I awoke the next morning with a heavy nausea in my stomach, a searing pain in my head and a stale dryness of mouth that precluded any notions of remaining in bed. I found I was still wearing my evening clothes, though someone had taken the trouble to remove my shoes and collar and place them neatly on the chair in the far corner of my room. I gingerly rose, put on a dressing gown and went downstairs to the sitting room.
Holmes was seated at the table in his night shirt and dressing gown, sipping tea and reading the newspaper. He regarded me with kind eyes.
“Morning, Watson,” he said cheerily. “How are you faring today?”
“None too well, thank you. And I have a feeling the more I recall of last night the less well I shall soon be. Holmes, what happened?” I sat down rather heavily and placed my head in my hands.
“You were overgenerous with the wine,” he told me. “And your conversation.”
I glanced up at him sharply. “What do you mean? What did I say?”
“Nothing incriminating, I promise. And I assure you your interjections, acerbic and ill-advised as they were, did no disservice to the conversation. Those were the dullest people I’ve ever dined with. Wealth is a most unattractive trait in the unimaginative.”
“Oh God,” I moaned as I dropped my head to the table. “I wish I’d never gone.”
Holmes reached over and patted me on the head. “Do not be so hard on yourself, my dear friend. However much you suffer today shall more than atone for your social missteps.”
He poured me a cup of tea and shoved it towards me. “Drink this. I shall ring Mrs. Hudson to bring you some breakfast.”
Nothing sounded worse to me than food at that moment, though I did manage half a cup of the lukewarm tea.
“If it’s all right with you, Holmes, I think I’ll lie down a while on the settee.” I hobbled over to it and laid my head upon the pillow.
“Suit yourself,” Holmes said with a shrug. He retrieved a blanket from his bedroom, then covered me for what I later learned was the second time in twelve hours. He cast a concerned expression down at me.
“Get some rest. We can talk this evening,” he said, and then left me there to wonder what I may have said to him the night before.
I drifted into a deep slumber, and awoke some time later to find Mrs. Hudson quietly tidying the room around me.
“Feeling better, Doctor?” she asked me pleasantly as she retied the curtains.
“A bit. I wonder if you could bring me some fresh tea and a few morsels of bread.” I sat up cautiously and gauged my condition.
“I’ve a fresh chicken soup on the stove that ought to restore you in no time,” she said.
After the previous night’s sickening overabundance, the idea of taking a quiet meal in the comfort of our clean sitting room cheered me considerably.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hudson. Have you seen Mr. Holmes?”
“He posted a telegram about an hour ago, and promptly left. I tried to serve him lunch but you know how he gets when he’s hot on the trail,” she said with tired maternal patience. “I suppose he cannot be blamed for serving his clients.”
Something about her last phrase resonated as familiar, but I could not place it.
Ten minutes later she served me a large bowl of steaming broth, the first sip of which was immediately rejuvenating. I felt my blood warm again and the rolling sensation in my stomach begin to disappear.
Such a horrible mistake I will not soon make again, I thought to myself.
And then the memories of last night began to surface.
I remembered how unhappy I was the moment we set foot inside Ridgley Hall, how I felt artificially and temporarily comforted when the first cold sting of gin touched my lips. I saw the plates of food that passed before me, the smiling, intrusive faces that stared back at me as though I were a curious pet who mindlessly followed its master in hopes of lapping up any morsels of praise he saw fit to throw my way. I heard my voice dripping with sarcasm in response to their inane questions, telling them in so many words that I held the lot of them in contempt. I was painfully aware that at least one of these comments had been directed at Holmes himself.
How we made our exit I shall never know, and prefer to remain ignorant of what was likely a very uncomfortable farewell. But I remember alighting at
I remembered it was Holmes who put me to bed. I recalled how he had undressed me while I considered whether or not I would be sick. I remembered how the cool water he brought to me felt in my dry, wine-coated mouth. And I had said something to him. Yes, I had clung to him for support and said…something. I closed my eyes and concentrated.
Blame you…love horrible… should avoid …not fault…
Whatever had occurred at dinner paled in comparison to that. For the second time I had fallen bumbling and vulnerable before Holmes, who was very likely growing weary of my emotional distress.
This would not do.
I bathed myself, changed clothes and left
Why Holmes had not been angrier rather confounded me, though I supposed his own disdain for the absurdities of the aristocratic social sphere prevented him from any feelings of regret on my behalf. I had in actuality been quite lucky, for my lovesick and frustrated heart may very well have led me to betray far more than mere irritation with last night’s company. What Holmes thought privately about the whole incident was unknown to me; perhaps he felt I had suffered enough, perhaps he did not wish to pursue the topic for discussion, perhaps worst of all he pitied me. But this much was clear: Sherlock Holmes was not going to change in his attitude towards love. I could not allow my emotions, however overwhelming they were, to be the undoing of us both. I could take comfort in the fact that it was nigh impossible Holmes would ever take up with someone else. He was mine enough as a friend and colleague, and that would have to suffice.
The afternoon sky was beginning to darken when I returned home. I entered the sitting room to find Holmes pacing the floor.
“Watson, there you are! Come, we’ve not a moment to lose,” he said excitedly. He waved a telegram as he swept into the hallway. “I shall explain on the way. Bring your revolver!”
“Way to where?” I rushed to my desk to retrieve my gun.
“I know where Aldous Norton is!” he called as he bolted down the stairs and onto the street. “Cab!”
I sprinted down the stairs and caught up with him just as a cab pulled up to the curb.
“East end docks, and hurry,” he ordered the driver.
“Ah Watson, I have been a fool,” he said as we sped down the street.
So have I, I thought, but remained silent.
Deep in the squalor of the seedy underside of the city we found Aldous Norton working as a page in an undesirable and unhealthy establishment that no young boy should enter, much less inhabit on a regular basis. He had not been abducted at all, but had run away in an attempt to escape punishment for his misdeeds at school. He made a foolish attempt to flee when Holmes cornered him and sternly asked him to accompany us to the loving arms of Scotland Yard. The ensuing commotion so startled the patrons that tables were overturned and a young man slightly older than Norton had panicked and fired two shots in our direction. I regretted not treating myself well enough to maintain a clear focus of mind, for my reaction to these events felt painfully slow. By the time I had my own firearm drawn, the gun-wielding man had disappeared into the crowd, and poor Norton lay slumped against the front door with blood streaming from his leg.
Holmes sprinted after the man who had shot him, while I recovered my medical instincts and rushed to young Norton’s side. I shed my coat and rolled up my sleeves before assessing the extent of his wound. I was relieved to see the bullet had not penetrated as far as the bone; it had been issued from a small pistol and fired from enough distance to prevent graver injury. But the poor youth was terrified and my sympathies went out to him. I called for a basin of water and a clean towel, and tried to calm him as I soaked up the blood that was pouring from the ugly gash in his leg.
“He’ll be all right,” I said to the frightened crowd. “Please do give us some space.” I looked at Norton’s face and was alarmed to see that it had turned ashen, and his breathing had become quite shallow. I tucked my coat behind his head and told him to take deep breaths. As I ministered his leg, I began to tell him a story. It was a tale from my boyhood, one of those singular instances in which an unbelievable series of events results in a surprising and humorous conclusion. Such was a method I would employ when my fellow soldiers were injured beyond repair in
I did not notice Holmes return after he apprehended the perpetrator and turned him over to the police. I was so focused on my patient that I thought of nothing except making sure he remained engaged with the story until the color returned to his face. When at last I looked up, Holmes was staring at me with an expression I’d never seen before. It carried shades of tenderness and affection, as well as a curious element of incredulity. Our gazes locked meaningfully before I turned back to Norton.
“And so,” I concluded, finishing the dressing on his wound, “there was the horse, back in his stall, as though nothing had ever happened. And not a mark on him.” I was gratified to see the terror in his eyes had been replaced by amused interest.
“Do you think it was aliens from another planet?” he asked me eagerly as I fastened the makeshift bandage
I chuckled. “Perhaps. Some members of my family had some rather lofty theories of their own.”
I helped him to his feet, took out my notebook and wrote down a name and address. I tore out the page and handed it to Norton.
“This is a friend of mine who will fix that hole in your leg with the proper instruments. In the meantime, I’m afraid you must accompany my friend and me to Scotland Yard. You’ll not be detained long, but young boys cannot work in places such as these, and your father is very worried about you.”
The lad winced before nodding sadly in quiet defeat. We led him to a cab and escorted him to the Yard where he cooperated with the inspector and met his overjoyed and relieved father.
Holmes and I rode silently back to
“You’ve blood on your shirt, Watson,” he observed.
I looked down and saw where the boy’s blood had splashed just above my waistline. “So I see.”
“Give it to me when we get upstairs and I’ll see to it that Mrs. Hudson washes it for you straight away,” he said kindly.
“All right. Thank you, Holmes.”
I was in better spirits than I’d been for weeks, for not only was I pleased by the completion of a case, but I was grateful for the opportunity to apply my best skills to its satisfying conclusion. I changed my shirt, splashed some water on my face, and returned to the sitting room. Holmes was at the table sorting idly through the daily posts. I seated myself at my writing desk to begin a formal account of the Norton case.
“Thank you for your help today, Watson,” Holmes called out unexpectedly behind me.
“You’re welcome, Holmes,” I returned with my back still to him.
“You were quite good with the boy,” he continued, rising from the table.
I turned to face him. “Was I?”
I was surprised to see him blush ever so slightly.
“Your presence of mind in that chaos is commendable. You tended to him with a great deal of kindness and patience that I imagine will go far towards his eventual recovery,” he said, and offered me a shy smile.
I waved away his compliment, “Ah, just a few tricks I learned in the army. But thank you for saying so.” I turned back to my task.
“Watson…” Holmes began again.
“Are you all right?” he asked me in a tentative voice.
“No worse for the wear, Holmes.”
“You are not angry with me?”
I don’t think he’d ever asked me such a thing before.
“Why should I be angry with you?”
“I fear I have not been very fair to you,” he said.
“I perceive that you have been suffering, Watson, and I know it has been on my account. You took a great risk when laid your heart before me, likely hoping for some reciprocation, and I left it there with a thoughtless and negative response that you probably wished I wouldn’t have. I’m sorry. You deserve better than that.” He spoke these words with great sincerity.
“Well,” I replied, “is there something you wish to say to me now?”
I saw the fear return to his eyes, the same look he had bestowed upon me when I first revealed my secret. But this time it passed after a moment. He appeared to be gathering strength.
“This…love, “ he said sternly, “that you spoke of. What does it entail?”
“Well, there’s…” I hesitated, realizing it was an excellent question not easily answered. “There’s a strong sense of devotion, of course. I suppose I mean that in loving you I put your happiness and well-being ahead of mine. And there’s a desire to be with you in…in every sense.” I swallowed. I had not wanted to offend his gentlemanly sensibilities with specifics on this last point.
“In every sense,” he repeated. He thrust his hands into his pockets and regarded me steadily. “You mean physical love.”
“Yes, well,” I fumbled for a suitable answer. “you’re no doubt aware of the kind of activities in which a man and woman engage, though I’m not sure if you know exactly how two men…”
“I have some ideas about that, yes,” he said with a slight nod and a brief smile. He walked slowly to the window at the far end of the room.
“It may surprise you to hear, Watson, that yours is not the first such invitation I ever received,” he said as he gazed towards the horizon.
It did not surprise me.
“But it is the first I ever considered,” he said in a softer tone, turning his a little head in my direction.
My heart fairly leapt from my chest, but I was loathe to entertain new hopes after having so recently recovered myself.
“Well then, Holmes,” I said evenly, “I will be glad to hear of your decision when you make one.” I picked up my writing materials and made to leave the sitting room.
“Watson,” he called out just before I reached the stair landing. I stopped, turned and stood in the doorway.
Holmes turned to face me. “Why me?”
“What?” I said, returning to the room.
“I have been trying to understand what it is you’ve seen that causes you to desire me in such a way,” he said with traces of sadness in his voice.
He gripped the back of the chair behind the table.
“It is difficult for me to fathom how someone so kind-hearted as yourself would not prefer a…a better person.”
“You are the best and wisest man I’ve ever known,” I told him honestly. “You’re not perfect, certainly, but no one is.”
He smiled and looked down. “That’s very kind of you, my friend. I suppose if I had thought myself worthy of your affections I might have reacted very differently to your pronouncement, aside from the obvious fact that I’ve no experience in such matters.”
My heart swelled. He had so often been the first to laud his extraordinary mental prowess that I had never imagined he considered his own deficiencies. I went to him and took his hands in my own.
“Who else but you, Holmes? These past years I’ve spent being at your side have been the best of my life. Believe me, I’ve never had a thought for another man before, but then I’ve never known anyone like you. You take my breath away. I’ve wondered for months now what it be like to kiss you.”
He looked at me in genuine surprise.
“I am afraid I don’t know how,” he confessed.
I moved closer to him until I was inches from his face.
“Part your lips,” I murmured. He did so.
“Close your eyes.” He did, and my every nerve came alive.
“Now,” I whispered, “taste my bottom lip as though you’re trying a spoonful of something sweet.”
I brought my mouth to his, and he tentatively and delicately pulled at my lip. After a moment, he released me again. Before either one of us opened our eyes I locked my lips onto his with measured confidence, and allowed my fingers to graze the side of his face. I felt the corners of his mouth turn up in a smile just before I broke the kiss and took a small step back.
A flush splashed across his cheekbones and a soft light shone behind his unusually round eyes.
“Now was that the worst thing you’ve ever experienced?” I asked him half-jokingly.
“No,” he smiled, then glanced up at me shyly. “That was very nice.”
“I’m glad,” I whispered, still holding his face close to mine. “We can take it as slow as you like, you know.”
He brought his hand up to my wrist and laced his fingers in my own. He spoke again in a velveteen murmur so soft it tickled my ears.
“You must continue to write of me as a brain without a heart, and yourself as no less an authority on the subject of the fair sex. The sitting room must remain locked at all times when you and I are the only ones occupying it. You must never address me in any other way than your friend and colleague when in the company of others, and most importantly, Watson,” he looked into my eyes with grave concern, “if this arrangement does not come to suit either or both of our best interests, I want you to promise me it would not cost me your companionship. I would regret that exceedingly.”
“Done,” I said firmly. “I promise.” I gently kissed his forehead and thus sealed our pact.
“You said mine was the only such offer you’ve considered. Why?”
He searched my face for a moment. A beautiful smile then spread across his features.
“Who else but you, Watson? You take my breath away.”
An ocean of joy swelled so large in my heart I felt its moisture overflowing in the rims of my eyes, but all I could do was smile with gratitude as I pulled him to me for another embrace.