Corpses Don't Bleed

Unexpected shock sent me into darkness and I was aware of nothing until liquid fire filled my mouth, my throat. The sensation lifted the darkness from my awareness and I woke to find myself seated in my chair, a brandy glass held to my lips. After a moment's disorientation, memory suddenly burst in on me though my eyes were still closed. I cried out, "Holmes," and dashed the ministering hand away. I was surprised at the anger in my voice and the vehemence of the action and it was with a mixture of satisfaction and horror that I heard the fragile snifter smash against some object of furniture across the room.


My vision cleared and I saw Holmes, apparently at least as surprised as I was, rock back onto his heels where he kneeled on the floor at my side. He gave me one of the curious, appraising looks that I remembered of old; I could only be grateful that there was none of the scorn with which I was so familiar. His face softened, just the tiniest bit, a hint of softness at the corners of the eyes where normally hard lines were incised. He touched my hand, his shaking with emotion, and said, "My dearest Watson, I owe you a thousand apo...."


I interrupted him before he could complete his apology, "Holmes, you're not dead." As I said it, it wasn't a question, patently the man was here in front of me. At the same time it was a fact I could scarce comprehend. My wits, and my tongue, were dull and thick as I asked, "How is it that you are not dead? How did you climb out of that dreadful chasm?" I held myself rigid and tense, trying to nurture the anger I could feel, like a fragile flame. The first flame I had felt in my breast since Holmes' death, no not death obviously, in Switzerland three years before.


"I did not go into the chasm with Moriarty and, consequently, did not need to climb out." He looked at me again with still that warmth in his eyes. Three years without him had been cold agony, like the pain of frostbite, numb but bitter, and I didn't think that there was enough warmth, even in the sun, to thaw me, certainly there couldn't be in Holmes' cold nature. He raised himself to his feet, a graceful move that I could not help noting, even as I pretended not to see. As he did so, he said, "I have been travelling the past three years and working to bring down Moriarty's organization." He looked from my face, undoubtedly showing all the anger I was feeling, to the door. "Perhaps my coming here was a mistake."


He started to walk toward the door, and I surged out of my chair, grabbing his arm before he had taken more than one or two steps. "A mistake," I yelled. If a warm look from Holmes couldn't thaw the ice within me, perhaps the heat of fury could. "A mistake. You've allowed me to believe that you were dead for three years and only now think that perhaps you've made a mistake?"


He pulled his arm out of my grasp. "I had no idea you would be so," he looked me up and down, no doubt taking in my heaving breast and cold eyes, "affected, Watson. I had not anticipated this reunion." His eyes were dark, the grey of evening storms, and his face sad. His words made it clear he had anticipated a different reunion, perhaps one of forgiveness and friendship. Indeed, if I had ever permitted myself to imagine a reunion between us, forgiveness and friendship is what I would have imagined, even longed for, myself.


His sadness leached the anger out of me and, suddenly feeling cold and exhausted, I waved him into the room, away from the door. "Forgive me, Holmes. I am surprised, overwhelmed." I led us through the inner door, away from his exit to the street, and into my private room. "Won't you have a seat, Holmes? Brandy?" I asked, hiding behind a veil of custom and politeness.


He stood at the entrance to the room, clearly contemplating his departure, and stared at me for full several seconds, his eyes narrowed and his lips compressed, before he nodded, saying, "Yes, brandy. Thank you, Watson." He sat himself on the edge of the settee.


I maintained the polite distance between us, though it pained and chilled me to do so, as I poured the brandy. "What have you been doing these years?" I asked, as casually as I was capable of. It was unreasonably important to me to know how he had lived while he was away. My hands were shaking and I was glad that my back was to Holmes and that he was across the room, lest he have that evidence that his return had unsettled me. Unsettled. I shook my head. I a writer, using such an inadequate word. Unsettled, indeed. Two deep breaths later, I took up the glasses, glad to see that my hands were steady enough to carry the drinks without spillage.


He had started answering while my thoughts were elsewhere, so when I turned to him I heard him saying, "in Asia, mostly. Have you read of the adventures of the Norwegian explorer H. Sigerson?" As he asked, I handed him his drink, setting mine on the side table at the opposite end of the settee.


I didn't sit, I had far too much restless energy for that, so I stood leaning against the nearby mantlepiece, letting the fire warm me as much as it was capable of, as much as it had been capable of since his death, and said, "Yes. I remember some excitement about mountain climbing in Nepal and Tibet. Then last year, he discovered a new species of monkey. In Siam if memory serves."


He shook his head. "Sumatra, actually. In between, I solved a number of cases for individuals I met and for the Foreign Office. Mycroft assures me that the little situation I cleared up in Khartoum will change the course of European, and possibly world, history." He took a sip of his brandy and looked down at his hands, as though he was embarrassed of what he was saying. "I was Sigerson, Watson."


The thought that Holmes had been living such a full life abroad while I was barely surviving in London struck me like a blow. I leaned more heavily against the mantlepiece, unable to support my own weight. "You seem to have done a lot in those years, Holmes" I said, pleased at the normalcy of my voice.


He nodded and took a rather larger gulp of his drink. He looked around the room and his eyes settled on the portrait of General Gordon on the wall by the door, the only item in this room that would be familiar to him. "Yes. All that, and I was working to bring down Moriarty's gang. It's been quite a busy three years."


My hands clenched into fists and I turned to the fire, away from Holmes perched on my settee, his face hard. I rested my arm across the mantlepiece and my head on my arm, overwhelmed. When he touched my back, surprising me because I hadn't heard his movement, I shook his hand off and turned around, my fists still clenched. "Would you like to know what I've been doing in your absence, Holmes?"


He looked at me, then slowly nodded, "Yes, certainly," but he sounded dubious.


"Every morning I wake up at half-seven. I eat a breakfast of coddled eggs, toast, marmalade and sausage. I do my rounds in the morning, seeing patients with colds, indigestion, and hypochondria. At noon I eat lunch at my club. In the afternoon, I have more patients, more colds and more indigestion. I dine at my club. Every morning, every day, exactly the same," I spoke the words urgently, more urgently than they could really bear, and Holmes was clearly confused.


"You were not such a creature of habit when we shared lodgings, Watson," he said, mildly, then finished his drink and set the glass on the table next to the settee.


The words stung and I turned away, but said, as clearly as I was able, "With you dead, habit was all I had. Well worn grooves to plod through, like an ox turning a threshing machine." I turned back to him, riding a rising blaze of anger. "I felt like a trained animal some days, most days, just going through my paces. I haven't felt a thing since you died, Holmes." I looked away. "Not even grief at my wife's death. I've hardly been living at all." The anger warmed me from the outside in, flushing my skin without ever touching the coldness in my chest. "Damn it, Holmes. I died when you fell into that awful abyss, my life ended. And yet you lived, adventured, travelled." I would have walked away but suddenly he stood too close, pinning me near the fire, almost as though he could tell that I was cold, frozen like the wastes of the arctic. I looked at his face, searching, though I didn't know what for.


"I wasn't living, Watson," Holmes said and his expression was softer than I'd ever seen it. "You had habit and routine to fall into. I did not. So I travelled and solved crimes, it was all I had to do. I was merely moving. I had to keep ahead of Moriarty's agents, which required some reflection, of course." He paused and his hand slid down my arm, fingertips just ghosting across the back of my hand before pulling away. He sat himself back down on the settee, gesturing for me to sit next to him, but I did not. He was silent for a while and I stood by the side table, unwilling either to approach more closely or get further away. "As difficult as it was evading them, and there were times when I feared I could not escape with my life, my loneliness and my longing for your company were the more persistent foes and were almost impossible to avoid and escape."


"If you missed me so sorely, why didn't you at least write to allow me to know you lived? Why didn't you once let me see your face?" I said, refusing to sit despite the fact that he took my hand and tried to pull me to the settee.


"To come to London would have been to endanger all that I held dear here." He held onto my hand, his long fingers gently stroking the back of it, as though soothing an untamed animal, and said earnestly, "I couldn't risk your safety, Watson. I would not do that, no matter how difficult it was for me to stay away. No matter how painful our separation was for you."


I looked at him in some confusion. My anger was gone as though it had never been, not just because of the open admission of his affection for me, which he had never made before, but because of the look on his face. The shield of self-confidence and command that he wore as Perseus' Aegis, petrifying all who opposed him, was gone, and I could see clearly writ on his features all the difficulties of the past three years. He rose to his feet and stood before me, weary and careworn as I had never seen him before.


I was not aware of my brow wrinkling, until he reached out with a trembling hand and soothed away the creases. "I knew how pained you must be, my friend, because I knew how pained I myself was. And I always planned to return to you, to London, as soon as the way was clear." His expression was soft, even tender, and his voice warm.


I shook my head, dislodging his fond hand. "I don't understand. What do you.... Nevermind." I stopped myself from asking the question. If he answered it, I knew that he would destroy my hopes of his returning my love, faint and fragile though they were. If I left his words as they stood, I could warm myself with the thought that someday he might love me as I had loved him for so long.


"No," he insisted, in his familiar masterful voice, "I will explain."


I held up my hand, needing him not to speak further. "No, please. I think I do understand."


But he was gently implacable. "I missed your company, your presence, your insights," I snorted at that and looked away, into the fire, but he continued, "I missed you, Watson. Recently I came to a point where I could no longer stay away from you. Could no longer bear to fall asleep to the image of you weeping so bitterly for me at the edge of the falls, haloed by the light in that hellish rising mist."


I could feel a deep flush rising on my cheek. "I'm sorry, Holmes. I would not have made such a spectacle of myself had I known anyone was there to see."


He rose from his chair again and moved next to me, stroking over my cheekbone, which was warmed with my embarrassment. "Ah, Watson. Only an Englishman would be ashamed of his grief."


I shrugged, an inelegant gesture, and said the only words I could think of, "I'm Scots, not English." It was nonsense of course, and Holmes graciously let it pass. After a moment's silence, I continued, "I am not ashamed of the emotion, just that you saw it. It must have made you most uncomfortable."


His hands moved from making light touches on my cheek to gripping my shoulders. I was surprised by the grip, not the strength of it, I have always known Holmes was strong, but by the intensity. I could feel his arms shaking with tension. I kept my eyes averted; after a moment he spoke and his voice was rough and low, with none of its familiar clipped precision. "Damn it, Watson. Do you have any idea what it was like watching you sob for me. Watching you consider the edge of the precipice, obviously toying with the idea of suicide." The edge of desperation in his voice made me lift my gaze to his face as he spoke. "My god, man, I was hidden close enough that I could watch your agony, but too far to have done anything to prevent your jumping had you decided to do so. I would have had to watch you..." He stopped speaking suddenly and his hands were even tighter on my shoulders, bunching the fabric of my coat in his fingers. After a moment, he calmed himself, the spots of hectic color on his cheeks faded, and he continued, "I knew I could not go back to London. I'd been given an opportunity to hide, to adopt a new identity and so to hunt my pursuers. I couldn't afford to let that opportunity go. But to see you there weeping, as though you had lost your life's love..."


Those last words, and the way his voice trailed off in distraction and his eyes took on the glint he got when pursuing and important clue, all edge and glitter, shook me out of my dumbfounded state. I spoke quickly, attempting to divert his line of thought, "I was weeping for my best friend. And for my own failure to be with you in your hour of need." I am, as Holmes has observed on several occasions, not a good liar, but I hoped that the dissimulation would be close enough to the truth that he would accept it.


Fortune was not with me. "Yes, all of that was certainly part of what you were feeling. But your grief was far too deep, too bitter for that." His glittering eyes turned back to me and there was just a hint of a smile around the corners of his mouth when he said, "Was that the moment you realized you loved me, my friend?"


"Holmes!" I gasped and gaped, shaking my head in denial as I tried to tear myself away from his grasp, but his hands were pitiless, keeping me from retreating.


He wasn't listening to me, didn't accept my denial, just smiled at me and said, "I knew for so long, I assumed you must have known too." He paused and breathed deeply. "That is why you returned to her, after staying with me those three weeks during the affair of the Copper Beeches. You didn't know. You didn't know!" He barked out a laugh and pulled me into a back-slapping hug.


The hug lasted for a long moment, but when he sat me back in my chair and rested on his own heels, I saw that he looked sad again. "I thought you had decided you loved her more than you loved me. I thought you would never return to Baker Street, not to stay."


I was still confused, the laugh and the hug and the sadness all having happened too quickly, but the sadness in his eyes and voice made it impossible for me to stay quiet. "I couldn't have stayed away. Not as long as you were there. But when I stayed with you those three weeks, something was missing in my life, between us. I made myself believe I missed Mary, but even at the time I knew I was deceiving myself."


He looked at me with a singular expression, sad and calculating and reserved and worried all at once. "Do you now know what was missing, my friend?"


I leaned toward him, stroking one hand gently over his cheek while the other wrapped around his neck and tugged him closer to me. I smiled, nervous, scared that I had yet misread the conversation, but unable to let pass the only chance I may ever have at gaining his love. "Yes, this," I said, just as our lips almost touched. The words were breathed across his finely chiseled lips and I felt his moan in my hand on the fine skin of his neck as much as I heard it.


I leaned forward to close the tiny distance between us and kissed him. At first it was just the barest of touches, like I was kissing the ghost he had been to me for those horrible years. When he moaned again and parted his lips for me, though, the ghost became real, finally blessedly real. I moaned into his mouth in a mixture of pleasure, grief and overwhelming joy. All the coldness of the previous three years was left behind and we both gave ourselves wholeheartedly to the kiss, and to everything that followed.




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