“Watson, I am supremely sorry.”
I have not often heard Sherlock Holmes’ voice trembling in fear. I stared at him in blank incomprehension for a long time, before the true horror of our situation dawned upon me.
We were going to die.
“But certainly,” I protested falteringly, “there must be a way out.”
“There are,” Holmes said with some asperity, “precisely five feasible methods of exit from this mine. Unfortunately, the quickest of them requires considerably more time than we have to hand.”
“Then we’d better start –”
“By several hours.”
I stared blankly at the collapsed wall in front of us, the black rocks taking on an ominous sheen in yellow light of the flickering oil lamp.
Our investigation into a bizarre series of warehouse robberies had led us to this abandoned coal mine outside of Newcastle. I had not been afraid when Holmes suggested we make a midnight excursion so as to avoid arousing the attention of our chief suspect; I had not been afraid when the timbers propping open our only exit suddenly gave way. I watched Holmes examine our situation calmly, making a complete sweep of the small chamber with all the fierce concentration of a bloodhound casting about for a scent.
When that scent failed to materialize, I still was not afraid. I knew that Holmes would find something. He always managed to lead us out of danger as well as he had led us into it.
Now, looking at the hopeless expression upon my companion’s face, I felt the first tendrils of dread grip at my heart.
I swallowed hard; my throat suddenly dry. “How long …” I began, my words shrivelling in my mouth.
“Twenty minutes, half an hour if we extinguish the lamp.” The leaden finality in my companion’s voice chilled me to the centre of my being. He took up the lamp and made as if to put it out, before turning to me, a strange expression upon his face. “Is ten more minutes of life worth dying in the dark?” he murmured, almost to himself.
“Holmes, are you sure –”
Holmes cut me off with an impatient wave. “There’s no escape, not this time, not for us. I am indeed sorry, Watson, we are quite definitely going to die.”
I took a deep breath. “Then you might as well extinguish the light, old fellow. The dark holds no terrors anymore.”
He flashed his lightning-quick smile at me, and I felt a tug at my heart as I realized that I would never see his face again. I saw my friend bend over the lamp, and then all was blackness. I heard the rustle of cloth and a small grunt beside me, as Sherlock Holmes settled himself against the wall.
“Come sit down, old fellow. We shan’t have long to wait.”
I slid down the wall until I was sitting upon the cold ground, shoulder to shoulder with my companion. I felt his hand steal into mine.
“I’ve failed you, my friend,” said he, and I could hear the sadness in his voice.
I squeezed his hand. “Holmes,” I said with feeling, “you did not force me to follow you into this mine; I have followed you of my own free will.”
“But in my haste to gather evidence, I endangered –”
“I have no regrets,” I said, suddenly knowing it to be true. A sense of peace filled me, as I realized the finality of our situation. “If I am to die, then at least I die at your side. I could not ask for a better end.”
“You sound as if you mean that,” Holmes replied mournfully.
“No regrets? Honestly?”
I considered briefly. Here I was, eight-and-thirty years of age, about to die of asphyxiation in a collapsed mineshaft with my closest friend by my side.
“Not a one,” I said firmly. “My life may have been short, but it was certainly eventful. Our adventures took me places I would have never been able to go, and added excitement to what would have been a dull and drab existence. No, I can honestly say I have no regrets.”
“Then you are a better man than I,” Holmes sighed.
I could not believe my ears. “What regrets could you have, Holmes? I cannot imagine that you, of all people, would have cause to regret anything.”
I could feel Holmes’ shoulders move as he took a long, deep breath. When he spoke again, his voice was so filled with sorrow that I could barely recognize it as his.
“I regret,” said he, “that I have never been loved. I have never felt the caressing touch of lips upon mine, have never been held in a passionate embrace, have never had anyone whisper words of affection into my ear. My intellectual life may have been rich with accomplishments and learning, but my emotional life has been a bleak and barren wasteland.”
“But you have always said that you had no use for the softer emotions,” I protested. “You told me once that it would be like throwing grit into a finely-tuned engine.”
“You are familiar with the fable of the fox and the sour grapes,” he replied quietly. “Did you honestly think that I would not crave what is so essential to the rest of the human race?”
I did not know what to say to this. I had always believed my companion to be immune to the same emotions that held sway over my heart, admiring him for his detachment and ability to reason unclouded by any subjective feelings. To find that he himself had yearned for the very thing he had outwardly condemned as superfluous gave me pause; what other secrets had this man held locked in that brilliant mind? Alas, it would be too late now to penetrate this mystery, and it was with a keen feeling of loss that I slipped a comforting arm around his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, old fellow,” I murmured. “I never knew.”
Sherlock Holmes gave a short, barking laugh, tinged with deep bitterness. “Of course you did not know! It was my intention that you should never know.”
“But, Holmes, why would you keep such a thing from me?”
“I did not wish to lose your respect,” he said in a voice so low as to be almost inaudible.
“Lose my respect!” I cried. “There is nothing –”
“I’m a fraud, Watson, plain and simple. All these years that I have claimed to be untouched by any emotion, I have in fact been in agony, loving from a distance and never daring to tell the one I love the true depth of my affection.”
“You? In love with someone? Holmes, who is she?”
I felt him stiffen beside me, a sharp intake of breath the only sound.
“I should not have said anything,” Holmes whispered eventually, “please, Watson, forget what I said. It does not matter, in any case.”
“I should rather think it does matter,” said I. “If there is a woman –” I stopped as an impatient huff escaped my friend, and I suddenly realized the true import of his confession. I forced myself to keep my arm around his shoulder, and took a deep breath.
“It’s a man, isn’t it?” I asked quietly.
“Watson, I – yes,” he sighed wearily. “I am in love with a man.”
“Well, no matter,” I continued, deliberately keeping my voice cheerful. I had known inverts in my army days, and although I was decidedly not of their number, I found I could not condemn them with the same disgust and hatred that our society reserved for these unfortunates.
“You’ll forgive me for saying so,” he said in something approaching his old off-hand manner, “but I expected a much more severe reaction.”
“I have never been one to judge,” I told my companion, and even essayed a companionable squeeze to show that I still valued his friendship, no matter what.
“So you don’t mind that I am in love with a man,” Holmes said slowly, as if the repetition of the fact would change my opinion.
I tried a light chuckle, but it sounded hollow to my ears. “He must be a remarkable man, certainly, to catch the attention of the great Sherlock Holmes.”
Never before in my life have two simple words changed my entire world. Coloured with regret, fear, and hopelessness, they told me what Holmes could not. There, in the darkness of the mineshaft that had become our grave, I immediately understood everything.
“Holmes,” I whispered, frozen in place. “You love … you love me?”
“Watson, I am so very sorry,” my companion said, his voice heavy with emotion. “I never intended to betray your trust –”
“You have betrayed nothing,” I replied earnestly. “Rather, you have paid me a high compliment indeed.” I swallowed hard, forcing myself to reach for his hand. If this were my last day on Earth, I would not stain it by deserting my best friend when he needed me the most.
“You are not disgusted?”
“I am shocked,” I admitted, “but I know you, and I know that your sense of honour would never allow you to press your advantage. You are still my greatest friend, and the best and wisest man I have ever known.”
“Now I know you’re disgusted; you just quoted your own manuscript at me. You’re hiding behind your words in order to spare my feelings.”
“I meant those words just as much now as I did when I wrote them,” I said solemnly. “And as for being disgusted …” I paused, considering what I could say to communicate the feeling of pride that was dawning upon me.
Sherlock Holmes loved me.
The man whom I had come to revere above all others returned my devotion; the forbidden nature of that devotion seemed immaterial. Church and Queen might condemn his love for me as unnatural and criminal, but there, in the bottom of that coal mine, I realized that his affection was exactly what I had craved for years. It would be churlish of me, upon the hour of our deaths, to deny my friend a return of his love simply because my own tastes did not run that way.
“You are disgusted,” Holmes said. “I knew it –”
“I shall show you,” I answered quietly, “exactly how disgusted I am.” I found his chin in the darkness and drew his mouth to mine.
It was not like kissing a woman. His lips were soft and pliant, but flavoured with a heady mixture of brandy and strong tobacco. Instead of soft perfume, the combined odours of lye-soap and Holmes’ oriental aftershave greeted my nostrils. The cheeks I kissed bore the stubble of a days’ beard, rubbing against my face and arousing me with the novelty of the sensation. He trembled in my embrace like a nervous virgin, but the arms which wove around my back were stronger than my own, and when I pressed my hips to his, I felt an answering hardness against my own stiffening member. I hesitated only a moment at this, but instantly found my blood boiling with desire.
This is Sherlock Holmes, I thought. This is Sherlock Holmes, and he loves me.
I pulled him closer to me, thrusting my tongue deep into his throat. He moaned into my mouth, melting into my arms as I began violently rubbing my groin into his, my hands roughly claiming possession of his shoulders, pulling his shirt apart.
Holmes pushed away. “Watson, we can’t be found like this.”
I pulled him to me. “Let them find our bodies locked together in a carnal embrace,” I growled, my entire being suddenly aflame with passion. “Perhaps it will make them think.”
“But Wa –”
I sealed his mouth with mine. Holmes only struggled a moment before returning the furore of my kiss, our tongues wrestling deliciously, our arms and legs entwined, our hands fumbling at each other’s clothing, loosening collars and unbuttoning waistcoats.
Once again, Holmes pulled free from my embrace, laying a finger upon my lips. “Watson, are you absolutely sure you want to do this?” In the darkness, I could hear his rapid breathing, and I fancied I could sense the air growing thinner by the minute.
I inhaled deeply, trying not to think that it might be my last deep breath. “You have shared your life and your adventures with me, Sherlock Holmes,” I said. “It is only fitting that I share my love with you.”
I stopped him with another kiss, then nuzzled his cheek. “I love you, you old fool,” I whispered. “Just accept it.”
Holmes gasped slightly, then gave a dry chuckle. “I love you, Watson.”
I kissed him softly. “John,” I whispered.
“I love you, John.”
I touched his cheek. “No more talk, dearest.” I kissed his lips and his neck, pulling apart his collar and continuing down his chest, my mouth trailing down his midriff and abdomen. Some small, cowardly part of my brain, the sheep that always must obey the flock, bleated and bellowed in terror, but I swallowed my fears and moved down, my hands unbuttoning his flies and slipping inside as if I had done this hundreds of times before.
“John,” Holmes breathed, “you can’t want to –”
“Shhh. Let me do this, my love.” I took his manhood in my hand, freeing it from its cloth prison, greeting it with a passionate kiss.
“John,” he gasped, his back arching involuntarily as I sucked the tip of his pego into my mouth. His trembling hands gripped my shoulders as I began licking his staff, running my tongue up and down his length, savouring the musky flavour. I found a rhythm almost immediately, his throbbing cock filling my mouth as I sucked him in as deep as I could. Holmes moaned and writhed under my ministrations, his hands clenching frantically at my shoulders.
“John,” he panted, pulling away slightly, “I’m going to –”
I gripped him closer to me and swallowed him as deeply as possible, holding tightly onto the base of his twitching cock with my lips while his hot seed spurted down my throat. I took all he had to give, holding him in my mouth until there was no more, then releasing him with a final kiss to the tip, before lovingly tucking his member into his trousers and buttoning his fly.
I felt quite light-headed now, and realized that the air would be giving out soon. I snuggled into Holmes’ arms, kissing him tenderly.
“It won’t be long now,” said he, nuzzling me companionably.
“It’s been an honour knowing you, Sherlock Holmes,” I said seriously. “I just wish –”
“Halloa down there!”
We both leapt to our feet, shouting and yelling, the intimacy of the moment forgotten. The next half hour remains a confused jumble in my memory; I know that we were blinded by torchlight as strong arms reached in and helped us out, then a burly constable led us to a makeshift fire by the mouth of the mine, where steaming hot mugs of tea were pressed upon us and blankets draped around our shoulders. We sat in silence on a couple of overturned packing crates as our rescuers bustled around us. I tried to let Holmes know through my look and my manner that I did not regret our encounter, but my companion had sunk into a deep depression, not looking at me or any of the others, but staring disconsolately into the fire, scowling at the flames as if they had caused him some injury.
A tall man in a worn overcoat strode up to us, grinning broadly. “Inspector Oakshott, Newcastle PD,” he said, sitting down next to us. He extended a hand to Holmes, but my friend ignored him, still staring into the fire.
“He’s had rather a long ordeal,” I explained.
Oakshott frowned at Holmes. “You both have,” he said slowly.
“Holmes had gone without food or sleep for five days before we became trapped in the mine,” I explained sharply. “In such a case, the lack of oxygen would tell more on his constitution.”
“I do have a few questions about that, in fact,” Oakshott began.
“And Mr. Holmes will answer them later, I’m sure,” a stern voice said behind us. A dark apparition in a raincoat resolved itself into Inspector Lestrade, who stepped forward into the circle of firelight.
“But my investigation –”
“Will hold a few more hours,” Lestrade snapped. “These men nearly died down there, Oakshott. Let them rest.” Although often doubtful of Holmes’ methods, the Scotland Yarder could be quite protective of the man he thought of as his own personal discovery.
The local inspector shot another disgusted look at Holmes, who, hunched over the fire, had not acknowledged Lestrade’s presence, or even seemed to notice the conversation happening around us.
“We’ll be expecting Mr. Holmes to report to our station house later,” Oakshott said, getting up.
“Sherlock Holmes shall make his report in his own time,” I growled.
“He’d better,” said Oakshott primly. “There are still some important details we need cleared up, once the great detective feels like talking.” And with that Parthian shot, he strode away into the dark.
“Don’t mind him; he’s just threatened by our invasion into his jurisdiction,” Lestrade assured me with a chuckle, as he sat down on the crate vacated by Oakshott, rubbing his hands over the fire. He peered at Holmes, who still had not spoken or moved. “Is he all right?” he whispered.
“He’s exhausted from too much work and not enough sleep; I’d like to get him home as soon as possible,” I told Lestrade. “Will you handle the Newcastle authorities? All the evidence you need is in the chamber beyond where you found us. The stolen merchandise and the missing files are all –”
“Thank you, Watson, I think I can handle this,” Holmes said, springing suddenly to life. He did not look at me as he rose quickly to his feet. “Come, Lestrade, I’ll show you what we found. That and the testimony of the warehouse foreman should prove useful at the trial –”
“There won’t be a trial,” Lestrade said, coughing slightly. “Your man Andrews hung himself. We cut him down not an hour ago.”
The affect of this statement on my friend was remarkable; rarely have I seen Sherlock Holmes so taken aback. He wheeled around upon the little professional, his eyes open wide with astonishment, his face draining of all colour. For a moment he stood gaping at Lestrade, before sitting down once more upon his crate, his eyes returning to the fire, the glow of the flames flickering eerily upon his face.
“Then I am guilty of murder,” said he, his voice laden with remorse.
Lestrade rocked back and forth on his heels uneasily. “I’d rather think that being in stuck down a mineshaft is a pretty solid alibi, Mr. Holmes.”
“It’s practically airtight,” I muttered.
The two detectives looked over at me sharply. Rather, Lestrade, looked at me; Holmes scowled at my left shoulder. Even now, he would not meet my eyes.
“Sorry.” I cast my gaze back to the flames, wondering what Holmes saw there, and how I could make him see how I felt. I may not have been aware of it before tonight, but now that I had tasted of his love, I knew that my heart had been his for longer than I cared to admit. In a way, I had always belonged to Sherlock Holmes.
Lestrade shook his head and turned back to my friend. “You can’t blame yourself, Mr. Holmes,” he said gently. “Somehow Andrews got wind of your investigation, and knew the jig was up. He wrote out a full confession, and then took the coward’s way out.” The professional paused significantly. “Your reputation was enough to frighten the truth out of him, Mr. Holmes. There’s not a single one of us on the force who can say that.”
This remark did not have the desired effect; Sherlock Holmes groaned and put his head in his hands.
“I never intended,” said he, “to cause so much harm to so many. I may have been down that mine, Lestrade, but I killed Andrews as surely as if I’d tied the noose around his neck myself.”
“Holmes,” I answered, “Andrews had stolen the life savings of more than half his employees, cheated his stockholders out of their investment, and misdirected his own merchandise in order to lay blame upon his business partner. You were serving justice when you sought to expose him –”
Holmes cut me off with an impatient gesture. “As I have said before,” he said with some asperity, “I feel that I have sometimes done more damage by uncovering a crime than the perpetrator ever did in committing it.”
“What of the people whose money he stole?” I protested.
“Pshaw! What of his wife and three children, Watson? What is money compared with the fact that I have made a widow tonight? Will you explain to those children why they shall never see their father again?”
“You did not force Andrews to hang himself, Holmes.”
“No, apparently my reputation did that.”
“Holmes, for God’s sake –” I broke off, shaking my head, and turned to Lestrade. “Can you settle things with Oakshott? I need to get this man home, get some food into him and put him to bed.”
“You make me sound like a recalcitrant child, Watson.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “You’re acting like one, Holmes. You are suffering from exhaustion and malnutrition and –”
“Very well, Doctor,” Holmes snapped. “Lestrade, can you handle things from here?”
“There are still a few minor points I’d like cleared up,” the professional said, “but I know where to reach you. Why don’t you two go home and get some sleep? I’ll look in on you tomorrow evening.”
We left the inspector coordinating the search of the mine, and headed to the train station in silence. I knew enough of Holmes’ manner to see that he did not wish to discuss anything, and usually I would respect his wishes, but once we were firmly ensconced in a first-class carriage, I could no longer hold my silence.
“Holmes,” I began, “about what happened in the mine –”
He cut me off with an impatient wave. “It would be better,” said he, “if we simply forgot about the whole thing.”
“Holmes, I can’t just –”
“You know my methods, Watson. In my business, any emotional attachment is a liability. I cannot let my personal feelings interfere –”
“And what of my feelings?” I interjected, suddenly furious. “You cannot expect me to –”
Holmes cut me off with an impatient gesture. “We’ve managed quite well for over a decade without any romantic entanglement between us. I think you can adjust –”
I decided I had had enough of Holmes and his sanctimonious attitude. I stood up and gathered my belongings.
“Where are you going?”
I turned upon him fiercely. “I am going,” I hissed, “to find another compartment, possibly with a real human being for company, instead of a heartless automaton without a shred of decency or compassion. You declared your love for me, you confessed your deepest feelings, you told me that you regretted never having been loved. Well, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I offered you my love and my heart, openly and freely, and you threw my affections back in my face without a thought to my feelings. Yes, we have managed together for over a decade, but enough is enough. When we get back to London,” I finished savagely, “I shall be finding other lodgings. Good day.”
Without giving him a chance to respond, I barrelled through the door, slamming it behind me, and strode to the nearest empty compartment, where I pulled down the shades, locked the door behind me, sinking down upon the seat, my head in my hands. When the tears came, I did not stifle them, but let the sobs wrack my body, crying as I had not done since my father died.
I did not hear the scratching of the lockpick, but somehow I was not surprised when the compartment door slid open and Sherlock Holmes entered quietly, sitting on the seat opposite me, the most contrite expression I have ever seen clouding his features. I turned my tear-stained face to the window, crossing my arms over my chest. I had let this man into my heart and had had it broken; I would be damned if I would make the same mistake again.
“John,” he said softly. “I am so –”
“Go to hell,” I snarled, not looking at him. I never wished to see his face again.
“John, please –”
“How dare you call me that!” I cried, rounding upon him with all the fury of my wounded spirit. “How dare you think that you can just pick the lock, barge in here, and make it all better with a few empty phrases!” I was fairly shaking with rage now, and Holmes shrunk back in his seat, staring up at me, his eyes wide with grief and shock. With an ejaculation of disgust, I turned back to the window, scowling out at the passing scenery.
Holmes rose from his seat and knelt down in front of me, laying a trembling hand upon my knee.
“John, I spoke out of fear before. Please, my dear friend, please forgive me. I do love –”
“Love!” I snorted. “What does the brain without a heart know of love? You had your chance, Mr. Holmes! And as far as me being your ‘dear friend,’ you can just –”
I intended to finish my tirade and walk out of his life forever, never looking back. But as I wound up for my finish, I made the mistake of looking down into his eyes.
They were rimmed with tears.
I could not believe my eyes. This was Sherlock Holmes, the dispassionate reasoner, the analytical thinker, the man who had no need for the softer emotions. Over the years of our association, I had seen him angry, tired, furious, and even in fear for his life, but I had never seen him cry.
I watched in astonishment as a single tear rolled down his cheek.
“Please, John,” he whispered. “Please forgive me, I beg of you. I know I do not deserve your forgiveness, but I swear I cannot live without you.”
I felt my resolve weakening. No, I thought. I forced myself to remember the superior look on his face when he had told me that emotional attachment was a liability. “You can live without your Boswell,” I said, making my voice as harsh as I could.
“Not my Boswell,” he pleaded, his voice trembling. “My sanity, my anchor, my love. Please, John, for God’s sake, I’m on my knees –”
Despite myself, I smiled, and found my hand moving to his, where it still rested upon my knee. I squeezed his hand, and then leaned forward, brushing the tear away before kissing his cheek.
“I can see you’re on your knees,” I murmured, “and a bloody undignified position it is, too, for the world’s greatest detective.”
Holmes hung his head. “‘Great detective,’ balderdash. I’m a fool, Watson. A complete and utter fool.”
I pulled him up onto the seat beside me. “You might be a fool, Holmes,” said I, drawing him into my embrace, “but you’re my fool, and don’t you ever forget it.”
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