Cover art by Wychwood
SHERLOCK HOLMES—his limits.
1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
5. Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna,
opium, and poisons generally.
Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6. Geology.—Practical, but limited.
Tells at a glance different soils
from each other. After walks has
shown me splashes upon his trousers,
and told me by their colour and
consistence in what part of London
he had received them.
8. Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
9. Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears
to know every detail of every horror
perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
When I had got so far in my list I threw it into the fire in despair. "If I can only find what the fellow is driving at by reconciling all these accomplishments, and discovering a calling which needs them all," I said to myself, "I may as well give up the attempt at once."
- A Study in Scarlet
It was a Thursday morning several weeks after my thirtieth birthday when Mrs Hudson delivered a thick, square parcel with the breakfast tray. I took no notice of the package, as we had been receiving a number of rather bulky items in the post of late, filled with supplies for the experiments with which Holmes became obsessed from time to time. Therefore I did not see its contents until Holmes' violent ejaculation almost made me start from my seat.
"What in the devil's name is this?"
"Holmes?" I said, concerned. His eyebrows had climbed almost to his hairline, and he held in his hands a sheaf of paper, over the top page of which his eyes raced. Then he thrust it back into its paper wrapping and hastily placed the butter dish on top of it, as if to stop it blowing away in a sudden breeze.
"Oh, nothing, my dear fellow," he said, with unconvincing levity. "Mrs. Hudson has surpassed herself this morning, don't you agree?"
"Holmes!" I said, with a sudden, horrible thought. "Is it another of the letters?"
Several months before, my friend had received a series of threatening letters, crude in both sentiment and spelling. It was a natural hazard of being a success in his chosen field, he assured me, and even though the letters had ceased after several weeks as abruptly as they'd started, they had unsettled me. I did not like such reminders of the dangers of Holmes' work, especially when I could not face them down with a pistol.
He buttered another slice of toast with unnecessary violence. "As usual, Watson, your powers of deduction are severely lacking."
"What do you mean?" I said, stung.
He sighed pointedly. "Given my poisonous friend's inability to string two sentences together, do you think he would suddenly put down his glue and Daily Echo to hammer out a hundred-page typed manuscript?"
"I suppose it does seem rather out of character," I said, feeling sheepish at my alarm, but aware I was being intentionally distracted from the contents of that package. "Holmes, do tell me what it is."
My friend was regaining his composure, but he was exhibiting the signs of rapidly falling into one of the bleak, black moods I had come to dread over the year or so of our acquaintance. In the grip of one of these humours he would either lie on the couch in a drug-induced stupor for days, or, when he was lucid, snap viciously at myself and Mrs. Hudson for the most trifling reasons. If I could not draw him out of it now, the Dog and Bucket would be seeing a great deal more of me for several days.
"Holmes," I said gently, "Do tell me what it is, dear fellow. It cannot be worth much grief, and if it is, as your friend I am bound to want to know its cause."
He toyed with his abandoned toast and did not answer, and my heart sank. However, after a moment, he jerked the butter dish from the top of the package. "Well, perhaps I am wrong to hide it from you. After all, it concerns you just as it does me. But it does not make for pleasant reading, I warn you."
I read several paragraphs before I understood what I was reading. Then, it was all I could do to retain my breakfast. "My God, Holmes," I said hoarsely, when I had collected myself, "What is this? Where did it come from? But this is - this is the most perfidious libel!"
The pages fell from my shaking hand to spread across the breakfast table, scattered phrases impressing themselves on my eyes. I stroked his weeping member, gathering his welling joy in my fingers and touching it to my lips. "Take me in your mouth, Doctor," he said, as imperious as a sultan, and I hastened to do his bidding, inclining my
"A charge wouldn't hold up in any court," Holmes said grimly. "I am sure you will find that our names are not given, nor enough detail to identify us specifically. I have heard of this kind of thing before. It is a particularly depraved species of individual who gains their pleasure from imagining public figures engaged in the most debauched and sordid acts. These fellows are most accomplished in their work."
"But - who, Holmes?" I spluttered. "Who would send you such a thing? And why? For that matter, who would write it?"
"These are just the questions I was considering when you interrupted me," he snapped. "The envelope is addressed to me in a left-handed man's somewhat clumsy handwriting; he is most likely of little education. Well into his middle age, I should say. The ink and envelope are cheap, that fits. But he is not the author; that is a man of some education, although of a lurid imagination, sodomitic inclinations and a quite appalling turn of phrase. The paper is better quality, and typed, you see, with the margins for bookbinding - a typescript for printing, then. Who could have got hold of such a typescript? Only the typist, the author, someone at the printer's, or at the publisher's office - but for, ah, materials such as these, the printer and publisher are often one and the same.
"We must consider motivation, then. If this was sent by a friend, it would hardly be the author, unless he had a sudden change of heart, which seems unlikely. And we have already deduced that the envelope was not written by the author, although we cannot rule him out as the agent behind the act. The typist is possible, but these are often very dependent upon a meagre salary and will not risk losing it, not to mention they will rarely be in possession of a spare typescript. No, the printer or publisher is more likely. If sent by an enemy, to gloat or to torment, the author is a more distinct possibility - this work is the product of a desperate and deranged mind, Watson, I'm sure you'll agree. But why lay himself open to his inevitable capture and the humiliation of an obscenity trial?"
He tapped a finger to his lips, and I could hardly bear to look at him, I was so covered in bewilderment and embarrassment. When I dropped my gaze to the table, more lines of prose leapt from the pages to sear themselves into my brain. The pale, naked skin of my intrepid lover glowed in the moonlight streaming through the window of our shared lodgings, where we indulged hour after hour in this most sinful of pleasures. I enshrined his virile column in my worshipful hand
"No, I think this was sent by a friend, Watson, who wished to inform us of the injuries being textually inflicted on our persons. Therefore, we must look to the printers and publishers. The postmark is Soho, which suggests the more disreputable London booksellers - Drury Lane, perhaps, or Holywell Street."
"Indeed," I managed.
"Watson?" my friend said sharply, "Are you quite all right?"
In an instant, he was by my side, and his cool hand was pressed to my forehead. I appreciated the gesture, but it only added to the whirl of sick confusion in my mind. I batted at him irritably, and tried to keep my voice level. "I am perfectly all right, Holmes. I am shocked and disgusted, that is all."
"Quite," he said crisply. "I am more concerned that we find out who is responsible for this, and quickly. I hardly think this is a matter for the police, wouldn't you agree?"
I pictured the headlines, and shuddered. "Definitely not."
"Well, then, I think swift action with an aim towards turning our, ah, chronicler towards other subjects. I will go alone, Watson - these are dangerous and sordid grounds, and I would not drag you through them with me."
"No, indeed, Holmes," I expostulated, pulling myself together and standing quickly. "I will certainly go with you."
"No, absolutely not, doctor," he said hastily. "It is out of the question."
I tried to sound hearty and reassuring. "I have seen my share of London's underworld; you need not shelter me."
"No!" he snapped. I withdrew involuntarily, and he cleared his throat, a little shamefaced. He had clearly been as shaken by the package as I. "That is, I think it's really better not. A disguise will be necessary for these inquiries, and you are, Doctor, if you don't mind me saying so, really rather obvious. I will report back this evening with my findings. Mrs. Hudson!"
This last was delivered in piercing tones, but was not answered, so Holmes leapt up and ran out to the landing to try again. I tried to gather the pages together, but my hands were still shaking, and I fumbled them, scattering them across the breakfast table and onto the living room floor. One page settled directly before me, a red stain seeping into it from my strawberry jam. The crashing tide of my detective's salt-tinged love pulsed across my tongue, setting my throat aflame with desire for more. My heart swelled, and we collapsed together onto his bed in perfect harmony and knowledge of each other, as if I had imbibed his very soul. I closed my eyes against it, tried to collect myself, and tidied up the papers before Mrs. Hudson should see them.
After a short while, I heard a footstep on the landing, and a down-at-heel gentleman with a shabby hat and greasy neckerchief stuck his head around the door. "I will see you later, Watson," he said, and left. I watched him from the window as he hailed a cab, then hesitated only a few minutes before seizing my hat and coat and bustling out into the street.
The last time I had followed Holmes against his instructions had been out of concern for his safety. This time, it occurred to me that I would almost be relieved if he were to get knocked down and give up the case, then I immediately rejected the idea, revolted by my own duplicity. But as my cab rattled along the cobbles, I found myself scheming, for the first time, on how I should prevent Holmes from deducing the truth. Under no circumstances could he discover the author of those typed pages now locked in my dresser - where their manuscript had lain only a few weeks before. For the 'desperate and deranged mind' Holmes now sought was my own.
I congratulate myself, looking back, that my first literary efforts do a rather good job of disguising how very unwell their author was. I came back from Afghanistan a man broken in body and, nearly, in spirit. I was in constant pain, racked by intermittent fevers which could have me delirious and raving, plagued with nightmares that prevented me from getting more than a couple of hours sleep a night, and every unexpected sound set my heart racing and my head pounding, while cold sweat soaked my undershirt. I thank the Heavens that I was not solvent enough to remain alone in my hotel room, for I think I would, eventually, have drunk myself to death. I was less comfortable in my new rooms in Baker Street, but I had, at last, a pastime besides remembering. My head pounded too much for reading, and a walk even to the end of the street exhausted me, but the mystery of Holmes' occupation - his enigmatic disappearances, his steady stream of guests, the oddly-shaped packages he would take up to his room unopened - became an obsession which broke up those long, terrible days. His frantic energy inspired me to exert myself and extend my morning strolls. His violin playing reawoke my mind to music, and, when I felt able to venture further afield, I began to take in midday recitals around London. He made me laugh. And then, when he began to take me on cases, he gave me a new profession and, with it, my self-respect. The only surprising thing is that, given my (admittedly sporadic) inclinations towards the male sex, I did not notice sooner that my obsession with the mystery of Sherlock Holmes had become an infatuation with the man himself.
One ordinary autumn evening of the year that we met, I suddenly discovered that my intense scrutiny of Holmes over the past ten months had led me to notice the way his hair fell over his forehead as he bent to read the morning paper; the flash of pale skin at his collar, the line of his throat, the lean strength of his body and his startling smile. I could have picked him out in a crowd at five hundred paces, and I very much wanted to kiss him. It was a shock from which I have never recovered.
For falling in love with Sherlock Holmes, I offer no excuse and ask no forgiveness, for I believe I need none. For my subsequent actions, however, I can only offer in my own defence that I was still quite ill, and the effect on my nerves of my sudden and (to me) unexpected passion was rather devastating. I had vivid, erotic dreams, and more than once had to surreptitiously wash my own bedsheets, which embarrassment left me feeling uncomfortably as though I were fourteen again, as did the accompanying rise, if I may use the word, in the frequency of my self-abuse. Holmes had shown an ability to read my thoughts which had previously thrilled me to the core, but now I was terrified that he would find me out. As it was, he did catch me looking, many times, and he would say, "I see you are wondering where in London I could have picked up such a splattering of mud on such a dry day," or, "you are, Watson, no doubt perplexed as to what could occasion my wearing such a ridiculous hat."
I would clear my throat to cover my relief and reply, "Indeed I was, Holmes," or, sometimes, if I were particularly quick off the mark, "Actually, my dear fellow, I was thinking about my breakfast." We would resume our usual back-and-forth style of conversation, and slowly my heart would return to its normal speed, as I decided he had not guessed I had been staring at his mouth.
There were too many close calls, and it soon became clear to me that my fascination needed an outlet. Holmes had been a subject of my pen for some time already - even before I had started writing up his cases I had made lists about his accomplishments, for Heaven's sake. One night I dreamed so vividly of him that I woke up moaning his name, and lay for some time terrified that he might have heard me. I could not force the images of him - of us - from my brain, and I felt I should break apart from the strain of hiding it from him in the morning. Instead I got up, found some paper, and wrote down the dream from beginning to end, in as full detail as my blushes would allow me. Afterwards, I felt calmer, as if committing my thoughts to paper had drained off fluid from an inflamed wound, and I hid the manuscript under my mattress, intending to burn it later.
The reader will, perhaps, have guessed what happened. Far from burning it, it became my nightly reading material. And then, one day, in a hurry to leave the house, I stuffed it in an envelope to my publisher instead of the manuscript documenting Holmes' latest adventure, which had fallen down the side of cabinet. We were on a train to Sussex in half an hour, and it was not until we returned the following evening that I realized what had happened. I passed a horrible night, and was there to meet my publisher as he opened the door to his office the next morning. He greeted me with an obsequious, guarded smile, and told me that although he was not in the practice of publishing such materials - he winked, and I nearly struck him in the face - he had passed on my manuscript to a certain business associate of his who catered to a more select clientele.
I went to visit his associate, fairly out of my mind with panic. The rogue, a Mr. Homer Blackwell (although I highly doubt that was his real name) of Drury Lane, working with the efficiency, shrewdness and lack of scruples characteristic of all successful businessmen, had already edited my manuscript (a process which seemed to involve removing most of the incidental detail so that it seemed even more lurid than before), had it typed, and printed a run of eighty copies in pamphlet form. I blustered; he prevaricated. A most unfortunate accident, but quite irreversible. He offered me a pound for the work, and ten shillings for the translation rights into French. Our neighbours across the channel, he assured me, were a most lucrative market for the more... robust forms of fiction. He told me he had already sent twenty copies to a partner in Manchester by the first post, and it would scarcely be worth the trouble to get them back. By this time, my senses were returning, and I was realizing what a potentially compromising position I had put myself into, and how open to blackmail and ruin I was, if I revealed my stake in the manuscript. I had also remembered that neither of our real names had been on it - I had at least had that sense, thank God.
"An engaging little story," Blackwell was saying, rubbing his hands together. "Our clients appreciate the element of parody, you take my meaning, sir? You ain't the first to think those two might be going at it, but I dare say you're the first to put it in print! Would you think of making a serial of it?"
"Ah, no," I said, thinking fast. "It was written purely for a friend's amusement," - he nodded understandingly, a twinkle in his eye, and I barely suppressed a shudder - "and I did not mean for it to be printed for the public, but I suppose the damage is done. However, I must insist that you print no more than this run."
"Oh, now, sir," Blackwell tutted, "A crying shame, that would be. And what do you think would be to 'appen if I was to take this little beauty round to Mr. Sherlock 'Olmes?"
I drew myself up to my full height, trying to school my expression to hide the turmoil beneath. "He would horsewhip you down the stairs."
"Know the layout of 'is abode, do you?" Blackwell said, leering.
"I - that is, I - "
He smiled, and I cursed myself, but by now my nerves were completely shredded. He leaned in close to me, and I involuntarily flinched back from the oily smell of his pomade. "I tell you what, Doctor. You and me, we can be satisfied business partners, know what I mean? You keep sendin' me the goods, pound a time. How does that arrangement suit the gentleman?"
I believe I acquiesced in some way, and wandered home in a daze. Thank Heavens, Holmes was not at home, or I believe he would have extracted the story from me in an instant - I would have been helpless against his questions. I considered, in the awful nights following that meeting, telling him all, but the ridiculousness of my situation precluded it. What on earth could I say? Holmes, I accidentally published a pornographic novella in which you and I perform a number of illegal acts, and now I am being blackmailed into making it a serial? As a case it did not lack, as he might say, singular features, but it was hardly one our friendship could survive. I kept silent, and I wrote down my fantasies, and sent them to Mr. Blackwell via my own publisher, so that Holmes would see nothing but the usual packages leaving the house. After a while, I admit, I began to forget that I was forced into this; I spilled my desire for Holmes onto paper, and believed it was my secret. I did not think he would ever find out. I even became so comfortable as to indulge in the occasional fantasy of Holmes finding one of my manuscripts and, feigning fury, throwing me to the floor and ravaging me. The way he looked at me sometimes almost made me hope - but I was a fool, not least to rely on Mr. Blackwell's continuing discretion.
My cab pulled up at High Holborn, and I disembarked hastily, looking around for my friend. For a moment, forgetting his disguise, I thought he had disappeared into thin air, but then I saw him shuffling along the pavement in plain view, heading for a seedy-looking shop-front that offered Select Publications for Discerning Readers. I still had no plan as such, except for a wild compulsion to throw myself at his mercy and confess all; however, I told myself that I had left it too late for that and that we were now in a public street. I decided to simply observe as best I could, and if I thought he was coming too close to the mark, I would accost him, feigning some emergency. Pulling my collar up and my old cap down over my eyes, I bent over a little and exaggerated my limp, and followed him along the street. He entered the bookshop; several minutes afterwards I did the same, feigning an interest in the pile of sensational novels nearest the door. Holmes had disappeared into the back of the shop, and I heard voices, but could not discern the words. Flicking through the pages of Fear Unbound! A Rousing Tale of Beautiful Ladies in Emergency Situations, I waited, my heart pounding, my face turned away. They re-emerged abruptly from the back office.
To my astonishment, the proprietor said, in easy hearing, "Always a pleasure to see you, Mr. Holmes."
"And you, Dernworth," said my friend, in his usual voice. "I do appreciate your co-operation. By the way, I trust you are still fully satisfied with the results of the little, ah, matter on which you engaged me?"
"Oh, yes," said the round little man, nodding his head vigorously. "Very satisfied."
"Good, good," said Holmes, sounding somewhat absent. "Well, I must be off. Number twenty four, you say?"
"Very well, Dernworth."
With that, the doorbell chimed and he was gone, leaving me, for the second time that day, transfixed with bewilderment. Why don that disguise if he were going to make enquiries under his own name? And what case could he have solved for the middle-aged owner of a disreputable bookstore? It was certainly not since my time.
"Can I help you, sir?"
I nearly started out of my skin as the bookshop's owner, Dernworth, appeared at my side. "Fine work that, sir," he smiled, "Beautiful illustrations."
"Indeed," I said, clearing my throat. "Most artistic."
He took my elbow and lowered his voice to a whisper. "You seem a most discerning gentleman, sir, if I may say so. Tell me - do you have any interest in -" he lowered his voice even further - "anatomical photography?"
It took me several minutes to extract myself from his clutches, but this time I had the advantage of knowing exactly where Holmes was going. At number 24 Drury Lane, he was already in animated conversation with the shop owner in the street outside.
"I'm afraid I can't help you, Mr. Holmes," the man was saying. "Lord knows I owe you, but it's not within my powers, if you know what I mean."
"Ah, well," Holmes said shortly. "Never mind, Coleridge. My regards to Henry."
The man beamed. "That's very kind of you, sir. You know he thinks the world of you. Thinking of following in your footsteps, he is - can't hardly walk in the back for all that paraphernalia."
"Indeed? Well, I'm delighted to hear it, Coleridge."
"I don't suppose you've any need of, ah, an apprentice, Mr. Holmes?"
"I'm afraid not, Coleridge - in these kinds of cases, I work alone."
My stomach turned over, and I leaned closer to the shop window of Number 27, trying to make out Holmes' reflection better in the dusty glass. Had Holmes been engaged by the entire bookselling population of Drury Lane, and hidden it from me? It was quite possible, of course, but I had believed - foolishly - that I had his full confidence, at least as regards his work. I recalled his furious outburst earlier when I had offered to accompany him, and my heart clenched like ice. Did he truly think me useless? Or believe me so innocent that he would not allow me to come near the many and varied crimes he solved for London's pornographers? If I had been less oppressed by the fear of losing his regard, I would have laughed at the irony.
"You won't change your mind?" Coleridge was saying.
"I fear not. You'll contact me if any problems occur with the product in the mean time, of course."
At that strange statement, I began to doubt my conclusions. Cold tendrils of suspicion began to work their way into my mind - could it be, I wondered, that he was supplying these men with something other than his detective skills? But whatever could this 'product' be? My mind flew to his chemical experiments, and my long-time suspicion that he had more than once created experimental compounds to substitute for his cocaine. Could he be supplying these men with some kind of drug?
Distracted, I continued to watch the reflection of the street as Holmes continued down Drury Lane. I considered breaking my cover, running after him and telling him everything; he was coming closer and closer to the establishment of Mr. Homer Blackwell, and I could not rely on my publisher's discretion. It was surely in his best interests not to tell Holmes, nor did he, to my knowledge, have any real proof of my identity, but I knew as well as any English criminal that Holmes had his own, highly effective, methods of persuasion. I felt a kind of sick despair at my predicament. Tell all, and risk everything? Or not tell, and risk the same - for if Holmes had to learn from that despicable man what I had done, I knew his pride would not stand it. I would have to leave Baker Street, he would never want to see me again. I would rather, I knew, take that bullet a hundred times over again than face that. And it was almost certain that Holmes would find out, now. My choice was clear, but whether I had the strength to carry it out was another matter.
As I wavered, a clean-shaven young man with curly brown hair came out of Coleridge's shop.
"Henry!" called Coleridge, "Come and catch Mr. Holmes before he leaves!"
I stared at the shop display before me in blank shock. I knew the lad. He plied his trade in an establishment I had visited occasionally near the East Wharf, and was now engaged in a quiet conversation with a the owner of a seller of pornographic books and my friend. Holmes made a low remark, his mouth twitching, and the youth patted Holmes' arm in a familiar gesture before throwing his head back in a laugh. Holmes left them, turning back towards me, and I was so stunned that I barely recovered myself enough to hide my face in my collar as he passed. He had been a few steps away from Blackwell's shop. When I was assured that Holmes was headed east on Holborn, well out of harm's way, I caught a cab home, wild thoughts racing through my mind. All the evidence seemed to point one way, but my conclusions were ridiculous. Could Holmes possibly be in some way involved in sex trafficking? What was the nature of his relationship with these men, and in what capacity did the young prostitute idolize him? I knew I had to be overlooking something, or misunderstanding what I had seen in some crucial way. I felt a pang as I found myself wishing I could lay the whole tangled knot before Holmes and watch him unravel it.
By the time I stepped out at Baker Street, although I was no closer to understand what I had just seen, I was resolved - I would tell Holmes. I must, whatever agony it might cause me to see the revulsion and disappointment I still feared would be his reaction. But what I had seen that day had led me to believe that he would not, at the very least, turn me in to the police - what else it might mean, I could not begin to fathom.
He was not there when I returned, and I fortified myself with a brandy. As I sat there in my armchair, wondering what I would say to him, the room became almost suffocating in its familiarity. I loved this room; in it, I had sat watching Holmes play the violin, or rummage through old papers, or smoke furiously, or pore over the documents in a case, throwing deductions at me like a schoolboy throwing paper darts. He was the centre of my life.
The doorbell rang. I was lost in my own thoughts, and I started when Mrs. Hudson rapped on the door. "Dr. Watson? Inspector Lestrade is here to see Mr. Holmes."
My heart flew into my throat, and my mind raced - dear God, surely Holmes could not intend to show Lestrade the typescript? I would have shut the door in his face, but English manners are difficult to overcome for one brought up in the habit, and I was ushering him into the drawing room before I knew what I was doing. However, I quickly ascertained that he was here to consult Holmes, not the other way around. A case, I assumed, and although normally I would have made it my business to gather the details, today I did not have the heart to inquire further than the health of his family. Lestrade's ease with conversation - as long as it is about himself - is one of the chief points of Holmes' frequent diatribes about Scotland Yard. Be that as it may, I was never so grateful for a police inspector's personal shortcomings. I nodded and made the appropriate interjections, and generally was able to absent myself from the conversation in all but body. As the minutes crept by, I felt as though I were tethered to the earth by only a fine thread, and Holmes' coming, and our confrontation, would sever me from everything I cared about, and I would simply drift away. Lestrade's presence, I hoped, would at least defer that moment.
"... I was very surprised the first time Mr. Holmes appeared at one of my crime scenes, Dr. Watson, I don't mind telling you. Of course, he's shown himself of use several times to us, and I won't deny he's got a brilliant mind, but it was a surprise."
"I wasn't aware you knew Holmes before you worked on cases together, Inspector," I said, curiosity rousing me, despite everything.
"Oh, no indeed!" said Lestrade jovially. "I knew Mr. Holmes through his, ah, other line of work." He winked at me. "Customers of all trades, our Mr. Holmes."
"Do you mean to say that you were a private client of his?" I said, surprised. Holmes had never mentioned it.
Lestrade cleared his throat. "Indeed, you could say that, Doctor. In fact, that's why I've come to see him. It's the gears, you understand. My wife's very upset."
"I see," I said, although I did not see at all.
At that moment, Holmes burst into the room.
"Watson!" he said breathlessly. "The publisher was most unforthcoming, but we'll have him, by God, we'll have him! I saw where he keeps the manuscripts. What do you say to a little - oh, ah, good afternoon, Lestrade."
Lestrade cleared his throat. "If you were about to say what I think you were about to say, Holmes, you're lucky I'm not here in any official capacity."
"Indeed," said Holmes. "One moment, please, Watson. I suppose it is the gears again, Lestrade? That is what will happen when you use lard instead of what I give you."
"But how on earth could you know I - just give me the damned replacements," scowled Lestrade. "Excuse my language, Dr. Watson."
I wondered if I could follow them upstairs unobtrusively, and my hopes were raised when Holmes did not close the drawing room door behind him. However, Holmes leapt up the stairs to his room two at a time, then called down to me, "Watson, be a good chap and tell Mrs. Hudson we will require an early supper!"
Sighing, I returned to my chair. I might not know all Holmes' secrets, but at least, it was clear, he did not yet know mine.
It was some time before Lestrade and Holmes returned to the drawing room; by this time, my irritation at Holmes' perpetual inscrutability, combined with my own cares, had stirred me into a fair state of agitation and pique. I was furiously reading the evening papers over my baked trout, and ignored Holmes when he sat down at the table. He picked at his food for barely two minutes, then leapt up again to pace around the room.
"Watson!" he burst out, finally. "You'll come with me? To Blackwell's bookshop?"
"I -" I said, caught off-guard, but seeing my list of options narrowing steadily down to one. "Well, I - of course, Holmes."
"Good fellow," he said, and he made an abortive movement, as if to clap me on the arm, but pulled back and whirled away instead, with a queer look on his face. I knew he was thinking of the words on those accursed pages, and damned myself furiously and passionately all over again for my folly.
"The publisher, Blackwell, closes up at five," Holmes said. "I feel we should leave our little spot of housebreaking until much later, however. You may wish to rest beforehand, Doctor - it will be a long night."
I waved him away, all the while telling myself that I would speak to him soon - I must - but at the same time, my survival instincts told me that I would not have a better opportunity to save myself from the trap which had closed around me. With Holmes' as-yet unwitting help, I could recover the proofs from Blackwell, and rescue myself, if not from exposure to the only person whose regard I truly valued, at least from the police. I had seen enough that day to feel at least a spark of hope that Holmes would not turn me in, and perhaps not wholly despise me for my desires, and the betrayal of his trust. But if he did... and what the devil did Lestrade's wife have to do with Holmes, gears and lard?
These thoughts whirled through my exhausted mind all that long evening. Holmes did not once appear, and I smoked, unable to read, unable to take the rest he had prescribed. I heard Holmes pacing upstairs, and opening and closing his door with the kind of volume which suggested a restlessness similar to my own - but that was not unusual. When at last he descended, I had already been sitting, dressed and with my gun in my pocket, for half an hour. He entered the room carelessly, and was obviously startled to see me awake and waiting; on his momentarily unguarded face I thought I caught a flicker in his eyes of something unnameable, and it made my knees weak and my heart falter. I felt an unfounded hope surge in my breast.
"Holmes -" I said thickly, then could not continue.
"Yes, Doctor?" he said, his eyes in shadow and his expression keen, and it seemed to me as if he were waiting, as taut as a violin string with expectancy - but at that moment, the clock struck midnight, and the moment dissipated so quickly that I believed I had imagined it.
"I am ready," I said.
"Good," said Holmes, and he turned abruptly to the door, so that I could not see his face. "It will be quiet around Mr. Blackwell's establishment. Time to go, I think. You have your pistol?"
"Do you think there's any danger?"
Holmes paused. "No - no, but it never hurts to be prepared, eh, Watson?"
We left the strange tension in the room behind us, settling with the dust.
It was the work of a moment for Holmes to pick the lock of Blackwell's bookshop. This was not where the printing took place - he employed a small press in Acton for that - but, Holmes assured me in a whisper as I watched the street, he kept the original proofs of his texts in a safe at his office, and these would, if they did not bear the name of the author, at least give us some clues as to his identity. By this time, something strange had happened to me: I had grown calm. Or rather, I felt abstracted from my predicament. The night was crisp, the first chill of autumn beginning to settle in the air, and it was invigorating, after a long, stifling summer; the street was empty, its silence broken only by the rattle of coach wheels on the Aldwych, and the distant laughter of some late-night roustabouts. Holmes and I were breaking and entering with intent to rob, and the pistol in my pocket would add ten years onto my sentence. Fear and excitement mingled to flow through my veins, a heady drug no more healthy for the system or laudable than cocaine, for all its natural origins. I felt violently alive, as if all my senses were heightened, and I heard the snick as the lock slid home under the pressure of Holmes' pick as clearely as if it had been Big Ben striking the hour.
I closed the door soundlessly behind us, and Holmes' hand brushed my elbow. He gestured, and I followed him past the greasy, leather-bound shelves, behind the counter, where there was another lock, which Holmes soon demolished. I had, of course, been in Blackwell's back room before, on our first meeting, but I was careful not to give this away. Holmes produced a candle and matches from his pocket, bade me light it, then knelt down by the safe and started work on the lock, motioning me to watch the door while keeping the candle steady. I kept half my attention on his progress, aware that my time was nearly up; his fingers seemed to be moving very slowly on the dial of the safe, and I watched in distant fascination as he pressed his ear to the door, almost lovingly, as if to a patient's chest. I wondered what he would do if I were to run my hand through his hair.
The door swung open, and he reached inside. He drew out a large bundle of foolscap paper, and began to rifle through it, scattering pages everywhere. All of a sudden, a realization came to me, and the shock of it reverberated through my head as at least some of the pieces of the last few days' puzzle fell into place. My hand shook violently, and Holmes hissed and swatted at my leg as a spot of candle wax spilled upon his bare hand.
"Holmes," I whispered. "He must have a huge number of original manuscripts. How did you know this one would be in the safe?"
"It was quite logical, Watson," he snapped. "Any run-of-the-mill saucy confessional could be published and the originals destroyed, for all he cared, but he would keep any sensitive or compromising manuscripts in the safe."
"Ah," I managed, barely able to speak around the sudden constriction in my throat. "So you believe his plan is blackmail? But who is usually the target in these cases?"
He pushed something aside irritably, and thrust his face further into the safe, motioning me to hold the candle closer.
"Well, naturally, the authors, Watson! A little more light, if you could please just -"
I touched the back of his neck, and he froze. Then, slowly, slowly, he looked up at me.
"Oh, Holmes, for Heaven's sake," I said, helpless, and fell down on my knees to kiss him. He drew a sharp breath as our lips brushed together, and he seized my wrist with a grip like iron as I reached for him, both holding me back and locking me in place. For a heart-stopping instant I thought I had been mistaken; but then his mouth melted against mine, and darkness fell over us like velvet as the candle guttered out, forgotten. We knelt there together by the pornographer's safe, kissing desperately, until he broke away and whispered, "For God's sake, man, your leg!"
I eased my weight off it with relief, finding my new position gave me access to his throat, where I pressed a kiss. "You knew," I whispered, my heart racing, "You knew from the moment it arrived on our breakfast table."
"I sent it," Holmes said distantly, his head tipped back, eyes closed as he allowed me to map the contours of his throat with my mouth. His grip on my wrists had loosened to a warm grasp, but he kept my hands firmly on the floor between us, and I was too overwhelmed with relief and the taste of his mouth to complain.
"I suppose," I muttered, and bit the soft skin under his ear, "I hardly have the right to protest your treatment of me."
"I should say not. How on earth could you have done anything so idiotic?"
"It was an accident."
"Holmes," I said breathlessly, and drew back, so that he could see my face in the faint street light from the window. His eyes were glittering, and his expression intent. I tried to collect myself, and managed finally to say what had been weighing on my mind for the past few days, and the months since I failed to burn that most dangerous manuscript, "You must know that I will never forgive myself for being so foolish, and for endangering you or our friendship. I do not deserve forgiveness, but I am most truly, heartily sorry."
"Yes, well," Holmes said, and kissed me lightly on the mouth. "I am less inclined to forgive you for that ridiculous charade you made me carry off yesterday as you clumped along ten feet behind me and stared at me in the shop window."
I stared. "You mean you knew I was - "
"My dear fellow, I intended it."
"Of course you did," I sighed.
"I do believe it was harder to pretend you were not there than it would have been to spot the canniest tail. You have quite a talent, Watson, really."
I bit him again, he laughed breathlessly, and it sent a ridiculous thrill through me. I wanted to spread him out there on the floor of Blackwell's office, and I tried to reach for him, but he caught my hands fast again, suddenly intent.
"If you touch me now," he said, his voice low, "armed robbery will be the least of Blackwell's worries - he will have to call the police to drag me off you, or be an accessory to a lewd and illegal act."
The promise in his voice and eyes made me shiver, even as I laughed helplessly at his words. "Holmes, he has been selling accessories to lewd and illegal acts since 1877."
Although I had not meant to, I had reminded us both of the real danger of our situation, and Holmes looked back at the safe.
"Are they there?"
"Yes," he said, and reached in for an envelope with my name written on it, the thumb of his other hand stroking absently over my knuckles. He opened it and flipped through its contents one-handed. "Five?"
"Yes, five," I said, and I was glad I was already sitting down, so great was the relief. He took the package, and put it inside his coat with great care.
"Now," he said, showing his teeth, "We remove a variety of other things from the safe to deflect attention from the disappearance of your work, and we make a great deal of mess. Search the room for valuables as clumsily as you can - but don't make any noise."
I set to doing as he said, opening cabinet drawers, scattering their contents and generally doing my best impression of a frustrated thief, while Holmes set to thoroughly ransacking the safe, extracting a number of packages and files and strewing the rest of its contents across the carpet with abandon.
"Good," he said, surveying the room. "Let's get out. If we get separated, head as fast as we can for the east end of the Strand, where there should be a cab waiting for us."
At that moment, there was a loud report above us. "Run!" Holmes hissed. He ran across the room, vaulting one of the piles of books, and I put on speed and ran with him through the shadows of Drury Lane. As we turned onto Tavistock, Holmes stopped abruptly and pulled me into the shadows. A couple of men passed, talking quietly in Italian, and, to my surprise and delight, Holmes slipped his hand into mine and squeezed.
"A good night's work, I think," Holmes murmured as we crossed the Aldwych, narrowly avoiding a hansom. "I will need to examine our pickings in some real light, but I suspect that we have inadvertently brought an end to a small side-business of Mr. Homer Blackwell's in blackmail and extortion."
"Of which I was a victim," I said softly, and Holmes nodded, jaw set.
"Watson, say the word and I will go back and burn the place down," he said. "As it is, I regret that the theft of his main source of livelihood will have to be our entire revenge - I will not be able to supply the police with evidence to charge Mr. Blackwell, under the circumstances."
"My dear fellow," I said, moved, "You would have been perfectly justified in turning me out of the house. To risk yourself to save me from my own foolishness -"
"When one of my clients, Coleridge, came across the stories and brought them to my attention," Holmes said, hailing our cab, "I realized that while the originals were at large and could be traced to you, Blackwell could indeed threaten you with scandal, but the risk of a countersuit for libel by a public figure such as myself would be too great a risk for a man in Mr. Blackwell's profession. So long as it were libel."
Daring, once we were ensconced in the cab and our conversation was masked by the sound of the horse's hooves, I murmured "And you, I suppose, intended that it should not be?"
He shot a heated glance at me that I found devastating, especially in our close proximity, and with my shoulder and thigh pressed against his. "The thought had crossed my mind," he said. "But actually, my dear fellow, Blackwell was perfectly aware that I would never take a suit for libel against him."
I frowned, unsure of his meaning. "But Holmes, even if Blackwell had positive proof that I was the writer of those stories, he couldn't prove anything against you. Unless -" I remembered Holmes' familiarity with Coleridge's - and my - friend, Henry, and another thought struck me. "Unless he had some - other evidence?"
"That I am a sodomite, you mean?" Holmes said, wry. "No, I believe I am more careful than some of my associates to prevent information about my preferences falling into the wrong hands."
I winced, and realized I would probably never hear the end of my mistake; however, in comparison to the dire scenarios of abandonment and ruin I had imagined earlier that day, the necessity of Holmes' continued presence to enact such a punishment made me dizzyingly happy.
"The fact of the matter is that if it were not for Blackwell's knowledge of me, your mistake would have been relatively inconsequential. No doubt he would have attempted to blackmail you nevertheless, but had you seen fit to confess all to me, I would have been able to assure you that there was no real danger."
I felt a real pang, then. I placed my hand over his. "I am truly sorry, Holmes."
"Oh, I understand why you did not, my dear fellow," he said, more gently. "We will say no more about it, especially as, the facts being as they are, the danger from Blackwell was very real. He is in possession about certain facts regarding - certain of my cases - which would not place me in a sympathetic light before a jury."
I frowned, as a chink of light seemed to appear in the shadows in my mind.
"Do you mean cases like the private work you did for Coleridge? And - for Lestrade?"
Holmes turned towards me, and in the dark I could not see the smile playing on his mouth, but I could hear it. "My dear Watson, I continually remind myself not to underestimate you, and continually you surprise me."
I hardly felt that such a compliment was justified, and I was about to say so when the cabbie called down to us, and I realized that we had come to a halt outside our front door. "Don't worry, Watson," Holmes said, with a wicked edge to his voice, "I intend to reveal all very shortly."
He ushered me up the stairs to our rooms with a hand on the small of my back, as he had done many times before while hurrying me along to meet a client, or witness the result of some chemical experiment; I had of late secretly lived for such casual touches, and sometimes been intentionally slow with the hope of encouraging them. Now, his every touch burned me, and I wondered how I had been so easy in my enjoyment, before. My breath was coming quickly by the time we reached our rooms, and my heart was pounding in my chest.
"I think perhaps we both deserve a drink after our night's work, Doctor. Perhaps two brandies?"
I poured two generous glasses, my hands shaking a little. Holmes padded noiselessly across the room, and when he touched my waist, I spilled brandy on the sideboard.
"You mentioned earlier," Holmes breathed against my ear, reaching around me to replace the brandy bottle stopper, "That Mr. Blackwell had been engaged in selling accessories to indecent acts since 1877."
"I - I did, yes."
"Well," Holmes said, his chest resting against my back and his chin on my shoulder, "As it happens, I have been engaged in the same practice since 1876. We have both been keeping secrets, it seems. Come upstairs, Watson."
He took my hand, and I followed him, bewildered and quite distracted by my body's clamour for him. He opened his bedroom door and ushered me in. I had never been inside it, and certainly had never noticed that there was a hatch in the ceiling, which Holmes now reached after leaping to stand on his bed. There was a padlock fitted to it; Holmes produced a key from his pocket and removed this, then pushed the hatch up and away, and removed a long, thin pole from the opening above him. He then descended onto the floor beside me again with a thump that made me wince for Mrs. Hudson downstairs, hooked the pole onto something in the darkness above, and pulled down a ladder made of a series of extending sections, so well oiled that it descended almost noiselessly. Holmes shimmied up it like a monkey, and then I heard the pop and hiss of a gas lamp, and its glow lit the opening in the ceiling. Holmes extended a hand down, and I followed him.
"I had no idea this was here," I said, amazed. There was far more room in the attic than I would ever have supposed,despite the low ceiling; unusually, too, floorboards had been laid down. It was clearly being used as a workshop of some kind: unlike the drawing room we shared, it was exceedingly tidy, with an array of tools laid out on a side bench, and a broom speckled with sawdust standing against the wall. There was a bracket for a gas lamp mounted in the wall, and even a basin, although it had no running water.
"It is the chief reason I took these rooms," Holmes said. His eyes were glowing with the banked excitement I recognised all too well from the moments before a case came to its conclusion, and yet, there was more uncertainty there than I had ever seen in such a moment.
"But, Holmes," I said slowly, "Clearly you are not using it for your chemical experiments. Then - what?"
"Ah, Watson, that is the question," Holmes said. He strode over to the far wall, where a sheet covered a large, bulky object on a table. He was now, I realized, directly above my own bedroom - I had always thought the noise at night from rats or foxes on the roof. Glancing sidelong at me, Holmes paused for a moment, then whipped away the sheet. I stared.
"Good God," I said, when I had found my voice. My heart was beating so loudly that I could scarcely hear myself, and my face was burning in the cool night air. "A hysteria machine."
Holmes arched an eyebrow. "You've seen one before?"
"Of course," I said, absorbed for a moment, despite myself, with professional interest. "I attended a lecture on gynological medicine and treatments of feminine mental disorders. I know a number of specialists who use them. Dr. Stephen Rawlinson, a colleague of mine from St. Barts, swears by them. But this - this isn't for medical use, surely."
"As ever, your skills of deduction are unmatched, Dr. Watson," Holmes said dryly. "What gave it away? The gold fittings? The kneepads?"
"Well, and the fact that the, ah, instrument seems rather larger than medically necessary," I observed, struggling to make sense of it all. "But - Holmes, why?" It was scarcely the most pertinent question, but the only one I could think of at the time, so astonished was I.
He shrugged eloquently. "Why not? I have told you that I struggled, after leaving university, to find a profession that would suit my talents. I was lucky enough to find not one but two for which I am admirably suited - I can hardly complain that both are rather out of the ordinary, as professions go."
"I was under the impression that you had gone straight into detecting."
Holmes began to drift closer to me, no doubt intending to seem casual; at any other time it would have entirely escaped my attention, but I was attuned to his presence as never before, and I imagined I could feel the difference in the temperature of the air on my skin with every inch of the distance he closed between us. I could not take my eyes off the blunt, obscene simulacrum of a male member that protruded from the strange system of metal tubes and pistons on the table. There were a number of other contraptions, I now saw, on the floor behind it - the function of some was obvious, but others were quite mystifying. It was all so far from what I had imagined in my wildest dreams, but already I found I could not help picturing Holmes' long, clever fingers working on the machines, coldly calibrating and adjusting to produce the most exquisite torment.
"I had solved several trivial cases at Oxford," Holmes murmured, "But I assure you that it did not occur to me to pursue detection as a profession until quite recently. This last October, in fact."
At this, my mouth truly did fall open. "But - Holmes! We had been living together for months by then!"
He winced a little then, and whirled back from his slow advance on me to pace around the room.
"Indeed, you have hit upon it precisely, Watson. It was that remarkable list of yours. 'Sherlock Holmes - His Limits'." I groaned and covered my face, embarrassed beyond words that he had seen it. "I retrieved it from the fire. I had long realized that I would soon have to come up with some sort of cover story for my profession if I were to continue to use the laboratories at the university unhindered, and your curiosity proved the tipping point. You seemed to me to be getting very near the mark. But as I looked over your list - which was, by the way, rather unfair on several points, I happen to have read a great deal of Greek philosophy, and you entirely omitted my facility with machinery - it occurred to me that it described an individual admirably suited to detective work, as well as to a maker of custom-built hysteria machines. I had no intention of joining the police force, and so I hit upon the idea of a private consulting detective, which I then supplied to you as my cover story, so to speak. You must see that it explained all my habits admirably."
"Oh yes, admirably," I echoed, still scarcely able to believe that this was not some kind of elaborate joke. I was running through my memories of those first months, reassessing them all. Had I been utterly blind? "But - Holmes, our first case! You showed me the note from Inspector Gregson!"
"One of my earliest clients," Holmes said smoothly. "In lieu of a payment he owed me, he allowed me the run of a crime scene with you. I must confess that I got rather carried away, and then proved rather better at the job than even I had expected. I also found that I enjoyed the work - it allowed me more exertion of my mental powers, provided me with an opportunity to put into practical use some of my chemical experiments, and kept me on the happier side of the law. It also -" he hesitated. "It allowed me to share my work with a companion. With you. I have never - I cannot tell you how much I value it."
I cleared my throat, and did not allow myself to become distracted. "But - Holmes, do you mean to say that that entire first day was a charade for my benefit? The magnifying glass, everything? Why on earth did you go to so much trouble?"
Holmes blinked. "Well, I would have thought that was obvious, my dear fellow."
"I -" Holmes, suddenly and uncharacteristically, avoided my gaze, and I felt a smile begin to break across my face. This time, it was I who approached him slowly, and he who looked nervously in my direction. "I wanted a respectable lodger whose habits suited mine. They are not so very easy to find, you know. And in my line of work -"
I murmured, "You were afraid I would be scandalized. And leave."
"And so you blackmailed a police constable, pretended to be a consulting detective, accidentally solved a crime of international proportions, and then actually became a consulting detective, purely to save yourself the trouble of finding another person to share your rooms? Holmes, that is the most preposterous thing I have ever heard."
I took him by the shoulders. He looked quite startled. The attic was not heated, and it was colder than the room below, but it felt as if I were standing before a blazing fire as I looked into his eyes.
"All right," he whispered. "I wanted you to stay. I wanted you to - to admire me, and I thought -"
I kissed him. I couldn't not kiss him. This time, he made no move to restrain me, and I twined my fingers in his sleek, dark hair, and pressed him close against me. His hesitancy had entirely vanished; he held me fast against him, as if he feared my escape, and kissed me until I was quite breathless, his mouth devious and demanding against my own. I ran my hands over his shoulders and back, feeling for myself at last the wiry frame which I had touched in my imagination so often, now solid under my fingers. Always a step ahead of me, Holmes turned his attention to unfastening my collar just as I had began to tug ineffectually at his shirt.
"Now, Dr. Watson," he murmured, as he bared my throat to the air, "I have something to tell you."
I swallowed. "Oh?" His fingers brushed against my throat as he continued to undo my shirt buttons, and he gave me a quick smile when I, hesitantly, reached up to do the same for him.
"Since you have had me entirely at your mercy in those stories of yours for months, I believe that it is my turn."
He slipped my shirt off my shoulders and ran his hands over my upper arms, and a faint sigh escaped him. I have always blushed easily, and the sight of such frank admiration on my usually reserved friend's face made my cheeks blaze. His eyebrow arched, and a smile played across his lips.
"You are far more shameless in your stories, Watson. Also, you do not do your own considerable characteristics justice. If you had devoted less space to my marble throat and alabaster thighs, I would have been far more engrossed."
I groaned, feeling my face become even hotter, not least as I recalled all at once several of the things I had made him say and do to me. "You read them?"
"All of them."
"Did you dislike them?"
"I thought they were sensationalist -" he dropped a biting, aching kiss to my throat, "-overblown-" another to my collarbone, "-garbage. Quite unworthy of your talent. And so overwhelming that I could scarcely look you in the eye for a week. To eat toast with you at the breakfast table and to know you were thinking about me that way - my God, Watson, you have no idea what it did to me."
"I think -" I gasped, " - I have some idea."
Holmes then, in one of his startlingly quick changes of direction, stepped back from me and carefully hung both of our shirts on a hook on the wall. He tapped a finger against his chin, scrutinizing me with a calculating look that made excitement flood my system, almost beyond my will; it was the kind of gaze that meant a gunfight, or a housebreak, or one of his dramatic gestures that reveals the missing diamond or the disguised convict, and never fails to take my breath away.
"Yes," he said finally. "I believe you will do exactly as I say. Take off your undershirt and place it over there."
I did so, my fingers trembling. I had no idea what he was planning, but the idea that he might - that he might understand what I truly wanted - I hardly dared believe it. The feel of his gaze upon me, and the caress of the cool air of the attic on my bare, flushed skin, left me feeling feverish and exposed. I wanted him so much that it frightened me, and I hardly knew how to contain or manage it. I felt wild, and excruciatingly vulnerable.
"Take off your shoes," he said, his eyes burning dark. "Ah-ah - the right first, then the left."
Heat flooded through me as I fumbled to obey. Despite my desperate excitement, I found my nerves settling as I mustered the necessary concentration to untie my laces. By the time I had removed my left shoe, I no longer felt that I was in danger of being consumed by the feelings storming through me, but I felt sharp as a scalpel, all my senses honed and alive, and entirely in Holmes' hands, to wield as he would. I realized in that moment that I trusted him utterly. I believe he saw the moment I gave myself over to him, for a change came over his face, and he took a quick step towards me before stopping himself.
"Oh, Watson," he murmured. "Your trousers now, and your underthings, if you please. Turn to face the wall. Don't look this way."
I obeyed, and stared intently at the plaster as he moved some things about behind me. I wondered, fleetingly, if there were any sort of soft surface up here that we might lie on; but when I heard the faint scrape of metal against metal behind me, my stomach tightened with excitement and a little fear, and I realized what he planned to do to me. Completely nude, I stood in the gaslight, watching the edges of my shadow flicker on the wall, sensitive to every sound behind me. When he touched me, I jumped. He ran his finger down my spine slowly, then pressed a kiss between my shoulderblades.
"On your hands and knees."
The floor was cold and hard, and it swiftly became obvious that I could not remain in the position long. My thigh immediately began to throb, and I shifted in an attempt to relieve it, but I did not dare speak, for fear I would break the strange spell Holmes was weaving over us.
"Watson," Holmes said sharply. "Stand up."
I did, with relief.
"If I hurt you in a way that is not pleasurable, you will tell me at once, do you understand?"
His voice was like a velvet whip, and I nodded, my mouth dry. "Stay there," he said.
Barely a moment later, he was guiding me with quick touches to bend at the waist over the work table, padded with cushions he had procured from his bed in the room below. With a brisk tap to my thighs he encouraged me to spread my legs apart, exposing myself. I was now fairly sure what he planned, but I doubted myself when I felt the first, slick touch of his finger between my cheeks. I think I meant to say his name, but the sound that left my mouth hardly resembled it. He was completely silent as he opened me with his fingers, his touch careful, but almost clinical, with no apparent aim to please me, although I knew Holmes had to notice every time his sliding fingers sparked pleasure within me. Once, I involuntarily rocked forward against the pillows to provide myself some relief, and he slapped me sharply on the thigh.
"Sorry, Holmes," I said breathlessly. My voice sounded quite husky, barely recognisable.
Finally, he withdrew his fingers, and the tortuous pleasure ceased. I was by now wound as tightly as the strings on his violin, my body humming at his every touch, and I lurched forward when Holmes pressed himself against me. I had forgotten that he was still half-dressed, and the cloth of his trousers was a rough shock against my bare skin. He rocked against me, and I felt him hard against my thigh. He let out a harsh breath, then dug his fingers into my hips, and I realized that Holmes - Sherlock Holmes - was having trouble controlling himself. I moaned.
"Watson, you are distracting me quite abominably," Holmes muttered. He ran his hands lightly over my shoulders, as if I were a piano. The struggle not to rear back into his touch made sweat stand out on my brow.
His touch disappeared as abruptly as it had arrived. He brushed his fingers across my entrance again as a warning, before I felt the slick leather of the false member nudge against me. He guided my hips forward so as to gain a better angle, then, with a faint squeak of metal, he began to turn the crank of the machine.
I could not suppress a gasp as the machine's appendage pierced me. It was not cold, but the temperature of the leather, fastened to wood with flattened and smoothed metal studs, was still well below that of my overheated body, and it felt utterly strange, and rather uncomfortable. Its inhuman, inexorable press sent shivers of mingled fear and arousal up and down my spine as it filled me utterly, then withdrew a little too fast, and thrust into me again before I was ready, so that I bit my lip. I could hear Holmes' harsh breathing echo my own, and the metallic whine of the machine as he turned its handle, the creak of the chair legs upon which it rested. I knew that he would not hurt me, but I could not feel or see him, and I felt utterly in the power of the machine, which no more cared about me than did the unseeing walls or floor, and would use me without compunction. Holmes set up a powerful pace, the leather member repeatedly brushing that deep point of pleasure inside me, until my legs were shaking with the effort of holding them as far apart as possible, and I was rocking backwards to meet the machine's thrusts. The heat inside me grew slowly, until I felt I should explode from it, but I was helpless to change the inexorable pace, or the depth or angle at which the machine penetrated me, and I could not rub forward against the cushions in this position. I bit my lip to hold back a cry of frustration. "Holmes," I managed, "I cannot - like this -"
"Now," Holmes gasped behind me, sounding quite out of breath from the effort, "do you understand - how it felt -"
He turned the crank quite violently, and I moaned out loud, rocked forward by the force. And I did understand, all at once, despite my passion-fogged wits. To read the fantasies of the object of his desire - to see a grotesque simulacrum of himself perform imagined acts, the reality of which he had never been offered - to see himself take me on the page, when I never dared allow him the opportunity to accept me or refuse -
I felt a wash of shame and sympathy for what I had done to him; and at the same time, a great weight was lifted off me, for I knew that he had already forgiven me, or he never would have let me see. I dropped my head to the table and moaned out, "Yes, I - yes, Holmes, good God, please -"
There was a momentary judder in the rhythm of the machine's thrusts, and then it settled again, albeit unsteadily. There was a buzzing sound in the air. Something hard and smooth stroked along my perineum, vibrating strongly, and I nearly lifted into the air with the shock; Holmes' knuckle brushed against my inner thigh as he pressed the device to me again, and this time pleasure shot through me with the force of a bullet. I cried out, feeling my completion close, my excitement built to an almost unbearable level. Holmes pressed the device to the base of the leather phallus, so that the vibrations rattled along it into me, and I bit down on my wrist to silence myself, racked with pleasure as I spent myself in violent shudders. I lay boneless and docile as Holmes drew the leather member out of me and scraped the chair back and away.
"Watson," he rasped. There was a rustle, then he pressed against me again, naked, and I arched back instinctively into his warmth. He let out a sobbing gasp, and I felt the brush of his wrist as he pleasured himself against me. He barely lasted a few seconds before he made a sharp noise and splashed onto my thighs, his forehead pressed against my right shoulderblade. My mind felt clear and blissfully empty. There had scarcely been a moment in the last five years, I realized now, when I had been free from fear - fear that I would come face-to-face with the enemy in Afghanistan and find myself a coward, that I would die, that I would never recover from my injuries, that Holmes would discover me - but I felt an overwhelming sense of safety in that secret room, with Holmes draped over me like a blanket after performing unnameable and illegal outrages upon my person. It was a relief I had not known I craved.
My legs were just beginning to protest at Holmes' weight when he roused himself. "Oh, my dear fellow, I'm terribly sorry," he murmured, and stood up, then drew me with him and turned me around, at which point I rather fell into his arms. Holmes hoisted my arms up around his shoulders and held me steady, then kissed me as sweetly as a boy. I smiled helplessly against his mouth, and felt his lips curve in response. My hips were aching abominably, my back passage was rather sore and I could not feel my feet, but I was as happy as I have ever been.
I awoke deliciously warm, and made the pleasant discovery that this was because I was wrapped not only in several blankets but with the world's only custom-built-hysteria-machine-designer-turned-consulting-detective. I could not remember how Holmes had manoeuvred me down the ladder, but found I did not much care.
"So you're awake, then," Holmes said in my ear. "Would you mind getting off my leg? I'd rather like to retain the use of it."
"Good morning to you too, Holmes," I muttered. "Oh, good lord - " I sat up, and Holmes flinched from the cold air and insinuated himself under the curve of my body, which I would have found charming almost to distraction, if I had not been concerned about our imminent discovery.
"It's Sunday," he said, muffled by my left hip. "Mrs. Hudson will not return from church until past one."
I settled back down with a sigh, and began contemplating with satisfaction, although still some bewilderment, the events of the previous few days.
"I met her through her late husband, who was one of the early practitioners in my business," Holmes said, breaking into my thoughts.
"You saw the postcard on the wall of Tower Bridge, which made you think of your own return to London. Your thoughts then naturally turned to our meeting, and you were wondering how I came to find these rooms with Mrs. Hudson, and why I dared to conduct my business and receive clients here. The answer is that she is quite used to the business, having married into it."
"I was thinking nothing of the kind," I said, inordinately pleased to have caught him out.
"Well," muttered Holmes into my shoulder, "It is rather early in the morning. No doubt I overestimated the speed of your mental processes before breakfast."
There was a peaceful silence for a moment. Finally he nudged me. "Well? What were you thinking about?"
"I was wondering what you could have been doing at St. Barts when I first met you, if you were not researching for your criminal investigations."
"Oh, I was engaged in the chemical experiments I described to you," he said. "A side project at the time, but the test for precipitating haemoglobin in particular has turned out to be extremely valuable to both the police and myself. I was able to patent it, in fact."
Then something else which my friend Stamford had said about Holmes came back to me.
"But Holmes!" I cried, in sudden horror. "When we met - the dissecting room! You were beating the pigs! If it was not for research relating to criminal investigations, then -"
"I'm afraid so, Watson."
"But surely you weren't -"
"No, no," he said hastily, seeing my face. "I truly was testing the effects of the impact of various implements on skin, and the angles required to gain maximum effect with minimum force. Tests of my machines', ah, more intimate functions I have performed solely on human subjects. There is no substitute for correct anatomy."
"Live subjects too, I hope, Holmes," I said.
He barked out a laugh, eyeing me with genuine surprise, something I saw so rarely on Holmes that I found it almost discomfitingly pleasing. "Live, willing and well-paid. Good Heavens, you do have a morbid imagination, doctor. "
I winced. "Please don't call me 'doctor' in bed, Holmes."
"And I would be most grateful if you would avoid accusing me of defiling the dead in future. Would you prefer I called you John, by the way?"
The disjuncture of subject matter was so absurd, Holmes' expression so earnest, that I only just suppressed a laugh. "Here?"
"Well," I considered, "John is my name, and I have always liked it. But Watson is what you call me. I do not mind a great deal either way."
"Hm," Holmes said, sounding pleased. "Well, I would prefer you not to call me Sherlock. It is my name, but I have never liked it. By the way, Doctor, I would expect you to know that such an experiment would have no value whatsoever - the muscle tension after death is entirely wrong."
No doubt it was perverse to be reassured by such a grotesque conversation, but to me it was a sign that the momentous change in our relations had not altered the foundations of our friendship. I sighed, entirely comfortable. "I suppose I must resign myself to you bringing your work to bed with you from now on?"
"I would hope that last night proved," Holmes said dryly, "that bringing one half of my work to bed may compensate for the other half." He paused, not looking at me, then said with studied courtesy that was quite at odds with our position, "By the way, I was hoping, given the success of last night's experiment, that you might - that is, I feel that in my other profession too, I would greatly value your assistance in my future cases, Watson."
"I would be delighted, Holmes," I said, "although I'm afraid I don't know the first thing about machinery."
"Your role would be strictly limited to the testing phase of the process," Holmes said. "It is rather difficult to operate a hand-cranked phallus when one is on the receiving end, not to mention impractical when one needs to see the machine's operation oneself. And it became extremely tiresome to test them on clients, who seemed the most trustworthy subjects. I have seen more of Lestrade than -"
"I'd be happy to help, my dear fellow," I said hastily. A slow heat suffused me as I realized what I had agreed to. This was not unmixed with a certain amount of trepidation, but I found that this was infinitely preferable to the idea of Holmes stripping many and varied officers of the law from the waist in his attic room and penetrating them with his devices, no matter with how disinterested an aim.
Holmes closed his eyes, a faint smile on his face, and rolled onto his back again. We lay a while in peaceful equanimity. I did not deceive myself that I would often be able to get Holmes to lie still and quiet beside me for any length of time in the future, and I enjoyed it to the full. It already felt as if we had always been this way; life with Holmes had prepared me to accept the abnormal as normal with remarkable speed, and I did not feel nearly as disturbed by these new developments as I ought to have.
"I don't suppose," Holmes said after a while, nudging my shoulder, "you feel up to imbibing my very soul?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I feel, Watson, that I have rather a lot of salt-tinged love to spare just now, and since it is Sunday morning, and your worshipful hand is rather near my virile pillar of marble -"
I shoved him hard, and he fell out of bed onto the floor, completely naked, laughing with abandon. I tried to glare at him, but his smile was so infectious, so transformationally happy, that I was not able to resist returning it.
It has now been a year almost to the day since I became Holmes' assistant in his other, lesser known profession. I have always said aiding Holmes in his detective work is both a privilege and a pleasure; assisting him in testing his machines has been rather more of the latter and no less of the former. Although I have, up to now, refrained from extending my work as his biographer to this area of his life, for obvious reasons, I feel that it is just as worthy of such attention, nor less likely to bring satisfaction to the reader. And since Holmes has so kindly presented me, on the occasion of my thirty-first birthday, with a very handsome cabinet (and an excellent lock) to keep my private documents entirely separate from those destined for publication, I will have no anxiety about committing this narrative to its embrace.
I leave it to your judgement, Holmes, as to whether I have bettered previous efforts; I am perfectly aware that you pocketed the spare key. I have made a particular effort to refrain from sensationalism, although no doubt you will feel I have spent too much time on meandering descriptions of my state of mind and too little on scientific analysis, and have deprived my audience of a valuable educational opportunity. You may bring to me any corrections you wish to discuss. As for sequels to this little tale, as ever, you have only to provide the material.