Chapter 1: Sunday
It began innocently enough.
Well, no, as a matter of fact, it did not begin innocently enough, not by any normal standard. The fact that I feel justified in starting off my narrative in such a way is proof only of how very far from innocent it eventually became. It actually began with Holmes smoking a cigarette on the left side of his bed, in a state of some considerable nudity, while I stretched languidly on the right side, in a state of greater nudity still. Not, then, a particularly innocuous scene, but far more so than the one prevailing in that vicinity only a few minutes before.
I propped myself up on one elbow and gazed at Holmes. It was not the adoring gaze of a sated lover, as one might suppose, but a contemplative, curious sort of look. Holmes turned towards me and shot me a glance of much the same variety.
"I was wondering," Holmes said, and then stopped, taking another long drag from his cigarette. Moments stretched into seconds, and it became clear that Holmes had no intention whatsoever of continuing the thought. I considered refusing to play along with his game, for such it undoubtedly was, but at that particular moment, I wasn't inclined to quibble over trifles.
"What were you wondering, Holmes?" I asked obediently.
I flatter myself that no man on earth knows Holmes's expressions better than I. At times, I can read volumes into the twitch of a finger or the curve of an eyebrow. This particular lopsided fragment of a smile meant, 'I know very well that you are simply humoring me, my dear Watson. You let me get away with far more than I deserve, you know, though I suppose I do have my little ways of making it up to you.' What he said was, "I was simply starting your thought for you, Watson. When you look at me so intently, with your knuckles against your cheekbones, it inevitably heralds a sentence beginning 'I was wondering.'"
I could not decide whether this comment merited a smile or a roll of the eyes, and settled for both. "If it makes you happy, my dear Holmes, I suppose I can oblige you. I was wondering whether anyone who happened to witness the goings-on in our rooms this last hour or two would ever again be able to credit the myth of Sherlock Holmes, the man of infinite self-denial. If I were to use the word 'attack' to describe your behavior this morning, I should, if anything, be understating the case."
It is a very great misfortune in life to love a man who becomes still more attractive when he smirks. "I do not believe that I heard you complain at the time."
"Nor am I complaining now-- though I feel it requisite to point out that, if I had wished to register an objection earlier, I would have found it nearly impossible to do so."
Stretching one arm theatrically to the side and bringing the other to his midsection, he gave a far more elegant bow than any seated man ought to be able to manage. "Forgive me, my dear doctor; I seem to have been quite swept away by your charms." Reaching towards me, he traced a delicate finger up my arm and neck, as far as my hairline, so lightly that our skin hardly met. Oversensitive as always in the moments after the conclusion of our carnal encounters, I shuddered under his touch, and he leaned over and drew my lower lip between his teeth, nipping and nibbling.
"You'll burn the sheets off the bed, if you don't put out that cigarette," I commented, as soon as I could get a word in edgewise. Without turning his eyes to the fireplace, he tossed the still-burning stub in that direction, landing it neatly in the middle of the grate. The moment it left his fingers he was straddling me.
"I can think of one or two other methods of burning the sheets off the bed which I would very much prefer," he murmured, bending his head to that vulnerable spot at the crook of my neck which he knows so well.
"This is precisely what I mean. Anyone would think we were a pair of schoolboys, not men in our forties..."
"I often wish we had been acquainted at that stage of our lives, my dear Watson. Only think to what good use we might have put the infinite stamina of youth."
"I'd have died of exhaustion before my twenty-fifth birthday. Honestly, Holmes, even if I could tell anyone about this aspect of our relationship, no one would believe that, of the two of us, you are by no means the superior in self-control."
At this he abruptly stopped and pulled back. "I should hardly go so far as that, Watson. The fact that I do not choose to deny myself the pleasures of the flesh when we have the necessary privacy and time hardly indicates that I am incapable of doing so."
I managed a very passable imitation of his most supercilious manner. "If you say so, it would be ungentlemanly of me to doubt it."
"Which is to say, you do not believe a word of it." He crossed his arms and gave me a look I love to see, the one which reminds me that I am still, on occasion, one of his mysteries.
"I should merely point out that, short of putting the thing to the test, we are neither of us entitled to assume ourselves better able to resist the other's charms."
Holmes wrinkled his nose. "I shall graciously pass over any mention of syntax unbecoming a man who calls himself a writer and instead say only this: we ought, then, to do precisely that."
"Do precisely what?"
"Put it to the test, my dear Watson. You claim that your capacity to resist my powers of seduction is greater than mine to resist yours; I maintain that the opposite is true. The only solution which I can devise for this little disagreement-- which, if permitted to fester, would no doubt threaten the very annihilation of good relations between us-- is to make a practical trial of the thing."
I shot him a skeptical glance. "By which you mean, you are bored senseless now that the Saunders case is cleared up, and you need a suitable distraction."
He rolled smoothly off of me and settled back on his own side of the bed. "Nonsense, John. I could understand you accusing me of seeking the pleasures of your bed as an antidote to ennui, but denying myself those same pleasures is hardly the sort of plan designed to alleviate boredom. Perhaps you are merely attempting to put me off because you know that your boast is an idle one..." He directed his gaze at the sheets, flicking away an imaginary bit of ash, the corner of his mouth curling into a perfect arabesque.
I paid no heed to his shameless ploy, but I cannot deny that I was intrigued. "Just what sort of test do you suggest?"
He glanced over his shoulder at me, that irritatingly alluring little smile still playing about his lips. "Oh, a very simple one, in my opinion. I propose that, beginning this very moment, we attempt, in the most literal sense of the phrase, to keep our hands off of each other-- no touching of any kind-- and that whichever of us is first to waver in his resolve must declare himself the man of weaker will. Of course, neither of us should like to see such a thing go on for too long, so perhaps we ought to put a clock on the thing... shall we say a week? At which point, if neither of us has weakened, we shall simply be forced to declare that we are both men of iron resolve, and leave it at that."
I considered. Holmes's playful periods are rather uncommon, but he throws himself into them with the same abandon that characterizes all of his moods. And if this little exercise would indeed prove a distraction for him-- which, in spite of his claims to the contrary, I did not doubt-- then it was a far more harmless diversion than many of his leisure-hour pursuits.
It would not do, however, to give in to his scheme immediately; I learned long ago that living with a man as commanding as Holmes requires one to assert oneself whenever possible, if one is to keep one's sanity the rest of the time. "I might be amenable to the scheme, with a few caveats and emendations."
"By all means, doctor; your input is always welcome," he replied, with exaggerated politeness.
"First of all, I think it would be unwise for us to insist upon an absence of physical contact when we are in mixed company. Our friends-- and, for that matter, anyone who has read my stories-- are well aware of your affinity for tactile methods of expression, and might well notice a sudden change in those habits. Besides, pointed attempts to avoid touch while in public would be suspicious even if we did not generally spend a goodly percentage of time in some sort of contact. I think, for the sake of security, we must stipulate that the ban on touching be lifted while in public places."
"How precisely would you define a public place?"
I raised an eyebrow, wondering why he considered that detail significant, but replied with, "Any location where there is not a closed door between us and the rest of the world, I suppose."
Holmes considered for a moment. "Very well," he acceded at last. "Anything further?"
"One other thing, yes. As the scheme stands now, all we really need do is sit back and do nothing for a week. We have passed weeks without anything more than the most casual contact before, when your caseload was particularly heavy, and, while I'd certainly have preferred it otherwise, I do not seem to recall the suffering being too intense to bear. We ought, in my opinion, to make the test a more difficult one by increasing our incentive to pursue more... active methods of seduction."
A look of intrigued amusement made a brief appearance on Holmes's face at this last phrase, but his voice was quite nonchalant as he stated, "And you already have a plan to achieve that end."
"I simply suggest that we increase the stakes. Pride is all very well, but a more definite wager would throw the thing into starker relief, as it were."
Holmes grinned. "This is why your chequebook remains locked in my drawer, Doctor. Very well. If I am the first to succumb to temptation, I shall... hmm. I seem to recall you mentioning that you had hopes of infesting still more of the globe with that romanticized drivel of yours. Should I be the one to yield, I shall do my part to further your ambitions in that vein; you shall hold your in hand within the month my own translation of one of your novels into French, for publication in Paris. Would that suit you?"
It was a surprising choice of forfeit, more personal than I should have expected him to propose, but, short of offering to toss his morocco case into the dustbin, I could imagine no better prize than the idea of my tales becoming ours, his words and mine at once. There was something so beautifully intimate about the notion. Not that I could mention that, of course; I should have caught him scoffing at me and my fanciful imagination for weeks afterwards. "I suppose it would do; your French is undeniably impeccable. Shall I choose something in the literary vein, too, then? Very well-- if I lose, I'll give in and write up that damned Sumatra case for the Strand. It was one of your finest pieces of deduction, there's no doubt, no matter how little the incident flattered me."
"It was perhaps two inches longer than any garden-variety rodent, Watson; you really cannot blame me for my amusement at your choice of adjective..."
"I hate the blasted creatures," I grumbled, nestling testily into the bedclothes. "Is that a yes, then?"
"That seems adequate," Holmes replied solemnly, though with twinkling eyes. Leaning down, he plucked his waistcoat from where it was draped across the foot-board and withdrew his watch from its pocket. "As it is now eleven fifty-two, shall we set noon next Sunday as our ending point?"
"That sounds sensible," I replied. "Does that mean that we have eight more minutes now in which to do as we like?"
He was suddenly very near. "That depends, John," he said, the words gliding from between his lips. "How much do you want those eight minutes of touch?"
I knew very well what my response must be. "Oh, I can take them or leave them, really," I replied. "It would be pleasant to steal one last fortifying sort of kiss, to be sure, but it's hardly of the essence."
And then he was smirking again, curse him. "If you truly believe that a kiss is the most I could do for you in," he glanced down, "seven minutes and twenty-three seconds, you are vastly underestimating my capabilities."
It was a good first test, I told myself, in resisting the sorts of statements that would usually induce me to throw him bodily against the nearest available surface (vertical or, for preference, horizontal) in an effort to bring as many parts of us into simultaneous contact as humanly possible. "What a very generous offer, Holmes," I replied calmly. "I think, however, that I must regretfully decline. The next time I get my hands on you, I intend to inflict the sort of ecstasy requiring seven minutes even to begin to comprehend, and hours thereafter to appreciate fully. I should not like to find myself so limited in my scope as that."
So saying, I slipped from the bed and began to pull on the various garments that had been scattered in every direction over his bedroom in our earlier haste. By the time my feet touched the ground his look was one of amused indulgence, but I had not missed the split-second glance of absolute hunger; I knew that I had scored a hit. There was a hint of a swagger in my step as I headed for the door.
"I shall be at my desk if you want me, Holmes. Have you any intention of leaving that bed to-day?"
"That depends," he replied, lifting his cigarette case from the nightstand, withdrawing one and lighting it. "If I stay here long enough, do you suppose you'll come back and join me?"
"I rather doubt it."
"Then perhaps not," he said, taking a long drag from his cigarette. "I have no particular objection to remaining abed long past the customary hour, but it is the sort of practice which improves with company."
"Oh, you may certainly have my company, if you'd like it. All you need do is come find me and take me by the arm. I'll follow docile as a lamb, after that."
"If I wanted docility, Watson, I should have married some pretty little slip of a girl long ago."
"Then I think all three of us--you, I, and that unfortunate hypothetical female--can be glad that you do not," I grinned, and slipped from the room. "And I intend to remind you of it, the next time you accuse me of abominable bossiness for attempting to persuade you to eat," I called over my shoulder, just as the door swung shut behind me.
That first day, we had little time for our game of seduction. Holmes had barely emerged from his room, perhaps a quarter of an hour after I left him, when Mrs. Hudson brought up a telegram for me. One of my patients--there were not many at that stage of my life, but a few had stayed with me since my days in active practice, and the locals of Baker Street tended to seek me out even without a red lamp--had just gone into labor, and my presence was urgently requested. Holmes merely gave me a little smile and passed me my bag (though taking care that our fingers should not brush against each other in the exchange) as I hurried out the door.
Mrs. Mitchell was a strong woman and had carried to term, and so the birth was not the fearful ordeal for all concerned which that process can be and so often is. But the child was also her first, and a stubborn little thing, which made for many hours of sweating and coaxing and cries which the poor woman tried valiantly to suppress before the squalling infant finally made her appearance in the world. I left mother and daughter healthy and slumbering, the latter in the arms of her glowing father, and hailed a cab for Baker Street. For all that my profession is, broadly speaking, not a happy one--and that my career, in particular, has not often shown me the brighter side of the physician's trade--there are days when the rewards of medicine are tremendous, and never more so than when I have the privilege to aid in the beginning of a new life. It was, therefore, with a happiness that more than matched my exhaustion that I dragged myself up the stairs of Baker Street just as the clock was chiming ten.
Holmes was not in the sitting-room when I arrived. I had seen his hat and stick in the hat-stand as I walked in, so I did not doubt that he was at home, but I thought at first that he had retired to his room--unusual at that hour, particularly as I had not yet returned, but not unheard-of. I had just collapsed into a chair, however, when I noticed that the bath-room door (or, rather, one of them, the one which faced the sitting-room rather than the stairwell) was open. I could not help noticing it, in fact, as Holmes called out to me from within, "Returned at last, Watson? And all well, I think, if your tread is anything to go by, which it always is. Come along, my dear fellow, and have your turn--you deserve to get the most out this hot water while it lasts, after such a trying day."
As he spoke, I had managed somehow to lever myself from my chair and make my way to the doorway. He could not have been more than a few minutes in the bath before I arrived, as the steam still hung heavy in the air. He was turned away from me, so that all I could see of him was the sleek expanse of coal-dark hair, the flawless white neck, the slightly too-prominent shoulder blades. Or that was all I could see at first, at any rate, until he stood. Although it has been more than a decade since Holmes and I first became lovers, the sight of a thousand thousand droplets of water cascading at once down his back was still more than enough to make my breath catch and a shiver pass through me. If I had not been so very tired, it should have done a great deal more than that.
It was all for my benefit, of course, but Holmes, consummate actor that he is, can be both coy and brazen at once with more skill than most men can apply to either the one or the other. Not until he had swaddled himself thoroughly in his bath sheet did he turn to look at me, his eyes meeting mine in the most casual manner imaginable. I tried very hard not to notice the heightened colour in his cheeks; bathing is one of only two activities on earth that brings a flush to Holmes's face, and I could not help but be reminded of the other. "Well, Watson?" he asked. "Whatever are you waiting for? While cold water would certainly do something for the blood under your fingernails, it should not go nearly so far to easing that ache in your shoulder. Just like a woman. Not twenty-four hours in this world, and already young Mistress Mitchell has acquired the art of making a nuisance of herself."
"In fairness to the fair sex, I do not believe that the delivery should have proved less difficult had the child been a boy," I said, as I began to undress. Holmes was right-- a warm bath would do me a world of good--and, in despite of the fact that it was what he had bidden me do, I did not see how shedding my clothes could hurt my chances in our little duel of wills. "How did you know it was a girl?" I asked, as I sunk into the water with a little groan of pleasure.
Holmes's eyes brightened, the way they always do when I ask him to explain himself. When most people ask those same sorts of questions, it provokes only annoyance or ennui. I have no very definite notion of how my interest first came to mean so much to him. Now, of course, it is because I am his Watson, and the desire to impress me has become a part of his nature. That it should have been so before we knew each other well--that, perhaps, I might always have been his natural audience, even before we met--is surely an overly fanciful notion. That does not stop me believing it.
"You are always a bit more sober and reserved after delivering a boy--thinking, no doubt, of the responsibilities that will someday be his, the hard work and dedication which he must devote if he is to grow to be worthy to be called a gentleman--though in neither case is your manner lacking in joy. When your newest patient is a daughter, however, your happiness is of a freer, more light-hearted variety. Even if I were no great observer of other men, Watson, I believe I know your face well enough that I should be able to manage that particular deduction."
I almost forgot myself so far as to reach across the room and grasp at his hand. But I restrained myself in the end, and beamed at him instead, an unabashed and undeniable smile.
He did not smile back, not fully, but he allowed his lips a bit of latitude at the corners. Then he knelt beside the bath-tub, his hands on the rim and face hovering only a few inches from my own.
"Have you any plans for tomorrow, Watson? Patients? A meeting with your publisher, perhaps?"
He knew very well that I did not, but he wished to hear me say it, and I permitted him the pleasure. "None whatever, my dear Holmes."
"In that case, I believe I shall turn in early," he replied. "It will require all the strength which a good night's sleep can provide, to have those lips before me all day long, with no case to prove even a partial distraction, and yet to resist the urge to kiss you."
"You might end this silly game now, and spare yourself that torment," I remarked.
He did that thing with his eyes that makes it impossible to look away, even (and perhaps especially) for me. "Shall I, then?" he said softly, satin words sliding frictionlessly from his lips. His face neared mine with agonizing slowness and he turned his head, moving our noses out of each other's paths, until he was so near that the air between my lips and his seemed compacted, pressed into solidity between us. His eyelids began to droop, curtaining eyes grown suddenly dark and out-of-focus, and my lids, as though tethered to his, followed their motion, until we hovered, our eyes closed, only the merest fraction of an inch from a kiss. For seemingly endless seconds, we both remained absolutely still.
"Good-night, Watson," he whispered without sound, his breath on my lips a caress, and suddenly there was a rustling of cloth. I opened my eyes just in time to watch him disappear from the bath-room.
I seemed to have temporarily misplaced my breath. "Good-night, Holmes," I finally managed to croak out, just before his bedroom door swung shut. And, though I could neither see nor hear him, I had not the slightest doubt that he was, once again, wearing that smirk.
Chapter 2: Monday
I slept fitfully that first night, unused as I had now become to having my bed to myself. It was not that Holmes and I never spent a night apart; although we generally shared Holmes's room when at Baker Street, it was not uncommon for a visitor or a trip out of London to force us into separate quarters. Sleeping alone was not so very unusual. But the knowledge that I might have been with him that night, only my own pride preventing it, rattled about in some out of the way corner of my mind, and having Holmes so near and yet not with me had a very poor effect upon my dreams (perhaps there was something to that mad Viennese alienist and his theories about the sleeping mind after all). While I would not quite say that my night was plagued by waterfalls, the background of my slumber held a sneaking suspicion of rushing currents, more crash than susurration, clear beneath the other dream-images which were no more than a blur.
In consequence, I woke in the morning feeling more in need of sleep than when I had gone to bed. My annoyance only increased when, having made my way downstairs to breakfast, I found Holmes looking quite as well-rested as ever, tucking into his bacon and eggs with unusual enthusiasm. I could not possibly have expected to hide my unsettled night from him, but I had hoped that it would take him longer than the first glance to deduce it. The hope was a vain one, as I ought to have known. Within moments of my entrance he gave me a, "You look awful, my dear fellow," and promptly turned back to his tea.
"And a very good morning to you too, Holmes," I groused, sinking into my chair.
"Was your slumber less than sweet, my dear Watson--or less than slumber? I know an excellent cure for insomnia," he grinned. "I shall inform you of it, if you like, and even provide an instructional demonstration, if you will only come over and kiss me good-morning."
I bit into a rasher of bacon with rather more force than necessary. "Oddly enough, Holmes, the 'Doctor' before my name is not merely ornamental. I flatter myself that, where the curing of medical conditions is concerned, I possess a certain degree of competence myself. Charming though I'm sure your folk remedy would be."
He swallowed his last bite of egg and licked his lips in an only slightly exaggerated way. "Ah, but you see, Watson, even the most skilled medical man requires the services of an assistant every now and then in the performance of his profession, particularly when he himself is the patient. This peculiar panacea is not one which the sufferer may self-administer, but I assure you, its efficacy makes it well worth the effort involved in seeking out a helping hand. Or, to be more precise, a helping mouth."
I rolled my eyes. "Truly, Holmes, your subtlety is overwhelming."
"I believe that subtlety is not generally intended to overwhelm, but I take your point. Should you prefer the subtle, then?" Holmes asked. "As you like, John." He stood, rather slowly, and arched his entire body in a stretch. It was a perfectly normal gesture of a morning, the kind of stretch in which any man might indulge after a restful night's sleep, and not even a very dramatic example of the type. It also showed off the flatness of his stomach, the gentle tapering of his hips, and the eternally graceful arch of his spine to perfect advantage. He walked over to his chair with precisely the same tread he always stepped, and when he sat his legs crossed in precisely the same way they always did, and already I wanted nothing more than to drag him by the cravat off to his bedroom and have my way with him.
It was Monday and, in the way of Mondays, it was going to be a deplorable day.
The next hour or so did nothing to contradict that assumption. My eggs were cold, and yet the tea burned my mouth. I picked at my unsatisfying breakfast for as long as I could, while Holmes sat and smoked and scribbled away in his commonplace books, which were overdue for updating. Stalking over to my desk, I attempted to make some progress on my account of the Baskerville case, but my brain seemed tied up in knots, and I spent what felt like years attempting to work out a single reluctant sentence. I have been a writer long enough to know that there are some days when the words simply will not come, and finally gave up and slumped over to the settee--though not before managing to produce significant ink-stains on my poor shirt-cuff, courtesy of a leaking fountain pen. I might here embellish and claim that the novel with which I then attempted to amuse myself gave me paper cuts. It did not, in point of fact, but I should not have been in the least surprised.
As I sat, Holmes, who had thus far kept very much to himself, looked up at me with an odd expression playing about his lips. "From that hint of huffiness about your breathing, my dear Watson, I should say that you were rather out of sorts this morning," he commented. "An ill night's sleep is apt to make the whole world seem gloomy and grim. Chin up, doctor. All will seem brighter tomorrow, once you've had a good night's rest."
I stared at him. "Holmes...were you just attempting to cheer me up?"
He smiled, set down his commonplace-book, and walked over to sit at the opposite end of the settee. "Of course I was, John. Unless I am very much mistaken, the offering of comfort and consolation is considered a typical gesture between lovers--even a duty, one might say. I may not always show it very well, but I do like to see you happy."
I blinked once or twice. I should not be surprised if I shook my head a bit in confusion, though I have no specific recollection of doing so. And then I understood, and laughed.
"This is how you suppose you will seduce me, Holmes? By being sweet and considerate? It's a novel approach, I must say, but I am not quite sure how I think it reflects on me. Do you really believe that I am so starved for simple gestures of affection that, by providing them, you shall induce me to fall at your feet? And do you honestly consider me so unobservant as to have been unaware, before, that you cared about my happiness? My dear Holmes, if I thought you half as cold as you pretend to be, I should never have cared a fig for you, no matter how handsome, charming and brilliant you may be. But extravagant solicitude, while a pleasant change, will not draw me into your bed any more than it should have won you my heart in the first place. You are a man who, on observing that I am in an unwarranted bad temper, is far more likely to attempt (usually successfully) to distract or tease me out of it than to offer sympathy, and just as likely as either simply to order me to cease behaving in such a self-indulgent manner. But it is you, and no other, with whom I fully intend to live out the remainder of my days. Did you suppose that you could become more desirable to me by pretending to be that which you are not?"
It was gratifying to see his salvo backfire so dramatically, for I could tell by the look on his face that he wanted to kiss me very badly indeed. But he confined himself to a smile--so wide that his lips nearly parted, which is an extraordinary occurrence--and said, "My dear Watson, you are without doubt the most nonsensical man I have ever met, with the possible exception of the one or two raving lunatics of my acquaintance. It is difficult enough for me to comprehend how or why you tolerate me when I am in an ill-humor; that you should actually go so far as to discourage me when I am in a good one defies belief."
He had, in spite of himself, succeeded in lightening my mood, and I grinned back at him. "Perhaps I enjoy that sort of thing. I'd not be the first man on earth to find that suffering has...certain attractions." I deepened my voice and curled my lips as I said it, emphasizing the illicit implications of my words.
I do not recall the last time I saw his eyebrows so near his hairline. "In so many years of intimate acquaintance, I do not believe I could possibly have failed to observe such a predilection, if you possessed it."
I was thoroughly enjoying his discomfiture, and moved nearer to him, until our legs were only a few inches apart. "But I may simply have hidden it very well up to now. You remember the Mary Sutherland case, and my eagerness afterwards? If memory serves, we made it no further than the dining table. I couldn't sit down to a meal for weeks afterwards without going red in the face. For the first day or two, I couldn't sit down anywhere without going red in the face."
Holmes very nearly blushed himself at the memory. "I recall the incident quite vividly."
"And you no doubt retain an equally clear recollection of the events immediately preceding that rather enthusiastic incident."
"I believe I had just chased Mr. Windibank from the sitting-room, threatening to..." I could almost hear his mind stop whirring, that marvelous brain screeching to a total halt. I may be the one man on earth who can achieve that feat, though only rarely, and I reveled in it. "Watson!"
I could not help grinning then. I twisted my body, propping my arms against the back of the settee on either side of him and bending my mouth towards his ear. "Tell me, Holmes, if I did want you to take a buggy whip to me, how would you react?"
Holmes's habitual pallor is so extraordinary that he must be very affected indeed to turn noticeably pale. But when I pulled back to look at him now he was white as a sheet, and saucer-eyed to boot. He opened his mouth as though attempting to formulate a reply...and then the bell rang downstairs. I hastily pulled away from him, and he moved over to stand by the hearth. He had lifted his pipe down from the mantel, lit it, and was tossing his match into the grate just as the sitting-room door opened.
"A lady to see you, Mr. Holmes," Mrs. Hudson announced. The lady in question entered immediately behind her, without waiting for a by-your-leave. She was dressed in the finest fabrics, the pattern the height of fashion, but there was something vulgar and garish in the effect of the whole. Nor did the style suit either her build, which was Rubenesque to say the least, or her height, which was considerable, or her age, which must have been past forty, squeezing and twisting her into a powdered and painted farce. It was clear from the first precisely what sort of client she would be.
The moment this newcomer entered the room, she rushed straight for Holmes and flung herself into his arms, clutching feebly at his waistcoat. "Oh, please Mr. Holmes!" she cried, breaking into sobs. "The police have been so cruel, but you are a gentleman. You would not simply sit back and allow a lady to suffer. If I have to go another day without knowing, I am sure that I shall..."
"Do take a seat, madam, I implore you," Holmes broke in, pushing her gently but firmly away and depositing her into the nearest armchair. It was against his nature to interrupt a woman, even a hysterical one, but to allow himself to be touched in so familiar a way by a stranger was even more foreign to his temperament. Holmes strongly dislikes physical contact which he does not initiate, unless it comes from a person whom he knows very well. I, of course, am allowed almost any liberty; Mrs. Hudson is permitted, occasionally, to pat his hand; Mycroft may, if he likes (though generally he does not), clap Holmes on the shoulder or the back. That is all, except, perhaps, for Lestrade, who might possibly be forgiven a friendly touch on the arm, but who would never be so bold as to attempt the manoeuvre. To be touched by any other but we few is abhorrent to Holmes, particularly in such a very personal way. Once he had managed to peel our visitor off of him, he quickly retreated to the other armchair, stopping only long enough to put out his pipe and return it to the pipe-rack.
Holmes is usually generous in his dealings with the opposite sex, but just now he was too rattled to offer her his handkerchief as a gentleman ought to a lady in distress. It was left to me to hurry over to her and press a clean square of cambric into her hand. "Thank you, Dr. Watson," she hiccoughed, and blew her nose uproariously. I was not surprised that she knew who I was. My fame has spread as Holmes's has and, while I shall never be either so well-known or so well-beloved as he is, it was hardly shocking that she should be able to guess the identity of other man in the sitting room of Baker Street.
"Please, do tell us what's troubling you, Missus..."
"Matilda Fordyse, Doctor," she replied. "Mrs. Charles Fordyse, I should say, but my dear Charlie has been gone for ever so many years now." She looked at me, and then at Holmes, choosing her victim. My heart sank as her gaze settled back on me. "Though, of course, his memory remains ever green in my heart," she added sententiously.
"I have no doubt of it, madam," Holmes interposed smoothly. I heard, though she could not, the amusement in his voice, and the slightest hint of annoyance. It was not that he was remotely threatened by this ridiculous personage--nor should he have been--but no man appreciates witnessing another attempting to lay claim to that which is his, however ineptly. "Perhaps you had best tell us why it is you came to see us today."
"It's my diamonds, Mr. Holmes," she wailed, breaking into a fresh peal of horribly theatrical sobs. "You see, I was wakened in the small hours of the morning..."
I wish I could say that I recalled the precise words of Mrs. Fordyse's account, or even the general structure of her tale. Usually, my memory for conversation is exceptionally good; I have a talent for remembering the patterns of a person's speech, the sorts of words that they choose. I have attempted throughout my life to cultivate this gift, which has been a tremendous help to me in my writing. My ability to quote back conversations nearly word for word was, I think, one of the first things which convinced Holmes that there might be more to me than met the eye, for he discovered it quite early in our acquaintance. But of Mrs. Fordyse's presentation of her case I can remember hardly a syllable beyond that first sentence, and for that, Holmes is to blame.
No one else--with the possible exception of Mycroft Holmes, around whom, I think, my Holmes would not have tried such a trick--could have called Holmes's glances lascivious. Strictly speaking, they were really nothing of the kind. It was not that he looked at me as though he intended to drag me off to his bed and ravish me. It was that he looked at me in a perfectly benign way, but that, knowing him as I do, I was absolutely certain that he was thinking about dragging me off to his bed and ravishing me.
I have known for years, of course, that Holmes and I are exceptionally skilled at communicating without speech. We have to be, when on a case. There is nothing supernatural about it--we cannot have true conversations by our eyes alone--but warnings and simple orders are easy enough for us to communicate in that way. Nor has this wordless rapport been absent heretofore from the more personal side of our partnership.
Holmes is not a man to whom declarations of affection come easily. He has used the word 'love' to describe his feelings for me precisely three times in the thirteen years since the commencement of our affair The first was just after I had been bitten by Dr. Roylott's pet snake, when Holmes feared that not even the potent antidote he had carried with him in case of such an emergency would be enough to save me; I lived in despite of his grim prognostications, and kissed him when he tried to insist we forget the whole thing, and thus did we pass from friends to something more. The second came on the morning of my marriage, just before we left for the church, and too late to do any good; the dramatic increase in his cocaine usage (against my strenuous protests) in the six months before my proposal to Miss Morstan had made things so bad between Holmes and me that, when I saw my chance of a quiet life with a woman whose temperament suited mine, I took it, and, while my marriage was overall a happy one, I will never cease to regret the pain which I so callously caused to Holmes. And the third time, it was on the day he returned from the dead. From the guilty knowledge that I had deserted him long before he did the same to me, I was swifter to forgive him for the cruel act of allowing me to suppose him dead than I might otherwise have done, but even so, I did not pardon him instantly; I required a certain amount of wooing to win back into his arms. I believe I may have resisted him for as long as ten minutes. After five years without kissing him, and three believing I should never have the chance to do so again, I could not possibly have been expected to hold out any longer than that.
I seem to have wandered in my discourse--easy enough to do, when Holmes is my subject--but my point is this: only in extreme circumstances does Holmes say that he loves me in so many words. He is uncomfortable, too, with hearing me voice the same sentiment, though I am driven to it far more often than he would prefer. But I have never had leisure to doubt his feelings, because the emotions which his lips are reluctant to express are communicated to me daily by his eyes. Though not all of the intelligence which he delivers in that fashion is quite so innocent. "Faster" and "harder" and "there" are three commands for which his unspoken vocabulary is remarkably precise.
In general, he reserves these carnal communiqués for when we are alone. But now he was shooting me sidelong glances, as often as he could manage, which advertised only too clearly (to me, at any rate) his less-than-innocent intentions. At first, all I could read was that he wanted me, and soon, but when he was sure that I was following his general drift he gave a tiny, feline smile and began to specify. A quick look at my neck, and I could almost feel his fingers there; another to my hand, and the warmth of his lips encircled a knuckle. If we were alone, I should undo all those buttons, one by one, his eyes informed me, as Mrs. Fordyse narrated the tale of the theft of her diamonds, and strip off your trousers, too, until you stood completely bare before me. I, of course, would remain entirely clothed. (This last he communicated quite ingeniously by a sort of waggle of his eyebrows and one long glance down the whole of his own form.) I should take my time with you, paying due heed to those interesting parts of the body which so often go ignored--"the delicate flesh inside your elbow, and the tops of your feet, and the curve of your hips. I should kiss you until your lips, and mine too, were as red as those infernal geraniums with which Mrs. Hudson insists upon cluttering our dinner table. And then I should push you back until you sat on the edge of your writing desk, and open my trousers, and pull your ankles onto my shoulders, and… At which point the incorrigible man looked me full in the face, just for a moment, and then transferred his full attention to our client, with an expression as innocent as a choirboy.
It was thus that I came to miss Mrs. Fordyse's account, and to find myself very red in the face at the end of it. Fortunately Holmes, unearthly creature that he is, seemed to have managed simultaneously to tease me into near insensibility and to hear every word.
"Just to be sure I have it clear in my own mind, permit me, Mrs. Fordyse, to summarize," Holmes said pleasantly. "Your diamond necklace has disappeared from the locked traveling case where it was kept in your room at Claridge's hotel. You think that you saw the thief enter the room sometime in the small hours of the night, though you believed at the time that your vision of a dark figure was little more than a dream or a flight of fancy. And you are of the opinion that the police have not been sufficiently assiduous in their efforts to apprehend this midnight intruder and recover your jewels. Is that the general shape of things?"
"Yes, that is it precisely." She simpered at him. "Do you suppose you might be able to help me? I know it must not seem much of a challenge to a man of such tremendous intelligence as yours, Mr. Holmes, but it would mean so very much to me."
The repetition of the salient points had been for my benefit, and, while it was entirely Holmes's fault that I required such a review, I was grateful all the same. Not that the details would matter very much, I thought. Such a commonplace theft would no doubt be cleared up in an hour or two; there was no chance whatever of Holmes taking the case. Overemotional women who mislay their diamonds have not a hope of holding the interest of my supremely fastidious lover--unless the theft is accompanied by at least half-a-dozen strange and seemingly impossible circumstances, and a pronounced puzzlement to half of Scotland Yard and the entire constabulary.
"I should be happy to accept your case."
It is a minor miracle that I did not leap from my chair in shock. I am sure my eyes went wider than the Atlantic, however. Holmes did not look at me, but the corner of his mouth quirked as he stepped past me to extend a hand to our visitor, raising her effortlessly from her chair in despite of her bulk. I swear to heaven that she actually fluttered her lashes at him. "Oh, thank you, Mr. Holmes."
He smiled back at her, but swallowed in an emphatic fashion indicative, to my trained eye, of severe disgust. "Think nothing of it, madam." He had an effort peeling her hand from his, but his native gallantry is such that he relocated it only to just below his elbow.
I remained in my seat, frozen with bafflement, as Holmes and our client proceeded towards the door. When they passed behind my chair, Holmes reached out his free hand and brushed his fingers across the back of my neck, his body preventing Mrs. Fordyse seeing that intimate act. I drew in a sharp breath. For a moment, I thought that this sudden touch, our first since yesterday, was his surrender, and then I recalled that Mrs. Fordyse's presence permitted us as much contact as we could exchange without arousing suspicion.
"Come along, then, Watson," Holmes bid me, in his most peremptory tone, and it all fell into place. That was why he had taken the case--because he wanted me out of the house, in public, where he could touch me! It had nothing whatever to do with this horrible woman or her diamonds. I almost laughed aloud. There was only one proper plan of attack.
"I think I shall stay here, Holmes. It does not sound as though you will require either my medical knowledge or my revolver at your back, and I'm feeling a bit unwell. I trust you won't mind."
He did mind, very much, if the incensed look on his face were anything to go by. Holmes does hate to have his schemes anticipated, much less foiled, and he could tell from my expression and my refusal that I had caught on to his plan. "Of course not, doctor," he ground out, the title a mark of disfavour. "I do hope it's not anything serious?"
"Only a slight headache," I replied breezily. I stood and took our visitor by her free hand. "I hope you will forgive me, Mrs. Fordyse. Rest assured, you are in the most capable of hands. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"And yours, Dr. Watson," she said, giving me a look full of none-too-veiled significances. "Perhaps we shall..."
She did not even have time to finish the sentence, for Holmes had contrived, innocently as you please, to manoeuvre her out the door ahead of him. He shot me one last incensed look over his shoulder, to which I responded with a smirk and a wave of my hand, and then they were gone.
For some minutes after Holmes's departure, I attempted to amuse myself with my novel, but the fatigue of my disturbed night, in combination with the after-effects of Holmes's teasing, made concentration impossible. I tramped down to tell Mrs. Hudson not to worry about lunch--though she promised me a sandwich when I wanted it--and then headed back upstairs for a nap.
My lonely bed was even less appealing at noon than it had been at midnight. It was only after I had given in to the memory of Holmes's insistent eyes running over my body and taken myself in hand, pulling a quiet climax from my reluctant flesh, that I finally managed to lull myself to sleep.
I must have been far more tired than I realized--understandable, I suppose, given my professional exertions the day before and the subsequent poor night's sleep--for I slept away most of the afternoon. It was nearly five when I woke to find Holmes sitting cross-legged at the foot of my bed. As I stirred and propped myself up on my elbows, he turned away from the window and towards me.
There was something off about his expression. His aspect was decidedly hangdog, but it was not his usual melancholy. "What's wrong?" I asked, sitting back against the headboard.
There was a long pause, and then he announced, "By the time I arrived, the Yard had finally been called in." This remark was followed by a sigh of the most profound character.
I frowned. "I fail to see what is so very horrifying about that. If you think that your reputation will be dented by the acceptance of one less than fascinating case, you are vastly overreacting."
Holmes shook his head, his eyes positively mournful. "On this occasion, I wish my reputation had been tarnished. It was not the presence of the officials in general; it was the specific representative they elected to dispatch."
I began to get an inkling. "Not..."
Of an instant, he flung himself backwards, landing precisely six inches to one side of me on the pillows and only just missing the chance to knock himself unconscious on my headboard. His wrist moved to his forehead in an extravagantly dramatic gesture. "Stanley Hopkins!" he groaned pitiably, his eyes fluttering shut as though all his strength had been drained out of him at a blow. "My dear Watson, between our imbecile of a client and the attentions of Inspector Hopkins, what sufferings and torments have I endured this afternoon! You had best kiss me quickly, or I am likely to waste away to nothingness in my despair." He opened one eye a slit and peeked out at me sideways. I, for my part, was convulsed with laughter at his theatrics.
"He can be a little trying," I said, in a voice which attempted to be soothing but lost something as a result of the guffaws that kept slipping their way in sideways.
"Trying! Watson, you are more skilled in understatement than any other man I have ever known. That young idiot is a hundred times more likely to get me arrested for gross indecency than the man I bugger five times a week, the way he slobbers at me in public. The next time I accuse you of making too free with your flattery in print, just mutter 'Hopkins' at me, and I'll soon reconsider."
"I'll be sure to remember," I grinned. "Would you like me to have a talk with him?"
"With the inspector?" A look of intrigued surprise crossed his face, and then he rolled onto his side, propped his head on his hand, and grinned wickedly at me. "Yes, John, I would, but only if I can watch. He's a significantly younger man than you are, after all, and not entirely unhandsome; I can understand why you might feel the need to defend your property. I have so few chances to see you fight for me."
I pulled the pillow from under my head and pommeled him decidedly in the face. "You're as vain as any chorus-girl, Holmes. I haven't the slightest need to fight for you. He is a lovestruck puppy who drives you out of your head, and I am 'the man you bugger five times a week.' The day I lose your affections to Stanley Hopkins is the day I deserve to lose them."
"You haven't touched me in days, you know," he said, affectedly aggrieved. "What is a fellow to think?"
"It's been hardly more than twenty-four hours, and, if you'll only touch me first, I'll be glad to see to your every whim."
"And if you will only touch me first, I shall be glad to see to yours."
"It appears we're at a stalemate, then," I smiled at him. "We shall have to choose another subject. Did you find the diamonds?"
"Mmmm. Snatched up by the chambermaid," he yawned, curling into a ball on the coverlet. "One of those trusty servants who Mrs. Fordyse had specifically absolved from suspicion. They never consider that even trusty servants may have sisters wasting away of consumption who require money for proper care."
My concern must have shown on my face, for he did not wait for me to speak before adding, "I persuaded Mrs. Fordyse not to press charges, seeing that the necklace was recovered so promptly, and that the maid's motive was so sympathetic. I even convinced her not to sack the young thing, by intimating that the girl would feel so beholden to Mrs. Fordyse for her generosity that she should work twice as hard as any other chambermaid in Britain."
"And I advised the aspiring villainess of where to find a certain physician who delights in proffering free medical advice. I even mentioned that she should be doing me a personal favor in bringing her sister round, as said physician is so fond of dispensing said advice that he does so unsolicited when necessary, and his poor fellow-lodger is generally the victim."
"A terrible burden for you," I replied. "My medical advice just now should be that you have a bit of a rest yourself. I am beginning to suspect that I am not the only one of us who did not sleep entirely well." It was not a very brilliant deduction; his eyelids had already begun to droop.
He rolled his eyes at me, but in a decidedly sleepy fashion, and, rather than fighting, gave a sort of wriggle which, by some strange phenomenon, situated him under the covers. "If it will make you feel better, doctor," he said, snuggling down into the bed. As I turned to leave him in peace, I heard him mumble drowsily, "I never sleep well without you."
He was trying, no doubt, to get me to come back and kiss him. I admit it was one of his better ploys that day.
Holmes did not sleep nearly so long as I had done, but late enough to miss his supper. I asked Mrs. Hudson to join me at table, however, and we chatted of this and of that--of the high price of beef, and of the fact that, God willing, Her Majesty would soon become our longest-reigning monarch, and of Holmes, of course--so my meal was not a solitary one. Just after the dishes had been cleared away Holmes appeared.
The next few hours passed uneventfully, Holmes tinkering away on an experiment at his chemical table and I jotting down notes in my journal, the both of us occasionally pausing in our labours for a bit of conversation. As we had both slept in the afternoon we neither of us tired early, but by midnight I found myself ready for bed. I rose from my chair, conscious by the creaking of my bones of the creeping advance of age upon me, and turned to find Holmes not two feet in front of me. I jumped nearly out of my skin.
"Sweet God in heaven, Holmes, I know that you aspire to the career of catburglar, but when you intend to practice crossing rooms without making a sound, you might have the decency to warn a fellow!"
He laughed in his silent way, and extended an arm into the space between my own arm and my body to grasp the edge of the desk. "I do beg your pardon, my dear fellow." He leaned nearer, until I could feel the warmth of him. "Were you planning on turning in for the night?"
"The thought had crossed my mind," I answered. Not to be outdone, I inched nearer to him in my turn, holding his eyes.
"I don't suppose you'll be joining me." His neck was crooking, his face turning, his eyelids slipping as they had yesterday night, and I, once again, found myself powerless to do anything but mimic his prelude to a kiss.
"I don't suppose I shall," I breathed against his lips, now scandalously near mine.
"Pity." I shivered from the feeling of it. "In that case," our proximity was such that I could actually hear him smile, "Good-night, Watson."
"Good-night, Holmes," I replied, more promptly than I had managed yesterday, but with the most unpardonable wobble in my voice. By the time I opened my eyes I found myself once again alone, and turned to trudge my weary way to bed.
Chapter 3: Tuesday
"Watson," Holmes whispered, directly into my ear, "I don't suppose you'd care to repair to Baker Street a few minutes early? Our esteemed lecturer is duller than paint, and I've spent the last ten minutes thinking how very much I should like to sit you down in your armchair, kneel before you, and bring you off with my mouth. It feels an age since last I tasted you; I seem to have developed a craving which I am sure no substitute can satisfy. Come home with me, and let me drink you dry."
Every hair on my body stood on end. Was he mad? We were in a room full of people, for God's sake!
A few hours before this little scene took place, at the breakfast table that morning, I had convinced Holmes to accompany me to a lecture at the University of London, where I still had connections and was permitted to drop in at the occasional talk when it suited me. I managed this feat of persuasion by pointing out that the subject of the lecture--blood coagulation, and how the rate and method differs in sufferers from various blood-related diseases--was as relevant to his field as to mine. Holmes' last real case (barring that unsatisfactory interlude yesterday) had concluded on the preceding Thursday and, as it was now Tuesday, I had begun to worry about the problem of keeping his mind occupied. Even with our little game of seduction providing a certain amount of distraction, I had begun to notice one or two of the warning signs of an oncoming black mood. Occasionally, when I catch them very early, I can deflect his dark fits by diverting his mind into some brighter and more salubrious channel. A lecture was not a particularly promising start, but it was far better than doing nothing at all.
Or it would have been, had not the lecturer, as Holmes so rightly said, been an absolute trial to listen to. Though a reputed scholar in his own field, the fellow elevated tedium to heights as yet undreamt by man. He ought to be given a medal, I thought, for excellence in dullness.
I had expected some variety of rebellion from Holmes, who is more easily bored than any other human being I have ever met. I had rather guessed, too, that he might indulge in some genteel variety of touch, as we were in public, and thus permitted contact under the terms of our bet. I had not, however, anticipated that even ennui should ever drive him to press his lips against my ear and say such vulgar things with three strapping young men sitting within ten feet of us. I stiffened, my body language begging Holmes to be cautious, but he merely gave one of his silent laughs, returned his mouth to my ear, and whispered, "You may have failed to note it, Doctor, but every man in the room who happens to be on good terms with his neighbour has been muttering in his ear since thirty seconds after Professor Emerson began speaking. We shall not attract any attention on that account, for everyone here is suffering equally. And you know very well that I have a talent for whispering in a way impossible to overhear, even at close quarters; I seem to recall one or two quite eloquent phrases in the Strand about it, as a matter of fact. But if you are concerned that your speech might be more carrying, perhaps it's best if you stay still and permit me to do all the talking. Or, better yet, you could accept my offer, and come home with me now. I fear if I am trapped in this room for the final half-hour of that man's speech, I may have to resort to some rather drastic measures. You've no notion what filthy ideas I can think of to pour into your ear--"though you soon shall, if you stay where you are."
He was right about his own method of whispering; how he does it I cannot fathom, but his whispers reach the intended listener and none other. He was also right about the carrying power of mine. I did not trust myself to say anything very explicit, for our neighbours would certainly be in a position to hear. As tedious as the lecture was, however, I had no mind to go home--partly because it would have been rude to our lecturer, but partly, too, because I was unwilling to give Holmes the satisfaction of acceding to his demands. And so I turned back to him, and whispered simply, "Do your worst."
I had just time to see the look of surprise and delight that passed over his features before his face was once again pressed flush against the side of my head. "Oh, I think you will regret that, Watson. I shall give you one more chance. Relent, come home with me now, and surrender this wager of ours, or, by the time the professor has concluded his interminable droning, I shall have you so achingly hard that you beg me to take you right here, in front of an entire class-full of young men."
I shook my head fractionally, not trusting myself to do more, and felt the lips against my ear curl with satisfaction. "Very well then, John," he said, humming soundlessly against my ear in a way that made me desperately wish I could wriggle in my seat. "Do you happen to remember that last night at Baskerville Hall? I am not sure precisely how you could have forgotten it, but that seemed the proper way to begin. It took a bit of doing, convincing the Barrymores to install us in the empty wing, but good God, it was certainly worth it. I had always suspected that, if we could only secure a bit of privacy in a spot where we were certain not to be overheard, I could make you scream for me. I admit, however, that it was a surprise--a most pleasant one, I assure you--to find you quite so vociferous as you proved to be; well worth the many hours of effort spent learning to open my throat. I am not sure I have ever known you come as hard as that. For ten minutes afterwards you were quite insensible, my dear fellow."
He pulled back for a moment, glancing around the room to assure himself that no one was regarding us with suspicion, and taking in the heightened colour in my cheeks. Then he leaned back in and resumed his narrative. "Those ten minutes were a mingled joy and torture to me. On the one hand, to know that I had given you such extraordinary pleasure was a pleasure in itself, and no little ornament to my pride. But we had been so long apart, and I was so near mad with wanting you, that I am afraid I was more eager than I ought to have been, and did not allow you simply to bask for as long as I might have. I believe it was my fingers spreading you open that finally brought you back to yourself, but if the way you pushed back against me and the little moaning noises you made were any indication, you seemed not to object to the interruption. I never told you, I think, how much I wished we could have been out on the moor then, for the dark wild strangeness of that place should have been a fitting counterpoint to the dark wild strangeness of our passion. Not that I have any cause to complain about that night as it was, in that big old bed in our lonely wing. I am sure you recall just how forcefully I buggered you that night, John, when there was, for once, no need to worry about the slapping of our flesh as we came together, or the cries of ecstasy which neither of us could suppress. Just thinking about it now makes me want to bend you over the arm of your chair and fuck you senseless. You would not even notice the looks of horror and fascination from our audience, my dear Watson. I could make you forget everything else but the feeling of my cock driving into you, make you cry out my name again and again, hold you half-an-inch from your release for so long that you would weep and curse and beg and nearly lose your mind with pure lust before I finally permitted you to climax..."
I could stand it no longer. I rose from my chair with far more haste than discretion, drawing strange looks from half the room, but managed to duck my head in polite apology as I shuffled sideways towards the aisle. Holmes followed, in a calm, dignified fashion, for all the world as though he had not just been whispering such illicit, explicit, dangerous things to me. I hurried off towards the door and he followed sedately in my wake--though with sufficient speed, on those long legs, to enable him to catch me up as we were leaving the lecture hall and brush his fingers against the small of my back.
"You're a cruel man, Sherlock Holmes," I muttered, as we made our way down the street.
"Sometimes," he agreed, with mock seriousness, "but you are also well aware just how kind I can be."
"Yes," I said softly, giving the words a very different slant than the prurient one he had meant, "I am."
His eyes widened for a moment, and then, to my infinite delight, he actually blushed, though very slightly. "Touché, Watson," he replied.
Only a few blocks from the lecture hall sat one of our favourite little cafés, which served good, simple fare and excellent coffee with a pleasant view of Regent's Park. "Will you permit me to treat you to a late lunch, my dear doctor, as amends for my churlish behaviour? I admit, it was bad of me, to distract you so when you were attempting to take in that fascinating lecture. I am sure that a mere sandwich can never begin to pay my debt, but if you would only..."
"Oh, hush," I growled good-naturedly, taking him by the arm and tugging him towards a table.
The meal was a more than excellent one. Holmes was at his brightest, bouncing from subject to subject in the way which shows off his brilliance to its fullest effect, for it is only the most vibrant of brains that is able to trace the larger connections between seemingly disparate ideas. In Holmes's brother, this skill at seeing everything at once is almost frightening, but in my dear Holmes it is, to choose a most accurate if rather fanciful adjective, entrancing. He raced from colonial politics to Eastern religion to methods of dyeing silk to poverty in England with the speed of an express train, and yet every word was calculated to fascinate. Our lunch would have been a pleasant one at any rate, with his ankles pressed against mine and the both of us taking every opportunity to brush our hands casually against each other in lifting wineglasses or reaching for saltcellars, but the appearance of his most charming aspect made everything still lovelier. I did not waste time in worrying that his exultant mood might be followed by a descent into misery, as they sometimes are. I simply enjoyed it while it lasted, and attempted to keep up with the sparkling of his mind as best I could.
As we were only a mile or so from home we opted to walk rather than taking a cab, and as the Park was so conveniently in our path it should have been a waste to go around rather than through it on such a fine August day. Our ramble--arm in arm every second, as may well be imagined--was as pleasant as our lunch, and I would gladly have remained there, savouring those alternating periods of companionably silent enjoyment and of lightly philosophical conversation, until the sun was well down in the sky. It was Holmes who led us back towards Baker Street just before four and, while I at first followed reluctantly, I was glad of it by the time we turned the corner at Baker Street, for my old leg wound had just begun to complain about all that walking. I was on the fourteenth step when it occurred to me that Holmes had noticed my own pain before I had.
Something of what I felt for him at that moment must have shown on my face, for once we were in the sitting room and he had turned to face me he gave me a quizzical glance. "Whatever are you grinning about, Doctor?"
"You," I replied simply, retrieving my pipe and settling myself into my armchair.
"A very unworthy subject to provoke such an expression," he said, affecting seriousness but secretly well-pleased. He recovered a pair of afternoon papers from the table where they had been laid out for us, passed me the Telegraph and retained the Echo, lit his own pipe, and slid into his own chair. The time until supper passed pleasantly thus, the meal a fine dish of curry, and afterwards, when the clock struck seven, it was time for Holmes's weekly meeting with his personal army.
For a short time, Holmes attempted to appoint Wiggins as his mouthpiece to the rest of the Irregulars except in extraordinary circumstances, but that was found to be an unacceptable arrangement. Those boys worship Holmes. The thought of being denied their usual communion with their venerated leader caused such consternation among the ranks that the project was scrapped, and a general congress became once more the order of the day. Mrs. Hudson, however, was firm in her insistence that she would not have that crowd of little ruffians tracking dirt hither and yon and, as she is the most tolerant of landladies in other respects, Holmes was forced to knuckle under to that particular demand. And so, at seven every Tuesday night, the corner of Baker Street is the scene of a very strange little gathering, my stork-like and immaculate friend surrounded by a gaggle of diminutive ragamuffins, prattling away with them as though that were precisely where he belonged. In a sense it is precisely where he belongs, for my Holmes is beyond doubt a natural leader of men. The men in question, however, need not necessarily be quite so young.
Oftentimes I accompany Holmes on his 'inspection of the troops', as he likes to call it, for I am fond of the lads, and, as the conditions in which they live are far from ideal, I and my bag of remedies are often able to do some good. Tonight, however, I intended to have my revenge on Holmes for his behaviour in the lecture hall earlier. Though my plan was nothing very complex, I should require the rooms to myself for a minute or two. So I simply bid Holmes give my regard to the boys, and sent him on his way. He shot me a rather suspicious glance but, for once, did as he was told.
Once he was out the door, I gathered up the necessary items from the hat-stand and his desk-drawer and carried my prizes off to Holmes's bed-room. I stripped off every stitch of my clothing, folded it all neatly, and placed the pile of garments on the chair in the corner. I had deposited my treasures on the bed while I undressed, but I turned to them now and began to set my scene. Holmes keeps one pair of old-fashioned darbies in the house, and another of the new variety of self-locking hand-cuffs. I opened all four locks and laid the keys carefully on the nightstand. Then I fastened one side of the darbies to the left bedpost, one side of the cuffs to the right, and left the other side of each dangling open. The last object that I had brought with me was Holmes's riding crop, and this I laid at a gentle diagonal across the foot of the bed before settling into position myself.
I had no plans to actually fasten the restraints around my wrists; they were mere set dressing, a little something to add to the atmosphere, for neither Holmes nor I had ever expressed a prior interest in being bound. If Holmes, when he arrived, made some sign that he desired to put them to use, however, on myself or on him, it would clearly not be the done thing to object. After all, I had put them there. Only the worst sort of tease offers what he is unwilling to deliver. The crop, on the other hand, had made one or two prior appearances in our bed, though not for the purpose of causing pain. We are both of us far too unconventional to choose the obvious use over the inventive--and, despite my provocative comment about whips the day before, I saw no particular appeal in the notion of pain-as-pleasure. Neither, so far as I was aware, did Holmes. Then again, as pain goes, that caused by cropping is, as I understood, both brief and slight, no more than a bit of a sting. Again, if Holmes should seem intrigued by the notion, I did not plan any resistance.
Holmes's meetings with the Irregulars on weeks when we have no cases are, naturally enough, brief, and so I did not expect the wait to be a long one. Nor was it; I had scarcely time to register the fact that lounging about in the nude looking vaguely alluring is an incredibly dull pastime when I heard the front door open and close downstairs. To my horror, however, I also heard the rumble of two men's voices, one of which was surely Holmes's. They had passed into the sitting room by the time I was able to hear sufficiently well to identify the other as belonging to Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Had I not already been cold--August or no, lolling around alone and unclad in the evening is a chilly business--I should have turned so then.
Lestrade and I have known each other since only a few weeks after I first met Holmes. Relations between the inspector and myself have always been cordial, though I admit that it took me some time to fully appreciate him. The fault was entirely mine. Lestrade does not show to best effect around Holmes; his quite natural response to Holmes's jeering is to turn brusque and competitive, which goes far to masking his usual quiet competence. The fact of the matter is that Lestrade's instincts make of him a perfect mirror, a trait which has no doubt been useful to him as a policeman. Within reason, he behaves towards everyone precisely as they do to him. During those early years when I was outwardly polite to him but privately subscribed to Holmes's unlofty valuation of his talents, so exactly did he act to me, and, as my respect and regard for him grew, so did his. Likewise, the inspector scorns Holmes to the very degree that Holmes does him at any given time. He swaggers before Holmes only because Holmes so enjoys showing off himself, does not fawn over Holmes any more than it is Holmes's nature to do to him, and is never bitter when Holmes beats him to the solution of a case, for Holmes's happiness at those moments is contagious. I do not consider this reflective quality of Lestrade's to be a weakness; on the contrary, I respect it very much. It encourages men to be their best selves in his presence, for knowing that the kindness they sow to him shall be reaped, and the bitterness returned. The inspector's responsive nature does not extend to all corners of his personality--he is not the sort to lose his head, for example, no matter how hysterical those around him may be. But within that unruffled, practical, dedicated framework, it is his practice to treat every man precisely according to his deserts, which is a disconcerting and a wonderful thing.
It was not, then, that I had any aversion to a visit from Lestrade in and of itself. But there are obvious disadvantages to being caught in the nude in another man's bed by a friend and especially by a policeman, and his timing was therefore damnably inconvenient. Even if I managed to slip back into my clothes it would be awkward to explain what I was doing in Holmes's bedroom with the door shut, but I had very little chance of achieving a respectable state unheard. While the floors and outer walls of Baker Street are quite solid (facts which allow us to live our lives without fear of detection from the residents of 220 and 222, and to maintain a veneer of innocence in our dealings with Mrs. Hudson, who probably knows far more than any of us ever speaks of), the inner walls are appallingly thin; if I so much as moved from the bed, the likelihood was in favor of anyone outside hearing it. My best hope, I supposed, was to stay absolutely silent and still, and hope that they did not come searching for me. And, that I might be as prepared as possible should the worst happen, to listen with all my might.
"Are you sure you cannot stay for a drink, Lestrade?" I heard Holmes ask, with surprising cordiality.
"I'm afraid not, Mr. Holmes. I've got to get this information back to the Yard as soon as possible. I shouldn't have to bother you about it, you know, if you'd only tell us the secret of that blood-test of yours." I could tell from his tone that Lestrade was grinning. The Sherlock Holmes Blood Test is a long-standing feud between them, but a friendly one. Shortly after Holmes discovered his test, and before he had the chance to make it public, it occurred to him that here was an ace-in-the-hole at a time when few members of the Yard took him seriously. Holmes will administer his test at any time, day or night, at the request of any representative of the Law, but he stubbornly refuses to give up the formula, and so anyone wishing to use it must come to him. By now, of course, it is not because he fears that the Yarders will stop bringing him cases. It is partly because he is a man of habits, and partly because he likes to have something to do, and partly, too, because he enjoys his little joke with Inspector Lestrade.
"When I am ancient and feeble and have given up this life of excitement for a farm in the country somewhere, I may consider it," Holmes replied genially. "Until then, Inspector, I am afraid we shall both of us have to be inconvenienced. Have a cigar while you wait. It will help you to feel the wisdom of my point of view on the matter."
"If you insist, Mr. Holmes--but only for fear of offending you by my refusal," Lestrade said solemnly. I heard him cross the room to the humidor on the bookcase. "No Dr. Watson tonight?"
I held my breath. One never knew about these things with Holmes. He may hardly have noticed that I was gone at all, or he may have deduced precisely where I was and what I was doing. If it were the former, it might lead to a search which would spell inevitable disaster. If the latter...
"The good doctor is spending the evening at his club," Holmes answered smoothly. I gave a silent sigh of relief.
There was a short pause, presumably while Lestrade took a puff of his cigar. "I'm sorry to have missed him. Do give him my regards."
"Certainly," Holmes replied absently, clearly too caught up in his analysis to pay any attention to such politely typical conversation.
There was another pause. "I heard about that case you took yesterday, Mr. Holmes. A jewel theft, was it?" The slightest possible film of mischief clung to the words.
Holmes groaned. "This is why you're here tonight, Lestrade! Not so I can inform you that the stain which looks like blood and smells like blood is, indeed, blood. To rib me about that insufferable..."
"Now, Mr. Holmes, whatever would give you an idea like that?" Lestrade broke in, honey-tongued and innocent as you like. "I do need that test done; you know what juries are. 'The substance which an expert chemical analysis revealed to be blood' goes over miles better than 'the substance which gave every possible indication of being blood.' And, having made the journey for that purely professional reason, you could hardly expect me not to mention that Stanley Hopkins has spent the day announcing to anyone who'll listen that you were so impressed by his performance in the case that you're planning on taking him on as an assistant."
"Tell me that you are joking, Lestrade, I beg." Holmes sounded positively miserable.
"Could I invent such a story, Mr. Holmes? You are always telling me that I have hardly enough imagination to keep body and soul together, after all. But it is blood, then?"
"Oh yes, you need have no doubts of that."
"Excellent. Much obliged to you, Mr. Holmes. And thank you for the cigar." The shuffling of feet and the rustling of cloth followed Lestrade around the sitting room.
"Think nothing of either, Inspector. And Lestrade?"
"Yes, Mr. Holmes?"
"Has he really?"
It was impossible to doubt from his tone that Lestrade was grinning. "I leave that to you to deduce. Good-night, Mr. Holmes."
The door closed. "I liked it better when he despised me, curse the man," Holmes muttered. Raising his voice, he called, "Watson?"
"In here, Holmes," I shouted back, arranging myself into as nonchalantly alluring a pose as I could manage without making myself feel still more of a fool.
"I thought so. Whatever are you doing..." Holmes stopped short as he opened the door and took in the scene, his eyes lingering on the handcuffs and the crop and intentionally scudding over my nudity. "Ah. That explains that, then."
"Care to join me, Holmes?" I asked, struggling not to laugh.
His lips curled. "My dear Watson, while I applaud your initiative, I am not sure that setting up this..." he struggled momentarily for the proper word, "...unique tableau for me was the safest possible manoeuvre. Suppose I had invited the good inspector in?"
"Into your bedroom, Holmes?" I raised an eyebrow. I think that I managed quite a near approach to scornfulness, for a man lounging about in the nude. "That does not seem very likely. What possible reason could you have?"
He looked at me in a way that would have made me feel naked, if I were not so already. "The most obvious of reasons. Friend Lestrade is not immediately prepossessing, but there is, I think you will admit, something rather…stimulating, about the man. Though his face and form are unexceptional--not nearly so attractive as yours, my dear doctor--one cannot deny that he does have very fine eyes. One can only suppose that, with the proper inducement, they become even finer. As you refuse me the pleasures of your bed just at present, I think I could do worse than our friend the inspector."
I spluttered. I admit it. And then I swallowed hard, breathed deep, and regained control of myself. I knew very well that he did not mean it--and that I could turn his own ploy back on himself, if I was sufficiently deft.
"In that case, Holmes, it's too bad you didn't let him in. It would be abominably selfish of you to keep our Lestrade all to yourself, but I certainly should not have been averse to sharing him."
"Our Lestrade?" he asked, raising an eyebrow, and walking over to sit beside me on the bed. He hoped, no doubt, to entice me by his proximity, but it was a grave tactical error. His nearness worked far more to my advantage than to his.
"Certainly, ours. He is my friend as well as yours, after all. I do not see why I should not have as good a claim to the inspector's favours as you do, if indeed he inclines towards men."
"He is of your turncoat stripe, and hasn't bedded a man since he turned eighteen, but he would say yes, if we asked him," Holmes said, with that offhanded self-confidence which would be completely unbelievable coming from anyone else. "As to priority, I might point out that I have known him rather longer."
"I might point out that I annoy him rather less," I grinned. "At any rate, Holmes, I would not attempt to lay sole claim. In fact, I should have no desire whatever to interfere. The image of you," I moved then, planting my arms to either side of Holmes on the bed and leaning around him, very nearly bringing the sides of our faces into contact, "with Lestrade standing before you," I leaned to the side and breathed into his ear, "his cock in your mouth," and then puffed a trail of breath over his neck, "certainly has its own variety of appeal."
"Oh really?" Holmes does not often speak with no definite purpose in mind. That he could come up with no better remark than 'oh, really' made his disturbance of mind as clear as print.
"Mmmm. Though, of course, I'd need one or two concessions from you, before I could actually give my blessings to such a liaison."
"Naturally," he replied. He hesitated a moment, clearly aware that he oughtn't to ask the question, but, if there is one trait of Holmes's that may be depended upon, it is his curiosity. "What sorts of concessions?"
The possession of a moustache bestows upon a man certain advantages in matters amatory. One of the less obvious is that moustaches permit a certain variety of smile, one which is visible only as a sort of rustling, and which is especially effective in conveying lascivious intent. I directed such a smile at Holmes, and then said, "I think that, if you were busy attending to our Lestrade's prick, you might permit me to sod him in the meanwhile. I daresay he would raise no objection, and it should not be much of an interference with your own activities. In fact, my attentions might be rather useful, from your perspective."
"Would they?" he asked, rather unsteadily.
"Oh, yes. After all, every time my cock thrust into him, it would no doubt force his hips forward, and press his own cock further into your mouth. You would not need to consider the question of back-and-forth, and would instead be free to devote all your attention to those clever little tricks of the tongue in which you are so proficient."
"Very considerate of you." He seemed to be having some difficulty keeping his pitch under its usual strict control. "But you will forgive me observing that I seem to be coming off worst in this little arrangement."
"Only at first, I assure you, my dear Holmes. With the both of us pleasuring him at once, the good inspector certainly would not last overlong. I'm sure I should be able to see to you as well, and perhaps Lestrade would be kind enough to fill for you the office you had just performed for him." I lay back on the pillows, spread out full length before him in all my nudity. "What do you say to that?"
Holmes's eyes were almost black as he looked at me. I was looking straight at him and yet I did not see him pounce, for he was quick as a panther about it. His legs came to either side of my hips and his arms fenced in my neck. There were a dozen places where we ought by rights to have been touching, but we were not, some little space separating every inch of my naked body from his clothed one. Only in the case of our faces was the distance significant. That did not last long. He leaned down, the eyes which were suddenly not only aroused but dangerous drilling into mine. "I do not like it one bit, Watson."
It was my turn for the sort of paralyzed incoherency that prevents all but simple leading questions. "Don't you?" After a moment, I managed to add, "It didn't seem that way."
"No," he repeated, "I do not. I do not like it because if you are to bugger anyone, it shall be me, and only me. If anyone is to suck my cock, it shall be you, and only you. I do not like it because you are mine, John, and I could not ever stand back and share you. You are mine."
It ought to have bordered on frightening to hear him stake his claim so very aggressively, especially given our imbalance in clothing and the fact that I was pinned beneath him. It was not frightening--at least, not in an unpleasant sense. It was, on the contrary, one of the most unbelievably erotic moments of my life. The spinning of that little fantasy for him only a few seconds before had left me in the first throes of arousal, but now I was aching with readiness, wishing for nothing more keenly than to feel his beautiful and talented fingers on my prick. I only just managed to croak, "I believe you were the first to mention bringing another man into our bed. The idea was not my own."
"But that was in reference only to me. My body is a thing of trifling worth--sound and fury, signifying nothing--but yours..." He looked at me then, taking in my entire form, his expression that of an aesthete savoring a masterpiece, "...yours is a very different matter."
I blushed. "I have as much scar tissue on me as unblemished skin, and if I keep gaining weight the way I have been the last two years, I'll be positively portly soon. Whereas you..."
He shook his head, still intense. "You are beautiful, John," he said simply. "You are beautiful, and you belong to me."
I blushed still further, but replied, "Then prove it. Kiss me, Holmes. Teach me that I am yours, and no other's."
His lips moved within half-an-inch of mine. "You know it very well already, your body as well as your mind. My name flows through your veins with every heartbeat, and expands in your lungs with every breath. You could no more wish to bed another man than you could will yourself never to have existed."
"That sounded suspiciously like poetry, Holmes." My voice was shaky, even in my own ears.
"Amazing, what sorts of bad habits one can pick up from one's intimate acquaintance."
"Oh, indubitably. I have been living with a confirmed queer for some years, and find myself lately with the most pronounced desire to sleep with men. Or one man, anyhow."
"They should give the fellow a medal, for encouraging that particular vice in you," he replied with a smile, rolling to lay beside me.
"I do not think that would be a very good idea; decorations go to his head. Her Majesty gave him an emerald tie-pin last year, and he has been horribly puffed up about it ever since."
"Only because a certain person's eyes go so very blue when I wear it. Such things mean nothing to me in and of themselves, I promise you. They might offer me a knighthood, and I should have no compunctions whatever about refusing it."
"I shall believe that when it happens."
"And so you shall." He stood then, and spared one last glance for me. "Unless you intend to end our bet now, Watson, I should advise putting some clothes on. While the notion of you lounging about the sitting room in the altogether is not entirely unpleasant, it is probably not a wise plan."
"Then stay here, Holmes," I said, in the most seductive tone I could summon, "and conform yourself to my dress code, rather than the other way about."
"You know very well, my dear Watson, that I have no talent for conforming myself to anything whatever." He seemed about to leave, when his eyes lit on the riding crop still lying across the corner of the bed. He walked slowly back across the room, took the thing in hand, and considered it for a moment. I ought, I suppose, to have found something witty and alluring to say, but nothing occurred to me. Still less occurred to me when he pressed the leather tress of the crop against my sternum and dragged it gently upwards until it pushed up on the underside my chin, forcing me to meet his eye.
"You oughtn't to leave weapons just sitting about, Watson," he said, huskiness browning the edges of his voice. He moved the loop of the crop to my face, caressing my cheek. Then he brought it to rest against my lips and tugged down softly, pulling my lower lip down into an odd sort of pout. The smell of leather filled my nostrils. I shivered. When he moved the crop away, I unconsciously leaned towards it for a moment before catching myself and pulling back. It might not have been him touching me, but it was the next best thing, and I found myself aching for more. "I'll just put this back where it belongs, then," he said smugly, and sauntered from the room.
Holmes had not come out entirely the victor in that encounter, I told myself. That fit of possessiveness that I had managed to provoke was, at any rate, a decided point to my side. Still, I could not help feeling, as I gathered my clothes into my arms and shrugged into Holmes's spare dressing gown (the blue one, which he claims is such a fine match for my eyes), that my plan had been flawed. While the scuffle may have been a draw, however, I had not yet lost the war. Considering the fact that Sherlock Holmes was my competition, that was saying something.
Holmes glanced up as I and my bundle of clothes emerged into the sitting room. He shot me an inquiring glance, and I replied to his unasked question with an, "I think I am going to retire early with my book this evening. I am scarcely more than a hundred pages from the end, and the climactic naval battle is about to get underway."
"I really cannot fathom your interest in those frivolous..."
"Your opinions on the matter of my reading habits are already a matter of public record," I interrupted, in the name of connubial felicity. We both stood where we were for a moment, waiting for each other. Finally, I broke the silence with an, "Aren't you going to come over and practically kiss me good-night?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Would you like me to?"
"I merely thought it was the rule," I replied nonchalantly. "I know you are a scientist, and that, in your mind, two instances do not establish a pattern, but it seemed to me as though you intended to make a habit of it. As you clearly had other plans, I'll simply bid you good evening from here, and..."
He caught me at the door to the stairs. He was barely more than a foot away from me as it was, and so it did not take much leaning to bring his face in line with mine. It would be easy, so easy, simply to step into a kiss, and from there it would be only a brief, frantic, conjoined stumble to his bedroom...
"Good-night, Watson," he murmured.
"Good-night, Holmes," I echoed, and he pulled back. Tonight he did not vanish instantly, but lingered, his eyes locked with mine, rocking slightly back and forth. All at once he surged forward, so swiftly and deliberately that a kiss appeared absolutely inevitable. It seemed far past the last possible second when he stopped. I was afraid to breathe lest I bring our lips into contact.
"John..." he whispered. Every one of my inner organs seemed to twist a quarter turn to the left.
I heard his bedroom door close before I was even aware that I had closed my eyes. I spent the next hour staring at the same few pages, attempting vainly to wrench my brain away from Holmes, and the hour after that twisting between my sheets, haunted by the presence of the man who ought to have been beside me.
Chapter 4: Wednesday
Holmes's reactions to music are unlike those of any other man I have ever known. So far as I can tell, from my own observations and his comments on the matter, his experiences as a listener are, while not strictly sexual, of almost the same level of intensity. For him, a symphony is to the aural sense what lovemaking is to the tactile: a gradual augmentation of anticipation, extraordinarily pleasurable and made more so by elements which are unexpected, or rhythmic, or particularly forceful, capped by a moment when all these disparate elements build into a crashing climax, and followed, generally, by a shorter period of diminution and settling-down. I do not mean to imply that the comparison manifests itself in his physical responses--to put it bluntly, he does not spend his trips to the symphony attempting to conceal the uncomfortable state of his trousers--but it would not be too much to call his reaction to the peak of a piece of music a mental orgasm, and he cherishes that sensation quite as dearly as its physical counterpart.
Apart from a few occasions on which an afternoon with his violin had prompted him to drag me quite enthusiastically to his bed, Holmes and I had never attempted to mix his two favourite pleasures. When I recalled on Wednesday morning that we had tickets to the symphony that night, however, the opportunity seemed too promising to pass up. And when it further occurred to me that, while the concert hall was a public place, we should have our box entirely to ourselves, I knew I should have to be a positive imbecile to waste the advantage.
I suspect that we both took rather more care than was necessary with our dress that night. Anyone else would have said that Holmes looked just a bit dishevelled, his hair not quite in its usual state of perfect sleekness, his tie a fraction of an inch askew. I knew, however, that he had done these things deliberately, and done them for me. He was only too well aware that my instinctive reaction to his dishabille is a thrill of possessiveness. The ideally turned-out model of perfection is the rest of the world's Sherlock Holmes, but seeing him in a state of muss is my own peculiar prerogative, and these tiny hints of disorder were his way of reminding me that he was mine. Subtle as it was, that crooked tie came as near to breaking me as any of his far more blatant strategies.
My own increased attention to attire was directed much more straightforwardly. I simply took the time and care necessary to ensure that I looked my best, and left it at that. When we met up in the sitting room, however, the appreciation in his eyes was obvious, however much he tried to hide it, and convinced me that I had not done altogether badly.
"Shall we?" I asked, gathering my coat and hat from the stand by the door.
How he did it, I shall never know. I do not wonder much about the uncanny speed with which he crossed the room, for that is the sort of display which is typical of Holmes. But how he managed to back me into a wall, his hands planted on either side of my head, without touching me for even a second, I may (and probably shall) labour for the rest of my life to puzzle out. The smells of his nearness filled my nostrils--soap and pomade and the underlying layer of his own scent, which is something like cedar and something like clove with uncultured undertones, deep below the surface, of sweat and musk. His eyes burned into mine.
"We could, Watson. Or we could stay here. I am certainly looking forward to Mr. Dvořák's newest symphony--by far his most accomplished effort to date, they say--but I can think of one or two other pastimes which might induce me to postpone the pleasure of hearing it."
"Nonsense, Holmes," I said, reminding myself of my plan and managing to keep my voice steady in spite of his nearness. "I should never ask you to sacrifice a pleasure you hold so dear as music."
"Not even in favour of a pleasure I hold dearer still?" he asked, and I swear to heaven that the man nuzzled my neck without touching me at all. I felt it, though I knew full well that we had not actually come into contact.
"There is no such thing," I replied, biting back a groan. "I am not a jealous man, nor do I have cause to be so where other human beings are concerned, but I admit that, on occasion, the effect of an orchestra on you, or the way you touch your violin, makes me positively burn with envy."
"And yet now, at my moment of greatest desire, you would trust me to my other lover, rather than staking your own claim?"
"I do not doubt your affection for me," I replied. "The fact that you would offer to stay home from the symphony in favour of taking me to bed is more than sufficient."
"I do not believe that we should make it to the bed. I am not sure we should even get as far as the settee. I suspect that, if you kissed me now, you should very shortly find yourself with your back against the door to the hall, and I should very shortly find myself on my knees, with your cock in my mouth."
Neither I nor the organ he had just mentioned was unaffected by that filthy statement, especially with him standing so very, very near. "We shall be late, if you do not let me free." It was, I confess, more a moan than a steady declaration.
"Then let us be late," he said. "Touch me, John."
He spoke the words in his most commanding voice, the one which must strike a chord in any man trained for military service, and which long years of partnership have made particularly effective on me. I never had to train myself to accept that voice. I obeyed it from the first day of our acquaintance, and have spent the subsequent decade-and-a-half conditioning myself not to respond to it, when I choose. Even a year before, I should, I think, have been compelled by that voice. But I become a bit better able to resist it every day, and I therefore possessed just enough self-restraint to answer him, "Holmes, if you would move away, I should be very sincerely obliged."
He sighed then, his shoulders slumping, and did as I asked. I was not nearly so relieved as I ought to have been--not until we had collected our hats and coats and stepped out onto the street, when he immediately linked his arm with mine. Never had I so resented the laws of decency (not to mention the laws of England) that prevented any more intimate touch amongst the wider world.
The cab-ride passed uneventfully. As the carriage was a closed one, and we were therefore shut behind doors and unable to touch without losing our bet, we spent most of the journey attempting to keep our knees from knocking against each other in that narrow space, and chatting of this and that. Our increased fussiness as to dress and our little diversion in the sitting-room had indeed made us very nearly late, but we hurried up to our usual box (which was set aside for our use whenever we wished it by the grateful owner of the concert hall, a Mrs. Helena Grice Paterson, for whom we had done some service long ago). Holmes pulled aside the curtain for me with a flourish and we ducked inside, settling into our seats just as the lights were dimmed and the orchestra began to tune.
There were a few shorter pieces played before the symphony began. Among these, the only one which I specifically recall was a lovely étude by Chopin, in E major, I believe. It was a beautiful piano piece with a strong clear melody, but turbulent; it rushed from soft sweet moments of pianissimo to crashing forte with a speed which ought to have been abrupt, but was not. It was just the sort of piece guaranteed to catch Holmes. Sure enough, when I glanced over, I saw that his eyes were closed, his hands gripping at the armrests, something profound twitching through the muscles of his face. A stranger who witnessed only this side of Holmes would suppose him tremendously sentimental, but that would be a serious misjudgment. He is terribly sensitive, but that is not at all the same thing. A sentimental person is unusually receptive to specific circumstances, that which is tragic or sweet; Holmes is unusually receptive to everything. The screeching of his senses and the rushing of his mind are both his blessing and his curse. For better or worse, his sensitivity is what makes him who he is: the virtuoso and the depressive and the addict and the genius. And, I ought to mention, the devoted and passionate lover as well.
The Chopin piece was a short one, and when it was done, and the enthusiastic applause had faded, the rest of the orchestra came to attention. Holmes always looks something like a hound who has caught a scent in the moments before a piece begins, so keen is his anticipation. On this occasion, the Chopin had left him even more hyper-aware. He practically trembled as the conductor lifted his baton, and when it fell a tremor passed through his entire form. My plans were looking more promising by the moment.
The Dvořák symphony, the composer's ninth, began gently, coaxingly, with a long phrase that eased the listener forward and culminated in a pair of teasing false stops, then repeated. Suddenly, there was a blaring of horns, a darting of strings and a crashing of percussion, and the mood changed entirely to something dangerous and brooding. Good and bad, I thought. Such an aggressive tone was hardly suited to seduction, but the emotion of the music was running so high already that it was certain to keep Holmes on the edge of his seat.
I was determined not to rush things. I wished I had thought to sneak off to listen to the orchestra rehearse this afternoon, for it would have been of use to know the symphony I had to work with; as it was, all I knew was that it had been described by critics as "driving" and "forceful". Thus much had already been borne out, but I had hopes that the tone would become rather less confrontational as the piece continued. As it was, I decided to wait for the proper opening before beginning my attack. The whole of the first movement continued in tones alternately brooding and triumphant, all of it entirely too explosive for my purposes, and so I simply sat and enjoyed it and bided my time.
The second movement, however, dawned far more promisingly. It was based around a simple lilting line, meandering leisurely along, almost a lullabye in its gentleness. This, I decided, was my moment. As the symphony wound its way through the measures, I moved my leg sideways to brush my knee delicately against Holmes's. He gave a slight half-start but did not open his eyes, which I took as an excellent indication--it proved that he was still adequately aware of his body to feel my attentions, but also sufficiently caught up in the music to prevent him stopping me. When he did not move away, I circled my knee slowly against his and dragged it upwards, scraping gently along the outer edge of his thigh until I was blocked by the arm of his chair. For a moment I lingered there, careful not to rush, and then stretched out an arm and repeated the same set of motions, in time with the repetition of that slow sweet line of melody, with my fingertips against his hand and arm. There came a moment when the flutes rang out clear, and here my hand moved to his neck, my fingers sliding in and out of his hair with the advance and withdrawal of those shining silver notes.
When the flutes had had their moment of emphasis, the symphony slipped back to its candied whisper, seeming determined to keep to that pace and tone for some time. That suited my purposes admirably. I moved my hand to Holmes's, lifted it from its resting place, and drew it over to my mouth. For the next five minutes, as the music floated and skipped in its sweet pastoral melody, I lavished his hand every way that I knew how (and I cannot deny that, while no man can know everything about anything, I come very well near it where Holmes's hands are concerned). For a while I teased his palm with nothing more than my breath and the occasional brush of my nose, then slowly brought my moustache into play. As I dragged my lower lip tenderly along the bottom edge of his hand, his little finger extended for me of its own accord, encouraging me to follow its line. I complied, and, when I reached the end of that journey, kissed his fingertip with parted lips, just grazing it with my tongue. Then I transferred my attentions to the opposite side of his hand, tickling the pad of his thumb with my tongue and moving to scrape the webbing between thumb and forefinger with my teeth, concluding the manoeuvre with a deep kiss to his palm.
Throughout the whole, I had attempted to keep pace with the orchestra as best I could. When the tempo began suddenly to speed I planted a rapid series of kisses over the back of his hand, and at a sharp, blaring crescendo slipped his ring finger into my mouth as far as the second knuckle and sucked at it emphatically. At this he gave his first indication of truly reacting, a tiny sound in the back of his throat which I should not have heard had I not been straining my ears for it. The symphony settled swiftly back into gentility, and I slid his cuff button undone to nuzzle at his wrist. Between this occupation and the occasional soft kiss to the same spot, we passed sedately to the end of the second movement.
During the pause between movements I slipped from my seat and moved around to stand behind him. I might have worried about being seen, but this being a Wednesday night the box across from us was empty, and we were outside the easy line-of-sight of any other part of the concert hall (except, of course, for the stage, but between their concentration and the glare of the footlights I had no fears in that direction). As I had suspected, this movement began far more strongly than the last. As the first notes rang out through the hall, I buried my face in Holmes's neck and felt him shudder, though I was impeded by his collar and tie. For the first minute or so of the movement the orchestra surged and I imitated them as best I could, wrapping my hands around Holmes's forearms and laying waste to his neck with my lips. Whether I or the symphony was responsible for his struggles for breath I cannot say, but I think I certainly can claim credit for the way he arched back in his seat, pushing his neck against my mouth.
It seemed a long while before the pace and volume of the music grew less intense, though I know it was not truly many seconds. When it began at last to quiet, the orchestra settled into a steady, driving rhythm beneath the same lyrical theme. I punctuated each measure with a kiss to his ear, lengthening these occasionally to a lick when the notes grew rather longer, my hands beginning to roam over his shoulders, his arms, his chest. As the music grew impassioned once again I found myself with my arms wrapped fully around him, pulling him into as close an embrace as his chair would allow, my mouth enveloping the entirety of his ear and my tongue pillaging it mercilessly. I knew now just how much I was affecting him; he quite literally shook within the circle of my arms. This time the crescendo was soon past, and as the orchestra settled into a playfully tripping pace, I moved to kneel beside his chair and lifted a hand to turn his face towards me. Holmes's lips met mine with eagerness and he fell in with my tempo willingly--less, I think, from a wish to be cooperative than because he was too caught up in the piece to do anything else. While the music built and eased, swelled and waned, his tongue thrust and parried against mine. I gradually contrived, though still kissing him, to slip around his chair until I knelt between his legs. As the third movement built to its final peak, one of my hands rested on his and the other grasped him firmly by the back of the neck. I kissed him with all my heart; he replied with reciprocal fervor. Our breath gave out just at the moment when the orchestra settled into silence.
The fourth and final movement of the symphony had Holmes' hackles up--in the best sense--before its fifth note. The tension in those opening phrases was so palpable that I shivered with them myself. As the strings blared out my hands moved their way up Holmes' thighs, kneading his flesh in a series of none-too-gentle caresses. When the brass joined in, I moved my hand up and slipped a thumb beneath the waistline of his trousers, tracing it back and forth over the smooth skin beneath. Holmes's entire face contorted at that, his mouth opening wide in a silent scream; when the strings returned to prominence and I transfered my fingers to his buttons, his eyebrows nearly collided with his hairline and his eyes fluttered open for the first time since the symphony had begun. I placed one finger against my lips, more as a way of teasing him than a caution to silence, and watched his eyes drift shut again as I began on the buttons of his drawers. I had just freed his prick from the confines of his trousers when the pace of the symphony grew frantic, far too rapid for me to have matched without becoming ridiculous. For a moment I was at a loss as to the best course, until it occurred to me that to move at half the orchestra's tempo would maintain the same connection to the music. I bent my head down and drew my tongue along his length, changing my direction with every other upbeat and sparing the occasional measure for a kiss, noting with satisfaction the way Holmes' breath hitched and stuttered.
After a time, the orchestra wore itself out and slowed, spending a brief time in minor before another of those high sweet appeals on the flute. I moved a hand to wrap around his shaft, sliding my palm up and down in time with this more sedate tempo. When the strings began once again to blazon out strong I maintained the steady pace of my hand but punctuated its effects with brief touches of my lips to the tip of his prick. Next the notes turned playful and I varied the movement of my hand, teasing him with twists of my fingers and pressure that slackened and increased. For some minutes the symphony continued to alternate between the deeper, more serious notes, when I stroked him firmly, and the lighter moments, when I slackened my grip somewhat but supplemented my hand with my mouth. All the while the music was gaining slowly in speed and power and, when the orchestra came to what I judged would be the penultimate crescendo, I finally stopped teasing and took the first few inches of Holmes's prick fully into my mouth, leaving my hand wrapped around his base. The tempo almost immediately reverted to largo and so did my motion, my lips sliding up and down at a tortuously measured pace. The symphony wandered playfully, reaching little crests and breaking again, and I followed it. And then it began to move again in earnest, building to what was clearly the high point of the entire piece. The intensity of Holmes's desire was obvious now--not only, of course, in the ways that anyone would have noticed, but in a myriad of subtler indications: the muscles of his stomach had gone entirely taut, and his fingers never stopped moving, and his neck tilted to the left at precisely the proper angle, and he seemed to have given up on breathing altogether. I knew very well that his body was so attuned to the music that he would inevitably climax when it did, only a few notes hence.
Unless, of course, I immediately pulled away from him and retired to my own seat.
The look on Holmes' face then was one I see very rarely. The only occasion in the past six months when I could recall it making an appearance was on the day in spring when the abominable Woodhouse caught up with us at last and managed to break Holmes's arm before I had time to press my revolver to that blackguard's temple. It is an expression of dual pains for Holmes: that of physical discomfort, and of the mental anguish that comes of knowing that he has been foiled. As the final notes of the symphony rang through the hall and the audience burst into peals of applause, Holmes sat absolutely still, wearing that profound grimace, not bothering even to look at me.
I began, suddenly, to feel that I may have miscalculated. I had counted on his unsated desire, hoping that he would immediately drag me home to satisfy his need. The deadly calm with which he began slowly to do up his buttons, however, did not seem to bode well for that possibility. When I had given my final clap and Holmes still had not moved more than his hands, I became positively nervous. I should not like to characterize my actions in standing up and making as though to leave the box as a retreat. It was a calculated manoeuvre, intended to entice Holmes into following.
I was halfway through the curtain before Holmes's hand caught a fistful of my jacket and hauled me back inside. Before I knew what was happening he had thrown me against the back wall of our box--not entirely gently--and was pinning me there with his body, one of his legs bent between mine and one of his hands trapping my wrists above my head. The Holmes of a few minutes ago, the artist overcome with the beauty of the music and the feeling of my hands and mouth on him, was nowhere to be seen. This was Holmes nearly as angry as I have ever known him.
"You, Watson, have just deprived me--willfully--of what ought to have been the most sublime erotic experience of my entire existence," he growled, his eyes flashing. "What, precisely, have you got to say for yourself?"
"What have I got to say for myself?" I repeated incredulously, emphasizing the ridiculousness of the question. "Well, Holmes," I went on in an exaggerated tone, "I should say that, having certainly been responsible for what stands at present as your most sublime erotic experience--and for a bare minimum of the following hundred by rank--I have perhaps done more good than harm in that respect.
"That is no excuse. I have no intention of pardoning you on the grounds of past service." The knee between my thighs pressed upwards mercilessly. It is entirely too possible that I whimpered--the more so as I had certainly not escaped unaffected from our little encounter myself.
"Then what do you plan to do about it?"
He smiled, but with no warmth behind his eyes. If I did not trust him so entirely, I might almost have been frightened, but this was Holmes. "You mean, do I intend to...persuade you to finish what you have started, right here and now, whether you have any particular inclination to it or no?" He let it hang in the air for a moment, but then went on, "I think you know that I am not so unsubtle as to take any satisfaction in that, Watson. No..." he ran his index finger along my jawline, tilting my face upwards when he came to my chin. "I simply intend to repay you in kind." He pressed the full length of his body against me for one burning moment, brought his mouth to my earlobe, and bit down sharply. By the time my gasp had passed my lips, he had moved away.
"Come along, Watson!" he called, the curtain of our box ruffling in his wake. As soon as I could force my brain to unfog, I hurried after him.
The cab ride home was a silent affair. He did not wait for me as I paid the driver, but strode rapidly down the street, through our door, up the stairs. I followed with some trepidation; one never knew what to expect from Holmes in this sort of mood. When I entered the sitting room, it was to find him with violin in hand, tuning. His head darted up when I walked in. "Sit," he commanded curtly, gesturing at my armchair. When I hesitated, he crossed over to me and backed me across the room, retreating before him, until I stood just before the chair in question. Then the arm that held his bow extended, and he guided me into my seat with its tip. He leaned down, and held my eye in his hypnotic way.
"I am well aware that, generally speaking, other men do not experience music as I do--even you, Watson. I do not believe, however, that any sort of unusual talent is required to feel music as I feel it. It is simply a matter of a certain sympathy between the soul of a piece and that of the listener. Given the right piece of music, any man with any kind of feeling may be brought to his knees. And whatever your other qualities, Watson, no one could accuse you of lacking in feeling. So you will stay there, and you will listen, and you will understand what it is you snatched away from me tonight."
I shivered. "Holmes," I began, attempting to rise from my chair. Once again his bow found my sternum, more forcibly this time, and pushed me back.
"You will listen."
My mouth was dry and my heart pounding. This time his voice was so charged with command that I could not resist, try as I might. So I stayed where I was, and I listened.
His violin and bow swung to his shoulder so smoothly that it was difficult not to believe them a part of himself. He began with a single note held long and clear and lingering--a test, I think, of my attention and my receptiveness. Then he began, slowly, to play for me.
I recognized the first theme he introduced from many prior performances, but I had never before understood that it was him I was hearing. In retrospect I am not sure how I could ever have missed it; I suppose that I did not know it because, before, he had not wished me to. His theme was sad and sweet and dark and lyrical and grand, exposing those sides of his nature which at all other times he attempts to conceal. I am an admittedly biased observer, but I cannot believe that anyone who heard that line of melody and knew it for what it was could possibly have helped loving him. It was as beautiful and profound a bit of music as the man himself.
He did not linger overlong on this theme that was himself, no matter how much I wished he would, tarrying only long enough to expand it fully and implant it in my ears before another familiar strain crept its way in. This new air was steady and strong and immediately appealing, and yet with the occasional unexpected--but never discordant--minor chord slipped in where one would least expect it. It took me longer than it ought to have to understand that this was my leitmotif. At first listen, it was nothing whatever like Holmes's, yet the transition between the two had been effortless, and when, after a good while expanding on my theme in increasingly tender strains, he began to incorporate his own, I found that they blended impeccably. It was more than a simple harmony, for each line seemed to brighten and to deepen when mixed with the other, and neither was permitted to seize the limelight. They did not duel but melded, in a way that was marvelous to hear. And even if the music itself had not been lovely, even if I had not known what he and his bow and strings were trying to say, the look on his face as he played it would still have quickened my breath.
At first, he played this new compound theme--us--straightforwardly, until its meter matched my pulse or my pulse its meter, I am not sure which. Once he had bound the notes to my heartbeat he began gradually to increase the both of them. At the same time, however, the piece became somehow more staccato, its beat more pronounced, and every now and then he would bring the thing nearly to a halt and start to build again from the beginning. He also took to adding little flourishes, distractions from the main theme which kept it from becoming predictable. Every tone seemed now to be working its way into my body. Those miniature divertissements were caresses, every one, each raising goose flesh over some new part of me. As his rhythm became more and more driving I found my hips shifting minutely in time, but I had no self-discipline to spare to prevent those tiny thrusts. It took all I had to keep some small part of my brain for myself as more and more of my mind was swept away, becoming part of Holmes and of his music. I had long since forgotten our bet, but I could no more have touched him than I could have walked away. He was not a man, then, not a thing of blood and bone. He was made of notes and phrases and melodies, and as lost in them as I was. He swayed his way around the sitting-room, led by his own violin. He did not draw near or lean over my shoulder or tease me with his eyes, as he would have done if his purpose had been to draw me into his bed. He belonged to his music as surely as I belonged to him. There is no doubt that, as he bowed faster and faster, my body became more and more full of something which it seems very inadequate to call tension, but, while I did want to make love to him more than I can readily express, what I felt was not really sexual desire. It was so very, very much more than that.
For what must have been an hour he played with me, setting every nerve in my body afire and then easing off a bit only to torment me the more. And then he began what I was sure from the first was the ultimate crescendo of our sonata, increasing the pressure within me until I was sure I would split apart at the seams. I would never have dreamed than anyone, even Holmes, could have accomplished such a thing without touching me; it would have been a feat enough to provoke such intense feelings even with the full use of our bodies. My mind was suddenly full of the image of exactly what it would take to bring me to that state without music. I could taste Holmes' sweat, feel the soft skin of his shoulder beneath my lips, and see the strange shape of our intertwined bodies--'the beast with two backs,' I thought wildly--as he bent over my prone form with my knees pulled up on either side. I was delirious, unmoored. The anchor of self I had clung to had been rent from my grasp, and I existed now only in the notes he played and in the fantasy of our lovemaking which I was no longer certain was only in my head. Were we in his bed, conjoined in that most perfect, primal way, his face before my eyes alight with ecstasy? Or was I alone in my armchair, listening to him play me out of my senses? Did it matter? And after that there was not even the fantasy--there was only the building, and the building, and the building, and just beyond my grasp lay either death or sheer divinity or both...
And then he stopped. Not brought the piece to a conclusion, or resolved the dissonance; just stopped.
My eyes flew open. I was suddenly John Watson again, panting and gasping and wide-eyed and a fool in my own armchair by the fire. Once I had regained some small semblance of sanity, I thought to look for Holmes, and found that he had sunk on the hearthrug, his instrument still clutched in his hands. The instinct to care for him overrode all other considerations. I knelt beside him on unsteady limbs. As I gripped his violin and bow and tugged them gently from his grasp he glanced up, met my eyes. That wild otherness that had ridden me while he played still burned behind his eyes.
"That," Holmes said hoarsely, in a voice darker and yet, somehow, more innocent than his own. "That is what you did to me."
I swallowed hard, but did not try to avoid his eyes. "I'm sorry." My voice seemed to have undergone the same metamorphosis as his.
He nodded once. "You did not know," he replied, and I knew that what he meant was 'you are forgiven.'
We grew silent again and stared at each other, too overwhelmed still for anything more. After what seemed a long time he reached out a hand and ran it over my face--not touching me, but no less an intimate caress for that. When he leaned forward tonight, it was not in imitation of a kiss. I was inexpressibly glad of that. I did not want to kiss him, nor he to kiss me; it would have meant nothing, just then. But he very nearly rested his forehead against mine, and it was beautiful.
"Good-night, John," he said softly.
"Good-night, Sherlock." I do not often use his given name; he is not particularly fond of it, and neither am I. But I used it then because there is power in that which is secret and unspoken, power in things lost and things left behind, and power, too, in true names. He did not flinch at it, and so I knew he understood.
We looked at each other for one long moment more, then rose in tandem and made our ways to our separate beds. Neither of us made the slightest sound. I should not have been surprised to find that we could have walked through the walls. When, after what might have been hours or seconds of wakefulness, I succumbed to slumber, I dreamed of Holmes asleep within my skin, and, even as I slept, I had not the slightest doubt that he was dreaming the same dream.
Chapter 5: Thursday
It was waiting for me, propped against the mirror, when I woke that morning. I hesitated before going to take the envelope in hand, and yet when I opened it it was to find a single sheet of paper, covered over with the combined code and cipher which Holmes and I employ for communications too delicate to entrust to paper in plain English. The note was brief, but it was clear to me from the tidiness of the hand-- very different from the looping scrawl Holmes employs when in a hurry-- that he had lingered over the words.
I suggest that you begin your plans for the Sumatra tale. We are both aware that your confidence in my abilities is absolute, and that in the realm of the sensual it is entirely deserved. Surely you can imagine the extraordinary tortures to which I am capable of subjecting you in these coming days. You shall not for a single second, I assure you, my dear Watson, have me out of your head. I shall be there everywhere you turn and everywhere you look and in everything you do, until your need for me is the only thing you are, until I have broken you so completely that you come to me begging, on your knees. Would it not be better to make a conditional surrender now, when you may still keep some of your dignity, than be reduced to such a state of abject subjection as I shall most assuredly provoke? If you should be so wise as to seek me out now, ready to bestow that kiss or caress which shall mark your capitulation, I might even be so generous as to reward your good sense, in one or two of those many ways which you know very well that I can. Only recall those ecstasies to which I have brought you in the past, my Watson, and remember that spirit of self-betterment which drives me always. I feel I may have been getting a little out of practice, a little complacent, but, if you give yourself over to me now, I shall devote my entire attention to the problem of your desire, and endeavour with that same dedication to bring you to such a state of absolute pleasure as you have never before experienced. If not, however, that energy shall be directed towards your undoing. It's all one to me-- I shall enjoy it tremendously, either way. It is only to you, my dear Watson, that the distinction shall apply. What is it to be, John--agony or bliss?
It was not at all what I expected. It was, however, what I ought to have expected. The communion of souls which had passed between Holmes and myself the night before had been so intense that the mere recall of it was overwhelming, even this next morning. To Holmes, whose temperament is so much more reserved than mine, the memory might well be nearly terrifying, although not the cruelest of tortures could induce him to admit it. That he should revert into a less dangerous vein, and begin anew the teasing, and not entirely unpleasant, torments of our bet instead was entirely predictable, and to be honest, I was glad of it. I know full well that Holmes has taken me fully into his heart, as I have taken him into mine, but we cannot live forever at fever pitch, neither of us.
Besides, in this act of pulling-back, he had given me something entirely new. In despite of this long-established code of ours, Holmes had never in all the long years since the inception of our love-affair put a single word to paper which he would not have done when we were only friends. We used our secret method for business matters, or to confirm the authenticity of messages to each other, or for that singular variety of case-note which could spell ruin to a client if read by outside eyes. I had never had of him anything remotely resembling a love letter...and now I saw why. He could not, it seemed, overcome his reservations sufficiently to put to paper a single word which could actually be considered indecent. True, his letter had its own variety of allure, particularly as it was so very distinctly Holmes in every sense; those very qualities that made it atypical made it his, and I cannot claim that I was wholly unaffected. But it was far too combative and far too formal a missive to even approach the level of potency which good erotic writing ought to have. I found myself grinning with anticipation. Today's game, I felt, would be one I should thoroughly enjoy.
I dressed myself quickly, though with some care, and took myself down to the sitting room, where Holmes was already installed. He was ensconced in his usual armchair, with his usual collection of papers strewn in its usual disorder over, under and around him. I bid him a lighthearted good morning, and watched his eyes dart to the note which protruded casually from my jacket pocket.
"You've breakfasted already, then?" I asked, glancing at the mostly-empty teacup and crumb-strewn plate at his place at table.
"You scintillate this morning, Watson," Holmes said, and turned back to his Times. I fancy I caught a note of relief in his voice that I had chosen to focus on this morning, rather than last night.
"If only I could say the same for you, Holmes," I responded. I pulled the note from my pocket and waved it in his direction. "I cannot say I found it a very compelling piece of correspondence. Idle threats and vague promises? Really, I am quite disappointed."
He gave me a cool glance, and once again returned to his paper. "I am sorry to hear that it did not meet with your approval, doctor. If I break into sobs of distress at your cruel dismissal of my little literary attempt, would you come put your arm about me?"
"I might, but I suspect we should both of us prefer not to make a practical trial of the thing," I replied.
Holmes looked up at me once again, gave me the briefest little sliver of a smile. "Well, perhaps not," he admitted, and the conversation was permitted to drop.
I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast-- Mrs. Hudson's excellent fare deserves to be given proper attention whenever possible--and then wandered over to my writing desk and settled in. I did not turn to look at Holmes, but I could tell that he was watching me. Slowly and with deliberation, I withdrew a few sheets of paper, my pen and inkwell from their drawers, wriggled myself into comfort, and began to write.
My dear Holmes,
It was tremendously, uncharacteristically foolish of you, to extend our little game into the realm of words on paper. Even when you are at your most uncomplimentary, your favourite indictment of my published works is "romantic." Do you really suppose that you will manage to win a contest with me here, in my own particular domain? In almost any other arena I am willing to concede your superior skill. But I, my Holmes, am a writer, down to the core of me, and here you are at my mercy.
Perhaps that is why you did it; perhaps you wish to be helpless just for a moment, just every now and then. In the physical realm I shall never be truly able to wrest your control away from you, never trap you into feeling powerless. On paper, however, I have you captive, to be subjected at my whim to any of a million sweet indignities. You are mine here, Holmes, even more surely than when my body is bent over yours and my cock is inside you. If I want to feel that kind warm mouth of yours, bobbing away on me with undignified eagerness, I need only twitch my fingers. If I wish to see you, splayed on your sheets, naked and writhing and sweat-slick and dark-eyed with lust, it takes only a few drops of ink to achieve it. If I wish to hear that particular moan, the one straight from the soul of you, which only passes your lips in the moment when you breach me, or my own name, a single trembling syllable, shouted in concupiscent abandon, my words can make it so. And that, of course, is only in the realm of memory. With a little imagination, how very much more can my letters achieve!
For there are things which I can make so here which could never be in the realm of mere flesh. On paper I can multiply myself over and over again, until I possess a hundred eager hands for tearing at your clothing and stroking your skin, and then abandon them at once for an equal crowd of mouths. The sensation would be nearly enough to drive you mad, I should imagine: every digit, every vertebra, your ears, your neck, your thighs, your hips, your sac, your prick, all enveloped at once in the dark wet heat of my mouth, and one pair of lips still left to sweetly caress yours, to remind you that it is I and only I who am subjecting you to such unendurable, unparallelled bliss. Then again, perhaps so many of me would be a waste. After all, we could accomplish so very much with only two: one to take, and one to be taken. Would you like that, my dear Holmes, to be both subject and object of my passion all at once? In life it can never be so, and yet in words I can make you feel it, bring to you in a few syllables the extravagant sensation of me around you and within you at once. Take a moment and truly imagine it, the fullness and the tightness and the overwhelming, incomparable pleasure that such an act should bring. If that thought is not enough to make you ache for me, I cannot imagine what would.
Though this little exercise of ours is grounded firmly in the carnal, the trait which you would call my rampageous sentimentalism prompts me to point out--to my own detriment, no doubt, but one must obey one's nature--that there are other impossible pleasures, of a less strictly physical variety, which I can indulge only on the page. Here we may walk through the park not only arm in arm but hand in hand; here, I may look at you before others with the same affection in my eyes which I must usually reserve for our time alone; here, I may shout to the world, if I wish it, that Sherlock Holmes is mine, and I am his, and, let the fates rage and tear as they like, so shall it always be. And here, where you cannot grow cold and shy away, I may tell you truly that there is no corner of myself that does not love you, just as profoundly and as deeply as any petty human creature can. I love you, Holmes, and love you, and love you, and love you, and I know that, however much you may scorn the words, you would not for any price have me feel other than I do. It is not one pair in a million who find what we have found in each other, and, no matter what the world says of men of our stripe, I am struck dumb daily by the immensity of my good fortune-- of our good fortune. No matter how much a creature of language I may be, I run here into the outermost limit of what I can express in words. But come to me, my Holmes, and let me show you, with my hands and my lips and my body, that I mean what I say.
My dearest Holmes, I want you so much in this moment, want you so much at every moment. I endure it only with knowing that your desire for me is just as great and just as single-minded. Are you aware what it does to me, knowing how quickly I could have you moaning for me? With even a simple look--the very one I just shot in your direction, so that, when you read this, you will remember it--I know that I can set your pulse to pounding, just as it is now. I know from the slope of your shoulders, the slow sliding of your eyes, the tense arching of the feet you have left bare as a temptation, that you are waiting for me, in every sense of the word. But I have no intention of surrendering to you, Holmes, nor even of walking over to give you this letter. I shall leave it here, where it sits, on my desk, and take myself off on some flimsy pretense, and the moment I am gone you will rush over to read it. Might I be permitted to suggest that, having read so far, you come join me in my bed? At the cost of one simple first touch, you may have of me anything and everything you might desire. I need not be so immodest as to sing my own praises; you know very well just how much I have to give. Only come upstairs to me, my dear Holmes, and I can make you forget you ever had pride to lose, forget that anyone or anything else in the world exists, except our two bodies. Whatever you can think to ask, whatever you can imagine wishing for, I can provide it, if only you come to me now...
Yours, in every way,
It was incredibly difficult to do as I had written, and leave him then. I should have given so very much to have seen his face as he read it, but I was sure that, had I been there, he would have found a way to suppress his reactions. With me out of the way, he should be able to feel the full effect of my words--would, I hoped, be unable to avoid feeling it. Simply writing the thing had left me decidedly unsteady myself, and, though I could not quite feel the supreme confidence I professed in the opening paragraphs of that communique, I thought I knew my Holmes well enough to predict that his reaction ought to be quite significantly on the positive side. I was sure that, had he written such a missive to me, I should have found it nearly impossible to resist the urge to seek him out.
When an hour passed away, however, and he had still not come up to my room to seek me, I had to admit that my letter had, apparently, enjoyed no great success. The hall clock chimed twelve-thirty, our customary luncheon hour, and I was forced to give up waiting for him and make my way back downstairs in search of sustenance. Mrs. Hudson was there when I arrived, ladling out bowls of her vegetable soup, and attempting to persuade Holmes--who sat at his chemical table--to come and eat. It took me a moment to realize that he was not in the midst of an experiment, but was, in fact, writing. Why he had chosen to take the trouble to clear a space for his page among the rabble of retorts and Bunsen burners that littered that surface when both his desk and mine sat open and unoccupied I hadn't a notion, but I knew Holmes's little eccentricities far too well to be concerned by such behavior. Indeed, I should hardly have batted an eyelash to find him writing beneath his chemical table, much less at it.
"You should only be wasting food, Mrs. Hudson, and the water necessary to clean my untouched dish, as I have no intention whatever of lunching today," Holmes said, his nose still buried in his writing. "I should be obliged if you would cease troubling me and take the soup away."
"Not all the soup, Mrs. Hudson," I put in, resting a hand consolingly on her arm. "One of us, at least, is prepared to thoroughly enjoy this fine meal."
"Thank you, Dr. Watson," she said fondly, though her gaze, which bespoke more worry than annoyance, rested on Holmes. "Mr. Holmes, I thought that you were without a case, just at present? Surely you cannot be so very busy."
He looked up, then. His aspect was harried. I could not help grinning as I noticed the tracks where he had dragged his fingers through his hair, and realized that my letter must, indeed, have had some effect. I had noticed the moment I walked in the room that he had read it, for it had disappeared from my desk, but this was my first confirmation that he had felt the impact of the words.
"I have other calls on my time than cases," Holmes said, in a voice that aimed for acerbity but which, to the careful listener, conveyed only strain. "This is a particularly...crucial piece of correspondence, and I have been distracted enough already." At this he returned to his scribbling, his manner indicating only too clearly that he had no intention of paying any more heed to either of us until it suited him to do so.
Mrs. Hudson knows well enough--nearly as well as I do--when it is best to cut one's losses with Holmes and simply allow him to have his own way. She sighed, shot me a commiseratory glance, and bustled off.
Though my first instinct was to hurry to Holmes's side in hopes that my proximity would finish the job that my words had begun, I resisted it as long as I could on the theory that, the more time I spent in the room with him before approaching, the more tightly-wound he would be when finally I did make my move. I forced myself to eat my soup quietly and calmly, though I confess I may have hurried a bit. Only once I had emptied my bowl, finished my bread, and brushed the crumbs from my jacket did I permit myself to wander over, plant my hands on the back of his chair, and lean over his shoulder.
"I don't suppose that that letter might happen to be for me, Holmes?" I asked. I did not go so far as to speak it directly into his ear, but my face was near enough that I saw the hairs of his neck stand up as my breath tickled them.
"You know very well that it is, Watson," he said. "But it is not nearly finished, and I should be obliged if you should cease distracting me and permit me to write."
"I'm not sure that would be to my advantage," I murmured, pressing myself against the back of his chair, that he might feel my presence in a literal sense despite the fact that we were still not touching.
He closed his eyes--no more than an elongated blink, but long enough for me to rejoice in it, and then said, "You suppose that annoying me will further your cause? I cannot say that it seems a very promising strategy, but I defer to your judgement on the matter."
"I should not call your manner just now 'annoyed,'" I said, and this time I did turn so his ear was in the path of my lips. "But I defer to your judgement on the matter," I quoted back teasingly.
He gave another of those overgrown blinks. Then, in a split second, he transformed himself, encasing himself in ice with a proficiency born of long years of practice. "I assure you, Watson, that, if annoyance is an inaccurate term, it is only so by virtue of understatement. I cannot imagine that you should be pleased if I took to the practice of hovering over your shoulder while you engage in your little fabulations, and therefore I do not do so. I should be gratified if you would extend me the same courtesy."
I was too well satisfied with his obvious discomfiture to be hurt by his coldness. "As you like, Holmes," I replied, straightening up. "I have one or two errands to attend to. Is there anything I can get for you while I'm out?"
"The slipper is almost empty, if you would be so good."
"Why don't you come with me?" I coaxed. "A bit of a walk could be quite pleasant. Through the Park, if you like."
"It is going to rain, Watson," he said, without looking up from his paper.
I looked out the window. The sky did indeed have a somewhat stormy cast about it. "Very well, then. Enjoy your writing."
From sheer habit, I bent down to kiss him. My lips were within an inch of his cheek when it occurred to me what I was doing. I froze. He turned his head--knowing, of course, exactly what I had intended--and smiled at me, tight-lipped but with genuine amusement. I expected a teasing comment, but instead he allowed his smile to slowly fade as he simply looked at me. It was one of the rare moments when he allowed his affection to show plainly on his face, and I had no desire either to move or to look away.
"Holmes," I said, "I don't suppose that, if we both agreed to kiss each other, we could simply forget about it afterwards and go on as though nothing had happened?"
"I do not think that would be quite in the spirit of the thing, Watson."
"No. I suppose not." I lingered for a moment more, very seriously considering abandoning the whole project; with him looking at me like that, the desire to kiss him was almost irresistible. But I summoned my last shreds of self-restraint, and headed for the door.
I hurried through my early errands, hoping to make it home before the rain. I had my tin of boot polish and Holmes's pouch of tobacco in my hands and had just ducked into the bookshop, intending to snatch up a copy of Mr. Wells's new novel--an odd little book about fantastical human beasts that Thurston had recommended to me the last time we met at the club--when the sky opened and it began positively to pour. If I attempted to walk the dozen blocks back to Baker Street under those conditions, my leg wouldn't forgive me for a week, and, at any rate, the bookshop was a pleasant enough place to be stranded. So I settled into one of the armchairs Mr. Climpson had scattered throughout the place for use by his customers, and spent an hour or two with my novel. Dusk had just begun to darken the grey of the sky when I judged that the rain had abated sufficiently and ventured out into what was now merely an unpleasant sort of drizzle.
I was damp but not drenched when I finally found myself back in the sitting room, staring once again at a meal which Holmes would not touch and at the man himself. He was exactly where I had left him but surrounded now by a corona of crumpled papers that marked discarded drafts. I considered attempting to purloin one, to get a glimpse of what he had been writing all this time, but I happened to notice that, sometime while I was out, he had retrieved his bow and laid it beside him on the chemical table. He had clearly not been playing--his violin lay on the windowsill, on the other side of the room. I understood precisely what that bow was for. If he could not use his hands to brush me away from his abandoned attempts, he should prod me away instead. I laughed softly to myself and decided not to chance it. Either I would learn soon enough what he was writing, or else he would give up entirely, in which case I should be the victor of this day's skirmish by default. It was not worth risking a rap on the knuckles (if he was feeling kindly) or the head (if, as was more likely, he was not) to satisfy my curiosity.
I passed a very dull evening. I knew very well that I should not be able to coax Holmes into conversation until he had finished, which he showed no signs of doing any time soon. Twice after I returned he gave the sheet he was writing a scowl and flung it off of his table, beginning afresh. It was nearly nine o'clock before he began on the draft which seemed finally to please him. I had retreated to my own desk in the meanwhile, feeling myself well warmed-up by my little writing exercise that morning, and made some hundreds of words of progress on the Baskerville tale, which was still in its early stages. Having finished my account of our first meeting with Sir Henry, however, I wearied of writing.
"Holmes..." I began, but he made an impatient noise and waved a hand at me. I sighed, walked to the mantel to retrieve and light my pipe, and settled into my armchair with the newest copy of the British Medical Journal. The editorial on cycling and its effects on health was not uninteresting, but it led my mind to wander. What had become of Miss Violet Smith, our solitary cyclist? Was she Mrs. Violet Morton now, I wondered--or, perhaps, Mrs. Violet Carruthers? If I was any judge of these things, the attraction between Miss Smith and her employer had not been entirely on his side, though the poor child would never have willingly broken the heart of her electrician fiancée. Bob Carruthers' morals may at times have been questionable, but, as a whole, he was a goodhearted man. I sincerely hoped that it had all come round right in the end...
"Watson," said a soft voice in my ear. I nearly leaped from my chair in surprise. It took me a moment to realize that I must have dozed off. I took a few deep breaths, attempting to quiet the raging pulse that always comes of being woken unexpectedly, particularly when one has not been asleep for more than an hour or two. I heard the soft huffing of air beside me as Holmes chuckled in his silent way. "I suspect you'd be much more comfortable in your bed, old fellow."
"I'd be much more comfortable in your bed."
"For the small price of a kiss..."
"Oh, hush," I yawned. "What time is it?"
"Twelve thirty-four," he replied.
"As late as that?" I asked, standing and stretching. "Have you been writing all this time?"
"Yes," he answered, "but I've just finished. A bit of bedtime reading for you, my dear Watson." He pressed the letter into my hand, and then leaned forward, his eyes closing. I was becoming quite accustomed to our goodnight not-kisses and, while they would never replace the real thing, there was something quite pleasant in that moment of deliberate, affectionate nearness.
"Good-night, Holmes," I murmured, getting in before him for once, and I could hear his smile as he added his "Good-night, Watson." As always, he was the one to disappear, leaving me alone in the sitting room. I made my way upstairs, too tired to hurry, but by no means so fatigued as to set his letter aside for the morning. I changed into my nightclothes as rapidly as I could manage, settled into bed, and began to read.
I see now that you were justified in your criticism this morning. I have neither written nor received an epistle of this peculiar variety before, and you will not, I believe, think less of me, that it required a certain degree of practice, and a worthy example before me, to get a feel for the thing. I shall not trouble myself to deny that yours was a very fine specimen of writing and that I very nearly did as you bid me. It was, I think, only the feeling of how much your letter was superior to mine that stopped me rushing up the stairs to sod you senseless. I am a competitive creature, as you know, and, while it does not hurt my pride to be defeated by a worthy opponent, I knew myself on this occasion to have been so thoroughly defeated that I should have felt myself to be surrendering twice-- once to your charms, and then again your abilities. The former I might have accepted, but the latter is too much for the side of my nature which you should, in those rare moments when I have treated you so callously for so long that you are finally driven to some small degree of incivility, call my arrogance. I freely admit that you are an altogether handsome, charming and desirable devil; to succumb every now and then to the lure of the flesh when I have such enticements before me is, at least, comprehensible. But to admit myself to have been out-planned, out-schemed, and, in short, out-thought is a nearly impossible proposition for me. Thus have I come once more to take up my pen, in hopes that my next attempt may do something to soothe my wounded pride--and to stir in you that same desire which still hums through me in the wake of your letter.
I have never told you, I think, what it is I dreamed of--in the most literal sense--during the years of your marriage. There were too many other things to say, when we were reunited two Aprils ago, and I had no desire to stir up unhappy memories. These particular dreams I should not precisely have called unhappy, you understand, but neither could they have occurred had things not been permitted to go so wrong between us. Now, however, that we have had time enough to assure ourselves and each other beyond any doubt that no such crisis shall ever part us again, I feel that the time has come to share them.
I am aware that the relation of dreams is often considered a self-indulgent practice, but this one, I think, will not fail to hold your interest. It recurred to me two or three times a week during those years, sometimes even more often, until I was haunted with it, sick to death of waking up covered in sweat, my hips thrusting fiercely and futilely against my mattress. After a time the images would not leave me even during the day, making me ache to enact them in life. I should never have done so--I know that you could not love me, my dear Watson, so much, loved you not honor more--but my own temptation was so great that I burned with the selfish desire to inflict it upon you.
My dream began with me sending for you, my telegram worded just-so. The missive I sent should have appeared a benign summons to any other pair of eyes, but, to you, it would inevitably convey the full extent of my intentions, so that, by obeying it, you should already be giving in to my desires. I dreamed of you walking through the door, of my hands and my mouth descending instantly upon you, my need so ravenous that you scarcely had time to lock the door behind you before I had you trembling and gasping within my embrace. I dreamed of your protestations, your insistence that we ought not to do this, though not for a moment did you ever resist my touch, and not once did you ever demand that I stop. Even in sleep I could not forget how that act should have torn at your conscience, but my hands never wavered as I pulled you to me. Always, I held you just the same way--my front to your back and my arms wrapping about you, agonizingly near. I dreamed of palming at your trousers, finding you already hard and waiting for me. I stroked you and caressed you through your clothes, feeling you swell still further as my able fingers worked their torment. I dreamed of how I would grind myself against the pliant curve of your buttocks, convincing you in the most undeniable fashion of just how much I needed you, and how you would continue to insist that we must not give in to desire. I listened as your protests grew feebler and feebler and more and more breathless, as your lust drove you ever further out of control, until finally, when you could do nothing more than moan in my embrace, I placed my lips to your ear as my hands continued to pull at your prick and my hips to push into yours.
"Say yes, John," I murmured, the same murmur every night. "Give in to me. Tell me I may have you. Say yes."
At first, you would shake your head, though allowing it at the same time to loll back onto my shoulder. "You know that you want this as much as I, that you have been longing for it day and night, as I have. You know that you wake with your mind full of me, terrified that, in those unguarded moments between sleep and wakefulness, my name shall pass your lips. You think of me in the mornings, at noon, in the afternoon, in the evening, at night. Even when your wife is in your arms, it is my body you wish for, I you wish to bed. In your own head, you surrender to me a million times a day. You are already mine, John, in every sense. Now, say it for me. Say yes."
I dreamed of how your breath would catch, how your cock would twitch beneath my fingers, how you would push back involuntarily against me, how your hands would search desperately for some anchor only to grasp futilely at empty air. Even so, you refused to do as I asked and urge me on. By then, I was so mad with need myself as to have no will to spare to slow my hips, and found myself rutting against you with inelegant urgency.
"Say yes," a plea this time. "My God, Watson! Say yes; let me fuck you. You need this as badly as I do. John, please, say yes! Say it, say it, John, my John, say it, say yes.."
When finally you could stand it no longer and that syllable was torn from your throat, the reluctant yet passionate "Yes!" I had been longing to hear, it was never more than a second before I had your trousers about your ankles and my own pulled open. One of my hands wrapped around your naked cock, and the other guided me inside you, both of us gaining at last the sensations we craved. It was all so frantic and bright-hot that it was barely more than a minute of wild hard thrusts before I felt you tense in my arms and spurt hot and wet over my fingers, unable to stop yourself screaming out my name, and my whole world narrowed down to the incredible sweet tightness of you around me...
Occasionally, my mind and body took pity on me and allowed me my own release at the height of these dreams. More often, however, I awoke, and was left just as you are now, gasping and struggling and cursing, bringing myself with a few pumps of my fist to a climax which was only a pale fraction of what it ought to have been. I had no other option then, my dear Watson, but you have now. I lie in my bed only a few feet below you, and I am waiting, willing, all yours. Why should you resort to clumsy and ineffectual remedies when the object of your desires is so very near? Come here, my Watson, and give yourself to me. Let me give you the release which, I know very well, you are at this moment craving more than breath. Come to me now, John. Say yes.
Yours, and yours only,
I should, in all likelihood, have obeyed him, had I not found it quite necessary, if I were to survive to the end of the letter, to bring myself off as I read. It was with no very kindly feelings that I read these last lines. As appallingly unfair propositions go, having a genius for a lover is quite possibly the unfairest one of all.
On the other hand, I thought, glancing back over his letter and looking forward with palpable eagerness to Sunday at 12:01 PM, loving Sherlock Holmes does have its rewards.
Chapter 6: Friday
It was as I was dressing that morning--early, for I had passed another unhappy night--that I had the idea. I happened to see it, in the far back corner of my wardrobe, and to recall one or two conversations with Holmes which bore obliquely upon the garment in question. I had been saving it for a special occasion, knowing full well how much Holmes desired to see me wearing it. That special occasion, I decided, had come.
One of the circumstances which drew Holmes specifically to our Baker Street rooms (though I could not have cared less about it, at least in the early years) was the profusion of empty space. Besides our bedrooms, sitting-room and bathroom, our part of the house contains no fewer than three lumber-rooms--one on either side of my attic room, each only slightly smaller than a bedroom in its own right, and another small closet on the main floor. The first of these is packed nearly to the rafters with newspapers, which Holmes saves in ridiculous quantity in hopes that the information therein may someday pertain to a case. The second was originally mine, but, as the newsroom has become more and more full, as I never had much to store at any rate, and as my bedroom only rarely sees use anyhow, the relics of Holmes' cases have slowly come to fill that space. I avoid that room when I can, as many of its contents are decidedly eerie artifacts: the enormous grandfather clock which once ticked away with such relentlessness in the Paradol chamber, and which stopped with a tremendous clanging of bells at the same moment as old Rev. Witherspoon's heart; the collection of stuffed and mounted snakes which a noted herpetologist sent to us (along with a stern note about poetic license and the auditory capacity of serpents) shortly after the publication of The Speckled Band; the carved mermaid that had once been the figurehead of the Friesland, which we clung to for two miserable days before rescue finally found us. It is only in search of the pleasanter contents of Holmes' old tin box that I ever venture into that room full of oddities.
But the downstairs lumber-room, unlike the other two, does occasionally get some practical use. Some years ago, while I was living away from Baker Street, Holmes fitted it up as a darkroom. It is admirably suited to the purpose, having no windows and being just large enough to accommodate the necessary equipment. I should mention that Holmes almost never uses a camera on our cases; our instrument is one of those enormous, ancient monsters, which Holmes bought cheap somewhere, and not well-suited to toting about to crime scenes. Instead, he decided that he required a darkroom to print his photographs of tobacco ash for a new monograph to supplement his original work on the subject. It bothered him not a bit that the original sold approximately two dozen copies (though perhaps it might have done so to a greater degree had he known that, of those two dozen, I bought three, Lestrade one, at my urging, and young Stanley Hopkins no fewer than eight); he insisted that the work ought to be kept current, for the sake of science. It may mark me out an idiot, but I am willing to admit that those sorts of eccentricities do nothing to diminish my love for him, and in fact a great deal to enhance it. Holmes, of course, knows this weakness of mine very well and takes full advantage, so much so that, when he was pulled away from his photography by a series of complicated cases, I allowed him to inveigle me into to doing the work. At this point, it must be said, I had quite mastered the technique, while Holmes's own forays into the darkroom were still accompanied by muttered imprecations.
Had Holmes been in the house, I have no idea how I should have managed to get the camera--which, as I mentioned, is an enormous, cumbersome contraption--up to my room without attracting his attention. Fortunately, Fridays are his mornings for visiting the barber, and so I had a free hour in which to enact my plan. The question of just what sort of pose would be best occupied my mind for some minutes as I busied myself with changing my clothes. I did worry that my old uniform might no longer fit me; I had indeed been "thin as a lath" when I returned home, but as it had hung so loose on me then that I was just able to wriggle into the thing now. It is a well known principle that if one shoves a man into a uniform, and the man in question is over fifteen, under sixty, and not actually hunchbacked or dribbling at the mouth, the vast majority of women will swoon at the sight from some patriotic instinct if nothing else. In my personal experience, the phenomenon extends to a not insignificant number of men, as well. Holmes had never specifically mentioned that he might be among their number--such clarity is not his style, nor does he wish to be thought ordinary--but I had, if I may be permitted so to express it, deduced it, from one or two sidelong glances and the occasional hitch of his breath when our conversation happened to turn to my unhappy soldiering days. I had feared in the past that a return to that well-worn suit might bring back memories of blood and screams and sun that almost burned out a man's will to live, but now, so many years and miles away from those bygone horrors, the uniform was little more than cloth.
Beyond the decision to photograph myself in that costume, I had not quite worked out the details. Ought I to make it a simple portrait, such as one might purchase at any photographic studio in the metropolis? That did not seem quite to be exploiting the full potential of the thing. There was, however, a distinct chance of going too far with this little game. I quickly discarded the notion of leaving my trousers open and touching myself for the camera, for it was simply too vulgar to attract Holmes (or any other man of taste). I needed a more tactful approach which nevertheless displayed undeniable erotic appeal. I was not certain I had found it, but I worked out an idea which, at very least, seemed worth trying.
I headed back down to the sitting room, retrieved one of the simple wooden chairs from around the dining table, and carried it up the stairs. This I positioned before the open window, with the camera across the room. Once I had readied the plates, I took the bulb to release the shutter in my hand and headed back over to my chair. I splayed my legs wide on either side as I sat, and planted my hands on the front edge of the chair, between my legs, leaning forward slightly. To complete the pose, I stared boldly into the camera and allowed my mouth to curl in a bit of a smile. My pose was brazen, I felt, but not overt. It would fit well with the raiment of the soldier.
The camera was, as I have mentioned, a very much outdated machine; it took nearly three minutes to fully expose a plate. This made for a seemingly interminable wait, sitting as still as possible, but I am a fairly patient fellow, all things considered, and that pose was not a difficult one to maintain. When finally my wait was ended, I set about bundling everything--including my uniform--back where it belonged, and then headed down to our little darkroom to obtain my print.
Thankfully, the photograph turned out well; I should have had no chance to make another attempt, for Holmes arrived home while I was developing my first. I had to shout out my whereabouts to him, as he was in some confusion about where I had got to. Having finished with the antiquated camera, the chemical processes of developing negative and print were a mere bagatelle, and I soon had an acceptable print drying. I sneaked up to my room as quickly and silently as possible, hoping not to alert Holmes, and busied myself with a search of my bedroom which turned up a little leather folder which had once held a photograph pertaining to a problem of much less immediate interest. This prize I carried back downstairs to be filled with my artistic attempt, once I had scribbled a brief "To S.H.--All my love, J.W." in the corner. I slipped the finished product into the inner pocket of my jacket and hurried off to lunch.
Holmes was already at the table, nibbling at mutton and creamed spinach. "Whatever have you been up to all morning, Watson?" he asked, with some degree of irritation, as I sat and helped myself.
"Surely the great Sherlock Holmes can deduce that, when a man spends the morning in a darkroom and emerges smelling of all manner of foul chemicals, he has been developing a photograph," I replied genially, tucking in.
"Shockingly enough, I had indeed come to that conclusion. What I was endeavouring to discover was the subject of said photograph, and why you took it, and where it has got to."
I grinned mischievously at him. "Really, Holmes, I am sure that you can manage to figure some of that out for yourself. Use your powers; exert yourself."
He was in no particularly sweet mood, but he made the attempt all the same. "If I am not mistaken, the 'where' is your inner jacket pocket--I did not notice it at first, as that suit is rather new and I am unused to seeing you in it, but the line does seem just a bit off. And if your mood is any indication, the 'why' seems to have something to do with our little wager. But as to the 'what'... well, if I am correct about your reasons, then I suppose the likelihood lies with it being a photograph of you, but as to what you could hope to accomplish by presenting me with a photograph when the real thing sits before me, I cannot guess."
"Very good, Holmes," I said, in a teasingly condescending voice reminiscent of his lecturing moods. "Though I am a little disappointed at your lack of imagination." I turned back to my dinner, skewering a piece of mutton with delicate deliberation.
"And having expended such effort to obtain your snapshot, are you not going to give it to me after all?" Holmes asked peevishly.
"I never said it was for you, Holmes. Perhaps it has nothing to do with our bet. Or perhaps I am hoping to arouse your jealousy, and intend it as a gift for someone else."
"It is for me, Watson, and we both know it."
"Far be it from me to contradict you," I replied airily, unable to keep my grin entirely from my face. I sipped coolly at my water.
"Well?" Holmes asked, leaning back in his chair.
I had him, and I revelled in it. Holmes hates to be uninformed about anything. While I had the photograph and he was unsure what was in it, I had the trump in any conversation. "Well what, Holmes?"
"Watson," he ground out, "I cannot stand it when you are deliberately obtuse. You cannot possibly have forgotten the tenor of my comments on your stories, irking me as they do for just that reason; rest assured that I shall brook no qualms about expressing similar sentiments with regards to your person, intelligence and moral qualities, if you continue to behave in this manner."
"That is what bothers you about my stories?" I asked, genuinely surprised. "The fact that I occasionally underplay my own intelligence?"
Holmes's scowl trembled. It wobbled. It slipped sideways, and, of a sudden, it transformed itself into a smile. "My dear Watson," he said, in spite of himself, "how on earth do you manage that, and so consistently, too?"
"Not only to invariably leap past the sort of abuse which no sane man would tolerate, but actually to find a compliment in it. And you habitually underplay your own intelligence."
I grinned back at him. "Let us call it a survival instinct, Holmes. I'd not have endured six months living with you had I not developed the ability to see the generosity of spirit which you attempt to conceal--and, as you may recall, for those first six months, I could not afford to live anywhere but with you."
"Ah! The truth comes out at last," Holmes said, buttering a roll with a flourish. "You endure me merely from a sense of economy. It hurts my pride to hear it, my dear Watson, but I suppose, as you have so few faults in general, that you are entitled to a mercenary nature. I have one or two singular gifts, you know, which permit me to earn an exceptional living when I make an effort at it. Ought I to be keeping you in a better style, Doctor? I am quite amenable to showering you with jewels and buying you oysters every night, if it will keep you by my side."
"And here I am meant, I suppose, to be deeply offended by the imprecation. Nothing of the kind. Feel free to feed me oysters and present me with extravagant presents whenever it suits you--but not if it means taking dull cases from rich clients. I should much rather have you as a poor man than an odd, imitation Sherlock Holmes with a high tolerance for boredom and a bulging purse."
"Then you shall have to settle for me as a moderately well-off sort of fellow. We can have oysters on Saturdays and take what cases please us, and when you are feeling neglected I can toss my amethyst snuffbox at your feet. How does that suit?"
"Admirably," I laughed, polishing off my spinach and wiping my mouth on my napkin. I rose and so did Holmes, but as he was stepping away from the table he stopped.
"I have allowed you to talk me in circles, Watson. That is terribly unlike me. We were discussing the photograph you took for me, before that little digression into matters financial. In fact, you were just on the point of handing it over."
"Oh, was I?" I asked, all innocence. "If you say so, Holmes, by all means." I slipped the thing out of my pocket and passed it over to him, then swiftly retired to the corner by the mantel to watch the show.
His reactions were gratifying, to say the least. For a moment after opening the leather cover he did not respond at all. Then the hand not holding the photograph tightened on the edge of the table, and all the blood rushed from his face, and he seemed to go weak in the knees. He stumbled, and sat back down hard in his chair.
I wandered back over and leaned over his shoulder, as though looking back at the photograph myself. "Not entirely bad, on the whole. A silly notion, of course, but I did think you might be inclined to appreciate it."
"Whatever gave you that idea?" Holmes asked weakly.
"Was I mistaken?" I questioned in my turn,with a wicked grin. "What do you think of it?"
"It is...very nice," he said faintly. He was still staring at the photograph for all he was worth.
"Is that all?" I teased. "How very disappointing. If you had seemed truly to like it, I was thinking of taking you upstairs with me and recreating the original--it would hardly take me long to slip back into my uniform--but, as you cannot seem to summon any more enthusiasm than 'very nice...'"
"It is as well for me if you do not," he replied, with a bit more strength. "Never mind the bet--I am not sure my heart could take it. You could run rather a nice little racket that way, Doctor, sending patients into arrhythmia and then reviving them. I suspect it should prove quite the lucrative scheme."
"I believe that my Hippocratic Oath precludes me enacting plans designed to stop the hearts of well-meaning citizens."
"How very unfortunate," Holmes murmured. He gave the photograph one more long look, slipped it into his pocket, and rose. Only once he was half-way across the room did he dare to look back at me. I would not go so far as to say that he actually shivered, but he did swallow hard before hurrying into his bedroom and shutting the door.
It was with no small degree of self-satisfaction that I contemplated this undignified retreat, though I was curious to know precisely what he was up to. I did not have long to wait, however, for it was less than ten minutes before he emerged again, looking only slightly calmer than he had before. Both of his hands were clasped around the handles of his gladstone bag, fingers flexing nervously.
"I am going out, Watson," he announced, hurrying for the door.
"Out where?" I asked, rising from my chair and placing the still-lit pipe which I had been smoking to pass the time carefully on the mantelpiece.
"I have a few little matters to attend to," he answered, in a weak imitation of his masterful tone. He was on the point of making his escape when my hand caught the doorknob a moment before his, trapping him in the room.
"Crucial though I am sure your extraordinarily vague errands must be," I said, in a quietly knowing tone laced strongly with seduction, "I believe we could think up one or two even more promising ways to pass the time, if you would only touch me now."
"I am quite satisfied with my own plans for the afternoon, thank you," he replied, regaining some of his haughtiness. "Now, if you would please move out of the way..."
"No," I responded. "I know very well how much you want me now. Stay here, Holmes, and make love to me."
"Certainly, if you will kiss me first."
I shook my head. "Just at this moment, you want this far more than I do. It is your mind that is full of lewd images, your heart barreling away at many times its usual rate, and your body straining in every muscle--some more than others--for the feeling of my body. I have you, Holmes, and you know it. Now, give yourself over to me."
Were he not so dashed light on his feet, had I been able to keep him trapped in that room with me, I should have had him. I believe I have mentioned, earlier in my narrative, that our bath-room at Baker Street has two doors: one leading into the sitting-room, the other to the hall. Holmes darted away from the sitting-room's main door, which I guarded, and was in the one and out the other of the bath-room doors as quick as lightning, so that I barely had time to witness his flight once I had turned the knob in my hand.
"Enjoy your afternoon, Watson," he called back over his shoulder as he made his escape. There was nothing to do about it but shake my head and smile--which is precisely what I did.
I had no idea how long Holmes planned to be gone, but, from his manner, I guessed it would likely be some time, and I had no intention of languishing around our rooms while he concocted his riposte to my thrust. There is no company I prize more highly or crave more deeply than his, but I do occasionally require other society. This seemed as good an opportunity as any for visiting my club, and catching up on the news of my other acquaintances and friends. I spent some hours doing exactly that, returning home just in time for supper.
When Holmes did not put in an appearance at table, I admit sparing a few moments to gloat, taking it as a sign that he did not feel secure being quite so near to me just then. When nine o'clock, ten o'clock, and eleven all passed with no sign of him, however, I began to worry. Mrs. Hudson assured me that Holmes had not returned while I had been out in the afternoon. I burned with curiosity to know where he had gone and what he had taken with him.
The clock dragged on towards midnight, and my concern edged ever further nearer panic. Finally, at a quarter to twelve, the sitting room door opened and a person walked into our rooms.
It was undoubtedly Holmes. And yet I hesitate to use the pronoun 'he,' for it was Holmes in a wig and full make-up--not a particularly unusual state of affairs--and a gown--a very unusual state of affairs indeed.
That last article was a garment of grey and white striped silk trimmed in mauve ribbon and ruched up at the hem to reveal a petticoat of the same shade. I must confess that the hues suited Holmes's colouring admirably. The gown had only the barest hint of a bustle, far less than fashion demanded that year. It was also possessed of a neckline and a hem which, in their respective lowness and highness, proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the wearer, female or not, was no lady. Indeed, the whole ensemble had about it that air of disreputable attempted-grandeur that marks out a woman of a certain profession, a distinction made especially clear by the violent red shade of Holmes's rouge and lip-colour.
As is always the case with Holmes's disguises, he had changed more than simply his outward trappings. How he managed by his posture alone to convey not only the impression of a woman, but of a woman of ill-repute, I have no notion, and yet he did. When he stepped into the room it was with a woman's gait, that slight accentuation about the hips, and when he bid me, "Good evening, Doctor Watson," it was in a voice which, while not quite an imitation, lilted upwards in a way not entirely his own. In every detail, down to the way his eyelids fluttered, he was transformed.
For long moments, I could do nothing but stare. It is not that he made a particularly attractive woman. His body is too bony and angular to approximate accurately the sensual curves of the female form, the features of his face too sharp to hint at sweetness, and his great height, which gained an inch by the low heels of his boots, was odd indeed beneath that guise. And yet, it was that very blending of the masculine with the feminine which made him so very nearly irresistible in that moment. The perversity of it was utterly intoxicating.
I stepped back three paces to sink into my armchair, staring for all I was worth. He smiled--a smirk, and yet not his smirk, for there was something indisputably feminine about it--and closed the door behind him. Within a moment he was kneeling beside my chair, gazing up at me with eyes brightened beyond even their usual brilliancy by two thin rings of kohl.
"Whatever is the matter, doctor? Are you feeling unwell?" He ran his eyes over me as though searching for symptoms, lingering and yet not overtly lecherous. "You look quite uncomfortable, I'm afraid. Only tell me what I can do to ease you; I am entirely at your service." He seemed to have discovered precisely the proper balance to stop the charade veering into the realms of the risible, playing his part without for a moment denying his own identity, still speaking in that voice which was only a shade (but how significant a shade!) different from his own. This is absurd, I reminded myself, a little too vehemently. Pull yourself together, man! I took a deep breath. "You look ridiculous, Holmes," I said, not nearly so firmly as I should have liked. "For God's sake, take off that insane get-up before someone sees you."
He raised an eyebrow, the familiar gesture binding the character to him, the man I adored, in a way that very nearly cost me my control. "I rather thought you were enjoying it, John, but it shall, of course, be as you wish," he replied, without giving up that change of voice. He turned and walked to his bedroom, leaving the door deliberately open, and suddenly it occurred to me just what I had asked him to do. By that time, however, I had no hope whatsoever of convincing myself to look away.
He sat on the edge of his bed and pulled off his boots first, unhurriedly, then stood and stretched. Next he turned to his gloves, tugging at the fabric surrounding each finger, slowly revealing those hands which have always affected me more profoundly than I can adequately express. Once the gloves had tumbled to rest on the carpet and those perfect white digits were bare, he moved them to his back and the seemingly infinite column of tiny buttons stretching from a few inches below his nape all the way down to his waist. He neither hurried nor lingered in unbuttoning his strange costume, but moved as though with utter calm, the rhythmic dancing of his fingers and the oh-so-gradual parting of the gown hypnotic to the eye. It seemed a lifetime before the bodice of his gown fell away and his hands moved to the quicker task of untying his skirts and petticoats, which collapsed with a characteristic whooshing of air. And then he stood before me--or, to be more accurate, stood facing away from me--in nothing more than a corset and stockings.
I could have resisted that. I swear that I could have. I could have resisted the thin silk of the stockings that hugged his calves. I could have resisted the way his garter straps bordered his thighs. I could have resisted the impression of hips which the corset bestowed. I could even have resisted the way the whole ensemble seemed designed to frame that portion of his anatomy which it left bare, drawing the eye irresistibly to a very particular expanse of naked flesh. If he had merely stood there looking thus, I should have survived it with my dignity in tact. But it was then that he moved his hands up to the wig that still capped him, and loosened the ribbon that held his curls aloft, allowing his false hair to tumble about his shoulders.
I have no notion how he was aware that the sight would affect me so. For all I know, it was nothing more than a guess (despite his claims that it is a habit he refuses to indulge). I had certainly never told him that, while I have always been willing to admit that there are some advantages to bedding women, the taking down of hair is the only erotic spectacle which I truly miss now that my days of sleeping with ladies are in the past. It is an act of which the supreme sensuality cannot be overstated, precisely because there is nothing overt about it. It is a symbol only, and yet it is a symbol of so much-- of possession, of surrender, of willingness, of everything that is soft and yielding and warm and lovely and irresistible in the female sex. Perhaps if I could have seen his face, the contrast should have proved enough to distract me. I do not know. But I could not see his face, I was not distracted and, after that long week of torments, I had finally run out of resistance. I was, quite simply, undone. All thoughts fled my mind save one: that I intended to walk into that room, pin his wrists to the wall with one of my hands, pull his hips to me with the other, bury my face--and, most probably, my teeth--in the crook of his neck, and bugger him until he wept and screamed with the pleasure of it, not stopping until he had come to glory at least a dozen times.
I understand, in some part of my mind, that Holmes and I live a life unlike that of other men. I know, objectively speaking, that the sort of adventures which we experience on a weekly basis are such as, for many men, should mark the high point of a lifetime--and, equally, that the pains and sorrows that we know are such as would break many a weaker man--and, again, that the love we have in each other is of a variety for which most people search in vain all their days. These are not the sorts of truths which one can live one's life thinking of always, but I know them, in a quiet corner of my brain. They do not mean, however, that Holmes and I are not fortune's fools, like everyone else. The little mishaps of everyday existence fall upon us just as much as on others; there are moments of human comedy even amongst the dramas of our lives. This, I am sad to say, was one of those. That I found myself so utterly possessed by desire was bad enough. But that, in my rush to embrace him, I should have happened to catch my toe on the threshold of his bedroom and send myself sprawling across the floor, earning myself a face-full of discarded petticoat, was, I felt, as deliberate an injury to pride as fate ever dealt a man.
It is fortunate that Holmes's first instinct was concern. Abandoning his persona in an instant, he rushed to my side with a "My dear Watson!" I think that, had I not rolled over at that point, he might well have forgotten himself so far as to touch me, but roll over I did. The sight of him then, still rouged and corseted though he had lost his wig in his rush, suddenly brought the whole thing home to me. I was thus fortunate enough, though by far the more humiliated, to be the first to see the humor in it all. I broke into the most hearty peal of laughter I can ever recall emitting. After a few brief moments of surprise, Holmes's lips began to twitch as well. It was not long before we were both of us stretched full-length on the floorboards beside each other, positively weeping with mirth. Every time one of us seemed nearly to have himself under control our eyes would meet, and we would be off again. Only once our cheeks were aching with it did we finally begin to quiet. We ended up facing each other on our sides, less than a foot apart.
His eyes sparkled with amusement and affection, and I am quite sure that mine did the same. I reached out a hand and ghosted it along the side of his powdered cheek, not quite touching him. "You realize," I pointed out, when I had finally mastered my laughter, "that I would say to hell with the bet and kiss you now if it weren't for that paint on your face. I admit the allure, but I want you, and not the costume."
"Hoist with my own petard," he replied, smiling.
"Or with your own corset strings, anyhow. I don't even want to ask how you got that ensemble--or where you've been in it these last few hours."
"Acquiring the gown and underthings was no particular undertaking; I was a concerned older brother shopping from a list for an invalid sister. The wig and the paints I have had for years, as they are basic elements of the actor's trade. Only the boots gave me any trouble, for there is not many a lady in London with so large a foot. By the by, doctor, will you be an angel and undo my laces?" His voice feminized again on the last sentence, and he rolled so that his back was to me. "I'm sure you can manage it without touching any skin, with such clever hands as you've got. Does that come of being a surgeon, or a writer, do you think?" He glanced back over his shoulder and fluttered his lashes at me.
"Both, as you know very well. And do stop that." He had knotted his corset strings into the most dreadful tangle, a state which no lady of my acquaintance would ever have permitted. It was absurdly satisfying to detect an imperfection in one of his disguises, even so slight a one as that. It also meant the things would be a horror to untie.
"You've not answered my question about how you spent your evening," I said, as I went to work at my task.
"Technically, you asked no question about how I spent my evening, but we shall take it as implied. I have, in fact, used this disguise before; it is an excellent method of gathering information. Women will answer without hesitation questions from other women which they would not in a lifetime countenance from a man, and professional women in particular share a clannishness that is easy to exploit if one only knows how. I passed my afternoon lurking at the Diogenes, ducked into one of my little hidey-holes to change come dusk, and then went traveling about to various low haunts, putting out my feelers for any news of criminological interest."
"And did you learn anything of interest?" I asked. I knew him far too well for the admission that he had been wandering about London for hours in the guise of a prostitute to be shocking. Besides, the impenetrable labyrinth of interlaced ribbon before me was taking up too much of my attention to permit me the time to be scandalized. I had managed to undo one knot, but a dozen more seemed still firmly in place.
"Nothing very much. The usual problems of theft, brutality and broken promises that are a common part of that world, I am afraid, but beyond that the only intriguing whisper was of a possible increase in human trafficking from the Far East. It seems that there has been an influx of Oriental women to the brothels of London lately. I shall have to do a bit more nosing about around the docks--but in rather a different costume, I think."
"Mmmm," I agreed absently. I stood and walked into the sitting room.
"Watson? Wherever are you going?"
"Back in a moment," I called, and indeed I was. He had turned to face the door in my absence. "As you were," I instructed as I lay back down, and he rolled over.
"I had always thought that Alexander's solution to the Gordian problem was a terribly inelegant and unthinking waste of an excellent puzzle," I commented, "but somehow, I've begun to see his point." I pulled back hard on the corset strings--Holmes gasped at the sudden constriction--and used the scissors I had gone to retrieve to snip the entire knot clean off. He had been laced so tightly that the cut ends slithered of their own accord through a series of grommets, and as he tugged on the halves of the corset itself the rest of it parted, leaving his back bare.
"I should not be so unkind to Alexander, if I were you," he commented, as he reached down to detach his stockings from the garter straps at the bottom of his corset. "Men of our stripe must hang together or we shall, likely as not, hang separately. I do admit, however, that I should not like to have said of us what Aristotle said of Alexander and Hephaestion."
"That they were but one soul living in two bodies?"
"Precisely, my dear Watson. I should not prefer to see either of us denied the right to a soul of his own. Two men need not think the same thoughts or see with the same eyes to be well-matched. In fact, I think that, on the whole, one can never have a true understanding of others who are too much like oneself. It is our differences, John, that permit us such entire sympathy." He had by then shed the last of his accoutrements and turned to look at me, the corners of his mouth turned up slightly and his eyes swirling with significance. I could not look away, nor did I wish to.
"Holmes," I said simply, "sleep with me tonight."
He raised his eyebrows--both of them, in genuine surprise, rather than one, as he would have done to imitate that same emotion. "Is that a surrender, John, or are you simply attempting to entice me?"
"Neither," I replied. "I meant precisely what I said. Sleep with me, in the same bed. I have hated these last nights, and, to be quite frank, I do not believe that you have liked them any better. Your bed is large enough to hold us both without touching, if only just. And if we should happen to wake up in each other's arms, well, neither of us can be blamed for that; we may simply declare it an act of God, disentangle, and go about our business."
He looked away for a moment, considering the ramifications, and then back at me. "All right." He smiled at me, almost shyly.
I grinned back. "I'll just go up and get changed, then. Do you wash that mess off of your face."
He stood, his eyes sparkling wickedly. "Yes, sir," he replied with a salute. "I don't suppose I could convince you to forgo a nightshirt in favor of putting your uniform back on? It was positively diabolical of you, to take the thing off before letting me see you in it in the flesh."
I clambered to my feet as well. "It'd not be the first time I'd slept in it, but it's certainly an experience I've no wish to repeat. I'm afraid I shall have to decline."
"Cruel," he said, shaking his head sadly as he rummaged through his armoire in search of a nightshirt of his own. "Very cruel. Off with you, then."
I hurried upstairs and back, but by the time I returned he was already clad and standing at his washstand, drying his dripping face on a towel. It was his own face again, wiped clean of paint, and a glad sight indeed. I crossed to the bed and slipped gratefully under the covers, feeling really at home for the first time in days. Holmes assumed his own side of the bed, stretched with extraordinary enthusiasm, burrowed a bit, and turned to face me.
I knew what was coming. I took it upon myself to make the first advance. Rolling over, I trapped him beneath me, and leaned my face in towards his. He arched his neck up to me in turn, and I was about to begin the good-nights when he murmured, "Watson," in such a compelling tone that I stopped short. His every feature was imprinted with appeal, the visage of a man begging earnestly for that which he desires more deeply than life itself. "Kiss me good-night, my dearest John." His tone implied only too clearly that he would cease to draw breath if I did not comply.
"Please?" His eyes were open very wide, all innocent pleading. "Please kiss me, John."
I had to actively fight my own muscles, which seemed intent upon propelling me into a kiss. "You," I breathed, none too steadily, "are a fiend in human form, Sherlock Holmes."
He gave it up then. "And proud of it, too," he grinned. "Were I not a sinner, I should be denied the eternal company of the only man on earth I care a jot for. The second circle is the realm of the lustful, is it not?"
"I believe so, but I should not expect to meet you there. So determined a heretic as yourself will surely find himself in the city of Dis."
"Then quickly, Watson, say something terribly blasphemous, that we may share adjoining coffins of red-hot lead for all of time."
I shook my head, smiling. "Good-night, Holmes."
He quirked his own head to one side. "That is not quite what I had in mind."
I rolled back to my side of the bed. "All right, then, how about this: I, John Watson, am madly infatuated with another man, intend to share his life and bed as long as we both shall live, and I do not believe that this is wrong. Is that sufficiently heretical for you?"
"Good heavens, Watson, I had hardly expected you to go as far as that. Have you no delicacy of feeling, to go about making such inexpressibly depraved declarations?"
"Good-night, Holmes," I repeated through my laughter.
"Good-night, Holmes," I said again, shutting out the light.
"And to think that I have been living all these years..."
Chapter 7: Saturday
I passed that night far more pleasantly than any of the preceding five. I slept surrounded by Holmes's scent and dreamed sweet dreams of him, and when in my dream one of his kisses felt more real than the rest I opened my eyes to find that it had very good reason to do so, for Holmes's lips were indeed upon mine, and his arms were around me. It was not a very elegant kiss, our mouths more open and less tightly controlled than was usual between us, but it felt unbelievably good. All the same, it was not overlong before he pulled away.
"Holmes?" I asked, a single sleep-slurred syllable.
"I surrender," he said simply. "Now kiss me again, John."
I needed no further prompting. It is almost unnecessary for me to say that this kiss was very much superior to that first. It could hardly help being so, as I was no longer half-asleep; it could hardly help being superior to the vast majority of our kisses, in fact, so sorely had we both been tried in recent days. I think I may confidently state, however, that this was a kiss that defied all expectations and exceeded all predictions. I ought to have been aware of every line of his lips, every ridge of his teeth, the tiniest taste bud on his tongue, so oversensitive was I from so much wanting him. I was not aware of all those things. I would not even say that the more general sensations--wetness and heat and the pressure of his body--came through to me very strongly. It was all overpowered and subsumed by pure desire for this man who was everything to me, and with whom it seemed an age since I had last shared a proper kiss. He responded just as wholeheartedly, our arms giving no quarter as we crushed our bodies together with unaccustomed violence, our tongues pressing against each other hard enough to bruise, our lips sealed so tightly that not a single atom might have passed between. For a moment I was above him, and then he atop me, and then I on him again, and then he--I insist that it was he, supremely graceful or no--rolled in the wrong direction and sent the both of us crashing to the floor in a confused pile which seemed to consist mostly of elbows and twisted linen.
For a moment, we could neither of us speak, for the breath had been driven from us both. He finally managed to wheeze out, "Laid low on the floorboards twice in as many days, my dear Watson. I have always maintained that arousal was bad for the mind, and I had not even considered the fact that it rattles the brain about so violently."
As he had fallen atop me, I was longer recovering my breath. Not that he needed me to speak to know what I was thinking. He looked me over and gave me a smug, "I was wondering." I could not help but grin.
He moved to lie beside me, and I finally managed to find air enough for speech. "I was wondering how it could possibly be that, after nearly six days of strenuous appeals to your every carnal instinct, I could possibly have managed to seduce you while unconscious."
He gave that dismissive flutter of his hand which, as he knows very well, does strange things to my pulse. "There is a certain something about you when you sleep."
"I believe that, in general, sleeping persons tend to appear sweetly innocent."
"And if you were one of the general, I should be well-prepared. No, John, it is your very exceptionality that makes you so irresistible, for, while you wear the aspect of an innocent during the day, in slumber your every feature screams that here is a debauched, depraved, immoral wanton. I have not the slightest idea how you manage it, but there it is."
I laughed and pulled his hand up to my mouth, planting a series of kisses, intermixed with gentle bites, along the back of his hand and down his forefinger. "And you are hoping that sleep reveals a man's true self?" I asked, pulling his fingertip between my lips and tickling it with my tongue.
"I am already well aware that, in this particular case, it does." He gave the slightest of moans from some dark corner of his throat, and wriggled his finger a bit deeper into my mouth. I smiled around the digit, looked him straight in the eye, and used my own hand to push the whole length of his finger swiftly into my mouth, all the way down to his palm. He let out a gasp and then a groan as I sucked at his finger with abandon, my tongue stroking silkily back and forth. His free hand slid over me, wreaking havoc as it went--cupping my backside, stroking my neck, pinching a nipple through the fabric of my nightshirt. After giving his finger a thorough working-over, I pulled it free of my lips.
"If I am a 'debauched, depraved, immoral wanton,' I am in good company."
The moment I had stopped speaking his lips crashed back into mine, gifting me with a kiss that left my head reeling. "I do not for a moment deny it," he slipped in between one bruising kiss and the next. "We are quite the well-matched pair of voluptuaries."
"Perfectly matched," I agreed. I grasped him about the middle, pulled him flush against me, and ground my hips against his in one emphatic circle. His breath hitched and his eyes turned wild for a moment. I ought to have taken the time to enjoy causing that look, but I could not; I was too eager to bring it to his face again, and stronger. Where lovemaking is concerned, in my not inconsiderable experience, there is no sufficiency but surfeit.
I flipped him onto his back and moved my hands down to his hem, then slid them up his thighs beneath his nightshirt. "John," he murmured, "as our bed is not three feet away, don't you think we might return to it?"
I moved my hands up to his hipbones, caressing his stomach with my thumbs, and rucking up the fabric of his nightshirt as I went so that it crowded just at the base of his ribcage. "No, I don't think so," I replied absently, far too distracted by one or two parts of his body which I had just exposed to the open air. Bending down, I pressed a kiss to the head of his prick, tonguing the slit just the tiniest bit. He gave a little cry of startlement and pleasure. I pulled back an inch or two and inhaled, drinking in the scent of him, then looked him over.
"For the love of God, John, haven't you had enough of not touching me?" he said, curling five long fingers into my hair.
I laughed against him, making sure he could feel it. "Patience, Holmes," I chided, giving in to him no further than by swirling the tip of my tongue once around his cock.
"You seem to have us confused." He urged my head downwards, directing me so that my slightly parted lips brushed against him. "I am the restless wretch who cannot wait for anything to save his soul. You are the patient one."
"You have patience enough to wait for your chemicals to distill, or for a villain to incriminate himself, or for a stakeout to come to fruition." I punctuated each observation with an open-mouthed kiss, pressing my tongue between my parted lips. "Surely you can wait a few seconds for..."
"The cases are not at all analogous, as in none of those examples is it you I am awaiting with such forbearance," he hissed from between clenched teeth. "I am afraid I must really insist that you take me into your mouth this very instant, or I may...ah!"
What it was he might have done I never learned. I suspected then, and suspect now, that it should have been something very grave, and I had no wish to be answerable for such dire consequences. Besides, as he had insisted, it would have been ungallant of me to hold back any longer.
I do not have a reputation as a braggart, so I trust I shall be understood when I say that what I did to him then, with my mouth and my hand, is something I do very well. I claim little personal credit on that front--I have had one or two exceptional teachers, Holmes himself not least among them--but the fact remains that I am quite capable, between my tongue and my lips and the insides of my cheeks and with the useful support of one of my hands, of reducing the great Sherlock Holmes to blasphemous babbling between unsteady breaths. "John, I...Christ! Watson!" was, I believe, the specific exclamation on that particular morning, but they vary on a case-by-case basis. I have some reason to suspect that his Vernet grandmother may have been a Catholic, for he calls at times on the blessed saints, or, on one memorably ironic occasion, on the Mother of God, but that, I suppose, is beside the point.
For several minutes he permitted me to keep him at that height of glorious insensibility, my mouth bobbing and twisting and dancing its way up and down his prick in time with my fist. Holmes was never still for a moment. He writhed; he twitched; he gasped; he stroked my neck; he gripped my shoulders; he ran a finger over his own lips. His hips thrust and his feet flexed and his head lolled and I relished every motion, knowing how intense was the tension that prompted them. Finally he said, "John...John. I think you ought....John, my God, John...mmmh! Watson, I think," here he paused to gasp loudly, and used the hand in my hair to pull my mouth away from him, "I think you had better stop that now."
"Whyever would I want to do that?" I asked, licking my lips deliberately.
"Because, John," he said, hauling me up his body, "I fully intend that you should sod me within the next five minutes, and I plan to be in a position to give it proper appreciation. Being buggered in an immediately post-orgasmic state is a far from unpleasant experience, but not nearly so desirable as being buggered in an immediately pre-orgasmic state. Now, I should be very much indebted to you if you would go to the bed, and kneel with your back against the headboard."
"I...what?" Holmes had, in the course of this speech, pulled my nightshirt from me, and had just cupped my scrotum in his hand. I believe that I may therefore be forgiven my inattention.
"I should like you," he said, giving a delicate but firm squeeze, "to kneel on the bed with your back to the headboard. Would you be so kind as to oblige me?"
My brain seemed to have been replaced by cotton wool, but I finally understood what he had planned, and fairly leaped to obey. As positions went, that was not one we had used frequently, but when we had the results had been positively spectacular. As amenable as I was to his selection, however, I felt that, as he had been permitted that choice, I ought to be allowed a request of my own.
"Then let me watch you spread yourself for me," I replied. His eyes leaped, and he reached for the drawer of the night-stand without a moment's hesitation. Within seconds his fingers were slick and he was half-sitting, half-lying with his back against the bedpost, facing me. He never looked away as he pulled his knees upwards and slid one finger deep inside himself, but he had to fight to keep his eyes on me as they tried to roll back into his head. The sight of that first finger sliding into his body constricted my ribcage; after the second I had to bite my lip; and by the third, I could no longer stand it, and made to throw myself upon him.
He was, as usual, too quick for me. He met me as I surged forwards, pushing me back into the pose that he had dictated, and then he was kneeling above me, his legs on either side of mine and one of his hands braced against the headboard. Before I had time to react, his other hand was wrapped around my cock, firmly enough that I nearly shouted with pleasure. When he guided me inside him and thrust downwards with his hips so that I ended up buried in him to the hilt, I did cry out, pressing my face to his chest to muffle the sound. The noise that passed Holmes's lips was softer, more strained, but that he lost control of himself so far as to give voice to any involountary utterance proved that he was just as affected as I.
Holmes's legs were pressed so tightly against mine as to render me essentially immobile below the waist and give him sole say in the matter of our pace. It was an advantage he had every intention of pressing. For long moments he stayed quite still and gave me a wicked look informing me that he planned to toy with me. On another day I might have permitted him to keep control of the situation, for as a lover Holmes most assuredly never disappoints, but today I was--understandably, I think--strongly disinclined to allow him to take his time. When he finally did begin to move, he lifted his hips with a bloody-minded slowness that confirmed my diagnosis of his intentions. It was clear that I should have to take matters into my own hands. Fortunately, those retained their full range of motion.
I moved one hand to the nape of Holmes' neck, the other just below it, and ran them down his back in one long firm caress which left him hissing, though it did not provoke him to increase the pace at which he rose and fell. I let my hands rest for a moment just above his hips. I worry a good deal about Holmes's emaciation in general, but the fact that I can very nearly span his waist with my hands provokes a quite unreasonable fervor in me. If it came down to a choice between him maintaining that slenderness or consuming a few more good meals, I should, of course, choose the latter, but until the day when I can coax, tease or browbeat him into regular eating habits--which may never come--I think I may as well enjoy that particular erotic spectacle. After lingering long enough to appreciate the sight, I slid my hands around to his backside. Gripping tightly, I pulled him downwards far more rapidly than he obviously intended and circled his hips, grinding us together in an excruciatingly pleasurable way.
Holmes's eyes flashed. He brought his own hands to mine, endeavouring to pry them from his flesh. "Kindly release me, Watson."
I laughed, a little breathlessly. "Did you really think that tone would work when I am actually inside you?"
"It did not seem very likely," he admitted, as I attempted to lift him in spite of his resistance. Meeting no success on that front, I continued to pull his hips in circles instead, which, while not nearly as satisfying as proper thrusting, certainly had its merits. "I thought it worth a try, however."
"I shall let go if you cease torturing me and move," I offered.
"If I promised that, what would be the point of you letting me go?" he replied with a grin. "Besides, Watson, it is not as though you can truly control the situation from here. All that you can manage from this position is to limit my range of motion, which runs decidedly counter to your avowed wishes."
He still had possession of far too much of his vocabulary. I was clearly not going about things as efficiently as I ought to be. "You are precisely right, Holmes. Thank you for pointing it out." Whereupon I flung myself forwards, carrying him with me. His legs wound around my waist by some unconscious carnal instinct as his back came to rest against the mattress, preventing me from pulling out of him as we moved. The look in his eye when he found himself with me above him was delectable, mingled surprise and indignation but all beneath his intense arousal. "In that position, I could not have done this..." I thrust my hips hard, burying myself completely inside him, and settled at once into that favourite rhythm of his--hard and steady, but not too fast--which seemed likeliest to keep him so lost in sensation that he should lose any interest in playing games.
I ought to know better than to ever underestimate Holmes. True, for a little time, he did allow himself to be swept up in passion; I believe I am owed some credit for that, as I had angled my hips with particular care and could tell from his face that I was hitting my mark. It is always difficult to judge time at such moments, but I do not believe it can have been more than a few minutes before the light of command was back in his eyes. I was far too lost in the magnificent sensation of his flesh surrounding me to anticipate his scheme. He moved his arms up suddenly, planting his hands so that as I moved forward on my downstroke my abdomen collided with his hands. It caught me off guard at first, startling my breath from me, and then I understood why he had done it. I could not sheathe myself in him fully while his arms were positioned in the way of my body; this was his method of once again limiting my pace.
"Holmes," I panted, "What on earth are you hoping to accomplish?"
"Tell me how it feels, John," he demanded. "Tell me what it feels like to sod me." It was not an uncommon request, but what sort of answer he wished for--high, low, or positively vulgar--varied by the day.
"Incredible," I murmured, my hips still pumping into him as far as I was able, too near my peak, I thought, for eloquence. "So very, very good."
He raised an eyebrow, though even Holmes could hardly seem scornful with lips so very red, cheeks so very pink, eyes so very dark. "Is that the best you can manage, my lust-drenched sometime poet?" he teased, though in a voice not entirely steady. He eased back his arms by half-an-inch, allowing me to take him the slightest bit more deeply.
I groaned and compelled my mind, through sheer force of will, to function. "It feels...sublime, euphoric, unearthly," I babbled, knowing that he would not allow me my release until I had given an answer that met with his approval.
"Merely the scholar's version of 'very, very good.'" He would have scoffed, I think, had my hips not been actively driving into him at the time. Once again, he teasingly pulled back his arms and allowed me just a fraction of an inch further inside him. "Give me something more, John."
"You feel like Eden," I gasped, desperate for anything that might please him. "Like Eden, but a brighter paradise."
His eyes widened to their fullest extent before rolling back in his skull, and his entire upper body seemed to lose its strength, his arms falling away from me onto the mattress, freeing my hips to plunge into him just as deeply as I wished. Instantly I fell into a pounding rhythm--the sort which I could not maintain for long, but would not need to. "Touch me, John, please touch me, touch me now..."
That is a command which I am always willing to obey, and the knowledge that it was my words as much as my body which had finally brought him to the point of pleading only increased my eagerness on this occasion. "Will you come for me, when I touch you?"
"Can you doubt it?" How either of us retained sense enough for coherence, even in such brief form, I haven't a notion, but thereupon the conversation ceased.
I slipped my hand between us to wrap it around him. He gave a frantic little cry, louder than we ought to have allowed ourselves, and then moved his hand up to his mouth and sunk his teeth into it. The first time I witnessed him indulge in that act I was puzzled and a little alarmed, until I understood that it is his way of delaying an orgasm. He was waiting for me, but I wanted the sight of his face as he spiralled into bliss to be what sent me to my own little death. As my hips continued to pound into him and my right hand to stroke him, I used my left to pull his hand away from his face. His eyes were imploring, though whether to hold him back or to let him go I could not tell. I knew which I intended, however. I bent my lips to his and kissed him hard, knowing it would be enough. It was; within seconds I felt him spasm beneath me, and caught his scream of climax in my mouth. The warm rush of his release had not ceased spilling over my hand and stomach before I was following him, the feeling of my seed spurting into him no doubt heightening his orgasm as the feeling of his on my fingers was heightening mine. I was not aware of the moment when my muscles gave out, and I collapsed onto his chest.
I do not believe that most people retain very accurate memories of the moments after such acts, the untangling of bodies and the gradual return to full awareness. I most assuredly do not. I am profoundly grateful, however, that my recovery is generally somewhat swifter than Holmes's under the same circumstances. I know the pattern of his orgasms very well; I have devoted considerable time and effort to the study. In the very best cases, his initial reaction is a sort of paralysis as the first waves of pleasure hit him. This is interrupted by a series of shudders, which culminate in one more violent than the rest (often triggered when I slide myself from his body), and which are followed by many moments of desperate struggling for breath. When, finally, he manages one long exhalation through the nose, it signals a stillness of a different kind, that of absolute calm and contentment. I always endeavour to be entirely conscious by this point in the proceedings, for it shortly precedes the opening of Holmes's eyes, and that is a sight I would not miss for anything.
His eyes, at those moments, are breathtaking. They turn the perfect grey of a restless sea in winter, and his brows raise just the slightest bit. But it is their expression that I crave, that look of pure wonderment and joy which even our lovemaking is only rarely able to produce. On this occasion I was gifted not only with that look, but with a smile as well, close-lipped and small but as genuine as any I have ever seen him wear.
I lay on my side next to him and drank in the sight of him for as long as I could, and then, feeling that I could not possibly bear to go any longer without some contact between us, leaned over to kiss him, once on the eyebrow, once on the corner of the mouth. My lips brushing against his ear, I said softly, "I..."
"I am very well aware of it." He must have considered it worth considerable effort to interrupt me, for it cannot have been easy in that languid state. Pulling back, however, I saw that his eyes were still shining. "You are an incurable romantic, John."
I felt no annoyance at his manner. How could I wish him to be anything less than himself? "And yet you manage to tolerate me."
"I cannot fathom why," he said, in a voice which left made it clear that he did nothing of the kind. Then he cleared his throat, and something subtle changed in his posture. I would not quite say that he returned to his usual self, so much as he decided that this had all gone on long enough. While that magnificent unguardedness was gone, however, his tone was not lacking in affection as he said, "By the by, my dear Watson, there is something in the drawer of the nightstand which you might care to see."
While the nightstand could not possibly have held anything more appealing to my eyes than the sight which was already before them, obeying Holmes is a habit of mine, and I did as I was bidden. I knew at once what he was speaking of, for it was the only object in the drawer which I did not recognize--a slim volume, bound in red cloth, with gold gilt lettering on the cover. My French, though competent, is not particularly extensive, but even if I had not understood the meaning of La Marque des Quatre, I should have known what it was from the par Arthur Conan Doyle which followed. What did mystify me, however, though not for reasons of linguistics, was the line of smaller type below that: traduit par P.O.
"P.O.?" I asked, as I lifted the little book from the drawer. "I thought that the point was for you to do the translating."
Holmes grinned, and stretched in a way which, while not particularly sensual, made his utter nudity suddenly much more apparent. "That is your choice of question, Watson? Not 'My goodness, Holmes, how could you possibly have managed to translate my novel, locate a publisher, have the thing printed and acquire a bound copy all in the few minutes since you lost the bet, and still had time to bring me to the most devastating state of ecstasy in the meanwhile?' You might even have added a 'You are truly a marvel, oh exemplar among lovers and men,' but I shouldn't have insisted upon that."
"How very generous of you, oh first and foremost of the narcissists of Britain," I replied.
"And how, precisely, do you expect me to avoid gasconade while such an ideal specimen of the male of the species lounges naked before me in my bed? Really, Watson, you ought by now to have learned to expect egotism in any lover of yours, if only because the very fact of enjoying your favours is enough to provoke that trait."
I could not help blushing, but replied with a flippant, "You only resort to such extravagant flattery when you want something from me. What is it now, Holmes? Wasn't that last enough to satisfy you for an hour or so, at least?"
He gave me the most wicked look imaginable, his mouth tugging so dramatically to the left that it pulled the tip of his nose in the same direction. "I hadn't planned on anything of the kind just yet, but if you are ready for another round, my dear Watson..."
"What did you want, then?" I interrupted, suspecting that if he were allowed to elaborate, I should find, in spite of myself, that I was indeed ready and more.
"Simply for you to pass me that little volume which you have sacrificed and laboured so assiduously this past week to acquire, before declaring yourself to have been cheated of the prize that is your due. Is that a boon which you might be persuaded to grant?"
I scoffed at his flowery choice of terminology, but I saw no reason not to do as he asked. "And my pen, Watson, if you would be so good."
"Your pen is on your desk in the sitting room."
"A scrupulously exact assessment of the situation, Doctor."
"Might you not get it yourself?"
Holmes gave me a look which expressed more eloquently than any words could have done the sheer absurdity of that proposition.
"Insufferable man," I grumbled, clambering over him on my way to the door as a petty revenge for his sloth. It backfired as a punishment, however, as, while I was above him, he took the opportunity of giving a certain portion of my body a decided squeeze.
"Blame it on your own enthusiasm, Watson. Let us suppose that I am rather too sore to be moving just yet."
"You're nothing of the kind," I replied as I pulled on my discarded nightshirt and my dressing gown. "I have seen you leap from your bed like a jack-in-the-box after far more vigorous buggerings than that."
"Then declare me prostrate with grief that you did not bugger me so over-enthusiastically as to render me immobile."
"I would have done, had you not insisted on slowing me!" I called through the open door.
"Why, Watson, I am surprised at you! You could wish to have caused me discomfort? I had always thought you a more considerate gentleman than to so ill-use your bedfellows."
"Bedfellow. Only the one. And none, soon enough, if this one continues to drive me to distraction and beyond. Fortunately for us both," I was back in the bedroom, pen in hand, and knelt beside him on the floor next to the bed, too eager to reach him to trek around to my own side, "I may now employ the only method I know of quieting you when you are in this mood." After so many days of being denied the pleasure--and such trying days at that--I am not ashamed to admit that we spent some minutes necking as enthusiastically as any pair of youths. Eventually, however, I stood and made as though to rejoin him on the bed.
"My dear Watson, wherever are you going?"
I stopped. "To precisely where I was before I was sent off as your errand boy."
He shook his head. "Quite out of the question. I have a rather tricky bit of composition to be attending to, and I am afraid that your company would prove most distracting."
The average person, when trapped in a room with Sherlock Holmes for more than five minutes, finds himself possessed of a powerful desire to do violence to the man. I am not the average person, in that sense at any rate, but even I have my limits. Holmes, of course, knows me so well that, unless he is deep in one of his dark moods, he is able to push me precisely to those limits and not beyond. As my lips pursed with irritation, he caught my hand and pulled me back towards him.
"My dear Watson." He pulled my hand to his mouth and kissed the backs of my fingers, between the third and second knuckles. "My very dear Watson," he cajoled, noting my unimpressed expression, and planted another kiss half-an-inch down my fingers. "I promise you most sincerely," another kiss, "that if you will only give me an hour," and another, "I shall join you in the sitting room," he had reached my fingertips now, "with your prize in hand. It is a good deal to ask of you, I know," here he flipped my hand and kissed my palm, "but I trust your generosity of spirit."
I waggled my head. "Insufferable man," I repeated, but with a smile, and left him--after one last kiss--to his work.
He was as good as his word. Fifty-five minutes later found me on the settee, crunching away contentedly at my last piece of toast over the morning Times. I had just popped the final bite into my mouth when Holmes's face buried itself in my neck.
"Did you have a pleasant breakfast, Watson?" he asked, kissing the edge of my jawbone, just beneath my ear.
"Mmmm," I agreed--partly because my mouth was full of toast, and partly because it was a very sensible response.
He kissed me once more on the cheek, plucked the paper from my hand, and substituted La Marque des Quatre in its place, then tossed the Times aside and sat down beside me on the settee. His arm linked through mine, and he gave me an expectant glance.
I knew very well what was wanted of me, and I was as eager to read his dedication as he was to see me do so. I flipped open the cover to find the front endpapers covered over in Holmes's hand, more tightly packed than was his habit, all in that familiar cipher.
My dear Watson, the inscription read,
I do not consider myself to be shirking my duty to you in failing to append my name to this little work, seeing that you have not seen fit to attach yours to it either. Rest assured, however, that Madame de Polignac, the real P.O. and an old family friend, stands in precisely the same relation to me as your Conan Doyle to you: we do all the work, and they take all the credit. The translation itself is, I assure you, entirely my own. I had intended it for a birthday present, but you seem to have earned it of me sooner, and I shall thus have to come up with some other gift for your natal day. You may have to content yourself with chocolates or a new pipe on that occasion, my dear fellow. I do not think myself up to tackling A Study in Scarlet for you; I should fall asleep twice hourly attempting to slog my way through that tedious American section which you so unwisely permitted your publisher to insert.
"Most people would not consider it entirely generous to berate a man for his shortcomings while inscribing a book for him, you know."
"Fortunately for me, Watson, you are not most people," Holmes replied. He slid us sideways on the settee, slipped his arms around me, and rested his chin upon the crown of my head. "Do go on, old fellow. I...I hope that the rest of it will please you better."
His hesitation was so uncharacteristic that I looked up at him, but his face was deliberately inscrutable. He gestured me back to the page with his eyes, and I turned back to my reading.
My lack of affection for its predecessor is, I confess, John, not the only reason I chose this particular work to translate for you. You are always the hero of your own tales, you know, and The Sign of Four is the story of our brave doctor fighting selflessly to protect a man and a woman who, in despite of his gallant efforts, both forfeit their treasures in the end. There were years when the sight of that spine on my bookcase was hateful, a bitter reminder of that which was gone from me--much the same reaction, I suspect, which the most recent of your tales once provoked in you. Of late, however, only one other sight on this earth has pleased me better than that little book, for now it reminds me of how very kind fate can occasionally be. To regain that which is loved and lost is a privilege for which no man ought even to dare to hope, but I, however unworthy I may be, have lived to see my treasure return to me. And for that, my dearest Watson, I say, 'Thank God,' too.
Before all else, I remain yours--
It was a strange world, I thought, in that small part of me which could be spared at that moment from the active practice of loving Sherlock Holmes, in which the wrongs we had done each other could become a symbol of our communion, and this frivolous week of mutual teasing make it as clear as it had ever been just how deep and how real our feelings ran. Life had been a curious thing long before Holmes or I passed into it, and would remain so long after we left. But in that little volume in my hand, we would remain, in all our mutual oddity, the quirks and strangenesses of our partnership set down where even Death and Time could not erase them. And for that one moment, just the one, wrapped in Holmes's embrace and with his heart on the pages in my hand, I felt that we ourselves had become immortal, for that which is made perfect cannot change.