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The Science of Touch

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A month after my dear friend's miraculous return from the grave, I was still in an elevated state of joy and relief. This was heightened by retaking my old room at 221B and my usual position at his side. News of his rebirth spread like fire through the city and beyond, so it was unsurprising to find clients appearing only a fortnight after the announcement. We were once again engaged in puzzles and mysterious deeds and I was thrilled beyond measure.

But there were times, even as I grew comfortable in his presence once more, that a sudden fear would seize me to the point of paralysation, and the only remedy was to have him in my sight and press his long, cool hand to mine.

The first occurrence surprised both of us to some degree. I knew what I needed, to feel his skin against mine, to feel his warmth and solidity, but I did not request his permission before laying my hand on his person. The contact widened the silvered eyes in a rare moment of astonishment.

"Watson?" Only a single word, but there were many questions hiding inside it.

"Forgive me," I said quietly, and made to withdraw my hand but he gripped it quite tightly, keeping it in place. "A panic will overtake my senses when I see you sitting here by the window, calm as you please, as if the last three years never occurred. I question my sanity until I can assure myself you are not a ghost, or some figment conjured by my grief."

His gaze softened to such a degree as to make my heart beat rapidly in my chest.

"I am the same," he admitted in a strained whisper. "I wake and see my familiar room and fear it but a dream, as I have dreamt of returning home so often during the years we were apart. It isn't until I see you in the sitting-room, or plainly see evidence of your presence, that I feel myself calm."

“Then never hesitate to call out to me,” I replied with great relief. “I would be happy to alleviate your doubt.”

“And you, my dear Watson…” His fingers pressed into my hand and the most extraordinary warmth exuded from the small motion. “You may reassure yourself at any moment, day or night.”

I murmured my gratitude and withdrew to my chair by the fire and we spoke no more of the incident. However, days later the fear visited me again when I walked in and saw him smoking his pipe and reading the morning post, and his hand and gaze were just as inviting as the first occurrence. Encouraged by his warm reception, accompanied with a rare gentle smile, I slowly eased into this new habit, marveling only briefly over how Holmes now held my arm in a wonderfully agreeable manner down the street, or sat close enough our legs brushed on the occasions we ate together. As his presence continued to be an enormous relief, I welcomed this change and reciprocated it frequently.

---

Holmes surprised me frequently, sometimes even daily when his mind was latched onto a new puzzle, but I had never felt such astonishment as when I woke silently six months after Holmes’ reappearance into my life.

Even after easement into civilian life, I could wake from a sound sleep by the slightest noise. However, Holmes could always manage to make his way to my very bedside before awakening me for a new client, a new case, or whatever had been sprung on our lives in the early morning hours. I had accepted his uncanny stealth years ago; in fact, I held great admiration for it.

On this particular evening Holmes awoke me, but quietly, and I immediately deduced the action was unintentional. Keeping my eyes closed and my breathing even, my honed senses could feel him looming by my head, blotting some of the streetlight. He remained in this position for several moments; what happened next took all my considerable willpower to remain still.

The touch was just a whisper against my cheek. The pads of his long fingers were warm and soothing, and my exhale lengthened slightly into a mimic of a sigh. He did not withdraw at this change; instead, the touch shifted, his fingers curving down the side of my jaw in an intimate manner. He repeated this sweeping motion twice before retreating, and a moment later I realised I was alone again.

I rested no more that evening, pressing my hand to my face in wonder as I pondered the single great question of why.

---

Curious as I was about Holmes’ nocturnal visit, I abandoned my plan to question him when I found him in a temper the next morning. His foul mood continued for the rest of the week, and as I found my diagnosis and care requested by an elderly patient of mine, I let my inquiries settle in the back of my mind as I concentrated on staying clear of Holmes’ wrath and doing what I could to ease the patient’s suffering. The week passed with barely a handful of words passed between myself and my companion, and so I was surprised to find him round upon me with a look of intent Sunday morning.

“Are you in a better humour?” I teased lightly. “Or should I take a long walk before breakfast?”

“Sit, Watson,” was his blunt reply, and I frowned to hear the tension of late still in his voice. I obeyed and moved to my chair by the fire, worried and curious over my friend’s obvious distress. Holmes curled in his seat opposite mine and stared across at me with glittering eyes. He was quiet for a moment, but I could see him gathering his thoughts and thus waited patiently.

“As a military man and a medical doctor, you must have come upon times when several paths of actions laid before you, each laced with inherent risk.” He leaned forward, his chin resting on his bent knees. “Instruct me in how you decided which path to take.”

“What an odd request,” I mused, truly surprised. “Surely everyone encounters such a problem. The conundrum is not related only to retired medical staff.”

He waved a hand irritably, and I could see I had roused his impatience. “Instruct me. Facts. Examples. Revelations. All are relevant; lay it before me.”

I studied his manic eagerness for a moment before replying. “Perhaps if I were to understand what circumstance you find yourself in, I would know better how to answer,” I said with obvious bafflement. “I cannot see how explaining emergency medical procedures will help you.”

“It is the principle of the idea, not the details,” he snapped with great ire. “What formulae do you use to analyse the risks? Benefits? Cost? Hardship? Results? Potential? Explain.”

Within that framework, his request made more sense. I nodded slowly. “With time, an important factor was experience. I had seen enough similar wounds, I had been with the army long enough to understand the choices set before me more clearly, and able to predict a wider selection based upon previous patients and results. Faith in my abilities and my orderlies was important as well. I knew my own limits, and theirs, and weighed them against my supplies, knowledge, and severity of the situation.”

“And if you had no experience?”

“I relied on my training,” I said promptly. “And if I had none… Well, it was pure instinct. I was, if I may say so, praised for my quick thinking and natural feel for the flow of battle and awareness of my surroundings.”

“Instinct.” Holmes’ nose wrinkled in disgust, causing me to smother a laugh. “Messy.”

“But highly useful, especially when used wisely,” I urged.

“Based on feelings and emotions?” My friend rolled his eyes dramatically. “Is that all you can recommend?”

“It worked well for me.” I smiled broadly at him. “But I imagine that’s a disappointment for you?”

“Quite. I do not extrapolate from emotions.”

“You should try it sometime,” I said warmly. “After all, how can you expect to fully know everything if you only know one half of it?”

His eyes narrowed, and I continued merrily.

“Logic and reason are only one half of a man, my dear Holmes. As finely tuned as your mind is, you’re still missing a piece of yourself if you ignore the softer emotions.”

I knew the murderous gleam in his eye after I spoke, and I wisely vacated the room and took myself out on a distracting walk about London before breakfast.

---

The next morning I was woken by the torturous whine of the violin just before dawn. I laid with my head buried beneath my pillow, but my efforts were in vain. If the disdainful plucking was any indication of Holmes’ mood- and it always was- he was still deep in his depression. I felt a pang of guilt, wondering if our previous conversation had encouraged his distemper, and eventually I rose with the intention of sorting out what mess his brilliant mind had fallen into.

As yesterday, he glared as I entered our sitting-room and bade me sit. Once again I obeyed, relieved to see him set the abused instrument aside as he resumed his position across from me. In the shadowed light of a single candle I could see his countenance was hollow and withdrawn.

“My dear Holmes,” I murmured as softly as I could manage. “Is there anything I can do or say to ease your frightful state?”

“There could be,” he said, his voice rough and low. “The curse of my situation is heavy.”

“What is it?” I asked immediately. “Set it before me, and I will do all I can.”

“It is difficult to ask for your advice, as it concerns you,” he replied in the same dark tone. “I’ve two critical paths before me, both with great risk involved in each. I cannot… decide.”

“Tell me all!” I cried. I reached forward to grip one of his hands in mine and he tensed, but didn’t move away. “Please, Holmes. I am sorry I mistook your distress for your habitual lassitude. Tell me, have I wronged you in some way?”

“No, my dear boy, never.” He shook his head with his denial and my heart lifted. “But the risk is great. I could lose my mind. Or I could lose your friendship. As you can understand, neither option is appealing,” he added with the pale shadow of a smile.

I stuttered in disbelief, squeezing his hand beneath mine in reassurance. “Goodness, Holmes! How can you entertain such an impossibility? You have my friendship, now and for the rest of our days.”

“Do not be so quick about that. I still haven’t decided which-,”

“Holmes,” I said with a great amount of authority, a tone I rarely used. “Perish the thought. Nothing and no-one could turn me from your side.”

We sat in silence, unspoken words hanging heavily between us. I was not often so stubborn with Holmes, but I had my moments, and this was a spectacular example of such.  His expression still carried such unease that after a time I spoke again.

“Do you not trust me?” I dreaded an answer in the negative, but I had to know if this was what was causing his upset.

“Yes, I do, as I always have,” he answered at length, exhaling noisily. “Then so be it. I wish to offer you my… problem, and beg your advice at last.”

“Good,” I said vehemently.

“Do not interrupt.”

“I shall attend wholly but quietly then, I promise.”

There was another moment of silence, then he began to speak in a gentler voice. I was captivated from the beginning, and my astonishment grew with each passing word until it was difficult to keep to my vow.

“You have noted the pride I take in my mental prowess; it is my defining characteristic, and one I’ve shaped and honed from a young age. I created my own profession to mould to my skills and heartily enjoyed both the work and successes for many years.

“And then I met you, Watson, and after a time I began to realise I was sharper, finer, more focused with you at my side- a feat I had not considered possible, as I had assumed I had reached a subtle peak in my skills. Of course there was always more information to be gathered, research to be done and clues to solve, but I had thought I was already a master of my abilities. You have taught me that wasn’t true. The security of your presence, the invaluable and ingeniously simple insights you provide, and the relaxation of your companionship all lead to me continually progressing. In this manner, Watson, you have both free and captured my mental state.

“I… suffered greatly in your absence those three years. I prepared myself as best I knew how, but there was more than just the loss of focus or concentration. There was an ache, slow and soft at first but grew with the passing weeks, then years. I am ashamed to admit it took me some time to understand what it meant. I didn’t miss you because you crafted me into a better detective. I missed you because you crafted me into a better man. I was then horrified to realise I had unknowingly submitted myself to a crippling heartache. Your penchant for flights of fancy and emotions had settled more deeply into my habits than I could have predicted.

“Once we returned to our former lives together, I believed all would be well. And it has been, but for one change. Your touch.”

He paused here to twist his hand, our palms meeting and our fingers lacing together before he continued.

“Initially I was pleased you shared my desire for contact, but found too late something had begun without my acknowledgement or permission. This desire grew into a need.”

Another brief silence. I stared in shock, and his drooping gaze was so miserable I rose from my chair and knelt before him. He twitched at my approach but remained still.

“You were amenable to contact, and for a time it was enough. After a time, however, it has not been enough. I crave your touch. And now… You have infected me, Watson. Mind, heart, and body.”

“Holmes,” I admonished lightly, “this is no cause for such alarm! Most people desire the touch of another human. Even young children require it.”

Even with this statement his eyes were shifting with fear, and I pressed forward again, now gripping both his hands in mine. “Holmes, please, it is not such a mountain of a problem as you paint it to be.”

“There is but one last fact to speak before you can say so,” he said sharply.

“Then speak it, so I may fully ease your mind.”

The sparkling eyes closed, though this only enhanced his expression of distress. “I do not wish to lose you.”

“You risk that simply by not confiding in me,” I said quietly. “Please, my dearest friend. Do not keep this secret between us. It pains you, I can see it all too clearly, and I would help you however I can.”

When he responded, his voice was so low I could barely make out the words over the crackle of the fire.

“I crave your touch intimately. And I wish to touch you with all the tenderness and consideration I feel for you.”

His obvious fear coiled in my gut at the realisation, but only out of concern for us and our privacy. As for the man himself, I only felt a great relief at his confession for I, too, had thought of his touch most inappropriately in the dark of night over the last several months. To think the greatest mind I have ever known had been quivering in anticipation and fear with the same thoughts as I!

“Even with your unique intellect, you fail to see the obvious at times,” I finally said in a cordial manner.

His eyes opened in surprise. I met his searching gaze with a wide smile.

“I have trusted you with my own life for years now,” I continued happily. “What little step it is to entrust you with my heart as well?”

He breathed my name in wonder as he leaned forward, slipping his hands from my grasp to frame my face so delicately as he had a few nights before. I rested comfortably into his hold, warmed by the newfound joy lighting the beloved eyes.

“I have loved you as my dear friend for so long,” he murmured against my mouth. “But you would allow me to-?"

“Yes.”

“And touch you-?"

“Yes.”

He paused, smiling wryly at my interruptions. “And love you?”

I pressed closer to him. “Oh, yes. Will you allow me to do the same?”

“Of course, my dearest Watson. We will write the science of touch upon each other’s bodies as secrets only for our own understanding.”

His lips finally found mine in a chaste embrace, and we lost all reason in a rising tide of emotion.