Holmes pressed the door of the washroom closed and remained there for just a moment, indulging himself with his palms flat against the door as if to hold it shut against everything without – against the study in paranoia that his life had become. He had, until that morning, all but resigned himself to spending the remainder of his days refusing to succumb to a belief in things – in men – that did not exist. The intellect was a powerful and mysterious thing; certainly, with diligence, awareness and the right approach, even delusions could be overcome. But the realization that Watson saw it too – saw the signs of others moving about their rooms unseen – that Holmes may not have to gird himself against an ambiguous madness after all… He felt both overwhelming relief, and a startling fear that was in some ways worse than the fear of simply following in the footsteps of the Holmes matriarch. Because he was cognizant of it. He was aware of the slipping, and he was not the only one, now, who could see it.
Art in the blood, he had once told Watson. In truth, Holmes knew quite well that his habits, his vices, even his great mind in its own right, all left him prone to the kind of slow-creeping malady that had overtaken his mother. He was so much like her, even down to his appearance. His eyes grey and pale as a watery winter sky, his hair dark and thick, his fingers prone to the making of music …his tendency toward destructive boredom, his black moods, his confusion concerning what others considered normal human interaction. His mind worked the way hers did – ever churning, seeking, sinking claws into itself if there were nothing outside of his own skull to engage it. He saw music in the movements of flocks of pigeons as if the sky they wheeled about in were violin strings and piano chords. Sounds touched his skin, and things he smelt could come to him as vapors and colors across his vision. Watson's smile was an illuminated lamp and the scent of wool. Holmes' mind with nothing to do was a mute void into which the silence screamed – just a screech of bow on strings, and shapes of shadows moving about the room with him. Whispers inside of his head. A never ending narrative of all of the things he saw. Just as hers had been.
The plod of footsteps sounded from the sitting room above him and he pushed himself away from the fastened door. Watson had been pacing on and off for the better part of the morning, and it was driving Holmes spare – this aimless wandering and circling like a great, maimed scavenger bird. He wished that he could explain to Watson that his thoughts were going to strangle him, that they would fold and consume him like a moth trapped inside crisp ironed sheets. He needed cocaine. Everyone who knew him, who knew his vices – Watson, Mrs Hudson, even Mycroft – assumed that he took it out of boredom or for the sake of stimulation. And while those things were both true, no one understood that the boredom was the problem – with no sustenance on the outside, he became an Ouroboros. He didn't take the cocaine for the thrill or the rush or the way it made the edges of everything sharp like knives. While he enjoyed those things too, Holmes had never turned to his five, and later seven percent solution simply to experience those effects. He turned to it because without it, when no other diversion or distraction presented itself, he could feel everything start to slip. And if he fell too far, then eventually, he would find himself in the place where invisible men moved knick-knacks in the dark to torment him. He could feel it in the edges of himself sometimes, the things that she used to tell him about. The things that they did when no one could see them. The things that they said when there was no one there to listen save him.
Holmes shook himself, bodily shook himself hard enough to upset his own balance, and then stalked to the wall sconce next to the wash basin. He needed cocaine. He needed it. And Watson would not understand – he would get that horrid look on his face, the one that telegraphed how Holmes made him sad. Contrary to Watson's thoughts on the matter, Holmes was aware of the therapeutic value of cocaine and its dangers, both. He knew of its medical uses and every detrimental effect that it could have on the body if taken to excess – all of them – including its utility as a balm for sufferers of black moods such as his, and its lessening effectiveness over time until, by virtue of an ever increasing dose to combat the body's tolerance for it, it eventually caused the very delusional episodes which it had, at the earlier stages, prevented. What he did not understand was why Watson could not see this – that when Holmes took his needle with him to the other room, it was not with anticipation or glee. It was out of desperation. Holmes knew that eventually, he would have no relief, but he had not yet reached that point. With care, it was entirely possible that he never would. And so it was doubly vexing to him that Watson, a supposedly caring man of medicine, persisted in trying to deny Holmes the only relief that medical science had for men like him. At the very least, he could have the decency to recognize that there was a problem other than a tendency toward dangerous habits and cheap thrills.
With the gaslight turned up to its brightest, Holmes paused to breathe. He did not know what to do, how to relieve this state that he found himself in – the insistent crawling beneath his skin, the itch of his brain inside his skull – he would claw it out if he only had a hammer with which to chip a hole to reach in through. This was no longer the tail end of the starvation of his blood – that was long since over and done with now. This was just his own mind, unleashed upon nothing and tearing itself to pieces inside the claustrophobic confines of skin and bone. And there was no relief to be had – they had taken his only means of it from him, and he had consented because he knew that he could no longer trust himself with it. That was, perhaps, the hardest blow to take – knowing that his own mental weakness was the very thing which had led to this predicament. He had no one to blame for this but himself.
The light in the room merely served to make him jittery, illuminating corners better left unexamined. He bent to rummage in the cupboards, in the dry sink, and then in the linen closet, desperate to find something that would allow him respite. He needed to think; he needed a clear head. They were besieged in their own home, and only Holmes' wrecked nerves and precipitous use of a pistol that morning had saved Watson from God knew what fate. Had he not woken to the sound of that gunshot, or had he woken slowly and groggily as he normally did… Holmes grit his teeth and struck a fist against the side of his own head to stop the thought, but it didn't cease. Watson in his bed, under the sheets, breathing. Watson lifting his head from the pillow to find one of those men watching him. Watson waking to a diseased hand on him, or the barrel of a revolver pressed to some part of him, or a sound or a breath or a scent of putrefaction. Watson walking into the sitting room at exactly the wrong moment. Watson not waking at all.
But that was only one scenario, and Holmes had the kind of mind that was capable of conjuring hundreds of them, the variables infinite. Because in one series of versions, Holmes sat in the sitting room until well past dawn, drinking Darjeeling over the morning paper while Watson decayed undiscovered one floor away. In another series, it was not a mirror image of himself that Holmes turned his revolver on.
Holmes did not realize that he had yelled until he heard Mrs Hudson's voice behind him, inside the washroom with him. He forced himself back to silence and yanked in fury at his own hair where his fingers had caught it in fists. Breathe. Blink. Stop rocking. Be still. His knees hurt; he was down on them with his forehead digging into the edge of a linen shelf. Shaking – he was shaking, and it was hateful. "I can't do this."
Somewhere far away on the other side of the washroom, he heard the door close again. He thought that Mrs Hudson must have left him, as she should – he was in no fit state for a lady right now, and liable to do her harm. He was liable to do himself harm at this rate. She should not be expected to put up with him like this. She had a house to look after, breakfast to cook, better things to do than indulge her lodger's tantrum. The slide of house shoes, however, did not reach him as if muffled by the wall, and her voice, when it came, was still in the room with him. "What's all this, then? You've made a right mess of my linens."
Holmes breathed in great heaves that expanded through the tight curl of his back. His ribs ached from the force of it, and his head wobbled like a hot air balloon on a tether to his shoulders.
"You're going to faint clear away if you keep breathing like that." A hand appeared between his shoulders, small and firm and warm with long fingers.
Holmes flung himself down and away from it, tap of finger prints on his spine, and caught himself up against the wall beside the bath pipes. "Don't."
Mrs Hudson stepped back with her hands safely held away, and then lowered herself down on the small bath rug to be on a level with him. Her fingers moved to twine about themselves in her lap, over the pocket of her apron. Above them, Watson continued to pace. Somehow, the weight of her gaze on him smothered some of the worst of the leanings of his mind and he found himself calming slightly, his thoughts caught up like trying to run in a sand dune, sucking at his feet. Holmes pushed himself to sit level against the wall and pulled his feet in to cross at the ankles, aiming for dignity. He suspected, however, that he only managed to fall short of it.
"Better now?" Mrs Hudson asked.
The sound of her words in the small room echoed like a wince. Holmes shot for affrontery, but he only barely managed to snag grumpy out of a swirl of chaotic thoughts. "With your voice to grate against my eardrums, no. And this is highly improper – walking in on a gentleman in the water closet and then refusing to leave. How dare you presume upon my person and privacy in such a manner."
Mrs Hudson lifted an eyebrow, wry and unimpressed, and yet…not. There was something foreign in her countenance. "Well, aren't we cheerful."
That was a rhetorical, Holmes explained to himself. No response necessary, not that he would have deigned to respond in any case. "You may leave now." Holmes tugged at the cuffs of his dressing gown, though they were already covering the hinges of both of his thumbs.
"Is it the cocaine you're after?" she inquired. The tilt of her head implied haughtiness, but the rest of her appeared a contradiction. "Because you'll find none of that in here, I assure you."
Holmes' lip lifted on one side in a curl of distaste, very much beyond his control.
"You don't need that poison, Mister Holmes."
"You do not know that!"
In the echo of his shouting, Holmes realized that he himself was trembling in shock at the vehemence of his own words. In front of him, Mrs Hudson, on the other hand, appeared cool as cucumbers in the snow. As soon as Holmes broke their shared gaze, his cheeks colored in mingled anger and shame at the outburst, she told him, "There are other methods of managing your fits."
Holmes snorted at his fingers, with which he seemed unable to cease picking at the threadbare hem of his dressing gown cuff. "A lobotomy would put a good and permanent end to them all, I wager."
"I would hardly advocate you destroying yourself by that method when I so violently protest your attempted destruction by your usual ones."
Holmes inhaled as if to make an argument, but it went nowhere in the end and he let it go again. "As you say, then, nanny."
She rearranged her skirts enough to sit back on her own heels in front of him without the risk of impropriety, and then she studied his face in the most disconcerting manner.
This time, Holmes affected affrontery with ease. That was his expression on her face – his ego and his knowing and his seeing – and how dare she turn his own face against him. "What do you want of me, you infernal woman?"
His ire did not even faze her. "I want to know that you will eventually be alright."
Whatever Holmes had been expecting, it had come nowhere near to that. He snorted, aborted an impulse to balk, and then merely stared at her.
"The Doctor has implored me in the most strident of terms not to reveal to you that I am aware of what has actually transpired these past months."
Holmes felt a rush of heat suffuse his face and quickly looked aside. She could not possibly mean what it seemed; they had been discrete, had they not? Holmes had been ill of late, and there were miscreants hanging about as usual; that was all that she knew.
"However, I cannot keep on like this. I need to be prepared. Surely, you understand."
Against his better judgment, Holmes nodded. He, too, felt an often overwhelming need to be prepared for any eventuality, especially when circumstances were not entirely within his control. And this was her house, and he was in the process of dismantling it with his unforgivable outbursts.
"The Doctor has been tearing himself to pieces, thinking that one of these days, the worst is going to happen."
Holmes fidgeted. She was being far too blunt for civilized society, not that Holmes considered himself a fulltime member of civilized society. He was, after all, a self-professed Bohemian. Just short of an ill-tempered growl, he demanded, "Pray, elaborate."
Only after receiving this clear invitation did Mrs Hudson – irredeemable busy body that she was – hesitate to go on. She looked at Holmes' hands where he had twisted them into a wad of tatty fabric, and then to her own in her lap. "Mister Holmes, I am aware that your reactions to this situation are largely beyond your control."
Holmes suppressed an urge to wince. She must think him even more pathetic and bothersome than she did before, and that was not even taking into account her location and removal of those substances that he had kept hidden in places that even Watson did not know about. "I assure you, I will not disturb you in such a manner again."
Mrs Hudson fell silent for a moment, and then she shook her head, the movement only visible in Holmes' periphery. "I had thought for all these years that the barbs we traded were in good humor, or at least in care, but now I begin to suspect otherwise. You have lived under my roof for over fifteen years, Mister Holmes. Do you honestly think that I have no care for your wellbeing?"
Holmes stuttered over a few thoughts, and then ventured, "You are quite fond of the Doctor. I am well aware that he has a tendency to make his own brand of redress on my behalf, the hiring of the maid being one such instance. As I recall, it immediately followed that regrettable incident of the third sitting room fire and the destruction of your last Persian rug. I have caused you no end of upset by conducting my business here."
"By god, you do."
Holmes looked up. He had to; she sounded quite horrified that he knew of her true regard. "It is quite alright," he assured her. "I am well used to being an incurable imposition. I can only thank you for humoring Watson's affection for me." To Holmes' slight panic, Mrs Hudson now appeared as if she might become emotional. He cast about for a means of staving it off but came up empty handed. Watson always dealt with these situations for him. "Well, it is very kind of you," he insisted. "Quite beyond the rigors of civility demanded by polite society." And of course, he merely worsened the situation by speaking again, so he made another effort at reassurance. "If it is truly such an inconvenience, I will arrange for other lodgings. Or a holiday for you. Or we can come to some other agreement which will alleviate your irritation." Merde…this was not working. Watson would have words with him if he made yet another lady cry. Desperate to stop this before it got out of hand, he snapped, "By god, woman, contain yourself!"
Mrs Hudson flared her nostrils, and then exclaimed, "You are the most emotionally stunted human being I have ever known, Mister Holmes."
Well. At least that was a common reaction to his rather difficult person. He knew how to handle that, and accordingly, he tutted at her as if to ask how she could have ever believed otherwise. The more fool her.
"I assisted the Doctor that night. I saw what they did to you."
Holmes cringed and took to an intensive study of the worn threads of the bit of rug that he was sat upon.
"You are a brute if you truly believe that doing so had no effect upon me."
"You should not have been subjected to that," Holmes mumbled. "I will speak to Watson. He will not disturb you with my care again."
"Be quiet!" Mrs Hudson snapped.
Holmes flinched and went still.
"I don't object to caring for you, Mister Holmes. Surely, you – with all of your observational skills – can see that?"
Holmes glanced up, a movement of the eyes only, furtive through no conscious intention. Then he dropped his gaze again and remarked, "What I observe is that I seem to have offended and upset you yet again."
"Oh, for pity's sake." Mrs Hudson sighed loudly enough to draw another covert glance from Holmes, and then she seemed to see no merit in arguing further.
Whatever it was she was arguing about in the first place, he thought. Holmes himself saw no rift between their viewpoints, only on Mrs Hudson's insistence that she uphold the values and morals that society demanded of her as regards a gentlemen lodger by not saying aloud that she found him distasteful; he was a paying customer, after all, and she made a much tidier profit off of his continued residence than she would have with any other less troublesome boarder in London. In addition, Holmes cared little for the so-called values of polite society; they could make a person unforgivably deceptive. If she despised him and found him irritating, then why bother concealing it? How tiresome that must get. He would observe the signs no matter what she did, and would deduce accordingly; it was his singular gift. To continue to lie about her negative regard for him served no purpose.
Mrs Hudson fussed with her skirts for a moment and then sighed again, more softly this time, as if she had resigned herself to her transparency. "I am trying to say…Mister Holmes, if this…if it is something that you cannot…" She made an exasperated noise and then, deadly soft and even, said, "I have been watching you, and I can see very clearly that all is not well with you, no matter how proficient an act you put on for us. So I am asking… If you find that you must take the gentleman's way out of this, I would be grateful if you would warn me of it beforehand."
It took several seconds for her meaning to hit him, and when it did, Holmes felt his lungs tighten over a thinness of the air they had just taken in. He raised his head and warily met her gaze, his chin cocked quizzically to one side.
"I would not blame you one bit if you did," she breathed, her tone only barely kept level, "and I would not try to stop you. But I would miss you terribly, and I am only… I am begging that you allow me advance notice so that I can be prepared. Because I must be done with my own grieving before you do it, so that I may look after the Doctor in his. He has no one else left to stop him from following you, and you owe him better than to let him do such a fool thing."
Holmes began shaking his head, his gaze stuttering off at random. He could not, for one moment, consider the implication of her words, to think that if Holmes were at some point unable to cope any longer, that Watson… But he would. He would follow Holmes even in that, and they both knew it, and it was a dreadful truth to be spoken aloud. "I would not – "
"I don't believe you," Mrs Hudson broke in. "More so because the fear of it is etched on Doctor Watson's face every time you are not looking. I do not know you half as well as he does, but I can see how the possibility of it terrifies him. If he is afraid for you, then there is good cause to be. We both know your habits, after all. Even before, there was ever the possibility that you would accidentally do yourself in. Now, there is cause for deliberation of the act."
Holmes fiddled with the frayed edges of the rug in his clutches and then swallowed. "I swore I would not."
A pause, and then Mrs Hudson asked, "The Doctor has already spoken of this with you?"
"No. Not exactly." Holmes felt ill, but only for a moment, and then he admitted, "I promised Miss Morstan…Mrs Watson that I would not let him have my body to bury too. And I will not, as far as I am able." He looked up, and from the expression on Mrs Hudson's face, she obviously assumed that he had taken leave of his senses moreso than his usual leave. "Before she died," he explained, but of course that did not help. Reluctantly, he confessed, "I was in London for two of the three years after the professor's death. I tended a bookstore disguised as an old scholar. She recognized me; I do not know how. Watson saw me repeatedly and never did."
Mrs Hudson appeared to debate between pity and some nebulous form of outrage. She settled on neutrality and awaited further explanation.
Holmes grimaced at his hands and then picked at a spot of sticking plaster marring one knuckle. "I don't know how long she knew. But approximately three weeks before her death, she came into my shop and demanded I promise to look after him, and that I not take the last of his hope by providing him with another body to bury. She said that it would be cruel – even more so than faking my death had already been. She did not ask for an explanation, only for my solemn word. I gave it to her."
A long moment passed while Holmes attempted not to contemplate anything at all. Then Mrs Hudson nodded, just once, a short and abbreviated gesture. "It was cruel. But I have known you for a long time, Mister Holmes. You are not callous by choice."
Holmes made a discontented face and looked away. Against his better judgment, he looked back a moment later. "You will not tell him?"
"No," she breathed. "For that would also be cruel. But on her behalf, I will hold you to your word."
Holmes nodded, and then berated himself for the useless sentimentality of having told her anything at all. "I would expect nothing less. You are…rather frightful, at times."
Mrs Hudson laughed softly. "One needs must be, in dealing with you."
A hesitant smile flickered across Holmes' face, more a twitch than anything else.
Serious once again, Mrs Hudson murmured, "I worry about you, you know. I do not enjoy seeing you suffer like this."
Holmes swallowed thickly and merely offered another nod in response.
"It matters to me. You will not forget that?"
"I never forget," Holmes told her. Ever. His singular mind would never have allowed that, not even for trying.
"Good." Then she dared to touch her fingers lightly to the back of his hand, stilling his restless picking at threads. She never touched him without clear cause; only Watson ever insisted on imposing in that manner. "I don't know, at the moment, how best to help you. But I can offer to see to the arrangements for Mister Cartright. You have other more pressing matters to attend, and anyway, you're sure to be rubbish at that sort of thing." Her lips pressed into a sort of grimace that clearly aspired to be a smile.
Holmes sniffed and swallowed a number of poorly shaped words that could have come out in response to that. "Yes, quite probably. If there is nothing else, I ask that you kindly withdraw."
Mrs Hudson nodded, shifted as if to rise, and then subsided again. "I hope that you may forgive me for being so forward, but I do wish that you could stop feeling so ashamed of what happened. It was not of your doing."
A sick taste infiltrated the back of his throat, but Holmes forced it back and reminded himself that no matter what she said, she could not possibly be in full possession of the facts of what occurred outside the Punch Bowl, and he must not give it away by speaking rashly. "I am aware of that."
"You are not," Mrs Hudson countered.
Holmes felt it when his features turned to flint, hard and unyielding. "You are hardly in a position to know."
"You underestimate me, Mister Holmes."
Mrs Hudson echoed the sentiment. "Do you think that being forced is a complaint solely borne by loose women and weak Nancy boys?"
Holmes froze where he sat and tried to look at her, to see where he had never bothered before, but his eyes would not lift from the rug covering the floor between them. He could feel a spasm in his lungs, and when he sought to swallow, his throat would not consent to the motion. The nap of the rug before him dimmed in response to his shallow breaths. "I…"
"You would not be the first to fall prey to such a thing. And sadly, you will not be the last."
"I am not certain what…what you mean to imply…" He tried to control it, but his pulse kicked up like a bucking horse and he could feel his fingers going numb at the tips.
Mrs Hudson offered up no details, except to say, "I am not a simpleton, Mister Holmes. And the walls in this house are thin."
Holmes curled his lip and then sneered, "What do you know of it?"
"I know that you are no less a man than you were six months ago. It is not a sign of weakness to be attacked in such a manner. Nor of inversion."
"You were not there!"
Mrs Hudson leaned away, perhaps to give him space or perhaps simply to straighten her spine. Her fingers trailed away from his hand in the process. "No. But I am here, and I intend to remain. There is little else that I can do for you, save that, whatever it may be worth to you."
"It is worth exactly nothing, as there is no use that I can make of such a – a ridiculous thing! What am I do with it. Nanny? Cry in your skirts and let you pet my hair like a child? Is your womanly care and attendance supposed to miraculously make everything bad go away?"
Anyone of normal mental faculty should have taken offense and exited the room post haste. Mrs Hudson, however, merely appeared sad, as if he had missed the point of her words and she suspected that his mind was not adequate to the task of understanding what she had actually said. "Of course not, Mister Holmes."
Holmes fumed for a moment – the blasted woman. And she was still there, sitting blithely on the bath rug barely three feet away from him. "Surely you do not need to occupy this room with me for any longer in order to fulfill your trite emotional commitments to your own misplaced sense of empathy."
That induced a rise, and she huffed at him. "I assure you, Mister Holmes, that my sentiments are neither trite nor misplaced. You do realize that I live here too? I am aware that those who wronged you have gone unpunished, there have been mysterious comings and goings in this very house by persons with sinister intent, and it is wearing nearly as much on my nerves as it has been on yours and Doctor Watson's. If it is more palatable to you to believe that my concern is motivated by selfish considerations, then so be it. I wish to know the state of affairs beneath my own roof so that I may properly gauge the odds of being murdered in my own hallway for stepping out at the wrong time. Surely, I am entitled to that."
A door opened and closed on the floor above, and Holmes glanced up as Watson's uniquely lopsided gait carried him up to the second floor.
"The poor man is going to do himself harm if he doesn't sit and rest himself. And him with his war wounds."
Holmes' face slackened a bit and he blinked before letting his gaze fall back to the infuriating woman who refused to leave him in peace. He knew that she had a sister, and nieces and nephews; he knew that her parents were deceased, that she had lived in Baker Street for the better part of her adult life. He knew that she had never entertained suitors in this house, that she never allowed men to court her, that she remained unmarried by choice rather than lack of interested parties in her past. But he knew nothing else. He did not know why she was like this, if she had always been like this, if she were a widow or a maid, or something else. He knew nothing of her. He had never cared before. Finally, at something of a loss, he merely asked her, "What is this – what do you want?"
Mrs Hudson also brought her eyes back down from the ceiling, where for all Holmes knew, she had been staring at Watson or something else clear through the very plaster and rafter boards. "I want this to be a home again, rather than a prison for us all." Finally, she pushed herself back to her feet and dusted her skirts off. "I must go check the oven now. You will clean up your mess before you go." She indicated the disarrayed linens that had fallen to the floor and the disordered shelves behind him. As she turned toward the door, she paused again, though. "I would like to offer you my company in the event that the craving overtakes you again. You may rail at me as much as you like, and I will listen until you are spent, and then we need not speak of it again. I know that Doctor Watson cannot offer you this, as he is…too invested in the issue to see it clearly. I would take no offense to anything you might say in the throes of it, so long as it keeps you from the needle or worse in the end."
Against his better judgement, Holmes demanded, "Why on earth would you offer that?" It was perhaps more telling than he intended that he did not question her assertion that Watson did not understand his moods and took offense to them, as if they were an affront to him personally, whereas she seemed to know better.
Mrs Hudson touched her fingertips to the door handle, but she did not grip it right away. "You have a singular mind," she said. Several moments passed in contemplation, and Holmes forbore, with great effort, to interrupt her prematurely. "And a peculiar one. It seeks often to destroy itself, and it seems to me that you know the danger inherent in that quite well. You…doubted yourself at times these past weeks. I cannot imagine that you would have done that, had you no cause to believe it likely that your mind may betray you. That you may imagine things that are not visible to the rest of us."
Holmes swallowed, tried to refute at least some part of what she said, and then could not.
Oblivious, Mrs Hudson went on, picking her words in a hesitant manner as if waiting for denials, corrections, or aspersions against her character. "You are given to nervous fits, and this speaks of a certain kind of… hereditary condition. The fact that you say nothing now merely confirms the supposition." She gathered her hands against her stomach and looked down at them. "I offer you the only respite that I can, as the chemicals you have been wont to use are obviously no longer effective, and for the time being at least, the unleashing of fists upon others' flesh is not available. At times, you require a means of purging things from your mind that you cannot eradicate by more benign methods, or in the presence of the doctor. I understand this, Mister Holmes. I know that whatever you may say at those times when your thoughts are your own enemy, it is not personal. You simply need to be rid of it for a moment, to loose the words upon the air and have them out. I can give you this, if it helps."
"But…" Holmes shook his head at her back, bewildered. "Why?"
"Because," she replied softly. "As I tried to tell you earlier, I would grieve the loss of you. Any part of you. And it hurts me to watch you suffer like this alone, when I am willing to listen to whatever abuse you need to spout in order to find some relief from your demons. And because I am aware that no one else has offered." She nodded to herself then, a gesture of finality, and pulled the door open. "I will brew a fresh pot of tea and bring it upstairs shortly. I trust that you will not be much longer in here."
As soon as she had exited the room, pulling the door shut behind her, Holmes staggered to his feet. He did not allow himself to think because he would have stopped and gone back to the same place he had been when he first came down here, and for once, he recognized this and feared it. Sparing no glance for the mess he had been instructed to clean up, Holmes dragged the door open and trailed in Mrs Hudson's wake, down the hall and into the kitchen, catching the door at the last moment before it swung shut in his face. Mrs Hudson looked back then, clearly not having expected him to follow her.
"Where is the maid?"
Mrs Hudson regarded him askance, but with little else than curiosity. "I sent her away this morning, to a spa in the country. She should be boarding the train within the hour. Told her it was an early Christmas present. It's not safe here, right now, for a young thing like her." She paused. "Are you well?"
"My mother was a murderess." The words tumbled out before he could think better of them. He could tell that he had startled the poor woman with them, but it didn't give him pause. "She used to say that when people spoke, she could see it in the air like colored glass in a kaleidoscope, or in waves like fire in an oven, and that sometimes, their voices or their bearing, or the way their eyes shifted smelled foul. And she was utterly convinced that there were people dwelling in the house who no one else could see, leaving footprints in the freshly brushed carpets and moving her things about the rooms at night."
When Mrs Hudson made no comment on this, it seemed as if a floodgate opened, spurred on by the attentive silence.
"She staunchly refused to allow anyone to dust the tables and shelves, because reading the marks and circles in the dust was the only way she had of knowing when they had moved something. The invisible men, that is. They touched her belongings and played her violin at night while the rest of the house slept. I used to sneak into the drawing room to watch her at it. She would claim, in the morning, that they had painted her fingers with rosin before the sunrise. Father would order the staff to clean in spite of her, when she was out visiting relatives or shopping in the city, and she would have fits when she arrived back to find the surfaces cleared. She claimed that they spoke to her, the men she could see, and that they told her things – observations and deductions. She could read every intrigue in mud and gait and expression, folds of clothing, pocket watches, inflection of voice. But when asked, she would claim that she saw nothing – that the invisible men had seen it all and told her about it. My father saw no harm in it, as she used her delusions to assist him in making sound investments and in judging the characters of business associates. He deemed it to be a benefit – a gift – and often told his acquaintances that he found her charming for it."
Holmes fiddled with the skin of his knuckles, pinching it a bit as he stared off to one side; he could not look at Mrs Hudson and say these things.
"She killed him. Arsenic. She displayed no remorse for it, and claimed that the invisible men had forced her to do it. The police removed her and relinquished her to doctors, and she died in a sanitarium only days later from striking her skull against the wall until it hemorrhaged. She had been screaming the night beforehand that the noise would not cease, and that she only wanted a bit of silence. She had told the doctors that her room – a single which she occupied alone – was too crowded, and that she could barely move for the press of bodies nor breathe at the stench of them, unwashed. She was, then, approximately the same age that I am now."
A rustle to his left betrayed Mrs Hudson moving about, but something in his demeanor successfully conveyed to her that she should keep her distance.
A pulsing panic worked its way up Holmes' throat to lodge against his epiglottis. "Watson's voice has colors in it. And sometimes, when I look at people, their expressions or movements smell. You, when you enter a room that I am in, you are pin cushions, and sometimes scalding water. I examine the dust for evidence of objects moving about, and while I find no indications of anyone other than myself or you or Watson, I keep studying it. Just in case. And there is a clamor of voices inside of my head at all hours that will not cease unless I have a case to work, or cocaine or morphine to drown them. My only assurances of sanity, at times, come from knowing that at least the voices that I hear are my own, and that even at my worst, I have never seen or heard an invisible man."
He took a sharp breath, and recognized the threaded quality of it, pushing through his lungs past the stuttering of his heart.
"But there are days when I cannot bear the itching encasement of my own skin. I make deductions, and am told that I could not possibly see what I claim simply in the appearances of others, and I wonder for a moment if they are right, because while I know the science and logic of what I do, so did she. And even in my own mind, I must admit at times that my deductions are farfetched or incredulous, and that sometimes, there is only an intuition involved in my interpretations of them, as if a voice had whispered the solution in my ear. I am referred to as eccentric and half mad, and I am, but I don't know what to do about it. I am…terrified."
He bit his tongue and watched his knuckles whiten in the clench of his hands. His voice, when it came next, sounded like air through holes punched in a thick card board – a harsh, sharp whisper of words forced through apertures too small for them.
"I am told that there were only three men in the alley, and there is evidence of no other. I am told that in spite of numerous assurances of clemency, or favor, or good words to magistrates, none of the three wavered from their assertion that they acted alone. Under heavy questioning and threat of harsh prosecution, it makes no sense not to lessen their own blame by naming the other party involved – a mitigating factor, surely, that they could have twisted to make themselves appear less to blame for their actions. Other men whom they assaulted corroborate that there were only three of them. The reasonable conclusion is that there was no other party involved, and that I…I imagined him. The fourth man."
Mrs Hudson had drawn up beside him by now, but he could not look at her. He pressed his eyes closed, aware that he was shaking and that his voice, normally an even baritone, had gone pitched and thick with the effort of continuing to speak.
It took him several breaths to regain enough control of his faculties to open his eyes again, trained blankly as they were on the empty space before him, and ask, "What if I am the only one moving things through the house, as she did through hers? What if I am simply my mother's son?"
The hand on his arm made him jump, but he forced himself still after that, and pointedly looked at the woman to his left, whose fingers dug into the flesh of his forearm with a force that would have surprised him, had he not been numb by then. Mrs Hudson seemed to want to assure him that doubting himself was the only real madness that he suffered from, but they both knew that even a well meant lie was still just a falsehood. "Is that what you believe?"
Holmes kept his eyes on her face even as it swam wetly before him. "I do not know what I believe. I only know that if there are only myself and Watson moving about the rooms upstairs, then I am a danger to him. As she was to my father." He licked his lips and huffed a bit in an effort to draw enough oxygen into his lungs to allow him to continue speaking. "I fired a revolver this morning at the shape of a man I thought was in my bedroom – a man with my own face. What if I turn toward Watson next and see only the shape of a man wearing his face?"
Mrs Hudson nodded, her nostrils flared with some emotion that Holmes could not readily identify. Her eyes appeared red, but dry. "I will tell you what I believe, then. It is very probable that you could do yourself harm, as you are not, as a habit, terribly concerned with your own life. And that is a discussion that I do wish to have with you, but not right now. Right now, I will tell you only that while I can easily picture you harming yourself, I cannot see you ever physically harming the doctor. It is not in your nature, no matter what hallucinations may take you. You are not capable of it."
"Well," he replied softly. He could feel the wobble in his own smile, but persevered. "For all of our sakes, then, I hope that you are right."
"Of course I am." She said it so much conviction that Holmes could tell, clearly and without artifice, that she wanted desperately to convince herself as much as to convince him. "I know my boys better than you think, Mister Holmes."
He nodded and swallowed, which was a difficult task just then. "Your bake is burning."
Mrs Hudson sucked her lower lip between her teeth, her mouth crumbling up around it. "Sod the bake, then. You'll suffer with eggy toast, and be glad of it."
In spite of himself, Holmes' face split in a toothy bit of a grin. "Yes, nanny." Immediately after, it fell from his face, though, and all he could manage was to look at her and breathe, "Thank you."
Holmes sat for over an hour and watched Watson sleep. As it was barely past ten in the morning, such a thing could only indicate an exhaustion the likes of which most men were not accustomed. Constant vigilance, stresses, and shocks to the system were harsh mistresses – as were disruptive flatmates, gunshots and a decided excess of tension in the air. He regretted that Watson had fallen prey to his own difficulties to such an extent, and resolved to let him sleep as long as he liked. It would make him more amiable anyway, and Holmes did prefer him amiable.
At half past eleven, Holmes donned his great coat and his hat, tied a scarf about his neck, and tucked the rug that had fallen off the settee back around Watson's limp form where it sprawled heavy across the cushions. The poor man had not shifted an inch in hours, and he had begun to drool. Waking him would only cause both of them undue irritation at this point, and in any case, Holmes did not want him along this time. He did not think that he would be able to do what he planned with Watson clucking about behind him, his face pinched concave like a worry stone.
Holmes left a note on the mantle saying where he had gone, and then he descended the seventeen steps from their sitting room to the front door, where he found…where he found, at first, that he could not open it. He could not move his hands to do it. No matter, then. He turned and strode down the hall to the door that let out the rear of the building, and this one, he could move through. The stench of the alley did not bother him as much as it might have, as he kept his scarf tucked over his nose to filter the ammonia smell of feral cats and other waste. The mud had dried in tracks up the side of the building, and he studied it briefly before determining that it would be of little use to him. The glass from the broken window sat on his chemistry table upstairs in a box, along with his key chain, two picture frames from his room, and the dish off of Watson's bedside table with the tie pin still sat in it. He had already examined them all and found no indication that they had been touched by anyone but Watson and him.
He hailed a cab at the corner of Marylebone, and in the early afternoon, lit out two blocks away from the Punch Bowl. The cab clattered away soon after, and Holmes stood like a tree rooted to the pavement for quite a long time after. He could see the boxing establishment from where he loitered, the windows of his bolt hole above the main floor dark. The murk of a wintery morning left the street appearing darker than it actually was, or perhaps that was only Holmes' eyes failing to filter the light properly. He could see the mouth of the alley, too. When he finally managed to tear his feet from the ground, they carried him there first.
The stench was as he remembered. As were the broken cobbled stones and the litter and the filth. He made himself stand still in the midst of it until his breathing had corrected itself and the black spots faded from his vision. Only then did he look, truly look, at the scene around him.
Holmes allowed for the possibility that things had not truly been as he remembered, but for the purposes of this exercise, he must assume that he had not been mistaken after all. A glance back to the mouth of the alley, and in his mind's eye, superimposed upon the pale daylight, he saw the shadow of a man that he had seen that night, an ambush in front of him while three followed behind. The man – the fourth man – raised a knee and slammed it into Holmes' gut, knocking the air from his body, momentarily paralyzing his diaphragm, and as he stumbled, the other three grabbed him and dragged him into the dark.
He froze the scene in his mind and looked more closely at the man who had waited ahead in ambush. Pinstripes on his trousers, shoes clean, as if he had not walked far in the filth and mud of the street. Perhaps a cab had dropped him right there so that he would not risk dirtying himself more than necessary? The outline of him in the shadows had been tall and slender, a top hat on his head. His bearing had been proud. His clothes expensive. The shadow of him…gaunt face, tall. A thin, hawk-like nose protruding from above his lip, catching light from a street lamp. A prominent and square chin. Long in body, yes, but longer in the leg than the average man of such a height – as he had noted before, gangly. Large feet, in shoes of a size similar to Holmes' own. Delicate hands, long fingers.
He stopped for a moment and though he tried not to, he took stock of himself in comparison, well aware that such a description could very easily fit his own person. No matter; he had a set of assumptions to work from, the main one being that there had indeed been a fourth perpetrator. He had decided this morning, after leaving Mrs Hudson in the kitchen and before climbing back upstairs to check on the sudden silence and cessation of pacing, that he would treat this as any other case, proceed as if his recollection were true, and then scientifically, logically, either prove or disprove the presence of the fourth man. He knew of no other way to approach and settle this…this small and persistent problem than to treat it as he would any other case, and himself as he would any other client.
Farther down the alley, Holmes stopped again and breathed through the nausea that threatened to derail him. He recalled his attempt to trip one of them, stumbling about in a heap, landing a blow on Left Arm Man, and then a kidney punch. Holmes reached behind him and felt the place to the left of his spine, low on his back, where the fourth man had punched him. He had forgotten about the fourth man. He had miscalculated. Another few steps, and Holmes looked down at a particular configuration of cobbles that he had naively thought too irrelevant to recall. But there it was, and he remembered it with a disturbing clarity for the ridged edge upon which he had scraped his cheek to loosen the gag, and the smooth surface that he had licked in an effort to obscure the foul taste on his tongue.
But he was getting ahead of himself. First, there had been pebbles and grit digging into his shoulder blades, his skull striking the ground with a wet smack as he landed on his back, his arms pinned by a man on each side, and a third sat upon his torso to hold him down. Left Arm Man, Right Arm Man, Top Man. To his right, Fourth Man, silent and unmoving in a deeper shadow than the rest of them, his features obscured save for his profile. Holmes swallowed and looked to his left, where the fourth man had stood at the start of it. He had not paid as much attention as he might have done, more concerned with the three immediate threats to his person and the touches –
Ooh, look at 'im blush!
Feel him shiver, boys.
It took a moment to force back the bile and Holmes thought for a moment that he should not have eaten breakfast so that his stomach would be less upset. After a moment, it passed and he straightened a bit with his hands braced on his thighs before drawing himself back up to his full height. He trained his eyes again on the place where the fourth man had stood. He reconstructed it in his mind and then put it there in the alley – the shape of the man. Standing – no, prowling. He had not been still; rather, he had circled about them.
Holmes shifted to the side and stood, canted himself a bit, fit himself into the shape of that man, and then looked down at the place where the others had been on the ground. He pictured himself there, and the others holding him in place. Bits of phrases whispered through his mind and he did his best to ignore them, persistent as they were. Like a wild horse. Doesn't know his place. Needs to be shown. Got some spirit, hasn't he, boys?
Forty-two buttons, but not Fourth Man's.
Holmes prowled about the phantoms on the ground, visible only in his mind, and watched the assault play out. A tongue forced down his throat. The taste of Top Man's mouth. Holmes' fingernails cutting crescents into his own palms. What's the matter, Mister Holmes? Am I not to your liking? Rotten carcass fingers in his hair, to yank his face back to where it was wanted. A hard protuberance digging against his stomach, attached to the awful man who was sat upon him. The rocking of the body against him. Fourth Man stepped around them, always at the edge of the range of Holmes' vision in the dark.
Holmes stopped and stood over the lot of them, looking down at the face of the pale man on his back on the ground. From the ground, he looked up at Fourth Man and saw again the cold eyes. Cold…and pale. They had looked cold because of how they caught what little light there was. Pale and cold even in the dark. Like his own. Grey, light, and cold in the dark. Observing. Studying.
Just to remind himself that he was not trapped here, Holmes straightened and stared at the open mouth of the alley and the watery daylight that filtered down from the early afternoon sky, murky with cloud cover. Then he faced the scene in his mind once again and went down on one knee, pinstripes against the cobblestones. A smear of mud and foulness on the calf of one trouser leg. Everyone had gone still. Holmes watched the fingers that rifled his pockets – clean, thin, delicate – watched the fold of banknotes that comprised Watson's winnings leave his breast pocket and disappear into Fourth Man's. His watch chain, unwound, the face of the timepiece subjected to a brief scrutiny and then tucked into Top Man's trouser pocket.
An intimate choice, that – to put his hand into the trouser pocket of another man. Why do it? Top Man's face – Holmes cast back and noted an expression like flint, enduring it though he clearly wished to do otherwise. It had offended him to be touched in that manner – to have the man's hand in his pocket like that – close enough, no doubt, to have brushed the turgid bit of flesh pressed up against the inside of the fabric. It would have to be a deliberate choice, to shove his hand into that particular pocket at that moment. Why do it with such a high risk of an indiscrete and indecent touch?
Do it exactly because of that risk. Holmes tipped his head at the imagined scene on the ground. Fourth Man chose that pocket precisely because of the risk of brushing against Top Man's member. He was an invert, but not the same kind as the other three. Top Man and the arm men were of a violent and sick breed, the kind who proved virility by overtaking other men and using them by force. Sadists. Men of morose delectation. Fourth Man, while cruel and without conscience, was a different kind. The shameless kind. Whereas the other three possessed little cunning or culture, and would just as soon have assaulted a woman if no other were available, Fourth Man indulged in a specific cruelty. He enjoyed the debasement of men because he enjoyed men. His touch, his hand in Top Man's pocket, had been subtle. Possessive. An argument could have been made that Top Man and the arm men were not true inverts as they likely had wives or women, and were, on the whole, masculine. Their assaults were masculine. They were not indorsers in that they were never recipients of a penetrative act. It was not, for them, about carnal attraction toward other men. Rather, men presented a better challenge and stronger fight than a woman would have, and it was the violence that they enjoyed.
Fourth Man, however, was a true invert. Perverse. His interests in the proceedings, carnal. Evidence of such: his final act, to force his victim to ejaculate before he, himself, did so. The implication being that his own arousal was not tied to the violence or the power struggle, but to the carnal satisfaction, such as it was, of his "partner."
Holmes' breakfast once again threatened an unpleasant exit, so he closed his eyes long enough to regain his equilibrium. Then he stood and put his back to the proceedings. His eyes lit on a collection of old packing crates and he spent some minutes rearranging them into the exact configuration that had imprinted in his memory. Once satisfied, he frowned at the crude bench made of discarded bits, and then turned and sat. An opera patron, he recalled; he had likened Fourth Man to a reveler at a show. Holmes examined his fingernails and then searched his pockets until he located a handkerchief. Dirt had transferred from the crates, and mud from the ground. He picked under his nails with the cloth until they were passably clean, and then regarded the ground before him, pensive. He spared a moment to pat at his jacket until he located his pipe in an inner pocket, and checked to make certain that the bowl was packed before sticking the stem between his teeth. He produced a match from yet another pocket, struck it against the brick behind him, and held it to the bowl long enough to puff up a nice mouthful of smoke to suck into his lungs.
Over the course of the next hour, Holmes smoked and examined bits of things that he recalled from that night. Much of it was not relevant to the question of Fourth Man, so he skipped past it. He kept finding himself, however, dwelling on the cuff links that Right Arm Man had worn. Silver, inscribed, tarnished. Poorly kept. Too rich for such a man as he. He entertained the notion that they had come from Fourth Man, but that made little sense. Why pay Right Arm Man with such a singular gift, and not give similar trinkets to the other two? Or perhaps he had gifted such things to the others, and they simply had not been wearing them during the assault. But…everything about Fourth Man had been studied. Meticulous. He had cleaned dirt from beneath his fingernails. He had managed, somehow, to keep his shoes relatively clean. He had sat primly atop the crates as if accustomed to sitting long periods for shows and performances. He had worn an evening hat, the felt of which had been brushed free of lint. He would not have owned cuff links in such a state of disrepair. Had he gifted them to Right Arm Man as payment for that night's deed, they would still have shone. Conclusion: Right Arm Man had acquired them long before that night, from some other unfortunate party. One of the previous victims? A souvenir, perhaps?
A sharp crack reverberated through Holmes' teeth, as of sticks snapping in the woods when trodden upon. He blinked and withdrew the stem of his pipe from between his lips in order to better see that yes, he had chewed the cherry wood into soggy pulp. The cuff links. He had memorized the pattern of the tarnish – there had been little else upon which to turn his focus. The last time that he had seen that pattern had not been adorning the dirty shirt cuffs of Right Arm Man. No, he had seen them since. On the wrists of a man in his brother's club room.
Holmes shoved his pipe back into his mouth before recalling its splintering, huffed, and made a point of tossing the ruined thing aside to join the rest of the cast-off bits of London that had collected in that alley before he damaged his lip or splintered his tongue, or did himself some other form of ridiculous damage. He had been off his tits in that room at the Diogenes Club, but again, he had to assume that his recollection, if muddled, was still accurate. Else, he had nothing to go on. The man in that room, who had poured the water and groped him insensate, had worn cuff links bearing the same pattern of whorls and discoloration, and had seemed to make a point to put them directly under Holmes' nose, to make him see that he wore them. He had spoken of invisible men – he had made a parody of what Mycroft had disclosed to Watson in another room. Or…a parody of what Holmes had said to his brother at the Yard when he had come to retrieve him? He vaguely recalled telling Mycroft that he had seen an invisible man before they had left Lestrade's office.
As his recollections were addled by both a nervous fit and an excess of chloral administered at the time, Holmes set that aside for a moment and focused instead on the man in his brother's club room. He had been a large man, the shape of him enough to occlude much of Holmes' vision, and the outline of him against the gaslight on the wall had been…not slender or gaunt. Thick woolen trousers – he had touched them. Course, not smooth like pinstriped linen. Not a fine cloth the likes of which Holmes was wont to wear, but nice enough, such as Watson's suits. In a word, cheaper than the clothing that Fourth Man had worn in the alley. Holmes recalled…fingers. He had closed his own hands over those of the intruder's on the glass of water. They had not been thin or fine. They had not been delicate. They…they had not been smooth as Fourth Man's had been when…when touching Holmes. They had not been as…as bony. He had leaned on the man's shoulder in his brother's club room. Strong shoulder. Some muscle – not much, but some. In the alley, Fourth Man had been gaunt. Tall and thin. Perhaps not weak, but his muscles would have been much as Holmes' were – fine and compact. Hard. Thin over sinew and joints. And his voice…his voice…
At the Diogenes, the man had used a French pet name for him: mon pauvre innocent. His voice – he had spoken with an accent, faint but there. Not French. Provincial. And…not correct. Pauvre niais. Poor, stupid man. Poor innocent. Mon pauvre innocent…it was a literal translation of the English words into French equivalents, but that phrase would never be used colloquially. In conversation with a French-speaking person, or with anyone educated in the French language, it would be nonsensical in the context in which it was used. Innocent, in the French language, was used for guiltless, not for clean or untouched or naïve. Inexperienced. The man at the Diogenes Club had not been classically educated. If he had received any advanced learning, then it had been self-taught, and he had not been given the benefit of tutorship or correction by a learned person.
Fourth Man, when he had spoken, he had done so with the cadence of the educated. Refined. English. Not necessarily a Londoner, but someone of letters nonetheless. Someone who had received tutoring, assuming that he had not been born into the class, which he very well may have been. The point being that Fourth Man would not have bungled the French language in that manner, because he would have known better.
Holmes stood and paced about the ground where he could recall working to free himself from the knots of his scarf, chafing his wrists raw and bloody in the process. This made no sense. He had come here expressly to attempt to recall details of the fourth man that might allow him to identify, or at least confirm the existence of, an additional party to the crime. Instead, he was left with yet another mystery, because while Top Man, Left Arm Man and Right Arm Man had been detained at Scotland Yard, someone had come to the room at the Diogenes Club where Holmes was sleeping off the stupor of chloral, and impersonated an invisible man. And it had not been Fourth Man.
If Holmes' recollections were accurate, than there was a larger game afoot, because there were two of them out there – two men who had only been seen by him. Two invisible men.