wasn't the sight
of Mrs. Hudson, staring up at her building in her nightdress with tears
blue eyes, holding a little marmalade cat in her arms which was
escape and tied with a piece of twine to her wrist, that finished
wasn't the smoke still seeping from our windows, nor the swarms of
the stench of steam rising from charred wood. Any one of
might have done it. Any single piece of it might have made up
my mind for
me, on an emotional level. But as it happens, logic prevailed
something like this:
1. You love two people in the world and cannot be a foot away from both of them all of the time.
2. Moriarty has hundreds of professional criminals at his beck and call and you have Scotland Yard, Heaven bless them.
3. If he can arrange for a runaway carriage or a fire or cyanide once, he can do it again, or think of something new.
4. Either John Watson or Mycroft Holmes, more probably both, will die if you remain in
5. You cannot remain in
But I didn't quite register that I'd reached this particular conclusion yet. I went to Mrs. Hudson and put a hand on her arm. She turned to me and suddenly she was flush against my waistcoat, gripping me, trying to retain the little cat at the same time. I'd only wanted to tell her how sorry I was, beg her forgiveness for wrecking her home. She interrupted me, though, tearful and shivery like I had never before seen her.
"When they woke me and brought me outside, I thought you were upstairs. I thought you'd both come home. Oh, Mr. Holmes, I thought you were dead."
I hadn't even known she'd liked me, to be entirely honest.
"It's all right," I murmured. "We'll take you to a hotel at once. I'll fix everything, I promise you. Between me and the insurance, you'll swear by fires for the rest of your life."
Watson, staring up at our window, was as blazingly angry as I suppose is possible for such a kindly man. But when I caught his eye, he knew what I wanted, and he came over, and he gently disentangled me from our landlady and then kept his grip on her himself.
"What shall I fetch out of the house for you?" I asked. "Tell me. Anything you like, and I'll find it before we leave."
Mrs. Hudson gave me a brief list and I headed for the door. A fireman was coming out of it, and I stopped him, making some polite but urgent greetings.
"How bad is it?" I asked next.
"The damage is quite minimal," he assured me. "Some scorched walls. Nothing more. I'm sorry to tell you the smoke will make it unlivable for the next two days, but the danger is past. We're still investigating, but you should know that it does look like arson, sir. Go right in, if there's anything needs fetching."
I went in. It was the sitting room they'd torched, and a wall was burnt black as my mood. Shaking my head, quickly forming a plan, I fetched a trunk. I hadn't needed to ask Watson what to pack for him, I know him too well, so I swiftly located his current journal and manuscript, our toiletries, two changes of clothing, a pair of pipes and tobacco, the chequebook, and put my violin in its case. Running downstairs, I repeated the process for Mrs. Hudson and then found an old doctor's bag of Watson's in which I could house the cat. Opening my own personal bag, I made certain that it contained all I needed myself--recreational drugs topping the list, of course--and then I hastened back outside.
"In you go," I said to the cat after setting the trunk down and opening the medical bag. Mrs. Hudson actually smiled. The cat went in the leather case readily enough, and she wound the twine around the handle before half-closing it.
After offering to keep the cat and assuring Mrs. Hudson than the building was quite safe for her to change her dress before we departed, she readily went inside. I was left with wandering firemen, a cat in a case resting on a trunk, and John Watson, who seem to be thinking vaguely murderous thoughts as he regarded
"Thank God she's all right," he sighed. "Where shall we go? There's a fine little hotel down
That would be fine, I said. I think I said that would be fine. What I was thinking about, though, was item five.
5. You cannot remain in
I was thinking about it twenty minutes later when Watson engaged us one double-bedded room and a single bedded one in the pleasant hotel lobby. I was thinking about it when Mrs. Hudson kissed us both on the cheek before taking her cat and her small carpeted traveling bag off to her room. I was thinking about it when I went into our chamber and set the trunk down after my friend unlocked the door. I was not thinking about it for exactly seven seconds whilst I was pulling aside the curtain to stare out the window, because I was thinking about how my brother was faring. But I began thinking about it again soon enough. I was boxed in, trapped. There was no way out. I would never find a way out of this, there was no escape, I would have to win it through alone.
I'd sooner put a gun to my own head. I will do, just as soon as I can nick one.
Watson came up behind me. His steps were very quiet.
"What are you thinking of?" he asked.
"Yes. Have you reached any conclusions?"
"What is it?"
"How happy you would be, how safe and how happy, if you had never met me," I whispered.
"Don't say such things," Watson snapped. "Don't even think them."
And God help me, I reacted in kind. I am generally very composed, and so is he, but I--the sentiment had been so heartfelt that to hear it attacked felt like a betrayal.
"How can I help but think them?" I lashed out in return. "Do you suppose, apart from the danger to my own person, that it is easy knowing that Professor James Moriarty has as good as promised to take away everything I love in the world, with you at the top of the list? I say again--your safety and your happiness would be much better ensured if you'd never taken digs with me in the first place."
"You're insane," he snarled. "Better without you? I'd be dead of a morphine overdose ten times over by now without you. You recall that business with the Crooked Man, I suppose? Well, the title referred to me, not to Henry Wood. My safety and happiness are completely irrelevant. I belong to you. What do I care about happiness, or about safety, by comparison to you? They're utterly beside the point, trivial. I am your man. I don't give a damn about the rest of it."
That hurt me viciously. It was a clean sweep with a cutlass through the chest. That hurt like nothing is supposed to hurt when it's said out of love. Nothing. It hurt like a champagne glass had been broken and then thrust into flesh.
"I am delighted to know it," I said, very calm and very cold. "Because it's my entire raison d'etre, you know--making you happy. And keeping you safe. It's the only thing I think about. It guides all my actions. No, actually, there are two other things I think about. I think about where my next case is coming from, whether I'll be able to flex this sodding mind of mine and do some good, and I think about whether it'll be possible for me to go for another few days, or few hours, or few minutes, or few seconds sometimes, without sticking a needle in my arm. So this comes as news to me, you see. That you don't care. Thank you for telling me. I'll be certain to remember, the next time I wonder why I should bother waking up again after falling asleep--and I wonder that frequently, John, I have ever since I was a boy--that you find my twin projects of your happiness and safety completely irrelevant."
Watson went very pale. I didn't much want to see that. So I went over to the small case of toiletries I'd packed and yanked my morocco case out of it. Finding the proper vial of cocaine took very little time, so it was only a few moments later that I was rolling up my sleeve and ready to make a good job of addiction if I couldn't make a good job of sobriety.
"Holmes," I heard from behind me. His voice was all wrong, cottony and urgent. I ignored him. "Holmes, please forgive me, but don't--Holmes, your hands are shaking. They are. Please stop." I heard completely irrelevant in my head again and tightened my jaw. "Sherlock, for God's sake, I tell you your hands aren't steady, you'll make an air bubble and--"
He was referring to the fact that I hadn't bothered to tap the syringe filled with liquid and clear the needle point, which was all very true. I've done it before, but that's irrelevant. Watson was in front of me an instant later, grasping my forearm and very decisively taking the syringe out of my right hand. I let him do it, thinking that if he was taking even that cold chemical comfort away from me under such conditions, I'd never forgive him. He held it up to the light, I very pointedly not looking at him.
"What percent is this?"
Gritting my teeth as he sent a few drops spilling over the end of the needle, I said, "Nine."
In the corner of my eye, I saw him nod. He drew my left forearm away from the side of my body, examining it. Watson rubbed his thumb over my wrist. "Make a fist for me. Please, I'll never find something fast enough for your liking in all of this if you don't flex your arm."
What on earth is wrong with his voice? I thought, and then did as he asked. And John Watson is a very gifted physician, so he found a vein in the pin-pricked white paper skin very soon, and he slid the needle in and pressed down on the piston, and the dose was such that I quickly began feeling a great deal better.
So I looked at him. There were tear tracks running down his face. Not just two or three of them, either.
Apparently it wasn't enough already that I had been witness to my brother's attempted assassination and the torching of
I reached out and set the syringe on the desk and drew him into my arms. By the way, you cannot make John Watson weep by hurting him. Not by wounding his body, because I've seen him through his share of painful fights and illnesses, and not by way of verbal slings and arrows. I've hurt him terribly hundreds of times, for example, and he is incapable of being driven to tears by it. That is because he is a very masculine and stoic sort of fellow, for one, who loathes not being the master of himself. I know how that feels. But the other reason is that he simply isn't important enough to himself to cry over hurts. If you want tears out of John Watson, which I apparently did, you must convince him that he has very badly wounded someone else. Namely--the only rare times I have ever seen it happen--me.
I held him very tightly for a few seconds. His breathing was fiercely ragged, his head buried in my neck. I needed a better gauge of the situation than that, though. Moving his face very slightly, I shifted him so that one temple was pressed to me and the other exposed, fitting my palm to his cheek with my lips in his hair. My thumb ran right down the side of his nose, my fingers very gentle, and now I could tell how badly it was going moment to moment. For instance, just then it wasn't going well at all, for my palm was wet instantly and there were more tears running through my fingers.
"I don't know how I could have said such a thing to you," he whispered. "I can be so very stupid at times. I meant to say that just being near you makes me happy, but what I did say--I beg your pardon. It was unforgivable."
"It clearly wasn't, because I already have." I kissed the top of his brow, for about the the tenth time, and left my nose in his hair. "Do you know what we are going to do when all of this is over? When Moriarty is bested and we are back to our lives?"
He shook his head and held on tighter.
"We are going to have a great many more cases," I said softly. "Hundreds of them. But we'll get older eventually, and we'll perhaps tire of the strain of all that adventuring. So I believe we are going to buy a cottage far away from here with some of the money I have. I've thought about it, many times, and I suspect it ought to be true countryside if we're going to do it at all. No half-measures. And I know what you're thinking--I abhor the countryside. You're thinking that I love
The moisture was lessening, but it wasn't by any means stemmed.
Either he truly knows how deeply he just hurt you, or you've gotten to be very, very bad at this, I thought. Now, try harder.
"It'll be difficult for me to keep my mind occupied, so if you'll excuse the time away from you, I'm going to need a new hobby. Chemistry is all very well, but I'll want another, something foreign enough that I have to learn it. One that's intellectual and also uses my hands just the way chemistry does, and is suitably eccentric and absurd. We'll think about it. And when we live in
Good Christ, it had never taken me this long before.
"Don't, John," I whispered under my breath. "Je
He stopped, lifting his head. Better, I saw. Not happy, but better.
"What I ought to have said was, I wish I could make you happy in return," he told me softly. "And don't tell me that you are, not now, I'll know you're lying."
"Nothing can make me happy," I scoffed, pulling out a handkerchief and setting it to good use. He took it away from me, resting his other hand on my shoulder when it had before been gripping my coat. "An edict of God on High couldn't do it. Seventy-seven virgins certainly couldn't. It is not a job for Man nor Nature. Every day in daylight wouldn't be enough for me. Morphine can't do it, nor cocaine, nor the violin. A hundred of you couldn't do it, not perpetually, though you make me better than I've ever been. You don't make me happy, you make me alive, you utterly ridiculous man."
"Well, that's something, then."
"Did you hear what I said, before? Did you understand?"
"Some of it." Watson sighed, shaking his head a little. I suppose if I ever cried, I should detest it as much as he does. I can only imagine I would--but, as any number of regrettable events had not yet managed to do it, I could but surmise. "The important parts. I'm sorry for losing control of myself, but I--you looked--"
"Half-cracked," I shrugged. "As I always do. Even when not being pursued by a villainous gang."
"Holmes, we need to do something about this at once. What would you have of me?"
"I want you to wire Lestrade and tell him to meet me in the queer little alley which connects
"Really?" His eyes narrowed. "Why? Shan't I come with you?"
"I very much need you here," I demurred. "I am doing nothing dangerous. I need to settle a question in my mind as to how they set fire to our rooms, and I much prefer Mrs. Hudson to be where you can reach her should one of us be needed. She can't be expected to fend for herself as we can, and I'm wretchedly sorry that such had not occurred to me earlier. And questions of arson are hardly ones in which I require your help. In any case, if you wire Lestrade now, he'll join me within half an hour."
"Of course," he sighed. His face was still pale, but he had entirely calmed himself. "I'll send the telegram this instant. Be very careful. When shall you return?"
"After Lestrade has arrived and I've shown him any of my findings. An hour, perhaps."
Watson nodded, putting my handkerchief in his pocket. This was wearing on him, and hard. Not the danger itself, but the day we had passed. All he had to do was to look at me to see how tautly I was strung just then, and there was no swifter way to weary him. I set my hat on my head and opened the door, glancing back to be sure I wasn't leaving him more shaken than he could easily endure alone.
"John," I said, "the rain it raineth every day. But not in
Watson smiled at me, a warm one this time, fond and indulgent through the strain.
I stood on the streetside corner of an open-ended but not very traveled alleyway about twenty yards away from
I was waiting.
They knew where I was, they were coming to tell me something, I was sure of it, and so I was keeping quite still, smoking a cigarette and staring at my polished black boots. I would be easily found, I thought, a prize on a street corner, and then I would hear what they had to say and I would make my final decision. And once I'd made it, I'd tell them about it, so there would be no mistakes and no loose ends. I didn't care a fig about arson. Sod arson, really, I cared to know whether I was going to win the fight to stay in
The sound of footsteps lifted my head. He'd arrived very soon, as I had thought he would, a black shape like a man in the mouth of the alley. Moriarty's emissary. Jed Green in the flesh, as it happened. God, how I hate to recall the sight of him. He was very broad in the chest but of medium height, with a hooked nose rather like mine only coarser, with pock marks my skin could never produce, and thick brown hair which curled from beneath his battered hat. His eyes were a pale, mad hazel colour.
"Mr. Sherlock Holmes," he said, not unpleasantly.
"You have the advantage of me. But not for long," I replied.
"Is that so?" He grinned, revealing broken teeth, some of which were stuffed with gold. "Well, in that case, my name is Jed Green. The Professor wants you to know something. Your having refused his earlier offer and all."
"Go on," I agreed, taking a small drag from my cigarette.
"Here's what the Professor's thinking," he expounded, spreading hands with much-scarred knuckles. "He's thinking that he's glad that your brother lived. Because now maybe you'll see reason, and he's got nothing yet against your brother personally. But if you stay in
We were eight feet from a gas lamp,
"I'm not sure that you do see, Mr. Holmes, and that's why the Professor sent me. What I'm meant to tell you is, if you don't leave
"Do something for me," I requested in all sincerity.
Jed Green leered in my face from six inches below my eye level. "What's your pleasure, Mr. Holmes?"
"I want you to stop," I informed him. "I will hurt you. I'll hurt you very badly, Green, and may possibly kill you. I don't want to hurt you the way I'm going to if you keep talking, and that's why I desire you to hold your peace. You can tell the Professor that I agree to leave
Green leaned further into me, his teeth glinting. "And I'll have him squealing like a stuck pig before the end if you aren't. He's really very pretty, you know, remarkably pretty--those eyes are a wonder. The pretty sort always like it rough. And my own tastes do run to fair-haired gents."
I crushed the cigarette against the wall.
Then I took that perverted runt's jacket collar in hand, and, wheeling, I crushed him against the wall, his face smeared upon the brick where my ash was still visible.
After I'd bashed his head into the building, I did it again. And again. One of his metallic teeth fell out at the same time his nose broke against flat red brick, and the evil lunatic was laughing at me. So I dragged him off the wall and drove into him with my fists. When he fell, I pulled him up again, and when he staggered, I caught him, helping him stand so that I could break another of his ribs. I could taste blood even though he hadn't laid a finger on me, and within three minutes, the body into which my fists were hammering felt like rotting cabbages, and he was still laughing.
"Don't make me do this," I begged him hoarsely. "This isn't who I am. Why are you making me do this?"
Then I remembered something about pain, and about men who are hollow--men who have done every perverse thing in the universe and cannot feel anything but the most vicious act. Men for whom depravity is natural as breathing. I was brutalizing him. But to all appearances, the sick smiling little monster enjoyed it.
Jed Green blinked, his wet broken mouth curling up at one side.
"I hope you do end up staying," he hissed. "I haven't had an Army man tied over a table in years. Is that how you generally go about it? It is, I'm betting. But you're probably a good deal more careful."
I backhanded him, the sound echoing through the street like a gunshot. Dazed, dizzy with pain, he dragged his head back round to squint at me through a pair of blackening eyes, only still upright because I had him by the lapels.
"Stop making me do this," I pleaded through clenched teeth. "I can't do this, I can't. I can't."
He coughed messily, blood gushing over his chin.
"But it's my lot, you see. The Professor had to punish me, didn't he, for not quite killing your brother. So he sent me to see you. Wanted you to know that he appreciates your doing him a good turn, by giving me a lacing. So thank you."
"No, not my brother too, not that," I moaned, shaking him severely. "Please stop. Please. Stop this instant. Don't make me hurt you any more than I have done."
"Queer request, isn't it? From a mary boy with a live-in whore?"
"I'm begging you. I can't be the sort of man to do this, you don't understand, I can't."
"Well...since you're as good as working for the Professor just at present...I suppose, for the time being, you're all right by me too. And I'm getting to like you. I can't stop just yet, the Professor would do worse by me, but tell you what I'll do for you instead. When I've buggered that pretty little soldier of yours, I'll kill him quick afterward instead of leaving him trussed up alone for hours and hours."
I screamed out don't make me do this again, but I was already doing it. When I hurled him against the wall that time, he hit his head rather badly and fell like a stone. But I soon enough had him up again, thinking stop it, stop it, stop it and not knowing if I meant him or me.
There are all kinds of men in the world. I have known many varieties in the most personal way. And I have hurt people before that night, quite willingly. For instance, there was an old lover of Watson's who had acted despicably, and almost immediately after loving Watson for the first time, I had been given the glowing opportunity to lay a crop over his shoulders. I have never regretted it. And far more frequently when I was younger, I had gladly and tenderly hurt some of my more deviant beaus. There is a certain delicate beauty to punishing a man artistically, giving as much happiness as pain. I thought for an instant of my birdlike, kindly, fragile friend Reggie, who had only wanted to be safely humiliated four times a week, and felt an aching rush of tenderness towards him.
But Jed Green was the man James Moriarty picked to break me, because what that twisted fuck wanted was pain without any love in it, in all of his encounters, taking it or giving it, and I was giving it to him, and Moriarty had not merely wanted to humiliate me by causing me to complete a task for him. No. That would have been too simple. Moriarty desired me to know that I was no better than he was. When pushed far enough, I would beat a man bloody with my bare hands, without any elegance. Only ugliness and oily black hatred. He wanted me reduced to an animal. He wanted to me to admit that we were the same man in spirit, identical beings with sublime minds and dark hearts. It wasn't enough any longer to make me leave, because I had ignored him the first time. Jed Green's body in my hands was beginning to feel more meat than man, and I saw my father standing before me every bit as tall as I am now.
I don't know why you make me do this, Sherlock. I truly don't.
When Geoffrey Lestrade arrived, he met with a very strange sight.
There was an unconscious bloodied mongrel splayed on the ground on one side of a narrow alleyway, his mouth gaping open and his clothing all disheveled.
And I was sitting Hindu-style against the opposite wall--perfectly, entirely still.
The Inspector was alone. He broke into an urgent run when he spied me, and then he dropped to one knee.
Lestrade didn't even look at Green, not after taking in the obvious facts of the event. What he did was to push his fingers gently into all my largest bones, anxious lines spreading at the sides of his eyes. Lestrade prodded me in a precautionary medical way I would have highly objected to under any other circumstances, but as it was I barely took them in. I didn't notice him squeezing my shins with careful fingers, didn't mind that he steadied my collarbone and then pulled my arm straight, all the while his impassive pinched face pale with apprehension. A faraway part of me knew he was feeling for broken bones because I was acting so very oddly, but in fact there wasn't a scratch on me except for my bloodied hands. To be fair to him, he couldn't tell that, though.
Why should Sherlock Holmes prop himself up against a wall as if blown apart?
"Have you ever been half beaten to death?" I asked in a normal voice.
Of course, I startled him. Lestrade's sharp brown eyes narrowed as they darted to my own, and his hands abruptly paused.
"Yes, I have," he responded at length. "There was a gang of sorts in the fifth form, and...well. I've always been. I..."
We endured another pause of four or five seconds.
"That is to say, I'm not very big, Mr. Holmes."
I sucked in a strangled mouthful of air.
"So have I," I assured him. "And have you ever been in love?"
I'd just cracked our world with a chisel, and I knew it. Lestrade, seeing that I wasn't physically hurt, took his hands away from me entirely and dropped to both knees, leaning his palms on his thighs. His pupils were wide, and glittering brightly. Not like his usual plain pensive look, not like the decent but obscenely dull man he so often appears to be. And is, to great extent. This was something much deeper. Lestrade thought about it before answering. He made sure to tell me the truth.
"No, I can't say that I have."
"Sometimes they feel similar," I whispered, my eyes shutting.
I'd just given away an enormous secret, the only secret, and I knew that too, but that didn't matter, because I was clearly already going mad. After all, I was confiding the most hallowed of private affairs to the single most typical Englishman in the whole of
Next, eyes still exhaustedly closed, I thought, We may possibly survive this. Lestrade might not like me, but he likes my friend very much. He won't want to see him hurt. Everyone loves Watson who knows him. Everyone. Just look at him.
And then, I wonder if Lestrade is more shocked, or more disgusted. But doubtless it is a mixture of both.
I opened my eyes. Geoffrey Lestrade, as it happened, did not look surprised in the slightest. Neither did he look in the smallest degree repulsed. He did, however, have a strange--oddly soft, queerly slack--tilt to his generally pursed mouth. It looked rather like what I supposed clemency resembled, I thought, insanely playing our synonym game with myself. Or empathy. No, goodwill was better, and a portmanteau word at that. But with far more intensity than the term implies.
"Christ, I just told you. I really did, I actually told you, I... Heavenly God, what is the matter with me?" I felt myself laughing crazily. "I'm out of my mind, I must be. Why did I just tell you? Why? I don't even want you to know about it. I never did, not for a second. You're the last person I want knowing it. You're a sodding policeman. Why in the name of the devil should--"
"Because I'm your bloody friend, Mr. Holmes," Lestrade interrupted fiercely.
That shut my mouth. I concentrated on breathing for a little while, because had I not, I'd have quite lost the knack. Then my eyes lit on Jed Green just behind the Inspector, nothing more than a skin sack of parts I had broken.
"Your taste in friends is every bit as appalling as your grasp of logic. I'm going to be sick," I announced, turning my head away from him.
But there was nothing in my stomach, of course, so I only retched at the cobbles several times on my hands and knees, smelling horse shit and wet earth. A small hand landed on my back, and then shifted over to my side, supporting me. The spell ebbed a bit after thirty or forty seconds of me wondering why I felt as if, should Lestrade's grip falter, I would fall through the earth like a spectre.
"I can't fathom anyone ill-using you that way."
Lestrade hadn't known he was speaking aloud on the subject of being severely beaten. It was just a disbelieving, whispered comment, no louder than a leaf sliding down a street in the wind. He had me firmly at the base of my ribs with one hand, and the other had just moved to the taught line where my neck meets my shoulder, and the remark was almost inaudible, even to him. But I can hear exceptionally well, even when my guts are trying to escape out my mouth while crouched like a pack animal in an alleyway. And it was so important, so very important in that instant, for Lestrade to understand me. So I answered him.
"I wasn't always this big, was I now."
There was a mark in the stones below me where a silver-tipped walking stick had passed, I noted absently as the world kept spinning, anchoring my eyes on the scratch, wondering if it had perhaps been made by my own cane months ago. Shuddering, I choked in a futile dry fashion at the pavement again. It had always been axiomatic for me to assume that Geoffrey Lestrade is a well-intentioned man with no insight whatsoever, but I will own the previous statement to have been equal parts obvious and cryptic. I didn't worry that he'd fail to understand, however. I knew that he would. And he did, too.
"No, of course you weren't," he said, as if that had never occurred to him and I had just--as is the essence of our entire relationship--solved a mystery at his behest. "Of course you weren't. Christ, Mr. Holmes. Listen, I have you. Just breathe. You need to breathe a bit slower. It'll all pass in a moment, I promise. But you have to breathe."
I stilled a little. Astonishingly, he was right. I took every instinct of self-control I could muster and concentrated it all in my lungs, hoping that calm breath would calm all the rest of it. It took a minute or so, but after that the hateful churning began to fade back into the more muted sensation of being quite literally, and on behalf of several people, "sick with worry." But that I could manage. I drew the back of a bloodied, shaking hand over my mouth.
The Inspector cleared his throat.
"Mr. Holmes, is the bastard behind me dead, to your knowledge?"
"The bastard by the name of Jed Green?"
"By Jove, is it really?"
"Yes. And no," I managed, my vocal chords inflamed and aching. "He's not yet quite dead. I at least made certain the bastard wouldn't suffocate on his own tongue."
"Generous of you," he noted.
"It wasn't. Just look at that. I'm a savage."
"That's a damned lie," Lestrade said quietly.
I bit my lower lip. "Are you going to tell him?"
"I think we ought to, or he'll sure enough find out you've been in a fight some other way," Lestrade replied in a very gentle voice. "Don't you?"
"No, not about that," I said, passing my palsied hands over my wildly disarranged hair and sitting back on my heels, "not what I just did to Jed Green. Actually, will you please tell him about that for me? I shan't be able to, and...please, if you do it for me, I'll be eternally grateful and solve everything you like when once this is over for the rest of my life."
"Of course I will. Then tell him what?" Lestrade queried, puzzled.
"I meant to say, I ruin enough of his secrets. I ruin every one of his secrets. Living with me is hell. I mean, imagine it. Don't tell him I said such a thing to you, that you know about the two of us, he'd hate me for good and all. You're my friend, but you're a Yarder, for the love of Heaven, and there are laws in this country. I have his safety to consider, and his freedom, even apart from his privacy, and I cannot endure the thought he might imagine me trivial with any one of them. Please vow never to tell him I ruined that secret too."
"I'm sorry," he replied after a moment, sounding improbably firm. "I can't do that. I'll try my best not to give the game away, so long as that's what you want, but I can't promise I'll succeed. The Doctor knows me too well. So I swear I'll try to keep mum, so long as you truly wish me to."
"God save us. We'll try with all our hearts, then."
"As for the rest of the Yard--"
"Don't you dare ask me not to tell Athelney Jones that you're an invert, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I don't like to think there'll be another round of fisticuffs in this alley tonight," Lestrade growled. "You aren't generally this dense. What in hell can you be thinking?"
"I'm not myself," I muttered bleakly. "I can't think. I can't think at all. I would never beat a man like that, you know, never, I would shoot him in self-defense, maybe even cold blood perhaps, but not--and I just did, didn't I? How can I know what any man is capable of doing if I am capable of that? But as for you, you wouldn't...tell anyone, I take it."
"No," he said, softer. "No. I wouldn't ever do that."
"Not to the Doctor," I nodded, understanding him perfectly.
"Not to you."
I didn't quite know what to make of frank esteem emanating from Lestrade, of all people. So I reached out and pressed his forearm for a few seconds before dropping it, pulling out my kerchief and drying the sweat of severe nausea from my brow.
"By the way, Mr. Holmes, if the Doctor thinks living with you is hell, he has a very funny way of showing it."
"That's true," I owned. "But I have made a study of this discrepancy, and determined the cause. People who have been in
"Lucky thing for you, I suppose."
"Very lucky indeed."
Lestrade stood. "You're shaken up, but that's passing. You aren't actually hurt, are you? On your word?"
I shook my head.
He offered a hand. "What say we take this son of a bitch to hospital? Or gaol. It's all one to me, really. But I can't carry him alone."
Inspector Lestrade grinned at me. "I'm not very big, you understand."
We took Jed Green to hospital because being guilty of beating a man half to death is preferable to being guilty of beating a man all the way there. I stood at the end of the sterile corridor, not talking much, cleaning my own bloodied knuckles with a wet rag while people whispered things about me. I tried not to glare at them. That was easy enough, for I wanted nothing more than to be a good man during that wretched hour, to think myself worthy of having arrived on the planet in the first place. And then Lestrade and I shared a cab back to the hotel where Watson and Mrs. Hudson were staying.
When we stepped out of the hansom, I said to Lestrade, "I'm getting some cigarettes."
"Sure thing, Mr. Holmes," he replied with a nod. "I'll just have a word with Dr. Watson and be on my way."
I hesitated. I was becoming gradually aware of a great paradox. It ought to have been the case, I thought, that Inspector Lestrade's having witnessed the utterly debased scene in that corridor would be the most shame-inducing thing which had ever befallen me. Or close to it, perhaps. In the top five. However, I did not find it so. It did not even make the top ten, as a matter of fact. My loss of all control of myself, yes, of course that was disgraceful, but Lestrade's having been there...
"Lestrade," I said softly, "I am gladder than I can tell you that Watson wasn't there to see that. But. I think that...that is, I... Had you not been there, I don't know what I would have done."
"You needn't mention it, Mr. Holmes," he smiled. "Go on. You need cigarettes. This'll only take me a few minutes."
I didn't need cigarettes, though, I had a case full of them, so I walked around a five-block radius twice, looking alternately up at the stars or down at the cobbles. I gave it fifteen minutes. By the time I rounded the proper corner again, I was eighteen or so yards away from Lestrade, and he was already stepping up into a cab. Pulling air in past my teeth, I forced myself to stride into the hotel lobby and ask the desk clerk for a key to Watson's double-bedded room, because I hadn't bothered to get one on my way out. He told me that wouldn't be a problem in the slightest, as my name was next to his on the ledger. He gave me a key. He asked if I needed anything else.
A miracle, I thought bitterly.
When I came back into the clean rented apartment, my friend was pacing the ghastly olive carpeting in harried circles, his sweetly delineated countenance tight and nakedly frightened. His eyes snapped to mine the instant he heard me enter.
"There you are," he sighed, running his hands over his face. "Thank God, thank God. You bought cigarettes yesterday, you know, and I thought--"
He thought I'd left him. Two hours after the decision had been made in my own mind, and he already knew.
So that's what that fight was about, I thought. Not happiness at all. Not even safety. He knows.
"Are you all right?"
I shook my head, because no. I wasn't. I sat on the settee in a blind daze. Watson came over at once and knelt beside me, perched with his knees against my right thigh so we were that much closer to the same height.
"Jed Green is real, I take it from the Inspector."
I lifted the burst knuckles I had cleaned off for him to view. "He is no airy nothing, as you can see. Solid enough for me to break my hand over."
"What did he say to you, Holmes?"
"He..." I swallowed, struggling. "He was explicating for me the ways he planned to violate you before you died. And I rewarded him for it. For that, and for trying to kill my brother, I gave him exactly what he wanted most of all. Brutality. If you have never beaten a man to a pulp, John, I have discovered I cannot recommend it. Because now he's tarred me, I think. Now I'm no better than he is. Now I'm no better than anyone. I'm a beast, and on top of that, I'm a fool."
Watson's face, the same square and bold and perfect soldier's face that bloody cur had called pretty, twisted in profound sympathy. He reached out and pulled me against him. I was too sickened with myself to protest as he settled us back against the pillows, and I nestled up against his collarbone with his arms around me and his hand deep in my hair, grasping my head to his chest as if I had already flown away. I hadn't, though. Not yet. I could hear his heart thudding. I listened for anger in his bloodstream. For repulsion. But they weren't present, I found. It was the same richly loving substance it had always been, flowing through him, fueling his every action. He drew his fingers over the hollows of my throat.
"You," my friend murmured like a psalm into the top of my head, "are neither a beast nor a fool. You're the best man I have ever known. As well as the wisest. The best, and the wisest."
He kept saying it. Over and over again, changing the pattern, but always saying the same thing. The best and wisest man whom I have ever known. Watson must have said it fifty times. Once I shifted, not believing him, but he only tightened his strong arms and said it yet again. Pulled me down against his breastbone, brooking no argument.
Finally, I breathed a little easier. I brushed my face against his breast and his neck, and moved my palm up onto his ribcage. But he still kept on.
He said it slower, but he didn't stop. Countless times he said it to me. More times than I could number, until I had no choice but to listen.
Not only the best, but the wisest. The best man I've ever known. And the wisest.
"Then you'll forgive me?" I dared to asked him at last.
"Hush," he answered thickly. "How dare you, my heart. There is, on this occasion, nothing whatsoever to forgive."
But there would be, I thought. And by Monday at the latest, no less. So I let him hold me, just as close as ever he could, twining his fingertips into my hair and tracing his thumb over my mouth, knowing that in a very short time, nothing was ever going to be the same for the rest of our lives.
day we returned to
Leaving his cigar in a dish at about eleven o'clock, Watson rose from his armchair and turned away from me.
And then it all fell apart.
Part of me welcomed it. I had lived for too many hours with my heart on a rack, ever since my brother had nearly died simply for being associated with me. I'd watched the Inquisitor's bulbous bicep, tightening the winch. I knew that Watson was watching me--and I likewise knew that he could see my mind. He was a presence like my own fingertips, a nearness which lived in my pores.
A presence I would be doing without.
Watson stood staring out the window. I know every set of his shoulders, and this was a new one. There was a rigidity to it like a man flexing his muscles before an anticipated blow lands on his flesh--and still more specifically, it was the brittler tension of a man whose mind is telling him from boundless experience that he knows better. Hardened flesh bruises more easily. It was a cold point of ice in the chest to recognize it in Watson. When he turned back to me, his face a blank mask with the impossibly blue eyes of a china doll painted onto it, I recognized his apprehension for what it was.
Watson was about to ask me a question. And for the first time in his utterly courageous life, in a life spent facing down more fears than any single person should be forced to confront, he was frightened of me.
"You're leaving me. Aren't you?"
The first was a statement of fact. In a bare instant, he'd mastered the tension as only a soldier or a very brave man could, calmly waiting for me to strike. I knew that posture too. It was letting every instinct of tension flow out of you, go limp, let it pass over you, you'll only make it worse for yourself, it will never be as bad again as it is right this moment, I promise.
And the second was a dare.
Go on, he was challenging me. See if you can hurt me deeper than you already have.
"Yes, I am," I answered him.
Watson nodded. Just once, ever so quickly.
That was the very trick of it, I applauded with a strange detour of fascination in my brain. How did Watson know how it was done? Had he learned it abroad somehow? Had he learned in the War? Stop counting them. Let it happen. You'll be bruised for a week either way, but reeds sway in the wind whereas mighty rigid oaks topple over to leave their roots naked and raw and permanently exposed. Reeds live to stand upright again.
"What do you mean to do with yourself, when you've gone?"
"Fight them. Fight them every way I know how. Fight them until this is over. I will fight them one by one until the end comes, and then I will come back."
"I don't suppose I need waste my breath, reminding you of my value in dangerous situations."
"I am better than well aware of it, John. We're past that point. We passed it days ago."
"And where are you going?"
"I don't know that it matters," I answered. "I like
"Will I know when?" he continued with a voice like sanded stones. He was eroding, I thought madly. "Will I know if you are alive or dead?"
"Yes," I said. My voice sounded all wrong in my own ears. Was my voice always this distantly removed from my skull? Or was someone else speaking? "Mycroft will know, if something happens to me. I'll arrange it."
Watson shifted so that his feet were a little further apart. The china doll expression was growing more disconcerting by the instant. Watson is not meant to be pale, the way I am. He claims to admire my ivory pallor, skims his fingers over it as if I were made of cream, but Watson is designed by Providence to be flushed with laughter or sex or sprinting or sunburn. I am the one with a face like a marble bust, and I am the one lucky to warm to the hue of parchment paper, and I am the one meant to be hurt in all of this, I thought to myself.
"Your brother will know," he repeated. "Your brother Mycroft will be trusted with knowing that information first. Your elder sibling--I beg your pardon, let us be perfectly fair, your beloved elder sibling--shall hear word of your death before I shall, shall know whether you were gunned down or left to bleed to death in a warehouse or thrown into a river in Switzerland strapped to an iron girder. Should any of those things befall you."
"That's right," I agreed.
I was tired, so tired. But I wanted this. If I could not have him for much longer, the damage his tone of voice was doing to me would soon be merely another memory to cherish in the long watches. No more or less painful than any of the others, because he was so much to me that all topography was flattened utterly. I needed every piece of him, every broken edge that cut me in ways he never saw. This conversation would be just that, when I was without him: a scar in my skin I could love the way I loved his.
"All right." He sounded as if he had been weeping for hours. That wasn't the case, of course. His eyes were whole oceans as they always were, but they were entirely dry. Something had crawled up his throat and shoved in a pitchfork. "I'm going to ask you. I've nothing much left to lose beyond the loss of you, after all: why will your brother know before I do, should the worst happen?"
"Because of the two of you, should the worst happen, I will not allow you to be the one to hear of it alone."
Watson's head snapped up. Then his eyes narrowed into lapis shards from an ancient ruin. "I could kill you myself, just at the moment," he hissed at me.
"If I thought you didn't love me, I'd gladly hand you the knife. It would instantly solve your problem and I would have died for the best of reasons. I have ample cause to believe that you do love me, however, so your conscience would fret you were you to do me in. And we can't have that. Believe me, if you did not love me, and I thought it would save you, I should be bare-necked and at your disposal."
I would have been, too. And it would not even have been murder on his part, not if I asked him for it, only the loveliest suicide ever to deface planet Earth.
The incontrovertible fact that I meant it shocked him, I think. His hands started shaking. When he noticed, Watson crossed his arms and continued to stare me down, now searching for chinks in the armour. I am not invulnerable and he knows it. He knows me to be very, very human. But I think I was gouging him so deeply, he needed a suitably vivid distraction, and I was the only one in the room.
"And you expect me to wait for you?" he shot back.
That did the trick.
It literally had not occurred to me. How I could have been so very stupid I do not know--no, I do know. I know precisely why I had grown so dull of wits by 1891.
It was because my every logical thought for years, all the well-ordered patterns of hard reason I'd established before Baker Street, had been interrupted mid-calculation for nearly a decade by look, look, he's noticed Billy combing his hair straight back the way I do and that's what produced that peculiar smile. Look at the way his head ducks into the breeze when the wind is northwesterly in
I could probably have wept myself, just then. Look at him.
Look at him.
Look at him while you still can.
Did I expect a man like that to wait for me?
Could I ask him to?
"Well?" Watson demanded coldly. "Do you expect me to wait for two years? Without a word or a visit or a night's affection while you run for your life from an angry mob? Do you expect me to wait for ten?"
"No," I realized. "No. I don't."
I cannot imagine that any other man on the face of the earth possesses eyes the caliber of pure blue of John Watson's. I don't expect that anyone does, though I concede it is possible. Perhaps his brother's were similar, when he was alive. In a like vein, if you have never met John Watson and grown to know him, you would have no way of realizing that his heart is a comparably indescribable thing, a thing of symmetry and velvet and boundlessness and coal-hardened worth. But if you have never seen John Watson's eyes, and you have never seen his heart, then I cannot attempt to describe what it looks like when another man--a far lesser one--breaks that heart in the middle of a very ordinary sitting room in
I will not attempt to document it further. I don't suppose many Pompeiians stopped to record what the sky looked like while they suffocated or bled to death or drowned.
"You don't expect me to wait for you?" He was so stunned at first that I fell into the unforgivable blunder of repeating myself.
"I would not ask it of you. I cannot suppose--"
"Have you mistaken me for one of the others, Holmes?" he demanded in a furious, flayed voice. He was advancing on me like a tiger from one of his own exotic adventure novels. "Have you grown confused, and forgotten just who exactly you are speaking with? Or have you always secretly believed that I am cut from the same cloth as all the rest of your lovers? Your landlords? Did it happen when I paid the entirety of the rent years ago, and all the interim, this ludicrous farce I had supposed a love affair, has been your way of thanking me? Have you been waiting for the day, Sherlock Holmes, when I would show my true colours and treat you like a common whore?"
A very, very large string--a string I had not strictly known existed and one made of riding leather--snapped and then lashed back to hit me in the face. I must have looked as if he had backhanded me. I'd have preferred the latter ad infinitum.
I'm not a whore, said the voice of a helpless child in my head.
I gritted my teeth. Don't say a word, I pleaded with myself. With all the violence that lives inside of me, I ordered myself quiet as the words bubbled and hissed. I was physically holding them in, but they were slippery as the devil and just as malevolent. They would come out in torrents and they would sound like my father and this was not a flattened plateau of suffering any longer, this was having your entrails handed to you and being told to look forward to the carrion crows. I clamped my jaw shut, and then I firmly placed my fingers over my mouth. It would work, I thought. If only I was given a few more moments, it would work, and the previous generation of the Holmes family would not make an appearance in our sitting room. There was nothing on earth I hated more than hearing him again.
"Wouldn't it have been easier just to have gone about your own business after you paid me back?" Watson asked casually.
"Easier for me, most assuredly, but far less enjoyable for you," I replied in the hated honeyed voice, complete with the hated honeyed smile. "Or at least, I assume so. None of them ever complained they didn't get their money's worth."
Watson's lips curled into an animalistic snarl even as his face went whiter. But before he could say anything, I dropped to my knees in front of the settee.
If there is one thing in the world I am good at, it is activities pursued in a kneeling position.
I was confused at first, looking back, as to why I would have done such a thing, but it was very simple. I was not a whore, had never been and seldom felt like one, and pretending to be one would make it not true. Very basic logic. If I am faking an illness, I am not ill. If I am playacting like a whore, then by all that's sacred, I cannot be one in fact. Can I? I palmed the front of his trousers and he shivered. I stopped, throwing off my jacket, smiling up at him all the while. Then my cravat was gone, and my cuffs, and I was opening my shirtfront and all of it was carefully learned self-defense.
Don't tense. It'll bruise less.
"What if I lied to you all this time, Watson?" I purred at him. Go limp. Just take it, and when it's over, you'll thank yourself. "What if in addition to living with all those men--I've admitted there were a great many, I've never wished to put myself in a false light--I used to look up at strangers in dark warehouse doorways, just exactly like this, before taking them in my mouth for a shilling a go? Would that disgust you, if it were true?"
"You're not a whore," he whispered. I'd never heard a scream lodged in a whisper before, but that's what it was.
"But what if I were?" I continued with words like sugar dripping from my mouth as I breathed against the wool of his trousers. He was half-hard by then, and that with me spinning rent boy fantasies for him, which made me want to humiliate myself all the more. If I acted like a whore, it was acting, and I was only myself.
I gripped him with both hands by the belt at his lower back and nuzzled my face against the scratchy fabric.
"Don't you secretly want that of me, Doctor? For as long as you made it worth my while, I could at least promise fidelity from your paramour."
"But you don't want me to stop," I pointed out, throwing my shirt behind me. "I'd have noticed by now, if you did."
I began to open his flies--deliberately, painstakingly, agonizingly slow as he fought not to respond to my touch. How could he fail to respond to it? I'd been on my knees for him numberless times, and been inside him and astride him and through him and surrounding him and if I had just shattered his heart, then I was going to let him decimate mine, by God. He could not help but respond to me, and what did it matter if I was a whore? What did it matter if the man who loved him--and I loved him like my own blood--what did it matter if that man was one step above a Seven Dials streetwalker? I would be gone soon enough.
That thought brought some sort of salt water to my mouth that I dimly realized was severely choked-back tears. It was working well enough, thank Heaven, for my eyes were clear, but there were better things to swallow in this world, and so I slowly drew my lips over the crown of his cock as he bit the inside of his lip.
I had only tasted him for a few moments when he pulled away looking absolutely stricken, running his thumb over my lips.
"You prefer virgins?" I mocked him. "I can use my teeth if you like."
"I prefer you," he answered me.
"What if this is me?" I continued ruthlessly. "How many sexual contracts have I never told you about? How many have I told you about in such an obscure fashion that you could not understand me? And why did I make so very certain that you could not comprehend what I was saying? What didn't I want you to know?"
Watson took me with both hands by the hair at my temples. "I don't care who you were at all, though I care deeply what it made you. I wouldn't care if you'd sold yourself for ninepence in an alley off
"Do you no longer think me a whore at present, then? Let me tell you for a moment about another fellow I had supposed thought me rather more than a whore," I went on relentlessly, tugging with an expert hand at his cock all the while, leaning my forehead against his hip bone just so I could smell him. "I was once rather fond of him. Of us. Not of him, though that doesn't...he seemed attached to me, perhaps. So I was fond--I don't know, not of him, but perhaps of what we were supposed to be. Yes, that seems right. In any case, he liked to watch other men fuck me."
Watson had my hand by the wrist in a vise grip a moment later.
"And while he was watching other men fuck me--"
Now he had jerked my other wrist away from where it was caressing his hip and looked down at me with the sort of blue flame which melts steel.
"You don't like this story," I hissed up at him. "But it's true, every word of it, I swear. I told you that you didn't want to hear it. Can't you take it, then, John? Would you prefer not to know who I am?"
John Watson by now had realized that I was going to tell this tale whether it would break me in half or not. And so, holding my wrists as if I were some wild beast, he knelt down in front of me so he could look me in the eye. His own still looked as if they could forge broadswords, but I reeled bluntly onward nevertheless.
"Fine, I'll make it very brief for you. Once he brought a man home with him--young, dark brown hair, very striking hazel eyes as I recall it. All I wanted was the man I lived with, and...do you know, I can't recall why. He had a mind very unlike mine, rather scattered and poetic, and he was--never mind, I only mean to say that I didn't need the others. But that was beside the point when he was in a decadent mood, and also beside the point when a stranger was already sucking me off. And I later deduced, with Harry inside me and me inside this other admittedly attractive fellow, whatever his name was, that Harry had made a mistake. He wanted, as a rule, young gadabouts to play with. But this chap was a whore. I don't recall how I inferred it. Something to do with the cost of men's stockings, I think."
My friend by this time looked as if he rather badly wanted to beat someone half to death, and was only refraining because that person was not in the room. I pitied him, distantly. There is a reason I tend to speak to him in French about certain events. Did that stop me? Of course not. I am a hurricane when once I get going, and I was long past the point of no return.
"So. Harry liked youthful sophisticates, the sort of men who mix with lords, because that's what Harry was. But this lad only had fine clothing and cheap stockings and no fortune whatsoever, and Harry was drunk, and had picked up a well-dressed rent boy by accident, and Harry would be livid when the time came to pay him. So do you know what I did? I found some money in Harry's pocketbook and I paid him. Secretly, when Harry was sleeping. Then he left. And when Harry woke up, I told him I took the money for brandy and he laughed and said not to be ridiculous, I could take whatever I pleased whenever I desired it without asking because he loved me and he always would."
"Did he," Watson said with a voice like an ice pick.
"And on that morning, I thought, looking in the mirror, that I wasn't a whore. I had made a mistake, you see: I thought that since I was the one to pay the whore, that meant I was a rake, to be sure, but the man who pays the rent boy is not a rent boy himself. But while I had been amenable so far to sleeping with other society gentlemen, for the sake of good health I rather drew the line--it's quite senselessly snobbish to feel so, I know, medically speaking, but I did nevertheless--to sleeping with whores simply because Harry had ordered a sixth bottle of champagne that night. And sheepskin isn't the sort of thing you bring up with Harry, the man is an explosion of excess, I'd even admired that about him. When I wasn't on my knees for some lovely creature I'd never seen before nor would see again, but still. There were principles. And mine stopped at rent boys. I said I wouldn't any longer, not with any of them, and that was the end of living with Harry within half an hour. But then one day not very long afterward another man--a considerably better one, one you would like, I think, if you met him--bought me a new wardrobe. That's when I saw my mistake."
"Sherlock Holmes, do not say it," he said, very softly. He had been livid a moment before. How could I have made him so sad so very quickly?
"I had nothing, do you hear me? Nothing. No, that's wrong, I had three fine things: a fine body, and a fine mind, and a fine set of togs. Luckily I wasn't even scarred from--I didn't even have any scars, apart from my left arm. But I was exactly the same as the hazel-eyed boy. We were identical. Except that
Watson dropped my wrists--only incidentally, I am sure had he owned spare hands, he should have retained them, I was not myself in that moment--in favour of placing one hand at the back of my neck and one palm very tenderly against my cheek. And as he leaned forward, nothing but love in his face, what I said was:
"You don't get to kiss the whore, John."
Incredible. Almost laughable in its purity of viciousness. A new gold standard--even for me--for unforgivable remarks.
My life has had several miracles in it. I was about to experience one of them. It was the sort of comment said in the sort of tone that ended everything. It ought by rights to have finished us. It would have finished us, were John Watson not one of the most brilliant students of the human heart in the Western hemisphere. Because what he did next was genius unadulterated, a miracle of homo sapiens puppeteering.
He played along with me.
"Turn around, then, stay on your knees, and bend over the seat of the sofa," he said coolly.
And that was right, that was what I deserved, I knew as I tore my braces off and opened my trousers and undid the string of my underclothes, that would break my heart and then we would be even. Not precisely even. Because his heart is a bottle of satiny
I felt him damp and stiff against me at once and thought for a startled instant that he was going to do it without any preparation at all, despite the fact that for me it must have been over five months, and that was right too, bravo my dear fellow, what an impeccable sense of the drama of the thing he had, for I very much wanted it to hurt and I pictured curtains thrown wide and peels curling away from apples, opening things and soft things so that I wouldn't have to stifle a gasp. But it had only occurred to him rather cleverly that there was more than one way of making something wet. So he took what little time he needed to make me ready, and I thought, get it over with, I cannot bear for your heart to be the only broken one on this floor for an instant longer, and then he spread his knees a little and he took me.
And then he stopped.
I was pinned absolutely still between the settee and John Watson's solidly muscular frame, and could not move without regaining a measure of self-determination, which was the very last thing I wanted. And so I stayed perfectly motionless.
Watson just rubbed his fingertips over the knots at the very top of my spine, waiting. What he was waiting for I had no idea at first.
Then something changed. It was because he was so perfectly still save for his hands stroking at me, I believe. He was almost petting me, soothing the taut skin and carding his fingers through my hair. For at least two or three minutes, as I remember it. And of course, in that position and given some time to think, I recalled the last time this sort of thing had happened.
As I said, it had been just over five months since he had last taken me instead of the reverse, and we had engaged a private box at the opera. The entire string section of a headily brilliant Mozart passage had been skittering over my skin, and he had drawn the curtains and thrown my hands up against the wall and I had been laughing soundlessly. Laughing, as if we weren't acting outrageously enough without laughing in the middle of La clemenza di Tito. That was what it was like with him. Free of care.
Then I recalled the first time it had ever happened.
It was two months after the Sarasate concert and there was still a tiny piece of me which belonged to me. I had been obsessed with him to the point of madness, recording every particle which drifted my way in an effort to catalogue the man, keeping him ever on the edge of an erotic charge that--so I feared--would release him from my spell the instant I let up. I will readily admit now that I likely exhausted the poor soul. I was nothing short of a supremely self-possessed lunatic. And then one evening I took a bath at something other than my usual time. The entire room was hot with steam and I was through and as clean as I would ever be (which is the exact sensation I seek out when exiting a bath), and lo and behold, there was someone in the doorway watching me.
I know what I look like. No decent lover can fail to accomplish that much. I look like a boxer on a narcotics binge, which is precisely what I am. I look like a regal ghost who happens to be realer and more corporeal, more keen and more present, than the living. And I look like a cold-hearted hedonist with an intellect, which is also very close to the truth. But I also looked like other things that night at seven in the evening and not the time I would usually indulge in a bath. I looked like something rather finer than I am in that mist, something softer, and I smiled back at him staring at me, and I caught my own reflection in the mirror.
The face was utterly strange to me. I could not recall the last time I had smiled at anyone without wanting something.
Even at Watson. I had wanted things then too...things like some variety of reassurance he would be there years later when I would yet be revering him from whatever distance then lay between us. A lightening of his mood. An answering smile in return. At the very least, a shift in his expression which proved that my smiling somehow affected him.
But that night at seven in the evening, it was just a faint tilt to my lips because I had not expected him to be watching me and there he was. Watching me.
My friend was kissing me an instant later, and then he wasn't kissing me but devouring me instead, his lips dredging the hollows of my throat. We were both tearing the clothes off his flesh within seconds, needing them gone. His brown skin tasted of burnt sugar and clean sand with a sheen of salted caramel. And I asked myself when I was inexplicably flat on my back in his lovely little upstairs bedroom with my knees wrapped round his waist just how it had all happened.
I do not mean to give the impression that I had not dreamed of enjoying that particular enterprise. On the contrary. Before we were together, I'd woken up from visions shocked that I had not driven a hole through my own bedsheet, I had so thoroughly imagined him erasing my badly penciled walls. I only mean to say that I had been so busy loving him that I had forgotten what it felt like to lose all control of myself. It's called taking, but I never felt I was doing anything other than giving to him when we made love. We never spoke of it, but from the beginning we naturally matched that way. Part of that is my own absurdly masterful nature, but there were other parts more specific and more timely.
I knew he felt ugly. I knew he was in pain. I knew he thought his body little better than a cart with a broken axle. Every single day he disgusted himself and every single day I watched him and every single time I eased into him he looked happy and disbelieving and downright grateful. Grateful to me, for sleeping with a war hero who resembles a warmer-natured cousin of Apollo.
So when my friend had first reversed roles, he'd unwound me quick as a ball of cotton rolling down a staircase. Ages had passed since I'd been blessed with a partner who dared to take my breath away, who knew loving roughness and eager pressure and greedy need. And so I had forgotten the way rhythms throb through me, as they do when my violin begins playing me and not the other way round. But there I was entirely by accident, and on that very first occasion I had known exactly why it was different with the Doctor than it was with anyone else.
With the Doctor, I could not help but believe that--howsoever improbable--I was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
He actually wanted someone who had been hollowed out and then replaced with a framework of barbed wire. And when I was with him, in dim twilights or grey dawns, I actually felt as if there were blood in my veins.
Then I recalled where I was in fact.
I concluded (accurately, as it turned out) that, although I had handed Watson my heart and explicitly instructed him to smash it on the hardwood, he had absolutely no intention of complying. Possibly, he was incapable of the act. At any rate, he had reversed my entire momentum in the space of about three minutes.
"I'm not a whore," I whispered.
That flat declarative split my mind in two and I buried my face in my arms.
Watson just sent a hand gently up my back, his other hand snaking round to rest lovingly against my rather concave stomach, cradling me as we both knelt bent onto a settee in the most intimate posture known to man. He leaned down when his hand reached my hair and he resumed stroking his fingers through it, dropping to rest his face against the back of my neck.
We were quiet for a little after that. He hadn't called me a whore at all, I remembered. Only accused me of expecting him to treat me like one. I ought to listen better, it crossed my mind. While I was still in range of his voice.
"Some of them loved me, you know," I continued, addressing the sofa cushion. "My landlords. A few of them."
It had only been two, but I wasn't in the mood for even counting that high.
"The ones who were not lunatics loved you," he mouthed against my shoulder blade. "And so do I."
"But you aren't a landlord at all," I murmured. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I know you can't forgive me. I don't think you ever will. But you're one of the only good things I've ever had."
He knew that already. But it bore repeating from time to time. And when would I be allowed to say it again?
He reached down and cupped his hand firmly around me and ran his thumb over the tip of my cock. And as I gasped out something addressed to a deity who would possibly not have appreciated it, I registered that not only had Watson's passion failed to waver during the bizarre preceding interlude, but I myself was by now--as had certainly not been the case previously--achingly aroused.
Which seems to be one of the direct results of ruminating over the best sex of your life.
I shoved myself up with both my forearms. He was barely moving at all, just rotating his hips in tiny circles, because when he is in me to the hilt and commences doing that, it causes electrical storms behind my eyelids and he knows it--and by pure coincidence, kneeling on the carpet like a whore with your chest on a sofa cushion is the ideal position in which to most comfortably achieve this effect. Barely a minute into the deed once we had incorporated actual motion into our undertakings, I was a quivering piece of jelly which had lost all sense of self save that it could not move its pelvis in either direction without the most delectable shock charges pulsing through it, and that the complementary being behind me was some sort of deity. I was sure of only that much, I will swear to it. Then I recalled who I was, as the lightning storm gathered power and I felt gooseflesh all over my back from his tongue on my spine and I heard a brief breathy keening sound which had almost certainly come from me.
I wanted to say something. I was sure of it. I grew distracted once more when Watson moved his left hand off my hip and snaked it up my breast, curling it firmly over my shoulder from the front and pressing down. I cried out, I must have done, because I recall thinking, God damn it all, that was not what I wanted to say, that had no words in it, and he's only moving a radius of perhaps an inch but every time he does he brushes up against God damn it God damn it God damn it, perhaps if I looked at him I could remember words.
I let my head fall back and tried it. Luckily, it worked.
"Please wait for me," I begged him. "Please."
Maybe it would only be a few months, I thought wildly, feeling a slight trickle of sweat run down my back where the curve of my spine bowed ever so slightly away from him. Maybe it would be two months and I would come home. Maybe the Yard would succeed in capturing all of the gang at once and I wouldn't have to go. Maybe God would notice that I had gotten a fairly raw deal previous to meeting Watson and send James Moriarty to hell by way of a convenient heart attack and I could stay at home in London with my fiddle and my rainstorms and my newspapers and my seventeen steps and my boy, who was sending waves of pure desert heat up my spine.
"I don't understand why we are saying these things to each other at all," the Doctor told me raspily. "I can't comprehend them, and I've always understood us perfectly. Even when we weren't making sense. I've understood every delirious word up until half an hour ago. But I would wait for you until the day I died."
"You can't die. That's the entire point. Why else would I leave you?"
I was hurtling towards another sort of death entirely, and so was my friend if his breathing was any indication. And it was, because I can tell by the sound of his breath alone whether he is sad or wistful or grateful or angry or delighted or coming and I would keep that breath alive and well even if it meant not hearing it for years.
It wouldn't be years, would it? It couldn't be. I loved him too much.
A piece of Verlaine drifted through my head. Tout suffocant et bleme... Without him, I would be a falling leaf.
Votre ame est un paysage choisi, I wanted recite to him. In his case, it wouldn't have been poetry. It was true. It had always been true. His soul is the choicest of countries. But I'd lost my languages, all of them, and so I said nothing.
He kissed the whore, with my mouth open, with my head on his shoulder, and I was unstrung.
We fell asleep in my bed, as we are wont to do. He curled himself up with his head on my shoulder and his knee between my legs, as I had utterly worn him out, the poor perfect creature. I am admittedly very tiring. When I woke up the next morning, however, very early--five thirty, I believe, and all the world grey as soot--I was alone.
I got out of bed and looked about me curiously. No Watson.
Rising, I dressed. The floorboards were pleasantly cool under my feet. There was something strange about my house, looming and brittle. After the fight we'd had the night before, after managing to fall asleep due to nothing save pure emotional exhaustion, this was the moment, I thought. Or later tonight, perhaps. I had to leave. But it had to be soon, and where could he be? I wondered. Where was he when he knew I was leaving him, when he knew we hadn't any time?
He wasn't in the sitting room either. Still barefoot, I padded up his staircase. His door was open, and a pang of fear shot through me. They had taken him away from me, I was too late--they had spirited him away in the dark.
But when I entered the room, there John Watson was, sitting cross-legged on his coverlet. He wore a dressing gown and trousers, but his broad, scarred chest was quite bare. He'd smoked a number of cigarettes. Five, as a matter of fact. When I came through the door, my friend's eyes met mine and he spoke a single word.
He was graver than I had ever seen him in my life. As grave as I imagined he must have looked when staring down a semi-delirious fellow solider with a hacksaw gripped in his tanned, calloused hand. Approaching him warily, I kissed him, and his lips moved gently beneath my own. I pulled back of my own accord and gripped myself at the forearms, facing him.
"You've something to tell me," I said softly.
I didn't sit down. Whatever this was about to consist of, he deserved the right to hold court. I was the accused, and I knew it. Best to stand before him like a man whilst he pronounced sentencing.
"You are going to mark me very carefully," Watson said slowly. "You are not giving me a choice in this matter. You are taking a decision which drastically affects us both and you are making it entirely your own affair. You are the one who makes the rules. I understand that about you. There is very little about you which I do not know and cherish, even when it recoils against me. However, you do not make all the rules, and so you must listen very carefully to what I am about to say to you."
I waited. I held his eyes. There truly was a surgical saw in his hand, so to speak. The only thing left was to see what it would be amputating, precisely. He had no intention of breaking my heart, or he hadn't the night before, so what would it be? I could practically taste serrated metal on my tongue. And eerily blue eyes ought not to look like a frozen lake in the depths of January. Ninety percent of the time, they look like June.
"You will not reconsider?" he asked once more. "No matter what I say to you, what I do? There is nothing that will convince you to stay near me?"
"No," I answered him.
"Then get out."
A thousand things happened just then that I failed to remember until later, when I recalled the instant with the clarity of a million mirrors shattering and every piece showing me the same image: there was a thread coming loose in the collar of his nightshirt. A tiny clump of the blond lashes of his right eye had tangled together. There was only the single candle and yet he seemed to cast thousands of shadows, a man lit from all sides and yet none. He was trying to speak through a jaw that was clenching terribly and all I could think was don't, don't, it'll be the worse for you, you have to let me be the monster, I am already a monster, oh please don't, it isn't in you.
But it was in him, and I had always seen it: that steely edge of independence, the sort which would not allow me to shoulder sacrifices against his will. To do anything that was truly against his will. Nothing could be done against his will, and I had never been stupid enough to attempt it before 1891. What a brainless mistake. John Watson is a veteran and a doctor of medicine and a hero and a man.
That was why I longed for him so in the first place.
"I am not going to wait for you to find the perfect moment," he said. "We are not going to make love under a counterpane in the pitch dark and then fall asleep twisted together and I wake to find you've had your perfect memory and you are gone and I am alone. I have no intention of indulging your penchant for martyrdom an inch further. I will not wait for you to be ready. I am not ready, and my consent is not given, and I think you're a damned fool."
The way my mind unspools the scene back for me, his voice would have broken on the next word. So he stopped, and took a breath, and then kept at it.
"I think you're a coward, and you've decided it's easier to abandon a family when it's too painful to suit you any longer than to allow that family to fight by your side, even if it's to the death. I think you've never seen a war in your life, and I have, I have seen it, Holmes, and you refuse to trust me on the subject. I believe you've confused being selfless and honourable with simply being alone. I have offered you my everything, you see, including entering a battle in lockstep with you to the finish, but you don't care about that. You don't want it. Ironic, because I am an old campaigner as well as an old friend. So leave me, but I am preserving the last vestiges of my dignity. I shall be here when you return. Waiting. I cannot live without you. But I can choose when you leave, as I cannot choose when you come back. I don't know whether you've packed, as I suspect you have done, but the subject is irrelevant. Get out of my house."
The minuscule knot of his pale eyelashes had come apart when he brushed his fingertips over his eyes. That speech was not an attack of Watson's at-times-virulent temper. Neither were the words purposefully calculated to wound me so very badly that I would not be capable of dragging myself away.
That declaration was nothing more nor less than precisely the way he felt. I had finally done it. I had at last found an act for which John Watson could not forgive me, and apparently I had taken it. So I parted my lips to say goodbye to him.
"No, you don't get any more words," he choked. "No goodbyes, no apologies, no explanations, no endearments, no synonyms for any of it. Not another syllable out of you, Sherlock Holmes, and that's with the full knowledge that I would suffer hell to hear your voice again. For the moment, you don't get to love me any longer. That is the bargain. You don't get to comfort me, and you don't get to know how I manage in the ten hours after you walk out that door, because you'll be gone, won't you? And in future, wherever you are, you won't get to listen to yourself speaking tender words before you abandon me. This is the rule. This is what keeps me free-willed. Understood?"
I nodded. I could hardly have done otherwise. And in any case, he was right.
"I live alone without despising you, praying you survive without me, and you hold your bloody silver tongue," Watson whispered. "Get out."
I have always been cursed with a disobedient streak, however. And I thought it over carefully, how I would make use of it. There had to be something I had not yet said to him. Something which was simply true, and which I could say without any guile or expectation of reward, because I frankly did not think he could have stomached a hopeful sentiment from me in that instant. Forgiveness is all very well, but there is something to be said for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. He knew that throwing me to the kerb would be the burning which cauterized his own wound. Watson's choice was that simple: dip the raw flesh in alcohol or let it rot and spread to the heart. He preferred to hurt than to hate me. I understood it perfectly. And I could say nothing that required a response, or all would fester again.
"I'll think of you until I can no longer think of anything at all," I murmured, turning and walking down his stairs.
And get out were the last words John Watson said to me for over three years.