John Watson was moving before James Wilder had finished falling.
Sherlock Holmes stood frozen, unable to shift more than his gaze even after their quarry impacted with the cavern floor with a sound like a sack full of wet meal. He did not look at James Wilder's face, but at Watson's, as his friend knelt by the body and tugged off his glove in order to feel for a pulse in a neck which had most certainly been broken on the second or third bounce down the limestone precipice. It was not until Watson looked up, his expression eloquent of his findings, that Holmes felt free to breathe.
The Duke of Holdernesse was held immobile as well, his strange black eyes wide with disbelief and grief, until the echoes brought down the sound of a small boy trying not to sob. Dazedly, he raised his head and blinked, once, twice, and again, before shaking himself into a semblance of authority and calling reassurances up to his remaining child.
Fetching the boy down from the crevice high on the cavern wall was a tricky business. Having just watched his kidnapper fall to his death, Arthur, Lord Saltire, was understandably shaken and unwilling to risk moving. In the end, the Duke had his servants crowd under the boy with arms upraised, so that even if he fell he would fall amongst them, and be saved. The stableboy was sent up to help Arthur climb down, and if he too was nervous, his fifteen-year-old's pride would not allow him to show it to the younger boy.
Holmes and Watson were momentarily superfluous and waited alongside the body of James Wilder while the rescue went on. In that brief respite Holmes noticed that his friend was passing a hand over his face again and again. A hand that trembled. He touched Watson's shoulder and found it shaking as well.
"Are you all right, my dear fellow?" he murmured, sotto voce, unwilling to call attention away from the drama above them.
Watson shook his head, ever so slightly, and reached up to grasp the hand which Holmes had rested on his shoulder. "I'm a bit cold," he lied, glancing toward the Duke to make it clear why he would not elaborate. "It's been a long day, and I could use a bite of supper."
"We'll have to see to that, then," Holmes said, with one last searching gaze over his friend's face, before he retrieved his hand. His own breakfast seemed suddenly quite far away, now that the conclusion of the case allowed him to attend to the demands of the body, but he knew that whatever was undermining Watson's usual steady demeanor, it was not hunger. There were too many ghosts in those blue eyes.
The boy jumped the last few feet into his father's arms, and the Duke called out, "Doctor!" even as he hugged the child to his breast. Instantly, Watson straightened and assumed an air of calm.
"Yes, your Grace?"
"Would you please...?" The unspoken entreaty hung on the air, but Holmes had no doubt that the watching servants could translate the Duke's evident desires even more readily than he. It would not be enough to touch and see his son. Holdernesse required an expert witness to confirm that the boy was both safe and sound.
Watson, blessedly, was just the expert required. He took a seat on an outcropping of stone and held out a hand. "Hello there. My name is John Watson, and I'm a doctor."
Saltire looked up into his father's face for reassurance before he offered his own hand. "How do you do?" he asked, his voice still unsteady.
"That is my question for you," Watson said. "Does anything hurt, Lord Saltire?"
In answer, Saltire pushed up his sleeves, to reveal the rings of bruised and lacerated flesh. "My ankles, too," he said simply. Then he flushed. "And...and I'm tired of sitting."
Watson paused in his examination of the torn wrists to smile reassuringly. "I expect you are. People aren't meant to spend a long time doing nothing but sit. It can make things very sore. Are you very sore, or do you think you can walk back to the Hall for a bath before I put salve on the hurt places?"
Saltire bit his lip, and looked up to his father. "Is it a long way?"
"Half a mile to the road, another two miles from there, but we can send for a carriage." Holdernesse held up a hand to summon one of his servants.
"I should have kept my rucksack with me," Watson chastised himself softly as he took his handkerchief from his sleeve and anointed it with some of the brandy from his flask. "My medical kit would have come in useful. But in the meantime, this should clean out the worst of the dirt."
The boy's dark eyes were huge in the torchlight as he watched the doctor's gentle ministrations. "I saw you," he confided softly. "On the moor. You were following us."
"That's right," Watson said, and there was a note in his voice that rang like a cracked bell. "And I'm very sorry I didn't get closer."
"Why didn't you?" A fresh tear drew a new trail down the dirty face. "Why didn't you stop him? Why did you leave me alone?"
Since Watson clearly had no answer for the question, Holmes stepped forward. "We were afraid that if we got too close, he would hurt you," he said. "We did not know if he had a gun, or a knife. Dr. Watson followed you in order to buy time, so that I could bring your father and the others; so that Mr. Wilder would be outnumbered, and would surrender. At least," he conceded contritely, "we hoped he would."
"And when you went underground," Watson said gruffly, "I lost the trail. I didn't know about this place."
Saltire wiped his nose with his sleeve, but no one rebuked him for it. "He waited for you. Near the entrance. With a rock. He was going to bash your head in."
Holmes closed his eyes for a moment to banish the image that the words had summoned. How many hours would they have spent hunting across the moor if Watson had been struck down? "Then it's just as well that Dr. Watson came back to the Hall and fetched us, isn't it?" A thought came to him and he opened his eyes to look again at the child. "You tried to get away from him, didn't you? While he was waiting in ambush for the doctor?"
"I tried. But it didn't work very well. He had the lantern."
"It was very brave of you, nonetheless," Watson said. He got stiffly to his feet and addressed the Duke. "Get him back to the hall. What he needs the most are a bath, a decent night's sleep, and a meal of something better than black pudding and turnips. Not necessarily in that order." He glanced down to the boy again. "No swedes, either, I should imagine."
The lingering fear in Saltire's eyes gave way to wonder. "How did you know?"
Watson patted the boy's shoulder. "I'll tell you as we go."
The swiftest of the servants ran ahead to arrange for transportation, and to alert the kitchen at the Hall, while the steadiest men were assigned to guard the cavern until the local constabulary could view the body in situ. There would be no difficulty about James Wilder's death, not with so many witnesses, but Holmes thought it best to leave as few questions as possible for the coroner's court. He wondered if Dr. Huxtable had sent the messages about Reuben Hayes on to the local constabulary, and whether it would be worth the effort of sending someone to the tor where the German master's body lay to see if the police had arrived there; but he hesitated to mention as much to the Duke. Holdernesse's world had shrunk to the size of one small boy, but there was still room in it for grief.
Holmes directed his attention instead to Watson, who had recounted the tale of his luncheon in jovial tones to the boy and assured him that Mrs. Hayes -- who had done her best to be kind -- had taken no great harm, before falling silent and concentrating upon placing his feet safely upon the path. The moon had gone down, not that it had shed much light, and the torches and candles were burning to stubs. Holmes could not see his friend's face; he had to draw conclusions from the way Watson’s feet rose no farther from the path than necessity required. Exhaustion might explain much -- Holmes had not exaggerated the demands which the scarlet fever epidemic had placed on Watson when he mentioned it to Dr. Huxtable back in London. And Watson had been running across the moor half the day. But was that enough to account for the slump of Watson’s shoulders, or the brooding silence into which he had retreated once the boy’s weariness precluded conversation?
It occurred to Holmes, about the time that they reached the road, that Watson had not yet been informed of James Wilder's parentage and could not appreciate the way that the young man’s death had cut through a Gordian knot of complications. Watson had no reason to view Wilder’s demise with anything but regret, and was almost certainly thinking that he could have prevented it, had he only forced a confrontation before Wilder had entered the cave. If he knew his Watson -- and he did, none better -- that sense of guilt would only be magnified by the knowledge that young Saltire had been witness to Wilder's fall.
The arrival of a dog cart from the Hall cut off further contemplation.
"There's a wagon coming too," the driver said. "But this was quicker, your Grace."
"Thank you, Higgins." The duke lifted his son into the the conveyance and climbed in himself. There was room for one more, and Holmes saw the duke's head turn, seeking him out. Of course the man would want a confidant! But that was not the only consideration.
"Take the doctor, your Grace," Holmes said, knowing he sounded imperious, but having no better way to convey the necessity in such a fashion as to forestall any protest from Watson. "You shall require his services before you require mine."
"Yes, yes, of course. Doctor?"
He caught a glimpse of Watson's expression by the lamp on the cart, and raised a hand in farewell, knowing that his own features were in shadow. To his relief, Watson raised a hand in response. "I'll have your dinner waiting for you," he warned the detective.
"And I'll be certain to eat something, when I come," Holmes answered solemnly, although he hoped that Watson would hear volumes in that not quite neutral tone. The mystery was solved, after all, and there were pleasanter ways to celebrate that accomplishment than with a bite of bread and cheese.
On the wagon ride back to the Hall, Holmes learned volumes from the servants by the simple expedient of feigning sleep. James Wilder had not been particularly well-liked, and would not be missed, except, perhaps by the one or two men who were old enough to remember what he had been like as a lad. But no matter how carefully the Duke had thought to protect his secret, it was clear that Wilder's parentage was known, or guessed at, among the Hall's staff.
"Should have sent him off to Canada years ago, had him make a place for himself away from Holdernesse" the butler, Rivers, declared, to the approbation of the others. "Not kept him here to flaunt his privileges in her Grace's face. But for him to steal away the boy, that I never thought."
"And if you had, would his Grace have listened?" an older voice inquired. "He didn't listen when Wilder put Saltire up on that horse he couldn't handle. You can't tell me it was his lordship's notion-- he was white as a sheet from the moment he got in the saddle. Just luck he didn't break worse than his arm."
"Wish those London detectives had talked to us," someone grumbled.
"Didn't need to, did they?" came the counter. "The police chase their tails day after day, and up Sherlock Holmes comes and finds the boy after a single night."
"Him and his friend. We'd still be searching the moor if it weren't for that doctor running all the way back to the Hall to tell us what he'd seen."
"Good job he didn't try to take Mr. Wilder on alone is what I say. I recall what happened to that dog that tried to bite him five years back. Head all smashed in, it had, and Wilder grinning like a madman."
"Do you suppose that's what he meant to do to Lord Saltire? Get him someplace dark and bash his head in?"
"Don't even think on it!" More than one voice protested the sentiment, but it was oldest voice in the wagon that dominated the others. “Just be glad the lad is safe and home. Did you see how tall he made himself stand once he found his feet on steady ground?
“That lad’s a true heir of Holdernesse in more ways than one,” said Rivers. “And let us hope that his Grace can see him now, to know he’ll make a better master than most when he’s old enough to step into his father’s shoes.”
Holmes hoped so too.
The flight of steps leading inside seemed longer than it had in the afternoon, and there was no sign of Watson. A broadbeamed housekeeper was waiting instead, with a polite query after his name, and orders to take him up yet another flight to a guest bedroom which was still being readied by a flustered young maid.
It was a large wood-paneled chamber, with a wide, curtained bed, a number of bookshelves and dressers along the walls, a desk near the window, and a sitting area near the fireplace. The table was set with two places, a covered platter and a tureen. "The doctor said you'd be hungry, sir," the housekeeper said, pulling out a chair.
"Where is the doctor?" Holmes asked as he accepted the seat.
"With Lord Saltire, sir."
"And have you a room ready for him as well?"
"Next door, sir," the housekeeper indicated the direction with one hand. "But he asked that his supper be left here with you."
"Hasn't he eaten?" Holmes asked with some dismay. Half the point of sending Watson ahead was to see that he'd find sustenance sooner.
"He had a sandwich and a bit of ginger cake with his lordship when they first arrived," the housekeeper said, and Holmes breathed out his relief.
"Thank you." He remembered, in time, to inquire whether anyone had been sent with the good news to the school.
"Yes, sir," the housekeeper said. "His Grace sent Perkins over as soon as he reached the Hall. And the doctor asked if he'd be so kind as to fetch back your suitcases and things."
Holmes nodded and rubbed his hands together before extending them towards the fire. It seemed that Watson had no more wish to cross the moor this night than he did himself. The boys, masters, and servants were crammed into every spare space at the Priory school, and the guest rooms were tiny. This room alone was larger than both their accommodations at the school, and as far as Holmes could see, this entire wing of the Hall was standing all but empty. A quick airing had not entirely dismissed the scent of mothballs from the linens. But if the Holdernesse hospitality creaked a bit with disuse, that was just as well. Watson was company enough for any man.
Holmes nodded to the two women. "I doubt we should we require anything more, but if we should?"
“The bell is by the bedstead, sir. It rings in the servant’s kitchen, and I’ll see to it that there’s someone in place to hear it all the night long.”
“I shouldn’t wish to cause you any trouble.”
“No trouble at all, sir.” The housekeeper’s smile had a touch of sorrow. “We’re used to keeping watch. His Grace has had restless nights before this, and with less reason.” She raised the cover of the tureen. “Would you like to begin with soup, sir?” She began to ladle it into his bowl without waiting for an answer.
Holmes would have asked her if she had any relations named Hudson, had it not been that he thought he could deduce Watson’s hand in her refusal to acknowledge anything but a direct dismissal until he had begun to eat. He tested the hypothesis by picking up his spoon and confirmed it by the relaxation of her shoulders. “Thank you,” he said again, after making inroads into the bowl. “The soup is excellent.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” she said, and this time she signalled to the maid to precede her out the door. “I’ll send word to the doctor that you’ve arrived.”
No sooner had the women gone than Holmes abandoned the food in favor of investigating every corner and drawer in the room. He was still in the process of doing so when Watson arrived.
For a long moment the doctor simply stood in the doorway, watching Holmes as he moved around the room, but finally he stepped inside and closed the door. "Are you looking for something in particular?" Watson asked, altogether too patiently.
"Merely tallying the resources available," Holmes said, casting a quick glance over his shoulder. "So far I have a dish of butter, a block of beeswax -- which I cannot recommend, as I have reason to believe that it has been used extensively upon the furniture -- oil from the lamp, and a bar of lavender soap."
Watson laughed and dipped a hand into his pocket. "Try this," he said, tossing a small, square jar to Holmes, who fielded it neatly. "The bathing room is a much richer source of supply."
Holmes removed the lid and dipped a fingertip into the lotion within to bring a dollop of it up to his nose. "Juniper. Very nice," he said, approvingly. He replaced the lid carefully and then went over to check that the door was locked, before turning with a predatory smile. "Very nice indeed."
"Don't you think we should finish our dinners first?" Watson managed to say, some few minutes later. "Or bathe?"
Holmes left off his investigation of Watson's collarbone only to move his mouth closer to the man's ear. "The Duke is unlikely to leave his son's side, but if we desire a chance to appreciate each other uninterrupted we're better off doing so before the servants come to pester us. An hour from now they will have managed to finish their dinners, and may have even had a surfeit of retelling the nights' events to each other. Not to mention that there is little point in bathing before Perkins returns with our suitcases. And I, for one, am hungry for different sustenance than soup."
Watson shuddered pleasantly. "You haven't eaten since brea..." The protest died as Holmes gave him something better to do with his mouth. Experience however, had taught him how to unbutton buttons without looking, no matter who was wearing them, and since Holmes's logic was unanswerable, the doctor's best riposte was to concede the higher ground in favor of an assault upon the lower.
It cannot be said that Holmes protested. He did, however groan and fumble for the jar of lotion once the doctor had extracted both heated armaments from the restriction of garments, only to discover that Watson had already picked his pocket.
"You," he mumbled into Watson's mustache as the scent of juniper rose from the doctor's busy hands, "are a very determined sort of fellow, tonight."
"Ten minutes of your attention since we reached the North -- five of which you spent in expounding your theories on poor Heidigger's actions -- is insufficient, I find." Watson's reply was a tad ragged, but that could be excused by the warmth of Holmes's breath ghosting along his face.
"I assure you," Holmes gasped, as Watson employed a particularly delightful pattern of manipulation, "my concentration is much improved when I am free of ... good heavens... other distractions." He sent his own hands down and around behind the doctor and was rewarded by Watson's rather fervent description of the further benefits of concentration he might expect if he continued to explore that unvirgin territory.
With that thought quite clearly in mind, Holmes divested the doctor of jacket and waistcoat and steered him toward the bed whilst he lowered the braces which were the only things still saving either of them from an ignominious stumble over fallen trousers. He timed it perfectly, of course, so that the back of Watson's legs hit the bed just a moment after trousers and underlinens fell down to encircle his ankles. They toppled onto the mattress together.
"We still have our shoes on," Watson pointed out, although he was doing his best to reduce Holmes to the same state of dishabille.
“How very perceptive of you to notice, my dear,” Holmes said, nuzzling Watson’s neck.
Watson was responding very nicely to Holmes’s attentions, but he still pushed down on the detective’s shoulders. “Shoes!” he ordered.
"Very well," Holmes said, abandoning his efforts long enough to sit up and kick off his own shoes while Watson tried to catch his breath. Then he reached over to untie one of Watson’s shoes, “Diddle diddle dumpling,” he recited cheerfully, “My love John, went to bed with his stockings on. One shoe off!” He suited actions to words, allowing that foot free passage through the trouser leg on that side. “And one shoe on,” He began to tickle his way upward again, matching his body to Watson’s once more. “Diddle diddle dumpling, oh, my love John.”
"Think of the time it will save," Holmes said, rucking up the doctor's shirt for better access to the dark nipples hid among the short greying curls. "You can achieve respectability at a moment's notice." He ran the tip of his tongue around the rim of one aureole and smiled to himself when Watson's grasp of coherency began to fail.
"As if..." the doctor was interrupted, but after a time he found the thread of thought again "...respectability were the... goal of the.... evening..."
“One of them, at least,” Holmes asserted, even though he knew his answer would be muffled by the cloth. “We wouldn’t want to give His Grace any excuse not to pay out the reward. But we’ve plenty of time.”
Holmes wasn't entirely surprised when Watson tugged him out from under the confines of the shirt and made as if to shift around. They'd been lovers far too long for that, and he knew this mood of old. However erratically the impetus struck, there were times when Watson wanted to be held as close as a heartbeat, when nothing but the deepest of connections would do. Holmes helped Watson scoot over to the center of the bed and curled around, fumbling only a moment to align their bodies before he eased his eager hardness into the welcoming heat and came to rest, his arms around Watson and his lips caressing the back of his lover's neck. "All right?" he asked.
"Mmm." Watson's eyes were closed, and he rested one hand on Holmes's forearm, the other tugging a bolster down to support both their heads. "You're so warm," he observed.
"You will be soon." Spooned like this, on their sides, it did not matter so much that Holmes had neglected to deal with their shoes, although he wasted a moment of regret for not taking the time to more closely examine the bruises on Watson’s knees, or to ascertain the temperature of Watson's lower extremities. The man's hands were warm enough, but there were still areas of cool skin on his flanks, and Holmes suspected that not all of the tremors which he could still feel fluttering under Watson's skin were due to his own proximity. By this point in the game, were everything truly all right, Watson would be melting against him, pressing back in search of stimulation.
He shifted his hips back and forward once, experimentally, and confirmed that there was a certain tension to Watson that was in definite counterpoint to any sense of urgency on his own part. He dampened his urgency therefore, and kept his movements gentle. This was no mere distraction on Watson’s part. no minor rearrangement of trivialities in the mind whilst the body attended to more basic functions. It would not do. Holmes sent his mind out in search of the patterns which would tell him what had disturbed his Watson’s most admirable balance. It was not the deaths. Watson had seen men die before, and accepted the tragedies with sombre stoicism of a soldier. No, this was something else. Some other truth revealed this day.
Holmes lay his free hand flat across Watson's abdomen, supporting the deeper breaths his friend was taking, and turned them both a fraction more to one side, to give himself more leverage for the long, slow strokes. "Did the boy tell you," he murmured into Watson's ear, "or did you deduce that they were brothers?"
"I saw..." Watson drew in a ragged breath and his grasp tightened on Holmes's arm. "Something about the eyes, the expression... I don't know. A resemblance."
"To the Duke?"
"To Harry. The day that he told me that he wished I'd died like all the others."
Holmes slowed himself again, grateful for once to the years which had rendered unlikely the swift, multiple joys of youth. He would not, for all his desire, be driven to think of nothing but the release he sought tonight. He could wait, if he must, and listen to the story which Watson seemed compelled at long last to tell. Holmes passed an outspread hand lightly across Watson's face, catching a teardrop on one nail. "When was this?" he asked, as gently as he knew how.
"Not long after the funeral," Watson said, "the first time they let me go to the cemetery with Mother. I remember being so excited to be allowed out of doors again. It was hard not to be happy. And I don't think I really understood that I would never see my sisters again, nor my baby brother, until I saw their graves."
"Measles?" Holmes asked, as memory drew for him a picture of the tiny faded scars scattered across the familiar landscape of Watson's back and belly.
"Yes. An epidemic. Harry barely took ill, but I spent the better part of a month in bed. And I was lucky at that. The others..." Watson shuddered, but went on. "Harry explained it all. He couldn't go back to school because I hadn't had the decency to die.”
“That seems very unlikely,” Holmes said, even as his heart ached for the boy Watson had been.
Watson shook his head. “It was true, though. Father had already decided to go back to Australia. He couldn’t afford to stay, and in any case the doctor wanted Mother to go somewhere warmer to convalesce. Harry went with them. But the doctor didn’t think I was strong enough for a sea voyage. Harry’s school fees went to pay for me, so that I could stay at the doctor’s house and take my lessons at the Rectory.”
Holmes dropped a kiss to the back of Watson’s neck, and then another working his way forward. “There was no one among your relations who could take you in?” he murmured as he came to the vicinity of Watson’s ear.
Watson turned his head to meet Holmes’s kisses with one of his own before he answered. “No one who would,” he admitted, in a whisper still fractured by ancient pain. “But there was nothing to be done for it. They had to leave, and I had to stay behind, alone.” His eyes were huge, and dark in the shadowed bed. “I meant to run away to sea to find them,” Watson said. “I would have done too, if she had ever said she wanted me to come in her letters. But she never did.”
“Did she ever have the chance?” Holmes did not need to ask who “she” was, not with Watson’s grief as plain as that of the mother-lost child whom they had rescued that day.
Watson closed his eyes and turned his face away, shaking his head as he pressed blindly back into Holmes’s embrace.
Holmes stilled the motion of his hips as he rested his forehead against Watson’s cheek. “Oh my dear Watson,” he said. “My dear, dear Watson. What can I say? What can I do?” Coitus interruptus was not so terrible a thing after all, if what Watson needed more this night was the comfort of being held in silence.
But Watson took Holmes’s upper hand and brought it down to curl around the half-hard velvet heat that proved a still unslaked need. “You can make me stop thinking about it,” he said, determination winning past the catch in his voice. “You can make me forget that I was ever less than loved.”
Holmes was sitting by the hearth, nursing the last cigarette in his possession, when the soft tapping disturbed his contemplations. He tossed the final half-inch of tobacco and paper into the fire and went to the door, opening it just far enough to look out into the hallway. The youngest footman was there, holding a candle in one hand and Watson’s valise in the other while a groom labored under the burden of the rest of their luggage. “A moment please,” Holmes whispered, after gesturing the two servants to silence.
He put the door to and took a quick survey of the room to ensure that his arrangements were complete. The dishes on the table implied a shared meal, his own attire was complete again, even to the necktie, the air was redolent with cigarette smoke, overwhelming any trace of other activities. The only untoward element that might raise comments in the servant’s quarters was Watson, fast asleep in the bed, but Holmes had no intention of altering that discrepancy. The coat and waistcoat hung neatly on a chair would have to serve curiosity’s needs, and please heaven no one would notice, or wonder why both of Watson’s shoes were not beneath them. The other shoe was still on his foot, buried beneath the covers. Watson had fallen into such a deep and sudden sleep upon reaching his completion that Holmes, who had used all his concentration and skill in hoping to achieve that very end, had not wanted to risk waking him for the mere sake of acquiring his footwear. Judging by the look of contentment on Watson’s sleeping countenance, it was worth the risk, worth all the effort indeed. Watson would not soon forget that he was loved!
Back to the door to let in the servants with the luggage. Holmes directed their efforts, having Watson’s things left in this room whilst sending his own next door. A corner of Holmes’s mouth quirked up as he remembered how the case had begun, with Watson playing dragon at the door and he himself stretched out upon the sofa, trying to mend a deficiency of rest. By morning the world would be back to its usual order, with Watson attending the practicalities while he dealt with more esoteric considerations, but for now he could see to it that the fire was banked as quietly as could be done, and the table settings removed in silence. Watson never stirred.
Holdernesse might understand if Holmes stayed, if Holmes did what his heart wanted and crawled back into bed with Watson. The Duke knew what it meant to love with a love that would not meet with the world’s approval. But his household never would, and the perilous law would never be so kind as to confine them to the same cell at Reading Gaol. But morning would come, as morning always did, and they would be together then.
Holmes left one taper burning on the mantel, in case Watson woke of a sudden in a strange place, and went out to the hallway with the servants, closing the door behind him.