I sat in the driver's seat of the little car with my elbow resting upon the ledge of the open window, the tendrils of my cigarette smoke drifting lazily away from me in the stagnant air. The engine still emitted tiny pings and clatters, but after a moment stilled itself into quiescence. I had no notion of how long I was to wait, but I settled back into the leather as if preparing for a nightlong vigil. A wide swath of stars was visible through the dusty glass before me, hanging in the sultry night over the chalk cliffs and the tides and the wisps of sea spray. Leaning my head back, I closed my eyes for moment's peace, but when confronted with nothing but the scattered confusion of my thoughts, I quickly opened them again. Perhaps a walk. I had never walked the cliff edges in such an eerie calm, and some part of the night's stillness felt warm and comforting. But no--I had been told to wait, and chauffeurs do not leave their vehicles unattended while kicking stones into the sea.
I checked the time, reflecting briefly and bitterly on the phrase, "Wait for me." Sighing, I returned the watch to my waistcoat pocket. Ten minutes had passed. They had felt like an hour, but I have never been a good judge of time when in the midst of heightened circumstances, and the events I'd already experienced that day recalled to my mind a series of shattering occurrences in the year 1894. But that was twenty years ago, I thought to myself, and everything reminds you of something else now. I threw the stub of cigarette to the ground and rubbed my face with my hands.
My shoulder had set itself to aching and I stretched it gingerly. Vigils were never my strong point. I allowed my mind to wander in the most imaginative and disquieting fashion, for I had never learned the trick of emptying myself of thought and waiting in the darkness like a silent beast of prey. What had I theorized to myself all those years ago as we sat watching the windows of Stoke Moran, I mused, or crouched deep in bank vaults resting our backs against crates of French gold? I could no longer remember. I was not surprised. The crimes and their solutions were by now so fixed in my mind that my own erroneous hypotheses were beyond my recall. The flush of sympathetic pride at their successful conclusions, my joy at the small part I had played--these were still as vivid as if they had taken place that very morning. Somehow this irritated me. I reached for another cigarette.
The door of the low-gabled house opened and the man I had been waiting for strode out of it down the smooth-edged garden path, the lounging and surly shuffle he had used to approach the house replaced by easy catlike strides. I had not seen them in over two years, and my heart quickened against my will. By the time he had tossed what appeared to be a damp, heavy sponge over the cliff wall and returned to my little window, wiping his slender hands on his pocket handkerchief in an elaborate show of finality, my heart was in my throat and there was nothing whatsoever I could do about it. No doubt he can taste it, I thought ironically when he leaned his head through the window and kissed me deeply. He smelled of tobacco and chloroform. I did not care. I kissed him all the deeper for it, I am afraid.
"Shouldn't I be allowed a say in the matter?" I asked, laughing. We lay entangled lazily upon a large four-poster, the linens of which we had utterly decimated. Holmes was nestled in the crook of my bare arm looking up at me with glinting eyes which had lost not a whit of their sharpness over the passage of his sixty years. I could not stop staring at him, not because he had changed so significantly, but because he was so astonishingly the same. There had never been an ounce of superfluous flesh on that sinewy form, and there remained none, and though his hands had roughened they retained their inquisitive sensitivity. There were creases at the edges of his black lashes, granted, and the sweep of his hairline, always dramatic and devastatingly intellectual, ended in a slightly more pronounced widow's peak that it had when he was young. Like my own hair and moustache, his temples were entirely silver, as was the object which was at that moment under discussion.
"You will be allowed a say in the matter, as you put it, if and only if you agree with me unreservedly," he sighed.
"That hardly seems an allowance. I call it most undemocratic if I am only to be granted an opinion that tallies with your own."
"My goatee is not a democracy," he smiled, speaking into my neck. "It is a hellish abomination, and I must rid the world of it. Even if I were not a criminal investigator, my conscience would compel me to do so."
I shrugged. "I am merely a doctor, and have no such lofty moral obligations." The merest mention of my profession sent a pang of unease through my chest. "But in all objectivity, you are right. It is most disturbing."
He tugged at it distastefully and crawled on top of me. "It is the second greatest sacrifice I have made for my country," he declared.
I had not expected such an opening. I was not often granted them, and had already determined to use my chagrin at his aloofness as an impetus to broach the miserable confession I would have to make to him before the night was out. I cleared my throat.
"What is the first?"
"I am not a young man," he said softly. "And even if I were, I would not willingly lose two years with you at any one person's request. The future of England itself, of course, must count for rather more." He kissed me lightly and set about retrieving his scattered attire.
I followed suit with a heart all the heavier for his confession. He was not meant to say such things. To my surprise, I felt almost needled by it. Plucking my cravat from the chaos of the German spy Von Bork's bedroom floor, I twisted it in my hands until I registered Holmes' keen gaze upon my face as he slipped into his trousers. Smiling at him, I said, "Age is a relative thing. I felt twenty years younger when you asked me to meet you at Harwich with the car."
"That accounts for your appearance," he replied languidly. "You look the same blithe boy as ever."
"Such an outrageous compliment only undermines your powers of observation and my good sense," I retorted, crossing to him and beginning to button the shirt he had thrown over his slim shoulders.
"Nonsense. My powers of observation are undiminished. I would say the same for my powers of dressing myself, but far be it from me to deny you a small pleasure."
He was watching me button his shirtfront amusedly. I wanted to be close to him. I wanted for him never to have left me for a year's false identity building in America, and then another endless year's tireless efforts underground. I wanted him to have wired me a week earlier. A mere week within a hundred would have made every difference. The thought set my heart fluttering once more, and I turned away from him to hastily don my own clothes.
"I will just check on your erstwhile colleague," I said swiftly, and brushed past him to the door, shutting it carefully behind me.
The German lay prone upon his sofa, dead to the world in the depths of the chloroform dosage Holmes had administered with the carefully soaked sponge. I knew my friend had no desire to do Von Bork any permanent harm, but when I pulled back an eyelid and took the agent's pulse, I knew two things: one, that Holmes had made certain I need not fear standing in my shirtsleeves in his study for the rest of the night if I cared to do so, and two, that my patient would awaken the next morning very suddenly and with a devastating headache.
Holmes entered quietly behind me, also partially dressed. "We needn't worry about the German menace for the night at least," he said, eying me thoughtfully. "Martha is likewise fast asleep, though by natural means. She is most gratifyingly hard of hearing. I was only dressing to retrieve this, in fact," he added, lifting a dusty wine bottle and surveying the label with roguish pleasure. "You've no objection to Imperial Tokay, I imagine? It is from Franz Joseph's special cellar at the Schoenbrunn Palace, but we needn't begrudge it its origins."
"Just the thing," I assented, affecting a merriment I did not feel as I located a pair of wine glasses in a windowed sideboard. "How thoughtful of Von Bork to work out that I adore this wine. He really is extravagantly generous for a German agent."
"Though a good-natured enough sportsman, he is only moderately generous," Holmes smiled. "It is I who happen to know your taste in wine."
I turned around in astonishment with the glasses as Holmes found a corkscrew in the desk. "You requested this wine?"
"As a gesture with which to toast our success at the close of our labours, yes. He does me these little favours. I argued it would be the perfect vintage with which to toast a remarkable partnership. Our friend of the sofa imagined I was referring to him. He will doubtless be a trifle put out when he discovers I was not."
"He has greater cause for anger than the loss of a bottle of wine, Imperial Tokay or no," I muttered, shaking my head at Holmes' endless capacity to surprise me. Filling the glasses, he lifted both and passed one to me. He raised his silently as I did the same; I held myself steady enough for a few moments when our eyes met, but soon I turned away.
Holmes sipped from his glass, expressionless, then set it down upon the desk.
"It is a good wine, Holmes," I said appreciatively.
My companion took a moment to reply. "A remarkable wine, Watson." He paced slowly out from behind the desk, stopping to lean upon it with one hip, his arms crossed judiciously. "I had imagined it would merely serve our pleasure, but now I rather hope that it will fulfill the other function of a good wine. In vino veritas, after all, my dear fellow. Now, what on earth is troubling you? If I did not know you better, I would think you were about to confess some ghastly affair in my absence." He spoke lightly, his posture deliberately casual, but his grey eyes were very serious indeed.
I very nearly laughed before recalling how much worse was the reality. "You imagine two years an impossible feat of fidelity for a sixty-two year old man?"
"When you recall that just half an hour ago I had the pleasure of re-examining the stamina and enthusiasm of the subject, you will perhaps reconsider the value of that excuse," he said shortly.
This time I did laugh. "Thank you. But what on earth put such an idea in your head? Have you been dallying with red-blooded American swells? Or perhaps your taste runs more toward immigrant Irish police officers?"
"If I had been 'dallying' with such, it would hardly be wise to tell you, would it?"
My mouth sagged slightly. "And have you?"
"Of course not!" he scoffed with an exaggerated toss of his aquiline head. "I am not ruled by my passions, after all."
"Holmes," I said, making only a half-hearted attempt to hide my amusement, "I am hardly a voluptuary. Other people besides yourself have the ability to master their passions, and your line of questioning frankly does neither of us any credit."
"You still have not answered my question," he growled. "If you had only embarked on a casual liaison, I should not mind--"
"Oh, shouldn't you?" I interrupted him in some exasperation. He looked for a moment as he had when he was thirty-one, when in the course of a meeting at the Yard I had favored a particularly virile young inspector with one casual glance too many. He had deduced my attraction dispassionately, pronounced he did not mind in the slightest when we arrived home, and then subjected me to four hours of the most exquisite torture, at the end of which, to his evident gratification, I could no longer recall the young fellow's name.
"No, I shouldn't," he insisted, with a hurt expression. "Not when you look as if you are trying to tell me something which I shall enjoy far, far less, if that were even possible."
"Holmes," I breathed at once, in a rush of affection, "I have not made any new acquaintance while you were gone. I love you. I have loved you for a very, very long time."
His eyes crinkled in a way I had first identified correctly five years back. The expression had appeared in his younger days, without the fan of sympathetic lines, to be disbelief, and had led to arguments. I had only recently realized that it was gratitude. Looking at him as he stood there, I thought briefly that no man in history better deserved a biographer, and quietly congratulated myself. I no longer cared that my mind formed literary phrases about him as he stood before me. I had loved him for too long to begrudge him the place he occupied within me.
"Holmes," I repeated, "I love you. I will make you believe me even if it is to be my life's work. As, at this point, it certainly appears to be. Now, come here."
I have been kissed countless times by Sherlock Holmes, although my biographer's exactitude, not to mention my continuing lover's obsession, wishes to know the exact number. Is it a thousand times? Five thousand? If I calculate five a day for several decades--but no. Calculation has not always been my friend. Suffice it to say I do not think he ever kissed me with more tenderness, or greater relief.
I stole a glance as our lips parted. He was smiling again. I felt the old, familiar desire which wanted him to smile forever and then quickly realized, for the hundredth time, that I would never love him so if he did.
"After all," he said gently, in reply to my expression as I gazed up at him, "we can talk about it at home. Now come back to bed." He left me with a hand trailing gently along in mine, but his lax fingers lost their grip when I remain fixed to the floor.
"Holmes," I said, very quietly, speaking through a stabbing ache deep within my chest, "I am not going back to Baker Street. That is, I will not be staying."
He turned. I knew that posture of exaggerated calm all too well.
"Why not?" he asked evenly.
"I've re-enlisted," I whispered. I took a deep sip of wine. I had said it, at least. Come what may, I could cease tormenting myself over how to say it.
Holmes tapped a bare foot impatiently and then calmed himself with an unbelieving shake of his head. "Watson, I fear my time in America may have hampered my ability to comprehend more traditional English. I thought I just heard you say you had re-enlisted, which is impossible. Surely you have not waited these two years to take such a ridiculous action."
My hands clenched involuntarily, for Holmes was wrong. Would that I had never taken the trouble to ascertain the exact figure, for the knowledge had led to rash choices, but at that moment I was seized with a formidable desire to tell Holmes exactly how wrong he was.
"I have not waited for you for two years," I said clearly, shocked at the bile which had crept into my own voice. "I have waited for you for seven."
Holmes' brows flew up at odd angles to one another, his impatience steadily growing. "Watson, whatever can you mean? Or are you privy to information which has escaped my notice? It is 1914, after all?"
"Of course it is."
"Then I really do not follow the thread of your remark."
"I can see that you do not," said I with great frustration. "Let me enlighten you. Your most recent absence spanned two years. When one takes into account the events which I for some reason saw fit to chronicle under the title 'The Adventure of the Empty House'--ironically enough when I look back on the last twenty-five months--that figure increases to five years. The other gaps which I have included in my accounting are admittedly smaller affairs, though none shorter than a month. They add up to seven years, all told, and may I add I only included those absences also distinguished because your life was in danger throughout."
He stared at me in astonishment, though his visage also appeared to be slowly clouding with anger.
"Seven years waiting, Holmes," I repeated. "It is a long time. Although I concede I was in some doubt over whether I should include the Reichenbach Falls matter, as I thought it at the time to be mourning, not waiting."
Holmes' dormant defenses leapt to attention at this statement, and he appeared for a fleeting second to wish to pummel me to the ground. "If you dare to equate my most cowardly act of evasion with the most self-sacrificing endeavor of my career, I will not promise you that this conversation will remain polite," he stated, visibly subduing fists which seemed desperately desirous of clenching themselves.
"I do not presume to. And yet, do you ever--during those rare moments of calm in your perilous undertakings--wonder what it is like?"
"What the devil do you mean?" he demanded.
"You already explained yourself in 1894 very effectively," I hissed at him, "and thus we do not need to relive what was, I know, a painful period for us both. What I would like to find out is whether you know what it is like to wait for someone whom you love, useless, ineffective, impotent, every day imagining some harm has befallen them. I want to know if you have ever considered, despite your lofty commissions and good intentions, what I must have felt. For God's sake, Holmes, I have not even been allowed to write you these last two years!"
"Surely that is not an exclusive hardship," he snarled. "Every letter you were not allowed to write I was not allowed to receive."
"Granted!" I exclaimed. "At least you had the comfort of knowing your actions were benefiting your country. My actions amounted to less than nothing. Which is why I--"
His look stopped me cold. "Are you in earnest?" he asked in a tone, I confess, I had never before heard. "Did you truly re-enlist? What, specifically, did you request of your contact? I assume you still have friends who would be willing to assign you to less urgently targeted areas."
"The front," I said, as quickly as I could. I never thought in all my life that an act of patriotism could possibly cause me so much shame.
He looked at me as if an effort of will on his part would render my words null and void. "You cannot mean it," he said at length.
"I did," I said, the words now tumbling out in a flood toward the only man with whom I had ever truly felt comfortable, respected, and loved, all at the same time. "I wanted to matter, so very badly. I thought you would be gone another two years. Five, for all they would tell me. I received a telegram in June--'Our mutual friend likely dead, Stop. Condolences, Stop.' I refused to believe them. Your message today came as a complete shock. Don't look like that, it is nothing like your fault--your entire operation would have collapsed had you communicated regularly with me. I can only excuse myself by saying my patriotism runs as deep as yours. I wanted to matter the way I used to, the old, visceral notion of saving someone though they have only half a leg and severe internal bleeding. Someone thought me worth saving, after all. At great risk."
I pulled Holmes close to me by the arms. He had gone utterly white.
"You have re-enlisted, and you requested to be stationed near the front?"
I swallowed as deeply as my constricted throat would allow. "Yes, I have."
He made no reply. He stalked to the nearest breakable antiquity, a vase of indeterminate origin, and threw it forcefully against the wall. It shattered into pleasingly small pieces.
"Holmes!" I exclaimed, too startled to do anything but call his name.
"Oh, don't trouble yourself to explain what it is--" he gasped, seemingly awash in agony, "--it is punishment for the waterfall. What else could merit such measures?"
"Holmes, stop. Stop, my love, please," I protested as he smashed another priceless collectible on the floor.
He did stop, but he regarded me with such a fury that I could not speak a word.
"I am an abomination, after all. I surgically extracted myself from the one human being who meant most to me. No doubt I deserve whatever that person sees fit to throw. My apologies for having already selected the most splintering objects," he sneered. "In addition, please excuse me for having considered myself forgiven for all these years."
"You know nothing about it!" I shot back, grasping him forcibly by the shoulders. "I have lived for more or less seven years in complete agony. I imagine you might more easily sympathize if you had only ever experienced such a thing!"
"Oh, but you're wrong," he declared, his eyes now inexpressibly fatigued. "I have experienced it, I assure you."
"Have you?" I snapped, releasing my hold on him. "You have sat there alone, wondering idly whether the man you love is going to be returned to you in one piece?"
"Yes, I have. You are far stronger than I am, you see, my dear fellow," he said, spitting out the words with chilling precision. "It lasted all of two days, a figure exactly matched, not coincidentally, by the amount of time I was able to stand it. And if you truly still consider me as deficient in human sympathy as I am pre-eminent in intellect, you are either a masochist or a lunatic." So saying, he stalked to the front door and down the steps into the humid night.
My indignant conviction melted considerably under the burning shock of his words. I followed after him cautiously, my heart pounding in my chest. I never enjoyed fighting with Holmes, particularly when I sensed my own position was illogical, but the thought that I could have just ruined a love affair of thirty years duration left me shaken and ill.
He stood a short distance from the car, smoking a cigarette furiously. I slowly closed the distance between us.
"I imagine the incident to which you refer consisted of my guarding an empty warehouse for an hour while you wrestled seven or eight ruffians to the ground elsewhere," I stated caustically. My anger was swiftly ebbing, but I had suffered too much at his hands to abandon the topic entirely.
"You are remarkably cavalier about a case which some critics refer to as your finest literary achievement," he returned dryly.
"If I did write such a thing, I am shocked that I still haven't worked out what on earth you are talking about."
"No more than I am," he remarked scornfully. "These two years have certainly been unkind to you if you can no longer recall a little incident I looked into for Sir Henry Baskerville of Baskerville Hall."
"Holmes..." I said slowly, praying that he did not mean what I thought he must have meant. For if I had guessed right, I had been very obtuse indeed.
"I sent you off into a web of circumstances I knew to be dire in order that I might wrap up a case of blackmail in London. I wrapped it up very shabbily indeed, if truth be told, but my client was hardly a man worthy of my undivided attention. Two nightmarish days passed before I, quite inexplicably, took up residence in a cave. Is any of this coming back to you? Perhaps if I provide you more visceral details. There was a spectral hound, I recall--"
"Holmes," I repeated in some anguish, "two days is hardly--"
"Two years? I am aware of the fact. As I said before, you are far more courageous than I am. And now you are asking me to make my rounds at Whitehall, cracking codes for the Admiralty and advising double agents, while you--" He stopped abruptly and buried his face in his hands.
"I have no intention of dying," I cried, taking him in my arms. He clung to me as if I were a lifeline. "I could not wait any longer. It was driving me mad. I was told more than once you could not possibly be finished before 1916. I love England just as you do--I wished to be of some use."
"It has already begun," he whispered. "It has begun, and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. We have invaded Togoland. Everyone is equipped with barbed wire and machine guns. The Serbians have mobilized along the Drina and the Sava rivers. We are building trenches in Belgium, and the German company IG Faber has nearly developed a method of delivering horrifically painful and fatal chlorine gases across--" he stopped himself forcibly and clutched my head to his chest. "You cannot mean it," he said once more. "However you felt you had to punish me, this is enough, is it not? I have never known you to be cruel."
I had known that it would not be easy. I am not often subject to fits of self-delusion. But I had seen Sherlock Holmes that close to tears only twice before: once, twenty years previous, when I had told him in no uncertain terms after his three year disappearance that I never wished to see him again; and again, in 1902, moments after I had been shot in the leg. I have no notion of how long we stood there, but when we finally broke apart, he walked back to the long, low house alone, and I stood there and watched as the waves dashed themselves to pieces on the rocks below.
Between us we managed to bundle Von Bork into the back seat of the motorcar the next morning. Holmes, despite evident exhaustion, exchanged easy pleasantries with his former employer, but the German was too devastated at having lost everything to make a very coherent conversationalist. After many spluttered threats, the formidable agent lapsed into despairing silence as I wove the car through winding country roads and so back to the teeming city of London. I drove in silence, and Holmes seemed glad of it. We made a sorry trio as we passed sun-soaked hills and drying pasture land, each mired in his own dark musings.
We left Von Bork at Scotland Yard in the care of several phlegmatic inspectors, and walked in silence back to the vehicle. I had an appointment with my friend Major Cook, to whom I had sent the letter four days before offering my old services once again. Fearing I would be late, I nevertheless offered Holmes a lift back to Baker Street, but he shook his head.
"Go on, my dear fellow. I have missed London. It is an easy walk, and I have one or two little matters to attend to."
"Very well, then," said I. "I will see you at home. I shall be with you as soon as I can."
He smiled once, the sort of ghastly smile one finds oneself resorting to out of shock at a savage blow, turned on his heel, and made off down the street, and my heart felt as if it had gone with him. I think I stood on the pavement for some minutes wondering whether Holmes would think me any less of a man if I pretended never to have written at all. It mattered but little what Holmes would think, I knew. I would not be able to abide myself. I hardly registered what I was doing as I steered toward Major Cook's offices, and when I at last ascended his stairs, I thought myself quite drained of human sentiment.
He shook my hand heartily as he rose from his desk, walrus moustaches twitching with his pleasure at seeing me again. We had been quite close many years before, but our careers--his own in his case, and Holmes' in mine--had diminished the relationship into one of mutual goodwill.
"You look well, Doctor," he said affably, offering me a chair. He sat down across from me with an expression of placid contentment. "It was very good of you to write. It quite made my afternoon when I received your post, that it did, sir. A most patriotic and charitable gentleman you always were, my dear fellow."
We talked desultorily of this and of that. I recall not a single topic under discussion that afternoon. The sun's shadow on the wall crept slowly toward a framed picture, nearly identical to mine, of General Gordon. He rang for tea, which I accepted and then forgot was in my hand. When I saw what I was holding, it had gone cold. Nearly forty minutes had passed when he rose with a smile.
"I really cannot give you any more time today, old chap, but it's been unspeakably good to see you."
I regarded him quizzically. I confess I had no notion of what he was playing at. "You've nothing further to tell me?"
"Tell you?" he laughed. "Whatever do you mean, old fellow? Had you a question you forgot to ask me?"
"I imagined you would make clear where I was to be posted, and to whom I should report."
His kindly brows twitched with concern as he leaned back against his desk. "Now, look here old chap," he said softly. "That letter of yours was very well meant, and well-received too, I assure you. But I am afraid there is very little I can do for you. Perhaps England will reach a state in which we man our front lines with men of more advanced years than is currently necessary, but even if that were the case, you were wounded twice, my dear fellow--the shoulder and the leg, was it not? You must not take offense at my words, for you look as fit as any British gentleman ought. But you cannot expect that I, as your friend, would hold against you an impractical gesture, however generously it may have been intended. I say, my dear fellow, are you all right?"
"Yes," I said, smiling nonsensically. He thought my dazed appearance resulted from a blow to my self-image. In truth my ears were ringing with ecstatic disbelief. "Thank you my dear Major," I said quickly, shaking his hand. "Thank you for the tea. I am afraid that I must be off as well. It was very good of you to see me, my dear fellow."
"Not at all," he laughed, "you are most welcome," but I am afraid I hardly heard him, as I was already out the door and tumbling down the steps toward home.
Baker Street was empty when I reached it. I paced impatiently, in a fever of relief, interrupting my circumlocutions only to dash to the top of the stairs or glance earnestly down from the bow window to observe our front door. At last, a tiny thrill shot up my spine as I heard a key turn in the downstairs lock. My companion's usually elegant tread sounded grim indeed as he climbed the stairs. I had just reached the sitting room door when Holmes opened it from the opposite side and I collided with him in gleeful abandon, knocking several volumes of books from his hands and kissing him as if my life depended on it.
He broke away with a gasp, far sooner than he would normally have done. He had been to the barber and was as near to himself again as I could have wished, save that his usual pallor was heightened and the dark circles under his eyes deeply etched. I had done this, I knew. But he had done as much to me and we would make it up to each other. He took me in at a glance.
"What has happened?"
"They'll have none of me," I replied.
"They--I beg your pardon?" he stammered, hope spreading so quickly across his visage that tears started in my eyes. I ignored them.
"I am old and useless. I kissed you like that just now in a feeble effort to regain the lost passions of my youth."
A radiant smile broke across his sharp features. "I would not have characterized it as feeble. You are not leaving?"
"Not unless you are," I laughed.
"Oh, thank God," he breathed, drawing me close to him. In another instant, however, he had me by the lapels of my frock coat and was shaking me with a grim, set-lipped fury.
"Do not ever. Ever. Do anything like that again. Do you hear me?"
Another shake followed my reply. My friend is remarkably strong in the forearms, I recalled ruefully as my shoulder began to throb. "You are not subject to my will, I know perfectly well. However, if you ever favor me with such a horrifying night again, I will not be responsible for what I do. You are warned."
I took care not to smile at his words, nor indicate the degree of arousal to which his violent grasp had brought me. For Holmes, relief and anger were all too often inextricably mixed, especially where I was concerned; I knew not why the feeling infuriated him so, but I guessed that relief implied weakness, a characteristic he had never ceased abhorring.
"Holmes," I said as carelessly as possible, "you look as if you are about to beat me senseless."
"And so I should," he snapped, letting me go and withdrawing a cigarette from his case as he threw himself into his armchair. "You think me, after thirty years, some sort of monstrous automaton. You ought to be punished for such an injurious notion."
"I see," I continued, allowing myself a slight smile. My mind was working rapidly. "Do you imagine the punishment will take a fiscal, verbal, corporal, or some other, more unusual form?"
"I have not yet ruled anything out," he replied icily, lighting his cigarette with deliberate disdain.
I made every attempt to read the finer points of his posture, but the effort was thwarted by his seated position. "Well, then," I murmured, aware I was treading a very fine line indeed, "I have an idea."
"I am open to suggestion, of course," he returned coldly.
His frigid tone actually emboldened me, for if there was one man in the world whose behavior I had studied with the fervor of lifelong devotion, it was the man curled in a knot of barely suppressed rage before the fireplace. Striving as best I could for an absolute neutrality of tone, I said, "I propose you take me to bed, and then feel free to do as you see fit with me."
I held my breath. It was a very long shot, but if not provided with an outlet--and I was quite loathe to engage my friend in fisticuffs--he could remain this way for a matter of days. In any event, I reflected as I fought to remain expressionless, the only thing more electrifying than being ravished by Sherlock Holmes was being ravished by Sherlock Holmes while he was in a cold fury.
He glared at me in hostile silence for an eternally long moment. "Fine," he said shortly, flicking the butt of his cigarette into the grate and striding to the door to retrieve his books.
"I'll just be in your room, then," I said contritely, heading for his door.
"I will be there in five minutes," he shrugged dismissively. "Ten, perhaps. I must jot down a reply to my brother. He has offered me another commission."
I froze, my hand on his doorknob. "May I inquire what the commission consists of?"
"If you listened to a word I say, you would recall I mentioned it to you already. They desire me to break a series of very intricate codes. I will be shuttling back and forth between our rooms and Whitehall. More than likely, for the duration of the war. I requested a position in London."
"Ah," I said evenly. "I see. I'll just begin undressing, then. My regards to your brother."
He did not deign to reply, by look, word, or gesture. I did not wait for one. I closed Holmes' door and leaned back against it, breathing at long last a great, slow sigh of relief.
Tracing my fingers lightly over the wood, my mind went inexplicably back to the front. Part of me wondered, after all, what it would have been like to be back in combat once more. War had changed since I had been a soldier, but the horrors remained the same, and the need for doctors all the more urgent. At times in the desert, I had done nothing more for a poor lad who had been blasted apart but to close his eyes when I found him. Somehow, even that much had seemed a help. At other times, I had laboured for weeks over a fiercely courageous comrade hacked to bits by enemy steel, only to awaken one arid red morning to find him dead. Dead for no one reason--dead because he could not fight anymore. Those were the worst days, I remembered. The days when all efforts seemed in vain.
Pulling off my cravat, I crossed to Holmes' window and pushed it open. A gentle breeze caressed my face as I removed my collar and rotated my shoulder tenderly. Leaning on the sill, I drew in a deep breath. The air smelled of baked brick, of horses and, increasingly, of car exhaust. He had written to his brother--before he had returned, so much was clear to me. He had asked to remain in London. Not all efforts are in vain, I thought. I shut the window again. It would never do to leave it open, after all.