I awoke very gradually that
morning, my senses asserting
singly rather than as a whole. I could tell from the direction of the
light falling through the window that dawn was about to blossom into a
fully fledged sunrise, and a few minutes later could hear the
twittering of birds on the elaborate scrolled stonework. A vague corner
of my mind wondered, from the sensation of the bedclothes, whether I
was wearing anything, and the answer proved to be negative. When my
hand stirred at last, it struck an object which was surprisingly warm
and solid, and in another moment, to my initial shock, I could smell
the heady tobacco and fresh linen aroma belonging to the world's only
unofficial consulting detective.
Then it all came back to me.
Fragments of the previous night flashed before my eyes, and it crossed my mind that I might yet be dreaming. But no--my muscles consented to move only grudgingly, not the effortless motion of dreams. I considered shifting to my other side, and I considered remaining where I was. Should I stir at all, I was certain I would wake him; the man has the reflexes of a feral cat.
For the moment, I calmed myself by examining my surroundings. Thankfully, I already faced him. He was sleeping peacefully on his back, the faintest shadow of growth beginning on his pale face. One long hand was resting on the pillow beside his raven head, as if he had run his fingers through his hair in exhaustion and his arm had fallen dead from fatigue. The early-morning light illuminated every detail of the room. I could see faint dust-motes shimmering in the air against the ancient velvet curtains, and my friend's eyes shifting slightly in his sleep behind dark, sweeping lashes. He was dreaming of something. I could not begin to imagine what.
Finally I raised myself on one elbow, and in response to my movement the lids slowly opened, revealing fog-grey irises. I had seen them countless times before. As a matter of fact, I had studied them. However, when examined at a distance of a mere few inches, I discovered that they were shot through with lighter silver, and rimmed with a fine dark edge of charcoal.
"Good morning," he said softly. A smile lurked about the edges of his mouth.
"Good morning," I replied. It sounded ludicrous to my ears, but it seemed the only option available.
There was a faint birthmark on his shoulder, a tiny smudge of darker flesh near his collarbone. This, too was a discovery. Wondering idly what it tasted like, I bent my head to find out.
"Did you sleep well?" he inquired when I looked up at him again, his voice rough with disuse.
The formality, or perhaps the normalcy, of the question brought a smile to my face which I made some effort to hide. For the first time since I had come to know Sherlock Holmes, I had not an inkling of how he was going to react to me. The supremely self-confident intellectual I had known for years appeared momentarily to have been replaced by a politely inquisitive fellow whose glancing look contained equal measures affection and shyness. This chap I had never encountered before in my life, but I had no desire whatever to offend him.
"Very well, thank you. Although if I am any judge of time, we can't have been asleep for more than three hours."
"Surely you exaggerate. We retired at eleven."
"Yes, but I seem to recall you having distracted me from any attempt at slumber," I reminded him.
"Ah, yes. My apologies. It is all rather a blur."
"That is undoubtedly odd. I can recall it vividly."
"What part?" he asked, allowing himself to smile more fully.
"I speak of the lengthy interim after you kissed me. You do remember that, don't you?"
"Let me see," he sighed luxuriously, stretching his arms like a lithe and graceful cat. "I do recall kissing you. But I do not recall precisely what it was like, so in a moment, with your permission, I may refresh my memory."
"I will consider it," I granted, my heart quickening quite absurdly, "but I should very much like to know how you worked out that if you kissed me, I would not pack my bags or knock you down?"
"Those scenarios seemed unlikely." He rolled onto his side and threw a leg companionably over my body under the coverlet. "So, to further reconstruct the events of last night, I kissed you. And then you claim I distracted you."
"You distracted me three times," I asserted seriously.
"Heavens," he murmured, his eyes closing.
I ran the back of my fingers over one of his cheekbones. Their fineness, had the rest of his face not been so masculine, would have made him appear even thinner than he actually was. Searching for the words to express myself, I considered several options, discarding them each in turn. I had just made myself flush when his eyes opened again and his brow quirked amusedly.
"What on earth are you thinking?"
"You cannot deduce it?" I deflected, stalling for time.
"Not anymore." He captured my hand with one of his far more elegant ones. "I knew very nearly everything about my friend John Watson, but I don't believe you can technically be considered my friend any longer."
"I suppose the reverse is true as well. That is unfortunate, as we were exceptional friends."
My companion's chest, which was not obscured by the rather sumptuous sheets, brought to mind a marble statue I had once seen on the streets of Florence, a classical rendering of Apollo in pale stone that was cool and soothing to the touch. Wondering what the Renaissance worshipers of the masculine form might have made of the divine being in my bed, my gaze wandered back to his face.
His eyes glowed at me coyly. "What were you thinking about?" he repeated.
Opening my mouth, I found myself once again at a loss. "I haven't the slightest idea how to have a conversation like this with you."
"Why not?" he asked, looking suddenly very concerned.
"No, no," I laughed. "Don't be alarmed. But it is going to take some time for me to adjust to the death of our friendship. This is all very new and, quite frankly, terribly alarming."
"I don't know why you should suddenly develop a hesitancy in speaking to me now, of all times," he pointed out, still worried. "You did not appear to mince any words yesterday."
"Yes, I am sorry about that. Well, I am not precisely sorry, but--Holmes, I can speak with you about any topic under the sun, have always felt completely free with you, but my dear fellow, as vibrant and sensual as you are, you have not all these years portrayed yourself as a very...sexual creature."
"Oh," he nodded. When his head moved, his jawline arrested my attention. It was square, determined, chiseled, and exceedingly distracting. "I understand. Well, my tastes in such matters would likely not embellish the admittedly bizarre social standing I now posses. But I do see what you mean."
"I am struggling to come to grips with your--I mean to say with this newfound--intimacy."
"Lucky thing you are a doctor, then, and do not subscribe to needless prudery."
"Yes, I suppose it is lucky."
When I said nothing more, he propped himself up on his elbow with an exasperated expression. His hair was standing at attention and at numerous angles. It occurred to me that if I wanted to reach out and touch it, as I had longed to do thousands of times, I could. This development seemed to me scarcely credible. I swept a portion of it back from his temple. It was fine but very dense, with a silken texture. I had often wondered.
Taking a breath, I ventured, "I was just thinking that I have not been distracted by anyone three times in as many hours since St. Bart's."
I was rewarded for this confidence with a dry chuckle. "I confess I have not found myself in circumstances warranting such ardor in quite some time," he owned. "There are very few gentlemen in the world I find inspiring in the first place, and--" Stopping, he grinned, leaning his head on his hand. "Now, what the devil are your eyebrows doing? No, don't tell me. You are wondering how many."
"I would never dream of asking you any such thing," I protested, rather appalled. I would have to be far more careful than I had proven in the past. Apparently the incorrigible fellow could still read minds despite his protestations to the contrary.
"No, you wouldn't. But that does not mean you are not curious about the past conquests of your friend the heartless automaton. Anyone as deficient in human sympathy as I am--"
"My dear fellow," I protested, although I knew perfectly well I had brought this remark on my own head with my violently antagonistic behavior the day before.
He did not seem angered, however, merely amused. "I admit that you may have to adjust one or two of your notions on the subject. Although you were perfectly right in thinking grit in sensitive instruments disturbs me greatly. Sand in particular. I once spent a night on the edge of the ocean with a rather adventurous--whatever is the matter?"
"Nothing. I am simply making an effort to alter my thinking to include Sherlock Holmes as a man of passion," I clarified, feeling as if any dignity I had once possessed was lost somewhere under the bed with my clothing.
"I've no reason not to satisfy your curiosity. The number is very reasonably small, and happens to be twelve. Do not, I beg of you, volunteer any such information yourself, please. You are the scourge of three separate continents and two genders, and I would not survive the revelation. I do not require my confidence to be decimated before breakfast."
"I don't see why it should be," I muttered, recalling the variety of methods employed upon my person the night before. "You are very, very good at what you do. At everything you do."
This time a faint blush spread over his cheeks, and a subtle blue vein in his neck pulsed visibly. "I am delighted to learn I am not hopelessly out of practice."
"So, the last time you...."
"For Heaven's sake, Holmes."
"I beg your pardon, Doctor," he said with a very unconvincing show of contrition. He adjusted the sheet demurely. "Distracted someone. Using any of various methods in my repertoire, a few of which I have shown you. Pray continue."
"Never mind," I said quickly. I was, as the saying goes, all at sea, and this condition appeared to be amusing my companion to no end.
"I rather like you like this," he stated happily.
I bashed his head with an ornamental pillow. This action felt exceedingly gratifying.
"Confound it, my dear, dear fellow, yesterday I was livid at you, I almost think we might have finally come to blows, and this morning you are in my bed."
"That is true," he conceded. "I for one consider it a marked improvement."
"The world has gone mad," I groaned. "I have no desire to pry, Holmes, nor the wish for any further information which I have not earned. I only want to understand. To understand, and to be allowed to grow used to...to you, as you are now. Which is to say, very different from the way you were."
"We could make it four, if you like. Since we haven't risen, I believe it would still be counted in the same session. Four, with a brief respite for sleep. As part of an ongoing effort to allow you to grow accustomed to me," he suggested. Although he did not touch me, he may as well have, for I could feel his eyes burning into me like stray ashes from a cigar. "There are one or two trifling things I'm keen to try."
My pulse began thumping quite against my will. I could see slight marks on his lean torso where my own hands had gripped him the night before. He had drawn one knee up, and his shapely fingers dangled over it languidly. How many times had I wanted to put one of those fingers between my teeth and determine if they tasted of porcelain, or only looked it? How many times had I yearned to explore the exquisite texture of them with my lips and tongue? How many times had I burned for the events set in motion by this cold, incisive, aloof companion, and damn him to hell, for how many years had he brushed past me indifferent, the ties of his dressing gown fluttering behind him? And now, here he was. Mine. I had been shouting at him viciously the day before, and now he was mine. It beggared all belief. I reached for the confounded hand, very likely the appendage which had started all the trouble in the first place, and commenced my exploration at the second knuckle of his ring finger.
Sitting at the impossibly long breakfast table two hours later, alone, I consumed a quantity of eggs and kippers, my appetite strangely enhanced. I was sipping my second cup of coffee when Holmes strode in, his face brightened by the wind. After a quick and efficient survey of the tall windows and a glance at the doors, he leaned over me and kissed the back of my neck until my fork fell with a clatter to the stone floor. He then reached down and helped himself to a taste of my coffee.
"You've sent your telegram?" I asked, praying my voice would emerge normally.
"Yes, I sent a report from Grimpen to Princetown as to the death of Selden. And I have relieved the mind of my faithful young Cartwright. He would certainly have pined away at the door of the hut had I not done so. I shall not be returning to that habitation."
"No?" I inquired.
"No. It is quite unbearably damp, and I don't think you would care for the fact that it lacks a door. I have grown increasingly aware of late of the value of privacy in sleeping arrangements."
"Have you?" I coughed, for at that moment in strode Sir Henry, broad-shouldered and affable, his frank face refreshed and awake.
"Ah, here he is!" Holmes exclaimed. He had placed a hand on my shoulder when he had stolen my coffee, and he did not bother to remove it now.
"Good morning, Holmes," said the baronet. "You look like a general who is planning a battle with his chief of the staff."
"That is the exact situation," my friend replied readily, his fingers pressing into me. "Watson was asking for orders."
I felt as if I were in enemy territory, transported somehow to a hostile landscape in which I must at all costs act normally, but had lost any knowledge of what normal behavior resembled. I have no doubt but that Sir Henry suspected nothing, and Holmes had rested a hand on my shoulder countless times, but it was impossible to sit two inches away from him without recalling that a filigree of blue veins fluttered in his neck when I kissed them, and that when he cried out he sounded exactly as he had once during the sweat-soaked throes of delirium in Lyons, and that just where the bones of his pelvis interacted with his external oblique abdominal muscle, there was a deep diagonal depression which could bring one to a belief in a Deity. The merest thought of the those taught twin lines, in fact, stirred longings I'd been busy satiating all night through.
"When do you desire to go?" Sir Henry was inquiring coldly.
I came back to myself in an instant, replacing my cup in its saucer. Where could we possibly go? Had they been speaking of London a moment previous?
"Immediately after breakfast. Watson will leave his things as a pledge he will come back to you. One grows to rely upon him, I know, but I'm afraid I cannot spare him just now. Watson, you will send a note to Stapleton that you regret you cannot come."
"Of course," I said, utterly bemused.
"One more direction," my friend added to Sir Henry. "Let them know that you intend to walk home."
"To walk across the moor? But that is the very thing you have cautioned me not to do!"
To hide my confusion, I took another sip of coffee. The thought struck me square in the head that Holmes' mouth had been in that exact location moments before, and I lost another few seconds of the conversation taking place above me. When I returned to it, I could not help but curse myself for lack of attention, for I had no wish to endanger Sir Henry Baskerville with my ignorance, and even less of a wish to disappoint Holmes at the close of an investigation.
"As you value your life, do not go across the moor in any direction save the path from Merripit House to Grimpen Road, which is your natural way home."
Sir Henry, of whom as an open, good-hearted fellow I had grown rather fond, looked from one to the other of us in dismay, but as little as I understood Holmes' instructions--indeed, as little as I understood any of the events in the past twelve hours--there was nothing for it but implicit obedience. The baronet fell into a brown study at the desertion of his companions, and although I wished to comfort him, I could not begin to think how. My friend assured Sir Henry that he was not being left in the lurch, but if I had been the heir of the Baskervilles, I do not think I would have believed him any more than Sir Henry appeared to do. We left him staring at the flagstone floor with his brows knitted, Holmes in the lead and I making a valiant effort not to picture my friend in any other guise than that of a well-regarded and highly adept consulting detective.
Thus it was in a state of profound bewilderment that I accompanied Sherlock Holmes to Coombe Tracy. The breeze was pleasant enough, and the landscape of the moors striking in its barren beauty, but the hundreds of questions forming in my mind without my consent left me scant energy to enjoy it. As for Holmes, I grudgingly allowed him his habitual silence. I knew better than to question him, after all--and yet I could scarcely be comforted by the fact that I knew any queries would inevitably avail me nothing.
Young Cartwright met us in town, and retrieved a telegram for Holmes from the station office. He was a fresh-faced young fellow, active and eager, with that confident air of delegated responsibility and enterprise that Holmes so often inspires in children. Shaking my hand gravely, he looked up the length of Holmes' impressive height for further instructions.
"Lestrade arrives at five forty," Holmes reported, placing the telegram in his pocket. "He is the best of the professionals, and I believe we shall need his assistance. Now Cartwright, are you ready for a journey this morning?"
"Always ready, sir," the lad grinned.
"It is one of your more salient qualities, I grant. I wish you to return to London, and as soon as you arrive there, send a telegram in my name to Sir Henry. Here is your fare, and something a little extra."
"Thank you, I'm sure. What'll I say?"
"Tell him if he finds the pocketbook I dropped at the Hall, to send it by registered post to Baker Street. Have you got all that?"
"London, telegram, Sir Henry, pocketbook. I'm already gone, sir," he said, and with a salute to the two of us, hurried back to the station.
"That boy will end up Prime Minister if he's not careful," Holmes smiled. He took me by the arm and we left the station, walking down the pebble-strewn road. It was a gesture so habitual for him, and indeed so familiar, as to make me exceedingly uncomfortable. "I think that we must call upon your acquaintance Mrs. Laura Lyons without further delay."
It was an easy distance to Mrs. Lyon's cottage, and I saw at once her lights were visible from the windows. She received us in her office, where she was replying to her correspondence, and her chin lifted defiantly when my friend opened the interview with his customary cold efficiency by accusing her of having hidden information regarding the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. For all my days in service to his cases, on occasion Sherlock Holmes' utter disregard for the social niceties could still make me writhe inwardly.
"You have withheld the connection between your confessed rendezvous with Sir Charles and the fact that it corresponded exactly with the place and hour of his death."
"There is no connection," she insisted, but her face paled as she spoke.
"Mrs. Lyons," he said rather more kindly, "won't you allow me to set this right? We regard this case as one of murder, and it would pain me to implicate not only you, but your friend Mr. Stapleton and his wife as well."
She sprang from her chair with a cry of pain, and at once sat down again, grasping the arms as if they would save her from drowning. "His wife!" she gasped. Tears started into her eyes, and then she angrily blinked them away again. "His wife! He is not a married man!"
I poured her a glass of water and waited for her grip on the chair to relax so that I might place it in her trembling hand. "Dr. Watson, please!" she pleaded. "He hasn't any wife."
"Here is a photograph of the couple taken in York four years ago," Holmes stated clinically, handing it to her. "You will have no difficulty in recognizing either of them, I think. Here also are three written descriptions by trustworthy witnesses."
"Oh, the monster!" she choked, repressing a sob. Setting the glass down, she placed her hands over her face piteously. "His wife! He has lied to me. Lied in every conceivable way. His wife. Not one word of truth has he ever told me," she wept. My eyes darted to Holmes, but his own were riveted on the lady. "I had imagined it was all for my sake. But now--oh, it is too cruel. I see that I was never anything but a tool in his hands." She turned her face up to Holmes in despair. "Why should I preserve faith with him who never kept any with me?"
To my shock, something in what she said struck my friend profoundly. His face grew whiter, and a slight spasm of pain crossed his features, there for a moment and then gone without a trace. Impulsively, he knelt on the floor beside her and pressed a hand against her arm.
"It is the best of all the questions you could ask, though in another sense it is also the worst. That he used you is manifestly true, and I am sorry for it, but you are right to think he deserves neither your forgiveness nor your consideration. I am not glad to be the bearer of ill news. But insomuch as I can set it right, I will," he swore.
My friend has always been sympathetic to those clients of his who had genuinely suffered, but I had never heard such a heartfelt speech from him in my life. I sat down in a cane-backed chair and watched him, turning his words over and over in my mind. Inexplicably, I grew increasingly distressed, but soon enough I'd pinpointed the cause: I had always imagined I knew him better than anyone. Indeed, knowing him inside and out had all too often filled the void left by loving him. And yet here he continued committing act after act as little like himself as I was like Sir Henry.
Questioningly wearily if I had ever really known him at all, any particle of him, I sat in silence as Mrs. Lyons poured her heart out before what had once been the world's most isolated man. The news of the Stapletons' designs struck her hard, but she soon recovered enough to devote herself wholly to Holmes' cause. He, in turn, displayed his usual courtesy, palpably altered before my eyes by an astonishing level of genuine warmth. He no longer touched her, but the sight of his active hand resting pensively against his face brought still more tumultuous memories to my mind as I struggled against increasing fatigue. The afternoon shadows were lengthening into great swaths of grey when I departed with him an hour later, convinced I had somehow fallen down Alice's rabbit hole.
We walked down the street for nearly a minute in silence. When Holmes stretched out a hand absently to take my arm again, I must have flinched at the touch.
"What is it?" he asked immediately.
"You startled me," I sighed. "That is all."
"I've never startled you in that way before," he retorted calmly. We resumed walking. He thrust his hands in his pockets and looked down at the path with a frown settling between his brows.
"Why should it perturb you so? I am anxious, and out of sorts, and quite possibly hallucinating this entire day."
"I have seen you anxious and out of sorts, and forgive my observing this isn't the same." He smiled at me, and I am not doing him an injustice to term it a wicked smile. "It isn't as if I'm going to bite you."
Terribly salacious thoughts flooded my mind, and I only managed to surface with an effort. "Let us just say that you have done a great many things since last night which utterly confound me and leave it at that," I replied testily. "At this point, I should hardly be surprised if you did bite me."
"No, that would not have startled you. In fact, you quite liked that, as I recall."
"Holmes," I warned him.
"Not that the pleasure was one-sided, I assure you. The base of your spine could prove a Holy Land for me."
"For the love of God, Holmes, we are on a public street," I hissed at him. The commingled feelings of vexation and flattery that he would say such things to me were growing intolerable.
"A deserted public street, and in Dartmoor. I am sorry. Truly, I am, and for a number of things, but I cannot pretend to understand."
"Has it never taken you a period of time to grow used to a new subject?" I demanded, my patience beginning to wear thin. "Are you really such a mechanical savant? Were you born able to perform advanced chemistry? Speak French? Accept the fact that--as disconcerting as it might be to face it--you may as well never have met your dearest friend for all you know of the man?"
Far from taking offense, he merely laughed at my distress. "I am a very great deal less intimidating, complex and beautiful than either advanced chemistry or French."
"Not--" I began, and then stopped myself. Not to me, I could have said. Not then, not now, and so far as I could judge, not ever. But saying it was another matter entirely.
"Damn it all to hell," he snapped suddenly, stopping in the middle of the road. "Come with me," he ordered. He seized my arm once more and reversed our direction, now taking us down a side path away from the main portion of Coombe Tracy.
I asked him no questions. Indeed, I felt marginally more comfortable than I had all day, since being ordered about by Sherlock Holmes is a task with which I am well acquainted. We'd walked for three or four minutes when he left the path, strode through a scraggly swath of moor grasses mingling with mud and stones, and threw open the door of a very pleasant if abandoned-looking barn. The door was lost in the shadow of a moss-encrusted oak, but I could see from without it was not in frequent use, although well laid in with hay.
"What can you be thinking?" I questioned coolly.
"I am going in this barn," he said, more calm now than he had been. "You can either accompany me and I will ease some of the tensions so manifestly surging through you, or you can go back to the station if you're careful not to be seen, or stay just there and guard the door against chickens while I indulge in a little sleep. I won't pretend it's all one to me, for I admit I crave your company. You cannot go back to the Hall. But if you wish me to leave you alone, I will."
I considered, mollified somewhat by his sympathetic tone. "I have always, and still do, prefer being with you to being alone."
A tight smile lit one corner of his face at this. He turned around and walked through the gate. When I had followed him, my eyes adjusting to the pale light, he shut the door and barred it from the inside. The air was cool and surprisingly fresh, for there were gaps in the slats forming the walls and the roof. Holmes made his way to one of the unoccupied stables, and seeing no better options, I followed him. It was impeccably clean, its stock of horses having likely been only just traded or sold.
"I've a minor proposition for you," he stated, leaning back against a convenient post and lighting a cigarette.
"Have you indeed?"
"Yes. The point is this, my dear chap. I believe that I am making you uncomfortable, and I should like to make it up to you one way or another."
I made an effort to read his eyes, but he was looking at his cigarette. "I suppose you have already thought of a way," I remarked dryly. Breathing in, I found myself grateful for the distracting clean odours of hay and lumber.
"If you are against it, we shall think of something else," he dismissed me, waving smoke in the air. "However, this is what I propose. We have some time to spare, and I will do whatever you like within these walls. Nothing barred whatsoever, my dear Watson--anything you desire to do, we shall do it, but you are going to have to ask me. Aloud. For everything."
It was not the proposal I had expected--I had hoped deeply for some explanation of the previous night's events--but now it was on the table, it decidedly drove all others from my mind.
"And what do you imagine that might accomplish, apart from the obvious benefit of passing the time?" I inquired, attempting to look as if his idea had not stirred my loins considerably.
"One, you will shed a measure of the caution I've unfortunately engendered in you over the course of our friendship. I take full blame for it, please believe me. And two--well, I also will benefit, I promise you, though in another way."
"How do you know I may not order you to do something you would not enjoy in the least?" I demanded. "After all, as I said, I am beginning to feel as if I've never met you."
I felt not only aroused, but patronized, I grant. I knew myself to be annoyed at Holmes for any number of reasons, including residual rage, and even more incensed at myself for continuing to blush every ten minutes like a child caught with a toy which does not belong to him.
He shrugged languidly. "I don't believe anything in our present environs could inspire you to acts beyond my limits. I've no great affinity for beatings, but that strap on the wall hasn't any metal in it, and thankfully there are no horses within the building."
I did not dignify these twin observations with a reply, preferring suddenly a view of the swept earth floor. Holmes laughed at first and then shook his head as the same odd expression of pain crossed his features.
"Dear Lord, what have I done to you all this time?" he muttered.
"I am not like this with other men," I remarked coldly. "I am not callow, nor am I easily shocked, I assure you. You have asked me not to share any stories, and I am delighted to honour that wish. But you must know that, as questionable a topic as horses and strappings may be, this is a reaction to you, not to deviant sex acts."
"No, I--that is to say, it is unlike you," he agreed, frowning in serious vexation before quickly relaxing his face.
"I've no wish to hurt you, but--"
"Never mind hurting me," he snapped. "You're welcome to hurt me. God knows I've hurt you enough."
"That is not what I meant. Holmes, are you actually asking me to beat--"
"No, I am not," he assured me, "although I am in earnest when I say I'd allow it. You'll learn, if you have the stomach to continue this experiment for any serious length of time, what I am like when left to my own devices. All I am asking is to do what you like. You know me to be a rather domineering sort of fellow, and as you may have noticed, I cannot say I am much different in bed than I am out of it."
"I've no complaints in that regard, but Holmes--"
"I wish to be in your hands, and short of placing this verbal requirement on you, I cannot be sure my actions won't affect your choices. Do not imagine I don't know what I have been to you over this length of time. I am cold, and calculating, and imperious, and for all you know heartless, and my reserve has apparently wrought a rather profound effect on you."
I did not respond immediately, but I could not help but be grateful for his completely unprecedented candour. Then some of my own words from the day before came back to me, and I understood better the strange silvery glow lighting his eyes as he awaited my response.
"You aren't heartless," I said gently. "If you were, you'd have chosen another profession. And I would have chosen another friend."
"Thank you," he said with a disarming depth of sincerity. It so bemused me, I lost my capacity for words once again.
"Well, are you interested?" he murmured at last.
"There are very few things about you which do not interest me," I confessed through my teeth. "I believe that may be a part of the problem."
"Go on, then," he said softly. He crushed the cigarette very carefully against the post before tossing it into the hay. "Explore at your leisure."
He did not look smug, I know now, as he leaned back against the post once more and crossed his arms expectantly. I only half convinced myself he appeared smug at the time. In all honesty, he looked shy, but it is just possible that if I had not still been experiencing waves of anger at him, I should never have embarked on the experiment in the first place. Removing my jacket only, I draped it over the wood.
"Your clothing, everything you're wearing above the waist," I said at last. "Take it off."
His lips curled in a lopsided smile which he quickly suppressed. Then he turned around. And immediately after that, my entire world changed for the rest of my days. I do not know in what way I'd expected him to comply. In addition I had forgotten that the night before, the lights had been dimmed and my senses overpowered by shock. But something about what he did that afternoon took my breath away completely, and I have never once gotten any closer to getting it back.
He undid his cufflinks with two swift, economical motions and placed them carefully in his waistcoat pocket before hanging his frock coat on a nail in the post. His tie, which he also took his time in removing, he folded and deposited in one pocket of his trousers. Then with perfect ease, as if he were about to step into a bath, he removed his cuffs, curving them over the half-wall, and proceeded to unbutton his waistcoat with one hand--his right--while he unhooked his watch chain with the other. After the watch was safe and the waistcoat hung, he addressed both hands to his shirt front. Through it all he was so inexplicably, gloriously himself; he did not glance down at his buttons, for he did not need to do so. He unfastened them from top to bottom without a single motion wasted. He acted as if he did not know I was there, and even still it was a performance, an impeccable performance, and my urgings were all the stronger due to the fact I had never so openly watched him undress before. At last he drew his shirt and undershirt off, the muscles of his back rippling beneath as he hung the fine white fabric over all the black. When he had removed his belt and tossed it to the ground, he turned around to face me.
"I think you had better come here," I breathed.
The moment he was within reaching distance, I pulled him into me, bringing his black head down. His lips parted when I kissed him, and my fingers brushed against every surface, all the contours of his pale flesh, studying the structure beneath the impeccable frock coats and the ancient dressing gowns of the man I had loved for so long I wanted to shake him. I drove my tongue into his mouth, the world dissolving around my ears.
If he had intended I demand he kiss me in return, he had apparently forgotten, for he leaned into me hungrily, his hand coming up to cradle the side of my face as my fingers explored the washboard ridges of his fleshless stomach. At last I broke away with an effort.
"Kneel on the ground."
He did so at once, neither kneeling straight up nor resting back on his heels, but hovering at a slight backwards angle on impossibly strong thighs. The encouraging smile on his reddened lips parted as I opened my trousers.
"Put my cock in your mouth."
The moment I said it, I knew he had been right. And the moment he obeyed, closing his eyes as if I had been the one granting him a favour, I knew what the success of the experiment, as he called it, meant to him. A night of passion can be conducted with relative grace, as ours indeed had been, any small mistakes disappearing in the flood of new sensation. But I was more to him than that, I was beginning to understand. He did not want me if I was afraid of him, and I respected him so ardently we had both mistaken it for the same thing.
I could not restrain a shuddering moan as he swallowed me, my hands in all his ebony hair and his own questing fingers, frustrated by my clothing, sliding under my shirt and up my chest. For a little while, I gave myself over completely to sensation. But I did not want to be alone in my pleasure any more than I wanted to pleasure myself.
"Wait--slower. Open your trousers and touch yourself."
The little gasp which hitched his rhythm when he complied more than a thousand times compensated for what he no doubt perceived as an imperfection. It stirred the ache in my chest as surely as if he had struck me, and I wanted more of him. As much as it was, it was not enough. I caught his face with my hand, my thumb slipping into the edge of his mouth as I pulled away from him.
He looked surprised, but it melted when I knelt before him, pressing my chest against his, snaking my arms around his slim form and kissing him deeply, urgently. Both his hands came up to encircle the back of my head, and minutes passed which seemed like days while we did nothing more than taste each other, his lips as soft and subtle as his body was hard. He is so long in the torso that even kneeling he was two inches taller than I, and when one of my fists closed around both our members, his head fell back with a stifled groan and I buried my lips in his neck.
"Yes," I whispered. "You may feel free to make that sound as often as you like."
I felt him smile when I kissed him again. I had resolved to take my time. My mouth traveled everywhere it could reach, from his birdlike collarbones to his glazed china shoulders to his solid pectorals, one hand gripping us in a slow rhythm while the other clutched at his hips. Just when I had elicited a breathless murmur as my tongue grazed his nipple, I felt if I did not pay some attention to the most perfect back I had even seen, I did not deserve the privilege.
I swung around to his side. His legs were parted by perhaps a foot, and I knelt between them. Holmes was in one sense right about me; I had been with a number of men before him, and women as well, occasionally even during our seven-year period of platonic partnership. Some were friends, and some were strangers, and occasionally I had experienced what could be considered a lover. But I had never been with a man whose every motion put me in mind of a panther, whose straight, flawless spine traversed so many dips and knots of muscle, who gasped softly when my arms were enfolding him and I bit his neck, who had a little triangle of three moles perched above his matchless shoulder blades. Perhaps it was because I loved him that I found these things miraculous, but I do not think so. Objectively speaking, he is breathtaking.
Reaching forward, I took him in my hand once more, producing a very gratifying moan. As I stroked him, I could feel him shuddering, but he held himself under perfect control, neither driving into me nor resisting me, perhaps in a effort to keep himself from the edge. The ache in my own groin wanted nothing more than to see him half-mad with pleasure, and I found myself pushing his trousers down and before wetting my fingers in my mouth.
"Put your hands on the floor," I requested breathlessly.
As he did, he swept all the hay away so that his palms were on the dirt. It was such an endearingly idiosyncratic gesture, I could easily have declared myself his for the rest of my days, but instead I gripped him harder, pressing a finger inside.
He is a vocal creature, and though he tried his best to muffle it, he cried out nonetheless. I do not know how he kept himself in check so long, but when I added a second digit, he at last thrust himself into me, as if his body were finally no longer his to command.
"Tell me what you want," I begged him.
"No," he gasped.
"Do it," I pleaded. "For me."
"Take me, then."
"Are you sure?"
"If you are waiting for me to say please, you have the wrong man," he returned hoarsely.
It was enough. I spread the moisture over my weeping member and drove into him slowly, inexorably, biting my lip until it was nearly bleeding in an effort to keep some control over myself, to think beyond the stars in my vision and the pleasure spreading back to my spine. When I had pressed myself to the limit, he was suddenly up once more, his back to my chest, leaning his head behind him until his smooth-shaven face was pressed against mine.
He cried out softly again when we moved at last, both of us balancing, my two hands on his pelvis to help steady him, as if he needed any such assistance. I could do little but struggle for breath, my lips against his neck. He threw one long arm up to caress my head, his other fingers twining into my hand on his hipbone. Our pace was like a brakeless train on an incline, slow at first but irrevocably gaining in speed. I honestly do not think I could have held out for longer than a few thrusts had we not just relieved the same urges four times in succession, but when the sweat at length trickled between his shoulders, and the sight of his face, eyes closed worshipfully while he murmured things I could not catch but prayed to one day, became too much for me, I moved our woven hands to pull insistently at his flesh.
The effects were instantaneous. As he died, pressing his back into my embrace while waves of release possessed him, I followed. My cry was not entirely stifled by my love's back, but I swore to myself it made a difference. I held him until we both were still, and then for a little longer, and then I reluctantly sat back on my heels.
I quickly located a pocket handkerchief in my sleeve and handed it to Holmes. "Are you all right?" I asked, coming to his side.
He was flushed and heavy-lidded, his mouth quirked into a fond smile. "I'm fine."
"My dear chap, I am not made of glass. As you are a physician, you're welcome to check, but I am perfectly all right. Apart from the fact that this isn't the simplest posture to maintain for nearly an hour."
Laughing, I stroked his shoulder. "Then come lie in the hay with me."
"No, I fear I must decline that invitation." He folded the cloth and replaced his undergarments and trousers. The light had changed, and a shaft of sun struck his breast at a dramatic angle. The rosy glow about him, in the light of day, was incredible.
"You really don't wish to be near me?" I am far from the most sentimental man in England, but the overpowering fear that my friend's aloof coldness would be the ruination of me forced the question from my lips.
He glanced at me in surprise. "Of course I do. But I--"
I did not wait for the rest of the sentence. Instead I knocked him over, catching him in a rugby tackle which drove both of us into the nearest pile of hay. When I had rolled him onto his back, I lay my head on his shoulder. He was rigid and tense for a moment, but soon wrapped his arms around me.
"I must be rather fond of you," he remarked when I drew back far enough to look into his face. "I don't allow that to happen very often."
He was not talking about rugby, of that I was certain. Closing my eyes, I hid my countenance in his neck under pretext of kissing him, but perhaps a quarter of a second too late. He was already laughing, laughing silently and heartily, and when he saw that I had noticed it, he covered his face with one hand and laughed all the harder.
"Four of the twelve."
"I didn't ask you anything!" I protested vehemently, feeling myself flush once more.
"Not with your tongue," he agreed, "but if you expect to play your hand rather closer in future, you are going to have to get your eyebrows under tighter control. I must reiterate my desire to avoid any reciprocal information. I know what military men are like."
Glancing up at him with my hand on his abdomen, I said, "I have never in my life been with anyone who compares to you."
He kissed the top of my forehead at that, his eyes closing in his habitual staving off of any profound sentiment. Then he paused to breathe in the scent of my hair. What on God's earth had happened to change him so profoundly I did not know, but from that moment I loved him enough to allow him to take his time in telling me.
"Did you derive the benefit you anticipated from the experience?" I asked.
"I should have thought that was obvious."
"No, I mean--earlier you said it would do you good. But you didn't know what I was going to do. For all you knew, I was about to give you twelve of the best and leave you tied to a post."
"Forgive me for saying that I know my Watson well enough to have assumed no lasting harm would come to me," he smiled, running his thumb over my cheekbone. "And I will tell you all about why it did me good. I promise you. But just now, I am a trifle too exhausted to begin it. And in a moment, I am going to have to beg a favour of you."
"Anything," I told him.
"I require my shirt, please."
"Anything but that," I objected. Lying there with him in a pile of hay, wearing all of my own clothing while he was naked from the waist up, was somehow more intimate than the two of us entirely unclothed in a bed the night before.
"I am afraid I must insist upon it," he requested.
"Because I am going to develop a rather impressive scarlet rash in a moment."
"My dear fellow!"
I strode to his shirt at once and handed it to him. When he leaned forward to pull it on, I could make out what appeared to be tiny red whip marks all over the flawless back I had five minutes previous been adoring.
"Why the devil didn't you tell me you had hay fever?" I asked.
"It's only topical--since I was five or six and fell into a loose bale in the barn. It'll be gone in half an hour."
"I'm so sorry," I apologized, sitting on the ground with him. "I ought to have noticed you were avoiding it. In fact, I did notice, but I never knew you reacted to hay."
"You've never buggered me in a stable before," he grinned, and then glanced up to register my reaction. "That's better," he approved when I only smiled at him.
"I cannot believe it took until 1889 for me to discover how exceedingly filthy you are," I observed, shaking my head.
"I cannot believe it required five instances of near-Bacchanalian sex for you to adjust to the notion," he teased me in return.
"Are you going to continue this running tally for long?"
"Actually, I hope one day to lose track."
When I could not find immediate words to reply to this wonderful remark, he reddened slightly before springing gracefully to his feet. Walking over to the post, he began to reassemble himself into a British gentleman.
"Yes?" he replied as he donned his waistcoat, the black and pewter damask making his eyes shine like precious stones.
"I should like one aspect of our relations to return to the way they were."
When he froze, I realized what I had just said and jumped to my feet. "I did not mean it that way--please, let me explain. I have merely come to terms with one of my challenges as regards this...well, you called it an experiment. In any case, I won't stand for it if we can't be friends."
"I see," he said thoughtfully. His hands returned to work on his buttons while he considered my words. "The sort of friends who share detective work and a flat in London and the occasional dinner at Simpson's?"
"And sod one another in stables as often as they can."
He laughed so hard at this that his mirth actually emerged in the form of sound, which was very unusual. "You aren't angry at me any longer," he said softly, when his merriment had ceased.
"Anger has been supplanted by bliss, confusion, mortification, and delirium."
"I do not mind when you are annoyed at me, or when you are cross," he admitted, "but yesterday--oh, confound it all."
"What is it?"
"We are nearly late for Lestrade. Come along, my dear chap, and we'll just meet his train."
"But Holmes, you're a mess," I said, a touch of fear striking me. "I believe I may well be a mess myself. How will we explain it?"
"I shall think of something," he whispered as he leaned down to kiss me.
"You don't seem to me as if you are thinking very hard," I pointed out when his arms slid around my waist once more and his mouth moved to my throat. "I happen to know what you look like when you are thinking, and this is rather far removed."
"I," he said, punctuating his words with soft caresses of his lips, "do not. Care. What. Lestrade. Imagines."
"Ought you not to care, just a trifle?" I asked, my hand at the base of his neck.
"The man is incapable of abstract thought," he smiled, turning away at last. "Come along, dear boy. No harm will come to you. Of that, please believe me, I have always made absolutely sure."
Our friend's train was an express, and on time to the very minute. It roared into the tiny station like an emissary from another world. When Lestrade leaped out of a first-class carriage, the scent of the hunt illuminating his bulldog features, I found myself more grateful for the familiar sight of him than I was concerned he'd notice anything amiss.
"Anything good?" he questioned, all three of us shaking hands.
"I can say without fear of contradiction is it the best thing in years," Holmes replied with a sly smile. "We have two hours before we need think of starting, and there's a rather palatable dining room in the inn just this way. Shall we sample their fare?"
"Anything you say, Mr. Holmes. I'm ready for a meal, and I can see you've been hard at it already today."
When my friend tilted his brows in innocent incomprehension, Lestrade looked down at Holmes' trouser legs pointedly.
"I was after a bit of evidence," my companion said with an affable smile. Shrugging, he lit a cigarette and offered his case to the two of us. I declined, and Lestrade accepted.
"Ha," the official detective chuckled. "No doubt. I see you've dragged Dr. Watson into your questionable habits."
"Yes, he was good enough to join me."
"Permit me," Lestrade remarked. Reaching forward, he plucked a wisp of hay from my sleeve.
"The evidence was a little off the beaten path," Holmes explained.
"Are you feeling any better?" I inquired. Holmes and I shared a great number of secrets, and in fact always had, but they were other people's secrets. I derived a considerable jolt of satisfaction at mentioning one of our own.
My friend raised his brows at me, one side of his mouth curving up. "Yes, thank you."
"Wrist acting up again, is it?" Lestrade nodded, smoking placidly as we set off along the platform and out of the station. "I keep telling you, if you'd crawl about on the ground less, you'd be the haler for it."
"No, it was only a reaction to mown hay. And sometimes crawling about on the ground is the only viable recourse," Holmes replied cheerily, setting off at a brisk pace in the direction of the inn while waving us both forward.
"Acting a bit peculiar, isn't he, Doctor?" the Yarder muttered when my friend was out of earshot.
"How so?" I questioned, alarm striking me without warning. I had reason to hope that Holmes and I would be performing acts outside the law for some time to come, and I could only assume that the novelty of paranoid suspicion would wear off in a matter of days. At least, so I prayed.
"It must be the case he's solved," Lestrade replied sagely. He shifted his rather beady eyes in my direction, and then allowed them to slide back to the ground in thought. "He seems almost...happy."
"Does he?" I breathed. "I hadn't noticed."
"Queerest thing I ever saw. His eyes were shining out of his head," Lestrade reflected, with another very strange glance at me.
"Well, that's a symptom of hay fever, you know."
For an extremely uncomfortable period, the Inspector remained completely silent.
"Hay fever," Lestrade grinned at last. "Well, you are the Doctor. No doubt that is it." The little professional quickened his steps, so that we three walked in a line, each alone with whatever scattered thoughts he possessed, until Holmes threw open the door and we entered the old dark-timbered structure together.
One of Sherlock Holmes' defects--if, indeed, I may call it a defect, and frankly I feel I've every right to do so--was that he was exceedingly loath to communicate his full plans to any other person until the instant of their fulfillment. I had all too often suffered under it, but never more so than during that long drive in the darkness, a rug thrown over our legs and his calf grazing mine, wondering to myself whether anything in my life would ever make sense again. I need not state that our ignorance of what, precisely, we were to do on that cloudy and clearly dangerous night chafed Inspector Lestrade and me almost unbearably; and when I combine that uncertainty with the delectably unholy carnal knowledge I'd just acquired of my friend, who seemed to have lost the ability to sit more than a quarter inch away from me, my thrill of nerves at every stride of the horses will be more easily excused.
Holmes spoke only tersely of guns and of silence as we walked towards Merripit House, stopping some two hundred yards distant behind a screen of rocks. I who knew him--I'd just begun to convince myself once more of the fact--better than anyone could see that his every sense stood at full attention, utterly alert to the dangers which no doubt surrounded us.
"Watson, you've been inside the house, have you not?" he whispered, catching me by the forearm. "What are those latticed windows?"
"I think they are the kitchen."
"And the one beyond, which shines so brightly?"
"That is certainly the dining room."
"You know the lie of the land best. My dear fellow, just creep forward quietly and see what they are doing--but for Heaven's sake be careful, and be sure you are not seen."
When I did so, I was surprised to find that only the two men sat at the table, Stapleton talking while Sir Henry listened distractedly, his lips set in thought. Nowhere could I see the lady, and neither could I imagine where she might be, for all other rooms were dark. As I watched, Stapleton rose and left the room making for a barely discernible outhouse many yards away from the main building. I registered a queer scuffling sound, and then Stapleton rejoined Sir Henry. Crawling back behind the cover of the straggling rock pile, I conveyed as much to Holmes and Lestrade.
My friend seemed much concerned by the absence of the lady, and at the same time to be only half-listening.
"Holmes, what is the matter?"
"That bank of fog," he murmured, his face drawn and grave. "The one thing upon earth which could have disarranged my plans."
Looking behind him, I saw that indeed a dense white mass of moisture crept inexorably toward us, sending wisps and intangible emissaries before it. The expression of frank chagrin on Holmes' face when he glanced at me told me without a single word precisely how perilous the venture had grown.
"We will best it," I told him softly, "whether your plans alter or no. Together."
"My dear fellow," he said, regarding me with a look I could not begin to translate. I waited for more, but he held his peace.
From that moment forward, we willed the fog to stay in place, at times falling back before it and at times holding our ground, Holmes nearly writhing with furious impatience. We crouched shoulder to shoulder, I in the center flanked by Holmes and Lestrade. The vapour swallowed everything in its path--swallowed the building, so that its roof stood out like a flag, swallowed the rock bank behind which we'd sheltered, swallowed us so that only with our heads above the mist could we see anything at all. It dampened sound as well as sight, for none of us registered Sir Henry's exit from Merripit House save Holmes, who had his ear to the ground. He gave a sharp exclamation, and I heard him cock his pistol.
"Look out," he said grimly, standing up to his full and formidable height. "It's coming!"
Never in all my life had I even I imagined such a creature as the beast we pursued that night. Sir Henry walked along edgily, as if alerted to the presence of an unseen foe, but when that hound from Hell at last bounded out of the mist, its jowls glowing and its teeth slavering in anticipation of its prey, at first he could not even run. He merely stood there, frozen with helpless horror, as the frightful apparition bore down upon him. Then at last he took to his heels.
Holmes and I fired together, and the monster let loose a howl of rage. That sound heartened our spirits like nothing else could have done. My friend and I looked at one another, and then Holmes was over the rock wall and running, running with all his speed, running with every ounce of strength in that body of his that was nothing but strength, and I doing my utmost to keep up with him even as I outpaced Inspector Lestrade. The fog grew ever thicker, and my companion's iron will carried him away from me like a creature intended by Nature to do nothing else but fly across stretches of moorland. In a moment of sheer terror I still do not like to recall, I lost sight of him. I could see nothing before me but a vast whiteness, as if I were running through a cloud. I was quite literally blind. And then a man many yards away from me began to scream.
I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt in those few hideous seconds just what my friend was to me. I had always loved him, and in years previous had gradually--and painfully--come to terms with the fact. That had been nothing, and I laughed grimly to think of how it had once occupied my mind. It had been merely a friendship, a fascination tinged liberally with lust, a camaraderie built on his dry irony and my easy laughter, his sense of justice and my love of adventure, his passion for knowledge and mine for what that knowledge could do. Now he was nothing less than lifeblood. He was everything, and he would be until the day one or the other of us was dead, and if my gun had failed me I do not doubt I would have pried that rabid beast off of him with my bare hands.
When my head broke free of the mist, he was firing the last of five shots into the savage animal. As it shuddered and twitched, I pressed my revolver into its head and pulled the trigger. I cannot think why.
"Holmes," I gasped.
He must have read something desperate in my eyes. "I'm all right," he said, breathing heavily.
We tore away Sir Henry's collar. There was no sign of a wound. We had done it, and just in time.
"What was it?" he managed. His face was ghastly pale. "What in Heaven's name was it?"
"It's dead, whatever it is," said Holmes. And then Sir Henry shuddered in relief, and lay quite still.
We rushed from room to room within the house. Holmes looked quite as anxious as I had ever seen him, and it did not take me long to determine why. Stapleton had surely fled, we reasoned, having heard the shots. But if Beryl Stapleton had truly grown fond of our friend Sir Henry, and had objected to her husband's bloody business, I did not like to think of the consequences. At last, my friend put his hand to one of the first-floor doors and found it locked. He lost not a moment in kicking it down, and in another instant the three of us crowded into the room.
It had been fashioned into a museum, filled with cases and cases of specimens under glass. A figure stood--no, it sagged heavily, supported only by the bounds which kept it captive--lashed to a beam in the center of the room. As a shock of disgust struck me, I realized it was Stapleton's wife, that he had tied her to a post and whipped her savagely, and that she was staring at us mutely, her eyes full of grief and shame and a dreadful questioning.
"The brute," I thought I heard Holmes say as he crossed the room with four long strides. He released her head first, moving close enough that it could fall to his shoulder, and then he reached behind her to undo her other bonds. I flew to assist him, and between us it was mere seconds before she collapsed into his arms. He lifted her as if she weighed no more than the sheets which still enveloped her.
"Is he safe?" she whispered desperately.
"He cannot escape me, madam," Holmes replied.
"No, Sir Henry," she clarified, her eyes tearing. "Not my husband. Sir Henry. Is he safe?"
"And the hound?"
"It is dead."
She began weeping, her arms around my friend's neck, he cradling her gently in an effort not to harm the mass of weals caused by her husband. "Thank God," she cried. "Then it is over. I could have endured it all--the ill-usage, solitude, a life of deception, everything, as long as I could cling to the hope I had his love, but now I understand that in this also I have been his dupe and his tool."
"I know," he said gently, gazing down at her. His eyes glittered with a strange and sympathetic light. In fact, he looked just as he had when speaking to Laura Lyons that afternoon. "Be still. I will set it right, I promise you. He deserves no sympathy from you. Tell me where I shall find him, and I will set it right. You will have justice. Please, Mrs. Stapleton. Help me now to find you a little peace."
"The old tin mine in the heart of the mire," she murmured. "But the fog--how could he see the guiding wands tonight?"
"Thank you," my friend said, carrying her out the door and down the stairs. "My friend the Doctor will see to your injuries. Trust me to take care of the rest."
The poor lady was so spent and so mortified by the time I had cleaned and dressed the worst of her cuts that I gave her a mild sedative and left her in peace, lying on her bed with the lamps turned very low. When I emerged into the sitting room, I was struck with a sudden fear that Holmes, who was nowhere in sight, may have rashly gone after Stapleton in the deadly fog. Lestrade sat at a table writing lengthy official notes, a glass of brandy at his elbow. When he saw me, he rose and poured another glass.
"He's upstairs, talking to one of the maids. Never fear. I wouldn't have let him out tonight for any money."
Laughing, I took the drink from him gratefully. "Thank you, Lestrade. I am very glad you were here to assist us. I cannot tell you what comfort it has given me."
"Oh, it was my honour. Three is better than two, in some cases. As a matter of fact, Dr. Watson, I don't believe I need either of you to remain here any longer. I'll just finish these notes for the files and then join you in the morning. Take him home and put him to bed."
It was all I could do not to freeze in guilty apprehension. I looked sharply at the little detective in an effort to learn what he'd meant by the statement, and had just decided it was merely an example of his occasional teasing humour when his face broke into a broad, affectless smile.
"Tell your friend Mr. Holmes I'm grateful he brought me into the case. It was one for the history books, that's for certain. I'll remember it the rest of my life, that I can promise you. And I'm also grateful that Mr. Holmes has finally come to his senses. I tell you, I was that close to breaking down and knocking some sense into him if he couldn't get it any other way, the whole affair irked me so badly. Well, you know how he gets under my skin, and the man is nothing if not god-awful stubborn. Plenty of times I thought it would never happen, and was downright low over it, but there wasn't anything I could say to the purpose, now was there?"
"I beg your pardon?" I questioned, petrified.
"All I'm saying is that if crawling about on the ground after a bit of evidence is what it takes to make him look that way, he'd best keep it up for a good long spell. I won't say another word against it. And if it makes your mind any easier, I also won't bring the subject up again."
"I'll let him know," I whispered, at a complete loss for words.
"In any event, Doctor, congratulations. A very satisfactory conclusion, I think." Lestrade glanced at the clock on the wall and turned away from me, his quick little hand smoothing back a strand of his hair. "And for the future, you may like to know that he also reacts to meadow barley. Even worse than hay, from what I recall. Ends up looking as if he had the pox, and it doesn't do much for his temper either. I shouldn't go after any evidence where that happens to grow."
"Thank you," I managed to say. "How do you--"
"Merely an amusing anecdote from a stakeout in Wiltshire, Dr. Watson, long before your time. My own particular lady friend is the same way with wild strawberries. I picked her a bunch of them once and we ended up in hospital."
"Go on now," he urged me. "Not much good he'll be to you a spent ball of nerves."
I walked in a daze back to the museum where Beryl Stapleton had been held against her will. My friend had already examined the room, but he was folding up the sheets which had bound the lady while speaking softly with one of the servants about her employer. Having satisfied himself he could learn nothing more from the maid, he placed the cloth on a table, and lit himself a cigarette as the stricken domestic departed.
"Holmes," I said, touching his arm.
"Yes?" he replied, utterly distracted.
"You are coming back to the Hall with me."
"I beg your pardon?" he queried, his usual imperiousness tinged heavily with exhaustion.
"Lestrade has these matters well in hand. You have seen to it Mrs. Stapleton is safe. The Hound is dead, by your hand. There will be no pursuing Stapleton tonight. Sir Henry has already been taken back to the Baskerville Hall, by the Stapletons' manservant. And you, my dear fellow, cannot be anything other than completely spent."
He managed a vague smile. "I've had less taxing twenty-four hour periods."
"As have I," I said when he allowed me to take his arm and lead him downstairs. "You require immediate sleep."
"I do not require immediate sleep," he countered, running a hand through his hair. "I require a bath more urgently than I have ever required one in my life."
"Then you shall have one," I declared. "And after, to rest."
My friend looked half dead by the time we arrived back at the Hall. Leading him upstairs, I set about meeting our needs. The household was far too busy with Sir Henry to take much note of our bedraggled appearance, but hot water was quickly provided for the both of us and before half an hour had passed, I was standing in the doorway of Holmes' bedroom in my dressing gown, watching as he emerged from the chamber opposite with a towel wrapped about his waist and his black hair glistening with water.
"You," I said, shaking my head, "are quite unnaturally beautiful."
He seemed almost startled by the compliment, pulling back the coverlet and draping himself over the sheets wearily as he threw the towel to the floor.
"What is wrong?"
"Nothing. It's a memorable phrase. And not one I can imagine I wear very well, objectively speaking."
"I have always thought you were, and doubly so now." I sat down next to him, smoothing his wet hair from his brow. "How so, memorable?"
"Merely a whimsical coincidence. I've heard it applied to my mother."
"You must greatly resemble her, then," I whispered to him.
"You could ask my brother, if you like. He remembers her better," my friend murmured. His eyelashes were still bright with moisture from his wash, and the circles under his eyes were beginning to appear permanently carved there.
He had never told me his mother was dead, but in a sense I had always known it. Even a man as reserved as Holmes would have made some reference to his mother in the course of our relationship, if she had yet lived.
"Perhaps I shall one day, if I can work up the nerve. Goodnight, my dear fellow."
"Are you staying?" he asked, his eyes opening briefly.
"If you like. If I won't distract you," I smiled.
"You mean if I won't distract you," he yawned. "Please stay. I've slept alone for quite long enough."
"Holmes," I said quietly as I crawled into bed and his head found my shoulder, "you and I are going to have to talk tomorrow. There are one or two things I simply must know. And one or two things I must apologize for."
"I can think of nothing you've done in the past year and more which warrants an apology," he managed. The one or two times I'd seen him the worse for drink he'd sounded so, but I had never pressed speech out of him in such exhausted circumstances before, and so the mystery of his languid lack of diction at once solved itself.
"You can't mean that. Not after yesterday."
"What was yesterday?"
"Yesterday is what I am required to apologize for," I said, and once I had stated the fact, I found I could not stop. "I am not sorry for being angry with you. I am not sorry for demanding you treat me with respect. But am very, very sorry," I continued, making an extreme effort to keep my voice in check, "for having said that you had no more regard for me than a servant or a dog. I am sorry for telling you that if you ever had a heart you would long ago have thrown it away, for it would be of no use to you. I am exceedingly sorry for having said that I would leave Baker Street, no matter how angry I was. And I am most of all sorry," I finished brokenly, "for having said that the years I have spent with you were a ruinous waste of my time. Please say you will forgive me for that. I did not mean it."
"I already have," he muttered. I could feel him drifting off to sleep even as he said it. "The man I am now, I mean. You were talking to another person, after all."
Stapleton, it became clear to us the next day, could never be traced no matter how grim and determined my friend was. There were no prints to be followed in that sea of slime. However, there were no prints beyond the muck either, and I saw Holmes grow greater and greater in his certainty that his foe had never reach the oasis of firm ground, but had perished in the morass he thought his saving refuge. To that extent, at least, we began to consider the case closed.
After a dousing in mud in connection with the discovery of Sir Henry's missing boot, Holmes lost no time in obtaining another bath. Baskerville Hall, however, had become something of a dismal place, for Sir Henry's nerves were quite shattered and the servants very anxious over him. After passing a few bleak hours indoors, for we did not plan to depart until the following day, my friend's remarkable eyes darted in my direction.
"How about a walk?" he asked. His voice was surprisingly tense.
"I'd like nothing better, provided we steer clear of mires," said I.
"Agreed, and entirely. I'll meet you outside in five minutes."
Walking over the tufts of grey weeds and the jagged, sinister hills with my friend was a welcome relief whether he was inclined to speak or not. But after twenty minutes of complete silence, passing by great masses of ferns on the rock walls and staring at the progression of yellow foliage under our feet, I began to wonder whether he was merely melancholy or instead was dwelling upon a topic he did not want to introduce.
"I had something of a fright yesterday," I began hesitantly.
"I think we all did," he replied, sounding a little surprised.
"No, I mean--I lost sight of you. On the moors. When you were pursuing the hound."
"Oh," he said. "Did you?"
"Sir Henry was screaming, and I...I don't want to trouble you. Nothing happened, of course. But I found that now our relations have...changed, I did not like to lose sight of you in pursuit of a deadly beast. Not at all. I was surrounded by the cloud cover and I felt as if I would never see you again."
"Strange. But I suppose it's only natural that, having changed the nature of our association, other things will change as well." I could not begin to read his expression, and in any case he was making sure not to look at me.
"Having changed the nature of our association, yes," I agreed. "I am still not entirely certain how that came to pass."
"I believe it was my fault," he said with the hint of a smile. "I seem to recall kissing you."
"Yes, that had a very great deal to do with it." Breathing in the cold air, I reminded myself to be patient. After all, the sun was setting, the moss dripped with moisture, the air was bracing and fresh, and sooner or later I would get somewhere. I had hoped to avoid direct questioning, but that dream was beginning to seem ever more distant. "I would appreciate knowing a bit more detail regarding how that came about."
"Well, to be entirely honest, I have always had something of a preoccupation with military men. Strapping, heroic, sun-darkened military men. The close-cropped moustache variety is particularly devastating, but not an absolute necessity. Merely a grace note. The soldierly bearing and air of foreign climes are decided musts in this particular field of study, however. I had...let me see...two others before this, but for heartbreakingly brief periods. And you've a number of other very tangible charms," he said lightly. "I don't suppose you imagine you've slept with hundreds of people without possessing a profound visual appeal."
"I don't--I never said--thank you," I stammered. "Holmes, I am beginning to think that your assumptions regarding my past lovers are perhaps a trifle exaggerated."
"You deny it, then?"
"Really, Holmes, I--"
"I didn't think so. But please, don't tell me. Just at the moment, I am horrified of knowing the concrete facts," he quipped.
"I gathered that, although I don't see why. So you pounced on me because of my war record."
He laughed, the silent and self-deprecating one. "I was unspeakably curious just where I would find that scar."
"And now you know the answer to that burning question. Which, for some reason, you could not wait another moment in agony over. At a quarter to eleven, the night before last."
"It took a weight off my mind," he conceded tightly.
"I am very glad. But Holmes, I really do wish to know what you want from me."
As a reward for this directness, he sighed distractedly. "Why would you ask that?" He was beginning to look as skittish as a colt. A slender, absurdly well-formed colt with a black mane and storm-tossed, piercing eyes.
"Because I would like to know whether my life at Baker Street is going to include a great deal more illegal carnality in the coming months," I said, attempting to ease his nerves.
"Ha. I would like it to, yes. That's one of the reasons I kissed you."
"And the other reasons?"
"It was a terribly difficult biological urge to resist, for all its perversion," he deflected, looking very nearly afraid.
"But why, Holmes?" I demanded wearily, desperation beginning to colour my voice. "Why? I am very possibly the happiest man in England, and certainly the happiest on the moors, but what possessed you? I need to know."
All was silence for perhaps a minute, and then Holmes cleared his throat determinedly. "I did it because you were right," he said quietly. He was staring down at his hands. "When you were shouting at me so lividly. You were right."
"I was right about nothing, my dear fellow. About which vicious accusation could I possibly have been right?" I asked helplessly.
"I used you, and yet I did not trust you," he replied, wincing at the words even as he spoke them. He stopped walking abruptly. "I used you as a sounding board, as a trusty comrade, as a conscience. I used you for so many things, Watson. You were the one thing in my life that mattered, my dear fellow, the one irreplaceable thing I had, the one thing that if broken or destroyed could not be mended, and I used you for thousands of purposes. You sat across from me at Baker Street, you helped me with cases, you shared the claret, you tolerated my papers, you stood on the stairs to listen to me play the violin and you imagined I didn't realize you were there. I used you for every moment that invested my days with any meaning, and I did not trust you enough to know it."
He ceased speaking and glanced at my face, seeming very fearful of what he might find there. "It was absurd. Damn it, my dear fellow, it simply could not go on. When you grew so angry at me, I realized I'd no right to expect you to stay when I did not trust you with the most basic tenet of my existence. Which is that the sun rises and sets with you. For God's sake, there is nothing outside of you."
"Holmes," I whispered, but he held up a hand.
"I have seen enough men abuse the trust placed in them, giving none in return, using their betters and then discarding them without a thought of remorse. Stapleton was an all too apt example, I'm afraid. There have been many others in my life. I am not that man. Damn it, I cannot be that man, Watson. Therefore, I will not behave like that man from this time onward. I cannot apologize enough for having acted so in the first place, but I have reminded myself of who I am and now I will do my best to act the part. I will not be your worst mistake."
His head was cocked very slightly to the side, and his body had the look of barely suppressed nervous energy evident only when he was throwing himself on lawns and walkways, crawling about in the twigs in search of a matchstick or spent revolver casing. Of course, I had only seen this posture when he was fully clothed. I wondered if it there was any possibility of my ever seeing what happened to the sinewy ropes of his lower abdomen when such a fit was upon him, and considered what sort of mystery in the privacy of the bedroom could bring on such a mood.
"John Watson, please say something."
"What would you like me to say?" I asked him gently. "'I told you so' seems overly smug, after all."
"I would like you to say that I am the only man in your world, and that your needs will be satisfied hereafter by me and me alone, because the thought of sharing you makes me physically ill, you may have noticed," he confessed in a rather brittle tone, "but that event is appearing increasingly less likely."
"No, I am not going to say that."
"Well, whatever you are going to say, say it now, for God's sake," he snapped. His face was quite unnaturally pale, his sharply angled features sternly schooled.
"When you played the violin," I said slowly, "those beautiful airs with which you would occasionally fill the sitting room, I would creep down from my chamber to listen from the stairs, as you said. I did this for a very simple reason. I could not stay in my room when such haunting melodies were drifting out of the parlour; and I could not look you in the face while you were playing them without your discovering I was in love with you. So I remained out of sight. I would like to see you play them, if you are willing, when we arrive home. I've longed to see you play them," I finished.
"You're in love with me?" he repeated softly.
"Yes, I love you," I said. Then I was suddenly terrified all over again. "Is that more of the softer emotions than you would care to hear about in future? I only thought, because--be assured that I don't have to--"
"No, no, it shouldn't be a problem," he interrupted me hastily. "I suffer from a parallel affliction."
We both of us suddenly grew very intrigued by the landscape. It was as wild and desolate as ever in the sunset, and it was the most beautiful world I had ever laid eyes on.
"I suppose you are wondering how many," Holmes teased me, after a lengthy pause.
"Men you've fallen in love with? I wasn't, actually," I answered, surprised that he had been wrong.
"I'll tell you anyway," he said. "One."
I was speechless for quite a time before I found my voice once more. "Are you telling me this because you think I would be angry had there been others?"
"No. I am telling you because you are my friend, and I trust you. And because it explains a degree of my reluctance to approach you. And because you will forgive me more of my trespasses if you know it. And because of a very endearing quirk you have."
"What is that, I wonder?"
"Yes, you do wonder," he murmured. "That's it exactly. But you don't ask."
"Is that what you were doing in the stable?" I inquired, a realization striking me. "Trusting me?"
"Yes, I could not express it better. It went quite well, I thought. You are exceptionally good at what you do." He shot me a slyly flirtatious look that I have yet to develop any defenses against.
"Apart from the fact I shoved you into a mountain of hay."
"Well, perhaps you'll spare me that detail in the future." He smiled at me and closed the distance between us, taking my face in his hands. "Tell me again."
"I vow not to expose you to any more hay," I said seriously, looking up into eyes like the fogs upon the moor.
"Not that part," he said, kissing either of my eyelids.
"I told you so?"
"No, and if I were you, I would recall that I am not always so sociable as I am at this moment."
"You are not going to remain this way, then?" I asked hesitantly.
"I will remain this way underneath, always, if you can see it under the cynicism, arrogance, melancholy, impatience, and self-importance which will doubtless mask it periodically. I apologize for them all in advance. Please tell me again," he whispered.
"I love you," I told him. "But I think you said it rather better. There is nothing outside of you."
I do not know, to this day, what would have happened if Holmes had not used me rather too egregiously as a pawn in his gambit against the forces threatening Sir Henry Baskerville, or what would have happened if I had not finally lost my temper entirely. I like to think, however, that the cracks would have shown eventually, and that even without Stapleton's schemes, we would have ended as we are now. It is not mere naive optimism on my part to believe so, either. One way or another, one of us must have let something slip. For I know the way I feel about him, and I know that any man who could kiss me the way he did on the moor that night, his heart pounding as if he lived and breathed for me alone, could not have kept such a monumental secret forever. Murder will out, it is said, and I have seen it. And so will love, for I have seen that too.
Epilogue: Baker Street, nine years later.
The door had closed. The sound of his footsteps descending our staircase rang out as a firm, sure tread. For a very long moment, I did not trust myself to look at anything in particular. My eyes wandered across bookshelves and the patterns of our carpet. Finally, helpless to do anything else, I shot a sidelong glance at Holmes. He sat with his lips slightly parted, staring into space, slippered feet tucked somewhere in the folds of his dressing gown. When our mantel clock struck a quarter hour, he came to himself and, clearing his throat, he returned my gaze. We both opened our mouths to speak, and then both thought better of it.
"I'm sorry--what did you intend to say, my dear fellow?"
"No, by all means, go on," he urged, glancing down at his fingernails.
"You were first," I attempted, the weakness of the argument echoing in my ears.
"Not at all. Pray continue."
"A very successful end to the case. I congratulate you."
"Oh, come now, Watson!" he cried, steely eyes shining like rapiers. "That is not what you were going to say!"
We sat in silence, listening to the crackling fire and the little creaks and murmurs of the old brick structure. I wondered if I trusted my nonchalance to stand up and pour us two glasses of port, and decided to wait.
"Well, it is not strictly what I was going to say," I admitted after a long pause. I picked at the arm of my chair absently. "What were you going to say?"
"You were about to say something."
"As were you," he replied in great exasperation.
"Very well, then," I sighed. "I was merely going to say that...."
"Yes?" he prodded, the edge of his shapely mouth angling itself into a smile.
"That Captain Crocker is," I said hesitantly, "very possibly...hang it, how shall I put this? He is...."
"He is a minor god," my companion finished for me.
My mouth closed abruptly. Then I began to laugh helplessly. Holmes was laughing as well, I thanked Heaven, the silent, private laugh which wrinkled the corners of his eyes and tilted his head back with merriment.
"You do not think he is--"
"No!" Holmes exclaimed.
"What a waste."
At this remark he laughed all the harder, drawing his legs into his chest and wriggling in his chair.
"The face of that man could cause traffic accidents," I said ruefully. "Did you see his hands?"
"I am a master of observation," he replied, "but I confess it was the expanse of chest which struck me first."
"Good Heavens, I know. And that hair. And he had a--"
"Dimple, but only on the left side of his face."
"Pale blue eyes."
"To be honest, I am not entirely certain how he fit through our front door. He appears to defy the laws of physics."
I bent over double, my chest aching and my eyes beginning to tear. I could hear Holmes leaping from his chair and pouring the glasses of port I had longed for only moments before.
When I raised my eyes, he was holding the glass out to me with a stern expression. "You are not allowed to follow him. He loves Mary Fraser. And you are mine."
"You are not allowed to follow him," I retorted as he took up occupancy between my knees. "She returns his affections, and I am extremely jealous."
"It's a very great pity."
"I could not agree more."
"Think of what the rest of him must be like."
"Actually, I am making a sincere effort not to."
We sat like that for a brief time, slowing becoming aware that we were both exhausted. I rubbed his silken head gently, smoothing the thick black waves arcing back from the elegant point in the exact center of his brow.
"His hands were impressive, but yours are exquisite," I pointed out, drawing one of them up for closer inspection.
He edged his feet closer to the fire and leaned into me.
"Your eyes are far bluer than his, you know," he observed. "His were rather a seafoam. Nothing comparable to yours."
"If you say so," I smiled.
The fire was fading slowly, but I was not concerned much about it. The room was quite warm, and we would light the one in Holmes' bedroom before much time had passed.
"Did you know," he asked suddenly, shifting his head so he could see me better, "that I adore you, completely and comprehensively?"
I cleared my throat and brushed my hand along the side of his sculpted face.
"I seem to recall you having mentioned something of the kind, yes."
"Ah. I apologize."
"You've no need to. I never tire of it."
"Well, in that case," he declared, sitting up straight again, "I wonder if you would mind joining me for a spot of recreation."
"To be honest, one or two activities suggested themselves to my mind when the Captain was here."
I could not refrain from a moment's teasing. "I don't know if I like the idea. Will you be thinking of Captain...what was--"
"His first name?" My friend's eyes were still shining wickedly. "Jack. Jack Crocker."
"Jack, yes. I would hate to feel that I am standing in for a minor god."
Rising, he put his hands on my knees and cocked his head with a disbelieving expression. "Thank you. I am very flattered, truly, and I shall not forget the compliment you have given me this evening. But can you seriously suggest that I am possessed of such abstract thought, such detached mental capacity, such absolute concentration, that I am capable of thinking about anyone else while you are in my bed?"
I shook my head in weary amazement, setting my glass on the side table next to me. "With your turn of phrase, not to mention the rest of you, you could have had a Crocker of your own. You could have had anyone. A minor god, as you put it. The most exceptional man in England. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes, of course I do. I have you, haven't I?" he replied softly. Taking my port glass, he twined it into the hand which held his own while he retrieved the bottle on the way to his bedroom. He paused in the doorway to smile at me. "The condition cuts both ways, you know. If you lapse into flights of fancy with the Captain, I will know of it. And I am not speaking of errors so palpable as referring to me as Jack. I will know of it through far subtler signs."
Doubtless he was correct, for I regret to say that my friend's trick of seeing into my thoughts had not diminished over time as I'd hoped it would. This occasionally led to awkward moments on my part, no matter what sort of efforts I made to keep my expression unreadable. I am happy to report that in this particular instance it was of no consequence, however. By the time I had crossed his threshold, the very existence of Jack Crocker had disappeared from my mind.
Read the sequel: A Man of Questionable Morals