My friend, Sherlock Holmes, is a very independent creature. He is also very particular in his habits, and prefers to do things in his own way at his own time. This is beautifully effective when he solves an untold number of murders and petty crimes and protects the citizens of London from themselves, but, at times, these characteristics can make living with the man very demanding. I have had people remark on my incredible patience for putting up with him all the time— with all of his eccentricities, his violin-playing at all hours, his chemical experiments in the sitting room, his ceaseless demands on my time— but to be truthful I enjoy it. When I met Sherlock Holmes in the spring of 1881 I was very much in need of companionship, but I could not stand to be around the normal denizens of London. I needed something different, someone unusual, and Holmes was that perfect solution.
He will not admit it as readily, but he needed me just as much. He was without an anchor when we met, and my presence and companionship has settled his nerves as much as his has mine. His work keeps him busy, but I would like to imagine it is I who keep him happy.
Nevertheless, he does not appreciate his independence being compromised for any length of time. He can be simply horrible when he is sick, even with the mildest of colds, and a bout of bad weather that halts the trains or slows the hansoms down sends him into fits of muttering rage. So when he incapacitated himself through an accident of chemistry, his docility in the face of total helplessness surprised me to no end.
It was late in the evening on the twenty-third of September, after dinner, and Mrs Hudson had brought us our last pot of tea for the evening and bid us goodnight. I was reading the paper, which I had not yet had a chance to peruse as Holmes had been using it for the cover of some experiment he was doing on the penetration of sunlight. He had allowed me to unwrap it from the great bell jars he had dominating our table, and I had skipped a few stories out of necessity, since parts of them were still stuck to the jars.
Holmes was working at his desk, the acrid smell of his chemicals faintly present in the room. I had opened the front window a few inches to let in some air, and the night breeze kept the flat from growing too unpleasant. It was growing colder as we descended into autumn, but I enjoyed the touch of chill on my neck in contrast to the warmth of the room.
I was engrossed in a sensational story about a child being rescued from the Thames by a dog with only three legs when I heard the tinkling of broken glass and Holmes's sharp gasp and curse. I lowered the paper to look over the top, and saw my friend standing upright at his desk, his chair shoved back, his hands held up in front of him. He stared at them, horror on his face, and then he looked at me and said, quite calmly, "Watson, would you fetch me the pitcher of water from the wash stand?"
I had seen that particular shade of grey in a man's visage before, and I threw down the paper and sprang from my seat. I hurried to the water closet for pitcher and basin, and, returning, pushed aside the ruin of glass on his desk to set them down. Holmes held his hands over the basin and I began to pour water over them slowly. He grunted through his teeth.
"Holmes," I said, running the stream of water back and forth across his palms, "what was it, exactly, that you were just working with?"
"Phosphoric acid," he said, wincing. "It is nothing, I will just–"
"You will not," said I. "You will stand where you are and let me minister to you for the moment. What concentration was it?"
"Not high," he said, shaking his head, "quite dilute, actually, but– ouch! Be gentle!"
"Don't lie to me, Holmes," I said, still pouring slowly, "it won't make it better." The pitcher was almost empty and the basin almost full, and I couldn't very well pour the contaminated water back over his hands.
"It was dilute, on my honour," Holmes said. "Well, somewhat dilute." He was still very pale, and his brow was pinched with pain. I turned the pitcher over on end, letting the final rivulets of clean water run out, and put it down. Holmes drew his hands close to his chest, gritting his teeth.
"Stay here," I said. "I'm going to draw another bucket."
Before he could protest– and he might have done, too, for although he defies most expectations of manners and propriety he is still a gentleman at heart, and he has never thought it appropriate, while we are home and in our own guises, for anyone but a servant to fill a bucket from the pump in the yard– I hurried out of the sitting room and down the stairs. I went through the hall to the kitchen, found the pails that Mrs Hudson used to fill our baths, and opened the taps. Within a few moments the water was running freely, and the buckets filled quickly.
When I returned to the sitting room, hoisting the buckets somewhat awkwardly up the stairs, Holmes was standing where I had left him, his hands clutched to his waistcoat. His expression of agony dissolved the moment I stepped into the sitting room, but I had seen it all the same.
"Come, into the wash room," I said, and ushered him in. "Stand just there, Holmes, by the bath."
In the fifteen or twenty minutes it took me to empty both buckets as slowly as I could over his palms and into the bath tub, the tension in his body eased somewhat. When they were both finally empty, his skin washed clean of the acid, I took Holmes by the elbow to steer him back out into the sitting room.
"Now sit," I said, and, to my astonishment, he did. I collected my medical bag from its home by the sitting room door, and knelt on the floor in front of the settee. "Show me," I said, and he held out his hands.
The blistering had already begun, to my dismay, and both palms were mottled and red from wrist to fingers. I dug around in my bag for a moment and came up with a roll of clean bandage. Holmes placed his right hand in my outstretched palm without question, and I gently and loosely wrapped both hands.
"This is not conducive to my experiment," he said finally, when I had tied the last careful knot and sat back on my heels.
"No," I agreed, "it certainly is not. How is the pain?"
"Passable," he said. He was staring at his hands and he didn't meet my eyes. I might insist he take a glass of brandy to bed with him if that expression persisted. He was normally very good at hiding his emotions, but perhaps that merely meant that he was suffering considerably more discomfort than I could see.
"The acid is eating at my desk," he said suddenly, standing up, and hurried over to the abandoned experiment. The acid that had spilled had indeed begun to work its way into the wood, leaving little holes like termites might do. Holmes looked helplessly between his bandaged hands and the mess of the desk, and then back at me.
"Right," I said. "Sit back down, Holmes, and I'll deal with it."
With his direction I found a neutraliser among the bottles in the shelf above his desk and stopped the acid in its tracks. Then I wiped the broken glass into the wash basin with a wet cloth and closed the stoppers on all of the other open bottles.
"It's ruined," he said mournfully, watching me with his brow furrowed. "That was rather time-sensitive, and now it's all a waste."
"I'm very sorry for that," I said, "but I'm afraid your hands were rather time-sensitive as well."
He sighed and frowned, glaring down at his bandaged appendages. "I suppose you're right, of course."
I looked at the clock. It was only a quarter past nine, and if Holmes wasn't going to be entertained for the next two or three hours, I was in for a world of trouble. He was holding his hands gingerly above his knees, not resting them there, and I knew I had to do something.
"Shall I read the paper to you?" I asked, sitting back down in my chair.
Instead of answering, Holmes rearranged himself with a dramatic heave on the settee and raised his eyebrows at me expectantly, so I picked up where I had left off, with the story of the tripedal dog.
"I'm going to bed," he said, "I can't stand it anymore. You have a delightful voice, as always, my dear boy, but I can't listen to another word."
"Brandy," I said, getting up to fetch it for him. "It might help you sleep." I offered him the glass and he went to take it, but his fingers refused to close around the tumbler.
We stared at each other, nonplussed.
"You'll have to bring it in," he said, and turned on his heel.
I followed Holmes into his bedroom. It was not the first time I had been in there, but it was not I who had the habit of bursting in upon my flatmate without a moment's notice, demanding his wakefulness and his attention. He had been in my bedroom much more frequently.
I liked his room. We had shared digs for quite some time now, and our belongings mingled comfortably in the sitting room. His room, however, was like a shrine to his previous work, and he had pictures of criminals up on the wall like the portraits of relatives. He had books piled everywhere, on almost every surface: an organic extension of his sensationalist library that occupied one corner of the sitting room. He had a bookshelf near the window crammed full of souvenirs, either given as gifts to him by clients or taken from the scene of the crime in memoriam.
And then, among this array of tributes to his glorious brain, there were his personal effects. For a man so meticulous in his hygiene, he often astonished me in his untidiness. His clothes spilled out of his tallboy, haphazard and in danger of wrinkling. A pair of portraits of himself and his brother as children sat perched on top of a stack of dog-eared notebooks, gathering dust. Abandoned teacups lined the windowsill and his shaving kit lived all over his nightstand. He never, ever made his bed. Secretly, I adored that I was one of the only people who knew what appeared to be his true nature.
I left the glass of brandy on the bedside table and ducked out of the room again when Holmes shooed me off, waving his bandaged hands. I set about tidying up the sitting room, inspired by the chaos in his bedroom, and was just putting the screen up in front of the fire when Holmes appeared again at his door.
"Watson," he said, "I don't suppose you'd..."
I waited a beat. "Yes, Holmes?"
"Help me get undressed," he said, all of the words rushing out of him on a sigh. He was blushing, I realised.
"Oh," I said, "I hadn't thought of that."
"Neither had I," Holmes said, and stepped back to let me into the room again. "But I– damn it all, Watson, I can't move them a bit." He gestured violently with his hands, and then cringed and hugged them close to his body again. I took pity on him, though he would have been furious to hear it.
"All right," I said, "all right, no need to fuss." Teasing him was usually a better course of action than coddling him. "Where is everything?"
"Pyjamas in the drawer," he said, "no, Watson, top drawer, there's a good fellow. I promise there's an organizational scheme here, but I have never needed it to be so careful as the organization of my files."
"Apparently not," I said, pulling out a wine-coloured silk pyjama set that I hoped would stand up to the growing seasonal chill. He nodded his approval and I lay it on the bed. "All right, up top first."
Holmes held out his arms like a child, and I began to undress him. He had been in his shirtsleeves and dressing gown when he had broken the flask, and so I did not have to struggle with a jacket or waistcoat. I slid the dressing gown down his arms and lay it with the pyjamas on the bed. Holmes's shoulders hunched a little against the chill of the room as he was deprived of that layer, and I moved around to his front again to unfasten his collar and cuffs, and begin to unbutton his shirt.
My friend is slender, but he is not emaciated. In fact, he is quite lithe and muscular, and, although he does not appear to be physically intimidating, besides his considerable height, he has a great deal of hidden strength in him. I was reminded of this as I unbuttoned his shirt and bared his firm, smooth chest. He swallowed convulsively as I undid button after button, and finally I was able to pull the shirt carefully down his arms and off over his bandaged hands. His shoulders and arms are equally powerful, and I secretly took a good deal of ill-advised pleasure in the lines of his bare back.
I stifled that voice in my head, however, the one that remarked so wickedly on how lovely he was, and retrieved the shirt of the pyjama set. It went over his head and covered his nakedness, and I was determined to forget it.
Then, of course, I had to face the placket of his trousers, and I hoped against hope that he would not detect the very faint tremor in my hands as I reached for him. The buttons came undone easily, and Holmes squirmed to help me as I pulled his trousers down around his hips. He kicked off his house slippers when I knelt, and stepped out of the trousers when I had dragged them low enough.
"This will do," he said, stepping away from me suddenly, now only in his drawers and pyjama shirt. He nudged the pyjama trousers off of the bed onto the floor and sat down, a look of determination on his face. It was as if he expected the blankets to cover him themselves, for he glared at them fiercely.
"Holmes, for heaven's sake," I said, getting to my feet and ignoring the twinge in my bad leg, "let me finish. I am a doctor, I have seen dozens of people naked."
Holmes raised an eyebrow at me, and I saw that he was blushing again. I wondered, with a sudden sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, if he knew my mind rather more than I'd thought.
I said, awkwardly, as if it would salvage the situation, "Hundreds, in fact, if you count the army. Which I do."
He smirked, relaxing. "Is that why they call you the scourge of three continents?"
My mouth dropped open in surprise. "Where did you hear that?" I demanded. My own face was flushing now, embarrassment and a secret sort of shameful pleasure heating me from the inside. I'd heard the moniker once or twice while I was in the army, and only once to my face after my discharge. A fellow I had served with late in the war had clasped my hand before I had been shipped back to England and said, Shame to lose you, mate, but at least the rest of us have a chance now that the Scourge is gone.
Holmes's smile grew, and he leaned back with a look of smug pleasure, like a skinny kitchen cat finding a place in the sunshine. "One hears things, Watson," he said, "when one runs into old companions of yours on the street at Piccadilly Circus."
"Lord above," I said. "No, Holmes, I was referring to the men I've treated in life or death situations." His insinuation about my activities in the boudoir was finally reaching me, and I blushed more deeply. "But if you must know," and now I was bragging, a sudden wild impulse to impress him– him, a man who cared nothing for physical intimacy or romantic notions– "the title is not in vain, although hundreds would be a bit of a stretch."
Holmes threw back his head and laughed. I laughed with him, somewhat relieved, and knelt again by the bedside. I pulled Holmes's socks off and tossed them in the direction of the rest of his discarded clothing. His bare feet were charming in their fragility, and the unexpected thought made me balk. I couldn't finish undressing him. He wasn't like one of my patients, not in the least. He was my friend, and if I betrayed myself, let slip even the slightest hint of unnatural affection, I would lose him.
I swallowed hard and said, "Lie back," as I stood. Holmes lay quietly down, tucking his feet under the tangle of blankets, and lifted his burned hands up to shoulder height, protecting them. I found the edge of the blankets and straightened them out, drawing them up to his chest.
"This is absurd, I hope you know," he said. "Thirty-two years old and being tucked into bed like a child."
"Hush, now," I said, turning down the light, "there, there."
He lashed out with one leg and kicked me. "I would strike you if I were not incapacitated."
I snorted. "And acting like one, too. Careful, Holmes, or I'll have Mrs Hudson bring you bread and milk for breakfast."
"You wouldn't," he said, horrified.
"No," I admitted. I stepped carefully in the dark, not wishing to crush anything important or expensive, and found my way to the door. "Goodnight, old boy."
"Goodnight," he said. As I closed the door behind me, I heard him add, "We shall never speak of this, Watson, I'm warning you."
Laughing, I went upstairs to bed.
"Thank God you're here," Holmes said, sitting up suddenly. "Fetch my dressing gown, if you would, and do something about these hands." He held them out to me, forlorn and imploring.
"Good morning to you, too," I said, but I braved the tumble of his room again for the discarded garment. When I returned, he turned his back and I slipped it up his arms and settled it on his shoulders.
"Thank you," he said softly.
I sat beside Holmes on the settee with my medical bag and began to unwrap his hands. They were still red and blistered, although a few of the smaller blisters had burst and oozed. This time, I applied a layer of ointment to keep the bandages from sticking, and began wrapping them loosely. Hopefully this would allow him to move them a little and fend for himself. When I had finished, though, he tried to flex them and winced.
"It's no good," said he, standing up and crossing to the mantle. When he reached it, I realised at the same moment he did that his habitual morning pipe would be just as difficult as breakfast had apparently proven. "God damn it."
"Come eat first," I said, "better not to smoke on an empty stomach."
"Don't be absurd, I do it all the time."
"Precisely," I said, "now sit down."
It turned out that he could balance a piece of toast on his motionless hands if I buttered it for him, and although it was particularly ridiculous to watch I made sure he finished every bite. The tea was more difficult, since we couldn't quite manage a comfortable pace of my tipping the cup and he sipping at the same time, but none of it ended up in his lap so I counted it as a success.
By the time I had finished my own eggs and toast, Holmes had abandoned his breakfast in frustration and turned his attention to the post. It, too, proved to be more than he could manage, and he knocked the whole pile onto the floor with his little finger as he attempted to sift through it. He stared at the mess, as if he couldn't fathom how it had got there, and then up at me.
"Holmes," I said slowly, "we might have to entertain the notion that you are well and truly invalided and will need help with everything for a week or two."
"That's ridiculous," he said, reaching out with his foot to nudge at the scattered papers on the floor. He slipped one house slipper off and picked up the nearest telegram with his toes curled around the edge. He brought his long leg up and laid the telegram on the corner of the table elegantly, and gave me a pointed look as he lowered that leg again.
I swallowed hard, blushing. I have seen Holmes in the throes of many an athletic activity, but I had never imagined he'd be so limber so early in the morning. It sent my mind alight with suggestive possibilities and my heart racing, and I stood up quickly to break the tension.
"I'll fetch your pipe, now," I said, like an idiot, and did so. He opened his mouth and gripped the stem between his teeth so that I could light it, and then he pulled his legs up to his chest, dug his heels into the edge of the chair, and began to puff like a steam engine.
I picked up the mail from the floor and went about opening it. The telegram Holmes had gone to such pains to fetch turned out to be worth the effort. It was from Lestrade, dated only an hour earlier, indicating that he had sent a cab for us and should we like to come to Brampton for a bit of murder and fun.
Well, the Inspector didn't quite put it that way, but that was how I relayed it to Holmes.
"Holmes," I said, putting the telegram down, "your hands. You won't be able to–"
Holmes's glare stopped me, and it was then I understood how docile he had been until now, and how unusual that was. He was not going to be hindered by an injury that did not confine him to his bed, and so it was useless of me to attempt to keep him safe. He opened his mouth to speak, without unclenching his teeth, and I had to reach across and take the pipe away so that he could.
"Watson," he said firmly, "I appreciate your concern for my person, and I acknowledge that as a doctor you are obligated to nag. However, I would be very much more grateful if you would instead accompany me on this endeavour and assist me in my investigation. It has been, as you know, some time since my last case of particular interest, and I am loathe to let this one slide simply because I have incapacitated myself."
I paused to let him stew in it a moment or two, and then said, "Very well. You know best, of course."
He scowled at me, but I subdued him with a smile. As much as I hated the idea of him galivanting around London with his hands in bandages, I knew no amount of wheedling or cajoling, scolding or demanding, would keep him indoors. He needed problems, work, and he wouldn't be kept from them. As ever, I would be his faithful follower, and today I would be his fingers as well.
"The cab will be here any minute," I told Holmes. "Should you care to get dressed?"
Holmes looked down at himself thoughtfully, and shrugged. "Yes," said he, "I suppose I ought to." He sighed deeply and unfolded himself from the chair. He was still holding his hands carefully up to mid-chest height, palms facing him, protective. He was looking particularly dishevelled and unkempt, his normally smooth hair sticking up in the back and flopping in his eyes (as endearing as that was, I imagined it was also incredibly irritating), and his sharp jaw was shadowed with the faintest growth of stubble. I realised I had never seen him anything but clean-shaven, and I found myself picturing him in front of the mirror, leaning close to inspect every angle.
Into his bedroom we went once again, and I opened all the drawers I could find, looking for shirts and underclothes, trousers and socks and vests. His jackets were hung up, thank goodness, but what the qualifications of each drawer were I couldn't pinpoint.
Holmes directed my search with a bored tone that just barely hid his displeasure about the whole situation, and I cobbled together a respectable outfit in a few minutes. A test awaited me– I would now have to undress my friend completely and dress him again, with a cab on the way and Mrs Hudson ready as ever to receive it, and do it without making a fool of myself.
I steeled my resolve. I had been to war. A little platonic nudity was not something I ought to be hesitant about.
Holmes, for his part, seemed unconcerned. He stepped carefully out of his drawers and into the new ones, and I shifted behind him in order to make all the proper anatomical adjustments while still appearing to give him a sliver of privacy. I found myself blushing hotly when he murmured, "To the left, if you don't mind," and I obliged him with as gentle a nudge I could manage. I stayed out of his sight once I had tied the flies, and slid his shirt up his arms from behind. I had to face him, though, to do up the buttons; he only tipped up his chin to give me room and said nothing.
Then it was socks, trousers, braces, cuffs and collar, and waistcoat. Every step of the way gave me some reason to become flustered, and I scolded myself internally even as I enjoyed every moment. His feet were charming; his thighs firm and strong; his shoulders muscular; his wrists delicate and his throat like ivory; his waist lithe. Finally, finally, we were finished, and by then I was certain he would have deduced my worst secret.
I was in love with Sherlock Holmes. Nay, I am in love with Sherlock Holmes. I have been afflicted for some while, and I will be for an eternity hence. He is unlike any other man I have known, and although I have found myself drawn to my own sex from time to time, Holmes has been the only one to hold my heart as well as my lustful gaze. I oscillated between terror that he might discover me and desperate desire that he would do just that; then we two could tumble into bed and rut like schoolboys, kiss until our lips were numb, curl up in one another's arms and fall asleep together. I was in very deep.
Holmes was looking at me with a strange expression, and my heart was hammering in my chest. He was faintly flushed, which showed against his fine, pale skin, and his pupils were dilated. He held my gaze for the barest moment, and then he turned away and pointed with one bandaged hand to his jacket from the night before.
He cleared his throat and said, "No need to stand on propriety with Lestrade, of course."
I retrieved it, steadying my hands deliberately, and slid it onto his shoulders.
"I will be back in a moment," I said, and hurried out the door and up the stairs to my bedroom.
Lord above, I was in such trouble. I closed my door behind me and leaned my forehead against the smooth wood. A few calming breaths to slow my pulse, and the quick swipe of a handkerchief across my brow, and I was presentable again. I might have been aroused, seeing him mother-naked, but I had been too nervous the whole time to appreciate it. I wasn't sure I would last the week. I couldn't dress and undress him, take care of his every need, without giving myself away. His every need.
Downstairs once more, I apologised to Holmes for my abrupt exit, pretending I had left my favourite pen in my bedroom and had wanted to take it with us when we departed.
"Oh, here it is," I said, finding it on the desk, and Holmes raised an eyebrow at me, unimpressed.
As the clock on the mantle struck ten, we heard the bell downstairs ring, the door open, and Mrs Hudson greeting the cabbie. Holmes sat up from his slump in the settee and was standing by the time the soft rap came. I stood from the desk and opened the door.
"A hansom," Mrs Hudson told us. "Come from Scotland Yard."
"Yes, yes," Holmes said impatiently, his bandaged hands in the air. "Off we go, Watson."
"Very good," Mrs Hudson said, and turned back down the stairs.
Holmes glanced at me, hesitating suddenly. "You don't mind," he said, sounding hopeful and apologetic at the same time.
"I do mind," I corrected, "but you knew I would when you accepted the case, so it does not matter overmuch. I will do what I can," and I opened my palms to him, "but you must promise to be patient."
He smiled. "I promise," he said. "As long as you are not tiresome."
"I promise!" He flashed me a little, secret smile, and my heart fluttered. I looked away, down at his hands.
"How do they feel?"
"Stiff," he said, shrugging, "and sore. I know the burn isn't deep, but it feels like it got into my bones."
I said, "When we return, I will look at them again. For now, be gentle. Come, let me put on my coat and we'll go."
The house in front of which we stopped was a white, three story townhouse with red shutters and trim, a neat set of stairs up to the front door, and a bay window. Its door was open, and Inspector Lestrade stuck his head out only moments after we'd arrived.
"Good morning, Doctor, Mr Holmes," the Inspector said, beaming. "Lovely to see you again, of course; how's the narrative coming?"
"Well enough," I said. Lestrade loved the idea of being immortalised on paper, even at the risk of looking something of a fool. I had told him I wouldn't publish for some time, not until the sensitive details of each case were no longer dangerous to our clients, but he asked after my drafts all the same.
"Watson," Holmes barked from behind me, "do stop dawdling there in the doorway; Lestrade, let a fellow come inside."
I stepped in after the Inspector, and Holmes followed closely. Lestrade and I shared a look that communicated our mutual understanding of Holmes's temper. He was usually brusque without being cruel, but an excess of impatience would send him in that direction.
"Tell me what's going on," Holmes demanded, peering about him at the foyer in which we stood.
"Well, it's a bit of a funny story," Lestrade began, ushering us into the room on the left, with the bay window, which turned out to be a study. There was the figure of a man on the floor covered in a white sheet, and a policeman stood guard over it. Lestrade glanced back at Holmes, and stopped short. "My goodness," he said, "what's happened to your hands?"
Holmes tucked his hands away into the sleeves of his greatcoat and scowled. "An unfortunate accident," he said, "but inconsequential."
"That doesn't look inconsequential, if you don't mind my saying." Lestrade leaned forwards, concern written on his face, and he looked to me for back-up. "Are you sure—"
"Damn your eyes, Lestrade," Holmes said. His glare would have wilted a lesser man like a stiff collar in summer heat. "I wouldn't be here otherwise, now, would I?"
"Apologies, Mr Holmes," Lestrade said, recovering himself and his balance and giving a placating smile.
Holmes frowned. "It is a minor inconvenience; pray, do not let it discourage you from your narrative of the events."
Lestrade coughed, folded his hands behind his back, and began.
"Last night, the proprietress of this house, a Mrs Reginald Thompson, went to bed at about eleven o'clock. She sits up and reads a bit before turning in, and she said the house was quiet at that hour: all of her employees were abed."
"How many employees?"
"Six," Lestrade said. "Three maids, a cook, a housekeeper, and a butler."
"And Mrs Thompson lives here alone," Holmes said, glancing around. "Interesting. Continue."
"Next morning, she comes down to breakfast, sends a maid into the study for her letter opener, and this chap is dead on the rug."
"Cause of death?" Holmes asked. I obliged his significant glance towards the sheet, and lifted it.
"Three stab wounds to the chest," I said, drawing the sheet down to get a better look. "Quite a lot of blood, here, Holmes."
"Excellent," he said. He stepped around the desk to have a look, and made a pleased noise. "Have you seized all the kitchen cutlery yet?"
"We have," Lestrade said, "but none of them have residue on them."
Holmes knelt, just outside the pool of dark, sticky blood, and peered closely at the grisly wounds. He couldn't put his hands down for balance, and so I reached out for his shoulder to support him.
"Not if they'd been cleaned," he said finally, and sat back on his heels. "Anything else?"
"No signs of a struggle," Lestrade said, looking around the room as if to remind himself. Holmes snorted, and to me he indicated scuffs on the floor where the desk had been recently moved and replaced. "No one heard a thing."
"Hmm." Holmes rose gracefully to his feet again, and began to pace about, peering at the floor. "Of course not." He paused briefly, crouched to get closer to whatever it was he saw, and stood once more. "I will need to interview the members of the household, and some time alone in this room would do me a great deal of good."
"Shall I start the interviews?" I offered, reaching for my trusty notebook and pen.
"Certainly not," Holmes said. He held up his hands, looking grim. "As efficient as that would be, of course, I need you with me."
"Mrs Thompson is resting," Lestrade said, "but I'll have her ready for you when you're finished. Stevens, out you go."
The stone-faced constable that had been standing guard nodded sharply and left. Lestrade gave me a last significant look as he closed the door behind him, from which I gathered nothing. I turned to Holmes.
"Four," he said. "But none of them worth anything until I have all the facts. Watson, you know better."
"Apologies," I said, smiling. "What can I do?"
"This man should be identified," he said. "Perhaps some enlightenment will come of that."
I risked the edge of the blood pool and knelt. At Holmes's directive, I began to manipulate the body, pulling at the man's ears, opening his mouth, unbuttoning his shirt, spreading his fingers. Holmes peered and 'hmm'ed to himself, his damaged hands folded carefully behind his. His eyes were bright with deduction, and not for the first time did I wonder what was going on behind them. We moved down the man's body, bit by bit. I emptied his pockets and came up with a half crown and sixpence, two rolled-up lengths of string, and a half-eaten biscuit. I unbuttoned the man's shirt to look more closely at the knife wounds that had ended his life.
Finally, when Holmes had got a good look at the fellow's boot laces and soles, he straightened up.
"Right," he said. "Take a note or two, would you?"
I fished out my notebook and pencil.
"This man is approximately thirty five years old, although I would estimate a margin of error of about two years. He is a professional thief— the absence of dirt under his fingernails, of course, and the callouses on his hands– who has lost his lock-picking set in some kind of scuffle, presumably the accident that brought him to his death. Someone in this house may have acquired a new way to get through doors." He frowned. "Strike that last bit. That's not proven yet."
I scratched it out.
"The murder itself— three stab wounds to the upper chest, as you say— was done in a hurry, see how shallow they are. The thief was surprised, perhaps interrupted. But as they were done from the front, we can say he was probably making an attack. No cuts on his forearms indicate that he was not protecting himself at the time of the murder."
I had not noticed that, of course.
"Now," Holmes said, "we turn our attention to the room." He began to pace again, and this time I followed him, picking things up and turning them over, moving books, holding his magnifying glass at the indicated angle. It took only a few minutes, and then he stopped in the centre of the room. "Somewhat pedestrian," he said, looking disappointed.
He smiled. "I'm sure you'll think it's clever in a little bit, if I hold off on telling you."
Damn. Not very challenging for his fast-working brain, but worth enough theatrically to keep him amused. I was glad for that, at least.
"Do you still want to interview the household?" I asked.
"I should like to talk to the lady of the house," he said. "If she is able to receive us. Lestrade will take the statements of the staff; you, I need by my side."
She was willing to receive us. Lestrade had begged her maid to rouse her, and she was waiting for us in the sitting room. She was younger than I had expected her to be, under forty, and I privately lamented the widowhood of a woman in the prime of her life. She was pale-faced but resolute, her jaw set with determination to see the interview through.
"Mr Holmes," she said, when we came in, "thank you for coming."
"My pleasure," Holmes said. She raised a hand for him to shake and hesitated when he did not react. They stared at one another for an awkward moment. "Forgive me," said Holmes finally, showing his bandages. "I have injured myself slightly."
"Mrs Thompson," I said, butting in, "supreme apologies for the trouble you've had. I am Doctor Watson, Mr Holmes's associate." When Holmes introduced me, it always sounded like an honour to be his 'companion' or his 'particular friend.' When I did it myself, it sounded daft.
She turned to me, and I shook her offered hand. "Doctor," she said, "a pleasure. I have so enjoyed your narrations of Mr Holmes's cases; I never imagined I would have one of my own to tempt the great man himself. I am ever so glad you're here."
"Few can predict this sort of situation," I said.
"Please, sit down."
Holmes sank into the chair across from her, and I took a seat by the fireplace. The sitting room was small, like the rest of the house, with a fireplace on the wall across from the window, and a spare assortment of family portraits hung above the mantle. The wallpaper was somewhat antiquated but well kept, and the carpet had seen the wear of the years. Holmes folded his hands carefully on his knee. "Madame," he said, "I would be very much obliged if you would tell me the facts of the affair."
"Hasn't the Inspector enlightened you?"
"He has, but I prefer to hear the story from your own lips, as you remember it."
Mrs Thompson took a breath, and began. She went to bed at her usual hour, eleven o'clock. She sat up and read for approximately thirty minutes, and then turned out the light and went to sleep. The household was already quiet by then— the maids, she said, usually turned in around ten, and housekeeper by ten-thirty.
"And you are the only occupant," Holmes interrupted, "upstairs, that is."
"Yes," Mrs Thompson said. "My husband died three and a half years ago, only a few years after our marriage. We had no children. My sister lived with me for a year after his death, but then she was married herself."
"Did you keep any valuables in the study?"
"Only a few things, and none of them of any particular monetary value. Gifts from my husband, from friends, that sort of thing. My jewellery is all upstairs in my dressing room, and the silver is kept in the pantry downstairs. Anything of great value I keep in Mr Thompson's vault at the bank. His family estate was not very large, but my needs are few. I draw on it quarterly."
"I see." Holmes glanced at me to see that I was still writing, and motioned for Mrs Thompson to continue her narrative.
"Well, I arose in the morning around eight, and was having breakfast in the dining room when the mail arrived. I usually open my post in the study, after my meal, but there was a letter from my sister that I wanted to read right away, and so I sent Maggie into the study for my letter opener. She came back screaming, unable to tell me what had happened, and Mr Simms had to have a look. He returned and told me the police would have to be called, because there was a gentleman lying dead on the carpet. So I sent him for a constable, the Inspector arrived a little while after, and then you arrived."
"What time did you call for the constable?" Holmes asked.
"Between a quarter and half past eight."
"And when did the Inspector arrive?"
"Half past nine."
"He sent for us immediately," Holmes said to me. He turned back to the widow. "Why had no one gone into the study before breakfast? It is October; one might expect you to have fires burning in every room, just in case."
"One of my maids, Beth, has been ill," Mrs Thompson said. "I asked that only the essentials be done as they are needed, until she recovers or we find a replacement. As I said, I only go into the study after breakfast, and so for the past few days the fire has not been lit in there until I am sitting down to my meal."
Holmes thought about this for a moment, his lips pursed, and then nodded. "All right," he said, "so Maggie goes into the study, finds the fellow on the carpet, and you call the police."
"Was anything taken?"
Mrs Thompson paused. "I don't know," she said. "I didn't look. The man who broke in is dead; should there be anything missing? It looks like a act of self defence to me, Mr Holmes— I only worry that the brave soul who protected my home with such vigour is afraid to come forwards for fear of the consequences." She looked significantly towards the door, where the butler no doubt waited for his summons.
"Please check and see if any of your more precious belongings are gone," Holmes said, standing up. "I think I have all the information I need for now. Thank you for your time. I shall take a look at the window from the outside, now, but I rather think we shall be going. Watson?" He strode out of the room before I could answer.
Mrs Thompson blinked, and I began to apologise.
"Not at all, Doctor," she said, waving a hand at me. "I have read your stories; he is as you describe him."
"He is," I admitted, privately adding, though not all of the time.
"Good day, Doctor," she said, and I saw myself out.
Eventually he straightened again, sighed deeply, and said, "Do you have a cigarette on you?"
I dug one out of my cigarette case, put it in the corner of my mouth without thinking, and lit it. Then I handed it over, and he took it carefully between his lips. Our eyes met, and we stared at one another for a long moment. The end of the cigarette glowed, and Holmes was the first to look away. He blew out a cloud of smoke from the other corner of his mouth, and I took the cigarette back.
"I have enough information for now," he said tightly. "I will make some inquiries, but I believe we can go home."
"Very well," I said. "Do you want this back?"
"You finish it," he said, dismissing me with a wave of his bandaged hand, and stalked away down the alley.
I smoked the cigarette where I stood, gazing unseeing at the window frame, almost painfully conscious of the fact that his lips had been where mine were now.
"Watson," he said, holding up his hands as if in reminder, "I must beg of you the services of my physician, once again."
"Are the bandages too tight?" I asked, stepping towards him in concern.
"No," he said. He was blushing. "It is quite another matter, of a rather more intimate nature."
"The tea, this morning, was perhaps not the most fortuitous choice."
I caught his meaning, finally, like the blundering fool I was. "Ah," I said, my own face heating once more. "Of course. I am at your service." And I would be professional, too, if it stopped my heart.
He turned on his heel, and crossed the sitting room to the door of the wash room, which was closed. He swore at it, and I reached past him to turn the knob. I closed the door behind us, and Holmes nudged open the commode lid with the toe of his boot.
"It's really just," he said, "that I can't undo any of the damn fastenings, and not that I— not that I need help, particularly— I am not entirely invalided—"
"Holmes," I said, cutting off his awkward fumbling, "whatever you need."
He looked up from the floor and met my eyes, smiling and embarrassed. It had been quite a while since I'd seen that particular expression on his face, and I couldn't help but smile in return. I reached for him, then, and began to unfasten his trousers with what I hoped was quick disinterest. Then I undid the flies of his drawers, and it was nothing of the sort. Rather than a simple undressing, I was undressing him with intent-- not, perhaps, the intent the horribly romantic part of me had in mind-- and it felt even more intimate to be standing so close to him, parting his shirttails and undoing his trouser buttons for him.
Thankfully, for both our sakes, before I breached a further level of platonic intimacy, he turned away. "Thank you," he said, "now get out, there's a good fellow; there is only so much dignity I can sacrifice at once."
I gratefully left the room. My stomach was churning with uncertainty and confused desire, and I wandered aimlessly around the sitting room. The house was so quiet, it was impossible not to hear him clearing his throat, followed by the sound of his elimination. I tried to remind myself that as a doctor I had been privy to even more personal necessary moments, but it was Holmes. He preferred to present himself to the public, even to me, as a creature above the base needs of us mere mortals, rejecting food for tobacco and companionship for intellectual pursuits, but here was a sign, clear as a bell, of his humanity.
After a moment I heard a quiet hiss of pain, then the commode clanged shut and Holmes called, "Right, well."
I let myself back in. He waited with his back to me, so I reached around him to shift his drawers open that he might tuck himself away, and then I tied them up again neatly, righted his shirttails, and buttoned his trousers. He sniffed and wouldn't meet my eyes when he turned around.
"I should have another look at your hands," I said, almost whispering, and I had to cough to restore my proper voice. "To check the bandages."
"Of course," he said, finally looking up. And then, "Thank you."
"Not at all," I said.
Back in the sitting room, I called to Mrs Hudson for a bit of luncheon, and Holmes took up his place on the settee. I sat beside him and took his hands, one by one, to unwrap, inspect, anoint, and rewrap them. The blisters were stiff to the touch, and Holmes winced when I prodded one too firmly.
"Is the pressure of the bandages all right?" I asked, before I began to wrap again.
"A little looser, this time," he said. "If you please."
His fingers were warm and I couldn't help a little caress to the back of his thumb as I went. He wouldn't notice it in the rest of the movement of my hands. I was going to run out of bandages at this rate. I made a mental note to go out and buy some more. The chemist on the corner ought to have yards and yards.
When I finished, I looked up into Holmes's face, smiling, and was caught by the intensity of his gaze once more.
"We have to stop meeting like this," he said softly. The air in the room felt very still, and I realised how close I was sitting to him. He lowered his hands slowly from mine, and for a moment they rested on my knee.
Then Mrs Hudson bustled in with her tray, and we fairly sprang apart. Holmes jerked his hands away and I stood up, flustered.
"It's all very dull," he said, as I moved to the window to be out of Mrs Hudson's way. I stared blindly out at the street as he went on. "I only have to find out why he was killed, and it will all be squared away."
"Not because he was breaking in to a woman's house?" I asked. "Isn't that why most burglars are killed?"
"Yes, but a professional of his calibre should have been alerted to a waker in the house," Holmes said, frowning deeply. "Didn't you see?"
I shook my head.
"The scrapes on the window sill."
I shook my head again.
"Never mind. I'll need to wire Lestrade to get the staff's statements." He made an exasperated noise and sat down me at the table. "But first, hand me my napkin."
"You're eating?" I asked.
"If I must," he said.
I stared at him, confused. "Is this a trick?"
"It's not a trick, Watson," Holmes growled. "I know that I generally eschew consuming food while I am working, but my hands are very distracting, and I would rather they heal quickly. And so, I know I must eat."
There was enough food on the tray for the both of us, because I was nothing if not eternally optimistic, and so I filled Holmes's plate and set it in front of him. He went to pick up fork and knife and hissed sharply in pain.
"Let me do it," I said, picking up the cutlery. It was corned beef and potatoes, and I cut them into small pieces and stabbed a few with the fork. When I offered it to Holmes, he opened his mouth to accept the morsel and glared at me the whole time. I rolled my eyes, and took a bite of my own food as he chewed. We went on like this for the duration of the meal: I prepared a bite for him, fed it to him carefully in order not to stab him in the mouth, and then took a bite of my own. It took considerably longer than luncheon alone would have, and we didn't talk, but by the end we had developed an easy rhythm. Holmes was calm and distant, his mind elsewhere, and when we had finally finished he thanked me with a touch to my knee and moved wordlessly to the window. He stared out at the street below for so long that I turned to my desk and began trying to compile the notes I had taken in the morning and what I remembered from Holmes's investigation of the room in Mrs Thompson's townhouse.
It was almost an hour before Holmes shook himself from his stupor and stood. "I need to send a telegram," he said.
I retrieved my pen and my stack of blank telegram sheets. "Go ahead."
"To Inspector G. Lestrade at Scotland Yard," he dictated. "Thompson house burgled, culprit at large, stop. Wanted for murder, stop."
"Two burglars," I said suddenly. "That's it."
"Most probably," Holmes said, smiling at me warmly. "Well done, Watson."
"So what happened?" I asked. "Two burglars, one house?"
"That is how I read the situation." He sighed. "I will need to read the report and speak to one of my informants, but I believe the case does not end on the study floor."
"I'll be back," I said, and took the telegram downstairs to be sent. One of Holmes's Irregulars met me at the door.
"What's wrong with Mr. Holmes's hands?" he asked me, his voice the shrill pipe of the not-yet-initiated.
"He burned them," I said. "How did you—?"
"He signalled me from the window, sir." The boy was beaming, clutching the telegram in his grubby fingers.
"Of course," I said, and handed the child a penny. "Of course, how foolish-- see that that makes it safely to the telegraph office, won't you?"
"Yes sir!" the boy cried, and took off down the street. I climbed back up our seventeen steps to the flat.
"How is it," I asked, entering once more, "that one of your lads can know the shape of things in a second, and I totter along behind your genius, ever in shadow?"
Holmes snorted. He was by the window again, and now he had his precious Stradivarius cradled carefully in the crook of his elbow. "Please," he said, "you do yourself a disservice. I couldn't have gleaned anything from our visit today if you hadn't been there. You were eternally helpful."
"Don't try to play that," I said, pointing at the violin.
"Watson, don't be stupid," Holmes griped. "I'm only... holding it."
"You're getting sentimental in your old age," I said, and sat back down at my desk with a small flourish of jacket tails. I picked up my pen again, but I didn't have anything to write.
"This is worse than not having a case," he said suddenly. "Having a bloody simple one and hardly being able to touch it. What's the point, if I can't be truly involved in every bit of it?"
"No," he said, shaking his head, "there's nothing to be done. We cannot induce the criminals to read books in their free time and improve their intellect." Something caught his attention outside the window for a moment, and then he said, "Finley's sent the telegram. Another bout of waiting, I'm afraid."
"At least we're good at that," I said.
We didn't receive an answer to the telegram until later that evening, after a supper which Holmes barely touched and I consumed somewhat mechanically. I had begun to worry once more about his state of mind, which, although activated by the case, was agitated by his injury. I could tell he was in pain again, and although he was very good at hiding it, I was even better at reading him. I had just convinced him that a sip or two of brandy would do him good when the reply arrived in Mrs Hudson's hands.
"It's come from the Yard, Mr Holmes," she said, handing it to me without my having to ask. "I hope it's good news."
"I hope it's an arrest," Holmes said.
"It's not," I said, having opened the telegram by then. "But he takes your advice into consideration, and the body of the burglar has been identified."
"Really?" Holmes sat up from his sprawl on the settee. "That was rather fast. He must have been a wanted man." He sighed thoughtfully, sinking back into the settee, and lifted his hands. I recognised the move he made to rub them together in anticipation, but as I jerked forwards in alarm he stopped himself short and lowered them awkwardly.
Mrs Hudson said, "Well, I'll leave you two to it, then," and let herself out once more. Bless her.
"I suppose we should go find out," I suggested half-heartedly. Normally, Holmes would already be halfway into his coat by now.
Instead, to my surprise and private delight, he shook his head. "Not tonight. We'll go down tomorrow and see what else they've turned up, and maybe that will clarify a few things. It's interesting, of course, that the fellow is unknown to me, but perhaps he's a hired thug. I won't know until I've got a look at his fingernails again."
"Of course," I said, comfortably ignorant. No doubt the amount of dirt, or the wear on the nails, or whether the man had a nervous habit, would tell Holmes everything he needed to know about Mrs Thompson's accidental involvement in a murder case.
"Are you going to bed?" I asked, after a final few minutes of contemplation over the telegram.
"Not yet," Holmes said, sinking back into the settee and tucking his elbows to his ribs. His hands hovered in an imitation of their normal steeple over his chest, and he glared pointedly at the ceiling. "Good night, old boy."
I knew a dismissal from Holmes when I heard one, and I let it be. I tidied up my desk and left the telegram where he could reach it if he chose, and went upstairs to my bedroom. My bedroom, being above the sitting room, was slightly warmer than the hallway, but since the fire had not been lit I hurried into my pyjamas and clambered into bed. I thought guiltily of Holmes below, unable to undress himself, unable to tend to the fire or pour himself a glass of brandy or, perhaps, even pick up the telegram I'd left. Unable to have a piss in private. When I had unwrapped and rewrapped his hands for the final time that evening, he had admitted he was unwilling to try bending them. They hurt him greatly, and since it had only been twenty-four hours since he had burned himself, this did not surprise me in the least. Alcohol and willow bark were the only things I could do for the pain, since we had agreed along the way in the last ten years that nothing stronger should be allowed inside the walls of 221, given that we both had been, at some point or other, addicted. I felt lucky that Holmes had not yet turned to the cocaine, and then I remembered that he could not even inject himself right now. Since I had long ago refused to ever assist him in that regard, no matter how high or how low he was, he would be forced to go without.
To further my guilt, as I lay in the dark I also began to think of how pleasant it was to be in such close proximity to Holmes for long, intentional periods of time. We were affectionate friends, more than Holmes was with anyone else he knew, including his brother, but it was casual and accidental. Holding his hands in my lap, my knees bumping against his; feeling his breath on my cheek as we both leaned in to inspect his blistered palms; the simple comfort of the smell of his tobacco and soap, his pomade and warmth; these were delights I gained through intentional contact. And oh, how I had longed for that. The simple physicality of the army was long gone, and I often craved our simple touches: the moment of his hand slipping into the crook of my elbow as we strolled down the street on a warm afternoon was more pleasurable to me than an entire evening at the music halls.
I realised, with a shock of cold shame and hot embarrassment, that I had become aroused thinking of Holmes this way. My cock was half-hard in anticipation, but I kept my hands resolutely above the quilt and refused myself the indulgence. It wasn't right, and it wasn't good, and I refused to be so weak. After a while I calmed enough to sleep, but I did so fitfully, always half-listening, half-dreaming for the sound of Holmes below.
"There you are," he said, as if he'd just been waiting for me to come back and had fallen asleep by accident in the mean time. It might have been true. "What's the time?"
"Ten past nine," I said, glancing at the clock. "How are you feeling?"
Holmes turned onto his back and stretched his arms over his head. The muscles beneath his shirt shifted and bunched, and I felt myself blushing as I remembered my self-denial last night.
"Well enough," he said, and sat up. He twisted his neck from side to side, scrunching his shoulders, and relaxed again, dropping his hands carefully into his lap. I took the blanket after all and folded it up. "A little stiff, perhaps, and–" He broke off, and I saw it was his turn to blush.
I raised an eyebrow.
"Well, I could use your help again."
I took his meaning. "And a shave, after?" I suggested.
Holmes scrunched his nose and rubbed the corner of his stubbled jaw against his raised shoulder. "It itches like the devil," he said.
"Should you like to go to the barber?"
He shook his head. "You'll do," he said.
I blinked. "Me?" I certainly trusted myself with a razor against my own throat, but I wasn't certain of my skills plying it on anyone else.
He nodded, looking at me as though I were being dense again. "Of course."
"All right," I said, taking a step back to give him room to rise from the settee. My heart was once again hammering against my ribs, and I wondered if this much excitement and change of pace could do harm. Certainly it was wearing on my nerves. I followed Holmes into the washroom and steeled myself for the ritual of undressing him. This time my hands did not shake, even when I untied Holmes's drawers and bared the soft, pale triangle of his belly and the previously unknown trail of hair below his navel. He was not a particularly hirsute fellow, and there was something primal and darkly delicious about the sight of that hair. Once his trousers were loose enough to be dealt with without careful manipulation, he shook me off and shooed me away, and as the door swung almost shut behind me, he heaved a sigh of immense relief. I stifled a childish snicker in my lapel– the sound of a man making water should not induce hysteria in an adult of my fortitude and experience– and called for hot water to be brought up.
Returning to the wash room at Holmes's hail, we performed the ritual backwards, and I overcame the giddy fluttering in my stomach to act with admirable decorum. Then I helped him undo the buttons of his shirt instead. He looked utterly debauched like that, scruffy and unkempt, unfastened to the breastbone and soft around the edges. All of his carefully maintained lines and seams were gone, and it was everything I could do to not gaze at him tenderly, like a lover. He was not my lover, and I was wrong to even imagine it. God, I was sick with it.
Mrs Hudson brought water in a porcelain bowl and I went to my room for my shaving kit and towels. I sat Holmes in the chair beside the bath tub and draped one towel over the crook of my arm. The other I dipped into the basin, and then began to wipe his face carefully to warm it. He tipped his head back on the rungs of the chair and closed his eyes, and I felt myself sag with relief. I would not be observed. Not visually. He had many other methods of observation that I could not escape.
Once his cheeks, jaw, and throat were warm and damp, I dipped my shaving mug into the basin to wet the dwindling cake of soap in the bottom. The soft sound of Holmes breathing and the clink of the shaving brush against the side of the ceramic mug were the only noises. If I listened hard enough, I could hear the sound of traffic beyond the sitting room windows, but our washroom was a warm, quiet sanctuary.
"Soap," I said, just before I applied the brush to Holmes's cheek, but he jerked in reflex all the same. I smoothed the lather all over, up to his ears and down the line of his jaw, underneath his chin and against the softness of his throat, under his nose and below his lower lip. I saw him stifle a smile when I touched a sensitive place over his pulse, and he snuffled lightly when I got the lather too close to his nose.
"All right?" I asked.
"Quite," he said. His bandaged hands were folded carefully in his lap and he looked eternally peaceful like that, face upturned to me, eyes closed, all the lines of worry or contemplation I usually saw smoothed out. It was as if the innocence of sleep had followed him in here, and he had reverted to an unfamiliar state of relaxation.
I stepped to the side and opened my shaving case. The razors were sharp and gleaming, and I took pride in the care with which I kept them. I could afford a barber these days, of course, but I generally chose to eschew the unnecessary expense for the skill of my own hands. That Holmes trusted me with his own bared throat and face was a show of deep, abiding familiarity. It twisted me up inside, that we could be this close, this devoted, and still have to consider ourselves mere friends.
When I stepped close to Holmes again, I said, "Open your legs, will you?" and blushed instantly. Holmes smirked and obeyed, parting his knees so that I could stand between them and resting his hands palm-up on his thighs. He opened his eyes then, as I fumbled, and said, "Left or right?"
"Whichever you prefer," I stammered. He tipped his head to the right and closed his eyes again.
I put my left hand carefully on his temple and touched the razor blade to the arch of his cheekbone. I shaved downwards, with the grain of his hair, and wiped the blade on the towel over my arm. His skin was warm and soft from the towel, and the smell of the shaving soap was familiar and domestic. His cheek and jaw came along smoothly and quickly. I tipped his head to the other side and shaved his right cheek and jaw, and then moved it back to shave his upper and lower lip. I thought of the cigarette we had shared, pursed between his lips. I thought about kissing him, like this, holding his head and pressing my hungry mouth to his half-open one.
I put my index finger under his chin to bend his head back further, and bent to shave beneath his chin. The skin here was tender and thin, and I had to be careful. I only nicked him once, and very lightly, and it was because he began to smile again as I worked. Blood welled from the tiny cut, ruby red and wet, and when I wiped it away with my thumb it left a streak across his neck.
"Sorry," I murmured, caught up in the delicacy of the skin under my hands, the notion that the slightest errant pressure would split him open. I thought of his hands, tender and blistered, and the wounds I had treated for him before: bruised ribs, black eyes, cuts and scrapes, split knuckles. I had cleaned his blood off my hands more than once, but this time I had caused the injury.
"Watson, it's all right," he said, as if he'd said it once before already. I blinked, and found myself looking into his grey eyes. I have described his eyes before in various situations, but never in great detail. Now they struck me again, pinning me there as I stood. They were silvery, almost colourless, with a ring of deeper grey around the iris. They seemed to change with his moods: when he was frustrated by a case, they were stormy, darker; when he was in a frenzy of deduction and brainwork, his eyes were hard, like gunmetal; when he played his violin, they softened again, warming, like London fog; now they were sparkling with amusement, pleasure, the color of the ocean after rain.
My sentimentality was running away with me. I opened my mouth to apologize again, found that no words would come, and I clammed up. He licked his lips unconsciously, and we were frozen, staring at one another.
"John," he said finally, barely above a whisper, and his utterance of my Christian name was like a punch to the gut, "I am afraid that if you do not step away now, I will do something that I will deeply regret."
"Why will you regret it?" I asked, finding my voice again.
"Because I want it very much, and I worry that it will offend you deeply."
"Holmes," I said, and instantly I felt guilty that I did not– could not?– return his given name, "nothing you could do now could offend me; I have seen everything."
"Not this," Holmes said, his brow creasing in what I realized was profound sadness. "You haven't seen this."
"What if," I said carefully, "I were to do it for you? Then you would have no control over the matter. You would no longer be to blame, and I would not take offence."
Holmes was silent, his lips parted. The sorrow in his face had passed and been replaced by almost reverent hope and disbelief. I cleared my throat and set the razor I held down on the wash basin stand. Holmes watched me without moving, utterly still, and his eyes met mine again as I returned to him. I steeled myself, my gut churning with uncertainty and my pulse pounding, and bent slowly, ever so slowly, to kiss him.
The instant before our lips met I hesitated, suddenly paralysed with uncertainty. This couldn't be what he was asking for. It couldn't possibly be that he imagined kissing me like this, that he had been hiding a desire that matched mine for any length of time. He had to be taunting me, his endlessly inquisitive nature demanding that he see how far he could push me before I snapped. It was I who would regret this, not he. I would ruin everything.
Then he whispered, "Yes," and tipped his chin up. The kiss was so chaste, so simple and brief, that I almost didn't believe it had happened. We were still looking into one another's eyes, although I had begun to go a bit cross-eyed because of the proximity. Then his eyes slid shut, and he kissed me again. He kissed more firmly this time, pressing our mouths together, and then again, and again. The ease of it took my breath away. I began to return the kisses, one after another, and brought my hands up to cup his face. He let out a breath, lips parting, and I took the opportunity to deepen the kiss. Holmes responded eagerly, his mouth opening hotly under mine. He closed his knees, trapping me by the thighs, and hooked one foot behind my ankle.
All the nervousness that had felt as if it would overwhelm me changed in an instant to warm, consuming lust. My body hummed with arousal and gratification, and if I'd had my way I would have climbed into his lap right there. He kissed me ardently, revealing a passion I would not believe belonged to him had I not been tasting it in his mouth. I slid my fingers into his hair, cradling his head, and he made a soft noise of pleasure against my lips.
I pulled back, panting, and Holmes opened his eyes.
"Do you regret it?" I asked, suddenly feeling cheeky.
"Are you offended?" he returned.
I kissed him again, slotting our mouths together. I felt the careful pressure of his bandaged hand against my hip and I groaned. I wanted to consume him, have him here in the wash room, in the chair if it came down to it– I didn't care.
Mrs Hudson's timing was impeccable, and she made a noisy entrance in the sitting room at that moment that had us pulling apart abruptly, startled. I heard the rattle of the breakfast tray an instant before she called, "When you're ready, gentlemen!"
I stepped backwards, out of Holmes's embrace, stumbling over his trapping foot. I was more than a little aroused by our kisses, and I knew it showed. Holmes was in a similar state, his face flushed and his breathing ragged, and he shifted his his hips awkwardly and cleared his throat, looking away from me.
"Ah," I said, "we ought to–"
"Of course," Holmes said. "I assume you are done here." He waved vaguely at his clean-shaven chin, and I nodded.
"Quite finished." I licked my lips self-consciously, and Holmes's eyes followed the movement for a moment before he looked away again guiltily. "Are you hungry at all?" I asked.
Holmes snorted, shaking his head, and he stood up from the chair. I busied myself with my razor case and the towels, and Holmes left the wash room without me.
When he was gone, I leaned heavily on the wash stand. I could still taste him on my lips, in my mouth. I could still feel his kisses, the tight grip of his knees around my own, and I could hear him, in my mind, saying my name in that rough whisper. My denied satisfaction from the night before had roared to life, and my cock was stiff in my trousers. I couldn't leave the room until I had myself under control again.
The eggs were room temperature when I finally got to them, and the tea was growing cold. Holmes accepted a few bites of toast, meeting my eyes for the briefest moment only to blush and look away, and I ate as quickly as I could. I still needed to re-dress his hands and see to my own toilet, and he was clearly impatient to be gone to the morgue.
The hands I did first, unwrapping the bandages and inspecting the blisters. "Do they hurt, still?" I asked.
"Not terribly," Holmes lied, bending his fingers and wincing. The range of motion was improving, though, which was a good sign.
Holmes turned his face away as I blotted and re-anointed his palms, and breathed out slowly through his teeth as I applied clean bandages. Finally I set his hands down in his lap and patted him on the thigh.
"There you are," I said. "Should you like to change, or will you see Lestrade like this?"
Holmes shrugged. "Like this," he said. "I shall need my waistcoat and my jacket, though, there's a good fellow."
I fetched them gladly; the last thing I wanted at the moment was to be asked to undress him. I might be tempted not to put anything back on, and then we would be late for an appointment with the Yard. Regardless, I didn't know what Holmes had taken away from our– admittedly long and reciprocal– moment in the wash room, and I doubted he would want to be undressed at all just now. It was better this way, I told myself.
I helped Holmes into his waistcoat and jacket, and then withdrew to my bedroom to dress. I felt adrift, going through the motions of dressing without considering any of the stages. My hands were trembling, and they had to stop.
I was afraid, I realized. I had never in all my life expected to kiss Sherlock Holmes, and now I had done it. He had kissed me. It couldn't have been an accident. My breakfast was a heavy weight in my stomach. We had a case, I couldn't be distracting him with my nonsense.
Lestrade was waiting for us, and he took us down to the morgue. "A very funny business," he told Holmes, smiling over his shoulder. He had some information now that Holmes and I did not, and he was very pleased with himself.
"A wanted man?" I asked.
"Not quite," Lestrade said. He pushed open the door, and we followed. The murdered burglar was lying on the slab in the centre of the room. He hadn't been cut open yet, and Lestrade assured Holmes he hadn't even been washed. He was still wearing every stitch of clothing they'd found him in. "We couldn't very well leave him lying there on the floor," Lestrade went on. "Might have left some of the family a bit upset."
"The family?" Holmes inquired, raising his chin. "What do you mean by that?"
"This gentleman," Lestrade said proudly, sweeping an open hand in the corpse's direction, "is Mortimer Simms."
"Simms was the butler's name," I said.
"And this is the butler's brother." Lestrade was practically beaming.
Unable to help myself, I cried, "Good God!"
"Please, Watson," Holmes chided, hiding a smile. "Control yourself."
"That's a magnificent coincidence," I said.
"It is not a coincidence. It isn't anything like a coincidence. This is a plot." Holmes made to clap his hands together in a show of force and action, and stopped himself just in time, as I once more lunged in his direction. "We must go back to Mrs Thompson's house," he said. "I need to talk to the lady of the house, and her faithful servant."
"Have you read the statements?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, "but of course they're all lying. Half a dozen people in a house and no one hears a thing? I doubt it very much. Come along. You too, Lestrade, only bring a wagon."
"What's wrong?" I asked. Whenever he called himself foolish I knew he was fishing for a compliment or an enquiry. We both knew the level of his intellect.
"I was distracted," Holmes said. He paused, smirking, and dropped his voice. "I smell like you."
My mouth felt suddenly dry, and I swallowed hard before I asked, "Pardon?"
"Your soap," he said. "You used your soap to shave me, and the whole time there I thought you were standing so close to me. I could smell you near me, on me, and I– well." He cleared his throat. "I found it very distracting." Holmes unfolded his hands from his lap and shifted to sit beside me instead of across the cab. Our thighs pressed together at the outside. My breath was coming short and my whole being felt as though it was vibrating with excitement. "Doctor," Holmes said softly, "I feel a very great urge to kiss you again, and I should like to be certain–"
"Damn it all, Holmes," I snapped, reaching up to cup his face. He stopped his rambling as I pressed my lips to his, and he made a muffled noise of pleasure. The brims of our hats bumped together. I could feel his pulse in his throat beneath my little finger: his heart was beating almost as fast as my own as we kissed in the dark, musty sanctuary of the cab. Holmes took control of the kiss unapologetically, parting my lips and licking into my mouth, and a hot flush swept through my body.
He cursed, kissed me again, and pulled back to mutter, "Damn my hands."
"Are they hurting you?" I asked, glancing down between us at his bandages. "I can see to them before–"
"No," he interrupted, "they're all right." He bit his lip and then the corner of his mouth turned up in a sardonic smile. "I– it's nothing."
I stared at him a moment; he can usually be persuaded to elaborate if I only wait long enough.
"I wish I could touch you," he said softly, and cleared his throat.
I had moved away slightly in the interim, my hands no longer on his face and in his hair, and as he refused to meet my eyes then I resumed my position.
"I shall have to do all the work then," I said, "as usual," and kissed him again, tentatively. I felt him smile, and he shifted to turn more towards me.
"We're almost there," Holmes said. He pressed another kiss to my lips, and I echoed it, unwilling to give up just yet. He heaved a sigh and moved away, returning to his seat across from me. I let my hand linger on his knee, and he tipped his head back against the wall of the cab and parted his thighs. "You mustn't do that," he said, as I took the invitation and inched my palm up his leg. "I mustn't let you. God, how I want you."
I flushed all over and yanked my hand away. Holmes smiled briefly and shifted his hips on the seat. I was half-hard again as well, and I was glad he had stopped us. We couldn't turn up at a client's house debauched as we were, and I covered my mouth with my hand to regain some control. Holmes and I shared a look of mutual embarrassment and joy, and then he put up the shades and peered out.
The cab turned only two more corners before the driver rapped on the roof, and Holmes followed me out onto the pavement. Lestrade had followed us in a Scotland Yard carriage, and was dismounting as I paid our driver from Holmes's coin purse in my pocket. Together we mounted the stair.
The butler came within a few moments of my knock and was fairly swept aside by Holmes's entrance. "You there," he said, and the man who had flirted shyly with me just moments ago was entirely gone, "fetch your mistress and the rest of the household. I demand to be seen at once."
Simms stammered and floundered, and Holmes snapped, "Now!" which sent him hurrying on his way. I could tell Holmes was extremely agitated, pacing as he was back and forth across the entry hall. When Mrs Thompson descended the stairs, he said, "Into the study, madam," with such ice in his voice that I caught his sleeve, thinking to stay him. He shook me off easily and glanced over his shoulder, his expression stony. Though it was not directed at me, I felt a chill.
Holmes followed the lady of the house into the study, where her staff was assembling. She was glaring at him with the understandable affront of a woman who has been summoned in her own house.
"Madam," Holmes said, as I entered the room behind him, "first let me say that I admire your determination."
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"You have lived here alone for several years, since your husband died and your sister moved away, is that correct? And I shall assume, though it is a risk, that people in your life have urged you to remarry."
Mrs Thompson regarded Holmes cooly, but she nodded. "They have," she said.
"Without much success," Holmes said. "So, you must enjoy your independence."
"I'm not sure what you're suggesting, Mr Holmes," Mrs Thompson said.
"Nothing at all," Holmes said, holding up a hand. "I never suggest. I am simply stating, for the benefit of our listeners, the path of my deduction. A woman in possession of some modest wealth, but without all of the limitations of a spinster, may wish to maintain her status. You don't like to be hounded about your need for protection; you'd much rather protect yourself."
Mrs Thompson's eyes narrowed.
"Correct me if I am wrong, madam," Holmes went on, "but was it not this very address to which the police were called some months ago, regarding a burglary?"
My mouth dropped open.
"I thought the number was familiar," Holmes said over his shoulder to us. "Coincidence, I thought, but no." To Mrs Thompson, he went on,"You have made some minor repairs to the window of the study. You had the misfortune, however, not to be the victim of a random crime. The identity of the dead man shows that."
On the other side of the room, the butler lowered his chin to his chest. Holmes smiled in triumph.
"It was intimidation," he announced. "Madam, you discovered the brothers Simms' designs on your possessions, no doubt through deductive reasoning based on the previous attempt. Rather than try to stop them, you became determined to prove your independence once and for all. You interrupted the second burglary attempt in the middle, after Mr Simms had let his brother into the house but before they had begun their ransacking. The late Mr Simms heard you coming down the hall and, thinking it was his brother returning from an errand, opened the door to you." He turned to us, standing in the doorway, and spread his arms. "He stood here when you entered, and you killed him."
Behind him, Mrs Thompson had gone white as a sheet. "This is slander!" she cried. "You'll never prove a word of it!"
"Only if Mr Simms the current does not speak up very soon." Holmes glanced at Lestrade. "You did not search the lady's rooms, I presume. No, indeed. Well, I believe you will find your murder weapon there. Watson, come. Good day to you all."
"Why ever not?" I asked. "I thought that was rather exciting."
"It was ridiculous," Holmes said. "The woman's read your stories, so she thinks she can trick me? Please. Watson, it wasn't even worth the cab fare. Cheers."
"But she is a murderer," I said, taking his coat off his shoulders and hanging it up on top of my own. I snatched his hat as well before he'd moved beyond my reach.
"Dull," Holmes muttered. "Anyone can be a murderer. She wasn't even a clever one. Did she think I wouldn't find out who that man was? If I hadn't been so bloody preoccupied with my hands, I would have caught it in a moment."
I snorted and crossed the room to warm my hands at the freshly crackling fire. "I don't want to say it."
"Don't," Holmes said, sitting down on the edge of the settee and looking down at his hands in his lap. "You told me so."
"Fine," I said, "I won't put in the annals of time just yet. It might come in handy some day, as filler."
"If you pick the right cases," Holmes scoffed, "you shouldn't need 'filler.' It isn't my fault every case I take isn't a high speed horseback chase across the moors, guns firing, kidnappers and murderers behind every door."
"And a good thing, too," I said. "You'd never have a moment's peace."
"I loathe a moment's peace."
I gazed at him indulgently, smiling to myself. For all his proclamations of boredom and fury with the criminal class for letting him down, I had observed him on more than one occasion enjoying quite a few moments' peace. He loved to sit in the window early on spring mornings and watch the city come alive, and he was always enthusiastic about a leisurely stroll in the park. It was true that he used these times to practice his deductive reasoning– "the knife must be whetted to be of any use, Watson" – but he always came out of these quiet hours with a look of pleasure and serenity on his face, entirely different from the triumph and joy he experienced at the successful completion of a satisfying case. I loved to see that other expression on him.
He met my eyes, then, and I didn't look away. Instead, I asked, "Are you hungry?"
"Yes," he said, and looked me slowly up and down, making me blush. God, I was like a school boy. Holmes worried his lower lip between his teeth.
"Should we eat, then?" I asked, breathless, deflecting.
"No." Holmes stood. "Come here, will you?"
I went. I moved to stand just in front of him, and he reached for my hands. I cradled his bandaged ones in mine, holding them gently, wishing I could heal the burns more quickly. We looked into each other's eyes, I feeling foolish, he fairly vibrating with uncertainty.
"I won't be offended," I said.
He grinned, and the tension evaporated. "Good," he said, and kissed me. It was as soft as our first kiss had been, but it grew quickly more passionate, and with the slightest touch of his hands he pulled me against him. He slipped from my grip and wrapped his arms around me, and kissed me as though we hadn't any time to lose.
Perhaps we hadn't. I had no idea how long we'd been orbiting each other like this, and now that we had finally collided–
My arms went around his neck and held him fast. I didn't want to waste any more time, and who could be certain of an affair like this? Then again, I had been in love with Holmes for almost ten years. It had taken me a while to understand him, and a while longer to admit it to myself, but by then we had only shared digs for fifteen months. Now, as he kissed me with somewhat unpracticed enthusiasm, I realized it had not been in vain.
I broke the kiss and put my finger over Holmes's lips to silence his protest. "If this is to continue tonight," I said, giddy with the thought that it might, "then I insist that we repair to your bedroom. If Mrs Hudson interrupts us one more time, I swear on my life–"
Holmes laughed, rubbed his nose briefly against my own, and let me go. "As you wish, Doctor," he said. "After you."
Upon entering his bedroom, Holmes crowded me against the door as I closed it and rested his elbows on the paneling behind me. I looked up into his handsome, angular face, and my breath caught at the intensity of his gaze. His eyes were now the color of storm clouds, the grey iris was almost swallowed up by his dilated pupils.
"Watson," he said, his eyes flicking to my mouth and back up again, "as much as it pains me to admit it, this sort of encounter is not something I've taken much time to... explore." He glanced away, embarrassed, but he stayed close against me. I could feel his interest against my abdomen, stiff and demanding. I slid my hands under the parted lapels of his coat, and he took an unsteady breath. "You will have to guide me," he went on. "I hope, under your tutelage, to become an expert."
I groaned aloud at the thought: me, teaching Sherlock Holmes about sex. God, the things I wanted to do to him. And with his admission came the understanding that this was not an accidental event. He expected it to happen many more times, although admittedly it does not take Holmes long to become akin to an expert at anything.
I began to unbutton his waistcoat, as I had done before, but now with a sense of giddy anticipation. The waistcoat under my fingers was silken, expensive, and I wanted to tear it off of him. I refrained. When it was undone, I turned to the collar of his shirt. He had closed his eyes and was breathing shallowly, and I kissed his cheek as I began to undo his shirt buttons. He shifted against me, pressing his erection more firmly into the groove of my hip.
"Not with anyone?" I asked softly, to distract myself from the glory of his bare chest.
"A few times, here and there," he admitted, and I felt him smile. "It was... pleasant, I suppose, but rather dull."
"Nothing like this," he said quickly. "There wasn't any feeling in it. It quite distracted me from my work."
My frown deepened.
Holmes floundered. "No, no," he said, "please. This— you— you have distracted me from my work for a long time; as much as you are an asset, my dear boy, you unwittingly became a hindrance. No, don't make that face at me— please, Watson, I am quite used to you by now."
I kissed his cheek again, dragging my lips across the line of his cheekbone to his ear, where I bit gently down on his earlobe. He shuddered, and I opened my mouth against his tender throat and continued to bite, softly, just digging my teeth in, to feel him tremble. I wondered how long this distraction had gone on, and how long it had taken him to adjust his methods to account for the drag I placed on him with my presence. I knew he was trying to compliment me— few things distracted Holmes, and to be one of them driven by passion, or affection, or even love, was flattering— but it fell a little short. Holmes's work was everything to him; I loathed the idea that I might, in any fashion, be in the way.
With his shirt unbuttoned, I pressed my palms to his skin and began to stroke them up and down, touching each rib as I found it, feeling the muscles of his trunk shift under my hands. I kissed his neck and touched him tenderly, and he began to rock against me. I spread my legs and he found a place between them, rubbing our cocks together through our trousers. It sent pleasure shivering up my spine, and I moaned again.
Holmes pressed a kiss near my temple, burying his nose in my hair. "I want to touch you," he whispered, "God damn my hands."
"Bless your hands," I told him, admiring the reddened mark I had raised in the curve of his neck and shoulder. "Else, we might have never...."
"We might have," he said. "I don't know how much longer I might have stood it."
I pulled away to meet his eyes. "We are a couple of blind fools," I said. "We might have gone to our graves."
"God, don't say that," Holmes said urgently, shaking his head to silence me. "I'd rather not think of it just now, while I have you here." He grinned like a boy. "Here, in my arms, saying lovely things to me."
"And you say you hate my romanticism," I scolded, kissing the corner of his mouth.
"I do," he said, "when you ruin a good logical deduction with your sentiment. It's cold, hard facts that you must convey, Watson, not—"
"Enough," I said, pressing a finger across his lips. "That's an argument we can have in an hour over supper."
Holmes nodded, breathing deeply. He kissed my knuckle, and I drew it away to touch my lips to his once more. He embraced me tightly, opening his mouth to my kiss, and we were locked together for another long, delicious moment. My hands moved restlessly up and down his bare back, soaking in the feeling of his skin under my fingers. I flirted shyly with the waist of his trousers, dipping my fingertips underneath the waistband and pulling away again, until he growled, "Get on with it, John, and stop tormenting me."
I flushed at the sound of my name in that voice. Making space between us, I began to unbutton my own waistcoat, collar, and shirt. Holmes stepped backwards, away from me, and bent his head. He began to kiss my chest as I undid each button, and I hurried to reach the bottom, pulling the tails of my shirt out of my trousers.
"Off," Holmes demanded, "take it off; I'll have you naked in my bed tonight if I have no other satisfaction in the world."
I had never imagined him to be so lustful, so warm-blooded and eager. He had had me well and truly confounded when it came to this facet of his nature, and now that I was the one to see it… it was a tremendous gift. I shook my shirt off my shoulders and helped divest him of his. Then I set to his trousers. I had unbuttoned them before only a few hours earlier, and my buttoning job was what held them up now. I undid them one by one, slowly, savouring the feeling.
"Damn you," he whispered, his eyes fixed on my hands. The muscles of his stomach were jumping as my fingers brushed against his skin, and the bulge in his trousers twitched. My mouth watered abruptly, my jaw cramping with want, and I stifled a moan. God above, to think that I might get to taste him.
I peeled the fabric away from his body, and this time I was allowed to push it down around his hips, untie his drawers as well, and bare his skin. The trail of hair I had found so alluring led to a thick, curly, jet black thatch that covered the triangle of his groin, surrounding his hardened cock that was bent stiffly against the pressure of his trousers. It bobbed free as I divested him of the retraining garment, and I shoved at his drawers hurriedly, burning to touch him. I left him with his trousers and pants around the tops of his thighs, and took his heavy prick in my hand.
It was darker than the pale skin of his stomach and thighs, and the ruddy head just peeked out of the protection of his foreskin. I circled my hand around him and drew it up and down, first hiding and then baring the sensitive tip. Holmes let out a sharp breath against my cheek. I cupped his bollocks in my other hand, caressing them gently, and Holmes shuddered from his shoulders to his knees.
"Sit down," I said, releasing him and urging him back towards the bed. He sat on the edge of the mattress, his bandaged hands aloft and his cock standing out from his body. I knelt, ignoring the twinge in my old war wound, and pulled his trousers and drawers off, throwing them aside. His shirt still hung from his shoulders, but I had no more patience to undress him. I took the pillow from the head of the bed and put it behind him. "Lie back."
There was just enough room for him to recline, with his head on the pillow and his hands safely out of the way. I smoothed my palms up and down his firm thighs, almost unable to believe this view of him. He is glorious to behold, so long and lean and strong, and a fine, rosy blush had bloomed from his cheeks almost to his navel. He was regarding me with dark, heavy eyes, and biting his lower lip. Inexperience did not equate to ignorance, I could tell; Holmes knew precisely what my intention was.
I took him in hand again. His prick was long and slim, and it fit beautifully in my hand. I could smell the sea-salt tang of his arousal, and it only served to heighten my own. I dipped my head to inhale more deeply, and then touched my lips to the head of his prick.
He tasted incredible: the musk of desire, the saltiness of excitement, and the sweet, undefinable flavour of home. He tasted familiar, like the scent of his tobacco is instantly known to me when I encounter it, and I tightened my hand as I took him into my mouth. He groaned aloud, delighted and surprised, and one hand came to rest on the back of my head. It was barely more than the suggestion of pressure, but I knew its implications, its request, and I hollowed my cheeks and drew him deeper. His cock touched the back of my throat, and I wiggled my tongue against the underside. It had been a long time since I'd done anything like this— performed this particular act— but the technique was returning to me.
"Bloody hell," Holmes said, "you magnificent man."
I pulled back to rub my tongue against his sensitive glans, and watched in satisfaction as his back arched. He let out a shuddering breath and pushed his hips up towards me, silently begging me to go on. I continued my calculated torture, licking at his weeping slit and stroking him at once, and then, when I had him squirming with pleasure, swallowing him again to the root.
Holmes cried out, and then, realizing the indiscretion was inadvisable, muffled his mouth with the crook of his elbow. I wanted dearly to be able to hear him shout his joy aloud, but I knew better. I clutched his hips all the harder for it, pulling him over and over into my mouth, until he suddenly said, "Stop, dear God, Watson, stop!"
I pulled away, panting, my throat thick with desire. Holmes was shaking, his cock throbbing, his bollocks drawn up tight against his shaft. I tightened my hand around the base of his prick and he shuddered hard.
"God," he said again, breathless. He lay his arms wide, his injured hands far from us, and opened heavy eyes. "Come here, will you?"
"Gladly," I replied. I let go of him and stood, and as I divested myself of trousers and drawers I watched Holmes spread his long legs slowly. He welcomed me atop him with arms around my shoulders, and I brushed my mouth sweetly against his. He bit my lower lip firmly, making me groan.
"I don't believe I can participate in any particular acrobatics just now," he said, tapping me softly with one bandaged hand, "but if you would be so kind as to see to our mutual pleasure, I would be ever so much obliged to you."
I grinned. "An obligation it certainly is not," I said. Our cocks brushed together, and we gasped in unison. "Quite the opposite," I went on, lowering my hips against his and giving him a low, slow grind, "it would be a joy."
Holmes smiled and looked away, his cheeks pink. I kissed the point of his chin, and he let out a breath as I rubbed against him once more. I pulled away to shift our positions, tucking my knees some little ways under his thighs, and brought our groins into tight alignment. This lifted Holmes's legs from the bed, and his feet slipped against my calves. I leaned down once more, bracing my hands against the bed on either side of his shoulders.
He swallowed hard, staring up at me. His eyes were dark with desire, ringed with silver, and he blinked slowly. He looked as I felt: overcome, tempted, somewhat uncertain.
I gave him a smile, and he returned it. Against my belly, his prick twitched. His smile turned to a grin, embarrassed, and I slid the length of my cock against his, rocking my hips slowly. If I were to fuck him, I would do it like this, face to face, slow and steady, so that he would feel every thrust of my hips and witness every moment of my pleasure. God, how I wanted that. I wanted to devour him, to take him so utterly that the working of his great mind was disrupted, if only for half an hour, unable to think of anything but me.
What man doesn't desire something like that?
He was leaking generously over the both of us, his cock slick from my mouth and his excitement. As I moved against him we slid together deliciously, rubbing between our bellies, and Holmes was soon lifting his hips into my slow, deliberate thrusts. Pleasure was sparking deep in my groin and rolling up my spine, and we were both sweating. I wanted to lick it off of his skin. My cock throbbed heavily between my legs, its tip growing wet and slippery. Our tender cock heads rubbed together, and Holmes was fairly squirming under me.
"Faster," he whispered, tossing his head, his black hair fanning out across the pillow I had placed, "you must go faster."
I obeyed, rutting more quickly, with more force, and leaned down to kiss him. He ate at my mouth, pressing his tongue in and then retreating, and I followed, devouring him. We devolved rapidly into frantic breathing against one another's mouths, but even that was a joy. I was making him fall to pieces.
He broke away suddenly, his eyes wild. "I need— oh, God above, John, it feels just gorgeous— I need more."
I kissed him once more and pushed myself away, leaning back again on my heels and spreading his knees wide with the palms of my hands. He was splayed across my lap, exposed, the flushed rod of his cock wet with desire. I took us both in a wide grip, and began to slide my prick in and out of my circled fist, rubbing against his along its underside. I slid my thumb over his slit, gathering the wetness, and was rewarded with a fresh pulse of pre-ejaculate and a long, sinuous shudder that shook him from head to toe.
"Yes," he hissed, "you are— just— tighter! Hold me tighter."
I could have come right then, had I not been staying myself with all my might. He was magnificent, and we were about to come to our glory together. Coupling with men brings a mess one learns to accept, and at that moment I wanted nothing better than to have Holmes spend himself on my stomach. I thought I had gone mad. I thought I would go mad if I didn't see it happen soon.
I squeezed my fist tighter and we began to move together hastily, losing our rhythm and gaining speed. Finally I separated us altogether, ignoring Holmes's near-shout of disapproval, and began to pull him off quickly, my hand a blur on his stiffening cock. He twisted against the sheets, hips flexing, and then with a sharp cry he began to spurt, his cock throbbing in my hand with every fresh burst of semen. He shot so hard a stripe of his emission landed across his nipple. I almost came at the sight. I frigged him until he gasped with overstimulation, and then at his sharp, "You, now you," I let him go and took hold of my own prick once more.
My cock was stiff as iron in my hand, my bollocks drawn up tight and heavy. I was so close. The orgasm thudded deep in my spine, hot and inevitable, and I worked my cock quickly, my hips already jerking with eagerness.
"John," Holmes whispered, rocking his pelvis up to meet mine. The touch of his wet, softening prick against the back of my hand made me spend instantly, streaking him from groin to navel with my seed. I shuddered through it, the pleasure thick in my blood and nearly overwhelming, and Holmes gripped me with his thighs to steady me.
I was breathing heavily at the end of it, still stroking myself slowly, and Holmes was staring up at me with dark, satisfied eyes. He was flushed with pleasure, and when I bent over him he opened his mouth eagerly to my kiss. He held me, thighs and shoulders, wrapping me in what embrace his could with his hands compromised.
"That's the best I've felt all year," he murmured. "Even with this God damned incapacitation."
I huffed a laugh against his lips. Softly, my heart warmed and eager to spill its secrets, I said, "It's the best I've felt in a decade."
Holmes blinked. "Oh, my dear boy," he said, understanding. Of course he understood. He kissed me again, and with a tug of his forearms pulled me down to cover him with my body. Our mingled seed was wet between us, but with the taste of his lips on mine it was an easy thing to ignore.
After a few long, lingering moments, we were interrupted by the loud growl of my stomach, ignored for a while but silent no more. I blushed and Holmes laughed.
"Ah, my steadfast soldier," he said, urging me up and away. "Your timing is impeccable."
I fished a handkerchief from the tangle our of clothes on the floor and wiped myself perfunctorily. I did the same for Holmes, and he thanked me with a smile. He stood, unashamed of his nakedness, and I nearly averted my eyes out of habit. Holmes caught me and laughed once more, full of joy.
"None of that," he said, urging my chin up with a gentle touch of his bandaged fingers. "In public, perhaps, you needs may tame your affection, but I always love to see it. The way you look at me… my dear fellow."
I helped him dress, no longer nervous and therefore more efficient by tenfold. I tied his dressing gown for him, and then pulled on my own clothes, smoothing them into place as best I could. I couldn't very well hurry away to my bedroom in the nude, and so I had to make do. I left my collar and cuffs undone, my jacket over my arm, and Holmes opened the door to the sitting room.
Despite my fears, there was no one there awaiting our emergence to cart us away. The fire in the grate had burned down somewhat in our absence, but the whole house was quiet. I patted my hair down self-consciously and draped my rumpled jacket over the back of my armchair. I wasn't sure what to do next. Supper was, of course, the most logical step, but I couldn't just go about pretending everything hadn't changed. How would I be able to eat sitting across from this man, now that I no longer wondered what his face looked like during la petit mort? How would I meet his eyes, now that he knew how long I had pined for him? How could I possibly assist him on a case, when my very presence—
"Watson," Holmes said, interrupting my spiralling thoughts. He had fixed me with a penetrating gaze, and I cleared my throat and found myself shuffling my feet like an errant boy. I made myself stand still. "I don't suppose you'd mind to take another look at my hands," he went on, "provided, of course, that you do not find them as tedious as I do."
"Of course I don't," I said, glad for direction. He sat on the settee and I settled beside him, the very position we had been in a day before when we had been interrupted by lunch. He lay his hands easily on my knee, and I began to unwrap the dressings.
The blisters were still swollen with fluid, but under gentle pressure that made Holmes wince they gave slightly, indicating that the fluid was beginning to be reabsorbed. "You will need to begin to stretch your hands," I said. "Your fingers are not badly burned above the proximal phalanx, but if you do not exercise them you may have some significant scarring."
Holmes grimaced. His fingers twitched and then opened as he spread his palms wide. "Christ," he hissed, closing his hands again.
"I might have warned you it would hurt," I said.
"You might have," he said, peering at his palms. A few of the smaller blisters between his fingers and on the edge of his palm had burst and were oozing. I dabbed at them carefully with a square of cotton wool to soak up the fluid.
"Holmes," I said, "this is a rather serious injury. You are very lucky the burn isn't deep, but your hands are terribly sensitive and, as you might guess, very important." He snorted, but he stayed quiet. "It may be some time before we can dispense with the bandages."
"Two weeks at the inside," I said. "The area is small, which is fortunate, but the skin will heal slowly and be tender for a long time."
Holmes scowled. "And I suppose I shall have to exercise them constantly, and you will have to be at my beck and call for every need and desire I can think of."
"I'm afraid that might be true."
He wiggled his uninjured fingertips. "Can you dress only what was injured? So that I might have the barest minimum of independence?"
"Yes," I said, taking his hands in mine once more and beginning to anoint his palms with a fresh layer of petroleum jelly.
"Not that I haven't enjoyed this brief foray into being your patient," he said more softly.
I blushed, keeping my eyes on my task. I wound the bandage carefully around each finger to give him ease of movement, and covered his palms entirely. When I was done, he sighed deeply.
"I may become entirely intolerable in a few days, bored out of my skull. This case of the intimidated burglars was not as interesting as I'd hoped, when the Inspector sent for us."
"They're not all worth writing down," I agreed. "I will do my best, as your physician and your friend, to have you hale and healthy as soon as possible, but you must be amenable to my medical advice."
Holmes snorted. "Well," he said, "I shall do my best, but I refuse to make you a promise on that front."
I couldn't help but laugh. He was the same man I'd come to know, and having had him in bed made him no different. He would be irritating over the next few weeks, as he healed, and I would do everything I had always done to either keep him amused or avoid his frustration. And I'd have to do it without the help of a chemical experiment or his trusty violin to take the edge off. Fortunately, however, I had a new and unexpected tool to use to distract him: sex.
The next few weeks might turn out to be perfectly fine, actually, taking that into consideration.
We ate dinner in companionable silence, Holmes picking at the food off my plate with his fingertips and feeding himself slowly. I read the evening paper, in which there was only a brief mention of the botched robbery at the Thompson residence. As usual, Holmes's name was not included.
Afterwards, Mrs Hudson came up to see how the case had gone, and Holmes had complained for almost a full five minutes about its disappointing conclusion.
"Murder by rote!" he said. "It's like a badly written stage comedy. It hasn't got a bit of merit. The Doctor is not invited to publish it, so if you see it leaving the house in prose form, know that I have expressly forbidden it."
"Of course, Mr Holmes," Mrs Hudson said, smiling. "It wouldn't do to tarnish your reputation with something so mundane."
"To hell with my reputation," Holmes muttered, and subsided, sinking back into his chair, his elbows on the arms, his fingertips carefully balanced against one another.
Our landlady bid us goodnight, and patted me on the hand as she passed. "You're a saint," she said. "I'm not sure he knows how lucky he is."
I blushed and stammered, "Oh, I don't know—"
"Oh, Doctor, you do yourself wrong," she said. "Never underestimate the power of a good friend."
My blush deepened. "Well," I said, "you know how he is."
"That, I do," she agreed, smiling a secret smile. "Goodnight, Doctor."
"Goodnight." I closed the sitting room door behind her, waited a moment until I heard her reach the bottom of the stairs, and then turned to Holmes. He was staring at me intently, and his lips quirked up in a smile. I opened my mouth, and the words caught in my throat.
"She knows," he said for me.
I nodded, dumbstruck.
He shrugged, closing his eyes. "She's known us for ages, Watson. She might be disappointed by our late arrival."
Leaning back against the sitting room door, I put a hand over my eyes. He chuckled, and I heard the squeak of the chair and the rustle of his dressing gown as he rose and crossed the room to me. He touched the back of my hand with one finger, and I lowered it, looking up sheepishly into his face. He leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss to my forehead, another to my nose, and then, as I held my breath, to my lips.
"Fear not," he said. "She's suffered far worse from the two of us as her lodgers. I doubt anything of this magnitude will send her running to the Yard. Besides, she does not love the police officers hurrying up and down the stairs; I imagine she would ignore the issue, just to prevent that."
I managed to smile. I couldn't think of anything worse than being parted from Holmes now, after all this time, after all we had said and done.
"Fear not," Holmes said again, whispering now, and he pressed me firmly back into the door. His body was warm against mine, and up close I could see the flecks of grey and green in his irises. His breath tickled my cheek as he tucked his face into my neck, as if he could breathe the certainty of our safety in under my skin. I slid my arms around his shoulders, overwhelmed suddenly with amazement that he would seek me out for this kind of physical comfort. We had always been somewhat affectionate as friends, and I was filled with joy that a change in our relationship might result in an increase in this affection. I hugged Holmes tightly and felt him smile against my neck.
After a few long moments, he pulled away and I let him go. My hand lingered on his back as he turned. Indeed, I followed him across the room to the window, and together we looked down into the street.
"I suppose I shall have to rely on brain work alone in the next fortnight," Holmes muttered, almost to himself. "Disgusting. Do you know, that experiment I was working on?"
"I'm familiar with its results, though perhaps not its intended ones."
He rolled his eyes. "I'm trying to find a way to lift fingerprints from crime scenes, so that they may be inspected and identified. You know, of course, that a print left in blood or ink can be easily seen, but I suspect we leave prints on far more things than we know."
"Glasses," I said, "or window panes."
"Quite so. But also your chair arms, or the door knob, or a revolver."
"Would it have helped you today?" I asked.
He sighed. "Perhaps," he said, "but to match the finger prints I would have needed the prints of everyone in the house to compare, and I would have needed to find prints on physical objects in the room. I was looking, of course, to confirm my suspicions about the leaving of prints, but I am a long way from devising a method of taking them home with me. At any rate, it might have sped up the process slightly, but not so significantly that I cannot do without it for a little while longer."
"Lestrade was impressed with your work."
"As always." Holmes shook his head. "A ridiculous farce for a ridiculous cause." He sighed. "Well, I will have forgotten the details by morning, quite on purpose." A sly look crossed his face. "I will have much better things to think upon."
"We can't go straight back to bed," I said, disappointed. "We have to maintain at least the barest facade."
"You're quite right." Holmes led me back towards the fireplace. "You'll have to find some other way of entertaining me, my dear, until we can reasonably retire." He sank into his chair and looked up, eyebrows raised, expectant.
I went to light his pipe.
"Peace, Watson," he murmured, "I'm the only one in this household who enters bedchambers uninvited."
"Forgive me," I whispered back, and sank slowly down again, my heart hammering, weak with disbelief. I was in bed with Sherlock Holmes. We had not bothered to dress at all after we had spent ourselves the night before, and were both mother-naked. I was naked, in bed, with Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes opened his eyes, pinning me with his silver gaze. "John," he said, "are you quite well?"
"As well as one can be," I answered, turning on my side to face him, "when one has awoken in one's best friend's bed after a night of singularly illegal debauchery."
He grinned and rolled over, tucking his hands between us and touching his forehead to mine. "And?" he asked. "How well is that, exactly?"
"Quite," I said. Where before I had been cold with terror, now I was warm with affection and pleasure. Holmes wanted me here. He was as glad to find me still in bed with him as I was to have been invited in the first place. We gazed at each other for a long moment, unable to quit our smiling, and then he leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to my lips. I moved to cup his face and return the kiss, but the shift jostled his hands, and he pulled back sharply with a gasp of pain.
Any arousal I may have felt at that moment dissolved, and I sat up once more. "Holmes, I am sorry!"
"Stop," he said through his teeth, "please, that wasn't–" He sat up as well, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. I, on the inside by the wall, was trapped. "That wasn't your fault, that was mine."
"No," I said, "I should have been more careful."
"Hush," Holmes said sharply, still whispering. "The fire has been started and I'm sure by now water is on for tea, but you must be quiet. Kate isn't an idiot, and you leaving my bedroom like that–" he gave me an appreciative look up and down, making me blush– "will raise quite a few eyebrows, benevolent eyebrows though they may be. So do shut up and give me a moment, and when the coast is clear you can get upstairs without a fuss."
My heart sank at the idea of being banished so quickly, but I nodded. Propriety, in this case, won out over sentiment. I climbed past him, out of bed, and bent to gather my discarded clothing from the night before. Behind me, Holmes made a little noise of surprise, and I turned.
"Are you badly hurt?" I asked.
"Hm?" He had his gaze fixed somewhere below my navel, and I covered myself quickly with my handful of clothes. Holmes's mouth thinned into a tight, amused line. "Oh, no, I'm all right." He met my eyes, and my blush persisted. "I was just... admiring the view."
"Stop," I said.
"Oh please," Holmes murmured, "I've had to look at that gorgeous arse for years without being able to say a word, and now you want me to keep it to myself? No, thank you."
"Be quiet," I insisted, my face by now so hot I worried I might burst. His admission warmed me and shamed me at the same time. The women I had been with had been exotic and beautiful, curves and dark eyes and warm, umber-coloured skin. The men had been similar, strong and powerful and eager. I had certainly had success with both sexes– the women more than the men– but I had always imagined it had something to do with my position in the army and my credentials as a physician. No one had ever called any part of me gorgeous to my face. And to have it be Holmes, paired with an admission that he had been admiring me for some time... it made me tremble. I was being utterly ridiculous. "I'll just go upstairs."
"Don't dawdle," Holmes said. He rose before I could open the door onto the landing, and caught me for one more kiss. "I can't get far without you.."
I slipped out of his bedroom, my lips tingling, and darted upstairs as quickly as my bad leg would allow. It was rather quick. I had given chase in worse situations, I reminded myself, closing my door behind me.
Dressing quickly, I couldn't help but go over the strange and wonderful events of the night before. Although we had retired to his bedroom quite early according to our regular habits, we had not slept much until the wee hours of the morning. Even without the use of his hands, Holmes was an attentive pupil and a generous lover, and he had insisted on replicating the pleasure I had given him with my mouth. I had to say very little once he'd got the basics down, but it didn't stop me from a whispered litany of praise and blaspheming. He has a very clever tongue.
Then we had lain together quietly, facing one another, he with his burned hands tucked carefully under his chin and his cock still hard. We spent a long time just kissing, learning the taste of each other, until Holmes was shaking with need and my own prick was standing once more at attention. I took the liberty of the still-burning lamp to turn him on his back and touch him everywhere, running my fingers over every inch of his body from the crown of his head to the tips of his toes, massaging and exploring, learning what made him shiver and what made him shy away, what made him groan aloud and what made him sigh. When I finally touched his prick after all that time and all that teasing he came almost instantly, holding a moan behind his teeth. I tempted that out of him too with a few slow licks of my tongue on over-sensitive flesh, and he lay trembling on the bed for quite some time, recovering. Then he rolled once more onto his side and trapped me under his thigh, whereupon he proceeded to whisper terribly lewd and inventive things into my ear as I pleasured myself to my third orgasm of the evening.
We had slept like the dead after that.
God in heaven, I was aroused just remembering it. I splashed water on my face and tried to shake the images out of my mind. I would be entirely useless if I let my carnal nature take me over. Holmes would tire of me within a week, injured hands or no.
When I returned to the sitting room, now clean and presentable, Holmes was sitting in his chair, ignoring breakfast. He was looking longingly at the newspaper, folded up on the sideboard. I fetched it for him, unfolded it, and lay it open to the agony column on the breakfast table. The corner of his mouth lifted in gratitude, and he sat down across from me.
"I don't suppose you'd care for a walk, later," I said, turning my eyes on breakfast. Holmes shrugged. "It'll be good for you. Better than sitting around here."
"The opera," Holmes said firmly. "Not just a walk; we shall go to the opera."
"Of course," I said. The bacon was delicious. "This afternoon?"
"Whatever's on," he said. After a minute, he looked up expectantly.
"Well?" I knew what he wanted, but I decided he could be pleasant about it.
He narrowed his eyes, as though he knew what I was up to, which he probably did. "Would you turn the page for me, please." It wasn't quite a question. I obliged.
So it went for several weeks. Holmes put up with his status as an invalid with a moderate amount of grace, and I did my utmost to assist him. We had a shouting match or two, mostly over whether he should be allowed to go without bandages for this amount of time or on that errand, but I usually won and he usually sulked. The mobility in his fingers increased through our combined efforts, and it was on a chilly morning in late October that I finally declared him fit to return once more to active duty. His palms were clear of blisters and sores, and the new pink skin was firm to the touch and didn't make him wince. His dexterity returned one hundred fold once he was free of his bandages, and soon he was back to endangering himself with chemicals and working his cases with his fifth sense restored.
When he began that particular experiment again, the one that had started all the trouble, he had me press my fingers to various surfaces around the rooms. In return, I made him swear he'd be more careful with his solutions and to call me if he needed an extra set of hands. He blinked at me, apparently surprised by my vehemence.
"Why, Watson," he said, "I would have thought you'd been sore and tired of serving as my hands."
"Never," I said. "I'd have done it for a year if it earned me what it did."
He kissed me then, over his vials and papers. "You astonish me," he said softly. "And I'm glad to hear it." When he pulled away, my heart was beating double-time in my chest. "But I'm afraid I wouldn't have let it come to that," he went on calmly. "If I had gone another week unable to fend for myself, I'm afraid I might have murdered us both, for all the good it would have done us."
"Well," said I, "so be it. At least I'd have died a happy man." I grinned. "Though I wonder how you'd have done it, without hands."
"Oh, to hell with you, Watson," Holmes said with a smile. "Touch this slide, and I promise not to spill anything this time."