[identity profile] spacemutineer.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] acdholmesfest
Title: The Seventeenth Page Affliction
Recipient: [livejournal.com profile] jcporter1
Author: [livejournal.com profile] emmyangua
Rating: R
Characters, including any pairing(s): Holmes/Watson
Warnings: Suicide (not a main character), period typical homophobia.
Summary: As always, I was ever curious to the thoughts of my friend and in the years that followed I puzzled over that moment. His face was so severe, so preoccupied that I knew at once that this case would be either a most intriguing story for my readers or one I never dared to retell.



It has been put to me, on occasion, that my writings are not always as clear in regards to dates and facts as someone making a study of them might wish. There is usually a good reason for any vagueness to be found in them and I generally respond that few men would be brave enough to publish their own journal entries unedited and that I myself am certainly not one of them.

The pages of my journal are the safest place for this story to remain, but with the aches and pains of age comes a desire to organise one’s life; to abandon this story among my day-to-day thoughts seems a terrible shame. It deserves to be written, even if no one should ever read it but myself, and I speak of confused dates because this was no straightforward adventure. It was the rarest of cases: one that linked both the time before Holmes’s tussle with Moriarty at Reichenbach and the years after his return.

We were young men when Attebury first called on us, though in the way of the young we didn’t appreciate our youth. Our friendship was still new and we were in an exceptionally good humour that day, inclined to be amused by the word around us and confident enough in our happy companionship to tease and be teased in turn.

We had received a calling card from Edward Attebury who – at that time – was a name on everyone’s lips. Not a day went by without some article about the man being published in the broadsheets, or rumours circulated in the gossip rags. Detective Lestrade, coming from a family of women, had remarked to me not a week before that he could barely sit down to supper without hearing a great re-telling of Attebury’s latest deeds.

I admit that I was eager to meet the man for myself and Holmes was quick to remark upon it.

“Why Watson, I have never seen you so restless while waiting on a client. One would think you expected Mr. Attebury to be a slender young woman with fine eyes, not a mere man of business.”

“A man of business!” I protested, though I knew from his own darkly glittering eyes that Holmes had said it to bait me. “Attebury is more than that! Why, he is a phenomenon by any man’s standards.”

“I would have thought a man would have to work harder to earn the title of a phenomenon these days,” said Holmes, affecting indifference and returning to his newspaper.

“Really Holmes, you mustn’t be so mealy mouthed. The man went into banking and tripled the bank’s profits within a single year before leaving to take up big game hunting in Africa. Then he returned to publish a mystery novel whose solution confounded even you. I cannot pick up a newspaper without hearing of the parties he has attended or the theatre boxes he has patronised.”

I smirked, for I knew the real cause of Holmes’s outward indifference.

“Of course, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that you hold any sort of grudge against him about that - what did you call it? - that ‘half-baked and ill-conceived little pot boiler.’”

Holmes glared, but there was no real heat to it and he allowed me to adjust my collar without further comment.

“I just wonder what on earth he wants from us,” I said.

“And as always, my dear friend, I am one step ahead of you,” said Holmes. “While you have been concerning yourself with your appearance, I have been applying my mind to his problem.”

I gaped. Attebury had left us a card and a note saying that he would call on us this morning. How could my friend have deduced the matter he planned to consult us on? I said as much.

“Ah yes,” he replied, smiling wickedly, “he had no need to tell me his problem in advance. I read it in the paper this very morning.”

Holmes stood and joined me where I was standing in front of the fireplace. He clapped me on the shoulder and, with his other hand, presented me with the newspaper he had been holding.

“I read the paper myself,” I said. “There was no news in there of Attebury.”

“That is where you are quite wrong,” said he. “I suggest you examine page seventeen more closely.”

I took the paper and we returned to our chairs. Holmes watched with interest as I reread the suggested page.

An article reported a small fire that had passed without injury or serious damage, another about an ancient tree felled by the recent storms, but aside from that there was little of interest beyond a selection of adverts.

“Surely he can’t be consulting you about the fire?” I asked.

Holmes smirked. “No, it’s the legal advertisement that interested me.”

I looked at it again. It was the smallest on the page and for all that I read and re-read it I found nothing curious about it. A law firm, Buckland, Dawn & Merrison’s, advertised their services, claiming modest rates and utmost discretion.

“Do you know of the firm?”

“It is certainly a real firm,” Holmes acknowledged, “but it’s the wording of their advert that struck me.”

“I must have read the thing five times now and I can see nothing,” I sighed. “You aren’t going to keep it a secret from me?”

“I think I shall,” Holmes said, in a way that suggested my teasing of him about Attebury’s book was being punished. “At least until our consultation. Be reassured though, unless you had especial knowledge of codes and a grasp of six or more languages you would never have spotted it. I nearly overlooked it myself.”

With that, he stood to retrieve his pipe and began filling it, leaving me to puzzle over the newspaper.


--



Mrs. Hudson showed Attebury up to us with not a small amount of fluttering and I admit my jaw almost dropped upon being introduced to him.

It’s human nature to viciously hope that – upon hearing of someone’s incredible achievements – they might turn out to be unappealing in some other way to balance things out. In general I found it often to be the case that extraordinariness in one area was balanced out by ordinariness in another, and until that point the only exception to the rule I had ever found was Holmes, who had a brilliance of mind, excellent character, and - whilst not traditionally handsome - certainly could be described as attractive. Of course, at that early stage of our friendship I had not seen the darkness of mood that went hand in hand with his brilliance, but to this day I still think Holmes represents the most all-around extraordinary man of my acquaintance.

As such, Attebury’s appearance was almost a disappointment, for the man was exceptional in appearance. He was as tall as Holmes, as fit as I had been in my sporting days, and in general possessed of looks that quite explained the enthusiasm shown for him in Lestrade’s household and many other’s besides. To be presented with such a man brings one’s own faults to mind, which was an effect Holmes’s brilliance never had.

He introduced himself and took the offered seat, looking as at ease in his surroundings as if he were in his own parlour and welcoming us.

“I cannot tell you how grateful I was that you agreed to hear my problem Mr. Holmes, it’s something that has baffled my circle of friends. I admit I didn’t take it seriously at first, but now an innocent young woman’s name has been drawn into this mess something must be done.”

He had a strange manner of address, speaking as if he were still a schoolboy addressing his master. Holmes and I were only a few years older than him, but he made me feel like a man in my dotage.

“It is, of course, connected to page seventeen of this morning’s paper?” Holmes said, with a flickered smile towards me.

Attebury started. “You spotted it too! I have to say, I thought I was going quite mad, it’s such a terrible relief that someone else sees the patterns as well.”

“Indeed,” Holmes acknowledged. “I was hoping that your friends Joseph Martins or Alistair Green would have consulted me earlier, perhaps then there might have already been a solution.”

I looked between them, astonished. “Holmes, there have been more of these messages? You knew of this already?”

Holmes stood and, with the flair of a magician performing a trick, retrieved the two previous newspapers from his desk, where they had been sitting amongst the clutter completely unnoticed by me.

“The papers on the fourth and the sixteenth had similar coded messages. Equally as obscure.”

“And what do they say?”

“The one on the fourth suggests that Mr. Martins has been stealing from his father’s business. The other refers to Mr. Green’s ill usage of his wife.”

“Both absolutely untrue, I assure you!” Attebury cried. “These are good men, old friends of mine. We were boys together.”

I looked over the advertisments but I could see nothing out of the ordinary. If the two men hadn’t looked so serious I might have felt I was being tricked.

In later years, at my insistence, Holmes explained the code to me, which at the time he would not. I will not share the contents of the advertisement because I later discovered that Mycroft Holmes had paid some attention to codes as well and that many years later they were put to use in areas to which the public remains oblivious. Though I do not intend for this particular case to be widely read and only write it for completeness, I would not wish to put anyone who might use those codes at risk.

“Your friends noticed this message?” I asked incredulously.

“Oh no,” Attebury said. “I did. I have a quick mind for languages and spotted it at once. It took some convincing for them to agree that this wasn’t an accident, and even then they were more puzzled than concerned.”

“Someone tried to ruin them with a message no one understands?” I said. “It makes no sense.”

“But there was still a chance they would be spotted,” said Holmes thoughtfully. “Mr. Attebury did, as did I. I’m sure that other great minds will have as well, though I doubt they would have been particularly interested in them.”

“So what does today’s message say?” I asked.

Attebury went pink. “It suggests, in somewhat crude terms, that I had an indiscreet relationship with Evangeline Bailey, daughter of Sir James Bailey. Entirely untrue, I assure you! But you see that I can’t allow it to stand. The other messages might be cruel pranks, but I felt obliged to inform Sir James – in the interests of protecting Evangeline - and he did not take it particularly well.”

“You shouldn’t have bothered,” Holmes said with some irritation. “He would never have known otherwise.”

“Evangeline is a friend of mine-“

“Yes yes, very well,” Holmes said, holding up a hand. “It will be my pleasure to look into the matter.”


--



After Attebury left we had an entire afternoon ahead of us to work and Holmes was quick to fill up the time.

“First we will go to the solicitors, a cursory call but a line of enquiry that must be crossed out, and then to Miss. Bailey who I am hoping will give me all the answers I need.”

“You don’t mean to say you have an idea of a solution already?”

Holmes smiled. “I know perfectly well who placed the messages, I just have no idea why. That is the true mystery here.”

“Who?” I cried.

“Come Watson,” he said, “to tell you the ‘who’ before I know the ‘how’ would spoil your fun.”

As Holmes had suspected, the law firm knew nothing. They had not placed the advertisements and had been startled by them, though pleased at the rush of new business. They had, not paid a penny to the paper and had no idea who had. They were unwilling to investigate too closely into their mysterious benefactor in case the advertisements stopped.

Miss. Evangeline Bailey, on the other hand, was far more forthcoming.

The Baileys were at their townhouse and Miss. Bailey was more than happy to receive us. She was a startlingly beautiful woman, the sort that would only have been suited for an arm like Attebury’s.

“I told Edward to pay those silly little messages no mind,” she said airily. “No one understands them but him.”

I was pleased that I was not the only one baffled by the codes. “But your father is unhappy about a possible scandal?”

“Oh of course he is,” Evangeline sighed. “But there is nothing in it at all. Edward and I really are just friends and I wouldn’t dream of marrying him, or doing anything else that the message suggested. I have been engaged to Sir Thomas Sharrow for three years and I love him with my whole heart. If anything, these codes have helped me. Father is rushing the wedding forward now, whereas before he was making things very difficult for us.”

And that, it seemed, was that.


--



The case itself, I have to admit, concerned me little. Holmes’s good mood continued and, as no party seemed particularly hurt, the thing seemed no more than an intriguing intellectual puzzle.

“If you have discovered the culprit, surely their motive must be obvious?” I asked on the way home. “They must have something to gain from this odd little game?”

“Far from it,” Holmes said. “The perpetrator has gained nothing at all. We must assume that their plot is, as yet, unfinished.”

He would not be drawn into telling me any more than that, so I resigned myself to wait for the case to progress. It had nevertheless made for an interesting afternoon even if there was little else for us to do now but wait for the morning newspaper.

In those early days a large part of my thoughts revolved around Holmes and learning more of him. He was as complex a puzzle to me as he could ever have wished for himself: a paradoxical man who lived at the extremes of pleasure or dejection while revealing nothing of himself to the world around him. In the little more than a year that I had lived with him I had discovered as much of the man’s history as I might have learned in pleasantries with any man on the street.

It was not only his history that fascinated me, though I would have given a great deal for even the smallest piece of it at the time, but the man himself interested me so fully that not an event or piece of news came to 221b that I didn’t wonder what Holmes thought of it. Some of my greatest pleasures came from those rare occasions when he revealed something of his mind on even a trivial subject.

What I did not know at the time was that this small puzzle would lead Holmes to reveal more of his inner thoughts to me than any other. It shames me, for Holmes suffered for many years and was forced to hide his suffering from me. He later called it a constant chill about his neck and had I known of it I would have better understood our later dealings with Charles Augustus Milverton.

The morning after Attebury’s visit I arrived at breakfast to find Holmes long finished and the morning’s paper awaiting me on the table, already opened at page seventeen.

“I think I must have been the first man in London to obtain a paper this morning,” Holmes said in greeting. “For a short time only the newspaper editor and the paper boy were better informed than I.”

“You expect another missive from our mysterious blackmailer?”

Holmes’s eyes were faraway, lost in the puzzle. “Hardly a blackmailer. A blackmailer does not share their secrets so easily or at such expense to themselves. A blackmailer makes demands. This is little more than someone telling tales.”

“And they do so in a way designed to ensure that only two men in London notice,” I said.

“Oh three men at least,” said Holmes mildly, referring - I suppose - to his brother Mycroft, who at the time I knew nothing of. He handed the paper to me.

“What does it say?” I asked at last, after several more readings revealed nothing.

Holmes waved his hand. “It claims that Sherlock Holmes is a thief of great renown.”

I dropped the knife that I had been using to butter toast. “It accuses you of theft?”

“Yes,” Holmes turned to smile at me, looking utterly thrilled. “Yes, it seems that St. Barts laboratory is not safe from me. Why, there is not a test tube or chemical in the place that I do not have designs upon.”

I barked out a laugh, the evidence of this easy borrowing proudly taking up the entirety of Holmes’s desk. We looked over at them and then back to each other, then spluttered, unable to contain our amusement.

“It surely doesn’t say any such thing!” I said, once recovered.

“I assure you it does. Still, if the academics of the hospital neither miss the few samples I borrow nor can decode this we might suppose there is no harm in my most terrible crime. Though my large yearly donations to the hospital more than pay for the small items I borrow.”

“Why on earth would anyone publish such a weak accusation?”

“For the same reason they publish the other false claims,” Holmes said, mind returning to the mystery, “though I regret to say I haven’t the slightest idea what that might be.”

“I wonder if tomorrow I should expect some revelation of my own sordid history,” I said jovially. “I have some unreturned library books to my name and, as a youth, was quite the apple-scrumping fiend…”

In truth, I was a little concerned. We all have things that we wish not be shared and if this mysterious publisher had turned their attention to Holmes once they’d discovered he was on the case it seemed logical that I might be next. Still, the revelations had so far been mild at best and in most cases entirely off the mark.

The evening paper brought no more news and I have to admit that the next morning I was dressed and downstairs to await the newspaper far earlier than was my habit at the time.

Holmes entered the room as I sat down at the breakfast table and – in good humour - he triumphantly waved the paper.

“Let us see what our friend has to say this morning,” he said, dropping into his seat.

It is at this point that the true nature of this case changed utterly. I remained oblivious to the fear that it caused Holmes.

Mrs. Hudson had provided eggs and so I was making myself busy with them, fearing they would go cold. Holmes was almost entirely obscured behind the newspaper. It occurred to me, after a minute had passed in silence, that he seemed very quiet and I assumed him to be lost in thought.

“He has left us a message?” I inquired.

At length Holmes reappeared from behind the paper and set to folding it neatly.

“Indeed he has,” he said.

As always, I was curious to the thoughts of my friend and in the years that followed I puzzled over that moment. His face was so severe, so preoccupied that I knew at once that this case would be either a most intriguing story for my readers or one I never dared to retell.

“What has got you looking so?” I asked, forcing levity. “I take it my apple-scrumping remains a secret from London?”

Holmes looked at me blankly, as if only then realising my interest.

“There are people I must visit today,” he said, almost to himself.

“Then I shall-”

“I’m afraid,” he said, realising my intent to join him, “that I must visit these people alone. I must ask for your trust on this.”

“Then it’s gladly given,” I said earnestly. “But Holmes whatever it is that has upset you so, I want to help in any way I can.”

“I am not upset,” he said severely. “I am angered. This game has gone too far.”

He would be drawn into no more discussion on the subject, and before breakfast had even been cleared away he had left, taking with him clothes for several days’ worth of travel. Even on this he was silent, refusing to confirm how long he might be gone.

Once he had gone I turned my attention to the newspaper myself. I hadn’t wished to pour through it openly in Holmes’s presence but now I scrutinised the advertisement, though with little real hope of working out the solution for myself.

As expected, I was utterly clueless. I returned the newspaper to the spot where Holmes left it, in case he should need it again, and turned my attentions to tinkering with the latest little story I’d written up.

Having little else to occupy my time my thoughts soon returned to the paper and on a whim I opened it and – feeling guilty – copied out the advertisement by hand in my journal so that I might look at it in my own time.

I can tell you, with the benefit of later knowledge, exactly where Holmes went in the time he was gone from our rooms.

He went on quite a journey. He visited four men and the nature of his enquiries had necessitated a personal visit rather than a letter or telegram. Three of the men were – and still are – unknown to me, though I later discovered their significance. One of them resided in Dorset, another in Bristol, and the third in Oxford. The fourth, the visit I suspect had affected Holmes the most, was to Mycroft Holmes. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time.

He was gone for the best part of three days, leaving that morning and returning shortly before I headed off to bed two nights later.

He looked weary, the sort of weariness that turns inwards and that I was to later associate with his chemical abuses. He had not done so this time, but there was a defeated tone when he spoke that suggested that his time away had been poorly spent.

I provided Holmes with brandy and roused Mrs. Hudson to provide him some of the leftover cuts of meat from dinner. He attacked the meal and for a while he fell into a reverie, staring into the fire. It was nearly midnight by that point, but I would not have absented myself for the world.

“There is nothing for it,” he said dejectedly. “We will have to invite Attebury back tomorrow.”

“You have a solution?” I asked.

“No,” he said, looking troubled. “Unfortunately not.”


--



Attebury burst into the parlour the next morning, as large as life as our first meeting.

“What a hoot!” he cried, bursting in and seating himself. He had in his hands a newspaper, opened at page seventeen. “I expected much from you Mr. Holmes, but this was very well done indeed!”

Holmes smiled tightly from his position by the fireplace.

“I had hoped it would satisfy you.”

I looked curiously between the two of them. Holmes had not provided a newspaper this morning and though I had bought one – and found the advert present – Holmes had not so much as looked at it.

“Has our mystery man left another message?” I asked.

“Why even better!” said Attebury, “Holmes has left one himself.”

He tapped the page in triumph and read aloud.

“‘Holmes admits defeat, client has outwitted him, begs for resolution.’ Very gratifying! You worked out it was me then?”

Another tight smile from Holmes.

“At once. I knew it was you from the very moment you shared your story. I would have to be blind not to recognise the very mud from the street of the newspaper office on your shoes.”

“Ah! You noticed!” Attebury clapped his hands like a boy. “Mr. Holmes you are everything I hoped for.”

I looked between the two of them, astounded. Attebury had placed those defamatory advertisements himself? I suddenly understood Holmes’s puzzlement as to his motive.

“Yes, but the ‘who’ is only part of the job, more important is the ‘why’ and I admit I find myself puzzled.”

It astonished me to see Holmes take such a role. Attebury playing his little game, whilst Holmes was having to wait for answers in the same way I begged them of him. I was suddenly deeply annoyed with Attebury and – were it not for Holmes - would have gladly kicked him out with an assurance that neither of us wanted his answer.

“Why do you think Mr. Holmes? I’ve read a great deal of you thanks to your excellent friend here, and I’ve tried to apply your methods and further them as best I can, but I longed to see you actually work on a puzzle of my own creation. I was a little vexed that you gave in so easily, but to have a public admittance of your defeat more than makes up for it!”

“As public as it can be when only a handful of code enthusiasts will be able to work it out,” I couldn’t help but add.

At the time it hadn’t worried me overmuch, it’s only with hindsight that I realise how much it must have pained Holmes to know that his brother – and a certain other nemesis – would have read his public admittance of humiliation, not to mention what had gone before.

“Nevertheless, I feel I should have a copy framed.”

“If I may ask,” said Holmes – flicking a look to me I didn’t fully understand – “what was the meaning of the message you posted about my… character?”

The mystery message that still had not been explained. I tried not to look too interested, but there was no need, neither man repeated the contents of the missive.

“Ah that! Well any fool could have seen the St. Barts ‘theft’ simply by looking around the room. I wanted to prove that my detective work was every bit as good as your own by sharing something that you would not want shared. I doubted you’d mind, I was careful to ensure that some of my ‘gossip’ was false and some was true. Joseph Martins is stealing from his family’s business, but Evangeline is a lovely girl – a good sport – who just wanted to hurry her marriage along.”

Holmes was silent for a moment and something flashed across his face that startled me. It was so quick that even Attebury missed it but I, by then, was as much of an expert on Holmes’s moods as it is possible to be and I saw, in that instant, pure rage.

Which made his next act so very startling.

He laughed.

Not a bark of laughter, a great ‘HAH!’ as if he had never been more delighted by an answer. He bounded across the living room to shake Attebury’s hand and clap him on the back.

“Mr. Attebury I have never been more diverted!” he cried. “A most ingenious little riddle and quite something to be proud of. Watson here will assure you than I am rarely outfoxed so elegantly. Watson, shake this man’s hand.”

“Indeed,” I said faintly, shaking Attebury’s hand unenthusiastically. Attebury looked for all the world like a boy who’d just won a prize for penmanship at school.

Holmes led him to the door. “You are a welcome visitor at 221b any time you please it Sir,” he said, clapping the man on the back again and sending him on his way.

He stood watching him go and I opened my mouth to try and formulate some sort of question as to what on earth had just happened, but I was stopped because Holmes had turned back to me and his jovial expression was gone, replaced with a dark, warning look.

“There, Watson, is a very dangerous man,” he said simply.

“Dangerous?” I asked. “His actions seemed a little reckless-“

“Recklessness is by far the most dangerous trait to pair with genius,” Holmes said, going to the window to watch Attebury head away down the street. “And unfortunately Attebury has both in bounds. Far better for us to be carefully amused by him than risk his wrath.”

If I had known the damage that one case would do, I would have agreed with him.


--



Sixteen years passed and I admit that I gave the case very little thought. I did not forget it in its entirety but it had little further impact on my life. I didn’t consider writing the story up, for I was not blind to the distress it caused my friend or that dark mood that stayed with him for many days after Attebury left our parlour.

You will have read of the other events that happened in the years that followed: my marriage, Holmes’s ‘death’ and reappearance, and the abundance of tricky, dangerous cases that followed. In the time I believed Holmes dead I looked at the advertisement I’d copied on occasion, sorrowful that in my hands I held a small part of the man and yet I was too foolish to understand it. After his return, almost out of embarrassment, I didn’t look at it again.

Attebury did not cross our paths a second time, but we kept a wary eye on his comings and goings and there were frequent articles about him still. He married a fine woman, had a gaggle of beautiful children, wrote many new books (I declined to read them) and – during Holmes’s disappearance – finally moved to Egypt, having taken up an interest in the history. He returned to London to take on some role at the British Museum and a few years after that there were some articles about Attebury’s second fortune made from a business deal.

“He should take up a career on the stage,” Holmes remarked bitterly upon reading that, “or else lion taming. He has certainly tried every other career. Perhaps I shall arrive at a crime scene one day and find him standing in my place.”

That was the only comment he made about the man during all that time. It was the year before our final dealing with Attebury.

By then Holmes and I were settled comfortably into our forties. We were as close as friends could be and I had never truly lost my fascination for the man. In his finest moments I thanked God that I shared my life with such a never ending source of brilliance and in his darker times I was just thankful that I might help him in any way I could.

He was far less inclined to indicate his own affection for me, strong as I knew it to be. I considered it part of his character to be so quiet on the matter and I was all the more thankful for the rare moments when he had cause to show his fondness.

Perhaps you might suspect what secret it was that Attebury had so thoughtlessly had printed, and you might wonder in all honestly, did I really not know? Unfortunately my answer is not so straightforward. Did I suspect? On occasion. Did it concern me? Not in the slightest. Had I connected that suspicion to Attebury’s case? No. In short it was but an errant thought that I paid little attention to.

Which is why I was not at all prepared for that night in November and the changes it would bring.

The knock on my door came at one in the morning. Holmes had been in a terrible mood all day and at nine I had fled from his snappish mood and the screechings of his violin.

The knock surprised me, and at first I took it to be Mrs. Hudson, for it was not in Holmes’s habit to knock. I clambered out of bed and answered, to find Holmes standing there looking as pale as a ghost.

He had no lamp with him and he stood in the dark, in his nightshirt, looking strangely lost. Acting on instinct I opened the door wide and invited him into the room.

“Holmes, what on earth is the matter?” I cried, lighting the lamp and pulling on my gown against the cold.

“There is to be a murder tonight,” he said simply.

“Who?” I asked, astonished. “And how on earth do you know? Has there been a telegram? Or has one of your urchins paid us a call?”

Holmes bowed his head. “I have known since this morning, I have spent the day… I wanted not to act…”

This shocked me and in that moment I realised my friend was so distressed, so not himself that I needed to be the strong one. I made him sit on the bed and handed him the glass of water from my bedside table, then I sat beside him and spoke firmly.

“Now tell me everything,” I said. “Let us not worry about what to do, just explain what you know to me.” I reached to squeeze his hand and spoke jovially. “For as you know, I am far too dunderheaded to work these things out myself.”

Holmes, to my great surprise, squeezed my hand back. “Not at all, my very dear friend,” he said, so softly I feared I’d misheard.

He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again his voice was business-like.

“This morning there was an advertisement on page seventeen of the newspaper, an advertisement for a certain solicitor…”

“Attebury?” I cried in alarm. “He has posted his intent to murder?”

Holmes shook his head. “No. The person takes great pains to copy his style, but the code they use is childish. If you had read it yourself I’m sure you would have worked it out in minutes.”

“What does it say?”

“It says ‘Attebury, you owe me, meet me at two this morning.’ The address given is the solicitor’s address: the offices will not be hard to break into at that time of night.”

“Who could have written it?”

“The only person actually damaged by Attebury’s game, his former friend – Joseph Martins - who was caught out stealing from his family business.”

“I thought they believed it was fake? And how did he know it was Attebury?”

“They did, but a man who steals from a business does not go unnoticed for long. I imagined he was caught and, perhaps later Attebury mentioned the prank himself, leading Martins to falsely blame Attebury for his troubles. As I said he’s reckless, perhaps it might have amused him to mention his little game to the man.”

Still, I tried to think hopefully. “Attebury would never go,” I said, not quite believing it.

“Watson, you know this man’s character, of course he would attend.”

“Why have you remained silent until this moment?” I asked, for Holmes must have known about it for many hours. It mystified me why he would not have acted until this moment, and why he would be so shaken by doing so. “I know that Attebury worried you for a while, but it’s been many years since we last had anything to do with him.”

“But it hasn’t!” Holmes snapped. “For you perhaps but I – he –“

He sucked in a breath, collecting himself and when he next looked at me it was with a strange intenseness.

“Watson I have this last day been paralysed, utterly paralysed, and it’s a terrible thing to truly see that darkness in oneself. There has been a part of me that… wished not to act.”

I will admit my astonishment. Holmes, for all that he was sometimes hard-hearted, valued life very dearly and had shown a generous spirit in his dealings with all but the worst of fiends. Attebury, to my knowledge, had not been one of them and yet there was a nagging feeling about that case, the sense that I had for the last sixteen years missed some important fact.

It was then, as Holmes clutched my hand and looked into my eyes with a mixture of shame, despair and longing, that I truly understood what had frightened him so. I finally connected my own small suspicions with Holmes’s terror at the breakfast table all those years ago.

Holmes was – he - he had feelings for men.

I was not lying earlier when I said the thought had crossed my mind before and that it had never particularly worried me. Holmes, as I have said in my other writings, always seemed very separate from any romantic feelings and I had assumed that any he fostered were against his own will and carefully controlled.

Perhaps you might think it strange, even presumptuous, that I should have so easily jumped to such a conclusion. No doubt many would be offended at their friend harbouring even the vaguest such suspicions about them.

How had I reached such a conclusion?

Over the course of many years I have been friends with many men and - to put it bluntly - men talk. In the army they talk filthy, boastful things in the lulls and in the fire and terror they blurt the most beautiful, heartfelt emotions. Even outside of the army, at the most refined tables, the talk may be softened and gentled, but the wonder, mystery, and delight of women is never far from discussion.

So you can imagine that to have known a man so intimately for so long, it had always struck me as strange that there was such an unexplored area of our friendship. At first it had seemed possible that Holmes was, as is sometimes known amongst academics and religious men, completely uninterested in love in any form, but I soon knew that Holmes was a man who would have relished, and been proud of such pureness of mind. I had therefore settled on the only other conclusion I could make, the only one that explained Holmes’s discomfort and the utter silence on the subject that there had always been between us.

Unfortunately I had not taken this conclusion to its logical end: to consider who Holmes might have such feelings for. But then, if I have proved one thing in my life, it’s that I haven’t got Holmes’s skill for deductions.

“The code,” I said softly, “Attebury… published your… feelings for the whole world to see.”

He broke eye contact at this revelation of my knowledge and stared down at the floor. “Yes. I must be grateful, I suppose, for the lack of truly brilliant men in London. If it had been that one case I might not have been concerned, but Attebury has been a- a thorn in my side for many years now. I have received visits when you were not here, frequent letters, each time he spoke as if he considered me a mentor. As though I might help him cope with the demands of his brain. Hah! I can barely cope with the demands of my own. And though he never mentioned that particular matter again…”

“It was always there,” I finished.

“I will not forget the terror of those days,” he said bitterly. “The conversation I had to have with my own brother on the topic… the visits I had to make to men who, a long time ago, knew a little of my nature to find out if they had been the source of this information. And since then, every dealing I have had with the greatest men of crime has been tainted by the real possibility that they might have read that advertisement themselves. Moriarty must have known of it and I feared Milverton all the more…”

In that moment I had no thought for myself. The only notion in my heart was a desire to rid my dear friend of his suffering. He had and would always have my love and respect and so, with barely a thought, I leaned to press a kiss to his temple and run a hand through his mussed hair.

“Holmes,” I urged, “there will be time to talk of this, but a life hangs in the balance and we must act. You wanted to keep this matter quiet but your good heart prevailed and now we will do all that we can for Mr. Attebury. If we dress quickly we might arrive with a little time to spare.”

The office in the advertisement was but a thirty minute drive by cab and we both made haste to dress. I tucked my gun into my pocket and Holmes took his cane.

“Do you believe that Martins will lay in wait for Attebury?” I called over the noise of hooves and wheels as – at Holmes’s instruction – the carriage charged down the quiet streets.

“I think it will be a simple crime,” Holmes responded. “Attebury would be a fool to turn up at all, though I suppose it’s better to face an enemy head on than live in fear of an attack by stealth.”

His jaw tightened and I was quite sure that he was berating himself for allowing Attebury to unsettle him for so long without a similar confrontation. I reached to touch his arm.

“All will be well Holmes,” I promised. “Attebury may have unsettled you, but he does not seem a vicious man…”

“And as I have said, give me a vicious man over a reckless one any day of the week,” Holmes snapped. “At least a vicious man understands the harm he does.”

We stopped the carriage a few minutes from the office and proceeded on foot. A faint light from a lamp glowed in the windows: suspicious as all of the workers should have left hours before. When we approached the door was ajar.

Holmes said nothing, but we shared a look and I retrieved my gun. Holmes lifted his cane in case he had call to use it as a weapon and with his other hand he pushed the door inwards and crept into the dark hallway.

At once a strange gurgle caught our attention and we inched closer. The noise was a strange cross between a laugh and a choking sound and I knew at once that whoever it had come from was in no state to attack.

“Attebury?!” I shouted, fearing we were too late. “Are you here?”

“Here…”

The voice was faint, coming from the direction of the light, and we rushed into the room to find Attebury laying on the floor, the lamp at his feet, but no sign of any injury to his person. I dropped to his side at once.

“Where is he?” cried Holmes, looking around for the attacker.

Attebury made the noise again and this time I knew that it was indeed a laugh. His eyes were glassy and his chest heaved, but he was still able to talk.

“Fooled you again… Mr. Holmes.”

At this he began choking again and it was a long while before he was recovered enough to attempt speech again.

“What has happened?” I demanded, regretting that I had brought nothing I could use to treat the man in any way. “Did Martins poison you in some way?”

That strange laugh again.

“Like I said… fooled… you. Martins didn’t leave… message… I did. Martins didn’t poison me… I… did…”

“You lured us here?” Holmes hissed, while in the same breath I cried out too.

“You drank poison? Quick man, what was it?”

“Doesn’t matter… I didn’t bring you here to save me…”

“Then why?” I demanded.

“Because you… understand Mr. Holmes.” His eyelids were heavy, he was fighting to remain conscious for those last few moments and his words were no more than a whisper. “You know what it is to be a slave to the churning of a busy mind. I asked for your help…”

“You threatened me!”

“Oh that…” said Attebury, as though it had never occurred to him to consider his actions from that angle. “That was just… a bit of… fun… to show you I was your equal in brainwork. And you see… Watson here… he is not afraid of your love…”

He groaned, the effort to speak draining him.

I was focused on his care, but I cannot deny what Attebury had said was shock to me. He had as good as claimed that Holmes felt-

-but no, I had a dying man to focus on and I did so. I did not look across to Holmes and so I had no idea whether, as earlier that night, the truth of Attebury’s claims was evident on his face.

Attebury roused himself to talk again, but he was drifting now.

“It doesn’t stop though. No matter what I tried… the whirring never stops. And unlike you nothing seems to focus the chaos.”

“But you have children!” I cried, appalled. In his last few moments, I saw in Attebury all of the despair and misery that had settled on Holmes in his darkest moments. I knew that there was nothing that can be done for him and the idea of such a brilliant man destroying his own life was as suddenly as painful to me as if Holmes had done it himself.

Attebury merely shrugged, as if his children were of no significance.

“It’s over now,” he whispered, more to himself than us, and with that he passed into unconsciousness. Holmes and I kept a silent vigil over him as he slipped away and his breathing stilled.

“Holmes,” I said faintly, looking at him properly and finding his expression as confused and terrible as it had been when he had warned me of the so called murder earlier in the night. “We will have to find help.”

He nodded. “Go,” he said, kneeling beside Attebury’s body. “I will wait here.”


--



It was many hours later, near morning, when we returned to Baker Street. We staggered like men who had not seen rest for days. Any thought of discussion seemed unbearable so we retired to our beds and slept without exchanging a word.

I awoke in the late afternoon and was furnished with tea and a small pile of cheese scones which I set to work on ravenously. Holmes did not rise for the remainder of the day, and considering the exhaustion on his face that morning I did not begrudge him his rest.

In fact, the time gave me an opportunity to consider the events of the night before and to form my own opinions. In short, Holmes had admitted that his tastes ran to the male form, and Attebury had implied very heavily that one of those forms was my own. I considered whether it might be one last trick of Attebury’s upon us both, one last reckless game with the lives of other people.

I wondered if – to preserve our friendship – we would both have to pretend that it was a trick, but it my heart I felt the truth of it. I had seen the truth of it in Holmes’s eyes as he sat beside me on the bed the night before.

Neither of us were men inclined to discuss our emotions at length and yet it seemed impossible that such an occasion could slip by unaddressed. Holmes would almost certainly be worried as to my reaction in the cold light of day, and any man of sense would be concerned at such revelations from a man they shared rooms with.

I’m sure it has not escaped your notice in my previous writings, but when it comes to Holmes I am rarely a man of sense.

I was angry on Holmes’s behalf that he should have had this painful cautiousness forced upon him for so long, and angry at myself for failing to notice. A man who fantasises of killing a neighbour is only a criminal if he acts upon those thoughts, and Holmes had never acted on his desires. I doubted he would do so even now they were known to me. He did not deserve the punishment he had received.

Perhaps it will surprise you that my strongest feelings were sorrow for him. I never expected Holmes to submit to the comforts of a wife and children, but I had believed that was because he had no desire for such comforts. Now I knew that he certainly had… longings… whether or not they were towards myself, and that he had been forced to hide them over many years. Not only that, but to feel that way about a man would mean that he could never have the love and affection of marriage and he would go to his grave without having experienced the truest joys of a free, loving relationship, such as I had had with Mary.

It was that thought more than anything else that finally turned my considerations onto my own feelings.

I had – without any real sorrow – put any thoughts of remarriage aside, happily settled as I was in my friendship with Holmes and my comfortable existence on Baker Street. To leave him after his return had seemed impossible, for I craved his company then with the same hunger that I had in our earliest time together. Who else could I grow so close to that I would want to spend my later years in their company?

Nothing of the night’s revelations changed that, but there was now the possibility that that very closeness might in some way cause Holmes pain.

The next thought that appeared almost chilled me.

Could I provide more?

I had long known that there was nothing I would not do to help Holmes when he was in need, though I had never considered this. My love for him may have been friendly, but there was something about him that had always made me burn with curiosity. Perhaps it was not a passionate love, but it was love.

If he wanted more, well perhaps I might never be able to cross the line into… truly indecent acts… but could I not provide the closeness of a sleeping body next to his, the comfort of kisses and touches? I had enjoyed such things with Mary and, though it might be a little strange, to ease his burden it was a small price to pay.

Of course, it was all academic thinking, in the same way one plans to take healthy walking holidays and to read improving books. It would probably not translate into action.

The knock at my bedroom door startled me out of such thoughts.

It was Holmes. His eyes were shadowed and, despite his long rest, he looked no less exhausted.

“Forgive me…” he said, sounding disorientated. “I-“

Only a crueller friend than I could have allowed Holmes to stand, as he was, vulnerable and disorientated out in the corridor.

“Come in,” I said warmly, throwing open the door and enveloping Holmes into the room. He made to seat himself on the edge of my bed again but I acted on instinct and drew back the covers. He climbed in but I saw a look of great confusion in his eyes as I moved around to the other side and lit a stub of candle, giving us a dim light to see by.

I climbed in beside him without hesitation. At first he sat straight backed against the headboard, but I lay down as I had done before his knock. Rather than have a discussion at such an odd angle, he had no choice but to shuffle down until we were on our sides, facing each other.

Perhaps you will be amused by my so quickly acting on my earlier lines of thought, but in truth I really wasn’t thinking of my actions in such a light. I wanted to relieve his burden as much as I could and reassure him of my utmost devotion. I wanted, nay, needed the comfort of him beside me.

“Holmes,” I said firmly, “you have nothing to fear.”

He looked at me for a long while, considering. “And does that end the conversation before it has begun? I have nothing to fear, so long as we don’t discuss it?”

“We shall discuss it,” said I, “but you have my assurance that there is nothing you might say that would anger me.”

This roused a streak of defiance in Holmes, as if he were trying to frighten me from the matter.

“Are you sure?” he lifted his head from the pillow and looked at me fiercely. “What if I said that I had longed for the bodies of other men? That I had fantasised about sharing a bed with them? That I had fantasised about sharing a bed with you, and not as we do at this moment?”

“Holmes-“

“And it’s that last one that has pained me most! I could not risk even a hint of impropriety, knowing that the fact of my love for you was printed for the cleverest people in London to see and that one man in particular wished to use it against me. All last night has shown is that I was wrong to fear Attebury, that he was a man being destroyed by his own brain and that he had paid my secrets no mind at all! I have been living in fear of mere shadows!”

“And now I have shown my heart to you, when you must have been certain I didn’t have one. I have left you in an intolerable position. You have been the devoted friend of a man who, for the last sixteen years, has fantasised about performing acts with you that would be a crime.”

“There!” he hissed, panting a little with the emotion. “Are you still so calm?”

I had been watching him with a kind of wonder, and when I spoke I do not know where the words came from, only that they came from a part of me that was beyond my mental control.

“If there is to be a crime,” I said in a strangely calm voice, “then let me ease your burden and commit it for you.”

I leaned forward and kissed him.

Our lips connected for less than a second, I barely had time to register his warm, dry mouth against mine before it was gone and I felt startled at the loss.

Holmes had pulled away in alarm and was looking at me with wide, unblinking eyes.

For the first time, I registered how I very much wanted to pull him closer to me. It seemed that, now the possibility was there, I was desperate to take it, as though some hidden part of me had longed for it as well. There had always been a desire to know everything of him within me, and after sharing a bed and listening to the very darkest secrets of his heart, I felt in that moment as though I could not bear for him to be even a small distance away from me. Even if he were pressed to my breast, it might not be close enough.

All of a sudden, this was not a sacrifice out of friendship and love, this was need on my part. I could see how the mere thought must have tortured him over the years and how, all of a sudden, legality didn’t matter at all. No justice system could comprehend this.

“Watson,” Holmes said in a shaking voice. “Don’t – I’m sure you’re trying to be kind –“

“If I were being kind, I would let you kiss me and share gentle touches when the curtains were drawn,” I said, thinking of the emotionless touches I had imagined earlier, which were far away from the physical need I felt to pull him close to me. “It is not out of kindness that I beg for you to move closer and that I willingly beg you to act out your most wicked of fantasies… I feel as if the love I felt for you has been locked in a cage without my knowing and that now the door it open I am wild with it.”

I could not have explained my swirling thoughts better. There would be time later for thinking and talking but I needed him too much in that moment.

As I had longed for, the length of him was pressed against me and his lips met mine. Our mouths opened at once and our tongues slid together gently, and then with increasing need. I scrabbled at his back, frantically trying to bring him even closer to me and my bare legs moved to hook around his, locking him in place.

Almost at once I felt his hardness pressed against my thigh and I unthinkingly ground my own against him and we moaned.

Perhaps you will not believe that I was so easily led into such acts, but in that moment I was savage with fantasies. They had never occurred to me before and yet now my mind raced and each new one only intensified my desires.

We were in our nightshirts, with nothing but our skin beneath them. All it would take was for us to hitch them up and we would be utterly naked from the waist down. The thought of our two erections touching almost had me keening. I wanted too much, I wanted his hands and his mouth and every other part of him touching my cock and I could tell from his needy whines and frantic touches that he was equally overwhelmed and just as unlikely to last long enough to see even a tenth of his desires acted out.

I broke the kiss – only long enough to turn my attentions on the long neck that I had considered enthralling even before my attraction was properly realised – and hitched up his nightshirt under the covers until it was at chest height. I worked my own up as well and had to screw up my eyes at the sensation caused when our two bodies locked into place, virtually naked against each other. Our legs were still tangled up, and his hands were now in my hair as I bit and kissed his neck. Every noise he made was a new vibration against my mouth and I deliberately moved my leg against his erection to elicit new sounds.

We were still on our sides, facing each other, and I longed to push him onto his back and explore his chest. In that moment – all decorum gone – I would have gladly worked down his body and sucked at his cock until he screamed out for all of Baker Street to hear. I wanted Holmes undone before me; I wanted to see a thousand new expressions of passion cross his face.

Neither of us could last for that, I knew, and strange as it seems I couldn’t bear to have him leave my arms.

Instead I moved our legs so that our cocks were against each other. I slipped my arm underneath his side and pulled him closer still against my chest. We kissed softly for a moment, our whole lower halves completely still with anticipation.

Slowly, achingly slowly, we moved our hips closer and gently slid against each other and I reached down and took us both in hand. At first, Holmes was wild against me in a moment of uncontrollable ecstasy. His hands grabbed at any part of me he could and his whine had deepened into a moan of intense pleasure against my mouth.

I hushed him softly, stopping the movement of my hand and pressing gentle kisses to the side of his mouth, head, and cheeks until his eyes were closed, achieving a blissful mixture of relaxation and wild desire.

I clasped his hand and returned them to our aching cocks, encircling them and stroking up and down as slowly as we could bring ourselves to. To think that an hour before I had been startled at the idea of merely holding hands with him and now his hand was wrapped around mine in the filthiest way as we dangled on the brink of release.

Our movements became frantic. My shoulder burned from the odd angle and desperate pace, but the rest of me barely noticed. Holmes was against me, his hot, hard cock was pressed against my own and our hands were pumping without mercy now. He buried his face in my neck, his panting breaths hot against my skin, and I felt his orgasm hit first. His movements became wilder and the shout from him was the most satisfying sound I could have imagined. The hot spurt against my belly and the sudden extra slickness was too much for me and I erupted, spilling over him and letting him eke out the last moments of ecstasy from me.

As the tension melted from us we remained where we were, breathing heavily and coming back to our senses. I was shocked at what I had done, but not ashamed. I had discovered a whole new world of possibility that night, but hand-in-hand with that came fear. I knew that for the rest of my life every kiss from him would mean that my own lips would have to tell a hundred lies to the outside world.

But in that moment, as I looked across at him in the last light from the candle, I knew I had finally been given what my younger self had so desired. I had been given Holmes in his entirety.

“We shall have to move soon,” Holmes said, not looking enthusiastic at the prospect.

I inched closer at this vague threat to my present joy.

“Stay a while,” I said softly. “Talk to me.”


The End

Date: 2015-05-08 05:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tripleransom.livejournal.com
...and another amazing story! A complex tale, with a truly enthralling mystery and an emotionally satisfying conclusion. The progression of the story was masterfully handled, unfolding layer by layer without ever being confusing.

This is one of the very few 'gay for you' stories I have ever read that make Watson's motives completely credible.

Oh, and as an incorrigible H/W shipper, may I say I'm delighted at the way it worked out at last.

Date: 2015-05-08 11:31 pm (UTC)
ext_1620665: knight on horseback (Default)
From: [identity profile] scfrankles.livejournal.com
A really gripping story. I greatly enjoyed it. I thought your character Attebury was a fascinating creation. (Loved the line: “And as I have said, give me a vicious man over a reckless one any day of the week,” Holmes snapped. “At least a vicious man understands the harm he does.")

I admire the fact you allowed Watson to be a man of his time in his attitude to homosexuality. It made his discovery of his passionate feelings towards Holmes all the more touching. And your last line is beautiful.

Date: 2015-05-09 03:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jcporter1.livejournal.com
Who ever you are, this is so much more than I deserve. A fantastic case tugging along a 20 year love story, with an oh so happy ending.
I love the voices, both internal and in dialogue. I'm sure ACD would confuse this as his own work.

If I don't follow you on LJ already I certainly will be after this. Wonderfully well built and true to character. I have a specter in my mind for the character of Attebury, the careless student of Holmes who forgot to let love infuse his life, but I won't mention his name here.

Thank you so very much for this.

Date: 2015-05-09 07:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] stellinia.livejournal.com

And yet another great work in this exchange! Oh, I loved this! Attebury was a very interesting character, and I loved Watson's voice. The relationship between Holmes and Watson was simply lovely and heartfelt and...Oh, I just loved it!


"but to this day I still think Holmes represents the most all-around extraordinary man of my acquaintance." Of course you do Watson. Of course you do.

Date: 2015-05-09 08:13 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gardnerhill.livejournal.com
Had me fooled! For a bit I thought Atterly was an historical figure of some sort.

Liked the way you sorted out Watson's feelings on the matter, and how realistically his own desires ambushed him at the very last.

Date: 2015-05-09 09:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] saki101.livejournal.com
There was so much quiet, insidious suspense in this! Although Watson was narrating and not understanding all the implications of Holmes's actions and reactions, they are all there for the reader to become increasingly anxious about! From inside his golden bubble of seeming success, Attebury is so negligently destructive, is such a shadow over other people's lives without dispelling the shadow over his own! I think of the sixteen years of Holmes's life that he tarnished and shudder.

How I admire Holmes for telling Watson and with Watson's encouragement together going to Attebury's aid. I was worried that they would somehow be blamed for his demise. It would have been consistent with Attebury's behaviour to implicate them in a murder simply because he wanted to share his last moments with Holmes.

Wonderfully portrayed emotions! As you see, I'm still reacting to them the next morning!

Date: 2015-05-09 09:15 pm (UTC)
hardboiledbaby: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hardboiledbaby
An enthralling tale with a beautiful ending. Thank you, anon :)

Date: 2015-05-12 04:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rachelindeed.livejournal.com
Wow, I second everyone's admiration for this fic, it's really something special. I don't think I've ever come across an antagonist quite like Attebury before, who terrorized Holmes without realizing it and never devoted a moment's thought to the awful consequences his little game could create or the psychological wounds it clearly did create. His fundamental self-centeredness and lack of empathy is very off-putting (that last act of shrugging away any thought of his children -- eeeeeep), yet at the same time he was not malicious, he was obviously struggling with what we would now regard as mental illness, and it's sad to think of that last advertisement as perhaps a call for help. I loved Watson for feeling the tragedy of that death, and for helping Holmes to overcome his temporary paralysis and try to save him.

In fact, I loved the Watson narrative voice throughout. Very believable and well-done. Thanks so much for sharing this.

Date: 2015-05-17 04:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hiddenlacuna.livejournal.com
I loved this fic! Poor Holmes, pining away all that time, and then to have it all turn out so very, very well. It was a beautiful slow build, and I particularly thought the scene where Holmes reads the message about his own secret and reacts to it was well written - you could really feel the anger and tension. I also liked how you alluded to the code without actually explaining it - that was so very ACD. :D Gorgeous!

Profile

acdholmesfest: (Default)
Classic Sherlock Holmes fanworks exchange

July 2017

S M T W T F S
      1
2345678
910111213 1415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031     

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Jul. 20th, 2017 12:42 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios