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The Adventure of the Impartial Observer

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The act of whittling is oddly soothing. The simplicity of the task calms the mental maelstrom, the uncertainty, the ... it's not fear. Trepidation, perhaps. The sharp acrid odour of ginger heightens all his senses: he can taste the zest on his lips, and his eyes sting as he exposes the woody substance beneath the pale bark. After this experiment, he will have to desensitise himself to the smell.

In their initial interview, he had explained his angle of enquiry to 'Mr Smith'. "I am not interested in humiliation, whether mine or another's. I am not interested in playing games. I am intrigued by the limits of physical pleasure; and it would be inconvenient in the extreme were I to incur lasting damage during this investigation."

Mr Smith -- it is evident that this is not his real name -- had concurred with his stipulations as readily, as easily, as Mrs Hudson might agree to an amended schedule of housekeeping between cases. As yet, Holmes (who had introduced himself as Mr Brown) had been given no reason to doubt that his wishes would be respected.

This is just another experiment, the latest in a long catalogue that Holmes has never committed to paper. There is no need to write it down. Each investigation is etched upon his mind, and on his body. He has been searching for his limits for a very long time. For this experiment, he has engaged the assistance of a professional. Mr Smith claims experience, detachment and above all discretion. It will suffice.

Mr Smith is sitting in the armchair, watching him. It's odd to be watched at such a task; odd to be carving a root of ginger into something that will be inserted into his own body for the express purpose of stimulating sensations that might brush those outer limits. Perhaps Smith's premise is that by involving his client in the production of the ... the object, said client will acquire the illusion of control. It is a hypothesis worthy of further reflection. Though perhaps not now.

Mr Smith's profession is not evident from his dress (neat and unexceptionable, if a trifle old-fashioned) or his demeanour (he has something of a military bearing). His skin is creamy-pale like a woman's; his hands are long and delicate like a musician's; and he wears his fair hair long, tied at the nape of his neck with a black ribbon. This affectation, combined with his garments, reminds Holmes of portraits from a hundred years ago. Holmes sees no purpose in denying the fact that he finds Mr Smith attractive, though this attraction is evidently unreciprocated. If Mr Smith has any reaction at all to the sight of Holmes sitting cross-legged on the Turkey carpet, whittling away with a fruit-knife at a gnarled ginger root, it is not evident.

"Cut as much as you think you should like," says Mr Smith nonchalantly. "And do not neglect to carve a wider base, so that it may be more easily withdrawn when we are finished."

"Will it hurt?" enquires Holmes, striving for that same insouciance.

"Are you afraid of pain?"

Holmes cannot help chuckling. He shakes his head.

"It will not harm you, though you will assuredly feel it. You must remove the skin entirely from that part which will penetrate you."

How peculiar, that a simple verb can make him harden more. His mind, however, is calm, methodical. This is a scientific experiment. This is curiosity. This is a transaction.

When he finally holds the ginger-root up for Mr Smith's inspection, it's the width of three fingers, narrowing slightly before the flared base, somewhat more bulbous at the end. Holmes finds that he is holding his breath like a nervous schoolboy waiting for a master's approval. When Smith nods, it is like physical warmth.

"Undress, if you please," instructs Smith.

In other circumstances Holmes might make a show of it, but Smith's lack of interest is palpable. He disrobes as quickly and efficiently as he can, laying his clothes on the empty chair. Smith's appraisal is frank, though uncoloured by lust, and the various scars and blemishes of Holmes's body do not go unnoticed; nor does his nascent erection.

"Please lie down on the couch. On your stomach. Lift your hips slightly." This, it turns out, is so that Smith can push a soft pillow underneath Holmes, leaving his buttocks raised and depriving him of the oddly stimulating sensation of rough jacquard against his prick.

"You've done well," says Smith. "There is nothing more for you to do, save surrender yourself to sensation."

Holmes hears the grind of a jar being opened, and a new odour -- clean, oleaginous; it is olive oil -- impinges upon his senses. "I shall massage you," says Smith, "to relax the muscles prior to insertion."

Holmes inhales deeply when Smith's slender finger, warm and greasy, trails down between his buttocks and circles his anus. He hitches a breath -- as much relief as surprise -- when he is penetrated, bites his tongue when that insinuating finger finds his prostate gland.

"Don't try to control yourself so much, Mr Brown," says Smith, amused.

"That, sir, is my nature," Holmes thinks but does not say.

The ginger stretches him, going in. He had not known what to expect of it, but the sensation of warmth, the slight sting, is less arresting that he had anticipated. The root feels solid, inelastic, nothing like a prick, nothing like the dildos with which he has conducted other experiments. The broad flared base of the ginger-root holds him open a little; he is constantly aware of the way that his muscles stretch around it.

"I shall beat you now," says Smith. "How many strokes, do you think?"

"Start with six," says Holmes. "Then I'll know."

"Perhaps you should leave the decision to me." It is not exactly a question.

"Start with six. If you please."

"Very well."

Smith is flexing a slender rattan cane. Caning is a straightforward proposition. Holmes is not afraid of pain, nor of losing control, for there is always an underlying steel of resolve beneath the sweat, the tears, the moans and gasps. Pain is what happens to the body.

Time stretches like a dream while he waits for the first blow. He learnt early on (experiment number seven: Robert, who liked to bite) that though what affects his body invariably enters into his mind, the two are not homogeneous: pleasure -- or its obverse, pain -- might elicit remarkable responses from nerve and muscle, and yet leave his mental equilibrium intact. As for emotion ... it's demonstrably true that there's a physical dimension to many emotions. Fear, for instance, is wholly rooted in the physical, from the rush of adrenaline to the pounding of one's heart. Holmes has never identified much in the way of physical correlate for any of the softer emotions.

Lust, of course, is not an emotion. Lust is a physical urge.

Holmes listens to his own breathing, and to Smith's respiration: both are even, regular, unmoved. He does not object to being made to wait. Anticipation heightens any experience, and --

"One," says Smith, the word simultaneous with the swish of the supple cane. It stings, nothing more: he had been beaten much more viciously at school, and there's a prostitute in Drury Lane who has, on several occasions ... Holmes bites back a groan. The sudden sensation inside him, the intimate burn of the ginger as his muscles tighten automatically against the sting of the cane, is shocking.

His breath hitches, but it is a matter of pride not to break quite yet. There is an important distinction between surrendering control and being incapable of retaining it. He finds that he is thinking of the first time he let himself be buggered (experiment number eleven, Bartlett, murmuring of erastês and erômenos). It had not taken him long to discover that he favoured the submissive role, liked it rough, craved the way it braked the ceaseless whirl of thought and analysis that, even at seventeen, was sometimes wearisome.

And now he is thinking again, which is contrary to the purpose of this experiment. The point is to find a limit. The point is to determine what he has hitherto missed.

"Two." And oh, he can feel the ginger, feel the clear volatile oil that had beaded on the fresh-cut surface as he carved, that is now stimulating the delicate rectal membranes. His body is tightening around the plug (Smith termed it a 'fig', and spoke of gingered racehorses), and he wants to tense more, wants to feel more. The stripes laid by the cane -- two, now -- are cool in comparison to the heat within.

It matters, not to be in control. To have given himself into the hands of another: into the hands of the impersonal Mr Smith, whose breath is steadier than Holmes' own, who has been retained to perform a service and who is performing it with admirable detachment. Holmes has known for a long time (experiment number thirty-three, Jack, a naval cadet with a penchant for knots) that a pretence of powerlessness has a potent aphrodisiac effect upon him. It is, naturally, quite different when the powerlessness is actual. On the occasions where he has been at the mercy of some villain, he has not experienced the slightest frisson of pleasure. For the best, really. What would Watson think?

"Three," says Smith. Holmes' whole body tightens in anticipation before the cane comes down, and the ginger blazes up so strongly that he barely feels the sting of rattan against his arse. His prick is stiff against the too-soft pillow, and he breathes deeply and lets his muscles lengthen and wonders why he is suddenly thinking about John Watson.

Six will be more than sufficient to demonstrate the effects of the ginger, reflects Holmes. What he is experiencing is not really pain. The three parallel welts on his buttocks are pain, of a kind: they are nothing like the acute sensitivity engendered by the plug of ginger. It's as though every nerve in his rectum is pressing against the raw oily wood, preternaturally stimulated. He wants to writhe, to beg, to come off, to be touched, to --

"Four." Smith's voice is passionless. Whatever joy he takes in his trade, it is not sensual. Holmes gasps, once, against the upholstery. He wonders what Smith is thinking, watching him come apart on this couch. He wonders what Smith sees. Instantly and vividly to mind springs a memory from Paris. Experiment number forty-six, with Vizcaino the Basque violinist and ... he does not recall her name, but he remembers her watching the two of them, and bringing herself off. He imagines how the current scene might affect an observer. He envisages a tableau vivant: his body bared from waist to knee, the curve of his buttocks, the neat symmetry of the red weals. The way his corded muscles stand out at throat and forearm, the way --

"Five."

-- the way his skin flushes, the animal noise that comes out of him. Would it be better if the observer were someone with whom he was acquainted? Someone who would delight in the sounds he could not, now, hold back; someone who would relish the twitch of limb and sinew, who would whisper temptations, promises, provocations. Who when the experiment was over would draw the thing out, would soothe away the burn of it with some demulcent nostrum and then bury himself in the indubitable heat of Holmes' arse and give it to him hard and fast until they both spent, crying out each other's --

"Six," says Smith: and "Watson!" Except that it is Holmes who cries out helplessly.

It is impossible to think of what that means. It is impossible to think. He barely felt the cane, though his skin assures him that the last blow was no lighter than those preceding it. His prick is strainingly hard: he can feel each thread of the soft pillow-case, as though the ginger has sensitised every nerve in his body, not merely those it has touched. Is touching. His arse burns, his balls ache, his eyes are blurry with tears. None of it is pain. The sensation is too much, and yet -- he understands -- it does not suffice.

"Would you care for more?" enquires Smith gently. "Or perhaps something different?"

Holmes does not turn his head. He is glad that Smith cannot see his face. He pants into the sofa and tries to master himself.

"Shall I remove the ginger?"

The noise that Holmes emits is more like a tea-kettle or a steam-engine than any language known to mankind. But apparently his meaning is clear: he feels Smith's cool fingers (perhaps they would not seem cool if his skin did not burn so) and the cruel smooth slide of the ginger-plug, coming out.

"Is there anything --"

"Leave me alone," Holmes interrupts. He cannot think. He cannot bear the presence of the other man. He cannot --

Smith, fortunately, does not take offense. (It is a prerequisite of his profession.) Holmes hears soft footsteps: the door opens, and closes. He holds his breath until he is certain that he is alone in the room.

He rolls onto his back, wincing at the lingering heat in his arse, and puts his hand on his prick. It is important not to think of anything, anyone: it is important to let orgasm quieten his mind.

It does not take long to bring himself off: and into the post-paroxysmal silence comes a memory of John Watson on some ordinary afternoon, immediate and interested and focussed: and perhaps it's not mere memory, perhaps it's desire, because Holmes is suddenly certain that Watson is what has been missing from his previous experiments, is the reason why nothing has been enough, is the observer whose partiality will make all the difference.

Holmes walks carefully over to the sideboard, where a pitcher of water and a basin await. He washes himself meticulously, towels himself dry, dons his clothes. He is trying to imagine speaking to Watson of this. He is trying to imagine an experiment in sufficiency. He is no longer aware of the scent of ginger in the still, close room.

- end -