It shouldn't have come upon us there, on the cliffs in the fresh air. The wind whipped at our hats and coats, and the sea pounded the shore below us. But even so far from the cottage I could smell the lamp as it burned. It was a wholesome, familiar smell that turned rancid as the heat ignited the powder and the poison filled our lungs. Beside me Watson held onto my arm, so trusting, so determined. How I had failed him. How I would fail him again.
I felt at first as though I was falling, and the roar of the Reichenbach overwhelmed the distant rhythmic crash of the Celtic sea. Watson was walking away from me now, and in his place stepped Moriarty, his leering, grinning face filling my vision. He grabbed me, and his hands were like iron bands on my arms. He had never been this strong, I thought wildly. I had beaten him. What was wrong with me now? My limbs refused to answer, and instead I was pushed inevitably toward the edge of the cliff.
The cold mist rising out of the cauldron of the waterfall began to take form, spindly-limbed creatures crawling up from the depths. Their open mouths hissed with the sound of rushing water, and their freezing grip upon my ankles was even stronger than the skeletal hands of the Professor.
Then somehow I was free, making my way down the slippery rocks away from the edge, though still pursued by the demons in the mist. I couldn't run; I knew I would fall. I could stay only a few steps ahead of them, whatever they were, though my pounding heart choked me and my feet slipped upon the path.
I found the door just in time, and the key on my ring fit the lock. When I slammed it shut behind me, I stood in the hall at Baker Street, the lamps newly lit and carpet soft under my feet. The staircase stretched up into the darkness above me, much longer than seventeen steps, but I knew Watson was waiting for me. He didn't know I was alive. Surely he had moved out since my absence, but no— he was there, above me in the sitting room that had once been my consulting room and now was his. He would be so happy to see me.
When I stepped into the sitting room, all the furniture had been rearranged. The settee was by the window; the breakfast table by the fireplace. My desk with all its chemical equipment was gone. A sense of dread began to creep in around the edges of my awareness once more, and behind me, in the hall, the wet hissing of the mist returned. I was cold. I wasn't wearing my jacket or my shoes anymore. A strange, familiar smell caught my attention, and I looked up.
It was blood. Blood ran down the walls and saturated the wallpaper. Blood began to seep under the carpet. I stood barefoot in my shirtsleeves watching it pool along the baseboard, and Watson stepped up beside me and said in my ear, "We're going to have to get an exterminator."
When I turned to look at him, ostensibly to remark that an exterminator might not solve this unusual problem, the sight of his face turned my stomach. He was milk-pale and waxy, his eyes sunken and his lips cracked, and I knew without a doubt that it was his blood that now adorned our Persian rugs.
He turned his placid gaze upon me, his blue eyes hollow and dull. He was dressed in his old army uniform— the sight of which usually pleased me, since it was his discharge that had brought us together— and when he opened his mouth again to make some pawky remark, black blood poured down his chin. He reached for me, stiff fingers brushing against my chest, and I stumbled backwards away from him.
"Holmes?" he asked, confused, hurt, blood bubbling between his lips.
"I can't," I said, holding out my cigarette case to him, "I can't. I have to go. You're not safe with me."
"Stay," he begged. "Holmes, please stay. Holmes!"
Distantly I heard him calling for me, his anguished voice ringing off the Swiss cliffs, drowned out by the noise of the falls.
I awoke with a jolt, my heart racing and my skin clammy. The smell of blood was in my nose, and I rolled to the side and gagged, covering my mouth with both hands. The nausea subsided as consciousness returned, but I trembled as I sat up, footsteps ringing in my ears. I took a few deep breaths. I was not under threat. I was not being followed. I was safe, alone, at home. No Moriarty pursued me. No demon dogged my heels.
I threw off my blankets and got out of bed. Sleep would not make another appearance tonight. My nightshirt was damp with sweat, and the air was chilly. I pulled on my dressing gown and went out into the dark sitting room.
The clock read half past three. In the streets, the lamps glowed unwaveringly, illuminating the empty pavement. In the stillness, I could almost hear their electric hum. My violin lay where I had left it on the breakfast table, and its wood was a warm comfort under my hands. I held it against my chest with both hands and plucked gently at the strings, building chords.
Even in my familiar surroundings, the sensation of being watched prickled up the back of my neck, and I felt my spine stiffening as I grew more and more irrationally afraid of turning around, certain that there was someone behind me.
Finally I grasped at the tails of my courage and asked, "Watson?" My voice was barely above a whisper.
There was no answer. There was no sound at all. I turned: the hall door was securely closed, as it had been when I'd gone to bed hours before.
I lit the lamp beside my armchair and picked up my bow. My Watson had slept through longer concerts.
"You were up again last night," Watson said to me in the morning, over a breakfast I barely touched.
I glanced at him. He was hale and healthy and full of colour, his shirt and jacket pristine and neatly pressed, his moustache combed and trimmed. "Your observational skills are, as ever, impeccable."
"Holmes, you haven't slept a full night since we came back from Cornwall," he went on, the medical professional in him coming to the fore. "Something's the matter, isn't it?"
"Nothing's the matter," I said. My cup of coffee barely shook in my hands.
"You need to get out of the house," Watson said, wiping his mouth with his napkin and putting it down decisively. "We'll go for a walk this afternoon, if the rain clears up."
I shrugged. I doubted that was going to help matters. My mind had to work its own way through the darkness, and that was only going to take time.
The walk was, nevertheless, rather pleasant, with Watson on my arm and the watery sunlight giving hope to the citizens of London. March had given way to April, and the flowers in Regent's Park were beginning to poke green shoots out of the cold, soggy ground. Trees were budding and the birds were singing, and for a few hours I was able to forget my sleepless nights. Watson was in high spirits, although perhaps he was putting on airs for my sake. I half-listened to his thoughts on the recent addition of several types of birds to the Wild Birds Protection Act. He was in favour, and thought it rather late in coming. I had no opinion whatsoever on the matter, having never considered killing a bird except a pheasant or a quail, and even then only in the 60's at the explicit demand of my father.
He sat up late with me that evening, perhaps trying to outlast me, but by midnight he was nodding in his armchair.
"Watson," I murmured, touching his shoulder. "Go to bed, old boy."
"Call me if you need anything," he said as he went up the stairs. "Holmes, I am in earnest."
"Of course," I said, waving him away. "Goodnight."
I worked at my desk for another hour until, drooping over a useless experiment, I finally admitted defeat. I knew what waited for me in the land of dreams, but I thought perhaps, if exhausted, I might sleep without visiting it.
I knew exactly where the nightmares were coming from. We'd been home barely a week from our holiday, and already I was slipping back into the state of nervous exhaustion that had sent us out of London in the first place. Not that I would admit it to him, but Watson had been right in advising me not to take the Tregennis case.
Perhaps the drug still lingered in my system. Watson did not appear to affected, though he had been farther from the combustion and closer to the open door. As ever, I endangered our lives and he saved us. If he had not stayed with me, ill-advised though it was, I would be dead of terror and miscalculation.
I would be dead, and Watson would be once more alone.
Even lying in bed with the light out, I fought the pull of sleep. I should feel comfortable in my own rooms again; I should feel safe. Watson was less than fifteen feet away, above me, and a shout would bring him running. Mrs Hudson was our most trustworthy gatekeeper, and no thing or person had ever entered the house without her knowledge. Even Billy and Jenny, who slept on cots by the kitchen fire, would fight to protect me. And yet nothing they did would keep me from my own mind.
The dream began as the others had, but by the time I recognised it I was too deeply asleep to extract myself. The Cornish countryside stretched out before me: crags and rocks and endless grass, the wind pulling at my coat, the sound of the surf all around me. This time the dream was not so graphic. There was no pouring blood, no crawling of demons out of the mist, no Professor Moriarty. But nor could I find John Watson. I looked around every corner, behind every stand of rocks thrust out of the ground, always with the sensation of running out of time. I hurried along the path toward our little white cottage and could never seem to reach it. I had to find him, to warn him about something, but he was utterly gone.
I began to shout for him, but my words were torn away by the wind. I clung to the edges of my coat and shouted myself hoarse, until all at once I woke myself up with the ragged, half-formed sound of his name.
I was sweating, and crying, and shaking to pieces. My face was wet and the pillow beneath my head already damp. I couldn't hold the match to light the lamp, and soon I fell back into bed, trembling and unhinged, comforting myself with the notion that there was no one present to see my shame.
Then came the tap on the door. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
"Holmes?" Watson called softly, his hand on the doorknob. "I'm coming in."
"No," I said, but not loud enough. He opened the door and slipped inside, closing it behind him. He was wrapped in his dressing gown, his hair all askew, and he hovered for a moment by the side of my bed before sitting down boldly upon it.
"Holmes," said he, reaching out to touch my shoulder. I flinched away, furious with myself, and rolled over so that my back was to him. "You're all right," he said softly, as if soothing a child. "You're all right, my dear fellow."
"Oh, get out, will you?" I croaked.
Watson squeezed my shoulder— the other one, now— and stood up. The moment his weight and warmth left the bed I regretted it. I put my forearm over my face to hide the new, entirely irrational wave of emotion.
He said nothing as he left the room but I could hear him out in the sitting room for a few minutes. Light glowed underneath the door. It stayed on as finally I listened to his soft, slightly-uneven footsteps going back up the stairs. By then I had come to my senses and could rise from bed and see what he'd been up to.
The lamp on the table was burning low, and a glass with two fingers of brandy in it stood nearby. My pipe and the Persian slipper, both of which usually resided on the mantle, were lying on the table together as well. There was no fire in the grate, but a blanket had pulled out of the chest and draped over the back of my armchair.
I pressed my lips together hard, steadied myself, and crossed the room to down the brandy in one gulp. It burned the back of my throat, but at least that distracted me from the rest of my trials.
With steadier hands I lit my pipe and wrapped myself in the blanket. The bed upstairs creaked as Watson turned over. Now he was as restless as I, and I was to blame for that.
I determined to be quiet this time. The tobacco would keep me occupied, and Watson would be able to go back to sleep. One of us, at least, I thought, ought to function in the light of day.
His armchair was more welcoming than mine. It was better padded and leaned back a little more (the reason he was able to nap in it so often at a moment's notice), and I curled myself up in it , tucking my feet underneath the edge of the blanket and cocooning myself securely. I could smell him in its cushions: sandalwood and tobacco and Mrs Hudson's lavender soap. I found myself pressing my face against the back to breathe it in deeply. For a moment I heard his voice again: "You're all right."
Lapses of my self-control such as this were becoming more frequent, and I knew something had to be done. I had always harboured an affection for John Watson, but since my return from three years abroad— and his overwhelming mix of fury, relief, and joy that was my reception— it was getting more and more difficult to bottle it up. He had changed while I'd been away, had suffered from my loss and the loss of his wife, and sometimes I caught him gazing at me with a peculiar, troubled look on his face. It always disappeared the moment he knew he was being watched, replaced by a gentle, genuine smile, but some shadow of guilt remained in the crinkle of his eyes and the quirk of his mouth.
Something had to be done. We could very easily circle each other forever, going about our daily lives without acknowledging the kernel of feeling between us. But my body remembered being dragged from the cottage in Cornwall, and my consciousness remembered his expression as I came 'round. And then there were these dreams.
Watson might call me a calculating machine, but I am no fool. I knew where the fear I felt came from. I was afraid of losing him, as he had lost me. I worried about getting him hurt and not being able to help him. Most unwarranted and least-often acknowledged, I feared he might choose to leave me; a sound choice, in many respects. I needed him by my side, Cornwall had proven that. But whether I would ever be able to articulate that need was quite another matter.
I awoke once more to the sound of the sitting room door being opened, and the curious tread of slippered feet. I jerked upright, caught in flagrante, asleep in Watson's chair. It was the man himself who regarded me fondly over the back of the chair, and came around in front of the cold fireplace before I could get up.
"I didn't mean to wake you," said he. "I suppose the brandy helped after all."
"I suppose so," I muttered, uncoiling, my bare feet slipping out from beneath the blanket.
"Do you feel like eating?"
"What's the time?"
"Half past six."
"You're up early." He warned me when we'd first started sharing digs that he was extremely lazy, which was, of course, a tremendous lie, but he never gets up before eight if he can manage it. I am usually the cause of the unwelcome early arisings.
Watson shrugged. "I was worried about you."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," I scoffed. "It's a bout of insomnia, Doctor; I'm sure you've encountered it before, even in your resident patient."
He raised an eyebrow at me. "Your insomnia usually has a more manic element to it: you're up for days at full steam until you solve the case and crash. You're trying to sleep now and it's not doing you any good."
"Watson," I said, caught between irritation and flattery that he paid such attention to my sleep patterns, "there is nothing wrong."
The look in his eyes told me he saw right through that lie, but he let the matter drop. Only for the time being, I guessed.
I needed to exhaust myself, push my body to its limit in an attempt to quiet my brain. Outside the window, the daylight was just beginning to show the streets, though its efforts were thwarted by the dense fog that had gathered overnight. Gorgeous. There wouldn't be any news made today: no crimes, no mysteries, no strange happenings. The fog made people cautious, and boring, and hateful.
"I'm going out," I announced, getting up from the chair and wrapping the blanket around my shoulders.
Watson had just opened the sitting room door again, presumably to shock our landlady with his early rising. "What, now?"
"After breakfast, if you insist."
"I do insist."
"Very well, then." And I breezed, very deliberately, into my bedroom to get dressed.
When I re-emerged, breakfast had been laid upon the table. Though Mrs Hudson had not had much warning, she was, as always, a resourceful woman, and had provided us with porridge, eggs, toast, and rashers. Watson served me a plate half as full as his, and of that I only ate half again. It wouldn't do to overload my stomach before the kind of exertion I had planned.
"You're going to the ring, I presume," Watson said, as I pushed the food around.
I glanced up at him, surprised.
He smiled a wry half-smile. "You only wear that shirt when you're going to the ring."
It was my oldest shirt. I plucked self-consciously at the collar. "Yes," said I.
"Well, I'll be here to patch you up when you get back." He sat back from his plate with a sigh. "Don't get yourself knocked unconscious so that I have to come pick you up in a cart."
"That was one time," I protested. "Ages ago."
"Well, it was terrifying, so you'll forgive me if I don't care to repeat it."
I blinked at him. He shrugged one shoulder. He was still in his nightshirt and dressing gown, and for a moment I glimpsed an infrequently-visible sliver of his collarbone. My favourite freckle was just below it, in the subclavian hollow above his old scar.
"Fair enough," I said finally.
The ring was not so formal as Watson made it sound, but it was the one I preferred over all the others. It was set up in the empty room of a tavern in the Strand, only between the hours of eight and three. They strung a rope between the pillars and spread sawdust on the floor to soak up the blood, and a man could fight until he stopped winning. To an outside it might have sounded like a disgusting, dangerous, immoral place to spend time, but I found it cathartic. I'd learned to box at school and used my skills a few significant times during University; it was here that I really learned to fight.
Watson used to come with me sometimes, to drink a pint and bet on the likelihood that I'd put other men on the floor. He would always leave a little tipsy and a little richer. It had been nearly ten years since I'd basked in the glow of his pride.
I was not as young as I once was, and they were mighty surprised to see me at the door.
"Well, Mr Scott," said the barman when he caught sight of me, "it has been a while."
"I've been away," I said, taking off my coat.
"So you have." He gave me a smile. He knew exactly who I was. He'd always known.
"I just need to let off a little steam."
"Well, be sure to warm up, Mr Scott," the barman warned. "I think you'll find the lads a little more spry than you're used to."
I gave him a cold look but it dissolved quickly into a crooked smile. He smiled back, and I went to hang my coat on the wall.
He was right. I was in my forties now, and though I was still reasonably healthy and fit enough to chase a man across a heath, I was well out of practice in boxing, and I had more lingering aches and pains that made themselves known as I took my place in the ring. But I won my first match, and I kept winning, even though I sweated and bled and could feel the bruises forming. I split my lip on a twenty-five-year-old's knuckle and my knuckles on the same man's jaw. I felt my ribs creak under the force of blow from a man ten years my senior, and he grinned at me as I bit back my cry of euphoric pain. I fought until I was gasping for breath, barely able to lift my hands to protect my face, and the barman and the crowd of boxers that had gathered to watch me stand my ground began to heckle me to give it up. I shook my head, sucking blood from my lip, but then there came a fellow who was nearly eighteen stone and almost seven feet tall. He ducked under the rope and looked me up and down with a raised eyebrow.
"What's your name, friend?" I asked, taking a step to the side to get a better look at him.
"Jack," he rumbled. "Jack Mason." He was thirty at the most, with battered ears and small, narrowed eyes, and he had just stepped in the door not ten minutes ago. He was fresh, clean, and ready to pummel me into the floorboards.
I stood up straight and let my arms drop. "Well, Mr Jack Mason, I concede the floor."
There was a ripple of laughter, and Jack Mason actually looked a bit disappointed. "Mr Scott," he protested, his voice like a rockslide in Switzerland, "It would be an honour to fight you, sir."
"In that case, Mr Mason, I suggest you come earlier next time, before I've had my bones rattled by eight or ten other gents."
That got another laugh, and I grinned at Jack Mason. He bowed his head in acknowledgement, one palm open and extended, and I slipped underneath the rope.
At the very least, I had succeeded in my attempt to exhaust myself. And I was starving. It was just after noon. Watson would be so pleased. I pulled on my trousers and my shirt, still sweating, and draped my coat over my shoulders. Once outside in the chilly spring fog, I pulled it on properly and began my walk home.
Watson was not so pleased. He took one look at me and rolled his eyes heavenward. He got up from his chair and went out of the sitting room without speaking to me, instead calling down the stairs for hot and cold water and clean towels.
"Something to eat, too," I said.
He shouted for lunch as well.
"Sit down," he said, pointing at the settee. I sat, and he took my coat from me. "Shirt off."
I had cooled down on my walk, and the stiffness was beginning to set in. I struggled to get buttons undone and then the shirt down my arms, until he sighed deeply and took the lapels from me. If I had a shilling every time Watson had grudgingly undressed me, I might have a whole half-crown.
The water and towels arrived, along with Mrs Hudson's opinion on getting myself beaten up as stress-relief. Watson shooed her out again, asking again for lunch, and then turned to me.
"You look like hell," he said, sitting down beside me and drawing the hot water into his lap. I sat still while he wiped the blood off my face and hands and took in the state of my torso. "You're going to an awful lot of trouble."
"For some kind of release." He was touching my face when he said it, and he had lowered his voice, and it sent a shiver down my spine. He felt it.
"I needed something purely physical," I replied hotly. He met my gaze. He has spent some time describing my eyes, but none at all on his own. They are blue and grey, like the ocean, and can turn just as stormy. Now they were clear and calm, a summer's day, and I felt for a moment as though I were drowning in them.
"This is about Cornwall, isn't it," he said. It wasn't a question.
"Oh for heaven's sake," I said, pulling away. "Why must you always make everything about you?"
"I said Cornwall, Holmes," Watson protested, forcefully switching dishes, and slapped a cold compress onto my aching side.
I yelped and scowled at him, but I covered his hands with mine to keep the compress in place. "Well, you were in Cornwall with me," I muttered. "You insisted we go to Cornwall."
He glared at me and covered my left eye with another cold towel. I hissed through my teeth as it came in contact with the tender swelling of my cheekbone.
"Is the fighting to remind yourself of your intense manliness?" he asked. "I would never have expected you, of all people, to hold that in such high esteem."
I sneered. "Since I can no longer inject myself with recreational substances, I have to find the recreation somewhere else. I find the thrill of a fight makes a nice substitute for cocaine."
Watson bared his teeth at me and took my hand roughly to cover the scrapes with Vaseline and bandage them. "So good to know you're always looking for ways to harm yourself," he said.
"You should have seen the chap I finally conceded to. I'll have you know I made an excellent decision this morning, Doctor."
Lunch arrived, just as we were really getting our footing on a promising row. I watched Watson bite back another remark. He finished binding my hand in silence, and then turned away from me, while I sat still shirtless on the settee, in favor of a cheese sandwich. Damn him.
I got dressed again and we ignored one another pointedly for the rest of the afternoon. I found some occupation in updating my scrap book. It particularly annoyed Watson when I began to cut up the most recent paper— that very day's— for sorting and pasting, so I did exactly that. When he picked it up and found a hole in the middle of the first page that made reading the second difficult, he folded it up again and slapped it down on the table beside me, but said nothing.
Every so often I felt him eyes upon me, but whenever I looked up he was absorbed in something else. It began to prickle under my skin, despite the exertion of the morning, and by suppertime I was sore, bruised, and spoiling for another fight.
Watson saw it coming and managed to head me off with a quiet, not-entirely apologetic offer to see to my injuries again. I deflated at once, the ache in my ribs winning out over the undirected desire to cause harm. It wasn't he whom I was aggravated with, anyway.
With new ice on my bruises and salve on my knuckles I quieted, and ignored supper in favor of my pipe and an extended period of staring into the fire. Watson hovered for a few more hours, as if I were a patient that needed constant supervision, but his attention was no longer so irritating as it had been. I was tired, drifting on the wings of my physical exhaustion, and I was actually looking forward to going to bed.
"Holmes," Watson said softly, just after nine. "You look like you're going to fall asleep right there. As much as I hate to disrupt the process at this point, I think you'll be much happier out of your trousers and in bed."
Out of my trousers and in bed indeed, thought I, climbing to my feet. I mumbled thanks and left him behind.
The bed was welcoming, for once, and I shucked my trousers and crawled under the blankets in my shirt and drawers. That was enough. I burrowed my head into the pillows and drifted, on the edge of sleep.
But every time I would start to dip into a deeper slumber, my body, perhaps remembering the discomfort of the last few nights, would twitch and wake me again. I kept my eyes resolutely closed, growing more and more tense as the night went on. I heard Mrs Hudson and Watson talking softly in the other room. Later I heard Watson tidy up and mount the stair. A little later, the house was silent, and the only sound was the occasional rattle of a carriage in the street, the sitting room clock ticking, and the unrelenting rush of the blood in my veins.
The ticking seemed to grow louder the longer I was aware of it, and covering my head with my pillow scarcely helped. I turned over and over in bed, trying to find the position that would finally let me sleep. I thought of pleasant things: of grassy meadows and serene lakes, of small countryside towns and of spacious city parks, but the sinister element of each of them made itself known to me. Meadows might be full of bodies. Glassy lakes could drag a man under. Little towns were full of ancient grudges, and city parks were the sites of as much foul play as any winding alleyway.
This was why I never used to bother to try and sleep. My work was always with me, seeping in around the edges no matter what I did.
Watson was there to keep it at bay. I imagined Watson standing beside me, regarding these supposedly beautiful places. In my mind, he shifted his walking stick on the path and sniffed, glancing at me with half-hidden amusement. Some thoughtful remark was on the tip of his tongue, I just knew it. But as I turned toward him to encourage its vocalization, his face changed. It became thoughtful, and then he lifted his hand to touch my cheek, drew me in gently with the pressure of his fingers, and kissed me, sweetly and chastely, on the mouth.
I shouldn't imagine my Watson this way, I knew that, but I no longer had any control over my mind. The dream had come at last. It was windy and he was wearing his gloves, the leather smooth and warm against my cheek. I covered my hand with his and returned his hesitant kiss with a surer one of my own. Then we were embracing on the top of this unknown hill, our coats rippling and our hat brims bumping.
The dream changed, and we sat at the breakfast table at Baker Street. Watson fed me with his fingers, and I thought if this were the way he chose to make me eat I would not object so much. He was smiling at me, placing each morsel between my lips and dragging the pad of his finger against my teeth, and I felt the bloom of arousal deep in my gut.
Another shift, and we were hurrying through the halls of Scotland Yard, trying to find a quiet corner and a moment's respite for a liaison. I held Watson's hand tightly, dragging him along, knowing there were Yarders around this corner or that, or just behind us, consumed with the need to feel him against me, here, now. I was caught between desire and frustration, when a door opened under my hand and I stepped back into my own bedroom.
Watson was already there, clearly nude, under the quilts. For a moment I thought perhaps the dream would come to fruition (and, God, it had been a long time since I'd had a dream like this), but then I saw the figure bending over him. His arm, outstretched towards me on the bed, was pale and still.
"Get away," I said, or tried to say, but my voice was muffled. I tried again and only succeeded in a mumbled protestation. The figure, nevertheless, heard me, and lifted its face. It was as white as the moon, with huge, staring eyes, and its mouth dripped with blood.
"Get away!" I said again, starting towards it, and the figure hissed wetly and drew its cloak up to half-shield its face. Almost at once, it vanished into the darkness of the room.
I climbed onto the bed, frantic, grasping for Watson's wrist and feeling for a pulse. But I had come too late, and he was already dead.
That horrible novel, I thought as I awoke, furious. I threw off my blankets and staggered across the room. I wouldn't go out into the sitting room; Watson would hear me and know. Instead I wrapped myself in my dressing room and sat down on the floor in front of the fire, determined to coax it back to life. There was coal in the scuttle that blackened my fingers, but it gave into my ministrations and my shivering gradually subsided.
Watson had been reading that trash just the other day. He'd read me a passage when I teased him about it, and later I'd peeked between the pages for a bit more. Just enough of it had stuck, it seemed. I thought about the boxes and boxes of earth.
I ached for my violin. It was out in the sitting room.
For the first time in a long time, I found myself with my fingers on the inside of my elbow, considering a dose of morphine. It might calm me, though the sleep it might bring would never be restorative. It was too early yet to go to a chemist. Perhaps Watson could be persuaded— no, he never would stand by again while I dosed myself, let alone provide the substance, as he called it, of my destruction.
Vampires. How ridiculous. I really was beginning to lose my mind.
It was several hours before I heard Watson moving once more upstairs, and half an hour again before he came downstairs. He had washed and dressed, and was no doubt closely shaven and ready to face the day. I wondered if he had patients to see. I wondered what his smooth cheek would feel like under my hand.
Watson received the post and the paper, and optimistically requested breakfast for two. He and Mrs Hudson held a whispered conversation about the state of my health, most of which I could hear. I thought about hiding a while longer, perhaps trying to go back to sleep now that dawn had broken and morning sunlight shone in around the edges of my curtains. Maybe it was the dark of night that treated me so ill.
I got up and opened my door.
"Oh, my dear fellow," Watson said, getting up at once from his armchair. The paper fell forgotten by the side of the chair, and he reached for me, both hands outstretched. I stepped towards him without thinking, and in a moment I was enfolded in his arms, my head tucked into the warm crook of his neck. He rubbed his palm up and down the length of my spine and held me tightly against him.
"Will you tell me—?" he asked, but I shook my head sharply. This lapse was too much. I had to separate myself from him at once.
I didn't. I allowed myself to be held for a few moments more, feeling the beat of his heart against mine. There came the slightest increase in pressure of his cheek against my hair, and then he slowly let me go.
I stepped away feeling warmer, and at the same time a chill came over me. I blinked stupidly at him, my brain all fogged with exhaustion and frustration.
"I have two patients to see this morning," Watson said, straightening his collar. "And I will stop off at the chemist for you."
I stared at him. "I beg your pardon?" The inside of my arm began to itch.
He had turned away to the breakfast table and he didn't see the stiffness in my spine. "I think chloral hydrate may help you sleep."
Oh. I deflated a bit and rubbed my hand across my eyes. "Very well," said I. "I submit myself to your professional expertise."
Watson sat down at the table and smiled ruefully up at me. "I wish you'd…"
"I wish you'd try to eat," he said, which was not what he'd meant to say. "I don't like to be fighting a battle for your health on two fronts."
"Do you want the paper?" I asked. "You tossed it aside a moment ago."
He sighed. "Yes, please."
I handed it over and sat down, and when breakfast turned up I picked at it, putting it into my mouth despite the tightness in my stomach and the pounding in my head. I felt a little better after, and my violin in my hands was another comfort. I curled myself up at one end of the settee and plucked at it while Watson prepared to leave. I watched listlessly as he put on his jacket and buttoned up his coat, tucked his stethoscope into his hat, and picked up his bag.
"I won't be long," he promised, one hand on the doorknob.
I stopped my scales long enough to wave him away.
Mrs Hudson came back for the breakfast tray, but came over to me first to lay a cool, gentle hand on my forehead and cluck over my ill appearance.
"I'm fine," I protested, but neither of us believed it.
I listened to her depart and considered the abandoned work on my desk. I could barely focus; actually working was out of the question. I wondered if spontaneous combustion was really possible. I scrubbed a hand across my face. Watson would be gone for hours yet; there was nothing to keep me sane.
I put the violin aside and got up to open the sitting room door. I could hear Mrs Hudson downstairs in the kitchen, laughing with Jenny. They were unlikely to come looking for me. The second stair up to Watson's room creaked; out of habit, I stepped over it.
Watson's bedroom was a familiar space to me, not for the reasons I might have wished, but rarely did I go in when he wasn't there. It looked strange in the morning light, unoccupied and utterly silent.
The windows in Watson's room faced eastwards onto Baker Street, and the sun sent light spilling across the carpet. His bed was neatly made, its corners sharp and its pillow smooth and flat. His shaving kit was still laid out across his bureau, but it was carefully arranged. I dipped my fingers into the bowl of cool water that stood beside the kit and wiped them dry on my neck, anointing myself with the smell of lavender soap. His cufflinks and collar studs were stored in a shallow bowl on the bureau, and I sifted through them, thinking of the various occasions on which I had seen him wear each set.
The books in the bookcase beside his bed were arranged neatly by subject and title. The top shelves held an array of yellow-backed novels and the lower shelves were packed tightly with medical texts and journals. The bottom shelf was absolutely stuffed full with marbled notebooks, each of them labeled with dates. These, of course, were his records of our cases. He had already published dozens of them, but there were hundreds here. I ran my fingers along their spines. I remembered every single one. Not only did I draw upon my old cases to solve new ones, but every time Watson had been at my side was vitally important, and I had found that my brain attic could expand to accommodate details of his presence.
Over Watson's bed hung a few portraits that I usually paid no attention to. Here, in an oval frame, was a photograph of his late wife when she was young in India, looking pale and exotic against the Oriental background. Beside it hung a picture of Doctor and Mrs Watson arm in arm on their wedding day: Watson in a handsome suit and Mary in her elegantly simple white dress, outside the church where they’d been married. The sun shone on them, and the joy in their faces was unmistakable.
Then, beside that, was a photograph of the two of us, taken shortly before my unplanned sojourn around Europe. My fame had been on the rise, thanks to Watson, and we had been photographed for the newspaper. I had fought the notion for weeks, refusing to be interviewed, refusing to be photographed, insisting that once photographed I would be recognisable in ways that even his impertinent illustrator couldn't manage. But now, looking at it, I was pleased to have finally given in.
In the photo, I was seated in an overstuffed armchair with one leg crossed over the other, leaning back, my hands resting in my lap. I didn't look like the keen detective I was meant to be, and I was glad for that. I looked positively casual. There was a potted plant on my righthand side, and on my left stood Watson, upright, straight as a rod, his military history in every line of his body. He didn't need to be wearing his uniform to give that impression. His left hand was behind his back but right hand rested upon my shoulder, and even now I could feel its pressure. There was an air of smugness in his expression, a secret smile that was usually reserved only for me.
I knelt on the bed to give it a closer look, to peer into the eyes of my photographed Doctor, to inspect my own angular face, nearly ten years younger. Then, frowning, I glanced again at the wedding photograph.
He was wearing the same bloody suit in both.
I sank down against the headboard, considering the photographs. Then I shifted again, laying full length along the bed, on top of the quilts with my head on Watson's pillow, staring at them. His scent surrounded me, as it had only an hour ago. There were a few times, in my recollection, that we had clung to one another in moments of distress or danger, but all throughout our lengthy friendship I could not remember an embrace like the one he had offered me downstairs. Not even after I had come back to life.
But he had fainted at the time, so perhaps I had to let him be for that one. I certainly hadn't initiated. I didn't know how.
The house was quiet, and the sun moved imperceptibly across the carpet. Watson promised to be home before lunch; I had to make myself scarce before he returned. I'd need to straighten out the quilts again, refluff the pillow. I rolled onto my side, burying my face in said pillow and inhaling deeply.
When I awoke, the first thing I was aware of was a heavy weight across my middle that kept me pinned quite securely to the bed. The next was the soft rush of warm breath against the back of my neck, and then the heat of the solid, familiar body behind mine. How he had become so familiar was beyond me; as far as I was aware we had never been in such close contact.
No, that was not entirely true. I had felt the press of his chest against my back on a few other occasions. All of them had involved early morning hours, close spaces, and dangerous criminals. Never before had I experienced this sensation with the full afternoon light shining across his soft feather bed, the smell of him all over me, and not a shred of danger threatening.
I opened my eyes, praying that full consciousness would not rob me of this feeling. It did not. Instead, I was treated to the sight of his arm draped across my ribs, and his broad hand curled loosely against my belly. When I inhaled, his fingers brushed against my buttons.
I couldn't allow myself to enjoy this for long, I thought. Any moment he would awaken, and we would both be utterly, wholly, completely in the wrong. What on earth had possessed me to get into his bed? And what, in God's name, had made him climb in with me? We had both lost our minds, that much was clear.
Watson stirred and I froze. My heart thundered just behind my hyoid bone, bringing my breath to a stop. It was over. I didn't want it to be over. I wanted to wake up like this a hundred more times— a thousand— ten thousand. I wanted to know what his face looked like at this moment. I'd seen him sleeping, but never sleeping with me.
His arm tightened on me briefly and I clenched my hand in the quilt.
"Holmes," Watson whispered. I felt him tip his forehead against the base of my skull. "My deepest apologies."
I found my voice, though it was no louder than his had been. "Whatever for?"
"I had not meant to fall asleep," he said sadly.
"I assure you," said I, "that I most definitely did."
He let out a huff of breath that might have been a laugh. Against my abdomen, his hand shifted, and it generated a pulse of heat that went straight through me.
"If I had thought my own bed would make a difference, I would have suggested it last week."
I cleared my throat and closed my eyes again. "I only came up with the idea this afternoon. Well, I conceived of it years ago, but it was only today that I felt I could get away with it."
There was a moment of silence that seemed to bore into the chambers of my heart, and then he said, "And yet."
I could feel the shallow rise and fall of his chest. He was nervous. By Jove, I was nervous. I'd never felt so nervous in my life. It felt so banal, compared to the unholy terror that had gripped my heart every night since we'd left Cornwall. This I could manage.
I released my grip on the quilt and slowly, so that I would not spook him, placed my hand over his own on my abdomen. He spread his fingers and one slipped between the buttons of my shirt. I was still wearing my vest underneath it, but neither shirt nor vest kept the heat of his hand from reaching my skin. Watson inhaled slowly, exhaled, and then I felt the lightest touch of warmth against the back of my neck.
He had kissed me.
I tipped my head forwards and the touch came again, firmer this time, more clearly the press of his lips. My heart was thundering in my chest, making me dizzy. I squeezed his hand and he kissed me once again. I could hear the soft, wet sound of his lips parting as he pulled away.
"Watson," I said.
He hummed an affirmative.
Another huff of laughter, and another kiss. Lightning was sparking down my spine, the tenderness of those kisses flooding my blood with desire. I wanted to turn over, to feel his mouth against mine, but the nape of my neck was so sensitive I thought I might die just from this.
His kisses deepened, his tongue flickering out to touch my skin and send another jolt through me. I had to turn over.
When I pulled out of his embrace, I caught a flash of fear on his face, but the moment I insinuated myself back under his arm it melted away, and he gathered me to him, chest to chest, heart beating against mine. I hooked my thigh over his hip and found him as eager as I was, and as embarrassed. He flushed red at the contact but his eyes were deep and dark with wanting. His lips were parted on panting breath, his mouth soft, and he smiled at my hesitation.
"Holmes," he said.
I kissed him. It was as warm and gentle as the kisses to the back of my neck had been, but it quickly turned more passionate, and the hand that had been on my belly slid up the centre of my spine, to hold me close as Watson opened my mouth and claimed it for his own.
I groaned aloud and it startled us both, but Watson flashed me a grin and kissed me again. I sank one hand into his thick hair and laid the other on his chest, fingering the buttons of his shirt and waistcoat.
His fingers, the ones not occupied with keeping me as close as possible so that he could kiss the breath out of me, touched my abdomen again and flirted with the string of my drawers.
I broke the kiss to press my forehead to his. "John."
It wasn't, perhaps, his original intention with regard to helping me sleep, but afterwards I sank back gratefully into restorative unconsciousness. When I awoke it was dark and dinner was on the table, and I actually felt like eating it.
It was a trap, of course.
Watson, who was no longer as disheveled as I'd left him, unfolded his napkin with a snap, served me a plateful of food, and leaned his joined hands on the table.
"Despite the, er, the development of this afternoon," he said, and I groaned in consternation around a mouthful of fish, "I am still concerned about your recent lack of sleep and its resulting health risks."
"Oh, Doctor," said I, "surely you noticed, the problem's been solved?"
"I doubt that," he said solemnly. "Your unease is clearly stemming from an emotional source, and I'm not such a fool as to believe that it doesn't have anything to do with Cornwall."
"Bloody Cornwall," I muttered. "Yes, all right? The poison was still in my system when we returned, and it has been affecting my dreams."
"I breathed the same air you did," he reminded me. "I admit I was a little unsettled our first night back, but I have not been… suffering the way you have."
He reached out to touch my hand, and after a moment I shifted it to link our fingers together. He turned a bit pink.
"Please," he said, more softly, "tell me, so that I may help you."
I started to shake my head, but the pressure of his thumb against mine stopped me. I had been given a gift this afternoon that I had never expected to have, and which sat before me with a furrowed brow and a slant to his lips which I had tasted. He'd told me things, in the depth of his kisses and the heat of his hands and the generosity of his lovemaking, that I had never let myself hope to hear from him.
"They were about you," I said. "I dreamt you were gone and I couldn't find you. I dreamt you were preyed upon by—" vampires, Sherlock Holmes, you ought to be ashamed of yourself— "my enemies, and I dreamt that you were dead. I dreamt that you had— had left, and there was nothing I could do to bring you back again."
Watson's expression was caught somewhere between flattered and distressed.
"Well," he said, after a moment, and drew back his hand to take up his fork, "I hope you'll allow me the opportunity to show you that your concerns are groundless."
A smile crept onto my face. I felt as though I could go straight back to bed right now, and for the first time in a week I didn't dread the notion.
“I look forward to the demonstration,” said I.