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All We Ought To Ask

Chapter Text

The trivial round, the common task
Would furnish all we ought to ask
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God. (John Keble, from ‘Morning’)

Worcestershire. June, 1860

John got down from the cart, ungracefully, leaning on his cane, stiff from the five-mile ride from the station. The carter, Dawson, passed his bags down and John fumbled in his pocket for a sixpence.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Good to have you here, Reverend,” said Dawson. “My cousin in the village, she keeps the Red Lion. Good ale, and hot food.”

“Thank you,” said John, raising an eyebrow slightly. “I will keep it in mind. And I’ll see you in church on Sunday, doubtless?”

“Yes, sir,” said Dawson, unconvincingly. He touched his hat, whistled to his horse, and set off, the cart rattling and clinking down the narrow road towards the cluster of houses visible about half a mile away.

John breathed deeply. After the smog and gloom of London and the noise and smoke of the train, the scent of fresh country air, grass and an edge of honeysuckle and manure, was astonishing. Gleams of sunshine broke through the clouds above, touching the hedgerows scattered with creamy hawthorn flowers, campion, stitchwort, purple vetch and buttercups. John named them to himself, half-surprised to find that he remembered: it had been a long time since he’d seen English wildflowers. Mary would delight in them, he thought. And now here he was. Rather than gazing out of the garrison or a tent at a dusty plain, his view from this small rise took in fields and farms, oak trees and a cluster of elms, a small pond a couple of fields away with three white ducks in it. And the church – his church – of course, on the opposite side of the lane, grey and solid with its squat medieval tower, yew trees and gravestones marked by white and yellow lichen. And on this side of the lane, the vicarage.

John picked up his two bags with some difficulty, opened the wooden gate and walked up the short path to his new front door. The house wasn’t large, but it was attractive, as far as he could judge such things, maybe fifty years old, weathered red brick and white-painted windows, with a lawn and well-kept flower-beds around it. He tried the front door, which opened. He hoped the servant had been in to make up the beds and the fires, not that he couldn’t take care of himself if needed. He’d have to get a live-in maid after his marriage, but for now he’d rather be on his own, when he could. If he woke up in the night, throat hoarse from screaming and believing himself to back in the hell of the Mutiny, there would be no-one to hear him. By spring, I will be better, with God’s help, he told himself firmly, not for the first time since his return.

He glanced into the small drawing-room and noted that the fire was set. He’d need some more furniture – or maybe Mary would prefer to choose some, later – the room was a comfortable space, but sparsely furnished with an elderly sofa and armchairs and a faded Turkey carpet. The dining-room, across the hall, had a decent table and chairs. There were two covered plates on the table, a carafe of wine and a place set. John lifted the covers and found a plate of cold meats and fresh lettuce and some crusty bread and fresh butter, and his estimation of the service he could expect rose, hopefully. He took a piece of bread and ate it as he explored.

The back of the ground floor was a morning room, clearly used as a study by the previous occupant. John eyed the empty bookshelves that lined the room ruefully. After five years service overseas, his belongings were all in the bags he’d brought with him, and the number of books he owned currently numbered fewer than ten. He’d need to stock up: there would be a stationer in the village, perhaps. He looked into the kitchen and pantry briefly, and then went upstairs. Four bedrooms, the smallest clearly intended for a servant. Or a nursery-maid. The front bedroom would be his. His and Mary’s, eventually, he thought, disbelieving. It had a high, old-fashioned bed and the window let in a draught, but the fire was laid here too and the bed-linen was clean and scented with lavender. John set down one of his travelling bags on the bed and sighed. He took out the Bible that been his father’s and his prayer-book, and the copy of the Christian Year Mary had given him, five years ago, with its inscription, “To my dearest John. From your Mary” – all faded and worn with use, the spines cracked and some of the pages torn, Indian dust marking the pages. He set them on the bedside table, carefully, and then stood a moment.

Birds called in the trees outside, and there was the distant lowing of some cows, but otherwise all was silent. To John, used to the noise of London and before that, the cheerful and frantic bustle of a garrison full of soldiers, the quiet was oppressive. He laid his hands on his books and thought about how far they’d come, by land and sea and rail. He’d spent most of his life running away from precisely this scenario, and now here he was. He thought of the men he’d served, his men, how they would have laughed to see their grizzled, tanned army chaplain, a great deal more famous for his skill with the musket than his skill in giving sermons, settled as an archetypal English pastor. A cripple, confined to the daily round and common task. Or maybe they would have been envious. Wasn’t this most men’s fantasy, the peaceful country life, church and village and home, all carrying on as it had done for hundreds of years, barely touched by the currents of Reform and the iron rails of progress, let alone the brutality committed for and against England in her far-flung territories?

John closed his mind against these uncharitable thoughts. He knelt by the bed, shut his eyes, and prayed fiercely for humility, that he might learn gratitude and acceptance, that he might be worthy of his new calling, whatever challenges it might bring. It took a long time, but eventually a measure of peace descended on him, and he stood up refreshed.

After his meal, fires lit and the remainder of his bags unpacked and neatly put away, John was sitting on the bench by the front door, smoking his pipe and watching the sunset, when he heard and saw a horse and rider approaching along the lane. He narrowed his eyes – something about the rider’s gait was familiar. The horse drew up at his gate, its stout rider dismounting with a huff, clerical dress and an old-fashioned wideawake hat, and John was sure. He put out his pipe, lifted his cane and walked to greet him.

“Watson, my old friend,” said Stamford, smiling.

“You look just the same,” said John, shaking his hand. He tried not to be self-conscious.

“Apart from this,” said Stamford, patting his stomach, ruefully. “Not much rowing for me here. You’re as slim as you were in college.”

“I had the fever,” said John. “After I was – “ he gestured to his leg. The worse injury was the bayonet wound to his shoulder, of course, but it was less immediately visible.

“Mmm,” said Stamford. “We were sorry to hear of it. But, well, it was a fortunate chance that brought you here. The village is all agog to have a war hero in their midst. Your predecessor – I don’t wish to speak ill of a fellow colleague in the good fight, but he was perhaps a little elderly, a little behind the times. The dissenters brought in a thrusting young fellow and he’s been drawing the villagers into the new chapel. Not a bad sort, Vincent, for that type, you’ll doubtless come across him.” He took a handkerchief and mopped his brow.

“Will you come in and take some wine?” said John. “The housekeeper left some, and I saw some bottles in the pantry.”

“Thank you, but I must be on my way home or my wife will be anxious,” said Stamford. “I came over to invite you to dinner on Saturday, with the Archdeacon. He’s staying with us on the Saturday night before reading you in on Sunday. Will you be able to find Witley parsonage? It’s about five miles from here, but the roads are moderately good. Someone in the village could drive you, perhaps?”

“I bought my predecessor’s horse,” said John, a little stiffly, sensing a delicacy on the subject of his injured leg. “It’s stabled in the village at present, I believe. Or I can walk.”

“Excellent,” said Stamford warmly. “My wife will be delighted to meet you, she’s heard all the stories of our Oxford days. Come in the afternoon, you can meet my brood. Six of them, can you believe it.” He chuckled, proud.

John tried to look impressed.

“Well, good to see you. How the years, pass, eh? We’ll catch up properly on Saturday. Hope you settle in, and give my best to your mother when you write.” Stamford turned to his horse and pulled himself up, smiling down at John as he patted its neck.

“I will do,” said John. “Thank you for stopping by.”

“My pleasure,” said Stamford, and he trotted off, footsteps receding. John watched him go, silence and twilight closing in again, and then went inside, to sit by his fire and compose the necessary letters to Mary and his mother and sister.

***
By the time Saturday evening came, John had made the acquaintance of a number of key people in the village: his housekeeper, Lucy Jenkins, who lived in the nearest cottage to the church; the owner, ostler and barmaid of the Red Lion; his churchwardens, who also doubled as the local grocer and undertaker; the schoolmistress, who was alarmingly straitlaced and Evangelical, and who ran a small Sunday school with an iron hand; the doctor, an elderly man who smelt strongly of brandy; a number of middle-aged and elderly Church ladies who were indistinguishable the one from the other; a variety of small boys who wanted to ask John if he’d ever seen or shot a tiger (he rose immensely in their estimation by answering in the affirmative to both); and Mr Vincent of Bethesda Chapel, with whom he had a brief and slightly embarrassed exchange on the village green. The village was clearly curious about the Reverend John Watson, prepared to be hospitable towards their new vicar but awaiting judgment. For John, an English provincial village felt stranger than the jungles of southern India, and its customs as hard to fathom. He would have liked to share this insight with someone, but so far at least, there was no-one he could converse with freely. So he looked forward, in a small way, to Saturday.

Stamford’s wife Susan was, like him, warm and instantly likeable, and John took to her immediately. He ingratiated himself with the children by presenting them with a monkey’s foot and telling them carefully bowdlerized versions of his Indian exploits, and with Susan by dutifully admiring both the beauty of the children and the comfortable parsonage, bursting at the seams with activity.

With the younger children handed over to their nurse – the oldest boy, William, bursting with pride at being allowed to dine with the grown-ups, remained – the other guests began to arrive. Archdeacon Grantly, hawk-nosed and slightly forbidding, then the local magistrate, Mr Lestrade, and a widowed mother and daughter, Mrs and Miss Hooper. That made them seven for dinner, and John was happy to lead Miss Hooper in. He spent the first course, while the rest of the table discussed the difficulties in locating and keeping a good cook, finding out that she was a keen natural historian and in a lively discussion with her of his plans to set up a naturalists’ society for the local boys, in the empty room above the Red Lion’s stables. He noted that Lestrade, opposite him, was paying scant attention to the general conversation, and that his eyes rested on Miss Hooper more than propriety would strictly allow.


When the second course was served, the Archdeacon, now deep in a discussion of hunting in the area with Stamford, broke off abruptly and turned to John.

“Well, Reverend Watson,” he said, severely. “I trust you are settling in to your new home? Rather different from your previous career, if I may say so.”

“Indeed,” said John. He was conscious that the rest of the table was listening. “This is a beautiful part of England, and I am well aware of my good fortune.” He smiled politely.

“It was your great-uncle who nominated you for the living, was it not? I believe I met him once. A good judge of horseflesh.”

“Yes,” said John. “Though I’m afraid I know him very little. My mother’s family was originally from these parts, but my father moved to London for his business when I was five. I have not met Sir Henry since my childhood. Though my mother corresponded with him about my – career, of course. He helped to sponsor me through Oxford. I hope to be able to visit him this summer, to thank him in person.”

“Hmm,” said the Archdeacon. “He could have chosen worse, I suppose. I trust your extended stay in heathen parts hasn’t led you to pick up any newfangled doctrine.”

“Come, come, Grantly,” said Stamford. “Don’t subject poor Watson to one of your catechisms.”

“Did you really meet some heathens, sir?” said William Stamford. His mother gave him a quelling look, and he turned red with embarrassment.

“Yes, indeed,” said John to him, gravely. “Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and men of many other religions.” He turned to Grantly. “And I am afraid I have not been much concerned with doctrine, sir. Learned debates are of little use when comforting dying men on the battlefield.”

“It must have been very shocking,” said Susan Stamford. “We followed the news with great interest, even in this quiet part of the world.”

“Where were you based?” said Lestrade.

“I was with the 84th, in Lucknow, and when we recaptured Cawnpore,” said John. Miss Hooper gasped. William’s eyes were like saucers. “It was certainly – certainly shocking, though I saw some great deeds of courage.” And of atrocity, on both sides, he thought. “But we should not speak of it over this good meal, perhaps.”

“We must give thanks to Him who preserved you from those savages,” said Mrs Hooper, suddenly. “Animals!”

John looked down at his plate and restrained himself, with some little difficulty, from telling Mrs Hooper of some of the savagery he had witnessed, and which side had had the greater hand in it.

“Just so,” said the Archdeacon. “Well, Watson, you will find things quite different here. The Church is in sad disarray, sir, from all sides. Flowers on the altar and chanted psalms, indeed. The Oxford men of today are a disgrace to our profession, in my view, determined to head straight for Rome by the swiftest route. We’ve several of them in the diocese, I’m sorry to say, writing poetry and encouraging the young women in their foolishness. And as for these sneaking, low fellows – ”

John caught Lestrade rolling his eyes, out of the Archdeacon’s line of sight. He was going to like Lestrade, he thought.

“I shall hope to avoid controversy, where I can,” he said gravely, when the Archdeacon paused for a mouthful of wine.

“It’s a quiet parish,” Stamford added, beckoning to the maid to pour more.

“Apart from that heretic Holmes, of course,” said the Archdeacon.

There was a murmur round the table.

“Holmes?” John asked.

“Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford. “Lord Holmes’s younger brother. They own the big manor house, a couple of miles from you. Mr Holmes is not a, well, not a churchgoer, and spends much of his time abroad or in London. We’ve only met him a handful of times, and Susan and I have lived here for ten years now.”

“Not a churchgoer!” said the Archdeacon, working himself up again. “The man’s a full-blown atheist, judging from the filth he publishes. A disgrace to his family. I wonder how his brother allows it: Lord Holmes is a most respectable gentleman.”

“Mr Holmes is very learned,” said Miss Hooper, timidly but with courage. “He assisted me with some, umm, some work I was engaged in, last Christmas. I thought the reviews of his last book were decidedly unjust. It is a work of considerable scholarship.”

Lestrade raised both eyebrows. The Archdeacon stared at her with disbelief, and then gave Mrs Hooper an accusing look, to which she was oblivious.

“I have not read his publications, naturally,” he said stiffly. “I would not have such things in my house. God forbid my wife and daughters should encounter such opinions as I and all the world believe him to hold. Besides which, I understand him to be a notorious – “ he coughed. “That is, I believe his private life to be such that no young woman should associate with him.”

Stamford and Susan both started to speak, but John, feeling sorry for Miss Hooper, interjected first.

“You say you have daughters, sir? May I enquire after your family?”

“Three,” said the Archdeacon gloomily, accepting the change of subject. John felt Miss Hooper let out a breath, beside him. “My oldest is eighteen. And two younger boys, though they are away at Harrow, of course. You are unmarried, Watson?"

Lestrade choked on a mouthful of mutton at this segue and hid his face in his napkin.

“I am engaged to be married,” said John. “My fiancée, Miss Morstan, lives in London. We have been engaged since before I left for India. I hope to bring her here in the spring.”

“Good,” said the Archdeacon. “I approve of long engagements, and a country clergyman needs a wife. You must bring her over to meet Mrs Grantly, after the wedding.”

“So how did you and Miss Morstan meet?” said Miss Hooper to John, gratefully, and the conversation subsided into less dangerous channels.

***
John was burning with curiosity to learn more about the mysterious Sherlock Holmes, but perhaps in deference to William’s youth, Stamford kept the conversation on neutral topics after the ladies retired, and the party broke up at eleven without John learning anything more. It was a wet night, and when Lestrade offered John a ride home in his carriage he accepted gratefully.
Lestrade was silent as they drove off, seemingly lost in thought.

“Miss Hooper seems a most pleasant young lady,” John observed, to break the ice.

Lestrade smiled, fond. “Molly Hooper? Yes, indeed. And full of spirit too. Standing up to Grantly like that. She’s a splendid girl.”

“Ah,” said John, letting Lestrade decide whether to say more.

“Wasted on caring for her mother, of course, though it’s just the sort of dutiful behaviour one might expect from her.”

“She is not spoken for, I take it?”

“No.” Lestrade spoke curtly, and then sighed deeply. “If my situation were otherwise – well. You might as well hear this from me as from village gossip, if you haven’t already done so. My wife is dead, but before she died she left me – eloped to France with her second cousin, Colonel Hathaway. You might recall the divorce case.”

“I would have been in India, I expect,” said John, with sympathy. He wondered if Lestrade was speaking to him in a friendly or a professional capacity, and hoped unprofessionally for the former.

“It was damn - dashed painful at the time, but now I feel sorry for her,” said Lestrade. “And for my children – a girl and a boy. It will come hard on them, growing up with this.” He turned to look at John.

“That’s one of the reasons I like Holmes, you know. He doesn’t give a fig for propriety. Everyone else here treated me as though I were made of cut-glass for a year after Lucinda left, stopped speaking as soon as I entered the room, all that sort of thing, and he acted as though it had never happened. You shouldn’t listen to everything Grantly tells you. I can’t speak to his religious opinions, but Holmes is a great man, if not always what you might call a good one. When he’s at the Manor, he helps me with trials. Says he enjoys it. Last autumn we had a local man accused of murdering a maidservant – terrible case, that was – and he’d have hanged for it if Holmes hadn’t proved he was two villages away committing a robbery on the same night.” Lestrade frowned. “Of course, he was still transported.”

“You're friends with Mr Holmes, I take it?” John asked.

“Not friends exactly. Acquaintances. I doubt that Holmes would consider himself a man who needs friends, frankly. And as Stamford said, he usually spends the winter and spring travelling. I believe he returned from the Continent recently, but he rarely attends social occasions, or desires company.”

“Oh,” said John, a little disappointed. “Well, he certainly sounds like an interesting character. Though perhaps I ought not to think so, given my profession.”

Lestrade grunted. “Not like most clergymen, are you?” he said. “You’ve seen a bit of the world. And you haven’t said anything preachy to me yet about Lucinda.”

“I found that soldiers are disinclined to listen to someone preaching hellfire and damnation, on the whole. Though if you wish me to counsel you as your minister – “

“No, no,” said Lestrade hastily. “I’m glad to have you in the parish, though. And I’ll be in church tomorrow, with the children. Here, we’re at your lane.”

The bulk of the church loomed up ahead of them, and Lestrade called to the coachman to stop.

“Thank you,” said John, and hesitated. “And for your confidences. I’m afraid I have not the means to issue dinner invitations at present, but perhaps in a month or two.”

“I wouldn’t hear of it,” said Lestrade. “You must come to my house. A bachelors’ dinner, eh? We can settle on a day tomorrow.”

“I’d be happy to,” said John, warmly, picking up his cane and stepping down from the carriage.

He went to bed that night conscious that he should be anxious about his reading-in tomorrow, about what the Archdeacon and congregation would think of his preaching. But even with his constant prayers and efforts, it still seemed to him that his life as a parish clergyman of the Church of England held little of importance, nothing that really mattered. Flowers on the altar, indeed – in John’s service, altars themselves had been rare. He had set his hand to this task, here in this parish of Astley, in Worcestershire, and he would accomplish it. God had chosen this path for him. And Harry and his mother would be provided for. Yet he could not bring himself to care very much about the details of the task, as yet. Despite everything, despite the horror, he had felt himself doing God’s work in India as he had not, as yet, felt it in England. These were not comfortable thoughts. He fell asleep thinking, instead, about Sherlock Holmes, and wondering what kind of man he was, and whether he would ever have the chance to judge for himself.

Chapter Text

“My dear Mary,” John wrote,

“My first three weeks here are come to an end, and I am now fully accepted by Astley as their minister. I had expected to spend much of my time engaged in sermon-writing and in reading – as you told me, I am sadly behind after my years away – but my parishioners are determined to entertain me and tell me of their troubles. An astonishing number of them wish to be married, or have their children christened, or take communion classes. I see more than ever how invaluable your assistance could be, as I am unaccustomed to dealing with ladies’ charitable committees and the other smaller concerns of the parish. My views are solicited on every aspect of Church life, and every local family of note wishes to visit me, and must be visited in turn”

His pen ran out of ink. He read over what he had written and twisted his mouth, rueful. He had promised himself not to complain, and here he was, complaining. And the letter was all wrong: stilted, awkwardly trying for jovial. It was true that these weeks had passed in a whirl of activity, and in a series of delicate negotiations over every aspect of Church affairs. John had seriously underestimated the work of a country parish, as he thought to himself several times each day. He’d never minded hard work, though. It was the kind of work he minded. He could counsel the sick and dying, teach children, help those who were poor or in need in whatever way he could, and fight on their behalf. He would have enjoyed the fight. But he could not sit through an afternoon tea meeting of the parish missionary society, being solicited on which kind of blankets to knit for the benighted Indians or Africans, without rapidly losing his patience and tolerance. He had been in Astley three weeks, and it felt like three months already.

And he wasn’t sleeping, again. Most nights he woke up from the usual nightmare and then paced the house, restless. Sometimes he crossed to the church and sat there, in the dark, not even praying, just waiting for its quiet to soothe him. His nerves were affected – a bang on the door had sent him ducking for cover, a day ago – the wound in his shoulder ached whenever it rained, and his leg was no better.

What he wanted to write to Mary, he thought, was that he had made a mistake. If he could go back to London, maybe take on a slum parish where real work could be done… missionary work abroad was out of the question now, but the slums of East London or the great factory towns of the North were as much a battlefield for God’s word as anywhere else. His mother’s tears and persuasion, Mary’s quiet wistfulness when she spoke of leaving London, and Harry’s carefully mended but shabby clothes had persuaded him that accepting great-uncle Henry’s offer was the only option he had left to him. The death of the previous incumbent, coming at such an opportune moment, had seemed to everyone else like a decree of fate. They had all united to praise John’s good fortune.

And it was good fortune: John was conscious that hundreds of clergymen would envy him his respectable living, and that he had done nothing at all to deserve it. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate his comfortable new home and the beauty of his surroundings. It was that he felt entirely unsuited to them. And the fact that he was being ungrateful, discontented with his injuries and his place in life, discontented even with Mary, for not understanding the things he had never ventured to tell her, made everything worse.

His gloomy reverie was interrupted by a tap on the door.

“Come in,” he called, and his housekeeper came in, nervously. John looked across at the mantle clock, but it wasn’t time for luncheon, as yet.

“Lucy,” he said, a little surprised. “What is it? Nothing wrong in the kitchen, I hope.”

“Oh no, sir,” said Lucy, twisting her hands in her apron. “If you wouldn’t mind, sir, it’s just – it’s my cousin up at Northolt, his family and others, we wondered, that is, we thought that maybe you’d seen the cholera abroad, sir…”

“Cholera?” said John, astonished. “Where did you say your cousin lived?”

“In the tenants’ village on the Holmes estate, sir, Northolt, about two miles north of here. About fifteen, twenty families. You maybe haven’t seen it yet, but it’s an unhappy place, sir, my cousin’s suffered terrible hard from the rent increases… And now with this sickness come, and his wife Jenny still abed after the last baby, and all their little ones…”

“There now, don’t cry, Lucy,” said John. He stood up and steered her to an armchair, gently, and then drew another alongside it.

“Now,” he said. “You say there’s sickness in these families. Have you had Dr Jenkins to see?”

“Dr Jenkins came up, sir, but he didn’t say anything to my cousin. They’re bad up there, and one of the labourers from London, he was the one said it was cholera, he’d seen it in the city. He tried to tell the doctor, but he wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t even stay in the houses.”

Dr Jenkins had been obviously drunk the last two times John had met him, and was seventy if he was a day. John frowned. 

“I have seen cholera,” he said. “Would it be helpful if I made some visits? If these are my parishioners, it’s my duty to do so, you know. Perhaps you could put together a basket for me, from the kitchen? Beef-tea, if we have any, and wine and bread?”

“Oh, thank you, sir,” said Lucy. “They would take it very kindly, I know.”

“I’ll go as soon as you’re ready,” said John, determinedly. “I’ll saddle Bess now. If you come round to the stable, you can direct me.” He stood up, and Lucy did too, made a slight bob to him, and fled to the kitchen. John took a deep breath. He had not willed this into being, he reminded himself. If it was a test, then he would do his best. He went out to the stable, walking as fast as he could.

***

Northolt was indeed a miserable place, John thought, surveying the scene. He’d got lost twice in the narrow lanes, trying to find it, and Bess was up to her knees in mud. There was no stone road up to the houses, just more of the muddy quagmire, with a couple of lean children playing in or with it. John could see from horseback that the nearest house had holes in the roof, roughly stuffed with straw, as did others. It wasn’t a village, just a collection of cottages in three rows, set back from what passed as a road. They were relatively new, John judged, but they already looked decrepit. He dismounted, tied Bess up, and went in to the nearest cottage to investigate.

An hour or so later, he was angrier than he remembered being since he’d left India. It was indisputably an outbreak of cholera, limited at the moment to the five houses in the back row. At least two of the children were almost certainly going to die, and one of their mothers was past rescue. There was nothing John could do but sit with her and pray, quietly. Three others were badly affected. The cottages reeked, and were both stuffy and full of damp even now, at the height of summer.  

The men were at work, but Lucy’s cousin’s wife, Jenny, seemed the most sensible one among the tenants. John came out of the last cottage, wiped his hands on his handkerchief, and took her to one side.

“It is cholera, I believe,” he said. “You must try to keep these families isolated. I will come as often as I can, but do not let others enter their houses. They should have fresh air, and be given plenty to drink and kept comfortable, but there is little we can do now other than try to prevent this from spreading. We must leave them in God’s hands.”

Jenny looked terrified, but she swallowed and nodded. “Good,” John said. “Tell me, who is responsible for the people here?”

“It’s the estate manager, sir. Mr Anderson. He’s a cruel man, he doesn’t care about us. I’ve asked him many times about the roof of our cottage, we’re like to freeze to death in the winter, but he said it wasn’t his responsibility and we must care for it ourselves. But we’ve no materials, sir, and the labour takes all the men’s time.”

“Mr Anderson,” said John. “Where may I find him?”

Jenny pointed down the road.

“Half a mile that way, and take the lane on your right. It’s the first house. He might be out on the estate, but his servant will know, Betty.”

“I’ll find him,” said John, determined. “A good day to you, and I will return as soon as I may.” He put on his hat, mounted Bess without caring, for once, about who might be watching his ungainly scramble, and set off, breathing in the fresh air in great gulps to get the stench of the place out of his nostrils.

He had not expected to find Mr Anderson at home, so he was taken aback when he was shown into a parlour. He tried to calm himself down, but when a youngish man, sideburns in the height of fashion, entered and immediately stared at John’s cane and then his clerical neckcloth, lips curling, it proved impossible. John stood as upright as he could.

“Reverend John Watson,” he said. “I have come to tell you that you have the cholera in Northolt. The people there are in dire need of assistance.”

“I called in the doctor for them,” said Anderson, dismissively. “He said there was nothing to be done. You’re not a doctor, I presume?”   

“I have seen a great many men die of cholera, and it spreads like wildfire,” said John, through his teeth. “Anyone on the estate may be affected.” There, that had hit home. He couldn’t resist pressing his advantage.

“The housing there is a disgrace. It is not surprising that there is sickness among the people. I would not let a dog live in such conditions.”

“It’s hardly your business, Reverend,” said Anderson. “I work for Lord Holmes and Mr Holmes. I obey the orders of my employers, sir. If you’re unhappy, you may take it up with them.” His tone was sneering.

“Oh, I intend to,” said John, hand clenched on his cane. He very much wanted to strike Anderson with it. “If you will have the kindness to direct me to the Manor, I shall do so this instant.”

Anderson shrugged. “Carry on up this lane and you can’t miss it. I’d save your breath, though. He won’t see you. And if he did, he hates ministers and he hates being interrupted.” He stood aside to let John pass.

“I shall also inform him of your insolence, sir,” said John, heated. “And your lack of care for his tenants.”

Anderson laughed at this, a mirthless bark. “I almost hope he is in,” he remarked. “He’ll send you off with a flea in your ear, Reverend.”

“You – ” said John, and then he remembered himself. He compressed his lips on what he had been about to say, and walked out, seething.

**

The Manor House was beautiful, if John had been in the right mood to appreciate it. As it was, the row of mullioned windows, stone tracery and carvings merely made his anger rise, at the contrast between this and what he had left behind. It was quiet, the gravel forecourt swept clean and empty. John rode Bess up to the steps, conscious of the windows watching him, dismounted, climbed up the stairs and found a bell-pull. He heard it ring and cocked his head, listening – there was music coming from inside the house, a shower of notes. He frowned, puzzled. If neither Lord Holmes nor his brother had a family, who was playing?

The heavy door creaked open. John stepped forward, expecting a smart butler and prepared not to be cowed, but was surprised to find an elderly woman at the door instead, neat in purple silk. The sound of the music grew louder, clearly coming from behind one of the doors in the hall. John wasn’t accustomed to hear much music, other than after-dinner piano from the ladies and the songs of the mess-hall, but he thought it was a violin, played by someone with great skill.

“Reverend John Watson,” he said, taking off his hat. “I would like to speak to Mr Holmes on a matter of some urgency.”

“Oh!” said the woman. “You must be the new vicar of Astley, I’ve heard all about you. I’m Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper at the Manor.  Pleased to meet you, sir. I would have seen you in church before now but I’ve been a bit under the weather, with my hip.” She glanced behind her doubtfully. 

“Is Mr Holmes in?” John said firmly. He didn’t wish to be rude to a parishioner, even if she did seem a little eccentric and strangely over-familiar, but nor did he want to be distracted into forgetting his mission.

“I’m not sure if he’s receiving visitors,” said Mrs Hudson diplomatically.

“If you could ask?”

“Oh dear,” said Mrs Hudson. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to leave a message?”

“No, I’ll wait,” said John with decision.

Mrs Hudson sighed. “You’d better come in, then, sir.” She stepped aside to let him pass, into a cool and imposing hall tiled with black and white marble and lined with oil-paintings. John stood a little way in, trying to be unimpressed, while Mrs Hudson went down the hall and knocked at the door from where the music sounded. It broke off, with a snarled chord.

“I said, no interruptions,” said a deep, cultured and forbidding voice. John’s eyebrows rose. Had that been Mr Holmes, playing? He had never heard of a gentleman taking up music seriously. It was certainly unconventional, to say the least.

Mrs Hudson went in and, glancing back at John apologetically, closed the door behind her. John felt some sympathy for her amid his curiosity: clearly she was badly treated by her employer.

“The vicar of Astley has come to call, Sherlock. He says it’s urgent.”

John wasn’t trying to listen, but he could still hear her, muffled. His eyebrows rose further at the use of the first name. Could the housekeeper and Mr Holmes be engaged in an illicit relationship? That would explain the Archdeacon’s comment about Holmes’s morals, certainly, and the oddity of the whole situation. His curiosity was almost overpowering his righteous anger.

“I don’t see vicars,” said the male voice. “Tell him to go to the – ”

“Oh, don’t, he’ll hear you.”

“Why would I care? Tell him I’m beyond redemption and he’d better go and save some souls in his own domain, if you think it more polite. I am not in to callers.”

Mrs Hudson came back into the hall, apologetic.

“I’m afraid Mr Holmes is otherwise engaged,” she said. “If you could just leave a message – “

John thought about the woman in Northolt, who even now might be dying in filth and misery, and his resolve hardened into steel. If Mr Holmes didn’t care about the conventions of politeness, neither did he.

“I intend to wait here until I can discuss my business with Mr Holmes,” he said, raising his voice to be heard. “You may inform him that the state of his soul is between himself and God, but that the bodies and souls of my parishioners are very much my concern and it is my duty to care for them, and that if the cholera in Northolt spreads and more people die I will ensure that responsibility is assigned to Mr Holmes’s door, where it belongs.”

The door down the hall opened with a bang.

“Cholera, you say?”

John’s mouth fell open, and he stared in shock. In all the discussion he’d heard about Holmes, no-one had ever mentioned his age. Given the emphasis on his great learning and his years of dissipation, John had naturally pictured him as an elderly, don-like figure, a wrinkled roué sunk in depravity. This man was young, younger than John himself, by the looks of it. He was dressed eccentrically, with what looked to John’s inexperienced eye like an Oriental smoking-jacket loosely tied over his suit, and his appearance was eccentric also, tall and thin, with unkempt black curls and piercing light eyes. But he was undeniably an extremely handsome man. Harry and her schoolfriends would have described him as Byronic.

John absorbed this in an instant. Meanwhile Holmes was scanning him in turn. He set his shoulders and met Holmes’s grey gaze, reminding himself why he was here.

“Yes,” he said. “In Northolt, sir. I have just come from the estate manager, who displays a shocking lack of concern for the tenants under his care.”

Holmes’s gaze rested on John’s shoulder, and then moved to his hands. John shifted under this scrutiny.

“You’re not what I expected, Reverend Watson,” Holmes said. “One of the new army chaplains, I assume. Wounded in India and shipped home perhaps a year ago; your leg is a sympathetic injury, not the primary cause of your discharge. An interesting effect. Am I right?”

“Yes,” said John. “Yes, I – you have heard of me from the villagers, sir. You have the advantage of me.” “Sympathetic”? he thought.

“Sherlock Holmes.” He made no move to shake John’s hand, still considering him. “And I assure you, I never listen to gossip. Far too much of it is about me. Now, we must waste no time. I have never seen a case of cholera, and on my doorstep, too!” His face lit up with what appeared to be excitement. “I will fetch my coat, and we will go to Northolt directly.”

“People are dying, sir,” said John, reprovingly.  

“A statement that is universally applicable in all times and places,” observed Holmes, stripping off his jacket and disappearing for a moment into the dim hall. He came back with a frock coat that must have cost more than John’s monthly stipend. Mrs Hudson went over and helped him into it, tutting. John wondered again about the absence of other servants.

“I shall fetch my horse and meet you at the front of the house, Reverend. Mrs Hudson, we may need tea when we return. Kindly inform the kitchen.”

 “Very well,” Mrs Hudson said. “Do take care now, Sh – sir. Think what your brother would say if you fell ill.”

“I will come to no harm,” said Holmes. He half-smiled at her as she patted down his coat.

“Look at you, so enthused,” she said, fond. John revised his sense of their relationship: she had the air of someone who had known Holmes since childhood, a nurse, perhaps, if he were still younger than he appeared.

“Come,” said Holmes impatiently to John, and they left the house together.

There was little conversation on the road to Northolt, as they picked their way through the muddy lanes. Holmes seemed lost in thought. John cast covert glances at him as they rode. His horse was magnificent and he rode well, but he appeared oblivious to the figure he cut. John couldn’t say he’d encountered many aristocrats, other than the more decadent of the young men at Oxford during his time there, who would never have spoken to a scholarship student like him, and a sampling of third or fourth sons who’d been shipped off to an Army career to get them out of the way. He hadn’t gained a very favourable impression of the British upper-classes from these instances. Holmes seemed something entirely different.

When they reached the houses, Holmes slid off his horse impatiently and, not waiting for John, looked around and then strode off to the back cottages. Jenny and some of the other inhabitants, who had come out of their homes at the sound of hooves approaching, were gaping. Jenny curtsied as Holmes passed, but he didn’t appear to notice. John hurried to catch up.

Holmes went into each cottage rapidly, surveying the inhabitants and their surroundings with a frown. He didn’t speak. John smiled reassuringly at the sick and offered a few words, but stayed with Holmes. He was seized with curiosity. To his surprise, after exiting the final cottage Holmes clambered round the back of the cottages, where there were some muddy fields with a few thin pigs and chickens in them, to inspect something there, and then walked all along the filthy path through the houses, closely examining at the ditches on either side. He stopped at the pump in the middle of the group of houses and walked around it, eyes narrowed. Then he knelt gracefully beside it, apparently considering the stonework at the bottom. His scowl deepened. There was mud all over his riding boots, and on his coat-tails and trousers. By now quite a crowd had gathered, everyone in the houses, hovering at a distance and whispering. The children were staring at Holmes as though he were an ogre.

“Watson,” said Holmes abruptly. “Come and look at this.”

John blinked and went to stand by Holmes. He didn’t want to try kneeling, with his leg.

“What is it?” he said.

“It’s the water,” said Holmes. “The ditches for sewage run here, and here.” He gestured. “Presumably the intention was that rainwater would wash them clean. But we’ve had a dry month, as you can tell from the smell. And this pump is badly constructed. It’s leaking, as you can observe.”

John looked at the patch of mud Holmes was indicating, which appeared exactly the same as all the rest.

“A perfect case,” said Holmes, with satisfaction. “Precisely as Mr Snow indicated, and the same source.”

“You must excuse me, sir,” said John. “I am not sure to whom you are referring.”

“Snow, John Snow,” said Holmes impatiently. “The transmission of cholera via an infection in the water has been known for at least a decade, though some fools have been slow to acknowledge it. This pump is contaminated.”

“I thought that cholera was a miasmic disease,” John ventured. “From the noxious air.”

Holmes snorted. “Miasmas are a myth,” he said decidedly. “All the country air in England won’t help these people, as long as they’re drinking from this source.” He looked at John. “Though many think as you do,” he added, condescending. “Even among the most intelligent Germans, who naturally outstrip us in this field as in all others. Virchow himself – ”

He broke off, doubtless noting John’s lack of comprehension, and wheeled round to their audience.

“This pump is out of bounds,” he said, loudly. “Do not drink the water, or you will fall ill. I will send some barrels of fresh water down immediately. And those of you who are able to move, pack your belongings. These cottages will not be fit to live in until the works have been done.”

There were cries of consternation.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but where are we to go?” asked Jenny.

“What?” said Holmes. “Oh, I’ll send someone down about that this evening. We have plenty of empty grooms’ quarters, you can share them for now. And your sick will be better off in the old dairy, where they can be nursed more satisfactorily.”

Jenny hesitated. “Mr Anderson – “ she said. He looked at John imploringly.

“They will perhaps need more proof than your assurance, sir,” said John.

Holmes brushed this off impatiently. “I will deal with Mr Anderson now,” he said, in a carrying voice. “In the meanwhile, I expect you all to do exactly as I have said.” He strode off again to his horse, leaving John trailing in his wake.

On the road to Anderson’s house, Holmes subjected John to what appeared to be a running lecture on the latest German science. John could only hear about half of it, as he concentrated on riding, and could follow even less. He made noises of polite interest whenever Holmes paused for breath, which was rare, and with the rest of his mind wondered what exactly he had just witnessed.

Anderson was leaning on his gate, talking to a young girl in the lane, a dairymaid from her dress. At their approach he straightened up, smile fading from his face. He bowed to Holmes, and the maid, blushing, curtsied. Holmes looked down at her.

“Hetty, from the dairy, is it not?” he said. “Run along and tell Mrs Trent that she must have the cheese moved from the old dairy to the new immediately, and the old dairy must be cleaned out and swept by this evening. And don’t accept gifts from men above your station, hmm?”

The maid ducked her head and fled, almost running down the lane. Anderson was looking at Holmes and John with trepidation.

“Mr Anderson,” said Holmes. “You came with a reputation for competence, which I am scarcely surprised to find is completely undeserved. I had hoped to carry on my work undisturbed, and now I am find that I am forced to involve myself with problems caused by your lack of oversight and failure to provide my workers with adequate accommodation. If you held the belief that your laziness and venality would go unnoticed, then you were sadly mistaken. You may consider yourself dismissed, with two week’s notice.”

Anderson’s face had turned red with fury, and he looked outraged. John tried not to find the sight satisfying.

“I will appeal to Lord Holmes!” he said. “You cannot simply dismiss me.”

“I assure you I can,” said Holmes, coldly. “You may count yourself lucky that you are speaking to me and not my brother, as he would be likely to take a still more dim view of your failings. Good afternoon to you.” He spurred his horse and cantered away, up the lane.

John, just behind him, winced at some of the insults Anderson threw after them, which would not have been out of place in a barracks, but Holmes, if he heard them, didn’t turn a hair. They rode back to the Manor rapidly. John’s leg was aching from the exercise, and he wondered what would happen next. Should he offer his services to help with whatever plans for Northolt Holmes had in mind? Or perhaps Holmes would prefer it if he left? He felt rather as  though he had been caught up in a whirlwind.

Holmes dismounted elegantly and then, surprisingly, held John’s bridle for him.

“I must thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he said. John was about to demur politely, when Holmes continued. “I would never have had an opportunity of furthering my interest in contagious disease, had I not known.”

John’s eyebrows drew together. “I believe you would have known, sir, had half your labourers died of the disease.”

Holmes let out a huff of laughter, though John had not intended humour.

“Will you join me for tea, Reverend?” he said, gravely.

John couldn’t tell if he were being mocked or not, and while he was grateful for Holmes’s rapid action that afternoon, he was doubtful as to his motivation. Everything the Archdeacon had implied about Holmes’s morals flashed through his mind. If anyone from the village saw him there… On the other hand, if Holmes usually disdained the Church, surely John had a moral obligation to accept his invitation.

“I should be happy to,” he said, and dismounted himself, trying not to notice that Holmes was effectively assisting him by holding Bess still.

Mrs Hudson let them in, took their coats, and showed them into a bright, spacious room at the back of the house, overlooking the gardens. It would have been a delightful space, except that every surface was covered with books, and more books were stacked and piled high on the shelves that lined an entire wall. Various odd objects were visible among them: a skull on the mantelpiece, an ornamental dagger, a set of test-tubes.

“Good Lord,” said John involuntarily, looking around. “This is extraordinary.”

Holmes gestured towards two armchairs by the fire, which were relatively clear. John carefully lifted a stack of papers from his and set it on the ground. Holmes sat down opposite.

“My research materials,” he said. “I have a laboratory upstairs of course, as well. But this is where I write. I thought you might prefer it to the more formal accommodations.”

“Oh, I do,” said John. “I’ve never seen so many books. I had, umm, heard that you were a – writer.”

“Indeed,” said Holmes. He raised one eyebrow and smiled at John, who felt himself embarrassed. “Presumably you had little time for reading, in India.”

“Certainly, that was the case,” said John. “I have read very few works of – of theology.”

“Let us not mince words,” said Holmes. “You are trying to tell me, with creditable tact, that you have read none of my works and, while you have doubtless gathered that they are somewhat controversial, you are happy to remain ignorant.”

“I – “ said John, helplessly wrongfooted.

“Ignorance is bliss,” said Holmes, steepling his fingers and looking at John over them. “You are wrong if you believe that choosing not to know will save you from the brave new world that is coming, but I will not dispute with you on the matter. If you wish, I will promise not to discuss religious matters at all. Or were you hoping to rescue me from perdition over my cook’s excellent muffins?”

John took a breath. He was entirely out of his depth, but he was also, for the first time in a while, enjoying the sensation.

“I am not sure that I can make such a promise, sir,” he said. “Since I am, as you note, a clergyman.”

Holmes laughed again. John smiled back. There was a knock on the door and Mrs Hudson came in, this time accompanied by a young and neatly dressed maid, with trays of tea and, indeed, muffins, as well as cake and bread. John waited politely while they poured it.

“You were curious about my lack of servants,” said Holmes, abruptly, as the door closed behind them. “The fact is, I prefer privacy wherever possible. My brother insists that we maintain a staff in keeping with our position, but I frequently find it opportune to give the household staff a half-day holiday. They will work hard enough when Mycroft is in residence and entertaining his hoards of sycophants.”

“Lord Holmes?” said John, drinking his tea and eating gratefully. “He is in London?”

“He is involved in the affairs of government,” said Holmes. “He lives at his club. But enough about Mycroft, who is insufferably dull. You are not. Tell me, why did you enter the Church? I understand the reasons behind your acceptance of this living – you have female relatives to support, and Lord Henry of Winstaple is, I suppose, your great-uncle – but I confess I am at a loss as to why you did not pursue a career in the army in the first place. Was it money?”

The smile faded off John’s face, and he set down his cup. “Do you know Lord Henry, sir?” he asked.

Holmes waved a hand dismissively. “Only in the vaguest terms,” he said. “He does not interest me. But I know that the living was in his gift, and great-uncle seemed the safest guess. And a rip in the seam of your coat has been carefully mended, not by you, by a woman with a care for economy. Since you are unmarried, a mother or sister, perhaps both.”

“You are right,” said John. “You seem to have an astonishing gift, sir.” Holmes looked slightly surprised at the praise, and then pleased. “Your question, however, is offensive, as you assume I did not take orders out of conviction.”

Holmes seemed not at all affronted by this statement. He shrugged, looking at John over his tea. “Did you?” he said.

John felt pinned by his gaze. He swallowed. “I would have wanted to be a doctor,” he said. “Or, yes, a soldier. But my father lost all his savings in a bank collapse, and there was little to pay for my education. Lord Henry offered to pay my way through school and Oxford, on the condition that I enter the Church. I was eight at the time. So you see, I have always known where my destiny would lie. If you think I am not a man of faith, however, you are wrong. I wanted to work with men who needed to hear God’s word, and I felt called to the battlefield.” He stopped, aware that he was speaking to Holmes, a stranger and his social superior, about matters that he had rarely spoken of to anyone.

“And now you have lost it,” said Holmes, almost gentle. There was a pause. 

“There are battles to be fought in every place,” said John. “As your tenants will know. If I may assist in your plans…”

“Hmm,” said Holmes. “I am moving them from Northolt so that I may observe the progress of the disease at first hand, nearer by. Though I will also replace those gimcrack cottages with something better, naturally. I would not wish you to be deceived as to my altruism.”

“I will judge you by results, not by motive, sir. I will come and – offer spiritual counsel to those who desire it.” He said this half-defiantly, but Holmes simply quirked his mouth.

“I have promised, no controversy,” he said.

“I did not exact such a promise, sir.”

“None the less, it will be wise.”

“Very well,” said John. He looked out of the window, where the long afternoon was drawing to a close and the evening setting in. “I should take my leave.”

“Stay a while,” said Holmes. “My cook believes I do not eat, and she will weep if I return this food untouched. Besides, I expect you missed your luncheon. And I would be interested to hear your account of Indian politics. The newspaper reportage has been woefully biased and inadequate.”

“Well…” said John. He hesitated. He was hungry, both for food, and for more conversation with Holmes.

“And please, call me Holmes. We are acquaintances now, are we not?”

Holmes met his eyes, unreadable. In the growing summer dusk, his features caught the last of the light, fine and shining.

“Thank you,” said John. “I should be happy to stay, for a little while.”

Chapter Text

In the weeks while the people of Northolt slowly recovered, and mourned the three who had died, John was at the Manor every day: helping at the sickbeds as much as he could, offering consolation, reading Morning and Evening prayer to those that desired it. Holmes was in and out, criticizing the arrangements, watching the patients with assessing eyes and bullying the two hired nurses that he had brought in. On some days he would ask John to consider the plans for the new cottages at Northolt, explaining with great satisfaction his innovative plans for drainage and the removal of waste, while John assented and tried to ask reasonable questions. On other days, he and John would ride down to see the progress of the works at Northolt, where the old cottages were gradually demolished and the new buildings began to go up. And afterwards, they would take tea in Holmes’s study, and talk. When all the sick were pronounced well in late August, and the labourers moved into their model village in time for the harvest celebrations, John saw Holmes slightly less often, but by then he was set in his habits, and on at least two afternoons a week he would find an excuse to visit the Manor. A book to return – Holmes had given him the run of his library – or a question about his natural history society – Holmes had donated an expensive microscope and a selection of books to the cause, mostly, he said, to stop John pestering him – or some of his housekeeper’s excellent preserves to present to Mrs Hudson.

John was tentatively happy in those weeks, sliding into months, as he had not hoped to be at Astley. Holmes was a fascinating talker, fluent and engaging, but he also listened to John as no-one had – as no-one had in a long time. And he was not one to flinch at stories of the brutality John had witnessed in the Mutiny, the acts that kept him awake at night, that haunted his dreams and hindered his prayers. Holmes did not protest, as surely anyone else would have done, that British men could not have been capable of the kind of actions that John had seen, or that if they had, the Indian savages had deserved it. He probed at John’s stories, extracting the substance from them, and John left feeling raw but also better, as though a wound had been cauterized. His leg was getting better too. There were times when he even forgot that he needed his cane, though often a twinge would remind him and he would look for it again.

This odd friendship, if friendship it was, affected the rest of his life in Astley also. Looking back on his first weeks there, he felt as though a fog – a miasma, he thought, and smiled – had blurred his vision of the parish and of his duties. He had been operating like an automaton. And now, he felt renewed. He threw out the old sermons he had written long ago, and had been painfully adapting week by week, and spoke without notes, using his experiences to illustrate his preaching. Holmes did not come to church, but Mrs Hudson was always there, alone in the Holmes family pew at the front, smiling at John. John took some of the village boys and a few of the girls in hand, letting them call round to the vicarage at any time of day with their treasures: birds’ eggs and fossils from the limestone rocks, rare plants and brightly coloured butterflies. John exclaimed over them, showed his pupils how to use Holmes’s microscope, helped with classification of species using one of Holmes’s many books, and assisted the children to preserve and mount the best specimens for display in the room he had rented in the village. Where he was ignorant, he asked Molly Hooper’s advice. She was surprisingly knowledgeable, and surprisingly willing to pin up her skirts and spend an afternoon chasing after insects in the fields with a group of rowdy boys. She even agreed to give a talk to his budding society, on the butterflies of southern England, the first of a series that John had planned. And John found that he was able to sit through any number of painfully dull meetings of ladies’ societies, smiling politely and taking tea as required, by thinking about the scathing remarks that Holmes would make about the conversation.

It was true that Holmes was not an easy man. He had a cutting tongue, and at times there was a casual cruelty to his remarks that made John wince, even when he knew that Holmes was aiming to provoke him. There were some afternoons when John rode up and was admitted, only to find that Holmes was deeply engaged in writing, his hair snarled from clutching it, papers fanned out across the floor from his desk, and his pen scratching furiously. On such days he would scarcely acknowledge John’s presence. And there had been a few worse days, when Holmes had been sunk in his favoured chair, sharp eyes dulled, wreaths of smoke in the room, and John had left him there, not wanting to intrude, and gone back to his home troubled in mind.

“Opium,” Holmes said briskly, when John had nerved himself to ask. “Sometimes my mental energies need – ” he gestured, vaguely, “a safety-valve. It is a necessary evil. Do you disapprove?” He looked at John, not concerned, merely curious.

“Not precisely,” said John, honestly. “But you have a brilliant mind. I dislike seeing it clouded.”

Holmes snorted. “Don’t inform your Bishop of this desire, or you will find yourself defrocked. He would like nothing more than to have me sunk in delirium. But you do not need to be anxious. I have long practice, and my use is infrequent.”

John sighed, and abandoned the theme, to add to the increasing list of topics on which he was duty bound to reprimand Holmes, but had failed to do so.

**

Then there was the matter of Holmes’s reputation, on several counts. John had, of course, started to pay attention to the scattered references to Holmes in newspapers and journals. He had somehow not recalled that Holmes was one of the contributors to Essays and Reviews, a collection so scandalous that even John had heard of it. In fact, he had borrowed it from a lending library in London in the spring and tried to read it, but most of the abstruse points of theology and Biblical history had failed to make much of an impression on his mind. He did not remember anything about Holmes’s essay, though it, along with Pattison’s and Jowett’s, had been enough to have Holmes threatened with excommunication from the Church. Holmes was said to have retorted, when the Bishops issued this threat, that he could not be excommunicated from a Church to which he had never belonged. John bit his lip when he read this, and then closed the paper, decisively. He had thought of borrowing the Essays from Miss Hooper, who had intimated that she owned all Holmes’s works, but now he decided, without thinking too closely about the reasons, that he would not.

Holmes himself stuck to his promise. Religion was never mentioned between them, though John often thought of pressing the issue. He could not tell what Holmes believed, though he hoped for the best. No man so intelligent, with so much to add to the world, could be lost to God. He accepted Holmes’s books and his tutelage, feeling the depths of his ignorance by comparison. When he had confessed to Holmes, relatively early in their acquaintance, that the work of science he knew best and admired most was Paley’s Evidences, Holmes had laughed in glee, like a schoolboy, and then had promptly weighed John down with ten heavy volumes. John read Lyell’s Principles, first dutiful and then fascinated, and Chambers’s Vestiges, and Mr Darwin’s new book – Holmes’s copy bore a personal inscription – and works of physiology and chemistry and astronomy, all marked in crisp pencil with Holmes’s underlinings and annotations, and detailed references that John could not follow. Holmes would always ask John’s opinion on what he had read, and John would venture a trivial comment which Holmes would pounce on and shake apart, before lecturing John extensively on the various points on which the author of the work was mistaken and dissecting his prose style.

There were moments, though, in which these conversations seemed more charged. When John returned On the Origin of Species in late September, voluble with enthusiasm, Holmes did not respond as he had expected, but instead turned the book over in his hands, looking momentarily lost in thought.

“Do you not wish to tell me all the ways in which Mr Darwin is wrong?” said John, half-jesting.

Holmes frowned at his hands. “Is it that you do not see – ” he said, and then stopped, with visible effort. John saw his throat work.

“Do not see what?” he said.

“Nothing,” said Holmes. “In point of fact, Mr Darwin is not wrong. This book is the condensation of years of meticulous research. If he has a fault, it is simply that he is too cautious. He is aware – “ he paused again “ – he is aware how this volume will be interpreted, but he is not prepared to state his case in full.” He looked up at John, half-smiling. “My new work will err rather in the opposite direction.”

John’s heart beat a little faster. Holmes almost never spoke of the book he was writing, though the pile of manuscript pages on the desk had been steadily mounting.

“I have understood Mr Darwin’s theories, I believe,” he said. “That all living things progress towards perfection, developing to fit their assigned purpose. It is not a new idea, that nature is red in tooth and claw, and that not all species have survived.”

Holmes was watching him narrowly. John felt like a naive undergraduate, before that gaze.

“Indeed,” said Holmes. “And that man must move upward, working out the beast. I had not taken you for a reader of poetry, Watson.”

“I read the Laureate, of course,” said John. “And Longfellow, but little other modern verse. But you seek to change the subject, Holmes.”

“Because we are on shaky ground in relation to our agreement,” said Holmes. “Let us not start to dissect the implications of Darwin’s work, or Tennyson’s, come to that. We shall merely agree that you are surprisingly amenable for a modern English clergyman, which I already knew, and pass on to other topics.”

“Very well,” said John, both relieved and dissatisfied. “Tell me which poets I should have read, in that case.”

The conversation had moved on, but John recalled it at odd moments, and wondered. As the autumn set in, although he had explored Holmes’s library in detail, he borrowed nothing from the shelf that, he knew, held the six volumes of Holmes’s work on Biblical history, translated into five different languages. On one visit, in early October, he was looking at the three shelves below this, which held works by men whose names John recognized, as mentioned in the same breath as Holmes: Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Strauss. Perhaps he ought to engage further with the higher criticism, he thought. He started to take a book from the shelf.

“No,” said Holmes, almost in his ear, making John start; Holmes had been at his desk a moment ago, apparently lost in thought. Now he was standing close behind John, sliding an arm past him to push the book back into its place.

John turned to face him, bare inches of space between them. Holmes met his gaze, intent.

“Not yet,” he said.

“Why not?”

Holmes held his gaze. John’s breath caught. He had the sense that Holmes was going to tell him something of vital importance, though what, he did not know.

Then Holmes blinked, and looked away, and the moment was gone.

“This shelf is in German,” Holmes said. “With your woeful ignorance of European languages, it is hardly a good place to start.”

He steered John lightly away, one hand on his elbow, towards the next set of shelves.

“Besides, we have scarcely begun to unravel your stupidity about the sciences. I have a further selection here for you – ” 

John had laughed, and allowed himself to be led, but he did not forget the incident.

**

Of Holmes’s personal reputation, he found out nothing. Holmes would not speak on the subject, and John’s tentative mentions of Mary were met with cold disinterest. He had never seen Holmes so much as look admiringly at a pretty girl, and if he had a mad wife in the attic, or a mistress kept quietly in a country retreat, they were well hidden. Holmes had some indecent works on his shelves, in his collection of works in Eastern languages. But when John had taken down one book, and made an involuntary noise of shock at the image it opened at, Holmes had merely smiled.

“For research,” he said mildly. “Surely you must have seen such things, on your travels.”

It was true, John had seen temples carved with men and women in every kind of lewd pose, as well as the cheap English material that circulated among the men of his regiment. And without desiring to, he had seen men and women in the act itself, on occasion. Privacy was not greatly valued in the army. Yet he would not have thought that Holmes, with his cool disdain, would have read such, such –

“Seen, yes,” he said, closing the book firmly and noticing that its pages had all been cut. “I have no desire to read such things.”

“I should very much hope not,” Holmes had remarked, and had gone back to his newspaper.

After that, John had ventured to speak to Lestrade, relaxed over good port at the close of a pleasant evening dining with him.

“I wanted to ask you about Holmes,” he said, breaking the companionable silence. “I am sorry to raise an embarrassing topic, but I understood there were rumours that his private life was, well, unorthodox. I wondered – that is, I have not seen – that is, it seems odd that anyone would imply such a thing, when he appears to have so little interest in the female sex as a whole.”

Lestrade, across the table from him, grimaced, and poured more port. “Well,” he said. “There were some rumours about Holmes and an American soprano, Miss Adler, a couple of years ago, but then she ran off with a Bohemian count or some such story. But – “ he hesitated. “The gossip – it’s not so much about Holmes and women, as about Holmes and, umm.” He looked at John meaningfully.

“You’re a man of the world, Watson. We both went to public school. I don’t know about your school but there was plenty of, if you’ll excuse my language, buggery going on in mine. And Holmes went to Eton. They say it’s a hotbed of, well, sodomy. I know it’s wrong, of course, but boys will be boys, and the ancient Greeks and all that – men grow out of these things when they meet a woman. Still. They’re ugly rumours, about Holmes. And there’s no evidence for them, naturally. That is, I know he – corresponds with some men who are known for perversion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean….”

“Oh,” said John. Then, as Lestrade looked alarmed. “No, no need to apologize. The Army has its share of men who are deprived of women, and who turn to each other. And at school and Oxford, of course I encountered such men. It is a sin, naturally. Very shocking. No evidence in Holmes’s case, you say?”

“Not as such,” said Lestrade. “Gossip in town, you know how it is.”

“Not really, no,” said John. “Thank you,” he added.

Lestrade shrugged. “How do you find him? I haven’t seen much of him of late, but you visit him regularly, don’t you?”

“I find him…an extraordinary man,” said John. “His facilities of observation and intellect are astonishing. And I cannot believe he is as wicked as people paint him. He is capable of kindness and decency.”

“If anyone can do him good, it would be you,” said Lestrade thoughtfully. “Lord knows he could do with more society, shut up there with his books.”

“I have invited him to Miss Hooper’s talk on natural history, next Thursday night,” John said. “Will you be there? I would take it kindly if you could come.”

“Butterflies, eh?” said Lestrade. ‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Holmes did come to the talk, though he sat at the back wearing his most forbidding expression, while the villagers nudged one another and eyed him sidelong. John made a point of greeting him warmly and speaking to him afterwards, but to his regret Holmes would not be drawn into conversation and slipped out early, as Miss Hooper was receiving compliments from her audience and blushing with pride. John was aware that his parishioners gossiped about his association with Holmes, though very few of them knew its extent. After his conversation with Lestrade – especially after his conversation with Lestrade – he had hoped to show publically that he respected and admired Holmes. If Holmes would not be drawn, however, there was little he could do.

As for the implications of Lestrade’s remarks – John had not lied in saying that he had known such men. At school, of course, though he had not participated himself. In his first year at Oxford, however, giddy with delight at his new-found freedom, he had fallen into friendship with another scholarship student. They had walked together, long walks over the golden Oxford hills, and sat up half the night in Latimer’s rooms talking foolishness over a bottle of wine, and planned the journeys they would make together in the vacation, in the Alps and Italy and Spain. And in the early hours of one morning, tired and exalted with talk and laughter and wine, Latimer had reached for John and caressed him, and John had responded in kind.

This was an old memory, and John had long since forgiven himself. What he most regretted had not been the act itself, but the souring of his friendship with Latimer, who had never been easy with him, after that. He had told John solemnly that he had sworn himself to celibacy and would never marry, and had gone off to sit at the feet of the men of the Oxford Movement. John had heard, with regret, some years ago, that he had followed their leaders to Rome. John himself, in turn, had developed his prowess in rowing and boxing, been befriended by some of the sporting men in college, and in his second year he had on two occasions ended up in a London brothel. He did not prize chastity as fervently as some men did, but he had been rightly ashamed and regretful of his actions. Yet in some ways it had been a blessing. After that horrible awakening, in a filthy room in London with a cold-eyed woman at least ten years older than him, he could honestly say that as hard as it was to live chaste, he was not tempted by the whores and brothels of London or India. Recognizing his own weakness and sinfulness, he would not condemn those who fell, though he would pray for them and help them. And he had tried to make up for past errors, to become worthy of Mary and her goodness and purity.

So when he thought of Holmes – it was certainly not hard to believe, that a younger Holmes, with his soft curls and slight body, would have tempted his peers and masters. Holmes could not have been one of those mincing, pretty boys that John and most others had despised at school, but he would have had a beauty that would have been hard to resist. And John could not say whether Holmes himself would have resisted. He turned his thoughts away from the subject. Unless Holmes spoke to him of it, this was a private matter. Such acts transgressed the laws of men as well as the laws of God, and speculation on them was dangerous.

**

Autumn wore on, and with the exception of a week or two when Holmes had been absent, in Paris or London speaking to learned societies, according to him, John had seen him two or three times a week. Then came a Sunday in November when John entered from the vestry door to find another occupant in the Holmes pew besides Mrs Hudson, a tall man dressed in an immaculate morning suit. The frisson in the congregation would have told him, without needing to ask, that this was Lord Holmes, Holmes’s elder brother. His presence was oddly distracting, but John tried to put it out of his mind and let the familiar rhythms of the service take him.

Afterwards, however, as John greeted the congregation and asked after their various troubles, and had a few words of warm conversation with Lestrade and his children and with Miss Hooper, he was aware that Lord Holmes was somewhat deliberately loitering in the churchyard. Once the last villager had left, John was not surprised to find him advancing.

“You must be Lord Holmes?” he said. “It is a pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Reverend John Watson,” said Lord Holmes. “Likewise. A fine autumn day, is it not? I wondered if we might take a turn about the churchyard.”

“Of course,” said John, politely. It had been less a request than a command. Lord Holmes cut a forbidding figure, in this if not in appearance very like his younger brother.

They walked in silence for a moment or two, until they were round the corner of the church, hidden from any prying eyes, and then Lord Holmes abruptly stopped, turning to John.

“You have befriended my brother, sir,” he said.

John raised his eyebrows. “We have an acquaintance, certainly,” he said. “My lord.”

“It goes further than that,” said Lord Holmes. “My brother does not have friends. When news reached me that he was associating with the local vicar” – his tone unmistakably held contempt, and John bristled – “I could only assume that he or you had ulterior motives of which I was unaware. What do you hope to gain from this acquaintance, may I ask?”

“I seek nothing from your brother other than common friendship, my lord,” said John, through gritted teeth. He feared losing his temper. “We converse, we discuss our reading.”

“Your reading,” said Lord Holmes, sharply. “Does Sherlock discuss his work with you?”

“He does not,” said John. “Though I would certainly be happy to listen, should he wish to do so,” he added, defiant.

Lord Holmes studied him a moment.

“You are not what I was expecting,” he said. “I can see why you have held his interest, for so long. Sherlock was supposed to travel to Italy nearly two months ago, did he tell you that?”

“No,” said John. “But surely, any number of reasons – “

“Hmmm,” said Lord Holmes. “You are playing with fire, Reverend Watson. If you continue to do so, you will suffer for it. And so, I believe, will my brother. I have no doubt that your Archdeacons and Bishop would be concerned to hear of your “acquaintance” with Sherlock.”

“Are you threatening me, my lord?”

“Call it a warning,” said Lord Holmes. “You will be spending two weeks in London after Christmas, I hear, with your family and your future wife. Sherlock should be in Europe by then, so your association will naturally come to an end.” 

John felt a surprising rush of pain at these words, though he kept his face carefully controlled.

“Mr Holmes will not be returning to Astley next summer?” he said.

“I think not,” said Lord Holmes, decisively. “He is only in residence here while writing, and I understand he expects to spend at least a year in Germany, and perhaps then the Middle East if his health allows, gathering materials for his future research.”

“I see,” said John, and swallowed. He had not thought about how his friendship with Holmes might progress into the spring, after John’s marriage, but he had assumed it would. He wondered if Holmes might write to him, while he travelled.

“I shall send you a formal invitation to dinner at the Manor for next week,” said Lord Holmes, turning away, clearly indicating that the conversation was at an end. “And another invitation to our Advent ball, of course. It is a family tradition.”

“Thank you, my lord,” said John, for want of anything better to say.

Lord Holmes reached the gate, turned the corners of his mouth up in something barely approaching a smile, and was helped into a very smart carriage drawn up in the lane. He inclined his head to John as John as watched him drive off, filled with conflicting thoughts.

**

He did receive the promised invitation to dinner, and to the ball a week after, delivered by a very smart footman. He had not been up to the Manor since Lord Holmes’s arrival, being unsure of his welcome, so he looked forward to seeing Holmes at dinner. It was not a cheerful occasion, however. Lestrade was the only other guest, and he and John made painful small-talk about local affairs while Lord Holmes glared at his brother and Holmes sat in petulant silence, barely touching his food, glaring back. Seldom had John been so relieved to have a meal end. He made his excuses, claiming a sermon to write, whereupon Lestrade claimed he had a magistrates’ case to read up on, and they both fled. John stayed awake for a long time that night, though, wondering if his pleasant afternoons with Holmes were over already. If Lord Holmes remained in residence, it did not appear that he would have the opportunity to speak to Holmes alone, in the easy way they had established.

He remained downcast the next morning. There was a knock on the door as he was finishing his breakfast, looking out at the wet, gloomy autumn day, and he heard Lucy bustle to answer it, wondering idly who was coming to bother him on such a miserable morning. When he heard Holmes’s familiar tones, asking if he were in, he jumped up with such a start that he jogged his tea, which split and ran all over the white tablecloth. Holmes had never called on him before. Unable to wait while Lucy showed him in, he went to the door.

“Holmes!” he said. He looked past him for the Holmes carriage, wondering if Lord Holmes was here also.

“I rode down,” said Holmes.

“Ah,” said John, knowing he was transparent, but not caring. He smiled at Holmes, delighted to see him, and Holmes tentatively smiled back.

“Lucy,” said John. “Could you take Mr Holmes’s coat and hat and hang them somewhere warm and then bring us some more tea, please, in the drawing-room? And some toast, perhaps? This way.” Coat removed, he showed Holmes into the smartest of his rooms, the one he seldom used. Holmes looked round curiously at the furniture.

“Thank you,” he said, stripping off his gloves. “Though I should not have let you order tea. Mycroft expects me back to entertain his incredibly dreary guests. I told him I had urgent need of a book I had lent you.”

“Please, sit down,” John said. He bent down to the light the fire.

Holmes perched awkwardly on one of John’s uncomfortable wingback chairs. He looked out of place, like an eagle stuck in a dovecot.

“I came – ” he said, but Lucy was already bringing in the tray with tea, and Holmes played with his gloves, stretching them and turning them over, silent, until she had left again. John poured tea and then sat down in the chair next to Holmes, giving him space to speak.

“I came to apologize for my brother,” Holmes said abruptly. “I don’t know what he said to you, but I’m sure it was insufferably rude. I wished to say that…that I have no attention of dropping your acquaintance. Though it would be understandable if you wished to drop mine.” He said these last words in a rush, gazing at the fire, and John suddenly understood that Holmes was nervous. He experienced a rush of affection.

“Of course not,” he said firmly. “I will be your…friend for as long as you will have me. Who else will put up with your tempers over your writing, and allow you to criticize their taste in literature?”

Holmes’s mouth twisted. He turned to meet John’s eyes.

“I don’t have friends,” he said. John thought he sounded wistful.

“You have at least one,” he said. Impelled by an instinct to comfort, to reassure, he reached out and laid his left hand on Holmes’s right, where it lay on his knee. Holmes’s hand twitched, startled, and then he turned it over and for a moment grasped John’s hand in return, long fingers curled around it. Then John’s teacup, held in his other hand, clattered in its saucer and Holmes let go abruptly.

John sat back in his chair, flexing his fingers, feeling the warmth and strength of Holmes’s clasp. He took a gulp of tea to cover his confusion.

“I must go,” said Holmes, setting down his tea, and he stood up. “No, don’t get up, your cane is in the hall and your leg might give out. I will find my coat and let myself out. Watson, I – shall I see you on Saturday, at the ball? It will be tedious in the extreme. I would welcome your company.”

This was as much of a plea as John had ever heard from Holmes.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “I will not stay late, however, as I have a sermon to give on Sunday.”

“Naturally,” said Holmes. “I will see you then. Thank you again for the tea.”

He disappeared into the hall, and then a brief moment later John heard him thanking Lucy politely, and then the door closing. John set his cup down, and clasped his hands together, looking down at them as though they did not belong to him. He had touched Holmes before, surely, they had shaken hands many times. But this had been different, intimate. He closed his eyes briefly. He had held Mary’s hand so, before they last parted. He shook himself. He should get up and check his wardrobe, ensure that his most formal attire was pressed, as he would clearly need it for the ball. How had he come to leave his cane in the hall? He had entirely forgotten it in the interest of hearing Holmes at the door. He stood up, carefully. Then he saw something on the floor and bent to pick it up. Holmes had dropped one of his gloves, and had not noticed.

John stood for a moment, indecisive, but he could already hear hooves in the lane. He crumpled the glove in his hand, and then carefully put it in his pocket, for safekeeping. He would be able to return it to its owner, on Saturday.

Chapter Text

Lestrade’s carriage picked John up at his gate promptly at eight thirty by John’s pocket watch. Mrs and Miss Hooper were already in it, with Miss Hooper’s crinoline taking up a great deal of the available space. John was a little startled by her dress, which was pale blue and seemed decidedly low-cut, but as he was not an expert on the latest female fashions, he supposed this must be what everyone was doing. She certainly looked very pretty in it, and Lestrade was having evident difficulty in keeping his eyes off her.


The Manor was lit up as John had never seen it, lanterns flaring and carriages drawn up in the drive. John wondered whom Mycroft had invited. Holmes, as far as he knew, was on relatively cordial terms only with him, Lestrade and Miss Hooper, so they were presumably his guests.

Once inside, he realized that his prudishness about Miss Hooper’s dress had been premature. The large drawing-room, carpets rolled up for dancing and a group of musicians already playing at one end, was full of women in their enormous hoops, décolletage on view and a great many jewels. Most of the men were middle-aged or elderly, though there was a scattering of younger men among them. John could tell that everyone there was from London or at least places far away from Astley, and that they were all considerably higher-class than John himself; they had that particular air about them, of condescending to the provincials. He looked about for Holmes, but he was nowhere to be seen. Lord Holmes was in a knot of men by the fireplace, clearly having an intent conversation; John hoped fervently that he would have no opportunity to speak to him.

Not wanting to prevent Lestrade from seizing the opportunity to speak more privately to Miss Hooper, John engaged to find Mrs Hooper a comfortable chair and a drink. Then he sat by her, making small-talk and drinking a glass of punch rather too fast, out of nervousness. People glanced at him, noted his white necktie and plain suit, classified him, and then moved on.

Twenty or so minutes passed in this way, and John was starting to find the ball rather dull. The dancing had started, and he saw Miss Hooper taking to the floor with a young man he didn’t know. As he observed them, there was an eddy in the crowd near the door, and he saw Holmes come in at last. He was dressed impeccably, and looked considerably better in tails, John thought, than almost all the men in the room. His face was a careful blank. A handsome woman in grey silk laid her hand on his arm and said something to him, evidently enquiring about the dance, but Holmes smiled politely, and shook his head. Then a cluster of older men descended on him, and blocked him from view.

John enquired if he could fetch Mrs Hooper some more punch, to give himself something to do. When he returned, concentrating on walking as steadily as possible and not dropping the tray in one hand, his seat had been taken and Mrs Hooper was chatting to a woman about her age. And Holmes was standing against the wall beside her, looking bored. He nodded at John.

John passed Mrs Hooper her drink, and stood beside him. Two young women came over to them, giggling.

“Oh Mr Holmes!” said the taller of the two. “I heard you were not going to dance, but I’m sure you dance beautifully. Do tell us it isn’t true.”

Holmes all but rolled his eyes. “I am not going to dance,” he said. “Especially since you only wish me to dance with you to make young Arbuthnot jealous, after his own efforts on the floor with Lady Arnold’s niece.”

“Oh!” said the girl, shocked. Her companion stared at Holmes, gaping.

“Off you run,” said Holmes. “You should have better luck with Fred Waring, over there.”

“Holmes,” said John, stifling laughter, as the two women walked off, stiffly offended. “That was uncalled for.”

“On the contrary, Watson” said Holmes, smiling at him, sidelong. “I have been fielding requests all night, and I am rapidly losing patience. As the black sheep of the family, I am a fascinating figure, you see.”

True to his word, there was no chance for John to strike up a conversation with him, because every time there was a pause in the music and they could hear themselves, someone else would come past and ask Holmes if he had a partner for the next waltz, or enquire about his health, or ask about his new book. Holmes told each of them something discomfiting, in his most affected drawl – John had to bite his lip several times - and they all left indignant. It was as good as a show, though John was aware that Holmes was doing nothing to mend his reputation.

After a particularly obnoxious old lady who had wanted to lecture Holmes on the error of his ways had been dispatched, Holmes turned to John, looking a little strained.

“I am going outside to smoke, and to escape this infernal racket, ” he said. “Your leg is bothering you – there are benches on the terrace, if you wish to join me.”

“Yes,” said John fervently. He had been feeling increasingly irrelevant and out of place. Several people who had hoped to converse with Holmes had looked at him with astonishment, obviously wondering what a clergyman was doing with Holmes. John rather wondered himself, in this context.

They escaped through the tall open windows onto the terrace, and walked to one of the farther benches. It was a cold and clear night. John sat down on the bench gratefully, though the chill of the stone immediately seeped through his heavy clothes, and tipped his head back to see the stars. Holmes seated himself gracefully beside him, close enough that their legs were almost touching. He took a cigar and some matches from his pocket and lit it. John glanced sideways to see his profile illuminated by the red glow. Holmes made an interrogative noise, and John shook his head: he didn’t need any extra stimulant, he already felt slightly light-headed from the punch.

Holmes took a couple of puffs on the cigar and blew out smoke, in a stream. He sighed, tapping his cigar on the end of the bench.

“Why is it, Watson,” he said, “that you seem neither terrified nor horrified by me?”

John laughed before he could help himself.

“I’m serious,” said Holmes. “For every person in that room, with the possible exception of my brother, my housekeeper and Miss Hooper, I might as well be Satan incarnate. And don’t tell me it’s because you haven’t read my works, because none of them have either.”

“I think you enjoy it,” said John, half-meaning it. “You were courting scandal, tonight.”

“I could have done much worse,” said Holmes. “I was attempting good behaviour.”

“Then I would hate to see you at your worst.”

“Oh, you have,” said Holmes. His voice had lost its playful quality and seemed darker, lower. “All the time. You have simply failed to recognize it.”

He paused. John wasn’t sure how to respond: Holmes’s mood seemed to have suddenly turned serious. Then Holmes took a breath, and half-turned towards him.

“I do not believe in your God, Watson. I see nothing in this physical universe that speaks of anything other than atoms and the void. Tell me, you must then surely believe, like those fools, that I am damned to hell – for you believe in eternal damnation, don’t you?”

“Holmes – ” said John. Don’t do this, he wanted to say. Not now, not ever. “It is perhaps not the time for such discussions – “

“When would be better?” said Holmes. “Tell me.”

Fine. John struggled for the right words. “I believe that repentance is always possible,” he said. “That Christ’s love” – he felt his cheeks heat at Holmes’s sardonic expression, but forged on, determined – “that He will always intervene for us. It matters not what you think you believe, you are still in His care.”

“I see,” said Holmes. He sounded bitter, mocking. “But I have no wish to repent. I will not renounce my intellect, and I will not renounce – I will not renounce my desires, for they make me what I am. Which do you think is worse, Watson, to be an unbeliever or a sodomite?”

John felt trapped, by Holmes’s eyes, raking his face for a reaction, and by his physical presence, too near and close on the bench. He struggled not to look shocked. That was what Holmes wanted, he was sure of it, he was deliberately trying to antagonize John, though for what purpose he could not tell. It would be best to remain calm, not to rise to his bait. And under his biting tone, who knew what depths of suffering or anxiety might lie? It was John’s duty to offer hope, not to push him away farther. He swallowed, and looked away from Holmes deliberately, out over the darkened countryside. The noise of merriment sounded faintly from within.

“It is not for me to judge,” he said, slowly. “Though I would say that the – that the sin of which you speak – I cannot always agree with the world’s assessment. I have seen a man, a respectable man in the eyes of society, buy a twelve-year old girl, for his pleasure. I saw soldiers subjecting local women to the most terrible outrages, during the Mutiny, and jesting about it afterwards. Are these not greater sins than if two men should – ” He broke off, lacking words.

“Watson,” said Holmes beside him, soft yet fierce. John looked straight ahead. He did not dare to turn his head.

“John,” said Holmes. “John, look at me.”

John turned as if Holmes had exerted a magnetic force, and met his eyes, which blazed even in the dim light, cold fires, with something that John was afraid to name.

“What would you do if I – ” said Holmes, almost under his breath, and then he leant over John, one strong hand gripping his thigh, and brushed his mouth against John’s, lightly, and then more firmly. John heard himself make a quiet, pained noise as Holmes drew back, without his intention. He felt the warmth of Holmes’s hand even through the layer of wool, as though Holmes were touching his bare skin.

Holmes drew back a little, eyes hooded and intent, still anchoring John in place with one hand, and then drew one finger of the other down John’s face, tracing his cheekbone, resting on his lips. John had forgotten to breathe, and as Holmes drew back, releasing him, he gasped.

Light spilled onto the terrace behind Holmes as the windows were opened, and the sound of voices and music rose. Holmes stood up smoothly and stepped to the end of the bench, lifting his cigar to his mouth with a steady hand, as two men stepped out, a little shaky on their feet.

“I say, Holmes, isn’t it?” said one of them, approaching, a plump man with a red face and ginger whiskers. “Do you have a light?” The man’s glance registered John and then passed over him again, disinterested.

“Certainly,” Holmes said, with politeness and a total absence of warmth. He found his matches and tossed them over.

“Damned cold out here, isn’t it? Oh, begging your pardon, Reverend.”

“Indeed,” said Holmes. He did not look at John. “I was just about to return inside. I am neglecting my duties as host for this cigar, I fear.” He dropped the cigar end and ground it under his heel. Then he hesitated, only a moment, but John was sure of it.

“Thank you for your company, Reverend Watson,” he said. “I shall see you anon.”

John did not trust his voice. He stammered out some sort of reply and then Holmes was gone, walking briskly to the door. The other man sauntered down the terrace, evidently not deeming John significant enough to merit politeness. John stood. All he could feel was a need to leave the Manor immediately, to get back to his house, to think alone: he was sure that in touching him Holmes had left a brand upon his cheek, a mark that everyone at the ball would be able to see. If he went straight through the hall, asked one of the staff to get a message to Lestrade, he could walk home, it wasn’t that far.

He went back into the house and wove through the mass of people, catching a brief glimpse of Lestrade and Miss Hooper dancing together, slightly clumsily, but no dark curls caught his eye. He left a message with one of the attendants and went out into the cold night air, setting off as fast as he could, trying to chase the memory of Holmes’s mouth on his from his mind.

He could not succeed. All their friendship was presented to him in a new light. All the times he had held Holmes’s gaze perhaps a little longer than he should have, all the times he had lost himself in watching Holmes’s profile by firelight, all the times he had noticed Holmes – the length of his legs in his fine wool trousers, his narrow waist, his shapely hands, the frown line in his forehead – this was his fault. He had led Holmes to believe that – that John was like him.

John stopped at a small copse on the road above his house and church and leant against a tree, catching his breath, his face twisted. He was not like Holmes. Yet you desire him, said a small voice in his head. It may be unnatural, it may be wrong, but you lust for him. You cannot meet with him alone, you will have to refuse his calls, to leave here for London and not return until he has gone.
John winced at this thought. He did not think he would have the will to refuse to see Holmes, if Holmes truly sought him out. Perhaps he would not, though, given what had happened between them, and Holmes’s seeming coldness. John looked down at the quiet church and felt such pain at the thought of never seeing Holmes again that he almost groaned aloud. This was temptation; this was the pain of renunciation, and it was worse than when he had known that he had to renounce the army, because then he had had no choice in the matter.

He pushed himself off the tree and set off again, walking through the sense of oppression at his heart. He would go home and – and read his prayer-book, try to gain some strength. Put this night out of his head, concentrate on tomorrow and on its comforting rituals. It might be that he would not have to renounce Holmes forever, that their friendship could be preserved. He should not try to think of the right thing to do now, but in the morning, in the clear light of day. Thus reassured, John reached his gate.

**
John had just gone to bed, and was hovering uneasily at the edge of sleep, Holmes's face and figure and voice flitting through his mind; when he was woken by a sharp noise. He blinked drowsily, listening. There it was again: a tapping at the window. Hail, perhaps? But it was not consistent. There was another spatter of sound, and John’s brain caught up – someone was throwing stones at his bedroom window. He slid out of bed, feet on the cold floor, and caught up his warm dressing-gown from the chair before peering out. He had told himself it might be some lads from the village playing games, but he knew better. The sight of Holmes did not come as a surprise, but it was still a shock; John felt the blood speed in his veins and swell his heart at it, Holmes standing in his evening suit, hatless, hands clasped behind his back, uncannily beautiful in the faint starlight.

John lit a candle, hands fumbling, and opened the casement.

“Holmes,” he said, trying to keep his voice down. “What is it?”

“Come down,” said Holmes. “I need to speak to you.”

A host of excuses ran through John’s mind, but he found himself unable to voice them.

“John?” said Holmes, a bit softer.

John closed his eyes at the sound of Holmes saying his name. He lifted the candle carefully and carried it downstairs, unlatching the front door. Cold air swept into the house. He sheltered the flame with his hand.

“What is it?” he said. He glanced briefly at Holmes’s eyes, at his cheeks flushed from the chilly night, and then away.

“You forgot something,” said Holmes. “Here.” He held out John’s cane. He looked at John, with perhaps a slight curl to his mouth. John was very aware that he was in a state of undress, comparatively speaking.

“Oh,” said John, automatically taking it. “Thank you.”

He hadn’t even thought – he had walked home, fast, just as though his leg had never been injured at all. Had Holmes really come to his home in the middle of the night simply to return it?

“And you have something of mine,” Holmes said.

“What?” said John. “Oh, yes, your – I left it upstairs in my – " It was in his bedside drawer. He had carried it up to the ball in his pocket, and then never returned it. He could not invite Holmes in, though it seemed ridiculous to speak to him on the doorstep.

“No matter,” said Holmes. He let out a breath. “I – we – were interrupted earlier.”

“Ah,” said John. Holmes had come to say something, he thought. Perhaps to explain his behaviour, to apologize.

“No,” said Holmes, watching him. “It is not my intention to apologize. I meant rather…” He stepped a little closer, and as John blinked at him, hypnotized, he gently took the candle from his hand, lifted it and blew it out. Then, in the sudden darkness, his hand was on John’s cheek, and he stepped forward into the house and crowded John against the wall, his lips glancing across John’s cheek until they met his mouth.

John had lost all ability to reason. He opened his mouth, perhaps to tell Holmes to stop, but Holmes had shifted to kiss below John’s ear, down his neck, and his body pressed up against John. John’s dressing-gown, insecurely tied, fell open and Holmes slid his hands – cold, making John jump a little – inside it. He kissed back up to John’s ear.

“Open your mouth,” he murmured into it. “Let me –” he kissed John’s mouth, and then licked John’s lower lip and when that made John gasp, Holmes’s tongue stroked his, and it felt like a little electric shock. Holmes did it again, and at the same time one of his hands had found its way under John’s nightshirt, cold skin brushing John’s thigh. All of John was shivering, his feet on the cold floor, but Holmes’s mouth was hot, and through his layers of chilled clothing, he was warm.

After some indefinable time, Holmes broke away, breathing hard himself. “Please,” he said. “May I touch you? Please, John” – and John had never heard Holmes sound like that, low and pleading, as though John was the one in command of this – and he wasn’t sure if he had spoken or not, but Holmes’s hand was, was moving on him, stroking and pressing – and John muffled his cries in Holmes’s shoulder and held on, shaking, until it was too much and he was spent, stars bursting behind his eyelids.

He came back to himself to realize that he was still holding on to Holmes, and Holmes was trembling himself, tense. John drew back a little, and Holmes raised his head. His hands were caressing John’s naked back, gentling him. John could barely see him, in the near-darkness. It made everything seem still more unreal.

“If two men should,” said Holmes. His hands stilled. “You said… I have hidden many things from you, John Watson, but I was too weak to hide this. I have – I have desired you for a long time, and you will want me to apologize, but I cannot. For this – for this I won’t feel guilt, however much you wish me to.” His tone had regained some defiance as he spoke, and he straightened a little. John let go of him, and Holmes slid his hands out from under John’s ruined nightshirt and crossed his arms.

John’s thoughts were whirling. He wanted to ask Holmes how he knew about these things, what he had done to take John apart so thoroughly. He wanted to know. This was desire, not like any lusts he had felt before; this was the longing that poets spoke of and men killed for. He knew distantly that he would indeed feel guilt, and suffer for it, but in this moment he simply felt astonished, that this was happening to him.

“We should not have done this,” John said, amazed to find that his voice sounded even and ordinary. “But we have. I also – I know little of these things, but it seems that I might – sympathize. I don’t know what to say, Holmes, I am sorry.”

“I have to go back,” said Holmes. He uncrossed his arms and ran a hand through his hair. “Someone might notice that I am not in my room. These guests – Watson – John, if I may – meet with me tomorrow, tomorrow evening. Mycroft and his friends are going back to London before nightfall. Promise me that you will come, whatever you may be thinking.”

“Of course. Yes,” said John. “I promise. Holmes – or should I call you…?”

“You may call me whatever you wish,” said Holmes, with a glimmer of laughter. “My name is Sherlock, if you prefer to use it.”

“Sherlock,” said John, testing.

“Mmm,” said Holmes. He touched John’s shoulder, briefly. “Tomorrow?” he said.

John took in a deep breath, and then let it out. He had a giddy sense of recklessness, like throwing himself into battle. “Tomorrow,” he confirmed, and Holmes smiled at him, genuine. He watched Holmes walk away, untie his patient horse from the gate, mount and ride off, with a brief wave in John’s direction. They had never even shut the door. John bolted it, stood before it a moment, and then climbed the stairs, cautious in the darkness.

Chapter Text

John woke up slowly, from confused dreams, in the darkness of a winter morning. About six, he judged, without checking his pocket watch. Rather than swinging himself out of bed immediately to start the day, he lay for a moment in the warmth of the bed, thinking. The previous night was blurred in his mind, but his flesh remembered it; Holmes’s – Sherlock’s – hands searing him down to the bone. It had been well over a decade since anyone had last touched his skin under his clothes, had held him with desire. Indeed, he wasn’t sure that anyone had ever held him as Holmes had done. He waited to experience guilt and pain over his actions, but it did not come. He knew that the world and the Church would view what he and Holmes had done with horror. Yet when he set himself deliberately to think about the details, the sensation of falling in his stomach and the beating at his heart was a little like terror, but also like joy. Sherlock, he said to himself. Holmes had given him his name to use, like a secret. Yesterday he had vowed on renunciation, and then Sherlock had come to his house and those vows had blown away like straw in the wind.

And now it was too late, John thought. Whatever might happen next, he had already gone too far to pretend to himself that there was a way back. He had faced temptation, and he had fallen, and there was no regaining innocence. I do not care what the world thinks, he told himself. This was true, at least in part, but he did care – he reached inside himself for the knowledge of God’s presence, a comfort and security that had never failed him, and it was still there, the peace that passes understanding.

All my life, I have done as I was bid, he said to that quiet presence. I have tried to serve You as best as I could. If I have failed You, if this is truly a sin, then I know that I will repent it. Your judgment will abide, not that of men.

There was no answer, of course. Unless, John thought, his lack of guilt, his strange sense of rightness, constituted an answer. He had heard a great many men confess their sins on their deathbeds and tell him of the people they had hurt, the suffering they had caused. This – with Sherlock – beyond the fact that they were two men, what was there to confess? No-one was damaged by what they had done. And it had not felt unnatural and perverted to John, though perhaps this was a sign that he was already corrupted. Of course, there was also Sherlock’s confession of his lack of faith, overshadowed by what had come after but not forgotten. Though this had not come as a surprise. John had believed what he had said, however. He could not but hope that despite everything, Sherlock would still find his way to the same faith that supported John. If what they had done made this harder, then that was the worst sin John could commit. He turned this over in his mind, but reached no conclusion.

He thought of Mary, and here he did feel a pang. If she knew...but the thought of her knowing was incomprehensible. He had scarcely told her of his friendship with Sherlock, knowing that she was unlikely to approve or understand. Mary and he had never discussed whether John had been chaste before he met her, or after: he assumed she understood, as women seemed to, that unmarried men were very seldom celibate. Marriage was for companionship, for children, and of course an honourable man would be faithful after it, but before... He hoped, of course, that Mary and he might find pleasure together, in their marriage bed, but this was uncharted territory. What he loved in Mary was her modesty and delicacy, her kindness and patience, her assured faith, her innocence. They had kissed on the lips, briefly, and he had held her in his arms, on their engagement and on significant partings; he had kissed and smoothed her hair and taken her hand in his, but no further. She was the opposite of Sherlock in every way, and even to think of them in the same context was distasteful. No, whatever happened, Mary would be above it. John would deal with any consequences himself, and if he suffered, as he knew he would even if that knowledge had not yet translated into feeling, he would do so in silence.

Four weeks. It was December 3rd. Just before the New Year, after his Christmas duties, he was going to London. And Sherlock, if his brother were correct, would be in Europe. Their association would end. John had thought of this before with panic and regret, but this morning he saw it in a new light. If he would not see Sherlock again until after he was married, embarked on a new life in which surely the madness that had seized him last night would be gone, then might he have these weeks before the inevitable parting? He thought of Sherlock’s voice, low, telling John that he had desired him throughout their acquaintance, and felt the prickle of lust, undeniable. It was wrong to obey his body’s desires, of course it was, but what he wanted was not simply that: even if Sherlock never touched him as he had last night, it would not matter so much as long as John could still see him and speak to him, for this short time. To give Sherlock up – it would be the right thing to do, but it would destroy John and perhaps – perhaps Sherlock also. Sherlock, John considered, might be thinking of John now, in his own bed or in his study with his violin, believing John to be full of regret and self-castigation. As he should be, no doubt, but was not.

John threw off his covers, and as always knelt to say his morning prayers. Today was Sunday, and he had a sermon planned on the text for that week, but he felt inspired to change it. He would preach on friendship, he thought, defiantly, on the friendship of David and Jonathan, the love that passeth the love of women. And if Lord Holmes were in the congregation, he would be obliged to listen politely.

***

Lord Holmes was not at church, and nor were his assembly of London friends, to John’s secret relief. Nor was Mrs Hudson, though that probably meant that her hip was paining her again. He got through his Sunday duties, receiving congratulations on his heartfelt sermon from a number of the Church committee women, hearing Sunday school students recite their catechism, and conducting the evening service. Then, church finally emptied of people, and all in order, he was free.

His leg had, miraculously, remained steady all day, and a number of his congregation had remarked upon it. John did not know how his cure had been achieved, and he did not think about it too closely. He decided to walk to the Manor, carrying a lantern against the winter darkness, to test it.

When he reached the familiar door, the drive empty and quiet again after the bustle of the night before, he stood in front of it, nerving himself to knock. He was fearful, suddenly, of what Sherlock might say or do. Then the door opened suddenly, and Sherlock was there. His physical presence struck John dumb, and he stood for a moment, simply staring. Sherlock’s curls were disordered, and he was wearing one of his outlandish jackets, Chinese dragons rioting over it in scarlet and gold, and his lips were –

John’s throat was dry. He wanted to ask Sherlock why on earth he was answering the door himself, but the words seized up in his mouth.

“Mrs Hudson has gone to visit her sister for two weeks,” Sherlock said, reading his unspoken question,  “and I gave the house servants a holiday until tomorrow morning. There is a fair two towns away, they will not be back until the early hours. The grooms and farm workers are here, and the cook, naturally, but they do not sleep in the main house. I told them I desired peace and quiet after the last week, and of course I thought it best to have privacy, for... whatever you might wish to say to me.”

He looked coiled with tension, as nervous as John was, and for him this was practically babbling. Recognizing this, John suddenly felt better, more like himself, someone who could act with decision and confidence. He set down the lantern carefully on the steps.

“Whatever I might wish to say,” he said, deliberately, meeting Sherlock’s eyes. There it was again, that spark between them, arcing like electricity.

 “Or” – he took a deep breath –  “whatever I might wish to, to do?”

He had a moment of panic at the stunned look on Sherlock’s face, a cold feeling that he had misjudged, and then Sherlock caught him by the shoulders and pulled him bodily through the door, kicking it shut behind them and pushing John against it. The memory of the previous night rushed through John and he made a noise. Sherlock was staring at him, wide-eyed and disbelieving, holding him at arm’s length.

“You cannot mean,” he said. “It is not possible – I wagered everything and I knew I would lose – the odds...Do not jest with me, you do not understand – ”

“Sherlock,” said John, and Sherlock was, for once, silenced. “I want – I don’t know what I want, but I did not come here to berate you or accuse you, I came to say – I came to say that I am going to London in four weeks, and after that we must meet no more, it will be necessary that we part – but for now. For now I am here. With you.”

Sherlock took in a ragged breath, and then exhaled. “Four weeks,” he said. “These are your terms? I accept them. You are here – John, I didn’t believe that you would come, after everything I had said, I thought you would have been on the train to London, to anywhere, but you – you astonish me, every time. And to say to me - ” He took one hand off John’s shoulders, pressing it to his mouth, and then laid it on John’s cheek. John had that sense again, of being mesmerized, unable to look away from him.

“You may do anything you wish, to me,” Sherlock said, lower. “Anything, John.”

John licked his lips. “What do you want?” he said.

“Everything,” said Sherlock. His fingers moved over John’s lips, tracing them, and John’s mouth fell open, a little. Sherlock’s eyes had darkened.

“I want – I want to see you out of these clothes,” he said. “It is safe, there is no-one here. Will you come to my bedroom?”

John nodded, overwhelmed. His body ached for touch, yearning towards Sherlock. He followed him up the stairs, into the parts of the house where he had never penetrated before, along the corridor and through a heavy door. A fire was burning low in the fireplace, taking the chill off, but otherwise the room was in darkness, though John had a sense of heavy furnishings and grandeur. Sherlock moved confidently across it and lit a candle by the bedside, and then another on a chest of drawers, revealing a large mahogany bed standing on a rich Turkish carpet. He stirred up the fire. John looked at the bed, his heart beating faster. He wanted…something to happen, but he did not know what to expect, in this strange situation. Yesterday at this time he had been dressing to go to the ball, downstairs in this very house, and now he was in Holmes’s – in Sherlock’s bedroom, by his own choice, with no excuse of wine or surprise to protect him.

Sherlock, as though sensing his doubts, stood up and came over to him. He eased John’s coat over his shoulders, letting it fall on the floor, and then started on his neckcloth and the buttons of his waistcoat.

“You are not my valet,” said John, to break the silence between them. His voice had a slight catch in it. “I can undress myself.” His waistcoat joined his coat on the floor, and Sherlock began on his shirt.

“Mmm,” said Sherlock, brow creased in concentration as he fiddled with John’s shirt buttons. “I would enjoy being your valet.”

John laughed, surprised, and Sherlock shot him a look full of humour and mischief, and then slid his hand deliberately down John’s shirt-front, to rest on his trousers. John’s hips jerked forward, and his knees weakened. Sherlock made a low noise in his throat and went back to unbuttoning, John clumsily trying to help him.

“These damn buttons,” Sherlock said. “There!” He undid the last one, and they pulled John’s shirt off together, and then he pulled his undershirt over his head while Sherlock, distractingly, began on his trouser buttons and then pulled both trousers and long-johns down, impatient.

“Boots,” said John, gasping, and Sherlock bent to untie the knots. John wavered on his feet, setting a hand lightly on Sherlock’s head for balance, and then finally Sherlock pulled off his boots and then the whole bundle of clothes round his legs, and he was naked.

John had been naked in front of other men many times, of course, but never in such a state; he would have felt embarrassed, even humiliated, but Sherlock was looking at him with undisguised hunger. John shivered, only partly from cold.

“Bed,” said Sherlock. He tugged John’s hand, and John went with him, under the rich coverlets. The sheets were ice-cold. Sherlock was still completely dressed: he bent to untie his shoes, heeled them off, took off his smoking-jacket, and then got into the bed behind John, his shirt and trousers rubbing against John’s naked back. John found himself shaking, though whether from nerves or the cold he could not say. He was in another man’s bed – they were about to….

“Shhh,” said Sherlock in his ear. “I have you. We have time.” He ran his hands down John’s back, as though soothing a skittish horse. “My hands are cold, I’m afraid.” His tone was apologetic, but as he spoke he kissed under John’s ear, and  then one of his hands moved on John’s chest, rubbing at a nipple, and John’s breath caught. His interest, which had flagged, renewed.

“You are, oh – experienced in these matters,” he said, breathless.

“Yes,” said Sherlock, simply. “I have lived much of my life on the Continent. Things are freer there.”

John frowned slightly at that, but it was impossible to think with Sherlock’s hands moving just so, on him. John shifted under his touch, restless, pressing back against him. Sherlock groaned and bit at his shoulder, and John felt the consuming flare of lust again. The feel of Sherlock’s clothes against him was maddening.

Sherlock shifted over John until John was on his back with Sherlock propped above him, dipping his head to kiss John, slowly. One of his hands slid down between them to touch John lightly, maddeningly, where he was hard and aching, and John’s body jerked, again and again, outside his control.

“Hell,” said Sherlock, breaking the kiss. “I want to – can I show you something I learned in, umm, in France? I will stop if you ask, but please – “ He kissed John’s collarbone, and then his chest, moving downwards, hidden under the coverlet. John reached for him, unsure, but then he felt – it took him a moment to realize that Sherlock had his mouth on him, holding his hips down hard. Noise spilled from his mouth, a curse or a groan; he could not think past the sensations that were engulfing him, of heat and wetness and pressure. He could not move, he could only lie and feel everything: Sherlock’s breath, his tongue, his hand on him. Time stopped, slowed down, and it might have been a moment or an age before he knew somewhere that he was going to spill, to spend, and as everything wound tight inside him and then the pleasure crested, he screwed his eyes shut and let it overtake him.

He came back to himself, limp and heavy, breathing hard, feeling as though he had run a race. Sherlock was beside him, stroking his chest. John glanced sideways at his mouth and then away, quickly. He had heard men talking of this act and had been shocked by the talk. He had never thought to experience it. He felt himself start to blush.

“Too much?” said Sherlock, tension in his voice. “I have shocked you.”

“You,” said John, clearing his throat. “You…like to do that?”

Sherlock laughed a little. “Indeed,” he said, with a trace of defiance. 

John turned his head to look at him properly. Sherlock did seem tense, wary. But then he had not… Oh. John struggled to pull his wits together. Sherlock was still dressed, though very rumpled, and there were a careful few inches between his lower body and John’s. John moved his leg, daringly, to press against the front of Sherlock’s trousers and felt the hitch of his hips, saw his eyelashes flutter and his mouth curl.

“You have not…” he said. “You aren’t even undressed.”

“It’s fine,” said Sherlock, a little rougher than usual. “I don’t expect you to – you are not like me, John. If you will allow me to give you pleasure, that will be more than I could have hoped for. I assure you I am content.”

Part of John thought that he should leave it at that, and sink into the pleasant lassitude that was engulfing him, but the other part, the part that led to his most reckless decisions, objected to this as cowardice.

“You said, ‘anything’,” he said. “Then I want to – to see you.”

Sherlock searched his face for a moment, and then nodded. He sat up and started scrambling out of his clothes, discarding them carelessly. Then he lay down on his side, facing John. John reached out to stroke his chest, thin and muscled and smooth, like warm marble, glowing in the candlelight. Sherlock closed his eyes, biting his lip as if he were in pain, and John could feel his chest rising and falling, his heartbeat speeding under his hand. Nerving himself, John moved his hand under the covers, feeling wiry hair and hard flesh under his hand. He curled his fingers around and moved, tentatively, watching Sherlock’s face. His mouth fell open a little and he made a sound: John, encouraged, shifted to a better position and explored more boldly. He had done this to himself, and it felt less strange to do it to another man than he had expected. And the play of feeling across Sherlock’s face, as John grew more confident, was fascinating.

Sherlock opened his eyes, which seemed almost black in the dim light.

“John, I am going to – Oh damn it, your hands,” and he surged forward and kissed John desperately, shuddering, as John felt wetness spill over his fingers. He did not feel disgusted. He felt amazed, that Sherlock Holmes, so coolly rational, so knowledgeable, so self-assured, could be trembling in John’s arms, speechless. Impelled by a fierce affection, John put his arms around Sherlock and held him, hard.

After a few moments, Sherlock stirred in his arms, drawing back. His lips curved, and John found himself smiling back, noticing, in their closeness, the fine lines around Sherlock’s eyes, marking him as older than he seemed at first glance. Lines of experience. John remembered Sherlock’s earlier comment.

“What are you thinking?” said Sherlock, sounding curious and fond.

“I was wondering about your past,” said John. “About what you said – you know.”

“Hmm,” said Sherlock. He was silent for a moment, thinking. “If you wish to know, I will tell you, but you may find it shocking.”

“Then I promise not to be shocked,” said John, mock-serious, and Sherlock rolled his eyes at him. John watched him, waiting.

Sherlock sighed. “Very well. It is not that long a story,” he said. “My grandmother is French. I grew up there, in part. My first lover was – well, he was my godfather. There were boys at school, of course, but they didn’t really count.” He shrugged. “And when I was at Oxford, other boys, and then I set off to travel in Europe and study. I was young and reckless, and I won’t bore you with the details. And then I was older and a little less reckless. There was Pierre – he was an opera singer, a beautiful light tenor. And a little later, Giuseppe, a painter, in Rome. Not a very good painter, on reflection.” His lip curled. “If you have enough money and a title, you can buy anything or anyone. I thought they were interested in me, but they were interested in the contents of my purse. Pierre – I came back from an extended visit to some German archives and found him with another man, in the apartment I had bought for him. And Giuseppe became dull, demanding; I needed to work, and he wanted to argue, to fight and make up, histrionics and complaints about his neglected genius. And so I told him what I really thought about his art and left.” He sighed. “I realise that this does not portray me in a good light, but you did ask. You may as well know the worst.”

John raised his eyebrows. He was scandalized, and he did not want to ask what age Sherlock had been when he had first been, well, corrupted - but he also felt sadness and indignation on Sherlock’s behalf, for these men who had not appreciated him, who had not seen his brilliance and had left him cynical, and as alone as John had found him.

“Well,” he said. “At least you know I have no interest in your wealth and title. Also, I can neither paint nor sing.”

Sherlock’s eyes crinkled with laughter. “Do not sell yourself short, John Watson,” he said. “You have a surprising talent for helping my work. And you are far more interesting than any man I have known before.”

“Oh,” said John. “Umm. Thank you.” He gazed into Sherlock’s eyes, feeling sentimental. It was extraordinary, to be in a bed with someone he felt such affection for, their limbs warm and heavy and entwined. He could never, by any reach of his imagination, have anticipated this. He still could not quite believe it was happening.

“I would like to keep you here, all night,” said Sherlock, thoughtfully.

John flushed again at the thought. Already, he felt desire stirring again.

“The servants…” he said. “I have to go.”

“I know,” said Sherlock. “But not quite yet?”

“I will fall asleep,” said John, only half-joking. The bed was enormously comfortable, and he had slept little the night before.

“Then do,” said Sherlock. “I will wake you up, when it’s time. Or” – he ran a hand lightly up John’s inner thigh – “I can try to keep you awake now, if you prefer.”

“You are… dangerous,” said John, with humour.

“True,” Sherlock said lightly. “But you knew that before.”

Chapter Text

Four days before he left for London, John thought as he rode up to the Manor. It was December 27th. He could not in conscience remain in Astley any longer. Four days. He would, by choice, have spent every moment of them with Sherlock, learning by rote the sound of his voice, the never-ceasing shock of his touch, taking him to heart. It had only been yesterday evening that he had seen him, yet as always he was full of eagerness.

All the last weeks, he had been carrying on his ordinary duties as he always did, celebrating the Christmas season with his parishioners, assisting those who needed extra food or coals in the cold snap that had set in, or who had fallen sick with the winter fever; drinking mulled wine and playing charades and party games at Lestrade’s Christmas party (to which Sherlock had been invited, but had refused to go) and participating with good humour in the other social events at which his flock wanted to see their pastor. He had not been impatient with these tasks. He had not resented them, or alternatively, felt guilt in performing them. Instead, he had felt sustained by a confidence that he was doing justice to his position, that he was helping, and that the people of Astley were, now, content with him, even perhaps proud of him. Wrong as his acts with Sherlock might be, he could not deny that he was full to the brim with goodwill, which overflowed into his clerical duties and made them fresh and easy.

Yet all this was dependent on another life, carried on in the rich darkness of Sherlock’s bedroom in the cold December afternoons and evenings, a life so far removed from the everyday that sometimes John would pause in giving Lucy instructions or speaking comforting words to the sick, or even preaching, and wonder if he had dreamed it all. But when he was there, in Sherlock’s room, in the Manor, it was reversed and it seemed as if here, now, was the only place that was real, where John could be himself, without any pretence.

He had learned, in these weeks, things that he had never thought to know. He had done things he had never thought to want. After he left Sherlock, always at an hour when it would seem reasonable for him to return home; afterwards, lying in his own bed, he would think of these things with something like disbelief. How it had felt when Sherlock took both of them in hand, his hands that now John couldn’t look at on the violin, or turning pages, or holding a cup, without picturing what they could do to him. The evening when Sherlock had asked - had begged John to fuck him – John’s mind stuttered over the word, one he had never spoken aloud – and had helped John to use the oil he had, to prepare him, and then had showed him the way of it. However much pleasure John might have gained from all other acts with Sherlock, he had not believed he could want this. It was without question an act that perverted the uses for which their bodies had been designed. He had intended to refuse. But that one night, with Sherlock asking in such a way, he had wanted it – and to be inside Sherlock, to be surrounded by him, had been a sensation so exquisite that John had thought he should die of it. 

Most often, he thought with amazement of Sherlock under his hands. John knew that in this as in all his encounters with Sherlock since they had first met, he was unequal. Sherlock led, and he followed. As he grew in confidence, however, as he learned that trailing a fingertip up Sherlock’s thigh could make him shiver and curse, that biting at his neck made him moan, or that taking Sherlock’s fingers into his mouth and sucking on them would make Sherlock’s eyes close and his mouth open on John’s name, he realized that if he could not tell what Sherlock was thinking, he could at least tell when John had rendered him unable to think. John could not recall Sherlock, lost in pleasure as John touched him, without thinking of it as an astounding gift, something brilliant and undeserved.

“You are…very good at this,” Sherlock said to him once, recovering, his eyes closed and his chest still heaving. “I had, I confess, thought that you would need more…persuasion.”

“It is not a skill I had expected to master,” John replied, dry, and watched Sherlock laugh.

John had always been able to make Sherlock laugh, but laughter was not something he had associated with the things that happened between two people in a bed. His own previous encounters had been rushed and awkward, and when he had heard men talk about how much they had enjoyed acts with women, there was little sense of mutual affection. And no respectable gentleman would discuss his marital life with others: after marriage, John had assumed, it would be hushed, gentle, respectful. One time with Sherlock, Sherlock insisted on reading him a lengthy passage from what he claimed was a highly erotic Eastern work, and John shoved at him until Sherlock fell off the bed, ungainly, and then lay on the floor in a sprawl of limbs, laughing, the book spread out beside him. Once or twice, Sherlock’s more experimental notions of how they might arrange themselves had ended in disaster, but teasing him for it had been almost as enjoyable as the act itself. In Sherlock’s room, John felt young, irresponsible and carefree, as though the long years abroad had never happened, he felt renewed.  

And they were not always in bed, of course, though more often than not. John would sit and watch Sherlock playing his violin, something he had seldom been allowed to observe before: he could contentedly listen, now, for hours. Sherlock caught a cold a week before Christmas, and moped in front of the fire downstairs for three days, wrapped in a dressing-grown and coughing pathetically, while John read them the whole of The Woman in White, which Mary had been telling him to read for a year. He finished it on Christmas Eve. Sherlock picked holes in the plot with great satisfaction and scoffed at the hero’s taste in women, but he made John carry on till he was as hoarse as Sherlock, regardless.

They were careful, naturally, and there were also afternoons where the servants were in evidence and John had to sit and sip tea politely, talking to Sherlock about books and neutral topics as though the past weeks had never happened; torture when he could see the slight smile on Sherlock’s lips that said he could read John’s thoughts about what else they could be doing. Mrs Hudson had returned a week ago, but Sherlock assured John that she was different.

“She’s known me most of my life,” he said. “Better than my parents. She’ll worry that I seduced you against your will, but she will defend me against all comers, and she will not tell my brother or anyone else.”

And sure enough, Mrs Hudson had patted John on the shoulder, when he next arrived at the Manor, and told him with a perfectly straight face that she thought Sherlock was upstairs. John had been a little horrified, but also a little relieved. He had been honest with Lestrade and Miss Hooper about how much time he was spending with Sherlock, since he knew that the village would be aware of how often he was at the Manor in any case, he had simply not said what he was doing with that time. Mrs Hudson was another matter, though, and he would have been uneasy with lies and subterfuge under her nose.  

John had tried, harder than ever in his life, to live each day simply, not thinking about the future. Yesterday, however, for the first time, his train ticket booked, he had steeled himself to remember what was coming, and had asked Sherlock about his intentions. Sherlock was sitting up in bed, the coverlet pulled over him and his arms clasping his knees, watching John struggle into his chilled garments.

“I will also go to London on the 31st,” he said. “Though I assume you will wish to travel separately. Mycroft is holding a New Year’s Eve party at his club, and I will be expected to put in an appearance.” He broke off to cough, frowning in annoyance.

“Ask Mrs Hudson for more of her lemon posset,” said John, concerned. “You’re still not recovered. You should put on a nightshirt.”

“Don’t fuss,” said Sherlock, dismissively, and then brightened. “Anyway, if I can claim to be ill I can miss the party.”

John’s chest tightened as he pictured Sherlock at a party with Mycroft, dressed in his finest suit, moving in the fashionable world of London and surrounded by admirers, while John pretended to be glad to see his mother and Harry over a frugal meal in their small villa in Camden. 

“And then?” he said, turning away slightly as he buttoned his shirt, so that Sherlock would not see his face. “You are still planning to leave England?”

“Yes,” said Sherlock, something undefinable in his tone. “I am booked on the Paris boat for January 1st.”

John found that he could not trust himself to speak. He busied himself in tying his neckcloth.

“I will go from there to Italy, and probably remain in Rome or Florence for the winter and spring,” Sherlock added, still with a curious note in his voice.

“Mmm,” said John. He tried to stop up his feelings. “I have never been to Italy,” he said, and his voice sounded choked even to him.

“John…,” said Sherlock. John did not turn to look. “Damn this,” said Sherlock, suddenly passionate. “You must know I would beg you to come with me, if I thought there were any chance you would agree.”

At that, John did turn. “You know I could not, even if – ”, he said.

“I know.” Sherlock bent his head against his clasped knees for the space of a few breaths, and then raised it again. “That was unfair. We agreed. Let us not spoil the rest – the rest of our time together with discussions of the future. Only I must say now –” he took a deep breath, and let it out – “I must say that I do not think I will be able to return here after you have brought your bride home.”

“Oh,” said John. He stood with his coat in his hands, staring at Sherlock and trying to fathom never seeing him again, never again taking the familiar path up to the Holmes manor. Then he imagined bringing Mary here, Sherlock rising languidly from his study chair to shake her hand, with hands which had – and that was almost worse.

“It might be for the best,” he said, slowly. “Can we – will you write to me?”

Sherlock hesitated, and John was suddenly sure he was going to refuse.  

“If you still wish me to,” he said, finally. “I will send a card with my address. You can choose.”

“Of course I will wish you to,” said John, with heat. “And we still have some time.”

“Yes,” said Sherlock, with a smile that wrenched at John’s heart. “We should save our goodbyes, for the last moment.”

***

And now there were four days left.

John was distracted from his increasingly melancholy thoughts by seeing another horse tied up at the front of the Manor. He stared at it, dismayed, recognizing it as one of the Red Lion’s nags. Who could be visiting Sherlock, on this date? Not someone local, presumably. He wondered if he should turn back. But if he did, they would not see each other until the next day, and the thought of wasting today was unbearable. And he was curious. If it were a stranger, what they thought of a vicar calling on Sherlock would not matter, after all – he would merely have to pretend that this was a casual visit, and hope to outstay them.

He dismounted and rang the bell. Mrs Hudson let him in.

“Good afternoon,” said John. He gestured at the other horse. “Another visitor? Shall I be interrupting?”

He expected Mrs Hudson to reassure him, but instead she visibly hesitated, seeming torn.

“Oh, Reverend Watson,” she said. “It’s not that he won’t want to see you, of course, but he does have company and I wonder if perhaps you should, umm – “

Reverend?” said a light male voice from the hall behind her, with what sounded like malicious amusement. “Holmes, what have you been up to in this godforsaken place?”

Mrs Hudson stood aside, with an apologetic look at John, and John scraped his boots and went in, tense. There was a small man in the hall, dressed in a suit and shoes that John could tell were expensive, studying him with dark eyes. As John frowned at him, Sherlock emerged from his study. He looked at John with a grimace, clearly trying to communicate something, though unfortunately John could not tell what.

“Reverend John Watson of Astley,” he said to the stranger, determined on politeness. “I came to speak with Mr Holmes, sir, but if he is engaged I shall return at another time.”

“James Moriarty,” said the stranger, giving a mock-courtly little bow and ignoring John’s outstretched hand. “Professor. Of the University of Cambridge. Here to congratulate my old friend Holmes on his forthcoming sensation. And by all means, join us, Reverend.” He smiled at John, unpleasantly.

John did not dare to look at Sherlock for guidance. He nodded acceptance, gave Mrs Hudson his coat, and followed Moriarty back into Sherlock’s room. Old friend?, he thought. The level of familiarity in Moriarty’s tone was disturbing, and John felt that he had taken an instant dislike to him, yet he very much wanted to know why Moriarty was there.

The study was well-lit, with a roaring fire. John sat not in his usual chair, but on the less comfortable sofa beside it. Mrs Hudson fussed around, fetching him an extra cup, while Moriarty drank tea in unnerving silence and observed John, and Sherlock stared resolutely into the fire. 

When Mrs Hudson left, John felt it up to him to break the ensuing silence.

“You mentioned congratulations, sir?” he said to Moriarty. “May I ask for what cause?”

“Why, for Holmes’s book, of course. The publisher sent me one of the first copies off the press, knowing my great admiration for his work. My review for Blackwood’s will appear next week. Seventeen pages, leading article. It will set the cat among the pigeons, and no mistake.” It was impossible to tell whether his tone was mocking or sincere.

“Your review?” said John. “You are a professor of – ?”

“Of mathematics,” said Moriarty. “But my interests are – eclectic. As no doubt are yours, if you seek out Holmes’s company. Tell me, has he shown you his magnum opus? I assume not, though the capacity of the Anglican clergy to remain complacent in the face of the evidence never ceases to surprise me.”

“I have not read it, as yet,” said John steadily, ignoring the provocation. He wondered how soon he could leave, though he was uncertain about whether he should remain to try to rescue Sherlock from this man. 

“Oh, you must. Holmes has finally fulfilled his promise – do you recall, Holmes, those days at Balliol when we vowed to destroy the Church and the whole of Christendom? I must say I never thought you would really pull it off, but I’m very impressed at how far you’ve gone. And with my review, of course, the British public will hardly be able to ignore the implications. Do you know, Reverend-”

Sherlock stirred in his seat and appeared to come to life. He looked towards John, without meeting his eyes.

“I am sorry to cut your call short, Watson, but I do have some matters to discuss with Professor Moriarty. I’m sure our business can wait until tomorrow.” 

John, feeling a mixture of anger and hurt, straightened his back and set his cup down.

“Certainly,” he said, and turned to Moriarty to take his leave.

 “Wait,” said Moriarty, sharp as a whip-crack. “Now I remember. I heard a rumour that you were associating with the clergy.” His eyes crawled over John, and John felt a shiver run through him. Moriarty looked at him as though his gaze alone could penetrate John’s heart, anatomize it and leave all his feelings for Sherlock on display.

“Moriarty – ” said Sherlock, agitated, but Moriarty spoke over him.

“Oh, Holmes, what have you done? Dear, dear.” He grinned at John, showing all his teeth. “No wonder you’ve been shutting yourself up in this hole. Corrupting an innocent, what a delight, and a vicar too; mind and body both – I take it all back, you have created the most novel experiment I’ve seen in quite some time. And as you know, dearest, I’ve seen it all.”

John flinched at the endearment: he could not stop himself in time. Moriarty knew – he had looked at John and known immediately, and if he knew that Sherlock – John felt entirely helpless, paralysed by fear. He could neither admit that he understood Moriarty’s implications nor ignore them. He glanced briefly at Sherlock. His hands were tightly gripping the armrests of his chair, and his face was white and set. His mind was doubtless whirring, but John, in this situation, had no idea what he would say. A Sherlock who could be friends – maybe more – with someone like this was not the man John knew.

It was up to him to extricate himself. He forced his features into an expression of bemusement and turned to Moriarty.

“I do not understand your tone, sir,” he said. “I came to pay a friendly call to a neighbour on a matter of business, as Mr Holmes said. In relation to – to a scientific society I run for our village youth. I can assure you that Mr Holmes and I do not discuss religious matters. I will take my leave. Holmes,” he stood, and nodded his head. Sherlock did not even glance at him.  “Professor Moriarty.” He thought that Moriarty might say something to stop him, but he simply raised his eyebrows at John, grinning all the time. John hated to turn his back on him and walk out, but he did, feeling every moment of the short walk to the door as though it were a mile under enemy fire.

Once out in the hall, he closed the door gently behind him and paused for a moment to breathe, still gripped by terror. Mrs Hudson appeared from behind the baize door, took one look at his face, and clucked at him.

“Oh dear,” she said. “He’s not a nice man, that one. A bad influence, that’s what he is. Not like you, Reverend Watson. You come again later – I heard the Professor saying that he’s catching the 6:30 to London, so he’ll have to leave for the station in an hour or so.”

“Thank you,” said John. “That’s very kind of you,” and he somehow gathered himself together enough to leave with dignity. He mounted Bess and considered. He did not want to go home and pace the floors. He would pay some calls to the families he had neglected in the remoter parts of the parish, on the other side of the Holmes estate. Engaging in his duty would soothe him, he hoped.

After three calls, he was returning through the dusk, around five o'clock, tired in mind and body from tension and worry, and from the effort of concealing it, along the lanes at the westward edge of the Holmes’s lands, when he saw Sherlock himself approaching, riding at a swift canter. He drew up Bess and waited until Sherlock drew to a showy stop beside him.

“I knew you would ride to see the Thorpes,” he said. “I came after you as soon as he left.”

“Who is he, Sherlock? He looked at me once and he knew about us, don’t try to deny it. How do you know him?”

Sherlock looked down at his hands on the reins. Then John heard him sigh.

“I’ve known James Moriarty since I was a student,” he said. “He was the same age as me, and the only person who seemed at my level – I could speak to him freely of my thoughts, because he shared them. We were…friendly, I suppose. But we grew apart. I disliked his methods, and his views seemed extreme even to me. He has pursued our friendship. I have not, but it is politic for me to retain his goodwill. He is a very eminent mathematician, philosopher and critic and a man of surprising influence, and besides we are in the same – the same society, so to speak. Men who are – freethinkers. On a great many matters, not simply questions of religion. There are members in London, Paris, some of the other continental cities. I used to – that is, I do – see him on occasion there.”

“I see,” said John. He thought bitterly that he would never be a member of this secret society, which doubtless spent its time mocking everything that he held dear. “Did you and he – He called you ‘dearest’,” and then, hearing himself, he immediately wanted to take it back. He sounded like a jealous wife, something he had no right to do.

“Were we lovers?” said Sherlock, with his usual frankness. He sighed again. “Yes, briefly. I was young. I deeply regret it. John, Moriarty delights in setting people at odds, but he will not betray us, I swear it. He may use it against me, but he has no interest in you.”

John huffed out a breath, seeing the mist it created in the frosty air. The fear and hurt he had felt from that afternoon’s conversation had not dissolved, though some of it swirled away, leaving the hard kernel.

“You didn’t tell me that your book had been published,” he said, level.

“No.” Sherlock sounded unsure. “I sent the proofs to the publisher the week before – the last week of November. I have – scarcely been thinking of it, these last weeks. I had not expected it to be printed so rapidly. ”

“You do not wish me to read it,” said John, and there it was, there was the heart of the matter. He knew he was behaving churlishly and inconsistently, given that he had never raised this question with Sherlock before, but his worst self was prevailing. “You think I will not understand it, I assume. I expect you are right.”

“Not understand it,” said Sherlock, disbelieving. He half-laughed. “I wrote it for you, John. I thought of how you would respond to every line. I can assure you, it is not the thought of you failing to understand my work that wakes me in the night, it is the thought..." He swallowed and looked away.

John frowned, failing to comprehend. “For me?” he said, slowly. “Then…then you must let me read it, Sherlock. I will order my own copy, if you will not lend me one.”

Sherlock closed his eyes, briefly, and when he opened them he looked defeated. “I have some copies at the house,” he said. “If we pass by there on your way – on your way home, I will fetch you one.”

John ached to kiss him until that look vanished, but he held back. He also had much to consider about what Sherlock had told him, and about what Moriarty had said, and which statements could be trusted, and he wanted to do so alone. And he could not read Sherlock’s words with Sherlock watching him do it.

“Yes,” he said, finally. “Thank you. I have some things to do, at the vicarage, this evening.”

Sherlock smiled at him, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. He spurred his horse in front of John’s, necessary in the narrow lane, but it meant that John could not see or speak to him on the ride back to the Manor. Even when the path widened, however, John held back, rather than moving to come abreast. At the Manor, Sherlock dismounted carelessly and disappeared into the house for a moment, returning after a short interval with a red-bound book. John took it from his outstretched hand, very aware of the brief moment when their fingers touched. He put the book away in his coat pocket without looking at it.

Sherlock rested his head for a moment against John’s leg, and John drew in a quick breath and tightened his hand in the reins, so that he would not caress Sherlock’s hair. Then Sherlock stood up and stepped back.

“Goodbye, John,” he said. He still sounded defeated. John thought about sliding off Bess’s back and holding him, there in the courtyard where anyone could look out of the windows and see them. He did not like to leave Sherlock sounding like that, yet his earlier resolution was still firm.

“Tomorrow,” he said gently. “I can congratulate you on your genius. I could even call earlier, in the morning, should you wish.”

Sherlock’s face twisted and he looked away, biting his lip. He nodded, tight.

John hesitated for a moment, and then he turned Bess’s head and rode off, leaving Sherlock looking after him. He urged the horse home as quickly as she could do, and went straight into his study, ignoring the food that Lucy had set out for him. He took off his coat, took the book out of his pocket, and sat down, opening it to the title page.

The Science of Biblical Deduction, he read. By Sherlock Holmes, Esq. He took up his paper-cutter, took a deep breath, and slit open the first page.

Chapter Text

The clock was chiming two. John looked up from the next-to-last chapter, distantly aware that he was tired and hungry, his throat parched and his eyes dry and aching. He went to the kitchen, used the water closet and fetched a glass of water, glancing at his neglected dinner but unable to imagine eating. The room was cold. He poked at the fire mechanically, dazed, Sherlock’s written voice echoing in his head. Then he took up the book again, his hands shaking slightly as he turned to its final section.

“Our belief that the Son of God died and rose again is at the heart of Christianity. We have built a civilization around this myth, and we will insist upon it to the exclusion of all reason. For all the evidence tells us that it is a myth, a tale found in all cultures, and by no means unique to ours. That a historical man named Christ lived we may accept, and as my previous chapters have shown, the evidence does not contradict us. That he was resurrected, however, is a lie, which we can only believe if, like children, we believe that hiding behind our hands and closing our eyes will make our fears vanish.”

A wave of nausea swept John, and his stomach clenched, but he could not stop himself from reading on. Sherlock in his writing sounded exactly like Sherlock ranting at John in his study, at his most caustic and brilliant. And, of course, his most persuasive. John had expected the book to be abstruse, a mass of indigestible facts and figures, even perhaps dull in places. It was anything but. As John read the final pages, where Sherlock’s prose reached new heights of brilliance, his heart was beating in his mouth and the pain in his stomach had spread to his chest: he let the book fall as he doubled over, thinking he was going to retch. Then he allowed himself to slide forward onto the floor, the hearthrug, turning to kneel by the chair and burying his face in his hands. He tried to pray, but the words would not come. He tried to remember the words even of the Lord’s Prayer, but they stuck in his throat. He felt for the presence of God, as he had done every day of his conscious life, and there was nothing there. He was gripped by pain again, and by a terror unlike anything he had ever experienced.

He had read Sherlock’s work as though he were in a fever, a trance, hypnotised by the play of words on each page and unable to close the book, unable to stop himself from reading, and worse, from understanding. Every line had been like – like a film ripped violently away from John’s eyes, exposing the treacherous path he had been blindly walking for months, ending, he only now saw, in a leap into the void. All those months of reading, this had been what Sherlock had prepared him for, leading him gently by degrees into accepting ideas that seemed commonplace, reasonable – and now, in his slicing prose, showing John what those ideas really meant for the faith that he had held with such pride. He had helped John to realize that he was standing on the edge of the precipice, and then pushed him over.

John had nothing left to defend himself with, and his reasoning faculties, so carefully trained by Sherlock, acknowledged on every page the truth of what he had read. He had understood all too well, at last. The Bible was a mass of contradictory and falsified evidence, mistranslated and confused, a palimpsest of human wishes and desires and lies. Christianity was a myth, one among many similar myths, borrowing a little from all of them. Christ was no god, but a man. The world was a ball of flame hurtling through innumerable galaxies, doomed to eventual extinction. Men were not God’s finest creation, but the casual descendants of the apes, whose survival was due to their capacity for violence as much as reason.

“No,” John whispered to himself, but he knew that in his mind, he had already fallen. It was only that his heart was breaking at the truth of it. And for the first time in his life, he was truly alone, no comforter to be found. He curled in on himself and tried to breathe, shuddering in grief, letting the pain and blackness take him.

***

When he came back to himself enough to appreciate his surroundings, he realised that the first grey tinges of dawn were colouring the light in the room. The fire had burnt out, and the oil lamp was at its last gasp. He rose mechanically and turned it out. He was as stiff as if he had been beaten, and his eyes were hot. In place of the storm of grief he felt a great weariness and emptiness. He stood by the window and looked out at the familiar garden, rimed in frost. The bulk of the church was visible beyond it.

Impelled by a last, fleeting hope, he took up his coat, let himself out quietly, and crossed the lane. He already knew the hope was vain, and it was almost as though he were torturing himself purposely to walk into the church, his church, and see that it was simply a building, hallowed by history, perhaps, but by nothing else. In the graveyard outside, pacing, he stopped by the grave of the woman who had died of the cholera, Sally Dawson, from Northolt. John had been there the evening she died. He had held her wasted hand, unsure if she could hear him, but still reading the prayers and talking to her gently of God’s comfort. He remembered Sherlock, still almost a stranger to him, then, stopping to watch a moment and then walking on, respecting John’s calling, John had thought. He looked at the simple gravestone, which Sherlock had paid for. Everything he had told that woman was a lie. She was not whole and happy by God’s side in eternal bliss, she was a rotting corpse in the ground.

And Sherlock had known this, all along. He had not been deluded in his assertions of disbelief, as John had fondly hoped. He had been right. How anyone could live with the weight of this knowledge, John could not fathom. How he himself would be able to get up, day after day, in this new blank world, and carry on –

But he would not be able to carry on. I will have to resign my living, John thought, with a new rush of despair. Mary, Harriet, his mother – how would he provide for them? Their lives would be ruined also, and he knew, with sickening certainty, that his mother at least would never understand his reasons. This was only the beginning of his trial, a trial that had no reward at the end other than knowing that he had done what he considered right. He saw in a quick flash his razor, lying innocuously on his washstand. Or the deep horsepond four meadows away. But that would be a cowardly way out, and leave his family still more unprotected. 

John walked slowly back to his home, soon to be his home no longer. After the first shock of realization, there was some measure of relief in thinking of the necessary steps to be taken. He did not want to waste time: it was pointless, when despite the last-gasp protests of his emotions, he knew with bleak clarity that he had come to a final resolution that could not be denied or undone. It was fortunate that he had planned to go to London in any case. The Bishop should have time to appoint someone new, if he were informed immediately, today, of John’s intentions.

His promise to see Sherlock that day occurred to him, and he dismissed it. He could not bear the idea of speaking with him again. He saw again Professor Moriarty’s mocking smile, his assertion that Sherlock had ruined John in mind as well as body. Small wonder Sherlock had looked uncomfortable, at hearing such a truth from another’s lips. No, he would find out from someone, Lestrade or Miss Hooper, that John had resigned and he would know the reason why. Doubtless he would gain satisfaction from the wreck of John’s life: it would show him how thoroughly he had achieved his ends.

If he washed and dressed quickly, he could send a telegram from the village to precede him and then catch the first train to Shroveminster to meet with the Bishop. It would have been easier to write or to speak with the Archdeacon, but an interview was more respectful and John shrank from exposing his raw nerves to Grantly and his rigid black-and-white morality. As he let himself back in to the house, he glanced into the parlour, where Sherlock’s book still lay on the floor, and let it lie.

***

John rested his head against the cushions in the train carriage and tried to remain awake. The reaction from the night before had struck him, and despite his state of mind he longed for sleep. It was done now: he had formally tendered his resignation, and he could not take it back. The Bishop, a kindly man, large in all directions and fond of his port wine and venison, had urged him to take a week or even a month to consider it, but John had refused. It would only have been delaying the inevitable, and he could not stomach the hypocrisy of pretending to hold beliefs that he no longer subscribed to.

He had not been sure what to expect, and on the whole the interview had been less painful than he had anticipated.

“You are scarcely the first young man to be influenced by these new ideas,” the Bishop had said, mildly. “I advise all my clergy to stay away from heretical books. There is no sense in running headlong into temptation.”

John forebore from noting that he was certainly no longer young.

“It was not my intention, your Grace,” he said. “I was not much of a reader, before…” He stopped himself.

“Hmm,” said the Bishop. His eyes peered at John, shrewd. “Astley,” he said thoughtfully. “You are near neighbours with the Holmes brothers. I hear Sherlock Holmes’s new book has just been published. I saw his brother, last week, in the House of Lords.”

John stared at his shoes, sure that his face would betray something.

“Well,” said the Bishop, after a few moments of silence. He sighed heavily. “If your mind is set on it, then I must accept your resignation. I very much hope, Reverend Watson, that you will go quietly. You do not seem like a man bent on destruction. We shall say – hmmm – that your old wounds have been paining you and have rendered you unfit to perform your duties, eh? Overwork, nervous strain….common enough to pass muster.”

John swallowed. His parishioners, his colleagues, they would assume, as no doubt the Bishop intended, that John was sick in mind and had broken down. It was bitter, but he had little choice other than to accept.

“Thank you, your Grace,” he said, steadily. “You have been kinder than I deserve.”

“We are sorry to lose you,” said the Bishop. “And now I must go to the bother of finding a replacement – ah, well, God works in mysterious ways. I hope you come to the bottom of your trouble, Reverend Watson. All things pass in time, as you will realise when you have reached my age.”

Not this, thought John, but he did not say it: he stood and shook the Bishop’s hand, and smiled politely, and took his leave.

He jolted awake, lulled for a moment into unconsciousness by the rocking of the train. He still had much to do. He had telegraphed to his mother to expect him on the following day, and he had informed Lucy of his imminent departure. He had not had time to write to Mary, but he would need to send her a brief note tonight, requesting to see her as soon as possible. He dreaded the prospect of telling her what had happened, but it could not be delayed. And he had to pack up all his belongings and arrange for their carriage to London and their storage there, or give them away. Bess would have to be sold, perhaps to the new incumbent; he would need to sort out stabling in the meantime. And he should write to his friends in the neighbourhood, to Lestrade and Miss Hooper and Stamford, to explain, in some form, that he would not be coming back. He owed it to them to explain a measure of the truth: they could be trusted to secrecy.

The larger questions: where he would go, what he would do with the remainder of his life, he would not think of yet. It was essential that he speak to Mary first.

When he arrived back at the vicarage, late afternoon, Lucy came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Mr Holmes called for you, sir,” she said. “He left you this.” She took a folded note out of her pocket and passed it over.

“Thank you,” said John, taking it gingerly. Lucy looked fearful, no doubt wondering what would happen to her position after he left. John could not console her. He took the note upstairs, where he had to begin packing his trunks, and opened it, standing in the light from the bedroom window. Sherlock’s familiar spiky scrawl leaped out at him.

“John –

I should be grateful if you would favour me with an interview before your departure. I am as always yours,

Sherlock Holmes.”

John’s chest constricted. As always, he thought, bitterly. He crumpled the note, and dropped it in the wastepaper basket. By the time Sherlock realized that John was not going to reply, he would already have gone.

***

The rest of the day, and much of the night, until John finally fell into an exhausted sleep full of unsettling nightmares, passed in a blur of packing and writing and giving instructions to Lucy. His note to Mary simply said that he needed to speak to her on an urgent matter the following evening. His note to Lestrade was harder, and caused him more pain. Lestrade had been the closest thing he had had to a friend, in many years. The closest other than Sherlock, of course. Perhaps he and Lestrade might correspond and meet again in time, but he doubted it. Miss Hooper was easier, because he sensed that she might understand the reasons behind his departure – perhaps even have her own doubts, though she would never express them. Stamford would be horrified for John as well as by him, with his generous sympathy, but John’s new situation would make him too scandalous a correspondent for any clergy.

He woke early, scarcely rested, almost glad to rise and prepare for departure. It was a beautiful winter morning, and the sun glistened on the frosted ground, the landscape he had come to know and love. He knew he would never see it again. Yet he hurried to leave, very aware of the short distance between him and the presence at the Manor. He saw his trunks into the cart, and then walked into the village himself to finalize what remained of his business. He had told no-one other than Lucy and his friends that he was leaving permanently, unable to countenance the concern and sympathy of the villagers. He would be the subject of their gossip soon enough. Even as it was, the rounds of handshakes and well-wishes and comments on his future bride were almost unendurable.

Finally, at mid-morning, he was driven to the station, by the same carter who had picked him up on his first arrival: Colin, married to Ellen; John had christened their first child, a boy, in September. It seemed like years ago. He found his way to a blessedly empty carriage just as the whistle sounded. There were shouts on the platform, the train hitched, groaning, and then pulled out in clouds of steam.

John shut his eyes. He could not endure seeing the last of the village recede. The boys he had been training, the people in need of help – he bit his lip. In his current state, he could only have done them harm, he reminded himself.

The carriage door slid open. John opened his eyes hastily and glanced up, already calculating whether he would be able to exert enough self-control to hide his emotion from a passing stranger. It was Sherlock. He was breathing hard, clearly from running for the train, and he looked as exhausted as John felt, his eyes bruised with shadow. His dress, to one who knew him, was in a state of disorder; coat carelessly buttoned, waistcoat slightly askew. He sank down onto the bench opposite John and put a hand to his chest, obviously trying to catch his breath.

The guard looked in, requesting John’s ticket, and through a mounting sense of anger and outrage, he took it from his pocket and passed it over.

“I caught the train in rather a hurry,” said Sherlock to the guard. “A – a single to London, please.” He groped in his pocket and handed over a sovereign: the guard raised his eyebrows, but found the change after an interminable period of searching for it, and passed Sherlock his pasteboard ticket. Then he nodded politely and left the carriage, pulling the door too.

Sherlock sank back onto the seat. They were travelling through less familiar countryside already. Sherlock had robbed him of his last chance to bid farewell to his parish, John thought. He pressed his lips together and stood up, swaying with the train’s motion, to take his case from the rack and find another seat.

Sherlock leant forward and seized his arm.

“John, please,” he said. He sounded hoarse, speaking more loudly than usual to be heard over the noise. “Please do not leave like this. We must speak.”

John felt his body responding to Sherlock’s magnetism, as it had been taught to do, every fibre yearning towards him, and it made him angrier.

“It is best we do not,” he said, stiffly, shaking off Sherlock’s grip and reaching for his valise.

“If you leave this carriage I will follow you and cause a scene,” said Sherlock. “We are at least forty miles from the next station. I don’t care what people will think, and I have nothing to lose with regard to my reputation.”

“So you will stoop to blackmail, now,” said John. “Very well. You leave me no choice.”

Sherlock visibly winced, and then pulled himself together. “John – You read my book? Is that why you - ” he gestured at the train carriage.

John considered sitting in stony silence and then getting off at the next stop, but perhaps it was better to have it out now, in relative privacy.

“Yes,” he said. “Did you follow me to gloat over the effects? Well, here I am.” He spread his arms. “I can no longer believe in the truths of Christianity. I resigned my living today. I am no longer a clergyman of the Church of England. I do not know what I am, any more, other than what you have made me.”

Sherlock drew back against the seat as if John had hit him. His eyes were wide, and he looked stricken. He wet his lips.

“This was not my intention,” he said.

John almost laughed. It was a relief to feel momentarily furious rather than filled with guilt and pain.

“Yes, Sherlock, it was. You told me yourself you wrote it for me. Professor Moriarty was right, wasn’t he? Tell me, how long have I been an experiment for you?”

“Oh, Christ,” said Sherlock. “John, it is not what you think, I swear to you.”

“You owe me the truth. All these months, all those works you carefully chose for me, all our conversations, you were leading me like a lamb to the slaughter. Do not try to deny it.”

Sherlock clasped his hands tightly together so that John could see his knuckles whiten, and his mouth twisted in a familiar way.

“I will not deny it,” he said after a moment, halting, meeting John’s eyes. “When I met you, I was stalled in my writing; I knew I wished to convey truths of the utmost importance, but I did not know how best to put them. I didn’t know any – any ordinary men, men who held to established – to established loyalties. You were…the key. I knew you were a good man, and a man of intelligence and principle as well as curiosity; and by chance and inclination you had remained…aloof from the controversies of the day. I admit I wanted to know what would happen if you were familiar with them. I wanted you to see the truth, to share my views. I wanted you with me. It is only after we – after the last weeks, that I had…doubts about my course. John, I did not force you to this – I thought, I genuinely thought it was of your own accord, that you knew the truth in your heart and had accepted a compromise with it. I warned you, I know that Mycroft warned you – I told you outright of my lack of faith but you kept coming back, to me. How could I have thought otherwise?”

John looked away from him, from the seeming sincerity of his words, to gaze out of the window, the landscape blurring before his eyes.

“If that was what you truly thought,” he said, “you would not have attempted to prevent me from reading your book.”

Sherlock was silent.

“It is a work of great genius,” John said. “And of great cruelty. Perhaps my – my fate can at least show you that. Did you think that I would remain in my post, if I shared your views? Telling my congregation that Christ had risen, and knowing it to be a lie? Then for all our intimacy you do not know me at all. I have a mother and sister dependent on me, Sherlock, and there is, there is Mary also. If I were the only one to suffer from your actions then I accept that I deserve it, I have been a blind fool. But they are blameless, and now their lives will be damaged beyond repair. You need have no care of money or status, you will never know what it is like to be on the verge of poverty and starvation, but it is this that you have likely reduced my family to, and that of others, with the work that you are so proud of.” His emotion choked him, and he broke off.

“John,” said Sherlock. His expression was drawn tight, he looked in pain, as though John’s shafts had struck home. It should have made John feel glad, but instead he felt ill.

“John, it need not be – please, I can help you, I will give you whatever you need, what your family needs – money, housing – ”

“You think I would take your money?” said John, driven past reason. “Damn you, Sherlock, haven’t you done enough? You would treat me like one of your – like one of your whores, is that it?” He stopped short, half-appalled that he had said it.

The train whistle shrieked, drowning out any sound Sherlock might have made at John’s words.

“That is how you feel,” said Sherlock at last, so quietly that John barely heard him over the rush of machinery in motion. His face was ghastly. “That I tricked you into intimacy as I did into infidelity. You are not wrong. I have nothing to say in my defence, except that your friendship, your company, these last months has meant more to me than anything else, than anything that I can remember. If you wish me to be unhappy, John, there is nothing that can hurt me more than to see you like this, in this pain and know myself the cause. You may not believe me, but I would do whatever I can, to help in any small way, now or ever. I have also been blind, and I will regret my actions for the rest of my life, if this is any comfort to you.”

He stood up, abruptly, steadying himself on the carriage door.

“I will relieve you of my presence. I will not disturb you again. Thank you, John - thank you, for everything.”

He opened the carriage door and slipped out before John could respond. John made an involuntary movement to follow him, and then restrained himself. He was appalled at his own words. He could not recall ever speaking with such lack of control, such bitter purpose. Was this who he would be, now? And he did not doubt that he had succeeded in hurting Sherlock. The look on his face as he left – John had put it there. No matter whether Sherlock deserved it. John bent his head into his hand and rubbed at his brow, trying not to weep. Every way he turned, there was nothing but regret and loss, a trail of injuries caused at his hands. He had been wrong to blame Sherlock for this destruction; for John had carried the seeds of it with him, from the beginning. He had been living amid illusions, and now, now he would have to face the cold world without them, and do the best he could. 

Chapter Text

“But I don’t understand,” said John’s mother for the third or fourth time, dabbing fresh tears from her face. “Why must you have resigned? Why, everyone in the parish was delighted with you, you were doing so well…you must write to the Bishop and tell him you had taken leave of your senses.”

John rubbed at his forehead. “It can’t be undone, Mother. I am truly sorry, but you must see that I cannot be a clergyman in the Anglican Church if I no longer subscribe to its beliefs.”

“But why should you tell anyone?” said his mother. “How should they know? Oh, what will Sir Henry say, he will be so angry! To give up your parish! And all on account of reading some works of heretical nonsense – why need you have read them at all?”

John looked at Harry – Harriet – for help, but she had her arms folded and simply shrugged at him.

“Mother,” said John, summoning all the gentleness he could. His head ached terribly, and he was desperate to be alone. He reached out to take one of her hands. “I wish this had not happened too, but it has. I will find some other occupation, I promise you.”

“Your poor father,” said his mother, ignoring him and dissolving into more tears. “That it should come to this! His only son, an unbeliever!”

John patted her hand, helplessly. Harry sighed noisily, and when John caught her eye, she nodded towards the hallway, and pushed her chair back, clearly suggesting that they leave their mother to it. John hesitated a moment, and then stood up, rested a hand on his mother’s shoulder and then followed Harry out to the hallway, from where he could still keep an eye on her in case she became hysterical.

“Let it sink in,” Harry advised. “She’ll need a while.”

John leant against the wall and rubbed at his head. He didn’t know what to say to Harry, either. He still thought of her as Harry, a young tomboy flying to meet him on his infrequent trips home from college and then abroad. He wasn’t used to Harriet the young lady, her hair pinned up untidily, sharp elbows and clothes that always seemed as if they didn’t quite fit, somehow. He had found Harry difficult in his time recovering in London, prickly and determined not to be helpful, clearly jealous of their mother’s obvious adoration of her son. It was true her life could not be pleasant, trapped in this small cluttered house and earning a pittance through teaching, but unlike Mary, she seemed bent on resenting her surroundings rather than making the best of them. She was nearing thirty now, and had no suitor that John knew of.  

“Are you still getting married?” she said, in a lowered voice, slightly conspiratorial.

John gave her a reproving look. His mother had not reached this aspect of the affair yet, and he was dreading the moment when she did.

 “I am seeing Mary tomorrow morning.”

“She’s not going to like this,” said Harry, with what John did not want to believe was satisfaction. “She wants to be a clergyman’s wife even more than Mother wants to have a clerical son.”

“Harry,” said John, warning.

“You should be grateful I don’t care a whit for being a clergyman’s sister.”

John looked at her properly. “I am sorry,” he said. “I know that my – decision will make things harder for you.”

Harry bit at a finger, looking irresolute.

“I wouldn’t be a burden to you if I moved in with my friend Clara,” she said.

John glanced away, into the parlour, where their mother was still weeping quietly.

“She has a spare bedroom, and a piano. She gives German lessons and does translations. If I taught piano and French – “

“Mother needs you,” said John, mechanically.

“All she does is cry and lecture me on what I should be doing to attract a husband. And you know she hates London.”

John frowned at her.

“I’m not going to get married, you know,” Harry said. “And you can’t support Mother and me and a wife and children. Mother’s allowance would be enough for her on her own, if she lived cheaply, and she’d be much happier in a boarding house by the sea or at a watering-place anyway, somewhere she could make friends and hear all the gossip. And Clara and I could share the rent and expenses and do our own housework– we wouldn’t need much income. She said – “

“Harry, you might think you don’t want to get married now, but you will, once you’ve met the right man. And of course Mother needs you with her. You’re her daughter.”

Harry huffed out a breath. “You’re not even listening to me, as usual. No-one in this family ever does. You’re the one who’s making this happen, this mess is your fault for once, and if I have a way to earn my own living then you’ll have to let me take it. I’m a grown-up, John, not your little sister. What are you planning to do, disinherit me? From what?”

John stared at her, startled. He hadn’t been paying a great deal of attention to the conversation, but now he saw that she was in earnest.

“Look,” he said. “I can’t – we can’t make any decisions now. I need – I would be grateful if you could just help with Mother, Harry, just for now. We’ll have time to sit down and consider everything else, and I promise to listen to you.”

They looked into the parlour.

“You sit with her,” said Harry. “I’ll get the laudanum and some tea.”

“Thank you,” said John, grateful. At least Harry was dry-eyed, though if he had felt less embattled he might have worried over what this said about her own attitudes. He went back in, prepared to explain himself laboriously all over again.

**

That night, John woke in the darkness from a dream of Sherlock’s body on him, over him, their mouths pressed together, a dream of heat and pressure and fierce longing so vivid that for a moment he reached out, sure that he was not alone in the narrow bed. His body ached. Still half-asleep, he wanted to touch himself, to sink back into a dream where he could pretend that he was in Sherlock’s bed in Astley and all was, for the moment, right.

He caught himself, jerking his hand back with shame, and rolling up to sit on the edge of the bed, shivering. He got up and, groping in the darkness, splashed his face with cold water from the jug on his washstand. It was not surprising that his body yearned after Sherlock. He remembered his old headmaster lecturing a hall of sniggering schoolboys on the need for chastity, on how one slip could open the floodgates and sap a man’s vital essence forever. They had laughed at him, of course. Though John thought now that he saw some meaning in these old commonplaces: being intimate with Sherlock had educated his senses, his body, to crave the pleasure that they were now denied. It would fade in time, he hoped.

There was a flurry of rain against the window. He went over, drew back the curtain, and looked out at the night. The house was on a fairly quiet side-street, and there was no-one around, but as he glanced across the road a motion caught the corner of his eye. He peered through the rain, wiping the mist of his breath from the window. It looked as though there was someone standing in the shadows on the other side of the street, a little down the alleyway between two houses. John’s heart leaped to his throat. Someone tall, and dark, perhaps a blur of pale face, looking up.

He let the curtain fall and took a step back from it. His mind was deceiving him. And what was he going to do, awaken the household to go out and look for a fantasy, or if not a fantasy, a beggar or tramp seeking shelter from the weather? Even if it were Sherlock, what could he have to say to him other than those things he had already said? He stood a moment, irresolute, wanting to lift the curtain again, and then got back into bed. It was dawn, however, before he could sleep.

There was no-one there in the morning, of course, and John was not sure whether he had imagined it. He was exhausted again, and the hollow ache of loss in his chest had not diminished: he dreaded the day’s events. Speaking to his mother had been bad, but predictably so. He could not think of how to break the news to Mary. He went through the classified advertisements in the paper as he forced himself to eat some toast, marking any that seemed possible, but there were very few. He could be a clerk, perhaps, if they would take someone of his years and education. His father had started as a clerk in a provincial savings bank, and then worked his way up to a more responsible position. Of course, as it turned out, investing his own savings in the bank had been an error. He had only survived three months after its collapse, and his family were agreed that anxiety had played a substantial part in his last illness. John’s mother had married beneath her, and of her few surviving relatives, only Lord Henry had deigned to notice the Watsons. Now, of course, that patronage was over.

Never had John felt quite so acutely that his small family was a precarious and isolated unit, with little to fall back upon except their own resources. His father had left a small allowance for his mother, but nothing for John or Harry. Which had also made Harry less marriageable, of course. He had accumulated some small savings towards his own marriage, that he had purposed for buying furniture and such, and Mary had inherited an income from her father. They might be able to rent cheap rooms in an unfashionable part of town, but their resources would not stretch to a servant or to any of the amenities that Mary was accustomed to. And Harry and his mother would have to live with them; they would have no privacy.

John rubbed his brow: his headache was returning. He could not postpone this any longer. His mother and Harry would be down soon, in any case, and he wished to avoid all speculation about Mary until he had come to an agreement with her. He fetched his hat and coat, and set out to walk – for the first time in many years, realizing that even the few pennies for cab fare might be needed.

**

After the death of Mary’s father, two years previously, she had moved in with her aunt and uncle, to their pleasant family home near Regent’s Park. Her two female cousins had been married off to suitably dull gentlemen – John had found them both deeply silly – and of her male cousins, Charlie was at sea and Reginald was a barrister, living in his chambers. John had always liked Charles and Reginald, though he suspected the latter of having more than a cousinly fondness for Mary. He was on good terms with Mary’s uncle as well. If Mary – if she still wished to marry him, it was possible that Mr Richards might help him. Her aunt, on the other hand, was both deeply conventional and apparently disapproved of John.

Naturally, then, when he was shown into the parlour, Mary’s aunt was there alongside her, engaging in yet more crochet.

“John!” said Mary, with delight, coming over to him and clasping his hands. “I am so happy to see you.” Her eyes flicked over his suit and her brows drew together slightly, as she noted the absence of his usual clerical neckcloth.

John took her in for a moment, in a mix of pleasure and pain. Mary’s dress was always, to his unpractised eye, tasteful and beautifully made without being ostentatious; she favoured dove-grey and lilac, colours which set off her blue eyes and light-brown hair, always kept neatly pinned, and she carried a scent of some flower or other with her. She was not beautiful or striking, but John had ever thought her a model of prettiness and all that was most womanly. He was not a tall man, but Mary had to look up at him, and it had been that upturned look of sweet confidence, all those years ago, her hand in his, that had first led him to blurt out his proposal. It tore at his heart to look at Mary now and see that although she was still young, she was so much less youthful than she had been – than they both had been, then.

“Reverend Watson,” said Mrs Richards. “I trust you had a good journey to town, and that you found your mother and sister well?”

“It was tolerable, thank you,” said John. He let Mary lead him to a chair and sat down, feeling trapped. Mary was looking at him with some concern.

“Mary has some news for you,” said Mrs Richards, in perhaps a slightly disapproving tone.

“Oh!” said Mary, blushing slightly. “It is nothing – John doesn’t care about such matters.”

“I am sure I do,” said John politely.

“It is just that – well, two of my poems have been published in the Churchwoman’s Journal – look, I kept a copy to show you. I did not sign them with my name, of course. I would have told you in my last letter, but I had never expected to see them in print. Reverend Burrows wrote such a kind note for me to the editor, and he has been so encouraging – only think, he asked me to send any more poems I had to hand! And a Reverend Shipley wrote to me and said he wished to include ‘Church Bells at Eve’ in one of his anthologies, if I would permit him. I know it is trivial, but…”

John bent his head over the magazine, without seeing any of the print, which swam before his eyes.

“They are…very beautiful,” he said after a few moments, his voice thick.

“John – are you quite well?” said Mary, concerned.

John blinked fiercely and looked up.

“I also have – some news,” he said, and swallowed. He turned to Mrs Richards.

“I am sorry to be impolite, ma’am, but if I might speak to Mary alone – ? There are some matters that we must discuss.”

“Very well,” said Mrs Richards, gathering up her work with an air of being greatly inconvenienced. “I shall order tea in the next room, and you may join me there if you wish.”

John waited a moment until he was sure she was not coming back, and then shifted his chair closer to Mary’s and took her hand in his.

“I am sorry she was here,” said Mary. “You know how she is.” She laid her other hand on John’s. “You seem unhappy, and your telegram said that you had urgent news. Is it Harry or your mother?”

“No, they are well,” said John. He exhaled, and nerved himself to look Mary in the eyes.

“I have resigned my living,” he said.

Mary’s hand twitched in his, but she did not withdraw it. “Resigned?” she said. “But I thought you were most happy there. Is it – oh, John, my love, you are ill – and you have hidden it from me!”

“No, Mary, I am well –at least I am well in body. Can you – I would like to explain myself to you, if you will listen?”

“Of course,” said Mary, her soft eyes full of clear concern.

John began, haltingly, with his first meeting with Sherlock, trying, almost hopelessly, to lay out the progress of their friendship. He did not mention the content of the works he had read, of course, and he left out the night at the ball, and everything that had followed. Despite his continued anger at Sherlock he found himself defending him, attempting to convey some of his charisma, his impossible brilliance, his hidden warmth, the value of their friendship.

Mary listened with her face increasingly set, her biting her lower lip, looking puzzled.

“It was not Holmes’s fault, entirely,” said John. “But when I read his book – Mary, I would not ever want you to experience such a crisis, and it would be wrong to try to describe it. I could not – I could not emerge from it unscathed. It was as though –as though I passed into a new world, and all was changed. The faith that I had held was…not the same. I knew that morning that I could not remain within the Church.”

“Within the Church,” Mary repeated. She drew her hand from John’s. “I am not sure I understand. You have explained this friendship with Holmes, and that you came to explore works of heresy through his influence. And now, you say you have resigned your living, that you cannot remain within our Church, so what is it that has changed? Are you – surely you have not become a Dissenter?”

“No, no, not that – I did not mean. I do not know if I could belong to any church, now. Mary, it would not be right for me to trouble you with my doubts – and indeed I am afraid they are no longer doubts but convictions - or to explain more fully how my views came to change, but I am not fit to be a clergyman.”

Mary’s eyes were wide. “A – a Unitarian?” she said, faltering.

John raised his clasped hands to his mouth and exhaled, a gesture he realised a moment too late he had borrowed from Sherlock.

“I do not know,” he said, gently. “It is too soon to think – it may be, that the Unitarian creed or another will have elements of – I cannot say, Mary.”

“But you believe in our Lord?” said Mary.

John looked at her helplessly.

“I believe that Christ lived on this earth,” he said. “And that he left us his teachings.”

“And that he came to save us?” Mary’s voice trembled, intense. “That he was the Son of God, who ascended into Heaven and will come again to judge the quick and the dead?”

“I – “ said John.

“Oh,” said Mary. “Oh.” She put a hand to her heart. John reached out for her, but she rose, quickly, and went to the window, looking out. He stood, but hesitated to follow her, gripping the back of one of the chairs. Some moments passed.

“Mary – ?” he said. “My – my affection for you remains constant.”

“You told me none of this,” said Mary. “You barely mentioned this, this Holmes, in your letters. I read of his new book yesterday, in Maga, a horrible review, that jeered at the Church; my uncle took a copy round to Reverend Burrow, last night. How could you associate with such a man, knowing him to be an infidel?” She turned around.

“How could you let him corrupt you, John? It was a grave sin, to court such temptation, to read these works.”

“I do not believe that knowledge is a sin,“ said John.

“If this is its result, then you must.” Mary clasped her hands around herself, and shivered, looking at John as though he were a stranger. “We must pray, we must both pray for His grace,” she said. “This is a trial, of our faith and our love, but He will not abandon you, John. These doubts are nothing in the face of His love. You must come to Church with me today, to evening service, and ask Reverend Burrows for his help and his intercession.”

John opened his mouth to assent, to say that he would do whatever she asked of him, but the words stuck in his throat. He could not. To allow Mary to hope, when he himself had abandoned all hope – it was only to prolong the injury he was causing her.

“It would do no good,” he said. “I cannot pray, Mary, for I do not – “ he paused, and then forged on, determined, “I do not believe that my prayers can be heard. I am so sorry to break this news to you, in this way, my dearest Mary, but I must not lie to you. I must be classed as – as an unbeliever. I cannot participate in the rites of the Church. I must find another kind of work to do, other duties. Mary, I promise that I will never trouble your faith, that I will not lead you down the same path that I have taken. I will keep my vows to you. I should be – I should be honoured if you would be my wife.”

“Your wife,” said Mary. Her mouth trembled. “I have waited so long to be your wife, John. I have prayed and dreamed of our wedding day, and trusted to be worthy of you. I had thought to be your helpmeet, in serving God together. And now – “

John bent his head, his hands clenched. He felt that he was being scorched by Mary’s pain, all the more because he knew that it was deserved.

Mary put her hand to her eyes, and wiped away her tears, almost fiercely.

“You still wish to marry me,” she said. “Tell me, John, what then of our marriage after – after death? Would we be separated, for all eternity?”

John’s throat was dry. He cleared it, but could not find words to say.

“And what if – “ Mary’s voice shook – “What of our children? If they were to die, if we lost them - you would tell me – you would not believe that they – “ Her throat worked, and she struggled for breath. “And my father, on his deathbed, when his face was transformed and he told me, he told me of the great light that he saw –I was there, John, holding his hand – you would tell me that this was all a lie? That there is no Heaven, no immortality, no resurrection?”

John could not meet her eyes. He had never seen Mary in the grip of such passion, her eyes shining with unshed tears.

“I cannot marry an unbeliever, John. It would be a sin, against myself and my future children. It would be better far to die unmarried than to enter into such a contract. If you – if you come to a better understanding of God’s grace, if you realise that you are in error, then I will do all I can to help you back into His fold, and I will pray for you. But I must – I release you from our engagement.”

John took a moment to compose himself, before he could speak.

“Is this – are you quite determined, Mary? This is a shock, and I will not hold you to any words spoken today.”

“I am sure,” said Mary, quiet but firm. “You say that your convictions are set, that they will not change. But mine are built on the rock of God’s Church, and they will endure. I am sorry for you, John. I know that you are a good man and a true one, and that you are suffering. But you are in error, and I cannot condone it.”

“I will respect your decision,” said John. “I need not say – how deeply I regret – how much I wish that things had been otherwise.”

“You should go,” said Mary. “I will…” she faltered, putting a hand to her throat. “I will return your letters, and I would be grateful if you would return mine.”

John nodded. Mary turned away from him, to the window again. He stood for a moment, framing another apology, but nothing could make this right, and when Mary did not turn back to him he let himself out, quietly, walking away from the house with the consciousness of her gaze on his retreating back.

**

John walked aimlessly, dazed, until he was several streets away on a busy road, carters shouting and cabs jostling in the mud, and then the implications of what had happened hit him. He sank down on a flight of steps, uncaring of his appearance, and put his head in his hands. These past months, he had deliberately not asked himself any hard questions about his feelings for Mary. If Sherlock had been the night, a thrill of excitement and danger, Mary had been the daylight of his existence, his real life, the life he had been surely meant to have. All these years she had been an ideal, something that he could aspire to, one day. He had not stopped to ask himself whether he truly wanted it or not. His friends had all married, had children, settled into their lives, and John had stayed in India with the regiment, telling himself it was his vocation. He had not asked Mary to wait for him, but she had, and when he had returned home injured and broken in spirit, he had been enormously grateful for her patience and kindness. He had known, perhaps, that he did not feel passion for her, but he had not thought it mattered, or he had assumed that all would be well after their marriage.

Now, mixed with the anguish of having hurt Mary and the wretched self-blame he felt, there was a still more unwelcome sensation, that of relief. He would have been the best husband to Mary that he could, but in these circumstances, what could they have offered each other but more suffering?

Footsteps stopped in front of him, and he looked up to see a policeman.

“Are you all right, sir?”

“An old trouble,” said John. “Thank you, I am fine.”

The policeman looked him over and then moved on. John huffed out a breath. He was making a spectacle of himself, in the public street. If that policeman had known who John truly was, what he had done – What you have made me, he remembered saying to Sherlock. He should have been a good Christian clergyman, engaged to a respectable young lady and in comfortable circumstances, but instead he was an infidel and a sodomite, someone that any right-minded person would shun if not hand over to the forces of the law. He almost laughed. It was like a scene from cheap sensation fiction, in which the next act would involve his arrest, repentance and slow death in prison, if he had not thrown himself into the Thames first.

In the more mundane world of reality, however, he pulled himself up, and set off to inquire at as many employment agencies and offices as he could find.

**

Five days passed, slowly, and John was increasingly beginning to despair of finding work in London. He was at once too highly educated for any positions that were open – Greek, Latin and divinity not being greatly valued in any practical context – and not educated enough, given that he had no skills in shorthand, accountancy or bookkeeping. He would of preference have worked with the poor, but charities had no money to pay their volunteers, and almost all were religious organizations, which John instinctively shrank from. On the evening after his meeting with Mary, he had received a letter in an unknown hand, asking if he might be prepared to work as a reviewer for the Westminster, offering him what seemed like a fair payment per review, and saying that a ‘”mutual acquaintance” had recommended him. John had not replied. He would not take charity from someone Sherlock knew, but he did not wish to write back a rude response, either. He was vaguely aware that, as Sherlock had intimated, there were informal if not formal networks of freethinkers and atheists in London, who might welcome him. The letter might have been an overture, of sorts. Yet even if he had wanted to accept or ask for help or to approach them, he shrank from the idea of speaking with people who would almost certainly know Sherlock by reputation if not in person.

After his third day of tramping the streets fruitlessly, John had found Harry in her room in the evening and told her that he would meet with Clara and discuss their idea.

“You were right,” he told her. “You’ve taken care of Mother for years, and now it’s my turn. You deserve a chance to make your own choices, Harry. If this friend of yours is responsible, and you will really be able to earn enough to live on, then I’ll support you.”

Harry had surprised him by hugging him, delighted, and John had, after an awkward moment, hugged her back, inexpressibly glad of the contact. Their mother was not going to be content with this solution, but John thought that in this way he could at least make one of them happier.

For himself, he was nearly convinced that the only option was emigration. If he could perhaps use most of his savings to settle his mother somewhere with friends of her age and background, where she would be content, then he would be able to travel to Australia or New Zealand, where for anyone prepared to work hard, he had heard, there would be employment. No-one would know him there, he could begin afresh, working in some obscure place. And if he did not survive the voyage or the climate, he would at least know that Harry and Mother were as well off without him as they would be with him.

Sherlock would be settled in Italy by now, he thought, perhaps working on his next book. John had, on an impulse he was ashamed of, looked for the shadow of a figure across from the house each night, before going to sleep and if he woke in the night, as he often did. But there had been no-one there, naturally. Even if John had wished to contact Sherlock, he could not. He did not even know which city he was living in. A letter sent to Astley might reach him, perhaps, or to Lord Holmes, but it was uncertain and of course nothing personal could be said. If John booked a passage to New Zealand on the next ship and dissolved his household in Camden, Sherlock would never be able to find him again.

**

On the evening of the fifth day, John returned from asking about passenger ships to find an extremely smart carriage in the street and Lord Holmes in his mother’s parlour, taking tea. He stopped short in the doorway, about to call out to Harry.

“Oh, there you are, John!” said his mother. “Lord Holmes”  - John winced at her obvious pride in pronouncing the title – “has been waiting for you to return.”

John was extremely conscious that his boots were muddy and that the sole was coming away from one of them after days of walking the streets, and also that the parlour was crammed with china knick-knacks, knitted doilies, poorly made dried flower arrangements that were a relic of an attempt to make Harry more feminine, and a cheap painted piano. Lord Holmes, as terrifying elegant as he had been every time John had seen him, made everything in the room look vulgar.

Then he thought to wonder why Lord Holmes was there, and his heart missed a beat: Sherlock must have told him, or he had found out about them, and he was here to threaten John or accuse him.

“Lord Holmes,” he said, wary. “One moment – “ he took off his hat and coat and hung them in the hall; there was nothing to be done for his boots. He went into the parlour and, unsure of the correct etiquette, simply sat down.

“I am sorry to intrude on your hospitality,” said Lord Holmes. “Mrs Watson has been most kind.” John’s mother fluttered with delight. “I was explaining that my brother is one of your former parishioners. I am here on his behalf, as he cannot come himself.”

“I see,” said John, not seeing at all. His mother made an interrogative noise. Lord Holmes turned smoothly back to her.

“Sherlock has caught a chill and is gravely ill with fever, aggravated of course by his longstanding consumption, and he has been asking for Reverend – for Mr Watson. We feel a soothing presence might –”

“Your pardon,” said John, breaking in rudely, disbelieving. “Consumption – ?“

“He is consumptive, yes, and has been so for a number of years” said Lord Holmes. He raised an eyebrow at John, cold and precise. “Perhaps you did not note the symptoms. My brother is very careless of his own health.” He turned to John’s mother again, deliberate. “Why, this winter he remained in England against the advice of all his doctors, knowing that the climate would inevitably mean the recurrence of his condition.”

“Oh dear,” said John’s mother. “We’re very sorry – of course my son would be delighted to be of use to you, sir, wouldn’t you, John?”

John scarcely heard her. In his mind’s eye he saw Sherlock sitting by the fire, coughing into his handkerchief and looking exasperated that he could not stop; the wheeze in his chest when John lay on it, listening to his breath and heartbeat, that he had said was part of his usual winter cold; Sherlock trying to catch his breath in the railway carriage, his hand to his chest; a half-seen figure standing in the winter rain outside John’s house, on a cold night. His heart hurt, a sharp pain of fear and regret.

“John?” said his mother.

“What? Oh, I beg your pardon, I – yes, naturally, if he is – if he is asking for me.”

Lord Holmes smiled, narrow and self-satisfied, and rose from his chair.

“If you would be so kind as to accompany me now, assuming your family can spare you, I would be most grateful.”

John rose also. He nodded.

Lord Holmes began to thank his mother effusively for the tea, and John escaped to the hall to put his wet overcoat back on. He tried to push down his various emotions, to maintain a façade for Lord Holmes. But as they got into the carriage, he allowed himself one question.

“You said” – he wet his lips – “you said, he is gravely ill. Is he - ?” He could not ask, after all.

Lord Holmes considered him. “He is delirious. If you mean, is his life in danger, then you might ask yourself under what circumstances I would come to fetch you in this manner, Mr Watson.” His fingers drummed on the head of his cane. “I assure you,” he said, his tone still neutral, but now with sharp ice beneath it, “that I would greatly prefer it if you were already at Sydney, as you were considering today. My brother is my only living relative, and I consider that you have done more than enough damage already.” He rapped sharply on the door.

“Drive on, coachman,” he called, and the carriage lurched off, taking them through the darkening streets of London. 

Chapter Text

For John, the journey to Lord Holmes’ London townhouse was a blur – even if he had known what to say to Lord Holmes, the constriction of fear in his chest made it almost impossible to speak. He could not stop thinking of the look on Sherlock’s face when he had left the railway carriage, reflecting the clear and deliberate hurt John had caused him. It was not at all surprising that Sherlock, who, as John well knew, disliked any signs of physical frailty in himself and ignored his body’s dictates whenever he could, had lied to him by omission about his health. But John should have seen the signs, in any case. He knew Sherlock’s body, knew it almost as well as he knew his own; it had been there for him to read and he had failed. And if Lord Holmes was correct, if Sherlock had been aware that remaining in England was dangerous and yet had done so for John’s sake, then that was an unbearable thought.

The carriage drew up and John followed Lord Holmes into a substantial house, only vaguely aware of black-and-white tiles, high ceilings and an air of grandeur and magnificence. Lord Holmes passed his coat to the waiting butler and swept up the stairs, hardly waiting for John to follow. They climbed two flights, turned down a wood-panelled corridor, and then Lord Holmes knocked on a door to the right and opened it. John followed him in. The room was dimly lit, richly decorated in crimson and grey, and unpleasantly warm. The bed was curtained, curtains half-drawn, hiding the occupant, so that the first person he saw was Mrs Hudson, rising from a seat by it.

“Oh, thank goodness, you found him,” she said, in a hushed voice, coming over and clasping John by the hand. “Oh, Reverend, thank you for coming.” There was no trace of embarrassment in her manner, and John thought fleetingly that Sherlock must not have told her what had transpired between them.

“How is he?” said Lord Holmes, quietly, sounding a little more human.

“No change,” said Mrs Hudson. “The doctor looked in a few moments ago, but he said we must be patient and wait for the fever to reach a crisis. He has been…wandering in his mind, again, but he seems to be sleeping a little deeper now.”

“Hmm,” said Lord Holmes. He crossed to the bed and drew back a curtain gently, looking in. John thought he saw emotion flicker across his face, and then it was gone again.

“I have business to attend to downstairs,” he said, stepping back. “You should take some refreshment in the kitchen, Mrs Hudson. Mr Watson, a nurse is stationed in the room opposite this one and you may of course ring the bell if you need any assistance. I trust you are, ah, prepared to stand guard for a short while?”

Not waiting for John to answer, he held open the door for Mrs Hudson, who gave John a sympathetic look as she left, and then closed it behind them. John could not but be grateful of the tact that had left him alone with Sherlock, though he also wondered at it. He walked over to the bed, slightly unsteady, and drew back the curtains.

Sherlock’s hair had been shorn, of course; John should have thought to expect it, but the clipped hair, the loss of those curls that he had stroked and gripped, affected him more than he could have believed. Sherlock’s remaining hair was darkened with sweat, and his cheeks were flushed. His eyes were moving restlessly behind their lids, his breath coming unevenly and laboured. His face looked sharper and thinner, younger, cheekbones standing out in sharp relief. One hand, lying outside the sheet, twitched.

John looked around and saw a bowl of water and cloths on the washstand; he wet one and returned to sit by Sherlock’s side, pressing it to his brow. Daring, he touched Sherlock’s hand, and then took it in his own, stilling its movements. It was hot and dry, shaken by fine tremors; though John felt that his own hands were scarcely steady. It had only been a week, even less, since he had last seen Sherlock, but it felt as though months had passed.

“I am sorry,” he said, softly. It made it easier, that Sherlock could not hear him.

“I am so sorry, Sherlock. I should not – ” he swallowed. “I should not have blamed you for my own actions, and my own desires. Please, don’t – I cannot bear it if you should die thinking that I despised you, that you should leave me before I – ”

 He broke off, and ran a hand over his face, rubbing his brow. He had thought never to see Sherlock again, but he would have known that Sherlock was alive in the world somewhere, that he was thinking and writing and pacing his study; complaining about his brother and drinking his tea cold, because he had forgotten it was there while he read; that he was sitting in the sunshine in a country John could only half-picture, head tipped up to catch the light; that he was striding through cobbled streets somewhere in his dashing overcoat, oblivious to people watching him with admiration and lust.

That he was, perhaps, thinking about John, sometimes, as John would think of him, all the days of his life, no matter what became of him. John had thought the world a bleak and cold place, in the last days, but now he saw that if Sherlock were not in it, if his light went out, then there would be no point in pretending that John had any purpose left other than taking ship and waiting for the right moment to let the waters close over his head.

He bent his head and kissed Sherlock’s fingers, and then rested his head against them, listening to Sherlock’s rasping breath, his own breath shaking. He had told himself that he bitterly regretted ever meeting Sherlock, and that was, in part, still true. Perhaps he would have settled into the grooves of life in Astley, life as a priest, husband and father. Perhaps there would always have been something missing. The truth of the matter was that he would never know. His life had switched into another track, and there was no looking back. He did not have Mary to think of, now. He did not have to believe every word of the Bible or worry about the fires of Hell. He might be wrong, unnatural and perverted in the eyes of the world, but if that was what the world thought of Sherlock, John would share it. If he were only permitted to tell Sherlock so, it was all he would ask.

He wanted desperately to pray, even if praying was purposeless. For the first time, he consciously let the familiar words of the prayer-book unreel through his mind, the words of confession and absolution. Empty their promises might be, but their rhythms, the absolute familiarity of their phrases, was a comfort, and John let them come, along with the tears that he could no longer hold back.

**

John roused himself with a start as the door opened and Mrs Hudson slipped in, carrying a tray. He sat up, self-consciously, loosing Sherlock’s hand and wiping at his face, trying to compose himself.

Mrs Hudson made a clucking noise, set the tray down, and came over and patted his shoulder, looking at Sherlock.

“Come and have some tea, Reverend, while he sleeps” she said. “You need to keep your strength up, for watching at a sickbed.”

John nodded, and went to sit in the wing chairs by the fireplace with her, turning his slightly so that he could still see the bed.

“I’m not – ” he said, awkward. “I resigned my living. I don’t know if Sherlock told you.”

Mrs Hudson smiled at him, tired and rueful, passing him his tea and a plate of sandwiches. “Of course he didn’t,” she said. “Though I heard from my friends in the village. There are a great deal of rumours floating around, there. You still seem like a Reverend to me, I’m afraid, whatever the church might say on the matter.” She sighed, following John’s gaze to the bed.

“Sherlock didn’t need to tell me, Reverend Watson. I know my boys. They both like to pretend they don’t have a heart, but I can see when one of them has had his broken. Now, Sherlock doesn’t like to discuss his private affairs and it’s not my place to comment or judge, so I wouldn’t be saying this if I couldn’t see at a glance that you’re in the same state. But if you can resolve your quarrel – and I’m sure it was his fault, we both know how stubborn he can be – then he might rest easier. It’s been preying on his mind.”

“Oh,” said John. He was embarrassed and startled by her frankness, as well as by what she had implied about Sherlock.

“It was, umm, my fault. The quarrel. In, in some respects. I didn’t – I thought he had gone to Italy, I didn’t know he was ill, he didn’t tell me – Is he – has he been ill like this, before?”

Mrs Hudson pursed her lips. “Not since he was twenty-two, not this bad,” she said. “We all thought we would lose him then; he was supposed to be touring Europe, and then My- Lord Holmes got a letter saying his brother was in a Greek village, dying – it had taken nearly three weeks to get here, too, I’ve never seen Lord Holmes so frantic. When he fetched Sherlock back he was like a wraith, skin and bone, coughing and coughing. The doctors said it was a miracle he was alive. Lord Holmes wanted to send him to a sanatorium in Switzerland, once he recovered enough to travel, but he wouldn’t hear of it, said he had work to do and he was going to get well to do it.”  She half-smiled, fond.

“Was it – he should have been in a warmer climate this winter, Lord Holmes said.”

Mrs Hudson looked at him shrewdly. “You weren’t to know, Reverend,” she said. “No-one has ever been able to make Sherlock take account of his health.”

“You could have told me,” said John, trying not to sound accusing.

Mrs Hudson sighed, again. She set down her tea. “Do you know, when I first started working for the Holmes family I was a nursery-maid, and then the nurse left – well, they weren’t easy children, those two – and their father, the former Lord Holmes, asked me to stay on. I was married by then to one of the gardeners, so I didn’t know if I could, but they gave me and my husband a cottage on the estate and I came up in the mornings. Then Lord and Lady Holmes died of the typhoid, both in the same two weeks, and the household was in uproar. My husband was – well, he was a bad man, Reverend, given to drink and violence. I tried to hide it from the boys, of course, but children always know these things. And at that time, he was angry with me for spending so much time at the Manor, said I was neglecting him. One day, he smashed my hip with the poker. I couldn’t leave the house, and the boys came looking for me.”

She shivered a little, looking off into the distance. “And when my husband came home, Mycroft and Sherlock told him that if he ever came near me again, they would make sure that it was the last thing he did. He was a big man, my husband. Mycroft was about thirteen then. Sherlock was seven. They were so scared – I was scared for them, oh, I was terrified – and they stood their ground, and he blustered a bit, but in the end he turned tail and left.” She shrugged.

“That’s – ” said John.

“I got off lightly, in the end. Ten years later, he was arrested for murdering the woman he was living with. Sherlock helped to find the evidence, and he was hanged for it. And good riddance. So you see, Reverend, if Sherlock wants me to keep his secrets, then I will.”

She looked at John, meaningfully. John bit his lip.

“I thought I would never see him again,” he confessed. “I didn’t know how much I – how much I had missed him.” He set down his cup with a clatter. “I don’t know if he will want to speak to me, though, if – when he can. I was very angry, and I said some things that were, perhaps, unforgivable.”

“Oh, Reverend,” said Mrs Hudson. “Sherlock’s as transparent about you as you are about him.” She smiled at him. “He’d be mortified if he knew what he’d been saying, in the fever. “

“Ah. He’s been saying…?”

“Don’t be anxious, Mycroft doubled the nurses’ wages on the condition of absolute discretion. And I’ve been here most of the time. Though I might get some rest now, if you don’t mind. Will you be able to stay? We can send a note to your family.”

There was an indistinct sound from the bed, and they both looked over.

“Waking up,” said Mrs Hudson. She assessed John for a moment. “Well. I’ll just take these things down to the kitchen. You ring if you need anything, mind.” She patted John on the shoulder again on her way out.

He went over to the bed. Sherlock was still burning hot to the touch, and John wiped his brow again. As he did, Sherlock’s eyelashes fluttered and his eyes opened, looking through John, pale and unearthly.

“Lost,” he said. “Lost, I’ve lost him, it’s too dark.” He seemed to focus on John. “John. You left me.” His voice cracked and wavered. “Am I dead?”

“No,” said John. “No, I am here, you are in your brother’s house. You are imagining things, in the fever. You should have some water, here.” He put the cup to Sherlock’s lips, easing him to sit up, and he took a sip and then another, and then drank the remainder in gulps. He started to cough, helplessly, and John braced him while his body shook under John’s hands, frail and hot, clammy with sweat.

When the dreadful coughing finally eased and John turned to set the cup down, Sherlock gripped him by the wrist. “Everything’s whirling,” he said. “Turning and turning, I can’t find my way out, I’ve lost John, I don’t know how to get out. I can’t find him, do you hear me?”

“I am here,” said John, helplessly. “Sherlock, my dearest, I will not leave, I am here beside you. You should lie down, you should rest.” He pressed gently at Sherlock’s shoulder, easing him back down into the bed.

“Don’t go,” Sherlock said, still clutching at John’s arm. “Don’t leave me here, I can’t…” His voice trailed off, into mutterings, and his eyes slid shut.

John’s heart was hammering, his mouth dry. He had watched by many sickbeds, and had heard delirium before, but he had never imagined seeing Sherlock so vulnerable, so lost and unguarded himself. He gently moved his hand from John’s arm, and then interlaced their fingers. Sherlock shifted restlessly in the bed, but did not withdraw, muttering something just out of range of John’s hearing.

“I won’t leave,” said John again, determined, meaning for that night, and for as long as Sherlock would have him stay.

***

It was a long night, and John spent all of it other than a restless hour or two of sleep by Sherlock’s side, listening to him mutter and groan and sometimes lurch into pained speech, his own name among the most frequent recognizable words. No wonder that Lord Holmes had come to find him.

It was a bad night, and a bad day the next day, but the second night was the worst. In the small hours of the morning, Sherlock fell silent as though he could no longer manage speech, his breaths coming ragged and uneven. John felt that he was willing Sherlock to take every breath, urging him on with every beat of his heart, every blink of his own dry eyes. He had to force himself to leave his side and ring for Lord Holmes and the doctor, aware what his actions meant. And for the rest of that terrible night, after the doctor had shaken his head and left, Lord Holmes sat on the other side of the bed, gripping its edge, as silent and haggard as John was in their shared fear and vigil. John looked at him and thought of the charity that had permitted John, whom Lord Holmes surely blamed for Sherlock’s illness, to remain at Sherlock’s side: though he knew that the compassion was for Sherlock, not for him, he was grateful of it. And realising that this was not the first time Lord Holmes had watched Sherlock suffer made John feel a great sympathy for him; for his impotence, despite all his wealth and power, to save someone he clearly loved.

John had thought Sherlock might die just before the dawn, an old superstition that past experience had shown him to be true. But the light crept in around the curtains, and Sherlock was still breathing, perhaps even, John allowed himself to hope, a little more steadily. His own eyes were threatening to close, his body exhausted by nervous strain. Mrs Hudson had shown him a bedroom down the corridor, for his use, and without speaking to Lord Holmes, with only a nod when he stood up, stiff, he left the room and, barely conscious and still half-dressed, fell into his first deep sleep for days.

Sherlock slept all the next day, rousing only briefly when the nurses washed him and changed his linen, and most of the next night, and on the following morning he opened his eyes and for the first time, he spoke fully as himself. John missed his awakening: he was in the intimidatingly grand breakfast room, sitting at an acre of polished table by himself and trying not to be put off from eating an egg by the two footmen standing poised behind him.

Mrs Hudson came in, obviously crying, and John stood up, his heart in his throat. But she was smiling, as well.

“He’s woken up,” she said. “He’s asking for you. Oh, I’m so relieved!”

John wanted to hug her, but he settled for clasping her hand as warmly as he could, before abandoning his half-eaten breakfast and almost running upstairs. He slowed as he reached the familiar door, realizing with a rush of mixed feeling that he did not know what Sherlock, Sherlock in his right mind, would wish to say to him.

He knocked once, for politeness, and then went in. Sherlock was sitting up n bed, propped up by pillows, one of the nurses, finishing arranging them, curtsied to John, averting her eyes, and then left. John approached the bed, sure that his joy at seeing Sherlock even halfway resembling his usual self would be immediately visible. He stopped by his side, drinking in the sight.

“John,” Sherlock said, his voice rasping and hesitant but at least an approximation of his normal tones. “It is really you. I thought I was dreaming.” 

“I’ve been here since, umm, since Monday,” said John. “Your brother told me to come. But I would have come earlier, of course, if I had known.”

“Mycroft?” said Sherlock, incredulous. He frowned, considering. To John’s surprise, he thought he saw colour rise in his cheeks.

He cleared his throat. ““I am aware I have not been…myself. If I said anything - ”

“You expressed no sentiments that I do not share,” said John, quietly. He hesitated, then plunged in, reckless. He had been waiting to say this for days now: he had no patience for small talk.

“Sherlock, things have become clearer for me. I should not have held you responsible for my own downfall. I have spent these days in the deepest regret. I feared – I feared that I might never be able to tell you, how I felt.”

Sherlock picked at the edge of the sheet, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger.

“Your engagement…” he said.

“Mary has released me from all obligations,” said John. “She said that she could never marry an unbeliever.”

Sherlock grimaced. “I am sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said John. “I am glad. Not that I – I would not have chosen unbelief, if it were a choice. But even if my faith had been untroubled, I see now that I could never have made her happy, not while I,” he paused again, and then steeled himself. “Not while I loved someone else with all my heart.”

Sherlock looked up at him, startled, his eyes wide. John gazed back, trying to let Sherlock read the truth of it.

“Oh,” said Sherlock. “Oh.” He looked away, and then back, as though John’s gaze drew him. John saw his throat work.

“You are…sure?” he said. “This is not – Mycroft has not offered you…”

“Do not insult me,” said John, smiling to take away the sting of it. “Your brother has offered me nothing, other than his hospitality. I am speaking of my own accord.”

“You pity me for my sickness,” said Sherlock. “You would not be here, if you had not thought that I was dying.”

“No,” said John. “I did not seek you out, because I thought you were already gone. And I did not…I spoke harsh words to you. You might not have wished to see me. But it is true, perhaps, that I might not have known my own heart, if I had not seen how much I feared to lose you completely.”

“I thought I had lost you completely,” said Sherlock. “I told myself, better than never having loved at all, but it is not true. I wished to die. I cannot go through that again. John, I also – ” he took a deep breath, “I also love you, as much as I believe I am capable of doing. I know I have nothing to offer you that you value, but I would give you whatever I can – ”

“Sherlock,” said John, feeling a great relief and happiness wash through him. “Stop talking,” and he bent down and kissed his forehead, and then, gently, his mouth.

Sherlock turned his head away. “Contagion…” he said. “You should not even be here.”

John laughed a little, rueful. “You are too weak to make me leave,” he said. “And – and if you think that I will never kiss you again, you are sadly mistaken in my intentions.”

Sherlock turned his head back, meeting John’s eyes, his expression suspicious and then softening into something like wonder.

“Not until you are on your feet, though,” said John.

“An incentive,” said Sherlock, and for the first time, he smiled at John, still half-disbelieving yet also, John thought, with the same happiness.

***

“John?” Sherlock’s hand carded through John’s hair. John was sitting on a footstool at Sherlock’s feet, leaning against his legs. He was supposed to be reading Sherlock the Times, but they had lapsed into silence. Two days had passed, and it was the first day that Sherlock had been allowed by the doctors to leave his bed, even if only for a chair by the window. He was becoming an increasingly irascible patient, and John was aware that he and Mrs Hudson were shamelessly indulging all of Sherlock’s wishes. He was also aware that the time when he could legitimately be by Sherlock’s side, when his mother and sister were awaiting him in Camden, was running out as Sherlock recovered.

“Mmm?” said John.

“You are still unhappy about – about your new convictions.”

John sighed. He did not want to break the easy truce they had settled into by broaching difficult subjects, although he knew it was inevitable. He heard the self-reproach in Sherlock’s tone, but he did not want to lie to him.

“It’s like – like being wounded,” he said. “It will take a while to heal.”

“And leave a scar,” said Sherlock. His hand stilled.

“Yes.” John tipped his head back against Sherlock’s leg, but could not look at him. “If you had died, four nights ago, you would have been gone. Forever. That is – for my part, my heart could not accept it, even if my brain assented. I do not know if you can understand, Sherlock. If you have never felt the security of faith, then you cannot lose it. But if you have, and then it is…torn from you, it leaves a, a void.”

“The dark speck at the heart,” Sherlock said. He was silent for a moment, then he said, haltingly. “I would like to help. I do not wish to offend you. But I have – if it would be acceptable to you, I thought that – I wanted to give you the opportunity to meet some – people who would sympathize with your position.” He stopped, as though waiting for John to interrupt.

“I do have some connections, though I socialize little in London. I wrote to some of them in particular, after we – parted – to ask if they might offer an introduction, or if they might have work for you. It was not charity, John. I was not trying to bring you back to me, I simply wished for you not to feel…so very alone, as I feared you might. I had a, umm, a kind response to my note. I went to your house to deliver the message: an excuse, of course, I wished to see for myself that you were …well. I proved too much of a coward to ask for you, however, and I did not want to leave it on the doorstep.”

“I thought I saw someone outside the house,” said John. “But that was in the middle hours of the night. A little late for delivering a letter.”

“I – hoped you had not seen me,” said Sherlock, after a pause.

“In the rain and the cold,” said John. He swivelled to look at Sherlock properly. “You will never risk your health like that again, do you hear me? No matter what the cause.”

“I cannot promise that,” said Sherlock.

“Then I will have to be there to stop you,” said John.

Sherlock reached down to pull him up, and hugged him hard, breathing into John’s neck and then kissing it, until John broke away after a moment, sitting back.

“You are not quite well yet,” he said severely. “And you were trying to speak to me of something…?”

“Hmm,” said Sherlock. “It could wait.” He reached for John again, but John shook his head, moving to sit in another chair. Sherlock scowled at him, but with the glimmer of a smile behind it. It warmed John’s heart, to see it.

“Very well. He reached into his dressing-gown pocket and took out a sealed note. “You are invited to a small supper party tomorrow night.” He passed it over.

John turned it over in his hands, frowning slightly. Then he saw the return address and his eyebrows raised.

“Sherlock – ” he said.

“You wouldn’t be out of place,” said Sherlock, quickly. “It will be a small company, and a welcoming one. People who share my – who share our beliefs. Please, John. I have reproached myself, that I did not give you her books to read, this past autumn.”

“I may be ignorant, but I have still read her books,” said John. “The whole country has read them.”

“Novels,” said Sherlock, scornful. “Her translations, of course. Feuerbach, Strauss…” He sounded almost…respectful. John’s eyebrows would have risen higher, if it were possible.

“Please,” Sherlock repeated, looking at John with what seemed to be genuine entreaty.

John twisted his mouth, but he nodded. He was deeply reluctant. He would undoubtedly feel like a prize fool at any such gathering. But if it would make Sherlock happy – and he had to admit that he was a little intrigued by the notion of meeting such a literary lion. One, too, with a private life that, as a minister of the Church of England, he had not been able to condone. As Sherlock’s – as whatever he now seemed to be to Sherlock – the situation was different. To speak to someone who had publicly chosen love over convention and had let the world know it, and that person a woman, too – at the least, it would make a story to tell Sherlock afterwards.

“You will need a better suit,” said Sherlock, looking John over. “Of which I know you have none. They are unlikely to care, but – ”

“But now that I am your – your companion, you wish me to dress appropriately?” John was half-joking, but Sherlock did not laugh.

“My companion,” he said. “Yes. Yes, if you will. And I believe you are right, though you underestimate my own desire to see you in better clothing. That being the case, may I have my own tailor brought here?”

John sighed. “Very well,” he said. “We must speak about – other matters, once you are a little stronger.”

“I know,” said Sherlock. “We will have time to do so, do not fear. For now, indulge me some more?”

“Indeed,” said John with emphasis, and he stood up to ring the bell.  

Chapter Text

John fidgeted in his new suit, which fit beautifully and felt more luxurious than anything he had ever worn, and for these reasons made him deeply uncomfortable. It was a plain black suit, but it was not – it carried no signals of his former profession. All his formal clothing, apart from some items to wear in the heat, had been purchased from a clerical outfitter since his twenties. He had also paid for it himself, from his salary. It was well enough to tell himself that he had given Sherlock pleasure and a respite from his convalescent boredom by allowing him to direct a tailor to dress John according to his exact specifications. Yet the indisputable fact was that the clothes on his back had been paid for by someone else, and that John could never have afforded them. And he was riding in a carriage that also belonged to the Holmes family, rather than taking a cab, as would have been his preference.

He had said to Sherlock that they would speak of things once Sherlock was stronger, but these matters felt pressing. John had been trespassing on Lord Holmes’s hospitality for a week. Lord Holmes, who had disappeared back to his mysterious club as soon as Sherlock was formally declared out of danger, had given no indication that he either noticed or cared about this. Every night, however, a room was waiting for John, with fresh bedlinen and a good fire, and a far more comfortable bed than he was used to; quietly efficient servants provided him with food, laundered his clothes, and supplied all the amenities of modern life. As though John were an honoured guest of an aristocratic family, rather than an impoverished and disgraced former clergyman.

It had been one thing accepting all of this when he was watching by Sherlock’s sickbed, doing some good. It was quite another thing to remain in the household as… He had called himself a companion, and Sherlock had seemed to agree with the term. But John had always looked on those desperate women, and occasional men, who accepted posts as paid companions, whether the payment was in cash or simply in a roof over their head, with pity and condescension. It was the last refuge of those whose status forbid them to enter service but who could find no other means of supporting themselves. He would never have dreamt of such a role for himself: better to toil on a remote farm in the wildernesses of the colonies, than to be so dependent on the continued goodwill of another.

And if – or when – he and Sherlock resumed their previous relations, then his position would become still worse. He did not know if there was a word for a kept man, but to all intents and purposes he would be Sherlock’s mistress. And he could not help recalling that this was not new to Sherlock. While Sherlock would doubtless protest that the situation was entirely different, John was unconvinced. The fact of the matter was that he was trapped: to leave Sherlock now, to pursue his desperate plan of emigration, was impossible; but he did not see how he could remain with Sherlock without risking the loss of what remained of his self-esteem. If John returned to his mother’s house, seeing Sherlock only occasionally – perhaps. But he would still have no profession, no means of support.

This fruitless chain of thought was interrupted by the carriage drawing up at the door: 16 Blandford Square, Marylebone. Not unfashionable, but not at the height of fashion either. John got out nervously. He had never met anyone of great fame and repute. Other than Sherlock, that was. He had no idea what he might expect. When he was shown in, however, his immediate impression was reassuring: a warmly lit and comfortable parlour, not in any way grand or forbidding, with two ladies and three gentlemen seated in it, speaking with the familiarity of long acquaintance. Conversation stopped as the maid announced John, and the lady seated nearest the door rose to greet him, taking his hand.

“We are most happy that you could join us, Mr Watson,” she said, in a deep and melodious voice. “Especially if you can give us tidings of Mr Holmes. We were greatly disturbed by the news of his illness.”

This was his hostess, John presumed. No-one could have called her attractive. Striking, perhaps. She had a long and serious face, with luminous grey eyes and a mass of light-brown hair. He shook her hand, nervous.

“Thank you for your invitation,” he said. “And I am pleased to say that the doctors pronounced Holmes out of immediate danger yesterday.”

“Delighted to hear it,” said one of the men, joining them, and also shaking John’s hand. He was short, maybe slightly shorter than John, with reddish hair, flourishing whiskers, and an engaging smile. “I am Lewes. This is my wife, Marian. Or Polly, as I like to call her.” He rested a casual hand on her shoulder for a moment, and she smiled at him.

John, noting Lewes’ slight emphasis on “wife”, smiled also. “Mrs Lewes,” he said, deliberately. “Mr Lewes. It is an honour to meet you.”

His hostess smiled at him properly, perhaps with some trace of relief, and led him to a seat, while Lewes fetched him a glass of sherry.

“Now,” Mrs Lewes said, “This is our son Charles, my dear friend Barbara, Mrs Bodichon, and Mr Herbert Spencer. We are a small party, and I hope you will not expect too much from supper: our cook is a little temperamental.”

John murmured something noncommittal and took a fortifying gulp of sherry. Sherlock had made him read Spencer’s Principles of Psychology some time in October and had lectured John extensively, striding about his study in Astley with his smoking-jacket billowing behind him, on its merits and demerits. He couldn’t, at that moment, recall a single word of it, nor what it had been about.

“We were just talking about Holmes before you came in, in fact,” said Lewes. “A shame he has missed some of the sensation his book is causing. Tell me, is it true that you assisted him in writing it? If so, we must congratulate you.”

“Oh – umm,” said John. This was presumably what Sherlock had told the company to secure John an invitation. He wished that he had thought to forewarn John in advance: recalling Sherlock’s book was still painful, like pressing on a healing bruise, and he had been actively avoiding doing so.

“I heard that London’s preachers were claiming his illness was a divine punishment,” said Mrs Bodichon. “If so, I’m especially delighted he has evaded it.”

John was not sure whether to smile or frown at this: the expression he tried to assume was a curious mix of both.

“No, but his conclusions in chapter five,” said Lewes to Spencer, evidently giving up on an intelligent response from John and returning to the conversation his entrance had interrupted. “You can hardly claim he is ignorant of the latest developments in physical science there.”

“Surely you mean the sixth chapter?” said Mrs Bodichon, leaning forward eagerly. “His handling of the scientific proof against testimony is masterly, I thought.”

Charles Lewes, who looked to be in his early twenties, fresh-faced and keen, was nodding. “Chapter six, father,” he agreed.

Mrs Lewes turned to John, who was experiencing a rising sense of dismay. At any moment these clever intellectuals were going to expect him to express an opinion on The Science of Biblical Deduction, if not their own numerous publications, and not only had he nothing appropriate to say, he was unsure whether he could speak of Holmes’s book without emotion.

“I wondered if you might care to see the house?” she said. “We brought back some fine examples of Italian art from our recent travels. I am sure you have heard more than enough about Holmes’s work.” Her eyes were kind, and perhaps knowing.

“I should be…very interested,” said John, with gratitude. She rose and he stood to follow. Lewes glanced up at her and they exchanged a look, then he nodded briefly and re-entered the conversation, which seemed to be centred on Sherlock’s reference or otherwise to a particular scientific treatise; John would have made a note to ask him, but he had not caught its name.

Mrs Lewes showed him some artworks in the hall, and the stairwell, and he made the appropriate noises of admiration and interest without really taking them in. Then she opened a door at the top of the stairs and showed him in.

“My study,” she said.

John looked around with unconcealed interest. George Eliot’s writing room: this would be a story for his mother and Harriet, and Molly Hooper would have been overcome at the thought. His eye snagged on a crucifix on the wall, a handsome olive-wood piece. He had assumed that Mrs Lewes was a freethinker. Sherlock had in fact given him an hour-long lecture that morning on her translations of the German higher criticism, most of which had passed straight over John’s head.

He glanced sideways, to see that she had followed his stare. He heard her sigh.

“You are wondering why I should keep this,” she said, gesturing towards it. “In truth it brings me great comfort, to think of his sufferings for humanity. When I was translating the Leben Jesu, and it gave me pause, I used to look at this cross for the strength to carry on.”

John wanted to enquire further, but he was restrained by courtesy.

“Some might see a contradiction,” she said. “But though I lost my faith in an all-powerful God, and in the resurrection and a life after death, I can still believe in all that Christ did for us, in the beauty and holiness of his life.” She turned to John, and he met her eyes, which were luminous with sincerity.

“I do not wish to pry,” she said, her voice low and musical, earnest. “But Holmes said that you had given up orders and that he was anxious about your state of mind. I know myself how hard it can be, to have our most cherished beliefs melt away like snow in our hands. If I can help in any way, Mr Watson…

John thought that he felt the pain at his heart, the pain that Sherlock had referenced, twist a little. He was seized with the urge to confess himself, warring with his social instincts.

“I do not know what to do,” he said in a rush. “I have lost my faith and with it my profession. My mother and sister cannot fully understand. I have nothing and no-one who can sympathize, except Sherlock – “ he stopped, appalled, but Mrs Lewes simply nodded a little, unsurprised.

“Please,” she said, “continue.”

John swallowed, and continued, low. “Holmes – Sherlock – will, umm, support me. I do not want to be a burden on him, however. He feels himself responsible – he is responsible, to some degree – but I cannot let him... But what alternative is there? I feel that – that all the future is dark to me; I cannot tell what will come.”

Mrs Lewes nodded again, grave. “I have felt this also,” she said. “And it will pass, in time. As to your profession – Mr Watson, there is still so much to do, and a man of your undoubted talents will always be of use. You have fought on God’s side, for the sake of Christ. You will still do so, only you will be fighting for humanity, to save us from ourselves, to help us towards sympathy with each other, towards justice and understanding. Is this not the message that Christ brought to us? We need not dream of an afterlife; this life can be our field of battle. Can you not feel this, Mr Watson?”

John managed a nod, struck silent by the passion in her tone.

“I cannot tell you what your future will hold,” she said. “But there is always suffering to be relieved, a cause to be helped. Here in London, or elsewhere. If Holmes will help you in this work, then why should you not let him? There is no shame in being dependent on those we love.”

“I – ” said John. Mrs Lewes smiled at him, and laid a hand gently on his for a moment.

“I am sorry if I have startled you,” she said. “I cannot see one go through the same process that I have endured, and not wish to offer comfort, or experience a fellow-feeling. I had hoped to have a chance to speak with you privately. I have read Holmes’s works and spoken with him, and I know him to be a great man. Yet his cynicism, his coldness towards his fellows, gave me pause. When we read his letter about you – I was astonished by it, truly astonished– I saw for the first time that he could be flesh and blood, that he might have a great heart as well as a great mind. If you are to thank, for this change, it is no mean feat. Do not underestimate yourself, Mr Watson.”

John gazed at her a moment, at a loss. “Thank you,” he said, finally. It was woefully inadequate in the light of his confused feelings of gratitude and surprise and immense relief, that he had been able to speak to someone of his feelings and have them met with sympathy.

She smiled again. “And now we must go down to supper,” she said, and took John’s arm familiarly, to lead him down.

***

After this conversation, supper was less of a trial than John had feared it would be. He spoke primarily to Mrs Bodichon, his neighbour, about ideas of social and medical reform, with Mrs Lewes occasionally adding a quiet but decisive point.  He did not think he shared Mrs Bodichon’s views on the emancipation of women, though he was prepared to accept that as the most ignorant of the company, he had much to absorb. And her account of her husband’s medical work in Algeria was fascinating. He even shared the story of Sherlock and the cholera outbreak with the table, and was gratified when it was greeted with high enthusiasm. Emboldened, he ventured another modest anecdote from the last months, and was surprised that recalling it did not cause much pain:

“And then he departed in a cloud of gloom, without having spoken to anyone,” he concluded.

Lewes had been almost doubled over with laughter. “Sherlock Holmes, at an amateur village talk on local butterflies! Oh, this is priceless. Polly, you must write it, only you could do it justice.”

“I like the sound of your Miss Hooper,” said Mrs Bodichon to him. “You should give her my card and tell her to visit me in London, should she come to town.”

“I shall certainly do so,” said John. Why had he not contacted Miss Hooper? Or Lestrade, come to that? They would have wanted to know of Sherlock’s illness, surely. He resolved that he would write to both of them as soon as possible.

All in all, John was surprised to find, when the last dishes were cleared away, that he had almost enjoyed himself. It felt like a long time – Lestrade’s Christmas party, it must have been – since he had been at a social gathering. He was not precisely at his ease, as he would be among friends, but he accepted that the company had done their best to make him feel so, with marked success.

As the maid cleared away the last plates, Mrs Lewes and Mrs Bodichon rose and left the table, taking each other’s arm affectionately and already beginning a conversation as they exited the room. Charles Lewes murmured something polite about needing to prepare for his work the following day, shook John’s hand and likewise departed, leaving John with the port and the two scientists.

“My Polly is a marvellous woman, is she not?” Lewes said, confidingly.

“She is indeed,” said John, wholeheartedly.

“Genius must be nurtured by us lesser mortals. It is a fragile plant, which we must guard from frost.”

Spencer snorted. John was not sure if he was supposed to agree, so he said nothing.

“Mr Watson,” said Spencer, pouring himself a large glass of port and passing it to Lewes. John turned to him politely. He hoped he was not about to be grilled on science or religion; Spencer’s tone was serious.

“Now that Charles and the ladies have departed, we wished to speak to you on a matter of some delicacy.”

“Concerning Professor Moriarty,” Lewes put in, sliding the port to John.

Spencer made a huff of disgust. John’s heart started beating a little faster, though he poured his glass with a steady hand.

“What of him?” he said. “I have only met him once, very briefly.”

“It seems you made an impression,” said Spencer, grim. “Moriarty, that little toad, is poised to spread certain – rumours about Holmes. Your name has been mentioned, and your, ah, current situation, vis-à-vis the Church.”

“Oh,” said John. He stared at his glass, feeling himself blush. These men knew that Holmes was…that John was…He summoned his courage.

‘I do not think Holmes cares much about rumours,” he said cautiously. “And I had the impression that Professor Moriarty, um, admired his work.”

“It’s not Holmes’s reputation we’re worried about, unfortunately,” said Lewes.

Spencer twirled his glass in one heavy hand. “I believe that Moriarty does genuinely admire Holmes,” he said. “Yet he also wants to destroy him. Lewes is right, however, we are not concerned with Sherlock Holmes specifically. It is more a question of Lord Holmes. And of politics.”

John’s bemusement must have shown on his face.

“You see, Mr Watson – let me put this bluntly,” said Lewes. “Lord Holmes is what you might call the power behind the throne. Ostensibly he has little involvement in affairs of state, beyond occasional appearances in the House of Lords. But behind the scenes he has a finger in every pie, and they say that the Queen will listen to him as she listens to no-one else. You might say that Lord Holmes is the British government, to all intents and purposes. And those of us with liberal – reformist - even radical sympathies – are aware that his involvement is…”

“Conducive to our cause,” suggested Spencer drily.

“Yes, precisely,” said Lewes.  “And Moriarty – he may hold a Chair in Cambridge, but he has been increasingly involved in the byways of political negotiation. Though in his case, no-one can fathom where his true interests lie. In religion, he is unquestionably a freethinker, but otherwise he appears to be the most extreme of Tories. His views on the education and housing of the working classes are, well, Polly and I find what we have heard of them deeply distressing.”

“College gossip has it that he is a self-made man himself,” Spencer remarked. “Brought up in a Dublin orphanage, I heard; clawed his way up through scholarships. Yet it appears that he is vehemently opposed to progress.”

“Moriarty is as slippery as an eel,” said Lewes. “And as hard to pin down. However, Mr Watson, the point is that he is a very dangerous man, and he believes himself in possession of information about Lord Holmes’s brother that – well, if it became public, would not only undermine Holmes as a scholar but would cause a scandal that would irretrievably damage Lord Holmes’s position, leaving Moriarty unchallenged. ”

Spencer turned abruptly to John. “What would Holmes do, if Moriarty attacked you in the press?”

“Me?” said John. “I don’t know.” He gathered his wits and considered it, with mounting alarm. “I don’t know, but I believe he would – be intemperate in his response.”

“As I assumed,” said Spencer, grimly.

“What should I do?” said John. He had been so wrapped up in Sherlock’s recovery, and in worrying over his own future, that he had forgotten that things were happening outside Sherlock’s sickroom, things that might directly or indirectly affect them. And he had forgotten that such a person as Moriarty existed. “Moriarty has no – “ No evidence, he had been about to say. But he scarcely needed evidence, to plant doubts in people’s heads.

“Do?” said Spencer. “Isn’t it obvious? You need to get Holmes out of the country as soon as he’s able to travel. Somewhere out of the public eye, until all the fuss over his book dies down.”

“But that need not stop Moriarty,” John said.

Spencer and Lewes exchanged a glance.

“We, er, believe that Lord Holmes has been restraining himself out of anxiety for his brother,” said Lewes. “I myself am only on the fringes of politics, but those nearer the centre are convinced that Lord Holmes has the means to take down Moriarty, should he feel he had a free hand to do so. I very much doubt, though, that he has explained this to his brother. I understand they – have not been close.”

He reached for the port, and topped up his glass.

“Hence we have, rather rudely, taken it upon ourselves to enlighten you. We would be sorry to lose Holmes, and you, Watson, as Londoners. But I am afraid that Spencer is right. Many people would breathe easier at present if Holmes were a long way from London, and likely to remain so for an indefinite period.”

“I am grateful for your frankness,” said John. “I had not fully understood….”

“What you had inadvertently stumbled into?” said Lewes.

“Yes,” said John. “I will do my best. Though you may overestimate my influence to persuade Holmes to do anything he does not wish to do.”

Spencer snorted. Lewes nodded. “It is a dashed shame,” he said. “That any of this matters, I mean. A man’s personal life should remain personal. Or a woman’s, come to that.”

“Well,” said Spencer. “Now we have that unpleasantness dealt with, shall we rejoin the ladies?”

John assented, and they stood up to leave the table.

***

After bidding his hosts farewell, and thanking them with genuine appreciation, John decided that he would walk for a bit. It was not late, barely past ten o’clock, and he had already agreed with the Holmes coachman – and with a reluctant Sherlock – that he would stay in Camden that night. Sherlock, who seemed unwilling to let John out of his sight for long, had stipulated that he return to Grosvenor Square by mid-morning.

The night air was cold and refreshing, and it was pleasant to be walking again after days of sitting in the close atmosphere of Sherlock’s sickroom. He turned over the conversations of the evening in his head: both Mrs Lewes’ assurances, and Mr Lewes’ warnings. The latter at least gave him a clear and valuable purpose. He owed Lord Holmes a substantial debt, and if what he had heard was even partly correct, then persuading Sherlock to leave London would do something at least towards repaying it. And when he looked inside himself, he thought that what Mrs Lewes had told him had made a difference. He no longer felt quite so despairing about his own usefulness. He still had no idea in what way he might, as she had put it, serve humanity, but the notion that he could still do so – that, indeed, he might do even more good, perhaps, in a godless world than in one where Heaven and Hell were realities, was cheering. She had shown him a way to – to keep faith with Christ; with Christ as a man like himself, not as a god.

He was so wrapped up in considering the implications, in rearranging his thoughts around these new ideas, that he almost walked past his mother’s house.  He let himself in, quietly. The house was dark; Harry and his mother must be in bed. He hoped they had received the note he had sent earlier, and did not mistake him for a burglar. The house seemed smaller, more flimsy, and his bedroom, when he entered it, cramped and narrow after the high-ceilinged, spacious rooms of Grosvenor Square. He looked out of his window, across the street, thinking of Sherlock standing there, watching, while John had lain in his bed and longed for him, never believing that the longing would be fulfilled. Suddenly he very much wanted not to be here, to be with Sherlock instead, to kiss his face and his lips and tell him again how very grateful John was for this second chance. But it was late now, too late to leave again. He sighed, let the curtain fall, and started to get undressed.

In the morning, his mother and Harry were full of curiosity about his week. His mother especially was clearly fishing for every last aristocratic detail so that she could share it with her wide circle of acquaintances. She made no mention of John’s loss of faith. She seemed considerably more interested in his new suit, and in speculating about its cost. Evidently, he thought with some bitterness, she felt that if as compensation John had been taken up by an aristocratic household, it was a fair trade. He cautiously broached the notion that he might leave with Sherlock for Europe, or elsewhere, and was a little taken aback by her enthusiasm for the idea. She assured him, several times, not to worry about her, patting his hand and urging him to take more toast. Harry, across the breakfast table, looked sardonic.

John was eager to escape, and he claimed a need to speak with Sherlock’s doctors as reason to depart immediately after breakfast. As he readied himself to leave, Harry came into the hall and watched him.

“John?” she said, sounding a little uncertain. “Mr Holmes. He is your – your friend?”

John’s hand stilled a moment in the act of tying his scarf. Harry’s emphasis on “friend” was subtle but unmistakable. “Yes, he is,” he said cautiously.

“As Clara is mine,” said Harry, with a trace of defiance.

John met her eyes. Surely she could not mean, she would have no knowledge of…Clara had seemed a perfectly respectable, indeed charming woman when John had met her briefly, indulgent and affectionate towards Harry. He had been pleased with the idea that she would be a good influence. He opened his mouth to say something, but Harry forestalled him.

“I’m glad, that’s all,” she said. “That we can both be happy,” and she kissed him on the cheek briefly and brushed past him, running upstairs.

John looked after her, eyebrows raised. He would have to ask Sherlock about this, he thought. Sherlock would be sure to have an opinion. His heart lifting at the thought of seeing him so soon, he let himself out, and walked at a rapid pace back to the Holmes’s townhouse.

***

“Well?” Sherlock looked up from his book, marking his place in it with one long finger.

John smiled at his obvious impatience, crossing the room and sitting down opposite him. “It was – good,” he said. “They were very kind.”

Sherlock sniffed. “Kind,” he said. He coughed a little and John looked at him with concern, but he waved a hand to dismiss it.

“They all admire your book. Mr Spencer was there, he and Mr Lewes were speaking of it.”

“Hmm,” said Sherlock, not displeased.

John took a deep breath. Sherlock had a little colour in his cheeks, to match what appeared to be a crimson silk dressing gown, but it was the colour of warmth, not fever. His hair had grown out slightly and the tips were just starting to curl. He was still painfully thin, but he no longer looked as if a breath of wind would knock him over.

“Sherlock, we need to speak of the future. I have been thinking. The last few days, since you have been better – I cannot stay here in your brother’s house any longer.”

Sherlock closed his book and set it down on the side table, carefully. He curled his hands together in his lap, his face still.

“I spoke to your doctor on my way in,” John said. “He tells me that you – that he is optimistic about your health, should you remain in a warmer climate. You must leave London, Sherlock.”

He had cornered Dr Grenville as he was leaving, rudely, given that John had no official place in the household, and had had little chance for a detailed conversation. What he had most wanted to ask, about how long Sherlock might expect to live with his disease, he had least dared to put into words.

As concerned the other reasons that he had been given, he had decided to keep these in reserve. He was anxious lest any mention of either Moriarty or his brother might drive Sherlock to stubbornness, and to doing the opposite of what John wished him to do.

Sherlock studied him with narrowed eyes, clearly reading that John was holding something back. He bit his lip. “You were thinking of emigrating,” he said. “I have never been, but I understand that the colonies are, umm, warm. And dry.”

“I was thinking of emigrating to escape from everything associated with you,” said John. A trace of hurt flickered across Sherlock’s face, and John leant forward to rest a hand on his, stilling the movements of Sherlock’s fingers. “I was not planning to ask you to come. What would you do in the wilds of Australia, with no books to speak of?”

Sherlock shrugged, looking down at their hands. “Write,” he said. “Think.” He glanced up at John, under his lashes. “I’m sure we could come up with some occupation, to pass the time.”

John’s breath caught, and Sherlock smiled a little with satisfaction. He let one index finger trail across John’s palm.

“Sherlock…” John said. “I must be serious. We need not go as far as the colonies; I know you had plans to go to Europe in any case. I need to say to you that I - I cannot countenance living on your income, wherever you – wherever we might go, but I have no profession now, and little way of finding one.”

He had expected Sherlock to protest this, but Sherlock’s mouth simply curled a little, in what John recognized as reluctant acceptance. Sherlock released John’s hands, and John sat back in his seat. He wondered if it was a dismissal, but Sherlock had his hands under his chin, thinking. He sighed.

“I have been thinking of this also,” he said. “After what you said to me, in the train carriage… my family’s money means little enough to me, and I have my own income from my writing besides. I would give it all to you, if I thought you would take it. But even if you agreed, you are a man of action, John. If you had no other task than to accompany me, to assist me, you would grow bored, and then unhappy, and then resentful. Of all things, I do not want to lose you in that way.”

He tapped his fingers on his chin and exhaled, deeply.  “What do you know of the Risorgimento?” he said.

John blinked, surprised. “In Italy?” he said.

Sherlock raised his eyes to the heavens.

“You took me unawares,” said John defensively. “I do appreciate that I am ignorant, but even I read the newspapers. I followed Garibaldi’s campaign as eagerly as any man. Harry and her friends are great enthusiasts, and I accompanied them to some of the meetings. She has a portrait in her room. He is indisputably one of the great men of our times. I am perhaps not so aware of…the finer points, of the political negotiations.”

“You sympathize, however?” said Sherlock.

“Of course,” said John. “Doesn’t everyone? What has this to do with – oh.”

“Yes,” said Sherlock. “You are not unintelligent, and you have a soldier’s instincts. With a little training… You are not afraid of danger: one would rather say that you are attracted by it. Britain has some – interests – in Italy. Interests which, as I’m sure you appreciate, cannot necessarily be made public. Sometimes messages might need to be passed on, of a highly confidential matter, between various parties. I have in the past done some work in this way, though less than my brother would have wished. I am a little recognizable, however.”

“And now that the whole world is talking about your book and trying to buy photographs of the author – “

Sherlock waved a hand impatiently. “My point is, work – work which brought with it a reasonable remuneration – could be found for a discreet go-between, someone who did not mind hardship and travel and occasional danger. Someone who could be trusted. Not an ideologue or a fanatic, but a man who kept a cool head and was loyal to his country, and to a cause worth fighting for.”

John raised his eyebrows. “I have never heard you speak so of politics. I thought that you left such matters to your brother.”

Sherlock shrugged. “The petty quarrels of parties and factions are interminably dull, and British politics is mired in conservatism. Despite Mycroft’s best efforts to drag it into the nineteenth century. European affairs are immensely more intriguing.” He met John’s eyes. “It could be dangerous. Englishmen as well as Italians have died in this struggle, and continue to do so. Even if unification is at hand, there is still the question of Rome and the Papal States. The struggle is likely to take some years to come. I would accompany you, naturally. I would not have you risk yourself alone. I find that I am still reluctant to suggest you take the risk, however.”

John hesitated. “I am not trained as a soldier, as you note,” he said. “And I am not much given to subterfuge. I would need to think it through, and to understand the situation a little more. I do not speak the language or know the country: it is not clear to me how useful I could be. And you will not be fit to do anything strenuous for some months to come.”

“I am well enough to travel,” said Sherlock. “If we went to Florence, I could teach you Italian, and you would have time to make some connections there, learn the lie of the land. The English and Americans in Florence and Rome are mad for the cause of Italian liberation; they write poems and publish pamphlets and believe they will change the world. And they care very little for – for the eccentricities of others. I seldom participated in their society, but you might enjoy it. The Brownings, Lord Tennyson’s brother, the sculptor Powers and his acolytes, some ill-assorted Sapphists – Italy is a refuge for those who do not fit into English mores. I know you have also been worried about what the world will think of us, John. I can assure you, even the English on the Continent will be much more accepting.”

John looked at Sherlock’s eyes, shining at him, and felt something unfurl in his chest. To escape the London fogs and gloom, and whatever plots Moriarty might have, to work to accomplish something worthwhile with Sherlock, to be able to hold up his head. It was more than he had hoped for. He let the idea take root, tentatively.

“The climate is excellent for the chest,” said Sherlock, diffident. “Mr Browning told me his wife’s doctors scarcely expected her to live out the year when they left London, and they have been in Italy for nearly fifteen years.”

“You need not persuade me further,” said John. “Provided that you really believe that there is work that I could do…”

“I would not deceive you again,” said Sherlock, relief in his face. “Thank you, John.”

John smiled at him. “Where shall we live?” he said. “I assume you have planned all of this.”

Sherlock smiled back. He slid gracefully off his chair and came to rest at John’s feet, kneeling. He ran his hands over John’s knees and thighs, thumbs just dipping between John’s legs. John took a quick breath, and another. His muscles jumped. Sherlock was looking up at him.

“I rent a villa on the hillside, above the town,” he said. “It has an olive grove, and some ancient fig trees, and a vine – have you ever tasted a ripe fig, John? Have you heard the cicadas in an olive grove? When the days are a little warmer we will sit on the terrace and drink wine and talk as the sun goes down – you can see all the towers of the city floating below you, from up there. It is quiet, there are no neighbours, and we will need few servants.” He bent his head and pressed his mouth against John’s leg, just on the inner edge of his thigh, so that John could feel the warmth of his breath through his trousers. Then he looked up at John again, eyes darker.

“When it is night, we’ll go in to my bedroom – it’s on the first floor, and the windows look out on the view. I prefer simplicity by choice, so there is little furniture, but there is a bed, John, a plain wooden bed, white linen, on the red tiled floor… I have never spent a night with you, I don’t know if you would wish to sleep there, and there are other bedrooms, but we will enter this one with purpose. I want you to be thinking of it, as we sit on the terrace, of how we will blow out the candles and take the lamp in, and I’ll follow you up the stairs, my hand on your hip, and then in the quiet of the bedroom I can undress you and spread you out on the bed and see you, all of you. It will be warm, not this hideous chill and damp. We can throw the coverings to the floor, and lie on the sheets. There will be no haste, no risk of interruptions. I will want to take my time…”

John closed his eyes for a moment; he could see it.

“You seem assured that you will not be bored with me, by the summer,” he said, hearing the roughness in his voice.

He tried to say it lightly, but it was perhaps his last remaining anxiety. After all, Sherlock had himself admitted that he had taken other lovers, that they had lived with him – maybe even in this same villa – and that they had disappointed him. In the days at Astley, the question of whether Sherlock would desire him indefinitely had been of no relevance, to John at least. Had he let himself think of it, he would have assumed, a few short weeks ago, that the answer was self-evidently negative. Sherlock’s past history, then, had been fascinating and a little appalling, but distant. Now, however, it loomed larger.

“Yes,” said Sherlock simply.

John did not want to break the spell, but he frowned at him.

“Why?” he said. “I am not – not a handsome youth.  I am not… experienced. As you are. Surely your interest may – may fade, in time. Is this not in the nature, of desire?”

Sherlock’s brows drew together, and John added, apologetically, “I do not know, you see.”

Sherlock cocked his head slightly and gave John his indulgent look, the one that said that John was being engagingly foolish.

“You were interesting to me from almost the moment I met you,” he said. “In all senses of the word. Will my desire for you fade? I do not know, as I am hoping for a future with you that will last longer than any other liaison. You are not a possibility I had ever imagined. So I cannot answer your questions fully, except to say that if I should live long enough to grow bored with you, that would be….beyond my expectations.” 

John ran a hand over Sherlock’s short hair, and traced one cheekbone with his thumb, trying to sort through his tangle of emotions.

“I want to see your hair turn grey,” he said after a moment, thickly. “I want to see these lines deepen.” He touched the corner of Sherlock’s eye, gently, and the corner of his mouth. “I want to know every part of you by heart, if I may.”

“You shall do,” promised Sherlock. “If we are not shot by the French or the Austrians first, of course.”

John was startled into a huff of laughter. Sherlock lifted John’s hand to his mouth, and swirled his tongue around two of his fingers, his eyelids dropping. John’s toes curled, and his mouth fell open.

“You distracted me from my intent,” said Sherlock, low, releasing John’s hand and sliding his own hand up the inseam of John’s trousers, to where John’s flesh strained towards it. John swallowed, trying not to press forward into Sherlock’s touch.

“Sherlock, it is the middle of the day. The house is full of servants, and the nurse will come in with your lunch any moment.”

Sherlock bent his head and rubbed his face between John’s legs, heat and promise. John jumped a little, and let out a breath. Sherlock looked up at him

“But I want to,” he said. “I very much want to.”

“We can’t,” said John helplessly.

“I want to lock the door and strip you out of this suit, and make you lose all your words.”

John bit off a groan. “Sherlock, you are not fully well. And this is your brother’s house. Not now, we cannot. Really, I mean it.”

Sherlock searched John’s face for a long moment, while John held his breath, and then pushed himself up reluctantly and curled up in his chair, with a petulant air.

“I do…want that,” said John apologetically, after a minute of silence. “It is simply…”

Sherlock snorted, but at least he uncurled a little and looked at John.

“You have a great deal to learn about aristocratic behaviour,” he remarked. “I assure you, if one of Mycroft’s servants walked in to find me conducting an orgy with the butler and all six housemaids, they would scarcely bat an eyelid.”

“Well, I am not an aristocrat,” said John, firmly. “And I do not believe we should risk any scandal. Or your health. We must wait a little.”

“As you wish.” Sherlock let his gaze trail over John, lingering, and John tried not to shift under it. Sherlock sighed. “I would suggest we left tomorrow, particularly if you will insist on this –  ” he waved a hand in the air  “restraint, but we will need to speak to my brother about your future employment. By the end of the week, perhaps?”

“As soon as we can,” John promised.

At that moment, the nurse did come in with Sherlock’s lunch, without even knocking. John hastily snatched a newspaper from the table behind him and spread it across his lap, pretending to read. He knew Sherlock was smirking at him.

“Thank you,” said Sherlock to the nurse. “On the table by the window, please.” He uncoiled and walked over, stopping for a moment to lean over John, as though his eye had been caught by a headline.

“I would have just had time,” he said in John’s ear.

And John, speechless, could think of nothing decent to respond.

Chapter Text

John woke up sluggishly, disoriented, unsure of where he was but half-convinced it was his bed in Astley. Then his hand brushed the unfamiliar texture of the blanket thrown over the sheets and he woke up a little more, realising with a shock that he was in Italy, in a strange bed in one of the rooms in Sherlock’s villa. They had arrived so late the previous night, and he had been so exhausted and confused from the final stretch of travelling, that he had seen Sherlock into a bedroom and then blindly followed a manservant with a lantern to another room – up some stairs, he thought, and stumbled into bed. He blinked his eyes open. It was the quiet, that was what had made him think of Astley. No shouts from the street, no carriages and carts rumbling in the distance. He could hear birdsong, distantly, and nothing else. The walls of the room were roughly whitewashed, and there were beams over his head: he must indeed be just under the roof. A gloriously foreign room. He stretched – his muscles ached from being jolted in carriages and trains and on boats – and realised he had gone to bed in his underclothes, without stopping to find a nightshirt. Or, indeed, washing. He was grimy with the dust of travel, and now he was more awake, hungry and thirsty. The light filtering in through the shuttered window suggested that it was full morning. He ought to find Sherlock, too, and confirm that he was recovering. He swung himself stiffly out of bed into the chilly air, found the reasonably respectable dressing-gown that he had packed in his smaller valise, and padded down the stairs in his bare feet.

***

After they had decided on their destination, John had thought he had little to do in London. His mother, however, on hearing his determination, had decided she would prefer to remove to a seaside resort rather than live alone in the Camden house. He was thus obliged to assist her to pack up her many belongings and send them off, and to find a suitable boarding house as her temporary residence. After she was despatched by train, weeping, he then had to find a letting agent for the London house and put the furniture into storage, minus those items that he had moved into Clara’s small house for Harry’s use. This had taken several days. Then there had been several meetings with Sherlock’s doctors, and an unnerving interview with Lord Holmes in which Sherlock assured John he had acquitted himself perfectly, though this did not tally at all with John’s own perceptions. He had the impression that he had agreed to do a great many things for Lord Holmes without ever being fully informed as to what these things were. He had also written to Mary to let her know that he was leaving London, receiving a polite note in return assuring him that she was praying for him. And he wrote, much less stiffly, to Lestrade, and to Miss Hooper, and had been delighted to receive a telegram in return letting him know that they were to be married in three months time and wishing him well.

“About time,” was all Sherlock had said to this, but John thought he looked pleased.

Then there had been Sherlock’s packing – boxes and boxes of books and clothing, with more to follow on – and his insistence on ordering still more new clothes for John – and a whole day spent arguing over who would pay the tailor’s bills, until Sherlock finally gave in. Then another day while Sherlock and Mrs Hudson went to Astley to pack up matters there: John found it still hurt to think of Astley, but he was able to charge Sherlock with bringing a modest wedding gift to Miss Hooper, at least. And meanwhile John, who had never travelled to Europe before, found plenty to distract himself in ordering train and boat tickets and managing a bewildering and complicated series of negotiations with clerks and porters and officials about papers, cabins, luggage...

But the moments when he was not in the midst of chaos, those moments had been filled with Sherlock. While Sherlock had been ill, John had been seized with love for him, but lust had not been foremost in his mind. Yet now that Sherlock was almost better, dressed again in his indecently close-fitting trousers and suits and walking further each day, it was all he could think of. His promises, his low voice, his hands on John’s thighs, his mouth…Those moments in Sherlock’s room seemed to have woken John’s desire, and he could not stop himself from thoughts that made his mouth dry and his heart beat faster. He had slept in Camden until his mother’s departure, out of a sense of duty, and in the bustle of preparations he and Sherlock were seldom alone together for long. But any time when they had been in the same room, Sherlock drew his gaze like a magnet.

Sherlock knew, of course. No-one so observant could have missed John stammering when Sherlock looked at him a certain way, or his hands trembling slightly when Sherlock touched his shoulder, or the catch in his breath when Sherlock stepped within touching distance. Sherlock held John’s eyes with his own and licked his lips, and John’s limbs weakened, so that he thought that he was going to fall to his knees before Sherlock and beg him. He had desired Sherlock before, but those feelings had always been tinged with guilt and regret. Now, he had leisure to remember everything he had done with Sherlock, in his bed at Astley, without thinking of it as sin, and to consider everything he wanted to do without censoring himself. It was agonizing frustration in the nights when he was alone in his bed in his mother’s house, but the anticipation, the longing, was also a giddy pleasure, like being drunk on wine. Sherlock had not said anything openly, but John thought he felt it too, from turning once or twice and catching Sherlock gazing at him with the same fierce desire that John felt was written on his own face for all to read.

On the day of their departure from England, their indefinite departure, John had pictured a sentimental scene, Sherlock and he looking out together as the white cliffs of England receded. But the train was delayed; they’d made the boat with minutes to spare, in howling wind and rain, and no passenger was allowed on deck. Lord Holmes had insisted on sending one of his secretaries, Andrews, with them, on the assurance that Andrews was travelling to Rome in any case and was not being sent to report back on their doings. Nonetheless, Sherlock had made a concerted effort to lose him at Victoria. Thankfully, John thought with relief now, he had failed. Sherlock had overestimated his strength, and the rough crossing followed by a long train journey left him white and drained, leaning back in the carriage and scarcely speaking or eating. John had let Andrews deal efficiently with customs officers and tickets, and accepted the food and drink he brought with gratitude, while he worried over Sherlock and tried to make him more comfortable.

Finally, in the darkness of the previous night, after what seemed a nightmarish sequence of trains and carriages and John failing to understand anything that was said to him, Andrews had helped them and their luggage into some form of carriage, waved them off, and they had clattered over stone roads to end up here. Wherever they were. John paused on the stairs to look out of a window, but the day was hazy and all he could see in the early morning light was a terrace below him, the terrace that Sherlock had spoken of, presumably, and what looked like a small formal garden flanked by unfamiliar trees. He shivered, partly from cold, partly from the thrill of being somewhere new.

Sherlock’s room was one landing down, and he found it by trial and error, gently opening doors and then closing them again. He located a bathroom with a substantial bath and a washstand with soap, tooth-powder and towels, to his relief, though the water in the jug was ice-cold. Nonetheless, he was at least able to wash rapidly. Sherlock’s bedroom was two doors down. He was under a heap of blankets, apparently fast asleep. John ventured a couple of paces into the room to confirm that he was breathing, chastising himself for his foolishness. Then he stood a moment and simply looked. It was ridiculous: all he could see of Sherlock was his head on the pillow and part of his shoulder, yet he found himself fascinated by the nape of his neck, vulnerable under his short hair, and by the even and reassuring sound of his breaths.

He stood there for some moments, quiet, before his various needs asserted themselves and he went swiftly back upstairs to throw on a few items of clothing before setting off to explore. On the ground floor, a large fire was laid in a grand and draughty salon, replete with not one but two dusty chandeliers, filled with furniture, and with frescoes of fruit and flowers on the walls. John looked around for matches, but found none. Venturing further, he located the kitchen, where an elderly woman was kneading dough and heating water. She greeted John with a flood of enthusiastic Italian, of which he understood nothing, though her shooing motions suggested that he was not expected to be in her domain. He returned, subdued, to the salon, peering through its shuttered windows at the terrace.

After only a minute or two, the woman from the kitchen entered with a tray of crockery, a steaming silver pot and a plate with some pastries upon it, and gestured to John to sit at one of the many small tables.

“Caffe,” she said, gesturing to the pot.

“Coffee,” said John, smiling and nodding. “Grazie,” he added carefully, and she beamed at him and patted him on the shoulder.

She said something querying, which ended with possibly the only other two words of Italian John recognized, “Signor Holmes?”

“He is sleeping,” he said, pointing at the ceiling and hoping he would not have to act out the meaning of his words.

She looked puzzled for a moment, and then her face cleared. After another flood of Italian, some of which John took from her gestures to be comments on his personal appearance and how much he ought to eat, she bent to light the fire and then left him to his breakfast. He poured his coffee cautiously. He regretted that it was beyond his means to request tea, though doubtless the tea here might leave something to be desired. When in Rome, or indeed in Florence…

A shaft of weak sunlight fell through the windows onto the floor, and John’s heart lifted. He felt absurdly free, with nothing better to do for the moment than to luxuriate in the small pleasure of having arrived at a safe destination.

No doubt he should be enquiring about their luggage, and investigating the facilities in the villa, and telegraphing their safe arrival to his mother and Harry. And beneath all this, there was the thrum of anticipation, nervousness and desire, that told him that he and Sherlock would have to be alone together, in the very near future. But just for now, for these moments, he could appreciate his leisure.

He was half-way through his coffee, and determinedly telling himself that he would come to prefer it to tea, in time, when Sherlock arrived in the doorway, hair rumpled and dressed only in a nightshirt. John raised his eyebrows at him.

“You should still be resting.”

“I woke up,” said Sherlock, yawning and then looking displeased at himself for doing so. “I am perfectly well, do not be concerned. I see you found Annunciata, or she found you.”

“She drove me out of the kitchen.” John tilted the silver pot. “It’s still just about warm. I think she brought enough for you, too.”

Sherlock made a contemptuous noise, and turned and stalked off. John got up and followed, curious, arriving in the kitchen in time to see Annunciata – he assumed that was her name – kissing Sherlock on both cheeks and then taking his hands and telling him something with great animation. Sherlock was nodding and interjecting the odd word. When she paused, he said a few sentences, questioning, and Annunciata threw up her hands and laughed and went over to the stove to set fresh water boiling, tossing more questions over her shoulder.

John was fascinated. He had occasionally heard Sherlock speak a phrase or a sentence in another tongue, but had never seen him conversing in one, so fluently. Italian sounded very different to English in Sherlock’s mouth; more fluid, more easy. It was very….very affecting. John wet his lips and considered fleeing back to the parlour; but Sherlock was turning to him now.

“I helped her cousin’s son’s wife to escape a charge of child-murder, when I was last here. And she is a fast friend of Mrs Hudson’s, they conspire together. She was asking when Mrs Hudson would be joining us. And she says you are – umm, the best translation would perhaps be, a good companion for me. Though I am as always a disgrace for coming down undressed and scandalizing the household.”

“Mmm,” said John. Annunciata strode to the door, opened it, and shouted something out into the courtyard. A male voice replied.

“She’s asking her nephew – he works for us too – to bring up hot water for my bath. And for you too, if you wish?”

“I, er, I have washed. Thank you.” John’s voice sounded rough in his own ears.

Sherlock looked at him more closely, tipping his head a little to one side.

“You already knew that I spoke Italian.”

“Of course,” said John. “But it is, umm, different to hear you doing it.”

“Oh,” said Sherlock, enlightened. John winced. “Oh, John. How shall I teach you the language, if you are so easily – distracted?” His voice fell sharply on the last word, into its darkest register.

John forced himself to raise his chin and meet Sherlock’s eyes. “I have been distracted for over a week,” he said. “As you know.”

Sherlock’s lips parted, and he blinked, slowly.

“I have already told Annunciata that I am still convalescing and will be resting throughout today. No doubt, John, you require some rest also. After the rigours of the journey.”

“The rigours of the journey. Indeed.” The corners of Sherlock’s mouth were turning up, and John started to smile in response.

Sherlock glanced at Annunciata, now muttering over a coffeepot, and then steered John a couple of steps back, into the passage that led from the kitchen, out of sight.

“It will take a few minutes for the water to heat,” he said, leaning forward so that his lips brushed John’s cheek.

“I believe,” said John, resisting turning his head that few inches to meet Sherlock’s mouth, “that we might require more time than that. And I do not want to be interrupted by the arrival of your morning coffee.”

Sherlock huffed out a breath near John’s ear, and then kissed just below it, stepping closer. John put out a hand, seized a handful of his nightshirt and pushed him away a little, holding him there. Sherlock looked at John’s hand on his nightshirt and then met John’s eyes, his own darkening.

“We have time,” said John softly. “You told me so yourself. Let us wait a little.”

Sherlock swallowed. “A very little,” he said, equally soft, almost pleading.

John closed his eyes for a moment. There was a servant within earshot, he reminded himself. Sherlock might not care, but John did. He loosened his grip on Sherlock, smoothed a hand down his chest, and then stepped away from him, to a reasonable distance.

“I am going to finish my coffee in the, umm, the salon, and then explore a little, while you take your bath.”

Sherlock sighed with mock impatience. “No,” he said. “If you find it too scandalous to assist me with my bath – yes? – then finish your coffee and wait for me upstairs. I am not planning to get dressed and hunt for you all over the grounds.”

John contemplated refusing this imperious request, but it would seem like cutting off his nose to spite his face.

“Please,” added Sherlock.

“If you wish,” said John. “I shall unpack some of my clothing.”

“Mmm,” said Sherlock. “If you err in favour of undressing rather than dressing… Don’t worry” – as John glanced towards the kitchen – “Annunciata and Silvio speak even less English than you speak Italian. ”

“My coffee will be cold,” said John, with all the dignity he could muster, and retreated. It was cold. He drank the remainder in two gulps, wincing, and then fled the salon: he was not capable of enduring more of this sly flirtation from Sherlock without doing something regrettable.

**

He sat in his room, staring at his valise, but he could not think of unpacking. He could hear footsteps on the stairs, cheerful whistling and the sound of water splashing into a tub. All he could see in his mind’s eye was Sherlock stripping off his nightshirt, Sherlock naked, Sherlock with water sliding down his back, his chest… John scrubbed a hand over his face. He did not know why he was suffering so from his nerves, his pulse insistent and his stomach hollow with anticipation. He had not felt so, before. But then, this was more serious; this was he and Sherlock, alone together in a foreign land, with no way back. It was terrifying and wonderful, both at once.

He got up and paced a bit, stopping to look out of the window, where the mist was gradually burning off and he could just make out the towers and churches of a city, below him in the hollow of the hills. He could not concentrate on the view, however. He went downstairs, quietly. Sherlock’s bedroom door was open, and the door of the bathroom was closed. He was hesitating there, wondering whether he might knock, when it opened abruptly and Sherlock came out, wearing only a towel around his hips.

“John,” he said, startled, and John, confronted with the reality of everything he had imagined, could not speak. He raised his eyes to meet Sherlock’s, hoping that he might read John’s desperation. Sherlock looked worried, and then he blinked and his eyes kindled.

“Come on,” he said, low, and he took John’s arm and half-pulled him, unresisting, down the corridor and into his room. It was dim and warm there, a small woodstove burning in the corner. Sherlock released John, who had the presence of mind to close the door behind them and turn the key in the lock, and then went to the shutters and opened them, letting in the light. Without turning round, he loosened the towel around his hips and let it fall.

John heard himself make a quiet, pained noise. He took the three steps across the room, stumbling against the edge of the bed, and put his hands on Sherlock’s back, running them over the unmarked skin. Sherlock moved back into the touch, and John slid his arms around him and, heart hammering, kissed the base of his neck, where it met his shoulders, and then, greatly daring, set his teeth gently into the muscle there.

Sherlock groaned, surprisingly loudly, and eeled round in John’s arms, bending to catch his mouth. John had been imagining that they might be slow and langourous, remembering Sherlock’s past words, but when Sherlock’s mouth came down on his that possibility dissipated in the instant, and John reached up to hold Sherlock there, fingers catching in his shorter hair, and kissed him back so hard that it hurt. Sherlock broke off with a gasp and started unfastening John’s trousers, and John pulled his shirt and undershirt over his head without caring for the buttons, and then awkwardly pushed down his trousers and undergarments, Sherlock’s attempts to help proving more of a hindrance.

The moment he stepped free of his clothes, Sherlock crowded him towards the bed and then onto it, kissing him with single-minded determination and crawling over him as John lay back. John let his hands rove over Sherlock’s skin, his too-prominent ribs, the muscles flexing in his back. He was starving for the feel of Sherlock’s skin under his hands, his naked flesh against him, and that alone threatened to drive him to the extreme of pleasure.

Sherlock moved down to nip at his collarbone and John’s body arched towards him without his assent, seeking more. He wanted Sherlock to move further downwards, to feel his mouth, but he also wanted more, more of Sherlock for himself. He pushed at Sherlock’s chest until Sherlock understood and let John turn them over, reversing their positions. John reached down between them and touched Sherlock with tentative fingers where he was hard and waiting for John, and watched how that touch made Sherlock’s eyelids flutter and his mouth curve into a grimace. Sherlock opened his mouth, perhaps to speak, and John kissed him quiet, stroking him. He did not want to break this urgency with words.

It was too much and not enough, kissing Sherlock, touching him. On impulse John bit at his chest and then shifted down, kissing his stomach and then lower, making his intent clear. Sherlock’s hand caught in his hair and tightened, but John shook his head blindly and slid downwards, between Sherlock’s legs. He had never done this, and it had never occurred to him to wish to, but his blood was roaring in his ears and he wanted to touch and taste all of Sherlock, to mark him. He kissed Sherlock’s thighs and Sherlock gasped above him. His – his cock brushed John’s cheek, soft and hard together, and John swallowed. He closed his eyes, and guided the head of it into his own mouth, as best he could.

Sherlock stiffened under him and made a shocked noise. “John,” he said, harshly. “You do not need to – “ and John would have replied that he wanted to, but his mouth was occupied. He could not get enough air, he choked a little and tried again, and although the small part of him that remained rational told him that he did not know what he was doing, Sherlock was shaking beneath him, moving in tiny thrusts upwards, and when John looked up, he had thrown one arm over his mouth to muffle himself. John felt a rush of power and desire, white-hot, and renewed his efforts, until after only a few moments Sherlock pulled at his hair and said something indistinguishable, and he pulled off, feeling rather than seeing Sherlock’s release. He was suddenly, achingly aware of his own desire, and desperate.

Sherlock half sat up and caught at him, pulling him up so that John lay fully on him and could kiss him again, while Sherlock still shuddered under him. He parted his thighs so that John could thrust between them, and the exquisite sensation of tightness and heat wound his desire rapidly to its peak, so that in only a few thrusts he was spending, hearing himself cry out.

He collapsed on Sherlock’s chest, and then, with compunction, rolled away to lie beside him. Sherlock reached for the sheet at the end of the bed and pulled it over them, and they breathed together. John’s nerves tingled with the memory of pleasure. He should have been sated, but he felt alight with desire, electric with the need to remain in contact with Sherlock’s skin. He closed his eyes and drifted for a moment in the aftermath of pleasure.

“I wished to do that to you,” said Sherlock after a time, sounding almost aggrieved. John opened his eyes and made a noncommittal sound, amused.

“Not that I do not thank you, John, I am simply…there are so many things I desire with you, and I wanted to” – he waved one hand in the air, trailing off. “I have been waiting weeks to have you in my bed, and you took me by surprise.”

“I, umm, share your sentiments,” said John. “About – the things you may wish for.”

“Stay in this bed with me a while longer, and I will show you. I am feeling in very good health today, I assure you.”

“We can do this…whenever we like,” said John with dawning realisation. Always before, afterwards, he had been thinking of how soon he might have to leave. That there was no clock ticking in the background, no expectations…it was extraordinary.

Sherlock did not mock him for stating the self-evident: he laughed, genuine.

“We might stay here all day, even,” John said. “Do you know, I have never seen you like this before, unclothed, in the daylight?”

“I would have you stay here all week,” said Sherlock, low. “All month.”

“Hmm. Perhaps indeed it is possible, since so few people know we are here. Though we would need sustenance, after a while.”

“And eventually, should we fail to surface in Florence, Mycroft will send some minions to find you, since you are now in his pay,” said Sherlock. “You realise that you agreed to spend March rousting drunken and indigent Scotsmen out of the bars of Naples, and returning them to the bosom of their native land, do you not? So I have perhaps four weeks at most to instil some Italian into you, and then we must head south.”

“Four weeks? I fear I will make little progress. I have never had a gift for languages.”

“Although I see no reason why you should need to be dressed, for language lessons. We could start with the anatomy of the human body – essential knowledge should you ever have to deal with a sick or wounded man. Also I could supply…rewards for rapid learning.”

“Rewards,” said John, rolling over to face him. He reached out a hand to trace Sherlock’s lips. “You have a positively wicked smile upon your face.”

Sherlock smiled under his fingers. “Of course,” he said, mock-thoughtful, “in the South, most men speak in dialect in any case. Italian will be of little use to you. Really, we could most profitably use our time…settling into our new routine.”

“Mmm,” said John. “And what might that consist of?”

Sherlock pulled John a little towards him and kissed him, thoroughly. Now that his hunger was less urgent, John let himself fall into it, relearning the pleasure of this connection. After some time had passed, when John’s legs were tangled with Sherlock’s and his body was starting to express renewed interest in the proceedings, Sherlock broke off, resting his forehead against John’s.

“Will this be enough?” he said quietly.

Enough for what, John almost said, but caught himself. He could not be disingenuous here.

He shifted away a little, turning onto his back, before giving an answer. There was a pause, while he traced the cracks in the ceiling with his eyes and thought about it.

“I think so,” he said, slowly. “I do not want to be dishonest. Now – here – I am happy. To be here with you. I feel – more myself than I have done in a long while. But all is new, and a little strange.”

Sherlock hummed beside him. John turned to look at him.

“And – for you?” he said. “I know that doing your brother’s work in Italy is not what you had planned. I do not want to stand in the way of, of whatever you might wish to write next.”

“You are not the only one whose occupation has deserted him. I find that I have rather lost my taste for controversy, of late.”

“What?” said John. He was taken aback. It had never been openly discussed between them, true, but he had never imagined that Sherlock would for one moment abandon his commitment to his scholarship, to his work. “This is not because – Sherlock?”

Sherlock half-shrugged, and sighed again. “I had never cared for the consequences of my work, before. No man’s opinion mattered to me. Now – well, I suppose you made me realise that this was no longer the case.”

John struggled out of the bedclothes enough to prop himself on one elbow and look at Sherlock’s face, frowning. Sherlock smiled at him, but he did not return the smile.

“My opinion is that your books, your research, your writing – these are essential,” he said. “To you. And maybe also to – to the progress of knowledge. I cannot believe that you could be content without your work. If you are sacrificing this for me, then I am not prepared to accept it. We will unpack your books, and organize a study for you, and I will make you resume your studies.”

Sherlock searched his face, seeming astonished.

“I am in earnest,” said John.

“So I see,” said Sherlock after a moment. “I had not – you never cease to be surprising, John. If you can truly accept – “

John smiled in relief. Sherlock put an arm around him and tugged, and he settled down onto his shoulder, running one hand idly over Sherlock’s chest.

“I had been thinking of a book comparing Islam and Christianity, tracing their histories and culture” said Sherlock, close and warm in his ear, seductive. “I would need to do a great deal more study, of course, and some travel in the East.”

“After we conclude our business here, then. I shall assist in whatever way I can, and accompany you on your travels. It would be only just, as you are assisting me in working for your brother.”

“Yes,” said Sherlock. “The East….” His arm tightened round John. “Oh, John, it would make so many people so very angry. The reactions from the Catholic Church alone will be of the utmost interest.”

He sounded gleeful, and John’s smile widened into a grin.

“Fortunately I shall be there to watch over you, should things become too interesting.”

“Oh, they will,” said Sherlock. “I cannot promise you much, my dearest John, but I believe I can certainly promise you that.”

 

THE END

 

Chapter Text

I gave the game away in the comments to chapter 10, because the famous ‘In my youth people used to talk about Ruskin…’ quotation, is from the crossover text that was the original inspiration for this story, Mrs Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere (1888). Robert Elsmere was enormously popular and one of the best-selling novels of the entire Victorian period. ‘Certainly I never thought I should devour a book about parsons’, as Edward Burne-Jones observed. Besides the fact that it is indeed a surprisingly gripping and moving narrative with a very likable central character, this was because William Gladstone took it extremely seriously and wrote a major review of it, thus igniting a fierce debate about faith, doubt, science, etc. It’s the story of a young, passionate, idealistic clergyman. The very basic plotline is: he falls in love, gets married, and he and his wife move to a country parish. Robert is full of schemes – a society for the village youth is one of them – and in his spare time he likes to do some dilettante research. He is intrigued by modern science but hasn’t read all that much. But he’s very open-minded, and he’s even prepared to be interested in the mysterious squire, absent in Europe when Robert moves into his neighbourhood, but known for his amazing library and, of course, his famously heretical publications. He lives in his manor house, a short distance from Robert’s parsonage….

Things start to go wrong when Robert takes advantage of an invitation to use the Squire’s library while he’s away:

‘Imagine, Langham…I had never read even the Origin of Species before I came here. We used to take the thing half for granted, I remember, at Oxford, in a more or less modified sense. But to drive the mind through all the details of the evidence, to force oneself to understand the whole hypothesis and the grounds for it, is a very different matter. It is a revelation.’

‘Yes,’ said Langham; and could not forebear adding, ‘but it is a revelation, my friend, that has not always been held to square with other revelations.’

Robert ignores these warnings. He believes in the value of learning. Here he is discussing the Squire with a fiercely traditionalist fellow-cleric, Newcome:

‘The squire is a man of strong character, of vast learning. His library is one of the finest in England, and it is at my service. I am not concerned with his opinions.’

‘Ah, I see,’ said Newcome in his driest voice, but sadly, ‘You are one of the people who believe in what you call tolerance – I remember.’

‘Yes, that is an impeachment to which I plead guilty,’ said Robert, perhaps with equal dryness, ‘and you – have your worries driven you to throw tolerance overboard?’

Newcome bent forward quickly… ‘Tolerance!’ he said with irritable vehemence – ‘tolerance! Simply another word for betrayal, cowardice, desertion – nothing else. God, Heaven, Salvation on the one side, the devil and hell on the other’

And Newcome leaves him with this sad warning:

‘Wait, my friend, till you have seen that man’s books eating the very heart out of a poor creature as I have. When you have once seen Christ robbed of a soul that might have been His, by the infidel of genius, you will loathe all this Laodicean cant of tolerance as I do!’

But Robert is not convinced:

‘You have no idea what a queer sort of existence he lives in that huge place,’ said Robert with energy…’[The poor] never see him; when he is here, the park is shut up; the common report is that he walks at night; and he lives alone in that enormous house with his books…he knows no-one, and nobody knows him.’

He reckons he might ‘save’ the Squire:

‘His mind gradually filled with some naïve young dream of winning the squire, playing him with all sorts of honest arts, beguiling him back to life – to his kind.’

But then, Robert and his wife Catherine hear about an outbreak of sickness among the Squire’s tenants (he’s still carousing round Europe at this point), and being good moral Victorians, go to see what’s up. They are totally horrified by the state of the housing and single-handedly fight an outbreak of diptheria:

‘It became clear to him that the squire had taken pains for years to let it be known that he cared not one rap for any human being on his estate…What! Live for thirty years in that great house, and never care whether your tenants and labourers lived like pigs or like men, whether the old people died of damp, or the children of diphtheria, which you might have prevented! Robert’s brow grew dark over it.’

This ‘interference’ goes down badly with the Squire when he returns home, and Robert’s hopes for friendship are dashed when the Squire is cold and dismissive. I give you a typical example of the Squire being rude to him:

‘You are one of those people, I see…who imagine we owe civilization to the heart; that mankind has felt its way – literally. I, on the other hand, am with the benighted majority who believe that the world, so far as it has lived to any purpose, has lived by the head.’

All I can say is that if I’d recalled this quotation I’d have had Sherlock say it verbatim. BUT THEN the Squire visits the diptheria-stricken village himself, realises his estate manager is an incompetent liar and a crook, sorts it out, and he and Robert become friends. In fact, you could say that Robert fell:

‘under the spell of the squire’s strange and powerful personality’

The unmarried Squire, with zero interest in women, universally assumed to be extremely ‘odd’, that is. (Admittedly he is also elderly, but not all that elderly). The Squire is fascinated by the chance to shape Robert’s opinions:

‘He had found a great piquancy in this shaping of a mind more intellectually eager and pliant than any he had yet come across among younger men.’

Eager and pliant, hmmm? So he lends him books, including his own, they go for walks and talk about the Squire’s research, and gradually, Robert, who

‘had been for months tempting his fate, inviting catastrophe’

slides closer and closer to losing his faith. The crisis comes when he’s reading a particular work of higher criticism:

‘Robert began to read vaguely at first, then to hurry on through page after page, still standing, seized at once by the bizarre power of the style, the audacity and range of the treatment. Not a sound in the house. Outside, the tossing moaning December night; inside, the faintly crackling fire, the standing figure. Suddenly it was to Robert as though a cruel torturing hand were laid upon his inmost being. His breath failed him; the book slipped out of his grasp; he sank down upon his chair, his head in his hands. Oh what a desolate intolerable moment!’

If you’ll believe me, I didn’t have this passage in front of me when writing exactly the same scene. I hadn’t reread the book in years, but evidently it made a pretty big impression on me. Anyway, sadly, this isn’t the Squire’s own book he’s reading, but it might as well be. Over the next months Robert faces up to the fact that he can’t carry on:

 ‘he went through an agony which no words can adequately describe. He must, of course, give up his living and his orders.’

Of course, this process is going to take him a while – he has a wife and child to think of. But eventually he tells Catherine, vast quantities of angst – as in, if you like that kind of thing this is the ULTIMATE in angst, and believe me Victorian popular fiction puts up some strong contenders -  ensue, and they leave for London, never to return. What happens next? He starts preaching in a kind of humanist church and doing good among the poor. His marriage is pretty much in ruins, given that Catherine is absolutely unbending in her faith, but they struggle on. There’s a climactic meeting with the Squire, in which for the first time the Squire understands what harm he’s done to Robert’s life:

‘His rough hand had closed on the delicate wings of a soul as the boy crushes the butterfly he pursues.’

And eventually the Squire, lonely and embittered after the loss of his ONLY FRIEND, has a stroke while in the grip of mania, and Robert dies of a vaguely consumptive complaint, leaving Catherine and his daughter to pray for him.

This summary does a disservice to the book, because it picks out the central plotline, but not the central point of Robert Elsmere, which is to examine the agonies of a marriage torn apart when one person is a Christian and the other is not: or, to put it another way, the tragedy of a highly intelligent ‘modern’ man married to a narrow-minded ‘traditional’ woman. Ward and the reader’s sympathy is entirely with Robert, though she shows us Catherine’s suffering with fairness. This is one of very few Victorian novels that pull off writing a wholly good and admirable character without that character coming across as extremely irritating and annoyingly pious to the modern reader. I think Robert Elsmere should also be discussed with the great Victorian novels of unhappy marriages, especially in relation to Lydgate and Rosamond in Middlemarch. It has a number of fun subplots too, which mainly concern Catherine’s bohemian violinist sister, Rose, and Robert’s tormented college tutor, Langham, and various other reasonably interesting characters. All I can say is – if you liked this fic, Robert Elsmere isn’t all that close to it, except in the points outlined above. Butif you like Victorian religious fiction, or just Victorian fiction, and you don’t know this novel, I think you might be surprised by how enjoyable and page-turning it is. Come back and tell me if you read it, or if you’ve read it already and what you thought….