Disclaimer: This is a derivative/transformative work. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Notes: Contains spoilers!
This is a companion piece to The Final Problem and The Empty House, with references to other stories.
Some lines are taken from The Empty House, quoted or paraphrased.
Thanks and love to my wonderful beta readers, Plumeria and Chinawolf! Any mistakes are entirely my own.
The night that I destroyed the clock I realised I was going mad. Quietly and causing no inconvenience to anyone but himself, John Watson was going mad.
The clock was on the mantelpiece, tearing time apart, loudly chopping it into small, even pieces and dispatching them into eternity. Time and eternity were frightening words to me just then. The first had lost its meaning to the two people dearest to me, and thus to me; the second lay before me as it lies before us all. I hated it for having claimed my dearest friend and my wife; I hated the clock for measuring the immeasurable. So I took it from the mantelpiece and threw it to the floor, stamped on the clockwork and threw the splintered casing into the fire, watching it consumed by merry flames.
Trying to take revenge on time by burning a clock is not the act of a sane man. The years ahead of me seemed like a fantastic liability, a hellish view of an emptiness I did not know how to fill.
When Mary had died I shunned our bed. Unable to sleep, I wandered through our rooms at night, occasionally lying down on the generous sitting-room sofa or the smaller one in my study, pulling a blanket over me to try to get some rest. The maid must have noticed the untouched state of the bed but never commented. Whenever I entered the bedroom, the image of Mary was much too vivid, much too close. Her image was present in our other rooms as well, but there I could remember her laughing or talking; there I could see her alive. In the bedroom I only saw death. Our lovemaking, all our long, sleepy Sunday mornings in bed or the rustle of her clothes as she got dressed, all of that was gone, superimposed by the image of Mary feverish and in pain as she faded away from me into darkness.
So I paced like someone demented, whispering and mumbling to myself, but I never wept. I dared not for fear of losing what little control I still had.
My mind dwelt endlessly on my own failure to save her. I went over the course of events again and again to see what I had missed, what I could have done differently. Deep down I knew the outcome would not have changed; I was only trying to find something to hold on to in a sea of grief. Focusing desperately on my shortcomings as a doctor was less painful than letting go and giving in to emotion, just like I had held on to Mary and my patients to keep from drowning in grief and emptiness after the death of Holmes.
I had seen worse than this, I tried to tell myself – after all, I had been an Army surgeon. I had seen the horrors of battle and treated unspeakable injuries; I had been shot and survived, and endured raging fever in the tropics. But back then, in Afghanistan and India, my mind had tried its best to soothe and heal me. When I slept then I dreamt of water, of glass, of cool blue sky; I dreamt of slow waves washing a clean shore. My dreams gave me refuge from the blood and dirt and vomit, the stench and darkness of the endless nights. Reality was coarse sand and hot stone and the curses and cries of dying men, a landscape destroyed by men and strewn with their dead bodies, but my dreams offered silence and peace in the middle of chaos. When I was burning up with fever in my hospital bed in Peshawar, I dreamt of brooks and fountains and the sea breeze in spring.
My dreams offered no solace now.
When Holmes had fallen into that horrible chasm in Switzerland, locked in a deadly embrace with his arch-enemy, he had left me there on the muddy path with his alpine-stock, a strangely indifferent note and an abyss in my heart. Two things had kept me sane then: I wanted to reiterate the events of Sherlock Holmes' very last case to our readers, and I had Mary to guide me through the valleys of despair.
Now I was lost.
After weeks of sleeplessness and pacing and barely eating enough to sustain me, I looked like a ghost – not as emaciated as I had been on my return from India, but also not as tanned. I was thin and white with dark shadows under my eyes; I looked half deranged. Something had to be done. If I continued like this I would be old before my time, shuffling slowly along the streets to sit on park benches mumbling to myself, making people shake their heads in pity and choose another bench, making children afraid of me. Even if my days no longer had any meaning, I had to give them some semblance of structure.
My basic outlook on life is positive and optimistic, enough to have elicited sarcastic comments from Holmes on more than one occasion, but now I had to mobilise every ounce of strength I had simply to get through the day.
Perhaps this basic optimism prevented me from contemplating suicide. Nature intended me to be a sociable man, and I decided that being among people would be my salvation.
Eventually I decided to take up my medical practice again to fill my time. Work would be my saving grace; healing others would be the best remedy for my dark thoughts and moods. I began to spend long days at the surgery, receiving as many patients as I could, and found that this satisfied my need for social interaction and purpose as well as exhausting me sufficiently to give me a few hours sleep before I began the inevitable tossing and turning of the early hours. With time, I hoped my grief would be reduced to a lurking shadow and I could choose to look the other way.
It was well that my patients fulfilled my social needs, for when I looked around I realised I had many acquaintances but few true friends. My close friendship with Holmes had made others superfluous. He had been everything I needed.
While Holmes was alive I had considered Lestrade a friend, but after Holmes' demise I could not bear the thought of spending time with him. I occasionally saw Stamford or Lomax, but accustomed to Holmes' electrifying personality and brilliant conversation as I was, I frankly found them dull.
For distraction in my time off, I took up walking as I reasoned it would do me good. I would have fresh air, or whatever air there was to be had in London, and the exercise would improve the mobility of my leg. I cannot honestly say I enjoyed my walks. Sometimes I had to avert my eyes when I passed places or things that made me recall Holmes too vividly. Walking promotes thought, and I found myself thinking of him more frequently and intensely than I had at any time since I finished writing about his final case. And I found myself thinking of love.
It had always been clear to me that I loved Holmes and my wife in different ways. This may seem like an obvious statement – naturally, a man does not love his friend and his wife in the same manner. The truth, however, was that I did love Holmes and my wife in much the same manner, which included intellect, friendship, and physical attraction, but I had always known that my love for Mary never held the passion I felt for Holmes.
Attraction to men was nothing new to me when I met Holmes, although I had very rarely acted on it. In the Army, at war, I had once or twice shared physical pleasure with another man, pleasure given and taken with stealth and haste. The driving force then had not, however, been attraction to the individual, but rather a need for intimacy with another human being as the only thing that made sense amidst all the death and destruction. We could not be sure to see another day or another minute, and we all sought our comfort where it presented itself, regardless of whether it was considered a sinful vice. Personally, I did not consider sex between two people of the same gender an abomination, even if society most emphatically did not share this view. I believed there could be love as deep, strong and beautiful in that kind of relationship as between two people of opposite gender.
I had never held much regard for the worn phrase "love at first sight" until I met Sherlock Holmes. When Stamford and I entered the laboratory and a tall, intense man came running towards us with his eyes shining with delight, I was electrified. His energy and enthusiasm was contagious, and I was quite stricken by his looks. I felt certain I had set eyes on the most fascinating human being I would ever encounter, and never found reason to adjust my first impression later.
Many would have found him difficult to lodge with but I never did, despite many sources of irritation such as his constant untidiness. He was fastidious about his personal hygiene, but his chemical experiments and the heaps of newspapers, notebooks, scraps of paper, envelopes and God knows what that covered every surface could drive me to the edge of despair. Naturally, his mere presence made up for this in abundance. It gave me pleasure simply to be near him, feeding off his seemingly inexhaustible energy, listening to his amazing deductions, watching his countenance reveal his intensity of thought.
Watching his physique gave me pleasure, too; more than I would have cared to admit at the time. His black hair was swept back from his face and curled rebelliously in damp weather, making me long to run my fingers through it. His eyes in particular fascinated me, shining with an obsessed light when he was working on a case. The irises were a strange, clear grey encircled by a darker ring, and his gaze, always direct and intense, often had me spellbound. The danger edge added by my own desire made me uncomfortably like the frog bewitched by the snake.
Many times in my stories about Holmes I have mentioned his hands, and it was my secret pleasure both to watch them and describe them to the readers without revealing my true attraction. They were long and well-shaped, strong but sensitive, and I thought them beautiful.
The truth is I always found a perverse satisfaction in inserting references to Holmes' looks when I chronicled his cases, slipping in a sentence describing his aquiline nose, sinuous arms or liquid movements like a small, private secret exposed to the public without anyone's knowledge but mine. I sometimes wondered whether Holmes realised the attraction that lay underneath. As a detective he never missed anything, but he was also a man who detested emotion.
During the time I lodged with Holmes I saw him in all kinds of moods and conditions and was never sated, never had enough of him. I saw him half-dressed, sleepy, inebriated, happy or coldly infuriated, in all of which states I found him breathtaking. Innumerable times I was called on to treat his injuries during or after a case, and I faithfully cleaned his wounds, stitched him up and applied ointment; I touched his skin and smelled his sweat and exhaustion. There were downsides, of course. It was heartwrenching to watch him do himself damage. He frequently forgot to eat and needed to be coaxed into having a meal, and his drug abuse filled me with helpless rage. Any protestations of mine on that account were met by coldness and sarcasm.
I never dared express much fondness, discouraged by his disdainful views on "the softer passions". Nevertheless, I did believe he esteemed my friendship; I did believe I was important to him. Not as he was to me, but enough for him to want me by his side.
Often it was like torture to be so close to Holmes in every way except the one I desired most, and a love that can neither be confessed nor expressed eats away at the mind and soul.
When I met Mary, I felt relief. She was a lovely woman with many qualities I revered and admired – quiet beauty, intelligence, a spark of temper and a sometimes wicked sense of humour; a realist who did not lack imagination. I loved her dearly, relieved and elated by the fact that here at last was a love that society would embrace, a happiness that could be flaunted. I am aware that I fled from Holmes and my forbidden, fruitless desire for him, fled into Mary's arms.
When I announced our engagement, I was taken aback by Holmes' reaction. Had it been anyone else I would have been tempted to regard it as jealousy, but I knew this could not be the case with Holmes. It was simply that he disliked women, and loathed losing his companion in crime-solving to someone of that sex.
For quite some time after I had entered into wedlock I avoided Holmes altogether, and he made no attempt to contact me. My days of working criminal cases seemed over. I bought a medical practice and enjoyed seeing patients. My life with Mary was quiet, conventional and pleasant, and I pushed all thoughts of Holmes and my impossible love for him as far back into the shadows of my mind as I could – until my friendship with him was renewed, and then brutally ended in Reichenbach.
Mary was my shield and protection, and my great comfort after Holmes' demise. When she died after forty-eight hours of excruciating labour, the fruit of which was a still-born girl, life had finally taken everything I loved and treasured away from me.
On a mild, soft day in March the year after Mary's death, I decided to direct my walk to the National Gallery. After my return from India I had visited the Gallery from time to time to divert my gloomy thoughts, and today I felt inclined to renew my acquaintance with the Turner collection.
I admired Turner's ability to play with light and transform the changeable English weather into poetry and beauty, and his skill at conveying both stillness and violent motion. For several minutes I stood before the stormy scene of Calais Pier before moving on to The Fighting Temeraire, admiring the detail of the composition. Last, I went to see Rain, Steam and Speed, perhaps my favourite painting by Turner. Much like myself, he was fascinated by new technology and its rapid development and application, and to me this painting had always represented reality coloured by enthusiasm and hope for the future. Today, it made me depressed. As I stood there watching the lovely, misty brushstrokes and the hazy image of the train speeding through a rainy landscape, my vision blurred with tears and the rooms of the Gallery felt stifling.
I groped my way outside and onto the steps, where I stopped and took several deep breaths to regain my composure. Listening to pigeons cooing and fountains playing in the square, I held on to the parapet as I examined the reason for my sudden depression. When I watched Turner's painting, the colour and light and the imagined sound of wheels on rails had evoked the memory of a railway journey with Holmes. We had had a private compartment, and its semi-darkness paired with our shared exhaustion after a closed case had created an intimacy which encouraged a more unguarded conversation than usual. Holmes had told me something of his years at university, memories more personally flavoured than anything he had ever chosen to disclose before, and all through the journey I had had a confession on my lips but wisely decided not to give my love a voice. I had watched him in the dim light and loved him more than I had thought possible.
Tears were stinging my eyes again and I forced myself to straighten up and look over the square towards Whitehall and Houses of Parliament, where roofs, points and spires dreamed softly in the misty afternoon like in one of Turner's paintings. I was still blinking tears away when I felt a hand on my arm. Startled, I turned my head and met the liquid brown eyes of a young man who was standing a little closer to me than was polite.
"Are you unwell, sir?" he asked in a low voice – a question that could merely have been prompted by kindness and concern, but something in his tone and the intensity in his eyes suggested other intentions.
Uncomfortable with the closeness, I took a step back. He followed, still with his eyes fixed on mine and his hand on my arm, and a small smile at the corners of his mouth.
"I am perfectly well, thank you," I said a trifle too sharply, pulled my arm free and walked away as briskly as my bad leg allowed.
I felt his gaze on my back but did not turn around. I walked all the way home, wondering whether my thoughts had somehow been written on my face as I stood there on the steps, whether my love for another man had been plain for all to see. It was hours before I slept that night, and it was not due to my leg aching from exertion.
However uncomfortable the encounter with the young man outside the National Gallery had made me, it also re-awakened a restless hunger in me, an irrepressible need for physical contact. Holmes and I had shared a liking for the Turkish bath and had often visited the establishment on Northumberland Avenue. Our visits were always perfectly respectable, for the sake of hygiene and relaxation only, but I was by no means unaware of the secluded rooms and dark corners where you could enjoy more private pleasures.
Hence it was that only a week after my visit to the National Gallery I stepped into Northumberland Avenue with a shudder, leaving the Turkish bath behind as quickly as I could, with my body washed clean and my mind like a foul, stagnant pool. I had gone to the bath purposely seeking physical relief and had found an eager youth who had done the job well and quickly, thankfully not requiring more than my hand in the way of reciprocation. I had never once looked at his face and would not have known him if I had stumbled over him in the street.
I will never repeat the experience, I thought with another shudder when I returned to my home and closed the door behind me, shutting out the world. Pillar of respectability that I was, at least outwardly, I placed my hat and overcoat on the coathanger and my umbrella in the umbrella stand before sinking down in my desk chair in the study, covering my face with my hands. No, I would not repeat the experience, however overwhelmed with physical need. It was not worth it, not worth this unclean feeling, the sense of debasement succeeding the act.
I felt the need to wash again, to scrub the memory of the young man's hot hands and wet mouth off my skin. I splashed cold water on my face and straightened up to look at myself in the mirror. Trustworthy, reliable, dull, were the words that came to mind. A man of no consequence, I thought bitterly. A small time doctor with an enormous, ugly secret. No Harley Street material, this man. I should get a village practice. Yes, I ought to be a country doctor, live well and become portly and florid. I ought to leave London and begin a new life where I could perhaps have a meaningful role in society.
Then I took a deep breath and dried myself off, smoothed out the front of my waistcoat and pasted a smile on my face before asking the maid for tea.
Some weeks later, I opened the morning paper and read about the murder of Ronald Adair. To this day I am not sure why this particular case immediately caught my attention. In retrospect, I like to think of it as premonition, although I know Holmes would laugh and mock my superstition. That morning I only noticed my interest and welcomed the distraction.
The image of Holmes danced at the back of my mind as I avidly read all the details and pondered on the case, endeavouring to find the line of least resistance that my friend had declared the starting-point of every investigation. What would he have made of the description? What would have been his first action?
Directing my evening walk to Park Lane to take a first-hand look, I stopped to listen to a man – who I suspected was a plain-clothes detective – loudly presenting some theory of his own while pointing to a window at No. 427. Taking a step back, I collided with an elderly man who had been standing close behind me, and accidentally knocked some books out of his arms. I apologised and helped him pick them up but thought nothing more of it.
Later that evening there was a knock on my door in Kensington, and the maid came in to tell me an elderly man wished to see me. A book collector, she said. I was puzzled as I did not often have visitors, but asked her to show him into my study. To my surprise, the man who stood before me was the same person I had collided with in Park Lane. I asked him to sit and we entered into a somewhat incoherent conversation about books, but all the while there was something odd about him that disturbed me. When he made a comment about my untidy bookshelf I turned around to look, and when I turned back, Sherlock Holmes had removed his disguise and was standing there smiling.
There was a noise like the rush of water in my ears and black spots danced before my eyes as I sprang up from my chair and stared at him, unable to make a sound, wondering what madness had come over me. Then it appears that I fainted for the first and last time in my life. When I came to, I found myself in my chair with Holmes on his knees before me. My collar and two shirt buttons had been undone and the taste of brandy was on my lips.
"My dear, dear Watson," Holmes was saying through the haze before my eyes and the noise in my ears, "I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected."
I saw that he was indeed not a spirit or spectre, but I needed to touch him to convince myself of his flesh and bone. My hands gripped his arms and felt them thin and sinewy beneath the sleeves of the seedy frockcoat he was wearing.
"Holmes!" I whispered. "Is it really you?"
But I need not have asked – there was no one else in the world with those clear, grey eyes that I saw in the gaslight now. If a grave smile is possible, that is what he gave me, and I saw that he, too, was a little shaken by our reunion.
"I owe you a thousand apologies," he repeated quietly, "for appearing before you in this unnecessarily dramatic manner."
He handed me his flask and I was grateful for the burn of brandy down my throat. My senses were returning to me now, and with them a wave of emotion – relief, anger, desire; I did not know which was the strongest. I was furious with him for having left me in such utter despair for years and for returning into my life so abruptly as to shock me out of my wits, but I also wanted to lean forward and kiss him on the mouth, rip off the shabby coat and anything he had on underneath it. I realised I was still gripping his arms.
"How – could – you!" I managed between clenched teeth, almost shaking him. "How could you deceive me into believing you dead! Have you any idea of the hell I've been living? The emptiness? You, and then Mary..."
I was close to tears and almost equally close to striking him. I believe he saw it, for he gently freed himself of my hands, fetched the chair from the other side of the desk and placed it before me so he could sit down and face me. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and took both of my trembling hands in his, lowering his gaze to where our hands were joined.
"I heard of your bereavement," he said in a low voice that made me shiver. "As for my deception, I will explain it all to you as soon as you are fit to discuss it. It was all-important that I should be thought dead, and I needed you to believe it to create a convincing account of the events in Switzerland."
I swallowed and withdrew my hands. "I am ready to hear it."
Holmes rose from the chair, removed the frockcoat and loosened his cravat, and I sat back and listened to the whole remarkable story. He wandered around the room as he spoke, gesturing in the eager, intense manner I remembered so well. I followed the tall, keen figure with my eyes as I listened avidly to the familiar voice, drinking in every word and savouring every inflection.
"And so it was," he concluded and sat down opposite me again, so close that our knees touched, "that at two o'clock today I found myself in my armchair in my old room at Baker Street, and only wishing I could have seen my friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned."
His slightly shy smile made my heart pound in my chest, and I found I could return the smile quite easily after all.
"Work is the best antidote to sorrow," he added gently, "and I have an interesting piece of work for us tonight. Will you come with me?"
There was only one reply to that question, as there had ever been, and I could not resist leaning forward to take hold of both his hands again. "Yes," I said. "When you like and where you like."
During his narrative he had removed his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves, and the doctor in me turned his palm up to expose the underside of his arm. There was enough light for me to examine the myriad of tiny white scars dotting it. All of them had healed over well, none of them were recent and there were no fresh puncture marks from the cocaine needle. I could not help myself. I ran my hand up his arm in a loose grip, feeling muscle and tendon underneath the butter-smooth skin, until the pad of my thumb rested in the warm, satiny crook of his arm. I think I was staring; I know I had to swallow and deliberately restrain myself from removing my thumb and pressing my mouth to the vacated spot to feel the pulse under my tongue. I drew an unsteady breath and said:
"You have stopped using."
I half expected a sarcastic reply about obvious conclusions but none came, and when I lifted my eyes I found my friend's gaze fixed on me. Our faces were only inches apart. If I tilted my chin just a little, the angle would be perfect for a kiss.
"Yes," Holmes only replied, quietly and a little tensely.
I willed myself not to look at his mouth. Instead I let go of his arm and sat up straight. For now, I could be excused by the shock I had received, but later I would have to rein myself in. It did not do to let my own desires taint our friendship now that Holmes had so miraculously returned from the dead.
"I am glad," I said, and once again he gave me that grave smile.
A little later it was like old times as we were seated in a hansom, Holmes' face cold and stern and the revolver heavy in my pocket. I was nervous and trying not to show it, afraid he would be exposed to fresh danger tonight.
Holmes kept very close to me in the darkness of the empty house, speaking in whispers in my ear and touching me more frequently than had been his custom. Several times he placed his hand on my shoulder or steered me in the right direction with a hand around my elbow, and even at one time placed his fingers on my lips to ensure my silence. I began to wonder whether he, too, feared the events of the night, feared that he or I might come to harm, and for all his ingenious plans and amazing arrangements I felt my apprehension grow. My love for him had not diminished, and now it deepened with every affectionate gesture.
When his dangerous adversary had been disarmed and arrested, we retreated to our old chambers at Baker Street. It was a strange feeling to stand among all the old landmarks, from the acid-stained table to the violin-case and the Persian slipper, as if there had been no hiatus. Holmes added to the illusion by removing his cravat, collar and cuffs and donning his old, mouse-coloured dressing-gown. You cannot go back, a small voice inside me said. You can never return to the way things were. The past is past. I was even a little annoyed with Holmes for assuming so easily that we would be as we once were, for taking my company for granted as we sat down to discuss the evening's case and the one of Ronald Adair.
But his energy was as irresistible as ever. Within minutes I found myself immersed in our exchange, as invigorated and revitalised by his keen observations and conclusions as by sheer joy that he was still here, still alive, not lying in some dark place with his brains blown out by a soft bullet from Colonel Moran's gun.
When we had concluded our discussion he rose and smiled at me. "You will stay awhile, I hope, and drink to the happy reunion of old friends?"
"With pleasure," I replied.
"Good!" His long, sensitive hands were as beautiful as ever, and now he rubbed them together. "I have some excellent white wine that you must share with me."
It was with a sense of unreality that I sat in my old armchair drinking bourgogne with Holmes in the small hours. At a glance, it would seem that no time had passed at all, but a closer examination clearly showed that our lives recently had not been healthy or happy for either of us. We were both pale, Holmes more deathly so than I, and both would benefit from gaining some weight. There was a sadness in my friend's eyes and a softness in his manner that were new to me.
While we drank the wine that did indeed prove excellent, Holmes told me of his extensive travels and his time in Persia and Tibet, but all the while his gaze rested thoughtfully on the fire. He seemed oddly subdued after the triumph and relief following the arrest of Colonel Moran. I did not volunteer much from my life in the past three years – after all, there was not much to tell; at least not much to entertain him. Eventually we ran out of words and simply sat together in silence, Holmes watching the fire and I his aquiline face in the flickering light.
Ever since he had removed his disguise in my study earlier that evening I had been torn by conflicting emotions, flung from fury to elation and back again. Now it was all reinforced by my exhaustion and the generous quantity of wine, and my anger at his deception and his easy assumption that I would welcome him back in my life washed over me in a fresh wave. Were those the actions of a true friend? How could he have left me behind to believe him dead, abandoning me to years of grief and despair, and then expecting me to receive him with open arms when it suited him to return? The fact that I had in all effect done so annoyed me even further.
"How could you not have confided in me?" I finally said, my voice trembling with withheld emotion.
He turned his head then to meet my eyes, and the sadness in his made me draw a breath.
"My dear friend," he said, "you must understand it was not a question of trust – after all, I have trusted you with my life so many times. It pained me to deceive you, but it was important that you should believe me dead. At the time I saw no other solution to the problem. No doubt you have often perceived coldness and distance in me, but have you ever known me to be cruel?"
"Whatever the reason," I said thickly, "having me believe you dead was nothing short of cruelty."
My throat ached and my eyes stung with tears, and in my exhausted state I was inundated with memories from the past three years, blurring into each other but still excruciating: the note Holmes had left on the path at Reichenbach. Despair tearing at my heart as I wrote my account of the great detective's final case, the pen trembling in my hand. Mary in labour, her face shining with sweat; my revulsion after the visit to the Turkish bath... Suddenly it was all too much for me, too much for one man to bear, and the dam burst. I had not once wept for Holmes, not once for my wife, and all the buried grief and anger and all the unshed tears rose up in a wave to drown me.
I set my glass down and sprang up from the armchair, desperately not wanting Holmes to witness the storm of emotion, but there was nothing I could do. Blinded by tears and barely aware of my own actions, I staggered over to the sofa and sank down on it, burying my face in my hands. After that everything was a haze; I was swept away by the flood and could only helplessly surrender to its force. I do not know how long I sat like that. Dimly aware that my cuffs were soaked and tears were dripping onto my thighs, I felt the sofa dip with Holmes' weight beside me.
"My dear, dear Watson…"
His arm came around my shoulders, pulling me to him as he leaned back against the armrest until I was lying with my head upon his breast. My tears soaked his shirt while I rode out the storm, and when it subsided I lay quietly for a minute with a sense of amazement. Never in our years together had we touched each other in this manner, and never before had I seen such tenderness in Holmes. His hand was resting lightly on my upper arm and I felt the rise and fall of his chest under my cheek. Eventually I sat up and produced a handkerchief to restore some degree of dignity.
"It is my turn to apologise," I mumbled into its folds. "I cannot explain what came over me. I do not know what you must think."
Holmes did not move and took a few moments before replying.
"I think," he said slowly, "that you have had a very long day and more than one considerable shock, for which I am responsible. You have nothing to apologise for. My dear friend, I cannot tell you how glad I am to be back, and how glad I would be to give you even the smallest measure of comfort." He hesitated before continuing quietly: "If you permit me to say so – and I never would under ordinary circumstances, but the situation is far from ordinary and I believe the wine is speaking in me – I was more than pleased to have you lying on my breast."
Silence fell tense and heavy between us and I must have looked very stupid, frozen like a statue with the handkerchief in my hand and my mouth slightly open. I had not the faintest idea how to receive this astonishing piece of information. Exertion, wine and emotional exhaustion had blunted my faculties and I sat motionless for a minute, turning the comment over in my mind. In a sense, everything Holmes had said and done today had pointed to this: that he was pleased to be reunited with me, and that he desired a physical closeness that had not previously existed between us. When I had reached this conclusion, I did the only thing that seemed even remotely logical to me: I slowly leaned back into my previous position until my cheek rested on Holmes' pectoral. He tensed at first, but then hesitantly placed his arm around me.
The position may have been the same but the atmosphere had changed. Before, I had been consumed by my own emotion and simply taken comfort in the closeness of another human being. Now that my senses were restored I was keenly aware of the warmth of his arm and the fact that my face was separated from his skin only by the thin fabric of his shirt. My heart pounded in my ears and I was faced with a ridiculous problem – I did not know what to do with my hand that had been covering my face before. When I found it was trembling I pressed it to my own breast. Unable to relax I lay there awkwardly, looking into the dancing fire.
The whole situation was overwhelming. Everything seemed too near, too tangible: the texture of cotton against my cheek and the warmth of skin underneath it, the smell of tobacco and laundry soap and a hint of sweat from the evening's work, the slight weight of his hand on my arm... My fingers twitched, aching to unbutton his shirt and slip inside to feel his bare skin. I swallowed, willing myself not to be aroused, but it was impossible to still my heart or repress my desire. I could hear the rhythm of his heart – it was no calmer than my own. When he lifted his hand and touched my hair I closed my eyes, giving myself up to the sensation. I wanted more of him than this, much more, but I would not take more than he was willing to give. If this is all, it will have to be enough, I thought, but I knew I was only trying to deceive myself. It was not enough, not enough by far.
When he ran his fingers through my hair and the heel of his hand touched my cheek light as a butterfly, I caught his wrist and turned my head so I could kiss his palm. My own boldness made me tremble and I heard Holmes inhale sharply above me, but he did not pull away. Heart hammering in my chest, I kissed the inside of his wrist and then his palm again, touching it with my tongue, then kissed each of his fingertips in turn. Under me I felt his breathing quicken and lifted my head to meet his gaze. His eyes were wide and fixed on me with a curious mix of directness and apprehension. We looked at each other for the duration of three heartbeats, and when he still did not pull away, I did what I had dreamed of doing almost since our first meeting: I reached up and kissed him.
Warning signals blared at the back of my mind. It was a dangerous thing to do, and I half expected him to spring up and retreat across the room to put a safe distance between us, but instead his mouth opened for my tongue. For a moment I thought I was going to faint for the second time that day. He tasted of wine and tobacco and my own, wild dreams, and I let go of his wrist to place my palm flat on his chest. When both of his hands came into my hair I fumbled with the buttons of his shirt until I could slide my hand in and touch his skin. He made a small sound at the back of his throat, and it was not a sound of protest, more of a moan. My whole body was aflame with desire and I knew was losing control, but I could not feel embarrassed about it. I had never imagined Holmes returning my feelings or sharing my years of longing, but his fingers convinced me of it as they slid down my neck to loosen my collar, making me moan into his mouth.
His shirt was open now and I let my tongue followed the curve of his neck, kissed the small concave of his breastbone and touched one dark nipple with my fingertips. He removed my collar and stroked the back of my neck, gasping as I grazed the other nipple with my teeth, teasing it with the flat of my tongue. For a moment I hesitated, afraid to do what I wanted to do but quickly throwing reason and caution to the wind. Bold now, I unfastened his trousers, and then I was holding his erect member in my hand. It was hot and heavy in my palm and I stared at it, still incredulous, my thoughts incoherent with lust. When I looked up at Holmes his hair was dishevelled and his pupils distended to make his eyes seem black in the firelight, and I had never seen anything so desirable in my life.
"For the love of God, Holmes," I whispered. "If you wish to stop me, do it now."
He laughed then, a mere ghost of a laugh. "I don't want you to stop."
As if his words had been a signal, we kissed again and tore at each other's clothes until we had rid ourselves of them, and Holmes pulled me down on the hearthrug. I paused to look at him, kneeling between his knees as he lay naked and outstretched before me. It was glorious to see his pale, muscular body illuminated by firelight, only waiting for my touch. For years I had wanted this, dreamed, longed, but never once thought it possible. It still seemed like a dream, but then Holmes reached up to catch my wrist and pulled me down to him. We kissed deeply and his tongue against mine proved it all real: his teeth catching my lower lip and my erection sliding against his hip. Our position made my shoulder ache, and as I shifted my weight Holmes' long fingers found the ugly, sprawling scar on the bad shoulder and explored it with tenderness.
"So brave," he mumbled, and I did not know if he referred to the war or the present situation.
I leaned down to kiss his neck and worked my way down his chest and abdomen until my cheek touched his erection. When my tongue followed a rope of muscle in his lower abdomen, Holmes raised himself on his elbows to look at me, his eyes intense and a little incredulous.
"You don't have to – " he gasped as I turned my head and slid my lips along the silken heat.
"I want to," I said.
It was an understatement – I had never wanted anything so badly in my life. So I took him in my mouth, circling the tip of his member with my tongue. Oh, it had been worth waiting for, I thought hazily as I heard him moan. I held his hip down with one hand while the other assisted my mouth. He was still resting on his elbows watching me with glazed eyes, until he gradually sank back on the floor. Before long his eyes were closed and his head turning restlessly, his fingers clutching at the rug as he tensed and arched and my mouth was flooded with his release.
I sat back and wiped at my mouth and chin, unable to take my eyes off him where he lay with an arm thrown over his eyes and a shimmer of sweat on his chest. For a few moments the only sounds in the room were our breathing and the soft thud of a log falling in the fireplace. Then Holmes sat up to face me. Something had shifted in his face, and before I knew what was happening he was making me retreat towards the sofa. When I had my back against it he knelt between my outstretched legs, still holding my gaze, his eyes smiling so dangerously they sent a wave of excitement through me.
"It doesn't take a very great detective," he said quietly, "to come to the conclusion that you are fascinated with my hands. Obsessed, some would say."
I swallowed and nearly laughed, a little embarrassed: "I – I don't – "
Holmes' hands were on my thighs, moving up until they stopped just below the groin, his thumbs rubbing soft circles on my skin. "You will find that I am not always as impassive as I have been tonight," he whispered. "And if you enjoy watching my hands, which I know beyond a doubt that you do, I want you to watch them now."
I obediently looked down and watched in fascination as he closed one hand around me in long, slow strokes. His gaze was still on my face but I kept staring at his hands, gasping. He used both of them, teasing, stroking, squeezing so expertly there was no doubt he had done this to other men before. The realisation lifted a weight from me – this was not a whim, he was doing it because he wanted to, I had not led him astray. I relaxed and gave myself up to the exquisite pleasure, closing my eyes as intensity built, and when my head fell back and my lips parted I felt his mouth hot on my neck as he brought me to completion.
When the room cleared I became aware of clutching him to me, my fingers gripping his shoulders and his face still pressed into my neck. I released him, met his eyes and pushed my fingers through the black, dishevelled hair like I had wanted to do for years.
"You will stay with me tonight," he said, and it was not a question.
I could only nod, so exhausted the room swam in my vision, barely conscious as Holmes pulled me to my feet and supported my weight on our way to the bedroom.
When I woke up I did not immediately realise where I was. When I recognised my surroundings as Holmes' room – and his bed – at Baker Street, I smiled and stretched luxuriously, revelling in the tiredness of every muscle as I recalled the astonishing events of the previous night. Light flowed in around drawn curtains, its brightness telling me it was full morning, probably close to noon.
The bed was empty next to me and Holmes nowhere to be seen. Getting up, I found an old, purple dressing-gown and borrowed it, not bothering with slippers but padding out of the room on bare feet.
Holmes was at the breakfast table, hidden behind a newspaper and with an empty teacup in front of him. Insecurity made me stop in the doorway and approach the table with hesitation, a small chill running down my back like a drop of cold water. How would we greet each other? I wondered. With a kiss? With perfect politeness, ignoring the existence of the previous night? There was a slight tremor to my hand as I pulled out a chair and seated myself.
Holmes lowered the paper. The look on his face was carefully non-committal; his eyes giving nothing away. "Good morning," he replied, "or more accurately, good afternoon."
Merely hearing his voice made my heart beat faster, but when I smiled at him he quickly disappeared behind the paper without returning the smile. I was left staring at the black print, feeling painfully and disappointingly snubbed. So this is how it will be, I thought bitterly. As far as Holmes was concerned, last night had obviously never happened and would not be referred to in either word or action.
"Is the tea still hot?" I asked, trying to keep my voice level.
"I would think so," he replied absently.
It was, and I reached for a slice of toast that I buttered and ate in silence. Holmes did not move – no rustling of the paper, not a word. The spring sunshine flowed in through high windows, sparkled off china, glass and silver and made the polished wood floor gleam, testimony to Mrs Hudson's competent housekeeping. The fire in the grate was pale and transparent in the bright light. After ten minutes of silence I realised Holmes had not turned a single page since I entered the room, and as I doubted the paper had anything quite that absorbing to offer, I concluded he was not as unaffected by yesterday's events as I had believed.
I sat back in my chair, watched his long, beautiful fingers hold the newspaper and remembered what they had done to me only a few hours ago. My breath quickened with the memory and I knew I must to do something, must reach out to him and break the silence. Even if we had been separated for three years we knew each other far too well to keep up this sort of charade for long. I set the teacup down crisply on its saucer.
"Holmes," I said.
He did not lower the paper immediately. When he did, his face was hard and pale and his eyes cool without a hint of yesterday's tenderness and passion. For a moment I looked at him, remembering us waiting together in the dark on several occasions, waiting for horror to appear, be exposed and dealt with – the speckled band, the opened window, the man who so desperately wanted Holmes dead. Now our insecurity was the darkness and our fear the problem waiting to be solved, because I saw that Holmes, like myself, was afraid. In all our adventures together I had never known him to be afraid of anything, but he was now – of this, of me, of implications and consequences and perhaps of rejection, and all at once my heart was soft and warm.
"I don't want any breakfast," I said quietly. "There is only one thing I want."
He did not ask the obvious counter-question, only watched me without so much as raising an eyebrow in query. I had to say it out loud to get rid of the spectre.
"You," I said, leaning forward. "You, back in bed with me."
The tension drained from him visibly; his shoulders relaxed and I felt the change like a tremor in the air. The clear grey eyes lost their coolness and grew radiant in the light from the window, so beautiful I held my breath. When the newspaper fell to the floor and he stretched out a hand to me, I could not hold back a smile.
"Come, then," he said.
Later, we were sitting side by side in his bed, leaning against the headboard smoking. Afternoon light seeped in softly around closed curtains as we sat leisurely watching smoke rise toward the ceiling, listening to the noise of hooves, wheels and shouts that reached us from the busy world outside, a world that at this moment seemed remote and inconsequential to us.
My body ached pleasantly and my soul was content, glowing and golden like the sunlight. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the shimmer of Holmes' white skin, sinewy arms and long hands, long muscular thighs.
I leaned down to kiss his shoulder and shifted position to lie with my head in his lap. My turning to look up at him offered me quite a spectacular view, one that made me smile in pure joy.
"I owe you an apology for my behaviour at breakfast," he said, continuing hastily as I shook my head: "I was sure, you understand, that the intimacy between us had been prompted by shock on your part – relief that I was not dead, underlined by alcohol and exhaustion. A temporary confusion that you would want no part of in daylight."
I was pleased that he wanted to explain but amazed that the great detective could be so mistaken. So there was, after all, insecurity in him, I thought; a very human insecurity that could lead him to erroneous deduction. No wonder he despised emotion.
"I felt much the same," I replied. "Only, my fear was that you had chosen to indulge me as penance for the shock you had caused me, and for your deception at Reichenbach."
His hand with the cigarette stopped halfway to his mouth and he began to shake with silent laughter. "We don't seem to know each other that well, after all."
"You have to concede that my reasons were the stronger. Women on three continents, Watson?" he asked pointedly.
It was my turn to laugh. "Some men, too," I said, "although it all makes me sound rather more promiscuous than is the case."
"And you married Miss Morstan."
He was not laughing now, and neither was I. I turned my face away, thinking of my gloomy rooms in Kensington where the ghost of Mary, of her suffering and my own failure, pervaded the air like poison.
"I did love her, Holmes," I said quietly. "And you always spoke so contemptuously of the softer passions." I turned to look up at him. "I did love her," I repeated, "but never... never like I loved you."
Silence fell between us and Holmes' face was temporarily obscured by a veil of smoke. I wondered whether he had placed it there intentionally, when he reached out and touched the scar on my shoulder, slowly mapping its dead, ugly ridges with his fingertips.
"So brave," he mumbled.
The same words as last night. I lifted his hand from my shoulder and kissed it.
"If this is confusion on my part," I said, "then I have been confused about you since I first saw you." I sat up and looked around the room, locating my wrinkled clothes thrown haphazardly over a chair. "I should go home and find something clean to wear."
His hand on my chin turned my face to his.
"John," he said slowly and perhaps a little cautiously. "When I returned to London, I cherished a hope that you would want to lodge with me again, here at Baker Street." A heartbeat. "Would you…?"
This hesitant, tentative Holmes was new to me and I found him enchanting. My gaze followed the last smoke from his cigarette as he turned away to stub it out. The white wisps rose ceilingward, curling gracefully until they dispersed and vanished. Like wishes. Like dreams. Except for some.
"Yes," I said. "I would like to."
Holmes straightened up, smiling. "Excellent," he said. "Then what we need is a good bath. I will ask Mrs Hudson for some hot water."
When I exited No. 221B the sun was already low in the sky. The evening was soft and lovely and I decided to walk at least as far as Hyde Park. I barely noticed people around me as I went; my world was in my head, and in our rooms that I had just left. Our rooms. Heat stirred in me as I remembered Holmes' deft, sensitive hands massaging my neck and rubbing my back with a soapy sponge, and my mouth on his shoulder, licking drops of water from his skin.
An image from Northumberland Avenue revisited me. Coming from the Turkish bath I had felt dirty. Now my body was clean and my mind light and free, clear as a window thrown open to the endless sky.
I smiled and hurried my steps, all the sooner to return to Baker Street.