Lestrade carries the telegram around in his pocket all day, the one from Watson that promises a visit that night. He's received several others of the same variety, these last few frustrating weeks, and, for each of those, another, explaining why Watson cannot come after all. Lestrade can hardly blame his lover for obeying a direct request from the Pope, and he's been chafing against the many indignities perpetrated on the folk of the East End by the odious Wilson and his "canaries" for years; he understands why Watson has been busy lately. But Lestrade has a good feeling about tonight, and takes the precaution of closing the curtains when he gets home before settling into his armchair to wait.
Nor is he disappointed. A few minutes before eight-- not quite half-an-hour later than the doctor said he'd be-- a key turns in Lestrade's door, and then it's locked again, from the inside. Lestrade has only just time enough to fold down a corner to mark his place before he's being straddled by the handsomest GP in London and marveling, for the ten thousandth time in little more than a year, at his own good fortune. Then Watson is kissing him with admirable thoroughness, and Lestrade stops thinking of anything and just feels.
Lestrade knows he will never, ever get tired of this. Watson's kisses are like his stories: devoid of frills, but addictive and good. It surprises Lestrade not at all that this man of words is also capable of prodigious non-verbal feats with that clever tongue, but it was something of a pleasing shock to learn that the doctor is even more expressive when he's been driven to the point of entire incoherency. It's not an easy thing to accomplish, temporarily erasing the English language from John H. Watson's brain, but Lestrade has absolutely no intention of resting until he's managed it.
From the firmness of Watson's left hand on the back of Lestrade's head, the boldness of his right as it strokes Lestrade's chest, the insistence of his hips as they grind into Lestrade's, the inspector knows that Watson wants it fast and hard, but in Lestrade's opinion it's been far too long for that, and Lestrade gets his own way in this arena more often than anyone would expect. He deliberately rests his hands on Watson's calves, stroking and kneading that irresistible muscle, and returns Watson's kisses almost lazily, though with an appreciation which he wouldn't disguise if he could. It's a few moments before Watson fully realizes Lestrade's reticence; Lestrade feels him tense in the moment when he does. Watson may be a man whose lips never breathe a word of complaint, but Lestrade suspects he's found that easier on account of the fact that 'disapproval' is an attitude which his body is uniquely suited to express.
"Really, Gabriel, I'd almost think you weren't happy to see me," Watson murmurs, pulling his lips away from Lestrade's and applying them to the thin strip of exposed skin above Lestrade's collar.
"But only almost, as you're far too intelligent a man to truly think any such thing," Lestrade replies, sighing in fragments as Watson exalts his neck. "We have all night, John. I intend to enjoy you."
Watson's lips move up to brush dryly over the shell of Lestrade's ear. "I promise, you'll enjoy me either way. I simply propose that you enjoy me sooner. And more than once, for preference."
Lestrade's self-control slips by a notch-- and then by another as Watson sucks his earlobe into his mouth. Fortunately, he's well-provisioned where self-control is concerned, and two notches nearer to frantic and unrestrained grasping after ecstasy occasions only the shifting of his hands a few inches up Watson's legs, to circle on the backs of the doctor's thighs. "Forgive me, John. I'm not a writer; I don't use my words like you do yours. Savor, is the one I want. I intend to savor you. Savor implies slowly, does it not?"
"It does indeed." Watson's grin is obvious in his tone, and in the way he nuzzles into Lestrade's neck. Lestrade is reminded suddenly that the man he loves is half-a-decade his junior, which it's all too easy to forget given everything Watson's done and seen. The fact that Watson only seems to grow younger the longer their love-affair continues makes Lestrade want to burst with pride.
Watson pulls back then, to take in the brightness of Lestrade's dark eyes and let Lestrade appreciate the sparkle in his blue ones. "As requests go, allowing you to savor me is not one I can easily refuse."
"I don't recall requesting," Lestrade retorts, smiling, and moves his mouth to imitate Watson's recent explorations. He lifts one hand to nudge Watson's collar down an inch and his lips and teeth tug eagerly at that bit of hidden flesh. He's always loved to mark Watson's fair skin, the primal possessiveness of the action appealing in so many ways, and it seems particularly important tonight, when too many days of separation have effaced all trace of him from the doctor's body. Of course, it's not a pleasure he'd indulge in if Watson didn't like it, but the doctor very emphatically does. Only once he's earned one of his favorite sounds-- that half-voiced exhalation through the nose that Watson does so very well-- does Lestrade move his mouth to Watson's ear in his turn. He licks his way around the rim, in a motion that might be called lapping if it used more than the tip of Lestrade's tongue, and then continues, a hint of a growl in his voice, "I said I intend to savor you. I didn't plan on giving you much in the way of choice in the matter."
Lestrade isn't sure whether it's his words or his tongue in Watson's ear that provokes the bout of wonderfully wanton squirming, but the 'why' doesn't seem to matter very much just then. "And suppose I'm not inclined to quietly cooperate with your programme for the evening?" Lestrade cannot, in fairness, quite say that Watson gasps the words, though the truth of the matter is near enough that he'd have some excuse if he did.
"You're always free to leave, of course, if you have a mind to," Lestrade replies devilishly, rapidly unbuttoning Watson's collar and first button and pulling off the doctor's cravat, allowing him to swipe his tongue liberally across Watson's neck, "but we both know that you won't."
A tremor shivers its way through Watson, but once it has passed he pulls back, sliding his legs off the chair. "Won't I, though?" Lestrade's hands brush upwards as Watson stands, over the firm, delicious curve of his buttocks and to his lower back. Watson's not taken half a step backwards before Lestrade yanks him forwards again, and then Watson is sprawled across Lestrade's lap with Lestrade's lips pressed against his. It's a no-holds-barred kiss, their tongues sparing no effort to tease the other into frenzy, and it occurs to Lestrade that possibly Watson is winning their battle of wills after all. "No," Lestrade replies, definitely growling now, "you won't."
Lestrade stands, pulling Watson with him, intending to retire to the bedroom where the empty vastness of his bed (compared to the armchair, anyhow) will afford them sufficient comfort for the sort of leisurely lovemaking he still hopes to achieve. Watson seems to be complying, allowing Lestrade's hand in his to guide him for a few steps, and then it becomes very clear that he isn't. Lestrade hasn't the foggiest notion of how he ends up flat on his back on the sofa, nor of how his arms get tangled in his jacket-sleeves and pinned underneath him, and the few moments he spends struggling out of that constrictive fabric permit Watson to undo his waistcoat buttons and untuck his shirt. "John!" he splutters-- unwisely, for Watson merely grins at the flustered surprise in Lestrade's tone, clambers atop him, and pushes his shirt up to kiss Lestrade's stomach enthusiastically. Lestrade is particularly sensitive here, as of course Watson knows, and the fact that his first stirrings of arousal are suddenly much more than first stirrings convince Lestrade that Watson is not so much winning as he's already won, and that the only thing to do is enjoy his own defeat. Watson's hands are splayed over Lestrade's sides, and slide downwards, tickling the dark hair below his navel as Watson reaches for Lestrade's trouser buttons. Watson is none too scrupulous about where he lets his fingers stray as, with a slowness that is a definite nose-thumbing at the inspector, he undoes those buttons one by one. The combined sensations of those lips still ravishing his stomach and those fingers brushing haphazardly over his wool-covered erection reduce Lestrade's breathing to an uneven pant.
When Lestrade's trousers are entirely unfastened, Watson grins at Lestrade and levers himself northwards to slide his tongue between the inspector's lips, taking time enough to drive Lestrade mad with the taste of him. "Do you still want me to stop?" Watson teases, his fingers moving casually back and forth across the thin linen of Lestrade's drawers, absently half-tugging the drawstring at his waist.
"I never wanted you to stop, and I'm man enough to admit that the idea of slowing down may have begun to lose its appeal," Lestrade replies. He registers with some surprise that Watson's jacket and waistcoat lie on the floor beside them, presumably removed during their kiss; this is not the first time that Lestrade's hands have gone on without him in undressing Watson, but it never fails to give the inspector a bit of a start. Still, there's no sense in wasting the opportunity. He slides his hands beneath Watson's shirt to toy with the doctor's nipples. Watson practically purrs, rewarding Lestrade's agile fingers by wrapping his own decidedly around the inspector's prick.
Lestrade groans, simultaneously loving the feeling and cursing the thin layer of fabric still separating him from Watson's bare skin. He moves one hand down to release himself from his underthings and finds his hand slapped away by Watson's. "Keep your hands where they are," Watson commands. Lestrade thinks he knows where the doctor picked up that imperious tone, though not its use in this particular context.
"But I want..."
"I know what you want," Watson says smoothly, in a voice that adds several layers of erotic implication to the words, "but you're not going to get it for nothing."
"Name your price," Lestrade replies, fighting not to strain his hips into the hand that still surrounds him. "I don't say I'll pay it, mind," he adds, unwilling to entirely relinquish control of the situation, "but I don't mind hearing your terms."
Watson grins, and leans down to rest his forehead on Lestrade's. "I'd simply like you," he begins, and then interrupts himself with a kiss to Lestrade's lips, "to promise me," and then another to Lestrade's jaw, "that once I've got you undressed," and then to the underside of Lestrade's chin, "you'll bend me over the arm of the sofa," and then to Lestrade's collarbone, "and..."
There's a knock at the door.
There are certain survival instincts common to all London inverts-- or, at least, common to all unincarcerated London inverts over the age of sixteen. Perhaps the most essential is this: there is no time for self-pity. Watson and Lestrade have lived long enough to know this lesson by heart, and spare not even time enough to share a regret-filled glance before their fingers are flying, Lestrade's doing up Watson's buttons as Watson's straighten Lestrade's hair, pulling themselves and each other back to respectablity. There is an art to losing an erection, and within seconds they need have no fears on that front, but there are a few indications not quite so easy to hide, Lestrade thinks as he heads for the door. His own thin lips betray Watson's kisses far more clearly than the inspector would like, and with Watson it's the eyes, pupils which will not quite un-dilate. But only the most suspiciously-minded observer would read these slight clues into their true story, and, as he turns the handle, Lestrade's fear hovers at no more than twice the level of its perpetual background hum.
The door is barely open before Sherlock Holmes, laden down by a valise, a gladstone, and Watson's medical bag, has managed to slither his way inside, though without any elbowing of the inspector who ought, if the laws of physics are anything to go by, to have been in his way. "Hurry up and pack, Lestrade! We have, " Holmes drops his burdens unceremoniously and withdraws his watch from his waistcoat pocket, "twenty-three minutes to catch the last train of the night."
Holmes closes his watch and looks up to find that, if looks could set a man afire, he'd be twice ablaze. "Did I not make myself clear? The situation is rather urgent. I would be very much obliged, inspector, if you would pack yourself a bag--two or three night's worth of necessities--with all due haste."
The glaring continues. Holmes slumps, sighs, and rolls his eyes dramatically. "Forgive my rudeness, gentlemen. Good evening, Inspector Lestrade. Good evening, Dr. Watson. I am frightfully sorry to interrupt your evening--which, in despite of the facts that you," to Watson, "have a bite-mark sticking just above your collar, and you," to Lestrade, "have your waistcoat buttoned askew was, I am sure, being spent in activities no more risqué than sipping sherry, discussing philosophy and whittling toys for poor orphans--but I fear I find myself possessed of a rather important case, and in need of the sorts of assistance which the two of you are so admirably and uniquely suited to provide. Would it be asking too much of me to implore the favor of your company for the next few days--with the assurance that I have already communicated with the inspector's superiors at the Yard, and obtained their compliance?"
Lestrade allows surprise to overcome his annoyance for just a moment. "You asked them for me specifically?"
Holmes quirks his lips into that half-smile of his. "You are marginally less incompetent than your fellows, and Watson would have pined without you."
Lestrade is startled into a laugh, but disguises it as cough within a moment and turns, heading for his bedroom. "Where am I packing for, Mr. Holmes?"
Half-smile becomes full-smile as Holmes calls, "Shropshire, my dear Inspector, within a stone's throw of Cheshire," and walks to the sofa to sit beside Watson. "And you, Watson? Will you be accompanying us on this little adventure? I suspect it shall not be well-fitted for publication--I know that both you and your editor are wary of murder cases with female victims--but perhaps you will consider the chance to avenge the death of a lady sufficient inducement to pardon me for disturbing your privacy, and consent to lend a hand." Holmes' unfaded grin makes it clear that he has no doubt whatever of Watson's answer.
"You are insufferable sometimes," Watson replies, rather more fondly than not.
"Slander and calumny, Watson! I am insufferable most of the time, and I'll thank you not to forget it," Holmes teases, straightening Watson's cravat.
"I'd not be likely to!" is Watson's quick retort. They are both grinning when Lestrade returns with his own valise. As always, he's just a little uneasy, stepping into the personal universe that Holmes and Watson carry around with them. The passing of months has left the inspector ninety-nine-and-a-half percent reconciled to this aspect of his own love-life and, considering that he started out at no more than half-comfortable, that's a considerable improvement. There's still one nagging corner of himself which narrates, continually and in detail, Lestrade's many deficiencies in comparison with the enigmatical genius whose name will keep company with the doctor's until Judgement Day and beyond, but when Watson turns, and his smile shifts to the one he saves especially for Lestrade, the inspector feels himself slide that much nearer to complete acceptance, and smiles back.
Holmes turns too, and leaps from the sofa with all the manic energy that possesses him at moments such as this. "Ah, excellent, Lestrade! Now, as I think I mentioned, we really haven't any more time to waste, so let us be off, and I'll inform you both of the particulars once we're safely on our train." He extends a hand to Watson, who takes it gladly, levering himself from the sofa with an uncharacteristic gracelessness. His leg is bothering him, Lestrade realizes, the epiphany accompanied by a swarm of emotions: guilt, for surely having had a hand in exacerbating Watson's discomfort; concern over his lover's pain; annoyance, that Holmes should have noticed before he did; and gratitude, too, for the detective's no-nonsense assistance.
There's no time to think about it further, as within a moment the other two have joined Lestrade by the door. Holmes is gathering up the bags as Watson opens the door for him, and then, just after Holmes has passed through, Watson slams it shut, pushes Lestrade up against it, and bestows upon the inspector a kiss of such unabashed lust that it makes Lestrade's head spin. Watson breaks off the embrace almost as abruptly as he began it, pauses one moment only for a shamelessly self-satisfied smirk, and then pulls the door back open to face the thoroughly irate consulting detective on the other side. "Terribly sorry, Holmes; the door must have been caught by a draft," Watson deadpans from behind glittering eyes.
"It most certainly was not," Holmes scowls, pulling the pair of truants through the door and tugging them in the direction of the cab he's had waiting.
"Would you rather have been in the room?" Watson asks, not elaborating partly because they are in public, and partly because there is no need, as the hint of a flush that creeps onto the cheekbones of the annoyed and embarrassed consulting detective proves.
"I shall never understand this foolishness," Holmes grumbles, as he and Lestrade lift the luggage into the cab and follow Watson inside.
"If there weren't something you didn't understand, Mr. Holmes, we'd hardly believe you were human," Lestrade replies, recovering finally from the effects of those hungry lips on his, and feeling himself much more good-natured in their wake.
It's nearly impossible to shock Sherlock Holmes, but as Lestrade has been learning in these past months of study, the detective can, in fact, be surprised. Like all his strong emotions, he shows it subtly, the evidence little more than a quick darting of the eyebrow and momentary flickering of the eyes, and Lestrade would wager he's one of only a handful of men in the world able to correctly read the signs. He observes those tells now, and the quickly suppressed wriggling of the lips which assures him that the words were appreciated. When Holmes answers with an, "I never suspected that Watson's penchant for flattery would rub off on you, Inspector, no matter how much time you spent together," Lestrade is therefore able to take it as the good-natured ribbing that it is, and reply with an impudent, "Who's to say I meant it as a compliment, Mr. Holmes?"
Holmes actually laughs at that. Lestrade finds, unexpectedly, that he values the sound for its own sake, and not just for the grin it provokes from Watson. And then there's a moment of discomfort, as neither of them is quite sure what to do next, before the doctor comes to the rescue as usual. "Holmes, did you bring my stethoscope? It wasn't in my bag; I left it..."
"On your desk. Really, Watson, I had thought you trusted my powers of observation extended as far as the contents of my own sitting-room."
"When it comes to my possessions, perhaps, and yet somehow when you're looking for something of yours, it tends to end with the strewing of papers over every available surface and Mrs. Hudson breaking into hysterics. Which means more to me than to you, I suppose, as I'm the one it falls to to console the poor woman."
"Poor indeed! She gets three times more in rent from us than she could expect from any other set of lodgers in London."
"And earns every penny..."
Lestrade settles back into the seat of the cab, knowing that Holmes and the doctor can and will go on like this until they're installed in their compartment on the train. Their comfort with each other, that fitting together that so few people experience in a lifetime, is most obvious now, and it's moments like this that Lestrade feels for the former Mrs. Watsons.
Lestrade hadn't known of the first marriage until long afterwards, but then, almost no one did. Watson had met Miss Lucy Ferrars (the similarity of the name to that of Miss Lucy Ferrier of 'A Study in Scarlet' had, Lestrade was informed, resulted in some confusion between Watson and his agent) in early August of 1887. The circumstance of his rescuing her from what ought to have been a deadly case of pneumonia--helped along by a beautiful face and delicately curvaceous figure beneath a mane of chestnut hair--created a climate of romance which a far less susceptible man than Watson would have been hard-put to resist. If Holmes had not happened to be away for over a month investigating the Sophy Anderson case, Lestrade has no doubt that the detective would have found a way to put an end to the thing before the bells could chime. But Miss Ferrars, perhaps already suspecting that the detective would prove a natural enemy, managed the thing quite neatly, and scheduled the wedding for the very day after Holmes' forecasted return. Holmes had only just time enough to be washed and shaved and shoved into a top hat and dove-grey silk waistcoat before being dragged off to serve as best man.
If this coup inclined Mrs. Lucy Watson to rest on her laurels, however, it oughtn't have done. Within three days of the wedding, Holmes managed to acquire just the sort of case which Watson was powerless to resist, one which appealed to his sense of chivalry, his writer's instincts, his protectiveness of Holmes, and his love of mystery all at once. Similar cases came thick and fast for the next two months, and the poor doctor's apologies to his wife grew more and more profuse, until finally, late in November, Lucy surrendered and stormed out, claiming she saw more of her mother than her husband-- which, Lestrade thought, had very probably been true. Lestrade couldn't fathom the idea of Watson as a divorcé, but Watson had corrected him on that score. How they had managed to get the thing annulled Watson hadn't shared (Lestrade suspected that one or two of the favors owed to Holmes by half of London had been called in), but annulled it had been, its very existence dislimned, and Watson had returned to Baker Street with his tail between his legs. Lestrade is sure that it occurred to Watson at some point that Holmes had been choosing his cases very carefully during those short months of matrimony; what he isn't as clear on is whether this revelation came before or after the breakup of his domestic less-than-felicity. Watson was surely intelligent enough to see early on that his marriage to Lucy would have been a miserable one in any case, and Lestrade wouldn't have been at all surprised to hear that the doctor had known precisely what he was about.
Lestrade's thoughts are briefly interrupted by an appeal from Watson in the matter of, if Lestrade has been following the conversation correctly, a dispute over whether Holmes' less-than-sterling organizational habits have ever impacted his casework. "I can tell you that I've wished more than once for a copy of that index of yours at the Yard, Mr. Holmes, as I've never known a more up-to-date and better-kept guide to crime and criminals. On the other hand, there was also the time you sent me that note about just what Vamburry was hiding in his wine barrels on the back of your landlady's shopping list--this was before your time, doctor, when he lived on Montague Street--and she came storming into the Yard to retrieve it. Lord, she was a horror, that woman."
"I was hoping, Lestrade, that you might have had the goodness to forget that episode," Holmes groans, as Watson laughs at the image.
"No such luck, I'm afraid, Mr. Holmes," he replies with a smile, and then Watson is asking for an account of the case, in which Lestrade had barely been involved, and they are off again. Lestrade is glad to have been included in their conversation to even that degree; he knows that Watson makes an effort in that direction, when he thinks of it, and even Mr. Holmes has been known to deliberately defer to the inspector on occasion. It's one of the many signs that he has been accorded a privileged status in their world, of the sort bestowed heretofore only on Mary, Watson's second wife.
The tale of just how that union came to gain Holmes' approval is a good one, and Watson had told it to Lestrade with all the aplomb of a natural storyteller who has, before, lacked for an appropriate audience. It seemed that, some weeks after the dissolution of his marriage to Lucy (who was now, Watson had mentioned, the wife of an innkeeper in Kent, mother of three sons, and very happy), on a dull evening by the fire, the doctor and the detective had taken it into their heads to draw up a jesting list of the necessary qualities for any future Mrs. Watson. Among these were included bravery, a love of books and music, a sweet temper, near-infinite patience, and, just to be sure, a certain affection for Mr. Holmes as well. "It was Holmes who insisted on fine features and good taste in clothes-- not because he thought physical attraction of any significance, but because it would have offended his sense of aesthetics to spend any too much time with her otherwise," Watson had recalled with a smile. The description of this female paragon was put away in a drawer and forgotten, until July of '88, when Miss Mary Morstan appeared in the sitting room at Baker Street and it occurred to both men--simultaneously, Watson claimed--that there might be at least one such woman on earth after all. The following day Watson had retrieved the list from its hiding place, only to find a new requirement penciled in at the end in Holmes' flourishing hand: "Not too rich." After that, the sinking of the Agra treasure into the Thames had seemed an omen, and neither man had fought the thing any longer. Wary after his first brush with the marital state, Watson had wooed Miss Morstan for rather longer than his published narrative suggested, but by the spring of '89 they had said their vows, and neither had ever regretted it for an instant. Holmes, acknowledging that here, at least, was a worthy adversary, had demanded only so much of Watson's time and attention as he considered irrefutably his due, and Mary had accepted the sharing of her husband without complaint. The woman had indeed been a fitting match for Watson, Lestrade admits grudgingly.
For all her virtues, however, Mary had had one quite literally fatal flaw: narrow hips. The first pregnancy had resulted in a late miscarriage, the second in a prematurely born son who died within a few hours and left Mary within inches of that state herself. Watson had attempted to convince his wife that they ought not to try again, and managed to delay the inevitable for some months, but on this single point she was stubborn. Her third pregnancy had begun just after Christmas of 1891, and ended a few weeks short of the one-year anniversary of Holmes' disappearance. Mary was buried beside the misshapen thing that would have been her daughter. For six weeks afterwards, Watson did not speak a word.
It was November of that same year that marked the strange beginning of Lestrade and Watson's affair, though only two Aprils later did they admit that it had become something more than friendship mixed with the occasional night of physical pleasure. For the past fourteen months, since Holmes' return, the three of them have been slowly adjusting to the change. Lestrade has no pretensions to beatitude; he cannot be another Mary Watson. If Lestrade were a woman, he has no doubt that he and Holmes would have been at each other's throats from the first, as Lestrade is unwilling to sit with hands folded in the background of Watson's life. But Lestrade's sex has, surprisingly, eased their way (they may, Lestrade thinks, be the only pair of male lovers in Britain who find their relationship simpler as a result of their shared gender), as has his profession. The percentage of Holmes and Watson's cases in which Lestrade plays a rôle has grown larger and larger, and, as quiet nights by the Baker Street fire are easily stretched to include a third tumbler and an extra cigar, Lestrade finds that there is often room for him there, as well. Not that it's been completely painless. Last October was one of Mr. Holmes' slow months, resulting in a monumental fit of the sulks, and that had been a strain for everyone. Watson was afraid to leave Holmes alone with his cocaine for more than an hour or two; Lestrade was loath to visit Baker Street, unable to stand Holmes' exaggerated and sometimes spiteful melancholy for long; and Holmes was plain and simply miserable. Then there were periods like this one, when heavy caseloads with private clients or on cases assigned to other Yarders left Lestrade and Watson with precious little time together, much less time alone. Still, overall, the thing seems to be working out, Lestrade thinks, odd and often unwieldy though it may sometimes be. He is glad beyond expression for that.
Lestrade manages to catch Watson's eye for a moment, and tries to let his look tell the doctor what he's feeling at this moment, but before Watson can respond their cab has stopped, and the next several minutes are spent in hauling luggage, buying tickets, and bundling themselves and their things into their compartment--a task accomplished just as the train is pulling away from the station. Watson chooses the seat next to Lestrade, leaving Holmes a side to himself. Lestrade isn't quite sure what that means, but he isn't sure what the opposite would mean, either, and decides it's not worth wondering about.
They have a long journey ahead of them, Lestrade knows. If they're lucky, it'll be two in the morning before the train gets them to Whitchurch--which, if Mr. Holmes' request to the stationmaster was any indication, is their destination--and he's only half-optimistic about managing to sleep away any of the trip. Not that he'd been planning on much sleep tonight inat any case, Lestrade thinks wryly, but he'd hoped it'd be for a rather more pleasant reason. Still, there are things to do now, and that's the way it is. "So tell us about the case, Mr. Holmes," Lestrade says, settling back into his seat.
Holmes grins. "Not one for wasting time, are you, Inspector? Watson, have you your..." Holmes turns his eyes, only to find that Watson's notebook is already in his hand. "Capital. Very well, then." He leans back, and steeples his fingers in that overly dramatic way. Lestrade cannot help but be a little annoyed--more than he would be, he suspects, had he never read Watson's descriptions of Holmes' hands in the Strand--but he's caught, as always, just the enthralled audience that Holmes wants him to be.
"This evening, just after you left, Doctor," Lestrade can tell that Holmes addresses the tale to Watson from instinct, rather than malice, and tries to take no offense, "we received a caller at Baker Street. He had come at the request of one Lady Isabel Stapleton-Cotton, Viscountess Combermere, whose daughter, The Honourable Caroline Stapleton-Cotton, died yesterday morning. Miss Stapleton-Cotton had been an apparently hale and hearty young woman, seventeen years of age. She was found just before eight A.M. in the center of the maze in her family's garden, lying facedown, fully dressed, with her limbs and features contorted--though not into any recognizable semblance of either horror or pain. When the local constabulary arrived on the scene, the only footprints near the body were those of the deceased, and of the undergardener who had found her, and she was surrounded by soft ground for some feet on all sides. According to my visitor, there were no apparent wounds or distinguishing marks about the body. From this, and from the report of the family doctor, it was concluded that she died of a seizure followed by a heart attack, which took place between one and two hours before the body was discovered."
Here Holmes pauses a moment, stretches a bit. It's his way of testing that he still has their attention, and, though all three recognize the ploy, it accomplishes its purpose. "Obviously, such a medical calamity would be an odd thing to befall so young a lady, particularly one who until henceforth had been the very picture of health. Though Miss Stapleton-Cotton had no known enemies, the doctor therefore thought it prudent to test the contents of her stomach for common poisons. He found none. But the death was so sudden that the Viscountess is convinced that there must have been foul-play, and thus are we called in."
There is silence for a moment. "That's it, Holmes?" Watson asks. "A girl's heart stopped, her mother refuses to accept the fact that these things sometimes simply happen, and you think it cause enough for us to investigate?"
Lestrade knows there must be more to it than that--not only from the glint in Mr. Holmes' eye, the one that signals that Watson has, as usual, asked the right question, but from the fact of Lestrade's own presence. A Viscountess might have sufficient pull to have a Yarder sent out on nothing more than her whim, but not in nearly so much of a hurry, and not, Lestrade thinks with a certain pride, anyone so senior as himself. Nor would Mr. Holmes take the case if there weren't something in it that interested him. Lestrade doesn't suffer fools lightly himself, but his tolerance is tremendous in comparison with Mr. Holmes'.
"My dear Watson," Holmes replies, with a smile, "surely you see that, even from this rough sketch, there are certain features of the case which are not quite in the usual way. To begin with, what was Miss Stapleton-Cotton doing in the gardens so early in the day, not to mention such an out-of-the-way corner as the center of the maze? The death took place no later than seven, which is, in my experience, not a typical hour for young ladies of that class to be out and about. The time was particularly odd for a Monday, and given the fact that the lady took her ramble unaccompanied. Might we not guess, then, that she had some particular purpose in mind in seeking out that secluded spot--an assignation, perhaps? If so, what became of her intended visitor? Secondly, you must admit that it is extraordinarily uncommon for healthy girls to drop dead with no warning whatever. And even if the cause were entirely natural, would would you not suspect that she should experience some symptoms in the hours or minutes leading up to the attack? If so, is it truly likely that she should have left her bed so promptly and fled the house--or have remained in the grounds, if she was there when the first signs made themselves felt? No, the whole thing is odd, and I have a strong suspicion that, once I manage to get my hands on the evidence, it shall prove odder still."
"A suspicion," Watson asks, with more than a hint of skepticism in his tone. "That would be enough to push you into taking a case which already interested you, but not one with no other features of interest. What aren't you telling us?"
There is something coy about Holmes' aspect, his enthusiasm thinly-veiled. Lestrade knows this look, too, one of the many that provokes in him a twofold reaction. It's Holmes' "I'm about to say something that will impress Watson" expression, and, while the jealousy Lestrade will never completely suppress flares at the thought, he's not so selfish as to wish to deny Watson the genuine pleasure that the doctor finds in admiring surprise. Besides, Lestrade suspects he'll be not entirely unaffected himself.
"I admit, Watson, that I felt perhaps less entitled to dismiss the case out of hand than I should usually do as a result of the identity of our client," Holmes says, his excited anticipation of Watson's coming question evident in every syllable.
Watson frowns. "A viscountess, Holmes? You've turned down dukes with equanimity before. Why should this case impress you on that score?"
"I should like it on the record, Watson, that I am not any more likely to refuse a case from a duke than I am one from a dustman-- though if the duke in question insists upon treating me as though I ought to grovel for the privilege of speaking with him, I might perhaps take more pleasure in sending him on his way. But I was not referring to Lady Isabel, in fact; I was speaking of the locum she sent in her stead. I flatter myself that I am not easy to awe, but there is a point when even my patriotism is aroused." He pauses once more.
Lestrade's patience, never extensive, finally wears out. "Do you intend to string us along for the whole journey, Mr. Holmes, or just the first hundred miles?" He wants to add a 'get on with it, man, for God's sake,' but there are lines which lesser mortals do not cross with Sherlock Holmes, no matter what liberties the detective permits his Watson (or what liberties said mortals are permitted by his Watson).
Holmes is in a sweet enough temper, now, at the beginning of a case, that he reacts with amusement rather than wounded dignity. "I think I mentioned, Lestrade, when you asked our destination, that the estate whence we are bound--Combermere Abbey-- is just on the Shropshire side of the border with Cheshire. That otherwise irrelevant detail was at the forefront of my mind only because of the identity of this evening's visitor, Lady Isabel's old friend. He was really quite the perfect gentleman, the Earl of Chester."
Watson frowns. "And an Earl is so very much more impressive than a Viscount?"
The name has struck a chord in Lestrade's mind. Just after Watson stops speaking, it comes to him, and he finds himself hissing in surprise. It occurs to him that the doctor will be thoroughly unhappy to have missed that caller, though the idea that Watson should have been with Lestrade instead at that particular moment does something funny to the inspector's chest Or perhaps the sudden roiling of his insides is simply the result of nerves, at being charged, even secondhand, with a commission from such a source.
Holmes raises an eyebrow at Lestrade's obvious shock. "Very good, Lestrade!" he commends. "Really, Watson, you are very much behindhand. The Earl of Chester, you see, has one or two other titles which you would surely find more recognizable."
"And will one of you consent to cease tormenting me, and inform me of what those familiar names might be?"
Holmes looks at Lestrade. The inspector returns the gaze for a moment, and then realizes that Holmes is offering him this moment in the limelight. It may be the most flat-out astonishing thing that has ever happened to Lestrade. He shakes his head instinctively, feeling just how far outside the natural order it would be for him to accept. Holmes smiles slightly, and Lestrade knows he's won himself an increase in Holmes' esteem by the refusal. Holmes turns back to Watson.
"Our visitor this evening, my dear Watson, was Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne."