amoral that, provided that I and the Doctor were safe, I would dirty myself with literally any filth. The Professor supposed that the Sherlock Holmes he knew solved crimes because it had never occurred to him that committing them would be much more profitable. I am very unsentimental, I am calculating and harsh and didactic and snide and arrogant, but if I own one single virtue, and only one, the concept of justice goes very far with me. He thought me a brain up for hire. I was physically revolted by the idea to the point that it must have showed in my face, for suddenly he laughed at me.
"Join me by tomorrow evening and grow immensely wealthy, or leave
After he'd shut the door, I stared at the wall for twenty or so minutes, thinking. Thinking furiously, in fact. I lit my pipe. I sat in my chair. I got up again and poured myself some brandy. I needed it.
Soft footsteps came down the staircase ten minutes later. Watson's hair was madly disarranged and curling subtly where the water from washing his face had dampened it. He looked much better, though, so much better that he looked as if nothing was wrong. I was perched weirdly on my chair with my long legs tucked all to one side, so he simply sat down upon the considerable edge I'd left, resting his own back and head against my shoulder and the curving upholstery. Absently, I brushed his hair back. Three neat stitches, very carefully done. It wouldn't even scar.
"I heard voices a while ago," he said drowsily. "Who was it?"
"Professor James Moriarty."
Starting forward, Watson pivoted to stare at me in alarm.
"You might have told me."
"I was perfectly safe."
"Well, and what did he say to you?"
To be fair to myself, I told him every single word. About his own potential reprieve, my certain demise, the operatives in distant lands, all of it.
"And so, my dear fellow," I concluded, "I can either be the second most powerful man in
"The answer is easy enough," he retorted, leaning back against me once more. "The answer is we defeat him on our own terms. We expose no areas of vulnerability, take every possible advantage, and in all circumstances remain on the offensive. We beat him. Then it shouldn't be a problem."
"What if he can't be arrested?"
"There are ways to best a monster other than arresting it."
I quite agreed with him. And it sounds callous, perhaps, but how many lives had we seen ruined by that time? How many hopes dashed forever, how many severed ears, how many atrocities? So much had sickened us both by then. So much that Watson, who is gentility personified, was coolly speaking to me of murdering a mathematics professor.
"Do you know, I have the eeriest feeling that you're right?" I murmured, setting my pipe on the side table. "I'll never arrest him, John. Someone may kill him--you, or Lestrade perhaps, or--I don't know. It will probably be me, I think, when the time comes. But I won't arrest him. He's too clever by far. He can be defeated, I know, but not that way."
Watson's head was tucked under my neck in a friendly manner, his legs crossed at the knee. He wasn't listening, though. He was glaring at the door. I could see his eyes in the small mirror across the room by the picture of General Gordon. He was furious.
The head beneath my own shook disgustedly.
"How dare he," my friend said softly. "How dare he threaten you in our own home, and with me elsewhere. It shan't happen again, that I can promise you."