It began innocently enough.
Well, no, as a matter of fact, it did not begin innocently enough, not by any normal standard. The fact that I feel justified in starting off my narrative in such a way is proof only of how very far from innocent it eventually became. It actually began with Holmes smoking a cigarette on the left side of his bed, in a state of some considerable nudity, while I stretched languidly on the right side, in a state of greater nudity still. Not, then, a particularly innocuous scene, but far more so than the one prevailing in that vicinity only a few minutes before.
I propped myself up on one elbow and gazed at Holmes. It was not the adoring gaze of a sated lover, as one might suppose, but a contemplative, curious sort of look. Holmes turned towards me and shot me a glance of much the same variety.
"I was wondering," Holmes said, and then stopped, taking another long drag from his cigarette. Moments stretched into seconds, and it became clear that Holmes had no intention whatsoever of continuing the thought. I considered refusing to play along with his game, for such it undoubtedly was, but at that particular moment, I wasn't inclined to quibble over trifles.
"What were you wondering, Holmes?" I asked obediently.
I flatter myself that no man on earth knows Holmes's expressions better than I. At times, I can read volumes into the twitch of a finger or the curve of an eyebrow. This particular lopsided fragment of a smile meant, 'I know very well that you are simply humoring me, my dear Watson. You let me get away with far more than I deserve, you know, though I suppose I do have my little ways of making it up to you.' What he said was, "I was simply starting your thought for you, Watson. When you look at me so intently, with your knuckles against your cheekbones, it inevitably heralds a sentence beginning 'I was wondering.'"
I could not decide whether this comment merited a smile or a roll of the eyes, and settled for both. "If it makes you happy, my dear Holmes, I suppose I can oblige you. I was wondering whether anyone who happened to witness the goings-on in our rooms this last hour or two would ever again be able to credit the myth of Sherlock Holmes, the man of infinite self-denial. If I were to use the word 'attack' to describe your behavior this morning, I should, if anything, be understating the case."
It is a very great misfortune in life to love a man who becomes still more attractive when he smirks. "I do not believe that I heard you complain at the time."
"Nor am I complaining now-- though I feel it requisite to point out that, if I had wished to register an objection earlier, I would have found it nearly impossible to do so."
Stretching one arm theatrically to the side and bringing the other to his midsection, he gave a far more elegant bow than any seated man ought to be able to manage. "Forgive me, my dear doctor; I seem to have been quite swept away by your charms." Reaching towards me, he traced a delicate finger up my arm and neck, as far as my hairline, so lightly that our skin hardly met. Oversensitive as always in the moments after the conclusion of our carnal encounters, I shuddered under his touch, and he leaned over and drew my lower lip between his teeth, nipping and nibbling.
"You'll burn the sheets off the bed, if you don't put out that cigarette," I commented, as soon as I could get a word in edgewise. Without turning his eyes to the fireplace, he tossed the still-burning stub in that direction, landing it neatly in the middle of the grate. The moment it left his fingers he was straddling me.
"I can think of one or two other methods of burning the sheets off the bed which I would very much prefer," he murmured, bending his head to that vulnerable spot at the crook of my neck which he knows so well.
"This is precisely what I mean. Anyone would think we were a pair of schoolboys, not men in our forties..."
"I often wish we had been acquainted at that stage of our lives, my dear Watson. Only think to what good use we might have put the infinite stamina of youth."
"I'd have died of exhaustion before my twenty-fifth birthday. Honestly, Holmes, even if I could tell anyone about this aspect of our relationship, no one would believe that, of the two of us, you are by no means the superior in self-control."
At this he abruptly stopped and pulled back. "I should hardly go so far as that, Watson. The fact that I do not choose to deny myself the pleasures of the flesh when we have the necessary privacy and time hardly indicates that I am incapable of doing so."
I managed a very passable imitation of his most supercilious manner. "If you say so, it would be ungentlemanly of me to doubt it."
"Which is to say, you do not believe a word of it." He crossed his arms and gave me a look I love to see, the one which reminds me that I am still, on occasion, one of his mysteries.
"I should merely point out that, short of putting the thing to the test, we are neither of us entitled to assume ourselves better able to resist the other's charms."
Holmes wrinkled his nose. "I shall graciously pass over any mention of syntax unbecoming a man who calls himself a writer and instead say only this: we ought, then, to do precisely that."
"Do precisely what?"
"Put it to the test, my dear Watson. You claim that your capacity to resist my powers of seduction is greater than mine to resist yours; I maintain that the opposite is true. The only solution which I can devise for this little disagreement-- which, if permitted to fester, would no doubt threaten the very annihilation of good relations between us-- is to make a practical trial of the thing."
I shot him a skeptical glance. "By which you mean, you are bored senseless now that the Saunders case is cleared up, and you need a suitable distraction."
He rolled smoothly off of me and settled back on his own side of the bed. "Nonsense, John. I could understand you accusing me of seeking the pleasures of your bed as an antidote to ennui, but denying myself those same pleasures is hardly the sort of plan designed to alleviate boredom. Perhaps you are merely attempting to put me off because you know that your boast is an idle one..." He directed his gaze at the sheets, flicking away an imaginary bit of ash, the corner of his mouth curling into a perfect arabesque.
I paid no heed to his shameless ploy, but I cannot deny that I was intrigued. "Just what sort of test do you suggest?"
He glanced over his shoulder at me, that irritatingly alluring little smile still playing about his lips. "Oh, a very simple one, in my opinion. I propose that, beginning this very moment, we attempt, in the most literal sense of the phrase, to keep our hands off of each other-- no touching of any kind-- and that whichever of us is first to waver in his resolve must declare himself the man of weaker will. Of course, neither of us should like to see such a thing go on for too long, so perhaps we ought to put a clock on the thing... shall we say a week? At which point, if neither of us has weakened, we shall simply be forced to declare that we are both men of iron resolve, and leave it at that."
I considered. Holmes's playful periods are rather uncommon, but he throws himself into them with the same abandon that characterizes all of his moods. And if this little exercise would indeed prove a distraction for him-- which, in spite of his claims to the contrary, I did not doubt-- then it was a far more harmless diversion than many of his leisure-hour pursuits.
It would not do, however, to give in to his scheme immediately; I learned long ago that living with a man as commanding as Holmes requires one to assert oneself whenever possible, if one is to keep one's sanity the rest of the time. "I might be amenable to the scheme, with a few caveats and emendations."
"By all means, doctor; your input is always welcome," he replied, with exaggerated politeness.
"First of all, I think it would be unwise for us to insist upon an absence of physical contact when we are in mixed company. Our friends-- and, for that matter, anyone who has read my stories-- are well aware of your affinity for tactile methods of expression, and might well notice a sudden change in those habits. Besides, pointed attempts to avoid touch while in public would be suspicious even if we did not generally spend a goodly percentage of time in some sort of contact. I think, for the sake of security, we must stipulate that the ban on touching be lifted while in public places."
"How precisely would you define a public place?"
I raised an eyebrow, wondering why he considered that detail significant, but replied with, "Any location where there is not a closed door between us and the rest of the world, I suppose."
Holmes considered for a moment. "Very well," he acceded at last. "Anything further?"
"One other thing, yes. As the scheme stands now, all we really need do is sit back and do nothing for a week. We have passed weeks without anything more than the most casual contact before, when your caseload was particularly heavy, and, while I'd certainly have preferred it otherwise, I do not seem to recall the suffering being too intense to bear. We ought, in my opinion, to make the test a more difficult one by increasing our incentive to pursue more... active methods of seduction."
A look of intrigued amusement made a brief appearance on Holmes's face at this last phrase, but his voice was quite nonchalant as he stated, "And you already have a plan to achieve that end."
"I simply suggest that we increase the stakes. Pride is all very well, but a more definite wager would throw the thing into starker relief, as it were."
Holmes grinned. "This is why your chequebook remains locked in my drawer, Doctor. Very well. If I am the first to succumb to temptation, I shall... hmm. I seem to recall you mentioning that you had hopes of infesting still more of the globe with that romanticized drivel of yours. Should I be the one to yield, I shall do my part to further your ambitions in that vein; you shall hold your in hand within the month my own translation of one of your novels into French, for publication in Paris. Would that suit you?"
It was a surprising choice of forfeit, more personal than I should have expected him to propose, but, short of offering to toss his morocco case into the dustbin, I could imagine no better prize than the idea of my tales becoming ours, his words and mine at once. There was something so beautifully intimate about the notion. Not that I could mention that, of course; I should have caught him scoffing at me and my fanciful imagination for weeks afterwards. "I suppose it would do; your French is undeniably impeccable. Shall I choose something in the literary vein, too, then? Very well-- if I lose, I'll give in and write up that damned Sumatra case for the Strand. It was one of your finest pieces of deduction, there's no doubt, no matter how little the incident flattered me."
"It was perhaps two inches longer than any garden-variety rodent, Watson; you really cannot blame me for my amusement at your choice of adjective..."
"I hate the blasted creatures," I grumbled, nestling testily into the bedclothes. "Is that a yes, then?"
"That seems adequate," Holmes replied solemnly, though with twinkling eyes. Leaning down, he plucked his waistcoat from where it was draped across the foot-board and withdrew his watch from its pocket. "As it is now eleven fifty-two, shall we set noon next Sunday as our ending point?"
"That sounds sensible," I replied. "Does that mean that we have eight more minutes now in which to do as we like?"
He was suddenly very near. "That depends, John," he said, the words gliding from between his lips. "How much do you want those eight minutes of touch?"
I knew very well what my response must be. "Oh, I can take them or leave them, really," I replied. "It would be pleasant to steal one last fortifying sort of kiss, to be sure, but it's hardly of the essence."
And then he was smirking again, curse him. "If you truly believe that a kiss is the most I could do for you in," he glanced down, "seven minutes and twenty-three seconds, you are vastly underestimating my capabilities."
It was a good first test, I told myself, in resisting the sorts of statements that would usually induce me to throw him bodily against the nearest available surface (vertical or, for preference, horizontal) in an effort to bring as many parts of us into simultaneous contact as humanly possible. "What a very generous offer, Holmes," I replied calmly. "I think, however, that I must regretfully decline. The next time I get my hands on you, I intend to inflict the sort of ecstasy requiring seven minutes even to begin to comprehend, and hours thereafter to appreciate fully. I should not like to find myself so limited in my scope as that."
So saying, I slipped from the bed and began to pull on the various garments that had been scattered in every direction over his bedroom in our earlier haste. By the time my feet touched the ground his look was one of amused indulgence, but I had not missed the split-second glance of absolute hunger; I knew that I had scored a hit. There was a hint of a swagger in my step as I headed for the door.
"I shall be at my desk if you want me, Holmes. Have you any intention of leaving that bed to-day?"
"That depends," he replied, lifting his cigarette case from the nightstand, withdrawing one and lighting it. "If I stay here long enough, do you suppose you'll come back and join me?"
"I rather doubt it."
"Then perhaps not," he said, taking a long drag from his cigarette. "I have no particular objection to remaining abed long past the customary hour, but it is the sort of practice which improves with company."
"Oh, you may certainly have my company, if you'd like it. All you need do is come find me and take me by the arm. I'll follow docile as a lamb, after that."
"If I wanted docility, Watson, I should have married some pretty little slip of a girl long ago."
"Then I think all three of us--you, I, and that unfortunate hypothetical female--can be glad that you do not," I grinned, and slipped from the room. "And I intend to remind you of it, the next time you accuse me of abominable bossiness for attempting to persuade you to eat," I called over my shoulder, just as the door swung shut behind me.
That first day, we had little time for our game of seduction. Holmes had barely emerged from his room, perhaps a quarter of an hour after I left him, when Mrs. Hudson brought up a telegram for me. One of my patients--there were not many at that stage of my life, but a few had stayed with me since my days in active practice, and the locals of Baker Street tended to seek me out even without a red lamp--had just gone into labor, and my presence was urgently requested. Holmes merely gave me a little smile and passed me my bag (though taking care that our fingers should not brush against each other in the exchange) as I hurried out the door.
Mrs. Mitchell was a strong woman and had carried to term, and so the birth was not the fearful ordeal for all concerned which that process can be and so often is. But the child was also her first, and a stubborn little thing, which made for many hours of sweating and coaxing and cries which the poor woman tried valiantly to suppress before the squalling infant finally made her appearance in the world. I left mother and daughter healthy and slumbering, the latter in the arms of her glowing father, and hailed a cab for Baker Street. For all that my profession is, broadly speaking, not a happy one--and that my career, in particular, has not often shown me the brighter side of the physician's trade--there are days when the rewards of medicine are tremendous, and never more so than when I have the privilege to aid in the beginning of a new life. It was, therefore, with a happiness that more than matched my exhaustion that I dragged myself up the stairs of Baker Street just as the clock was chiming ten.
Holmes was not in the sitting-room when I arrived. I had seen his hat and stick in the hat-stand as I walked in, so I did not doubt that he was at home, but I thought at first that he had retired to his room--unusual at that hour, particularly as I had not yet returned, but not unheard-of. I had just collapsed into a chair, however, when I noticed that the bath-room door (or, rather, one of them, the one which faced the sitting-room rather than the stairwell) was open. I could not help noticing it, in fact, as Holmes called out to me from within, "Returned at last, Watson? And all well, I think, if your tread is anything to go by, which it always is. Come along, my dear fellow, and have your turn--you deserve to get the most out this hot water while it lasts, after such a trying day."
As he spoke, I had managed somehow to lever myself from my chair and make my way to the doorway. He could not have been more than a few minutes in the bath before I arrived, as the steam still hung heavy in the air. He was turned away from me, so that all I could see of him was the sleek expanse of coal-dark hair, the flawless white neck, the slightly too-prominent shoulder blades. Or that was all I could see at first, at any rate, until he stood. Although it has been more than a decade since Holmes and I first became lovers, the sight of a thousand thousand droplets of water cascading at once down his back was still more than enough to make my breath catch and a shiver pass through me. If I had not been so very tired, it should have done a great deal more than that.
It was all for my benefit, of course, but Holmes, consummate actor that he is, can be both coy and brazen at once with more skill than most men can apply to either the one or the other. Not until he had swaddled himself thoroughly in his bath sheet did he turn to look at me, his eyes meeting mine in the most casual manner imaginable. I tried very hard not to notice the heightened colour in his cheeks; bathing is one of only two activities on earth that brings a flush to Holmes's face, and I could not help but be reminded of the other. "Well, Watson?" he asked. "Whatever are you waiting for? While cold water would certainly do something for the blood under your fingernails, it should not go nearly so far to easing that ache in your shoulder. Just like a woman. Not twenty-four hours in this world, and already young Mistress Mitchell has acquired the art of making a nuisance of herself."
"In fairness to the fair sex, I do not believe that the delivery should have proved less difficult had the child been a boy," I said, as I began to undress. Holmes was right-- a warm bath would do me a world of good--and, in despite of the fact that it was what he had bidden me do, I did not see how shedding my clothes could hurt my chances in our little duel of wills. "How did you know it was a girl?" I asked, as I sunk into the water with a little groan of pleasure.
Holmes's eyes brightened, the way they always do when I ask him to explain himself. When most people ask those same sorts of questions, it provokes only annoyance or ennui. I have no very definite notion of how my interest first came to mean so much to him. Now, of course, it is because I am his Watson, and the desire to impress me has become a part of his nature. That it should have been so before we knew each other well--that, perhaps, I might always have been his natural audience, even before we met--is surely an overly fanciful notion. That does not stop me believing it.
"You are always a bit more sober and reserved after delivering a boy--thinking, no doubt, of the responsibilities that will someday be his, the hard work and dedication which he must devote if he is to grow to be worthy to be called a gentleman--though in neither case is your manner lacking in joy. When your newest patient is a daughter, however, your happiness is of a freer, more light-hearted variety. Even if I were no great observer of other men, Watson, I believe I know your face well enough that I should be able to manage that particular deduction."
I almost forgot myself so far as to reach across the room and grasp at his hand. But I restrained myself in the end, and beamed at him instead, an unabashed and undeniable smile.
He did not smile back, not fully, but he allowed his lips a bit of latitude at the corners. Then he knelt beside the bath-tub, his hands on the rim and face hovering only a few inches from my own.
"Have you any plans for tomorrow, Watson? Patients? A meeting with your publisher, perhaps?"
He knew very well that I did not, but he wished to hear me say it, and I permitted him the pleasure. "None whatever, my dear Holmes."
"In that case, I believe I shall turn in early," he replied. "It will require all the strength which a good night's sleep can provide, to have those lips before me all day long, with no case to prove even a partial distraction, and yet to resist the urge to kiss you."
"You might end this silly game now, and spare yourself that torment," I remarked.
He did that thing with his eyes that makes it impossible to look away, even (and perhaps especially) for me. "Shall I, then?" he said softly, satin words sliding frictionlessly from his lips. His face neared mine with agonizing slowness and he turned his head, moving our noses out of each other's paths, until he was so near that the air between my lips and his seemed compacted, pressed into solidity between us. His eyelids began to droop, curtaining eyes grown suddenly dark and out-of-focus, and my lids, as though tethered to his, followed their motion, until we hovered, our eyes closed, only the merest fraction of an inch from a kiss. For seemingly endless seconds, we both remained absolutely still.
"Good-night, Watson," he whispered without sound, his breath on my lips a caress, and suddenly there was a rustling of cloth. I opened my eyes just in time to watch him disappear from the bath-room.
I seemed to have temporarily misplaced my breath. "Good-night, Holmes," I finally managed to croak out, just before his bedroom door swung shut. And, though I could neither see nor hear him, I had not the slightest doubt that he was, once again, wearing that smirk.