Disclaimers: Sherlock Holmes and Mrs. Hudson belong to the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Russell belongs to Laurie R. King, and their foe belongs to *me*. Strange, eh? Something actually belongs to me...
Author's Note: Just something that surfaced out of the depths of my mind. It was fun to write. Hopefully, it's fun to read. Please let me know.
i"A devil with merely local powers like a parish vestry would be too inconceivable a thing."/i
-uThe Hound of the Baskervilles/u
i"Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just."/i
-"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carffax"
i"You make a fine priest, Holmes, very distinguished."/i
-uThe Beekeeper's Apprentice/u
The lone, slim figure seemed to materialize out of the shadows as he stepped in front of the hearth. Cool, near-deferential, he inclined his head to the side in recognition of the two of us. "Mr. Holmes. Miss Russell. I trust all is well?"
I had seen Holmes start briefly, then relax back in his armchair as if nothing more had occurred than Mrs. Hudson's entering the room and asking if we would like some tea while we sat in front of the fire. I let him answer.
"Quite, thank you."
The black-clad man ran a hand through his fine dark hair before clasping his hands loosely behind his back and facing us in a near-military fashion, leaving his face dark -- purposefully, I have no doubt. "Mr. Holmes, what do you hold most dear to your heart?"
I saw Holmes's left eyebrow slide upward. "Why do you wish to know?"
A brief, harsh laugh, grating and chilling, escaped from our visitor. "Because I want to know what you'd do if it were taken away from you."
The jawline of my counterpart tightened, and his knuckles -- such a clumsy word for something so graceful -- whitened on their perch of the armrests. His voice was low, cold, and as dangerous as I've ever heard. "Who are you?"
The hellish chuckle of the man returned. "Mr. Holmes, you and I, and very likely Miss Russell as well" -- he faced me briefly, and I involuntarily shrank back in my chair -- "know that you wouldn't believe me if I told you. Simply answer my question, and the game shall continue."
When he answered, Holmes sounded a tinge sardonic -- more normal, and thus I felt a bit safer. "What is this, the game of the Spanish Inquisition? My dear fellow, we are not in Spain, you are not the Church, and therefore, neither of us has any use for your 'game'."
"Perhaps not, Mr. Holmes. But you will play."
My gaze shifted back to Holmes. He nodded, telling me to stay put and follow his lead. I sat back and watched.
"Mr. Holmes? Your answer?"
"I'm afraid I forgot the question," he said coolly.
He tut-tutted at Holmes. "Shame on you, Mr. Holmes! I think you're slipping! My question was this: what do you hold dearest to your heart? Something that you consider a part of yourself? Something that you'd feel dead without -- so to speak, of course." He turned suddenly, dragged an ottoman in front of the fire and sat, facing us. As he did, I saw a horrible, sinister smile cross his face at his own humor, bad as it was.
Holmes lowered his head slightly, giving himself the semblance of a person deep in thought, but I could tell that he had already formulated his answer. He did not look at me as he spoke. "My wife."
I was moved by his response, so much that I almost reached out to him -- almost. In light of the situation, I refrained.
"Your wife." I saw the man lift his right hand, apparently examining his fingernails.
"I'm sure." His voice was expressionless. I didn't dare look at him. I knew that we each considered the other as much a part of ourselves as an arm or a leg, but this fact was rarely, if ever, voiced, and never to someone outside our own company. I wondered what moved Holmes to be so boldly honest with this malevolent stranger, and I wasn't sure I was going to like the reason.
I suddenly felt my throat constrict horribly, and I looked at our uninvited guest to see that he had his recently examined hand pointed at me, fingers evenly splayed. Holmes sprang up from the chair at my choked cry and lunged at the man, but he simply waved his hand and my lungs screamed for mercy. I looked at Holmes, pleading with him, and a tremor -- natural, I think -- ran through him as he retreated to his chair. "Release her," he said quietly, with an iron thread in his voice.
Thankfully, he dropped his hand, and I slumped over, greedily taking deep breaths.
"Russ?" came the concerned inquiry from the chair, and all I could do was nod. It is not pleasant to be terrified and deprived of oxygen at the same time.
"You see how easily I can take away what it is you hold most precious, Mr. Holmes? A few more seconds of that and Miss Russell would have been rendered unconscious."
I believed him.
"A minute or so and she would have been dead. Dead, Mr. Holmes. And there's nothing stopping me from continuing."
"There is," Holmes murmured softly.
The man rose, and the dying flames of the unstoked fire rose and crackled back to full intensity with a shower of sparks. "Do you know who I am, Mr. Holmes? Do you?"
"In the course of my career," my husband began relatively calmly after a thoughtful pause, "I have seen many things. A great many things. I have seen idiots and I have seen masterminds. I dismissed the idiots. I could not dismiss the masterminds so easily, for they invariably had something in common that I could not forget: they all had a modicum of evil within them that drove them to commit their crimes." He leaned forward, and I saw those lovely grey eyes harden into a harsh, alive glitter. "And if you are who I think you are, then you are responsible for that hue in those men. And I cannot -- will not -- sit idly by and watch you destroy everything I have worked to achieve, and I certainly will not let you murder Russell. Leave my house. Immediately."
Oh God, his voice was terrible. But there was something there that hadn't been there before -- fear, perhaps? Whatever it was, his next words were filled with hollow bravado. "Sherlock Holmes believes that he can defend God and country against my influence. You are a man, Mr. Holmes, a puny little man with no power that can stand up against the power I wield. I can destroy you, and I will destroy you. And I shall start with Miss Russell. Slowly."
And then my Holmes, my beautiful avenging-angel Holmes, spoke, clarion strong. "You shall not, for I have recognized you for what you are. And such recognition by any man before you have taken him under your control is grounds for your expulsion. I know you. I have even let myself be tempted by you in the past. But it will not happen this time because I will not let it happen."
The man began shrinking back, and for the first time, I read apprehension in his body language.
Holmes continued, "You are playing your devil's game under my roof, sir, and you have lost because you underestimated me. 'It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of one's facts', and you have done so. You have not played your game with me since I have been working with Russell, and she has molded me into a person who can recognize evil for what it is. Of course, I was capable of doing that in the first place. But her mind has helped raise my own to another level. I can see you -- and I can cast you out. And I do so now."
Our guest stood up from his ottoman, kicked it out of the way with a twitch of his foot, and began to whimper pathetically, retreating in a diagonal fashion towards the shadow of the mantel.
Pointing a finger in judgement at him, Holmes barked, "Back! Back to the fiery pit from whence you came! The game's afoot, and I have won!"
At Holmes's last words, our erstwhile visitor melted back into the shadows with the cry of one of his lost souls, and he was gone from the room. I knew that he would not return.
I rose from my chair and went to Holmes, resting a hand on his trembling shoulder. I did not speak. After a long interval, one languid, shaking hand reached up to cover mine. At that moment, I don't think I ever loved Holmes more. His steely expulsion of the man was filled with the tenacity and determination and devotion to justice that I knew to be integral to who he was. Simply stated, Holmes was safe harbor for me in every sense of the phrase, protecting me from bombs in my lodgings at Oxford, drunken Arab merchants, bullets flying through office windows, and, most importantly, myself. He made me stop working when he felt that I needed fresh air, and he kept the demons of my many traumatic mishaps at bay simply by being himself. His acerbic, aging, inscrutable self. And I loved him for all of it.
At the same time, I was reminded of the all-too-sweet shortness of life. Holmes was, as our caller said, a man. A mortal man. And time and tide wait for none.
"Come, husband," I said softly. "Let us retire."
He rose, and we walked hand in hand together down the hall to our room.