Yes, I know this is quite a bit longer than the other chapters, but there really was no good location or reason to split it into two. So anyway, here's the conclusion. And yes, the title did change, simply because I wanted the alliteration. :)
"Well, I suppose I have to say it was just a misunderstanding. My apologies, gentlemen, I was wrong in accusing you, but you have to admit that the conclusion was a logical one."
The truth always is, I thought with some amusement...I recognised the odd humour as a verging hysterical relief and firmly tamped down on the feeling before it manifested itself in something I should regret in the morning.
"You were doing your duty, Lestrade," I offered helpfully, trying desperately not to grin outright at his disconcertedness, but the official merely looked at me rather bitterly.
"Besides, Lestrade, if I were going to murder a man, I would dare wager that I could do it in a manner far less likely to get me apprehended than this person did," I pointed out, "and would choose a better location for the deed than his own house when clearly the household is within call and still awake."
The man blinked, and I could fairly see the slow gears beginning to grind together in his head. "That's true – and I don't suppose you'd need to kill the man with six shots, either; both of you gents are crack marksmen, much as I hate to admit it."
I nodded eagerly, but Watson blinked as if just now processing the first part of the man's statement. "Killed whom, Inspector?"
I resisted the impulsive urge to clap him on the back for his perfect timing and absolutely flawless surprise at the news of the murder. Hidden fires indeed…
"Never mind, Doctor, let your friend do all the explaining – he's had enough practice in it by now after the stories he's told me tonight!" the official spat with more venom than humour.
"Lestrade, honestly, it's been an extremely long night and I think we all could do with a good sleep," I ventured a bit nervously, wondering if the man were really going to swallow the magnificently elaborate prevarication the three of us had concocted.
The Inspector glared at me for a moment before his face melted into a doleful puddle. "What am I going to do now about the crime?" he nearly whined, leaning against the wall and planting his face in his hand with a low moan.
"If it were I, Lestrade, I should check on Barrett's whereabouts at the time of the murder," I offered slyly, "you saw the way he was eyeing all of us. And who better to have contact with the master than the trusted butler? You heard yourself, Lestrade, that he carries a revolver at all times – how is it that he didn't shoot at the killer if he was quick enough to catch me running after I heard the murder shots?"
Aggie gasped softly, but I shot her a reassuring look behind Lestrade's suddenly alert features – he was obviously more than a little intrigued by this colossal red herring's possibilities.
But not even Lestrade's bungling efforts could concoct enough false evidence to actually convict the butler for the murder (though that really would not have bothered me, as I knew for a fact that Barrett was privy to his master's daily occupations), but this suspicion would at least keep the official engaged for a while.
And, I thought with some satisfaction, this would also be a rather neat revenge from me upon that odious man. I would be sure to attend the inquest, just to smile most amicably at him.
This divertingly pleasant thought was disrupted by Aggie's slight giggle and an entirely inappropriate poke from that quarter, and I turned my head in the direction she was looking – and then nearly laughed myself.
Watson was slumped against the stair railing, to all appearances fast asleep again and beginning to snore softly. How the devil was he doing such a marvellous job of acting?
Lestrade gawped for a moment before the irritation on his face faded to a bemused smirk. "I suppose his story really is true then," he grinned, "as we both know he can't act at all. Now, your story on the other hand, Mr. Holmes…Miss Aggie…"
Aggie coloured a light pink and hung once more onto my arm. To his credit, Watson never blinked an eyelash – when I fully expected him to burst into laughter at my embarrassing predicament. My own acting skills paled in comparison to his at the moment, and the thought disturbed me not a little.
Lestrade looked at the both of us for a long moment. "Is it really true, that you're marrying this woman, Holmes?" he asked finally, his tone much less antagonistic than before, more resignedly mischievous than anything else.
I gulped and looked helplessly at Aggie, who blushed a deeper magenta but finally looked the Inspector in the eye and spoke.
"I don't think so, Inspector – but he was with me at the time of the murder, I can attest to that. Marrying, though? I don't believe so," she said coyly, "you know his type, they never do want to settle down with any one girl, now do they?"
Lestrade choked on something, though I had not noticed his eating toffee or something in the cab. Strange. "His type? Exactly what is his type, Miss Aggie?"
Aggie winked at the official with the air of a woman who knows a highly confidential (and thoroughly improper) secret. "You really want to know, love?"
The man finally swallowed whatever was choking him and shook his head so vehemently he nearly took his ear off on the wall sconce. "No! No, I do not want to know. Good evening to you both. Doctor?"
Watson blinked his eyes open with sleepy slowness when I nudged him gently. "Leaving, Lestrade?" he asked brightly – far too brightly.
"Yes," the man growled, "and you'd better hope Cummings hasn't let that butler run off by the time I get back to Appledore Towers."
"What about that press conference, Lestrade?" I called after the man as he plodded down the seventeen stairs, tripping over the loose carpeting on the fifteenth.
"Holmes, I swear, if one word of any of this gets outside this house, I will arrest all three of you! And have the conference!" he bellowed back up at me, shooting Mrs. Hudson a rather undeservingly out-of-sorts glare before slamming the front door behind him. A moment later we heard the cab drive away at a furious clip.
The instant it had, Watson's face blossomed into a grin so wide it fairly glowed at me, and Aggie gave a light little laugh of glee.
But such elation had suddenly flooded my veins in a veritable euphoria of relief that I did something that I shall ever regret and still blush to think of, for I still remain fully chagrined at how far that intense reaction had completely depleted all my reserves of self-control in that one instant of giddy triumph.
That is to say, Aggie threw her arms round my neck and I actually laughed and lifted her slim form off the ground, spinning the woman who had saved both our reputations this night in a full circle before breathlessly stopping and putting her down – the sudden realisation of what I had done splattering over my excitement like a dousing of ice water and causing me to blush all the way to my bone marrow as she giggled.
Watson's jaw was doing a fair imitation of Lestrade's wordless open-and-shut medley earlier in the evening, and I shot him a look that said if you so much as breathe a word of this elsewhere, you will die. Painfully and slowly.
He merely grinned, his eyes dancing, and I saw him visibly swallow a burst of compulsive laughter as Mrs. Hudson gasped suddenly from behind us.
"Erm, yes, Mrs. Hudson," I began hastily, backing away from the woman's ceiling-high eyebrows, "well, you see – I can explain –"
"I do not even want to know," she retorted sternly, slapping my burglary kit into my hand with enough force to go on through the skin and bone to the floor. "I'll make you some tea, Doctor."
"Better make it coffee, Mrs. Hudson," he called ruefully after the disappearing woman, "black, and as strong as you can make it."
"May I help you, ma'am?" Aggie spoke up, and our landlady smiled and motioned for the girl to follow her down the stairs. After flashing me another sweetly happy smile, she did so, and then I turned and sat beside Watson on the steps.
"Coffee, at two in the morning?" I asked, thoroughly nonplussed by the odd request.
He turned an inestimably weary glance to me before his focus visibly dimmed, and he rubbed his head with a wince, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Are you all right, old chap?"
"Other than being scared frantic for the last two hours about you, you mean?" he asked with a long sigh, resting his head in his hand. "What the blazes happened? I thought you were right behind me, until I ran halfway across the Heath and turned back and you weren't there…"
He trailed off with a barely perceptible quiver, and I realised that, no matter how nerve-wracking the affair had been for me, it could not have been much better for my friend. I recounted to him briefly (omitting several painfully personal details, naturally) what had transpired since I had seen him last a few hours previously, and was rewarded for my storytelling efforts by a sleepy smile.
"You're extremely lucky, you do know that?"
"That Lestrade swallowed the story so easily? Yes, indeed."
"No, that your Aggie is far more forgiving than the average of her sex," he replied pointedly.
"True," I squirmed a bit uncomfortably on the hard stair – why the devil was there no padding under this carpet? – "she is anything but the average, let me tell you, Watson."
"I believe it," he rejoined with a smirk, glancing past me at Mrs. Hudson and Aggie, who were bringing a tray up the stairs containing a coffeepot and three cups.
Watson heaved himself tiredly to his feet and stumbled into the sitting room after me and the two women; and after a rather stern scolding from Mrs. Hudson to me about 'serving me right if I did get arrested', the good woman finally left for some well-deserved rest and we were alone in the room.
When the door had closed behind her, I turned to see my female cohort offering a cup of coffee to my friend with a shy smile. Watson returned the smile as he accepted the drink, sinking gratefully down on the sofa, his legs propped up on the rest of the seat. I noticed his silent wince as he did so, and realised the run across the Heath in such vile weather had not been the best possible thing for his old injury.
I gestured toward my armchair (for I could be as mannerly as the next man when the fit so struck me, though it rarely did), and Aggie sat down in it, glancing from one to the other of us as if expecting a pyrotechnics display; or at the least, some rather interesting explanations.
I reached for my pipe – heaven knew I deserved a long smoke after the events of the last three hours – and then turned to my friend, who was already nodding yet again over his coffee.
"My dear chap, I must congratulate you not only upon your quick thinking but also on a spectacular performance tonight," I said finally, allowing my undisguised admiration to seep into my tone and infuse it with an atypical warmth, "you should have even taken me in, had I not known it was an act."
Watson paused mid-sip to glance at me over his cup incredulously, his eyebrows rising in that peculiar manner that invariably meant I had said something either incredibly unbelievable or inexcusably rude. As I had been entirely complimentary to him, I suspected the former.
After a long drink he set the cup down on the saucer with a tiny clink and then smirked at me, running a hand through his yet-mussed hair.
"Holmes, that was no performance – we both know I cannot act to save my life were it necessary."
"That's not true, you merely –" I began to protest, for there had been times when he had been at least passable when the need arose, but he interrupted me with an upraised hand.
"You needn't defend me for sake of tact, Holmes. The fact remains that I cannot act, not well enough, anyway," he said dryly.
Aggie was looking at him in some puzzlement. "But, Doctor, if you were not acting –"
"My dear young lady," Watson addressed the girl with a brief glare at me – was he pointedly reminding me that she was indeed a girl, and I had taken advantage of a woman a good ten or fifteen years younger than I? Was he really that devious or was I overly sensitive about the matter?
"I well knew that, if Holmes had been caught, then very shortly the Yard would be beating our door down looking for me as an accomplice. Knowing I could never do any good for Holmes were I arrested, I had to establish a convincing alibi in the event of something happening as just did with Lestrade."
"And convincing it was, my dear fellow," I interjected, still a bit mystified by the entire affair, "but how did you manage to pull the thing off, if you say it was not an act?"
Watson smirked, very infuriatingly and slowly, at me, taking another slow sip before removing a wadded paper packet from his dressing gown pocket and tossing it in my direction. I caught it before it went in the fire and felt my eyes widen as the links fell neatly into one perfect chain in my mind.
"You sedated yourself?!" I asked incredulously.
He nodded with a deal of (quite well-deserved) pride. "I knew I would never be able to sleep in the state I was in, and neither could I feign sleep well enough to deceive any half-intelligent policeman, so I gave myself a good dose of a sleeping powder – hence the absolutely horrendous headache I am unfortunately battling right now," he muttered, rubbing his head again.
"But isn't that a bit risky?" Aggie gasped.
Watson smiled tolerantly. "I am a Doctor, my dear."
Aggie blushed and glanced at me, but I smiled reassuringly and my friend waved her embarrassment off with his usual kindness.
"However, the stuff's meant to be taken and then slept off – not woken out of an hour after its consumption," he sighed, turning his exhausted attention to me. "I got your cufflinks from your room, cleaned that red muck off my shoes, threw my mask in the fire, primed Mrs. Hudson, and took myself off to bed, all in the space of fifteen minutes since I had arrived back at the flat."
"My dear fellow, have I ever told you that you have the makings of an absolute genius?"
He snorted with laughter, nearly spraying milky coffee everywhere, and I was quite ridiculously pleased to see his hazel eyes sparkle with a bit more life and pride at my praise than they had had previously.
"I don't believe so, no," he chortled, grinning at me from round his cup.
All through this, Aggie had been watching our interaction with ever-widening blue eyes, and now her laughter joined Watson's, blending into a perfect chord of merriment.
"Dear me, Mr. Holmes – it takes two people to dig you out of trouble, doesn't it?" she chirped gaily.
"Evidently," I growled, pulling in a long draught of smoke and trying to bring my nerves back to some semblance of reality.
Watson drained his coffee cup and started to move, a silent expression of pain fading in and then out of his features, so rapidly I should have missed it had I not been watching him. I hastily reached out for the china and received a sigh of thanks as he settled back on the couch cushions, glancing at my fiancée.
"So you extricated Mr. Holmes out of the Inspector's clutches tonight, my dear?" I heard him ask as I set the cup on the table.
"Sure did, Doctor," she answered pertly, flashing me a grin, "you should've seen the poor lad's face when I said –"
Watson smirked again, glancing back at the girl as if to say tell me later, I should very much like to hear it. Heaven help us – help me! – if he ever got his story-telling teeth into the true facts of this tale!
Aggie moved over to the table and reached for the milk. I reflexively proffered the pitcher, and after a slight glance of surprise she allowed me to pour the drink for her with as much small gallantry as I possessed.
"Do you really think the Inspector will arrest Mr. Barrett?" she asked a bit fearfully, sipping from the cup skillfully, not spilling it though I had accidentally over-filled it to the brim with the white liquid.
"I think he will, but there is no way in British justice he could ever get a conviction," I answered absently, for I really could not care less about the infernal butler at that moment. "So please don't worry about him, Aggie."
She looked relieved and took another sip. I shifted my weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other – what now?
"Aggie, may I ask you something?" I queried hesitantly.
"Sure, Mr. Holmes," she replied, her eyes flitting nervously from my face back to the cup in her trembling hands.
I opened my mouth to ask the question that had been nagging at the back of my consciousness for quite some time now, when the silence was split by Watson's light snoring once again.
We turned to see him fast asleep, slumped exhaustedly against the back of the couch; finally having given up the fight for half-drugged consciousness, poor chap. Aggie smiled at me as I pulled the afghan off the arm of the couch and tossed it over my friend without wakening him.
"Let's not wake him, we can talk privately in my bedroom," I whispered quietly – not thinking about how that actually sounded, given the context of the majority of our conversation of the evening…
I had already begun to blush (it was becoming a rather upsetting habit in her company by this point) when she giggled in a confidential whisper. "Mr. Holmes, honestly, you're not as much of a gentleman as I thought!"
Thank heaven Watson was asleep, I should never have heard the end of that. She laughed softly and followed me into the room – I left the door open, wide open – and she sat on the bed while I took a chair.
"What was it you wanted to ask me?"
"What made you…decide to help me tonight?" I asked soberly. "We both know I should have deserved nothing less than I would have gotten had you not chosen to aid me."
Aggie looked at me for a moment in silence. "I was still deciding whether or not to help you even when you started to talk your way out of it," she said finally, her blue eyes flashing a cool blaze over me, "I actually hated you for a few minutes there."
"I wouldn't have blamed you," I admitted reluctantly, feeling more embarrassed than I really should have – it was all in my duty to a client, after all, and I should not be feeling so guilty over the deception…
"But I decided to help you when I saw you were willin' to go to jail to keep your friend out of the mess you'd made," she finished, glancing up at me, her eyes glimmering softly in the gaslight.
I was somewhat startled, for I had not been expecting that.
"Thank you," were (quite surprisingly) the first words out of my mouth.
She nodded, shifting nervously on the bed and glancing uncertainly up at me.
"Aggie," I began uneasily, fidgeting with my cufflinks and trying to decide the best way to phrase this – how I wished I had Watson's gift of words just then!
Though considering his romantic bent, perhaps that was just as well with the present company…
"What is it?" she asked softly.
"I wish – I wish I could tell you that I am sorry, but…I really cannot," I said directly, cutting without mercy through the preliminaries, for there had been far too much subterfuge in this affair already. "I had a duty to a client, and I cannot say that I am sorry for carrying that out."
She nodded instantly, though I saw hurt well up in those large blue eyes before she turned her head away sadly.
"But…I am sorry that you happened to be the one I practised the deception on, Aggie," I said quietly, "I truly wish it had been some other, less…undeserving person."
Where had that come from?
Aggie glanced up at me with a watery smile. "I suppose I could take that as a compliment, though a mighty awkward one," she whispered.
"What are you going to do now?" I asked softly, sitting beside her on my bed gingerly – and at a safe distance.
"I – I don't know," she whispered shakily, twisting her fingers together, the enormity of the night's events evidently just now sinking in. "I've no place now, I don't know –"
"If you like," I began hesitantly, "I – I have contacts, I could find you something somewhere."
She gave me a slightly skeptical look.
"I mean it – it's the least I could do, after what you've done tonight. You deserve better than that, Aggie," I said, and for once in my life I was speaking something to this woman that totally and completely true.
"Was it all just a game to you, Mr. Holmes?" she asked wistfully, running a slender, work-worn finger along the pattern of my coverlet, "was it all just playacting to you, every bit of it?"
I gulped at the choice lying before me. Truth, or lying yet again? Surely truthfulness was the better recourse now, no matter how uncomfortable said truth might be to me.
"No," I said slowly, wishing to heaven the entire thing had never, never, never happened, "not all of it, Aggie."
She gave a short snort of a laugh before scooting closer to me. To my eternal chagrin, I did not move away when I had the chance.
"And I do wish there had been some other way," I said truthfully, endeavouring to swim out of the murkiness I was treading water in at this very uncomfortable moment in the evening's conversation.
She sighed, playing with her fingers, twisting and wiggling them nervously in her lap before lacing them together with an air of finality. Then she turned to me and, so rapidly I had not the time to scramble away and off the bed, she kissed me again, just a quick brush on the cheek.
This time, I found I did not blush or cringe or even shrink away…that was rather odd.
However, this interesting fact was driven from my mind by a combination gasp and yelp from the open doorway.
Aggie and I both jerked our heads round in time to hear a fervent, sleep-slurred apology before Watson stumbled backward as if he had seen us being entirely indecent rather than just the girl ridiculously kissing me. My friend hastily headed for the coffeepot once more, muttering something as he went that sounded like 'what the blazes was in that sleeping powder?'.
I moaned (perfect timing as usual with your blundering, Watson!), but Aggie merely giggled. "The poor man probably thinks he's hallucinating."
"Hopefully he'll be too drugged to remember that scene in the morning," I muttered with a scowl, fervently praying it would be so.
But a moment later the hilarity of the situation finally broke through my wall of irritation and I was laughing aloud along with my companion.
"Aggie, I will find you something – my brother works for the government, perhaps they have some custodial position or such open, would you care for that?" I asked seriously at last.
The girl nodded gratefully, wiping her eyes from her laughter. "Thank you, Mr. Holmes."
"No," I said quietly, all traces of my amusement gone in the face of a realisation of exactly what I owed this woman, "thank you – for everything you did tonight. I'd be in jail right now were it not for your help. I still cannot understand or even begin to fathom why you would aid me."
"Mr. Holmes. You are not the only one who can be loyal to someone you care for," was the whispered response.
Loyalty – yet another emotion I had yet to master, or even consciously practice. I should attempt to learn better in future.
For, I reflected as I looked with something nearer to respect than I had ever felt before toward a woman besides Mrs. Irene Norton – the next time I might not be so lucky, and the person I deceived not so loyal as my dear Aggie was.
Lesson learned, I thought ruefully, as I smiled, genuinely at long last, at the very extraordinary girl sitting beside me.
She winked at me, and I found myself blushing once again, for a slightly different reason this time.