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A Matter of Chance

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"Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance." - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“My characters shall have, after a little bit of trouble, all that they desire.” – Becoming Jane

 

 

 

 

Spring 1812

 

The dead fox, unlike the company, proves to be a silent and interesting subject of study. 

I found it at the edge of the forest, its flank open and its insides full of maggots. It took me a few tries to safely transfer the corpse onto the wooden sledge I had brought from the barn, with the help of gloves stolen from the gardener. Sherrinford Hall at my back, with its plethora of well-dressed ladies and lords waiting for my arrival, I tugged the dead animal further into the forest, and under the roof of the old, unused hay barn. 

Now, kneeling, the hay tickling my legs through my breeches, I am cutting through the red fur in order to establish the correct time and cause of death. The first is easier to determine than the latter — that kind of maggot infestation, with a first layer of eggs, indicates that the fox has been decaying in the same place between a day or two. Anything beyond that, he would have been snagged by some other animal in the search for a meal. Unless there is something specific to this corpse that repulses any predator that might approach it. 

My fingers finally land on the probable cause of its demise, as my gloves come across a mass near its neck: dried blood, mostly covered by the animal's fur. There, I think to myself, a few spots clearly depicting where a dog had planted its teeth. It is nonetheless strange, how he had let go of its prey so easily. Maybe it smelled the sickness within if sickness there is. Maybe it was called back by its owner, but even the most obedient of hounds would not have let go without a fight. 

Too concentrated upon my task, I barely notice that rain has started pouring outside of the barn until I lift my head, distracted by the sound of a branch cracking outside. 

Well, there is simply no way of getting back to Sherrinford under that kind of weather, I say to myself with a smile. Poor Mother, and the shock she will live through when the company starts to realise that I have no intention of showing myself. I can only imagine Lady Seymour's pout (which serves Mother well, I have already told her a hundred times I have no intention of marrying a woman), and Lord Wellington's short temper exploding as soon as the clock marks the first seconds of my absence. No one will be pleased, maybe apart from Lord Harrington, who has no intention of marrying my person, but secretly attends to those sorts of events in the hopes of meeting Lady Margaret, Stamford's niece, once more. Going by the numbers of plates arranged in the dining room, it is evident that Stamford has invited a second friend as well. Stamford's intentions may be good, but I have no intention of marrying whomever he brings to Sherrinford, how rich or influential that man may be.

No one imprisons Sherlock Holmes into the sanctity of marriage. He may as well try, and meet my rebuttal.

Another branch cracks outside, and this time, I recognise footsteps — I barely have the time to turn my head towards the entrance of the barn before a man stumbles inside, in a flash of red and white, evidently seeking refuge from the downpour.

Blue eyes look up to the roof of the barn, grateful for this bit of cover, as his shoulders shiver and one of his hands moves up his crossed arms, the other one holding a muddy walking stick. He swiftly checks his watch, a golden flash through his fingers. 

It takes him a moment, but when his eyes glance down again, his gaze finally meets mine. 

Red and white, of course, because he is a King's Man. A Regular. A red coat. A soldier.

A soldier. Here, at Sherrinford. A soldier!

"You are wet," my lips say, without permission from my head, and I would regret those words instantly if I were not trying to deduce everything about him.

He seems like the most readable man I have ever met, yet somehow, my thoughts only converge to the fact that he is soaked through and through from the rain, his ashy-blond hair a shade darker on his head. Soaked down to the horrible moustache adorning his upper lip, without which he would look years younger — he is surely no older than Mycroft.

He frowns, his gaze wavering between myself and the forgotten dead fox at my feet. "Who are you," he says, "and what are you doing to this fox?"

His words awaken sensible thoughts in me for the first time since he walked into the barn. "Isn't the proper way to introduce oneself first before asking another's name?"

"I will do no such thing to a potential trespasser and breaker of the law," the man warns me, his knuckles going white around his walking stick. There is something authoritative about him, not a simple soldier, then, but a man of higher rank. A man who stands up for what he believes. A brave man, in the face of the unknown. 

A reckless one, too. 

"It is as well, if you do not tell me who you are, I will. I have nothing to prove to a retired military man of higher rank, injured to the shoulder and not the leg, especially one who is also an orphan of low birth. India, was it?" I ask, a smirk on my face. "Therefore your name must be something terribly boring, à la John Smith or something of that kind." 

I smile even harder as I witness him gaping at me. 

"Since I deduced who you are by no means of asking, I will do you a kindness and answer your previous question: I am Sherlock Holmes, and I do as I please." 

There is no more exquisite moment in life than when my interlocutor is struck speechless after a first introduction to me. For a moment, I brace myself, wondering if it will be fists or cane first. 

It is neither. 

"That was… amazing," the man breathes out. Then, he remembers himself: "Heaven's sake! You are Lord Holmes! And I believed you were some kind of poacher trespassing these lands. Forgive me, my lord," he adds, with a bow of his head. 

I try not to laugh in his face. "Mr Holmes, please, Lord Holmes is either my father or my brother. There is no need for such formality. And how you thought I was hunting in these breeches, that I cannot begin to understand. Is it not evident that this fox was the victim of a hound and not a hunter's bullet?"

Carefully, as if I, or the fox, are about to bite him, the soldier approaches the dead animal and comes to stand by my side. With the side of his cane, he turns the poor beast's head. "Indeed it is, I can see it now. Those kinds of maggots… It has been a day, has it not?" 

I look at him and his concentrated features, my heart fluttering in my chest. "You are not a simple soldier, are you?" 

For the first time since he entered the barn, he smiles genuinely. "You were right on every account, but one. Dr John Watson," he says, extending his free hand which I catch to shake. 

"Ha!" I nearly deduced his name as well. It seems I am getting better at this. 

We stand over the fox for a few seconds, before Dr Watson lets go of my hand. "It seems like it has stopped raining," he says. 

Has it? I look away from his face to notice the first rays of sunshine coming from the barn door. "It has," I answer, and instantly feel like a fool. I cannot hide forever, yet I do not want this conversation to draw to an end. "It would be wise to head back," I say, "before they tear out each other's throats." 

"Unless it has happened already," Dr Watson considers. "We were waiting for you in the drawing room, of course, but when it appeared that you would not show yourself, discord exploded amongst the company."

"Lord Wellington, I take it?" 

We have slowly progressed through the barn's door, where rain still drops from the wooden structure, clear and bright against the renewed sunshine. "The gentleman with darker hair? That must be him, indeed." 

"That man has no notion of self-restraint," I sigh. "But then, everyone in that room is more dreadful than the other. Walk with me, Dr Watson," I demand. It would not be appropriate for us to walk arm-in-arm, of course, but we can at least continue to converse until we reach Sherrinford. If I need more time, we can take a detour by the gardens.  

Dr Watson smiles, a playful thing, as we emerge amongst the trees. "All right," he says, "but surely you do not mean that. About the company, I mean." 

"Oh, please. You fled them as well, you must know what I am talking about. Wellington has the shortest temper a man could have, and an even shorter memory because it seems he cannot learn something out of it. Harris stutters on every single word, yet he believes himself to be the next great poet of his generation — you should read some of it, or worse, hear it. It is blander than milk diluted in water," I add, to which Dr Watson chuckles. "Lady Seymour cannot utter a sentence without incorporating a lie in it, if you were to talk to her she would certainly tell you that she has bedded half of England and its king, and that she intends for you to be the next one on her list. Then there is Harrington, whose only redeeming quality is that he is not at all interested in marrying me, since he has only eyes for Stamford's niece, a naive little thing, and nearly as boring as her uncle. I shall spare my parents from my venom, they are too old to take it anyway."

Dr Watson outright laughs at my words, as if I have amused him greatly. He is certainly the first to do so, and I look down, pleased. Why can't people be more like him?

"And where do I sit," he asks, still smiling, "in this grand scheme?" 

"You do not count," I say, simply. "Unless you plan to go on one knee and ask for my hand, for which I should gently but firmly let you down." 

He laughs, again. "I do not believe you do anything gently."

"Maybe so," I say, with a smile. This man already knows me. 

We are reaching the field that separates us from Sherrinford Hall, a tall shadow in front of us. Here, out in the open, the sun shines even harder, illuminating the strands on Dr Watson's head, more golden now as they dry under the heath and the sunlight. I cannot help but notice how his clothes have dried, his breeches not sticking so much to the contour of his muscled legs, his shoulders free of darker patches. Even the mud on his cane is starting to crust and fall off. 

Here, in the light, I can appreciate the soft tanning of his skin, which only confirms my earlier hypothesis of him serving in an exotic country. I imagine him for a second, in a pale waistcoat and a shirt opened at his neck, treating a patient under the Indian sun, sweat pearling on his forehead. 

If it were not for that dreadful moustache!

"And so," Dr Watson finally says, as we are crossing the field, "which person in this company will you choose?" 

His tone is polite, enquiring, but I scoff at the words. "No one, obviously. If it were only for me, I would never marry." 

"Why so?" 

"I do not believe in love, Dr Watson. It is a great disadvantage to lose one's head over such a volatile matter." 

I can see, from the corner of my eye, that Dr Watson's gaze has widened considerably following my declaration.

"No, if it were for me, I would never marry. Unfortunately, my family has pressured me in a rather unequal agreement, upon which I have to find a spouse before my twenty-first birthday, next winter. Which, as you know, coincides perfectly with age of consent. Mother has given me the freedom of choice, which is more than people like me usually get, but it does not mean that I am at all interested in imprisoning myself with a fool who is bound to like me even less than I do. No, I will not take a spouse today, although I can bet you the amount of your choice that Harris will bend the knee by the end of the afternoon."

Dr Watson frowns, and just as he is about to open his mouth, a cry echoes to our ears. "Mr Holmes, Mr Holmes!" 

I turn my head to see young Billy running our way, so fast that his shoes nearly fall off his heels, his knees scratched through-and-through from the brambles he had jumped over to enter the estate. He is red in the face when he reaches us, his scrawny body heaving from the effort. 

"What is the matter, Billy?" I ask at once. It is evidently important news for him to disturb me in the presence of another man. 

He takes a moment to breathe in, and out, evidently adding a layer of drama to his little display, as children tend to do. "Dr Kent, Mr Holmes, sir, Dr Kent's sister's back at the village, and she's very ill, Mr Holmes, sir." 

My heart leaps in my chest, as I bend down to look Billy in the eye. "Billy, this is of utter importance. Can you tell me in which carriage she was taken back to the village?" 

"I dunno because I haven't seen it, Mr Holmes, sir, but Anna has, and she says it's the one with the black horses, the fancy ones, y'know, Mr Holmes, sir?" 

My eyes widen, and I cannot refrain from smiling as I glance at Dr Watson. "To the village, now!" I shout, and break into a run, only hoping that the man behind me will follow. 

 

***

 

I can see from the smile on Dr Watson's face that this little adventure has pleased him as much as it did I. As I originally concluded, he was in very good condition to run, cane lifted in one of his hands, and his shoulder certainly did not prove to be of any trouble when he tackled Jefferson Hope to the ground after we had climbed to the back of his carriage, slowing down the galloping horses. The watchman proceeded then to the official arrest, and here we are, plastered against the wall of the small post office, smiles on our faces. 

"Did ya get 'im, Mr Holmes, sir?" Billy asks, rolling one of his ankles in the sand as he always does when I am about to pay him. 

"We did," I say, as I bend down to deposit a coin in the palm of his hand. "And this is for you. Go, now, and keep your eyes open for me." 

Against my word, Billy stays planted in front of me, rolling his ankle even harder. "It's just that— Mr Holmes, sir, Anna needs new shoes, her old ones are falling apart, and—" 

I roll my eyes, fondly, before placing another coin in his hand. "This is for her role in this little adventure." 

"And here," Dr Watson adds, giving Billy yet another coin from his pocket, "for some candy." 

"Thank you!" Billy barks, nearly jumping up and down. "Thank you Mr Holmes, sir, and Mr Holmes's friend, kind sir!" he adds, before he scatters away. 

I sigh. "You should not have," I tell Dr Watson, "he will have a belly ache for days to come." 

Dr Watson laughs, and we start heading back to the Hall, much more slowly than our first time around. 

Dr Watson is the first one to break the silence, after a while. "Well, they were just proven wrong." 

I frown. "What do you mean?" 

"Back at Sherrinford, some people might have warned me against your cold exterior. Yet, now that I have just witnessed the truth, I see that it only is the exterior that may seem cold." 

"Oh, please, do not fool yourself too much on my account." 

He smiles, against my words. "I do not believe that a man who gives money to poor children for new shoes is a despicable and unkind fellow." 

"Were that the exact words?" I ask, playfully, and he chuckles. 

Another pause. "Do you do this often? Help people?" 

"I do not see it as helping people as such. I am a consulting detective, which means that I see what ordinary people do not. And they come to me with interesting cases and less interesting ones, and I solve them all." 

"Really? All of them?" 

"Of course."

"That is quite astounding," he compliments, and I look down, biting the inside of my cheek. 

Dr Watson hums, his footsteps considerably lighter than they were a few hours ago. Before us, Sherrinford Hall appears in the distance. "So this is how you could tell everything about me just with a glance?" 

"Indeed," I say. "Were you not insulted by my deductions?" I ask, because I am curious. 

He chuckles. "Why should I be insulted by the simple truth? No, you were right on every account, maybe apart from the fact that I did not only serve as a soldier but as a doctor as well. I was captain of my troops, and yes, it was in India, although I first started in Egypt." 

He does not mention his injury, which must be a sensitive point to him, and so I do not raise the issue either. I must admit my interest rises when he mentions Egypt, the ancient land of knowledge and gods. I will have to ask him about it, tonight at supper, to recount every single tale he has accumulated over years of interesting travels. And to say that I have never left Sherrinford in my life, apart from those long years spent between Eton's equally high walls. I do not wish to see India, or Egypt, although I would like to, for my sole interest lies in London, a labyrinth of streets and crimes I have spent my life studying behind books and maps. A place where common people need someone like me. To say that I have never visited the City, which is mere hours away from Sherrinford! Shall I remain a prisoner of this place forever?

"Please, Mr Holmes, do tell me about how you gained all this information from a single look. I am most interested in understanding the process of your thoughts." 

I launch myself into an entire explanation of my deductive skills just as we arrive and walk through the gardens, telling him how I saw India in the tones of his skin and his injury in the tightness of his shoulders. I explain how I deduced he is an orphan from the watch he keeps by his side, with a name engraved in it but without a picture inside, the gold old and struck in a few places. 

He listens to me, intently, with more attention than anyone has ever listened to me, and does not realise, unlike me, that we have been circling the gardens for the third time now, just when another man makes himself known. 

"Mr— Mr Holmes! I see— I see that you are… back!" 

I drop on my knees with a gasp, hoping that the bushes will be enough to hide me, leaving Dr Watson standing up and quite confused about the situation. 

"Harris!" I whisper, looking up. 

Unfortunately, my poor hideaway does not give any results, as Harris joins us with his long strides. 

"Mr— Mr Holmes," he says, "are you— quite all right?" 

"I have lost something," I mumble, mimicking a search through the bushes, my hands extended in the dirt and the sand.  

With a gasp, as if I were Queen of this country, Harris plunges into the bushes, looking for whatever I may have lost that is not there.

"There is no need," I say with a sigh, as I stand up again. Beside me, I notice that Dr Watson is having a hard time to remain polite and not outright laugh at Harris's face. "Lord Harris, please," I ask of him, as he is swimming between bushes and stepping onto Mother's precious flowers, his breeches getting ripped here and there by brambles. 

"Of course— of course," he says, finally stepping out. "Dr…" 

"Watson," Dr Watson supplies. 

"Dr— Watson, would you— be so… kind… I would, well, I would, like, very much— to speak with… Mr, Mr Holmes, privately, that is. If it… is— is not, too much to… well, to ask." 

"Of course," Dr Watson says, pleasantly, although I am sure he is biting the inside of his cheek as well. "Lord Harris, Mr Holmes," he salutes us, with a smile in my direction that definitely means good luck

I will need it.

With a few steps, he disappears behind the corner of the wall, leaving me, my wearing patience, and Lord Harris alone. 

"The— the gardens are… quite, quite, quite… beautiful, this year, that is, yes, quite, quite, er, beautiful." 

Dear God. It is worse when he is nervous. How can it be worse? Mother invites him only because he has money, but I am sure that she would be against me marrying a man who cannot speak properly. She said, in a poor defence of him, that his awkwardness makes him charming. Maybe to some people, but certainly not to me.

"Not… not quite, really, not quite beautiful, as, well, as you." 

I sigh. Can he ask already, so I can say no and escape his presence?

"There is nothing, well— no one , as quite… beautiful, as, er, you are, er, Mr Holmes."

"Is that so?" 

Please, do not tell me he has composed verses about it. Please, do not tell me so. 

"Ye—yes." To my absolute horror, and lack of surprise, he bends down on one knee, taking my hand in his, which is rather moist. Heavens. Someone, save me from this. "Mr— Mr Holmes, will you, maybe— maybe do the… well, the honour, of being my wi— husband, husband, of course, husband?" 

"I must refuse your offer, Lord Harris, for—" 

"Please… Please, before you… do so," he continues, as if I had not spoken at all, "I must— yes, I must— ask of you, to… to listen to these few… well, one could call them… verses." 

Dear God above!

Harris clears his throat, his hand still disgustingly sweaty. Does he ever wash? I keep my eyes straight ahead, trying to see if I can achieve entering my Mind Palace, even under such duress. 

"His— beauty… Sorry, er, I shall, er, start again." 

He clears his throat once more. 

"His… ethereal… beauty, can be… compared— to, er, to the rarest… things, of his— Earth,

Such— er, such as, the wail… of a whale—" 

Harris will, unfortunately, forever go on about how his words were so strong upon my sensitive person that they were the reason I swooned after the first two lines of a poem intended to woo me, but the truth is rather less romantic than he believes. 

After shouting the gardens for his quick need of salts and a doctor, any doctor that might be blessedly around Sherrinford today, I finally feel another set of hands upon my shoulders. 

"Mr Holmes?" Dr Watson's low voice reaches me. 

I open an eye. "Is he gone?" I whisper.

"Yes, I believe he went inside to fetch ice." 

"Oh, thank God."

Swiping the dirt away from my breeches, I stand up with Dr Watson's help, who does not ask about my condition. He knows as well as I that I had to do anything to escape this situation. 

"That was quite the serenade," he finally says, trying not to laugh. 

"Who compares a suitor to a whale?"

 

***

 

Later that day, Mother asks me, as she always does, to perform a piece for our kind visitors. I usually refuse, because I object to being put on such a display, and because my playing is always intended for me and for means of clearing my mind. 

But I do wonder how Dr Watson would react to this particular talent of mine, and so, when I raise my bow, in the middle of the drawing room, my eyes set on his. 

Without further wait, I draw the first note. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Over the course of the next few weeks, I find myself thinking back to the incident with the fox, notably to the man whom I met that day. John Watson started occupying my mind in the strangest ways, the thought of him making its way into my brain at the most incongruous moments of the day. Notably, during my sessions in my laboratory, where it disrupted the highly scientific process of my thoughts. Every single day I found myself thinking back of his gaze upon me playing the violin, or when he had recounted such interesting stories as he was seated beside me at supper, that evening. 

Nobody had that effect on me before. It was both curious, and annoying, yet I knew that I had to forget about him altogether. Something which, I found later on, is easier said than done. 

In the meantime, Lord Wellington had unfortunately got down on one knee, after he had lured me into a spare room of the house, wishing to speak privately. That sole declaration had had a direct effect on Mother's knees, which nearly gave out under faked surprised and immense joy. Lord Wellington is rich, and has a title, and thus the decision to ask for my hand was entirely his to make. 

Needless to say, I refused. His grip on my hand was getting harder and harder as I uttered the words.

This unfortunate event led to a lot of screaming on Mother's part, which is not too good for her health. When I remarked upon it, she nearly bit my head off. In her opinion, and I quote, I shall be the death of her, and even worse, of the family's estate. And to say that people find me to be needlessly dramatic.

I reminded her that it is not because I had revealed long ago my natural inclination towards men that it meant I was going to marry the first that would ask. Like I had confessed to the valiant doctor, unlike matters of the mind, my interest in marriage is as high as my interest in women or children. Null. Mark these words, Mother, null

And yet, here I am, thinking of John Watson…

At the end of March, just as I was finishing a three-month-long experiment on various types of ash, Mother blesses me with good news: Lord Stamford has announced he will be holding a Spring ball at his mansion. It was customary for him and his wife to hold some kind of party celebrating the return of spring each year, mostly done in small company, but since his niece, Lady Margaret, has been of age for quite a while now, it is clear where Stamford's interest lies in inviting a gaggle of men in his own home. The more, the better. Mother would agree. Which means that if Stamford is to invite all of his friends, Dr Watson might be of the company, and that is an opportunity I simply cannot pass. 

I dress impeccably on the morning of the fatal day, putting on my most elegant clothing, with a bit of Thomas's help for certain laces, and carefully comb my hair. Fortunately enough, Stamford is our closest neighbour, so we should all arrive presentable enough.

Mother, of course, was delighted. "Who knows, Sherlock, maybe you will meet someone. Lady Stamford cannot be interested in all of them, surely, and one might be of your inclination. We never know. Look out for Lord Harrington, I was told he should be here as well. He keeps on coming back to Sherrinford, surely this must mean something."

Yes, Mother, but proximity to our neighbours, and therefore to Lady Margaret, is the only reason for that. Not that I said, but silently nodded, propping my elbow against the carriage's window. I do intend to meet someone, shall Dr Watson be of the company tonight. If not, I will do what I do best at such events: dance. People have ridiculed me for this passion before, yet I do not care. Music and dance are noble pursuits, in my mind, and if people are jealous, it is only because I am the best at it. That much for keeping a young man imprisoned in a manor, he at least learns to dance like no one else can.

I count the trees as the sky darkens towards night. As much as I do not care for Lady Margaret Stamford, and know that that feeling is reciprocal (thank God), she is the second-best dancer after me, and we usually find ourselves together on the floor by silent mutual agreement on such nights. I hope she will be willing tonight, as well.

Mother's back straightens itself as if by magic when the mansion comes in our view. It is bigger than ours, and entirely illuminated with candlelight. I can hear the rumour of conversation from here, and finally, after a few minutes, our carriage stops in front of the door. 

"Behave," she warns me.

"I always do," I say, with a flash of a grin. 

I jump out of the carriage, and hold out a hand for her, which she takes, and Father slowly follows. We climb the few stairs in silence, trepidation beating hard in my chest. 

I hand my coat to the butler as we enter the main hall, where people are already talking and drinking. My brain is assaulted with tons of information: I can see that Miss Pike is newly engaged, to a rich but impotent man. Lady Edwards is pregnant for the sixth time, and I secretly roll my eyes. Is one child not enough? My parents should definitely have stopped trying after the disaster that Mycroft is.

I leave Mother's side as I make it to the main room, on the lookout for the possible sight of a short doctor in well-worn clothes. The musicians have stopped playing, waiting for the people at the centre of the room to find a partner for the dance to begin. I rise on my toes, still searching for the good doctor, before Lady Margaret comes to find me. 

"A dance, Mr Holmes?" To say that I have known her since childhood, when she was less elegant, more childlike and boyish in both body and posture. We were never friends, per se, although we did send each other letters from time to time. She has her father's round face and jovial smile, and as I told Dr Watson already, is as kind and as boring as he is.

Since I had not found the person I was looking for, I accept her demand. 

We make it to the line of dancers, and the music starts: a quick tempo that sets a nice contredance. I close my eyes not even half-a-second, relishing this, the pure physicality, abandonment that is dance. My thoughts are centred on every single movement my body makes, and on how to make it the most elegant. I turn around Lady Margaret, and suddenly, amongst all of the people, I see no one other than Dr John Watson in conversation with Stamford. He turns his head as well, and for one moment our eyes meet: then, the dance requires me to turn left, and when I look back, Watson has returned to his lively discussion with our host. I nearly lose my balance. 

Lady Margaret's arm brushes mine: her mind is also distracted, and by no one other than Lord Harrington. It is too evident that she is sweet on him, and reciprocally so. He is a decent man, although a bit shy: if she wants something, she will have to go and ask for herself.

"Lord Harrington," I whisper to her as she turns around me, and I can hear her gasp. 

"How do you—" 

"Do not be daft, you keep glancing towards him." We separate, then again, when she is close enough: "I assure you, should you ask him for a dance, he would be amenable."

"Really?" she lets out, blushing harder than I have ever seen before. It is a bit annoying, really. A few years ago she would accompany me outside searching for subjects for my experiments, rolling up her sleeves and pulling her skirt up, and now her mind is taken by the affairs of the heart. 

"Yes, really," I insist, not mentioning Lord Harrington's entanglement with Mr Enoch last year, which did not last anyway. I am certain that he has fallen for Lady Margaret. 

She nods, and concentrates again on the dance, which makes things tremendously better for me. I have not forgotten that Watson is near, and therefore I have to give my absolute best on the floor. 

Lady Margaret and I share a grand total of two dances before I send her away (because more would be inappropriate, although I do not care about that) saying that I need to talk to someone. Which is quite right. I make my way through the people, and plant myself in front Dr Watson and Stamford without a single salutation. It takes them a moment to derail from their intense conversation to become aware of my presence.

"Heavens, Holmes!" Stamford says when he finally notices me.

Watson turns his head towards me, and meets my eyes again. He jerks his chin back a bit, and only then I realise that as much as I had given myself through the dance, I must look like the world's most ludicrous lunatic, from the red of my cheeks and the sweat gathering on my forehead. I can only hope that my hair is not too bad. 

"Mr Holmes," Dr Watson says, now with a smile that is bright enough to melt stars. "I take that the music is quite good?" 

"It is true that they are making quite the effort, tonight," I answer, glancing at Lord Stamford. Nothing less to make an impression on his niece's potential suitors. "Would you do me the honour of the next dance, Dr Watson?" 

Stamford gapes, and Watson's ears slightly flush with red. I know my declaration is quite shocking: although relationships of the same sex are allowed, they are never seen on the dance floor where parity between women and men must remain. Probably because people would be confused when asked to turn around a man, and not a woman. Imbeciles. 

"Do not worry, you can take the lead," I say to Watson, with a smirk. "I know how to dance a woman's part."

"I'm not sure that it would be a good idea, Holmes," Watson says, lips pinched. He taps his cane to the side of his leg.

"Oh please, your leg will be just fine."

"I, really—"

He looks at Stamford, who uselessly chimes in. "Really, Holmes, I would not mind, but I do not believe Lady Holmes would agree." 

It is now my turn to gape. How infuriating that man can be! Who cares about what Mother has to say? As if she does not control enough already. I look at Watson, hoping for him to save me from this situation. 

"I'm afraid my leg won't let me—" 

Without letting him finish, I understand that I am dismissed. I turn on my heels and make my way back into the crowd, searching for Lady Margaret. When I finally distinguish the brown hair bouncing on her shoulders, she already has already found a dancing partner in Lord Harrington. 

Imbeciles! All of them!

As if I have not pushed her towards him. I bite on my lower lip, my eyes moistening with the humiliation I have just been subjected to. Not far from me, a couple laughs, and I am sure I am the subject of their secretive joy. I turn again, and make my way towards the back doors. 

Once outside, the rumour of conversations vanishes. I walk until I meet the end of the outside deck. I lean against the balustrade, ruffling my hands through my hair, cursing my very own existence. 

They do not know. They do not know how infuriating it is to be the constant subject of my thoughts. They do not know how impossible it is for me to stop thinking, to stop seeing everything. And like the hypocrites they are, they cower at their own faults, once they are acknowledged and for everybody to see. In their stupidity, they blame me. Unlike Mycroft, I have never learned to play by their rules, because they disgust me. I cannot be dishonest. I cannot be anyone else but myself. 

They do not like me, and I know, and I do not care. But then, why is it that I am saddened by Dr Watson's rebuttal?

"Mr Holmes?" 

Watson

I turn on myself, my hands in my back, still on the balustrade, shocked to see him standing in front of me. We are alone on the balcony, illuminated by the candle glow from inside the windows. For the first time, I notice how cold it is.

He looks utterly sheepish. "I have upset you." 

I glance to the side, in need to escape this conversation. Has he realised only now?

"You like to dance," he says, and anyone other than him would have me absolutely enraged about how this conversation is leading nowhere.

"Yes." 

"You see, the truth is that I am not a very good dancer." 

"Have you come here only to bore me with a conversation we already had , Dr Watson?"

He glances down again, but when he looks up, he directly meets my eye. "Not as such, no. I wanted to know if you would honour me with the next dance?"

I must admit that I gaped, and not elegantly so. It took me a second to muster myself, and one more to speak. "Yes, of course." 

This time, he is the one to take my arm, as we go back inside together. The previous dance has just ended, and people disperse themselves once more. He stands in front of me, his right fist clenching a bit over his bad leg, having surrendered his cane against a corner of a wall. It is only now that it strikes me as a bad idea: maybe Watson cannot physically dance… maybe this will only lead to his humiliation. 

I will not let anything bad happen to this man. 

Women join me as we spread out in two distinct lines, and for a moment, we wait for the music. I stand straight, although I can perfectly hear whispers around us, people confused as to why two men are set to dance together. Idiots. Watson's gaze never wavers, as he keeps it on me. The corner of his mouth stretches into a subtle half-smile, and I smile back. I had initially rejoiced at the thought of dancing together, only to cause disruption and make Mother break into a sweat. Now, I only care about the joy it will be bringing me, and hopefully, Dr Watson too. It takes another minute before Stamford scrambles towards the band, and ushers them to play. The piece is unnecessarily romantic, but slow enough for Watson to catch up without any trouble. 

He turns around me, imitating the other men, as I dance the woman's part. Whatever his claims about being a bad dancer were, they are unfounded: he entirely forgets about his leg once he lets the rhythm settle into his body, and if he needs a bit of help with remembering certain steps, I am never too far to take the lead for two or three beats' time.

For a reason I cannot quite put my finger on, every nerve in my body shivers when he puts his hand on the small of my back, as we follow the couple in front of us, before parting again. I never thought that dancing could be like that.

The music stops, leaving the air shockingly empty of sound. I stand there for a moment, cursing that this had to end. Why could they not keep on playing only a bit longer?

"Would you care to dance again?" Watson asks me, coming closer. His cheeks are rosy from the effort of the last few minutes.

"Of course," I say again, as if my mouth is unable to produce any other sound.

He nods, and positions himself again. This time, the music starts without any trouble, and people return to their conversation. Shock never lasts long, in such company, or if it does, it is only to keep appearance. There is nothing wrong with what we are doing. 

We only dance two times before Watson admits that his leg is paining him. More than two would have been... most inappropriate, not that I care. I follow him back to the place where he left his cane, and we are both greeted with glasses of wine to quench our thirst. 

"See, I say," after sipping at my glass, "there is nothing wrong with your leg." 

"Maybe so, yet it still does hurt." 

"Not when you are not thinking about it." 

He smiles indulgently at me. "Your mother will not be distressed that we have danced together, will she?"

I roll my eyes. "Do not worry about her." 

"It is not her that I worry about," he replies. "You are a friend, Holmes, I would hate to see something unfortunate happening to you."

I blink. Once, or twice. Or maybe more. A friend? Me

I open my mouth, trying to think of words that can convey what I think of the situation. "I hate your moustache." The words escape before I can rein them in. Good, let's keep making a fool of myself. Shall I? And scare away the first friend I ever had two seconds after he proclaimed it. 

It is his turn to gape. "Pardon me?" 

Too late to go back. "Really, I think it is dreadful. It ages you considerably."

His shocked face does not last: he barks out a laugh, surprising me. "Heavens, you are quite an honest fellow, Holmes." 

"Do not pretend you did not already know that. And that is what friends are for, is it not?" 

"Quite, quite. Well, I do not know what to say. Is the sight of me that dreadful?" 

"Not at all. I am merely suggesting that you would look even better… without it." I wave a hand. Maybe the wine is not helping. "You ride, Dr Watson. Do you ride well?" 

The subject needed to be changed, and it is evident that Watson has spent some time working at a stable in his younger years, going by how familiar he was with our stableboy when he talked to him during his first visit at Sherrinford Hall. All orphans have worked at a stable in some point in their lives. And as a soldier, most likely. This was not a difficult conclusion to make. 

"My, yes, I have a bit of experience with horses. Why do you ask?"

"We have excellent steeds at Sherrinford, thoroughbreds directly from Goldophin Arabian's line." 

Watson looks at me, like a man who has not understood a word of what I said, yet tries not to let it show. "That sounds quite impressive." 

I shake my head. Why is this so hard? I only have to get the right words out of my mouth for him to accept… but what if he should refuse? Maybe friendship does not entail him visiting Sherrinford for a second time in such a short time? Is this going too fast? What if he agrees, but only because he feels obligated, only to be bored during his second visit and regret the bourgeoning of this particular friendship?

I do not know how to proceed, for I have never had a friend before today. 

"Holmes?" Watson prompts me, seeing as I have not answered his words for… a minute, now? Or two?

I shake my head again. If this man has not shun me away after me criticising the horrible thing sitting on his face, surely he will not be horrified by what I am about to suggest. "I meant— Mycroft— my brother, his horse, well, he lives in London now… I mean, my brother lives in London, not the horse, and so, if you wished to ride, sometime, well, my brother's horse is in need of a seasoned rider." Dear God. Have I become Harris, suddenly?

Watson looks down, to his glass, and when he raises his head again, there is a smile on his face. "Just to be clear… Is this an invitation?"

"Yes, yes, of course, if only—" 

Just as I am about to ask Watson his address in London to pursue further correspondence concerning that matter, I am rudely interrupted by some kind of bumbling inebriated fool, who nearly crashes his wine onto my best clothing. 

"Watson!" he roars, staggering on one leg.

Watson takes a step back, his eyes wide, before he recognises the identity of the man in question. "Lord Murray! I did not know you were attending, tonight." 

"Attending, attending," Lord Murray mumbles, "I am always attending where the wine is this good." 

Watson and I share a pointed look, before he speaks again. "I am forgetting myself. Holmes, this is Lord Charles Murray. Lord Murray, this is Sherlock Holmes." 

Not at all intending to shake the hand of a drunk, I sip at my wine, which Lord Murray does not seem to mind, for he claps my back with the force of a baby elephant, making me choke on my drink.

"Mr Holmes!" he roars, and a few heads turns around, probably wondering what I have done this time. Murray tries to lean on my shoulder, but I take a step to the side, and he vacillates in thin air. Again, Watson looks at me, an apology in his eyes. "This man, this man here," he says, pointing to Watson, "he has served the King with my son! Thick as thieves, they were, Watson and Murray. The best shots in their regiment, as well, and I am speaking from experience! Although you astounded us all, just now, Watson, I did not know you were as good a dancer as a shooter!"

"Please, Lord Murray," Watson laughs, his ears flushing red. 

The rest of the discussion is mostly conducted by Watson and Murray, loudly reminiscing about his son and the army, asking for stories and details, whilst I stand on the side, sipping at my wine. There is no more dancing to be had, and people have started to go back to their quarters or to their carriages, and I still have not got a proper answer on Watson's part. 

After a few minutes, Mother appears in my field of view, trying to communicate something by shaking her head towards the door, as if she were taken by some sudden attack.

I do not excuse myself, for Watson and Murray are in deep conversation, and I mean to return to them after knowing what Mother wants. 

"Sherlock, dear, Father is waiting for us outside." 

I gape. Already? "But Mother, the night has just started." 

"Everyone is leaving," she says, looking around. "It is clear that Lady Stamford has made her choice for tonight." 

Disappointed men are a weak thing and if they must cower back to their manors to cry upon their piles of gold, so be it, but they cannot ruin this night. My night!

"I do not care about that! People are still here. It is a ball, Mother, it is never supposed to end."

"Do not discuss this, Sherlock, your father is tired and waiting for us." 

I cross my arms over my chest. "Then Father can take his own carriage back to Sherrinford and I—" 

"We are leaving now, young man, and do not dare talk back to me or you are coming back on foot." My eyes widen under the possibility— "No, that is not an option, Sherlock. Hush, now, and go join your Father, I need to bid goodbye to our hosts." 

She leaves me like that, in the middle of the room, and my gaze falls back unto Watson, who is still concentrating on whatever Murray has to say. He has entirely forgotten about me already, it seems. 

With a shrug, I leave my half-empty glass onto the nearest table, and find my way out through the remaining crowd. 

Father is sitting in the carriage, already asleep, as I take place opposite of him. On the other side of the window, ladies and lords are still talking with each other, laughing and drinking, a few new pairs separating from the rest of the crowd. The sound of them is still buzzing in my ears as I press my forehead to the cold glass, suddenly exhausted. 

Mother enters the carriage and sits in front of me, breathing heavily from the effort of going down the stairs, and I do not listen as she monologues about the other guests and our hosts. 

I want to close my eyes, and imagine again Watson conversing with me, with the easiness of a man who is well loved by all, as proven by both Stamford and Murray. It is rare that a common man makes his way through that sort of event, but nobody would refuse anything to a man who is a retired soldier, a doctor, and John Watson at once.

And of all people, he had chosen to converse with me. To dance with me.

Me, a man with a horrible reputation, for things he has not done and for others he did indeed do. Me, a man with a reputation that is held above his head like a sword of Damocles, by none other than his own brother, should he digress from the firm orders he has been given. You obey Mother, Sherlock, you listen to her, you stop taking whatever you are taking, and above all, no more running away. Or every watchman, every policeman in London will know about what you have done, and you shall never become what you desire most, for no one will want to work with a man he cannot trust.

Watson does not know any of this, of course. He has met me like a stranger meets another, and has taken a liking to me, because of who I am. It seems to be possible, against what has been said to me.

I smile to myself, something that Mother catches, seated in front of me. "Yes, you must be pleased with yourself and your earlier little demonstration. It is a good thing that Stamford did not mind, or I would have made sure that you would have not stepped again into those rooms." 

"We did get Stamford's blessing, Mother, there is no need to fret." Not that I would have asked him in the first place, but he was there, and he indeed said he did not mind. 

"And whom were you dancing with, again?" 

I bite on my lower lip, my eyes on the darkened fields that separate our estate from Stamford's. 

"A friend, I believe," is my only reply. 

Mother's mouth is in a fine line, but she does not press. "Do not slump like that, Sherlock, it is inelegant," she finally says, slapping my elbow. 

"I do not care." 

"And stop sulking, for Heaven's sake."

I groan, somehow slumping even more against the window. I am in dire need of a bath, and dear God above, to undo the laces that tie this damned corset to my body. 

One cannot breathe in such a thing. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"Sherlock?! Will you come downstairs, your doctor is here!"

My doctor. I smile at the words, letting the pen I was holding roll on my desk and fall onto the floor — damned be the experiment I was just working on, it can wait. She could have asked the staff to send the message, but then, Mother always wanted to be in the middle of things. I bang the door closed behind me, and slide down the handrail downstairs, like I used to do as a child, something Mother has always reproached me for.

It took me a few days to get my hand on Watson's address, before Lady Margaret had agreed to snoop around her uncle's drawer in order to retrieve it. After all, I had a favour in store since I paired her off with Lord Harrington on that very same night. Since then, I had to endure countless recounting of the moment he took her on the dance floor, stars in his eyes, etcetera etcetera etcetera. But then, I had Watson's address, so nothing could come and darken my good mood, as I waited two weeks to write to him, just to show that I might have entirely forgotten about him. I cannot appear too needy: it would be an embarrassment. He instantly agreed upon coming back at Sherrinford, at the end of the month. 

And now he is here.

I scold my smile into something more serious, and walk into the living room, where Watson is making conversation with Mother, apparently talking about the dreadful painting of our ancestors that has been now taking dust for decades. Watson is doing his best at faking interest, and it is clear that Mother respects him, although he did commit the terrible crime of going along with one my devious plans — dancing with me, that was. 

"Oh, Mother, please, do not bore our guest with all of that." 

They both turn to greet me; Watson's face is joyous. "Mr Holmes!" 

"Ah, Sherlock, could you—" 

I stare at Watson's face, surprised. "You shaved it!" 

"I did," he says, a smile stretching on his moustache-less face. Thank God. He does look years younger. "Why are you so surprised? I do listen to my friends, especially the ones that have the best sense in fashion." 

I look down, pleased. 

"What is going on?" Mother chimes in, wondering what my devious plan is this time.

"Oh, nothing," I say, before Watson can tell. Although I am sure he would not, considering the fact that Mother would think my quip on his moustache as outrageous. "I thought you were here to see the horses? Let's go, then."

He politely apologises to Mother as I leave the room, expecting him to follow. He reaches me at the door — fortunately it is quite a sunny day, although clouds are forming at the horizon — and he is still smiling. 

"I told you you would look better without it," I whisper, not looking at him but walking steadily towards the stables. 

He smiles at me, and it is oh so bright that it outshines the rays of sunshine piercing the clouds above our heads. "You, as always, were right."

I huff a pleased sound as we walk together. I dressed appropriately for the situation, adding leather chaps over breeches to avoid any chafing, and this time, there is no corset under my shirt. I wonder if Watson notices the difference. Then again, it would not have been very practical to ride in. Watson looks as handsome as ever, even though he is wearing high boots and trousers — quite the scandalous thing, they are, especially in this part of the country, but it suits him rather well. Not that I would ever tell him. Trousers! What next?! 

I enter the freshly cleaned stables and grab a saddle that I prop against my hip, along with a bridle. "There," I say, pointing the rest of the attire to Watson, "and you can take this one."

I show him to Silver, Mycroft's ten year-old gelding. "He has got quite the character," I tell Watson, "but you should not have much trouble if you have as much experience as you've said so." 

"I am up for the challenge," he answers, a smile on his face. He reaches for Silver's head, grabbing it with gentle hands, and runs his fingers through his fur for a few distracted seconds. It is instantly clear to me that he knows how to handle the beast, and so, I retreat to my own mare, Blaze. 

"Don't you have a stableboy to do this sort of thing for you?" Watson asks me as we are saddling our horses.

"No. I trust my horse when I ride it, I should do the minimal effort of preparing it myself." I do not mention that finding anything to do in this boring place is worth the trouble of upsetting the staff. 

I can see Watson's smirk from the corner of my eye. "That's certainly wise of you."

I do not answer, although I cannot help containing my smile. Every time Watson speaks to me, he does it without injecting any venom in his words. He can be sarcastic, but never mean — not to me, at least. There is an easiness to his words, and it is obvious that he has not spent his childhood in a house that regulated his speech and the quality of his vocabulary, yet he is not vulgar nor above his condition. 

He fascinates me. 

After a few minutes, we are ready and take the horses out. I watch from the corner of my eyes as he climbs onto his saddle, with the quality of a young man with an athletic body. Despite his injury, he is still very much capable, and now without the moustache, actually appears the age he truly is. Evidently, he started believing again in his own youthfulness since he has met me: he holds the reins tightly, the swell of his arm rising under his coat and shirt. Under him, Silver is restless, his hooves digging into the ground. 

"After you," he says, and I acknowledge him with a nod. I allow Blaze into a slow trot, and we set off towards the woods.

We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering about, trotting around the forest and coming to a halt near the river that marks one border of the family estate. We talk, and as ever, conversation is easy. I can easily interest Watson in my latest experiments, and he tells me of the few queer cases he had at his practice lately. When we emerge out of the woods again, the Hall is fully in view in front of us. 

"You said you were up for a challenge?" I ask, grinning. "Let's see who can make it back to the stables first." 

Watson stares at me, astonished by my suggestion. "Holmes, surely you—"

I do not let him finish his sentence before I kick Blaze into action, and she surges forward in the fastest canter she knows, my heels digging down and my elbows raised to allow enough space for the reins. The wind moves through my hair, and I cannot help but laugh: it has been awhile since I've ridden, mostly because of the bad weather, and certainly not at that speed. I can hear the soft thud of Blaze's hooves on the grass, propelling mud left and right, and soon enough, distinguish the sound of Watson's stead behind me. 

Surreptitiously, I slow down Blaze a bit, letting Watson joins us at our height. 

"You are completely mad!" he shouts, although I can feel that he is as ecstatic as I am. Yet instead of suggesting we stop, I deduce that he has no intention to do so from the twinkle in the corner of his eye. Instead, he lets loose Silver's reins, and kicks him to a faster pace. 

I let him get in front: I would never let my pride be hurt by losing a challenge I suggested in the first place, but Watson's competitiveness makes me smile. I watch him as he gets ahead, his black coat whipping against his lower back from the wind and the speed, his strong legs pressing into the flanks of his steed — his hips, so mesmerising as they accompany the movements of the saddle in a succession of quick, smooth snaps. Forward, and back, forward, and back, forward, and back—

My throat feels dry. My feet slide out of the stirrups, and I let myself slip to the side. 

The mud breaks my fall — I had calculated it well enough not to hurt my head. After the first shock of the impact, I let my head down against the grass and close my eyes, trying to restore my breathing to its usual pace.

"Holmes!" I hear Watson cry out. With a faint smile, I turn my head. A blurry figure is moving towards me, the two horses abandoned behind. "Holmes!"

Gentle hands seize my shoulders and keep me lying down as I try to move to a sitting position. Watson's face swims somewhere above me, and I try to focus on it. I protected my head just well but miscalculated the impact to my leg and side, or the overall shock of the fall — my lungs feels as if they are going to burst. Why haven't I thought of that beforehand? 

"Dear God, you could have died!" 

"I have not," I say, forcing out a smile. "I am known to be indestructible, Watson." 

He smiles back, although I can see the concern written over the traits of his face. He leans down, and for a second, I cannot help but think that he is going to kiss me. 

He does no such thing. Obviously.

"Can you see me well?" he asks, and I nod. "Tell me who I am." 

I huff. "It seems you are the one in shock because I just did. Your name is John Watson." I know that he wants to see if I am conscious and making sense, but honestly, how could I ever forget something like that?

"Good," he says, and waves a finger in front of my face. "Follow my finger, now." 

"My head is fine," I grumble, as I try to sit up.

"I'm a doctor, it's my role to tell you if your head is fine or not," he says, pushing me down again, his fingers digging through my shoulder. How I wish he would never take his hand away! I pout, trying not to show myself too much, and follow his finger obediently. "You seem fine." (I know, I told him so!) "Can you get up? Wait, I will assist you." 

Watson lends me a hand, and I slowly get up, head slightly dizzy. I look down, only to see that my breeches and coat are entirely ruined from the mud. Head high, I take a first step towards the manor, but my ankle gives away under my weight. Watson, bless him, is there to catch me. 

"Let me help," he says, his hands on my waist.

"Fine." 

He locks one of his arms with mine, so I can rest part of my weight on him. "There," he says, "forget the horses, we'll ask the stableboy to fetch them later."

"We can fetch them now, I am fine."

"Oh please, your ankle is hurt, you're putting half of your weight on my arm!" 

Well, yes, but that is not altogether because of my ankle. I concede defeat, and we walk slowly towards the manor. Watson is a reassuring presence by my side, and although he is smaller than me, his body is strong and steady.I cannot help but imagine what he must have looked like, when in his military uniform — again, the image of him, maybe in a half-opened white shirt, rolled to his elbows to allow the heat to leave his body under the Indian sun, monopolises my mind. In any case, his little doctorly demonstration just now has proven how much of a double-faced man he is: as much of a military man, with his pride, competitiveness and temper, as he is a doctor, gentle and caring.

It starts raining just as we reach the back of the manor. "Just in time," Watson says. "Going by the clouds at the horizon, we've got a big storm coming."

"Indeed," I say, more prostrated by the state of my clothing than the weather outside. "I need a bath. And it seems like you could do with one too — I am afraid I rather ruined your clothes." 

Watson grins at me. Have I said something funny? "I could use a bath, yes, if you're offering. It's a good thing I brought a change of clothes, I don't see myself travelling back in a wet and muddy coat." 

"Stay," I let out, before I can stop myself. "For the night— the storm— as you've just said, it looks rather impressive… It is surely no weather to travel in. Stay the night, and we will arrange a carriage for you in the morning."

"Will the lady of the house agree with this idea of yours?"

It is clear that Watson genuinely wants to avoid any conflict with the rest of the household — which means that he does not understand much about my family. I roll my eyes at him. "She does not need to approve of every decision I ever make," I say. "But if it makes you feel better, I will ask her." 

"Please do. Now, let me help you climb the stairs — and we need to ask about that stableboy for the horses."

 

***

 

After a short discussion, Mother agrees that Watson must stay at Sherrinford for the night, unless he wants to meet a dreadful end on the slippery roads back to London. When we meet again at dinner, Watson is wearing another suit, its soft gray colour complementing beautifully the deep blue of his eyes. He is discussing some matter with Father, but even from the back I can deduce that he is slightly uncomfortable. Ah, yes — if he has just taken a bath, he must have had a valet to help him dress. It is not the first time I have seen that kind of reaction happen, during the few times we invite commoners to stay home for the night. Watson is certainly too proud to let someone dress him, but that is not all…

Oh. His scar. Yes, of course, Anderson must have seen it, then. And knowing the man, he would not have backed off Watson to let him dress himself. Anderson's sense of duty is stronger than his common sense.

"Come on, Father, do not bore Dr Watson with your old hunting tales he probably heard somewhere else before," I say, stepping into the conversation. Both men stare back at me.

Watson smiles. "Lord Holmes was just telling me the most amazing story—" 

"About the two enormous boars and how it was only a dream in the end? Yes, I have heard it before." 

Father shakes his head. "Well, you have spoiled it, now. I will leave you two to it, gentlemen," he says, waving a hand when Watson opens his mouth, probably to encourage him to stay. God, what will he not do out of politeness?

"Are you quite all right?" I ask Watson, my voice low, just when Father has gone. He frowns, most certainly faking lack of understanding. "Do not pretend in front of me, you know it does not work. Anderson is an idiot at his best — although if you have a more formal complaint to make, I would be happy to have a tangible reason to get rid of him for good." 

Watson waves it off. "Don't. You're right — but it's not Anderson's fault." I pinch my lips together. Of course Watson does not want to be the reason of anyone's sacking, but dear God, Anderson deserves it, after all this time. "It's only that I'm not accustomed to having someone at my service like that. That is all." 

The tightness of his voice is imploring me to drop the subject altogether, which I do. At the same moment, we are fetched for dinner. It is only the four of us around the table, along with one of Mother's friends, Lady Harold or something like that — which means that I can sit by Watson's side. 

We conduct an enthusiastic conversation about my latest experiment — blood discolouration due to contact with certain types of poisonous substances, and Watson is of the biggest help. 

"You are certainly the best conductor of light!" I exclaim, midway through dinner, and I barely notice the pointed look exchange between my parents.

Watson laughs it off, and he keeps informing me about the latest medical discoveries pertaining to poisonous substances — such things they do in London. I cannot wait for the day I will be able to join the scientific community of our country's biggest and most interesting city! Maybe Watson would be amenable to show me the city, one day. We would walk as we just did, arm in arm, down the streets and unto the best, most interesting parts of London. There must be crime every day, over there! 

My thoughts diverge me from the conversation, and when the voices around me start making sense again, I notice that Watson is engaging again in conversation with Father, who is still rambling about hunting. Truly, does Father not know any other subject of conversation?

"And you, do you hunt, Mr Holmes?" 

It takes me a moment to register that I'm the Mr Holmes Watson is asking. "I do not. Father is the one who enjoys killing for sport. I prefer dissecting." 

"I must admit I feel the same," Watson says. He turns towards Father, "although I've noticed a few foxes in the woods today. I thought you might indulge in that kind of game?" 

"We did, we did," Father says, reminiscing about the good old times, "when the boys were young. We sure did go fox hunting, we had a good pack of thirty beagle hounds around at the time. Of course, since Sherlock's incident with Redbeard, we've stopped having dogs at Sherrinford." 

I shoot a look at Father, hoping it will convey my rightful anger. How can he mention Redbeard now ! In front of Watson!

"Redbeard? What's that?" Watson asks, genuinely interested. 

"He was my dog," I say, tightly, hoping Father will drop the subject.

He does not. Instead, he breathes in, with the dramatic attitude a good storyteller would have in front of a curious audience. He forgets too often that he is not a good storyteller, nor that his audience is interested in whatever he will say next. "Yes, Redbeard was Sherlock's dog," he says, as if I had not just mentioned that. "We got him for Sherlock's sixth birthday, you could not have seen a happier little boy."

I look away, feeling the heat rising to my face, but Father doesn't seem eager to stop and Watson is closely listening to him, a smile on his face.

"They were the best of friends for years. You know, Sherlock always had a little bit of trouble making friends of his own age—" 

"Father," I mumble.

"He trained the dog so well! He always loved our pack of beagle hounds, of course, but Redbeard was something else — a beautiful Irish setter, purebred, of course, and he was the only one allowed inside the house. A true companion, you see, not like the other hunting dogs. Sherlock used to sneak him upstairs into his room to sleep on his bed at night — as if we did not know!" 

"Father, please." 

"And then, one day, a terrible storm hit the manor — worse than this one, and by far — but little Sherlock had been outside with Redbeard, playing pirates around the ditch in the forest, you see, but there was so much water the ground gave way and Redbeard fell. The poor thing broke its neck but survived, somehow — when Sherlock brought him back, we had no option but to shoot the poor beast. Sherlock was devastated, he cried all night and then, for months, he—" 

"Stop it!" I shout. I throw my fork and knife on my plate, and stand up. 

Silence falls around the room as every single pair of eyes is on me. I cannot even dare to look at Watson.

Mother clears her throat, red in her cheeks. "Manners, Sherlock! Sit down, and stop making a fool of yourself in front of the company." 

I shake my head. The company! The company is my company, as I am pretty sure I was the one to invite Watson. And I will not tolerate others making me look like a fool in front of him. Certainly not! "Mother, I—" 

"Don't you dare to talk back," she bites. "And sit down." 

I stomp my foot and kick my chair to the ground. Father jumps in his chair, and I'd be afraid that Mother would implode from anger if I wasn't equally mad at her. "Have tremendous fun without me, then." 

I step out of the room and hop my way upstairs (damned be my earlier miscalculation and my swollen ankle!), and hear the inevitable, "WILLIAM SHERLOCK SCOTT HOLMES!" roared in my general direction.

I shut the door to my room behind me, and drop on my bed, an arm over my eyes. If Father's story has not discouraged Watson from being my friend, I am sure that my little demonstration did.

I lay on my bed, rehashing the same thought over and over again. In the morning, Joh— Watson will take the first car for London, and he will never visit, or write again. I am doomed with the inability of sustaining friendships. Of understanding common human behaviour. The rest of the world can only despise me for it, but it is as well, for I do not need the rest of the world to thrive, as it has been proven by the last twenty years of my life.

There is a shy knock on my door. 

"Yes?" I grunt, propping myself on my elbows. 

"Holmes, it's me," Watson says, on the other side of the door. 

I get up, running a hand through my hair, hoping that it is presentable enough. I open the door and stand in from of Watson, who is holding a bowl of ice and a cloth on his forearm. If he took the time to go into the kitchen to fetch some ice, it means that—

"You did not stay at dinner," I deduce, astonished. 

"Er— no, I felt the need to check in on you—"

"Why? Did you fear that I would have spent the night crying in bed?" 

Watson doesn't step back. "Of course not. I meant… your ankle," he says and raises the bowl a bit. "I am sorry about what Lord Holmes said at dinner. I did not know the matter would distress you." 

I wave him off. "Let's forget about it." Truly, I do not wish to revisit that conversation a second time this evening.

"Can I come in?" Watson asks, already peaking a bit over my shoulder. "I would like to bandage your ankle for the night." 

Without answering, I open the door, and let him in. Knowing that he would be coming in my room, I would have cleaned it a bit beforehand. I can hear him analysing the mess in front of him — my books are a bit all over the place, along with my correspondence, my papers, and multiple maps of England and London, in particular. At least Tom had the good sense of lighting up a fire before dinner.

I stand in the middle of the room, unsure about what Watson wants to do next.

"Here, just sit in your chair." 

I nod, and follow his orders whilst he sits in the armchair opposite mine. He scoots forwards, sets the bowl between his legs, where my gaze wanders for a while, and taps the inside of his lap. I bend forward to take my boot off, but he stops me. "No, let me."

Without saying a word, I raise my leg and place my foot in his lap. Gently, he unbuttons and unlaces my boot. He removes it with care, and the sudden lack of pressure makes me hiss. 

"Does it hurt?" he asks.

"No." He smiles from the corner of his mouth, not believing me. "Fine. A little."

Next, he takes off my silk stocking, unrolling it from the bottom of my knee, until it comes off my foot. I cannot help but look away — my feet are large and I have always considered this part of anatomy as inelegant. But Watson merely touches my ankle with professional hands, and does not seem to make any judgement about my appearance. 

"It is definitely swollen," he says. "But not twisted nor broken. Here." He puts the damp, cold cloth over my ankle, and I can feel relief prickling my eyes.

"Mother will hate you," I say, "for having left dinner." 

Watson smiles, looking at some point on the floor. "Will she? I rather thought she would blame you over anything I did improperly."

I chuckle. "You understand her well, I see. Won't you join them after dinner?"

"I am rather embarrassed to say, but I have no idea how whist is played."

I wave my hand at him. "Do not bother with that, it is a tremendous waste of time anyway."

"In any case, I would rather spend the evening in your company." 

The reflection of the fire is dancing in his eyes, and his smile is genuine. We spend the rest of the evening sitting in our chairs, barely talking, whilst the rain bats my windows. If I am worried at first that we have nothing interesting to say to each other, I quickly understand that there is something comfortable in the silence around us, only broken when Watson wets the cloth again, and puts it back around my ankle. My foot stays in his lap, against his muscled thigh, his small, warm hands on my bare leg. I let my gaze lose itself in the fire, and I can feel Watson watching me. A part of me hopes that the storm will go on for the next few days, forcing him to remain at Sherrinford for more than a single night. But the rain sounds already less tenacious than it was earlier, and I fear it will be entirely gone in the morning. 

At some point in the evening, Watson gently lets my leg down. The swelling has reduced greatly, although he leaves the bowl of now cold water along with the cloth for me to use, and excuses himself for the night. 

Tom comes in when my parents retire for the night, but once I'm changed and lying in bed, I cannot find sleep. It must be around midnight when I finally get up, light a candle, and make my way in the corridor without any particular plan.

When I see light under Watson's door, my heart stops in my chest. Carefully, I open the door to the adjoining bathroom, and kneel on the tiles, in front of the door that links to his room. I peer through the keyhole, and the vision that I see makes my heart jump so hard I fear that Watson will hear it beat from the other room.

He is in one corner of the room, leaning against the frame of the window and gazing outside, lost in his thoughts. There is a slight frown on his face, and it is clear to me that whatever he is thinking about is a problem that he cannot understand nor solve by himself. He is only wearing a white shirt, open at the collar, and rolled around his elbows, forearms crossed over his chest. I feel heat rising to my cheek. To say that I have caught him in such a state of undress! His thumb is drawing small circles over the bone of his elbow, as if reassuring himself of something.

After a moment, he sighs, and leaves the window. Quickly, I step back from the door, afraid that he has seen me. A minute passes, and I hear the creaking of a chair. I look inside the room again, but Watson is out of my sight, sitting at the desk along the wall I cannot see. There's the scratching of a pen on paper. Writing, then. Whatever the letter is about, it causes him much trouble, evidently. Is he writing to a lover? Would they be female, or male?

Watson stands up suddenly, the paper in his hand. He starts walking around the room, rereading his words, a displeased look on his face. His own words frustrate him. Maybe he is unable of expressing his love correctly. That is an issue that bothers most people, apparently. I never understood it, but then, maybe I do not understand many things about such feelings. 

Watson shakes his head and looks up, in the direction of the door I am hiding behind. For a split second, I am sure that he has seen me. I stand up, blow out the candle, and exit the bathroom as quickly as I can, only to fall upon Anderson on my way out. 

"Sir, what are you doing here?" he asks, loudly. 

"Nothing that concerns you," I whisper. "What are you doing here?"

He jerks his chin back, faking confusion. "Checking on Mr Watson, of course." 

"It is Doctor Watson. And it is nearly midnight. Go back to your quarters, Anderson, that is an order." As much as Anderson can be an idiot, he never disobeys direct orders.

He nods. "Very well, sir."

I watch him go down the hallway and when he is out of sight, I retreat to my room, wondering what exactly Anderson was trying to achieve, and what tomorrow will bring. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Watson is on top of me, legs propped on each side of my thighs, his hips undulating in the same way he was riding that horse, earlier today. Or was it in another life, altogether? He is rubbing against me just so, even though those parts of our anatomy remain out of my sight, blurred by a constant fog around us. I cannot help but lie back and let him handle me that way, his deep blue eyes gazing at me as if I were the most important thing in the universe. I am the only thing he can see or think of right now as we are joined in this way. Our fingers are linked together as he holds my hands, his arms strong and his muscles deliciously taut. His mouth is half-open and I can see his tongue between his lips, darting out to wet them as he does so every time he is in my company. When our eyes meet again, he smiles, one of those smug things that make my spine weak, and starts kicking his hips forward with intention, taking care of our mutual pleasure with his extensive experience in this matter. My thoughts too clouded by lust to restrain myself, I start moving my hips in the most shameful way, seeking contact, seeking more and more friction, which elicits only more excitement on Watson's part, who bends over me, his lips tickling my ear. 

"Sherlock…"

I wake up in a gasp just as I spill on my nightgown, my hips digging the stiffness between my legs against the mattress of my bed. I bite my pillow, shameful, feeling heath rise to my face. The stickiness pooling somewhere under me is unpleasant and uncomfortable. It is not the first time I had nightly emissions of the kind, but it had been years ago, when I was just a young boy. And I certainly never experienced such dreams before — dear God! If he knew! If he knew how I had just pictured him — I would die. How monstrous of me, to imagine someone in this position, doing what we just did!

Slowly, my bite on the pillow relaxes as I am taken by sudden exhaustion. It must be the shame. Or worse — my cleverness pooling from my head to down there, in order to produce more of that sticky substance! 

What have I become?!

It takes me a while to fall asleep again, but I do, in the end, somehow convinced that the mess will be gone in the morning if I ignore it long enough. 

 

***

 

The mess is not gone in the morning. In fact, it is worse. It has stuck and dried in my hair down there, and both my nightgown and the sheet are crusty and stained. 

"Mr Holmes, Lady Holmes has just called for breakfast," Tom says on the other side of the door.

"Do not enter!" I shout as I jump off the bed. Tom cannot see me like this, or else will draw his own — wrong — conclusions, and will surely report to Mother and God—

I rip the sheets from the bed, just as Tom asks, "Is everything all right, sir?" 

"Yes, yes, why would things be not all right? Just give me a moment." 

In a desperate moment of inspiration, I throw the sheets in the fireplace, where the fire is slowly dying. Doing so revives it in a small explosion, smoke filling in the room as the chimney cannot draw it quickly enough. 

"Good Lord, is that smoke?" Tom says, opening the door against my order. 

I had just thrown my nightgown on the floor and wrapped myself the bed's duvet when he steps inside. He runs to open the window, while I wave one corner of the duvet in front of the fireplace. Slowly, the smoke finds a way out, but my troubles are only beginning: Tom is staring at me, bewildered. "Did you burn your sheets, sir?"

I shrug. "Their sight was abhorrent to me. I always hated the colour." 

From the look on his face, it's evident that he is entirely unconvinced by my statement. I am usually a very good liar, but maybe Thomas knows me too well, after all this time. My stomach clenches when I see his gaze dropping to the ground, where my nightgown is still lying, the stain prominently facing upwards. I kick it under the bed. "Do not mind that, I will pick it up later. I do not feel like going to breakfast," I add, which is true. I am in no particular mood to see Mother so soon after yesterday's incident, and I am still unsure of being able to sit in Watson's presence without making a fool of myself. "I will take a bath instead, Tom." 

Tom nods once, a slight smile stretching his lips. "All right, sir." 

 

***

 

When I am finally presentable again, I go downstairs, only to see the Hall entirely abandoned of human life. I smile, happy to have this respite, and wonder what kind of experiment I should find to do today. Just as I step outside, I hear happy cries and shouts coming from the field between the manor and the forest. Over there, I am surprised to find a small crowd sitting on chairs, watching as a few men play a game of cricket. Quickly enough, I distinguish Lady Margaret Stamford, along with two friends of hers I could not name for the life of me. On the field, Lord Harrington is waving a bat, and — my heart clenches in my chest — Watson is throwing the ball. There are other players, of course — Lord Stamford along with a few of his friends, and probably one or two potential suitors Mother had time to invite upon seeing that the bad weather had cleared the sky. 

But my eyes are for Watson only, who, just like yesterday evening, has his shirt rolled to his shoulders under his waistcoat, as he flexes his arms, ready to throw. There is the faintest blush of red on his cheeks, and he licks his pinked-up lips in a moment of concentration. 

He throws the ball and Harrington hits it, and the men start running in every possible direction (it is quite possible that I never learned the rules of cricket). The game is the dullest one, and I never understood team sports. Oh well. 

"Mr Holmes! Come sit down with us and watch," Lady Margaret cries out when she sees me. I try to make a quick escape, but I am far too advanced to hide properly before the rest of them can see me. 

"Mr Holmes!" Watson says when he notices me. He walks towards me, a bat stuck under his arm. "Are you going to play with us?" 

Lady Margaret chuckles in my back. "No, thank you, I will pass," I tell Watson.

I am just about to signify my disinterest about the game when he adds, "That is too bad! I was in the cricket's university team, back in the days." 

I smile. "My ankle, I am afraid," I say, pointing towards it. It is half a lie: my ankle has been mostly fine since this morning, although I am not sure if it would support my weight should I decide to run. In any case, I had decided upon waking not to make myself a fool in front of Watson, so I shall not participate in any games this morning.

Up close like this, I can see the sweat pearling on his forehead, and just above his upper lip. Moustache-less upper lip. He is far from the limping old man I met days ago, I note, and I feel like I was the starting point of this transformation. Had he not abandoned his cane after that first dance, after all? The thought makes me rather proud.

"Of course, of course. Do stay and watch! I am afraid our team rather needs the moral support." 

I nod, unable to produce any sound. What is he thinking? I would not miss this for the world!

Lady Margaret comes my way and grabs me by the arm as Watson walks away towards the field. She is babbling away about points and teams as she makes me sit down beside her, fortunately on the far side from where Mother is sitting, watching the game under her parasol. Father is nowhere to be seen — he knows of no sport other than hunting, and being humiliated by a bunch of younger, fitter men is enough to keep him inside on a sunny day. 

In the end, I decide that cricket is rather an enjoyable game. Lady Margaret is quite taken with the sight of her sweetheart — or soon-to-be sweetheart — as I deduce from the unyielding pace of her fast monologue. There is indeed quite a lot of cheering every time Harrington marks a point, or whatever points are in cricket, and upon further analysis, I understand that the majority of the fair sex is obsessed by the young man. I would have to be blind not to admit that Harrington is rather handsome, in the most conventional of ways, but he is no Watson either. The man has not even been in a war. Or learned a practical skill such as medicine. No, Harrington is a lord, a true one, the kind that is only occupied by his estate, attending balls and courting. Bo-ring

It is clear, as much as I had stated it on the night of the ball, that is he also taken with Lady Margaret, by the way he glances at her every time he marks a point during the game. He wants to see if she approves, and dear God, if he does not know, he is more of an idiot than I originally thought. It is a good match, I rather think. Nothing for Lord Stamford to disapprove of, apart the fear that Harrington's interest might be fleeting and will change on the first occasion. He would have liked a more mature man for his niece, an older fellow with a greater stability of character, but Stamford is a good sport, and I am convinced he would not refuse his niece's choice in the name of true love. It only takes Harrington to ask, but he is still too uncertain of the answer to risk it. 

These reflections only occupy a very short time of the morning, most of my thoughts directed towards John Watson and his rather athletic bod— abilities. I mentally add to his very own room in my mind that he used to play cricket as a young man, for this is vital information. What did he look like, then, I wonder, when he was my age? By what is going on on the field, it is clear that Watson is by far the best at the sport, and soon enough Lady Margaret whispers to my ear that the wind has turned in Watson's team's favours. It would have evidently been the case long before if he were not surrounded by fools who hardly know how to wave a bat. Again, this man is the direct proof that nobility does not necessarily come with competence.

Just as Lady Margaret hypothesises in my ear on which team should win, my eyes are distracted by the sight of Watson. He is juggling with the ball again, throwing it from one hand from another, and for a second, his gaze meets mine, as if he wanted to be sure I would be watching.

He licks his lips, and I drop my gaze instantly, pretending not to have seen him, and ask an inane question about points to Lady Margaret. Dear God, if he knew how I imagined him during the night…

Finally, one team moves again, running from one piece of wood to the other, for a reason I cannot begin to understand. When one of the wood things is knocked down by the ball, one team erupts in cheers, along with a few people in our small crowd who start clapping. I remember to fake disinterest when I understand that it's Watson's team that has won, but I cannot help but smile back when he turns his face towards me. 

Harrington, breathless, approaches us, and I can feel Lady Margaret tensing up on her chair. "If we would have been victorious," he says, smiling, visibly not frustrated about losing a silly game, "I would have dedicated it to you, my lady, but I am rather afraid things did not play out so well."

Lady Margaret squirms on her chair, unable to produce a response, and I roll my eyes, my head turned away.

"Don't beat yourself up over it, Harrington," Watson says, joining us. From here, I can see how sweat has gathered around the neck of his shirt, and on his forehead, where a few strands of darkened hair are plastered. "Lady Stamford, I can assure you that Harrington has proven himself worthy of praise — and this comes from a man who knows what he is talking about." 

"I do trust your judgement, Dr Watson," Lady Margaret answers, as she lets Harrington bow down and kiss her hand. 

"Now," Harrington says, "I think I have heard about a river?" 

Before I understand what is happening, Watson shoves a hand on Harrington's shoulder, and they are running down the hill towards the bit of the woods that covers the river. Giggling, Lady Margaret grabs me by the wrist, pulls me out of my chair and before I know it, my feet tumble down the hill after her, everything going too fast to stop. 

I can see Watson and Harrington in front of us — if it were not for my damned ankle, I would have joined them under no time, of course, leaving Lady Margaret behind. The distance gets bigger as we reach the forest, and for a second, we lose them out of our sight as my bad ankle is inevitably slowed down by the numerous branches and brambles. 

When we finally reach the source of the strong laughter by the river, I see Harrington getting rid of his shirt and Watson dropping his trousers. Through the leaves, I distinguish a flash of pale skin — dear God! — Watson's bottom!

I place my back against the nearest tree, and turn my head to see Lady Margaret in a similar position, a hand over her mouth to cover the sound of her giggles. She was just at my back, and so I know she saw what I saw.

Once the shock has passed, I carefully turn myself, still hiding behind the tree, and push two branches apart to look at the men in the river, laughing and shouting and splashing water at each other. Although they are naked as the day they were born, the situation is not at all intimate. It looks like they are playing like young children, or brothers. It still seems peculiar to me, who never played much as a child, and certainly not with Mycroft.

Now, I can see the strength of Watson's bare shoulders, although he is too far away for me to discern his scar. He is standing too deep in the water for me to witness once more the perfect roundness of his bottom, or to get a glimpse of his front. Is he as blond down there as he is on his head?

I look away, shame burning my cheeks. What is this? Why am I suddenly interested in Watson's appearance nearly as much as in his intellectual capacities? 

It would be improper for me to stay and wait for more, even though I am tempted, but Lady Margaret is already tugging my sleeve towards the way back to the manor.

 

***

 

I am standing along the river, just like this morning, my hands on the bark of the tree I am hiding behind. Gently, I push a branch out of my way, my eyes setting on the sight of Watson and Harrington in the river. Their naked bodies are close as they have stopped playing their games, and this time, the water is so low I can distinguish the fog around both their fronts, see the details of the water lapping at their strong, bare thighs.

They were laughing just a moment ago, but now they have paused in some kind of common, silent thought, as they look at each other. Unaware of my close presence, Harrington is the first one to shift forwards and crash his lips onto Watson's mouth, who winds his strong arms around Harrington's shoulders and back, kissing back passionately. 

I take a step back, my heart missing a beat before it redoubles its pounding inside of my chest. I knew about Harrington, of course, but not about Watson's… disposition. The shame I had initially felt about witnessing them in such an intimate moment fades away, replaced by something stronger, something I cannot quite name. Surely I would have noticed if Harrington had been sweet on Watson this whole time! What is the meaning of this?

My eyes find them again in the middle of the river, still clinging to each other with passion, Watson's caressing hands all over his lover's body. Heat rises to my face, but I cannot avert my gaze. I do not understand what overcomes me, but I feel myself growing hot and stiff between my legs, as if aroused by the sight in front of me. Of course not! It is preposterous to think so. Yet I wonder: what would it be like to be the one Watson is holding in his arms?

And suddenly I am there, my body against his, water surrounding me, except that I am not Harrington but me , and it is me that Watson desires, and no one else. He presses his lips to my neck, my cheeks, my forehead, and — of all places! — on my mouth. I kiss him back with all the fierceness of a most experienced lover, and he has to put his hands on each side of my head to stop me. 

"Please," he whispers, his eyes full of undying adoration, "no more kissing — it is too much for me."

"All right, all right," I answer, as my hands gently lower down his back, to rest just above the curve of his bottom. He shivers at my touch, his hands in return exploring my body, my torso.

I cannot help but rub against him, watch as the colour rises to his face, his pupils growing dark with equal lust. He pushes his hips forward, but when I look down, the fog has returned around the place where our bodies are joined.

"You are so good to me," he mumbles as he hides his face into my neck, his arms clinging to me. "You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and obviously the cleverest man alive, and this— oh, I have never felt better than in your arms…" He keeps on whispering his litany of praise as I rub, and rub, and rub, and—

A door opens somewhere, jerking me out of my sleep. 

I raise my head from my pillow, cursing whoever is moving at this hour of the night. I shut my eyes again, hoping it is not too late for my body to fall back to sleep, in order to catch what remains of that blissful dream. Send me back, for God's sake!

I try to remember Watson's exact words, but that world is already floating away from me. I bite on my lower lip, my hips kicking forward, and I realise that my hand is stuck between my thighs. I am not touching myself — merely pressing my palm to my stiffness, and before I can do anything about it, my release spills on my nightgown.

This time, I lose no time but get up and fetch a cloth that I wet in a bowl of water I keep in the bathroom at night. I rub it at the front of my nightgown, but decide to change it nonetheless, should it stain. I reserve the same treatment to my sheets, fortunately mostly spared, this time. 

When I sit back on my bed again, I push the heel of my hands against my eyes. What is happening to me? I rarely have nightly emission, and now I had two nights in a row, accompanied with vivid dreams. Is it natural? If it is, wouldn't it have happened before? Am I suffering from some kind of shameful condition that my parents did not tell me about? Was I born that way or is it an illness that develops? No book at Sherrinford will be able to provide any information about this strange occurrence, and it is out of the question to ask anyone. Maybe a doctor could hypothesise on this anomaly, but the one at the village is an idiot, and the only other doctor I know is…

No. Out of the question. Dr Watson, as the conscientious man he is, will want to understand the source of my troubles, and will ask about the dream. I could lie, of course — I am an excellent liar — but explaining to him the treacherous reactions of my body might disgust him.

It is not like I have no factual knowledge on the matter, either. I had always been able to deduce when the other young boys were indulging in this unhygienic activity back at school, running around like overexcited baboons, separated in primitive bands where tension often aroused, their only source of agreement being their common hatred towards me. There was only one boy, Trevor, who would follow me around. He was a bit shy, playful, and tedious at times, but his intellect was far superior to the others. When I had reflected so out loud, he confided in me that he would always refuse to fondle with himself, whatever the circumstances. His mother — a nurse, whose opinion is therefore to be trusted — had told him that the energy his body spends on producing the substance resulting from the stimulation of those regions was taken directly from the energy reserved for the brain. The more one touched himself, the more the mind lessened. The boys at school were definitely the direct proof of that. And if producing that release for means of reproduction has to be taken into account, it also explains my parents' case. They had to do it twice to obtain Mycroft and me. 

Useless to say that after Trevor's revelation, I completely stopped minding whatever was happening to my body. It had always been transport to me, of course, but my body had been rebelling against me during the few years I was growing to become a man, and I had been under the obligation make whatever stiffness leave my body by manual stimulation. I stopped completely after Trevor had warned me of its effects on one's brain and mind, and it stopped being a problem anymore, my body seldom manifesting itself… before this moment. 

There is nothing I can do, only to light a candle and take a book in hand, for I will surely not be able to regain sleep tonight. Perhaps another symptom of this most incongruous illness. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

To all the people doubting my abilities to become the world's unique and most renowned consulting detective, you are hereby proven wrong: I have received a letter from a king. The King of Bohemia.

Sure, he is being quite a prick with his arrogant attitude, writing on and on about betrayal and women and betrayal and how nobody betrays the King of Bohemia and it requires a great amount of stealth and it bores me to death, but the King of Bohemia

Asking for my help. As a consulting detective!

He says he heard about me through his advisor, after hearing about how I had solved the case of Monsieur de la Freyère only by correspondence. That is why he is consulting me today, hoping I will be able to help his case by means of pen and paper. Nothing easier, of course!

The case is boring — it concerns a woman, a rather clever one who made the right assumption of providing herself security after having made the mistake to fall in love or such other pedestrian thing. Her security lies not on a few handwritten letters, which are easy enough to proclaim as being forged, but on the seal used on the envelopes. The royal seal, it wax sprinkled with the one little detail that proves too well that the letters (and one small painting of the couple) are in fact from the King. An idiotic mistake, of course, but without which I wouldn't have a case to work on as my other correspondence is rather thin at the moment. Besides, having a king owing you a favour is quite the thing, and will most certainly propel forward my career as a consulting detective.

There is nothing easier than asking Mother's benediction to invite Miss Irene Adler — a renowned opera singer — to Sherrinford for a few days. Not that she thinks I am interested in the woman in any way — Mother knows better, by now — but most likely believes that I have some kind of question about classical opera or the different breathing patterns of singers. It is far not the strangest request I ever asked her. 

My enterprise is facilitated when I learn (I have Irregulars all over the country) that Miss Adler is in fact in England at the moment. She answers my letter with great enthusiasm, both about my own musical experience and the perspective of a retreat in the country for a few days before her leaving for America.

Needless to say, I am quite surprised when I meet Miss Adler for the first time. She is… very much of an opera singer, very much of an actress who takes the entire world for her stage just in the way she holds herself, but apart from that, it is very difficult for me to read her. Nothing like good Doctor Watson, from whom I can deduce the exact position he has slept in looking at the tightness of his muscles. 

Mother greets Miss Adler with impossible delight, internally pleased about having met a person famous for something other than being born rich. Tea time is perfect to engage in debates on colourful butterflies and Shetland ponies (I have to admit I was not listening). After tea, I lead Miss Adler to the library, with the excuse that it is the place where I keep my violin. 

"Now," Mother whispers in my ear, "do I have to send someone in there as well, or are you going to behave?" 

Someone is a rather pale euphemism for a chaperone, and my only answer comes with the roll of my eyes. Poor Mother, still under the disillusion that maybe, one day the right feminine silhouette will make my knees tremble. Not quite. Not according to the dreams I have been having — but enough of that already. 

The moment the door to the library closes, Miss Adler removes the shawl off her shoulders, exposing the pale skin of her neck. "It is terribly hot in here, do you mind?" She throws me a look from the corner of her eyes, a smirk spreading on her lips as she walks into the library, towards the window. "Of course you do not," she says, and I cannot help but frown. "It is as well," she adds, dropping to the nearest armchair. 

A pause. 

"Has a cat got your tongue, Mr Holmes? You are terribly quiet, all of a sudden."

I throw her a look, still pondering my answer. Definitely not anything like it is just not every day one meets their equal in matters of deduction. "You have been in Russia, I perceive," I say instead. 

"I have." She is still smiling. I have not taken her aback, then. "Three months ago. I performed Médée." 

I sneer. "The one who kills her children?" 

There is visibly nothing I can say to make Miss Adler's smile waver. "Did you know that in the original myth, Médée was only trying to save her children from a terrible death by the hand of the enemy? The versions differ, but a few say that the gods were the ones to trick her, telling her that burying her children alive would protect them until the threat was gone. That was not the case, of course. She is even worshipped as the patron of children, in their religion. I do wonder who was the man to transform her into a murderess who got what she deserved."

"She must have been stupid to believe that burying her children would not kill them." 

"Oh, I think she knew what she was doing, did she not? Would you not kill your own children, or someone dear to you, Mr Holmes, knowing that they are about to be abducted and tortured? Would you not sacrifice everything for a loved one's happiness, or maybe in this case, lack of suffering?" 

I raise an eyebrow. "I have never considered such a possibility." 

"Then you either lack imagination or experience," she says, with a smile that suggests that I am only a foolish child without understanding of how the world works. "Or maybe, someone who you would sacrifice everything for." I see. She is that kind of woman. I am once again amazed by the sharpness of her wit, although she keeps using it to insult my person. "Did you say that you have a violin? If you are good enough, I will accompany you with my voice tonight, after dinner." 

 

***

 

The second part of my plan takes place on the following day. After breakfast, Mother asks us to play again together, since we entertained the whole manor last night by our performance, but Miss Adler excuses herself: she has a friend at Brookridge Village she desires to meet with, and will not be back before dinner tonight.

I did not anticipate that my job would be this easy. It is clear that Miss Adler does not have the letters and the painting on her person (or the men the King had employed before writing to me would have found them easily), but I know she does not travel without them. They are, therefore, in her quarters. 

I enter her room after she leaves the manor, and it takes me a good half-an-hour to go through her belongings, without much success. I sit down for a minute, closing my eyes. I am failing where the other men, the King's thieves, also failed. But they were men of inferior intellect, and to succeed, I must think differently. 

When I open my eyes again, I can feel my lips stretching into a smile. I walk up to the room's desk, and retrieve Miss Adler's personal correspondence from one of the drawers. There they are, the letters, tucked away in the most obvious place in the world, among other papers of mere importance! And with them, the painting, neatly rolled in a small tube. Quickly, I put everything back into its place, taking the letters and the painting with me.

But before I can write to the King to inform him of my success, my train of thought goes back to Miss Adler, who left earlier, dressed quite fashionably for a stroll in a local village.

It takes me twenty minutes to don on one of my best costumes — the old man with the pipe — and I escape the manor by the staff's door. I play my role well and a clergyman lets me on his carriage to Brookridge, where Miss Adler evidently is not. Little George, one of my Irregulars, tells me that the only thing out of the ordinary was the arrival of an Englishman, a Londoner, at Riverside, two days ago. 

The village is not that far, and I get there in time to witness the strangest order of events. Even Watson would not believe me, although I do plan on writing a letter later on to explain to him exactly what happened — this little tale ought to interest him.

So, I arrive at Riverside, and even though the whole village is quite silent — everyone spends the day on the fields — there is quite the commotion at the local church, where, in front of the doors, two men and a woman stand together.

I stop, trying not to gape too much as I come to understand what Miss Adler has been up to. 

When the little group sees me, the dressed man waves his hand towards me. 

"Sir, kind sir!" he comes my way, visibly agitated. "My name is Edward Norton, and this is my fiancée, Miss Adler… We are in a great hurry of getting married today, for we are leaving tomorrow morning at the first light of dawn. The only problem is that we lack a second witness for the vows to take place. Would you be so kind as to help poor sweethearts?"

I mumble a stream of incomprehensible words around my pipe, before nodding towards Norton. 

"Thank you, sir," he says, clearly overjoyed but still upright about it. "Please follow us inside." 

I do as I am told, limping after them. I take the old blue hat off my head only to reveal a gray wig as we enter the church, where the clergyman is waiting for us. As the ceremony proceeds, I stand beside the other witness, which I deduce is the village's pharmacist. When it is my turn, I lean down to sign a trembling X on the official document, and the newlyweds embrace. 

Later on, when I am back at the manor, I cannot help but laugh as I take off my disguise. The King, visibly, has nothing to fear about his upcoming wedding — Miss Adler, or should I say, Mrs Norton, is already a married woman! And now that I have the picture and the letters in my possession, he can rest assured that nothing threatening will come out of this.

Still smiling, I sit down at my desk, and take out a quill and some paper. Time to write this tale to Dr Watson — I am sure he will greatly appreciate this one.

 

***

 

Some time after pages and pages of my small, inelegant, crawly handwriting, a cry resonates through the manor. 

"Fire, fire! Everybody out!"

I jump on my feet at the sound of Anderson's voice, followed by cries coming from the rest of the household, making sure that everybody has heard what is happening. Quickly, I slip on a dressing gown over my nightgown, and head downstairs, caught in a flurry of movement as everybody precipitates towards the doors. 

Mother stands by my side while we wait dutifully on the grass for a few minutes, watching the manor. My keen eyes do not see anything out of the ordinary, but the fire has probably taken downstairs in the kitchens. Soon, it will be big enough to take down all of Sherrinford. Mother is wrapped in a long shawl, not unlike some kind of birthday present, trying to preserve her dignity even though her hand is at the base of her neck and she keeps on gasping at nothing. In the meanwhile, Father has taken a few domestics and is investigating the source of the fire. 

It takes another few minutes before they emerge again. 

"It was a false alert," Father states. "Anderson and I have checked every corner of the house and there is not a fire in sight." 

That, apparently, does not relieve Mother from her great state of agony. "Dear God! To say we could have died!"

"In an imaginary fire, Mother?" 

I roll my eyes at her and start ascending back towards the manor, tired of waiting in the cold for evidently nothing to happen. Already, many questions assail my mind. Who has started the alert, and why? Was there really the beginning of a fire, one that has been put down quickly, or was it some sort of ruse? In that case, why lie to us? Whom did they want to scare?

It is only in the morning, after a few hours of undisturbed sleep, that I understand the inexcusable mistake that I have made. I was about to start writing back to the King of Bohemia, to send back what he asked for, when I realised that the letters and the small painting that I had hidden in my room were missing. 

The imaginary fire had not been invented to scare anyone, but simply to make me leave my room during a period long enough to retrieve the compromising letters. 

I go down the stairs two-by-two and fling the door open to the dining room where Father and Mother are having breakfast. 

"We did not call for breakfast this morning, Sherlock," Mother says, "we thought you could use the sleep."

"Where is Miss Alder?" I promptly demand. 

Father cocks his eyebrows. "Gone, unfortunately. She must have called for a horse first thing in the morning. I have not seen her during my morning walk." 

I turn on myself, my nails digging into the palms of my hand. She must have gone just after obtaining what she found in my room! How could I have been fooled this way! Now not only will I have to report this failure to the King of Bohemia, but I will have no interesting tale to write to Watson. What a pity!

"Mr Holmes, if I may," Mr Willis says, taking a step forward, the morning mail displayed on his platter. "The maids have found this on the table this morning. It is addressed to you." 

I take the envelope from him, dropping to the nearest chair, trying to ignore Mother's hawk-like stare. I open it by ripping the paper open altogether, only to feel a golden locket fall into the palm of my hand. I stand and turn my back to my parents (even though Mother leans back on her chair to try to have a peek at what I'm holding). 

"She is very elegant, that Miss Adler, don't you find?" 

"Quite," Father says. 

Gently, I open the locket, my mouth falling slightly open at the sight of what is inside — it is the painting, but only the part that represents her face.

"Sherlock?" 

"Yes, yes, quite elegant," I say. I try to open the back of it, to see if the painting was somehow folded in it — one last proof I could send the King of Bohemia to reassure him that miss— Mrs Norton will never bother him again — but instead, I find that she had cut it precisely around her own face and bust.

"Too bad she is not of noble descent, for you seemed to like her, Sherlock. She is perfect in every way, is she not? A true lady, with her voice, her delicacy…"

"And her breasts," I mutter sarcastically under my breath. 

"What was that?" 

I shake my head, smiling to myself as I close the locket between my finger and slip it inside a pocket. It's the first time I got beaten, and by a woman, no less! Alas, if I had to concede defeat to anyone, it would be to her. What a great subterfuge! What a great mind! Even I must admit it. Maybe even the equal of my own… Mrs Irene Norton. The Woman.

"Too bad she could not have stayed any longer. I am sure that it is this dreadful fire that scared her away. You should write to her, Sherlock, and assure her that we are all fine. Dear God! I close my eyes and I can see Sherrinford going into flames! What an adventure!" 

I roll my eyes as I sit again, ready for breakfast. There has never been someone quite as dramatic as Mother. 

 

***

 

I am dying. 

This day, this hour— is the inevitable moment of my demise.

There is this impenetrable fog surrounding my thoughts, as I lay in what seems to be a bed. The last thing that I remember is the dark night, and wolf beast chasing after me as I ran through a field of wheat, until its face changed to the portrait of Mrs Norton, who started laughing, raising a small pistol to my face.

Now, my skin is sticky with sweat. 

Who has left the window open? It is impossibly cold for this time of the year.

My sight tries to grasp on something, anything, but my surroundings remain blurry. I can hear movement on my right, and I extend a hand which dangles out of my bed.

"Tom," I rasp, "… fire." 

"Holmes! You're awake!"

How is it that I hear Watson's voice? I must be dreaming — or maybe I am becoming insane. If insanity means imagining Watson, maybe it is not as bad as I feared.

"Am… not. Dreaming."

"You're not dreaming, no." A chair rattles against the floor, and I see the shadow of a man in the corner of my eye. "Let me take your pulse."

"The wolf, is it… gone? She wanted my— my skin because… I think I stole her wheat." 

"You're talking nonsense, my friend. Do not try to move." I have to concentrate on his words, even though I can clearly distinguish the worry in his tone.

Two cold fingers on the inside of my wrist, gently pressing my skin. Watson. It truly is him. It must be. Once you eliminate the impossible… "John…"

The fingers dimple my skin slightly harder. Is my pulse so feeble that he needs to press so much? "What is it, Holmes?"

"I am not dressed!" I suddenly realise, as I try to sit up. His hands catch me first, and push me against the mattress. How horrible for him to witness me in this state! What does my hair look like? Am I too pale? When did I last wash?

"Don't worry, I'm here only as your doctor. You— you asked for me." Did I, really? " Someone apparently told Dr Kent that his sister is sick and in dire need of his help." Ah, this sounds more like me. Oh well. I try to chuckle, but the sound sticks at the base of my throat, just where it aches terribly. 

Watson stands up and for a moment, he is gone from my sight. "John!" I writhe, trying to roll on my side. 

I feel his hands on my shoulder, pushing me back yet again. "I am here, I am here. Please, Holmes, do not exert yourself. You will be fine but you need to rest ." The military man finally transpires through. I can only imagine him, on the field, talking with this voice to his men. How they must have all looked with adoration towards their captain! How lucky they were, to be in his presence, to fight by his side!

The door creaks open, but whoever stands there is too far away for me to see. "Dr Watson? The bath is ready."

"Thank you, Thomas." Watson is hovering over me again, and I cannot help but smile at the sight of his face. "Are you able to walk, Holmes?" 

My arms trembling, I try to prop myself on my elbows in order to slip my feet out of the bed, but miserably fail to. Before my head hits my pillow, Watson catches me, and passes his other arm under my knees. 

Before I understand what is happening, I am lifted in the air, leaving the blessed warmth of the bed. I shiver, maybe not as much from the cold as from Watson's grip on me, and let my head fall against his chest as I close my eyes. Damned be my blocked nose — I would have enjoyed to know how he smelled so close.

Too soon, he lowers me, still in my night gown, in a bath of what he believes to be room-temperature water. It feels more like melted snow to me. 

"Cold," I manage to hiss. My nightgown is floating around, raised around my legs from the water, becoming slightly more transparent in the places where it sticks to my body. I can only hope that I am not blushing too hard.

Yet, Watson does not seem to be looking at me, walking behind my back, as he fetches something I can't see. "I know. I am sorry, but it's quite necessary to make your temperature drop." He gets on his knees by my side, and passes a cloth over my forehead. "You are very brave," he says, as if he means it. 

I want to snort. This is not being brave. This is only a bit of cold water. Being brave would be saving men on a battlefield. Fighting for one's life, for one's brothers in arms, for one's country. Being a doctor in one of the biggest cities in the world. Working. Doing something with one's life. 

What am I, in comparison? I have never seen battle grounds, never been to the city — what must Watson think of me! A nobleman without any real experience of what life truly is!

"I am not brave," I croak, my throat sore, my teeth clinking together.

"Why do you say that?" 

"I have done— nothing. I am not as brave as you are." 

I cannot see his face as I say the words, and a minute or two of silence follow, while I soak in the freezing water. I feel like Watson is about to say something, but in the end, he does not. Instead, I feel the back of his hand over my forehead, as he takes the cloth away. After what seems to be  a long time, he calls in Tom, who helps me get up in the tub and change into a dry nightgown, Watson suddenly gone from the room.

When he comes back, he presses the back of his hand against my forehead one more time. My legs are still trembling under me, and so, gently, he places his arms around me and carries me back to my room. I cling to him, desperate for us to never part. It should be possible, shouldn't it? Yet, too soon, I feel my heels touching the mattress of my bed.

"No," I whisper, my fist bunched in the front of his shirt, but it must have been too low for him to hear, because he places me back on the bed nonetheless. His precise hands work for a few seconds, cocooning me with fresh, too-thin sheets. 

Then, finally: "You know it's not true, what you said before." His voice sounds slightly constricted, but my mind can't make anything out of it, too exhausted to think properly. "You have done things. You have your experiments, and you… you solve cases. You change people's lives, too." 

Yes. Seen this way, he may be right. Still, it is not like I endanger my life every day doing so. In a flash of lucidity, I remember about the case, the one with The Woman, the one I did not have the time to write to Watson, taken too soon by this illness. I extend a hand, pointing to my desk where the locket lies. 

"The King— I solved the case for the King." Watson frowns, probably thinking that I am rambling nonsense. "The King of… Bohemia— look! There was a woman. I have her painting." 

Finally, Watson follows my finger and gets the locket. When he sits back down to my side, he opens it, and sees Irene Norton's face. 

"Quite clever. She is married now," I add with a private smile. Watson must understand how hilarious this adventure was! I must tell him!

Instead of sharing my smile, his face crumbles into an expression I cannot understand. "I am… sorry," he says, slowly. 

Sorry? What for?! Oh— Oh God, no! I am not— I did not want to marry her, for God's sake, Watson, how slow can you be, sometimes!

"No, no, no, no," I mutter. "No women, no women… I— lie with me, John."

Watson's head flies up, his deep, surprised eyes meeting mine. "I beg your pardon, Holmes?" 

"Lie with me," I repeat, but the shock does not fade away from his features. "Not… like that. Sleep. There's— there is enough space on the bed… Please."

He looks down, and my stomach rolls on itself, and not because I am ill.

"Please, John…"

"I am sorry, Holmes, I cannot. You're speaking nonsense again. You probably won't remember this in the morning."

I want to cross my arms over my chest, but instead, I roll to my side, facing Watson, and extend one hand to grab his. "Allow… this," I whisper, my knuckles straining under the effort. 

His mouth into a fine line, he looks down to our joined hands. He moves slightly, and before I can say anything, takes my hand between both of his. "All right. Sleep now. You will feel better in the morning." 

"Stay," I ask. 

He looks at me, and smiles weakly. "I will." 

I grab the sheet and tug it above my shoulder, settling my head as comfortably as possible against the pillow. The proximity allows me to hear Watson's even breaths, as I feel the soft skin of his hand against mine. In no time, my eyes flutter shut. 

"I am doomed, John. There is no cure for my suffering."

"Why, Holmes, it is only the flu." 

"Oh," I breathe out, as I feel myself falling asleep once again. "I was not talking about that."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

To think that it all started in an innocuous fashion, a day or two after Irene Norton's departure. I had gone into the night for a second time after the fire, trying to observe the flight patterns of moths, until I stumbled into the river. It was the moth's fault, of course, for never could I have miscalculated such a thing on my own.

The water was rather cold and my walk back to the manor perilous. I was entirely fine when I fell in bed that early morning, apart from that little itch at the back of my throat. Mother had forced me to stay in bed for the next two days, over which I assured her that this was nothing at all. Because it was nothing until my body started trembling and my thoughts stopped making any sense. 

To think that Watson saw me in this state! And undressed at that!

He was entirely professional, of course, but I still do not understand why Mother had called him in from London. I do not remember deducing Dr Kent away from Sherrinford, nor asking for Watson. I was not necessarily wrong, per se, because it is always a joy to see him, but I could not have chosen a worst time to ask for his presence by my side. 

I do not remember much about the evening in question, nor about the conversation I know we had. The only conscious memory of the event is waking up at some point during the night (I had recovered enough to make this simple deduction), rolled on my side, my right hand dangling over the bed in a bizarre fashion. Did Watson move me at some point to check on my pulse? Maybe so. Watson was… Watson was still by my side, dutiful as ever over his patient, sitting in the chair near my bed, his legs crossed at his ankles. He was awake, yet unaware that I was as well, as his head was slightly turned, his eyes settled on an invisible point on the floor. I could see that whatever was the subject of his thoughts troubled him a great deal to keep him awake at such hour of the night, as I could deduce from the subtle frown of his eyebrows and the quiet sadness in his eyes. I would have liked to turn and grasp his arm, to shake him from whatever introspection he was plunged into, for it seemed to cause him sufferance. I did no such thing, too exhausted to move, too fearful of what his reaction might be. 

The next thing I knew was that Dr Kent was bent over my bed, pronouncing me nearly fully recovered as Mother was standing in the doorway, announcing that Dr Watson had gone at the first hour of the morning, after seeing that I would safely pull through, demanded back to London to take care of another emergency.

I spent the next few days stuck inside the manor as rain drenched the country, unable to walk far distances at first or concentrate too long on any book that was handed to me. Mother tried to guilt me into writing to Watson to thank him for taking "such great care of me" and therefore "saving my life". Just because she asked me to, I delayed the task for as long as possible, even though my fingers itched to take the quill and write.

I composed a rather long letter, taking the time to explain the case of the King of Bohemia, including all the details of my logical reasoning. I have to admit that I could not send back the letters to the King, of course, but that it was not so much a failure on my part rather than a satisfactory conclusion to this case. Mrs Norton will cause no more trouble, therefore I do not need to pursue her any further.

I send the ten-pages long letter in the morning post, and sit down by the window, violin in hand. It will only be a matter of time before Watson answers me. 


***

 

Watson is not answering me. 

There must be something wrong with the courier, because there is no logical reason why Watson would deny me an answer. Anderson assured me that the letter did get to the post office, as well as the following ones. One letter every two days, and two weeks later, still no answer. 

If this continues, I shall find a way to escape Sherrinford and go to London myself, whatever Mother says. 

But if Watson has truly been receiving my letters… Why is he not deigning to answer?

Maybe he is busy. He is a doctor, after all. Or maybe, maybe he is not too keen on being my friend anymore. Maybe he was shocked to see me undressed when he helped me get better. It was inelegant and impolite of me, after all. Maybe he was disgusted by my illness, by the paleness of my face and the sweating of my body. Maybe I said something, something I do not remember, that repulsed him profoundly. 

And here I am, trying to find out which words would be the best to solve this long silence. Here I am, quill in hand, sitting by the window, thinking about how much I miss my Watson. 

 

***

 

I write a grand total of nine letters, all unanswered, before the evident solution appears in front of my eyes. In search of distraction, I had been working on a case for Lady Selby, who sent me a letter explaining the gruesome demise of her husband, who had been murdered in their home with nothing less than the sword that decorated the fireplace, therefore baffling the useless inspector that had arrived to the small castle a day later. 

Further communication with Lady Selby revealed that she had only been shortly married to Lord George Selby, whom she espoused after the sudden death of her prior husband, August, none other than Selby's brother. The doctor had at the time declared death due to illness, but without further proof, it could as well have been a case of poisoning. The suspects are composed of the household present at the time of Lord Selby's (George, not August) death: most of the staff, Lady Selby's three grown children, and the Lady herself.

I rule out Lady Selby, of course, since she would not have contacted me in the first place to investigate if she had committed the crime. She is truly distressed, and was deeply in love with her husband, not that it served her well, in the end. According to her, most of the staff was already preparing for sleep downstairs at the time of the murder, and none of them had any motive to perpetrate the act, since Lord Selby was quite well liked, and treating everybody well. There could be jealousy involved, or someone from the exterior breaking into the manor, but I refuted those two hypotheses from the lack of proof. My visit to the castle will be the last requirement to put those theories aside, because I strongly believe that the children are at fault here. 

First, there is Miss Elizabeth Selby, the youngest with her seventeen years of age. She is engaged to the Earl of Coventry, which is rather a good match since he has a renowned title to his name, which she does not — but she is said to be of great beauty, and apparently, that is of equal importance to the Earl. Sometimes, people feel like an entirely different species to me. Anyway. She has only met him twice, and Lady Selby has assured me that even if Elizabeth is not too keen on the marriage, she could never have hurt her uncle, now Father-in-law.

Henry is the middle child, who mostly enjoys hunting and the outdoors. He is twenty-two, known for having a temper. He was engaged as of last year, when the lady in question died of sickness. According to Lady Selby, he has spent incredible amounts on hounds and horse races, which lead to severe reprimands from Lord Selby. 

Then, there is August II, the eldest with his twenty-four years, unmarried. Lady Selby describes him as a mostly quiet man, who nonetheless shares his brother’s (and his father's) bad temper. Not for the outdoors, he enjoys reading and writing, particularly to a certain French lady he met on a trip to Paris once. The union had been denied by both August and now George Selby, not that the man seemed to entertain much hope in the first case. 

When my mind is made on the most probable solution to the problem, I write back to Lady Selby, telling her that I will attend a dinner on the 21st of May, during which I will solve Lord Selby's murder. Not to raise the potential culprit's suspicions, I also ask her to invite a greater company that night, one which must include an expert of the human body — none other than Dr John Watson, living at 11, Quay Street, London, and for good measure, his friend, Lord Stamford. 

I let her know in a few words that this particular invitation is conditional to my presence that night.

 

***

 

August's room (the son, not the father — noble people are so unoriginal, although I should not condemn it since originality lead to the mistake that is my name), is plunged into darkness as I gently push the door open. I can hear the faint chatter of the guests gathering downstairs, but this part of the castle is utterly quiet. All the staff have been mobilised downstairs, and the family is in the main room, greeting their guests as they should. 

It is the last room I am visiting, after having peeked into Lady and Lord Selby's, and the two other siblings. I found many interesting details, but should my main theory come true, the last piece of the puzzle awaits me in this particular room. 

It is not much different than his brother's, except for the small library containing a few collections of expensive books, and an oak desk where piles of papers along with a few letters are neatly stowed. 

I take a step towards the books when I hear a noise coming from the corridor. I crouch behind the bed, sticking my head under it to watch the shadow of a pair of shoes pass by the room. It stops for a second at the door's height, and my heart clenches in my chest. Without a sound, I crawl further underneath the bed. A moment passes, and then the door, which I did not close entirely, shuts with a clicking sound. 

I let out a breath I did not know I was holding. It was a member of the staff, then, his footsteps not energetic enough to be the ones of the youngsters of the house. I get back to my feet, and finish my quick inspection of the room. 

When I arrive back downstairs, the butler informs me that dinner has been called. This pleases me, since I have told Lady Selby to proceed with the evening's events as if I were not present. There is a place for me at the table, of course, but I needed to first make my little enquiry about the staff and the siblings' rooms. Now that I am sure of who the culprit is, it is imperative that my entrance and following speech shock him into making a confession.

I stay by the door to the dining room for a few minutes, listening to the different, innocent conversations between the guests. 

"Have you mistakenly arranged one plate too much, Mother," Miss Elizabeth asks, "or are we still expecting another guest?" 

"It is not a mistake," I hear Lady Selby say, as she places her cutlery down on the table, signalling that she is done eating. "We are indeed waiting for one more person to join us."

Curious whispers raise all around the table. I had not planned the exact moment of my entrance, but now should be better than ever. 

Without waiting for the footman, I push the doors to the dining-room open. "And here I am, Lady Selby. It seems like I have missed dinner, but I promise we yet have to come to the best part of it."

I pull the chair at the end of the table, in front of the clean plate, where, without doubt, Lord Selby used to sit. A loud clicking sound suddenly makes all heads turn away from me, and for the first time, my gaze acknowledges the sight of John Watson, his ears red with embarrassment as he plunges under the table to retrieve the fork that had just escaped his grasp.

"Sir," the footman says, approaching to retrieve the dirtied fork from his hand, but Watson shakes his hand and rubs the fork against the cloth splayed on his lap. 

"It's fine, thank you," he says, jerking his chin high, gently placing down the fork beside his plate. 

"Sir, I'm only—"

"It is all fine, I insist," Watson insists, with a bit of authority in his voice, trying to preserve what remains of his dignity. Beside him, Stamford gently nudges him with his elbow, the movement so subtle I am sure I was the only one to notice it. 

"I am asking to take the plates away," the footman finally justifies, and colour rises to Watson's face even more, if that is possible. "If you are done, sir." 

"Yes, of course, please do so." He leans back in his chair, permitting the footman to take away his plate. 

I can see in his eyes how he is battling through shame — he is far from being noble from birth, and has now just understood why he was asked to attend this particular dinner. Every time Watson acts, it must be in order to appear well versed in the long and boring traditions of a noble household, which he has never experienced as a child. What a frustrating thing it must be, but he is too good of a friend to Stamford to deny being invited to dinners from time to time. And everybody enjoys the presence of a real soldier at their table, of noble birth or not. 

I certainly do. 

"Three weeks ago," I start, to distract attention from Watson, and it works: all the guests' head turn comically in my direction, as if they are a single being. "Three weeks ago, Lady Selby, here present, contacted me with the request to investigate Lord George Selby's murder." 

A few guests gasp at my revelation, Miss Elizabeth amongst others. The young Henry stands up, his fist against the table. "Mother! What is the meaning of this?" 

"I thought Lord Selby had… accidentally hurt himself. Isn't that the truth, Lady Selby?" a lady asks, clearly one of Lady Selby's good friends. I snort at the remark: suicide is a source of shame for religious beings, and an embarrassment for noble families.

Lady Selby straightens herself on her chair, her face pale, but bravely puts back her son in his place. "Sit down, Henry. Mr Holmes speaks the truth." 

Grumbling, Henry does as told and takes back his place between his brother and sister. Two places down, Watson is still staring at his plate, while Lord Stamford's curious brown eyes are set on me.

"I do, indeed. No, my lady," I say, turning towards the woman that had spoken earlier, "Lord Selby's death was neither a suicide nor an accident, but a murder. He died of a well-placed wound in the stomach, which would have been quite difficult to inflict on himself with a sword this heavy," I say, with a hint of irony. "Or to accidentally fall upon. According to Lady Selby, Lord Selby had been in a good mood for a few months, at least since the wedding, when he had done grieving his brother. There was no sign that he was about to take his life, which would have been impossible anyway, given the scene he was later found in. When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Therefore: murder. And the culprit is sitting at this very table." 

I smile while a few gasps and shivers run around the guests, for the exception of the Selby family, whose members are all sitting quietly. For the first time, Watson's eyes rise to meet my own. 

"Yes, the murderer is one of us. Of course, they had to have a motive for killing Lord Selby, which discards most of the guests present. The staff could have been implicated, but I highly doubted this would be the case in this situation. You see, a sword through the stomach — it is quite passionate, which indicates jealousy, anger, or love, maybe so. It is as clear as water, is it not? The murderer has to be one of the family." 

"Please… do not," Miss Elizabeth whispers, her hand on the necklace around her neck. 

"Why?" I ask, taking a step towards her. "Do you have anything to fear? Or to admit?" 

"Back off, Holmes," August snaps. "You do not know what you are talking about." 

"I will do as I please," I say, "but Miss Elizabeth has nothing to fear if she has done nothing wrong."

There is a fleeting moment where I feel like August is on the verge of jumping at my neck, but Lady Selby interrupts us. "Let Mr Holmes do his work, August. And Mr Holmes, please explain your thoughts." 

August smiles from the corner of his mouth, but does not say anything else. 

"Good. I do not believe that Miss Elizabeth is involved. Oh, of course, she could have taken the sword off the mantelpiece and driven it through her step-father's body, and she had a motive — you are to be wed to the Earl, quite the loveless union, is it not? Did Lord George Selby not facilitate this engagement?" 

Miss Elizabeth nods, twice, her face dangerously pale. "It does not mean that I killed him. I could never." For the first time, I notice that she is younger than me. Not that I would have much pity towards any of the three venomous Selby siblings, but I do understand the injustice in being promised to a man without having much to say in the whole affair. 

"No," I finally let out, "you did not kill him. Miss Lily, your maid, told me that she was with you the whole evening, apart from the five minutes you took to be alone in your room. I doubt you would have the time to run across the castle, take the sword, run to your step-father's quarters, kill him, and be back in time for Lily to enter your room. No, I do not believe you did it. The answer lies somewhere else." I take a pause, looking at my audience. "Do you not see it?" 

No one answers me, and a few pairs of eyes grow wide. 

"But it is so simple, staring you in the face! How can you all be so blind in the face of—" 

"Mr Holmes," Lady Selby admonishes. 

"Oh, come on! Do consider the facts! A noble man dies under mysterious conditions, and his brother marries the grieving widow. He starts making his own decisions as the head of the house, decisions that are not appealing to everybody, such as the engagement of a step-daughter, or the refusal of a marriage with a French woman of inferior class. The nephew, or niece, finally proceeds by picking up a sword and murdering the lord in question. Does it not sound familiar? Do you not find that sometimes, life imitates fiction more than fiction imitates art?" 

No, of course, they do not see it. I snort, moving away from my own chair, and towards the siblings, who are still sitting with their backs on me. August seems uninterested in the whole matter while Henry is sitting with his back straight. Elizabeth is still clenching at her necklace, which is beginning to trace a white line across the back of her neck from the pressure. 

"I see that you believe that the murderer must have been quite imaginative to devise such a plan. A dagger or a knife would have been more practical, would it not? No, it had to be a sword, because the murder had already been executed once before." 

"You are not making any sense," Henry snaps. 

"I am, but you are not listening. The murder had been planned out beforehand. There is nothing new under the sun. No, nothing new for someone who spends most of his time reading books." I stop behind August's back, and lean in. "You quite like Shakespeare, do you not, Lord Selby?"

"You do not know what you are talking about," August repeats, his tone strained. 

"But you do," I counter with a smile. "You are quite taken with the Bard. I do not blame you. The man is a genius, certainly, but it is more than that. You are devoted to him, to his theatre, to the point when you saw what was happening, that your uncle had gone through with marrying your mother, the seed was planted in your thoughts, had it not? And it is so hard to kill a thought, as satisfying as this one was. If you did it… you could become him, the great Dane, couldn't you? But you are not a dramatic hero, August Selby, you are a foolish murderer."

To say that I did not see it coming would be a lie, of course. It was evident from the tension in August's shoulders that he would do something out of anger, yet I could not help but back away as quickly as possible when he lunges at my neck, dragging me on the floor. 

"You miserable bastard!"

The back of my head explodes with pain, my vision going white for a few seconds. I feel the pressure of his thumbs over my Adam's apple, considerably squeezing my throat, his face crunched in one of the most horrifying expression of anger mixed with pleasure I have ever seen. I am about to kick him where it counts — just like my baritsu teacher had once taught me — but before I can do so, a pair of hands appear on August's shoulders, seizing him with enough force for him to drop his grasp on my throat. The next thing I know, Watson is slamming August's head against the wall, one of his arms twisted in his back.

I cough, scrambling back to a sitting position, and readjust my cravat. "So, do you admit to killing Lord George Selby?" 

"Of course I did!" August spits, his face thrown in a downward position by Watson's strong hold on him. "How could I not kill that bastard, who married my whore of a mother?" 

Watson considerably tightens his hold on his captive. "Watch your mouth." 

"Fuck you, soldier, and fuck this pretentious child."

Before anyone can do anything, Watson slams him against the wall once more, his jaw tense and his eyes murderous.  

"Take him outside," I rasp, before August can sustain intense injury at Watson's hand, "there is a watchman waiting." 

"Stamford? Will you do the honours? I need to check on Holmes and the ladies." 

"Of course," Stamford immediately answers, as a few men, already rose from their chairs, walk towards August to restrain him. 

"I am perfectly fine," I say, but my words get lost in the commotion of the murderer passing from Watson's capable hands to Stamford's. Another lord, smaller, with slicked black hair, seizes one of August's shoulders, yet the man does not try to escape. Instead, he jerks his chin up and looks at his sister. "I am sorry, Elizabeth. Forgive me." 

But Miss Elizabeth only stares at her lap, her hand still playing with the necklace. Slowly, she shakes her head, but August has no time to reply: he is already taken outside of the room. 

The moment he is gone, Watson kneels down in front of me. I avoid his gaze as his eyes are searching for traces of abuse on my neck. After a minute, he gets back to his feet, offering me a hand. "Here, sit down at the table, you will be more comfortable."

I am torn between accepting his hand and the touch of his skin on mine, and showing that I am perfectly capable of standing up by myself. In the end, I turn to my side and slowly ascend to my feet without his help. He has not written to me in a month. I have to show my displeasure somehow. 

I sit down, and accept the glass of water Watson hands me.

"Thank you, Mr Holmes," Lady Selby says, still seated, but with her hand on the table covering her daughter's, "for bringing peace and truth to my family." 

"You do not seem very surprised," Watson points out.

I try to hide the smile growing on my face. Watson has always had good instincts.

"No, Dr Watson, I must admit that I had my own suspicions. I did not want to influence Mr Holmes's reasoning, but I believe that a mother always knows best. My children are temperamental beings, you see, something they got from their father. But to say that one of them would be ready to murder — no, that, I did not foresee. Please, Mr Holmes, tell me, has August poisoned my first husband as well?" 

"No," I say, my voice already better. "I believe that the idea was planted after your marriage with Lord George Selby. It was not as much murder than an obsession with Shakespeare's works that pushed him to commit what he did. His mind must have been… unstable, at the very least, since young age, to be impressed by a work of fiction to the point of recreating such an act. I believe—" a fit of coughing interrupts me, to the point that Watson's hand is biting down on my shoulder, handing me the water again. 

"Can Mr Holmes answer your questions in the morning, Lady Selby? He is clearly unfit to do much talking at this moment, and since the matter is not urgent anymore, I would rather take him outside for some fresh air." 

"No, of course, please do. My children and I are going to retreat for the night. We have gone through many emotions tonight, and I need to be close with my family. But please," she tells the guests, "there is food, and cards, and music still to your disposal. I would not want this dinner to be entirely ruined for everyone." 

Lady Selby and her two children exit the room, while the remaining guests sit back down again, just as the footman announces that dessert is about to be served. It is clear that Lady Selby's words were more of an order than a wish, and everybody is waiting for her to be out of sight to discuss what has happened tonight at great length. 

"Let's get you some air," Watson whispers in my ear, and helps me get up. 

The footman leads us to the enormous back doors of the castle, which opens to a large path taking us in the gardens. We walk arm-in-arm for a few metres, leaving the rumour of conversation behind us as we get closer to a fountain, the soft sound of water drowning the noise of crickets and bugs.

I already feel better, against all odds. I only realise now that the air inside had been contaminated by the fireplace and the candles. Here, outside in the gardens, the fresh air is energising. Yet I accord very little attention to my surroundings, rather than to the silence between Watson and I. None of us is eager to break it but someone will have to go first. 

"Better?" Watson finally lets out, a small smile stretching the corner of his lips. 

"Yes."

"This was quite the evening. I should check on Lady Selby on our way back, but she seemed to handle the news well." 

"She is a strong woman," I say, secretly rolling my eyes. Have we regressed to such inane conversations, now? I used to find so much joy in the fact that Watson was not like all of those men who rejoiced in meaningless words.

"She is. And her daughter… Do you think there was something, between her and her brother?" He seems shocked by his own words, and his hold on my arm strengthens.

"Incest?" I frown. "Nothing openly so. He wanted to protect her from marriage, that much is certain. Maybe there were… unrequited feelings, from his part. Not so much on hers, although she cared for him. I don't know. I am not the best at grasping romantic intrigues." 

"But she will not have to marry the Earl now, will she?" 

"No, not now that her family is disgraced. Unless the Earl cares more for her than his reputation. But if Miss Elizabeth opposes it, I believe that her mother will listen, this time." 

"Yes, I think as well." 

A pause. I bite on the inside of my cheek, unsure if I should say something, and if so, what words I should use. 

"I wanted to be angry with you, you know?" Watson finally lets out. "For manipulating me into coming here."

I stare at him, our feet coming to a halt. "I thought you would enjoy it," I admit. "You used to like listening to the cases I have solved. I thought you would enjoy my recounting of the Mrs Norton case, but you never answered my letter." 

Why? I want to say. Why did you suddenly stop being my friend? I am afraid that I was never good with words, and surely expressing this thought out loud will frighten Watson from further discussing the matter with me. He must think that I am, as well as he is, aware of the monstrous thing I have done that has pushed him to distance himself from me. The truth is that I am so unable to sustain any kind of relationship that I have no idea what I could have done in order for him to be repulsed by my behaviour. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe bringing Watson here was a mistake from the start, one which will only widen the crevice that once was pure and gentle friendship. 

Instead of answering, Watson holds my arm tighter, as we start walking again. "I did enjoy it. Just like tonight. You were… quite extraordinary." 

I smile and look down at my feet, just as we approach the fountain. There is a bench a few metres away from the path, following the curve of the fountain. 

"Let's sit down for a moment," Watson urges me, softly.

He lets go of my arm as we both sit down, not looking at each other. I watch the soft rippling of the water at the base of the fountain, my head still slightly hurting from the earlier blow. I breathe in and out, wondering when will Watson stand and walk us back to the castle. As much as I have trouble understanding the nuances of friendship and human reactions, it is quite clear that I have hurt him by making him come here, tonight, and I know this is a mistake he will not forgive me for. Not after he made his decision clear, pointedly not answering my many letters.

And so, as I sit beside him for what I know will be the last time, I try not to think too much about how this feels like an obligatory farewell. 

After a few minutes, Watson huffs a mirthless laugh. 

"The truth is," he says, finally facing me, "that I am a fool." 

I frown, wondering how he has come to that conclusion. "You could never be." 

He chuckles again, although it is a sad, sad thing. "I am a fool, Holmes, for I have fallen in love with a man I cannot marry." 

My throat closes on itself with more force than it did earlier when I had hands around my neck. My heart bangs against the wall of my chest and my hands are moist as I wait for the final declaration to bury all my sudden hopes very deeply underground. 

I close my eyes. "Is it… Is it Harrington?" I whisper. 

"Harrington?" When I look up again, Watson's eyes have grown wide. "No— no, Holmes, it's you." 

"Me?"

This time, when he laughs, the smile stays on his face. "Of course it is you! How could it not be you? I was sure you knew! God," he laughs. "I could not have been more obvious!"

I find myself unable to do anything other than blink when Watson's hand covers my own.

"I love you, Holmes, I love your mind and the way it works. I love you how speak, always with such confidence. You are extraordinary, the cleverest man I have ever met. Tonight can only be a testimony of that very fact. You are the most beautiful creature I have ever laid my eyes upon. Every single time I see you, I dare to hope that… Oh, Holmes, there aren't enough words! I love you. I love you."

I look down, my heart beating fast. I cannot help but smile, and wonder if this is truly happening. Is it? Or will I wake up in a moment, and this would have all been a dream? 

"You are quite the poet, Watson." 

"You deserve to have poems written about you." 

My heart stops. It simply stops . I do not know what to do with my moist hands, nor how to hide away my probably reddening face. Oh, I had never envisioned such a day, such a moment! I should have, because I have no idea how to answer him, how to let him know the depth of my affection… I know that everything is about to change, radically, and forever. It is not a fact that my senses have picked up on, but pure instinct. There is no coming back from such a moment.

"Please, Holmes," Watson says, leaning in, his thumb tracing soft circles on the back of my hand. "I need to know if you feel the same way as I do. If not, I will never bother you with it again, but—" 

"Of course I do!" I blurt out. "I dream of you at night, and think of you from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. There is no room for anything else. John… I have never known much about love but it must feel like so."  

His eyes glistening, he takes my hand between his own and kisses my knuckles. His lips are soft on my skin, and a wave of sudden desire washes through my body as I understand what I want. 

"You are a marvel," he whispers, softly. 

His gaze meets mine, and I believe that time stops, suspended somewhere in the air between him and me. 

"I would very much like to kiss you," I say. 

He gently lowers my hand on his lap, still between both of his, and leans in. He is so close that I can see the details of his eyelashes, the depth of his eyes, dark-grey under the moonlit night, and without a word, I instantly know that I am being given permission.

I lean in, and press my lips to his.

Never could I describe the impossible emotion that held my body breathless for long seconds. I have never much believed in fate nor chance, but for an instant, I was convinced that all roads in time travelled to this exact moment, just as much as I knew that a single misstep would have made this impossible to happen. 

What a fool I was to take my brother's words as a rule for myself. People who laugh at the face of love have never experienced a kiss… and certainly not a kiss like this one. 

Watson's hand gently lets go of my own to travel to my jaw, angling my face as to let our noses brush in a more comfortable manner. I can feel his lips stretch into a smile, before he starts moving them against my own. A quick dart of his tongue transforms into a shiver down my back, and—

Crack!

Both our heads turn at the same time towards the source of the sound, in the trees behind us. It must have been a small animal or something of the kind, because there is nothing to see through the branches. As soon as it happens, my attention quickly turns towards another disturbance in the silent night: two people are walking down the same path we were on just a few minutes ago, laughing and conversing loudly. 

I stand up and take Watson by the wrist, tugging him off the bench and into the woods. When I decide that we have put enough distance between us and them, I turn on myself and catch Watson's face to kiss him again. 

This time, his reaction is not as gentle — his body's alertness transforming into sparks of passion as he presses his whole body to mine, making me stumble backwards under the force of the kiss, until my back is flush against a tree. To keep balance, one of my hands naturally fists itself into Watson's jacket whilst I prop the other against the bark of the tree.

I break the contact between us for a second, in need of air, and Watson's gentle hands come to rest on each side of my face again. 

"Open your mouth, this time," he asks of me, his nose brushing mine. 

I frown — has his keen doctor senses noticed some kind of anomaly when his lips were pressing against mine? Feeling a bit silly, I open my mouth nonetheless, unsure how wide Watson wants it, exactly.

He huffs, not exactly a laugh, and I am about to ask the meaning of this when I feel his mouth on mine. 

And then, of all things, his tongue. 

It's hot and slick as he pushes it into my mouth and I instinctively jerk my chin back with a gasp. Instead of stopping altogether (I would never forgive him if he did), Watson seizes the back of my head with his hand, capturing me so that I cannot escape his dexterous ministrations. Not that I would want to, in any way. 

Soon enough, I find myself moving my tongue as a counter-reaction, which elicits a moan on Watson's part. My knees go weak — how is one supposed to breathe when kissing? — but he is there to catch me by my waist, holding me against the tree, a devious grin on his face.

He kisses my forehead, my cheeks, my chin, my— oh, neck, which does not help at all the state of my knees. 

"You are beautiful," he whispers, taking my hand again to kiss it.

"John," I say, quite lost for words. 

"Sherlock." 

I close my eyes, pressing my forehead to his. "Say it again." 

"Sherlock, my love."

I surge to kiss him again, throwing my arms around his shoulders as he seizes me by my waist. "John, John—" My heart thumps in my chest the second I realise what needs to be said. "Marry me." 

He stares back, his eyes blown wide. 

"John— I love you. I spend the majority of my life believing I would never feel like so for anyone, but then you found your way into my life in the most surprising ways, and… There is no one else I want to spend it with. Please. Marry me," I ask again. 

My head is dizzy with love and want, and I only then realise that I've done this all wrong, and so I start to bend down to properly get on my knees when Watson grips my arms, making me stand again. "Please, don't—" he breathes out, as if terrified by the prospect. 

My throat squeezes on itself. "Have I misunderstood? Are you not—"

He cuts me off with a kiss before I can finish my sentence. I close my eyes for a brief second, not understanding. Does he want me, or does he not?

"Look at me, Sherlock." 

I do not. 

"Look at me," he repeats, his tone impossibly pleading.

I open my eyes again, to find him smiling. 

"I do want you. I desire you like I have never desired anyone before, and it would be the greatest joy of my life to share it with you."

"Why then—" 

"Please, Sherlock, you know this better than anyone. I do not want you to ask, because I do not want to refuse. I cannot say yes. I want to, but I cannot. Not… yet, anyway." 

"Why?" 

He chuckles unhappily. "You are not even of age, my love, you cannot ask." 

"I am Sherlock Holmes, and I do as I please," I say with a smile. "Marry me."

"If I remember correctly, you once said that if it were up to you, you would never marry," Watson recounts. 

"If I remember correctly, I once said that you do not count."

Watson licks his lips, his forehead pressed to mine, and I can see a certain type of sadness shining in his eyes. The kind that comes after having a profound moment of happiness being taken away from a man who cannot do anything about it.

"I cannot marry without my parent's consent," I point out.

His arms wrap themselves around my waist, as he gathers me in a tight embrace. "Do you truly believe your parents would consent to you marrying a man without any money, nor title to his name?" 

I pinch my lips, seeing the truth in his words. "Let's elope, then," I say, seizing both sides of his face. "Let's take the first carriage to Scotland,  with a bit of luck we'll marry tomorrow, and we will be back in two days to find housing in London!" 

"Sherlock," Watson— John says, and I already know what's coming. "I know how much you want this, but truly, would you put yourself in bad relations with your family for the sake of this?" 

"Yes," I say, convinced. 

"You do not mean it. Sherlock, my love, I know you resent them in many ways, but you are lucky to have them." I huff. As if. "Yes, you are, believe me. I grew… I grew up poor, and without any family, and you do not want that. I— let's say we do elope, and come back to London. You have no money to your name, your family has probably disowned you at this point, and I have a bit, but not enough to sustain us both for more than a few weeks, at the most. You will need clothes, and not to mention the landlord who will never accept the two of us in a single room. We would be poor and miserable." 

"But we would be together," I counter. "And I can work. People are starting to know me. I can open my own consulting practice."

"And you would be excellent at it," John says. "But I cannot be the reason that comes between you and your family. Between you and a… better life." 

I pinch my lips, before coming to rest my head on his shoulders. Now that I think of it, running away would be enough of a reason for Mycroft to unleash his plans against me, which would ensure that I would never find work in London. "This is unfair." 

"I know." 

"What do we do now?" 

"I do not know."

I sigh, pressing my nose against John's neck, just where he smells best. "Maybe," I start, "if I explain it well, maybe my parents would consent." 

John eases his hold on me, to look me in the eyes. "Do you truly believe so?" he asks, with regained hope. 

"How long can they stand between me and happiness? If I persuade them I will not be happy without you, they ought to understand. They are my parents. And… you could come by. By Sherrinford, I mean," I specify, when I see the questioning look on his face. "You are charming, educated, well-spoken, a doctor and a soldier. They like you already. They might get warmer to the prospect of you belonging to the family." 

I can see the moment his mind boggles, for a short instant. He has not thought about becoming a member of my family as much as he desires to be with me. He does not believe he could live in such pristine conditions, to be one of us. To hold a name and a title. Because he would take on the family's name, as dictated by tradition, since I am both richer and of higher status than him. It would not last, of course. Even though we are not exactly as rich as we once were, I still would have enough money to rent someplace in London for us both. We would not stay at Sherrinford. Dear Lord. Of course not. 

"Charming, am I, now?" he says with a grin, trying to hide his prior concern, unaware that I know everything about it. 

"Always."

I kiss him again, nothing as elaborate as earlier, my hands travelling to the front of his waistcoat. 

"It is rather unfortunate, but I must be back to London as of tonight," he says, when we part again. 

"Do you? I rather thought…" 

"Yes?" 

I bite the inside of my cheek. "I have just solved a case for Lady Selby. Surely she would be accommodating enough to provide us with rooms and—" 

"Oh no," John laughs. "I see where you are going with this. She would never give an unmarried couple a room under her roof, in the first place."

"She does not have to know.

"And secondly, I am not sharing rooms with you before our wedding night." 

I open my mouth, outraged. "Why? Do you not desire me… in that way?" 

John's hands return to my face, gently drawing circles over my cheeks. "Of course I do. How can you doubt that, Sherlock, of course I do. But… it is no sure thing yet, and you may find a better offer before that happens and—" 

"Never. It is you, or no one." 

"Still. I am afraid I shall keep you waiting. Our wedding night will only be better for it," he adds, with a kiss to my cheek. 

I know he does not believe in his own words, that there is a possibility in which we would end up together and marry, but I let the matter slip for now. "So what? Are you just going to leave, now?" 

"I have to, unfortunately. There is a carriage waiting for me, I have to be back to London before dawn. I have a dying patient that needs to be checked on." 

"Can't they just die without you?" 

John laughs again. He lets go of his hold on my, and takes back my arm, in a signal for us both to start walking back to the castle. "I would rather not let that happen. I will write to you. And visit, as soon as I can."

"And I will start to try to convince my parents." 

"Good," he says, with a press of his hand to my lower back. 

We walk the rest of the way in silence, contouring the castle until we find ourselves in front of it. There is no trace of the watchman and August Selby — it nearly seems as if all of that has happened in another life, or another day, at least. There are a few carriages waiting in line, and I know what one of them is waiting for me and Lord Stamford to take us back home.

John squeezes on my arm, and I understand that the moment to bid him goodbye has come. For a brief second, I wonder if I will ever see him again. If this — if this will bear its fruits, in one way or another. It is too late for me to kiss him goodbye, and now I rather regret not having it done sooner, when we were still far from the rest of the world. 

"Goodnight, Dr Watson," I say, watching as the candlelight shadows his face. 

"Goodnight, Mr Holmes," he answers, with a slight smile. 

He climbs into the black carriage, closes the door, and the horses are whipped into a quick trot. I watch the hearse for as long as I can before it disappears between the trees after the first turn.