“Holmes…” I said, sighing. “You have been insufferable without a case, and to refuse this one in particular, for Scotland Yard—”
Holmes was still pacing about the room, as he had been for a span of certainly no less than three minutes, muttering to himself and gesticulating in cramped little motions. He was the very picture of agitation.
“If this is in regard to Clark’s comment, I urge you to give it not a moment’s thought more – I assure you that I have not.”
It was a lie – I had been able to think of little else during the carriage ride back to Baker St., but Holmes’ infernal pacing had begun to worry me, and in any case, it was no worse than the sorts of things I heard in the course of my habitual days, buying a newspaper, perhaps, or hailing a cab.
Holmes wheeled on me, his eyes dancing with that mad light that meant there would be no peace in the house until he was satisfied.
“It did not make you angry?” he queried, in a tone that very much suggested he would not believe any answer in the affirmative. “Truly?”
Soothingly, I replied, “Holmes, I promise you, my composure is undisturbed.”
Another blatant lie – of course it was no worse than what I had come to expect in the course of my quotidian interactions—
And yet… it was worse, to hear it from Clark, a man with whom I had worked for more than a year, a man in whose respect I had previously believed myself secure. That was the true source of my disturbance.
Well, and that Holmes had heard it, and was taking it so much to heart.
“Then I admire your equanimity, my dear Watson,” Holmes said abruptly, “for my composure is very much disturbed.”
“He meant nothing by it—”
“Yes, and that fact, his very nonchalance—”
“We have always got on very well with Clark—”
“Indeed, so I thought until today—”
“If anyone ought to be offended, Holmes, surely it—”
“He introduced you as my ‘Moorish lackey!’” Holmes spat, suddenly very close to my face.
My lips tightened in anger for a moment, until I regained control of myself.
“If I were to be distressed,” I said lightly, “it would surely be over the state of his vocabulary, rather than the content – I had thought ‘Moorish’ as an epithet had passed out of fashion shortly after the Bard’s time. It is a curiously archaic turn of phrase, do you not agree?”
Holmes was not appeased.
“You are not my lackey,” he said intensely.
“Indeed not. I am your partner.” I raised an eyebrow at Holmes, who frowned at me in return. “But given your propensity for running roughshod over my frequent and reasonable objections to your increasingly lunatic schemes, and dragging me along into situations where you withhold your plans from me and subject me to unknown dangers, surely you can see that that is a delicate distinction, perhaps not readily discernible from the distance of an acquaintance such as Clark?”
I had anticipated that it would not be difficult to draw Holmes into a good-natured verbal sparring match, distracting him from the matter at hand, but he gave me a long look and remained silent for a space of time.
Quietly, he said, “You know that that is not what he meant. The proximity of the two words was no accident. They are connected in his mind.”
“I—” It was not often that Holmes would speak with this level of seriousness – the only previous instances had been occasioned by physical injury on one of our parts (more frequently mine), or by excessive abuse of spirits. I was often grateful for this fact, for his honesty always disarmed my every defense.
“I know,” I replied, equally softly. “I know that that is what he meant. I know that he is not the only one to think it.”
Holmes drew back, and appeared alarmed.
“Watson, I dare hope that I have given you no cause to think—that is, you know that I do now and have always viewed you as my complete intellectual equal—” Holmes awkwardly assayed, and I shook my head.
“You most certainly do not view me as anything of the kind,” I told him. “You have never seen me as your intellectual equal, Holmes.”
Holmes paled, and his hand trembled as he ran it up and down the side seam of his worn overcoat.
“Watson—” he protested, but I cut him off peremptorily.
“But that fact in no way relates to the color of my skin – or indeed, any quality particular to myself. It is simply that you refuse to acknowledge any soul – male or female, White or Black, young or old – as your match. I assure you,” I concluded, with rueful fondness, “I do not take it personally.”
“Ah,” said Holmes – he still appeared troubled, but his hands were steady, or at least, as steady as they ever were.
We had never discussed such matters before, and as little as I would have wished for such a painful catalyst, I was, in truth, relieved that they would not remain unsaid between us.
“On the occasion of our first meeting, for example, I know that my physical appearance was a mere footnote in your mind, of no relevance. You have always placed a higher premium on an individual’s mental gifts – an inclination which does you credit.”
“In that,” Holmes said slowly, refusing to cast his eyes in my direction, “I fear I must disappoint you. Your appearance, was, in fact, the first thing to catch my attention.”
And now, it was my turn to shake – I turned to the tea set, for something to do with my hands, as my mind raced… It is only natural, I told myself, mindlessly spooning sugar lumps into a teacup, that it should be so – Negros are not to be found on every corner, in London, and he gravitates to unusual things like a moth to candle flames, I know this, it is foolish to be distressed—
Holmes tugged on the sugar bowl gently until I released it, and then he repeated, hesitantly, “It was your physical appearance that first struck my notice. But… but not for your color… W—John,” he said painfully, looking anywhere but my face, “rather for your—for your beauty.”
I turned to stare at him, stunned, and he skittered away to the window, hands dancing across random objects, tapping a glass flask here, flicking a lampshade there.
As I watched him, his fluttering hands, the shadows on his face as he kept it turned away from my gaze, my heart steadied in my chest, and I found the words to speak.
“I cannot say the same,” I told him dryly. “I confess that the bullet which I was tasked with extracting from your chest was, understandably, foremost in my mind. It was quickly followed, in my notice, by your sheer bloody-mindedness in refusing anaesthesia, and then by a sort of wonder and amazement at your ability to unleash quite apt and creative streams of bon mots upon any and all persons in the vicinity, all while enduring a metal instrument digging through your pectoral muscle.”
Holmes’ mouth twitched in half a smile, but he still kept his eyes fixed on anything but my face.
I gathered my courage and said, “I regret to say that my appreciation for your own… that is to say, it came gradually, and so I must—beg pardon for my tardiness. In returning—in returning your regard. Although I suppose that since I did not know that there was, in fact, such a regard to return until this moment, it is not entirely—”
Thankfully, Holmes saved me from my babbling. Gun calluses that matched my own pressed gently against my face, and the sharp smell of Holmes’ chemicals surrounded me as Holmes paused for just a moment, just long enough that I could have pulled away, had I the slightest desire to do so, and then he dared a kiss – swift, virtuosic and dangerous, like the man himself.
“The door is not even locked,” I whispered, although thankfully, the curtains were all pulled tight.
Reluctantly, I pulled away to remedy the aforementioned situation, but Holmes tugged on my sleeve, and I turned back.
Awkwardly, he said, “Although it is true that, in matters intellectual, I do hold a certain pride, however blameworthy, in my own capacity, I would not have you think me unaware or unappreciative of your own not inconsiderable talents in that sphere, nor indeed, your far superior talents in matters military, artistic, moral—”
“Be silent before you do yourself injury, Holmes,” I said fondly. “I know perfectly well who I am and of what I am capable. I should hardly have achieved the position which I now enjoy without such knowledge.” And it was true – I was able to turn my back on men like Clark because I had, entirely through my own skill and fortitude, carved out a place for myself – a profession, loyal clients, a respectable home and a completely unrespectable side business as a detective’s partner. It was not perfect, but it was far beyond the most delirious and far-fetched fantasies of my father’s generation, and I owed it to no man but myself.
Feeling quite bold, I brushed another kiss across his raggedly bitten lips.
“You’ll upset the natural order of things,” I whispered, smiling. “Don’t you know that it is always I who comes to your rescue?”
Holmes’s eyes were bright with affection when I stepped back, toward the door. “I shall endeavor to remember that,” he said gravely.
“See that you do,” I told him, and locked the door.