We had sat down together on the floor, half-leaning against the wall, happily oblivious to all else save each other. A slim, white hand reached to twist a strand of my hair – inquisitive, tentative.
"Where do we go from here?" Holmes murmured. His voice was lazy and quiet, his movements languorous.
I sighed, wishing we could stay and hide here for the rest of today, tomorrow and next week. "We need to tell Mark."
"Do we really?"
"Yes," I said sternly. Then warm lips brushed my ear, and I froze. A series of warm tingles trembled through my body, and Holmes laughed softly. I could feel his warm breath on my skin.
"What are you doing?"
"Well, stop it. I'm trying to concentrate."
Holmes sighed in discontent, like a spoilt child irritated at not getting his own way. "What is there to tell Mark, anyway?"
"Well, I turned down his marriage proposal. Don't you think he deserve an explanation?"
"Not particularly," Holmes said with a yawn. Although his manner was sleepy, his eyes were like quicksilver, and I wasn't fooled.
"Come on," I said wearily, getting to my feet and brushing the dust from my skirts. "Let's go and tell him."
"Anne. Stop. Wait."
Although the words held a ring of authority, his tone was gentle, pleading. I turned, surprised.
"What is it?"
"Are you sure you want to tell everyone?"
"I wasn't planning to announce it to the whole of London. After all, we're not getting married. We're just... courting. But I think Mark deserves to know."
"But..." Holmes glanced away, and for a horrific moment I thought he was having doubts already. "I don't know, Anne... You're so young, and I'm..." He glanced away. "I don't know what people will think..."
My heart lightened. He wasn't having doubts – he was afraid that I was. I caught one of his hands in mine. "Listen. I am certain that I want this. I don't care what people think. I've known girls marry men nearly thrice their age – there's nothing unusual about it."
"Sherlock," I said gently, and somehow, being able to say his first name was unexpectedly enjoyable. For a moment I saw the small child in his eyes, and all the fear and doubt. It was going to take a long time to persuade him that I reciprocated his feelings. I kissed him gently on the cheek. His skin was soft against mine. "I don't care that you're older. I really don't."
He gave a lopsided smile. "And this…" He kissed me back, on the lips, leaving me slightly breathless. "This courting business. What does it involve exactly?"
"You've already been engaged once," I said teasingly. "I thought you would have a fair idea."
"Walking?" he enquired, and brushed his lips to mine again, a feather light touch that sent a little glow through my body. "Talking?"
"Something like that," I said vaguely. "But you're going to have to stop doing that in public. It's not very subtle."
Holmes sighed theatrically, and kissed me one more time. "You really are very beautiful with your cheeks so pink," he said thoughtfully. "Even with dust in your hair." He ran a gentle hand through my curls. "Hm. Much better."
"Even with my war wounds?" I said mournfully, indicating my bruised temple.
He touched the contusion gently. "You're still beautiful."
I ran my eyes from his fine, aquiline bone structure, to his raven-dark hair, to his pale, perfect skin, to his slim, beautifully shaped lips, to his intelligent, shining eyes. "You're not so bad yourself," I admitted, and he laughed and indulged me with another kiss. I was beginning to get used to the delicious taste of him, but I felt it was something I would never become tired of. My body relaxed into his arms, my brain fizzing with joy.
He chuckled and pulled back a little, eyeing me thoughtfully. "I thought that wasn't 'proper'?"
"It's not," I said severely. "But then again, we seem to have broken so many of the rules already, that maybe another one or two…"
"Have we?" Holmes looked intrigued rather than scandalised. "For example?"
"Well... The idea of an unmarried man and woman living together is a fairly outrageous one..."
"Yes, but it hardly applies to us!" Holmes said teasingly. "After all, we just happen to be two people who rent living-quarters from a certain Mrs. Hudson, and therefore we just happen to see rather a lot of each other."
I raised my eyebrows. "The fact that you're usually regarded as a thinking machine with no affection for the fair sex whatsoever probably helps."
He smiled. I loved his smile.
"And... I mean... Technically, we shouldn't even be travelling in the same carriage together, let alone falling asleep on the couch together..." ("That was an accident!" Holmes protested) "Or even holding hands in public, and certainly not kissing. Even if we were a married couple, that might not be approved of."
Holmes sighed theatrically. "How society forces us into conformity!"
"I know," I said softly, and took his hand in mine, tracing my fingers thoughtfully over the warm skin.
"I don't really know what people do. I mean, I can observe it from the outside – I can tell you about the state of a man's marriage by the cuffs of his shirt or the well-being of his hat, but I don't understand how people fall in love... I can deduce the age of his children by observing his knees and the position of his hands as he walks, but I don't know anything about looking after them... I can tell you a million petty little details about any person you chose to name, but I really am the most spectacularly ignorant man you are ever likely to meet. So if I don't behave correctly, or if I say the wrong thing, then it's not through intention, merely through lack of knowledge."
His silver eyes pleaded with me, and I felt as though I could cry. Here was a child who had never grown up, a man for whom emotions were an alien sensation, whose curt and imperious manner stemmed from a deep, terrible fear of inferiority, of being the one reprimanded and bullied.
I seized him in a tight embrace, burying my head in his chest once more, feeling the peaceful, rhythmic thump of his heart. "I don't care," I murmured. "We'll do this slowly – as slowly as you like. I don't want to force you into..." The word 'marriage' spun around in my brain. "Anything you don't want."
He nodded silently, and I raised my head, only to have my lips crushed against his. We broke apart, a little breathless once more, and I laughed in surprise and happiness. "Just when I think I've got the measure of each of your split personalities, another one emerges," I said severely.
Holmes (Sherlock) raised his eyebrows. "Have you made a list?"
"I have a mind to!" I retorted. "It is becoming devilishly hard to keep track!"
He laughed (oh God, I needed to make him laugh more often – it sent shivers of lightning down my spine) and recovered some of his familiar manner. "Surely it is elementary, Miss Chantrey? A guide of sorts would surely solve your little difficulty."
He was impossible to resist in this mood – his silver eyes glittered with something indefinably Holmes; it was almost as though he were exuding some potent, sparkling energy. I was reminded of Christmas Day, when we had danced together, how I had been completely swept away by the strength of his personality, how I had had no other thought than to stay beside him...
"Doubtless it would," I countered. "But such a venture would take up a great time of my time and energy. Surely the difficulty could be more easily solved if the subject agreed to behave in a more regular manner?"
"Ah, but then he would not be the same man!"
I hugged him again, tightly. "I wouldn't have him any other way."
We parted again, and I gave a happy little sigh. "Come on. We'd better go back. I can talk to Mark and you can carry on scolding Lestrade."
Holmes' uncertain look told me everything I needed to know.
"Don't worry – I just need to tell him so he needn't go on chasing me."
Holmes laughed, and I flushed.
"Well, in that case..."
He opened the door for me, and we emerged out into the house, that, half an hour before, had been a place of death and silence, where a madman had held me hostage with a gun. Now it was flooded with Scotland Yarders, and held much less of a sinister, melancholy feel. Holmes sent me a swift, conspiratorial glance that threatened to make my legs collapse before leaping into a mass of policemen and effortlessly threading his way through them, berating them as he did so for the shoddiness of their uniforms and their general incompetence.
I smiled fondly and turned to find Mark standing behind me. I started a little, and he smiled apologetically. "Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
Maybe this was not going to be as easy as I had thought.
"Maybe we could talk somewhere a little more private?" I suggested helplessly, and we retreated into the room Holmes and I had just exited.
"I know," he said quickly.
"You said earlier that you'd think about what I said. But I know you're going to turn me down."
He gave a crooked smile. "I know you, Anne. It's not hard to judge that when you're smiling at a man like you do with Holmes that you have certain fond feelings for him. I may not be a detective, but you look happier than I've ever seen you."
I flushed wretchedly.
"It's all right," he said quietly, clearly trying to act as if the matter was of no concern to him. "I understand."
"Mark... I'm sorry..."
He shrugged slightly. "As long as you're happy, I don't mind."
I blinked ridiculous tears from my eyes. Even now, I couldn't be sure – would I ever be sure? – that I had made the right decision. Even now, Holmes might prove to be too damaged, I might prove to be unable to adapt to being in a relationship with him – it was like walking on a knife edge, where our end goal seemed almost unattainable, but so magnetic that we could not resist its pull.
"I'm sorry..." I repeated again, and we embraced.
All my mind could think of was her, all my ever-swirling, tumbling thoughts were fixated, I was unable to focus properly on the task at hand (thank Heaven it was the relatively simple one of ticking off Lestrade and his hapless officers) and my head truly felt as if it had been assembled incorrectly.
For a moment, for a single terrifying, awful moment, I had thought she were dead. That Chapman had got bored and decided instead to break the rules of the game he had created. Even when she had stumbled into my arms, I was unspeakably frightened that I was about to hold her in her last moments, but when I found the blood on her clothes was predominantly not her own, sanity had returned again. Albeit briefly, since it had vanished again when her lips touched mine.
I didn't know what I felt – didn't even know how capable I was of feeling enough for this to work, but I knew I wanted it to with all my heart.
And, also, during the long hours I had spent moping over Anne, I had come up with a particularly suitable metaphor to describe it.
It was as if for the past two years, I had sealed myself in a cold, dark, prison, lost and alone. And then Anne had careered into my life within the dizzying space of only a few days, and flung open the door of my cell, and blinded me with the brilliance of the dazzling sunlight outside, which I had scarcely been able to remember. And now I was so blinded by the light that I couldn't see my way before me, but maybe one day I would become accustomed to the brightness, and I would be able to carry on.
I felt it to be fanciful and cloyingly sentimental, but rather appropriate.
His face was the picture of contrition, but knowing his acting skills, I could not be completely sure that it was genuine. He dabbed cautiously at the cut on my head with the iodine again, despite my wincing, and finally sat back with a triumphant smile.
It was later on that evening, and we had returned to Baker Street, with, thankfully, no further mishap. Holmes had insisted on sitting me down and tending to my wounds, but judging from the lack of the customary confidence that he normally applied to his activities, I guessed that in general, it was he who was on the receiving end of such medical treatment, rather than being the one providing it.
"There," he declared proudly, delicately wiping his fingers on a cloth. "You look charming."
I grimaced. My temple was now adorned with a beautifully secured (if, in my opinion, completely unnecessary) bandage, and I was certain that I looked far from charming. "Thank you… Sherlock."
A sudden smile twisted his features at my use of his first name, and he turned his piercing eyes on me, transfixing me to the spot. I felt as if there were not enough air in the room – heat blossomed through me and I coughed awkwardly. He smiled at the effect he was having on me, and leaned forwards very slightly, so I could feel his breath on my cheek. My heart was hammering.
I shifted back a little, eyeing her curiously. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to kiss her again, but somehow here in Baker Street, the whole thing seemed far more real, rather than our previous panicked relief upon finding the other was still alive. I didn't know if she still felt the same way – though the theory that she did was certainly borne out by her elevated heart rate.
And also, just to add to my dilemma, I wasn't sure about the entire not-permitted-before-marriage inconvenience. I was like a small child playing a game, cautious about breaking the rules, and yet unaware exactly what the rules were. Social niceties had never been my strong point, and when the persona you presented to the outside world was an arrogant genius, people tended not to question your knowledge of such matters. I clearly recalled a case in which I had identified the killer after just one glance at the crime scene, and Lestrade had duly realised the motive as I had rushed through my hurried deduction – the scandal that the wife of the murdered man had been so anxious to prevent. Of course, he little guessed that nothing was further from my mind than a widow's fear that the neighbours might realise her husband's past indiscretions, but I prided myself on my skills in bluffing my way out of a situation.
The matter was also complicated by the fact that I had no real knowledge of the consequences should we break the rules – then again, I supposed it depended upon who discovered us breaking them. We would have to be careful.
I decided on a chaste kiss to the lips, and Anne seemed perfectly willing to go along with that. Her lips were soft and fragrant – I could identify a flowery scent that made my head spin. She laughed quietly and we broke apart, though we stayed close together, our foreheads just touching, her sparkling blue eyes fixed on mine.
"Do you think this will work?" I asked quietly, trying to ignore the tingling compulsion that had seized me to touch her cheek.
"I do not know," she replied honestly. "But I would like to try, all the same."
I smiled at that, and unwillingly, we parted and rose to our feet. It was late – although I did not enjoy sleeping myself, I could appreciate that Anne needed to do so to avoid exhaustion.
"Good night," I said quietly, as she stood at the bottom of the flight of the stairs that led to her room.
"Good night, Sherlock."
I couldn't resist – the use of my first name was too much. I kissed her one final time, stupidly preoccupied with the fact that I would not see her until the morning. Although I knew it was illogical (it was mere hours, for heaven's sake), I couldn't help thinking that it was far too long a time to stay apart. I wondered if I were going mad until I saw the very emotions I felt reflected in Anne's face. I smiled and we parted again, though I continued to hold her hand until the distance between us as I headed for my room became so great that I had to relinquish my hold.
"See you in the morning." Somehow, my voice sounded broken.
"Good night," she repeated softly, and then she was gone from sight. I went to my room and flung myself on to the bed. Strangely, I felt no wish to mull over everything that had happened that day (the memories were too painful, on the whole) but instead, to my astonishment, I found myself falling asleep, the perfection of Anne's face imprinted upon my mind.
The rush of emotion that had engulfed me as Holmes and I had parted at the foot of the stairs was quite unexpected, and I flushed to think of the sinful, fevered thoughts that had invaded my brain.
I wondered if maybe Holmes and I would one day not need to part at the foot of the stairs.
Four weeks later
I sneezed again, and sniffed dismally. Loath as I was to agree with Holmes on such a subject, I was beginning to think that maybe he had been wise to forbid me from accompanying him to Devon. It was pouring with rain; a storm was drawing in and the night was dark. He and Gregson had left earlier in the afternoon on a case – that of the Orlingbury jewel thieves – and hoped to apprehend the gang in one of their boltholes near Axminster. And after I had nearly wrecked one of Holmes' most delicate experiments with a misplaced sneeze that morning, he had firmly insisted that I remain behind.
Judging by the quantity of rain now hammering against the windowpanes, I was starting to appreciate the fact that I was not at this moment crouched in a cold ditch in the Devonshire countryside opposite a boarding house.
Checking the clock, I reasoned that Holmes should hopefully be back before midnight. The fire was roaring, and I was quite prepared to wait up for him – to insist that he ate something and got some rest, at the very least.
Life in Baker Street had settled into a new form of normality, and I did not find it unpleasant in the slightest. Being greeted at the breakfast table every morning with a kiss on the check was quite a novel experience, for Holmes as much as I, I suspected. Of course, we had to keep our distance during the day, but whenever we escaped our clients or the Scotland Yarders, Holmes was quite willing to be tutored in cuddling on the sofa. It was a practice I suspected that he would originally have denied ever enjoying, but it seemed he liked the sharing of body heat as much as I did, and as February slowly passed into March, it brought with it foul weather and dark, cold nights, in which even Holmes agreed that it would be madness to abandon the warmth of the fireside for the darkness of the London streets.
There was only thing bothering me in this apparently idyllic existence (and it was idyllic, for despite Holmes' many eccentricities, slowly breaking through that cold shell and catching glimpses of the beautiful, gentle man within was so rewarding that it made me wish that I need never leave his side) and that was the subject of marriage. I did not know how much Holmes was aware of the practicalities surrounding the topic, and was beginning to begrudge every moment I missed without his hand in mine just because to be seen behaving in such a way together would cause scandal.
How many times had I wished fervently to wrap my arms about him when he was frustrated with a case, wanted to kiss him when he looked so adorably puzzled by our client's woes, longed for him to sweep me into his arms when he was dazzling with triumph after solving a mystery?
I wanted to no longer have to be secretive – I wanted to be able to share his name, and (though the thought caused me to blush) his bed.
I knew, I knew, that I loved him, but I was worried that he did not feel the same way – maybe that was why he avoided the issue of marriage?
I sighed and rubbed my forehead in perplexity. I was overanalysing everything, as usual. It was one of Holmes' less desirable qualities that had rubbed off on me during our time together.
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," I said wearily, knowing it couldn't be Holmes back already. Anyway, he would certainly not have bothered knocking.
Lily opened the door. Poor girl, she looked as vacant as ever.
"There's a gentlemen here to see you, Miss Chantrey. Shall I show 'im up?"
"By all means."
I heard Lily trotting back down the seventeen steps like a nonchalant pony, and found myself wondering who my mysterious visitor could be. It was extremely unlikely to be a client at this hour.
A horrible cold feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. Dear God – what if Holmes had been hurt during the case? The gang were hardly known for their good manners and social etiquette. What if he was injured, and Gregson or one of the other Scotland Yarders was coming to inform me?
What if he was…?
Oh, dear God in Heaven, no.
What would I do?
How could I exist?
I felt as if someone was clutching at my throat. My breath came in painful gasps, and I fought the rush of panic threatening to engulf me, clutching the side of the chair, and attempting to look calm for whomever was about to open the door…
I swallowed hard, and the door opened.
"Um… Mr. Holmes... Your brother is away, I'm afraid – he's in Devon, on a case... I could take a message for him..."
"I know he's away," Mycroft stated comfortably. "It was you I came to speak to."
"Oh!" I said stupidly. "Well... um... come in... Please, take a seat... Would you like tea?"
Mycroft looked disgusted at the very idea. "No thank you." He had taken the armchair by the fire that I normally occupied, which left me sitting Holmes' chair. I had no objection whatsoever – the fabric retained a little of his warm, reassuring smell, and I could see the slight wear in the arm when he rested his elbow when scraping away at the violin. I sank into the cushions, wondering what in Heaven's name Mycroft could want.
"I came here," Mycroft said, a little haughtily. "To see how Sherlock's recovery was progressing, but as I see that the two of you are clearly in a relationship (albeit an unconventional one), I realise that he is probably in good health – though I would stoke the fire, as he will be undoubtedly very cold and wet when he returns."
I closed my open mouth, which had fallen open at the words "clearly in a relationship".
"His recovery?" I questioned weakly.
Mycroft gave an impatient flick of his hand. "Indeed. I have been keeping an eye on him ever since Dr. Watson died. I judged that his mental state might be unstable (and my fears were certainly not unfounded) and so wished to investigate how he was acclimatising after his loss."
I marvelled at the care for his younger brother that must surely be hidden behind the emotionless words. I pondered what a strange, sad family they were, imagined the teenage Mycroft having to 'abandon' his younger sibling upon his departure to boarding school, the younger sibling who had suffered so terribly without his being able to prevent it. I imagined the guilt behind that arrogant facade, and mourned for the childhood the two of them had lost.
"Well, he certainly is in good health," I murmured weakly.
"And your relationship is progressing well?" he questioned politely.
"I think you misunderstand..." I began.
He raised his eyebrows. "Miss Chantrey, I assure you that I am quite aware that you and my brother are romantically attached."
He steepled his fingers, and I smiled despite myself in recognition of the characteristic gesture of Sherlock's. "Firstly, your left wrist."
I glanced at it, nonplussed.
"May I?" he asked, taking it, and examining it minutely, before nodding in confirmation of his earlier thoughts. "It is as I thought. You have sustained a very slight chemical burn, possibly due to the handling of a strong acid – no doubt due to you assisting in one of Sherlock's experiments."
"What of it?"
"Firstly, Sherlock is most meticulous about his chemical studies. He must trust you a great deal to allow you to assist him, though that in itself is in no way conclusive. What is more informative, however, is the small wisp of white gauze adhering to the cuff of your jacket."
I looked down, brushing it from my sleeve self-consciously. "But what...?"
"Clearly," Mycroft interrupted. "That gauze is from some sort of dressing that has been applied to the burn. The point, however, is not just the existence of the dressing (which you might indeed have applied yourself), but more the fact that it has been removed, leaving behind the fragment of gauze. Why should you apply a dressing only to remove it mere hours later (judging from the appearance of the burn)? You are a practical and knowledgeable woman in the field of such medical aid, and would know that such an injury would not benefit greatly from the application of a dressing, hence your later removal of it. But why put it on the first place?"
I shrugged, not even bothering to ask how he knew that I was a "practical and knowledgeable woman in the field of such medical aid".
"The answer is simple. You did not do so. Who, then, did? Your landlady and your irksome maid are both vague possibilities, but these I may discount. Leaving me with the inevitable conclusion that it was Sherlock who did so. He is in no way known for his caring qualities and therefore he must care most deeply for you to feel such guilt for your injury that he would attempt to help you in a way that you must have assured him was entirely unnecessary."
I said nothing, feeling rather dwarfed by this man's towering intellect.
"That you also care greatly for him was evident by your face as you opened the door. It was quite as white as a sheet of paper. I think it a not unreasonable assumption that you presumed that he had been somehow injured in the course of his investigation, hence your fear that your visitor had come to notify you of some terrible misfortune that had befallen him. My apologies, but I believe your expression communicated concern beyond that which two fellow colleagues would have for each other."
I opened my mouth, but it seemed he had not finished.
"And last but by no means least, whatever my brother is working on over there…" Mycroft waved a dismissive hand in the direction of Holmes' scribbled pages of composition, which he had been perfecting on the violin for the past week. "It is not in his usual style." He hummed a little of the delicate melody. "Far too… happy. Hence something else has been distracting from his typical melancholic moods, and I believe that you are the prime suspect."
He eyed me closely, half-wary and half-amused.
I let out a shaky laugh.
"Not to mention the expression on your face when you sat in his chair," he added. "You were reassured by…"
I felt like burying my face in my hands. Dear God. I wished I had never asked the question.
When he had finished, I managed a weak smile. "I think you have rather proved your point, Mr. Holmes. But I must ask you..."
"I have already explained the purpose of my visit, Miss Chantrey," he said patiently. "I am glad my brother and yourself are getting along so well – in fact, I think you are a very good match for each other. And I am afraid I must leave you, for..." He checked an ostentatious gold pocket watch. "I have thirteen minutes to return to Whitehall – Lord Wilcox is having yet another very unpleasant altercation with the Swiss Ambassador, and I must be sure they do not come to blows this time – the paperwork is quite a nightmare."
He stood, and I did so too, quite bewildered. "You must trust that Fortune will guide you well, Miss Chantrey," he said gently. "And don't worry too much about the marriage business – Sherlock will sort himself out shortly, I should think."
I had no intention of asking him how he knew that, and instead chose to nod and smile vaguely.
"I am quite sure we will meet again, Miss Chantrey – it has been a pleasure – and do remember to stoke the fire, since the combination of the foul conditions outside and Sherlock's abominable disregard for his own safety may prove a potentially fatal one."
"Thank you, Mr. Holmes – good luck with… erm… the Swiss Ambassador…"
He nodded solemnly. "Thank you very much. I'm sure the matter will be resolved satisfactorily without the use of gratuitous violence."
He nodded graciously to me one last time, and then left, leaving me feeling almost as flustered as I would be if Sherlock emerged from my dresser and presented me with an engagement ring.
I sighed in despair, and went to stoke the fire.
Interesting. Very interesting.
I observed my shaking hands. They were not their customary pale colour, but rather the tips were an odd shade of yellow-white and my palms were tinged with blue-purple.
Gregson and I had left London approximately eight hours previously for Axminster, but had not yet reached our destination when a very excitable local policeman brought word to us that the gang had become spooked and fled their hideout. Hence begun a mad chase of the fugitives across open moorland for more than two hours. Half-blinded by driving rain but spurred on by the hope of success, myself, Gregson, four Scotland-Yarders and half a dozen of the local constabulary had formulated a daring plan of ambush, which unfortunately involved very little opportunity for sitting and drying and warming oneself. Scaring them into flight, we had had several hours of desperate, jolting cab rides on inconceivably rutted tracks in pursuit of the gang, where I was forced to jump out every time we reached a turning to identify the correct wheel marks of our quarries in the puddles of mud.
We finally cornered them only two miles from Albert Dock. The scrap that followed was brief but eventful nonetheless, leaving one of the local men with a gunshot wound to the leg (not bad enough to be life-threatening, but the scar would certainly make a good story in the nearest public house). I was mercifully unharmed, but after the burst of activity I found myself wedged in a cab on the way back to London, soaked to the skin and shaking like a leaf, with merely the knowledge that we had brought a dangerous gang to justice and the prospect of seeing Anne once again to keep my spirits up.
I examined my hands again, but found my chattering teeth a distraction. My very soul seemed chilled, and dismal puddles of muddied water dripped from my wretched coat tails.
The cab reached its destination and I stepped out, my hands shaking so much that I dropped the coins I had ready to give to the cabby, but he seemed to sense that I was in no state to be hunting around in the rushing streams that the gutters now contained.
"Don't worry 'bout it, mister, 'twas you what saved me brother from the gallows," he murmured dismissively, and before I knew it the cab had trundled off, leaving me swaying and a little nonplussed by the roadside. Odd, that I did not remember the man's face – even if I had only worked with his brother, I could normally identify a family resemblance, and in the past it had been crucial in many cases, not least in Anne's. But my mind seemed to be a little fuzzy.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was so cold that I could have sworn my hands were now made from ice.
I might have to write a monograph on the subject – the effect of cold upon one's mental faculties. That was assuming that my hands would ever thaw enough to allow me to hold a pen.
Somehow I staggered to the door and made to unlock it, though by now I was shivering so uncontrollably that it was quite a difficult task. My hands fumbled helplessly for several minutes until I managed it, whereupon I stumbled inside with a groan of relief, vaguely aware that I was trailing a mess of mud and water through the doorway.
Now, seventeen steps.
Seventeen steps between Anne and myself.
How hard could it be?
What seemed like an eternity later, I reached the top of the stairs and acknowledged that it was extremely hard indeed.
Anne, bless her soul, must have heard my near-drunken staggering, and the door opened a fraction, one blue eye shrouded in darkness peeping through suspiciously. When she saw, she flung open the door instantly.
"Sherlock! Dear God – in, now!"
She pulled me into the heavenly warmth of the room and rushed me over to the sofa. Clearly I looked something of a state.
"Clothes. Off. Now."
I frowned, certain I had misheard her. "What did you say?" I managed to stutter.
"Take your clothes off! They are quite soaking, and only cooling you down more!"
I blinked in shock. "I can assure you, Anne…"
She swooped down and kissed me swiftly on the lips, making me start in surprise. It was a few seconds later (good heavens, maybe my brain was shutting down) that I realised that it had been a ruse in order to allow her to strip off my coat and jacket.
"Anne!" I scolded accusingly. "Please, remain calm! There is absolutely nothing wrong with me, and this forcible removal of…"
I was mid-way through the sentence as she wrenched off my waistcoat.
"Please desist in this – most improper… unnecessary…"
She fixed with a look that could have caused lesser men to fall dead.
Luckily, I do not count myself as a lesser man.
"Sherlock Holmes," she said in the Voice, against which there was no argument. "I am attempting to prevent your untimely demise from hypothermia, which I wish to avoid at all costs, even at the expense of your temporary embarrassment."
Off came my cravat, and then, to my utter mortification, my shirt also. However, I was allowed to keep my trousers, and a moment later, I was able to hide my scrawny and decidedly unsightly chest with a blanket that Anne threw in my direction. A few moments later, I found myself completely swathed in the things, both decidedly uncomfortable and also blissfully aware of the sensation of the feeling gradually returning to my fingers and toes. I realised that Anne must also have removed my shoes, just as she pressed a steaming cup of tea into my hand.
"Drink," she said severely, throwing my shirt over a frame that had been set before the fire to dry.
I took a sip and choked.
"By God, Anne, how much sugar have you put in here?"
I glared at her suspiciously. She knew full well that I always had my tea completely black and without sugar.
"It's for shock," she said sternly. "And you will drink it."
I sighed dramatically, smothering another shiver, though of course Anne noticed it. She sighed in despair and flung herself down on the sofa beside me, wrapping her arms about me. I shifted one of the blanket layers slightly so it covered her too, and we sat snuggled there for some time, bound together by some extraordinary intimacy that I had never known before. Whether it was due to the six blankets I was awkwardly swaddled in, or Anne's presence, I felt the ice in my heart slowly begin to melt.
My eyes were drifting closed, when I heard Anne murmur sleepily, "I take it you caught them, then?"
"Mmm. All six."
"Good." She shifted her body so her nose was brushing my cheek. She kissed my temple gently.
"Sorry," I murmured softly. "I should have thought."
She laughed softly; I felt her soft breath on my cheek. "Sherlock Holmes - apologising? Will wonders never cease?"
I laughed too. For some reason, the name Sherlock became more tolerable when she said it. As a child, I had utterly loathed it, hated the way it had echoed through the house when my father yelled in a drunken rage. But when Anne said it, a soft glow flickered in my chest. I kissed her back softly.
"Mycroft came to visit."
I wasn't entirely too tired to be a little surprised. "Mycroft? What did he want?"
"I think he was planning on bullying me into a relationship with you," Anne replied contemplatively. "But of course he deduced that we were already... together, within above ten seconds, so there wasn't really much else."
I snorted. "Mycroft – poking his nose into my affairs yet again."
"He's only concerned for you," she argued, and I sighed.
"I suppose. But really, it is quite unnecessary."
"He cares about you. Like I do."
She kissed me on the nose, and I laughed and repeated the gesture. I felt like a small child, willing to trust, to accept affection for what it was, rather than as a manipulative tool. I was quite warm now, so, despite Anne's protests, I sat up (still clutching the blankets protectively to my chest) and fetched my damp shirt from in front of the fire, pulling it on. Now I felt marginally more civilised, I felt that the best course of action would be to sit beside Anne on the sofa once more, except that this time we were both completely enveloped in the blankets.
She leaned back against my chest, so her head rested on my shoulder. I ran
my hand tentatively through her hair, and she sighed. I murmured an apology, and moved my hand away.
She laughed slightly, turning her head so her liquid eyes met mine. "I like it. Do it again." I did so, and she closed her eyes, relaxing into the touch. She looked so beautiful, her porcelain skin faintly flushed from the warmth of the blankets. I felt so privileged to be able to hold her in my arms, so lucky that she cared for me.
I kissed her forehead. "Is this socially acceptable?" I teased gently.
"Only if one of us is suffering from hypothermia, unfortunately," she murmured.
I sighed. "It's a great shame. It's very pleasant."
She laughed, and I could feel it through my chest. "I'm glad your opinions match mine." I bent my head to kiss her again, and she complied, not opening her eyes, a smile curving her lips.
"I should go up to bed," she said, though she did not sound convinced.
"Should you not stay with me, in case I should suffer some form of relapse?" I asked hopefully.
She laughed again. "You are really are incredibly devious, Sherlock Holmes."
For the first time in years, I was happy to abandon thoughts and reasoning and deductions and surrender my senses to the blissful oblivion of sleep. I knew that no nightmares could strike me here with Anne in my arms, knew that she would be my talisman against that insidious and terrible fear that crept into my mind when it was vulnerable, knew that for this moment, I was utterly and completely at peace.
I checked my pocket watch as the cab rattled to its destination – half past seven in the morning. Not terribly early, by most standards, but I knew from Gregson that Holmes had not returned to Baker Street before midnight after the events of the night before. On the other hand, I was sure that Holmes would be glad of a new case to keep him occupied, since after finishing a particularly exciting investigation, he was prone to his infamous 'black moods'.
The cab drew up outside 221B and I leapt out, paying the cabbie. The disappearance of a Swedish aristocrat might have seemed an unusual reason for my visit, but since he had vanished during a visit to London, it was my responsibility to lead the investigation to track him down, and we currently were struggling even to establish when he had been kidnapped or had escaped the custody of his bodyguards of his own free will.
I was admitted into the house by a fairly nondescript maid and told to go up myself. I gave a cursory rap on the door to Holmes' study, and opened it.
Holmes and Miss Chantrey were sitting together on the sofa, which in itself wasn't particularly scandalous, except for the fact that not only was Holmes wearing only a shirt and trousers, but they were in a most... compromising position…
I stood for a moment in utter shock, and Miss Chantrey sensed my presence, drawing back from Holmes a little to murmur something to him. He gave me a swift glance, and smiled. "Excuse me a moment, Lestrade, I shall be with you shortly."
Despite Miss Chantrey's murmured (and, I suspected, judging by her wide smile, completely insincere) protests, he bent to kiss her on the lips again before rising from the sofa in a shamefully reluctant manner, seemingly irritated at the interruption. Miss Chantrey smiled disarmingly at me before fleeing upstairs to her own room.
Holmes waved an eloquent hand, inviting me in, and sat down at his desk, arms flung behind his head in a lazy stretch. He stared out of the window, observing what seemed to be a small fight in the street below between three bakers, two cabbies, and half a dozen street children.
I sat down opposite him, still completely stunned.
"Judging from the fact that you are here unusually early in the morning and appear rather agitated, I presume that you are not merely coming to congratulate me on the rather excellent results of last night."
Noting my lack of response, he turned, looking a little puzzled. "Well?"
"Holmes… In God's name…"
A smile flickered across that pale, intelligent face.
I was trying to remember the last time I had seen Holmes smile properly when I suddenly realised how much more alive he looked.
"I take it that you are surprised?"
"Well… I am a little… taken aback… certainly… Not that I hadn't considered it might be a possibility… Seeing you together before… You seemed very… well…"
He laughed then, throwing his head back, eyes flashing with mirth.
"I suppose you considered me to be only a machine, then?"
"No… of course not… It just caught be by surprise… And, I mean – on the sofa… Anyone could have walked in, Holmes…"
"We were only kissing, Lestrade," he retorted, sounding almost smug.
I flushed. "Yes, Holmes, but it's not really…"
"Socially acceptable?" he drawled, reaching for a cigarette.
He was most definitely smug.
"Well… There's no denying she's a very nice young lady… And I am very happy for you – you're very well suited, for one thing – but…"
I coughed awkwardly. "But… well… You've got to be discreet about these things – you're not married, and… Well…"
For the first time, a little flash of doubt crossed Holmes' face. "Ah… yes…" He looked vaguely discomfited. "How does one… erm…?"
"Generally you ask her if she'll marry you," I said, nonplussed.
Holmes looked stricken. "What if she says no?"
I fought to keep a straight face at the bizarreness of the conversation.
"I don't think she will, Holmes."
I was startled by the sudden fear in his eyes. "How can you know that?"
"Well… because… I just…"
I scrabbled uselessly for suitable words. "Believe me, Holmes…"
Frantic hands clutched at my wrists. "But if she doesn't… I mean… If she left… I don't know what I'd do…"
"So you are going to carry on like this indefinitely, are you?" I challenged. "Hiding? Keeping it secret? Do you think she'd prefer that? You've got to bite the bullet, as it were. She cares about you – and you care about her. It doesn't matter that you're older, or what anyone will think."
I paused, a little embarrassed at talking to Holmes like this. The concept of me giving advice to him was completely alien, for a start.
"I really am happy for you, you know," I said bluntly. "After… Watson died… I was worried about you. We all were."
Holmes became even more interested in the fight outside the window.
"I think you've got a chance," I said seriously. "Don't waste it, Holmes. She deserves more than all this deception."
The silver eyes darted to me for a tiny second – the only acknowledgement I received of my words. Then he took another drag on his cigarette, and smiled resignedly again.
"Tell me about this case, then."
I gave him a single meaningful look, and then took out my pocketbook.
When I returned downstairs, Lestrade had gone, and Sherlock was wearing his coat, waiting impatiently by the door. I smiled at the sight of him. I couldn't quite rid my mind of the memory of him shirtless on the sofa, showing his beautifully pale and muscular torso. And he also looked rather preoccupied - apparently the case Lestrade had given him was an interesting one.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Of course. What's happening?"
"A Swedish aristocrat has disappeared in central London. Scotland Yard are completely flummoxed, as per usual." His eyes glinted.
"And Lestrade wasn't massively offended by…? Well…"
Sherlock looked suddenly thoughtful. "No, he wasn't." He hesitated, and took a large breath. "Listen, Anne, I was thinking…"
He looked straight at me for a moment, and then glanced away again. "We should get going. Cab's waiting."
I followed him at top speed down the stairs.
Sorry it's been so long
Truth is, real life has become so awkward that even fanfiction must suffer Have been having panic attacks at school (very unpleasant and horrid), and neglected to tell my parents for three weeks – hence when the school nurse decided to phone them, much irritating stress resulted. Dad is moving house, Mum is crying daily due to stupid builders, and homework levels are becoming insane. Thankfully writing this has cheered me up slightly, as has haunting the BBC Sherlock fanfiction section
So… Not sure exactly where this is headed, but quite possibly the next chapter will be my last, in which loose ends and happy-cheesy-endings will be sorted out! Partly because I want to finish it off before my plot becomes even more thin and straggly, and partly because then it will be 20 chapters, which seems remarkably neat to me Was actually reasonably pleased with this one, what with hypothermic!Holmes and Mycroft's endless prattling deductions – hope it was OK!
And, thank you as usual (except ten times more) for the reviews, which have never failed to bring a smile to my face:
Carlypso – glad you liked – thinking back killing them off would just have been tooooo evil
TimeGhost823 – hope the direction it went was OK, and fingers crossed the cliffhanger last time wasn't too annoying!
mstef – more happiness in this one too
Jamberine – yeah sorry for the break
Raptured Night – oh how lovely your reviews are! What more is there to say? Enjoy!
Lulu-fifi – indeed teachers are terrible What is even more annoying is when you hand in homework and they don't mark it for weeks because "they were busy". Apparently we didn't qualify as busy enough not to do the homework in the first place, though! Sorry for rant You inspired me for the little Lestrade-ness here – hope it was OK!
bakerstreetirregular – thank youuuuuu – cool name by the way
Catherine Spark – What did I do to deserve you? Thanks so much for MULTIPLE REVIEWS (eee!) When I saw the words "insanely well-written" I nearly shrieked with joy – thank you! Unfortunately, the incorrect naming of Milverton's housemaid was not intentional (MUST re-read books again ASAP) so must figure out how to alter that
movieexpert1978 – ha! I feel your pain! Hope you enjoyed the less conflict/ more kissing balance in this one And good luck with the textbooks!
Zofos – honestly you nearly made me cry! Hope you enjoyed this chapter and sorry it was so long in coming :P Thank you so much, and your English is fantastic – had no idea it wasn't your first language until I read the last sentence! Truly you really cheered me up on a bad day, and I really really appreciate it!
So thank you, all you guys, and hope you haven't forgotten me during this long interlude (silently pleading for reviews I know I don't deserve considering terrible hiatus). Hope you enjoyed, and wish me luck for next chapter! x