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Meet Me at Moonrise (r)

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Rush hour was in full spate. I hung from a strap, swayed with the rhythm of the train. Strings of words were forming in my head.

The last bit's a new habit that I blame on my therapist. Blog, she urges. I haven't typed a single word that I didn't delete soon after, well, as soon as I figured out how to do it, but I’ve started thinking in narrative, describing experiences to myself, no matter how mundane, hoping to concoct something I can post to get a respite from her soft-voiced insistence that I should blog.

I am never content with the words. They’re just noise about nothing. I think Shakespeare said something along the same lines. And I'm not convinced that exposing my feelings to strangers is going to banish my nightmares or make my sterile bedsit cosy and comforting. I have debates with myself about this and in my quasi-literary musings, I have found that I have a fondness for alliteration. It does help me not think of other things.

With a final lurch, the train stopped.

I limped towards the stairs and a wave of commuters swept me upwards, clinging to my cane with one hand and the handrail with the other. I was thrust through the barriers and spewed out into the crowd surging towards the station. I dodged as best I could, my knuckles white around the head of my cane. The urge to use it for more than lessening the weight on my aching leg was strong.

That sentiment won’t be going on the blog.

Willpower and the exiting throng prevailed. They bore me past the corner and over the road, leaving me washed up against the damp walls of Lloyd’s when they split three ways and thinned out. I lingered there, back pressed against the cold stone, out of the bustle of the footpath, and watched the lights at the intersection cycle from green to amber to red and back. The vehicles crept forward or halted according to their signals while the pedestrians streamed off the pavement, flooding between the cars, ignoring the danger, the traffic lights and me.

My breathing levelled out and my grip on my cane relaxed.

I took a couple steps along the bank’s Baker Street side to escape the wind gusting down Marylebone. My doubts about the wisdom of my excursion were not so easy to evade.

I checked the sky. There was not a hint of moon. The Tube always worked best when I was not behind schedule. I squared my shoulders and headed north.

***

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On the pavement outside 221B, I oscillated. The letter Mike had received requesting his help in finding a suitable candidate for the post of private physician was in my hand, ready to be presented to gain admittance when the hour arrived. I eyed the door behind which the scientist who needed his own doctor apparently resided. The illness or condition that warranted such a need had not been disclosed nor the number of individuals in the household who might require care. The possibility that the prospective employer might be a wealthy hypochondriac had crossed my mind. Worse possibilities had as well. I tapped the edge of the heavy envelope containing the letter against my thigh and willed the time to move faster.

I fell to studying the outward features of the building, inspecting its public face with sidelong glances, as if it might be offended if I stared. The door was black-painted wood inscribed with rectangles, the brass knocker and house numbers well-polished. It resembled so many doors in London. The café on the ground floor was closed. Through the darkened windows, I could see chairs upturned on the closely crowded tables. I assumed some were put out in front when it was open. The awning announced that breakfast and lunch were served. I had no memory of a restaurant being there before, but I’ve been gone a long while.

If the food was any good, I thought it would be handy having it right on the doorstep.

I frowned. I was picturing myself there.

Rather the point of going on a job interview, eh, Watson?

In truth, I had been entertaining some notion of being polite to Mike Stamford by following up on his suggestion. He’d seemed so happy to see me, so pleased at the idea that he might be able to help me out.

Why hide it, Watson? Not only do you need a job, you’re intrigued by this possibility. Take a deep breath and get on with it.

I’m early, remember?

I did take the deep breath though and continued to scan the façade: stone at ground level, brick above, wrought iron balconies running along the first floor. An ordinary house in an ordinary terrace of houses.

As good a place to work as any.

Better really. Central location, near a park, practically on top of a Tube station and yet…

Something scaring you?

My back stiffened.

I know nothing about this scientist except that he writes monographs on arcane subjects that he posts on his website, his housekeeper used to be Mike’s patient and Mike thought she was a nice lady.

Scared.

It was an odd thing for me to think because I don’t scare easily, but snippets of the legends had been flitting through my mind since the lunch with Mike had concluded with a tour of Bart’s and a perusal of the unexpected letter he had found on his desk that morning. We had both laughed at what we could remember of the tales circulating when we were in training, especially the incident we had witnessed in the A&E when a lad had been brought in by his friends after he had shown up at a party jabbering about being chased down Baker Street by a hellhound with glowing red eyes. His mates had assumed he had got hold of some bad drugs, but one had mumbled something about the legend of the Manor on Baker Street. Although the stories were old when our grandparents were children, episodes like that one went a long way to keeping the tales alive for another generation. It would, of course, be preposterous for me to let nonsense like that keep me from pursuing a decent job lead.

I checked the sky again. The clouds were scudding west, taking the reflective glow of the city lights with them. The pavement before the house grew darker. I glanced across the street.

We used to walk up the other side of the road to rugby games in the park, my schoolmates and I, peering over the cars and between the buses, whispering to one another despite the noise of the street. What was there supposed to have been at the Manor? I thought back. What wasn’t there supposed to have been?

I shook my head.

The legends that clung to the ordinary building before me included vengeful ghosts and seductive witches, mad scientists and monsters, werewolves and warlocks, vampires and savage beasts and those were just the stories I could remember. What it was about this spot that had inspired so many tales, I was never sure, because London teemed with places that boasted a bloody past and a ghost or two.

I smiled.

My friends and I might have been guilty of augmenting the mythos a bit, passing it on to new pupils at school. I had even written down a scary story about a beautiful ghost and a lovelorn lad in the back of one of my history notebooks. Maybe everyone loves to spin a yarn.

When we were older, it had been cool to swagger close enough to the door to touch the brass knocker and if we sauntered a bit faster once we had, we didn’t call one another on it. Well, not until we were older still and thoroughly drunk by the time we left the pub on the corner after a game.

I glanced up and down the road. I had not thought I had so many memories of this one street, but they were rushing at me thick and fast now, my very own ghosts.

There was the night Bill Murray had stopped to take a piss on the railing and the rest of us had fallen back a step or two, which was just as well. The urine had sizzled where it struck the metal and what had not risen in a pungent cloud above our heads, had spattered back all over Murray and put a stop to the proceedings. I had led Bill away while he was still struggling with his flies. He had gone very pale and I had not wanted to see what would happen if he vomited on the fence as well.

Bill had thanked me for that next time we got together and we had laughed, certain that we all must have been far drunker than we had realised. Yet we took to crossing the road up by the pub and walking to the Tube down the other side, just as my old schoolmates and I had done years before. None of us had ever talked about that part.

Then, the years scattered us. All round the world it seemed. Murray had ended up in Afghanistan, too, and that had been lucky for me.

I reached out and touched the railing. It was cold metal with a blister or two in the black paint.

I had checked that night after leaning Murray up against a lamppost because electrifying a fence along a public street was not on and I fully intended to report it, but it had been cold then as well.

“I thought I heard someone out here.”

I snatched my hand away from the paling and turned to find an older woman smiling at me from the open doorway.

“You must be Doctor Watson,” she said, extending her hand. “You look exactly like the photo on the CV Doctor Stamford sent to my phone. It’s amazing what one can do with a phone these days.”

I smiled in agreement, switching my cane to my other hand and accepting hers. It was cool and firm, with a hint of swelling in the middle knuckle of the small finger.

“Mrs Hudson, I’m guessing,” I said as I let go. “I am sorry for loitering. I was early.”

She stepped back into the hall and gestured for me to come in. “It’s just as well. Time for a cup of tea before Sherlock gets here. He called to say he might be delayed.”

I did as bid, trying not to stare too obviously as I went. The foyer was broader than I had estimated it would be. An inner door decorated with stained glass panels hid the rest of the hall from view. Their designs were doubled in a large mirror to my right. My reflection in it was dappled with green and gold.

Behind me, Mrs Hudson closed the front door. I heard a bolt slide shut and the sounds of the street disappeared. I looked back. The inside of the door was not ordinary. Its surface was deeply carved with flowers and fruit. Half-hidden faces peered out from amidst the wooden foliage. Above them the glow of the streetlamp illuminated the frosted orb at the centre of the fanlight.

“He might make it back in time. The moon won’t be visible over the housetops for a while yet,” Mrs Hudson said, bustling past me to open the second door and ushering me deeper inside.

“It was an original way to set the hour of our meeting,” I remarked as I followed.

“Old habits,” she said. “What with watches and phones to tell the time, hardly anyone bothers to know where the sun and the moon are anymore.”

“Still relevant to some folks,” I said, the image of convoys setting out once the moon had set not so distant in my memory.

I shut the inner door gently behind me.

A glimmer above my head drew my eyes as I stepped forwards. Before me a wide staircase swept towards the upper floors. I followed its curves past more levels than it seemed the house should possess. At its apex was a dimly patterned oval that I took to be a skylight. “It’s bigger than it looks from the street,” I said.

“Everyone says that,” Mrs Hudson replied, from further down the hall, “but the manor house goes on to the corner and back to the parallel road behind us, so it isn’t surprising once you know that.” She waved towards the stairs. “Go on up, one flight. The door to the study is open. Make yourself at home. Give the fire a poke if it’s got too low. I’ll bring the tea in a few minutes.” With that she was gone, another glass door swinging shut after her.

Interesting as the information she had shared was, it didn’t explain the extra storeys.

The upper floors could be set back from the façade.

I pondered that as I mounted the stairs with my three-legged gait, pausing to tip my head up to gaze at the skylight more than once. I wondered if the moon would shine through it.

Fanciful, Watson.

As promised, the door to the study was open. I halted at the threshold assessing, a habit I doubt I will ever lose. The lighting was not ideal for my purpose, the evening gloom barely dispelled by the glass-shaded reading lamps set well away from the door. To my mind, it was more a library than a study, with shelves filled with books and bibelots rising to the high ceilings between the six tall windows overlooking the street and wrapping around other doors and the fireplace on the remaining walls.

There were statues of bronze and marble poised on pedestals about the room. Various tables and chairs were grouped around low bookcases and display cabinets which seemed to hold insect specimens and animal skeletons as far as I could tell. Every surface was littered with piles of books and papers, surmounted by open journals or unrolled maps. They spoke of an ongoing occupation or one suddenly interrupted.

I wondered what might have called my interviewer away and proceeded inside.

There was a chill in the room, the fire had indeed burned low. As I stooped to poke at the embers, I found myself eye to socket with a human skull. It rested on the mantelpiece amidst photographs and figurines and a stack of post impaled by the blade of a fine folding knife. The mirror above it reflected my wide eyes.

Come now, doctor. You’ve seen plenty of skulls.

“They aren’t usually on people’s mantels,” I muttered and added a log to the fire.

A minor detail.

“Fine,” I said, “we’ll see what other details the night provides.” I dusted off my hands and turned my back to the windows.

One of the double doors facing me was obligingly ajar, letting in a narrow bar of bluish light that revealed the deep reds of the Persian carpets which muffled my steps. I moved closer and opened the door wider. A profane exclamation escaped me. Before me was a laboratory, not quite as well-equipped as the labs I had toured a couple days previously at Bart’s, but damned close. On the centre table a fine microscope took pride of place. Beside it was a box of slides, two stands of stoppered test tubes and an open notebook.

Perhaps I was taking the injunction to make myself at home a bit far, but I did not seem able to resist peeking through the microscope nor reading the most recent lab notes concerning blood samples, human and otherwise, that contained pathogens which crossed species. I leaned my cane against the table and lifted one of the vials from the nearer rack, rotating it to read the writing on the label: S. scrofa.

“What do you think?” a deep voice enquired.

I tightened my grip on the test tube and faced the open door.

Disadvantaged by the strong lighting in the laboratory, I strained to find the source of the voice in the dim recesses of the library. What I could see through the window was that the moon had risen and shone bright between the chimney pots. A movement at the edge of the shadows caught my eye. A tall figure glided into the moonlight, his face as pale as it, his form merging with the darkness on one side, outlined by firelight on the other. A long-fingered hand appeared and then another. The figure approached, gloves in hand, his features growing clearer as the light of the laboratory enveloped him, revealing the fine contours of his face and the cool gleam of his eyes.

Speak, Watson.

I should. A question had been asked; I ought to answer it. I considered the vial in my hand, placed it carefully back in its stand. The question had been about the experiment. I glanced at the notes again.

“Zoonoses,” I managed to say and took a fortifying breath. “A fascinating area.”

“Why is it fascinating?” the man asked. He had reached the corner of the lab table.

I turned towards him fully, had to tilt my head up to meet his eyes.

Like the sea.

My brows drew together.

What’s become of the rational approach?

It’s an observation. From the cliffs outside Tangier, the sea looked like that.

It had been a good holiday with a few mates from the medical corps who had no compelling reasons to dash back to Britain every time they had leave. We were more than halfway down the list of entertainments the resort had to offer, when a feral dog bit Murray and the two of us left early to get the necessary tests done. We had regretted missing the scuba diving.

“Too often overlooked in diagnosis,” I said. I had not overlooked it. Murray had suffered no complications.

“True,” my host replied.

My gaze dropped to his mouth.

“A sometimes fatal oversight,” he continued. “The information is useful in forensics as well. It can provide a valuable clue to identity.”

His lips were full. I was mesmerised by their changing shape as he spoke, enunciating each word as though he were French kissing it.

Concentrate, Watson.

“I haven’t usually been faced with identity problems when making my diagnoses,” I heard myself say and felt rather proud at having produced such a long and relevant sentence in such a calm, professional voice.

“They don’t waste surgeon’s time on the dead,” he said, “but in a morgue it can be a factor.” His lips curved upwards slightly on the final words.

I looked back at his eyes. The smile had changed their shape.

“Are you a pathologist?” I asked. All those years of multitasking under stressful conditions were paying off.

“Not a bad deduction,” he said. “Incorrect, but not illogical.”

He turned towards the study, his coat flaring about him. “Let us sit while you deduce, Doctor Watson. I have the advantage as I already know the basics about you and it’s probably too soon to go deeper.” He glanced back at me when he reached the hearth and gestured towards the seat facing the one by which he was standing. He shrugged off his coat and scarf and draped them over the closest desk chair.

His motions were beautiful to watch. There was training there. A martial art? I thought I recognised the kind of assurance that comes with deadly knowledge.

“Tea,” Mrs Hudson announced, entering the study with a large tray. “It wouldn’t have taken so long, but Baskerville was begging for treats.” She set the tray on a table between the two nearest windows. “How do you take your tea, Doctor Watson?”

“Milk, please, no sugar,” I replied, pulling the lab door back into the position in which I had found it.

I turned and paused, cocking my head towards the hallway. A scrabbling sound on the stairs was growing rapidly louder. I strode towards the door just as an enormous animal bounded into the room. I barred the beast’s way, legs apart and arms raised in front of my chest. I could not say what the creature was, but it was a mammal and I knew where to strike it a blow that would stun it. The brute snarled, deep and long, showing me fine fangs and shifted right in an attempt to circumvent me. I shifted with him.

“Sit, Baskerville,” my host said.

The animal obeyed immediately, its eyes rolling up to look at its master. It whined.

I moved back a pace, realising the creature belonged to the house, although its name conjured ominous associations from my army days.

“You must get to know Doctor Watson,” my host said soothingly, stepping past me to the animal’s side.

I watched his pale fingers disappear into long, black fur as he scratched behind the beast’s ears. Now that it was at rest, I could see that it was a huge dog, possibly a mastiff, but with a mane of thick hair and unsettling red eyes.

The dog quieted beneath its master’s touch, pressing against his leg, its head raised, mouth open, tongue lolling. It looked more like a small bear than a dog and I thought of other stories, this time of the highly classified activities that were rumoured to occur at the military base at Baskerville, and I wondered whether my host’s placating tone had been for the beast or for me.

He lifted an arm. Without warning, I felt his hand curled around my neck, a couple fingers slipping beneath my collar.

For the second time that evening, my eyes opened wide.

The hand was withdrawn.

I felt its imprint on my skin.

The hand was offered to the dog. The nails of its hind legs clicked against the floorboards as it snuffled loudly against the palm.

“Take a good sniff, Baskerville,” Mrs Hudson said, “Doctor Watson may be joining us.” She set a cup and saucer on the table by one of the arm chairs. “Have a seat, Doctor. Baskerville won’t bother you now he’s got Sherlock.”

I remained standing.

So this was Sherlock Holmes, author of monographs on esoteric topics and my potential employer. I had pictured him older. The publication dates of his articles went back nearly twenty years and covered such a wide range of subjects I had not been able to discern his specialism.

Mrs Hudson patted my arm. “Sit, dear,” she urged softly. “Baskerville’s a good boy. He just gets all excited when Sherlock comes home.”

I went and sat, albeit with lingering misgivings. Seated, the dog was nearly as tall as I was. Mrs Hudson added a plate of small cakes to the tea on the side table by my chair. The dog eyed them, nose twitching, and I wondered if it…he…would lunge at the food.

Instead, when Mr Holmes sat, the dog followed calmly and rested his huge head on the arm of the chair. After a sip of the tea Mrs Hudson handed him, Mr Holmes set it aside and resumed stroking the dog’s head. Baskerville closed his eyes and thumped his tail against the carpet.

As large as Mrs Hudson had described the house as being, I thought it must be confining for such a big animal. To my chagrin, no sooner had I had the thought than I expressed it.

Imprudent, Watson.

“One of us take him for a run in the park every day,” Sherlock said and took a bite of a cake.

“Me, usually,” Mrs Hudson added as she headed out the door, “unless Billy’s about.”

“He must cause something of a sensation,” I remarked.

“We take him after dark,” Mr Holmes replied and wiped away a crumb that had lingered at the corner of his lips.

Watching very closely, eh, Watson?

“But the park’s locked at night,” I thought out loud.

I pressed my lips together and turned towards the hearth. I was moving further and further from recommended approaches to job interviews. The log I had added to the fire cracked, flames shooting up between the halves. It seemed fitting.

“I have keys,” Mr Holmes said and I heard the smile in his voice.

“Of course, you do,” I thought, and managed not to say it aloud. Legend had it that Holmeswood Manor had once sat on an estate that stretched northward all the way to the heath and east past the borders of what became the Regent’s Park. What its other boundaries were supposed to have been I had never heard precisely, but tunnels and underground rivers were involved.

“Would you like to see?” Mr Holmes asked.

I looked towards him and was grateful that I was not holding my tea cup. I was sure mind-readers did not exist, but his eyes were flickering over me as though he were absorbing the data on a computer screen. Among my gambling friends, my inscrutable poker face was renowned. I wondered whether I had lost that skill, too.

“See?” I repeated.

“You grew up locally. You’ve heard the stories,” he said.

I clearly had not been subtle in my gaping.

“Yes,” I admitted, since there was nothing for it but to own up. I searched my memory for traces of him in the tales, some charismatic seer or psychic.

Those stories were old long before he was born. How could he be in them?

I shook my head slightly. Whatever grains of truth might reside in the legends must be the echoes of some eccentric forebears.

“A lot of nonsense,” I said, but I thought he was one who could inspire tales of his own.

“They’ve made you hesitate,” he said, his eyes roving over me. “And you’re not a man deterred by nonsense.”

“That’s true,” I agreed, studying him in turn. He was a noble study, with his long legs crossed, one hand on the dog’s enormous head, the other resting on the arm of his chair - a commander at his ease.

“…the lion in his den, the Douglas in his hall…”

Poetry now, is it? I have no intention of offending him.

Is it swearing fealty that you have in mind, then?

Stop!

“If you will be staying, Doctor,” Mr Holmes said, “you’ll need a tour of the premises.”

For all my internal dialoguing, I was sure I had not missed him making me an offer of the job and yet he seemed to be saying it was mine for the taking.

The idea coursed through me like a current.

Steady on, Watson.

My eyes darted about the room. Beyond the window, the moon rode high above the rooftops and I thought that if a neon sign suddenly appeared on one of them, blinking alternately ‘run’ and ‘now’, it would not persuade me to abandon this chance. Remaining steady in the face of that realisation would not be easy.

The semblance of steadiness at least then, Watson. Maybe you have aces, maybe you have spots before your eyes.

It was a fair point. I could take a moment to place my bet.

I picked up my tea and took a sip, let it sit on my tongue before I swallowed. I took a deep breath and savoured the scent of spice cake and charred wood, old leather and a faint hint of dog. I exhaled and leaned back in the well-cushioned chair as the last traces of damp and chill that had beset me in the street were burnt away by the fire.

I tipped my head back. There was a night sky painted on the ceiling. Several bird skeletons were suspended from it, wired in perpetual flight, their bones catching the light. It had been years since I had dreamt of flying.

I considered the career I had had. The thousands of lives that had been placed in my hands. Would having only a few to care for be enough for me?

I thought about the enigmatic man in the room, with his laboratory, his abstruse monographs and his loyal hellhound. I tried not to think of his long, graceful fingers. Perhaps just one life could be enough.

The sound of a knot popping in the hearth was followed by a hiss of steam.

Ask about terms, Watson.

I lowered my eyes, looked across the space between our chairs, and found Mr Holmes swiping through screens on his mobile with rapid flicks of his thumb.

I cleared my throat to make my announcement and stalled. Without an introduction, I was unsure how I should address him, what honorific he might prefer.

“May I borrow your phone?” he interjected and held out his hand.

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My mobile was out of my pocket and I was leaning forward offering it to him before I gave the superfluity of his request a conscious thought.

He closed his fingers about it without even the tip of one of them touching my hand.

Mine curled over my empty palm.

He set my phone on the arm of his chair, which I found oddly disappointing, and proceeded to tap away at them both.

I watched the nimble movement of his fingers, glanced at the neutral expression on his face and thought it would be a losing proposition to play poker with him.

That’s unlikely to be part of the job description.

Just as well.

“There,” he said, handing my mobile back. “I have your number and you have mine. I prefer to text and do so at all hours. Sometimes I don’t speak a word for days. A month’s wages have been transferred to your current account. If, at any time during the coming month, you decide you do not wish to live here as our resident physician and my personal assistant, an amount equal to the balance of a month’s salary will be wired to your account and we will part ways.”

He just accessed your bank account.

Don’t care.

There wasn’t much in it. He couldn’t have made a huge withdrawal or even a moderate one. The scarcity of my funds should have made each pound more precious, I suppose, but where suspicion should have been, there was a pleasing sensation, as though he had touched me after all.

Do you care how he did it?

Not really.

Considering the number of scandals in the press, hacking must have become a common skill since I’d been away. I looked at his hands again. His fingers were interlaced and I thought he might be keeping them in check, motion seemed to be their natural state from the little I had seen. Images of them pulling coins out of the air or plucking scarves from people’s pockets in spills of cards and keys, guns and knives flashed through my mind.

Free association is an interesting thing, but I pushed it aside and focussed on medical considerations. Having only met him and Mrs Hudson, I did not think health care would take up much of my time, although either of them might be suffering from conditions that were not obvious and there were the signs of osteoarthritis I had already noted in Mrs Hudson’s hand. I would need to review their medical histories and run some tests of my own, but filling the time when I wasn’t needed as a physician by assisting Mr Holmes with research or experimentation had a strong appeal.

He had turned his gaze towards the fire.

I flexed the fingers of my left hand.

Keen to show off your skills?

Yes.

But how much of them remain to me? I balled my hand into a fist.

“What if I don’t discharge my duties to the standard you require?” I asked.

“You are competent and conscientious. I am sure you will perform your duties in a satisfactory manner,” he replied, his eyes returning to me.

I felt warm.

“Possibly even to an exemplary standard,” he added.

It was like a drop of nectar. Just a drop, not too sweet. I could almost taste it on my tongue. How I missed the satisfaction of a job well done. I lifted my chin.

“You couldn’t know that from a few minutes’ conversation,” I countered.

“I could. I observe more than most people,” he said, untwining his fingers and pressing their tips together in front of his lips. “I have enough information to make my decision.”

“Why are you arguing against your own case, Watson? Your resumé is solid. Mike would have sung your praises.

I want to earn his good opinion.

Peacock hasn’t had a chance to spread his tail, eh?

He raised an eyebrow at me. “Ask yourself why you were ready to defend me against what you perceived to be the attack of a ferocious animal?”

I inhaled slowly.

He was settled deep in his chair, the prayerful position of his hands leading my eyes to his mouth. It did not require any assistance to garner admiration. I lowered my eyes. His shirt was nearly as dark as his suit and tight across his chest, the edges of the buttons ruddy in the glow of the flames. Everything below merged with the shadows. My gaze snapped higher. Moonlight formed a nimbus around his curls. He was the embodiment of mystery, bait and trap all in one.

I pressed my lips together. Those thoughts needed to stay in my head.

You protect what’s yours.

He isn’t mine...

“…yet,” I finished aloud. I bit the inside of my lip.

So you need to stay until he is. You've given it some calm thought, now don’t let this one slip away. Tell him you’re staying.

He parted his lips as though to speak.

“I’m staying,” I said. I doubted anything he was going to tell me would deter me: reanimated corpses in the attic, vampires in the basement, werewolves in the back garden, if there was one, a back garden, that is. I’d defend them, too, or treat them for the flu, if that was what he required. I looked up then and he smiled at me.

He stood. “I’ll give you a quick tour, so you can find your way to your room and back here safely.”

I sprang up as well, feeling light and probably looking a bit puzzled.

“It’s an old house; it has…quirks,” he said, “and I wouldn’t want to lose you.”

Maybe he was testing the strength of my decision or aiming for a spot of humour. I could only focus on how little space there was for the two of us to stand between the armchairs, his height all the more pronounced because of how near we were to one another. My eyes fixed on the fair skin visible at his throat where his collar was undone. I could see the pulse at his throat and repressed a smile. My proximity was perhaps having some effect on him. I wanted to count the beats with my fingertips; see if I could make them speed up more.

I inhaled, which was a mistake at that distance. A light fragrance emanated from his open collar, something that made me want to lick the skin over that delicate throb, to taste it or even bite into it.

The air cooled. He had stepped away.

“Shall we?” he said and gestured towards the far wall of the library.

I felt that we should do many things.

He flitted across the moonbeams streaming through the windows. When I finally set myself in motion, he had stopped in the last pool of silvery light and was regarding me. There were no flames to colour him there; he was all pallor and darkness.

The room seemed inordinately long as I progressed through it, skirting the benches and pedestals and display cases that seemed to sprout in my path. I thought the shadows about him grew denser as I hastened forward and a fear that he might be swallowed by them before I reached his side gripped me.

He waited, as still and pale as the statues I had passed, except, as I drew near, I could see the pink bloom of his mouth.

An urge to taste it rose in me. I clenched my fists by my side. I was not going to get myself dismissed from the job before I had even started it.

Eyes still upon me, he reached behind him and pulled a slender volume down onto its spine. A bookcase swung open and he took a step backwards into the dark.

~~~~~~oo0oo~~~~~~