[identity profile] spacemutineer.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] acdholmesfest
Title: “Word Games”
Author: [livejournal.com profile] tweedisgood
For: [livejournal.com profile] obstinatrix
Rating: NC17
Wordcount: 4,294

Notes: Beta thanks to [livejournal.com profile] mazaher. ‘Taboo’ was a Victorian parlour game where the aim was to reveal a given word or letter of the alphabet by deliberately alluding to it *without* actually using it in answer to questions. Sundry quotes from the canon story ‘The Empty House’ and from the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Cock Lane (London EC1A) is a real place. The In & Out Club is, too http://www.navalandmilitaryclub.co.uk/ Sorry for the ‘Cabin Pressure’ reference. Wait: no, I’m not.


Sherlock Holmes threw down his newspaper and stalked over to the mantelpiece, still stewing in disgust, to refill his cherrywood pipe.

“I beg your pardon?” Surely I hadn’t quite heard properly.

He retrieved the offending pages and plunged on.

“This article, Watson. The author skirts and weaves around the subject like a timorous waiter at a garden party. Listen to this: ‘No decent-minded person can be ignorant of the danger to the budding flowers of our great nation of corrupting entertainments, of effete, oriental trash masquerading as art, of so-called works of philosophy which are nothing more than conduits for perverse suggestion. They can only weaken moral fibre, compound the natural folly of youth and leave boys lacking what is most necessary to good character: manliness.’ We are no doubt supposed to infer his true subject without putting him to the unendurable trouble of plain speaking.”

I was dumbstruck. The number of reasons why I could not think of anything to say in response only increased the more I hesitated. Holmes, skating on the thinnest ice of good manners over a vast lake of impatience, waited as he drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.

“Perhaps he is in the camp that believes speaking about…such things plainly, even if he speaks against them, is unwholesome. Apt to turn people’s mind to their practice.”

Even as I said the words, I was shrinking in my seat in anticipation of the coming explosion. Silence, or perhaps strangling myself with my own stethoscope, would surely have been preferable.

“I must present your fascinating theory to our friends at Scotland Yard. They can make themselves busy investigating the whole of the Houses of Commons and Lords. They make the laws; they must put down on paper all manner of crime and wickedness, even naming it daily in their speeches. How can they not have been tempted to commit the same? Surely some have fallen.”

This was all delivered in the driest of tones, more obliterating than any bomb. It might have shrivelled the jungles of Sumatra.

“I did not say I agreed with it, Holmes! It is a fact that prosecutions for obscenity have been brought, and succeeded, where the intention was simply education, or to campaign against anything from Malthusianism to the Roman Catholic Church. People do hold such views. Perhaps your journalist was only being careful.”

“Alas, it was not some mere, underemployed hack. Doctor Timothy Foote, recently elevated to Headmaster of Fitton College, ultimate resort of the titled and moneyed who wish to be relieved of the daily company of their children. I believe you know him.”

Foote. Formerly master at Durham School. Bane of my boyhood. Excellent teacher of a subject I loathed. Athletic, handsome, charming. Cutting, cruel, a roaring snob. It did not do to come from a modest background, nor to disdain the classics, if one wanted his approval. I failed on both counts.

I have written of Holmes’ reticence about his origins elsewhere: how I was amazed to discover he had a brother of whom I had never heard, despite years of us sharing rooms. This conversation took place a mere three years after our meeting at Barts and really, he knew scarcely more about me than I did him. No more than he was able to deduce for himself and he kept his little dramas of observation in store largely to impress clients on first meeting. He was still, for reasons that will become clear, not my confidant nor did he expect me to be his.

So it was that when I brushed off the familiar name with a nod and a shrug, he did not press me, but only set again to grumbling complaint about the misuse of the English language, ranging far and wide from the article that had started it.
I hid behind a sporting paper and tried hard not to think of Foote settling into distinguished middle age, probably with an equally accomplished wife and a troop of well-scrubbed children to occupy the Headmaster’s lodge at Fitton. I persuaded myself, just as I had at sixteen, that I disliked Foote, that I would not cross the street to shake his hand. Yet the truth was that there had been many days when I would have gladly taken a cricket ball on the shin to see a look of sympathy for me on that perfect face. The folly of youth indeed. Damn the idea that schooldays are ‘the best days of your life’.

Damn Holmes’ directness as well. Civilised man lives by not naming things, by constraining them into fit and proper vessels, the referred pain of impossible desires. We come to know, somehow, that a man may love but not excessively: that is woman’s domain. That a man may love another man but not lie with him: that is woman’s duty - and, if she is fortunate, her pleasure. A man who does either is effeminate, unmanly. If he does the first, he will get a name as a fool. If he does the second, or even thinks of doing it…well, better not speak of that at all.

It was the nature of our work together to find out people’s secrets – jealousy, greed, hatred. Love. Passion. So it was inevitable from time to time, in the years following, that we would uncover love stories I could only tell by covering them up again, could only write of indirectly - avoiding words like a game of Taboo. Lovers became sisters; life-mates became house guests; masters and servants only passed each other in the hall.

I wondered if the true subjects ever read my work and recognised themselves.

I wondered, too, why Holmes apparently could not leave the topic alone. Every time a case, a half-column in the court reports, or another article in the dailies fulminating against oddly unspecified ‘social evils’, which always seemed to involve well-dressed young men, the streets around Charing Cross and carnation buttonholes, brought it up, he would expound on the necessity of naming names and stating plain facts, if society were truly serious about stamping “it” out. I kept a tactful silence.

It is true that he was like a terrier with a rat on any number of other questions as well. The danger of allowing emotional attachments to cloud one’s judgement; the impenetrability of women; the blindness of the Metropolitan Police to crime unless it took place in the street under the very nose of a strolling constable: I should never had needed my cheque book locked away had I been able to lay a bet on the odds of at least one of them coming up in any given week.

As for sodomy, I had a means of escape. Foote and all the other brawny, golden-haired Adonises after whom I pined, unrequited, in the years after him were only half my dreaming. Voluptuous maidens and statuesque matrons of many lands put themselves conveniently – sometimes it seemed continuously - in my way. I am not ashamed to say I feasted from the banquet of womanhood and gave every dish its due.

Until I found myself in love.

It was the year before the Agra Treasure was cast into the Thames. I was five years past thirty and the world had sunk its claws into me.

Watson? Good fellow, but how can I put it? Hasn’t made much of himself

Still obliged to share digs, eh? Dashed bad luck, old man. You must come to dinner at my house; just moved to Holland Park, y’know. Oh, the practice is doing tolerably well, yes indeed

A writer? It’s a tu’penny-ha’penny trade and not one in a hundred makes a living by it

A practice. I needed a practice. A house. A wife. Servants. Respectability.

Money remained the great obstacle. What capital our father had left us I had mined nearly to bedrock to pay for my studies and my brother had drunk or squandered his share. I determined to take a chance on the newfound Kimberley fields, laying out all my savings, even borrowing a little here and there. Knowing nothing I had to trust much and when there is profit to be made, sharks lie in wait for the unwary. Caveat emptor.

A diamond cuts the hardest stone, yet a hammer blow will shatter it. As I sat by the window contemplating the ruin of my hopes, Holmes, who surely knew all of it, down to how many months it would take me to repay my debts and all the economies I must make to do it, said nothing. I thought that I understood. What was there to say in the face of such credulity? Had it been a client, pieces of his skin would have been clinging to the lampshades. I had no better excuse. Well, if I was worth nothing without Sherlock Holmes, I ought at least to admit it.

“What is this?”

“My cheque book. Take it, put it away. I cannot be trusted not to be a fool with it.”

He sat with it in his lap for a moment, contemplating. Then he sprang up, went to his desk and did as I asked. The lock clicked, he put the key back on his watch chain. Moving to his chemical table, he began to set up retorts and spirit burners.

“Holmes? Have you nothing more to say?”

He looked up, his face moving in and out of the shadows, lit by a flickering flame refracted through a lurid blue solution in a beaker of twisted glass.

“My dear Watson, please make up your mind. If you require flagellation, I regret, I find myself fatigued this evening. Perhaps Thurston will oblige you?”

“Damn it, Holmes! Aren’t you angry?”

He was laughing, laughing in that peculiar soundless way he had when amusement and a summons to action wrestled together for his attention.

“You cannot say anything to me that I have not already accused myself of, but…”

“I am positively addicted, as we both know, to repetition, redundancy and the grinding obviousness of hindsight?”


His fist came down on the table, but when he spoke, I had to strain to hear.

“I am sorry for your plight, but consider mine. No, not that.” he waved away what I had opened my mouth to say. “The business brings in more than enough. The Persian slipper will remain a shared one. Consider how I had to face the prospect of your leaving.”

I looked at him then, because his voice stumbled over the last of it and I had to be sure. Sure that it was not that he merely preferred what was familiar to a change. Sure that he needed me. Sure that he would not have stopped me even so. My heart was pierced in that moment.

It had always been the other way round. First the face, the figure of a man would pull me in; only then did I find qualities of the soul to adore and too often, still more to mortally wound me. Until I fell in love with my friend. As I dropped into a chair, poleaxed with joy and fear, it was all spirit. The flesh came later – roaring to life in the dead of midnight, in the grey hours before dawn, in a glance across a London pavement, at the accidental brush of his hand against mine across the breakfast table.

I confess it was the same with women. Until Miss Mary Morstan.

The difference? That she took my hand in the garden in Norwood; that she loved me - desired me- in return.

Sherlock Holmes wanted nothing of the flesh – except instant obedience - and cared nothing for love. So I thought then. For every slice of wedding cake sent by reunited lovers as thanks for his help there was a speech for me about the traps the procreative urge has set for mankind, how much violence is done to good sense by giving in to its prompts, how it can never bring lasting happiness.

“True companionship must always be that between equals. All else is compromise and pretence.”

I could only conclude that he looked for no companion himself. Women? “Inscrutable…a quicksand”. Men? Even had I the slightest reason to suppose him given to the same deviance as I was, no-one was his equal, and he could not, would not, pretend or compromise. It was not in his nature.

So, I married my lost heiress. Holmes cast his aspersions on that, and any, marriage, came to the wedding, threw rice with devastating accuracy and spent the reception competing with the two fresh-faced young constables who patrolled Baker Street to come up with the queerest crime they had each ever investigated. From their red faces I imagined he had trumped them with the story of Henry King, otherwise the Queen of Tarts, who was arrested and served two years' hard labour for offences committed at a pastry shop in Cock Lane whilst… well, I believe the Daily Telegraph carried an expurgated version.

As we left for the honeymoon, he chattered distracted good wishes through our carriage window and scurried away to catch a cab. I did not doubt that he had his own departure to catch, traveling express to exaltation with the aid of the cocaine bottle.

Mary’s and my journey turned out to be a stopping train and our destination, entirely earthbound. She is gone now and I will not break confidence too far with her dear shade, but without a mother she was sorely unprepared. To be lover and teacher both is to make a poor show of one or other of them and we never quite got over the strain of those stumbling early lessons in adding one upon one. Add to that my still-divided heart and you arrive at the reason, I think, why multiplication in the end escaped us. Mary wished to please me, never had to be persuaded – only to be asked, but when asking feels like imposition, one soon stops asking very often.

Holmes, by contrast, cared little for imposition and asked whenever he felt the need of me. He needed me for his pleasure, for the works of justice which were his posterity, and I answered every time. When he asked me to go to the Continent with him in that spring of 1891, it was understood that it might be the last case; that his career might end. He had, perhaps, even an inkling of how, for all he soothed me with a tale of prosperous retirement crowning his greatest success.

Which was the great and which the little death? Mary followed Holmes within a year. Her loss broke me along the cracks opened at Reichenbach, rubbing salt into the stripes I had given myself for being only half a husband. When he unmasked in my consulting room, I fainted from the pain of that as much as from the joy of seeing his face, naked with apology and seduction both, asking me to come with him once more.

"When you like and where you like”

How you like, my dear Holmes. If it was never to be stolen embraces at dead of night, only “little fairy –tales” of romanticised mystery born and baptised in ink in those Baker Street rooms, only the press of his hand on my shoulder or the whisper of breath in my ear: I was up for it, for him, ready and willing.

”Journeys end in lovers’ meetings” Oh, indeed. London life was never so complex as it was at his journey’s end, when I wanted only that Holmes should devote himself with interest to the solution of a problem that grew larger every day, but of which I still could not bring myself to speak.

It was not a case, not a newspaper article, not even the celebrated trials of a celebrated Irish playwright and wit that did it: that undid me and him, in the end.

It was membership of the Diogenes Club.

Or rather that I was blackballed from it, after being on the waiting list for a year. At a loss to know why, as I had understood that members in good standing had proposed me, I wondered aloud if it was because I was not ‘unclubbable’ enough for them: that I retained my membership of the In & Out, the last shred of my old army career.

My friend stared into the fireplace; he carried on so long that I thought he hadn’t heard me.

“Holmes? Did you…”

He sighed and finally met my eye. “Ah, Watson. Why is it, do you suppose, that the Diogenes keeps silence?”

“Its members wish to enjoy the facilities without disturbance, without chit-chat. I swear I would not so much as acknowledge my fellow-members, let alone indulge in trivial conversation with them. I have signed my name to it and my word is my bond.”

“An apt turn of phrase, in the circumstances. What you have said is only part of the reason we avoid conversation – ‘trivial’ or otherwise. The other is that the general run of humanity, that is to say non-members, so very often avoid saying what they mean. The faculty of communication is too important to waste. No-one can be perfectly candid in his speech unless he be a boor or a saint; no-one can force candour upon another. The Diogenes stops word games at the gate by stopping words altogether. Better say nothing than prevaricate. The man who creates fiction out of real life – not quite the thing.”

A lump formed in my throat that was hard to speak around, yet I must.

“It was you. You made them drop me.”

“Naturally. The opinion of one who knows the candidate very well is always sought before a vote.” He passed a hand over his face but I saw it was not from shame, only from exasperation. “You cannot be a member of the Diogenes Club and commit…fictions.”

“This is about my stories? That’s preposterous! Everyone there knows I have to change details; mix different cases together; hide clients’ identities. It’s basic, civilised behaviour.”

“I cannot disagree. This not about your little romances at all. It is about you, my dear Watson. The fictions about yourself that you disseminate by your evasions and wordplay. Your word is your bond, and it weaves about you tightly when it ought to set you free.”

Stung, I desired to sting in return: to pierce the amour of his smug, infuriating, unassailable confidence. I puffed up my chest and prepared for battle, striding across the room until I could make him hear me without even raising my voice.

“Insufferable. You…”

His long arm shot out and grabbed me by the shirt front.

“No. You.”

Then he kissed me. Clumsy and sweet and dry-lipped and quite, quite deliberate.

“I should not have had to do that, you know.”

I hit him. Hard.

Caught a little off balance, he stumbled backwards, righted himself against the chemical table and started to laugh even as he cradled his jaw and inspected his fingers for blood.

“Hah, now we have it. Tell me, Watson, why you did that. And for heavens’ sake, be honest.”

I hadn’t hurt him, and wasn’t sure whether to curse or thank fate for it.

“Because…because you are right, again, damn you, and I’m a fool, and a coward, and I couldn’t say it, could barely think it - what I am, what I want, and now I find perhaps it was there all along if only I had reached out and taken it, only said something, and now I come to it, why in all the world didn’t YOU? You with your plain speaking and facts are facts and I know everything about everyone before they open their mouth.”

I was still perfectly furious. Whoever says that getting what you want after an interminable wait with scant hope of fulfilment must be a moment of unalloyed bliss, never stood where I stood, looking at Sherlock Holmes with a smirk on his face and not knowing whether to hit him again or kiss him back.

“Try to pluck the fruit before it is ready to come off the tree, and all you get is an ache in the guts. I’d rather a fist in the face, thank you. Although you might want to shift your weight onto your left foot next time. So, are you ready to end the word games?”

One should stand tall when taking an oath, making a promise, owning a fault and claiming a prize. All the more when one is doing all of them at the same time.

“I, John Hamish Watson, am a doctor of medicine, a writer of middling talent but a good agent, a crack shot and a lover of both women and men. I fell in love with a man for the first time at fifteen and for the last time at forty-two.”

He nodded, leaning forward and urging me onward with elegant sweeps of his hand and a pin-sharp intensity in his eyes.

“I want…I want to kiss my friend, my fellow lodger, the world’s first consulting detective. I want to take Sherlock Holmes, toast of London and curse of the criminal classes, into my bed at the top of this house. I want to break the law with him. I want him to loosen my tongue with more kisses first, until I can say it all, ask for it all. Come here, man.”

A kiss that would loosen my tongue, indeed it was. A kiss that tugged at my soul without grace or mercy, that twisted it free from all restraint until I was sucked under with the tide and the sea, the sea called me, took me breathless to a foreign, familiar shore.

And here I am, playing word games again. Behind a drawn blind and a locked door – though foolish, I was not stupid – we kissed to exhaustion, panting between bouts. We never reached my room. We did it there and then, utterly unable to stop the rush of blood and heat: wrestling clothes away, stumbling to the couch where we fell on each other like beasts, hands on bare skin, bared cocks, the strange and wonderful sensation of another man’s prick swelling against my palm, of seeking him splayed out on the familiar, battered velvet cushions, of hearing the familiar, cool voice of reason hoarse with desire and proposing all manner of unreasonableness.

“Good God, Watson, John, you lovely boy, get on your knees. Here it is, now, swallow it down for Christ’s sake before I spend on your shirt. Ah!”

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour

Guilty, m’lud. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Take me down. No hardened criminal was as hard as I was for Holmes as I suckled on the tip of his indecent, rosy cockstand and teased at the soft, taut skin behind his balls until he groaned my name. I’d order a gross of this glory every day of the week, decency be hanged.

I’d had enough common sense to cover my teeth, at least, but a novice must take direction. It was clear he had done this before - had it done to him, for him, many a time. I had the fleeting wonder why he did not take me in his mouth instead. Then I knew it was all of a piece with him: his daily choice to risk failure, disappointment and frustration, to ask of people more ordinary than he more than they might be able to give. He lived for the drama of what might happen next, in the boundless confidence that whatever it was, it was better that he fly and fall than that he never took flight.

I had always loved him for that courage, for that daily striving for right. Above all, for his daily choice to trust me.

And, as we are not mincing words, I loved him for his direction. There is no shame, only wisdom, in bowing to greatness or to greater knowledge, only so long as it is earned and put to proper use. I did not care to know and have never since asked where he had learned to enjoy a partner’s complete submission while he held them gently and completely still by the back of the neck and thrust quick and shallow between their lips.

I did as he bid and palmed my own prick roughly as he took his pleasure, his pleasure that gave me so much mine that it took only a score of strokes to bring me off too. Climax crushed me against his groin, though I was braced on both arms against the frame of the furniture, his hands a vice in my hair. There was no breaking free and no wish for freedom, only his ending. It so came swiftly on, that when I drank his seed it was as much from surprise as from desire.

I had not thought he would surrender so absolutely, so swiftly, to his body, to the flesh. In aftermath, as we held each other, I wondered aloud if my lack of skill needed an apology.

“Ah, no, John. That you came to me was more than enough. Come now, come to bed. Yours or mine? Time for an unnatural act.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Going to bed early: perfectly unnatural. Then, if you’re willing, I propose some vigorous sodomy before day break.”

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